He would see Tom Cormaly when he was a boy, and by the time Mike Wyman was eleven years old, he was already watching not just the man himself, but how the town saw the man. In a funny way, he became an expert at it. He knew that if Tom Cormaly was somewhere on King Street, the bench outside Bailey’s Hardware was a good place to watch people pass him. If he was on the steps of St. Anthony’s, the people could be seen from the park across the churchyard.
Mike Wyman studied the people closely, and even though there were a million things that made him dream of leaving Darabont, New York, he did not dream of leaving then. The sight of a man or woman walking past Tom Cormaly contained the world. You could leave and go see the whole world and if you came back to your town and there was one man there who it had been decided was there for the people of the town to pass by and pull their winter coats a little tighter after and hurry a little more quickly to the warmth of their homes, then what was the use of seeing the world?
It was a good feeling as a boy to know that the central question of his life was right here in Darabont. It was not a question that he ever spoke aloud. Maybe if he had, everything would have gone differently. Maybe if he had said it aloud, he would have seen that there were other people with the same question, if not in Darabont, then in the world. But he did not know where the place was to say it. It was not at home. It was not at school either. It was not anywhere he knew in Darabont. Who could he say it to then who would know the particular feeling of seeing Tom Cormaly in his brown coat that he wore in winter and summer? One man held the balance of the town in his hand: Was it beautiful or ugly? Did it shine or stink? The most significant truth of the town was to be the most unspoken: That Tom Cormaly and his wandering its streets was to be considered a part of the town. As much a part of it as the way the St. Anthony’s spire could be seen from any part of Darabont.
Mike Wyman had his chances: There was a year of junior college in Oneonta. There were summers of farm work up north. One night on the farm, he spoke to the other workers of Tom Cormaly, believing that they too knew and remembered a bum from their town, that they knew his name and they had watched him, and watched the people walk past him, and even that in some form the men like Tom Cormaly had given them the central question of their lives. He became excited as he spoke, believing that he was breaking through a great silence, perhaps even a silence that had somehow fallen over the whole world, and that in breaking through it together, they might be doing a momentous thing.
The other workers did not jump in. If there were bums they remembered from home, they did not know their names or possess a way of holding their lives as a story.
It was a clarifying moment for Mike Wyman. He lay in bed that night thinking about it. He realized that he had divided the world up into two parts: Darabont, where it was accepted that the world was going to have a man like Tom Cormaly, and everywhere else, where he thought Tom Cormaly might have a chance. But that night the faces of the other farm workers had become very much like the faces he had studied as a boy. He could not say exactly what it was that was the same, but he recognized it. He thought that he had been right as a boy: There was no world out there to see.
It happened slowly, but inevitably: He came back to Darabont at the end of the summer. There were a few jobs, because people remembered him. Each lasted a few months, and ended when he showed up one day and told them that he did not want to work there anymore. He quit the jobs after he would pass Tom Cormaly on King Street or in front of St. Anthony’s and he would have a vision of watching himself, of watching his own face as he took a day’s work and put it on Tom Cormaly, and he felt how every job was the same job, it was the effort to walk out of a place with an invisible slip of paper that said, I am not a bum, and the people pulled it out and showed it to Tom Cormaly when they passed him, and when he began to feel like he was reaching for it himself, that was when Mike Wyman knew it was time to quit a job.
I tried, Mike Wyman thought. I tried here in Darabont and I tried out in the world, but they want you to carry around that slip of paper wherever you go. They want you to have it ready. I knew they were carrying around something when I was a boy. It took me a while to figure out what it was, but now I know it for sure. You see them carrying it without even walking by Tom Cormaly after a while. You see it all over. You see them greet each other with it, smiling and glad. They show it to each other first thing when they meet and then they’re ready to talk and laugh and sing. But it’s not talking or laughing or singing. They think it is but it’s not.
I don’t want to carry around the slip of paper, Mike Wyman thought. If there were people in the world who did not carry around the slip of paper, who greeted each other with its absence, who talked and laughed and sang after showing each other they didn’t have it, they were too far away for him to imagine. There were times when he walked through town and heard the train coming through and thought that maybe he should seek them out wildly. But how far was a man supposed to travel anyway? If he did go to the distant cities and still did not find them, what then? Shouldn’t the world have given him some indication that life was different away from Darabont? But he looked at his town and he wondered if it was really possible that Darabont was an exception. Wasn’t a guy better off trying to live among the people he had known and studied for twenty-one years? At least he knew what it was to not have the slip of paper to show them.
You were one man away, he thought as he walked through the town in the cool of early fall, remembering his boyhood. You were one man away from everything, from being a home that anyone would be proud of. But one man is everything. One man is always everything. I knew it as a boy and I had to leave the town and come back to see that I was right. Somebody has to believe that one man is everything. The distant cities and faraway dreams will always be there, but what good is it to leave for them if you do not trust the place you are leaving? Better to stay and watch the faces you know. At least you have a chance to make them right.
He went to Jerry’s Bar on King Street and he had six drinks, one after the other, and he came back outside and knew that he was home. There is a world on King Street, he thought, and he felt happy and proud to have studied the street and its people in the way he had as a boy. The men and women of his town had been born and had lived and died in a place that had only ever given them something to not be. It was all very clear to him. And he spoke very gently and politely to the world now, without any anger or bitterness in his heart, and he told it that on the day that there was no man like Tom Cormaly walking through the streets of his town, on the day that there were no more bums in the world, on that day he would put down his drink and do just as they said: He would walk to work and back each day. He would put on a suit and tie if they wanted him to. He would do the whole thing just as they said, and he would smile and greet everyone along the way. On that day he would become a model citizen, and he would try to make his town a model town, and he would know all along that it was all in a model world. But he told the town very politely and respectfully that until that day, he would rather be a bum than not be a bum. If the world was going to have bums, then he would rather be one than not be one, and it was this day that he remembered years from now, after Tom Cormaly had died and the people of the town hurried past Mike Wyman when they saw him on King Street or on the steps of St. Anthony’s, it was this day that he remembered and there were many feelings he had when he remembered it, but at least once a day if not more, there would be a moment when he would study the face of somebody walking past him and he would feel a great love for the boy he had been, a great and tender love as though the boy were right there next to him, and it would be an entirely giving moment, for he would need nothing else in the world just then, and he would wish for the person walking past him that they could feel the same love for the boy or girl they once were, as they walked down the streets of Darabont.
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