The Big Surprise chapter 1

Cover image courtesy of Kody:

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.”


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.”


“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.”


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