Saturday, September 11, 2010

What Lies At Rainbow's End (Part 3)

(for Part II, scroll to the next post)

Gerald looked at the little man. “How do you know who I am?”

“Well, you got freckles and white hair. Who else could you be?”

“How did you get in here?”

The little man chuckled and indicated the curtained patio door with his thumb, “That was open.”
“But I didn’t see your car.”

“You wanna know what I think, Gerry? About Daphne? You seen her lately?”

Gerald moved to the sofa, cleared it of junk mail, and sat down. He absently shook his head.

The little man continued, “No one in town’s seen her either. I mean, maybe she cleared out, left with a trucker or a salesman. Who knows?” He shrugged his diminutive shoulders. “But strange, don’t you think, that no one’s seen her at all… not even leaving?”

Gerald put his forehead in his hand and looked at the soda cans and Styrofoam cups on the coffee table. “I don’t know what to think.”

Gerald could hear rain begin pelting the roof of the little house. It was an unexpected cloudburst. The little man rocked back on his heels and said, “Ah! Fantastic! My kind of weather!”

Gerald turned his face to look at the little man, who, with one hand in his pocket, was using the other to again flick the Zippo open and closed.

“So where are you from?” Gerald asked, forehead still in his hand. “The casino? The track? Don’t tell me the woman was betting on sports. She’s never had any interest in it before.”

The little man cocked his head, “She liked blackjack, but she was terrible at poker. Not a bluffer, that one. Mean as a feral cat, though,” the little man shook the coins in his pocket for emphasis. “I’m sure you can attest to that.”

“So how much of a hole does my son have to dig himself out of?” Gerald asked.

“Oh, Mr. Whitley, I really don’t think you can put an amount on what he owes.”

“Can you at least give me some kind of round number, Mister…Mister…”

“Mr. Geldverleiher. And uh… pleased to meet you, even under these regrettable circumstances,” he put up a hand, waving it once. “Funny,” he chuckled, “I come from a long line of moneylenders, Mr. Whitley. Hence the last name. It’s German, would you believe? A bit like Rumpelstiltskin!”

Here, the little man laughed harder, as if he’d made a joke. Gerald did not see the humor. “So is there any numerical amount you can give me, Mr. Geldverleiher?” Gerald asked again.

The little man ignored this, changing the subject. “Left pretty early this morning, didn’t he? I got here at 5:30 and already Mr. Whitley, The Younger,” he included in an affected British accent, “was gone. Been waiting in this stench for hours now. And Gawd,” He slapped his foreshortened thigh, “has it ever been appalling! The man lives in filth!”

“We’ll try to pay the debt, whatever it is,” Gerald continued. “We’ll do the best we can to help Jeff overcome this.”

“Mr. Whitley, I really don’t think you can help him now,” the little man was now tossing something into the air that occasionally caught what little light there was. It looked like a gold coin. “Invariably, you’ll be forced to make a sacrifice to this terrible mess…but can I estimate it in round numbers, you ask?”

Gerald nodded, leaning forward. “That’s all I want to know. Let’s put a number on this, so we can start paying it down.”

The little man stopped tossing the coin and gazed towards the ceiling, tapping his lips, “I’m not entirely sure if I can put a numerical value on what’s owed. You know, Mr. Whitley, the tragedy of all this is that so many people are involved. There’s your son, of course, but there’s also the youngster… oh, what’s his name?” The little man stopped, exasperated that he must suspend his monologue for such a detail, but then suddenly, he lifted a finger, as if inspired. “Oh, right! Right! Gunter. It’s sad for little Gunter, too. What a sacrifice he has to make because of the sins of the fathers… and, in his case, the mothers. What an awful shame.” The little man now shook his head sorrowfully.

“Please, Mr. Gelverleiher, just a ballpark number. Can’t you even give that? I know it will be a lot, knowing Daphne, but we need a figure or at least something to start with.”

“Rain’s letting up,” said the little man, pointing to the ceiling. “Why don’t we go back to the farm? I’m sure I can shed some light on things there. And since, Mr. Whitley The Younger will be there…well, that will certainly aid in the computation process.”

“All right,” Gerald, nodded eagerly. “Yes, let’s get this worked out, so we can move forward. I don’t have any remorse that Daphne’s gone. She dragged that boy down from the first. Now he can make some progress, take over the farm a little more.”

The little man did not acknowledge Gerald’s hopeful consideration of future plans, but instead turned and first negotiated opening the front door and then the rather steep front step, neither waiting for nor expecting help from Gerald.

When the pair finally stood outside, it was humid and the sun shone again in sharp, stabbing shafts. The little man, who was not squinting despite his passage from the dark house, pointed towards the sky, “Ha, ha! This is what I’ve been waiting for!”

Gerald turned, shielding his eyes, to see a rainbow. It was vivid, each color visible, and it seemed to hover over the little house. The little man was at Gerald’s pick-up door and said, “Shall we? See what’s at the other end? It’s bound to be revealing.”

Once inside the truck, Gerald looked side-long at the little man sitting on the bench seat next to him. His hair, he now saw, was coal black, and he could see the individual comb marks that had been pulled through the hair’s coarse glossiness. The little man even smelled of lime-scented pomade, a bouquet he hadn’t noticed in the fetid odor of the house. The man’s tiny feet stuck out in front of him, not even clearing the edge of the seat. He wore, Gerald now saw, white kidskin loafers.

“What are we waiting for, Mr. Whitley?” the little man said, looking up eagerly at Gerald.
Gerald started back to the house. As they bumped over the rutted farm lane, the little man kept ducking to see the rainbow through the windshield. “Quickly, Mr. Whitley. We don’t want to miss it.”
Gerald was going to stop the truck near the house, but the little man waved him on. “No, no,” he said, “not here. The pasture.”

“It’s too muddy. We’ll get stuck,” said Gerald.

“Then,” the little man looked up at Gerald and smiled, “we’ll have to walk.”

Gerald gestured towards the man’s white trousers. “But… your pants… your shoes…”

“I don’t suppose you’d consider carrying me,” asked the little man.

Gerald looked at him. “I’m 67 years old. I’ve had two hernias now. Really, I don’t think I can.”

“I didn’t think so. Well, no bother,” the little man said, opening the door with his diminutive hand. He swung his legs out and landed with a muted splash. Gerald saw his face, but he registered no displeasure. However, white feathers began to erupt around him. Gerald heard clucking.

The little man looked up at him over the bench seat, “Lovely flock you got here. You should see all of them. What a bunch of beauties!” He looked down, clucking gently, as if in reply, and then saying, “Hello, darlings. Hello. So nice to see you.”

Gerald turned to look and saw that, apparently, Lena had left the chicken house door open, and they had quickly congregated around the truck, moving steadily towards the little man’s feet. He saw, too, that Lena was standing on the stairs of the summer porch with Gunter held protectively in front of her. The little boy, in turn, was clutching her fingers. Lena said nothing, but simply pointed towards the pasture, where the cattle usually grazed. Gerald could hear the cows crying. He was now very nearly five hours late in milking. Still, he followed the direction Lena pointed and saw the silhouette of his son in the field. It may have been an optical illusion, but it looked like the rainbow ended at his feet or very near them.

When Gerald got out of the truck, finally, Lena said loudly, “I called the police, Gerald. Jeff was hugging Gunter so tight, it was like he was trying to suffocate him, so I called. I called, and now they’re coming. Whoever that is out there, it’s not my son.”

Gerald could see, in the merciless brilliance of the sun, tears gleaming at the rims of Lena’s eyes.
Gerald looked out towards the field again. The little man was moving towards Jeff, chickens following after him, even through the more treacherous patches of mud that pulled at their feet.
Jeff was on his knees. Even from where Gerald was standing, he could hear the sound of his son’s sobbing.

“Come on, Mr. Whitley!” the little man cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Let me show you what’s at the end of the rainbow!”

Gerald followed, nearly losing a boot to the mud, which had grown even more challenging. The little man, however, was not dirty at all. His pants, which should certainly have been splattered with manure and wet soil, were still pristine. His kidskin loafers were neither waterlogged nor caked with sludge but a supple, brilliant white. Even the poor chickens, which followed him like children behind a Pied Piper, were splotched with brown, their little legs caked with muck. Still, they continued at his heels, undaunted.

When the little man reached Jeff, whose red eyes and flushed face were creased with anguish, Mr. Geldverleiher put his hand at the back of Jeff’s head, gently, in an affectionate gesture one might show a child. Hens walked up to the little man’s trousers and nestled against them. He seemed unfazed by this and continued stroking the tousled hair beneath his small hand.

“Oh, Jeffery,” said the little man, “the things that have happened.” He shook his head remorsefully.
Breathing heavily, Gerald finally reached the pair. He first saw how the chickens had flounced down around the little man’s white trouser cuffs and over his shoes, while other hens nestled as close as circumstance would allow. Gerald also saw the looming miasma of multicolored light hovering by Jeff’s mud-caked knees. When Jeff saw his father, he began crying anew.

“It’s all right, Jeffie,” said Gerald. “Please don’t cry. I know everything now.”

The little man turned to look at Gerald. His forehead furrowed with compassion. “Oh, Mr. Whitley. I don’t think you do.”

He pointed to a patch of wet mud in front of Jeff’s knees. The bright haze of polychrome light ended there. Gerald adjusted his glasses. He said, unconsciously, “Good God.”

Visible in the dense mud and wet clay were clotted strands of bright platinum hair, hair Gerald always felt looked like cotton. Mud had caught in the delicate, darkening roots near the scalp and smeared the purplish forehead. That was all that could be seen, but it was enough to understand. Claw marks appeared on and around the area, both from Jeff’s burrowing fingers and apparently an animal’s claws. Cloven hoof prints made a circular path near the exposed hair and forehead, suggesting the cattle had also taken an interest in what was hidden beneath the soil. Perhaps, Gerald thought, they’d even helped to uncover her. He now understood why Jeff had insisted the cows knew why he was so unsettled.

Gerald’s shoulders fell. He removed his glasses and wiped his eyes with his forearm. “Why, Jeffie? Why did you do such an awful thing? A horrible thing? We could have gotten out you out of debt. Now…now, I don’t even know what to say.”

Jeff turned and looked at his father, his face still leaking tears. He said, “Daddy, she sold our son.”

Gerald staggered backward slightly, shaking his head as if struck. “Sold him? To who?”

Jeff’s eyes shifted to the little man whose hand still rested on the crown of his skull. All three of them began to hear sirens. None of them seemed to register it.

“To me, Mr. Whitley.” The little man turned his head to consider Gerald. “I believe I mentioned that I couldn’t put a numerical value on the debt the lovely Miss Daphne owed.”

Gerald looked back at Lena and saw that Gunter was leading his grandmother forward, by her gently resisting arm. She followed his lead, but only reluctantly, still not understanding what lay ahead.

The little man turned, and the chickens all got up and shook themselves into composure and readiness. “Believe me,” he said, “I can appreciate the irony that, at the end of the rainbow, there was no pot of gold, but only a set of platinum locks.” He chuckled at his witticism. “Truth is often stranger than fiction, Mr. Whitley.”

The little man smoothed his lapels and adjusted his white carnation. He bowed with a little flourish of his hand, which he afterward held out to Gunter, who willingly took it.

“Now, I’ve previously spoken with dear Gunter, and I believe he’s ready. This exchange of a first born child absolves you all of Daphne’s outstanding debt. I thank you all. You’ve been most accommodating!”

Lena at first shouted, “No! Gerald, don’t let him!” and then was struck mute.

Gerald tried to step forward, but found his feet had sunk deeper into the mud than he’d realized. He could neither pull them from the earth nor from the shoes themselves.

“And don’t be too concerned, Mr. Whitley. You’ll be able to move as soon as we’re gone.”

Jeff, too, had been immobilized. The entire family now heard the sirens and police radios very vividly. The uniforms were making their way towards the pasture, their hands on their still holstered weapons. They were shouting Lena’s name, since Lena had been the one to call. Lena could not answer. This lack of communication made them draw their weapons.

The rainbow was considerably faded and with it, went the boy and the little man to a fate, Lena, Gerald, and Jeff could not (and did not want to) imagine. The chickens remained, but cocked sidelong glances at where the little man had previously stood. They walked around in broad circles, looking to one side then the other, apparently searching for him. By the time the police reached Lena, the rainbow, the dwarf, and the grandson were all gone, and Lena’s inability to speak lifted. The emotion-filled words that had backed up in her consciousness, awaiting pronunciation and escape, suddenly came pouring from her mouth uselessly: “Stop him! Stop him, Gerald! Do something!”
Gerald’s arrested step unbalanced him, and he fell forward, while Jeff’s attempt to stand upright worked.

The police misread all these cues and precipitously raised their weapons. Before anyone realized what happened, Jeffrey Whitley lay next to the remnants of Daphne, bleeding into the claw marks he’d made in the mud.


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