The Existence of Posters
by J.J. Steinfeld
It was a Sunday, early in the morning, on the first day of summer, when an amorous young man of twenty, leaving a married, older woman’s apartment, saw the beautiful poster adorning the window of a vacant store. The poster so arrested his attention that he stood in front of it for a full minute, even though he had been in a hurry to get home. I MIGHT NOT EXIST was printed in luminous tiny capital letters at the top of the poster, which depicted a Heironymus Bosch-like scene. Except he recognized it as the shopping and commercial district of his town. The town he had grown up in and almost left countless times.
A week later, a complaint was phoned in to the local police chief that vandals were at large. More complaints quickly followed. The police chief investigated, and counted thirty-six of the posters around the shopping and commercial district. On storefronts, the sides of buildings, a mailbox, telephone poles, trees, parked vehicles…
The police chief thought the posters were impressive, but he instructed one of the town workers to remove all thirty-six of them. After all, there was a bylaw against displaying posters without prior approval from town council. No one on town council had been contacted.
A few days later, amid a swirl of rumours and gossip and speculation about the appearance of even more posters, the editor of the local weekly newspaper sent her youngest, least experienced—yet most enthusiastic—reporter to take a few photographs and see if there was some sort of feel-good story behind the enigmatic posters.
The reporter came back with several photographs, and the information that he had counted ninety-three of the posters.
“The quality of the posters is high. The artwork is professional,” the enthusiastic reporter said.
“Who around here would go to all that trouble?” the editor asked.
Closing his eyes, and contemplating what might be going on, the reporter said, “I wouldn’t mind having one of the posters in my bedroom…”
At the next town-council meeting, during new business, the issue of the posters was brought up. One councillor said they added to the shopping and commercial district. Another saw a potential tie-in to tourism. Junk, nothing but junk, another councillor argued. “Isn’t it amazing,” the mayor said, holding one of the posters and fingering the gooey substance on the back, “that whoever is doing this is using a biodegradable adhesive?” “It may be biodegradable, but it wasn’t easy to get it off my car,” the mayor’s brother-in-law complained. The debate became intense. The most intense since the dispute last year over the cost of sewer expansion and increased taxes. The councillors agreed to put off a decision until the next meeting. Perhaps cooler heads would prevail then.
A reporter for a big-city newspaper telephoned the editor of the local weekly and asked about the posters. The reporter’s sister, who had never been given to exaggeration, had told him about the phenomenal number of fantastic, incredible posters during an earlier telephone conversation. She had also told him the bad news about her medical diagnosis.
“All we know,” the editor said over the telephone, “is that there are close to eight hundred posters around town, more springing up every day, and no one has ever seen anyone put them up.” The big-city newspaper reporter expressed incredulity and the editor of the local weekly became annoyed, and they got into an argument over investigative journalism and the relative merits of living in a small town as opposed to a big city.
On the day the big-city newspaper reporter arrived in the town, to visit his ailing sister, but also to see if there was a story worth pursuing, why waste the trip, he thought, there were well over a thousand posters. Besides, he could combine visiting his sister and researching what might turn out to be strangely interesting story with a little summer vacation. He had joked with his sister over the phone, attempting to lift her spirits, that writing a story in such a beautiful touristy area certainly qualified as a journalistic version of “summer fun.”
“It’s a big mystery,” one of the patrons at the town’s largest coffee shop said to the big-city newspaper reporter, on his second day in the town.
“You know what? This kinda reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. Where the feathery creatures take over the town,” another patron said.
“Birds and posters aren’t the same thing, for Heaven’s sake,” a third patron said, shaking her head at the ludicrousness of the comparison.
“That terrifying 1963 movie, directed brilliantly by Alfred Hitchcock, was based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier,” the big-city reporter said, as if he were lecturing to a class of slow learners.
“My, don’t you know a lot,” a sunglasses-wearing counter clerk, a slight sneer curling her upper lip, said.
“I happen to be an Alfred Hitchcock fan, that’s all,” the big-city reporter defended himself.
“Well, we’re being taken over by posters, the way that other town was taken over by birds,” said the patron who had first mentioned the film comparison.
“The Birds was a movie, and this is reality, in case you’ve forgotten,” the sunglasses-wearing counter clerk, pouring a cup of coffee, said.
“Sure, but wouldn’t this make a great movie.”
“Yeah, a horror movie.”
“There’s nothing horrible about those posters,” the big-city newspaper reporter said, jotting down notes as the patrons and staff offered their opinions. “They are exquisitely artistic,” he stated, doing a mediocre imitation of Alfred Hitchcock that no one in the coffee shop recognized.
One of the town councillors, on his own initiative, nearly a month after the first poster appeared, had a couple of drinks and then went around ripping down posters. He was stopped by the local weekly’s young, enthusiastic reporter, and they got into a shouting and shoving match. Comments such as freedom of artistic expression crashed loudly against friggin’ eyesores, I’d rather look at an attractive poster than a blank wall against there’s enough garbage around here, disturbing the otherwise tranquil, uneventful afternoon. The councillor, holding on to a portion of a ripped poster, fell to the ground and banged his head on the sidewalk. Banged it so badly that he bled on the sidewalk and all over the portion of the poster he had ripped down, and which had wound up under his head like a flattened pillow.
An ambulance, a poster on the driver-side door, took the injured man to the hospital. As the two ambulance attendants approached the hospital, they saw on a wall near the emergency entrance several more posters, and two doctors and a patient nearby. One of the doctors was staring at a poster; the other was drawing moustaches and beards on some of the faces of a second poster.
“It’s you who’s plastering them ugly things up,” the patient, standing outside having a smoke, accused.
“I find them quite lovely. However, I have better things to do than put posters all over town. And you shouldn’t be puffing on a cigarette,” the moustache-and-beard-drawing doctor said.
The posters, and the stories about the posters, had a magnetic effect. People from all over the province came to the town. From all over the country. Some even from other countries, as if they were journeying to a miraculous shrine. A national TV crew arrived to do a segment on the sleepy little town and the “mushrooming posters,” and shortly after that a foreign TV crew that in the last year had also done shows on a Himalayan family of hundred-year-old mountain people and on telepathic contact with UFOs. Many of the businesses in the town prospered. A few new enterprises emerged as a direct result of the interest in the posters.
I MIGHT NOT EXIST…
A month after the first poster appeared, one caller to the local radio phone-in show stammered, “We should be getting rid of those posters, like we would do with noxious weeds…”
The host, discarding objectivity, responded, “Stupid to look a gift horse in the mouth…”
Of the seventeen calls that morning, twelve were in favour of the posters, saw them as contributing to the town, and five were against, two vehemently.
The official count—run prominently front-page in the weekly newspaper—on the sixth week was 3,132 posters. (This number did not remain accurate for long, since posters were being removed as souvenirs or by members of a self-appointed town-beautifying crew, and replaced or added to by a yet to be discovered individual or individuals.) A history buff, and well-known local eccentric, sat in the town’s largest coffee shop and pointed out to anyone who would listen that the current number was exactly twice the year of Nostradamus’ death in 1566. Another local eccentric, both more patriotic and more skeptical, said that if you took the year of Canada’s Confederation, added it to the year of Nostradamus’ death, threw in his age of forty-four—it was his birthday that day, he reminded the other patrons—and subtracted 345, his lucky number, he claimed, you would also get 3,132, the number of posters. By the next week the twice-the-year-of-Nostradamus’-death number was out-of-date, and the history buff announced that the new figure of 3,389 was twice the year of the 1692 Salem Witch-Hunt, plus five.
Then there was a report from another town, less than fifty kilometres away, that I MIGHT NOT EXIST posters had appeared. What one local artist, in a conversation with a vacationing lawyer who had recently purchased two of her paintings, described as a Sistine Chapel ceiling-like scene, with the townsfolk depicted in religious splendour. And then other towns. People lost interest in the first town, which still had under 5,000 posters. There were at least five other towns within a two-hundred kilometre radius with over that amount, and their posters having proliferated during a shorter time.
The big-city newspaper reporter stayed in the town, to be with his sister, whom her doctor said could not cling to life much longer. And the reporter thought there was a significant story in the recent murder—the small town’s first murder in nearly ten years—of a young man who had been caught, in the less than sympathetic words of the reporter to the sunglasses-wearing counter clerk at the coffee shop, in flagrante delicto. Then someone told him that the murder victim had been, three months ago, the first one to see an I MIGHT NOT EXIST poster. This has to be the most elaborate, largest hoax ever, the big-city newspaper reporter said at the coffee shop, which had become his regular haunt in the town, when he wasn’t at his dying sister’s bedside at the hospital.
“Think of what people would say if these posters start showing up all over the world. In every single country,” said the sunglasses-wearing counter clerk, taking off her sunglasses for a moment, her eyes seeming to be peering at a faraway place.
“Some things just aren’t explainable,” philosophized a patron, staring into her coffee.
“There has to be an explanation,” another patron, finishing his third doughnut of the morning, stated adamantly, and pointed to the six posters on the coffee shop’s window, one more than the previous morning.
A little girl and a little boy, walking hand in hand by the town’s largest coffee shop, were the first to notice that one of the posters was different from the others. As with the thousands of other posters, words were printed in luminous tiny capital letters at the top of the poster. The two children read aloud at almost the same time, “I MIGHT EXIST.”
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