CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Arley Cleeter Reveals His Secret Life

By Jack Cawthon
I always pay a visit to Arley Cleeter in Big Puf sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas for a prediction of the coming winter weather. Arley burns books for his winter heating, and he has an uncanny ability to gauge the weather, or so I have thought.

I once asked him how he did it. He just smiled and replied that he uses the Old Farmers Almanac. This came as a surprise to me, as I never thought that it was a reliable means of forecasting.

He readily agreed, and added that he thought the editors were always blowing smoke. As a result, he said he didn't rely on the written predictions, but instead tossed a bundle of almanacs into his stove and then went outside to see which way the wind blew the smoke from the chimney. That gave him an indication of the weather for at least one day.

This year, when I walked into his cabin, I caught Arley by surprise: he was reading a book! He looked up and saw me and immediately tossed the book into the stove. Then, he swore me to secrecy.

I learned that Arley was a closet reader. The book burning was to cover up his secret life.

Arley had once told me he had "gone" to college. That is how I have always termed my own college experience: "going" instead of "coming" away educated.

As I may have explained before, I had had both a smallpox vaccination and a college inoculation. One left a scar and the other one didn't, which may mean that one took and other one didn't. So far, I have not contracted smallpox, but I have been struck by ignorance from time to time.

Arley's story continued. He said he was an outsider, and worse, from Pennsylvania, and that the college degree had branded him beyond redemption, especially if he wanted to be accepted as one of the good ole boys at the Over Easy Inn.

Right away, I could see why his secret must remain with me, and, of course, you dear readers. There are so few of you, and, so far, none of you seem to be able to find Big Puf, although I feel I have given explicit directions. Maybe you are all college graduates, which could explain why you are so lacking in perception!

Arley had become one of the regulars at the Over Easy, regardless of his peculiarities. I could only assume that he might have had a class to two in drama in college. I know that has certainly benefited me over the years.

Just maybe, and I didn't want to press the point, his mother may have come into contact with a hill migrant moving northward for job opportunities. A considerable amount of hill genes have been spread in this manner, which may account for the wide number of red states voting for Bush.

Arley told me that the major disadvantage of his heating source came when he applied for low- income assistance with his fuel bills. When asked what source he now used, and he replied "burning books," the government interviewer laughed and said that she didn't have Dominion over that.

Arley not only has low income, but no discernable income at all, except that he sometimes refers to himself an "herbalist," which I assume has something to do with the saw-leafed plants I have observed growing around his cabin. Even though Arley was turned down for a subsidy, when I looked around the cabin and saw all the books stacked with only narrow aisles for walkways, I figured he would make it through a severe winter.

Either that, or he wouldn't run out of reading material, at least until ramp season. In the past, the stacks of books had indicated to me a severe winter coming on. Arley assured me that he did burn books, and enjoyed exceedingly burning some of them. He foresaw no shortage of fuel in the future either, all independent of foreign oil.

With Martha Stewart due to detail her prison experiences in book form, and with the multitude of books about the Scott Peterson affair certain to appear, he felt that he would be well warmed. Also, he counted on the Clintons to due their fair share also. In addition, with most people feeling they have book inside them, and, worse, letting it come out, Arley's future could burn ever brighter.

Arely, in addition to his other faults, considers himself an environmentalist, a college-based word he would never use around the Over Easy. (I, from time to time, do find myself entangled in intellectual discussions, which I blame mostly on the contagion from a nearby university. Having the reputation of writing a column for intellectuals, although few of them may read it, also fosters my standing.)

More people need to burn books, Arley told me, although this wasn't an original idea of his. He picked it up from observing school boards around the state who often wish to protect innocent children from the subversive authors who might contaminate them. He said the world will become filled with meaningless prose, if some action isn't taken. I told him to go easy on the poetry, as I live with a published poet who has been paid for her creativity, providing one of my best meals ever at a Big Mac counter.

So much for weather predictions! From now on, when I observe Arley frantically lugging in his books, I can only assume he will be keeping both body and mind warmed over.

I have long toyed with the idea of writing a book myself. I can now do so, knowing that I may contribute to the welfare of a lonely cabin dweller in Big Puf. It may become a hot seller!