Communism in the Country
by Alec Niedenthal
My murderous stepson, Richard, has been our town-crier since age five. Today, however, he announces his own death. As he prances through the town ringing his brass bell, a crowd of picketers trails him. With raised arms they pump signs in the air, wood-backed posters that stretch in a long column behind the child; and in a crowd behind him, they chant about his awful act for all of the public to hear. “Murderer! Murderer! Spineless boy! Spineless boy!” they incant in a teeming mass. They file behind him. Their signs rise and fall in particolored rows, and each poster is blank. The sound of Richard’s bell echoes down the empty straightaway that will lead him into the public square. There he will be stripped of his bell and then strangled by Charlie, the executioner. I’m at the fringes of the public square, facing the thoroughfare down which Richard is galloping toward us. I can see the executioner’s shadow whenever I turn around. Leonine and tall, the headsman waits for Richard on the scaffold where he will choke my plump stepson to death as the picketers’ blank signs face the sky. The executioner, Charlie, wears a bright red cowl and a beautiful blue suit, pips on his shoulders and medals pinned to his chest. We are all wearing blue suits, our mourning regalia, but most elegant of all is Charlie’s merino wool, its shade an oceanic blue; and he stands there, motionless, awaiting the bell-tolling boy who murdered Boss Dugas.
“Come, come to the public square!” Richard bellows as he skips along the promenade toward us. As always, his fat legs jiggle below the crotch of his leotard. “Come and watch me die! Eye for an eye today in the public square!” Richard’s cries, though, are purely for the sake of ceremony. Every adult in town is either behind Richard with their picket signs or with me, packed into the public square. Here we’re waiting for the child to arrive. Behind me I hear the sound of mass weeping, the heaving and blubbering of hundreds of citizens mourning Boss Dugas’s death. I stand at the very cusp of this puffy-eyed crowd that occupies the public square. I stare out toward my stepson’s approaching shadow. Broadcasting behind him I hear the shouts of the picketers, who march behind Richard like a living wall.
Because every adult in town will be present for Richard’s execution, his town-crying is gratuitous; he cries, “Come watch me die! Come, come to the town square!”, but this is news to no one. We have known about Richard’s execution since yesterday at around noon. The sun roaring behind him at lunchtime, Richard pranced through the town and announced the details of his deed along with the date and time of his public strangulation: sunset of the next day. The details of Richard’s deed are as follows.
Yesterday morning, he shoved Boss Dugas off of a catwalk in Boss Dugas’s very own factory. Boss Dugas plummeted to the shop’s concrete floor, hands and arms waving madly. Richard then capered through the town, announcing both his crime and his punishment. Now, Boss Dugas was arguably this town’s lynchpin in terms of job growth. For two decades he’s owned and operated the town’s sole factory. The plant will revert to his widow, who is at this instant weeping into a handkerchief roughly thirty feet above me. She is awaiting Richard’s execution behind the wickerwork of her balcony, which overlooks the public square.
Boss Dugas’s plant has made up the town’s sole economic stay for as long as it’s existed; he alone is responsible for our recent wave of prosperity, which has led to a more restful life for people such as myself. His plant lies outside of our town’s western edge, and columns of smoke forever churn above it. At his plant Boss Dugas produces dolls in his own likeness–dolls that are eminently huggable, one-foot in height, and that are sewn, stuffed and embroidered in the form of Boss Dugas wearing his wool blue suit. The men and women who buy the dolls run their hands through Boss Dugas’s lifelike sweep of grey hair as they fall asleep, squeezing cotton-stuffed simulacra to their chests.
Now, who am I? I am Richard’s stepfather, and I am waiting in the public square for him to arrive; in a few minutes he will be stripped of his clanging bell, which will be vested in the next town-crier. I see Richard in the offing, a wide silhouette with the sun sinking behind him, its bronze light bringing out the town’s yellow tones and the dust that puffs around one’s ankles when one jogs in the afternoon or strolls thoughtfully in the morning. I must say that while I am sad about Richard’s impending demise, I am deeply disappointed in him. Much valued by citizens like myself, Boss Dugas’s plant provides jobs for the town’s children, and he has always paid them enough to support their families; his plant purveys a fine product to citizens such as I. I, like most others who can afford it, always buy the newest model of the Boss Dugas Doll. The most current edition has a retractable string and a speakerbox that crackles with Boss Dugas’s best sayings, such as, “Think of the children,” and, “The children are our future.” I will miss Richard, though. At times I was proud of him, of the eagerness with which he cried throughout the town. The fact is that Richard has never groused about the long days spent springing down byroads, ringing his bell and shouting about how many dolls have been knitted, stuffed and embroidered so far that day; which children have been promoted or demoted at the plant; the release date of the new Boss Dugas doll; and other breaking news. I will think of Richard forever onward when, sipping my afternoon coffee or my noontime tea, I hear the new town-crier skip under my gallery and titillate me with headlines from the factory, his voice soaring high and clear above the sound of his bell, his body like a spoonful of starch underneath the screaming sun.
Watching Richard’s shadow grow closer to the public square, I realize he will be walking up the scaffold’s staircase in less than a minute; the crowd occupying the public square will part like lips, allowing Richard to pass through the empty avenue between them and prance up the scaffold’s wooden stairs. The position of town-crier will then be handed down by customary means.
This hasn’t happened since our town bestowed the town-criership upon Richard. It will proceed as follows. My stepson will ring his brass bell until the final few seconds of his life. Charlie will strip him of his instrument, snatching it from my stepson’s puffy hand, and cast it into the public square. Then the town’s fattest boys, who have all been invited to attend the execution, will comb the square’s dirt floor looking for the bell. Crouching, they will weave between adults who are trying to watch Richard’s strangulation while tears fall from their faces. Whoever finds Richard’s lost instrument will be awarded the office of town-crier. Or perhaps none of them will pick it up.
Alec Niedenthal is an MFA candidate at Brown University. He is working on a novel.