The Bulletin Board: A Short Story

The Bulletin Board
by Ernest Hebert

The date was Nov. 22, 1963. Arlene Flagg was getting over some rather tumultuous personal upheavals. A year ago almost to the day she lost both her parents. Three months later her older brother Harold, without even consulting her, sold the farm and bought the village store in Center Darby. At least he had the decency to give her the best room in the apartment behind the store, and never mind that they had to share a bathroom. Arlene retaliated (although it didn't seem like retaliation at the time) by falling in love with a divorced man from away who, she should have known from the start, would break her heart. It was that smashup back in the summer that finally brought all her griefs to a head. She wept. She wept for an entire summer day.

Arlene wasn't the kind of woman to display her emotions in public so she had her moment of "self-pity" (as she would refer to it later in her journal) privately in her room. Now, in that cold dead time before the first snow she was over that man, over men in general, and she was struggling to plan her future. A couple days ago Arlene had been reading the local newspaper. There was a photograph of President Kennedy pardoning the Thanksgiving Day turkey. In the picture were the handsome President, the not bad-looking Vice President, and the classy President's wife, Jackie. The White House was looking forward to Thanksgiving, Nov. 28 that year.

Arlene was not a Democrat, and neither were any of her friends and acquaintances, so ever since the election in 1960-- same year Arlene hit the official spinster age of 26--she never told anyone in Darby that she had become a secret admirer of Jackie Kennedy. Arlene studied Jackie, the way she carried herself, her clothes, her hair-do, her makeup, and even the lispy way she talked. Her beau, the one who jilted her (and, yes, he was a Democrat), told her that she resembled Jackie. That was how he landed her like a big fish flopping around in a tippy canoe.

Nov. 22 Arlene still had not set a course for her life. She didn't want to be a secretary. She wasn't qualified to be a school teacher or a nurse. She was attracted to the idea of becoming a telephone operator, but then she would have to commute to the telephone office in Keene. She would have to buy a car. That was not a problem since she had some money from the sale of the farm. More daunting was the idea that she would have to learn to drive. For the time being she was clerking in Harold's store, and she found that work acceptable. But, Arlene, is it something you want to peg a life on? What would Jackie do?

Arlene had thought she wanted a family, but the idea that she would have to live with a man, do his damn bidding, sleep in the same bed, wash his shorts, etcetera etcetera, well, no thank you. What are you going to do with yourself, Arlene? It was a question she was asking herself when a flash came over the radio (on a store shelf that was probably too close to the woodstove for safety) that President Kennedy had been shot in some kind of parade in Dallas. Was Nov. 22 a holiday in Texas? You don't know anything about Texas. Yes, I do; it's the land of cowboys and maybe Indians. No, those are the movies. Life isn't like the movies. Or maybe it was only her own life that wasn't like the movies. Actually, your life is like a movie, Arlene, one of those sad ones where the man dumps the girl and there's no happy ending.

All these extraneous thoughts were going through her head during the newscast. Arlene began to have a sense that she had been transported out of Darby into one of those Twilight Zone episodes, a very disquieting feeling. And it got worse. Nothing seemed real. Maybe the radio news was all a joke or a story, like that Orson Wells Martian invasion radio drama that Jean Dorne talked about. Maybe she was going crazy. Then, tink! Somebody had just entered the store. A customer. It was Melba Hillary.

"My God," Arlene said, "have you heard--the President's been shot?" With her words the spell of dislocation broke. Arlene was in the world again. Her world. Of quilting bees, old home days, and dying farms.

Over the course of the next hour people came into the store, and all the talk was about the President and what was happening in Dallas, to our country, to the world. Was President Kennedy alive? Was it a Soviet plot? Were the missiles on the way?

Harold brought down the TV from their apartment living room and set it up in the store. It had a great antenna on the roof, best reception in town, and the word soon spread that huddled around the woodstove in the Darby Village Store was the place to watch the news of the tragedy unfolding. This thirst for TV news went on for several days. Arlene suggested that they give everybody free coffee, and Harold, though Lord knows it pained him, agreed that her suggestion would be good for business.

Arlene read the news magazines, her sole interest Jackie's reactions, Jackie's grief: (1) Jackie saying, "Jack, Jack what have they done to you" (2) Jackie trying to save parts of her husband's shattered head (3) numerous photos of Jackie with the children at the funeral.

"We'll get over this," Harold had said.

"No, we won't. Nothing will ever be the same," Arlene had said, then added. "I have to do something. Do you understand? It's my ..." She struggled for a word. Finally, she said awkwardly but in a way that felt truthful to her, "It's my necessary."

"Ah-huh," Harold said.

That night alone in the bathroom, standing in front of the vanity mirror, not knowing who she was any more, not knowing the prudent thing to do, knowing only that she had to take action Arlene began her transformation. In the mirror she saw the lamentations of the widow of the dead president. Look deeper, Arlene. Look under the skin. Who do you see?

She opened the medicine cabinet and fished around for the scissors. She closed the door to the cabinet and now she was looking at the mirror again." Oh, Jackie, oh, Jackie, poor Jackie," she said aloud. Then the inner voice spoke in her head: Leave Jackie to her grief.
Arlene cut her hair to get rid of her Jackie hair-do. She washed the mascara and makeup from her face. She wiped the lipstick off her mouth onto a hankie (which she would keep in a jar for several years as a reminder). Back in her room, she changed into a plain house dress, the kind her mother wore to go shopping at Goodnow's Department Store in Keene.

In the next month right through the holidays townspeople noticed the changes in Arlene Flagg, especially when she said she was swearing off men. The word spread around town that she had become a man-hater, but that wasn't the reason for her transformation. She wasn't against anything or anybody. She was for, in her words, "personal independence and community." She reasoned that involvement with a man would hinder her future growth as a human being.
The most profound change in Arlene Flagg's thinking came about on a snowy night in February of 1964. She had shoveled the steps of the village store, and paused for a moment to take in the view. Illuminated by the lights of the homes around the Common, the snow was beautiful. It made the village look like something you'd see on a postcard.

The next building over from the store was the town hall, the clock just below the spire partly obscured by falling snow, but at ground level Arlene could see the electric light that lit up the town bulletin board beside the main entry. Arlene, still holding the snow shovel, walked over and looked at the notices.
"The Darby Quilting Bees will hold its annual Leftovers from the Freezer Wild Game Dinnah Saturday, Feb. 29, at 6 PM at the town hall. Fare will include partridge, deer, coon, squirrel, hare, porcupine, and mystery meat. All are welcome. Donation $5."

Arlene chuckled over the local joke: the fact that "dinner" was deliberately misspelled to honor the local usage of American English.
Some of the notices were typed, others hand-written. A few included photos and drawings. Phrases from the board flashed in her mind.
"DDT Boon or Bane for the Land?"

"A dog restraining ordinance is the beginning of the end of our freedom."

"Used tractor wanted."

"Old Tools on display at Ike's Auction Barn." "Help me find my cat!"

"Vote yes for library roof."

What would happen to these "bulletins?" They would be acted upon or not acted upon, but eventually all would be replaced by other bulletins, in the end little bits of the communal self of Darby would be lost to the cosmos. If they could be kept, archived, filed away, would it make a difference, would it matter? Think, Arlene, think ... what makes a town, gives it its identity? Its people? No, some leave, and all die? It's the land. No, weather, seasons and time reshape the land. What, then? It's the Word. Yes, the Word! The communal Word is what matters.

Arlene knew now what she would do with her womanly child-bearing years. She would hold dear the Word, and she would start now. She put the shovel away and returned to the bulletin board with a notepad and pencil and copied the language on the bulletin board. By the time she finished, the snow had stopped falling and parts of the sky opened between parting clouds. Moonlight and starlight made the freshly fallen snow glitter. She thought it was the most inspiring sight she'd ever seen. Tears welled up in her eyes. She thought about Jackie and her grief. She thought about that pathetic divorced man from away, his hopeless attempts at grandeur. She thought about her brother, his ambition to be a big shot in Darby. Darby ... Darby ... this is your town, Arlene. That moon above, those stars, open your arms to them and bathe in their light.

At the next meeting of the Darby Board of Selectman Arlene Flagg offered her services free as the "archivist of town matters." Later she persuaded the selectmen to purchase a copy machine, which was useful in the office to conduct town business as well as copy bulletin board material for Arlene's files.

And that, in brief, is how Arlene Flagg began a town tradition. Many years later, after she left town under mysterious circumstances, her work was carried on by Dorothy McCurtin.

After the town hall was condemned because of destruction by carpenter ants, a new town hall was built, thanks to a grant from a private developer, PLC (Paradise Lots Covenant). The bulletin board archives were moved into a climate-controlled space with other important historical documents. Local people at town meeting voted on a warrant article submitted by the Darby Board of Selectmen to seek funding "to put all bulletin board items online." Today, however, in the time period of the writing of this particular "bulletin," the bulletin board remains in the material world, much expanded since 1963 with notes, flyers, posters, and notices placed in three categories in their own panes.

-- Sales, Swaps, Services -- Land, Shelter, Business -- Events, Notices, Legal-Schmegals

Many Darby residents might not look at their Facebook pages or emails everyday, but they always drop by the town hall to check out the bulletin board to find out what's going on in town.

And Arlene--Arlene, the octogenarian? She's resumed friendship with a few old acquaintances in Darby through Facebook. Dot McCurtin, Darby's current town gossip and bulletin board archivist, reports that Arlene won't say where she lives or what her situation is, only that, "I'm comfortable knowing that I've made a small contribution to the history and culture of my hometown."