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June 17, 2024

Avalon Springs

By Dan Mulhollen

"It's only a hobby," I said, embarrassed, but not sure why I should be.

"Of course it is, Mister Lange," Henrietta Puckwillow said, dragging out the 'a' sound in my name. "And did you buy your...what would you call them? Supplies? I rather doubt you bought them at Mister Early's Hobby Shop."

"What supplies? Books?"

"Books," she replied, with a harsh snarl. She turned around, looking at the rows of shelves. "I am most familiar with books." Then she looked back at me. "There are some useful and informative books. Then there are some that deserve being burned."

"Writing poetry in public is not against the law," I said, having checked the latest revision to the town charter.

"It will be," the Avalon Springs Chamber of Commerce President and Town Librarian stated. "When the matter is brought before Town Council, you can expect it to become so within a couple weeks."

"I don't see why it's a problem,"

"How can it not?" Puckwillow squawked in disbelief, her winglike arms flailing. "What if young people find out and start doing likewise?"

"So what?" I asked, not seeing the great public outrage.

"This goes against every rule on how children are brought up in these parts." Her rigidly secured breasts appearing as a single oversized protrusion, immobile despite her shaking.

I shook my head, confused.

She took a moment to calm herself. Then she chuckled, apparently trying to look like a parent admonishing a child. "There are things that can not be questioned."

"Isn't it healthy for a child to ask questions?"

The moment of calm was certainly a brief one. "Are you paying attention?" she said, her face turning red. "Children need to be protected."

"From what?" I asked, questioning Puckwillow's sanity.

She rolled her eyes, then said nothing for a good two minutes. "Sir, I've spent over thirty years making sure every book on every one of these shelves is safe."

"Safe?"

She nodded her head. "Safe."

"Is that why there are so many empty shelves?"

"It is a never-ending task," she replied with a sad sigh. "Every new generation brings its own unique perversion. Lately I've had to reject all fiction."

I looked at the shelves. "Books on science and history are also in short supply."

"That damned Darwin," she said, sadly. "Not only has he caused me to ban most biology and history books, but those on archaeology, geology, and climatology as well."

"Poetry too?" I asked.

"Poets," she growled, as if just saying the word was offensive. "All perverts of some sort. Gays, pagans, nudists," she replied. "Most won't come out and say it, but it's there, between the lines."

"All poets?" I asked, finding such a broad statement hard to believe.

"The good ones," she said, shaking her head.

"So which am I?" I asked, taking my notebook from her desk.

"It doesn't matter," she replied. "In a few weeks, sitting on park benches writing poetry will be outlawed. It is for the good of the people, you must understand that."

I sat silently, unable to fathom this woman.

"Thank you for your cooperation," she said, focusing on what she was writing into a notebook. "I've considered this ordinance for some time. Thank you for providing me the impetus to see it done."

I walked from the library remembering Newburg Falls. Not again, I thought.

It was still all too recent. Too painful. I thought about my hometown, remembering the old days. I used to love walking down those streets at sunrise. Passing those small houses, each of them different. Every street corner had some sort of business; grocery store, bakery, bar, barber or beauty shop.

And most of all, there was the coffeehouse, where poetry could still be read and appreciated.

I spent every Friday evening there with my friends. There were a few truly remarkable poets, but even the weakest of the group put in a good effort, and did improve with time.

Then came Eminent Domain, the buy-out, and the bulldozers. The old town, coffeehouse and all, disappeared, quickly replaced by street after street of identical houses.

I should have moved then; half the residents did. But maybe I was too lazy, and still had hope for the community. Besides, the money paid to the homeowners matched the "generous discount" the developer offered on new homes. Most people were even able to keep their old address.

So I stayed and started having all-night poetry readings at my house. As new residents moved in, we became the minority and something of outcasts. "Bad for property values," the newcomers insisted, always griping about the poetry readings.

Finally having more than four non-family members in one's house after midnight was banned. One-by-one, my friends all moved. I became a pariah in my own hometown. It was time to find someplace new.

I remembered once passing through a small town called Avalon Springs. Its neat storefronts and tree-lined streets were like a glimpse into a past century. After losing my childhood home to progress, it seemed ideal.

That was until I met Henrietta Puckwillow. Her flabby, flailing arms. Her tightly-bound mono-boob. She was the demon in my nightmares that night.

The next morning, I decided to research local ordinances. I was nearing the Town Hall when I noticed a tall young woman sitting on a park bench writing in a spiral-bound notebook. She seemed to be in her late twenties, had long straw-blonde hair, and wore blue jeans and a long purple sweater.

As I approached, I looked at the page and recognized the short lines as poetry.

"That may be illegal soon," I said, thinking of the tongue-lashing I received from the town librarian.

"Let them ban it," she replied, defiantly. "Would take more tickets than the self-appointed morality police have to hurt me." Then she smiled and extended her hand. "I'm Josephine Barclay," she said. as we shook hands. "I'm sure you've heard of me."

How could I have not heard of Jo Barclay? The granddaughter of the town's founder, daughter of its largest employer, high school valedictorian and star athlete.

She was also known for torrid affairs, embarrassing public statements, and a disregard for public modesty that bordered on exhibitionism.

"I'm Will Lange," I said, a bit apprehensive about shaking her hand.

"Ah yes," she said, smiling, "the scourge of public morals."

"I wouldn't go that far," I replied.

"Let's see," she said, closing her notebook, "new in town, a poet, and someone who left 'Religion' on the forms unchecked."

"That's supposedly confidential," I said, not terribly surprised it would be public knowledge. "What box did you check?"

"I wrote in 'Satanist'," she said, grinning.

"Are you?" I asked, feeling an uneasy mixture of amusement and fear.

She smiled, and shook her head. "Basically, I'm agnostic. But I do like shaking people up."

"Then why the charade?"

"As I see it," she replied, "conventional religion represents conformity, repressing who you really are. The opposite would have to represent freedom and being true to oneself."

"This town seems big on repression," I said, nodding in agreement.

"That's why there's people like us," she said, smiling. "I'm sure you're not going to take Puckwillow's scolding you lying down.

"She's going to present legislation to the Town Council."

"Let her," Jo said, unconcerned. "That's just what we need."

"We?"

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a card. It read "Avalon Springs Church of Satan and Poetry Society". "Membership is free," she said. "Either part, it's the only one in town."

I looked at the card. It was all tongue-in-cheek; "Jo Barclay: Grand Succubus"; the last two words in blood-red gothic text.

"An added benefit," she said, smiling, "is that the name keeps out hacks who fancy themselves poets."

"What do meetings entail?" I asked, still wary. Even if in jest, calling oneself a Satanist is crossing a line.

"Nicotine, caffeine, and poetry," she said, taking back her card. "Our three sacraments."

Not unreasonable. "What sort of poetry do you prefer?"

"Anything, as long as it's honest," she replied. "Maybe some personal insights into who you are. Your view of the world. Works that challenge your skill as a poet."

"How many members do you have?" I was curious. Besides, didn't Benjamin Franklin visit the Hell-Fire Club while in England? Old Ben certainly wasn't afraid of crossing lines. Maybe I shouldn't put so much value in what things are named.

"Currently eight," Jo said, handing me a membership card with the name still blank.

I looked at the card, a space for my name and, again in red gothic, "baby-killer third class". "What are your plans?" I asked, with an uneasy chuckle.

"Render any ban on public poetry pointless. Then work on other bans." She handed me a pen.

"Like?" I asked, taking the pen.

"Okay," she said, as if answering a difficult question, "there's a lot I can get away with being the third richest person in town. Things you'd be fined for. Personally, I'd rather they be legalized than the laws more strictly enforced."

I signed my name to the card, trying to avoid thoughts of selling my soul.

The Council meeting happened a few days later. There were seven Council Members. Joe Barclay, Jo's father, was Council President. Then there was Police Chief Roberts, Principal Jackson, Doctor White, Judge McIntyre, Reverend Johnson, and Librarian Puckwillow. They sat at a long table slightly elevated from the main floor.

Mayor Barclay sat at a small desk beside the Council members; his only duty, to be the deciding vote in the unlikely event of a tie vote.

Facing them were about two dozen townspeople sitting in pews. Jo sat beside me in the front row. She took a pack of chewing gum from her front pocket, took a stick herself, giggled, and offered me a stick.

"Banned from Council meetings?" I whispered, taking a stick.

"From all public buildings," she replied. "But look around."

I stood for a moment and noticed close to half of the spectators were chewing gum.

Reverend Johnson stood up and led the Pledge of Allegiance, and then offered a short prayer asking for guidance. Next came the mundane business of running a town, mostly about maintenance issues. Finally Mr. Barclay asked, "Is there any new business?"

Henrietta Puckwillow stood up. "Yes, Mister President," she said, disapproval in her voice. "We are faced with a great moral crisis. As you all know, I have been a tireless defender of public morality.

I watched the spectators' reactions. A few seemed to appreciate her efforts, but most seemed indifferent.

"But in these sad times," she continued, "we must be even more vigilant and take nothing for granted. If you see someone sitting at a restaurant writing, how do you know that it isn't some sort of code to be passed on to evil-doers?"

The audience's mood became more divided between those who agreed and those who now scoffed.

"Poetry," she said, showing the same contempt for the word that I'd witnessed a few days earlier, "is the most pernicious of all writing. A poet lives to put messages between the lines. And what sort of messages are these? Can we be sure that they aren't plotting to destroy our liberty? Can we be sure they're not plotting to hurt our children?"

"Mrs. Puckwillow," Council President Barclay began, "are you suggesting that there are evil-doers among us? This is, after all, a very tight-knit community with no more than a half dozen or so new residents every year. And we keep careful tabs on those."

He glanced over at me, watching me sitting with his daughter. Jo was a couple inches taller than me, and he had several inches on her. The glance was intimidating.

"Don't you remember Marvin Grace?" Puckwillow asked. "Why, Doctor White delivered him and Reverend Johnson baptized him. But do you remember they found on his computer? He liked to write poetry too."

"What are you proposing?" Joe Barclay asked.

Henrietta Puckwillow chuckled with delight. "I propose that Village Ordinance 62," she said, "dealing with public decency be amended to forbid the creation, performance, and dissemination of poetry in public."

"That would make it," Judge McIntyre said, flipping through the small brown booklet of the town Charter, "Ordinance 62.35."

"Before her," Jo whispered, "Village Ordinance 62 stopped at .02."

"Is there anyone opposed to this measure?" the Counsel President asked, looking directly at his daughter.

"Of course," Jo said, standing up. "Even suggesting such a measure is preposterous. If William Shakespeare were sitting on a park bench, would we arrest him for writing his sonnets?"

"Even good writers must obey the law," Puckwillow replied. "And did not Queen Elizabeth have Shakespeare whipped over some insult?"

I knew it was Frederick the Great who had Voltaire whipped, and there has always been speculation that they were more than just friends. But I decided correcting the Town Librarian could not have beneficial results.

"Some of the most beautiful words in the English language have been from poems," Jo pleaded, looking at the council members. "Who knows how they're created? But a sunny day and a pleasant setting can contribute." She turned to the spectators. "Maybe Avalon Springs has yet to produce a great writer. But should we handicap someone with that potential? Maybe your son or your daughter will be our first great writer."

I remembered once having that passion. But I also remembered how powerless I had been, a stranger in my own hometown. Jo was lucky, she would never be without power.

"Mrs. Puckwillow?" Joe Barclay asked, noticing her unusually long silence.

"I do not see," Henrietta Puckwillow began, slow to assemble her thoughts, "how something written outdoors cannot be written just as well indoors. It smacks of the rhetoric civil libertarians use to weaken our democracy. We all know sacrifices must be made to maintain our freedom. Why are we so afraid to do what is right?"

"Right for who?" Jo asked, frustrated.

"Right for our children," Puckwillow said, sternly. "Like the one you had Doctor White flush down the toilet."

The Doctor's face turned bright red. He looked at Puckwillow, angrily, and seemed about to stand up. She was faster, walking to the front of the table and staring directly into his eyes. He backed down, and sat there silently, his hands over his face.

Jo slumped down into her seat. "I was sixteen," she said, whimpering, "arrogant, stupid."

"You've kept it a secret that long?" I asked, keeping my voice down.

"No secret," she replied, weakly. "Just the worst few weeks of my life. Defiance, pregnancy, abandonment; the one scandal people had the discretion not to talk about. Though maybe I should be surprised she waited so long to push that button. Bitch."

She sat there silently for the rest of the meeting.

I looked at Jo sitting there, vulnerable, lost in her own thoughts. So different than I'd seen her before. Then there was Puckwillow. She was positively beaming, having struck down a foe.

Council decided the final vote would be in a week. There was no doubt that it would pass.

We were walking out of the hall when Jo put her arm around me. "I don't want to go home," she said, softly.

"What do you want to do?" I asked.

"Walk," she said, looking out, into the nighttime sky.

We walked for nearly two hours. She was quiet much of the time, occasionally saying a few words about places we were passing.

"I used to come here as a kid," she said, resting her head on mine. "Packer's Drug store."

I looked inside the pharmacy, closed for the night. "Looks pretty normal," I said.

"Yeah, now it is. There used to be a really nice soda fountain. Very 'It's a Wonderful Life' sort of place, back then. But Old Mr. Packer died and his son decided the soda fountain wasted too much floor space. I hate business school graduates."

We came to my street. "Will you be okay?" I asked.

"Yeah," she replied, a slight smile on her face. "The meeting was a blow to the gut, but I'll survive. In the morning, I'll wake up the same control freak you've come to know and love."

I nodded my head, smiling, and started to walk away. I looked at her, catching her gaze. She smiled, I nodded my head, and suddenly we were walking toward my house, hand-in-hand.

Jo's resiliance showed the next morning when even before dressing, she asked if I had a spare notebook. For a long while she sat there naked, cross-legged in my bed, planning her revenge.

She decided that the Sunday after the measure passed would be the perfect time for a public poetry reading. This met with the approval of the five men and two women in the group. They were all decent poets, but all seemed either in awe or infatuated with their leader.

I was still hesitant to join them with their enthusiasm. We were in her apartment after the others left discussing her plans. She suddenly became annoyed at me.

"William Edmund Lange," she cried, exasperated, "we have the means to turn this town on its head. Yet all you can say is 'I don't know.'."

I sat there on the sofa unable to reply. Why couldn't she understand my hesitance? It was less than two years since I'd been sitting in the coffeehouse back home, hearing rumors of some developer wining and dining the members of my town council. It took only eighteen months for the all-night readings to be outlawed.

I looked across the room at Jo, sitting backwards on a kitchen chair. "What do you have to lose from all this?"

She nodded her head. Of course she had nothing to lose. However much a gadfly, she was an insider.

"I'll tell you what," Jo said, smiling, "let's get married."

My powers of comprehension were suddenly scrambled. "What?" I asked, weakly, feeling like I was in an airplane crash, and was just climbing from the wreckage.

"Then we'll be on the same level," she replied. "If it works, fine. If not, you'll have profited quite nicely."

"But we've only known each other two weeks. A divorce would..."

"Half of what I own is more than what ninety-nine point nine percent of people in this country own. To be honest, I wouldn't miss it."

I truly hoped for the slightest hints of facetiousness in her voice. But she was dead serious.

Maybe it would not be so bad, I tried to convince myself. She was a gorgeous and intelligent woman. And we did seem to get along well.

But her impulsiveness was scary. I suppose I have always needed a sense of security. Recent events only added to that need.

"A public poetry reading," I said, repeating her suggestion.

"Noon that Sunday would be perfect," Jo replied. "We need our best poet to lead things off -- and that's you."

"I don't..."

"Don't say it!" she shouted, standing, one knee still on the chair. "Don't fucking say that you don't know."

I felt my fists sinking into the cushions. Why couldn't she respect my concerns?

"Don't you see it?" Jo asked, moving in, closer. "Ten years ago, Puckwillow had the adult book stores closed. Five years ago, she found a way around the state law requiring evolution be taught and banning creationism. Two years ago, it was books on any religion besides Christianity. Last year she read about an Arkansas law that makes it illegal to promote nudism, and had that enacted here."

Then she sat down beside me. "What's next if poetry is banned?" she asked, looking me directly in the eye.

"Tell me how a poetry reading is going to change anything?" I asked, unable to meet her gaze.

"On Sundays," she said, calmly, backing up, "half the town goes to the park, after church. These people have never seen an act of civil disobedience. That can plant a seed in a lot of people's heads. We can be married the previous afternoon in a private ceremony. That way, if we're arrested, you'll have as little to lose as I do."

"Or as much," I replied, glumly considering both being arrested and being married to Jo. Both seemed frightening.

"This is your home too, now," she said, softly. "You can't change what happened in your past, but you can change things here."

I wondered what exactly makes a place home. Uncle William retired to Florida and never felt it was his home. He died three years after moving, still missing the house and neighborhood he had left.

To be continued ...

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-08-11
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