Monday, August 11, 2008

On the Counting of Legs

The strangest thing came out of the woods a few weeks back. The thing was kind of hard to focus on but we all agreed that it had long dirty white fur and an odd number of legs (though no one could agree on whether it was seven, nine or eleven). It limped into the town square and squatted there, just howling and whistling and clicking. Carl thought it sounded like someone swinging a burlap sack full of bobolinks over their head. Larry wanted to know precisely how Carl knew what that sounded like. Carl turned red and started to stutter. This of course led to Esmeralda rushing to his side and checking his temperature, supposedly because she's a medical professional. Now, none of us thinks that being a transcriptionist qualifies you to practice medicine, but none of us wants to point that out either. The last person to try to tell the truth to Esmeralda was Kathy Torkbeck, and none of us wanted to be stabbed in the throat with a ballpoint pen and then be left lying on a rented trundle bed in the middle of the High School gymnasium.

Poor Kathy. She only came here because she wanted a taste of small town living. One of these days we really ought to finish carving that gravestone, but nobody really knew how old she was and anyway, it's not like she gets a lot of visitors. Wish we'd spelt her name right though; but when the only stone carver for miles around is a mental deficient from Montreal "Torkbeck" is going to come out "Torquebecq." That's just the way things go.

Can't say what she expected life in a small town to be like, but we speculated that she was thinking "like a city, but smaller." She tried to settle in, but there were plenty of signs that she was going to have trouble. Her tendency to get mail from places more than fifty miles away was a problem. The way she cried when she found out the only readily available sweetener was birch syrup didn't sit well with anybody. She blew her social standing with her refusal to accept the mayor's gift of a hand stitched gingham anklet. And of course the way she cozied up to Carl pretty much painted a target on her back. Or on her throat.

Carl himself always appeared ambivalent about the attention he got from Kathy, but this may have been out of regard for Esmeralda, if not fear of her. Nobody liked to talk about it, but we knew that Carl was missing his right pinky because he once forgot to say good morning to her; and his left because he later joked about it being a "lover's spat". Don't recall him ever making a joke about anything after that, though that may have been because his stutter came in around the same time. He really had only himself to blame: he knew that Esmeralda regarded him as her property, but in a pure and uncarnal way, like how you own a fridge or a timeshare. If you're going to acquiesce to having that kind of role in life, you need to be awful careful how you joke about it. You should certainly never use the word "lover." It was a hard learned lesson for Carl, but sometimes those are the best. That stutter makes him damn hard to understand sometimes though.

Anyway, Kathy's tendency to smile at Carl was basically a criminal act if you understood how things work around here. The fact that she didn't understand simply compounded the criminality of it all; and while none of us condone murder, nobody wanted to bring in Esmeralda for doing something that was her natural right. We do all wish she'd been a little more discreet about it —and it's downright tasteless the way she wears the cap from that pen on a lanyard round her neck— but decorum and the law don't always go hand in hand.

When you saw the genuine tenderness she had for Carl in moments like this, where she stroked and slapped and pinched and scratched his cheeks while he sputtered and turned redder and redder, you knew everything was going right. A big dumb thing like Carl needs to be controlled and kept on the right path. No telling what he'd do otherwise, though you can imagine it might involve burlap and bobolinks. He's unwholesome at heart and if his life needs to be bounded by a woman who's more ministering wolverine than ministering angel, well then so be it.

Carl eventually calmed down and we all turned our attention back to the thing. It had stopped making that racket and was lying on its side. There was no sign of it breathing, though maybe breathing wasn't a quality possessed by this kind of thing. Anyway, it's been there for five weeks now and doesn't appear to be rotting. Funny how it's been perfectly motionless this whole time and we still can't agree on how many legs it has.

It's a mystery all right.

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