Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Infant

[Handwritten note on dot-matrix-printed manuscript, with detachable roller tabs not yet detached but for some reason carefully preserved, from Kris Kelly, Managing Editor of Nozzy News, to Iron Door (the person), Owner/Founder of Nozzy News:

Say, Iron--
Steve Richman stopped me at Good-to-Go Grocery yesterday and handed me this to give to you. I promised I would. In case you don't remember Steve, he's the guy who painted the "Never Forget Nozzy" sign out by the highway, the football-player silhouettes at the old high school gym, and pretty much every other artistic thing here in town. Anyway, he's a talented guy--and really, really odd. He's been working at GGG since high school, just quietly stocking shelves and dustmopping the floor all day, while meanwhile there must be all kinds of...things...going on in his head.
Sorry to ramble on. He's just kind of always got me wondering--this incredibly talented guy who never really did anything with it. I think he was three years ahead of me in school, so that would make him about 35?
This story of his made me wonder all over again. He wanted me to tell you this, which I think is pretty close to verbatim: "I just want to get these stories down. I have a lot of them, let me tell you. I hope you'll consider them for the contest, but that doesn't really matter to me as much as just getting them down. I appreciate it."

The Infant

No one saw The Infant arrive. Or appear: maybe "appear" is the best word. One early morning He was just there, standing patiently at the big four-way intersection in the center of town. He wore red corduroy pull-up pants over a bulky (but apparently clean) diaper, a black t-shirt with "The Boss" on it in big white latex letters, tiny black classic Chuck Taylor sneakers, and a good-sized golden hoop in His left, pierced ear. He was bald like Mr. Clean.
No one knew whose Infant He was. No one knew who had dressed Him, who had left Him. Maybe it was all His own doing. As I said: suddenly one morning, The Infant, downtown. Boom.
His presence demanded capital letters. He was The Infant. Especially later, after He spoke.
The first couple of people who saw Him did what you'd expect: they ran like crazy to save Him before He could toddle off the little island of raised cement down into traffic. I saw one of those people encounter Him. It was a fortyish woman. She saw Him standing there, quietly contemplating her, screeched "Ohh!", and began sprinting His direction. She ran about three steps, then stopped abruptly. One foot hovered in midair briefly. It was His look that stopped her dead: fierce, concentrated, laser-focused. After two or three more people tried, and were also halted in His gaze, we stopped moving toward Him and began discussing the situation among ourselves. The police rerouted traffic. Once people had seen The Infant for themselves, they didn't even grumble about having to drive around the town's main intersection. Everyone who had nothing pressing to do parked nearby and walked over as close as His gaze would allow.
For a one-to-two-year-old, as He seemed to be, His presence and attention were remarkable. His head did not bobble or pivot aimlessly. He did not drool, "baby-talk," or cry. He steadily, silently studied us. He had the air of an ancient wise man, a levitating yogi, a seer. He had charisma. We couldn't look away; we also couldn't get any closer, couldn't withstand that soul-searching laser-beam inspection of His, so we formed a loose and growing circle around Him, beginning about twenty feet away. Before we knew it, half the town was standing at the intersection.
We waited. He watched us, turning slightly to take us all in.
After some minutes, He nodded once, curtly, as if crossing off the last item in some mental checklist.
"Greetings," He intoned. "Thank you for coming." The Infant sounded just like James Earl Jones.
There were quiet gasps, subtle involuntary cries. Otherwise, we listened.
"You may each ask me one question. One. Ask so everyone can hear--there, from that spot on the curb. Yes, there. Then approach, and I will tell you the answer."
We looked at each other. There was no disbelieving Him: The Infant was very convincing.
We hustled into line. No one was eager to be first--everyone headed for the line's middle--so there was no jostling or cutting in. Lots of "after you" gestures were made.
Everyone understood right away: choose your question wisely; word it carefully. This chance will not come again. To most of us, it also occurred: ask your question regardless of what other people are saying, because He's going to give answers individually. Your results may vary.
The first person in line--the assistant manager of the grocery--asked: "How can I get rich quick without breaking the law?" One or two people made a face at the crassness of the question. The Infant glared for a few seconds, and we thought maybe He wouldn't answer. He seemed imperially annoyed. But then He made a small beckoning gesture with His hand, and the assistant manager approached. He stopped a few feet before The Infant, who then beckoned again. The assistant manager stepped closer and leaned in. The Infant whispered in his ear. We all scrutinized the assistant manager's face--for clues to his answer, I guess. He just nodded sagely as The Infant poured words privately into his ear. Then He was done, and the assistant manager walked away, chuckling and literally rubbing his hands together.
The questions naturally included all the ones you'd expect. "How can I achieve lasting happiness?""How can I live to be 100?" "What career should I pursue?" Many asked a version of the assistant manager's question.
Some of the questions seemed like a shocking waste of the singular opportunity. "How can I lose weight?" Like you couldn't find advice on that anywhere else. One knothead asked, "Beatles or Rolling Stones?" Some questions were oddly specific, considering the circumstances: "How can I get my boys to do their homework?" "That formula I've been trying to perfect for the past three months at the lab: what are the exact right proportions?" All questions received a brief, solemn, whispered answer. No one seemed disappointed, either, though some seemed surprised or confused by what they heard.
One brave teenager named a name: "How can I make Susan DeVries fall madly in love with me?"  The crowd laughed appreciatively at that one, and one corner of The Infant's mouth even twitched upward briefly.
Some of the questions were particularly pleasing in their civic-mindedness. "What should we do about the environment so we don't destroy the planet?""What should be done about crime?" "How can we cure poverty?"
A few of the questions were heartbreaking to hear in public. "What is wrong with me?" "Why do I fail at everything I try?" "Will I ever find love?"
The line of questioners moved along quickly. No questioner dilly-dallied, and The Infant answered each question in one to two minutes. His aspect promised dire retribution for wasting His time or breaking His rules; we didn't. A few people tried to ask follow-up questions in His presence, but His deathly glare shooed them right away. By noon He had worked his way halfway down the line. At 3:15, the last stragglers were making their way up to the questioning spot.
Then the line was spent. The Infant swiveled his head deliberately left, then right. Seeing no further questioners, He paused for a few seconds, and said, "We're done here. Now: everyone look at the person to your left, then the person to your right." We all did. When we looked back at the intersection, The Infant was gone, as suddenly and as mysteriously as He had appeared that morning.
By universal instinct, no one tried telling their answers to others after leaving The Infant's presence. Nor did anyone run up to find out what they'd heard. We all sensed that this might incur unpleasant results. Later on, when we'd all had time to reflect and recover from the sheer strangeness of it all, we found that we were simply unable to tell each other anything. Though we could clearly remember The Infant, the crowd, and the questions; though everyone received a satisfying answer to even the most complicated, profound question; still, not one of us could communicate our answer to others. Not in speech, not in writing, not via computer or typewriter. Not by charades, sign language, pantomime, Morse code, semaphore, foreign language, or ransom-note-style cutting of words out of magazines. We experienced a combination of words failing us, feelings of profound stupidity and/or terror, and an overwhelming sense that even attempting to explain was unutterably futile. We tried and tried, and always failed. In time we gave up.
The answers remain in our town, in our separate minds, providing us considerable if very specifically limited wisdom and comfort. Unfortunately, we can't tell you anything. You must have questions of your own; sorry.

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