Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ol’ Town Tonight

Blogger's Note: Another bit of flotsam I thought lost forever. Not sure whether it's good or not. Won't you please tell me?

I saw the happy man again. This time, down by the canal behind K-Mart. He was sitting there idly chucking pebbles into the water and watching the ripples crash and bounce off the sides of the channel. I know not because I asked him but because he was me watching and told me what he was “up to.” He tells me what he’s doing every time I see him. I don’t know what he does when he sees me.

He probably laughs.

He looks like a sailor. A sailor of the era of whalers. I don’t think he’s bad of nature, because people who are that way typically don’t volunteer what they’re doing and why they’re doing it to perfect strangers. A trim brown beard. A thin wool cap. Clothes clean, but well-worn. He slings a back pack and walks in thick boots maybe someone gave him three or four towns back.

Don’t pity me, he said once, when I came out of Dairy Queen guilty with a sack of greasy burgers.

I didn’t pity him.

The burgers were terrible.

Always smiling! Always smiling. In the cold, the heat, the rain, the wind. Sailors have their oilskins, he said once, their jargon and oaths. Taboos and legends and safeguards. He smiles.

Smiles are his life belt, he says.

And I am his Queequeg.

He won’t tell me who he is. "Nobody important, and I’m not bragging," he always said. I think I believed him when he said that.

He doesn’t believe much what I say. Maybe I don’t blame him. What I do and why I do it is much more incomprehensible, he says, that what he does: throwing rocks into a canal, following a crow across a field, walking between the warehouses near the Greyhound depot where the trees grow and grasshoppers snap in the heat as they leap against the sides of the buildings, or talking to a stranger and not being embarrassed that he does these things and calls them good.

Why should I be embarrassed, he asked me once, as he stood on the busy street corner waving at people driving by in their cars. I crouched behind a hedge, and he talked to me as if I were a kitten stuck in the branches.

His name is not Ishmael, and he does not allow me to call him such. Names are pegs people hang you on. I, he said, don’t want to be hung up on anything. Queequeg.

Queequeg, the Strong Follower.

I think he pitied me.

"You went to school for four years to write stories about literal sewers," he says as he tosses rocks into the water. "That boggles my mind."

"These ripples, he says, seem useless to you. You can’t collect them, put them in a scrapbook and take them out to look them over when you want an emotional boost." He tossed another rock. "But I can always make more ripples."

I began to hate him.

He didn’t follow me, but he always knew where I was. Walk to work, go to work. Answer that phone. Maybe you take a picture today, but maybe you’ll just sit at your desk rifling through those files you rifle through every day just to look busy. I can understand that.

"I don’t understand this," he said. "You daydream and wish you were somewhere else. You’re sitting in a field of wildflowers and wish you were home watching television. You go home and watch a documentary on flowers. Then," he laughed, "you have lunch because that’s your time and nobody but yourself is going to waste it by taking it away from you."

I hated his editorials.

Now it’s either you’re dead and can’t do anything that you want or you’re still alive and there’s nothing you want to do. He sang that a lot, smiling at me. He taught me the song, and I sang it, too.

But I didn’t smile.

"Ever want to run away from home when you were a kid?"

Yes, I said. We were sitting on a useless bus bench. Useless because this town does not have buses. He waved idly at passers by, and more waved now than had in the past. He ate a chocolate cone. My strawberry melted on the ground where I dropped it.

"Ever do it?"


"No, you never did. You’d be smiling right now." He smiled.

I, I miss a lot of the things I did, I did when I was a kid.

He laughed, leaped from the bench and shouted loud enough a man filling his car at the gas station across the street turned to look.

"So that’s what’s wrong with you!"

He hollered. The man at the gas station gave him the finger.

He sat back down, patting me ever so gently on the head. "Because you miss them, you don’t do them any longer, I suppose."

I stared at my melted cone, ice cream muddied by black asphalt dust.

"You don’t," he said. "That’s clear. You’ve become a full-fledged adult. Congratulations." He picked a bottle cap up off the ground, put it on my lapel and squeezed a nickel into it from the back. The cap stayed on my lapel like a medal. "Congratulations, I say. You’re the most miserable creature on the face of the earth, adult!"

A school bus went by. Kids shrieked and waved their arms out the windows, tossed paper airplanes. Waved at the man. Who waved back.

"You hate it, don’t you."

He didn’t hate work. He didn’t hate society. He didn’t mind making contributions, doing worthwhile things or even helping people out.

"I resent," he says, "that others oblige me to participate when all they really want to do is go away and never come back. You hate obligations. Rake those leaves, then we’ll think about taking your bicycle off the roof. Eat your peas. What happened at that meeting you went to last night? You did go, didn’t you? Stop all that whining or we’ll sell you to the gypsies."

"Best thing my parents told me," he laughed, "was when I was nine and my mother told me she wouldn’t care if I ran away. So I did. When I was 37."

He also resented people who pitied him.

Old ladies wouldn’t let him help carry their groceries just because he didn’t have a name, or an address, and had a beard and was probably only helping her out so he could break into the house later or at least abscond with a bag filled with apples and uncookced macaroni.

"I am naked to the world," he shouted, once again at the bench. He stood on it; I leaned against a phone booth with my back to him. "And the world is not appalled at me," he said. "The world is appalled at its own jealousy."

I could not be jealous. I told him that.

He called me a liar.

"What do you miss most about being a kid, and I want specifics."

I thought a while.

I used to build cities out of cardboard boxes.

"Is that all," he asked. Not mocking.

I made streets. And windows. And cut out little doors. And at night I put candles inside the boxes and squinted my eyes so the lights looked like they were shining out of the windows and through the doors.


And then I burned the buildings to the ground.

We walked behind K-Mart, where he began pulling cardboard boxes from a Dumpster. "Lucky lucky," he shouted. He pulled a black marker out of the trash. Here.

He handed me his pocket knife and a cardboard box.

"Make your windows."

Two freight workers stared at us from the dock. It was hot behind the building; the sun reflected off the asphalt and bounced off the walls and oozed out of the Dumpster like a radiator.

"Make your windows."

The freight workers brought the dock manager.

"Make your windows," he said the third time. He showed me his back and addressed our curious audience. "Good evening, gentlemen. Queequeg and I need a few cardboard boxes. I hope you don’t mind. We won’t toss litter about."

The dock manager nodded.

I’d already left the knife where I dropped it and hid in the tall weeds near the street until the happy man left, whistling “Mack the Knife.”

He found me later.

"You found me again, I see. No offense, but I’d like my knife back." He didn’t seem disappointed. Just smiled.

I don't have it, I said.

"But you do," he said. Patted my shoulder, balanced the closed knife on my collarbone.

He led me to his city.

"There are candles inside every box, he said. The dock manager gave them to me. Melted during shipment. He was going to throw them away anyway. I saved him the trouble."

I stared at the boxes, arranged in clusters, squares, rows, lines. "Squint your eyes."

He’d made streets in the dirt.

"Are you squinting?"

I squinted.

City alive with light. I smelled the candle wax burning; occasional flames flickering through the tiny windows. Imagined the squeak, squeak of a worn steak knife through cardboard; the swift strokes with the grain of the waffled fibers, the satisfying saw-saw going across the grain. Dad never had sharp steak knives.

He didn’t need them, Queequeg. He didn’t.

"By the way, here’s a match."

A crumpled wad of newspaper next to a shoebox, on which he’d pasted the name of a grocery store from an advertisement.

"Burn it."

I took the match.

But the police will come.

"Huh," he laughed. "They’re already here."

I dropped the unlit match. A city police cruiser was indeed driving slowly towards us, windows down, headlights on in the orange dusk.

What are you up to this time, Floyd?

The happy man looked sideways at me. Winked.

"We’ve built a town, you see, and Queequeg is going to burn it."


I waved, feebly. The cops stopped and got out of their car.

The happy man approached them. Smiling.

The older cop shook his head and leaned against the hood of the cruiser. You’re never without a disciple, are you Floyd?

"I hate even the thought, Henry," he said. The officers laughed. "Queequeg is, well, Queequeg, and," he added solemnly, "he is going to burn this city to the ground."

He whistled “Mack the Knife” as the officers’ eyes wandered through his city. The older officer twirled the end of his mustache. The younger one uneasily shuffled his feet.

"You don’t mind, do you?"

I almost choked.

"The weeds here are still green," the happy man said in explanation,"and I’ve a couple of buckets here handy for dipping water out of the canal if the need arises."

My lips were too dry to whistle anything. The happy man offered me another match.

The older officer reached into the car and pulled out a mike. Dispatch , this is 321. We’re going to monitor a controlled burn off Second East.

Dispatch replied in a crackly, far away voice: OK, 321. Have at.

I took the match.

The officers stood by almost eagerly; surveying the cardboard metropolis I was to put aflame. The younger one, no longer nervous, took off his hat and spun it quickly yet idly on his index finger, swiftly, swiftly until it spun off and rolled and lolloped in the dust.

Are you going to burn it?

That was the older officer. He grinned at me. Used to do the same thing when I was a kid. Burned down half the barn, too.

Both chuckled.

I struck the match on the side of my shoe, touched the dancing flame to a wad of paper and stuffed it through a sagging flap of a box the happy man had labeled City Hall. Flames leaped from the roof as three men stood watching in the cooling summer light; orange flames to match the hues smeared on the clouds on the western sky. City Hall burned and ashes fell on the business district, soon aflame. The library. Post office. Restaurants. Schools. Then houses.

Reflections of flames danced on the side of the patrol car as eager officers nudged cardboard boxes closer to the firestorm with their black shoes. Glorious flames and wobbly heat; welcome in odd comparison to the day’s waning heat.

Oh late at night, when we were all in bed.

Ol’ Miss O’Leary left the lantern in the shed.

And when the cow kicked it over, she looked around and said. . .

And from somewhere in the dark near the canal, a familiar but distant voice sang out: "Gonna be a hot time in the ol’ town tonight."

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