Living

Web exclusive: Chapters 31-33

The final 11 chapters of Richard Jennings’ “Ghost Town” story will appear on KansasCity.com over the next month. We’ll post two to three chapters each Sunday. The story will be published in book form in June. Chapter 31: Thinking of You

In over my head, I sought practical advice from a man in daily contact with ancient wisdom.

“What shall I do about this visitor?” I asked Chief Leopard Frog.

“Ha!” he laughed loudly. “An excellent question. Give me a few days to ponder the answer.”

Back at the house my mother and Merilee Rowling were laughing and carrying on like old friends while they sorted the mountain of mail, most of it for Chief Leopard Frog, but one letter for me was from Maureen Balderson, plus a packet from Sparkle Snapshot and a small box from the Cayman Islands.

There’s an old saying — at least I’m told it’s an old saying, I’m not exactly old enough to know how old the sayings are, but at any rate it goes: “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”

But have I mentioned that already?

Like many sayings, this one is a trifle vague, but I think it means that if you’re wishing you had excitement in your life and all of a sudden you’re dealing with the bruised egos of sensitive, imaginary Indians, and the sudden bursting forth of motherly behavior by a former television vegetable, and the unannounced arrival of a smart-aleck cutie-pie way too old for you, and letters from modern-day pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention notes from girls who once lived next door and the occasional unexplained photograph of a vanished dead person, well, it’s like that other old saying that goes, “It’s either feast or famine.”

Suddenly, I had too much to do.

I could feel the pressure building.

I think I liked it better when I was bored.

The giggling subsided when I entered the room.

“You’ve got quite a few book orders here, Spencer, which I presume you will process promptly,” my mother said, like she was giving instructions, “and there’s some personal mail for you as well.”

“Your son appears to be quite a popular person,” Merilee Rowling observed. “It must be a trait he acquired from his mother.”

“Aww,” my mother said, brushing away the transparent compliment with her hand. “I’ve never seen him with anyone at all. Not even that Indian friend of his.”

“Really?” Merilee Rowling responded, looking me square in the eye. “How interesting.”

“I think I’ll read my mail now,” I announced.

For some reason I was afraid to open Maureen’s note, so I opened the package from Uncle Milton Swartzman instead. Inside was a conch shell that had been polished and fitted with a mouthpiece and a muting device such as you’d find on a trumpet. There was also a check for $5,050 plus two pieces of paper.

One a letter.

One a contract.

Dear Partner,

Uncle Milton wrote.

Have you ever heard of an ocarina? It is an ancient flute-like device that in the right hands plays lovely, haunting sounds that remind some of us of the sea. Well, this is a concharina, a device of my own creation that is a steady seller in the catalog. I wanted you to have it as an expression of our friendship. Ditto the five grand. I have enclosed a one-page contract for you and your Indian pal to sign. Basically, it says I can keep printing the poetry book so long as I keep sending you 20 percent of the gross. In the publishing business, that’s known as a sweet deal for the writer and his agent because I take care of everything, you don’t have to lift a finger, except to get your friend to write more books when he’s ready. Who knew this would be such a hit? Already, it has outsold the life-size talking reproduction of the Jackalope. Earnestly yours, Milton Swartzman President and Publisher Milton’s Thousand Things You Thought You’d Never Find P. S. Thanks for the gourd that looks exactly like the late Sammy Davis Jr. I like it so much that I am keeping it for myself. The extra 50 is for your effort. P. P. S. Don’t forget to send along some more bad luck talismans whenever you can. I don’t want to wear out Chief Golden Goose but I’m developing a very specialized clientele for his whittling. Military types and self-appointed officials from countries you never heard of.

Nuff said.

The note from Maureen was written on a card, the kind you search for in the aisles of Hallmark Gold Crown stores for a long time until you happen upon just the right one. This one showed two people standing underneath a garden bower. They were kissing.

Inside, the printed part said: Thinking of you.

Maureen had added a handwritten note:

Guess what We may be coming back for a few days to check on the house. I’ll let you know. Hugs, Mo P. S. Thanks for the swell pix of me in my room. I don’t know how you managed to do it but it was fun to get them.

Again and again, I returned to the picture of the lovers on the cover of the card. It took a while before my breathing returned to normal.

Chapter 32: Picture Day

When you get mail, mail call is truly an exciting part of the day.

Unexpected riches from Uncle Milton. A love note (of sorts) from Maureen Balderson. And still I hadn’t opened the packet of prints from Sparkle Snapshot of St. Louis.

By now I’d totally lost track of what I had taken pictures of, but the giant clover flowers and yellow sprays of wildflowers that looked like baby’s breath and one enormous mosquito on a screen door were quite good. The rapid-fire sequence of the wide-mouthed toad in the garden made me laugh out loud, but toads, of course, are naturally funny creatures.

As always, it was the bonus picture that gave me pause. Two children had fallen through the ice in a frozen pond.

One of them clearly was me. I recognized my stupid mole.

The other was Maureen.

Sigh.

“I notice you carry a camera,” Merilee Rowling said.

“What?” I responded, annoyed by her interruption. “It’s sort of a hobby.”

“I was wondering if I could use it to get a picture of Chief Eagle Dog,” she said.

“Chief Leopard Frog,” I corrected her.

“That’s the guy,” she agreed. “Do you mind? I haven’t been issued a camera yet and I know it would help the story if I could get a picture of him in his, like, native habitat, so to speak. Does he live in a teepee?”

“No,” I replied. “He most definitely does not live in a teepee.”

“Well, maybe we could get him to stand in front of a teepee, how would he feel about that?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like it,” I replied, “but I don’t speak for Chief Leopard Frog. Maybe if you drove to Wal-Mart and bought him a teepee he’d stand in front it. I don’t know. I can’t imagine why he would, but he’s his own person.”

“Is he now?” Merilee Rowling pressed. “That’s not the way your mother describes it.”

She was standing so close that I could smell her breath. It smelled like peppermint and cinnamon and young woman.

“My mother and Chief Leopard Frog are not close,” I declared. “I wouldn’t expect her to know what he likes and doesn’t like.”

“But you do,” Merilee Rowling continued. “You can interpret things for him, right? Like Don Diego can interpret things for Zorro. Or Clark Kent knows the whereabouts of Superman. Or Peter Parker can take us straight to Spider-man. Or Bruce Wayne has deep insights into Batman. C’mon, Spencer, give me a break. I’ve got an Indian poet story to write and no Indian poet in sight.”

“Let’s take a walk,” I said, grabbing my camera bag.

“By all means,” Merilee Rowling agreed.

We set out across the pasture toward the Lambert place. There once were a dozen Lamberts living there but today, of course, there are none.

The Lamberts kept ponies, rabbits, chickens and ducks. For extra money they cut timber — hardwoods — which at one time they had a lot of but the inevitable day came when they had none at all. All of it had been turned into corrugated boxes and sold to the Chinese so the Chinese could pack the stuff they sell to America.

Then, like everybody else in Paisley, the Lamberts pulled up stakes, put their place up for sale, which nobody in their right mind would buy, and moved to Kansas City, where I heard from my mother that Mr. Lambert was working as an assistant manager in an envelope factory run by a former mayor.

“I could take your picture,” I said.

“Sure,” Merilee Rowling replied. “Maybe the magazine would publish it with my byline.”

“Stand over there by that rusted tractor. That’s kind of interesting,” I said.

“OK,” Merilee Rowling agreed.

I sighted through the lens. Instead of going macro, up close, like I’d do for a grasshopper, or a stink bug, I switched to telephoto, what’s called a long lens, in order to blur out the background and focus exclusively on the face of the subject.

In many ways, this improved an already attractive young woman’s appearance. It smoothed out imperfections in her skin while calling attention to her made-up eyes, her pert nose and her lightly painted smile, all of which were quite appealing.

From where I stood, Merilee Rowling looked like the cover of a glossy European magazine, such as the Italian version of

Vogue Vanity Fair

.

Pretty but exotically standoffish.

I squeezed the trigger again and again, each time capturing a slightly different aspect of her visual personality. When the short roll of film was exhausted, I exchanged it for a fresh one, slipping the exposed cylinder into the pocket of my jeans.

“Well,” she said? “How’d I do?”

“You looked great,” I told her. “I can’t wait to get them processed.”

“OK, now let me take your picture,” she insisted.

“Do you know anything about cameras?” I asked warily.

“Oh, Spencer,” she sighed. “Why are you so distrustful of everyone? Is it because you live in the wilderness all by yourself? Give me the stupid camera!”

Memo to self: When a woman impatiently insists, beware!

Chapter 33: A Crack in the World

Merilee Rowling had put her foot down and I had accepted the gesture like an ant in a long, curving trail to honey.

I handed her my father’s camera loaded with a fresh roll of film. The sun was only halfway up the sky so the light was still good.

“Let’s go to that rundown barn,” she directed.

She was referring to the lean-to that the Lamberts had built as a shelter for their ponies. Made from cedar, it was never painted, so it looked older than it actually was. There were three stalls and a tack room inside, and the lock on the tack room had left with the Lamberts. It was an appealing movie set for someone interested in making interesting photographs.

“Stand over there,” she directed, “in front of that open stall. Now put your arm on the stall door and gaze out to your right.”

“This feels weird,” I said.

“This is art,” Merilee Rowling insisted. “It’s supposed to feel weird.”

“OK, ready?” she said. “One, two three, oh crap!”

Merilee Rowling had dropped the camera onto a concrete base poured for a hitching post that had never been installed. On impact, the film popped out of the back, exposed to the sunlight, and the lens cracked liked a dried duck egg.

“Darn!” she said. “Why did you move?”

“I didn’t move,” I replied. “I’m still right here with my arm on the stall door.”

“Well, somebody moved,” she insisted. “Maybe it was your mysterious Indian.”

“Is the camera OK?” I asked.

“Well,” Merilee Rowling answered. “It might need a little adjustment.”

I examined the case for damage.

I sighted through the viewfinder. On a single lens reflex camera, such as this one, the viewfinder reveals exactly what the lens sees and what the lens now saw was a mixed-up, multifaceted universe.

It was exactly like looking through a kaleidoscope.

Merilee’s image was broken into a star-shaped pattern of bits and pieces and the weedy fields around her appeared as a tan, circular sky.

If I changed the adjustment, say from macro to telephoto, the quilt-like pattern changed also, but the problem with the picture did not go away.

My ghost camera — my father’s ghost camera — had been what an adjuster from State Farm Insurance (Auto-Home-Life) might classify as “totaled.”

“Who sent you?” I asked angrily.

“Sorry,” Merilee Rowling said.

“Here,” I replied petulantly, handing her the pony talisman that Chief Leopard Frog had recently given to me. “This is for you. It was handmade by Chief Leopard Frog. Now, if you’ll ask me the questions you need to ask about him, I’ll do my best to answer.”

“Can he fly?” she giggled, pocketing the amulet. “Does he have X-ray vision?”

She went running into the pony barn and for some reason performed a cartwheel.

“How long are you planning to stay?” I asked her.

“How long would you like me to stay?” she replied coquettishly.

“Are you really 17?” I asked.

“I can prove it. It’s on my driver’s license,” she answered. “Are you really 19?”

“No,” I answered. “But I’m old enough to know what you’re up to.”

“And what is that, Mr. Wise Guy?” she flirted.

“You’re trying to get me to make you as famous as Chief Leopard Frog and you don’t mind wrecking my life in the process, starting with my camera,” I observed.

Merilee Rowling put her hands on her hips and stared at me.

“You are a smart boy,” she observed. “Will you guard my room again tonight?”

Man, was I ever in over my head.

Help, Chief Leopard Frog! Help!

“I guess so,” I agreed, ever the weakling.

Walking home I spied a silver Yukon speeding down the dusty gravel road in the distance. In most parts of the world this would mean nothing. But if you were in Antarctica, let’s say, it would be an event worth noting in your daily log. As I have previously suggested, Paisley has a lot in common with Antarctica except instead of penguins we have locusts. But like other remote spots on the globe, we have very few people, thus very few cars.

“Look at that hot rod go,” Merilee Rowling observed. “How could anybody around here be in a hurry? I mean, what’s the rush?”

“I think it all depends on whether they’re coming or going,” I suggested.

But of course I knew.

I recognized the car.

It was the Baldersons. And, no doubt, Maureen Balderson was inside.

I had a lot of explaining to do.

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