Green Hills Literary Lantern

Power Boy

 

 

     Every Sunday morning after breakfast Grandfather would push his chair back from the table, place his long, slender fingers next to the silver chain that looped along the vest of his three-piece suit, pull out his pocket watch, flick the cover open, bend his hawk-like face over the watch and study it as if he had never seen it before.  Suddenly he would snap the cover shut, clear his throat, and announce, “Time.”

     After he’d left the house I’d watch him from the kitchen window.  First he’d stand at the end of the corncrib right next to his old truck and study the thermometer hung up under the eave.  Then he’d step back and check the wind vane on top of the barn.  Usually he’d pull his watch out again.  At exactly 7:40 he’d place the watch back in its vest pocket and start up the lane, swinging his cane in front of him, the white mane of his hair bouncing.

     Sometimes Mr. Nolf, who delivered the Sunday papers in his pick-up truck, was late.  When that happened, Grandfather would continue up the dirt road that bordered his west pasture to the fence that marked the border of the Colony farm, then back again to the mail box.  Once I counted him walking back and forth ten times.

     “Did you get your newspaper, dear?” Grandmother would ask when he returned.

     Grandfather never answered her but kept right on going through the kitchen and dining room, his cane knocking on the wooden floor.

     “Well!” Grandmother might say under her breath.  But she’d turn off the church program on the radio.  Grandfather was secretary of the Iowa Chapter of the American Humanist Society and he couldn’t stand church programs.

     When the last plate and bowl had been put away in its proper place and the counters wiped clean, first with a wet cloth and then with a dry one, Grandmother would untie her apron, touch a hand to the waves of her permanent, and say, “Casey, I just think the two of us will visit the living room.”

     We always found Grandfather sitting at the end of the big couch near the window next to his short wave set with the newspaper spread out around him, his favorite section, the editorial pages, in his hands, the state, national and international news next to him, the business and real estate farther away, and the rest, the Addison supplement, sports, home improvement, advertising and the funnies all on the floor at the other end.

     “Are you done with these, dear?” Grandmother would ask.

     Grandfather would clear his throat.

     “Well, well, well,” Grandmother might say, stooping to pick up the rest of the newspaper.

     The sports section looked different from the other sections because of its orange-yellow color.  It was called the “Peach Report” and Grandmother would say, “Casey?” and hand it to me.  Then she’d carry the other sections to the overstuffed chair next to her knitting basket and take out a little notebook she used to record new ideas from the home improvement section.

     Occasionally Grandfather cleared his throat, and sometimes he might say,  “How about that?”  Grandmother would lower her paper.  “What about what, dear?”

     Things would be silent for a long time unless Grandmother started trilling one of her favorite opera songs.  Grandfather would clear his throat again and Grandmother would say, “Sorry.”

     I was thirteen years old on one of those July Sunday mornings in 1949 and was turning the pages of the Peach Report as carefully as I could, easing each page up and easing it down, trying not to make any noise at all, when I saw a full-page picture of Diamond Jack sliding his race car into a corner, his body leaning towards the inside of the turn, the front wheels pointed towards the outside, and one of those front wheels, the small one, pulled up and off the dirt track by the force of going around the corner.  At the bottom of the page I saw these big letters:  “DJ.”  And below that in smaller letters:  “Linn County Fair, July 10-17.”

     Diamond Jack, or “DJ,” as everybody knew him, was the most famous midget class race driver in the United States.  He drove out of Soldiers’ Field in Chicago and had been the national point champion for four out of the last five years.  You always heard him pushing Firestone tires on the radio, saying that Firestones were the best tires in the world.

     Well, I never, ever thought I would have the chance to see Diamond Jack in person.  But on the next page of the newspaper it said that Diamond Jack would be coming to race at the Linn County Fair next Saturday.  The Linn County Fair took place just south of Cedar Rapids.  And that was only 15 miles away from Addison.

     “Wow!” I said.

     Both Grandfather and Grandmother lowered their newspapers.

     “What, dear?” said Grandmother.

     Grandfather cleared his throat.

     I picked up the Peach Report and headed out through the dining room and the kitchen.

     “Casey, not too far.”  That was Grandmother.

     I kept going down the steps of the back porch past the old well they didn’t use any more and the old cistern they didn’t use either, past the empty corn crib and the truck that hardly worked, and around the chicken shed where they didn’t have any chickens.  At the old hog shed, where they didn’t have any hogs, either, I sat down on some bales of straw and unfolded the Peach Report and looked at the picture of Diamond Jack again.  Of course, you couldn’t see his face because he was wearing goggles and a helmet, but right on the side of the car you could see that famous number, “9,” and on the top of the hood the letters that spelled “Firestone.”  So that was him all right.  And he was coming to the Linn Country Fair next Saturday.

     One thing I knew for sure:  I had to get there to see him.

 

* * *

 

     “What did you find in the sports section, dear?”

     Grandmother had changed into her Sunday best, a starched white blouse and a black skirt, and was looking in a mirror while she fitted a hat with a half-veil over her hair.

     “It’s Diamond Jack, Grandma.”

     I unfolded the paper on the kitchen table.

     “Diamond Jack?”  She kept looking in the mirror.  “What’s a Diamond Jack, dear?”

     I explained it all to her, that he was a midget race car driver and how he had been the national point champion for the last four out of five years, and that next Saturday he’d be coming to the Linn County Fair.  I wanted to go see him.

     “But isn’t Saturday the sixteenth?”

     I told her it was.

     “Well, dear, that’s when we’re going to visit your Aunt Ruth at the sanitarium.”

     “But, Grandma, Diamond Jack.”

     I held up the newspaper so she could see it better.

     “Casey, I don’t want to hear any more.  None of this foolishness.  Aunt Ruth is expecting you.”

     “She doesn’t know anything.”

     “Casey!  Not in this house!”

     I pulled the newspaper off the table and started back out of the kitchen.

     “Casey!”

     From the outside Grandfather’s barn looked like any other barn, complete with an old pulley and tongs which Grandfather and his brothers used to use to lift hay from the wagon below to the loft above.  But now when you slid the door open at the cow stalls you saw a big sign painted on the far wall that said, “MAN IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS!” and under that, the name “Protagoras.”  Grandfather had other names posted around, too:  “Thales of Miletus,” “Anaximander,” “Anaximenes,” “Parmenides,” “Anaxagoras,” and “Empedocles.”  He had once explained to me that these were important men who had lived a long time ago who understood the truth—not like Mr. Haines, the minister at the Methodist church in Addison.

     Grandfather had built a black spiral staircase that went up to the old hay loft.  Ever since he had stopped farming Grandfather had been writing a book called Humanism and the Ascent of Man, and he’d turned part of the hay loft into his library and had put his big desk against the far wall.

     I waited for him at the bottom of the spiral staircase next to his coffee percolator.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to go up to his library.  Grandfather had rules about that.  Strict rules.  For me, but especially for Grandmother, he said.  His office was the place he did his important work.

     Twenty minutes later I heard his cane thumping along the wooden floor, then the clanking noise of the cane against the spiral staircase; then I saw his black polished shoes, his creased tweed pants, and the rest of him, the suit coat, the vest, and his silver watch chain.

     Grandfather looked at me, went over to his hot plate, poured himself some coffee, stirred in cream from a red and white Carnation can, sugar from a brown sack, and sat down in his special rocking chair.

     It was as if I weren’t there.

     But in a way that was all right.  I liked looking at Grandfather, the hooked nose, the high forehead with the fine, arched forehead lines, the white hair.  I could look at him for a long time.

     Although, still, I wished I had a real father like the other kids.  For example, John, who lived three farms down.  His dad had taken him all the way to Chicago to see a Cubs game.

     “Grandpa, next Saturday’s the sixteenth.”

     Grandfather didn’t say anything.

     “And we’re supposed to go see Aunt Ruth.”

     Grandfather cleared his throat.

     “But she never knows me any more.”

     Now Grandfather turned and looked at me.  His eyes had a way of drilling into you.

     “She doesn’t,” I said.

     I took the newspaper from under my arm and unfolded it so that the full-page picture lay flat.

     “Grandpa, look!”

     Grandfather leaned toward me and studied the picture.

     I explained about Diamond Jack, all the things I had told Grandmother, and how this was probably my one chance in a lifetime to see him, unless I went to Chicago sometime, and I didn’t think that would ever happen.

     “That,” Grandfather said, “is a most impressive photograph.”

     He got up to put his coffee cup away.

     “Casey, remember, it is you who are at the center of the universe.”

     He climbed back up the spiral staircase and I could hear his cane thumping on the wooden floor above me.

     I picked up the newspaper and started for the house.

     Grandmother was on the crank phone talking to one of her women friends and touching the veil of her hat with a hand.  I sat down to wait her out.

     “Well, dear?” said Grandmother putting the receiver back on the hook when she was finished.

     “Grandpa said I could go.”

     “Casey, no more of this foolishness.  I won't have it.”

     I went down the hall past the washing machine and climbed up the ladder to my attic room and pulled the trap door shut after me.

     “Casey!”

     About half an hour later I heard the porch door open and close as Grandfather came in from the barn, then Grandmother’s saying something to him, then the deep knocking sound of Grandfather’s cane on the wooden floor as he passed through the dining room into the living room.  Shortly after that I could hear the light tapping sound of Grandmother’s shoes.  I couldn’t exactly hear what she was saying, but I had learned that when she started talking to Grandfather in the living room before church, an argument always followed.  In these arguments Grandmother never, ever raised her voice.  But Grandfather sure did.  And soon his voice got louder and louder and I heard things like, “Goddamit,” and “Why in bloody hell’s name. . . ,” and then the thump, thump, thump, but faster this time, of Grandfather’s cane as he crossed the wooden floor and went out through the kitchen and slammed the porch door.

     That night at dinner Grandmother and I waited for Grandfather to come in from the barn.

     Finally Grandmother said, “Well, Casey, I imagine we should begin.”

     After one or two bites she held her hand up to her forehead and began to cry.

     “Grandma,” I said, “I don’t have to go to see Diamond Jack.  It’s all right.”

     “Casey,” she said, not even trying to hide the wetness in her eyes, “I just think you should.  Just go.  If that’s what you want.  If that’s what you truly want.  Because one must take one’s joys in this world where one finds them.  You remember that, Casey.”

     She got up and went over to a corner drawer in the kitchen where she kept her purse.  “Now, Casey, you’ll be wanting some money.”  She took the little red coin purse out of her bigger black purse.

     “Grandma . . . .”

     “I won’t hear any more, Casey.  Take the bird by the wing.  How much will you be needing, Casey?”

     In the end, she looked at the newspaper and discovered that the admission to the fair was two dollars, the race itself cost five dollars, and we knew the bus fare was fifty cents each way, so the total came to eight dollars.

     She pulled two five dollar bills out of her little red purse and gave them to me.  “The rest is mad money.  For your joy, Casey.”

 

* * *

 

     Next Saturday morning I heard the popping and coughing of the engine as Grandfather tried to start his old Jimmy truck.

     “Now, Casey,” said Grandmother, “have you got your money?”

     I showed her the two five dollar bills.

     “And your bus ticket?”

     I showed her the round trip bus ticket from Addison to the Linn County Fairgrounds.

     Out in the side yard I put one foot up on the running board of the truck, grabbed the handle inside the cab and pulled myself up onto the seat beside Grandfather dressed in his three-piece suit and holding his watch in his hands.  The seat trembled under me from the vibration of the motor.

     “Time!” said Grandfather, snapping his watch shut.

     We lurched forward and the motor quit.

     “Bloody hell!” yelled Grandfather.

     He pressed the starter button until the motor caught again.

     “Now, you better, you son of a bitch!”

     We bumped down the lane, went up and over the culvert next to the pond, turned left at the mailbox onto the dirt road and passed the Colony farm.  The dogs there heard us coming and ran out in front of the truck.

     When we got to Addison, Grandfather pulled in next to the pump at Nolf’s store, got out of the cab, undid the rope holding the hood down and propped it open with a stick.  The other men who always sat at the bench beside the store came over for a look.

     “So, boys?” said Grandfather.

     “Granddad!” I said.  “I’m supposed to catch the bus over there.”

     But he kept looking down into the motor with the other men.

     “Granddad!”

     He still didn’t hear me, so I went across the highway, right there next to the Miller house that had burned down two years ago, and waited for the bus.

     Finally the men put the hood of the truck down.

     “Granddad, the bus is coming,” I yelled again.

     He raised a hand at me as he went over to the bench with the other men.

 

* * *

 

     The bus was about half full and I found a seat all the way in the back.

     At Spalding several more families with lots of kids got on, and then the bus went over to Bartlett, where even more people got on.  By the time we got near the fair people were standing in the aisles and we’d been traveling for over a half hour.

     The bus began to pass farmers’ fields that had been made into parking lots and people were walking from those fields along the sides of the road towards the fair.  Our bus passed those people and pulled in next to the main gate.  Everyone from the bus got out and went over to the ticket counter, and when it was my turn I pushed one of my five dollar bills to the man behind the window.  I got three dollars back and a paper ticket with a number on it.

     “Is this ticket good for all day?” I asked.

     The man behind the glass nodded.

     Once past the entrance booth I heard barrel organ music and saw lots of booths where people were selling food, hot dogs, hamburgers, Cokes, cotton candy, that kind of thing.  I went over and asked the woman in the booth how much for the cotton candy.

     “Ten cents, my young man.”

     I gave her a one-dollar bill and got ninety cents in return.

     “You enjoy yourself, now.”

     The barrel organ music turned out to be a merry-go-round, and I stood for a while eating my cotton candy and watching the little kids go round and round on fairy tale horses and fairy tale lions that went up and down on silver poles, the parents standing to the side watching and waving.

     It was only 11:00 in the morning and the races didn’t start until 2:00, so I had plenty of time.  But still I thought I ought to get over to the grandstand and check things out.

     First I had to go through this maze of shed-like buildings, cows inside one, hogs in another, chickens in another, and even one for rabbits.  After I got past the last building I saw a circus.  Well, it wasn’t a real circus with a big top, but more of a carnival with lots of booths all in a row, a shooting gallery, a place where you pitched wooden rings for prizes, a spook house, a fortune teller’s booth and a freak show with posters of a two-headed woman.

     On the other side of the carnival a group of people, mostly farmers and their wives, had collected around a thin, wiry man standing next to a green car.  The man held a microphone as he talked to the people.  He was dressed in green work pants and a green work shirt, and the sleeves of the shirt were rolled up over his biceps.

     “Now, folks,” I heard him say.  “You talk about your Fords, your General Motors, your Chryslers, all of them, your Nashes, Hudsons, Kaisers.  Those are big companies, folks.  And are they going to come out and tell you about this new scientific discovery?   Now, what do you think?  With all them profits every year?  Millions and millions of dollars?  And them oil companies paying to keep this help to mankind a secret?  Just what do you think?”

     Right away I didn’t trust this man.  I didn’t know what he was selling, but you’d never catch me buying from him.  He had a tattoo of a heart with an arrow going through it high up on one arm, and high up on his other arm a tattoo of an American flag, complete with red and blue colors.  His hair was slicked back with brilliantine and pulled into a duck in the back.  Well, a duck was all right for guys in high school, I guess, but this man was at least forty years old.  And he had these big diamond rings on his fingers and wore black cowboy boots with pointed toes.  You could tell from his drawl that he sure wasn’t from Iowa.

     So I couldn’t understand why these farmers were standing around listening to him.  They should just walk away.  That’s what I would have done.

     “I'll tell you what, folks,” the man was saying.  “You know why them big oil companies is scared?  Well, now, think about it.  You just think about it.  Because this here little invention would put them out of business.”

     The man held up a black cube with wires coming out of one side.  He said we were looking right here at the next revolution in the automobile industry.  It was called “Power Boy,” and it had to do with the principles of physics.  Because when you connected this invention to your distributor it would cut your gas consumption in half.  In half.  That’s right, he said, we had heard him correctly.  Because the historical fact was that this device was invented in Sweden by a Nobel Prize winning professor named Dr. Borchardt five years ago, but the oil companies got wind of it and forced the Swedish government to throw this professor, Dr. Borchardt, in jail, which is where he still is to this day.

     “So, folks, progress or no progress, I never know when I’m going to be closed down.  It could happen any day.  Them federal marshals.  They’s maybe right now in the fairgrounds.  They’ll have a warrant.  It’ll all look legal.  I won’t be able to do nothing about it; you won’t be able to do nothing about it.  They’ll just take me away.  So, folks, like the poet says, time is of the essence.”

    The man opened up the hood of the green car next to him.

    “Now, folks, as the poet also says, seeing is believing.”

     Of course, I knew whatever he showed us would be fake, but I got myself in front of some of the farmers to watch anyway.

     The man started up the motor of his car and explained that this motor was your ordinary Chevy “six,” and he guessed that some of us had the very same motor in our car.  None of that fancy stuff, your Cadillacs and Lincolns that the rich and privileged drive.  He said that he knew us, that we were ordinary, honest folk, and that he guessed the prices for hogs wasn’t all that high this year.

     “Now, folks, seeing is believing.”

      He said that he was going to show us something that was only for demonstration, and we certainly weren’t to do this at home.  He would disconnect three of the spark plugs from that Chevy six.

     He reached under the hood and we could see him pulling off some wires.  Right away the motor started sputtering and running rough.

     “Well, now,” he said, “I guess you menfolk know as well as I do why this motor ain’t running so good.  And you womenfolk probably have a pretty good guess.”

     Then he said that he was going to connect this little revolutionary scientific device, this “Power Boy” to the distributor and then we could just see the result with our own eyes.

     We watched him reach in and clip one set of wires to the distributor head and the other set of wires to something else.

     And sure enough, right away the motor started running normally again.

     I was looking for the trick, maybe hidden wires under the car.

     “Now, folks, you see what this here ‘Power Boy’ does?  See why the government don’t want you to know about it?  See why this Nobel Prize winning Dr. Borchardt is still in jail?”

     Each time he disconnected the device, the engine ran rough, and each time he connected it again, it ran smooth.

     “It’s a scientific revolution, folks.”

     Then he told us that the normal price for this “Power Boy” was fifteen dollars.  Last week, sure as he was standing before us and talking to us, he sold this very same device, out of the same box and everything, for that price, fifteen dollars, at the Wapello County Fair right there south of Ottumwa.  But this week he was making a special offer.  A Linn County offer.  We could buy this “Power Boy” for just ten dollars.  That’s right, you heard him right.  Ten dollars.

     “Now, ladies and gentlemen, who’s going to step forward and be the first?”

     I wasn’t so sure now.  Maybe the thing really did work.  Maybe there weren’t any wires.  Maybe it did really make the motor run smooth.  And, also, one of the farmers stepped up and bought one, and then three more farmers.  These men must have known something.

     The man had several suitcases full of brown cardboard boxes and he handed each farmer a box and took his ten dollars.  “Yessir, you’re never going to regret this,” he'd say to one, and “Best decision you ever made,” to another.

     Then as the crowd faded away I heard the man say to himself, “Well, shiiiit!”

     He lowered himself down on a folding chair he’d set out under a tree, and pulled a bottle of beer, a can of tobacco and some cigarette paper out of another suitcase next to the chair.  He popped the cap off the bottle, took a swig out of the bottle, and started to roll a cigarette, shaking the tobacco out of the can.

     I wanted to see if there were any wires or not.

     “Hey, there, young fella,” the man said to me from where he was sitting.  “You having a good time at the fair?”

     “Yes.”

     “What’s you been doing?  Over at the hog show or the sheep show?”

     “Sheep,” I said.

     “Well, let me tell you something, young fella.  This here Linn County’s a right nice county.  You’re lucky you live here.  Last week I was working the Wapello County Fair, but they don’t know what they’s doing so well.  Not so friendly, neither.”

     The man lit a match by scraping it across the sole of his boot, took a long drag from his cigarette, and said, “You betcha!” and, as he let the smoke out of his nose, slumped down in his chair and closed his eyes.

     I figured this was my chance to find out about the wires.  I got up closer to the car.

     “You got a question, son?”

     I tried to say something about how maybe I was taking a shortcut over to the hogs, but nothing came out.  He kept looking at me, all the time holding his cigarette down to his side.

     Then I said, “How did you do it?”

     “How did I do it?”

     “Make the car run so smooth?”

     “Well, shiiiit!”

     The man got up and came over towards me.  Now I noticed he limped as he walked.  He stopped on the other side of the car, put his hands against it, and leaned towards me.

     “Son, you see what I was doing, standing there, talking to those folks?  That’s what I do every day, son.  Last week it was over there at the Wapello County Fair and next week it’ll be up in Mason City.  All over the Midwest, son.  Eleven months out of the year.  And see that trailer over there?  That’s where I live.  You think you could do that, boy, eleven months in the year, living in that trailer?  Going up to Mason City next?  You think about that.”

     He took a final drag on his cigarette and gave it a flick.

     “Now, son, you come over here.”

     He limped back to the tree and unfolded another chair which had been leaning up against its trunk.  He set the chair down next to his chair.

     “Come on, boy, I ain’t gonna hurt you, now.”

     “I don't think . . . .”

     “Boy, come on!”

     For some reason, I don’t know why, I went over to where he was.

     “Sit down, boy.”

     I sat down.

     “What’s your name?”

     “Casey,” I said.

     “Casey?  Well, shiiiit, Casey, I know what you’s thinking.  Old Charles here has been round and round, and I’ve seen about everything there is to see in this here world.  And I knows what you’s thinking.  I knows it before you says it.  If this here gadget of mine really works, why don’t everyone buy one of these things.  Why ain’t there one of these gismos in every car in America?”

     I didn’t like sitting so close to him and I didn’t like him leaning in towards me.  Also I could smell a perfumy smell coming from his brilliantine.

     “Now you think about it.  You just stop and think about it real good and hard.  What do you think that reason might be?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “You don’t know?  And you look like an intelligent young man to me.  And you don’t know?”

     I told him I didn't.

     The man leaned in closer to me and I felt something on my knee.  I looked down and saw that he had the fingers of his hand there.

     “It’s them federal marshals, son.  You think them federal marshals desires people to buy this thing?”

     I just wanted him to take his fingers off my knee.

     “Son, it can happen any time.  Morning, noon or night.  Them federal marshals.  See, they don’t have to obey no special laws.  Them local police, well, they’re under your normal constraints.  But them federal marshals.  They do whatever they want.  It’s the little guys like us.  The ones that don’t have no protection.”

     He had his full hand on my knee now.  And he was pressing down on it.

     “Son, you got any money on you?”

     “Money?” I said.

     He tightened his grip.  It didn’t hurt yet, but I knew next time it would.

     “Boy, don’t mess with me.  Not with old Charles.  Charles knows you ain’t come to this fair for nothing.  That right, boy?”

     “I'm going to the races,” I said.  “Diamond Jack.”

     “There you are.  Going to the races.  And, boy, how much do them races cost today?”

     “Five dollars.”

     The man tightened his grip on my knee and now it began to hurt.  I wanted to cry out, but I didn't.

     “You listen out, now.  Listen what I’m telling you.  You betcha.  This here gismo, this 'Power-Boy,' normally costs fifteen dollars.  You heard me tell the folks that.  That’s what I sold it for last week at the Wapello Fair.  And here at Linn County I’m selling it for ten dollars.  But you know what old Charles’s gonna do for you?  I’m gonna give this thing to you, son, for five dollars.  Special price.  Just for you.  Your old man’s got a car, don’t he?

     “Grandfather’s got a truck.”

     “A truck, boy!  You know what?  This gadget works even better with trucks.  What kind of truck, boy?”

     “A Jimmy.”

     “A Jimmy!  Hell, son, everyone knows this 'Power-Boy' works best on a Jimmy.  Shiiiit!  You got a deal, then.  You betcha!  You got yourself a deal!”

     He took his hand off my knee and limped over to one of those other suitcases and took out a brown cardboard box.

     “Now, boy, what was it we agreed?  Five dollars?”

     “I don’t think . . . .”

     “Boy, we made a deal.  Look sharp!”

     I reached in my pocket and pulled out the several one dollar bills and the one five dollar bill.  The man snapped up the five dollar bill.

     “That’s for Diamond Jack!” I said, and tried to reach for it.  But the man got the bill in his back pocket.

     He pushed the cardboard box down in my hands.

     “Now scram, boy.”

     I didn’t know what to do or where to go, or even which way anything was, so I just started walking, holding on to that cardboard box, past more food stands and then through a field full of brand-new farm equipment, tractors, balers, cultivators, plows, things like that, the International Harvester machines painted red and the John Deere machines painted green.

     Beyond all the farm implements and then some pens of horses and cows, I came to the top of a little hill and there ahead of me I saw it, the grandstand with a whole lot of trucks, mostly pick-up trucks, but also some wrecker trucks, lined up in front of it.  Each truck pulled a trailer and each trailer carried a race car.  Some of the race cars were blue, some yellow, some red, some black, and every race car had a different number painted on its side.  Also every trailer had a stack of fat tires piled up beside the cars.  At the head of the line I could see men checking the trucks in at a gate in a wooden fence next to the grandstand.

     I kept walking, all the time holding the cardboard box, and got up real close to some of the race cars.  The curved hoods sloped up to the cockpit where a small steering wheel protruded behind the stubby Plexiglas windshield.  The rear ends of the cockpits were built up high, and I knew the reason for this.  In case of a crash this high part of the car would protect the driver.

     Then I saw him.  Diamond Jack.

     His truck and trailer had been pulled over to one side of the gate, and you could tell it was really him because he was up on a platform with lots of people pushing towards him and reporters holding microphones up and other reporters with cameras taking pictures.  He wore a bright, red satin jacket and waved his black cowboy hat to the crowd.  “Hey, there!” he called out and pointed at somebody.

     Holding the cardboard box, I got myself next to his car.  It was red with silver exhaust pipes coming from the motor.  There on the side of the hood, right where I could reach out and touch it, was the black number “9,” his number for sure.  And up on top of the hood, in yellow letters, “Firestone.”  I stepped up on the trailer and got a look inside the cockpit.  I saw a pair of black leather gloves on the bottom of the seat.

     “Go for it, boy!”

     I looked up.  Diamond Jack held his cowboy hat in one hand and with his other hand pointed a finger right at me.   All the people in the crowd looked.

     “Hell, boy, just get in there and drive that thing away!”  He gave his hat a wave and people cheered.

     I jumped down off the trailer, almost dropping the cardboard box, and started to run.

     “Not that way, boy!  Not that way!”

     The crowd was laughing.

 

* * *

 

    I kept on running up the hill and then past the pens of horses and cows and through the field of farm implements and then the carnival with its booths all in a row and past the merry-go-round and out the main gate.  Almost all of the people on the highway were walking towards the fair, just a few people out on one shoulder walking the other way.  I followed those people until I got to the bus stop.  I didn’t really know if the bus were coming or not, but, in a way, I didn’t care.

     And I didn’t know what to do with the cardboard box, either.  Maybe, I thought, I could just leave it in the grass under the bench.  I looked at the printing on its side.  “Power Boy,” it said.

     I pulled at the lids.  There in the middle of some packing paper, I saw the black cube.  I pulled at it, the packing paper spilling out on both sides, and sure enough, the cube had wires coming from it.  One set of wires was white and the other red, and both sets of wires had metal clips at the ends.  A white piece of paper had fallen out with the packing paper, and when I picked the piece of paper up I read the words, “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE JUST PURCHASED THE MOST ADVANCED . . . .”  And then there were a lot of instructions on how to attach the wires.

     Just then I saw the bus coming and when it stopped a lot of people got off and some people got on.  I sat next to a lady in one of the front seats.  She said hello to me and I said hello to her.  She asked me if I had a good time at the fair and I said I had.

     “Do you know what’s inside this box?” I asked her.

     I showed her the cardboard box.

     “Well, I can’t say that I do.”

     I told her.  How it was a new scientific invention that made your car run twice as cheap as before and it was really going to revolutionize the automobile industry.  I also told her it was invented by a Swedish man whose name I forgot, but he was a professor and had won a big prize and he was in jail to this day.

      “Well, my goodness,” the woman said, but she turned and kept looking out the window.

     She got off at Spalding, and as that wasn’t too far from my stop, I went up to stand at the front of the bus.  I asked the driver if he knew what was in this cardboard box of mine.

     “Can't say that I do.”

     I explained it all to him, about how the oil companies had paid off Ford and General Motors and Chrysler to keep all this a secret.

     “That a fact?” said the driver, slowing down to let me off at my stop along the highway next to Mr. Nolf’s store.

     Since it was still early in the afternoon and Grandfather wasn’t supposed to come and pick me up until around six o’clock, I started walking out of Addison along the dirt road.  It took me about half an hour until I got to the Colony farm.  All the Colony dogs ran out to meet me, barking, but not serious barking, and soon they were crowding in around me pushing to be petted.

     The Colony farm was set right near the road.  That meant that Mr. Colony’s lawn came out to the road and even down the sides of the shoulders.  The grass had been mowed yesterday and I could still see the paths where the mower had been.  Mrs. Colony had planted beds of flowers along the driveway and the flowers continued up and along the fence that went around the back porch.

     I followed those flowers up the lane and once I got near the back porch I saw Mrs. Colony coming my way from inside her garden carrying a basket on her hip.  She had the garden divided into different sections, corn, peas, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, carrots, and so forth, and a wire mesh fence went all the way around the garden to keep the rabbits out.

     As soon as she closed the garden gate she saw me.

     “Casey, well, for land’s sake, welcome.”

     Just like Grandmother, Mrs. Colony always wore a dress—even when she was working.

     “Now, Casey, what has a young man like you been up to?”

     I explained I had been at the fair.

     “Well,” she said, putting her basket down on the ground.  The basket was full of pea pods.  “Harry and I are thinking of going.  Tomorrow, if we can get away.  After church, of course.  Harry’s brother and his wife want to go, too.”

     “Look what I bought,” I said.

     I pulled the black cube out of the cardboard box.

     “Land's sake, Casey, and what is that?”

     I explained it all to her, how this device was going to revolutionize the automobile industry because it would cut the cost of running your car by fifty percent.

     “What won't they think of next?  Isn’t that the most remarkable thing, Casey.”

     I told her it had been invented by a Swedish professor.

     “You know, I think I heard something about that from somewhere.  Maybe on the radio.”

     “And I got it for only five dollars.”

     “I'll tell you what, Casey.  I just tell you what.  My Harry is going to be interested in this.  You can be sure of that.  He just loves all these new things.  And he’s the one who understands the principles.”

     We found Mr. Colony out in the machine shed.  You could see his legs sticking out from under his Ford-Massey tractor.

     “Harry, Casey’s here.  He's got something to show you.”

     Mr. Colony pulled himself out from under the tractor, took off his gloves and shook my hand.  Although his overalls were smeared with grease, Mr. Colony never really looked like a farmer to me.  With his bald head and glasses, it seemed more like he ought to be a teacher at a school.

     “Now, you show my Harry what you got, Casey.”

     I took the black cube out of the box and explained it all to Mr. Colony, how this device was going to revolutionize everything.

     “I tell you what,” said Mrs. Colony, “I'll just leave and let you men work this out.”

     Mr. Colony took the cube and turned it over and over in his hands.

     I said it worked best on trucks.  I also told how the man demonstrated it, taking three of the leads off a six cylinder engine and how the engine ran rough until he attached this device.

     “Well, now, Casey, you know I'm always looking to save on fuel costs.”

     I got the white piece of paper of instructions out of the box and handed it to Mr. Colony.  He adjusted the glasses on his nose and studied the paper.

     “And where did you say you got this thing, Casey?”

     I told him about the man I'd bought it from at the fair.

     “And what company does this man work for, Casey?”

     I said I didn’t know if he worked for a company, but that he worked eleven months of the year, lived in a trailer, and traveled all over the Midwest.

     “Casey, why don’t we just give this thing a try?  Might be the best thing since apple pie.”

     Mr. Colony took me out around behind the machine shed where he had this old Chevy truck he sometimes used.  He started the engine and then lifted the hood. 

     “You say he took off three of these spark plug leads?”

     “Only he said you shouldn’t do this at home.”

     “Well, I guess we can if we want to, Casey.”

     Mr. Colony took hold of the wire cables coming out of the distributor and followed them down to the spark plugs and pulled three of them off.  Right away, the engine began to run rough, coughing and sputtering.

     “Hand me those instructions, Casey.”

     I handed the white piece of paper to Mr. Colony, and, after adjusting his glasses on his nose, he studied the paper again.

     “We’ll give her a try, Casey.”

     I watched Mr. Colony put the cube down next to the distributor and then attach the white wires to one part of the distributor and the red wires to something else on the block.

     The engine continued to cough and sputter.

     Mr. Colony looked at the instructions again, reached in, and made sure the clips coming from the cube were attached firmly.  Still the engine coughed and sputtered.

     “Hmmm,” said Mr. Colony.

     He tried for five more minutes, but nothing helped.  Then he unattached the wires, lifted the black cube out of the engine compartment and handed it back to me.

     “Casey, you come over here and sit down with me.”

     He motioned towards two old chairs next to the trunk of an oak tree.  Mr. Colony sat down heavily in one of them.  When I was seated in mine he said, “That chair all right for you, Casey?”

     I told him it was.

     “Now, you see here, Casey.  I guess things work this way.  These big automobile companies, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and the rest, they all got these research departments.  And they’re always looking for new things, for the best things.  They’re always trying to make improvements.  That’s why cars are always changing, getting better.  That’s called, progress, Casey.  And you know for sure, Casey, that these car companies have heard about this device and tested it.  And if they found it worked, you can bet on it, Casey, it would have been on last year’s models.  I guess they tested it and found out it didn't work.”

     “But,” I said, “the oil companies paid the auto companies a lot of money.”

     “No, Casey.  This is America.  Things like that don’t happen here.”

     The next thing I knew I was following Mr. Colony back to the house where he stopped at the screen porch because of his boots and called out, “Sarah!”

     “Well, now,” said Mrs. Colony coming to the door, “did you menfolk get it all figured out?”

     “Sarah, I think Casey will be wanting some of those peas to take back with him.”

     “Land’s sake, yes,” she said.

     I carried the “Power Boy” in its cardboard box and the basketful of pea pods all the way down our lane, across the culvert near the pond and up past the farm buildings.

     Grandmother was talking on the crank phone when I came into the kitchen.

     “Casey?”

     I spilled the pea pods onto the kitchen table and headed back out the door.

     “Casey!”

     I kept going right past the corn crib and the old truck and through the gate to the barn.   At the cow sheds I saw the same sign:  “Man is the Measure of All Things!”

     This time I went right up the black spiral staircase.

     Grandfather turned from his desk at the far wall where he had all his books stacked up around him.  I pulled the black cube out of its package.  The wires with the clips dangled down to the floor.

     “Granddad, look.  This thing is called ‘Power Boy.’”

     Grandfather cleared his throat.

     “See, a real scientist invented it, a big prize winner, and the federal marshals probably won’t let it happen, but if you attach it right, if you follow the instructions, it can make the motors run smoother again . . . .”

     Grandfather cleared his throat again.

     I smashed the cube down on the floor and stamped my foot on it.  It made a popping sound and little bits of its innards ran out along the floor.

     “Bloody hell!”

     Grandfather got up from his desk and started towards me, his cane knocking against the floor.

     “Granddad!”

     I threw myself to him, my arms up around his neck.  It was welling up inside of me.

     “Casey?”

     I pulled myself harder against him and then felt his arms circle my back.

     “Granddad, Diamond Jack . . . .”  But I couldn’t go on.

     “Casey, my boy.  It’s all right.  My only boy.”

 

 

Karl Harshbarger has published over 50 stories in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review and Prairie Schooner.  Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and nine of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He has finished one novel, An Addison Man, which is currently being peddled by his agent in New York, and is working on another.  He lives with his wife in Germany.