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The Popcorn Man
    by Rodney Nelson (Volume 27: Page 256)

CHARACTERS:
Olvir and Ola, retired farmers
Lina, a woman in her forties
Egil Myra, the popcorn man
Arvid, a storekeeper
Olga, a middle-aged woman
Children
Crowd

In the late 1940s the Red River Valley (alias The Wapentake) still had a few itinerant merchants. One of these, who ordinarily considered himself a purveyor of joy, dreamed himself into a lot of trouble. Here follow the consequences of his atavism.

SCENE I

The streets of a small town. Two retired farmers, Olvir and Ola, are talking away the afternoon. They sit on a bench, left.
OLVIR (pointing): A car in the west. You see that, Ola?
OLA: I see it, Olvir, but I couldnít say
Which of the two it is, Jon Hansenís boy
Or Lina, daughter of Helmut Jensen.
OLVIR: Itís one of them, you can be sure of that.
OLA: Who else comes into town at three oíclock?
OLVIR: But look how slow they come. The cloud of dust
Is still the other side of Guttromsgaard.
OLA: Oh, that would be Jon Hansenís boy. You know
He lost his wallet somewhere there in spring
And every time he passes takes a look
In case the thing shines up.
OLVIR: I wish him luck,
And hope that Guttrom isnít watching him.
You know whose daughter he was courting then.
OLA: By all I heard it was Red-Ida.
OLVIR: No,
The one who chases cows. Sheís yellow-haired.
OLA: Red-Ida I could understand, because
She looks the double of the wife who died.
The Yellow-hair he shouldnít care about.
OLVIR: It was the fault of Hansen, Guttromís kin.
OLA: No, I donít think so.
OLVIR: Yes, I do think so.
In thirty-six Jon Hansen bought the field
That Guttrom lost on mortgage to the bank.
OLA: But Hansen let him take the hay.
OLVIR: And pay!
Thatís how he treats his motherís brotherís son.
Jon Hansen has no welcome on the gaard,
So why should Guttrom have the boy?
OLA: I heard
The kid was meeting Ida in the woods
One night, and as he left there came a shot
Out of nowhere. The kid not only lost
Both pockets but what he had inside there.
OLVIR: No, Ola, it was Yellow-hair the young.
She told her friend, Odd Vinjeís second girl,
That Guttrom hid the wallet in a drawer.
Vinjeís girl was serving by Jon Hansen
So she could give the boy a little news,
And seems to me the Yellow-hair had some
Good reason knowing what she did.
OLA: I think
The younger always acted go-between.
Red-Ida has a thing or two to hide.
OLVIR: No, I donít think so. Red-Ida might be
Exceptional in one respect -
OLA: Is she
Exceptional? (Laughs.)
OLVIR: - but, Ola, you admit
She tries to take the place her mother had?
OLA: Well, I donít know.
OLVIR (pointing): Well, we were wrong. Look up the road.
OLA: I see.
OLVIR: The car is almost halfway into town
From Guttromsgaard and still heís coming slow.
OLA: That cannot be Jon Hansenís boy.
OLVIR: It canít.
He always burns the tires afterward.
OLA: But whoís the dust there coming up behind?
OLVIR: I see a blue sedan; itís pulling in.
OLA: So here she is.
OLVIR: Just as I thought.
OLA: I knew
It all the time.
OLVIR: Yes.
OLA: If it isnít -
TOGETHER: Miss Lina, daughter of Helmut Jensen!
Enter Lina, a woman in her forties.
LINA: Is it Ola Sivertson and Olvir
Or do I see two crows? Be careful now,
If you stand up, the bench will soon get cold,
And Arvid wonder where the shade has gone.
OLVIR: You know, when Arvidís father had this store
There sat a team of men where two sit now.
This bench needs all the business it can get.
OLA: Miss Lina, we were yours and Arvidís age
When crops were cut by hand - but whatís the news
By way of Jensen?
LINA: Not so much compared
To coming here!
OLVIR: I know just what you mean.
OLA: We saw the blue sedan, but it was hard
To place the other.
LINA: A lazy mover!
A pickup truck with writing on the side.
I never saw a beard like his since Odd
Got shaving at the familyís request.
I doubt that we would know him.
OLVIR (looking off): So he comes!
OLA: Heís pulling in on Thorfinnís vacant lot.
OLVIR: A raspy rig if ever there was one!
LINA: Oh, now I see: it says ďThe Popcorn Man.Ē
OLVIR: ďPopcornĒ?
OLA: The stuff the younger eat at show.
Heís selling for some movie company.
LINA: He got here just in time - the school is out.
Enter the Popcorn Man surrounded by young children.
He is tall, grey-whiskered, and bald.

POPCORN MAN: I wear the dark brown corduroy
Of a plain professionless man,
I carry my fame in a beatup truck,
My wealth in a punctured can.
The children see when I approach
By dust on the Wapentake;
The yellow road has seven bumps
From sunset to daybreak.
I pop my corn in a vacant lot
Greasing the smiles of the town,
But what I do that self-same night
Makes all the people frown.
So what? Norwegians have forgot
And only I can say
The master word, and raise the fire
They blew out yesterday.
Cornís in the pan!
CHILDREN: Popcorn man! The popcorn man!
The Popcorn Man and the Children do a pantomime:
the distribution and eating of invisible popcorn.
POPCORN MAN: A nickle is the price I ask,
And ask no more of you!
CHILDREN: Three pennies for a bag of corn?
POPCORN MAN: And I will give you two!
Come, you small white-featherheads,
With the eyes and brows of an owl,
A pinch of corn and a joke of butter
Will trick that Nordic jowl!
Pop and gobble, gobble and pop,
Not what you eat at school!
CHILDREN: Teach us how to sing a song!
POPCORN MAN: Iíll be your teaching fool!
Cornís in the pan!
CHILDREN: Popcorn man! The popcorn man!
Enter Arvid.
ARVID (approaching): Hey there! Good day there!
POPCORN MAN: Good day there!
ARVID: Good day.
POPCORN MAN: Everyone have enough? Take all of it!
Forget the money! I donít want to see
One kernel left, so help me tip the pan.
Gone? Thank you, boy, that was a favor.
ARVID: How goes the business?
POPCORN MAN: One moment, sir.
Children, I have an announcement to make:
Thereís going to be a program tonight.
CHILDREN: Another program?
POPCORN MAN: Yes, but not at school.
Right here beside the popcorn truck Iíll build
A fire bigger than the bright full moon,
And sitting around it you will hear a song
And story - the rest is a dark secret.
Bring pennies if you can! But anyhow
Come watch and listen. You wonít be sorry
And I can promise that you will be full.
Remember - seven-thirty by the truck!
Exeunt Children, cheering.
ARVID: Nice day.
POPCORN MAN: Never a nice day for waiting.
ARVID: I tried to think where Thorfinn got this rig
But then I thought he rarely brings the car
Uptown at all, so even if he had
A thing like this, it wouldnít be right here.
He used to use this lot for a horseshoe court.
POPCORN MAN: So tell him I can pay the one nightís rent.
ARVID: Thorfinn? I hear heís out of town this week.
POPCORN MAN: Should I pay you then?
ARVID: I just wandered by
Because my wife came in to watch the store.
You see the mercantile around the bend?
POPCORN MAN: I see two older gentlemen as well.
ARVID: I guess I run that store. See the garage?
POPCORN MAN: I see some rusty pumps.
ARVID: I run that too.
POPCORN MAN: Well, you do know the town. Let me pay you,
In case the man named Thorfinn ďwanders by.Ē
I donít intend to seem a trespasser.
ARVID (becoming cool): My father wore a beard in the old days
Like others on the Wapentake, but now
We all stick close to the brush and razor.
Itís less a bother when youíre on the job.
POPCORN MAN: And did you hear of ingrown hairs? If not,
Itís just as well. I wouldnít lie to you.
The Myra men have gone to town in whiskers
Since Myra men were bald at confirmation.
(Slaps his pate.)
ARVID: If you want to know, they call me Arvid.
POPCORN MAN: They call me Egil Myra if they call.
ARVID: Myra, Myra? I guess you speak the Norse.
You could be from Stavanger or the north
Or someplace in between.
EGIL: Iím Icelander!
ARVID: Icelander! No, we have few of those
On the Wapentake. Weíre Gudbrandsdalers
For thirty miles whichever way you look,
And life goes pretty smooth, you can believe.
EGIL: That I believe. I know the Wapentake
From months of travel. Itís a well-kept place:
Well-kept people kept well in their places.
But, Arvid, youíre a businessman enough
To see my kind of trade is rather odd.
A gypsy life is what it has to be.
ARVID: In early days a big fellow like you
Was worth ten times his weight in pay, so how
Occurs it that he runs a popcorn van?
EGIL: Will you take my money for an answer?
Hereís three dollars. Thank you for the talk.
I have to catch a nap before the evening.
ARVID: Goodbye then.
EGIL: Goodbye, Arvid-Mercantile.
Exit Egil, right.
Arvid puts his hands in his pockets and whistles as he
rejoins Ola and Olvir. His fury is temporarily repressed.
OLVIR: Here comes the social visitor.
OLA: Iíd say
Here comes a man with murder on his mind.
OLVIR: Well, what do you know, Arvid?
ARVID (bursting out): Give me air!
It stank so bad I hardly could stand up!
No, no, Iím going right into the store
And get that animal a bar of soap!
Let me tell you, Olvir - listen Ola -
There is a yellow dog in town tonight!
A yellow dog! Donít say you didnít know.
You can do what you want, but as for me,
Iím taking down the shotgun on the wall.
OLA: Perhaps you want to talk it over, Arvid?
ARVID: We should talk - with poison on the street?
OLVIR: He looked unruly, but the kids werenít scared.
ARVID: Olvir, you know so much, well, tell me this:
What do you have to say of Egil Myra?
OLVIR: Egil Myra? Never heard of him.
OLA: Even I donít recognize the name.
ARVID: You never heard of a black Icelander
Who travels through the country burning schools?
Yes, that I said! I saw the yellow ape
Bragging to the children of what he did -
To scorch the schools, put teachers out of work!
No wonder they were glad, the little things
Who never saw a convict play his game.
Thatís Egil Myra, get you well the name!
OLA: But I donít see the fire.
Enter Lina.
LINA: Whatís all the noise?
OLVIR: Miss Lina, I donít know, to tell the truth.
LINA: This Arvid has a fist and not a face.
ARVID: Alright, Iíll settle down and talk to you.
Alright, just let me take a breath or two.
I want the people of this town to know
Whatís going on. You know me well enough.
There is a fire-fiend and maniac
Loose on the street - but you mustnít stampede.
Just listen to the plan I overheard.
At seven-thirty sharp, the yellow dog
Will raise a devilís fire on the lot
Thatís owned by Thorfinn Erikson of town.
The convict is aware that Reverend Boe
Put Satan in his grave some time ago,
And so he plans a bloody sacrifice
To wake the Demon. I can tell you this:
An eight-year-old will fall into the flames!
I didnít get the name or whose it is.
LINA: No, Arvid, if thatís so, we really should -
ARVID: Believe or donít! I go and warn the town!
Exit Arvid, left.
OLVIR: I wonder what the fellow said to him.
OLA: Remember Arvid when he was a boy?
Quick with the fist, unsteady with the tongue.
OLVIR: Unsteady talking, but was made for work;
And otherwise he wouldnít do so well.
LINA: I have some things to do, so I go home.
OLA: So drive with care.
OLVIR: Just like the popcorn man.
OLA: We see you off in case the rig wonít start.
Exeunt left.
Enter Egil, right. He yawns.

EGIL: These Wapentakers are as dreary as
The land they walk: a prairie in the head.
You canít escape their sight morning to night
Because horizons donít exist for them,
And one great lesson of the Wapentake
Is how to journey with a bladder-ache!
He lies down.
Egil, youíre talking to yourself again,
And what you say is dust in the sunlight.
Whoís my talking-partner, then? This Arvid-
Gudbrandsdal who murmurs like a he-cow?
I like my lonesome hour in the day
Bothered by no one and bothering none
Until the trouble starts. It always does
When I expose my hidden self to them.
For now, this dart of sun is all I want
Of company. Until it feathers down,
Let my breath move the dust of memory.
Puts a hand over his eyes.
I see a ship, high-masted; burning rock
Uphefted from the ice that barks the prow.
I see the name of Grim, or Skallagrim,
And Thorolf and his father in a cloud.
I see a cold white river -
Let if flow,
Poor Egil, or youíll man the axe in sleep
And cheat yourself and others of the gift.
Oh, yes, it should be kept bunged up like mead
For nights of ceremony, dribbled out
In ones and twos and threes and not released
At an axe-stroke.
Pure mead of poetry!
Goes to sleep.

SCENE II

Same. Early that evening. Lina and Olga (also in her
forties) are on the bench gossiping.

LINA: I heard just now that Ida was engaged
And thatís why Hansenís boy is not around.
Come to think of it, now where was she
At Hildrid Vinjeís social yesterday?
OLA: And I was serving through the afternoon
So anyone who came I would have seen.
Tíwere Borghild, Ardis, Thora and yourself,
Besides the Hildrid Vinje then and me,
But as for Ida not a sound was heard.
LINA: Well, Olga, there was Hildridís daughter too,
The one whoís living overít Hansensgaard.
OLA: She should have been there, Lina, but she came
When everything was through. Remember Ardis
Asking her the news of Hansenís younger?
LINA: It seems to me youíre right. And she would know!
Being friend to Guttromís other daughter.
OLGA: And then she snapped at Ardis, ďCanít you guess ?ď
LINA: No, that I didnít hear!
OLGA: Iím wondering
If Idaís in the middle of the scene.
LINA: There might be several, Olga! Anyway,
What said Hildrid Vinje to her daughter?
OLGA: We can just suppose. The day was over.
Odd Vinjeís tractor drove into the yard.
LINA: That Odd and Hildrid had a girl like that!
And Odd was always so considerate.
OLGA: Like when he shaved his beard, showing his face
And saving theirs.
LINA: Now I am reminded,
There came another beard in town today.
OLGA: A popcorn man, you say?
LINA: So you have heard.
OLGA: Twenty minutes on the phone was Arvid.
LINA: Oh.
OLGA: Then my boy had much to say of him.
LINA: Is he going too?
OLGA: I suppose he is,
If all the other kids have got to be.
Itís no use standing in the way of that.
LINA: But seven-thirtyís rather late.
OLGA: Did you,
Lina, form an impression of the man?
LINA (darkly): I got a few glimpses.
OLGA: But do you think -?
LINA: You know as well as I.
OLGA: Yes, I suppose.
LINA: We have responsibilities in this.
Enter Arvid accompanied by several men and children.
He seems to be in a jovial mood.

ARVID: I see the womenfolks have beat us here.
Olga, have you come to town because
You feared we couldnít handle it alone?
OLGA: If youíre alone, then so am I.
LINA: And as
For handling, you can try the ones youíve got.
Arvid and others laugh.
ARVID: When the cause is just, the people respond.
OLGA: Encouragement is justified as well.
It seems that Arvidís had a busy day.
ARVID: The truth it is. But now the people know,
And I forecast an unusual ending
To the game.
LINA: The game? Rather I should think
That kids would like this form of entertainment.
ARVID: I offered them another in its place.
(To the children.)
Tell Miss Lina if you know what to do!
CHILDREN: We do!
ARVID: And the men?
MEN: You bet!
LINA: Well, then,
I canít refuse to join you in the play.
OLGA: And women have a method of their own.
Enter Ola followed by Olvir.
ARVID: Is it Ola Sivertson out walking
And leaving Olvir at the game of cards?
Ah, there goes Olvir too. I really think
That few will stick at home this evening.
Hey, Ola! Going down to Thorfinnís lot?
OLA: It might be worth a peek. But as you say,
Heís a pretty dangerous customer.
ARVID: Did I say that? Perhaps it was a joke,
Or was I letting off a bit of steam?
I tell you, Ola, I am going too!
The fireís high, you better hurry up!
Arvid, Olga, Lina, and crowd move right. Olvir and Ola
bring up the rear.
OLVIR (to Ola): Goes Arvid to the program-show as well?
From what I heard he has a change of voice.
OLA: You know Arvid.
OLVIR: Thereís something kind of odd
With people driving thirty miles to hear.
Enter Egil, right.
EGIL: The fireís quick, the popperís packed, the moon
Stands broad in the east. I did not expect
Such throngs of big and little heads to come.
No doubt the children told their folks and they
Told all the grandfathers. Itís fine with me!
Let every walker on the Wapentake
Get off his feet and listen to my song!
More people arrive.
EGIL: Welcome, ladies, gentlemen and kids!
If I had known such stolid company
Was coming, Iíd have set up padded chairs.
But, as you see, the friendly earth is all
I can provide to ease your haunches,
And like the children you must use the grass.
Be glad of it! The things I have to tell
Go into the buried heart of childhood
Thatís living somewhere yet in you and me.
Now, arrange yourselves in a half-circle.
No one moves.
Do you prefer to stand? Well, suit yourself.
The ear is what I want, the limb is not.
Before the program starts, thereís an affair
We have to see about. Itís nothing hard.
And, if the children bring their nickles up,
We can get it over in a minute.
Popcorn! Five cents a bag! Food for the face!
Step forward, children, donít be the last one!
The crowd is silent.
No takers? Strange. I tell you what Iíll do.
The popcornís free, come get it while itís hot!
CHILD: Canít I have one bag of popcorn, mother?
OLGA: Shhh!
EGIL: Come here, my boy, and I will give you ten!
No response. Egil becomes serious.
So much for nonsense. Moneyís not my game,
Or Iíd be other than a popcorn man.
A drop of gas, tobacco for the pipe,
Some rye to put the salted herrings on,
Coffee to drink - thatís all I want and get.
My tradeís a living and excuse. Now hear!
His performance begins.
Long before the Wapentake was settled,
Your blood and mine dwelt on the high valleys
And the fjords of a forgotten kingdom.
Come back with me to Nine-hundred A.D.
The world was bright then, the wise had Odin,
Thor for the strong, and Balder for the good.
Our ships were masters of the Continent,
Our first King, Harald-Fairhair, was alive,
And we were poets, lovers, warriors!
What are we now? I come to tell you all
We were and have forgotten in our sleep!
Donít ask me who I am. This simple song
I dedicate to him whose name I bear.
Music. Towards the end of the song the children begin
laughing and screaming.
EGIL (singing): I sing the son of Skallagrim,
Born in the marsh of Borg;
Norwegian high-blood ran in him
And air of Iceland pricked the lung
When Egil grew at Borg.
The soul of every Myraman
Is river-strong and white.
The Viking has a portion there,
But of its poet, sober-tongued,
I sing my song tonight.
Old Egil had a word and way
In skaldcraft and in war;
First fell axes, then the word
To carve in dreams a fallen friend
Who showed a shape no more -
Noise becomes total. Music stops. Children pelt him.
EGIL (angry): So you have put the children against me!
Theyíre throwing rocks!
CHILD I: Werewolf!
CHILD II: Barn-burner!
CHILD III: Bum!
EGIL: They called him Werewolf many years ago.
You donít amuse me, nor can you hurt me;
The sword wonít bite a Myraman. Give up!
Who told you what to do?
ARVID: Keep throwing, kids!
Show him what you think of bums and killers!
LINA: Your kind has never had a welcome here!
OLGA: Go back to the pit that you belong in!
CHILDREN: Iceland-liar! Fire-fiend! Yellow-mouth!
EGIL (laughing): Itís Arvid-Enterprise! My three dollars
Were not enough, it seems. Perhaps youíd like
Payment of another kind?
ARVID: Shut your trap,
Trickster, or Iíll put you underground!
EGIL: A Viking canít turn down a deal like that!
Arvid attacks Egil, who lifts him up and throws him.
Great commotion.
LINA: The demonís gone berserk! Watch out the kids!
OLGA: Arvidís in the air! The men are running!
LINA: They didnít even burn the truck as planned!
After throwing Arvid, Egil dispatches several others in
like fashion. Crowd retreats.
EGIL (shouting): I speak for Egil Skallagrimsson now!
You Wapentakers wonít even defend
What you say you believe in! Youíre scared
Before you know it, and you sacrifice
The kids so you wonít have to look at me!
And now, like Egil, I will say no more.

SCENE III

Same. Early next morning. Ola and Olvir are again seated on the bench.
OLA: But tell me, Olvir, did you go see him?
OLVIR: I did. No busted bones, though for himself
Per Arvid did no talking.
OLA: I believe
The other fellow got away by night.
OLVIR: You saw the fight?
OLA: Oh, I was pretty close.
He was a big man, raw-boned, heavy of lip
And jaw and bald as a ball on the head.
The beard was grey enough to suit a wolf,
Although Iíd guess his age to be no more
Than that of Hansen.
OLVIR: Icelanders are rough.
Itís funny neither Hansen nor the kid
Was there. And Yellow-hair stood with Lina.
OLA: No, Olvir, I was right in front and saw
Red-Ida standing arm-in-arm with her.
OLVIR (after a pause): I guess I have to ask Lina myself.
OLA (yawning): And she wonít come in town till three oíclock.

CURTAIN.

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