Published in Panhandler Issue 6
Jacob M. Appel has published over two hundred short stories in literary journals and has been short-listed for the Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize and Pushcart Prize on numerous occasions. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Creative Writing Program at New York University. He currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and practices medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. More at: http://www.jacobmappel.com.
The Country People finished carting off the phone booths just after noon on Friday. You could see the impressions of their wheelbarrows and sledges around the bases of the lindens that line First Street and Washington Avenue. Yet to hear the three Lafontaine sisters jabbering away on their porch, their scratchy warble carrying in the afternoon heat, you might have thought I was the only person in Worcester at all concerned that the city is being carried away in pieces. And my husband has the nerve to suggest that I take up volunteer work!
“I’m certain it was Sofia Loren,” said Mildred Lafontaine, perched on a wooden crate, her voice like a warped record played to fast. “Just because I have cataracts doesn’t mean I can’t see anything.”
“And what do you suppose Sofia Loren would be doing at Lambert’s Confectionary?” demanded Gladys. “Sofia Loren is far too big for Worcester. Tell her, Hortense.”
“Sofia Loren has black eyes,” the youngest of the elderly sisters replied indifferently. I don’t know whether this declaration was intended to support the bird-like Mildred or the stouter Gladys—but a woman can’t endure idle chatter in a time of crisis, so I slammed down the widow in disgust and drew the curtains. These days I find myself fearful that I’ll wake up one morning to find my face warm with sunlight. One cannot put it past the Country People to make off with the windows.
This is not the first time that a city has been removed, piece by piece, like the dismantling of a mechanical watch. I mustered the energy to visit the municipal library last week—the day after they pried up the sidewalks—and I researched the matter thoroughly. The historic record, it turns out, reveals several dozen instances of urbicide. In 1941, for example, Hermann Göring ordered the removal of the Dutch village of Bloemenbakke, a hamlet that blocked the paths of his panzer units. Within days, the advancing Germans erased the entire town: the buildings, the freshly planted fields of spring tubers, the fourteenth century stone footbridges over the Kromme Rijn, even the concrete mile markers along the high road. Yet in that instance, the denizens were transported to Treblinka before the eradication of their settlement. A far more analogous case to ours might be the Russian army’s razing of Eperjus in the Carpathians in 1915—absconding with the city’s infrastructure and leaving the bereft inhabitants to forage the countryside. As a prophylactic measure, I have buried several crates of tomato soup and a sack of potatoes behind the garage. That is how we must live these days—at least those of us paying attention—preparing for the day when nothing will remain.
What’s not to say that life here in Worcester was idyllic before the Country People started their forays. Quite the opposite: It was unbearable. Or I thought it was unbearable, until I understood what unbearable really is. A woman squanders her whole life accumulating all this stuff—for lack of a better word—doorknobs and blenders and checking accounts and a master’s degree in art history and even children, one of each, and then a woman finds herself on the far side of fifty with all this stuff—and still nothing! Some days, alone in the house while Charlie practiced his putting at the club, or chaired those interminable city council meetings, I wanted to start giving it all away—the doorknobs, the appliances, the children. But then the Country People arrived and I found myself clinging to that same stuff, the loss of every last light bulb and shower-curtain rod like a spear through my chest. None of this fazes Charlie. And a woman cannot help wondering, if she had married a man who understood her more, who suffered when strangers carried off their belongings, would life be more tolerable?
We were to drive out to visit my father-in-law in Laurendale on Saturday. He was the Presbyterian minister there until the Country People appropriated the church, brick by brick, leaving behind only the neon cross as a landmark. Now Charlie’s father has emergency work with the government, a security job not conducive to conversation. He greets all inquiries regarding the ongoing crisis with a terse, “I can’t comment.” I’d already loaded the car—two bottles of wine for Reverend Prescott, a pound of cheese for his new wife, a host of culinary delicacies that a mayor’s wife might bring to a mayor’s parents in a time of calamity—when the Country People appeared in our driveway and requisitioned the vehicle.
I have given up arguing with them. They wait patiently until a person has protested to her heart’s content and then they go about their business with alacrity. When they came for grandmother’s dining room table, I raised a fuss—scratching the mahogany with my keychain to blemish their plunder. They stood in a circle around the damaged heirloom, hands on their chins, and waited for my petulance to exhaust itself before carefully sawing the treasure in half and carrying it down the back stairs. That was when Charlie first suggested that I volunteer my afternoons at the hospital. Against my wishes, he made all of the arrangements—and then the Country People, whose motives even Charlie does not fully understand, arrived the following morning to dismantle the hospital buildings. They drove the ambulances down First Street at high speed with the sirens blaring.
Since I distinctly remember calling Reverend Prescott to alter around plans, I am confident that there were still payphones in town last Saturday. That is how I measure the days—by what is missing and what remains. I know that lindens lined First Street and Washington Avenue on Friday because I remember the sledge marks and wheelbarrow prints. By Tuesday, all that remained were row upon row of stately stumps. The Country People meticulously raked up every fallen leaf and branch. When they removed the water from the reservoir that morning, they filled the muddy scar with gravel. Having confiscated electrical wires, they painstakingly carried off the telephone poles as well. The County People are a thorough and conscientious lot.
“I am so sorry about the inconvenience, Pops,” said Charlie, when his parents arrived from Laurendale. He greeted the hawk-nosed minister with a handshake, then a light hug. “Did you have a safe trip?”
Reverend Prescott coughed into his handkerchief. My father-in-law stands over six foot five and he rarely smiles. I have married into a tall, dour family. “I’m afraid I can’t comment,” he said decisively, at the same time helping himself to a snifter of brandy. Charlie nodded knowingly—as though these words actually contained profundity. A look of earnest engagement flashed across his boyish face, a visage he has cultivated since his entry into local politics. I have even seen him display this expression to the Country People, but they stare back impassively and go about their labors.
“It was just a dreadful journey,” chirped my mother-in-law, Elmira, and she seated her portly form on a crate in the dining room. “They’ve taken down the road signs and the traffic lights—all the way from Hancock Ridge into town—and the roads were like Armageddon. Not to mention which, your father, in his infinite wisdom, forgot to have the air-conditioner in the Buick repaired. Honestly, it was just intolerable.” My mother-in-law fanned herself as she complained. I often wish that she had taken a high security job with the government that prevented public comments.
“So they’ve taken down the road signs, Reverend Prescott,” I echoed in the hope of drawing out a response from my father-in-law.
“I can’t comment,” he replied and glanced at his watch. “I think it’s about time we head back to Laurendale, Elmira. I don’t want you driving after dark.” The churchless clergyman polished off a second glass of brandy, shook Charlie’s hand once again, and led his rotund wife down the front walk. That was the day before the Country People removed the slate and left gaping patches of dirt on the front lawn.
No sooner had my in-laws departed than Charlie started in again about the volunteer work. My husband is fixated. He believes it unhealthy for me to sit at home all day long to spy on the comings and goings of the Country People. It is also unbefitting the wife of a mayor, he fears. People will talk! Well, let them talk, I say. The real problem is that nobody is willing to talk about the men in white overalls and the bonneted women who carried off Gladys Lafontaine. That was on Sunday, the morning they started requisitioning human beings and the day before they commandeered the fire hydrants. I am keeping track.
Four nondescript men in plaid shirts, the leader smoking a corncob pipe, accosted the elderly sisters as they walked down their front steps on the way to the bingo matinee at the senior citizens center. The four rustic men apparently had some difficulties distinguishing among the three identically-clad Lafontaine women, and they spent quite some time examining their prey. The Country People paced clockwise, then counterclockwise, in concentric circles, their hands rubbing their chins, and then suddenly they converged on the somewhat befuddled Gladys. Mildred and Hortense shook their heads in resignation and continued on their way to bingo.
“I’m absolutely certain that it was Olivia de Havilland,” Mildred declared later that afternoon. “I was standing directly across the street from the C&C Delicatessen and out she walks—just like in the picture shows.”
“Olivia de Havilland has green eyes,” Hortense responded dreamily.
I slammed down the window once again in what had become a daily ritual. That was the afternoon the country people came for the saucepans and dug up the cans of tomato soup and the potatoes. Charlie supervised the transaction while I was at the library researching the history of these strange rural people. He had acquired the infuriating habit of orchestrating matters behind my back.
“How could you let them have the tomato soup?” I screamed when I discovered his treachery. “We’re going to starve. Don’t you remember what I told you about the Russians in Eperjus?”
My husband lit a cigarette and looked at me over the afternoon paper. “I wouldn’t worry too much, dear,” he observed calmly. “They’ve done this before. It will all be over soon.” That’s the same reassurance he’d been offering to concerned citizens.
“Who says they’ve done this before?” I demanded. “There’s no record of it at the library. I went through every issue of the Sentinel dating back to 1877.”
Charlie folded his newspaper and deposited it on a milk crate. “I suspect there was also no record of Eperjus in the Russian newspapers,” he said. “If you spent your afternoons at the soup kitchen, instead of mucking about in that damned periodicals room, you wouldn’t get yourself so worked up about things.”
“But they came for Gladys Lafontaine!”
“Enough of this,” Charlie retorted. He slammed his fist against the tabletop. “I forbid you to spend anymore time at the library. People are going to say things….”
I did not protest. There’s no arguing with my husband once he’s made a decision. It was a moot point, anyway, because the following morning the Country People carried off the library. Unfortunately, without the distraction of research, I found myself asking unhealthy questions about our predicament: What had we, the people of Worcester, done to be singled out for such affliction? Or was it something that I, personally, had done to bring this calamity down upon us? I spent hours at the bay windows, watching the Country People’s children trapping butterflies and lightning bugs, to be hauled away in enormous glass jars, and cataloguing the events of my fifty-two years, trying to isolate that precise misdeed or transgression that might account for such retribution. I wonder if others of us did the same. I secretly hoped that Charlie was conducting a personal accounting of his own—although I knew this was just wishful thinking on my part. After three decades of marriage, a woman recognized whether her husband is capable of a personal inventory, and mine simply isn’t. In my world, calamities occur for a reason. Cause and effect. In Charlie’s world, calamities just happen—which makes enduring them easier, I suppose. My own reckoning left me tearful and jittery.
Not that I ever came up with an explanation for our misfortune, at least not one for which I was personally culpable. Looking back on my life, what I actually discovered was that I’d spent more than five decades coloring in between the lines. I paid our taxes like clockwork. I served on two juries, one for drunk driving, one a dispute over an architect’s fee, and I did my darnedest to be fair. I sent birthday presents to my nieces and nephews, and phoned Charlie’s ingrate of a sister on her anniversary, and never drove the children without a car seat—not even on the briefest of grocery runs. I’d have died with the tags on my mattresses, if the Country People hadn’t carried off the beds and left us to sleep on the sofa. And I’m proud to say that I lumped it in life: If the food was undercooked in a restaurant, I made do. If the phone bill was off by a few dollars, I still paid it in full. But now that all seems so foolish, so self-denying. What was the point of playing by the rules when the Country People can show up at any moment and impose their own set of rules—if they even have rules. Who can say if they have rules? What they do have is impudence, and gall, and as of yesterday afternoon, all of the cutlery and utensils. I had to spread my jelly on my toast this morning with my pinkie, like I did on camping trips as a schoolgirl.
The intensity of the Country People’s efforts has increased in recent days. At first, they made pilgrimages of two or three and removed a lamppost or a lawn chair. Now they arrive by the dozens, by marauding hundreds, and they carry off entire city blocks. Downtown Worcester looks like London after the blitz. I grew up in London during the bombings, back when I still had my maiden name and unrealistic expectations, so maybe that is why these matters weigh so heavily upon me. Mildred Lafontaine, in contrast, did not seem particularly fazed when the County People carried away another of her sisters.
“I’m positive it was Greta Garbo,” my neighbor said to the spring air while I was making my morning survey of the yard to assess the overnight damage. They had carried off the aluminum siding while we slept.
“Greta Garbo is dead!” I called out and slammed to front door. That proved to be a display of poor judgment as Mildred’s weeping permeated the remainder of the morning. I could not shut her out. The Country People had finally come for the windows.
Even Charlie seemed slightly troubled by the events of the afternoon. We were seated on the veranda, arguing bitterly over my “snooping” on the Lafontaines, when a solemn procession rounded the corner. Twenty Country People and several dozen of their bewildered victims paraded up the boulevard. The oversized Reverend Prescott’s stately head poked above the hats of the multitude. He waved toward us, then suddenly broke from the crowd. The convoy waited patiently as he greeted Charlie with a handshake and a hug. He entered our house and returned moments later with a bottle of scotch under each arm.
“Do you know when you’ll be coming back, Pops?” asked Charlie—and, having lived with him for thirty years, I could detect the hint of trepidation in his voice.
“I can’t comment, I’m afraid,” said the clergyman. He looked down at his watch and then up at the afternoon sky. “I do hope we get there by sundown.”
My husband and my father-in-law shook hands one last time and then Reverend Prescott returned to the procession. Several hours later, the Country People removed the last of the downtown office buildings and the final Lafontaine sister.
That’s when the realization hits me: Soon enough, they will come for one of us. Either Charlie or me. And the other will be left behind, alone, in a world without butterflies and window panes and love.
“Aren’t you at all frightened?” I asked Charlie as we wait here in the evening twilight. The Country People have removed the veranda, and we are sitting on the wet grass—a middle-aged town official and his wife at a moment of crisis.
Charlie looks up at me, the tenderness soft on his coarse features. Then his “official” look of earnest engagement drives off the warmth. “They will bring everything back,” he assures me. “They have always brought everything back.”
He has only a few shreds of evidence to back up his case. The Country People have brought things back several times over the last few weeks—parking meters, for instance. One day they sawed the heads off the parking meters on Maple Street, then two days later they returned the decapitated heads, deposited them in a mound at the foot of the statue of Paul Revere on Commonwealth Street. They also returned several houseplants, a dressmaker’s dummy, and the children’s section of the library. So it is possible they will bring something else back, but this is not a hope to bank on.
“But what if they don’t?” I plead. “I don’t want to be alone.”
My husband shrugs. He has no comfort to offer.
The Country People arrive in one of the ambulances that they’ve requisitioned from the local hospital. There are only two of them. Burly men wearing white overalls and impassive expressions. They circle us methodically. Clockwise. Counterclockwise. Hands on their chins. At first, I think that they have come for Charlie. And somehow that possibility angers me like none other—that after all I’ve done for him, after all these years playing by the rules, his rules, he’d leave me behind without a fight. And how would too. I can see that now. He’d hug me, peck my cheek, and follow these two burly, white-clad men to the edge of the earth and beyond without resisting. As the men continue to circle us, their target still unknown, I realize that I want them to take me.
“Take me!” I scream. “Take me! I don’t want to be brought back!”
And they do.
Sitting in the back of the ambulance between two Country People, I peer out the tinted window at the world I am leaving behind. Charlie is shaking his head as he trudges toward the house, his afternoon newspaper tucked under one arm.