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Visible Stars | Fiction



Artist Winsor McCay had an uncanny talent for sketching figures full of life and motion in just a few strokes. Could his pen conjure for another man the life he should have had?



Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life

by Michaela Roessner



ONE

The length of the bar took just a few broad pen strokes to render. The long mirror behind it was inadequate to the task of making the narrow, cramped railway station beer hall appear larger, more like the expensive taverns in uptown Chillicothe.

Just as well, for the clientele was meager too. Folks for whom Chillicothe was the final destination caught a coach into town as soon as they disembarked. Those leaving the town arrived at the station with barely enough time to check their baggage and depart. Through the saloon window Mac could see them bustling about in the chill March air.

The bar was scattered lightly with wayfarers like Mac, folks stranded for an hour or so waiting for a connecting train. Far better to tarry warm, surrounded by the yeast-and-hops smell of half-emptied steins, the rich odors of sausages, bread and pickled herring wafting from the free lunch cage.

Mac looked from the bar to the piece of paper before him and slashed in diagonal lines to suggest the mirror’s reflective quality. Then he lightly sketched himself in behind the strokes; a regular bourgeois leprechaun — pen raised and poised to draw, dapper suit smartly draped onto his small tidy frame, a quizzical expression neatly tucked onto pixie features.

He glanced at the drawing, then restlessly shuffled the papers beneath it — the five sketches he’d already completed since seeking refuge here from the cold spring outside. Flipping finally, as he’d been doing over and over again, to the newspaper which lay beneath.

To this new thing; a strip of pictures — wonderful, wonderful pictures, such as he himself might draw. Such as he had been imagining and preparing for the last five years. But not drawn by him. These were created by a man named Outcault. The drawings were entitled The Yellow Kid.

Mac’s heart was pitted with envy and desire. His distress was so great that it interrupted his ceaseless, habitual drawing. The year was 1896, and he knew that no one else understood what a miracle and a turning point this was, four years before the great “Turn of the Century” everyone else was yammering about.

He riffled the sketches back in place on top of the newspaper, irritated at his self-indulgent jealousy, then looked critically at the drawing he’d been working on. It still seemed sparse.

He glanced up again. The far end of the mirror just barely caught the image of the free lunch cage behind him. Most of the saloon’s other customers — such as they were — lined up there, loading plates from its bounty of pickled herring, liverwurst and other sausages, bread and hard-boiled eggs. It was understood that the spread was designed as much to stimulate thirst as to satisfy hunger.

Mac smiled as an image occurred to him: Dimly behind the veiling reflection a line of stalwart men crawled groaning through a desert of salty provender, wailing their way past dry crackers, pickles and bratwurst in a Sisyphean attempt to reach tall cool steins of ale, stout and beer. The mugs, however, wore seagulls’ wings. They flitted, soared and dove just beyond the grasp of the thirsty men. In desperation the miserable fellows turned to the salty foods around them, as a shipwrecked man will at last drink even seawater. But now the food turned fickle too, and bound away on kangaroo and gazelle legs.

Would the concept work? Mac wanted to convey the idea as a ghostly tableau, submerged like a dream behind the surface of the long mirror, haunting the few drinkers bellied up, like himself, to the bar. But by preserving the mirror’s refractive, elusive quality he wouldn’t be able to render the image in the detail it deserved; the picture would be too vague. His comrades at the Masonic lodge, with their finely honed taste for symbol and mystery, might grasp it. But the average newspaper reader? No.

A loud gasp from behind broke Mac’s scribbling reverie. He looked up to see a movement in the mirror before him: A sausage link arced through the air, reached an admirable altitude, then plunged out of sight below the lower edge of the mirror. Then a pickle mysteriously launched; a loaf of bread; two hard-boiled eggs; three pickled herrings; a veritable fireworks display of food. Mac’s fantasy had come to life.

Mac’s eyes, reflected in the mirror as he stared, resembled the hard-boiled eggs. A shiver like an electric current coursed up and down his spine, followed by a sensation like an empty whistling wind — the swift hollow feeling of déjà vu. He remembered in an instant all that his Masonic fellows and Grandmasters had ever told him about the ability of the power of thought to attain reality.

The electric current, the whistling wind, the transcendent moment evaporated as Mac heard more gasps at his back, then cries of alarm. In the mirror before him comestibles still bounded and frolicked. He spun around on the bar stool.

The other bar patrons were standing back aghast from a cyclone of commotion at the bar cage.

A greedy young man had evidently overloaded his plate. Items of food were rolling off it. In dropping down to catch the overflow before it hit the floor he had crashed into the bar cage, causing the edibles there to become upwardly propelled. As he scrambled after this second batch he bumped into a fellow diner, causing yet another egg to take wing without benefit of hatching proper equipage. Hoarsely shouting, the clumsy youth snatched it out of the air and thrust it back onto its nest-plate, colliding with the lunch cage again.

This time a chain of Polish sausages snaked up and away. The bumbling maniac grabbed the last link, snapping the meaty string like a whip around a plummeting pickle, then depositing it on another diner’s platter. That fellow, a stout man embrined in bourboned melancholy, looked down and said mournfully, “But I don’t like pickles.”

“My apologies, my good man. I’d noticed a resemblance so I thought it was yours,” the troublemaker wheezed as he threw himself after a cracker cartwheeling across a table, thus freeing himself from disastrous proximity to the free lunch cage. “As soon as I get a free hand I’ll come back and rectify matters.”

Mac realized he’d been holding his breath and began to let it out in relief. Prematurely . . . for all the young man had done was broaden his field of operations.

The miscreant collided into tables, sending new articles from his own plate into orbit. The other bar patrons clutched their food and drinks to themselves and scuttled away from his progress.

Without thinking Mac reached for a fresh sheath of pages. His pen flew across paper. Out of the corner of one eye he saw the barkeep, initially as paralyzed as the rest of the room, hustle red-faced around the back of the bar and head purposefully toward the one-man catastrophe.

Who by then was meandering about the far end of the saloon near the windows, still executing amazing feats of contortion in his quest to control the rain of food. He had already richocheted into the hanging slate advertising the daily specials. Chalk sticks and an eraser joined the more appetizing airborne fare. People outside were gathering to stare through the windows.

Over near the wall sat the establishment’s sole female patron; a sour woman Mac guessed to be a retired boarding house landlady. Horror froze her features as she watched the one-man disaster bear down haphazardly but steadily upon her. She appeared to be paralyzed; only her eyes moved as they traced the course of a particularly large, fat mackerel spiralling downward, downward, directly towards her.

Two inches short of her face a brisk hand extricated it from the air and plopped it back on the plate it had escaped from. “A thousand pardons, madam. Of course I would never allow this brash fish to sully your delicate personage,” the youth rasped. With an enormous flourish he snatched his derby from his head with the hand not clutching his plate and bowed low, sweeping the hat behind him, revealing a full head of hair corn-silk light and fine.

The woman didn’t acknowledge the courtesy. Her pasty face resembled the dead fish she’d been rescued from. Once again only her eyes moved. This time they followed the course of a baked potato as it descended behind the maniac. The youth continued to gaze at her face, but behind him his hat twitched two inches to the left; the potato fell into it tidily. The woman, Mac, and the entire room breathed a sigh of relief.

The fellow turned back towards the bar. Trembling, he delicately set the laden plate on the edge of a nearby table and extricated the potato from his hat.

In that brief moment of quiet Mac finally got a good look at him. The bumbler was of average height with a strong bone structure, but he was not as substantially fleshed as he might have been. In profile the fellow looked to have a broad, pleasant face; not unhandsome except for the knobby, indistinct shape of his nose.

Just then the barkeep reached the fellow. He grabbed hold of the adventurer’s lapel, pulling him around. Full face, the bungler proved to be even younger. He was just an overgrown kid.

“Are you daft?” the saloonkeeper shouted in the unfortunate’s face. “What ails you to carry on like that?”

The boy raised his hands and tried to back away. “Most felicitous proprietor,” he cawed, his voice hoarse as any raven’s. “Is indeed the fault all mine? If you restrained yourself from the excess enthusiasm of overwaxing these fine floors perhaps a fellow could negotiate them safely.”

Curious at the ruckus, people crowded in at the door, spilling into the bar.

“And if your provender was not so excellent and bountiful, would I have overladen my plate? Oops!”

The barkeep had backed him up to the overhanging platter, which flipped over. The boy ducked away and down just in time to catch the china before it crashed to the floor, but all the food had lofted upward once again, achieving admirable height.

“Great Godfrey Daniel!” brayed the youth, and scrambled after. Mac’s pen sprang back to life.

The boy now had a full crowd at the door to threaten. But fate was merciful. One by one the youth shepherded the errant objects back to the plate, all but three: A dinner roll shot away to the left, a bratwurst to the right, and an egg directly above him. The bartender slid one of the heavy maple chairs at him; whether to help him or trip him, Mac couldn’t tell.

The young fellow hopped onto the chair’s seat and looked up helplessly. He still clutched the plate, so even if he could grab the egg and one of the other two victuals, it would be too late for the third. A sharply drawn gasp from all present tugged at the walls. The boy’s face sagged with despair. The bratwurst and roll kept arcing away. The egg began to descend.

Suddenly the plate was perched on the derby. The youth’s arms shot straight out right and left, grabbing the sausage and bread at the exact instant the egg nestled into its proper place on the plate. A moment of stunned silence, then the room erupted into cheers, applause, whistles and stamping feet.

The boy stepped elegantly down from the chair, plate still balanced on hat. “Aaaah yas. Thank you, thank you good people,” he snored graciously. He opened his coat and pulled handbills from an inner pocket. “You have just witnessed a performance by Bill Duke, most royal of jugglers. Majestic as my abilities are, I’m forced by honest modesty to say that I am but one of a troupe of similarly stellar artists who make up the Fabulous Harry McSneed Travelling Burlesque Show. We will be performing in your fair township tonight, should you care to be entertained and delighted by even greater feats of prowess, and to weep and laugh to excess at our excellent thespian fare.”

By now the barkeep was frowning again. The lad coughed and added, “And speaking of most excellent fare, it would have been impossible for me to have accomplished the energetic display you just observed without the sustenance of this establishment’s most excellent food and drink.”

The saloonkeeper smiled behind his walrus moustache as some of the crowd drifted further in and perched at tables and barstools, talking among themselves as they examined the handbills. The bartender hurried around to the other side of the bar to take advantage of his new customers.

The boy meandered through the throng, making sure that everyone received a flyer. Now and then he reached up to the plate on his head to grab a quick bite of pickle or sausage. In spite of his promotion of the beerhall’s food and drink, he’d obviously had no time to eat before launching into his promotional stunt.

Mac turned back to his drawings. Pages and pages of lines of motion: one frantic curve suggested an arm reaching for a spiralling pickle. Another a dive for a herring plummeting to the floor. Mac buried himself in the papers, fleshing out the images with elaborate pen strokes. He chuckled to himself as in one sketch of tumbling chalk and erasers he elaborated the chalk stubs writing cryptic messages and symbols in the air as they flew, the juggler trying to erase them as he followed behind.


TWO

“Excuse me, my good fellow. You seem to be laboring so diligently there. A hardworking businessman such as yourself could surely use the release of an evening’s pleasant, harmless, yet educational and thrilling diversion.”

Mac turned and looked up into the face of his model. Modulated to conversational levels, the boy’s voice lost much of its abrasiveness and was surprisingly pleasant to the ear, like the rusty purr of an old tomcat. He held out a flyer to Mac, smiling with an open, outgoing charm. But something behind the goodnatured grin was hard and his eyes were guarded.

Mac smiled back and reached for the proffered handbill. “I wish I could see your act. I’m just waiting here for a connecting train to Logan. By any chance will your troupe be performing in Cincinnati?”

The youth didn’t answer. He was staring over Mac’s shoulder at the sketches spread along the bar. “Are those me?” he whispered.

Mac nodded.

“May I look at them?”

Mac blushed. He pushed the drawings together and slid them toward the boy.

With impeccable grace the youngster perched on the stool next to Mac and slid the plate from the top of his hat. Up close the derby proved to be worn and shabby, of the slightly flattened style, that while probably of excellent design for the bearing of platters, always looked too small on a wearer’s head.

The boy shuffled the drawings back and forth. “Aaah yas, aaah yas,” he chuckled sonorously when he reached the cartoon of the boarding-woman’s encounter with the mackerel. Mac had captured to perfection the way the woman’s features mimicked the dead, astonished expression of the fish. The juggler continued to browse through the sketches. When he finally looked up again something had changed. He seemed younger. It was the eyes. They had dropped their guard, reflecting awe and wonder.

The boy returned Mac’s gaze, looking the diminutive artist’s form up and down with respect.

“My good man, these are spectacular.” He jumped off the stool and thrust out his hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am William Claude Dukinfield, juggler extraordinaire. But all my friends call me Whitey, as befits my tonsorial equipage.” He doffed his hat and gestured to his cornsilk hair.

Mac didn’t climb down from his own perch. Standing, he would have felt dwarfed by this overgrown boy. But he grinned and clasped the juggler’s hand, noticing as he did how chafed and scarred it was. “Zenas Winsor McCay,” he replied in kind. “Newspaper illustrator extraordinaire on assignment for the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. Everyone calls me Mac . . . from my last name,” he finished lamely. He couldn’t keep up with the youngster’s verbal flair.

Whitey didn’t seem to notice. He had turned back to the drawings with shining eyes. “How, how . . . ? To conjure these up while I juggled, to draw so fast, so exactly right . . . it has all the appearances of magic.”

Mac shrugged. “No more so than your performance.” He blushed. “It just comes from working at it all the time. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw. I can’t stop myself. Eventually all that practice adds up to a kind of skill. That’s all it is.”

The boy smiled shyly and sat down again. “Just so myself. I taught myself to juggle by trial and error, mostly error. Working away on it over and over and over. I could show you scars on my feet from trying to catch a double cigar box back drop with my toes. My whole act too is nothing but years and years of practice.”

He signalled to the barkeep with a raised index finger. The mustached man nodded and slid him a ginger beer. Whitey caught it deftly and winked at Mac, the cynical showman sliding back into place behind his eyes. “Not a bad bargain, eh? A chance to perform, extra publicity for the troupe, and a free drink and food in the bargain.”

But Mac was thinking about what the boy had said before. Years and years? “Excuse me for asking, but how old are you?”

“Sixteen,” the boy replied. “I’ll turn seventeen next month. Been juggling professionally for nigh on five years. My first engagement was for a churchful of Methodists at the tender age of eleven. The scoundrels didn’t pay me afterwards, so I had to whip around to the back of the church and reimburse myself from their collection plate.”

Mac smiled. “Your proficiency speaks of more experience than five short years.”

Whitey nodded. “Throwing things around while keeping up a line of patter goes back farther than I can remember. Pater Familias hawked produce on the street. He owned a ramshackle cart and a broken down old horse called White Swan. He started taking me around with him to help out when I was three. My first memories are of lofting oranges, apples and quince.”

Mac fondly recalled the costermongers of his childhood; the vendor’s colorful cries and antics drawing attention to their wares. “Housewives must have been drawn like flies to a cute little tyke with an act like that,” he said. “You must have been quite an asset.”

“Yes and no,” Whitely said drily. “I’d get bored with the standard cries that honestly described our merchandise. I was far more attracted by the rococo alliteration possible with more exotic fare.” He began to sing in a soft falsetto that indicated that his voice had not always been so ruinously raspy:

Hey-o, hey-o
Come for our fine fruit-o.
Nothing nicer
Than our fine spices.
You’ve never seen
The likes of our greens —
Basil, borage and burnett
Coriander, cardoon and kale
Rutabaga, rhubarb and runions
Shallots, salsify, saffron and saaaaage.
He drew out the last note.

“Runions aren’t a vegetable,” Mac objected. “Aren’t they a fish?”

Whitey shrugged. “Sounds like onions. The good wives of Philadelphia couldn’t differentiate. But they did get peeved with my father when they ran out of their kitchens only to find that we had none of the afore-sung delicacies. My father would placate them, then give me a thorough drubbing as soon as we rounded the corner.”

“He beat you for that?” Mac exclaimed, appalled. “That’s monstrous!”

Whitey cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t impugn my honest father for such a trifle. Why, I owe much to that capital fellow, such as my lightning reflexes and excellent timing. The old man had a formidable backhand. He lacked the little finger on his left hand; a deprivation he attributed to the Crimean War. A blow with that hand was particularly painful. We would have long conversations . . . or rather, monologues on his part.” Whitey sat sideways to Mac, barely looking at him. “They went something like this:

“ ’Eaven ’elp me, Claude!” Whitey whacked at Mac’s face, striking a hair short of his cheek.

“You’ve a roof over your ’ead.” Whack!

“Food in your gut to make you ’appy.” Whack!

“Yet you carry on something ’ellish.” Whack!

“Would the king be proud of that?” Whack whack whackity whack!

By the end of this soliloquy Whitey had built up a nice rhythm and Mac had stopped flinching. “He was a full-blooded Cockney,” Whitey said, explaining the dropped h’s and reference to the king. “Of course, he actually made contact. Under his tutelage I learned not to duck, or he’d just hit harder the next go-around. I honed my responses to pull back just enough so I was spared the worst of it but he still achieved sufficient satisfaction. A most equitable arrangement for both of us.”

Mac winced more than he had during the demonstration. He eyed the overgrown boy speculatively. “Surely he doesn’t do that anymore?”

“Not for years,” Whitey admitted. “He thrashed me one time too many. I ambushed him one morning from the eaves of our workshed when I was eleven. Dropped a big crate on his head. It knocked him out cold. I lit out. I’ve never been back.”

“Never?”

“Never. My whole life he always called me Claude. I hate the name Claude. He had other unbearable habits as well. For instance . . .” The juggler snarled, turning to look down the length of the bar at the saloon keeper, who was humming an old sentimental tune as he pulled draughts of beer. “The old man loved to sing nostalgic swill like that. Whenever I hear that damnable ditty it’s all I can do not to lose my dinner.”

Mac listened for a moment before he recognized the song. It was one of his father’s favorites, too: “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

“But once you left home, how did you live? How did you survive?”

“By my wits. I slept in a wood-lined hole in the ground for a while. I survived by stealing. Don’t look like that. A man can be justified in stealing. One does what one must to survive. It excuses everything and anything,” the boy said, eyes haunted. Then he recovered with a sardonic grin. “All the while I honed my juggling skills.”

“What about school?”

“Didn’t go,” Whitey said promptly.

Mac smiled. He’d finally caught the boy out. Whitey’s extravagant vocabulary wasn’t something he’d learned on the streets. Mac wondered how much of the youth’s story was a facade of entertaining lies.

Whitey caught the smirk. “I do not exaggerate,” he said with dignity. “I have little need of the repetitive drone of formal education. If I read something but once it is mine. Whenever I feel the need for learning I find books and delve in. I’m particularly fond of Dickens. I believe The Artful Dodger to be one of the great characters of English literature, and a worthy role model.

“In fact,” and his tone became more boasting, “with my freedom from parents and academic institutions, I became such a hero among the youth of Philadelphia that jealous boys spent their hard-earned change to catch trolleys to my neighborhood simply for the honor of beating me up.” Whitey pointed to his lumpen nose. “I don’t know how many times this was broken. It bears noble witness to my fame.” He sipped his ginger beer thoughtfully. “In the future I will probably take up the vice of hard drink so as to explain the condition of my proboscis. I already have a penchant for cigars, when I can afford them.”

“How long did you live in the hole in the ground?” Mac was still dubious.

“Not long,” Whitey conceded. “It was a terribly wintry spring when I ran away, much like this one. I almost froze to death. One night after a heavy rain the walls of my domicile turned to mud and caved in on me. My friends dug me out barely alive the next morning. After that I drifted. I fed myself with ill-got gains from petty thievery and cadging meals at bars such as this.

“Thankfully, every now and then the local constabulary apprehended me and locked me up in the safety, warmth and comfort of the local hoosegow for several days, till they tired of my presence.

“Eventually I took up honest employment working at a pool hall racking cues. My payment was that I was allowed to sleep on the pool tables at night. I practiced my juggling with the house paraphernalia. The habitués were so entertained that they took it upon themselves to teach me billiards. After a few months I became so good that I was appointed the house pool shark.

“For a while I was doing well enough that I could afford to abandon a life of crime. But the chalk dust began to affect my health, already weakened by too many cold nights sleeping out in the elements.

“The time seemed right to pursue my chosen profession. My first job juggling, not counting the cursed Methodists, was at the nearby Norristown amusement park. Between the cost of the trolley fare out and back and the hefty commission the manager paid himself for hiring me, I almost broke even. By then I had chosen the stage persona of a Tramp Juggler so that I could costume myself for almost nothing.” He tipped his shabby hat at Mac.

“With Norristown under my belt I was ready to leave Philadelphia. I held a big benefit performance for myself at the pool hall. I invited not only my friends, but also cops, bartenders, and anyone else who might be happy to see me gone. It was the greatest monetary success I’ve ever experienced, to this day.

“The next morning I left for New York City. I quickly found work in Coney Island.” Whitey interrupted himself. “Did you know that I’ve drowned more than any man alive?”

“No,” said Mac, bewildered.

“Precisely one hundred and sixty eight times,” Whitey said with a solemn face. “The first arcade owner I ran into would only hire me as a juggler if I consented to moonlight at a second occupation between performances. His scheme was thus: whenever business slowed I donned a bathing suit, swam out from the piers in full view and began to ‘drown’ with dramatic ostentation. That and the subsequent rescues always drew large crowds.”

The boy held up his mug of ginger beer in a toast. “The experience left me with an abiding hatred of water. I’ve never touched the stuff since.

“After that I worked at dime museums and flea circuses. At last I happened upon an agent who outfitted burlesque shows for the road. My job is to open for the other routines and act as stand-in if any of the thespians take ill. As you can imagine, I do an excellent ‘Little Nell’.”

Mac strangled at the thought of Whitey dressed in pink ruffles, wigged in golden locks, trying to warp that shark-skin voice into soft, high-pitched simpering.

Even Whitey struggled to keep his face straight. “So, here I am,” he said, recovering.

“Yes, here you are,” Mac said, looking around at the railway beerhall. “But I don’t understand why. Isn’t it a waste of time to send a fellow with your talents all the way out from town to woo this small crowd?”

Whitey took a long sip of ginger beer. “We just arrived ourselves. The rest of the troupe is guarding the stage gear in the baggage area, waiting for the manager to return with a conveyance to take us into town. If, in fact, he does. Managers have a way of disappearing whenever a troupe gets a little ahead in cash receipts — especially when the principals have not been paid for six weeks.” He scowled, then brightened.

“However, Chillicothe is a good sized town, offering splendid prospects. Surely our esteemed manager will not abandon us until sometime further down the road, at one of the smaller venues — Peebles, or Fincastle or Seamus. Perhaps not even till after remunerating us a little for our labors. Anyway, rather than freeze outside like the rest of my associates, I chose to barter my talents for food, drink and warmth in here.”

“What do you mean about your manager disappearing?” Mac asked.

“An honored tradition among the administrative class in burlesque. I’ve been on three abandoned tours so far. Ditched in,” the youth counted on his fingers, “Puxsatawney. Kent. Wheeling.” He shuddered as he said the last, dropped his eyes to study his battered hands. “But enough about me.” The boy gestured at Mac with the handful of sketches. “Tell me, inestimable colleague in the greater league of prestidigitators, more about your own hard road to genius.”

Mac didn’t know how to react to the almost cheerful condemnation of theatrical managers. Surely it was another invention, or at least an exaggeration. No one not engaged in openly criminal activities would be so dishonest, if for no other reason than it made bad business sense.

“Well,” he faltered, trying to think of experiences in common with this fellow artiste of sorts. “Like you, I worked in dime museums. In fact, I still do, on the side. Started out in Detroit at Sudett and Wiggins Wonderland designing flyers and fast-sketching customers’ likenesses. I moved to Chicago to apprentice at the National Printing and Engraving Company. While I was there I did lots of circus posters, and worked the local dime museums on the side.” He blushed. “In fact, that’s where I met my wife, Maude.”

A train whistle shrilled outside, followed by an equally high pitched conductor’s call. “Passengers for Logan, boarding now.”

Mac looked at the boy apologetically. “Gee, I’m sorry, but that’s my train. I’ve got to go.” Mac felt as though he’d cheated the juggler. Whitey had shared so much, and he had given so little. Whitey handed over the drawings wistfully.

“Would you like one to keep?” Mac asked.

The boy’s eyes gleamed in answer. “Really? Which one?”

Mac smiled. “Whichever one you choose.” It didn’t matter to him. As with Whitey’s ability with the written word, once Mac saw something, it was in his mind’s eye for life. Whichever sketch the boy picked, Mac could reproduce it again at will.

Whitey held out the sketch with the eraser and mystic symbol-writing chalk.

Mac was surprised. He’d guessed that the juggler would select the woman and the mackerel. “Why did you pick that one?”

The boy’s answer surprised him even more. Whitey studied the drawing closely. “There’s a certain elegant mysteriousness about it. The sense of one’s future writ on the wind, subject to change, perhaps even by our very selves.” He looked up at Mac with a strange glint in his eye.

The train whistle blew again. Mac packed up his sketches hastily. As he did so the newspaper beneath, with Outcault’s cartoons, slid out and dropped toward the floor. Whitey caught it effortlessly and handed it to Mac with a flourish.

Mac muttered his thanks and shoved the offending paper in with his drawings. From nowhere his jealousy bloomed full again.

Why did it have to be this other man, Outcault, to make the breakthrough that could have been his? Beautiful, imaginative, insightful drawings rendered as serial glimpses of a person’s life — time no longer the moment by moment enslaver, but transcended and escaped from when viewed all at once.

Mac turned. “Whitey, what do you want most in life, what’s your greatest goal . . . to be the most magnificent juggler in the world?”

Whitey drew himself up like a dignified dirigible filling with air. “Of course not. I already am the most magnificent juggler in the world. No, my greatest goal is to become so rich that I can sleep on clean sheets every night.”


THREE

Mac settled himself onto the hard train seat, portfolio balanced on his lap, a handful of blank paper spread out waiting to be drawn on. He was grateful that this last leg of the trip to Logan would be a short one.

He still felt guilty about the inequality of his encounter with Whitey. When he’d left the bar the young juggler was carefully packing the sketch into a battered portmanteau. Whitey had shared his life, albeit with undoubtedly great exaggeration, and all Mac had given in return was an easily reproduced sketch. Even as he thought this Mac’s pen traced again the wild pattern of chalk, arcane symbols, eraser and juggler.

What was it that Whitey had called him? “Inestimable colleague in the greater league of prestidigitators.” Ah yaas, as Whitey himself would say — a member of the brotherhood of sleight-of-hand. Mac hadn’t thought of jugglers that way before, as a sort of magician, but why not? That was one of the realities and one of the illusions of any art: to make the difficult, the near impossible look easy. And eventually, perhaps, Mac considered as his fingers thoughtlessly completed the sketch, to make the difficult actually as effortless as it appeared. Whitey could do it with both words and actions. Mac had only art as his means. Mac had never been cheated out of his pay, had never left one job till he had another, better one lined up. The riskiest, most daring thing Mac had ever done, his single act of defiance and deceit, had been at age nineteen to sneak away from the business college in Ypsilanti his father had sent him to and flee to Detroit, where he apprenticed with an artist and started working the dime museums. This incident, so central to Mac’s self image as the defiant Bohemian, paled beside Whitey’s struggles.

Mac shook his head. His busy, hectic life suddenly seemed torpid, insipid. What was he really but a wholesome, steadily employed family man?

He blushed. A wholesome family man? Even now his wife, Maude, was swelling like a blown rose, waiting the birth of their first child. At nineteen years of age, people took her for a newly pregnant bride. In truth, she and Mac had been married for five years; Mac wooing and hastily wedding her when she’d been a mere child of fourteen. Like a middle-aged woman, Mac had taken to lying about his own age, trimming off a good four years to close the gap between them, hoping not to appear to be such a cradle robber.

So much for the torpid insipidness of his life. Mac shouldn’t have worried about boring Whitey. If he’d been willing to share it, there was darkness enough in his life.

Like Arthur, his angry shadow of a brother. Arthur, less than a year younger than Mac.

Mac was sure he retained at least a ghost of a memory of Arthur and himself as small boys playing together happily. But that had changed as the whole family slowly became aware — Mac, their parents, their sister Jane, and worst of all, Arthur himself — that something was missing from Arthur. It wasn’t his intelligence, nor physical prowess — he towered over Mac. But rather he suffered from some subtle yet terrible incompleteness.

Arthur had spent childhood lapsing further and further into depression and stillness. Only when he reached adolescence did he occasionally reemerge, in great gushing bursts of anger and paranoia.

Mac was his most frequent target. Arthur accused his barely older brother of somehow having stolen his life and taken his place; that their positions and roles had been switched. Sobbing, eyes desperate with fear more than hatred, he would back a cowering Mac into a corner and scream, “Give my life back to me! It’s not yours! You tricked me! Give it back! Please! Please!,” until Jane and their parents dragged him away. Then Arthur would mercifully collapse into a months-long fugue of docility.

Jane told Mac after he’d left for college that Arthur’s silence had become almost complete, broken only for Mac’s infrequent visits. When he did go home, Arthur was not silent. The rages had become overwhelming, the hallucinations and delusions of persecution even more frantic and extreme. Mac never took Maude home with him for a visit. He guessed that it was only a matter of time before his aging parents would be forced to institutionalize his brother.

Mac moodily slid the completed copy into the portfolio and decided to use the next sheet to write his daily letter to Maude. He wouldn’t have wanted to tell Whitey about Arthur. Or about Maude. Just as well to leave his image to reflect his true reality: a regular Joe with a talent for drawing fast and well.


FOUR

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune had sent Mac to Logan to cover a lynching. Two brothers named Erickson had come plundering out of the wilds of Minnesota on an off-and-on crime spree that had lasted since last autumn. Three days earlier they’d been discovered near Logan wintering over on a farm they’d commandeered, eventually murdering the old farmer who owned it. The county sheriff was brother-in-law to the victim. The lawman coincidentally happened to leave on an ice-fishing trip the afternoon the brothers were caught.

The tiny town decided to take its time in dispatching the wayward brothers, relishing its moment of vengeance and capitalizing on the brief notoriety. Although word had gotten out on the wire and eager newsmen were swarming to Logan like lemmings, legal authorities seemed to be having trouble moving swiftly enough to intervene.

The first person Mac saw when he got off the train was his old friend Charlie J. Wuest, a fellow apprentice at the National Printing and Engraving Co., now a reporter/illustrator for The Dayton Gazette. Charlie was also the man who’d gotten Mac into the Masons.

Charlie pumped Mac’s hand up and down like a pump handle the way he always did. “Son-of-a-gun, Mac, I didn’t think I’d get to see you this year till the Order’s annual state meeting.”

Mac good-naturedly bounced along with the force of the handshake. “What are you doing here at the train station, Charlie? I’d have thought you’d be at the scene of the crime and the crime-to-be.”

“I’d like to be. We’d all like to be,” Charlie said. “But the locals are, uh, busy ‘interrogating’ our erstwhile Viking marauders out at the farm, trying to find out the location of all the hidden loot before sending them to kingdom-come. Rumor has it that the brothers aren’t talking. Maybe our boys are secret Masons; think they’ll reincarnate and be able to retrieve their cache in the next lifetime.” Without asking, Charlie hoisted Mac’s carpetbag.

“In the meantime we, the distinguished members of the fourth estate, have been left to cool our heels in this little hamlet, paying the usual momentarily inflated prices for food and drink. There’s not a horse, nay” — Charlie stretched out the word into a whinny and Mac politely laughed — “not even a donkey to be had for transportation. And not a single Loganite will reveal the location of the farm till the time is right, no matter how mightily we bribe them. That’s why I’m down here. I just wired my desk editor to advise him of the situation.” Charlie pointed to a line of men queued up along the other side of the station. “That line leads into the telegraph office. This is one of those towns too small to have separate facilities.”

“When will the time be right for getting out to the farm and getting to work?” Mac asked, wondering if he should get in line with the other newsmen shivering before the knifelike wind cutting down from the north. His editor, too, would have to be sent a dispatch.

“The men of the press have been promised that later this afternoon a fleet of buckboards will arrive to convey us to the site. There, en masse, we will have our opportunity to interview the prisoners. The process will be repeated tomorrow for the execution itself.” Charlie’s blithe delivery let Mac know that any of the reporter’s hopes of obtaining an exclusive had been dashed and that Charlie had decided to make the best of it. “In the meantime, why don’t we get you settled? You’re really lucky. I was one of the first to arrive and I actually got a room to myself at the hotel. You can flop with me. We’ll split the cost. You’ll have to pay a little extra besides for a cot, but at least you won’t be spending the night on a horsehair settee in the lobby, like most of those guys.” Charlie jerked his head over his shoulder at the line at the railroad station, now well behind them.

They had walked halfway through the town, which consisted of at most fifteen buildings: the railroad station at one end, a stable with a livestock auction yard, saloon, mercantile store, constabulary with blinds drawn and a “closed” sign hanging on the front door, a tiny bank, various houses and small offices, and a hotel at the other end.

“Thanks, that’s kind of you,” Mac said. Charlie’s kindness was probably not altogether altruistic. He’d undoubtedly already drawn up the paperwork with the hotel manager in readiness to submit to his editor. Mac would pay half the room’s rent, but Charlie would be reimbursed for the whole amount.

Mac didn’t mind. In a few hours, with the town filling up as it was, he’d be lucky to pay half again that amount for the privilege of a bad night’s sleep on one of the sofas Charlie had referred to, in a lobby overflowing with other snoring, probably drunk newsmen. This way he’d have some privacy, a little room to spread out his drawing materials, and only one other snoring, probably drunk newsman to contend with — Charlie.

And a little room it turned out to be. Mac guessed that one of the hotel employees had been evicted for the duration and ordered to take up residence in the stables. The hotel manager was not happy to be cut out of the opportunity to double-bill for the tiny space. He tried to cut his losses by charging an intolerable fee for the cot. Mac pointed out that he’d be almost as comfortable lying on his coat on the floor, and the man finally brought his price down to the merely outrageous.

Charlie went off with the manager, ostensibly to make sure Mac’s cot got delivered but more likely to nail down a supply of liquor for the evening.

Mac spread out his supplies on Charlie’s bed, checking to make sure that his pens were all clean, then bundled up and went back outside. He sent a wire off to his desk editor apprising him of the situation and finished three highly detailed drawings of the closed jail before the wagons finally arrived.

Three buckboards had been provided, driven by farmers as weathered and splinter-harsh as their wagons. The newsmen clambered on board, billfolds coming out as soon as they settled. This ride, too, would cost dear. For the money, the farmers had made at least a minimal effort for their comfort; planks nailed to crates provided crude seats. Charlie hopped up alongside Mac, wedging him against the side. “Got your cot set up,” he said, with a grin.

Mac raised his eyebrows. “Wouldn’t happen to be any, uh, beverages stored under it?”

Charlie’s grin widened. “Amazing how this newspaper business works up a powerful thirst in a man,” he said.

They passed two churches on the outskirts of town, and a little further on a one-room schoolhouse. Children’s faces could be seen like shadows pressed up against its sooty windows. Mac bet that they’d never seen such a large gathering of bowlered besuited men before.

Some miles later Charlie pointed out a sinuous mound too low to be called an honest hill. “Look at that. This area is rife with barrows. This was supposed to be a ‘long life’ region, so there were lots of Injun settlements here about. Most of the mounds are shaped like turtles, the farmers say. But they’re small, not much to look at. Not like the Great Serpent mound. That one is supposed to be enormous.

“I tell you, Mac, those Injuns knew things we’re just beginning to figure out. Instead of an Adam-and-Eve-evil-serpent legend to have to buy into, they could really see snakes for what they have to teach us — as skin-shedders, as models for transformation.” Charlie gave a lighthearted sigh. “I’d really like to go see that Serpent mound. And someday I will.”

Scratch Charlie’s initial veneer of a good-time Joe and the next layer exposed a man who would defend a friend’s honor to the death. Scratch that surface and you found a Charlie who would cheerfully dupe that same friend for the shirt off his back. Scratch deeply past that and you started hitting the layers of a mystic, starting with a humorous, almost cynical façade, then descending down to levels profoundly spiritual.

“So where is this serpent mound of yours, Charlie?”

“South and west from here, near a town called Peebles.”

The name Peebles was vaguely familiar, but Mac couldn’t remember why.

“The Greeks understood these things too. Remember the ‘Worm Ouroboros’? The snake in a circle devouring its own tail? Always new, yet always the same thing. Just like us, huh?”

“Charlie, you talking about snakes again?” The man sitting on the other side of Charlie shook his head. “You are a sick, sick man if you find any good in those varmints.”

“I concede as how I might be sick, but the reason’s got nothing to do with serpents.” Charlie pulled a flask out from inside his vest, took a long swig from it and handed it to the other man. “Here, John, this will relax that dour mug of yours.”

Other reporters had turned around at the sound of the flask being popped. They reached across for a pull. With a single comparison of snakes to the murderous Erickson brothers, the conversation switched to the upcoming lynching.

Mac, not supple at small talk and uninterested in drinking, eventually stopped listening. Unable to sketch on the jouncing buckboard, he studied the passing landscape with as keen an eye as if he were drawing it. He noted, as the others did not, the roundabout route the farmers were taking.

They had turned, turned and turned again. Mac guessed that if they continued more or less straight now they would soon cross the road they’d left town on, at an innocuous intersection some ways before the turtle mound.

Sure enough, there was the crossroad. Mac, amused, said nothing to the others. If the locals wanted to ensure that intrepid newsmen would be unable to find their way back later that night for an exclusive, who was he to fault their ingenuity?

The convoy crossed the earlier road, went a ways, then took another turn. Now they were traveling parallel to their original route; there was the back side of the turtle barrow. Charlie emerged from a pull on the flask long enough to notice. “Look, Mac, there’s another mound. I told you they were all over.”

Mac smiled and nodded. He thought of how it was like so many other things in life — something that seemed completely different was actually just the back side of the same old thing.

The locals finally tired of their game and let the cavalcade arrive. They rounded a curve, dropped down into a hollow and saw the farm. The farm house was small and tidy, the barn spacious — a well-kept place, but lacking any signs of spring preparation. The fields hadn’t been harrowed. Fruit trees flanking the house had not been pruned yet. The place looked as though it was outfitted for a modest dairy and cheese operation, but there was a curious lack of cattle, in spite of a plentitude of old cowpies. Several bewildered-looking horses nickered at the fence.

Heavily armed farmers met the wagon at the top of the road. More were guarding the barn. The newsmen eyed them. Before the buckboards stopped bounding the reporters had all begun scribbling notes on local color. The farmers — worn, gray, smart — stared back, clearly aware that they were just entertainment to these city folks. Mac was sure they found the reporters equally entertaining.

One of the oldest farmers herded the newspapermen together in front of the barn. Some of the men, including Mac, rolled over empty milk cans to sit on. The photographers set up their cameras and prepared their plates.

Mac positioned himself in front, close to the old farmer, so that even sitting and drawing he could see. “Where are the cows?” he asked the old man.

“What?”

“The cows.” Mac pointed to the ground, to the dried, flaking cowchips.

The farmer looked at him with surprise and some respect. “Dead. That’s the why and when of catching these boys. They’d kept Zeke and Jacob alive for nigh on two months, during snowbounding. When the ground started warming they killed and buried them. Come the last few weeks, they couldn’t cope with calving and milking.” He smiled grimly. “The boys are lumberjacks. The cows must have ’bout driven them crazy. So they run them all over the edge of an old quarry over the hill there,” he pointed. “You could see the buzzards when we went and saw them cows smashed up on the rocks. Lumberjacks. Dumb lumberjacks.”

Zeke was Hezekiah Schuman, the farm’s owner, Mac already knew. “Who’s Jacob?” he asked.

The farmer spit a red-brown stream of tobacco juice and nodded to a burly man with a shotgun hoisted over his shoulder. “Samuel Litton over there — his youngest boy. Nice young fella; a hard worker, but a little tetched in the head, a little simple. He’d never have been able to run a place himself, so Samuel and his other sons lent him out to Zeke, who surely needed the help bad after his wife died.”

“Zeke had no children?”

“One boy who died young. A daughter married and living in Youngstown. When this is over I’m sure she’ll sell the place.”

The barn doors opened. A small mob of farmers half pushed, half dragged two chained young men out. Their silver blond hair reminded Mac of the juggler, Whitey. But when they lifted their sullen, closed faces to look at the press, their resemblance to Mac’s brother Arthur was shocking. There were no marks on their faces, but the way they hunched over and stumbled Mac guessed that the locals had been questioning them the hard way, gaining extra revenge in advance of the hanging. Two crates were pulled up and the murderers shoved onto them. The other reporters began shouting questions at the brothers. Why did they do it? Did they really think they’d get away with it? Where were they from? What did their mother think of them? Photographers ducked behind their cloths and bitter-smelling powder flashed as they shot their pictures.

Mac sketched the inquisition with shaking hands, scribbling the other correspondents’ questions in the margins of his drawings. He knew, too well, the look on the outlaws’ faces. The newsmen would get little more out of them than his family had ever gotten out of Arthur. These were men who had turned their backs on the world.

Asked why they’d begun a life of crime, one of them muttered, “no work.” They gave their names as Jon and Lars. Asked why they’d killed Hezekiah and Jacob, Lars shrugged. Asked where they’d hidden the loot from all their robberies, they both just curled the edge of one lip. Since they were facing away from each other at the time, the effect was eerie, as if they were one person with two bodies.

Not much to build a story on. Mac knew how each of the other newsmen would write their copy. Several would call the brothers desperadoes and liken them to the James boys. Charlie would use the Vikings-run-amok theme.

The brothers looked distracted by physical pain, bored with the proceedings, uninterested in furthering anyone’s fortunes or futures other than their own, and they obviously knew they had no future. Finally they stopped responding altogether. The farmers abruptly ended the interview and bundled the protesting newsmen back in the buckboards.

Returning to town took even longer than getting out. The farmers took a different, even more tortuous route. This time some of the reporters paid attention, undoubtedly with the idea of trying to make their way back on their own later. Mac appreciated the farmers’ intelligence. It was harder to visualize a route coming backwards than forwards. The more experienced newsmen knew they’d been lazy and had been foxed. They looked off into space, probably imagining a fancy narrative to cover the lack of facts, then scribbled busily against the lurching of the wagons.

The reporters went into high gear for a short while after unloading at Logan. The line at the telegraph office telescoped again, newsmen hunched protectively over their notes in the lobby. A few of the inexperienced and foolish disappeared, as expected. From the window in their room Charlie watched the novices sneak away. He winked at Mac before taking off to join the telegraph tarriers. “Those silly bastards are going to come back miserable and cold and needing a good, hot drink. But probably too late for even that.” In March the days were still short. Night was already falling.

Mac smiled vaguely from his cot and dove into his sketches, recopying them, fleshing them out. If he wanted to, if he felt it was worth it, if he felt up to the effort of bribing a local for some bony, swaybacked mule, he could find his way to the farm easily. He shivered. For what? To face twin pairs of blank, angry eyes, no words behind them, only muted rage? The brothers wouldn’t share their lives and their secrets. Or worse, maybe they would. Mac felt suddenly nauseated. He hid from his thoughts in a savage flurry of drawing: the barn, already showing signs of neglect, the animal-silent meadows, the churlish, laconic brothers seated side by side.

The dinner bell startled him. With relief he walked down the stairs. The hotel had stretched for the occasion, setting up temporary tables of long boards on sawhorses in the small dining room. Mac and Charlie got to eat in the first shift. Dinner was a stew of pork mixed with root vegetables that tasted of being stored in the cellar since October. The fresh hot corn bread, thankfully, was as good as any from home.

Feeding done, they joined their compatriots in the lobby, which had already been turned into a dormitory of sorts. The scratchy dusty horsehair sofas were pulled close together, rented blankets tossed carelessly over them. Rickety chairs had been commandeered from local homes.

A poker game was already in play, cozily gathered around a case of whiskey. As Mac and Charlie settled into the game the saloon owner from down the street showed up with a few more bottles.

Later, in the fit of generosity that was his custom, Charlie would bring down some of his own booze to share with the crowd. All in all, the drinking would be moderate. The reporters were cagey enough to want to be alert for the lynching on the morrow. A photographer from Columbus piled the bottles in an elaborate arrangement designed to force them to retain sufficient soberness to extricate the whiskey safely.

“As my dear grandmother used to tell me, only drink enough to free the creative juices,” another reporter from Dayton said as he picked up the cards dealt to him.

Mac wasn’t much for drinking. His creative juices were already abundantly free — he had more energy and imagination than any two men put together. He played a few hands to help get the game going. Once everyone had been processed through dinner and filtered into the lobby he settled down to draw caricatures of his fellow reporters.

“Round and round, round and round. Deal those cards. What goes around comes around again, time after time,” Charlie muttered to his cards.

“What goes around better not come around again,” the dealer, the photographer from Columbus, exclaimed. “Leastwise not till I shuffle the cards again.”

“Some things that go around don’t come around again. Like Jon and Lars,” an onlooker snickered.

Au contraire,” Charlie said loftily. “They most assuredly will. If ever I’ve seen two individuals in need of a repeat performance, it’s those two. They get my vote for most likely to reincarnate.”

The dealer twitched a card at him. Charlie shook his head and folded his hands on his cards, standing pat. “In fact, think about their appearance, their demeanor. I would say that they are actually simultaneous reincarnations of each other.”

“You Masons!” the other reporter from Dayton scoffed. “Your usual mumbo jumbo is bad enough, but simultaneous reincarnations? Don’t pour that man another glass. He’s already had enough!”

Charlie raked in the change from the hand he’d just won, then he riffled the pack of cards. Mac sketched him fancy-shuffling the deck through a haze of cigar smoke. In the drawing his friend looked like a latter-day Mephistopheles.

“It’s not such a far-fetched notion,” Charlie said, slapping down cards around the circle. “Why should reincarnation be merely linear? You borrow a little from this person, they borrow a little from you, and none the wiser. It probably happens all the time. You wouldn’t even know that you had done it or had it done to you, unless you had the sensitivity of special training.”

A couple of other Masons grinned behind their cards, then nodded solemnly.

Mac felt uneasy. Is this what Arthur meant when he accused Mac of stealing his life from him? In the drawing the lines composing Charlie’s face became sharp and dangerous.

“Our Erickson boys are a special case, however. I believe that due to the confused, intertwined state of their current incarnation that they have suffered an incomplete break with their past lives. Their wandering, marauding behavior of the last six months indicates they’ve confused themselves with their Viking ancestors. Either that, or they couldn’t stand another Minnesota winter.” Charlie winked at Mac.

The room laughed.

“That’s a load of bull,” the man said. “You ask me, those boys didn’t look like nothing but stupid.”

Charlie waggled a finger at his victim. “No, my good man, not stupid. Those two are like gods; unfeeling Elementals around whom anything might occur. What you think to be a lack of intelligence is in fact a lack of affect, the indifference of divinity, an ignorance of human emotions.”

Mac decided not to say anything about the outlaws’ big mistake with the cows.

The kibitzing onlooker jumped in. “If those two yahoos are gods, why did they get caught?”

One of the other Masons fielded that observation. “Because this is the machine age, the age of science and reason. Maybe their magic ran out.”

Charlie cut back in. “Or maybe they got bored. Why should they care what happens? They know they’ll get born and reborn again and again. Their hidden treasure, like a dragon’s hoard, will be waiting.”

He looked at his cards, sighed and folded his hand. “I’ll tell you boys this, though. You should be mighty glad the brothers Erickson were caught here. You saw the Injun turtle-barrows going out. Those are symbols of a peaceful, slow, long life, obviously contrary to our Vikings’ nature. We were lucky the brothers weren’t caught down by the Serpent Mound near Peebles. With it as a locus for power and regeneration, heaven only knows what could have happened.” He shuddered dramatically.

“You can have folks show up as Thor himself. You can have them reincarnating simultaneously all over the place, as far I’m concerned,” the Columbus photographer declared. “You just better not simultaneously reincarnate an extra ace from up your sleeve in the middle of a hand.”

Several hours later the game wound down. Just as the whiskey ran out three of the stray journalists finally found their way back to town after a fruitless hunt for the barn. They were footsore, muddy, hungry and cold. They wailed until the cook managed to locate some stale cornbread and a thick wedge of cheese for them. They were far less grateful to the good woman than they were to Charlie, who went upstairs to fetch them a bottle from his own stock.

“You’ve saved our lives!” one young fellow exclaimed through chattering lips as he reached for the bottle.

“Don’t say that, or you don’t get any!” Charlie snapped, snatching the flask away. “Don’t you know that when you save someone’s life that you’re responsible for them from then on?” He looked the shivering unfortunate up and down. “No way I want to be held accountable for your sorry existence!”

“Don’t consider that you’ve saved mine, then,” said another of the prodigals, grabbing the bottle in turn from Charlie as the rest of the reporters laughed. “Many thanks all the same.”


FIVE

Mac’s cot was right up against the window. Bright sunlight poured itself in on him the next morning. Too brightly — there was a hot, brassy stillness to it that spoke not of spring but of trouble. By the time the journalists had been processed through a late breakfast of oatmeal, sausage, flapjacks and coffee, black clouds had boiled up to encircle the horizon.

The locals didn’t conduct the newsmen out of town again till the early afternoon. Whether they were accommodating any straggling journalists who might be arriving in Logan late, or whether they were using the time for one last try at breaking down the brothers, or both, Mac didn’t know.

The storm closed in all around as the wagons jounced them to the barn, intensifying the light, compressing it to gold until it seemed like they were traveling within the spotlight of some immense, darkening theater. The farmers didn’t bother to disguise the route this time. They clicked their tongues at the mules to make them go faster.

“Twister weather,” the reporter from Dayton muttered. Mac wished he were somewhere quiet and still with his paints, so that he could capture the savage bright color.

Once they arrived at the farm and set up, the locals moved fast. Two long ropes were already strung from the barn’s yard arm. Two sturdy crates sat directly beneath them. Mac’s heart sank. He’d been hoping they’d string the brothers up and toss them out the hay loft door. That would break their necks and finish it quickly.

Instead, they were going to stand the outlaws up on the crates, then kick the crates out from under them. The Ericksons would slowly strangle, jerking like demented puppets for the longest time, knowing that they were dying with their boots just inches from the ground.

Mac sighed and dutifully started sketching. Charlie already had his paper and clipboard balanced on his knees and was drawing like a madman.

The farmers brought Jon and Lars out. They were wrapped in so many chains and ropes that they looked like swaddled babes. There wasn’t much they could do in the way of holding things up, but they did what they could — wriggling like fish, then falling over like sacks of grain. It took five sturdy men to get the first of them propped up on one of the crates.

“Flop over now all you like,” Jacob’s father Samuel panted with satisfaction as he snugged the noose tight around the outlaw’s neck. “The devil would just as soon see you a few minutes early.”

The desperado reacted by standing up as straight and tall as any churchgoer.

When both brothers were readied a farmer acting as lay preacher opened a Bible and read a few brief and appropriate quotes from the Old Testament. Then he shut the Bible with a snap. “Bad enough you robbing hardworking, godfearing folk of the fruit of their labors. But when you rob good men like Hezekiah and Jacob of their lives — and heaven knows who else — you will make restitution not only with your lives, but with your very souls. You will find waiting for you a judgment and punishment befitting your sins.”

Mac wondered if Arthur, believing as he did that Mac had stolen his life, thought Mac would someday pay with his soul.

The preacher nodded his head and burlap sacks were brought up to cover the outlaws’ heads, out of consideration for the journalists’ refined cityfolk sensibilities.

Lars looked up at the hellish threatening sky and smiled just before they pulled the sack down over his eyes.

“To God, or more likely the devil, we commend you,” the “preacher” said, and kicked the crates clear.

Mac looked down at his drawing pad and pretended to scribble busily, not looking up till all sounds of flapping and jerking had stopped. He had to pretend for a long time.

As if the Ericksons’ deaths were a signal, the storm closed in. The bodies had stopped twitching barely long enough for the photographers to make their shots when the wind blew up, flapping the cloths up on the cameras, whipping the coattails of farmers and newsmen. The rope-trussed garments of the dead brothers didn’t respond, but the bodies began to sway and swing again. Drops of rain, sharp and separate as drumbeats, started to strike the hardpacked earth of the farmyard.

The reporters packed and ran. As the wagons pitched and reeled getting away, Mac looked back to see the vigilantes cutting the bodies down.

The farmers tried to outrun the storm. That quickly became impossible: The first turn in the road took them straight into it. The reporters pulled down the edges of their hats, pulled up the collars of their coats, wrapped themselves around their notes and huddled together against the rain.

“Yow!” said the photographer from Columbus as the rain gave way briefly to a bullet-like flurry of hail. In the confusion of departure Charlie had landed in the next row of “seats” up. The photographer had jumped in next to Mac. His tripod and box of plates slammed into Mac’s legs with every bump in the road.

“Hey, Wuest!” someone yelled at Charlie. “Looks like the gods have come to take your boys up to Valhalla in style.” Everyone laughed at that, but when lightning began strafing nearby hills they fell silent.

The clouds lifted, gathering upward into a low ceiling. The rain slacked off. This didn’t signal an improvement; it simply allowed them to see the funnel dropping down from the underbelly of that table-flat sky. The photographer crossed himself. “Hail Mary, full of grace, get me the bloody hell out of this place,” he whispered.

The buckboards jarred to a stop as the wagon drivers shouted to each other, trying to decide whether they should turn and outrun the tornado to a sideroad two miles back, cutting away from it. But there was no predicting its erratic course. They might find themselves fleeing directly into its path. And there was no real shelter any closer than Logan.

In the end they remained where they were, tying up the mules and wagons securely to trees by the side of the road. The farmers stood with the blindfolded and hobbled mules and tried to quiet them. The newsmen took shelter under the wagons. Even from that incredibly low perspective Mac could see the base of the funnel getting bigger and bigger, bearing down upon them. Branches and other debris were hurled against and into the wagons. The mules, constrained as they were, threw themselves against their traces in terror.

Then the black shape was gone, though the wind whipped at them for long moments. “It missed us!” a farmer yelled. The reporters crawled out and tried to brush some of the mud off. They looked nervously after the departing funnel cloud, which was picking up size and speed as it headed away east and north.

One of the mules had scratched itself badly. The rain turned to drizzle. The road soon transformed into thick sludge. The ride back was slow and cold, but weak with relief they laughed the whole way. Mac knew that many of the newsmen were already thinking of how they’d use the storm to liven up their copy. Charlie helped warm the other passengers by passing around his omnipresent flask.

They came to the fork in the road heading back into Logan. The tornado had paralleled the road, forming a broad new avenue twenty yards to the west. It should have come right on up after them, but at the turtle mound it had jumped the road and passed to the other side of the barrow, heading off to the east. They cheered and thumped one another on the back at the sight.




But they stopped cheering and laughing when they got to town and stormed the railway station to wire their newspapers and get tickets for the next trains out of Logan.

“Telegraph lines went down with that twister,” the clerk told them. “And just before they went we heard there’s trees blown across the tracks past Nelsonville. All passenger trains east and west been cancelled till tomorrow, at the earliest, till the lines are working again and the tracks are clear.”

The newspapermen howled but the clerk, one of those fresh-faced types still boyish at forty, just shrugged. “Nothing I can do about it. You’ll have to take up your complaints with God.”

Somewhat comforted by the notion that they were all trapped together, so that nobody would get a scoop on anybody else, the newsmen relaxed. The story would be just as fresh a day late.

“Might as well take advantage of the situation and have a hell of a poker game tonight,” a reporter from Youngstown said. They trudged back to the hotel to stand in yet another line — this one for a hot bath.

Mac didn’t care for gambling all that much, but he would have liked to bet that as soon as the town of Logan knew the train schedule had been cancelled the hotel manager had started stoking extra fire in the hotel’s small bath house. And that he had taken pains to stockpile what remained of the town’s booze.




After bathing and an early, mediocre supper, the gentlemen of the press started gathering in the lobby again. They didn’t have to keep their wits keen for work the next day. If they were lucky and the tracks were cleared, the best they could expect would be to nurse hangovers on a slow train trip back to their respective cities in the morning.

As Mac passed through on the way to the stairs up to his and Charlie’s room the saloonkeeper from the bar down the street was dragging in yet another case of liquor. The rain and wind must have started up hard again — the man was soaked and windblown.

And though it was still early, the photographer from Columbus was already piling up several empty bottles and laying the base for a fine edifice of filled ones. The journalists might not have to worry about the need to curtail their drinking tonight, but tradition was tradition. The photographer had done such a fine job the night before that he’d been elected to do it again.

Mac went upstairs and spent an hour or so working on his sketches, polishing them while they were fresh. Then he wrote his daily letter to Maude. With any luck he would hand deliver it to her himself tomorrow night. By the time he finally made his way downstairs again the poker game was in full swing.

“Where are you going?” one of the other illustrators called out as Mac pulled his coat tightly about him.

“I want to check one more time at the station. See if there’s been a break. Maybe they’ve got the telegraph lines working again.”

“Are you out of your mind? Pull up a chair and play some cards.”

Charlie laughed and waved Mac on. “You don’t know Mac. He never sits still except when he works on his sketches. And even then he’s not still. Have a pleasant stroll, Mac.”

Mac tipped his hat to them and slid out into the night. The wind had abated but the rain still thrummed steadily on the hotel’s porch roof. When he reached its sheltering edge he took a deep breath and trotted the length of the street to the station.

He shook himself sharply like a terrier before entering. Water snapped from his coat. The dispatcher looked up from behind the cage window when Mac opened the door. He must have been surprised to see one of the visitors out in this weather, but he didn’t show it. With a poker face like that, Mac thought, he should be over at the hotel playing cards with the boys. He’d make a fortune.

“I’m one of the newsmen,” Mac said. “Just wanted to see if there were any changes — if maybe the telegraph lines were fixed?”

The clerk shook his head.

“Or if the train tracks were cleared?”

“No trains able to make it from here to Chillicothe or to Athens,” the man said.

Mac started to thank him, then shot the clerk a sharp look. “No trains from here to Chillicothe or Athens?

“Yup. Nope. Those there are the only passenger trains that go through here.”

“Are there any other kinds of trains going through here to anywhere else?”

“Yup. Trunk line for freight comes by from Tor Hollows to the north. Transfers from here on over to Nelsonville. A load of cattle and seed grain coming through this evening, ’bout an hour. Those tracks are good, so there’s no reason not to expect it.”

“But you said earlier that after Nelsonville the tracks were closed again.”

“The main line to Athens that those other fellows were asking after, yup. It’s right past Nelsonville where the tracks are blocked. But in Nelsonville the Tor Hollow train switches to another trunk line going straight south to Jackson. There’s a farm auction center there.”

The name Jackson rang a bell. “Can I see a map?”

“Yup.”

Thick red lines represented the main routes with passenger service. Thin blue lines traced the freight only routes. As the clerk had said, a thin blue line spidered its way south from Nelsonville to Jackson, where it hooked up with a thick red line. Which headed straight west to Cincinnati. Mac felt giddy with suppressed laughter. He tapped the lower red line with his finger. “Is this route open?”

The clerk reached through the cage to turn the map so that he could see it. “Last I heard before we lost the telegraph lines. Probably still is. That’s south of the worst of the storm.”

“Do you have a schedule for these lines? And how much are the tickets?”

“Tickets cost nothing because there are none. I told you, those trunk lines are for freight only. There aren’t any passenger cars.”

“That’s all right,” said Mac. “I just want to ship some art.”




“You look like a drowned duck.” Charlie said, liquor garbling the words to gravel tumbling over his tongue. “Are you ready to play and drink? I’ll deal you a hand.”

“Drowned duckling,” a reporter from Columbus muttered. Charlie turned on the man angrily at this slight to Mac’s stature.

Mac smiled and waved a hand in deprecation. “I feel like a drowned duckling. I just want to go upstairs and get out of these clothes and warmed up. Maybe I’ll come down after that. But I’ve got to warn you, Charlie, I’m pretty tired. I’ll probably just write a letter to Maude and go to bed. Tell you what, why don’t you give me a pull on your bottle to fight off the chill?”

He gagged at the taste and noticed that the bottles lined up and waiting were all moonshine. They’d drunk the town dry of the good stuff.

Up in the room, Mac worked quickly. He packed all his art gear together, wrapping it tightly in the oil skin bag that was part of his standard equipment. Then he shoved his cot up against the far window.

He bundled the bed clothes loosely and draped them slightly over the edge of the pillow. He turned out the lamp and opened the door to the room slowly, studying the way the wedge of light from the hall played across the tableau he’d constructed. A few minor adjustments to the bedding and he was satisfied. It should easily fool a more than half-drunk Charlie that Mac was curled up on the cot fast asleep. His efforts were just precaution: from past experiences with Charlie, he’d bet the man would barely make it to the bed before passing out.

Mac loaded himself up with the oilskin bag and his smaller suitcase. He stood for a moment in the shadows at the top of the stairs to be sure that the boys were all still roaring away down in the lobby, then sidled silently down and let himself out the back door. He was glad now that Charlie had shaken him down for his share of the room payment when he’d first arrived.

He grinned to himself. It would take a while, but he knew eventually Charlie would forgive him. What was it that kid juggler had said? One does what one must to survive.


SIX

Mac hunkered down in the caboose. He’d spread out his overcoat to dry, but he was more miserable from impatience than the cold. Under the swaying erratic light of a kerosene lantern he twitched under the amused glances of the brakeman and the guard. They’d been happy to split the cost of a passenger ticket between them. It was only fifteen miles to Nelsonville, but the train inched along, the smell of the cattle wafting back over them.

The leg to Jackson was longer and slower. At one point the train stopped. Mac looked up at the brakeman.

“Probably water on the tracks,” the railroader said.

Mac’s heart sank. Then the train lurched and began crawling forward. Mac’s heart followed suit. “Let’s have a look,” the guard said, taking the lantern down from its hook. The three of them stood at the back of the car as he swung the lamp over the tracks. On one side a stream, black as spilled ink, rose to lap at the very edge of the railroad bed. It threatened with the ominousness of dark, silent, secret theft.

In Jackson Mac found both the telegraph lines and the main track to Cincinnati clear. While the livestock was unloaded Mac wired ahead to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune’s night desk. Hold column space for text and pictures afternoon edition. Scoop on lynching. “What time is it?” he asked the stationmaster.

“Twelve fifteen precisely,” the man replied after pulling a watch from his waistcoat and consulting it. It had taken four hours to travel forty miles.

“When will the next train make it to Cincinnati?” Mac asked.

“Can’t say for sure. If the tracks stay clear, sometime early in the morning.”

Will try to wire arrival time further along route. Mac finished his message.

He continued onward as “freight.” There were no passenger cars running this late. At least the pace was up, the train now clicking along in time to Mac’s twitching.

Just before four they stopped to take on fuel and water. “Peebles Station,” the brakeman informed Mac. The name tickled at Mac’s memory. That’s right — Charlie had said there was a Serpent Mound near here. And there was something else. What?

“Anyone here who could run off a telegram for me?”

“Night clerk could. He’s resting on a cot in the back. I’ll fetch him.”

Mac paced while he waited. The night clerk wasn’t the only one napping. A single stranded passenger curled up miserably on one of the hard wooden benches, his back to Mac. A battered portmanteau stood guard before him. Mac, who never forgot anything once seen, remembered it.

He shook the traveller’s shoulder gently. “Whitey? What are you doing here? Where’s the rest of the troupe?”

The boy woke fast, in the manner of one used to having to sleep and run. He sat up, spine-straight, and stared at Mac. “Zenas Winsor McCay, as I live and breathe. The penman of most prodigious talent. How felicitous to run into you here.” He patted the bench beside him as if he were inviting Mac to take comfort in the most sumptuous of parlors. “Have a seat, my good man. You have the look of one who has been travelling long and hard,” he rasped.

“I have been,” Mac said. “I’m scooping a story.” He filled Whitey in briefly, studying the boy as he did so. In spite of his habitual bravado the young juggler’s face looked drawn. His voice sounded even more ruined, if that was possible. He held himself tightly, but every once and a while a shiver escaped him.

“I’d never have guessed from your mild, honest demeanor that you could contrive to such elegant duplicity,” the youth said on the completion of Mac’s story. The admiring gleam in Whitey’s eye indicated that Mac had risen a notch further in his estimation. Just then the night clerk emerged from the back, grumpy and groggy. Mac excused himself to Whitey and sent off another telegram. Will arrive Cincinnati station 7:30 a.m. Have cab waiting. Have plates prepared and ready. He’d get in hours too late for the morning edition. But by the time his hungover colleagues woke up back in Logan his story would be well on its way to being printed up for the afternoon edition, and a terse, brief version would have been wired to the national syndicates.

He returned to the juggler. “Whitey, my train leaves in five minutes. So quick, tell me what the hell you’re doing here.”

The youth sighed. “As I prophesied, our blackguard of a manager deserted us, absconding with all the funds. Not as any honest malefactor would, in urban plentitude where we might find sufficient interim employment to make our way back to New York, but instead yesterday evening in Fincastle, a hamlet even smaller than this one.”

“What are you going to do? Are you heading back to New York?”

“No. I can’t keep doing this. The last time a tour I was working on was abandoned, in Wheeling, I rode the rods. The boxcar I was in was open. We hit a flooded spot and I got soaked. I almost froze to death. As it was, my hands got stuck to the metal siding. At the next stop some kind yardmen pried me loose and thawed me out.” He looked at his scarred fingers. “It ruined my hands for months. I thought I’d never be able to juggle again.

“No, this is the termination of my career. I’m tired of being hungry and cold and robbed and prevaricated to. Somehow I’ll make my way back to Philadelphia, probably go back to the poolhall.” His despair was so complete that Mac, teetering on the brink of success, felt ashamed of his own high spirits.

“How much money do you have?” Mac asked.

“Eight dollars,” muttered Whitey.

“After buying your ticket?”

“The ticket I’m traveling on now takes me as far as Jackson.”

“Whitey, eight dollars isn’t going to get you to Philadelphia. The ticket has to cost more than that.”

“Costs twelve,” the boy mumbled.

“What are you going to do?”

“Well, I guess I’m stuck. I’ll see if the weather turns warmer in a day or two and then hitch a ride on the rails.” The boy’s eyes were full of dread.

The brakeman appeared in the doorway. He nodded his head at Mac and jerked his head toward the train.

Mac thought for a second. After all the graft and extra expenses in Logan he didn’t have much cash left. But he didn’t really need any. He was paid through to Cincinnati, where he’d be met by a cab hired by his office. And his office would send out for coffee and a full breakfast to keep him happy while he rushed his story and drawings to press.

He pulled out his wallet and gave Whitey a ten-dollar bill. “Don’t ride the rails.”

Whitey turned away, opened his bag and scuffled through it. Mac realized that he was trying not to cry and trying to hide it. Any doubts Mac might have had that the boy was exaggerating his plight and trying to swindle him evaporated.

The juggler finally turned to him, his eight dollars in his hand. He separated six dollars out and handed them to Mac. “That’s the change I can give you now. I’ll mail the other four dollars to you when I can.”

Mac folded the money back into Whitey’s hand. “Keep it. It’s a long ride to Philadelphia, or back to New York, which is where I hope you’ll go. You’ll need to eat and to rent a room when you get there. Pay me back whenever you can.”

This was finally too much for the boy. As Mac walked out of the station behind the brakeman he looked back to see the young juggler huddled on the bench, crying, all bravado gone.




A few miles past Peebles Mac saw Charlie’s Serpent Mound. The storm clouds had cleared somewhat, allowing the almost full moon to escape. Its light struck and reflected off the water-glazed landscape with washes of gleaming silver so bright they hurt Mac’s eyes. The mountainside the barrow had been erected on tilted toward Mac so that he could see the pattern of the undulating earthen snake clearly.

It was enormous. Compared to it Logan’s hill-sized turtle mound was a child’s terrapin.

After Charlie’s discourse Mac would have expected it to appear hoop-like like Ouroboros, or consist of a simple spiral coil. Instead it formed an intricate, elegant knot. The logic of the interweavings of its complex folds was impenetrable. It appeared to shift before Mac’s eyes as his perspective changed with the movement of the train. Nonetheless, from every angle the beautifully sculpted head emerged from the middle of the coils to grasp its own tail firmly in its mouth. And from every angle it seemed to be watching Mac.

Mac turned to draw the two railroad men’s attention to the landmark. The brakeman was asleep and the guard must have climbed forward to the engine, so Mac had the grace of that moment all to himself.

As an artist he felt humbled. What were his petty scratchings compared to the artistry of the vanished Indians? They had moved thousands of tons of rock and dirt and produced a masterpiece that would last thousands of years.

Mac remembered what Charlie had said about the region of the Turtle mound — that it was a peaceful, prosperous, slow, long life area. He could easily imagine the placid calm tribes who had constructed that barrow.

What about the Indians here? What would the people have been like who could have thought up and executed such a monstrous miracle of tangled beauty? Mac shivered, and the great viper suddenly seemed sinister in its transformative splendor. Those who made it would have known too many secrets, would have had too much power. Mac imagined a nation of shape-shifters and skin-shedders. Like hypnotized prey he could not drop his gaze from it until it passed from view behind the back of the train.


SEVEN

It did take Charlie several years to forgive Mac. But when he did, he did so fully, admitting he was jealous that he hadn’t been alert enough to figure out that there was an alternate train route himself.

By that time much had changed in Mac’s life. He had returned to Cincinnati not only with a journalistic feather in his cap, but to find that Maude had gone into labor. She bore him a son, Robert, a magical child with Maude’s shining, black, swirling hair and innocently sensual features.

In 1898 Mac’s exhausted and aging parents gave up the struggle of caring for Mac’s brother Arthur and institutionalized him in the Traverse City State Hospital. Mac was finally able to bring his small but expanding family — Maude was pregnant with their second child, who would prove to be a girl — home to visit at last. Over the next few years, before his father died, Mac had the pleasure of seeing his parents’ faces light at last to pure and unclouded children’s laughter.

Mac continued to make a good living at the newspaper illustration business. He went everywhere; illustrating fires, covering sporting events and accidents, caricaturing politicians, drawing advertisements and small cartoons. At the turn of the century he was lured away from the Tribune by The Cincinnati Enquirer.

He had been working there several months, settling in nicely, when he received an envelope forwarded to him from his old job. He opened it up to find two creased worn ten dollar bills and knew instantly who had sent them. There was no letter accompanying the money, nor a return address. But when Mac examined the envelope he found that it bore a Philadelphia, not New York, postmark, and that the bills, when he tucked them into his billfold, had a slightly chalky feel to them.

Mac felt overwhelmed with sadness. After all of Whitey’s hard work and sacrifices for his art, it seemed such a small thing to ask for — to sleep on clean sheets every night. It was cruel of life not to grant that modest wish.




It was at about this time that Mac’s own wishes began to come true. He had already been allowed to draw a series of caricatured, battling vegetables to illustrate the poems of Jack Appleton. Now he at last realized his dream of a full-color Sunday page comic: Tales of the Jungle Imps.

In 1903 Mac, ever prepared to be lured to greener, more lucrative pastures, allowed himself to be wooed and won by the New York Times and Evening Telegram, even though he loved and would miss Cincinnati. It was just as well. Maude, as she matured into full womanhood, had also matured into the sort of individual who believed that money was no object in the pursuit of a comfortable and luxurious life. In this, as in all things, they were well matched. Mac was equally extravagant.

In 1904 they celebrated the commencement of Mac’s first continuous strip, Mr. Goodenough, by moving to a fine home in Sheepshead Bay out on Long Island. Mac identified strongly with his cartoon character: Mr. Goodenough, a millionaire, continually desired a more active, adventurous life. This always led, panel by panel, to discomfort, peril and injury. In the last panel Mr. Goodenough gratefully returned to his safe, propserous and sedentary existence.

Other strips followed: Hungry Henrietta, Sammy Sneeze, Pilgrim’s Progress, and, most notably, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend. This last strip portrayed hideous, fantastical situations which were resolved in the last panel with the individual portrayed waking up to find it had all been a nightmare.

Since his brother’s institutionalization Mac hadn’t allowed himself to think about Arthur. Now these images of terror, persecution, and pain flowed helplessly from Mac’s pen, as if from some compressed source finally erupting from subterranean origins; a creative spring that smelled of spent sulphur, cold fire, musty porridge, the stale hard sheets of sanitariums. Fearful that Arthur was somehow trying to make contact and emerge, Mac let the drawings come, hoping that this regurgitation of anguish and fear would serve as sufficient release.

To Mac’s great surprise the strip hit a deep chord with the audience at large and was immensely popular. This caused Mac to wonder if Arthur had slipped all that far over the border delineating the realms of sanity and madness. Either that, or the rest of the world itself was pushing close to the edge of that boundary. If that was true, Mac thought with a shudder, what might happen as the world embarked into the twentieth century?

In 1905 Mac thought of a way to offer a gentle counterbalance to the Rarebit Fiend’s nightmares and the comic strip Little Nemo was born. In this strip a young boy, Little Nemo — who Mac modeled after his son Robert — upon falling asleep each night is whisked away to the fabulous and beautiful Slumberland.

Exactly the opposite of the Rarebit Fiend, the greatest nightmare in Little Nemo is the child’s falling out of bed each morning and waking into everyday reality, with the attendant loss of Slumberland. Upon creating Little Nemo Mac felt an easing of pressure, a welcome serenity. He wondered if Arthur had calmed and was resting more peacefully in his dim, constrained, controlled existence.


EIGHT

Arthur was not the only person besieging Mac’s thoughts. He thought often of Whitey, although this was a gentler haunting. He wished he had been able to do more for the boy. In March 1906 he introduced the character of the bad boy Flip into Slumberland.

As if he were a caveman painting bison and deer on stone walls, forcing the desired result into existence through sympathetic magic, Mac used an image of Whitey for the form of Flip. He gave Flip a lumpy reddened nose. Remembering Whitey’s stated fondness for cigars, Mac perpetually balanced one on Flip’s lips. Instead of Whitey’s battered bowler and shabby clothes, Flip wore a fine coat, vest and top hat. Whitey had been gaunt with hunger. Flip, no matter what his misadventures in Slumberland, was always satisfyingly plump.

And Flip had plenty of misadventures. He was always causing and getting into trouble. Yet over the course of the strip his lot improved. The kindhearted Nemo always forgave his trespasses and rescued him from his difficulties, sympathizing with Flip’s hard life. Flip eventually changed from the poor outsider and Nemo’s adversary to privileged insider and Nemo’s friend. Every time Mac drew Flip he wondered if in some anonymous poolhall in Philadelphia a blond young man was feeling luck rub off on him.




1906 marked another landmark in Mac’s life. In June he became a performer. F. F. Proctor of vaudeville fame had pursued him avidly, wanting Mac to moonlight for him on vaudeville tours doing blackboard sketches. “Chalk-talk” artists had been a popular entertainment since Victorian times. The only flaw marring Mac’s pleasure in his new avocation was that in this, as in everything else, his old rival Outcault had preceded him.

The evening before his first performance Mac sat nervously in his backstage dressing room. The room would have been tiny by any one else’s standards, but it fit Mac’s small form like a custom tailored suit. His makeup was already applied, so that he resembled, just a little, a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Mac whiled away the time before his curtain call sketching on one of his Little Nemo deadlines. Mac thought about Whitey as he drew. The young juggler had worked his way up from dime museums and city circuses to burlesque. This is where he should have ended up, not in some dusty billiard parlor in Philadelphia. Mac set the Little Nemo sketches aside and began to draw a very different scene, scribbling with furious intent, as if he could indeed invest the art with life.

In June of 1906 in a small vaudeville dressing room a “chalk talk” artist waits nervously for the curtain call which will summon him to his very first performance. He’s unable to control his twitching. He feels his much-needed energy leaching away, though he knows he isn’t scheduled for at least another half hour.

There is a knock at the door and he jumps in fright. “Come in,” he quavers and is terrified at the weakness in his voice. How ever will he speak before the vast audience filling the theater?

The door opens and it is not the cue boy who looks in, but a dapper young man in his mid-twenties. “Aaah yaas, my good fellow. Allow me to introduce myself to you, esteemed colleague in the arts of diversion and entertainment,” the young man growls around a Havana cigar clenched between his teeth as he strides into the room. “I am William Duke, most royal of jugglers.”

And royal he indeed appears, in an impeccable silver gray morning coat and brocade vest. His pale blond hair is slicked back in tonsorial splendor and his corrugated voice and rough-hewn nose give him an unusual air of distinction. An ebony cane with a rosewood head carved in the shape of a coiled serpent is tucked jauntily under his arm.

“I appear on the billing just before you. I understand this is the occasion of your first public appearance in the illusory arts. I thought it would be ungentlemanly of me not to drop by and inquire after your comfort.”

The artist leaps to his feet. “I’m Zenas Winsor McCay. Thanks for coming by.” He thrusts out his hand and watches in detached horror as it trembles there before him fitfully as a dying fish.

“McCay, eh?” the resplendent juggler muses, looking critically at Mac’s palsied hand before grasping it firmly with his own. Then he draws a silver flask from an inner pocket of the evening coat. “A certain hypersensitivity of the nervous system is to be expected before a first performance. I believe what is called for here is a little scotch for my little Scotch friend.”

Mac takes a long draught from the flask, pulling the smoky liquid deep inside, where its heat gently spreads out to his fingers, relaxing them. “Thank you. That’s much better.”

The juggler winks, then takes a swig himself.

“But what you said before . . . I’m just a drawing-type artist, not an illusory artist. I’m not a magician,” Mac explains humbly.

William Duke waves his cigar in an airy gesture. “It’s all the same thing, my good man — drawing, juggling, magicking. Does not the term ‘illustrate’ share a close linguistic ancestor with the word ‘illusion’?

“One of the great nearly ungraspable Truths is the realization of to how great a degree Reality is a pliable, malleable thing. Our skill and our task — nay, our duty! no matter what our chosen medium — is to pique and tease the audience’s perceptions; to compel them to always chase along behind us until the boundaries between illusion and reality blur. Until those boundaries fuse and merge and in a brief, elusive instant of blinding insight they experience the realization that dream is truer and more concrete than reality, and reality no more substantial than smoke.”

At this the debonair juggler takes his cigar out of his mouth and blows out a circle of smoke to illustrate his point. The circle winds and coils and changes, becoming snakier, becoming a snake, until it perfectly resembles the head of William Duke’s cane. At the same time the cane becomes transparent and insubstantial.

Mac’s mouth gapes open. William Duke winks. The snake grasps its tail in its mouth and spins slow hoops through the air.

“Now pay attention, my little Scotch friend. This is very important. It’s done like this: first you . . .”

There was a loud knocking at the door; Mac’s reverie was broken. A young boy peeked around the edge of the door. “Your cue, Mr. McCay. Five minutes to showtime.”

“Thank you. I’ll be out right away.”

Mac stared down at his drawings. What would he have done next? What wonderful tricks could he have drawn for Whitey to perform? He put the sketches away regretfully. Perhaps he would get back to them another time, when he’d caught up with his deadlines.




Mac’s “chalk-talk” performance was called The Seven Ages of Man. An enormous blackboard had been set up. The chalk and erasers were waiting. Mac introduced himself and with no further ado began. He drew first the heads of two babies, a boy and a girl, facing each other. Then he rapidly erased lines and redrew, subtly aging them, telling the stories of their lives, till he had taken them all the way from infancy to death. In the background the orchestra softly played that old favorite tune, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

The act was an enormous success. Over a period of several years Mac performed it at all the great vaudeville houses in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Toledo, Boston, and even Philadelphia. He loved vaudeville and found that he loved performing.

Yet it was only on that very first night when he first drew the little boy and girl that he felt as if he truly controlled their fates, that their destination was completely in his hands and at the service of his imagination.


NINE

Mac’s life kept climbing. In 1908 a musical comedy, Little Nemo, based on the strip, opened to great acclaim on Broadway.

Mac continued with new strips, continued drawing political cartoons for the editorial page, and entered into what he believed to be the culminating medium of his career — animation. And not just animated cartoon strips (Outcault had beaten him into this territory, too), but that which was uniquely Mac’s own — the first true interfacing between the drawn, animated universe and reality.

Mac invented a lovely animated dinosaur — Gertie the Brontosaurus.

He did not draw her and then send her off on a reel of film on her own into the world. Instead, he accompanied her on tour. When Gertie was hungry, Mac was waiting at the front of the bright-lit screen with an apple in hand. Which, to the audience’s amazement and delight, she took. At the end of the performance Mac would realize his most secret desire — to enter into the world of his drawings. He stepped behind the screen and then reappeared within it. He mounted up, and off he and Gertie rode. Mac knew that he had moved even closer to mastering the fusion between illusion and reality.




The last part of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth witnessed an unprecedented wave of immigration into the United States. And for the first time, the majority of the immigrants were desperately poor and semi-literate at best. Brilliant as Mac was, his rising star had as much to do with the newspaper magnates’ use of illustrations and cartoons as key weapons in the battle to attract an unlettered clientele as with his talent.

In June, 1911, William Randolph Hearst stretched forth his mephistophelean arm to beckon Mac with that which the artist had never been able to refuse: a more prestigious job at better pay. Faust-like, Mac took it.

For a few years Little Nemo continued and Mac was allowed to develop new strips. But Hearst had a very different agenda for his star illustrator than the one Mac had set for himself. He wanted Mac to focus on editorial and political cartoons. He discouraged Mac’s creative efforts, pulling out his contract to prevent the artist from wandering, thus curtailing and finally stopping Mac’s vaudeville touring. The strips became fewer and fewer. Hearst piled on the workload so that it became more and more difficult for Mac, tieless as he was, to find the hours necessary to develop his animation. The final blow came when Hearst put Mac under the yoke of the humorless and caustic editor Arthur Brisbane.

This was a battle for Mac’s very soul. He fought back desperately but clandestinely. Comic strips drawn “in the manner of Winsor McCay” started to appear in backwater newspapers. Their artists’ names were Silas, Hieronymous Oglethorpe, Dr. Otis Guelpe, Harry McSneed. Generally they were short-lived, lasting only a few months, too brief a time for Hearst to notice and investigate them.

One, however, lasted for years. It was published in an obscure Cincinnati periodical that had been taken over by one of Mac’s old friends from the Commercial Tribune. Like the gracious queen she was, Cincinnati seemed to protect this small artwork from Hearst’s jealous, proprietary eyes. The strip portrayed the story of a poor but talented juggler.


TEN

Over the years Mac had continued to think about Whitey — to wonder what had happened to him, to wonder what Whitey’s life would have, could have been like with a bit more good fortune.

As his own existence took a grinding downturn Mac toyed more and more with the idea of recreating Whitey’s, investing it with the life that was slipping away from him.

First he had to think of a name for his protagonist. He didn’t want to use the name Whitey, nor Whitey’s stage name of Bill or William Duke. These had already proven unsuccessful for the actual juggler. Whitey’s full name had been William Claude Dukinfield. Claude was unusable: Mac remembered how much Whitey hated the name. But the last part of the last name — Field — that had promise. Fields was already an honored vaudeville moniker shared by many: Lew Fields, the comedian; “Happy Fanny” Fields (her name described it all); Ben Fields; Mrs. Nat Fields, a singer and dancer; Joe Fields, an impersonator; and Harry Fields, the Hebrew dialect comic.

Yes, Fields would do nicely. And for the first name . . . why not just put the two initials together and leave it at that? William Claude: W. C. Fields. Mac drew rather than wrote the letters with a flourish and smiled. He liked it. He liked it very much. That was the hardest part. From here on in all the rest was drawing.

The strip debuted as The Life and Times of W. C. Fields.




The first months of the strip were effortless for Mac. He mined what he already knew of Whitey’s life for episodes and drew them easily in the tiny niches of time he nibbled from his busy work schedule.

There was an episode of the tiny W. C. Fields hawking vegetables and fruit with his father from the cart drawn by that venerable old pony White Swan, juggling romantic foods and their exotic names with equal ease. There was W. C. running away from home and living in holes in the ground, which Mac turned into fabulous treasure caves equal in splendor to anything he’d drawn for Little Nemo. Strips illustrated the sojourn at the pool hall and W. C.’s flair for juggling cues and balls and subsequent mastery of the game of billiards. The dishonorable Methodists, the Coney Island “drownings,” the standing-in as “Little Nell” . . . it was all grist for the mill. When Mac drew the lunch cage episode at the Chillicothe railway station he laughed so hard he cried. And then he drew himself into the strip, laughing himself into tears in a corner of the bar as he sketched away.

Mac felt younger, lighter again. He felt as though he were tap dancing around Hearst and Brisbane’s efforts to bury him under avalanches of humorless pictorial commentary.




The episode in the Peebles station was crucial. Rather than himself as Whitey’s saviour, Mac had the sleepy, grumpy dispatcher lend W. C. the money. Just like Whitey, W. C. wept at the kindness. But unlike Whitey, W. C. was so touched by this trust and vote of confidence from a man who’d never even seen his skills that he returned to New York.

Mac was slowly shepherding W. C., strip by strip, to vaudeville. But he didn’t let him succeed immediately. First came hilarious episodes where W. C. found work for the rest of the winter at the Old Globe dime museum. He had to hone his comedic skills to a level that matched his juggling, for the sword swallower and Trixie the Dog Girl were always conspiring to upstage him.

When summer’s warmth arrived W. C. was hired by a circus. Alack and alas, the big-top already boasted a juggler, and this man was too jealous of his position to allow W. C. to share the billing with him. He barely tolerated the boy’s presence as an understudy.

W. C. spent most of the season caring for the elephants. Mac loved doing this sequence, for he was terrific at drawing elephants. Unfortunately W. C. was not fond of the beasts. After he’d freed several mice in their vicinity the pachyderms decided to take their revenge, hosing down W. C. every chance they could get.

At last Mac arranged for the main juggler to get the chicken pox, and W. C. went on at the last minute to save the show. W. C. almost did not survive his triumph, however. Flushed with success, he didn’t see Gunga Din, Rajah and Elsie waiting for him in the wings, trunks and tusks ready, until it was almost too late.

Mac found nice resonances in these strips with his earlier work. Little Nemo too had been overwhelmed time after time in encounters with elephants, alligators, polar bears, lions and chimpanzees.

In the fall, Mac finally allowed W. C. Fields to arrive on the vaudeville scene by being spotted by an agent for the Benjamin Franklin Keith Circuit. Flaming brands, swords and white mice were added to the objects W. C. juggled — the mice so that he’d always have them on hand should he run into elephants again. W. C. further developed his natural flair for both humor and hyperbole in his act. He insisted on being billed as “W. C. Fields, Distinguished Comedian.”

He went from success to success until he arrived at June of 1906.

W. C. hummed a tune to himself as he strode down the narrow corridors of the backstage rabbit warren, swinging his ebony cane. The tune was an old and rather disagreeable one, but it had stuck in his head, buzzing about like a fly there, and he couldn’t get rid of it.

Except for that minor irritation W. C. was in a capital mood. The European tour had been a triumph, helping him to extort another raise from F. F. Proctor, his current agency. And he had thought of a capital trick to play on the newest member of the ensemble. W. C. was not being cruel — such an initiation was an honored tradition in the entertainment industry and he didn’t want the fellow to feel left out.

He knocked on the door. He smiled to himself when a voice quavery with fear answered. Perfect!

He peered in at the newcomer, a “chalk-talk” artist. Great Godfrey Daniel! The man was no bigger than a churchmouse, and four times as trembly.

Upon enquiry, it turned out the fellow’s name was McCay. W. C. winked at him and pulled a flask from the inside pocket of his silver morning coat. “I believe what is called for here is a little scotch for my little Scotch friend.”

As the fellow took a long, desperate gulp W. C. palmed his trick cigar and pushed a button on the fake head of his cane, which ingeniously resembled a carved rosewood snake.

Rolling off a line of arcane patter to the artist, W. C. “puffed” on the trick cigar, launching the slowly hardening foam “smoke-snake.” At the same time the ersatz cane head ignited inside and slowly burned and dissolved away into smoke.

W. C. left the fellow babbling away in the closet-sized dressing room just in time for his own curtain call. Then he watched from the wings as McCay came out and gave his presentation.

Aaah yas, aaah yas, the little man gave quite a performance. Fields nodded to himself and smiled. Once again he’d inspired a fellow illusionist to the heights of his art, and had rather a merry time himself in the process. Wait till he told the boys about this one at the bar tonight after the show.

Rather a nice bit that McCay did there, with his chalk and his erasers. It gave W. C. an idea. McCay had a box of spare supplies at the ready near the inside edge of the curtain, in case he snapped a chalk or dropped an eraser into the orchestra pit during his act. W. C. picked up several erasers and a few sticks of chalk. He tossed the chalk up in the air in intricate juggling pattern, then in between catches scribbled cryptic symbols in the air. He started feeding erasers into the design, then built up a rhythm: erase the symbols with one hand, catch chalk with the other, draw new symbols, at the same time catch the erasers again, then erase, then repeat.

It had promise. Maybe he’d use it when they played Poughkeepsie.


ELEVEN

Fields continued in vaudeville for years. He quickly put his pool hall experiences to good use. Building on borrowed (some might say stolen) ideas, W. C. designed a trick pool table and, as an accessory, a cue as twisted and contorted as any shillelagh.

After weeks and weeks of practice, what he could finally accomplish with the apparatus bordered on the miraculous.

Exaggerating the hyper-refined, effete etiquette of habitués of the billiard parlor, W. C. bent ritualistically to the table to meditate upon the balls’ configuration, his remarkable nose grazing the emerald felt. Then he jumped, startled, his concentration broken by the placement of the chalk he’d seasoned his cue with. After fussing with the offending chalk (a leftover from the batch he’d pilfered from Mac McCay) he bent again with reverence to his game.

He sighted critically down the length of his stick at the coveted ball. Unfortunately the cue was so twisted that its end came to rest before a completely different sphere. And it would be that ball, not his heart’s desire, which would bounce and carom around the table in balletic display. W. C. would stand back, baffled at this outcome.

It took almost half of his performance to realize and come to terms with the fact that his cue stick was crooked.

At that point the nature of the game changed. As he finally lined up appropriately for his shots, the other balls, to the public’s amazement and delight, slowly and shyly rolled across the table toward W. C. as if begging him to propel them instead. He cursed them away like bothersome street urchins. The balls rolled off and clustered together in a far corner, obviously plotting revenge for this rejection.

When he was deeply immersed in his most difficult shot they launched their attack. W. C.’s following howled with laughter at the contortions he performed as he ducked and defended himself against the ricocheting hail of billiards, all the while stubbornly refusing to give up his shot.

Fields’ success with this act not unsurprisingly excited the jealousy of other comedians, especially those who had to share the billing with him.

One night his chief rival, Ed Wynn, contrived to sneak under the pool table while W. C. was carrying on chalking up and examining his unlikely cue stick. As soon as Fields began his performance, Wynn commenced mugging and capering beneath the table. Fields’ obvious bewilderment at the laughter erupting at inappropriate times in his act was cause for even more hilarity.

He finally figured out the source of his woes. Keeping a sharp eye on the front edge of the table, he waited for Wynn to get careless. A moment later the other comedian allowed his head to emerge, turtlelike. W. C. leapt lightly onto the table and in one motion brought the rococo pool cue down on Wynn’s head with a singularly gorgeous golfing swing. Wynn keeled over into unconsciousness to thunderous applause.

Being of a magnanimously forgiving nature, not to mention gratified by the tremendous response of the public to this variation in his performance, Fields not only forgave Wynn but offered to incorporate his shenanigans into the act on a regular basis. It was reported that the still-recovering Wynn slammed his dressing room door on W. C. in a fury.




Fields enjoyed travelling abroad so much that he insisted that his contracts stipulate that he spend a good two-thirds of his time performing overseas. Not for him the stifling constraints of hearth, home or the daily grind. Besides broadening his view of the world, his ramblings allowed him to be surrounded by exotic backgrounds and fall into dubious and picaresque situations.

In one memorable set of episodes he arrived propitiously in South Africa just in time for the Boer War. W. C. wrote home to an acquaintance that the dour bearded burghers of Johannesburg exhibited all the cheerfulness of a bunch of midwestern farmers at a good hanging.

Furthermore, there was a curfew due to martial law, stranding and idling several theatrical troupes. It just so happened that all of these companies featured internationally famous jugglers: W. C., Valazzi, Frank Le Dent, Silvo and Selma Braatz. The antics of this bored and therefore dangerously creative crew began to resemble, to the horrified denizens of Jo’burg, an infestation not unlike that of a plague of giant, frolicsome fleas.

The stint in South Africa also witnessed the beginning of Field’s involvement with cowboys. In Cape Town he ran into a young cowpoke who’d sailed over from the States with a herd of range ponies to sell. The fellow demonstrated some dazzling rope tricks and turned out to have a truly fine sense of humor — ultimately offending W. C. by upstaging the juggler.

Alas for Fields! The bovine overseer, a likeable fellow with a twangy accent who went by the handle of Will Rogers, was fated by the Creator to, like a black cat, cross the juggler’s path time and time again.

A few weeks later Will showed up in Durban. Impressed with W. C.’s history, he had joined a local circus. Later they would appear together in the Ziegfeld Follies and other venues. They eventually became good friends, though W. C. could never forgive the cowboy for the gall of being so talented.

Fields did not feel threatened by another expatriate cowboy, equally talented but thankfully laconic and humorless. This terse fellow’s name was Tom Mix. He showed up in South Africa to check out and get in on what he’d heard was a good fight. It didn’t matter to Mix that he hadn’t the vaguest notion what the quarrel was about and hadn’t decided which side to throw in with.

W. C. admired such even-handed pugnaciousness. At the same time it allowed him to not feel intimidated by the cowboy because it seemed to indicate that Mix was none too bright. But then, that was a belief that Fields held about most of the rest of the world.

Though he’d never admit it, W. C. was often lonely on his overseas tours. Unless he ran into other American expatriates, he was lost in a sea of foreign tongues. So, like many entertainers of that era, he took up sketching as a hobby.

As with any art that required dexterity, patience and skill, he became quite good at it. Besides allowing him the means to entertain himself while whiling away the hours in foreign bistros, W. C. found that it provided him with a currency of communication to exchange with non-English speakers. Considering his exaggerated verbal flair, he actually got to where he could draw faster than he could talk, and express any wishes he might have with just a few taut pen strokes.

He also used his new skill to further his studies of the human race. His talent as a somewhat savage caricaturist got him into several splendidly satisfying barroom brawls.

But W. C. didn’t spare himself either. His self-portraits were cruelly hilarious. The kindest ones were of himself as a rotund, top-hatted, pugnacious, cigar-smoking urchin. Some of his friends noted that his self portraits were often accompanied by drawings of a tiny, foppishly dressed, morose little pixy scribbled into the margins.

“Who’s that, W. C.?” they’d ask.

“My muse, of course,” the juggler growled. To prove his point he drew a picture of himself drawing the pixy drawing him drawing the pixy, till the images dwindled down to tiny scratch marks on the page.

“Why do you draw the little fellow so small?”

“Because as long as something is small enough to pick up and throw around, you’ll probably be able to keep the upper hand with it,” snarled Fields.


TWELVE

Charlie J. Wuest took off his ceremonial robes, folded them carefully and slipped a flask from his inside pocket. Rituals over, it was time to relax and be sociable. There was more than one benefit to being a Mason.

He spotted Mac McCay across the assembly hall. Charlie studied his old friend before approaching him. Mac was dressed more elegantly than ever, a sure sign of prosperity. A cheroot tipped at a lively angle from between his lips — he’d taken to smoking those thin, expensive cigars wrapped in pink paper, layered into hand-stamped tin boxes.

But Mac didn’t look good. It wasn’t just the years . . . hell, none of them were getting any younger. Charlie, friends with Mac since the pre-Maude days, was one of the few that knew Mac lied about his age.

But even taking into consideration that Mac was older than he claimed to be, the man looked worn beyond his years. His face, though thin, was flabby with fatigue. His eyes still tried to sparkle with leprechaunish mischief; the mischief looked frightened and desperate to get out.

Charlie took another long swig of gin from his flask before going over to talk to Mac.

“Mac! Haven’t seen you in, what, three years?”

Mac seemed cheered by Charlie’s greeting, but he winced when Charlie pumped his hand up and down. Charlie softened his grip, shocked that Mac even felt fragile.

“Hearst’s kept me too busy drawing political commentary on the war to get to the annual meetings,” Mac said. “I was lucky to make this one.”

Charlie nodded. There had been a lot fewer newspapermen attending since the beginning of the Great War. And most of the younger members of the Order were over in Europe as soldiers, fighting the Hun.

“Is that why I don’t see so many of those fantastic comic strips of yours anymore?”

Mac looked more pained, and Charlie regretted bringing the subject up.

Mac forced a smile. “I suppose so. Mr. Hearst always seems to be able to find more than enough to keep me busy.”

“Does that mean you’ve had to shelve your moving picture work for the duration too?” Charlie knew that would be a safe question to ask. He’d heard rumors Mac was up to something.

Mac smiled. “One of the few benefits of being kept on a short leash is it’s meant more chances to work in my own studio. I’m developing an important animation, Charlie. Something serious, an adult topic — the sinking of the Lusitania.”

Mac brightened further. “My son Robert’s been helping me. He’s turned into a talent, a fine artist in his own right. His assistance has been invaluable.” Mac’s face fell again. “Or I should say was invaluable. Robert joined the armed services two months ago.” The creases of a father’s worry joined the other lines rumpling Mac’s face.

Charlie squirmed. What could he talk about with Mac that wouldn’t cause the other man pain? He wanted to ask after Mac’s daughter, and his wife Maude, but was afraid to.




Mac could tell he was making his old friend suffer; it would be unkind not to make the conversation easier for Charlie. He reached up and patted the other man’s shoulder. “Just listen to me! I sound like a fussy old hen. I doubt that Robert will even make it out of the country, let alone to the front, before this rumpus is cleared up.”

Charlie looked relieved that Mac had bounced back. “You’re right. He’ll be fine, Mac. And when he gets back maybe he’ll be able to take over your animation projects so you can get on with whatever brilliant innovation you decide to concoct next. You know, there’s times when I see what you’ve done that I really regret getting out of the pictorial side of the business.” He shook his head. “But who am I kidding? I just never had the vision and talent that people like you and some of the others — Outcault, Bud Fisher — have.”




Outcault, that other artist who had emerged from Cincinnati, equally favored by the Queen of Cities. Why in God’s name did Charlie have to bring up Outcault, Mac wondered?

Outcault had haunted Mac’s life like a precognitive ghost. Comic strips, vaudeville sketching tours, musicals based on comic strips, merchandising schemes (Buster Brown Shoes were household catchwords) and even animation: Outcault had always preceded Mac, until Mac wondered if the man was clairvoyant, or if he was somehow privy to Mac’s thoughts and stealing his ideas. Had Outcault found a way of coasting ahead on the creative energy of Mac’s life?

And not for the first time Mac wondered if that was what his brother Arthur had meant when he’d accused Mac of stealing his life.

Had Outcault been visited upon Mac as repayment in kind? And was that only one of the restitutions life was demanding from Mac? His comic strips, his animation, his vaudeville act; his wife, his daughter, his son; all that Mac loved was slipping from his control.

And in reaction, as a defense, had he just begun the cycle all over again? The more he lost from his own life, the more he had invested of himself in his secret, pseudonymous comic strip. Mac wondered, guiltily, if in living vicariously through his strips of the life of W. C. Fields he’d also stolen the life Whitey might have had. He knew that it was the life that Whitey would have wished for himself. It was different. It was like a gift to the long-lost vagrant boy. Mac kept telling himself that over and over again.




Charlie looked embarrassed and disconcerted. Mac realized an uncomfortable length of time had elapsed; that he’d let the repartee flounder again. He could imagine the expression on his face after thinking about Outcault. No wonder Charlie seemed so chagrined. Mac would have to turn this conversation around.

He pretended that Charlie had just finished speaking. “Oh, I don’t know about that, Charlie. It looks to me as though making editor-in-chief has agreed with you. I’ve heard nothing but great things about your work the last few years. Maybe this is what you were destined to do — to bring that keen, perceptive artist’s eye of yours to bear on the written word. Not to mention that offbeat sense of humor you were famous for even back in our National Printing and Engraving company days.”

Wuest looked surprised that Mac knew about his promotion. He blushed with pride at Mac’s compliments.

From there both men, with great relief, let the conversation lead naturally into reminiscences of what seemed to be, in the nostalgic glow of retrospection, the all too brief period of time when they were printing and engraving apprentices together.

They reclaimed the years, their faces younger and their voices lighter as they remembered their run-ins and adventures together after they’d both left Chicago and become newspaper illustrators.

“Remember the lynching in that tiny town . . . what was it called?” Charlie recalled.

“Logan. Outside the town, by a long wagon ride.” The incident should have been unnotable to Mac; just one of many steps to an elevated success. But for some reason everything surrounding the hanging had always filled him with profound unease.

“Well, of course the hanging itself was grim, the way all hangings are.” Charlie had misread, in part, Mac’s reaction. “But everything else about the affair was so, well, wild and unexpected. Remember how the farmers hid the outlaws from us? The tornado? Getting stranded and having the world’s longest and most drunken poker game?”

“I’m surprised you remember it so charitably,” Mac said drily.

Charlie nudged Mac in the ribs. “Think I forgot how you outfoxed us all? Not damn likely! Took me years to get over being annoyed with you. But I knew I was really more irritated with myself for not having thought of it first.”

Mac realized that he’d never mentioned to Charlie that he had passed through Peebles in the course of his coup. “Charlie,” he said, “did you ever get to see that Great Serpent mound you talked about on that trip?”

The other newsman shivered. “Yes, I did. Years later. I wish I hadn’t. You know, it’s one thing to conjecture about mysterious powers, to play with them around the edges, like we do here.” He gestured around the meeting hall at the other Masons. “But it’s another thing to come up against them face to face. Unnerving. Especially being an artist.

“I got a feeling about all those Indians who’d worked so hard to build that mound — that somehow their souls got appropriated in the process. That’s what made the thing seem so damned alive. It made me understand how art could really take on a life of its own. I think only artists like us can truly understand that,” he shivered again, “and maybe be vulnerable to it. It was beautiful, but I got away as fast as I could. That’s when I made the decision to get into editing instead.” He looked at Mac curiously. “What made you think of it?”

“Because I saw it, too, when I was stealing the thunder from you fellows at the Logan lynching. You can see the Serpent mound just south of Peebles, from the train. It was all lit up by moonlight after the storm. I couldn’t have put it into words as well as you just did, but that’s exactly how that barrow made me feel.”

Charlie smiled uneasily, as if Mac were making a joke at his expense. “That’s impossible, Mac. You couldn’t have seen the Great Serpent mound. It’s north and east of Peebles, nowhere near the train line.”


THIRTEEN

By 1915 The Life and Times of W. C. Fields had become a popular and lucrative enough draw to come to the attention of legitimate theater. In that year the plot shifted: The Ziegfeld Follies hired W. C. away from vaudeville. For several years the episodes of his life revolved around escapades in this new venue. Often they centered around conflicts with his new boss, Flo Ziegfeld.




Bill Catlett peered out into the hallway from W. C.’s dressing room.

“Is it all clear?” came a nasal caw behind him. Catlett turned to look at his partner and grinned. Fields was dressed for golfing; or at least golfing as Fields played it. A cap like a collapsed omelette draped the top of W. C.’s head. The cap was so large it shaded but didn’t dim what Fields wore beneath: a deep pink bow tie, lavender shirt, yellow and green argyle knit vest, voluminous black and white checkered knickers, short socks and spats. W. C. teetered as he stood: His golfing shoes sported three inch spikes.

Catlett would have considered his colleague the epitome of sartorial disaster if his own wardrobe hadn’t been even more dreadful. His caddie’s outfit started off with a plaid tam-o-shanter no self-respecting Scotsman would be caught dead wearing, and went to worse from there. Catlett couldn’t look down at himself without breaking out of character into laughter.

“No sign of Ziegfeld.” He reported to Fields. “I can hear them getting ready to change the sets. We’d better get out there.”

“The timing has to be perfect,” Fields growled as he hoisted the main prop, an outsized golf bag, onto his shoulder. “We must array ourselves as soon as that blasted set is up, before Ziegfeld’s dancing beauties prance on stage.”

W. C. had approached Ziegfeld about doing a golfing skit months before. The impresario had initially agreed, then decided that one tiny change must be made. W. C. Fields would have to change the golf act into a fishing act on a yacht. That way Flo Ziegfeld could slide his ubiquitous showgirls on stage as bathing beauties.

Fields was livid, but Ziegfeld wouldn’t budge. He never did when it came to his beloved dancers. But Flo Ziegfeld was about to discover that his comedian was more stubborn than he.

Now,” muttered W. C. They scuttled their way down the corridor to the wings. Their timing was impeccable. The yacht set was in place behind the curtains. Fanny Brice, spotlighted in front, was winding down her routine. In a minute the music would segue into the prologue for their act, curtains would go up on an empty stage and dancing girls would sashay slowly into place. After the lovelies had cut a few fancy figures Catlett and Fields were supposed to walk on with their fishing equipment.

The curtains raised, but not on an empty stage. Smack dab in the middle of the yacht were the two monstrous golfers, already talking and drowning out the soft orchestral arrangement.

“Give me the five iron, my good man,” W. C. bawled as he went through complicated and arcane gestures placing his tee. He turned around to find that from the copious golf bag Catlett had pulled a pole with five old fashioned steam irons strung to it. Fields jumped back in offended surprise. He cuffed Catlett and rummaged in the bag himself till he found the club he sought — one with a rubber shaft that kept wrapping itself around Field’s neck with each swing.

In the wings the bathing beauties milled in confusion. Not knowing what to do about the unannounced change of plans, they had missed their cue. The orchestra conductor, a wise, patient, and resigned fellow, signalled his musicians and doubled back to the entrance music.

The girls rallied and shimmied on stage. Their elaborate bathing costumes glittered under the bright lights. There was a second of shocked silence from the audience; then they started giggling and chuckling at the incongruity.

The warfare escalated. When the girls were good and kept behind W. C. he’d turn, tip his hat and leer at them. But whenever one of the dancers threatened to slither between Fields and his audience he’d brandish his unpredictable club threateningly and yell “Fore!” at the top of his lungs. People were howling with laughter.

In the wings W. C. and Catlett could see Flo Ziegfeld crying. But what could he do? The audience loved it.

“Ahh yaas, ahh yaas,” Fields muttered under his breath to Catlett as he took a mighty swing. “Hoisted on his own petard.”

W. C. could never forget his hungry days, and ate each meal as though it were his last. He developed a taste for imported cheeses, pâté, all forms of shellfish, smoked game, petit fours, and chocolate truffles. He drank more and more liquor, buying only the most expensive labels. He claimed that his penchant for drink was responsible for the condition of his increasingly famous nose.

In spite of all the physical activity involved in preparing and executing his acts, the added prosperity at last began to upholster W. C. to plumpness, till to his audience’s eye he looked like an aging version of that perennial bad boy Flip from the comics of their youth.

Affluence brought other rewards. It seemed a good time to indulge in other long suppressed desires. Fields bought a huge, sumptuous touring Cadillac, the first of what would prove to be a collection of luxurious sedans.

He drove the way he juggled — adroitly, with verve, risk and not a little danger. As in the theater, where he treated anyone who shared the stage with him as a dangerous competitor out to rob him of glory and threaten his life, so even more so on the road. And just as on the stage, anyone who crossed him regretted it.

Once on a trip through the south with his agent, Bill Grady, Fields made the error of picking up a hitchhiker. W. C. had spent the morning swerving back and forth across the road to avoid the alligators he claimed were lying in wait for him in the bogs that served as curbs in that locale.

Grady took a turn driving so that W. C. could take a well-earned martini break in the back seat. This ritual consisted of Fields sitting with a bottle of vermouth in one hand, a bottle of gin in the other and a jar of olives balanced on his hat. W. C. would take a gulp of gin, follow with a sip of vermouth, and then, by what means Grady could never comprehend, with a peculiar motion of his neck somehow pop an olive up and out of the jar and catch it neatly on the mouth of the bottle of gin. Whereupon he daintily nibbled the olive as an appetizer for the next swig of gin.

They passed a gaunt and dusty man standing beside the highway, portmanteau in one hand, thumb out on the other.

W. C. remembered his own hard days on the road. “Where’s your humanity, Grady? Pick the poor fellow up.”

Grady obediently backed up and the man hopped aboard.

A couple of miles further on Fields decided to extend his charity even further and offered the man a drink.

The gentleman looked down his long, bony nose at Fields. “I can see God has sent me to save you-all from your sinning ways, brother.” He reached inside his satchel and pulled out a bible and some pamphlets. “I’m a preacher and this-here is my cure to save sinners like you-all from demon rum,” he said, waving one of the tracts in W. C.’s face. He began reading and ranting.

W. C. took about five miles of it before screaming to Grady to stop the car. Fields picked up the preacher and threw him out.

As the man of God lay stunned in the ditch, W. C. threw a fresh bottle of gin at him a roared, with great satisfaction, “I’m W. C. Fields and that there is my cure to save preachers like you from demon sobriety.” Then he loftily waved Grady to drive on.

Cars, good food, fame, wealth and adventure were not enough. Like the cartoon character Mr. Goodenough, W. C. soon felt restless for new adventures and accomplishments. Unlike Mr. Goodenough, he did not retreat from them.

In 1923 Fields was invited to try out for the part of Eustace McGargle in the musical comedy Poppy. The role must have been written for W. C. by a benevolent God with a sense of humor.

Eustace McGargle was a rascal of the first water, an old time carny-con who survived by bilking hayseeds at country fairs. To the director’s despair and the audience’s delight, W. C. improvised freely, adding juggling routines whenever he wished and developing Eustace McGargle’s character till it bore a marked resemblance to certain burlesque managers Fields had once known.

Even if the part had not been so perfect for him Fields still would have taken it: He couldn’t resist the name Eustace McGargle. The show, of course, was a smashing success.

D. W. Griffith took note of Poppy’s popularity and decided to shoot a film version of it at Paramount’s studio out on Long Island in 1925. His first choice for the role of Eustace McGargle was Fatty Arbuckle. When that fell through he turned to the vaudevillian who’d defined the role on Broadway, a Mr. W. C. Fields.

Griffith retitled the film Sally of the Sawdust. The plot was rewritten to revolve around the comely starlet Carol Dempster. This didn’t suit W. C. at all. From his first day on the set he pulled out every high-handed maneuver he knew from his substantial bag of tricks to dominate and abscond with the show. The movie was a smash hit. The studio heads, who W. C. had driven to such distraction that they’d considered having him assassinated, decided that he was an astute thespian after all.

This led to other roles for Fields in the movies So’s Your Old Man, Running Wild and The Old Army Game, all produced by Paramount at the Long Island facility. These films met with critical acclaim but only lukewarm financial success. Paramount let W. C. go.

He was not crushed. With the added luster of the title “movie star” to his already considerable reputation, W. C. negotiated an attractively lucrative contract with Earl Carroll and briefly returned to Broadway to appear in Carroll’s Vanities revue.

But Fields’ prodigious nose could easily tell which way and from where the wind was blowing. In 1931 he bought himself a splendid new Lincoln sedan, emptied his bank accounts of at least three hundred and fifty thousand dollars for pocket money and drove out to Hollywood.




Fields didn’t break into the movie scene in Hollywood easily. If his reputation for brilliance preceded him, so, equally, did his reputation for being high-handed and difficult. Compounding his problem was the fact that several producers had attended the performance years before where he’d brained Ed Wynn with the warped pool cue. They were terrified of W. C. and wouldn’t allow him within striking distance.

To keep himself busy while he waited for the Hollywood directors and producers to come to their senses, W. C. kept himself entertained with various diversions, including golf, a game he’d continued playing with great enthusiasm after his success in using it to bring the great Flo Ziegfeld to his knees.

Golf held many benefits for Fields, not the least of which was keeping him in extra pocket change and sharpening his wits. He prepared for each game like a general going to battle. Each potential partner’s life was studied intensely. Just when W. C.’s intended victim appeared to be ripe, either recovering from domestic strife or exhausted from stressful professional dealings, Fields would call up and suggest a relaxing round of golf, with perhaps a “small” bet on the side to enliven the game.

Once on the course he toyed with his prey like a cat playing along a half-dead mouse. First he replayed the beginning of his Ziegfeld golf act, confounding his partners with exaggerated etiquette. He followed this up with floundering through hole after hole, luring his partners into upping the bets. Then with a juggler’s skill he handily sank the most improbable shots imaginable, winning easily. “Well, what do you know about that?” he’d bray, scratching his head in bewilderment at his astounding good fortune. “Madame Bella Fortuna finally decided to smile upon me after all, ah yaas.”

He met the film director Mack Sennett in this fashion. Recognizing a first rate rogue when he saw one, Sennett wisely kept his wager small. Fields had to respect someone who recognized his talents so quickly.

Sennett had originally trained to be an opera singer. He started up his own studio by parlaying a gambling debt (that he owed) somehow into funding for the soon-famous Keystone Studios.

W. C. decided that anyone who could pull off such a feat of legerdemain could almost be considered an equal and deserved to have the great W. C. Fields starring in their movies. Amused, Sennett consented to agree with him.

They made seven films together in two years, including The Chemist and The Fatal Glass of Beer.

W. C. may now have found a secure foothold in the movie industry, but his trials and tribulations weren’t over. An old, old problem reasserted itself with a vengeance, and that was his peculiarly antagonistic relationship with the animal kingdom.

It had begun in his vagrant youth, when neighborhood dogs correctly figured him for a thief and a ne’er-do-well and did their best to run him out of their territories, biting shreds off the seat of his pants when they could.

The situation escalated in the circus with his encounters with the elephants Gunga Din, Rajah and Elsie. Now beasts were not only his foes, but his artistic rivals as well.

A wooden stage is a confining and awkward venue for most four-footed performers, so W. C.’s years in vaudeville were relatively animal-free. An exception was his white mice, who he kept so dizzy from juggling that he felt he usually had the upper hand with them.

Film making was an entirely different matter. With the greater space available in the big production lots or even — with location shooting — all of the great outdoors, and the luxury of limitless reshooting as opposed to the confining immediacy of theater, the motion picture industry was well-suited for showcasing the talents of animals.

And W. C. quickly realized the animal kingdom had aligned itself against him as a balance against his success.

In one movie he barely outran a pride of lions. In other films he had to contend with the obstinance of mules and the neuroses of horses. Later, as a final humiliation, he’d have to endure a cinematic amorous encounter with a goat in a case of mistaken identity in the movie My Little Chickadee. It was a miserable experience for Fields, but his public loved it.

His confrontations weren’t limited to his professional life. Everywhere he went animals pursued him with malice. He rented a villa on Toluca Lake. The lake’s primary inhabitant was a large, cantankerous swan. It hated Fields on sight and attacked him whenever he strolled in his backyard. W. C. took to carrying a crook-necked cane, hoping to hook the bird around the neck and pin it. This strategy never worked. His neighbor, Bing Crosby, would watch in amazement as the swan chased Fields back up to his house day after day.

W. C. finally realized that he might have better luck actually attacking the bird back with his golf clubs. The results were more satisfactory. Now Crosby was treated to the sight of Fields running after the feathered bathing beauty, swinging mightily and screaming “Fore!” at the top of his lungs.




In his two years with Sennett W. C. Fields became a household name. Paramount Studios finally realized they had made a mistake in letting W. C. go after his stint with them in Long Island. They lured him away from Sennett and back to them with a substantial raise on his contract.

In 1932 he shot International House with Rudy Vallee and Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Vallee was a pleasant enough singer, but for some reason he reminded W. C. of the Toluca Lake swan. W. C. thought up a scene that he insisted be written into the movie. He badgered the director, Eddie Sutherland, till Sutherland wearily gave in.

In the scene Fields walked into a room where one of those new fangled entertainment devices, a television, was turned on. Rudy Vallee was singing away on the tiny screen. W. C. did a horrified doubletake, pulled out a pistol and shot at the TV, wherein Vallee promptly keeled over dead within the screen.

“You’ve got one hell of an imagination, W. C.,” marvelled Sutherland. “How did you think that one up?”

Fields drew himself up with an offended air. “That was a mere trifle for a master prestidigitator and the greatest juggler in the world.”


FOURTEEN

On July 27, 1934, W. C. Fields read in the Los Angeles Times obituary column of the artist Zenas Winsor McCay’s death the previous day. A photograph pictured a drained, faded man. The biography listed his accomplishments; from his famous comic strips to his political cartoons to his breakthrough work in animation. It mentioned a few of the usual trials and tribulations of any mortal — some near scandals concerning his voluptuous wife Maude, the choice his daughter made to marry a much older man, his rivalry with fellow artist Outcault. The obit ended by remarking on Winsor McCay’s long involvement with the Masonic Order.

The name rang a bell. W. C. shuffled through his desk, whistling a tune under his breath. There, underneath an old handbill for a vaudeville act he’d done titled “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” was a piece of paper grown yellow and brittle with age. Though the ink of the drawing was faded, its lines still retained a special verve, a freshness. Chalk stubs wrote cryptic messages and symbols as they flew through the air. Chasing along after through a dingy railway saloon, a frantic youthful juggler erased them with one hand, drawing new symbols behind him with the other.

With a twinge of guilt W. C. was sure he remembered the artist — tiny and tightly drawn, like a cartoon himself. Kind and brilliant, but almost ridiculously gullible and naive; the type that was far too vulnerable to guilt.

W. C. drew the vaudeville handbill back over the drawing. “Never give a sucker an even break.” One of W. C.’s favorite sayings, right after “you can’t cheat an honest man.” They’d both make nice titles for movies. He’d have to have a little talk with his producers over at Paramount tomorrow.

That night W. C. pulled back the covers to his bed, humming as he slid with pleasure between the lovely, crisp sheets, changed fresh every day. What was that song? It had been haunting the edge of his memory for days. Yaas, yaas, now he remembered. One of the old standbys. “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” Really rather catchy, when you thought about it.


EPILOGUE

In 1934, in the Traverse City State Hospital, Arthur McCay began to slowly emerge from the fugue he’d been immersed in all of his long years of residence at the institution. Although he never fully surfaced into reality, he seemed more at peace, quieter inside, as if he’d finally made the world his own.

Arthur died there, in the State Hospital, twelve years later on June 5, 1946, at the age of seventy-eight. In all the forty-eight years of his confinement, there is no record of him ever having been visited by a single member of his family.




Early in June of 1946 W. C. Fields began to feel disconnected from his own existence.

The last twelve years had seen his greatest creative achievements — his radio work, his best movies, like My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick — as if some last barrier to his creativity had, dam-like, given way.

But for several years Fields had also been feeling tired and old. He’d already moved permanently into a cottage at the luxurious Seboba Hot Springs sanitorium/resort. Arthritis clawed his once miraculously nimble fingers. He slept wildly, often falling out of bed like a small child wrenched out of miraculous dreams of Slumberland.

Throughout the summer and into the fall he stumbled more and more frequently. By winter he felt as though his life had become like a drawing unravelling into disparate, unconnected lines.

During the evening of Christmas Eve his friends, nurses and doctors, gathered about his bed, heard him humming an old fashioned-sounding tune no one recognized. At midnight he put a hushing finger to his lips and winked. W. C. Fields, the most magnificent juggler in the world, the Master Prestidigitator, died the morning of Christmas day, 1946, at sixty-six years of age, in his bed, on fresh clean sheets.

The End


"Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" was first published by Omni Online in February 1995.

Copyright © 1995, 1999, 2016 by Michaela Roessner and Alpha Cygni, Inc.