The Final Lesson
The men standing in the moonlight on that narrow porch represented the best of Bucyrus–the mayor, Colonel Hank Foley, Sr.; the fire chief, Wright Manaport; the young manager of the Pizza Hut, Tom Warble. Even Zilas Gumby, Miss Esther Poolhole’s no-good nephew was there, alone and aggrieved in the back yard, sitting on a five-gallon tank full of gasoline he had siphoned from the mourners’ cars. Zilas wept, half because he was bothered by bad feelings, and half because the gas fumes had burned his eyes, and he had swallowed more than usual.
The grandfather clock ticked closer to midnight. Everyone was gathered at her bedside. At last, Esther cleared her throat and said, in a sure but quavering voice, “A sonnet is a poem, usually dialectic or expository in nature and typically made up of iambic pentameter lines arranged in one of several rhyme schemes.” A prolonged sigh passed through Esther’s nose, a sigh so windy and final that all who heard knew what it meant.
Pizza Tom in the Restless City
It was six months after that night. Bucyrus was back to business. Sweazy Tallmidge had bought a deluxe coffee urn for Mary’s, Mayor Foley had been re-elected in a coal-colored landslide and Zilas Gumby had spent a few days in jail for stealing seven milk cows and hiding them in the bay of a car wash. But not a one of the townspeople knew what a sonnet was, much less the more convoluted charm of the Spenserian stanza or the elegant fritterings of the triolet. Things were in an ugly state – all form being lost, the church bells out of tune, the river scooting silently over once-musical stones, the inflections of daily life burned away by an infection of improper lassitude.
The mayor chewed idly on a thick-crust-with-pork-topping pizza and looked out over the steam rising from the car wash across the street. Tom Warble, checkered dishcloth in hand, came over to him. “Boy, Hank, something’s eating at this town,” Tom said.
“And it started up about the time the old lady dried her heavenly gourd.” A bit of sparkling pork hung like a stalactite on the mayor’s grey moustache. “Tom, I want you to go to Richmond. Now, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I want you to go and find out what a sonnet is. Lordy. I feel like a bucket-head goat saying this, but we all forgot what Esther said to us before she rattled off in her cart of bones.”
Tom Warble eyed the cherry tomatoes on the salad bar. “I’ll gas up the truck this afternoon. And Your Honor, the pizza is on me.”
Tom pulled his Bronco into a parking lot next to the Burger King. A sign in the lot listed the fees, and advised those parking after the attendant had gone home that they were “on their honor” to put the dollars in the payment box. Laughing at the big-city foolishness, Tom paid up. He had asked directions to this place at the gas stations and convenience stores. “Hey, where’s the college around here?” he’d ask, and then add, as an afterthought, something like, “Yeah, give me a tin of Happy Days, and by the way, do you happen to know what a sonnet is?” So far, his mission was unaccomplished.
He walked up the street, passing copying centers, movie houses, parking meters. And then he saw the Village Café, a bright and lively inn on a corner lot. Outside, a lanky young woman dressed in black smoked a cigarette and sketched the storefronts on the street opposite. Tom bent down to her and asked, “Miss, excuse me–but do you know what a sonnet is?”
She bit a ragged fingernail and removed a crumb of mascara that had tumbled down her cheek. “I think it’s some kind of poem that Shakespeare and guys like that wrote. They were about trees and women, that kind of thing. Go in there–” she jerked her thumb at the café behind her “–there’ll be somebody who knows better than I do.”
Tom sat down in a booth with the number 4 tacked on the wall above the shakers and the napkin dolly. The ceilings were very high, as were the prices on the menu. “I’d may as well eat out anyway”, Tom thought, and decided on the soup du jour, sure that the du jour was a kind of mushroom shaped like a baseball bat.
A waitress came over. She was slender beneath her brown and baggy shift, cinched at the waist by a silver belt. Her hair, bevel-cut bangs, hung provocatively across her eyes, hiding them in a way that made them seem special as brand-new pizza pans, only more lovely. “Are you ready to order? Can I get you something to drink? I am Andrea.”
Tom asked for ice water. He forgot about the soup. He had forgotten about everything–even why he had come down from the mountains. The one thing he was sure of was that he wanted to make impressionistic French love to this woman, and he didn’t even know what it meant.
The moonlight, chopped and diced by the Venetian blinds, shone on Andrea’s face. Tom was restless beside her. While she slept, beautiful and wholly remarkable, Tom struggled with his problem. He could not admit to Andrea his mission; it would stamp him as the worst kind of fool, cast out of the briers and onto her bed. And if she did not know, if she could not answer his question, she would become a creature less perfect and elegant than the woman lying next to him. It was a problem. Tom pulled a cigarette from Andrea’s crumpled pack and smoked and worried.
He had a right to worry. There he was, taking leave from his position of responsibility at the Pizza Hut, sent off by the mayor to answer the question that haunted his hometown. A pain began to gnaw between his shoulders. Where could he find the definition he needed? Who had it?
Tom, quietly, got up and pulled on his grey flannel pants. “I know,” he thought, “I’ll find that college and ask someone there.” Tom did not consider that it was nearly four in the morning. His feet slid into his loafers. He walked over to Andrea’s side of the bed, and looked down for a moment, wishing, for some reason, that he had put more money in the parking lot box. “Andrea?” he said, shaking her gently, “Wake up ma’am. I have to get something important, the definition of a sonnet. Do you hear me?”
“Sonny?” Andrea said, her voice dreamy, her eyes aglaze with impressionistic French sleep.
Tom edged toward the door. “I’ve got to be going now. I’d like to thank you for everything,” he said, reaching for his Pizza Hut jacket. “I’ve got a job to do and nobody can stop me.” Andrea did not respond. “I’m on my way now.” He walked out of Andrea’s apartment.
Love, Unlike Iambics, Cannot be Measured
The morning sun, which this morning in Richmond, Virginia, looked peculiarly like a famous Hollywood star, found Tom waiting outside the library. He had never seen columns so large, inscriptions carved so deeply. Transfixed by his awe and certainty that his journey was at an end, he did not notice the Toyota longbed pickup caroming off a power pole and hurtling towards him. Clipped by the white fender, Tom cartwheeled into the shrubbery at the front of the library.
He was stunned, and there were scratches and abrasions all along the right side of his body. He looked at his trousers, sodden with blood, and thought of pizza sauce. Such was his confusion. He fainted.
When he awoke, he was in the periodicals section of the library, a Sporting News full of crushed ice pressed against his side. There were anxious faces, like those of carp, peering down at him. Everything was swimming, swimming. “The ambulance is on its way”, someone said. Tom tried to raise himself on his elbows, but he found he was securely pinned to the table by several volumes of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. “I’m fine. No hospital,” he said. “I just need to find out . . .” Everything now was not only swimming, but seemed to be wearing hazy scuba gear.
When the paramedics arrived, the librarian recognized that many of them had grossly overdue books, and while they were shushed and forced to pay their fines, Tom slipped off the table and crawled into the bookshelves. Tom wasn’t sure what he should do. There were hardly any accidents in Bucyrus, only the occasional hounding of the tourist families by Bobby O. and Shep in their matching jacked-up Dusters. He knew that if he were taken to the hospital, his mission would be hampered, and in his absence all hell could break loose back at the Pizza Hut. He tried to imagine Chipper and Janeen tending the yeast cultures and firing up the ovens. Groaning, he pulled himself further into the stacks.
In time, Tom’s head cleared. No one seemed to be in the section, but he could see feet moving through the adjacent stacks. Pulling himself up, shelf by shelf, he stood and made his way into the card catalog.
Anticipating the end of his search, Tom pulled out the drawer marked “SIDD – SORE.” His lips moved as he flipped through the cards. When he passed “Slingshots” he smelled a familiar perfume, and looked over his shoulder. Andrea, her bookbag slung over her back, was heading for the Special Collections. Tom thought that things like this shouldn’t be happening in the big city, with so many people and places to be. Had she been following him? His thumb paused on the top of “Sloth, Lesser” and his eyes followed Andrea’s richly woven sweater into the vertical acreage of books.
With a grace that was both timeless and European, Andrea lounged beside a tall gunmetal gray bookshelf holding an early edition of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. When Tom saw her he stopped cold. He had never imagined to see her again, and now, at his moment of triumph, he was looking at her face and the lovely creases that formed between her eyebrows as she read. He said her name softly.
She looked up from the book and her eyes widened. “Tom? What are you doing here!”
“I was hit by a truck. A small truck. You’ve got to help me.” And without another thought, Tom confessed everything.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary sat opened and proud on its sturdy podium next to the water fountain. They approached it together and began flipping through, heading for the S’s. “Get a paper and pencil ready,” Tom said to Andrea, as if saying, “Get a pepper and parmesan.” She reached into her bookbag. The time had come.
Tom cleared his throat as he ran his finger through the field of words. “Here it is!” he cried. He looked at Andrea. “Write this down, okay?” She nodded, and again Tom cleared his throat. “Okay. Sonnet. S-O-N-N-E-T . . .” The sound of the scribbling pencil was sweet music to Tom’s ears.
The Trouble With Zilas
Traffic in the Village Café was light as Tom and Andrea sat in the very booth where, the night before, they had met. Their booth. Number four. With the definition in his shirt pocket and a hot turkey sub in his belly, Tom was a happy soul. They laughed and talked and the hours rolled by. The waitress refilled their coffee cups and asked, “You going to stay around tonight and help us with sidework, Andrea?”
“Not on my night off”, she said, laughing.
“Okay then, I’m pulling the plug on your coffee.”
The door to the cafe flew open and crashed against its frame. The man that walked in was dirty, but he had a clean and wild gleam in his eyes. His greasy hair swirled like cheap cake frosting around his narrow skull. He stood with his hands on his hips and, in a drawl that bespoke of too many helpings of grits and syrup, yelled, “Thomas Warble! Are you in here Thomas Warble!”
Tom looked around the side of the booth. “My god,” he said. “It’s Zilas Gumby.”
Zilas saw Tom before he could pull his head back in and pointed one gray and mean finger at him. “There you is, you mangy slime dog.” He marched down the aisle toward the booth.
“What’re you doing here Zilas Gumby? I’ve got no truck with you.”
“It’s not you that I want. I just want what you come here to fetch.”
Tom pulled his arm across his shirt pocket and leaned back. “Who sent you here?”
“Never you mind that, Tom Warble. I come on my own, and I aim to come into my own.” Zilas’ hand went to a sheath on his cracking plastic belt and he pulled out a hunting knife. Pushing the blade against Tom’s neck he said, “Ever since we was pups you done got it better’n me. Better house, better job. Schoolmarm Poolhole liked you better, and she was my blame aunt.”
Tom looked at Andrea, who seemed fascinated by this drama. “Leave us be, Zilas. Just leave us.”
“Not until you give me that definition. Then I’ll get what’s coming to me back there. Nobody’ll dare call me good-for-nothing, or home-boy, or rubberhead.” Zilas scraped Tom’s throat with the tip of the knife. “Now give me it.”
Andrea stood and plucked the paper from Tom’s pocket, handing it to Zilas. Both the men sat stunned, Tom at this apparent betrayal and Zilas at his great good fortune. As Zilas backed towards the door, Tom shouted after him, “You’ll never get away with this. I’ll get another copy. I’ll drive there and back before your old truck gets halfway.”
Zilas creased the paper with the dull edge of his knifeblade and stuffed into his pocket. “That’s what you think is it, Mr. Thomas Warble Pizza Hut Manager? I’ve done already slashed your tires. You’ll never show that face of yours in Bucyrus again,” And then, like a possum diving into a hollow tree, Zilas disappeared into the night.
Tom stared down at the tiny black and white tiles on the cafe floor. He heard that same voice, “Count these! Count these!” Only this time it was screaming.
The New Order
Tom sat in Andrea’s apartment, wondering if he could be so bold as to pull off his shoes. He noted that the chartreuse in the Toulouse-Lautrec poster above Andrea’s bed was the precise color green pepper rings turned after passing through the pizza ovens. He had the time to wonder about such things. His truck, flat to the rims and looking like it had been knocked unconscious, was going to take him nowhere. “Zilas even broke off the C.B. antenna so I couldn’t call for help.”
Andrea lit a cigarette and sighed. “How’s your head feel?” she asked.
“Like somebody unloaded a ton of broken bricks on it, and then a lot of damn patio furniture and a barbecue pit smack on top of it.”
She set a dish of white asparagus before him and, her fingers thin and warm and still smoking, rubbed his neck, circles that sent him spinning. “You kind of like me,” Tom said, at last. “I can tell you do.”
“I’m fond of you, Tom Warble. But –” She lifted her hands from his neck, crossed the room and resumed stirring the sauce.
Tom waited, deciding to be silent. If it’s important enough, he thought, she’ll finish. He took off his shoes. Andrea was humming. “Jeez, Andrea,” he said, and then added, “We have everything we need right here. We know what sonnets are, we know the count of lines. We’ll play the rest by ear. Can’t change that. No brand-new tires, no amount of crying over broken eggs can make my radials inflate. It’s tough. But if Zilas Orville Gumby wants to take advantage of me with his hunting knife, well, let him. They can move his rundown shack into the parking lot of the Pizza Hut for all I care. I’m just not going back to catch a flying sonnet in the gut. I’ve learned a thing or two. There’s lots outside Bucyrus. There’s malls. There’s you.”
Zilas had smashed out his headlamps when he drove through a tollgate outside the city, and so he drove through the night in the rusty comet of his truck. He steered by the stars, by the sizzling pizza of the moon, and by the sounds that gravel, mailboxes and small animals made when he veered off the roads that wound their way around the mountains. “I’ve got the definition! HOO-HOOOO!” he shouted. “Onliest now if that little thing Tom Warble was with don’t let him use her truck, I’ll be as set and square as a wooden hen in Noah’s Ark.”
When the sun rolled up that morning, Zilas was sleeping outside the Mayor’s office, his enormous feet, twinkling with dew, poking out of the window of his truck. This wasn’t an uncommon sight in Bucyrus.
Zilas awoke, rubbed his eyes, and sat up slowly, looking quite a bit like a bag of old clothing being rolled downstairs on its way to the Salvation Army hamper. “My day,” he said to himself, opening a can of Vienna sausages. “This is the day that Zilas Gumby comes into his own.” The sausages slid down his throat like promises.
It was a less common sight in Bucyrus to see Zilas Gumby climb into the bed of his pickup, his shirt choked by an odd blue necktie made from the belt of a castoff robe, a small piece of paper in his hand, and announce, “Everybody, listen up, listen to old Zilas! You thought I was good only to pick your trash, spending all I had on beer and Vienna sausages . . .” There were about twenty people standing around him now, including Mayor Foley, who held a fishing pole in his hand and had been in the process of slipping out the back door of his office. “. . . but I just come from Richmond, Queen of the South, where I located, after much trouble, this definition for the word ‘sonnet’.”
Traffic was stopped. The town had continued to fall apart, a process that accelerated once Tom left. The traffic lights flashed irregularly and in unusual colors, like aquamarine and burnt sienna. The stop signs drooped like sunflowers. The tap water tasted like pickle brine.
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Read it to us, Zilas.” And since this was a small town, everyone knew how to sing together in church and chant together as a street mob. “Read it!” they said, “Read it! Read it!”
Zilas unfolded the paper. His lips moved as he tried to decipher the note penned in Andrea’s impressionistic French hand. ‘“Sonnet,”’ he said, looking up to gauge the crowd’s reaction to this first portion of his task.
“Zilas can’t read,” someone said.
“No! I can read fine. I’ve just got a bug or something in my eye.”
The mayor set aside his rod and reel and walked over to the truck. “Now just give it here, or I’ll have to put you in jail again. Just hand it over.”
Zilas gave up the note and slunk to the furthest corner of the bed of his truck, where he collapsed on a stack of burlap bags.
“So, who wants to read this?” the mayor asked.
Golinda Vargas answered him. “You go ahead and read it, mayor. You can have the honor.”
“Well, I -”
The crowd resumed the chant. “Read it! Read it! Read it!”
The mayor, his big eyebrows trembling, cried out in shame. “I can’t read it. Somebody wrote it in French.”
“In French?” Golinda asked.
“In French?” The crowd, growing all the time, took this up as well. “In French! In French!” Their voices grew louder and louder until their chant became a storm of frustration and rage that thundered across the valley, gathered against the Blue Ridge, and then shot like a fusillade back toward Richmond.
“What did you say?” asked Tom. He and Andrea were lying in the cool sheets of her bed.
She playfully tossed a lit cigarette at him. “I didn’t say anything.”
“I would have bet a cow that somebody who sounded an awful lot like Golinda Vargas was just saying ‘In French’ over and over again. Shhh. There it is again.” Tom bent toward the window, and Andrea took the opportunity to bite the exposed twist of his torso.