A NEW HAMPSHIRE TOWN
The Former People
Gus was tall. Not the kind of tall that invites compliment or admiration, or the kind of tall that mothers crave in the men who court their daughters. His height was at least nine inches beyond respectability, and verged on the altitudes reserved for ladders or lamp-posts. He had always been tall, since his abnormally vertical childhood, and the experience left him with a pronounced slouch, earned from years of stooping under ceilings and trying rather hopelessly to avoid notice. He was thin to the point of transparency, bony and angular, reminiscent of nothing so much as a freakishly large praying mantis shuffling the streets of Standish in his immaculate dark suits.
Few people spoke to Gus, even taking into consideration the relative distance between mouths and ears that impeded polite conversation. He was shy, a trait derived from the altogether accurate perception that he made others uncomfortable. No woman had ever been seen by his side, nor any men for that matter. His intimacy was reserved for those whom he delicately called “the former people”, the recently deceased cadavers in the basement at the Stockton Funeral Home on Green Street. For as long as anyone who cared to dwell on it could remember, Gus had worked in that basement, preparing the bodies of the departed for viewing by their loved ones. He combed hair and applied cosmetics, buttoned shirts and tied shoes, and folded stiff hands into formal poses. All the while he spoke to the former people in his oddly high-pitched, strangled voice. If Mr. Stockton or one of his sons came downstairs, the flow of words would cease and Gus would melt into a shadowed corner until the intruders had gone. The families never met Gus, and he never asked about the past lives of his cold companions, or read their obituaries. He did not need to, for when he spoke to them, they spoke back.
For years, for decades of memory, Gus had quietly prepared corpses, and Mr. Stockton never had cause to complain, for the quality of work was unsurpassed. Moreover, Gus worked for a ludicrously small wage, and was never ill or on vacation. No one could say with any certainty where he lived, or if he had any family, where he had gone to school, or any details of any consequence. No one particularly cared. Gus worked in the basement and the days wore on, and Mr. Stockton died and left his sons the funeral home. No grey crept into the perfect black hair with the ruler-straight part Gus had always worn; he stooped a bit more, but somehow seemed taller than ever.
One day in April a woman died in town, for reasons no one knew. She had been a beautiful, popular young woman with no shortage of suitors, the daughter of the well-respected and wealthy Tuck family. Her name was Delia, and her death was a mystery. When she appeared in the basement at Stockton’s, Gus found her to be the most perfect former person he had yet encountered. Her body was flawless, with no signs of any violence that might explain her death. Beyond that, even the dead white skin was pale in a beautiful, ethereal way, otherworldly, without blemish. Her nude body on the table before him was of ideal proportions, long of leg and narrow of waist, with small round breasts and long blond hair in undulating curls. Thin and elfin, her face was fixed in a troubled expression.
“I love you,” Gus told her.
Delia did not answer, and Gus was upset. His face betrayed pain and hurt as he covered her nakedness with undergarments and a demure, flattering green dress. He fastened a thin string of white pearls around her empty throat and pinned matching stones through her ears.
“I love you,” Gus repeated, his long bony face close to her ear, his tone more insistent than before. Still she did not answer, and Gus’ face screwed up in quiet rage. In all his years in the basement at Stockton’s, no former person had so rudely rejected his conversation. It was a small town, with only two funeral homes, and Stockton’s was without question the favored of the two, and as a coincidence Gus had met a great many of the townsfolk. In death they had been far politer than in their previous state, relieved of the burdens of class or reputation. All had stories to tell of their lives, their secrets and their sins, and Gus always had listened without judgment, hearing tales of loveless marriages, unspoken infatuations, even crimes and more unspeakable acts. Never had the former people lied to Gus, or ignored him. Until now. Until Delia.
“I love you,” Gus gurgled into her perfect yellow curls, but again there was no response. Long, thin, deft fingers balled into fists, and Gus shook with an impotent, unfamiliar fury. He had never known wroth in all his long years, and it was unpleasant to him. Even as a youth, back almost beyond remembering, the taunts of schoolmates had never roused him in temper. His life had ever been one of placid reserve, of diffident disinterest in the living. Their petty prejudices mattered little to Gus; rather he sought society with those former people who so eagerly befriended him in the clean, well-lit basement at Stockton’s. Until now. Until Delia.
Gus drew a deep breath and unclenched his huge hands. He knew himself for a fool. She did not love him, could not love him. His decades of friendships with the former people had encouraged him to forget his own hideousness, his utter unsuitability for any woman, let alone one of Delia’s beauty.
He stared at her, the extinguished goddess on his worktable, the thought of worms and rot devouring her divine flesh filling him with a heavy melancholy. He had never before thought about the fate awaiting his friends, not in all his long years in that basement. Not once had his mind conjured images of wooden boxes in the cold earth, rotting, the bodies within, rotting. With a shudder he tried to dismiss the blackness and despair, but neither would abate.
A tranquility settled upon Gus then, a certitude, as he wrestled with the weight of all the future years in a world without Delia. Stiffly, awkwardly, he clambered onto the table and folded his long body alongside hers. Resting her head on his skeletal arm, he buried his nose in her abundant curls, smelling the life still in them beneath the heavy frangrances. His other arm he draped about her hips, and he embraced her. He was crying now, tears tracing the sunken lines of his hollow cheeks.
“I love you,” Gus said one last time, and turned her lifeless head to face his, and then he kissed Delia.
In the morning, when Mr. Stockton’s sons came downstairs, they found Gus and Delia still entwined on the work table. Now it was him curled up in her embrace, still and cold. His chest did not rise and fall, and his eyes did not open as she stroked his snowy white hair, her cheeks wet and rosy.
“I loved him,” she told them.
Part of the way down Front Street stood a large, important-looking building of stately red brick. On either side cringed a men’s clothing store and a dry-cleaner’s, squat and wood-framed, clearly and properly abashed to lurk in the shadow of such a handsome structure. To the rear flowed the Salmon River, which had not had any salmon in it since before the recollections of the oldest memories in Standish. A proud granite block in the center of this grand edifice, just above the entryway, proclaimed an erection date of respectable vintage, as well as the owners and occupiers: The Odd Fellows Club.
Kate Winn and her Garden
The clearing of a throat, “tut, tut!”, and then: “Mrs. Winn.”
The woman on her knees in the dirt, hidden beneath an enormous floppy white hat, looked up. On the other side of her whitewashed picket fence, on the McClintock Street sidewalk, stood three ladies. They were the executive committee of the Standish chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but they were not here in that capacity. They were also the executive committee of the far more powerful and important Standish Garden Club. Mrs. Turner loomed on the left, tall and erect, her taut face exhibiting disapproval as though she smelled something unpleasant, her sharp brown eyes darting about as if the corner of McClintock and Leavitt was the sort of neighborhood where one’s life was in danger. On the right shuffled Mrs. Sexton, mousy, nondescript and insufficiently haughty, but of impeccable pedigree and wealth.
Mrs. Butterworth, who always stood in the middle, conjured images of a mobile fire hydrant. She was short and fat, though she preferred the descriptor stout if any was needed at all, and usually red of face, especially on warm late mornings in June. Like her two lieutenants, she lived on the side of town that did not include McClintock or Leavitt Street, but rather more enviable and correct addresses like Pinebrook Circle and Morning Glory Drive. As Kate stood, wiping her mud-caked hands on her blue denim trousers, she smiled pleasantly at her visitors. Kate smiled at everyone, even the Negro who brought the milk, and it simply was not proper.
“Hello,” Kate said. She knew better than to offer a hand to these ladies, who would not take it. Under her floppy white hat Kate retained the last vestiges of pretty girlhood and flyaway salt-and-pepper hair that refused to be bound in any kind of bun or other appropriate arrangement. She had rounded shoulders, a middle-aged middle, and was barefoot. Mrs. Butterworth and the other ladies did not return the greeting, although Mrs. Sexton appeared to be on the verge of blurting out a courtesy before a glare from Mrs. Turner quelled the impulse.
“We have decided,” Mrs. Butterworth stated royally, “that your flowers are of sufficient quality this season to warrant entry into The Show.” This was the Standish Flower Show, also called The Show, which somehow could not be confused with the Standish Craft and Quilt Show, or the Standish Automobile Show, and certainly not the Standish Volunteer Fire Department’s Music and Comedy Show.
“Thank you,” replied Kate, and that was that, and the ladies were gone, marching off up McClintock toward Middle Road and thence to more suitable parts of town.
This was news indeed, thought Kate, who turned to gaze at her garden, still smiling. Her flowers smiled back at her in all their glory, the delphiniums and peonies, irises and daylilies. She had labored for years with these plants, digging and tending, watering and weeding, and the results had always been modest at best. She had never been invited to display her flowers at The Show before. This spring, of all springs, her efforts had finally yielded forth in a blaze of color and fragrance that could not be ignored by Mrs. Butterworth, Mrs. Turner, and Mrs. Sexton. Kate knew it was not any magical increase in her ability or attentions that had made that difference. No, this year her husband Tom had helped her.
Tom had always been proud of Kate’s garden, whether the blooms were small or large, whether the colors were bright or dull. He also knew it kept her busy while he was away, as he so frequently was, working at the railyards, and the thought of her happily tending to her flowers sustained him during many of the double shifts he endured. So when he died after his fifth heart attack the previous fall, Kate had chopped him into pieces in the basement and buried him in her garden.
In the weeks before the Standish Flower Show, Kate spent almost all of her time in the garden. She knew her flowers were the match of any in town, and that the ladies of the executive committee had had no real choice but to include them in The Show. That did not make up for years of brusque dismissal, of class disdain and outright contempt. The Winns had not been poor, but they had certainly never been rich. Tom had been a union man on the railroad, ate his meals from a lunchbox, and voted for Democrats. Mr. Butterworth owned a bank, Mr. Turner an import business, and Mr. Sexton was a dead lawyer. They played golf at the exclusive Swasey Country Club, ate at the Athenian Gentlemen’s Room, and gave money to Republicans. Naturally, their wives had little use for the wife of the likes of Tom Winn.
The day of the show was the best of June days, bright and clear and warm and perfect. Kate put on her best white dress and loaded her best flowers in baskets in the bed of Tom’s old truck. Together, she and the flowers made their way to the high school gymnasium for the Saturday show. They arrived early and found their place at the back of the vast room, almost behind the folding wooden bleachers, underneath a threadbare banner that proclaimed the forgotten accomplishments of a school basketball team from years before.
Kate laid out her flowers with care, and noticed that since they had been cut their colors were more vivid and their scent even more sweet and strong.
As the morning wore on, the gymnasium filled with the women of Standish who had been selected to display the products of their flower gardens. Kate knew most of them by sight but very few by friendly acquaintance. These women were not the wives of the brakemen or the porters or the postmen. These women were the wives of Standish society, and a good share of their hands had never seen the dirt of the earth, but rather relied on paid gardeners to tend their plants. Kate found that she scarcely cared, especially since her flowers were unquestionably the most stunning of all. People began to linger by her table, putting their faces near the blossoms and inhaling deeply. Those who did so wandered away with broad grins on their face, cheeks rosy and eyes unfocused, as if they had shared a bottle of wine. It did not take long before the women from the other displays, irked by the lack of attention for their flowers, began to investigate the disturbance.
“Who let her in here?” demanded Mrs. Finkle, her face thin and pinched, her skin as blotchy as the faded rose petals on her table.
“Those don’t even look real,” howled Mrs. Proulx, her massive jowls jiggling, drooping along with her wilted peonies.
When both women crowded closer, with the intention of further chastising Kate, they instead breathed deeply of the fragrant blooms, more vibrant than ever on their simple wooden folding table. Insults and accusations forgotten, Mrs. Finkle and Mrs. Proulx instead called out to the executive committee.
“Come and see these delphiniums!” cried Mrs. Finkle.
“The lilies are divine!” declared Mrs. Proulx.
There was a commotion along the next aisle over, and though she could not be seen behind the tables, Mrs. Butterworth could be heard steaming along, clearing a path with her imperious glare and impatient “tut, tut!” Within moments she appeared breathlessly at Kate’s table, elbowing her way through the gathered crowd, Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Sexton alongside as ever.
“What’s all this, then?” accused Mrs. Butterworth wheezily.
“I told you it was a mistake to invite her,” jeered Mrs. Turner. “Even if her husband is dead. Sympathy is wasted on the lower classes.”
Mrs. Sexton said nothing, though her eyes seemed to apologize to Kate, who simply smiled.
“Good morning,” she greeted the other women. “Such a beautiful day, and so many beautiful flowers.”
“Tut, tut,” snapped Mrs. Butterworth. “We shall see.” She waddled closer to the flowers piled on Kate’s table, and greedily inhaled of the irises. A profound change came over that red face then, as clear as if an eraser had just swept across the chalkboard of her mind. Her eyes shone, and her chubby mouth split into a wide smile. Without so much as a glance at the others, she began to dance.
Now, it was not the first time anyone had seen Mrs. Butterworth dance, but there is dancing and there is dancing. This was not a stately waltz at the Swasey, nor even a somewhat less dignified but still excusable polka. This was, undeniably, a jig. And not a refined or contained jig, but one that carried Mrs. Butterworth down the aisle and back again, and then up onto a nearby table, where her flailing feet scattered the blossoms so carefully arranged there. A stunned silence descended then across the gymnasium, except for Kate’s laughter, and the clapping of her hands.
“Well!” shouted Mrs. Turner. “Get down, Pearl!” Pearl was Mrs. Butterworth’s first name, but she paid little heed and continued to dance, her hands grasping the corners of her dress and lifting the hem upward, allowing her stubby legs to kick higher and higher. Mrs. Turner, her mouth open in shock and wrath, turned to berate Kate, but caught her long nose in a pile of delphiniums. As you would expect by now, a similar change came over Mrs. Turner, but instead of dancing, she threw her head back and began to sing. No opera or anything so elite and cultured, but rather a vulgar sort of bluegrass, which few, if any, in the room had ever heard before. It was loud, it was full of crude language, and it was not close to in time with Mrs. Butterworth’s gyrations, but this seemed to make little difference to the two.
Kate laughed, and many of the others in the gymnasium laughed, even those Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Turner considered equals, if not friends. Even within the upper class there are gradients, and the two women now behaving like intoxicated college freshmen had always made it perfectly clear they were better than anyone else, and so now their humiliation was a source of amusement to all.
“Mrs. Winn,” murmured Mrs. Sexton, a look of concern on her face. She pointed toward the faces of her fellow executive committee members. Kate looked, and saw that despite the ongoing apparent enthusiasm of both song and dance, there were signs of strain apparent as well, perspiration and, Kate noted with alarm, small trickles of blood from the nose of Mrs. Butterworth and the ears of Mrs. Turner. Neither was accustomed to this sort of sustained effort, and it had quickly become dangerous to both.
“Tom,” whispered Kate. “Tom, enough.”
It ended as suddenly as it began. Mrs. Butterworth sat down hard on the table, which collapsed and dumped its burden into Mrs. Turner, the result being that both women came to rest on the floor in an exhausted, but largely unhurt, heap.
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Sexton, who went to help. She paused, and turned back to Kate. Reaching inside a bag she carried, she withdrew a large blue ribbon, which she laid atop the pile of flowers at Kate’s table, then scurried to Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Turner.
As you might imagine, there was a great deal of talk about that particular Standish Flower Show, and for a long time. No small dent was made in the implied moral authority and cultural dominance of Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Turner, who never made another trip to the corner of McClintock and Leavitt. Mrs. Sexton could be seen there once in a while, on quiet spring afternoons. And Kate Winn’s garden, though never quite as colorful or as outstanding, remained the most beautiful in town for years to come.
It was generally assumed that Noah Turnbull lost four of his fingers during the years he worked at the town water works. As with so many widely held beliefs, this was more fancy than fact. Noah was born with just six fingers, or more precisely, one thumb, one index finger, and one ring finger on each hand. It may sound odd to refer to these digits by their usual names, but it was clear from the beginning which they were, as smooth, flat stumps marked the absent fingers as though they had been deftly removed by a skilled surgeon. Noah’s parents, the hardworking and God-fearing Turnbulls, had wanted a child for many years, without success until Noah arrived quite late in their lives. There was talk at the time of how advisable it might be for Mrs. Turnbull to bear a child at the age of fifty, and it was commonly held that her advanced age was a primary cause of her son’s malformation. As for the Turnbulls, they were sufficiently thrilled by their otherwise healthy boy that the matter with the fingers did not seem to bother them in the least.
Nor did it appear to bother Noah himself. He proved a physically precocious child, with unusual strength and dexterity.
He found the first finger out near the mud flats.
Micah Putnam and the Leaky Boat
Some distance north and west of Standish proper, the marshy earth of Kentfield gives rise to the headwaters of the Salmon River. Its origins are modest, with little ambition as it wends through the tiny village of Millington, where the unimpressive and aptly-named Low Brook arrives from the north. Once it crosses the Standish border the waterway seems to realize it has work to do, and it swiftly widens and deepens, taking a sharp eastward turn around the jutting base of Baker’s Hill known as Massacre Point. This of course is a reference to the three English settlers killed there centuries before by Passamaquoddy Indians, and not the thirty-two native souls slaughtered nearby during the militia reprisal hours later.
A few miles after the grassy picnic sites of Massacre Point, complete with handsome green historic marker, the Salmon River hits the thickly settled center of Standish at a run. Fresh water churns under the stone-and-brick hundred-year-old New Bridge, then immediately topples over the dam, falling some six feet to mingle with the brinier portion of the river below. From here the now saltwater river splits the downtown, with tall redbrick mill buildings on the eastern bank, and clusters of shops to the west, giving way to the scenic Dovetree Park that escorts the river to the Boston and Portland Railroad trestle on its way northeast. Now stately and wide, the Salmon River sees a few more farmhouses on its unperturbed journey to the Bay, but is mostly kept company by reedy marshes and scores of riverbirds.
It was here, in the green estuary between Standish and Whartham, where Micah Putnam spent most of his time in a small wooden boat, binoculars in one hand and a pencil in the other, a drawing-pad balanced on his knee and a shotgun by his feet. An observer, if there were one in the early grey hours when Micah lurked in the rushes, could be forgiven if they mistook him for one of the thin, willowy reeds that choked the low banks of the river. Short and slight, Micah had a mild greenish tinge to his skin, which somehow retained a paleness despite hours spent out of doors, his face skyward, watching the wheeling and diving fowl of the river. Most often he simply watched, delighting in the antics of black ducks and the cacophonic chorus of warblers and wrens. Herons stalked past, and the kingfishers that gave rise to the mascot of Standish Academy’s athletic teams dove into the river surface, hunting for small fish, insects, or frogs. Sometimes Micah would open his pad and sketch with an inexpert hand, noting differences in beak shapes or seasonal plumage.
Not a few of the river birds fell to the pellets Micah fired, all in the name scientific inquiry. The unfortunate fowl traveled home with Micah to his house on the west side of Standish, where in his makeshift basement laboratory he cut them open and explored their insides, studying skeletal structure, musculature, and varying organs. Wifeless, childless, Micah Putnam corresponded with the biologists at the state university, sharing his field findings and seeking their approval. This rarely if ever came, as Micah, a postal carrier in town, had no formal schooling beyond high school, and his knowledge of anatomical terms and scientific technique were self-taught and often quaintly amusing to the academics.
And yet Micah continued to visit the river, make his sketches, and shoot birds. He did this for many years, as the sketchbooks piled up in his basement, and the stuffed specimens, and the kindly-worded letters from zoologists gently dismissing his painstakingly crude efforts.
It was a cold spring morning when Micah noticed water seeping through the planks in the bottom of his small boat. At first, only a little water began to pool around his ankles, and Micah was unconcerned. He was in the middle of the river, heading toward his favorite spot, but the near bank was not very far off, and Micah was a strong swimmer. In any event, the leak did not seem serious, and he figured there was plenty of time to row to shore. Turning one oar in its lock to adjust course, Micah saw a brief flash of blue and then felt a sharp pain in one knuckle.
“Ouch!” he cried, releasing the oar, which slid from its lock and splashed free on the surface of the river. Blood welled from the back of Micah’s right hand, which he examined. The skin was broken, but the pain had already subsided. Had he been bitten by an overgrown horsefly? Micah had spent enough time on the river to know there were some insects to reckon with, and he’d had his share of stings and bites, though never one quite so spectacular. Of more immediate irritation was the oar, now floating some feet away from the boat, and drifting further away. With his left hand, Micah worked the remaining oar, orienting the boat to retrieve its wayward partner. Focused on the task at hand, he did not see what caused another stab of pain, now in his left hand. He grabbed at the handle of the oar that now slid free to join the first, but it eluded his grasp. The boat spun slowly in the current, moving clear of both oars as Micah thrust his left hand into his mouth, sucking on the deep gash there.
That had been no bug, he thought. And there, perched on the gunwale of his boat, just a few feet away, was an absurdly large kingfisher, a two feet tall from crest to tip of tail, squat and blue. It cocked its head slightly to one side and studied Micah with dark, round eyes. It then threw back its head and sent forth a cackling rattle that echoed across the misty morning water.
“Shoo,” muttered Micah, but the bird did not shoo, merely continued to sit and stare. “Shoo!” yelled Micah, louder and with the slightest tinge of fear. Just then he felt cold and wet on his ankles, and looking down he saw that the water in the bottom of his boat had risen to above his low boots. Eyes widening in disbelief, he saw too that the seams in the floor of the small craft had been chipped at, as though by dozens of tiny chisels.
Or beaks, Micah thought, and the small fear in his throat grew larger. Hands still bleeding, he reached for the shotgun, with the intention of shooting this massive fowl and getting to shore as soon as possible. It was a sign of his burgeoning panic that he no longer thought of preserving this unusual specimen, only of destroying it. The huge kingfisher sat there, exuding a patient malice, while Micah took careful aim with his firearm.
At that moment, before he could pull the trigger, Micah heard that same rattling call, and not from the bird on his gunwale. Wings buffeted his head, and as he raised his arms to ward off the sudden assault, the gun slipped from his grasp and fell, with a loud and final splash, into the river. The flapping wings abated, and looking up Micah saw a second kingfisher alight next to the first. This one was of a size with the other, if anything a bit bigger. Heart beating faster, Micah saw that the water in his boat was nearly to his knees, and the craft was riding very low in the river. It was at this moment that he felt a sudden weight on his left shoulder, and then a sharp and searing pain on that side of his head. Moments later, a third bird, triplet to the others, also settled on the gunwale, now mere inches above the surface of the water.
In its beak it bore a human ear. It was only there for a moment before the creature swallowed it, and in that instant Micah touched the side of his own head and felt the spot where his ear should have been, except it was now warm and wet with fresh blood. Micah screamed then, in pain and fear and not a little rage. He stood in the boat, stumbling crazily toward the three birds, who cried that awful cackle, so like manic laughter, and did not move as Micah lost his balance and fell. He struck his head on one empty oarlock, and landed heavily in the bottom of the swamped boat. Thrashing onto his back, Micah could see the birds had moved, and were now very near his face, calling and beating their huge blue wings.
Swim, he thought, but as he tried to kick free of the sinking boat the third and largest of the kingfishers took flight, and maneuvering behind Micah, pecked the back of his neck. Trying to change directions, Micah was daunted by the other birds, who took up positions that hemmed him in and prevented his escape. One darted in then, the first, he thought, and in a blinding flash of agony, his right eye disappeared. Opening his mouth to scream, Micah swallowed a hearty mouthful of the dark water. One of the birds was perched on his head now, and drove its long, sharp beak into his scalp once, twice, three times, each strike a flaming lance of pain.
Before his other eye was taken, the last thing Micah saw was a dark cloud emanating from the reedy shore, not more than fifty feet distant. It hovered low over the river, flapping, crying, and it was comprised of many colors. Birds, thought Micah, as they ate him.
The Standish Nine
Each spring two sounds heralded the end of winter and the promise of warmer days ahead. The first was the bell of the passenger trolley that ran to the seaside from April through October, painted green and red, and passing down Front Street in search of customers. The second, and the one with which we are concerned, was the slap of leather against cowhide and cowhide against white birch that signaled the onset of baseball season. The local high school, Standish Academy, fielded a squad each year called the Kingfishers, a paean to the blue and white birds who trolled the banks of the Salmon River. The Kingfishers (those in ballcaps, not feathers) had never been particularly good, most years losing more than they won, with the singular exception of one great season some twenty years before, when they improbably advanced to the state title game only to lose by a single run.
Despite this nearly unblemished tradition of ineptitude, the Kingfishers were almost universally beloved by the townspeople of Standish. There was a perverse civic pride in the perennial haplessness of the team, as if to achieve much more than mediocrity would be a sin against generations of also-rans.
The Tavern on Center Street
In another age, they would call Peter gay and be right. As it was, he was merely called peculiar, and that whispered behind hands. He was certainly prim, and was never seen out of doors without his felt hat and cloth coat, even in the hottest and muggiest of Standish summers.
There were old men who lived in Standish, men who had seen eight decades or more, who shuffled about the quiet streets of the downtown and still seemed surprised by the number and speed of the automobiles. They grumbled at the price of soup at Eddie’s lunch counter and at the volume and style of the music the kids played in front of the Newberry store.
They were whippersnappers next to Archibald Hunt.
Guesses as to Archie’s age usually began at one hundred and drifted upwards from there. Depending on the amount of money wagered or beer consumed, the estimates would reach truly silly proportions. Regardless, Archie would simply respond to inquiries by laying a long, spindly finger against his long, crooked nose and smiling a lopsided grin.
Archie’s exploits were legendary, perhaps even mythical, as no one in Standish had first-hand knowledge of his true past. All was rumor, gossip and innuendo. He had fought in the Civil War, he had worked the riverboats with Twain, he had conducted a torrid affair with the painter Mary Cassatt in Paris, he had charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, he had been with the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. No tale was too tall for the fabled Archibald Hunt.
The Milkman Cometh
If your name was Eustace Zipkin, you would very likely insist on a nickname, too. Perhaps Zip, or even Whitey, if you were the town milkman, as Eustace had been for several years. Rather, Standish knew him as Smooth. Smooth Zipkin. You could be forgiven if you imagined this as a reference to the quality of the milk he delivered each morning for the Laughing Cow Dairy Farm, which I suppose it was in part, though only in part. Laughing Cow was, of course, the very smoothest milk to be had in the county, better than Rockfield Farm or Stumpriver’s. “Laughing Cow, what kids want now,” was the radio jingle familiar to mothers in Standish of that day. Mostly, Smooth was a sarcastic tribute to the man’s long history of somewhat legendary blunders, including the time he delivered milk to the button factory on Maple Street some hours after it had burned to the ground. In his defense, it had been a very dark, moonless night, and the concrete front wall had remained essentially intact, but still, when the sun rose and fresh bottles of milk could be found at the front step of the absent building, there was small laughter at the Laughing Cow Dairy Farm. Smooth also once managed to lose his delivery truck to the Salmon River when he parked on some rotten ice behind the Ploughman’s Diner. The weather had grown a bit warmer while he joined the lads inside for a few afternoon cordials.
Smooth didn’t mind the stories, or the nickname. As we mentioned, his alternative was to go through life as Eustace, and that simply wouldn’t do. He also knew what the men of Standish did not, that a number of the women in town laughed into their sleeves about Smooth Zipkin, but for altogether different and secret reasons. For Smooth delivered more than just milk to more than a few of the wives of Standish.
As he made his early morning rounds, Smooth would collect the empty bottles placed just outside his customers’ front doors. From time to time, not so frequently that he came to expect it, but often enough that it did not shock him, a heads-up wheat penny would appear in a glass bottle.
The Hundred-Year Flood
Lionel Cross lived on Hilltop Drive, at the low end that was not on top of the hill. When the spring rains lasted for more than a day at a time, standing pools began to gather on his lawn, and sheets of water would course down the paved road. Lionel would peer through the drapes in the kitchen window and watch as the growing pond in his yard crept nearer to his foundation. He was retired from Standish Academy, where he had taught science, and had plenty of time for watching. He would sigh, and wonder aloud to his wife of forty years what would happen if the rain kept up this way.
“It never does, dear,” Hannah Cross would reply, not even looking up from the crossword puzzle in the back of the Standish Sentinel. Hannah had finished the crossword every day by noon for fifteen years, since their youngest child had left home. “It always rains in the spring, and it always stops.” Lionel would nod silently and continue watching out the window. As was the case in most things, his wife was right, and the sky would clear and the rain would cease.
One spring it did not stop, and this is what happened.
It was April, it was Monday, and it was raining. Lionel Cross stepped out of his front door and into the small puddles forming in his driveway, a green umbrella in one hand. He avoided the larger puddles as best he could as he retrieved that morning’s edition of the Standish Sentinel, thoughtfully delivered in a clear plastic bag. The paper was also being collected in the driveway of the next house, number 22 Hilltop. Bill Crawford was a slight, elderly gentleman who lived alone but for the deep, resonant barks of a German Shepherd named Pershing.
“Morning, Bill.” Lionel squinted out from under his umbrella. Unlike Bill, Lionel was tall and burly, his round chin covered by graying whiskers. “Doesn’t seem to be letting up.”
“No,” replied Bill from under his black umbrella. “No, it doesn’t.”
That was the extent of their neighborly conversation. Lionel liked Bill, and voted for him each time he was up for re-election to the Standish Town Council. He worried about the older man, especially since his wife Marjorie had died a few years before.
When the first letter came, Ruby burned it.
Ten Seconds, or The Ghost Runner
Even in a place like Standish, once in a while a child is born that seems to have been brushed by the fingertips of the divine, or at the very least is possessed of extraordinary good fortune. Cecil Root was one of these children.