Until Stupendous Stew
arrived, nothing notable had happened in the town of Madison since
it's founding. Old Timers claim that the original expanse of land
was initially set up as a rich man's tax loophole, destined to die
the slow death of a tumbleweed tract, funds trickling out like
dirt from an upturned cowboy boot.
Madison, population 484, was
the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else, knew each
other's business, history, quirks, foibles.
Madison was the kind of
place where babies, before conscious thought, made the decision to
leave as soon as their thumbs worked to hitch. It was the kind of
place where young men gazed down sandy undulating roads and wished
for better prospects. Where young women spent time at the Hair
Corral, discussing escape plans and big city life. In Madison,
there was nothing to talk about that hadn't been ruminated and
discussed over and over a million times before.
And then Stew showed up.
Stew defied categorization.
He looked like a trucker and talked like orator. He was tall and
lanky, on the bony side of lean, with a grin that slanted up to
the left towards a cauliflower ear. He was just at the point of
baldness where a more vain man might consider hair transplant, and
his bark-like skin spoke of years spent outside.
Arriving one day on a bus
that came through Madison once a week, Stew displayed no overt
signs of wealth or having any money at all. He stood on the
sidewalk outside Dairy Queen for nearly twenty minutes, hat in
hand with that ski-slope grin, then took several deep breaths.
Amy Porter saw him first.
She'd later recount that he looked like an angel - his countenance
one of serene acceptance. She watched from inside the Dairy Queen,
from behind the counter, through picture windows that framed a
seedy, weather-beaten row of shop fronts across the street, as
Stew stepped off the bus and stood there with that quirky look of
amusement. For a while, Stew just gazed at the barren stretch of
stores. Then, seemingly satisfied, he walked into the only
"I'd love a Reese's
Blizzard, ma'am," he said with his slanted smile. "Need
to cool off." Amy noted his mountain green t-shirt and jeans
faded and worn at the inner knees - perhaps a rancher or cowboy -
his face a craggy topography of time.
"So, what do you do for
fun around here?" Stew asked. Amy thought this first question
unusual. He didn't inquire about a family or a place to stay,
which would have given her some indication of his intentions. Fun
was the last thing people in Madison thought about. But Amy,
always a sport, played along.
"Weeel, around these
here parts," she joked. "We like to drive out to the
dunes to watch the prairie dogs diggin'."
Stew snorted a laugh.
"Mighty exciting," he said.
Soon enough, Mr. John
Bailey, Esq. walked in for his usual cheeseburger and strawberry
shake. Bailey, who had lost his wife the year before, came in
every day less for the food than for the company. Amy regarded
Bailey as she did her old pair of sweat pants: comfortable, plain
and never too constraining. They'd known each other since
kindergarten and, in this tiny world of limited choices, they were
perfect for each other.
"So, who do we have
here," Bailey asked Stew. Amy was embarrassed - she had not
yet introduced herself or learned this stranger's name.
Stew stuck out his hand, "but my friends call me Stupendous
Bailey asked. "Sounds like an awful long nickname to
"Keeps me 'round
longer," Stew laughed - a sound, Amy observed, that seemed to
come easy to him. "I'm not in the habit of sticking around a
place any good amount of time."
"So, whatcha doing in
Madison? Seems like an unlikely place to land," Bailey
remarked in a tone that bordered on suspicion.
"I've got some business
here," Stew said. "As soon as it's done, I'm off."
He stared at Bailey with eyes the color of grain.
Stew arranged to stay at
Madison's only B&B - a boarding house, really - run by Helen
West. A clean room, a hallway bath and bacon, eggs and toast every
morning at 7. When Stew got tired of the burgers at Dairy Queen,
Helen offered to cook him dinner for an extra $10 a night.
Between Dairy Queen and
Helen's place, Stew met the most socially inclined residents of
Madison. He picked their brains about what made the place tick, what
interested folks here, why those who chose to stayed. Over the next
two weeks, Stew became a fixture. His extreme curiosity led to much
talk. Was he a shrink trying to set up shop? A reporter sent to
uncover some as yet unknown story? Rumors flew.
Then things began to