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.”
“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.
To Be Continued…