UKArchive ID: 36454harry
Originally published on April 18, 2016 in Fiction
A long overdo of a fantasy I wrote many years ago.
by Harry Buschman
This a story concerning a no-account writer named Ashley Rose and his alter ego Wilbur Straw.
With growing disgust Ashley looked at his unfinished novel on the passenger seat beside him. Until yesterday it shared a shelf of similar trash in the bedroom of his shabby apartment in Helena, Montana, (all of them unsubmitted and unpublished).
Ashley was headed west to share an apartment with his brother and his wife in Los Angeles. He didn’t have much choice. He was out of money, out of work, and just this morning, with his rent due, out of a place of his own to live.
His eyes drifted from the deserted road ahead to the passenger seat again and again. He knew deep in his soul that the problem with his latest novel was the character, Wilbur Straw. Ashley could no longer keep him under control. Wilbur had taken over, he was doing things on his own – out of spite Ashley thought.
Ashley knew Wilbur was the personification of his own perverse and stubborn nature. When he tried to bend his character’s will to match his own his story fell apart, and like Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again.
In a fit of rage he rolled his window down, grabbed the manuscript beside him and flung it out of the car! “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 car as Ashley Rose continued on his way to Los Angeles.
Wilbur Straw was a sad sight. As naked as Adam, and most important of all, his complex character in a work if fiction was scattered all over the road. He sat naked in a ditch with a field of high August corn on one side and a pasture on the other. Over his head he saw a deep blue sky with cotton ball clouds hung out to dry, and he could hear a noisy family of crows working in the cornfield. Seen through his own eyes it was a far lovelier world than his mentor, Ashley Rose ever revealed in his writing.
In the past Wilbur had picked up a few facts from his creator. Some were useful, most were not. It was necessary to eat, sleep and be properly attired at all times, he wrote. “Don’t be caught in public without your privates being covered, Wilbur. The world will put up with a lot, but it won’t stand for a man being naked.” This tangential word of wisdom stuck with Wilbur – perhaps he had seen Ashley so blatantly un-attired in the past and the sight created an indelible impression.
He could get along out here in the country without a grain of intelligence, but if he tried to walk naked through any town in Montana he was sure he’d find himself 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 blame the character, 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 Ashley Rose and shouted, “I hope you get writer’s block, you phony!”
It was growing late, and what had been a warm afternoon was turning chilly. Wilbur never experienced the weather when he was between the pages of a book.
Fast moving clouds appeared to the east, (at least he thought it was the east) and from time to time they obscured the sun. He stood up and rubbed himself vigorously to keep warm. Looking across the road he saw what appeared to be a human figure standing in the middle of the pasture. The figure didn’t move, it stood there looking at him. Suddenly a crow alighted on the figure’s shoulder! “Well,” he smiled, “I’ll be... that must 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 splintery wood. He hurried to the scarecrow and waved 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.
The figure wore 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 what had been a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. There was even a pipe in the place where its mouth should be. There were no shoes, “But that shouldn’t matter,” he thought, not in Montana. “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 Wilbur Straw was re-created. Not quite a whole man, an innocent Adam in a way, born out of a flawed figment of an unsuccessful author’s imagination, and turned loose with all his imperfections headlong into an unsympathetic world. Wilbur, now fully dressed and not knowing where, (or even when) he was, hobbled barefoot down the center of a two lane blacktop leading into the town of Emerald City, situated in the northwest corner of Montana. 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 eventually hurt his feet 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 the 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 soak up the world. Wilbur had learned these priceless bits of wisdom from Ashley Rose.
These idle thoughts drifted through his barren but fertile mind, and gradually forged his personality. Even now, the writer who created him, would not have recognized him. Wilbur was newborn, incomplete and limited to the basic knowledge imparted to him by a writer who thought nothing of throwing him away when things didn’t work out. He was as ignorant of life’s responsibilities as Ashley Rose himself, and he only recognized the scarecrow in the field from a passing remark of a character in the author’s discarded novel. But for the moment Wilbur’s feet hurt and he needed a pair of shoes, he learned that much on his own.
The first thing he saw as he approached the sleepy village of Emerald City was the town dump. Emerald City didn’t have a Sanitation Department and its residents dumped their trash on the Eastern side of town, the downwind side. Not only did Emerald City not have a Sanitation Department, it obviously didn’t have any people.
Wilbur and his sore feet arrived at the dump which bordered the road leading into town at close to four in the afternoon. He saw a 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 later used for cleaning a paint brush before being thrown away.
He could have foraged in the town dump indefinitely. It told him a lot of things about life and the people who lived in Emerald City. In his young 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 had nothing to compare it with. He began naked this afternoon and now he was fully clothed. He walked with his head held 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 with tin, the porch sagged, and there were torn curtains at the windows. Discarded household articles of furniture stood forlornly in the unweeded front yard.
A little further on he came to a sort of village green, a half acre of coarse grass cut short by a small flock of ragged looking sheep. He picked his way through their licorice-like droppings to the center of the green and saw a crude wooden bench built around the split trunk of a Mulberry tree. A goat-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. It was Wilbur’s first encounter with a fellow human being. He paused a moment and considered walking back to the road and continuing his journey.
Wilbur suddenly 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 gagging snort that could be heard clearly across the village 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, and it was not encouraging.
Yet, 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 goat-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 a 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’ a hard time of it?” 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 spoken his name aloud, and it gave him a strange sensation, as though he was somebody; a man to be counted equally among other men.
“Straw. Straw.” The man who called himself Jonas Stark 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 before.”
“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 this bench we’re sittin on.” 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 him 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 back 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, set hisself up in a saloon and spread the word around that 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 weren’t emeralds here?”
“Was never nothin’ here, son. Emerald City’s a dry hole. A lotta folks came out here though, bought property with money they didn’t have, dug until they couldn’t find no more holes left to dig. 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.”
“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, nicest place in town,” he added quickly. “It’s the first solid brick buildin’ the town built. Had to y’know, with all the riff-raff lookin’ fer emeralds and God knows what all else. It’s a 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, Notary Public and duly elected representative of the State Assembly.” He belched loudly. “S’cuse me. Stomach gets to rumbling’ this time’a day. What say, Wilbur… can I set y’up in a nice warm 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. Me and the little woman run the luncheonette. You must have passed it on the way into the park. I could fix y’up a nice package of 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 to start. He had seen Ashley Rose eat and drink many times, and each time it made him sick.
“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/Notary Public 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 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 doing the only thing she knew how to do. The luncheonette Jonas spoke of was apparently the Stark kitchen; two stools stood at a counter against the wall on which sat a sugar bowl and a bottle of ketchup.
“Can’t stand to see a poor man leave Emerald City on a empty stomach,” 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 steadily 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 at the punp, boy. It’ll help to make the vittles go down.”
Back on the road again with the sun descending in the west, the steady whup-whup of Madey’s whip gradually faded as he walked away. 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 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 in the woods 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 Ashley Rose’s car, the same one he was thrown out of just a few hours ago. The hood was up and Rose 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 California! Damn car! Y’hear me? Damn car!” He looked up and saw Wilbur.
It’s you!” he shouted. 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 should probably use a more conciliatory tone of voice. “Wilbur, wasn’t it? Yes, Wilbur, Wilbur Shaw.”
“Of course. Straw. I remember now. I’m sorry for that 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... no harm done... you’re only a character you know.”
Wilbur was standing at the passenger door, the author kept the car between them. “No hard feelings, Wilbur. Writing’s a dog eat dog business. Sometimes things don’t work right... and...”
“Out the window.”
“Well, yes... I was probably hasty... “
“Out in the ditch. Stark naked.”
“I’m sorry, Wilbur.”
Wilbur walked around to the driver’s side and Ashley Rose, still keeping the car between them, skittered around the front of the car and then 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...” Ashley watched as Wilbur turned the key in the ignition.
“I thought I’d ask, that’s all. You’ve never driven a car before have you?”
“I can do anything you can do, only better,” Wilbur said as the engine caught immediately. He gunned it a few times and looked over at Ashley. “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 Ashley.” Wilbur turned sharply to the right, stopped and backed up.
“What are you up to? You’re not turning around are you? Ashley looked at Wilbur anxiously. “I’m on my way to Los Angeles.”
“We’re not going to Los Angeles.” 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 and his wife. I know it. You know it... and what’s more your brother doesn’t want you to move in with him either.”
“I wish you didn’t know so much about me.”
“Then stop writing about yourself!”
Ashley tried to hold 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 trouble.
“Where are we going, Wilbur?”
“I know a town you don’t know. Nice little place called Emerald City, ever been there?”
Ashley glanced at him quickly, then looked out the window at the dark trees slowly sliding by. “No, never heard of it,” he mumbled.
“Doesn’t surprise me. I know the Mayor of Emerald City, know the Postmaster, the Sheriff and the State Senator too.” Wilbur smiled contentedly and pushed his baseball cap to the back of his head. “I have a lot of friends in Emerald City, Verdant. That’s where we’re going, you and me.” The dim yellow light of oil lamps showed in the windows of the ramshackle house by the side of the road, “Cozy town, Emerald City. I know of a comfortable hotel, we can stay there for nothing. It’s a great place to finish your book, Ashley. You remember your book, don’t you.”
“I want to forget it.”
“You’ll never forget it by throwing it out the car window. The only way to get rid of a book is to finish it, Ashley … even I know that. We’ll begin all over again, at the beginning and when we come to the end, we’ll stop.” He settled the cap back firmly on his head. “But not until then, Verdant.”
Archived comments for The Scarecrow
sirat on 01-07-2016
Brilliant. I loved it. Quite long but highly original and held my attention from start to finish.