Delton and Tull
“Doc gives the mayor about a week more.”
“Well wouldn’t you know it.”
“Wouldn’t you know it.”
Two men sat side by side. A newspaper was in each set of hands, quietly masking each face. The random shuffle and shake of pages. Sometimes to flatten out an article being read, sometimes to turn to a new yarn spun by the editors at The Hickory Journal. There was a saying in that little town with respect to the local newspaper. “Half of what you read is true, the other half is worth reading.”
“That in the paper?”
“The doc wouldn’t say, ‘I give the mayor a week to live’ in the paper, Marty.”
“Well I don’t always know where you get your information.”
“Well isn’t that a fine problem to have.”
Marty Delton and Euphicias Tull were the gentlemen in question. Their faces hidden by their separate copies of the Journal. They sat outside a white building with a red roof. They sat in the shade on a bench, waiting for their numbers to be called. The sidewalk ran before them as a dusty brook.
“What’d you get?” said Marty Delton.
“Same,” said Euphicias, called Fish by everyone but his mother.
“Same as always, or same as usual?”
“Pick your poison,” said Fish.
“Liverwurst and poppyseed?” said Marty.
“Not on your life.”
“It’s a lot of talk of life and poison and mayors dying, with you, Fish,” said Marty.
“That’s the way of it sometimes,” said Fish.
They were silent for a spell, reading, waiting on their numbers.
“Bethany Janet White’s Jack Russell run off again. Fifty dollar reward. Find my little baby for me. Boo hoo,” read Fish.
“Boo hoo was in the ad?” said Marty.
“Yes it is,” said Fish.
“Someone at the Journal just lost his job,” said Marty.
“There’s no chance Mrs. White wanted her blubbering in the paper,” said Marty.
“Don’t you know her?” said Fish. “Ten to one she wants everyone to know the pain and tragedy of her lost dog.”
“Well, it’s no picnic losing a dog,” said Marty.
“Dog’s not lost,” said Fish. “Ran off. Wouldn’t you if you were her dog?”
“Oh,” said Marty shaking his head as if disapproving of the slight against Mrs. White’s company. But, for the sake of his conscience, he added, “Who wouldn’t?”
They read. Fish lit a cigarette and changed which leg was crossed over which knee. “It’s not right calling a dog your baby.”
“Lots of folks do.”
“Not right, democracy or not.”
“Have you been to Grover’s recently?” asked Marty.
“I don’t drink gin,” said Fish.
“You only read the paper, too,” said Marty. “But he’s ordered in a whole box of whiskey. Right from Chipperton. Fleabit Whiskey. Expanding his wares.”
“Good for the old man.”
“Good for the young men,” said Marty. “I got a bottle yesterday.”
“How’d it go down?” asked Fish turning to the comics.
“Like brimstone and jubilation,” said Marty. “Just as the label reads.”
“You read the Journal and liquor labels,” said Fish.
“I read pirate stories too,” said Marty.
Fish’s eyes widened a moment at what he saw, then narrowed, and the lift of a smile beset his mouth. “Well well.”
“Essie King’s got a little joke in the comics.”
“Let me see.”
“Read your own.”
Marty flipped over to the comics in his newspaper. There were the usual funnies, most done by local artists, some from Hickory, some who lived estranged from society and dwelt in shabby cabins in the pines around town. And just one series drawn by an old fellow from the city up the road. There was Tom Cat Tom. There was The Bilkerton Gang. There was So You Say. There was Sarah Corter. There was Detective Watt. There was Muffy and Maximus. And there was Essie King’s contribution, a watercolor, what she was known for, but printed in black and white.
“That’s a disgrace to her talent,” said Marty. He loosened his tie and peered closer at the comic. It was single panel. A flower sitting in a glass bottle, with the water low. The flower had a little spotty face, and was talking to a frog perched on the windowsill. The flower said, “I thirst.” And the frog replied, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“There’s no joke,” said Marty.
“Maybe there is,” said Fish. “Maybe you don’t get it.”
“She’s a smart talent, though, isn’t she,” said Marty.
“Smart talent,” said Fish. “Smart dresser too. Smart talker.”
“Well, I don’t get it,” said Marty shaking his head. He flipped back to the Town Events section.
They were quiet again, reading independent of each other. Fish tipped his hat back and dragged at his cigarette, then tapped it out in the tray on the table next to the bench. They waited for their numbers to be called.
“Why’s the doctor saying the mayor’s on his last leg?” asked Marty. “I heard he was on the up ’n up.”
“What goes up must come down,” said Fish.
“You’re a regular scientist,” said Marty. “Why don’t you chat with that stranger at the lake?”
“Oxx-Orx,” said Marty. “Don’t be so wise.”
“He talks with the old man and the town dum-dum, exclusively,” said Fish.
“Daniel Hush?” said Marty.
“That would be the one,” said Fish. “Mister Genius himself.”
“He’s all right,” said Marty.
“Everyone’s all right to you,” said Fish.
They heard clip-clopping on the sidewalk. They didn’t look up until they’d smelled perfume. Something like lavender and a spring cloud. They looked up and saw it was Ms. Essie King herself. Striding along at an easy pace, dress of white polka-dot and high heels. She had a grey felt hat on her head, a shame, hiding her brown curls, but oh well.
“Good afternoon, Essie,” said Fish, dropping his paper. He straightened his hat. Marty yanked his tie up to his chin.
“Good afternoon, Ms. King,” said Marty.
“Hello there, gentlemen,” said Essie smiling at the two, not really slowing down.
“Saw your drawing in the paper,” said Fish. “It’s a shame it’s in black and white. Looks spiffy, anyhow.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Essie.
“I didn’t quite understand the punchline,” said Marty.
She slowed down, stopping in front of them. “Well what do you mean, Mr. Delton?”
“Well, what’s the joke, Ms. King?”
She laughed. “It’s no joke. The flower’s thirsty, isn’t it?”
“And frogs generally know where to find water, wouldn’t you say?”
“So he’ll see what he can do for the flower,” said Essie.
Marty didn’t know what to make of that, and his hazel eyes went their way back down to the paper in his hands, looking at no particular article. No particular word, either.
“Stop for lunch, Essie?” asked Fish, his voice all sweet and grinning for a moment. “We’re waiting on our sandwiches.”
“Sounds like a real treat,” said Essie. “But I already ate at home. I’ve got to go. Nice seeing you boys.”
She clopped away, and they watched her go, until she turned the corner.
“Nice seeing us, my foot,” said Marty.
“She’s all right, Marty,” said Fish.
“Hm,” said Marty.
They were quiet again, poring over what was left of the Journal. They’d nearly read the entire paper each. Fish drummed his cigarette against the ashtray, then left it there.
“This place gets slower each day,” said Fish.
Marty had loosened his tie again. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Fish smirked, and folded the paper.
“Getting cold again,” said Fish.
“So it is,” said Marty. “It’s October.”
Someone slid open the window behind them. The cook inside pressed his round face against the screen. “Numbers three and four, ready. Chicken on white. Sauerkraut on rye.”
“Praise heaven,” Fish rolled his eyes and stood up.
“I think I’ll go out to Lake Lyssaleen on Saturday,” said Marty. “Go for a cold swim.”
“Why in the world?”
Marty shrugged, and stood up. They went inside the sandwich shop.
A few minutes later, the street empty, a little Jack Russell scampered by, looking about.