It is on a cool Saturday morning in the late spring of 1966 that the residents of the sleepy northern town of Baker City, Michigan, find themselves on the sidewalk, adjusting their clothing and speaking in hushed nervous tones. The Big City has come to them and, consequently, everyone is scrubbed, trimmed, polished and dressed in their Sunday best, as they crowded along Main Street. In the newly cleaned shop windows, merchandise and drably-dressed mannequins take a back seat to the large banners fashioned out of paper and bed sheets splashed brightly with his name and the word ‘Welcome!’
It has been planned that the parade will start at the parking lot of Baker City City Hall where Sheriff Winston Baker, a “big fan of Mr. Cowboy Kingsley”, has offered his own men, a significant troop of church-going volunteers who have served patriotically in the European theater and Korea. His men will help, he says, keep away all the “unwanted, possibly communistic elements” who might try to meddle or disturb the American hero. And so, seemingly, “without a hitch,” the sheriff will later tell the newspapers, the good men of Baker City have shown that it too is an international city, of sorts. “Everyone who visits the town of Baker City, just off interstate 75, finds that our apple pies, baked by our ladies in the church social committee, are among the best in the world! In fact, the best bakers are in the state of Michigan. Come to Baker City and try one yourself!”
The City Hall lot is on the eastern edge of town. Main Street runs along an east-west axis, taking up six blocks. Near the end of this street, past the one bar, stands the former Alexandria Hotel, a once popular establishment, which experienced a number of years of questionable repute before finally being forced to shut down by Sherriff Winston Baker Sr. This hotel has a neo-classic exterior that over time has been rendered, by the sun, wind, rain and snow, a dull, lifeless grey. “Its upper windows always seemed to reflect an overcast dismal day, even when the weather is perfect, which it usually is!” reports the cheerful and outspoken Mrs. Yukiko Nakanishi, wife of Howard Nakanishi, and the town’s only Japanese barber. On the day of the parade all of the lower windows of the Alexandria Hotel are boarded up; the paint along the fascia above the seventh-floor windows is cracked and chipped, and a large rusted chain is wrapped around the unpolished door handles of the entrance.
The truth is, the Alexandria Hotel is a blot on the otherwise unblemished face of the town of Baker City. Sherriff Winston Baker remembers this unfortunate fact only the night before the parade, while lying in bed next to his wife, Mrs. Patsy Baker. After some discussion, they both agree confidently that the citizens of Baker City will most likely congregate between Thurston Baker Avenue and Anita Edison Baker Street - an area they identify on a map Mrs. Baker has drawn with a steady hand in her diary. However, several people note that the population of Baker City seems to double that day, and conjecture that many townsfolk from Brinton and Iroquois Valley have come to enjoy the event. In any case, where the parade is to turn off, at Main Street and Samuel Austin Baker Road, the corner where the Alexandria Hotel stands, towards the Baker Mill, people are said to be “falling off the sidewalk.” And interestingly, interviews conducted with a number of townspeople over the years has corroborated the theory put forth later by Vice Deputy Thelonious Andrew Burns, a distant cousin of Winston Baker, that the Sheriff is most likely placing the autographed Stetson he’s received from Abe Zzyzzer in his office safe on the other end of town when, at 11:20 am, just as the open Lincoln of Kingsley Kuchner (AKA Cowboy Kingsley) is coming around the slow curve in the road, and moving towards the Alexandria Hotel.
The entire visit is intended to be like a number of visits that are to occur over a two-week period across seven states that spring. It has been noted that the event, in fact, should have been utterly forgotten.
On this day, nearly fifty energetic fifteen, sixteen and seventeen-year-old girls, dressed in red and silver spangled body leotards, spin their way down Main Street while the Winston Baker Senior High School Marching Band thunders and crashes in the rear. It is dazzling. And those watching, frankly, don’t know where to look. Young girls’ legs shoot forward, then back again; batons fly into the air and twirl above. A lanky boy marching at the back with a large white bass drum fastened to his torso pounds with such ferocity that many say their bellies begin to ache with excitement. “By God!” elderly Augustus Garfield is reported to say, “those girls and that marching band made everyone dizzy!” There is so much youth and energy that day, it doesn’t feel like a regular Saturday. In fact, it doesn’t feel like Baker City.
Indeed, it feels like a magic trick. It is electric.
But there is more. Moving alongside the marching band you will notice the large plush cartoon characters. They are the ones we all knew, like the duck and the pig and the large dog from those cartoons the kids are all watching at this time. And they wave to the crowd and the crowd waves back. Everyone smiles. Yes, everyone is very happy. (They have no idea of the devastating event intended for them...)
“And, best of all,” says Yukiko Nakanishi, “among those guys, towering high above, was Mike the Rat. Yep! Mike the Rat watched the others do a cartwheel and, despite his very large head, he did one too! Right here on Baker City’s Main Street! I got a photo!”
“Mike the Rat!” screams Mrs. Nakanishi. “Mister Mike the Rat!”
Mike the Rat turns his entire torso away from her, towards the marching band, then folds his arms, then he drops them. He doesn’t know, it seems, where to put them. They dangle there for a moment then one rises up and a large, dark grey three-fingered hand scratches his groin. Since Mike the Rat is no longer synchronized with the others those watching anticipate he might execute a series of distinctive dance steps that would then be mimicked by the other cartoon characters. He doesn’t, however. In fact, “he didn’t really seem to fit in at all!” some later will state. “He was just walking in the parade like he had some place to go. …He looked like he needed a cigarette, or something.” Also, he isn’t costumed in a cowboy theme as all others are. He is dressed, incomprehensibly, as a house painter, and frankly, in retrospect, people say he looked “drab,” “even tattered.”
Up ahead, one of the girls stumbles and everyone holds their breath and look sad, but she quickly gets right back in step. And the awkward moment is gone. As this is occurring Mike the Rat steps through the marching musicians, crosses the street, and disappears into the mob of spectators.
Mike the Rat catches his breath and watches languidly as the Baker’s City Senior High School marching band passes by. Pulling out a pack of cigarettes and matches from beneath his black velveteen outer layer he then proceeds to light up. He isn’t missed; in fact, he realizes, it is as if he hasn’t even been in the parade that everyone before him is screaming about. He feels invisible. This creates within him a conflict of emotions. On the one hand, it suits his aims perfectly; on the other hand, it makes him want to smack the back of the head of the old lady in front of him. After a moment the feeling subsides, however. He reminds himself that the tempo of their tiny beating hearts will gradually lose vigor, and that the joy and beauty of ‘the moment’ will fade as the exigencies of coming days colonized their thoughts. Such small brains, he says to himself. Also, he notes, everyone around him is dressed terribly. Really. It is as if big fat ties have been on sale for months in this disgusting place.
With his characteristic equanimity he turns his powerful mind to the passing boys and girls, and the task at hand. Several blocks up Main Street at the entrance to the City Hall parking lot Mike the Rat sees - through the mesh in his throat - a line of sturdy-looking men stepping aside to let a convertible Lincoln pull onto the road. Kingsley Kuchner, in a very large cowboy hat and greasepaint mustache is visible, sunk deep in his seat. Next to him, a beautiful blond woman is smiling. Who, he wonders, is she? Before this woman, sitting shotgun in the front seat, is that weasel, Abe Zzyzzer, Cowboy Kingsley’s agent and manager - waving with his arms fully extended, like searchlights. Zzyzzer is grinning broadly. Even from the distance at which the man stands looking through the mesh in the throat of the Mike the Rat costume Zzyzzer’s conspicuous dental work is obvious. White and enormous, each tooth is distinguishable.
The man in the rat costume decides at that moment he would kill Abe Zzyzzer second.
Mike the Rat, or rather, the tall slouching man in the suit, raises the cigarette to the mesh and pushes his lips against it from the inside. For a moment he struggles to get his lips around the end of the cigarette - the mesh is so goddam inflexible - but after some effort the nicotine slides deliciously down his throat and fills his lungs. He holds it for a moment and exhales, feeling more determined. A stream of blue smoke drifts out through the mesh in the neck and hangs around the large rat head, forming a halo. Watching the parade, he pats his torso with his large gloved hands and hears the keys to his Cadillac jingle. Despite the thickness of the various layers of velveteen, he can make out the wooden handle and hard metal of the various parts of the large rifle tied within the interior of the costume. He finishes off the cigarette and flicks it just (barely over) the heads of the spectators towards a skinny teenager struggling to keep a pair of cymbals up at the height of his eyes.
He’s ready to kill.
Just as the man in the rat costume is about to turn he feels a small tug on his leg, as if it is stuck on a nail, or a tree branch.
“Hey. Hey Mike the Rat. Mike the Rat!” a small voice cries. “Mike the Rat! Over here!” The man grabs the rat head and, angling it forward, looks around his feet, straining to locate the origin of the voice. “HERE!” implores the voice. “…Can’t you SEE me?!”
Mike the Rat spins around twice and stops at a small male child in overalls staring up at him with large wide eyes.
“Mike the Rat! We’re both wearing overalls! …Can I have your autograph?”
“What? Whadya want?” asks a gruff disoriented voice from within the large rat head.
The boy freezes and stares up at the head and looks into the dead eyes of the large velveteen cartoon character. He can sense something is wrong, but his excitement makes him unable to identify it.
“Can I have your autograph?” he asks uncertain.
“Uh??? No. Not now kid...”
The man looks around the crowd then puts a hand on the boy’s small head and pushes the kid behind him. The man tramps towards the street corner.
“AAAAH COME ON! MIKE THE RAT!!!!” the boy shouts, catching up to him.
“I can’t spell!” he says over his shoulder, “I’m on my break! Go a-way!”
The boy watches, incredulous, as Mike the Rat turns and continued on. Impulsively, he reaches for the rat’s tail with both hands and digs his feet into the ground. Mike the Rat pushes on for a few steps, dragging the boy, but then loses his balance and stumbles against a wall of people. The people stumble forward, keeping their eyes on the parade. Cowboy Kingsley is coming!
“Mike the Rat! Mike the Rat! Mike! the! Rat!”
‘Mike the Rat’ stops and swings around. He bends over the boy who stands by his side and the boy finds himself deep in the shadow of the large ominous head. Again, the dead eyes of the velveteen head stare at him but this time he can hear something he didn’t hear before: breathing. The boy can also smell nicotine, and the acridness of a troubled and unwashed body. The boy’s eyes travel along the soft texture of the fabric until they find the mesh. At first, he wonders, confused, why there is mesh on the neck of Mike the Rat. Then his small, blinking eyes adjust to the darkness inside. Behind the mesh, coming into focus, he sees the tiny, blood-shot eyes, and then, the unshaven face of what seems to be a dying old man. The man’s mouth moves closer to the mesh and the boy’s shoulders rise. A spectator, just a few feet away, Mrs. Nakanishi, smiles at what she regards as a tender moment, remembering her own children sitting on the lap Santa Claus the previous December. Then she turns back to the parade. Almost touching the boy’s ear, the old man’s lips move and the boy hears him speak, as soft as a whisper but within it a sound like the crackle of a broken wind-up toy, “FUCK… OFF… KID.”
The boy turns 180 degrees and runs as fast as he can, disappearing around the side of the Alexandria Hotel.
All along the road for more than five blocks, the sidewalk, on both sides, is jam-packed with fans spilling over with nervous excitement. Near the barbershop, the civility of the mob is beginning to show cracks: the open Lincoln is approaching. Before it several rows of police cars glide forward at a snail’s pace. In the front car, next to the driver, where Sheriff Winston Baker is supposed to be, the seat is vacant. Directly behind this, Vice-Deputy Thelonious Andrew Burns smiles enigmatically and waves to the crowds. Fans push and step upon each other’s feet to catch a glimpse of the approaching vehicle and the great Cowboy Kingsley.
Eddy, the woman next to Kingsley Kuchner, waves with extra vigor. Zzyzzer still has both arms in the air and it is evident that his shoulders are beginning to ache. (In fact, he is in the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome. If the parade progresses much longer he’ll be unable to use his arms for some time.) Kingsley, his elbow braced on the top of the door, moves his hands back and forth mechanically. He seems to be looking at the door handle.
“Cowboy Kingsley!” Abe shouts with a big smile, as if they were having the time of their lives, “Are you hungry?! Do you want a cheeseburger?!” He holds up the bag from the Golden Bakery Burger he’d been given in the parking lot of City Hall. Kingsley ignores him. Zzyzzer takes out a burger and partially unwraps it. Kingsley watches Zzyzzer’s hand extending over the seat with the burger. “Kingsley! Are you hungry? Do you want a cheeseburger? …Kingsley?” Kingsley looks up at Zzyzzer. “Kingsley! Change arms man! You’re going to get a cramp. Eddy, nudge him, will you?”
Eddy nudges him, and bites her lip. Kingsley raises his other arm, holding this up by the elbow with his opposite hand.
“Do you want a cheeseburger?” Zzyzzer asks again.
Kingsley takes the sandwich and with his teeth tears off a chunk the shape of a half moon. Masticating slowly, he senses the silence enveloping the spectators. Forcing down a large chunk of the partially chewed sandwich, he looks from face to face and is struck by a longing in their eyes. He also sees the cowboy hats, and the chaps. The fanatics. The crazies. An ecstatic-looking woman holds a red bandana with the ends tied together in a knot. It is identical to the one around his neck. She moves the twisted material with delicate fingers in a clockwise direction, and seems to be muttering. He takes another bite - a large one this time - and chews, watching her lips move. Then he understands. He doesn’t need to hear what she was saying; he can easily read her lips, grasp the rhythm and meter: “Once upon a time there was a fluffy blue-jay who was very kind / his feathers were blue except for a small white patch on his tummy that made him unlike any other bird in the entire material world. End of Revelation Number One.” She is reciting the story he has told across America. She has it memorized. She continues on, seemingly without breathing. And her eyes are upon him, though she looks through him as if he is merely the form (which represents the eternal).
Nothing good can come of this.
Room 415 of the Alexandria Hotel overlooks the passing parade. Except for the card table littered with beer bottle caps, beer bottles and a filled ashtray, the room is empty. A pair of black dress shoes and socks with the heels worn down lays discarded in the corner where they’ve been kicked off a number of years earlier. Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust and this gives the room a sepia, old-photograph appearance. Above the excited screams, the fading boom of the percussion and the still disciplined execution of the marching band’s wind instruments (which at that moment are passing around the back of the hotel), the pounding of approaching feet rises into the stale air.
The door to room 415 is flung open and two black velveteen rat feet storm in. In the middle of the room, with a swing of an arm, the three-fingered hand sends the ashtray, beer bottles and caps off the card table and into the air. The objects smash against the wall and scatter on the worn wooden floor. A cloud of dust rises in the soft grey light that passes through the nearly opaque windows and the gloved hands grips the edge of the table and drags it through the broken class and cigarette butts. When the table reaches the wall the hands push it to the left of the windows.
Slouching in the window and peering through the dirt-encrusted glass, the large cartoon rat plunges his hand through an opening in the thick black velveteen of his torso and tears out objects from the inner lining. These objects he lays on the table and then he unfolds a large diagram. Looking at the latter, he raises a large rat foot and scratched the ankle on the opposite leg, then returns to the window and pushes it open. Pressing his large Mike the Rat head against the window frame, the man strains to see up the street through the mesh of the neck.
Three blocks from the Alexandria Hotel Kingsley is waving and smiling with a pained expression. He can sense the silence expanding up the street - as he approaches - like a grass fire. Twice more he sees individuals - one man in his thirties with raised eyebrows that ripple his forehead and a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman with lips pursed - who seemed to be looking through him as they rotate red bandanas in their hands and their mouths form the words of the text they’ve memorized. Somehow, Kingsley imagines, their lips seem to be in sync. And those whose lips are not moving are either smiling so intensely that it looks like their heads will explode, or they are slack-jawed, like former electroshock therapy patients. Kingsley imagines he can see his image entering their pupils and moving through their frontal cortexes.
Above, in room 415, the man rips off the three-fingered gloves and throws them out of the way. He then grabs the rat head by the ears, pulls it off his head and drops it onto the floor. It bounces, rolls under the table and remains there, grinning. Leaning over the table, the man laces his fingers together and cracked his knuckles and as he does this his pinky ring sparkles. After a moment, he wipes his sweaty face and runs his hands through his thinning and unwashed hair. Looking at the diagram on the card table he rotates it counter-clockwise, then spins it around in the opposite direction. Next, he clears his throat and moves the parts of the dissembled rifle around on the table, making an effort to have them more closely resemble those in the diagram. He glares at the diagram, then the pieces and takes a deep breath. “Uhhhhhhm…” After a moment, with rising confidence, he grabs the long wooden handle, spins it in his hand, and reaches for a second piece. Pushing it against the base of the rifle, to his surprise, he feels and hears it snap together. Finally, when the sawed-off barrel of the rifle has been attached, when the assembly of the rifle is complete, the man removes a rope tied around his waist and picks up the rat head. Pushing the barrel of the rifle through the opening of the cartoon rat head (where his own head had come out only minutes before) he watches as the tip of the rat nose extends out from the face. With the rope the man ties the rat head snuggly around the barrel of the rifle then sticks his large rat leg out the window and sits on the ledge.
High above the street, the man in the rat costume turns his attention to Kingsley and the approaching vehicle. Instead of finding a noisy and excited crowd below he finds himself looking out over an eerily quiet mass. All along the road it seems that perhaps thousands of lifeless mannequins, dressed as townspeople, have been placed on the sidewalk for the parade. All is static, except for the arms of Zzyzzer, the woman and Kingsley and the car inching forward. It is so quiet, in fact, the man can hear the engine purring as it nears.
“That’s it. Wave goodbye,” the man says, a little too loud. And Kingsley hears it.
Kingsley’s face freezes. To his disbelief he is thinking that yet another voice is in his head. The man in the window watches. He knows the expression profoundly and so recognizes the beginning of rising anxiety in Kingsley’s face.
The man blinks and adjusts his buttocks on the window ledge where one leg hangs into the street. Though every movement feels amplified, his presence above on the windowsill goes unnoticed. And with this realization, again, like earlier, he feels his blood pressure rise, and his face flush. He raises the large extended rat head and looks straight along it, past the tip of the nose where the end of the rifle lays hidden beneath, to Kingsley in the distance.
He feels his heart thumping in his ribcage and the rising heat of euphoria. Then, he is struck by a vision. In his eyes the sun flashes down on him at intervals, partially blinding him. On both sides he feels his arms and shoulders slapped by long cool leaves. All about him dark green corn stalks shoot up. He can see the sun shining through the green of the leaves, see it curling around the stalks. He can feel his young legs pushing him forward through the field. Then he turns back, afraid to see who might be following...
The man blinks and realizes he is wearing a cartoon rat costume, that he is holding a rifle. He sees the filthy, abandoned hotel room and feels the window ledge below him. For a moment he wonders how he’d come to be here. His lips are dry. Below, he sees the expanding whites of the eyes of Kingsley in a large convertible and his big forehead. Such an easy target, the man notes, remembering why he is there. Then, he hears the murmur, the multitudinous voices speaking in unison, rising from the people, and from Kingsley, a tuneless, irritating hum. Kingsley, panicking, is blinking uncontrollably as his nervous, uncontrollable humming rise in volume. The man watches him fidget, this fidgeting growing in intensity. He sees Kingsley gasping for air and then his eyes dart about his head, as if in search of an escape from his own body. To the man’s surprise, Kingsley reaches into his holster and grabs the ivory handles of the toy Colt 45s. Seeing this, the man’s heart begins to smash against his internal organs. He slides his hand down the base of the rifle – now shaking - and finds, inside the interior of the rat head, the cold metal of the rifle. Kingsley raises the pistols high into the air and begins firing off caps, one after the other. CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! In response, the crowd does the same and the street is filled with the explosion of gunfire. Smoke rises from the guns of the pedestrians. The man in the rat costume locks the rifle on Kingsley’s chest, panicking, and pulls the trigger towards his chin. Abruptly, the nose of the rat explodes – BAAAM!! - and the man falls back into the hotel room. Then, the window crashes down on his left leg.
On the street, everyone watches with an electric intensity as Cowboy Kingsley’s Stetson rises into the air above his head, and rotates twice, in opposing directions. (This incident will be reported first in the local papers before being picked up nationally by television, radio and print. As the world knows, this will become known as ‘The Baker City Hat Incident.’)
Forensics suggests (and there is continuing and considerable debate regarding the matter) that the bullet left the rifle and passed over the heads of the spectators that day. However, this bullet, upon striking a very hard object, such as the metal street sign fastened the previous week to the building opposite the hotel, ricocheted and passed through Kingsley Kuchner’s large Stetson cowboy hat, forcing it into the air. However, having passed through the hat, this same bullet again struck a second hard object and was “miraculously” sent back in the direction of the car. Here it passed through the spinning hat once more, causing it to rotate in the opposite direction. This interpretation is generally considered the most conventional. Strong evidence, such as the four holes that are said to exist in the Stetson cowboy hat - presently being held by the Ivan Von Noshrilgram Foundation of Manhattan - support this. In spite of this, it was in the spring of 1966 that a new sense began to emerge concerning what and who Kingsley Kuchner represented in the minds of the American public.
In any case, moments later a large rat foot descended from above and struck Mrs. Nakanishi on the forehead, leaving a scar that she says she has to this day. And, though, it has not been corroborated, the high-pitched scream of, perhaps, a woman, and the distinct thud of a body falling onto a wooden floor, was reported by anonymous sources.