Hale guided the women from the tent, inviting them to take another spell at the observation deck. When he returned he asked the men to be seated while a pedestal was set up in the rear. A man in coveralls, sitting on a high stool, tinkered with a contraption that burned a small lamp bulb. The mayor whispered the word Vitascope and the tent flaps were shut. The scent of warming mackerel and body heat on wool. Darkness except for a shiv of daylight along the tent's ground-seam. The projector hummed through its gears and a grainy, silver-blue light threw itself against the canvas siding. At first the images were dark and jumbled - a wedge of pristine beach, a flickering of date palms, a settlement of thatched treehouses - before the view crystallized on a band of tattooed savages dancing in a circle. A ragged line of bare-chested women clapped sticks together. A silent montage spilled across the canvas - canoe races, black men with kinked hair paddling through the waves, a masked figure rampaging through a village with a club, a pig roasting in a coral hearth, an old woman asleep on the sand. The audience sat rigid, cocktail glasses and cigars poised. An insurance broker held an asparagus tip inches from his mouth. Owen leaned forward in his seat. A jittered sequence tracked a naked girl coming out of the ocean with a fish writhing in her hands. She smiled and took off running in the sand and a few of the insurance underlings whistled before Hale placed a finger to his lips. A young boy on a clifftop blew into a conch shell. Villagers sat in the dirt, feasting on what Owen guessed was taro and pork. Somewhere in Melanesia, he suspected. The last image was of a native hoisting himself up a banyan tree. He sat in the fork of two branches, a betel-nut bag over his shoulder, looking out to sea. After a moment, he took a brownish clump from the bag and put it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, eyes fixed on the horizon, before the image faded and bled away from the screen.
The tent flaps remained closed but Hale lit a kerosene lamp. The nitrate smell of heated filmstock lingered. Hale walked among the men, handing each of them a postcard. On the front was a picture of an idyllic beach where two black natives faced each other with spears and wood-carved shields. Their muscles were tense, their stances martial. The reverse side featured a printed message made to look like handwriting: Dear Sir, The Chicago First Equitable Insurance Company invites you to see an exotic spectacle on the rooftop of their new landmark downtown building. Then, below, in smaller font: Life Insurance Delivers Men from the Primitive Rule of Nature. A murmur broke out among the vice presidents as they lit to the idea of sending postcards to thousands of suburban households, out into the third-acre plots where Mr. O'Connor or Haroldson still kept a smokehouse and a potato patch in back and was waiting to be brought in from the frayed edge of his workaday life.
"This is just the beginning, gentlemen," Hale said. "Think of this building as our totem pole. Our chief advertisement up in the clouds. Tourists will flock to the observatory. They'll try to spot their houses and neighborhoods, pointing this way and that. We'll rent them spyglasses and hand out policy pamphlets and lemonade in the elevators." He moved to the tent entrance and drew back one of the canvas flaps, letting the daylight blanch their faces. "And each night when the clock tower stops chiming and the beacon comes alight, they'll remember that we stand for permanence and fair-mindedness. Something beyond the grime and gristle."
Owen pictured the galley slaves in the typing pool, the filing clerks perched on their stepladders like steeplejacks. He stood up from his chair, feeling the pull of a breeze and a tumbler of gin somewhere outside the canvas furnace. Hale Gray let him pass without a word but was soon upon him, an assured hand at his back.
"Mr. Graves, when all these niceties are over, I have a business proposition for you."
Excerpted from Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Dominic Smith. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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