Tuesday, November 29, 2016

'For the Burnable Cities:' Postcard

The Wasp in the Parlor, from 'For the Burnable Cities'

The Herald’s new home consists of one long room with heavy, roll-top desks for the editor, writers and proofreaders toward the front, and compositor tables and presses behind. The desks and tables were already on the premises, moved from storage in cellars around the works property. The presses are taking shape. Workers tighten screws and check levels as they add piece after piece. Their work shirts and hair cling to them in a paste of sweat and bodily oils. They blink their eyes and arch their brows and shake their heads in an attempt to rid their eyes and minds of the sensory mold of exhaustion. Not even Salton is all here. Despite his rest and sense of responsibility, he too is fuzzy. It hurts to think. He’s irritated by one man’s insistence on examining every single part of the presses again and again “just to be sure.”
His rising impatience may account for his response to the sight of a man and woman stepping through the door. FitzRobert, the works’ head clerk, shows a young woman the presses, declaiming what she herself can see with his usual whiny bluster. She clings to his arm in the wilt of a climbing vine that has just had the trellis cut from under it and is about to fall. Salton wonders if she’d rather be elsewhere; if she’s pretending to be polite and interested because she’s an employee and is expected to act with enthusiasm. He’s seen her on a more natural, humiliating occasion: at the office in the city, when her husband tried to buy a copy of the paper only to find he had nothing but LeFoss’s company scrip in his wallet. She’s Mrs. Silas Clarke, and she writes the women’s column.
FitzRobert escorts her as if he’s showing off a marvelous prize and she, not the press building, is the prize. That’s tasteless but not incorrect. She is a prize, when you stop to think of it. As a writer, she’s the sigil of excellence risen above the iron works’ other chattel. Still, FitzRobert’s airs are indigestible. A man of his stature ought to act with dignity, not like a schoolboy crowing for having bested his peers in a race for the girl.
She’s a Christian, else she wouldn’t be working here, and Salton has no regard for the sect, but he cannot resist giving FitzRobert a metaphorical slap in the face. He accosts the pair with the insouciance of a wasp blown into a parlor. “Mrs. Clarke! Delighted to meet you again. I still owe you a tour of the newspaper. If I may—” He shakes her hand but nimbly pulls her away from FitzRobert and ushers her from press to press and worker to worker, with snippets of introduction like “Bayley here selects and sets the type. And Howarth, over there with the hammer, usually applies the ink with those fat leather things that look like an inflated cow’s udder.” On and on he goes, ignoring FitzRobert, who follows with his hands clasped behind his back, a broad smile fixed on his face. Since the head clerk is not taking part in the conversation, it’s impossible to tell what he’s smiling at. He looks silly. Salton is satisfied.
The girl, meanwhile, smiles or nods or says “Pleased to meet you,” depending on the speed of Salton’s soliloquy. He can’t tell if she’s glad to be relieved of FitzRobert, but he’s certain FitzRobert would like to have her back. He will. Soon. The tour is about to end; Salton has work to do. “Please give my regards to Mr. Clarke,” he says as he hands the girl back to FitzRobert, gracefully, as if dancing a reel. “I’m glad you both had the opportunity to visit The Herald that day. It’s good for contributors to experience a newsroom while the paper is in production.”
What he really wants is to remind FitzRobert that Mrs. Clarke may be a Christian, but she’s still another man’s wife, and he had better mind how he behaves with her. That stiff, silly smile is still on the face of the dandified ass, but his eyes betray vocabulary that no gentleman would say to another, especially in public.
“Thank you so much,” says Mrs. Clarke as her original escort turns her toward the door.
Salton is surprised. He never expected the girl to thank him. There is no need for thanks. He didn’t show her around because it was the sociable thing to do. She was the means by which he could embarrass a fool. But he can’t dismiss her gratitude as a customary mark of a female raised to know her place among the lower reaches of society. She has carried herself amid the noise and roughness of the worksite with a peace and purity that no amount of discipline can instill in a girl. With those four words and the soft, utterly innocent expression of her face, her presence has become as cool water spilling over a burn, carrying away the sting. The desire to harass FitzRobert is gone.
“You’re welcome,” Salton says.
But she is out the door, beyond the reach of his voice.

"What Kind of Nation?" from 'For the Burnable Cities'

   Silas leaves dissent up to others who try their luck—unmarried workers who are willing to be cast out. Word is they think they can do more to help the Christian cause as outlaws, hiding by day and sneaking from place to place by night, preaching in places known only to Christians on the run. But those who left early in the revolt were never heard from again. Nobody knows what became of them. Word is they were captured and placed into the dormitories in the city. But word also is that the dormitories are being demolished; The Seat is shipping unpermitables to other parts of the country. But without the means to know what is happening elsewhere, word lapses into supposition—the guesses that are lies in the absence of truth. The feeling is one of despair.
“What kind of nation have we become?” Ralph Pearson asks one night over coffee and cake. “This didn’t happen overnight. People used to be able to discuss things in the open: politics, differences in religion, different approaches to running the country. Open your mouth now, and a liaison is sure to report you and get you dismissed from your job and kicked out of your home.”
Silas is sympathetic. “I wish the newspapers could do something. Once upon a time newspapers reported on politics, the use of tax money, government projects. Newspapers used to be critical of the misuse of power. They would fight for people who had no one to fight for them. They were the poor man’s lawyer. Now they speak for no one except the state and protect no one except the state.”