The Big Surprise chapter 4

As we continued walking, I noticed Mona was following us. I figured my best option was to stay calm and let things happen however they would. I was curious to see if she would suddenly decide to pull us apart so she could keep me for herself. That would perhaps be a better bet. I did not want to acknowledge her behind me but I would not stop any progress she made to get me free.If my mother had quit smoking and doing such a poor job of seasoning food, I would consider moving back in with her. A part of me chose independence but the other part knew I was clueless on how to live by myself other than getting my own meals. If Connie continued shaking my hand forever, she would at least need to meet my mother and deal with her. If Charles was still visiting Teddy, I would ask him about driving us over there.

Connie said, “It’s such a great day today. I could walk with you everywhere. Let’s go down the hill and roam around a while.”

I said, “Instead, let’s stay up here and talk with Charles and Teddy.”

“That is not at all what I want to do. In fact, I’ll do everything I can to avoid that.”

“Okay. In that case, you avoid it and I pursue it. You can turn your head and ignore us when we talk.” 

Behind us, Mona said, “That’s a good idea.” 

Since I was pretending Mona was not behind me, I refrained from giving a reply, even though I had one ready. Instead, I said, “We could walk all the way to my mother’s place. That will take only a few hours if we walk quickly and don’t pay attention to stoplights.” 

Mona said, “It’s better to pay attention to the stoplights.”

Connie said, “I would prefer to avoid seeing her. She made you a wimp and I don’t want to see you turn into complete jelly in her presence.” 

I said, “But if we’re staying together, it’s inevitable.”

“The part about you turning to jelly?”

“No. The part about meeting her.”

Mona said, “I’ve seen his mother. She picked him up from school.”

Connie turned and faced her. “Why are you talking?”

Mona stood stiff as if ready for a fight. “I’m giving my opinion.” 

“You’re not invited in this conversation.” 

“Well, you seem as obsessed with him as me. You’re doing one better. You’re holding him tight. I wanted to do that in fourth grade. I knew he was looking at me and he was the only boy who did. He looked at me nonstop. I wish I had a picture for every time he looked at me. I would paste them up on my wall.” 

Connie frowned. “Did you like her back in high school?”

I said, “We weren’t in high school together. This was fourth grade.” 

“I know that. But did you think of her in high school?” 

Mona’s eyes widened. “Yes. Did you think of me during high school?” 

I would need to use my best powers of evasion. “It wouldn’t matter whether I did or not. You went to a different school.”

“Yeah, it wouldn’t matter because we wouldn’t have seen each other. So, did you think of me back in high school?”

“I already said it wouldn’t matter.”

“That’s true. You said that. So, if it didn’t matter, you’d be able to answer the question.”

“Maybe not. Maybe I’m not answering because it doesn’t matter if I do or not.” 

“Maybe you’re not answering the question because there’s something in your answer that you’re afraid to tell me.” 

“It’s not so much that I’m afraid to tell you. It’s more that it doesn’t matter as far as how I feel right now.”

“Hmm. So, you no longer feel for me the way you did back in high school?” 

With that line of questioning, she would sneak the answer out of me. If I said I did not feel the same way about her now, she would think my feelings were strong back then. I said, “That’s not true. I still feel about you the way I did back then.”

Connie frowned. “Why don’t you just answer her damn question and we can get past this?” 

Mona smiled. “I’m having fun trying to figure this out. So, let’s forget about back then. How do you feel about me now?” 

I said, “I’m not going to be tricked into telling you.”

“Wow. So that must mean you really don’t like me and you never did.”

“That’s not true.” 

“Okay. So you do like me.”

“It doesn’t matter.” 

“It seems like you say it doesn’t matter as a substitute for saying yes. Is that right?”

“It doesn’t matter.” 

“Oh my God! You liked me back then and you still do! That’s so great.” 

I was angry. “I didn’t admit to it!”

“No. But I figured it out.” 

“You shouldn’t have done that!”

She pointed to me. “You just admitted it!”

“Okay. Whatever. I didn’t want to admit it! But you wouldn’t stop! At least I didn’t mention why I liked you.” Uh oh. 

“The mystery continues. There’s a reason why you liked me. Let’s put it in the present tense. You still like me and there’s a reason for it.”

“I would rather not talk about it because it’s something special that I don’t want ruined.”

“On the contrary, I need to know what you mean.” 

“Let’s just say there was something about you that made me like you and what makes me still like you. Now that I said it, will you please go away and forget it?” 

“That’s not going to work.”

“If you really want to know, you did something that intrigued me and made me think about you every day. That’s as far as I’ll go with that.”

“You’ve been thinking about me every day since fourth grade?” 

“No. After you moved away, I forgot about you but when I saw you now, I see that I still like you.”

“So, you’re saying there’s something about me now that reminds you of what you liked about me back then. What is it?”

“I’m not going to tell you.” 

She ran towards me and grabbed my other hand but not handshake style. Handhold style. “I’m not going to let go until you tell me.”

I asked, “What if I said I want you to hold my hand?” 

“Then I won’t let go after you tell me.”

“Okay. Then I won’t tell you.” 

“Oh, you’ll tell me.” She squeezed my hand harder and harder until I could not stand the pressure. 

“Okay! You always tucked in your shirt!”

She stopped squeezing and released the pressure but still held on. “You mean you like that? Why didn’t you tell me?” 

“I was nine years old. I didn’t know that what I felt was a sense of liking you. I was intrigued at the consistency of what only you did.”

“That’s interesting because the reason I did it was for my own benefit. There were other girls who were more fashion conscious and tucked in their shirts all the time too.”

“Yes but they didn’t tuck in their sweaters or sweatshirts. You did.”

“That’s right. I figured the only way to feel totally confident in a style was to do it completely without exception. Sally Bennings, my good friend, told me at the Christmas party not to pull out my sweater. She said it looked good the way I had it. She was the girl all the others thought was the coolest so I was grateful she was considerate enough to help me like that. I continued tucking in everything as a favor to her. That was until around the first year of high school when it didn’t matter what she thought anymore. She hadn’t been around in a few years, anyway. But I continued tucking things in because it was part of my identity. I never stopped.” 

“Okay. That was interesting. You can let go of my hand now.” 

She frowned. “You smug little creep! I confess something meaningful to you and all you can say is I can let go of your hand? I said I wasn’t going to let go after you told me why you liked me.” 

“At first you said you would.” 

“Sorry. I’m holding on.” 

Connie said, “I should be bothered by this but I’d be a hypocrite if I told you not to do something I’m doing. Plus, he sometimes likes using his other hand to try to pry himself loose from me. You can prevent him from doing that.” 

We all continued walking. I was very frustrated and tried wiggling my arms and hands around hoping to annoy them so they would let go but that did not work.

Since we were returning in the direction of Teddy’s home anyway, I figured we could go there so he and Charles could see the predicament I was in. I could care less if Connie objected.

When I saw them, I lifted my arms so they could see both of my hands were held. They looked at me with very little expression as if nothing was unusual. I said, “I’d like your help.”

Charles nodded. “Hi, Mona.” 

She said, “Hi, Charles.” 

Teddy said, “I’d asked Mona out on a date many times but she always turns me down. She says she only has eyes for you, Stephen. You’re lucky.” 

I said, “She won’t let go of my hand. Neither of them will.” 

“I dig that. It makes it easier. You don’t have to hold on as tight”

“But I want to be free. It’s like they don’t trust me to stay put.” 

Charles shrugged. “I’ve never trusted you to stay put. If it wasn’t for my bringing you here, you would be dealing with your landlord right now, maybe walking the streets like a tumbling tumbleweed or going to mommy and breathing her smoke.”

“Are you telling me you knew about this in advance and that’s why you brought me here?”

Teddy shrugged. “Connie’s holding on to you because you need guidance.” 

I asked, “So, Connie, you’re not so crazy after all? You’re just doing this because someone told you to do it?” 

“That’s part of it but I was also curious to see how someone would react to being held. I admit it’s fun.”

“So, you’re not going to hold on forever?” 

“I didn’t say I was letting go, did I?” 

“No. Charles, can I please call mom?” 

Charles shrugged. “Sure.” He held his cell phone to me but I could not take it.

“Very funny. Can you call her for me?”

“Okay. Can I speak for you?” 

“I’d rather speak to her.” 

He shook his head. “It’s not a good idea to talk to her.” 

“Why not? Maybe she can clue me in on what’s going on.” 

“Yes, she can. She will be weird. You’ll be clued in on that.”

“For Pete’s sake, call her!” 

“Let me ask Mona. Should I call the mom?”

Mona said, “Yes. I want Steven to be happy.”

I asked, “Why are you holding on, Mona?”

“Because I love you.” 

“Did you put her up to this, Charles?” 

He shrugged. “No. Connie’s my doing.”

“Then who put her up to it?”

Teddy said, “I didn’t. I want her for myself.”

Mona said, “I love you.” 

“So you did this on your own?” 

“I would have done it sooner but I didn’t know where you were. Bobby and I were trying to find you. I have to say I sure hope you’re not going because I can’t quit until you’re mine but Bobby won’t quit either so that’s what we have in common but we’re both rivals.”

“This is too weird. Why doesn’t everybody leave me alone? I never had a chance to live on my own without outside help. Maybe I’ll sleep in the bushes tonight.”

Charles held up the phone again. “Here’s mommy.” 

I spoke into it. “Hello. Mom?”

Mother responded, “Hello, Stephen. When are you coming home? I need more cigarettes.” 

“I’d like to see you so we can talk about something that happened.”

“Did Charles call me mommy? He’s rather rude.”

“He’s making it hard for me to visit you. I’m detained at the moment.” I felt odd giving details to my mother.

“He’s always been a shit. I should have thrown him in the Cabbage Patch.”

“Mom, I guess we have to talk this way. He won’t drive me to see you.”

“Why can’t you walk it? Where are you?” 

“Waterville.”

“That’s a long way from here, honey.” 

“I know. Charles told me you never paid my rent. He said the manager evicted me so I have no place to stay.” 

“That’s so great, Stephen. You can stay with me.” 

“I asked you each month if you paid the rent and you said you did and everything would work out for the best.” 

“It did work out for the best. You get to live with me and shop for my cigarettes.” 

“I’m tired of hearing about those cigarettes. They’re the reason I left. I couldn’t stand the smoke. You lied to me on purpose so I could not stay in my own place. I lived just a one minute walk away. You could have told me the truth about everything so I could figure out a way to handle my own living situation.”

“That’s beautiful, Steven. Now we get to live together.” 

“I’m not staying with you mother.”

“How dare you say that when I paid your rent and let you live on your own?” 

I sighed. “The thing is, you did not pay my rent. You said you did but you didn’t.”

“That’s right. I said I did. That’s because I wanted you to have a nice place to stay so you could be on your own even though you’d be spending all of your time with me,”

“I want to be in charge of the money from dad’s survivor’s benefits.” 

“Oh, Stephen. You cannot handle the money on your own. I never taught you anything about living. You need to stay with me.”

“So, you’re not going to give me control over the money? It belongs to me.”

“I know it belongs to you, sweetie, and I’m not going to let you have control over it. I’m not giving you any money to feed yourself or take care of necessities. You need me.”

Charles asked, “Is mommy talking nice to you?”

Mother asked, “Is that snot-nosed Charles in the background I hear?”

I said, “Yes.”

“He should have known better than to have me pregnant with him.” 

“I think you were responsible for it happening mom, not him.” 

“I met your father in a mental institution.”

“Oh. Was he a patient?” 

“No. I was. He worked there as a cook for a little while and, when I met him, he said that when I got out he would ask me out on a date.”

“Was he desperate?” 

She yelled. “What the hell kind of thing is that to ask me?” 

“I’m just saying that he might have had trouble getting dates with sane women.” 

“You’re a fucking stupid asshole! You sound like Charles. Maybe you should have been thrown in the Cabbage Patch with Charles.” 

“He wasn’t in a cabbage patch.”

“Please come home to see me. I need you.” 

To Charles, I said, “You can hang up now.” 

He nodded and put his cell phone away. “Okay.”

Teddy said, “I’d like you to hold my hand, Mona.”

She said, “I can’t. I’m holding Stephen.” 

Connie said, “We’re going to have to figure something out.”

I yelled, “You can all leave me alone!”

Connie shook her head. “I can’t. I’m afraid you’ll run off in the woods like a giant bug.”

Mona smiled. “I’ll be your giant bug, Stephen.”

I knew that my knowledge of living on my own was minimal but, regardless of allowing my mother to handle a living situation in which I should have been in control, I had an inkling that the chaos I was experiencing now was nowhere near sane. I did not know how to free myself physically from the hand shackles of two women whose common sense was questionable but I figured that, if I stood still for about five or ten minutes, I could figure out some mental plan to disengage myself from everything. Perhaps I was the only sane one and everyone needed me around so each could achieve his or her own sense of balance. Regardless, I had to think of an option.

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The Big Surprise chapter 3

The rest of yesterday was a blur. Perhaps we went to the delicatessen and ordered a yam and cheese sandwich instead of the turkey meatloaf but I would not be able to confirm it as reality or dream. The news of how my mother wronged me was the one vivid incident in my thoughts. Nothing, not even Connie’s handshake, bothered me.

When I woke up around seven o’clock, the light outside was just forming and I had not yet noticed clearly how the room appeared. Connie was sleeping on her back, still wearing the shirt tucked in. It seemed firmly rooted as if it would need pliers to pull on it before it worked loose. I might not have thought of that if not for our spending so much time together.

I got up to go to the bathroom and then realized we were still connected. I tried letting go but, even in sleep, her grip remained firm. I wiggled our hands around like a clownish handshake and then remembered what happened. I said, “Sorry.”

She did not respond. She was either asleep or pretending to be so. I figured I could wait until she was ready to present herself as awake. In the meantime, I would think about the events leading up to what happened. Maybe I could see an overall design.

Before we lived in Buchanan, we were in Summersville. In no way did it compare to an area like San Francisco. Summersville was like a ghost town compared to any big city but people went to the movies and ate out occasionally. There were things a normal family could do.

I remember once, at the movie theater, some kids my age were sitting one row down from me, to my right. A boy said he hurt his finger and the girl next to him said she wanted to see it. He tried pulling it out but she laughed and kept holding on until an adult, probably a mother to one or all of the kids, sat down. The girl let go. I was intrigued and thought to myself, “What if the mother did not show up?”

For a while, maybe a whole year, I observed people, kids or otherwise, when one held another’s finger or engaged in thumb wrestling. I would observe if one grabbed the other’s finger and not let go. Maybe once that happened for approximately ten seconds but otherwise no. Eventually, I stopped caring.

Then, I remembered a girl named Mona White. We were in kindergarten, all the way to fourth grade, together. She was not really memorable but not anonymous either. She hung around the other girls and acted like the rest of them. Somehow, by fourth-grade, girls experimented with 

ways to wear clothes. Some girls always wore loose shirts. Others would do the same thing except once every two weeks would wear tucked in shirts as if it was a special treat. Others tucked in their T-shirts but not their sweaters. Mona tucked in everything. Maybe not during the first week of fourth grade but, after noticing other girls tucking in their T-shirts, she followed suit. One day, the kids were all supposed to wear a special Christmas sweatshirt to celebrate something I do not remember. Mona was the only kid who wore it tucked in.

I remember seeing her look embarrassed and about to pull it out but a friend of hers, another girl, shook her head. I assumed she said Mona looked fine. Mona nodded with confidence, kept the sweatshirt tucked in and then never wore anything untucked after that. I did not think I was attracted to her per se but I was intrigued. She became the most memorable girl to me because I knew in advance how she would wear her clothes and I wanted to see what particular shirt or sweater or sweatshirt she would tuck in next.

After fourth grade she went to another school and I only saw her twice, a few years later, walking with friends. She still wore her shirt tucked in, at least from what I noticed those two random days. Without my having any evidence whatsoever, I assumed she continued that style still.

Until now, I had totally forgotten those incidents from my boyhood. They were important to me then but later disappeared from significance. I wondered why that happened.

I could imagine the move to Buchanan caused incidents to change as well as my priorities. I became used to people who were not interesting. My parents had friends who were dumb as dirt and eventually mother and father were not far behind. 

Suddenly, Connie opened her eyes and said, “Good morning.” 

I asked, “Did you just wake up?” 

She said, “I think I was awake for a while.”

“Alright. Well, I wanted to go to the bathroom.”

“Sure. Come on.” She got up and I followed her in the bathroom. I unfastened and pulled down my pants and sat down. After I was finished, she helped me with her free hand to button my pants. She said, “I don’t need to use it yet.” 

I could have said, “Thank goodness.” I refrained from doing so because then I would have to explain why I said it.

She would ask, “What do you mean?”

I would say, “I would see parts of your body unclothed.”

She could say, “Yes. Isn’t that exciting?” Instead, she could say, “Of course. Is there something about my body that bothers you?”

I would not tell her what I meant. I would not say, “There’s something magical seeing you in a tucked in shirt. When your pants are down, the magic is ruined.” I would not say that because she might feel self-conscious about how she dressed if she knew I was paying attention to something she may have been aware of but not to the extent I had been. I would not mention how I felt about her clothes at all, partly because I did not want her to change her natural style and partly because I did not want to encourage any reason she may have for wanting to hold on to me.

She smiled. “You look nice.”

I nodded. “Thank you. Likewise.”

“I have an idea of something we could do today.”

“Yes?”

“There’s a park about eight blocks away. It’s called Reconnaissance Park. Don’t ask me why it’s called that. It’s a nice place to sit and look at nature. Sometimes, there’s loudmouth drunks as well but don’t worry. I know most of them.”

“I didn’t think those kind of people went here. It’s a steep road. Most bums wouldn’t attempt it.”

“They’re not bums. They’re neighbors. They might look hungover but they will be wearing designer outfits.”

“Hmm. I never knew anyone in that category.”

She laughed. “It’s good to get out of your rut and do something unexpected. You say you want material for your next novel.” 

“Charles said that.” 

“Fine. But you’ll get more interesting characters if you meet some.”

I wanted to ask how could I write if she would not let go of my writing hand but I did not want to start an argument.

She pulled me outside and said, “Come on.” When we walked towards the sidewalk, I heard Charles say, “Good morning.” He and Teddy were sitting outside on the same chairs as yesterday, as if they never moved.

Teddy said, “Here’s something funny, Stephen. Your mother calls me and asks where you are. How did she know you were helping us? I didn’t tell her.” 

Charles said, “Actually, you did.” 

Teddy laughed. “Shame on me. Anyway, how are you this morning, Stephen?” 

I said, “I guess I’m alright.”

“That’s better than guessing you’re not. So, your mom calls me and tells me about how she wants you home with her. I asked her why. She said you could buy her cigarettes.”

“I’m afraid I’m not going to do that for her ever again. If she wants to die from ill health, she’ll get no help from me.”

Charles said, “The difference between us is that I was raised differently for ten years. I wasn’t around incompetency. I had decency. That doesn’t mean I chose what happened. I did not. It was brought to me but I had decent people around me and it did the trick. Your parents – our parents, actually – didn’t teach you anything. It’s a wonder you can walk and talk.”

“I’m not that bad off.”

“Yes you are. You need mommy’s help getting a place but you don’t even have any furniture except for a table I gave you and a bed.”

“It’s just a hotel room.” 

“Yes but even a cabinet with drawers would be good for your clothes. Do you still keep everything piled on the floor?”

“Only my clean clothes are on the floor.” 

“Oh. Does that mean you fold and put away your dirty stuff?”

“I don’t have any dirty stuff.” 

“That might be not true.” 

To Teddy, I asked, “How was the conversation with my mom? Was it pleasant or upsetting?” 

Teddy nodded. “It was revealing. She talked more about her cigarettes than you. She said she had a crush on the guy at the smoke shop and she was hoping you would come home soon so you could get to know the guy.”

“I’m not interested in him.” 

“She could have been thinking you could put in a good word for her.” 

“He likes her enough. She pays for everything with her credit card and the payment goes through. He’s overweight, has a funny shaped nose and never smiles. I think I once saw him kissing another man.”

Teddy shrugged, “I’m just telling you what she told me. Maybe she likes fat men. She married a fat man, right?” 

“Father wasn’t four hundred pounds until later in life.”

“Hmm. Was he three hundred back then?” 

“He was but he worked hard and provided for the family.”

Charles said, “He provided his family with coming home fat. He bought his own food which your mother and you didn’t share.”

To Connie, I asked, “Would you like to go to the park now?”

She said, “Those bums, as you referred to them, are sounding better now, I take it.”

“Anything is better than when Charles criticizes the family.”

She shrugged. “It’s entertaining in a weird way.”

If what Charles said was entertaining, it was because some people had not heard him talk about his adoptive parents before. His adoptive father worked as a longshoreman but he also had a teacher’s credential. Charles’ adoptive mother worked as a switchboard operator. She was apparently overweight but not at all close to how large my father was. She taught Charles how to play piano and the adoptive father exposed him to a lot of literary books. Charles said he was not a great composer like Teddy but he appreciated music and literature. I understood that Charles had a better first ten years than mine and that was why I was tired of his criticisms.

Teddy was not a member of our family by last name anymore. He formed conclusions about us based on what he observed. If my mother talked to him weirdly, he would say so. I would have preferred him saying my mother was acting normal but then I also wanted her to do that.

I pointed and said, “Let’s go.” Connie and I walked up a nice looking street where all the houses were like cottages. Whenever I saw a cottage, I thought of cottage cheese, not only eating it but looking at the picture of the farm and a cow on the container. Those houses reminded me of that part of my childhood.

The road finally became a dead end where the park was located. There were a few rows of benches where people could sit. Two people were sitting already. One was a guy who wore a denim jacket and loose dirty white T-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. He would have resembled a few of the homeless people in Buchanan except he seemed to be looking that way on purpose. The tears on his clothing were too stereotypically employed to be random. The holes in the jeans looked cut in place with scissors. 

He was with a woman who wore a white thick turtleneck sweater tucked tightly into black jeans with a brown belt. She did not look like anyone I knew but seemed familiar anyway. Her white hair looked bleached and frizzed out like a punk rocker.

They were sitting there as if they had been smoking cigarettes but there were no cigarettes around and no smell either.

Connie said, “Let’s sit down.” We chose a seat two places away from the couple. 

Even though the time was morning, something about the park seemed to belong always to the afternoon or night. The breeze reminded me of late afternoons and the trees seemed to be a part of a mid afternoon winter scene before winter approached.

The woman looked at me and would not stop. The man did not notice. He seemed to be in deep philosophical thought. I did my best not to look directly at the woman but I could not help but notice her.

Connie pointed at the sky. “Isn’t it great here?”

I said, “Yes.” My voice was quiet. I was too aware of the woman’s stare. 

The woman said, “Hello.” Her voice was gentle but her stare was unsubtle.

I looked at her as my response but did not speak.

She said, “Excuse me. Hello.” 

I nodded. “Hi.”

She nodded also. “Okay. Steven Jacobs. Am I right?”

Her knowing who I was made me less nervous, even though I still did not recognize her. I said, “That’s me.” 

She approached us and nodded. “We went to school together. My name was Mona White. It still is but my street name is Mona Doodle Doo.”

Connie asked, “Are you a hooker?” 

“No. Not that meaning of street. In the hippie sense like street performer.”

I said, “I remember the name Mona White.” I did not want to say that I thought about her that morning and I could tell she was her because of the tucked in sweater.

She said, “Do you remember me other than the name?” 

“I remember you were in my class up to the fourth grade.”

She nodded. “Okay. Did you know I had a major crush on you?”

“That I didn’t know.” 

“When I went to sleep at night, I would imagine I was hiding under your bed and hearing you snore. Otherwise, I couldn’t fall asleep.”

I was getting nervous. She sounded a bit crazy. The strange hairdo did not help any. But, when I looked closely, I could recognize her facial features. I said, “Well, we were kids then. Kids do strange things.”

She said, “I still do it.”

“Hmm. Does it help?” I would have preferred having this conversation if Connie were not around.

She folded her arms. “It’s a placebo. Having you near me would be the real help.”

The man got up. “Would you be quiet?” 

She said, “Stop it, Zebra!”

He walked towards us. “Do you remember me, Stephen?” 

I said, “Not offhand. What’s your name?” 

“My real name is Bobby Davis. My street name is Zebra Peanut Butter.”

“Okay. What do I call you?”

“For you, I’ll go by Bobby Z.” 

“I remember now. We were good friends during second and third grade.” 

He nodded. “I had a crush on you too. I still do.”

I thought I was joking when I asked, “Do you know each other on account of your mutual love for me?” 

Bobby said, “That’s right.” He looked at me serious. 

I got up. “Connie, we’re leaving.”

She shrugged. “I guess so.”

We walked away. I did not care where else we went as long as it was away from there.

The Big Surprise chapter 2

Before I moved out on my own six months ago, I had lived with my parents a little bit longer than I needed to do so. They were fine with me staying with them. I would go to the smoke shop to buy my mother’s cigarettes. She could walk but preferred staying mostly in bed, watching television. My father had worked as a carpenter but his eating habits were bad and he finally got ill and had to retire. When he spent his last year at home, he went everywhere in an electric wheelchair. He could also walk but preferred not exerting himself too much when outside. He would go to the dollar store, ten blocks away, just to get one can of soda. When he returned home, he decided he needed another can so he went back to the store. He would go back and forth at least twice an hour, sometimes looking to the side and bumping people with his wheelchair. A few times, his wheelchair ran out of gas in the middle of the street. An ambulance had to come and bring him and his wheelchair back home. When he did eat real food, he chose frozen dinners, canned raviolis and macaroni and cheese. For a rare treat, he would get a pizza or lasagna. He eventually weighed four hundred pounds. 

I would not eat the type of food he ate. My mother cooked meals for her and me. Baked ham, potatoes and cauliflower, loaded with salt and butter. Often, I felt ill after eating her cooking. Occasionally, I noticed the expiration date on some things were long past. 

I was not totally aware of the business end of what happened after my father died except I understood the amount I would get and how that would provide me with the incentive to live on my own. To say I was totally independent when I moved into the residential hotel would be avoiding a few details. The hotel was one building away from the apartment complex where my mother lived and she asked me for help doing her grocery shopping. My parents had not taught me much about domestic skills and I had not wanted to be on my own until the smoke from my mother’s cigarettes became too much for me to handle. Even if I wanted to go out and socialize with young single people my age, they did not hang out in Buchanan. They must have gone to Summersville, not a big town by any means but at least it had a movie theater, a few restaurants and a bar. Compared to Buchanan, Summersville was a big city. Buchanan had the one café, where the one attractive woman in town worked, and the rest of it was gas stations, convenience stores and places where everything was a dollar.

Charles, my brother, had been given up for adoption because my parents had not been married yet and did not know whether they wanted to spend their lives together or go their separate ways. The people who adopted him were friends of my parents. What happened was complicated and I forgot many of the details but his adoptive parents died when he was ten years old and lived again with our parents. He kept some emotional distance from them, but they were relieved he would talk to them at all. 

Learning some domestic skills when he was a young boy, he was more competent than me. Now, he had a lifestyle that pleased him. He had a girlfriend named Stacy who I met only once and forgot what she looked like but he thought she was great. I had no girlfriend and settled for going into the café where Emma worked so I could be in the same building with someone friendly, professional and pleasant looking. It was not much but it was better than nothing. 

Now, standing in the living room with a woman who was like the improved version of Emma was scary and surreal, for certain reasons. Connie’s shirt was tucked in, something Emma never did and, now that I thought about it, Emma was good looking by default. She was not overweight and her clothes were clean but, like most of the women in Buchanan, she put no effort into her appearance. Other than choosing plaid shirts, she put them on over her jeans as if her clothes were an afterthought. Connie looked more put-together and professional, wearing her sleeves rolled up which, oddly enough, looked like something she did to prepare for our handshake. That was the scary thing. Not that we were shaking anymore, because that part had finished, but her hand kept holding mine, like a new guardian. Even stranger was the conversation we were having.

She asked, “What should we get for dinner tonight?”

I said, “I’ll let you pick.”

“There’s a great delicatessen a few blocks away that makes a great turkey meatloaf. We can do that or we can get barbecued beef brisket and garlic noodles at the Burmese restaurant. They deliver.”

“I didn’t know there was a delicatessen up here. This is high up on the hill.”

“I know. It’s strange, isn’t it? But they do good business. We could walk there.”

“What about Teddy and Charles? What will they have?”

“They’re not a part of this. They can order for themselves.”

“What do you mean they’re not a part of this?”

“They’re not attached like we are.”

“You’re forgetting that I don’t live with you. I have my own home.”

“Will your bed hold both of us?”

“I’m not bringing you to my place.”

She smiled. “That’s good. I can call the movers tomorrow and they can deliver your stuff then.”

I was not pulling my hand away now because her group was strong and when I tried to pry myself loose it became crushingly tight. But I also could not merely give up my whole will over to her. I had to present some sort of stance of independence. I walked around the circumference of her living room like we were promenading in a square dance. As I continued walking a little bit faster each round, she gazed fondly at me like we were a typical southern married couple out for a Saturday night stroll before going back home to the farm. I knew that my brother and his friend would come for me eventually so I mimicked having fun as best I could so she would not change her mood again and give my hand another squeeze.

She asked, “Is this one of your hobbies, walking in circles?”

I said, “I’m moving towards a certain direction in our relationship.” Logic was escaping me. I would just say whatever fit at the twisted moment.

She nodded. “Okay, so you understand the sequence.”

“Yes. Up one notch, down two and then stir until smooth.”

“How do you mean?”

“Mix everything in a milkshake and quack like a rubber ducky.”

“Wait a minute!” She stopped walking. So did I. “You’re not making fun of this, are you?”

“What’s fun about it? It’s horror.”

“No it isn’t. Shut up! You don’t know all the rules and regulations. You’re new at this.”

“New at what?”

She sighed. “It’s easy once you understand. I wish you would just get it without me needing to tell you every little thing. I’m not going to waste my time going over it all.”

Was she just crazy now or was she always like that? I was almost too nervous to continue the conversation but, since there was nothing else to do, I ventured forth. “Okay, don’t tell me every little thing but can you tell me something like what you’re referring to?”

“Us. I’m talking about us. I knew it was you. I can’t trust any deceptive signs. Now you get it?”

“I’m afraid the more you tell me the less I know.”

“It’s a completion. You filled everything. We are now complete.”

“Oh! You’re saying we’re married!”

“Yes, except I don’t trust the piece of paper. You could run away from the piece of paper. I made you physically a part of me. We are now one person.”

“I beg to differ. You’re one person entrapping me, another person.”

“You can argue all you want. The mind can cause conflict where conflict should not exist. If it’s not broken, don’t break it.”

“This conversation is freaking me out. Let’s discuss something else.”

“Okay. I’m thinking of getting new covers for the couch. Which would you prefer? I’m leaning toward beige or purple.” 

“How about paisley or tartan?”

“That’s an idea.”

“What time is it?”

“Eternity o’clock.”

“I mean, on Earth.”

She sighed. “If you mean what does the big hand and the little hand point to on the useless little contraption that winds us towards its monotony, six o’clock.”

“Thank you. I think it’s time I check in with Charles and Teddy so they know what’s going on.”

“Why would they need to know what’s going on if it doesn’t concern them?”

“I came here with them. They’re probably waiting for me.”

“If it will help you to quit talking about them by going there, fine. But the old ways are just that, the old ways. Your new life doesn’t involve them.”

“Are you the master of my new life?”

“I am your partner in your life now.”

“Are you saying I’ll never be able to see them again after today?”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be silly. You’ll have relationships with people just like you always have except the stuff that trapped you and made you stuck has no more value. You’re now free.”

“Free to be stuck with you.” 

“Now you get it.” 

“Okay. Let’s see what Teddy and Charles have to say.”

She shrugged. “As you wish, but I’m telling you they won’t be saying the kinds of things you expect them to say.” 

“Let’s just go!” I walked towards the door. She accompanied me without hesitance. Her expression was amusement is if she thought my getting aggressive was humorous. Well, wait until I received help from her next-door neighbor and my brother. Then, she would understand what was what.

Teddy and Charles were drinking alcohol. They each had a glass filled with ice. Teddy had a bottle of whiskey by his side and Teddy had vodka on his. They both waved when they saw us.

I said, “I thought you told me it wasn’t a good idea for me to drink whiskey.” 

Teddy nodded. “I meant that it wasn’t a good idea for you to drink my whiskey. Nobody but me drinks my whiskey.”

“But you gave some to Charles.” 

“Charles is drinking vodka. I won’t let him near the whiskey.” 

“But it’s still alcohol.” 

He laughed. “You can have peppermint schnapps for all I care. Just don’t touch the whiskey.” 

Connie said, “Steven is acting up right now. Alcohol wouldn’t be good for him.”

Teddy shrugged. “Great. Charles, have some whiskey.” He handed the bottle to him.

Charles poured some in his glass. “Thanks.”

I could have said something about the contradiction I witnessed but I chose instead to focus on Connie and my concluding our moments together. I asked, “What time are we going back home?” 

Charles asked, “Whose home do you mean?”

“Mine. When will you drive me home?” 

“I could drive you now.”

“Thank you.” 

“But I’m not driving now. I’m drinking.”

“How do I get home, then?”

“Whose home?”

I was annoyed. “My home!”

He frowned. “Where would that home be?”

I yelled. “Come on! You’re not that drunk!” 

He laughed. “Yes I am but my question still stands. What home do you want to get back to?”

As patiently as possible, I said, “I want to go to my hotel in Buchanan.” 

Teddy asked, “Should I explain or you?” 

Charles said, “As long as he understands, I don’t care.” 

Teddy nodded. “My drink is stronger than yours but I had less of it. I’ll explain. Stephen, you love your mother. Am I correct?”

“Yes.” I figured that if I just answered whatever he asked me, he would eventually tell me something apparently important.

“I take it you trust your mother to do the right thing for you with no problems whatsoever?”

I was going to say I knew everything she did was problematic but I decided to say, “Yes.”

He held up a finger. “Okay, now one more question, maybe two. It depends on how you answer this one but at least one more question. Have you noticed your mother in a happier state of mind these last six months like her mouth has an endless cigarette giving her puffs of happiness?” 

I felt less comfortable saying “Yes” to that but I did so anyway. 

“Okay, here’s the last question. Do you think about where that happiness was coming from?”

“No.”

“That is the issue here. You allowed your mother to do what she could to help you and, by doing so, you allowed her to help herself, all with you in mind, I imagine, but in no way to your benefit.”

“Okay. I don’t mean to sound like I want you to just come out and tell me whatever it is you’re going to tell me but please do that.”

Teddy sighed. “You know, I don’t have the heart to tell him. You tell him, Charles.” 

I was nervous. “Did she die?” 

Charles said, “Worse.”

“How could it be worse?” 

He shrugged. “She didn’t die.” 

I was irritated. They were giving me a bunch of nonsense. I said, “That’s a strange thing to tell me.” 

He nodded. “Not as strange as taking the money she was going to use to pay your rent and use it on more food and cigarettes.”

“What the hell! She had to sign the lease agreement because I didn’t have enough income to qualify on my own behalf. I was there when the papers were signed and she handed the check to the manager.” 

“That was the last check she sent him.”

“How do you know this?” 

“The manager told me.”

“He told you? Why would he tell you? I’m the one who lives there. Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

“I guess he wanted to talk to someone competent.”

“Thanks a lot!”

“You know what I mean. Legally competent. He asked if I could settle the matter before he had to evict you.” 

“What did you do?” 

“I’m a bit drunk and can’t remember every single word but mother said she was very happy with her food and cigarettes and if her not paying your rent meant you would move back in with her she would be a happy camper.” 

Somehow, I was not all that concerned Connie was still gripping my hand. That seemed more of an anomaly compared to such a big problem. I wanted to ask Charles why the manager waited five months before taking action and if he would give me thirty days notice before I had to leave indefinitely but those details would not change what was already happening. I did not know what else to ask. 

Teddy smiled. “Connie will take care of you, right?”

She smiled and nodded. 

I said, “Were you aware she’s been holding my hand the whole time?” 

Teddy shrugged. “Love is love.”

I yelled, “Insanity is insanity!” 

Charles sang, “And bluebirds are bluebirds.”

I asked, “Will you help me escape from her?”

Teddy said, “I’m not getting involved in what happens between two consenting adults.”

“I’m not consenting to it!”

He looked puzzled like he did not understand. He said, “I’m not getting involved.”

Charles said, “I reckon you either want to be homeless or stay with mama. You’ve got a third option.”

Connie asked, “Remember when I told you about the old ways no longer in effect?”

Like it or not, she would be my best option. I said, “Okay.”

The Big Surprise chapter 1

Cover image courtesy of Kody:

http://www.fiverr.com/kodysteps2

The scenery was pleasant and allowed me to forget the purpose of the trip. My brother, Charles, drove faster than what I would have preferred but we were in an area where the road continued being the only thing around for miles. I asked, “How many hours does Teddy want us to spend helping him?”

Charles smiled. “You shouldn’t worry about that. It’s not really about the work. It’s about getting out of the house and being around positive people.”

“I had planned to do some writing in the café. You ruined my afternoon.”

“Ha ha. Are you a flower that will die if you don’t have your watering of cafés?”

“There’s reasons why I wanted to go there.”

” I’m sure there are but you’ll have a different experience that you can write about.”

Finally, I could see houses in the distance. I assumed we were not far from Teddy’s place. I remembered him from when he used to live next-door to us. I was not a teenager yet but Charles and Teddy were teens. Back then, I thought they were cool because they seemed to have more independence even though they still lived in their respective parents’ houses and were subject to the same rules. Now, years later, I realized that I was cooler because I was younger. The older I got, years just went by almost interchangeably. Nothing major happened to me yet. I focused more on little goals I could accomplish. Writing in the café a block from where I lived was not just about that. The ambiance took me out of my funk and the female cashier was pretty. Charles had a girlfriend so he could not understand my reasoning. To him, doing chores for a friend all afternoon was excitement. I agreed to help mostly because I wanted to remind him later of the pointlessness of doing so if he decided to plan another afternoon like this one would be.

On the surface, Waterville was quaint in a way Buchanan, where I lived, was not. I lived in a residential hotel in a part of town that had a few convenient stores and gas stations as the only places where people could hang out and talk. Vacation Café was the cultural oddity. Technically, the building was a house. Its owner, Wayne Simpson, was a retired businessman who converted much of the building into an establishment where people could escape the humdrum aspects of the town. They would go on a vacation, so to speak. Emma, who worked there on Thursdays, like today, was probably the only single good-looking woman in the neighborhood. She wore plaid shirts hanging long over her pants as if she was planning to go camping. That was my imagination at work. She could have spent her leisure time watching television all day. But at least she did not go around in sweat-stained and ill-fitting maternity clothes which most of the other women, including members of my family, wore whether they were pregnant or not.

I lived in Buchanan because I could afford to do so. My father died from cancer but he had worked as a carpenter and was part of a union that paid surviving family members a certain amount of money each month. I did not need to work because my rent was cheap and I got by fine enough. Waterville, where I was now, was perhaps a bit too remote but the houses were the type where I would be content if I lived in one of them. The trees provided the type of shade I could not get at home. I had no idea if the area had any cafés but, if it did, I was completely certain the female cashiers would wear plaid shirts and really spend time camping.

“Do they have cafés in Waterville, Charles?”

“Why would you need to go to a café? Teddy has coffee.”

“It’s not just because of the coffee.”

“You like to watch Wayne grind the coffee beans.”

“No.”

He sighed. “We’ll be at Teddy’s place in a few minutes.” He turned left on a street on a hill. I would not have wanted to walk up a street so steep but the view of the houses put me in a better mood. Going up the hill was like going up in elevation to a level of living that was above the problems of down below.

The road levelled at the top. Charles parked the car two houses past the beginning of the hill part. The neighborhood had a certain vibe to it like an area where artists lived. Teddy was outside. He waved to us.

We got out of the car. The breeze was nice. 

Teddy smiled. “I gather you’re here to have some fun, right?” He winked. 

Charles pointed to me. “Steven is dead set on cafés. He was planning on writing a masterpiece.”

Teddy nodded. “I know the feeling. I want to write the next greatest concerto to come along since Charles Ives.”

I said, “I didn’t know you were a musician.”

“I can’t play worth a damn but I can write a mean score.”

“You mentioned Ives. Are you into avant-garde classical?”

He laughed. “That’s my bag. Well, I like conventional stuff too but I’m into the hip stuff. Edgard Varèse is another favorite.”

I was less annoyed at the prospect of doing whatever I came here to do. Maybe after we finished everything, I could ask Teddy if he could write music to my poems. Charles said Teddy planned to pay us money for our time and that was Charles’ incentive for coming over but I would not be against artistic collaboration as payment. I asked, “What do you need us to do?”

He said, “There’s tons to do. It’ll take days to do everything. But if we concentrate on just one thing today, that’ll be a step in the right direction. I’m thinking of focusing on getting the lumber put in the backyard and getting the pile of rocks put at the side of the house where I’m going to make a walkway.”

I noticed there were a lot of pieces of lumber. A massive amount it appeared to be. The rocks were in a large mountain of a pile. I chose not to be nervous because I knew that, if I concentrated not on the end result but just got into the doing of it, I could accomplish the goal. I knew that from writing novels. One page and then another and then finally reaching completion. I had done very little manual labor but I would pretend my putting each piece of lumber in the backyard would be my finishing one page of a book.

Teddy asked, “Would either of you like a cup of coffee before we start? We can take a moment and relax. It’s stressful work but I’d like to make it as stress-free as possible.”

Charles said, “We’d love coffee.”

Teddy said, “I’ll be right back.” He walked in the house.

I said, “I’m sorry I got on your case for bringing me here.”

Charles shrugged. “I asked if you wanted to come and you said okay. I didn’t force you to come and you weren’t getting on my case. I thought it was funny when you were tripping out on not going to the café.”

“I go there because of Emma.”

“I know that. She’ll be there next week. Plus, her brother is a good friend of mine. We go fishing together. The next time we go, I’ll also invite her and you. If you’d like that.”

“Sounds good.”

We stood there looking around us. If the neighborhood was caught in a photograph, a person would not know it was up a hill away from the downtown area. The houses did not look like any place on Buchanan but I could assume there were other neighborhoods, not on hills, that resembled it. After a few minutes, Charles said, “Teddy has the good coffee, the kind that drips into a cup. We’re waiting for the gourmet stuff.”

“Really?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to think it.”

“So, Teddy’s going to do some work today?” The voice was from a woman. I turned my head and saw a good looking female dressed in a plaid shirt like what Emma would wear but the woman’s shirt was tucked in and her tab sleeves were rolled up. She put more effort into her outfit and look sexier by doing so. I did not know who she was but I was suddenly anxious with anticipation. Was she a neighbor of Teddy’s? Was she going to help us?

Charles said, “Well, you know Teddy. He likes to put things off until he absolutely has to do them. Were the neighbors complaining?”

She shook her head. “Most of these neighbors don’t notice anything. I was just asking because he told me he was going to ask someone to help him.”

“Well, yeah. We’re the guys.”

She nodded. “Mmmm.” She looked at me with an intense gaze like she was upset, but not because she disliked me. I never encountered anyone who gave that kind of vibe before so I could not give an accurate description of what I felt from her except to say she looked upset because she liked me. I turned my head away, not because I did not like her. I did like her. I turned my head to avoid that piercing gaze.

Charles said, “This is my brother Stephen.”

She said, “Hello, I’m Connie.” Her tone of voice sounded like I was going to know her name whether I wanted to know it or not.

I looked at her and smiled so she would know I saw her in a positive way. My plan worked because she looked at me as if pleading but I did not know for what. There was a strange energy manifesting. I felt like she and I were fitted together in a latex glove. I looked away again because I felt like she would run up and hug me if I did not avert my gaze.

Teddy came outside with two cups. He handed one to Charles and one to me. He said, “Some progress is going to be made today.”

Connie said, “It’s going to be a great day. I can tell.”

“You won’t be having to look at this eyesore of a pile of lumber and rocks anymore.”

“It doesn’t bother me. I can’t even see it from my place. But I’m happy for you because you’ll be doing something you want to do. I have something I need to do and I’m going to do it.”

I glanced at her again, assuming her gaze had ended because Teddy was there. I was wrong. She looked at me with a playful smile that I could not interpret. The closest I could come to discerning it was she knew I would return.

Teddy said, “I’m sure what you have planned is not as elaborate as what I want to do. The lumber and rocks are just the outside things. There’s still carpeting inside and rearranging the furniture to accommodate some new pieces coming. I also have to paint and replace some of the lights. There’s also some shingles to be repaired and re-doing the roof but I can hold off on those for a bit.”

She nodded “What time will you guys be done?”

Charles said, “I could work through the whole night but Steven can’t go that long. He wants to do some writing. I figured this would be a way to experience a different environment than the one he’s used to and he could write about it.”

She asked, “So, what time do you imagine you’ll be done?”

“It’s eleven o’clock now. I’d say five.”

“Okay. At five, if you could do me a favor, I’d appreciate it. I have a box of books I’m through with and I’d like to give them to Stephen. Would you like that?”

I said, “That sounds great.”

“Awesome. Instead of me donating them to a thrift store where someone might buy them but maybe not, I’ll give them to a person who I know could make use of them. Can you be at my place at five?” 

“I’ll be there.”

“Okay. I’ll let you guys get to work. See you then, Stephen.” 

“Okay, Connie. Thank you.”

Charles said, “I had an idea Connie would like you. I think she’s prettier than Emma. Would you agree?”

“I wouldn’t disagree.”

Teddy got a wheelbarrow. “Stephen, I’ll just have you take care of the rocks. Charles and I can handle the lumber. It’s easier for you with the wheelbarrow. Just shovel in the rocks and take them to the side of the house and get the next load and do the same thing. Just try to spread them out somewhat so the whole side area is covered. You’ll see the shovel right here.” He pointed to it.

Shoveling the rocks was not extremely easy but I could do it. I did not think about the time or if I did not finish. I worked as long as I was able to do so. I managed to complete the job. I finished a half hour earlier than Charles and Teddy because they were carrying heavy pieces of lumber by hand without the aid of a contraption. Teddy smiled and winked at me. Charles said, “I told you it was easy as pie.”

I was not sure how many hours we worked. We had taken a few breaks in between so we would not get too tired. But, after we were finished, Teddy looked at his watch and said, “There’s still time.” I assumed he was referring to when I saw Connie at five o’clock. He handed Charles and me some money.

I said, “Thanks, but I was thinking that if you could put some of my poetry to music that would be payment enough.”

He said, “I owe you for the work. Now, what are you asking about your poetry being put to music?”

“I thought of the idea when you said you were a composer. I don’t know how to write music and I think it would be interesting if you could find music that worked with it.”

“That’s a possibility. Sort of like you’re Oscar Hammerstein and I’m Richard Rodgers.”

“Would you be willing to look at some of my poems at least?”

“I’ll take a look. I’ve written some poems but I haven’t even put my own poems to music let alone anybody else’s. But bring them next time I see you and I’ll look at them.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Sure thing. It’s not five o’clock yet but if you want to knock on Connie’s door and get those books, I’m sure she wouldn’t care that you came early.”

“Well, what time is it now?”

“Four thirty.”

“I think I’ll wait until five.”

He smiled. “Are you nervous?” 

“I don’t really know her that well and I don’t want her to get annoyed.”

“She won’t get annoyed. I saw how she was looking at you. It’s your call but I think it would be best if you went there now.” 

“Okay. Where’s her place?”

“Just the next house up. She’s my next-door neighbor.”

“Okay. Can I have some whiskey and water before I go, though?” 

“It’s better that you didn’t.”

I got up. “Okay. I’m on my way now.”

He nodded and did thumbs up. 

Her house had a large front door with see-through glass, reminding me of her gaze. I would not be able to hide my awkwardness while waiting for her to respond. Luckily, that problem did not occur. As I walked up to her place, she had opened the door and went out. She had that upset look on her face again. She said, “I didn’t think you would show up.”

I smiled. “Of course I was going to show up.”

She extended her hand. I could not tell whether her expression was angry or apologetic but the gesture indicated all was well. We shook hands. Her grip was firm and continuous. She kept looking at me, not saying anything.

I asked, “Did you have some books?”

Her expression changed. She smiled. “I have books but I’m so glad you’re here.”

“That’s good. I thought you might be upset at me.”

“I would have been if you didn’t recognize the signs but I can tell you know what’s going on.”

“What’s going on?” 

“You and me.” 

No one ever talked like that to me before so her comments were like clues to a puzzle I did not understand. She kept gripping my hand but her gesture seemed less like an offering and more like a territorial imperative. I tried letting go but she held tighter. I asked, “Am I here to get the books?”

“You’re here for me.”

I was extremely nervous. I wanted to know what her plans were but I did not want to ask about them in case her answer was creepier than my assumption. But I had to say something. I asked, “What do we do now?”

“I’d like us to go inside so we can talk about everything.”

Since Charles and Teddy were right next-door and would probably look for me if I was gone too long, I figured I was safe. I said, “Okay, let’s do that.”

The Big Surprise chapter one


Photo courtesy of Kody:

http://www.fiverr.com/kodysteps2

The scenery was pleasant and allowed me to forget the purpose of the trip. My brother, Charles, drove faster than what I would have preferred but we were in an area where the road continued being the only thing around for miles. I asked, “How many hours does Teddy want us to spend helping him?”Charles smiled. “You shouldn’t worry about that. It’s not really about the work. It’s about getting out of the house and being around positive people.”

“I had planned to do some writing in the café. You ruined my afternoon.”

“Ha ha. Are you a flower that will die if you don’t have your watering of cafés?”

“There’s reasons why I wanted to go there.”

” I’m sure there are but you’ll have a different experience that you can write about.”

Finally, I could see houses in the distance. I assumed we were not far from Teddy’s place. I remembered him from when he used to live next-door to us. I was not a teenager yet but Charles and Teddy were teens. Back then, I thought they were cool because they seemed to have more independence even though they still lived in their respective parents’ houses and were subject to the same rules. Now, years later, I realized that I was cooler because I was younger. The older I got, years just went by almost interchangeably. Nothing major happened to me yet. I focused more on little goals I could accomplish. Writing in the café a block from where I lived was not just about that. The ambiance took me out of my funk and the female cashier was pretty. Charles had a girlfriend so he could not understand my reasoning. To him, doing chores for a friend all afternoon was excitement. I agreed to help mostly because I wanted to remind him later of the pointlessness of doing so if he decided to plan another afternoon like this one would be.

On the surface, Waterville was quaint in a way Buchanan, where I lived, was not. I lived in a residential hotel in a part of town that had a few convenient stores and gas stations as the only places were people could hang out and talk. Vacation Café was the cultural oddity. Technically, the building was a house. Its owner, Wayne Simpson, was a retired businessman who converted much of the building into an establishment where people could escape the humdrum aspects of the town. They would go on a vacation, so to speak. Emma, who worked there on Thursdays, like today, was probably the only single good-looking woman in the neighborhood. She wore plaid shirts hanging long over her pants as if she was planning to go camping. That was my imagination at work. She could have spent her leisure time watching television all day. But at least she did not go around in sweat-stained and ill-fitting maternity clothes which most of the other women, including members of my family, wore whether they were pregnant or not.

I lived in Buchanan because I could afford to do so. My father died from cancer but he had worked as a carpenter and was part of a union that paid surviving family members a certain amount of money each month. I did not need to work because my rent was cheap and I got by fine enough. Waterville, where I was now, was perhaps a bit to remote but the houses were the type where I would be content if I lived in one of them. The trees provided the type of shade I could not get at home. I had no idea if the area had any cafés but, if it did, I was completely certain the female cashiers would wear plaid shirts and really spend time camping.

“Do they have cafés in Waterville, Charles?”

“Why would you need to go to a café? Teddy has coffee.”

“It’s not just because of the coffee”

“You like to watch Wayne grind the coffee beans.”

“No.”

He sighed. “We’ll be at Teddy’s place in a few minutes.” He turned left on a street on a hill. I would not have wanted to walk up a street so steep but the view of the houses put me in a better mood. Going up the hill was like going up in elevator to a level of living that was above the problems of down below.

The road levelled at the top. Charles parked the car two houses past the beginning of the hill part. The neighborhood had a certain vibe to it like an area where artists lived. Teddy was outside. He waved to us.

We got out of the car. The breeze was nice. 

Teddy smiled. “I gather you’re here to have some fun, right?” He winked. 

Charles pointed to me. “Steven is dead set on café. He was planning on writing a masterpiece.”

Teddy nodded. “I know the feeling. I want to write the next greatest concerto to come along since Charles Ives.”

I said, “I didn’t know you were a musician.”

“I can’t play worth a damn but I can write a mean score.”

“You mentioned Ives. Are you into avant-garde classical?”

He laughed. “That’s my bag. Well, I like conventional stuff too but I’m into the hip stuff. Edgard Varèse is another favorite.”

I was less annoyed at the prospect of doing whatever I came here to do. Maybe after we finished everything, I could ask Teddy if he could write music to my poems. Charles said Teddy planned to pay us money for our time and that was Charles’ incentive for coming over but I would not be against artistic collaboration as payment. I asked, “What do you need us to do?”

He said, “There’s tons to do. It’ll take days to do everything. But if we concentrate on just one thing today, that’ll be a step in the right direction. I’m thinking of focusing on getting the lumber put in the backyard and getting the pile of rocks put at the side of the house where I’m going to make a walkway.”

I noticed there were a lot of pieces of lumber. A massive amount it appeared to be. The rocks were in a large mountain of a pile. I chose not to be nervous because I knew that, if I concentrated not on the end result but just got into the doing of it, I could accomplish the goal. I knew that from writing novels. One page and then another and then finally reaching completion. I had done very little manual labor but I would pretend my putting each piece of lumber in the backyard would be my finishing one page of a book.

Teddy asked, “Would either of you like a cup of coffee before we start? We can take a moment and relax. It’s stressful work but I’d like to make it as stress-free as possible.”

Charles said, “We’d love coffee.”

Teddy said, “I’ll be right back.” He walked in the house.

I said, “I’m sorry I got on your case for bringing me here.”

Charles shrugged. “I asked if you wanted to come and you said okay, I didn’t force you to come and you weren’t getting on my case. I thought it was funny when you were tripping out on not going to the café.”

“I go there because of Emma.”

“I know that. She’ll be there next week. Plus, her brother is a good friend of mine. We go fishing together. The next time we go, I’ll also invite her and you. If you’d like that.”

“Sounds good.”

We stood there looking around us. If the neighborhood was caught in a photograph, a person would not know it was up a hill away from the downtown area. The houses did not look like any place on Buchanan but I could assume there were other neighborhoods, not on hills, that resembled it. After a few minutes, Charles said, “Teddy has the good coffee, the kind that drips into a cup. We’re waiting for the gourmet stuff.”

“Really?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to think it.”

“So, Teddy’s going to do some work today?” The voice was from a woman. I turned my head and saw a good looking female dressed in a plaid shirt like what Emma would wear but the woman’s shirt was tucked in and her tab sleeves were rolled up. She put more effort into her outfit and look sexier by doing so. I did not know who she was but I was suddenly anxious with anticipation. Was she a neighbor of Teddy’s? Was she going to help us?

Charles said “Well, you know Teddy. He likes to put things off until he absolutely has to do them. Were the neighbors complaining?”

She shook her head. “Most of these neighbors don’t notice anything. I was just asking because he told me he was going to ask someone to help him.”

“Well, yeah. We’re the guys.”

She nodded. “Mmmm.” She looked at me with an intense gaze like she was upset, but not because she disliked me. I never encountered anyone who gave that kind of vibe before so I could not give an accurate description of what I felt from her except to say she looked upset because she liked me. I turned my head away, not because I did not like her. I did like her. I turned my head to avoid that piercing gaze.

Charles said, “This my brother Stephen.”

She said, “Hello, I’m Connie.” Her tone of voice sounded like I was going to know her name whether I wanted to know it or not.

I looked at her and smiled so she would know I saw her in a positive way. My plan worked because she looked at me as if pleading but I did not know for what. There was a strange energy manifesting. I felt like she and I were fitted together in a latex glove. I looked away again because I felt like she would run up and hug me if I did not convert my gaze.

Teddy came outside with two cups. He handed one to Charles and one to me. He said, “Some progress is going to be made today.”

Connie said, “It’s going to be a great day. I can tell.”

“You won’t be having to look at this eyesore of a pile of lumber and rocks anymore.”

“It doesn’t bother me. I can’t even see it from my place. But I’m happy for you because you’ll be doing something you want to do. I have something I need to do and I’m going to do it.”

I glanced at her again, assuming her gaze had ended because Teddy was there. I was wrong. She looked at me with a playful smile that I could not interpret. The closest I could come to discerning it was she knew I would return.

Teddy said, “I’m sure what you have planned is not as elaborate as what I want to do. The lumber and rocks are just the outside things. There’s still carpeting inside and rearranging the furniture to accommodate some new pieces coming. I also have to paint and replace some of the lights. There’s also some shingles to be repaired and re-doing the roof but I can hold off on those for a bit.”

She nodded “What time will you guys be done?”

Charles said, “I could work through the whole night but Steven can’t go that long. He wants to do some writing. I figured this would be a way to experience a different environment than the one he’s used to and he could write about it.”

She asked, “So, what time do you imagine you’ll be done?”

“It’s eleven o’clock now. I’d say five.”

“Okay. At five, if you could do me a favor, I’d appreciate it. I have a box of books I’m through with and I’d like to give them to Stephen. Would you like that?”

I said, “That sounds great.”

“Awesome. Instead of me donating them to a thrift store where someone might buy them but maybe not, I’ll give them to a person who I know could make use of them. Can you be at my place at five?” 

“I’ll be there.”

“Okay. I’ll let you guys get to work. See you then, Stephen.” 

“Okay, Connie. Thank you.”

Charles said “I had an idea Connie would like you. I think she’s prettier than Emma. Would you agree?”

“I wouldn’t disagree.”

Teddy got a wheelbarrow. “Stephen, I’ll just have you take care of the rocks. Charles and I can handle the lumber. It’s easier for you with the wheelbarrow. Just shovel in the rocks and take them to the side of the house and get the next load and do the same thing. Just try to spread them out somewhat so the whole side area is covered. You’ll see the shovel right here.” He pointed to it.

Shoveling the rocks was not extremely easy but I could do it. I did not think about the time or if I did not finish. I worked as long as I was able to do so. I managed to complete the job. I finished a half hour earlier than Charles and Teddy because they were carrying heavy pieces of lumber by hand without the aid of a contraption. Teddy smiled and winked at me. Charles said, “I told you it was easy as pie.”

I was not sure how many hours we worked. We had taken a few breaks in between so we would not get too tired. But, after we were finished, Teddy looked at his watch and said, “There’s still time.” I assumed he was referring to when I saw Connie at five o’clock. He handed Charles and me some money.

I said, “Thanks, but I was thinking that if you could put some of my poetry to music that would be payment enough.”

He said, “I owe you for the work. Now, what are you asking about your poetry being put to music?”

“I thought of the idea when you said you were a composer. I don’t know how to write music and I think it would be interesting if you could find music that worked with it.”

“That’s a possibility. Sort of like you’re Oscar Hammerstein and I’m Richard Rodgers.”

“Would you be willing to look at some of my poems at least?”

“I’ll take a look. I’ve written some poems but I haven’t even put my own poems to music let alone anybody else’s. But bring them next time I see you and I’ll look at them.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Sure thing. It’s not five o’clock yet but if you want to knock on Connie’s door and get those books, I’m sure she wouldn’t care that you came early.”

“Well, what time is it now?”

“Four thirty.”

“I think I’ll wait until five.”

He smiled. “Are you nervous?” 

“I don’t really know her that well and I don’t want her to get annoyed.”

“She won’t get annoyed. I saw how she was looking at you. It’s your call but I think it would be best if you went there now.” 

“Okay. Where’s her place?”

“Just the next house up. She’s my next-door neighbor.”

“Okay. Can I have some whiskey and water before I go, though?” 

“It’s better that you didn’t.”

I got up. “Okay. I’m on my way now.”

He nodded and did thumbs up. 

Her house had a large front door with see-through glass, reminding me of her gaze. I will not be able to hide my awkwardness while waiting for her to respond. Luckily, that problem did not occur. As I walked up to her place, she had opened the door and went out. She had that upset look on her face again. She said, “I didn’t think you would show up.”

I smiled. “Of course I was going to show up.”

She extended her hand. I could not tell whether her expression was angry or apologetic but the gesture indicated all was well. We shook hands. Her grip was firm and continuous. She kept looking at me, not saying anything.” 

I asked, “Did you have some books?”

Her expression changed. She smiled. “I have books but I’m so glad you’re here.”

“That’s good. I thought you might be upset at me.”

“I would have been if you didn’t recognize the signs but I can tell you know what’s going on.”

“What’s going on?” 

“You and me.” 

No one ever talked like that to me before so her comments were like clues to a puzzle I did not understand. She kept gripping my hand but her gesture seemed less like an offering and more like a territorial imperative. I tried letting go but she held tighter. I asked, “Am I here to get the books?”

“You’re here for me.”

I was extremely nervous. I wanted to know what her plans were but I did not want to ask about them in case her answer was creepier than my assumption. But I had to say something. I asked, “What do we do now?”

“I’d like us to go inside so we can talk about everything.”

Since Charles and Teddy were right next-door and would probably look for me if I was gone too long, I figured I was safe. I said, “Okay, let’s do that.”

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New story

The Stevens family had never rode uphill before. Everywhere they had to go, in the past, was on level ground, with few trees and lots of sun shining ferociously as if an invisible lighting man wanted to burn their stamina away so they could do little damage. Phil was glad his uncle Nick hired a limousine for the ride up McAvoy Avenue. There was still not too much room in the large area in the back due to everyone except Phil weighing over three hundred pounds. Aside from that, Nick tended to waver the car when he drove. His concentration focused mostly on finding cheap restaurants.

Nick’s old high school friend, Albert Taylor, invited him and any family members for a visit at Albert’s place. As the limousine continued up the steep road, Nick said, “This is strange. Are we riding up to another planet?”

 Albert’s mother and Nick’s sister, Sophie, said, “You’re just not used to this. Neither am I. Driver, can you take us down!”

Phil shook his head, signaling the driver to ignore any unexpected outbursts, and said, “You’re not going to fall off this hill. It turns level soon. You want that money Albert is giving you. Isn’t that right, uncle Nick!”

Nick shrugged. “It’s not going to do us any good if the money’s from another planet.”

Phil remembered the last time Nick assumed a situation as being from another planet. The family attended a party hosted by their next-door neighbor, Jim, who celebrated a job promotion and hired a fancy caterer to provide the food. Since there was no canned raviolis, imitation cheese or cheap soda in sight, Nick was afraid of touching what he thought was alien food. He thought the cheese sticks and celery pieces were lizard fingers. He figured that if it did not come from the dollar store, it was not for human consumption.