Authors: Richard W. Jennings
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston Â· New York Â· 2009
Copyright Â© 2009 by Richard W. Jennings
All rights reserved. For information about permission to
reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,
New York, New York 10003.
Houghton Mifflin is an imprint of
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
The text of this book is set in Garamond.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jennings, Richard W. (Richard Walker), 1945-
Ghost town / Richard W. Jennings.
Summary: Thirteen-year-old Spencer Honesty and his
imaginary friend, an Indian called Chief Leopard Frog, improbably
achieve fame and riches in the abandoned town of Paisley, Kansas,
when Spencer begins taking photographs with his deceased father's
ancient camera and Chief Leopard Frog has his poems published
by a shady businessman in the Cayman Islands.
[1. Ghost townsâFiction. 2. Business enterprisesâFiction.
3. Imaginary playmatesâFiction. 4. KansasâFiction.
5. Humorous stories.] I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
MP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
TO MY BROTHERS
William Karl Jennings III
Robert Nelson Jennings
The author extends his gratitude to Walter Lorraine, formerly vice president and publisher, Walter Lorraine Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, for his early encouragement of this work; to Stacy Graham O'Connell, formerly editor, Walter Lorraine Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, for her insights and friendship; to Erica Zappy, associate editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Books, for her skillful and unflappable stewardship of this project; to Susan Cohen, agent, the Writer's House, New York, for her accomplished management of the many details that remain beyond this author's capabilities; to Hannah Meyer and Brandi Polson for volunteering to help edit the original manuscript; to Tim Engle, acting editor,
Kansas City Star,
for daring to serialize this story each week for forty-two weeks during 2008-9; to Daniel C. Fitzgerald, author of
Ghost Towns of Kansas: A Traveler's Guide
Faded Dreams: More Ghost Towns of Kansas
(University Press of Kansas) for helping to inform this fictional account of the last kid in a dying Kansas town. My thanks to you all.
Richard W. Jennings
Overland Park, Kansas
"What's the rush?"
WELL, I GUESS THAT MAKES IT OFFICIAL
," I said to Chief Leopard Frog.
Oil-stained gravel crunched beneath the eighteen big tires of the Mayflower moving van. A volley of green walnuts clattered into the ditch as the heavily laden transport made a wide right turn onto Highway 99, followed by the entire Balderson family in their faded silver Yukon.
"I am now the last kid in Paisley, Kansas."
Already, a spider had begun to form a web on the Balderson mailbox, the first of three mismatched rusting galvanized steel boxes that stood in a crooked row atop hand-cut post rocks like sentries dozing on duty.
Somehow, animals know.
This one, a big, fat yellow and black garden spider, dangled in the late-summer calm before tossing a sticky lasso to the tombstone-shaped door that for years had creaked open to bring Tim Balderson his monthly video game magazine.
It is well known that our lives hang by such a thread.
It is less understood that the lives of entire towns do.
First the factory closes, its working parts stripped and shipped overseas.
Then the able-bodied people who own no land decide to try their luck someplace else.
Foreclosed-on mobile homes are trucked away like coyotes skulking through the night.
The few children who live in regular houses are bussed thirty miles away to school, and one by one, the shops, the cafÃ©, the gas station, and the old folks disappear as if there'd been a great abduction by creatures from outer space.
The last to vanish are the grain elevator and the post office.
Since my mother is the letter carrier contractor, the very last wagon out of town most likely will include me.
In all the time I've lived in Paisley, Kansas, which is since the blessed moment thirteen years and five days ago when I was born, only one person has ever returned, and he's not real.
Chief Leopard Frog was my imaginary friend when I was three or four or five years old. I don't remember exactly. Details from early childhood don't lend themselves to being summoned on demand from the caves of memory.
Chief Leopard Frog taught me to identify native wildflowers and to sense pending changes in the weather by listening to the southwest wind. He showed me how to build a hideout using only sod, sticks, and chunks of limestone.
It was Chief Leopard Frog who helped me through those cold empty patches of time after my grandfather died, and Chief Leopard Frog who told me all those stories of unseen spirits when I lay in bed so long, suffering from the fever.
One day, shortly after I started going to school, Chief Leopard Frog moved on, presumably to lend a hand to some other kid.
But last year, not long after the hailstorm that got the crops, and the
EVERYTHING MUST GO
sale at the Country Mart Food and
Drug, and the sudden, whispered-about passing of Mr. Walker at the bank, Chief Leopard Frog came back.
I found him sitting on my porch when the school bus dropped me off. He was whittling a talisman from a burl he'd found. He said he knew it would bring me luck because the burl had come from an active bee tree.
I was glad to have it, because to tell the truth, I wasn't feeling very lucky at the time.
Tim Balderson was not my best friend. Frankly, I liked his sister, Maureen, better. But Tim was my age and Maureen was two years older. Also, they were the only other kids left. Without them, I had only my books.
Several years ago there was a bookstore in PaisleyâLouise Franks & Company, Booksellerâbut Mrs. Franks's shop was an early victim of the Paisley curse. When she closed for good, which was about the same time that the shoe store and the barbershop left, and Mrs. Franks moved to Emporia to live with her sister, she gave me a big carton of paperback books from which the covers had been torn off. It was like receiving canned food without labels. Every time I opened one, it was a surprise.
My favorite from Mrs. Franks's parting largesse was a novel about three dogs that joined forces to write rhyming poetry. Eventually, they collectively became the poet laureate of the United States, although no one ever knew that there were three dogs involved. Everybody thought there was just one. I thought the book was funny. Also, it made me wish I had a dog, but my mother said that taking on the responsibility for another life at this time would be "the height of folly."
Chief Leopard Frog agreed with my mother, although the words he used were "Only the starving owl hunts in the thunderstorm."
I read every book that Mrs. Franks left behind.
This made me wish that Paisley had a library
When I grow up and am rich, I will start a library in Paisley, if Paisley ever comes back.
Or if I ever do.
THE LAST KID LEFT
in Paisley, Kansas.
Man, oh, man.
How can I explain a life in which one's closest friends have tails? Or exoskeletons? Or compound eyes?
This was my life after the Baldersons moved to Kansas City. Insects, arachnids, grass-loving reptiles, ground-dwelling mammalsâthese became my acquaintances after the people departed. Not that I ever depended all that much on the indigenous people, other than my mother, but it was reassuring to be around someone with whom I had a common language.
Before Mr. Walker died so suddenly, he and I would talk about baseball in Kansas City. Before Mrs. Franks moved on, we would discuss the lives of writers such as Hemingway, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Proust, and Sinclair Lewis.
My mother read, but what she read were addresses and postmarks and contradictory directives from the United States Postal Service. When she'd get home from her rounds in the late afternoon, all she wanted to do was watch TV. Game shows. People arguing.
I never knew my father. He died working in the fields a month before I was born. I wear his hat. It's a ball cap with an embroidered logo that says
, honoring a minor-league baseball team from my father's hometown of Columbus, Georgia.
It has his sweat stains.
It fits me perfectly.
Except for a few classroom assignments having to do with famous people from history (James Whitcomb Riley, for example, and William Allen White), I've never written anything except what you hold in your hands. I mention this because I'm hoping that whoever reads this journal will be sympathetic to the fact that I had to figure out a lot of things as I went along.
For instance, at what point should I tell you my name? For the record, it's Spencer Adams Honesty. My friendsâha, ha!âcall me Spence. I say "ha, ha!" because there's nobody left in Paisley to call me anything at all, except my mother, who doesn't need to use a name since I'm the only other person in the room.
"Here," she'll say, "take this out to the trash barrel and burn it."
There's certainly no need for her to add "Spence, dear" to her instruction. Who else could she possibly be talking to?
Under these circumstances, it's easy to forget that I have a name.
If I'd ever gotten a dog, I suppose I'd have called him "Here, boy," because what's the point of identifying differences using names if there's nothing left to differentiate?
Sometimes I'd sit on the front porch and name the hummingbirds. Ruby. Flicker. Buzzy. Emerald. But this was a meaningless exercise since I was the only one who knew who each one was and they were incapable of understanding the names I'd given them.
When I'd say, "Come here, Ruby," they all would show up, or not, as the case may be.
So things in Paisley, Kansas, simply became things.
Names no longer mattered.
The talisman that Chief Leopard Frog carved for me was in the shape of a rabbit. From nose to tail, it was two and one quarter inches long, and from feet to tips of ears, it was one and one half inches high. It was very smooth and the perfect size for a hand or pocket.
In some cultures, Chief Leopard Frog told me, such charms are called
They are sometimes carried in a pocket, as I prefer, and sometimes drilled so they can be worn on leather lanyards or golden necklaces.
They are almost always in the shape of protective animals, although tiny Buddhas are not uncommon.
It all depends on who's doing the carving and how he's feeling that day.
My talisman had big eyes, a prominent nose, and laid-back ears. His forelegs and haunches were merely suggested by the carver, but his tail was as carefully defined as a button for a shirt collar.
In the spirit of the gift, I carried that rabbit everywhere. My constant fidgeting and fiddling with him oiled his surface so each day he became a little darker, a little smoother.
How things work out depends a lot on luck.
And I had a real honest-to-goodness, handmade Native American lucky charm.
Or soâin my eagerness to see the bright sideâI thought.
THEY CALL THEM
Those towns in Kansas and other parts of the Great Plains that once had as many as twenty thousand residents but today are nothing more than cornfields with a few inconvenient stones.
These are towns that were beat up by flooding streams, capricious tornadoes, hard-nosed managers at the railroads, unscrupulous lenders, and politicians in Topeka drawing lines on maps that placed the new highways too far away. Fires, drought, locusts, greedâall have taken their toll on what for some people was their whole world.
Entire towns that disappeared simply because of bad luck.
I rubbed my rabbit talisman. It felt solid, immutable, secure.
Should I tell you what I look like?
Does it matter?
I am five feet, three inches tall. I hope this isn't it as far as it goes for me. I would like to be taller.
Time will tell.
I have brownish-blond hair. It is very fine and wispy and hard to keep in place.
I have a brown mole on my right cheek. I hate it, but it's there, looking like a fat fly has just landed on me. When I am older, and rich, and have finished building a library for Paisley, I will have it surgically removed.
My teeth are straight, my eyes are brown, and my fingers are sort of stubby. If I had wanted to become a concert pianist, no matter how hard I might practice, I would never be able to reach all the chords, especially the ones demanded by Beethoven. He had really big hands, I understand, as did both James Whitcomb Riley and William Allen White.
I can run fast. I can lift bales of hay. Using an old, rusty five-iron that my father left behind in the barn, I once hit a golf ball into the lake from my front porch. I don't know how far that is, but at the time it seemed to qualify for a world record.
Maureen Balderson kissed me.
This was before she left, of course. I think she kissed me because there was nobody else to kiss, except her brother, and why would she want to do that? She also took her top off, which astonished me, but I didn't try to stop her. The summer sun illuminated her tiny breasts in the most shameless way. It made the kissing a lot more interesting.
I think Maureen is basically a nice person. But I think, too, that because she is two years older than I am, she has become somewhat confused about what she's supposed to be doing with her life.
Her brother, Tim, acted as if his sister didn't even exist. It was like even in tiny Paisley they lived in two completely different parts of town.