SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTEEN
The Eastern View
“I see the population has passed the fifty million mark,” said Cyrus Bradstreet, folding his newspaper and dropping it back onto the table, his pudgy right hand patting it for emphasis. It was a typical opening gambit. Any moment now his companion, Henry Underwood, ostensibly immersed in a catalogue of items relevant to his trade, would deliver his acerbic response.
The little scene, or a variation of it, had been played out every weekday afternoon for over three years, always at the same time and place. Both men knew what was expected of them and both delivered. The series of mock arguments was a harmless social ritual which neither man took seriously, though it could have fooled any uninitiated listener.
Cyrus Bradstreet, just turned fifty years of age, owned the town hardware and clothing emporium. He was an eye-catching figure. A little under five feet eight inches tall, he weighed a good two hundred and twenty pounds. He quipped that he could still, with some difficulty, locate his feet by touch, though he had not had a fully clear view of them since his adolescence.
Henry Underwood ran the grocery store. Two years younger than Bradstreet, he was totally different in appearance. A shade over six feet in height, he was fence-post thin and had a slight stoop. Some wag had once observed that when he saw the two men standing together, with Cyrus viewed on the right, they made a reasonable approximation of the number ten. Henry Underwood’s long thin lugubrious face with its prominent nasal beak was quite unlike the florid balloon facial contours of Cyrus Bradstreet, while his hair, sparse, greying and straggly, contrasted sharply with Cyrus’s thick tidy mid-brown thatch. One of the very few features the two had in common was that neither sported a beard, a moustache or sideburns.
The two men were as different in temperament as in physique. Cyrus, a family man, was affable, garrulous and given to making sententious pronouncements, just for the fun of it, to see whether he could elicit any reaction. Henry was a bachelor, socially awkward and with a somewhat misanthropic nature, matched by his sharp manner of speaking, which made him sound querulous even on the occasions when he didn’t mean to be.
Nevertheless, the two men were genuinely on friendly terms. It was their supposed difference in outlook, at times more apparent than real, which caused the spark between them. Though neither would admit the fact publicly, both found their altercations thoroughly enjoyable.
Being retail businessmen, both Cyrus and Henry had occasion to deal daily with the bank and met there at three each afternoon, Monday to Friday, with clockwork regularity. It was equally predictable that they would have their half-hour of badinage, then return to their respective stores. They rarely conversed or even met in any other way, save to exchange the odd word if they happened to encounter one another on a sidewalk, or if either needed the other’s wares.
The Town and County Bank in the small Wyoming community was a pleasant enough venue for a little verbal swordplay. It was one of only two brick buildings in town, the other being the combined sheriff’s office and jailhouse. The rest, even the church, were of wood.
Considering its sober function, the bank was a surprisingly intimate little place, its informality marred only by the chief teller’s stuffy attitude, of which nobody took much notice. At the rear was a small office, where the manager saw customers on confidential business. This room also contained the safe, which held a multitude of deeds and other papers but, apart from on the last Friday of each month – the local wage day – rarely a large amount of cash. Forward of the office was the general administrative and tellers’ area. This ran the full twenty-foot width of the building and was fronted by a mahogany counter, topped by a supposedly protective wrought-iron grille and fitted with three serving positions, two of which opened only on Fridays all day and Saturdays until noon.
At the front was the customers’ space, also taking up the whole width of the building and about fifteen feet deep, with a window on each side of the central outer door. The floor, walls and ceiling were finished in waxed pine. Covering about half the floor space was a plain dark-red carpet. The only furniture in that area was a circular oak table ringed by four plain wooden armchairs, near the window to the right of incomers. On the left-hand wall was a display of leaflets explaining the bank’s services and a notice board giving details of forthcoming events in the town.
The table-top was usually strewn with magazines, newspapers and brochures. It was here, always occupying the same two chairs, that Cyrus and Henry conducted their discussions. They had chosen the time of day well, for there were seldom any other customers present in mid-afternoon.
This being a Wednesday, the quietest part of the week, no regulars other than Cyrus and Henry had been in since the bank had re-opened after the noon break. Apart from the teller, the only other person was present was a stocky young fellow of middling height, round-faced and clean-shaven, smartly dressed in light grey pants, hat of the same shade, spotless white shirt, narrow black tie, immaculate dark-blue jacket and clean black boots. He had been enquiring about opening an account and was now leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, reading details of the bank’s offers.
Cyrus, a fashionable dresser, was resplendent in a new suit, imported from England –a striking affair in thick light-brown tweed, crosshatched with thin lines of dark brown, making squares of the lighter shade. His impressive acreage of girth was encased in a predominantly brown and yellow brocade vest, the outfit completed by a white shirt, broad cravat of gold silk and gleaming tan shoes. On the table rested a light-brown, narrow-brimmed felt hat and a silver-topped ebony cane. Insofar as a man of his shape could be a picture of sartorial elegance, Cyrus managed it.
Henry, never one to care much about his appearance, was wearing the same black suit and black string tie he had worn every day for more years than he or anyone else could remember. The suit was a wondrous thing, the cloth worn to a magnificent sheen in various parts. It was Cyrus’s openly stated belief that if Henry had bent down and stood still for long enough, a man could have used the seat of his pants as a shaving mirror. Somewhere under the layers of mud and salt stains, Henry’s cracked, battered shoes were black, as was the wide-brimmed, dust-coated hat, resting on one of the vacant chairs.
The teller was busy trying to look busy. An elderly man, short and thin of stature and bald-headed, he would have liked nothing better than to send Cyrus and Henry on their respective ways. However, he knew that had he even hinted at that, his boss might have got wind of it, and would have reprimanded him and gone off to apologise to two of the bank’s most valued customers.
Following his remark about the population, Cyrus sat back with a contented sigh and began to count silently. It usually took a few seconds before any response came. This was a difficult one and the count reached fifteen before there was a reaction. Then, slowly, the catalogue descended, revealing first Henry’s close-set, hostile eyes then, gradually, the long, drooping nose and finally his scrawny, vulturine neck, pillaring up from his grey-white shirt, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork on a high sea. “What population?” he said testily.
Cyrus beamed. “Why, the population of the United States of course. What else?”
“How do you know that?” This time the reply was quicker, the tone a touch more cantankerous.
“It’s right here, in the newspaper.”
“And how do the people who publish it know?”
“Well, they get the details from the Government, naturally.”
“And how does the Government know?”
“Really, Henry,” said Cyrus, stretching his legs in an effort to catch sight of the sunlight winking off his shoes. “They count people, of course.”
“They never counted me,” retorted the crotchety grocer.
“Oh, they’ll have included you all right,” Cyrus answered. “You’d be amazed how much they know. Probably almost everything about you. Most likely know what you had for supper last night.” Having delivered this contentious shaft, he interlaced his fingers across the great bulge of his midriff and looked upwards, innocently contemplating the ceiling.
“Damned nonsense,” snapped Henry, his asperity level rising sharply. “It’s a pity they’ve nothing better to do.”
“Dear me, Henry,” said Cyrus with exaggerated mildness, “I don’t know why you should be so touchy about it. Obviously they need to know things if they’re going to plan a brighter future for us.”
“I’m satisfied with my future as it is,” Henry responded irritably.
“Well now, that’s a queer statement,” Cyrus replied. “For one thing, you don’t know what your future is and for another, I really can’t see why you should object to having a better one.” He was now in his element, gleefully stoking Henry’s bile.
“You look to your own future, Cyrus Bradstreet,” Henry muttered darkly. “Never mind letting someone else handle it. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a country where a man is supposed to take care of himself.”
Cyrus chuckled, delighted with the reaction he was getting today. “Come now, Henry,” he said, assuming the role of patient teacher to petulant child, “it’s a matter of concern to all of us. You’d realise that if you’d get out once in a while, instead of burying yourself under all those boxes and cans and bottles and whatnot.”
“My world is big enough for me, so you can go and milk a toad,” was the swift rejoinder. Clearly, Henry was having fun too.
“Oh, have it your own way then,” said Cyrus. He produced a brown paper bag, extracted a single shelled peanut and placed the rest on the table. “Help yourself.” He was well aware of Henry’s aversion to all nuts.
“Don’t like ’em, as you well know.”
“No, that’s your trouble, my friend. You don’t like enough things. If everyone were as opposed to enjoying life as you are, we’d be in a terrible state. And getting back to what you just said, if my guess is right, your world may not be big enough for much longer.”
“Oh, why not, may I ask?”
“Because I think that the way things are going, there soon won’t be enough room for all of us. We’ll have about a square yard each to live in. Might even have to sleep standing up. Then you’ll wish you’d thought about the future you seem to be so nonchalant about.”
“Excuse me, but I don’t believe it will work out that way.” The interjection came from the young stranger, stifling whatever caustic retort Henry had in mind.
Cyrus turned to the smart-looking fellow. “Well,” he said amiably, “we’re always pleased to hear different points of view here. Maybe you’d like to join us and tell us what you think?”
“Thank you,” said the young man. “I will.” He was smiling broadly, his lively grey eyes alight with anticipation of the debate. He walked over to the table, hooked out a chair with his right foot and sat. “Well, gentlemen,” he said briskly, “I don’t like to put in my opinions where they may not be wanted, but I couldn’t avoid overhearing what you just said, and since you asked me to take part in the discussion, I must say that this population question is one I’ve thought about quite a bit. I often have a fair amount of time on my hands and I get to pondering on a lot of things.”
“Young fellow like you should be working more and thinking less,” sniffed Henry, presuming inexcusably upon his age.
The young man did not take offence. “Oh, I do work,” he said pleasantly. “Only I keep kind of irregular hours. When I’m in action, it’s pretty intensive for a short while, then in between times, I get quiet spells. That gives a man the opportunity to put his mind to a number of matters.”
Cyrus was intrigued. “And what do you think about this particular one?”
“Well,” the young man answered, “I favour the Eastern view.”
“I don’t know why people in New York and Boston and such places should have any special ideas on such things,” Henry snorted.
Cyrus sighed. “I don’t think that’s what our friend here means, Henry,” he said. “Or do you, sir?”
The young man laughed. “No. What I mean is that I agree with the peoples of the East. You know, the Buddhists and Hindus and such folk. I go along with them about reincarnation.”
“That’s very interesting,” said Cyrus, “but I just wonder how it connects with what we were saying about the population of the United States.”
“Well, I reckon it’s like this.” The young man folded his arms and sprawled back in his chair. “It seems to me that we’ve all been here before, many times. I think it’s like Shakespeare said, about each of us playing many parts in a lifetime, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I reckon we come here and do the whole thing again and again. Maybe sometimes we’re male and sometimes female and sometimes good, sometimes bad, but overall, I reckon we come to take fresh lessons each time. If we learn them, we go off to the other side and rest up a while, to get ready for another go. ’Course, if we don’t learn, then we have to come back and repeat the process until we get the idea. Like pupils staying in the same class at school until they’re educated enough to move on.”
Henry re-emerged briefly from behind his reading material, where he had taken refuge from this elevated discourse. “Why don’t we know about it then?” he said, his words more a challenge than a query.
“Oh, I don’t think that would do at all,” the young man replied. “See, if we knew about the bad things we’d done in past incarnations, we’d never be able to live with them on this side of the veil. We’d all be standing in line to jump from high windows and other such places.”
Cyrus’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Well, it won’t worry Henry too much this time around,” he said. “He must have been very good in the past, because he’s not so nice now. But do go on.” He put up a placatory hand, to silence Henry’s budding counterblast.
The young man continued: “The way I see it, there’s a lot of disembodied souls floating around somewhere, and at any one time some of them will be waiting to get back into bodies, so they can have another go at earthly life.”
“And mess it up again,” grunted Henry, who had by now abandoned his pretence of intermittently studying goods and prices.
“Well, maybe,” said the young man. “That won’t matter too much. Like I say, if they make a muddle of it, they’ll just come again and in the end they’ll get it right.” Henry, in particularly combative mood today, raised his head ceilingwards and gave a world-weary groan. “And I suppose you’re one of those who got it right, are you?” he asked. “One of the good people who’ve come back to show us how it’s done?”
The young man grinned, shaking his head. “I think you give me too much credit there, sir,” he said. “Of course, I’m always working on self-improvement and I believe I’m better than I used to be, but I don’t think you could call me a good man. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I’ll make it in my next lifetime.”
Cyrus, always a keen collector of ideas, was anxious to get back to the main theme. “Mighty interesting sir,” he said. “And do you believe that there is some power out there which forces people to come back again and again?”
“To tell the truth, I’m not sure what to think about that. Most of the time, my feeling is that there’s no such influence. I think it’s more a case of a drive we have within ourselves. I guess the best explanation may be to liken it to the phases of life here on the Earth. You know, when people reach given points, they get particular urges. They just feel they have to do certain things and they do them whether it’s logical or not.”
“Like all these damn fools going around and getting married and so on,” said Henry, eagerly grasping one of his favourite themes.
“Yes,” said the young man, “I guess that would be one example. I reckon there’s a sort of equivalent reaction on the other side. The way I see it, when a soul has rested up for a while, it will get this compulsion to come back here for another try, no matter whether it’s really rational or not. Just like scratching an itch in this mortal existence. I don’t think there will be any pressure put on anybody to come again if they don’t want to. We’re like a kind of army of volunteers, I suppose.”
Cyrus, delighted as ever to hear a new slant on life, selected another peanut, offered the bag to the young man, who took one, then – provocatively – to Henry, who waved it away with an impatient hand-flick. Having chewed enough to speak clearly, Cyrus fingered his chins. “I must say that your assessment is fascinating,” he said, “but I’m still not sure how it bears on this population matter.”
“Well,” said the young man, “if I’m right, I reckon it will work out like this: we’ll all keep on returning until everyone gets things right, which I think we’ll all do at about the same time. Then all the souls will have bodies and all the bodies will have souls. Possibly there’ll be a few advanced types, who’ll stay on the other side as caretakers. We’ll all get the chance to make a few last adjustments to the little things we still have to get properly balanced. I don’t know what will happen when we get squared off like that, but I don’t see how there could be any more population increase afterwards. I mean, there won’t be any souls looking for bodies then, and if there can’t be a body without a soul, there’ll be no need for more bodies.”
“Ah, now I see what you’re getting at,” said Cyrus. “And when do you suppose this will happen?”
The young man removed his hat and scratched his head. “I’ve been studying population growth in various parts of the world,” he said. “For some places there are no details and for others the information isn’t too reliable, but I think I’ve pieced together enough to get a passable grip on the matter. The population didn’t change much for century after century. It just plodded along on what the experts call a simple replacement basis. Lots of people were born, but many of them were wiped out by diseases, wars and so on. Then, in the last two or three hundred years, the total’s grown like wildfire, and it’s increasing faster all the time. My belief is that, the way things are going, the numbers will take up all the available souls that have ever been around, and that’s when it will come to a stop.”
“An amazing theory, sir,” said Cyrus, deeply impressed. “You recall that I asked when you think this will occur?”
“Well, of course, it’s not an exact science, but my guess is that it will be in something over a hundred years and something less than a hundred and fifty – say about the end of this millennium.”
“And then we’ll all stand or fall together?”
“Oh, I think we’ll stand all right. We have to if we are to go on to better things.”
“That’s all very well,” said Henry, in whom the opposing forces of curiosity and cynicism were battling, “but what about this good and bad thing? How are the bad people going to get their deserts?”
“I’m not entirely clear about that,” said the young man, “but I think you have to go back to Shakespeare’s comments. If we’re only acting parts, it doesn’t matter. Every time somebody does something bad, it gives somebody else the chance to do something good. Sort of action and reaction. But I believe all that will fizzle out in the end, because I reckon that good is going to get the upper hand. Eventually we’ll all be good. I think it’s like a tank and we’re filling it, slowly. Every time somebody does, says, or even thinks something good, the level in that tank increases and every bad act, word or thought brings the level down. Only there’s getting to be more good than bad and in the end we’ll fill the tank. Then there won’t be any more fighting, murders, thefts or anything like that.”
“Well, well,” said Cyrus, “that’s a wonderful picture you paint and you may be right. I really don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a conversation so much. It’s been most entertaining talking with you. If we meet again, you must tell us if you have any more theories like this one.”
“Oh, I’ve all sorts of notions,” said the young fellow, grinning. “For one thing, I think the world is being taken over by left-handed men.”
“My goodness,” said Cyrus. “That should make for a worthwhile discussion. However, interesting though this has been, time is passing and my business won’t run itself, although I suppose that mausoleum of Henry’s could get by well enough without him.”
Henry glowered, but couldn’t find a fitting riposte.
The young man looked up at the wall clock. “You’re quite right,” he said, standing and making for the door. “Time’s passing. It’s been such a pleasure having this little talk, I almost forgot my business.” Instead of leaving, he turned. His left hand went under his coat to the back of his waistband and came out with a six-gun. “Now gentlemen,” he said, still smiling, “it’s time I did a little of that work I spoke about earlier. I wish to make a withdrawal.” He pulled a folded burlap bag from an inside pocket and tossed it to the teller. “I’ll trouble you to fill that,” he said. “Just the bills and the high-value coins – the small change is such a nuisance, don’t you think? Take out the drawer and put it on the counter, so I can see you’re not cheating.”
Encouraged by a waggle of the gun, the teller fell to his task with a speed far beyond that he achieved when dealing with customers. The robber approved. “Good work,” he said. “We won’t bother with the safe. Delays a man’s departure and it’s usually a waste of time in a place this size, except at month-end, and I can’t wait for that. Please don’t fidget – I get very nervous at times like this.” In fact, he didn’t seem in the least edgy.
As the teller was stuffing the last of the money into the sack, the young man turned his attention to Cyrus and Henry, both sitting aghast. He tossed his hat upside down onto the table. “And you, gentlemen. If you’ll just oblige me with any little items you have in the way of cash, rings, watches and so on. And it would be best all round if you hurry because if I’m not out of here in under thirty seconds, I guess I’ll just have to start reducing the population of the United States.”
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