Monday, April 13, 2015

The Long Way Home

April 6th, an hour before dusk

Samantha Cooper shifted sideways slightly in her seat as she wrestled one handed with her purse wedged between her feet and her backpack. She was trying to dig around for her cinnamon gum. She was hungry and it was at least an hour until the mid point rest stop. Gum would have to do for now. Samantha’s curly strawberry blonde hair was in a half hazard slept on sideways ponytail and she was wearing grey rolled up sweat pants, white Adidas runners with a black hoodie jacket bearing the University of Iowa icon in yellow lettering.  Stacey Chung slept in the window seat beside her, glasses askew in an impractically short denim skirt with pink tie dyed leggings under it, tall leather boots and a loose pink t-shirt under a leather jacket on top. She slept face against the window with her mouth slightly open, creating a small patch of fog on the glass with each exhale. Samantha chuckled towards Stacey’s sleek black bobbed hair at the face planted nap pose. She popped the stick of gum into her mouth and began to chew. Her whole mouth tingled as the tangy spice infused it.

The forests dwindled and the corn fields began, rolling by the window in their sad wet pre-planting phase. Last year’s deadfall still scattered the fields with spindly brown debris. In no time though every field would be lush with green shoots in tidy rows; every farm except the Cooper farm that was. For four generations the Coopers had defied the corn monoculture and grown wheat, not just any wheat, "turkey red wheat" brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants from Russia. Samantha’s paternal great grandmother Katerina Volkov had emigrated from Russia to Kansas with her family. Her father had told her the story so many times as a child. When the Volkov’s settled into American life they shortened their traditional name to Volk and sent their children to the local school. Katerina Volk became Kate Volk and eventually met and married Benjamin Cooper. The Coopers had originally landed in New Amsterdam in 1657 when they came over from England with the Quaker movement. Over time the original Coopers migrated west. Land became available in Strange County for cheaper than Ben and Kate could ever save for in Kansas but Benjamin was a terrible farmer. His crops failed and the bank threatened to foreclose. The Volk family came with shovels, prayers and turkey red wheat seeds and saved the farm. The Coopers were about to have their first child. Samantha’s grandfather, Avery Cooper, was born fast and early in the shoots of the first wheat field while Kate Copper weeded alongside her husband and her two brothers that stayed on through the season. The harvest bestowed its generous bounty and the Cooper wheat farm in Strange County began its long history.

The yellow dingy glow of a small gas station diner came into focus as the sun met the horizon in amber and purple hues. The bus rattled and squeaked as it slowed and turned in. Stacey jolted awake and then yawned in irritated protest.

Samantha giggled and elbowed her “Come on let’s get something to eat.”

The girls knew the rest stop plan well. They just had time to order takeout and use a non-moving and slightly cleaner bathroom so they didn’t waste a minute. Back on the bus they ate in their laps.

Stacey wrapped the uneaten half of her sandwich back up and stuffed it in her bag “I better not arrive totally full. It’ll break my Mom’s heart if she can’t feed me something.”

Samantha laughed “At ten at night? I’m lucky my Dad’s willing to stay up that late. I’ll probably have to drive us home.”

Stacey groaned “I could never be a farmer. You have to get up stupid early!”

Samantha finished her sandwich and then heard the buzz of her phone and fished it out of her purse to read the message “It’s Malcolm. He wants to make absolutely sure I’m coming to the game tomorrow. D’uh….it’s opening day  buddy. Why’s he even asking?”

Stacey had opened a compact and was re-applying her soft pink shimmery lip gloss “Maybe he’s flirting with you Sam. I mean enough time has past….”

Samantha shifted in her seat uncomfortably “Nope. Not gonna happen. Dave’s best friend? Stacey seriously?”

Stacey smacked her lips and shrugged “Dave flew off to another planet and Malcolm’s still home and cute.”

Samantha looked slightly annoyed now “Then you ask him out. We’re just friends. And it’s Jupiter Florida not the other end of our solar system.” Samantha rolled her neck back and to the right until it cracked before an obvious subject change “I have to be at the ballpark diner first thing in the morning for the breakfast thing. We should have taken the earlier bus.”

Stacey perked up at this “Me too. Mom signed me up to serve with you. She texted me yesterday and told me she picked up my t-shirt.”

Samantha smiled now, happy the shift in topic had taken “You’re so lucky your Mom texts. My Dad is so adverse to it. I mean seriously, he’s not that old!”

Stacey laughed “Mom’s totally addicted to her iPad. And aren’t you descended from those luddites?”

Samantha swatted at her “Mennonites Stacey. Mennonites and Quakers.”

Stacey curled up now, bunching her jacket into a pillow “Mmmmm oatmeal. I’m just gonna rest my eyes for a minute.”

Samantha giggled, took the cue and pulled out her phone. She frowned at Malcolm’s text and then tapped out a reply. Yes of course I’ll be there. See you at the game.

Friday, May 30, 2014

It's Complicated

Darwin Cooper took a small roasting chicken out of the oven and wiggled the right drumstick. The juices ran clear and, just as his nose had predicted, it was ready. He set it on top of the stove and mashed the potatoes methodically with an ancient looking mashing tool. The mixed vegetables were steaming in a pot behind them with one of those stainless steel fanned out steamers inserted in the saucepan. He set the potatoes to one side and wrestled the chicken onto a carving plate before he began the gravy ritual with cornstarch, water and flour. Darwin had done this so many times he was running on autopilot. He looked pleased with himself nonetheless and set the table to serve and share the small farmer’s feast. He had grown and raised most everything in the meal. He settled in and his place and then looked between his daughter’s vacant chair and the clock with a small sigh. It was six o’clock. The food was perfect right now and she was late.

At six thirty the sound of his old truck roaring into the gravel driveway signalled her arrival home. She slammed the truck door and raced into the house. There was a scuffle of shoes being kicked off before the fast padding of bare feet to the small bathroom in the hall. She shouted to the kitchen and dining room as she washed up “Sorry Dad. My interview ran late.”

The sound of cutlery on a plate and a muffled “Mmhmm.” met her apology.

Samantha sunk into her chair with her soft strawberry blonde curls bouncing back down to her shoulders and smiled “Oh good chicken!”

Darwin took the lids off the potatoes and vegetables “Might be a bit cold. Did you get it?”

Samantha beamed and nodded as she scooped potatoes onto her plate “Yes. I start tomorrow at ten o'clock. Can I use the truck?”

Darwin laughed and nodded “Congratulations Tip Top waitress. Guess I can’t come in for a coffee if you’re driving in.”

Samantha looked apologetic “We’ll figure it out on days when you need to drive. Stacey wants to come stay for a bit. She has a car too. Maybe she can drive me when she’s here.”

Darwin frowned pensively and then gestured in the air with his fork as if trying to work something out mathematically in the air “So her parents and brother moved to the big city so she could live with them and go to college and she wants to come back here for the summer?”

Samantha looked exasperatedly at her father “It’s complicated. All our friends are here Dad. Of course she wants to come back. I mean we’ve met some people at school too but this is home.”

Darwin shrugged and took another bite. When he had chewed and swallowed he said “Speaking of friends, that boy of yours got himself in trouble with the law last week. Some kind of scuffle with out of towners at the Hartwell. The Stern kid was in it too.”

Samantha froze with her fork full of food in mid air and her eyes wide “What? Are they ok!?”

“I dunno. I think so. Are you and Dave…..?” Darwin trailed off in a careful tone.

Samantha looked like she was struggling with her reply “It’s complicated.”

Darwin dabbed at the side of his mouth with a napkin and then muttered “Yeah I read that on your Facebook too. Seems to be a lot of that going around with you kids.”

Samantha rolled her eyes “Dad!” She took out her phone and began scrolling.

Darwin stared her down from the head of the table “I still have a rule about that at meals Sam. I don’t care how old you are.”

Samantha looked pleadingly up from her phone “I need to know that Dave and Malcolm are OK!”

Darwin mumbled something inaudible as he cleared his own plate and put it in the sink. He poured himself a glass of water and returned to the table with it watching his daughter tapping away at her iPhone. He had never wrapped his head around one of those funny little screen devices. Samantha kept suggesting he get one so she could “text” him and the idea frankly horrified him. Darwin was in no way too old to adapt to the technology but his world has always been one of the outdoors.

Samantha let out a long breath of relief and made a point of setting the phone on the table screen side down “Sorry Dad. They’re not locked up or hurt beyond bruises. Dave was defending a guy who was getting really beat up though and Malcolm jumped in to help.”

Darwin nodded “Like I said, out of towners. We don’t see a lot of brawls in our local bars with local folks.”

Samantha poured a potato lake’s worth of gravy onto her plate and stirred it around “I wonder what the fight was about in the first place.”

“Probably people drinking and talking stupid. Isn’t that how it goes?”

She laughed “I guess so. Listen Dad, when you’re not too busy snooping into my love life on Facebook, are you meeting anyone yourself?”

Darwin shifted uncomfortably in his seat “Now why would I need to do that?”

Samantha smiled at her father “Eventually I’m going to finish this degree and get a job that’s not just waitressing part time and move out. I don’t want to leave you all alone. It’s time to get out there. It would probably help your chances with the ladies if you took off your wedding ring and put it in the dish with Mom’s. I know you still love her and that’s OK Dad. But you can love more than one person in your lifetime.”

Darwin protectively reached down to smooth his fingertips over the simple gold band on his left hand and said resignedly “Samantha, it’s complicated.”

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Stern Word

Nigel Stern yanked the round tab on the rolled down blind in his son’s room so that it snapped and recoiled loudly. The small room flooded with the mid day sunlight and Malcolm cried out and retreated farther under his covers like a vampire.

“It is eleven o'clock. Get up and do something productive.” Nigel barked. “Maybe you can tackle a few of those scholarship applications you keep missing the deadline on. God I'm getting too old for this shit.”

Malcolm was Nigel and his wife Martha’s youngest. He had been a bit of an accidental afterthought in their child rearing plans. Their daughter Celia was 19 years older than her brother and worked as a physician in a small family practice in New Teasdale.

Malcolm’s reply was feeble and muffled “Dad, I had a late night. I don’t work today. Can a guy sleep in on his day off?”

Nigel exhaled loudly and then pulled back the covers. When he saw his son’s face he gasped and yelled “What the hell happened to your eye?!”

Malcolm sat up slowly and touched his obvious shiner with the tips of his fingers and then winced “I walked into a door….”

His father folded his arms and rooted his wide stance as he shook his head “Oh really? What’s the other door look like? Where was this?!”

“For fuck’s sakes Dad! Dave and I got pulled into a fight at the Hartwell.” Malcolm retorted.

Nigel threw up his hands and rolled his eyes “Dave, of course it was Dave. It’s always Dave!”

“It wasn't our fault! Three guys were kicking another guy’s ass – a little guy too. One of them was ready to cut him.”

His father looked pained “Jesus Malcolm! You’re lucky they didn't cut you then. Did anyone call the cops?”

Malcolm rolled his head side to side on his neck and rubbed the back of it where Nigel could see more bruising “I dunno. I don’t think so. It was fast and I was a bit drunk….”

“Did you drive home?” Nigel asked worriedly.

“Gimme a fuckin break! No I didn't drive, Dave did. He didn't even have time for a whole beer before it all happened. We went to watch the game, not fight anyone. They weren't from around here.”

“Get dressed. I'm taking you to Celia before I go back to the office. I just came back home to grab a document I forgot this morning.”

Malcolm protested “I'm fine, just a few bumps….seriously.”

“You will go see your sister at the clinic with no more arguments.” Nigel left the room before there was time to even consider a rebuttal.

As he re-closed the small brass latch of his leather briefcase the doorbell rang. Nigel’s expression became grave as he opened the door.

A vaguely familiar officer from the Strange County Sheriff's Office squared his shoulders and hitched his belt slightly as he made his request. He recognized Nigel from his firm’s presence in the town immediately “Mr. Stern could we have a word with your son Malcolm?”

Nigel’s briefcase fell to the floor with a soft thud. It was becoming a long day.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Freedom's Just Another Word

The mid morning sun streamed through the window of The Dreaming Tree used bookshop. Outside the still locked door a lanky auburn haired man politely knocked with a box of books balanced between him and the edge of the door frame. Audrey Moore was upstairs in her kitchen in the apartment above the shop making coffee and listening to Janis Joplin, oblivious to the knocking below. She was still in her pajamas and bare feet spinning around as before setting the cup on the counter to pour. She sang aloud enthusiastically and slightly off key.

“Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah….. Bobby McGee…yeah….”

Startling, a voice that was neither her own nor the late goddess of rock shouted up towards the open window.

“Hello? Are you open today” The voice was male and slightly hoarse.

Audrey gulped and looked at the microwave clock display. Technically her shop was open at 11:00 am according to the sign on the door.  However, from Audrey’s perspective 11:23 was still in the earlier portion of the hour and therefore not entirely unreasonable. She crept to the window and peered out. A rusted old farm truck was on the street in front of the shop and its driver was turning resignedly to replace a box back into the open back.

Audrey called down “Sorry I’ll be right there!” He turned back towards the shop after a brief nod up to her location.

She frowned and then took a moment to fix her coffee with a splash of soy cream and a confectioner’s dose of sugar in the raw before dashing to the bedroom and bathroom to brush her teeth and jump into proper clothing.

Audrey met the man at the door and recognized him from the larger community. He was a farmer named 
Darwin Cooper who lived somewhere past the Whitfield place as far as she recalled. They had never spoken one on one but she remembered her father speaking to him in greeting and casual conversation with her in tow as a teenager from the time he was a young man.

“Mr. Cooper, my apologies.” She said with a hint of embarrassment as she quickly slid the key in the lock. “The time got away on me.”

Darwin smiled good naturedly and said softly “Janis’ll do that to a person.”

Audrey felt her face go a bit warm and cleared her throat as she held the door to let him go in with his book box.

She stepped behind the till and he set the box on the counter and pulled open the flaps.

“I dunno if you’ll want all of these. I just got sick of dusting them off every so often. There’s a set of encyclopaedias in the bottom my daughter says are worthless now that everyone uses the google.”

Audrey giggled as she dug through “Yes the google is a handy thing.”

She looked up to share the joke and was met with an unreadable expression on Darwin’s face.

Audrey smiled nervously and kept digging through, making piles of the books of the same category and then quickly jotting down prices to purchase. Darwin began roaming the store as she started to write. When she looked up again he was holding a copy of The Life of Pi.

“Oh that’s quite good but you may have read it.” Audrey stated.

Darwin shook his head “I don’t read a lot of novels. Sounds peculiar.”

Audrey beamed “It’s wonderfully so! I think you should give it a chance.”

He chuckled and brought the book to the counter “Alright, why not?”

Audrey met him at the till with her list and a calculator. She tallied what she would offer for what he sold her and subtracted the novel.

“Twelve fifty Mr. Cooper.”

Darwin shook his head at her, his grey blue eyes twinkling with the hint of a smile that didn't reach his lips “Please call me Darwin. My father was Mr. Cooper.”

Audrey smiled at him, giving him a longer look this time “I'm Audrey.”

Darwin nodded as the smile found its way down to his mouth “I remembered that.”

He was tall but not too tall, thankfully not remotely balding and the eyes she could just dive into if he let her. Darwin was dressed in a flannel red check shirt and jeans, both on the baggy side but the sleeves were rolled up and his forearms displayed a wiry but muscular enough build. She let her eyes drop to his hands and noticed the wedding ring. She sighed and chuckled to herself at the moment and took Darwin’s twenty to make change. It dawned on her that she probably wasn't ready to be looking seriously so all of this was just as well.

“Thank you Darwin and have a good day.” She said in polite customer service – ese.

He put the novel under his arm and gave her a small wave “You too Audrey.”

The door creaked shut as Darwin left and Audrey picked up a pile of the encyclopaedias to start pricing. She snorted a bit as she laughed and muttered “The google.”

At the end of the work day she met her Aunt Sheila for a beer and relayed the story. Her aunt laughed at her and patted her on the hand.

"You just focus on keeping The Dreaming Tree back on it's feet right now Sweetie. Opening the shop on time would help."

Audrey shrank down a bit "I know. I'll get an alarm clock. It's funny this plan is part of my freedom from my old life but as the song says "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." She closed her eyes for a moment and felt Sheila give her hand a little squeeze.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sink or Swim

Audrey Moore moved through her father’s book store in an almost trance like state. Her life had stopped after she got the call from her Aunt Sheila. The Dreaming Tree had been closed for a total of 16 days. The funeral had happened and the pile of dirt on the grave now shared by her parents was beginning to settle into the new spring grass. With the help of her aunt, the apartment above the shop had been sorted, cleared out and now reclaimed by Audrey’s few belongings.

A week ago she had gotten a visit from Nigel Stern, her father’s long time friend and accountant. Nigel had been kind and necessarily frank with her.

“As much as we all loved Joe, math was never his best subject – even when we were kids. I've kept him at bay from bankruptcy Audrey, but just. This store isn't turning a profit. You should sell the business and go back to the big city.”

Audrey politely thanked Nigel and reeled from the information. She sank down into the desk chair behind the counter to think.

“Go back to the big city….”

To what? To a job as a children’s program coordinator in the library that’s about to be cut? To Paul who finally told her he never wants kids and she should just be practical about it. She’s not even sure there’s still any love left between them.

Audrey sighed and picked up a book from the desk. It was The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Her father had finally gotten around to reading it after she gave it to him for Christmas. Audrey chuckled and then flipped to a random page and read a line:

“Don't you think it's better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”

She got up and walked around the shop again. It had always been such a happy place to visit – a comfort for her soul. Could she turn it around so it could survive?

Audrey packed up a small bag and took a short trip back to Minneapolis. She stayed with friends and decided not to phone Paul. He would disapprove of what she planned to do. It was not at all practical. The credit union agreed with him but she transferred her home branch location to New Teasdale, which was a close enough drive to Dankoville, and cashed in her retirement savings.

She walked into Nigel Stern’s office at eleven twenty three am. As she told him her plan, his eyes widened and he opened a bottle of scotch and poured two glasses. Audrey slowly sipped hers as he fumbled through some documents and began to speak accountese at her. She nodded along and took the package of papers he compiled for her with a smile.

At twelve fifty three pm the sign on the door of The Dreaming Tree second hand book store flipped from closed to open and Audrey Moore’s life began again.