His Bradbury Jacket

The wide front window of the coffee shop was covered with posters for local events and services. A new lecture series at the University. What bands would be playing at what bar. A flier for a reliable dog walker. And one poster that seemed out of place, with its faded edges and old-time typography. In large copperplate letters it announced Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival.

“Arriving in Green Town this Saturday.”

I do not live in Green Town.

At the very edge of downtown, where the stores and shops thin out, and the spaces between buildings grows larger, I caught the sound of a calliope on the wind. Distant, but as cheerful and sad and eerie as calliope music always is.

As I entered the small park that led to the Library, I looked up and caught sight of a gray balloon in the darkening sky. I saw the silhouette of a woman in the basket beneath it.

It’s a night for Something Wicked this Way Comes, I thought, pleased.

The poster, the calliope, the Dust Witch in her balloon — they were all there courtesy of my Bradbury Jacket.

I’d bought the Jacket at the end of summer. It arrived by post in a sleek mahogany case. Beneath its lid, the Bradbury Jacket was folded neatly inside. In a molded compartment to the right of the collar were two cylindrical earpieces – a clever nod to the thimble-shaped ‘seashells’ worn by Montag’s wife in Fahrenheit 451. To the left of the charcoal-gray collar (the jacket itself was forest green) was another compartment that held a neatly bound book of instructions. There was an engraved portrait of Bradbury on its cover.

It was a man’s jacket, not fancy but solid. It was a jacket the inquisitive, thoughtful-looking man in the pencil portrait of Bradbury on the covers of the old Bantam paperbacks would wear. Wearing it made me feel like a Bradbury protagonist, or Bradbury himself. As it was supposed to.

A pair of thick-framed glasses like Bradbury wore had been available as an accessory to the Jacket, but I hadn’t ordered them. The visual images generated by the Jacket were created in the brain, and the Bradbury Glasses were simply cosmetic. The glasses seemed a bit much to me. But the portrait of Bradbury on the old paperback covers I’d read as a boy had had a profound effect on me. I wanted to look like Bradbury when I grew up. I wanted to be the kind of man that pencil portrait suggested. A mature man, who called his doctor by his first name, an intellectual who nevertheless peppered his musings with two-fisted phrases like ‘By God, man!” or ‘I’ll be damned!” 

The Jacket didn’t broadcast images into one’s head. It stimulated the visualization networks of the wearer’s brain with preprogrammed prompts, based on a library of stored scenarios that could weave themselves, in real time, into whatever the wearer was experiencing. This had a nice effect, as it didn’t feel like watching a movie; it was more like the experiencing of vivid memories. It felt personal and resonant. If you opened yourself to the images stored in the jacket’s lining, you could see them, in your mind’s eye, with twenty-twenty vision.

But the Jacket could generate immersive experiences, too, if you slid the gliders on the collar all the way up. The seashells disabled the Jacket if the wearer was moving or driving a moving vehicle, for the obvious safety reasons. But if you chose a spot and sat still, you could fall into an immersive daydream that seemed quite real for its duration.

At a teacher’s conference in Toronto, I had worn the Bradbury Jacket and sat very still on a park bench. I turned the Jacket up, and it turned and twisted the buildings into tall Martian spires. The red sands of Mars swirled against my feet, and turned my shoes the color of rust.

Now it was Fall, and I wore the Jacket almost every evening on my walks.  The small park by the Library was rich with trees. With the colors turning, it was a real ‘October Country,’ without any assistance from the Jacket.

My real destination though was the big park behind the Library, six blocks further on. The big park had wide stone paths, ornate iron flourishes above the main entrance, and a number of moody stone fountains. One could get lost there, though I knew most of it by heart. I looked forward to my evening walks in the park, though my friends counseled me against it. “Our town is changing,” they warned. “A man is taking a chance, walking at night.”

True, these were politically-charged times, and young people did seem to have a growing taste for vandalism and violence. Several mental health facilities and shelters had been shut down in the last few years. Every street corner seemed to have a panhandler on it, and their innocuous requests for spare change could turn aggressive in a heartbeat.

Once, the Library had once been an inevitable stop on my evening walks. Now, the building was only open two days out of the week. Budget cuts had battered the Library, and also recent attacks by rabid parents groups that had been unnervingly effective at reducing the number of books they could stock without harassment. For people like me and my wife it was hardly worth going to anymore. Its primary patrons were those placeless, unpredictable people my friends wished I’d be careful of at night. In summer, they went there to get out of the heat. In winter, they crouched, snoring, over the low wooden tables.

Behind a small dry canal, the Library sat, unlit and uninviting.  It looked as if it didn’t want to be noticed or entered or used. But as I approached the building, a window lit up inside. A white-haired man I recognized as actor Jason Robards sat down to study a book.

My wife found Bradbury unbearably corny. I have to admit, when I recently re-read the short stories, and Bradbury launched into swirling, overly florid rhapsodies about Buck Rogers, or movie matinees, or Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, I rolled my eyes a bit, too.

My wife only tried Bradbury to see why her husband spent a considerable amount of money on a jacket fueled by a writer she’d never heard of.

“He’s not a very good writer,” she said, gently, looking up from a copy of R Is For Rocket. As if I were a boy, and she was telling me my dog had been hit by a car.

It stung, but I offered no defense against the charge. Except that I had loved Bradbury as a boy, and, though I saw his work through different eyes as a man, that love was still there. It was wrapped in the rough fiber of largely-useless literary sophistication, and bound in a hard nut shell made from the cynicism of adulthood – but it was still there, and still glowing in my memory.

Besides: it wasn’t ‘good’ writing that attracted me to Bradbury. It was his ability to throw a shimmering veil of mystery and the fantastic on both the future, and the past. It was his conjuring of the moods, the colors, the smells, of burnt autumns, and the bone-colored skies of approaching Winter. His October This and November That.

My wife took no issue with the idea of author-based clothing itself. But her literary tastes were of a finer cloth. If there had been a rough winter coat full of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, she may have snapped it up in an instant. But Bookworn, the company that made the Bradbury Jacket, favored popular authors over the more cerebral. Its line was small, perhaps representing less than a hundred writers. And the selection was geared much more toward my ‘lowbrow’ tastes than her more discerning sensibilities. Those whose material had been particularly visual generated most of their sales. So there were many writers of science fiction and fantasy in their catalog, the J.R.R. Tolkien Cape and Cowl being their biggest seller.

Walking briskly through fallen leaves, some real and some generated by the Bradbury Jacket, I entered the big park. The trees hovered over me like doting mothers, with huge mustard-colored bosoms.

I turned down the visalization capacity of the Jacket. In the deep shadows of the park at night, it would be unwise to experience anything too distracting. And at its most powerful, the Jacket could be very immersive indeed. Once, I dozed off in a coffee shop while wearing the jacket, and it formed a reverie in my mind as strong as any dream.

I saw an older man in a hospital room, performing the duties an orderly might do. An elderly woman sat in a chair by the window as he dusted and arranged and wiped things down with antiseptic. The man was speaking softly to himself as he worked. I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit; I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the forest where …”

The old woman heard him. “What is that? What is that you’re mumbling?”

The man straightened his back and smiled. “Oh, just … nonsense, really. Just bits of this and that, and things I’ve heard. Just to pass the time.”

She nodded. She looked as if she disapproved. The man had just brought her a bowl of soup It sat on a small table next to her chair.

He remembered the woman from the wall-sized television screens of thirty years ago, smiling the mirthless, all-knowing smile of a government spokesperson. That’s what she had been, once. She had been pretty, in the way a vase was pretty, not a person. She was called Cousin Midge back then. It made her seem warm and approachable to viewers. After all, she was the main spokesperson for what millions of people thought of as their ‘family.’

Cousin Midge’s face had appeared on countess wall screens. Cousin Midge had announced Montag’s staged run from the authorities, which had been entirely fabricated.Cousin Midge had urged his neighbors to leave their houses, stand on their lawns, and report the fugitive fireman if they saw him. While he had made his — real — narrow escape from the law, Cousin Midge had officiated over his faked capture and execution.

Now Cousin Midge was an old woman in a pink robe in a government hospital, her days of wall-screen celebrity long past. As an orderly, Montag’s job was to clean the rooms, deliver meals most of the residents barely touched, and perform any small tasks that might be asked of him. The pay was very low. But the humdrum anonymity of it allowed him to live in the city again and, at night in his small room, he could work at committing books to memory.

Cousin Midge was worried that she might spill soup on her pink robe. Like many of the residents, she wore a bib while she ate. She asked if he would fasten her bib at the back of her neck.

“Your hands …” she said, as he snapped the snaps of the bib. “That smell … What is it?” Cousin Midge asked.

“Smell? Oh, it’s probably the spray that I use when I clean the rooms,” Montag answered pleasantly.

She shook her head. “No. It’s something else.”

He looked briefly at his hands before answering. “Oh, that.” It had never completely come off, after all these years. “That is the smell of kerosene.”

The jacket had pulled this dream more from the 1966 movie more than Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. And, from my own memories of Truffaut’s flawed but fascinating adaptation. I loved the book as a teenager, and I loved the movie just as much. In my mind, Montag would always be Oskar Werner.

The Bradbury Jacket didn’t draw too much from the various adaptations of Bradbury’s work for film, unless its wearer had been deeply invested in them. Fahrenheit was the only movie adaptation I’d ever had real love for. Disney’s 1983 Something Wicked This Way Comes was quite good as well. I had liked the Hollywood movie inspired by The Fog Horn, but it was released with the rather trashy title The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

I had heard the lonely dinosaur’s voice several times on my evening walks, a low mournful booming in the jacket’s thimble earpieces. It was sad and satisfying and I knew the jacket hadn’t assembled it from an old Hollywood sound bite, but from a source more soulful and intimate, deep in my own psyche.

I left the verdant shadows of the park and followed the lamp-lit sidewalk that ran alongside it. The autumn chill was real, but the jacket enhanced it, without causing any real drop in temperature. The smell of the air became sharper. And that faint smoky smell – was it from a real wood stove, or was it the jacket’s doing?

I stepped off the curb to cross the street, and was blinded by white light.

Of course, I thought. The Pedestrian. A man named Leonard Mead, who goes out to walk in the evening and is stopped and arrested by a police car with no one inside it. I was relieved, but only for a moment.

I’d powered the jacket down when I entered the park. It wouldn’t have been able to produce an effect as convincing as this.

I sank my right hand into the jacket’s side pocket, found the little fold at the bottom, and pressed the metal tab inside it. The jacket switched off. I was still standing in blinding white light.

Squinting, I made out a vehicle behind the glare. It was a police car, and it was real. I saw a row of pulsing red lights on the vehicle’s roof.

I jumped when a blaring metallic voice demanded: “State your name and Citizen Registration Number.”

It was the voice of squawking bullhorns, of cheap loudspeakers, and grating public address systems — unreasonably loud and toneless; contrary and abrasive to the soft receptacle of the human ear. “Charles Graham,” I answered, and gave my number.

Citizen Registration Numbers had become mandatory when the latest villain had been elected to the highest office in the land. Two years ago, every citizen had been subjected to a long interview at a government office. My wife had pointed out that personal interviews were unnecessary. If it had to be done, it could have all have been electronically. No, she said, the point of the personal interviews was to intimidate, to invade.

My friends at the University, and half the country, had protested and warned and filed lawsuits, to no avail.

Behind the white light, the vehicle clucked and chuffed. There was a bubbly string of high-pitched electronic noises. It was pulling me up, looking at everything detail of my existence.

“I’m a professor at the University,” I added, stupidly. The policeman would have everything in front of him already.

After a pause: “The University …” the too-loud voice repeated. Despite the toneless amplification of the voice, its disapproval was unmistakable.

“What are you up to, out here at night, alone?” ‘Up to’, not ‘doing.’

“I’ve been to the park. I like to walk there after a long day. It helps me think.”

There was no response. The row of red lights pulsated back and forth. The police car breathed heavily in the still air.

“This park will be shut down soon. It’s full of undesirables. You’ll have to find another place to … think.”

By “undesirables” the policeman might have meant the homeless people who slept there at night, or the youth gangs that prowled its paths after midnight. But I was certain that I, too, was considered an undesirable. Because I’d come to the park to think.

To a short story writer, the conclusion of the encounter would have seemed anticlimactic. The white light swung away from me and left me standing alone on the sidewalk. As it passed, I had a brief glimpse of a uniformed man behind the wheel. Short, reddish hair, and wide shoulders.

In The Pedestrian, the police car door opened, and Leonard Mead was ordered to get inside. He was unnerved to see that the car had no driver. He was whisked off to an undisclosed location, to face a punishment Bradbury did not describe.

The car that stopped me had not ordered me to get inside. And the car that stopped me had not been empty. When Bradbury wrote the story, it probably seemed more frightening to be stopped and interrogated by an uninhabited police car. But in my world, my world of just fifteen minutes ago, I had seen a man behind the wheel.

I hurried away. I felt like my shoes scraped too loudly on the sidewalk as I walked. I wanted to turn invisible, and glide silent and unseen over the pavement.

At home, I returned the jacket to its mahogany case. I folded it carefully, its contents full of magic and malevolence. Gold-eyed Martians and small assassins, wooden porch swings and mechanical hounds, mild-mannered dads who turned heroic when the chips were down, and time-traveling trophy hunters whose carelessness reaped disaster. I pressed the tab on the side of the case, so the jacket would recharge while I slept.

Bradbury could be mawkish about his passions. But he had been exceedingly clear-eyed about the dark side of humanity, and the terrors that could spring from it from it. A malevolent carnival could roll into one of his sepia-tinted towns at any time. And he could tell you about the feel of its creeping tentacles as they searched out Main Street.

In the movie, Montag waved a book in front of his wife’s circle of anaesthetized friends. “Behind every one of these books, there is a man,” he told them. What I’d been reminded of that evening was this: behind every faceless voice that stops and interrogates a man on a deserted street, there is a man as well.

Image: “Ray Bradbury” by Fred Merchán is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.

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