Omnipotent Henri hovered above the vicinity of Prophet Road and Main Street—a lollygagging slope of terrain fused with the cold limestone of two-story buildings that rambled down toward the lumberyard. He eyed Sem Ballion’s aimless chickens ready to scatter as a speedy Ford open-back truck looked to enter a skid.
From his overarching view Henri cast his cloudy vision right in line with the brick roundhouse and, most important, the adjacent station and ticket office that housed the second-floor offices of the P&O, or, as locals called it, the Pissed Off Railroad that ran due west from here to the Mississippi River.
Henri heard the railroad sounding bell chime to a beat, as if it were playing a duet with the alternating flash of the red warning lights. The guardrail’s timing was perfect, and the locomotive neared the roundhouse, returning from its last run of the day, missing the Ford, releasing a lullaby of steam, and tucking itself into bed till tomorrow morning.
That was what omnipresent Henri saw as he surveyed the moving miniature, ensuring the twenty-foot by ten-foot replica of the town’s heyday from the 1920s spun and animated itself according to plan.
When Henri scanned the opposite direction, across the hall from the maquette on the second floor, he became a time traveler who peeped a view of the P&O office, circa 1910, complete with its glory-day accoutrements: a partners’ desk and gooseneck telephone, maps and schedules, Underwood typewriter and correspondence, leatherback ledger, wood filing cabinets, pen-and-ink set, bowler hat, and Mabes—Henri’s wife—dusting it all like a dodging longhair who flicked her grey kitty tail among the figurines.
“Mamma,” Henri called, “aren’t you done yet? Nearly noon.” And she whipped her vast, aproned self around and feather dusted the air with bifocaled accuracy, as if Henri were standing before her, his ruddy complexion, snappingly checkered suspenders, and basketball-shaped belly all in line for a quick once-over from her duster. Mabes’s beagle ears tickled and perked at a bell sounding above the downstairs entrance. “Daddy, someone walked in,” Mabes said. “You wanna check?”
Henri took the stairs and trusted the bannisters above the angled steps, slogged down five of them, and veered right, pausing at the landing before attempting the long haul; he hung his two-hundred-fifty-odd pounds onto the railings again, clumped his right clubfoot, turned oblique at the ankle, and trudged downcast step by step like a simple machine that existed only to slip and slam its awkward self along the steep narrows more than twenty times from one tread to the next until it reached its goal, the main-floor ticket office and museum entrance.
“Help ya?” Henri asked, lacking the power to say more. Leaving behind the good ole days, Henri saw a middle-age man whose scalp featured numerous hair plugs that were slotted into place like individual stalks of corn in the nearby field, and he had, Henri thought, something to sell. That Henri was certain of. That man had gleaming promise in his black eyes and an evening-dark, doctor’s-style bag of gizmos, and Henri knew from the outset that he needed none of it. But the man might spread the word and tell customers to visit the Pissed Off Railroad and Train Museum, now keeping its summer hours courtesy of Henri and Mabes’s weekday generosity for the enjoyment of a handful of the season’s tourists—not the sales trade.
Henri took a step forward, extended his shaking hand anyway, and slipped outright onto a puddle that had dripped from the leaking window air conditioner. Floor varnish hid the pool on oak, and Henri’s disability brought him further downward till his right knee struck the wood and his hands sheltered his head from bashing the baseboard. Mabes heard the thud and skedaddled her feet down the stairs with two quick steps and a pause, two quick steps and another pause, her voice breaking free from its bundle of worry to squeal “Daddy, Daddy” in counterpoint to the cadence of her skips.
Henri grasped his right kneecap, Mabes arrived to attempt a lift from the armpits that failed, and all the hair plugs exaggerated themselves as the visitor forced open his lids wide, causing a chain reaction that plowed eyebrows into forehead and coercing everything north of that point to retreat along the curvature of his cranium.
“Daddy, you alright?” Mabes asked with a fearful shiver.
“Oh, I’m sure I sprained it, Mamma, fractured my kneecap. God bless it.”
“It’s right well I came along when I did,” the salesman said, and all Henri could think was how much better his kneecap would feel now if the visitor hadn’t called at all. The hair plugs jiggled while the salesman set a chair for Henri near the foot of the stairs—but out of the water’s way—and he helped Mabes pull their patient onto the seat. The man took a mop from the corner to suck up the water, and he unplugged the window unit and set it outside for the time being.
“I’ll drain the tray,” he said when he returned, “add some bleach, hose out the cooling unit, and let it dry in the sun. Should take care of it.”
Henri knew the trick. Be kind and useful, extend yourself, and they’ll be indebted to you. Their guilt will make them buy, and you’ll leave with a sales case far lighter than when you entered. Henri may have fallen once, but he was not about to fall for it now.
“By the way, I’m Roger, Roger Beam.”
“I’m Henri and this is my wife Mabes. We appreciate your help, but we can manage all the same, and I’m sure—”
“Be back in a moment with some ice—and I’ll make a call, too,” said Roger, who disappeared before Henri could file a proper protest.
“Know darn well what he’s up to,” Henri said, and Mabes padded his right shoulder to somehow soothe the deep-set kneecap pain well below.
“Daddy, we’ll get ice on that, and I bet you’ll—”
“Mamma, go about your dusting. I’ll take care of this Roger Dodger salesman.”
“Daddy, you know what’s best.” From her apron pocket she passed off his salami-and-cheese sandwich and left to straighten the back room. “Holler, Daddy, if you need me.”
Knee communicated with brain, and brain responded back, ushering forth pain-filled circles that emanated outward from the point of contact where body met oak. Special thanks, too, went to slippage, gravity, and visually hidden water for their fine efforts in the escapade.
Relying on his omniscience, Henri figured he could cut Roger’s return visit short by suggesting that Mabes close the museum early. There would be no time to investigate the contents of Roger’s case, filled as Henri knew it would be with aspirin and cold compresses, bleaches and Lava soap, sewing kits and shoeshine products, dishtowels and handkerchiefs, makeup and lotions, and gels and perfumes—and that would only be the left half of it. He bit the salami, swallowed, and chuckled away in thought at his solution.
And that’s as far as he got because Henri saw that Roger staged his entrance carrying a small bag of ice and a concerned face that promised something more: It would take fifty minutes for an ambulance to arrive from Coldberg, followed by a fifty-minute drive to the X-ray at IMP Vernon View Clinic, once the ambulance gets on the main highway, of course, but shouldn’t someone knowledgeable look at that knee, anyway?
It was at this point that Henri knew he was trapped. If he said yes, out would come pressure bandages, wrap, and the Extremities Handbook until the ambulance, if called, would arrive. No would bring the aspirin cure-all to further reduce swelling, while Roger rummaged through his case for the bleach, necessary to cleanse the air conditioner and to prevent more dripping or subsequent knee injuries.
“Did you call, Daddy?”
“It’s too late now, Mamma,” Henri snapped back, for he knew he was saddled with Roger. He took the ice pack, but all he could feel was his right rear pocket where the wallet, a flat pancake—never doughy—rested, in danger of being nibbled away piecemeal.
Henri downed the aspirin and paid for the bottle. His wallet was out when Mabes checked on him and saw Roger’s bleach, which, of course, she needed, too, as an all-purpose disinfecting cleanser for the museum and its many display cases, surfaces, and countertops—an added expense.
More purchases followed: room spray to cover that hideous bleach smell, clean hand towels and cleaning rags—they were used on the spot—and packets of powdered lemonade for Mabes’s break. She took some of Henri’s watered-down ice and added it to her cup for a cooling sip.
Only one thing could stop that gnawing sound inside Henri’s wallet, and it was the reason the couple had agreed to volunteer their time at the Pissed Off Railroad and Train Museum in the first place: tourists. If only a tourist or two would converse with and buy from Roger, leaving Henri alone with his singular pain and simple wallet. And why he hadn’t purchased “No Salespersons Allowed,” “No Solicitation,” or a similar notice was beyond him—and Roger as well. “No, I don’t have a sign like that,” Roger said, and Henri saw the man’s mental cogs working overtime, guesstimating why anyone would ever need such a thing.
When a stiff-backed fifty-something husband and his delighted wife—a former high-school sweetheart, Henri assumed—entered in late afternoon, Roger had organized his satchel, but smiled to open it one more time, his hair plugs doing a double-take.
“Folks, I have assorted goods here, soothing lotion for minor aches and gifts for the already-satisfied.” Tourists are forever picking up items, and Henri was glad these two didn’t disappoint. Let him frisk someone else, Henri thought, applying thumb pressure to the right knee, which by now was showing modest signs of recovery.
“My dear, what happened to you?” the smiling woman asked Henri. A nurse by trade, she examined the knee and proclaimed it swollen and sore, but not fractured. “I’m no authority,” the woman said, “but many patients swear by warm coconut oil applied to the site as a kind of healing massage.”
“Yes, I have a bottle right here,” Roger added, and Mabes thought it best to commence therapy at once, putting a cupful of the oil in the backroom microwave. Henri paid the added price for the large-size bottle at his wife’s request.
“Son of a—” Henri said under his breath, but he directed his aggravation at Roger, who heard it and understood Henri’s pain.
“That luxurious oil will do the trick,” Roger said. “Almost forgot. I’ve got to flush that air conditioner. Since your missus has the bleach bottle, mind if I take a new one for our project?”
Henri liked that. Our project, but who, would one suppose, was funding that second bottle of bleach? Never mind, Henri thought, for his wallet was now nearly exhausted of its bills, and even his temper was retreating. From his position near the base of the stairs by the back-door window, Henri saw Roger’s thorough work: the draining and rinsing, the bleaching and flushing, the sunning and eventual placing of the air conditioner in the same sill from which it came.
Nearing five by the grandfather clock in the opposite corner, Mabes, Henri, and Roger sat together, knowing their work for one day was just about done. The sun winked in at Henri and his knee, the tourists had departed with smiles, Mabes’s cleaning met her own satisfaction, the healing coconut oil worked its miracle, and Roger played an important role in all of it.
“What’s for supper?” Henri asked Roger. Roger opened the case, and his hair plugs danced.
Jan Wiezorek writes from Chicago. His fiction has appeared at Ozone Park Journal, TheWriteMag.com, CracktheSpine.com, CommuterLit.com, RustyNailMag.com, PressboardPress.com, Picayune Magazine, Seeds Literary Arts Journal in Chicago, Sleepytown Press, AbsintheRevival.net, Our Day’s Encounter, Blinking Cursor, Midwestern Gothic, and The April Reader. He is author of Awesome Art Projects That Spark Super Writing (New York: Scholastic, 2011). For many years his feature stories of unsung heroes appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Jan holds an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts Education from Columbia College Chicago and a B.A. in Journalism from Iowa State University. He has studied fiction writing at Northeastern Illinois University. Jan enjoys biking the backroads of Michigan’s Harbor Country. Visit him at teachwrite.net.