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       A Verse Narrative by Michael E. Mautner



    Now come the days of dark villainy,
    of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini,
    and it is a crippled hero's hour,
    the time of FDR's fireside chats.

    Before they lost electric power
    (Pa's crude wires were gnawed away by rats)
    Clark heard that voice on the radio,
    the nation's new sire, declare that fear,
    that vampire of the spirit,
    was its only true foe;
    and, because he is remembering it
    now, he is ignoring the teacher
    as she talks of current affairs.

    Out the schoolroom window he stares,
    blankly surveying the sad
    cadaver across the square.
    The building's steeple, though it sags
    in the sultry air, is tenanted
    (by mice with wings), but is attended
    by no people.  Its choir sings
    only in memory, its bells
    silent, though the outer paint peels.
    How must the shades feel, wonders Kent,
    what emotions can a ghost know?
    He is thinking of old Joe.

      Winter last, 1933:

      Ellis was too tired to care for
      the abandoned church, so he hired
      Joe as caretaker, said a prayer for
      Smallville, and left.  That made Ma sad.
      She said it was a sin, and madness,
      to cast out a preacher like they'd done.
      There'd be hell to pay for it, surely;
      but, Clark had gained a friend thereby.
      Often, after school, he'd go by
      the church, scoop snow off two heavy
      metal doors, open them with no
      effort, and drop in on Joe
      in the Negro’s cellar flat.
      In nearly pitch darkness they sat
      and drank cocoa, the boiler's brass dial
      drooping until Joe, whose warm smile
      seemed enough to heat the dank hovel,
      rose to feed its obese, sooty gut
      another shovel full of coal.
      Thankful flames flared, and young Kent stole
      a closer look at the black gent's face
      as he shared tales of home.  Having come
      from Nicodemus, Kansas,
      a colony formed by slaves
      freed after the Civil War, he'd hum
      hymns his daddy had taught him
      and tell Clark the Rich Man'd get'im
      if he wasn't careful.  He gave
      counsel Clark could scarce remember,
      but that face had such character
      as to be unforgettable.
      Wrinkled, half-shaven, sweaty and worn,
      it glistened a rough, reddish brown
      in the light that shone through the grill,
      and it appeared so solemn
      as its lips said, "Kansas is still
      bleeding, boy; just a lot slower
      nowadays, is all."  His epitaph,
      that declaration, made pointing
      to a copy of Curry's mural
      for the capitol in Topeka
      depicting a giant John Brown
      towering over a torn country.
      The work was then in-progress, so Joe
      had only a sketch he'd ripped
      from a journal and pasted to the coal bin.
      Brown was screaming in it.  Rage warped
      his visage as warriors fell at
      his feet; but, to hear Joe tell it,
      that painting proves a dead man can win.
      This confused Clark.  Joe was grateful
      for his company anyway. 
      The feeling was mutual.

    Clark shifts focus to peruse
    his own image on the pane,
    one complacent until his name
    reverberates and a ruler
    raps his desk.  He starts at the crack.
    It shatters his reverie
    as his peers, Lana too, giggle,
    and Mrs. Greene shrieks revile.
    "No daydreams in my class!" says she.
    "Sorry, ma'am," he says, "I'll listen."
    Greene accepts Clark's error
    and apology.  She has so few pupils
    (seven; where eleven once
    was thought a low enrollment)
    and the town is thinking about
    closing down the school.  "Tough times,"
    some have said, "call for hard men".
    There's no argument then
    for training those adept with pen,
    like Clark Kent; Greene will mourn
    the lost talent.  She moves on,
    the lesson, like the term,
    nearing its end.  Clark dons
    his phony spectacles
    and does his composition.
    It's easy, but he pretends
    he needs the whole period.
    He has learned a myriad
    of ways to conceal his strengths
    and make those his age forget
    what an ox he used to be:

      Baggy raiment cloaks his muscles
      and he slouches, though the others'
      having grown means he's a freak
      in height no more; and, a streak
      of feigned faux pas has altered
      their impression of him.  He falters
      at public occasions.  The contest
      was the worst.  He won it,
      of course, but the ribbon got lost
      and, with his x-ray eyes,
      he saw the essay prize
      caught behind Mrs. Greene's desk drawer.
      He slipped (a first), opened his mouth
      to point out its location,
      and she found it and blamed him,
      for he'd no doubt hidden it
      in base anticipation
      of defeat.  His chagrin was met
      by classmates' grins and the bestowal
      of the honor on another.
      Lana got it.  She laughed then, too,
      but showed sympathy. 

    Fall last, that was.  Today, the first
    sowing of 1934,
    is no different.  The children
    (grown-ups still label them so;
    the adolescent gets no
    respect), are let go, and a game
    begins in a vacant sand-lot
    outside Smallville.  It is Clark Kent's
    last chance to bear embarrassment.

    "Hey, Kent!" Pete Ross hollers, "Look out!",
    but Clark has turned his head, entranced
    by frail, red-haired Lana Lang's
    passing in the distance.
    The gangs' chatter hushes;
    play halts as Clark is hit
    and they watch him fall.  "Dang!" curses
    Pete.  He drops the bat and rushes
    to the outfield to kick dirt at
    Clark's position.  "Don't get distracted,
    Clark!" he rasps.  "Lana's not so pretty."
    Kent, whose task, really, was to not
    dent the baseball, differs.  He rubs
    his unmarked crown and says, "She is."

    "I don't get you, Clark," Pete admits.
    "You didn't used to be a fool."
    Clark drops his borrowed glove and quits.
    Thus they finish school by
    growing away from old friends.
    They were close only a short while
    (Kent's manual of style
    and Ross's love of sport
    divided them quickly),
    and it is natural to part,
    so, Clark lets himself be cast out.
    "Let Pete play leader," he decides.
    He will follow Joe's lead
    and be content to leave alone.

    En route home,
    beyond the others' sight,
    he goes limp and floats a few feet
    above acres of dying wheat,
    hanging aloft like a kitten
    in an invisible cat's teeth.
    Furtive flight permits for a quick
    landing should he sense another
    nearing, and momentarily
    allows him to enjoy his skills.
    Today this freedom fills him
    with an urge to wander, until
    his travel takes him (willfully,
    or by happenstance?) to a tree.
    At the level of bare branches
    he freezes in his flight.
    This is where Joe was found,

      Chief Parker cut down
      the body in a ritual
      no-one had performed in some time.
      Under rapid bowie strokes
      a thick rope frayed.  Pendulum-like,
      what was Joe swayed and gravity
      took its course.  Mother Nature's
      cold forces pull at apples
      and at corpses equally,
      so it fell without ceremony.
      Just a thud and a quantity
      of dried blood in the spring dust.

      They cabled Nicodemus,
      but Joe had no relations.
      There was a burial --
      Clark was the sole attendee --
      but no investigation.
      The Sheriff's explanation
      did not satisfy the boy.
      "No one cares `bout an old nigger,"
      Chief Parker said.  "You get bigger,
      Clark and you'll know better." 
      Clark hoped the lesson
      was one he wouldn't ever learn.

    He hopes so still, but wonders why
    he was not there to save his friend,
    why that night had to be the first
    to find him trapped in a dream that
    would deafen any sleeping ears
    even to the pleas and screams
    of the dying.  He wonders.
    He always will.

    The prairie is still.
    No bird chirps, no crickets trill.
    Clark Kent, alien in subtle disguise
    comes down out of the sky
    to ponder what justice is
    and the danger to fortitude
    of excessive reflection.
    He leans against the brittle
    trunk of a drought-stricken tree
    and discovers dried spittle marks
    on the higher bark.  He gets chills
    in his spine and lifts his eyes.

    A haze hangs in the air,
    heavier than last year's.
    Devilish winds whip it up
    and the unforgiving sun
    tints it an amber hue.
    Days of plenty wane
    and Kansas bleeds anew.
    Dust seeps out its open veins.

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