Experiment #314

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 1

The famed young inventor, Jeremiah Brown, got up on stage at Stapleton’s theatre to display his newest invention: an automatic conscience. A breathless moment followed where the standing-room-only crowd stared at what seemed to be an empty table. One confused little boy in the crowd called out, “There’s nothing there, Mommy!”

The crowd burst into laughter.

***

As problems came up among the various people in his town, a teenaged Jeremiah Brown began to invent solutions. As he grew toward manhood the problems also grew, but so did his inventions and thereby his fame.

Early in Jeremiah’s career, Mrs. Elspeth Peterson’s dog, Scrappy—whose previous owner had somehow given him a taste for burying mail—buried her inheritance check along with her house keys. Jeremiah invented a machine that dug a hole and sifted the dirt. Nearly two weeks and a ton of sifted dirt later, they found the keys and the check. But they also found a large supply of mail that Mrs. Peterson’s neighbor, a Mr. Samuel Blivins, had never received. The cache included twelve love letters from what had, up until then, been an unrequited love affair a decade prior.

Some time later, Mr. Clive Stapleton, the owner of the old theatre in town, came to Jeremiah. The traveling show, Dowdy & Furlong Sing the Hits, wanted to have a show there on their way through the county. The show, however, required a mid-performance lighting change that the old theatre was ill-equipped to handle. Mr. Stapleton feared they’d skip the town altogether if he couldn’t find a solution. Jeremiah did not disappoint. He built a series of pulleys, counterweights, and control levers that allowed a stagehand to switch configurations at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, an overzealous technician switched too quickly between configurations during Dowdy’s rousing opening number. The precisely timed gears fell out of sync, interlocked, and ripped each other from their moorings. The ceiling split down the middle, nearly bringing the house down and causing a general evacuation of the theatre.

Mr. Stapleton stood in the aisle and wept as the ceiling and his dreams fell around him. But the crack revealed a long-forgotten attic and a hoard of antique costumes, sealed away from the tyranny of time and moths. The auction of the items provided enough money for a complete restoration of the theatre. And, notably for Jeremiah, it also provided a small monthly stipend for Jeremiah to continue his work.

If these two clever contraptions had not elevated him above the average tinkerer, the contraption he made for Mayor Billy “Bluster” Brewins—and its public spectacle—solidified his position as the best inventor in the state. Mayor Brewins had gotten himself into quite a pickle. He triple-booked the town square during the annual town fair.

Mrs. Petunia Fairchild, as the chair of the Daughters of the Republic, believed her claim to be the most salient. The Daughters had “always”held their pie-eating contest during the town fair, and they “always”held it in the town square, and “everyonein town” would expect them to be there.

But Mr. James Hodges of the Knights of Kildaire had completed his group’s paperwork first. He refused to allow any encroachment on the Knights’ annual chili competition, particularly since he had the location “fair and square.”

Mrs. Virginia Lord, representing the Silver Key Club and its annual Miss Silver Key competition, however, took issue with the “fair” portion of that statement. She accused the Knights of bribing the mayor’s secretary with chocolates and flowers. Mr. Hodges claimed it to be a natural matrimonial gift, as he had been married to the mayor’s secretary for the better part of two decades. “Should the corruption be eradicated,” Mrs. Lord told Mayor Brewins in harsh and holy tones, “my claim and my paperwork are the strongest.”

Experiment #315

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 2

As is typical with politicians, Mayor Brewins agreed with whichever constituent he was speaking to at the moment, and pledged his defense of their claim to the death. No headway could be made, and all three parties threatened to boycott the event.

To solve this problem, Jeremiah Brown built a giant Ferris wheel on top of the town square. He affixed three great platforms to the wheel so that they could be moved on and off the ground, powered by four locomotive engines. Each group could claim a platform and have their event at the same time, in the same place, with the added attraction of the widest Ferris wheel in the world. Though, given the scope of the project, no one knew for certain (including Jeremiah) whether the contraption would work.

On the day of the town fair, the contraption performed beautifully. The only incident that marred the fair came from Jeremiah’s own assistant, Mr. Francis Garmen. Having been spurned by a young lady, he mixed too much whiskey with too much pie. He climbed over the safety rail and fell off the edge of the Daughters of the Republic’s platform. Luckily for him, the platform was close to the ground at that particular time. Unluckily for them, a group of ladies waiting to perform in the Miss Silver Key competition broke his fall. Though no one was hurt in the incident, Mr. Garmen found himself removed from the “eligible bachelor” category for more than half of the town’s most eligible bachelorettes.

A curious situation followed. Several townspeople claimed to see Mr. Brown grabbing Mr. Garmen’s shirt collar with both hands. Any words exchanged were inaudible to all the witnesses. And, even if Mr. Brown’s reaction was unusual, no one could blame him given Mr. Garmen’s behavior.

After he solved the Mayor Brewins fiasco, people from all over the state sought out Jeremiah and his talents. Friends, neighbors, politicians, office workers, farmers, technicians, and more brought their problems to his door. He kept his workshop open until all hours of the night, only closing it for a few grudging hours of sleep. But he always took Sundays off to escort Miss Amelia Tibbits to church. Then they’d go for a stroll among the mighty fine azalea bushes that peppered the Tibbits’ family farm in the spring.

They spoke of many things, but Amelia preferred philosophy. She enjoyed verbal sparring and the repartee that controversial ideas brought. Jeremiah had, until now, found people in general, and the fairer sex in particular, boring and devoid of the topics that interested him. If they weren’t bringing him a problem to solve or machines to invent, he’d rather not be bothered. In Miss Tibbits’s companionship, though, he never felt bored; he also felt well out of his league. Whenever she looked at him with her clear, blue eyes, he felt ready to propose on the spot just to prevent her from getting away. Fear of her answer, either way, always stopped him, though.

A number of months after they began their Sunday ritual, Amelia said, “Mr. Brown, I’ve just been over to Mr. Montclair’s restaurant. Did you build that automatic dish cleaner for him?”

Jeremiah smiled with modest pride. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “Took me almost a week to work out the pressure and gears and such. Much more complicated than I’d expected.”

“Did you think about the impact of your work?”

Although he had enjoyed Miss Tibbits’s companionship for some time, he had not yet learned the signs of an oncoming storm. “Cleaner dishes with half the water and half the time,” he replied in a jolly tone.

“And half the people.”

Jeremiah furrowed his brow; clearly she was not aiming for a compliment.

Experiment #316

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 3

“You’ve met my friend, Miss Valerie Fontaine, haven’t you?” Amelia asked. “She works across the street. According to her, Mr. Montclair fired all but one of his dishwashers.”

“Well, I’m sorry about that, but it’s Mr. Montclair’s restaurant. He paid for the machine. I can’t tell him what to do with it.”

“Miss Fontaine went on to say that the Olde Towne Diner next door and Frisco’s Saloon across the street have both fired all their dishwashers. They are paying Mr. Montclair to wash their dishes.”

“I’m sorry for them too. The blame belongs to the men who did the firing. They could have moved them to other jobs or done something different.”

They walked for a few paces in silence.

“Did you also invent Mrs. Juniper’s purse?” she asked. “Or, rather, a secret compartment for her purse?”

“Well, yes,” he said, finding himself at the wrong end of a pistol, but unsure of its exact target. “She wanted to protect her valuables from street thugs.”

“Unless your definition of street thugs is shop clerks and cashiers, I’d say your faith in Mrs. Juniper is misplaced. Store inventory seems to disappear at an alarming rate when Mrs. Juniper is around. She has been barred from every store in town while wearing your purse.”

“Every store?”

“Every store.

“And lest we forget about Mr. Clifton, we should also discuss how he borrowed your automatic hole digger from Mrs. Peterson. The next morning Colonel Rotan, you know, the retired army sharpshooter, found his lawn full of holes. Mr. Clifton apparently wanted to best him in the annual lawn care competition,” she said, then added, almost to herself, “Why you’d anger a sharpshooter, I sure don’t know.”

“If-if-if,” Jeremiah spluttered, finally finding the bull’s-eye on his chest. “If I were to try and anticipate all the terrible ways my inventions could be used, I wouldn’t have time to invent anything else. The problem is people. People need to be responsible for their own actions.”

“Inventors included,” she said with satisfaction. For her this was mostly an academic exercise, more about winning an argument than assigning blame. She wanted the injustice ended, but she didn’t place the blame on Jeremiah. That did not stop him from pulling it onto his shoulders.

Irritation and anger sent his voice up an octave. “Well, I can’t just hand out a conscience with every invention.”

Amelia laughed. She walked on a few paces until she realized Jeremiah was no longer beside her. She looked back. Jeremiah had stopped walking. His anger had clicked off in the wake of the endless possibilities that rushed through his mind.

“Is something the matter?” Amelia asked.

“People are the problem,” he said.

“What are you talking about?”

Jeremiah’s eyes brightened. He spluttered something incoherent and took off the way they had come.

Experiment #317

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 4

Jeremiah went straight to his workshop and began to build. When customers showed up the next morning, he hadn’t stopped. Francis made some excuses for his employer and scheduled the customers for a week from Thursday. Jeremiah sometimes got into these building moods and, within a week, Francis was sure, he’d have gotten it out of his system. But a week from Thursday came and went without the display of any prototype or blueprint or sketch that might hint at what Jeremiah had in mind. Francis began scheduling things a month out. But the month came and went, and Jeremiah had not turned from his project.

With customers frantic for solutions to their problems, Francis began taking orders himself. He was by age several years Jeremiah’s senior, but in creativity and inventiveness he remained, by several degrees, Jeremiah’s junior. His inventions somehow lacked imagination. But convenience often wins over quality, and Francis’s schedule overflowed.

Before long, the entire town was gossiping about what Jeremiah’s invention might be. They wondered what sort of thorny problem could require such energies from someone so brilliant. Townsfolk sprinkled “world peace,” “ending hunger,” and “cold fusion” over conversations like salt over popcorn. Each fished for information from the other, and the hype grew to inconceivable proportions.

***

Somewhat to her surprise, Amelia missed Jeremiah terribly. She missed sitting next to him in church, the long walks they would take on Sunday afternoons, and the verbal sparring over ideas and philosophies. One Sunday, rather than walk by herself among the azalea bushes, she walked over to Jeremiah’s workshop and knocked on the door.

“Miss Tibbits,” Francis said with a grin as he opened the door, “how nice of you to stop by and see us. I have some inventions I’d love to show you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Garmen, but I came to see Mr. Brown,” Amelia said. She looked past his wandering eye and down the hall.

“I’ll see if he’s available,” Francis said. He took a step away then turned back to her. “If you don’t mind my saying, Miss Tibbits, any man who can’t stop his work to take you out is a fool and unworthy of the pleasure.”

“Thank you kindly, Mr. Garmen, but I do mind. I think I’ll find Mr. Brown myself.”

Francis pointed down the hallway and slunk away to his unimaginative inventing.

Amelia followed Francis’s directions. Near the end of the hallway, light flickered and waved at her from a half-open doorway.

She knocked. When she received no answer, she pushed the door open. She saw Jeremiah sitting with his back to her. All around him lay a garden of gadgets and gizmos and a sea of books on everything from mechanics to psychology.

“Mr. Brown!” she called. “Oh, Mr. Brown!”

Jeremiah did not respond.

“Mr. Brown,” she called louder.

Jeremiah still did not respond.

“Jeremiah!” she shouted.

When he turned and saw Amelia, his face spread into a wide smile. “Amelia!” he said.

“Well, hello, Mr. Brown,” she said holding her arms out as he wrapped her in a firm embrace.

“I’ve missed you,” he said, his voice hovering above a whisper.

She stepped back out of the embrace and smoothed out her dress. “I—I—I have wished to see you too, Mr. Brown,” she said. Her voice held a nervous trill and she seemed flustered.

“Come, Amelia. I have something to show you.”

He guided her through the tools and implements to the focus of his efforts for the last two months.

“Look,” he said and pointed to his workbench.

Amelia scanned the workbench.

“Oh,” she said. “What is it?” In fact she saw nothing on the bench. The focal point of the workbench seemed to her eyes empty, bare of all gadgets, gizmos, and inventions.

“It’s my finest invention yet,” he said.

“Why, Mr. Brown,” she said. “I’m not—I’m not certain I understand.”

“There’s no need to. This will be great!”

“Mr. Brown, what are you talking about?”

Jeremiah pointed at a spot on the workbench where Amelia could see nothing but thin air.

“Look,” he said. “It’s an automatic conscience.” He smiled. “I can hand them out with every invention.”

“Jeremiah, there’s nothing there.”

“Just wait, Amelia,” he said. “Just wait. You’ll see.”

Experiment #318

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 5

Word soon got around that Jeremiah had “gone funny” or could “no longer keep track of his marbles,” but these speculations did not come from Amelia. Francis had been “dropping some eaves” near the door and heard everything. He was not a malicious man, even once Amelia had scorned him, but men who lack imagination tend to fear and envy those who have it. If Jeremiah fell into the camp without marbles, Francis did not wish to be pulled in by association, particularly when a few drinks had loosened his tongue.

Instead of words of wisdom and valor and high opinion, Jeremiah’s name found company with ambiguous, mediocre, or downright mean words.

When Jeremiah called a press conference at Stapleton’s theatre to announce his automatic conscience, most of the crowd had already forgotten his achievements. They came only for the spectacle. The little boy calling out from the crowd didn’t help. Jeremiah had planned a live demonstration, but with everyone in the crowd laughing it didn’t seem likely to help.

A few days later, with the town turning against him, Jeremiah called in a favor with the mayor. Mayor Brewins, for his part, took the opportunity to square the Ferris wheel deal—for which he still had not paid Jeremiah—by trying out the automatic conscience. Jeremiah brought Mayor Brewins and three reporters from local papers into the workshop. He sat the mayor down on a chair in front of his workbench where a number of tools and implements had been laid out.

“Will it hurt?” Mayor Brewins asked, nervousness seeping into his voice.

“You shouldn’t feel a thing,” Jeremiah replied.

Attached to one side of the workbench by clamp was a telescoping arm. On the other end of the arm, a medieval-looking helmet with several knobs and switches had been attached. Jeremiah pulled the helmet toward the mayor.

“Well, I can’t say much for your fashion sense,” Mayor Brewins said.

“This is just the applicator,” Jeremiah replied. “The automatic conscience itself will fit seamlessly into your hair. It’ll be unnoticeable.”

Jeremiah placed the helmet on Mayor Brewins’s head and began to fiddle with the knobs and switches.

“Oh,” Mayor Brewins said with an excited trill, “something is happening!”

Jeremiah smiled. “Should just be a pleasant buzz on your scalp. Give me a few minutes to tune it to your mind…” Jeremiah turned one knob this way, that knob another. “There. Done,” he said at last.

Jeremiah took the helmet from Mayor Brewins’s head and gave him a hand mirror.

Mayor Brewins fussed with his hair for a few moments. “Why, I do declare, I don’t see or feel a thing on my head!”

“How do you feel?” Jeremiah asked.

The mayor sat and thought for a moment. “Hmmm…what a wonder you are, Jeremiah! I’d say my moral intuition has increased fivefold.” He smiled and looked at his reflection in the mirror again.

“Is there a way to tell if someone’s wearing an automatic conscience?” one reporter asked.

Jeremiah smiled. “Only by the increase in morality.”

“And whose morality is that?” another reporter asked.

Jeremiah looked crestfallen for a moment. “I—I—I’m not sure what you mean,” Jeremiah said, then recovered with, “It heightens the natural conscience in each of us.”

“How do you remove it?” the third reporter asked.

“Yes,” Mayor Brewins said, “I’m afraid it might be uncomfortable in bed.”

“No, sir, you shouldn’t notice it except for increased moral aptitude,” Jeremiah said.

“But if he wanted to, how would he take it off?” the same reporter asked.

“I’d recommend he leaves it on at all times,” Jeremiah said.

“So there’s no way to take it off?” the first reporter asked.

“It’s just not meant to be removed…”

Mayor Brewins shot Jeremiah an angry look. “You’re saying it’s irremovable?”

Jeremiah mulled for a minute.

“Well?” Mayor Brewins asked.

“No,” Jeremiah said, “it’s just that it’s meant to stay on your head and help you all the time.”

“How do I remove it?”

Jeremiah showed the mayor a motion, much like removing a hat from the head. “That should easily remove and reapply the conscience, but, again, I recommend you leave it on at all times.”

“I jolly well better not forget where I put it!” the mayor said with a laugh.

“He won’t need the helmet to reapply?” the third reporter asked.

“No,” Jeremiah said. “Since it’s already been attuned to his mind, he won’t need the applicator again.”

Experiment #319

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 6

All three reporters quoted Mayor Brewins on his affection for the system and how it had increased his moral intuition. One of the three seemed unconvinced that the invention was real. The other two, though they seemed to believe in its existence, felt unsure about its implications.

Upon reading these reviews, several of the mayor’s constituents decided the contraption, if it existed at all, amounted to a form of mind control. At a town council meeting, they lobbied for a cessation of use by any member of the town council during meetings or while discussing town processes.

Jeremiah stood up and said, “Council members are the ones who need my invention most.” He turned and appealed to the white-haired men who made up the town council. “As you make changes to laws and ordinances, the automatic conscience will help you make decisions that hurt no one.”

“Particularly not Jeremiah Brown,” one resident retorted from the crowd.

“It’s not like that,” Jeremiah said.

“I doubt that Ferris wheel met zoning laws…” someone else muttered from the crowd.

“No…” Jeremiah said.

“And who’s going to clean it up?” another citizen asked. “The fair was months ago, and it’s still there!”

“We shouldn’t foot the bill for this!” an angry woman shouted from the front row.

Jeremiah tried to tell them that his automatic conscience would help. That it would make things better for everyone. This quieted the crowd some, but shortly thereafter the council opened discussion on Jeremiah’s ordinance request. It would require the town council and judges in the area to wear an automatic conscience during working hours. The meeting then devolved into shouting, curses, and pandemonium.

The townsfolk, the squeakiest wheels at least, had made up their minds. They shouted him down at subsequent meetings and turned the council members away from him. It got so bad that council members, and Mayor Brewins in particular, began to take bribes and make decisions that benefitted themselves as opposed to the town. They did all this just to prove to everyone that they weren’t under the influence of the automatic conscience. The townsfolk praised the independent thinking of their elected officials. They even elected Mayor Brewins to another four-year term despite rising unemployment, soaring debt, and rather low job performance ratings.

Jeremiah would not give up, though. He began to advertise the benefits of his automatic conscience. He told how he designed it to help people. He demonstrated the way that it would prevent the oppression of the poor and jobless, and how it made life easier for anyone who used it. He took out ads in both town newspapers. He put up a billboard on Second Street proclaiming how he’d used it personally and the benefits it brought to him. At one point, he started giving them out free to anyone who wanted one, just to prove he wasn’t in it for the money.

Amelia, meanwhile, felt stuck between the frying pan and the fire. She supported Jeremiah and what his invention intended, but she wasn’t sure she approved of the method. Somehow, forcing morality seemed wrong. She tried to encourage him but couldn’t muster anything beyond a lukewarm, “You’re a great inventor.” When he asked her to don an automatic conscience at the town’s annual Groundhog Day Dance, she declined. She then found herself without a date (though not without a cadre of suitors).

Everything came to a head the night Jeremiah debated Mayor Brewins in the auditorium of Samuel Clemens Elementary School. Jeremiah had proposed the debate as a last-ditch effort to prove the existence and benefits of his invention. He picked Mayor Brewins as a sparring partner because he hoped the Mayor would still feel an obligation to him. That he might be sympathetic to Jeremiah’s cause. Jeremiah was wrong.

Experiment #320

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 7

Through the polarization of his constituents over Jeremiah’s invention, Mayor Brewins had found the old fighting spirit he’d had in college debate club. The man who hadn’t had an opinion in twenty years of public service finally settled on his right to nothave an opinion, whether morals and the good of the people were involved or not. And he further resolved that no one could tell him differently, even if that person had saved him from quite a pickle in the past.

One clear, cold night in early May, about two thirds of the town showed up to the elementary school auditorium. (The other third showed up at the local casino to prove they couldn’t be influenced by Jeremiah Brown or his clever contraptions.) Mayor Brewins had brought a retinue of angry people. They waved signs with phrases painted on them in bold, dark letters, phrases like “free thought” and “consciences are automatic” and “crackpots have no conscience.”

What supporters Jeremiah convinced to attend had filed into the back of the auditorium. They wrapped scarves around their mouths and pulled hats down low over their eyes. The only exception was Amelia, who sat with her friend Valerie in the front row.

Jeremiah opened with an appeal for the homeless and less fortunate. “Should we not help the least of these?” he asked. “My invention—”

“Objection!” Mayor Brewins shouted. “There has not been an ounce of proof that this thing exists, let alone the idea that it’s an ‘invention’ of any kind.”

“Mayor Brewins,” Jeremiah said, “this is not a court of law. There’s no one to object to.”

“Then I object to the Almighty Himself. Have you shown Him any proof that this ‘invention,’ as you call it, exists?”

“That’s not the point. Besides you, yourself, said—”

“Objection! Personal feelings or feelings produced while a person was not in full control of his faculties cannot be submitted as evidence.”

“What?”

“A person who is not in full control—”

“If the invention doesn’t exist, how were you not in control?”

“Mr. Brown, I’d ask that you give me the respect I have earned as this town’s mayor by allowing me to finish my sentences.”

The rest of the evening did not vary in tone or in conduct. Eventually the mayor pushed Jeremiah beyond his limits of frustration. He lost control of his temper (automatic conscience not withstanding) and punched the mayor in the jaw. Mayor Brewins, not to be outdone, wound up and, remembering his early days as a boxer (or school bully, depending on who told the story), socked Jeremiah in the eye. Having one participant sprawled out on the floor with a blackening eye and one exalting in the cheers of the crowd put an effective end to the debate.

The next day, the region’s newspapers took one of two stances. They either gave a hands-down victory to Mayor Brewins (both in the debate and the boxing ring) or they wondered how an automatic conscience could fail so easily. Yet again they questioned whether it existed at all. Either way, Jeremiah had lost.

Those few who had been lukewarm on Jeremiah’s invention turned away from him. Those who had fully believed became staunch supporters of the opposing faction.

The next morning, with the moral high ground now lost to him, Jeremiah decided to just give up on his automatic conscience and move on. He canceled all his newspaper advertising and had the billboard on Second Street painted over with an advertisement for Mr. Montclair’s restaurant. Maybe he couldn’t solve this problem, maybe his invention hadn’t worked, but there were other problems to solve, other inventions to create.

He went back to his workshop to begin anew. But he found that no line awaited an audience. No lingering boys hoped to catch the first sight of his latest invention. No military officials attempted to skip a few places in line by pointing to the brass on their chests. He checked his schedule book but found it empty. He opened a letter from Mr. Stapleton that said, “in these tough financial times, every penny must be saved!” The monthly stipend from the costume sales would no longer be coming.

Experiment #321

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 8

The sheriff showed up a few moments later and apologetically served Jeremiah some papers. Colonel Rotan had decided to sue Mr. Clifton over the lawn incident and had named both Jeremiah and Mrs. Peterson in the suit.

Jeremiah went in search of his assistant but found that Francis was not at the workshop. In looking for Francis, he came across Francis’s appointment book, opened to that day’s date. He found both a wealth of client meetings and a current block of time devoted to one Miss Amelia Tibbits.

Jeremiah headed straight to Amelia’s house. He found her sitting in the parlor, laughing with his former assistant. Jeremiah’s rage could not be contained.

“Unhand that fair maiden!” Jeremiah said.

“Jeremiah!” said Amelia, “What are you doing here?”

Francis looked up. His smile didn’t fade, nor did his confidence.

“Let’s take this outside and settle it like gentlemen,” Jeremiah said.

“You sure about this?” Francis asked, cracking his knuckles.

“Absolutely not!” Amelia said. “I will not have you brawling like fools on my property.”

“The end of the lane, then,” Jeremiah said.

Francis cracked his neck. “Yes, let’s,” Francis said. He had had his days in the boxing ring too.

“No,” Amelia said. “Stop this foolishness right now.”

Neither Jeremiah nor Francis heeded her words.

They strolled to the end of the lane, where Francis beat the ever-living tar out of Jeremiah.

Francis went back to his apartment and left Jeremiah to crawl back down the lane and lick his wounds. Amelia, however, did not accept her duties as nurse as willingly as Jeremiah had hoped.

“But I did it for you,” Jeremiah said.

“How?” she asked. “I specifically told you to stop this nonsense.”

“I was defending your honor…”

“I can take care of myself.”

“But he’s—”

“He’s harmless,” she said. She touched a washcloth to one of Jeremiah’s wounds and he winced. “Oh, stop it,” she said. “He knew you hadn’t been around here lately, so he tried his hand.”

“But you were…”

“Really, Mr. Brown? The visits go by more quickly if I laugh at a joke or two. You, however, cannot seem to stop making a joke out of yourself and your invention.”

Jeremiah stood up and backed away from her. “This is all your fault,” he said, suddenly angry.

“How?” she asked.

“You’re the one that blamed me for the things people were doing with my inventions,” he said. His voice neared a shout. “You were the one who gave me this idea!”

“The idea isn’t flawed; it’s the invention.”

“You mean the inventor!” he shouted.

“Nonsense, Jeremiah,” she said.

He pointed his finger at her. “Inventor. Invention. They’re one and the same.”

She gave him a look that froze the blood in his veins.

“Those eyes could haunt a man to his grave,” he said.

She breathed out a long breath. “I’ve never known you to make something I can see that doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.” She crossed the room and wrung out her cloth in a basin. “With your automatic conscience,” she continued, “I can’t see it and it doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.” She turned and looked into his eyes, both now ringed in dark skin from the fruits of his temper. “So I don’t believe you made it.”

Jeremiah looked at the floor. The weight of his failure finally lay on his shoulders. The world was not ready for this invention, or, perhaps, he was not ready to invent it—probably both. To tell the secret of the automatic conscience to anyone, even to Amelia, would be to steal its life’s breath, to forever relegate it to the dustbin. He alone could bear this invention’s burden. He alone could bring it to life. He alone could see it through, and he’d failed. He was not the inventor he’d thought he was.

“Even with all your talent and charisma,” she continued, “you can’t force people to believe in something. You can’t force them to make better choices.”

After a moment he looked up at her. “Perhaps that was my error,” he said.

Something in his tone felt off. “What are you talking about?” Amelia asked.

“The mind is a funny thing,” he said. “It believes what it chooses to, but there are factors in that choice I hadn’t considered.”

“What are you talking about?” Amelia asked again.

“My cleverest invention of all,” he said.

She grabbed his wrist, fear overtaking all other emotions. The word caught in her throat as she said, “Jeremiah?”

“Thank you,” Jeremiah said. He lifted her hand off his wrist and, in a sense, gave the hand back to her. He nodded to her and walked out the door.

Experiment #322

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 9

Amelia did not sleep that night. A pit in the middle of her stomach would not dislodge. At first light, she dressed herself and hurried to Jeremiah’s workshop. When she arrived, Jeremiah’s section of the workshop felt hollow and empty though it still contained a jumble of tools, materials, books, and half-finished inventions. In the midst of the chaos sat a wide drafting desk. On the desk, Amelia found a letter:

Dear Amelia,

You are right. I must take responsibility for my inventions, both their triumphs and their failures. And my greatest failure was that I couldn’t convince you; that you never believed in me.

I will never forget your eyes.

Love Always,

Jeremiah

***

On the other side of town, Mayor Brewins had just sat down to a hearty breakfast at Mrs. Fairchild’s house. Mr. Fairchild had been away on business for the week. Mayor Brewins made sure to check on the housewife often during her husband’s absence.

Suddenly a sharp knock sounded at the door. Mrs. Fairchild peeked out through pulled curtains. “It’s Jeremiah Brown,” Mrs. Fairchild said in a harsh whisper.

Mayor Brewins slathered butter on his pancakes. “Tell him to go away,” he said, not bothering to whisper.

Mrs. Fairchild rolled her eyes and stepped to the door. “We don’t need any inventin’ this mornin’,” Mrs. Fairchild said pleasantly through the door.

“I’m here to see the mayor,” Jeremiah said.

“Why would you come over here?” Mrs. Fairchild said, still in her sweet-as-syrup voice.

“Petunia, come off it. The whole town knows. It’s not like the mayor can keep a secret, even his own.”

Mrs. Fairchild looked hard at Mayor Brewins, who smiled back at her through a biscuit. “Just let him in,” Mayor Brewins said. “He’s harmless.”

As Mrs. Fairchild unlatched the door, Jeremiah shoved it open, knocking her to the floor. He strode into the house with a black and red device raised in one hand. “Hands up!”

Mayor Brewins held up his hands, dropping his knife and fork.

“You twitch and he’s dead,” Jeremiah said to Mrs. Fairchild as she recovered. He turned to the mayor. “Stand up. You’re coming with me.” Jeremiah fingered the device, reasserting his grip.

The mayor gulped; he’d never seen that crazed look in Jeremiah’s eyes before. “What’s that?” the mayor asked, pointing tremulously at the device in Jeremiah’s hand. It was a black rectangle just wider than Jeremiah’s palm with a dark sheen and an ominous look. On the top near Jeremiah’s thumb was a red ball.

“What do you think I did when I placed the automatic conscience?” Jeremiah shouted almost into the mayor’s ear. “You think that’s the only thing I put there?” He brandished the device at Mayor Brewins’ head. “One touch of this ball and your life is over. Over!”

Mayor Brewins whimpered.

“Turns out you were right—I had other plans. Now, get up!” Jeremiah grabbed the mayor by the collar and hoisted him to his feet. He shoved him toward the door. “You and the town council should have seen it my way.”

Mrs. Fairchild cowered in the hall. As Jeremiah passed, he turned to her. “Gather the town. We’ll be at the wheel,” he said.

She nodded but wouldn’t look up.

He grabbed the neck of her dress and shouted, “You understand? Bring the whole town.”

Mrs. Fairchild shivered and shook as she shoved out the words, “Y—y—yes, I’ll bring them.”

Experiment #323

The Cleverest Contraption of Jeremiah Brown Part 10

When the town showed up at the Ferris wheel, they found Jeremiah holding Mayor Brewins hostage on the highest platform. He peered over the edge as the crowd gathered.

He waited until they started getting restless, then shouted, “I’m only here for what you owe me. What he”—here he shook the mayor—“promised me.”

Murmurs broke out among the crowd.

“The majority of you have nothing to fear. The mayor and the town council…well…” he brandished the device high over his head. Even at this distance, the red ball stood out. “Lets just say, one touch of this ball and there won’t be much left of them.”

“What are you doing, Jeremiah?” the sheriff shouted. “You’re better than this.”

“Maybe once I was,” he replied. “Bring me the money due me for the Ferris wheel and I’ll go, but if you don’t, you’ll have to elect a new council.”

“You’ll have to give us some time.”

“Works for me, but the town council and our beloved mayor here won’t last forever.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Time is of the essence.”

The sheriff turned and walked toward the back of the crowd where the full town council circled around him.

“We have to stop this madman,” said one member who happened to own a large stake in the bank.

“We should get Colonel Rotan to shoot him,” said another.

“Now, hold on a minute—we can’t go around shooting people,” said the sheriff. “How do we know that doohickey will do anything?”

“We can’t take that chance,” said a third member.

The sheriff looked around at the fear in the eyes of the men he’d served half his life. “Okay, we play it both ways,” the sheriff said. “Get the money together at the bank. I’ll have my deputy call on Colonel Rotan.”

Just then, Amelia arrived. “Jeremiah?” she called from the outskirts of the crowd. “What are you doing?” She pushed her way through the people until she stood almost underneath him.

“You weren’t supposed to be here,” he said.

“Well, I’m here now. You come down from there, and let the mayor go.”

“No, Amelia, this time I’m going to make them see.”

“See what? I don’t see much but a fool.”

“That’s all you ever saw.”

“That’s not true.”

“Isn’t it? Why wouldn’t you, you of all people, try my automatic conscience? Why wouldn’t you believe in me? If you had believed, I could have taken all their disbelief. I could have stood up to the accusations and recriminations and fear. But you wouldn’t believe. All you saw was a fool.”

“No, Jeremiah, I saw a man who lost his way. A man who tried to make his life, his community, his world better, but wound up forcing that ‘good’ on others.” Her voice quivered as she finished. “I see a man who had a conscience, but lost it.”

“All I ever did I did for you…to try to be worthy of your love.”

“You didn’t need to try.”

Jeremiah, nearly overcome with tears, raised the device in his hand and touched the red ball.

BANG! A shot rang out, Amelia screamed, and Jeremiah fell back dead.

The sheriff turned to see Colonel Rotan standing nearby, holding his rifle. Several town council members stood around the colonel, close enough to whisper in his ear. The sheriff put his hand on Colonel Rotan’s shoulder. He looked hard at the members of the council, then turned and walked toward the Ferris wheel.

Eventually they got the whimpering mayor down off the platform. He remained jumpy and agitated until Mr. Garmen determined that the device in Jeremiah’s hand held no threat. It was a simple wooden block painted black with a common rubber ball glued to one end. A further inspection of the mayor’s head revealed no device or other detectable contraption. Mayor Brewins kept his head shaved from that day forward. Though he served out his term, he did not seek reelection.

The other members of the town council were all voted out too. Between accusations of corruption and a state investigation into Jeremiah’s death, no one in the electorate wanted to support them. None of them ever held another public office.

Francis Garmen went on to have a successful inventing career, always inspired to push harder by Jeremiah’s downfall.

Due to a sudden illness, Amelia took over the Tibbits family farm from her father soon after Jeremiah’s death. She ran it through good times and hard, and hired many of the workers displaced by Jeremiah’s inventions. Her land ownership and investment in the area pushed her into politics, where she worked hard to battle corruption and keep consciences always automatic.