It was Autumn now. That meant things like crunchy, yellow-brown leaves—like the ones that a feller' or missus might see falling from that lonely maple rooted miles to the east in Rogers County. It meant the arrival of corn harvest and the annual Corny Cob Festival. It meant the vigorous sewings-together of wool dresses and scarves. No less it meant shorter days, and young'ens back at the one-room schoolhouse to learn their ABC's and hone their coyote-cussin' skills. Yet, for the purposes of our present story, in particular, this remote corner of the American Midwest meant something a great deal more perpetuating: yellow stalks of goldenrod flowers, which canvassed the prairie that stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see.
They trembled. Not the yellow flowers, which stood stock still in the autumn air, but the yellower-even townspeople of Fort Wood—all three hundred of them, who on this afternoon in mid-September they would not soon forget, stood shaking all the way down to their calfskin boots as the stranger, the hooligan, known far and wide for his quick draw and meaner attitude, reached for his holster.
It was time for the showdown. Time to see who was faster. Time for history to be made. Time for the epoch of despair and disillusionment to end and the age of enchantment and enlightenment to begin. Time for the Legend of Fort Wood to be born. Time for death. Time for resurrection from the dead. Time for that first goldenrod flower to be placed—much to the bewilderment of that world to which electricity had been first introduced, but to the elation of worlds like our own in which electricity is now as mainstay as the goldenrod flower itself.
It had all started back at the saloon.
One of the locals (Hap Greenfield, the town tanner, according to legend) set the hands of fate into motion when, stepping out from behind a barstool riddled with bullet-holes to address the stranger, the hooligan, known far and wide for his quick draw and meaner attitude, with wide eyes had said,
"Awful sorry we can't oblige ye, bub." Hap said. "It's just that, well, we's not fighters here so much as a buncha sons-a-guns that like to drink!"
Hap darted his eyes around the saloon in frenzied search of someone drunk and fool enough to relieve him of his duties as spokesperson. His heart rose within him when he heard a rustling sound over by the bar; then, sunk again when he noticed that it was just farmer Johnson, poking his nose overtop the counter as to allow his wide, watery eyes a quick peek at the action. That nose, those eyes, as quickly disappeared.
The hooligan got red-faced mad. Un-holstering his firearm, he resumed firing at random unwitting saloon-patrons. He fired off also a volley of barbarous taunts, which reverberated through the wafts of his own gun-smoke even as the tanner dove for his life behind one of the overturned tables.
Finally the shouting stopped, the smoke cleared, and the hooligan, his eyeballs dancing in their sockets like freed slaves at a cake walk, offered explanation finally as to why he had just shot to high hell their Lazy Saloon.
"Okay, yer bastards," he yammered. "It's duel time! Gimme yer fastest and yer best, so's I can shoots 'im in the 'ed faster than you can say 'Hey, Joe, our fastest an' our best just got hisself shots in the 'ed!"
All could hear a dripping sound, over by the piano. Someone was peeing their pants.
The hooligan lowered his firearm, but only for the sake of a reload. His game-plan was to continue firing until someone, anyone, grew unnerved enough to take him on. The hooligan attended to his firearm, slammed closed the cylinder and locked it. He wheeled his eyes around the room. "Duel time, gos dang it!" he hollered, jumping up and down. "C'mon, free hole in the 'ed for one a' you guyses!"
Not wanting anything to do with a hole in the head, as it might, if nothing else, minimize their ability to sip whiskey, the saloon patrons continued to hide behind barstools and tables and keep their pie-holes shut.
Finally, a stirring was heard over by the blackjack table.
Mayor Jenks, elected sheriff of Fort Wood after the de facto sheriff, Slim Jim Roberts, had ended up on the wrong side of a duel with the last stranger who had slithered into town—didn't want anything to do with a hole in the head, either. Still, Jenks's responsibilities as both acting-sheriff and mayor limited the opportunity he had to cower in corners. Mayor Jenks downed the last of his whiskey, narrowed his eyes. Blood hot with rage, he arose from his hiding spot behind the blackjack table . . . only to feel his legs wobble, then, give way, as he slumped back to the floor into a red-eyed slobbery heap. He lifted his head. "All our gunslingers are on errand right now, Mister." The mayor belched. "Or way too roostered!"
The hooligan wasn't interested in roosters, any more than he was in excuses. Chin up, he cited his exploits: 1) "Shots folk from Denver, Albuqurque, Hays, and everywheres in-between—in the 'ed!" 2) "Ability to shoots peoples in the 'ed;" 3) "Can sees like a 'awk (which helps my's ability to shoots peoples in the 'ed);" 4) Favorite hobby: "to shoots people in the 'ed!"
His own head throbbing, and now, spinning, Mayor Jenks rubbed his swollen red eyes. Finally, he was able to hoist himself off of the floor. "But, we like our heads just the way we got 'em, Mister!" he cried. Stumbling his way over, the mayor, in passing by the bar, curled his fingers around an unsuspecting cowhand's mug of suds. "Here, feller—" the mayor with congenial grin offered it to the hooligan "—courtesy of the fair-playin', peace-lovin' citizens of Fort Wood. Ya see, I'm the mayor—the head honcho like, he he—of this here burg, and which gives me the right to offer complimentary beers to folk like yourself on behalf of—"
With a single, hard shove the hooligan sent the Mayor of Fort Wood reeling, frothy suds to soak the mayor's leather vest and flow in streams down his acting-sheriff's badge. The hooligan raised his pistol, leveled it at the crouched and trembling figure on the floor. Tempting his finger against the trigger, the hooligan snarled, "Curtsy of the guy who's 'bout to shoots you in the 'ed . . . "
Lucky for the mayor, for them all, that an individual lurking in the shadows and known affectionately to the locals as Tin Can Toby, was just old enough to think he might know a thing or two about hooligans fresh off the high plains with crazy in their eyes, and just young enough to think that he could do something about it. Granted, it wasn't for the sake of mayors and spilt beer that Tin Can Toby would at that moment choose to call over, "Hey, beef-for brains!" (the hooligan lowered his firearm and eyed his now-decided next victim), would choose to with measured paces stride over, nose up to the hooligan, drop a big looger on the hooligan's excrement-stained excuse for a boot, turn his back on the hooligan; and then, arriving at the swinging-door exit, to holler over, "Shots to the 'ed are neither here nor there . . . and so messy, why not let's make it a shot to the heart, 'cause mine's fulla life and fulla love. Only a shot to the heart'll take me down . . . " The words echoed through the funereal silence of the saloon as Toby strutted his gangly frame through the swinging doors to step outside, there to holler out those immortal words, "C'mon, I haven't got all day!" No, not for the sake of mayors and spilt beer that Tin Can Toby would elect to tangle with the stranger, the hooligan, known far and wide for his quick draw and meaner attitude; and made all the meaner now with big looger on his shoe.
"They say, that he didn't do it for the mayor, nor for all those others. For myself, I'm thinkin' that he did it for you, and for me, and for these girls here (hugs shared with daughters Denise and Jamie)."
- Martha McDougal, speaking with interviewer at the 81st
annual Tin Can Celebration, 1974
The wily eyes of the hooligan gleamed dully as they trained their gaze on the still-swinging saloon doors. "So be it," he huffed as he stalked toward, then through those doors. "Shot in the 'art . . . comin' up."
"A showdown!" Toby could hear the pronouncement made from inside. They thronged out after him. Every sloshed, wild-steppin' Joe Bob, Jim Roy, and Leroy cut a path out of the saloon—
Into Main Street, the only street in town. And a street, where the blue-eyed and frilly-red-haired Hannah Anderson would over the minutes that followed, in like manner affect her search for a spot to view the powder-burnin' contest; she, along with the waves of humanity who with similar intent thronged out of the post office, the bank, the livery station, the schoolhouse . . .
Toby loved Hannah Anderson. She was his answer to all the evils in the world, not the least of which was celibacy. Toby grew wistful. He closed his eyes.
Of course, standing there as he was, in the middle of Main Street, hands at his sides, waiting for his opponent to readjust his "gos dang gun-belt," and for the din of the townspeople to lower from the babel of three-hundred conversationalists to the cryings of the few toddlers on hand, Toby had, at the outset, no small difficulty. Then, came a gradual fading of the whole hue and cry of downtown as Toby, in his mind's eye, hearkened back to that Wednesday of the week previous—an afternoon of mixed sun and clouds in which a passing crow or emboldened squirrel might have witnessed Toby in the act of chopping wood, when Hannah had startled him.
"Whuh?" Toby had asked, trying to direct attention away from the massacred stump that his ax kept bouncing off of.
"I said—" his surprise visitor returned answer "—that I'm s-o-r-r-y, you know, 'bout the way I laughed my bonnet off at that, er . . . bouquet of flowers you'd sent me, one I thought would make me sneeze—but didn't, ones you gave me as invitation for that walk with you sometime . . . " Hannah took a step closer, "out in fields of gold." Hannah tempted a smile. "Goldenrods!" she exclaimed. "Not only are they beautiful, Tobe, but dare I say they're my absolute favorite-est weed of all time. Or at least now they are."
The combination of these words and the sight of the rise and fall of Hannah's bosom got Toby so excited that in trundling over to grab another log to smash with his ax he tripped and whacked the butt of the ax against his shin. "Ow!" Recovering, his hobbles less pronounced, Toby sputtered, "Does that mean you'll accept my invitation—to go for a walk out in fields of gold sometime?"
"What it means," Hannah smiled, as she began to walk away, "is that I'm still thinking about it."
Then Hannah Anderson winked.
Winked—was also what the hooligan then did (at the crowd, and in mockery of his blond-haired, green-horned opponent . . . whose wholesale attention remained fixed on his Wednesday afternoon reverie). The hooligan greased the handle of his Colt 44 single-action revolver. He aimed. He fired. He blew the tip of Toby's ear off.
"C'mon, you's. Draw!"
Toby came to.
His move. It was Toby's move—and Toby's, because even a character as reprehensible as this hooligan was wont to know and abide by the unwritten golden rule for all duelists north of the Rio Grande: The provoked party is always allowed to reach first.
The hooligan reddened. He spouted profanities that made the women-folk blush and the men folk clap hands over their young'ens' ears.
But Toby first had to see them . . . the townspeople, this audience of friends, neighbors, and kinsfolk who in the days to come would be either barraging him with a never-ending line of handshakes or would get busy burying him.
At the fore of Toby's vision stood the postal clerk, Ham Warren, all 6'5" of him, and who incidentally happened to be the firmest handshake in town. Tall as a cedar of Lebanon, Ham stood with arms crossed in front of his Pony Express station, eyeing Toby with the glare of one consigned to the putting down of a wounded horse. Toby gulped. He reoriented his gaze to hone in on subjects whom he reckoned more familiar with things like the story of David and Goliath; for example, like rosy-cheeked and cheery-eyed Pamela Hausenweter—Toby's second cousin, and renowned Bible thumper whose equally cheery outlook would, Toby mused, constrain her to see in Toby's holster not pistol, but sling. Robby Jenkins, his buddy from school, could no doubt see sling, as well. As might Old Mrs. Winthrop, Toby's next-door neighbor. These, and three-hundred or so others (all standing, none sitting, all charged up, none to calm-looking) cheered while praying, cheered while trembling and calling out things like, "Oh, please, Tobe, don't miss!" and "Shoot 'im, Tobe, right in the 'art!" and "Get yer roasters here . . . roast-ers . . . !"
Roasters: roast buffalo on a stick, an hors-dourve item exclusive to the American Midwest of the 1890's, and the town of Fort Wood's historically famous, and favorite, foodstuff:
"Tangy lean meat marinated in a stew of secret-recipe
spices lends a tasty reminder of the way that things used
to be—and still are, and forever will be,
here in timeless Fort Wood."
-- Rufus Brown, Mayor of Fort Wood,
in his interview with Time Magazine, June, 1956
Toby continued to course his sights over the hometown crowd. Of course, it wasn't merely Old Mrs. Winthrop and second and third cousins whom Toby had wanted to see as if for the last time. More than anyone else he wanted to see, obviously, Hannah. But then Toby noticed something peculiar. No, not the peculiar way that the sun rays boomeranged their brilliance off of the silver necklace dangling from the elegant neck of this same Hannah Anderson—Toby in the meantime having spotted Hannah over by the emporium, bearing in her arms a gunnysack of grain which drooped over folded arms like a pregnancy. Something even more peculiar than that.
About twenty of them. Galloping straight towards the town. On horses. On the wind!
Comanches. That's what they were all right, and with black paint streaked across their foreheads and shoulders. War, those streaks meant. WAR!
Tomahawks? Check. Buffalo helmets? Check. Bows and arrows? Check. Intent look upon Indians' faces . . . ? (Toby squinted). Check!
Fast-forward one-hundred-and-three years, at which time Jane Cashman, news reporter for the Kansas City World, in her July, 1997 front-page article entitled "Truths and Red Devil Lies about the Tin Can," would write:
"So, we're forced to endure all of this talk nowadays from pundits, self-appointed know-it-alls, and other riffraff items, who seek to revisit the question as to why it was that Tin Can Toby chose to tussle with that out-of-towner whom some historians believe to be the notorious outlaw himself, Oregon Don. No, Toby was not drunk, nor did Toby possess some cognition that by his accepting the stranger's challenge he would single-handedly transform the depressed state of the world he lived in into the hope-filled world that we know today. The enduring mystery of the goldenrods, and, of the grave, would come as result of that age-old cliché: boy meets girl."
Jane Cashman would conclude on page fourteen of her syndicated column:
"History was made that day when Toby tried to impress the girl, then he disregarded the girl as well as himself in order to play a high-stakes game which he knew that if he won, would save his hometown. Instead, Toby ended up saving his home planet.
With the hooligan still cackling at Toby's expense, and the Indians galloping closer, those stakes could not have been higher. Toby squinted the sun out of his eyes and in his mind's eye envisioned the following: three-hundred citizens . . . spotting the paint-streaked warriors; three-hundred citizens . . . forgetting the duel entirely; three-hundred citizens . . . rushing off to grab Winchesters then firing enough lead into the oncoming cavalcade to challenge the output even of the former Confederate army; three-hundred citizens . . . three hundred citizens . . .
Many of whom, their hands clasped in prayer instead of clasping Winchesters, remained oblivious to the bloody fate which one might suppose awaited them. And—it was all because the bell wasn't tolling.
Panicking, the thought crossed Toby's mind: surely the boy up in the watchtower, the bell tower—the boy whose turn it was to be the town lookout, could see all a' them buffalo helmets by now. But the boy, Toby noticed, along with everyone else had his sights on the powder-burnin' contest, and not instead in the direction he had been sworn to uphold even in the event of a powder-burnin' contest: west!
The voice of his adversary: "Dagnabbit, les' go! DRAW!"
The vision faded. In his mind's eye, Toby could no longer see three-hundred fleet-footed citizens, nor a forest of rifles pointed in the direction of the Indians. Now, all that Toby could see was a flock of sitting ducks, their eyes upon himself, alone.
And upon the hooligan, of course.
"DRAW! I'll keel you like that bobcat I wrestled, like that bear I slaughtered with me can opener!"
Toby wanted to cry out, "Look! LOOK!" his finger pointed to the horizon. But he couldn't. He so much as moved, he'd get shot in the 'art. Guaranteed.
The hooligan spat. "Varmint, I'm a gonna give ye a tin count."
A ten count? Toby wondered, though, not aloud, lest his speech be misinterpreted for motion and he get waxed.
"That's right. A tin count." The hooligan paused, and then, "Tin . . . "
Wait, what do you mean, a ten count?
"Nine . . . "
Toby knew what it meant alright. It meant that his he and his zeal to prove himself to the woman of his dreams was about to jeopardize his entire hometown. It meant that the Lords of the Plains, the most clever, fearless warriors this side of Geronimo, would, along with their weapons of destruction, soon be here. To be sure, there would be more than just twenty of such warriors. There would be hundreds more. This was just the advance party, surely.
"Eight . . . "
Their horses trampling goldenrod blossoms which of the millions canopying the western horizon stood in their way—the Indians galloped closer still.
"Seven . . . "
Toby shook himself. Options! Need to run through some possible options here. He began to brainstorm.
"Six . . . "
Hmmm . . . nah, that won't work.
"Five . . . "
Wait, maybe if I . . .
"Four . . . "
Hey, don't count so fast!
"Three . . . "
And so it was that Toby, on the brink of despair, and a two count, decided to take his chances. It was the only thing that he could think of that wouldn't spell wholesale disaster for the inhabitants of Fort Wood.
"Two . . . "
Toby felt his fingers grow warm even as he made the decision that would forever seal not only his fate, but the fate of Fort Wood, of goldenrods everywhere, of people everywhere, of the wide world itself.
He drew—and fired, three times.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The redolent sound of lead ricocheting off of iron, ping, ping, ping, in reply.
Another shot rang out.
It was all over.
A body slumped. The winner celebrated. The townspeople gasped, sighed, and then, hearkened, to a sound which suggested that they had better, if they knew what was good for them, look west. With bated breath and livened pulse the townspeople looked west, even as the bell continued to toll.
The bell. The Indians!
"Hold it! Hold it!" a man hollered, throwing himself into the very mayhem and waving his arms. "They're not here to kill us . . . just to tell us we're all outdated!"
Neighbor nudged neighbor to quit hotfootin' it around like crazed steer, to lower that pitchfork, that hoe, that spatula, and look over. Everyone looked over.
The silence of a cemetery. Of the dead, if you will. The mass of citizens veiled their paranoia, shaded their eyes, as Mayor Jenks, a rueful look on his face, stepped forward to the podium that wasn't a podium only a patch of Main Street dirt, and turned up the microphone that wasn't a microphone only his nineteenth-century whiskey-soaked vocal chords.
"Attention . . . fellow citizens of Fort Wood!"
It wasn't a long speech, half the length maybe of the one delivered a year earlier at the christening of the new horse stables, but damned if it didn't stink any less! In between hiccups, the mayor began to put into words how he had forgotten, yes, quite forgotten, to tell everyone that fifteen diplomats, the governor among them, dressed incognito like Indians (so as not to get killed while crossing reservation lands) would be arriving today, "round about in fact, this very hour." The frenetic expressions on the faces of three-hundred townspeople fell off, gave way to three-hundred frowns. Mayor Jenks proceeded to lecture in praise of the merits and professional accomplishments of the "distinguished gentleman" standing to his left, Samuel Atkins III, who was the "no kidding, governor of our state!" The mayor squawked on about the governor's praiseworthy decision to esteem their very own—the mayor reared back, "Fort Wood!" to be included in his new and strategic "'Electricity Works: Even Better than Candles, Torches, and Lanterns' campaign." Hence, the reason for this unprecedented visit.
From off to the side, "Nice intro, Mayor!" a throaty voice bantered. Then, the voice enunciated "E-lec-tric-it-y;" pausing afterward as to allow the word to settle over the stunned gathering. Which it did, though like a thunderclap over a tea party. Inquired the voice, "Times are changin', right? And so isn't it high time that towns in my jurisdiction—like Fort Wood, change along with them?"
The mayor turned and asked if the half-naked, paint-streaked governor would be so pleased as to come up and grace the town of Fort Wood with "a few additional chestnuts of wisdom and fancy sayins' that'll set our hearts and minds aglow like so many of them lightbulb thing-a-ma-bobs."
A toothy grin. "My pleasure, Mayor Jenks."
The governor's broad, congenial grin was however not reciprocated by the townspeople, who were still frowning, their attentions since hijacked by a certain bigwig who was no more Injun than Queen Victoria and who was proceeding to step up to a podium that was no podium, only a parcel of Main Street dirt.
"Hey, where're you all going!" the governor hollered in the direction of the procession of townspeople which, over the minutes that followed, swelled to become the mass exodus of all of the townspeople, who, with turned backs and stalwart strides did as much as declare that speeches by politicians were maybe not their thing. A stretcher, borne at either end by a pair of brawny lads in coveralls, headed the advance of townspeople—whose marchers appeared to be the somberest that the governor had ever seen. The governor noticed in particular a young woman with red hair who was sobbing uncontrollably, and bear-hugging a gunnysack of grain to her bosom with all the torment of love lost.
"Where in the dickens is everyone goin'!" the governor flailed his flabby, paint-smeared arms into the air.
* * *
The young man in the Boston Red Sox shirt turned off his cell-phone, tucked it into the back pocket of his skinny jeans. He did this, not because his game of solitaire showcasing on the phone's touchscreen read "game over," but because it had suddenly dawned on him that he was not as bored as he thought he might be by the tour guide's ramblings on about people long dead. Frowning, the young man said, "So, I don't get it. Why did all the townspeople just diss the governor like that?"
Someone chuckled. A few others sighed, some even took the opportunity to move their legs around a bit. They had been standing a long time, lending their ears to this introduction part so that they might at length be allowed a glimpse of what each had waited a lifetime for.
They had come to see the grave.
It was old. It was mythic. It had been featured on the Discovery Channel. The tour guide dismissed the young man's question. Instead of answering, he just smiled, spat out some of his tobacco.
The others in the group smiled too (they didn't spit though). Tom and Maggie, standing to the Red Sox guy's right, had flown in from Nova Scotia, Canada; John Stallins hailed from Des Moines; Ron and Lucinda Walker were from Chicago; Joni Harper described herself as a "southern girl" even though she lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Rita Martinez owned and operated a maid service in Reno; and from Albany, New York, there was Meghan Klein, who requested that everyone please call her as "Meg." Meg shared that she was on spring break and had traveled "over a thousand miles in a fourteen-year-old Chevy Sonata with no muffler" to come visit "this fairy tale land which ever since I was a little girl I've heard so many stories about."
It had been a day long in coming for them all. Forty years? Twenty? Ten? However long each of these vacationers had been resigned to forestall this trip of a lifetime, they all were at long last here.
Excepting the Red Sox guy, who in his mind was somewhere else entirely, and who was officially pissed off now because no one had as yet answered his question. He decided to pose another. "Okay, so I'm at the doctor's office, right, and flippin' through the pages of Newsweek. And I come across a headline that reads 'Number One Tourist Attraction in the Midwest.' And guess what? The article was about this place!"
A loud, rattling sound pierced the fresh country air and forestalled any attempt at rebuttal to the Red Sox guy's remark.
The tour guide waved everyone forward. "Sounds like a squirrel, dudn't it? Knocking its way around a bucket?"
"A tin bucket!" exclaimed Joni Harper from Pittsburgh, pumping her southern-girl fist into the air. "In commemoration of Tin Can Toby!"
"C'mon, I'll show yahs!"
Thankful to be moving again, the little band of "Moderners" followed their tour-guide escort and his cowboy hat down Main Street.
The only street in town.
"Good day, Dorothy," the tour guide waved.
"Good day, Dan," a woman with bonnet waved back. "Good day, everyone."
The visitors hesitated, in equal degrees fearful and not wanting to offend. Instead of waving back, answering, they snapped photos—of the woman, the general store, the barbershop, folks banging away at anvils, bowing, curtseying, loading sacks, leaning up against wood posts with hands stuffed in pockets. The tour guide reached into his own pocket to pull out something coppery: an Indian's Head penny, and which he as soon handed over to a cart-pushing vendor dressed in coveralls and straw hat. "Watch this," the tour guide winked at the group. The exchange was made: copper penny for skewered meat. "See, what I mean? No inflation. Nothing's changed here, not since 1893." The Moderners were likewise invited to try some roast buffalo on a stick.
" . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . "
The sound, the summonsing, of the tin can!
"Understand please, folks . . . " the tour guide again led the way, directing attention to the fields of gold that hemmed in the town on all sides and could be seen ever more clear now in-between some of the larger, public buildings and overtop not a few of the smaller homesteads and barns. "Understand—that that cowboy you see yonder, that milkmaid next to him, those non-mechanized oxen in that field o'er there . . . these aren't actors, and this is not a set. This is how these folks—and animals—actually live."
"Amish," scoffed the Red Sox guy. "They're backwards. Just like the Amish. Also let me say this: I wouldn't eat this janky-ass stuff-on-a-stick if my life depended on it!"
The tour guide halted in mid-stride. Neither pretentious nor easily offended, he at any event decided to entertain the sudden urge that he had to allow himself to sink to this Moderner's level. "Guess," he said, "I didn't mention to y'all that I had the privilege of showing around two summers ago—the Emir of Saudi Arabia? Then back in '87 . . . Princess Diana." The tour guide exhaled. "Tell me," over his shoulder he said, resuming his stride, his temptation toward sarcasm and braggadocio fading as his usual civility returned, "would any of you deny yourself, say, air conditioning . . . if you didn't have to? Shampoo, for no reason at all? Look, we Fort-Wooders are not unreasonable. It's not because we enjoy doin' without stuff like laundry detergent, Internet, these walkie-talkies that I hear so much about, rather it's 'cause—"
The tour guide pursed his lips. "How abouts we call it more along the lines of superstition. Ya see, when Toby shot that bell—"
"Oh, I get it. I get it now!" The Red Sox guy flushed his cheeks and flailed his arms even as feet and legs trundled onward. "So, Toby shoots the bell, right?" The Red Sox guy swallowed. "In an attempt to warn the townspeople, right? And so the townspeople, touched all the way to their bootheels or whatever, interpret the whole deal as some sort of omen. Now, even with this wicked lame governah guy galloping into town, everybody already by this point assumes—no, they know—that their very own Tin Can Toby couldn't've just shot that bell in vain, that he musta known something, and which I'm guessin' musta had something to do with that whole Electricity Works campaign of the governah's, that whole 'times are changing, we need to change along with them' rap. Heck, you can all but hear the townspeople say to one another, 'Electricity, and change, and walkie-talkies, are the very horrible things that Toby had meant to warn us about by shooting that bell!'" Toby's smile shown resplendent as he paused to allow the brilliance of his insight imprint itself upon all present. He continued, "Anyways, since that day way back in 1693, or whenever it was, and even, like, unto today—Governah Atkins's modernization proposal, and the governah-after-Atkins's modernization proposal, and the governah-after-after-Atkins's modernization proposal, have been straight-up turned down by the people of Fort Wood. They still," Toby lowered his gaze to consider the food item held in hand which had yet to cross paths with his mouth, "they still eat roast buffalo on a stick."
The tour guide leveled his brow. "Decided to sneak a peek at the brochure, have we?" He smiled. "That's right. They heeded the high call of Tin Can Toby's sacrifice."
The sound of puking, or of someone pretending to puke.
"Why—" Lucinda from Chicago placed her hands on her hips, "did you even travel yo'self out over here, then?"
"Vie?" The Red Sox guy unstuck his finger out of his mouth. "I'll tell you why. My coworkers, see, they surprised me with this ticket last month, saying, 'Hey, Red Sox guy, you need a vacation like the hah-bah needs fish that don't smell like chemicals.' At first I thought the ticket'd be one to get me into some wicked awesome place like Fenway Park." The Red Sox guy sighed. "But no, it was Legend of Fort Wood something or other. I had to come. For their sake."
"Ah, for their sake," echoed the tour guide. Then, after a long silence, and after clearing his throat, the tour guide placed what amounted to a lid on audience participation when with sermonizing tenor he resumed his discourse as concerning the sad fate of one Tin Can Toby. "And yet," the tour guide pointed out, "maybe not so sad a fate for our hero. For, was it not Tin Can Toby's sacrifice," the tour guide made askance of the clouds and sun above, and fields of gold on all sides, "which was to provide that key cosmic ingredient to that secret recipe which has since given rise to the Legend of Fort Wood?" The tour guide spoke of the townspeople, past and present; he spoke of magic, and miracles, of sunsets and sunrises, of washbasins and wheelbarrows, of carrying some kind of torch, of the inexplicable crossings over of the conscience and the metaphysical—
"Is that cow poop I smell?"
The Red Sox guy again.
Offered Joni from Pittsburgh, a bit snidely, "You think that it's for nothin' they call places like this cow-towns?"
The Red Sox guy pinched his nose. "Cows stink," he said.
The tour guide turned, pointed. "Look!"
It was shinier, more rotund than any of them had ever imagined.
The bell tower. The bell itself.
Everyone froze in their tracks. Flashing lights blinked with the radiance of a thousand fireflies from out of the Moderners' photo-encapturing devices.
"Oh how stupid!" a voice cried. The Red Sox guy again. "It's a giant tin can! Whoever heard of a bell in the shape of a tin can!"
. . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . .
"This is it, then. The very spot . . . " the tour guide lowered his head " . . . where Tin Can Toby stood, fired those three shots . . . where Tin Can Toby died." The tour guide's voice began to falter, as always it did at this point in the presentation. "The very spot where that first goldenrod was placed upon Toby's all-too-broken heart, by a young woman . . . named Hannah Anderson."
"I can't wait to see de goldenross!" cried the normally-reserved-because-her-English-was-not-so-good Rita from Reno.
The Red Sox guy shook his head. "Can't wait to see goldenrods?"
Around past the bell tower, over that hillcrest, through fields of goldenrod, all the way even to the middle of nowhere. It was a five-minute walk, which, notwithstanding the prickers, would introduce many of them to country fresh air and to what a real-life coyote looked like!
The little band of Moderners stopped, gathered round—in a field where not a single telephone pole could be seen.
"Okay, folks. Y'all ready?" The tour guide leaned forward. His eyes grew large. He shouted, "Go for the gold!"
It all happened so fast. The tour groupers bolted, singing, screaming, into nature's treasure chest of milkweed and pollen: the fields of gold surrounding them. The Red Sox guy just stood there, blinking. But then, he found the tour groupers right back on the pathway, away from the ticks and chiggers, flowers in hand, awaiting further instructions from their guide.
"Have we all got the gold? Okey-doke, off to the graveyard we go!"
"Wait." Everyone squinted over at the empty-handed Red Sox guy. "STOP. Please! What the hell just happened here?"
No less than three Moderners simultaneously slumped their shoulders, and sighed. John from Des Moines sneezed; apologizing, he put forth that not even a serious case of allergies was going to stop him from going for the gold.
Then, a young woman stepped forward. "I'll tell you—" the woman grinned "—what just happened here." However the grin appeared much to ardent to bode friendly, and not a few present wondered if the young woman had not all along been biding her time for this very moment, this very opportunity, to at last present itself.
Meg, from New York, had had a bittersweet taste in her mouth about this so-called Red Sox guy ever since their run-in back in the parking lot—and it wasn't because she was a diehard Yankees fan, either. Meg rolled up her sleeves, narrowed her eyes. Begging the tour guide's pardon, Meg proceeded to wonder aloud if this Red Sox guy maybe had not maybe devoured too many of those chemical-soaked Boston Harbor fish he had mentioned about—hence his "general cluelessness" about the matter at hand. Meg had a quiver-ful of additional barbs she would liked to have lanced this fellow with; and yet this wasn't because she disliked him. On the contrary, she found herself rather attracted to him. Meg had always imagined herself as having high standards when it came to men, and encouraging—by way of constructive criticisms—her would-be fellow to live up to his potential, wasn't so very bad, was it? Meg wet her lips. With a smile she asked if the Red Sox guy might wish to join her for coffee sometime, after they got back to the real world.
The real world, the others mused. Did it even exist anymore?
The Red Sox guy smiled in return all the while his mind's eye hearkened him back to that parking lot scene from earlier, and the surprise expression on the coffee chick's comely face after he had (maybe not so accidentally!) grazed the back bumper of her car with the front bumper of his.
Maggie from Nova Scotia nudged her husband. "Look, Tom—at the two love birds. Love at first sight. When was the last time you saw that happen?"
The tour guide nodded. "Happens all the time here, folks. The grave. Some strange power from outta the grave."
And with that, the tour groupers marched onward towards Long Trail Cemetery, located about a hundred yards "in thata direction." The gravelly path upon which the group tread gave way to a tarnished chrome archway which the tour guide expounded was of Victorian vintage, and whose iron-work flounces and leafy embellishments cast their shadows over the group's passing, in this way granting them entrance into cemetery proper.
That gravestone which they sought was not difficult to identify, situated at the very center of the cemetery amidst a forest of crosses.
The party encircled. Stood. Stared.
"Our point of contact—" the tour guide stilled himself "—with the world unseen."
A heart. The gravestone had been hewn into the shape of a heart upon which no name, no birthdate, no death date, had been chiseled.
"HERE LIES A MAN WHO LOST HEART, SO THAT YOU WOULDN'T," read the epitaph.
No one dared stir.
Except for Meg.
"Here, I picked an extra one." She deposited a yellow-blossomed branch into the Red Sox guy's hand. "Just for you."
"Watch," the tour guide instructed.
The Red Sox guy was watching, and closely. He watched as the tour guide positioned his goldenrod sprig atop the grave. The others in like manner garnished the grave with their flower offerings.
"Um, I don't get it."
The tour guide hadn't failed to notice. "Mayhap so. Still, you did get a flower. And which you can place, if you'd like, alongside the others."
The Red Sox guy positioned his flower. Still he did not get it. Yet, not five minutes later, upon the gut-wrenching conclusion of "Thy Tin Can Runneth Over," a eulogy delivered by the tour guide and one strewn with explanation, the world would become then for this latest visitor to the number-one-tourist-attraction-in-the-Midwest, no longer the same place.
Everyone retrieved their goldenrod.
The Red Sox guy stood stock still. Then, ambling over, he retrieved his goldenrod.
In solemn procession the little group padded away from the gravesite. It was finished: each had attained what they waited a lifetime for.
The Red Sox guy moved not at all. The tour guide came over to him. "Why are you still here?" he asked.
The Red Sox guy raised eyes which tempted tears. "You mean, it won't die? Ever?"
"Well, this of course depends."
"Depends . . . " the Red Sox guy, as if in a trance, mouthed the word. He came to when he sighted out the corner of his eye the woman from the parking lot who was approaching.
Gliding over, Meg slipped a tab of paper upon which she had scribbled her name, phone number, and the word "coffee" inside of the Red Sox guy's back pocket.
"On you. It depends of course, on you. And me. And her . . . " Meg smiled at this reference to herself. The tour guide honed in on this individual who appeared to be having a bungle. "Do you . . . " the tour guide extended a finger " . . . you . . . ?"
"Red Sox guy?" offered the other man.
"Aye, thank you. Do you, Red Sox guy, fancy . . . that that flower you got there, will from henceforth live forever—" the Red Sox guy gulped "—never wither, never lose a petal, now that the magic—"
"—aye, magic, here at Fort Wood, has been found to confer its life-giving touch?"
Something inside of the Red Sox guy was ready to crack. Another something inside him however had a problem with that. "Um, I don't know." Then he remembered someone. "Wait, how about you? Do you—you're name's Meg?—do you believe?"
Meg took a deep breath. "I'm at least trying to believe."
The Red Sox guy relaxed, and was glad. The tour guide had sense enough to give place as Meg stepped over to place a soft hand on the Red Sox guy's shoulder. The other tour groupers had the presence of mind to return and gather round.
A brewing, a breeze, a rustle, a wind, a current of air, stirred to swaying the millions of yellow flowers out in yonder endless prairie as if a giant, gentle hand had at that moment passed across.
Silence reigned. It was the nothingness sound of eternity that they heard, of years gone by, of something beyond time, something bigger than the great wide world itself . . .
* * *
Downtown Boston. 92nd Floor. A year later.
The man in the cubicle heard footsteps approach. Eyes on his computer screen, he darted a glance up—then as quickly looked back down again. "On the prowl again for a date, are we?" he quipped, returning to his typing. "Sorry, I'm already taken."
"Pshaw! You know that's not what I came here for." Arms crossed, feet planted, Becky stayed her place at the entryway of the cubicle.
Biting back a smile, the man looked up finally. "May I help you, Becky?"
Becky cleared her throat. "Um, well, and I know it'll be the third time in the last month that I've asked you this, but—"
The man in the cubicle swiveled his chair around. He pointed at something behind him.
"What?" Becky asked as she crossed the threshold into the cubicle. "Picture of that cow over there?" The man shook his head. "Picture of that other cow over there?" He shook his head. "Photo of that cow wearing the funny sunglasses inside the heart frame? That 'Life is Love is Cow' bumper sticker you've got on the side of your computer? Oh, I got it, that cow-and-heart collage over there that you and your homegirl Meg made on your honeymoon? What, I give up? There's heart and cows all over this office space!"
The man in the cubicle rose, pressed his finger against the square of paper which read "Viewing Sessions are BY APPOINTMENT ONLY."
Becky groaned, grew livid, tapped her toe on the carpeted floor in purgatorial frustration. But then she stopped tapping. She knew that the man in the cubicle could never be this mean—or at least not anymore. For, had it not been she, Becky, who had in the first place bequeathed to the man in the cubicle that ticket to Fort Wood?
"I know what you're thinking," Becky said, chancing a step forward. "You're thinking . . . how crazy I must've been not to have traveled out there myself last year. But, did you ever stop to think that maybe some of us have kids?" Becky struggled to keep her voice under control, as looking over, she said, "It was for their sake that I stayed put and donated, at the others' urgings, that ticket to you. It was for their sake that I didn't go. Can't you see that?" Becky's intense expression relaxed into a smile. "But of course, you see."
The man in the cubicle straightened in his chair. He quieted. "Thank you for that, Becky." The man opened his desk drawer, rooted around for something—a plastic bag he found. Extracting from out of the plastic bag some delicate item, the man with great care extended his arm toward Becky, opened his hand . . .
"Ah, and there it is! Fresh, yellow, alive-looking as ever!"
Becky leaned in for a closer look.
"Hey, Beck, guess what?"
Becky didn't guess what. All of a sudden she couldn't even guess her own name. A warmth, full and tingly, raced up from her rubber-soled pumps all the way up even to another kind of pump—the one inside her chest, which began to put forth what she would later describe as "a concerto of positive vibes beating in time with the rhythms of the universe."
"Hey, Beck . . . " the man in the cubicle said, eyeing the camera that had in the meantime discovered its way out of Becky's briefcase. "Guess what? I don't have to water it—at all."
"Here—take this, know how to use it? It's an X170 model that I purchased for the very occasion. Just press that button on top. Can I pose with it like this, maybe, even, tucked behind my ear?"
They heard a sound out in the corridor.
"Ha, bet it's Jim from research again . . . " the man in the cubicle raised his voice to with unnatural loudness declare at the partition. Moments later, a bald head and two wide eyes peered around the partition into the cubicle. "Stop eavesdropping, you," the man in the cubicle warned, "either you get in, or you get out."
Jim began to stammer incoherently in defense of the fact that he wasn't eavesdropping—no, not at all, only going to the watercooler for a drink; also he feigned ask if he might be allowed to have a peek at—were it at all possible, seeing, especially, how the man in the cubicle had just let Becky see—a certain flower.
Becky rolled her eyes. "The waiting list's a mile long," she said, trying and failing to fight back a smirk. "Maybe we can pencil you in, though, for mid-April? Safety measures, is all. We don't want people breathing all over it and stuff. Right, Red Sox guy?"
The man in the cubicle reached over to lay hold of a stuffed-animal item reposing on the side of his desk. "Hugged a cow lately, Jim?"
"Moooo!" Becky laughed, and so hard that she began to keel over, at which point the goldenrod flower fell from behind her ear, at which point Jim's eyes popped out of his head as he moved to reach for the object of his deepest curiosity, at which point the man in the cubicle rose to remove Jim from the cubicle as it had become imminently clear that Jim had not sterilized his hands . . .
"No, they're clean. I swear! Just let me have one look at it. Oh c'mon, pleeeeeeeease . . . .!"