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By Michael Ramberg

I come from a small town you never heard of, unless you know about the big ball of string—biggest one ever done by a single man—that they keep in a big glass-wall gazebo about two miles off the main road. Used to, anyway. You probably heard that story, too, how it got burned down a few weeks ago. It was in all the papers’ News of the Weird columns and the late-night talk shows, how some freak or freaks drove in, smashed out one of the windows, threw in some gas, and tossed in a lighter. Poof. A fireball, busted glass, chaos. The whole sky turned orange, fading to a dingy black smoke-cloud that hung over the whole town before drifting off toward the Cities, eighty miles to the east. The volunteer fire crew spent forty minutes drowning it with hose-water; it was dawn before they were done and before noon the whole town knew. It hit everyone pretty hard, as you might imagine. We didn’t know what to do. One by one, folks came driving out to pay respects. They parked on the gravel median and stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the soggy mess the fire crew left behind. Then they held a whole-town meeting at the combined high school gym. Man, everyone showed up. The grocer, the barber, the manager of the new Walmart that was driving them all out of business. Everyone wanted a piece of where the town was headed now that its most famous citizen was dead. Aside from wanting revenge on the sick bas- 40_Stories_Final.indd 17 6/18/12 5:38 PM 18 Michael Ramberg tard that had done it, they couldn’t agree on much. Some wanted to rebuild what was left, which was about half the ball, and that mostly char made soggy and starting to mold already from the soaking that had put out the fire. Some others wanted to plow the whole site under and move on with being just another small town dying on the godforsaken prairie. Small-time thinkers thinking small, but at least they were trying, seemed to me. This is a pretty typical small town, and what that means is anyone with big ideas gets run out early for the Cities, leaving it for the half-wits with delusions of grandeur to run the show. After the meeting, little groups gathered out in the parking lot and talked it over. I ended up with Buddy Summers and Tank Watterman and their pinched-up little wives, who were all cross-eyed with anger over the ball of string being gone. “I think it’s a local,” said Buddy. “I think it’s one of the antis.” The antis were what we called people who thought the ball of string was a bad idea. Mostly they lived close to the ball, so they had to put up with the occasional set of kids from the Cities who drove by at three in the morning, drunk and looking for some hick, irony-laden small-town icon to make fun of. “I think it was some crazy from out of town,” Tank’s wife Mella said. “I think it was a terrorist.” Mella was four foot ten, five two if you counted her hair, which she kept piled up and curly in a style twenty years out of date. It had been really something back in the eighties, but now it was just kind of sad. I don’t know how her husband put up with her walking around like that, because Tank sold cars in Plymouth, which was forty miles away, out where folks from the Cities lived, so he was a little more sophisticated than Mella. “One thing’s for sure,” said Buddy. “We’re gonna find the guy. And then he’ll pay.” “I think it was an anarchist,” I said. “One of those guys who just wants to destroy stuff for no good reason.” They stared at me. “What’s a anarchist?” said Mella. “Like the devil,” Buddy said with an ignorant laugh. “That’s the anti-Christ,” I said. 40_Stories_Final.indd 18 6/18/12 5:38 PM The Anarchist of Darwin 19 “He thinks the devil did it.” “I said anarchists, shithead,” I said. The world was turning red, and I could feel my face flushing in anger. “Okay, Spaz-o-tron. Hold your water.” I closed my eyes until the red went away. People were always saying dumb things and I was always having to calm down about it. It was why I spent so much time at home; it was the only way to avoid being around idiots and getting pissed off all the time. I said, “Anarchists believe society should be reshaped without a hierarchy of authority,” I said. “They believe all government institutions are evil, and that destruction of the current status quo is the best way to achieve a stateless society.” “Oh,” said Mella. She rolled her eyes back to think for a second. “So why burn down the string ball?” “Because it’s an irrational system,” I said. “With no proven methodology for implementing its core values, it strikes out at anything it despises.” “Chris the genius,” said Buddy with a sneer. “J.C. Christ.” Buddy had never liked me. Even back to grade school he’d been picking at the scab of my personality, and I was surprised we’d gone this long without him saying some ignorant, stupid thing. “Is that what you’re doing, holed up in your house all day?” “I’m in the book business,” I said. “So I read some of them.” I bought and sold books on the Internet. I’d started with the collection my dad had left in the basement after he killed himself, and had bought and sold enough to be able to pay the taxes on the house that had become mine, since Mom had died off herself some years earlier. “If it helps us find this asshole, let him read whatever he wants,” Tank said. “C’mon. Let’s go out there in the morning. I bet there’s tons of clues about who did this.” “They been over and over that lot,” said Buddy. “They even called in some expert from the Cities. If there’s anything left, he’ll find it.” “There’s always clues,” said Tank. “Right, Chris?” I don’t know why he dragged me into it. They turned and looked at me. Buddy said, “You should miss it more than anyone. Your momma worked with that thing for twenty years. Put bread on the table.” 40_Stories_Final.indd 19 6/18/12 5:38 PM 20 Michael Ramberg My mother had worked at the visitors’ center, selling postcards and charging admission to the History of the River Valley exhibit they kept in the back. It never paid much, and when she died—it was from lung cancer—the town made it a part-time volunteer job. But I didn’t feel any sense of gratitude to the string-ball, and why should I? The way I figure, back in the fifties when Old Man Johnson had begun winding that thing, twine was 80 percent asbestos. Which means my mother worked every day for years in the presence of a nine-ton ball of poison. “We’ll take a look tomorrow, right?” said Tank. They were all looking at me again until Buddy said, “Say something, Spaz-o-tron.” I don’t remember anything after that. I suppose being called Spazo-tron may go down all right with some people, but not with me. Most likely I got pissed off and took a swing, or maybe I just stormed off and came home. But the next thing I remember is waking up in the morning and diving into my work. I scouted around, looking for people who were willing to unload books for less than they were worth just to get rid of them; then I sent some emails to people willing to pay extra for books so they didn’t have to look for them their own selves. Basically I was cheating two sets of people to make my profit, but that’s how capitalism works when you get down to it, and who was I to stand by while someone else took my money? I made a few deals that put me up about fifty bucks—a slow morning—then decided to go to lunch. I went to the Twine-Winder, like I usually do, and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with french fries and sat eating it while staring across the lawn at the place where the remains of the twine ball still lay in the afternoon sun like a big, crumbling turd. People were still coming by to look at the mess. They stopped their cars and got out and stood by the yellow police tape keeping people away from the mass of charcoal and burned out gazebo timbers still dangling from the one wall that hadn’t caved in. They took pictures. Some of them dabbed at their eyes like they were starting to cry. There was even a memorial out front, where people had brought flowers and piled them up on the lawn between the charred-out string-ball and 40_Stories_Final.indd 20 6/18/12 5:38 PM The Anarchist of Darwin 21 the visitor center. It was just like those memorials you saw when that princess died in a car crash, or that spring up every time some stupid teenager goes nuts and brings a gun to school and thins out the herd a little. It’s funny how people react pretty much the same way to what’s important and what isn’t, if you ask me. “They sure miss that string,” said a voice above me. It was Claire, come to refill my coffee cup. Claire’d been waiting tables at the TwineWinder since she was fifteen. She was still pretty, but she’d never been bright. She’d had a kid a while back who died of cancer, and after that her husband moved to the Cities and she’s been struggling alone ever since. She was about the last person in town I’d think to let near what was left of my heart, but she was damaged goods now, beyond my skills to save. “All them flowers are pretty,” I said. “Sad to think all that pretty came from the wreck of that stringball. Still, people miss it pretty bad, driving out there to pay respects that way.” “Pay respects,” I said. “Most of it’s Verna’s overstock.” Verna ran a flower shop two towns down. I said, “I saw her drop it off couple nights ago.” “Still,” said Claire. “It’s a nice thought.” Then Tank came in and sat at my table. I was about halfway through my grilled cheese and there was still forty minutes to go before I had to make a phone call, so I sat and listened to what he had to say. Whenever I left the house to eat down at the TwineWinder, he’d always find me and sit down and talk with me for about ten hours. I don’t know if what he tells me he tells other people and I don’t care. Maybe he knows I won’t spread it around. I really didn’t want much to do with Tank, because he’s such a hypocrite, but he was one of the few guys who was nice to me, so I gave him some leeway most times. As he sat down he said, “Looking good, Chris,” and he gave me a friendly wink. One good thing about Tank, he never called me by that other name, the one I hate that followed me out of grade school like a puppy that grew into the meanest Rottweiler in the world. I told him I was okay. Then he said, “I been poking around. Turns out 40_Stories_Final.indd 21 6/18/12 5:38 PM 22 Michael Ramberg the ball-burner busted out the glass with a hammer. Soaked the ball with gas. Then he tossed in a lighter.” “We all know that,” I said. “But I found out,” he said, grabbing a fry off my plate, “it was a Zippo lighter.” “Yeah?” “Oh, yeah.” “Should dust it for prints.” “Yeah, they did that. That investigator from the Cities, he’s on the job.” “Good,” I said. The investigator was a fat, bald guy in thick glasses who’d stood behind the mayor during the meeting, peering up at us all with his beady little eyes. He’d looked more like an expert in Big Macs than in arson. Tank said, “He says whoever did this was a lucky amateur. Says that, in a contained area like that, pumping in gasoline creates a concentration of fumes in a small space. Basically it was a bomb. Guy was lucky he didn’t get blasted clear to Iowa.” Claire filled Tank’s coffee and took his order and asked if I was okay, then left again, tucking her little notepad into the hip pocket of her apron. “She likes you,” Tank said. “You oughta get you some of that.” “Not much left, what I hear,” I said, regretting it right away. Since her kid died and her husband left, Claire in her grief had taken on half the men in town, and some from outside. Men left her house all hours. Strangers, townsfolk, whoever. I only knew ’cause on nights when I can’t sleep I take walks and Claire lives near the park, where there’s a bench I rest sometimes and it, just by coincidence, points me straight at her house, where there’s no choice but to monitor the goings-on of Claire and her parade of menfolk. I’d even seen Tank leaving there once in a while, but I didn’t say anything to him about it. “Suit yourself,” Tank said. Tank was a guy who’d have sex with pretty much anyone. He didn’t care that he was married, or if they were, he just had sex with them. He went to strip clubs with coworkers, so he knew what he was talking about when he said everyone in the Cities dresses like strippers now; he said he even had 40_Stories_Final.indd 22 6/18/12 5:38 PM The Anarchist of Darwin 23 a couple strippers come in looking to buy a car. He could tell they were strippers by the superthin eyebrows and the superfake tan, and because they offered him a two-on-one VIP deal instead of an actual down payment on a white Tundra with a navigation system and DVD player. They were going out west to make it in the movies, they’d said. What he didn’t say was whether he took their down payment or not; I’d guess he did. “So did you see anything?” “What?” “I know you go out wandering at nights. Claire tells me she’s seen you in the park. Pretty much everyone sees you, the way you wander around the town. Thought maybe you saw something.” “No,” I said. “I thought the cops could use some help, is all. If you saw anything.” “I’m tired of everyone thinking they know things about me,” I said. “It’s a small town,” said Tank. “You can’t keep too many secrets here.” “Don’t I know it,” I said. I’d already said too much, so I kept my mouth shut. Because this is a pretty little town filled with ugly little people stuck together in groups of two, and I was the oddball single, I stuck out for easy scorn and rumor. The rest of the town was couples, husbands and wives, not that it was any better that way. Most couples I knew were at each other’s throats all day long. I don’t understand what it is that keeps people together. It’s a surprise the whole world doesn’t just go off hiding in seven billion little holes and die off from disgust at each other’s stupidity. I guess I just don’t have the stomach for it. It was an anarchist that took down President McKinley, and from that we got President Teddy Roosevelt, who basically whupped up on the Spaniards and everyone else in his way until he’d turned the United States into what it is today: the biggest badass country in the world, beloved mostly except by jealous freaks blind to all the good we’ve done. Irony is, with all our might we just bred bastards resentful of 40_Stories_Final.indd 23 6/18/12 5:38 PM 24 Michael Ramberg our success, stupid blind anarcho-terrorists bent on destroying our way of life by taking down a couple tall buildings. But to prove how stupid they were, they didn’t know what a huge favor they were doing the world by giving us the excuse to take over a couple of shitty countries headed nowhere and put them on the fast track to the good life. But try explaining that to people. They may be down with invading countries run by homicidal madmen, but if you mention that all this good was caused by a tragedy, by people doing senseless things, then they shut up fast. In my experience no one understands how entwined good and evil are, how God wouldn’t be half the ass-kicker he was if it weren’t for that creep down in Hell. And sometimes it’s not as easy as taking sides—sometimes you need to be the one who persuades the rest of the world not to follow in your path. You start telling people things like that and the words get wrapped around each other till they don’t mean anything and they look at you like you’re crazy and soon enough you learn not to say a damn thing to anyone. So you go for long walks. I do. I walked back to town and went to the park. I sat there on the bench that faced Claire’s house and watched the yellow glow from her windows as she moved around in there, doing I didn’t know what. She was alone tonight, which I liked. Sometimes there were men, and I never stayed long when she had men. But tonight she moved around near the window, wearing a tank top that showed the angel tattoo on her shoulder blade I could see even from across the street and in the park, and she wore small white panties that flashed when she shook her hips to the beat I couldn’t hear. She was dancing, by herself, just this pinkish shadow-form glinting in the yellow light of her bedroom. Then she stopped and came to the window and stood staring out at the park, one hand cupped up by her shoulder, and she stared out the window and just about the spot where I was sitting in the dark. She had a curious look on her face, as if she was about to call out to me, but there was no way she could know I was there. She must have just stopped to think about something. Like about all the places her life had gone, and where it could have gone, all the turns that ended right here where she was. After she left the window I had the urge, like I sometimes do, to go knock on her door, but I didn’t. I never did. I just never did. 40_Stories_Final.indd 24 6/18/12 5:38 PM The Anarchist of Darwin 25 I didn’t know what time it was or how long I’d been there, but eventually I heard footsteps clicking down the street so I got up to leave, thinking it was Buddy, playing cop, come to give me a hard time. But whoever it was, it wasn’t Buddy, because this guy was wide and his bald head and round glasses shone in the streetlamp like the eyes of a robot in a fifties sci-fi movie. When he got closer I could tell it was that investigator from the Cities. He stopped when he got close and I imagined him staring at me, waiting for me to make the next move. The move turned out to be me standing up and starting the walk back to my place. It was a cool night and a breeze coming off the river put a chill in the air so I hiked up my collar and started walking a bit faster. My feet made loud crunching sounds against the gravel so I walked off to the side on the grass. I could hear whoever it was behind me following close and getting closer. There was a light over the next rise in the hill that was, of course, the string ball, which they still kept lit at night, out of habit, I suppose. So it was toward the string ball I was trying to make my escape, which wasn’t a very bright thing to do, I guess, but I didn’t have anything to hide, so I kept going. The string ball was pretty much the same under the lights as it was under the sun, except the lights were kind of orangey, so everything had a Halloween tint. The charcoal remains were pitch-black like a ragged hole in the night, and all the flowers in the spontaneous memory garden were weirdly glowing and the cellophane they came wrapped in glinted and warped and all the cut greenery looked bright and more alive than it had ever been when it was in the ground of wherever they’d cut it from to send out here to mourn for that thing that had burned down. It was beautiful, like a ship at sea spilling its treasure on the rocks for no one to ever claim. I looked around for the investigator, but he was gone. Then there was another meeting at the high school gym. I wasn’t going to go at all, as crowds are always hot and sweaty, but I went anyway, going in late and finding a seat on the far bench. Claire must have been late as well, because she came in a few minutes after I did and sat next to me. 40_Stories_Final.indd 25 6/18/12 5:38 PM 26 Michael Ramberg “Why are you sitting here?” I said. “Free country, honey,” she said. “Did I miss anything?” “National anthem,” I said. “Mayor Jenkins played it from his armpit.” She laughed at this, laughed as though it were actually a funny thing I’d just said and not just a snide, empty put-down. “Let me tell you something,” she said. “I hope that, when they find the guy who did this, they give him a medal. The town hasn’t been this shook up in years. Feels good, doesn’t it? To care about something? It gets the blood moving.” She shook her shoulders as if to show how agitated her blood was, and I felt something inside me that was something almost like what I remembered hope felt like. Don Jentwich, who’d been running the gas station on the corner nearest the Interstate ever since Bull Tukkanen, the Mad Finn, who’d been running it longer than anyone could remember, up and died four years ago. Don had upgraded the pumps and put them under a well-lit shelter, which everyone praised him for, and also raised the price of gas, which put him on the outs. But he was a thinker, and he had a plan: “We can rebuild it, and we can rebuild it better,” he said. “There’s this artist in the city who does string sculpture. I’ve made a call, and he’s interested. He thinks we can take the remains of the original, salvage what isn’t burned away, and incorporate it into a sculpture both commemorating the original twine ball and going beyond it . . . ” He was still talking, but there was no way to hear a single word above the shouting and scorn being thrown down from the bleachers. “Idiots,” said Claire. “That’s the best idea yet.” “Rubes,” I said. “Well, that was interesting, Don,” said the mayor when the shouting had let down. “And, I can assure you, when the city council meets again, we’d be glad to hear more about that . . . most intriguing . . . proposal. Now, for a further update on the investigation, please welcome our friend from the Cities, Lieutenant Mentz.” The little fat man hopped up to the podium like he weighed about six pounds. It was weird. He tapped the microphone and winced along with the crowd at the feedback. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks. Here’s what we know. We got a profile. Whole deal. This guy—and I’m pretty sure it was one guy—was well prepared. He came in with a 40_Stories_Final.indd 26 6/18/12 5:38 PM The Anarchist of Darwin 27 gas pump and a hammer to smash out the glass. He’s a loner, unhappy, perhaps with a serious associative disorder. Perhaps delusional.” “Someone like our Chris,” someone shouted. There was laughter; then the whole crowd turned on me, and someone must have turned up the thermostat because suddenly it was a hundred degrees in that crappy gym and sweat was pouring down my face. “Where were you that night?” someone said. Everyone laughed as the room went all red, and then they stopped laughing. Even though I often don’t remember what happens when I get mad, I remember all that happened after that. The detective was fixing me with his piggy genius eyes like he’d just drawn into a straight flush. I heard a woman’s voice—Claire, I figured later—say my name. She asked if I was okay. I thought about the medal she might give me. About what the hell difference it made now if anyone knew or not. So I just stood up and said Okay. The crowd got quiet and continued looking at me. Okay, I said again. Okay fine. It was me. You might as well know. I told them how sick I’d gotten of that string ball that killed my mother and drove my old man to drink and ruin. How the whole lazy town just sat around and let strangers come in and make fun of us for having the stupid thing on the lawn in a gazebo. I told how I dressed myself up in black clothes and dad’s old surplus gas mask to keep out the asbestos-poison that would be released like a mushroom cloud when the thing went up, and I crept up to that crappy ball of twine with a gas can and a Zippo I got from a SuperAmerica near the Cities, and I torched it in the dead of night so the stupid town could have something better to do than worship a dead idol. I’d been right to do it, I said, because look at how the town had come together. They should give me a medal, I said. And when I was done, when I told them what I’d done and why, the whole room was cold, and quiet like the night had been before I lit the Zippo. Every pair of eyes was on me, Claire included, and every one of those nutballs from the city I live in had the same look on their faces. They were all eyeing me like I was the crazy one. So if you want to know, it was exactly then that I pretty much gave up on the whole damn world.

Feb. 10, 2017, 4:48 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
To be continued...

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