Semper letteris mandate
My leg? I was kinda hopin’ nobody would notice ‘cause I don’t want any special treatment an’ all.
Don’t get up Bob. … Oh, you wasn’t? Well, it looked to me like you was kinda thinkin’ about it and I just wanted t’tell you not to bother. Anyways, I got enough room on the end o’ this bench next to Jimbo. Now if only the pickle barrel were a tad closer – why thanks Tom, I believe I will have one.
And don’t go makin’ a big deal of my leg ‘n’ all. It’s nothin’ more’n a broke bone and I’d just as soon that y’all ignored it, like.
What’s that? Well hell, Bob, a’course I got a red flag strapped to my foot. I may not wanna be c’nspicuous, but I sure’s hell don’t want some poor fool doin’ a mischief to himself ‘cause he don’t see I’m carryin’ a longer load’n usual. Where’s your sense, man? You stick a red flag on lumber when you’re haulin’ it in that foreign Jap pickup you drive, don’t ya?
Never mind. I kin see I ain’t gonna get no peace ‘til I tell ya the whole silly story.
It happened three days ago, during that real cold snap. You remember that? Makes today look like a trip to Cuba or the B’amas. I got up that mornin’ fixin’ to finally start repairin’ the barn, but after lookin’ outside I was pretty sure the tools would just snap like twigs from the cold, so’s I put it off for the day.
Well, a day off is a day off — even when you’re achin’ to get some work done — and I figured I’d settle in a little ‘n’ watch a bit o’ the television. So I got myself a coffee and flicked on the set for the news.
Well, I guess y’all remember the big story that day, don’t ya?
No Tom, it weren’t about th’envir’ment gettin’ bad – that ain’t the big news on any day, is it? Well seein’ as how none of you keep up on the current ‘vents like me, I’ll tell you what the big news was. It was about how all them high-rankin’, financeer, bankin’ guys turned themselves in to the law for havin’ screwed up the whole economy. That was the big news on that day.
Well something about the news kinda unsettled me like, so I put on my heavy coat – don’t know why you ever threw it out Jimbo, that manure mostly washed right out – and walked into the village.
I was passin’ by the post office and figured I’d pop in to see the post mistress. She was as glad to see me as ever, though she goes outta her way not to show it. I talked to her for a while ‘cause I know she enjoys the comp’ny, even though she don’t say much.
Then the door flies open and this guy comes runnin’ in like he’s a seven-time widower whose ex-wives have all suddenly dropped in to pay their respects. Other than his wild demeanor, though, he was a right smart-lookin’ fella. City type, you know? Suit with a jacket that matches the pants, a tie that don’t have a recognizable picture on it or nothin’. A real good speaker too, the kinda guy that counts the letters in a word so’s he knows he’s saying them all. I pegged him right away for some gover’ment geek, and sure’nuff, first thing outta his mouth is, “Quick, have you got a phone I can use right away! I’ve got to call the government!”
So Sadie directs him to the phone around the corner behind the counter, and while we wasn’t tryin’ to overhear or nothin’, that is a mighty small post office — so even as quiet as he was talkin’ we could still make out a word or two — ‘specially when we just stood there real still like.
“Hello, Reginald?” he whispers. “Get me the supervisor! Now!” There was a little pause, and then: “Rupert, I’m glad I caught you. It’s true. I’ve checked through all the county documents in this little hell hole and, well — the federal government really did waive all taxation rights on the village back in 1921. … I don’t know exactly, it has something to do with recognition for special services rendered to the war effort, but apparently it was top secret so the details are classified. … Of course I know what that means! It means we’re going to have to give the villagers back all the taxes we’ve collected from them for the last 87 years!”
He said some more, but I’d pretty much quit listenin’. He finished up his conversation, then left, throwin’ a quick “thanks” over his shoulder, like a guy throwin’ money at the ticket booth when the movie’s started and his beau has been waitin’ inside for half hour ‘r so.
Well, neither Sadie nor I knew what to say t’that, so I left to go think about it over a coffee at Cooper’s Diner. I walks in, says “Hey” to old Coop who gives off with that jokey rough talk of his, like tellin’ me to “get out” and stuff.
When the pleasantries are over, and Coop’s seen the ten dollar bill I got in my wallet, I sit down at one of the booths by the window and order a cuppa coffee and some eggs with bacon. While I’m sittin’ drinkin’ my coffee and waitin’ for Coop to burn the eggs just enough to satisfy his odd sense of humour, I sees old lady Witherspoon comin’ over the Millrace Bridge. Naturally, I don’t think nothin’ of it, she’s a good Church o’ England lady and always doin’ some good or t’other which is fine by me, so long as she ain’t doin’ it in my general direction.
Then I look down the other way and sees old lady O’Henesey comin’ from the opposite direction.
Now the Protestant-English and the Cath’lic-Irish have always gotten along pretty good here – hasn’t the Cath’lic church still got those orange flowers some pranksters planted the day before the Orange Parade in ‘38? But while everyone else ignores that Old World nonsense, the misses Whitherspoon and O’Henesey have kept the war goin’ enough to make up for the rest of us.
So anyway, when I saw them comin’ towards each other like that I gotta admit, I was kinda scared at first. I mean nobody likes to be within the blast area when those two let loose their arsenal. Talk about “shock and awe”! But then I figured I was bein’ a fool on accounta because I was safe inside Coop’s place while they was a good fifty yards away. If I left now I’d be missin’ the chance of a life-time to have a ringside seat at the best boxing match ever.
They got closer, then they were right next to each other, and then they were past each other, and I thought, “Shoot, ringside seat and both fighters take a dive.”
But then they turn, like at the same moment. One of them says somethin’ — ‘course I can’t hear what. Then the other one says somethin’. They get a bit closer. Then O’Henesey puts out her hand and old lady Witherspoon, instead of knockin’ it to one side, or even shakin’ it for cryin’ out loud, reaches right past it and grabs O’Henesey and hugs her!
And O’Henesey hugs her back!
I look real close and can see they’re cryin’, real gut-bustin’ sobs, and it looks for all the world to me like — well, this is goin’ to sound crazy, but I swear they was makin’ up! Over fifty years of fightin’ each other and suddenly they’re makin’ up!
Well Coop brought me my breakfast just then, the eggs burnt a little just like always, and since it didn’t look like there was goin’ to be any shootin’ outside – they were walkin’ arm in arm towards Mrs. Witherspoon’s house by this time – I put my attention on my food ‘cause my philosophy is, if you’re goin’ to eat somethin’, it’s better for your digestion if’n you’re not thinkin’ about anything else at the moment.
When I’d finished up I was so befuddled I actually decided to go see the reverend Shaw. Maybe I’ve not been a good Anglican, but I’ve always believed it’s the best church around. After all, they’re going to be the first ones to see God, for don’t it say in the Good Book that “the dead in Christ will rise first”? But while I was on my way I ran into Father Dodsworthy who was out shoveling the rectory walk. He took one look at me and said, “My God man, what’s the matter.”
So I told him what had been going on. I told him that the bankers had jest turned themselves in for bein’ prize fool idjits, that the government was goin’ to give back 87 years of taxes to everyone in the village, and that the old ladies Witherspoon and O’Henesey had just become best friends.
Father Dodsworthy listened to me, a big smile growing on his face, and when I was done he said, “You really don’t know what’s going on, do you.”
Well, that kinda annoyed me, but I kept it in check and answered, “No sir, I don’t.”
So he took me by the arm and led me into the church.
Now like I said, I’ve always been an Anglican, and I hold with that church, but the Cath’lics definitely have a few aces up their sleeves that the rest of us got no clue about. Dodsworthy took me back to the confession booths, but instead of putting me in the one that his parishioners use, he dragged me into the one that he uses while listenin’ to them prattle.
And I’ll be damned if it isn’t an elevator inside.
There was a small control panel with only three buttons. The top one had an “H” on it, the middle one had a “G” on it, and the bottom one had another “H”.
“So what’s the ‘G’ stand for?” I asked.
“Ground level,” he answered.
Well, I’m nobody’s fool but my own, and I could pretty well figure out where the two Hs went, so I got into a bit of a panic when Dodsworthy pressed the lower one.
“Calm down,” he told me. “We’re just going for a visit. I’m not leaving you there. At least not yet.”
I wasn’t entirely reassured by his last comment, but I did manage to stop shakin’ so much.
“You want to know why all these strange things are happening, don’t you?”
I nodded feebly.
“You want to know why the richest and most powerful men have suddenly taken responsibility for plunging the economy into a nose-dive? Why our own government is going to give everyone in the village an unprecedented payout? Why the English and the Irish are suddenly getting along? “
The elevator stopped and the doors opened.
“There’s your reason,” he said, pointing outside.
Well I gotta say, we’ve all heard about the place, but not many have had a chance to actually see it and come back to tell the tale. I just had to get off and take a little look around.
Which, of course, is how I broke my leg — by slipping on the ice the day hell froze over.
Be a good lad and hand me another pickle for the road, would you Tom?
* Featured Image: “Monomoy” by G.H. Ballou.
1864. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine