Jerome (part one): A Figure from the Common Lot
Book Two: 1876
“We have no need of plans. You are quite right, Jerome. Our lives progress under the watchful eye of a benign intelligence, and we must go where fortune takes us.”
They had Depot Street to cross on their way to the concourse, the circus through which the town’s commercial streets intersected. Ebrach led the way, aiming towards the upraised saber of the highest figure cast upon the summit of the soldier’s memorial.
“You sought me out, Jerome. But let us say, for argument’s sake, that you had related your story to a stranger…”
Ebrach glanced behind him. The effort of lugging his portmanteau showed on Jerome’s face. His eyes were either on his hands, as though the bag might slip if he did not watch himself grip it; or on the bricks of the street, as though he counted his steps. Ebrach had begun laying his pieces on the board…practiced at this art of conversion, he was well aware of his audience. When he saw the townspeople had begun to reason within themselves, to sidle up, to follow discreetly, he was loath to stem the dramatic tide. Yet Jerome belonged to him, now he had taken up the acquaintance. He might look ill to these Indiana folk, if he did not bolster this poor scrap of humanity.
“What do you keep in your bag, Jerome?”
He stepped back, and readily enough pried the bag from Jerome’s hands. “Why, this is nothing.” He hoisted the portmanteau to his shoulder. He looked, soliciting commiseration, into the eyes of a bystander who clutched the halter of a mule. The man had not come to town to make eye contact with strangers; he flushed, and turned his face aside.
Jerome straightened, caught up to within a foot or two of Ebrach, and showed signs of speaking. Ebrach preferred that Jerome not speak. Jerome was not an American; much of what he said was difficult to understand, and his dialogue would distract from the presentation.
“Yonder,” Ebrach said at once, waving, “up the way and across the avenue, is the Columbia Hotel. You may read the sign from here.”
He was a man who had given innumerable public talks. He did not lose threads. He took Jerome by the lapel, drawing him firmly over the curb, and returned to his narrative. They crossed, and as they crossed, Ebrach said, “You heard a voice. A name was mentioned. At this, you found yourself astonished. You had traveled a great distance. Cookesville had been no more to you than a designation on a map. You had believed yourself friendless…”
The town’s heart, where Liberty Avenue met High Street, formed a graph of prosperity, from Snedden the undertaker’s frame house, to a dress shop with upstairs apartment, door-glass lettered Studio Metz, to the three floors of Rutherford Bros. Mercantile and Dry Goods, to the Columbia Hotel’s unrivaled four. Ebrach smiled at the hotel’s rows of shining windows, arched in pairs under fanlights, separated by a sandstone façade the color of golden griddle-cakes.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)