The watchtower that Buddy constructed after he got laid off by Runker Boat Company was not a product of boredom, as some assumed, but rather the fruition of an idea he’d had for over twenty years, and, now that there was no luxury watercraft assembly to fill his days, he finally had time to make the watchtower a reality.
When Buddy was finished, the watchtower was forty feet tall and made of several types of wood. At the top, the watchtower had an area of ten feet by ten feet from which Buddy could keep watch. It was accessible by one ladder that led to a trapdoor in the floor on the North side, which was the side closest to Buddy’s dumpy, little house. The watchtower had a shingled roof, but the walls were only four feet tall on all sides and between the tops of the walls and the ceiling there was nothing but open air. Buddy wanted there to be absolutely nothing obstructing his vision, even if that meant having to endure unpleasant weather.
Within two days of completing the watchtower, Buddy was sleeping in it. He had a sleeping bag and a pillow, which was actually more than he needed. The pillow was a luxury. He slept in short bursts, setting an alarm on his watch to wake him after unpredictable lengths of time so he could get up and look around. He only left the watchtower to get food and defecate, although sometimes he had to get down just to run a couple laps around his yard to loosen up his legs.
Buddy lived on the far Southern edge of Mulitoak. His property wasn’t even technically within the city limits and his closest neighbor lived just outside of shouting distance. But sometimes people driving past would stop to look at the watchtower and, if they saw Buddy, they’d ask him what he was watching for. To Buddy, this was a stupid question. On days when he felt charitable, he’d respond with, “I’m watching for anything that’s coming. Only a fool would build a watchtower to only watch out for one thing.” On days when he wasn’t feeling charitable, he’d pretend not to be able to hear them.
One day, a passing smart aleck said, “What if something comes from the North?”
“Then we’re all doomed,” said Buddy. “Unless someone on the North side builds a watchtower.”
Sometimes people came by just to thank Buddy for his vigilance, but he had always been a bad judge of sincerity, so he accepted their thanks cautiously. He didn’t mind being laughed at, but if it was going to happen, he wanted to know when and why.
Two weeks after finishing the tower, Channel 2 sent a team over to do a story on Buddy and his watchtower. Buddy agreed to be interviewed on camera from inside the watchtower because he thought that the publicity might be beneficial in two ways. First, it might remind other citizens of Multioak to watch out for things that might be coming, and second, it could serve as a warning to anything that might be planning on coming for Multioak to think again because there would be no chance of it catching the town unawares, at least if it was planning on coming from the South.
But the interview didn’t go that well. For one thing, getting the camera and audio equipment up into the watchtower was a giant hassle, and for another thing, the reporter, a frowny, businesslike girl in her mid-twenties, had very little patience for Buddy’s evasive answers as to why, specifically, he’d built the watchtower.
“But what are you watching for?” asked the reporter, visibly frustrated. “Who do we need to worry about attacking us?”
“I don’t know,” said Buddy, trying not to look at the camera. “Maybe no one. But shouldn’t someone be watching just in case?”
“Then why,” asked the reporter, “don’t we just wear hard hats all the time in case something falls on our heads? Why don’t we go to the doctor for a check-up every day, just in case?”
In his head, Buddy knew the difference between the examples the reporter was giving him and the watchtower, but he couldn’t put it into words. “I’m trying to help,” said Buddy. “I don’t know why that irritates you, miss.” This was not the kind of interview he’d been expecting.
“Because,” said the reporter. “You’re not helping. You could be doing something helpful, but instead you’re sitting up here in your rickety tower helping nobody.”
“Peace of mind,” said Buddy. “People will rest easier knowing I’m on the lookout.”
“No one was worried about an invasion from the South before you built the tower,” said the reporter. “And now just kids and dumb and suggestible people are.”
“Well, I should really get back to watching,” said Buddy.
When the segment aired on the next night’s Channel 2 news, Buddy missed it because there was no TV in the tower.
After the news segment, there was a brief uptick in the number of people who came by to see what Buddy was up to, but after a few days, the Multioak citizens’ interest was diverted by a typical alcohol-related scandal with one of the star high school football players. So Buddy was left alone in his tower and he used the ensuing peace and quiet to – what else? – watch. Day after day, he saw nothing that could be considered a threat. “That’s good,” he told himself. “I don’t want to see anything. Do I? No.”
Then, one afternoon, a sleek, green car pulled into Buddy’s driveway and a squat man in plaid shorts and an aquamarine polo shirt got out, a driving cap tilted back on his head. Buddy watched him approach the base of the tower and look up.
“Hello,” called the man. “You’re Buddy. I like the tower. Can I come up? I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“Sorry, no,” Buddy called down. “I need to stay attentive. You’re welcome to look from down there, though.”
“Let me ask you a question,” said the man. “Let’s say you do see something threatening coming towards the town. How are you going to warn people?”
“I’ll…I’ll make some calls,” said Buddy. “I’ve got a phone up here. A cell phone.”
“Who are you going to call?” asked the man. “The police?”
“Sure,” said Buddy. “Yes, the police.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” said the man. “I’m Clint Jacks, I’ve got a morning radio show on WOAK and I think you should call the radio station if you see something. We’ll have a hotline set aside just for you so that when you call, we can get your warning on the air immediately.”
Buddy was intrigued.
“Furthermore,” said Clint. “I’d like to do a daily segment on my show where I call you and you give us a report on what you see. That way your watchfulness will become a daily part of our listeners’ lives. And we have a lot of listeners. We have the best ratings in three counties.”
“OK,” said Buddy. “You can come up.”
Buddy didn’t listen to Clint Jacks’ Morning Show on WOAK because he didn’t have a radio in the watchtower, nor did he think it would be a good idea to get one. But every weekday morning between 5 and 5:15 - which seemed kind of early, but oh well - Buddy’s cell phone rang and he answered with a curt, “Buddy here.” Then he’d hear Clint, speaking in a low, serious voice, say, “Buddy, Multioak needs to know. What does Buddy see?”
The first time Buddy received the call, he was taken aback by the tone and phrasing of Clint’s question and almost hung up. But he didn’t and Clint said, “Buddy? You there? It’s Clint Jacks at WOAK. You’ve been in your watchtower all night, correct?”
“Yes,” said Buddy, feeling safer.
“So our listeners need to know,” said Clint. “What does Buddy see?”
“What did I see?” asked Buddy. “Last night? Or what do I see right now?” The thought of all those people listening made him too conscious of the quantity of spit under his tongue.
“Just tell us if the coast is clear, Buddy.”
“I didn’t see anything last night,” said Buddy. “And right now it’s just, you know, some cars driving on the road. And my neighbor’s doing something to his driveway.”
Clint let out a sigh of relief. “OK, then, Buddy. We’ll check back tomorrow. Stay vigilant. We’re counting on you.”
And that was more or less how every morning call from Clint Jacks had gone since, minus Buddy’s confusion at the opening. Clint would call and say, “What does Buddy see?,” Buddy would answer with a few mostly-mundane recollections of things he’d seen from the tower in the last 24 hours, and Clint would tell Buddy to stay vigilant and that Multioak was counting on him . Buddy wasn’t so naïve as to believe that Clint really cared as much as he let on, but if Clint was willing to help Buddy’s cause, Buddy was willing to endure a little feigned interest and ribbing, although he wasn’t sure who would find his answers entertaining. Sure, he never had anything dangerous to report, and he could see how some people might see that as evidence that he was being silly, but he didn’t understand how that joke wouldn’t get old quickly.
Then again, he had never really understood why people found him funny. He rarely tried to be funny and when he did, he got modest reactions at best. The hardest Buddy had ever seen his older brother Wilbur, who he hadn’t seen or heard from in years, laugh was the time Buddy had looked up at a meteor shower and simply said what he was thinking, which was, “Oh, great. Now what?”
After the first week of phone calls from Clint Jacks’ Morning Show, people from Multioak started to show up at the watchtower again, usually in the late afternoon or late at night. Buddy couldn’t help but notice that most of them seemed to be more of the mocking variety and less of the genuinely appreciative variety, and the ones who came late at night were usually inebriated and sometimes outright insulting.
But it wasn’t long before Buddy preferred the insults to the constant shouts of “What does Buddy see? What does Buddy see? What does Buddy see?” He understood that in order for his segment to fit into Clint Jacks’ morning radio show format, it made sense for it to have a snappy catchphrase – or at least he understood that Clint thought it needed one– but that didn’t mean that Buddy couldn’t hate it. Especially when it was being used as a weapon against him. Buddy didn’t want to bring the subject up on the air because he didn’t want to give his antagonists the satisfaction of knowing they were getting to him, and also, it would just sound pathetic. But when he tried to get in touch with Clint at other times, he couldn’t reach him. And Clint still hadn’t told Buddy what the number for the special hotline to the station was, if it even existed.
Still, in spite of all this, Buddy clung to the knowledge that even if the vast majority of the Clint Jacks Morning Show listeners saw him as a joke, his information was still being passed along. The listeners might not value it, but they were hearing it anyway. Buddy was still reporting what he’d seen on a daily basis, except for weekends, and if the day ever came that Buddy saw something truly threatening to report, the peoples’ derision would turn to gratitude in an instant, the taunting would stop, and the question, “What does Buddy see?” would be asked soberly and sincerely, not chanted until the chanters became too overcome with mirth to continue and had to stagger home, leaning on each other for support while Buddy watched on into the night to keep them safe, unworthy as they were.
One morning just after 3 a.m., only a few minutes after Buddy’s alarm had awoken him for a scheduled look around, a car he didn’t recognize in the dark pulled into his driveway.
“Who’s there?” Buddy shouted down from his tower as the slim figure of a man exited the car and hurried across the lawn towards the tower.
The figure didn’t answer. Instead, it tried to throw something up into the tower, or maybe at the tower, or maybe at Buddy himself. Buddy couldn’t tell because whatever it was didn’t even come close to the top of the tower. The figure retrieved the object from where it had landed in the yard and tried to throw it again with even worse results than the first time.
“What is it?” Buddy called down. “What are you throwing?”
The figure responded with a third throw that was so bad as to give Buddy an uncomfortable shiver of embarrassment.
“Just leave it at the base of the ladder,” said Buddy. “I’ll come down and get it when you’re gone.”
The figure stood still for a moment, silhouetted against the moonlight reflecting off the dew-covered grass, its shoulders heaving as it panted with the exertion of its terrible throws. Then it nodded once, placed the object at the base of the watchtower’s ladder, walked slowly back to its car, and drove away.
A full five minutes after the car left, Buddy opened the trapdoor and descended the ladder, careful to keep both hands on the rungs every time he took a downward step. At the base of the ladder he found a padded envelope that no man or woman on Earth would have been able to throw into the watchtower from the ground, even in ideal conditions.
Buddy tore the envelope open and inside he found an unmarked audio cassette tape. He tried to determine how curious he was to hear what was on it and found that he wasn’t really curious at all. He was much more interested in getting back into the watchtower and making sure there was nothing approaching from the South to harm the citizens of Multioak. But then he thought that since he was already down and he knew for a fact there was an old battery-powered cassette player in his garage, he might as well get it just to see what was on the tape in case the mysterious figure came back and wanted know what he thought about the contents of the tape.
When he got back up to the top of the tower, Buddy looked around with the most watchful eyes he could manage for a full fifteen minutes before kneeling to put the cassette tape into the player and pressing play.
At first there was just an unpleasant popping and hissing sound. Then, abruptly, Buddy heard Clint Jacks’ voice, although he barely recognized it. It came through the grimy cassette player speaker as an obnoxious, domineering version of Clint’s regular speaking voice. In fact, if Clint hadn’t identified himself, Buddy may not have recognized the voice at all. “Welcome back, all right, hey! This is Clint Jacks on the WOAK Morning Show on 100.1FM and it is just after 8 of the clock in the morning which could mean, well, a lot of things, but in our case, it means that we’re going to check in with local bag-o-nuts Watchtower Buddy who has, I’m sure, been busy keeping a close eye on our lightly-defended South side since last we spoke to him exactly 24 hours ago. So! Let’s give him a call and see what he was to report!”
Buddy frowned and wondered if he’d heard correctly. Clint had said he was calling Buddy at just after 8, but he had always called Buddy around 5. On the tape, Buddy heard the sound of a phone ringing once and then his own voice on the other end of the line saying, “Buddy here.”
“He-ee-eey, Buddy!” shouted Clint in a way that Buddy had never heard him shout before. He would have remembered if Clint had shouted at him through the phone like that. Continuing in a tone wholly unfamiliar to Buddy, Clint shouted, “The citizens of Multioak want, nay, need to know: What. Does. Buddy. See?”
Buddy heard himself hesitate and Clint struggling to hold back a snicker, a moment of which Buddy had no recollection. Then he heard himself say, “Well, someone just went by on a horse,” which was something he had said during one of the calls, but only in response to a very specific line of questioning by Clint that Buddy now realized had been edited out.
On the tape, Clint said, “One person on a horse, Buddy? That doesn’t sound too threatening.”
“It could be,” said Buddy’s voice. “You never know.”
Clint let out a long, giddy laugh. Then he said, “Come on, Buddy, what else? Did you see anything really scary? Something that really made you nervous? Something we should be aware of?”
“My neighbor,” said Buddy’s voice. “He’s selling some old overalls out by the road.”
Barely able to contain himself, Clint said, “Overalls, Buddy? That does sound dangerous. Is there something especially dangerous about these overalls?”
“Maybe,” said Buddy. “I can’t tell from here.”
Then Clint unleashed a truly horrifying burst of laughter and shouted, “OK, Buddy, sounds like you got some trouble brewing over your way, so you just keep us updated, got it? And if anything develops with that overalls situation, please call it in so we can issue an official warning. But if nothing happens, God willing, we’ll check in again tomorrow for another round of What! Does! Buddy! See?”
Then there was some crackling and the recording was over, the tape playing on with a barely audible hiss. Buddy let it play.
He knew that this recorded exchange with Clint had never taken place, but it certainly sounded real. That was his voice and he had said those things, though not in that order and he definitely hadn’t heard Clint say any of the things he’d said on the tape. Buddy realized that Clint must be cutting up little bits of his reports, piecing them together into fake conversations that made him sound like an idiot, and playing them a few hours later. Which meant that Buddy’s daily reports on the Clint Jacks Morning Show weren’t informational at all. They were comedy routines with him as the unwitting butt of the joke. No wonder people were showing up to jeer and chant at him. Clint Jacks had deceived him and done irreparable damage to his reputation. Even if Buddy issued a real warning now, who would heed it?
That night, even though he felt exhausted, Buddy didn’t sleep at all. Clint Jacks and every other citizen of Multioak may have thought he was fool, but there was nothing Buddy could do about it except watch more and watch harder. He would turn his anger into vigilance. He would turn his resentment into vigilance. He would turn his pain into vigilance and anything else he felt would get turned into vigilance too. But first, the watchtower needed to get taller.
The next morning, when Clint Jacks called Buddy from his office at WOAK at 5:03, the call went straight to voicemail. “You’ve reached Buddy,” said Buddy’s flat, stiff, recorded voice. “If this is Clint Jacks or anyone else, I’m not answering or returning calls anymore. All I’m doing is watching. You won’t hear from me again until I see something coming. But if I see something coming, yeah, you’ll hear from me. Don’t bother leaving a message ‘cause I won’t listen to it.”
Clint hung up the phone and took a sip of his coffee, which had cooled just enough to be the perfect temperature, which earned it a second sip. “Hey,” he shouted to his producer, who was standing in the hallway discussing the merits of realism in televised forensics dramas. “It’s a no-go on the ‘What Does Buddy See?’ bit.”
“Just for today?” asked the producer, stepping into the doorway and grimacing as he rolled his right shoulder backwards, rubbing it with his left hand.
“We’ll see,” said Clint. “Maybe just for today. Maybe for good.”
“What do you want to do instead?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Clint. “Anything will work.”
“Truth be told,” said the producer. “I never thought it was funny.”