His favorite combinations were the contradictions, the strange ones. Brassieres and pistols. Windmills and bustles. He would scissor the images with an exactitude he found calming, seeking the perfect separation from the page. A quarter-sawed rocking chair. A bottle of coca wine. A jar of bust cream. Every collage took longer than the last. He would adjust the images, tilt and shift, and look again, and set the paste aside. Every time, when he finally pressed the images together and felt the paste smear under the paper, he sensed an irrevocable mistake. He had missed it. He should have been more patient, and now it was too late.
They destroyed the rail yards, dug it all up, hauled in all that hippie crap and invited every fallen idol. Nixon. The Soviets. He had loved the rail yards, and the laundry on the island bluff. He had loved the hard metal space of it, the clang and clash, the coupling and uncoupling. You could smell the fuel. All that human industry, rendering the humans insignificant. And now it was all green, the tilting, skirted tower, the huge colorful butterflies. All that hippie crap. Crowds swarming, ants on a crumb. The rail yards gone. The world – the old world, the right one – vanishing.
He stared at the images. The Ladies Edgemere Bicycle from the 1902 catalog. The pleated gentlemen’s trousers, 1964. He tilted and shuffled. How did they fit? Women’s swimsuits, 1937: “Slim effect for larger figures.” A cloth-covered child’s platform horse, 1921. He was sure they fit, if he could only see correctly. The images taken from the catalogs his mother had refused to throw away. The stacks of Sears & Roebuck. Whenever the catalogs would arrive, it had been like a holiday. He and his mother, on the worn velvet settee, a whole afternoon slowly turning pages. Look here, Horace. See here.
Some sort of music came flying brassily across the city. Some kind of hubbub from down there. He tried to arrange the men’s trousers over or alongside the ladies bicycle, and then over or alongside the platform horse, but the images would not cohere. He went back to the stacks with his scissors, and trimmed out a pair of lumpy, colorful platform shoes from the newest catalog, 1973. Fencing foils, 1936. The Heidelberg Electric Belt from 1902, promising the “most wonderful relief and cure of all chronic and nervous diseases, all diseases, disorders and weaknesses peculiar to men.”
All Weaknesses Peculiar to Men
He decided he should see it for himself. He shaved. Combed Vitalis into his hair. He wore his father’s gray summer-weight mohair and cotton suit, with moth holes on the shoulders and cigarette burns on the lap, and his burnished brown oxfords. He left his apartment, walked downstairs and headed toward the chaos. Warm out, with a lightening breeze. The oxfords were a size too large, an odd hollowness in the toe with every step. A man of 61 in his father’s shoes, fluttering with anxiety at the thought of other people.
The crowds are unbearable. The way people dress. Sloppy and filthy. Girls bouncing around inside their clothes. Boys with shirts half-unbuttoned. He edges into the park beneath the enormous butterfly contraptions. Everything feels opened up here now, revealed. Too bright. Flags, statues. Invisible dogs. The unrelieved chitter of voices. He can smell the grassy odor of growing things and a heavy drift of fried foods. People ride on moving chairs overhead. Dancers from Japan perform in bright red dress. A photographer aims at them and waits. Someone jostles Horace. He dislikes being touched by others. All manner of people surround him, in foreign colors and styles and sounds, and he imagines the exotic world, the hateful world, the intruding world – the Orient, Africa. Mystery. Disorder. When he comes to it, to the Soviet Pavilion, he is astonished at the size of it. As large as any building in town, practically. A man bumps into him, eating some sort of fried hot dog on a stick, and Horace is flooded with the man’s odor, with the grotesque fried smell, and the oily meat smell, and then the man himself, the smell of his flesh and his sweat and his hair. The man looks at Horace and makes an apology face, mouth full, chewing happily. Horace hisses, “Excuse you!” A sneaker wave of nausea splashes in his guts, and his vision wavers. He stops to simply breathe. The corn dog man moves closer, horribly closer, moves right into his face, and now the corn dog man is helping him, guiding him, comforting him, calling him Buddy.
Inside the Soviet Pavilion, it is cool and dark, and he recovers his breath. The corn dog man is gone, at last, and Horace cannot believe what he sees: a giant bust of Lenin, an enormous Lenin’s head right here, right in the park, right in Spokane, right in America. Giant. Triumphant. There is something unnamable in it. In the center of the pavilion is a tree thing, with a canopy of branching electric filament. He stands and walks along the outer edge of the exhibition, behind the plaques and signs. From ahead, around a curve, he hears a conversation. A man he cannot see is speaking English but it’s all funny.
“Yes, yes, I understand completely,” the funny voice is saying.
“Oh, good,” says an American voice, a normal voice, and the sound of it lifts Horace somehow. “It is just the routine flight pattern for the base.”
There is a pause. The funny voice says, “But, yes, again, sir. Why are your bombers flying over our pavilion?”
Horace stands still, so very still, but cannot achieve the silence he feels is called for. His breath rasps. Heart pounds everywhere, noisy in his fingertips. He cannot understand the words the normal voice is now saying, in tones of warmth and friendliness, but he feels that he no longer needs to. He understands perfectly. He is elated, and he fears the sound of his pumping, pumping blood will give him away, will make it impossible to hear the bombers approaching, coming to set things right. Before the thought is even complete he sees the flaw in it, sees that he has gotten it wrong again.
Outside, a man is taking photographs of the enormous gray relief map of the USSR. The man’s hair is grown down over the collar of his denim shirt, a shirt made of pants. The shutter clicks, and he winds it with a thumb. Something washes away inside of Horace. He wants that man’s photos. He sees a woman aiming a boxy, odd camera at two children. “No, Jack, no,” she says, laughingly. “Smile.” The camera whirs and spits something out, and the children gather around their mother to look. Horace wants to take away their photograph before it appears, to run home with it, to cut it up.
He buys a program for two damn dollars. The cover is a mess of color, a sharp offensive brightness. Back home, Horace pores through the pages, but there is no image of the Russian pavilion. No image of the giant bust of Lenin or the eerie electric tree. He sits in his recliner, TV tray before him. He takes his scissors to the cover, freeing the images of the sloping tower, the river, the flags of the world. Maybe it hadn’t been so bad after all. The day is dying outside, graying. He trims from the inside pages, the ads, the roster of entertainers. Aplets & Cotlets. Lawrence Welk. Kaiser. Myrna Loy. Darkness drifts in, grain by grain, filling the room. Potlatch. Liberace. Sambo’s. He can barely see a thing now. He fills his hands with pieces of program. He brushes the images with his fingertips. No, he tells himself. Not so bad. He can barely see a thing now, but he wants no light.
Shawn Vestal is a Spokesman-Review columnist and the author of “Godforsaken Idaho,” a collection of short stories. He considers corn dogs nature’s most nearly perfect food.