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'The race is not to the swift'

A sense of quick dispatch was never Maynard's bread and butter in life. Although I didn't meet him until he retired and moved his trailer under a tree in his sister's backyard, I suspect that Maynard's previous life caused much frustration for those who did any kind of business with him. Maynard Shuster, tall, rock-jawed, whistler, string collector and magazine subscriber without peer, is the Slowest Man in the World.

His retirement was in essence a sort of quasi-exile or a weary escape from a world that moved too swiftly for a man of his patience and unique sense of speed. He is not slow of wit or at all limited in his capacity to understand complexity or guile. Maynard is simply wondrously slow in moving and talking, which creates the illusion that here is a man ripe to pluck, a practical joke waiting for consummation, a man sought after on April Fools' Day.

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''Well,'' says Maynard, slowly bringing his hand to his cheek in preparation for a philosophic discussion that would cause potatoes to yawn, ''speed . . . is . . . relative.''

''Not today, Maynard,'' I say bluntly. ''Too many things to do.''

''With wings,'' he says, in slow-motion photography exposing a warm little smile, ''. . . you could . . . fly.''

I laugh and empty the garbage. Maynard and I meet every Thursday afternoon at the head of the road where we leave our garbage cans side by side for the truck arriving the next morning. I call Maynard up and say, ''Garbage cans'' about an hour before I actually carry the can out there. Inevitably I'm first. Then, here comes Maynard, pushing his can on a little cart with a squeaky wheel, grass growing literally under each step as he arrives in a cloud of somnambulance. I fight to remember what it was we talked about a week ago, because he knows the thread of what we discussed.

''You take . . . the . . . hammer,'' he says, lifting the can slowly from the cart, ''and . . . you . . . hit it twice.''

''No,'' I say, not knowing what on earth is being discussed. ''I tried that.'' He sets the can down and stays attached to it for a long time, a silhouette in frozen jeans and red-checkered shirt. ''Well, then . . . ,'' he says, releasing the handles and turning to me like a glacier, ''. . . burn it.''

''That's a good idea, Maynard,'' I say. ''Thanks.''

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He waves, pardon the expression, suddenly, and says, ''Nothing . . . t'all. . . .''

Once I saw him walk through the walnut grove. True, the earth was lumpy and no doubt caused, in a scientific sense, more friction for moving feet as he took a shortcut to the country store. At first I thought, have you ever seen legs move more slowly? Have you ever seen mobility that is not mobility? I heaped a kind of self-righteous ridicule on him until I caught myself. I backed up and started again.

Maynard, I said to the figure drifting through the trees, you are, at this instant, my teacher, my reminder that swift does not mean right or accurate or even good, that speed has its price and slowness its tranquillity. There is no windup key sticking out of the back of the world, even though the world and most of the men and women in the world act as if we lived at the end of our tether. Maynard, I said, wait and let me catch up with your slowness. Maynard, I vote for you.

Two weeks later a crisis hit the neighborhood. Two-year-old Buzzy Bassy, a cherubic whirlwind known for his dexterity, bravery and the exhaustion of his mother, disappeared. One minute he was banging a toy truck on the front lawn, and the next minute he was gone, vanished into the country air under a blue sky.

Mrs. Bassy is one of those shriekers, a woman who believes that the higher one shouts concern and stark, raving fear, the closer you come to scaring the wits out of the truth. At first she had tried to remain calm, searching the house, searching the yard, searching the danger spots. And then, when her aplomb caved in, she stood on the lawn and shrieked for help from anywhere in the universe. People, dogs, cats and a mailwoman came running. Everybody looked everywhere. No little Buzzy. The creek was three hundred yards away. You don't suppose . . . . No, he can't go to a creek when he doesn't know the creek is there.

Maynard suggested the boy was in a tree somewhere. Trees were searched. Nothing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Maynard go around to the backside of the garage. Then I heard a faint giggle, a little warm murmur tumbling down from a cloud. All eyes went up. There was Buzzy, twenty feet off the ground, holding on to the peak of the peaked and steep roof of the garage, his face grinning in toothless triumph. Mrs. Bassy shrieked, the shock waves registering in Buzzy's eyes as it dawned on him that his mother was not at all cool. This realization, even in one so young, was impressive. He lost his grip before a ladder could be swung into action. The last we saw was a bottom in short pants disappear quickly down the roof on the other side. Mrs. Bassy took leave of her senses.

There was a mad rush to the backyard, where, if Maynard hadn't been there, Buzzy would have tumbled down into a hedge. But Maynard, his nose bleeding where Buzzy had bonked him coming down, had caught the little ball tumbling from the sky, an act that required speed, judgment and an understanding of the dynamics of moving bodies.

''Well,'' said Maynard with a towel over his nose, ''I saw him up there . . . and I said, Maynard, hurl yourself into the backyard and save the . . . day.'' Mrs. Bassy was an effusive pile of crying jello, alternately hugging Buzzy and spilling tears on Maynard. Someone got Maynard a glass of lemonade which he gave to Buzzy, who spilled it on his mother.

Maynard, for some reason shrouded in his past, began a speech. ''. . . and daily events,'' he said, ''. . . lift mankind out of the . . . commonplace . . . responding to . . . the best . . . in man when the worst . . . is lost . . . in acts of . . . heroism . . . however slow. . . .'' He sat down.

The dogs and cats wandered away, followed by the majority of people except for Buzzy and me, who stayed and listened. ''. . . and finally . . . we come to . . . the end of the matter,'' said Maynard, folding the bloody towel on his knee, ''. . . go slow in this . . . bruised world, little children . . . for whom the gods would anger . . . they first make them too fast to see . . . the wonder . . . in an afternoon nap. . . .''

Then he laughed deliciously slowly in demonstrating his swiftness.

Maynard, you got my vote long ago.

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