Dunton squatted on the verge, among the autumn weeds that overlooked the river. He’d been there now for many hours, stiff and motionless, watching as the city swayed and rippled on the water’s surface. Openmouthed, a mostly shoeless crowd of children picked their scabs and eyed him from the shadows. Sticks and rocks and empty bottles, gathered with the aim of driving him away, pulled heavily at their pockets.
Dunton snapped his head, like a bird, to the side, as though to catch the currents in the air, but the expected clattering of bells had yet to splash across the river. Beyond the wooden bridge, a steeple pointed mutely to the mid-day sun, silently admonishing its tardy cleric. Dunton rose, and heedless of the mocking eyes began to dance.
Only then, and softly, from the distance came the bells.
Dunton closed his eyes and did a soft shoe on the gravel shoulder, kicking puffs of dust up in the air. Bending forward slightly, shoulders hunched, he held his arms out stiffly to the side. The dust cloud grew as the tempo quickened. He raised his arms toward the sun and began to twirl. Throwing back his head he stomped the ground with mounting passion. His hat slipped off and rolled toward the pavement. Dunton coiled and straightened, kicked and leapt into the air. He swung his arms and hips, and slapped his chest and thighs. His jacket popped and with a tiny splash his button sank into the river.
Beads of perspiration fled the turmoil. Growing layers of dust adhered to his glistening skin. Dunton swayed his head from side to side, then crumpled to his knees and nearly vanished in the cloud that swirled around him. Hammering the earth with the flat of his hands and saturating his heavy tweed with the powdery clay, he rolled around and flailed his limbs in a terribe frenzy. Then he twisted around and bounded to his feet, bursting from the dust like a sudden flame, spinning with his arms outstretched, launching dust and rocks and clumps of turf and drawing gasps and murmurs from the growing crowd of onlookers.
Long after the distant bells had ceased their call, he continued to kick and spin, only slowly winding down, heaving gulps of air and making less and less dramatic flourishes. At last he stood unsteadily, his eyes still closed, the fantastic embodiment of some old-world hero, plastered in a heavy hide of clay.
The performance over, Dunton kept his feet, silently panting, rivulets of perspiration cutting furrows in his earthen mask. Then a bottle flew past his head and landed in the river with a splash. Dunton turned and scanned the thinning crowd indifferently. A pair of laughing youths sped down the boulevard. The bottle was plugged with a clod of dirt and didn’t sink immediately. Dunton retreated to the verge and watched it bob and shimmer over the swaying cityscape. He imagined being washed out to sea, the inevitable sputtering panic as his lungs filled with brine. He was still staring after the bottle, wondering if it would sink before it receded from his sight, when he heard the patter of feet and felt a tapping on his shoulder. He turned to look, but the retreating figures scuttled merrily back to the safety of an abandoned truck and their watching friends.
Dunton leaned over to retrieve his hat, and saw a pair of brogues step with purpose to his side. The pressed and pleated trousers stopped for a moment as Dunton popped the indentations and surveyed the damage to his brim. Then a hand dipped into its pocket and there was a muffled jangle as a fistful of coins fell into the battered hat. Dunton raised his eyes and saw the double-breasted blazer, a bright swath of silk cinching a linen collar, the smooth sagging chins and cheeks protected from the sun by a fine fedora.
Dunton flipped his hat and the coins tumbled onto the dirt. Looking down, he saw the royal visage, perpetual youth in the firm jaw and clear eyes staring into the distance, reflecting on the incomprehensible, tarnished and irrelevant, hardly worth a mouthful of butter and bread. Dunton licked his lips and spit the gritty clay back to the earth. The cluster of children dashed from behind the wheel-less truck, tapped him on the shoulder and laughingly fled to safety once again. Dunton brushed the dust from his hat and pushed it firmly onto his head. Then he craned his neck and squinted at the upright figure.
“You dropped your coinage, sir,” he said with an affected accent.
“Oh, no,” the stranger offered with a partial smile. He shook his head and the flesh beneath his jaw swung loosely to and fro. Plucking a hair from his lapel and launching it into the breeze, he explained, “Those are yours.”
Dunton looked down at the money then back at the stranger who was nodding with his half-smile. Dunton bent over for a closer look, nearly pressing his chin into the dust, tilting his head this way and that, examining the coins from many different angles. He remained in that position for a long moment. The gentleman consulted his pocket watch. But just as he turned to go, Dunton straightened up and shook his head, explaining, “I know the face of every penny in my possession. You must have me confused with a beggar.”
It took the gentleman a moment to understand that he was being made a fool, and he was taken aback by the insolence. He tugged at the bottom of his coat as though to straighten out the wrinkles, then turned on his heels and stepped smartly back to the road. Dunton called after him.
“No. Wait. I’ll make a trade.”
The gentleman couldn’t imagine what the filthy lunatic might have to offer, and he hadn’t the slightest need or inclination to make a trade of any sort, but the audacity of the suggestion caught his fancy, so he stopped and turned around. As he waited expectantly, the children made another sally from behind their bumper. They took turns patting Dunton on the shoulder before scurrying to their shelter. One of the children lost a flip-flop in her haste and had to scramble to retrieve it. Her giggling companions ran in circles and chattered excitedly. Dunton paid them no attention.
He called out, louder than necessary, for the gentlemen was only a few paces away, “I’d trade a…” he looked down at the coins in the dirt, “… a half-a-dozen coppers—to see his Majesty’s face in silver...”
The gentleman laughed. “Silver!” He snorted. What a rascal! He’d do better to see the inside of a washtub.
“—For the children,” Dunton added, gesturing toward the urchins chasing each other around the truck. “I’d like to give them something sweet.”
The gentleman looked over at the lively youths. One was dangling something in the air, just out of reach of his younger companion. It appeared to be the head of a doll. The younger child was jumping up and down in a frantic effort to regain it. Instead it was tossed to another boy, who swung it over his head by the hair as its shrieking owner pulled at his shirt and stomped in fury. Back and forth she ran from one boy to the other as the prize was tossed between them. Finally she collapsed to the pavement, burying her face in her hands, and sobbed disconsolately.
The gentleman had seen enough. “You’ve been amply rewarded, I think, for your achievements,” he said with finality, then turned away at last to continue his afternoon promenade. He was irritated that his charity had been received with such ill grace and he wouldn’t multiply the indignity by negotiating with the beneficiary.
The gentlemen had only taken a few steps before he heard something whiz past his ear. It hit the pavement with a ringing sound and rolled toward the battered truck. The children pounced on it with squeals of delight. Another ricocheted off the windshield, landing close enough for the gentlemen to recognize as a coin. Then another, and another, half-a-dozen in all, one-by-one were launched in the gentleman’s direction. The children whooped with excitement. The gentleman seethed. He refused to acknowledge the affront, but he wouldn’t let it go unanswered.
Without slackening his pace, he stepped past the scrambling bodies and set his course for the constabulary. He would see to it that the man was taken in for vagrancy, taught a lesson about respect.
Dunton watched him disappear around a corner, then turned his attention back to the river. The clouds were moving in and the breeze had gathered strength. The light was broken and scattered on the agitated surface of the water. Dunton wondered how far the bottle had managed to travel and whether he might not encounter it again one day. It wasn’t impossible.
After a while the clouds grew dark and the streets emptied. The children found somewhere else to play. Beyond the wooden bridge, the steeple pointed to a coming storm. As the first drops began to fall, Dunton recognized the voice of the wealthy gentleman. He had just turned the corner and was pointing in his direction. He was flanked by a pair of uniformed officials.
Dunton got to his feet as they approached and removed his jacket. The officials were already swinging their batons. Dunton grabbed a shoe and hurled it in their direction. The gentleman stopped and casually opened an umbrella. He stood there looking on with the same mirthless smile he'd offered earlier in the day.
As the officials charged toward him, Dunton threw the other shoe and then retreated to the river. When the officials picked their way down the slippery verge, Dunton waded into the water. They stopped at the bank, shouting curses and ordering him to submit to their authority. Dunton answered by stepping out of his trousers and showing them the crack of his ass. He abandoned the rest of his clothing, but kept his necktie, wrapping it around his head and securing it under his chin with a knot to keep his hat from floating away.
The water had stripped the last of the clay from Dunton’s skin, and as he stood in the shallows facing the angry officials, he appeared unnaturally pale.
The officials were evidently unwilling to get their feet wet. Though Dunton was only two or three paces from where they stood on the bank, he remained out of reach. He laughed, then closed his eyes and did a soft shoe right there in the water, kicking up bits of muck and silt from the riverbed. Still smiling, he leaned his head back, stretched out his arms and began to spin.
There was a splash and Dunton opened his eyes to see that one of the officials had fallen into the water and was flailing to right himself. Dunton cracked a grin--just as the second official’s baton crashed against his forehead. He fell back, out of reach, into a current that pulled him toward the deeper water. He didn’t sink right away, and as the sunlight faltered Dunton wondered only if he would make it to the sea.