The Traveler

Originally published in ■■■■■■■■ ■■ ■■■ ■■■■■ ■■ ■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■■)

This is Mr. Pat Mitchell. He’s a normal person, in a normal town. The town in question is Foley, Illinois, population 937. It’s just an average American town. And Pat Mitchell is nothing more than an average American person. He leads a mundane life. He works as a restaurant cook, Monday through Friday...

And he desperately wants to escape his mundane, pathetic life.


That’s almost how it happened, but not quite.

At the time of the moon landing, Foley had a population of 938. Other than that, the events reported are accurate. Today, even, residents of Foley recall the story of Pat Mitchell, the man who disappeared from existence, possibly because he di-dn’t belong in it. Some dismiss Mitchell as a kind of renegade who spat on Foley by exposing the residents as hayseeds. Most accept that things happened as they were reported. After all, nearly everyone in Foley, Illinois, current population 2,130, has some relative who was there.

Pat Mitchell was only 23 when he vanished. Born in 1946. Today, he would be 73. If Mitchell hadn’t pulled his famous stunt, or had survived it somehow, he might be around to tell stories himself. The people of Foley knew there wasn’t any hostility towards them in his demeanor. He was simply incompatible with their way of life.

Perhaps, they thought, there were things not worth knowing. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been born there. All the rules of physics and biochemistry combined to form one man, a man so hellbent on escape that if he broke through the limits he probably would have headed for Cape Canaveral and signed up to be the first on Mars. Escape was Mitchell’s forte, and on the day of the moon landing he did something equally remarkable, however his achievement quickly was swept into the dustpan of folklore and separated from the cookie jar of fact.

From what people saw on that day in 1969 when Mitchell paraded his bicycle down the street, it had no gadgets or tricks of any kind attached to it. It wasn’t very well assembled, but then Pat wasn’t a mechanic and had designed the thing to be ridden once and then never again. It was all made to test his theory, which was that Foley, Illinois, the town where he had grown and lived, was the observable universe, and that there was nothing beyond it.

Mitchell had stared at short orders since he was 18, when his father, Hank Mitchell, had recommended him at the diner. He hadn’t chosen this path, but there was something strangely hypnotic in watching fat burn and pulling vegetables from the freezer. Surrounded by the idyllic countryside, rural America, stir crazy and fueled by hormones, his mind had begun to deteriorate then and there.

The theory had started when Mitchell was 22. It started with a gnawing feeling of depression and rot, to know that he would die here. He studied maps, postcards, of Hong Kong and Beirut, Tokyo and Amsterdam, Las Vegas and Nome. They all looked real to him, were in fact real, but he couldn’t be sure of this because the scientific method dictated clearly that if one couldn’t see or observe something directly with all five senses, the thing was incorporeal. The photographs could be seen, of course, but they were third-party accounts that originated from who-knew-where. Reports of New York or Denver could be hopeful fantasies, akin to the phantom island of Hy-Brasil or the lost city of Z.

The same went for the stacks of newspaper and other media that lay on Mitchell’s desk. Speculation, rumors, all of it. Sad delusional people here in Foley, Illinois. They believed in an outside world because there was none.

Mitchell’s obsession soon grew into a full-blown psychosis. His theory was akin to Flat-Eartherism, a kind of dangerous pseudoscience which discounted the existence of things beyond the reach of man. Flat-Earthers may claim that the world is flat, but this belief is not sincere. Rather, most Flat-Earthers are jealous of those who have accomplished more than them, NASA technicians and astronauts. Pat Mitchell shared this in common with Flat-Earthers, too. He was jealous of those who could travel, the jet-setters in their mod fashions who peered over crystal sunglasses at the sticks when they came in. Like the most diligent of Flat-Earthers, Mitchell would not admit this to himself. In his home he concocted a theory even more outrageous. The Earth wasn’t any shape, flat or otherwise. There was no Earth. There were no stars, no sun. The universe extended as far upwards as the water tower on Delacroix St. and as far in either direction as the Foley town limits. What could be seen of the outer world from within the town limits was some sort of clever hologram created to reassure the residents of Foley that there was an outside world, to prevent people from panicking.

Where did the hologram come from, where was it projected? Mitchell strengthened his theory with a humble assertion: We do not know. He did not claim that it was projected by NASA or some evil government, because NASA did not exist, nor did the United States as a whole. Did the residents of Foley project it? No. They were oblivious.

And here was where it reached its logical endpoint: perhaps the projection had no reason to exist, it just did. No being, malevolent or otherwise, created Foley, no being would destroy it. Such moral quandaries were best left to theologians, Mitchell was a pseudo-scientist, and he recognized no intent in any of it. This was simply how the universe was. This was the nature of the world. The people of Foley might not ever discover why the universe was so, a small tiny town in a sea of nothing and chaos, but what at the end of the day was the difference between the edge of the universe, beyond which nothing could be seen, being hundreds of millions of megaparsecs away, and the edge of the universe being a few kilometers away? Science, Mitchell convinced himself, was an ongoing process with no end, where no conclusions could be derived because the universe itself was only a bubble of something in a space-existence that was beyond human comprehension, and besides that, a complete theory was never the goal of science to begin with. Small things were enough for now.

To Pat Mitchell, who was born here and would probably die here, Foley was the universe. However, unlike many Flat-Earthers, who refuse to build rockets with cameras to test their own hypotheses because they’re afraid to prove themselves wrong with tangible evidence, Mitchell was much the opposite. The idea of a tiny universe disturbed him and he wanted to be proven wrong. If he could exit Foley and observe the outside world, touch the grass and taste the food at a restaurant, even if that restaurant was a mile out, he would be convinced and put his theories aside. He didn’t just want to walk out, however. He wanted people to see.


Mitchell publicized the event, handing out flyers and posting signs on all 40 lampposts. Many Folites criticized him, many thought the idea was ludicrous. There was an outside world, they knew. People came from the outside world, some of them had been out themselves, beyond the sign, which was an arbitrary boundary set by human beings in 1865, there was indeed Chicago and Cincinnati and all the rest. Mitchell’s idea was as he expected met with ridicule and nothing more. He didn’t want to believe it himself, but the facts were just so.

He had never been out. He had spent all 23 years here and as a result he was a sort of unwilling bigot who scoffed at the concept of elsewhere. Foley was all he could see, could feel. It was the universe. The scientific method proved this, he told them, and if he exited the town and nothing went wrong, he would change his mind. They went along with this lunacy because they found him interesting, and all small towns need some gimmick, from Mike the Headless Chicken to the backward ramblings of Plennie Wingo. They tolerated him because they were a tolerant folk. Most of them had voted for Kennedy, and they knew that the world was going through a phase where societal norms broke down. If there were gurus in California and cults in Philadelphia, they could bear their own resident lunatic- unless he performed his futile experiment and did not accept the results, in which case they would insist that he give up and face facts. Finally all preparations were made for the big day. This was not a random incident, it was planned from the very beginning but given the illusion of spontaneity so they could act as if they were seeing some lunatic perform an erratic show.

In fact the people of Foley convinced Mitchell in advance to conduct his experiment on July 20. Once it was over, they could go in and watch something greater and more important. Mitchell agreed but not because he wanted to play along with any ruse but because he knew that if his hypothesis was proven correct it would mean more than any silly interstellar voyage. It would mean no interstellar voyage was possible.

Only three people came from out of town that day to watch Mitchell perform his act. Signor Villi, an expatriate Italian, Patrick McCullough, an Irish reporter from Boston whose office had pleaded for a story concerning the eccentric lunatic of Foley, Indiana, and Celia Hicks, the leader of a cult in Oregon named The Seventh Gratification. All three of them landed by chance at O’ Hare on the same flight, and after arriving in Foley went to the only bar, Mick’s, where they coincidentally sat in a close circle. Within minutes, they knew they were the only outsiders.

“I say it’s a load of bunk,” exclaimed McCullough. He had been looking forward to observing the moon landing, and didn’t appreciate being called away from it on business. He wouldn’t be able to catch a flight back before the broadcast, but maybe this bar would be playing it. What bar in America wouldn’t?

“Think of this,” Villi stated. “A man who thinks my Italy doesn’t exist, that your respective Oregons and Massachusetts don’t exist. Such a man is clearly under some sort of delusion. I will remain in Foley a while after today, to prevent some kind of mass hysteria. I am aware of the effects of these sorts of things on the weak and impressionable mind, the ones to be found in towns of this sort.” He sipped his malt and looked over the foam with a nervous look in his face that caused McCullough to wince. Hicks stared at the walls, a faraway and empty look in her eyes.

“There are forces here beyond our control,” she said. “Oregon exists, Italy exists, but for this man they do not exist.” McCullough winced again, more this time. This woman, who ten minutes ago had been a complete stranger to him, was now spewing prophetic visions. He looked again at Villi, who despite his eccentricities was 97 percent sane.

“So,” he said, a nervous chuckle on his lips. “You say you’re an expatriate. Why?”

“I committed war crimes for Salo.”

McCullough winced again and returned to his drink. So much for pleasant chatter. It was noon, and the act was scheduled for one. Many in the bar lined up along the street to get the best view. Villi, McCullough, and Hicks remained in the bar until 12:45, discussing how strange it was that they had all been on the same flight. Hicks pointed out that she had sat directly behind McCullough, who in turn had sat directly behind Villi. McCullough shrugged and they went out.

The sun was bright, the clouds were blue, and along the street there were people. Not many people, only 890, but that was a lot for Foley. McCullough shielded his eyes. He contemplated the situation. The Foley people looked amused. There were noisemakers being passed around, idle chatter and cynical grins. McCullough knew that these people weren’t as dumb as Villi said they were. These people were not impressionable, but there was something oddly fascinating about Pat Mitchell, the man whose actions had brought him here. The man was some kind of lunatic. Cooped up in his garage and building a bicycle from scratch. Wasn’t this the sort of man who got spots on the cover of Newsweek? Yes, McCullough mulled the idea over in his mind. How much time until the bicycle was rolled out? How much time until Mitchell’s ideas were deflated, until he stopped his fantasies and returned to a placid state like the rest of them? 10 minutes. McCullough darted for the Mitchell property.

Above, the winds blew fair and crisp on the residents of Foley.


The following events have not been told until now. You won’t know about Mitchell and McCullough’s encounter if you listen to the old-timers spinning their yarns, because they met once in private circumstances, but it matters to this tale regardless of its status as canon. McCullough is now the only one who can tell you, but he lives today at a psychiatric facility with acute dementia. This dementia was not brought on naturally.

He reached the Mitchell property with minutes to spare. The place was isolated from the rest of town but not outside the city limits, ramshackle but composed, and in the garage he saw the grease streaked face of the lunatic. Mitchell was soldering together some final touches, a flag. He strapped on his goggles. He was startled by the Irishman in his driveway.

“Hello.” He said this friendly, as if he expected Mitchell to dart off. “Pat McCullough. From Boston. I want some information about this stunt you’re about to do. And the ideas you have. You’ve spoken openly about this.” Mitchell rolled his bike out and shut the garage door. His shirt was greasy, his pants were greasy. Isolation, despair. And where were his parents? Or did they live somewhere else? Details were scant.

“Boston, huh?” Mitchell said. “Hi, Pat. Let me tell you something, Pat. A few days ago, I saw a few tourists from Boston here, at the diner. I made them coleslaw. They just ordered coleslaw. Do you know something, Pat? Nobody just orders coleslaw. Five years. I’ve never seen anybody just get coleslaw. You know what I think, Pat? Boston is a lie. Those people were a lie, you’re a lie.” McCullough analyzed him from the top down. He didn’t seem like a paranoiac. He seemed like a sane, rational human being.

“Pat, be sensible,” McCullough pleaded. “Those people are only out there to make a fool of you. Believe me. You come roaring down, you don’t make it, you’ll be a living joke for the rest of your life. Don’t do it, Pat. I may not be real, but those people are real, according to your little theory, aren’t they? Don’t do it.” Mitchell shook his head and pushed McCullough out of the way, a grim and determined look on his face. In 29 years of professional journalism, McCullough had never seen a look like that, and never would again.

“We’ll see, Pat.”

He disappeared towards Foley’s main street. McCullough did not run back to watch him. McCullough sat down on a signpost for a long time. He was in no hurry. He sauntered forward again, then sat down on another signpost. The sky was blue and the sun was hot. He wiped his hands with the corner of his sports jacket. He didn’t make it back to Foley in time.


The Foley company band blew strong notes as Mitchell rounded the corner. He was greeted with cheering and applause. He felt happy, important. On Ivy Lane Villi and Hicks stood, hands on hips, shielding themselves from the sun. To Villi this was a novelty and not a joke, and to Hicks this was a legitimate study. Both clapped lightly as Mitchell came down. He was not riding the bicycle yet, but pushing it. The thing couldn’t exceed 5 miles per hour. Every bolt and screw had been custom-ordered, and they fit together badly.

Still, as the residents of Foley observed, and as Hicks still claims during her weekly incense burnings, there were no gadgets or peculiar devices on it. It was only metal and rubber. Villi is dead now, long buried, died from a heart attack, but he would attest the same. Mitchell for some reason did not simply buy a bike, but that reason was opaque at best. He was a recluse and a hobbyist, and told the cooks at the diner very little about his upcoming project if prodded. The bicycle was green, olive, the wheels were about 30 inches in diameter and there was no brake on it, from what was seen. Very minimalistic design. Pat Mitchell, covered in dirt and grease, journeyed down the streets of Foley one last time.

The town limits were at the end of Juniper Road. They surrounded the incorporated community of Foley for a good 200,000 meters in other directions, but now as Pat Mitchell mounted his vehicle and began pedaling, he was only 50 feet from it.

The crowd only extended ten feet more, then stopped as if a herd of buffalo knew where the good grass stopped and the bad grass began, they held hands and looked at the beautiful day, wondering if they were wasting their time. That was a silly question, wasn’t it? Yes, of course they were wasting their time! Watching some silly slick con artist kid and his cantankerous contraption wander aimlessly down towards nothing!

Still, all eyes remained on Mitchell as he swerved back and forth, dodging potholes that had long since gone unnoticed by the Illinois State highway department. The spectators from the rear now came forward, and those who had dawdled in shops came out. This was too good to miss, murmured all 937 residents of Foley in unison. Moon landings were important, to be sure, but they didn’t involve Foley. Nothing like this had ever happened in Foley, and it was unlikely anything like it would ever happen again. At the end of Juniper Road they gathered, blocking traffic. Nobody cared, nobody was driving.

He sped now, faster and faster, a glint in the light of that hot July day, a speed demon on a crash course with who-knew-where. Thoughts flickered between the people. He would keep riding past the sign, and maybe further, and if so good riddance, and if he came back in disgrace, then so be it. They held no grudges, they only wanted it to be over. They knew damn well that what he was doing was foolish. He didn’t look over his shoulder. He swept on.

He was now ten feet from the wooden sign, a subjective boundary created by men long ago, who stuck it in the mud and said that here there was a place for people to settle. It was a wooden sign with writing on it. An old sign, yes, but there was nothing mystic about it.

What happened next, few residents can remember exactly. They saw Mitchell on the road, stalwart in the wind and determined as a phantom. They now say that they had closed their eyes, or the sun had gone out, or a magician had passed a sheet over their peepers. They make excuses to account for what happened, but none of it is true. Pat Mitchell was a believer of facts, of what could be observed in the real world. The facts were these:

Pat Mitchell had ceased to exist.

None of the residents of Foley admitted it that day, and only half of them now do. They chalk it up to mysterious circumstances, but claim there’s a rational explanation for everything. They called the police, who of course made a thorough sweep of the area. No bicycle was found, nor was he. The prairies waved and the sky was blue and the sun was hot, and they waited with anticipation for the grand reveal, when he would step out of an alleyway and reveal to everyone that he had pulled a fast one on them, and they would all good naturedly laugh.

But no such reveal came. The people of Foley, disturbed and confused, went back to the shops and restaurants, silent and white as ghosts. Villi and Hicks, less confused but still disturbed, left on different flights, in different cars. Foley saw the moon landing that night, but they did not care. It was a collective spectacle, sure, but while the rest of America crackled with lunar brilliance, Foley was somber and quiet, hidden in deep introspection. The broadcast was on in all places, but no breaths were held and no rocket forts were made for the men on the moon.

For the people of Foley, a legend had been born. A story to pass down for generations, one which could only be told in their collective. A town which once had very little identity now had an identity. They did not want to accept this identity, but they had to. Pat Mitchell, lunatic genius trickster, had perhaps not tricked them but given them a legacy which would now be joked about with wry subtlety at the drugstore or asked about at bus stops. He had done it, all right. They would never admit it, any of them. Pat Mitchell would never garner any memorial, or shrine, or television broadcast. He has no grave.

Why should a man who doesn’t exist have a grave?


McCullough informed his editor that he hadn’t been there when it happened, but everyone in town had seen it. Disappeared flat out of nowhere. Police said that it was right at the town line. He missed it, he was sorry. He got some interviews, wasn’t that good enough?

“I’m sorry, Pat.” He turned off the lights in the office one by one. “We’ve got to report the moon landing. Front page things. Without your writing and firsthand accounts, this story doesn’t even deserve a spot in the personals.” He laughed and left Pat waiting in the dark.

Pat, unlike the others, is willing to admit what happened that day, but he can’t. He knows the truth, but he’s old and has Alzheimer’s and bursitis and leans back in an electronic bed while orderlies feed him jell-o. He wears a sly smile, because hidden somewhere in his brain is the truth, the ultimate truth, about the boundaries of the universe. Perhaps it was possession of this knowledge that gave him the dementia, at the low age of only 60. Or perhaps it did come on naturally, and the diagnoses are wrong. Pat McCullough chuckles in a deep whisper to himself when the lights go out and the floors are mopped. He knows the truth.

For all people except Pat Mitchell, the boundaries of the universe were megaparsecs away, light years, an unfathomable distance, the universe was huge and filled with gaseous clouds and energy and hydrogen bonds and strange fields where the laws of physics did not apply. The universe is a huge place to all people except Pat Mitchell, and on the night after Pat Mitchell ceased to exist the universe was further explored.

For all people except Pat Mitchell.

For Pat Mitchell, the boundaries of the universe were the town limits of Foley, Illinois.