Advance man

WHAT appealed to me about the task was its simplicity. I was to go out into the neighborhood on this warm Friday evening and post half-a-dozen yellow cardboard signs whose bold black letters heralded GARAGE SALE. Darkness had already fallen when I picked up the signs and started out on foot. Walking seemed the right choice for so pedestrian a task. Besides, it would be slow, and I wanted the job to last. Posting signs struck me agreeably after a week in which challenge - yes, that leaden, institutional word again - had once more exceeded its quota.

Under a dim streetlamp at a quiet intersection, I stood alongside a tall utility pole and prepared to hang my first sign. Withdrawing two silvery gray aluminum nails from my pocket, I struck the first one. It buckled, forming a right angle. The next one produced the same result.

Stymied, I observed that a good share of the old nails on the pole hadn't been driven in all the way. I easily extracted them with the hammer's claw. Now once again they would know the steel of a hammer.

They looked more than equal to the job - rugged, with large heads and a certain workhorse radiance. True to their appearance, they retained their form under the hammer's blows and smoothly pierced the tough wood. Soon I was standing back to admire the sign's yellow clarity against the brown of the pole.

Few cars went by and no one else was out walking. It was the same at the other corners - more weathered nails for me to use, then my few hammer strikes breaking the silence under the soft light of the streetlamps.

I moved on, spreading the news in capital letters, savoring simplicity and beneficent brown nails. Entirely too soon the last sign was hung and it was time to start home.

As I walked my slow way toward the scene of the next day's garage sale, my mind drifted to times past. Maybe it was the stillness of the warm night and the emptiness of the street corners, the mellow glow of light subtracting only slightly from the embrace of darkness.

Except for the glistening new nails which had failed to measure up, everything about the evening beckoned the past. The signs I posted promised an offering of old things. The abandoned nails that saved the night had once held notices of events now most likely forgotten. The hammer in my right hand had once belonged to my grandfather, who passed it on to his son. Now it was my turn to grip the gnarled wooden handle and add to the hammer's infinity of blows.

As for my task that night, it too found a place in the past - in a recollection of the peripatetic advance man who once traversed the town posting such cheerful news as:

RINGLING BROS. CIRCUS

AT FAIRGROUNDS

and

LAURETTE TAYLOR

in PEG O' MY HEART

and

JOSEPH JEFFERSON

as RIP VAN WINKLE

The homeward stroll set me in a pensive mood. For a few moments I had walked in his shoes through the voiceless prelude of an enchanting tomorrow. Tomorrow, said the yellow signs, would be the ``show.'' Tomorrow would bring the people and the laughter, talk, and action in the bright sunlight. And tonight under the dim streetlamps, the advance man was the first to know.

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