Here is a story that I have been writing over the last few weeks, though bits of it are far older than that. It is long for this medium, very long, so those who would prefer to read it offline can avail themselves of this printable file.
Mister Laurence Bailey
At exactly noon, on a Saturday in October, Mister Laurence Bailey began slowly to ascend into heaven.
He had been standing where he always stood on a Saturday morning, in the little courtyard between the farmer’s market and the railroad overpass, across from the rows of bicycle racks, a place that had become his own by common consent of the people who passed him each week, though the place itself had changed around him over the years, particularly when a now forgotten session of the city council, quite ignorant of Mister Laurence Bailey and of the material effects that their decision would have on him, tendered a contract to beautify Norfolk Street, which ran along the west side of the market, including Mister Bailey’s courtyard in its sidewalk, and then led under the railroad overpass, where the beautification project’s first phase ended, not to be followed by a second phase until several years had passed and until a sudden downturn in the economy prompted a national stimulus program that made funds available to municipalities for just such infrastructure projects. This was called putting tax dollars to work, even though the tax dollars being collected did not remotely cover these funds, but before the stimulus dollars went to work, the municipal taxes had done a little work of their own, widening the sidewalks, and adding new trees to the boulevards, and replacing the old wooden light posts with tall new metal ones that had decorative metalwork hanging from them in the shape of the city’s crest. These changes, which forced Mister Bailey away from his regular place for several months, were the only interruption to his weekly routine that anyone could remember, though he seemed himself unperturbed by the disruption, keeping right on with his business a few hundred feet down the sidewalk until he was able to return to his regular courtyard, which was now, at least according to some municipal office’s understanding of urban landscape design, slightly more beautiful.
On the Saturday that he began to drift skyward, Mister Bailey, or Bailey-o, as he was most commonly known, especially among his market customers and among his friends at the local drop-in, was in his courtyard, across from the bicycles, and he was leaning over the writing stand that he had constructed from an old wooden wagon that had once been red and was now an indeterminate weathered-grey with flecks of its original colour, like glitter, glistening here and there. In the middle of this wagon there stood a heavy wooden lectern, the former property, it could only be assumed, of a church hall or of a university classroom, dating from a time when lecterns were not only more commonly used in these places but were also of much greater significance, reflecting so essentially on the honour and the dignity of the speakers who stood behind them that they warranted an honour and a dignity of their own. This particular specimen was carved in ornate patterns of vines and flowers along its upper and lower edges, and its support had been finely turned from a single piece of oak that was something like ten inches across at its widest points, so it retained a kind of august solidity despite its many dents and its peeling varnish and its rather undignified means of transportation. Unlike the wagon, however, its wood was not weathered, a distinction due to a quite massive umbrella that was clamped to its upper edge, an umbrella so large and so productive of lift in windy weather that it required an object of no less weight than its ancient and ponderous lectern to keep it from flying into the heavens. In fact, the battle between the force of gravity operating on the lectern and the force of lift operating on the umbrella became, at times, so fierce that the umbrella itself was a casualty, and Baily-o had long ago learned to keep a spare or two in the bottom of his wagon, though where he was able to find a steady supply of umbrellas in so a vast size no one was quite sure.
However he got them, at least one of these umbrellas went with Baily-o everywhere, even in the best of weather, and even between Saturdays, when his wagon and lectern were left behind, wherever it was that he found space to store them, which was a subject of some discussion among Baily-o’s adherents. What was certain was that he did not keep the wagon and its contents under the bridge where he most often slept, nor at any of the houses where he was known to go when weather drove him indoors, but nothing else definite could be discovered. Though there were those who kept him company on his way back from the market to shed light on just this mystery, and though there were even those who followed him secretly at a distance to surprise him in the act of hiding his things away, they all reported that the wagon stayed with Baily-o for hours at a time, or perhaps only for a few minutes, but in every case, until the exact moment when the onlookers were distracted, and then it disappeared, wherever he happened to be just then, and this was accounted as merely one more sign that Baily-o was made of slightly more than common stuff.
Even when the wagon had disappeared, however, the umbrella remained, though it was infrequently opened even when the rain was at its worst. It rested most often on Baily-o’s shoulder, its great length reaching a few feet over his head, making him seem like a soldier parading with a spear, which had at first caused him no little conflict with the police, who maintained, perhaps with some cause, that the umbrella was far larger than any one man could need for any purpose except that of a weapon, and they had confiscated a dozen or so of them before it became obvious that Baily-o was not really a threat to public safety and not at all worth the effort to disarm, though the confiscated umbrellas were never returned, which was a sore point among some of Baily-o’s disciples, even if their master himself did not seem much concerned about it, but then, Bailey-o did not seem much concerned even that he had disciples.
It was these very disciples, who would perhaps be better called adherents, or even hangers-on, since Baily-o was never seen to encourage them even in the smallest degree, who first saw his feet leave the ground on the Saturday in question. There were four of these hangers-on gathered around the public bench behind Bailey-o’s wagon, across from the bicycle racks, one of them actually sitting on the bench, and the others standing near it or leaning on it, and it was one of those who was leaning who first noticed the growing space between Bailey-o’s shoes and the sidewalk. His name was Jackie,which was his given name, not his nick-name, and he had spent the greater part of his life struggling with having what he considered a feminine name, introducing himself to everyone as “Jack, not Jackie, just Jack,” so that everyone now called him Not-Jackie-just-Jack, which seemed both to please and infuriate him in equal measure.
When Not-Jackie-just-Jack realized that something strange was happening to Bailey-o’s relationship with gravity, something that defied all of the admittedly few laws of nature and probability that were known to him, he began instinctively to alert his fellow hangers-on, but his mouth was just at that moment filled with one of the delicious breakfast sandwiches from the cafe at the far end of the market, sandwiches that were justly famous among the market’s patrons for their freshly fried eggs and back bacon. This cafe, besides serving these sandwiches, was also the only place in the market that sold brewed coffee, organic and fairly traded and available in ceramic mugs that could be borrowed and returned so that coffee drinkers could avoid using a paper cup, all of which was to be expected given the market’s peculiar demographic, so the cafe sometimes attracted large lineups of customers waiting for their morally impeccable coffees and their gastronomically depraved sandwiches, a wait that Not-Jackie-just-Jack had endured only moments before, causing him to be very hungry indeed by the time that he got his sandwich. This was why he was eating just a little too quickly as he saw Baily-o begin his skyward drift, and so his attempts at speech were muffled by a mouth that was far too full, and he choked on a bit of bacon in his haste, and he ended up saying nothing at all, but only spewing the better part of his sandwich onto the ground and then falling into a fit of coughing that, far from drawing the eyes of his companions to the ascending Bailey-o, succeeded only in fixing their attention, and their ridicule, on his convulsive gasps and wheezes.
None of this commotion seemed to distract Bailey-o, however, who remained bent over his work, even as his feet became separated from the ground by several inches, and it had as little effect on his clients, who stood in a line, much smaller than that of the cafe, a line of only three or four, waiting for the greeting cards that Bailey-o wrote and drew and otherwise produced by hand, the business that had occupied him each Saturday morning, and only on Saturday mornings, for well more than a decade, during which time he had created thousands of these cards and given rise to the countless miraculous stories that were the source both of his fame and of the small clutch of devotees, choking or laughing, largely ignored, who sat on the bench behind him.
The cards appeared insignificant enough, not only at first glance but at any glance, being handwritten in an overly elaborate script that many of his clients, but only those who did not know any better, described as calligraphy, and being formed from card stock in a mottled colour that would have been called off-white if the package did not specify clearly that its proper name was “Parchment”. The text of the card, which Bailey-o did not allow his clients to supply, restricting their input to the name of the person to whom the card was to be addressed and the occasion on which it was to be given, was most often merely a bit of folk wisdom, a common saying, a message from a fortune cookie, a quotation from the more popular sorts of spiritual writers, or a passage from one of several sacred scriptures: “He who hurries cannot walk with dignity,” one might say, or “Kind words make kind echoes,” or “Love covers a multitude of sins,” or “Shallow brooks are noisy while still waters run deep,” and so on, never straying far from cliche and aphorism, and never seeming to be anything more than the work of a very amateur artist, even if they were also decorated with little cartoons and line drawings that remained, as far as anyone else could tell, entirely unrelated to the text of the card, which was itself most often entirely unrelated to the occasion on which it was to be presented.
Even so, there must have been a few people, at least in the beginning, who bought Bailey-o’s cards without expecting them to be anything more than cards, out of pity, perhaps, or novelty, or laziness, or any of the other reasons that people do things that they might not otherwise do, and some of these people, only a few at first, but then more and more as it became a phenomenon and everyone wanted to play a part, began to attribute the most extraordinary happenings, impossibly but also unavoidably, to the cards themselves.
One early story, perhaps the earliest, though these things are always difficult to determine so far after the fact, was told by a woman named Josephine, a public school teacher incidentally, though this fact does not bear materially on the story, who had bought a card from Bailey-o as a Birthday gift for her father, with whom she had only a very strained relationship, on his birthday. The card read, “Happy Birthday John Snider,” for that was the name of the woman’s father, “Where one race finishes is where another race begins,” and it had an orb that looked something like a sun drawn in the top left corner corner and a very little man, drawn in the bottom right corner,with an exceedingly long beard that intertwined with some of the letters in a jumbled and confusing way, which was not, you must admit, the sort of thing that might be expected to cause a miracle, not of any sort. Yet, immediately upon receiving the card, John Snider, long known both for his grim determination in keeping his grudges and for his mangled right hand, the result of an old industrial accident, burst into tears, begged his daughter’s forgiveness for years of mistreatment, embraced her warmly, and discovered, immediately upon releasing her, that his mangled hand was now as whole as it had been before it was injured some thirty years before, not even suffering from the arthritis that plagued the rest of his body.
Another story, from a slightly later time, as far as these things can be determined, concerned a young man named Al,sometimes known as Alley-Cat, or sometimes, to distinguish him from some other possible Al, as Al-with-the-big-hair, who had made himself a reputation as a jack of all petty thievery and shady dealing. According to Al himself, he had received one of Bailey-o’s cards anonymously, or found it, actually, lying on his diningroom table, at which there had never been any actual dining since it had come into Al’s possession through means that he did not now quite remember. He had been unsure even that the card was intended for him, since it did not include his name, reading only, “Think like a man of action; act like a man of thought,” and it had a chain of strange little animals, like monstrous pets, drawn around its edges. Al, never one to cry, remained entirely dry-eyed, but the experience still clearly moved him, as he said himself, “It was like my soul got a good kick in the balls,”and he promptly went out and began trying to make amends with the multitude of people that he had swindled, robbed, cheated, fleeced, and otherwise victimized over the years, returning stolen items, confessing to an astonishing number of petty crimes, finding himself a straight job with a local stone mason, and even beating, without a single sign of withdrawal, his small but growing crack habit, though he still smoked better than a pack of cigarettes a day and saw no reason to do without an occasional joint, but only when he was under too much stress, for example, or at the end of a long day, or when he was having some friends over, but not more than, you know, eight or ten times a week.
When these kinds of stories began to spread, slowly, to be sure, but steadily, Bailey-o’s courtyard began to fill in proportion, more and more, Saturday by Saturday, as people came looking for a card that would change, if not their lives, at least a particular circumstance, paying their dollars for “Parchment” card stock that told them only,”Respect ends when you stop giving it,” or “Counting time is not as important as making time count,” or “You cannot teach a wolf how to live in the forest,” but that held the hope of something miraculous, even if the hope was mostly, as they soon found, vain. Much more quickly than the original rumours of the miraculous cards had spread, it also became widely known that the cards could not be coerced, that they granted their miracles in whatever way they would, or not at all, and that they rarely, perhaps never, granted the miracle that had driven the buyer to Bailey-o’s cart in the first place.
One story that began to be told about this time, testifying to the unpredictable nature of the card-granted miracles, was about an elderly woman whose son had been struck by a car and, though living, was no longer able even to recognize his own mother, so the woman had gone to Bailey-o and asked him to draw a card for her son, hoping desperately that a miracle might return her child to his senses, but when she placed the card in her son’s hands, and when she then read it to him herself, “Nothing is impossible to a willing heart,” he remained exactly as he was, only a light like a halo appeared around him, and he began to speak in a language that neither the woman nor anyone else could identify, continuing day and night, an indecipherable oracle, even while his mother changed his diapers and tried to feed him through the unceasing movement of his lips.
This story, and others like it, strange and incomprehensible, reduced Bailey-o’s business considerably, by all accounts, but they did not entirely deter the desperate and the curious, so he still sold enough cards to cover his needs, which were by no means great, and he still maintained a certain notoriety in the city, especially in the drop-ins and food banks, where he was a regular patron but also a regular volunteer, and where he was a great favourite, especially with the older women and with the socially awkward of either gender, to whom he merely listened, hour after hour, saying nothing very much at all, except perhaps, when something seemed to be expected of him, he might offer one of his aphorisms, saying to an elderly pensioner, without any particular relevance to her complaint, “A wise man accomplishes his goals without the love of violence,” or to a recovering addict, again with little obvious reason, “Goodness is a flame that can never be extinguished,” and those who were listening to him would nod, feeling that some great wisdom had been imparted, and would discover, sometimes, that something had changed in them, something that was, if not exactly miraculous, then at least not insignificant.
Some of those who spoke with Bailey-o in this way, not the hangers-on but the lovers-of, went so far as to suggest that it was not what he said or wrote that was miraculous at all, claiming that he granted the miracles, unwittingly to be sure, merely by his attention, that the wonders and marvels were only the outward signs of his inward care, and that Bailey-o’s true difference from his fellow creatures lay in his miraculous capacity to care, though they admitted that the full extent of this care was not necessarily evident to the casual observer, to whom he appeared only to be writing cards and offering a listening ear, but they maintained, against any opposition, and there were plenty of unbelievers, that his cards were the signs of an almost supernatural love for his fellow man
It is unfortunate, perhaps, that none of these believers were present when Bailey-o actually began his heavenward ascent, for they at least would have recognized it for what it was, as an ascension into heaven, justly granted by whatever gods ruled over such things, and would have behaved with the proper decorum: kneeling, raising their arms to heaven, weeping in loss and in gratitude, and offering the other gestures that these kinds of occasions might be supposed to require. In the event, however, there were only Bailey-o’s hangers-on present, otherwise distracted, and a small line of customers, the usual assortment of the curious and the forlorn, and Bailey-o himself, who was leaning over his lectern, writing what would be his last card, an elaborate piece that had been commissioned by a tall man in cowboy boots and black jeans and a baggy sweater, a local of no fixed address for whom Bailey-o made a card almost every week, a man who was locally known as Cockroach Boots or just Boots, a name that he wore with a great deal of dignity, since it referred to his most prized possession. Boots, who loved nothing better than the opportunity to display his cowhide footwear, continually putting them up on chairs and benches at the drop-in or in the local coffee shops, was standing with one foot conspicuously apart from his body, the black denim of his pants tucked neatly into the top of his beloved boots, and he was looking in the direction of these boots, both to admire them and to signal to others that there was something there to be admired, when he saw another set of feet, not so far from his own, hovering a few inches above the ground, and he became, not the first to see Bailey-o’s ascent, this distinction belonging to someone who was coughing too violently to take much pleasure from it at the moment, but the first to exclaim about it, calling out, more awed than excited,”Holy crap, man. You’re flying.”
Bailey-o ignored Boots altogether, only grabbing the lectern with his left hand and leaning himself forward so that he could keep writing, even as his feet kept rising, until his body was almost parallel to the ground, his right hand busily writing his last card, while everyone else in the area, alerted by Boot’s exclamation, was looking on by now, pointing and talking excitedly, and edging closer, though too frightened yet to approach the phenomenon closely. Even Boots, who was closest, had not dared to touch Bailey-o, but when the writer’s feet had actually risen above his head, so that he looked to be working on the card while balanced precariously on the lectern by a single hand, Boots could restrain himself no longer, and he stepped forward, or dashed perhaps, and he clasped Bailey-o by the shoulders, holding him there for a moment, his feet now much higher than his head, looking like some kind of circus performer, balancing on one hand and writing with the other. Bailey hung like this for several seconds, and then he set the pen aside and offered the newly finished card to Boots, who let go, instinctively, of Mister Laurence Bailey’s shoulders to take it, and then gave a little cry of shock as the other man, entirely free now of the earth that had bound him every previous second of his life, drifted ever higher and then disappeared.
Those who had witnessed the event, among them the hangers-on, still gathered around the bench, but now no longer choking or laughing, lapsed into a great silence, and it seemed to them all that Boots, standing beside Bailey-o’s wagon and holding the last artifact of Bailey-o’s pen, was somehow meant to preside over what would happen next, a feeling that even Boots himself sensed strongly, and so he opened the last card, which seemed the thing to do, and he read aloud the last message, which said only, but absolutely, “Love one another.”