“The past beat inside me like a second heart.”
—John Banville, “The Sea.”
Towns are like people. “At the end of every hard-earned day,” Bruce Springsteen sings out, “people find a reason to believe.” But some towns, like some people, can no longer find a reason to believe. They have given up. They are dying. Such was the fate of Slammerville, whose only source of income was a private prison that closed its electronically operated steel gates and walked away into the sunset.
On the other hand, its neighbor Jamesville never gave up. After farming and ranching collapsed, young people started drifting away. Old-timers, however, stayed on. And eventually they found a reason to believe: a cave, complete with a prehistoric skeleton and contemporary ghost stories. Old Jamesville, acting as flexible as if it were a teenager, quickly renamed itself Cavetown, built a four-lane highway to the cave, gave tax breaks to a long list of national hotel and restaurant chains and advertised itself as a tourist destination.
But that was only the beginning of Cavetown’s story, far from the end of it. For somebody—no one could figure out who although everyone in town had his own favorite theory and even his own rumor to prove it—seemed hell bent on converting the town’s new tourist attraction into a morgue.
The rise and fall of Cavetown is the story of two men. Those two, though they had lived in and had pretty well run Cavetown for half a century, detested each other. All those decades they never stopped with the hating. They disagreed about almost everything and fought about almost everything and cursed almost everything each other did. Sometimes one of them got his way, sometimes the other, and the loser just had to live with the result.
Their hatred was no secret. They acted out their mutual distaste as much in public as in private. In a town with a single bar, a single coffee shop, a single restaurant and a single public park, if one old man happened along, the other wordlessly rose and walked out.
Despite all the highly visible antagonism, it didn’t escape the 2,000 residents of Cavetown that the two men were really similar to each other: bachelors in their 70s who had lost much—wives, children and limbs. Jake Blesson, publisher of the town’s weekly newspaper, hobbled around on a good left leg and a prosthetic right leg, but at least he had two good hands to pummel the keyboard of at first a big old Royal standard typewriter and later an Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer. Mayor Joe Gonzales strode into chamber of commerce meetings and town council sessions on two good legs that were still strong enough to run a mile (at least he called his slow jogging running) but he was lucky his prosthetic hand was his right one because he used his left hand to sign every town ordinance, regulation and proclamation.
The town joke was a question with no answer. What do you get if you put Jake and Joe together—one good man with a full set of limbs or one bad man missing two limbs? Good or bad—the town was riven.
Joe was short and squat, with a lot of hair on his face and none on top of his head. Jake was 6 feet 2 inches tall, clean shaven but still with a full head of gray hair about which he was rather vain.
The discord between the two town fathers extended to their families. The men disliked each other’s extended families as much as they disliked each other. Thus it was a bit remarkable that their wives, or rather their ex-wives, Janet Blesson and Sofia Gonzales, had actually bridged the family chasm to become and remain close friends, in fact each other’s closest friend. They created a kind of back channel of communication during the long stretches when their husbands couldn’t exchange a single civil word about important town business.
Of all the disagreements between the two old combatants, the longest and loudest was when Cavetown became Cavetown. Before that, it was plain old Jamesville, and Jake was sure it should stay that way.The village of Jamesville had been a peaceful place and for the most part still was, no matter what the name. Little had happened there in the century since Zebidiah James had started ranching on what became the north edge of town. The town naturally came to be called Jamesville. It didn’t change its name to Cavetown until the caverns were discovered and all the excitement began amid visions of sugar plum fairies decorated with dollar signs. Still, not much changed, except, of course on the road to the cave and around its entrance. But there—that’s a different story.
The publisher didn’t have much use for the cave. “It’s been buried for thousands of years,” he snapped during one council meeting. “Let it stay buried.” But he was almost alone, on the losing end of a bitter, raucous battle royal. The town’s businessmen pushed for a referendum on changing the name from Jamesville to Cavetown. Hoping that a cave could save the town abandoned by just about every kind of economic enterprise, a majority of residents crossed their fingers, discarded history and cast their ballots for Cavetown and tourists.
Jake was the only one-legged newspaper publisher in the state. But like many disadvantaged two-legged and four-legged beings, he compensated with a bark as loud, as persistent and some would say as annoying as a chihuahua. He was also Cavetown’s only one-legged resident. Maybe the only one in the century since Zebidilah James got off a train and built himself a dugout and somehow scrabbed the land until he had bought or found or rustled a herd of cows.
Looking around at the small crowd of celebrants gathered for today’s ceremony—odd-job people who worked locally with their hands, commuting clerks who used neither their hands nor their minds, a few children (but very few), and a bunch of guys and gals who had retired or were counting the days until they could—Jake wondered if it had really been worth the trouble, that century of trying to make something of this dot on a dry and wasted and windblown prairie. Why bother?
Maybe being deprived of a leg had also deprived him of something else, call it optimism or foolishness, but all he could do in the face of today’s spectacle was shake his head and smile with his characteristic grim humor. He recalled the last act of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” when looking around at a world populated by villains and ogres, a young woman marvels, “Oh brave new world that has such creatures in it.” You don’t need two legs to have a sense of irony, the editor of the Weekly Standard reasoned.
Look for the next installment of Wally Gordon’s serialized story next week.