It was city hall.
It was Our Hallowed Hall of Government that went gloriously, spectacularly BOOM at that fateful moment. City hall shook like The Big One under our feet. City hall blew as high as the stink of congressional pork. City hall rained down in fragments on rooftops, pickup trucks, and the forever imbibing Statue of the Drunken Cowboy. That vacant building filled downtown Hardyville with more trash in 15 seconds than our Glorious Civic Government had produced in its long months of existance.
And you know what? City hall, when it blew, took the only copy of the Hardyville town charter with it. The charter -- the sole basis for the Birkenstockers' government -- was nothing but scraps and ashes.
It really was an "oops," too. You might like to think (I'm sure the Birkenstockers did) that there actually was a Hardyville Whiskey Rebellion Militia and that it actually did target Our August Seat of Government in such dramatic fashion. But nope. We asked the Rocket Scientist to investigate. He did and came to this conclusion: When the panicked Birkers laid in all those weapons and supplies for protecting themselves from the non-existent threat of us, they were paying with their own money. (The city government, as you recall, wasn't getting any.) They must've bought some bargain-basement dynamite -- well aged.
"As you may know," says the Rocket Scientist, "dynamite is made from nitroglycerin mixed up with diatomaceous earth. Dynamite is fairly safe to handle as long as it's properly stored. Needs to be kept cool and dry, though. And most importantly, it needs to be used. Over time it will 'sweat.' By which I mean that the nitroglycerin -- very unstable stuff -- oozes out of it. The sticks appear wet. In extreme cases, the nitro will even pool in the bottom of the container. Sometimes it will crystalize. This is very very dangerous. That stuff can and will go off with little or no provocation."
Under Our Wise Leaders, city hall was kept at an ecologically sound 68 degrees Fahrenheit. But the dynamite was kept right next to a heater. And -- touchy stuff that it was -- that sweaty, irritable old nitroglycerine considered a spark from that heater to be more than enough provocation.
Bye bye city hall. Bye bye city government.
Can't say as we'll miss you.
Next morning, as we sifted through the rubble, we found just one thing almost perfectly intact. We placed the cracked pink toilet bowl from the mayor's office on a pedestal next to the Drunken Cowboy. After all, given his perpetual boozing, he was likely to need such an appliance.
Then Mudge came in and bulldozed everything else -- officially, this time. Maybe we'll build an indoor shooting range on the old city hall site. Or a public square with a (purely ceremonial, you understand) hangin' tree. Those decisions will have to wait. A lot will depend on who turns out to own that brand-new hole in the ground. But in the meantime, we had a martyr to bury.
All attended the funeral for Spooner the Newf up at the Hardyville Pet Cemetary. All, that is, except for our six fed-paid, breaking-and-entering, dog-killing, property-destroying, woman-assaulting cops. They were crammed temporarily and uncomfortably into a jail cell built for one until we could figure out what to do with them. Epperson Chutney, chief Birkenstocker and former head of our former city council, didn't show either. His face hadn't been seen much since That Infamous Night.
Carty, Nat, Bob, and Marty served as Spooner's pallbearers (and Marty didn't fall asleep on the job this time).
The Goodins stood in a teary huddle beside the grave, embracing each other tightly as another of Nat's hand-made pine coffins was lowered into the earth.
All Hardyville stood there, fighting tears. Yes, even most of our newcomers -- the remorseful guilty ones, the merely bewildered ones, and the worried ones who'd come here for freedom and found something other than they'd bargained for. Dora came. She stood beside ex city council member Dan White, holding his hand. Our two old deputies came, looking comfortable and familiar, but probably wondering if we'd continue to contribute to their salaries.
Hardyville would heal. Hardyville would be okay after some fashion. But it would never be quite the same, and we all knew that. There were tensions and factions never seen before. Values clashing. Troubles lurking.
But for the moment we were united in common humanity and a conviction that, no matter what we might disagree on, not one of us would ever again permit a thing like what happened that night at the Goodins' house. Never. Not ever. Civilized people simply don't.
After the ceremony and a moment of silence, we began the walk back to our vehicles.
"I hope you learned your lesson," Carty growled as one of our blessedly ex council members walked past him.
She stopped. "Yes, we did. We were wrong," she admitted earnestly. "Those new police -- they were inexcusable. And a sales tax was not an equitable idea. I don't know why we even considered it."
Before Carty could give his amen and hosannahs to that, one of the other council members walked up and, with a look of most abashed sincerity on his face, agreed.
"Yes," he nodded. "Next time, a property tax would be much more fair."
"And easier to collect."
And the two once-and-wannabe-future city councilors walked off arm-in-arm.
I suppose it comes as no surprise if our erstwhile gummint is a bit slow to accept its explosively "former" status.
But no. Don't worry. I'm not about to tell you another Terrible Tale of Taxation, Tyranny, and Travail. Not yet.
We went back to town and set about setting things right.
The Young Curmudgeon helped the owners of the Bon Mot rebuild their shattered and battered ice cream store. The rest of us pitched in, as well. Even Scroogish insurance adjuster Hiram J. McCarty relented and owned that even ice cream that had tire tracks in it was worth its insured value. And soon enough we were all enjoying a dish of hot apple pie with melting cinnamon ice cream on top, paid for fair and square with honest money and no dishonest taxes.
Sassy Frassy? Well, the tax-paying, benefit-guzzling Ms. Pickle-Chutney was on her own. She sold the bashed-in remnants of her hemp boutique to plump newcomer Charlotte Carolina. Then she left town with her dad, Mr. Honorable Mayor, and her weak-kneed husband. It was the first time in history that Hardyville had been without a political Pickle.
Can't say as we missed them, either.
Carty and Nat made the members of Our Formerly Glorious City Council round up or replace the rest of the Goodins' confiscated store inventory. They made the cops pay, out of their own pockets, for the damage they'd done to the Goodins' house and to our abused bodies. They couldn't replace Spooner, of course. Nothing could. But eventually a new Newfoundland puppy of most outstanding lineage, health, and temperament would be gently delivered into the hands of 16-year-old Christian Goodin.
Then there was that other "merchandise" in the back room of Goodin's Second Time Around. The firepower. And the mysterious crates provided by the mysterious benefactor. What to do with all that?
"Keep it," said Nat. "On behalf of the town. We all might need it someday."
And on what authority did Nat speak? Well, he never did admit he was the man behind the "merchandise." But we couldn't help but notice that he didn't seem to have gotten a lot richer from all that smuggling he did during the sales tax days. And ... well, you know Nat. He's that kind of guy. He'll be our chief suspect in "illegal arms smuggling" forever. In the meantime, with Pickle's Groce Mart now broke and closed, Nat remained -- temporarily, perhaps -- our only grocer.
And where did that leave us? With new stores on Liberty Avenue and Freedom Way. New neighbors, still not quite easy with each other. A new pink porcelain Civic Ornament. And Epperson Chutney -- former head of the former city council and still defiant Figure of Authority.
But his attitude of entitlement was not to last.
"You can't get away with this," he snarled when a mass of Hardyvillians confronted him outside the Hog Trough hauling a lengthy six-by-six, a pungent bucket of hot, sticky black goo, and a goodly number of old pillows that shed feathers into the wintry wind.
"No," said Carty, calm as you please. "We can. You can't. You forgot to get the one thing that matters -- consent of the governed. All the governed. And for forgettin' that, there's a price."
The last I saw of the Honorable Mr. Chutney, he was running for everything he was worth up Liberty Avenue, headed for the mountains east of town. As if they had all the time in the world, Carty's boys loaded their supplies and themselves into the backs of a couple nearby pickup trucks and drove off in a leisurely fashion after the long-legged sprinter.
I stayed behind, not in the mood for a cold ride or a hot tarring out in the sagebrush.
I wondered what our future would bring. I wondered if Hardyville could continue to hold out against the pressures of the real world now that some of the real world had moved in with us. I wondered when -- not if, but when -- government would raise its stealing, slaving, gangstering head again and in what form. I wondered who would end up hating whom.
As I stood, I saw Dora's golden-blond head in the passenger seat of the Toyota Prius belonging to her new boyfriend from the old city council. Dora and Dan White sped west on Liberty Avenue, disappearing out of town without so much as a wave or a glance, the back of the car heaped with luggage.
I was alone.
Behind me the windows of the Hog Trough glowed warm. An aroma of fresh coffee -- good coffee -- wafted through the doorway as the swinging door bobbled in the wind.
Above me on the light poles, banners -- now slightly tattered -- flapped noisily. Banners. Yeah, that was what started it all. Insufferably cute banners of very unHardyvillian kind. They had been an eerie presentiment of "civic betterment" to come, the first sign that Hardyville had changed forever.
But you know, if you didn't think too hard about the people behind them, they really weren't, of themselves, all that bad. Kind of charming, really. Yeah, we could get used to them.
I turned and entered the steamy warmth of the cafe. Janelle looked up and waved from the table she was busing. "Menu, Claire?" she called across the empty restaurant.
"No," I said. "I'll just have a Latte Royale with whipped cream, shaved chocolate, and a grating of fresh nutmeg. And how 'bout two almond biscotti on the side?"
Yeah, some changes a person could definitely get used to.
ZooT: Thank you for the new civic monument. Joel and Oliver: Kudos for repeatedly saving me from myself. TCFers: Thanks for keeping the creativity rolling. Faithful Readers: More adventures to come. Hope you like the new Hardyville.
Don't forget to stop back next Monday for the beginning of another great Hardyville series.