Clara & Fred
In which we meet Clara & Fred
Behind the house where she lived there ran a path west to a Great North Road and beyond, east over the Fluminac River and up to the top of a hill. In other parts of the country the Fluminac would be called a stream, or at best a brook, but where Clara lived it was a river. Ever since a time too long ago to be recently and too soon passed to be a long time ago Clara would go to the hill at the end of the path and spend afternoons with Fred. Fred was a man (almost a boy) who was almost as short as Clara (who was very short). He had kind of long hair which some people would call blond and some people would call light brown, and a kind of short beard which some people would call dark brown and some people would call black.
Clara and Fred would sit and talk until supper, or later if one of them had brought food. Sometimes she would bring tea, and sometimes he would bring candies, but always he would bring his flute and play songs which she was sure when he started she had never before heard and which she was just as sure when he finished she had heard many times although she couldn't quite remember where.
One day in late May Clara asked Fred, "How does one get money?"
He said, "I mostly play with my hat on the sidewalk."
"But you don't have a hat."
Fred smiled, "My smile is my hat."
"No, your smile is your umbrella."
"But I don't have an umbrella."
"You don't play with your smile on the sidewalk."
"I certainly do. Do you know how hard it is to smile and play the flute at the same time? To play the flute you have to have your lips like this." He made as if to play the flute. "I find it easier just to put my smile on the sidewalk."
"And people drop money into it?"
"Of course, I play a good flute."
Clara pointed to the flute in question, "That thing?"
"That thing is Terry."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but that doesn't get me any money."
"You're becoming a capitalist."
"Don't call me names."
Fred laughed a little, "What else would I call you?"
"Now, Fred," said Clara, trying to regain control of the conversation, "I'm serious."
"If you insist. There are, as far as I know," he counted on his fingers, "five ways to get money: beg, borrow, steal, gamble, or work. Begging doesn't pay very well, if you borrow you have to pay it back sooner or later, stealing isn't strictly honest, gambling is sometimes a way to lose money, and if you work you've got to work."
"But where does that leave me?"
"Sitting on a hill talking to Fred."
"OK," he said, "I'll tell you what,"
"It's about time."
"They say, and don't ask me who 'they' are, they say to get money you have to have money. So I can give you some money and when you get some money give me back the money I gave and you'll have the money you get."
"Beg, borrow, steal, gamble, or work."
Clara was beginning to think she'd always be broke. "You said that already."
Fred surprised her by getting serious, "Clara, did you ever wonder why you usually beat me in cribbage even though you never remember whose crib you're giving cards to and you count your hand wrong half the time?" Clara was going to challenge the truth of that statement, but she didn't. "The goddess of the random variable smiles on you. You are one of her favorites just as you are one of mine. If you really are serious about wanting money what you should do is, you see that path there?" He pointed to an edge of the clearing that was the top of the hill, at a gap in the trees which Clara had never noticed in all the time she had spent there. "Go down that path over the stone wall 'til you get to a building by the side of a pond. That's the Diamond Flush Bar. Go in and say, 'Hi! I'm Clara,' and give them this." He handed her an envelope with his oak leaf seal on marble colored wax.
"What's this?" she asked.
"It says, 'Hi! I'm Fred. This is Clara. Give her a stake and let her play. You'll like her.'"
"What do they play?"
Clara wasn't sure about this, "I don't know how to play poker."
"Don't worry, they'll teach you."
She contemplated Fred's seal. "Well, if you think it's best."
"No. I think it would be best if you didn't even think about money until it became absolutely necessary. But if you think you must, you must. Just be careful."
"Why? Are the gamblers dangerous?"
"No, but money is." He smiled, kissed her on the forehead, and said, "Goodbye, my Clara, and good luck."
As Fred walked east playing Terry, Clara said, "Goodbye, my Fred," and wondered why Fred was so worried, all she wanted was her own bike.
When she started down the path she heard Fred shout, "Know when to drop!" or "Know when to stop!" or "No yellow socks!" or "Don't send boxtops!"
Passing the Time
In which Clara meets Uncle Gustav
"I asked him what he was about and he said six feet. So I told him to leave the feet behind or else leave them the three fifty to whose tune I was humming and pass a little time in Tangier. He asked if we could get there before four and I said, 'Sure, four is at least five miles beyond Tangier, and I happen to know four is attending the annual fourth convention being held at least this year.' Just then Peggy Lou Pennyloafers and all the boys back home happened down the street (about twenty yards due south) and called time out. Time answered, being a good friend of Peggy Lou's, and split for the coast, leaving his cares behind. I said goodbye to his cares and took my leave (who had never been to Tangier). However I discovered when I got there that I didn't have a good time, having missed Peggy Lou, who is good at dodging spitballs if anything, and who is better at dodging spitballs if nothing.
"Be that as it may, the three fifty to whose tune I was humming decided to sue for royalties, the King and Queen of Diamonds having bought the rights to the tune. I was prepared to settle out of court into a nice comfortable suburb when the King and Queen raised the ante three inches causing the Jack of Hearts to fold, ruining the deck.
"Which brings me to the question which has been bothering me for spare change: 'If so, why?'"
Clara, who had very little idea what he was talking about, said, "I don't know."
Uncle Gustav said, "Right!," turned right, and walked down to where she was coming from.
(Out of Respect for the Nameless, This Chapter is Untitled)
In which 16 questions are asked and 6 are answered
The man, for it was a man, said, "That's because we're all afraid, afraid that if we went inside we might not get out again."
Clara said very sure of herself, "I'm not afraid,"
The man looked startled, "You're not? Then you're either a fool or a hero or a fatalist or an optimist or a nihilist or a cyst or a vegetable or a romantic or a god or a drunk or a catatonic or a bumblebee."
Clara felt that she must be at least one of those things so she didn't argue, but she did ask, "What's a cyst?"
"Someone who believes in schism, of course."
After it was explained she felt a little embarrassed about not having figured it out herself. This left a silence which Clara would have preferred to have been hanging around some other conversation, so she decided to start anew. "Excuse me, but could you help me? Which is the quickest way to get to the Diamond Flush Bar?"
"Have we been introduced?"
"I thought not."
The silence quickly saw its opportunity and returned immediately. Clara broke it by saying, "But that doesn't answer my question."
"Of course not," the man said, "What does our being introduced have to do with the quickest way to the Diamond Flush?"
"You should have said, 'Little or nothing.'"
Clara thought, "By whose rules?" but she said, "If it's nothing, then it has to be little or nothing."
"That's true but irrelevant. Why do you always change the subject?"
"Why do you?"
"I asked you first."
"Then you should answer first."
The man thought for a while, as if he had never intended to answer at all, and finally said, "On horseback." Clara was confused by this, and must have shown it, for the man said, "That was an answer."
"To what question?"
"To your original question."
Clara thought back to the beginning of the chapter, "'What's a cyst?'?"
"That wasn't original. If I've heard it a thousand times I've heard it a million."
Clara thought some more. "'Which is the quickest way to the Diamond Flush Bar?'?"
"On horseback, I just told you that. Can't you remember things for half a minute?"
"I can remember things for much longer than that. I've remembered my name ever since I can remember."
"And I trust that hasn't been for long."
She was now getting not a little annoyed and so she said, "As if you ever trusted anything." The man looked like a Roman god does when everybody becomes a Christian and he first realizes that he no longer exists. Then he composed himself and stood whistling and looking at the trees, but Clara could see that he was losing control and might soon be crying. "There, there," she said, "Don't cry. I didn't say for sure you never trusted anything, I only said 'As if'."
The man looked at Clara through pools of tear which never left his eyes and said, "But you said a great deal more than that! Oh, ever so much more than that!"
Clara smiled immediately, "You've been reading Through the Looking-Glass! That's what the White Queen said. Or was it the Red Queen?"
"That's right," the man said with much more sarcasm than was really called for, "I didn't say it. Some queen said it. She'll probably end up in some encyclopedia with a picture and two see alsos. Where will I end up? Nowhere. I'm just nobody, of no importance. Did I speak? I'm sorry. I shouldn't be talking, I don't exist. I'm like a Roman god when everybody becomes a Christian. No, I'm not even that, not even a memory."
Clara felt tempted to agree with him, but he kept sounding less sarcastic and more serious. She said, "You have to be somebody."
"Oh yeah, who says?"
"Well, what's your name? You are what your name is."
"Me, no. I don't have a name. why should I have a name? I'm not anybody. I'm not even worth a label. I might as well not be here. In fact, I'm not here. I'm just part of your imagination. Just an idle daydream. No, I'm not even that. Just ..." Clara noticed that he had been getting harder and harder to see, and soon she couldn't find him anywhere.
"He doesn't have a name," she thought, "Maybe I am through the looking glass after all." But she could remember her own name as well as she ever could. It was Clara. She did, however, forget everything about the nameless man within the next five minutes.
In which Clara is given proof
This man, known to friends and relatives alike as "the bouncer", is very polite throughout this entire chapter. "Yes, that's our diamond flush."
"I like it."
"If you think that's impressive, we have a full house inside."
Clara thought that that would be true regardless of her impressions, assuming of course that the place could properly be called a house. The bouncer seemed quite proud of it, however, so she said, "You must do alright here."
"Usually, but one night four members of a clone came in and cleaned us out." From what Clara could see of the inside, she thought that wouldn't be too bad an idea.
He politely asked her to come in and she was about to do just that when she remembered her age (not that she had ever really forgotten it). "I'm not eighteen."
"That's OK, neither am I."
"But I'm under eighteen."
"No problem," he was quick to assure her, "we have lots of ID's here." He turned to a filing system like a library has and pulled the drawer marked: "Female. Very short. Long brown hair. Sort of green eyes. TO Female. Very short. Long brown hair. Vivid emerald eyes." He picked out a driver's license, looked at it, looked at her, and handed it to her. "There you are, Mabel."
"Oh, I'm not Mabel. I'm Clara."
"I'm sorry, but you're Mabel. There's proof." He pointed to the license.
It certainly was proof, she couldn't argue with that, and she wanted to get inside so she was willing to be called "Mabel" for a while. She felt that "Mabel" was not quite as good as "Clara", but she was not overly proud. She started wondering when she would start getting some money when she remembered Fred's note. "If I didn't keep remembering things," she thought, "I'd get this over with a lot quicker." When she offered the note to the bouncer he naturally asked what it said and she naturally answered, "Hi! I'm Fred. This is Clara. Give her a stake and let her play. You'll like her." (She had completely forgotten to say, "Hi! I'm Clara," but since she was Mabel that was just as well.)
She could see his eyes light up. "That must be from Fred. We hear so much about his Clara, you know, you should meet her sometime." Clara was about to say she was Clara when she realized that although she had known herself for years, she had never actually met herself, because you can't meet someone you're already with, and she had always been with herself. (Except once she was beside herself with anger, but then she was in no mood to meet anybody.)
As it was she just smiled and allowed herself to be escorted across the room, through what Clara thought to be far more people that the fire marshal would prefer, up to a table holding a great deal more money than you or I will ever see. Clara was overjoyed at the thought of all that wealth soon being hers, and in spite of what she had been told about not making scenes, she acted overjoyed.
Besides money, the table also attracted people. There were two tall ones, two short ones, two rich ones, two poor ones, two Democrats, two Republicans, two Englishmen, two Russians, two blonds, two redheads, two Catholics, two Protestants, two carpenters, and two mathematicians, for a grand total of eight. Clara's overjoy caused great wonder and/or suspicion among them, which the bouncer quickly allayed by means of introduction (which, to his credit, he was about to do anyway). "Hi! I'm the bouncer. This is Mabel. She's Fred's Clara. Fred says, 'Give her a stake and let her play. You'll like her.'"
"But why," asked the tall, rich, Republican, Russian, blond, Catholic carpenter, "is she overjoyed?"
Clara took the time to answer that personally, "'Cause I'm going to win, and then I'll have lots of money, and then I'll be able to do anything."
The eight players were, if anything, underjoyed. The tall etc. carpenter said, "If you'll excuse us," and without waiting to see if she would or not all eight of them went into the corner and formed a huddle. Clara thought if they were going to play football they could have picked a less crowded playing field, and she was right, but it didn't matter because they had no intention of playing football.
They broke the huddle and one of the redheads said, "Miss Mabel. We really would like for you to play, and we certainly can't refuse a seat to money as good as yours, backed as it is by Fred. But, uh ..."
One of the Englishmen helped her, "But you see, if you win that means we'll have to lose. And, well, if it's money you're interested in ..."
One of the carpenters continued, "You see, as long as you're going to win anyway, we thought it might be easier all around if we just gave you, say, a grand each."
Clara was a bit taken back by all this. One the one hand, she agreed that it would save a lot of time and trouble if she took the money, but on the other hand she didn't feel quite right about just taking it. "Oh, I didn't know," she said, "I mean, I don't know how to play poker, and I didn't realize that you had to lose for me to win."
"If you don't know how to play, which you don't, it would make it that much easier not to have to teach you how," said a Democrat, using his hands to show how much easier it would be.
"And besides," added a Protestant, "eight is a lot of people by itself, we were counting on seven when the Crow leaves. Seven is such a good number for poker, you don't know." Clara figured the Crow must be the one with all the feathers. "So please, Miss Mabel," he continued, "eight thou is nothing to laugh at."
She had no intention of laughing at it. She thought, "eight thousand dollars," and said, "If you insist."
The bouncer shouted, "Drinks are on Mabel!" and everybody started running in the general direction of the bar. Clara was swept, as it were, along. She had always preferred to have some say as to where she stood, and did not care to be swept. She had almost squirmed her way out of the crowd when the sweeping became more intense, and in an awfully inconvenient direction. The crowd started shouting things which Clara had no inclination to decipher and before long someone in more of a hurry than is really decent knocked Clara over without so much as the time of day.
Just as Clara thought she was sure to be trampled she fell through the floor. Before she had a chance to either realize what happened or begin to figure out where she was she heard a voice say, "Honestly, my dear, I haven't had such a close call since last Tuesday!"
Under the Weather
In which Clara meets Beverly
"I can't believe this has happened. Someone at the Flush must have forgotten to make a payment on the bribe. That's not at all like them, you know. I guess we can thank our lucky stars that we made it to the traps. I should have thought that more people would have joined us, but it's only a matter of putting up bail, I'm sure they didn't forget to bribe the judge. Besides, he'll take a late payment. So there's really no harm done, is there? Of course, it does pretty much ruin the afternoon. Although as long as we're in the underground we could go visit the hippies. They're always good for a laugh, and Rosemarie is such a good cook, I do hope she's there. Have you ever tried Rosemarie's cooking, my dear?"
"No," Clara had to say, "No, I've never met her. Unless you mean Rose Mapletree, but she can't cook."
"Now, really, my dear. Would I call Rose Mapletree a good cook?"
"No, of course not. That's why I said 'unless'. I never have met your friend, you know."
"On, yes. I've known it for seconds."
Clara was not particularly hungry, as it was not as long after lunch as it may seem. She did have a few questions. "What just happened back there?" was first.
"Didn't you know? The fire marshal raided the Diamond Flush."
"What do you suppose will happen to the money?"
"Oh, the fire marshal doesn't play. Why, did you have some money on the table?"
Clara didn't know if they were going to pay out of their pockets or what, but she guessed right, "Yes."
"How much? If I may ask."
"Eight thousand dollars. Of course you may."
"Eight thousand dollars! My, you must be lucky."
"So I've been told."
Clara's companion looked at her like she was trying to figure something out, and then said as softly as she could manage without a whisper, "My dear, you must forgive me, but I do believe I've forgotten your name."
Clara doubted very much if she had ever known it, but she just said, "Hi! I'm Clara."
"Hi! I'm Beverly. Beverly Hills. No relation to thee Beverly Hills, except inside a close circle of friends, where I am thee Beverly Hills."
Clara could understand that, she once had a friend named John Lennon. She almost mentioned it but instead started her next question, "Beverly,"
"Call me Beverly."
"I just did."
"Did what, my dear?"
"I called you 'Beverly'."
"Do you know those people who were playing poker?"
"Oh, yes. If you're worrying about your money you needn't. They're as trustworthy as you can ask for. Although very independent, there they're their own men."
Even though this was undoubtedly good news, it seemed to Clara that there were still an awful lot of loose ends around. She said, "I guess I should have thanked them for being so nice about losing. I should've at least said something to one of the redheads."
"If you should have said it to one, you should have said it to two too."
Clara did not really see why, but on the other hand she didn't see why not. "Say, Beverly," she said, "where are we going?"
"Didn't I tell you? To the hippies' place. Rosemarie might be there, and you know how good a cook she is."
"I didn't know they allowed hippies around here."
Beverly sort of frowned, "Well, they're not strictly legal, but they keep pretty quiet. Besides, Sally's in the same knitting club as Mrs. Police Chief."
"Does she do that to stay semi-legal, or does she really like it?"
"She simply loves it. Her motto has always been: 'Knot not naught, and you'll be OK come whatever may.' That rhymes, you know."
"Yes, but the meter's all wrong."
Beverly laughed, "My dear, I must confess I agree with you. I never could understand the metric system. They say a meter is so many feet, so many and some fraction inches. What good is that? They could at least make it an even number of feet. How are you supposed to figure out how long anything is? Believe me, things will stay the same a lot oftener if you don't try to change them."
Clara, who had some knowledge of current events, said, "I think it's the foreigners who like the meter."
"Aye, I eye those people sneaking around trying to sell liters of beer and kilos of potatoes. But never you worry, my dear. The hippies use grams of things sometimes, but mostly they use ounces."
This reminded Clara of a riddle she had once heard, "Which is more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?"
"A pound of feathers, you should know that. Feathers weigh much less than lead and you need a great deal more to make a pound."
That was not the answer Clara was thinking of, but it did make sense, so she couldn't say anything. They walked on a while in silence, which gave Clara opportunity to wonder how come the torches didn't use up all the oxygen and asphyxiate them. She couldn't see any means of ventilation, and the tunnel was beginning to seem longer than that sort of tunnel should be. Although she did realize that she knew very little about how tunnels work, she still felt that something wasn't quite right there and she began to get anxious to get to wherever it was they were going. She asked Beverly, "Where do the hippies live?"
And Beverly answered, "Right here."
In which Clara & Beverly pay a visit
The other man said, "School."
Beverly was trying to keep from laughing. She said, "Clara, my dear, I would like you to meet two very old friends of mine, Billy, ..."
Billy waved in her direction and said, "School."
"... and Pablo."
"Hi! Right. I'm Pablo. Hey, I'm always, every time, forever happy t'meet any, all, or none of dear sweet Beverly's friends. Hey, I mean, she's cool, I'm cool, you're cool, everybody's cool this time of year. Right. Pleased as can be, Clara. Right. Hi! I'm Pablo."
"Hi!" said Clara, "I'm Clara."
"Right, yes. I think we've met, maybe. Say, hey, aren't you a friend of Beverly, uh, Beverly ..."
Beverly said, "Hills."
"Yeah, right, Hills. Hey, I was on top of some really, I mean, really, A number 1, super-righteous, not to be undersold, out of sight, out of mind ..." He had either forgotten a word or forgotten what he wanted to say.
Billy said, "School."
"Right. Hey they tell you I know they'll tell you they'll come right up to you and say right to your very own face they'll say, 'Them hippies, they don't like school.' But hey, I say hey, right. No, wrong. I personally myself loved it right up to the minute they picked me up and threw me out of the building. But, really, speaking of hills, we were speaking of hills, weren't we? Were we? Whatever. Last week I was on a hill so high it couldn't remember its own name. Right. Yeah, right, I almost fell off into the sky. In fact, I think I did. Didn't I? Did I? Didn't I?" He stopped and thought for so long that Clara was sure he had forgotten what he was thinking about, but then he said, "Didn't I. Right."
Billy said, "School."
Beverly flashed her favorite smile and said, "Pablo, my dear, do you know is Rosemarie, you do remember Rosemarie, don't you? She's the one who's such a good cook. Just ask Clara. But Pablo, honestly, do you know is she here?"
He thought for a moment. "Who?"
He thought a little more, "Rosemarie, sure right. You know her, she's the one whose cooking you're always talking about."
Beverly said, "Right."
Pablo said, "Right."
Billy said, "School."
Beverly walked up close to Pablo and said, "Now, Pablo, my dear, I'm going to ask you a question and I want you to think very hard and tell me the answer. OK? OK. Now, Pablo, are you listening? OK. Is. Rosemarie. Here?"
Pablo thought very hard. He looked slowly around the room, went over to a table, and looked inside a sugar bowl. He checked under the bed and in the bathroom. Then he came back to Beverly and asked, "Who were you looking for?"
"She ain't here."
Beverly was visibly disappointed. "Oh, I guess it's just as well. I really could stand to lose a few pounds, you know. And Rosemarie is such a good cook, I could never keep from just stuffing myself. Not that we aren't overjoyed to be visiting here with you and Billy. Clara is so fond of you. And it was so very nice of you to invite us, although, you know, you could ask us to sit down."
"Yeah," said Pablo. "We could. Right. We could. Definitely."
Clara did not herself really care to sit, and she doubted if Pablo would recognize a hint if he tripped over it or if Billy had a large enough vocabulary to offer someone a seat. She had heard a lot about hippies in her day and was relieved that they seemed to have no intention of raping her, but she still remembered to watch out in case they tried to slip her some drugs.
Beverly, in her usual Beverly way, said, "I swear, we almost found ourselves in jail just a little while ago. The fire marshal actually raided the Diamond Flush Bar! If it wasn't for the traps we wouldn't be here right now, would we, Clara?"
"I certainly wouldn't."
"And I wouldn't either. Unless of course I hadn't gone to the Diamond Flush today, but even then you never know. And Clara was doing so well at the poker table. She won eight thousand dollars today!"
"Yeah, right. Congratulations. Hope you didn't leave it on the table."
Clara reacted immediately, "Why?"
"Well, hey, the raid. Bar's under lock and key. Right. And the watchful eye of the fire department."
She asked Pablo, "But they won't touch it, will they?" and Beverly, "Will they?"
Beverly answered, "Of course not, my dear, what would the fire marshal want with your money? Honestly, that wouldn't be very polite."
"Then my money will still be there when they reopen. Yes? No? Maybe?"
"Well, no," said Pablo, "I mean, right, no. You know how fast money disappears at a poker table."
"No, I've never played the game."
"Oh, well, no. Right. Yes. It does. Fast as a greased lightning bug."
Clara had long suspected that she would have to work for a living someday, and this news confirmed her fears. She had no more desire to work than you or I, and besides, the time it would take to get out of school and find a decent job would be quite a long time to go without a bicycle. Beverly understood as only Beverly can and tried to soothe her, "Now, Clara, my dear, you mustn't get so upset over a little money. It's not very becoming, you know."
"Not becoming what?" asked Pablo, completely missing, as usual, the point.
"Oh, it's not becoming all sorts of things. It's not becoming a fish, or a ladle, or a classless society, or a boy, or a pachyderm, of African Gold (Billy could tell you all about that), or a work of art, or, all sorts of things."
Clara did not rightly care. All that she could think about was that she was with two drug crazed hippies God only knows where while eight thousand of her dollars were vanishing under the watchful eye of the fire department. "Isn't there anything I can do?" she asked.
Beverly said, "Oh, of course. There's lots of things you could do. You could take a walk, you could knit a sweater, you could ..."
"Oh, shut up!" Clara almost screamed, very much out of character.
Beverly was surprised to say the least and a bit offended to say a little more. She said, "Well, you did ask," and started to pretend she was interested in the other side of the room.
Pablo said, "Hey, right. What we need here, what we all need here, what I need here, what you need here, is a little cheering up. Don't go away," and he walked out the door.
Clara started thinking that it really wasn't very nice to tell Beverly to shut up and that Beverly had been more than friendly since they met, so the proper thing to do would be to apologize. She said, "Beverly," (the only response to which was from Billy, who pointed more or less toward Beverly) and, "I'm sorry."
After a few seconds Beverly let her attention wander back to Clara. She smiled and said, "I'm glad. It's so much friendlier to be on good terms with someone."
Just then Pablo opened the door and said, "Right. Hi! I'm Pablo. This is Kathy," and a cheerleader came in dancing and chanting: "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! NLF is sure to win! Yaaaaay, team!"
Kathy the cheerleader quickly changed the mood of the room. She and Beverly were naturally old friends and apparently had not seen each other in quite a while, although Clara thought that with Beverly one couldn't be too sure. Pablo made no indication of remembering why he had fetched Kathy, and if someone had asked Billy anything he would have said, "School," which, as Clara figured out several days later, meant, "It's cool."
A Bird in Hand
In which Clara & Kathy take a walk
Kathy the cheerleader said, "Hi! I'm Kathy. I was just outside walking down the path when I saw Pablo. Whenever I see Pablo I give him a few New Left cheers. Reminds him of his youth." She gave Pablo a wink. "Hey, are you the Clara that won all that money?"
"I think so. I was supposed to, but I haven't seen it yet. The last I've heard it's vanishing."
"That's too bad. Here, let me cheer you up: Clara! Clara! She's our man! If she can't do it, nobody can!"
Clara was cheered, but she felt she had to say, "But I'm not a man."
"Oh, that's right. Clara! Clara! She's our woman! No, that doesn't sound right. Besides, it doesn't rhyme with can."
Clara said, "That's OK."
Billy said, "School."
Kathy the cheerleader said, "I tell you what. I'll take you to see Felix. He's good at finding lost things."
This sounded like an excellent idea to Clara, and as soon as she let it be known Beverly and Kathy started exchanging farewells and promises to do this again some time, so Clara shook hands with Pablo and waved at Billy. Beverly told her to remember to write, and that she would go along but she thought she'd wait and see if Rosemarie was going to drop by.
When they finally left and started walking down yet another path through the woods, on what Clara was beginning to suspect would be yet another long journey, Clara asked Kathy, "Who is Felix?"
"Oh, he's one of our local demigods. He's a pretty good oracle. You know, some oracles they'll be so vague, and they're not always terribly accurate, but Felix, Felix does a good job. Although he does go about it in kind of strange ways sometimes. Still, who cares.?
It made no difference to Clara, and it apparently made no difference to Kathy, so Clara couldn't really answer. But Kathy didn't seem to be expecting an answer, for she went on to say, "That's it. Felix! Felix! He's our man! If he can't do it, nobody can! Except that he's not strictly a man either."
Clara, who had always thought that Felix was a man's name, asked, "Oh? What is he?"
"Recently he's been an oak. Used to be he was a fish, some sort of trout. Of course, you could never find him when you wanted him. But he got tired of it, he was always happier as a tree."
Clara thought of what it must be like being a tree. "I'm glad he likes it, but doesn't he get bored?"
"In the summer he does, when all the insects are awake. And of course the woodpeckers, he never did care much for them, but then I never knew a tree that did. Also this year he's got a family of squirrels. I think they're cute, but Felix never took much stock in cuteness. Still, they're friendly and he tolerates them."
"Squirrels are OK I guess, but sometimes they look at you like they think they recognize your face from a magazine article on escaped Nazis."
Kathy had had similar experiences and she showed it with laughter. "But I tell you," she said, looking around to make sure nobody was listening who shouldn't be, "they're not nearly as bad as the chipmunks. You should have heard what one of them called me the other day."
"I've never heard a chipmunk talk."
"Then you should consider yourself lucky."
"Oh, I do. That's why I keep winning at cards." It occurred immediately to Clara that this might be taken as an attempt at bragging, but apparently it was not. Kathy was merely merrily whistling a few cheers just under her breath and now and then practicing abbreviated forms of the accompanying dance.
Just when Clara started considering whether it was time yet to ask, "About how far away does Felix live?" Kathy did a small getting-ready-to-score-a-touchdown jump and cried, "Oh, my sweet-singing little one! Come to Kathy." Kathy held out a hand and a bluebird flew out of some tree, first down on the path, and then up to alight on Kathy's finger. The bluebird looked at Kathy with one eye and sang something which Clara didn't understand. Clara never could figure out what birds talk about, not that she had ever given it much thought.
She was amazed to see the bird on Kathy's finger and she asked, "How did you do that?"
Kathy asked in return, "Do what?"
"How did you get the bluebird to perch on your finger?"
"I called him. Didn't you hear me?"
"But Kathy, you can't get a bird to fly to you unless you've got some food for it, and even then you don't know."
"But Clara, I just did."
"There's got to be some trick. Most people can't do that."
Kathy was taken by surprise, "Where did you hear that?"
"Everybody knows it."
"Well, I certainly don't. And neither does the bird, do you, my friend?" The bird sang an answer.
"But Kathy," Clara said, "Everybody can't do what you just did."
Kathy looked at Clara like she thought Clara was playing with 51 cards. "Now, Clara, think about what you just said. You just contradicted yourself."
Clara thought and said, "I'm sorry. I meant, 'Not everybody can do that.' And most can't."
Kathy laughed and said, "Clara, I'm afraid someone has been playing a trick on you. Who told you that?"
"It's common knowledge."
"Well, let the common folk believe what they want. I know better."
Clara was sure she was right. She was as sure as Apollo was that he loved Daphne, as sure as a robin is that it likes to eat worms. She said, "I've always known it. Everybody I know knows it."
Kathy almost laughed again, "Surely you weren't born knowing it."
"Of course not."
"Then someone must have told you. Who was it?"
"I don't know. Lots of people."
"But who," asked Kathy, "was the first?"
"Oh, Kathy, I don't remember. I was so very young then."
"Well then when was the last time you heard it?"
Clara thought, then said, "Oh, nobody's had to tell me for ages. 'Cause it's so well known."
"Then you can't remember ever being told?"
"No, but ..."
"Can you remember ever hearing someone call to a bird?"
Clara thought again, "Not specifically."
"What about generically? Do you sort of remember a vague, hazy, lazy image of people calling birds?"
Clara delved into her memory and could only come up with people doing bird calls. "No, but I know it doesn't work." Before Kathy could say, "But Clara," she added, "usually."
Kathy said it anyway, "But Clara, you can't give me even one time someone told you or showed you. I think you must have heard somebody wrong once and then kept on believing it."
Clara, not quite as sure as Apollo any more, was still sure enough to say, "I know what I know."
Kathy took this wrong and said, "Now, Clara, you mustn't think I'm teasing you."
"But I don't."
"'And I don't.' You said basically the same thing I did, so you're supposed to use 'and'."
"I meant 'but'."
"They both mean the same thing. It's just proper to say 'and'."
"But I shouldn't be telling you how to talk. You go on talking however you want and believing whatever you think is right."
Clara was certainly willing to do that. Although she wasn't quite sure any more what it was that she thought was right, when she finally figured it out she fully intended to believe in it. She was starting to wonder about the truth of other bits of common knowledge, like that cats can't swim, when the bluebird sang to Kathy. She told him, "Of course," whereupon he flew away. "He never likes to be very far from home," Kathy explained.
Clara thought, "I must get to know the birds around my neighborhood better. I know all the cats but it seems I never get around to talking to any birds."
Paper from Wood
In which Clara almost gives up
Clara was thinking that she had spent most of the day being led around from one person to another when she realized she was ignoring Felix. "Hi!" she said, "I'm Clara." She still couldn't discern any sign of response, but she went on, "I ... sort of lost some money." She was standing right in front of him looking straight at him and it looked to her like he was just an old oak. She said, "Kathy told me you might help find it ... being a demigod and all," but to no visible avail.
Feeling like she might as well go home and try again tomorrow, Clara looked around her on the off chance there might be someone hiding in the bushes who could help her. There wasn't anybody that she could see, so she sat down at the base of Felix and tried to decide what to do next. The only person who seemed to think she could get her money was Kathy, but she had said to ask Felix, who didn't answer. "All in all," thought Clara, "I'd best forget the whole thing." It was then that she realized she did not know the way home. She couldn't go back the way she came, and she didn't feel like going back to the hippies' place when they probably couldn't help her. She decided that since she had been mostly traveling north (although she had totally lost orientation in the tunnel), she would go downhill until she reached the Fluminac, and then follow it downstream until she reached the path that went behind her house.
She was just about to go when she noticed an envelope half hidden under one of Felix' roots. There was no possible way she was going to leave without looking at it, so she picked it up and to her surprise saw it was addressed, "To Clara." Turning it around she saw Fred's seal on the back, which helped her mood immensely. She opened it as quickly as she could manage without overly tearing it. Inside on a torn looseleaf page was written:
"Clara my dear,Clara had entirely forgotten that she had never given anybody Fred's note. She fished it out of her pocket and opened it. It occurred to her that it might not be proper seeing that it was supposed to go to the bouncer, but she figured it was OK having as she did Fred's permission. It was just as well, for the card inside did not bear the message Fred had said it would. Instead on one side it said, "Ask," and on the other it said, "Go down the path the way Kathy did and bear to your left."
Read the note I gave you for the Diamond Flush.
Clara had nothing better to do, and she had always been able to count on Fred, so she did as the note said. She hadn't gone very far at all when she ran back to Felix. She sort of curtsied (Clara had learnt how to curtsy years before, but it had been a while since she last did it), and said, "Thank you."
Taking a Nap
In which Clara is momentarily diverted from her quest
Just as she was starting to wonder how many springs were placed along her present journey whom should she meet but Uncle Gustav. (Hint: nobody you would know.)
"Hej!" he said, "I'm Uncle Gustav. I was taking a nap just the other day when someone saw me and told the cops, who said I'd have to return the nap and spend a night in jail. But when I got to jail they told me they only accepted US currency, so I broke out with the measles. The measles told me not to worry about being recaptured, because in a case like this conviction was next to impossible, and impossible lived on 25th Street. I had always thought impossible lived on wine and cheese, but apparently it had moved.
"Be that as it may, I was feeling sorry for staying out so late when sorry said that if staying out so late wanted her felt he could do it himself. I said, 'I'll take your word for it, but what's that got to do with the price of eggs?' She said staying out so late makes the hens sleep in the next morning, so they end up laying less. In any case, including the ones where conviction hung around impossible, she wouldn't give me her word, because she was planning to break up with her boyfriend and she didn't want it said that she left without a word. I said that as far as breaking up is concerned is about as far as I'd want to go. Besides, I didn't think my horse could stand taking me all the way out to where breaking up couldn't care less, and he won't go anywhere sitting down.
"Be that as it may not, staying out so late cheered me up (about two meters off the ground). As long as I was up anyway I decided to go see Ralph, who had been up for days, although he would come down every sunset. I said, 'Hej! I'm Uncle Gustav. I was taking a nap just the other day when someone saw me and told the cops, who said that twenty bucks would take care of everything. I looked around me and sure enough ten bucks were returning the nap and ten bucks were reassuring the nap's owner. After they were finished one of them came up to me and said, "We'd like to give you a ride home, but you'll need more than twenty bucks to get where you're going." I sad, 'Sounds like a pun to me,' and he said, 'I can't hear anything,' which was true considering he had been born deaf, and which was false considering he had been born in perfect health, in Perfect Health General Hospital to be exact, and in Perfect Health Municipal Hospital to be approximate.' Ralph said, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' and I said, 'You must let me introduce you sometime.'
"Be that as it may, I meant to ask the time, but the time was still with Peggy Lou Pennyloafers and all the boys back home. Peggy Lou and the boys had always wanted to show Her Imperial Majesty a good time, and this was as good a time as they could find. I sent them a letter, a vowel I think it was, and they sent me one in return, which woke me up and said that they wouldn't be back for a month, although they might be back for a week or two.
"Be that whichever way it might be, I would have sent her my love but my love didn't feel like going all that way just to meet another of my lady friends."
He winked at Clara, said, "Don't believe a word I say," (which she thought would be very easily done), and once more walked out of sight but not out of mind.
In which something happens which is none of your business
In which Clara almost gets arrested
Although she was coming from the direction opposite that of her first visit, she noticed right away the pond which was in front of the bar and she said to herself, "I bet you this is the Diamond Flush." She also noticed right away that she was on the wrong side of a stream which she thought must be the Fluminac. There was no bridge or log to be seen anywhere, and Clara did not much care to fetch one. So she walked back a good number of feet to give herself some running room and jumped the stream. She really only needed a few steps, but Clara always was careful about things like getting soaking wet in the middle of nowhere.
Feeling good about being dry and as hopeful as could be expected that she would either get her money or know it would never be gotten, she walked around the building looking for the fire department. Not finding it she knocked on the door, which was secured with a rather impressive padlock. Quickly enough to startle her a window flew open and a very responsible looking man in a fireman's cap stuck his head out. "Hi!" he said, "I'm your local fire department."
"Are you the whole department?" Clara asked, thinking he had misspoken.
"Yep. We can't afford many fires around here, what with so many flammable trees around. One or two kitchen fires a year is about all we can handle, and I can take care of them."
This didn't sound right to Clara, "But what if you get an arsonist?"
"An arsonist, someone who starts fires."
"If he starts it then he's got to put it out. Fair's fair."
Clara was all for fairness, and she realized that under this system an arsonist would turn himself in instead of waiting to be caught, because by then the fire might be too big to be easily put out. "That sounds like a good idea," she said, giving credit where she thought it was due.
"Most tautologies do, especially to the trained ear."
Neither of Clara's ears had ever been trained, but never one to waste a compliment she smiled. The fire department returned the smile and asked, "Is there a way we might help you?"
"I hope so. Could you answer a question?"
He laughed, "Oh, yes, I can answer a great many questions."
"Do you know where my money is?"
He thought a minute, "Not offhand, no."
"But I lost it in here."
"Oh? Where did you see it last?"
"Well," she had to say, "I've never actually seen it."
The fire department did not seem as surprised as she thought he would be. "Where was its last known location?"
"In the bar. I won it in a poker game."
This time he did look surprised, "I didn't think you would know how to play poker."
"Oh, I don't."
"Then you must be a very lucky girl."
Clara had heard this before, "We'll soon find out."
"And the sooner the quicker," he said, disappearing into the bar. He was only gone a moment when he came back to say, "Don't go away," (which Clara had had no intention of doing) and redisappeared.
Before too long but after right away another very responsible looking man in a fire marshal's hat came to the window. Imitating some teachers Clara would rather not have known he asked, "Who are you?"
Clara said, "Hi!" and, "I'm Clara."
"What do you want?"
"I left eight thousand dollars in the Diamond Flush and I was wondering if it might be possible if I could just take it now."
He did some remembering, "No. The only eight thousand dollars we have belong to a girl named Mabel." Before Clara could say anything the fire marshal had slammed the window behind him. She knocked again on the door, and quick as a wink and a half the window flew open and the fire marshal was asking, "Who are you?"
Clara was surprised he had forgotten. "Hi!," she said, "I'm Mabel."
"I thought you said you were Clara."
"But I'm also Mabel."
The fire marshal pointed a finger at her, "Don't play games with me, little girl, I'm a busy man."
Clara thought it best to stick to the most important fact, "I'm Mabel."
"Then who's Clara?"
She had already told him this, but she told him again, "I am."
"Well if you're Clara what's all this nonsense about Mabel?"
"It's not nonsense, there's a great deal of cash involved here."
The fire marshal snorted. "There's a great deal of Mabel's cash involved here."
"But," Clara was getting tired of saying, "I am Mabel."
"One minute you're Clara, one minute you're Mabel. Who knows what to believe?"
Clara knew the answer to that, but she let it pass, "I'm both Mabel and Clara."
"How can you be two people? It's hard enough being one person these days."
"I used to be just Clara, but when I got here the bouncer gave me an ID which said I was Mabel."
The fire marshal looked at her suspiciously, "Are you eighteen years of age or older?"
"No. That's why he gave me the ID."
"I hope you realize it's against the law in this state for a person under the age of eighteen to enter an establishment which serves alcoholic beverages."
Clara said, "Oh, I didn't know that," which was true if taken literally, although she had strongly suspected that was the case.
He pointed a finger at her, "You're just lucky I don't have enough evidence to convict, or you'd be in the slammer before you knew what hit you."
She doubted he could do it that fast, but she got the general idea. Still, her major problem remained unresolved. "But what about my money?"
"My eight thousand dollars."
The fire marshal smiled, "Little girl, the only way you can get your hands on that money is to confess to being in a bar when you're too young."
"But Mr. Fire Marshall," Clara asked, "isn't that enough evidence to convict?"
"It sure is."
"Then what am I going to do? I don't want to go to jail."
He studied her a minute. "If I were you, little girl," he said, "I'd just go on home and forget you ever saw this place."
Clara thought of a lot of things she could say at this point, and the one she decided on was, "Don't call be 'little girl'. I have a name, you know." She started walking away, finally giving up on ever seeing her money. "In fact, I have two names." She walked a little more. "In fact, I have all sorts of names." She counted on her fingers, "I have a first name, a last name, a middle name, a confirmation name, an alias, and two nicknames." The fire marshal did not see fit to respond. "So don't call me 'little girl'."
And with that she left.
In which Clara meets three sisters in one
When she got to the hill she at first thought she saw Fred waiting for her, but it turned out to be one of the many people in that world whom she had never met. Although it was on state property she had always thought of the hill as hers and Fred's and seeing someone else upon it did not help her mood any. It would not have been polite to walk by the woman, for it was a woman, without saying hello (especially since her attention was on Clara), so she walked up and said, "Hi! I'm Clara."
"Hi!" she was answered, "I'm Parca." Clara thought she had said, "Parka," and would have wondered more than she did about what a strange name that was to call someone had Parca not as quickly said, "Fred sent me over. He said you might need someone to talk to."
Clara's reaction to Parca's presence on the hill immediately changed, and while she did not particularly feel like talking just then, she had always respected Fred's opinion and Parca seemed friendly, so she was willing to spend some time in conversation She asked, "How do you know Fred?"
Parca's smile lengthened. "I know everybody."
Clara said, without really thinking, "You don't know me."
"But Clara dear, don't you consider yourself part of everybody?"
She did, of course. Clara knew something about quantified logic, although she wouldn't admit it. She left the question unanswered and asked one of her own, 'But how can you know everybody?"
"I'm a goddess. Omniscient, and all that. The starry maiden always claimed that was one of godhood's biggest disadvantages, but I find it useful."
The nearest city had a statue of the starry maiden in front of its courthouse, but although Clara had seen it often (and although she had seen books advising people who had been born while the sun was visiting the maiden) she did not make the connection. Not that it would have stopped her from asking, "Are you really a goddess?"
"How did you get to be a goddess?"
"My mother was a goddess. It's an inherited characteristic. But you don't have to take my word for it. It's all in this book." Clara noticed the hardcover which Parca had apparently been holding all the while. "It was written by a friend of mine, but I inspired it."
Clara took the book and read, "The Gospel According to St. Jean: The Life and Times of Our Lady Parca, Savior, Daughter of Goddess, Princess of Peace." It certainly was an impressive book. It was the kind of book that will last forever if nobody decides to use it as first base. Not wishing to read the whole thing she asked, "What's it about?"
"It's my biography," Parca answered, clearly pleased with it, "It tells all about how I got to be a goddess and what I've been doing since then."
Clara continued asking the same questions everybody to whom Parca shows the book asks, "But how do I know it's true?"
"Because she got all her information from me, and a goddess never lies to her friends."
"Zeus used to lie to Hera," Clara remembered, having heard her share of ancient Greek gossip.
"He still does, but he's not a goddess, and besides," her voice got conspiratorial, "she's not really what you'd call a friend."
Clara had to admit that, and not remembering any case where a goddess lied to a friend or seeing any reason why she would want to she figured the book must be true. She would have been more excited about talking to a real live goddess but she was still a bit upset about her experience in the last chapter. But Parca, as all-loving as her friends claim her to be, sought right away to console her. "Now Clara," she asked as if she didn't already know, "what's the matter?"
"Oh, my wounds have been salted."
"Which wounds would they be?"
"I had eight thousand dollars, well, I was supposed to have eight thousand dollars, and now it's all gone."
"What would you want with eight thousand dollars?"
"I wanted to buy a bicycle."
"For eight thousand dollars?"
It had occurred to Clara that she had won more money than needed for a bike, so she already knew the answer, "I could spend the rest of it on something else," and on the spur of the moment she added, "or I could give it away."
"If you want it given away the town will do that for you after no one claims it in thirty days."
"But," asked Clara, who had come in contact with governments in the past, "won't they keep it?"
Parca looked for a moment as if she were making sure Clara was serious, "Now Clara, what would the town want with your money? 'Honestly,' as Beverly would say, 'that wouldn't be very polite.'"
Clara, who didn't have time to think this through, said, "It's not very polite for them to give it away either."
Parca, who (although Clara didn't realize it at the time) was in charge of all unexpected gifts, said, "Clara, the Lady giveth and the Lady taketh away. Ask and ye just might be surprised, but not always. Sometimes these things just don't work out, but you're not starving, so who cares?"
"I do," answered Clara, "I lost a lot of money."
"And so do the people who will eventually receive all that cash, they'll be getting a lot of money. And believe you me, they need it much more than you do." Clara had not been aware of that and was about to say so but Parca continued, "I mean, really, you ended up the same as you started out this morning, and there are an awful lot of people in this world who wish they could say the same."
Clara had not been aware of that either, but thinking about it she figured it was probably so. "Besides," she thought, "I can just go back when they reopen." But while Clara was young enough to easily dismiss money, she was not yet old enough to easily dismiss discourtesy. She said, "He didn't have to be so nasty about it," and added, again on the spur of the moment, That's not very fair."
Parca looked taken by surprise. "Not fair! Not fair? Who has Clara's friendship? Who has Clara's best wishes? Who is the object of Clara's kinder thoughts? Who can say, 'Clara likes me,' when counting his blessings? Not the fire marshal. He has incurred Clara's displeasure and all he could subject you to in return was the fire marshal's displeasure. He has paid dearly for his words." She looked at Clara for a moment. "In matters such as this fairness takes care of itself. The nastiness of someone so ready to be nasty is of no consequence. You have not been treated well, but you are still Clara, and that is something which no god nor goddess on, in, or above this planet has been able to achieve."
Clara was more than willing to accept the compliment, but she still said, "That's true with everybody. Nobody's been able to be the fire marshal either," which Parca found quite amusing.
"But Clara," she asked, "who would want to?"
Clara didn't say, even though she had a good idea what the answer was. Instead she asked, "Who would want to be me?"
"Why, you do. Don't you?"
Clara couldn't think of anybody else she would want to be just then, so she said, "Yes."
"So there you are. Clara wants to be you and Clara doesn't even like him. I'd say you came out ahead."
"But the same is true the other way around."
"Well, then it all depends on whose opinion is more important to you."
There was no question of that, "Mine of course."
"So, as I believe I just said, there you are."
There she was indeed. Refusing to be talked out of bad moods was never one of Clara's greater talents, and she could see she wasn't doing too well here. Clara always preferred not to attempt things which she really couldn't do, especially if there was no need for them, so she decided to just forget the whole thing. "You're the goddess," she said.
Parca smiled, "So I am."
After a thought or two Clara asked, "What are you goddess of anyway?"
"Didn't you know? I'm the goddess of the random variable."
Clara wasn't too sure what a random variable was, but she remembered what Fred had said back in Chapter I and started wondering what exactly was her job, or for that matter was she Greek, Roman, or what. She asked, "What kind of goddess are you?"
"Hungry. You wouldn't have any ambrosia on you, would you?"
"No, you wouldn't." She looked up to the sky, "It's about dinnertime, don't you think?"
As a matter of fact, it was getting awfully close to dinner, and Clara realized that she had best hurry because she was expected. She told Parca, "Now that you mention it, I should leave soon."
Parca looked up in the sky again, "Well, you'll be hearing from me. You can be certain of that." She looked at Clara, "Did you have a nice day at least?"
"Well, yeah." She thought about it some, "Yeah, for sure."
Parca said, "Good, you came out ahead." She looked once more at the sky, "Then I'll just say 'fare thee well'."
Clara said, "Goodbye," and after a moment they both left, Clara walking west and Parca walking east. As she crossed the Fluminac she was thinking about Parca's last question and she said to the river, "It's certainly been an interesting day."
The Penultimate Experience
In which Clara isn't even mentioned
A Few Words in Closing
In which Clara's story ends (for the time being)
Although her parents weren't sure whether or not to believe in Fred, this didn't prevent her mother from asking, "Did you and Fred have a nice day?"
Clara considered her answer while she dug out an eye, "Yes. At least I did, and I'm sure Fred did, although he left hours ago."
This surprised Clara's mother, "What did you do on your own for all that time?"
"Oh, I wasn't alone. I met a great deal of people." She stopped her peeling to think over the events you've just read, "I met some gamblers, a bouncer, a woman called Beverly Hills, some hippies, a cheerleader who could talk to birds, a tree who used to be a fish, somebody's uncle who didn't always make that much sense, some fire people, and a real live goddess. Most of them were very nice."
Clara's mother smiled at some joke known only to herself, "Clara, my love, you're forever imagining things."
Clara thought that was certainly true, but she couldn't see how it had anything to do with what they were talking about.
- Dennis Paul Himes