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       A Verse Narrative by Michael E. Mautner


    'State Fair or Bust,' read the placards
    that hitch-hikers raise on roadsides
    in the four corners of Kansas.
    Thence they come, con-men to hawk their wares
    and gawkers to stare at caged freaks.
    Among the latter, Ralph Dibny seeks
    a secret potion -- fabled gingold
    of India Rubber Men (one sold
    him a formula, but no sample) --
    while Professor Marvel, true appellation
    Dudley Batson-Bryan (no relation
    to the Great Commoner) is an example
    of the former.  His ornate coach, faded
    though it be, promises the unjaded,
    for a consideration, a peak
    at their futures, a privilege, it avers,
    once reserved the crowned heads of Europe.
    As Omaha lawmen will confirm,
    Marvel is a harmless huckster, mostly,
    though his escape from them (by balloon)
    still burns.  For Ralph, the old man is a free
    ride combined with dazzling conversation:
    The Prof.'s theatrical badinage,
    his Old South, aristocratic accent
    and cure-all remedies for a few cents
    transport the passenger to a fading age.
    The Gay Nineties are a long way off, and,
    Ralph reflects, this creaky wooden carriage
    is bound to go Mighty Wurlitzer's way,
    to join Handy's and John Philip Sousa's bands
    and tinkle on under time's heavy sands.
    Tinkle?  Ralph thinks that sound bodes ill,
    of metal on metal scraping shrill.
    What could it be?  A horseshoe slipping free?
    His steed has one hoof in the glue factory
    already; the Prof. takes care he's well shod --
    that's not the source.  A rusty axlerod
    coming loose from its casing?  Maybe.  "Stop!",
    blurts the lad, his caveat too late.  Pop!
    goes a nut and a bolt breaks, a wheel drops
    off and the cab sinks, Scout whinnies, bucks,
    and bolts, dragging them fast to a ditch
    on whose edge they teeter and pitch
    as the horse chucks harness and flees;
    then, just when they should fall, they freeze.
    A steel-strong arm is the wall they lean on.
    "Good of you gentlemen to drop in,"
    the fellow says.  Dibny instantly
    dislikes his smug tone.  Guess that's how he'd be,
    though, could he support the bulky cab's frame.
    Odd.  They guy looks, well... ordinary.  "Name's
    Kent," he says, "Clark Kent."  Kent straightens his limb
    and rocks them back to the road.
    They thank him.  "No trouble," says Kent.
    Each man rubs his neck,
    shocked to find it unbroken, and the wreck
    of the carriage they set about fixing
    as Clark sees to Eben, who's been listening
    from their camp in a glade behind the trees.
    "I heard you son," Pa says.  "You were cocky."
    Clark ignores the quip.  He retrieves the steed
    for the busy travelers, converses
    with Ralph a bit, and accepts the grateful
    Prof.'s offer of a reading, free of charge,
    at the Fair.  Eben seethes.  No charlatan
    can work satanic wiles among his kin
    without words from him.  They can wait; the cart
    needs loading.  He stacks Sarah's jams and tarts,
    puts her quilts and his carvings in the back
    with the boy's writings, and the two depart.
    Clark plays mule.  Dibny sets down Bryan's jack
    and marvels.

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