In the drawer of an old cherry table were two pistols. One was a vintage Colt .38 police special that sat on top of an oily rag that partially wrapped around it. It was a revolver and in the right light the sheen was rainbow-like. The grips were standard and the workings had been kept in fine operating condition, that being while it was clean and oiled it hadn’t been fired in years. The other was a Star 9MM semiautomatic with a custom set of black rubber combat grips installed, the original grips had been lost. Both pistols were loaded and a few rounds rolled about in the drawer when pulled open. It wasn’t immediately plain distinguishing the 9MM from the .38 in terms of bullet width, but the shells were clearly different the 9MM being significantly shorter. Both pistols were old and rarely got out of the darkness of the drawer.
The semi-auto had a bad trick it played on its large-handed owners, that being when fired the sliding mechanism would usually cut right across the web of the thumb midway between thumb and forefinger causing some exceptional bleeding. The wound would take forever to heal as it was a part of the hand hard not to stretch.
The Colt had no issues at all except that it was a revolver and as such lacked a certain modern panache that the semi-auto had despite them both being nearly equally old designs. You couldn’t play Russian roulette with the semi-auto, of course, but then you couldn’t load the revolver as smoothly as you could the semi-auto.
The pistols were items the man had inherited from his father’s passing. His brother had managed to get almost everything that had any value and took all the old man’s firearms. The collection had been extensive and the man’s brother had sold it all to firearms aficionados. But the man knew the cherry table contained two pistols and his brother had not remembered that. His brother and more especially his shrewd wife had foolishly let the antique piece of furniture wind up with the man. Sometimes the man felt that the cherry table and those two pistols housed within were the only things he really had. The Colt and the Star were his most prized possessions.
The man lived for many years. He did almost nothing for the larger part of these years, and eventually even hated leaving his home. He stopped cutting his grass, and he rarely checked his mail. His hair grew long and diaphanous. He would frequently page through the same magazines and catalogs that sat next to his chair by the radio not realizing that he’d read them over and over and that they were outrageously out of date. His brother’s kids didn’t know him, wrapped up as they were with their own families. The man had been almost forgotten. In days gone by a mailman or a beat cop might have noticed the unkempt nature of the property, might have realized that a neighbor was struggling, but for whatever reasons—the dead end road, the understaffed post office, the police being busy in younger neighborhoods—it just hadn’t happened yet. People minded their own business in this part of the world. A telephone service guy once told him that the phone system he was tied into was ancient and had never been updated, the telephone company didn’t even understand how it was still working. He never got billed for it, which was great because he never answered the very rare phone calls anyway.
A mockingbird sparred against its own reflection in the dining room window making the man chuckle. Suddenly it all seemed to him alien. The realization was like one of those endless bathroom dreams in which decrepit and useless restrooms are all one can find until suddenly one awakes needing desperately to empty the bladder. The man dropped his catalog on the table where he often ate his Swanson meatloaf or turkey TV dinners. Several aluminum trays slipped to the floor as he did so. It was all wrong, somehow this had all crept up on him. He hadn’t meant to end up in this end-of-the-line station. He stood, noticed that his vision was blurred, and felt awfully dizzy. He lay back on the sofa again and closed his eyes. . . .
He awoke after a time feeling very stiff. He blinked several times testing his eyes. What time was it? Hell, what year was it? he wondered. When he took his retirement he had not expected to linger for so many years. He rose from the small and faded sofa and made his way, somewhat hunched, to his door. He threw it open and accepted the last rays of the setting sun across the small field of his front yard. Across the street an elderly woman gawked. The houses in this neighborhood were well spaced, and really only the house directly across the dirt road could view his house. The man brushed his long hair from his face and tried to smile at her. She was a short stocky thing.
“I’m alive!” he tried to call out, and waved, but all that happened was a strange little gurgle with a high pitched squeal like the sound of a balloon releasing air. He cleared his throat and with an even bigger smile cried out, “I’m alive!” He squinted at the setting sun through the trees.
“Can I get you something?” the woman called back with some alarm, the man seemed to her to be drowning.
“No! No thank you!” he said squeakily and he began laughing, first a little, and then convulsively. Oh my god, this was such fun, he thought. That old woman was a child when I moved in, he thought with some wonder, I remember her on her tricycle. A dog started barking.
The old woman wandered toward him a few steps keeping one hand on the small white garden fence that enclosed half the yard. “Do you need anything, are you OK?” she squawked at him again. The laughter looking to her like convulsions of pain or epilepsy. He looked something like a poor cat that had hit the fan blade of her Volvo, having slept on the warm engine block one early morn.
“I’m fine!” the man squealed and laughed hysterically.
“I’ll call . . . ” she yelled back, but he didn’t hear who.
“No! No! Don’t call anyone!” but it was no use his voice was strangled and difficult to understand.
She’d tottered back into her home and he was certain she was making a call to some authority or other. Oh it’s no use, its entirely ridiculous. He grabbed up an armload of the mail piled around his box and suddenly worried about his pistols. They were right out in the open on the little coffee table where they would be seen, some authority or health professional would perhaps grab them, take them away. Stupid! he berated himself and shuffled back into the house. He could hear a siren in the distance. He dropped the armload of mail and made his way to the old cherry table—a family heirloom—and stuffed the pistols into their hiding spot, slightly covered with an old oily rag, the ammunition rolling about, making a pleasing rumble as he slammed the drawer shut.
The sirens got louder and soon enough he heard feet on the small porch and there was a pounding on his door. He wanted to hide. What had he done? He didn’t imagine all this fuss.
“Sir! Can you come to the door?” he heard a youthful voice full of the strength of a powerful diaphragm.
“Go away!” the man shouted, but it came out like a guinea pig whistle.
Then his door was wide open and people poured in. There were deputies and suited men with serious faces. There were several women with big shoulders and bell-like figures. “What are you doing?”
“Sir! We need to see if you’re all right, your neighbor expressed a . . . Mrs. Kershaw is her name?” He consulted a pad of paper. “She expressed concern that you were ill.”
“I’m fine!” he tried to yell in a manner bespeaking ironic amusement, but what came out was something along the lines of the first bar of “Strangers In the Night”. He pounded his chest a bit and tried to clear his throat. “I’ve not been speaking much.”
“Please lie on this gurney, sir!” the woman shaped like The Liberty Bell was having none of his reluctance.
“Sir,” said a young man loudly into his face, “do you realize your blood pressure is . . .” No, he’d not even noticed the young man inflating the cuff on his arm.
“Sir,” said another woman with the largest arms he’d ever seen on a woman, “we need to get you to the E.R.”
“No!” he tried to cry, but no one seemed particularly interested in his voice or wishes.
“Who are your next of kin?” a kindly faced man asked him, loudly shouting into his face.
“I don’t know, I don’t know if there are any . . .” he started to say something more but then he was outside in the dim evening, the temperature had gone down some, there was still a lot of mail around his mailbox, and he was being loaded vigorously into an ambulance. Bodies bustled around him. “It’s alright, you don’t need to make such a fuss.” He tried to say but they’d strapped an oxygen mask on him and all he could do was shake his head.
At the hospital the man was told he’d have to be there a while. He groaned with displeasure. He was pinched, prodded, blood drawn, given shots, and blood drawn again. Several doctors came to see him, then several more, all of them seemed utterly confused, or amazed. Each time he started to relax, or even sleep someone arrived to prick him again. He fell sleep briefly and started dreaming of his old job at the Narraganset brewery, where at lunch they were allowed to drink as much beer as they liked. In hindsight this probably wasn’t a good working policy, but the man sure did miss all that free beer. His friend had been Warren Munson and he could remember having had a grand time with old Warren riding the old car out to Westerly to shoot grouse and meet some ladies Munson arranged to meet them at the Pumpkin Patch (actually a dive bar located in farm country off 138). Generally one had to replace or patch a tire three or four times on such a trip in Warren’s old Austin Seven. But in those days no one thought that unusual. Then he realized he wasn’t sleeping anymore he was simply reminiscing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d thought of old Warren, the girls at the Pumpkin Patch, or that boxy Austin Seven—the rolling saloon.
He looked around for the clock. It was still early morning. He hadn’t asked for this treatment. When the nurse came in to do his blood pressure reading he had lost track of time, and now saw that there was some light outside his window, day was just breaking. She pleaded with him to have some food, but he couldn’t recall having rejected any food. He looked about and didn’t see any food. He nodded vigorously, sure, sure, I’ll have some food. And suddenly he saw himself in the a reflection off the side of a rolling nurses’ station. He could hardly believe what he saw, and shook his head in wonder. He’d become Asian somehow, something like Charlie Chan, with a long beard and wispy mustache. His face was so crinkled he could barely make out the slits of his eyes. He realized that at some point his mirror had begun lying to him. He didn’t know this gray man.
“I need to . . . ,” he said but didn’t finish. He was filled with anxiety and could not identify why. He was sure there was something important he’d entirely forgotten.
“I’m sorry, sir?” Toni smiled a gentle smile as she approached the bedside from the computer.
“I’m alone,” the man said softly. Was that it?
“No one for you to contact?” Toni asked him quietly.
The man shook his head.
“You need to order your breakfast, Mr. Wagner.”
Mr. Wagner? When had he last heard that? But it’s correct, I am Mr. Wagner, he thought. “Do you have pancakes?”
“They do, and there’s a menu. Here I’ll show you.” Toni moved her big hips around the end of the bed and scooped up the laminated menu and passed it to the man.
But it didn’t work. Something was wrong. The menu was in Hindi or something. “Do you have one in English?” he huffed.
Toni leaned over him, he smelled Jasmine on her like baby powder. “That is English, Mr. Wagner, do you have your glasses.”
That must be it, he thought, I don’t have my glasses. Images of people wearing glasses rolled through his mind. He could not remember if he wore glasses.
Toni helped him order breakfast and shuffled back out with the nurses’ station.
Later on he was enjoying some hospital pancakes while watching the hospital television. He landed on some entertainment news program that was doing a story about a Japanese mock cooking show in which chefs were competing by preparing lovely little models as dinners. One of the chefs was sprinkling Panko on the nearly bare bottom of one of the cutest women the man had ever seen in his life. Her doll-like features and huge black eyes completely bewitched him. Another had his model seated in a huge pot, steaming her gently, she grinned at the camera as the fellow added shrimp and vegetables. The third had rolled his beauty in sushi rice, her delicate feet poked out one end, toes wiggling. She smiled so appealingly the man found himself crying with affection for her. The Japanese are strange, the man thought, but the eroticism of the “meals” was not lost on him. Something’s still working right, he considered. The goofball hosts of the program made awful jokes and seemed utterly lacking in any sort of natural human quality. But he enjoyed television, a kind of luxury he’d not allowed himself in his home. Following that he watched a show about a man who had been rebuilt mechanically after he’d suffered a terrible accident flying an experimental plane. His new limbs gave him extraordinary powers and the man envied his prowess, though wondered how his spine managed to deal with the stress, then he wondered about the man’s lovers, were they unharmed?
After another day of this he was being discharged. A lady doctor came and told him some things, but he couldn’t remember them exactly. He was rather stunned and wondered how many lady doctors there were in the hospital. She wanted him to take some drugs but said “we”. She gave him some prescriptions but said that the prescriptions were from “them” not “her”. He nodded along, she was pretty in a delicate authoritarian sort of way, like an attractive young nun he could remember being in love with when he attended La Salle. Finally, was there anyone who could drive him home? There was not. They called him a taxi.
At home he threw the hospital bag onto the sofa and went right to the cherry table and slid open the drawer, there rested his pistols. He took them out together and cradled them in his hands, shuffled over to the sofa and put them on his lap as he sat down. As he lay back he noticed the bag he leaned on, full of reports and prescriptions he was supposed to fill and of course the list of his ailments that he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in, believing as he did that once he recognized these ailments—actually put name to them—then he would have them through some sort of odd trick of acknowledgment. He shoved the bag off the sofa and leaned back with the pistols on his gray chest. There were EKG tape sensors still stuck to him. He barely noticed. Soon enough he was sound asleep.
The intruder! The man felt his heart banging in his temples. He turned to get the pulse in his head off the sofa cushion which seemed to be amplifying it. The huge man in black was in the house. His pistols had fallen off his chest and one was now wedged into the back of the sofa. The Colt however he could feel under his hip. He grabbed it, felt its familiar fit in his hand, pointed it shakily in the darkened room. A huge but quiet intruder was nearby, the man could sense it. But he was also unable to stay awake, after twenty minutes of high alert, and the shadows eventually revealing nothing, he yawned. Soon enough he fell asleep in his sweat.
In the morning the man oiled the pistols and put them in the cherry table drawer. He sat back on the sofa and sorted his mail, most of which was months and some of it even years old. He couldn’t tell what language it was in. He laughed heartily about this. Somewhere along the line people changed the language and didn’t realize that he couldn’t read it. This amused him thoroughly. Maybe the mail got mixed up, and some family nearby was actually from Bombay or something. After all you couldn’t just up and change language without letting people know. He started back through the mail but didn’t find any that was readable, he started to recognize emblems for certain bills and he set them aside to pay. Then he found a lawyer’s letter, he recognized the scrolling artwork of signature and the high quality stationary. He tore it open and examined it, most of it was unreadable but he saw his brother’s name. And then it was clear, his brother had passed away. What an odd thing, a sensationless death. He couldn’t really remember the last time he’d spoken to his brother, and had felt totally flim-flammed by him years ago when their father had passed away. He tried to work out the dates. What day was today? When did this letter come? But he soon lost interest in this confusing pursuit and found himself flipping through a favorite catalog. It was a seed catalog full of colorful pictures of gardens and flowers. He shuffled to the bathroom passing himself in the mirror, but not looking up to study the wispy-haired old Asian man that he’d become. He looked around the toilet for his other favorite catalog which was the Terry McTerry Hatchery, a catalog full of chickens, turkeys, and water fowl. Settling himself on the commode he studied the images of the birds, and selected a variety for his imaginary landscape. He would have pom-poms, and blue Mediterraneans, buff Minorcas, some Brahmas, and Japanese mountain-top Giant chickens which were supposed to be not only huge but very cold tolerant. His selection changed every time he used the toilet, but it was a favorite game. He’d cared for chickens years ago, and missed their hilarious and simple antics as well as the eggs. He thought he remembered being able to read this catalog, and looked around the bathroom for an older one to no avail.
Someone was at the door—a vigorous banging. He tidied himself with a sigh and shuffled from the bathroom and opened the door. It was the woman from across the street and she had a basket in her arms.
“Oh hello,” he squeaked, cleared his throat and repeated it.
“Sorry to bother you Mr. Wagner, but, I wasn’t sure if you were getting around alright after your hospital stay, and I wanted to make sure you were having some food. I’ve some food here, some stew. I made it it’s chicken, and here’s some fruit, and some bread. Will you take this Mr. Wagner? Again, I’m sorry to bother you.”
“No-no!” he chuckled, “no bother, thank you.” He directed her into the home and noticed her nose wrinkle a bit under her huge glasses which aimed around the room taking in the claustrophobic miasma.
She moved rapidly toward the dining room table and placed the items on a cleared edge. The stew was in a heavy glass container taking up most of the basket, “I just couldn’t bear the thought that you were perhaps not getting any . . . help. Have you taken out your trash, Mr. Wagner?”
“Uh, no, I guess I haven’t in . . . a while, but I’m OK,” the man felt himself blushing a bit.
“Are you getting chickens?” she looked at the catalog in his hand.
“Oh, well, you know, someday,” he chuckled again.
“Someday, Mr. Wagner? You know, we can’t wait too long for that day,” she tilted her white head a bit, peering at him through the unusually large glasses a hint of a smile playing the edges of her tight-lipped mouth.
“Oh I suppose that’s true, ha ha ha.” he hadn’t remembered a visit with anyone in years, and he was clumsy with his small talk. He was ashamed that he didn’t know this woman’s name.
“Try this stew, let me help you. I want to see you have a nice lunch,” she smiled and when she did her whole face lit up under huge lenses.
“Well, I could go for a bite, I suppose, ha ha ha.” He wanted to stop laughing after everything he said, but he couldn’t stop.
She shuffled off to the kitchen and spun on her clunky shoes, taking in the mess of mail, and stacks of TV dinner aluminum. “Ah, I see you’ve been treating yourself well,” she shook her head.
For some reason he couldn’t understand what she was doing, didn’t understand why she was in the kitchen. Then she found a bowl, and pulling on drawers, found a spoon. It unnerved him a bit.
“I want you to have some while it’s still warm, Mr. Wagner.” She got close to him and looked carefully at his face.
“Oh, OK, that’s nice, ha ha ha.”
“Sit!” she commanded and he did.
“Are you the little girl I used to watch on her tricycle?” he tried in a very small voice.
She looked up abruptly from her decanting of stew. “I don’t see how that could be, I’m almost seventy-five, and I wasn’t a little girl here. I came from Summerset.”
“I see, ha ha ha!” he shook his head, “you look just like that little girl, I swear ha ha ha!”
She didn’t respond to this instead she simply served him. She broke him a large chunk of bread and buttered it for him with a small spreading knife. Then she sat across from him and watched. He licked his lips and picked up the spoon somewhat shakily and began delivering stew to his mouth, which was a bit of a trick as his mustache acted like a curtain, and his beard kept drifting into the food.
“You need a trim, Mr. Wagner,” she said smartly.
“Oh?,” he sipped some more stew and gnawed on the bread.
“Would it be OK if I gave you a trim?”
“Oh, I suppose,” he chuckled some more unable to stop the nervous habit.
“Do you have scissors?” but she changed her mind, “no, I have a barber kit, I’ll be right back, keep eating.”
She rushed out the door and he heard her clunking off the porch in her heavy shoes. He raised a spoon and tasted the chicken and the potato and the salt. It was a perfect stew, he’d not had the like in . . . a long time.
Then she returned, he heard her clunking back up the steps and she tapped on the door as she opened it, “Here it is, Mr. Wagner. I’ll give you a nice little trim, so you can eat. It’s got to be a hassle—all that facial hair, I mean, I hope you don’t mind, but I think it’d do you some good.”
“Oh, sure,” and he chuckled again between spoonfuls of the stew and his slow progress on the bread. It was all delicious.
“How are your teeth, Mr. Wagner, I know a good dentist,” she leaned forward and he grinned showing a surprisingly decent set of fairly white teeth. “Not bad I think,” he burped softly.
And then she had him sitting on his front porch on a short stool that he kept there. He felt strangely exposed, as she trimmed his amazingly long gray hair. The breeze picked it up and took it drifting into the unkempt lawn where birds and rodents would gather it for nesting.
“Gosh, it’s been a long time since anyone paid you any attention hasn’t it Mr. Wagner? I mean, I didn’t even know anyone was living over here. I haven’t noticed you, I mean, when they towed your car, that was a while back, and I just assumed . . .”
“My car?” the man was puzzled.
“Don’t you remember? It was years ago now, maybe seven—maybe, eight years? It was an antique I think.” she hummed a little as she trimmed, taking hair between two stubby fingers and clipping it smartly.
“Oh yeah,” he said softly, but truthfully was very foggy. He felt like he could see a Karmann Ghia normally resting under his large oak. The woman’s touches easing him into a kind of relaxed state he could not recall experiencing, not in decades at least.
And then the mockingbird flew down and attacked itself in reflection in the front window on the left side of the porch.
“What in the world!” the lady squawked in surprise.
The man chuckled, “There you are, a mistaken identity, how we abuse ourselves!”
The lady recovered herself, “What do you mean?”
“Oh nothing, it’s just a kind of joke I have with that silly mockingbird.”
“What is he doing?”
“He’s protecting his territory!” and the man laughed harder this time, “from himself!”
The mockingbird dove down again, rattling its little talons against his reflection. It only worked at certain hours of the day when the sun turned that window into a fine mirror, an irresistible challenge to the bird.
“Sometimes, you know, it’s difficult for us to recognize our own illusions.” The man suddenly thought about the intruder in his home. Not this sweet lady, but the nightly intruder whom he armed himself against. “There’s a man in my house.”
“What? What man?” the woman with the large glasses became alarmed.
“There’s a man, he’s uh . . .” the man almost said intruder, but stopped himself, “well, he sneaks around in my house. He never takes anything, but I can’t understand what he’s doing there,” the man nodded and looked up at his barber a little uneasily.
“Mr. Wagner, I think you’re telling me stories.” She produced a brush and began to fix his coif. Then she slowed down a bit, and seemed to get a faraway look amplified by her glasses, “Or do you mean, like the bird there? Are you the man in your house, Mr. Wagner?”
“Yes,” he suddenly decided he should simply drop the topic, “I am the man in my house.”
She produced a mirror and held it for him, the old Asian man had disappeared. He now looked just like his father had so long ago. “Dad,” he said to himself. And suddenly felt a tear in his eye.
Eventually Ruth, as she explained her name was, packed up her basket and barber kit and walked rapidly back to her home across the street saying she’d be back later. But by then she’d trimmed the old man’s nails and swabbed his ears with Q-tips. She had patted the man on the head, and left him the rest of the stew and bread. The man kept feeling his face, it felt strange not to have all that hair.
By late afternoon he was on his sofa, resting after struggling with his bills when the doorbell rang and Ruth’s thumping at the door stirred him. Before he could rise, Ruth impatiently opened the door, “Mr. Wagner, is it OK if I come in? I have a dinner for you?”
“Yes,” he heard himself squawk and shoved the pistols he’d been sitting with into the sofa, barrels-first between the cushions while Ruth arranged some items on the table. This time she’d managed to haul across the street a roasted chicken, new potatoes in butter and salt, and a salad of arugula and tomatoes with freshly shredded Parmesan. In a large paper sack she had slung over her strong little arm.
“I hope you like it, it was always a favorite of my Jim, my husband, Mr. Wagner, he’s gone now,” she paused to let him register all this.
“My goodness, ha ha ha.” The man was overwhelmed with the kindness. Ruth’s very disarming matter-of-fact way of speaking and her very square clothing, which gave her the overall appearance of certain ancient Mesoamerican statuary, produced in the man a kind of childlike sensation he couldn’t remember ever feeling, even while helpless at the hospital.
She marched into the kitchen for the second time that day and located dishes and utensils. She briefly popped open his fridge and slammed it rapidly shut with an “oof” sound, “You may need some help cleaning up that fridge, and getting this trash out, I’ll give you a hand.”
“Oh,” he said as she came back out of the kitchen and set the table.
“Mr. Wagner, what were you treated for? At the hospital I mean,” Ruth asked him point blank, staring through her huge glasses.
“Oh, ha ha ha,” the man didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. “You know, I’m not entirely sure.”
“Where is your material from the hospital?”
The man pointed to the sofa, and Ruth made her way there and immediately found the materials and the pistols. “What are those!?” she cried, pointing.
The man got up knocking over his chair and rushed past Ruth who stood pointing in horror. He breathlessly gathered up the weapons and made his way to the cherry table, as if stuffing them back into their drawer would alleviate Ruth’s concern. The drawer shoved back into place, the ammunition rolling about the man gave Ruth a forced smile.
“They were my father’s,” the man spurted.
“I don’t care who they belonged to, why were they here on your sofa?” she pursued aggressively.
“I was cleaning them, you surprised me,” he said in a high-pitched voice.
She lowered her arm to her side and directed her attention to the papers she now held. “Your records say you’ve had a stroke.”
“I feel fine.”
“There are prescriptions here you haven’t filled! I can help you with that.”
“I feel fine. I had a dream,” he added lamely.
“Mr. Wagner let me pick up your prescriptions with you, I’ll take you to the pharmacy.”
“Dear Ruth,” the man began, “I’m not what I appear to be, I’m not a sick man. Watch.” With some startling nimbleness the man dropped to the floor and rolled back and forth, contorting his legs about his head and neck, walking about on his hands, and popping back up like old marine drill sergeant knocking out burpees. It all happened in a flash.
“Be careful! Mr. Wagner!” Ruth shouted, recovering from her surprise.
“Oh I’m fine, I’m fine!” he laughed, and squeaked.
“Mr. Wagner, what did you do in life?” Ruth asked, feeling almost like a child in the presence of a mystic.
“I was a trick diver,” the old man smiled.
“Really? Is that true?” Ruth could hardly believe such a story, her years as a grade school teacher had filled her with a powerful nose for tall tales. “Are you sure you don’t mean truck driver?”
“I was with a small circus, Carroll’s Entertainment Company out of Woonsocket, a mud show we called them then,” the man nodded.
They sat down. The man forked a potato to his plate. Ruth joined him and added most of a chicken breast, leg, more potatoes and some salad to his dish. She also produced tea. Somehow, the man had never tasted such good tea. He himself never prepared it.
“What else did you do?” Ruth chewed vigorously on her salad, wanting to leave the majority of the food for him.
“I was a truck driver too,” he smiled and stuffed another new potato in his mouth.
“I thought you might have been.”
That night he had to get up to pee about three times, after each time it was difficult to fall asleep again. His shoulders ached and his hips were mildly sore having been put to use for that sudden contortionist demonstration. Old fool, trying to impress an old schoolmarm, he thought, chuckling to himself. He was not sure his circus years were clear in his mind. The big boss had been a serious huckster, a cheap SOB, but had taught the man how to do shallow diving. Some memories were not trustworthy though. For a time he had had a memory of being in East Asia, but more recently his memories of discovering a stash of explosives and protecting a village of innocent poor people from an mustachioed organized criminal was actually almost certainly just a Jack Palance movie he’d somehow incorporated. He also now knew that the recurring nightmare of watching those ignorant young couples with the sled dogs crashing through thin ice never to be seen again was a terrifying story he’d read as a small boy. It was one of those miserable Jack London stories. The memories linked like a quarter inch phone plug connecting across the Jacks.
Something moved in the shadows. Dammit! The intruder was creeping along the hallway. How could he think anyone wouldn’t see him? His immense belly was like a wood-burning stove protruding from the wall. The man wailed like a loon, rose and trundled past the intruder. He pulled open the cherry table drawer grabbed the pistols, spun on his heels, shaky with night jitters. He held the Colt out at arm’s length took aim and squeezed off a shot, the pistol kicked and the report half deafened him. Plaster blew off the wall. “Dammit!” he yelled, rushing to the mess he’d made. The intruder was gone. No! He was heading out the door. The man heard his footfalls on the porch. He pursued, nearly tripping in weedy knots of juniper and overgrown grasses.
“Now! Stay out!” he breathlessly gasped, ears ringing, but then caught sight of the intruder crossing the street and heading into Ruth’s tiny yard, through the little white gate and scentless roses. Ruth’s place was lit up, each of the old brick windows throwing bright light nearly onto the street. “Dammit!” the man saw the intruder, looking back toward him, smiling his huge nearly Syd Greenstreet-like provocation. A taunt! Then disappeared down the alley between Ruth’s garage and back porch. The man found himself standing in the darkness of Ruth’s yard, just as the door swung open. He pushed the pistols into his waistband as Ruth cried from her doorway.
“Mr. Wagner! I’m so glad you came!” She rushed down the three steps and embraced him with a bit of a tackle. “Come in, come in!” Ruth ushered the man into the small warm kitchen. The ancient hardwood floors seemed ill equipped to support the weight of the three petite but chunky biddies who were apparently playing cards with goblets of wine before them. Light shown off three pairs of oversize glasses just below penciled eyebrows.
“Uh,” the man said, but suddenly a powerful aroma of something delicious distracted him entirely. It appeared to be thickly sliced pot roast with butter-fried thick noodles and gravy. There was also a pie. He cleared his throat to no avail as his mouth watered excessively.
“This is Mr. Wagner my neighbor, who I was telling you about earlier.” Ruth brushed some plaster dust off the man’s untucked and half-unbuttoned shirt, furrowed her brow at his pajama bottoms and unshod feet, shrugged her shoulders and went into feeding mode. “Sit Mr. Wagner, have some roast beef with us!”
“Uh,” the man managed to croak as he sat down facing the ladies.
“That’s Polly to your right, and Gladys.” Ruth flipped her hand.
“Do you usually wear this old stuff? Mr. Wagner It’s gotta be forty years old?” the lady to his left said. “My Douglas used to have a set like that.”
“Uh huh,” the man nodded, putting on a smile, the intruder now well fading in the humid odor of the kitchen, a bead of sweat developed on his brow. He wanted to say something about it. He meant to warn Ruth, but the immanent danger, and excitement of the chase dissolved like an effervescent antacid.
“Oh Mr. Wagner! Did you hear that gun shot?” Polly said, her bright eyes huge behind large red Kitty-style glasses, tiny gems glittered in the corners. “It made me think of Philip Marlowe, it gave me goose bumps!”
“Mmm!” was all he managed, blinking at the ladies.
Gladys offered her delicate pale hand, her skin seemed transparent in places and was freezing cold despite the heat of the kitchen. The man could not remember the last time anyone had seemed so pleased to see him and he was entirely flummoxed. The pistols in his waistband shifted a touch and began to feel heavy, he squirmed in his seat as they seemed to settle in the most uncomfortable metal on bone spots around his meatless hips.
“So you were a trick diver in a circus?” Gladys raised her arcing, hand-drawn, black eyebrows.
A huge plate of meat and shining noodles with piles of chunky brown gravy was pressed to the man’s breastbone as well as a gigantic mug of wine. “I’m sorry, I’m out of wine glasses,” Ruth added as she squeezed between the other ladies across from the man.
“Uh huh!” the man chuckled, suddenly unable to stop his nervous laughter. He began stuffing the fantastic food into his mouth, the flavors were astonishing. Butter and gravy formed a trickle from his lips. Polly reached over and dabbed his chin with her napkin.
“Oh, thank you,” he squeaked between forkfuls. The pot roast fell apart in his mouth with salty perfection. He felt as though he’d just discovered a whole pleasure he’d never encountered. How long had it been since he’d eaten such food? “Such pleasure,” he mumbled.
“I hope it gives you pleasure, Mr. Wagner,” Ruth said happily.
The man paused in his chewing, “It is fantastic, and pleasure is the only worthwhile pursuit, after all what rational creature would pursue pain?” He coughed a bit surprised by his own clarity.
Ruth chuckled softly, “See, what did I tell you?”
“I do believe that’s Epicurean!” Polly squealed with delight.
“Yes yes,” Gladys added her approval.
“Isn’t it incredible,” he looked up from his plate and smiled a winsome smile, “how these pleasures mix and mesh with our creature senses, . . . how these variables of taste provide such distinctive pure . . . uh, affections.” The food seemed to be filling him with both spiritual as well as gustatory passion.
The ladies stared at him in wonder. The cards rested where they were dropped from their game, hands of three cards each, possibly a round of Scat. He was finished with his meat and noodles and now Ruth cut him about a hundred degree arc of blackberry pie that he was certain he’d never be able to finish, but he did with ease. He gulped it with the briskness of a newly awakened polar bear.
“Mr Wagner,” Ruth pushed her glasses up, “tell us, where have you been all these years? Why did I just finally meet you?”
“Oh, interesting,” said Polly.
“Oh, yes,” said Gladys, fidgeting like a fat child in a restraint.
The man was busy trying to clean his plate, but looked up with some worry, “I’ve been, . . . I’ve sort of been studying.” Now where would he go? he wondered.
“Oh you must tell us!” Polly said.
“Yes what were you studying,” Ruth added with some surprise.
“Well,” he looked about, what could he say? “Have you ever noticed how long we live?”
The ladies looked at one another, “Longevity?” Gladys said.
“Right, well, I’ve been alive for a long time,” he smiled nodding.
“Mr. Wagner, how old are you?” Ruth asked. It was becoming clear that Ruth did not shy from direct questions.
“I’m not sure, but, I’ve never been ill, isn’t it a wonder?”
“But you were just in the hospital?” Ruth blurted, the other ladies sat quietly, a bit embarrassed.
“Oh, no, that was a mistake,” he waved it off with a chuckle.
“They said you’d had a stroke, they want you on prescription blood thinners, Coumadin.”
“Oh, I’m on that,” Polly added, with a big smile.
“No—no, anyway, that’s not the point,” he threw his head back and tried to sum his experiences for this little group of sweet ladies, “I’m much older than you realize.”
“What do you mean, much older?” Gladys said, she chuckled and looked toward Ruth and Polly.
He changed his mind, “I can’t explain it properly, you won’t understand. But I’ve been alive for a long time, much longer than my brother, for example, he’s been gone for years and years now, and he was my brother, only two years older.”
“Did he die from something, Mr. Wagner,” like many older folks the ladies were aficionados of elderly diseases.
“No, he had two wives and a number of children,” he paused.
“A number of children?” Ruth wrinkled her nose.
“Right,” but he was losing his grip on his point.
“Don’t you know who they are? How many nieces and nephews you have, Mr. Wagner?” Gladys filled in the blank.
“Yes—yes of course,” images of blonde scamps went through his head. Was there a Teddy? Perhaps a Dottie, “but, and this is my point,” he nearly whistled, “I’ve always been here.” He waved a bony hand with massive blue veins like night-crawlers under his skin.
“You’ve always been where? Here?” Polly looked disturbed.
“I can’t die,” he smiled.
“Oh Mr. Wagner,” Ruth sighed and shook her head.
“Come now, Mr. Wagner what do you take us for? We’re not little girls here,” Gladys chuckled.
The man felt something moving inside him, not the pistols, though they certainly still nagged at his hips. He suddenly wanted to do something, and an anxiety of missing the moment had built in him. He did not know how to satisfy it exactly and striving with sensations of desire, fellowship, a full belly, and a poetry of spirit he began tapping out a beat on the edge of the table, nodding his head along with it. His hands intensified and tightened the beat and the wine glasses bounced a bit. “Here,” he said, “listen.”
Before long the ladies had smilingly joined him, each producing the same infectious tattoo on the edge of the table. Red wine danced, the cards shifted and slid, sweat beaded on foreheads, huge lady-glasses became fogged. The pounding went on, became more intense, Polly took a solo—added effect—allowed her fingers to play separate tiny pulses amidst the overall syncopation. The man nodded and smiled at her. Gladys suddenly rose, a trance-like expression on her face, she lurched into dance. Her arms waved rather gracefully the man thought, he smiled bigger. Gladys shook her magnificent hips, a chair jumped noisily out of her way, the dishes near the sink began to shudder. The rhythm had become Polynesian though no one had intended such. Ruth’s eyes grew huge, she seemed to fear something, but then began singing. A wild yelping of high pitched cries like the yipping of Cape Hunting Dogs.
“Yes!” Polly cried in reply.
There was a crescendo, a sort of climactic moment where dancer, and singer and drummers felt a convergence of spirit. Now the drumming was like an interworking of natural forces, something like the sound of an old prop engine from a sky-train. Ruth’s yelping slowly subsided and tears rolled her cheeks. Gladys had kicked off her shoes and now lay on the floor breathing heavily and patted the floor in time with her palms. Polly looked deeply into the man’s eyes and mimicked his drumming perfectly, they had united in a musician’s paradise of cacophonic ESP brilliance, phasing with one another slightly in and out, weaving a spell of sound addiction, giving their hearts voice.
Time passed, no one noticed, but exhaustion overtook them and the man having no further place to send his energy leapt to his feet and grabbed Polly in an awkward embrace which she returned vigorously, then Ruth joined them and they helped Gladys to her feet and embraced her in the circle of arms. No one said a thing. They laughed and cried and sweat, feeling like they’d experienced something they hadn’t in many years.
In the bathroom, recovering from the event, not one but both the pistols jumped free of the man’s pajama trousers and fell into Ruth’s exceptionally large toilet after clattering loudly against the ceramic rim.
It had been months since the man had seen the intruder, and the pistols slept their endless metal sleep in their drawer. Both firearms companies had made most of their money early on selling weapons to foreign governments. Russia’s famous Caesar—Tsar Nicholas—was famously fond of Colts. The problem with firearms as a product has always been their durability and the fact that the average person really doesn’t have much use for them. This had always been something of a bane for firearms manufacturers and so they sold them to Egypt and Spain, Morocco and the Netherlands, in fact there were few places untouched by the sale of American weaponry.
The Colt .38 police special had once been owned by a loveless clam-digger by the name of Tom Dunne. A recluse by nature, Dunne had begun hanging out in a few of the more hallowed and dangerous night clubs catering to the brazen producers of Providence’s sea food treasures, scraping the bay’s shallows mainly for clams but also dabbling in lobster traps and occasionally netting shrimp and collecting scallops and oysters.
One night while leaning sullenly against a gas lamp with a mug of spirit in his paw, he spied Freddy “the Kook” Asalone and a young high-school drop-out sweetheart called by the locals “Hoagie-bun”. The Kook was notorious for flubbing a few car bombs he’d arranged to take out the averse fathers of a vanishing breed of young women who would give Freddie the time. After each of those failed executions Freddie had disappeared to consider what had gone wrong, presumably reworking the wiring in his mind’s eye, and each time he’d lose his high-school aged floozy to younger competition. “Hoagie-bun” winked playfully at Dunne as she stepped past on needle-point heels and Freddie became enraged. This also upset Dunne considerably as he’d had no interest in tangling with so notoriously careless a foe, and while “Hoagie-bun” giggled, Freddie the Kook attempted to pistol-whip Dunne’s skull with the Colt. Freddie’s problem however was that he was built like a pretzel stick, and Dunne so easily fended off the child-like blows that a frustrated Kook instead turned the muzzle of the Colt on Dunne and attempted to shoot him. This is where Dunne ended up with the police special in his hands, though he didn’t exactly intend to—it was just easier than taking candy from a baby. Once Dunne had the pistol most of the dockside speak-easy turned on Freddie and sent him scurrying for cover leaving Miss “Hoagie-bun” to attach herself to Dunne’s wing. In act two, Dunne found his wife “Hoagie-bun”, now re-named Anne Marie Dunne, in a speak-easy with a ne’er-do-well window-washer and sometime street performer called Pete “The Pangolin” Quinn. Dunne blew his top, threatened to kill his brash and careless wife and chased Quinn all over the nearly dead Providence shipyards—yet to be resurrected by the lucrative business of war with the Nazis. Dunne waved his pistol and swore a blue streak. When Dunne finally caught up with Quinn on a darkened skiff dock, he pleaded pathetically for mercy and putting the tip of the pistol in his mouth imitated a bit of phallic worship. Something unexpected happened inside Dunne that didn’t really surprise anyone else. He fell in love with Quinn then and there. Dunne collapsed into an exhausted embrace and Pete “The Pangolin” Quinn adored Tom Dunne in ways he’d never experienced. This left Anne Marie “Hoagie-bun” Dunne outside what eventually became one of the sweetest and most well known of Providence—a city whose notoriety rested on being fabulously homosexual—love affairs. Dunne and Quinn resided together for decades and threw memorable parties even in the direst moments of the depression era, eventually operating a waterfront restaurant called Quinn and Dunne’s. The Colt passed to their friend, the man’s father, for “safe keeping” due to concern about their shared hot tempers.
The man clapped on a bit of aftershave that Ruth had given him for his birthday (a strange unknown quantity of years but all guessed must be approaching eighty, the man himself was certain of being more). There was a thick woodsy odor to the cologne that he enjoyed. Ruth had also straightened and cleaned for him, and sent her landscaper over to trim and nurse his front yard. He had produced cash for her about these attentions, but she had roundly rejected it. Then Polly had begun bringing food over, and Gladys had started bringing her book club ladies around to meet the man as well. He had met Betty, Edith and Lenore, who were younger parents who had not yet become entirely unnecessary to their young charges. There were also Hazel and Nancy Jane who lived together in a sort of marriage and who both played ukuleles with delightful facility. There were others he couldn’t remember the names of, but soon the regularity of Ruth’s little get-togethers not only increased but expanded deeply and now took place in the larger and quite plush living room of Ruth’s mahogany paneled abode. He was expected at eight as usual, but was ready now, hours ahead of schedule.
In the last several weeks the ladies brought drums of a wide variety. In the beginning it had just been a couple of cute little bongos. Then someone brought in some expensive congas on a stand. That seemed to be enough for a week or two then there was a flood. There were doumbeks and darbukas, there were cajons and tablas, and a few flat Celtic style drums filling Ruth’s living room. Many of the ladies who danced adorned their ankles with elaborate rattles. After each discussion salon, where tonight topics ranging from President Ford’s falling down to the lack of seriousness in television news programs prevailed, the ladies eagerly asked the man to initiate the beat.
“Wait!” a woman named Eleanor cried, “say something!”
There was a hush and the man saw Ruth stand in alarm, he waved her down.
“The man of genius,” the man heard himself saying, “is someone who speaks of feelings, whatever they may be, which are largely suppressed by the world at large.” He had just gleaned this from flipping through an old edition of paintings and drawings by Rubens and reading a bit of an essay written by a Rubens expert named Stevenson.
There was a longish pause followed by a smattering of applause which surprised the man. Ruth nodded her approval. He was facing a group of seventeen women ranging in age from sixty, a lanky redhead named Barbara, to seventy-five—his new best friend Ruth.
“You once told me you saw me on a tricycle, I didn’t understand what you meant, but then it occurred to me, you meant a kind of child of myself. It sounds a little paltry, I know, but it’s a touching sentiment.” Ruth said this to him as though they were alone, then she turned to the group, “Mr. Wagner means our genius, all our genius.”
The man nodded, he enjoyed pleasing Ruth and had especially enjoyed yet another of her amazing pies, apple this time with melted cinnamon hearts in it.
“Mr. Wagner,” a fresh faced lady with flushed pink cheeks began, “what do you think I should do, I’m at my wit’s end. . . . My jerk of a husband is sleeping with a younger woman—his grad student.” She sighed, “I’m fed up with trying to please him.”
There was a kind of groan in the room, a couple of the ladies were shaking their heads. The man was a bit confused, now he was sorry he hadn’t just started the drumming. He didn’t feel like he knew this woman well enough, but he couldn’t just ignore her now, then he had a kind of epiphany, “What do you think you should do?”
He was seated somewhat apart, and a tad uncomfortable. Ruth had given him an isolated seat that conveyed a sense of authority, a special place in the room. It also helped that he was the only man, this provided him a heightened propriety, not that there were any skeptics of his peculiarly growing powers. “When I first saw him,” Ruth had explained to them, “he was crying to the heavens that he was alive! It was the most singular thing I’d ever seen in person.” The ladies were fused into a union of thorough admiration.
“I’m not sure, I think I want to just disappear. I don’t want to be there any more, I want to . . .” the woman looked at him with angry misted eyes.
“You will, you will!” the man rose and crossed the room and took her by her porcelain hands which were draped over her knees as she spoke. He lifted her to her feet and embraced her, feeling her knobby spine, “You will do what it is you want most of all.”
The woman, whose name was Mary, began sobbing. The man looked past her to her small dish of pie, it was hardly touched. First he thought he’d like to eat it, but then, “Mary, you didn’t eat your pie.”
“No, I’m just not very hungry—”
“You should eat your pie,” he said with gravity, and wiping her cheeks with his sleeve.
She shook her head, and the man placed his hands on her cheeks and peered into her glasses, “Mary, eat your pie, it is your piece of pie.”
Then her face changed, she nodded. There was a strange moment, as if the entire gathering hinged on the success of Mary eating her pie, and it was so. Mary realized it was so. She gently melted back onto the sofa and lifting the delicate dessert fork, began daintily breaking the perfect crust and forking apple up to her mouth. There was a gasp around the room. And then an applause.
The man was relieved. He took a deep breath, rich with the aromas of Ruth’s cooking and the perfumes of the ladies, and sat back down. The ladies watched him expectantly, their hands like those of old gunfighters, twitched toward their drums. The man reached down and lifted a small set of bongos. These weren’t the drums they expected him to take, and each week the competition grew as to whose drum would be used to start the rhythm. He tapped it, at first tentatively, then with more aplomb. The ladies eagerly picked up their drums, some closing their eyes to absorb the phrase as correctly as possible.
The pulse soon sounded like a dozen horses running on a brick road, clattering and throwing sparks. Some of the ladies began a kind of whirling dervish style dancing in the middle of the room, which Ruth had thoughtfully cleared. They danced barefoot, and carried their drums if possible, but some of the ladies simply waved their arms in a kind of hypnotic ecstasy. Mary finished her pie, and joined the festivities popping her fingers on an ornate djembe. Ruth joined with her voice, adding her yelping and crying sounds which she had been developing over the weeks. Soon others joined in sharing the call and response in animal tones. Some of the ladies danced around the man’s chair, they let their hands drift over his hair—which was growing rapidly back out—and his shoulders. He closed his eyes and did not know which ladies were touching him. He concentrated on the running of the horses in the beat, and kept his beat running long after the women collapsed. There was an aged Bacchanal aspect to the night. Mary, at one point, lay herself across the man’s lap, interrupting the man’s thrashing of the mini-bongos. Her ample rump demanded a spanking. Instead he played the beat on her modestly covered tush, laughing and causing the ladies to laugh.
This was the most enduring drumming circle yet, lasting well into the night and leaving many of the participants so exhausted they slept where they fell. Wine glasses had been spilled and a few bits of apple pie had been ground underfoot.
By the time the next salon was to meet there were too many participants to fit under Ruth’s roof.
“Mom, Please, I don’t understand this, what is it you see in him?” Melissa, Ruth’s forty year old daughter and mother of two teenage boys was attempting to reel in the embarrassing wackiness.
“You can’t understand. He’s not something you can easily categorize, he makes us feel amazing,” Ruth said rather pragmatically.
“I think all you silly old ladies have fallen for a mysterious stranger is all. I wouldn’t worry about it, but Mary says her mom is in over her head. She’s in love with this Mr. Wagner!” Melissa seemed to be shouting into the phone.
“We’re all in love with him, dear,” Ruth said simply, “and it’s fine.”
“Please tell me you’re joking, Mom, if dad were still alive you’d not even notice this old buffoon,” Melissa shouted through the phone.
“There’s nothing to worry about, he’s just a fascinating man who healed himself from a stroke, . . . he’s full of beautiful and thoughtful things to say. He’s like a country poet, darling, I promise everything is OK.” Ruth was implacable.
The man sat at at Ruth’s tiny kitchen table blushingly listening to the mother and daughter conversation, capable of hearing most of the daughter’s side quiet easily as Ruth kept turning the receiver end of the phone toward him so that he could catch her daughter’s noisome argument. He was trying to remain as impassive to the quite surprising revelations as possible. He was amazed by the speed of these happenings, but also felt completely at ease. As if he expected it all. He felt that in all honesty it was about time he were appreciated, that his being were highlighted as a special part of some good people’s purpose.
Soon enough, Ruth hung up the phone. “She’s got some nerve,” Ruth chuckled, “do you have any idea how much Swedenborgian nonsense I’ve had to listen to from her? Have you ever read that stuff? It’s like Christianity for people who don’t get Christianity! It’s Christianity, exactly that, nothing else!” Ruth shook her head.
The man smiled sweetly and shook his head with her.
“She’s got like a half a dozen of those silly Leo Buscaglia books, I’m not saying they’re bad, they’re just so . . . immature . . . ugh! These kids . . . how can she judge me?”
The man continued to smile, “It’s just about love, Ruth, she’s afraid, you know, she misses her father and I’m unknown to her.”
“Not for long!” Ruth crowed.
The man was sitting with his favorite poultry catalog and a cup of the finest, sweetest, blackest coffee he’d ever enjoyed. He wondered how he’d missed out on so much goodness for so long. He did not know where he had been.
“I’m going to bring her up here, and you’re going to talk to her!”
The man widened his eyes, “I’ll do my best.”
“You don’t have to do anything special, you just be who you are, you’ll see what happens.” Ruth had never seemed more self-assured.
She had taken a collection from the ladies and rented the multi-purpose room at the Unitarian Church ten minutes away, and she’d also had enough money to acquire a small selection of fine wines and cheeses for the presentation.
The man just laughed his nervous laugh. Ruth had stopped noticing his frustrations with reading which were slowing improving. She also didn’t concern herself with his beard or hair or clothing choices anymore. Where she had felt herself a kind of caretaker in the early days of their relationship she now saw herself as a kind of mildly protective disciple. But this happy circumstance was not to last. When nearly two hundred people arrived to hear Mr. Wagner speak, and he nearly passed out from the expectation and isolation of the podium she found herself in a fury. Their questions and desires were insipid and overwhelming, in essence more than half the audience expected divinity. They were looking for a faith healing.
“This is not that kind of salon!” Ruth screamed, stepping out in front of the man at the podium. “Mr. Wagner is not here to solve your ridiculous problems! He doesn’t need you!”
There was a murmur and the man’s chuckling through the P.A. which occurred any time Ruth spoke.
“I only wanted to know what he thought about Muhammad Ali,” the man who Ruth had cut off blurted defensively while the room hooted.
“What is he laughing about?” a woman in the throng, pointing at the man said, “does he think we’re idiots?”
“That is not how Mr. Wagner works, but I think you’re an idiot!” the crowd recoiled. There was a booing from the back row.
“Ruth,” the man said softly through the microphone, but Ruth did not heed.
“He’s not here to raise the dead or make your lawns greener, you jackasses,” she shouted at them, stalking back and forth like a midget wrestler offering a match.
“Please, Ruth,” he said softly into the P.A. system.
The throng both laughed and booed.
“What’s he do then?” a fellow yelled from the back of the room.
Ruth looked to the ceiling, her hands dropped to her sides, “I give up, we don’t have to do this.”
“No—no! Ruth, it’s fine! I can do something,” the man chuckled.
“What?!” Ruth spun around and when her eyes met his she melted. “What do you want to do?”
He stepped away from the podium and half skipped to her, a big almost obsequious grin on his aged and strangely impish mug. Ruth took a worried step back.
“Does anyone have a glass I could borrow.” In a moment he was handed a standard drinking glass grabbed from the limited bar Ruth had hired. He fished in his pocket and produced a walking-Liberty half dollar. He dropped both of these on a standard eight foot wooden table set up at the front of the room. “Watch!”
The people chuckled and some rose to their feet forcing those behind them to flank the hall, craning their necks to see what he was up to. First he dropped the half dollar into the glass, clinked it around a bit and then spun the glass in his hand without dropping the half dollar. Then he rapidly turned the glass over onto his palm and showed the half dollar on his hand. He dropped it back into the glass raising his fuzzy eye-brows.
“Now watch carefully,” he squeaked as he spun the glass and put it mouth down on the table. But the half dollar was gone. He held up a finger as a kind of pause and just as the hushed crowd began to exhale slapped the bottom of the glass and caused the half dollar to appear under it, bouncing onto the table.
As the crowd “Ah’d”, the man snatched up the glass, spun it with the half dollar in it again, and clearly slipping the half dollar into his right hand tipped the glass mouth down onto the table and again slapped the bottom of the glass with his hand causing the half dollar to appear under the glass again with a happy jangle. This time people crowded him and peered at the feat in disbelief. He chuckled to himself this time as the crowd roared with applause.
“I can do that,” he laughed.
“More!” someone yelled.
“Another!” someone else cried.
“I’ll need a volunteer,” he waved a hand and rolled his sleeve up, a young black woman waved to him, “fine—fine!”
She trotted up in a summer dress and sandals, her black kinky hair tied back into an enormous pony-tail.
“Have you ever worked with me before?”
“No!” she giggled.
“Fine—fine,” the man smiled, and waved his hands around her head in a most unusual manner, producing several coins, an orchid bloom, and finally an egg, out of which the man released a living white dove much to the amazement of all. He set the bird carefully on the edge of an artist’s easel arranged by the Unitarians, advertising the salon. Ruth and the salon ladies stared in disbelief.
“What’s your name, darling?” the man asked.
“Gail,” she giggled again.
“Gail, I’m going to hypnotize you here before this audience. Are you going to be alright with that? I promise no harm will come to you. Do you trust me?” the man’s poise and voice had become surprisingly affected, he seemed like a doctor.
She nodded and giggled, her eyes crinkled and her teeth shone brightly.
“Your energy is terrific, can you feel that aura?”
She nodded and grinned as he placed his hand over her head. The audience was hushed wondering what he was up to.
“Fall back into my arms here Gail, I’ll catch you,” and she did. “Very good!” he said as he caught her under her shoulders and lowered her to a chair. “Now, Gail, imagine yourself alone, you are by yourself here, this room is empty, and you are totally relaxed. Relax your toes, and your feet, and your calves and your legs, . . .”
Ruth was astonished. The salon ladies standing now in the front row had never seen this side of Mr. Wagner. They could not close their mouths.
The man snapped his fingers around Gail’s head, “As you see my friends, she is completely out. She is now in my power. I will give her a suggestion and you’ll find she’ll be most stubborn about it. She will believe herself to be in my thrall completely.”
“Tell her she’s a chicken!” an apparent high school friend of hers cried out.
This caused some amusement.
“No, that won’t do,” the man smiled, and after a pause seemed to come to a conclusion. “Instead, I will tell her this: Gail, sweetheart, you are the most beautiful creature I have ever laid eyes on. Your friends and family adore you and want nothing for you but the very best. You are brilliant, as strong as you want to be, and you can do anything you want in this world.”
Someone in the audience made a sound like a barking dog, Gail’s mother had burst into tears.
The man stepped back from his private voice with Gail and turned to the room, his face stern and his voice one of nearly bellowing command, “Do you understand?” It wasn’t Gail who needed to understand and nearly every adult in the room perfectly apprehended that.
The man turned back and brought Gail out of her trance and hugged her, “Have the best life, and take very good care of yourself.”
There was a smattering of applause.
“You should have turned her into a chicken!” some wag at the back of the room yelled
“That’s enough!” Ruth shouted back, “that’s not why Mr. Wagner is here!”
The man returned to the podium and took up a nearby set of bongos, then taking a seat with them between his legs said, “Here, listen to this.” With his eyes closed he began a steadily driving and insistent beat. The crowd reached for their drums.
At midnight he led the remaining drummers and dancers out into the moonlight of the parking lot in front of the Unitarian multipurpose room. Forty-five pairs of feet found their way outside with him. He thanked them all for their attention and putting down his bongos he simply walked off into the darkness. Ruth tottered after him briefly but could not keep his pace. The crowd looked at one another and many tried to maintain the pulsing drums. Ruth tottered back to get her car, but despite driving up and down the main strip and all the way back home along the route he’d need to walk the man had vanished.
At two P.M. the following afternoon Ruth noticed two heavy-set men arriving at Mr. Wagner’s driveway. She rushed down to intercept them before they walked up his now well kept walk. For the first time she noticed a wooden cage hanging from the man’s porch with several white doves in it.
“Can I help you?” she spurted with spunky diligence and suddenly recognized one of the large men as he turned, the parent of a student she had taught years ago. It was Carl Hopkins, the local grand cyclops of the Roger Williams Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. And then she summarily knew that the other man was that very lazy student from years back, Carl Hopkins Jr.
“We just want to see Mr. Wagner,” the bulky man said with a stiff smile, waves of intimidation pouring off his condescending look.
“You always were a clod, Hopkins,” Ruth pulled no punches. “You and your under-achieving boy here.”
The men glowered at Ruth.
“Now now Mrs. Kershaw, we don’t need to be nasty, do we?” Hopkins hissed at her and Ruth was certain his hiss was snake-like.
“What are you doing here?” Ruth stood between them and the few steps to Mr. Wagner’s front porch.
“What he done ain’t right, Ruth. Them kids voted Gail Jackson prom queen,” Mr. Hopkins’ disgusted tone left no options for reason.
“So what? That’s their vote,” Ruth threw up her hands and laughed.
“From what I understand your Mr. Wagner here convinced them kids present at some kind of unholy rally” he said this with utter disdain, “at that Yoo-nee-tarian church that Miss Jackson was the most beautiful creature in the world and that they should be kow-towing to her.” Hopkins diligently avoided using certain key words that the modern world of the 1970s no longer pleasantly abided. He spat on the lawn.
“Goddamned you!” Ruth heard herself say and she shook with a kind of wild anger that caused the younger Mr. Hopkins to chuckle.
“Now—now, Mrs. Kershaw, you don’t need to be talking like that, I’m just trying to keep the law of things, you understand. People like us are necessary to maintain our culture. Carol Messier was supposed to be prom queen. Now I’m sure you can imagine how upset she is seeing a . . . a Negress take her place because of some silly trick your Mr. Wagner did.”
“Get off this property, Hopkins. Right now!” Ruth screamed.
Her former student Carl Hopkins Jr., a hulking boy no brighter than a lace machine beam, chuckled at her. He loved when his daddy bested someone and he about spilled over with pride seeing his old teacher spitting mad and having no outlet for her anger.
“We just want to talk to him. We just want him to tell them kids he hypnotized—”
“Hypnotized nothing!” Ruth laughed angrily. “There’s no such thing! It was a performance is all, entertainment, if those kids want to vote for Gail for some silly high school event—”
“Now—now Mrs. Kershaw you were a teacher for many years, you know how them kids get—gosh it’s hot out here.” Mr. Hopkins wiped his brow on his sleeve and spat again.
Just then the man threw his door open and came out onto the porch, while he had been unable to hear all the discussion it was loud enough to cast little doubt as to their purpose.
“There you are!” Ruth crowed.
“Mr. Wagner, we’d like a word with you,” Mr. Hopkins said and his hulking son stood by menacingly.
“Mr. Wagner, please go inside. I’ll deal with these idiots. I’ll have Sheriff Coffey here in just a moment.”
“I think you’ll find the sheriff a bit more sympathetic to our cause, Miss Ruth.” He paused thoughtfully and added, “I was very sad to hear about your husband passing, he was a good man, and he’d understand this.” Hopkins looked down at Ruth a smirk on his face.
Ruth about burst a blood vessel with that and leaving them standing there beat a path straight up the walkway, past her Mr. Wagner, straight into his living room, and directly to his cherry table, producing the Colt and the Star. With one pistol in each hand, and having little training in how to operate them, marched back out to the porch and brandishing the weapons cried out:
“You white trash assholes get off this property and don’t you come back,” she snarled like an angry pug, glaring through her magnifying glasses.
Mr. Wagner stood stock still with wide eyes and hiccuped an “Uh oh.”
“Miss Ruth—” Mr. Hopkins began, but just then the windshield of his poorly parked Duster received a bullet impact from the Colt. It looked just like someone smacked a ball-peen hammer into it. Spiderwebs crawled rapidly over the glass in the sun.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Hopkins cried out while his son ducked.
“Boys, I think you should go,” Mr. Wagner wheezed out. “I haven’t given her any training with those things, she’s just as likely to hit me as you.”
Once they had peeled out in the dirt drive and fish-tailed out onto the small road, Ruth began crying. The man put his arm around her and lead her into the house. She put the pistols on the table and sank into a seat. “Those sons-of-bitches. Those sons-of-bitches.” She sobbed.
The man lifted the Colt and eyed the empty shell and smelled the burnt cordite with a kind of wonder, “You fired it! I’ll be.”
Ruth sobbed uncontrollably, “Did you hear what he said about my Roger? As if he knew my Roger!
The man wondered at her, “Didn’t you say your husband’s name was Jim?”
“That was my first husband,” she smiled gently, “so long ago. Before all this. He died in the war, Mr. Wagner.”
“I see, of course.”
“Mr. Wagner,” she paused and wiped her eyes under her glasses, “how did you make that coin go through the glass.”
“What?” The man laughed uproariously, “Oh, Ruth! That’s just a trick, nothing more, kid-stuff, just a trick, you know people love tricks.”
“But how?” she looked like a little girl, just like one he remembered on a tricycle so long ago.
“I can’t tell you, it’ll spoil it, but I can tell you it takes a lot of practice to do such a silly thing. Ha ha! Who needs a coin to go through the bottom of a glass?” he laughed some more.
“But I want to know!” she cried again, and it was serious, her sobs wracked her. “You have to tell me, after all I’ve done.”
“OK—OK!” he fished the coin out of his pocket along with a bit of plastic that fit against his finger colored like skin.
She sniffed, “What in the world is that?”
“It’s a false finger, it has a magnet in it, the coin has a magnet on it too, I glued it there myself years ago and painted it, back when I was a kid.” He dropped the coin in the glass and showed how the fake finger could catch the coin if he tipped it just right. “Then I show you another half dollar, this one. And I release the one stuck against the magnet, see?” The coin seemed to appear under the glass.
“That’s it!” she marveled. “It’s just a trick!”
“It’s a good trick!” he laughed heartily. “I’ve had this stuff, since I was fifteen. Ha ha ha!”
“Why do you have these pistols,” she waved at them exasperatedly.
He got serious, “Because sometimes a good trick isn’t enough. You just proved that.”
Ruth buried her face in her arms on the table, “Oh those bastards! So much hate for a little girl.”
The man said nothing.
“Why did you do it? Why did you choose her? Why do that for her?” Ruth looked up at him again, pain in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” the man smiled. “Because I could, I guess.”
“Oh it doesn’t matter, you did the right thing. It was great!”
Out the dining room window several cars crept down the street. Several parked in front of Ruth’s place, and the Sheriff pulled into the driveway.
“Here they come,” Ruth mumbled sourly.
“Don’t worry,” the man smiled, he placed his hand on her back, “I’ll take care of it.”
“No, Mr. Wagner, I’m the one who fired the gun, they’re after me,” Ruth stood up.
The sheriff got his dumpy butt out of the Dodge Charger and looked around himself. He put his hat on and walked up the path. A small group of middle-aged men and one twenty-something formed in the street led by Mr. Hopkins. The windshield of his Duster now fully spider-webbed from the bullet Ruth landed on it.
The sheriff stopped short of the steps and called out, “Mr. Wagner? Are you home? I’d like a word.” He sounded terribly resigned, like someone forced to pink-slip a beloved employee.
The man opened the door and stepped gingerly out onto the porch exhibiting an elfin grace, “Hello, Sheriff, was just going to call you.”
“That’s him Sheriff!” called out Hopkins.
“I’ll handle this, Carl,” The sheriff called back.
“You were going to call me?” the sheriff tipped his hat back.
The sheriff stared blankly a moment at the man, and then blinked a few times behind his Ray-Bans as if overcome with some emotion.
“I want you to think deeply now, Sheriff, back to when you were a lad, just a boy who’s dog got loose one day, fifty years ago,” the man’s voice was soft and friendly, when he spoke quietly the high pitched edge stayed out of it.
“I’m going to have to . . .” the sheriff stopped. “What’s that you say?”
“What was his name, Sheriff, your little dog, he was a cute little thing, black curly hair, gleaming eyes, and a tail that never stopped wagging, oh my, yes, he was a cute one—what was his name?” the man seemed so genuine.
The sheriff blinked at the man, “His name was Rags.”
“That’s right, Rags! I’ll never forget him.” the man smiled into the sheriff’s eyes.
“Holy cow! How do you know about Rags?” the sheriff rubbed his thick chin.
“You don’t remember me that day? How I helped you when Rags had gotten through old Mr. Beaufort’s chicken fence?” the man smiled, his fuzzy eyebrows lifted over his gleaming eyes.
“Mr. Wagner, these gentlemen here, . . . ” he half turned but couldn’t finish his thought, he was entangled in the old story, going all the way back.
“You were just a young boy then, Sheriff, head of blonde hair, and face full of tears. Your dog had torn up a couple of Mr. Beaufort’s birds, remember?” there was something in the man’s eyes that was irresistible.
“Goddamned, Mr. Wagner, you’re confusing me a bit, how do you know this?”
“I was there Sheriff, you were just a boy. Don’t you remember how I helped you?”
There was a long pause before the sheriff responded, “Goddamned Mr. Wagner no one ever believed me, you fixed them chickens. That was you?”
Now Ruth came out of the house. She stood next to the man like a protective owl.
“There she is Sheriff,” Mr. Hopkins shouted from the street.
“I’ll handle this!” the sheriff yelled back without turning.
“How’d you do that, Mr. Wagner? How’d you fix those birds? Rags sure chewed them up, they were dead. Mr. Beaufort was pissed!” the sheriff rubbed his chin again and shook his head. “They were going to shoot Rags.”
The man kept smiled at the sheriff, “He sure was a cute dog, Michael.”
Sheriff Michael Coffey rubbed his nose and pushed his sunglasses up onto his forehead, he pulled out a very wrinkled and dingy handkerchief and rubbed his eyes, “Mr. Wagner, do I remember it right? You did a trick on old Beaufort. You know he never forgave me, that old man, even after you fixed them birds.”
“That was just for you, Michael, I know how you loved old Rags,” the man whispered.
The sheriff chuckled, “He was the best dog, but oh lord he loved to chase them birds.”
“They usually do!” the man stepped down and the sheriff embraced the man like an old friend.
“Thank you,” the sheriff sniffed, “I never got to thank you.”
“It’s OK I know how you loved old Rags.”
“Oh boy, Mr. Wagner, you got that right, like nothing else in my life did I love as much. He’s buried up the farm, you know, got him a good spot under that big tulip.”
“It sounds perfect, just where I’d like to be!” the man patted the sheriff who now turned around with a look of consternation and surveyed Mr. Hopkins’ posse.
“Sheriff she shot my car! I expect—”
“Hopkins you shut the hell up and clear on out of here I’ve had enough trouble from you,” then to the man, “that boy is a right pain in my ass.”
The man only smiled, “Sheriff I can give you the pistol if you like, the pistol Miss Ruth used.”
The local branch of the Ku Klux Klan save for one member who couldn’t get off his tire job, stomped the ground, spat and got back in their cars.
“No-no that won’t be necessary, I’m sure old Carl had that coming,” then his face took on a look of pleasant satisfaction, “how’d you bring them chickens back to life, Mr. Wagner?”
The man laughed, “I have a way with birds, Sheriff, they’re kind of my . . . specialty.”
Then to Ruth, “I sure do miss Roger, Miss Ruth, he was a good fella, and I know he wasn’t a goddamned thug like these boys.”
“Thank you, Sheriff, thank you,” Ruth bowed.
And that was that.
“Did he have a dog? Were you really there?” Ruth buzzed around her kitchen assaulting her guest as he sat waiting for her famous spaghetti and meatballs (one part pork, one part veal, one part secret recipe masala).
The man chuckled, “What do you think?”
“I think you made it up! You bamboozled him,” she threw her hands up, “I don’t know how you did it.”
“Maybe it’s just the truth,” the man chuckled again.
Ruth never overcooked pasta and his heaping bowl was steaming perfection.
Ruth joined him and with stemmed globes of red wine they toasted health and long life.
The Star 9mm had been the sidearm of a turkey-necked rat-catcher and occasional knocker-upper named Ralph Saccoccia who listed himself as a talent manager but rarely managed any talent. Most of the time Saccoccia was taking care of a small number of his uncle’s vending machines that dispensed smokes and coffee. He was desperately in love with a real gone (in that period’s sense of weird and wonderful) dame named Delores Reardon a nineteen year old professional gum-chewer who would barely give him the time of day despite his anxious devotion to delivering her coffees and cigarettes. Eventually, in dire need of cash to proposition the utterly disinterested Delores, Saccoccia sold the Star to the man’s father for a fin. Once she’d turned him down, which everyone but Saccoccia himself saw as inevitable, Saccoccia tried to beg the pistol back, but since suicide loomed in his eyes the man’s father refused to return it, instead standing him for a few illicit beverages. But the pistol’s history did not end there. Two years later the dollar-short and day-late Delores flung herself pell-mell at Saccoccia calling him the love of her life. As luck would have it Saccoccia had by then become entirely infatuated with a dancer who worked late nights at The Temple To Music—a Wickenden Street nightclub named after a Roger Williams Park pavilion. She was a Shirley Temple blonde called Lucy Luck (or Luckless Lucy depending on your perspective) who could light a cigarette with her hands tied behind her back using just her juicy mouth. A frustrated Delores stole the pistol from Saccoccia who by then had gotten it back from the man’s father for a ten-spot and produced it right in the middle of Lucy’s famous swing aerial she performed on the tiny stage with an enormous black eunuch. Delores aimed for her hip but instead the shot tore a devastating wound across Lucy’s perfect can and embedded in a post. The bloody rip across Lucy’s fantastic bottom so upset the entire establishment that the mob, who were seldom perturbed by small arms fire, immediately took Delores out of the club and she was never seen again. Some suspected she ended up in one of the concrete pilings holding up the Washington Bridge, and this story was popular (even with Delores herself), but truthfully she was only whisked off by her family to Worcester and sent to a secretarial school. The pistol returned by way of it being recovered by Saccoccia who not only babied Lucy’s now somewhat degraded money-maker, he also—as encouraged by the club owners, the infamous Reid Gang—made the handgun disappear. So once again back to the cherry table it went for safe-keeping.
Then Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were promoting another of their musicals on a tour of the eastern seaboard and Lucy could not stop talking about Astaire. By now Ralph and Lucy had been married but not very happily. It seems Ralph regretted marrying Lucy often garrulously citing her grotesquely damaged rump as a sort of trial of his sad life. But the more Lucy admired Astaire—oh, he’s so talented, can you imagine how lucky Ginger Rogers is? What a lady wouldn’t give to be in her shoes!—the more Ralph became enviously enraged. It wasn’t long before Saccoccia had finagled the pistol from the man’s father with a secret plan to shoot Astaire, giving the Senior Wagner a story of going on a hunting trip and needing a sidearm. Prohibition had by then been repealed and Saccoccia was free to get drunk and blab intolerantly about the “pretty Hollywood boys” doing damage to working men’s relations everywhere. When Astaire arrived the entire city went into celebration and Saccoccia got drunk, made his way to Broadway and took a potshot at a slim, smartly dressed Esteemed Leading Knight of the Providence Elk Lodge who had a doll in a gown on his arm. The surrounding crowd screamed and ducked as the bullet whizzed harmlessly past, impacting the front of the RKO Columbus Theater. Astaire had been at the state house being welcomed by the governor at the time.
Soon thereafter a sorrowful Ralph Saccoccia died of alcohol poisoning. Lucy Luck eventually remarried and presumably produced a bevy of wartime babies, no one knows any more what became of her. Somewhere during that time the Star 9MM found its way back to the senior Mr. Wagner’s cherry table where it slept quietly for decades. He’d never revealed how he got it, and it was always assumed by the man that Lucy Luck had had an especial relationship with his dad that was never revealed.
At the Unitarian center the drumming reverberated throughout the building and off the forest across the parking lot. The doors were opened and folks chatted outside while smoking and tipping glasses of red wine. A pack of high school students of a variety of color and costume jumped and hopped with elan to the beat. Their exuberance had pushed their elders off to the sides, but no one seemed to mind. Sheriff Coffey stood guard at the door, nodding his head to the poly- rhythm. He’d been tipped that some of the boys might try to disturb the salon. He’d also been warned that Hopkins had put out a call to several Klan chapters in the outlying area to recruit some boys for the night’s activities.
The man sat pinching a pair of bongos between his knees, his ample gray hair flying about as he nodded along to the hypnotic rhythm, adding accent here and there and laughing at the cacophony provided by the drums and the feet of the youngsters well on their summer break and not all in possession of proper time-keeping. The floor was wet and made the dancing a bit of a slippery proposition especially in bare feet as most of the girls had kicked off their impractical fancy shoes.
Gifts for Mr. Wagner had been arranged on a table, folks had brought strawberry-rhubarb pies and heartfelt signs made with wood-burning kits. They left notes and colored glass artwork, and candles with crayons melted on them for color, and of course a number of drums. The man had accepted all of it graciously behaving as though these items were the finest treasures he’d ever encountered.
Ruth had her eye on PJ Powell, a known associate of Hopkins the younger, who sat a little too self-consciously with a sullen look of disagreeable malfeasance at the back of the hall. The boy studiously avoided her gaze. Ostensibly he was dating Patricia Eland who jumped elastically about on the slippery floor with the rest of the high schoolers. But he’d come in late and this bugged Ruth.
All six of the community’s black families were in attendance, along with a Bengali student, and several Hispanics.
When the man took a break from drumming, he was approached by a couple, “Mr. Wagner, I’m Billy Sunderson and this is my wife Eva.”
“How do you do?” the man smiled.
“We’ve tried everything, but,” the man began as Eva cast her eyes down, “we can’t get pregnant.”
“I see,” the man nodded gravely.
Billy laughed nervously, “I’m sorry Mr. Wagner, I know it’s off-the-wall but we thought maybe you might know about something we haven’t tried.”
The man rubbed his chin while looking the young couple up and down, “What’s your hurry?”
“What do you mean?” the fellow chuckled again as his wife came back to attention.
“Well, you know, sometimes you can’t force nature, you understand?”
“Well, we just thought, you know, we got married last year, and we sort of expected . . .” Billy drifted off, and the man noticed there were several people lined up to talk to him. Ruth was heading his way.
The man smiled broadly, “How old are you kids?”
“I’m twenty, but Eva here’s nineteen,” he smiled proudly. “I got a good job at the bogs.”
“You’re going to be fine,” then man put the bongos down and stood, putting his lanky and bony arms on the kid’s shoulders. “You’re going to be fine.”
“Yessir,” Billy said, Eva looked somewhat frightened.
“Eva needs to eat something, she’s looking thin,” he smiled, “get her a burger and a shake or something.”
“Oh yessir,” the boy said and pulled Eva close to him who smiled wanly.
“Go do some dancing or drumming, stay away from the smoking,” he added as an afterthought.
“Yessir!” Billy pulled Eva with him as he retreated. Eva’s amazing dark eyes stayed with the man for several beats.
“That’s enough,” Ruth intervened, waving off a few folks.
“No—no, it’s fine, Ruth,” the man squawked at her.
“Are you sure? I don’t like this, we’re not selling religion here,” Ruth furrowed her brow. Gladys rushed up to stand next to Ruth. Lately Gladys had seemed to be challenging Ruth to get closer to Mr. Wagner, but today she simply added some matronly bulk to chasing the folks off, and they did move shyly away.
“Aw, I think they’re just thinking I’m a wise old man! Ha ha ha!”
“I guess I think so too,” Ruth wasn’t happy with how things were going, too big, too noisy, and very little in the way of a salon these last few times. Ruth preferred a bit of discussion before the drumming and dancing. Plus she was pretty sure a lot of the teens had been at the wine, and while that really didn’t offend Ruth, she was certain someone would complain as at least a few of the youngsters had been gluttonous about it.
In the parking lot some of the kids were jumping in and out of several inflatable pools that had been dragged out for the summer heat. This water was traipsed back into the hall and caused the slippery swamp the dance floor had become.
As they were chatting, she noticed the sheriff turning and directing his deputies as several cars pulled up and onto the Unitarian Church lawn adjacent to the parking lot. A couple of the cars had Connecticut license plates.
“The Klan!” someone shouted.
Men in white sheets clambered clumsily out of the boat-like cars and showed themselves to be armed first with pool cues and batons, but at least one hooded individual carried a firearm, a Ruger mini-14.
“Get back in those cars,” the sheriff ordered, bravely marching directly up to the man with the Ruger. “You make one move and I’ll criminate your asses.”
“This ain’t right, Sheriff and you know it!” Carl Hopkins’ voice clearly argued from under his hood.
The people standing in the parking lot were frozen in their places, folks inside the hall began to filter out to see what was going on. There were fourteen caped and hooded Klansmen armed and ready to deal violence.
The sheriff was now flanked by his deputies who displayed their revolvers prominently, “I’m going to say this one more time, Hopkins, you turn this right around, or we are going to have unpleasant business.”
“You can’t seriously defend this, Sheriff, it’s unholy! Niggers and spics mixing with our white boys and girls, and dancing to wicked drumming, it ain’t Christian! They’re drinking in there! You see that?!” Hopkins gestured with the Ruger and the sheriff drew his Smith and Wesson Model 13 .357 magnum with the smooth alacrity of a Wild Bill Hickok.
“Carl Hopkins, I am placing you under arrest for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and disturbance of the peace,” as the sheriff approached Hopkins there was a crack and a howl from inside the hall. Several in the crowd screamed.
“Son of a bitch! No shooting!” someone hollered.
“Sheriff!” Hopkins yelled, but the sheriff was hustling over to the doorway.
In the hall, PJ Powell had pulled the Star 9MM out of the back of his trousers, having stolen both pistols from Mr. Wagner’s home earlier in the evening. He had pulled out the semi-auto and taken three steps onto the dance floor when he slipped into a terrific groin-ripping split which caused him to involuntarily pull the trigger. The bullet nicked the boy’s boot and careened harmlessly off the floor, but the pistol’s slide kicked back and webbed his thumb base where his meaty paw had over-gripped it and it now bled profusely. He dropped the pistol as he rolled in pain. A group of kids stood around him convincing the boy’s father, thirty yards away, hooded and standing alongside his pick-up, that they’d just shot PJ.
“My boy!” Old man Powell cried and rushed the Unitarian Hall brandishing his pool cue. No one moved as he also slipped in his Brogans as soon as his feet hit the wet floor and clobbered his head so solidly on the linoleum he didn’t move again for ten minutes. People gaped.
Ruth saw the Colt sticking out of PJ’s waistband and yanked it free, she also stooped down and picked the Star off the floor from where it had skidded, just as the sheriff returned to dealing with the Klan.
“That’s enough!” the sheriff projected his command voice—fit for old time warfare—and it was enough to back down everyone but the younger Hopkins.
Carl Hopkins Jr. was tired of his team losing, and displaying remarkable agility in hood and gown, he jumped forward, his heart pounding with a kind of hang-gliding abandon, swung his baton at the deputy to the sheriff’s right. There was a crack and the boy stumbled. Ruth, having stepped outside with the pistols following the sheriff, had plugged the boy in the thigh with the Colt. She almost fired again but the sheriff intercepted her and snagged the weapon. The boy went down with his hands wrapped around his ripped open thigh.
Hopkins screamed and leveled the Ruger at Ruth. The deputy slammed Hopkins back against his car, pushing the Ruger aside. Hopkins suddenly dropped the weapon, side-stepped the deputy and rushed to his boy’s side.
“Martin, call an ambulance,” the sheriff said to the deputy as he holstered his service revolver.
“I’m on it,” Martin handed the sheriff the Ruger and rushed to the radio.
PJ moaned from inside the hall, his dad was out cold. Hopkins sobbed over his son who was going into shock, his leg a bloody mess, but it looked like the femoral was not hit.
“Look!” someone shouted.
Faces lifted, gandered around, and finally settled on a rangy darkened figure standing high on the third story of the Unitarian Church like a crow.
A woman screamed in the hubbub.
Ruth began to hyperventilate, it was Mr. Wagner.
“People!” he cried in his thin old man voice.
The crowd hushed the KKK removed their hoods to see what they were not sure they saw. The deputy on the radio sat gaping, his thumb holding the mic key down.
“Mr. Wagner,” Ruth rushed forward, a lone pawn-shaped figure of restlessness and anxiety.
The man raised his hands stiffened his body and arching his back, fell forward off the ledge. Screams rented the air as the falling man belly-flopped tremendously into one of the kiddie pools, sending the water in all directions, showering everyone.
“No! No! No!” Ruth cried and rushed to the pool where the man lay motionless, face down in the water.
As Ruth reached the pool however, he bounced up, shook his head with a smile and cried “Ta-daa!” with outstretched arms.
The crowd roared with relief and disbelief. And then applauded wildly.
“I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch,” Sheriff Coffey chuckled.
“Did you see that?” people shouted at one another as the cascade effect from the outlandish stunt overwhelmed the bare foot girls, slack-jawed salon biddies, and even the Ku Klux Klan.
A siren in the distance approached.
Someone produced a towel and began helping the gray old man dry off. Someone brought him his bongos, and soon enough an insistent beat began reverberating around the parking lot as the wailing siren improved with its approach.
Students helped PJ make his way out, gauze wrapped around his cut hand. EMTs worked on Hopkins Jr. and took old man Powell in case of concussion.
Soon enough the sheriff got the Klan’s cars cleared off the lawn, and sent Deputy Martin to the hospital with the ambulance to keep him updated on the progress. He’d have to work out how he was going to charge those idiots, and Ruth, whom he now approached.
“Mrs. Kershaw, I’ll have to charge you,” the sheriff said through the drumming, “and I need that other pistol.”
Ruth looked up at him owlishly and pulled the Star out of her girdle, “Sorry Sheriff.” Her hands shook as she passed the weapon to him.
“Why do you have to make so much trouble for me?” he smiled softly.
“Who is he, Sheriff?” Ruth shook her head, staring at the man playing bongos, soaking wet, his hair matted back from the dive.
“Who do you mean?”
“Who is Mr. Wagner?” she asked quietly, pointing her thick finger.
The sheriff guffawed, “I thought you knew.”
A range of flowers bloomed mightily along a white fence, irises, lilies, zinnias and lupines. There was also a vegetable garden, and behind that a large wire chicken run surrounding a lovely red chicken coup. A variety of showy chickens wandered about the fenced in yard, some with feathered feet, and others with pom-pom-like heads. They croaked, squawked and clucked as Ruth and Mr. Wagner tossed cooked spaghetti out and giggled as the birds ran about chasing one another while choking down the white noodles. A fat pair of tufted Roman geese stood by their hips and accepted the noodles more directly. The Japanese Giant Mountain Chickens moved with majesty. Polly rode one of them like Anna Held on an emu while Brahmas and Egyptian fayoumis raced about their knees. The sheriff had delivered the big birds having broken up a cock-fighting ring and rescuing them from a destruction order for Mr. Wagner’s yard. He’d had to use a horse trailer to get them there, but they were as docile as cows.
Gladys, Polly and Ruth had greatly increased the man’s reading abilities in recent months, though he still insisted that the only reason he couldn’t read properly before was that the young folks had changed languages on him. The ladies even arranged for the Great Wagner to give a magic show at the community center and several of the new posters were lined up along the flower bed causing a few delirious chuckles.
Back inside the cleaned up house where nary an aluminum tray was to be found was an ancient cherry table, and in the drawer lay two pistols.