BOOK SIX: SURVIVAL
Smallville Agonistes, Superman Unbound
Comes a note for the widow Kent
one day in the mail: Dudley Bryan,
from the road, proposing again. He fails.
All men are snake oil salesmen, she supposes,
in their deepest hearts, but most men mature,
get themselves jobs, and learn the finer arts.
Not Dudley. A teller of fortunes
was all he was, and who had need for such?
For all his charm, his "At your service,"
he'd never pushed a plough before
and, at the mere mention, he tore
out of town before the next sundown,
he and Dibny in that rickety cart.
Like of him wouldn't have her hand --
she wasn't that lonely a woman.
When he writes, she writes back -- the polite
thing to do -- but she'll expose his schemes
if he comes back, tell the sheriff too!
TODAY'S LETTER relates a scam
for the ages, but he won't likely
pass it on to future sages.
He writes of trying to exploit
the various consistencies of oil
at a trade show in Oklahoma.
He had Pete Ross set up a table
and put a rack of test tubes on it.
Each one had some black liquid in it,
and the challenge posed the wildcatters
via the Prof.'s able pitch was this:
-- Deposit two bits with us
(to defray our costs, of course),
look at the tubes and tell the source,
tell which of this region's scattered
richness-plots it came from -- By shade!
By instinct! From the mere texture!
Post-inspection, the best guesser
will be hailed, labeled a rigger
of distinction, and my bosses,
The Board of the Oil Institute
and its prestigious Chairman,
Mr. Martin Luther himself,
will mail you a share of their wealth,
most generous, I assure you.
Have we any takers?
The man named "Digger"
knew the Prof. for a faker.
After a time, and great losses
on the part of his fellows,
he stepped up and accepted.
One eye shut, he inspected
the tube with the oil so smooth
if you put your index finger
in it, it would come up clean,
then he yanked another from the rack,
tipped his mean old head way, way back,
drank it all up and said,
"Best doggone maple syrup
I ever tasted!" Then Digger heaved
a hearty laugh. The crowd
was not so pleased.
Fact he had to leave town on a rail,
tarred and feathered, didn't bother the Prof.
He'd already sent Pete off with a pail
full of what they'd fleeced off the locals;
he had the last laugh on them yokels.
Sarah laughs so hard it hurts.
She can't seem to stop, either,
though it betrays a lack of worth
on her part. Hardly proper
to answer sin with fits of mirth,
her Calvinist forbears
would tell her. Whether they speak
for God, no-one has ever been sure;
still, she listens. She would be pure.
Sarah trills her lips and locks her cheeks
and holds her breath until her face
paints itself the pink shade of shame.
Fighting Satan so takes its toll:
Mirth, his canker, is stifled, but rage
becomes the child of mirth -- at her age
getting angry is easier
than exerting full self-control
-- a child she's hard pressed to abort,
though the Devil may take her soul
if she does not. So her daddy taught.
She stands, letting her taut hand
drop the letter to the floor,
then she runs out the door
and bursts on the porch
into silent tears.
The chill of late winter stings
the trickle under her eyes;
feels like it could sear her skin
all by itself. Can cold burn?
It should come as no surprise
on this particular New Year.
Midnight nears. Nineteen Thirty-Seven
is about to turn when the breeze blows
Dudley's note out the window, eases
it down onto the coat of snow
that's making the world an icy slab,
making the ground under Sarah's feet
hard and wet with sleet, and as slick
as the walkway at Ten Downing Street
where, this coming fall, Neville Chamberlain,
that dapper, well-meaning Englishman,
will tell how at Munich he took a stab
at that vague target: 'Honorable Peace'.
"Peace in our time," he'll squeak to the crowd
and wave a famous sheet of paper peace.
Nineteen Thirty-Eight is to be the year
when, Prudence cowed by Fear, vain tears
will drown the world. Sarah goes back in,
sits down, and makes a note to herself
to leave Dudley Bryan wondering.
There will be no answering this one.