(PART 1, CH. 1)–The Boy Stranger: A free novel (Can you spot the allegory…er, metaphor…er, both?)

Draw

 

 

 

Jason Credence told his sister, “I don’t recall ever having a dream like that, Lucy.  If I did, I’m sure I would not recognize it.” But he was a dullard, she said, and a fool, with an imagination like the eyes of a fish.

“Well, it was a lovely dream, Jason. Simply lovely.  I suppose you wouldn’t have fancied it, though.”  But all Lucy’s dreams were lovely, Jason knew. There was no difference between one and the next.  For it made no difference.  All was lovely with Lucy.  And all the time.

Jason was seventeen years old when the Civil War came to an end in 1865, and though Jason was considered to be a fool by his sister, and others, he was certainly not a coward.  During the last months of the war, he rode with some older boys who went off on their own sometimes, having no leader (for they were dead),  leaving Richmond in the darkness of night to go fight against the blue soldiers until dawn. One time he managed to kill a Yankee soldier with only a knife.

Several days after the war ended, the boy told Lucy about the soldier he’d killed.  She just smiled and stared out the window and spoke about how lovely the uniforms of the marching blue soldiers were, as the serpentine column wound through the city streets, eyes straight ahead…arrogant, proud, and yet, dignified, and this last thing heated the watching pedestrians to no end.  Lucy was imagining them all with lovely flowers on their lapels, and this she imagined simply because she thought that this would look nice.  When she drew a picture of them later—for she was a talented artist—she showed it to her brother, and he noticed that all the soldiers in the picture were wearing flowers.  Jason said that the flowers did not match the uniforms, or the death that the soldiers wore like a gray, opaque cloak around their shoulders.  His sister replied that it did not matter; she drew them as they marched, and when they marched, they were wearing flowers.  If they did not match…well, they were still so very lovely at any rate.

The boy’s father’s was from Richmond, Virginia, where he was from and where he raised his family.  The boy had a mother, of course, and then his one sibling, Lucy, of whom it has already been spoken.  Lucy was two years younger but several years wiser.  Yes, much wiser even than he was, was Jason’s thinking.

After the Civil War ended, father lost his job.  He had been a bookkeeper for a little shop in Richmond that sold fancy hats.  After the war there were very few people left who could afford them.  Those who could afford father’s hats had no place to wear them, and so they wouldn’t have wasted their money anyway.

The boy always remembered the white visage of the store, and the way the name of the store was written on the front in fancy, black calligraphy.  Father said that one day there would be fancy hats in Richmond again.  One day, when Richmond was born again new, and the streets clean and the glass from the windows shining gold from the sun.  But for now there was nothing left of the shop, and the money was running low, and what was left was practically worthless anyway.

Father began to speak to mother about moving West.  At night the boy would eavesdrop on their long discussions. The boy would press his ear to the cracks in the walls of their two-story row house, and to the undersides and key holes of the bedroom doors, and just listen and listen for what seemed like the entire night as father talked on and on in muffled tones about all the possibilities and opportunities out in the West.

Father suggested that perhaps they should move to South Dakota.  There, father said, he could open his own shop and sell his own fancy hats.  It would be wonderful, he said.  Mother sat quietly on the bed and listened, and when father was done speaking, she asked him about his playwriting.  He’d loved to write plays, and wrote many of them.  Whether they were good or not…this he had never bothered to find out.  And, so what mother was suggesting–that he stay in Richmond and write–had not crossed his mind.

Back before the war, when he was not working in the shop, father was writing plays.  Stacks and stacks of printed dialog would pour out from father’s little office upstairs. When he closed the door to the office, tattered and dog-eared scraps of yellowing and torn paper—some of it even bits of peeling shelf paper—would protrude out from underneath, clogging the space between the floor and the bottom of the door as leaves clog a gutter.  Perhaps he could try to sell these plays.  What a dream that would be, he thought.

Unfortunately the Richmond critics, those few remaining who had not fled north before the war, anyway, were not impressed.  And even though plays were hard to come by since the war ended, there was still the art of the thing to consider.  Dime store novels are better suited out West, they told him, which Father understood was their way of encouraging him to go.  One night while eavesdropping upstairs through a crack in the floor of the house, the boy heard father and the critics talking in the living room. He heard the critics telling his father that it would be hard to make money from a play that was less interesting than a person’s everyday life; and that these days plays had to be especially interesting, as the people of Richmond were coming off the heels of the great and terrible War of the States.  There needed to be something of progress and worldliness to the scripts; new plays for a new time, as it were, they told him.  It was now a very large country, and it was no longer acceptable to simply write about the things of Richmond.

Father seemed insulted, for the men had shown themselves rigid. As he escorted them out of the house, he told them, “The next time you see me, I will bring with me a great play, a new play, and even you stiff necks will then see.  And it will not be about the things of Richmond, but about the things of the West.  But I wonder if you two will be able to understand the difference, even in a country that is now as large as this one.”

“We are leaving,” he told mother and the boy…as they sat together on the bed in father and mother’s bedroom.

“But why so soon?” mother asked.

“Because it is no longer acceptable to write only the things of Richmond,” father said.

“But what else is there, father?” the boy asked.

“There is South Dakota. That should be different enough from this city, though I hear the Yankees have gone from here to there in the past months.  Another war, another rebellion, it seems,” he said with a sigh and shaking his head and carefully folding a shirt.  “But the blue soldiers are everywhere these days, so what can you do?  Richmond, South Dakota…we are all one nation now.”

The next night at dinner, before the candle which sat in the middle of the table, father told his family that they would not be waiting any longer, but that he had made arrangements for them all to leave the very next morning for South Dakota.  He’d bought the tickets, and the train would be waiting for them at the station and it would be leaving on time, and they would damn well be on it.  Lucy seemed excited, and she laughed with affection as father spoke of long train rides and all of the great open wide spaces.

“The West is indeed a good wide space,” father said calmly.  “Wide open spaces like that are sure to need some hats, and maybe even a play or two.” He stopped, smiled at Lucy, and then pushed his fork into his food.  “Fancy hats,” he added, just before taking a bite.

The next morning a coach came to take them to the station where all of them and everything was loaded on to the train.  Its nose pointed towards South Dakota, and soon they were underway.  Slowly at first, as trains do, and then faster, up to speed, then steady, chugging along with no thoughts of Richmond in the steam that rose towards the sky.  Steam…like empty cartoon balloons to be filled with the words of their new life.  The day gave way to the darkness, and the expanses of tracts of land and forest outside gave way to the claustrophobic blankness of black windows.  The boy fell asleep staring at the moon, and he dreamed about the moon rolling down a bright beach near the ocean.

 

***

 

It was many long days on the train before they arrived in South Dakota, in the town of Shadow.  Lucy leaned over and asked the boy if he thought it was a wonderful thing to be in the West.  It was rhetorical, of course.  For she already knew what her foolish brother thought, and she certainly knew without asking him that all of South Dakota was simply lovely.  She had a big smile on her face, and she stared out the window of the train at the people and the platform and all the newness.  Her eyes enthusiastically greeted everything they saw.

“Oh, Jason, do you not think it’s such a wonderful thing to be here in the West?” Another rhetorical question.  Asking questions was how Lucy spoke to herself and others, and sometimes one was not sure to whom her words were directed at any given moment.  Jason understood this, and did not care.  He still always answered her because he loved her.

“Why do you ask me that?” he said, giving her a strange look.

“Because it’s good to think of a place as being wonderful when you first arrive, Jason.  It shows you have manners.”

The boy said he was sorry for not having better manners.  He apologized to her even though she was younger.  He loved her.  And she was smarter, with a much better imagination.

“But I don’t know if it’s wonderful or not, Lucy.  I have never been here. This is the West, and I have never been in the West,” the boy said.  “But do you think it matters if it’s wonderful or not?  I think all that matters is how many hats they have here. I hope they don’t have too many.”

“Oh, Jason,” Lucy said with some pity behind her smile. She slapped him gently on his knee.  She never took her eyes off of the window and all that was beyond it.  After a minute she clasped one hand over her mouth and pointed with her other hand.

“Look, Jason! They have no fancy hats here!” she said.

The boy looked out the window to where her sister was pointing and saw all the people on the platform.  They all wore hats, even the ladies.  He could not tell how fancy the hats were, but he saw that they were not like the hats that father sold.  But this was South Dakota, and he knew the things would be different.

“Do you think father was right?” he asked.

“Father knew enough to get us this far, Jason, and through the War, and you have eaten this morning and all your life.  I think father knows what he needs to know.  The war has ended and we are still alive.”

The boy looked around the train with a curious expression on his face.  “Where is father?”

Lucy tilted her head and frowned.  “He has gone to get our trunks, I think,” she said, looking up and down the aisle and not seeing him.

The boy nodded and turned and looked out the window again. On the platform, through some steam rising from the tracks, he saw many strong men in black suits walking this way and that, with long, slender women walking behind them, as close as they could, with their legs moving gracefully beneath their dresses.  The women moved so gracefully that it almost looked as though they were gliding on air.

The men did not glide, but strode confidently, with long, powerful, purposeful steps, and puffed big cigars.  The men reminded the boy of the train he was on; big and strong and blowing smoke, with airs of confidence, and unwavering forward motion, like they were on tracks; and only ever stopping to let people on or off.

The boy looked again at the women who were walking behind the confident men.  They were the passengers, of course.  Some were clearly getting on, and others looked like they were waiting for a new station to arrive, and hoping it was coming soon. They cast knowing and coy glances at some of the other men walking past them.

The boy said, “I hope he can sell them here, Lucy.  His hats.  I’d rather sell them than hold them out.”

“Oh, Jason, you need to look a little more closely at the West, and use your imagination.  You are a very silly boy, only ever seeing what is right in front of you. But don’t you ever want to know more?  Don’t you ever want to see more?  Perhaps they don’t have fancy hats here, and perhaps they don’t even need them.  But can you not see that fancy hats are what they want?  I can see, Jason.”

She looked out the window and her eyes rose up the glass as she looked at the platform, then to the station house and past it, to the unobstructed expanse beyond.

“I can see, Jason,” she said.  “But I know what I see.  What do you see?”

Jason shrugged.  “I see big, strong men out there in black suits and heavy boots. I don’t know if it’s fanciness they are after, though.  But I can see that they want something and that they are always moving to get it.”

Father came up to Lucy and the boy and told them that the great trunks had been taken off the train and that they were now down on the platform.  There were two men with the trunks, and mother was there, too.  The men were getting impatient, father told them, and the boy noticed that father seemed impatient, too.  He waved his hand at his children with quick movements so that they looked like a hummingbirds at the end of his arms, and he flicked his head left and right, as if he were trying to use his large nose to prod them down the aisle.

They boy stood and took his sister by the hand.  They walked to the door of the train and down the very steep steps onto the platform. As they walked to the place where the two impatient men and mother were waiting with the trunks the boy heard a man behind him say that the train would be late arriving to its next stop.  The boy did not know who the man was speaking to, so he paid close attention, just in case it was him.

The man explained that there were many cows on the tracks in front of the train.  There were too many for the train to push off, and so there would be a delay until the cows decided to move or someone came along and led them away. The train dared not try to push so many cows off the track, the man said; too much damage and too much money.

The boy was not sure if the man was talking about damage to the train or damage to the cows.  He then thought to himself that he had only been in South Dakota a few minutes and already there were so many things for him to think about.  There were so many things to ask about.  What did people care about here?  Was it like it was in Richmond?  Richmond didn’t have many cows, but they did have many horses, and the boy knew that if some train tried to run down a bunch of horses, well, then they would hang that train driver.  But he didn’t know if it was the same thing with the cows in South Dakota.

The boy looked next to him and saw his sister laughing.  This made him feel good…that, and also the fact that it was very bright out in South Dakota that day.  It was brighter than it ever seemed in Richmond.

The boy thought that surely nighttime never fell in South Dakota.  Or maybe it did, but maybe the moon was bigger in the West than it was in Richmond.  Bigger and closer, and so bright that night was day and day was night and there wasn’t any difference.  Day and night…yes, he thought.  What would that be like, if there were no difference at all?

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