A Protagonist

Board member West Cook Wild Ones westcook.wildones.org/ Stewardship volunteer Cook County Forest Preserve

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According to the first law of narrative dynamics, when two improbable events happen concurrently, they mean business.

At dusk, I was collecting Unc’s mail from the mailbox at the junction his driveway with Solemn Oath Road. I had my back to the road when I heard an off-kilter tapping noise. I turned to the direction of the sound. A man, a well-born dressed man with a limp, walked up the road towards me. He wore a blazer that smoldered, a buxom shirt, the collar turned out. His slacks had coachwhip creases and cuffs that holstered leisure spats and buttoned boots. In his left hand, he carried a xenon floor lamp as a staff. With every other step, he tapped the road asphalt with the lamp base to produce a series of eerie clicks. He seemed out of place, like a lost dandy.

I nodded my head to him and said, “Good evening Mr. Stranger. Pleasant times ain’t it.” He didn’t answer. He walked past me as if I were an element of landscape. I thought he was either an unfriendly fellow or someone imprisoned in his own thoughts. He was neither. He turned around suddenly. Staring at me, ramrod straight into my eyes, he walked toward me. “I am no stranger,” he said. He raised his floor lamp, pointed it at me, turned on the light, and spotlighted my face. “And you young person,” he said, “are a protagonist. Now, don’t fuck it up.” He turned off the light, lowered the lamp, pivoted again and walked down the road, tapping the floor lamp against the asphalt.

I walked back to Unc’s house considering the consequences of being a protagonist and how that stranger could shine a floor lamp at me when he had no place to plug it in anywhere. It must have had a battery or it ran on formulated static electricity.

I wondered if I’m a protagonist shouldn’t I announce it to the world or at least to the people in my county, Quid County. I decided I’d tell people I know first, like my uncle. That way, I could practice announcing myself as a protagonist. Unc would be a good first person to tell. He read a lot. He probably knew a lot about protagonists.

Unc was sitting on the edge of his compost bin sharpening his grape hoe to weed his plots of wild leeks and ramps down in his lower woods. Unc didn’t farm the customary cash crops. A jagged cut ran from his temple to his chin, and he looked like a freebooter. A couple of days before he cut down a hedge of bayonet whorebush, an alien invasive species. The thorns of its canes sliced open his face.

While offering him his mail, I said, “Unc, I got something to tell ya.”
“What’s that?” he replied with a comforting smile.

Just as I intended to confess my protagonism, a streak of light came out of the evening clouds so bright it glammed our attention. The streak had a flaming pyre for a head, the tail, brimstone embers. It crossed over us near a suture in the sky where an aerospace repair crew had mended a slit in the atmosphere to prevent the ether from flowing in. Smokestack fumes from the power plant had dissolved the atmosphere there. The light streak traversed to the northern horizon and crashed into the drift area of the Question Creek watershed, not more than a mile and a saunter away from Unc’s farm.

“I think,” Unc said, “I’m thinkin’ that was a alien satellite.”

Turned out, Unc’s hunch was correct. The Federal Atmosphere Guard (FAG), the arm of the defense department protecting the atmosphere — that is, everything between the earth’s surface and the ether of the solar system — excavated the crash site and dug out a transparent impossible bottle satellite. In those times, impossible bottles were a common form of alien satellites to crash into our earth. This satellite differed from others though. In its dead center, in a consommé of urinous-humor, a jasper rolodex filled with pictographs and sound recordings floated. The bottle was also no deposit no return.

It didn’t seem proper to tell Unc I had become a protagonist after an alien satellite crash, but even after the crash, I didn’t tell him. I felt uncomfortable being a protagonist, and it weighed on me terrible awful. I felt certain I would fuck it up, and I wished I had been named an antagonist instead of a protagonist. I could have managed antagonism I thought.

When jasper rolodex of the satellite was translated, Unc and I watched the release on the broadcast speculum in his sitting room. The Quid County Satellite, as it was designated, came from a planet of beings in the .037th quadrant of Galaxy 71. The planet had come under some unexplained stress, and the satellite’s mission was a plea to purchase real estate so the aliens could emigrate. The final sound recording in the rolodex was transcribed, “We’re looking for another place to live. [cough, cough] We’ll compensate. [cough cough] Sorry, talking difficult. Getting dizzy. Please return this bottle soon. We don’t have much time here so we’re very motivated buyers. We’ll pay top prices. [cough cough].”

Their plight engendered little sympathy from us except the real estate speculators who thought they could sell the aliens all our toxic waste dumps for top dollar. The general feeling among us was scorn and pooh pooh on you. Their fate would never befall us. We were too advanced for emergency emigration. Why should we sell our land to aliens who could not manage their own planet?

The following winter I was down on the River at The Landing with Unc. A polar vortex beset Quid County. Our breath froze on exhale and dropped to the ground as ice crystals. Unc was bidding the job to remove the body of the man who drowned upstream during the 500-year flood event we had last year, the second one in 20 years. The current had carried the body into the branches of a snag near The Landing. The polar vortex caused the river to freeze. Ice encased the man’s body just below the river’s surface.

Passengers waiting for the ferry could see the body through the ice, its open eyes staring at them. The became unnerved and complained to the County Quid trustees to have the body removed. It was a strange job, best suited for an odd man. The village manager called Unc.

As Unc was considering the situation, making notes of the body’s position and the configuration of the snag, I saw the limping man, the one with the lampost, the one who called me a protagonist, walking among the passengers waiting for the ferry. He spotlighted each of them with his lamp. He told them “You’re a protagonist. Don’t fuck it up!”

“Who is that goomer,” I asked Unc, “some kind of prophet?”
Unc looked up from the body and said, “He’s some feller who goes around calling people protagonists. I ain’t seen him in a while, a couple years mebbe.”
“So’s we are all like protagonists?”
“According to him.”
“Is he insane or headteched?”
“Well, I can’t say he’s insane. That word insane is one for a judge to decide. Mebbe he’s on a ridgetop above us.”
“Did he ever call you a protagonist?”
“Nah. Once he pointed his lamp at me. He held it there a part of a moment. But then he set it down. He muttered the word, ‘Bootless’ and gimped offed into the yonder.”
“Why’d he say that?”
“Dunno. Wasn’t wearin’ boots I gather.”

I watched the limping man leave The Landing. Well, I’ll be allayed I thought and oh lovely mitigation. I wasn’t the only protagonist. There were piles of protagonists more than a mechanical abacus could calculate. I took a deep and luxurious breath. On the exhale, an ellipse of ice fell from my lips and shattered on frozen river crust. I looked down at the drowned man’s body. His eyes, frozen open, seemed on a vision quest to undertake a last rite of passage.