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The Savant of
Like most small towns in those years, the village of Kingdom Common could be a remarkably tolerant place to live and work and raise a family. Or it could be as cruel as any place on the face of the earth.
Father George Lecoeur,
"A Short History of Kingdom Common"
FOR STARTERS, FRANK," Father George was saying to me, "I'd like you to see what you can do to help Foster Boy Dufresne. Lately he's been getting out of the traces pretty frequentlylooking into people's windows after dark, lying down in the road to get people to stop and give him a ride, that kind of thing. I think he needs a big brother to look out for him for a while."
Father G got up and put another stick of wood in the kitchen stove. On the way back to the table he got two more beers out of the refrigerator and opened one for each of us, though at sixty-eight, with chronic angina, he was under strict doctor's orders not to touch a drop of alcohol.
"So I've arranged for you to take him trout fishing in the morning," he said as he handed me my beer.
Take Foster Boy Dufresne trout fishing! It was the evening of my second day back in the Common, and we'd finished supper an hour before. We had been engrossed in our two favorite topics, baseball and trout fishing, when Father G had abruptly brought up his proposal, leaving me totally astounded. But when I finally found my tongue and said something to the effect that if I didn't watch him every second,Foster would no doubt fall in the brook and drown, Father George just laughed.
"The falling in the brook part's true enough, son. But if you're serious about entering St. Paul's in the fall, helping people like Foster is a big part of a priest's job. And much as I hate to admit it, at this point I can't do it all myself."
"There aren't any other people like Foster," I groaned. "He's unique."
Father G's eyes snapped, and I could see him beginning to lose patience. "Damn it all, Frank, what difference does that make? I told him you'd be at his place at eight tomorrow morning."
Then he looked at me seriously with his shrewd blue eyes and said, "Everyone needs a friend, son. Maybe that's all you can be to Foster. But at least that would be something. What do you say?"
In fact, when it came to Foster Boy Dufresne and his antics, no one in Kingdom Common knew what to say. Not Father George or Doc Harrison or Judge Allen or Editor Charles Kinneson, not even Foster Boy's parents, Ti Donat and Silent Jeannine Dufresne, who lived across the river in a row house in Little Quebec and did piecework at the furniture factory.
But Foster Boy was no idiot. Before he was three he could recite the alphabet forward and backward, as well as the capitals of all the states in the union. At four, he'd astonished Father George by reading aloud, with perfect inflection, stories from the Book of Genesis. By the time he started first grade at the Academy he could multiply three-digit numbers in his head at the speed of lightning.
A reporter for the Boston Globe caught wind of the child wonder and made the long trek north to see for himself if the rumors were true. His article, "The Savant of Kingdom Common," was the talk of the town for weeks afterward. An authentic prodigy in the wilds of northern Vermontastonishing!
But for all his precocity, Foster Boy never made the least headway in school. If John had two apples and Will traded him two more, John didn't necessarily wind up with four pieces of fruit. Not in Foster's scheme of reckoning, anyway. Maybe, the savant would suggest with a wild laugh, maybe old Johnny-boy gobbled his apples all down on the spot and had nothing to show for his pains but a bellyache. Foster's yellow eyes gleamed like a billy goat's. "Hoo hoo hoo"you could hear him roaring all the way down the Academy corridor to Prof Chadburn's office.
About the time Foster turned twelve, Bumper Stevens, our local cattle auctioneer, conferred another title on him, that of village idiot. You might think that the savant would be offended, but Foster was proud of his new role and played it to the hilt. Yet as Foster Boy himself often remarked, being the official town fool wasn't always a bed of roses, even if you happened to be a savant.
Looking back later on, I was ashamed of myself for the tricks I played on him when I was a kid.
"Foster Boy! I'll give you a quarter to lick all the frost off the iron hitching rail in front of the hotel."
"Foster, my friend. Here's a brand-new dollar bill, goes to the first fella to pee on the electric fence behind the auction barn."
The worst was when I told Foster to stick his hand into Old Man Quimby's thatch-roofed beehive, and the bees would give him all the honey he could eat. Out they came in a great furious swarm and stung Foster so badly he had to be rushed to Doc Harrison's for a shot to save his life. When word of my prank got back to Father George, he told me that the next time he'd give me an "old-fashioned public horsewhipping I'd remember for weeks afterwards."
You'd think even Foster Boy would learn better, but he didn't. All he ever seemed to learn was how to grow, and this he accomplished at a truly amazing rate. At fourteen, when he left the Academy for good, he was pushing two hundred and fifty pounds and stood well over six feet tall, with a head as big around as a schoolhouse jack-o'-lantern. That was the year he began walking the roads with a Blue Seal feed sack slung over his shoulder, scavenging the countryside for empty bottles and other discards for the local junk dealer, always with a saying on the tip of his tongue.
"What goes around comes around," he liked to shout out. "And Foster Boy Dufresne goes around."
As everyone in the Common knew, Foster had at least one strike against him from the start. For several years after getting married, Ti Donat and Silent Jeannine had no children. At last, however, with the assistance of Father George and, it was rumored, Louvia DeBanville, the local fortuneteller, who had all kinds of unlikely connections on both sides of the border, they managed to adopt a baby boy from Quebec. But for reasons known only to themselves, the Dufresnes took it into their heads to bless their new son with a name that, of all those they might have selected, seemed the least propitious. A name that could only remind the child forever that he was not his parents' true flesh and blood and was therefore different from other children: Foster. Foster Boy Dufresne.
* * *
"Frank!" Foster shouted at the top of his lungs as he came barreling down the dirt path from his parents' house the next morning, waving his homemade fishing pole over his gigantic head. "Frank Bennett. Father G said you'd be coming by to take me fishing this morning. Like a big brother. What's it like being big brother to the village idiot, Frank?"
Foster's laughter pealed out over Little Quebec like loon laughter on a still Canadian lake. What a great hulking fellow he was at eighteen, in a filthy T-shirt, bib overalls fastened over his shoulders with baling twine, and a pair of castoff shoes from the town dump on his feet, his bare ankles riddled with black-fly bites. It was easy to see why the town made fun of him, shameful though it was.
With Foster Boy running his mouth a mile a minute, we started up the trail beside Little Quebec Brook, on the ridge above Louvia DeBanville's shanty. Did I know that he had been studying the Bible again recently? To learn why God had created village idiots and bottle pickers in the first place? Hoo hoo! Nearby, a nesting Cooper's hawk shrieked at us with displeasure. Foster shrieked back and laughed louder than ever.
Higher on the ridge the hardwoods were just budding out. Crimson flowerlets from tall sugar maples lay strewn over the logging trace near the brook. Painted trillium with raspberrystained throats were in bloom. Warblersgreen, blue, black, yellowflashed through the treetops. The woods rang with their mating calls. I tried to call Foster's attention to the songbirds and wildflowers, but he was preoccupied with weightier considerations. He confided to me that he expected to find the answers to his questions in the Book of Job, which he was currently reexamining.
Soon we were fishing our way down the brook. Foster Boy plunged through the pools and riffles, his wake spreading out twenty feet behind him. The elegant dark shapes of panicked trout darted away for cover. Catching any of them was out of the question. Foster wondered, Did a trout have a soul? Did a village idiot?
Louvia the Fortuneteller was out behind her shack, knee-deep in the brook, netting the big flopping suckers that she smoked over a smoldering fire of green ash sticks and hawked from door to door in Little Quebec as delicacies. "Aiee!" she cried out in her harsh voice as the monstrous Foster Boy crashed through her sucker pool. She held her crossed index fingers high over her head and shook them first at Foster, then at me. I knew very well that the old gypsy's hexes were nothing but foolishness, but a chill went up my back even so.
Foster whirled around in the water, made the hex sign back at Louvia, and went laughing down the brook to Little Quebec, leaving me to face the fortuneteller's wrath alone.
* * *
Town-team baseball was still a going concern in Kingdom Common in those days. The Kingdom Common Outlaws played their home games on the village green, where on a sunny Saturday afternoon during the season it wasn't unusual for two or three hundred fans to turn out for a contest with a crosscounty rival like Memphremagog or Pond in the Sky. I'd played shortstop for the Academy and my college team; and a few days after my fishing excursion with Foster, Father George, who still managed the Outlaws, recruited me for the team's opening game.
In the bottom of the first inning we jumped out to a 2-0 lead. Then who should show up but Foster Boy, apparently with the express intention of rooting for me, his new friend and fishing partner. What a spectacle he made of himself, hollering, "Yay, Bennett!" like a madman, clanking a great tin cowbell, throwing his extra-large baseball cap, made for him by our town tailor, Abel Feinstein, high into the air whenever I made a routine play, and exchanging taunts with Sal the Berry Picker, who for decades had led the cheering by parading up and down in front of the bleachers waving her long apple-gathering crook and chanting "Go Outlaws!"
"Dummy!" Sal yelled at Foster Boy when he chimed in with his cowbell. "Turd head!"
"Jezebel! Hag of Endor!" Foster shouted back, clanging his bell in Sal's wizened brown face.
In their contention for ascendancy in the cheerleading department, it was a wonder they didn't tear each other to pieces. "Hey, college boy!" Sal shouted when I allowed myself to be distracted by Foster's antics and booted a grounder. "Take your dogface friend and go home. We might as well have him out there as you."
"You're right about that, Sal," shouted Father George, who brooked no nonsense and tolerated no mental lapses on the part of his ballplayers. "What the hell is the matter with you, Bennett?"
This unpriestly outburst broke up the hometown crowd; but at twenty-one I found no fun in being shouted at by my father in front of half the village. Finally Father George called me over to the bench and advised me to bribe Foster Boy into toning down by inviting him to the weekly bingo game in the basement social hall of the church the following Tuesday. After that Foster contented himself with bellowing a play-by-play account of the game from the top row of the bleachers while the Outlaws rolled to a lopsided 18-2 victory.
* * *
What an eye opener the bingo game turned out to be! For starters, Foster Boy insisted on playing eighteen cards simultaneously. Although he deposited his colored wooden markers on the faded cardboard squares at a furious pace, eventually he fell behind the caller, Father George. Then Foster kept track of his boards in his headan astonishing feat, even for an ex-savant.
The scowls in his direction each time he thundered out "Bingo!" were something to see. Worse yet, he exulted in his victories by hooting like a great horned owl, croaking like a raven, producing an uncanny imitation of a swamp bittern's gulping cry.
"Under the N, forty-five!" Foster boomed out after Father G. "Under the B, twelve."
Louvia the Fortuneteller, herself a fanatical bingo addict with her own counters and good luck charms, stalked up to our table and threatened to put a twelve-month hoodoo on both of us if we didn't leave immediately. Foster reared back in his chair and bayed like a Canada lynx. When he strolled off with the fifty-dollar jackpot at the end of the evening, an outraged moan went up from the entire hall.
On our way back to the rectory together, I asked Father George why God had created village idiots, and he flew off the handle. "Well, Jesus Christ, Frank," he shouted, "how the hell would I know? You'll just have to ask God. I'm not God, you know."
"Maybe not, but the older you get, the more you act like Him around here," I said. "I thought that, being a priest, you might ask Him for me."
"He'd probably tell me to mind my own business," Father George said. Then he put his arm around my shoulder and laughed. "You're asking an age-old question, son. No one but God knows the answer. As for Foster, you know what I think he really needs?"
"No," I said. "But I'm afraid you're going to tell me."
"I am. I think Foster needs a regular paying job to keep himself out of trouble. Why don't you see if you can get him a job sweeping up over at the mill? He ought to be able to handle that."
* * *
Despite my great faith in Father George's judgment, I had all kinds of misgivings about trying to wangle a job for Foster Boy at the mill. If the village of Kingdom Common was a world unto itself, containing the several smaller worlds of the railroad yard, commission-sales barn, courthouse, Academy, and furniture mill, the mill contained several distinct realms of its own. One of these was the exceedingly dangerous machine floor, where Foster was assigned a sweeping job on the graveyard shift. The floor was two hundred feet long and nearly a hundred feet wide, a tintinnabulation of shrieking saws, planers, lathes, sanders, and drills, badly lighted and poorly ventilated, with a choking mist of sawdust suspended in the air at all times. Over the previous sixty years it had claimed the lives of half a dozen French Canadians from Little Quebec, and the fingers, hands, or eyes of a hundred more.
Foster's job was to collect the discarded end pieces of lumber from around the saws and wheel them down to the waste disposal pit known as the Hog. At the bottom of the Hog, ten long, whirling knives reduced the wood scraps to chips, which were then fed through a blower pipe to the furnace that fired the steam boiler powering the woodworking machines. Some years ago a sweeper had tumbled into the Hog and helped fire the boiler himself, but this accident had not inspired the mill management to put any safety guards around the pit. So I was actually relieved when, on the second night of his new job, Foster Boy was summarily fired for a prank that could easily have resulted in a calamity.
Father George and I heard about the episode from Doc Harrison, over coffee at the Common Hotel the next morning. At the instigation of a few of the graveyard-shift bullies, Foster Boy had smeared his face and hands red with ketchup from the ketchup sandwiches Silent Jeannine had put up for him to eat during his break, then pretended to have fallen into the Hog. He was still playing dead when Doc arrived in his bathrobe and slippers; then just as Doc rushed onto the machine floor, Foster Boy leaped up, all bloody-faced, and trumpeted out in a demonic voice that he'd been resurrected.
Father George shook his head. "I guess my idea to put Foster to work at the mill wasn't such a good one after all, Frank. But if the boy's really serious about studying scripture, our ecumenical Bible study group meets tonight. I'll wager dollars to doughnuts that Foster would be tickled pink if you went by his place after supper and invited him to attend."
* * *
Tricked out in his overalls, gunboat brogans, and beloved baseball cap, fresh from his triumphal performance on the machine floor, Foster Boy not only monopolized the Bible discussion that evening, he insisted on raising racy scriptural issues. Precisely what, he demanded to know in the middle of a solemn paper on the Sermon on the Mount being delivered by Miss Lily Broom, the young Sunday School superintendent of the United Church, did Delilah do to Samson in bed to get him under her thumb? what did she know that the Hebrew girls didn't?
Miss Lily gasped. But Foster Boy, whose impulsiveness knew no bounds, shouted out, "Here's an easier one. What, if anything besides her birthday suit, was Bathsheba wearing when King David gawked over at her sunbathing on her rooftop?"
Father George suppressed a snicker. But the dozen or so other ecumenical scholars stared at Foster in consternation.
Deacon Roy Quinn, head of the United Church board of trustees, grabbed the savant's shoulders and shook him. "For heaven's sake, Foster!"
"Exactly," Foster Boy shot back. "What, for heaven's sake, were the pleasures of the flesh Satan used to tempt Our Lord in the wilderness? Did the old red devil conjure up a troupe of hootchy-kootchy girls? Like the tent-show strippers at Kingdom Fair?"
Reverend Miles Johnstone sprang to his feet. He pointed a finger at Foster and then at the door.
"Be seated, Lot! Back to your daughters," Foster commanded Rev. Johnstone, and he laughed like a hyena as I hustled him out of the room.
"That sanctimonious outfit of hypocrites could all benefit from an old-fashioned horsewhipping," Father George told me on our way for coffee at the hotel the next morning. "Even so, I'm concerned that Foster maymy God, Frank! Look at that, will you."
Reeling blindly around the statue of Ethan Allen on the north end of the green was a full-grown moose. The animal, which seemed to be in the final stages of brain distemper, had evidently staggered into town in the night. A dozen or so Commoners had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the hotel to watch it, and not a minute later, who should heave into sight, feed sack and all, but Foster Boy Dufresne.
"Foster, my man," Bumper Stevens called out. "Here's a bill of the realm with Honest Abe Lincoln's picture on her, belongs to the first fella to march up to that Christly overgrown deer and plant a big kiss on its snout."
Bumper waved the five-dollar bill over his head. "Hey, hey, hey," he chanted in his raspy auctioneer's voice. "Going once, going twice, going three times to the one, the only, Savant of Kingdom Common."
This was all the encouragement Foster needed. Emitting his crazy laugh, he struck off straight toward the sick moose, which lowered its head and began to paw up great divots of grass around the base of the statue. Whereupon Foster promptly lowered his own head and scuffed at the grass with his broken old shoes.
"Jesus Christ!" shouted our unorthodox priest, to the great delight of the crowd, and started across the street to rescue Foster.
By then I'd seen enough myself. I raced past Father G, grabbed Foster by the back of his overalls, and dragged him, still whooping and laughing, off the green. The moose, in the meantime, gave an anguished bellow, broke into a wobbling charge, crashed head-on into the statue and, mercifully, collapsed dead at its base.
Later that morning Judge Allen signed papers authorizing the local sheriff to pick Foster Boy up and cart him off to be evaluated at the state mental hospital. Not that the judge, as he confided to Father George and me over beers at the hotel that evening, expected the hospital doctors to be of the slightest help to Foster. But if nothing else, the savant's "sabbatical" would give him a much-needed breather from the village and the village a much-needed breather from him.