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October 03, 2022

Avalon Springs, Part 2

By Dan Mulhollen

I received a phone call from Henrietta Puckwillow the next afternoon. It was an invitation to visit her home for tea. As if things could not get any worse, I thought, setting down the phone. Still, the short walk was pleasant enough. The houses reminded me of how my old street must have been fifty years before I was born.

She lived in an attractive Victorian structure with a ring of flowers between the house and lawn.

"Please, come in, Mister Lange," Henrietta Puckwillow said, opening her front door. She led me through her living room, unexceptional except for the small TV in the corner, rabbit ears sitting on top. Next to that was a minitower computer which seemed to be just a few months past being state of the art.

A curio cabinet filled with porcelain knickknacks stood at the entry to the dining room. A large table dominated the room, looking like it could comfortably seat a dozen people. This was made of dark, reddish wood that matched the large china cabinet set against the front inside wall.

"Entertain much?" I asked, looking at the armoire serving as a liquor cabinet.

"Five children," she replied, nodding as if going over each of their names. "Three sons and two daughters, all but one son married. Ten grandchildren. Every Saturday night dinner is at 'Grammas'."

"Friends?"

"When one has a good family," she said, the librarian returning to her usual imperious outlook, "one does not need friends."

The kitchen was an odd mixture of old and new. The furnishings were clearly out of the first half of the twentieth century. The wooden table and chairs seemed like something you'd find in an old-time farmhouse. Then again, the microwave oven and microprocessor-controlled food processor were recent.

There were two cups of tea, each in its own saucer, sitting on the table. There was also a basket of freshly-baked biscuits and an unopened jar of home-canned grape jam--at least that's what was written on the lid.

"Shall we?" Mrs Puckwillow said, sitting down.

"I'm surprised you would call me over for tea," I admitted, sitting down.

Mrs Puckwillow smiled. "It is a custom of mine to have tea with newcomers," she said opening the jar. "I'm afraid the unpleasantness started before we had that chance." She spread the jam on her biscuit and then held up the basket. "I thought this might be a good time to fix that."

I took one of the biscuits and sliced it open. It felt rather awkward talking to this woman who had been a thorn in my side almost since I moved to Avalon Spring.

"There are rumors regarding you and Miss Barclay," she said, nibbling on her biscuit. "Once, I hoped something might happen between her and my son Peter. Sadly Peter seems more interested in becoming an interior decorator than in the opposite sex. But he's still young, so there is plenty of time."

"Jo and I have become good friends," I said, not wanting to mention either the fact that we had already been intimate, and especially not the fact that she had decided we were going to be married.

I also thought about suggesting an interior decorator named Peter Puckwillow was unlikely to ever be married. But she seemed content in her denial.

"She is a handful, though," Mrs Puckwillow said, cheerfully. "I remember a dozen or so years ago, her playing football with all the neighborhood boys. Could outrun most of them."

We talked for the better part of an hour; about my past and aspirations, her interests, everything but the poetry controversy. Maybe any two people can sit down, in the right environment, and have a pleasant conversation. This was a far different person than the stern librarian he'd encountered a few weeks earlier. This Henrietta Puckwillow was actually a nice person.

That next Monday, the public creation, performance, or dissemination of poetry was outlawed, subject to a maximum five hundred dollar fine and up to sixty days in jail. There was one abstention, the doctor, but there were no votes opposing the bill.

Jo did not attend that meeting, still unwilling to face Puckwillow. But she was right about one thing, I was feeling less like an outsider. A few people even greeted me, knowing I was a member of her group.

In my mind, I surrendered that night. My bachelor days were about to end. But I was home.

Jo and I met Saturday evening in a tiny fast food restaurant for coffee. She took a little tub of creamer from the chrome-plated dispenser, lifted the tab a little, and poured the white liquid into her coffee.

"So?" she asked, stirring the coffee.

I shook his head. "It just seems wrong," I said. "Marrying someone I've only known a little over a month. And as a part of an act of civil disobedience?"

Jo smiled and took a sip. "Am I not the best sex you've ever had?" she asked, wiping a trace of coffee from her upper lip. She looked at her finger and started to giggle. "That too," she said, extending the glistening forefinger.

I grimaced and shook my head. In bed, in the back of her car, in the public swimming pool at midnight. She was amazing; daring, inventive, acrobatic; doing things I never even considered possible.

"You are," I admitted. "But there has to be more."

"Didn't you mention you're writing better now than you every have before?" Jo asked, amused by her lover's hesitance. "I'd like to think I'm a small part of that."

"Of course you are. You're a big part of that," I said, finally opening the flap on the lid to my cup. "I guess I just had some notions of how my marriage would go. Meet someone. Fall in love. As sappy as it sounds, I'm a romantic. Where is the romance in this?"

"Oh come on!" Jo said, more enthusiastic than angry. "The Town Council banned the public writing and recitation of poetry last week. We're fighting to turn public opinion against that. Puckwillow and my father are on the side of censorship. We're on the side of Shakespeare and the Brownings. What could be more romantic than that?"

I took a long sip of coffee. "First you appeal to my libido," I said, chuckling. "And now to my sense of adventure."

"A badly neglected sense of adventure," Jo commented. "But remember, dear heart, your fear of being run out of town made this necessary."

I nodded his head and took another gulp of coffee, emptying the cup. "So what if I were to agree to do the reading tomorrow, but without marrying you?"

"That would work too," Jo said, sounding a little disappointed.

We were quiet for several minutes. Jo had bent over backward--I chuckled when that phrase came to mind--to accommodate my silly insecurities. Even if I was arrested, the experience would be different from the one in Newburgh Falls.

"I want a pre-nup," I announced. "If you and I divorce, I get none of your previous wealth, nor interest from that wealth. Any new assets to be divided equally."

Jo's eyes widened, after a few seconds her look of astonishment turned to a smile. "Shall I call my lawyer and Judge McIntyre?"

"Sure."

I sat back and started to think. Lawyers, judges, priests, Puckwillow, Jo, the Avalon Springs Church of Satan and Poetry Society; a need to write. I pulled out my pen and notebook. One short line followed another, and then another.

"An idea for tomorrow?" Jo asked.

I nodded, each new line seeming to come of its own volition. And with this poem, an idea I could not tell Jo until the reading.

The wedding was set for nine that evening. The following reception would be more of a pep rally for the next day. But there would be plenty of food and beer. It would be a good time.

I stayed back at the fast-food restaurant finishing the poem, Jo decided to do a little shopping. In addition to the party supplies, she also stopped at an illicit sex toy store. Her wedding night, she decided, was going to be a memorable one.

* * *

It was almost noon. I sat on the gazebo railing, watching Jo at the podium, testing the microphone and loudspeaker. The other members were sitting around the gazebo making last-minute revisions to their poetry.

When Jo finished the sound-check, I handed her a sheet of paper.

"Your poem?" she asked, reading it. "Wait!" She looked at me, her mouth wide open, "You're not going to...?"

"Well," I said, a sheepish smile on my face, "I was hoping for safety in numbers." A small crowd was forming. I was ready for this.

Jo handed the poem to another group member, quickly it was passed around the gazebo until all the members read it. One of the guys nodded, understanding what was implied, and took off his shirt.

That made me feel better. I began undressing, smiling at Jo's hesitance.

"Now who's afraid of spontaneity?" I asked, standing naked in front of her.

"No," she said, grinning, unbuckling her jeans. "I'm just mad I didn't think of this first."

I walked up to the podium, flanked by the members of the society, all of us naked. The crowd was now over one hundred people. I set the page down on the podium and began to read.

"How does my nakedness harm you?
Do you feel genuine pain,
nerve endings reacting to a sharp impact
or stinging laceration??

Or is my form so grotesque,
so threatening,
that seized by nausea
you are forced to flee or look away?

You know, there was a time long ago,
where people held a different opinion,
the human body was in itself
seen as a thing of beauty.
How did we lose our way?

Angels, you say, are clothed
in heavenly robes.
Demons run naked,
Free to indulge their every passion.
And then you add,
we must protect the children.

Creative and convenient
this exercise in myth-making,
And what exactly
are we protecting the children from?

To be honest, if a child sees someone naked,
or even a couple of the same sex,
that child suffers no damage,
not scarred for life.
But that is not your real concern,
is it?

What you fear the most of all,
what you dread is a child who asks questions;
questions a parent might find uncomfortable,
questions that might challenge ones beliefs.

But are your beliefs that fragile
they cannot withstand a child's scrutiny?
Can you not admit there are matters beyond
'because the Bible says so?'

So I stand before you,
Two arms, two legs, a penis and two testicles.
Do any of these parts harm you?
Or do you chose to live in fear
of the questions they might bring?"

Police Chief Roberts seemed to be waiting for me to finish. "You are all in violation of several local ordinances and state laws." he said. "I'll get a warrant for the arrests. Show up on Tuesday, and everything will be fine."

"A warrant?" Henrietta Puckwillow bellowed, rushing onstage. "Arrest these people!"

"Busted water pipe in the jail," the police chief said, calmly. "Dangerous prisoners are being shuttled over to Bannerville. These folks aren't hurting nobody."

"They're corrupting public morality!"

"Yeah, about time" Chief Roberts said, trying to walk away. His path was blocked by Puckwillow, who insisted he take action.

"You voted for this," she screamed.

"I was bullied into voting for it," he said, angrily. "Vote or lose the election. Now I see my mistake." He walked straight ahead, forcing her to back away.

Jo smiled and walked to the podium to read her poem.

Tuesday came, and Jo and I walked from the courthouse having each paid our $125.98 fine. The indecent exposure and disturbing the peace charges were both dropped, the judge accepting their suggestion that it was an event of artistic significance.

For his part, the District Attorney seemed uninterested in pursuing the charges, despite (or perhaps due to) Henrietta Puckwillow's hanging on his shoulder, attempting to bully him into going for the maximum fines.

Jo stopped to take in a deep breath of the chilly autumn air. "Beautiful day," she commented, looking out at the park and the now-infamous gazebo.

"I am surprised the DA didn't push harder."

"I'm not," Jo remarked, walking towards her car. "He wants to be re-elected, and the election's only two months away. Meanwhile, Puckwillow's been humiliated, her influence evaporated. Public poetry will be legal again next week. It all makes sense."

She got to her car, but instead of opening the door, she stopped and looked at me.

"You're still looking for work," she said, mischief in her voice." Puckwillow is still running unopposed, and the deadline for applying is Friday. Besides, what better way to feel at home in a town than by being a public official?"

"Town Librarian is an elected position?" I asked.

"Yes," Jo said, "and seventh in line for Mayor." She walked over and wrapped her arms around me. "Think about it," she said. "Restoring all the books Puckwillow took out of circulation."

"Dealing with the public outrage when a new book ticks someone off," I added, amused by the prospect.

"Being a pillar of the community," Jo said, giggling. She kept one arm around me as we turned around and started walking back towards the courthouse. "I've heard most of the country no longer uses card catalogues or the Dewey Decimal System like we do."

"Oh wow," I said, remembering the antique card cabinet my elementary school still used. "I used to love the 940s" I said, smiling.

"The 560s did it for me," Jo admitted.

"Really?" I asked, a little surprised. "Figured you more of a 780s sort."

We both broke out laughing.

I looked around, at the clean, neatly arranged streets. The shops; so out of date, lacking grates or pull-down steel shielding for protection. "Do you think we did something wrong?" I asked. "It almost seems like we're spoiling the town's innocence."

"Don't regret what we've done," Jo said, showing her ability to seemingly read my mind. "I wouldn't want Avalon Springs lose its charm. The poetry law was not part of that. Truth is Puckwillow was not born here. She moved here twenty years ago, and it's been downhill ever since."

"So, contrary to popular opinion, Puritanism and being a few steps out of time are not synonymous."

We reached the courthouse steps. "Of course not," Jo said, turning towards me. "In a sense, our protest was more in keeping with traditional town sensibilities than Puckwillow's fear mongering."

I looked up at the courthouse; the neoclassical facade, the old clock that still kept perfect time. "Town Librarian," I said, imagining my desk with the title on his nameplate. "I do like the sound of that."

"So do I," she said, wrapping her arms around me.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-08-18
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