Brian found the old Schwinn bicycle propped against the machine shop and pushed it across the street toward the Council Chambers. The bike was extremely heavy with only one speed, big balloon whitewall tires, and a fake gas tank fastened between the front bars to make it look more like a motorcycle. His uncle had bolted an orange, plastic clothes basket to the luggage rack making it impossible to get on by swinging a leg over the back seat in a manly way. He had to stand near the middle and poke his leg straight up in the air like a dog about to do his business. It was a disgrace to spoil those classic lines.
He pushed the bike across the street to the Hall Of Martyrs, the entrance to the Chambers, and looked through the large glass window at the bronze figures all in a line, poised in action stances as though they were charging down the hill together on some unknown mission. The figures were a little larger than life, nearly seven feet tall, cast in a rough, angular style to accentuate their steely resolve. The Builder was first in line, and a personal favorite. He clutched a roll of bronze paper in his left hand, symbolizing his great intellectual capabilities, and swung a large hammer overhead with his right, emphasizing his willingness to engage in common, hard labor should the need ever arise.
A bronze likeness of the Founder stood in the center of the group clutching the original wooden wheel from his ship, once again sailing it directly toward the sand bar for all eternity. Bronze children of various races sat on the ground at his feet staring intently at his weathered face, listening in rapt wonder as he translated the words on the tablet held in his left hand. Critics privately complained that the scene was an incoherent jumble of symbolism, and two of the martyrs were, in fact, not even dead yet which they considered a minimum qualification. The Elders patiently explained that the Hall was not a single moment in history, but a composite of past and future events that told the story of the village much like an exquisite icon. Still there were more skeptics than believers.
Brian pushed off from the corner of the hall onto Main Street. “The Builder should use his freakin' humongous hammer to fix up the run-down, clap-trap buildings that... “ He broke off in mid mental rant. Now that he looked more carefully, many buildings along the upper shelf of land that circled all the way around the cove had been carefully remodeled and painted. There was even a new house going up across the river.
He began coasting down toward the harbor picking up speed rapidly as the road descended past the rows of homes lining the narrow street. The manager of the saw mill lived in the brown house with ornate doors, if he remembered correctly, and the captain of the fishing fleet lived across the street in the flat-topped house with a cast iron widow's walk on top. Or maybe it was the other way around. He was practically flying now. Through the trees, he caught a glimpse of the big wheel on the flour mill that stood beside the river. Memories were flooding back. He was surprised at how much he had missed the place.
At the bottom of the hill, he could see the general store, a two-story frame structure with a porch that wrapped partly around the building opening on both Main and Front Streets. It was located in a cluster of smaller homes and businesses lining the rim of the harbor all the way around to the imposing hulk of the saw mill that jutted out over the water on the right. Most of the houses along the harbor were rebuilt after the tsunami swept down the coast from Alaska to California in 1964. There was some talk of relocating the buildings higher up the hill out of danger, but land was at a premium in the small cove and, in the end, a higher sea wall served just as well and was much cheaper
An old woman sat on the front porch of the store. She was thin and disheveled with a mass of frizzy hair poking out in random directions like a bag of springs gone awry. She was bent forward in the chair, rocking gently back and forth, rhythmically stroking a large white cat curled up contently on her lap. Even the cat looked bedraggled with big tufts of hair missing from the top of its head.
He grasped for the brake levers on the handlebar, forgetting these old bikes didn't have such niceties. He quickly recovered and cranked the petals backward locking the rear wheel, and slid into the porch with a thump, flinging his arm over the railing in an awkward attempt to remain upright. The woman never looked up; she continued to rock back and forth, softly mumbling some unintelligible word over and over.
He studied her carefully as he walked up the steps. Something about her seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite put it together. Her face was very pale with a slightly yellowish cast. Her head was tilted downward with eyes closed. She wore a long dark dress that nearly reached the floor and both stockings had fallen down around her ankles in loose pools of nylon. Another cat that he had not noticed before, a small kitten, sat on her far side frantically trying to free its paw snagged in the folds of a stocking.
“Mary”, he said hesitantly, “is that you?”. She did not acknowledge him directly, but leaned forward a little farther and wrapped a protective arm around the cat, continuing to stroke it. When he stepped closer and put his hand on her shoulder, she seemed to explode. She flung her arms straight into the air. The cat shot across the porch railing yowling in terror and landed on the street in a puddle of water. It shook itself briefly and then, still howling, ran under the porch with Lucky in close pursuit. The woman looked at him directly now. Her left eye was swollen shut, but her right was fully open and so wide it looked as though the eyeball was about to pop out. She waved her arms frantically all about and started to laugh hysterically in a high-pitched, wild way.
Taken completely off guard, and unsure of how to deal with the situation, Brian backed across the porch, all the while keeping a wary eye on the woman, who, by now, had settled down somewhat and was busy extracting the kitten from her sock. As he entered the store, the squeaking boards nearly drowned out the jangle of the little bell over the door. The building was the small town equivalent of a shopping mall, with a restaurant, post office, clothing store and grocery, all squeezed into one cozy space on the first floor.
Pete was sitting at the heavy wooden table next to the wood stove near the rear of the room, devouring a generous portion of bread and red gravy, but giving all his attention to a fold-up chess board to the right of his plate. He hadn't changed much at all. Maybe a few more wrinkles in his dark skin and a little less hair. He looked up at the sound of the bell, stared at Brian for a second, and yelled up the stairs, “Hey Della! Come look what the dogs dragged in!”
There were muffled, scuffing sounds from the second floor, and then Della appeared at the top of the stairs. “Brian, wipe your feet and get that three-legged sponge out of here! I just mopped up down there. People've been coming and going all morning with their dirty boots. Do you want some bacon and eggs or a stack of pancakes? Karl said you stayed up there all night with no way to cook anything. You must be starving.”
Brian dutifully swiped his muddy boots across the mat a couple of times, pushed a reluctant Lucky back onto the porch, and hung his wet jacket on a wooden peg by the door. “No, thanks. I found some oatmeal and stuff in the pantry this morning and cooked it over my camp stove.”
“Well, OK then.” she said doubtfully. “I'm sorry your Uncle passed, Brian. I know you two had your ups and downs and all, but he loved you all the same. Talked about you all the time when he came in. We looked for days up in the woods. The whole town did, even Petey with his bad leg. What did the rescue folks call it Petey - a grid search? ”
“Yeah, but it was more of a line. People stretched arm to arm all down Salmonberry Canyon. A sight to see.” Pete pushed a pawn around the board. “Sure miss him. He used to set down for a while after delivering his papers and we'd play a game sometimes. Some thought he was a little odd, but we always got along good enough. Long as you didn't get him started on the government.” Then added after a second, “Or big business, or the drug companies, or...” He trailed off when Della shot him a glance.
“Well, it was kind of sudden.” Brian said. “ I started to come back to visit a couple of times, I really wanted to and all, but there was always something that got in the way it seems. Uh, maybe I'll just steal a little piece of bread and some gravy from Pete though, if he doesn't mind.” There was a large platter on the table stacked high with coarse, thickly sliced bread and a bowl of gravy; enough for three it seemed.
“Sure. Help yourself, plenty here.” Pete said, pointing toward the chair across from him with his fork. “Jenny baked the bread herself. She fixed up that old mill last summer. Your uncle helped a little with the heavy stuff - what a pair, Sunshine and Gloom – but she did most of it. She grinds the flour herself. Makes seven kinds of bread, each with a different grain. Wheat, rye, you name it”, he said proudly. “Only thing is, its got rocks in it.”
Della brought a fresh pot of coffee and sat down next to Brian. “No, no, she makes one kind of bread with seven different grains in it. Sells it at the Saturday market in Westport. Tourists pay big money for that kind of thing over there. Stone ground they call it. And it doesn't have rocks in it either. That was just a problem at first till the mill stones cleared out.”
Pete stabbed a piece of gravy-soaked bread with his fork and studied it carefully. “That doesn't make any sense, seven grains in one bread. What's the good of that? And who in their right mind would pay three dollars for a loaf of bread anyway? You wouldn't recognize Westport anymore, Brian, it's like Gomorrah over there. Or is it Sodom? Which is the bad one?”
“Sodom.” Brian declared confidently. “I saw a big guy on an ATV looking for Jenny earlier. Didn't recognize him as anyone from around here though.”
“ATV? Oh, you mean those gosh-awful, noisy little carts.”, Della said. “ That would be Ricky or Tater ...uh... Rodger. They tear around here on those things all the time. Probably Ricky though. Rodger's been camping up in the meadows all week hunting elk. They're the new Elder's sons. Just moved in a month or so ago. Building a big fancy house up on the ridge by the river.”
“A new Elder not from the village? How's that possible?” Brian asked incredulously.
“Well, there was a big stink about it. Went on all last summer. Nobody liked it at all, but the Elders said it was time to bring in some new blood, find new ways of doing things, and they won out in the end of course.”
Brian picked up his plate and idly browsed through the paperbacks on the shelf behind Pete for a minute, then moved on to the grocery section, grabbed some noodles, a bag of jerky, and a handful of candy bars. Far from gourmet fare, but good enough for an overnight hike. He stacked it all in a heap on the counter. “You have anything for sinus, Della?”
Della went around the counter, sliced open a cardboard box, extracted a thin, red packet, and put it next to the other items. “Lots of folks seem to like this. Can't say myself.” There wasn't an extensive inventory in the little store, but she knew the sizes and tastes of everyone in town, what cereal they liked, what clothes they preferred, even when their shoes would wear out it seemed. Those were always in stock. Anything else took a couple of weeks to order from the city.
She looked uncomfortable for a minute. “Umm, one of the Elders called this morning. Said you have to pay for everything, Brian. I'm sorry.”, she said raising her voice a little. I'm going to write it all down here and put it in the bag. You be sure to double check it when you get home. I'm not so good with my math any more.” She tore a piece of paper from a pad and began writing.
“Oh, sure, sure, absolutely. I expected to pay.” he said, a little embarrassed. As she continued to write, he gazed idly out of the window that opened onto the porch. Lucky's head was in the old woman's lap and he was looking up at her adoringly, wagging his tail. She was patting his head and talking to him. “Is Mary OK? She seems a little, um, distracted. Does she have someone to take care of her?”
“Oh, she's fine. Just getting older like all of us and doesn't remember things quite like she used to. She stays upstairs in the spare bedroom now. We take care of our own here; you should know that as much as anybody. Maybe you've been in the big city so long you don't remember?”, she said looking at him sharply.
“No, no, I remember, and I'm grateful for everything. I paid back all the money, maybe a little more, I think.”
“You paid back the money, but that's not everything in the world, is it?”
Brian put the bag under his arm without comment, retrieved his wet jacket from the peg, and was walking toward the door when Della called out to him. “Brian, wait a minute! I've got a letter for you in the post office. Almost forgot all about it." She unlocked the door to the post office, a small enclosure along the East wall that separated it from the store. The walls of the partion did not reach to the ceiling, making it a kind of 'room within a room'. She went inside the secure area, and locked the door behind her.
"You know, I still have all those old corner blocks of stamps that you saved for me way back when, Della." His childhood philatelic dream of untold wealth was now a congealed mass of paper and glue at the bottom of his sock drawer. Not even enough for a bus ticket out of town - not that there ever was a bus leaving this town.
"Can't hear you!" she said reappearing at the transaction window and poking an envelope under the metal bars. Scrawled across the left side in large, crude, block letters was the word “MOVED!!!”.
“John must have sent it from Westport before he passed. At least that's what the postmark says. It came back about a week ago. Doc said he got a hold of you by phone so I set it aside. Knew you'd be in sooner or later, since your his only relative left and all.”
“Umm, I had to move out of the apartment unexpectedly and didn't get around to changing my address right away. Been looking for a condo, you know. Paying rent is like pouring money down a rat hole. No future in it.”
Brian eagerly tore off the side of the envelope fully expecting to see a revealing message from the grave. His anticipation slowly turned to disappointment when he discovered it contained nothing more than a copy of his Uncle's two-page newsletter, Through The Mill. No messages, no notes. Just his name written across the top with a felt-tipped marker.
“Crazy old guy. Not a word in ten years, and now he sends me a newsletter from last year”, he said, wadding it into a ball and flinging it into the trash can.
Della fished the crumpled sheets from the can and smoothed out the wrinkles. “You should keep it as a remembrance, Brian. John poured his heart and soul into that paper. Especially after Emma died. Sat up there in that big old house all alone and fretted over it, trying to get every word right. Trouble is after a while he started imagining all kinds of strange things that just weren't true. Riled people up. That's why they had to stop it.”
“Stop it? You mean stop him from writing a little newsletter?”
“Well, no, not right away. The elders offered to give him some articles from the Vision he could print. I mean, not word for word of course, he could put them in his own words and dress it up and all that. But he wouldn't have any of that. You know how stubborn he could be. Wanted to do every thing his own way no matter what. I heard you say that yourself sometimes.”
Brian folded the paper into a small square and stuffed it into his back pocket. “Would you mind if Lucky stays here tonight? Karl tells me Doc will be down from the observatory tomorrow morning. Should be able to get all the paperwork out of the way and be off tomorrow night.”
“Well, I guess he can stay out there on the porch. I'll put a blanket in the corner later. He's not coming in here were people eat though. And don't squeeze that bag! I put a big piece of blackberry cobbler in there for you later.”
“Thanks, Della.” He waved at Pete and headed toward the door.
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