There are a lot more dead raccoons in the roads and along the roadsides lately.
I mention the raccoons because while I am driving they are what I am sometimes seeing. It is sad to see many dead of anything, even raccoons whom some people regard as pests. I know for a fact some people regard raccoons as pests because I said to my neighbor Bill, “Hey Bill, have you seen there’s all these dead raccoons on the roads and by the sides of roads these days?” And all he said in reply – which was almost inaudible because of the low, gravelly-throat sound his voice naturally makes, and because he wasn’t looking directly at me out of apparent indifference – was that it was a good thing they were dead because it kept them out of his trashcans and “in hell.”
He added he might have killed them himself if he’d ever had the opportunity, by pancaking them to oblivion with his F-150, which he drove recklessly on local dirt and paved roads. And he smiled this sort of horrifying smile that made me just finish the conversation altogether by saying, “Oh, well goodbye.” I walked quickly into my home, wherein I locked the door hurriedly and only partly out of habit.
I don’t think I’m on good terms with Bill, but for something that hasn’t got a whole bunch to do with raccoons. Still, he hates raccoons a whole lot, if totally separate from whatever bad blood exists between us.
I’m not in a good place with all the dead raccoons, regardless of Bill. I only wish there weren’t so many dead, and not just for the obvious sanitation issues their decomposing carcasses everywhere create.
Business has been picking up at my job, big time. My job is mostly head custodian at the Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum. We’re a for-profit museum run by private interests. Does that qualify us as a museum, then? Technically speaking? I am not clear on this. Apparently the answer’s “yes,” though, because we have not been shut down or censured, to my knowledge, and business is booming. And also consider that my own circumstances as head custodian have improved mightily over the last several weeks, as a result of this business boom. I’ve simultaneously moved into position of walking in footsteps, much as footstep-walking predecessors once did, with just the same amount of skill and enthusiasm, but I will get to how that came to pass in short order.
Sheila, who works for the museum as both the ticket vender in the box office and as cashier in the gift shop, was the first to let me know we’ve got a salable tour show all of a sudden, and she would know; she sells the tickets and merchandise. She can see whether they are going like hot cakes. “That’s how they’re going,” she told me.
But before I go on any further let me explain to you exactly what is the now-salable Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum and its now-salable tour show, which “tour show” is what we officially call it, for legality concerns most likely.
Mr. and Mrs. Dabler are the owners and the founders. The idea for the museum itself came about when, to paraphrase her own account, Mrs. Janice Dabler was at home one evening, thinking and walking around in her kitchen, a hand clasped to a wide cylindrical glass of red wine, and she realized out of nowhere, as if thought-struck, that all historical figures had to “tread turf” (her words) across somewhere in their lifetimes. She imagined they were real and as alive as she was at one historical epoch or another, walking around in their kitchens and drinking things and such themselves, probably. Except perhaps drinking from goblets or chalices instead of JC Penney glassware.
Mrs. Dabler then explained to her husband this thought about historical figures and their footsteps. Caleb Dabler, her husband, raised a not-ironical eyebrow. It occurred to him that she might really be on to something good, money-wise. He immediately thought of General George A. Custer, because of Custer’s Last Stand, which I gather Caleb sort of misinterpreted as referring to where Custer was literally standing when he died, and as what precise number that “stand” represented in relation to the total sequential number of “stands” he’d had during his relatively short lifetime of 36 years. Which is a somewhat thoughtful thought.
A brief aside about Caleb is, he once told me when I started working for him, “You won’t exactly be working for peanuts,” he said, “But then you won’t exactly be working for eagles, either. Maybe someday you will, but not to-day, Ed.” My name is Edward “Ed” Bryson, so explains Caleb’s calling me that. And it turns out that to him eagles are representative of an enormous sum of monetary payment, as essentially the opposite of working for peanuts. That’s just Caleb’s way, though, making up phrases and words and saying strange things that have got possibly coded meaning or not. He never explains. Another time he asked me in a serious tone of voice if my “rhino cherry” was working all right, and I still don’t fully understand what he meant by that, or if I ought to take offense.
I wasn’t working for eagles then, or even at the start of our business’ boom. “These things take time,” the Dablers explained. “Sure do,” they added non-reassuringly.
Ok, so speaking of the Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum, which is located at approximately Rapid City, South Dakota, which is where I live, also, basically; they built it in this sort of obscure rural location that’s a little bit hard to get to by automobile (horse is a different matter), but you can find it taking Highway 16 south out of Rapid City. It’s at about the halfway point between Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore. There’s a big billboard a few miles ahead of the museum’s exit that’s got a picture of cartoon versions of General George A. Custer and Gutzon Borglum, who are essentially drawn walking normally enough but for that each has an arm locked over the shoulder of the other, and each has a leg kicked forward in the exaggerated style of The Rockettes. Their faces are smiling like a Teddy Roosevelt caricature. Plus for a real humor element, they are following after a scrambling, crazy-legged Crazy Horse, who is sending up billowing clouds of smoke and debris with the frantic movement of his speedy “crazy” legs, and who it seems in the illustration on the billboard is mostly just trying to get away, similar to a female cat mistaken for a female skunk by the Looney Toons’ Pepe Le Pew. The billboard advertises The Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum in red bubble letters, which are readable but somewhat squished together, as bubble letters are known to get. We’re also featured in several pamphlets we pay to have distributed at various hotels and restaurants in the Rapid City area.
And once off the highway exit ramp, not too far past the Mobil gas station and the not-much-else there is around it, you have to travel down this dirt road (which I’ve heard reminds people of the classic novel and better remembered film Deliverance, which that did hurt our popularity up until recently, when we got popular and business began to boom). The dirt road leads up to what turns into a gravel parking lot of white pebbles and stones, a pale-ish aggregate of assorted light-to-deep shades, extending in what I see sort of as a pond-shaped circle in front of the museum’s entrance. Concrete stairs and a very recently added concrete ramp for the disabled lead up to the entrance.
The museum on the whole is massive, and looks a lot like three stacked toy blocks of successively greater size, with the smallest block on top and so forth. The building is sky blue and made of brick, and it has in contrast a darker shade of blue, the color of a Navy service uniform, coating its mansard roof. Mansard roofing surrounds each block floor with the next floor ascending above it, except the top floor of course, which is only mansard roof and has no additional floor going beyond its top. The air-conditioning unit is up there, though, but not at all visible from below.
Frilling the mansard roofing at each level around the non-slanted edges is this spear-pointed, wrought-iron balustrade. And so, to complete it with our own special touch, welded to the center of the many crossed bars are the metallic outlines of variously sized shapes of feet, walking across the balustrade like they, the historical figures who walked, had defied gravity and left their footprints up there permanently for every tourist to see and, if they feel the urge, remark about excitedly, and purchase pictures of themselves near to.
It’s inside this very blue building that you take your tour show, costing 20 dollars for adults (that’s everyone thirteen and older), half that for students and seniors, eight dollars for children six to twelve, and nothing for children under the age of five. The tour show originally, in a nutshell, consisted of reasonably similar-looking wooden facsimiles of various famous people walking in lines of foot prints we purport they once “walked in.” But it’s definitely not even certain that Custer was ever literally walking where his alleged footprints have placed him inside the museum. The facsimiles were shoddy enough to rouse several complaints from customers (the few we had then), most of which had to do with the fact that it is misleading to say famous people have actually ever walked here inside the museum (or even on the soil that existed at this location before the museum was built over it), and that they, the customers, are thus allowed to literally step on (or walk in) the footprints ascribed to whichever historical figure (Another aside: to be clear we let the customers walk in the footsteps of each historical person on display, and at that time – when the historical figures were made of wood – we allowed the customers to walk in footsteps up to the point just before they’d bump into the facsimile, which obviously didn’t itself move but was instead mannequin inert, and the facsimiles were very fragile as an added negative), but back to in terms of the specific footprints, we have had some customers who are very dissatisfied because they are dubious, not unfairly, of whether we have on display genuine historical footsteps, which is what our pamphlet claims, sort of.
But as Caleb or Janice, or sometimes Sheila, has to deftly explain to angry patrons, there is a tiny star or asterisk, I forget which it is exactly, next to the wording in the pamphlet that claims historical figures have actually stepped foot on the actual floor inside our museum. And if you follow that tiny star to its corresponding tiny star on the bottom of the page and you read the adjacent fine print, you will see that it goes on to elaborate somewhat convolutedly the following: i.e., just as in any hypothetical scenario you yourself might think up, we here at the Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum have imagined anyone living or dead is or was capable of having hypothetically walked anywhere on Earth without it really ever being recorded. The Walk-in-their-Footsteps Museum makes no claim to possess definitive proof of famous individuals having ever, beyond all doubt, stepped in the building known as the Walk-in-their-Footsteps Museum. We merely suggest the possibility that such was perhaps the case with respect to our museum and the exhibits of suggested historical footsteps herein. The Walk-in-their-Footsteps historical footsteps museum offers no refunds to customers regarding this or any other misunderstanding having to do with our tour show. Don’t forget to visit our gift shop where supplies of walking historical figures, complete with – for a small additional fee – Walk-in-their-Footsteps miniaturized walking sticks, are limited.
And this assertion is also written in tiny print on all tickets and above the box office beneath the big red and white sign that reads: TICKETS. This has protected us from legal action and having to give money back, but at the time of the wooden facsimiles it only served to hurt our reputation as what was already considered a lower-end sort of tourist trap. Business, however, is finally starting to pick up real quick, which has a lot to do with the actor Caleb hired to play General George A. Custer. Because another valid complaint of our customers was that basically we were offering a much, much crappier version of any of the thousands of terrible-to-mediocre wax museums that litter the American tourist-trap-scape. At least even the worst wax figures came close to resembling human beings. This was not true of our wooden facsimiles, which more closely resembled deformed scarecrows.
I mean, you kind of assume that replacing a wooden, only serviceable facsimile of General George Armstrong Custer with a flesh and blood honest-to-God human being is going to result in a positive effect on your dismal reputation, but to say that about Neal Send, who was the actor hired by Caleb to play Custer, would be a total understatement. The Neal Send effect was way more sweeping than just replacing wood with human. It’s the first thing that allowed business to boom.
Neal sort of came in on the wind, and his hiring wasn’t totally an accident but wasn’t totally on purpose, either. I heard what happened was Neal stood next to the wooden Custer facsimile one day, and when people would walk by on their tour shows, he spoke imploringly to them, unabashedly dismissing the value of the wooden facsimile, “I look more like Custer than this. Right folks? M-i-right?” He gestured with his hand flat and horizontal, holding it up beneath the block of wood’s crummy face and then to his not-crummy and actually almost handsome face. The audience was left to decide. Some replied aloud that he did indeed look more like Custer, from what they knew of the historical man. Caleb and security were summoned eventually. And of course at first Caleb seemed ready to unleash the hounds of litigation against Neal, but he kept scrutinizing Neal’s features. Finally, like pretty much everyone else in the audience, he came to agree with Neal. And that was enough for Caleb to think maybe Neal would be better for business than a wooden facsimile. And so Neal got a job and the rest that came after was history.
So Neal is the reason for the present business boom – he started it all – and his success has prompted Caleb and Janice to hire other actors to play the roles of various historical figures such as Gutzon Borglum, Crazy “Legs” Horse (the roadrunner legs image has stuck and become a popular nickname, which certain people consider insensitive – but lots of things are, these days), Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Mohandas Gandhi, who is the only one I’m near positive never stepped foot on the interior of U.S. America’s mainland, much less as far north as South Dakota and the greater Rapid City area.
Neal insisted on being called “Georgie” or “Custy” when he was in character. So that’s basically what I knew him as, “Custy.” I was just “Ed” to him, because all I did was mop the floors and see about general repairs and clean up after the filthy kids who do disgusting things in the bathroom, which their parents leave for me to just sort of deal with, saying effectively, “You deal.” Custy could also juggle, and so when he’d regale the audience with his smooth way of walking in his character’s own supposed footsteps, he’d also juggle and then real fluidly do a back flip and a hand stand. Custy was really nimble, too, and acrobatic. He called that part of the tour show his “The Amazing Custy Show,” and the customers took notice. Caleb and Janice eagerly approved his segment’s name change, and began to advertise it as such in a new version of the pamphlet. The new version had a cannily lit cover photo of Custy flipping in midair, to the smiling approval of the barely visible spectators (you could just barely perceive their white-tooth grins). And regarding Neal’s great success as Georgie Custy, Caleb went so far as to say, “I may not know about General Custer, but that man is Custer as far as I’m concerned. And it won’t be long now before he’s making the big eagles – for us and for him, that is.”
People flocked to walk in the historical footsteps of Neal as Georgie “Custy” Custer, the general. They filled in the expansive blue rooms vacant of any old-timey set props (it was pretty much just Neal out there as Custy). Custy would run out into the center of the action and the people were corralled outside of his show part of the tour show by velvet rope guardrails and signs imploring them not to enter Custy’s circle while he is walking and cartwheeling in his own footsteps. The crowd applauded mightily at his every amusing gesture and feat of physical derring-do. Custy would sometimes stroke his mustache and wonder aloud, “Where will history lead me, to fortune and greater fame having nothing to do with a hubris-driven and violent, untimely demise?” The dramatic irony of such a question was not lost on the crowd, some of the youngest and most historically aware shouted “NOOOOOO, no, nooo, noooo!” in a keyed-up, emphatic tone, like the audience of a children’s television show. And throughout all of this Neal’s adroit showmanship and plentiful charisma were on display for spectators to view and get lost in. Which believe you me, they did.
The other actors aren’t nearly as good as Neal was. They’re fine and all, but Neal was the total and complete heart of our initial success, vitally pumping our tour show to local renown. Which is why it was a pretty big deal when he had a kind of meltdown not long ago and said he was through with the tour show altogether. Caleb wanted me to talk with him about it, seeing as I had the closest thing to a friendship with him of anybody at the Footsteps Museum. I went to his office and we talked, Caleb and I did.
“Ok so sit down a minute and let me tell you this is not good, this . . . is . . . not . . . good,” Caleb said this to me, shaking his head as if all was lost. “I’m thinking finally the lord has seen fit to bless me with a brilliant draw and then the draw turns around and says he ain’t working anymore. And this is gonna cost everybody, you, me, Neal, and everybody. But mind you, Neal doesn’t seem to care. Which this is awfully selfish of him.”
Caleb was chomping a cigar angrily with his back molars, sort of gritting his teeth with it, like you’d stereotypically expect of wealthy bigwigs as they carry out the business of the day with this kind of severe importance. I think the money and the power that comes with running a reasonably successful attraction in a somewhat highly trafficked tourist destination such as Rapid City has gone to his head a little, but I didn’t say that, especially not then. I was definitely unconvinced I could be of much help, too. By this time Neal had been working for us for a while, and I had developed a relationship of mutual workplace sociability with him, but I wouldn’t consider myself his friend. I wasn’t most people’s friend. Although I guess in the technical sense of the phrase “most people” no one is most people’s friend. But ok, so that’s beside the point and splitting hairs.
“Well what do you want me to do about it?” I said.
“I dunno, couldn’t you maybe talk some sense into him? The guy’s clearly gone off his rocker. He’s got no dice in those gears anymore. Get him his dice back, so his gears start going again,” Caleb said, losing aplomb in his speech with each passing ludicrously mixed-metaphor. “He’ll maybe acknowledge you when you talk to him, which is more than what I got, which was complete nothingness. Somebody turn back time to the time of lights being on and not off.”
“Where is he? Is he still around someplace, like in here?”
“Like in where? This office? Do you see him at all anywheres in here?”
“In the building, I mean,” I said, although actually I had meant in Caleb’s office someplace, for example perhaps he was inside Caleb’s closet, but really that still doesn’t make much sense.
“Nah, he’s outside on the hill. That’s where he’s been most of the day. I think talking to himself. And anyway he’s not doing a whole lot that’s good for business. I’ll just say that about what he’s doing.”
Caleb gestured towards the window with this dismissive jerk of his thumb, all other fingers clenched. I scanned the landscape outside, and I could make out Neal on the hill. He was seated in a crouching position. His knees were pressed up against his chest and he had his arms securely wrapped around his legs as if to hug himself. He rocked back and forth in the wind’s languid caress, seeking calm and serenity. I am unsure of whether the dull force of the wind was rocking his body or if it was just he alone who was rocking himself. The sky was shiny with blue, which enveloped the museum a bit, as it was something close to the same shiny sky color and the patter of birds hitting windows and walls seemed constant.
“So if he’s through with the whole thing why’s he still here?”
“That’s what I’m saying. I said to Janice. I said: ‘We’ve got a grain of yellow hope seeing as he hasn’t yet left for greener pastures of the bright neon lights of Broadway Street.’ She was in full agreeance, naturally. She said to get you, which I did.” Caleb said and assumed the proud expression of a good boy. He enjoyed the feeling of following Janice’s orders to the letter.
“All right, well, I guess I’ll go visit with him, then.”
“Good,” he said. “Oh, and Ed?”
“How’s your rhino cherry doin’?” Caleb asked this very sincerely.
I left Caleb’s office without anymore say-so, which I think miffed him because I heard him calling after me, “Fine, go. Go on and don’t answer me. I don’t like your stink and goodbye.” Then I think he yelled, “DISMISSED!” real loud, like he was a mercurial drill sergeant or was affecting the audibility of most anyone on a reality television show.
I walked up the hill to be with Neal, to see what the heck was up. And when I got there, he had not moved from the self-hugging position I’d seen him in from Caleb’s office.
“What’s this all about, Neal or, uh, Custy?” I shrugged.
He stared ahead thoughtfully, apparently trying to decide whether I was someone he was willing to talk to, and then after a moment he decided that I was and said, “No, I’m Neal. Just Neal. It’s all I ever was. Never was I Custy.”
“Well, then, Neal, Mr. and Mrs. Dabler and everybody’s awful worried about you, and so am I, I guess. They thought, and so did I, that I should see about your health and all that. Is everything good? I mean, obviously it’s not, but why is it exactly that it’s not good? People only want to help you, myself included. I’m here to help.”
Neal looked up, at last. His face was very flush, and he looked sickly with hay fever or some other allergic reaction to the pollens and other organic debris sent swirling around all hither and thither by the dull wind’s caprice.
“It’s that I’m a fraud, Ed. It’s that who could be proud of me? Not the woman of my dreams. Not her. She doesn’t even know me!”
“Aww, it can’t be as bad as all that. So this is about a woman, then?” Suddenly I thought I understood Neal’s predicament and could be of real help. “So she’s gonna like you better somehow if you just let your life go to hell and do nothing?”
Neal gripped his chin hard, tilting his head towards the ground in what looked like an aspect of sudden, deep deliberation.
“Well, no, it’s not like that, really. See, I mean, she’s a girl I used to know, ok? And I went to her house the other day, after probably about a decade or two of not seeing her or speaking a word to her in email, letter, or over the phone, etc., you get the idea. I told her that I’m a famous George Armstrong Custer re-enactor at the Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum. I had the whole outfit and mustache on and everything. She said, ‘Who?’ and then, after I showed her some identification and some pictures taken of us together in our youth, she said, ‘Where have you been for the last over two decades?’ And I told her, plan and simple: I’d been pining for you, meaning her, from afar. Eh, not you as in you, Ed.”
“I’m ok with that,” I said.
“Good, so yeah. She was not won over by my declaration of my love for her from afar these many years. She said she’s sorry but she plans to marry this other guy, her fiancé. His name is Tucker or something. She loves him and stuff. And anyway, she says, what kind of nerve do I have coming out of nowhere after being her friend from childhood and nothing else? And now I’m back here saying I love her and want to, what’s more, propose marriage (which I did do that, too, Ed)? She says, ‘Hey no way, buddy. I’ve got my own life to lead, and I’m leading it with Tucker and not you, and don’t be so weird anymore,’ because I’d apparently totally freaked her out.”
“I guess I can’t say I blame her, Neal. I’m sorry but I can’t. That is pretty weird to do that to a person.”
“Yeah, and it gets worse. Because I was looking at it like it was this movie scene. I think that was partly the problem, see? I’d gotten lost in the fantasy of it. Like the anticipation of being with her seemed better than the actually being with her, after a while. Which is why it probably took me so long to re-insinuate myself into her life. But so, I told her, like it was a movie, ‘Don’t walk out on me, Camille (her name’s Camille, by the way). You walk out on me and you’ll be making the worst decision of your life, you hear me? The worst decision of your life! We are only complete when we are whole and together!’ To which she just rolled her eyes and closed the door on me. When I wouldn’t leave her porch, she called the cops. Then I ran. And that was it, for now at least.”
He paused, started picking at some grass and threw the blades up above his head to sprinkle the ground where they would. He didn’t seem completely insane, although his story was pretty much that. I thought of poking him to see if he was real. But then I thought doing that would probably seem itself a little insane, a poking out of nowhere.
“That should probably be it forever,” I said, as discouragingly as I could manage while still sounding encouraging in another way, a way having less to do with his interest in Camille, or so I hoped it sounded to him.
Neal wasn’t listening and went on, “I got home and took one of my ‘long showers’.” He air-quoted “long showers” with the two fingers of each of his two hands, whatever his doing so was intended to signify. “And when I got out I had this melancholy feeling like what is the point of going on like this? What was I doing and why? I’m not George A. Custer, and I’m never going to be.”
“Yeah. I mean, right? What, did you think you were actually Custy himself, Neal? You didn’t think that.”
“In a way, completely, I did. I walked in his footsteps, didn’t I? If I’m not him, then nobody is. And I’m not him.”
“No, you aren’t him, Neal. You’re Neal Send. That’s who you are.”
“Nah, that’s not true. ‘Neal’ isn’t even my real name, truth be told,” He air-quoted Neal, too, which the air-quotes were starting to get annoying.
“Uh, huh,” I stammered, not sure of really how to handle Neal not being Neal but a stranger basically to me, which we weren’t even close to begin with. “So who are you, then? If not Neal.”
“I told you, Ed. I was Custy. I was really him, I think. I don’t have anybody to be anymore. I don’t know who I am. I probably never did.”
“Well that’s a real pickle.”
“I’ll say,” a man who was not named Neal, I guess, said.
Later, I returned and reported what I’d learned to Caleb, who was obviously not very happy about his tour show’s star’s sudden fall from reality and possibly sanity.
“Oh god, what the hell? Damn it! Every time! Every time I think, hey God’s shining some of that happiness and yellow on me that others enjoy he goes and he says, ‘Sorry Caleb Dabler, but you are not one of my chosen few. No sir.’ I’m not the elect.”
Caleb was chewing on the nub of his cigar as if it were the cuticle of his thumb or index finger, nervously ticking away and rendering his cigar unmanageably deformed. The back end had been pulled apart by his biting and was spilling its dried tobacco leaves into his mouth, which the bad taste of which caused him to cringe. Refusing to be daunted, though, he continued smoking in vain, as he was visibly unwilling to concede another point to his suddenly un-loving god.
“I don’t know what to do about Neal or whoever he is,” Janice said, sitting in on our meeting this time, as things had worsened noticeably to everyone’s visible dismay. “But we’ve got to let the tour show go on. We need a George A. Custer replacement for until Neal is back to his less batshit self. We are so completely desperate for somebody, for a body.” She looked at me, so did Caleb.
“Hey, don’t look at me. I’m just the head janitor remember? What do I know about any of this? I’m no showman is all.”
“You’re the only janitor we’ve got,” Caleb said, gagging and then pausing to wipe the tobacco leaves from his now dangling tongue with his handkerchief. “By default I guess that makes you the head janitor, but I don’t know. Listen, though, you said you always wanted to work for eagles. Well this is how you make the big bucks with the huge ass antlers capable of destroying their buck adversaries, get me?”
“Not by being the ‘head’ janitor will you have this chance, Ed,” Janice averred.
I thought about it long and hard, probably not long and hard, enough, but still pretty long and pretty hard. And while I worried what replacing “Neal” as Custy would do to “Neal”’s pretty fragile psyche, I also realized well enough that if I ever wanted to make the eagles Caleb talks about, this’d be my only chance. I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to make the eagles Caleb talks about, but I’m pretty easy to convince. So I acquiesced and took the role, and I remain the head janitor, too, with the full title of “head” janitor and everything. I decided also I’m not any worse than the other actors we have on staff, especially Gandhi, who is played by this septuagenarian erstwhile auto-mechanic, a grizzled Caucasian man who refuses to wear any makeup whatsoever and will slip out of character and say offensive things all the time, but nobody visiting seems to care or pay attention much about Gandhi, the historical figure, a man I guess most people traveling in these parts are only faintly aware actually in real life existed, and so our actor’s missteps never matter much. “Gandhi” is also not very good at walking in his historical footsteps. He has an uncomfortable habit of losing his head, like a robot rebooting, and slamming face first to the floor, whereon prostrate and motionless, he apparently waits for someone to come and correct the problem of his planting himself there face down. Heavy past and present methamphetamine use may play a part in the actor’s erratic, drugged-up behavior, but honestly I’m not sure. We’re not really on speaking terms.
And although verisimilitude never seemed to matter much to “Neal” and the Dablers, I went to great lengths to ensure that I looked like the genuine article, 100% the same as “Neal” dressed as Georgie “Custy” Custer, the general. I did pretty well with the suspenders and the orange boots “Neal” would wear and back flip in nimbly. His purple shoelaces were harder to come by, but eventually I found a pair. I had a pretty poorly kept beard going before all the stuff occurred, and so I tried to refashion it to look more like Custy, which was hard because it was extremely thin and adolescent-looking. But I wasn’t embarrassed enough by the end result of my creative shaving to abandon the whole enterprise in favor of a fake mustache.
I made my debut the next day. There was a large crowd assembled, as Caleb had sent word to two local radio stations that the star of the Walk-in-their-Footsteps Historical Footsteps Museum tour show had basically returned and the tour show was to go on, as scheduled. The radio stations were paid to mention this. So it was advertisement really, I guess.
“Neal” was watching me with eyes that said “no” really sadly. His no wasn’t like a “no” of admonition, but a “no” that was like pleading with me diffidently. I tried hard not to concentrate on “Neal” after that, and was largely successful.
Caleb had rigged these pyrotechnics of lesser quality to detonate upon my entrance and distract from my part of the tour show, for fear I wasn’t up to the task of filling “Neal”’s orange Custy boots. I thought the pyrotechnics were probably a bad idea considering we had no permit and it was a pretty enclosed space to be setting off pyrotechnics and there was no fire marshal of any standing (good or bad) on hand to ensure it was all up to code and, most importantly, safe for the kids. So that wasn’t a great idea from my point of view, but I didn’t argue with Caleb.
“I hope this doesn’t go horribly awry, from the very bottom of my heart I do,” Caleb said (speaking in terms of my doing well and not about the pyrotechnics, which he was none-too worried about), and so giving me his idea of a pep talk as I prepared to enter the ring of velvet rope, and walk in Custy’s footsteps for the first time, at last. “In the way of expectations I have for you, Ed, do not worry, there are none. Just go out there and survive and, hell, maybe you’ll do the job so badly that Neal or whatever his name is will come back to us with both arms open, just completely desirous of ending the madness you’ve wrought with your crummy excuse of a Custer. But till he does exactly that we can’t have anyone who’s not up to the task of walking in Custer’s footsteps, so I hope you are and that’s it. That’s all I have to say. I hope I’ve been helpful, but it’s not my fault if I haven’t.”
“Um, thanks,” I said as a spoken afterthought to the trail of internal forethoughts I was having, because I was trying desperately – apart from Caleb’s chattering – to channel a mindset different from my own. I didn’t even care if I resembled “Neal” or Custy in the slightest. I just needed to be somebody with a little bravado, or having more than the basically none that I possessed.
But there I stood, in my awkward-fitting western cavalry officer’s replica uniform, epaulets of green and purple with sparkling glitter. I balled my fists in black and white chessboard-patterned gloves. There was a patch of adhesive set on the palm of each glove to help me “stick” my various acrobatic landings, something I was not very sure of, sticking landings. Caleb’s inspired festive atmosphere and his dj-at-a-high-school-prom heralding through reverb-flooded microphone of the return of Custy to the museum were building the crowd’s expectations to an impossibly high pitch, and I found their steadily mounting excitement to be nerve racking to the extreme. I listened in and waited for my cue as I strained behind the white curtain to get my balled fists unstuck. My cue was unfortunately the firing of the pyrotechnics.
Caleb fired the pyrotechnics, of which he had around seven or fewer rockets primarily, I think a little prematurely, although I was prepared for something to go wrong with them in terms of their being set off by Caleb. Although, I did not anticipate a spent lift charge casing arcing and caroming off of the 30 ft. ceiling from at which point proceeding to careen downwardly at its new trajectory to where it finally touched down at a high velocity directly between my eyes. I mean it touched down hard. I felt a welt beginning to form, one that no doubt would make me look all the more clownish to the spectators. So, and this disoriented me enough not to notice a young prankster girl in pig tails had moved the velvet rope directly in my way, in the short distance between the white curtain and Custy’s footsteps. And though I’d been hit in the face and welted I’d managed to keep running towards the audience, carrying a large old-timey American flag in one hand over my shoulder. My speed and disorientation were working in equal parts against me, so that I then caught both of my feet on the velvet rope as I leapt to do a cartwheel (the only semi-acrobatic move I came close to perfecting during my trial runs – or walks – the evening before). The flag was sent through the air, but I think it got lodged safely in the dry wall by its pointed tip, and did therefore not touch the ground. Like my friend Gandhi, I tripped ridiculously and planted my face smack dab in the middle of the line of Custy’s footsteps. The audience, shielding its collective self from the onslaught of seven fireworks’ debris seconds earlier, was at first taken aback by my thorough and booming plunge and then amused to the point of a one-year-old child at my disastrous spectacle, crying out altogether in pitch-perfect laughing ecstasy. I managed to stagger upwardly to a standing-like position, and Caleb pantomimed that I should keep it going, that in effect the show must go on. I smiled with broken teeth and bowed for a second, removing my oversized Styrofoam cowboy hat, which was the best we could do for headwear on such short notice. Then it becomes a little sketchy for me, because I would learn from Rapid City Regional Hospital staff that I bruised my brain fairly well and was for that infirmity slower to recover my senses in the wake of my fall.
The concussion was enough to skew my short term memory of the events as they unfolded following my bow, but from what I hear the short of it is I clownishly continued to great avail to endear myself to the crowd, who by the end of the tour show had assumedly forgotten all about “Neal” and were chanting for Georgie A. Custy (i.e. me) as if I were now the general himself, to be cheered for. Eventually Caleb decided I’d walked in Custer’s footsteps for long enough like an automaton, and so he called for a stretcher and the stretcher and its complement of paramedics finally carted me away to the near-riotous protests of the tour show-goers, who then descended into actual riot beyond anyone’s control, and tipped over several cars in the parking lot and started small fires that eventually became one big fire. Caleb and Janice were not thrilled about the damage but appreciative for all the free press the ensuing violence and mayhem garnered from the national media. There were even helicopters. They sent Nancy Grace a beautiful bouquet of professionally ornamented footsteps made of colored paper- and cardboard-mache.
While I was in the hospital for observation over the next day, Janice sent me a ten-dollar bottle of chiraz, which was for the most part full, and a “get well” card demanding my imminent recovery and return to work, reminding me of my very limited health insurance coverage. Basically it just said, “Come back real soon or else you’ll be severed and we’ll find someone new.” This filled my recovering brain with thoughts of dread, but I calmed it and the rest of my anesthetized-feeling body by the realization that they must be encouraged by my performance and eagerly anticipating my return, if they’re willing to debase themselves so fully to a lowly head janitor. And that made a lot of sense to my recovering brain.
The hardest part of my job now is creating new and inventive ways to fall. My body can take it. I have a lot of deep calluses to pad me. But the crowd is fickle. They don’t want to see the same man tripping over the same velvet rope week in and week out. The first new idea I had was to place a ladder in the path of Custer’s footsteps. In order to continue on my way I’d need to climb the ladder, and then jump down from it, landing in whatever way fate decides.
“Neal” left the tour show for good following my rise to stardom, but before he left Rapid City he went to the courthouse and had his name legally changed to Neal Send, so now wherever he is, he’s just Neal Send and there’s no hiding behind mystery. For example, I no longer mime quotes on the rare occasion when I speak his name.
Because I’m the reason business is booming, I finally realized. Isn’t that great for me?
Neal was the reason business boomed at first, but Neal is gone and in his footsteps I now walk.
Matt Rowan is an editor and co-founder of this here website, Untoward Magazine. He also blogs at Bob Einstein’s Literary Equations. He also graduated from college, that being DePaul University in Chicago, IL. He loves Vladimir Nabokov quite a lot — but not beyond a mostly platonic level. He hopes you like his stories. He understands if they are not to your taste, however.