The Country/The Country

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21. 'He's Coming Here'

The next day he walked back to the square, but avoided the usual route on Pike Street that took him past the Dormands and their dogs.

In the square he made his customary surreptitious pass by the Universal Church and its black message board starred with white letters arranged in some manner intended to bring comfort and enlightenment, or maybe a soft-sell invite, to those who passed by. To lure the occasional new customer in for a Sunday dose of well-meaning comfort and quiet talk, attracted by the kindly wisdom of these words.

“Somehow,” the board observed -- Keel’s mind scanning the words on a casual walk-by -- “light and love shine through the dark.”

Did the message board really say that? The words struck him as a response to his own pessimistic state of mind.

He would have stopped and gone back to read them again, but that was impossible given that the idea of possible surveillance was now always with him. Keel the actor for unseen eyes. He would find himself ridiculous if he wasn’t, also, afraid.

He shot quick glances ahead, across the street: if anyone else was likely to encounter the sign he could read their reactions. But, big surprise, no pedestrians. Up ahead, an aging couple of a stoutish build were leaving the General Market and heading toward a berth in the parking lot. They seemed to fall forward together, then right themselves just in time to transfer the momentum to the opposite leg. It hardly counted as walking. He did not see anyone likely to be passing the church.

Who knew what the sign said when anyone else perceived its letters? This, he knew from his undergraduate studies, was called “the problem of other minds.” We say we are seeing the same thing, but how does one mind really know what another mind is perceiving?

If he could find a public phone, he could call the nooz-sheet or the TV station to tip them, anonymously, to check the message board in Broad Street Square again. But he couldn’t, and of course it was a stupid idea. The nooz-guy would not read the sign the way he did. Maybe, just possibly, the message board was sending ‘instructions’ to (or even from) the Kevvens. Coded, of course. Words -- ‘light’ and ‘love’ -- could stand for something else. They could mean anything.

He shook his head. He was thinking nonsense.

Inside the General Market he ignored the overloaded aisles of “self-health” remedies, forgot what items he was running short of, and drifted over to the rack of late nooz-sheets and periodicals. The news-sheets all carried variations of the same block-type headlines.

PEGASSO DUE HERE TUESDAY

The story had evidently broken. The young woman (he did not know her name) said so the night before, and Mrs. Nathan had prepared him for it. But now the day of arrival had received both its baptism and confirmation in print.

As he knew from the networks’ Voting Days coverage, the Pegasso campaign was notorious for not sharing its appearance schedule, creating through its secrecy the ambience of an unexpected holiday atmosphere when the buses rolled in, the trucks, the motorcycles -- the noise, the fuss. Bikes gunning their engines, trucks blaring their horn, guys throwing firecrackers out the windows of the vehicles, hooting at women on the street, helicopters and planes overhead pulling campaign signs. Lasers would sweep the sky after dark. Fireworks explode.

At least those were the rumors. The campaign -- as shown by the late-arriving nooz cameras (kept at bay until the following day) -- set up tents on public grounds, the most prominent place in town. Amplifiers would play music, the popular commercial sort, sometimes the songs came from ten years before, sometimes twenty, sometimes even older; all of them deemed popular with ‘the people.’ Large flat screens would show campaign ads, cycling the same half dozen for hours. All of them showing moments from rallies in which the voice of Karol Pegasso would be heard hammering home his theme of “change.” Images of people applauding, standing, clapping their hands wildly, or simply shaking with ecstasy. Images of the aspect of the candidate supporters were calling “Mr. Big,” his appendages lashing cruel blows through the innocent air.

But none of the images ever showing the man complete. And never, up-close, full face on. They showed him closer in profile, but not head on. They showed him at some remove, shouting and gesticulating. Or with aides or supporters, wildly cheering uncontrollable supporters, standing between the camera angle and the full person of Mr. Big, the man entire. The screens knew his parts, but not the whole. He had thick wavy hair, broad shoulders, muscular limbs, pale skin, eyes that appeared to be dark but were never probed since no camera was permitted to hold its aperture steadily on the man’s face. Something always interfered. The candidate turned abruptly to his left or his right. An aide rushed in his direction, waving a page that contained a new pledge of support, to step in front of the camera.

The probing eye withdrew to scan the crowd, the awe in their faces, the ecstasy of their movements, their transport. The flags waving in their excited hands.

Their portraits of a man no one knew. The face of a man they worshiped but saw only from a distance. No one was up close and personal with Pig.

Keel knew what would happen, now that word was out about the Pegasso campaign’s imminent arrival. The storm blast of rumor, anticipation, then electronically mediated presence when the gossip was suddenly confirmed and people began turning on their TVs and devices. Big screens readied for insertion into picture windows on Main Street to show excited live-mike talkers with the news of the location, the time, and then the “event” already underway. The ripple of self-congratulation flowing through pockets of gathered supporters, standing outdoors to stare at the screens, or in workplaces in the break rooms, in the schools, the city councils; large screens wheeled on smooth or squeaky-wheeled carts into the lobbies of General Markets so that excited shoppers could share in the excited round of fervent whispers.

‘I knew it! I told you he was coming! I got the word two days ago!’

If you were a true devotee of Mr. Big you always ‘got the word’ in person, from some other human being of your acquaintance. People knew how it worked; the media had already covered this much-remarked phenomenon. You didn’t read about it or hear about it on TV. The ‘word’ was unmediated. The truth spread by word of mouth.

Pig was the people’s news. So the people knew it before the media did. Before the elites did: government, universities, editors, intellectuals, boardrooms.

Pig was the people’s candidate. And what did the people want? They wanted “change.”

But this time the news had openly broken ahead of the event, two whole days ahead of the leading candidate’s arrival for Voting Day in Monro. Why? Keel wondered. What happened? Maybe the campaign was changing tactics. Now that the vote was as good as won, Pegasso’s people could afford to behave more conventionally, assume the robes of the establishment.

Or, the thought quietly occurred (brushing the back of his head with the lightness of a feathered wing,) had word actually ‘leaked?’

Suddenly, Keel knew. The local nooz-sheets had the story because someone had told them. Who could that someone possibly be?

Mrs. Nathan?

The caller ID on his phone when he got back to his house showed a Monro number that looked familiar though he could not imagine why. He felt he had dialed it himself.

When the phone rang with the same ID showing in the window, he picked up the receiver and said, “Keel.”

“Mr. Keel?” A woman’s voice; that was the first surprise.

And not the woman who had driven him to the old fairgrounds and told him to be prepared.

“Yes.” As he has just admitted.

“It’s Marga Dormand. The animal control officer.”

“Yes?”

He could not hide his surprise. What was this? An approach from the house of Dormand?

“Hello, Miz Dormand,” he added quickly. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m calling about the dog you were interested in.”

A second, even bigger surprise. They were coming faster now.

He stopped himself from demanding, “what dog?” and told himself to listen. What had the woman with the triangular ear-stud told him? ‘You can recognize voices, can’t you?’

He recognized Magda Dormand’s voice, but there was something new in its tone. This was not a public servant dealing with a complaint. And since he had not expressed interest in any dog -- he pitied them, yes, but that was all -- then this imaginary ‘interest’ was clearly a ruse. A pretext. Did she fear someone was listening in?

“Yes,” he replied, “cute little fellow.” Was that the sort of thing one said?

“I’ll tell you what,” she said, in the forced brightness of her ‘different’ voice. “I have to be at Broad Street later today. How about I drop him off for you after that? Save you the trip.”

“I won’t be home,” he replied quickly. If she was worried about being surveilled, shouldn’t he too?

He said the first thing that occurred to him.

“I volunteer at the library. You know the branch on Broad Street? Why don’t you meet me there in the parking lot? What’s a good time for you? Around five o’clock? I’ll be free then.”

A hesitation. “Yes. All right. That will work. See you later, then, Mr. Keel. Five o’clock.”

“Good...” What else should he say? “And thank you.”

He had learned these rules from observing the Kevvens. Don’t give out information unnecessarily. Magda Dormand already knew his name; there was no need for her to know his address. Assume that somebody may be watching; listening.

If the woman had to make up a story about a dog in order to have a private conversation with him... well, maybe she was being overly cautious. Maybe she had worries of her own to hide. But her paranoia -- her hairy dog story -- awakened his own.

Yet she had told him something important before, that the people meeting at the Dormands’ house were planning something. Maybe he could get her to tell him what.

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