Provincial Minds

The Doctor had breathtaking eyes. Two teardrop-shaped orbs the absolute black of a dead universe. His gaze was both deep and pointed, as if through it passed an invisible line stretching outward past the farthest reaches of creation and inward to the infinitesimal depths of the self. His brows, straight and sharp, slanted upwards from the bridge of the nose to the temples and gave him the appearance of having always just said something wry. It was on these merits, the perfectly random product of his particular genetic code, that his almost unchallenged authority in the town rested.

People visited the Doctor for advice and comfort, and rarely did he turn anyone away empty-handed. But just as rarely did he ever seem pleased to have company. For the Doctor was a busy man; that much was apparent from the mess of charts, technical drawings and half-finished equations scattered around the room, and the frenzied way he moved amongst them, a manic expression on his face, somewhere between a good, stiff caffeine buzz and utter despair. He also suffered, with an increasingly short supply of patience, the mangling of his last name, which some eight years of acquaintance had done nothing to impress in the minds of even his most frequent visitors.

“It’s Greek,” he’d say, after another failed attempt, followed quickly by, “Just call me Doctor Z.”

Doctor Z was a self-styled Renaissance man. At the age of seventeen he became a certified chess master in the state of Oregon, the youngest in its history. Born in Eugene, he kept a “Go Ducks!” 1995 Rose Bowl pennant prominently displayed on the wall next to his sterilizing cabinet.

Throughout college he dabbled in medieval painting techniques and was a strict adherent of the Turnovo School; though his grand design of painting the Holy Forty Martyrs re-imagined as Bio-Med majors hit a fatal snag between Saints Philoctemon and Theophilus, almost everyone agreed that the finished portraits presented a reasonable likeness of the tragic men who inspired them.

But perhaps the Doctor’s greatest love was reserved for croquet, a game he considered infinite in its possibilities and all the better for its sound basis in Geometry. As much a raconteur as a man of science, many were the times he could be found regaling the patrons of his favorite pub, The Rusty Hinge, with the tale of the time he defeated the Earl of Southampton’s nephew, Patrick, by a clean eight wickets.

These were the imposing credentials the Doctor brought to Brickbottom County to begin research on a project so secretive it was known to the general public only as “Project X.”

And with a name so obviously secretive as “Project X,” it was no surprise that the Doctor and his work were the primary topics of discussion amongst the county’s residents. Speculation ranged from the mundane to ideas so wild even the most fertile minds of Science Fiction’s canon had yet to discover them. With his background in medicine, many believed the Doctor to be developing some sort of cure, a miracle vaccine that would rid their county once and for all of sickness, misery and death. These devoted men and women began to regard him as a sort of savior, a Messiah figure who had appeared one afternoon “on the outskirts of the Old North Road, as if materializing from dust,” as one popular retelling would have it. They made frequent trips to the Doctor’s waiting room, bestowing upon him gifts of bundt cake and herbal tea.

Yet the Doctor was not without his critics. Quite the contrary: some of the most esteemed members of the citizenry would have liked nothing better than to see him fall flat on his face. They found him odd in manner and grotesque in personal appearance, but their strongest objections were reserved for his work, which – though they knew not its exact nature – they considered to border on the Mystical, a sort of ‘blaspheme-in-embryo’. “Your moral compass is nothing short of quizzical!” the Mayor himself had blurted out at last year’s Green Jacket Society gentleman’s cotillion. Only the Mayor’s wife had prevented a full-blown scene from developing, blaming the outburst on a batch of grape brandy that not had been allowed to ferment the required six months. While no one was particularly satisfied with this explanation – least of all Foams, the Distiller, who retired to a corner of the ballroom to sulk – it did succeed in checking tempers long enough for the Doctor to gather his wits and take leave of the event before insults could escalate into blows. All the way to the door, derisive whispers could be heard, the hushed and venomous voices of a crowd in the throes of Judgment, hurling at him slanderous words. “Rapscallion!” they said.

Oh, the colorful bluster of provincial minds! The Doctor would have laughed at their simple natures if the stakes were not so dire. Most troublesome was his adversarial relationship with deep-sea fishing magnate Harlton Mewes, owner of the local, conservative daily Brickbottom County Trumpeter. “If this is Project X, we here at the Trumpeter can’t help but wonder what went wrong with those Projects attached to the first twenty-three letters of the alphabet,” it wittily declaimed in a Sunday editorial. Mr. Mewes, it should be noted, was a staunch fundamentalist, a tenth-generation Presbyterian who did not cotton to men standing in a place of reverence reserved for the Almighty. “When Our Savior returns, you’ll know it all right!” he told anyone who would listen, oftentimes adding a ‘Harrumph!’ out of sheer consternation.

With such powerful enemies, the Doctor’s demise was inevitable. One day, on leaving the grocer’s after an unsuccessful attempt to cash an out-of-state check, he was nearly hit in the head by a sizeable piece of granite, hurled from the window of a passing car. In case the intent behind this act was misinterpreted, a message, written on a sheet of college-ruled notebook paper, had been attached to the stone with scotch tape. “Leave town,” it warned, “or we’ll hit you in the head with a piece of granite!”

“Probably just a schoolyard prank,” he said to himself, though his stoicism sounded specious, even to his own ears.

They finally got him, coming out of his office on a sunny afternoon in late-September. As he turned his key in the front lock, his face towards the door, the Doctor felt himself seized from behind by multiple pairs of hands; his wrists and ankles were bound with horsehair rope and he was carried to the town square dangling from a length of hickory, like a pig over a spit. His captors wore white hoods and bulky robes to conceal their identities, but at least one of them, the Doctor noted, had a penchant for red Chuck Taylor’s.

When they reached the center, they ascended a small, octagonal platform, a hastily-built construction of particle board, which the Doctor could only speculate had been erected specifically for this very occasion. Made to kneel and remove his shirt, he was confronted by a tall, lanky man holding a thistle-branch whip who introduced himself as the “Chief Inquisitor,” and whom the Doctor recognized by voice as Harlan Culpepper, the owner of the feed store over on Willow Bay Drive.

“Confess!” demanded the Inquisitor.

“Confess what?” asked the Doctor, which earned him an audible thrashing across his bare back. The Doctor complained that this stung quite a bit, especially where the thorns had happened to pierce through his skin, and the Inquisitor explained that that was rather the point.

It took seven continuous days of thrashings before the Doctor finally succumbed, passing on into the hereafter as silently and mysteriously as he purportedly arrived. The official cause of death was found to be dehydration, and it was only the quick administration of emergency Evian that kept several of his captors from meeting the same fate.

When the body had been disposed of and the eulogy delivered by the minister of Bascombe St. Baptist Church in neighboring Slocum Pines County (Brickbottom’s own Presbyterian minister, under pressure from Harlton Mewes, had declined to speak), those in attendance marched en masse on the Doctor’s office, determined to uncover once and for all the insidious nature of his abominable sciences. The key, which the Doctor had been in the process of turning at the time of his arrest, sat patiently in the lock, awaiting their arrival. Never one to miss an opportunity for grandstanding, the Mayor elbowed his way to the front of the mob to deliver a short speech and delay the unveiling until a photographer from the Trumpeter could be scrounged up to capture him in his moment of triumph. With the fanfare out of the way, the Mayor at last turned the latch and threw the door wide. The crowd surged forth, pouring through the narrow opening like sand through the neck of an hourglass, baying and howling, their voices hoarse with the righteous cries of the victorious. They stormed the outer waiting room and flung themselves against the door to the laboratory, the heavy oak splintering under the weight and fury of the mob. Wirh a sharp ‘crack’, the door was ripped from its hinges; with a triumphant cheer, they charged into the inner-sanctum, in which no one but the Doctor had ever set foot, and it was there that they first laid eyes on the truth behind Project X…

The cries stopped.

Nobody moved.

“Well I’ll be,” said someone at last.

“Don’t that take the cake,” said another.

“‘Bout what I expected,” said a third, who was known for affecting disinterest. The rest simply stared on in silence, pondering.

“Well, what do we do now?” asked Mr. Flane, the pharmacist, who was due home in fifteen minutes for dinner and had no time for silent contemplation.

“We can’t just leave it like this,” said the Mayor, who had October re-elections to think of.

“Let’s burn the house down,” said the minister, a great believer in the cleansing power of fire.

“Isn’t that a bit drastic?” asked the Mayor.

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” he said, sagely. “Besides, if we burn the house down it will be easier to pretend none of this ever happened.”

Everyone agreed this was true. A five-gallon tank of gasoline was procured from the nearest service station and a book of matches from behind the counter of The Rusty Hinge (“The same ones he used to light his cigars,” mused Higgins, the bartender, who had always been fond of the Doctor). When the structural beams had been thoroughly doused, the Mayor, with his usual pomp, struck a single match and tossed it with great flourish through the open front door, into the waiting room. With a dull ‘whoosh’ the house was ablaze, as spectacular and sudden as a Roman candle explosion. The crowd stood in the street hypnotized, watching the orange-red flames licking the sky and the plume of smoke, black as a widow’s shroud, curling up into the soft night. They remained standing that way for some time. Then, one by one, they departed for the warmth and comfort of their beds, the righteous mass slowly disintegrating, becoming smaller and smaller, until soon there was no one left, and nothing, not even a memory, of the Doctor remained.

Randall DeVallance is the author of the short novel, Dive (2004), and the short-story collection, Sketches of Invalids (2007), from which the story, “Provincial Minds,” is taken. His stories have appeared in several print and online publications, including Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and Word Riot. His first work with Atticus Books, The Absent Traveler: A Novella and Other Stories, is due for publication in December 2010. He currently lives in New York City.

Photo Source: Ballybeg Village

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