For over six months now there have not been any of those sensational stories in the media speculating on his whereabouts, or the varied reasons for his disappearance. If you recall, John S______ went missing on the very night he won election to the United States Congress. Despite the massive search that was conducted for him, not a trace of what may have happened to John has ever been found, or if it has it has not been revealed to the public.
I was, according to the New York City police, the last person to see John before he vanished. Although I was interviewed by their detectives, who dragged me out of my workplace on the next day and treated me with suspicion, no one has been in touch with me since then. My reluctance to tell what I believe to be the full truth behind John S______’s bizarre story could possibly be attributed to my bewilderment at what I have learned. Or should I more accurately say my fear, and a shade of helplessness, at what might happen to me because of what I now know.
I have transcribed most of the material you are about to read from text I found saved on a computer flash drive apparently left behind by John himself. Although I do appear as a character in the story, near the very end, I was by and large only an incidental bystander. No accumulation of words can adequately convey my wonder at what has supposedly happened. All that I can do is to begin, straightforwardly, and hope to communicate my message, without the reader thinking I have winked my eye. The time these events take place in is the recent past, or perhaps in the near future.
John S______ was born and grew up in a small, former coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania, a forlorn place of fallen-down collieries, culm banks, abandoned strip mines, boarded over storefronts, and empty houses. His hometown, by coincidence, lay in the same valley that held the birthplace of John’s boyhood hero; a Hollywood film star recently deceased. This actor fraught, or perhaps blessed, with an extremely hard face, had achieved great fame, and fortune, from his portrayal of tough-talking bad guys in grade B Western movies. John had been not so much impressed by the actor’s reputation as by his origin, having paid little attention to the man’s career until he learned where the cowboy actor hailed from. This knowledge had given John hope that he too might someday act his way out of this depressed, and lackluster area that he lived in.
“So what’s so big about playing a cattle rustler in a movie?”
“But Dad, the man was born in this valley . . . who else from around here has ever amounted to anything?”
“There are a lot of important people that were born in this very town.”
“What about your Uncle Eddie. . . .”
“What about him?”
“He was a bomber pilot in the war.”
“And got shot down . . . and taken prisoner.”
“But he escaped.”
“Then came home only to spend the rest of his life driving a school bus.”
“So he’s got his name on a memorial in front of the town firehouse, doesn’t he? That’s pretty famous . . . at least for around here.”
This conversation with his father was as John wrote it down. Just why he includedit in his notes I am not exactly sure. He did not record that his father ever wrote him anything, like a letter perhaps. Of course, John lived at home for the first twenty-six years of his life, so his father would have had no need to write him. But they did not correspond when John lived in New York City either, or at least John never mentioned any letters in the material I later found.
Throughout most of his school years, planning to follow in his actor hero’s footsteps, John applied himself rather casually to his studies. Instead, he devoted his time and energy to the stage. By the age of nine, he had set up a theater in the basement of his parent’s home, where young John starred in plays he had written, produced, and directed. Unfortunately, this venue was quickly shut down by his parents when they discovered he had convinced a young girl from his third grade class to dance naked for one of his productions.
As John’s performances in his high school plays displayed considerable potential, his drama teacher suggested he might try out with the local amateur theatrical group, who needed a young boy for a role in a play they were putting on. Dressed in what he considered his most sophisticated clothes, and wearing his Sunday shoes, John S______ walked the three miles to their theater in town to save bus fare. The summer heat did not dissuade him as he strode confidently over the War Hero’s Bridge, imagining how he would strut before his high school classmates when he announced he had been selected for a major role in a production by the regionally famous “Valley Players.”
“And so who is this handsome young fellow? And what does he want?
“My name is John S______, and I’m here to audition for a part in your next play.”
“And I’m Jake Hemlock, the director of this theater. . . .”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Hemlock.”
“I see you’re from the other side of the river. . . .”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“By the way you’re dressed.”
John’s face flushed. He heard a faint titter from the three other boys who were sitting there, apparently also waiting to read for the part.
“And the way you speak. . . .”
“The way I speak?”
More laughter came from the other boys, this time louder and not suppressed.
“Never mind them. Let’s start with you. Here’s the script. Turn to page 27, at the top, you are Guy, I’ll be your father, George.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Okay, then come over here and sit on my lap.”
“Sit on your lap? I’m a little old for that. . . .”
“Yes, but you’re playing a young boy, a bit younger than you must actually be, however, that will be all right . . . and you’re sitting on your father’s lap just talking to him.”
“Okay. . . .”
John began to read. Hemlock had his free hand on John’s knee, gently stroking it. He could feel a warm lump under his bottom side growing larger and harder. John jumped up.
“What’s the matter? You were doing fine. . . .”
“I don’t think I want a part in this play,” John announced. “I’m going home.”
What would John tell his friends about why he didn’t get a part in the play? On his way back across the bridge John thought about the reasons he could give. He had never told anyone he was coming to this audition. Or did he? Wait! That’s it; he said to himself suddenly coming up with an idea; he was too old. It wouldn’t even be untrue, John rationalized. The director had said the character was much younger than he was. At that young age John had not yet learned to lie.
Having barely achieved the minimum grade average in high school, John found the only institution of higher learning that would accept him was the nearby community college. Not that John S______ was dumb, or lazy, he had just been very preoccupied with theater. It was also a matter of money. His father, though never well off, was too proud to allow his son to, as he put it, “beg for financial aid.” He could afford to pay for his son’s education if the boy lived at home, and worked in an automobile repair shop after classes and on Saturdays.
Being around rough, working people made John suspect intellectuals. Devoting one’s life to abstract ideas seemed wasteful to him. He respected the men he worked with in the automobile shop for their practical knowledge and common sense even though they tended to curse and swear too much for his liking. Often the butt of his co-worker’s jokes because he was a “Joe-college,” John usually took his breaks, and ate his lunch from the paper bag he brought it in, sitting alone in a quiet corner of the paint shop.
Despite a total lack of interest in his studies, John managed to graduate from college within the allotted four years, albeit without distinction, but with a strong local reputation as an actor. He had starred in the college theater group’s plays, and even earned bit parts in a small summer stock theater in the nearby mountains that sometimes featured professional talent from New York.
After graduation, when no other employment prospects presented themselves, John’s father, who ran his own used car lot, offered him a job. This secretly had been the man’s plan all along. The father, also named John, hoped that his son would eventually take over the business when he became too old to manage it.
The elder John had opened his lot with money he received as a settlement from a mine accident that had cost him both his legs. Although he was now a cripple who got around in a wheelchair, he was happy he did not to have to go down into the pits anymore. But then there were few mines still in operation by that time, and he probably would have been out of work anyway. John’s father went to church regularly, and thanked God for his good fortune.
Unfortunately his used car lot was not one of the valley’s premier operations. It had the unenviable reputation of selling the shabbiest vehicles in the area, ratted out clunkers that other dealers at the automobile auctions would not even bother to place a bid on. A wash job was about all these cars got before being placed out for sale.
And so young John began what he hoped was his temporary life.
The Third Candidate
by Stephen Poleskie