Whatever You Find Within You
This story begins the way most good ones do: with a bunch of impoverished Icelandic peasants playing tetherball.
Any reputable travel or guide book will tell you, of course, that Icelanders adore the game of tetherball above all others, going so far as to mention it in both their national anthem and their constitution. In fact, since the year 1611, it has been a federal crime in that country to speak ill of the sport in mixed company. So it is not surprising that a group of Icelandites would put aside their many troubles to engage in a spirited contest in the early afternoon of a lovely spring day in June in the early part of the nineteenth century. The gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, thwacking of the ball resounded pleasantly through the town square of Grindavik for hours and hours until a single human voice disrupted the proceedings in a very tragic way.
It was a young chimney sweep's boy, and the name he cried out in desperation as he came running up to the frolicking tetherballers was known to them all, and as soon as they heard it, gone was their enthusiasm for the game and concerned became their brows. The boy repeated one horrible sentence again and again until all in the square dropped their Icelandic doings and felt their lives change in an instant:
"Something terrible has happened to Dari Stanislad!"
In the end, ten or twelve well-wishers were there beside Dari Stanislad's bed as his life slipped away from him, gathered in the uppermost room of his modest home. His delicate head was wrapped in a stout bandage, and an elderly doctor monitored his pulse with several shakes of the head and a series of depressing sighs. Another man stood beside the bed with quill pen in hand, anxiously awaiting any word from Dari that might be recorded for posterity.
At 2:07 p.m., Dari's youthful blue eyes opened just a bit, looking around the room woozily.
"Oh my God!" the elderly doctor cried. "He's about to say something!"
"The final words of a man who made magic from them," noted Dari's ancient cleaning woman anxiously.
Dari's eyes fluttered. His breathing was uneven, raspy. Slowly, with enormous effort, he whispered in a voice cloaked with pain.
"Papa don't preach," came the barely discernible mutter. "I....I'm going to keep my baby."
Then his eyes closed for good, and he stopped breathing abruptly. Dari Stanislad was dead at thirty-three.
"What was that he said about democracy?" the man with the quill pen asked, but everyone was too choked up to respond. They looked down upon Dari and committed to memory this awful but historic moment.
The doctor stepped out into the hallway, where no less than twenty young girls from town awaited his pronouncement.
"Is....is it over?" asked one young lass with tears in her eyes.
"Yes," the doctor said, hanging his head low. "Dari Stanislad, the author of the most glorious romantic words in history, is dead!"
The girls gasped in unison. Distraught weeping was heard in the hallway.
"How did it happen?" a girl of just nineteen asked, clutching some roses to her bosom.
The doctor scratched his bald pate. "Some young boys were trying to invent a game they called 'Base-the-Ball'....one of them fought off a tricky split-fingered slider and lined a hard foul as Dari was walking past."
"At least it was a sudden blow," Dari's laundress said. "He undoubtedly felt no pain."
"Actually, he caught the foul," the doctor informed them. "But in his joyful celebrating, he fell over a horse and swallowed the ball."
"I gotta tell you, that's not gonna look good in the history books," Quill Pen noted. "Might I suggest we change the cause of death to consumption?"
The doctor nodded, putting one finger to his chin. "I know this sounds crazy," he said, "but people keep dying from that, and I'm not still even sure what it means."
In his room, Dari Stanislad slept his eternal sleep peacefully. Fifteen minutes after his passing, there was just one mourner left to stay with him; everyone else had begun to run through the streets already to spread the news. The mourner was a beautiful young woman with blonde hair and a dress that had been sewn for her by a seamstress of Dari's choosing. The dress had been a gift some months before, something never worn until today, something that had been refused when it was first offered in love.
The young woman sat gently on the edge of Dari's bed, dabbing away the last of her completely silent tears. She looked at his modestly bearded face for some time, wondering if her memories of it would from this day forward be from life or from this peaceful-seeming death. She reached out and touched his cheek as softly as she could, and the mere contact with him made her begin crying again as she realized she had never touched him once, for any reason, in all the time she had known him, all the time he had courted her so fruitlessly. She withdrew her hand shamefully, placed it uselessly on her lap.
For more than ten minutes she sat, doing nothing, trying to feel as little as possible. Then she turned to look at Dari's desk, which sat in the corner of the room under a mountain of manuscripts.
"Were you all done, Dari?" she whispered. "Was there anything left to say?"
With great reluctance, she rose off the bed, leaving him only temporarily. She went over to the desk, touched the manuscript which lay on the top of that awesome collection. It was called Deeper Understanding. She lifted it and looked at the one just underneath, which was entitled Everywhere a Fading Voice. They had both been written in the past year. Only one of the plays had been performed during his lifetime, while the other had been in rehearsals even as the young blonde woman in the room was told by a passerby one hour before that Dari was dying.
She noticed one manuscript hiding by itself, off to the side of the pile, one that was not yet properly bound, perhaps not even proofread yet. She lifted it in her lithe hands, turned to the first page, and winced upon seeing two words etched beneath the title, words she suspected had always been there, but which she didn't want to think about. She briefly caught sight of her own face in the mirror beside the window, could not bear to see how red it was, streaked with the ghosts of her weeping. She turned to the bed again.
"Oh, Dari," she said. "I'll make sure no one finds this."
There was a small wooden box on the desk which the great author had used to seal away the original copies of his works. It was empty now, and the woman placed the manuscript inside it with great care. The box was then closed and latched. When she left the room twenty minutes later, she took it with her, and no one saw.
The title of that secret manuscript was The Cobbleswoddler's Tale. The dedication, written by Dari Stanislad on the Tuesday previous, conjured the mournful young woman's name. For Natalya, it said. No one would read those words for one hundred and seventy-eight years.
After the funeral things slowly got back to normal, as evidenced by the fact that in no time at all people were disposing of waste materials and trash at their usual revolting rate. It was the job of dozens of depressed old men in white longjohns to hurl the public's castoffs into the proper receptacle, and on Thursday they were seen working diligently on a southern beach near a large sign which read:
THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
Soon to be the world's largest dumping ground!
Many of Dari Stanislad's possessions were passed down the chain of men toward the water, having been judged either beyond repair or just pathetically tasteless, which was the case with most of what he had owned.
"Show some special courtesy to this stuff, mate," a chap named Gard said to the man standing beside him as he handed him Dari's wobbly desk chair. "This is the refuse of Dari Stanislad, the great love-writin' gob. Poor git punted it t'other day."
Trash Fellow #2, whose name was either Jonas or Alven, paused in his filthy duties. "Kicked it, did he? How old was he?"
"Ach, thirty-three," JonasAlven mused. "Makes you think, it does."
"About garbage?" Gard asked him.
AlvenJonas beamed cheerfully. "What else?" he said, and a moment later he hurled the small wooden box containing the only known copy of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale into the hungry surf, where it floated quickly away from Iceland, never to return to its native country again. It was the one work that Dari had never wanted revealed to anyone, anyone at all. AlvenJonas himself lived only two days more before he was eaten by either a shark or an ill-tempered octopus, and as for Gard, well, the less said the better.
For forty years, that box swooshed around in the open ocean, its typically fine Icelandic workmanship protecting the precious contents inside. The box saw much on its journeys and spent some time inside the stomachs of various slimy sea creatures before it washed ashore in one of this very country's fine mid-Atlantic states. The first sounds it heard were of cannons and gunshots, because the Civil War happened to be going on.
Two armed confederate soldiers ran along a cloudy beach in March of 1865, parched and panting, desperate to convey news of a shocking northern advance to anyone who felt like listening. One of the soldiers tripped over the box and fell face first into the sand.
"Come on, Tommy, come on!" cried the other soldier, clutching his wounded elbow, feeling pretty sorry he had ever agreed to start killing people for six dollars a month.
"Wait, Orrin!" Tommy said, picking up the box. "I think I found something! Look!"
Tommy got the box open with little difficulty and exhumed the crumpled, aged pages within, which knew fresh air for the first time in four decades. "OhMyGosh!" he said excitedly, "an original manuscript by Dari Stanislad! Good Lord, Orrin, we're going to be rich! Rich, I tell you!"
Orrin jumped up and down happily. "We can sell this to some stupid northern scholar and buy supplies for our badly defeated regiments!"
Tommy gazed skyward, swelling with hope. "We'll finally have enough funds to regroup and launch an offensive that will turn the tide of the war," he announced optimistically, "and finally secure the principle of states' rights for the south¾ which is really all this conflict is about!"
Orrin rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Tommy. You just keep telling yourself that."
Orrin's cynicism aside, just having that manuscript inside his knapsack as he advanced against a tidal wave of Blue infantry the next day gave Tommy a boost of confidence he sorely needed.
"Fire away, northern monkeys!" he was heard to cry defiantly as he charged into a battery of enemy soldiers a few miles to the west of his great discovery. "With the works of Stanislad on my person, I am invincible!"
He probably should have inserted the word virtually before he finished his sentence, because two minutes later Tommy was bayoneted eleven times by his own grandmother, who was fighting for the other side. Rather irritated by this cruel irony, she took the box home to the family farm with her and, believing it to contain her grandson's darling and precious letters to her, buried it rather shallowly in her yard for posterity.
It lay there for more than sixty years, until the Prohibition era. On a starry summer night in the twenties, three silhouettes were seen to be creeping over that farm with professional stealth and purpose. Each silhouette dragged behind it a very big sack. Each sack contained one dead body, or sometimes two small ones.
The famed gangster Al Capone was heard to call out dastardly orders to his cronies.
"All right," he told them, pointing with evil intent, "this looks like a good spot. Bury Louie GaGa there, James the Giant Peach there, and Rabbi Ben-Levi Yashebowitz there."
The hoods got to digging, enduring the dirty work only because Capone had once again promised them vanilla milkshakes on the drive home afterwards. They were just fifteen minutes into their corpse-concealing duties when Joe Tongue-Lips struck something solid.
"Mr. Capone, I found something!" he said, prying Dari Stanislad's wooden box loose from the earth and opening it. Capone and Billy 'No-Nickname' Belli crowded around, anxious for a look. Capone grabbed the manuscript from inside the box before Joe could get a decent look at it. Three flashlights shone down on the title page.
"Wow, Dari Stanislad!" said Billy. "He's my favorite of all nineteenth century Icelandic writers!"
"Looks like we hit the jackpot, fellas," Capone told them. "We'll take this back and put it in the vault."
"Do you think it's really safe there, boss?" Joe asked him.
"Well, it's a vault, Joe," came Capone's acerbic reply. "See, there's a reason they don't call it a wet cardboard box. The name itself implies security and impenetrability. Think on that one for a while, okay?"
Capone grinned and nodded, knowing he was holding in his hands not just an unread play by a literary genius but a veritable powder keg of wealth and power. "Actually, I can do better than the safe. This baby's going to Iowa," he told his hoods that night, "where no one will ever find it¾ not even me."
The estimable gentleman was right about that, as not only did he never find the manuscript and the box again, but he eventually forgot about it entirely, what with all the shooting and the stealing and the tax evasion and the killing and such. Drinker's Nest, Iowa was where the box went, and Drinker's Nest, Iowa was where it stayed, right through the nineteen-thirties, the second World War, the McCarthy hearings, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gladiator's puzzling Best Picture victory, and Martha Stewart‘s various legal difficulties. Only when a curious rat terrier puppy named Rubles unearthed it, after mistakenly thinking he had smelled a Slim Jim and dug heartily for several minutes, did it find a new home. Rubles, determined to find food or make an ass of himself trying, dragged that box, which he intended to gnaw open as soon as he found a suitable patch of sun to settle into, all the way across Rural Route 61 and into the neighboring town, where the bulk of this tale takes place.
It was a smart, solid idea: create a family leisure-time concept both economically profitable and capable of laundering millions of dollars in soft campaign donations to the Libertarian Party. After seven years of planning, the idea had been fruited beside Pudding Street in Dick's Notch, Iowa, population 11, 091. Since the day it had opened, a proud orange and purple streamer floated gaily above the establishment's esteemed entrance gates. The streamer read:
CITRUS LARRY'S MICRO-GOLF
Miniature Golf Without All the Stress!
The MicroGolf concept was a fascinating one, and appealed to both the eye and the most primal human instinct to do something really really easy. The holes at Citrus Larry's were about five feet long and the cups were the size of frisbees. The "hazards" consisted of oddly shaped bricks, empty I.V. bags from Dick's Notch Mercy Hospital, and recycled tap shoes. Every hole was a Par 2. To take a third stroke at Citrus Larry's was to admit to the surrounding population and the universe itself that there was simply no hope for you in any pursuit whatsoever.
On the day that this story truly begins (for seemingly about the third time), two teenagers, who had decided that the state educational system's overstressed facilities and budget demanded that they set aside their usual class schedule at Dick's Notch Community College for the time being, ponied up two dollars apiece and stood at dreaded Hole Numero Uno at exactly 1:15 p.m. Upon setting their neon-colored balls upon the tee mat, they appraised each other with seismic anticipation.
"All right, man," said Titus, garbed in his usual Metallica T-shirt and jeans the color of tainted clams. "This is for the championship of the universe."
His best buddy, Kiley, dressed in his usual Megadeath T-shirt and jeans the color of diseased carp, became visibly unnerved. "Whoa whoa, man, whoa," he admonished Titus. "I don't know about that."
There was a suspenseful pause, after which Titus relented, catching himself in his potentially apocalyptic gaffe. "You're right," he agreed. "I got talking crazy there, man. How about just championship of the world?"
Kiley's sigh of relief was deep and genuine. "Okay," he said, and concentrated on aligning his crucial putt, brushing his long straggly hair out of his eyes, and almost having to brush some of Titus's long straggly hair out of his eyes also. The whole haircut thing had never much caught their fancy.
Kiley tapped his ball forward toward something called THE WINDMILL OF DEATH, which had never revolved even a fraction of a degree, reducing its intimidation factor somewhat. (Fittingly enough, however, someone had once died within a few feet of it, back in the nineties, a one hundred and four year old man who fell victim simultaneously to both a stroke of lightning and a totally unrelated heart attack.) The ball disappeared beneath the inert mill on its way toward the cup....but it never came out the other side.
Sixty seconds passed. The two young Americans looked at each other solemnly.
"Oh, man," Titus said, trembling. "What can you be feeling at this moment?"
Kiley gawked. "Defeat, I guess," he confessed, "tinged with, like, a grudging acceptance."
They ventured forward and peered underneath THE WINDMILL OF DEATH. Their bulbous faces proceeded to investigate the darkness within. Then Kiley's chocolate-streaked hand probed further, fumbling around for a moment before striking paydirt.
"I got something!" he said, pulling out the bound pages of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale, which Monsieur Rubles had dragged beneath the windmill the night before and finally left behind when he realized he could not ingest it, as frustrated as a rat terrier puppy could realistically get.
"What is it?" Titus asked, fascinated.
Kiley turned the object over and over. "I think it's one of those....book things," he said uncertainly.
"Oh yeah," Titus said, "I heard about those on Dawson's Creek."
Kiley examined his find like Diane Fossey studying the footprints of a nearby gorilla. "It's all leathery, like a shoe," he noted astutely, "but you couldn't wear it."
"I'll bet Citrus Donny would give us money for it!" Titus exclaimed, and their eyes lit up for the first time since they had smoked a great deal of marijuana two hours before.
Citrus Donny's Used Books, Records, and Pants, situated cozily on Salmon Street, had seen one or two better days. (Just two better days, as a matter of fact.) Titus and Kiley got there just as Citrus Donny was about the close the place for his noon to two-thirty lunch hour at Arby's. Citrus Donny weighed about nine hundred pounds and he intimidated the two young enterprisers somewhat, but on this day they were utterly determined to get what they wanted. Kiley held The Cobbleswoddler's Tale out to the feared proprietor with one simple statement:
"Give us money for this book."
Citrus Donny examined it at great length, from every possible angle. "Hmmmmmmmm," he said at first, then: "Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm." Four more of these expressions followed, then, scratching his opulent beard, he asked them, "Is it a Stephen King?"
Titus nodded hopefully. "Uh....we think so...."
Donny, however, seemed doubtful. "Doesn't have his name on it," he informed them. "But I'll give you two dollars, 'cause it's old."
Titus and Kiley exchanged a catty glance.
"We want the big pants," Kiley ventured.
Donny turned and looked behind him, where a pair of gigantic novelty jeans had hung on the wall since the day of the store's unfortunate conception. The jeans possessed a 66 waist and a 58 leg. IF THESE FIT, a sign above them, hand-lettered in crayon, read, THEY'RE FREE. Citrus Donny had borrowed the idea of a free giant pants giveaway from the law firm he used to work at.
"The pants....are yours," Donny pronounced. Frankly, the pants had become a real fire hazard, and they were beginning to pop up in horrifying scenarios in Donny's nightmares.
Titus and Riley dashed out of that store holding the giant pants between them, happy as Grammy winners, knowing they had tasted a victory as sweet as any they might ever know. They had big plans for the pants, oh indeed yes.
The strange history of the original manuscript of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale continued unabated. In the next few weeks, fate rolled the dice several times, each time coming up with nothing better than a nine.
The manuscript was first employed by a Mr. Terence Malick of East Bacon Street to conceal a copy of a glossy gentlemen's publication called Breasts Ahoy as he stood in one dank corner of Citrus Donny's on Thursday afternoon, giggling and soaking in the vivid color photography depicting the upper fifty percent of various women across the globe. This was a common trick of Terence's, who had hid virtually every popular pornographic magazine inside virtually every literary classic over the past few years to conceal from the general browsing public his lascivious tastes. Ironically, he sometimes used a hardcover copy of Anais Nin's Delta of Venus to hide his skin mags when he was at Donny's, and he would sadly grow old never realizing that mere words, too, could be totally hot.
A well-dressed, bespectacled gentleman named Artimus Bickamby came across Dari Stanislad's play on a rainy Tuesday at Citrus Donny's while he was pursuing an affordable edition of Drew Barrymore's autobiography. He pulled The Cobbleswoddler's Tale off the shelf out of curiosity, and, seeing the name on the cover, his jaw dropped and his mouth went gaping.
"Oh my God¾ I don't believe it!" he said aloud, feeling a rush of adrenalin surge through his body upon realizing the gravity of this amazing find. "My brother is named Dari! Won't he be shocked when he sees someone else has the same name!"
He bought the manuscript for four dollars (which, if you think about it, doubled Citrus Donny's original investment, doubled it) and walked straight downtown to The Burger Within, where he ordered and ingested a Triple EatPattie with extra Pongo sauce, an order of Freak Fries, and a large Chocolate-Similar shake. When he threw his trash away, like a good citizen, into the receptacle set beside one of the front exits, The Cobbleswoddler's Tale swooshed right into the can with it. Not the most attentive man in Dick's Notch, was Artimus.
"Interesting," he said aloud when the manuscript had reached the bottom of the can. "They print the words Thank You on the front of the can, which I could read even before I threw my trash away¾ a premature offer of thanksgivings, methinks. It would be far more rational for the words to be printed inside the can, so they would be read during the act of refuse disposal."
Artimus Bickamby had not had a date in twenty-one years.
It all came to a head at the county dump just one day later, where, during a sunny noontime, two esteemed literature professors from nearby Dick's Notch Community College sat beside Massive Disgusting Trash Pile 8, nursing almost identical ham sandwiches. It was a daily routine that came to a skidding, thudding, careening halt when a large dump truck passing by unloaded one hundred and fourteen thousand pounds of detritus within ten feet of their shoes.
"I'll tell you, Philbert," the first scholar had just been saying to the second, "ever since my in-laws moved in, it seems like this is the only quiet place a man can sit and enjoy the works of Dari Stanislad in peace."
"I agree fully with your statement," came the reply from his friend Thomas. "I myself enjoy sitting here and reading the works of the Icelandic author you just mentioned."
It was then that The Cobbleswoddler's Tale fell betwixt them, surfing pleasantly upon an assortment of old radishes, light bulbs, tea bags, and a gross of misprinted Denny's placemats.
"This is incredible!" Thomas cried as they pored over the slightly smelly discovery.
"Absolutely!" Philbert agreed. "I have a cousin named Dari!"
They got the thing cleaned up with a little soap and a little Speed Stick, and then the real fun began.
If they had only known of how he had tried, tried and tried, made every possible effort to speak to Natalya just once in those last days of August, 1825. There wasn't a restaurant, park, or library in Grindavik that he didn't wander, not a ruse he didn't attempt to make himself heard, but none of it had worked since the Misunderstanding. For three weeks he did not write, did not attend the rehearsal of his new play, did not speak to anyone but his closest friends and acquaintances, and even then it was only for news of Natalya. Sometimes he resorted to merely watching her from behind a tree near the riverside, or leaving a note with the owner of her favorite cafe. The notes were never read. Only once in all that time did she see him on the street, and she was seen to shake her head sadly and walk north, to pick up her laundry and that of her mother's. He had stood, chastened, oblivious to the sights and sounds of those who passed him by.
He went through the usual stages of despair, and then through a few stages that were not quite so predictable. Unable to get a handle on his insomnia, he took to reading a book about auto-hypnosis, and when it was found to work somewhat for his sleeping, he took it a step further and tried to use it to forget, just for a few hours at a time, about Natalya. This was not such a success. He was able in perfectly quiet moments to do as the book said and construct a mental brick wall behind which crouched all his mental images and trace memories of her, but the wall always came crashing down within minutes. The quiet it took to create it also opened him up to a torrent of daydreams. After that, he just tried to sleep far more than usual, especially through the endless afternoons.
It got so bad for him finally that there came one day when he did not leave his room, and not because he was busy furiously writing notes to the woman he'd lost. He simply did not have the energy to rise out of bed until well past noon. He tried to eat a light breakfast, and then killed time by going through his desk, cleaning out old notes and papers, for several hours, occasionally finding himself staring out the window for minutes at a time. He napped twice, lay there quietly until dusk, and then, after nibbling on another unimpressive meal, he read yesterday's newspaper front to back, and after that, he went to sleep. When he awoke the next day, refreshed not at all, he realized that he wanted to someday write an entire book about the twenty-four hours he had lost to his room, that he would make it the entirety of his autobiography. He suspected sometimes that after he died, people would misguidedly want the story of his life, and this puzzled and displeased him. So he would accept his own challenge of writing the only truly honest life story of a lonely writer ever penned, and confine it entirely within the four walls and the empty heart that had caged him from Sunday's dawn to Monday's.
Thinking of this idea, something no one had ever attempted, he felt the briefest glimmer of excitement, and once again the thought of words on a printed page saved him from becoming something far less than he was. For just a few hours his life had purpose again: he was going to do something great, and what would make the book so much more impressive would be the fact that not once within its borders would he insult or distress the name of the woman who had refused to set him free.
* * * * *
From The Literature and Near-Literature of the Nineteenth Century, Kleiber and Sons Publishers, 1956:
DARI STANISLAD: TALENTED FOREIGNER
Dari Stanislad was born in Grindavik, Iceland, in the year 1792. The son of an embittered fisherman, the famous writer's early days were spent cleaning and cubing trout, sometimes as many as four thousand per day. Some say this was the activity that fostered his love of literature, and upon going off to college at the tender age of sixteen, he began to write sonnets while studying Icelandic literary classics such as So High Up On This Map We Are and A Little Like Finland.
His early attempts at poetry were considered asinine and plagiaristic, though he is sometimes given credit for finding rhyming words for every prime number up to 500. Then one day, he found his muse when a pretty young girl accidentally smiled at him during a class they shared together. Stanislad had discovered the concept of true love, and from the series of humiliating and devastating rejections that followed sprung his first play, performed when he was only twenty.
From then on, he enjoyed greater and greater success. But because his native country, Iceland, was a small and pointless one, few people outside his land appreciated his genius. In fact, during his life he never once left the land where he was born, unable to take advantage of today's modern steamship and horseless carriage travel.
Eventually though, the entire world learned of Stanislad's gifts, and today he is recognized as the greatest writer of love stories of all time. His works are characterized by passionate soliloquies and an excellent use of action verbs. Motion picture adaptations of his work have won numerous awards, and not one has been less than three hours in duration. It is not uncommon to see young men reading his books in cafes and parks in an attempt to adopt an image of sensitivity. He died a swinging bachelor in 1825, some say of consumption, but rumor has it instead that he fell face down in a mud puddle and drowned there. Reports that his ghost still haunts the left field bleachers of Shea Stadium have been almost completely debunked.
When he was done reading this selection aloud to his class of thirteen, Owen Trittle closed the book and set it upon his desk in Room 119C of the Twankey Building on the campus of Dick's Notch Community College. Surveying the class briefly, he noted that only about five of his students had fallen asleep since the beginning of the period, not a bad record if he did say so himself.
"Okay," he said, lifting a heap of ripped, tattered, shredded, mangled, and chewed paperbacks from his desk, "I am now going to pass out these incredibly well-maintained school copies of a Dari Stanislad play for you to read. It's called Deeper Understanding, and it's yet another one of his works in which everyone is just absolutely smitten with everyone else and everything ends with happy happiness, just like in real life. Now I realize that few of you have any intention of even skimming it, and that you will beat feet straight over to the Blockbuster in Woodsman's Folly for the Liam Neeson version. That is why I have taken the precaution of renting it myself, and it will remain in my possession for the next two weeks, regardless of what the late fees will do to my already abominable credit rating. Any questions?"
A young gent in a T-shirt whose printed message harshly criticized the reader for simply being alive raised his hand. "Um, yeah, how come if this dude was so romantic, he never got married?"
Owen went into his rote answer, which he had given once a year, every year during his accidental sixty-two month career as a teacher. "Well, apparently just before he died Stanislad was desperately pursuing a woman who wouldn't give him the time of day. Plus you have to remember he went when he was only thirty-three, though most people don't buy that mud puddle story anymore. There's much more evidence suggesting a massive avalanche trapped him inside a bakery." He pointed to someone else. "Susan, you have a question too?"
"Um," she said pointedly, snapping her gum, "which Blockbuster has the movie?"
Owen chose not to respond, a subtle but valuable strategy he had refined over the past couple of years. At that moment the P.A. system above their heads, which had originally been manufactured in 1952 to broadcast political propaganda across the North Korean de-militarized zone, crackled sickly and emitted a deafening electronic screech that made everyone present want to die not just once, but again and again. Twenty-eight hands were clamped over twenty-eight ears in perfect synchronicity.
"Can I have your attention, please, students, faculty, and visiting grandparents," came the voice of President Smiley. "Please dismiss your classes fifteen minutes early this afternoon. There will be a very special press conference in the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Express Cafeteria at one o'clock. All are invited to attend. Also, the college is running out of chalk. Please restrict your teaching activities to oral presentations until Friday if possible. That is all."
There was another suicide-inducing screech when Smiley signed off. Owen's students gawked at him blankly.
"Did he say a press conference?" Owen wondered aloud. "At this dump?"
He drifted over to the cafeteria and realized halfway there that today was his thirty-third birthday. He had gone the first twelve and a half hours of the day without knowing that. Looking down at himself, he took a brief inventory: the jeans which had been worn for three straight days were still in good shape, there were still only two holes in his tennis shoes, and his hair was still long enough to enrage his mother when he took the train down to Onkers six times a year. Not bad, not bad. In other good news, he had been receiving HBO for free through a wiring error since January, and there had been no attempts by the government to rescind his teaching license, so he had no real complaints at the moment. He was perhaps not quite fully prepared to be the central character in a story like the one he was about to fall into, but few people were.
Fifteen or so reporters, the largest gathering of the media ever in Dick's Notch, were gathered in the Express Cafeteria below a vinyl banner which said this:
DICK'S NOTCH COMMUNITY COLLEGE
"Tradition, Honor, Timely Payment of Tuition Fees"
The rest of the cafeteria was filled with students and faculty who had finally found a reason other than Chili Wednesday to spend time in this room. President Smiley appeared before a hastily-made podium in his hastily-made suit and swelled his chest to full plumage, which made it a bit difficult to bend over to accommodate the microphone, which was ten inches too low. In addition to working at Dick's Notch, Smiley was principal of two local elementary schools and had never in his life used his middle finger in anger, a fact he informed people of at least fifty times per month.
"Thank you," he said to the gathering for no real reason Owen could figure out. "My name is Nevin Smiley, and I am the President of Dick's Notch Community College. It is my honor and privilege to inform you all that the school has come into possession of a rather amazing discovery. A lost manuscript by the great Icelandic writer Dari Stanistan has been uncovered just two miles from the school. It appears to be a play, written in his own hand."
Owen whistled through his teeth as reporters scribbled in tiny notebooks and video cameras whirred.
"The manuscript was found at the county dump and salvaged by two of our very own literary professors," Smiley went on. "It is now officially and legally our possession. After it is authenticated by a team of trained professionals, more details of the find will be released to the general public. Are there any questions?"
A reporter from The East Thicket Errand raised a pencil high in the air. "What was a Stanislad manuscript doing in the middle of Iowa, and, more specifically, Guzzler's Boot County?" he asked.
"Well, I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways," Smiley said firmly, and then did an embarrassed double-take. "When I say that, I don't mean to endorse any one religion over another, nor do I condone my statement as a Christian intrusion upon the learning process. Next?"
A man standing next to Owen, wearing an ID badge from The Dick's Notch Weekly Snoop and Shopper, stepped forward. "President Smiley," he said, "two years ago you announced that the college had come into possession of a rare director's cut of Spaceballs. How can we be sure that this, too, is not merely a mistake?"
Smiley became so flustered it seemed he was about to try to disappear into his own suit. "Well, it wasn't me who announced that, and I can't speak for what happened two years ago when I wasn't here," he stammered. "I can only say that the old president of the college apologized formally for that error, and I believe he is now back living with his parents."
It was then that Billy O'Labenby, the editor in chief of the Dick's Notch Community College newspaper, which went by the name of The Dick's Notch Community College Newspaper, raised his hand and unleashed an unforeseen firestorm.
"President Smiley," he demanded to know, "is it true that the college is running out of chalk?"
"That's a lie!!" Smiley shouted, and all hell broke loose inside the cafeteria as he was suddenly swarmed with a babble of questions concerning The Affair of the Low Chalk Supplies. His head whipped from side to side like a whippet's as he fielded the barrage. Owen closed his eyes against the flashbulbs which winked and popped around him and got out while the getting was good. He exited the cafeteria with James Persall, the college's only science teacher who possessed a current and valid library card. Jimmy was holding a microscope that had been broken, of all things, by a runaway deer, which had become a growing problem in the hallways, and which he had intended to discuss with Smiley before this latest sideshow had stolen his thunder.
"Well, I guess this takes the spotlight away from an otherwise uneventful Grandparent's Day," Owen observed as they strolled, one or two reporters oozing around them in an attempt to get to the nearest working payphone. "Anything about this sound fishy to you, Jimmy?"
"Sorry, Owen, I'm in a salary dispute," he said, trying to force a little piece of something on the microscope to fit onto an even smaller piece. "The teacher's union won't allow me to discuss any school-related matters with non-union faculty."
"You're in a salary dispute?" Owen asked, intrigued. "Hey, how can I get in on that?"
He could not wait around for an answer; he'd suddenly realized that Fish Stick Monday was about to commence and he absolutely had to be first in line.
He bought a full pound of them, with fries, with tartar sauce, with chocolate pudding and Pepsi, and slumped into the English office. A man named Davy Staniston was sitting at a makeshift desk which had been scavenged from the local women's prison, grading papers with admirable concentration.
"Hey, Davy," Owen greeted him, "did you get all those erasers pounded?"
Davy stood up. When he spoke, it was with a trace of an accent whose origin Owen kept meaning to ask about. "Almost, Owen," he said agreeably. "It's sort of an all-day project."
Owen sighed. "Yeah, I can't believe the machine broke down again. No problem; if Professor Russert needs you to help him get all those staples out of his chair again, you can go do that for a while. I'll finish these papers."
He turned and began to head back out, but Davy called after him.
"Say, Owen," he said, "I heard about the manuscript. Do you think there's any truth to it?"
Owen shook his head. "Davy, we're dealing with a college whose greatest claim to fame was the varsity soccer team's arrest for stealing porn from the Ames State student bookstore. I would doubt it."
"Wouldn't that be something, though?" Davy asked him, clasping his hands behind him and gazing at the ceiling. "A Stanislad manuscript discovered after all these years?"
"Yeah, I suppose. At least it would bring in enough money to get a new copy machine."
They both cast timid eyes upon the copier in question. In the corner of the room it continued for the seventh consecutive day to vengefully emit black smoke and something that smelled like diesel exhaust. The ominous rattling of its every component suggested the mutterings of an angry dybbuk, or perhaps a raccoon caught in a dishwasher, and as they watched, the On button fell off again onto the floor, crushing a passing flea.
Owen dragged his hypnotized gaze away from it just long enough to get a good long look at Davy's gaunt face. "Speaking of famous people," he said, frowning, "Do people ever come up to you and say you look a hell of a lot like Joe Namath?"
Davy swallowed uneasily. "Not so much. I'd better back to work, Owen," he said, and swiped a fry from Owen's overflowing styrofoam cup. He knew this was bound to make him forget all about the subject. The subject being, of course, Davy's features, which were as identical to Dari Stanislad's as could possibly be without the involvement of a very shiny mirror.
Dari breathed a whoosh of relief when Owen left him, and before he got back to work he reminded himself to perhaps remove all traces of the goatee he had cultivated in 1825 before he showed his face around the college again, and maybe to get some lifts for his shoes to boost him up to 5'10" or so, just for good measure.
That left Owen with eight spare minutes until his next class, The Secret Life of the Gerund. Sitting down behind his desk, he pulled open his top drawer to reveal a fully inflated whoopee cushion resting comfortably upon his grade book. He immediately hung his head in disappointment.
"How many times do I have to tell you kids," he said to no one in particular, "it won't make a sound unless it's sat on." He spent the next few minutes daydreaming about shooting the winning three-pointer of the 2003 NBA Finals over the flailing arms of Michael Jordan when a procession of unique irritations entered the room.
Nevin Smiley was followed by three incredibly old men, two of whom walked with canes while the third just kind of put his hand on the shoulder in front of him and hoped for the best. Owen recognized the triumvirate from either the student yearbook's listing of the Board of Regents or the starting lineup of the 1904 Philadelphia Athletics, he couldn't remember which.
"Owen," Smiley said forcefully when the group was safe and warm inside the room, "we've got to speak with you."
Owen stood quickly, already raising a finger in self-defense. "Look, Nevin, I'm sorry I made that remark about the cafeteria food to the newspaper, but I really did find those pennies inside my baked potato."
"It's not about that," Smiley said dismissively. "The Board of Regents has decided we need to keep this whole manuscript issue in-house so it doesn't get away from us. We're looking for someone to read the manuscript and give us a full report."
"Nobody's even read it yet?"
"The print is really, really small, Owen," Smiley told him impatiently. "We feel your youthful eyesight and Stanisladian background make you the perfect man for the job." Behind him, one of the old men trembled a bit and then sank with great relief behind an empty student's desk.
"Okay, first of all," Owen said, "my eyesight hasn't been the same since that sulfur explosion in the teacher's lounge. Secondly, where is this 'background' you speak of? I'm a grammar teacher; I just keep getting stuck with this section because Bob Gantner goes to indoor soccer fantasy camp the same month every year."
Smiley narrowed his eyes in thought. "Owen, when I hired you, your resume¢ said that you had a master's degree in English, and that you taught an advanced seminar in Stanislad's works at Princeton three years ago."
Owen came to resemble in that moment a deer dazed by a pair of halogen headlights, or vice versa. "Yeah....a master's degree in English," he said, his eyes wandering to the most distant corners of the room. "That's certainly what I have, all right...."
"Then it's settled!" Smiley said, rediscovering the enthusiasm that had twice gotten him named runner-up for Dick's Notch Educator of the Year. "This find is at long last going to put the college on the map, even more so than Woodshop Open House and our unique degree program in dicemaking."
Owen collapsed tiredly behind his desk again. "You want my advice, Nevin? Sell the manuscript to the highest bidder now before it's taken to an authenticator and found to be a complete fraud. I'll bet if you take a quick look at the play, phrases like '1-800-COLLECT' are likely to appear several times."
"Owen, some things are more important that money. Dick's Notch has a nine year tradition of being one of the finest accredited community colleges in the Midwest."
Owen raised his eyebrows. "We're accredited?"
"Tomorrow morning I need you to drive over to the International Institute for Advanced Literary Studies in Frogger's Gulch," Smiley went on, "and meet with a woman there who will help you out. I don't expect you to shoulder this burden alone."
Owen chewed the end of his favorite pencil, the one with all the little Snoopys on it. "I'll do it on one condition," he said, shrewdly detecting wiggle room. "I can park anywhere I want, even in your personal space, for one month."
Gus stared him down. "Two weeks," was the response.
"And a tank of gas?"
"Mid-grade," Owen whispered, sensing ultimate victory was within his grubby grasp.
Smiley's pride evaporated into an embittered pause. "Done," he spat resentfully. "You'll pick up the manuscript tomorrow. It's incredibly precious and must be handled very carefully. Take a couple of days and go through it with a highlighter." He turned toward the door, much to the relief of the Board of Regents, two of whom had become very uncomfortable with their overexposure to room temperature. "And don't worry about the press," Gus finished. "I've made arrangements to keep them at bay."
Which meant that halfway across campus, fifteen reporters from once-respectable media outlets found themselves mysteriously locked inside the Dick's Notch Community College gymnasium, having been promised an exclusive interview with the men who had found the manuscript, men who had been described to them by Smiley as being "very possibly close cousins of Ted Danson". They eventually had to break their way out through a high window using a deck chair from the new pool, but no injuries were reported, and everyone got home from work right around five, like normal.
Long after Owen had retired to his one-bedroom sinkhole two miles east for a pleasant evening of Kraft macaroni and cheese and an 8:30 broadcast of The Thing on channel 14, one man remained in the English office back at school, writing longhand in a journal newly purchased from OfficeIt. Dari Stanislad¾ Davy, as he had become known in the past few weeks to his bosses at the college¾ wrote by the light of a single candle he had scavenged from a ceramics class. He was still not totally impressed with the phenomenon of electric light (nor was he over-fond of the awkward "blue jeans" he was currently wearing), and felt most comfortable doing things the old fashioned way for now. He'd had to do quite a lot of legwork to locate a quill pen in this part of Iowa, but he'd found one on his day off, and to his surprise it worked quite beautifully.
Dear diary, he wrote, the worst has happened. They've discovered The Cobbleswoddler's Tale. If only they knew how much I wanted this play to die with me, and why. At least I'm in a good position to observe the situation, and perhaps produce some sort of interference if necessary. These past two months as a department aide haven't been so bad, although I had hoped, foolishly I now believe, that the college would be able to afford to bump me up to minimum wage. I do have a pleasant master, a Mr. Owen Trittle, who is always congenial even on days when his poorly hidden doubts and worries about the direction of his life rise perilously close to the surface. He has even been kind enough to involve me in the development of some practical jokes against his overseer, a Mr. Nevin Smiley. Yesterday Owen and I taped down the button of a can of something called Lysol aerosol spray and placed it quickly within Smiley's empty office, so that he returned to a chamber flawlessly anti-septic yet utterly devoid of any breathable oxygen whatsoever. Good fun!
I must remain level-headed, however. With the discovery of the play, I suppose the question of why I've suddenly found myself here, in this strange and hectic age, is slowly being answered. It took me a few days to get over the shock of opening my eyes and realizing I was totally and completely alive; at first I thought it was all a dream, and perhaps it will still prove so. But I've quickly developed a very specific, and very private, purpose of my own, and I can't wait any longer to make it happen. It remains to be seen if I have enough money, and enough time, to carry out my journey.
He took his journal with him on the beginning of that journey, which began on Tuesday morning when he called out at work and took a taxi to Dick's Notch Semi-International Airport at five-thirty in the morning. He walked up to one of the ticket counters, just as he had seen done the night before in a movie featuring a very pleasant-looking lady named Michele Pfeiffer, and scanned the various destinations posted on the wall behind the agent on duty.
"I'd like one ticket to.....oh....." Here Dari paused, not even recognizing the names of some of the places that were at his disposal. "Let's start with Beijing," he said. "By any chance, is there anything cheaper than coach class?"
The ticket agent smiled absently. "No, sir."
Davy peered meekly inside the wallet he had woken up with a few weeks before, which had been given to him by his mother in 1821. "What if I were to merely crouch in the toilet," he suggested, "or perhaps lash myself to one of the engines?"
He was understandably nervous when he fastened his seatbelt in preparation for takeoff. He seemed to remember that the most ambitious flight he had ever personally witnessed was that of an elderly whooping crane trying to make it all the way across Myvatn Lake in one try. His face the color of weak toothpaste, he flagged down a passing flight attendant.
"Excuse me, miss," he told her, "I've never flown before. If we were to crash from a high altitude, it would mean certain death, would it not?"
She smiled and patted his hand. "Certainly, sir, either by the force of the impact or burn injuries resulting from the explosion. Would you like headphones to watch The Full Monty?"
He spent most of his first flight gazing at the comforting void of the brilliant white sky, breathing as evenly as he possibly could. He had changed for the trip into the clothes he felt more comfortable in, which were the ones he'd found swathed around his body upon his waking up in May of 2003, in a grassy park in the center of Dick's Notch. They had been very much in fashion back in nineteenth century Iceland. It had taken almost fifteen entire minutes after he'd awoken from that one hundred and seventy-eight year sleep for his mind to drift back to a certain place in the past where he knew he was not welcome. He had been helpless to stop himself though, just as he was helpless on the plane, confronted with hours upon hours of empty sky and the in-flight magazine and two dry cookies and a sleeping seatmate, from drifting again without rhyme or purpose, and hating himself for it.
He was sitting on a hill beside the Atlantic on a cloudy, windy day in 1825, surrounded by tall grass which sometimes brushed his very cheeks. Three half-filled pages of notes and stage directions sat beside him, weighted down by a stone he'd found while pushing his foot idly through the sand down near the shoreline. The pages were all useless, he felt, but then he'd felt that way about the beginnings of every play he'd ever written. There was a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine in a sack beside his foot. Both were infinitely more interesting to him on this day than anything writing could do for him.
Jof found him at noon, swishing his feet through the grass with overwrought drama to get Dari's attention, which was very slow in coming. Jof had to tap him on the shoulder to rouse him from his reverie. He sat down cross-legged, moaning in mock pain. Dari offered him the weakest of smiles and then turned to the horizon again.
They sat there together for a moment, Jof vowing silently that this time he would not be the one to broach the subject they both knew they'd wind up discussing. He would sit and enjoy the view and do nothing else, not until Dari said something, anything to show that he was still alive and aware of normal things. Fifteen seconds went by; Jof actually gave up at about eight.
"Oh, Dari," he said, "how long is this business going to last? Am I to patronize the one tolerable whorehouse in all of this godforsaken town by myself?"
Dari collected his pages as if to show he certainly did not intend to sit here all day; no no, that would be ridiculous. "I'm afraid this particular sorrow, Jof, seems to slope deeper than most," he said, looking down at what he'd written, amazed at how bad his handwriting had gotten in just the past month or so.
"Well, it was bound to happen," Jof said. "Dari Stanislad has met his immovable object."
"One in a series, actually, as you should be more than aware." Dari folded his pages in half and gave up trying to seem interested in the exterior world. He watched the tide coming in, coming in.
"Listen," Jof counseled him, "you've got professional success, a little fame, and an abundance of whatever currency it is we use in Iceland. I know a dozen girls anxious to meet you. What about Greta Logsdottir?"
"Her face," said Dari, "curiously calls to mind the innards of a clam."
Jof broke a stick in two with his hands. "I again stand in awe of your powers of observation. What of Juliana Alvadottir? She can cube a trout like no one else I know."
"If the cubing of trout is to be my yardstick, Jof, I'll ask the hand of your grandmother this very day."
Jof nodded, defeated already. If he were ever asked to describe what it was like to try to talk to Dari when he was like this, he would just draw a large circle on a piece of paper and tap on it a few times. For someone who had done so poorly in school, Jof thought, his old chum certainly had developed an answer for everything.
He stood up, trying not to become absorbed in the scenery and the pretty swirl of the half-threatening, half-comforting clouds above their heads. "Well, you think about it, Dari," he said. "You know my point of view. Love is only the answer if the question is: How can I forfeit all my disposable income?"
Again, the faint smile from Dari. Jof nudged him goodbye with a companionable foot and turned to leave. He was not worried about Dari, not really. Jof might have been a skirt-chaser and a layabout of the highest order, but he was also a very effective pragmatist. If he could not cheer his friend up now, well, there was always tonight at the bar, or tomorrow afternoon on this same damnable hill, most likely. Time was one thing they both had plenty of, and Jof knew enough to let that particular doctor do most of the work that was so sorely necessary here.
Yes, they had plenty of time, years and years in which to forget all about Natalya Fisk. Dari, sensing that the vast sweep of his life did not necessarily require his attendance in town for the next fifteen minutes or so, continued to sit and look at the utterly forgiving ocean. Then fifteen minutes more.
Time was a funny thing: five more hours had gone by and the sun had begun to set when he finally found the impetus to rise and face the universe.
Back in sunny and Madonna-filled 2003, Nevin Smiley and a chipper fellow from North Central Iowa Security Services brought The Cobbleswoddler's Tale to an unidentified location in town under cover of mid-afternoon. After filling out a few forms and having to start over once because he accidentally put his phone number in the zip code box, Smiley handed the manuscript across a chipped Formica counter to a soft-featured, extremely quiet girl in a lab coat named Pimma. Pimma took his ten dollar deposit and carried the manuscript with great caution and rubber-gloved hands through a green shower curtain which divided the front of the place from the back, and then set it down inside a steel box. With a marker she wrote the words DARI STANISLAD WORK on a piece of masking tape and affixed it to the top of the box. The box was placed on a high shelf featuring another masking tape banner which said TO BE AUTHENTICATED. There were several other items of varying sizes on the same shelf, each bearing a tag. DARI STANISLAD WORK was set beside TCHAIKOVSKY SIGNATURE, which was next to ERNEST HEMINGWAY WILL, which rested beside CHRIST'S FACE ON TORTILLA CHIP, slightly to the left of HITLER LOVE LETTER TO SHANIA TWAIN.
Lonely Pimma removed her cheese sandwich and individual vanilla pudding cup from the mini-fridge, set her radio to 105.7, Dick's Notch's Hottest of all possible Hot Mixes, and resumed her day.
More or less driving with his knees because his hands were very busy bringing a DoublePlus EatPattie with Happy Potato Party Dots repeatedly to his mouth, Owen cruised along Muffin Street in Frogger's Gulch at noon the next day, keeping one eye on the road and the other on the odometer of his hideously battered Datsun. The numbers rolled over to an even 165,000 and he emitted a triumphant "Whoop whoop!", nearly rear-ending a Saab in the process. He made a mental note to be more careful, then unfortunately misplaced that note when his thoughts turned to the possibility of studying to become one of those guys who cleaned up after crime scenes. The thought of working late at night intrigued him; the thought of getting near squishy fluids did not. Beside him on the passenger's seat were two job applications, one from a casual food establishment on Gravy Street called SaladNOW, which was looking for an assistant manager, and the other from a place in East Notch which specialized in trying to sell books that other bookstores couldn't get rid of if all the customers had crossbows aimed at their heads.
As he got closer to his destination, Owen added a crumpled map to the assortment of bags, napkins, and hamburgers currently cluttering his lap, peering at it with the concentration of a great chess master carefully surveying an appetizer menu. Suddenly the International Institute for Advanced Literary Studies appeared on his right. It was a rare international institute for advanced literary studies in that it was located in a strip mall beside a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. He noted as he parked the car that Krispy Kreme was looking for a night supervisor.
"Tempted by the fruit of another," he sighed wistfully, and entered the Institute.
The entire place was done in expensive marble, and his footsteps echoed impressively as he approached the counter. The wallflower named Pimma, who was doing some mid-shift moonlighting at the Institute in order to make a little extra money to buy the new collector's set of Friends, looked up at him blankly, her frown perfectly placed on her rather pretty countenance.
"Hi," Owen said softly, feeling intimidated by all the heavy stone, "my name is¾ "
"Shhhhhh," Pimma said, tapping a sign beside her which advised him that THE LITERARY INSTITUTE ASKS YOU TO PLEASE KEEP YOUR VOICE LOW.
Owen nodded and tried again, taking it down a few more decibels. "I'm Ow¾ "
"Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh," Pimma said. She moved the sign slightly so that it was angled better toward Owen's face.
Owen rubbed his left eye in frustration and took a deep breath, releasing his next words so softly he couldn't even be sure he'd even said them. "I'm here for¾ "
"Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," said Pimma. Owen yanked from her hand a pen shaped like Beaker from The Muppet Show and scrawled the reason for his visit on his forearm. Pimma pointed the way to the North Corridor, then took a mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich and six petite pretzel nibs from her lunch bag and stared longingly out the front window, which looked out upon Citrus Donny's Micro-Golf and We've Only Got Tires, for the better part of an hour, sincerely wishing that Friends wouldn't ever, ever have to go off the air.
Owen got a little lost in the vast corridors of the Institute, and his inability to pass up the use of a previously unknown public restroom set him back another two minutes, but he found the North Corridor eventually. Rows of ominously closed doors marched left and right. Owen was within fifty feet of his destination when one of them burst open, releasing a red-faced man in slacks and a sports coat breathlessly into the hallway.
"If you ever say that about Sinclair Lewis again, you monster," he shouted back into the room, "I'll cut your freaking throat!!" With that he dashed past Owen, beginning to weep. Owen had no idea he was dealing with such a powder keg of literary stress and made a mental note to stop reading altogether someday. It was his second mental note of the day, and he was starting to feel sleepy.
Room 114 was actually open, and he knocked gently on the door before pushing his head in.
"Hello?" he said cautiously.
A brown-haired woman of about thirty looked up from behind her desk, removing her glasses. "Hello," she said. Upon realizing that she was the first attractive female he had seen in Dick's Notch since Arbor Day of 2001, Owen stepped forward a little too quickly, anxious to shake her hand before it disappeared altogether.
"My name's Owen," he said. "I was sent from Dick's Notch Community College. Are you April Mahone?"
"Yes, sit down," she said, smiling now and taking her seat behind the cluttered desk. "I'm sure you share my excitement over this whole thing. I've been waiting my whole life for something like this. It's like a crazy dream."
"Yeah," Owen agreed, careful before sitting to remove the six incredibly sharp pencils which had been resting on his chair. "I'd actually always hoped to play utility infielder for the Red Sox, but you know, this should be good for a few yuks."
April peered at him doubtfully, her glasses, which had been removed strictly for the greeting, replaced snugly on her nose. "The Red Sox. Ah....can I ask what your qualifications in the field are?"
"Well, I've been reading at a college level pretty much since college," Owen told her. "And I'm a demon on sentence diagramming."
She frowned. "But Dick's Notch assured me that they were sending an expert on Dari Stanislad."
Owen laughed. "Yeah, that's Dick's Notch for you, God love 'em!"
April Mahone shook her head, pained, looking as if this were about the fourteenth piece of bad news she had gotten today. Owen felt an almost uncontrollable urge to rush right out and buy her a turkey sandwich.
"If it makes you feel any better," he offered, "I actually have read everything he's done. And unless there's more than one Stanislad freak named April Mahone, I also read the piece you did in The Michigan Review on the French translations of his sonnets."
She raised her eyebrows, momentarily impressed. "You subscribe to The Michigan Review?"
"Well, not exactly. The English department won a subscription at a church fair ring toss."
She groaned audibly. Owen noticed and liked the way her distress brought out the green in her eyes, then actually took a moment to marvel over what total pigs men were. First of all, her eyes were hazel, not green.
"Look, I can read the manuscript capably," he assured her. "It's being authenticated right now. This whole hubbub will probably end there, of course."
April looked past Owen's shoulder into a patch of comforting nothingness. "I hope not," she said. "I'd do anything if it were real. I feel it would validate my career." She paused, then gave him a sideways glance. "I keep feeling it's gotten by me. I don't suppose you know what that's all about."
"Oh, a little bit," he said. "I almost asked Pimma the Hard-Hearted Receptionist if this place needed someone to sell lemonade in the lobby."
"So," April said, sitting up a little and clinging to the slowly vanishing strains of her initial enthusiasm, "who has your dean hired to authenticate? Winterson at USC? McGraw at Harvard? The classics division at Oxford?"
Owen removed a crumpled receipt from the breast pocket of his shirt and unfolded it, then turned it right-side up, then smoothed it out a bit. "Authentications By Tomorrow," he told her. "They're over on Route 7 behind Pep Boys."
April stared at him.
"You know the Pep Boys, right?" Owen asked. "Manny, Moe, and Jack?"
Unable to even look at him now in her disappointment, April swiveled her chair to face partially out her window, which overlooked Dollar Popcorn and The Hammock Showroom. "Why doesn't this surprise me?" she asked the view outside. "Day after day, it seems like I'm the only one in this silly flat state who really cares about Stanislad, about his writings. They're the most beautiful thing we have."
"Yeah...." Owen said hesitantly. "Well...."
April swiveled back in his direction. "Yeah, well, what?"
"No, tell me," she said, pointing in the general direction of his unprotected forehead with a very small stapler. "You were about to say something."
Owen shrugged. "It's just that I teach for a living, and let me tell you, there's nothing young people despise more than being told day after day that Mozart and Bach are the end-all of music, Dari Stanislad is the only writer to perfect written language, no one's ever going to touch Picasso or Van Gogh, and Hulk Hogan will always be the greatest athlete of all time. Maybe we could all move into the 21st century just a wee bit."
"So I guess you're saying it's stupid for me to do what I do," April said, "the preservation of words vital both to the arts and to world history."
"Well, that's fine, but Jeez Louise, do we need a whole institute, with hallways and interns and people making coffee for each other? How much do you make a year?"
April pushed her glasses further up her nose. "Oh please, I'm not going to tell you that."
"I make twenty-one," he told her. "Is it more than twenty-one? Do you get dental thrown in? I would kill for dental."
April sat totally upright in her chair and made some meaningless hand movements on and around her little stapler. "I'm sort of busy here," she said. "Why don't you pick me up tomorrow at noon, and we can discuss the plans for the manuscript further."
Owen rose, putting the six lethal pencils carefully back into place. "No dental, huh," he said, and moved to the door, stopping briefly to look back at her once more. "Do you at least get personal days sometimes?" he asked her. "I'm sort of lonesome on mine."
Not even looking up from her stapler duties, she said, "That's because you're obviously afflicted with some sort of bipolar illness."
Owen laughed. "See you tomorrow," he said, and started to head back down the hall.
"You were wrong about the sonnets, I think...." he added after he had left her field of vision, floating the words around the door so it would be much too late for her to jump up and kick his sorry butt. April sat for a moment, trying to figure out if he was trying to goad her into a rude response or whether he had just made an honest display of some glimmer of intellect. She made a mental note to ask him about it the next day, a note which became almost instantly lost among thoughts of who she could possibly get to fix her stupid stapler now that Deanna was off at that silly Thomas Hardy conference in Small Cigar.
Owen was not ten minutes out of the Institute when danger, mystery, and intrigue suddenly entered his life along with his usual semi-annual case of swimmer's ear. He had decided to take a quick walk down to Seven-Eleven to grab a copy of The Sporting News when he began to get a funny feeling, a sense that he was being watched. As he made his way down the sidewalk toward his destination, the feeling intensified, and keeping his face straight ahead, he tried to use his peripheral vision to determine the source of his unsettlement.
Over his left shoulder, a small white Dodge minivan was crawling beside the curb not ten feet away from him. Other traffic moved around it impatiently. The driver of the vehicle was following Owen's movement a bit too carefully, stopping and starting in jerks in relation to his nervous pace.
Owen threw several furtive glances over his shoulder and walked a little faster. It was just a couple of hundred feet to Seven-Eleven, where he would feel much better after a monstrous Cola Slurpee with no lid. The minivan followed creepily. Owen recalled what Max Von Sydow had told Robert Redford about death by stalking automobiles at the end of Three Days of the Condor, and then inexplicably recalled what Meg Ryan had told Tom Hanks about brain clouds at the end of Joe Versus the Volcano. Neither advice helped him much.
The sight of another human face relieved Owen considerably. Before the Seven-Eleven there was a large parking lot with a banner over it that read WELCOME TO THE DODGE SAVINGS BLOWOUT! A salesman in a lousy suit was standing on the sidewalk and handing out flyers regarding the aforementioned event.
"Hey, tell me something," Owen said to the salesman out of the side of his mouth, unable to hide his mounting unease, "is there a white minivan behind me?"
The salesman looked over Owen's shoulder at the approximately one hundred and nineteen white minivans sitting in the lot.
"Um....yes....yes there is."
"Thanks," Owen said shakily and trotted on, pulse racing. The fiendish Dodge stopped briefly behind a kid delivering newspapers and then caught up again.
It was endgame. The tension level surpassed even what Owen had felt at age sixteen when enduring his fourth driving test under the cruel watch of the late Mr. Snivets.
His right foot was a paltry fourteen inches away from the Seven-Eleven tarmac when two gigantic brutes leapt out of the Dodge and stepped in front of his path. Their Ray Ban sunglasses glittered darkly.
"Okay, pal," said one of the thugs. "Get in the car."
"Ah....no," Owen replied. It felt like a really good thing to say.
The second thug gawked at him. "No?"
"Why should I?"
Owen challenged him. "Are you armed?"
The brute was genuinely offended. "No. What do you think I am?"
"Like I'm going to get inside a strange vehicle with someone I don't know!" Owen said, shaking his head. "Yeah, that would be a good move."
The thugs looked at each other briefly in wordless consultation.
"You're not the least bit interested," said Thug 1, "in why a mysterious van would be following you, and why your presence is required by unknown parties?"
"Enough to answer a ringing telephone, maybe," Owen said, perturbed, "but this is pathetic! Why didn't you call my office?"
Thug 2 lowered his head ashamedly. "We couldn't get through. You were on the internet."
Owen sighed heavily and put his hands on his hips. "Oh, all right," he complained, and the rear door slid open, allowing him access to the eerie, cavernous, ominous depths of the new Dodge minivan with CD player, cup holders, and one thousand dollars cash back to qualified customers, which the thugs had unfortunately not been, despite having gotten their hopes way up.
"All right," said Thug 1 from the back seat, "let's hit the rendezvous point."
Owen squirmed between #1 and a third thug, who weighed approximately six thousand pounds. "Hey, there's not enough room back here," he said. "I'm going to have to ride up front."
Thug 1 put an agonized hand to his forehead. It was going to be that kind of day. "Oh, all right," he conceded. That was the problem with this job: some kidnappings went so much more smoothly than others.
Owen had just finished explaining to the muscle-bound driver why a left handed batter will usually hit more poorly against a left handed pitcher, and how the same went for a right handed batter against a right handed pitcher (all because of the angle or descent or veloci-curve or something) when they arrived at their destination.
"Sorry, this is where we stop," the driver told him, remembering to put his threatening shades back on. "Can you call me later tomorrow and tell me some more? I have a fantasy draft coming up next week."
"Yeah, let me write down my number," Owen said, but Thug 1 had already opened the passenger's side door and beckoned him out. "Come on, you," he said, laying it on thicker than ever.
Owen was more miffed now than frightened but did as he was told. Standing on the sidewalk, he gazed up at a modest two-story building nestled on downtown's quietest street. A sign over the front entrance read:
THE LOFTY VERB THEATER AND BEDAZZLEMENT COMPANY
Ask about discounts for short attention spans!
"There goes the aura of mystery you were trying to create," Owen told them.
"Just go inside," Thug 1 huffed.
Owen raised an eyebrow at him.
"Please," said Thug 1. Owen complied. Thug 1 leaned back into the front seat of the car for a moment and frowned at the driver. "Remind me later on to explain a few things about how NOT to intimidate a captive," he said sourly. The driver, who was really just doing this thug thing part time until he could get his mail order board game business up and running, fiddled with the radio and waited for his fifteen-minute break.
Thugs 1 and 2 ushered Owen into the lobby of the theater, where a janitor was methodically scrubbing some sort of blackish, whitish, pinkish, greenish stain off the front of the concession stand. Approaching quickly from the rear of the house was a small party of men, led by a six-foot five-inch chubby behemoth bearing one of the poorer hair weaves in the county's eighty-two year history. He was wearing a silver satin robe and blindingly white sneakers. The pinched look on his face indicated either a man of immense pride and status or a man who was trying desperately not to emit a cola burp. Beside him, a bald accountant-looking chap was jotting frantically on a clipboard. The two opposing factions stopped and faced each other.
"Are you....Michael Fenswick?" the large man said dramatically.
There was an awkward pause. "Um.....no...." Owen replied.
The big guy frowned. "Are you....Owen Trittle?"
"Yes," said Owen.
"You of course know who I am," said the man of enormous carriage.
Owen mock-squinted. "Dad....?" he said.
The obese giant was not amused. "I," he declared, "am Rutherford Lamp, lead actor and dramaturge of the Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company. I have summoned you for a very specific purpose."
Owen nodded. "What's with the Mountain Dew?" he asked, gesturing toward a cooler full of the stuff which was being toted around by a freckled teenager who stood behind the accountant.
"Mr. Lamp's voice is a delicate instrument," the accountant told him, "and his vocal cords must be lubricated at all times of day."
"And you are...?" Owen asked him.
"Gaston Green, Mr. Lamp's agent and business partner," came the no-nonsense reply. "Mr. Trittle, we want to know what is the status of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale."
"For all I know at this point," Owen said, "it's just a big practical joke for my birthday."
Thug 2 slapped him on the back. "Oh, I'm sorry, happy birthday!" he said with giddy surprise. Owen smiled and thanked him.
"It seems," Lamp pressed on, having no time for these obstructionary antics, "that you have been entrusted with the task of reading the play on behalf of your university. To come to the point, we are willing to offer you a certain sum of money for the right to copy the play before it is offered to any other theater company for performance purposes."
Owen's eyes had gone round and sparkly. "Okay, ah, I didn't hear a single word you said after the phrase 'sum of money'."
Gaston Green bit his lip and spoke with great hesitance. "Simply put," he said, "Mr. Lamp is....Mr. Lamp is in need of...."
"Careful...." Lamp said threateningly through clenched teeth.
Green tried again. "Mr. Lamp is in need of....well, a comeback."
"Is that so?" Owen asked, suddenly intrigued.
"Yes, it is so," Lamp said bitterly, itching the side of one plump ankle with his big white sneaker. "Certain mentally handicapped theater critics from this godforsaken town have seen fit to castigate me for my daring theatrical experimentations in recent times. Ticket subscriptions are plummeting because of their ignorance!"
Owen snapped his fingers. "Wait, I know you now! Your company did Macbeth at the college last year. What was with that epilogue set in Guam?"
"It's called artistic license," Lamp told the philistine before him. "And I don't recall your students being very considerate of my vision!"
Owen shrugged. "Well, it's not their fault; once the first rancid turnip is thrown, a crowd mentality takes over. So you need to put on The Cobbleswoddler's Tale before anyone else to save your career and keep doing your skits or whatever."
"I need no such salvation," Lamp said proudly. "Even as we speak, I am fielding several offers from national stages."
Green looked confused. "Oh, sorry, I thought we weren't going to make stuff up," he said to Lamp.
"Hey, if you want me to sneak you a copy of the play," Owen said, "I'll figure something out, what do I care? What kind of money are you offering here?"
Green studied the carpet. "Ah....it wasn't so much money we meant; more like....ten percent off two mezzanine tickets to the premiere."
"Two free tickets, a comped box of Raisinets, a tank of gas, either premium or mid-grade, and a ride back to my car."
"One ticket and half price on the Raisinets."
"Two tickets and a free small box with purchase of SnoCaps."
The accountant's face became locked in a resentful grimace, but he hadn't gotten this far in life without knowing how to cement a deal. "All right," he conceded. "But we want a copy of the play by noon tomorrow. Mr. Lamp has to tell our director if the rehearsals for Popeye have to be cancelled."
"Agreed. But I still want my tank of premium even if this play turns out to have nothing but roles for Egyptians, or goats, or it's eight minutes long."
Lamp now took one gallant Broadway stride toward the general direction of Owen's face and inflated his lungs with the flourish of an actor about to deliver Henry the Fifth's pep talk to the fellas at Agincourt.
"Tell me, Mr. Owen," he said, "did you ever hear of my groundbreaking work in the Ontario Optical Society's 1988 benefit production of Arsenic and Old Lace?"
Owen stared weakly upwards at Lamp's enormous visage. Two seconds passed. Then two more. Then one more.
"Yes," Owen assured him. "Yes, I did. Can I go now?"
Just three hours later back at Authentications By Tomorrow, the pretty introvert Pimma removed the prized manuscript from an impressive-looking machine manufactured by the Valuable Processes Corporation of America. She made note of the fourteen-digit number glowing faintly on the machine's digital readout and filled out a blue slip of paper, sticking it to the front of the collection of pages. She took this entire affair through the beaded curtain and set it on the counter in front of the waiting customer.
Owen read the blue slip with trepidation. It said:
YOUR MATERIAL HAS BEEN PROVEN (check one):
SORRY, YOUR ITEM WAS ACCIDENTALLY LIQUIFIED
Owen looked at Pimma and smiled faintly. She attempted a return smile but as usual it became something bent and weak, like a pretzel that had been soaked in milk. Owen left with a tired thank-you and Pimma went to the back room again to put her Henderson's Dinner For Just One into the microwave for two minutes and forty seconds, after which she would rotate the box and do it for another minute and a half, after which it would be exactly break time again.
Thus did Owen begin the task of reading my long-forgotten The Cobbleswoddler's Tale, Dari Stanislad wrote in his diary that night as his plane touched town in China, the only foreign land he would experience in either this newfound quasi-life or the one that had ended so quickly so very long ago. Owen's concentration was not quite that of a professional scholar¾ many times while I was under his employ he seemed unable to grade even a simple essay without two or three breaks for a dice-driven diversion called Deluxe Yahtzee, or a "modest" snack of an entire watermelon, which he often attacked using little more than a dirty teaspoon from the teacher's lounge¾ but he actually made it through the play twice by midnight, and he then found himself staying up far later to read it a third, and even a fourth time. More and more as he went on, his face became a picture of puzzlement and confused hilarity. The play had not been read since 1825. And of course, it had never been performed. Owen Trittle was the first man in the Dick's Notch of these modern times to fully understand why.
I must go now, diary. The aircraft has brought me safely to my first adventure. After I vomit repeatedly into the nearest refuse can, I have much work to do.
Speaking of repeated regurgitation, Owen felt a trifle queasy himself upon closing the cover of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale for the fifth time at dawn on the fourteenth, and only twenty percent of that was due to the two watermelons he'd ingested during the course of the night using little more than a pair of chopsticks he'd found under an old issue of TV Guide. His first words to his colleagues on the morning after his ordeal were simply:
"This play sucks."
Twelve Dick's Notch Community College employees and April Mahone looked up at him in bemused silence in Conference Room F of the Phench Building on the east side of campus. Owen stood at the head of a long scuffed oak table (price: $22 from the Dick's Notch Goodwill) and repeated the words more slowly just in case anyone had missed them the first time.
"Trittle, what on earth are you talking about?" Nevin Smiley asked him, folding his hands before him nervously.
"The play is awful," Owen elucidated. "It may be, in fact, the worst thing ever written. By anyone. In any era. Using any documented alphabet."
"Worse than Steel Magnolias?" asked the head of the History department.
Owen considered it. "Well...." he began, but was cut off sharply by one of the college's wizened and smartly suited trustees.
"I find this hard to believe," he said gruffly. "Mr. Trittle, what is the plot of the play?"
"Oh, the plot's very interesting," Owen told the room. "It's about a young attractive British bachelor whose friends all seem to be getting married, one by one. He resists the entire concept until he meets an American woman with whom he has a series of one night stands. But he winds up falling in love with her and standing up his fiancée at the altar. Along the way there are numerous observations about love, friendship, and even death."
There was an uneasy quiet. Several heads were scratched by their owners.
Light dawned in Smiley's eyes. "But that's¾ "
"Four Weddings and a Funeral," Owen finished for him, setting the manuscript gently on the table. "Except this isn't funny. And for some reason, the Hugh Grant character is a child molester."
There was some general uneasy babble around the table. Owen took a seat beside April and she did her best to ignore him, touching the cover of the manuscript possessively.
"Maybe," she suggested, "we should have someone else look at the play. Perhaps the language is just a bit archaic for Mr. Trittle's taste."
"Oh, not at all," Owen said. "In fact, it seems Stanislad foresaw much of our current slang, with words like 'pinhead' and 'mama's boy' used many, many times in place of actual intelligent dialogue."
"I refuse to believe that a master like Dari Stanislad could write anything other than a masterpiece," Smiley protested.
Another of the trustees shrugged and sighed. "Robert Frost wrote Firestarter," he reminded everyone.
"Well, don't take my word for it," Owen said, "have April read it tonight. She actually defended Love Me Anyway in some article in The Utne Reader."
"I certainly hope you're wrong, Owen," Smiley said with more than a hint of reproach sent in his direction. "The college plans to sell copies of the play for fifteen hundred dollars a piece to raise funds to rebuild the computer lab."
"Really? What happened to the computer lab?"
"There was another sulfur explosion yesterday," Smiley admitted. He then turned to a blind man sitting beside him. The blindness must have accounted for the impressive amount of shaving cream left on his chin after this morning's shave. "Doctor Vustafsson, is this scenario he's described really possible? Could Stanislad have created a dud?"
Vustafsson stroked his chin and spoke in an accent that strangely landed somewhere between German and Cajun.
"Eet ees not only pozzible, Meester Smiley, eet ees almost ze certainty," he cautioned. "Mattamattically speaking, every great artist must have hees share of ze failures. Ze only exception to zees rule zeems to be ze popular rock und roll group Cheap Trick, whose every song fires ze imagination like some divine torch."
Smiley pondered this with great intensity. "Well, the authentication came back positive. Plus we get ten percent off our next one. Until we figure something out, Owen, I want you to first take the play to our branch campus in Toliet and have Professor Thinwiddy in the Drama department take a quick look at it to verify this suckulation claim of yours. Then I want you to give it to Ms. Mahone so we can get a woman's perspective. In the meantime, don't let it out of your sight."
April was about to make a remark to counter Smiley's well-seasoned sexism but Owen waved her off, assuring her without a word that it was useless to protest. Everyone filed out of the room so the janitors could meet to plan their seventh strike in four months.
"I'm going to get a really nice Ziploc bag from the cafeteria to make sure nothing gets spilled on this baby," Owen said to April as they shuffled down the hallway. "Wanna come with, maybe share a Fanta with me?"
"No thanks," she said, looking at him as if he were an ant that was trying to crawl on her cucumber salad. "I think the sooner I get off this campus, the lesser the chance my head's going to explode." She picked up her pace and left Owen far behind.
Unable to locate a Ziploc bag because he pretty much forgot all about it, Owen killed nine hours by making a casual stab at teaching, and after a Swanson's pot pie dinner at home he drove back to campus and stole into room 119 of the Hemmelgap building to conduct some business safely out of eyeshot of the powers that were.
The class was called Painting For You, Painting For Me, and it was taught by a chain-smoking beanpole named Hugh Coopsteen, who possessed what most art historians would most likely agree was the filthiest smock on earth. The students in his class were almost entirely adults, having been sucked into the affair by several leaflets placed strategically at the Dick's Notch Wash-N-Fold-N-Pay-N-Go. Ten weeks, ten sessions, ninety dollars, no credit given.
"Okay everyone, I trust you're all prepared to be graded on your projects," Coopsteen told the eleven hopeful faces before him. "I've noticed some real improvement in a lot of you over the past few weeks, and of course, since we are only a few days from the end of the course, those of you who still haven't bought your textbook or art materials, and haven't even officially signed up for the class or checked for your seating assignment, please, please remind yourselves to do it. Now if you remember, Friday's homework was to paint the place you were the happiest. Okay, who's first?"
He walked over to the middle-aged student closest to him, who sat before his easel with an expression of almost Zeus-like pride.
"Very good, Reggie," Coopsteen said, peering at the chaotic wave of blues and greens that lay before him. "Yes, everyone's had happy times at the ocean."
He moved on, puffing away at a Newport, squinting and turning his head sideways to get a more complete look at the next project.
"Interesting, Lydia," he noted, "although that's far more frontal male nudity than I thought we had discussed." Lydia, a fifty-two year old mother of nine with orange and purple highlights in her hair, took it under advisement.
The professor was deeply puzzled by the third canvas he viewed. "Ah, Gerald," he said, "why does the place you were the happiest have a gas chamber?"
Gerald, an electrician who was taking an art class only because he had checked the wrong box on the application form, frowned. "It's the circus," he explained. "That's the big top."
Coopsteen nodded and laid a gentle hand on Gerald's shoulder. "See me after class," he advised.
He then moved on to Owen's work, which Owen had labored over for two consecutive nights, even through his usual daily viewing of the Channel 7 Evening Komedy Kraze. Coopsteen gave it a once over while Owen sat there expectantly, feeling his mouth go completely dry.
"Why, Owen," Coopsteen said, rather shocked, "that's a truly impressive piece of work! What is that?"
Owen let out a relieved sigh. "That's a creek in Sewickley, Pennsylvania," Owen said. "It's where my grandfather always took me when he visited; he taught me how to paint watercolors there. We would sit in the field, him with his big canvas and me with my little one. He said that's what he wanted me to be, a painter."
Coopsteen clapped his hands once and beamed at Owen as if he were a particularly well-made pancake breakfast. "Well, the color and technique are ravishing, absolutely ravishing!" he exclaimed. "Terrific job!" And with that, he leaned over and printed a massive A+ in permanent black marker right in the corner of Owen's finely detailed cloudy sky and moved on. Owen winced and advised himself to spend some of the time he usually lost watching Thursday's back-to-back episodes of Will and Grace on fixing the mess. Then he did a mental endzone dance and a strange little interior hip-shake in acknowledgement of his own mind-blowing talent, which he realized now was surely as immense as the universe itself, more or less.
His mind would have indeed been utterly blown had he known what was going on just two buildings over, and exactly who of his acquaintance was inside that building and breathing its lightly asbestos-tinged air. On the dimly lit stage of the college's tiny theater, which was named after the former Dick's Notch student who had gone on to fully-paid glory as understudy to the understudy to John Lithgow during his run in M. Butterfly, a man of forty-three years was staring off into some intensely concentrated zone of space of his own creation, reciting (and truly embodying) a fragment of classic text while his entire body shook, spasmed, and vibrated with flawlessly controlled rage and lust.
"Wendy.... darling.... light of my life ....you didn't let me finish my sentence," he hissed as his students watched him from the front row with obsequious awe. "I said, I'm not going to hurt you.... I'm not going to hurt you.... I'm just going to bash your brains in!"
Fully winded, the Actor finally re-awoke from his intimidating reverie, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief he never let out of either his sight or anyone else's.
"Again, I apologize for beginning almost every one of our sessions with those haunting words, people," he said, turning to the class, "but I can't demonstrate too often how a professional actor like Mr. Jack Nicholson, whose stand-in I have dined with several times at my summer home in Wheat Bend, can imbue a scene with such flavor when the emotional commitment to a role is at its peak." He stepped off the stage and took a seat in the front row. "Now, it's time to continue the partner scenes."
April Mahone was just three seats down from him, looking like a woman about to be sent to death row and whose first stop was scheduled to be a hot lava pool filled with hungry crocodiles who had just been lied to. It was this expression of radiant fear that Owen would have been most amazed to see.
"I think we left off with April and Caesar," the Actor remembered, checking his clipboard, "who will be performing the dental torture scene from Marathon Man. All right, then....you're on!"
April exchanged a silent glance with her partner, whose weight (330) and height (6'10") suggested he had once played every single one of the NFL linebacker and NBA power forward positions available to him by law. Like April, he felt a terror so deep and raw that his feet had long since stopped communicating with his brain, and he had to force himself to rise, moving forward only because that's what his mother would want him to do.
They managed to get to the stage and assume their blocking positions: Caesar squishing himself into a chair and opening his mouth wide awaiting mock physical agony, while April lifted a pencil representing an electric drill over his frightened head, Lawrence Olivier-style. She was firmly convinced she would not be able to utter even her first line and was desperately trying to think of a backup plan when a security guard walked lazily in from the back of the theater, to the very viewable irritation of the Actor.
"Sorry, people," the guard said tiredly, "there's another gas leak. Everyone's got to evacuate the building."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" the Actor cried. "Xenon or radon?"
"This one smells new, actually," the guard mused. "Could be glucogen."
The Actor set his clipboard down and threw up his hands. "All right. Well, April, it appears you and Caesar have been pre-empted a second time. I'm sorry, it looks like you'll both have to concentrate all your energies on the final monologues on Thursday, which I'm afraid will have to represent one hundred percent of your final grade."
Caesar nearly fainted with relief and oozed out of the chair, leaving a gallon of sweat behind. April dropped her pencil to the stage and closed her eyes as the other adult students made their way out of the auditorium.
"Stop being a baby, stop being a baby," she said aloud again and again as she walked across the quad toward her car. She squeezed her eyes shut tight, swearing that from now on she would refuse, just plain refuse, to go weak at the knees like some teenager approaching a cute boy at a roller rink every time she stood up in front of people who were not her relatives.
"This is getting ridiculous," she said to the pavement beneath her feet. "Are you a Mahone or aren't you?"
The last thing she needed just then was to hear Owen's voice calling to her from behind. She turned to see him jog up to her, out of breath, a backpack slung over one shoulder. The T-shirt gracing his torso tastefully featured an image of Abraham Lincoln shaking hands with Nosferatu.
"Hey, did I see you going into a classroom an hour ago?" he asked her as they began to walk along together.
"I was just visiting somebody," she told him. She took a sharp left and Owen nearly fell over his own feet in his attempt to duplicate it. Her Toyota was just fifty yards up ahead, sitting lonely under a single streetlamp. "Is the manuscript in that backpack, I hope?"
"Safe and sound," Owen said. "I'm doing you the honor of giving it directly to you instead of handing it off in the meantime to Professor Thinwiddy. I'll just tell Smiley I couldn't find the Toliet campus. It's not on any map anyway. That might explain the low enrollments every semester."
"Thanks, I appreciate it," she said. They spent an awkward moment of silence together, and then she said to him, "So you read The Utne Reader piece. I don't think you're being completely honest about your feelings toward literature."
Owen shrugged and his face reddened just a tad. "Oh, I thought your thing on the sonnets was a movie review, I read it by accident."
"All right, fair enough," she said. "Let me ask you this: What's your favorite book?"
Owen gazed at the semi-brilliant stars floating over Dick's Notch. "Helter Skelter," he said.
She leveled an accusatory finger at him. "Come on," she said, "be serious."
They stopped beside her car. Owen examined his sneakers as she eyed him with the detached interest of a biologist examining a germ.
"My favorite book is Jude the Obscure," Owen admitted. "And before you ask, no, I didn't always want to be a grammar teacher."
"What did you want to be?"
Owen, having stuck one toe in the water and finding it just barely warm enough to enter, told her the truth. "I think I wanted to be a painter. For a long, long time."
April nodded. She unlocked her door, put her purse on the front seat, and then looked off at the dark lacrosse field beside the parking lot, lost in a strange mood that Owen could not decipher.
"I wanted to be an actress," she told him. "I wanted to be Gerta in This Way of Parting, and Princess Helenna in The Beach Dancer, and all the other Dari Stanislad plays."
"What stopped you?"
The water seemed not quite so acceptable to April, as Owen could easily tell, and he did not expect an answer, and was most happy when she gave him one. "Terrible stage fright," she said. "But one day, I have to do it. Even if it's in some Dick's Notch Widows' Club production of Winter In Reykjavik. I have to say those words as if I mean them."
"I once was an usher in college when they did that one. A prop lamppost fell over in the middle of a scene and knocked the actor's glass eye out."
April's face became a bright neon sign of exasperation and she inserted herself on the driver's seat of the Toyota. "I guess there must be some people who think you're funny. They're probably located out west somewhere, or maybe in the Benelux countries."
"Nobody thinks I'm funny," Owen agreed. "Which is why I teach at a community college here, instead of a town with stoplights."
"Do you still have dreams?" she asked him. "Of becoming a painter, I mean."
He drummed his fingers on the roof of her car. Seconds passed with him unable to answer. He would have gladly crawled underneath the Toyota's lousy paint job and hidden from April forever if he could.
"Boy, I wish you hadn't asked me that question," he said finally. "I haven't had a good answer for it in five years. Here's the manuscript." He handed her his entire backpack. "You might want to keep it in here to protect it from dust, grime, and influenza."
"I'll read this and call Smiley in the morning," she said, setting the pack beside her.
"Call me, too, I want to hear what you think. Maybe I am wrong."
"Okay," she said, and out of respect for his decision to give The Cobbleswoddler's Tale to her so soon, offered him a little meaningless wave with her right hand. "Goodnight."
"'Night." Owen shut her door and walked off toward his own dented and consistently aromatic vehicle. Based on its recent wheezings, he guessed the Vegas odds line on its safe passage into full ignition on this night was disturbingly not in his favor.
As it turned out, April's biggest mistake that evening was not her assumption that she would be able to get up in front of her acting class and deliver her scene without too much worry, but rather her trust that Owen would be able to master the complex art of giving one simple object to another human being for safekeeping. She was a mile down the road when she responded to an elemental glimmer of distrust for him and took a peek inside his backpack.
Its contents were as follows: One (1) coffee-stained magazine he'd immorally removed from the Jiffy Lube waiting room in December of 1999, and one (1) half-eaten pack of Chuckles candy, purchased that very same day. The green one, the yellow one, and the purple one were still remaining.
"Owen, you idiot!" she shouted to no one.
2.6 miles away, Owen was cruising blissfully down Cashew Street when he suddenly slapped his head in agony. "Owen, you idiot!" he shouted to no one. "You gave her your work backpack by mistake. You put the damn manuscript in your leisure backpack!" He then addressed the back seat. "Oh well, we'll call April and get you to her first thing in the morning, little guy."
What he might have been speaking to was anybody's guess. It certainly wasn't his "leisure" backpack, which he believed to be resting comfortably back there but was instead actually a full 17.7 inches away, perched precariously on the roof of the Datsun, left there hours before when he set it down "just for two seconds" to tie his shoe. The centrifugal force of his very first right turn upon leaving the campus had shoved it very close indeed to a nasty falling death onto Egg Avenue, and only a wide left slid it back to safety. Now, with every bump in the road and careless jerking of the steering wheel, it threatened to leap without earthly regret into the beyond.
So it was not such a good idea for Owen to consider swinging by the Glittering Masterpiece Drive-Thru Car Wash on Pasta Avenue on his way home. Stopped at a light beside the venerable establishment, Owen searched through his change tray for enough currency to give his auto the Economy Once-Over he relied on to get the car back into presentable shape every fifty years or so.
"Aaargh, just a quarter short!" he said angrily, his dreams dashed. "I knew I shouldn't have bought asthma medicine!" The manuscript was thus spared a hearty soaking.
And perhaps it was not the best of notions for Owen to get the Datsun up to thirty miles per hour and zoom straight at his favorite low-hanging branch on Bagel Road, the one which just barely, just barely, skimmed above the roof of his car every time he roared beneath it, tickled as Indiana Jones evading a villainous death trap.
"She seems to be hanging even a little lower than usual tonight," he noted as he leaned on the accelerator. "Must be the recent rains!" He guessed his roof would clear his arch-nemesis by maybe two millimeters this time and he almost went dizzy with delight at the prospect of this once-in-a-lifetime chance at real adventure, the kind you could only read about in books.
The car and the backpack containing the defenseless only existing copy of Dari Stanislad's still-priceless play was within bare seconds of certain annihilation when Owen slammed on the brakes.
"You know what," he said, "I really need to pick up some hair gel." He threw the car into reverse and headed for Walgreen's. The backpack was fortunately saved from being hurled off the roof at the moment of drastic braking by getting caught on a truly disgusting accumulation of dried apple sauce four years in age, the result of an Easter prank on Nevin Smiley gone horribly awry, and which Owen had vowed never to speak of again. The blotch, or more accurately, the pond of sauce, rising a full half inch in height even after all this time, anchored the bag safely as Owen went on his way. He exited the car at the pharmacy and re-entered it there still without noticing the bag. There would be no Nobel Prizes for either Basic Observational Skills or Achievement in Elemental Adult Accountability in his future.
At least he realized as soon as he got inside what he had done.
"Owen, you idiot!" he said, sparing himself a head slap this time. The problem now was, he thought he had left the backpack and enclosed play back at Valid Cinemas after the previous evening's 7:15 screen four revival of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. He was just about to pointlessly scoot back there in vivid desperation when the phone rang. He crossed his leak-laden apartment and picked up the cordless, already preparing for April a nutritious meal combo of frantic lies and inane excuses.
"Hello?" he said meekly.
"Mr. Trittle, this is Gaston Green from the Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company."
"Ohhh, hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii," he said, drawing out the simple syllables in an attempt to buy some time. "Ah....hey, if you still want a copy of the play, there's been a slight snag....I had one all made up for you, but I had some bad Thai food and I threw up all over it. Every page, actually....don't try the fried peaches at Wo's...."
"There's no need for your fabrications, Trittle," Green said tersely. "We have the play."
"You took it? How?!"
"We had you followed and took it off the roof of your car while you were buying hair gel and baseball cards," Green told him. "I was right about you; you can't be trusted. Also, we know you lied on your resume¢ to get hired at the college; you were never personal assistant to Paul McCartney. We called him and checked."
"Listen," Owen said, pacing madly, "if anything happens to that play, I'll have to be personal assistant to Pete Best's pool boy!"
"It's being copied right now," Green assured him. "Because I believe in the sanctity of a deal, you can pick it up at tomorrow's secret rehearsal. Now listen very, very carefully. The password to get into the rehearsal is¾ "
"Oops, can you hold on, I got another call," Owen interrupted him, and switched over without waiting for a response. As he had feared, April was on the other line. She did not open up the conversation by asking him his opinion of daffodils and ladybugs, as he had hoped.
"Owen, you seem to have mistaken a landmark discovery in the timeline of western literature for a copy of Games magazine!" she snapped. "And you did the Acrostics all wrong."
"Um....yeah," Owen ventured. "The thing is, the play got a slight bit purloined."
"Don't worry, we can pick it up tomorrow morning, I know who has it."
"Owen, that manuscript is worth thousands and thousands of dollars!"
"Not a problem, not a problem!" he countered. "I have the situation completely in hand. It's totally safe and protected till then. More of a mix-up than a theft, really. Not even a mix-up; let's call it a faux pas. I'll pick you up at 8:30. Where do you live?"
"Unbelievable," she groaned into the phone. "Do you know Moistbrook Towers, on Green Bean Street?"
Owen stopped pacing. "Really? What's the apartment number?"
Owen stepped over to his front door, passing the slow-witted dachshund he had bought six years ago and which hadn't moved from its comfort spot since, and opened it. He walked down the hallway, cordless still pressed to his ear, looking left and right at the numbers stenciled haphazardly on the doors. He stopped at an apartment six doors down from his own and rapped loudly.
April opened it, dressed in baggy sweats, her hair in a lazy ponytail.
"I'll be there," Owen said cheerfully into the phone. April rolled her eyes in an increasingly endearing fashion and closed the door in his face without inviting him in for either backgammon or apricot tea.
Owen was halfway back to his own apartment when he remembered Gaston Green was still hanging on the other line. He clicked over to nothing but silence.
"Oops," said Owen. "My fault entirely." He then retired for the evening, and to give just a little credit to his much-maligned intelligence, not once during the night did he fall off the bed or accidentally swallow his alarm clock.
Most of the way across the planet, in the most shadowy reaches of the dark continent of Africa, two men were pushing their way clumsily through some dense jungle foliage that bordered a vast pristine lake which had been witnessed by human eyes only nine times in the past ten years. The man in front was dressed most suitably for the task, and whacked capably with a machete at the leaves and vines which threatened to strangle him at every turn. The man behind him, who had taking to using the name "Davy" because he'd gotten sort of fond of it working back at the college, was wearing the clothes he had arrived at the airport in, and he was not so adept at handling himself in the wild. When he wasn't frantically trying to retain a glimpse of his guide's back through the trees, he was quite busy spitting out oddly-colored bugs that flew into his mouth and keeping watch for snakes or anything that could even remotely be confused for one.
Dari's guide, a gruff but pleasant gentleman by the name of Hawk, stopped him near the end of their trek and secured both hands around the rather terrifying shotgun he had been carrying for the last eight miles.
"This is it, buddy," Hawk told him. "This is where we get serious."
Dari wiped the sweat from his eyes and realized now that yesterday when he had thought nothing could be worse than the lousy time he was having in China, he'd been a moron. This was approximately forty times worse.
"Ah, I've really gotten what I came to Africa for," he said to Hawk hopefully, brushing a bee out of his beard. "Do you think you could take me back to the airport now?"
Hawk was peering into the clearing ahead through a pair of expensive binoculars. "My God, man," he panted, "you know I can't possibly let you leave this glorious land without first tasting the almost erotic triumph of killing a lion."
Dari pointed uneasily into the distance. "Are we going to kill that one?" he asked as their prey lapped cozily from the expanse of flawless blue water eighty yards away.
"It won't be easy," Hawk said. "I'm going to need you to charge him so I can get an angle. Hold out your hand, I want to draw some blood to make sure he stays interested."
"Ah, yes, no thank you," Dari said, and looked back over his shoulder at the spooky clutter of trees they had emerged from. "Um....didn't we come out here with one more person?"
Hawk looked back too, not seeming very concerned. "You're right," he agreed. "Sand pit probably got Dikwiki. Don't worry, he can climb out as long as he doesn't get too wiggly." He peered through the binoculars once more.
"Dammit!" he exclaimed. "He's gone." He looked at the barrel of his gun with real regret, feeling the kind of let-down known only to those who really, really want to kill one of God's unsuspecting creatures but then get cheated out of it. "Oh, well. Come on, there's a Hard Rock Cafe through those trees to the east; I could use a club sandwich."
He moved forward again and Dari reluctantly followed. In an effort to mentally remove himself from Africa and the soaking wet socks in which he currently suffered, he found himself thinking of the past again, knowing that every time he did so it led only to more confusion and disorientation, but any thought of the past was preferable to a present in which no less than three generations of anacondas were considering him as a light afternoon snack.
His best friend Jof waited two full days for him to return from his damnable wanderings along the North Atlantic Ocean, and then he decided to intervene in the chaos Dari had allowed his life to become. He left his squalid (but airy, oh so airy) room in the center of town and walked a half mile to the east, stopping not even for a boysenberry hot tea at his favorite cafe, knowing full well that boysenberry was only a Tuesday thing and he would be missing his only chance at it. He moved with purpose through the town square past peddlers, children, horses. He nodded hello to Olaf the Ineffective Mugger and a woman known only as The Laundry Slut, and tried not to be distracted by the maddening aroma of freshly baked bread rising from inside The Ambitious Loaf.
The eastern part of town was home to mostly workers and the poor, but some of the homes on its five cobblestone streets were quite nice in a ramshackle way, squashed though they were against one another like strangers on....well, not a subway, because those hadn't been invented yet. Consulting his memory every thirty feet or so, Jof found his way to a tiny whitewashed affair with serene tufts of smoke rising from a chimney that seemed to be trying to separate itself entirely from the dwelling's foundation. He rapped firmly on the front door and waited.
He had come to hate the face that answered his call, and in turn he hated himself for it, but the tide of pique he felt when Natalya Fisk and her ridiculously soft blonde hair saw him standing there was uncontrollable. She stopped herself from opening the door all the way when she realized it was Jof.
"You're back," she said cautiously.
He nodded testily. "I promise I won't return if you give me five minutes of your time." He paused, then made a concerted effort to appear more friendly. "Please, miss."
She stepped back after a moment and let him in. She crossed the room to the fireplace, saw that she could do nothing for the fire and would need something else to keep her busy. But there was nothing here. She stood in front of the hearth and simply waited.
"I've come from Dari, naturally," Jof said from the other side of the room, holding his cap in both hands.
Natalya nodded. "Naturally."
"He's written an entire play for you this time," Jof told her. "I took a glance, though I wasn't supposed to. It's got more cross-outs than actual words, I think, a bit of a mess. But the dedication is fairly clear. First page and all that."
She had no response to this. She thought that by standing perfectly still, she would be sending a sign to Jof that it was up to him and him alone to speak; that she was as immovable as stone and did not have even the strength to whisper in protest.
"I've come really to ask a favor," he said. "I hate asking favors as a rule, but I don't seem to be left with much choice anymore. I wonder if you wouldn't mind releasing my friend utterly from whatever drama you're both ensnared in."
Natalya decided she had to cross the room, keeping a good distance away from him, to where some flowers lay on the dining table. She felt incredibly fortunate that this would give her hands something to do, placing the newly cut flowers into the cheap ceramic vase beside them.
"If love were as easy as the cubing of trout, I wouldn't be wandering this house alone today," she said.
Jof cleared his throat. He had made a promise to himself to avoid all situations such as these, throughout his whole lifetime, and the fact that he had now voluntarily set foot in one made his very voice come out harsh and alien to him.
"I've never been disposed toward very long relationships myself," he said. "I suppose it might be due in part to the....well, the growing fatigue I feel at watching so many good friends become unrecognizable to me in their pursuit of something I suspect might have less to do with true love than a sort of desperate, misguided longing for self-worth."
Natalya clenched her flowers in one powerless fist, and hung her head. In her clumsily made but clean white dress, she looked to Jof like a girl ready to pass out from consumption, except that no disease could possibly have left her this beautiful.
"I'm damned tired, miss," he went on, deciding that to stop himself would mean total failure, "of dashing around this town like a grocer's boy collecting the ransom on entire lives held hostage. It's not a friend's job to understand what Dari finds so alluring about a failed poetess who won't offer him the simple courtesy of cutting him off for good¾ "
She looked up sharply, pained at this redundant dagger. Her face stopped Jof there, but only for a moment.
"....but it must be something extraordinary to keep me coming back here," he finished. "And I'm willing to trust him that."
And he saw then that he truly had gone too far, had neatly robbed her of the ability to reply. So he had failed in a different way than he thought he would. The condemnation had come out with disturbing ease; there was no worry there. It had just been too great, and every second that Jof continued to stand there was another second he felt vaguely sick. He turned to the door to leave, cursing himself silently for thinking this had been a good idea. Never again: that would be his motto from now on in regards to Dari and his longings. No good could come of this.
"Perhaps I can spare you a journey or two by simply admitting I've been wrong," Natalya said suddenly when he had already felt cool air touch him from outside upon turning the doorknob and replacing his cap on his head.
His relief was like a brief rain shower from nowhere. She had taken a few steps toward him. She was standing as straight as she could.
Jof respectfully removed his cap once more. "Perhaps if there were more people with the courage to do that, I could afford to walk much slower," he said gently.
"Send him over today, Jof," she said. "This afternoon would be all right, or....night, also. Night would be fine."
He could not go quite so far as to smile, but at least there was a great deal less bitterness in him when he pushed the door open a little wider.
"Know something else, if you wish your....collections to go easier," Natalya said to him, and in the brief flash of time it took for him to hear her words, she lost every ounce of what modicum of strength she had summoned in the past minute, and her color disappeared, and she became somehow both ten years younger than twenty-seven and many, many years older.
There is nothing as unwelcome to the suffering, she said, as an accurate interpretation of their heart.
She returned to her flowers then. I'll remember, Natalya, Jof told her, and he walked back home without saying a word to anyone, hearing her final goodbye several times in his mind, wondering how it was that people who wrote well could use words in such a way that they were artful and injurious at the exact same time. Some of those people could insert pain so neatly between syllables that you didn't realize it was even there until a sentence was over. Dari had tried never to do that, Jof thought, but things had changed when he sat down to write her that play, and Jof found himself again wishing it would somehow simply disappear, be swallowed by the sea. Natalya often wished the same for every ignored poem she had ever written. Back in the little house she shared with her mother and sister, she thought she felt a new one entering her bloodstream, and decided she would not let it in, not at all.
If only Dari had known that by sending for him that day, she did not mean to make it seem that they would be together from then on. It would only have been the first of many conversations and silences, but Dari did not take Jof's news that way. Instead he bounded right past him, burst out into the street, and tore across the town square like a man in desperate need of cashing a lottery ticket before it suddenly expired. His forward momentum caused him to bump into a dozen or so irritated townsfolk and to violently sideswipe an apple cart. He damaged three of the juicy little things and threw some coins at the vendor as he ran. His measure of joy was indeed rather embarrassing to watch, especially when he leapt up and snagged a foul ball that some local kid had hit during their ragtag Base-the-Ball experiments. Dari really shouldn't have been so rude as to cross right in front of their makeshift diamond to begin with, but his amazing catch, displaying his previously unheard-of (and pretty much non-existent) athletic skill, allowed the boys to forgive.
"Terrific play, sir!" one of the boys exclaimed, but then he saw that Dari had no current intention of returning the ball, being far too engaged at the moment in expressing the apex of his romantic happiness by prancing in a bizarre circular pattern with no apparent terminus.
"Um, sir?" the boy asked shyly, "is there a chance we could have that back now?"
The terminus did finally come, and the terminus was a horse, and the moment of contact was funny at first to the boys, then not so funny at all, and Natalya was spared for all time the agony of having to impart to Dari only another Maybe, another We'll See, one more Perhaps We Can Try Again, In Time. That pain was replaced by one so secret it would not leave her until her own death, still single at age fifty-seven, of the most gentle natural causes possible. At the moment of her passing, her elderly mother noticed how Natalya's right hand closed feebly in a fist, but could not have known this odd reflex was her mind's tender attempt to return to the day she'd been so humbled by Jof, and had morosely squeezed the stems of real flowers in her hands when he'd told her what love was really about. Natalya had managed to move past the memory of Dari as she grew old, but her right hand remembered from time to time. That was the way of memory.