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
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-
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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.
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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
“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
“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
“We’ll take a look tomorrow, right?” said Tank.
They were all looking at me again until Buddy said, “Say something,
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
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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
“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
“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
“Should dust it for prints.”
“Yeah, they did that. That investigator from the Cities, he’s on the
“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
“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
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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?”
“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
“It’s a small town,” said Tank. “You can’t keep too many secrets
“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.
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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
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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.
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