Chapter 3: The Birdboy of Babbington
THEN, CYNTHIA ARRIVED. She seemed to be wearing a disguise, having
gotten herself up as a woman of a certain age. “Hey, there,” she
said, in the breathy come-hither-big-boy voice that had inspired her teenage
nicknames, “if it isn’t the Birdbrain of Babbington in the flesh.”
“That’s Birdboy, Sinful.”
“Birdboy to your face, but it was always Birdbrain behind your back.”
“It was?” I asked. “Are you serious? Or are you just making that up? I never knew that anyone—”
“My goodness!” she exclaimed. “Albertine! Look at you, girl. You’re gorgeous! Still gorgeous, I should say. What did you do, make a pact with the devil?”
“How sweet of you—”
“Come here,” said Cynthia, taking our drinks and leading us away from the bar to the table farthest from it. When she had us arranged as she wanted us, she leaned toward the center of the table, dropped her voice to a hoarse whisper, and said, “Let’s get to the point.” She glanced from side to side to see if anyone was listening. “They’re turning this town into a theme park,” she said. “It’s enough to gag a maggot.”
“They?” I asked.
“The Babbington Redefinition Authority,” I said.
“You’ve done your homework. Good. You see those people at the bar? They’re actors. Playing the part of residents. Paid by the BRA.”
“Are you saying that they’re actors?” I asked.
“I mean, are they professionals?”
“I was speaking in the broadest sense,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Of course,” I said. “Forgive me. From time to time, my keen and hard-won adult acumen is replaced by the naïveté of a boy who lives somewhere within me, a child, or the remnants of a child, who yearns for things to be simpler than they are, and I forget that people rarely mean quite what they say.”
She gave me a very odd look. Then she went on. “They are actual residents of the town—when they’re offstage, so to speak—but right now they’re actors, playing residents of the town,” she said.
“I see,” I said. “Of course. You were speaking in the broadest sense, figuratively, not literally.” I paused. Then I said, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“Did you walk through the ‘Historic Downtown Plaza’?”
“What did you think?”
“It looks—the way I remember it—pretty much the way it was when we were kids here.”
“Peter,” she said, shaking her head at my denseness, “it’s exactly the way it was when we were kids here, when we were in high school.”
“As close as they could make it.”
“Well, they seem to have done a good job—”
“They chose one day, the most fully documented day in the history of mid-twentieth-century Babbington, the one with the most available snapshots, news clippings, and anecdotes. In the Historic Downtown Plaza, they relive that day every day. Over and over. Ad nauseam.”
“What day is that?”
“It’s the day you flew back into town in that little airplane you built.”
“It is?” Unbidden, a feeling of pride began to spread through me, and I think I may have blushed.
“That’s what I said.”
“So it’s a form of historical drama that they’re staging,” I said, off-handedly, as if nothing I had ever done were involved in any way. “It seems harmless enough to me.”
“You don’t understand,” she said, and she was almost pleading now. “It’s spreading. It’s spreading beyond the Historic Downtown Plaza, infecting the entire town, and all the residents in it. The BRA’s efforts to make the town a more marketable version of itself have not been lost on residents outside the district of the re-enactment. They see the way the town is going, and they’re eager to get in on the act. Babbington is not going to remain just-plain-Babbington. It’s already well on the way to becoming Babbington™, Gateway to the Past®.”
“What happened to ‘Clam Capital of America’?” asked Albertine.
“It was officially declared ‘unattractive.’ I wish you could have been at the town meeting. I was eloquent. I invoked the Bolotomy tribe, shell mounds, wampum—”
“To no avail, I take it,” I said.
She shook her head sadly, and turned a thumb down.
“They could have replaced it with ‘Cradle of Teenage Solo Flight,’” I suggested.
Cynthia didn’t laugh. With her eyes, she appealed to Albertine for support, and Al frowned at me.
Cyn rubbed her brow as if her head ached and said, “People all over town are coming to feel that in such a place as Babbington—that is, such a place as Babbington is becoming—it is not enough to be Jack Sprat, the local butcher; one must be Jack Sprat, Garrulous Butcher of Bygone Babbington, Gateway to the Past.”
“I see,” I said, wondering how she would describe herself in the list of town characters, what epithet she would attach to herself. “You said ‘paid by the BRA,’” I reminded her.
“That, too, I meant in the broadest sense.”
“The BRA is seeing to it that the only real business left in this town will be the business of being itself, though not really itself but an image of itself as it never was. To their credit, they have chosen a Babbington that’s more like the earthy images of Brueghel the Elder than the kitsch of Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade, but still they are turning the town into a simulation, and because that simulation is to be the engine of the town’s economic recovery, everyone who agrees to participate in it is, in the broadest sense, on the payroll of the BRA.”
“I see,” I said again, thoughtfully, “and you say that all this is centered on my solo flight, my triumphant return, the parade—”
“Don’t go feeling proud of yourself,” she said. “You ought to be ashamed.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I am.” Still, in my silent thoughts I couldn’t help wondering if it might not be possible to return to Babbington, become an actor in the BRA pageant, and play once again the part of Peter Leroy, Daring Flyboy. No. Of course not. Whoever played the Daring Flyboy would have to be considerably younger. A boy.
“Look,” Cyn said suddenly, gathering her things, “I’ve got to go. There’s a meeting of the Friends of the Bay that I’ve got to attend. But do me a favor. Take a walk around and look at the walls.”
“Haven’t you noticed the walls here?”
“Here in the restaurant?”
“No, all over town. Of course I mean here in the restaurant. What’s happened to your mind, Birdbrain?”
“He’s often distracted,” said Albertine. She may have been speaking in my defense.
“He’s always been like that,” said Cyn.
“And always will be,” Albertine predicted.
“Drag him around the place to look at the walls, okay?”
“Promise,” said Albertine, woman to woman.
Cyn left in a rush. Before Albertine and I left Legends, we did as Al had promised we would do. We took a walk around the place and looked at the walls. They were covered, and that is nearly the truth, with caricatures of people who had been designated by the management of Legends as legendary figures in Babbington’s past. I recognized many of them, and among them I recognized myself. Actually, Albertine recognized me first.
“Oh, no!” she squealed. “It’s the Birdboy of Babbington.”
There I was, celebrated and exaggerated, and there I stood, exhilarated and exasperated.
Albertine linked her arm with mine and hugged herself to me.
“Oh, that takes me back,” she said warmly.
“Yes,” I said, with considerably less enthusiasm. “It takes me back, too.”
Here are a couple of swell ideas from Eric Kraft's vivacious publicist, Candi Lee Manning.
You'll find more swell ideas from Candi
Tip the author.
You can toss a little something Kraft's way through the Amazon.com Honor System or PayPal.
Add yourself to our e-mailing list.
We'll send you notifications of site updates, new serials, and Eric Kraft's public lectures and readings. Just fill in this form and click the send-it button.
Copyright © 2006 by Eric Kraft
Taking Off is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
St. Martin’s Press will publish Taking Off in the summer of 2006.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Kraft’s indefatigable agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.