“My, my; ain’t he a strange-looking fella,” my Gran whispered to Ma. I looked too, and he seemed pretty normal to me, ‘cept for the dark hair and the way he walked. “Curious gait, don’t he,” Ma agreed with Gran. It’s not that he walked or looked exceptionally quizzically, but the only thing to feed into the rumor mill and gossip well this week was a two-headed snake young Sam Bailey caught playing near Miller’s Pond, and that wasn’t much for the ladies to chew on.
Here in Albion, we have a few different means of currency and trade. First, monetary. Self-explanatory, really. Pa buys a horse at the livery and hands over however much it’s worth, in dollars. Next, trade and barter. A casserole is delivered to your doorstep, you send it back full of another casserole or a salad of some type. (Not a greens salad, mind you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Jell-O or a heartier salad is a better way to say you care.) Finally, information. We have a couple of cafes that the regulars have been haunting for years, where everybody goes to collect and peddle the best stories and juicy bits they have to offer.
The best thing I heard this year was about Jimmy Duncan and some other Seniors ‘decorating’ the water tower. They were being safe and using ropes while scaling and descending, but they got caught by a Deputy in the act. (Seniors do it every year, but defacing public property isn’t technically allowed. The town turns a blind eye, but the state has their eyes peeled, especially on a slow patrol night.) Well, Jimmy was fifteen feet from the ground when Deputy McDermott spotted him. The Deputy turned on his lights and whooped, causing Jimmy to try and descend too rapidly. The ladder ended ten feet from the ground, and the others, in haste not to get booked, took the wooden ladder with them, leaving Jimmy with just his rope. He jumped, but the rope got tangled at the top, so he got the wind knocked out of him and dangled helplessly, a couple of feet above the ground, while the others watched and snickered from the shadows and the Deputy radioed local dispatch. He spent a night in the clink and got a dressing down from his old man. The police chief figured that would be enough punishment for the kid, so the town didn’t file charges.
Oh, yeah. Present events. The tall, dark-haired stranger. We don’t get many new people in town. Most of the turnover is from folks having kids or adopting. My cousin Cecilia is originally from Des Moines, and my uncle Fred came from Tulsa. They were both adopted as young’uns. People don’t usually arrive in Albion by accident. Kids go to college and come back here after a while, but the average age around town is middle age. This new guy, with the funny walk, has everybody astir.
He’s already been cornered by the mayor, the police chief, and a group of ranking townsfolk. Word is he’s from Illinois and moved here for a job. The rumor mill has already worked out that he's scouting talent for a startup, and the big boxes in the trunk of his car indicate he has a cache of guns and ammunition, AV equipment, or drones. My money’s on the latter two, but the more boisterous members of society think he’s going to set up a compound on one of the vacant farmsteads outside of town.
I decided to let cooler heads prevail and went to talk to him myself. I found out from my friend at the front desk of his hotel that he had gone to his room for a while, so I left a message for him with her and went home for a late lunch. My phone rang as I was feeding the chickens, so I headed back to town to see if I could catch the stranger, and figure him out for myself. As my friend had recommended, he sat in the back corner of a nice restaurant on the main street through town. He looked tired but seemed to perk up when he saw me walking his way. “May I join you?” I asked. He nodded and motioned to the other bench of the booth. “You’ve caused quite a stir around town,” I observed. He snorted and shifted in his seat. “Where I’m from, people are friendly and nosey, too. I’m just not used to being the subject at hand.” Realizing what he had just said, he tried to backpedal, but I just chuckled. “Don’t worry. I know how this town operates. You don’t grow up in a place like this and not realize novelty has social value. Speaking of, did you hear about the—," I was cut short by his smirk. “If I hear that story about the two-headed snake again, I might just go poking around Miller Pond myself.” “So, you’ve been oriented, have you?” said I, brushing back the hair that had fallen too close to my eye. “And then some,” he returned. His food arrived, and he politely asked me if I wanted anything. I graciously accepted and ordered a water, burger, and fries. He was going to wait for my food too, but I urged him to eat. “They’re really best warm. Ma Haskie has the best fare in town,” I said, dropping my voice several decibels for the last part. “If brought up in conversation, I will deny I ever said that.” He smiled and took a good bite of his burger.
He finished his food shortly before mine arrived, so he ordered a sundae. Then, I began to get his story. “I came out here to work with the farming community. Research has shown that your town is, statistically, the least autonomic, technologically, and the oldest in the country,” he stated, “and getting older by the year.” I grimaced, and he looked at me nervously.
I finished chewing and swallowed. “It’s not the stats. I agree, they are accurate. But I hate the idea of Albion becoming a ghost town, surrounded by fields tended by multi-national agricultural drone pilots.”
“That’s just it! I want to put the technology in the hands of those who already live on and tend the land.” A picture of old Charlie Parker learning to use a drone and automated agriculture almost caused me to inhale a fry. He reached over and slapped my back as I sloppily drank some water between raspy coughs. I told him what had caused my fit, and he grinned. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. In my drives around your county, the number of Farmall’s and other mid-century equipment really did confound me, but if slices of heaven like these want to survive to the middle of this century it’s time they started using technology from this century.”
“You’ve got my vote. But I’m just a layperson in this hamlet. My Pa’s got some sway, but even he can’t influence everyone.” “Well then, I’ll just have to use novelty to my advantage. It’s not every day you’re the hottest ticket in town.”
I grinned, and he made the peculiar slurping gurgle a malt makes, using his drink straw to vacuum the last of the Sunday from the tall glass. “One last thing. More for my Ma and Gran than anyone else.” “Oh?” he said, questioningly. “How do I put this…what’s up with your legs?”
Caught slightly off-guard, he snorted and some of the ice cream appeared in one nostril. He hurriedly wiped it away.
“You want the truth first, or something more amusing for the town to mull over?”
“Let’s go with the truth.”
“I was born with bowlegs.”
“Huh, alright then. How about some stronger tea?”
He smiled, contemplating his options. “I fell out of a third-story window, trying to save a litter of kittens from a house fire.”
“That seems a little thin, but I’ll work with it.”
He grinned, and I grinned back.
The restaurant was starting to fill up, so he paid the bill and we walked out into the cool, mid-summer night air.
“The night’s still young, and I don’t care much for HBO. What is there to do around here? If you don’t mind spending a little more time together, of course.”
I smiled. “Come on!” Grabbing his hand and trotting towards the other side of the square.