Cover image courtesy of Kody
On a Thursday night, close to five o’clock, John Martin wanted to relax. Il Casalare, the pizzeria with yellow lighting and plenty of outside seats, was packed as usual but the type of people who were customers were closer to whom he would want to know as opposed to what happened earlier.
A friend of his, Richard Montgomery, needed his car fixed. John knew nothing mechanical about automobiles nor never knew how to drive. Richard pleaded with him and said, “There is no one else I can get to come over.”
John said, “If that’s all you want is for me to sit with you all day and look at your engine, I can do that.”
Richard did not realize John was joking. He said he would appreciate that very much. John went to Richard’s house. They sat in the garage, staring at the car with its front hood up, for a few hours.
At least Richard had Peppermint Schnapps. Somehow, a German drink fitted the town of Berlin, New York. Since John moved there a month ago, he was still hoping to get away from San Francisco, California, where he grew up. His apartment was on Valencia Street, a not bad neighborhood but his neighbors intruded on his time. If there was a San Francisco drink, it would be cheap beer, according to what his neighbors drank. Here, the quiet roads and Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired architecture allowed him to walk peacefully and not be interrupted by a bum wanting not only spare change but a place to sleep. Those requests, in and of themselves, were understandable but the consequence of John’s generous nature was for a bum to offer unsolicited advice on how John should live his life. The bum became a friend who finagled John’s phone number out of him. The bum friends, combined with the nosy neighbors, worked against John’s goals. When his brother, Thomas – who lived in Berlin and owned a furniture store there – invited John to live on the East Coast, John was relieved.
Thomas had said, “Victoria and I are planning to move to Key West, Florida. We need warmer climates all year round. The summers here are great but the winters not so much. I sold the furniture store and got a tidy little sum to help us move. Would you like to live in our house? Victoria doesn’t want to sell it. She wants to wait in case Eric wants it when he becomes of legal age. However, you’d be doing us a favor if you took me up on the deal.”
John was happy to tell his bum friends and neighbors he was leaving. The reactions were mixed. Some people wished him good luck and others cried and said they would never see him again. When a person asked for his new address, he said he did not want to give it to anyone.
The first few days of life in his new home were without conflict. Then, he noticed several people he recognized. Richard went to high school with him and was his new neighbor, a block away. He had two friends, Patrick and Leonard, visiting him. They were sitting outside on his porch. They all went to high school with John. He had went on a walk up the street when he heard his name called and saw Richard waving at him.
Richard said, “This is wild. I guess it is a small world.” John mentioned how he got the house. Richard said his uncle died and gave him his place. Richard said, “That’s an even stranger coincidence. We both had family who lived here. If it were New York City, that would be more understandable because everyone and anyone is there but… in Berlin? Wow.”
Patrick and Leonard explained that they both lived in Portland, Maine, and owned a restaurant there. They were just visiting Richard for the day. That was good news for John. Richard was enough of his past for him to handle.
As time went on, Richard was acting more like John’s neighbors in California. John wondered if people were the same everywhere to everybody or just him. Richard had some good points and did not bother John too much but John needed to keep a slight distance.
Since Richard provided alcoholic beverages and they listened to Andrew Hill on the stereo system, John was not so annoyed. Richard talked about how he wanted to collect rare coins and then he talked about polishing opals, switching back and forth between subjects.
Finally, John said, “I don’t think it’s doing the car any good with us just staring at it all day.”
Richard made a stern face. “Then fix it! That’s why I asked you to come up here!”
“I don’t know one damn thing about cars!”
“I know that but I don’t know anyone else who can help!”
“You could have called a mechanic.”
“A mechanic would be not like having a friend over like you who I can talk with. I’m lonely.”
“I understand but you’re very irritating.”
“Why would you say that? It isn’t a nice thing to say.”
John shrugged. “Maybe no one wants to hang out with you.”
“Now you’re talking like Patrick. He kept looking at his watch the last time he was here and said he had to go. Leonard was cool. He likes me. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I have a lot of friends.”
“You have Leonard.”
“What does that mean? I don’t have you as a friend? Is that what you’re saying right now? You’re so smug, thinking you’re better than me. You weren’t like that in high school. What happened?”
“I’m not trying to be a jerk but we’re sitting here looking at your car, not even knowing what’s wrong with it or how to fix it. That’s not productive and it’s bothering me.”
“Well, I don’t have any other solution at this point so you might as well just shut your trap and sit here.”
“I’ll stay a little while longer.”
“An hour and ten minutes?”
“No. Ten minutes.”
“How about I give you another shot of Schnapps?”
John had stayed an hour longer. Those were four annoying hours that would have turned into eight if he did not get up and march away. Richard had cried and accused John of not liking him.
John continued walking until he arrived at the pizzeria. He was not hungry but the atmosphere, with people who seemed intelligent and not about to stare at cars all afternoon, were who he needed around him. He did not order anything but sat outside on a bench that was less crowded than the other benches.
Suddenly, a man – wearing a business suit – approached him. He asked, “Do you need any help, sir?”
John replied, “I’m fine. Do you work here?”
“No. I was walking by and I saw you and thought you might be lost or you’re on drugs.”
“What would make you think something stupid like that? Do I look like a flake?”
“I’m not judging you, sir. You look fine. But you never know about people. I saw you sitting like you’re angry and the first thing I thought was you wandered away from home and your mother is worried about you.”
“I’m thirty years old, damn it! My mother lives in California.”
“Maybe you should get back to her before she calls for help.”
“I live here!”
“You live on this bench?”
“No, asshole! I live in this town. My brother used to live here. Thomas Martin. He left for Florida and let me move in.”
The man laughed. “Forgive me. I know Thomas. I own the bicycle shop next door to Martin Furniture. They have a new owner but they kept the name. I’m Arnold Schumacher. If you ever need a job at my shop, feel free to come by.”
“Thank you. I’ve got my money situation taken care of.”
“How is that? Did you embezzle somebody?”
“Oh, shut up!”
“Why should I shut up? It’s a perfectly logical question. If you did something illegal which brought you into a big load of cash, I’d be curious to know about it.”
John sighed. “What is it about me that makes you think of all this nonsense?”
“I guess it’s because you’re just sitting down here without eating a piece of pizza.”
“What if I was sitting on a bus bench? Would you think I was out of it because I wasn’t on a bus? You don’t know if I already ate my pizza and I’m waiting for it to digest before I walk home.”
“That’s right. You’re very observant. I don’t know that. So, do you need to go to the hospital?”
“No. Why ask that?”
“If you have trouble digesting food then maybe you need to see a gastro-enterologist.”
“Maybe you need to shut up.”
“I’m trying to help you.”
“How is that?”
“You say you’re having troubles.”
“I didn’t say that. You’re assuming that. I’m fine.”
“No. Get away from me!”
Arnold shrugged. “I apologize if I offended you. What’s your name?”
“I accept your apology.”
“What’s your name?
“My name is what it is.”
“You won’t tell me?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“Why? Did you forget it?”
“Leave me alone!”
Arnold walked away. John noticed a waiter looking at him as if concerned tension was starting. John stood up and walked towards home. First Richard and then Arnold. John’s day was not going well.
He would not allow negativity to rule the moment. He thought about an old gray English-style church that matched the overcast afternoon. He would be passing it if he strolled past his house. He never visited England but he was curious about the culture. He knew mostly men and not the highest quality. He went on an occasional platonic outing with women friends to see concerts or movies. They could have dressed attractively but they made no efforts to do so, adorning loose sweatshirts and ripped jeans like they had been doing housework and forgot to change before meeting him. The closest thing to an exception was one woman, Marcie Gray, who wore a yellow T-shirt and good jeans but, when she and John were at the movie theater, he noticed another woman – holding hands with her date – wearing the same outfit except the T-shirt was tucked in and looked sexy. Marcie did not even tuck in her T-shirt, which would have been one consolation because she was not holding his hand, which in itself would have been fine but she did not appeal romantically to him. He wondered if he would ever meet a woman who was his type and single and liked him. He figured England could be a fine place for that. If not England, then Dublin, New York.
Suddenly, he felt different as if he had ingested medication and became calm. The feeling was not bad in any way but unexpected. He figured that if he saw Richard again, he would not be upset. He would wave if Richard waved. He would apologize if Richard said he was upset. As he continued closer to his house, the feeling got stronger as if something was fixed, like a math problem solved by emotions. He did not know how to describe the feeling but it seemed put in front of him like a gift.
From a distance, he noticed a woman sitting on the stool in front of his house. He had no idea who she was. She wore good jeans – a change of pace from the women in California – and a brown thick ribbed sweater with the sleeves pushed up. He almost thought she was another example of someone who never wore anything tucked in but the sweater did not go past the belt line. He could not see where the sweater ended. He thought jokingly it could be tucked in. As he was now on his property, he saw it was tucked in. Her jeans had a large brown belt on it. She had on a plaid shirt underneath the sweater with the collar showing. He was nervous with excited anticipation. Was she a result of his living in Berlin? Was she the reward after a hard day?
As he walked towards her, she looked at him and extended her hand. Something about her composure seemed planned as if she was greeting him at her house, not his. A part of him wondered if he was home. He could have turned on a similar street without knowing he did so. No, that was not true.
She gazed at him with a look that told him they were meant to be together. Whoa! How could that be? They had not yet spoken to each other.
He said, “Hello. May I help you?”
She said, “Hello. I’m Stephanie.”
They shook hands. She held firmly. “I’m wondering if I’m at the right place. I’m writing an article about the town and I was supposed to meet up with the local historian. I heard he lived here on Cherry Plain Road.”
“Who were you supposed to see? My name is John Martin. I just moved here a month ago and the only thing of significance I know about this area is that this is Resselhaer County and the town was named after the place in Germany.”
“That’s a start. What else can you tell me?”
“I know there’s Berlin Mountain and I know we’re next to Stephentown but that’s about it.”
“Okay. Well, if you know of anything else, please let me know.”
He was puzzled. If she was looking for a specific person, why was she asking him questions? She did not say the name of the historian or a specific house number. He tried removing his hand from hers. She held tighter. If she was a writer, she would need her hand free. Something was wrong. He asked, “Who are you looking for?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Just someone. You’ll do.”
“Are you really writing an article about this place?”
“No. I just said that.”
“What are you doing, then?”
“I’m just hanging around with you. What you are up to today?”
“I’m about ready to go inside and rest.”
She smiled. “That sounds fun. Let’s do it.”
He pulled hard but she would not let go. “Can you stop this?”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“When will you get in the mood?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been walking around, checking things out and decided to wait here for you.”
“But I don’t even know you!”
“You just decided you’d go to a random person’s house and latch on to his hand?”
“Well, I saw you leave your house earlier so I knew this was your place but… yeah.”
Was this a prank? He was not sure but, in order for him to resolve the situation, he had to go inside and sit down. He said, “I’m going in.”
She got up. “I’ll join you.”