A Traveller Family Mystery

by Lint Hatcher

"A man is a small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders."
-- Lord Dunsany

The Marble Man

Lawrence Spivey had loved marbles ever since he was a little boy.

It was only recently that he had decided to put them on his car, his house, and his clothes.

Lawrence, or just plain Larry, had this line of reasoning: if marbles alone were filled with so much to interest and amaze a person like himself, then what about all the other things that are out there in the world? If practically each and every thing from salt and pepper shakers to parachutes, from Sherlock Holmes stories to sycamore trees has its dedicated fans, who stare and study and shake their heads in amazement, well then the world must be full of wonder. So much wonder, in fact, that a person really couldn't take it all in. A man had to specialize. To pick one thing and slowly unravel the wonder of it at his own pace.

Larry picked marbles.

It wasn't Larry but other people who began to call him "The Marble Man". Larry never objected. It meant they truly recognized him. It meant they gave him real eye contact and knew him for who he was. At his age -- a doddering, anonymous seventy-two years old -- it was good to have people stop, say hello, and know him by name.

Larry figured the whole thing started because of an alarming series of coincidences.

Three in a row.

First, Miss Mertle, his next door neighbor, told him to "get a hobby." Since his wife, Annie's, death in 1985, Larry had not done much more than watch TV, go to bed, and complain to Miss Mertle about how the world was going crazy. Miss Mertle usually listened quietly, sitting on her front porch in the cool morning air, staring at the empty highway and nursing a small lump of Sue Bee snuff tucked behind her lower lip. Finally, one morning, Miss Mertle spoke. "Mr. Larry," she said, "you don't have the gift of being happy." She paused, shifting the lump of snuff to the other side of her lower lip. Then, with a sniff, she said, "The longer you sit with nothing to do, the more miserable you're gonter be. You need to get a hobby." Sitting there on Miss Mertle's porch, drinking her strong coffee and gnawing at a day-old slice of streak-o-lean, Larry had found that he agreed.

The second coincidence had occurred when he had gone up into his attic to get a woodburning kit. He thought that might be a good hobby. Instead, he found an old Saltine crackers tin filled with marbles.

In the Saltines tin were aggies, and cleareys, and glassies, and swirlies, and giant bumboozers that looked like the Jawbreakers kids buy out of the 25¢ machines beside the automatic doors at Wal-Mart. Larry remembered the names from his childhood. Back then he had felt a deep affection for marbles, a feeling bordering on loyalty or respect. At seventy-two years of age, as he ran his fingers through the cold weight of the marbles in the Saltines tin and lifted up huge handfuls to stare at them, Larry's affection returned. Some looked like little planets with oceans and green continents. Others looked like chunks of amber, shaped and smoothed into a perfect sphere. A few were solid black. Those always had an ominous mystical feeling for Larry when he was a boy. He found they still did today. Forgetting about the misplaced woodburning kit, Larry had brought the marbles down from the attic.

Third, he had awakened the next day from a dream. He couldn't remember the dream, but when he awoke he was thinking about the marbles and what he could do with them if he was an "artist". He had seen somebody make a picture of a rooster out of different colored seeds. The picture had been about five feet tall and entirely composed of different colored seeds carefully glued into place. What if he made something like that with marbles?

As a first attempt at testing what might be done with marbles, Larry carefully glued them along the surface of his old Cadillac Seville. He hadn't driven the Seville for three years. After the transmission went out, he had left it to sit out in the yard just to the left of the house, the grass growing tall and thick along the underbelly where the lawnmower couldn't reach. Slowly, as he carefully applied each new marble, the car ceased to be a bland, off-white, piece of junk in Larry Spivey's front yard. The reds and blues and greens and purples and yellows and whites of the marbles sparkled in the sun and gave the car a personality all its own. "Exotic" -- that's how he described it. It began to become Larry's car again. In fact, with the application of each new marble, it became more "his" car than any he had ever owned.

Larry bought more marbles. By the time he was covering the hubcaps with marbles, it was obvious he had to get the Seville running again.

Larry got one of the Odom boys to come over and work on the car. After three Saturday afternoons, it was time to take it out for a spin. Larry lived on a quiet country road five miles outside of Jeffersonville, Georgia -- the county seat of Twiggs County, but still a pretty small town. That's where Larry decided to go. He slowly maneuvered the Seville across the grassy side yard and then ambled down the gravel driveway, the rocks popping and cursing under the tires. He paused to look both ways down the highway. Then, gunning the engine, Larry began coasting the Seville down the blue-black asphalt road at a mere ten miles per hour. He stared straight ahead and gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He was nervously anticipating the moment when the marbles would all fall off and go bouncing and clattering down the hot asphalt. But the glue held just fine. Larry loosed his grip on the steering wheel. He relaxed, allowing himself to enjoy the sunshine. The fine white hairs on Larry's head were blowing every which way, but the marbles stayed put.

So Larry pressed the gas pedal a little lower. Twenty miles per hour. Thirty. Forty. Fifty! Next thing Larry knew his Marble Mobile was gliding into the Jeffersonville city limits, tooling past the courthouse, the tree-speckled sunlight drifting across the hood in elaborate, mysterious patterns. People stopped walking, stared without blinking. Some shook their heads. Most laughed and waved. The kids laughed and waved and ran as hard as they could to keep pace with Mr. Larry's new marble car. Larry felt a rush of warmth and goodwill. Tears collected in his eyes. Somehow, the hood of his car glistening and colorful in the warm sunlight extended outward from his position behind the wheel as though it was a giant, friendly handshake. Everywhere Larry turned the steering wheel, the smiling, colorful handshake went forward down a new street. It was like saying hello to the whole world. "Maybe this is how a politician feels," he murmured aloud to himself. "Always saying hello to people."

In the weeks that followed, Larry realized he needn't stop with his car. He bought more and more marbles, gluing them to his small, wooden house, to his furniture, to the top and sides of a three feet tall concrete block wall he decided to put up on both sides of his driveway. He glued marbles to his Postmaster General approved mailbox, even to an old blue sports jacket. That became his official uniform and Larry made sure he wore it whenever he was driving the Marble Mobile.

The process of creativity was always slow. Larry would find himself drawn to appreciate each and every marble for its own uniqueness. He couldn't bear to treat them like "raw material," to pile them on with a shovel. There was a lot of them, but each one was important -- just like people. Larry's experience of marbles began to resonate with meaning in a way that could only be described as religious. He began remembering and rereading Scriptures like, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." Larry put "marbles" in place of "sparrows" and was struck by the profundity. People might not be able to appreciate the wonder in the world all at once, Larry reasoned, but God could. There must be trillions of little things to appreciate. And God could appreciate each little thing in every tiny, fascinating detail -- and yet He could also step back and see the wonder of the whole, vast picture. Nobody else could do that.

Pretty soon, Larry -- the Marble Man -- began to want to go to church again. But he didn't dare. He knew he couldn't wear his special Marble Jacket or drive up in his Marble Mobile. And if he couldn't do that he wouldn't feel honest. So he decided to worship God -- the God who made man in His own image so that man, in turn, could make marbles -- at home, surrounded by wonder. He welcomed anyone who wanted to drop by and talk with him about his art every day except Sunday between the hours of 10 and 6. He began to figure that maybe now in his latter years he had found something God wanted him to do, something that contributed to the good in the world. It was a trifle sad, Larry felt, that he had finally discovered his true calling so late in life -- but better late than never.

Then Larry found that art was not all God required of him.

At 3:15 a.m. on a Thursday night in August, Larry woke from a deep sleep. He felt as though he had been nudged -- not on his shoulder, but in his mind or in his heart. And then he heard a voice in his mind or in his heart say, "Go outside on the porch and watch."

Larry was foggy from dreams, but he was not given to hearing voices. He felt this was really happening. His immediate inclination to doubt was countered by something -- by a Presence in his home. The air in his bedroom seemed light and vibrant with a Goodness that was real, that stood outside of Larry's own mind. And within that Goodness, like the thought behind a person's eyes, was a heavy, somber sense of portent. Something very important was about to happen.

Had Annie been lying there asleep in the bed, Larry might have ignored the feeling of urgency and debated what to do not wanting Annie to wake up and ask him why he was going out. He would have been afraid of looking like a fool. But, since he was alone, no one wanted to know what he was up to and no one would see him make a fool of himself if the whole thing turned out to be in his imagination -- if it wasn't, indeed, the Lord who was nudging him awake and sending him to sit and watch on his own front porch.

So Larry sat up slowly and slipped on a fifteen year old pair of flip-flops that lay beside the bed. Wincing at the effort it took, he stood, stumbled sleepily through the livingroom, unlocked the front door, and stepped out into a surprisingly cool night. The screen door slapped shut behind him. There were dark puddles on the ground from a recent rain. As Larry stepped sideways and leaned backward into his rocking chair, a breeze carried cool moisture into his face. The full moon and bright stars were crisp and vibrant -- there were no nearby city lights to obscure them and the rain had cleared the air. Larry felt like he was being obedient, and that felt good, but he was also only half-awake. He wondered if he could keep his eyes open for much longer.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a blur of movement along the side of the highway. It was to his right and about three houses down the road.

Something was drawing closer. Larry couldn't make out what it was in the darkness, but it wasn't walking on the road. It was walking just on the other side of the ditch, trespassing along the edge of the fields and front yards.

Larry leaned forward in his rocking chair and peered down the highway. He thought surely the moonlight must be playing tricks on him. What Larry saw was a dark blue shape traced at the edges in silvery moonlight. As the shape neared his own front yard, Larry's heart began to tremble inside his chest. The figure was at least twenty feet tall and its head narrowed to a point that flickered like a blue candle flame. There was a neck, shoulders, two arms and two legs, but no clothing. There was no flesh. The figure was blue and the blue seemed to be a kind of energy. Actually, Larry wanted to attach the word "spirit" to what he saw, but he had never figured out whether spirits were like God and could be all places at once or if they were limited to one place at a time. Larry noted that if this was a spirit it looked like it had to be in one place at a time and it looked like it had to move from one place to another. There were two white flames where eyes should go and a faint suggestion of blackness for a mouth. The treeline on the other side of the road was far enough removed from the highway that from the shoulders up the figure stood out against the darker blue of the night sky. Every now and then, the blue giant's face flickered and the stars shined through it.

In a sudden panic, Larry made to get up and run back to his bedroom. But the voice said, "Hold still. I have hidden you from him."

Larry held still and watched as the figure crossed the property line into Larry's own front yard.

The blue giant stopped. Up to this point, its pace had seemed constant, unhesitating, as though it was taking no notice whatsoever of its surroundings. But now it seemed to see. It began moving with a liquid, rolling grace, strolling back and forth in Larry's front yard. Its hand -- a vague blue tendril at the end of its arm -- passed over the marble-covered mailbox, the marble-covered bird feeder/water fountain, the marble-covered roof of the Marble Mobile. Then it paused and shuddered, a ripple passing up and down its height.

Larry couldn't tell whether it was laughing or nauseated. Then he felt something happen inside himself. It was as though a window was opened so that Larry could see the figure with his heart as well as with his eyes. Larry jerked backwards in the rocking chair and cracked his head against the house.

It was hate.

The thing in Larry's front yard was shaking with conscious deliberate hatred. Larry felt evil pouring out from it, evil so concentrated and violent that Larry fell forward as if to vomit. Then, suddenly, the window in Larry's heart closed. A healing warmth passed through his body and he sat up again, still frightened but no longer overwhelmed by the creature's presence.

"Watch," the voice said.

The blue giant was towering over the marble-covered Cadillac Seville. Its eyes seemed to flicker with a series of thoughts. Then it leaned over, stretched out a long blue arm, and seemed to caress the hood and roof of the car.

There was the smell of ozone and a sharp, high crackle.

The marbles began to melt. A liquid kaleidoscope of melted glass oozed and trickled down the hood and onto the ground where the wet grass began to smoke. Suddenly, one of the tires exploded like the blast of a shotgun.

"My car!" Larry cried. "Look what he's doing! Stop him! Jesus, stop him!"

At that very moment, the giant straightened to its full height and looked to the left and to the right. Then, as if a pack of dogs were on its tail, it fled, running past the bird feeder/water fountain, through Miss Mertle's front yard, and on down the road toward Jeffersonville.

Stunned, Larry sat there five or six minutes, leaning forward in the rocking chair, staring down the road, fearing it might come back. Then, slowly, he pulled himself up out of the chair and crept down off the porch and into his yard.

He approached the Marble Mobile. Passing the palm of his hand a few inches above the hood, he felt waves of heat rising from the melted glass. Walking round the car, he found that the moisture on the ground had kept the grass from catching fire. Still, he kicked some dirt over a few smoldering embers with his cold, wet bedroom shoes.

He passed an unsteady hand through his thin white hair. He was shaking and it wasn't because of the cold night air. The car wasn't totaled. It looked like he might be able to rebuild what was ruined. But why had this happened? What was that thing? And why did the Lord wake him up to see it? Even more than sorrow over the loss of his car, Larry felt unworthy of such a scene. It hinted at wider horizons, greater dangers, and heavier responsibilities than Larry could handle.

Then, suddenly, he realized something. God had answered his prayer. When Larry had asked God to stop that creature no matter what it was from destroying Larry's own creation, God had put a stop to it. God had run it off Larry's property. Larry had said prayers before, of course -- many times. And many times he felt as though, somehow or other, his prayer had been answered. But this was different. This was like splitting the Red Sea or telling the sun to stop in the sky! Well, maybe it wasn't that big -- but it was dramatic. Did this mean that Larry was a man of great faith? Was he some kind of Man of God as well as an artist?

The voice answered with a clear, parental sternness. "Larry, you must be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. I don't want you to think more highly of yourself than you should."

Larry jerked as if he had just been given a whack on his bottom. His heart settled into a more humble framework. Hesitantly, wondering whether he should have fallen on his knees some time ago, he asked, "Why did you show all this to me?"

"The evil you saw threatens a great many people. I want you to pray for some of them. Your work helps you to be loving and quiet and open. But I wouldn't overburden you. I want you to pray for them one person at a time."

Larry thought about the hours he had spent working on his art. Time seemed to pass differently when he was creating. The work did, indeed, transport him to a place where he felt content, yet also filled with energy. The mixture produced a generosity that had no hesitation in it. His thoughts weren't on himself, but on the art and on giving it to others. It would be easy to pray, to pray for hours on end, while working at his art.

Larry found that even in that moment's thought he had drifted away to that other place. As his eyes focused, he found he was staring at the ruined hood of the Marble Mobile. He turned and stared down the road in the direction of Jeffersonville. That thing might be walking through the streets, past the courthouse, past the video store -- the same places where people stood and waved whenever Larry drove by in his car. Larry ran his hand along some of the unmelted marbles on the hood. If that thing felt so much hatred for a simple gesture of friendship like this, he thought, what else has it been up to, walking up and down the road? What else did it hate? Then Larry remembered the children who always laughed and waved and ran alongside his glistening, colorful car. They appreciated his car more than anyone else.

"I want you to begin," said the voice, "with a little boy named Max."

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