bonfire
characters, Western Massachusetts

The Stranger Next Door

Okay, so I’ve told you about two characters in The Sweet Spot: an old coot and one impertinent woman. Benny and Leona offer a bit of comic relief to this novel, which will be released in January. Now, let me tell you about the stranger who moves next door.

His name is Harlan Doyle. Edie, the book’s main character, notices him at the Memorial Day ceremony held at the town common. Besides being the only non-resident there, Harlan has deep scars on his face his sunglasses can’t hide. It’s obvious from the way he stands he was badly hurt one time.

So what’s Harlan doing in Conwell? He’s here for his fresh start. But he does have a connection to this hilltown. He is moving into his grandmother’s house, which is next door to Edie, her father and aunt. They live on Doyle Road, so you know the family goes way back. His grandmother died three years earlier and the house, which was left empty, needs a lot of work. Harlan is a woodworker, so he can handle it.

Harlan has had his rough times. He acted badly after a failed marriage, but as he says, he at least had the anonymity of the city. He didn’t drink, do drugs, or bother his ex-wife in a nosy little town. He had to recover from a serious accident. But the Harlan we meet has gotten over that. He’s a kind and rather shy man who is amused by his neighbors and what happens in town. He is envious of the close relationship Edie has with her crusty so-and-so of a father.

Of course, his neighbors and townspeople are curious about him as well.

He has a key role in this novel’s story.

Writing about Harlan was also a chance for me to demonstrate my knowledge of woodworking and building that I acquired via osmosis. My husband, Hank, is a master woodworker. When I showed him the book, he said I got those parts just right.

Here’s an excerpt. Edie welcomes Harlan to the neighborhood. He’s living in a tent outside because his grandmother’s house is uninhabitable.

“Hey, there,” she called to Harlan, and when she was closer, “My name’s Edie St. Claire. I’m your next-door neighbor.”

Harlan pulled himself upright. His bad leg felt dead and useless, so he punched it a bit to get it moving, feeling embarrassed. Edie kept smiling as if she didn’t notice. He was on his feet and stretching himself upright. He nodded.

“I’m Harlan. Harlan Doyle.”

She stood at the bottom of the steps. She held something wrapped in aluminum foil.

“I know who you are. Pop told me about you. So did my Aunt Leona. I hear your truck go by. I brought you something.” Her hand swung forward. “This is for you. Banana bread. I made it myself this morning. It has real walnuts.”

Feeling too tall and awkward standing on the porch above this woman, he limped down the steps. He took the bread. It was still warm.

“That was awfully nice of you,” he told her.

Edie glanced around. Harlan saw what she saw.

“You got a lot to do here.”

“I work with wood.”

“Work with wood. What’s that mean?”

“I build furniture. One-of-a-kind pieces.”

“Fancy stuff?”

“Sometimes.” He grinned. “My tools are supposed to get here soon.”

Her head tipped to one side.

“You gonna sell the house when you’re done?”

“No. I’m planning to live here for good.”

“For good? Really? People usually fix up these old places to make money.”

She came nearer. Her blue eyes opened wider. He felt himself smile.

“Not me. This house belonged to my family.”

She laughed as she gestured toward the tent.

“You’d better hurry up then. Winter always comes faster around here than we think, and your tent’s not gonna keep you very warm.”

He nodded. Edie only came up to his shoulders. She didn’t seem to mind being this close to a man she just met.

“I was going to go into town to find a roofer. I don’t have a phone yet. I thought I’d use the payphone near the store.” He slapped at his right thigh. “Bum leg. It’d be tough for me going up and down a ladder carrying bundles of shingles.”

She studied his leg and then his face.

“Were you in the war?” she asked quietly. “Is that how it happened?”

“I was in an accident.”

He glanced away for a moment. Her eyes were still on him.

“You got hurt real bad. Sorry it happened.” She paused. “I know someone who can help you. His name’s Walker St. Claire. He’s my brother-in-law. He does this kinda work, and anyone who hires him gets his money’s worth. He could help you find a plumber and electrician, too, if you need ’em. You got a paper and pencil? I can give you his number.”

“Come inside.”

Harlan stumbled forward, dragging his leg, impatient at his clumsiness, but he made it to the door first, so he could open it for her. The kitchen was a large, square room with wooden cabinets and six-over-six paned windows that would let in natural light once their glass was washed. This was the first room he cleaned. The appliances were long gone, except for an iron cook stove in one corner. The plumbing was missing beneath the sink, but its porcelain was in decent shape. He already fixed the leg on the kitchen table. That and a chair he found in the attic were the only pieces of furniture in the room. He set the bread on the table.

“I liked your grandmother an awful lot,” Edie told him. “I work at my in-laws’ store. I used to bring her groceries on Saturdays. It was the day she baked, and she always gave me something to take home.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t know her very well. I only came here a few times when I was a boy.”

“That’s a shame. Elmira was a wonderful woman, and she was awfully kind to us. I remember she made us all dinner when my mother died. I still have the pink blanket she crocheted for Amber after she was born. Amber’s my little girl.”

She laughed.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Whenever your grandmother hired Pop to help around the house, she made sure he completely finished the job before she paid him. She’d give it a close inspection. She knew my father all right. She’d say, ‘Alban, don’t ever try to fool an old lady, at least not this old lady’.” Edie raised a finger. “I suggest you do the same, Harlan Doyle. I love my Pop, but he’s bit of a rascal, if you get what I mean.”

He handed her a paper and a stubby pencil from the counter. He watched her write.

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: One of the bonfires lit at a holiday event in Taos Saturday: Bonfires on Bent Street.

 

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kale
characters, Writing

Crusty Old Coots

I like characters who are crusty old coots. My next novel, The Sweet Spot, has good one. His name is Alban Sweet.

The Sweet Spot is the first of my hilltown books to be launched, this one in January. As I’ve explained before, they are set in a rural stretch of Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived. I also reported on it for a local daily.

The town of Conwell and the characters in my book are fabricated although, heaven knows, those little towns (population 1,200 and fewer) are full of characters. Alban Sweet, who is known as Benny to most everyone except his late wife, his sister, and a few of the old-timers, would feel at home.

He’s Pop to Edie, his daughter and the novel’s main character. His granddaughter calls him Poppy.

Alban is a rascal of a guy who has run the town dump for about 35 years. (The novel is set in 1978.) He brings home the stuff people toss out that he feels still has some value. The outbuildings behind the home he shares with Edie is full of the junk. Yeah, he’s a bit of a drinker.

And he has a notorious feud with the town’s road boss because he keeps borrowing stuff from the highway department without asking. In keeping with a good feud, the road boss makes sure his dirt road is plowed and graded last.

Alban loves his daughter and granddaughter, Amber. (His other two daughters won’t have anything to do with him.) He would do anything for them. His love is true.

By the way, Alban is made up and not based on anyone real although I will admit I have met more than my share of crusty old coots. And, yes, my other hilltown novels have them.

Here’s a scene from early in the novel. Edie and Amber have just returned from a Memorial Day party at her in-laws. Earlier that day, the town has a ceremony to honor the soldiers who died in war, including Edie’s husband who was killed in Vietnam. Alban wasn’t invited to the in-laws’  because he got stinking drunk one year and insulted one of the guests. So, Edie and her daughter brought Pop a plate of chicken and the fixings from the party. By the way, the character, Harlan Doyle, has a significant role as the book moves along.

Edie watched her father eat. His thick white hair fell in front of his eyes. She needed to cut it again.

“What’d you do today?” she asked.

Pop ran a hand over his whiskers. He grunted.

“I straightened up the place,” he said.

“That so?”

Edie laughed because the room was filled tightly with junk. The kitchen sink was stacked high with dirty dishes. She and Amber would have to wash them tomorrow.

“When I got sick of that, I got the mower started and tried to cut the grass, but it’s gotten so goddamned high. I’ll have to use the weed whacker from the highway garage.”

Pop cut two short rows in the grass before he left the mower next to the old doghouse filled with gas cans. Edie wasn’t surprised. The closest distance between two points for her father was usually a crooked line.

Edie planted a hand on her hip.

“I saw how far you got. It couldn’t have taken very long,” she said.

Pop ignored her.

“I tried to take a nap on the porch, but there was too much hammering next door. Bang, bang, bang, that’s all I could hear.”

“At Aunt Leona’s?”

“Nah, the other side. Doyle’s.”

The Doyle place was located at the bottom of their dead-end road, closed up after the last Doyle, Elmira, died, and the family who lived elsewhere couldn’t decide what to do with the property. It must have been three years ago, and Pop got a few bucks keeping an eye on the place.

“Somebody moved in? Elmira’s house has gotten really rundown.”

Pop glanced up from his plate.

“I went over to see what’s what and met the fella. Damnedest face I ever seen. Scars up and down like somethin’ clawed him. He walked with an awful bad limp.”

“What clawed him?” Amber asked.

“Didn’t bring it up. It’s not polite, honey. I’ll let your Aunt Leona do it.” Pop grinned at his crack. “Friendly guy though. Name’s Harlan Doyle. His father, Aldrich, grew up next door. Elmira’s boy. He went to Japan in the war, and when he came back, he married a woman and moved south to be with her people. They used to visit the old folks here once in a while. Says he remembers me.”

“I saw a man at the ceremony today,” Edie said. “He wore sunglasses, but they didn’t cover the bad scars on his face. He’s tall, but his body was crooked like somethin’ wasn’t holding him up.”

“That’s him.”

“He says he’s gonna fix up the place?” Edie asked. “Is he really planning to live there?”

“That’s what he says. Maybe I’ll get me some work out of it.”

Pop made smacking noises with his mouth. He pointed toward the hutch.

“I almost forgot. I got a present for you, Amber. Go see over there.”

Amber went to the hutch. She held a wooden box when she twirled around.

“This it?” she asked.

“Yup, darlin’, bring it here.”

Pop’s eyes grew bigger as he told Amber to twist the crank on the box’s bottom, and after she did, the workings produced a tiny, tinny tune. Edie shifted in her chair to give her daughter room. Amber opened and shut the lid. She smiled at the gift and at Pop.

“Thanks, Poppy.”

Edie hoped her daughter would never be ashamed of her grandfather. Even though Ma got mad at Pop, she always defended him for working hard for his family. “Somebody has to take care of the dump,” her mother said when her sisters complained how horrible their father smelled.

When Ma got sick and after she died, Pop took Edie to the dump when Leona was not available to babysit. She stayed close to her father, or if the weather was bad, she waited in his attendant’s shack when he went outside to help a customer. Some people stared, wondering why Benny Sweet brought his youngest to such a place. Afterward, Pop told her about a treasure he salvaged from their load of trash. “People don’t realize what great stuff they throw away” was his motto. Or he’d reveal an observation, say “how the widow living near the store was dumping a lot of vodka bottles lately.”

Pop chuckled.

“Do you like the box?” he asked Amber, and after she said yes, he pulled himself upright. “By the way, next time you see Marie, you can tell her for me the chicken was a little dry this year. I’m gonna need a coupla beers to wash it down.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, it is late November and I still have kale — and chard — growing in my garden despite very cold nights. Being a good Portagee, I have to grow kale. I make kale soup once a week, enough to last three days.

FINAL NOTE: Here is the link to my first novel Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon. If you live in Taos, you can find it at the local book stores.

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