Chapter 13: The Eastern View
Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius
“I see the population has passed the fifty million mark,” said Cyrus Bradstreet, folding his newspaper and dropping it back onto the table, his pudgy right hand patting it for emphasis. It was a typical opening gambit. Any moment now his companion, Henry Underwood, ostensibly immersed in a catalogue of items relevant to his trade, would deliver his acerbic response.
The little scene, or a variation of it, had been played out every weekday afternoon for over three years, always at the same time and place. Both men knew what was expected of them and both delivered. The series of mock arguments was a harmless social ritual which neither man took seriously, though it could have fooled any uninitiated listener.
Cyrus Bradstreet, just turned fifty years of age, owned the town hardware and clothing emporium. He was an eye-catching figure. A little under five feet eight inches tall, he weighed a good two hundred and twenty pounds. He quipped that he could still, with some difficulty, locate his feet by touch, though he had not had a fully clear view of them since his adolescence.
Henry Underwood ran the grocery store. Two years younger than Bradstreet, he was totally different in appearance. A shade over six feet in height, he was fence-post thin and had a slight stoop. Some wag had once observed that when he saw the two men standing together, with Cyrus viewed on the right, they made a reasonable approximation of the number ten. Henry Underwood’s long thin lugubrious face with its prominent nasal beak was quite unlike the florid balloon facial contours of Cyrus Bradstreet, while his hair, sparse, greying and straggly, contrasted sharply with Cyrus’s thick tidy mid-brown thatch. One of the very few features the two had in common was that neither sported a beard, a moustache or sideburns.
The two men were as different in temperament as in physique. Cyrus, a family man, was affable, garrulous and given to making sententious pronouncements, just for the fun of it, to see whether he could elicit any reaction. Henry was a bachelor, socially awkward and with a somewhat misanthropic nature, matched by his sharp manner of speaking, which made him sound querulous even on the occasions when he didn’t mean to be.
Nevertheless, the two men were genuinely on friendly terms. It was their supposed difference in outlook, at times more apparent than real, which caused the spark between them. Though neither would admit the fact publicly, both found their altercations thoroughly enjoyable.
Being retail businessmen, both Cyrus and Henry had occasion to deal daily with the bank and met there at three each afternoon, Monday to Friday, with clockwork regularity. It was equally predictable that they would have their half-hour of badinage, then return to their respective stores. They rarely conversed or even met in any other way, save to exchange the odd word if they happened to encounter one another on a sidewalk, or if either needed the other’s wares.
The Town and County Bank in the small Wyoming community was a pleasant enough venue for a little verbal swordplay. It was one of only two brick buildings in town, the other being the combined sheriff’s office and jailhouse. The rest, even the church, were of wood.
Considering its sober function, the bank was a surprisingly intimate little place, its informality marred only by the chief teller’s stuffy attitude, of which nobody took much notice. At the rear was a small office, where the manager saw customers on confidential business. This room also contained the safe, which held a multitude of deeds and other papers but, apart from on the last Friday of each month – the local wage day – rarely a large amount of cash. Forward of the office was the general administrative and tellers’ area. This ran the full twenty-foot width of the building and was fronted by a mahogany counter, topped by a supposedly protective wrought-iron grille and fitted with three serving positions, two of which opened only on Fridays all day and Saturdays until noon.
At the front was the customers’ space, also taking up the whole width of the building and about fifteen feet deep, with a window on each side of the central outer door. The floor, walls and ceiling were finished in waxed pine. Covering about half the floor space was a plain dark-red carpet. The only furniture in that area was a circular oak table ringed by four plain wooden armchairs, near the window to the right of incomers. On the left-hand wall was a display of leaflets explaining the bank’s services and a notice board giving details of forthcoming events in the town.
The table-top was usually strewn with magazines, newspapers and brochures. It was here, always occupying the same two chairs, that Cyrus and Henry conducted their discussions. They had chosen the time of day well, for there were seldom any other customers present in mid-afternoon.
This being a Wednesday, the quietest part of the week, no regulars other than Cyrus and Henry had been in since the bank had re-opened after the noon break. Apart from the teller, the only other person was present was a stocky young fellow of middling height, round-faced and clean-shaven, smartly dressed in light grey pants, hat of the same shade, spotless white shirt, narrow black tie, immaculate dark-blue jacket and clean black boots. He had been enquiring about opening an account and was now leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, reading details of the bank’s offers.
Cyrus, a fashionable dresser, was resplendent in a new suit, imported from England –a striking affair in thick light-brown tweed, crosshatched with thin lines of dark brown, making squares of the lighter shade. His impressive acreage of girth was encased in a predominantly brown and yellow brocade vest, the outfit completed by a white shirt, broad cravat of gold silk and gleaming tan shoes. On the table rested a light-brown, narrow-brimmed felt hat and a silver-topped ebony cane. Insofar as a man of his shape could be a picture of sartorial elegance, Cyrus managed it.
Henry, never one to care much about his appearance, was wearing the same black suit and black string tie he had worn every day for more years than he or anyone else could remember. The suit was a wondrous thing, the cloth worn to a magnificent sheen in various parts. It was Cyrus’s openly stated belief that if Henry had bent down and stood still for long enough, a man could have used the seat of his pants as a shaving mirror. Somewhere under the layers of mud and salt stains, Henry’s cracked, battered shoes were black, as was the wide-brimmed, dust-coated hat, resting on one of the vacant chairs.
The teller was busy trying to look busy. An elderly man, short and thin of stature and bald-headed, he would have liked nothing better than to send Cyrus and Henry on their respective ways. However, he knew that had he even hinted at that, his boss might have got wind of it, and would have reprimanded him and gone off to apologise to two of the bank’s most valued customers.
Following his remark about the population, Cyrus sat back with a contented sigh and began to count silently. It usually took a few seconds before any response came. This was a difficult one and the count reached fifteen before there was a reaction. Then, slowly, the catalogue descended, revealing first Henry’s close-set, hostile eyes then, gradually, the long, drooping nose and finally his scrawny, vulturine neck, pillaring up from his grey-white shirt, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork on a high sea. “What population?” he said testily.
Cyrus beamed. “Why, the population of the United States of course. What else?”
“How do you know that?” This time the reply was quicker, the tone a touch more cantankerous.
“It’s right here, in the newspaper.”
“And how do the people who publish it know?”
“Well, they get the details from the Government, naturally.”
“And how does the Government know?”
“Really, Henry,” said Cyrus, stretching his legs in an effort to catch sight of the sunlight winking off his shoes. “They count people, of course.”
“They never counted me,” retorted the crotchety grocer.
“Oh, they’ll have included you all right,” Cyrus answered. “You’d be amazed how much they know. Probably almost everything about you. Most likely know what you had for supper last night.” Having delivered this contentious shaft, he interlaced his fingers across the great bulge of his midriff and looked upwards, innocently contemplating the ceiling.
“Damned nonsense,” snapped Henry, his asperity level rising sharply. “It’s a pity they’ve nothing better to do.”
“Dear me, Henry,” said Cyrus with exaggerated mildness, “I don’t know why you should be so touchy about it. Obviously they need to know things if they’re going to plan a brighter future for us.”
“I’m satisfied with my future as it is,” Henry responded irritably.
“Well now, that’s a queer statement,” Cyrus replied. “For one thing, you don’t know what your future is and for another, I really can’t see why you should object to having a better one.” He was now in his element, gleefully stoking Henry’s bile.
“You look to your own future, Cyrus Bradstreet,” Henry muttered darkly. “Never mind letting someone else handle it. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a country where a man is supposed to take care of himself.”
Cyrus chuckled, delighted with the reaction he was getting today. “Come now, Henry,” he said, assuming the role of patient teacher to petulant child, “it’s a matter of concern to all of us. You’d realise that if you’d get out once in a while, instead of burying yourself under all those boxes and cans and bottles and whatnot.”
“My world is big enough for me, so you can go and milk a toad,” was the swift rejoinder. Clearly, Henry was having fun too.
“Oh, have it your own way then,” said Cyrus. He produced a brown paper bag, extracted a single shelled peanut and placed the rest on the table. “Help yourself.” He was well aware of Henry’s aversion to all nuts.
“Don’t like ‘em, as you well know.”
“No, that’s your trouble, my friend. You don’t like enough things. If everyone were as opposed to enjoying life as you are, we’d be in a terrible state. And getting back to what you just said, if my guess is right, your world may not be big enough for much longer.”
“Oh, why not, may I ask?”
“Because I think that the way things are going, there soon won’t be enough room for all of us. We’ll have about a square yard each to live in. Might even have to sleep standing up. Then you’ll wish you’d thought about the future you seem to be so nonchalant about.”
“Excuse me, but I don’t believe it will work out that way.” The interjection came from the young stranger, stifling whatever caustic retort Henry had in mind.
Cyrus turned to the smart-looking fellow. “Well,” he said amiably, “we’re always pleased to hear different points of view here. Maybe you’d like to join us and tell us what you think?”
“Thank you,” said the young man. “I will.” He was smiling broadly, his lively grey eyes alight with anticipation of the debate. He walked over to the table, hooked out a chair with his right foot and sat. “Well, gentlemen,” he said briskly, “I don’t like to put in my opinions where they may not be wanted, but I couldn’t avoid overhearing what you just said, and since you asked me to take part in the discussion, I must say that this population question is one I’ve thought about quite a bit. I often have a fair amount of time on my hands and I get to pondering on a lot of things.”
“Young fellow like you should be working more and thinking less,” sniffed Henry, presuming inexcusably upon his age.
The young man did not take offence. “Oh, I do work,” he said pleasantly. “Only I keep kind of irregular hours. When I’m in action, it’s pretty intensive for a short while, then in between times, I get quiet spells. That gives a man the opportunity to put his mind to a number of matters.”
Cyrus was intrigued. “And what do you think about this particular one?”
“Well,” the young man answered, “I favour the Eastern view.”
“I don’t know why people in New York and Boston and such places should have any special ideas on such things,” Henry snorted.
Cyrus sighed. “I don’t think that’s what our friend here means, Henry,” he said. “Or do you, sir?”
The young man laughed. “No. What I mean is that I agree with the peoples of the East. You know, the Buddhists and Hindus and such folk. I go along with them about reincarnation.”
“That’s very interesting,” said Cyrus, “but I just wonder how it connects with what we were saying about the population of the United States.”
“Well, I reckon it’s like this.” The young man folded his arms and sprawled back in his chair. “It seems to me that we’ve all been here before, many times. I think it’s like Shakespeare said, about each of us playing many parts in a lifetime, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I reckon we come here and do the whole thing again and again. Maybe sometimes we’re male and sometimes female and sometimes good, sometimes bad, but overall, I reckon we come to take fresh lessons each time. If we learn them, we go off to the other side and rest up a while, to get ready for another go. ‘Course, if we don’t learn, then we have to come back and repeat the process until we get the idea. Like pupils staying in the same class at school until they’re educated enough to move on.”