MEET ME IN NUTHATCH
Everett Campbell wanted more time. That’s all. He walked the mile into town instead of taking his truck. The icy slush slopped over the tops of his work boots and stung his ankles. He did not mind. It made him feel tough, indomitable.
That feeling indomitable came at so little cost was nice, but made him feel somewhat guilty as well. He had been raised to believe effort was a virtue—maybe the biggest virtue.
Stepping, occasionally sliding down Campbell Road like an unsteady surfer onto Bookbinder Street, Everett ran over in his mind the list of the things he had to say.
Then his work boot traction departed, and his long legs flew out before him in a sciatic-inspired ballet. He landed hard. The back of his head bounced on the ice a couple of times. Fortunately, his rear end took the brunt of it.
Everett heard the slow crunch of snow tires before he saw the accusing headlight beams approaching. With relief, he realized it was Marv’s car, and not Roy Murphy’s. He began to flail his arms and legs rhythmically, as to appear to be making a snow angel.
Marv stuck his head out the car window, guffawed, and shook his head.
“Jeez, Ev, you scared me for a minute. I thought I was coming up to some dead guy. Last thing I need right now. Stop being such a joker, will ya? You’re impossible!” Marv chuckled, rolled up his window, and drove on to the meeting. Everett noted that Marv did not offer him a ride to the meeting to which they were both going. But, he reminded himself, he still needed time to think, even if his rear end was wet and freezing.
He did a systems check on his body, while the clear, deep black sky and the distant, crystal white stars created the classic tableau above his head. He hesitated only briefly to give them notice. They were there, same as always. Check. He got up with relief and gratitude that he was unhurt, marveling at it, and congratulating himself for it.
For Everett, there was only one concern, the ridiculous solution he had planned to solve their problem. It being ridiculous was what really appealed to him.
The plastic, pink, faux-Dickens lanterns dangled in a more or less straight line down the road, now that he had turned onto Bookbinder Street. They bobbed and waved in the wind, their symmetry broken up only by the few that were cracked or had gone missing over the decades since they first appeared to herald the Christmas season, and from economy as much as sentiment, reused annually. Some in town voiced the opinion that the plastic lanterns had never been exactly attractive, but all privately agreed it would not be Christmas without them. Status quo was, for them, a form of sentiment.
Everett volunteered to help hang the lanterns on every light post that still had a bracket for them, just as his father and uncle had done since the 1950s, when they were purchased.
Everett stopped at the lantern that bobbed in the wind before the entrance to the old school. Built in 1902, the Nuthatch School had closed in middle 1990s when the town became absorbed into the county regional school system. The building that had once held all twelve grades in eight rooms and a hall now housed the Town Offices, the Senior Center, the library, and the storage closet where they kept the Christmas lanterns when it was not Christmas.
Town meeting tonight. About twenty people showed up, generally the same twenty people as always, give or take. The three town selectmen sat behind the big library table at the head of the old kindergarten classroom: Norm Hooker, Marv Howe, and Miss Finchley. All wore their coats, because they did not heat the building over the Christmas holiday.
“Any new business?” Norm asked, “Or can we go home?”
Everett squished himself into an old student desk. A man behind him asked, “When are we going to get town water up my way, Norm?”
“That’s old business,” Norm said, his bushy eyebrows slamming together as he frowned, “and stop asking me. Yes?”
Everett had raised his hand.
“For godssake, whad’ya want, Everett? Just speak up.”
“I got a proposal,” Everett said.
He could feel the room skid to a stop.
“A proposal?” Norm rested his chin on his hand, because he was tired. It made him look cute somehow. “Well, Everett, it’s been the longest time since we had one of those.” There was some perfunctory chuckling, but that was as funny as Norm could ever make himself be, so without milking it, he continued, “What is it?”
Everett stood, like in the Norman Rockwell painting "Freedom of Speech," but not out of respect; the student desk was maiming him.
“I think we should make it a new town ordinance that we all have to live like it was 1904.”
They were hesitant to laugh at first, because it was cold, and because Everett had no reputation for being terribly funny. He certainly was no Norm. What he lacked in delivery, he usually made up for in execution. Everett Campbell was infamous for being the best practical joker in town.
“April Fools is four months away, Ev. And I liked your suggestion last April better, that we make a new town water tank out of Legos.”
“Do you still have the model you made?”
Now there was laughing, more like perfunctory huffing. Their laughter expressed their individual and communal reserve.
“That was a joke then, Norm,” Everett said, “This isn’t.”
“Then it’s stupid. Sit down. Anybody else? Oh, Miss Finchley, don’t bother putting that in the minutes.”
Miss Finchley paused, fountain pen in hand, a green, celluloid Esterbrook she had owned since 1954. She filled the bladder by a small lever on the side. Everybody admired it, took their children to see it while Miss Finchley patiently gave demonstrations neatly writing her name. She had given out more autographs in thirty years than Elvis and Elizabeth Taylor in their whole careers combined.
“You haven’t heard me out,” Everett said, “I want to explain.”
“The man has the floor, Norm,” Miss Finchley said.
“He’s not making sense.”
“Doesn’t have to make a bit of sense. That’s democracy.”
Norm sighed and rolled his eyes to the broken ceiling tiles. Miss Finchley was not to be contradicted.
“Fine. Everett, please make it quick. It’s wicked cold in here.”
“Why did we have to have a meeting when there’s no heat?” someone said from the back of the room. “This meeting couldn’t have waited until next month?”
“You’re out of order, Josh. It’s Everett’s turn,” Miss Finchley said.
“Sorry, Miss Finchley. Sorry, Ev.”
“Go ahead, Everett,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Finchley. Thank you. Well, we were watching Meet Me In St. Louis on TV, my family was, on Christmas Day. My daughter loved it. She’s eleven.”
“We watched It’s a Wonderful Life,” Louisa Conroy said, shaking a box of Tic Tacs like a maraca and popping several at once.
“Um, yeah, we saw that five or six times in the past couple of weeks, too,” Everett continued, “But, on Christmas Day, we watched Meet Me in St. Louis. Reception was pretty good, too, with the plating factory shut down in Worsted for the holiday.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too,” Sam Jurado said, “Reception was quite good. Uncharacteristically good.”
“Hey, yeah, Norm, I got an issue to raise,” Big Fat Jerry called, “when are we going to get cable?”
“You go and call the cable company and have them laugh in your face, Jerry,” Norm said, “I’m tired of doing it.”
“Were you watching Meet Me in St. Louis?” Kenny Mislow asked Sam Jurado.
“No, I didn’t find out that was on until it was almost over. I was watching some German choir singing German Christmas carols, from somewhere over in Germany.”
“That was on PBS.”
Everett looked from one speaker to another, and finally found an opportunity to interrupt, “So, anyway . . .”
“It was nice, the Christmas carols, but it was all in German, so you didn’t know what they were saying.”
“They didn’t have the words on the bottom?”
“Yeah, only they had them in German. Assholes.”
Everett tried again.
“About the movie . . .”
“Yes, that was a good movie,” Sam said, “I missed the Trolley Song part. I turned it on after that.”
Bud Markey, owner of the small bar on upper Bookbinder Street, quaintly named in a moment of cheery inspiration “Bud’s House of Beer,” sat on the windowsill, where it was even colder, but he was too big for the student desks.
“I like that part,” Bud said. His voice carried a wistful tone.
“Me, too,” Sam said. “Judy was so young.”
Norm had had it. He began to put on the mittens his mother made him. “Folks, let’s let Everett say his piece and then we can go home and warm up.”
The room quieted with dutiful swiftness and a dubious show of respect, and Everett felt the discomfort again of everybody’s full attention.
“Yes, it was a good movie,” Everett continued, “But, my point is, I got an idea that we could try to make an ordinance to live like they did in the 1904, like in the movie.”
“You want us to run around singing ‘The Trolley Song’?” Norm was on a roll tonight. More chuckling.
“I know most of it.”
“Shut up, Bud.”
“Watch your stinkin’ mouth.”
“Norm,” Everett said, “today my last best friend drove out of town with his family to start over . . .”
“Oh, no Bud, I didn’t mean you aren’t my best friend, you are.”
“I like that.”
“I’m talking about David Pellier. He and his family left town today. We went to school together. Well, he’s sure not the first to leave, is he? He probably won’t be the last.”
“I still thought I was your best friend.”
“You are, dammit! Jeez, will you let me finish!” Everett swiped his toque off, and brushed his gloved hand through his thick, black hair, now infiltrated with gray.
“My kids have practically no one to play with anymore. They’ve got to ride a bus an hour and a half every day to the regional school. We got sixty-three people living here, no industry, one variety store with a gas pump. No money for roads or water, maintenance, or much of anything. We have to do something. Why not this?”
“Because it’s nuts, Everett.”
“Not that the movie wasn’t good, though.”
“I like It’s a Wonderful Life better. Why don’t we do that one?”
“It’s not the movie,” Everett said, “It’s the idea. It’s for tourism.”
“Tourism? Why would anyone want to come here?”
“Exactly. What is there that’s here? What do we got? We don’t have much land for farming, with the whole town practically sliding off the north side of the mountain. We don’t have a lot of zoned property for industry or business. State forest takes up a good chunk of the land area. But tourism--that’s something else. You don’t need much of anything to be a tourist attraction.”
“He’s right,” Bud said, “Some people will go anyplace just to say they been there.”
“My cousin went out to Los Angeles, California, to take a picture of himself at those concrete steps where Laurel and Hardy had to carry up a piano,” Sam Jurado said. Everybody looked at him for an even longer period of time than after his Judy Garland remark. “Well, he did. He likes Laurel and Hardy. He has a picture of them in his kitchen.”
“Think of the Amish, living the way they do, for generations,” Everett said, trying to pull everybody back on track, feeling his own way as he went.
“That’s their religion. They’re used to it.”
“Yeah, but what I mean is, think of the people driving all over Amish Country just to watch these people doing nothing but being themselves.”
“That’s a little extreme, Ev.”
“Think of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chocolate factory. Or, take a place like Disney World, that’s a completely made up place. Or think of Plimouth Plantation or Sturbridge Village, recreations of places set in certain times.”
Miss Finchley had been watching Everett, a slight smile softening the hard line of her jaw, noting, but not commenting on the incongruity of lumping Disney World with an Amish community. She asked, “Why 1904, Everett?”
“It was a long time ago--that’s all, really. A hundred years ago. People think of the old days as better. Romantic. Think of the stir we’d cause by choosing to conduct our public business . . . just public, I’m saying. People can still do whatever they want in their own homes, but if we were to wear those old-fashioned clothes on the outside and just . . .”
“Like one of them reality TV shows? I hate those. I hate people who watch ‘em--and worse, I hate people who watch ‘em and talk all about ‘em at work.”
“Are we going to have to eat bugs, do stunts, and be followed around by camera crews?”
“No! I’m just saying, time is running out. We have to try something.”
Bud wiggled on the counter by the window, trying to get comfortable.
“No TV, and horseshit all over the roads, Ev. Oh, sorry, Miss Finchley. I mean poop. Oh, uh, sorry, again. Anyway, Ev, is that what you want?”
“I want to live a good life in the same place my grandparents and great-grandparents lived. I don’t know why I can’t. They had a future here and I don’t. None of us do. How much business are you doing at the bar, Bud?”
“You mean other than Marv?”
“We’d make fools of ourselves.” Norm said. “What’ll people think of us?”
“I think sometimes nobody else knows we’re here, Norm.”
“Are you making a motion, Everett?” Miss Finchley said, prompting him.
“Yes, Miss Finchley. I propose we conduct public business within the town limits as if Nuthatch was living in 1904.”
“Who would be the judge as to what was accurate and what wasn’t?”
Miss Finchley smiled slightly with only a quick jerk at the corner of her mouth that always foreshadowed her wry delivery.
“Contrary to popular belief, I am not that old.”
“He just means you’re knowledgeable, Miss Finchley. Everybody knows that. Is anybody going to second this dumbass motion?”
It was growing colder, so several people seconded at the same time, arms reaching for the sky as if they were all being held up at gunpoint, hoping to speed things up.
“A motion has been made and seconded. All those in favor?”
Jacqueline T. Lynch
The novel Meet Me in Nuthatch is available as an ebook thru Amazon.com & as a pdf thru Smashwords