Once Upon a Time at the Learning Annex
By Michael Canfield
14 June 2004
He came from nowhere, footing across sand and brush, to confront a parking lot and an Edge City. He made his way through rows and rows of parked cars, an unlit stub of cheroot between scarred lips. When he removed his hat to wipe the sweat, his heavy brow still cast shadow over dark eyes. The creases surrounding his mustache cut like canyons. How tall? 6'4," 6'10," does it matter? Tree tall. Tall.
Name? Italians called him L'Uomo Solo. Others tried Vaquero, Stranger. True name, he had none. Such men never do.
Holsters were strung to his thighs; leather creaked as he walked. He found the right building and pushed through the revolving door.
Seeing the guns, a security guard yanked his feet off a desk and leaped up. "Can I help you? You looking for something?"
Under a name plate reading "Officer Todd Miller," the stranger noticed a slight bulge in the guard's breast pocket. Matches. He helped himself to them.
The guard stood frozen. The stranger lit his cheroot, then put the matches back in the guard's pocket. "Thanks, Todd Miller," he said.
"No smoking here, mister."
The stranger looked at the walls, the ceiling, the linoleum. Then at the red eye of his cheroot. "Is now," he said.
Todd Miller swallowed. "And no guns. Only I get to carry."
"Won't do you much good."
"Listen, mister. We don't want any trouble."
"Folks 'round here. Plain everyday folk."
"Then there won't be any trouble."
The stranger crossed to the elevator.
"Wait! Your learner's card. I have to see it."
The stranger turned. He didn't touch the pearl handles. Didn't need to.
"Unless y-you're a first timer," stammered the guard. "Then you got to enroll on the second floor. See Dolores Cruikshank, room 205. That it, Mister? Never been here before?"
"Been everywhere before. Twice." The stranger called the elevator. The elevator opened in a hurry and the stranger sauntered in and pushed "2." He rode up, found 205 and Dolores Cruikshank behind the counter.
"How can I help you?" she asked. She had big hair, big eyes, big hips. Lot of woman.
"Don't need help," said the stranger.
"You must be here for something! What are looking for? Is there any way I can help?"
Dropping the cheroot on the counter, he strode to her side.
"You're supposed to stay over there, sir."
He took her arm, spun her around. Then he gripped her tight so their pelvises ground together and kissed her hard; whiskers roughed her mouth.
Recovering her breath, she tried to speak, so he kissed her again. He dropped her into a chair.
She straightened out her top. "D-did you want to register for a class?"
"Having a look around," he said.
"Oh, would you like to audit? Good idea. For five dollars you can . . ." He clanged a fist of twenty-dollar gold eagles on the counter.
Dolores Cruikshank watched them sparkle. "Cash. Wait while I print you out a receipt." She turned to a computer and placed her hands on the keyboard. "Name?"
She could barely speak. "Address?"
"Out nowhere. Long about no place." Her hands shook too much to type. He said, "Keep the receipt for me, Dolly."
"Dolores. It's Dolores."
"Keep the receipt for me, Dolores."
"Or Dolly. Dolly's okay too."
He picked up his cheroot, replaced it in the corner of his mouth, and grinned.
He tipped his hat, then turned.
"Wait! You need to tell me which classes . . ."
He was gone.
The stranger strode the hallways, scanning the placards outside each door. "Flower Arranging." "Stain Your Own Glass." "Yoga for Anyone." On he walked, ignoring the elevator, taking the stairs to the next level. Many doors. "Build Your Portfolio on 50¢ a Day." "Retire in Five Years with Real Estate." "Rich Guy/Richer Guy/Richest Guy."
He climbed higher. The fourth floor. "Your Personal Web Page." "Master PowerPoint." "Everybody's Photoshop."
Fifth floor. "Make Money in Voice-Over." "Guitar in an Hour." "Piano in One Day." "The Great American Book Proposal."
No. No. And no.
Last floor. "Be an Outgoing Introvert." "Twenty-Five Dates in Twenty-Four Hours." Not quite. "Your Personal Passion." "Be Buddha." "Discover Your Fire." Closer. The end of the hall.
There. "Find Yourself."
The stranger pushed the door open.
Inside, half the chairs were occupied. The students turned their heads. The instructor stopped talking. He was a soft man, soft beard, soft sweater, soft belly. "Welcome!" he said to the stranger. "Take a seat, we're just getting started!"
"I don't sit," said the stranger. "Not in chairs. On a horse or a mule maybe. Or against a barstool. Chairs. I don't bend that way."
The instructor stroked his chin. "I'll have to ask you to stay in the back then, so that everyone can see."
The stranger nodded.
"Fine," said the instructor. "As I was saying, my name is Martin Kitelinger, and I've been involved with personal learning fifteen years now. I'm very pleased to be working in the area of human development; I can think of no more exciting, rewarding, satisfying life for myself. It's the life we all want to have, and one I believe we all can have. Not someday, not five years from now, but tonight. Right now. This is my guarantee to you. By the end of the evening each of you will be on his or her path to being your truest, bestest self!
"Now why don't we go around the room and I want each of you just to give a brief statement of who you are, what you do, and what brings you here today. Now who would like to start?"
No one spoke. They fidgeted in their chairs.
"Who will start?" asked Kitelinger again. "Name, where are you from? How do you define yourself? Why are you here? Don't make me choose! Just kidding. Seriously, who first?"
"Me," said the stranger.
The heads of the students whipped around.
The stranger spoke. "I'm from nowhere. No name. Define my self? I don't. I'm a man."
"And why are you here?"
"Yes. Hm, interesting you would choose that verb. Not find, not discover. Confront. Yes. Interesting. Who's next?"
"It's still my turn."
"Oh! I apologize. I thought you were done. What else did you want to say?"
"I'm here to confront myself, defeat myself if need be."
"Defeat? Generally we should try and stay away from negative terminology."
"Or die trying."
"I. . . . Actually, may I see your registration slip?"
The stranger shook his head slowly.
"Maybe we're getting off track here," said Martin Kitelinger. "Who will please, please go next?"
A young man, hardly more than a boy, spoke up. "I wanna know what he means by that . . . defeat himself or die trying."
Martin Kitelinger raised a palm. "We should each try and focus on our own lives tonight. That's why we are here. That's why you paid, and gave up the time to be here."
The boy countered. "Yeah, but there's a big gunfighter in the back of the room."
"Try to ignore him. Don't lose focus. Maybe he will leave."
"I'd like to know more about the big gunfighter in the back of the room," said a blue-haired lady. Others nodded. "It's our time," someone said. "We paid for it."
"What do you say to that, Doc?" the stranger asked.
"I'm not technically a doctor . . . I've authored several personal empowerment taped programs. . . ."
"Author, doctor, teacher, sheriff. You're an authority of some stripe."
Martin Kitelinger drew himself up. "I'm not here to give you answers, but to show you the way to find your own answers."
The boy broke in. "But you have answers, right? I mean there's no reason to pay you money if you don't have any more answers than us. . . ."
"Yes of course I have answers, but . . ."
"Okay," said the boy. "If the gunfighter is willing, and we're willing . . ."
Martin Kitelinger tossed up his hands. "You want answers? Here are answers." He went to the whiteboard behind him and picked up a blue marker. "How's this?"
The marker squeaked as he banged out letters in rough furied script. Dinosaur, he wrote.
The stranger drew from his right hip. The Colt blazed, tearing a hole through the word. Kitelinger flinched, did not turn around. "All right, then." He scribbled. The marker squeaked.
The students climbed under the tables.
Kitelinger underlined his second word: Neanderthal.
The stranger unleashed both barrels this time. Two shots through the word. Kitelinger stepped an inch to the side and wrote again. Rage-a-holic.
The stranger dropped to one knee. His guns spit fire.
From adjacent classrooms, from "Be Buddha" and "Your Personal Passion," other students poured out into the halls. They came up from the other floors, from "Build Your Portfolio on 50¢ a Day" and "Stain Your Own Glass."
Kitelinger wrote. Compensating. Underline. The stranger fired and shoulder-rolled, upsetting tables.
Kitelinger moved to an unbroken part of the whiteboard. He dropped his blue marker. Took up a red one, wrote: Emotionally stunted.
The stranger dropped one gun, clutched his belly. He made himself level the remaining gun at the words, changed his grip on the pearl handle.
A blast came. The bullet tore through the stranger's back, passed under his heart. He fell face down, but pulled himself around to see Todd Miller, the security guard. The guard came forward, kneeling by the stranger.
The stranger rasped. "In the back, Todd?"
"Would've stood no chance face to face."
The stranger nodded.
"You find what you came for?" Todd Miller asked.
Now Dolores Cruikshank fought her way through the thick crowd of onlookers to the stranger's side. When she saw the blood blooming across his chest, she gasped. "Why?" she said. "Why did you come here? Why didn't you stay out nowhere, where you belong?"
"Leave me room to rise up, Dolly."
"No. Rest now."
He forced himself up onto his elbows, then bent at the waist to sit.
"I thought you said you couldn't sit. Your body didn't bend that way," said Martin Kitelinger. He was tossing the red marker in the air and catching it, again and again.
"Can sit if I've a mind to," said the stranger.
"I think we've learned a lesson today," said Kitelinger.
"Martin!" shouted Dolores Cruikshank.
"Never mind, Dolly. He ain't the villain."
The boy, the boy who'd wanted answers before, now asked for them again. "Who is the villain, gunfighter? Who's the villain really?"
"Todd Miller missed him by a hair." The stranger tapped his heart. "Now let me up."
Dolores again protested that he should rest. The stranger climbed to his feet. "Those my guns you've got there, boy?"
The boy had picked up the stranger's dropped guns and he hefted them curiously before he handed them back. "But you emptied them."
The stranger holstered them. "These guns never empty."
The stranger turned, started taking steps, and the crowd parted. "Don't leave," said Dolores. "Where are you going?"
"Out nowhere," he said.
"He won't get far!" shouted Kitelinger. "Not on his own. Not without help. Look! He'll fall right there! Now! Fall! Fall!"
The stranger staggered into the hallway and to the staircase. The staircase was filled with more students, the multitude who couldn't pack into the classroom above. The stranger held the railing and made his way down. Dolores, Todd Miller, and the boy followed. Kitelinger followed too, shouting. "Fall! Fall!"
The stranger found the lobby. He pushed through the revolving door. Outside, the night air was hot, having blown in off the desert. The stranger made his way through rows and rows of parked cars. The cars thinned out, leaving only white lines marking vacant spaces. Dolores, Todd, the boy, and Kitelinger couldn't follow any further than that.
The stranger kept moving, and the blacktop gave way to sagebrush, blood. Dust.
Copyright © 2004 Michael Canfield
Michael Canfield's short fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Karen Joy Fowler's anthology MOTA 3: Courage, Elizabeth E. and Thomas F. Monteleone's anthology Borderlands 5, Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw's zine Flytrap, and in Black Gate. He attended Clarion in 1999. For more on him and his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.