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Fiction from the Wonder Show
Fiction from the Wonder Show
The following selections were written by Wonder Show participants during writing workshops held at the Library and other locations in Providence. They were read during the performances in May.
Stefanie Pender, "The Perfect Double"
Three years ago I lived in Venice, Italy. Each day I would take a boat and travel to Murano, an island off of Venice to study the craft of glassmaking. In the 13th century, the Venetians feared that the furnaces of the glass factories would burn their city, so they sent the glassmakers to this tiny island off the coast. It is also believed that the Venetians wanted to isolate the glassmakers and prevent anyone from learning their processes. I do not mean for this to become a history lesson, but merely a foundation to understand my compulsion to return to this island of fire and secrecy. One thing you must understand is my obsession with the double created by reflection. Venice is a labyrinthian city that was built upon a giant mirror. I would capture images by camera of Venice and its second self reflected in the water. The original and the copy would often align so perfectly that it would seem to take on a third, hybrid form. An abstract shape that I would detach from the picture plane and rotate in space around its axes.
Of course, the origin of an immaterial material, of transparency is within a crystalline city of water.
In Venice, I would apprentice with glass masters to physically experience the passage of tacit knowledge, a type of knowledge that cannot be passed through the written word. It can only be passed through observation and imitation, it can only be passed through the attempt to become the reflection of the master.
That May, I met a master mirror-maker named Signor Barbini. He let me wander around his workshop and watch his only assistant mirror giant transparent panes of glass. Once, the assistant, Stefania, was working on a project for a special patron. As usual she was covering the glass with the silver solution and the glass would transform into a reflective surface. But this time, there was something very different about this mirror. The reflected image was not like any other image seen in any other mirror. When gazing into the mirror at my reflection, I had difficulty recognizing myself. The woman I saw was a lost twin, a simulacrum. I asked Stefania about the recipe. She shrugged her shoulders and told me that within the decades she had worked there, Signor Barbini never disclosed the ingredients of any of his silvers.
Later I asked Signor Barbini about the special mirror that I had seen earlier. He told me that it was an attempt to make the mirror for the perfect double. It was a secret recipe that was written down in code, but could not be deciphered. Although, he thought this recipe was close, it was not yet right.
The perfect double is a phenomena of reflection. Usually when one gazes into a mirror, one is confronted with the illusion of wholeness. However, within the perfect double, the second self detaches from the original. There is a dispersion of the self and the double may become unaligned. In this detachment, the second self is no longer under the control or in the power of the original.
I later visited the archives of Venice and searched in the ancient manuscripts to find some trace of the myth of the perfect double. I found nothing, but this is not surprising knowing about the secrecy of the cunning glassmakers.
Which brings to the present. After studying pairs of antique portraits on glass slides from the Providence Archives, the myth of the perfect double reappeared in my mind. It struck me that perhaps the darkened chamber of the camera is the ideal vessel to capture the perfect double. This belief was upheld by my experience learning the techniques and alchemy of glass negatives. The chemistry of the glass negative is very similar to the recipe of the Venetian Mirror. Perhaps the silver coated glass combined with the intense, focused light from an aperture is the substrate of the second self.
These portraits are meant to act as surrogates of the perfect double. The quality of the image is one that transcends the processes of the mechanical reproduction of photography. Perhaps within the darkened chamber of a camera, the inverted image projected onto the silvered glass captures the second self. Perhaps this copy peels from the original, yawns, stutters or sighs in relaxation, a vacation from the exhaustion of constant imitation. Perhaps the glass negative is a memory of this shift, a false step, or an imprint of this spasm. Perhaps within the blackened room, everything hidden is revealed, all revelations or repressions of fears and desires kept hidden within the body surface. Within the dark they are all pressed against the transparency, molecules of secrecy that history is left to decipher.
On the morning of Good Friday 1887, eleven children went missing. Local authorities, stumped, suspected that the boys and girls had been mauled by a wild creature, such as a bear, but found no evidence of bones or other remains. Frantic parents, meanwhile, convinced themselves that their children were abducted by a traveling preacher named Jean-Claude, who was passing through town for a few days on his way to deliver a big Easter sermon in Boston. The preacher’s reputation preceded him, which was a good thing, because he traveled all the way from Louisiana to deliver his sermon even though no one in New England could actually make out a single word he said. It made him a terrible preacher, though everyone who heard him admitted that he spoke with a great deal of fiery passion.
Sensing the parents’ mounting suspicions, Jean-Claude skipped town late on the evening of Good Friday. He planned to leave in the morning anyway, but evaded the vigilante townspeople by fleeing in a homemade canoe. Shortly after launching, however, the canoe capsized, and Jean-Claude’s indecipherable words were never again to be heard by human ears.
Three years later, on a Saturday afternoon, all eleven of the children were discovered, alive, atop a large boulder. Ten of the children sat in a row, as if posing for a photograph or watching some sort of entertainment, though neither photographers nor entertainers were present. The eleventh child, a rambunctious boy named Clem, was one boulder over, hiding from adult view.
The parents and local authorities declared that a miracle has occurred, though some felt slight pangs of guilt about driving a perfectly innocent Louisiana preacher to an early demise.
Only a few days later did the mothers and fathers and law enforcement officials realize that not one of the children had aged a single day since their departure. Nor could the children explain their sudden ability to speak to one another fluently in a language no adult could identify, or their sudden ability to solve complicated arithmetic in their heads. Even Clem, who was traditionally a very dim child.
As soon as John Conroy arrived in the city of Providence, Rhode Island, he knew that he had found the city of his dreams. But unfortunately for the people of Providence, John Conroy was a man with extremely troubled and violent dreams.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, John Conroy had recently been jilted by a young lady who had rejected his marriage proposal on the grounds that she preferred the company of another man. As a result, John Conroy was left with some anger issues that he needed to work through, and after considerable thought he convinced himself that blowing up a mid-sized industrial city would be just the thing to ease his mind.
Unfortunately for the people of Providence, John Conroy really loved that scornful lady in Pittsburgh. He also loved his mother and his two dogs, all of whom still lived in that city and none of whom had ever done a thing to harm him. He felt bad when he thought about blowing up his mother and his dogs, and so he decided to blow up some other city where he didn’t actually know anyone. And the mothers and dogs of Providence were fair game.
In Market Square, John Conroy picked up three wayward youths and convinced them to help him scatter the cartload of dynamite that he’d bought from a shifty-eyed grocer in Buffalo. Wooed by promises of pet frogs and salt water taffy, the boys eagerly agreed, planting dynamite all over the godforsaken city. It was only when one of the youths remembered that he had a mother at home, and two dogs, that he began to have second thoughts. After giving it some more consideration, the boy decided it was unlikely that John Conroy even had a supply of frogs or salt water taffy, so he went into the police station and explained everything, thus saving the people of Providence from mass destruction.
There’s a magical oak tree located in the park at the top of Neutakoncanut Hill, but the only being to ever have any knowledge of this magical tree was a deer from the nineteenth century named Frank. Frank learned that gently rubbing his antlers against the oak’s trunk gave him the ability to control the weather with his mind. Not all the weather in the world, of course, but for roughly a four-mile radius around the hill. Frank made it rain when it was dry, made it snow when he was sad, and sometimes Frank even caused abrupt fogs to descent on the people of Johnston, an act which always made him laugh hysterically even though stags aren’t typically known for their senses of humor.
One exceptionally humid May afternoon in the middle of the year 1900, Frank felt despondent. He was a nineteenth-century deer, and he knew that he knew that his time on this earth was coming to an end. He wasn’t compelled to tell anyone else about the magical oak, but he did decide that day to perform one final trick.
Humans and deer alike were sluggish that day, because it was over ninety degrees in the shade. The thought of even climbing the hill to get to the oak seemed daunting to Frank, but he knew that this was the perfect day—the only day—to pull off his coup de grace.
At around four o’clock that afternoon, he rubbed his antlers against the tree and promptly began thinking. Within moments a strong, icy wind blew through the sleepy city, alarming residents and causing some of its more Victorian women to lapse into hysterics.
And then things got really crazy. Folks on Grove Street in Federal Hill and also on Joslin Street in Olneyville experienced something they’d never seen before or since: fish, dropping out of the sky and into the streets, thudding and bouncing and flopping helplessly like a Biblical plague, until the men of the neighborhood came to sweep them away. It took all night to clean up the fish rain, and from the top of the hill Frank laughed and laughed, laughing so hard that eventually he passed away and turned into a statue.
Mr. Aloysius Bear didn’t eat children the way that some other bears do, and he didn’t steal pies off of windowsills. He didn’t rob banks or sink ships or slip narcotics into the drinks of unaccompanied women. That’s why Mr. Aloysius Bear thought it was incredibly unfair to be locked up, and many residents of Providence agreed that it wasn’t particularly nice to lock up a bear without a fair trial.
But the mayor disagreed, and so Mr. Aloysius Bear was imprisoned and put on display at the zoo, like it was the middle ages or something, just because the bear was able to look into your eyes and know exactly what you were thinking.
Another thing about Mr. Aloysius: he was an expert at reading tarot (though his skill was noticeably impaired by the fact that he was not a talking bear.) He communicated mainly with his eyes, and only when he was really upset by the cards did he roar. But people knew what he was trying to say, even those who didn’t understand the significance of the strange-looking cards that the bear carried with him at all times.
Knowing the bear by reputation but not really understanding the point of card-reading, the mayor made a late-night visit to Mr. Aloysius’ den, hoping to find some piece of information that might help him defeat his opponent in the upcoming election. As the bear slowly turned each card over, he looked into the mayor’s eyes. He also looked into the mayor’s soul, in that way that only a card-reading bear can look into one’s soul. And he saw some things that were perhaps left unseen.
Realizing the error of his visit, the mayor left, slowly, leaving behind the strawberry-rhubarb pie that the Mr. Aloysius customarily asked as payment for the reading. But the next morning the den was surrounded by police officers, and Mr. Aloysius Bear was forever separated from his home, his pies, and, saddest of all, his tarot deck.
Probably you’re wondering about the five stacked objects in the foreground of this image, with their levers and strange knobs and mysterious openings. Are they boxes? Primitive cameras? Examples of old-timey espionage equipment? Luggage for an extremely complicated person?
Well, I am not here to tell you about those boxes, because those boxes are basically just there to block the haunted sheet my great-uncles keep hanging in the basement to taunt me. For years now they’ve told me that the sheet is haunted, that it’s been responsible for the deaths of the milkman and the fishmonger and at least two Jehovah’s witnesses.
How the sheet performs its dastardly deeds my great-uncles refuse to say, because they are jerks and will only tell me enough of a story so that I’ll start asking for specifics, and once I do they stop talking altogether. Sometimes they even motion like they’re locking their lips shut and throwing away the key, which is a stupid gesture that I’ve always hated. Sometimes when they start talking about something else, or start eating something, or yawning, I’ll ask them where they found that invisible key after they threw it away. And they’ll never have a good answer, because they’re jerks.
Once, when they went to the lumber yard together, I took the haunted sheet down and wrapped myself in it, wondering if it would smother me or give me a terrible skin rash. I wondered whether I might be dissolved into the fabric, turned a mostly pure white and left to hang there, spending all day staring at those useless decoy boxes.
But none of that happened. The sheet didn’t wrap itself around my neck, didn’t lodge itself in my mouth and didn’t release a faint poisonous aroma designed to cause my lungs to give out.
As I hung the sheet back up, I wondered whether to tell my great-uncles that the haunted sheet didn’t kill me, that either I didn’t taste good enough or wasn’t meaty enough or maybe, just maybe, that it had decided to give up its life of murderous treachery.
But my great-uncles are jerks, and I knew that they would just give me some kind of smart-alecky answer and then lock their lips shut again.
Image 5: Children and women at sporting event
I am very old now—yes, 91!—and blind, but I still remember going to Crescent Park for my 10th birthday. My mother invited my grandmother and told me that my cousin Tom Albright would be here from Kansas to celebrate. I’d never met Tom Albright before! Can you see me in the picture, the boy with the glasses? Just like my mother! And that’s Tom Albright sitting next to me, all the way from Kansas. We won things that day, Tom Albright and me, at the arcade—horse whips and canoe paddles. I’d never won so much before! We were all hot in our clothes and sat on the steps to the beach to cool off. My father took the picture you’re looking at when we did—sit sit he said and so we did. Tom Albright stared right into the camera—he’d never had his picture taken before! I looked out to see a man running into the water. My father called “Clem, look at me” but I couldn’t because that man running pulled my eyes to him, the blur of him rushing. I was envious, wanting to run into it too and tried to persuade my parents to let me and Tom Albright rent bathing suits, but they said no…too much trouble and besides we’d be eating soon. Tom Albright and I grinned at each other and the prospect of Searle’s Famous Six O’Clock Bake—lobster, clam cakes, and corn! I had waited all year for this, and Tom Albright got to eat one for the first time. I remember how he stared at the bright red lobster on the white plate and said “I’m not hungry”. We all laughed and showed him how to eat it. He finally tried some, his eyes got big, and said “Pass the butter”. That day in this picture was one of the best days of my life—Tom Albright coming to visit, winning the whips and paddles, seeing the man, my father taking our picture, and the shore dinner. It was the last one I ate as a boy, never went back after my parents died, no one to do it. It was the best day.
Image 4: Children with homemade pom-poms
See that little blond girl with her mouth hanging open in the front row? The little blond one with the lollipop? That’s my wife Emmie Albright at the Deaf School picnic when she was five. See how she’s one of the few kids looking at the camera? She tells me that’s because she’d never seen a camera before so she didn’t look when the horse started bucking and Mr. Sutherland flew off. Emmie had no idea! Couldn’t hear it and didn’t see it for the camera! She was just too busy wondering what the big wooden box was with the black hole and curtain. When the photographer came up from under the curtain, all the kids ran over to look at Mr. Sutherland on the ground, and Emmie couldn’t figure out how Mr. Sutherland had got there. When he got up slowly, Emmie and all the kids jumped up and down and waved the pompoms they’d made for the picnic. Everyone agreed it was the most exciting school picnic they’d ever had.
Image 3: old textile mill
We were told repeatedly to stay out of the old mill, but what kid could resist its thrall? The gloom, the debris, absence of grownups, the what might you find and get yourself into pulled us from the sunlight into the dimness. Once inside, we’d wait for our eyes to see in the dark and then run to find places to hide. My little sister and I always went upstairs and hid inside the storage bins, crouching down to make ourselves as small as possible. We held hands and smiled at each other in the fright of waiting to be found. Lizzie would listen and I would wait for the feel of the sound of steps and voice through the air. I could tell someone was getting close when Lizzie gripped my hand. I would close my eyes , succumbing to the dark and the silence, waiting to feel a hand on my shoulder, that signal to run downstairs, scatter the sunlit dust motes, and scream. We were always found first. Ever been inside an old mill? They never lose that sweet smell of cotton and the heavy oil staining the wooden floor.
Image 6: view of City Hall Park (Kennedy Plaza) with billboards
Tom Albright returned to Rhode Island on the coldest day of winter. He had traveled by train from Kansas to his new position at Brown University as an Instructor in the Biology Department, and in the two days it had taken to get to Union Station, Tom had managed to memorize all the birds in The Guide to New England Birds he held in his hand. He was pleased with his progress. The conductor called out “Providence. Union Station”. His fellow passengers stood up, collecting bags and parcels, as they made their way to the door. Tom waited until everyone left and slowly picked his bag up from under his seat. The conductor cried again “Providence. Union Station” and looked at him. Tom smiled, stood up, and said “Thank you” to the man. He pushed past the crowds of passengers waiting and leaving to find the exit to the street. Outside was big and bare, large buildings circling a statue of a woman atop a pedestal. Tom stood, seeing it all, the cold wind whipping his coat open, this new life waiting in a vast space. Soon he would know these buildings—City Hall, the courthouse, the Fire Station, the Soldiers and Sailors monument—but for now they were simply props on a stage where he would step, book in hand, to begin the life he’d been waiting for. Tom buttoned his coat, put his hand to his hat, and walked into the wind with book and bag to hunt for a cab up the hill and answer the question posed by Providence “Do you work hard?”
In the days before my father left, we spent long hours digging into the yard. It was the end of November and the ground was wintered, cleared dead, frozen. “Forty-eight inches, Jimbo,” he said to me as I chiseled away, dirt coming off the earth in flakes. “We want a sail, not a sorry tent.” My sister Mary played in the loose pile of our labor, looking for worms, exclaiming that frozen dirt had no smell, that it did not stick to her fingers. When the hole was satisfactory, the bottom cleaned out, smooth, Father allowed me the job of sinking the mast. “Now don’t fill it in just yet,” he said. “Let me tie off the corners.” He secured the clew to the bulkhead door, then ran upstairs to my bedroom, leaned as far as he could out the window and tied the peak to the gutter on the eave. “Okay, Jimbo. Kick the dirt in—stamp it down hard.” “Can I help?” Mary asked, and together we secured the mast, dragging our insteps across the ground to move every last loose grain back to its place in the earth. After Father was gone, I lay in bed at night, listening to the wind smack against our sail, testing that taught fabric, my father’s knots, the depth of my hole.
It was long past childhood when I realized that the boat my father was on had no sails. The USS Destroyer Jacob Jones had two masts—over 40 feet tall—that stood nakedly like branchless trees, like wingless birds, like fatherless boys.
Story Two (house right-side up)
When Father was called to war, all the shutters had been pulled off with none of them replaced. Three months prior, the British Passenger Liner, Lusitania, had been torpedoed. Petey Duggins told me that 1,000 civilians had drowned, 100 of them children, and America was sure to wring some necks now. “I’ll just be in Boston,” Father said when his crew was summoned. “This could all blow over before we even leave port.” I had been helping Father. He worked on the frames and molding, up high on the scaffolding. I sanded and primed the shutters, two sawhorses set up in the backyard with plywood flat between them. “Jimbo, bring me up the level,” Father would say, and I’d happily leave my post, climb up those cool bars and hang my toes off the edge of a 2 × 4, feeling the smooth soles of my shoes, nothing but air between me and sea of grass below. “Back to work,” Father would say when he noticed me still there, and I’d return to safety, sand down the sun-cracked grains of wood, wait for another task to bring me into the sky.
The house was much too big for four of us. It had alcoves, an attic, an indoor porch that wrapped halfway around one side. After Father left, Mother closed off every nonessential room, hanging heavy curtains in the doorways, corralling me and Mary to the kitchen or the adjoining sunroom. We could hear the floorboards creaking under each other’s feet, pencils scurrying at homework, Mother washing up after supper. It had been my grandmother’s—the house my father grew up in—and when she passed, no one else in the family wanted to put the work in. Father said that should he get called to sea, he’d rather picture us here than in that one-story hovel at the end of the road. He promised my mother he’d fix it up so it was like the Governor’s house, cherry trees and all. It was that big, with a field for a yard.
The apple tree Father planted as a boy had not been pruned in ten years. The stubby joints from the pruner’s shears stuck out like thick knuckles against the sail, showcasing another job Father left unfinished. The sinking of the Sussex had forced the US out of neutrality, the Jacob Jones out of Boston Harbor. So the branches spindled into the sky, unclipped. The apples in the fall of 1917 were small and tart. The fruit bulged in places, caved in others, and the skin was pockmarked by dark scars that looked like cigarette burns. “Do you want me to prune the tree?” I asked my mother in March. We had not heard from Father in four months and this was the end of the dormant season, the best time to prune, when new growth is imminent, when the scars left by the shears won’t have time to harden. “Let’s wait for your father,” she said. “It’s his tree, after all.” Even after the armistice she waited for Father to be found. Even after our soldiers returned home and his crewmates delivered the news in person that he hadn’t been on the lifeboats. Still we sent our letters 3,000 miles from Providence to Queenstown, Ireland. Every Sunday evening was spent at the kitchen table, supper just cleared, writing to Father—and each week they became more and more like the New Years wishes we released to the ocean in bottles, sent to the unknown, the expanse of it wider than the bay with its open mouth, the same water surging over Father’s sunken ship.
Story Four (tree right-side up)
The evenings after father left, when Mary and I still imagined him sailing to Germany’s doorstep, when each day seemed like an eternity and we thought battles could be fought and won in mere hours, we sat behind the sail and watched the sun drop through it. The light pushed the shadows of the apple tree toward us, reaching us through that invincible cloth.
Our first letter from Father arrived at the end of October, almost a year after we’d set the yard sail. The tree had lost its leaves, and the disfigured apples had been picked by Mary and boiled by Mother into preserves. “How’s the sail?” Father asked. We did not tell him that an August windstorm had battered the sail with such ferocity that the clew’s tie released. With one corner untethered, the others strained, the material suddenly loose and thrashing jaggedly in the night. On Monday morning we sent our weekly letter to Queenstown, describing not the raggedness we found in the morning, but the shadow we’d seen all of those summer evenings. The tree coming through the sail, stark and seeming right there for touching.
Bruce was back from France. Wakefield went wild. Not that he was our only hero. The Great War just gobbled up young men. Chewed off their limbs and spat them out on the field of that terrible, far away country. But somehow Bruce – his losing half a leg and an eye – it made him a magnet for all the grief and gratitude our town had to offer.
So we held a parade. That’s what grateful towns do, isn’t it. And it was my special honor to dress up his little sister Angeline in her plaid coat and her long white stockings. I wanted her to look so special that everyone seeing her would well with tears (yes, even Bruce –out of his good eye, that is). I even took her down to Hannie’s General Store and bought her that bright red bonnet to top off that patriotic outfit. Spent my own money too! #2.39! Now that’s not chicken feed, you know.
But was that sassy little thing pleased? Well, not enough! Her own brother too. Imagine that. And there she does, sneaking out of the crowd.
Linda Powell FitzGerald
Image 4– Kennedy Plaza
Dear William, There must be more. There would have to be. Jane says we must be grateful for this life New England has given us. I do not suppose Mother or Father would have the same feelings – yet again, just to be alive would no doubt be enough for them and would answer that debate. I push the broom, and I pull the can along beside me. Jane and Margaret push brooms and mops. Their domain that of the three wealthy families who live on Prospect, while Robert and I walk up and down this dirt paved avenue behind policemen’s horses, taxi carriages and tradesmen’s horse drawn wagons. Horse shit and dust, dust and horse shit. Time cannot trot along at this slow pace and still show growth, advancement, new frontiers. People are fools and stuck in the same ruts that Robert and I clean day in and day out. My ideas are still all that keep me going. Keep me from running mad down Benefit screaming my lungs out. Have you got the monies yet William? Have your investors come through with their promises? Please say it were so. Our little brother John is still hesitant about our plans. He doesn’t believe that people will come aboard, that they will give up their horses. Well, we shall make him see, you and I. We both know that horse drawn carriages are drawing to an end. Our ideas will bring the name of Ford to the fore of industry. By this time next spring we shall have our factory, be working on our designs and cranking out the invention of all time. We can travel back to Providence in our Model T and visit our sisters in their fine house on Thayer where their floors are cleaned by housekeepers of their own. John will attend Brown, and the girls will marry well. Mother and father will rest easy. And I? I will never follow behind a horse again. I remain, as ever, your loving brother,
Image 3 – picnic scene
Just look at him. Smug as any man ever was. My mother said “don’t marry a short man Mathilde, you’ll rue the day!” I married a short man, and that day has dawned. He was always a brute of a man, abrupt and harsh speaking, but has of late taken to hitting me with his belt when he is displeased. I suppose the newspaper will certainly want to publish this tragic story. The mishap by the side of the road. If only I could suggest that headline, for that is where we stopped one evening to admire the blooming narcissus. He insisted we walk in the evenings to take the air and get exercise. The flowers were beautiful and I suggested this site for our picnic tomorrow with my sister and her husband. “These after dinner walks will help keep you in good figure Mathilde. A shapely woman is an important jewel in a man’s crown.” The inquest that followed five days later, turned out to be quite fast with little fuss. “Did you include anything in this liver pate recipe that was, shall we say, unusual?” is the first question the judge asked. “No your honor. I daresay I have made this recipe enough times to prepare it in my sleep, for you see my husband loved liver and I always prepared a pate for his sandwiches” Which in itself is true, if you don’t include the narcissus bulb I dug up from the patch at the side of the road. “There is no doubt that everyone in your small party have suffered greatly from this devastating occurrence. A Saturday afternoon picnic to go so horribly awry.” As the judge spoke these words he turned and looked at me with a somber nod of condolence. I parted my lips slightly and looked off toward the window with tears brimming on my lashes. “The court offers you its deepest sympathies madam. It is a hard thing for a woman to lose a husband due to so small a thing as rancid meat.” ‘This court finds for death by misadventure. This inquest is closed.”
Keith didn’t know why the theater was there. He only knew that it existed as he existed, and that every time he stood on the streets of Providence, the theater stood also on the streets of Providence, gray and rectangular, as if it knew itself. The theater, like Keith, was named Keith. The locals called it “Keith’s theater,” but it didn’t belong to Keith anymore than he belonged to it. Keith was not a theater man. He had enough dramas of his own. At the moment his personal playbill advertised a lover who would not return his letters, a daughter neither healthy nor legitimate, and a landlord who had placed his few belongings in the middle of the street during a rainstorm. Finally, Keith remorsefully recalled a certain parakeet he’d accidentally murdered last Friday in a drunken rage, a rage which had nothing to do with the parakeet, the lover or the landlord. Keith didn’t see much resemblance between life and what got played out on the stage. “There’s no narrative arc to living,” he would say, to anyone who asked. Recently though, no one had. “Which is fine with me” thought Keith. He didn’t have the money for the theater, and his lover refused to be seen with him. Keith returned to his apartment late that evening. He removed his hat, which was wet, and placed it on the hook, which was a nail he’d hammered in the doorframe. “Life has not been kind to me of late,” thought Keith, as he sprawled out on his somewhat rain-warped bed. Soon he was fast asleep, and sometime in the gray between the pre-dawn and the real dawn Keith began to dream. He was in a room, his lover’s room, but at the same time he was somewhere outside looking in. He could feel the soft glow of the fireplace, and he could see, as if he had invented it, the bird cage perched upon the table. Keith was yelling in the dream now, as he had that fateful night in life. He was waving a poker that he’d borrowed from the fireplace. Then he threw back his head and began to spin. The poker spun also. It caught the wire of the bird cage, and within seconds the cage, bird and poker were sailing across the room in a glorious arc, which ended when it hit the wall above the mantle piece. At least, Keith woke up knowing that it ended there. The dream itself ended seconds before it hit, and Keith sat up and heard the fluttering of wings.
The child had been slow to walk. “Why won’t she walk?” Her father asked her mother on the morning of her second birthday. The mother looked down at the child, who was cantering around the lawn on all fours. She said nothing.
The mother knew that in the phrasing of this question lay the truth about the child’s lack of vertical comportment. The problem wasn’t that the child couldn’t walk, it was that she wouldn’t. It was a refusal, a protest of some kind, though the mother didn’t know what any two-year-old could have to protest. The child was happy. At the moment she was shifting from a canter to a gallop, her backside pointed awkwardly skyward. This was not unusual for her. What she did next, however, was very unusual. The child must have felt her parents eyes on her, because suddenly she paused, kicked back her legs, and let out what could only be described as a joyful whiny.
The parents were concerned. They called a special kind of doctor, and although he frowned and sighed as much as any other doctor, they didn’t understand his methods. He would sit in the yard for hours, observing the child and scribbling things in a little black book. Sometimes he would ask her questions. After several days of this, the doctor proclaimed his verdict. “Your child appears to think she is a horse,” he said.
The doctor explained that the phase might run its course. In the meantime, he told the parents to impress upon the child how remarkable it was to be a little girl and not a horse, and how important little girls were in comparison to horses. For example, they might teach her that little girls can ride horses, but that horses can’t ride little girls. They might teach her that horses are smelly, and unintelligent. Perhaps they could buy her a pony.
The parents decided to compromise. They settled on a toy horse, a nice one made with real horse hair, which was set into a little wooden cart with wheels. Instead of cantering around in the grass, the child could sit on the horse and be wheeled around in a respectable fashion, one more becoming of little girls. In time, they thought, she would realize her superiority to horses. She would be cured. The mother also hoped the child would be cured of looking always at the ground, a habit she’d developed after years of crawling. This, however, never came to pass. Later, when the child had grown up into regular young woman, people would remark upon her downcast gaze, which they attributed to modesty. But it wasn’t that, not exactly.
They were in the carriage, and the carriage was in a rut, it’s large right wheels continuing to rutify that rut the more the carriage-driver whipped it forward. They were in the carriage together, in the carriage part, with the carriage-driver sitting in the driver part up front. The horse was not in the carriage, but he was trying. The horse was trying to pull the carriage forward, away from the driver, who had a whip and who was using it. The driver drove while the horse pulled, meaning that the driver drove the horse more than he drove the carriage, which was still not moving. Why weren’t they moving? They were two women, both of them in hats, and neither of them going anywhere. It didn’t make sense, thought the younger woman. The road had a dry look to it. Carriages get caught in mud, the woman thought, but mud looks darker, not so sharp, and this road was so dry and sharp it looked like it could blow away at any moment. “Why aren’t we moving?” The older woman asked. “Indeed, why not?” thought the horse. The younger woman looked down at the ground. The ditch appeared to have a spring beneath it, which the carriage-wheel was in the process of releasing. The more the wheel spun, the deeper it sank. “We could put some stones around the wheel, for traction,” suggested the younger woman. “Traction?” asked the older woman, who was also her mother. “Traction?” asked the driver, who was secretly her father. “We should let the driver deal with it,” the mother said. She looked down at her daughter, who was looking at the mud. “Don’t look at it,” she said, “It doesn’t help. Besides, a lady keeps her eyes on the road.” “My eyes are on the road,” the younger woman said. “The road ahead,” said her mother. So the younger woman sighed, and looked where she was told to. It was summer, late in August. The road was dry, and the trees were throwing shadow patches out across it, until finally the road sank and the trees swallowed it whole. The woman couldn’t see the road ahead of this part of the road. She kept looking, though, even as the driver went to gather stones, and the horse batted flies away with its tail.
Story #1: Image of Crowded Beach Scene
The last memory I have before finding the pocket watch is Bathing Day. Where I lived, every Sunday in the Summer half the town would go down to the shore and wade in the water. It was a wonderful way for the workers to cool down after a long week in the factories and the rest of us would usually join in.
Me and my four siblings were wading down at the far end. This area was rocky, and the shells and rocks would cut our feet, but it was much less crowded. We swam around for a while, sometimes sifting through the silt for sea glass or shells. Though that day I found something quite extraordinary. I found a pocket watch.
I was drawn to it, like a moth to a light, and something about its strange glint and perfectly un-rusted condition made me think it was more than the ordinary time piece. I picked it up. It was heavier than most pocket watches of its size, but at the same time it also felt light. I was almost positive it contained some wondrous secret or unimaginable power.
I made to pry open the watch, but the halves remained firmly shut. After many attempts to open it, I began to think that the whole effort was pointless, but some part of me would not believe it. Again I tried, when CRACK! With a satisfying sound the two halves flew apart to reveal the face of the clock.
Instead of the typical clock numbers, one through twelve, the numbers went much further. The highest number was 44. Instead of two hands, there was one hand with a button in the center. I thought about showing it to my siblings, but some selfish part of me wanted the pocket watch for myself.
I slowly moved the hand to “27” then pressed the button. Everything went black. I tried forcing my eyes open, when I realized they were already open. Before I could find a reason for this sudden blackout, my vision came back.
The water had vanished and in its place was a large sunken hole. I turned the watch over in my hand. The numbers had disappeared, leaving only the words - Welcome to the 27th Century.
Story #2: Three Images of children’s play
Every day, rain or shine, fog or snow, the children would go to the Edgecomb Wood. The wood was not very thick, in fact it was more of a grove. It was full of oak trees, butterflies and the occasional maple, and the underbrush was spotted with small rays of dappled light shining through the canopy. At the edge of the grove was a field where 15 children always came to play.
There was a reason why the children would come every day and play. Their games were not simple, but more complex as if carrying out a second life.
Most observers found their play typical, but one observer in particular found it very odd. He had been watching them for a few days when a letter arrived from his aunt. The letter told about his niece getting sick and about the royal family having a new baby. He began to write his reply, when he stopped for a second. Weren’t the children acting out these exact events just yesterday? He figured he’d watch the children for a few more days and wait for the next letter.
A week passed and a very long letter came from his aunt. He read the letter and noticed that the events she described were exactly the same as the children’s play - and this was no coincidence.
The next day no letter came but the children continued their endless games and the man came to watch. This time he brought a notebook and recorded every event in the children’s play: a lost watch…a vacation…a marriage…a meeting…a dinner party…The next week a letter did come and it was a near perfect account of every event that took place in yesterday’s play.
The 15 children played and 15 adults copied. The children wrote the play. The adults acted it out, and only the children knew their secret.
Story #3: Image of white church
We would always visit the old church in the summer. Our family would go on holiday every year. We could yell and play all we wanted in the beautiful fields and wander the dirt roads until dusk. Grandma says that the country is magical. She said that leprechauns dwell there, but Mum claims it’s fairies. And I believe them.
I met the tiny people on my first visit to the old church. I was 6, and looking for a friend to play with. I asked Grandma where I could find one and she told me to go down to the old church. I walked down the old dusty road to the clearing where the old church sat. When I arrived, the morning had begun to fade to afternoon and the shadows were starting to grow long. I stepped cautiously into the old building. Despite the chipped paint, peeling wallpaper and nicked wood, the room was beautiful. I had hardly a second to take everything in before a movement caught my eye and a small man stepped out of the shadows and into view. His clothes looked like they were made of leaves and his shoes were skillfully carved of wood. I bent down and whispered, “Who are you?” To which he replied, “We are Church Magic.” The small man turned to the room and raised his arms. Out of every possible hiding place came more tiny people like the little man. Men, women and children shuffled into view from all sides. I had found the friends that I was looking for.
That night I old Grandma about the Church Magic. “Around this country,” she said,”if you look hard enough you will always find what you seek.”
Image 5: city hall draped in flags, 4th of July
In the olden days, city hall was made out of cake and you didn’t have to lock up your bicycle. You could just lean it on a pole in the foreground of any old photo and it would stay there for a hundred years.
Every baker in the city pitched in to bake the giant cake once a year, and drape it with candy floss flags. Then, on the fourth of July, everyone got a piece of city hall, served on a paper plate with a plastic fork. The horse-drawn ice cream truck would roll through Kennedy Plaza, and for a nickel you could get a scoop of ice cream on top of your piece of city hall. Or you could get coffee milk with it, of course.
It wasn’t hard to feel patriotic in the olden days; most people like cake, lots of people are even willing to put their right hand on their heart when they say it: “I like cake.” Plus, the American flag had been planted in fewer places back then, with fewer grim headlines, so it was easier to stomach especially in the form of candy floss. Anyways, Rhode Islanders in the olden days really looked forward to the Fourth of July.
Then one morning in late June, the people were dismayed to discover that someone had built an inedible building where the cake was supposed to go. The public uproar was pretty much immediate. A building is so much less delicious than a cake, and it is not as easy to share. Suddenly Providence City Hall was more like a clubhouse than a democratic treat and no one was happy about it except the people who worked there.
Image 2: Wakefield parade, view from Wakefield station
By that afternoon, crowds had gathered to discuss what should be done. Some people wanted to take a match to the new building. Some people penned petitions. One old lady suggested covering City Hall with frosting in protest.
While the grown-ups milled around the town square holding their limp American flags and gesturing with their top hats, Janey Gray ran from the crowd, and called out to her little sister May. Janey was the kind of kid who made things happen, and frequently got gobs of chewing gum stuck in her hair. Her sister, May, had an angelic reputation among adults (thanks largely to the volume of yellow curls on her head), which was convenient, because the two of them were always getting into jams. There were few cops in town who hadn’t been snowed over by May Gray’s adorable little face. Anyhow, when the Gray sisters took off somewhere, it was generally a good policy to follow them and see what came next.
Which is exactly what JJ Tucker did when he saw them, from his perch on the roof of the railroad, station leaving the town square at a run. JJ was just old enough to realize that Janey was something special, but too young to realize she was the love of his life. (I don’t have time to tell you that story tonight, except to say that some people really do die in each others’ arms at a ripe old age, and it’s just as sweet as it sounds.) Anyways, JJ hopped off the roof of the railroad station and followed the girls all the way to the playground on Rochambeau Ave., where, as was the case on most saturday afternoons, every swing was swinging high.
Image 1: playground scene, unknown
The boys at the playground all looked at the camera when Janey and May ran up, partly because of the novelty of cameras, and partly because those girls looked like they had big news.
“Did you hear about the cake?” yelled Janey. “What about it?” The boys yelled back. “It’s gone! They built a regular city hall there instead. No cake this year!”
Now, as I see it there are two kinds of patriotism. First, there is the simple flag-waving pride which is aroused in a citizen’s heart when, for example, the elite shotputters from her country out-shotput the Russians in the Summer Olympics. Then there is the patriotism born of rage. “Let us not forget,” a French revolutionary once put it, “that pissing on the altar is still a way of paying homage to the church.” So it goes with blasphemy, and so it goes with riots too. It takes love to get mad enough about something to take a stand against it. And it was this kind of love, this righteous anger which is actually quite patriotic, that took hold of the children at the Rochambeau Avenue Playground when they learned that Providence City Hall was no longer made of cake.
First there was mayhem. Boy ejected themselves from their swings midair and tumbled into a huddle. The kids at the bottom of each seesaw jumped up to join them, sending their lofted playmates crashing to the ground amidst many chipped teeth and bitten tongues. (This was back when playgrounds retained that thrilling element of real bodily danger.)
Soon they were all gathered in an agitated mass arguing about what to do. Janey Gray wanted to ransack every bakery in town and bring all the spoils to Kennedy Plaza, for an anarchic reenactment of the beloved cake feast. Eddie Jones, whose dad was a baker on Federal Hill, thought that was a bad idea.
“How about we have a parade?” He suggested. “What for?” Janey snarled. “For fun! For whatever we want!” Eddie said. “I want cake.” Janey said. “Well, there is no cake.” Eddie retorted, which was easy for him to say, since he ate day-old cake for breakfast every morning. “So what else do we want?”
He looked around. For a moment no one said anything. This was the first time many of them had ever been asked to put “we” before the word “want.” Childhood, after all, is a country of its own, a country where you can only reach up to the knees of authority, with a first-person plea– hold me, feed me, teach me what this means. “What do we want?” was a new question, a question for citizens of something larger than themselves. United as the children were by a common outrage, this spark of citizenship took hold among them and they grappled, for a moment, with their suddenly expanding sense of identity.
“What do want?” May whispered to Janey. “We want…” Janey looked out over the swingsets and seesaws. “We want playgrounds!”
Image 4: we want playgrounds
And as soon as it was said, it was true. “We want playgrounds.” Here was a slogan every kid could get behind. This wasn’t just about cake anymore, it was about fun in general.
(Years later, JJ Tucker would write that the Providence children’s protest was a “reclamation of public space, to honor the ludic impulses of human nature.” But at the time, he was thirteen and in love— though he didn’t know it yet— and there was nothing ideological about the way he ran to the hardware store for paint and brushes, and then ran back to make signs.)
“We want playgrounds!” They painted on their signs, and that’s what they chanted as they marched down the river towards Kennedy Plaza.
“What do we want?” yelled Eddie. “Playgrounds!” “When do we want them?” “Now!”
As they marched, the crowd grew bigger, drawing kids from every stoop along the route.
“We want playgrounds!” Their high-pitched voices filled the streets.
“We want playgrounds!” And it became so much more than a childish demand. No longer were they simply marching for cake. They were marching to darken the line between work and play which, in the olden days, was terribly blurry, such that some boys and girls went to “play” in the factories for eight or more hours a day, while other kids went to school.
“We want playgrounds!” For all children, they meant, and playtime too.
“We want playgrounds!” And somehow this want projected itself far in the future, a time of instant photography and latent unrest. A future where public space is always being used for parking lots and prisons, but rarely is earmarked for play, where the people dream of occupying their country anew, like children, like a whole city gathered around to share cake.
“We want playgrounds!” The children chanted, and Eddie beat on his drums, and JJ marched along the perimeter, keeping the little kids in line.
Image 3: parade, children marching
And there you have it; in the olden days, city hall was made out of cake. But there aren’t any pictures of it so most people forget. Photos have a funny way of doing that, of making it seem like city hall has always been solid and unpalatable. One Fourth of July, a photographer biked to Kennedy Plaza, leaned his bike against a pole, and set up his camera. And, thanks to him, from the look of it, everyone in Rhode Island was a white man in a tophat or a white boy in long socks and a beanie, and no one was eating city hall. But photos can only tell the story within the frame. There have always been all kinds of Rhode Islanders, even in the olden days, and most of them loved cake. And some of them were badass girls with revolutionary hearts who had to watch the parade from the side of the road, and some of them had been born in other countries but now they were waving an American flag, and some of them their grandparents were born on plantations, and some of them were from Providence and stayed all their lives, and some of them came here for school but never left, and all of them were here for different reasons, but all of them were here, even if they aren’t in the pictures. So I guess that’s what storytellers are for.
When the parade was over, they all marched home. Lots of moms made cake that night, and some kids even took it out to the street and shared it with their neighbors. The Fourth of July was alright that year, though the patriotism of the citizens of Providence was warier now and lots of people just celebrated in their own backyards. None of the children ever forgot the day that Janey Gray got them to take to the streets in defense of play. And over the years they each had plenty of other opportunities to paint new signs and march downtown chanting. Such is the nature of patriotism, of being in love with an arrogant young country and so having to stand up against it sometimes. “What is the outrage worthy of your love?” Janey Gray would ask her children. And they, in turn, asked their children, and they asked their children. And tonight I ask you, you people of Providence, you citizens of something larger than yourselves. What is your love, and how does it taste? There are hundreds of ways to make our city more delicious. And what is citizenship, anyhow, if not the dream of a giant cake, with coffee milks all around.
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