This is a story about a man known only as “The Reader.” No one knows where he came from. And he don’t know where he’s going. That’s the conjecture, anyway.
He is tall. And skinny. And always dressed in a seersucker suit; dusty trousers and jacket, with a white shirt and panama hat to match. He is Boss Hogg’s antipode. The peroxided poltergeist of Reverend Henry Kane. Or a Burmese George Orwell in velcro buddies.
His face is never not consumed by some battered book. The Thread That Runs So True for the eighth time. Or maybe the fourth volume of the scandalous Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy.
He’s just there. Day or night. Summer or winter. Sometimes with an umbrella. Always with ancient binoculars dangling from his neck. His wirey gait navigates the ghosts of Skoal cans and Red Man pouches along the graveled shoulders of Dixie Highway.
This was the path paved by refugees from the South between the First World War and Vietnam. The final stop before Mason’s and Dixon’s line is Covington, Kentucky, scorned by the fancier generations as Scuvington.
The Reader might appear anywhere between there and ten miles south in Elsmere. Or Smellsmere. Or Hellsmere, where the town’s grandiose Stars and Stripes flap incessantly against a pole outside the police station. Just spitting distance from the old Paul Lawrence Dunbar Colored School, the Mary Smith Black cemetery, and the old Po’ Folks family restaurant.
On a late Kentucky summer night, the seersuckered Reader was passing by the police station’s Old Glory. His binoculars tucked under a bootleg copy of Thomas Merton’s trappist diaries. Or maybe it was The Rum Diary. When the flap against the pole ceased.
The Reader, peering over pages through his binoculars, watched a motley handful of teenagers methodically lower the gargantuan banner. Their pants drooped and chains glistened from their back pockets. The hair was painful. Knotted. Spiked. Unkept. And, sleeveless, torn shirttails testified their profane existence. They were young, but their tattoos already looked faded in the night’s floodlights.
He watched as they wadded the flag like a snotty Kleenex and brandished lighters from the deep wells of their dirty pants. They incinerated Hellsmere’s hugest American flag right there on the front steps of the police station. An orchestra of grinding, punctuated by the rhythmic click-clacks of skateboard wheels on sidewalk cracks, serenaded the smokey flames.
Thirteen red and white stripes flying
One for skin and one for dying
We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn
We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn
As the assailants fled, the Reader returned to “At Shaft Eleven” or some other essay in his decrepit copy of Folks from Dixie. And he resumed his ambles to somewhere.
The Reader’s eyes rarely lifted from the words on his browned pages. The Samhain at the police station was an exceptional occasion. But another came soon enough.
After a deep purple sunset’s assimilation by Florence Y’all on a September evening, The Reader once again raised his binoculars beyond his book. Across from the old Bonanza, in a poorly constructed hillside parking lot, he witnessed a 1984 rose-colored Buick Skylark encircled by Hellsmere police cars. But, this wasn’t Hellsmere; it was one of several purgatories, somewhere in between there and Scuvington.
He recognized the dirty pants and sadistic hair of teenagers pressed against the wall of the old sweeper shop. Their eyes were crazed. Some smirked. Others stared at the vacant Bonanza. The Skylark’s opened trunk betrayed an incredible number of skateboards. Scratched, chipped, and cracked. He watched as police rifled through the contents of the car to exhume a pair of black binoculars from the back seat.
The Reader moved closer and heard the teenagers’ interrogator rhetorically demand, “What do you expect me to do when I see a bunch of teenagers driving down Dixie Highway at night with binoculars?!” The kid with the darker skin squinted brown eyes at The Reader. “Yo, that dude always has binoculars and you’re not feeling him up.”
The Reader’s lungs emptied with a giant suck of air as the invisible wall around him crumbled. No longer a rumored apparition, he was seen. He was real. And the Hellsmere police, for the first instance, were obliged to acknowledge his existence. Yes, that dude, The Reader, did indeed have binoculars. And he roamed freely, aimlessly.
He stood there. Uncomfortable. Anxious. With no book to mask his identity. One of the Hellsmere police, the one with stars and bars tattooed on his forearm, approached him. “Listen sir. We’re going to let these kids go for now. As we’re sure you aware, these kinds of kids have no respect for our town’s citizens and law enforcement. We don’t know who it was, but somebody set our flag on fire a few weeks ago.”
“I’m aware,” replied The Reader. And he ambled off, with his wirey gate, down the graveled shoulder of Dixie Highway. And thumbed to the last chapters of the real Uncle Tom’s autobiography. Or maybe it was the tattered mimeograph of Fredy Perlman’s Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! he rescued from the side of the road.