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#45

The Knowing Nod




 

            The rumors that Jasper wasn’t actually dead got to be so prevalent that four brothers from the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod eventually had to dig up his casket one rainy night just to make sure his body was in there, which it wasn’t. The brothers brown robes were soaked through. They peered down into the empty casket through the eyeholes in the black cowl masks that concealed the top halves of their faces. Rain slashed through the yellow beams of their flashlights. One of the brothers said, “Um, weren’t there four of us?”

            “Yeah,” said another of the brothers. “Standard grave-checking task force. Four brothers.”

            “Well,” said the first brother. “There’s five of us now.”

            And as soon as he said this, one of the brothers broke from the group and went galloping off into the darkness, laughing like a maniac.

            “That was Jasper, wasn’t it.”

            Jasper’s laughter was swallowed up by a boom of thunder.

            The brothers dumped the casket back into the grave. They started to shovel dirt back on top of it. It was their least favorite part of the job.

 

            The Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod had to bribe the General Appreciation Club to switch nights with them at the rental space they shared so they could have an emergency meeting to discuss what to do about Jasper. All thirty-eight members were in attendance. The five brothers elected to positions on the Council of the Last Word sat behind a long table at the front of the room facing the rest of the brothers. Everyone’s formal green robes and cowl masks were freshly washed and ironed. The brothers sat on metal folding chairs and passed a dozen flasks around the room, which the Council pretended to not notice.

            “Brothers of the Knowing Nod,” said the chairman from his seat at the center of the table. “A rogue brother has faked his death and may even now be undermining our position in the community. Solutions?”

            No one offered any. The fluorescent lights buzzed on the ceiling like long, luminescent insects. Then one of the brothers spat a mouthful of liquid on the floor, retched loudly, and jumped to his feet with a flask in his hand shouting, “This isn’t whiskey! Whose flask is this? Who passed this flask?”

            A brother at the back leaped up, kicked his chair over backwards, and yelled, “That’d be mine, brother! And you’re right! That ain’t whiskey!” Then he hooted and ran from the room. Moments later the brothers heard the sound of tires screeching and a car roaring out of the parking lot.

            “I bet that was Jasper!” shouted one of the council members, forsaking the dignity of his position.

            “What are we supposed to do?” asked one brother. “Head counts every five minutes?”

            “I’m not sure I understand his motive,” said a different brother, scratching his cheek.

            The chairman pointed at the standing brother who was still smacking his lips in disgust and said, “Three black marks on your record for drinking during an Official Call for Solutions.”

 

            Two days later, a Home-Visit task force of six brothers in jeans, denim shirts, and denim cowl masks went to Jasper’s house to speak with his wife. She answered the door still looking very bereaved. Her hair was in curlers and she wore a stylish but mismatched pair of high heels.

            “What do you idiots want?” she asked, glaring at the task force clustered on her front porch.

            “Ma’am,” said one of the brothers. “Have you seen your husband recently? Do you know where he might be?”

            Jasper’s wife slapped the brother who had spoken across the face once and then once more. “How dare you,” she said.

            The brothers stood in awkward silence while the brother who’d been slapped rubbed his sore cheek and considered his next move. Then a different brother cleared his throat, stepped forward, wrapped his arms around Jasper’s wife and planted a passionate kiss on her lips.

            Her eyes widened in shock and she broke free of the kiss and shouted, “Jasper! I know that kiss! Jasper, you’re alive!”

            Jasper sprang from the porch and sprinted off down the block, pausing just long enough to grab all the mail out of someone’s mailbox and fling it into the street. The brothers stood glumly on the porch and watched him go. “Jasper, come back!” shouted his wife.

            “There weren’t any extras this time,” said one of the brothers. “Six of us when we started, only five now.” They heard thumping sounds coming from the trunk of the Home-Visit Task Force car where it was parked in the driveway.

            “Ah,” said one of the brothers. “Jasper hid the missing brother in the trunk.”

            “I thought this was the Home-Visit Task Force,” said another brother. “I must have mixed it up with the Stating the Obvious Task Force.”

 

            The Council of the Last Word called a Special Meeting for council members only at the chairman’s house. They arrived one by one in their expensive suits and silk cowl masks, kissing the hand of the chairman’s wife at the front door and making their way down to the recreation room in the basement. When all five council members were present, the chairman said, “This meeting is now called to order. The first and only item of business is Jasper. He has to be brought under control, somehow. He can’t be allowed to continue to make us look ridiculous.”

            “We’re not ridiculous,” said one of the councilmen, taking an hors d’oeuvres off of a plate that the chairman’s wife had prepared for the meeting.

            “I didn’t say that we’re ridiculous,” said the chairman. “We’re not. We’re not ridiculous at all. But Jasper is making us appear ridiculous. It gives the community a false impression and undermines our position.”

            The council members sat in thoughtful silence for a few moments. Then one of them said, “We need to make a task force dedicated solely to apprehending Jasper. I’m thinking yellow jumpsuits and ash-colored cowl masks.”

            Another of the council members scoffed. “He’d just infiltrate that task force too. And that would be a whole new level of embarrassment for the Brotherhood.”

            “What do you propose then? That we abandon uniforms and masks altogether so everyone knows who everyone is at all times?”

            There was an outburst of indignation from the other council members and the chairman had to shout to be heard over the clamor. “Brothers! Calm down! I’m sure our brother wasn’t seriously suggesting that we change any of the fundamental tenets of the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod. Were you, brother?”

            The brother who had caused the outrage frowned and said, “No, I suppose not, but we must at least acknowledge that wearing cowl masks is really the only thing that makes Jasper’s infiltrations possible.” He paused and looked around the room from brother to brother and then said, “For example, how can we be certain Jasper isn’t here right now?”

            “Hiding behind the couch? Under the pool table? What are you talking about?”

            “No! One of us! How do we know that one of us sitting here isn’t Jasper?”

            The brothers fell silent, all of them looking at one another with focused, probing stares, searching for any outward sign that Jasper was among them, the hors d’ oeuvres forgotten on the coffee table.

            Finally the chairman said, “This is absurd. Jasper couldn’t be here. This is a Special Meeting of the Council of the Last Word! He wouldn’t dare.”

            “Yes he would,” said one of the brothers, and the rest knew he was right.

            “Maybe we should remove our masks,” said one of the brothers. “But only briefly! Just to prove we aren’t Jasper.”

            “No,” said the chairman. “No, no, I don’t like it. It sets a bad precedent.”

            “But this meeting is about stopping Jasper!” said another brother. “If he’s here, then it will all be for nothing. He’ll know what we decide, he’ll know our plans, he’ll know everything.”

            The chairman chewed his lower lip and, as he often did in moments of distress, he gazed at the framed photo of his ’67 thunderbird that hung on the wall over his broken pinball machine. Then he said, “Fine. We will all briefly remove our masks to ensure that Jasper is not here and then we will immediately put them back on. And none of the other brothers will know that this took place. Understood?”

            The brothers nodded. “OK,” said the chairman. “Remove your masks.” The brothers removed their masks. None of them were Jasper. They were JR, Drake, Tom, Gil, and Cedric, the elected members of the Council of the Last Word of the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod. They smiled sheepishly at one another and then put the masks back on. “Good,” said the chairman. “I knew he wasn’t here.”

            “Before we jump back into it, I’m gonna run to the bathroom,” said one of the brothers. He left the room and the remaining brothers sipped their drinks and didn’t speak to each other until he returned a few minutes later, drying his hands on his pants. “All right,” he said. “Where were we?”

            “Not so fast,” said one of the brothers. “How do we know you’re not Jasper now? You could have switched places with our brother while he was out of the room.”

            “Yeah,” said the others. “Yeah.”

            “How do I know one of you guys didn’t switch out while I was in the bathroom? How do I know one of you isn’t Jasper?”

            “We were all here watching each other! You were the only one by yourself!”

            “I’m not taking my mask off again unless everyone does!”

            “Fine! Everyone, masks back off!”

            “No,” said the chairman, but the brothers weren’t listening. They were pulling their masks off again. None of them were Jasper. They all looked at the chairman, their faces hard and accusing.

            “Why aren’t you taking your mask off? Got something to hide? Jasper?”

            The chairman released a weary, deflated sigh and removed his mask. He wasn’t Jasper.

            The brothers put their masks back on. “Now,” said the chairman. “Can we please get down to business?”

            The brothers murmured their assent. The chairman closed his eyes, trying to find his train of thought. His head was hopelessly muddled with Jasper-related anxiety. An unwelcome image of Jasper in a suit of silver armor and a feathery red cowl mask scratching long jagged lines into the side of his ’67 thunderbird with a long needle kept popping into his mind. When the chairman opened his eyes one of the brothers was looking at him through the eyeholes of his mask in the way that he suspected Jasper would look at him in this situation.

            “Even if we catch Jasper,” said one of the brothers. “What are we going to do with him?”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” asked a different brother, rising to his feet. “Are you naysaying? Are you Jasper?”

            “How could I be Jasper? We just had our masks off two minutes ago! Nothing’s changed since then! We’ve all just been sitting here!”

            “Nothing’s changed, huh? Nothing at all? Then take your mask off and prove it!”

            “So, Jasper, you’re trying to shift suspicion from yourself by accusing me? Masks off, everybody! Masks off!”

 

            Days later, Wilson was on a romantic getaway with his wife in Burton, a tiny town an hour or so North. While he was at the convenience store to pick up a half gallon of milk and some live bait, Wilson walked right past Jasper in the snacks and condiments aisle. Wilson didn’t know if Jasper had noticed him or not. He didn’t think he had. Wilson pushed his cart around the corner, left it sitting at the end of the aisle, and ran out of the store, already dialing his phone.

            “Task force,” he said when a brother picked up after the fourth ring. “I need a task force in Burton. Jasper’s here!”

            “We can’t send a task force,” said the brother on the other end of the line. “Jasper might infiltrate it.”

            “No,” said Wilson. “He’s here! I just saw him in a convenience store! No mask or anything!”

            “Too risky,” said the brother. “He could infiltrate the task force.”

            “How?” asked Wilson. “How could he do that? He’s all the way up here! Buying bug repellant! I’ll follow him until the task force gets here just to make sure we get him!”

            There was a pause at the other end of the line. Then the brother said, “How do I know you’re not Jasper?”

            “Because I just saw him!” shouted Wilson.

            “Anyone could say that,” said the brother. “The reality is, nobody knows who’s not Jasper.”

            As Wilson hung up the phone in frustration, Jasper strolled out of the store with plastic grocery bags in each hand. The men made eye contact. Jasper smiled and gave Wilson the Knowing Nod as if he wasn’t the Brotherhood’s most dangerous living enemy, the man responsible for pushing them to the brink of collapse. Wilson returned the Knowing Nod. He didn’t know what else to do. It was a fundamental tenet of the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod to always respond to a Knowing Nod with a Knowing Nod. Wilson watched Jasper walk down the road until he was just a silhouette, a walking figure of a man who could have been anyone at all.




Discussion Questions

  • Do you agree with the chairman’s assertion that The Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod is not ridiculous, but rather made to appear ridiculous by Jasper’s antics?



  • How is it that Jasper’s antics could possibly push the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod to the brink of collapse? I hate to say this, but if such is the case, doesn’t that make the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod seem kind of weak?



  • Do you think that the moment when the chairman first agreed that the Council of the Last Word should remove their masks was the moment that the Brotherhood of the Knowing Nod’s fate was sealed? If not, what was the moment? Or are you one of those who don’t think their fate has yet been sealed?



  • Have you ever been a part of a Task Force? If so, what sort of official uniform did you wear? What color was your cowl mask?



  • How do I know you’re not Jasper?