There is a handrail (or grabber) that may bring us up to speed with the momentum from yesterday. Or was it last week? Whenever the spirit leads us to proclaim, we hesitate on the first line. If we grab the handrail, there better be something to share. Is there a different language to writing reading? Perhaps we edit too soon. Sometimes we get nearly a whole page done before we tend to rewrite.
Slip to the dreamer. Fit the scene to the character. Dreamers are not in the clouds, but they glance at the sky often, looking for new formations. There’s one now. Not the clouds, but the one glancing. A stranger is coming to town. And she’s not one of us. First we will be curious, then a bit anxious, but somehow a conflict seems unavoidable.
* * *
“Lew.” The redbone coonhound dozed on the porch steps, perfectly content to acknowledge his name with one flip of his tail. We sat motionless in unpainted wooden rocking chairs on either side of the screened door. Lew opened his eyes, saw the woman walking toward the house, closed his eyes, thought better of it, and, with a soft rumble from his throat, kept his eyes on the woman.
“Hello. Are you the Martins?” and without pausing, “I’m told you have a room to rent.” The woman slowed her steps as she watched the dog rise slowly to a casual sitting position. She stopped and waited for an answer. “Yes, and yes. Chester send you over?” I answered, because Fred usually lets people talk themselves right into embarrassment. The woman appeared embarrassed already. “No, the young man at the garage where I left my car told me. He said it might take a few days to get the parts to replace a broken steering rod.” Then remembering, “Oh, I’m Ethel Miller.”
Then Fred embarrassed me. “Room’s rented.” Sometimes he does say things contrary to the fact, and I think it’s his rascally nature to test my anxiety quotient. After thirty-five years together, we use our differences to keep from getting bored. It’s a bit unusual for us to play these games with a complete stranger, but I was up to it.
“Miss Miller, the young fella that sent you over here is Chester’s boy, Adam. Fred, here, is expecting our nephew to stay here for the weekend. Lewis is an over-the-road hauler and his schedule is pretty loose. He keeps his wheel hours legal, and stops here for his sleeper time.” I turned to Fred, who was getting up from his rocker, muttering, “I’ll call him.” He went inside and I motioned Miss Miller to take his place. “Rest yourself in some shade,” I said. Ethel Miller moved up the steps around the dog, who pretended not to notice, and took the seat. I leaned over to shake her hand, a firm grip, dry and calm.
“I’m Ruth Martin. I can tell you don’t let a car breakdown get you flustered. You must be on the road a lot yourself.”
* * *
Now, dear readers, it’s open season and then some for what comes next. We are incomplete with introductory information. Curiosity trumps the direction that the narrative and the dialog take. We want to be reading commonalities; more of who, when, where, how, leaving the why lingering in the minds of the readers. For characters, Ethel Miller is a likely subject for protagonist. The story may build around her, finding the where’s and adding to the why’s sooner, with the Martin family filling in the gaps. Call the car the first foil; if we peeked at an outline we’d see the why in front of the how. Peek, now.
* * *
“You’re half right, Mrs. Martin. I am not easily upset, but this is really my first on the road experience.” Ethel paused, then told Ruth that her brother, Sidney, was an antique car buff. He had located a 1956 Packard Executive Sedan, eggshell blue, and she had offered to pick it up for him. “Real car buffs don’t do that,” she said, “They want to see the car first.”
Fred came out on the porch, holding a glass of iced tea for their guest. Ethel thanked him and took a sip out of politeness. Fred sat down with his back to the porch post, his feet next to the dog. “Our nephew is on his way to Denver. I caught him on his phone in Omaha. He never told us a thing.” There was a long pause, then, “Guess the room’s open after all.” He nudged the dog, “Hear that, Lew? You may be named for Lewis but at least you’re not on the road with him.”
A Stranger Comes To Town – Part Two
Fred waited while I asked Miss Miller to tell him about the car. “Please call me Ethel. I think I’m confusing you more than a little bit. My car, rather my pickup, is at the garage. The Packard is in South Bend. Sidney runs a saw mill near Robinson. Our family farm is next to it.”
Now Fred was more comfortable, offering to get Ethel’s belongings from her pickup. He also was wondering why this woman was driving south to go north to South Bend. He was sure he didn’t know much of Ethel’s story, but it would make sense later. He raised himself casually from the porch as Ethel, looking around, interrupted his thought. “I don’t see your car.”
Fred smiled. “The carport is behind the house, we use the alley to come and go.” Lew had also casually raised himself to follow the two around the house to the Martin’s car. Fred opened the passenger door for Ethel, but Lew jumped in before Fred could catch him. “Lew.” The red bone dropped to the ground and waited. When Ethel was seated, Fred opened the rear door. Making sure Fred noticed, Lew slowly got in and sat facing the front. Fred shook his head, thinking: Just like a kid, that dog.
“We don’t get many stopovers, but we make sure townfolk know we’re ready, just like now.”
Ethel, nodding her gratitude, “Thank goodness for small town hospitality.”
Fred drove the few blocks to Chester’s garage in silence, parking near the office door. Chester looked up from the counter as they walked in. “Adam put your garment bags on the hook and set your suitcase and shoulder bag there in the corner.” Looking apologetic, Chester reminded them that his regular supply stations closed early on Saturdays. “But we’ll have you ready to roll early on Monday afternoon.”
Adam came in from the garage bay, grinning to himself at what he had just heard. He knew Chester was about right on the timing of the repair. His grin also patted himself on the back that his Dad knew him so well. They made a good team. He was reaching for the garment bags and bumped into Fred, who was doing the same thing, so Adam switched to take up the suitcase. He thought, Fred couldn’t know how heavy it was, just that it was heavier than the garment bags. It was extra heavy for its size. Adam stared at Ethel, but she had reached for her shoulder bag, ignoring his look. Adam hipshotted the suitcase to Fred’s car trunk and waited.
Fred chatted the usual weather talk with Chester, then followed Adam, wondering why Adam was all of sudden limping so. He got his key out to unlock the trunk. “Heavy case, huh?” thinking Adam was going to the extreme hoping Ethel would notice. “Awkward, that’s all,” Adam answered. Fred added the garment bags on top of the suitcase.
Ethel had turned back with a question for Chester. Whatever his answer, it was quick and satisfactory. The suitcase was already in the trunk by the time she came to the car. A couple of short barks from Lew meant Hi and Bye, let’s go. They went.
I made mental notes on the tidy bedroom. I had removed most of the truck driver materials that our nephew had left lying around. No magazines, no sweat sox, and my recent lavender spray made the room smell as neutral as possible. It seemed Fred and Ethel had been gone quite a while just to go to the garage and back, but when talk flies, time goes with it. Checking the pantry and fridge for meal supplies is something automatic for me. I will do it absent-mindedly. Yep, ready for most any menu desires.
Out of habit I open the back door when I hear the car pull in. That Fred. Here he comes with a sack from Grocerland Foods. Oh well, he is good at hospitality, just a little shy on the talking part. Except when there’s just the two of us, then, whooee, he’s a winner. Keeps me chuckling. He sat the sack on the kitchen counter, next to the refrigerator and said, “I knew you’d want to fix a snack, so I got some of that three-flavored ice cream you like so much. I’ll just bring Miss Ethel’s things in now.” I turned to Ethel and said, “Please sit. This won’t take long.” Ethel sat quietly at the near side of the dinner table.
I smiled at her from the counter, unpacking the groceries. Symphony music spilled from the living room, putting both of us at ease. Fred and I like good symphony music as background. He came in with the garment bags and went straight to the guest room. Coming back by, he leaned over and asked Ethel, “Do you have gold in that suitcase?”
A stranger came to town – part 3
Ethel smiled, “Better than gold, Mr. Martin, much better. You might say I’m an old school addict. I can visit my best friends for hours at a time. We don’t always agree, but I’m never without equipment to share.” She paused, still smiling.
I looked at Fred from the kitchen counter, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. I had no idea where this conversation was going, but Ethel’s smile tipped me off. She was leading Fred on, well, maybe me too. Fred turned to sit across the table from Ethel and waited. But not long enough. “What’s your heavy equipment?”
“Books, Mr. Martin. Old school classics I read every summer. It’s like having my own personal library wherever I stop. I may have fifteen hardcovers this trip. I’ll share with you while I’m here.” Fred left to get the suitcase. He was catching on, relieved it wasn’t full of some illegal paraphernalia.
Fred’s not so much the reader in the family, but he was faithful to every page of the daily newspaper. My interests wander from mysteries to romance to popular detective. I think of some classics I had read years back, forgotten phrases used in Melville’s “Moby Dick,” or Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.”
“I’ll take you up on that, Ethel,” I heard myself saying. “A welcome relief from summer television. Hope you have something of Jane Austin. She wasn’t an easy read the first time around.” We both looked up as Fred labored his way into the house with the suitcase. “Want a peek?” asked Ethel. Fred and I both nodded and it was just natural for us to use the dinner table to check the titles. Watching Ethel show the books and make comments chimed an hour away.
And the ice cream was left melting on the counter.
Finally I asked, “Ethel, I wonder, can Fred heft your suitcase to the other room? Ice cream and cookies can be risky for those hardbacks.” Ethel smiled some more. “Sorry, I do get carried off sometimes with all my book talk.”
* * *
So, dear reader, what’s next? Most of the “sights and sounds” must still be stored in my/your imagination. Many expressives are not yet written, but is the writer/reader sync lost? I might have described ice cream melting, but that’s in
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the imagination, too, right? Narrative and dialogue capture conflict, controversy, and wry humor all without bunching up the characters in comic stills.
* * *
Ethel insisted that she take a smaller portion of the ice cream. I thought she was in that group that politely conveys dietary or weight conscious attitudes. Not so, Fred. He could either take seconds or start with a bigger cup. Today it was take seconds. Very polite there, Fred, I thought. We shared knowing glances and smiles and I matched Ethel’s share of ice cream.
The symphony music had changed to light jazz, a tenor sax spritely moving the ice cream to empty cups. There was something about Ethel that seemed to fit in with our daily time-chasers. Fred and I were never bored, but we could make a day for strangers coming to town just another regular day.
“Have you been this way before?” Fred was more curious about Ethel, the stranger, and his questions started generally with transportation and location. Ethel answered, “I’m not much of a tourist, just a roadmap lady, you might say.”
* * *
Okay, dear reader, what’s to take the lead? Fit in some down-the-block scenario? Perhaps add a car wreck or bank robbery for action. Give physical details to personalities. No, rather than extend this short short, let’s opt for a wrap.
* * *
Just after lunch on Monday, a triple honk sounded from the street. I looked across the table at Fred, Fred looked at Ethel, Ethel smiled. “That’s my pick-up.” A low growl and three short barks came from the front porch. Lew was giving us a comfortable signal that someone was coming up the walk, but it wasn’t a stranger. The signal was more like a “howdy” to Adam, the young man from the auto repair garage.
Adam came to the door, stooped to give Lew three pats on the head, and rapped three times on the door. He stepped inside at my “Come on in, Adam.” When he
stranger part3 page 3
saw Ethel he reached into his shirt pocket for the bill. “Your vehicle is ready to go. I thought I’d bring it over and save you a trip.”
Small talk was short talk and Ethel’s stay with us was soon over. I was going to really miss our longer talks over the weekend. She knew lots about the classics and the authors and we had spent more hours talking than reading.
“Mrs. Martin, thank you for a wonderful weekend. I hope I get to visit with you again, soon” I smiled, “Ethel, I’d sure like that.” We embraced and smiled at each other. Fred just smiled and patted Ethel on the shoulder. That’s typical lifestyle for the likes of us. Shake hands for greeting and share hugs as we part.
I stood on the walk with Fred and Adam, waving as Ethel drove off. “Oh, I just remembered, she liked my plum butter and I forgot to give her a jar.” Adam turned to Fred, “You loaded her books, did you?” Fred stared, “No, I thought you did.” All three of us almost jogged to the guest room. We looked around. No suitcase. Maybe Ethel loaded it herself – no she couldn’t have, we would have noticed. Then I spied the note on the night stand.
“Enjoy the books. See you next time. Fondly, Ethel.” Fred opened the closet door. Nothing out of place, just truck driver stuff from Louis, our nephew. We all three were thinking alike by now. Under the bed. Fred pulled the suitcase out, groaning, “still heavy.” He put it on the bed and opened it. There was another note and he folded it and stuck it in his shirt pocket. That’s Fred. Whether the note was personal or not didn’t matter. He wasn’t ready to share it with us.
We moved back into the kitchen and Adam followed. “Uh, Fred, uh, Mr. Martin, could you give me a lift back to the garage?”
That’s a wrap, but . . .