Anniversaries are important to journalists, and so it was that on this, the fifth anniversary of his less-than-triumphant return to the town of his boyhood, Terry Mathers prepared himself for the ordeal of the night ahead by single-handedly smoking a reefer of Rastafarian proportions and heading hatless out into the night.
His destination filled him with dread. The YM-YWCA in Webster was near the former railroad station and just down from the old post office but distinguished itself from the other two by clinging even more tenaciously to what was left of its tattered dignity. Burdened by its Oz-like yellow brick and gewgaws and its redolently old-fashioned name, so suggestive of salvation and temperance and lye soap, the former Young Mens Christian Association (the words were carved with embarrassing permanence above the lintel) was bent now on rescuing itself from the downtown seediness in which it had joined so many of its counterparts in more significant places. It had workshops for middle-aged women, a support group for gay teenagers, an oral history project for the local seniors, low-impact aerobics for the lunchtime crowd, and even some silent films. "We need to matter more," the plump new director had told Terry in an earnest lunch the month before, her ruddy face aglow with hygiene and commitment. Always eager to remain unjaded, Terry had kept indulgence out of his smile and promised to take a closer look. Thus, a short while later, he couldnt wriggle out of an invitation to serve on an evening panel at the Y discussing the great question, "Whither Webster?"
Now that the day had come, he was a wreck. He was conscious of trying to look nonchalant, of keeping up appearances, and he blamed his sudden violent diarrhea on the takeout hed ordered in from the Middle Eastern place around the corner. The babaghanouz, the lettuce---he thought with a chill of the terrible E. coli outbreak he had covered at the county fair during the summer. But he couldnt really fool himself. He always ate vegetarian takeout from the Middle Eastern place. He only got sick when he knew he would have to speak in public.
It was all because he stuttered. Sitting in his drafty, disorderly office earlier in the evening, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. It was just another meeting after all. What was one more gathering in such an assembly-minded community? His evenings were filled with board meetings, civic functions, and lectures of every kind; lectures seemed to multiply, in fact, even as the word lecture itself had disappeared, its place usurped by workshop or seminar or talk. Lecturing was the terrible thing his stepdaughter, Phoebe, accused him of doing sometimes, the kind of thing that was done in the days when Webster was the home of young Christian men. Yet the men and women of modern-day Webster loved these things, craving them like sunshine. This never-ending round of civic convocation had been a burden at first, unsustainable additional punishment after the Rotary dinners and church potlucks and so forth. Hed sent housewives as stringers, or when his own attendance seemed mandatory photocopied the New York Tribune crossword puzzle and kept it shuffled among the agendas, draft resolutions, and other paper effluvium of town government, an amulet from that other world intended to ward off sleep. Nowadays, of course, he was just glad to get out of an evening and sometimes even went to school board meetings, the most dreaded variety of all, where despite the killing piety, the pretty young mothers could divert you from the droning of the trustees.
Terry Mathers liked to think he was appealing to women and, for most of his life, had cultivated a shuffling, boyish persona he felt was in keeping with the speech impediment that often made him feel like a frustrated adolescent anyway. He was a tall man, athletic, with a broad, ingratiating face and wavy dark hair thinning only at the top, too high for most other people to see but sufficient anyway to make him cover it with a baseball cap most of the time. Like many tall men, he slouched and, at Websters many meetings, often slumped deep into his chair, as if in hiding from some larger earnestness he feared might eclipse his own. Or was this posture a holdover from his school days, when he shrank from the terror of being called upon? As a boy, nothing could render him more completely mute than a sudden, public demand that he speak, and so he had pretended in class not to know the answers, no matter how obvious they might be, for had he been asked his own name he couldnt speak that either. Couldnt speak that especially, for some reason. He was better now and through constant vigilance had achieved an uneasy coexistence with whatever power it was that wanted to chain his tongue, but he never forgot that his mysterious demon stood ready to gag him the minute he let down his guard. Nowadays he succumbed mainly when he was most emotional, another reason he worked so hard to control himself. "Its OK," Abigail would say during their protracted phone conversations when Terry got so worked up. "Just breathe." It was his curse that spontaneity and calm were the only cures and that striving for them only pushed them farther away. To stutter still at forty was humiliating; he was surprised that lately he was finding it more embarrassing rather than less, and whenever possible he avoided speaking in public. When there was no choice, he adopted a regimen of humming, singing, and elaborately prepared remarks (practiced to sound offhand). But the only truly effective remedy he had found over the years was marijuana, or so he had come to believe, and as time went on and stresses mounted, he had come to make a habit of it.
Reprinted from The Webster Chronicle by Daniel Akst by permission of BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Akst. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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