UHCL The Signal
Student Publications Office
University of Houston-Clear Lake
2700 Bay Area Blvd., Box 456
Houston, TX 77058
“A Fraud in Figlandia”
On the prairie, 40 miles northwest of Galveston, Texas
Thursday, September 12, 1895
Could this be any flatter? The coastal plain spread to the horizon in every direction; the carpet of prairie grass lay still in the ruddy light of the late afternoon. Mosquitoes buzzed in the humid air, causing the man to wave his hand to prevent an insect from landing on the end of his patrician nose. Sweat trickled down his forehead. He mopped his brow with a worn, linen handkerchief before the salty water could spill over his brows and sting his eyes. Nothing like home, he thought. How I miss… No. Looking back hurt. He would not think about the past. One regret would lead to another and another. Too many for a man only twenty-six-years-old. And then he would be paralyzed; unable to plan. He looked down at the once-fine handkerchief in his hand. New clothes. Definitely new shoes, he thought, noticing the scuffed toes of the ones he wore. People notice details even when they’re missing the big picture. There should be enough left. The purchase of the 3,200 acres he was perusing took most of the money acquired in his recent, gold mine venture down in Mexico. I’ll need a fancy buggy. Rent on a nice room. The best food when I dine. Handbills. A meeting place. Ticking off the items led to the realization that he must make haste before his funds dwindled to nothing. He wiped the sweat from his face again, dropped the crumpled handkerchief into the grass, and then turned to walk back to the rented buck-board parked by the railroad tracks that ran from bustling Galveston, up through newly-minted Alvin, and then north to the backwater town of Houston. Tomorrow I’ll need to start early. He stared across the barren plain again before turning the buck-board around.
Thirteen days later, a white, revival-style tent marked the spot where he had stood. The air was warm and the early-afternoon sun was bright, but the light had changed from the harsh glare of summertime to the golden wash of early autumn. He watched as the buggies and wagons approached from different directions, some alone, some in pairs, some in groups. He strode across the ground to extend his gloved hand to the woman in the passenger seat of the first arriving wagon. After assisting her descent, he bowed over her hand, eliciting a school-girl giggle from the gray-haired woman, around the age of fifty. As her husband and son rounded the wagon, the man raised his frame to its full 6’1” height and clicked his heels together before bowing. His short, light brown hair was parted on the left and combed into waves. He sported a generous mustache and a short, pointed beard below his full, bottom lip. He wore a dove-gray coat with covered buttons and a matching vest. His black bow-tie flopped artfully over the turnover, winged collar of his white shirt. The polished toes of his new, black shoes peeped from beneath the hem of his steel-blue trousers. “Good afternoon, sir,” he said, in an indistinct European accent that bore a British cadence touched with a Slavic undertone. “I am Count Wilhelm Zielinski of the Golden America Land Development Company. So glad you could join me today.” He decided in that moment to pronounce his first name with a soft “w” rather than the harsh “v” of his native tongue.
The woman’s husband responded, “I’m Pinky Van Horn, and this here’s muh wife, Eula Mae, and muh boy, Jordy.” A serious-faced boy, about fifteen years old, with a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose, stared at Wilhelm. “Reckon we wanted to see what this new town bizness is all about,” Pinky continued, starting to offer his hand, then deciding to attempt his own heel click and bow, stumbling in the process.
The Count reach to steady Pinky while offering, “Please seat yourselves while I greet the other guests. I have an informative presentation which I’m certain will answer all of your questions.” Count Zielinski smiled at Eula Mae, prompting another giggle, and then turned to speak to the next couple as they alighted from their buggy.
The growing crowd, which included many who were well-acquainted with each other, mingled while Wilhelm introduced himself to each person, smiling outwardly in greeting and inwardly at the response to the handbills he had placed at strategic locations throughout the surrounding countryside. He had just responded to a question about his accent with the answer that he was from Poland but had attended university in London, when the loud bark of a dog startled him. Wilhem turned to see a stooped, wizened man enter the tent and remove his hat to reveal a shock of white hair. The man’s rumpled work-shirt bore a coating of dust which began as a light sprinkling on his shirt but grew thicker in a path down his pants to his muck-coated boots. The Count approached the new arrival only to find himself embraced by a shaggy, yellow dog who had reared up on his hind legs and placed both paws on Wilhelm’s shoulders, panting in his face. “Down, boy, down!” the owner commanded, and the dog dropped to the ground, but not without giving a sloppy lick to Wilhelm’s stunned face. Wilhelm drew a crisp, linen handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the slobber from his face. “Sorry ’bout that. He loves meetin’ new people,” the man offered.
“Oh, that’s certainly alright,” Wilhelm countered. “How charming that you brought your dog –”
“- and your,” Wilhelm paused and looked down, “duck,” he concluded, forgetting to close his mouth at the end of the word.
The man laughed. “Oh, this ain’t no duck. This here’s muh goose.”