The September Country?

I can feel Autumn coming on, with its creeping cold tendrils, especially as I sit on one of the concrete (or are they marble?) benches at the Metro station. I'm just about to close my book and move to the wooden bench in one of the enclosed areas when a short man with a crooked nose and a tattoo on his left forearm walks over and greets me as if we were old friends from Iowa.

"Bradbury always makes me melancholy," he says, pointing at the book I'm clutching in my left hand. It's a collection of short stories called The October Country.

I want to flee, but the conventions of social interaction require that I hear the man out, so as not to appear rude. I make some noncommittal noise.

"All that stuff about leaves turning and happy children and junk," he says, shaking his head. "You think you're in some idyllic middle American town with low crime rates and while you're reveling in the nostalgia, he gets you with some gruesome tick. Like that story about the bonfire --"

"I don't remember --" I start, but he interrupts.

"Sure, you know the one. There's that night of the big bonfire and the narrator's all excited. Everyone in the town came out for the fire, you know. Dad and Mom were there, of course, and all the assorted relatives of these third-generation Americans; everyone from the family is there, including Uncle Einar. The adults brought picnic baskets and "lemonade;" we kids ate hot dogs and laughed. Oh, what a night bonfire night was!

"The grandmothers all turned to the grandfathers to exclaim how pretty the flames were, while all the grandfathers reminded the grandmothers about how much better fire had been in the Old Country. 'Go on, Eugene,' Grandma would say. 'You don't remember that!' But they fell to talking about the older days and times.

"While the parents talked of earlier days or of business deals or even plans for tomorrow, we scampered and jittered, shook loose in a thousand directions, like leaves scattered when a boy jumps into a pile in Autumn, and not just any boy, of course, but like Willie Jackson, the boy who could do anything! 'Joy! Excitement!' We'd shout. 'Bonfire night, it's bonfire night!'

"Jimmy heard his parents giggling over glasses of wine, such lovely flames! The Wilkensons and their brood set up camp just across the street, with streamers and balloons and hand-carved kebab sticks from Mexico! Those sticks stuck in Ma's craw (The audacity!), but on bonfire nights, even she could get along with the Wilkensons.

"Streamers! Balloons!

"When the adults got tired of our running in circles and spilling juice, we found it prudent to organize -- if organize is not too strong a word -- kickball game. It was a continuation of the most epic kickball game of all time. On a night with a bonfire, we'd not be disturbed by our parents until really late, like 9 or even 9:30.

"The Epic Kickball Game had started in the mists of time and would go on throughout eternity, most likely. Hank Anderson was there and even Sally Jenkins was playing. Sally's little brother Jake sat with his parents and cried, over nothing in particular, he always did that! There were the Collins twins, and Jeff and Joe and I don't remember who all.

"It wasn't until midway through my first kick that I wondered where was Willie Jackson? Surely, we couldn't play the Epic Kickball Game without famous Willie Jackson, he of the golden left foot? The boy with the hottest hands in kickball? Why wasn't Willie with us? We were just getting ready to devolve into a game of 'Where's Willie?'; where a hundred town kids would run in circles shouting and laughing Willie's name, when we remembered why Willie wasn't there.

"Of course Willie couldn't play on this particular bonfire night, we laughed. After all, it was his house being burned down! And we went back to our kickball game."

I stared at the man with the crooked nose for a moment. Finally, I said, "I don't think Ray Bradbury wrote that."


"It's certainly not in this book," I said.

"OK," the little man said. "I just guess it shoulda been." Then he boarded the train and was never heard from again.

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