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The Scarecrow

by

Harry Buschman

 This is the story of Verdant Greene and his alter ego. Verdant was a novelist of limited talent and he invented a character he didn't know what to do with. His unfinished novel lay on the passenger seat next to him and he looked at it with growing resentment. Until yesterday it shared a book case of similar works, (all of them unfinished) that stood in the bedroom of his seedy apartment in Helena, Montana.

Verdant was going home to live with his brother's family in San Francisco. He didn't have much choice, he was out of money, out of work, and just this morning, out of a place to live.

His eyes drifted to the passenger seat again and again. He knew deep in his soul that the problem with the novel was the character, Wilbur Straw. It could not go on with him, and he was so far into it, he could not do without him.

In a fit of blind passion he rolled his window down, grabbed the manuscript on the seat beside him and flung it out. "Good Riddance!" He shouted. It burst out of it's loose leaf binder in a shower of paper and drifted across the road behind the speeding car.

Wilbur Shaw was a sad sight to see, looking a lot like Adam, stripped of everything -- his clothes, his name, and most important of all, his self. He sat naked in a ditch by the side of the road with a high stand of August corn on one side and a fallow pasture on the other. Over his head arched a Kodachrome blue sky with cotton ball clouds hung out to dry and an invisible family of crows working noisily in the corn.

He cursed this day. He was born last week and discarded this afternoon. Ruthlessly abandoned! The first draft of a book in which he played the hero was pitched out the passenger window of a run down Chevrolet Biscayne and the pages of its ink stained manuscript lay scattered along the roadside. The most embarrassing part of it was the clothes, or more precisely the lack of clothes. He could get along out here in the country without the rest, but try and walk naked through a town in Montana and he was sure he'd end up in jail.

"Writers are all alike," he grumbled as he shifted his position in the spiky grass and brushed the ants from his legs. They take forever to create a character -- everything about him. Hair. Eyes. Voice. Personality -- teach him all the tricks. Then, just because the book goes sour, they chuck him out the window of a speeding car in the middle of God knows where. He shook his fist in the general direction of the departing writer and shouted, "I hope you get writer's block ... you phony!"

It was growing late, and what began as a warm afternoon was now turning chilly. More clouds appeared in the sky and from time to time they obscured the sun. He stood up and rubbed himself down to keep warm. Looking across the road he saw what appeared to be a human figure standing in the middle of the unplanted pasture. The figure didn't move -- it just stood there looking at him. Suddenly a crow alighted on his shoulder! "Well," he smiled, "I'll be! That's got to be a scarecrow."

He climbed the low split rail fence by the side of the road, taking care not to damage anything as he straddled the dry splintered wood. He hurried to the scarecrow waving his arms to chase the crow away. The bird, reluctant to leave, waited until he was almost there, then cawed angrily at him and flew off.

There were pants, (only one button on the fly and a short length of rope for a belt) a shirt and a disreputable excuse for a tweed jacket, the shoulders were encrusted with dried crow shit. It was topped off with a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. There was even a pipe in its mouth. There were no shoes, "But that won't matter," he thought -- not out here in the country. "Let's see," he thought. "I'll need a name ... what was the name that miserable writer christened me?" He thought a bit, then smiled, "Ah yes! Wilbur! Wilbur Straw, that was it!"

Thus was created a man, an orphan like Adam in a way -- born out of a flawed figment of the author's imagination, and turned loose with all his imperfections into an unsympathetic world. Wilbur, not knowing where, (or even when) he was, hobbled barefoot down the center of the one lane blacktop leading into the town of Emerald City, situated in the northwest corner of South Dakota. He chose the center of the road because there was less gravel and sharp stones at the crown than at the sides. He had no idea how far he was from the nearest town, or if there was a town at all -- but it was only logical to assume that no one would build a road for nothing. Surely it must go somewhere.

The rutted blacktop hurt his feet eventually and he began to limp. He looked down at his naked feet and wished he had shoes -- strange, he thought, that scarecrows don't wear shoes. The illusion stops at the cuffs of their pants. A pair of pants, a shirt, some stuffing and a scarecrow has all it needs. But man, No! Man is a creature of wants and needs. He gets more than he gives and like a sponge, if he isn't told, "No you can't have any more!" he will use up the world. These idle thoughts drifted through his incomplete but fertile mind, gradually forming a personality, the writer who created him, would never recognize.

Wilbur was newborn, incomplete and limited to the little knowledge imparted to him by a writer who thought nothing of throwing him away when things didn't work out. He was almost as ignorant of life as Verdant Greene was and he only recognized the scarecrow in the field from a passing remark of a character in the author's abandoned novel -- but for the moment Wilbur's feet hurt and he needed a pair of shoes ... he learned that on his own.

The first thing you see as you enter the sleepy village of Emerald City is the town dump. Emerald City does not have a Sanitation Department and its residents dump their trash on the downwind side of town. Not only does Emerald City not have a Sanitation Department, it does not have a lot of other things a town should have. Wilbur and his sore feet arrived at the dump which bordered the road leading into town at close to four in the afternoon. He spotted an old pair of yellow sneakers atop a pile of trash -- one was minus a tongue and neither had laces. Although they had been worn by a man with much bigger feet, they were the answer to Wilbur's immediate problem. He also found two unmatched woolen socks which helped to keep the sneakers from falling off. He poked around in the trash and found what may have been a shirt when it was new but was lately used for cleaning a paint brush before being thrown away.

He could have stayed in the town dump indefinitely, it told him a lot of things about life and the people who lived in Emerald City. In his short life he discovered that it's possible to learn more about people by what they throw away than by what they keep.

The hour was growing late and the sight of a distant house to the west convinced him that he really must be getting close to civilization. Wilbur was not aware of his shabby appearance -- he began naked this afternoon and now he was fully clothed. He walked with his head high, and while you could not say there was a spring to his step, it was buoyant enough to carry him into the town of Emerald City, Montana.

The house he had seen from the town dump was run down. The roof was patched, the porch sagged, and there were torn curtains at the windows. Discarded furniture stood forlornly in the unweeded front yard.

A little further on he came to a sort of village square, a half an acre of coarse grass cut short by a small flock of forlorn sheep. He picked his way through their licorice droppings to the center of the green where he saw a crude wooden bench built around a split trunk Mulberry tree. A sow-faced man sat there with his head inclined backwards and resting on a lower limb of the tree. His legs were stretched out full length in front of him, one foot over the other. Wilbur paused a moment in the littered field and, for a moment, considered walking back to the road and continuing into town.

Wilbur realized the man on the bench was asleep, indeed he could hear him snoring loudly before he approached him. The top of each snore was punctuated by a snort that could be heard clearly across the green. Wilbur approached the bench and sat down next to him. Other than the author who created him, it was the first man he had ever seen. It was peaceful here. Bucolic, with the sheep grazing in the field and birds of many species feeding in the Mulberry tree branching above them. Wilbur thought of waking the man -- there were so many questions he wanted to ask. Where was he? Was this a town? Where were the people? He waited patiently beside the sow-faced man and listened to him snore.

Finally, with a strangled intake of breath the man woke with a start. He turned to Wilbur and looked him up and down. He broke into a smile when he saw Wilbur's sneakers. "You been to the dump, ain't'cha? I threw those away a month ago."

"I was looking for the town, and I passed ..."

"Great place, the dump. Spend a lot of time there myself -- you wouldn't believe the good stuff a sharp eyed man can find there."

"Like these sneakers?"

"Well no, not them sneakers." The man looked Wilbur over carefully. "You look poorly put together, son. You been havin' hard times?" The man sat up straight and dropped his voice an octave, "Where are my manners. My name is Jonas Stark ... at your service."

"I'm Wilbur Straw ... " It was the first time Wilbur had ever spoken his name aloud, and it gave him a strange sensation -- as though he was somebody; a man to be counted among other men.

"Straw. Straw." The man who called himself Jonas savored Wilbur's name as though he were tasting something for the first time and trying to guess its ingredients. "We've never had a Straw here."

"I was dropped off down the road. I don't know where I am, by the way," Wilbur added. "What's the name of this town?"

"You're in Emerald City, son. Look around you, it ain't much. In fact you can see the whole of it from where we're sittin." Jonas rose from the bench and surveyed the village green, hooking his thumbs in the suspenders of his bib overalls. "It's my town," he said. "I'm the Mayor."

Wilbur quickly stood up also and looked about just as Jonas had. "Honored to be in your presence, Mr. Mayor, Emerald City's a great name for a town."

"A thimblerigger come through here in '88," Jonas began the story with his nose in the air, holding his hands as though he were painting a scene on canvas. "Devil of a fella he was -- opened a saloon and spread the word around there wuz emeralds here."

"What's a thimblerigger?"

"A shyster. A man who deals from the bottom of the deck." Realizing he hadn't explained it at all, Jonas went on. "Actually, it's a man who hides a pea under three thimbles and makes y'guess which one's it under ... that's a thimblerigger."

"You mean there wasn't emeralds here?"

"Was never nothin' here, son. Emerald City's a dry hole. A lotta folks come out here, bought property with money they didn't have, dug until they couldn't dig no more. Died here livin' on roots and Indian corn."

"And they're still here?"

"All gone now. Must'a been 10 or 20 thousand of 'em back in '88. Jest a few of us here now ... they was all our grandfolk." Jonas sighed and sat back down again. "Gettin' on towards supper. You got a place to stay, son. Fergot'cha name by the way -- sorry."

"Wilbur Shaw."

"Yer welcome to spend the night in jail. We don't have no hotel in Emerald City, and most folks are doubled up. Jail's real nice," he added quickly. "It's the first solid brick buildin' the town built here -- had to y'know, with all the riff-raff lookin' fer emeralds and God knows what all else. It's empty now -- waste of space. I'm the Sheriff, did I mention that?"

"I thought you said you were the Mayor."

"That's right! Mayor. Mayor and Sheriff too. I'm Postmaster and duly elected representative of the State Assembly." He belched loudly. "S'cuse me. Stomach gets gassy long about supper time. What say, Wilbur ... can I set y'up in a cell for the night?"

"Thanks Mr. Stark ... your honor. It's kind of you, really it is ... but I must be getting along."

"A little something to eat then. I run the luncheonette -- you must have passed it on the way into the park. I could fix y'up a nice package lunch t'take along."

"Well, actually ... I'm a little short of cash ... " Wilbur had never eaten anything before; he didn't really know how. He had seen Verdant Greene eat and drink many times, and each time it made him nauseous.

"I'm really not all that hungry, Mr. Stark -- I think I should be getting along."

Wilbur detected a note of aloofness in Jonas Stark -- a stepping back? At any rate, the Mayor/Sheriff/Postmaster and duly represented delegate to the state assembly seemed to lose interest in Wilbur. He drew himself together and glanced up at the sky to check on the time. "C'mon kid," he said. "I'll give y'somethin' t'take and eat along the way."

Wilbur figured it might be impolite to refuse, he trailed along after Jonas Stark like a prisoner. They walked across the village green in the fading afternoon light. Their destination seemed to be the same ramshackle house that Wilbur had seen earlier. A woman stood on the front porch beating a rug with a cane pole. "That's Madey, my little lady," Jonas said proudly. Got me a hungry pilgrim, Madey. He's come fer a bite and must be on his way."

Madey continued beating the rug with a strong, steady whup-whup, staring with a blank smile at Wilbur, never once looking at the rug. He had the uneasy feeling she was beating him. The luncheonette Jonas spoke of was apparently in the Stark kitchen; two stools stood at a counter against the wall on which sat a sugar bowl and a bottle of catsup.

"Can't stand to see a poor man leave Emerald City hungry," Jonas said as he cut two thick slices of bread and a slice, (just as thick) of a grayish brown meat. "It's lamb, son. Lamb from the flock of sheep you saw outside. Bread's home made too." Wilbur could hear Mrs. Stark beating on the rug outside, and so could Jonas apparently. "You might be well advised to eat your sandwich on the road, boy. Here, this way," he said, "you can leave by the kitchen door, you won't have to pass by Madey that way." It seemed like a good idea to Wilbur as well, the rug was taking a terrible beating. "Have a drink of water by the well, boy. It'll help to make the lamb go down."

Back on the road again with the sun going down like thunder ahead of him, the steady whup-whup of Madey's whip faded with every step he took. A strange and wonderful town, Emerald City, he thought -- a town founded on rumor and greed. Wilbur couldn't imagine what life was like in the last decades of the nineteenth century out here in the wild, wild west. Would its Mayor and Sheriff be strong, iron willed men, or would they be like Jonas Stark and his rug beating wife? Emerald City was the only town he knew and he was homesick for it already.

He threw his uneaten sandwich into the woods along the side of the road, and in the fading light he noticed a car parked by the side of the road ahead of him. Wilbur was not a car expert, but it did remind him of ... yes! It certainly looked like the familiar Chevrolet. As he got closer there was no doubt about it! It was Verdant Greene's car, the same one he was thrown out of just a few hours ago. The hood was up and Greene was bending over the fender swearing at the engine.

"Damn gas pump! Damn carburetor! Damn car! The minute I get you out in the boon docks y'crap out on me." He kicked at a tire and slammed the hood down. "There! That oughtta hold 'til Frisco! Damn car! Y'hear me? Damn car!" He looked up and saw Wilbur.

"It's you! What are you doing here? How did you get here? Where did you get that ridiculous outfit?" It suddenly occurred to the author that he probably should use a more conciliatory tone of voice. "Wilbur, wasn't it? Yes, Wilbur -- Wilbur Shaw."

"Straw."

"Of course. Straw. I remember now. I'm sorry for the temper tantrum back there, but I couldn't get you to fit in somehow. The whole thing was going bad. Those things happen -- nothing personal, you know."

Wilbur was standing at the passenger door, the author kept the car between them. "No hard feelings, Wilbur. Writing's a tough business. Sometimes something doesn't work right -- and ..."

"Out the window."

"Well, yeah ... I was probably hasty ... "

"Out in the ditch. Stark naked."

"I'm sorry, Wilbur."

Wilbur walked around to the driver's side and Verdant Greene, still keeping the car between them, skittered around the front of the car to the passenger side.

"Get in," said Wilbur. "I'll drive." The author got in and closed the door quietly, and to keep his distance from Wilbur he sat as close to the door as he could.

"Are you sure you know how to ...." Verdant watched as Wilbur turned the key in the ignition.

"Drive?"

" I thought I'd ask, that's all. You've never driven a car before have you?"

"I can do anything you can do." Wilbur said as the engine caught immediately. He gunned it a few times and looked over at Verdant. "See ... no problem. You're 37 years old. You weigh 163 pounds the last time you got on the bathroom scale in Helena ... I know all about you Verdant Greene." Wilbur turned sharply to the right, stopped and backed up.

"What are you up to? You're not turning around are you? Verdant looked at Wilbur anxiously. "I'm on my way to San Francisco."

"You don't want to go to San Francisco." Wilbur started off slowly in the opposite direction. "There, I did that as well as you ever did ... you don't want to move in with your brother. I know it. You know it ... and what's more your brother doesn't want you either."

"I wish you didn't know so much about me."

"Then stop writing about yourself!"

Verdant tried to keep his temper. Looking at Wilbur, he couldn't help thinking how much he reminded him of himself. Maybe that's why he couldn't finish that damn book -- he couldn't bear to see himself in such a position.

"Where are we going, Wilbur?"

"I know a town you don't know. Nice little place called Emerald City, ever been there?"

Verdant glanced at him quickly, then looked out the window at the dark trees slowly sliding by. "Never heard of it," he mumbled.

"Doesn't surprise me. I know the Mayor of Emerald City, know the Postmaster and the Sheriff too." Wilbur smiled contentedly and pushed his baseball cap to the back of his head. "Yes, I'm well known in Emerald City, Verdant. That's where we're going, you and me." A few buildings began to show the dim yellow lights of oil lamps in their windows. "Cozy town, Emerald City. A comfortable hotel, we can stay there for nothing. It's a great place to finish that book, Verdant. You remember that book, don't you."

"I want to forget it."

"Finish it. It's the only way you'll ever get rid of me."

Harry Buschman 2003
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