June 11, 2014
We have been thinking about the trees. The trees, we have decided, know what they’re doing. We have decided (6–3, with one abstention) that there will be trees in the Afterlife.
Our thinking about trees has led us to fence Maxwin’s Park and to prohibit all pedestrian traffic therein. As an elected policy-making body, we believe that the trees need a place of repose. As we all do.
Which led us to direct the Officer of Public Generosity to consider fencing each of the stores in town individually as discrete, self-contained structures. We wish to offer similar spiritual conditions to all things. To our money, which is after all our future. Solitary contemplation is best achieved alone, we have decided (5–4, with M. Hughes called away).
Which led us to pass the newly written Individual Non- Touching Statutes, as well as the new Accidental Physical Contact by-law. We have added a codicil to the current Spirited Township Declaration—charmingly referred to by Dr. Hans as the “Table for One Edict”—and thus specified a three-step program for repeat offenders of the public solitude.
We henceforth believe. We henceforth feel. We have temporarily stopped speaking to one another (7–2, M. Hughes spoiling a ballot) in the name of model citizenry. We, the undersigned, the Committee on Town Happiness, in the spirit of Town Happiness.
Our New Suspicions
It began with wine bottles in the grass, fast food wrappers like tumbleweeds. The perversity of an empty stroller in front of the coffee shop. Brightly colored threads from caftans or towels caught in the spring clutches of the honeysuckles along the avenue. In the gutter, a kind of scat we didn’t recognize. An unintelligible flyer. Every morning, something new, even the sun. Were our visitors prodigals? Refugees? Robbers? A committee we had never heard of? Every night, it seemed, they were moving through town. On purpose.
The Committee on Major Financing convened, decreed its lack of jurisdiction. The Committee on Animal Safety made recommendations in light of the incessant barking; the Officer of Public Generosity deployed new azaleas. Two committees folded for lack of a quorum. We set a watch, deputized three teens. We made private overtures. We unsewed our shrouds.
As though day were night we went to sleep and rose to the falling darkness, to eat and work and play. We moved throughout our darkened town. We would see the fuss. We would learn what we were missing.
We want to say that we have succeeded. Soon we will do away with walking around and not knowing.
Oh, how the children clamored to ride in the basket. The great straw boat, the wind’s decisions. Weightlessness, a different kind of promise. But this was science, and the Committee on Science had commissioned the dear balloonist, N. Femiz, to rise above our town. To see. The air was a festival of smells, the dawn departure only by coincidence in competition with the dawn.
By unofficial declaration (which the unfortunate Dr. Hans referred to later as “coercive”) each of the secondary committees provided the staunch balloonist, N. Femiz, with a necessity. With wine, cold meat, etc. With a bottle of ink. With stirrups. Hubris was in the air, smelling like ozone. Impiety, too. The dew steamed upon the beautiful surface of the balloon like a second thought.
We gathered beneath the disappearance. We waved as though to God leaving. We clutched our children, our Terror registering between a 3 and a 4. Maybe closer to a 4.
A cook’s misplaced long-handled spoon is not a weapon. The sharp edge of a plastic menu is not a weapon. The domed lid of a cake dome is not a weapon. The domed lid of a cookie dome is not a weapon. The domed lid of a donut dome is not a weapon. The domed lid of an éclair dome is not a weapon. The wire carrier for the oil-and-vinegar is not a weapon. A wet floor sign is not to be used as a decoy.
All diners should have facing exits (south and north, for example) in all vestibules, to encourage patrons to leave their lives and then return. In the case of mini jukeboxes, all diners must include a full array of musical selections, to encourage patrons to age gracefully. All diners must display the accomplishments of at least two local sports heroes—above a doorway would be fine—to encourage civic nostalgia as well as the aspirations of the very young. No editing of headlines; no disfiguring doodles attributable to prior rivalries. No unusually gelatinous substances.
All diners should employ Use Traffic Logic Squares (see the codicil to the previous Use Traffic Handbook for Dining Establishments). No stacking. No sawing. No unnecessary holes. No surprise plumbing. No unaccounted-for electricity.
In the event of an emergency, all diners should have a deputized Backup Officer chosen from a list of candidates submitted by management to the Committee on Town Happiness. The Backup Officer will need a full set of the staff’s car keys, each key copied no later than each employee’s second interview, as well as access to the sterilizing tinctures and a full torch permit.
In all diners, framed pictures of all cars shall point toward the restroom hallway, to be consistent with our bodily comforts. No disturbing circus advertising. No hide-a-keys. No pinching. No switching of orders upon delivery. No playing of “Stockyard Ramp.” No bicycles in booths. No unauthorized pranks pulled upon servers over the age of thirty. No changes in the name of change. All diners are what all diners always are; all diners are to feel like childhood must have felt. All diners are to house the soul of the dining experience. When the soul wants diner fare, especially after a Thursday night meeting, a private table in the back would be nice.
A nemesis could not be a nemesis if a nemesis could not be found. If the organization, “Danger for Fun,” had been certified, they could be de-certified today. That would be okay. But we had decided not to grant their application, even if the minutes were a little vague on why we hadn’t voted: in the matter of “Danger for Fun,” the minutes said we had decided that there was no need to vote.
“Sometimes, we want the past to be the future,” said M. Akiwara. Really? M. Akiwara? He must have been reading something earlier, to speak so well. But if the past were the future, everyone would be here. Or everyone from the past, and everyone else. Not that we would want everyone here; that would be too crowded.
If the past were the future, we could sit here again and tell Dr. Hans where he would end up, were he to leave. He would end up here. This would be the future. With a show of hands, all of us voting together, there would be no more talk of “Danger for Fun.”
Were the tin cans the work of “Danger for Fun”? How about the hollow logs? What about the incident at the public fountain, and those colors? What about the slow leak, the ceiling fan’s spinning off at the Shop of Macramé, the ticking, the “rhino dice”? Rumor was that someone had replaced the potted plants in the lobby of the insurance office, F.F. Fiederman’s Casualty Plus, with torches. Granted, F.F. Fiederman had had a little trouble paying claims this year, and last. Still, torches could be ignited—and then where would we be without F.F. Fiederman’s Casualty Plus to cover the damages to F.F. Fiederman’s Casualty Plus?
Relief can be real happiness, even if a “modicum.” When a person we had asked to disguise himself as a malcontent could happily say that he was no longer malcontent and our happiness was secure, that was a relief. In the future, we plan to plan well: we plan to support happily any group we can out-vote.
A torch is not a weapon. A weapon may be sharpened, hidden underneath a jacket or strapped to an ankle; a weapon may be something capable of inflicting personal injury from a distance, something known by the job it does. A weapon can only be a weapon; a weapon that has another use is no longer just a weapon.
The traditional method of preparing for the Festival of Torches requires the wrapping of a stick at one end with any kind of heavy cloth (burlap, canvas, etc.), pouring an accelerant into a jar, and pocketing wooden matches. There are other ways, new ways to prepare. These are less widely known, and probably inappropriate to share.
The transportation of multiple torches should be undertaken judiciously, and always accomplished prior to the application of the accelerant. A volatile, flammable substance should never go in the trunk of a car, for example, the vapors capable of unaccompanied combustion. Also, even the best of the new accelerants gives off telltale odors, no matter if secreted in non-descript nylon gym bags, student backpacks, French horn cases, or merely strapped to the underside of wheelchairs. Odors tend to be smelled. One of the challenges of using a torch well is keeping the torch secret until the torch is used.
Torches are best disguised as decorations: torches look pretty jammed into the ground, lining the walkway, shimmering around the gazebo, reflecting upon the mesmerized expression of a hula dancer. Every torch must have a little sticker, we have decided, 3–1(M. Espinoza and V. Raku absent, meeting privately with the FSMP). “For entertainment only,” must be affixed to every torch. We will not endorse “Danger for Fun.”
Out of courtesy, 3–1, we declared that no torch may be lighted near the Hughes family. Or by the block that used to house the Sewing Notions store. Or within fifty yards of Town Hall. Or near any vehicle certified “vehicular.” Or near the theatre. Or by the playground. And when we turn a corner, either on foot or in a car, and are suddenly blinded by a clutch of torches—none of that.
ALAN MICHAEL PARKER is a novelist, poet, essayist, and raconteur. He has written and lectured widely — including at the Sorbonne and on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin — on subjects ranging from the history of beach house art to casinos that sell Matisse paintings. The author or editor of fifteen books, including THE COMMITTEE ON TOWN HAPPINESS and LONG DIVISION, he has received numerous awards: among which include three Pushcart Prizes, inclusion in BEST AMERICAN POETRY, the North Carolina Book Award, the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, the Fineline Award, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College, and he also teaches in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program.
Adapted from The Committee on Town Happiness, by Alan Michael Parker, Copyright © 2014 by Alan Michael Parker. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.