20060201

The Haberdasher’s Daughter


On his way to the tavern to take a room for the night, Franklin the Writer moped along the sidewalk with his eyes dragging the ground like fingers tracing dirty words in beach sand. The mail carriage which had carried him into town left him rattled and jittery, loosening the flesh on his bones with the constant shock of each stone as it passed underneath the cartwheels of the poorly-constructed hack. His fingers buzzed; his teeth melted together into a paste of pain.

As Franklin’s ringing feet carried him along the sidewalk toward the tavern recommended by the slightly intoxicated mail truck driver, his mind longed for stasis. He was cranky, pickled by travel, and he wanted nothing more than a big, foaming beer and a nice immobile bed to drink it in. Franklin had work, but it could wait until morning.

The hamlet of Shrew’s Gap was as good a place as any to hole up for a few weeks and put the finishing touches on the seven homemade tales Franklin was carrying to the city to sell. The stories were meant to be part of a collection called Seven Decades of Chalk and were meant to play off of each other like jewels in a Jack’s crown, but the cynical part of him knew that he would have to break them up in order to turn a profit on them. However, Shrew’s Gap looked sleepy enough to keep distractions at a minimum, and he felt confident that he could use the time here to punch his tales up and make them stand on their own.

Still, he was not looking forward to the prospect of revision. For Franklin, editing was like eating day-old congealed oatmeal – the kind you could cut into slippery slices with a knife and then eat on toast.

Franklin contemplated this dismal feast, oblivious, as a storm gathered in the distance and reached its boiling point. The mountain range on the horizon had given birth to stringy stratus clouds, which had dropped out of the upper atmosphere, tightened around the neck of the sky, and begun to choke the other nimbi into deep purple swirls, buckling them with increasing erotic pressure, teasing them and squeezing them to release their fat, sticky raindrops. Yet, all day the clouds protested and remained continent, and it had been so tense for so long that when the first drop hit his neck, it caught Franklin by surprise, even though it really shouldn’t have.

“Shit!” said Franklin, jarred from his reverie, breaking into a trot. “I knew it. My pack will get soaked to the grain. I’ll be reading these stories with a spoon and strainer.”

As the rain began to pick up, falling in heavier sheets, Franklin scanned the shops on either side of the street. He could duck in until the shower passed and then continue on his way. But even though it was not yet dusk, the business section of Shrew’s Gap appeared to be rolled down, dusted off, and stuffed in the closet to molder. Not a single lantern was lit, and many of the doors had thick chains wrapped around the door handles which were bolted with padlocks the size of beef brains.

Franklin tried pinching under the awning of the local butcher, but the rain fell in slanting slashes that whirled and shifted and caught him at chaotic intervals when his coat fell open. One minute the rain blew in from behind, the next minute you could open your mouth and drink it like a faucet. He really needed to be inside somewhere if he wanted to protect his merchandise.

He squinted into the torrent, trying to see between the slats of water that came tearing out of the sky to splash in the mud between cobblestones like blood filling up a fresh wound. Down the street at the end of a long line of clothing shops and darkling trinket boutiques, a light shone out of a window and reflected off of puddles in the gutter. Franklin hoisted his luggage and began running toward this sanctuary, splashing up water in muddy runnels behind him.

The store was built from alternating red and green bricks and carried an immense plate glass window in its eaves. It was punctured by an oaken door with a bright gold handle, twisty with sharp end-caps. The size of the window had caused the glass to pucker and bulge in places, giving it slight brown shadows of refraction. The shingle hanging above the store was engraved with a sombrero, and block letters with curly feet were stenciled across the brim: “L. Thierryault, Fine Hats, Helmets, and Cockades.”

In the window was a vision sent by the devil himself.

A girl wearing nothing but a vermillion panama posed rakishly behind the dimpled window-pane. Her ankles were crossed in a laughable concession to propriety, but the rest of her was as naked as a jaybird, as free as a child escaping out the back door of a hovel to avoid a bath or a spanking. Under an envelope of liquid flames, her skin was the color of a fresh snowdrift or a Venetian blind. Her heavy lips, vulva, and breasts hung with pendulous pink splendour, as pert as the hat that angled across the mass of her curly blonde tresses. Her green eyes sparkled like cut emeralds, and her mouth was parted in the barest suggestion of a smile.

Franklin stood in the street across from the now raging river that cut the gutter between street and sidewalk. He felt the satchel under his fingers slip from his second knuckles, to his first, to his fingertips. The window of L. Thierryault’s hattery was lit from within by a circle of flame jets that framed this vision and made Franklin’s gorge drop from his neck into his bloomers. Fat fingers mashed down the buttons of his sympathetic nervous system: he forgot to breathe; he forgot to beat his heart; he forgot to turn the cheese in this morning’s cream radish roll into fingernails and burping.

For a moment, Franklin felt as if he had been hit by actual lightning and this was a vision of eternity. But no. He had merely been hit by the thunderbolt of love, and he could feel the electricity of the missile sizzle out of his toes and crackle across the top of the puddle he was standing in. It was a good thing his shoes were made from ram’s rubber, or he might have fallen over backwards -- stricken, dead.

It was the sort of thing you rarely saw in private, really.

It took Franklin nearly a full minute of soaking rain to realize that her eyes didn’t just sparkle like jewels. They actually WERE jewels. In fact, the entire woman was merely an illusion. A fabrication. A fake; a trick; a con. A doll; a model; a mannequin. A hustle; a man-trap; a cheap and squalid pander to the appetites of the torrid and base delinquents that ordinarily made Franklin sneer with aristocratic disdain. Yet here he was. Gawking. Drooling. Unmanned. Unhinged. Undone.

It was uncanny. She was so life-like.

Puffing his chest and gathering his wits, he tried the door. It was unlocked. Franklin pushed inside and stood, dripping, on a woven horsehair rug spread thinly across bare concrete. There were fabric tufts on the floor where it appeared as if carpet had once been violently removed. The store was small, and clean, and packed.

The store’s proprietor had risen from a stool in the back to stare at Franklin with frank surprise.

“How did you get in here?” asked the man, presumably Thierryault himself. He was bespectacled and hunched, and had long and hairy ears with points like a wolf. The mustache under his puffball nose was limp and black, and came down in two lines around his jaw, making him look as if his mouth had a hinge carved from wood.

“The door was open,” said Franklin, straining rainwater from his bangs.

“Don’t move,” said Thierryault. “You are all wet.”

“There’s nowhere to go, really,” said Franklin, smiling, gesturing to the cramped confines of the hat store. Thierryault did not return the smile.

“What do you want?” asked Thierryault. “You need a hat?”

Franklin shrugged, not sure if he should set down his pack.

“You need a big boater, right? Something fashionable and made from pig cloth, yes?” said Thierryault. He began rummaging through the various caps hanging on hooks and stacked on shelves, pausing intermittently to whip his head back around and affix Franklin with a penetrating stare. Franklin didn’t dare move from the square of horsehair carpet.

“Aha!” said Thierryault, rising from a pile of game coasters in a dusty corner and clutching a green beret in one hot fist. He swung his arm around like a morning-star and smacked Franklin in the forehead with the bottle green topper. He gave it a tweak, turned it, and then stepped back, satisfied.

“Yes, it is perfect,” said Thierryault. “That will be one piece of merchant silver, and then you must leave my store.”

“Actually, I guess I don’t want to buy a hat,” said Franklin, carefully removing the beret from his soggy scalp.

“You don’t? Then why are you here? Bothering me.”

“I was just passing by, you see, and I want to buy the girl in your window,” said Franklin reasonably. “I need a muse, but I have neither the time nor the inclination for the real deal. I live in the city, and she would be a perfect addition to my garret. I don’t have very much money, but maybe we could work out some kind of payment plan. I am just passing through, but I will be more than happy to mail you a check every month until…”

“Get out of my store!” shouted Thierryault, grabbing a heavy-fur lined grosgrained upturn with seventeen brass buttons and flinging it at him like a frisbee. The hat caught Franklin across the eyebrow and drew blood.

“Get out!” shrieked Thierryault, bombarding Franklin with homburgs, trilbies, ushankas, tricornes, and cork-lined simple simons. A bowler popped Franklin right in the nose and sent him reeling backward out the door, where he landed with a splash in a rain puddle.

There was the heavy sound of a lock being turned on the door, and then the shop went dark. Franklin could still see the outline of the girl in the window, and he stared for quite some time before picking himself up and continuing on his way. He was shocked, numb, wet, cold, and thwarted in the only half-assed sort of conquest he was capable of making. Time to give up.

The Bright Red Rump Inn was nearly empty. There was a slump of hair and adenoids snoring in one corner, and a jolly old woman in clogs was watching sports on a hanging set, wiping down empty tables and pushing chairs into their proper places with her ample bottom.

“Get him!” she shouted periodically. “Get that ball!”

As soon as she saw Franklin, her easy smile slowly faded, replaced in chilly degrees by mercenary hostility.

“Can I help you? Please don’t drip on my furniture.”

“I need a room, I guess,” said Franklin. “And something hot to drink. Preferably
something analgesic.”

“Don’t think I don’t know what that means,” said the woman. “I’m Mary-Ann McGwirt, and I’m smarter than you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Franklin. Mary-Ann McGwirt drew him a pint of beer and then put it into the microwave.

“You got gold?” she asked.

“I can pay for the whole week in advance, if you like,” said Franklin, taking off his wet topclothes and leaving them in a pile by the door. He walked over to the bar and collapsed into a stool, ready for some mental health.

“That’s good idea, starveling,” she said. “What brings you to this horrible rat-trap of a shit-sandwich hamstrung hamlet, anyway?”

Franklin frowned. All he could see were emeralds.

“Don’t listen to my wife one bit!” piped up the only other patron, the wrinkled male mass who until now had been heartily snoring away in the corner. “And don’t let her boss you around! She’s the original shrew.”

The old man had grey hair down to his ankles, long stringy runners of it that reminded Franklin of shoots of Bermuda grass.

“You be quiet, Marshall,” said Mary Ann. “What did I tell you about bothering the customers?”

“It’s my damn whorehouse,” muttered Marshall.

“It’s not a whorehouse anymore,” said Mary Ann. “And it hasn’t been for two decades. You are getting senile, irritating, and old.”

“Women don’t know their damn place anymore, eh lad?” said Marshall.

“Sure we do,” said Mary Ann, eyeing Marshall with fiery disdain. “At the top. With the angels and Miss God Almighty.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” said Marshall returning to his slumber, sprawled across one of the shining tables, his hair reaching down to the floor in front of him.

“Now are you going to answer my question or not?” asked Mary Ann, plopping down the hot glass of beer in front of him.

“I’m a writer,” said Franklin. “Although, it looks like I might be out of stories.”

“All dried up?” chuckled Mary Ann.

“To the contrary,” said Franklin glumly. He opened his bag across the bar, angling it out into the sink. Out poured a gallon of water and little bits of ink and parchment.

“My, my,” said Mary Ann.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” said Franklin. “These were all copies.”

“Yes, but what is a writer without his stories?” asked Mary Ann.

“This does set me back and ruin all of my plans,” said Franklin.

“You’re shitting yourself anyway,” said Mary Ann. “The future is in pictures.”

“It’s possible that this town might have a few stories lying around that I could misappropriate,” said Franklin, politely ignoring her. “Since I’ll be here awhile, maybe I might as well learn some of them,” he insinuated.

“You’d want to talk to that sleeping sack of crap in the corner there, then,” said Mary Ann loudly. “He won’t shut up with his lies and bullshit. He’ll make you wish you were a plumber, or a moneylender, or something else respectable – not another story addict.”

“I’m not deaf, you know,” said Marshall.

“No, just lazy. And damned foolish. We should be closed during the winter. We haven’t had a customer in weeks.”

“The writer fellow would disagree,” said Marshall, pulling his face out of his hair and pushing in closer to the table. “Say, writer fellow, bring your beer over here and keep an old man company. Let the wench stew in her own foul juices.”

Mary Ann snorted and turned back to the television. Franklin shrugged and sat down next to Mr. McGwirt. The old man smiled conspiratorially and gave him a poke in the ribs.

“The truth is, she gives the best head in maybe four counties,” he whispered. “And she’s probably as smart as she thinks he is. And look at me! Wrangled her away from every farmer in the district! Heh! I guess she likes her men tough and mean. She’s as sweet as a turnip in the sack, let me tell you.”

Franklin looked over his shoulder at the Mary Ann who was leaning over the counter with her face screwed up in a rictus of passionate rage. Were turnips sweet?

“Get him! Tear his elbows off and shove them up his cock!” shouted Mary Ann.

“She’s definitely a keeper,” said Franklin.

“Now what is it you want to know?” said Marshall. “I’ve been in this town my whole life. I know all its secrets and I know all its tales: tall, short, and grisly. I know who’s stained what pillow, and I know ghost stories that would make your short hairs curdle up like milk. Ask an honest question, and ye shall receive an honest answer.

“And never mind the shrew!” he shouted at Mary Ann.

“Up your skinny old raisin anus with a mint toothpick,” she shouted back.

Marshall gave her the finger.

“Well, I guess I want to know about the hat maker,” said Franklin. “More specifically, I guess I want to know about the mannequin in his window. I guess I want to know how I can buy her.”

Mrs. McGwirt turned the television up. Marshall slapped his knee and cackled maniacally. He tossed his hair back and tied it into a knotted ponytail behind his head.

“Now that IS a good story,” said Marshall. “I guess you ran into Thierryault out there on the street, eh?”

“He threw me out of his store,” said Franklin.

“He would do that,” said Marshall. “Probably thought you were another collector or fetishist. Or gawker from the big city. Tried to buy it off him, huh?”

“Just in love,” said Franklin.

“Who isn’t?” said Marshall. “That girl, she was something else.”

“Theirryault’s a creep,” said Mary Ann. “Always was. And not just a creep. A cheap-skate. And his hats are all out of style.”

“Now Mary Ann,” said Marshall, “Let’s be honest. If we was to go upstairs and look in your closet, we’d find a Thierryault bonnet or two sitting up there right now.”

“Puh,” said Mary Ann, “He’s still a creep.”

“Just a different breed of fish, maybe,” said Marshall. “Maybe worse. The truth is: no one knows for sure what sort of man he is. He has no friends, and no enemies. That girl in the window of Mr. Theirryault’s haberdashery is his one and only daughter. She was a bit different in person, mind you.”

“I’d like to see that,” said Franklin.

“Well, tough shit,” said Mary Ann. “You never will. Because she’s dead.”

“I was getting to that,” said Marshall. “I’m telling the story here, by the way. You have no flair for drama. No soul for mystery or pathos.”

“Go on then,” said Mary Ann. “Tell it. Let’s see how much you remember and how much you mangle.”

“Storytellers believe in a higher truth,” said Marshall. “Isn’t that right, writer-fella?”

“The actual truth is often boring and uninspired,” admitted Franklin.

“Well, you are in luck,” said Marshall. “This story is neither, and happens to be ACTUALLY true just the same.”

He rocked back in his chair and tented his fingers. He took a long sip out of Franklin’s beer, and rubbed his eyebrows. He gave Franklin a threatening look and then coughed up a wad of something vile into his fist, picked something deep and spongy out of his nose, and wiped both body-prizes onto his jeans.

“The only person who could really tell you about Mr. Thierryault was his lovely wife Athena. But she’s dead, too. She died during childbirth, believe it or not. It still happens once in awhile. Especially when your baby has a facial tumor twice the size of its head.

“That little girl ripped her apart, and no kidding. Goodbye, Athena. Hello, little girl. He named her Adelaide, and I can’t say whose idea that was, but I like to think he was bending to his dead wife’s last demands. Her lips, puffed and swollen with the horrors of a doomed pregnancy, uttered the words ‘Adelaide’ right before she expired for good, her head lolling to the side like a rabid milk cow.

“Of course, that’s all pure speculation. Maybe he just liked the name. A dead wife is a good reason to start making some changes, acting out your own little whims.”

Marshall gave a look askance at his own gloomy bride. She wasn’t paying attention.

“Either way, there’s old Thierryault, a single father with a daughter who would die if she fell asleep on her back. The damn tumor would crush her, you see. Choke her to death like a malignant little twin. It was heartbreaking, when they first showed that little girl in the newspapers. They’ll have to carry her around in a wheelbarrow, I said. No turtlenecks for her. She’ll have to tie rocks in her hair to keep her balance once she’s old enough to walk. This girl was a monster, my friend. But that’s not what Thierryault saw. He saw his pretty little wife, and his pretty little daughter, and he loved her dearly.

Well, it turns out that Thierryault was a better father than most people would have expected. He made sure she got the care she needed, and he sold a metric ton of hats to pay for the best doctors to make sure she would live. People started buying his tophats and feathers out of pity for him, really, but then a funny thing happened. People around here started to develop a taste for his brand of cranial expression. It started to be somehow criminal to walk around these streets without some sort of headwear, and folks all around started to take notice.

“His business flourished and his daughter did, too. She got nearly healthy, even though the tumor grew up alongside her. She wore her head up high, and more often than not, one of Mr. Thierryault’s bonnets was right up there on top of the whole mess. The man was an artist with a real knack for misdirection, you see, which is the primary purpose of a hat. A hat is supposed to…whoosh…take your face away. Old women who wanted to call attention to themselves as objects of beauty without the beauty to back it up with were snatching his hats off the shelf left and right. Both claws. Left and right! He could turn even the most humble straw into something that carved your face into a mystery, into a forgettable adjunct, into the shadowy period underneath the slash of his exclamatory skull-topping masterpiece. He had a gift, and the irony was, if it weren’t for his daughter, his dead wife, and this town’s initial pity, his talent might have gone unnoticed forever.

“But it didn’t. Boy, didn’t it. You may not believe me, kid, but forty years ago, Mr. Michelle Thierryault was a pretty damn big celebrity around here. Maybe the biggest celebrity Shrew’s Gap has ever seen. And that’s even counting Mary Ann over there, who used to draw in whole football teams when the moon was right.”

“Football leagues,” corrected Mary Ann. Evidently she was listening after all.

“Every day, you could see Thierryault and his daughter selling hats at their haberdashery to crowds of out-of-towners. As Adelaide grew older, she learned how to work the line of people who stretched out into the street from Thierryault’s shop – modeling his newest fashions, joking with them, letting them get a good eyeful of the rotten mass that grew out of her forehead and down her face like a snail oozing out of its shell. Her spine grew strong as hell. It had to be, to carry the weight of her freakishness, and the literal weight of the tonsil on her face. She grew witty. She grew wise. She grew the best pair of tits I’ve ever seen, and the cutest little bottom to match. Why, many a day you would see her from behind and you’d fantasize, fantasize all to hell. But then she would turn around, and you would question your morals. But then, if you were me, you would question your morals again. Why shouldn’t she be a conquest? Why couldn’t she be a good night’s work of it? And yet, the tongues of propriety! They would carve you into meatballs, my friend! She was our collective burden, our little town symbol, and she was therefore sacrosanct. Hideous, perversely nubile, untouchable, regal, and charismatic in a way that had to be brand new to a world newly awakening from the prejudices of deterministic folly.”

“You are a sick old man, Marshall McGwirt,” said Mary Ann.

“Perhaps,” said Marshall. “And yet I speak true. Would we be having this conversation at all if I did not?”

Mary Ann was silent.

“At any rate,” continued Marshall, “Theirryault’s haberdashery continued to flourish, and Adelaide continued to bloom like a snapdragon or pokeweed. His hats were seen on the heads of royalty, and he began to enter a phase of pure artistic expression that got him noticed in bohemian circles. His hats became objects of sheer abstraction – unbounded by reason, physics, maudlin concessions to practicality, or the antiquated theories of the stodgy conservative hat Brahmins. He made enemies. He made exegetes. He forced beauty upwards above the neckline, above the face even, to settle, piled like a halo, on the heads of his increasingly high-profile clientele. The lines disappeared and Thierryault began to do his business by appointment only, going so far as to spend months working for a single client on a single hat to be unveiled at public occasions that some speculated were merely contrived to showcase his genius. Adelaide often served as the gateway to these engagements, and it became customary for requests to be channeled through her. She would sift though the various correspondences from around the globe and then submit ideas to her beloved Papa at her own discretion.

“To give you an example, there is the case of Madame D’xouah and the Six-Tiered Fedora. Madame D’xouah was the young bride of the Big City’s foremost renal specialist; a veritable kidney magician. Twenty years younger than her husband, she was expected to be a fashionable piece of elbow vinaigrette for the medical wizard and serve as the visual manifestation of his inner intellectual beauty. She fought and twisted under this demeaning position, but was ultimately powerless, less she court divorce and all of its attendant miseries. However, young Madam D’xouah was not above simple subversion. You must know all about that, as a moody little artist. Power can’t plug up every crack.

“You need a whole team of slave boys for that,” agreed Mary Ann.

“At any rate,” said Marshall, “it came to pass that a hospital was being dedicated to Dr. D’xouah for his remarkable achievements in the treatment of chronic septic myalgia. His wife was expected to appear at her husband’s side as radiant and deferential as she could possibly be. She requested a Thierryault hat from her husband, who readily accepted her demand. She sought out the haberdasher through her aristocratic connections and made her case. It was just the sort of fashion challenge that Thierryault and his little girl loved. It did not take much prompting on behalf of Adelaide to get her father to accept the commission, and father and daughter set to work, combining their remarkable and unique sensitivities. The hat must be loud enough to catch the ears of the attentive, yet quietly demure – floating underneath the radar of her honored mate.

“On the day of the gala, Thierryault presented his Six-Tiered Fedora for Madam D’xouah’s inspection. He called it the Ajuvia. The hat was constructed of six slanted layers of polished yellow photo sensitive latex and piled up high like a stack of ribbon-fried crepes. Water tumbled down each brim and cycled back up with the aid of a small motor to drizzle back out of the top like a fountain. The hat glowed with an inner light halfway between yellow and orange, and each of the hatbands was made from white porcelain. The thing looked heavy, but it was so well crafted that it was light and easy to wear. To the shrewd observer, it made its point with a canny visual pun: this was a woman whose husband’s passions placed her below his beloved urinal tract.

“The hat was such a success that Madam D’xouah was snatched up by a wealthy young Colonel and became Madam Colonel Marjoram within the year. Dr. Dxouah nearly challenged Thierryault to a duel, but his friends convinced him that he was better served in letting the embarrassing matter drop altogether, and Dr. Dxouah reluctantly capitulated to these cooler heads.

“So you see, Thierryault was a master of his craft, a specialist of the highest caliber, a real individuated big-shit. We all expected him to leave the Gap and move his operation to the Big City, but he kept his shop right where it is today and made his clientele come to him. Real smart. But then the unexpected happened. His daughter fell in love, you see. And she fell hard. All the way to the bottom, I guess.

“The man in question left town thinking he was cursed, but the truth of the matter is that he didn’t deserve such a fine woman as Adelaide Thierryault. And I know all about fine women. This jerk was a rug merchant who had been hired to install deep plush at the haberdashery, and he thought himself a fine rake and half. His name was Henry Relampago, and he had side burns all the way down his face that met under his chin like a helmet strap. He was soft spoken, tall, swarthy, and cruel. He had eyes like blue mugs of hot coffee – dark swirls resting in steamy crocked repose. He was polite to Adelaide when he did business, but she took this as something more. She had visions of Henry as a sensitive artisan like her father – someone who would see past her gruesome deformity into the intelligence beyond.

“If he had any sense, he could at least look down past her face at her beautiful, strong, blossoming body. But Henry wasn’t that sort of person at all.

“He was a brute. A monster for perfection. The carpet business demands a certain thrill for exact measurements and obsessive calculation, and there was nothing deep plush about Henry Relampago. Nothing brave, nothing romantic. He was holding out for a woman who complimented the high opinion of himself that years of unreflective mirror-gazing had given him. He couldn’t even look at Adelaide because her face embarrassed him. Adelaide took this as a sign of infatuated bashfulness and mounted a campaign of constant flirtation. Of course, this only made things worse.

“Henry tried to avoid her as much as possible, but she sought him out whenever she could. Her father was not an issue. He thought his daughter was basically sexless, and had ignored her burgeoning humanity with typical patriarchal cluelessness. As other Dad’s lamented the affairs and foolishness of their hormone-fueled fillies, Thierryaulot was convinced he had a readymade companion for life, and made no attempts to lock her up or control her appearance and behaviors. He considered himself lucky that he had such an ugly daughter. In fact, he cheered Adelaide on as she modeled the most seductive and revealing outfits she could find for the horrified Relampago. She would sidle up to the grunting, tacking carpet-layer wearing basically nothing, a popsicle jutting out from underneath the mountain of distended purple flesh that was her face, and her father would cheer her on, proud to have such a sleek, useful platonic concubine. We would see Henry in here often, pale, sweating, sick to his stomach, nursing a vodka. The man was an idiot.

“What happened next is a subject of much local debate and speculation. We all saw it happen, but nobody still knows for sure. Afterwards, Thierryault wanted to hang old Henry Relampago from the nearest chestnut, but there were too many witnesses – too many eyes that sadly had to tell the truth to one another.

“It was a hot summer day. The sun was fierce. Henry was here at the bar, drinking up a storm, when young Adelaide came in wearing a checkered tablecloth for a bra, cut off shorts, and nothing else. She sidled up to him and put her arms around him sideways, but he just shot back his drink and pushed her away coldly. She was hurt. Here they were all alone out of the house and he was not willing to take her up on her limitless sexual promise. She began yelling and he began yelling back. I kicked them both out and they carried on in the street. People came out of their shops and homes to see what was going on with the haberdasher’s daughter and the new guy in town. She called him a dickless cold fish, and he spat right in her eye. She started crying, and he began walking to the room he had rented above the tannery. That’s when she pulled a knife hidden in her shorts and ran at him. Somebody yelled for him to look out, and Henry whirled. He punched her in the face, punched her hard, punched her right in the tumor. He buried his fist in her oozing face with a sickening splash, and she fell down in the dirt of the street, thick brown pus bleeding from every orifice.

“Henry just stood there, shocked. She reached out her hand to him and the knife fell out of it. He looked at all of us gathered there and wildly demanded that we defend him as she lay dying.

“She had a knife!” he shouted. “You all saw it.”

She did have a knife. There was no question. But by the time we got her to the hospital, she was already dead. And Henry Relampago was long gone. Laying carpet in hell, hopefully. If there is justice, he will be reincarnated as the vomit-prone Berber of a nursery school or a nursing home.”

Marshall leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, his fingers laced together behind his head.

“Thierryault was stunned. Shocked. Destroyed. Ruined. He confiscated the body from the constable and took it home, weeping, carrying her empty form slung over his sunken shoulders. This was against all rules and regulations, but what could we do? The whole town felt responsible for her death. Somebody should have intervened. Somebody should have broken the cruel facts of life to Adelaide gently, before she discovered them the hard way. I think maybe we wanted her to explode. Maybe we all wanted to see Rempalago get stabbed. It should have been him dead in the dirt. Adelaide could have pleaded insanity, and no jury in the world would have convicted her. It was a horror. A terror. A disgrace this town will never recover from.

“Several months later, Theirryault buried his daughter, and then he put that mannequin up in his window. He had paid a surgeon most of his savings to remove the tumor from her face post-mortem so he could see what she would have looked like, and then he paid a plastics expert the rest of his savings to make the life-size sculpture. He stopped making custom hats, and he stopped doing most everything else, too. You can see him sometimes late at night, sitting in his own window, gazing at the reproduction of his daughter, the flames of his candles illuminating the tears on his cheeks. He’ll die soon, you know. He looks sicker everyday.”

Marshall grinned.

“And you want to buy her, you silly ass,” he said. “Thierryault will be buried with that doll, mark my words. It’s a wonder you made it out of that store with your skin.”

“I guess SO,” said Franklin, staring at his shoes.

“Rain’s letting up,” said Mary Ann. “It’s gonna get cold. You’ll want a room with a furnace.”

“All I want is a room facing the street,” said Franklin. “A room with a window.”

Marshall and Mary Ann looked at each other.

“And it’s not her face,” said Franklin. “It’s something else. I couldn’t tell you what. Something sharp.”

“It’s certainly not her hat,” said Marshall McGwirt quietly.

3 comments:

herbert said...

Title reminds me of "The Optimist's Daughter," by Eudora Welty, an excellent book.

In para 5 I see you are writing in between the lines. Good for you, little jack horner... but it needs to be interesting for us readers too; if you can't make it interesting, then repress it further, shove it down further, hide it better. To just throw out there "purple, erotic, squeezing them to release their fat sticky raindrops," is ok if it's also interesing in another way besides some guy showing us he can write about male masturbation in a not subtle enough way.

Either make it more subtle, or make it more interesting. Granted, I'm jotting these notes as I go along, but I doubt that I'm gonna do a 180 on para 5. If this were para 82 out of a 100 para short story, it might work, it might fit your story; but I doubt that in a story this long that many readers will be ecstatic about this subject matter; your 14 year old readers won't read something with this many big words; so with para 5, you've effectively eliminated your entire audience; meanwhile, I'm belaboring the point.

Kind of interesting though, now that I think about it, how some artisan who lives in an alternate universe, one where short story writers can ply their trade like small-time mideaval artisans used to here in the real world... and then you compare his continuing this line of work to him pleasing himself... hey! I think I'm starting to get this story... even still though, I say to make para 5 more subtle.

gonna continue these comments later

the herb said...

"One minute the rain blew in from behind, the next minute you could open your mouth and drink it like a faucet." (Para 8)

What am I reading here, Mr. Jack Acid?

In para 9 I think you're looking for "darkening," not "darkling." (On second thought, after reading more of this sorta 15 Century lingo later in the story, maybe you do want this to be "darkling.")

In para 10, and at this rate this story is gonna take me forever!... anyway, in para 10, you've written that "The store... carried a plate glass window in its eaves." I'm not sure how a store can carry a window. I think I see this storefront, but I think carry is the wrong word here.

This store sells Cockades. Wonderful.

Playboy bunny in the window; ok, now I think I'm getting it.

"There was a slump of hair and adenoids snoring in one corner..." Excellent. Also, I like the exchange with the mad hatter, him tossing hats of the world at him, each hat having a different name. I like the idea that the sexy doll might become the narr's muse.

I like the line "You're shitting yourself anyway, the future is in pictures."

"Well, I guess I want to know about the hat maker," said Franklin. "More specifically, I guess I want to know about the mannequin in his window. I guess I want to know how I can buy her." If you can't figure out why I typed out this para, here, in full, then I don't know what to do.

Once again, I'm gonna have to continue these comments later.

the herb said...

Hit the wrong button. I lost some comments. Oh well.

I like how Mary Ann attracted whole football teams when the moon was right, and how she brags about it, even adds to it, saying, "Whole leagues." Pretty funny gag.

More pumpkin-tumor punching in this story.... on purpose?

Now that I'm finished, I still say para 5 is a bit overdone; it's not gonna hurt this story to sublimate.

Also, I see this story as being part one of a two- or three-parter. Narr manages to spirit away the mannequin from habberdashery in act two; then in a third chapter, he realizes an important something else (can't write with her around, or he's overcome by guilt, or something), followed by his returning the mannequin, then once again hitting the trail.