The dullest man in the world

If we submitted Brayton Milnor's name to the Dull Man Club for consideration, he would likely become the dullest man in the world. He wore everlasting dark pin stripes, white shirts, blah ties, and black shoes. When Milnor talked, even when his expression and gestures seemed charged with emotion, what came out was only a soft, barely audible monotone. We set our watches by Milnor, the way some people still use sundials. He seldom ventured beyond oatmeal for breakfast , soup for lunch, or meat and potatoes for supper. To say that his 10-year-old sedan was as colorless as Milnor was to say it all. Everything else was exciting next to him. Maybe that was why we liked him.

There began to be rumors that he was showing signs of restlessness (although detecting signs of anything in Milnor was difficult). Mary Sims reported that when she had breakfast with him at Walgreen's, he ordered bacon and eggs instead of oatmeal, and in a voice (the waitress bending to hear) with a hint of shrillness in it. Bert Jones said he had, while returning from the shopping mall, seen Milnor exploring the McClintock Cadillac lot. And Etta Symonds, in her chatty way, offered interminably that she had seen, through the large window , Milnor examining suits in Small's Men's Shop.

On the occasion of Brayton Milnor's 40th birthday, we assembled for his traditional party, this time at Etta's. This gave us a chance to catch up on what, if anything, Milnor had been up to all year. We had to be careful. Too much frivolity, too many bright colors, and Milnor would amble out -- as he had in 1964, 1968, and 1972. After we had eaten our cake and ice cream, Milnor rose , strolled to the podium. There was a kind of odd smile on his face. Although his first words were inaudibly dull, we adjusted the microphone to the maximum, so that, if we all kept very quiet, he could be heard.

"I'm tired of being merely dull," Milnor said, like the anticipated drip of a faucet, when a pellet of water hangs down from the tap, falling only when you are beside yourself with waiting. When an excited buzz died down, Milnor dropped the second bomb: "Therefore, I intend [nobody breathed] to carry dullness to its ultimate -- to an art form."

Scraping chairs ceased. Chinking dinnerware stopped chinking. I listened to my watch clang for nearly a minute. Somebody behind me, Bert Jones, I believe, rose and spoke for us all: "Dullness in moderation is charming sometimes, Brayton. But there's such a thing as being too dull."

During the next weeks, Milnor was observed taking out the garbage at 10:45 a.m., instead of at 11:00 -- blatantly sweeping the walk. Mrs. Guillard passed Milnor in Aisle 6 at the supermarket and supposed he was wearing a yellow suit, although she might have been mistaken. Mary Sims mentioned she imagined she saw Milnor step into, or out of, a new fire-engine-red car. When I saw him, a week or so later, it was obvious his hair was longer. I watched him speed away in his red car, a yellow elbow out the window, his hair blowing in the wind, until a falling maple leaf distracted my attention.

When one or another of us spoke to Milnor, now and then, going or coming, here or there, we inquired of him when he expected to carry dullness to an art form. I happened to meet Milnor one day, as he exited from a Western shop, where he had purchased a pair of cowboy boots and a 10- gallon hat. "What's new , Brayton?" I asked.

"Everything, you blockhead!" Milnor seemed to be shouting. I asked him please to repeat himself, because a passing loudmouth sparrow had drowned out his words.

When we made preparation for Milnor's 41st birthday party, it was rumored that he was in what he called his "final phase" of carrying dullness to an art form. Of course, we were all eager to see what that meant.

After we had eaten our cake and ice cream, and Milnor had opened some presents, he sauntered to the podium and began, as though waiting in a long checkout- counter line, to explain how he had, at last, changed his dullness into an art form. He was wearing, I believe, his yellow suit. One leg was lifted to the seat of a chair, showing to best advantage his cowboy boots. He twirled his 10-gallon hat on a finger above him. If I don't mistake, Milnor's black hair tumbled to the middle of his back. The amplifier was at the maximum, and he appeared to be screaming his message, but the yawns increased, and, very soon, nearly everybody was dozing. I tried hard to focus my attention on Milnor , but the loud pattern of squares on the tile on the floor demanded my attention. Before I too dropped off, it occurred to me, in one of those flashes of absolute clarity we experience once in a blue moon, that Brayton Milnor in fact hadm carried dullness to an art form. There was, indeed, nowhere else to go. ZZZZ ZZZ.

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