Thursday, January 14, 2010

"We Will Never Forget!"

As per the edict handed down so many years ago, no one could precisely pinpoint its exact origin, the banners were hung throughout the town on the appointed day. We Will Never Forget! they proclaimed in bold, Pillar-of-the-Earth font face, in the colors of patriotism, waving picturesquely in the breeze, against the blue, postcard sky.

Replica lapel pins were worn by all, proclaiming in small, sturdy letters -- in national anthem colors -- We Will Never Forget!

The grandstand had been erected out front of the Town Hall, and the public square thronged with the eager, though solemn, citizenry. Not all of them supported the mayor, but year after year, everyone turned out to be told in no uncertain terms how none of them -- big or small, rich or poor, young or old, man, woman or child -- would never forget.

Dugan was on vacation and his car had broken down while passing through the town. Because it was We Will Never Forget! Day, he'd been told he would have to wait until tomorrow for the local mechanic to look at it. He wasn't thrilled about the unscheduled stop, but it was a pretty town, and he managed to arrive on what appeared the most important day of the year.

After lunchtime, the church bells rang, and the townfolk moved en masse toward the town square. They gathered around the grand stand as their ancestors once gathered for public executions.

Dugan followed the crowd. He thought to take out his camera and photograph the event, but the solemn expressions surrounding him, the banners that flapped with martial crispness, and dagger-glinting lapel pins silently advised him to leave his camera in its case.

As the church bells wound down their clarion call, Dugan found himself standing beside a stern-looking man in work pants and a lumberjack shirt. The man's hair appeared to be flattened against his skull with Vaseline. Next to him stood a frail, weary-looking woman in a dusty house dress, along with two small, tow-headed boys. The man stared straight ahead as though readying to utter a sacred oath. Dugan hesitated speaking to him, but his curiosity was too great. He figured a simple, whispered question couldn't do any harm.

Dugan leaned over and spoke in a low voice: "Excuse me, sir, I'm a stranger in this town. What is it, exactly, that nobody will forget?"

The man turned his hard eyes on Dugan. "Are you crazy, or something?"

"I'm not from around here," Dugan said. "My car broke down and the mechanic won't look at it until tomorrow."

"'Course not," the man snapped. "Today's a sacred day!"

"I understand," Dugan said, wishing he could just slip away into the crowd. "It's just that, not being from around here, I don't know what special day --"

"Sacred day!" the man snapped.

"Right," Dugan said. "What sacred day is this? What is it that we won't forget?"

"The great tragedy," the man said in a low voice, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion.

"I'm so sorry," Dugan said, and stepped away.

Dugan meandered through the crowd, and found himself next to a woman he guessed was either a high school English teacher or editor of the town newspaper. He caught her eye and nodded. "I'm from out of town."

The woman looked at him; a glimmer of suspicion in her eyes. "You're not here to mock our grief, are you?"

"No, no, of course not," Dugan said. "I was just passing through when my car broke down."

"You won't get it fixed today," the woman said. "It's We Will Never Forget! Day."

"Yes, of course." Dugan paused, suddenly wondering if it really mattered all that much if he ever learned what exactly would never be forgotten. It did. "Pardon me, but what is the town commemorating today?"

The woman tensed as though he had just given her bad news. "Why, why," she stammered, "the . . . the horrible . . ." Tears filled her eyes.

"I'm very sorry," Dugan said and moved away as quickly as he could without drawing attention to himself.

When he came along side a man who unabashedly reeked of alcohol, Dugan relaxed. He wasn't a drinker, himself, but figured that his chances of offending someone liquored up at this hour of the day were minimal. "Excuse me, sir," he said to the drunk.

The drunk turned his rheumy eyes on Dugan. "What's 'at? Do I know you?"

"No, you don't. I'm not from around here."

"Who --? Whaddya want?"

"Would you mind if I asked you -- what is it that no one will forget?" Dugan said. "I'm from out of --"

"What?" the drunk bellowed. Dugan cringed, but any thoughts of escape were extinguished by the people crowing the square. The church bells had gone silent, so the drunk's voice carried all the more clearly. "You wanna know wha' we'll never forget?" he trumpeted.

Heads turned. Dugan burned under the heat of urgent, dismayed gazes. "I'm not from around here! I was just curious -- !"

"Is he an agitator?" a voice nearby inquired.

"Today of all days!"

Voices buzzed around Dugan, and a sudden, sickening sense of claustrophobia gripped him. There was no way to shove his through all of these people. The buzz of voices moved around on all sides of him, growing louder, angrier, more outraged. Finally, pinned within this maelstrom of queries and growing accusations, Dugan shouted, "I just want to know what you'll never forget!"

That set the voices into a frenzy of inarticulate offense, speculation, and patriotic angst. No matter which direction Dugan turned, he couldn't make out what anyone was saying.

An old man -- probably a former judge, or alderman, or state senator -- came forward. He had a pushbroom mustachio and wore a dusty bowler hat. In the midst of his confusion, Dugan wildly thought, I'll bet everyone calls him Gramps.

"You're not from around here," Gramps said to Dugan.

"Yes, that's right," Dugan said from the edge of hysteria. "I don't mean any harm! I was just asking a question."

"What we'll never forget," Gramps spat. "Well, lemme tell you, we will never forget, even after a thousand years!"

People around Gramps loudly and antagonistcally agreed. Some cheered. A few applauded.

"Fine, fine," Dugan said. "I understand. I see the banners, the lapel pins. I was just wondering what you'll never forget."

Gramps worked his lips a moment; looked like he was chewing his words before speaking them. "Well . . . the thing," he said after a moment.

"The tragedy!" a voice nearby offered.

"That's right," Gramps said. "The terrible, terrible, terrible tragedy."

"But what was it?" Dugan said. Whatever his fate would be among those people, he knew a few more words couldn't possibly makes things any worse.

"The thing," a voice said.

"The tragedy," said another.

"The . . . the . . ."

Suddenly a voice -- no doubt, the town's choirmaster -- struck up the hymn "We Will Never Forget." Everyone joined in with militant fervor.

As the people sang, Dugan felt he was witnessing the impossible -- everyone's attention moved away from him. Everyone was so caught up in the hymn, they no longer cared at all about him. Dugan decided he wouldn't wait to see what would happen when they finished.

He was just moving to leave when someone came up behind him and rammed the shaft of a long, rusty screwdriver into his back. The pain was blinding. As the assailant withdrew the screwdriver with the same violence with which he stabbed Dugan, the world for Dugan went askew and the voices around him melded into a single, gonging note. He fell to the ground, and his blood flowed out in a great pool. The people around him stood their ground, singing their hymn.

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