King of Vermont

by Stephen Morris
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:    21 April 2019   :    a PUBLIC SERVICE of The Public Press   :
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A chance comment on Vermont's most popular talk show, Straddlin' the Fence, lands Darwin Hunter in a three-way race to be elected State Senator. Set against a political landscape as rocky and muddy as the garden during Mud Season, Darwin combats his wily, experienced opponents with his only long suit–the truth.

The King of Vermont is part two of "Stories and Tunes," Stephen Morris's "four-part" trilogy of life in the rural North.

King of Vermont

by Stephen Morris

from Chapter 1: Straddlin' the Fence

Riley Gore's hair was perfect. And still, the self-proclaimed Gray Fox of the Green Mountains dabbed frantically with licked fingertips at immaculate sideburns as technicians scurried in preparation for the weekly broadcast of Channel 5's local feature show, Straddlin' the Fence. His guest, Darwin Hunter of Upper Granville, Vermont, sat silently, blood pounding in his head from a necktie drawn too tight.

Gore sat in a chair shaped like a giant human hand. Darwin sank into a new, overly soft couch. Behind them was a backdrop of plastic plants and a veneered bookcase filled with random titles purchased at a yard sale. The rest of the studio was empty, save for the lights, wires, cameras, and operators.

"What question will you ask first?" Darwin spoke to break the tension as well as to make sure that all frogs were cleared from his throat. Gore paid as much attention to Darwin's question as does a cow to a fly on its butt. Instead, he stared at Hunter as he would at a mirror.

"Are my brows all right?" he asked with genuine curiosity, smoothing them with four quick flicks.

"Your brows are perfect," returned Hunter.

"You've got a goober, right here," Gore reached over and brushed a spot just right and center of Darwin's lip. Nothing happened. "Guess it's a freckle," sighed Gore.

"Ten seconds, R.G., theme music up," said the cameraman, touching his headset. Gore's visage froze in a wide smile. The camera responded by transforming his high blood pressure into ruddy healthfulness. Hunter clasped his hands so tightly that the fingertips turned white. He imagined blood draining from his brain, a loss of consciousness, and a spastic pitch forward into his host's lap.

"Five, four, three, two . . . we're live."

Gore's transformation was complete. This was no longer a vain, little man, but rather the of Vermonter himself, the Gray Fox of the Green Mountains:

"Hello, hello, neighbors. Howdy-hi, and welcome to another edition of Straddlin' the Fence, Vermont's show of what's new and, well, what's just plain interesting. I'm Riley Gore and my guest tonight is an interesting fella who has written a book about a little place that's as Vermont as I am, Upper Granville. His name is, uh, Durwood Huntoon. Welcome to Straddlin' the Fence."

Gore showed his teeth for a nanosecond, then continued: "Durwood, your neighbors must hate you. Vermonters don't like people splattering their private lives on the pages of a book."

"Well, Riley," Darwin replied, trying to match Gore's geniality, "Upper Granville isn't exactly Peyton Place. I think my neighbors liked the book."

"All of them?"

"I didn't do a survey."

"So maybe some of them didn't like it, and thought it was an exploitive piece of trash."

"I suppose it's possible."

Gore's ruddy face tightened into a knowing smirk. He nodded like a rowboat bobbing at the dock. His eyes darted about quickly to determine which camera was on. He addressed it directly:

"Not just possible, Mr. Hartly, but inevitable. You'll understand when you get to know Vermonters like the old Gray Fox knows Vermonters."

After a full eight seconds of camera nodding, he continued: "I understand you're not a writer, but, of all things, a doctor. Well, not a real doctor, but an eye doctor. What does reading eye charts have to do with writing a book?"

Darwin chuckled, struggling to remain unflustered. No sense getting bent out of shape over Riley Gore's medical ignorance. "Actually, I am a real doctor -- an ophthalmologist, in fact."

"Can you prescribe glasses?"

"Of course, but an optometrist -- "

"Good," the Gray Fox turned directly to the camera, "because the last time I read the newspaper I realized I needed either new glasses or a longer arm."

Gore guffawed for several seconds, prolonging the mirth until his guest managed a twisted smile. Then he launched into an anecdote about a doctor who treated all ailments with bag balm, the miracle ointment for cow udders. This, in turn, segued into an exposition of the host's views on socialized medicine, only after which did the interview resume:

"But seriously, Derwin, where did you get the idea to write a book, and what's it all about?"

At last! A question Darwin had anticipated. He had answered it repeatedly while lying in bed, while riding in the car, and while staring blankly out his office window. He had honed his response by practicing on children. He wrote it down; he revised and edited it. In less than one minute he could tell about the town of Upper Granville and how it became the unlikely meeting ground for two opposing factions of rural life: the native Chucks and the invading Flatlanders. He could wax eloquent on the history of this tiny hamlet, crediting Alton Blanchard's minor, yet poignant, masterpiece, Over Yonder Hill, the book that had inspired him. From there he might nimbly tiptoe into a lighthearted yet incisive examination of the contemporary juxtaposition of sharply contrasting lifestyles that formed the foundation of his sequel to Alton's book, Beyond Yonder.

"I'm glad you asked that, Riley," began Darwin, brimming with confidence and with a cocky lilt to his voice. "Upper Granville is really a unique place."

"One of the many in Vermont," interjected Gore. "In fact, it reminds me of Sussex Junction, where I live."

The truth was, Gore had scarcely set foot in Sussex Junction for the last five years, but spent most of his time in a modern Burlington condominium with a twenty-three year-old mistress. But he regarded the town of Sussex Junction as an integral part of his public persona, as much as the ruddy complexion and gray hair, and Darwin had committed a lethal error by opening the gate to the fertile field of Gore's personal mythology. Gore prattled on for five minutes about the idiosyncracies of his alleged hometown with its roster of colorful (and invented) characters -- the one-legged storekeeper who provided instant profundity on any topic, the lady postmistress who minded everyone's business but the U.S. government's, and the likable, but hopelessly impractical, urban refugees from Perth Amboy, New Jersey (coincidentally, Gore's real hometown).

Darwin sat politely and feigned interest, sporting an expression of beatific bemusement, but knowing well that his hope for fame and fortune was slipping down the toilet.

Eventually Gore chortled his way back to Darwin's book: "So your book concerns the age-old rivalry between the so-called Chucks, short for 'woodchucks,' and the so-called Flatlanders? Frankly, in my humble opinion -- and what do I know, I'm just the Gray Fox of the Green Mountains -- this is a subject that we have heard too much of lately. Don't you agree, Durwin, that instead of focusing on the differences between these groups we should emphasize their similarities?"

The final "Durwin" pushed Darwin over the invisible line that demarcated animal from civilized behavior. His reply was growled from a curled upper lip:

"If I thought that, then I wouldn't have spent six years writing the book, would I, R.G.? Or should I call you 'Foxy'?"

Gore tried to parry his guest's sarcasm. "Say, you know, there's an interesting story about how I got that name. Now the gray fox is quite rare in Vermont. Mostly -- "

"Oh, go fox yourself" interrupted Hunter, locking on to his prey. "Let me ask you a question. Did you even read my book? Did you even look at the pictures? Can you read?"

Gore blustered about his meticulous preparation for each show. He reviewed his academic background, lying about a college degree from Harvard, and implied he was briefed daily by a crack research team. Hunter, however, never let the wounded prey from his sights.

"Did . . . you ... read ... the . . . book?"

Gore looked to the technicians for help. He intimidated the quilters and cloggers who comprised the normal fare for Straddlin' the Fence. This guy, however, was not falling into place.

"Hey, whose show is this anyway?" he managed weakly. No one in the crew broke stride. Riley realized that he was out there, alone in television land. He launched back into his tried-and-true smile. "Well, Durwood. We're running low on time. With one successful book and a career as an optometrist behind you, what's next? Another book?"

Darwin fixed on to Gore a ten-second stare that, translated into action, was the equivalent of World War III. Riley's blood drained from his face. Finally, Darwin broke the stalemate:

"No, Riley. I'm sick of writing books. I've decided to go into politics."

"Politics," Gore babbled. "Now there's a field where it pays to have good eyesight." He giggled. Darwin glowered. Gore spoke: "What are you running for?"

"King," mumbled Darwin, trying his best to sound like Marlon Brando during his young-buck period.

"King. Oh, this is rich, and you heard it first on Straddlin' the Fence. King of what?"

"King of the World, well, King of Vermont, anyway."

"And what will your kingdom be like?"

"No plague, no pestilence, no add rain, no insipid talk show hosts. Do you know what the penalty will be in my kingdom for a talk show host not reading a guest's book?"


"We'll cut his tongue off."

Gore heh-heh-heh'd for a moment, then made a comment about how good vision and a sense of humor made an unbeatable combination in the political arena. Suddenly his face brightened, as if he had just guessed the punch line of a good joke.

"I get it. Now, I get it." One of the crew held up a sign that read ONE MINUTE.

"Politics and show business make strange bedfellows, eh, Huntoon?" Gore's voice contained both a nudge and a wink. "Write a little book. Get yourself on Vermont's most controversial television talk show, and then announce your candidacy to run for the Fifth District Senate seat currently held by Linwood 'Woody' Dunwoody."

Gore paused for dramatic effect, as if he expected someone to proclaim "good boy!" and to scratch him behind the ears.

"Yeah," conceded Hunter with an air of resignation, as if Sherlock Holmes had just named him the culprit. "You saw right through me. You knew what I was after all along."

THIRTY SECONDS, read the card held up by the stagehand.

"You had me going for a minute," said Riley, now grinning like a Cheshire cat. He turned to face the camera and his public. "You've heard it first on Straddlin' the Fence, a surprise announcement for the Senate seat from the Fifth District. It should be a great campaign, one that we'll keep you abreast of as we approach election time. Our guest tonight has been eye doctor, author, and, I'll tell ya, a guy with a unique sense of humor, Darren Huntly. We'll be seeing you next week on Straddlin' the Fence. Until then, byedy-bye."


What is a "Four-Part Trilogy?"

Next up from The Public Press: the first three books, revised and improved, in Stephen Morris's Vermont epic, the four part trilogy.

books in the Four-part Trilogy

Life has a way of interfering with art. Beyond Yonder, The King of Vermont, and Darwin and the Tunnel of Love were always intended by the author to be a single work, telling the epic story of the daily lives and times of the inhabitants of the tiny hamlet of Upper Granville, Vermont.

But life intervenes. It happens! Day jobs take priority. Parents grow old. Little publishers sell to big publishers. Editors move on to different jobs. Opportunities knock. Kids leave home. It happens! It happens! And it happens!

As a result, the epic novel came out in fits and spurts. First, Beyond Yonder. That's when the publisher got sold. Then, King of Vermont, that's when the editor quit. Meanwhile, a real life equivalent to Upper Granville began appearing on the pages of the Vermont Sunday Magazine. Now, the region had a name, Beyonder, to describe that part of Vermont that is next to nothing, but not far away from anywhere. Tales and More Tails is a collection of Beyonder's "Stories and Tunes."

The Public Press is pleased to present Beyonder in its original glory – ficticious and non-ficticious. This is the Director's cut, digitally remastered, and in full Dolby sound. This is Beyonder at the peak of foliage, at the depth of Mud Season despair, in the procreational frenzy of the vernal kaboom, and in the enveloping eternity of an August night watching the meteors shower in a part of the world where you can actually still see them.

The four books in Stephen Morris
In Beyonder, 4 books make 1 trilogy
Stephen Morris
interview with publisher and author Stephen Morris
cover: Beyond Yonder by Stephen Morris
Beyond Yonder
by Stephen Morris
cover: King of Vermont by Stephen Morris
King of Vermont
by Stephen Morris
cover: Tales and More Tails by Stephen Morris
Tales & More Tales
by Stephen Morris
cover: Tunnel of Love by Stephen Morris
Tunnel of Love
by Stephen Morris

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cover: Stripah Love by Stephen Morris
Stripah Love
by Stephen Morris

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