Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Combustible Chapter 8 - Century Lines Part 2

Donny did make it home, eventually. He approached the door and instinctively took the keys out of his pocket, selected the correct one, without thinking, and opened the door. It did not dawn on him that he no longer needed the mantra he had learned. In his brain, it was like, that last muggy summer day, when a sudden cool wind whips through the trees, pushing clouds through like a puffy white broom, deep blue summer sky in front, light, slightly cooler blue behind. The air turns crisp, things seem alive; a long sought for clarity ensues. The muddled thoughts, depressions, and hopelessness clogging his brain were swept away and he stormed into his study with a youthful enthusiasm he had not felt for a long time.

Ms. Davis was startled. She was in the kitchen preparing his meal for the evening when she heard the door slam. It is funny how one can intuit the emotion behind a door slam. For some reason, and in some unexplainable way, an angry door slam sounds much different than a happy door slam. In both, the door is quickly pushed open wide, the inside knob is grasped with vigor, and the door is swung to on its hinges with more force than necessary. I do not know why this should be so. Ms. Davis was startled by the noise, but somehow she knew the noise emanated from one of those happy door slams.

"Ms. Davis! I am home. I will be in the study.", Donny yelled. Ms. Davis found  herself smiling as she stirred the Risotto.

"The boy has been recalled to seems" she quoted her favorite novel. For the first time in three years she heard the happy man, the purposeful man, Clara had married. "Something must be going on for such a change." she thought to herself. "Well, it's about time..."

Ms. Davis continued the dinner preparations - the Risotto takes at least 45 minutes- while Donny sat at his desk, a large leather bound atlas at least 15 years old, open in front of him.

You may be wondering how a man can go from confused, lifeless, and despondent, to wide a wake, cheerful and driven, in just a matter of moments. Perhaps only those stricken with this peculiar type of melancholy can understand, but I will attempt to explain it nonetheless. Even in the most stable of personalities, sometimes, and with some people, something akin to a blurriness enters the mind's eye. Either through continued stresses or for no reason at all, the way they see the world gets out of focus. It can be described, and probably has before, as a darkness - but I do not think darkness captures it. This is not a depression where the man gives up hope and wants to end it all. It is not the deep black of "I just want it to be over" it is more like the hazy evening shade where the absence of direct light causes a blurriness. It is the grey of a resignation - an acceptance of what happens happens; it is an emotion approaching, but not quite reaching, to the "I don't care anymore".

This kind of melancholia manifests itself like a man carrying the weight of the world. He is able to carry it, indeed, he must carry it, but he's reached the stage where he no longer wants to. There is, in this, fuzzy outlook, the persistent question of "Why should I be burdened by this load? No one else seems to be under its weight." To bring this closer to home. Donny, since Clara died, finding himself essentially alone and purposeless, carried this weight around with him. When he failed to detect anyone else in his world appearing to be crushed under a similar weight, he became frustrated, despondent, like standing in the fog on a gloomy morning. This is why the straws at the coffee shop antagonized him so. This is why he could not remember which key opened which door. It is why he stopped his research. It was as if he was just waiting for something that never comes and so the initial anticipation fizzled and he was left with a sarcasm - a negativity - that starts with a kernel of hope, but instead of breaking through the ground and feeding on the sun, it withers, dies, and rots in the soil of "it will probably just get worse."

The real oddity with this mental condition - it is certainly not elation, nor is it depression - is it takes only one thing to cause the melancholy mind to snap out of it. Even the smallest of things can do the trick. A homeowner struggling with the plumbing can find himself in this state but then by some chance or through the aid of a helping hand, things start going right, the leak stops leaking, the mixing valve starts mixing, the toilet starts flushing, and in an instant the fog clears and a destination comes into view. Essentially, snapping out of it is simple. And it comes down to two very different emotionally charged words. Accomplishment and Purpose.

In just an instant, Donny snapped out of it. Something as simple as an article in a newspaper and a cross-stitched bible verse cleared the fog. He suddenly allowed himself to remember his Accomplishments (his research to that point) and his Purpose (finding a unified answer to life's persistent questions). In this he did not forget Clara, his loss of respect in the scientific community, these simply became a part of a larger purpose. Something clicked, something gave him hope, and he walked around this monolithic melancholy, developed by tragedy in his own life, for a new perspective. He had to get back to work - not to save mankind or solve its mysteries, but for his dead wife. A simple change in attitude, I know, but powerful nonetheless.

As I mentioned before, Donny had pulled an old atlas out of one of his many book cases and was studying the large map of the United States as it lay out like a crinkled, stained treasure map upon the desk of an adventurer. Ms. Davis poked her silver haired head into the study, saw him intently engaged, and without asking, decided to bring him his dinner on a tray. It had been some time, she remarked to herself, since she had seen him work with enthusiasm.

The map Donny had laid out before him, in addition to the wrinkles and coffee stains, bore marks, made in red, of the cities where Spontaneous Human Combustion had taken place - Cleveland, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Decatur Georgia, Richmond Kentucky and others were marked with a red dot that had turned purplish over time. He removed a red magic marker from the pen holder neatly aligned on the top right corner of the desk and made two marks - one was a star top dead center of Louisville KY (Summer), the other in Perryville Arkansas, just 45 miles west of Little Rock Arkansas. There. He thought to himself. Now what? Still no pattern. No repeat cities but two within three months of each other. What did these two have in common with each other? What did these two have in common, if anything, with the others that preceded them? He opened up his journal which he had removed from the back pack and in between bites of baked chicken and wild mushroom risotto, he read deep into the night.

The next morning was bitterly cold. It was that kind of cold that begs for snow. Somehow on days like this, Donny thought to himself, snow would make the cold a little more bearable. He had just popped awake where he was still seated in the over sized leather armchair in his study. The raging fire in the fireplace from the night before had burned down to a slightly warm pile of ash covering a few hot coals. The room had a chill but snuggled under the woven string blanket he had pulled over himself when the room got cold, he was comfortable, content, unwilling to move. So to, the raging fire he had experienced the day before when his world once again caught its purposeful flame, had subsided and he now had entered that realm in the mind where just a few ashes and hot coals simmered, but the cold realization that he had no more fuel to pile upon the hearth and the fear of it dying out completely worried him. It took very little time for the feeling that his new found excitement from the day before was just a mind game he had played with himself. He was still a long way from finding the answers he was looking for. Doubt entered in and tried to convince him that an answer within the realm of science and what science could discover was impossible. Could it be, he asked him self, from under that blanket, that this is all just a leap of faith? 

He felt that the unified answer he was looking for was out there to be found but he was not quite ready to place that answer in the hands of a faith he had drifted away from. And because of this, he was still not quite ready to ask Someone for a sign. He remembered the testing of God that Gideon had used in the Old Testament. The stubborn scientist was beginning to replace the despairing, humbled man. It was a feeling that filled him, at the same time, with comfort and dread. Still, he felt someone or something leading him to talk to the One who was not there. And when his mind drifted in this direction, the scientist in him, pulled back, gently, and then more fiercely.

It was then that the mail man, bundled from head to toe trudged past the bay window of the study, clomping in his big fur lined boots up the steps, sweeping the chin straps of his faux fur lined postman's cap with the ear flaps back over his shoulder. He opened the brass mail slot and dropped two items through onto the floor of the foyer. Donny struggled with the decision to stay in the warm ball of blanket and leather he had coiled up in or brave the brisk chill in the house to retrieve the mail. In the end he decided to throw the blanket off. He rose and quickly stirred up the fire place adding some kindling and a couple of small logs. He slipped on his shoes, wedging in his feet according to custom, laces still tied and walked to the foyer to pick up the mail.

Even though he did not ask for it - his scientist mind won that battle of faith - he immediately and without his own doing spoke these words in his mind, "Well, I guess I have my answer." The bare hint of a "Thank you" escaped his lips. This embarrassed him. Who was he talking to anyway?

He held in his hands a newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a postcard. The front page of the former ran this headline - "Hog Fan Disappearance A Mystery" and upon the latter a picture from 1957 of War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The news story, without the benefit of being there, described, in much less detail, the circumstances surrounding Kenny Dumas, after he had left the Miracle on Markham and combusted in his truck while listening to the end of the game in the parking lot. On the flip side of the postcard, in an elegant hand, was written this:

Dr. Mackey,

We have a mutual interest and a mutual history. Silence for so long and now 4.
Respond to the address below if you would like to locate the human soul.

Remember Louisville, Little Rock, Perryville, and Clara.

PO Box 1302A
Little Rock AR 70221

"Four?" he said out loud. "What is this? Who is this?".

A nervous ball formed in his stomach as read and re-read the post card and the article. The article stated that there had been a total of three instances of spontaneous human combustion in the last 4 months with two happening within a 60 mile radius of each other - something of an anomaly according to Donny's research journals. The post card mentioned the number four and mysteriously the name of his wife. What could it mean?

Donny was thrust back into a passion. He was not one for mystery or suspense in real life. In the lab, it was what made his work exciting - would the hypothesis be proven true? But in real life, mystery meant danger to him. Real life was not controlled like his lab experiments were. He tucked the paper into the front of his latest journal, the post card wrapped up inside it and he headed to the kitchen where Ms. Davis was making him hot coffee, buttered toast, and a ham and cheese omelet.

The following days ensued with the general routine - Donny reading, sleeping, pacing like a child bored in a playroom full of toys. The mail man came. The mail man trudged up the steps. The mail man dropped a postcard through the mail slot. Donny picked up the post card - always another scene from Little Rock Arkansas on one side and the gracefully scrawled note on the back. Always the same, or nearly so.

Remember Louisville, Little Rock, Perryville, and Clara, followed by the return address HS, PO Box 1302A, Little Rock AR 70221.

Each day followed the next as the minutes Donny sat reading and re-reading his journals, turned into hours, which, in turn, evolved into days. By the time he awoke from the routine it was Saturday night once again and as Ms. Davis straightened up Donny's study as he sat there at his desk, pouring over maps, hastily written notes, and newspaper articles, she asked him the question she had asked him every Saturday night.

"Mr. Donny? You going to Church with me tomorrow?"

This question had been answered many times before, with a polite but definite, "No, no thank you, Ms. Davis." The answer Donny gave was one born of despair, anger, or perhaps fear. Even at his most stubborn, most scientific of times, he still could not shake the very real possibility that there was a God and that he did take an active part in the world and in his own life. And, indeed, this time around, Donny formed the beginning of these words again, then looked at Mrs. Davis, and in an instant, thought to himself, "What could it hurt? I'm not doing anything here. What are those postcards? I guess I could go. It's just an hour." All of these thoughts rushed upon his mind, seemingly all at once, in a cloud of confusion.

This is not unlike what the author experiences every Sunday morning around 8:30 AM. All the excuses he has for not attending services rush upon him and on those mornings when he and his lovely wife do make it to church, the deciding factor is usually one of two things. First, it's only an hour. Second, I'll probably feel better. Oh, the ambivalence of modern man! Where has the man gone, that desperately seeks the One in which the Universe does consist!? Reader, if you find him. Get to know that man!

Donny began to feel, upon his chest, that pressure he felt the nights of the week before, alone in his study, refusing to ask for help, to ask for a sign, trying to get to the answer of the human life lost in flame, Clara, the post cards, his three year daze, why the straws at the coffee shop don't work, from within the reasoning of his mind. It was, dare I say it, that still small voice, almost inducing him to call out - Oh God! Where am I and where do I need to go to get back to you! He felt that pressure, heavy upon him again, and in a pitched battle between his scientist and his philosopher and his priest, made his decision.

"Yes. Mrs. Davis. I would be happy to. 11 AM?"

"11 AM. Your clothes are ready and hanging in the closet upstairs."

Mrs. Davis, raised her eyes to the heavens as she left the study, raised them in gratitude and relief. Her persistence had paid off. You see, Mrs. Davis, too, had felt that pressing sensation in her chest every Saturday night as she struggle within her mind, against her reason, whether to ask Donny to church, one more time again. Now Donny, as he continued to sit after this brief but tiring conversation, wondered how Mrs. Davis knew he would be going to church with her.

*    *     *

Sunday morning dawned bright. The newly fallen snow, still unmarked by foot or tires lay in a thick blanket upon the ground. The eerie quiet that accompanies a new snow in the early morning brought a sense of peace and relaxation to Donny as he dressed. As he waited for Ms. Davis to call that she was ready, he sat at his desk and sorted back through the strange postcards he had collected over the last few weeks. Always the same message. Always the same handwriting. And always the same reaction, the same questions. But this time, in this stasis of silence, warmth of his study, brightness of the sun reflecting off the snow into his bay window, Donny decided to respond.

He addressed a letter to the PO Box in Little Rock Arkansas, expressing his desire to make contact with the mystery person that reminded him of the last 3 locations of combustion and Clara. Clara? How did this person know Clara? And what did Clara have to do with the whole thing. He asked himself these questions as he wrote. He signed the letter, folded it in the traditional style - a lost art in this current age - bottom folded up 1/3 of the way and the top folded down overlapping, so that the recipient could withdraw the letter from the envelope and naturally open it up ready to read.  He addressed the envelope, affixed the stamp, and placed it in his jacket pocket. He would mail it, he thought, at the mail box he would pass on the way home from church. It was just then that the front door opened and Ms. Davis, who lived just up the street, came in stomping the snow from her overshoes.

Ms. Davis took Donny's arm as they made their way down the street towards the small chapel where services were being held. As they walked, Donny was lost in thought, and secretly planning his trip to meet the mystery lady in Little Rock. He had made the determination that the sender of the post cards was a woman for some reason, though there was little to suggest one way or the other. The handwriting was elegant but benign. No other clues presented themselves and the scrawl could have easily been made by a fifty year old, ham fisted truck driver with a classical education as a woman, full of grace. As they passed the mail box, Donny stopped, excused himself from Ms. Davis' arm and dropped in the letter.

"So you're going to go then?" she asked.

Donny asked himself, "how does she know these things?"

And as if hearing his thoughts aloud, Ms. Davis, "Mr. Donny, Clara asked me to take care of you, that's just what I am doing and I think you should go. It will be an adventure. You have enough money, it would be a shame not to use it, while sitting in your study for the rest of your life."

They looked at each other as if to say a mutual "I know. Thank you." They rejoined arms and slowly, like a four legged bundle of wool, continued their walk.

*   *   *

It is here that we leave Ms. Davis and Donny on their way to church and follow the letter. The mail box flap had been hard to open, it being frozen shut. But once opened it had been dropped to the bottom of the box. The label on the flap showing a 9:00 AM pick up for Monday morning. And as the letter relaxed atop the small pile of letters in the box, Donny relaxed. "Sometimes, you have to do something to find the reason for it" Donny paraphrased one of his favorite authors, John Le Carre, in The Perfect Spy. Action is sometimes the best way to remove doubt and fear, even if it asks more questions than one started out with. And as the letter sat, the scientist/philosopher/priest grew in his confidence. Just as that letter door in the mail box was once stuck and the forced open by an outside hand, Donny's spirit, once frozen shut, was opened with a forceful tug, and now, for the first time in a long, long time, he felt hope, excitement, contentment, and peace. We'll see what happens to Donny and Ms. Davis on this bright chilly Sunday morning in a moment.

The flap in the mail box opened up again on Monday morning. It had, once again, frozen in the night after a day of sunshine had thawed around its lip and hinges. A small sliver of sunlight made its way through the opening and shone upon Donny's letter resting there atop the pile.
A few more letters were deposited and had fallen on top. These letters were dropped by an accountant on his way to his office downtown and are of no consequence to this story. Within just a few minutes after this last deposit, the tumbler in the lock was sprung by the post man, turned, and the main door of the blue mail box was opened. All the letters scraped out of the bin into a large plastic post office bin. The post man, loaded the bin into his truck and made his way to the processing center as this was his last pick up stop before proceeding with the deliveries for the neighborhood for the day - which, in this part of town, is made on foot.

Just a few hours after this clump of mail is deposited at the center, a small, intricate journey along scanners, conveyors, and slots and bags, and trucks Donny's letters, and all those heading to the mid west were loaded on semi-trailers for their journeys to their destinations.

Truck number 4755, marked Boston-Memphis, an older Peterbilt, driven by a large man in a flannel shirt, with low grade narcolepsy, pulled onto the express way. We now follow this journey to Little Rock Arkansas.
*   *   *

According to the Historic Arkansas Museum,, there is a reason why the wild west was wild - a reasonable explanation for how the relatively high class residents of the original 13 colonies, as they moved westward, became more and more rugged, single-minded, stubborn, and, dare I say, uncivilised. While genetics and how they inform our responses to hardship, wealth, or the lack thereof which insulates us from or exposes us to difficulties do play a part, neither plays as significant a role in this phenomenon - The Wild West - as the geography of our great land.

One sees this in what I call Century Lines, where they fall, who congregated along them, and who did not. Follow the geography, the etymology (the names settlers gave to their new towns) and one can see how attitudes, lifestyles, and moral codes were developed with ramifications that travel down the river of time to the delta of our own day.

The Peterbilt, truck 4755, from Boston immediately crossed one of those century lines leaving towns that were established before the American Revolution, the architechture, the cobblestoned or brick paved streets, too narrow for the truck carrying this all too important letter were left behind. The original settlers of this area, not to minimize their courage or the hardships they endured, stopped westward expansion, not because they felt they had discovered enought room for their population, but because they ran into natural obstacles that they either were too tired to overcome or there were few among them willing to leave the group and set out on their own.

These obstacles took the form of ominous mountains, that perhaps, reminded them of their home country, rivers, which, difficult to cross, provided natural boundaries to them - a "we made it this far, and that's good enough philosophy - similar to the amatuer accountant who rounds up or down to a nice "round figure". I you notice the major cities of our times, the population centers that grew full of immigrants who all shared this philosophy of "this is good enough",  they are almost always nestled up along the east slop of a mountain range or along the eastern banks of a, then, uncrossable body of water. This century line, the western border of the original 13 colonies, cuts through Pittsburgh southward along the Appalachians on the western borders of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, through Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a little more than 10 hours on the snowy, sometimes, icy interstates before the letter we are following eeked its way through Pittsburgh, the first century line, and into Ohio, the beginning of the second epoch of westward expansion by the second generation of settlers of America.

This second century line, that of the late 18the and early 19th centuries, terminates along the Ohio River in places like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Paducah. Again, it can be seen in the museums, the architecture, and in the historicity of the locales, this second wave of western expansion ended with the next mass of humanity hitting the Ohio River barrier and saying, "That's Good Enough!". George Roger's Clark must have thought this to himself as he built his cabin on the eastern banks of the river just a few miles north of the Falls of the Ohio. In fact, by the time Mr. Clark grew into an elderly statesman, he had moved to Locust Grove just northeast of what is now downtown Louisville, and died there a financially spoiled, bitter old man - having funded wars and exploration from his own pocket, with no remuneration of our esteemed federal government for him or his descendants.

In another 8 hours our letter will be trucked into Louisville accomplishing what thos early settlers could not. When population centers along the eastern sea board became restless, when the most reclusive, wild, and stubborn among them grew tired of the crowds, the regulations, and the hoity-toity-ness of big city life, they decided to move on - increase their land holdings, start a new more self sufficient life. So they set out west from states like New York, Massachussetts, and others to find space. When they hit that obstacle and thought, well this is as far as I am going to go, they settled there, in states like Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi south of the Ohio River, and in states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois north of the Ohio.

As these river cities grew into population centers and hubs of commerce, the more adventurous Americans, much like our letter which is now crossing the I64 bridge out of Louisville into Indiana, packed up their lives and headed west until they reached the next big obstacle to check their progress, the Ole Grandad, Big Muddy, the Mighty Mississippi.

St. Louis, the gateway to the West, was settled as if the groups of people crossed the Mississippi and were so worn out they could not take another step, decided to pitch a tent for the night, ended up staying the week, and eventually made the west bank of the big river their permanent home. It is here, that our letter takes a slight left hand turn and floats upon 18 wheels and air-shocks down I55 into northern Arkansas towards Memphis. Just 5 hours later, a sharp right onto I40 West ushers our letter towards the great west, the land of prairies and deltas. We've entered into another epoch of settlement.  We've crossed another century line into the Wild West.

Hopefully, this picture of westward expansion, explains the psyche of the frontier states. Only the wildest, most stubborn of early Americans made it this far. A pioneer setting out from the east coast in the mid to late 18th century had to cross no less than 2 mountain ranges and 3 large rivers. Many gave up and settled, the most stubborn pressed on culminating in the settlement of Fort Smith Arkansas, the roughest town in the west; the home of the Hanging Judge Roy Bean. A monniker apropos even to this day.

Our letter did not make the trip to the Oklahoma-Arkansas border town, but if you do, check out the National Park and tour the court house and gallows where dozens were hung. Something mysterious lurks there. Something, outside of this world, whether good or evil, or perhaps those are just labels we give to unexplained things in the universe. And good simply means the mysterious that happens to benefit me or bring me comfort and evil describes the mystery that causes me pain or discomort. Regardless, this brings us full circle. And just as Donny's letter went on a journey through centuries of growth, struggle, failure, acquiescence, triumph, despondency, stubborness, resignation, and struggle, Donny, in microcosm, was about to cross that mountain range, that river, that obstacle that stood in his way to what the settlers of the American west, eventually, called home.

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