It was the coffee that made my head snap.
I should have noticed something earlier, on my long drive down from the Hilltop Hermitage. I should have paid attention to the wide new driveway curving back into the trees to some unknown destination about 20 miles above town. (That's practically on your own block as they measure things in these parts.)
I should have noticed Carty, Nat, Marty, and some of the other guys crawling around the roof of Hardyville's one rather mangy gun range, swinging hammers.
But no. Riding down from the hermitage after a two-month contemplative retreat I was too blissed to pay attention to any potential impediments to or enhancements of the Hardyville Way.
At least I should have noticed the fern in the brass pot beside the door of the Hog Trough Grill and Feed. The living fern.
But no. Only the coffee finally woke me up.
I had blissed my way into the Hog Trough in the early morning after I returned. I sought a small side table for solitude, and after the briefest possible exchange with Janelle, who owns the place with her husband, I stuck my nose into my trusty old ThinkPad laptop and stared mindlessly at whatever happened to be on the screen. It could have been a pro-wrestling match, for all I cared. Then ...
Oh my god.
Oh. My. God.
It was actually ... good!
I jerked to attention, practically giving myself a lapful. Belatedly, I gazed around. There was not only the death-defying fern. Not only the brass pot with an elegant Asian character on it. There were cafe curtains in the windows. And gold leaf witing on the windows.
And outside ...
There was a brand-new Prius hybrid parked on Liberty Ave. -- and dwarfing that, a Hummer. Gaggingly trendy little fabric banners fluttered from our street lamps. Several storefronts were newly cleared of cobwebs.
And some unfamiliar guy with a crane was chaining up and preparing to haul away the Statue of the Drunken Cowboy.
Leaving my coffee, I dashed outside to see what the heck was going on. At that early hour, the street was nearly deserted. But even so, by the time I got out there, a small throng was starting to do what throngs do. Except that this was two throngs, with obviously different viewpoints.
One mini-throng contained familiar faces, cowboy boots, and Carhartts. The opposing throngette was made of strange faces and -- uh oh -- Birkenstocks. They looked like the kind of people who want to save the earth while driving SUVs to their vacation homes in Aspen.
"What the *&^%$#@! are you doing?" somebody on the cowboy-booted side demanded of the young man with the chains in his hands, who hesitated in his work and looked nervously from throng to throng.
The young man merely shrugged. But a tall, skinny Birkenstocker triumphantly waved a piece of parchment and crowed, "Orders of Mayor Pickle!"
The cowboys hooted derisively. I started sputtering and in language my mother wouldn't have used even if her bloomers had been caught in the agitator I said something like: surely you jest.
He didn't jest.
"Orders," the young crain operator confirmed.
"But the mayor has absolutely no &^%$#@!ing powers!" I raved. "His only job is to wear a purple velvet robe and a cardboard crown and show up whenever something needs Proclaiming! He can't tell you ..."
"Well, Proclaim is what he did. It says right here," the chief Birkenstocker read, holding the parchment in front of his nose, "Whereas the Statue of the Drunken Cowboy is a Negative Influence on Our Vulnerable Youth ... and Whereas alcohol is Known to Cause Problems During Pregnancy and Other Crises in the Administration of Public Health ... and Whereas Said Statue creates a Retrograde Image of our otherwise Clean and Progressive Municipality, thereby hindering Vital Civic Development ... I, Mayor Delbert Pickle, Hereby Proclaim ..."
Lord, it sounded just like an April Fools Day column I once wrote. Except this time it wasn't our own native mob of easily overwhelmed and largely imaginary do-gooders. These were real people, strangers to town -- and their side of the throng was growing faster than ours.
The chief Birkenstocker finished his reading and someone behind him laughed. "Too late, people. You can't fight city hall."
Whoever these Birkenstockers were, and wherever they came from, it was painfully apparent they didn't know their Hardyville.
You can't fight city hall? Sorry, guys. You're about to learn what it's like to be in a town that not only fought city hall but beat city hall into powder with its bare hands, sewed the soil under city hall with salt so it could never grow again, tarred and feathered its former denizens (all but one ornamental mayor), sent them all off to Taxachusetts and the People's State of California, buried city hall at the crossroads with a stake through its heart, and danced a dance of drumming triumph on its grave. You can't &^%$##@!ing fight &^%$#@!ing city hall???
I will discreetly draw the curtain on what happened next. Let us just say that it involved firearms -- albeit never fired -- and several shocked and quite disillusioned believers in the holy powers of democracy. And when it was over, the Drunken Cowboy remained, bottle lifted jauntily as if he were cheering the spectacle of his defense.
Thereafter several large members of the cowboy crew went off to give Mayor Pickle a wake-up call.
But who were these strange new people? And what was going on?
Stepping back onto the sidewalk to re-enter the Hog Trough, I noticed something else brand new. A black family was headed down the street toward me.
Now Hardyville isn't big on prejudice, since our bottom-most belief is that every individual deserves to be judged only on his or her own individual merits. But purely as an accident of timing, location, and the fact that we happened to draw more hillbillies than normal, our version of "ethnic" never got much past a Murakami or a Harbibi.
But around the corner from Freedom Way, came a middle-aged man and woman -- attractive, down-to-earth types, and a teenage son wearning quite well-aged athletic shoes and only moderately baggy jeans.
The man's face lit when he saw me. I stopped, stunned. "Will?" I asked, "Will Goodin?"
Pretty soon, the various Goodins and I were surrounding each other in that happy but awkward little state where you're not sure whether to give somebody a big hug or just hang on to dignity and shake the person's hand. I had never exactly met any member of the Goodin family, but I knew Will by activism, reputation, and the wonders of digital photography. This was the man who ... well, I'll tell you another day about Will's Great Inner City Computer Project ... but suffice to say he did something governments are always promising to do but, after a few million dollars have disappeared into bureaucratic pockets, always fail at.
"You guys. In Hardyville! On vacation?"
"No, we're living here now," smiled Will's wife Monique.
Will nodded. "We're renovating the secondhand store over there. Just bought it."
I looked over at at least one de-cobwebbed storefront and felt glad. Some things would still be in good hands.
"We just couldn't live in the police state any more," Monique sighed. "That's what America's turning into out there, especially in the cities. We had to get out ... and where else for people like us but Hardyville?"
"Uh ... it seems funny me asking you. But I've been away. So speaking of people like us, and people not like us ... who were those ...?" I waved a hand in the direction of the departing do-gooders.
"Claire," said Will, "We're not the only newcomers. It seems a whole lot of people are getting sick of living in the weird no-rights world out there. And thanks to somebody writing too much about Hardyville, this place has been discovered."
"Unfortunately," Monique sighed, "A lot of them are bringing with them half the things they say they want to escape."
"But don't worry," Will hastened to add, seeing my face drain white, "Some are people like us."
People like us. I looked down at Christian Goodin, about sixteen but small for his age. "If this is a rude question, please feel free not to answer but ... um ... still no social security number?"
He and Will both shook their heads. "Nope," said Christian. "Haven't had a government number since the day I was born and don't intend to a government permission slip to live and work. Ever."
"And now we're in Hardyville where we don't have to. Where we still don't have to, no matter what some people say."
I grinned at the Goodins. And they smiled at me. And I thought, "You know, maybe not all these new people and their changes are going to be too terrible."
But as I looked in the direction of the retreating -- but not beaten -- Birkenstockers, I knew that nothing around Hardyville would ever be quite the same from now on.
Hardyville, meet the real world.