Dazzled by the morning sun and dazed from overindulgence the night before, Larry squinted into the new day. Not only were his surroundings strange to him, but so were the voices he heard in the next room. Female voices they were, and not in the least bit hushed. There were serious tones of judgmental gossip interspersed with loud rolls of uncontrolled laughing and giggling. Had he been ten years younger, he would have sworn it was his sister and her girlfriends having what they termed a pajama party, which was actually an indoor barbecue where they roasted boyfriends, absent girlfriends, and unwanted younger brothers.He was not ten years younger though, and the voices were more throaty and mature than his sister and her friends. Larry's head was still pounding from the night before and though he recognized one of the voices, he had trouble focusing. He rolled over on the couch and felt for his wallet only to realize he wasn't wearing his pants. He closed his eyes again to contemplate his situation. In a few moments he fell asleep and forgot all about the voices, his wallet, and the night before.
It was a very warm morning, even for June, and the lilac bushes by the window hummed with bumblebees. In the kitchen the coffeepot was almost empty and what little coffee was left had gone cold. One by one the women made their exits with a last joke or giggle and left the kitchen through the living room, passing the couch and sleeping man with not so much as the turn of a head. They did not take notice of him lying there, and they were quite loud in their exit, still laughing and chatting until they reached the door of the apartment. As they left they closed the door with a slam. Larry stirred, rolled to the left a quarter turn, and continued snoring.
In the kitchen she rinsed out the coffeepot, filling the canister with fresh grounds and filling the pot again with water. Placing the pot back on the stove, she lit the gas burner with a stick match and then lit her cigarette. Drawing in a deep breath of white smoke and blowing it out slowly in an easy moving stream toward the open kitchen window, she let the light morning breeze pull the smoke through the screen. She was a somewhat attractive lady in her early thirties, with brown, grey-streaked hair and a bit too much eye shadow that made her look mournful. More than the eye shadow, it was the slight twist of her mouth that gave her away, as if she'd lived too fast for her years. As the smoke curled through the screen she fixed her gaze on the coffeepot as if that could hurry it along.
By and by the pot began to perk. The woman stared through the screen, engrossed in her thoughts. Each new perk would break the spell, snapping her back to attention only to lose her again to the silence. What was on her mind seemed to escalate with the steadily increasing tempo of the perks until she took a few nervous drags on her cigarette and crushed it in the ashtray. The coffee was ready and she wondered if she should wake him. She decided not to. It had been a long, exhausting night and a tiring morning entertaining friends and she needed some time to think. She poured herself another cup, lit another cigarette and lost herself in thought again.
Ashton was a pretty little town. At one time it had been a farming community with a few small businesses and two churches in the center. There was a small diner where everyone caught up on the local gossip, a hardware store, and a grocery market called "George's".As was the case with other small towns in New England, it began to grow as people from the larger cities bought vacation homes there. What had begun as a small stream of vacationers soon grew to a steady flow of dollars.
George's grocery store became a supermarket with a large parking lot where the Ashton branch of the "Garrett City Bank" built its new office. Both buildings were very modern and large compared to the rest of the businesses in town, but as time went on the hardware store applied for a loan from the new bank to expand its building and renovate. Even the diner put on a new face to attract more of the vacationers and expanded the dining room in the rear to handle the extra business. The diner also changed its menu to include full dinners with appetizers and desserts including pies and cakes of all kinds. It was quite different from the simple country menu they used to offer.
Many of the large farms surrounding the town sold land to the contractors who seemed to be cropping up everywhere. They were subdividing and building and renovating and excavating with money from the Garrett City Bank office until Ashton barely looked like Ashton anymore.
No one seemed to mind that the simple little country town was disappearing to be replaced by a modern, growing city. Oh, sure, occasionally some of the natives would stop each other on the street and reminisce about the "good old days when everyone knew everyone" and exclaim how much they missed the old Ashton, but most of them secretly welcomed the excitement and opportunity that growth had to offer. So once in a while they'd complain about all the new faces and how strangers seemed to be running their town, but for the most part they were satisfied with the exchange.
Most mornings in Ashton got off to a slow start. The first people to drift into town would be the builders and plumbers and the phone and power company men. Their pickup trucks and vans would be parked in a row in front of the Ashton Diner, as the workers sat inside eating breakfast, drinking coffee, and oh, yes, reading the paper.
The Ashton Tribune had been the town paper for over seventy years, but never before had it enjoyed such a large circulation. Everyone in Ashton read the Tribune to catch up on the latest news and gossip. In some ways the Tribune had become an important initiation into the community. If you didn't read the Tribune then you probably wouldn't have much to talk about at the diner or over at the hardware store. You might even have a hard time convincing someone you were from Ashton!
These days, the most popular part of the Tribune was the classified section. In the classified section the most important category was "Real Estate". This was the largest interest in the community. How much John Cruthers got for those two hundred and fifty acres of prime farmland he sold to Larry Turner's contracting company was likely to set people talking for a month. There was plenty of conjecture about what kind of project or subdivision would be built there and how many jobs it might create. There was also plenty of speculation about the value of their own properties and what price they might fetch.
John Cruthers had held out a long time, but he knew he couldn't make enough farming the land to cover expenses and he could no longer justify trying to hang onto it. People had been eyein' his land for years and he`d always resisted their offers, but Ashton wasn't like it used to be now anyway, so he didn't feel the same attachment. He used to grow a lot of corn and tomatoes and beans years back and haul`em to market or sell`em at the roadside stand but he couldn't make a dollar when the real big farms flooded the supermarkets with their produce. So rather than grow a crop for less than what it cost him in labor and equipment, he decided to sell.
In the Tribune it said:
250 acres of beautiful farmlandThe week after he accepted the offer, it appeared in the Tribune with large black letters "SOLD" printed over the ad at the request of Paul Berriere. He was the salesman at Country Hill Realty, who wanted everyone to know which company had made the sale. And so it went, day after day; weeks and months rolled by, and Ashton grew. The changes brought a great deal of excitement and activity to a town that used to be slow and laid back. With the excitement and activity, though, there were also problems, the biggest of which was traffic. Everywhere there were cars. Big Cadillacs and Buicks, Chevys and Fords, foreign economy cars and pickup trucks with caps, trailers, campers, and mobile homes of every size descended on this small town from the two roads that led to the center. Where the two roads intersected there was a large round park which for no apparent reason was called Park Square. Since both roads led to a rotary around Park Square, the center of town had been the scene of frequent traffic jams. There had even been a few serious accidents. On Main Street there was diagonal parking which only added to the problem. Honking and hollering out the windows at each other, parking and double parking all around the few spaces provided, the people would run in to pick up odds and ends from the small stores.
cleared and level, 2,000 foot road
frontage, all utilities available.
Call Country Hill Realty 447-7221.
"Johnson's Drug Store", and "Jim's Variety" were doing a booming business. There was also a package store called "Habib's" with a neon "Schlitz" sign in front with all the letters working except the "L". Next to Habib's was Rick Crowley's "Folk Instrument Workshop" whose display window was crammed full of banjos, mandolins, guitars, fiddles and dulcimers of every size and shape imaginable. On one side of the music store was a little yarn shop that never seemed to be open, on the other side was the Country Hill Realty. Across the street from this row of stores was George's Supermarket with its big parking lot. Since the Garrett City Bank branch office was located in this parking lot the drive-up window created another traffic problem.
At the town meetings the traffic problem was the main topic of discussion and argument. Ashton used to be such a pleasant town to walk around in and as Mrs. Karmayer said, "Now you need to carry a flag just to cross Main Street!"
Many of the builders and contractors in town had drawn up plans for widening the two main roads with increased parking facilities on Main Street. James Peterson from the Garrett City Bank especially liked the plan that Larry Turner had submitted because it alleviated the parking problem at George's Supermarket and the branch office of his bank. It seems many people were parking there to shop on Main Street and were cluttering up the parking lot so that his customers were having trouble using the drive-up window. James Peterson said that were the citizens of Ashton to adopt a plan that was as "comprehensive" as Larry Turner's, it might even be possible to get a federal loan for the project funded through his bank. George Walters, the owner of George's Supermarket, said he thought that was a great idea. Taxes would have to be raised but then the improvements were bound to attract new business and interest in their community and therefore raise property values. Since most of the people present at these meetings owned large amounts of property in and around Ashton they voted to go ahead with the project.
Some of the other contractors pointed out that their plans were just as "comprehensive" and that they could be adjusted to take into account the problem at the supermarket parking lot. "Of course," James Peterson pointed out, "no matter which plan we adopt, the work to be done would be put up for bids and everyone would have an equal chance at the contracts."
The problems of growth had also become the main topic for the sermons delivered at the two churches in town. The most popular church, which also happened to be the most conservative, was the Methodist church located at the far end of Main Street where its white steeple could be seen for miles. The minister of the Methodist Church, Rev. Philip Garner, and his family lived in the rectory building adjoining the church. His sermons of late had been riddled with warnings and admonishments about the moral implications of progress. Though he welcomed the growing membership rolls, he also had a "Pandora's box" philosophy about the potential evils lurking in more densely populated towns. Though he tended to be conservative in thought and speech, he did apply his blessings liberally upon the growing community.
The Unitarians met in an old stone church on Park Square. It was a lovely old building that they bought from the Congregationalists. Though Unitarians in some parts of the country are known as "ultra-liberals" this particular church was of the more conservative strain. It would have to be said that it was only slightly left of the Methodists which left it somewhere in the center arena of political and religious thought. Its largest claim to a liberal heritage had been a candlelight vigil calling for a moratorium of the war in Vietnam. This occurred well after such vigils had become palatable to the majority of Americans. Even then, the event was approached with apprehension. Their minister was Rev. Boynton and his main thrust these days was aimed at membership growth with the "soul" purpose of keeping a roof over their heads. He welcomed the new population growth of Ashton with open arms and open palms.
Chapter Two"Marsha, could I have a refill?"
"Sure thing, Ron," Marsha said.
"What time is it anyway?"
"Clock's right over there under the Clydesdales!"
"I know where the clock is... I asked YOU what time it is."
"They don't pay me to tell time, they pay me to pour drinks!"
Marsha was wiping the counter with a bar rag and doing her best to ignore Ron who was unfortunately her only customer. The bar had only been open for an hour and he was already working on his third highball and doing his best to suck her into a conversation. Ron was a real jerk and Marsha had no desire to spend her afternoon talking to him. She plunked the glass in front of him, took the five dollar bill, rang up a dollar twenty five on the cash register, and set his change in front of him. Ron took a dollar from the pile of change and pushed it towards her for a tip and took a sip of his highball. Marsha took the tip and dropped it in a large brandy snifter next to the cash register and picked up the bar rag again.
"So what's your problem today?" Ron was pushing his luck.
"No problem! Do I look like someone with problems?"
"Well, at least you could be sociable," Ron said sarcastically as he took another sip of his drink.
"Look, Ron, we had a hard night last night, and we didn't close till late, and I'm a little tired, all right?"
"All right, all right! Geeeez...."
Marsha poured herself a small glass of tonic, took a sip, and started washing some glasses and setting them on a towel to dry. Then she flicked on the tv and sat on a small metal stool near the cash register. She really didn't feel like watching but anything beat talking with Ron. The midday news was on and the reporter was doing a story about vandalism at the high school in nearby Garrett City. The cameramen followed him through the halls of the high school as he pointed to the graffiti.
"You can't give them goddamn kids nothin'," Ron snapped. "That high school can't be more than five years old and already they're turnin' it to shit!"
Ron polished off the last of his drink as two women came through the screen door and sat at the far end of the bar. The taller of the two with dirty blond hair said "Hi Marsha, howya doin'?"
Marsha grinned. "After last night, Diane, I'm not sure."
The two women laughed at this and the shorter, heavyset woman said "Boy, you ain't kiddin'. I thought those guys would never leave."
Marsha poured them both a draft and set the glasses in front of them. Leaning forward over the bar, she whispered "One of them didn't leave."
The two women giggled and Diane begged "Which one? Who was it? That tall good lookin' one -- Larry?" "Mmm-hmm," smirked Marsha. The two women giggled again and drank their beers. Marsha took their money and walked back to the cash register.
"I'll have another one," Ron said, pushing his glass towards Marsha.
"You better slow down some," Marsha said as she mixed the drink. "You have to work tonight, don't you?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I don't," Ron slurred.
Marsha let out a sigh of exasperation and went back to talk with her girlfriends. By now, Diane's curiosity had gotten the best of her.
"Tell me about this Larry guy," Diane asked with a wink.
"So what's to tell? He's some kind of builder I guess, I only met him last night myself."
"So what's he like?" Diane persisted.
"As far as I can tell, he likes just about everything," laughed Marsha.
By now, Ron had lit a cigarette and moved to the end of the bar where the women were talking. He sat next to Diane's friend and offered to buy her a drink.
"Sure," she said, "I'll have a rum and coke." She had been drinking draft beer when she was buying.
"My name's Ron, what's yours?" Ron had slid his arm up to rest on the back of her bar stool as he flicked his cigarette in the ash tray and since she didn't seem to notice he decided to leave it there.
"I'm Linda, but my friends call me Lin."
"Wanna cigarette, Lin?"
Lin said she didn't usually smoke, but then again, why not.
Marsha looked sort of disgusted as she put the drinks in front of them and took the money from Ron. It was almost four o'clock now and she figured she'd better go upstairs and wake Larry.
Larry stirred slightly on the couch as Marsha eased through the living room door at the top of the stairway leading from the bar. She could think of a nicer way to wake him but then again, who would watch the bar? For a moment she sat on the edge of the couch watching him as he slept. "God," she thought, "he certainly is handsome!" She thought about last night after the crowd had left and how they had made passionate love on her couch. They had both drunk quite a bit and she had invited him upstairs to her apartment when she closed the bar. She thought she should have waited longer before she slept with him but when she was drunk she was very impulsive and he was very attractive, wasn't he. She planted a soft kiss on his lips. Larry opened his eyes quickly and stared into her face.
"Oh my God, what time is it?"
Marsha looked at the clock on the living room wall. "Ten minutes to four."
Larry sat up with a start. "Oh no, I'm late!" Jumping up he searched the room for his pants. Finding them on the other side of the couch he slipped them on quickly and started the mad hunt for his shirt. He found it with his shoes under the coffee table and memories of the night before began to flood his mind but he had no time to think now. Marsha was feeling a little left out and she eyeballed him as he fumbled with his shoelaces.
"What's your hurry?"
"My closing," he said. "I'm late for my closing!"
"What closing?" she asked half-heartedly.
Larry was buttoning his shirt and stuffing it into his pants as he explained. "John Cruthers' place. I was supposed to meet them at three thirty at Country Hill Realty to sign the papers!" He gave her a quick kiss and stumbled through the door and down the stairs.
Marsha followed him but before she could say another word he was past the bar, through the screen door and gone.
As Larry screeched out of the parking lot in his pickup truck, Marsha stepped behind the bar looking very disappointed and proceeded to pour herself a gin and tonic. She grabbed the bar rag and started wiping down the bar. The three people at the end of the bar had stopped talking and without looking up, she knew they were staring at her. She expected to hear a wisecrack from Diane, but was surprised when Ron spoke.
"Say, wasn't that Larry Turner?"
Marsha didn't answer for a minute, and then finally, fixing Ron another drink, she put it in front of him. Perhaps she had been too hard on Ron. She lit a cigarette, dropping the match in the ashtray in front of Ron and asked in a friendly voice, as if to make small talk, "How do you know Larry?"
"Everyone in Ashton knows Larry. He's a building contractor. I used to work for him. I read in the Tribune yesterday that he bought John Cruthers' place. Gonna build a bunch of houses up there. His wife owns that little yarn shop on Main Street."
Marsha's friendly smile dropped at his last remark and she seemed to suddenly lose interest in the conversation. Ron was talking with more of a slur now, and was insisting on buying Lin and Diane another drink. Marsha got them, and at the same time poured herself another gin and tonic. This time, it was heavier on the gin. She turned the volume up on the television and sat on the metal stool by the cash register to sulk.
Paul Berriere and John Cruthers were standing out by their cars when Larry pulled up. Jumping out of his pickup truck and still trying to straighten his shirt, he came running up to make apologies."Good thing you showed up," Paul said. "We were just about to give up on you." Neither Paul nor John looked terribly disturbed, in fact, they looked a bit relieved. The three of them walked into the realty office with Larry still tucking his shirt in his pants.
Paul had all the papers prepared and since John had already inspected them, all that was left was for Larry to read them. He browsed through them slowly and finally gave a nod of approval. With a smile of satisfaction, Paul suggested they hurry over to the Garret City Bank office to sign the papers and have them notarized. Since the bank was to close at five, they hurried down Main Street and across "George's" parking lot to complete their business. As they stepped out of the bank into the afternoon sunlight, all three men were pleased. Larry had gotten his farm, John had gotten his money, and Paul had gotten his commission.
Once more the little town of Ashton was to have another facelift. Before the end of the summer, Larry would begin to erect seventy new homes on old John Cruthers' place, and by fall or early winter there would be many new families, mostly from Garrett City, moving to Ashton to set up residence. Most of these people would continue to work in Garrett City and would commute back and forth to their beautiful country homes in Ashton. There would be many new children transferring to the Ashton school system from Garrett City and a good deal more traffic on Main Street.
The business community of Ashton was excited about the prospects of more growth. Many of the other contractors in town were quite jealous of Larry's success and were busily making plans of their own. Anyone owning land in Ashton would spend many sleepless nights contemplating their net worth.
By the time Larry got back to the bar, business had picked up considerably. The night bartender had come on duty, and Marsha was sitting in a booth with Ron and Lin, working on her sixth gin and tonic. Lin had smoked most of Ron's cigarettes, and Diane was at the bar getting very friendly with the bartender. The clock under the clydesdales said 8:15. Larry sat down next to Marsha with a big grin on his face and announced that he was celebrating and the drinks would be on him. By now, Marsha was feeling no pain and she looked Larry square in the eye and exclaimed loud enough so all could hear "How come your not at home, celebrating with your wife!"It was more of a statement than a question. Larry recognized Ron and put two and two together. Speaking to Marsha while glaring at Ron, Larry flatly stated "Irene and I are separated." Ron squirmed in the booth next to Lin. Marsha's mood changed dramatically and after a couple more drinks she had her arms draped over Larry's broad shoulders as she flirted with him.
Larry thought Ron looked like a weasel in his bargain basement pin-stripe suit jacket and his beady little eyes working over every inch of Lin's chubby little body through his horn-rimmed glasses. Or maybe he looked more like a vulture, waiting for Lin to drop from overconsumption of alcohol so he could dig his boney little fingers into her carcass and drag her back to his nest. Larry remembered that Ron had worked for him a few years ago, but he could not recall the exact circumstances of his dismissal. He did remember he had fired Ron and by now the reason seemed unimportant. Maybe Ron had tried to get even by informing Marsha that Larry had a wife. Or maybe Ron was preoccupied with the idea that Larry had a wife. A memory hung in Larry's mind of the day he had introduced Ron to Irene. They were standing in the yarn shop and Larry recalled how quickly those boney little fingers had reached out to grasp her hand. He remembered how Ron had held her hand quite a bit longer than the usual allotted time for such greetings, long enough in fact for those beady little eyes to rake over Irene's sleek young body.
Marsha was toying with the buttons on Larry's shirt and nibbling on his ear, stopping only occasionally to take another swig of her gin`n tonic. Diane was behind the bar now with the night bartender teaching her how to mix drinks. She had worked as a barmaid before and had plenty of experience mixing her own drinks, but she was playing dumb, making coy little mistakes and getting reprimanded by her handsome young mentor. Ron went to the men's room and Lin went to get change for the cigarette machine. Marsha saw her chance and grabbing Larry by the arm, led him upstairs to her apartment.
There aren't many places in this world that can match the simple beauty of a New England farm, and in all of New England, there were few farms that would catch your eye like John Cruthers' did. Spreading across both sides of a lovely winding country road, just three miles outside the center of Ashton, it would seem as if all of nature's elements had decided to express themselves harmoniously in one spot. One whole side of the road was lined with twelve very large weeping willow trees leading up to the circular drive in front of the old farmhouse. Directly behind the willows, and close enough that the branches would drape over it was a neatly kept stone wall which ran all along the road and up and around the entire circumference of a meadow. Not just any meadow, but a meadow whose sloping hills molded wonderfully together into a sweeping picturesque scene with a liberal sprinkling of dandelions and violets and those pretty little flowers called the devil's paintbrush. It was the kind of meadow that would tempt even the busiest of travelers to slow down for a better look and perhaps even stop to take pictures. About fifty yards into the meadow was another large weeping willow tree on the bank of a small pond that had been used as a watering hole for the cows, but John had sold all of his livestock two years ago. The pond was fed by a brook that wound down from the woods behind the meadow and continued under the road. The brook emerged again onto the other side of the property, skirting the pasture.The farmhouse had been built by John's father when he was a young man, recruiting the labor of friends and relatives. It was not an ostentatious building, but rather a simple, two-story rectangular white clapboard with a slate roof and a stone chimney running through the center. The one feature that gave the house its unique character was the big porch that ran the full length of the front of the building and wrapped half way around the other side. There was another slate roof over the porch and two large posts on both sides of the stairway leading to the front door. There was also a lovely white railing and trellis enclosing the porch with grapevines growing on them. The farmhouse was a bit run down though with several of the slates missing on the roof which had accumulated a healthy growth of moss, and the building could certainly have used a paint job but its somewhat shabby appearance seemed to add to the rustic beauty of the countryside.
Across the road from the farmhouse and directly facing it was the large red barn where John still kept three horses. Built to the rear of the barn on the right hand side was a long grey building that had housed his cows, so that the two building together formed an ell. Since John had sold his cows, he was using that building to house the tractor and hayrake and other farming tools. On the other side of the barn was a large silo that leaned a bit and a small corral with a doorway leading to the horses' stalls. There was a hayloft with a sliding wooden window right above the main entrance to the barn and there was a large lump in John Cruthers throat as he stood in the doorway with Emily.
"Well, we'll have to sell the horses. I stopped by Jimmy's on the way home, said he might be interested in 'em." Emily didn't answer. Her face was expressionless. In many ways she was a very stoic person and at moments of extreme emotion she would often fall silent. She and John had been married for forty-two years and every bit of work they'd done together had been tied up in this farm. They were both hardworking people, they had been all their lives. The family they raised and every important thing that had ever happened to them had been right here on the farm. Two of their children, John Jr. and Steve, had been born right there in the farmhouse. Only their youngest daughter, Julie, had been born at the hospital in Garrett City because they could no longer find a doctor willing to travel.
All three of the children had grown up on the farm helping with the chores. They had all chased the cows in the meadow, swam in the pond, and climbed the willow trees. Now they were all grown and moved out. John Jr. and Steve were married and had families of their own. Julie had just finished her last year of college and had gotten a job in Garrett City as an agricultural consultant for a commodities broker.
John and Emily were both in their late sixties now and the farm had become too much of a burden. When Larry Turner made the offer, they decided it would be best to sell. At first they considered buying a condominium in a retirement community in Boca Raton, Florida, but then they decided it wasn't their style and that they would really prefer to spend the rest of their lives in Ashton. With the money from the sale of the farm they bought a five-room home with a small lot on Elm Street in the center of town and put the remainder of the money in the bank for their retirement.
Emily spent the last two weeks packing all of their belongings and had two large barn sales where she sold the things they had no need for. She did keep the large pile of antiques she had been storing in the barn however. For years she had been saving them with the idea of refinishing them and opening up a small shop in town. Now that they'd sold the farm she would have far less to do and she certainly wasn't going to wither away in idleness. She rented a little storefront on the less populated end of Main Street and she and John had spent most of the day hauling the old furniture to the store. She had accumulated much more furniture than she realized, old tables, chairs, desks, and bureaus, and a beautiful old Victorian china closet that was Emily's favorite. Since they had gotten such a good price on the farm, it was not necessary that they make a whole lot of money as long as they made a small profit and had fun. John planned to turn the back room of the shop into a work place and Emily would run the showroom in the front of the store. They had their long-time friend Bruce Carson carve a lovely wooden sign to hang over the shop that said "Emily's Antiques". There was a rocking chair on one side of the sign and a grandfather clock on the other. The letters had been painted gold, and the background was a light blue. Bruce Carson had dropped the sign off that morning. Now they had it tied to the back of John's old truck with the final load of things to be moved. They were taking a final look around when Larry pulled into the yard in his pickup truck. Stepping out of the truck, he walked up to where they were standing in the doorway of the barn.
"Howya folks doin'," he said with a grin.
"Oh, doin' fine," John said.
"Just takin' one last look around," Emily said, with her voice trailing off and sounding more lonesome than she had intended.
"Well, don't let me rush you folks. I'm in no hurry for you to leave. We won't be workin' around here till next week. I know how much this place meant to you, so you take your sweet time in sayin' goodbye." Larry was being truly sincere and even apologetic. He was not an unfeeling person, and having grown up on a farm himself, he understood their attachment. John and Emily both liked Larry and although they hated to give up their farm, at least they were selling to a nice fellow.
"I do have some good news though," Larry said, looking at Emily. "I made a few changes in my original construction plans."
Both John and Emily looked very curious, as if they still had a stake in the place.
"I decided not to knock down the house and barn, instead I'll be moving into the house myself and I'll be using the barn to store materials and equipment. I'll still be knocking down the silo and the big grey building because the road for the subdivision's gotta go right through there, but the house and barn are staying the same! So anytime you two wanna come up and visit the old place, you're more'n welcome."
John and Emily were visibly relieved and said they thought it was a wonderful idea and that Larry would be glad he decided to do it that way when he found out what a comfortable home it was. John went on to reiterate how well the house had been built and how they "don't use wood like that no more." Larry had heard the story before about how John's father had built the house, but was polite enough not to interrupt as John repeated it. Emily wasn't paying attention at all, because she had heard John tell it a thousand times. Instead she was daydreaming about how nice it would be on a Sunday afternoon to come out for a ride by the old farmhouse and reminisce.
The sun was beginning to go down over the hills now, creating a bright orange sunset and the willow trees were casting their long shadows across the road and over into the pasture. The mosquitoes were starting to bite so John tightened the ropes on the truck one last time and saying their goodbyes, they climbed into the truck and slowly backed out of the barnyard. As they drove away past the willow trees and stone wall, Emily was doing her best to hold back the tears. She was a strong woman. John was strong also, and of good conservative New England stock, but as they drove along the tears flowed freely from the corner of his eyes and down his rough, hardened cheeks. He was hoping they would dry there unnoticed, but the tears kept flowing till his eyes bulged with fluid and he had to wipe them on the sleeve of his denim jacket in order to see the road. Emily stared out the window as they drove along in silence, pretending not to notice.
Larry stood alone in the barnyard, watching the truck roll out of sight. The farm was his now, he had the papers to prove it, everything signed and legal, so why did he feel as if he were trespassing? The people who really belonged here had just left and he knew it would be a long time before that old farmhouse and barn would feel like his. He certainly hadn't taken advantage of anyone. He paid a good price for this place and had been more than fair with the terms of the agreement. No one could deny that! Why he had even let them leave the horses there until they were sold, now how many buyers would do that? Almost as if on cue, one of the horses in the stalls closest to the front of the barn snorted loudly. Larry sauntered into the barn and pulled some fresh hay down from the loft to feed the horses. He knew John well enough to guess that he'd already fed them, but that didn't matter. Right now Larry needed to do something to feel that he was a part of this place. Popping the latch on the gate of the stall, Larry crooned gentley in a low, soothing voice "Easy, girl now, easy."
The horse was a large palomino named Topaz. She had hypnotic green eyes. John said they used to be blue, but they had changed since she was a filly. She shifted her weight uneasily from side to side and held her head stiff and high. She glared at Larry first through one large green eye, and then jerked her head sideways to view him with the other. He held his hand out flat with some hay resting on it and continued wooing her in a smooth voice. "Come on now Topaz... easy girl... you want somethin' to eat now?... you 'n me 're gonna be friends...."
Larry had a natural confident way with animals and Topaz soon relaxed enough to nudge his hand with her nose and pull a few strands of hay from him with her rubbery lips. Larry patted her neck with his other hand and ran his fingers through her long white mane. Then piling more hay in the manger, Larry stepped out of the stall and locked the gate behind him. He walked back to his pickup truck and drove it across the street up the circular driveway to the front steps of the farmhouse. He had the keys in the envelope with the papers from the closing, so grabbing the envelope and a large suitcase from the back of the truck he climbed the front steps. He jiggled the key in the lock until he caught it just right and the tumblers gave way and the door swung open. The house was empty and silent, but the electricity was still hooked up, so Larry clicked on the light in the front room. It was a simple ceiling light with a white glass globe covering the two bulbs. Larry noticed that one of the bulbs had burnt out and made a mental note to fix it later. Making his way down the hallway into the kitchen he found an old kitchen chair in the corner of the room. Setting down his suitcase and pulling the chair into the center of the room, he slouched into it staring blankly out the kitchen window at the meadow beyond.
Columbus Day weekend in Ashton was a cause for outdoor celebration. There were craft booths lined against one whole side of Park Square sporting many examples of local handiwork. Several booths hosted handmade quilts and pillows shaped like geese, and handwoven baskets made from grapevines and rattan. There were other booths with hand tooled jewelry, mostly of silver, dainty earrings with lapis lazuli stones, rings with scrimshaw designs of little ships, finely etched unicorns and big lunky brass belt buckles fastened to fine leather belts tooled like western saddles. One booth had carved wooden toys for children with alphabet blocks and little stick men that you bounced on your knee to make them dance, and a long, intricately carved train with the engine starting at one end of the booth and the cars winding around behind the craftsman to the caboose on the other side. Many of the old and new townfolk were browsing from booth to booth, munching on slices of pizza and bags of popcorn and washing it down with paper cups full of apple cider. There was a young boy juggling with three pins and though he occasionally dropped one, he was really pretty good. His act was aggravated further by losing his black stovepipe hat each time he bent down to pick up the wayward pin. Even so, the people who gathered to watch rewarded him grandly with a loud round of applause each time he managed catch them evenly enough to bow.There were frisbees and balloons and little children running everywhere or racing through the crowd on bicycles, shouting to each other and occasionally running into disgruntled browsers.
It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in October, with the leaves in full color and the smell of the apple harvest in the air. In the gazebo in the center of the park, the Ashton brass band was warming up for the afternoon show. It seemed obvious that some of the musicians hadn't played their horns since the last show which was on the back of a flat bed truck rolling slowly down Main Street for the Fourth of July parade. Each of the musicians was getting the kinks out of their fingers by blowing their favorite riff or scale, all of them in different keys and to different beats. The trombones and tubas mixed with the clarinets and trumpets and coronets until together they sounded like a traffic jam.
There was in fact a traffic jam all around the Square and on several occasions the drivers in their cars tried teasing the musicians by tooting their horns in unison. The unruly musicians rose to the challenge with fervor blasting their response back at the cars, laughing and carrying on in a cacophony of confusion. The musicians were all dressed in blue suits with gold braid epaulets and caps with black visors and they were having a grand time until the conductor tapped his baton on the metal music stand and dispensed several stern looks to remind them that they had a more serious mission. They were to play eight selections from John Philip Sousa, beginning with "The Washington Post March" and culminating with "Stars and Stripes Forever" for their grand finale. All together, there were fourteen musicians in the band. They fumbled with their music sheets and darted back and forth for last minute instructions, repositioning their chairs to give them elbow room in the limited space of the gazebo.
Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered on the grass in front of the gazebo, stretched out on blankets and folding chairs. The conductor lifted his baton high in the air as a signal for the band to fall silent. The chairman of the board of selectmen, Brian Warner, addressed the audience over the microphone. The sound system whistled shrilly each time he said "Sousa" but he waded through the introduction anyway. He introduced each player individually, even the little girl in the blue dress sitting on the railing of the gazebo grasping the triangle. The conductor lifted his baton again, tapped it twice on the music stand, counted "One, two, three, four" and the music began. They were surpisingly good and ignoring a few minor bloopers, the audience reacted with enthusiasm!
Larry didn't feel quite comfortable being seen in public with Marsha. Most of the people around Ashton had heard by now that he and Irene were separated, but it had only been a few months. Most of the people Larry considered his friends had known him as one half of a larger formula, and the other half of that formula was very well liked around Ashton. Irene had the kind of personality that seemed to naturally fit in a small town. She had a lively kind of happy go lucky energy, and even though it was a bit too goody-goody, she had managed to win the friendship and loyalty of almost everyone she encountered. Every fall for the past three years Irene had run a knitting class at her yarn shop which had been quite successful at developing a community feeling among many of the women. Since she and Larry had two young children, a boy of seven and a four-year-old girl, she had taken quite an active part in the school committee, showing up for all the meetings, helping with projects and organizing fund raisers. Never too domineering and yet never out of sight, Irene had a built in emotional pressure gauge that told her exactly what degree of involvement was necessary during discussions and conversations. She also had a down home country twang to her voice and an uncanny ability to get her way on issues.Larry on the other hand was the more quiet of the two. He was well known around Ashton as a hard working, dedicated, family man type. He was also well liked, at least up until now, but for different reasons. He had built a good name for himself as a contractor whose prices were reasonable and whose work was reliable, but he was no social butterfly. Although he was friendly, greeting you with a big grin and a handshake, he was not likely to hang around and chat. It always seemed as if he were busy and he had no time for frivolities. Actually, Larry was always busy. He had a habit of taking any job that came his way until he was swamped with work and very often had no time left for his personal life. This had been one of the big problems between him and Irene. Irene became so embittered by Larry's neglect that she would complain continually when he was home. Before long, their marriage had become a downward spiral of bitter arguments and constant tension. They finally decided that the pressure was too much for themselves and the children to have to bear and so they separated.
So why didn't Larry ease up? Was he so driven by the needs of his career that he should sacrifice his family life? Was money that important to him? Larry enjoyed his work and was glad to be making so much money but those weren't the reasons he took on such a heavy workload. Having been married almost twelve years to Irene had not been easy for him. When he first married Irene he was infatuated with her. She was so full of sweet, cute energy and country charm that he couldn't bear to leave in the morning and would count the hours until he could quit working and see her again.
Irene, unlike many of her girlfriends, said she didn't want a career. She used to laugh and say "I'm just a family girl. All I want to do is make babies." Then she would wrinkle her nose and giggle.
For four years after their marriage when someone would ask Irene what she did, she would deliver that line and then wrinkle her nose and giggle, and yet she still had not become pregnant. She was starting to feel useless and it seemed the more she pushed Larry to "try harder" the less he would want to make love until he had begun to act almost as if it were a chore. Several times in the heat of an argument she had said it was Larry's fault that they had no children. Larry wished with all his heart that they would have a child because he felt it would make things better again.
Finally, after four years of marriage, Larry came home one night and Irene had made a lovely seafood dinner. Over candlelight she announced she was pregnant. She wrinkled her nose and giggled and Larry laughed loudly as the two danced around the room and it seemed as if their relationship was fresh and new again and they could both hardly wait to have the baby. Unfortunately, it was not to be an easy time for Irene. She was not as good at having babies as she thought she might be. She had more than her share of morning sickness and though she had heard of women getting aches and pains she never dreamed they would be as bad as the ones she was experiencing. To make things worse, she was at her biggest during July and August, the two hottest months of the year. When they finally showed up at the hospital on August 26th, she was more than ready to have it over with. But again, she was not to get off the hook that easy. She was in labor for a full eighteen hours and had a very hard time of it. Finally, at ten thirty in the evening on the twenty-seventh of August, their little boy Justin was born. He was seven and a half pounds, with light brown curly hair just like his father's and a cute little turned up nose like Irene's.
Shortly after they returned home from the hospital, they moved from their apartment in Garrett City into the new home that Larry had built on Pond Street in Ashton. Two years later, they had their second child, Sarah, and Irene seemed to be living up to her prediction of herself being a family girl. The only problem was that sometime during all these changes Larry had stopped liking Irene. He still loved her, but for some reason, he had stopped liking her. Maybe it was all the prodding she had done to start a family, or the incessant complaining during her two pregnancies, but somehow Irene had ceased to be cute or infatuating to Larry at all. In fact that sweet country twang in her voice had begun to grate on Larry and the cute way she wrinkled her nose and giggled now seemed to turn him off. He was beginning to think it looked very phony and childish. As these feelings intensified, Larry became afraid that they would show and cause more trouble between them, so he started working longer hours, taking on more clients, and engrossing himself in his work. When he was at home, he would spend the bulk of his time relating to the children and Irene felt increasingly left out. It always seemed that Larry was too tired to make love.
As their relationship became less and less fulfilling for Irene, she began to look to the small community of Ashton for social and emotional fulfillment. She opened up the yarn shop on Main Street and joined the School Committee. Soon she had become a very big part of the social fabric of Ashton. A very good thing that was, too, for Irene was not a very secure person and when her marriage split up, she was lucky enough to have the support of those friendships.
Larry would not be so lucky. He was about to experience the wrath and rebuke of the small town's judgement against him. Anyone who knew Irene and what a sweet, nice lady she was could easily see that Larry must be a scoundrel, and wasn't he now proving that by showing up at the Columbus Day Fair with Marsha clinging to his arm and nibbling at his ear as if they were a couple of high school kids?
He wasn't sure himself why he'd come. Certainly he knew he'd be running into many of the people he knew and that being with Marsha would be awkward but he felt defiant. Why should he let them judge him? How could they know what it was like to live with Irene? Hadn't they only met one side of Irene's personality, the side she wished to show them? When Marsha had mentioned going to the Columbus Day Fair, Larry's first reaction was negative. He though it was too soon to be seen in public with Marsha, but then on an impulse he exclaimed "why not...I might as well get it over with." Now as he was walking through the crowd with Marsha, he was having second thoughts. It seemed to him that she was being much more affectionate than usual, clinging tightly to his arm and flirting openly with him. More than once he felt himself being stared at by an old acquaintance. More disturbing than this was the funny feeling that Larry had. He could almost sense that Irene was nearby. Why shouldn't she be? Wasn't this a big day in Ashton with all the town officials there? Larry knew the school committee would have a booth set up for a fund raiser, they did every year. As he and Marsha moved through the crowd toward the side of the park where the booths were, Larry's eyes scanned the rows of booths looking for the one belonging to the school committee. He felt the adrenalin surge through his body as he spotted the familiar booth. There were a number of knitted Raggedy Ann dolls on display, no doubt made from the yarn from Irene's shop, and standing there in the booth with her back to him was Irene.
Larry picked up the pace and steered Marsha to the booth at the opposite end of the row just in time before Irene turned around and they were safely hidden by the crowd. The confrontation would have been more than he had bargained for on this beautiful Saturday afternoon.
Larry and Marsha were standing now in front of the booth with the finely carved train and the alphabet blocks. Larry appeared to be genuinely interested in the train. The craftsman standing behind the booth was none other than Bruce Carson, the man who had made the sign for Emily Cruthers' antique shop. Larry knew Bruce fairly well. They had worked together on several different occasions around Ashton. Bruce was not the type of person to be judgmental and as far as Larry knew, Bruce had never met Irene, so he relaxed a little.
Bruce was sitting on a wooden stool in one corner of the booth repairing one of the little stick men that he had sold to a little boy with wide eyes. After Bruce had adjusted the tiny metal swivel on one of the stick man's legs, he laid the wooden connecting rod on top of his knee so that by tapping his foot he made the man dance. The boy was pleased that his toy had been fixed. Bruce handed it to him, saying "There ya go, he just had a broken leg." He had meant it to be funny, but the little boy had taken it seriously and had just said "Ooohh, I hope he's okay." Then thanking Bruce the little boy ran off into the crowd to play with his little man. Bruce chuckled to himself then looked up to see Larry and Marsha standing there.
"Hi Marsha," Bruce said with a smile. "Where'dja meet this bum?"
Larry looked at Marsha in surprise. For some reason he had forgotten she might know people, too. She looked back at him nonchalantly and then turned to Bruce saying, "Oh, I just picked him up in some bar!"
Bruce laughed as he stuck his hand out to shake Larry's, saying "Speaking of bars, I wouldn't mind being in one right now. I been out here all afternoon and I only sold three of my stick men!"
Bruce was wearing a straw hat, the kind you'd expect to see fishing flies pinned to. He had a blondish grey beard and sunglasses, and he wore an orange and black flannel hunting jacket with jeans and work boots. He was a die hard hippy during the sixties and had spent much time travelling all over the country selling handmade jewelry and carved pipes made from deer antlers and funky little pieces of wood that he found in the forest. Now he was living in his van most of the time, parking at night out by the lake and doing odd jobs during the day. Most of these jobs involved woodworking. He sold many of his handcarved signs all over the county. They were beautifully carved and he got good money for them, too. He sold some to restaurants and stores and a very large one, about four feet by eight feet, to the Copper Kettle Inn. It had been carved on both sides so that no matter which direction you came from you could see a large round copper kettle hanging over a stone fireplace. The sign was quite handsome and Bruce demanded and received $1,500 for his labor. That had been approximately a month and a half ago and no one in Ashton had seen Bruce since then.
This was not unusual, for whenever Bruce got a few bucks in his pocket he would disappear. More than anything he liked to kick around New England, camping and wandering and stopping here and there in small towns. He would always say he had to go looking for deer antlers or wood to carve in a matter of fact way as if it were just as important as anyone else's "business trip". Sure enough, a few weeks later he would be seen hanging around town again, with the back of his van stuffed with peculiar pieces of wood and deer antlers. He was always quick to point out that he had found the antlers and not killed the deer for them. It wasn't that Bruce didn't believe in hunting, he had often hunted when he was younger, but he said there were plenty of antlers in the woods if you knew where to look and he didn't need to kill for them. With a little jigsaw, he would cut the antler into small pieces and with his pocket knife, hollow them out to make bowls for the pipes he carved. He would then carve a wooden stem, sometimes with very elaborate designs of lions or snakes or perhaps a Tree of Life and would fasten the stem to the bowl with a touch of glue. Anyone who knew Bruce well knew that not only did he like to carve pipes, but that he was a fair hand at smoking them as well. His pipes were obviously too small for smoking tobacco. He preferred to smoke something a little more potent such as his favorite stash of marijuana or maybe even a little chunk of hashish.
Larry knew that Bruce carved pipes but he didn't see any on the table. Though Larry didn't smoke often, he had tied a buzz on with Bruce once or twice in the past, and on one of Bruce's nicest pipes. He had worked hard all summer on the new subdivision, and he thought he might treat himself by buying a small bag of pot and perhaps a new pipe to smoke it in.
"I don't see any pipes. Do you still sell 'em?"
Bruce leaned over the booth and said in a low voice to Larry "This town's a little too conservative for me to go displaying my pipes right out in the open. I don't need to draw any heat. But if you folks wanna give me a few minutes to pack up my stuff here, I could show ya my private line of fine pipes in the back of the van." At the same time Bruce said this, he winked at Larry in such a way as to let them know he had something to smoke. Larry was still feeling quite nervous about being in such a close proximity of Irene and the idea of leaving the park appealed to him. Marsha looked willing also, so he told Bruce they'd meet him in George's parking lot.
Larry and Marsha made their way back through the crowd to the other side of the park to his pickup truck. He was doing his best to avoid being seen by Irene. As they got into the truck, Larry glanced quickly over at the school committee booth in time to catch Irene staring off in his direction. As he drove off he was wondering if she had recognized him with Marsha. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that told him she had.
Bruce pulled his van into the parking lot and drove up next to Larry's pickup truck so that his window was even with Marsha's. Rolling his window down and tipping his sunglasses up so that he was peeking underneath them, he said in a sneaky voice, "Eh, man... you wanna buy a watch? How `bout maybe some stereo speakers, huh... or maybe you need some silverware, huh... I got some chit in d'back you won't believe!"Marsha just rolled her eyes. "Gimme a break, will ya?" Marsha and Larry got out of the pickup truck and piled into the van with Bruce. Marsha sat on the bed in the back and Larry sat in the front passenger seat.
Bruce said, "Let's go for a little ride, I get nervous in the center of town. I know too many people around here." Larry was quick to agree and suggested they ride out to his farmhouse. Bruce looked confused. "What farmhouse?" Larry found it hard to believe that Bruce hadn't heard he'd bought the place, especially since Larry had seen the sign that Bruce carved for Emily's antique shop. "John Cruthers' old place, didn't you know I bought it?"
"Oh,ya...I heard about that. I just been outa town and forgot. So yer livin' up there now, huh?"
Larry had gotten a cigarette from Marsha and she lit it for him with a lighter from her purse. He took a deep drag and blew the smoke out the window as they pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the farmhouse. "Yeah, I been livin' there a few months now. Buildin' some houses in that meadow behind the barn."
Bruce put a cassette in the tape player and was rewinding it. "Oh ya, I heard somethin' `bout that, too. How's it goin'?" Larry took another drag from his cigarette. He hardly ever smoked before this summer, but he had picked the habit up from hanging around with Marsha and found himself bumming more and more of her cigarettes. "The work's been goin' good. We framed seventy houses in a little over three months. Still gotta lotta inside work 'n landscapin' to do, but I got over a third of'em finished and sold." He took another drag and crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray. He was very proud of himself. It was the biggest project he'd ever attempted. He had organized three work crews with four men on each crew. He knew the building business in Ashton as well as anyone and hired the best carpenters he knew to work with him. Still the work had been exhausting and was only now beginning to ease. Marsha had helped him tremendously over the past few months and they had become quite close. Maybe a little too close. Marsha was still working at the bar and still kept her apartment there but most evenings she would sleep at the farmhouse with Larry. Though the relationship was a good one, Larry felt the involvement was more than he had bargained for so soon after his separation with Irene.
Bruce was driving past the willow trees now and approaching the farmhouse. "Why don't you pull into the barnyard," Larry said. Bruce pulled the van into the dirt driveway and parked in front of the entrance to the barn. Reaching behind him he slid his hand behind the rug against the wall and drew out a purple velvet pouch. The three of them got out of the van and went into the barn with Larry sliding the wooden door shut behind them. He flicked on the light switch and a fluorescent light shown over the workbench where the blueprints for the subdivision were spread out. The barn looked quite different from the last time Bruce had seen it. There were boxes of nails and electrical supplies against one wall and big stacks of roofing shingles against another. There were also many electrical tools and hand tools stacked in a pile near the horses' stalls. The barn wasn't a mess though, for the amount of equipment stored there it was quite neat. Larry pulled three folding lawn chairs from against the wall and set them up in the empty space in the center of the barn and they sat down.
"Well I think it's about time we had an attitude adjustment," Bruce commented as he opened the pouch. Taking a pipe out he set it in his lap while he took a rolled up plastic baggie out of his pocket. Unrolling the plastic baggie, he reached inside and pulled out a big bud. Handing it to Larry, he said "Check that out." Larry held the bud up to the light and could see that it was very high grade pot. It was mostly green, with little threads of blue and gold winding through it. Larry held it up to his nose and smelled it. "Yowza! That smells goood!" He handed it back and Bruce carefully broke the bud in half, dropping one piece back in the bag and stuffing the other half in the pipe. "Wait'll you smoke it. It's from Hawaii. I don't usually buy stuff this good, but I made a good deal on a sign last month, so I thought I'd celebrate." Bruce was doing a little bragging of his own. He handed the pipe to Marsha, and she lit it with the lighter from her purse. She took a deep drag from the carved wooden stem of the pipe and handed it back to Bruce. He took a deep toke also and passed it to Larry. Larry had to relight the pipe and in so doing took a larger drag than he'd expected. He coughed and choked on it until his face turned red and his eyes were watering. "That's good stuff, man." The pipe went around a few more times until Larry and Marsha said they'd had enough so Bruce finished off the last few tokes. Then tapping the pipe to make sure it was out, he dropped it back into the purple velvet pouch and pulled the string.
Bruce stood up and walked over to the barn door. "Be back in a minute." He pushed the large wooden door open a crack and slid through. Marsha and Larry watched him leave without saying a word. They were both very stoned. It had been a long time since either of them had smoked and this was exceptionally good pot. It was about six-thirty now and the orange sunset was filtering through the crack in the doorway spotlighting the dust that had risen from Bruce's footsteps. It seemed to Larry that the hum of the insects was incredibly loud. Marsha thought she'd try her legs out so she got up and walked over to the stall. Peeking through the boards she called in a little girl voice, "Hello, Topaz... oh, Larry, I'm so glad you bought Topaz. She's such a beautiful horse." Larry didn't answer. The humming of the insects outside seemed to have gotten so loud that it hypnotized him and he sat there motionless with his head all abuzz. Marsha walked back over to Larry and put her hands on his shoulders. Looking straight into his eyes she stooped over and kissed him. "I love you," she said. It was in a very matter of fact kind of voice that had a reassuring ring to it that settled Larry's mind and broke the spell of the humming insects enough for Larry to get a handle on the high.
Bruce squeezed back through the doorway. He was holding a rolled up cloth under one arm. It was made of the same purple velvet material as his pouch and he proceeded to unfold the cloth, laying it on the floor in front of Larry and Marsha. "I almost forgot. You said you wanted to see my pipes." On the cloth lay eight exquisitely carved pipes. Larry and Marsha felt as if they were looking into a box of treasure as they picked up one, then another, examining the craftsmanship. One of the pipes in particular was a little larger than the others and had a Tree of Life carved on the wooden handle with little mother of pearl inlays for leaves. Even the bowl, which was made of deer antler, was carved to look like a cobra stretching its jaws. Larry said it was his favorite and that he'd like to buy it. Marsha said it was her favorite, too.
"Well then, it's yours," Bruce said.
"How much is it?" Larry asked.
"The pipe is yours," Bruce repeated. His eyes shown with a mystical quality that Larry hadn't seen there before.
"So how much do you want for it? It must have taken a lot of work, what's it worth to you?" Larry thought Bruce was acting a little weird.
"I don't carve my pipes for profit... man... if I didn't like you, I wouldn't give you one. But I can always use the money, man, so if you feel more comfortable payin' for it... why don't you pay me what you think it's worth."
Larry felt uneasy with this way of doing business and yet he also felt flattered that Bruce wanted him to have it. He was also still very stoned and had the peculiar feeling of being put on the spot. He certainly didn't want to offend Bruce so he found himself digging in his wallet and handing Bruce two twenties, though that was a little more than he thought the pipe was worth. Then he found himself wondering if Bruce had merely been coy. If Bruce asked forty dollars for the pipe originally, Larry would have most certainly tried to bargain him down, instead he not only paid the forty but even found himself wondering if it was enough.
Bruce took the bills from Larry, folded them and stuffed them in the breast pocket of his jacket. Then he took a purple velvet bag out of his other pocket. He dropped the pipe in the bag and pulling it shut with the rawhide drawstring, he handed it to Larry. Larry thanked him and asked if he knew where he might buy some pot. Bruce said that he didn't sell it, but he knew a guy in Garrett City who could get them all they wanted. The three of them decided to go back to the bar where Marsha worked to have a few beers while Bruce tried to contact his friend.
Bruce backed his van out of the dirt driveway of the barnyard and drove down the road, past the willow trees, towards the center of Ashton. He was very high, too, but he smoked often and was used to the feeling. In fact, most of the time when Bruce smoked marijuana he seemed to function better. As he used to put it, he "felt more in sync" with himself and a lot less nervous. He openly admitted that he might smoke more than was healthy for his lungs but he was quick to point out that he never hurt anyone when he was stoned and that he felt it was a far less damaging habit than alcohol, or even for that matter, cigarettes. "After all," he would say, "aren't half of the accidents on the highway caused by alcoholics, and aren't the other half caused by straight people? Hasn't cancer and heart disease been proven to be caused by cigarettes?"
Bruce continued to plead his case for the legalization of marijuana as he drove his van back to George's Supermarket. Larry and Marsha had lit up cigarettes and were listening intently, or at least as intently as they could. They were not used to being this stoned and it didn't take much to distract them. Larry noticed that the humming of the insects was becoming louder again and he seemed relieved as the woods thinned out and they entered the more thickly settled area of the small town. Marsha was tired of listening to Bruce. His monotonous voice was beginning to annoy her and she didn't think much of his argument. She wished he would just shut up and drive. She did notice however that he seemed to handle the van very well, staying between the lines and driving at a careful speed.
When they got to George's parking lot, Larry and Marsha got into the pickup truck and followed Bruce down Main Street, heading toward Garrett City. By now it was dark and the crowd at the park had dispersed and Main Street was quiet.
It was about a fifteen mile drive to the bar where Marsha worked. Though it was located on the outskirts of Garrett City it still fell within the limits of the town of Ashton. The bar was just called "Johnny's Place". Sometime long ago there must have been an owner named Johnny, but the bar had changed hands so many times in the last twenty years that no one remembered who he was. All of the successive owners had decided to keep the name "Johnny's Place" because the customers were used to it. Since it was located approximately halfway between Garrett City and Ashton, it had become a popular watering hole. Johnny's had a number of advantages. For one thing, it was not in the center of either city therefore if a person didn't want to be recognized by people he knew it was a great place to go. The disadvantage of course was that everyone knew this and it seemed as if everyone went there lately and you always ran into someone you knew. Another advantage was that Johnny's Place was just a mile and a half down the road from a large motel called "The French King". The prices in this motel were reasonable, the rooms were clean, and the desk clerk didn't ask any questions. It had become routine after last call at Johnny's for the patrons to take their affairs down the road to the French King.
There was a fair number of obscene jokes about the French King floating around the bar and a popular pick up line there would go something like "Oh, you haven't met the French King yet? Let me introduce him to you!" If this wasn't enough to make the newcomer blush the round of laughter which followed would certainly do the trick. Over the past number of years, Johnny's had acquired itself quite a reputation as a sleaze joint.
There was never any entertainment there, other than the customers themselves who could be quite entertaining, and a juke box against one wall which contained a curious mixture of tunes from the fifties and sixties along with a number of selections of disco music for dancing. An average Friday or Saturday night at Johnny's would begin with soft, schmaltzy love songs on the juke box until about eleven o'clock when they would push the pool table into the corner so everyone could dance. By now the bartender would have been convinced to crank the volume on the old juke box to the max. Two or three of the more serious partiers would deem it their duty to guard the juke box making sure that only the disco selections were played. The two small speakers would rattle under the heavy load of the booming bass guitar and the cracking sound of the snare drum as bodies twisted and writhed and bumped to the 4/4 rhythm. As the juke box cranked out the tunes the dancers would chant along with the lyrics until the sweat rolled down their faces and their throats were parched. When one tune ended they would run to the bar for more drinks, everyone shouting to the bartender at once. Then the music would start again and they would gulp their drinks and run out onto the floor to dance. Some of them would collapse in the booths, lighting cigarettes and shouting at each other to be heard over the music.
By one thirty in the morning, the bartender would holler "last call for alcohol" ten or twenty times and everyone would complain it was still early. Then someone would suggest they chip in and rent a room at the French King and take the party there. Soon the whole room would be chanting "To the King! To the King! To the King!" and they would all pile out the screen door and screech off into the night in their cars and trucks to the French King.
The hands on the clock under the Clydesdales pointed to a quarter to eight as Larry, Marsha and Bruce pushed through the screen door and sat down in the booth near the juke box. Marsha lit a cigarette and offered one to Bruce. Bruce declined but before Marsha could put the pack back in her purse, Larry snatched it from her and lit one for himself. Then Marsha walked behind the bar to fix them some drinks. She made herself the usual gin'n tonic. Larry wanted a scotch'n water and Bruce said he'd take a beer."What kinda beer you want?" Marsha called over the bar as she stirred the other drinks.
"Any kind'll do -- I ain't fussy," Bruce called back. "They all taste the same to me."
"Well, how 'bout a dark beer then? We got it on draft now."
The night bartender, Dave, had been stocking the beer cooler with cases of beer from the back room and was forced to wait at the end of the bar, holding two cases while Marsha finished drawing Bruce's draft. He was the same bartender that Marsha's friend Diane had been flirting with the night of Larry's closing on the Cruthers' place. Marsha remembered that evening well because that was the evening she fell in love with Larry. They had spent all night in her apartment upstairs making love, talking and laughing until the sun came up and they heard the birds and crickets singing outside the window. It seemed to Marsha they had touched deep into each others souls that evening and it had been the beginning of the best romance of her life. She had been in love many times before and even been married once, but her relationship with Larry seemed more mature and realistic than the others. These thoughts were going through her mind as she set the drinks on the table in front of Larry and Bruce. The memory of that special evening made her smile in a very seductive way at Larry as she slid his drink in front of him. Larry puffed on his cigarette and looked sort of dumfounded. "What's with you?" he asked with a smirk. "You got that sneaky look on your face again!" Larry wasn't very good at reading faces.
"Sneaky!" Marsha looked disgusted. "I'm not being sneaky, I LOVE YOU!"
"Well, you don't have to look so sneaky about it," Larry said, still smirking. He was trying to be cute, but he wasn't succeeding.
"Your such a jerk, Larry! Bruce, isn't he a jerk?" Marsha looked at Bruce with a matter of fact expression on her face that said she wouldn't tolerate neutrality.
"We're all jerks!" Bruce exclaimed in a moment of inspiration, "You're a jerk, I'm a jerk, Larry's a jerk, we're all jerks! You know why we're jerks? Cuz we're sittin' around here wastin' time when we should be callin' my friend!" Bruce looked very proud of himself. Not only had he managed to elude Marsha's trap, but he had also cut through miles of bullshit and gotten straight to the point. Marsha and Larry called a truce for the moment and proceeded to demonstrate how stoned they were by fumbling through Marsha's pocketbook and both of Larry's pockets until finally emerging with the key to the apartment upstairs. Bruce went upstairs to call his friend while they resumed their lover's spat.
By now the bar had begun to get busier, and it was starting to look like a normal Saturday night. A big man with a Red Sox baseball cap and a sweaty white t-shirt that covered about half his belly was shooting pool with a short wirey looking guy with a mustache and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Each time it was the short man's turn to shoot, he would let the cigarette dangle from his mouth until the smoke curled up past his mustache and into his eyes making him squint. When he could stand it no longer he'd give the cue stick a jolt, scratching on the cue ball and missing. Then he'd flick his ash on the floor, cuss beneath his breath and reach for his beer at the bar while the fat man snickered and chalked his cue. Then the fat man would bend over the table so the whole room could see the crack in his fat ass and he would drive the stick into the cue ball, sinking three or four shots in a row while the short man muttered to himself and chugged his beer.
Bruce found the telephone in Marsha's kitchen and dialed the number from memory. He let it ring six or seven times while he fumbled in his pants pocket for the purple velvet stash bag that held his pipe and what was left of his grass. He held the phone between his chin and shoulder while he took the pipe out of the bag, filled it with a small bud of the Hawaiian grass and set the pipe on the table. He let the phone ring a couple more times and was ready to hang up when his friend answered. The voice on the other end sounded impatient.
"Yeah, whaddaya want?"
"Hey, Gino... it's Bruce, man. What's happening?"
"Hey, Bruce. Howya doin' man?" Gino's voice changed to a friendly tone.
Bruce had taken a silver lighter off the table and lit the pipe, taking in a deep toke so there was a slight pause. Then blowing the smoke out and coughing a little, he continued the conversation. "Well, just thought I'd give you a call to see if anythin's shakin', ya know what I mean, man?" He was trying hard not to mention grass over the phone because Gino had told him many times that he suspected maybe his phone was being tapped. Bruce thought Gino was being a little paranoid, but then again he had heard they were putting more heat on the drug trade in Garrett City so maybe it didn't hurt to be cautious. He didn't have to mention what he wanted anyway because Gino always knew what he wanted.
Gino said, "Yeah man... if you're in the area why don't you drop in and see me."
That's all Bruce needed to hear because he knew Gino wouldn't tell him to stop down unless he had some. "Sounds good, man, see ya in fifteen." Bruce set the phone back down on the receiver and took another toke off the pipe. It was about a fifteen minute ride to Gino's apartment in Garrett City. Bruce sat at the kitchen table and finished smoking what was in the bowl then making sure it was out with his thumb, he dropped the pipe back in the bag. He locked the apartment door and took the key back down to Marsha and Larry who were still sitting in the booth. Unfortunately they weren't alone. There were three guys sitting in the booth across from them and apparently Larry had told them he was getting some grass and they wanted to buy some too. Larry took Bruce aside and tried to sell him on the idea.
"What are you crazy man, I don't even know these guys!" Bruce was being stubborn but Larry persisted saying that he worked with the men and he knew they were cool.
"Well, how much do they want, man?" Bruce was beginning to give in.
"Between all of us, we need six ounces."
"SIX OUNCES!... You're fuckin' crazy! I don't even sell this shit, man... I ain't carryin' no six ounces for nobody!"
Larry said "Calm down, man, just wait here a minute, I'll be back." Larry went back to the table and was whispering with his friends for awhile. They each slipped him some money under the table and he came back to Bruce who was standing alone by the juke box. Bruce had told Larry it would be two hundred dollars for an ounce which was very expensive even if it was Hawaiian. With his back to the bar, Larry counted out $1,400 into Bruce's hand.
"You get us six ounces, man, and there's enough there for you to get your own ounce free."
"I don't know, man... that's a lotta grass to be holdin'." Bruce was still resisting but not as strongly. Finally the temptation was too much for him and he said he'd do it.
Larry said "Great, man. We'll wait here. Try'n hurry!"
Bruce said he'd be back in an hour. As he left the bar room the fat man with the baseball cap was leaning over the table preparing to sink the eight ball in the corner pocket and the wirey little man with the mustache was sitting at the end of the bar with a sick look on his face as if he were on death row.
Saturday night in Garrett City brought with it a great deal more excitement and activity than did the small town of Ashton. The center of town roared with the sound of fast cars revving up their engines at the red lights and screeching their tires at the first sign of green. The sidewalks were crowded with teenagers blaring their ghetto blasters and marching up and down the main drag. Small crowds of them would gather on street corners, some of them shouting across the street at each other or twitching to the beat of the music boxes.Unlike Ashton, whose population was predominately white, Garrett City was an almost even mixture of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. There was not a lot of racial tension in Garrett City though. Occasionally there were isolated incidents of prejudice or discrimination but for the most part the people of this city had learned to live together in a friendly way. It seemed to many of the residents that the old ways were finally disappearing and that the dreams of a "rainbow coalition" were becoming more and more of a reality.
This is not to say that Garrett City didn't have social problems. They certainly had a housing shortage, and crime and drug abuse were on the rise. The population had leaped from sixty thousand to almost eighty thousand within a period of fifteen years, owing most of that growth to the fact that several corporations had located there. The figure of eighty thousand was somewhat misleading however, for Garrett City was the largest city in Brenton County and was surrounded by many small towns such as Ashton. Most of the people in these towns depended on Garrett City for their employment, commuting back and forth each day, crowding the small New England city with cars, trucks and pedestrians till it was literally busting at the seams.
Most of these people depended on Garrett City for their social life also, coming into the town on weekends to enjoy the restaurants and movies. There were also several nightclubs offering entertainment for listening pleasure or dancing and there was even a local theater group which put on regular productions and had built a rather large following. The group called themselves the "Brenton County Players" and all of their productions were reviewed in the entertainment section of the Garrett City Gazette. These critiques in the Gazette had been the cause of much controversy and disagreement amongst the "cultural elite" of Garrett City. But it all added a stimulating dimension to the social life, bringing with it an increased interest and attendance at the theater.
The theater itself was a renovated old movie house which had been closed for several years until the city confiscated it for back taxes and donated it to the theater group. Through the hard efforts of many local actors and theater enthusiasts, the money was raised to renovate the building and to the delight of everyone concerned the project had become successful enough to support itself. Though they did not make a fortune they did make enough to pay their actors a small salary and therefore were able to offer the talented and artistically inclined people of Garrett City an outlet for their creativity.
Tonight the Brenton County Players were doing a production called "The New City Waltz" which had been written by a local playwrite and was receiving rather mixed reviews in the Gazette. As Bruce was driving past the theater he saw the big bold black letters of "The New City Waltz" as they stood out against the white background of the old theater marquee. Starting at the ticket window and winding around the street corner part way down the next block was a line of people waiting to get in to see the show. It was scheduled to start at nine o'clock and as he passed the theater Bruce recalled that a good friend of his, Burt Whiting, was suppose to perform in the play. Bruce wished he could stop to see the show but he was already running a few minutes late and he had told Gino he would be there.
He took a right at the street next to the theater and drove past the line of people. He drove two more blocks and then took a left on Tremont Street where Gino lived. Though Gino's apartment was two blocks down, Bruce parked his van as soon as he made the turn and got out to walk the rest of the way. This was how Gino preferred his customers to come to him because he felt that having people drive up and park in front of his apartment was too risky. The trip to Gino's had become routine for Bruce and he whistled nonchalantly as he walked the two blocks.
It was an old neighborhood and many of the apartment houses were shabby and run down. There were four kids riding their bikes in figure eights down the middle of the street. Their mother scolded them from the porch of an old brownstone. She was a black woman in her early twenties and Bruce was wondering if all four children could possibly be hers. He nodded and smiled at her as he passed the porch and she returned the greeting. Then crossing the street, Bruce skipped up the stairs of another old brownstone. He opened the glass door, walked into the hallway, and ascended the flight of stairs to the second floor.
The hallway smelled musty and pungent with the odor of garbage left in plastic bags by the stairs almost making Bruce gag as he knocked on the door of Gino's apartment. Gino's girlfriend Laurie opened the door a crack and peered through at Bruce as she turned on the hall light. When she saw it was Bruce, she opened the door wider and Bruce stepped into the apartment. He searched her face for some sign of greeting or the hint of a smile.
Laurie had a very sad face, as if life had been very hard on her. When Bruce first met her he thought she had a recent tragedy in her life, but as he got to know her he realized it was simply her way. She could sometimes cast such a somber attitude that it would permeate the whole room and always made Bruce feel uneasy. He walked in and sat on the sofa. Laurie walked over to the doorway of the kitchen, and poked her head around the corner "Gino, Bruce is here."
Gino shouted to Bruce from the kitchen "Hey, man, come on in here. I got somethin' I wanna show you."
When Bruce walked into the kitchen, Gino was sitting at the table with a joint in his mouth and grinning like a gangster. In front of him was a big pile of the Hawaiian grass that Bruce had been smoking earlier and next to the pile was a whole grocery bag full of the same. He was weighing a plastic bag of the grass on the platform of a small gram scale. He reached in the bag, taking out one small bud and the little metal lever hung suspended in the air. "Perfect," he said. Rolling the bag up, he placed it on the table next to several others that he had already weighed. Bruce sat down at the table and Gino handed him the joint. He took a hit and handed it to Laurie who was still standing in the doorway. She took a toke and handing it back to Gino, sat down at the table with them.
"What you think of this shit, man?" Gino asked as he blew the smoke out and handed the joint to Bruce again.
Bruce said "Ya, ya... it's pretty good, man. This is the same stuff I bought from you last week, ain't it?"
"You bet your ass it's good," Gino retorted. "This is the best shit in Garrett City right now!" Gino was giving Bruce his very best Al Capone and Bruce was wondering how Laurie could stand living with him. Perhaps that explained her moods.
"How much you want?" Gino asked.
"How much you getting for it?"
"I still gotta get two hundred an ounce, and that's cheap. You ain't gonna find shit nowhere that's gonna blow your head off like this does!" Gino was still playing Al Capone. Bruce drew his wallet out slowly and appeared to be counting the bills. There was no way in hell he was going to give Gino the whole fourteen hundred dollars.
"Tell ya what I'll do with ya, Gino, I'll give ya a thousand for seven ounces."
Gino looked insulted. "Whadda you crazy, man? I can't make no money like that. You know what this shit cost me?"
Bruce didn't respond. Instead he glanced over at Laurie. She was sitting there staring at the plastic bags in front of her with a very serious look on her face as if she were working on a complicated personal problem. The three of them sat there in silence studying the table until finally Bruce broke the seance. "Well, forget it man, it was just an idea." Then he started to get up as if he were ready to leave. Gino was quick to respond.
"Wait a minute, man, lemme think... all right, I tell you what... you give me eleven hundred and you got your seven O.Z.'s." Bruce still hesitated and Gino added "I'll give you a good count, too, man."
Bruce smiled shrewdly and said "Let's see 'em."
Gino took seven of the plastic baggies that he had just weighed and added a few buds to each bag from the large pile in front of him. Bruce counted out the eleven hundred dollars onto the kitchen table. Laurie got him a brown grocery bag from under the sink and he put his seven ounces in the bag and rolled it up. Then he put the bag under his arm, shook hands with Gino thanking him, and said his goodbyes.
Bruce had left the kitchen through the living room and was about to open the door to the hallway when someone knocked on it. Had he still been in the kitchen, he would have taken the time to think, but since his hand was already reaching for the knob, he was hypnotized by the spontaneity of the motion. Later he was to regret this motion with all his heart, but right now he just swung the door open and found himself standing face to face with a police officer. He tried to slam the door shut again in the officer's face, but the officer pushed his way in exclaiming that he had a warrant and that any action would be considered resisting arrest. Another officer followed in close behind him, walking swiftly into the kitchen where Gino and Laurie sat speechless with the big pile of grass in front of them, plastic bags, scale and all. Within minutes, the three of them were handcuffed and sitting in the back of the cruiser as they drove past the theater and down the main drag to the Garrett City Police Department where they were searched and booked and put into separate cells.
The clock under the Clydesdales said eleven thirty. The small speakers on the juke box were cranking out the disco beat at full volume. The pool table was pushed into the corner and the dance floor was filled with people bumping and grinding away their Saturday night. Even the big man with the baseball cap was dancing jitterbug fashion with a tall, skinny blonde girl. Every time he let go of her hands he would pull his pants up in the back and his t-shirt down in the front only to lose them again to the forces of gravity and shrinkage.It was only when the music stopped that Dave at the bar realized the phone was ringing. Before he could reach it he was swamped with requests for drinks so he let the phone ring while he ran around behind the bar filling orders. He'd gotten most of the drinks by the time the music started again and he finally picked the phone up.
"YEAH, JOHNNY'S." Dave was shouting into the phone so he could be heard above the music. Bruce was relieved to hear Dave's voice. He had begun to think he'd dialed the wrong number and was afraid he'd wasted his only call. He shouted back into the mouthpiece "YES, HELLO. IS LARRY TURNER THERE?" He had to repeat himself two or three times before Dave understood him and then Dave told him to wait while he checked. Dave pushed his way through the crowd of dancers and found Larry still sitting in the booth with Marsha. When Larry got to the phone he had to block one ear with his hand so he could hear the voice in the receiver.
"HEY LARRY... IT'S ME, BRUCE!"
"YEAH, BRUCE. WHERE ARE YOU?... DID YOU GET THE STUFF?"
"NO... LARRY, LISTEN TO ME... I'M AT THE GARRETT CITY POLICE STATION. I DIDN'T KNOW WHO ELSE TO CALL...."
Larry and Marsha showed up at the police station just twenty minutes after Bruce called and soon the three of them were standing on the street in front of the police station. Bruce was told not to leave the state and that he would be notified of the date of the trial. Having no address to receive the notice at, Larry volunteered his address at the farm. Since Larry felt responsible for Bruce's new found troubles, he insisted that Bruce stay at the farm and even offered him a job as a carpenter to help finish building the subdivision. Bruce declined the offer, saying that Larry didn't owe him anything, and that he could take care of himself, but Larry persisted. "I'm not offering you charity," Larry said, "I've seen what fine work you do and I'd be fortunate to have you working for me. What I am offering you is a place to stay and a good job so that you can afford to pay back my bail money and hire yourself a lawyer!" This line of argument seemed to ease Bruce's pride a bit and he sort of grunted his approval.Larry gave Bruce a ride to Tremont Street where he had left his van and Bruce followed them back to the farm in Ashton. On the way back to the farm, Bruce reached behind his seat and slid his hand behind the rug against the wall drawing out his purple velvet stash bag. Luckily he hadn't taken it to Gino's. Steering the van with one hand, he filled the pipe with the other, and fishing his silver lighter out of his pocket, he lit the bowl. Taking in a deep drag and holding it for awhile he blew it out with a sigh. It had certainly been a long day.
If you were to climb one of the many mountains in and around Brenton County, especially near Ashton, and stand on one of the rocky ledges overlooking the countryside, you could not help but to be overwhelmed with the immense beauty of New England. From some of these mountain peaks on a clear day you might see past the borders of three and sometimes four states. Mountains and valleys seem to stretch out endlessly as far as you can see in any direction with squiggly dissecting lines of rivers and lakes reduced to the size of puddles by the height and distance. To see the mist and clouds as they hover around the mountains casting shadows on the hillsides and to watch the morning sun hoist herself ever higher in the sky, casting her light through the lovely colored leaves of autumn, is to know the true meaning of communion.The stillness and silence you experience at the top of a mountain cannot be found in the valleys below. Where else could you sit for hours in peaceful quiet without hearing the continual roar and hum of cars and trucks and gasoline engines. You might argue that you could soundproof a room in one of the towns below but then what would you have? Would you have the same view? Would you have the fresh clean air of a morning in the mountains? The quiet and solitude that you would find in such a room is vastly different from that of a mountain top. It is more like the quiet of a vacuum or a well decorated casket. In the city the word quiet might be defined as the absence of sound.
From your perch on the mountaintop, however, the word quiet takes on a whole new shape and form. Indeed when you first arrive you will swear that you are surrounded by silence but this is only because your head is still swimming with the hum of the city. The human mind can be a nuisance of a tape recorder, continually rewinding and playing back in unending cycles of repetition so that very often the experience of the moment goes undetected. But if you sit long enough in the mountains, the batteries of this tape recorder will die and the signals of the past will grow weaker until you find yourself engulfed in the perpetuity of the present moment. Now you've begun to experience quiet as it is defined in the mountains.
In the mountains, quiet is not the absence of sound at all, in fact you will hear sounds that you have been deaf to for years. It is not just the cawing of the crows or the chirping of the sparrows which are the most obvious sounds you will hear, but it is something more than these. If you have come this far, you have allowed yourself the luxury of time. Time to be enchanted and seduced by the quiet of the mountains. Perhaps for the first time you will be listening deeper than the sounds of the birds and insects, deeper than the rustling of the leaves and the whispering of the wind, deeper even than the faint sound of your own heartbeat. The sound you will hear will be one you cannot repeat. It's a sound that's as old as the very mountains you are standing on and it is the "sound of New England".
At one time, this sound could be heard everywhere in New England, in the valleys near her rivers, and on the banks of her lakes and ponds, but now it can only be heard in the mountains. Perhaps it is New England's way of preserving her most precious gift and holding it high above the grasp of those who would defile it. A gift held where the rugged terrain is too steep for the tractors and bulldozers to climb. A gift that cannot be bottled and sold, one that can't be mined or exploited or divided into lots and sold to the highest bidder. No, this sound is not something that can be stolen by the unworthy. It is a gift, and gifts are for giving.
Only those who truly love New England can receive her gift, and even they must be patient, sitting on her porch, wooing and courting her favor. Then for the steadfast perhaps the magic moment will come and she'll whisper her song. The Indians long ago had heard her, the Mahican, the Nipmuc and the Algonquin. It was the same sound Walt Whitman heard as he wandered through the hills of New England and Henry David Thoreau heard it on the banks of Walden. It's a sound that can still be heard today by those who are patient.
In the valleys between the mountains, wherever the land is somewhat level and buildable are located the many towns and cities of New England. They're each connected by a massive highway system that winds around and between the mountains like a tremendous gutter channeling the steady flowing stream of vehicles. When observed from the distance of a mountaintop this highway system seems to operate in much the same way as the ocean tides. Each new day brings with it these tides which cut deeper and deeper into the beautiful New England countryside eroding her lovely forests and vegetation and carrying the booty out to sea. Once your small town is connected to this large network of highways, it is doomed to fall prey to the tremendous destructive power of this tide.Most of the inhabitants of these small towns welcomed the opportunity of connecting themselves to this network because they believed it would be an improvement in the quality of their existence. Not only would it increase employment opportunities and business potential, but it would also give them easy access to the larger cities adding a new level of excitement to their quiet country lifestyle.
Unfortunately they were blind to one major flaw in the arrangement. There was no shut off valve and therefore no way to control the tide. Once you were hooked up to this network the steady flow of vehicles and money through your little village would go unchecked. What started out as a small stream of tourists and passersby would soon swell into a river of tractor trailers and trucks and the many tools of industry, technology and commerce.
At first it would appear that the changes were for the better. Many large corporations and businesses from the big cities were buying up large portions of commercial property and investing huge sums of money in building and relocating. The immediate result was a boom in the building trades. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians had more work than they could handle. Each time they finished constructing a shopping center or a factory it meant more new job openings in business and technology. Since the interest in the commercial potential of your small town became well known, many of the corporations had begun to fight over the parcels of commercial land that were left, driving up the prices. These corporations brought with them employees from the cities which created a new demand for housing. Since these employees drew higher salaries than the townfolk, they could afford to buy land and build their country dream homes. New shopping centers seemed to spring up everywhere to cater to the needs of the larger population and at first glance it would appear that everyone was thriving.
But everyone was not thriving. There was another class of people in these towns who would experience severe ramifications from this "progress". These were the people who did not own property. Most of them were common laborers, waiters and waitresses, cashiers and grocery store clerks. These people had little or no training for the kinds of jobs offered in the high tech world and most of them were forced to work at jobs that paid only a bit more than minimum wage. This was the same money that they had made before the big changes, but now they found it was impossible to live on so little. There were only a limited number of decent rents available and the number of people looking for housing had increased so rental prices skyrocketed. Even if they were able to find a decent apartment, the prices would often be so high they could not afford to stay. To make matters worse, contractors were not building affordable apartments because potentials for profit were much higher in building single homes and condominiums.
In a time in our country when many of the social programs for the poor had been slashed in favor of high military budgets, many of these people became homeless, drifting into the larger cities where they could be easily ignored by the unemployment and census statistics. Some of these people had come to be known as "street people". Others had taken to living in small vans, campers and station wagons for shelter. In many ways these campers and vans had become the box cars of the modern hobos. These were not just vagrant unemployed men, but whole families living lives of destitution. It seems that the benefits of all this "progress" were only meant to be shared amongst a small privileged class of people who demonstrated time and again an amazing ability to ignore the social ramifications of their overindulgence. While perhaps twenty to thirty percent of our society enjoyed the luxury of fine homes, expensive cars and access to superior education and employment opportunity, the other seventy to eighty percent were either living in poverty or teetering on the edge. Almost all of them could give up the hope of ever owning their own homes and sharing in the American dream.
Bruce Carson was quite different than most other people living in and around Ashton. His carpentry skills could have enabled him a chance to profit from the expanding growth. He had in fact received many offers of employment and yet he seemed content to work at odd jobs and live in his van. Sometimes in the winter he would chip in with friends and share an apartment so he would have a warm place to sleep and running water. But when springtime rolled around again he would be back to living in his van. He would often camp in the mountains, swimming in the rivers and small ponds around Brenton County.
His lifestyle was actually a riddle to most people who knew him. They figured he was either too lazy or irresponsible to hold a steady job. He was also not the kind of person to feel that he owed them an explanation. He was a man of his word though, and if he said he would carve you a sign for a certain price, even if it took him twice as long as he had anticipated, he would fulfill his side of the bargain. And if the truth would out, he was not lazy at all. He was in fact a natural worker whose creative skills were continually put to use carving signs and pipes and little toys for children, sometimes building a garage for a friend or any number of other projects he set himself about doing. Those who considered him "lazy" would be hard pressed to match his output. He had a creative intuition and unwavering dedication to detail that stretched far past the horizons of those who would pretend to judge him.
The misunderstanding was one of definition. The tasks that Bruce would dedicate his labors to were not considered "important" to these people. They were in fact considered so unimportant as to go unnoticed by them. The same people that would be impressed to the point of praise to gaze upon a garage or greenhouse that he had constructed would fail to even acknowledge the same stroke of genius in his "lesser" creations. Yet this false judgement didn't seem to bother Bruce at all. Bruce didn't work for praise and though necessity forced him to market his labor, profit was not his motive either. For Bruce, the reward was in the doing. The total involvement he would experience in working a piece of wood for hours had become sort of an habitual mantra of movement. He would often find peculiar shaped pieces of wood. Working with his pocketknife he would begin knocking off the rough edges and carving with the grain. What started out as a casual interest in a piece of wood would develop into an engrossing experience spanning many hours. He felt each piece of wood had a secret image waiting to be revealed and he hardly every knew what it would be till he was through carving. Sometime during the process he would find himself so engrossed as to be spellbound and it would seem that he were not doing the carving at all but was instead a passive witness. There was a communion to this that was not unlike the experience of hearing the "sound of New England". Bruce had heard the sound many times and was no stranger to the experience. It was the love and desire of the pilgrim that drove Bruce through the mountains of New England and dictated his lifestyle.
Now however our happy little pilgrim had gotten himself in quite a jam. Being busted for possessing seven ounces of marijuana was no laughing matter. What was worse is that he had been arrested a few years earlier for possessing a half ounce. They had let him go that time but this time he suspected he wouldn't be as lucky. On top of that he owed Larry a thousand dollars for bailing him out and he owed Larry's friends the money they had put up for the grass. He probably would have been justified not to pay them since he was the one to take the fall, but he was going to have to work with them at the subdivision and he didn't want to make enemies. So Bruce decided to work for Larry in October and November to pay off his debts. He would be making over five hundred a week and since Larry let him stay at the farm for free, it would give him a chance to get on his feet. He'd gotten the letter from the Garrett City Courthouse that told him his trial would be December third at ten in the morning.
Larry insisted that Bruce see a lawyer and he also insisted on paying for it. He felt it was the least he could do to help Bruce out of his predicament, not only that, but he had a lawyer friend in Garrett City that owed him a favor. After much arguing and hassling, he finally convinced Bruce to make an appointment and the two of them went there in Larry's pickup truck. The lawyer, whose name was Ms. Caroline Brockton, said she couldn't guarantee that Bruce would not go to jail. The courts in Garrett City had been enacting a new "get tough" policy against drug abuse. It was especially aimed at severe penalties for dealing and she said possession of seven ounces would qualify Bruce to be considered as a dealer. The biggest drug problem in the city was with crack and cocaine traffic but many of the judges failed to draw a distinction between these drugs and marijuana. It was possible that Bruce might get a suspended sentence, but more than likely, he would get six months to a year in the state prison. Caroline said much of it might depend on Bruce's attitude and conduct in the courtroom.
This might be a bigger problem than Caroline had anticipated. Bruce was a very proud man and not only did he feel he should have the right to smoke marijuana if he chose to, but he also felt his personal rights had been trampled on. After all, hadn't he been handcuffed and taken against his will as a prisoner? In Bruce's mind, this was nothing short of kidnapping. They had even demanded a thousand dollars before they would set him free. They had stripped search him and treated him rudely! All of these crimes against his personal rights had been committed by his accusers and all he had done was to smoke one of Mother Nature's wild herbs. He went on to explain to Caroline that he had never harmed anyone while under the influence of marijuana and was about to launch his argument against alcohol when Larry suggested that perhaps he had gotten his point across. At any rate, Caroline agreed to handle his case, again cautioning Bruce that his attitude might make all the difference. Bruce said he planned to demand the right to speak his mind against the charges and that he wasn't about to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. Larry and Bruce shook hands with Caroline and thanked her.
As they pulled out of the parking lot of her office building in Garrett City, Caroline watched them from the window. Sighing to herself, she was thinking he had to be the most stubborn client she would represent in the short year and a half she had been practicing law. Yet she found herself looking forward to the case, thinking that it could prove quite interesting. While Bruce had been ranting about his case, she had busied herself taking notes and jotting down her impressions. Glancing up at Bruce, she found herself more than once drawn in by his dark brown eyes which seemed to possess a simple country charm. Most of the men Caroline came in contact with lately had been the lawyer and businessman type. Their personalities seemed very dry and impersonal to her. Though Bruce was not the most handsome man she had seen lately, not even as handsome as his friend Larry, he was pleasantly genuine. There was something in the tone of his voice and the strength behind the indignation that he was expressing that infatuated her and she found him quite attractive. In fact, when Larry interrupted Bruce's argument she had been disappointed and would have preferred that he kept talking. Before they left, she made an appointment for Bruce to see her in two weeks so that they might prepare the case further. When she wrote it in her appointment book for November 17, she put a small star in the corner of the page. Bruce was quiet as Larry drove the pickup truck back to the farm from Garrett City. Stewing in his thoughts and aggravated at what he considered to be a terrible injustice perpetrated on him, he clenched his jaw tightly and stared out the window. Larry couldn't help feeling that Bruce was being bone-headed. He was mad that he had gone out of his way to get Bruce a lawyer only so he could ruin the case with his stubborn attitude. After all, hadn't he been caught red-handed, breaking the law? As they drove down the winding road past the willow trees and into the barnyard, Larry could contain his anger no longer.
"What the hell's the matter with you anyway, can't you see you're just askin' for more trouble?"
The statement took Bruce by surprise. He stared blankly at Larry as if to inquire whether the statement was meant for him. "What?" He raised his eyebrows and looked at Larry innocently.
"WHAT? You know WHAT! You don't think you can change the whole world, do you?" Larry was getting real mad now and decided to let Bruce have it. "You're bein' a goddamn fool, that's WHAT. You think you're gonna walk in there and tell 'em how to run their goddamn courtroom? Lemme tell you somethin', boy, you better change your attitude, or that judge is gonna slap your ass in jail and throw away the key!" By now Larry had shut off the pickup truck and was shouting. Bruce was staring at him in disbelief. "You think they're gonna change the law for you? What makes you think you're so goddamn special? You think you know more'n the judges, the lawyers, the scientists! EXCUSE ME, MISTER CARSON. Could you please give me your professional opinion on which drugs are safe this year?"
By now Bruce had heard enough and was getting real irritated himself. He didn't like the condescending manner in the way Larry addressed him and he especially didn't like being called boy. He was a man at least two years Larry's senior and wasn't about to be treated like a child. He looked at Larry as if to gain his attention for a very important speech and said, "I don't have to take your shit!" Then he got out of the pickup truck, slammed the door, and walked into the barn. Larry wasn't through though, and he hurried out of the truck, slamming his door also, following close behind Bruce and still raving. "Who the hell do you think you are?... You think the law was made for everyone else and you can do as you please? One of these days you're gonna realize you're just like the rest of us! They don't make a separate set of rules just for Bruce Carson, you know! YOU BREAK THE LAW, YOU GO TO JAIL... JUST LIKE THE REST OF US!"
By now Bruce was standing in front of Topaz's stall with his back to Larry. He was so mad that his hands were trembling. He spun around and grabbed Larry by the front of his shirt. Pinning him against the wall of the barn and pushing his face up into Larry's, he shouted angrily, "Lemme tell you somethin' MISTER TURNER... You're a chicken assed, four-flushin' coward! Bad enough your willin' to let them assholes tell you what to do... but you think everybody oughta eat their shit! Well I ain't about to... I never did, and I ain't gonna start now. If I get thrown in jail, it won't be because I smoked pot, it'll be because I refused to kiss their ass and plead for mercy like some goddamn peasant! WELL I AIN'T KISSIN' NOBODY'S ASS AND I AIN'T BEGGIN' NOBODY FOR MERCY... AND I SURE 'N HELL AIN'T EVER HELPIN' YOU BUY A BAG OF POT AGAIN!"
Thanksgiving fell on the twenty-seventh of November and it seemed to Emily Cruthers that it snuck up on her faster than usual. Here it was only a week away and she hadn't done any of her shopping. Usually by this time of year she would have stockpiled shelves of canning jars filled with her favorite pickles, peppers and relishes. Every year she would enter them at the annual Brenton County Fair along with some of John's prize livestock. Some years she had even won ribbons for best recipe for her relish and pickles. She had no set recipe though, choosing instead to vary it each year and experiment with different combinations of spices and herbs. Sometimes she would invent a fantastic tasting relish that John would rave about all year and much to his disappointment she would be unable to duplicate it. This had become a joke between them and no matter how good the relishes were John would always tease her by saying they weren't as good as last year's.This year John would be right, for Emily didn't make any relish at all. Instead she planned to buy her relish and pickles along with her vegetables and turkey from George's supermarket. Getting organized in her new house and opening the antique shop had taken all of her time and energy leaving her exhausted at night and complaining that she wasn't as young as she used to be. She was also doing a good job of tiring John out, sending him all over Brenton County picking up furniture and hauling it back to the shop. It seemed to him that this little part-time business was becoming less of a hobby and more like a full-time career. Lately he had taken to groaning and complaining to the new "straw boss" whenever she ordered him to move something. "I could swear I moved that piece ten times this week, I wish you'd make your mind up." Emily would holler back in true straw boss style "Get the lead out old man, you'd think you were ready for the box!" At night John would complain that his back ached and that city life was too hard on him and that he wished he were back on the farm.
When Steve and his wife Linda pulled into the driveway of his parents new home on Thanksgiving morning it just didn't feel the same. They'd always celebrated Thanksgiving with his parents on the farm. For Steve, it was not only his parents that he missed all year, but he also missed the warm feeling he got inside walking around the old place again. Every Thanksgiving he would find some excuse to walk out to the barn, maybe to see the new colt or to check out his dad's old tractor. Steve had studied to be a mechanical engineer and was employed as a draftsman for a large tool and die corporation in New York City. Whenever he visited, John would ask him some mechanical question about the tractor or some other piece of farm equipment and the two men would find themselves walking out to the barn to check it out. For John these were the only times he got to be alone with his son. Mostly he would let Steve do the talking while he nodded his head and asked a question or two. He knew it gave Steve a chance to show how much he'd learned and what a mature man he'd become, and for John it was a rare chance to be close to his son. Sometimes John would feel such pride and emotion while listening to his son that he'd feel tears come to his eyes, but he'd quickly turn away, pointing to another piece of equipment and in a scruffly voice he'd ask another question. It was not easy for John to show emotion and his pride would be damaged beyond repair if his son were to see him cry for such sentimental reasons. Steve had only seen his father cry once, and that was at the funeral of Steve's grandmother, John's mom.Steve and Linda had never even seen the new house. As they sat in the driveway checking and rechecking the address it was hard to hide their disappointment. There would be no walking out to the barn and there would be no fond memories of his youth for Steve to savor today. The house that stood in front of them looked quite plain. There were no willow trees leading up to the driveway. There was no big front porch with the trellis and the grapevines. It was just a simple little white house with blue shutters on the windows. Steve looked at Linda with disappointment in his eyes and she looked back with the same but neither of them voiced their feelings for fear of ruining the day. The children on the other hand would not be so kind. When John and Emily came out to greet them, they were showered with disappointing questions: "Where's the horses?" "What happened to the barn?" and "Don't you have the swing anymore?" Emily was ready for them though, saying that she planned to take them all out to the farm after dinner and that the new owner was a very nice man and wouldn't mind at all. The two young girls, Penny and Barbara, seemed satisfied, and the boy, Brian, who was a little older, looked as if he'd have to be convinced. The biggest change in countenance however came from Steve, who sported a wide grin and looked genuinely excited. Linda smiled a big sigh of relief and they all went into the house.
Before noon, the Cruthers' other son, John Jr., arrived with his wife Charlene and their two children, Cheryl and Richard. It was beginning to feel like Thanksgiving. Each time Emily pulled the turkey from the oven to baste it the small house would fill with the aroma prompting anxious calls from the living room demanding to know when it would be ready. This was Emily's favorite time and she would not be robbed of the suspense. She would tell everyone to be patient while she jockeyed the pots and pans around the kitchen timing the turnips, potatoes, string beans and broccoli to be ready at the same time as the turkey. Today she was dragging out the suspense even longer because someone was still missing. Emily would not serve dinner until her only daughter, Julie, arrived. She kept Linda and Charlene busy setting the table and in true chauvinistic style she sat the men in front of the football game with beers in hand and let the "other children" go out to the backyard to play. Finally at one thirty Julie arrived, apologizing all the way through the kitchen and dining room and greeting everyone in the living room. Emily left all the lids on the pans to keep the food warm and waited till the room built up a good head of steam. Soon John was demanding to know when dinner would be ready and the children were complaining they were famished. Emily let them beg a little and then she announced that it was ready. She asked Julie to help serve the vegetables and she asked John Jr. to carve the turkey and soon they were all sitting around the dining room table.
They all bowed their heads while John said grace, then they mumbled a fast "Amen" and hit the plates like the Dallas cowboys on the scrimmage line. During dinner there were many comments about how nice the new house was and questions about the antique shop and even some talk about how they were going to miss the farm. No one dwelled too much on the subject of the farm though. They had made their decision and it made no sense to regret it. John and Emily said they were very happy with the new house and Emily said there would be plenty of work to do at the antique shop without worrying about a farm, too. John almost choked on his turkey when she said this, purposely teasing her as he winked at Steve. They all stuffed themselves with turkey and vegetables and gravy and stuffing until they could stand it no longer and one by one they excused themselves. Fading into the living room they draped themselves over the couches and chairs while the children sprawled out on the floor. They decided to hold desert until after they'd visited the farm and done some serious digesting. Emily said she was going to leave the dishes sit where they were and suggested that they get ready to go. The children hailed the suggestion with shouts of "Hooray" and while everyone took turns using the bathroom, Julie helped her mom cover the leftovers and put them in the fridge.
When they were alone in the kitchen, Julie asked her mom in a concerned voice "Have you heard anything about Bruce Carson?" Emily said she had seen Bruce about two months ago and he had seemed fine. She mentioned what a nice job he did carving the sign for her shop and then looked at Julie quizzically. "Why do you ask? You're not still interested in Bruce, are you?"
"No, no," Julie replied unconvincingly, "I'm not asking for that reason. You must not have heard then about the arrest. Bruce was arrested last month for drugs. There was an article about it in the Gazette!"
"No, I hadn't heard. It wasn't in the Tribune or I'd have seen it." Emily looked shocked. She liked Bruce very much, at one time even thinking he might be her son-in-law. "Well, it doesn't surprise me any," she said. "He's always smoking that damn pot of his. I'm surprised he hasn't got caught sooner. So what's going to happen to him?"
Emily asked this last question as if she had dented the car and wanted to know what it would cost to fix it.
"I heard they might send him to jail for at least six months and maybe a year," Julie said seriously.
Emily reacted angrily. "Jail? I can't see Bruce going to jail! He`s one of the nicest young men I've ever met. I know he smokes pot -- that's no secret -- but he's never harmed no one and he certainly doesn't belong in jail!"
John walked into the kitchen just as she finished saying this and Julie had to repeat the whole story to her father. He reacted in much the same way as Emily did, saying "I heard Bruce has been staying out there with Larry at the farmhouse. Maybe we'll see him today and find out for ourselves what's going on. If he's in trouble, I'd do anything I can to help that boy."
By now everyone was ready to go so they piled into two cars and John and Emily led the way in their old truck. The Cruthers' convoy drove out of Elm Street and down Main Street with John Jr. and Steve honking their horns like little kids as they rounded Park Square, past George's and down the quiet country road that led to the old farm.
Marsha, Larry and Bruce had just finished their Thanksgiving dinner which they had all helped prepare. Marsha considered herself a liberated woman and insisted that everyone chip in with the cooking and cleaning. Bruce and Larry didn't seem to mind although they spent most of the morning playing with the aprons and towels and addressing each other in high pitched voices, saying "Oh, Larry dear, might you bring me the gravy dish please?" and "In a moment, Brucie baby, I think my apron's undone in the back... might you tie it for me?" They continued clowning and prancing around the kitchen for most of the morning while Marsha assigned them chores to do. She had just about had it with their "fag routine" and told them during dinner that if they didn't start acting "normal" they would have to wash and dry the dishes and clear the table all by themselves. So now Marsha was relaxing in the living room smoking a cigarette, swigging on a can of beer and watching the football game and only occasionally being disturbed by the high pitched voices in the kitchen.
By now, Larry and Bruce had gotten over the argument they had in the barn. They still disagreed with each other but they had decided to express themselves in less damaging ways such as teasing each other with sarcastic remarks. Larry built most of his campaign around a Christmas theme in which he would look at Bruce earnestly and implore "Don't forget to write." Then he might whistle a few bars of "Christmas in Prison" by John Prine and perhaps follow it up with the chorus from "The Chain Gang Song". Bruce would pretend that he didn't hear Larry, or that it didn't bother him until it became obvious that Larry was getting to him. Then Bruce would respond with shaky voice and shaky knees "Here come da judge, here come da judge!" and "Yes yo' honor, no yo' honor! Can I wind yo' watch yo' honor, polish yo' shoes?" The two men had played this game for days together while working on houses. The final product of this interplay materialized into two affectionate nicknames. Bruce had started it by referring to Larry as "Judge" and Larry had taken to calling Bruce "Grunt", a derogatory term that Larry remembered from his Army days which he now applied to anyone who was forced into servitude or held in captivity. While working, the dialogue between them would run something like this:
"Hey Grunt, get me that box of nails, will ya?"
"Y'ass Judge... comin' right up."
The names were beginning to stick, being adopted by the rest of the work crew including Marsha. Larry didn't seem to mind, after all it wasn't so bad being called "Judge". It was obvious that Bruce had gotten the worse of the deal. He was tired of being called "Grunt" by everyone else on the crew and was racking his brain for a new strategy to change it.
When they were done washing the dishes the Judge drove the pickup truck into town to get the kids at Irene's. Since the separation several months ago Larry had been seeing the children once a week on Sundays. Though there had been some awkward moments both children seemed to be adjusting. With the divorce pending, Larry and Irene were both trying to be pleasant. They both agreed that the last thing they wanted was to be involved in a "messy" divorce and that they would try to settle their differences peacefully "for the kids' sake". Justin and Sara were to have Thanksgiving dinner with their mom and then spend the afternoon and evening at their dad's. They were going to sleep over at the farm and return to their "other home" in the morning.
As Larry parked in front of the house, the house that he had built and lived in for over three years, he felt like a trespasser. As he walked up the sidewalk to the front door, he noticed the familiar car of Irene's parents in the driveway. Larry had been very close to Irene's parents but since the separation they hadn't spoken. Larry stood in the doorway as Irene bundled up the kids. Though Irene's parents delivered a polite greeting from the dining room, Larry could not help but feel that the turkey was not the only thing they had been carving up. Soon he was with the children in the pickup truck heading back to the farm and breathing a sigh of relief.
They arrived at the farm just after the "Cruthers' convoy" had pulled into the barnyard. They all got out of their cars and trucks and greeted each other warmly. The children were acting very shy. All together there were seven of them. John Jr. and Charlene's children, Cheryl and Richard, were eight years old and eleven. Since Steve and Linda's son, Brian, who was twelve, had been waiting all day for his chance, he asked if he and Richard could play near the pond. Larry said they could if they were careful. Both Charlene and Linda echoed the "be careful" part as the two boys ran off to play. As an afterthought, or maybe a good will offering, Brian called out an invitation over his shoulder for Justin to join them. Justin, who was just turning eight, was hanging on to Larry's pants and shyly burying his head between his dad's legs. Larry encouraged him to go play with the other boys, giving him a pat on the behind and Justin ran off to follow the others.
By now Penny and Barbara, who were near the same age as Cheryl, were feeling bolder too. They demanded the right to play, inviting Cheryl to go with them. After receiving permission along with scolding words of caution, they offered to take little Sara with them. Sara clung tightly to her dad's leg and would have no part of the plot so Larry picked her up, saying she might come out later to play. Then he invited the adults into the farmhouse for a drink.
While the group was approaching the house, Bruce and Marsha were watching them from the picture window in the front room. Marsha hurried into the kitchen to put on a big pot of coffee. When Bruce saw that Julie was with them he ran upstairs to his room to change his shirt and comb his hair. It had been almost two years since he'd seen her. They had been high school sweethearts but had broken up when she went off to college. She studied agriculture and after she graduated, she took a job in Garrett City for a brokerage firm as a commodities consultant. They started seeing each other again, hoping to pick up where they had left off but with the years apart, they had become different people with different goals and values. Though the romance lasted two years, it became painfully clear that planning a life together would be foolish. Even still, as the years passed, they would see each other on occasion trying to retain their "friendship". Almost always on these occasions they would overstep the bounds of this friendship agreement and find themselves engulfed in romantic infatuation. Again the relationship would terminate in the unavoidable frustration of a conflict of ideals and lifestyle.
The last time this had occurred had been two years ago and they had decided it would be better not to see each other at all. Now as Bruce peaked out the window of his bedroom at Julie standing near the trellis on the front porch he felt an all too familiar twinge of excitement. As they walked into the house he decided to come downstairs and act nonchalant and surprised to see her. He prayed to himself that Larry wouldn't call him Grunt. His prayers were in vain however for once everyone was in the house, the first words out of Larry's mouth were "Hey Grunt, why dontcha get some chairs from down cellar?" There was no clever comeback from Bruce and no joking around about the Judge, he just looked disgusted as he spun around on his heels and went for the chairs.
Bruce hit his head on the low hanging beam at the foot of the cellar stairs and was cursing while he brushed the dust and cobwebs out of his hair. When he found the folding chairs they were covered with dust, too. With a rag he found in the corner of the basement he dusted them off and holding three under each arm he ascended the stairs to the kitchen. He couldn't wait to get back to the living room where Julie was. On the way up the stairs he shut the light switch off with his elbow. Closing the cellar door with his foot, he stopped to brush himself off again, leaning the chairs against the wall. He was still muttering curses to himself and rubbing the bump on his head. Then picking up his load again, he balanced the heavy chairs, three on each arm, and shuffled into the living room as if it were no problem at all. John Jr. offered to give him a hand, but Bruce refused. "Oh, no, thanks anyway. They're really light."
Bruce set four of the chairs up on one side of the living room and two on the opposite side between the couch and the big armchair where Larry was sitting with Sara asleep in his lap. John and Emily sat on the couch and John Jr. and Charlene sat in the chairs next to them. Marsha had put the big pot of coffee on the table in front of the couch and next to it she placed several cups and saucers with spoons and a dainty creamer and sugar bowl. The dishes were of pretty yellow china with a delicate blue design of violets on the sides of the cups and a light line of gold bordering the edges. It was a lovely old set that Larry and Marsha had picked up at a yard sale just a week before the holiday.
Steve and Linda sat opposite the coffee table facing John and Emily. Julie had excused herself to use the bathroom upstairs. There were only two chairs left and Bruce sat on the one at the end with all the panache of a Venus flytrap waiting to spring. After they were all seated the room fell silent as if everyone were waiting for the person next to them to speak. The intensity and duration of the silence was almost embarrassing. Then Bruce jumped out of his chair as if he'd forgotten something and offered John and Emily something to drink besides coffee. John said he'd take a beer and Emily said she'd have a small glass of wine. John Jr. and Steve said they'd take beers, too, and the room finally started to lighten up with the chatter of conversation. Bruce seemed relieved that he had something to do and was starting to feel more relaxed. He even turned to Larry before going into the kitchen, saying "How 'bout you, Judge? Can I get you somethin'?" Larry said he'd take a beer, this time being careful to omit the "Grunt". Bruce pranced off into the kitchen as if he were a French waiter, repeating the order out loud in a questionable French accent.
When he came back to the living room with the drinks, Julie had returned from the bathroom and was sitting in one of the chairs. He set the wine on the table in front of Emily and in his other hand he held a six pack of beer which he handed out to the others. He offered them glasses, but they all refused and then Bruce turned to Julie as if to notice her for the first time. "Julie, I didn't know you were coming today. Nice to see you." He held his hand out to her as a gesture of "friendship" and she said "Hi, Bruce, good to see you, too." She smiled sweetly, putting her hand in his. He gave it a light squeeze in a gentlemanly fashion and offered her a drink. She said she'd take a glass of wine since Emily's looked so good, and Bruce scurried off into the kitchen again.
Before long the room was bustling with voices and laughter of old friends exchanging stories and experiences. Emily was bragging about how well her antique shop was doing and John was complaining about how bad his back was doing. Julie said her job at the Martinson Stock and Commodities Firm was going very well. She was making good money and liked the people she worked with a lot. She said the only thing that troubled her about the job was that she was cooped up in an office building all day. She had studied agriculture because she liked farming and farmlife and she really missed the country. Larry and Bruce were telling John how much they had accomplished on the houses they were building. Sara had awakened on Larry's lap and slipping down between her father's legs she was playing with the rawhide strings on his workboots. She was trying to tie the two boots together and thinking she was very clever. Larry pretended not to notice until she almost had them tied, then he poked his head down at her and in a booming but playful voice teased "What are you doin' to your daddy?" Then he'd make a quick grab for her, saying "I'm gonna GET you!" Sara would shriek and roll out of reach. Larry would sneer at her threateningly as he retied his boots and the game would begin again.
There was a knock at the door and several of Larry's friends arrived. Unbeknownst to the Cruthers family, Larry had invited his work crew and their wives for an informal housewarming party. Unbeknownst to Larry, Marsha had invited almost everyone from Johnny's Place and soon the house was filled with people. There was music on the stereo and Bruce was handing out beers from the well stocked fridge in the kitchen. The kids had come in from playing by the pond to see what the excitement was! Richard and Brian had gotten mud all over their sneakers and jeans. By now Cheryl had not only made friends with Penny and Barbara, but she had become their guru. Justin had gotten briers stuck all around his wool socks and Marsha had him standing on a chair while she picked them out. It was becoming quite a party. There were shouts and howls of laughter from the kitchen as some of the men hovered around the "beer fridge" telling dirty jokes and laughing hilariously. The stereo was blasting in the living room and the people from Johnny's had moved the coffee table into the corner of the room and pushed the couch back so they could dance.
So many people were there that the party had spilled out onto the front porch and across the yard to the barnyard where Emily and John had retreated to see Topaz. Bruce had been taking good care of Topaz, feeding her regularly and cleaning her stall. He had been grooming her every few days, and the palomino's coat shown nicely in the yellow light of the barn looking almost the same color as the straw. Not only had Bruce been feeding and grooming Topaz, but every afternoon after work he would exercise her by riding up through the meadow behind the farmhouse and into the woods where he could smoke his pipe and go undetected. John and Emily were glad to see that Bruce was taking such good care of Topaz. Bruce used to ride Topaz when they owned the farm so they knew she was in good hands.
Right now Bruce was giving the children rides on Topaz's back as he led the horse around the small corral next to the barn. Topaz was being very gentle as each child clung tightly to her mane. The children giggled and shrieked as they got on and off and mostly sat frozen during the ride. All the while, Topaz was being very patient until finally Bruce said it was "time for the horsey's supper... they eat, too, ya know" then Bruce led Topaz back to the stall giving her a coffee can half filled with oats and an armful of hay.
John and Emily stood in the barnyard gazing across the street at the old farmhouse. It hardly seemed that the farm had changed at all. The pond and the pasture looked like they did every November as the grass had begun to turn brown. The leaves had fallen from the trees in the woods in back of the farmhouse and the weeping willows that lined the stone wall leading up to the driveway had turned hay-brown. All of the new houses that Larry had been building were on the other side of the road, way up behind the barn, leaving most of the farm intact. As the sun went down on this brisk Thanksgiving afternoon and the chilly night air began to make itself felt, the guests drifted back into the farmhouse.
Some of Larry's friends were from the Brenton County Folk Music Society. This was a group of wraggle-taggle gypsy types whose common interests revolved around playing and singing old and new folk songs and drinking wine and crashing parties. When they arrived at the farmhouse they began to produce guitars and banjos, mandolins and fiddles from the trunks of their cars and station wagons. The hallway leading into the living room of the farmhouse was cluttered with black instrument cases of various shapes, including the big black coffin-like box of the bass fiddle which leaned precariously against the doorway.
By now they had pulled the plug on the stereo and made a semi-circle of chairs at one end of the living room. Soon the old house was filled with the sounds of guitars, banjos, and fiddles all trying to tune up against a continuous backdrop of talk and laughter. The steady drone of the big bass fiddle as he tuned to the guitarist in the corner drew the most attention. Its chaperone, wearing a blue denim vest over a red t-shirt, drew the bow across the low E string with boney fingers as he gazed transfixed at a mysterious spot on the ceiling. The guitarist plunked the same note over and over again on his instrument and appeared to be equally bewildered. His name was Rick Crowley, the owner of the "Folk Instrument Workshop" on Main Street in Ashton. The fiddler was a blonde lady in her mid thirties wearing cowboy boots and a shy smile.
All together their were about ten musicians in the room. It was not an even balance though, for the guitars far outnumbered the other instruments. After a certain amount of coaxing from the bass player the blonde lady began to play a tune on her fiddle. It was a reel called "Devil's Dream". The woman tapped her boot on the wooden floor as she sawed out the melody and she called out loudly "KEY OF A, KEY OF A" as if she were a conductor on a train that was about to leave. One by one the musicians got on board, first the bass player, then the banjo and mandolin, and they were followed by a stampede of four guitar players all hammering on the same A chord. It made for a massive amount of sound with the bass player droning on the bottom and the fiddler screeching on the top. The overall effect was festive and the musicians took turns soloing and pounding away at the rhythm. Larry and Marsha set the dining room table with pies, cakes, and cookies and two big punch bowls, one "with" and one "without". They had to keep refilling the one "with". There was also a big chunk of cheddar cheese on a wooden block surrounded by crackers and sliced little chunks of fruit stabbed by toothpicks. People were standing around munching and chatting in the dining room and kitchen. Bruce was handing out beers from the fridge.
All day long Bruce was hoping for a chance to talk with Julie but it seemed there was always a crowd around her. Now here she was standing in front of him at the refrigerator demanding another beer. He scoured his brain for something clever to say but all he could mumble was, "Sure thing," as he pulled the handle of the refrigerator and dug inside for another beer. Julie eyed him as he handed her the beer. "Let's have it. What's the story?"
Bruce grinned innocently. "Whadaya mean? What story?"
Julie accused him playfully. "I saw your name in the Gazette last month!"
"Oh, that!" Bruce looked truly surprised, and he actually was. Since Julie had come to the farm earlier that day he had forgotten all about his case. This was the first time he had gone such a long time without thinking about it since the arrest. It seemed strange that the issue could sneak up and surprise him. He shrugged his shoulders. "It's no big deal. I'll probably get off."
Julie let the subject drop. She popped her beer open and asked Bruce if he'd care to go for a walk outside. This was the chance Bruce had been waiting for all night. He grabbed himself a beer and muttered the inspired words, "sure thing".
They put their coats on and went out the back door through the mud room and walked around the side of the house to the front porch. It was a cloudy evening but a bright waning half moon enjoyed plenty of elbow room between the clouds. The light from the living room windows fell on the yard in squares, screened through the trellis on the porch. They made their way down the circular drive and across the street into the barnyard, neither of them saying a word. By now the musicians in the living room were singing an old traditional song, "The Banks of the Ohio", and their muffled voices sounded melancholy as they drifted across the yard from the house. Bruce leaned against the back door of his van and stared up at the moon. Julie said, "It feels good to get some fresh air." Bruce agreed with her and pulled his purple velvet stash bag out and began filling his pipe.
"Aren't you afraid to smoke that stuff now?" she asked. Bruce didn't answer her. The tone of her voice told him that she wasn't preaching to him. She was only showing concern. Julie liked to smoke too, though not as often as Bruce. He lit the pipe, taking a toke, and offered it to her. They passed the pipe back and forth several times and the conversation between them started to flow more freely. When they'd finished smoking Julie said she was cold, and Bruce missing his cue all together suggested they talk in the barn.
Flicking on the light and sliding the barn door shut, Bruce sat down on one of the lawn chairs in the middle of the barn. Julie went over to Topaz's stall. "She looks beautiful, it shows that you've been taking good care of her."
Bruce shrugged. "Gives me somethin' to do in the evenings." It sounded lonelier than he had intended and he was quick to add, "I only groom her a couple times a week, a lot of nights I'm too busy to do it."
He wasn't fooling Julie at all, but she played along with him anyway. "Are you too busy to go out with an old girlfriend?" This was going to be a lot easier than Bruce had dreamed. He had been spending all day scheming up a way to talk her into going out with him again. It hadn't occurred to him that she might be interested too. Trying not to appear too anxious he asked her when she would like to go out. Julie didn't seem to be playing any of the games that Bruce was and she stated matter of factly that she was free most evenings therefore it was up to him.
Bruce thought to himself that it was now Thursday night, November 27th and that he would have to go to court that following Wednesday, December 3rd, so if he wanted to strike up an old flame it had better be this weekend. Next week he might be in jail. It occurred to him that his friend Burt Whiting had invited him several times to come see him perform in "The New City Waltz". He knew Julie was interested in public theatre so he suggested they see the play together. Then telling a fib, he said Burt could only get them tickets for the Friday night show, so if they wanted to go, it would have to be then. Julie agreed and they made plans to see the play the following evening. Bruce kissed her lightly on the lips to seal the agreement and she responded by kissing him back firmly, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him tight.
As they strolled back across the street to the farmhouse, the muffled voices from the house were still singing but they didn't seem to sound melancholy to Bruce anymore. When they got inside they sat on the living room couch next to John and Emily and sang along, clapping after each tune. The musicians were having a "round robin" with each person in the room having a chance to initiate a song. Even John had been convinced to play a couple old tunes on a borrowed guitar. He sang "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams and followed it up with "You Are My Sunshine".
By this time it was late in the evening. John Jr. and Charlene and Steve and Linda had rounded up the kids and brought them back to Elm Street. Sara had fallen asleep in the armchair and Justin was nodding as he sat on the floor in front of Larry. The musicians and guests finally said goodnight, packing up their instruments and leaving with a big to-do humming and singing on the way out to the cars. The rest of the Cruthers family left also and Bruce walked Julie to her car for a goodnight kiss.
When Bruce said goodnight to John and Emily, John put his arm around Bruce as he swaggered from too much beer. Then he pushed his whiskered face up to Bruce's so that Bruce could not escape the smell of alcohol and said sincerely, "If you're in trouble and you need a few bucks, call me." He repeated the words "call me" several times past the point of obnoxiousness while Bruce continued to fight for air. Soon they had all driven off, leaving Bruce standing in the barnyard under the cold Thanksgiving moon.
Chapter EightThe New City Waltz
Lookin' at the leaves, they've all fallen earlyThe opening words to the song and the play of the same title were sung by the young paperboy to the accompaniment of an accordion being played in the orchestra pit of the old theater. As the boy made his way across the stage delivering papers on the doorsteps of painted cardboard buildings, the robust little theatrical city came to life. The lights brightened on the stage as a cardboard sun was hoisted and the day began with shopkeepers opening their front doors and a policeman walking his morning beat. There were several children shuffling by with school books and they paired off in twos behind the paperboy, joining him on the chorus:
The clouds look like old men with beards
I guess the winter will soon be upon me
And it looks like a cold one this year
All ya gotta do... is the New... City WaltzThe children repeated the chorus twice and on the second time they did a soft shoe while the rest of the musicians in the orchestra played the melody. The children twirled on stage, demonstrating "The New City Waltz" as the shopkeepers and policeman watched in surprise. The paperboy danced to the front of the stage, gesturing with wide movements of his arms as he sang the second verse:
Promenade... with your partner... down the avenue
Sashay to the left... and to the right again
And you're do... in' the New... City Waltz
I can see an old man on a park benchThis time the whole city street joined in on the chorus. The policeman, played by Bruce's friend Burt, was dancing with a secretary, a banker was dancing with his first customer of the day, and a shopkeeper with a big black mustache was dancing with his broom. They all sang jubilantly as they danced:
As some kid on a skateboard rides by
There's a car stopped at a red light
And he's honkin' his horn at some guy
All ya gotta do... is the New... City Waltz Promenade... with your partner... down the avenueThen they swayed back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, singing:
Sashay to the left... and to the right again And you're do... in' the New... City Waltz!Then the actors broke off into little groups, pantomiming situations and conversations and the paperboy came to the front of the stage and sang:
All the shoppers are shoppin'At the end of the final chorus, the children ran off stage giggling into the wings and the paperboy drifted off backstage and the plot began.
The coppers are coppin'
The children are dodgin' around and about
They dodge to the left... and to the right again
And they're do... in' the New... City Waltz
Basically the story was about a small shoe store owner who was being squeezed out of business by the larger commercial interests of the community. It was a touching play, though a bit melodramatic, especially when the fat shopkeeper with the mustache sang his heart out to his broom. Still, Bruce and Julie enjoyed the performance. Bruce's friend Burt sang a solo in the play about the life and strife of a small city cop which drew a great round of applause from the theater at the close of the first act. Then there was a twenty minute intermission and the audience mingled in the lobby, drinking cider and munching cookies.
The second act depicted the struggling rally of all the townsfolk to save the small shoe shop. In the final scene, they were victorious, managing to incorporate the shoe shop into the plans of the new shopping mall. The play ended with the whole cast dancing together and singing "The New City Waltz".
The applause in the old theater was thunderous, bringing the cast back for two curtain calls. The success of the production was due partly to the hard work and talent of those in the theater company, and partly to the fact that a good percentage of the audience were friends and relatives of the cast.
Bruce and Julie waited until most of the audience cleared out for a chance to go backstage and congratulate Burt. They soon found themselves engulfed in a backstage party. The actors and actresses were in various stages of undressing, some of them in street clothes with their make-up still on and others still in their costumes. Burt was still wearing his blue uniform with the copper buttons and the big silver badge pinned to his chest, but he had taken off his cap and most of his make-up. He was standing next to the fat shopkeeper with the mustache and they were both shaking hands and receiving compliments from their many admirers. When Burt saw Bruce and Julie edging toward him through the crowd, his eyes lit up and he made a big show of greeting them. Burt had been hoping Bruce would come to the show and was glad to see him. He was also glad to see him for another reason. Burt had been searching for several days around Garrett City for some pot and had been unable to find it. Since the "crack down" many of the local dealers were laying low and there was no grass to be had.
Bruce congratulated Burt on his performance and Burt mumbled a humble thanks as he shook his hand. Then leaning forward, he whispered into Bruce's ear, "How's the reef situation?" Bruce replied without moving his lips as if he were a ventriloquist. "Let's get out of here and we'll talk about it." This was enough of a positive response to satisfy Burt's curiosity and he made haste to say goodbye to the other actors. Not even bothering to change his costume, he left with Bruce and Julie. They walked out the front of the theater under the marquee. The sign reading "The New City Waltz" looked quite professional in the night air, except for the fact that the N in "New" had fallen over and was hanging upside down. Burt made a quip about a bunch of sheep dancing the waltz and the three of them danced arm in arm down the street to Bruce's va-a-a-aan.
They all retreated to the back of the van. Bruce turned on the back light and pulled the curtain shut so no one could see in. He knew it was a risky, but Burt was a good friend. In a movement that by now had become his own style, he pulled the purple velvet bag from his jeans and began the ritual of filling the pipe. Burt said, "So what's goin' on, I heard you got busted?" He didn't seem to question why Bruce was still taking chances. Bruce retorted, "Ya, man, I gotta go to court on Wednesday morning, last thing I expected was to get high with a cop tonight!" Burt and Julie laughed, and Bruce lit the pipe. He was trying to be very cool about it, especially in front of Julie, but inside Bruce was scared to death about the prospect of going to jail. He was always a very independent person and the idea of being closed up in a cell for a long period of time made him very paranoid.
When they finished smoking, Burt agreed to meet them at Johnny's Place for a drink, saying that first he had to stop home and change. Bruce drove the van out to Johnny's. In the dark of the parking lot, Bruce took Julie's hand and led her to the bed in the back of the van. They laid down together in each others arms and kissed. Julie played little teasing games with her tongue in Bruce's ear, and Bruce acted like a vampire attacking her neck. It had been a long time since either of them had enjoyed this kind of close, loving attention, and their excited laughter was followed by sighs of relief as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from them. They made love together in the van, just like old times. Later, when they walked into Johnny's Place, they had the glow of two lottery winners, nodding greetings to a few friends at the bar and plunking down in the booth by the juke box.
Marsha was working behind the bar and she flashed a smile at them when they came in. She came over to the booth and wiped it down with the bar rag and took their drink orders. She could see that Bruce was in his moment of glory and was dying to tease him but she thought better of it. He had been down so much lately, with the trial pending and his co-workers teasing him, that it seemed good to see him smile again. She got them their drinks and slipped a quarter in the juke box selecting two of the slower love songs from the fifties. She dimmed the lights behind the bar to set a mood for the music and the air was filled with the sound of a dripping saxophone and doo-ah, doo-ahs. Bruce and Julie sipped their beers and made eyes at each other across the table.
It was quiet for a Friday night, perhaps because it was Thanksgiving weekend. On holiday weekends very often business would be slow because people would be visiting family and friends. There were about seven customers at the bar, most of them regulars, and one other couple in another booth. Marsha's friends Diane and Lin were playing pool and the picture from the tv shone brightly behind the bar though the sound was turned off in lieu of the juke box.
Lin was smoking cigarettes regularly now. Taking a drag and leaving a red lipstick stain on the filter, she set the cigarette on the wooden edge of the pool table along side the dark stains and burns of its many predecessors. Bending over to shoot, her plump breasts clung for dear life to the low neckline of the sweater she was wearing, producing a wrinkled cleavage for the obviously interested men at the bar to view. She was not a very attractive woman, though perhaps she could be if she lost some weight. There were not many women in the bar tonight, however, and she was obviously enjoying the audience, sizing up the shots from every angle and tossing her dyed blonde hair out of her eyes before shooting and missing. Each time she tossed her head back to remove the hair from her eyes, she would glance seductively at the bar. She had no doubt picked this move up from watching cosmetic commercials on television and she executed it with all the drama and panache of a true professional. Tonight it seemed to working particularly well as the men at the bar were hypnotized into submission and lured into following her every movement with blank stares and hungry looks.
Diane didn't seem to be competing for their attention and acted aloof and disinterested in the whole game. In fact, she looked quite bored and several times hinted that maybe they should go somewhere else but Lin protested, almost begging to stay longer.
When the front door to the bar swung open and Burt stepped in, every eye in the room was on him. The men at the bar gave him the once-over as if they'd been distracted and then resumed watching Lin. Burt walked across the room and sat with Bruce and Julie in the booth. For the first time in the evening, Diane seemed to come alive. Laughing and joking with Lin, she seemed to take a new interest in the pool game, making a big to-do over each of her shots and stealing quick glances over at Burt. When the game was over, Diane winning, Lin went to the bar to order a drink. Diane sauntered over to the ladies room, which just happened to be next to the booth where Burt sat. On her way by the booth, Burt smiled politely at her and she acknowledged the greeting with a cute grin.
Behind the bar, Marsha had just finished setting drinks in front of the mesmerized men and she was wiping down the counter. Content that all her customers were satisfied for the moment, she decided it was a good time for a break. She was curious to see whether Bruce and Julie had enjoyed the play and she was also curious to see who the handsome stranger was sitting with them in the booth. It wasn't that Marsha was dissatisfied with Larry and had taken to looking around, but then again, as her mother used to say, "It never hurts to take inventory."
Marsha sat down next to Bruce. The plastic seat of the booth had been patched with green tape where it was split in the middle and she avoided sitting on the tape so the sticky edge wouldn't gum up her skirt. While lighting a cigarette, she smiled through the smoke, blowing the match out from one corner of her mouth. She said "hi" to Bruce and Julie and kind of nodded at Burt as if to anticipate an introduction. Burt smiled back, but neither Bruce nor Julie caught the hint to introduce them. For a moment, Marsha felt awkward, but she decided to ignore the lack of social etiquette. She gave Bruce's beard a playful tug and asked in a not so cute voice, "So how was the play, Grunt?" Bruce gave her a quick, dirty look because of the nickname. By now Julie had heard them call him "Grunt" several times. He had been learning to laugh it off but even still, each time they used the name he would feel a twinge of anger. Somehow it seemed to remind him of the impending trial and the injustice he felt was certain to be his fate.
"Oh, the play -- ya, ya. It was great." The statement didn't sound as enthusiastic as Bruce had meant it because he was still fuming over the nickname. Julie chimed in "Yeah, it was really great! Fantastic!" Then she seemed to realize for the first time that she had failed to introduce them, so she pointed Burt out to Marsha as if he'd gone unnoticed. "Burt here was a policeman in the play, he sang a whole song all by himself at the end of the first act. Burt, this is Marsha." Marsha said she was pleased to meet him and she proceeded to flirt with him asking a number of questions about the play. Since his career was his favorite subject, Burt talked cheerfully to his avid listener, weighing each question carefully before giving his expert opinion. Bruce thought he was going to throw up. All the while, Marsha smoked her cigarette, flicking her ashes nervously in the ash tray and blowing the smoke in the air above Burt's head.
Burt had very attractive dark brown eyes and as he talked in a deep baritone voice, Marsha found herself staring at him. Each time she would break eye contact to take care of the important business of flicking an ash, she would be drawn in again like a school girl by his dark gaze. Her behavior didn't go unnoticed by Bruce and Julie. Julie thought it was cute but Bruce was disgusted. Meanwhile they had gotten into a conversation of their own about the play. Bruce was saying there was something creepy about the way the play had affected him. Julie agreed, saying that though the content of the play seemed light and airy, there was an underlying eeriness that had affected her also. Bruce caught the essence of the feeling the best when he described it as "a sort of deja vu that affected the audience and actors as if they were all looking at themselves in a mirror". Julie laughed and said maybe they shouldn't smoke pot when they went to the theater. Just then Diane emerged from the ladies room. Seeing Marsha in the booth with her friends, Diane saw her chance to be introduced to the new stranger. "Oh, hi Marsha!"
Bruce and Julie basked in each others company. They ordered more drinks and chatted romantically all evening. They had the look of love all about them, giggling and flirting with each other with a subtle intensity that froze the moments into precious little cubes of time. At times Bruce was chirping like an over excited parakeet and at other times he would push his face into a stern reserved look trying to flaunt his machismo. He couldn't hold the pose long though and it would soon give way to a look of loving adoration exuding from his excited boyish eyes.
Meanwhile, all around them the room had been taking on the familiar feel of a "Saturday night at Johnny's". The slow love songs with the weeping saxophones had made their strategic withdrawal before the blitzkrieg campaign of rock and disco. The cardboard speakers on the juke box rattled out the tribal beat, the pool table had been relocated, and the dance floor was once again filled with gyrating bodies.
Bruce and Julie made their way to the bar and paid their bill, winking a goodbye to Marsha. By now Burt had explained with a twinkle in his eye that he could find his own way home and he was doing a bump and grind with Diane in the middle of the dance floor when Bruce and Julie left.
Stepping out into the cold night air they were reminded that it was almost December. The chilly air felt good on their skin and even better in their lungs after leaving the smoke filled bar. As they walked through the parking lot to the van they breathed in deep gobs of it and released it with hissing sighs. It had been a wonderful evening, just like old times, and just like old times the only thing left to do now was to drive to the Old French King and spend the night. They laughed together as they got in the van and shouted, "To the King, to the King, TO THE KING!"
Julie parked her car two blocks from the courthouse and was forced to wait for a whole stream of cars to go by before she could back into the narrow space. Some guy in a pickup truck honked his horn and flashed her the finger as she was getting out of the car. As he drove down the street, she noticed the sticker on the bumper that said "Honk if you love Jesus". She muttered something to herself that didn't sound anything like a prayer and fished through her purse for some change. Finding two quarters, she slipped them into the parking meter. The first quarter gave her one hour when she turned the little handle and the second one didn't register at all. Impatiently she spun the handle round, but the gears in the little box wouldn't mesh, and the red arrow pointed adamantly to one hour. She cursed it as she hurried off to the courthouse and made an oath to herself that if she got a ticket she'd fight it to her last breath.It was still only five of nine when Julie arrived at the courthouse and Bruce's trial was scheduled for ten. She arrived early because she hoped to talk with him before the trial. They'd had a terrible fight the day before and Bruce left her apartment angry. They had been getting along wonderfully until she brought up the subject of the trial. Julie made the mistake of agreeing with Larry and Marsha that Bruce should plead guilty and ask for leniency.
Bruce blew up! Wasn't anyone on his side? Even the woman he loved didn't understand! How could she be so complacent when he was about to be thrown in a cage like some animal? Was he such a menace to society? Half the people he knew smoked pot, including Julie, Larry, and Marsha! Couldn't they see that what happened to him could just as easily happen to them! PLEAD GUILTY! Easy for them to say. They weren't the ones who'd have to live in a cell! God, just the thought of it made him claustrophobic!
Julie hadn't expected him to react so violently. He was shouting and pounding his fist on her kitchen table. His face had gotten red and the veins in his neck were throbbing as if they would burst. She had never seen him this upset before and it frightened her. When she tried to reason with him he just got worse. Finally she got angry herself and demanded that he leave her apartment saying that she never wanted to see him again!
Julie slammed the door behind Bruce when he left. As she collapsed on the living room couch sobbing into the pillow she heard the tires of his van screech out of the driveway. It seemed it would always be like this with Bruce. How could two people make plans for a life together when their goals and philosophies always seemed to point in opposite directions? As hard as she tried she just couldn't understand why Bruce always felt the need to fight the system. She had always been more of a conformist. She believed that if you played by the rules and did most of what society expected of you then things would go well. She wished for once Bruce could just swallow his pride. After the argument Bruce left Julie's apartment driving recklessly through the streets of Garret City and out to Ashton. He left the van running while he ran into the farmhouse and gathered his few belongings into a suitcase. He was climbing back into the van when Larry came out of the barn signaling him to wait. Bruce pretended not to notice him and drove off quickly down the road.
It was the second day of December and almost all the trees on the mountain had shed their leaves except for the spruce and white pines. The leaves on the ground crackled and rustled under Bruce's feet. The only other sounds were the distant callings of birds and occasional scamperings of small animals hurrying about the business of preparing for winter. There was already a light crust of snow on the upper parts of the mountain and the ground beneath the leaves was frozen hard. There was not much wind, but what there was stung against Bruce's face as a brisk reminder of the months to come. He was wearing his heavy hunting jacket and his straw hat and sunglasses. When he reached the pinnacle of the lookout point he was breathing heavy enough to see his warm breath freeze in the cold air.The place was covered with large boulders and jutting rocks that were left no doubt by a glacier long ago and hewn and sculpted by centuries of harsh winds and rough weather. What few trees had managed to survive there had been bent and twisted until they looked like apple trees. Their limbs and branches juxtaposed themselves against the rocks and seemed to reach out in abstract expressions of futile endurance. These were Bruce's favorite trees. They were true survivors, making their homes on the very harshest edge of nature's wilderness where they could never hope to grow to full maturity. The ground they protruded from was more rock than earth. They forced themselves up between the cracks of large boulders with their roots twisting and clawing for a foothold. They reminded Bruce of the trees along the Yellow Brick Road in "The Wizard of Oz". He imagined them reaching out to grab Dorothy and then shrinking back from the threat of the Tin Man's ax.
These were the kind of trees that kindled the fantasy of people from the beginning of time. The abstract wandering of their branches intermingled with the linear thoughts of the poets, coercing them away from the well beaten path of mediocrity and leading them into the wilderness of mystery. Bruce thought they must be kin to the Bodhi tree of India whose design was inverted so that the branches were more like roots that reached up to heaven, drawing sustenance from the spiritual world and imbuing the fruits of that union onto the earth. Just as the great sage of India had done six hundred years before Christ, Bruce sat down in the dirt beneath the barren branches of his own Bodhi tree to contemplate.
Most of what passes for contemplation these days consists of thought. What is thought, but the lingering ghost of words gone by? From the aboriginal pointing and grunting of a not so distant past, the desire for expression has been shaped and hewn over thousands of years, not unlike this mountaintop. Words that were symbols of needs and emotions, evolving through a maze of ancient tribes and civilizations, were molded and embellished and precariously passed on like some colossal group painting.
Each of us an artist, we draw our colors from the communal palette, and paint the picture new. The accents, moods and temperments of a myriad of sounds are forged into a kaleidoscope of modern language. Shaking our head in wonder, each of us peers through this kaleidescope in amazement. With each shake, these symbols form new patterns and images bound tightly within the parameters of our imagination. Each new pattern holds our fascination as if it were a mystery to be solved.
The words which were at one time a symbol for reality have somehow over the ages taken on a life of their own and have become the reality. The gross materialistic nature of vocal utterances has been filtered and refined into a more subtle state of thought and image. The accumulation of all these thoughts and images in their endless combinations comprise the "alphabet of reality" for most of us. It's like a good book that we just can't put down or a game we've been playing so long that we forgot we were playing.
Bruce's head seemed to be filled with words! Broken thoughts and phrases were bouncing and echoing off each other in confusion. His mind had become a puzzle. The confusion he was experiencing was the frustration of trying to piece together the knobby ends and broken lines of a million fragmented pieces. In order to solve a puzzle, you must be capable of detaching yourself from the luring maze and stand back far enough to view the wider picture. Bruce could not do this. Not only had he lost sight of the wider picture and was unable to detach himself but he could not even remember when or why he started the puzzle to begin with. What was worse, he had somehow lost interest in its completion. He simply did not want to play anymore!
Each night for the past few months he had gone to bed with this puzzle, laying awake for hours with his mind grinding away in search of solutions until he fell asleep from exhaustion. When he woke in the morning he would at first think his mind had been cleared by the rest, and that he'd lost the puzzle in the night, but as the morning passed the words began to pile up again and multiply themselves. It was as if they were cards and he were an addicted gambler. In an odd sort of way, they would grin and sneer at him as they flashed through his mind. Each day they would shuffle themselves into a new deal and Bruce would be suckered into picking up his hand and playing. Each hand seemed worse than the one before until he thought it would drive him mad.
It had driven him away from Julie, the woman he loved. It drove him through the streets of Garrett City and out to Larry's farm in Ashton and now it had driven him up the winding country road depositing him here on this mountaintop. He hoped the haunting words would be unable to follow him here.
After all, they were only words, and as such were part of civilization! Maybe they needed the fertilizer and climate that only a city could provide. He imagined these words grew fattest where the buildings grew tall. They grew thicker where there were many minds on which to fasten themselves and they thrived on the filthy fumes of industry. Maybe the air up here in the mountains was too thin for them to breathe and they would die from suffocation!
As if he had not climbed high enough, Bruce reached down into his pocket for the purple velvet bag. He filled the pipe and lit it, blowing the smoky fumes up at the tangled branches of his Bodhi tree. His eyes followed the curve and twist of the rough bark from the thickest part of the branches along the jagged path to the thinnest twigs. The words which had so long cluttered his mind seemed to fall away as if they could no longer balance themselves on such tiny limbs.
Three times the gavel fell on the large oak bench and between each strike the bailiff hesitated long enough for the echoeing thud to spread its sobriety throughout the courtroom. He was a man who truly understood the profundity of drama. This was not just a job for anyone. Fact is, it takes years to make a good bailiff. He must be brewed and steeped in the tempest pot of conflicting opinion, until his character and temperament have been thickened to the proper degree of stoicism that such responsibility entails. And the voice! The voice is so important. There must be no hint of hesitation and not even the subtlest sign of uncertainty. It must have the commanding effect of a master over his dog."HEEL, PEASANTS! PREPARE TO MEET YOUR LORD!" This is the stuff bailiffs are made of. "STIFLE YOURSELVES, PEONS! CEASE AND DESIST!"
SLAP... THUDThe two state troopers who posed like statues on the right side of the room held their hats under their arms and didn't even blink at the sound of the gavel.
"ATTENTION PLEASE... ALL RISE... THE SECOND DISTRICT COURT OF BRENTON COUNTY, JUDGE TOWNSEND PRESIDING, WILL NOW COME TO ORDER." The bailiff stared out at the untidy group of miscreants and the small crowd rose to their feet. Lawyers whispered last minute directions to uneasy clients and two teenage girls in the back row were trying to repress their disrespectful giggles when the gavel hit the bench again. SLAP... THUD. This time it was impressively louder. "SILENCE," commanded the bailiff. "THIS COURT IS NOW IN SESSION!"
Right on cue the door behind the large bench opened and his black-robed eminence walked briskly into the room. Mounting the three little steps behind the bench, he stood facing the crowd. In a very evenly measured voice and casual tone he said, "You may be seated," and then as if to beat everyone to the punch he dropped down into the big oak chair behind the bench and quickly started leafing through the papers in front of him. He summoned the bailiff to his side and the two of them poked through the papers whispering while the rest of the room sat waiting. Soon the crowd had begun to whisper too and the noise in the room began to build. The two girls in the back row began giggling again. The bailiff slammed down the gavel and shouted indignantly, "THERE WILL BE SILENCE IN THIS COURTROOM." Quickly the room fell silent under his icy stare and the judge began to speak.
The judge was obviously used to being listened to. He had a very quiet, businesslike voice. This was not a voice that strained itself to be heard. This was a voice that demanded that the listener do the straining. He stated flatly that he was going to read the names of the defendants to be tried and when they heard their names they should stand so that he might see them, and say "present". He commenced reading their names and one by one, the defendants stood up, said the word, and sat back down.
The whole second row was filled with Bruce's friends. Burt and Larry sat at the end of the row as if they were ushers, and next to Larry sat Marsha. John and Emily Cruthers were there also, and Julie sat nervously next to her mom. Next to her was Bruce's attorney, Caroline Brockton, and she was thumbing through some papers in her briefcase. She looked very disturbed. Julie was thinking to herself how nice it was that all of Bruce's friends had come to the trial to give him moral support. She was thinking that it would have even been nicer if Bruce had decided to come to his trial! By now it was apparent that he was either very late, or not coming at all. Everyone in the row shifted uneasily on the bench and took turns rubbernecking to stare at the doorway in the rear of the courtroom. It was almost ten thirty, and no sign of Bruce.
Caroline knew the judge would be calling her client's name soon because he just finished calling Gino Raboglino who had been busted with Bruce. Fortunately for Gino's girlfriend, Laurie, they had not charged her with any crime since Gino admitted ownership of the marijuana to the officers on the night they were busted. When the judge read Gino's name, Gino stood up slowly, slouching one shoulder and shifting his weight onto one leg in a pose reminiscent of "West Side Story". In an arrogant, punk voice he answered, "Yeah, man, present." Even the grey sports coat and black tie that Laurie fought with him to wear couldn't disguise the attitude he brought with him to the courtroom. Laurie sat next to him in a long, maroon, wool coat which she had unfastened in the front because it was so warm in the courtroom. Under her coat she was wearing a pair of pink stretch pants, the kind with the loops on the end that went under her feet and into her loafers. She was also wearing a light blue sweatshirt that bulged out at her lower abdomen, showing that she was obviously pregnant. Caroline couldn't help but feel pity for Laurie when she looked at her boyfriend Gino. She thought that if he went to jail it would probably be a blessing for Laurie.
The judge read the next name. "Bruce Carson." The judge looked up from his papers as he said the name, but the crowd was silent. "Bruce Carson," he repeated. This time Caroline stood up and spoke.
"Yes, your honor. I am Attorney Caroline Brockton, representing the defendant, Bruce Carson. Unfortunately my client has been delayed this morning. He should be here shortly." She stood there shuffling the papers in her hands and gazing back at the courtroom door as if she expected it to open any moment. The judge looked disgusted and put the folder with Bruce's name on it to one side and continued.
After he had gone through the entire group of defendants, the judge began to hear the cases one at a time. Most of them were traffic violations of one kind or another, warranting fines and reprimands. It seems the policy was to get the smaller offenses out of the way first so they could concentrate on the more serious cases. This they did very methodically and after each case the defendants would exit through the back door of the courtroom, stopping to pay their fines at the little window in the adjoining hallway.
Soon the only people left in the courtroom were those who had come for Bruce's trial, all sitting in the second row, and Gino, who sat on the opposite side of the room with Laurie and his attorney, Mr. Weathermore. The judge said he would handle Gino's case first, since Bruce was not there. The bailiff read the charges of illegal possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Mr. Weathermore had advised Gino to plead guilty and ask the court for leniency, since his client had been caught red-handed and the evidence was overwhelmingly against him. Mr. Weathermore also wisely decided to do most of Gino's talking for him in order to ensure that Gino would have as little chance as possible to alienate the judge. The attorney entered the plea with the bailiff and the judge summoned Mr. Weathermore to the bench. Gino stood there shifting from foot to foot while the two men discussed his case in hushed voices. Then the judged motioned for Gino to approach the bench. The judge read the charges again and asked Gino to voice his plea. Mr. Weathermore whispered into Gino's ear to program him and Gino said to the judge, "Uh... I plead guilty to the charges... yer honor." The last two words seemed to stick in Gino's throat and he said them as if he were coughing.
The judge severely reprimanded Gino, emphasizing several times the seriousness of the crime he had committed. Then he sentenced Gino to one year at the state correctional institution, saying that he would be eligible for parole after six months depending on his behavior and attitude. Judge Townsend said Gino was to be placed immediately into the custody of the two state officers who were present in the courtroom and should be incarcerated to serve his sentence forthwith. Gino kissed Laurie goodbye and the state troopers handcuffed him and led him out of the courtroom. Laurie followed them, brushing back her tears.
Now the courtroom was quiet. The second row was still filled with Bruce's entourage. Emily and John stared off into space, looking perplexed, Larry and Burt were studying their shoes, and Julie shifted restlessly looking very worried. Caroline still glanced back at the door every few moments as if she expected her client to arrive at any time. The judge addressed Caroline in a stern voice. "Well, Ms. Brockton, can you explain the absence of your client?" Caroline stood up and explained apologetically, "I'm sure he must have had some car trouble your honor. Is there any way we might reschedule his trial, possibly on another day this week? I'm sure my client can make it then." It was a feeble effort but it was all Caroline could think of to say. The judge looked angry and disgusted.
"Perhaps your client isn't aware of the seriousness of the charges against him! His failure to appear before this court is a grave matter. I have no choice but to charge him with contempt of court and also hereby declare that his bail be forfeited. I am right now issuing a warrant for his arrest which I will hand over to the sheriff's department. I will reschedule his trial for Friday morning, December eighth at ten a.m. If he is arrested before that time, he will be held in custody until the trial." With that, the judge nodded to the bailiff and the bailiff struck the desk a final whack with the gavel and declared that the court was adjourned.
One by one, Bruce's friends emerged from the courtroom into the hallway. Their disappointed faces all seemed to be saying the same thing. They had all come to show support and perhaps testify to his good character and he hadn't shown up! How could he do this to them? How could he do this to himself?
Got the broke 'n lonely bluesBruce slammed his foot down on the throttle and howled along with the blues tune on the radio as he flew down the highway. The disc jockey must've been a psychic, he'd played four travelin' blues songs in a row. Bruce was chanting along, tokin' on his pipe and driving a whole lot faster than usual. But he wasn't upset or angry or miserable. That was yesterday. Today he was free. Free from worries and troubles, free from people telling him what he ought to do, shoulda done, oughta say, shoulda said, coulda said! Free from all the things that bottled up, tangled up and befuddled his mind! Free from hung up, screwed up, straight laced, sweet faced, well placed concern! Free from do-gooders, well wishers, curiosity seekers, nosy peekers, halfway helpers, side glancers, sleazy dancers and easy answers! Something inside just snapped! Cut loose you might say. Cut loose from the straight and narrow, mind tight'nin', life stranglin', constricting, restricting, defining, confining, uptight, backasswards, insecure world of clock punchers, free lunchers, ass kissers, point missers, and part time losers! He was doing more than cutting loose, he was bustin' out, makin' tracks, stealin' away, breakin' free, slidin' out, and pushin' on! His mind was made up. There wasn't gonna be no "yes yer honor, no yer honor", he wasn't goin' to jail, and he didn't care about the bail! The bailiff, the judge, the lawyers and police could all scratch their heads in wonder 'cause this boy's gone!
Ain't got nothin' left t' show
Suitcase packed against the wall
Babe I guess it's time to go...
Pack it up baby
Pack it up 'n go
Pack it up baby
Ain't no time for movin' slow...
Cup o' coffee at the diner
Got no sugar, take it black
Lay my foot down on that throttle
Maybe never comin' back...
Pack it up baby
Pack it up 'n go
Pack it up now baby
Time to move it down the road...
Bruce had by now come to the conclusion that no problem was so big that it couldn't be run away from. He might be a lot of things, but he wasn't stupid. Once they got him in that courtroom it would be too late to run. When he woke up that morning in his van his decision had been an easy one. It all boiled down to one question. Which would you rather be, free or in jail? No contest! He fired up his van, cranked his radio, lit his pipe and hit the road. Now he was heading north on highway 91 toward the Canadian border. He had passed the White River Junction right around the time his trial would've begun. And by the time he made St. Johnsbury he figured it would be over. There was no turning back now.
In December, 91 North is not a heavily traveled highway. There aren't many New Englanders who choose to travel north for the winter, especially on a Wednesday afternoon. The highway runs up between the bordering states of Vermont and New Hampshire, through the mountains and into Canada. St. Johnsbury is the last large town to generate any traffic on the highway and after that it thins out to a lonely, desolate stretch to the Canadian border. Bruce's radio was out of range of the blues channel by now and what few sounds he heard were no longer worth the price he paid in static. He tried hunting around for another station but all he could find was what he called "garbage-head music". He'd been getting tired of listening anyway so he clicked the radio off. He passed a sign that said 35 miles to the Canadian border and was starting to worry that he might have trouble getting into the country. He'd been driving all day and had slept last night in the van. His clothes were messy and his hair was straggly and the van smelled like pot. He decided he'd better do something about his appearance before he met the border guards so he pulled off the highway into a rest area.
He parked the van in front of the brown service building and walked inside to use the restroom. There was a small lobby in the center of the building with a map on the wall of the state forests and points of interests for tourists. Bruce walked by the map and pushed open the heavy door to the men's room. He let out a sigh as he baptized the urinal and then zipping up his fly he swaggered over to the sink and commenced splashing cold water on his face. This was the closest thing to a shower he could find, so he made the best of it. Taking off his shirt and hanging it on the stall, he squeezed what little soap he could from the container above the sink and washed his face and neck, rubbing the remainder of the suds under his armpits. Then he twisted the faucet for more cold water and cupping his hands, splashed himself to rinse. He reached for the paper towels, but the rack was empty so he took his shirt from the stall and dried himself with that. As he was assessing himself in the mirror and combing his hair and beard with his fingers the door opened and another man walked in. The man was in his mid-forties and dressed in a conservative blue suit. The two men nodded to each other in passing and Bruce felt like a vagrant. He put his shirt back on without buttoning it and headed back out to the van. He opened the side door and fished through his suitcase for a fresh shirt. After he changed, he took his tools and jewelry and slid them with the suitcase through a wooden door with metal latches beneath the bed in back of the van. Then he pulled the rug that covered the bed down over the wooden door so it wasn't noticeable. He was afraid that if they found his tools and jewelry they wouldn't let him into the country. They often turned people away if they suspected them of working in Canada or selling goods.
It would be a far greater problem if they found his marijuana. In that case he wouldn't just be turned away from the border, he would be arrested! They would most likely contact the authorities on the American side and send him back to Garrett City to face the existing charges against him along with the new charge of bringing illegal drugs into a foreign country. Bruce shuddered at the thought, but apparently he was not scared enough to part with his last ounce of pot. He took the plastic bag from the compartment behind his seat and stuffed it into the purple velvet bag with his pipe. Then he popped the hood in the front of the van and forced the velvet bag into the crack where the metal folded over next to the hood latch. He shook the hood several times to make sure it wouldn't fall out and then closed it with a slam. Then he took a brush from the back of the van and brushed all the rugs out, getting rid of all the seeds and stems he might have dropped. There were plenty but by the time he was done, the van looked neat and clean. He unrolled all the windows to lose the smoky smell. Combing his hair again with his fingers, he took one last look around the van, and drove off for the border.
When he reached the border, there were large signs printed in English and French greeting him with a big "Bienvenue" to Canada. There were two cars in line in front of him. The first car was a station wagon and the official at the inspection station made them pull over under a large canopy. A lady dressed in a blue uniform made them take out their suitcases so she could paw through their clothing. Then the car directly in front of Bruce was told to pull under the canopy also. Both cars and occupants appeared far more conservative than Bruce in his beat up old van. He was thinking to himself that he'd never make it through without being pulled over but the inspector simply asked him what his name was, where he was from, and what he planned to do in Canada. Bruce gave him the information, saying that he planned to see an old friend in Sherbrooke (it was the only city he could think of) and that he only planned to stay a couple of days. The inspector looked skeptical as he spied in the window at the back of the van and then he said, "Okay, enjoy your stay in Canada." Bruce contained his excitement as he drove past the canopy where the other cars were being inspected. When he'd driven about a quarter mile into Canada he stuck his head out the window and screamed "YEEEE....HAAA.....YIP YIP YIP HOORAY..."
All the signs on the highway now were in French. 91 North had changed its name to 55 Nord (Cinquante-cinq Nord) and the speed limit was now 100 kilometers per hour. Bruce had no idea how fast that was so he continued to drive at 60. Soon he'd passed Sherbrooke and he stayed on 55 Nord until he came to Drummondville. At Drummondville 55 Nord was intersected by another highway, Route 20. Bruce looked up at the exit signs. One sign said "est" to Quebec City and the other said "oest" to Montreal. Up until now, Bruce hadn't thought much about where he wanted to go, he only knew where he didn't want to go. He didn't want to go to jail! That meant that he couldn't go back to America. Thinking that Montreal was closer to the states, he decided to take the eastern route and headed toward the city of Quebec. Bruce had never been there before but he knew it was a large city and all the better to get lost in. Before he reached the city he stopped at a truckstop diner off Route 20 for dinner. It was only four in the afternoon, but Bruce was tired from traveling all day. He thought a good meal and coffee would make the rest of his trip more pleasant. After all, he was in no hurry now. He was finally starting to relax. When he sat down at the counter, he was surprised to be greeted by the waitress with "Bonjour, monsieur." Bruce smiled back and said "Ah... yeah... uh, bone-jer." The waitress giggled and handed him a menu. Looking at him inquisitively she asked "Cafe'?" Bruce replied, "Yes... I mean, oui, cafe' s'il vous plait?" Bruce had one year of French in high school and this was the first time he'd tried speaking in a real life situation. As the waitress poured the coffee, he was thrilled to see that it really worked. After all, she must have understood what he said, or she wouldn't have poured the coffee, right? When she finished pouring, he said "Merci" and she replied "De rein" and walked away with the coffee pot to the booth behind him. There were two truckers sitting there talking loudly in French to each other. Bruce couldn't understand a word they said and he realized he'd better take a crash course in French real soon if he was planning to stay around these parts. He was looking perplexed as he stared at the French menu when the waitress said "Would you like a menu in English, sir?" Bruce surrendered the menu. "Oui, s'il vous plait." The two Frenchmen in the booth behind him burst into laughter and Bruce thought for sure they must be laughing at him but as they continued their conversation he realized they probably were not.Bruce ordered his dinner in English. He had a large bowl of French onion soup and a turkey sandwich with French fries. Behind the counter there was a transistor radio next to the cash register and the sound of French music filled the room from the tiny speaker. He enjoyed his meal and he enjoyed the music, though he didn't understand the lyrics. When he finished eating, he paid the bill, asking the waitress "Do you mind American money?" The waitress smiled brightly at him, "No problem, monsieur." Taking the bills from him, she rang it up on the register and went to hand back his change which only amounted to seventy five cents. Bruce indicated with his hand for her to keep it, saying suavely "Merci beaucoup." The waitress dropped the change in the glass by the cash register and sang "Au revoir, monsieur."
Before Bruce got back into the van, he popped the hood and eeked out the purple velvet bag with his fingers from the metal casing. Closing the hood, he got back into the van and filled the pipe. Now he was feeling fine. He enjoyed an after dinner smoke then stuffed the bag into the little compartment behind his seat. He started the engine and drove out of the parking lot following the cloverleaf back onto 20 Est. He was quite high by the time he reached the outskirts of Quebec City and the lovely orange sunset was reflected in the waterfall of the Riviere Chaudiere as he passed over the huge steel bridge leading into the city.
Shortly he was engulfed in the rush hour traffic of the city as the bridge emptied into a web of highways with all their exit signs printed in French. He let the flow of traffic sweep him along until he decided to take a chance on one of the exits. It was one of the more popular choices, so Bruce decided to see where everyone was going. The big green sign over the exit was printed with white letters "Boulevard Laurier." Once onto Boulevard Laurier Bruce was greeted by a miracle mile of motels and fast food restaurants. Had their signs not been in French, he would've sworn he was back in the states. He was disappointed. He had heard Quebec was such a beautiful, old city and yet the buildings here were so modern and typical. He drove on farther, passing a residential section as Boulevard Laurier fed into another street called "Grande Allee". On Grande Allee his disappointment turned to enchantment. He passed a sweeping spacious park on his right called "Plain d'Abraham" and rows of lovely old buildings on his left. The antique architectural designs of these buildings had been restored to their authentic condition, many of them serving as restaurants and hotels. Most of them had outdoor terraces that were neatly fenced in and covered with colorful canopies. There was no one enjoying the terraces this time of year though. The wooden tables and chairs and the umbrellas had been moved inside for the winter.
Bruce was so infatuated with the charm of the old buildings that he had to slam on his brakes to keep from hitting the car in front of him. Grande Allee led him through a large stone archway and Bruce found himself within the walls of old Quebec City. Here the street changed its name to "Rue St. Louis". Bruce felt as if he'd just driven into eighteenth century Paris. He rounded the curve at the end of Rue St. Louis and passed by a number of horse and buggies and the street wound around a small park. In the center of the park was a large statue growing out of a fountain.
The day turned much colder than Bruce had anticipated and there were few people on the sidewalks. Those that were hustled on their way as they pulled their coats tighter. Bruce tried to find a parking spot so that he could get out and look around but this was easier said than done. There was no parking spots left on Rue St. Louis so he drove down the hill onto another street called "Rue St. Jean". All the spots there were taken also so he took a side street off of Rue St. Jean and finally found a spot. He locked the van up good and decided to take a walk around the city. He hadn't walked more than a couple of blocks before he realized that it was too cold and his jacket was too thin for sightseeing so he ducked into a small cafe with a wooden sign hanging in front that read "Chez Temporal".
Over the next several days, the weather in Quebec City turned biting cold. Bruce wasn't sure if this was considered normal for December or if he had just been lucky. One thing he was sure of is that his orange hunting jacket was no longer doing the job. Often the buildings acted as a buffer from the cold northern winds, but when he found himself between buildings or crossing a street the winds would force him back like a slow motion film and the icy coldness would chill him to the bone. Bruce had never known it to be this cold in December down in the states. The cold here seemed drier and more sure of itself. Though he had spent many a harsh winter in New England, Bruce began to suspect he hadn't seen anything yet.His fears about the cold weather were compounded by the fact that he had very little money left. The last time he checked his wallet he had only eighty seven dollars. On the advice of the waitress at the Chez Temporal he stopped into a bank to have his U.S. currency changed to Canadian and was pleased to find the exchange was in his favor. He now had $108. This cheered him up considerably as he contemplated his good fortune until his thoughts drifted back to the little diner he had eaten in before he reached the city and how cheerfully the waitress there had accepted his American money. He shrugged it off though and decided he was still fortunate to have what money he had, and after all, he was still free.
He spent the days exploring the city. He would walk a block or two until he could stand the cold no longer and then duck into a store to keep warm. He would pretend to browse through the racks of clothing and footwear until he was ready again to face the cold. Some of the clerks would address him in French, asking him if he needed help, and he would reply, "Pardonnez-moi, je ne parle pas francais." The clerks would almost always laugh good naturedly and switch to English to continue their business.
Although most of the people in Quebec spoke at least some English as a second language, it was clear that the preferred choice was French. Since to a large extent their livelihood depended on tourism, they considered English to be the language of business. When it came to culture, the arts, and affairs of the heart, French dominated. Bruce welcomed the new language with open arms. This was just what he needed. Perhaps his old "alphabet of reality" was just plain worn out from overuse and needed to be replaced with a new set of symbols. In the short time he'd been there he had already begun to appreciate what a beautiful language French was. The rich flow of the words and the wide range of expression had a musical effect that reached into Bruce's emotions sparking his artistic nature. It was no surprise to him that the French people had turned out such an impressive history of fine artists. Everything about them was art! Their everyday existence seemed to be infused with a heightened awareness of sensuality which was evident above all else in the spoken word. Here was a language that not only could be harsh and guttural but was also unafraid to be soft and delicate.
Bruce fell in love with the French language and plunged into the learning process with fervor. Though he was a novice by even the kindest of standards, he was none the less determined to absorb all he could. His classroom would be the Chez Temporal. This comfortable little cafe with hardwood floors and stucco walls had become the center of his cultural expansion. It was furnished with wooden tables and chairs and a bench along one wall. There was also a staircase leading to a second dining room upstairs. The front window was designed in neat little frames of hardwood with copper latches so that they might be opened in the summer.
Bruce liked to sit at the table near the window because he could see the people walking by and he could also keep an eye on his van which was parked down the street. Every morning Bruce would sit there and browse through the local French paper, Le Soleil, scanning it for words and phrases that he might comprehend. His vocabulary was growing and he would often pretend to be reading while he eavesdropped on the conversations of the other patrons. He rarely understood what they were saying, but he picked up a line here and there. The kind of French they were speaking was called Quebecois and differed from the Parisian French the way the common street English of America differed from the Queen's English. The colloquialism and slang of this language had a warm, down home feel to it that was peculiar to the province of Quebec. Bruce recalled having heard a similar kind of French being spoken down around New Orleans and would later find out that the history of the two groups had been entwined. Lately the French-speaking people of Quebec had been involved in a somewhat bitter struggle against their English neighbors to preserve their French language and cultural heritage. Bruce was so impressed with the culture of his new found home that he quickly sided with the French. He only hoped that they would accept him.
The thing he liked most about this cafe was that he could order a cup of coffee and sit there as long as he liked without being rushed out the door by the management. It was their style to start the day slowly here. There was a respect for mood. A person could stare out the window in silence for long periods of time without being made to feel peculiar or antisocial. The waitress was very friendly and since she was also an artist she understood his "temporary poverty". She might offer him another cup but never in such a way as to hurry him. He was thankful because it gave him an environment to collect his thoughts and assimilate all the changes he had gone through in recent weeks. More than that he was thankful because it gave him a warm place to be.
If he were not sitting in the cafe he would have to be either walking the streets or hanging around in the van. His van was comfortable but it could be quite cold. Though he sometimes ran the engine until the heater filled the van with warm air, he was now down to less than half a tank of gas and was trying to save it for especially cold nights. Most nights he would sleep with all his clothes on, including his jacket, and wrap up tight in the sleeping bag. Even still, he would wake up mornings shivering and his bones would be stiff and aching. It was bearable though, and Bruce had lived like this before. But with each passing day, his money dwindled further and the nights got colder. This was beginning to worry him. He hadn't enough for a rent and he doubted he'd be able to find a job since he wasn't a Canadian citizen.
It was only a few days before Christmas and all the small shops around the city had elaborate displays in their windows, some with creche scenes and others with Santa and his elves in their North Pole workshop. Almost all of these windows would have the words "Joyeux Noel" printed in snowy letters. Quebec was a very religious city and during this season the church bells could be heard everywhere. Here Christmas could be a time of joyous celebration but it also contained an undercurrent of more solemn religious meditation. The snow started falling on the twentieth and continued intermittently until by the twenty fourth the old northern city was blanketed in a thick white coat dressed for the occasion.
The moisture from Bruce's breath had frozen in little icicles on his mustache and beard as he trudged his way down Rue St. Jean. His toes felt numb from the cold so he stopped into a shop to warm them. It was a second-hand store selling used clothing and small articles of furniture. As Bruce glanced around, a rack full of old coats caught his eye. He made his way down the rack, appraising each garment with mild interest until he came to a long brown wool overcoat with an even darker brown fur collar. The coat was in very good shape and was made of heavy material, so it was quite warm even if the style was old fashioned. It had a synthetic lining that felt silky smooth as Bruce tried it on, and it fit him well. The best part about it was the price tag, fifteen dollars. Bruce looked in his wallet, counting forty-eight dollars and decided to treat himself to a Christmas present. Before he left the store, he found a brown knitted ski cap to match for two dollars and a pair of tan workboots for six. When Bruce emerged from the shop he was a transformed man. He carried his old jacket and shoes and straw hat in a brown paper bag under his arm, he had twenty-five dollars left in his wallet, and he was decked out in his new duds with a big Christmas smile.
How much more enjoyable Quebec would be now that Bruce no longer had to hurry down the street to avoid the freezing weather. No longer would he rush past people like a fireman late for a blaze! It seemed like a different city. Now Bruce could take his time and stroll down Rue St. Jean, nodding to passersby under his warm brown cap. It was a real luxury to stop into stores only when he was curious, and not barge in like a refugee from the elements. The boots felt a little stiff but he was sure they would break in. The coat felt wonderfully warm and he thought to himself that it really didn't look bad at all. In fact, it was quite handsome in a Bohemian sort of way. Several times he stopped to admire his reflection in the windows of the shops along Rue St. Jean, pretending to be looking at the merchandise. "Not bad! Not bad 't'all!" he whispered to himself. "Or should I say, Pas mal, pas mal de tout!" Bruce was creating a language of his own, half Quebecois and half American slang. It had raised many an eyebrow among the natives he had attempted to communicate with. All of his artistic creativity these days was focused on the new language he was learning. In his hands language had become a truly dangerous adventure. Many of the local inhabitants enjoyed a good laugh at his expense while others regarded him as if he stepped off another planet and were truly appalled at the bastardization of both languages he professed to embrace.
It was a lovely afternoon and he felt rich in his new clothes. For the first time this winter there was a spring in his step and what before had been a stiff, brisk walking manner became a carefree, swaggering strut. His new found warmth allowed him the time to relax as he walked and afforded him a closer look into the faces of the people who passed him along Rue St. Jean. He greeted them liberally, applying a "Bone-jer" here and a "Comment ca va" there. Anyone watching him would've sworn he was running for office, but that's the way Bruce was. When he was in a good mood, he had to let the whole world know. And why shouldn't he be in a good mood? Soon it would be Christmas Eve and he was a free man in a wonderful new land! What's more, much of the radiant energy he spread along the sidewalks of Rue St. Jean was being mirrored back at him in the smiles and greetings of the people in this quaint old city. He thought the people here were truly special and the whole city in fact seemed to radiate with the warmth and joy of Christmas.
Rounding the corner from Rue St. Jean and making his way to the Chez Temporal, Bruce suddenly stopped short when his eyes focused on the slip of yellow paper dangling from the door handle of his van. "OH, SHIT!" This time he didn't bother to translate into French. "OH, SHIT!" was "OH, SHIT!" in any language. He ran over to the van and plucking the ticket from the door handle, began to read it. Though it was written in French and he could only pick out the main words, it was obvious it was a parking ticket and at the bottom in a language that was all too clear, it read "$15.00". "FIFTEEN BUCKS! SHIT!"
Bruce sat in the front seat of his van for almost a half hour cursing and grumbling to himself. At first he vowed he would tear the ticket up and not pay it, but then the grim reality set in. Of course he would have to pay it. If he didn't pay it, the police might trace his license plate back to Ashton and send the bill there with a court summons. This would surely give away his whereabouts and was a chance he did not want to take.
Inquiring at the Chez Temporal he was told he must go to the courthouse at "Basse Ville" in order to pay it and that he'd better hurry, because the window would close at five. Basse Ville was located in the newer section of Quebec City at the bottom of the steep hill where the old city stood. The waitress at the cafe, Silvi, had by now become friends with Bruce. She felt sorry for him because of the ticket so she showed him a spot in the courtyard next to the cafe where he could park his van for the next few days with no problems. Bruce thanked her and relocated his van. Rather than use what precious gas he had left, he decided to walk down to Basse Ville to pay the ticket.
The staircase zigzagged down a high embankment, affording a view across the rooftops of Basse Ville as Bruce descended. In the distance he could see the St. Lawrence River on which Quebec City was situated. It was a much larger city than he first realized. Living in the old part of the city on top of the hill had made him think of Quebec as if it were a funky little village. Now he could see that the newer part of the city stretched out for miles and had much the same appearance as other northern cities he knew.
The large stone wall around the old city which had at one time served to protect the village from the siege of battle had in this century taken on a new purpose. The wall had now become the demarcation line between the old and the new. Inside the walls lie a beautiful old city with all the culture, tradition, and dignity that only a very old city can offer the world. Outside the walls lie the encampment of the modern technological society with the advantages and conveniences that the new age would inevitably bring. It's not that the difference was night and day, for already much of the new world had scaled the walls and even on the outside there were traces of the old ways, but it was quite obvious to Bruce that indeed he was witnessing the last stand of a very old and noble culture. In the few short weeks Bruce had been here, he already identified strongly with this struggle and in a strange way he also felt a part of the old world. Perhaps here was a place where he could make a stand also and unlike Ashton maybe here he wouldn't have to stand alone. Though he was a newcomer and the language was strange to him, inside he felt he was one of them and possibly he had come home at last. After descending what seemed like an endless number of stairs, Bruce made his way through several city blocks of Basse Ville, past the bus station and the newly built library and somehow managed to find the courthouse. He slid the ticket with his fifteen dollars through the space under the large window and the lady at the counter stamped the ticket and handed him his receipt. He took the receipt and placed it in his wallet next to his last ten dollars and more out of habitual training than gratitude, he murmured "merci". He found his way back to the stairs and started the long climb back to the old city, stopping a few times to lean on the railing and catch his breath. Each time he stopped, he gazed out across the new city, vowing that someday when it was warmer, he would explore it more fully. He also noticed that far off in the distance the city was surrounded by mountains. This was more than Bruce could have hoped for. He could hardly wait for spring.
When he got back to the Chez Temporal, there were two couples seated at the far end of the room. They were celebrating the holiday season and they joked with each other boisterously going through more than a couple carafes of red wine. Several times they raised their glasses exclaiming "Sonte'! Sonte'!" Then they would clink their glasses together and dash their wine down between smiles. Bruce had taken his seat by the window and was about to order his usual "cafe avec creme, s'il vous plait" when Silvi scolded him, "Cafe? No, no, no! This is Christmas. You must have some wine with us!" Soon he was sitting at the table with Silvi and the other two couples who turned out to be her brothers and their wives. Silvi closed the cafe, locking the front door and turning the lights off near the front window, and the six of them sat in the back of the cafe drinking wine and celebrating. By eight o'clock in the evening they had drunk considerably and they all insisted that since Bruce had no family in Quebec he should come and spend Christmas with them. He declined politely, but his excuses were feeble and they would not take no for an answer. So they all put on their coats and hats and went out through the rear exit of the cafe. Walking down through the alley, they were laughing and clowning around as they picked their way through the narrow streets past the old buildings.
Silvi's oldest brother, Yves, had a dark brown mustache with laughing eyes and a jutting chin. He seemed to Bruce to fit the stereotype of a French Canadian lumberjack. He had a deep baritone voice that he was using to chant the lyrics of an old French song. His wife, Suzanne, was a petite girl with long, straight brown hair and a chubby round face. She had big, round sincere eyes and when she smiled, her whole face smiled. Suzanne was trying to harmonize with her husband, but her thin shy voice was no match for Yves'. Silvi's other brother, Stefan, and his wife, Elise, decided to help Suzanne harmonize and soon even Silvi was singing. Bruce hummed along and staggered through the tune with them, mimicking the words and having no idea what they meant. By now he had so much wine in him that the words didn't matter. All he knew was that he felt part of something wonderful as their voices echoed through the streets of the old city and they pranced arm in arm to the house of Silvi's parents for Christmas Eve.
Before they got to the house, Stefan, who had been lagging behind the rest of them, tossed a snowball at Yves, hitting him in the back. Elise laughed at Yves and he rewarded her instantaneously with a snowball of her own that caught her in the shoulder. All six of them commenced to embroiling themselves in a snowball fight which culminated with them all laughing and giggling in the hallway of their parent's apartment as they brushed the snow from their coats and hair. Their parents opened the door to the commotion and were greeted with shouts of "JOYEUX NOEL!" and they all piled into the apartment.
Silvi's folks welcomed Bruce into their home smiling warmly and pantomiming everything, for they spoke no English. When Bruce tried to speak French to them, they looked at Silvi with perplexed countenances. Silvi's mom took Bruce's coat and hat and hung it in the hall. Then she set another plate at the dining room table. They were planning to have a late dinner. Suddenly there were children everywhere. Bruce counted six as they streamed down from the apartments upstairs. There were three large apartments in the building. Yves and Suzanne and their three children lived in the apartment directly above them. Stefan and Elise lived in the apartment next door with their two children. The sixth child was a friend who lived across the street. Silvi's parents, Jean-Louis and Marie, introduced Bruce to the children one at a time. All the names sounded strange and foreign to Bruce and when they were through with the introductions he couldn't remember any of them. They all sat down to dinner and Jean-Louis said grace in French as they stared solemnly down at their empty plates. Then they made the sign of the cross and tore into the platters of food.
The little children stared at Bruce in wonder when he spoke English and giggled uncontrollably when he attempted to speak French. Bruce thought that in his whole life he had never felt so socially vulnerable. It was like being a child again. Everyone in the room knew how to speak and express themselves except him. Each attempt to speak on his part would either bring ripples of laughter or exclamations of praise. Though it was quite frustrating, he was obviously enjoying the attention and had even begun hamming it up a bit.
After dinner the children played in the living room near the brightly decorated Christmas tree while the adults sat at the table drinking more wine. Then when it was quite late, the children were chased off to bed. Yves and Suzanne, and Stefan and Elise went to their apartments returning with their arms full of gifts to place beneath the tree so they'd be there when the children awoke. Marie put clean sheets on the bed in the spare bedroom at the end of the hall and insisted that Bruce spend the night.
In the morning everyone opened their presents around the big tree in the living room. The children spent the day playing with their toys while the adults hung around the dining room and kitchen making conversation and eating leftovers from the big dinner the night before. As the day wore on, the wine bottles appeared on the dining room table for a repeat performance of the night before. Again the children played while the adults stayed up late into the night drinking and talking. Then just as the night before, Marie insisted Bruce stay in the spare room. Bruce felt surely he must be wearing out his welcome, but Silvi's family would hear none of it, hushing him up when he made excuses or fabricated reasons for departure. So he stayed another night.
When Silvi's mom learned that Bruce was living in his van she protested strongly in French, saying that it was much too cold for him to sleep there and that he would get sick. She said the coldest months of winter were coming and no one should sleep out in the cold like that. Marie insisted that Bruce stay with them during the coldest months of winter until it was warm enough to live in his van again. Bruce had not expected such hospitality from people who hardly knew him at all. Since he had no money to pay them, his pride would not let him accept the offer. He refused politely, saying he had other plans. Marie shook her finger at Bruce, scolding him in French, and told Silvi that if he changed his mind, the room would be there for him.
For the next three nights, Bruce slept in the van parked behind the cafe and each night the weather got colder. He had to start the engine several times to warm the van until his gas was next to empty and he had spent all but two dollars of his money buying bread and cheese. Finally, on the fourth night, Bruce showed up at the front door of Silvi's home. Jean-Louis showed Bruce where to park his van and Marie looked truly pleased as she set another place at the table for dinner.
So now Bruce had a temporary home. Though his pride was tarnished he was relieved to get out of the cold. What's more, he had been lucky enough to move in with a wonderful French family and would therefore have an opportunity to learn the language better. He only wished he had money to contribute, or some way to show his gratitude. The next day he moved his clothes in, washing and drying them in the machines in the basement. He also moved his tools and materials into the spare bedroom, setting up a little workshop on the desk in the corner. He thought he might make some jewelry or maybe carve some knickknacks and try to sell them at the gift shops around the city.
By New Year's Eve, Bruce felt like part of the family. Again the wine appeared on the dining room table and the family celebrated the last big night of the holiday season. Bruce had won the hearts of all the children by making little stick men for them, and showing them how to bounce them on their knees to make them dance. Silvi's brother Stefan brought his guitar from his apartment over to the dining room and was serenading the family with Quebecois folk songs. Everyone seemed to know the lyrics as they sang along in solidarity.
At one point, when Bruce had quite a bit of wine, he slouched back in his chair. Closing his eyes and listening to the voices sing, his thoughts drifted back to Ashton and the old farm. He thought of Thanksgiving and how the Brenton County Folk Society had sung together late into the evening at Larry's party. He wondered how Larry and Marsha were doing and he thought about the Cruthers family, but mostly he thought about Julie. With all the alcohol he had consumed he was feeling emotional. His eyes began to fill with tears, but before they could fall Yves pointed to the clock and proclaimed in a booming, baritone voice "C'EST JOUR DE L'AN!" Everyone in the family hugged and kissed. Silvi clinked her wine glass against Bruce's and gave him a New Year's kiss that lasted much longer than he expected and then smiled at him seductively and sloshed down the rest of her wine. Bruce drank his wine and raised his glass high, proclaiming "C'EST LA VIE!" They all laughed and clinked their glasses saying "Oui, c'est la vie! C'est la vie!"
Chapter ThirteenThe next few months of winter were brutally cold and though it didn't snow as much as usual, the snow they did have froze solid to the rooftops and in long icicles against the sides of the old buildings. Though the city looked lovely, like a fancy wedding cake, the inhabitants didn't stop in the streets long to admire the spectacle. The wind that blew through the city streets would send such a quick chill to their bones that they would find themselves hurrying to the stores for necessities and then hurrying home again. They didn't stop to talk in the streets either. What would have turned into a pleasant interchange under better conditions, gave way to a quick wink and a nod or a frozen smile. This was an expected form of behavior this far north in the winter and most of the people took advantage of this mood for inner reflection.
This social hibernation seemed to be exceptionally hard on Bruce though. During the holidays he had found numerous occasions to sneak out to his van and smoke his pipe, but by the time the holidays were gone, so was his stash. The first weeks of January were very nervous weeks indeed for Bruce. He hadn't realized how dependent he'd become on smoking to relax his nerves. Now he found himself tense and irritable. What made this harder was that the people around him had been so generous. He felt like a total heel if he wasn't friendly in return. Now the children got on his nerves and he was finding it difficult to be nice. He did manage to smile his way through it though and as the weeks passed the tension decreased. Bruce spent most of his time during the days sitting at the little desk in his room making jewelry and he spent his evenings with the family in the living room sitting around the television. Occasionally he would make the trek down to the Chez Temporal to have a coffee when Silvi was working.
Through the whole winter there was not much excitement, except for two weeks in February when the city celebrated its winter festival. It was the one time during the winter when the people were bound and determined to have a good time even if it was freezing. They chiseled ice sculptures all over the old city, each hoping to win a prize, and the people partied in the bars and cafes till the early hours of the morning. Once they had drunk sufficient antifreeze, they would stumble to their homes in little groups, hooting and hollering through the streets. They partied hard for two weeks in defiance of the cold. Then the festival was over, and the hibernation set in again.
Bruce was back at his desk making jewelry, and back to sitting in the living room watching tv in the evenings. By late February, he had accumulated quite a few sets of earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings, and all during March he made the rounds to the gift shops to sell them. He did much better than he had anticipated and several shops had agreed to carry his jewelry. Still most of them took his merchandise on consignment and it wasn't until April that he made any significant profit. He made approximately three hundred dollars though and the first thing he did was to give two hundred of it to Marie and Jean-Louis in an attempt to repay them for room and board. With the other hundred he spent half on new supplies of silver wire and colored stones and with the other half he invited Silvi out to dinner and the theater. They had been flirting with each other for a couple of months now and Bruce had finally gotten up the courage to make a move. They had a wonderful time on the date and when they came home the rest of the family had gone to sleep so they tip-toed into Bruce's bedroom and spent the night together. Early the next morning, before the family awoke, Silvi tip-toed back to her own room.
The month of May brought with it some sunny days but winter was in no way defeated. If you were going to say there was such a thing as spring in Quebec City though, the occurrence would have to be pinned down in late May. April was far too cold and June just didn't sound right. By now Bruce's jewelry had brought him enough money to square his debt with Jean-Louis and Marie. He was welcome to stay with them indefinitely but with the warm weather he decided to move back into his van. He had enough money for gas now and spent some time exploring the countryside around the city. The mountains in this province were no disappointment. They seemed higher and more chiseled and the trees in the forests were thicker and more sturdy than the ones he was used to. He supposed they had to be to withstand the harsher winters. Much to his delight he found many antlers and numerous pieces of interesting wood for carving. Bruce was back in business. He was not making a lot of money but he was making enough to survive and what was even better than that, he was in love.
He wasn't just a little in love. This time he was in love big time. As the warm days of June set the stage for summer, Bruce's heart was full of joy. He spent a lot of his time now at the cafe, sipping coffee and reading Le Soleil and making eyes at Silvi. Luckily for Bruce his feelings were reciprocated. Silvi seemed to be just as taken with him. They were spending almost all of their time together now and the relationship was blooming. This relationship seemed to hold the promise of good things to come. Not only were they close friends and lovers, but they also had a great deal in common.
For the first time in Bruce's life he was in love with another artist. Silvi had studied art at the Laval University and though she worked in the cafe in the evenings, during the day she planned to pursue a career as a portraitiste. She had rented a space in the artists' alley on Rue St. Anne for the summer. All day long she would sit beneath her umbrella with her pastels drawing portraits. Most of the time she drew these portraits from photographs or pictures in magazines for practice while she waited for business from the tourists. There were eight or ten other portraitistes on the promenade that were much better than Silvi as she was still learning her craft, but occasionally she did get customers since she charged a little less than the others. This was accepted practice by the portraitistes and they naturally expected that as you got better, you charged more. There was also a healthy exchange of artistic ideas and approaches to drawing. With each new portrait Silvi got better and better. She was really quite talented. She also had her own cheering section, for Bruce had set up a table of jewelry right next to where she was working and the two of them shared mutual strokes of encouragement. On particularly lucky days, one of the tourists might buy a pair of earrings from Bruce and have her portrait done by Silvi. On slow days, Bruce would sit on the chair under the umbrella while Silvi drew his portrait. By July she had done a number of good portraits of him and even left one on display on the back of her easel to demonstrate her proficiency. Many of her potential customers would remark about how well it was done and business was slowly getting better.
Though all of the artists along the promenade on Rue St. Ann took their business seriously, there was also a light, pleasant air of camaraderie and merry-making. There were three or four caracaturists who often drew large crowds of laughing spectators and the alley was frequented by folk singers chanting their Quebecois and American folk songs. This was also a favorite spot for clowns and jugglers. Often at the end of the day, when the buildings cast shadows over the alley and there was no longer enough light to draw by, Bruce and Silvi would go for a stroll on the boardwalk by the Chateau Frontenac overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Sometimes they would bring a blanket with them and walk out onto the Plains of Abraham. There were numerous spots near the banks of the river that were sheltered from view by trees and bushes. Often they would wrap themselves in the large blanket and make love there in the cool air of the early evening.
On some days a rain cloud might blow over the city and Bruce would fold his table and Silvi would collapse her umbrella and they would make a mad dash for the van to wait out the storm. On days when it rained all day they would go back to Silvi's house. They never seemed to tire of each other's company. In the evenings Bruce would kiss her goodnight at the front door of the apartment and scuffle down the street to sleep in his van. In the mornings he would knock on the door again and they would let him in so that he could use the shower and have breakfast before they went to work. It was a peculiar sort of arrangement and many times Silvi tried to convince him to stay in the house with her but Bruce would always decline. It wasn't that he didn't want to sleep with her, Lord knows they'd consecrated almost every sidestreet in Quebec, but Bruce declined out of respect for Jean-Louis and Marie. There was also no place in the world where Bruce felt more at home at night than in the back of his van.
To be in love is a magical feeling, and in old Quebec the month of July is a magical month. For two weeks every July Quebec City celebrates its summer festival (Festival D'Ete) and the streets are packed with local craftsmen, artists, musicians, clowns, jugglers, mimes and performers of every race, creed and nationality imaginable. The tourists and local populace are treated to an array of spectacles and shows available nowhere else on the east coast. In one park you might be treated to the rhythmic palpitations of a genuine African drum band while on the other side of the city the people are dancing and jiving beneath a tent to the infectious sound of Jamaican reggae. In the Pigeonier (a park named after the pigeon cages that adorn one corner) there are continual concerts everyday of some of the top jazz, folk, blues, classical and pop artists of our time and they are all free. In front of the city hall, there are similar shows as well as theatrical productions, comedy routines, children's shows, etc. Street musicians roam the streets in small bands, duos, and solo acts. At nighttime Rue St. Jean is closed to all traffic and becomes a promenade and a showcase for street theater. There are bands performing every night on the ferries on the St. Lawrence as well as a stage set up by the docks for yet more concerts. This is not to mention the nightclubs and theaters in town which all boast top notch performers. Bruce never suspected to be part of something so grand and now he found himself submerged in the midst of it and feeling very much at home. Yes, to be in love is magical, and Bruce was beginning to understand why they call old Quebec the City of Love.
Nowhere else on the American continent will you find a city like Quebec. It really feels more European than American, especially because of the many cafes and outdoor terraces. Quebec is truly an international city attracting people from all over the world. On the North American continent it has a reputation for being the center for the study of the French language. LaValle University has a linguistics department that is known the world over for its excellence, attracting many students from Africa and South America and Europe. This melting pot atmosphere not only creates an exciting and interesting cultural exchange, but also makes for some of the best dining choices anywhere. There are restaurants boasting fine French cuisine of course, but there are also superb Greek, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, German, and Indian restaurants in the city. Most of the food and cooking techniques are authentic and true to their heritage. In Quebec they take the culinary arts seriously. Dining is a special occasion for most of the people there. In the evenings it is standard fare to see hundreds of couples dressed neatly in the latest fashions strolling along Grande Allee or the Rue St. Jean to and from the restaurants and cafes of their choice.These people make for an interesting mix with the local street crowd of the youth culture hanging out in front of the discos and rock clubs that dot the streets. Add to this the bikers and rockers and aging hippies and you have quite an interesting crowd.
And the women of Quebec, never before in Bruce's life had he seen so many lovely, fascinating and interesting women in one place. In the evening beautiful women of every nationality would strut along the promenades in elegant fashions and styles of clothing too numerous to mention. Many of the men who accompanied these women were no less elegant in their styles and manners and suave French and European accents. If you were a people watcher Quebec City would treat you to a never ending pride parade of diversity. Though Bruce admired the many beautiful women that fell within his view he did not lust after them. Lord knows he was more than satisfied with the lovely lady who held his arm in the evenings as they strolled to the restaurants and theaters. Silvi was an extremely attractive French lady with dark shining eyes and a sophisticated manner that made Bruce burst with pride as he walked beside her. She was the kind of woman that just naturally brought the best out in him. Bruce found himself squaring his shoulders and walking taller than he had before. He even treated himself to some new slacks and shirts and a handsome sports jacket that had a European cut to it. During the days of course, he still dressed in his jeans and workboots, but in the evenings he would spruce up, slipping on his tan continental loafers and his new clothes. He would saunter into the cafe in time for Silvi to get off work to walk her home. When they got there Silvi would change also and they would go out to dine or perhaps dance at one of the more swank discos around the city.
This lifestyle suited Bruce just fine. He was having the time of his life! They were both making a bit more money now in the street and as the summer months slipped away Bruce had managed to save a few hundred dollars. He planned to get himself an apartment in the fall after the tourist season subsided. Since much of his jewelry and carvings were selling moderately at various gift shops, he supposed he would be able to eek out a living through the cold winter months.
Sure enough the chilly winds of September signalled the end of the summer season and the steady flow of tourists trickled off. The city was by no means deserted but after the huge crowds during the summer months the change was significant. As the crowds dwindled and the breeze got colder the artists in the alley began to fold their umbrellas and break camp. It had been a good season and a prosperous one for most of them and now they were busily making plans for the winter. Some of them would study at the university, others would work in their indoor studios and galleries, while still others would travel. Even the street singers who had adorned the alley all summer were beginning to disappear. As the weather became too cold for their fingers, the music would end earlier each evening. By October the locals had pretty much recaptured their city from the tourists and the inhabitants were beginning to prepare for their winter hibernation.
It was early evening and Bruce had just changed clothes and was making his way down Rue St. Jean to the Chez Temporal to meet Silvi. Being a Friday night, the sidewalks were crowded with local youths and rockers hanging out in front of their favorite clubs. The police as usual were parked in their vans eyeing the crowds from a distance. The police of Quebec kept a continual surveillance of certain corners along the avenue that were reputed for drug trafficking. Other officers would walk the streets amongst the crowd keeping contact with their backup forces in the vans on their two-way radios. It was easy to spot the dealers in Quebec because they almost all wore punk haircuts and black leather biker jackets. This was a cat and mouse game they had played all summer and most of the cops knew who the dealers were and most of the dealers knew where the cops were. They had devised many devious ways of ditching the evidence before the police could make their arrests. Most of them would attract their customers on the street and if they struck a deal they would disappear into the alleys behind the bars to make the exchange. The cops were wise to this and would try to determine the exact time when a deal was going down in order to make a bust. There was some mescaline and cocaine being dealt on the street, but mainly they would be selling hashish. It would be cut up in gram size chunks and wrapped in tin foil, selling for fifteen dollars a gram.
Benoir was a punk rocker with a blond spiked haircut. He wore a black motorcycle jacket with the sleeves cut off so that both of his tatooed arms could be displayed for the admiration of his punk chic groupies. It also made him very easy to spot from the police van. This didn't bother Benoir though, he'd been busted before and he always managed to wind up back on the street. As Bruce was picking his way through the crowd of youths he walked directly in front of Benoir. "Shhhhhh...." Bruce looked at Benoir and said "Huh?" "Shhhhhh..." Benoir repeated. Bruce had no idea what was going on. Often he had heard it before in the street and had thought it was some game they played or that they might be mocking the people who passed by. He got a little perturbed at what he thought might be an insult and confronted Benoir. "Pardonnez moi?" Benoir signalled Bruce to come closer and cupping his hand, whispered in Bruce's ear, "Hashishhhhh...." Finally Bruce understood. "Wow, the kid's sellin' hash!" Bruce hadn't smoked anything since January and the unexpected thought of getting high rekindled an old desire. Why not? He had money in his pocket and he had time on his hands. He glanced around the crowd a bit, searching for blue uniforms and didn't see any, so he whispered to Benoir, "Oui, as tu hashish? Combien?" Benoir smiled an affirmative and said, "Quinze." Bruce thought fifteen dollars was pretty reasonable so he nodded to Benoir and Benoir motioned for Bruce to follow him into the alley. Bruce was a very lucky person. When his luck was good, it was real good, but when his luck was bad, it really sucked! No sooner had he stepped into the back alley with Benoir than the two policemen radioed the van for backup and moved into the alley for the bust. Bruce had just paid Benoir the fifteen dollars and stuffed the gram of hash in his pocket when he turned and saw the policemen. All Bruce could think of was his last bust. "Oh shit! Not again!" This time Bruce decided to make a run for it and he dashed between the two officers and headed down the alley for the street. One of the officers grabbed Benoir and the other chased after Bruce. Bruce made a pretty good run and had almost disappeared into the crowd but the cop was right on his heels and grabbed him by the back of his collar and spun him around, smashing Bruce's head against the rear fender of a car parked on the street. Bruce had a good sized gash over his eyebrow that dripped blood on his new sports jacket as they cuffed him and threw him in back of the van with Benoir. In a few short minutes all of Bruce's plans and dreams had been ruined.
When they got to the police station, they made him empty his pockets on a table, and they booked him for possession of hashish and resisting arrest. When they went through his wallet, for identification and found his license, they telephoned the state police in Brenton County and discovered the charges still held against him there. Since the charges in the states were more serious they decided to return him there for trial first. When they asked Bruce where he had been staying in Quebec, he told them where his van was parked and they drove him in a cruiser to retrieve it. He was allowed to say a quick goodbye to Silvi and her family and then an officer rode with him in his van while another followed in the cruiser. Silvi stood on the sidewalk with her parents wiping tears from her eyes as they drove off.
The police escorted Bruce back across 20 Oest (West) and down 55 Sud (South) to the American border. There he was turned over to the American authorities and the state police escorted him all the way back to Brenton County and he was incarcerated at the jail in Garrett City.
Chapter FourteenAshton Man Arrested On Drug Charge In Canada
QUEBEC CITY - Canadian authorities arrested Bruce Carson, of Ashton, on charges of drug po- session and resisting arrest last night. Police officials in Garrett City said there was an outstanding bench war- rant here for his ar- est for similar charges in connection with a case pending for posess- ion of marijuana with intent to distribute. The man was extra- dited to the United States and is being held without bail in Garrett City. Trial is scheduled November 2nd.Larry sat in the Ashton Diner sipping his coffee and reading the Tribune. Twice he read the article before he realized what he was reading and even then it took time to register. It had almost been a year since Bruce had disappeared and the name in the article slid right by Larry the first time as if he'd never seen it before. "GRUNT!" It popped out before he could stop it and the phone men at the table behind him looked at him strange. "Nice manners," one of them said, looking disgusted. Larry paid no attention to them, he was out of his chair and fishing a dime out of his pocket. He dropped it in the pay phone by the door and dialed a number.
"Marsha... it's Larry!"
"It better be good... for seven o'clock in the morning!"
"Don't worry, it's good, it's real good! Did you get the Tribune?" Marsha said it was probably at the front door and Larry told her to get it. "Okay, look at page 13."
"Oh my God!... Grunt's back! I gotta call Julie. Bye Larry!" She hung the phone up before Larry could protest and called Julie.
"Hello, Julie? It's Marsha."
"Hi Marsha, I already know. I read it in the Gazette."
"Oh, I read it in the Tribune. What's it say in the Gazette?"
"Same as the Tribune," Julie said, disgusted. "This time it was hash."
"Have you seen him?" Marsha asked.
"No, and I don't plan to." Julie sounded very cold, almost angry at Marsha for calling. The phone had been ringing all morning from well meaning informers.
"Okay... well, I just thought I'd call to let you know." Marsha sounded hurt so Julie softened.
"Thanks for calling, Marsha, I appreciate your concern." Julie hung up the phone and rolled over to go back to sleep.
"What's the matter, hon?" The phone call had woken Burt, too.
"It was Marsha, she called to let me know about Bruce."
Burt sighed and tried to go back to sleep. He dreaded the thought of Bruce finding out about him and Julie.
Larry dropped another dime in the phone and called Caroline Brockton. She agreed to meet him for breakfast before she went to the office. Over breakfast they decided to go down to the jail to see if they could talk to Bruce. The desk sergeant agreed to let them visit for awhile to discuss his case in a private room. Bruce was led into the room where Caroline and Larry were waiting. The officer stood at the door while Bruce sat at the table to talk with them. He was still wearing handcuffs and though his eye had been cleaned up and bandaged, there was still a large blood stain on his sports coat.Bruce was despondent. Larry explained that they only came to see him because they were concerned about his welfare. He also said it was good to see Bruce again and tried to be light hearted but Bruce was very depressed. Caroline told Bruce that she would still like to represent him as his attorney. Bruce thanked her for her kindness but said he planned to represent himself. He said he also planned to demand a jury trial. Caroline said it would be easier to arrange a jury trial if he was represented by an attorney. Bruce thought about this for awhile and then responded that all he really wanted was a chance to speak his mind about the charges against him. He did not plan to offer any evidence in his defense and therefore he didn't think he needed a defense attorney. Caroline again reiterated that it would be much easier if she handled the particulars. She offered to arrange for a jury trial and said she would do everything she could to ensure that he had a chance to have his say. She did mention that his attitude at the trial would be very important. Bruce thought about this and eventually agreed. The officer led him back to the cell.
The next few weeks were extremely hard on Bruce. Since the jail was overcrowded (evidently business had been good lately) he was forced to share a cell with six other prisoners. It was a large cell, generally known as a "drunk tank", with bunk beds on one wall and four cots spaced evenly against the opposite side. There was a toilet in the rear of the cell next to a small sink for washing and drinking. Both of the facilities were filthy and offered no privacy. If a prisoner needed to relieve himself he was forced to do it in the audience of his peers.
And what peers they were! In Bruce's whole life, he'd never met the likes of his new roommates. Most of them had loud filthy mouths that scathed profanity at each other all day long and a good part of the night. There was continuous fighting and bickering and turf wars over areas of prime territorial significance, such as the cots and bunks. To make matters worse, there was a continuous turnover in the clientele as some would be bailed out or brought to trial and their vacancies were refilled with "fresh meat". This meant that the turf wars were never resolved and each new shuffle would bring more quarrelling and battling.
Bruce was unfortunate enough to get caught in the middle of one of these scuffles and his eye had begun to bleed again. He really should have gotten stitches when it was injured the first time but the officer who arrested him had only wiped it clean and applied a bandage. Now it stung and itched and Bruce was afraid it might be infected. He was also having trouble sleeping. He didn't trust any of the men he was thrown in with and felt so uneasy that he wouldn't fall asleep until the early hours of the morning. Then he would be woken again soon after by his raucous companions. The whole experience wore him down until he was so nervous and irritable that he found himself bickering with the rest of them. He thought they were sick and demented men and it appalled him to find his own character degenerating to their level. What had happened to the sophisticated French gentleman he had become in Quebec? Where had he lost the gentle, artistic nature that he was so proud of? Bruce's heart was sick with longing for Silvi and the life he'd lost, and he was sick with worry about the trial and what would most certainly follow.
SLAP... THUD"ATTENTION PLEASE... ALL RISE... THE SECOND DISTRICT COURT OF BRENTON COUNTY, JUDGE TOWNSEND PRESIDING, WILL NOW COME TO ORDER." The bailiff glared at the small crowd in the courtroom and they all rose to their feet. Judge Townsend entered the room from the door behind the large bench, mounted the three steps to his perch saying "You may be seated." and slouched down into his big oak chair. The bailiff continued:
"THE SECOND DISTRICT COURT OF BRENTON COUNTY WILL NOW HEAR THE CASE OF STATE VS. BRUCE CARSON. IF THE DEFENDANT BRUCE CARSON IS PRESENT, PLEASE RISE!"
This time there was no doubt that Bruce was present. He had been brought into the courtroom handcuffed to a state trooper and was led to his very own bench on the front right hand side of the courtroom. They removed the handcuffs but he was still flanked on one side by the trooper and on the other by Caroline Brockton. Bruce stood up at the bailiff's command.
The courtroom was only half full with a small group of onlookers and nosy curiosity seekers. The only people from Ashton at the trial this time were John and Emily Cruthers, and Larry and Marsha. They sat in the same bench they had occupied at the last trial. None of them except Larry had seen Bruce for almost a year. They were shocked to see him looking so badly. He looked tired and worn out. His clothes were dirty and his hair was a mess, and he still had the bandage over his right eye. He hadn't once looked at his friends, instead he stared down at his shoes even when he stood.
There was a six-member jury seated in a booth on the opposite side of the courtroom from Bruce and they all eyed him suspiciously. His was the only case to be tried today. All this commotion was over him, and he felt like a bug under a microscope. He was not used to being such a focus of attention and he felt even worse because of his appearance. He was ashamed of his dirty clothes and he stunk with the odor of that filthy cell.
As the trial proceeded Bruce sat on the bench between Caroline and the trooper and continued staring at the floor between his shoes. His eyes followed the lines of the grain and the cracks between the boards of the old hardwood floor as if it were a map he studied intensely. Caroline entered a plea of not guilty for him and he looked up once to the judge when he was asked to state his plea verbally. "Not guilty." Bruce's voice sounded thin and subdued. Immediately after he spoke he returned to the map between his shoes.
The prosecuting attorney went on to present the evidence they had against Bruce for the original drug bust in Gino's apartment. He had the two arresting officers take the stand and questioned them as a matter of record and systematically went about the business of building the case against him. Several times Caroline whispered to Bruce that she thought she might find a technicality to argue but each time he shook his head without looking up. When Judge Townsend offered the defense attorney a chance to cross examine the witnesses, Caroline was forced to decline. When asked if she planned to make any defense at all for her client she asked the judge to grant Bruce permission to make a statement on his behalf after the prosecution was finished. Judge Townsend agreed to this and the prosecuting attorney continued. Not only did he build a strong case against Bruce for the incident in Garrett City, but he also made sure to stress the fact that Bruce had jumped bail and had also been charged with resisting arrest on a drug charge in Canada. He emphasized that Bruce had shown a flagrant disrespect for the law on both occasions and that all the evidence showed that not only was he guilty of possession of an illegal drug but that it was a sufficient amount for him to be considered guilty of intent to distribute also. He ended by saying that Bruce should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law in order to set an example for others who might contemplate similar transgressions. All the while, Bruce stared at the floor.The jury sat patiently through the prosecutor's argument and listened intently. It seemed as if he had them convinced, and why shouldn't they be? All of the evidence was well documented and not once had the defense refuted any of the claims! It was hard to believe that there could be any defense at all. What could they have possibly hoped to accomplish with a plea of not guilty if their claim wasn't substantiated by any evidence? It became apparent to everyone in the courtroom that demanding a jury trial had been nothing more than a contrived waste of everyone's time. And as for Bruce making a statement! He didn't even look like a man who could talk! He had appeared to be glazed over through the whole trial and his behavior, or lack thereof, had cast doubts about his stability into the minds of everyone there.
When the prosecution finished, Judge Townsend called both attorneys up to the bench. He demanded from Caroline an explanation. She replied that she had no choice in the matter. Her client's only wish was to have a chance to address the jury with a statement for his defense. She argued that since the charges were serious it would be a severe transgression of her client's rights if he were not allowed to speak. The prosecuting attorney disagreed with her saying that this was a trial and not a speech class. He maintained that if they had no evidence then they had no case. The judge considered both of their arguments and then decided in favor of Caroline, stipulating that Bruce would have to limit his statement to no longer than twenty minutes. Caroline agreed that was fair but the prosecuting attorney objected saying that if Bruce had twenty minutes to persuade the jury then the prosecution must also have a chance for rebuttal. Judge Townsend agreed to allow the prosecuting attorney to give his closing remarks to the jury after Bruce was done.
Bruce was sworn in by the bailiff and took the witness stand directly in front of the jury. He still managed not to make eye contact with anyone in the room and once he had taken his seat on the witness stand he quickly found a new spot on the floor to study. Caroline Brockton explained to the jury that her client was about to make a statement in his defense. Then she told Bruce to go ahead as she took her seat. Bruce continued to stare at the floor and didn't say anything. He was following the lines and cracks in the hardwood floor with a penetrating stare that cut through the shellac finish and had begun carving. The courtroom was silent in anticipation and Judge Townsend became exasperated.
"Mr. Carson, I have been willing to bend usual court procedures in order to give you a chance to express yourself about the charges against you. I've allowed you twenty minutes to speak, but if you have nothing to say, please don't waste the court's time."
"I have something to say." Bruce's voice sounded hollow.
"I beg your pardon Mr. Carson, I can't hear you. Could you speak up!" Judge Townsend's impatience was showing.
"I SAID I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY!" This time Bruce's voice was so loud it scared the jury members that sat closest to him. They hadn't expected Bruce to speak up and he caught them by surprise. Bruce started speaking slowly and clearly, though he continued carving away at the floor with his eyes, refusing to look up.
"I... I've, uh... I've never had to speak in front of so many people before, man... and, uh... I don't have any new facts or evidence to present. That is... most of the facts that have been presented as far as I know are correct. What I've got to say has nothing to do with the facts, man... I mean... it has to do with the attitudes behind the facts. I'm not a lawyer and I don't know the fine points of law, but I do know when an injustice is being done, man. It seems to me that facts can be cold and calculated and only tell one side of the story. I'm asking that you listen to my side of the story, and if you have to judge me, judge me by my character and keep an open mind about the facts, man."
"OBJECTION YOUR HONOR. MR. CARSON IS TRYING TO IGNORE THE FACTS OF THE CASE AND SWAY THE JURY WITH SENTIMENT!" The prosecuting attorney wasn't about to let a good chance for an objection slide by.
"Objection overruled. The prosecution will have its chance to speak and I am sure you will appeal to the jury's sentiment also." The judge's ruling surprised Caroline who had been preparing to battle the decision.
"The, uh... first thing I'd like to say about my character is that just like the rest of you I have my good points and my bad points, man. I... uh... admit that I'm addicted to marijuana. But I ain't never hurt nobody with my addiction, besides... uh... myself, and to be honest with you, I feel fine, man." Larry and Marsha tried to suppress their laughter and it came out in snorts from the back of the courtroom.
"What I mean to say... is, uh... that everyone here is addicted to something. I mean... like not just the obvious stuff like alcohol and tobacco... but some people are addicted to food, or maybe prescription drugs or maybe even work... some people are workaholics. Any addiction can be bad for ya! Not just pot. But uh... what I really wanna say... is uh... even these addictions aren't the worst. The worst... I mean, like really the worst addiction I can think of, that has the most people hooked, is like, uh... MATERIALISM, MAN!" More snorts from Larry and Marsha. Bruce was still looking down at the floor, and by now he must've carved his way down to the basement. He seemed to have forgotten that there was a crowd of people listening and threw himself one hundred percent into sculpting his philosophy.
"IT'S MATERIALISM, MAN... that's the real heavy duty drug man! Society's become a shooting gallery for materialism junkies! Property, cars, houses... they can never get enough man... and all the governments and armies... they're the big pushers man! Their main job is protectin' their stash! And this materialism, man... it's REALLY bad... once it gets hold of a society, it don't let go, man... like people keep wanting more 'n more... more cars, more houses, more wealth, and they don't care like what they gotta do ta get it, man... They start wars, build nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, factories, industries and corporations and anything else they can think of just to feed their habit, man... and then they look the other way'n try to ignore the stinkin' filthy rivers and polluted air cuz they don't wanna admit how bad their habit is, man... and how much it's hurtin' us!" Bruce was silent for a moment while he sharpened his blade, then he continued carving.
"I'll tell ya somethin' else, man... you wanna know the real reason I'm on trial? It ain't cuz I smoke pot, man... When I was a kid back in the sixties... my generation smoked a lotta pot... and ya know somethin' about pot? It makes you think, man... It like made us think different from our parents, and they got scared! We were challengin'em, man! We challenged that materialism... and we challenged the principles of capitalism, man... and we challenged their wars, man, and they got scared of us potheads cuz we didn't think like them! Somethin' was wrong with us, we weren't greedy enough for them, man... we lacked motivation... we started talkin'bout goin' back to the earth and collective farms... and we were happy wearin' our beat up jeans insteada buyin' fancy threads, man, and they got scared! They got scared cuz ideas like that might be catchy... next thing ya know there might be more of us than them, man, and nobody would wanna fight their wars and protect their habit! Know what I mean, man?
"All my life I tried to be a good person... I'm an artist, man... I try to use my talent to make people happy. If you drive all over Brenton County you'll see dozens of signs I carved to try and add to the beauty of our area, man. Hundreds of children in Brenton County grew up playin' with toys I carved for 'em. I love people... I got a live'n let live attitude. I'm not your enemy, man. Judge me by my character cuz facts can lie, man... I got my eye cut open, I been locked up 'n treated like an animal for weeks, and now I'm bein' judged by a room full'a people that ain't no better'n me! If you throw me in jail again, it won't be cuz of my addiction... it'll be ta protect your own! I hardly smoked any pot this year... I'm tryin' to deal with my addiction... lemme see what you can do with yours!"
With this last statement, Bruce finally looked up from his carving and met the gaze of the jurors as if to challenge them to look inside themselves. They all either looked down at their shoes or over at the small crowd in the courtroom, but they all avoided his stare. Caroline's heart sank.
The prosecuting attorney addressed the jury with his closing comments. He said that Bruce's statement confirmed what he had said earlier. It was obvious that Bruce had no respect for the law and institutions of our society. He reiterated that the evidence was overwhelming against Bruce and that the defense had offered no evidence at all to support a claim of not guilty. Furthermore, he said that the jury should not allow themselves to be fooled by appeals to their sentiment or ravings of leftist idealisms. He said Bruce was a dope peddler, and as such he had broken the law. He summed up his closing statements by saying that the laws were there to protect decent citizens and that it was the jury's duty to find Bruce guilty and that he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Judge Townsend adjourned the court while the jury decided the case. They were not out of the court room for more than forty-five minutes when they returned with a unanimous decision finding Bruce guilty. Judge Townsend sentenced Bruce to one year in the state prison, to be eligible for parole after six months, depending upon his behavior. The state trooper sitting next to him handcuffed Bruce and led him out of the courtroom.
Chapter SixteenWinter is Approaching
Winter is approaching, the leaves are turning brownThere really should be a name to designate the transitional period between seasons. Perhaps this omission was intentional, meant to be filled by the poets, for these times are often heavy with mood. This moodiness is especially apparent during the "gap" between what most of us think of as autumn and the first snows that signal the onset of winter. Perhaps "gap" is too vacant a term, but there is certainly a hollowness that lingers, a sense of something lost coupled with an anxious apprehension. This period of time is filled by the last minute scurrying and scampering of squirrels and chipmunks as they forage their last payloads of acorns and chestnuts. The behavior of the townfolk of Ashton was not much different as they scuttled from shop to shop securing their own preparations.
Blowing all around and settling on the ground
There's a chill in the wind that goes right through my bones
And makes me feel so alone
The days are growing shorter, time just slips away
The people in their cars, the music in the bars
The sounds of people laughing and moving on their way
It makes me feel so alone
Winter is approaching, the leaves are turning brown
You can hear the children laughing
Autumn now has passed us, the signs are all around
I didn't even feel her passing
I'll just wait for springtime to blossom once again
To bring with her the sun, and melt the snow with rain
I guess I'll strum a chord or two and sing a sad refrain
It makes me feel so alone....
It was the downside of a Saturday afternoon and Julie had already done her grocery shopping at George's. She locked the bags in the car and skipped over to Irene's Yarn Shop. She was startled by the sleigh bells as she opened the glass door to Irene's shop and stepped inside. She knew they were there, but they always caught her by surprise and made her feel somewhat like a burglar. Irene's voice called from the back room, "Be there in a minute" and Julie browsed through the bins of yarn and the racks of pattern books.
"Oh, it's Julie! Hi, how ya been?"
"Fine, Irene, how are you?"
"Oh, I'm still breathing... you know, where there's life, there's hope, ha ha... I'm kidding, things have been great! What can I do for ya?"
"Well, I'm looking to get some yarn, I thought maybe a light turquoise color for a sweater I want to make. I was thinking of maybe trying some mohair."
"Well ya know I've got some mohair in that color, but you'll have to mix it with some wool so it'll have somethin' to grab onto." Irene was digging through a large bin of yarn for the color Julie wanted. "How much will you need?"
"Well, I don't know. It'll have to be a large sweater." Julie motioned with her hands to indicate the approximate size.
"Well you'll need at least two skeins of each... possibly three of the wool... who's it for?" Irene was an expert at disguising her curiosity.
"It's for my fiance, Burt."
"Oh, that's right... I read about the engagement in the Tribune. Congratulations! You must be so excited!"
"Yes, the wedding's next week and we can hardly wait. We decided to have a small wedding, though, just family and a few friends. We're having the reception back at the farmhouse." Julie realized she had made a slip and Irene was sharp enough to pick right up on it.
"You mean at Larry's farmhouse?" Irene had succeeded in cornering Julie but she had no idea to what extent.
"Oh, I shouldn't have let the cat out of the bag, but I guess you'll find out soon enough. I've made an offer to buy the farmhouse back from Larry and he's accepted. I've got so many fond memories of the old place and since my career has been doing so well I think I can afford it. Now that Burt and I are getting married, we'll have his income also. Gee, I hope Larry doesn't get mad at me for telling you his business!"
"Oh, don't worry, I won't tell him. It's none of my business what he does now anyway. I'm so excited for you! You and Burt will be so happy there!" Irene rung up the sale and put Julie's yarn in a brown paper bag for her and again wished her luck. As Julie left the shop, Irene dropped the money from the sale into the cash register and slammed the little drawer shut. "That sonovabitch!"
"Hello, Irene!" The sleigh bells were jingling again before Irene had a chance to consider all the consequences of the new information. It was Dorothy Meyers, a long time acquaintance and colleague of Irene's from the school committee. She was one of the world's largest wind bags and Irene was in no mood for the one way conversation she was surely in for. Unfortunately though she couldn't afford negative feelings at the school committee so she smiled pleasantly and nodded intermittently through a half hour of gossip about Gail Sparrow's affair with the English teacher Mr. Brenner. Dorothy seemed to believe that it was the duty of someone on the school committee to inform Mrs. Brenner. Irene tried to remain neutral but Dorothy was trying to force her to take a stand on the issue. "Don't you really think that such behavior on the part of a school teacher is cause for dismissal?"
Irene said that she hated to draw a hasty judgment since she didn't know the circumstances of the people involved. Dorothy took this to be an invitation and proceeded to fill Irene in on all the details of the affair. Irene settled in for another long deluge when she was saved by the bell. Two other ladies walked into the shop and began looking around so Dorothy changed the topic. "How's Sara and Justin?"
"Oh, they're fine. They're with their father today. They should be back anytime. Larry said he'd have them back before I closed." She was hoping Dorothy would take the hint. Miracles never cease! Dorothy said she'd have to hurry along to make supper. She bought a couple of balls of yarn from the "bits n' pieces" bin to justify her visit and hurried out the door. Irene sighed. Some sales you really had to work for! One of the other ladies in the store bought a pattern book for an afghan and while Irene was ringing it up, Larry came in with the children.
After the two ladies made their purchase and left, Irene spun the little sign around in the window from the the "Come in, we're open" side to "Sorry, we're closed". Then she told the children to play on the front porch, emphasizing not to go in the street, while she and their father discussed some "business". She especially charged Justin with the task of keeping an eye on his sister and then she locked the front door of the store. She and Larry went into the back room to talk. She had the back room set up like a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator and a table and chairs, but Larry didn't get a chance to sit down before the argument started. "HOW COME YOU DIDN'T TELL ME YOU SOLD THE FARM?"
"Whaddaya mean? Who told you that?" Larry played dumb.
"Don't give me that shit, Larry! Julie was just in here!"
"So what do you care? It's none of your business what I do with the farm!"
"Ta hell it ain't! You know damn right well that place was going to be part of the settlement!"
"Look, Irene, you'll get a fair settlement, I'm not trying to shaft you." He was trying to soothe his way out of the argument.
"Bullshit, Larry! You're all bullshit! You made a fortune on that subdivision up there and half of everything you made is rightfully mine!"
"What are you, dreaming? I'm the one that built my contracting business! I'm the one that made the deal on that subdivision, and I'm the one that did all the work! You didn't do any of it and I don't owe you a goddamn thing! You got the house; I'm willing to give you child support and a small amount of alimony... BUT DON'T GET GREEDY, IRENE!"
"You could never have built that business if I hadn't spent the last eight years bringing up your children! Don't forget that, Mr. Chauvinism!"
"Well, I hate to tell you Irene, but you're a little late: I'm closing the deal on the farm house this week and I've formed an investment corporation putting all my assets into it. You can't sue a corporation for divorce, Irene!"
"YOU BASTARD, LARRY! MY LAWYER WILL SEE ABOUT THAT!"
The kids on the front porch had heard the shouting inside and little Sara was knocking on the window of the door and crying. "It's all right, Sara... Mommy's coming." Irene let the children into the store and assured them that everything was fine. "Mommy and Daddy are just trying to work through some business, honey, everything's okay." Sara was convinced by the line and calmed down but Justin looked at his parents suspiciously. Larry kissed the children goodbye and told them he'd see them next week.
Julie had dropped into her mom's antique shop after she left Irene's. All the while that Larry and Irene had been arguing, Julie had been chatting with Emily several stores away. She had just stepped out of her mom's shop and was standing under the large, carved, wooden sign when Larry closed the door to Irene's and spotted her from the porch. He called out to her and since there was no way to graciously avoid the encounter, Julie responded. "Oh, hi Larry!" He hurried up to meet her and before he got there she was apologizing."Larry, I'm so sorry... I didn't mean to tell her about the deal, it just slipped out."
"That's okay, Julie, she would've found out anyway... it's still a small town, you know." He was being extremely forgiving. It soon became apparent to Julie that the episode with Irene was not the dominant issue on Larry's mind.
"Have you seen Marsha?" Larry appeared hungry for news.
"No, I haven't seen her since she moved back to Garrett City. I thought maybe you'd seen her."
"No... we had kind of a fallin' out."
"Gee, I'm sorry to hear that Larry, I thought things were going well between you two." She could see that he needed some cheering up but she couldn't think of anything positive to say.
"Well, you know, I thought things were going good, too, but Marsha said she needed a little space to think things out. She said things were sorta happenin' too fast for her. That's why she got rid of her apartment over Johnny's and moved back to Garrett City. I thought maybe since you still live there, you might've seen her."
"No, gee, I haven't Larry. I did invite her to the wedding next Saturday, though. Maybe you'll get a chance to talk with her at the reception at the farmhouse!"
"Ya, maybe." Larry had the blues written all over his face as he said goodbye to Julie and drove off in his pickup truck. He drove down to Johnny's Place. Even though it was a Saturday night and things were beginning to jump, he picked a stool in the corner at the end of the bar and proceeded to drink himself into oblivion.
Julie arrived at her parents house early on the morning of the wedding and Emily spent the morning fixing Julie's hair and helping her dress. They were both excited and nervous. Emily kicked John out of the house and he went over to the farmhouse where Larry and Burt were struggling into their tuxes. They had picked up his suit for him also so John put it on and the three of them left for the church. When they got there, Steve and Linda with the kids, Penny, Barbara and Brian, had already arrived after the long drive from New York City. Soon John Jr. and Charlene pulled into the parking lot next to the church with their children, Cheryl and Richard. They were all dressed sharply and they stood in the parking lot next to the Methodist church chatting and complimenting each other on how nice they looked. As the small crowd entered the church, Larry ushered them up the aisle, assigning them seats. Burt's family had begun to arrive also. Burt's younger brother, Jimmy, was the best man and he waited in the anteroom next to the altar with Burt for the ceremony to start. Larry was pinning flowers on Burt's mom and Charlene, who would be the maid of honor. Julie had hired Rick Crowley, the proprietor of the Folk Instrument Workshop and long-time friend of the family, to play the music for the ceremony and he was setting himself up in the balcony with his guitar and receiving last minutes instructions from Rev. Garner. He had agreed to play "The Wedding March" on the old church organ for the entrance of the bride and planned to play two love songs on his guitar during the ceremony. Rev. Garner asked Rick if he would be able to lead the group singing "Amazing Grace" at one point in the ceremony and Rick agreed.When everyone had arrived there were only about thirty-five people in the small church. Most of them were family. Julie had invited only a couple of her closest friends, and Burt invited a few of his friends from the Brenton County Players. John stood nervously in the back of the church, checking and rechecking his watch until finally Julie and Emily arrived. Larry pinned a corsage on Emily and ushered her up the aisle to the front row and the Rev. Garner said they were ready to start.
It was a tiny procession, just Larry ushering Charlene, followed by Julie clinging nervously to her father's arm. The old church organ filled the room with the dramatic sound of medieval sobriety and the ceremony was off to a good start. The Rev. Garner's sermon was short but effective as he congratulated and blessed them on their bond of love. He reminded them that it was a sacrament not to be taken lightly and that true love demanded understanding and perseverance through the hard times that would surely test their faith. Rick Crowley played and sang the love songs beautifully and everyone's voices blended nicely for "Amazing Grace". When the ceremony was over they took pictures outside the church and then they piled in the cars, and headed out to the old farmhouse for the reception. Larry led the procession of cars with his pickup truck and they all honked their horns wildly as they rounded Park Square.
Even though it had been a small wedding, it was still a large crowd to squeeze into the farmhouse. They had set up a big buffet of food against one wall of the living room with trays of lasagna and swedish meat balls, large bowls of salad and scalloped pototatoes. There was the usual crowd around the beer fridge and someone cranked the stereo. Though the sun was out, the day was too chilly for the party to spill outside so the rooms were cramped. This added to the fun, however, for it was hard to remain distant and antisocial with people while you were tripping over them and bumping into them.
The party was more than just a wedding reception, it was also a housewarming party for Julie and Burt and sort of a homecoming party for the whole Cruthers family. They were all thrilled to have the farm back in their possession. The children were running outside to play by the small pond and clamoring back into the house at intervals to warm up. Julie and Burt changed into more comfortable clothes and John Jr. and Steve stood in the kitchen guzzling beer. The only one at the party who didn't appear to be having a good time was Larry. He had found a corner and looked rather melancholy as he sat sipping his beer. He wasn't feeling badly about selling the farmhouse, he had made a good deal with Julie and was pleased about that. Instead he was disappointed because Marsha had not shown up for the wedding. He hadn't seen her since Bruce's trial and had pinned his hopes on seeing her at the wedding.
The party lasted all day long and towards sunset it began to dwindle. John and Emily took a walk out to the barn to visit Topaz. John gave her some hay and feed and stroked her nose as she nuzzled him. Then John and Emily walked together down the road by the willow trees and the old stone wall. They were both pleased to have the farm back in the family but more than that they were pleased to see Julie finally settled down and happy.
Standing beneath the willows, they gazed out across the land they'd spent most of their lives working. John slipped his arm around Emily's waist and gave her a long, hard hug as a heavy sense of nostalgia crept over him. Then the sun slipped behind the mountains and a stiff cold breeze drove them back into the farmhouse.
Lookin' at the leaves, they've all fallen early
The clouds look like old men with beards
I can see the winter will soon be upon me
And it looks like a cold one this year