Enter the Fanatic, Stage Center
BLOWN IN LIKE A DUST-COVERED September leaf, the bearded man arrived on a Sunday morning. Twisted and whirled like that leaf, he meandered down through the small, Sabbath-silent square, and around it twice, as though seeking an exit from his own personal maze. Then, having found it, he wandered from one side of Pearse Street to the other, heading East toward the Bethany Baptist Church. When he got there, held by the sound of the boys’ choir and the organ, he hunkered down on the white cement steps, jacket open, his unclipped tie hanging down between his knees, and waited.
When the service was over, he was the first thing to be seen as the holy-refreshed throng erupted softly through the double doors. He clashed with the Sunday scenery. Everyone stared rudely. He was the only bearded man in the town of Prince.
For a second that backed the crowd into each other as those in front paused in mild shock, the bearded man held the eyes of the people. He held the deep-blue eyes lidded by heavy lashes of Gregg Bancroft, the grey-green eyes of Wilma Foltin, the brown eyes of Guy Earl and the amber eyes of his wife Iris, he held the bloodshot, smoke-stained eyes of old Jerry Dozier. A bond of sight, hurled between the strange, bearded man and five citizens of Prince, then as quickly undone and gone.
The crowd shoved forward and soon everyone was milling about, almost as though afraid to walk down the space between the church and the man; they milled and muttered, waiting (for what?) and asking each other why they were hesitating, who the man was, what was going on.
Then the bearded man slowly rose to his feet, methodically buttoned his jacket, and walked back down toward the center of town. He did not look back.
Reverend Archer, a stern but receptive man in his late fifties, was deeply disturbed by the bearded man. He was a new factor in Prince, a town distinguished (as he put it in his occasional pieces for the secular bulletins) by sense, sensibility, and system. Reverend Archer called Gregg Bancroft, vice-president of the Prince Better Business Bureau, to his side and suggested, mildly but with a voiced overtone of apprehension, that Gregg find out who the stranger was. How long he planned to stay in Prince. What his affairs might be here. Why there was a tension in the air — product of the bearded man.
The wind had died down. It was very quiet, tremulously so, in the town of Prince. The Reverend stared at the sky: storm?
Again, across that abyss, they stared at one another. Bancroft’s eyes fell, and the bearded man said, “Won’t you come in, please, Mr. Bancroft.”
He stepped aside, allowing the vice-president of the Prince Better Business Bureau passage into the motel room. Bancroft stepped inside, and felt rather than heard the door close behind him. The Gideon bible was huge and black against the white towel covering the dresser. The shower was running.
“I hope I haven’t interrupted your shower, Mr. — ” He extended it, and the bearded man did not accept. It had been a poor attempt, product of movie clichés, wasted on the strange newcomer. The inquiry about the shower was also fraudulent, for the bearded man still retained his tie and jacket.
“No, certainly not,” he replied, “won’t you sit down, I’ll be with you in a moment.” He entered the bathroom, closed the door behind him and for a minute the running water muffled any sounds that might have come from the bathroom. Then, abruptly, the water ceased, and a moment later he returned.
The bearded man hovered over Bancroft — how unnerving he could be without apparently trying — and then settled down in the other chair, hunched over, staring.
Bancroft was for starting the conversation, learning what it was he had to learn, and leaving. But his purpose was thwarted, for at the precise instant that he summoned breath to speak, the bearded man said, “I’m very happy you’ve come to see me, Mr. Bancroft. I would have had to look you up in any case.” Bancroft treaded water in a confusion’s span of inarticulateness. Finally, having no grasp of what was happening, really, he smiled. Fatuously.
“As an official of the Better Business Bureau,” the bearded man went on, “where would you say the best location might be in Prince for a shop I’m contemplating opening?” He smiled back. It disturbed Bancroft, that smile.
“Well, ha ha,” Bancroft squirmed, questioned, not questioning, “that all depends on what sort of shop you had in mind. You know we’ve got about everything we need in this town. We’re small, but comfortable, ha ha.”
“An art gallery,” the bearded man said softly.
Gregg Bancroft sucked in a breath, then never used it to speak. His face showed a pastel tone of incomprehension. “An art gallery,” he said, partially a query.
The bearded man nodded. “An art gallery. The Duvoe Art Gallery. I’m Gunther Duvoe, how do you do, Mr. Bancroft.” Gregg Bancroft accepted the extended hand with a maelstrom of confusion spinning him. He was not ordering this interview as he had wanted; he was not a shilly-shally … in Prince he was known as a strong man. But this stranger unnerved him. The eyes. They seemed to see more than eyes were meant to see. He did not realize the moment Duvoe had freed his hand.
“I want a small store, something with a rather good front display space, so the paintings may be seen to their best advantage. Do you have such a place for rent, Mr. Bancroft?” Duvoe seemed purposeful, intent. He stared.
Thus, when Gregg Bancroft returned to Reverend Archer, and explained Mr. Duvoe was an artist, in town to open a small gallery, the good Reverend did not find it strange that Gregg had handshake-closed negotiations with Duvoe on the shop that had been the Bon Ton Millinery (now moved to larger quarters in the remodeled Hotel Prince).
He did not even deem it peculiar to see Duvoe quite frequently, thereafter, on the streets, in the shops, even at the services. Even though Mr. Duvoe seemed to be observing rather pointedly. There was even talk that the man took long, late night walks in obscure parts of the town, though he never spoke to anyone.
There was no doubt about it, however, Mr. Duvoe got around quite a bit. He seemed to be everywhere, in fact. And his shop had not yet opened.
But the Reverend Archer did not find that strange, nor did Gregg Bancroft, nor anyone else in Prince. The bearded man was merely feeling out the tenor of the town, sizing it up for this business. That was how they analyzed it.
They could not have been more correct.
Many nights, in the little motel room, the lights glowed. And there was very often the sound of running water. The maid — who had been given instructions not to bother cleaning the room, that it would be done by the tenant — found dirty towels neatly folded outside the door each day. These she replaced with fresh ones, wondering how the laundry would ever get all that paint off the dirty ones. She never tried to peek inside the room: there was no telling when the bearded man was there and when he was not. He came and went so silently, she was afraid she might open the door a crack, and be staring directly into those strange eyes. Duvoe was left quite alone. His rent he paid weekly, his peregrinations about Prince continued. For a while. Until the first paintings appeared in the shop’s window.
It was obvious who it was. There was no way to pin it down, no way to bring action legally, because the identity was not so much in what he had painted but in what he had not painted — what he had inferred. Yet there was no question who it was. It was Gregg Bancroft, and he was performing some highly intimate acts with Robin Walker, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Mayor Walker. Everyone knew Robin was wild, but Bancroft was over twice her age. That was the first painting. The others, if anything, were worse. Gregg Bancroft was at least a bachelor.
The one in which two women stared at each other with unmistakable passion, in that split-instant before their bodies touched, was terrifying in its clarity. Duvoe (if it had been painted by him) had a rare and remarkable gift. His was an amazing talent, not only the setting down of expression and intent, but the peripheral intangibles that surpassed mere photographic art. One of the women was Wilma Foltin; the grey-green eyes of the painted Wilma cried out in unnatural hunger for the other woman, obviously her love partner. Wilma Foltin was the librarian, a still water that apparently, as Duvoe had indicated, ran very, very deep, and very, very muddy.
There was a painting of Jerry Dozier, the town wino, the town beggar, in his shack at the edge of Prince. He was counting the silver dollars stacked neatly in old socks, hidden under the floorboards. He was laughing cruelly, and indicating with idiocy the townfolk who kept him alive and wealthy.
Guy Earl and his wife Iris were the subjects of two small vignette canvases, set side by side. Theirs were unspeakably frank and alarming. They told in as few lines and tones as a master could demand, that Guy and his wife should never have been married. What can a full-blooded woman do with a husband who cannot have sex?
There were more. Many more. Twenty-six in all; some quite large, others small, but each revealed — without a definite place to point the finger — the innermost personality, the vilest secret, the facet that damned most completely, of everyone Duvoe had met in Prince.
In one morning, the first morning of display, the town of Prince had its soul bared. It recoiled in horror from what it saw.
The gasoline bomb exploded through Duvoe’s window ...