A PAPER MOVIE
The Corn Man was walking along a country road. It was the late, dusty part of the afternoon, and though the air was cool, the Indian Summer sun lay on the land like a hot sheet. In the high grass on both sides of the road insects made drone and rachet melodies.
The Corn Man was not in a hurry; he strolled as if there were music in his head and he was moving to the beat. Sometimes he broke into an outright dance and sashayed back and forth on the road, humming and snapping his fingers.
Many crows hopped along behind him on the ground; others flitted from tree to tree. When the Corn Man danced, the crows pranced in circles on the road and sang; the Corn Man danced then with them, and clapped and laughed. His long, yellow hair blew like corn silk in the wind. His eyes were blue like a clear, hot noon sky and his face was sun-browned. The teeth of his smile were like the whitest, brightest hominy. His old blue overcoat was from a ditch and his pants were from a garbage can. He was tall; his wrists hung out well past the ends of his sleeves. Sprinklings of straw and dust, together with pieces of dry leaves and little twigs covered his clothes. A sunflower arched with pleasure into the sun from a coat pocket full of dirt and when the Corn Man danced, the sunflower waved from side to side.
The Corn Man stopped at a side road and shaded his eyes, looking to see what might be down that way. He sniffed the air.
"Tecumseh! Take a look!"
A large crow broke from a tall tree and flew down the side road. His shining black wings beat the air with an audible sound of power; his tumbling shadow played along the ground. Soon he came racing back like a black angle twisting in the sky; he pulled up, glided into a tight circle above the Corn Man, and cawed what he had seen on the road.
The Corn Man nodded and grinned. "Well! Some business! My first account!" He turned down the side road and so did all the crows.
Woods lined the road on both sides. After a couple of turns the trees stopped at the edge of a clearing which was bounded by a big cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side of the fence was a big factory sitting on a big plot of land. There were four massive buildings, twelve medium-sized buildings, and a sprinkling of little buildings all around. All the buildings were connected by chutes and conveyors, electric wires, hot pipes and cold pipes, as well as long and short reaches of black steel superstructure which arched between opposing high places and low places. The windows were gill green in color. Some were broken and missing while others had been replaced with plywood squares. Towering above the complex was one giant smokestack, and it was smearing greasy smoke across the clear page of the sky.
Sitting in the factory yard were ten huge mounds of yellow corn, which the Corn Man espied.
At the place where the road and the fenced intersected were a big gate and a little guardhouse. The guard inside was looking at a small TV set. The gate was open, so the Corn Man strolled through.
"Wait a minute, bud." The guard stepped out of his booth and blocked the way. "Where do ya think yer goin'?" The guard was a short old man with a tough-sounding voice and a bulldog manner. He put his hands on his hips and looked up at the Corn Man with his chin stuck out mean. His hands and face were minutely wrinkled, but his blue uniform was ironed with sharp creases.
The Corn Man replied his intentions with a thrust gesture, indicating he was going inside.
"What do you want in there for?" the guard demanded to know.
"Business." The Corn Man grinned and leered into the old man's eyes. "It's a debt. An old debt. I'm here to collect."
The guard broke the gaze with a snort-laugh and looked past the Corn Man's ear with disdain. "Beat it!" he said. "We ain't hirin'." With that, he shoved the Corn Man back outside the fence and pushed a button that closed the electric gate. The old man stood behind the gate with his hands on his hips and his chin stuck out.
The Corn Man stood before the gate. His eye-lids came down half-way and he thumped one foot on the dusty road; he turned around once; then he stopped still with his eyes focused on the guard. At first, the guard returned the gaze, but soon he began to turn his head from side to side much as bulldogs do when they don't understand what's happening and they're becoming fearful.
"I've come to collect," the Corn Man said softly.
The guard stumbled into his booth and called somebody on his telephone and stammered a few sentences. He listened to the reply, nodded, and hung up. He peeked around the door frame at the Corn Man and said, "They say you'll have to talk to Mr. Arlington and he's gone for the day. He'll be in tomorrow."
"Yeah. Come back tomorrow. Early."
"Very well. But tomorrow I will collect. Remember. Tell Mr. Arlington I'm coming to collect on an old debt."
The Corn Man and the crows stepped off the road and disappeared in the depths of the woods. The crows all started talking at once.
The moon crossed the night sky, arcing high over the black tangle of woods where the Corn Man waited. The crows fluttered in the trees now and then, and occasional ground prowlers rustled through the dry weeds; the wind rushed sometimes through the trees. But the Corn Man made no sign of hearing any of it. He reclined motionless against the trunk of a tree, staring into the black woods as if in thought. Only once, when the unmistakable death quaver of a small animal caught, perhaps, in the talons of an owl or the claws of a fox, came through the darkness, did the Corn Man raise his head and looked long at the moon. The night passed.
After the dew had dried in the morning, the Corn Man came out of the trees and stood before the gate. The guard got on the phone quickly, mumbled one sentence, nodded, hung up, and peered out at the Corn Man. "Mr. Wilbur is coming out to talk to you. He'll be here in a minute."
"The Corn Man frowned. "What about Mr. Arlington?"
"Mr. Arlington is busy. Mr. Wilbur is his assistant. He can take care of whatever you need. Don't worry."
The Corn Man shrugged. "I can collect without talking to anybody. I'm being polite for fun."
"Just hold on! Mr. Wilbur is coming right out."
The crows waited silently in the surrounding trees.
A red-headed man in a brown suit came walking briskly over the factory yard smiling and looking at his big, brown shoes. His smile faded once as he clopped over the bricks, but he reposted it.
"Good morning!" he beamed; he grabbed up the Corn Man's dry, dirty hand and shook it. "I'm Jeff Wilbur. And you're...?" He cocked his head and brought an ear around to catch a name.
"The Debt Collector is what you should call me. That would be a good name because every time you say it you'll remember why I'm here."
"The debt collector?" Mr. Wilbur mumbled dully.
"The debt collector," the guard echoed almost inaudibly.
"Yes, the Debt Collector!" the Corn Man cheerfully rejoined.
"What debt?" Mr Wilbur straightened his clothes and composed himself around that question.
The Corn Man refocused his eyes to the sky behind Mr. Wilbur's head and seemed to be remembering. "A long time ago, all your daddies roamed around starving. So I gave them corn and taught them how to plant. After that, things just sort of took off. They started building cities. There was no stopping them."
"Mr. Wilbur's face drew into a perplexed frown. "My daddy never did that. You're crazy!"
"Mine either!" the guard added.
The Corn Man chuckled. "No, not exactly your daddies. I just thought you'd know what I meant. I really should have said your great, great, great, great, great, great, grand-daddies. It seems like such a short time ago. I didn't think they would forget so fast. But anyway, that doesn't matter. Now I've come to collect." He grinned and showed white teeth.
"What do you mean, to collect?" Mr. Wilbur asked.
"Well," the Corn Man scratched his head. "A deal is a deal. When I showed your daddies corn, and showed them how it works, it was understood I got half any time I wanted it. Usually, I would let the birds collect my half. In fact, that's the reason I made the deal: for my friends the birds. Your daddies knew that, but they told me they were real happy even with half. They ate better than they ever ate before."
The guard and Mr. Wilbur looked at him, not understanding.
After a long silence, the Corn Man summarized it for them. "See all that corn over there? I get half. I want it now!"
Mr. Wilbur shook his head slowly, as if he were coming back to consciousness after being hit on the head.
"I came to collect!" the Corn Man sang, and he began to dance and snap his fingers. Some crows dropped down from the trees and danced with him, cawing and clapping their wings together over their heads.
Mr. Wilbur hurried back across the factory yard and into the big building. The guard had already departed and was no where around.
A few minutes later, a whole gang of men came walking out toward the gate.
The Corn Man was squatting by a mud puddle, stirring it with a stick. The crows were back in the trees. It was quiet. The Corn Man didn't look up as the men approached, but just stirred the puddle, his head cocked in thought.
Although the men as a whole approached cautiously, the one who was obviously their leader was in no way afraid. Actually, he seemed amused, and his smile was real. He stood next to the Corn Man.
"I hear you're the bill collector," he said amiably. The other men laughed among themselves.
"The debt collector is what you should call me."
Something in the mud puddle stuck on the stick and the Corn Man fished it out; an old pair of pants hung dripping on the end of the stick. The many little dripping streams played piddling melodies as they trickled back into the puddle.
"Lucky me!" the Corn Man exclaimed. "A new pair of pants!" He stood up and held the pants in front of him to see if they would fit. "Look all right?" he asked.
"Well, sure," the man said haltingly. "Say, my name's Arlington. You could say I'm the Boss of Things around here. A debt collector should be able to understand that." After an instant's hesitation, Arlington decided against a handshake, so he thrust his right hand into his pants pocket as important men do when they are talking to someone who is not as important as they. "Now, just what do you want?" Arlington began to jingle the change in his pocket.
The Corn Man wrung the water out of the puddle pants and shook them out straight. "Half."
"Half of what?"
The Corn Man raised his head and dragged his gaze over the entire factory complex. "Half of the corn you've got and half of the corn you'll get."
"Half of it all?" Arlington's voice cracked with incredulity.
The Corn Man shrugged nonchalantly. "That is my offer."
Arlington looked at the men around him. "You hear this--bum? He wants half of it all!" After a full pause, one of the men in the gang offered a well-modulated quarter-chuckle to feel out whether Arlington might be expecting them to laugh. Arlington smiled, so someone else in the gang upped the ante with an actual laugh. Then they all roared with laughter. Arlington's guffaws stood out from the other men's faster, more nervous "ha's." Tears ran down his cheeks.
The Corn Man was dancing, the sunflower was waving in the sun, and the sky was boiling with dozens of circling crows.
The laughing stopped. Arlington wiped his eyes and cleared his throat. He sighed, wadded up his handkerchief, and stuck it back into his coat pocket.
"Oh, my!" He chuckled again and his body shook a little more. Then he said, "Mr. Collector... Mr. Debt Collector, you're funny. You're asking for half a fortune, but you're not entitled to any!" He chuckled one more time. "Who did you make this deal with, anyway? This deal you're talking about?"
"Your daddies. All your daddies!"
Arlington smiled and shook his head thoughtfully. "I never heard of any deal like that. If it's such an old deal, how come you never came around to collect before now?"
The Corn Man dropped the wet pants on the ground and stepped close to Arlington. He spoke softly, close to Arlington's ear. "See that corn over there? You see that corn?"
"Sure I do."
"Yes," the Corn Man said. "Big yellow-white piles of sweet, sweet corn. Food corn! Seed corn! Magic corn! I get half of it! That's the deal! When I want it, I get it! Usually, I let the birds collect my half for me, but their having trouble getting it lately, so I came to set the accounts straight." He looked Arlington in the eye. "I have spent enough time here. I have been polite and now I am not having any fun. Now I want my half. Will you give it to me?"
The men didn't know who the Corn Man was exactly, but they were beginning to suspect he might be somebody. Even Arlington himself seemed to grow cautious. Despite his caution, however, he finally brought the interview around to his kind of reality with the only response he could possibly give.
"No deal," Arlington said flatly.
The Corn Man thumped one foot on the dirt road and circled once. Now his face had no pleasantness in it, and his eyes seemed to look beyond everything in sight. He faced the factory complex, closed his eyes and assumed a broad stance with his hand pressed against his thighs.
All the men backed away from him with mincing steps. Arlington drew back with them.
Suddenly, the Corn Man opened his eyes wide and threw his arms out straight with a deafening shout, "Hey-ya!"
The men turned to look at the corn piles just in time to see each one become a billion separate chunks of struggling blackness, a roaring explosion of blackbirds breaking for the open sky. The rising cloud of blackbirds blotted the sunlight. Wherever a kernel of corn had been in that factory, there was now a screeching blackbird beating its wings for the sky. Birds were coming out of windows, chutes, bins, and trucks parked in the yard.
In a short time, the last bird had disappeared over the far horizon. Everywhere there had been corn was now nothing.
Arlington finally took his eyes off the spectacle and saw the Corn Man walking back down the road. "Hey, come back! Come on! We'll talk! You've got to fix it back! You've got to do something!"
The Corn Man stopped and turned around. "Do something?" He wondered. "Of course, you're right." He came striding back. The men tripped over each other getting out of his way.
"I forgot my new pants." The Corn Man picked up the wet pants, rolled them up in his hand, and sauntered back down the road humming a tune to himself.
Arlington was undone. "But... but..." The rest of this sentence was lost in the overloaded circuits of his brain.
The Corn Man rounded the bend and stepped into the woods, and was gone. So were the crows.
It was early evening. The full night had crept up from the lowlands, and had just engulfed a hilltop where a grove of trees was now washing in the cool nocturnal winds. Across a shallow valley, a couple of miles away, were the lights of a town. The moon was shining and the valley was full of moonlight.
A girl was camping under the trees on the hilltop. She was deep in thought, hunkered down by a small fire waiting for a pot of water to boil. Her blue eyes gazed long into the whorls of steam that wisped away into the night air. It would not be long before the water would boil; the pot was "tumping."
The Corn Man stepped into the circle of firelight. "Hi!" he said brightly. "What's for supper?"
The girl jumped up, startled, and put her hand on the knife on her belt; but her surprise passed, and the Corn Man's grinning face allayed her fears. She remained standing, nonetheless, and looked him over for signs of menace.
Finally, she answered his question. "Corn. Corn on the cob." Her hand moved away from the knife.
"Are you hungry?"
"Oh my, corn! Well. Is there enough?"
"Sure," she said. "I've got four ears. Two will be enough for me, so you can have the other two."
The Corn Man liked what he heard. He sat down by the fire. "Thanks," he said, "but, as I think about it, I'm not hungry at all. Maybe I'll just enjoy your fire with you for a while, if that'd be all right."
"Of course. Take off your shoes if you want." Then she noticed he was barefoot. She sat down across the fire from him and began to shuck an ear of corn. The water was boiling. "Where are you headed?" she asked.
"That way." He pointed with his chin.
She nodded an acknowledgement. "I'm just drifting myself. Just walking down the road. You know, that's kind of hard to do these days. Especially for a girl."
"Yes," he agreed. "Especially for a fine, tall young girl with big, strong thighs and such full, firm breasts. Not to mention your pretty face and golden, shiny hair."
She jumped up and put her hand back on her knife.
But the Corn Man was still looking into the fire as if he had not noticed her reaction. He asked, "How come you don't have a good man traveling with you?"
"Why are you talking to me like that?" she shouted. "Maybe you better just leave!" That's very rude--saying stuff like that to a stranger! You don't know me at all! Why don't you just get out!" She put her left foot forward in a combat stance.
The Corn Man looked up at her, and the firelight caught gentle smile on his face. "Sit down," he said peaceably. "I meant you no harm. Besides, you're not really angry and you know it. You just think you ought to be." He looked back into the flames. "Sit down," he repeated quietly.
She eased her stance; then, finally, she hunkered down across the fire from him. "It was rude," she said. "And I was nice to you, too, inviting you to eat with me." She quickly shucked the ear of corn she was holding and dropped the husks into the fire.
The Corn Man reached into the flames and pulled them out again. "You'll make a lot of bothersome smoke if you burn them," he said, "but if you leave them lying on the ground, you'll be giving the birds material to make nests."
"It's almost fall now," she objected. "Birds aren't nesting."
The Corn Man shrugged. "Let them lie on the ground and rot until next spring. Then just the stringy part will be left and the leafy part will be gone. Just right for some little bird's nest. For some robin's nest." He smiled and looked at her. "That's your name, isn't it--Robin?"
She was stunned. "How did you know?"
He shrugged. "A good guess."
She looked at him with a mixture of fear and wonder. Eventually, she returned to her business and dropped two naked ears of corn into the pot.
"What's your name?" she asked.
He smiled and shook his head. "I guessed yours, now you have to guess mine."
He shook his head.
He shook his head.
"I give up. Tell me."
He shook his head.
"Well, that's a silly game." She decided to change the subject. "What've you got there?"
"This? New pants." He stood up and shook the pants out to show her the fit. "What do you think?"
"Probably a good fit, but they're ripped." She started to reach out to touch the rip, but thought better of it and just said, "In the crotch."
"Oh. I didn't see that." The Corn Man stuck his finger out the rip and wiggled it. "Can't abide a rip like that. People won't want me walking around." He shook his head and tossed the pants on the ground.
"More nest stuff."
Wait a minute," Robin said. She picked up the pants and examined them. "I could fix them in no time."
From overhead a crow called, and Robin looked up just in time to see the black form coast across the moon.
"How splendid!" She turned to see if her strange companion had seen it too, but he was gone. She looked all over the hill and out over the surrounding fields, but he was not there.
The pants were still in her hand. She wondered. Her eyes went to the corn boiling in the pot.
"The Pants Man," she said.
Zealand figured the photographers were still ten hours behind him, still looking for him in Chicago.
He climbed onto the big grizzly bear and rode slowly along. The alley was full of garbage, abandoned cars, and leaning, rusted appliances where cockroaches made their nests.
Zealand rode past drunks sitting behind sooty buildings on trash furniture; he rode through gangs of black children who cheered and danced and beat on can drums as he rode slowly down the alleys, and dogs were straining and barking at the ends of clothesline leashes.
Zealand rode on, and the descending dusk was the color of deep blue water.
Next morning, when Zealand woke, he was alone, except for the bear. The apartment belonged to a girl he had met yesterday. She was at work.
The bear was peacefully sleeping in the kitchen. Everything was all right.
All Zealand had to do now was wait through a long afternoon.
When night came down and the air turned cool, Zealand put on his outfit. There was a white rodeo-style cowboy hat, a western-style red shirt with blue piping, brown cowboy boots, and a pair of fine deerskin chaps with the fur brushed and shiny. Over these, he strapped on two narrow gunbelts that crossed each other, and he dropped an old, black Peacemaker into each holster.
At nine o' clock, he pasted on a fake Fu Manchu mustache. He woke the grizzly bear and they set out into the night.
It was only a few blocks to the auditorium. Zealand climbed onto the bear and held on to the scruff of the bear's neck as they ambled down the dark alleyways.
Zealand, jogged gently back and forth by the bear's easy motion. looked up at the stars. In a voice that was almost lullaby, he spoke to the bear of the constellations, of the Big Bear and the Little Bear, of the Girl, and the Dragon. The bear kept walking soundlessly, and shards of broken glass glittered like mica all along the way.
From the shadows of a park-forest, Zealand studied the front of the auditorium, which was across a wide boulevard. People were milling around; some were sitting on the steps, smoking and talking. At the end of the block, about seventy yards from the doors to the auditorium, were three police cars; the police were leaning against the cars, smoking and joking.
Zealand figured the meeting inside had been going on long enough that, if there had been any police inside, Zealand could plausibly hope they had drifted out by now, as a result of boredom and no disruptive incident.
(To be continued.)
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