A short story by Yoko Ono, 1983
Once upon a time, there was a town called Duckstown. The town was very, very poor. So poor that it made all other towns around it poor. Four important townsmen got together to discuss what to do about it.
“What we could do is to cut down on expenses. I observe an outrageous imbalance in the general family spending of our town. Our men’s tradition of drinking bourbon and smoking ‘the-fatter-the-better’ cigars, while their children have virtually nothing to eat is simply disgraceful. I suggest that we strongly advise the men of our town to reflect on their attitudes.” This remark was made by Mr. Middlesex, whose ancestors ‘had come on the Mayflower’, so to speak.
“Objection!” screamed Mr. Bambino, his face turning red, as usual, when he felt emotionally challenged, and poured his fourth bourbon in his glass. Mr. Bambino was the owner of the Super-Race, a bicycle manufacturing company. “I detest Mr. Middlesex’ holier-than-thou attitude. Our poverty has nothing to do with what men are doing. Men who don’t follow tradition are still in their diapers, I say. Let grown men take care of this town. We are the ones keeping whatever economy going for this town, anyway. Don’t try to mess with our tradition, Mr. Middlesex. You’ll be very sorry if you did that.”
“I think we’ll be alright.” That was Mr. Chow, an owner of large chain restaurants. “As long as our farms are functioning, our cows and chickens are well, and if we have enough to eat, I think we’ll be alright.”
“Who says we’re eating? Come to our section of town and we’ll show you a thing or two!” This was Mr. Whitelove, an ex-boxing champion. His voice was charged with an anger of a hungry coyote, while his muscles suggested that he was actually a twelve-steak-a-day man.
The more they spoke, the more they confirmed their feelings of dislike for each other.
It was getting dark, and the cleaning woman started to vacuum the floor. Now the four men had to shout even louder over the sound of the vacuum, though none of them asked the cleaning woman to stop. Mr. Middlesex thought it was good that the vacuum was drowning Mr. Bambino’s loud voice that seemed to go on without any punctuation. Mr. Chow thought if they stopped her, the cleaning woman would charge overtime and that would be worse. Mr. Bambino and Mr. Whitelove were too excited over their argument to notice anything. Suddenly the vacuuming stopped.
“You guys want to know how to make this town rich?” All four looked at the cleaning woman, stunned.
“Yes, Miriam,” Mr. Middlesex addressed her in a way one spoke to a foreigner or an infant, emphasizing each syllable evenly. “We are discussing how we can make our town less poor, and thereby making our people feel not as deflated as now.”
“I know how to make this town rich and people happy,” said Miriam.
Another long silence.
Then the four men started to laugh. “That’s very nice, Miriam. But how would you know how to be rich when you can’t even get a house for yourself? Aren’t you the one who came to us and cried since you couldn’t even feed your sons when Dick died? Wasn’t that how you got this job in the first place?”
“I know how to make this town rich and people happy,” said Miriam.
“Poor Miriam is in the another world, if you know what I mean, since Dick left us. We shouldn’t listen to her. Let’s continue with our discussion shall we?” whispered Mr. Middlesex to the other three men.
“I’m sick and tired of listening to your fancy ideas, Mr. Middlesex, ‘Change the town’s name to Swanstown to uplift your spirit?” What was that? It’s coming straight from Lady Middlesex and her leotard men…”
“Leave my mother out of this, Mr. Bambino!” shouted Mr. Middlesex.
“Cut it out! What on earth are you talking about anyway?” This was Mr. Whitelove.
“You’re right. We’re not getting anywhere. That I agree.” Mr. Middlesex cleared his throat. He began to think it was a good idea to listen to Miriam, just to take a break from all this. He wasn’t enjoying Mr. Bambino’s constant attack on his masculinity, a very low blow he felt. “What was your suggestion, Miriam, let us hear about it.”
“Yeah, tell us, Miriam.”, Mr. Whitelove joined Mr. Middlesex.
“Well, anything will do, ” said Miriam and looked around. “That stone there. That’ll do the work.” Miriam pointed out the window. There was a huge man-sized stone lying in front of the Bureau.
“That stone, Miriam?” Mr. Chow whispered to the three, ” I remember hearing that she dabbles in black magic. This is really unwise. If it ever came out that this committee even considered listening to her…”
“I personally don’t care if it’s black, white or purple, as long as it works,” said Mr. Bambino. “Now, Miriam, as members of the town’s Bureau, we have to ask you, and I strongly advise you to reply honestly, if you have ever involved yourself in black magic.”
“Black magic?” She started laughing. “The only thing black in my life is my skin/hair, and the magic is that I’m alive. I don’t even have a wishing bone in my pocket if that’s what you are thinking, Mr. Middlesex. What I am about to tell you has nothing to do with magic.”
“Let us be the ones to decide that, Miriam. Just try to get to the point if you can,” said Mr. Middlesex.
Miriam then proceeded to explain to the four that all they have to do was to just push the stone up and let it stand.
“Then what?”, the four asked in unison.
“That’s all.”, said Miriam.
“That’s all?” Mr. Chow hastily whispered to his colleagues that based on his experience with black magic, he felt that Miriam’s idea had nothing to do with that, which is a ritual of a highly complex and elaborate nature. (This remark made Mr. Middlesex do a double-take.)
“Miriam, are we to understand then…” Mr. Middlesex coughed vehemently, held his breath for a second, and picked up exactly where he left off, “…that your suggestion is merely to take that stone which is now in a horizontal position and raise it vertically?”
“I’m saying, stick it up.”, said Miriam with a chuckle.
“What’s that going to do?” Mr. Bambino addressed his question, not to Miriam, but to the other three men.
“I think I’ve read something like that,” said Mr. Middlesex, his voice regaining its normal composure. “If I remember correctly, the concept derived from the rise of Lazarus, the idea was to, instead of raising the gravestone…”
“Hey, that’s spooky. I mean, shouldn’t we first ask the Pope or something?” said Mr. Bambino.
“Mr. Bambino, we are not going to ask the Pope,” said Mr. Middlesex.
“Right, right” said Mr. Chow, “Miriam, surely, there must be something more one has to do in this, this, thing you are suggesting?”
“Well, that’s all you need to do. But if you wish to let it happen quickly,” Miriam added, “you should find more man-sized stones and stick each of them up in front of your homes. That would really do.”
“But these are heavy, aren’t they, Miriam?” Mr. Middlesex pointed out.
“That’s right. So you ask your families to help you with it.” she said.
“That won’t be necessary,” growled Mr. Whitelove. All three quickly agreed on that one. The last thing they wanted to do was to tell their families about such nonsense.
As if Miriam read their minds, she started to explain that the key was to be totally open about it. If someone asked what they were doing, they should explain that they were doing this to make the town rich and people happy.
“You mean, to make the town less poor and people less unhappy,” Mr. Middlesex interrupted. “We shouldn’t promise too much in the beginning, Miriam, in case it doesn’t work. I don’t want them to think we’re crazy, you know.”
“The town will be rich and the people will be happy”, reaffirmed Miriam. “You must believe in that.” She started to vacuum again.
For the first time, the four men felt a warm alliance with each other. They laughed. “Have we come to this?” said Mr. Middlesex. “I never heard anything so silly in my life,” chuckled Mr. Bambino, suddenly looking very relaxed. “Well why not? I kinda like the idea. Look, at this point … ANYTHING! Right?” Mr. Whitelove’s remark expressed everyone’s sentiment.
Privately, Mr. Whitelove was thinking about something else, too. Miriam reminded him of his mother who raised him and his five brothers single-handedly in a rough neighborhood.
“She was some witch, but wiser than these three mothers put together.”
As Mr. Middlesex quickly summarized the situation in his mind, he thought of the ‘Abolish-The-Gate Committee’, one of his pet projects to cut down expenses. He was its chairman. If you stood two stones on both sides of the lane, it may be misconstrued by the committee as a gate. But this was safe, he thought, since we will be standing up a single stone. He would have no trouble with the committee, which had a tendency to act as though nit-picking was their vocation. “Well, where do we start then?” he said, indicating with the inflection of his voice that he was game.
Strange things started to happen in the course of raising the stone that was already in front of the Bureau, and finding four more man-sized stones to raise in front of the four homes.
Mr. Middlesex, who was always irritated by Mr. Bambino’s lifestyle, which included eleven children, discovered that the children were actually delightful and very helpful to the project. In fact, he started to respect Mr. Bambino for having such a big family.
“He must be doing something right,” thought Mr. Middlesex. Mr. Bambino was relieved that his family didn’t seem to lose respect for him for telling them to participate in this silly project. The family was only too glad that their daddy suggested something they could do together. “It’s like Christmas, Daddy. Thank you!” Bobby Jr. gave a big fat kiss to Mr. Bambino, which made Mr. Bambino suddenly feel guilty that he wasn’t spending much time with his family. He also discovered that Mr. Chow’s small and thin body which used to annoy him for being rather unmanly, did not bother him as much. Mr. Chow, aside of knowing all the right places to find the stones, used his light body to jump from one rock to another on the mountain to find relatively loose stones which were easier to take down.
Mr. Whitelove surprised everybody by displaying his knowledge of geometry. He made quick calculations of how large a lever to use and from what angle to push the stones up and down. This made it possible for the four and their helpers to do the job with relative ease.
“You surprise us, Mr. Whitelove, I must say. I didn’t know you had that background,” said Mr. Middlesex.
“Well, I used to love geometry until I couldn’t afford to continue my schooling. That’s when I went into boxing,” Mr. Whitelove said with a touch of nostalgia in his voice and not with his usual angry tone.
To their embarrassment the four, in fact, started to like each other.
Soon the townspeople started asking questions about the standing man-sized stones. The town’s newspaper wrote about the stones now, everyday, instead of their favorite subject: “Why are we so poor?”
Many children in their school essays wrote what they would do when the town was rich, rather than the usual “Why my parents became so poor.”
Parents read their children’s essays and started to dream about what they would do when the town was rich.
People stood man-sized stones in front of their homes for different reasons. Some just wanted to be “In.” Some thought it was an ideal thing for their families to do together.
Mrs. Worthington would never have dreamt of standing a stone in front of her house, except one morning, she said in jest, “Shall we erect a stone, too, darling?” To which Mr. Worthington replied “Over my dead body, dear,” from behind the newspaper and through thick cigar smoke.
That did it. She immediately formed a ‘Stone Erection Committee’ for the town’s women and even went so far as to go on the radio to discuss the issue.
“I’m letting her get away with it ’cause she’s going through the change of life, you understand,” was Mr. Worthington’s comment on all of this at the men’s club.
Mr. Fellowship, who had a very powerful position in town, had hired twenty people and made a grand gesture of erecting the largest stone in town at the end of his long and winding lane.
One artist wrote about how he found birds bathing in a little water puddle made in a dent on the stone. That inspired a whole lot of people to combine their stones with birdbaths.
“Please tell us how this is going to make our town rich?” the town newspaper kept writing.
Meanwhile, the whole town was having a great laugh. They started to look happier. There were some, who still kept their grave composure and wrote what an assault the project was to the town’s intelligence and how it was not helping the economy at all.
People started to like their stones. In fact they were proud of the stones and wouldn’t think of ever getting rid of them.
The town next to Duckstown initially wrote how Duckstown went crazy. Pretty soon they were writing about the stone craze in their town, after they too had erected stones.
Then the stories moved to stone decorating. Stonefinders, stone polishers, stone suppliers and stone critics all did tremendously well.
One day, Mr. Bambino was surprised to find that Frank, his eldest son, who was now a successful stone critic, had polished all twenty bicycles in his showroom. Frank never liked Mr. Bambino’s cycling business, and to his father’s disappointment, never did anything for the business. Business had been very bad. The bicycles were covered in thick dust for quite some time because nobody came to buy them.
“What made you think of polishing my bicycles?” asked Mr. Bambino.
“I don’t know,” Frank said with a big grin.
Mr. Bambino was even more surprised later, when a stranger with a long, long cigar came and asked if he could buy all 20 bicycles. By the way, the company was now called Lucky Cycle instead of the original Super-Race. Mr. Bambino was inspired to do so after his son polished the bicycles. “You want to buy all twenty? But why?” asked Mr. Bambino. “I like the way your bicycles are shining. I never saw bicycles that are shining so much. Lucky is good, too. Lucky Cycle. You can’t get enough of it, you know.”
“You come from a distance, I gather?” said Mr. Bambino. “Yes, don’t you know your town is now famous? I read in our local paper quite some time ago about your town and the strange man-sized stones and what they did.” The stranger coughed. “Actually, we have a few standing in our town, too these days. I happen to have one myself. But nothing like coming to see the original stones. The stones definitely must have some power. The minute you come into this town you notice everyone busying themselves and smiling. It’s nice to visit. In fact, I’m thinking of bringing my family next time. But you know, it’s hard to get reservations for your hotels now.”
“Well, nice to have you here.” Said Mr. Bambino with a big grin.
Ducks were now thought of as a symbol of success. Many duck dolls sold all over the world. An impressive coffee table book called ‘Les Ducks’ was published in Paris showing all the hundred original clans who erected stones in Duckstown. The hundred clans, by the way, have been recorded in the book in the town hall of Duckstown for posterity. They are known as the people responsible for the declaration of the Golden Age of Duckstown. People all over the world tried to walk like ducks. The walk was a status symbol of the “New Duck Age.”
Mr. Chow was on a world lecture tour titled, “How To Find A MSS(Man-Sized Stone) of Good Quality”. His restaurants were literally swarmed with tourists and were very, very successful.
Mr. Whitelove was now a very prominent architect, known for his unique geometrical high-rises. He was less angry as well.
Mr. Bambino stopped drinking. True, his business was booming, but so were his opponents. So he felt the urge to keep himself in shape, and took up jogging and bottled spring water.
Mr. Middlesex, who could only be described at this point as being very, very old, felt that it was time for him to write “The History of Duckstown” to straighten out a few things.
Initially, the four men had played down the fact that they were the first stone erectors, in case the project turned sour on them. The four had designated 100 families as the original stone erectors. That was a smart move then. Now these were different times.
Mr. Middlesex’ feeling of injustice grew stronger as the years went by. The four men should have gotten the proper credit as the original stone erectors. Also, one must not forget to give credence to the ancestors of Duckstown who named the town wisely and clearly after the duck that laid the golden egg.
It was early morning. Mr. Middlesex sat in front of his typewriter with an air of a concert pianist just about to play a concerto in andante. The birds were chirping outside his window. His study filled with a faint comfortable smell of musty books, the virtue of which, Mr. Middlesex thought, was that they never spoke back. He felt very good this morning. What a marvelous, peaceful town, aside from being so very, very rich, he thought.
Just when he was about to type his first word, the loud noise of a vacuum cleaner broke the celestial silence of the room.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing, Miriam? Don’t you see that I am about to write one of the most important books of our town?”
Miriam stopped her vacuuming. “I’m sorry, Mr. Middlesex, but how am I to know?”
She left the room humming at the top of her squeaky voice.
“Really, she’s a bit much, I say.” Mr. Middlesex mumbled to himself. “It reminds me of my mother. She used to say my problem was that I was too gentle with people. Maybe I should fire Miriam. My friends are right. I could have a proper cleaning woman who doesn’t talk back. Miriam is so insolent. That’s her trouble. I thought she was going to mellow as she got older, but she didn’t.”
The birds went totally silent for awhile, as if they were aware of the exchange between Mr. Middlesex and Miriam. Then they started to chirp again, this time in a mode of carefully controlled quartet a la minuet. It was heavenly. Fondling his white beard in a manner he had become accustomed to, Mr. Middlesex sat back in his chair and listened to the bird music with a totally satisfied look on his face. The minuet proceeded troppo a non troppo and went into a delicate and inspired adagio and stopped.
“Hmmmmmmm…” Mr. Middlesex took his time to come out of his dream state. “Exquisite. Simply exquisite.” Then he sat up to type his manuscript.
“In the beginning, there were four men…”