Whispers on Woodsmoke
You donâ€™t have to keep up with the â€˜Greensâ€™ or anyone else for that matter, and you donâ€™t have an inherent need to define yourself by always becoming bigger or better, or trendy and more modern. No upsizing or downsizing. No vacillating between downtown and the suburbs, or scurrying off to the beat of a distant drummer and relocating to new hopes and dreams and opportunities in another city. Youâ€™re in the place you want to be, that you were meant to be, and youâ€™re fine, just fine where you are. Although there are a few unfortunate exceptions, most houses never suffer the indignity and nettlesome confusion of having to move. Sadly, the majority of people who have paraded through these doors never had the fortuity to savor the freedom, or the pleasure, that comes with permanence.
I am that that I am.
I've been here on this one spot all my life, ever since the cornerstone of my foundation was first poured on an invigoratingly crisp autumn morning by LaSalle Construction, a little father and son operation that has never skipped being some derivative of Father and Son for even one generation together, since 1924.
1924. Six short years after the worldâ€™s worst war, the one to end all wars, ultimately devolved into a morass of destruction, of hope and hopelessness, when shattered lives and tortured souls would finally get the chance to begin to heal. Fifteen even shorter years before the world refused to listen and do it all over again with even more maniacal depravity. Sixty months before the business world would have its own war and terrified bodies rained down from office towers, and another generation would pray and starve together, when long lines of the unemployed snaked around street corners, hoping the dust would completely settle.
1924. Thirty one years before dreams would be reborn and millions of children, young and very old, would flock through the gates of the new Disneyland, confident that war and hate were just memories from the past. Forty-five years before Woodstock, and just three more before weâ€™d see the â€œgoal heard around the world.â€ Eighty prior to the Indonesian tsunami, and only seventy eight before the Bali bombings. Almost four decades before the loss of a president, and unbearably, a mere seventy-seven years before 9/11 changed history forever.
But thereâ€™s always hope, isnâ€™t there?
Only forty-three years after the concrete dust disseminated and my basement stirred, a doctor in South Africa held a beating heart in his hands and transplanted life from one human being into another.
So, regardless of the burgeoning events that would re-shape the entire world, 1924 was still the special date Mr. LaSalle and his son carved into the western corner of my freshly poured concrete down in the basement, and thatâ€™s something that just canâ€™t be changed.
That was twelve families ago, but it certainly doesn't seem like so many people have wandered these halls and traipsed up and down the staircases. When the bags of horse hair were folded into the cement to help it bind and dry, when a grizzled and portly Mr. LaSalle and his reedy, quiet son Luigi upended their last wheelbarrow load and smoothed it flat with their shovels and rakes, something stirred, something came together into a whole, and suddenly, I felt I belonged somewhere. In this place, in this time. I was just beginning to take shape and I still had a long, arduous road of construction ahead before my frame could support my weight and my peaked roof would point to the heavens, but I knew I was here. Waiting. A part of everything. Life was expansive, stretching out and into forever, with endless possibilities ahead and perfectly undefined. The umbilical cord between nothing and now had been severed in the gentlest of ways I couldnâ€™t even begin to fathom.
I've often wondered whether people feel like that while they're in their mother's womb; if they roll over or kick or somersault upside down when they're all scrunched up in that wonderful embryonic orb and realize, at some level they can't begin to understand, I've moved, I'm here. Do they float ever so calmly in that gentle sea, drinking their mother in, touching, pushing, feeding on her warmth and listening to her breathe as they begin to share her life, and sense, I'm home! I am!
I'm not sure. Oh, but I hope so.
Granted, the road hasnâ€™t always been paved to perfection. Thereâ€™s been the usual mixture of potholes and crumpled asphalt, of washed-out side streets and uneven dips and dives of winter heaving and summer buckling, gnarled guardrails, incessant construction and the troublesome grooved shoulders that go bumpity-bumpity-bump to wake you up when you swerve off your natural path. But I never asked for perfection, and I never expected it, either. All I know is that Iâ€™ve been very happy here, family after family, and I definitely don't want to move. Not now, not ever.
People, of course, are very different in that respect. They come and go, fairly regularly, from what I've seen. Some stay longer, naturally, while others are more whimsical and change residences with the seasons of their lives. People seem to have disparate needs when it comes to having a home. Many families feel an almost overpowering desire to be rooted somewhere, to be associated with one particular house in one certain spot during one identifiable phase in their lives. To them, having a home means everything, and everything means living in one place, and one place means a comforting feeling of security that envelops whatever they do.
Like the love of grandparents.
Other people donâ€™t agree, and think that staying in one spot for too long is boringly restrictive, and feel that rootedness doesnâ€™t foster an ability to grow. For those people, a house doesnâ€™t mean all that much, and they rarely think about it as anything more than a means to an end. A stopgap, or maybe a portfolio investment. Some people have lived here just long enough to find a new job, or to wait for the real estate market to fluctuate so they can "buy up" again.
Other owners use a home to fill a void in their life, or to stave off the niggling feeling of restlessness that underlies everything they do but can't quite put into words.
Some families have paused between these walls to reduce a burdensome mortgage, finish a career, or pass the family business on to their son or daughter before they slipped away from the overpowering current of life and into the gentle river of retirement. To them, a house is simply a place to wait until the children are grown and they make that last move to somewhere else. Itâ€™s not a home. When they think about the times we shared, they'll often start by saying something like, "do you remember that place we used to live on . . . ."
They don't refer to me as my home; just the place we used to live. I feel sorry for those kinds of people, since they haven't come to know me as anything more than a roof over their head and a floor to support them. They never seem to have any element of personal history, a sense of belonging, or a feeling of being here and now, and they're always looking anxiously ahead. It's as if happiness is a place or a time they haven't managed to get to yet. They never stop to realize that happiness isn't something in the distance; it's the thing that gives distance meaning.
When those people move and start all over again, they leave all the important things behind, the things they'll never have again or experience in quite the same way; memories, fears, hopes and dreams, laughter, tears, and all the magical moments that made their lives so special. They take away their pictures and little mementos, their furniture, trophies, dishes, degrees and clothes, and all the things theyâ€™ve kept since childhood that theyâ€™ve dragged in dusty boxes from house to house just like they've hauled around their emotional baggage, but it isn't the same ever again when they go somewhere else, somewhere they pretend is new. For them, or for me.
Emptiness is a hard void to fill, and there aren't many things lonelier than a house without a family to share life with. An injured stray dog, perhaps, hungrily limping through some back alley, sniffing through whatever has been thrown away.
In the same way that people reminisce about the places theyâ€™ve lived, houses collect memories of the families that called them home.
And Iâ€™ve been lucky enough to have had so many families! Such a wonderful deluge of magical moments, of such a cornucopia of distinctive adults and children and grandchildren and countless cousins and friends and lovers, that itâ€™s getting harder and harder to properly remember all of the people whoâ€™ve traipsed through these halls as the seasons quietly pass by, as winters and summers change places, as autumnâ€™s crinkled leaves feed spring flowers. So many memorials in the making. Faces merge, times get hazy and intertwined like shadows, especially when Iâ€™m lonely, and I canâ€™t always be one hundred percent sure that their stories, and their fates, are exactly how I think I remember them.
Some stand out more than others, naturally, and there are always those reminisces that you really donâ€™t want to keep too close to your heart, that you donâ€™t want to store too deeply in your attic. Theyâ€™re still there, though, just not as securely or firmly as some of the others. You box them up like the other ones and label the outside and push them into a corner, but you donâ€™t ever get to the point of throwing them away or pretending theyâ€™ll be banished in the next yard sale. Even if they hurt or never stop touching you with sadness, theyâ€™re your recollections and thoughts and feelings, and theyâ€™re just too hard to let go. Each one is still a life-altering memory, after all, and once something becomes a memory you canâ€™t just consciously forget it because itâ€™s a part of you, a part thatâ€™s always clinging somewhere, to something, never letting go, even if you donâ€™t know it, forever.
The Moores, the most recent people to have shared their lives with me, are the easiest and sweetest people to recall. Wrapped in serenity, theyâ€™re the last family that graced these rooms and huddled around the kitchen table when they needed to talk, who sat out on the porch together while the sun set and watched the riverâ€™s waves curl by, long before the little vampire of a gnome from the real estate office staked that officious â€œFor Saleâ€ sign into the heart of my front lawn. The Moores were here for ages â€“ almost twelve years! â€“ and I miss them so much already it hurts. Ah, the memories. Happy times, special days, and yes, some nights that were filled with sorrow.
I wish everyone had the time, the opportunity, and certainly the need and desire, to stay here with me as much as the Moores were fortunate enough to enjoy. Continuity brings security to both of us, as well as a deep-rooted sense of loyalty. But alas, time, and people, move on.
The Moores left almost two weeks ago. Theyâ€™re gone, yes, but they'll never really leave me. They were one of the nicest families I've ever known, and I loved them with every nook and cranny and worn shingle and banging pipe that makes me a home. Theyâ€™ll always have a special place in my heart, and their ghosts will walk my halls forever. But I'm already a little worried about the new people who haven't arrived yet. Are they still coming? I hope they haven't run into any trouble.
Purchasing a new home and moving is such a chore. Along with birth, death, marriage and divorce, changing places is one of the most intense stressors people will ever deal with throughout their lives. In all my years, I've never budged since Mr. LaSalle and his son put the finishing touches on my trim and my floorboards creaked into place for the first time, but I know it could happen. I saw a little house move a long time ago, when I was between families and felt a little like I do now: alone, insecure, and nervously impatient. It was a little one-story, with freshly painted shutters and two shades of brand new aluminum siding.
The Michaelsons were here: theyâ€™d been my family for almost three years. They were a pleasant enough couple, hard-working and loving, but their child, Mathew, was a little . . . off.
Now, Iâ€™m not one to judge, and I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but there was something â€“ I donâ€™t know â€“ discomforting perhaps, or maybe unnerving, about that young boy. Something you couldnâ€™t quite put your finger on, although whatever it was could easily make you edgy or a little tense. Except for his mother and father (and even they had their moments), there werenâ€™t many people in town whoâ€™d stay with Mathew on their own. I know that sounds cruel, but thatâ€™s the way I felt, too. If one of the local teenagers anxious for money ever sat for the Michaelsons when they tried to go out for an evening together, to a movie or for dinner, perhaps, you could be pretty well certain they wouldnâ€™t sit for them again. It wasnâ€™t odd for the Michaelsons to be called away from their night out and not-so-politely asked to come home early.
Mathew was almost always sullen, morose, eerily quiet, and what Iâ€™d later come to know as depressed. Even though he was so young. The whole situation was rather sad. I think the Michaelsons originally came to my front door and peered through the windows with the hope of starting a new life in a small town. They wanted â€“ and undoubtedly needed â€“ a fresh beginning, even though they were really just starting out and the darker side of time had barely begun to trample down their hopes and dreams. The green grass on the other side of the fence sort of thing. Another chance. But it didnâ€™t work out that way. Iâ€™m not going to get into what Mathew said, or what he did, because that would affect the way youâ€™d see him too, and if the child ever needed something it certainly wasnâ€™t to be pre-judged all the time. Like an old linen blanket in the bottom of the hope chest in an attic corner, Mathew had enough holes and frayed edges without people poking even deeper into the fabric of his life.
The Michaelsons had no intention of moving, since they sincerely believed that a home in the country was the best thing for their son. Unfortunately, Mr. Stedgewick's company didnâ€™t care about Mathew in the least, and they were intent on transferring his father to their Saskatchewan office because of what they euphemistically termed internal downsizing because of forced redundancy. The Michaelsons didnâ€™t want to move, but with the financial climate the way it was, they really didn't have much choice. After agonizing over their decision, the Michaelsons finally conceded and the company, as usual, won, so they reluctantly put me up for sale. They found another place to live deep inside the vast prairie wheat fields south of Regina. But thereâ€™d been some last-minute problem with their closing, which meant they couldn't take possession of their new home on the date theyâ€™d anticipated. They couldn't stay here either, however, because the new people were all ready to move in with me. The way real estate deals are often transacted, I wasn't going to have so much as a dayâ€™s leeway between families.
The Michaelsons were forced to leave earlier than they predicted because the McTaggarts were supposed to arrive the afternoon they left, even though they weren't the ones whoâ€™d actually purchased me. Regrettably, the McTaggarts floundered in the same rudderless boat as the Michaelsons, and couldnâ€™t change their arrival plans either. They were coming from down East; a little town in the northern part of New Brunswick, if I recall correctly, part French, English, and First Nation, and wholly as warm and inviting as a fresh blueberry pie cooling on the window sill of the widow Churchhillâ€™s home next door. There's always a domino effect in house sales, since one transaction invariably depends on another, and things can often become quite muddled. When one tiny thing goes wrong, all of the families that are forged links in the chain of transactions can be affected. Everything backs up â€“ itâ€™s the real estate constipation factor.
The McTaggarts had outgrown a small, three bedroom clapboard two-story that had served them well until their third and fourth child were born. An early war time home that was squat and square and didn't have a basement, it just wasnâ€™t big enough for all of them. Besides, since the fishing industry had slowly and ceaselessly waned like a politicianâ€™s honor, Mr. McTaggart, like many Easterners, knew he'd have to leave his home province to find work. After struggling with the issue and bemoaning the fact that 'by the geez, there just t'aint no mores fish,' Mr. McTaggart grudgingly accepted a line job in Oshawa at one of the automotive plants that kept the city alive.
But when the deal on their residence closed, the McTaggartâ€™s new home wasn't finished, so they asked the â€œrealâ€ new owners if they could stay with me for a few months. When they left, the Clintocks, the actual purchasers who were going to call me home, would be ready to move in. They had suffered some legal problem in their own deal, and jumped at the chance to rent me to the McTaggarts for the summer. The McTaggarts would have a place to stay without having to resort to some intermediary lodgings, and I'd have someone to keep the threat of emptiness at bay. The Clintocks were happy too, because the McTaggarts were really their cousins, so they knew I'd be well taken care of, despite their hoard of rambunctious children.
I felt sorry for the Michaelsons, I really did. Despite their difficulties, they'd been wonderful owners, and had taken a great deal of pride in my maintenance and general upkeep. It wasn't until they'd already rented the truck and made all their arrangements that they found out the McTaggarts were going to be late after all because of some legal snafu with the people whoâ€™d purchased their home. The Michaelsons were going to have to leave most of their things in storage, and they were in the unenviable position of being temporarily relegated to a motel for a week until their deal was finalized. I desperately hoped that they were going to find happiness â€“ or what made happiness for them â€“at their next house. But by the strain in their eyes and the look etched upon their faces, however, I had the terrible premonition that they were never going to find the solace that they all sadly needed.
Ultimately, the day-to-day limbo the McTaggarts faced stretched into almost three weeks, which seemed like an eternity. For practically twenty-one long, lonely, dreary days, I was empty. That poor, injured stray dog was sniffing through the back alleys again.
Yet when all was said and done, at least I hadnâ€™t been displaced. I had the luxury of still being here, on this very same spot â€“ the spot I call home. The house I mentioned â€“ the only one Iâ€™ve ever seen actually moving â€“ wasnâ€™t as fortunate.
It was a rather small, rectangular one-story done in two shades of siding that blended in quite nicely. It had a fairly new black roof, with a recently added aluminum eaves trough and freshly painted shutters and trim, although I wasnâ€™t sure why its owners had taken the time to renovate it before it was moved. The house was on a flatbed, behind a huge tractor-trailer with a bright orange cab. There was a sign on the back that warned anyone foolish enough to follow too closely the load was oversized, and that the truck would make a wide turn when it had to go right or left. It even had a little picture to show what would happen to your car if you ignored the warning as it made its wide turn, although I could never understand why they needed to show an image of the impending collision if drivers were supposed to be able to read.
The house had a little escort, a battered pick-up truck with one tail-light out that was driven by a bored old man with wind-swept grey hair and a cigarette dangling from his lips, who kept one arm draped over the seat and never seemed to be looking straight ahead.
Watching from a safe distance away, the whole thing seemed like a recipe for disaster.
A House on a Truck
Home is the most popular, and will be the most endearing of all earthly establishments.
â€¦.. Channing Pollock
The memory is still so ripe, still so suitably pungent. The squat little one-story house that I could almost feel teetering on the back of the flatbed truck had obviously left its basement behind. Then again, I couldnâ€™t be sure whether or not it ever even had a basement, since I could only catch fleeting glimpses of the stocky hitchhiker way off in the distance where the road bypasses our quaint little town. If it had, then the basement was still there somewhere, back where they'd winched and lifted the whole thing up onto the flatbed, waiting for someone else to build a new home on top of it so it would come alive again. I didn't like to think the foundation wouldn't be used, that it was just going to stay buried in the ground and never be raised into something else once more. There's no sense in having a strong, stable foundation if it's not going to grow, if it's not going to become something more than it is already. The potential. The possibilities. The memories. How could what was left behind still be so endearing to someone new?
My shutters fluttered when I watched the truck pass by. All the windows were boarded up and the doors seemed to have been nailed shut. The square little house hung over both sides of the flatbed, and looked like it was balanced rather precariously right on the very back of the trailer. It appeared to jerk ever so slightly each time the trucksâ€™ tires caught the edge of a pothole that the last wintersâ€™ ice had scooped out from the road.
I held my breath! My joists creaked and I could feel the water bubbling up through my basement pipes. I tried to relax my roof trusses. The last turn would be tight, right where the road swung hard north in a narrow curve to merge with the highway. My drywall flexed, the nails that hadnâ€™t been hammered deep enough loosening. The little one-story seemed to tip uneasily to one side. It teetered awkwardly for a moment â€“ a very long moment â€“ but made it safely around the corner right in front of Len the gas station manâ€™s grimy little oil-slicked garage, which is the very last building on the far side of town before the bypass. For all intent and purpose, it should be clear sailing from there. I saw the house reappear a couple of times through tiny gaps in the trees that lined the edge of the main road, the two windows that framed the front door looking like a little face the way some houses do, shimmering behind the leaves.
On one level I was happy the little one-story house without a basement was going to wherever the people were taking it, since we're almost always left behind when families move. The people must have loved their house very much to go to all the trouble of digging it up and hoisting it up onto a truck, since the whole process certainly couldnâ€™t have been easy. At the same time, however, I was quite relieved no one had ever done that to me, although I know some of the families whoâ€™ve stayed here and called me home would have liked to take me with them. I doubt they could have dislodged the LaSalle and Son Constructionâ€™s perfectly sculpted foundation, though; it really would have had to be left behind. And a basement is as much a part of a house as an attic, kitchen, closets, frames, or anything else that contributes to the whole. I couldn't imagine moving, being uprooted from the very ground and taken away from everything I'm part of, from everything I've come to love over the years.
And oh, I do love Whip-Poor-Will Falls.
When you're still just planks, sheets of glass, boxes of nails, bales of wire, electrical cords, tiles, screws, big fluffy bags of insulation, shingles, and sacks of horse hair and unopened cement in the middle of some building yard, you never know where you're going to end up. You don't even know if all the lumber hewn and stacked together is destined for the same building project.
Thereâ€™s a severe sense of uncertainty, of displacement. I was lucky: all my supplies and materials came from the same yard, at the same time, and they all ended up in the same place, and there isnâ€™t anywhere else I can think of Iâ€™d rather call home. Perhaps â€œluckâ€ had nothing to do with it. I'm the last house in Whip-Poor-Will Falls, tucked into the far eastern corner, right where our little collection of homes watches the river make a slow, southerly arc just before it swerves back north and melts into nothing but undulating farmland and almost mythical forests.
A little dot on the edge of the Kawartha Lakes â€“ â€œKawarthaâ€ means â€œShining Watersâ€ to the Mississauga First Nation people â€“ Whip-Poor-Will Falls is nestled in a mesh of interwoven hills and valleys that are part of a moraine, a rocky, rolling landscape carved from the earth by receding glaciers about twelve thousand years ago. Itâ€™s somewhat reminiscent of the Lake District in England or Snowdonia in Wales, except the terrain is generally lower and less severe. Actually, our town is one of the only places that wasnâ€™t named after something in England.
An odd moniker, but it stuck. There's a waterfall, naturally, just beyond the outskirts of town, about a mile past the place the river winds up around and past the Co-Op Store. It wasn't originally on the edge of town, of course. When Whip-Poor-Will Falls was first being populated in the 1880's because of the lumber boom in Peterborough, the center of town was still a good half-hoursâ€™ hard horse ride away from the falls. The town slowly spread out with the seasons, creeping through the forest as the years passed like afternoon shadows over a patio, until the waterfall gradually became less of a scenic marker for travelers and more of a focal point for the town itself.
Although waterfall is a relative term, it's still a beautiful spot. Waterfall, to most people, especially those in the city, engenders thoughts and images of the mighty Niagara, one of the worldâ€™s greatest treasures, which, Iâ€™m told, are about five hours southwest of here. The magnificent Horseshoe Falls are a majestic, 2,600 foot half-circle of wild, bubbling turbulence, where the water plummets one hundred and sixty one feet into the spires of the rocks below and ceaselessly covers the world's tourists in a never-ending, rainbow-speckled mist.
Here in town, we tend to think of it as falling water, and, since the river comes down from Black Lake on the upper edge of Algonquin Park, and because it actually tumbles over the small hill behind us and into the river that winds through the center of town, the water does in fact fall from one level to another. Not quite high or fast enough for a hydro-electric plant, but the river does drop slowly, maybe about twenty or twenty-five feet, over a distance of about a hundred and seventy yards. The underlying current speeds up noticeably as the river narrows, especially in the spring, and the water splashes daintily over moss-stained rocks in little plumes and sprays. It's a comforting sound that often lulls people to sleep on those long, languid summer evenings when the moon-shade from the trees flicker across my roof. After â€˜the fallâ€™, the river levels off again. Before it threads away into the forest on the other side of town, it cuts a meandering turn back up into the trees, a graceful maneuver that's affectionately known as the bend.
A fair number of people stop by as they weave their way farther north up into cottage country to catch a glimpse of our Falls. Unfortunately, quite a few of our visitorsâ€™ expectations remain unfulfilled. Having followed the edge of the river right past me and out of town, then walked the half-mile to the place someone has patiently directed them to after a lengthy consideration of the best route to pursue, many sightseers often remark they expected to see something a little bit bigger. They stand around for a few minutes, scanning tablets and iPhones implanted in their hands, pondering if this is the place they're supposed to be. Wondering if there's more. People always seem to be wondering if thereâ€™s more. They look at the water writhing and squirming over the rocks and down through the narrows, and think, no, this can't be it.
Some inevitably go on and explore a bit further, much to the delight of their little children. Above the falls, the river tightens even more and disappears into a thick forest of evergreens that covers the top of the hill the way lichen infests a fallen stump. I'm sure that if they knew the river widens considerably again when it reaches the other side of the hill they'd keep walking, but they don't. So they come back, look again, and snap a few haphazard selfies theyâ€™ll probably delete later. A few don't hide their disappointment, and that's a shame, because they're obviously not looking at things with an open eye. Or heart. Expectations exceed their reach. Houses donâ€™t usually have that same sense of restless unease, of being unfulfilled. We expect less, and have more.
Whip-Poor-Wills are birds. Cousins of the Ridgeway's Whip-Poor-Will, theyâ€™re also related to nighthawks. Usually about 10 inches long, the birds are a mottled grey and soft brown that camouflages them beautifully when they're on the forest floor, or if theyâ€™re nestled in the leaves on lower tree limbs. They have prominent rictals, or mouth bristles, and large eyes that shine in the dark. Their feet are weak and almost useless for perching, but they have an enormous gape for their size that lets them scoop up hundreds of pesky insects on the wing.
Theyâ€™re nice to have around when the summer gets hot, hazy, and humid.
The most distinctive thing about the bird is its call. Three shrill, hard sounds that really do sound like the words that engender its name. Whip-Poor-Will. Whip-Poor-Will. (Oh, thereâ€™s a word for that, isnâ€™t there, when a word sounds just like its meaning? Like gong, or tinkle, or buzz. Great. Now my floorboards wonâ€™t settle until I remember what it is.) Anyway, an adult bird may cry out its eerie call several hundred times in succession. The same thing, over and over and over. They're loud, territorial, feisty little things that aren't easily silenced or flushed away. Nature's little politicians.
So there is a waterfall, however small it might really be, and there are Whip-Poor-Wills, although not quite as many as when I was first built. Back in 1924 the trees were thick with flocks; when they searched for food they flew in swarms that looked like writhing storm clouds. But human progress invaded their habitat, induced predators emerged, their feeding grounds diminished, and there just wasnâ€™t enough food to sustain their numbers. Since theyâ€™re nocturnal, the little birds arenâ€™t seen very much anymore. You have to want to see them. But most of the families who rent cottages around town and farther north into the first patches of the lake district are often more obsessed with television and video games and the latest app-IPad computer- phone- tablet-wristband-watch- thingy in the evening than they are with wildlife. Text text text look up text text watch a quick video, trip on a root text text look up text text post what you had to eat on Facebook text text fart text . . . I've often wondered why some people leave the city in the first place, since all theyâ€™re really doing is bringing it with them.
Although weâ€™re fortunate enough to still have a relatively successful population of Whip- Poor-Wills, the town is also home to numerous other species of birds, everything from wrens to osprey, thrushes, robins, grackles, hawks, finches and chickadees. There have been more herons the last few years, standing stiff-legged in the marshes at the bottom of the falls, and even the occasional crane. Yet birds and the falls and the river aren't our only gifts of natural splendor.
There's a quiet little vale on the other side of the hill behind me, past the swaying wheat fields of the farms, and a small, spring-fed lake just beyond that. And then another partly hidden forest, a serene, verdant, always evolving stand of evergreens that can soften the pulse of the most agitated heart. Itâ€™s a little Christmas tree Heaven.
In fact, Whip-Poor-Will Falls is surrounded by such thick forests that itâ€™s difficult to imagine what our little oasis of a town must look like from the sky. Visitors often comment on the trees with a sense of awe, with a deep mystical feeling that can sometimes border on not-to-subtle fear. If you're from the city and you're accustomed to constant noise, breaking glass, jackhammers, cracked asphalt, concrete, smog, and a place where itâ€™s difficult to see the sky, then the forests loom as a deep, foreboding cavern of tangled green that could hide almost anything. And they do. But if you're out in the country and the tallest building around is the decapitated silo on Frank Butfordâ€™s farm â€“ well, not decapitated, but lightning-shorn and lopsided, like a beard before real razors were invented â€“ then the forest is a huge, protective shawl that wraps you up like a larvae in natures' cocoon, feeding and protecting you, gently helping you to grow.
There's almost every type of tree in, or around, Whip-Poor-Will Falls that's found across the country. Elms and spruce, balsam and pine. Black cherry. Birch. Evergreens of an almost infinite variety. Towering willow and majestic maples that have been standing longer than the town itself. Even in the dead of winter there's always a delicate patchwork of green throughout the town. A refreshing promise of what's been, and what's to come.
And then thereâ€™s the River. Obviously, you canâ€™t have The Falls without The River.
Whatever the season, I love being across from the water because it gives me an almost surreal sense of time and space I don't think Iâ€™d experience anywhere else.
Start and finish are relative terms, since our little river is always flowing somewhere else. It doesn't really have a beginning or an end because itâ€™s linked to so many other creeks and streams and inlets and brooks that wander to so many different places. It's part of something much larger, something that's never static. It's always moving, changing, turning into some other thing, becoming something else, just like the cells in a human body change with every breath a person takes.
While it passes through and around Whip-Poor-Will Falls, our little river does everything a river is supposed to do, although it does it on a slightly smaller scale than the Amazon. It's not simply a river, naturally, because its variables are always changing. It fluctuates with the land. A river and a brook and a stream, it gets much deeper in some spots and wider in others. It can slow to a lazy, waveless pulse, or speed up to a point it has an undertow strong enough to sweep away ill-prepared baby chipmunks that unintentionally venture too close. (Now donâ€™t fret â€“ their parents always save them.) The banks are fairly high and steep at one point just beyond town, and then the river narrows to nothing more than a trickle, a spindly little tributary, to the south.
Less than a mile later, it widens again downstream. The banks lose their height and become much more gradual, and thick groves of pines creep right down to the edge of the water. If we get unseasonably warm temperatures in early April after a winter of exceptionally high snowfall, the river's deluged with enough melt water that it rises and climbs up over the banks. It will seep into neighboring wheat fields and flood much of the arable land for miles. Itâ€™s never risen enough to climb up the hill and lay siege to my basement, but the threatâ€™s always there. Brrr.
(Brrr. Thatâ€™s another one of those words that mimic their meaning, like boom. Oh, I remember what it is now: onomatopoeia. Whew. Sleep will come.)
Farther on, the river winds back and forth through the center of town, in a delicate, graceful â€œsâ€, which is another reason everything here moves a little slower than it does in other places. There are only a few bridges spanning the river, and even though the flow of water trickles down to nothing more than a stubborn creek in a couple of places, you still have to cross it to get to the other side. Most of the roads in town converge near the bridges at some point or other, which bottlenecks traffic a bit in the summer when all the tourists and cottage-people are passing through.
Gary Philpot, the local reeve, tried to oust Mayor Compton on that very issue a few years back. Gary became obsessed about the main bridge. He wanted to tear down the old single lane fixture in the center of town and replace it with a new one that could let two cars pass in opposite directions at the same time. Wary of anything that might be misconstrued as progress, almost everyone seemed to think the bridge was just fine the way it was. Mr. Moore, a financial advisor and accountant, had volunteered his services as the townâ€™s â€˜bean counterâ€™. (The Moores, the last family who lived here, had purchased me from the Michaelsons, who had to move because of financial pressure and the need for downsizing, about two years after the Kanes had left.) After reviewing the economics, Mr. Moore reported the project wasn't 'economically feasible or viableâ€™ at the time. The townspeople sighed with relief.
But Gary Philpot wouldn't let the matter drop and brought it up at every council meeting he attended. Like a stray, injured dog, he gnawed and shook that bone of a lane to death.
Tempers flared. Finally, Mayor Compton called a special meeting at the community center one summer night before the mixed softball game. The room was packed: practically everyone showed up, since they either played or watched the baseball game, anyway. Here in town, sports are one part recreational and two parts social.
Gary knew this was his big chance, and he was sweating bullets long before the meeting even got underway. Gary was always perspiring, no matter what the weather. He said it was his glands but most people thought it had something to do with his nerves. He forgot to wear a sweater that night, and two large stains were already spreading across his underarms before he'd given his opening remarks. Self-conscious of the meandering wetness, he tried to keep his arms angled back and out to the side. Flustered as he paced back and forth, he looked like a turkey flapping through the barnyard just before Thanksgiving clucking "farmer Butford's got his axe, farmer Butford's got his axe!"
For once, though, Gary wasn't going to let a little thing like a damp and slightly rancid shirt undermine his plans. He teetered back and forth behind the podium and determinedly extolled the virtues of a two-lane bridge. He'd even rented an overhead projector from the school so he could show everyone the list of benefits he'd written down (although heâ€™d forgotten to get a screen and the words looked a little fuzzy when they were shown on the brick wall.) Quite emphatically, he reiterated over and over again that the new bridge would put us on the map.
Yet being on the map is exactly what most small towns that thrive by carving out their own little niche want to avoid. Gary Philpot didn't like it one bit when Morty Stafford, the postmaster, suggested the only reason the Reeve wanted more traffic was because of his worms, since he owned the only bait shop around, and in the summer and fall business was always booming. Gary fought back and said he was only interested in what was good for the whole town. He ranted on like a Baptist minister, yet whenever he tried to make a point, someone shuffled forward on their chair, scratched their head and mumbled their disagreement.
â€œIt'll be better for business.â€
â€œWe got enough business, Gary.â€
â€œLess traffic problems means more people will come through.â€
â€œCome on, Gary, we got enough people coming through as it is.â€
(Poor Billy Metcalfe. Heâ€™s owned a combination vegetable and fruit stand out on the main highway for years, and, in order to compensate with the constant noise of the cars and trucks as he tries to talk to his customers, he instinctively raises and lowers his voice as real, or imaginary, traffic, whizzes by. Whizzes- more onomatopoeia.)
â€œA two-way bridge will make us look more modern.â€
â€œWhat's wrong with the way we look now?â€
â€œWith everything backed up we could get into road rage problems.â€
â€œLook, Gary, weâ€™d need more than a couple of cars for that.â€
People were a little worried that the bugs were going to be out before the baseball game was over, so the meeting floundered like a trout in the bottom of a canoe. When the votes came in that fall, Brian Compton was re-elected mayor and we still had a one-lane bridge. Gary Philpot, who was still the Reeve, sulked and stewed about the whole thing until Christmas, but the issue has never been broached again, and it probably won't be. In a small town, when an issue's been decided, it's decided, and that's it. No appeals, no injunctions, no messing around with backroom shenanigans or greased palms, and you might just as well send the little chain-gang of arrogant, anally retentive, dark-suited lawyers back to the city, thank-you-very-much.
Itâ€™s the same as our name. Whip-Poor-Will Falls is a bit like a newborn baby: small, naive, a tad insecure, and a little overwhelmed with all the things happening around us. When we kick up a fuss about something we think is important, not too many people down in the city pay very much attention. At the same time, we donâ€™t really care, because we've got just about everything the world has to offer right at our fingertips. There's no reason why we couldnâ€™t have been called Riverâ€™s Bend, Wrenâ€™s Station, Snake Pass, Trillium Nook, Whitewater Chickadees, Trout Creek, or Crow's Landing.
Despite all the choices, the people who were here about a hundred and fifty years ago and were instrumental in naming our little collection of side-splits, two stories, A-Frames, barns and cottages, decided to glorify the falls and use the tiny Whip-Poor-Wills for our mascot. And that's just fine with me.
If I had the chance, the only thing I'd change right now is that horrible 'For Sale' sign with the 'Sold' sticker plastered over it the Real Estate Agencyâ€™s cantankerous, mercurial, half- bald gnome with the spiky nose and ear hair stabbed into my front lawn. That sign pierces more than my grass and new topsoil; it wounds my very heart. And everybody knows.
The Moores are probably unpacking their things at their new home and my next family hasnâ€™t even come yet. Itâ€™s getting more worrisome as the hours pass; they should have been here by now. No-one knows who they are, because they never came to inspect me or drag the children out for a look before the sale was finalized. But, truth be told, I miss them already; my walls ache, my furnace is gurgling, and my floors are sighing with weightlessness. If houses possessed ghosts of the people who died within their walls and floors and ever-changing rooms (and they do!), my spirits would be moaning.
My framing tenses every time I hear an unfamiliar car winding down the road that separates me from the river, wondering if it could be the one. I can sense my roof sag ever so slightly when the car keeps rolling on past that obnoxious sign and into town. I hope nothing has happened to my new family. Oh, what a terrible thought! I pray theyâ€™re safe, but I really hope they're not too long, because I know we're going to get along just fine.
After all, what meaning does a house really have without a family to love and protect?
Clarence and the Cemetery
'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.
â€¦. John Howard Payne, 'Home, Sweet Home'
from the opera Clari, the Maid of Milan
On the very outskirts of Whip-Poor-Will Falls, to the east, where the river begins its serpentine journey into the lowland hills and crevices of the moraine, lies a breath-takingly beautiful, archaic cemetery with deeply rooted ties to the town. Like the perennial intangibles associated with death, itâ€™s not too close, but not too far away either, where secret memories and forlorn laments are often softened by sweet, gentle reminiscences. The gateway to the graves and the wondrous hereafter stands stoically at the junction between the river and the edge of the forest, right where the intermingled patches of evergreens and pines really begin to thicken. No gargoyles or shadow-crusted mausoleums, no threatening obelisks that block out the light, and none of those large stone or marble blocks proclaiming the severity of life, where one side is already chiseled in with a name and a date, and the other side remains only half-finished; one spouse still above the ground, the other, below and waiting. What do people feel when they come to prune a hedge or clean out creeping vines or sweep away spring debris? Or just to lay flowers and stay and sit for a while, seeing that last, unfilled, empty date? The end of their time. Fear?
Insecurity? A sense that nothing truly ends? Cemeteries are a little bit like houses; the old souls who have left are always waiting for the new ones to come and fill the void.
Except for the eerie, haunting lament of a single loon, or the occasional early evening cry of a Whip-Poor-Will searching for a mate, our little town cemetery is almost always pensively quiet, so when youâ€™re taking your time going nowhere on a warm, late-summer night and youâ€™re walking past the names and dates that never change, you can still here the ethereal pulse of the river.
And the fragile cadence of Clarence.
Poor old weary, languorous, shuffling Clarence. A farmer, an earth-tiller even older than me.
When a nascent sun is trying to burn the shimmering dew from the ground, Clarence, thin and ageless in his baggy pants and frayed, once-plaid shirt whoâ€™s always bent over like a question mark, lumbers his way through the crinkled leaves on arthritic feet, roaming through the stagnant mist, content he has the whole place to himself. He goes to the cemetery practically every day to see his wife Mae, who hasnâ€™t been by his side in over fifty years (no, really, fifty years, ever since the Summer of Love, thatâ€™s how long heâ€™s pined for her), way way back when the Napiers â€“ I think it was the Napiers â€“ were my family. Tired and alone, Clarence sits on one of the wooden benches that are slowly being overlaid with creeping vines, and waits. And waits. When he tires during his daily sojourn, Clarence likes to pause and sit on the special bench made with wood and stone with the beautifully carved marker that was donated by the Annflaksâ€™ children, because Dr. and Mr. Annflak were such an integral part of our little town, but never had a plot in our cemetery. They planted a catalpa tree in honor of their parents, too, a bulb of dainty green that comes alive with little yellow chickadees each spring. The bench and the tree are iconic reminders of the love and promises that go far beyond life.
Was it the Napiers? It was, wasnâ€™t it? It seems so long ago now.
Sometimes families pass by in their own little world, half-hidden, apart but not a part, but even though transient and now transparent decades have unfolded I can still usually put a face to them. I have to picture them walking around the rooms or doing something, like renovations, perhaps, or yelling and arguing, or just sitting in different rooms in quiet desperation, and then I make a wild dash through the alphabet trying to match a letter to a name for the face. It was obviously a great deal easier when the LaSalle and Son Construction Company were smoothing out the stones for the driveway and my slate was relatively clean. As those first few early seasons passed, I didnâ€™t have quite as many people to remember. One family, and then another, in a steady, simple sequence. But now, back then seems a little misty sometimes. Blurry. Like thereâ€™s snow on my windows, or morning mist from the river fogging up the glass.
Yes. I can see them fairly clearly now. It was the Napiers. Edgar and Louise. A middle-aged couple who seemed to have stayed in as many homes as a number of my other families had put together, left me before two seasons twinkled by. And that might have been a blessing. Childless by choice, they had, apparently, at least from what Iâ€™d seen, never been a happy couple. They werenâ€™t even a couple, when it came right down to it, since they were never physically, psychologically or emotionally close. If you were new to Whip-Poor-Will Falls and saw them in a store on Main Street, you probably wouldnâ€™t have thought they were together. I wondered why they had ever married in the first place, what it was that could possibly had drawn them together because (and please, forgive me if I sound offensive), they werenâ€™t â€œcloseâ€ in the headboard-banging-against-the-wall type of way, either. Sorry, but thatâ€™s the way it was. They were the kind of people you wouldnâ€™t be surprised to read about in the paper one day or perhaps see on the news, after something terrible had happened to one of them, and the police were looking for the partner as a â€œperson of interest.â€
Living with the Napiers was rather tiresome, but at the same time, tense. One night I was really afraid. Theyâ€™d fought before, but this was different. Iâ€™m sure they sensed it, too. This was â€œitâ€, the proverbial straw that could break a camelâ€™s back, the type of argument that escalated far too quickly, too forcefully. Too fatefully. When you say the kinds of things that can never, ever be taken back, or forgotten. And worse still are all the things that werenâ€™t said, the things that were left dangling in the air between them like a reaperâ€™s scythe.
Eventually, after heart-wrenching hours of yells and curses, threats and tears, accusations and horrible silences that stained my floors and ceiling for years, there was a gruesome silence. They started the lugubrious process of moving away from their house, away from me, and each other, the very next morning.
Edgar and Louise were gone within a few short days. Here, and then not here. Everything essential was packed up in a matter of hours, and they were well on their way to wherever they were going before the first few cows with one horn painted red shuffled out of farmer Butfordâ€™s barn, ringing their little bells. Nothing of importance was left behind. There wasnâ€™t as much as a trace of them. Were they every really here?
I remember feeling very sad for the Napiers, but it was obvious they would never have a real life together, regardless of where they were going. Separating early might have given them another chance. But by staying together, they never had the opportunity to find someone else and maybe even find a real home. Perhaps they left me, and each other. But in my heart of hearts, those thoughts deeply imbedded in the raked concrete of my foundation, I doubt that ever happened.
Clarence and the cemetery.
Most of the plots have either a stone, marble, or granite marker. Some of the etchings and designs are really beautiful, with delicate engravings and thoughtfully carved pictures of angelic or personally meaningful scenes. There are photos, sometimes, aged sepia under glass; even though I havenâ€™t seen them directly, they still make me shiver. But as far as I can tell, not even the wisest and most philosophical monument maker in the world could possibly chisel a personâ€™s entire life into one page of blank granite. Epitaphs should be so much more than that, much more than a name, a date, a little thought or a wish or two.
Itâ€™s just like an epitaph trying to carve a life in stone. Even though youâ€™ve experienced it before, itâ€™s still a shock to see yourself laid bare like that, open and exposed, for everyone and anyone else to see. There you are, a link in a chain, a hope and promise in â€œThe Bookâ€ at the sulky little gnomeâ€™s office. When youâ€™re in â€œThe Bookâ€ youâ€™re just one house nestled in the midst of hundreds of other homes anxiously waiting to be sold, stuck together in a big black binder squashed tight with fact sheets and prices and dimensions.
Forget the â€œSoldâ€ sticker plastered diagonally across the â€œFor Saleâ€ sign. Anything can change. There I was, laid out on page 156 in the monthly Real Estate Review. At least I was fortunate enough â€“
Oh, another car, a minivan, stopping at the bottom of my driveway. Little faces peer out from the back seats, and the man leans over in front of his wife toward me, squinting, scanning for something. Their roof rack is piled high with luggage, and a fat rusty tabby cat is scrunched up between a box of tissues and the rear window, baking in the sun. Could this be them? My new family?
No. No, there they go. They stop again in front of the widow Churchhill's next door.
They must be looking for directions. When they didn't see any lights on or signs of life beyond my windows, they moved on right away. There's something innately distressing and foreboding to people about an empty house. Spooky, sometimes. Well, if I've waited this long, I guess I can wait a little more. But my beams still sigh.
Anyway, at least I was fortunate enough to have the page to myself. Page number 156. (Abbreviated.)
FOR SALE! Absolutely a must-see! Itâ€™ll be gone in no
Whip-Poor-Will Falls. Custom built bungalow, circa 1920's. Beautifully maintained, quality woodwork throughout, much still original. Remodeled 1992-95. 3600 sq.ft, plus unfinished crawl space. Two car garage connected to house with breezeway. Basement entrance. Four bedrooms, three up, one down. Master has 3-piece ensuite, clothes chute to basement. 4-piece bath upstairs, 3-piece down. Basement finished in tongue/groove pine. Cold storage. Five new appliances. Eat-in kitchen with solid oak pantry. Woodstove, air/cond., security system. Extra storage in garage. Central vac, new sat. dish. Well, septic, recently serviced. Interlock driveway. Nicely landscaped front lot across from river. 2 1/2 acres, half fully treed. Corners onto Crown land and backs onto farm. Owner will leave two bush cords of hardwood, neatly stacked. Hurry hurry hurry!
Call Murray Klingman at Sunset Reality today, or it'll be too late!
That's the description of me the little real estate gnome with the hairy ears keeps in the 'current properties' book to show prospective buyers. That's it. My entire life summed up in a few contrite lines. In the bottom right corner thereâ€™s a small, rather fuzzy black-and-white photo someone took from across the street by the river. And yes, sepia shots can often be quite dignified, but this oneâ€™s far from flattering. It wasn't even a clear day, so the firewood Mr. Moore stacked so neatly down the side of the garage just looks like a shadowy bulge. A penumbra, perhaps. Or a woody tumor.
What does all that abbreviated mumbo-jumbo really tell anyone? Anyone that wants to know about me, or any other house for that matter.
It's like reading one of Bob Teeson's summations in the obituary column in the Whip- Poor-Will Falls Gazette. Those Readerâ€™s Digest condensed versions of a life tell you basic things about the person whoâ€™s recently passed on, things that probably everyone in town already knows. But if you hadnâ€™t known them personally, if you don't have a sense of who and what they were, or even why, then you really have no idea whatsoever about what went on inside them during whatever number of years God let them share with the rest of the world. Like Clarenceâ€™s lifetime lover, Mae. You never would have really known anything about Mae if youâ€™d just read her obituary, the prosaic little tombstone poem that someone who hardly even knew her actually wrote. Youâ€™d undoubtedly understand her a great deal better by simply walking quietly through the front room in her little farmhouse, and listening.
This notice was in our local paper a couple of weeks before the Moores walked down my front porch steps for the last time. (Abbreviated.)
Swansea, Ethel (nee Taylor):
Sept. 18th. Peacefully in her sleep, after a long, courageous battle with cancer. Beloved wife of the late John Swansea (sergeant, RCAF, retired). Mother of Sarah Beth, Elaine, and Thomas. Wonderful grandmother to Tom, Josh, Linda, Dianne, Carol, Adam, David, Cory, and Richard. Loving great- grandmother to Justin, Louise, and Brayden.
Member of the Ladies Home Auxiliary, the Hospital Quilters, and the Welcome Wagon.
Pack leader for Beavers and Sparks. Devoted parishioner of the United Church.
Special thanks to all the staff at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. No visitation. Services at the Dundurn Funeral Home. Internment at Whip-Poor-Will Falls Cemetery for family members only please. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Cancer Society and the SOS 18/19 Program would be greatly appreciated.
Sorely and deeply missed, but finally free of pain, and safely in the hands of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
To our Lord we always come home.
(Odd. Weird, even, and definitely a little eerie. The sense of unnaturalness that sends shivers through my roof trusses. Not that Iâ€™m superstitious or anything like that. But thirteen?
Ten lines for the sale of a house (Abbreviated), and only thirteen lines for the end of a life. Burrr.)
I knew Ethel â€“ I know Ethel â€“ and that's not the summation of her life any more than the inscription etched on her gravestone defines whatâ€™s left behind and lies beneath.
A house isn't any different. You certainly can't tell what a house is really like just by looking at it from the outside, or by reading a few sketchy details about its interior. All the clichÃ©s are there; you can't tell a book by its cover; appearances can be deceiving; it's what's on the inside that counts. Remember Bieber? Putin? The Senate? Internet dating?
People could pass by me a hundred times and still never even begin to imagine what I look like once you step past the threshold of the front door and deeper into my domain. Whatâ€™s my actual size? How the rooms are laid out. Their dimensions and how they're situated to each other. What modifications and additions have been made to my original structure. Even the height of my ceilings, or the placement of doorways, can change the appearance of a house quite dramatically. The list goes on and on.
LaSalle and Sons, a local family-run construction company, for example, can make a side-split that's twenty-four hundred square feet. But if they have any ingenuity or creativity at all, they can design that same side-split in a multitude of different ways. Larger rooms, for instance, but no separate dining room. A first floor family room at the expense of an extra bedroom. An ensuite instead of a main floor laundry room. Make everything smaller and add a den, or make every room larger and take away an eat-in kitchen. Angle the walls. Walk-in closets, or a pass-through from the kitchen to the dining room? A sunken family room or an elevated foyer? The variations and permutations are endless, and they're really only limited by the builder's imagination and the clientâ€™s pocket book.
If you donâ€™t think Iâ€™m right, just take a look at an architectâ€™s floor plans. Not subdivision ones, of course, since those houses are built in a relatively standardized form. But that's a factor of construction costs and the ease of building, and not because of a lack of options. Even a small link or townhouse could be designed in so many different ways the interior would never be the same, yet the floor plans would all be fairly similar.
That's why I've never really understood how people can choose a home simply by looking at designs, fact sheets and models based on "an artist's conception" in a sales pavilion. I've heard that many people buy houses that way: so they can get in on the ground floor, as the saying goes. Choose a house and a lot long before the ground's been broken or the site has even been staked out. But they've never actually seen their house. Maybe it's like having a child and not wanting to be told its sex after the ultrasound, or ordering a purebred puppy before the litter even begins to show.
I do know that no matter how hard you try, you can't tell what's inside a house by examining its roof and bricks, its new stone chimney, or the snaking thinness of the tiny cracks in its foundation. Even peeking at the interior doesn't always help, since a house is much more than the things displayed, the way the furniture is arranged, or how the walls have been painted. You have to live in a house to know it. And thatâ€™s when it becomes a home. Usually.
Families upon families have paraded through my front door, and almost all of them have physically changed me in some way or another that seemed important for them to help make me theirs, if only for awhile. Some did it with wall-paper and paint, or trendy wooden floors. Others put up new curtains and drapes in the main rooms, while the next family had all the window coverings taken down and replaced them with shutters. A bathroom made newer, more modern, and then remodeled to make it look old-fashioned again. Wallpaper, with borders and wainscoting. Then everything meticulously unglued and re-painted in deep earth tones, before it was all transformed again with serene pastels. Carpet then tiles then hardwood. Bamboo once, even. Times changed, and so did my ownersâ€™ opinions about how I should look. Sometimes I felt like a younger sibling being dressed up by older brother or sister in forgotten clothes found in an attic trunk someone had left behind.
The Michaelsons liked to re-decorate, but they didnâ€™t appear to have very much fun doing it: each alteration was a job, a job that had to be finished, not an enjoyable step into the fashionable unknown. They left a lot of re-modeling ideas in the design phase. They seemed like a nice enough couple at first, but when I look back through the few seasons they spent sitting stoically together on my front porch and watching the small bursts of clouds drift by in ever- changing shapes and patterns over the river, there was something unsettling about them I couldnâ€™t quite put my finger on at the time. Something peculiar, perhaps, or incongruous.
I think part of the problem stemmed from the fact they were in the same profession.
Although they didnâ€™t work directly with each other, the Michaelsons, like many couples who are in the same field often find, thereâ€™s less to talk about and share after an arduous day if youâ€™re always dealing with similar problems, attitudes, and people when youâ€™re at the â€œoffice.â€ Nothingâ€™s new at the dinner table, or when youâ€™re reading and cuddled up in bed. Youâ€™ve already heard the same gossip, and youâ€™re propitiously aware of whatever office politics are in play. You both know whoâ€™s seeing who, and whoâ€™s not seeing who any longer. Whatâ€™s going to change in the hierarchy and what isnâ€™t. Where so-and-so is going on their vacation. There often isnâ€™t much to talk about at all. Been there, done that.
The Michaelsons were both secondary school teachers, and you know how didactic and opinionated some educators can be. Thatâ€™s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but there was a definite undercurrent of one-upmanship between Mr. and Mrs. Michaelson that seemed to strain their relationship. Teaching the same students, going for the same senior positions, dealing with parents they both knew; everything mingling together to stoke a level of tension and stress between them that always seemed to be boiling just under the surface.
Unfortunately, the Michaelsons worked at the same school, so they rarely had any interesting rumors to banter back and forth while they were having a drink before dinner, or a liqueur after. Both of them always had to be right, and Lois and Marshall perpetually had to get in the last word during any discussion. They lived together, but were intrinsically apart. They were too close, if you know what I mean, but not close enough. They were around each other all the time, and it wore on them the longer they were together. Married to their profession, they had left it too late to safely have children. A son and a daughter might have made their situation a little less self-focused and more tolerable. Sadly, theyâ€™ll never know.
They left after three summers, accepting positions together at another school back in the heart of the city. When the veneer is stripped away and the hardwoodâ€™s left bare, Iâ€™m pretty open and not one to judge. Basically, the Michaelsons were good owners. They paid their mortgage down, argued, watched movies together, kept me clean, read out on the front porch, put in a small garden, extended the back porch, thought about a gazebo but never let it get beyond the planning stage, finished separate crosswords, but never, ever entertained so much as one other couple in all the time they lived with me. All of their friends were teachers, too. They walked around me like they were almost afraid to touch anything, to disturb a cushion or a lamp, like they just wanted to get through everything. Even in the depth of winter, they never even used the woodstove once, so whispering on woodsmoke was kept at an absolute minimum. I hope they found more contentment, and release, at their new home.
To a house, an obituary, the most titular way of bearing a soul, isn't really all that much different than an auction notice plastered in the back pages of The Whip-Poor-Will Gazette.
When the sad day comes and the long-time owner of a home finally passes away without anyone else left to hand it down to, one of our local auctioneers lists the personâ€™s belongings, exposing the person, and their house, to an uncomfortable level of intense scrutiny thatâ€™s difficult to even imagine. Itâ€™s like a pathetic little garage sale, only much, much larger.
Saturday, Oct. 28th: O'Keefe and Son, Auctioneers, at Kaminsky's Barn
We have been nominated to conduct a final auction on all household contents and property for the estate of Judy and Trevor McGuire, late of Trent Landing. Doors open 8:00 sharp. Friday viewing at 7:30 or by appointment only. Pre-registration cards still available. Cash, cheque (O.A.C.), Visa, Mastercard. Refreshments.
Many collectible items of the finest quality. List includes limited edition prints by various wildlife artists. Fine china, porcelain figurines, Royal Doulton pieces.
Indoor: all appliances (fridge -1 upright, 1 small), 18 cu. ft. freezer, microwave, washer/dryer (7 years new), stove, pots, pans, blender, corn popper, glasses, mugs, coffee maker, woodstove kettle, toaster.
Furniture pieces: large solid mahogany dining room set with eight matching chairs, sidetable, server with hutch; complete living room furniture (sofa, chesterfield, end tables, lamps), lighting fixtures, chandelier, Sutcliffe woodstove (insert); oak bedroom suite with matching dresser, armoire, trunk.
Outdoor items include: handmade oak â€œwindmillâ€ well cover, garden tools (including weeder, spreader, rakes, 20 gallon weed sprayer, Honda snow blower, edger, hedge trimmer), a ceramic fountain and bird bath. Custom made Finch feeder.
Barn: Also to be auctioned: two Pulsar snowmobiles (1994 and 1993); four x four, ATV 1990 Susuki, 250 quad runner, high/low range transmission; John Deere lawn tractor (5 years old); trailer hitch; fiberglass canoe.
Registered Firearms: Winchester model 120 12 gauge pump shotgun and a 3030. All sales final. For full inventory list call Mr. O'Keefe at 325-8877.
Scrapped to the bottom of the barrel, and then practically and metaphorically sucked dry to the very barest of bones.
That vampire stake with the â€˜For Saleâ€™ sign on my front lawn is bad enough. At least I havenâ€™t had to grimace and suffer the indignity of that contemptible, nerve-wracking free-for-all realtors pejoratively call an â€œopen house.â€ Those two little words never fail to make me shudder.
But an auction?
Itâ€™s like being attacked by a marauding Viking horde, or pillaged by a horde of marauding Vikings. Either way youâ€™re screwed. My furnace starts heating up my pipes like stents in a strained heart artery, and my I-beams and supporting rods quiver when I even think of the day I'd be over-run with voracious gangs of bargain-hunters giddily grasping at the only things I have left of my last family. It's far worse than the most horrible and degrading street garage sale you could ever imagine: a seething, writhing pack of strangers descending in frenzy to snatch up someone else's treasured things at the lowest prices they can haggle.
What can those special and personal things possibly mean to them, or to anyone else, for that matter? The possessions that just a short time ago helped make someoneâ€™s life a little more special, a touch more meaningful, even if was just for a little while. It reminds me of the greedy rabble that pillage Dickenâ€™s poor old Scrooge before his epiphany, haughtily molesting his dank little room mere moments after he dies. One woman (in a puppeteer adaption of that wonderful tale) is a spider, and she even has the temerity to grab the sheets right from the miser's bed.
These blankets â€“ oh my, my dear â€“ they're still warm!
The Moores, who just left a couple of weeks ago, took everything with them that they could, all of the things that they either needed or wanted or were personally important to their lives in some way or another, and I'm certainly glad they did. It doesnâ€™t make me feel empty in the least. They are whatâ€™s gone â€“ not their things. Like everyone else whoâ€™s passed through my threshold, they've left more of themselves here with me than they'll ever really know or understand. All of the things that can never be valued monetarily.
And those are the things that make both of our lives so charmingly special.
Where we love is home â€“home that our
feet may leave, but not our hearts.
â€¦.. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
LaSalle and Son Construction broke my ground back in 1924, so I'm just a few years shy of my ninety-fifth birthday and, therefore, almost as old as Clarence, although I've always prided myself in looking much younger than my age. Clarence, on the other hand, has never cared a poop about how old he looks.
A comfortably sized ranch bungalow, Iâ€™m fully bricked except for the front, which was re-done in natural stone two families ago. The stone came from a local quarry and it's created a rather rustic, refined, and passively cultured look. The main floor has a small dining room, closet, a three-piece bathroom, and a nicely-sized living room, although the kitchen commands the greatest space. The eat-in nook overlooks the backyard, and since there aren't any curtains on the windows, it's always bright and sunny. Like an old farmhouse kitchen, it's a warm, beckoning place that invites people to gather.
The living room is at the front. Almost as soon as they moved in, Karen, Mrs. Moore, had the two narrow rectangular windows replaced with a large bay window that frames a little settee. Mrs. Moore liked to sit there and read in the mornings, tranquilly watching the river drift by, especially after the children shuffled off down the driveway to catch the school bus. We passed many days like that together; I'd keep the floor just warm enough so that she could kick off her slippers, and Mrs. Moore would read to me between sips of coffee and lingering, thoughtful stares outside.
The bedrooms and main bathroom are all together at the far end of the floor. There are two good-sized children's rooms, each with their own walk-in closet, and a master bedroom with a lovely ensuite. Thereâ€™s a large linen closet in the hallway and a boxed-in chute in the floor that goes all the way to the basement so the laundry doesn't have to be carried downstairs. It was designed for clothes and linens, but four families back, when â€œthe Shaw boysâ€ were living here, they called the laundry chute the "cat express." The boys weren't cruel or intentionally mean: they were just little men. They always took care to make sure there was something piled up below in the basement to cushion Muffy's fall when the cat was chucked into the 'elevator' and the boys pressed 'B'.
My attic extends the full range of the house underneath the roof. Air-controlled by large, circular vents, it's never really been used for anything other than extra storage space, and, on occasion, a home for wayward animals that hadn't relished another winter outside. Although those â€˜Shaw boysâ€™ certainly had some fun up in the attic, too. Then again, they had fun just about anywhere they could slip, slide, crawl, wriggle, or talk themselves into.
No matter how many storms I weather, or how hard I try to stop fissures or sneaking plant vines from creeping into my foundation, I could never, ever forget the Shaws. Ben and Heather had the rather dubious distinction of being the parents of two little terrors, muddy cyclones of playful destruction that never stopped whirling. When practically anything went wrong in town, like an old tractor tire wheeling its way all alone down our main street and knocking over the paper box in front of Edâ€™s Hardware store, people instinctively pointed a chastising finger at â€œthose Shaw boys.â€ They were a tad rambunctious, thereâ€™s no doubt about that, and they certainly stirred up recipe after recipe for disaster. But they werenâ€™t mean, and they certainly were never intentionally caustic or malicious. They just had a propensity to be in the heart of whatever trouble was going on. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw were never as punitive or disciplinarian with the boys as some of the townsfolk would have liked, and I always thought they were a lot of fun. Sometimes boys like that give a small, fairly staid town a little sense of Bogart or Brando, or perhaps the infamous â€œRat Pack,â€ and every town needs a little bit of bravado, of a taste of the wild side, a precocious wind that can erase the moral â€œline in the sandâ€ every now and then. Itâ€™s the curse of the â€˜sâ€™ words: if you get too staid, you get somber, and when you get somber you become too serious, and seriousness leads to being self-absorbed and a smidgen too sedate. If truth be told, the â€˜Shaw boysâ€™ were probably partly responsible for the whole one-horn-painted-red-on-Mr.Butfordâ€™s-cattle caper, but they were never officially caught. And they never really hurt so much as a cat.
Two families after the Shaws left, the little garage was finally changed from a one car to a two. Extended and re-modelled, even though it was built for two cars itâ€™s easily wide enough for three and some lawn equipment. Itâ€™s attached to my side with a ten-foot glass breezeway that serves as a kind of mud room, since I don't have a large front foyer. Downstairs is basically one large room, with an extra bedroom and bath at one end that was designed mainly for guests. The Moores added a central fireplace and brick hearth, and they also finished the paneling the Michaelsons had started with beautiful tongue and groove pine. Itâ€™s not a room; itâ€™s a retreat.
My best feature is my front porch. It extends from one side, by the edge of the breezeway, all across the front and then down the far wall to the side door. About twelve feet wide and solid wood, it's completely covered by an overhanging roof. It has pleasantly attractive support poles that are detailed and ornate without being ostentatious, and a spindle railing with small flower boxes every six feet. It's a beautiful, cozy place to sit any time of day, and it has an enticing sense of warmth and serenity that's always lured people to come and talk, or to just sit together and watch the sun slowly set on the river.
Physically, I'm not very different than I began all those years ago. I've had less remodeling done than most homes, and I've been fortunate enough to have escaped any severe damage over the years. No fires or flooding, hurricanes or tornados. I couldn't imagine the pain and sense of helplessness the houses must have felt during the ice storm that ravaged through Quebec and Eastern Ontario back in '98, or the constant snowstorms that battered the northeastern States in 2014. I've certainly sustained my fair share of abuse, but I've never been injured badly enough to warrant reconstruction or major renovations or anything like that. I've been quite fortunate, really, because thereâ€™s lots of ways a house can be damaged.
Location and climate naturally go together. In Whip-Poor-Will Falls, when you're a couple of hours away from the vast wilderness of Algonquin Park, the weather is always a concern. The winters are longer and colder than they are down in the city, the summers quick but intense. Fall can be endless weeks of lazy, Indian-summer afternoons highlighted with trees in majestic splendour, or bleak and biting, with an icy dampness that grinds arthritic bones and cracks the planks of my deck. As a single house in the middle of a large plot of land, I don't have the same protection from the elements like wind and snow that city homes have when they're all clustered together for warmth and support.
Spring brings birds and buds, baby animals, and the first tulips. But winter is always reluctant to let go. The temperature fluctuates wildly, and usually you can't put your boots away until the very end of May. Even as the trees begin to bloom and new shoots of grass poke up through the crinkly tarp of leaves that covered the ground last fall, there's always another snowy blast or two that freezes everything into impatient inertia. It's a restless time. When city houses have shaken off the last of the winter blahs and their families are already dragging their little carts through the local nurseries, it's not uncommon for me to wake up and find my roof completely dusted with new snow. Again, and again. Winter is the rejected teenage lover who refuses to give up.
Since the weather oscillates so much through a spectrum of extremes, and because the winter is so clinging and tenacious, a house can sustain a troublesome amount of injury that eventually needs repair. The valleys in my roof where the shingles channel the run-off can crack and heave. When that happens, the water might back up under the soffits and seep inside. And if water is one thing, itâ€™s devious and deceptive.
Prolonged and deep cold can make my foundation shift, and in the summer, when the days get long and suffocatingly hot, the beams and trusses in my attic can warp. My pipes constantly threaten to crack, and the flooring for my deck and front porch can often be prone to buckling. Even just the weight of snow and ice can put added stress on my roof supports and eaves, which causes expansions and contractions. That's why some houses often get cracks at the juncture points between the walls and ceiling, recurring fissures that have to be caulked, taped, sanded and re-painted. Again and again.
I doubt most people ever realize how important it is to follow some kind of preventive maintenance schedule. You wouldn't play hockey or football without a jock, though, would you? With time, everything wears, erodes, frays, cracks, shifts, buckles, pops, or generally just breaks down. I can't escape the ravages of wear and tear, although I can keep their effects at bay for a family's lifetime if I'm properly preserved and maintained. Of course, if the wrong materials were used during my construction in the first place, then the problems that can develop later are more frequent and severe, and generally, theyâ€™re much more difficult to rectify. It's not unlike a mother who smokes or drinks during pregnancy. A little care and attention, a modest sacrifice, and thereâ€™ll be fewer complications down the road for everyone concerned.
You have to be watchful. Many of the people I've come to know never give so much as a second thought to the idea that something seemingly so innocuous and simple as poking a nail hole through my drywall for a new picture can hurt. Never mind a lag bolt into my ceiling so they can hang a plant from one of those little brass 'j' hooks, or shiving a stuck door frame. People probably never realize how stressful it is to my floors to have the furniture moved back and forth, or to have a hole cut into my drywall for a new electrical fixture. And guess what? Paint smells, and I often get the most disorientating feeling of nausea and tightness when my walls get caked with wallpaper glue if people forget to leave a couple of windows open a crack.
Houses donâ€™t have to be abused to sustain serious damage â€“ basic neglect can be just as treacherous. Nothing in your house deserves to be mistreated or taken for granted. Many owners adopt the distressing attitude that what they share is "just a house," because they see their home as inanimate and intrinsically functional. Somewhere to crash, or a place to hang their hat. For some reason, they can't see beyond that frame of reference, but like any form of prejudice, it's a devious perspective that distorts their expectations about what having a home really means. They see a house as something that's always there for them, that's just supposed to be used and passed on. Those people never stop to remember that a good home isn't all that much different than their first teddy bear.
Most homes I've traded secrets with don't like to look unkempt, messy, or out of shape any more than an adolescent does. And we need to be loved. I've never whispered to a house who likes being compared to one that's a little bigger, newer, or more expensive. Houses want their families to be proud of them; they don't want to be a financial burden, a 'mortgage problem,' or a 'bottomless pit' of material woes. They don't want to be blamed when they're injured or something goes wrong, and they certainly don't expect to be victimized by peoples' own projected difficulties. I've heard more than one person moan, if only we weren't living here, or the equally defensive, if we just had a nicer house, then maybe . . . .
Houses can't solve families' problems. Most of us try, however, to be as supportive and tolerant as we can. What else can you ask for?
Over the years, I've made a determined effort to be protective, quiet, and trustworthy. I can keep a secret, and I've been built with a solid foundation that's never cracked or shifted. I'm dependable, easily maintained, and pride myself on being just about as weather-proof as a country home can ever be. I don't pout in bad weather, and I make a conscious attempt to keep everyone as comfortable as I can. And that's quite a bit harder to do than most people realize, since humans tend to fluctuate between extremes more than a lawyer's morality. When one person feels a draft and shivers with goosebumps, another one in the same room says theyâ€™re uncomfortably warm and dry. If the air conditioning is just right for Dad, you can bet your concrete footings it's far too cold for Mom. Unless youâ€™re a cheerful psychic, itâ€™s really quite difficult to reach a happy medium.
And yet, despite all the difficulties, (touch my roof support beams,) I've survived my life relatively unscathed, especially when you consider what some other homes have to endure. I probably wouldn't be in the same state I'm in now if one of my families had decided to dig me up and swing me onto a flatbed truck and take me away like someone did with that little one-story a few years back. I'm fortunate to be in the shape I am at my age, and I think I owe some of that good fortune to living and being rooted in such a wonderful little town. Although living in Whip- Poor-Will Falls certainly does have its moments.
* * *
Built on the very eastern edge of Whip-Poor-Will Falls, I have the distinction of being the last home in town before the river elbows up toward the Falls. I sit on about two and a half acres, and since my property slopes up toward the forest and farmer Butford's place, I have a nice perspective on just about the entire town. Depending on the season and the bend in the trees, I can see practically everything that goes on. Letâ€™s be clearâ€“ Iâ€™m certainly not a gossip or a busybody; Iâ€™m just curious and I like to know whatâ€™s happening.
Downtown, we have a post office, an old house that's been turned into a three-room medical center, a hardware store, a little cafe, and Fran's, the hair salon. There's a small variety store that doubles as the local movie outlet (since the library in Lindsay is so far away), and a little mom-and-pop grocery right on the corner of the major intersection. We also boast a well- equipped small appliance repair store, a Co-Op, a tackle-and- bait shop that's only open in the summer (that the Womenâ€™sâ€™ Auxiliary kept petitioning Town Council about until Farmer Butfordâ€™s red-horned cattle came home â€“ and when they werenâ€™t appealing to that same Council about the lettering on Jeff Thompsonâ€™s septic truck â€“ that even though Gary Philpot said he was related to some infamous English Lord he couldnâ€™t use the title â€œMasterâ€ for his bait shop), and a narrow little antique market crammed so full with bric-a-brack it's hard to get in the front door. (I know, it doesnâ€™t make sense to run a business like that. But if you could walk right in and buy things, it wouldnâ€™t be a little country antique store thatâ€™s full of bric-a-brac now would it?)
Whip-Poor-Will Fall's farthest point west, and the last place you see before leaving and turning north to get to the highway, is Len the garage man's gas station. Actually it's his house and a gas station. The only other building right on the highway is Billy Metcalfe's combination farm and vegetable stall which is open every season except winter. Billy's place is actually a little closer to the city bypass, but since he's right on the highway and not actually in town, Len the garage manâ€™s gas station has always claimed the 'last business' distinction. Although it's been somewhat of a bone of contention between them, Billy would never argue the point too vociferously because he has trouble making it through normal conversations to begin with.
Tall and lanky, Billy Metcalfe is so skinny and muscleless I'm sure you could slip him under a door. He has a rather unruly mane of bristly red hair and an Adam's Apple thatâ€™s just a tad smaller than a grapefruit. Everyone in town knows him simply as Beaner. Although there's no facial resemblance whatsoever, his physique does remind you of Rowan Atkinson, and, since he does sell vegetables, it's an appropriate nickname.
Billy hasn't operated the farm since his children moved away a few years back, but he's always maintained a good-sized vegetable garden. He sells corn, string beans, herbs and tomatoes from a stall by the highway's edge, and that's the reason he's lost the ability to carry on a regular conversation. Whenever Billy's talking to a customer or just passing the time of day, the highway traffic whizzes by in a steady, but often erratic, pulse. Billy's voice used to be fairly moderate, but the intermittent roar of the cars and transport trucks effectively blocked out whole stretches of his sentences, which never failed to confuse his listeners.
Unintentionally, Billy began to compensate for those deaden gaps the cars drowned out by speaking louder and louder every time he sensed a vehicle approaching. In time, his tone just naturally started vacillating with the beat of the traffic. He'd be talking normally, but then heâ€™d have to shout so his customers could hear him over the drone of the traffic. It started off as an unconscious habit, but the practice stuck, even when he wasnâ€™t tending his garden or standing by the highway selling his wares.
â€œYes, the sweet cornâ€™s just getting ready to come in, but the peaches and cream are still going to be pretty good for a while, I can tell you that.â€
Since he opened the vegetable stand, Billy rarely discusses anything, although he did try to make a point during a rather feisty debate with Gary Philpot about our townâ€™s one-lane bridge.
Almost all the other buildings in town are residences, and most have been here at least about half as long as I have. We get along about as well as can be expected, although some of the houses downtown have been known to have a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude. I think it's because they're so close to the hub that connects the town together, and because they are, by definition, down town. Regardless of the town or city, people who live downtown invariably have the irritating perspective that they're the center of everything. In Whip-Poor-Will Falls, they also have the â€˜four corners.â€
You see, everything in a small town usually centers around the four corners. The 'four corners' refers to the intersection of the two main arteries in the town's heart, and almost everything else is gauged by its distance from that apex. Itâ€™s much more of a centerpiece than the â€œbend in the riverâ€ because of its positioning. In Whip-Poor-Will Falls, there's no east and west, north or south. The post office, for instance, is on the other side of the four corners from me, whereas Fran's, the hairdressing salon, is 'this' side. You're either 'up from the four' or 'down from the corners,' and practically whatever route is agonizingly chewed over by one of the townspeople then slowly regurgitated to some hapless motorist who was foolish enough to ask directions, the path inevitably begins all the way back at the main intersection.
â€˜Which way ya come from? That way, eh? Well, go back to the four corners . . .â€™
If you can find your way into town, turn right at the four corners . . .â€™
It's the same even if the poor misguided soul simply wants to find his way back to the highway and go home.
â€˜Well, you'll have to start from the four corners . . .â€™
â€˜I just came from there.â€™
â€˜Then go back to the â€œ cornersâ€ and . . .â€™
I might be talking through my roof, but my guess is that when my new family finally arrives, they'll detour down through the â€œcornersâ€ first because someone will send them there anyway.
Thereâ€™s still no sign of them yet. Perhaps they encountered a last minute glitch with the sale of their old house. Maybe they were renting an apartment and hadn't planned on the moving elevator being out of service. I just hope they're safe and that they come along soon, four corners or not. There's no sense in recirculating the same air just for me, and I'd certainly like to have my windows opened for a good airing out before it gets too cold.
Most people would assume that since everything starts and ends at the four corners the place would be a hotbed of activity. Well, it isn't. Except on one beautiful Saturday morning last fall when I was enjoying my final full autumn with the Moores, and we had . . . the accident.
Accident at the Four Corners
This is the true nature of home â€“ it is the place
of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division.
â€¦.. John Ruskin, Of Queens' Gardens
Fortunately, none of the people that belonged to my last family, the Moores, were injured in . . . the accident.
I certainly hope it hasnâ€™t been some misfortune or unexpected hardship thatâ€™s delayed my new family from arriving, but with all the problem drivers on the road today you can never be too sure. The highways and city streets are infested with road-vermin: lane hogs, speeders, uncertified trucks, tailgaters, newbies who have never driven in the snow, the irritating life-threateners who donâ€™t clean their windows, and all of the people who look under the steering wheel instead of over it. Add in all the drinkers, the morning make-up artists, the coffee slurpers, and probably the most dangerous of all, the phone and text junkies, the ones basically pre- occupied with nothing, and itâ€™s easy to see why thereâ€™s so much road rage. Times have changed. I distinctly remember the days when all automobiles came with directional lights. Not anymore.
Whip-Poor-Will Falls doesn't have much traffic, even when the streets swell in the summer with people heading north for the weekend. Then weâ€™re besieged with harried little cars of cottagers stuffed so full they can't see out the rear window; the minivans with the kids' faces plastered up against the glass; young lovers in their borrowed car on a weekend tryst, pretending; and the pick-ups with the beer cases bouncing in the back and a big black dog licking . . . well, licking the wind.
During a normal rush hour downtown, there are two or three cars waiting at the light rather than one. On a long weekend in the summer, if things get really backed up, you might have to wait through a couple of lights to cross the main bridge because it's only one lane wide, so traffic can only go in one direction at a time. If anyone complains, Gary Philpot, the local reeve, never lets them forget he was the one who tried to get the bridge changed to a two-laner, but he was voted down.
Houses, unlike towns, don't ever get too much traffic. I can get cluttered, that's for sure, especially if a child has a birthday party, or teenagers' parents are foolish enough to go away for a weekend. But I'm stationary, so I certainly don't have to worry about bumping into anything. From what I've seen, there's a lot to be said for keeping some people stationary.
Like Maude. Poor old Maude. She's been a town fixture longer than Ed's Hardware on Centre Street, or the IGA south of the four corners. When she was a young girl, the farmers still drove horses and buggies into Lindsay on Saturday morning when they came to buy and sell their goods at the market. That's why the main street is so wide and the parking spaces are angled â€“ to accommodate the horses and buggies.
Iâ€™m not sure if anyone really knows how old Maude is, except for me, since she's watched a lot of the houses in town being built. She must be fairly old, though, since her mother Mabel came to see me on a crisp autumn day when my foundation was being poured by the little father and son team of LaSalle Construction. Now, thereâ€™s nosy and there's curious, and I don't know exactly where Maude and Mabel were on that spectrum. She stayed for an inordinately long time that day, dressed in one of the long paisley frocks she usually wore to church on Sundays, watching Mr. LaSalle and his son set and level out the concrete with their long rakes. She brought them hot coffee and some of her motherâ€™s fresh- baked banana bread in the morning, and then offered them sugary ice-tea in the afternoon. She stood around quietly, never asking anything, just watching the men work until it was almost dusk. Her daughter kept up the tradition and has always been just as â€“ curious â€“ as her mother.
Maude has long, grey-white hair that's always trimmed short in the summer and a thin, almost featureless face just this side of gaunt. She's sunken down more and more over the past few years and natureâ€™s invisible hammer has made her quite stooped. But her heart's still good and she walks down to the four corners almost every day when the weatherâ€™s not too bad and her bones arenâ€™t aching as much as her bunions. She lives in a small wood cottage near the clinic which she thinks is just fine, since she spends a lot of her time over there anyway. That's where the lab is, the new pharmacy, the after-hours room, and the health food store. Maude never goes in there. She figures if she's lived this long, there's no sense in dancing with danger and changing anything now.
For some reason, Maude likes to keep her little cottage painted yellow. Now yellow can be a nice color, especially when it's used in moderation, or in conjunction with other colors. As an accent, for example, or with a delicate border in the kitchen. If I wasn't stone and red-bricked, I wouldn't mind a little splash of yellow on my shutters, or perhaps little shards of sunlight on the two big planters down at the end of the driveway.
Unfortunately, Maude hasn't used yellow as a highlight. Everything is yellow, even the wood trim around the windows, the front door, the shutters, and the porch railing. The screen door, and the little cock-eyed plaque she made at folk art class that has her house number on it. Even the eaves trough. Her cottage looks like a giant corn niblet. A gold tooth in the middle row of an ancient denture plate.
Needless to say, some of the nearby houses felt a bit unsettled when Maude put the first coat on a few years back. One whispered it thought the yellow was just a new kind of primer or something that Ed had been keeping secret from Lucille, his wife. Ed keeps most things secret â€œfrom Luciâ€ if he's ordered something he wasn't supposed to. But no such luck.
The second coat was a deeper yellow than the first. It could've been worse, I guess. Two winters ago, when Taylor, the Moore's eldest son, was playing in a local hockey tournament, his parents agreed to billet a boy from one of the visiting teams for the weekend. When the kidsâ€™ parents came to dinner Saturday night, they told the Moores someone in Minden had painted their entire house fluorescent pink. The same color as those obtuse flamingoes people stake into their front lawns to remind them of their trailer down in Florida, or the ones they scatter like a flock just to bother a neighbor whoâ€™s having a milestone birthday. Minden's fairly far from here, but itâ€™s not quite far enough.
Despite the fact her cottage is yellow, Maude keeps it in perfect condition. Itâ€™s never in need of repair, and her yard is always neat and tidy. There's almost no rust at all on her television antennae, and her driveway invariably has that 'just swept' look about it fussy people like.
Thereâ€™s never any pine needles prickling against the asphalt, or clusters of stones car tires have kicked up from the edge of the road. She has hanging baskets out front in the summer, and trim little flower boxes on top of the porch railing to give the place some added color. Maude likes marigolds. Yellow ones.
She takes great pride in her home and in her car, too. I think something deep down inside tells Maude this is the last car she'll ever own, so she wants to keep it nice. She washes it every week in the summer, early in the morning when it's not too hot, and she tries to wax it every second Sunday after Sarah Copeland, the minister, finishes her sermon and Maudeâ€™s helped with the church luncheon. Sheâ€™s a little less fussy about it in the winter, but she doesn't drive much then, either. The IGA. Bingo, Edâ€™s, or Franâ€™s to get her hair touched up and her gossip batteries recharged. The liquor store when the winter nights start getting a bit too long and thereâ€™s nothing on television but re-runs and reality shows.
No matter how old a house becomes, it will never need a license for anything. I'll have to be inspected, of course, and have things like the furnace, air conditioner, roof, water purifier, the septic system, and wiring checked at regular intervals. I'd have to get a permit if I was going to have an addition, or something taken down, for that matter, and, if I want to keep running right, my owners have to make sure I'm properly maintained. But Iâ€™ll never have to make a yearly pilgrimage to Peterborough so that somebody young enough to be my great-granddaughter can tell me whether or not I can drive for another year. Fortunately for Maude, just as sure as the Chinese government will deny it but build a new climate-threatening coal plant every month, she still keeps passing her driving test, although I think she might be helped out a bit when it comes to the eye exam. Some downtowners, however, think that â€œolder folksâ€ who can still pass the retinal exam but who don't really know how old they are probably shouldn't be driving anyway. They're usually the ones who stay off the main road on bingo nights.
The accident happened at the end of last summer. It was a beautiful late-August day, with a warm wind and a bright, cloudless sky. The river was smooth as glass. The insects were gone, the spiders sat patiently in the webs they'd strung in the front garden, and the patches of willowy loosestrife by the highway's edge were a pungent purple. A lazy day, even for a Saturday, when parents sitting out on their front porches couldn't help smiling at the thought that school would begin again in a few short weeks. They tried desperately not to show it, but after a grueling summer there arenâ€™t many things that will bring happy tears quicker to a parentâ€™s eye than a bright orange school bus rumbling down the road.
Saturday has always been the busiest day at Fran's hairdressing salon, since that's the best time to hear the newest rumors and trade the most up-to-date tittle-tattle so you'd be armed and ready for whatever it was you were doing that evening. Fran's isn't unisex, nor is it politically correct. No man has ever entered the hallowed domain. If he had, it would've been like a stranger suddenly entering a country pub in Britain. Everything would have stopped the instant the door opened, and the silence would be thick and deafening, almost surreal. So Fran's has always been a place of retreat, a sanctuary of secrets, where the women were free to talk about whomever they wished. It was a place where opinions and sides didn't matter, because it was who the opinions were about that carried the greatest weight. Allegiances and alliances were forged each and every Saturday, only to be re-built throughout the following week when the real stories about what had happened slowly emerged, and partnerships were re-instated once again. Attack. Feint. Pare. Re-group.
Maude must have had some earlier business in Lindsay on that beautiful, late-august morning because she entered town from the river-side of the highway, rather than from the west side of the four corners where she lived. She passed by my front yard around eleven oâ€™clock.
Karen was out raking the dying elm and maple leaves that already littered the lawn. With her short brown hair, slight build, and soft complexion, Mrs. Moore looked about half her age. She was one of the people women hate to envy: no matter what she ate, she never gained so much as a pound, and she was as delicate and elfish now as she was when she'd first been married.
Stephanie, her daughter, was busily kicking through the piles, scattering the leaves as fast as her mother could rake them up. Like Karen, Stephanie always seemed to be smiling. Her eyes danced mischievously as she dragged her feet through bunches of gold and brown crinkled leaves. Billy Metcalfe was just leaving after dropping off some fresh vegetables, his Adamsâ€™ apple bobbing to beat the band.
"It looks like it's gonna' be another nice one today Karen, doesn't it? Still no rain in sight. But that darn snow'll be here before we even turn around."
Mrs. Moore agreed and gazed wistfully out across the river. A moment later, she saw Maude's car coming around the bend. Instinctively corralling her daughter with the rake, she drew her protectively away from the road. Billy jumped up onto the lawn, dropping some of his fresh peaches-and-cream corn. Karen waved as the old woman passed.
Maude veered up into the driveway and then quickly cut back onto the road. She just nodded because she didn't like to turn her head around too much when she was driving, and she never, ever risked taking one of her hands off the wheel. On a normal Saturday morning, once she made the turn at the four corners, it was a direct bee-line to Fran's, so most people were never concerned too much because they all knew where Maude was going. As long as there weren't any cars parked along the side of the road, there wasn't much trouble she could get into when she was driving in a straight line. In good weather. At a reasonable speed. If she wasn't worried about one of her granddaughters, and the kids weren't playing an impromptu game of road hockey. But that day she was coming from the opposite direction, which was a small imposition, really, but for Maude, it turned the whole driving world upside down.
And the problem was that on that fateful morning, at that particular time, on the exact same street, Beatrice Beaucamper was coming along the main road from the other side of the four corners. Beatrice was a little younger than Maude, but she was still old enough to remember when the cinema up in Bracebridge cost a nickel and they always showed cartoons, the next instalment of the serial, a newsreel, and then another cartoon before the western started. She liked to remind everyone that the manager always gave out free penny-candy to the really little kids, too, right out of the big jar on the counter. It was a rare Monday you weren't still picking the toffee from between your teeth while the school bus bumped along the road full of sleepy-eyed children and their metal lunch pails.
As destiny would have it (destiny, because fatesâ€™ three sisters surely must have had something far more important to do), Beatrice had made an appointment with Fran for the same time as Maude. Then again, it wasn't so much providence, I guess, as basic timing, since Mrs. Profitt had made her appointment for 11:15, and the pre-rumor rumor mill had it that she was harboring the juiciest little tidbit about Lynn Mackleby, the councilman's wife over in Fenelon Falls. Fran's started filling up about 10:30 that morning. It's a small shop, parking is limited, and everyone wanted to get a good seat.
Two cars, two old women, one road, gossip simmering on the burner, and one last parking space. How else could you spell disaster?
Everything occurred so ridiculously slow that it almost seemed as if it was happening at regular speed. Approaching from opposite directions, both of the women saw the last space between the other cars lined up in front of Fran's at exactly the same time, and since they both knew they had the right of way, they both began the laborious process of aiming their car and turning their wheels while determinedly trying to block out the rest of the world in the very same moment. It was Dodge City all over again.
Brakes groaned. Cars lurched. Gravel spit. The two automobiles curved closer and closer, like adjacent pendulums swinging together. Gunslingers taking that last step. Closer. And then, ccrrruuunch. The cars kind of locked front bumpers, and with their combined momentum, they carried each other halfway into that last parking space. Luckily, the vehicles faltered to a grinding halt just before they hit Mrs. Fielding's car, which was quite small and had been left in the second-last space. Or maybe they just ran out of gas.
One of the worst noises I can possibly imagine is the long, shrill, unrelenting wail of a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector. Theyâ€™re good sounds, naturally, since they ensure prompt attention and safeguard my family. But the ramifications, and the thought of what's to come, cause me more anxiety than just about anything else. The omnipotent closeness of death. The fire, the fear, the fumes, the things lost that could never be repaired or replaced. Especially my family.
For people, if you exclude anything really life-threatening, like the wail of an ambulance or a firetruckâ€™s siren, one of the worst things they can ever hear is the sickening crunch of metal against metal when theyâ€™re tucked inside their seemingly indestructible cars. Even little fender- benders can send a bone-jarring echo of the collision wrenching up a driver's spine. I knew that cccrruuunch would stay with those two old women for a long, long time.
* * *
Maude and Mrs. Beaucamper struggled out of their respective automobiles as quickly as they could. Fortunately, neither woman had been hurt. Impossible, really though, at that speed. They were obviously in shock, however, and it took them another moment or two to stumble up to the front where their vehicles had been jammed and hooked together like two greedy bass whoâ€™d attacked the same bait. Their faces went white and their bodies shook with rage. Each woman muttered some broken lament about "my car, my beautiful car," and then each of them started viciously wagging a finger at the person responsible.
Fran appeared at the door a second later and immediately tried to calm the women down before the situation got worse and deteriorated into a slanderous bout of rude name-calling. Mae Johnson peeked out the door, her hair still in a beehive of curlers. She looked like one of the ancient rock paintings that make some people think Earth was visited by helmeted aliens tens of thousands of years ago. Loreen Wilkes was more careful. She snapped the metal blinds apart just wide enough so she could see out the slit without being noticed. She kept her magazine folded into her gown so Mrs. Fielding wouldn't see and tell everyone she'd been reading about dieting again.
Fran separated the women, their fingers sparring maliciously. And then it was like the whole town started to move at once, like a big black bear shaking off a winterâ€™s hibernation. I had a nice little vantage point. From the edge of the hill that sloped up the driveway, I could make out Fran's parking lot through a wedge of vacant space between the buildings.
Samuel Bolton has lived in the same bungalow two houses up and across the street from Fran's for as long as I can remember. Black and grey brick, his home has aluminum siding down the sides and at the back. The house sits on a neatly manicured lawn, and thereâ€™s a small cedar lighthouse covering the well cap. All the windows have matching shutters, and it boasts a nice, new brick chimney that Sam built himself a couple of years ago. It has a beautiful deep porch that covers its entire front. It might be a little wider than mine, but it doesn't have the same accentuating features that mine offers. Sam had his entire porch screened in, and he sits out there quite proudly each and every night throughout the summer when the mosquitos and black flies and insidious little no-see-ums force most of his neighbors inside.
Samuel had seen everything, the entire accident, since he'd been sitting in the armchair at his front window, watching the wrestling show and sipping his coffee like he did every Saturday morning. He topped up his cup and took it outside. He inhaled a deep, full breath of the delicious autumn air, stretched, scratched, farted, farted again, then rolled down into one of his wooden Muskoka chairs with a heavy sigh. He put his feet up on the other chair. The Scorpion was just getting ready to tangle with the Himalayan Hitman, but Samuel knew this would be way better than the wrestling.
Jack Knowler came out of his house next door. Without taking his eyes off the women in front of Fran's, he slowly made his way across the lawn and up to Sam's porch. Sam moved his feet so his friend could sit down. A slow head-nod, but neither of them spoke. Jack and Sam had been in The War together and were still officials at the Legion. They knew each other too well to ever waste time on pleasantries. Sam went back inside for another coffee as his friend lowered himself down. Jack had put on a tad of weight since the War, and the slats on the wooden chair creaked so hard the back almost popped a nail. He accepted the coffee with another nod. They kept watching quietly, waiting, synchronizing their stories while the finger-wagging and eye- glaring reached a feverish pitch.
Poised at the curb, Ed, whoâ€™d been leaning on his broom outside his hardware store, started to move. A trio of young boys dropped their bikes down at the four corners and were walking back excitedly to rubberneck the accident scene. Morty Stafford was already locking up the post office, and Phil Doherty, the small appliance repair man, was waving someone away from the front of his store so he could cross the street. Stella Smith sauntered out of the variety store next door carrying a load of movies that had just been returned. She had that arrogant, I- told-you-so look on her face that irked her husband Stan so much he'd left her three summers back and married Gwen Richards, a widow from Coboconk Stan would have loved even if she hadn't been the best fish-gutter and cleaner around. Short, squat and steely-eyed, Stella had told anyone who'd listen, and especially those who wouldn't, that there wasn't enough parking at Fran's, and that sooner or later, something absolutely terrible like this was going to happen, â€œyou mark my words.â€
People came out of almost every house on the street. Some brought folding lawn chairs or blankets. Most carried mugs. Others were content to stay on their own properties, mired in debates about the legal and moral ramifications of what had happened. And like almost everything else that occurs in a small town, sides were quickly taken.
Morty Stafford, the postmaster, was shaking his head as he slowly approached what would soon become known as the scene. He looked down thoughtfully at the tangled bumpers, his forehead creased in a reflective frown. He tugged his pants up like he did about two hundred times a day, even though he was one of the last people in the entire world who still wore suspenders. It was Saturday morning, but Morty had donned the pink and blue striped shirt with the little crest on the pocket the Post Office honchos thought were so trendy. Morty was too old and too heavy and had one too many chins to wear any kind of stripe, let alone pink. He looked like he'd just come back from auditioning for a 1930's vaudeville musical.
"You should've signaled," he sighed. Both women immediately said they had.
"I was talking to Beatrice," he added softly. Maude beamed and straightened her hair.
"Oh, come on now, Morty," Ed chided as he bent down to study the damage. He'd brought his broom in case there was some debris to sweep up. Heâ€™d watched enough cop shows to know that he shouldnâ€™t sweep anything up just yet in case some of it was evidence.
Even though he hadn't actually seen what had happened, Karl Messermann, his antennae raised, had somehow zeroed in on the commotion and was just turning the corner by the edge of the four corners. His arthritis was acting up like it always did in the morning, and he was limping as quickly as he could toward the gathering, struggling to button up his shirt but still trying to feign a resigned air of nonchalance and ambivalence.
"Maude didn't directional," Ed told the gathering crowd. "I saw the whole thing from in front of my store."
"I most certainly did, Ed!"
"Settle down, Maude. I'm not saying it was your fault, I'm just saying you didnâ€™t directional.â€
"I did too!"
"That's not what I saw from the post office," Morty said blandly. "How 'bout you, Harv?"
Harv had been standing a few feet down the street from Ed's hardware store, buying a newspaper from the box. He shrugged. "I don't think neither of 'em had their directional on. And I were closer, eh?"
Billy Metcalfe had left his box of corn with Karen and jogged up to the scene. â€œCome on, Harv. You were closer by about ten feet.â€
Mrs. Billings shuffled slowly down the street behind her walker, nursing her coffee cup so it didn't spill. Clarence, whoâ€™d been watching her clip-clopping across the one-lane bridge before the light changed one spring morning when the tulips were just starting to reach for the sun, had helped Phil Doherty build her a special little wooden cup holder. The two men had attached it to the front bar so Mrs. Billings could carry a drink around but still keep two hands on her walker. She'd obviously just thrown her dress on and hadn't had time to find matching socks. Her hair had that just slept in look, and stood out from the back of her head like a coiled cone.
"I was in my window with Mr. Thompson," she said, gesturing to a small house down by the closest edge of the bridge with a quick jerk of her thumb, although everyone knew where she lived. Mr. Thompson was her old fat tabby cat. She never told anyone why she decided to name him Mr. Thompson, especially since the cat had at least three litters. Three that she knew of.
"Neither of them signaled. Beatrice had her break on, I know that. I could tell 'cause her back left light's out, so just the right one was on. Thatâ€™s a ticket, you know."
No-one replied. Morty tugged up his pants and Harv chewed judiciously at a big wad of gum. There wasnâ€™t a person in town who didnâ€™t know Mrs. Billings couldn't have seen across the road with a telescope let alone the reading glasses she always bought right from the rack at the clinicâ€™s drug store every time she forgot where sheâ€™d put hers, sat down, and squished another pair. But the men didn't question her: Mrs. Billings could get quite testy about her eyes. She'd even gone so far as to take one of those courses where you learn to read a whole book in seconds with your fingers, although she couldn't actually tell you very much about what sheâ€™d read unless she'd managed to squint at the movie, too.
Stoically but kind, since sheâ€™d done both womensâ€™ hair for years, Fran came back out of the salon with a coffee for each victim. Still bristling, the women stood back to back, deftly refusing to look at each other. If seconds had been close at hand, they would've had a duel.
"I called it in," the salon owner announced.
"Beverly will be here as soon as he can." Beverly Davidson was dispatched from the O.P.P. detachment just outside of Fenelon Falls. He'd been a police officer down in the city for about ten years, and a decade of life on the inner city streets had been quite enough for him. He'd moved his family into a prefabricated Viceroy home he helped put up himself on the edge of the Scugog River, just beyond Lindsay. It was a gorgeous â€œA-Frameâ€ with its traditional high peaked roof in the center. Much of the additional trim had been hewn right from his lot. The outside looked exactly like a rustic log cabin, the interior sculpted with hand-varnished beams. The smell of his woodstove was intense when it flared on a cold winter morning and punched pungent holes in passing clouds.
Beverly had been with the provincial police for almost twelve years now. His hair had thinned and what was left was grey. He'd put on quite a few pounds, enough so he always groaned loudly when he extricated himself from his cruiser. But everyone knew him to be reliable and fair, and most of the older residents were pleased they had "somebody with a city track record" looking out for them. And best of all, he never wore his tie.
Beatrice muttered over her coffee that Maude should have looked where she was going. Maude was telling Fran the other woman should have slowed down and yielded the right of way. Sauntering closer, Stella pushed herself deeper into the festering crowd.
"Fran should have more parking spaces."
"You mind your own business," Fran seethed.
Across the road, Sam and Jack were enjoying themselves immensely. All and all, it was starting out to be a really fine day. The sun was out, the wind was warm, they each had a coffee, and the crowd in the little parking lot was mushrooming by the minute. Several people moved their lawn chairs closer. New people brought fresh coffee in kitchen mugs, and someone even came over with a little Tupperware container of cookies.
Sam took a long sip, dribbling a bit on his shirt. "Not really much of an accident."
Sam scratched at the stubble lining his chin. He picked up the loose thread of a conversation the two men had never completely unraveled for the last fifty-five years. There was always a new story to weave, or an old one newly spun.
"After the war, I signed up for another stint. Stayed on for 'bout a year with Supply and Services. A real cushy gig, that."
"What did ya have to do?"
"I was with one of 'em transport regiments. All them vehicles, the big trucks that had been used to haul ammo and supplies, had to be taken back to England. They kept â€˜em in huge compounds."
Sam smiled and shook his head. "You'd never guess. Them big rigs were sold to the loggin' camps back home here. Me and a bunch of other fellers had to pick â€˜em up and then take 'em to Holland where they got processed or something. Then they were ferried â€˜cross the Channel to England and the army shipped 'em home. When they landed they piled â€˜em on freight lines down east took 'em out west to B. C. It wouldn't surprise me none if some of 'em are still working. Those things were shit strong."
The men sipped quietly at their coffee, their eyes misted with memories, their hearts filled with a pernicious kind of longing they both knew would never, ever go away. Sam nudged Jack's arm and nodded up the street. After stopping for air, Karl Messermann was limping as fast as he could from the four corners, but he was still trying to feign disinterest. Karl was their friend, even though he'd been on their side.
"So a whole gang of us would drive to wherever the trucks were in Holland. Take one each and start a convoy back to where theyâ€™d be ferried on to England. Store 'em, stay for two or three days, then we'd get drove back for more."
"How long it take?" Jack craned his neck forward, but there were too many people crowding around the vehicles for him to see anything clearly. Inside, on the television, some huge brute of a thing, half man, half ape, was slamming another Visigoth down onto the mat. An invisible crowd roared.
"Months." Sam winked. "We kind'a dragged it out a bit. Know what I mean?"
"Shit!" Jack lit a cigarette.
"Shit yeah. All that extra time were tacked onto my service record, don't forget. Soâ€™s anyways, it were my fourth or fifth trip. I was somewhere in France, but I shore can't remember exactly where right now. But I do recall it was pissing down rain. God-damn stuff sounded like bullets against the windshield. Give me the willies."
"Len the gas station man should be by any minute now," Jack said softly, not meaning to interrupt.
Sam nodded. "The roads were really twisty and turny. You know the type over there."
"Sure do," Jack agreed, sifting through his own memories.
"So's I'm in the middle of a convoy of about twenty-five trucks and I can't see Jack-the Bear.â€™ Course the road were like a sniper's wall. Potholes everywhere."
"Some sure took a beatin'."
Sam nodded. â€œI were leaning forward, bouncing up and down trying to see through that damn rain, popping through those holes fast as I could. Then I hit a big one. The whole truck kind'a lurched, kind'a veered to the side. I swung the wheel back as hard as I could, but I was right on a bend in the road, see. I swung back hard, tried to stay on the road. Then, whaaaack."
"What'd ya hit?"
"The guy in front of me," Sam chuckled.
Jack was looking at Karl. "He should cut his chest hair. He's got so much it makes his shirt look funny."
"I know. Looks like heâ€™s always carrying a rug around. Anyways, if that ain't bad enough, the guy behind me plows right into my ass."
Jack laughed and choked on his coffee. A few drops snorted out his nose.
"By the time everyone stopped, five of us were all tangled up together. Shit we laughed."
"You was lucky nobody got hurt."
"Nobody got hurt?" Sam put his coffee mug down on the porch and sat forward, careful not to take his eyes from the pressing throng across the street. He kicked off his left shoe and tugged at his sock. He kept it bunched up over his toes.
"See that?" He pointed at a jagged scar just above his ankle. Jack looked away from the accident scene just long enough to give it a good once over.
"Broke my God-damn ankle when the guy rammed me from behind. Caught it under the clutch." Sam studied his scar thoughtfully for a moment before he rolled his sock back on. "Hell, you never knew when somethin' were gonna happen over there, did ya?"
Jack nodded. "I smashed a jeep up pretty good once. I ever tell ya 'bout that?"
"When you was in Belgium?"
The old wrinkled lines of Jack's forehead curled into a disappointed frown. He must've told Sam that one already. "Rolled a jeep into a ditch trying to get back to camp," he added quietly, just in case.
Sam watched Karl pace around the cars as Jack undid the front of his shirt. His friend bared the left side of his chest. A faint scar zig-zagged along his shoulder.
"Wheel slammed back, broke my collar bone just like that." He snapped his fingers.
Sam leaned closer, assessing the damage. It hadn't really changed all that much since the last time he'd seen it. "Lucky it weren't your neck."
Sinking back into the sloping recesses of their Muskoka chairs, the men turned back to the throng across the road. The crowd had spilled right out onto the street by the time the cruiser pulled up from the far side of the four corners a few minutes later. No siren of course, but Beverly had left the flashing lights on. Neither Maude nor Beatrice thought it was very funny and he turned them off as soon as he stopped and got a good look at their faces. He sighed heavily as he squeezed himself out of the car, grinning at the pile of bikes thrown together down at the corner. Wheels still spinning, and the clack clack clack of hockey cards secured with clothes pegs flipping against the spokes. He smiled when he saw the Moores' two boys, Taylor and Ryan. Little Kevin Westbury was with them. An only child, he followed the boys around like a shadow.
Beverly hoisted up his belt and looked thoughtfully at the sky as if he half-expected it to be different than it had been over on the 8th line where the dispatcher had summoned him from. The 8th line dissected the major bypass to the city. It was also where Cora Evan's bakery had been for almost twenty-seven years. A little one-floor clapboard thing covered in fake-wood aluminum siding. Squat tiny tables with wooden chairs, and nothing on the walls. No tablecloths, and all the condiments, napkins, and everything else were squashed together up at the front counter by the old cash register. But nobody went to Cora's for the decor. Beverly's upper lip was still stained with the last piece of bumble berry pie he'd managed to swallow down as he dutifully rose when the cruiser's radio beckoned.
Everybody started talking at once. Stella gestured at the officer's face and Beverly quickly licked his lip clean. Denials and confirmations filled the air, along with conflicting first- person reports and thoughtful speculations. Nods and murmurs punctuated reflections about what had really happened. Occasional gasps and muttered contradictions kept the debate quite lively.
And there was always someone standing right by the newly dented cars, pointing and shaking their head.
Beverly took a proffered cookie as he made his way through the crowd to where Maude and Beatrice were standing. Fran was still between them.
"You both okay?"
Maude and Beatrice nodded rather indignantly. Beverly pushed the whole cookie into his mouth and studied the spot where the vehiclesâ€™ bumpers were hooked together.
"Has somebody called Len the gas station man?"
"He'll be here in a couple of minutes," Stella confirmed.
Apart from running the garage on the outskirts of town, Len also owned the only tow truck. Heâ€™d hauled in the remains of more exhausts, tires, and flying hubcaps than anyone else in the entire county. Everyone knew he'd be the best one to assess the damage, sober or not.
A van screeched around the corner. "Oh great," Beverly sighed. "Who called him?"
No one answered. A couple of coughs and shuffled feet. Beverly looked around. When he saw them, Sam and Jack just shrugged and waved. The officer nodded. Still out of breath, Karl joined the crowd and finally had the chance to bend over the cars. He surveyed the damage and toyed with the chest hairs that sprouted out like dandelions from the throat of his shirt. The van jerked to a stop in front of the curb. A tall thin man leapt out in a frenzy and immediately began pushing his way through the congregation.
"Take it easy," Beverly warned. "It's just a fender-bender, and no one's hurt. There's no story here."
Beatrice and Maude were insulted and politely told the officer so. Each of them started rubbing their shoulder area and the back of their neck. Still standing like bookends on either side of Fran, they frowned and stared down at the intertwined cars. Mrs. Wilkes pulled her head away from the window, but left the slats open just enough so that she could still see out. Busybodies, she thought.
The tall man, Bob Teeson, pretended not to hear. He grabbed a camera from the little bag he was carrying and quickly snapped a couple of pictures. Taylor and Ryan shuffled around to see if they could get in one of his shots. Taylor kept holding his fingers in a 'V' behind his younger brother's head while Kevin jumped back and forth like a Slinky.
Bob Teeson had a long brown ponytail tied halfway down his back, a symbol or a compensation of the hair he used to have on top of his head. His friar's collar of wispy locks made him seem much older than he really was. He had a small nose in the middle of a small face, and his eyes were always squinted into a pensive, harried frown. Some people thought he looked a little like a gopher does when it scurries up from a hole and into the sun, but Bob thought he looked like someone always deep in meditative thought.
Bob Teeson was the journalist for The Whip-Poor-Will Gazette. He wasn't the only one but it seemed like he was. Bob wrote a little commentary in the paper every week, and when Vern was sick he wrote the editorial, too. He also kept track of the local farming news, cattle prices, the minor league sports scores, the obituaries, wire service stories from the city, and the county political scene. During the season, Bob also did the game summaries for the Fighting Trout, the local provincial Jr. "A" hockey team.
Bob instantly started peppering the crowd with an endless series of questions Karl thought were coming faster than bullets from a Gatling gun. Voices rose in a clatter, and everyone wanted to be quoted.
Now, I'm just a house, so I really can't comprehend why people like the limelight so much, but they always seem to want to be in the center of things. Houses usually don't. If Mr. Moore takes a picture of the kids playing in my front yard, that's fine and dandy. I don't feel the need to be in the frame one way or the other. I feel proud if they show people something about me, of course, or if they note some new detail the viewer might have missed, like a freshly painted porch railing or a new side garden. If David was taking a picture of the kids playing in a great big multicolored pile of freshly raked leaves in the fall, then he'd shoot them during a play fight as they stuffed handfuls down each otherâ€™s sweaters. I wouldn't want to be the focal point, but people definitely do. Perhaps thatâ€™s why they fell so easily into the endless cell phone pit, and jumped onto the dopamine-fuelled I- have-a-phone-and-itâ€™s-glued-to-my-ear bandwagon.
Look at me, look at me, Iâ€™m being texted. No, Iâ€™m not being summoned for emergency brain surgery â€“ someoneâ€™s telling me I missed a phone call that reminded me of what they had for lunch.
As he took more pictures, the crowd swarmed around Bob like testy bees around their queen. Fran smiled and guided the ladies to one side so that the little sign in the bottom corner of her front window wouldn't be blocked. Sheâ€™s always wished she had the money for a real sign, one that had her name in italics, or something neon perhaps, like the endless chain of fast food places had on the highway. Stella had gone back to her variety store as soon as she saw Bob's van pull up. She hadn't liked Teeson ever since he snapped a rather unflattering picture of her at the Legion's pancake breakfast eight years ago, when she'd been cramming down a large piece that just wouldn't fit in and a whole glob of maple syrup dripped over her chin and slithered down the front of her blouse. Stella shrugged and walked back to her store, slightly disappointed. The videos were getting too heavy, anyway
Ryan and Taylor tirelessly jockeyed for position. The adults never stopped talking. As soon as one stopped, someone else started contradicting them and explaining what had actually happened. They all watched Bob scribble furiously in his little notepad. As each person spoke, they shuffled closer and tried to peek at the page to see if he was getting everything they'd said down properly.
A loud honk honk honk momentarily silenced the crowd. Like slaves before the pharaoh, the throng reluctantly but dutifully parted as Len Thomson, the gas station man, rolled the tow truck to a stop at the bottom of Fran's driveway. Len tumbled out and put his baseball cap on. He wore mechanics' blue overalls and an old t-shirt mercilessly stained with oil and patches of grime and flecked with things you probably wouldnâ€™t want to know about. His face was covered in a customary film of dirt. He was chewing on a thick wad of tobacco that was obviously too big for his mouth, and drips of black juice oozed down his chin. But even the harsh smell of tobacco couldn't hide the scent of rye that followed him out of the truck.
* * *