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Some Brief and Partial Histories

Photograph: Library of Congress

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It is said that bandits travel in packs or not at all; it is said that every bandit is alone inside with all of the lives that it took to bring them upon you; it is said that if you kill a bandit that bandit will walk on out your mouth leaving your skin behind and taking with it your teeth and your mouth and anything you possess of value, which has lead some to believe that the bandits will come into possession of their houses, or their wives, or their children, or their gold claims, and now please imagine the bandits proceeding across the country with said wives and children and houses and gold claims tied up in little bundles on sticks rested on their shoulders and who wouldn’t giggle at something as absurd as all that?

The investigators would not giggle at something as absurd as all that. Their experiments with knit ties have yielded positive results in that they are positive they will continue to wear them. Their belief that it lends a homely touch to their narrative is not without merit but that is neither here nor there, in that if we keep talking about this we will be taken out back and shot and strung up from the back of their train compartment as though we were a sack of meat left out to cure, as they had done for years off the porch of their shack that traversed the country on stilt high legs that we would say were chicken legs if we were the kind of people who wanted to believe in myths. The investigators feel as though the narrative has gotten away from them, and they resent it. Narrative they say We will not tolerate such things as that. Narrative they say You have gotten a bit too carried away with the sound of your own voice, and we would like you to consider this a rebuke of sorts. The narrative considers the rebuke.

Here we offer up a narrative that follows the men around in the past and then something happens and also there are unions and unmarried mothers and a surprise party gone awry and then there are no more surprise parties, for personal reasons: We were gathered around each other as they tore down our shack to make for us a train car in which we would reside and traverse this great nation, latching our car onto other cars as the course of our assignments saw fit, these tracks ferrying trains and their cars and cargos controlled by unseen forces from the east, which is of course not the way it goes, but it sounds good, it is convenient, and easier to understand. So there we were, way over in New York City, because a group of workers felt that it was their right to receive a certain amount of pay based upon the cost of living in these United States at the present time, because we guess people feel entitled to certain things. We ourselves have no opinion one way or the other. We simply were told that these men had decided not to work until such a time as their demands were met. At first we were told untrained laborers were brought in as a sort of scab on the gaping wound of industry, but the gaping wound of industry swallowed those untrained laborers right up. They did not know the magic words it seemed, and the men who did had a list of demands. Our job was to ensure that they returned to work, and that their list of demands was a burnt out husk of a long forgotten bad dream. So we did that because we are the sort of men who do our jobs. We met the trained laborers and said to them Surely you wouldn’t mind going back to work? You are not currently being paid anything at all, and so wouldn’t that be better than nothing at all? If you are the type of person who assumed that that argument would work then we have a magical pill to sell you and it is called What In The Hell Is Wrong With You You God Damned Fool. Which is exactly what was said to us, as if on cue. It was on cue, by the way. We always have a man waiting around to cue the proper line. It makes life that much more interesting we find. And so then he cued up the good old violent response and we in turn pacified said violent response, but in a very gentle and humane way, and nobody got hurt and everybody went to bed at a reasonable enough hour and in the morning we received a note and the note read We are willing to talk if that is a thing you gentelmen woud be amenable to and we were! We met them and talked of their vision for the future, and begged they consider that such radical changes would be best approached if they determined what was absolutely imperative, so that they could show a willingness to budge on certain things, which would show reasonability, which would lower the hackles of the men back east who would then, maybe, just maybe, be willing to negotiate with terms other than bricks and bats and bullets and babies tossed out with the literal bathwater as bathtubs were flung out windows into the street below, which had itself been set on fire. We had seen it before we said And would very much rather not see it again. We went to the telegraph operator operating quite conveniently out of the bar. A man of our number, let’s call him John, John telegraphed in the conversation, and was asked to put another man, let’s call him Ed, on the telegraph line. And Ed dictated his telegraphs as Yes sir. No sir. Well sir. No sir. Yes sir, it can be done. Yes sir. I understand sir. And then he shot John in the head and John collapsed to the ground all dead and the whole bar (for we were still in the bar where we agreed to meet at you see) (you see we were in a bar and maybe forgot to mention that earlier) and all the men were screaming with their hands to their faces shaking and pulsing with their hearts which were racing to get to the finish line of something in this life for once. Ed said They did not take kindly to the delivery of that message. He paused. He continued to pause. Nothing happened. Ed gestured to the phone and said They are still on the line. What should I tell them. The men were quiet, and then, one by one, began to scream again, in a sort of round, as though this was the Row Row Row Your Boat of screaming your head off. Which it was, as it turns out. We said that Ed should tell the men back east that we would call them back, and after hanging up Ed reported that the men back east thought that that would be a delightful idea, and then we went out and gathered up the wives of the trained laborers and shot those wives in the head and wrote on their walls in their wives blood that they had best return to work soon please as this is not pleasant work for us.

John woke up a few days later with a new face. He went to a bar to drink his way into a job. After a few days of this he could not see like he used to, and would have been delighted at the absence of a clarity of vision had he been able to feel such things as delight at the moment. He met a young woman we will call Jane. Jane had a baby. The baby’s father was either dead or in prison or he ran out on her or he had another wife already. These were all just ideas John had, you see, as he did not want to pry. Jane worked next to the bar, and would see John there, and something in his eyes caused a part of her she had long ago decided to dim to just light up again, and try as she might, she could not get the light to go out, and so she came in and sat down next to John and learned to drink like him so that she could be a part of his life and her baby learned to drink like him to be a part of his life and everyone was drunk all the time with their shirts open and milk and breasts everywhere not so much spilling as dripping and one day John woke up in a bed he had made of vomit while he slept and he saw the world for a moment as it was, and he said We must stop all of this now please and it was the first time Jane had heard him speak and so they all stopped drinking and it was very hard and only through constant vigilance to the thing inside of them that kept trying to crawl its way back out were they able to finally achieve a semblance of a piece of happiness, with the world far brighter and louder and clearer than one felt at times it had any right to be, and after a year of this we arrived at night in the dark unbeknownst to throw a party for John, who we missed, and who we knew could never return, but things like this deserve a celebration, and how do you write a man from a life he has left behind? We did not know. So we surprised him! Surprise! we said! And John said I hate surprises! Rargh! And then he dove out the window into the sea and Jane came home and we were there looking sad and John-shaped hole was in the window and she just kept saying Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no over and over and over again, and so anyway that is more or less why we don’t throw surprise parties for people anymore.