Skip to main content

American Grace, a Hoosier homecoming of springs and circuses from James Figy

By James Figy

The people of Kemp, Indiana, had all assembled with their improvised torches—but no pitchforks. Instead they carried bats and unused rackets from cheap badminton sets, along with crow bars and oversized monkey-wrenches from the Kemp Spring Factory.

The crowd chanted, "Ho hum, humdrum; Billy Guy has come."

They packed the crumbling concrete bridge—the only way out of the north-central Indiana town—suicidally tight. A reporter from The Kempee Tribune took photos of the whole thing.

It would have been tough for Billy Guy to drive through the crowd if he'd had a bulldozer. So the chances of his blue ’62 Volkswagen Beetle making it probably did not exist.

He stopped the car on top of a huge metal plate, the kind the Kemp Dept. of Minimal Public Works workers used after they cut into the road. He pushed in the clutch and pulled the shifter to neutral, then stepped out of the Volkswagen. His stocky frame towered above the vehicle, begging the question how he fit in the first place.

“Did the entire town show up to block me in?”

Billy scratched his short goatee while scanning the crowd. He saw Mrs. Brumer, his ex-girlfriend’s mom. She was the reason for all of this, he thought. He would have stayed in Kemp forever, so long as he didn’t have to move out of her house.

In her last ultimatum, she had opined that it was awkward for him to live there, as her daughter was getting married in the living room in less than a week. She said she didn’t want him running in theatrically from the bathroom to object or following them on their honeymoon to Peru.

“I wish I got to go to Peru,” Billy had muttered.

“Bill, I mean Peru, Indiana.”

“Oh my god, I know,” he had retorted. “It has all the circuses and like the only Taco Johns east of the Mississippi.”

“Well, you can drive to Taco Johns if you live in that apartment above Billings Bail Bonds on Broadway and Main.”

When he said he decided to move back to Indianapolis, she had flipped. She said that getting kicked out was no reason to be rude.

“You have to understand by now how this small town works,” she said. “I’m not saying you don’t have to leave. I’m just saying you can’t.”

“So it's like the Hotel California? Is it, Mrs. Brumer?”

"Yes and no. You can never leave, but you can't check out anytime you like. You have to do that by this Friday."

The frumpish, forty-something woman faded into the crowd. Everyone blurred together into a solitary mass, hell-bent on keeping the town intact. The crowd did not respond to Billy’s question but continued chanting, "Ho hum, humdrum; Billy Guy has come."

He scratched his forehead and shouted, "What is this? The fucking Lord of the Rings? You guys have a song and everything?"

They again chanted, "Ho hum, humdrum; Billy Guy has come," shouting the last word. Then there was complete silence. Well, except for the crackling flames and the uneven idle of the Volkswagen, there was complete silence. And, some cicadas were making a terrible racket, but that’s not important.

Anyway, a hooded man stepped from the crowd and into the empty street between Billy and the bridge. He pulled the dark hood away to reveal himself as Old Man Todd, the director of conformance at the spring factory.

“Bill,” he said, “I brought these people here to put an end to your madness. You can’t leave, Bill. Once a Kempee, always a Kempee, and you made that choice.”

The day before, Old Man Todd had pulled him aside in the spring factory and warned him. It wasn’t safe, he had said, outside Kemp limits.

"George Jefferson said something like: the government that governs the best is the one that controls the least shit. And, I mean, nowadays they want to control pretty much everything about our lives. It ain’t right. The government doesn’t need to tell anybody where to go, or keep track of everything they do,” he had warned. “That’s why you have neighbors.”

As the crowd began to slowly edge towards him, Billy shook his head. “You’re wrong,” he said, stroking his goatee. It seemed even more majestic in the torches’ glow. He lifted a small remote from his pocket. "As soon as I pull this trigger, something magical will happen that will make you people regret everything."

That statement confirmed what most Kempees had thought all along.

“Terrorist, murderer,” they screamed, backing away. “Put your bomb away, terrorist.”

But Billy did not have a bomb. It wouldn’t have served his purpose. He knew this because he had, in fact, considered using an explosion. But if all his test models were accurate, the glorious explosion would’ve left Billy melted and relatively unmoved. On Mrs. Brumer’s back stoop, twenty little, green army men (turned liquid) had proved this. And The Kempee Tribune later noted this detail: “Precisely twenty brave soldiers were sacrificed by and for Billy Guy.”

Instead, after hours of overtime and working late into the night when few other people were around, Billy had built and installed a mechanism to insure escape.

“Calm down everyone. I’ll take care of this,” Old Man Todd reassured the crowd. “Only one thing can save us from terrorists—since it’s too late for preemptive strikes—and that thing’s a prayer.” Everyone, except Billy Guy, bowed their heads, and Old Man Todd prayed: “Oh Lord, our Lord, protect us. We know not the things that we have done, nor the things that we have not known that we have not done. Nor have we done the things that we have not known that we might do sometime in the future if thou giveth us the wisdom to figure out how to steal thine neighbor’s cable until Judgment Day, which is probably the worst of all sins.

“Give us this day our daily breads, and their liquid counterpart if thou be’est so merciful. And please forgive Billy Guy for trespassing upon us as we have trespassed into his car and stolen cigarettes once or twice—maybe four times. Well, no more than five.

“In thou’st heavenly name and precocious name, Amen,” he coughed. And he continued coughing, getting into a regular fit.

As others rushed to help a doubled-over Old Man Todd, Billy stepped back into his bug. He pushed in the clutch and shifted into first gear. With his finger on the trigger, he was ready to make that bug fly like a butterfly—or, maybe, jump like a flea.

Because beneath the metal plate on which he was parked was a gargantuan spring, wound up and ready to throw—no, ready to fire Billy Guy through the midnight air and out of the town of Kemp, Indiana.

“Good riddance to this reverse-picaresque,” he shouted. “For forever and always.”

Later, when Billy would describe what happened after he pulled the trigger, releasing the spring that sat below the metal plate that sat below his blue Volkswagen bug in which he sat, he would begin like this:

“I never moved. The Earth did.

“My spring jettisoned the planet into the sky, and as it floated down, it rotated just slightly so that the Earth landed on me at the point of Peru, Indiana—on an empty freight car headed out with a circus train. The sun rotated to early afternoon.”

A dark, Italian ringmaster made his way back along the tops of cars, holding his top hat in place, to where my bug was situated.

“That was amazing,” he said. “Come with me; we just got Taco Johns.”

He led me to the front of the train, hopping from car to car. His red coattails flapped in the wind. We climbed down into a chic party car with red velvet upholstery, inlaid with golden trim. Two chimps in mauve monkey suits, all bow-tied and cuff-linked, carried over four tall glasses filled with vodka and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

A trapeze artist—from Canada of all places—asked, “How did you pull off said feat and still maintain such American grace, eh?”

“If I told you,” I replied, “it would ruin the magic.” They all laughed. One chimpanzee clapped his hands.

Through the windows I could see the clouds scroll by while the train kept clicking and clacking. We kept moving, and everything felt right.

“We could use your magic around here,” said the ringmaster. “Would you like to join us?” That's how Billy and his flying bug became the number one circus act east of the Mississippi.

At least, that's what The Kempee Tribune reported. The headline for that story read: “Billy Guy jumps mechanical springing into new life.” They always sounded like that, because the editor, who studied English before dropping out of college, was a big fan of Tristan Tzara.

They were still talking about the event a year later when Billy Guy’s train arrived back in Peru. City Hall had been sending newspaper clippings and real estate brochures to every stop on the circus’s route. They expected a parade; they expected to lead him to a two-story mansion on Lake Manatee and hand over the keys; they expected him to cut the ribbon to his new exhibit.

Old Man Todd picked up a copy of the newspaper from the tray next to his hospital bed. Above his head was an x-ray. It showed a curly line twisting over the bronchi.

The Kempee Tribune’s main headline read: “Billy Guy original spring to launch new museum town hall exhibition forever.” He wished that he could be there.

Kempees in droves turned out to see him, having decorated the station in Peru, Indiana. They carried banners and trumpets. They wore their Sunday’s best and carried their Bibles so that Billy Guy could autograph them.

The crowd chanted, "Ho hum, humdrum; Billy Guy has come." They continued happily chanting for some time, awaiting a theatrical entrance on the train-stop platform. But Billy Guy did not emerge.

They sent some men who got a special day off from the spring factory to investigate. The men didn’t find Billy Guy. And they didn’t see a blue bug strapped to any of the flat bed rail cars. So they busted open the closed cargo rail cars. It wasn’t there either. It was disappointing

The children’s streamers wilted in their tiny fists, the housewives’ signs folded themselves. One man lit a copy of that day’s Kempee Tribune on fire and threw it into the trash barrel at the station. He reportedly intended to “burn the fucking place down to the dirt.” The newspaper smoldered a minute then died.

Heads hung low and shoulders slumped, everyone went back home to Kemp, Indiana, feeling cheated, disenchanted, and a little out of touch with reality.

In the next day’s newspaper, two stories competed on the front page. The first headline read: “Billy Guy no shows too tall to become one of us.” The firebug commented on his abject failure, saying, “I never really wanted to burn anything, anyways.” The other headline read: “Old Man Todd rides spring train to Heaven.” There was even a photo.

In the story, his oldest son, also named Todd, admitted: “Dad’s last words were, ‘Many times as I taught the Bible, I never understood Ecclesiastes. Meaningless, meaningless? But ever since Billy Guy left, it makes good sense.’”

Bio: James Figy is a senior creative writing major at the University of Indianapolis, and his creative work has appeared in the student-run literary journal, Etchings. James also writes for and edits the UIndy student newspaper, The Reflector, and writes freelance for The Reporter-Times of Martinsville.