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       A Verse Narrative by Michael E. Mautner

Smallville Agonistes, Superman Unbound


    Comes a note for the widow Kent
    one day in the mail: Dudley Bryan,
    from the road, proposing again.  He fails.
    All men are snake oil salesmen, she supposes,
    in their deepest hearts, but most men mature,
    get themselves jobs, and learn the finer arts.
    Not Dudley.  A teller of fortunes
    was all he was, and who had need for such?
    For all his charm, his "At your service,"
    he'd never pushed a plough before
    and, at the mere mention, he tore
    out of town before the next sundown,
    he and Dibny in that rickety cart.
    Like of him wouldn't have her hand --
    she wasn't that lonely a woman.
    When he writes, she writes back -- the polite
    thing to do -- but she'll expose his schemes
    if he comes back, tell the sheriff too!
    TODAY'S LETTER relates a scam
    for the ages, but he won't likely
    pass it on to future sages.

          He writes of trying to exploit
          the various consistencies of oil
          at a trade show in Oklahoma.
          He had Pete Ross set up a table
          and put a rack of test tubes on it.
          Each one had some black liquid in it,
          and the challenge posed the wildcatters
          via the Prof.'s able pitch was this:

          --    Deposit two bits with us
                (to defray our costs, of course),
                look at the tubes and tell the source,
                tell which of this region's scattered
                richness-plots it came from -- By shade!
                By instinct!  From the mere texture!
                Post-inspection, the best guesser
                will be hailed, labeled a rigger
                of distinction, and my bosses,
                The Board of the Oil Institute
                and its prestigious Chairman,
                Mr. Martin Luther himself,
                will mail you a share of their wealth,
                most generous, I assure you.
                Have we any takers?

          The man named "Digger"
          knew the Prof. for a faker.
          After a time, and great losses
          on the part of his fellows,
          he stepped up and accepted.
          One eye shut, he inspected
          the tube with the oil so smooth
          if you put your index finger
          in it, it would come up clean,
          then he yanked another from the rack,
          tipped his mean old head way, way back,
          drank it all up and said,
          "Best doggone maple syrup
           I ever tasted!"  Then Digger heaved
          a hearty laugh.  The crowd
          was not so pleased.

          Fact he had to leave town on a rail,
          tarred and feathered, didn't bother the Prof.
          He'd already sent Pete off with a pail
          full of what they'd fleeced off the locals;
          he had the last laugh on them yokels.

    Sarah laughs so hard it hurts.
    She can't seem to stop, either,
    though it betrays a lack of worth
    on her part.  Hardly proper
    to answer sin with fits of mirth,
    her Calvinist forbears
    would tell her.  Whether they speak
    for God, no-one has ever been sure;
    still, she listens.  She would be pure.
    Sarah trills her lips and locks her cheeks
    and holds her breath until her face
    paints itself the pink shade of shame.
    Fighting Satan so takes its toll:
    Mirth, his canker, is stifled, but rage
    becomes the child of mirth -- at her age
    getting angry is easier
    than exerting full self-control
    -- a child she's hard pressed to abort,
    though the Devil may take her soul
    if she does not.  So her daddy taught.
    She stands, letting her taut hand
    drop the letter to the floor,
    then she runs out the door
    and bursts on the porch
    into silent tears.
    The chill of late winter stings
    the trickle under her eyes;
    feels like it could sear her skin
    all by itself.  Can cold burn?
    It should come as no surprise
    on this particular New Year.
    Midnight nears.  Nineteen Thirty-Seven
    is about to turn when the breeze blows
    Dudley's note out the window, eases
    it down onto the coat of snow
    that's making the world an icy slab,
    making the ground under Sarah's feet
    hard and wet with sleet, and as slick
    as the walkway at Ten Downing Street
    where, this coming fall, Neville Chamberlain,
    that dapper, well-meaning Englishman,
    will tell how at Munich he took a stab
    at that vague target: 'Honorable Peace'.
    "Peace in our time," he'll squeak to the crowd
    and wave a famous sheet of paper peace.
    Nineteen Thirty-Eight is to be the year
    when, Prudence cowed by Fear, vain tears
    will drown the world.  Sarah goes back in,
    sits down, and makes a note to herself
    to leave Dudley Bryan wondering.
    There will be no answering this one.

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