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The Catchall Chronicles

Part I: The Fall of Prosperity

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There may be towns that time forgot, but Prosperity, Illinois, isn't one of them. There may be places where the past lurks the courthouse square unchallenged, where the lives that someone has already lived crop up again as little noticed as the dandelions in the spring or the reruns on television. There may be such places, but, as I said, Prosperity isn't one of them. Time remembers Prosperity, it keeps in touch in one of those one-sided correspondences that make you sad to see the mailman. "Found work yet?" "Seen a doctor about that pain?" and of course "Lord, you're looking old." The whole town—from the "Welcome to Prosperity" sign at the city limits to the statue of the unknown soldier down by the town hall—wars the hangdog look of a new bank teller who's come up a fifty shy at closing time his first day.

That's not to say that no one ever forgot Prosperity. The railroads did, certainly, back when they were making their iron push through the prairie. This happened, it's said, thanks to a certain city father, Josiah Nibs, who was entrusted with the job of bribing a fledgling rail baron for a spur line through town; instead, Nibs took it into his head to play poker with the baron and lost the bribe to him.

"But you've got your money," sputtered Nibs shortly afterward, when talk again talked to railroads and the baron's newly formed intention to take his elsewhere.

"In bribes," said the baron, "the intention matters as much as the actual cash"—which he swept into the pockets of his frock coat. "I don't profess to be a reader of men's souls, but when a man lays money in front of me with one hand while he fans five cards with the other, I am inclined to believe that he intends to bet that money—not bribe me with it."

Nibs sputtered, on, visions of a friendless and bitter old age flitting before his eyes.

"Cheer up," said the baron. "All things being equal it is better, morally speaking, to be a poor cardplayer than a skilled maker of bribes. You should be pleased that blind fate has made you a better man than you wanted to be."

So saying, the young baron strode blithely into the muddy streets of Prosperity (they'd still be muddy half a century later), taking his railroad with him.

An hour later the city fathers heard the news.

Old Ralph Catchall took it the worst. That was a surprise, since catchall had been through more disaster than the rest of them put together, having been burned out of more houses —sod and log and board and brick—than any other man in the state. Now it was as if he saw every one of them blazing away at once. His face went through a sort of sunset: first it got pink around the edges, then clouds blew in from either side, and finally it exploded into a glorious succession of reds and violets before subsiding into a dark, nocturnal gray. Speech all but failed him; a minute or two of huffing and puffing brought forth no sound at all. Finally he sat back and rested a bit and went at it again, choking and squeaking and twisting in his chair until he finally got out two words.

"Show me"

Somehow Nibs understood what he was driving at. He pulled the fatal deck of cards from his pocket—and his last few silver collars—and there on the council table he played again the hand that lost the railroad, draw, bluff, bet, and call, and when he'd lost again, looking down at the tiny pot, a shadow of its former self, and stirred the silver ruefully.

"Again," croaked Catchall, and Nibs played it again. And again. No one moved. Ketchum the banker and Guffy the mayor and all the landowners who'd been meeting for weeks to divide the shower of gold that heaven and the Illinois and Elsewhere were pouring into their laps, they all sat and watched the shuffle of cards and coins until somehow it lost all meaning for them, until the fall of a card, the clink of a dollar on the pile, were no longer moves in a game—they were just things that happened. Ante followed deal and call followed raise like summer followed spring and night day, and none of them was quite certain anymore why.

A little before sunup—no one ever recalled how it happened—they all joined in. These were gambling men, and they'd battled away more than one night at five card stud around this very table. But that night something had changed. There was no money on the table, just Nibs's forgotten heap of coins. There were no bets. Nibs dealt and they laid down their cards and Nibs dealt them out again. They played until the sun of the new day was high in the sky and then, strangely bewildered, they pulled back their chairs and stared at the cards on the table as if they had never seen them before.

"You played it right, Nibs," said Catchall. "Bastard must have cheated you." Then he got up and stumped home to see if his latest house could possibly have made it through the awful night without bursting into flame on its own accord.

Prosperity was poleaxed. The wheel works went east to a new railroad town, the shoe factory went west to the river—where people were wearing out leather at a more satisfactory rate. The grain elevator stayed, though so diminished in the eyes of the town folks that within a little more than a year fully half the town had begun to believe it was a newelevator—an inferior one—built when the old one burned to the ground at a ghastly cost in human life. Though that fire never actually took place, it burned as bright in the memories of most of Prosperity as any of Catchall's; and proud (though spurious) recollections of the tall, sleek structure of better days could bring tears to the eyes of town councilmen—who continued their dreamlike poker games for many years afterward.

Businesses came and went in Prosperity—Blake's Buttons, the Stevens Zipper Company, Prosperity Nut and Bolt—but always things fell apart. At one point it looked like the freeway would make a jog through town, and a sharp operator bought up half of Main Street to put in a new bank, Prosperity Federal, which stands to this day, with a gleaming row of teller's windows, a monstrous maw of a vault, and the E-Z Drive-In Facility out back. These days, they're all manned by a single frantic clerk, who flits from station to station in the oversize, echoing rooms like the single thought in an overheated brain.

The overheated brain is not an inappropriate image to describe the commercial life of Prosperity, since the town's only thriving business dealt solely on the cooling down of such brains—and, presumably, in arming up any that should happen to be underheated.

This was a place that bore the old-fashioned name of Doctor Arbiter's Home for the Deranged, a great block of brick and mortar4 so square and regular in its dimensions that it suggests the architect feared the overheated brains could boil over at the least hint of variety or invention, and thus sacrificed artistry to an awe-inspiring and, truth be told, rather soothing unity. The building was put up in the depths of the Depression by a crew of government worker, several of whom checked in as patients as soon as the lat brick was laid, convinced that times as hard as they'd seen could only be dangerous hallucinations. Another government crew was responsible for the single ornament in the place—a gigantic mural created by painters from the Federal Artists Program. Unfortunately the artists were under the misapprehension that the building as to be a post office, and they covered the wall with a heroic triptych of postmen emptying mailboxes by night, postmen delivering letters in a cyclone, and, in the immense central panel, a group of grotesquely muscular men and women with lumpy physiques and enormous hands and feat frozen forever in the act of sorting a mountain of envelopes into a huge expanse of pigeonholes. Many patients over the years took it as a didactic work commenting on their own condition, and a small circle of overheated brains could often be found in front of it, riddling out its lesson, pondering how their own sorting rooms had gone awry and brought them to their current state.

This, then, was Prosperity's one success story. The asylum, the spook house, as the locals called it, eventually passed into private hands. The current owner, Dr. Eustace Arbiter, was a squarish block of a man, as trim, right-angled, and unadorned as his building. Not a hair marred the brilliant expanse of his cranium, not a wrinkle relieved the placid, godlike smoothness of his face. His form was so perfectly proportioned that when he walked the halls of his little institution, he left behind him a trail of the overheated staring reproachfully at their own too-long fingers or too-short arms. The contrast with the bulgy laborers of the mural was especially sharp—more than once a patient would snap out of a postal reverie at Arbiter's approach and go into a little frenzy, his eyes snapping from mailroom to doctor like a clock pendulum, unable to choose between these two contradictory pictures of sanity.

This was the case on a certain autumn morning, as Arbiter barreled down the hall, pipe clenched in his well-shaped jaw, puffing out clouds of smoke like the long lost Illinois and Elsewhere express. Behind him like the boxcars of that lamented railroad trailed a dozen students from the far-off state university, so immaculate and identical in their laboratory coats and earnest expressions that the overheated, lined up to contemplate postal sanity, immediately took them for still another metaphor of the normal state; their heads went from the accustomed one-two count of Arbiter's passing to a feeble waltz time, and one of the most heated began to weep softly.

"Gentlemen, please, this way, this way," said the good doctor. "This way to the premiere wonder of the psychiatric world, a Niagara among loonies, the deepest of the deep ends, the ne plus ultra himself, the most insane man in the world."

The earnest young men stared in unison, searching Arbiter's face for signs of irony. But there were none. He had stopped before a locked and barred door and had undone its excessive-looking fastenings. His eyes, however, were not upon the door, or upon the students. Instead, he stared out the window, where clouds were quickly gathering, darkening the sky. Arbiter flung wide the door, and the figure within stirred in his sleep.

Lightning blazed outside, struck the old building, and tore a handful of those squarely laid bricks form the chimney. The university men jumped in unison, but not Arbiter. He nodded satisfaction and turned, finally, to address his audience.

"A most fascinating case, gentlemen," he said. "I'm sure you will agree."

Next: "The Darwin of the Loonies"

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