Hilltown Postcards

Horrible Hank the Hog Killer

That’s the nickname Hank was given by one of the locals in Worthington, but it’s probably not for what you think why. No, we’ve never raised hogs. And we don’t eat pork. But there is an interesting story behind the name.

When we lived in that rented house in the Ringville section of Worthington, the only vehicle we owned was a vintage VW Microbus we bought in Boston long ago during one of the times we lived in that city. The tan VW went cross-country twice when we lived in Seattle and then returned to Boston before we moved to the hilltowns. It had a spare tire mounted on the front. And there was plenty of room inside for our kids. 

Anyway, one winter night Hank was driving home from a job in a blinding snowstorm. An excellent driver, all was well until he drove very slowly down Mason’s Hill on Huntington Road not far from where we lived. Suddenly, the VW van stopped in its tracks. What the heck? When Hank got out, he found out why. The broadside of a 500-pound hog blocked the VW’s way. The animal was white so it wasn’t visible in the falling snow.

The hog, which had escaped from Bert Nugent’s yard, was dead but still standing.

As Hank surveyed the situation, the tire that had been mounted on the VW’s front came spinning down the hill. The tire had been thrown backwards when the hog had dislodged it and gravity sent it back.

Bert, who was also a town selectman in those days, was a good sport about it, offering to give us half the hog after it was butchered. No thanks, Hank said. So, instead Bert told him to bring the VW to the garage he owned then in town and he’d fix the tire, which he did. There wasn’t any other damage to the VW. If I recall correctly, Bert used a tow truck to retrieve the hog’s body.

Now about the name. Bert, unarguably a character, called him “Horrible Hank the Hog Killer.” He said it with a grin whenever he met Hank, which was a frequent occurrence in our small hilltown.

Just one of the fun stories about the place where we used to live and I fondly remember.

Hilltown Postcards

Two Stories: Lester and Mary

In this postcard, I jump ahead a few years to write about two very interesting people I met in Worthington when we lived there. One story leads to another.

My Worthington neighbor, Maura, and I once had a very good idea. We wanted to start a radio station just for the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. We had it all planned except for the money. Maura, who worked in television news, said we needed about a million dollars. Too bad. Of course, this was before podcasts.

What would we broadcast? We’d ask the road bosses to call in reports on road conditions during winter storms. They’d tell us when the sand trucks were heading down Mason or West Chesterfield hills, and whether they were keeping up with the ice on the roads. They could warn which roads were impassable during mud season and save people a lot of trouble.

The maple sugarers could talk about how strong the sap is running. The man in town who kept track of the weather could keep us in the know.

We’d cover school events, ball games, and town meetings, where everything in the hilltowns is settled. We would record local concerts and “man on the road” interviews about local politics and other hot issues.

We’d inform anyone who listened about which residents had died and which ones were just born. We’d brag about the kids who were graduating from high school.

If there were a Fourth of July Parade, a truck pull, or a pig roast at the Rod and Gun Club, we’d be there as well.

And every day we’d have a program called “Fifteen Minutes with Lester.”

When my family moved to Worthington, Lester Champion had lived there for over 40 years. He had a kind, round face, and an old-fashioned way of putting things. He and his wife, Mary, lived in a humble home of stone on the edge of a potato field at Old Post Road.

I did a story about his truck farm when I was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He told me the earth was so hard he could bend a crowbar beating on it.

And Lester, who was in his 70s, could talk, talk, and talk about most everything — gardening, weather, nature, Cape Cod where he grew up, or being a glider pilot in World War II — in his slow, deliberate way. If I ran into him, usually outside the town’s general store, I counted on losing at least 15 minutes that day but he always had something worth listening to. Others were not so patient and went out of their way to avoid him.

So here was our idea. Maura and I would give Lester free choice on any topic. He’d get 15 minutes to say it. Only 15 minutes. And, we’d all get to listen on the radio.

Lester Champion was the one who told me about Mary Kartashevich and her pet porcupine. Call her, he told me over the phone. You’ll get a good story.

I was a reporter then covering three small towns and more. I had a biweekly column in which I wrote about people and things unique to the hill towns of western Massachusetts. Mary’s porcupine sounded like a good fit.

I drove to the outer fringes of Worthington where Mary lived alone in a farmhouse built when the center of this town was much farther west.

Mary was friendly and happy to see me. And, there was the small porcupine hanging out with some of her cats. Before I got close, it waddled off to hide between some rusted farm equipment and boards near a shed.

Mary begged the animal to stay, but gave up. “He senses there is someone strange,” she says.

She told me it showed up mid-winter, an orphan she believed of the porcupines that took over a nearby orchard. Mary cut up apples to feed the baby, and eventually it would take a piece from her hand. When spring came, the porcupine turned to grass shoots and buds on maple trees.

The animal stuck around and even napped in the sun with her black and white cats. Skunk cats, she told me they’re called. She had a dozen.

Mary said the porcupine followed her around the yard and would go inside her house if she let it. She said it came when she called, “where’s my little baby porcy?”

But like so many stories, you go to the scene expecting one and come back with more.

We walked around the farm, and I marveled when Mary, who was 71, leaped over a stone wall like a young girl. She told me she moved here from Connecticut nearly five decades ago with her father and two brothers. They bought the farm for $4,400.

Her father always wanted a farm but he wasn’t successful with it, He tried cows for milk and then chickens for meat and eggs, but neither panned out. So the family found work off the farm.

Mary said after they got through another winter, the family would vow to sell the farm, but then summer came and they forgot about it.

She and her brothers never married. She was the last one left in her family.

I saw Mary a couple of weeks later in the general store. She was pleased I said hello. Many people don’t, she told me. And, she said, one day the porcupine went away and didn’t come back.

Last I heard Mary sold the house and acreage to a neighbor. I hope she got a good price and went some place where life was a little easier.

Northern Comfort

Northern Comfort: Junior Miller tries to do right

I will admit Junior Miller is a hard character to like — at first. In my latest novel, Northern Comfort, he’s the ultimate deadbeat dad, abandoning his wife, Willi, and their disabled son to a life of poverty in the hilltowns without a second thought. But when Cody dies in a tragic accident, Junior is forced to face his shortcomings. 

Junior can’t even remember how old his son was or the last time he saw him. He hadn’t paid a dime and was relieved Willi had stopped begging him for money. At the boy’s funeral, he ducks out early from the receiving line.

But as this story unfolds, Junior attempts to do the right thing although it’s a significant struggle finding one that matters. 

Junior did love Willi when he married her. But his idea of married life fell apart when he realized his son, who was brain-damaged at birth, would not be the boy he wanted. All he wanted was a boy to play ball and do the things normal kids do. He wanted a wife who loved him first. He gripped the steering wheel and rattled it hard. That wasn’t asking too much, was it?

I created a little complication in that Willi is the daughter of the widowed woman Junior’s father married, so technically Junior is her stepbrother although they were adults when their parents got together. That scenario creates another dimension in this family scenario.

After he deserts his family, Junior spends most of his free time in a bar with the women he meets there. He lives in New Hampshire with a woman who’s the bartender at the local watering hole although that relationship is destined for a short life.

As Junior spends more time back home, his guilt inspires him to find a way to make it up to Willi. He comes up with a scheme to get money — suing the man who was driving the truck that Cody’s sled hit. Willi won’t have anything to do with it or him.

Of course, Junior has a lousy role model in his father, Joe, a despicable character with no redeeming qualities. That’s what makes Junior Miller’s transformation, although imperfect, gratifying.

Is he based on anyone? No, Junior Miller is a product of my imagination.

In this scene, Junior shows up at Willi’s house on his snowmobile. Willi, who is outside with her dog, Foxy, has been ignoring his phone calls.

Junior waited beside his snowmobile. Willi recalled the few times he came here to see Cody when Pa was still alive. Her grandfather sat in his recliner, giving Junior a close watch while Cody hid behind the chair. She and Junior quickly ran out of things to talk about. He rubbed his face and yawned before he left a half-hour later.

Willi stopped in front of her ex-husband. She crossed her arms. “What was it you wanted to tell me?” 

Junior cleared his throat.

“When I saw that picture of our boy, I realized how much he looked like me.” He stopped. “I was a real lousy father to him. I know it now.” He lowered his head briefly. “Do you remember how happy I was when he was born? Believe me, I was. When we found out about him not being right, I just couldn’t handle it.” His voice trailed off. “I stopped thinking about him and you. I was wrong, all wrong.”

Willi wrapped her coat, so it closed around her. She was chilled now that she wasn’t moving. “You’re a little late, aren’t you?”

Junior shifted from one boot to another. “Shit, Willi, I just wanna make it up to you.”

“Is that so?”

She glared at Junior. She remembered how she and Cody used to eat spaghetti with margarine for supper while he was out chasing women. If it hadn’t been for Pa, she didn’t know what she would’ve done.

“I wanna show you somethin’,” she told Junior.

Willi marched around the side shed and toward the backyard. The snow reached her boot tops, but she kept going until she got to the clothesline. Junior was behind her.

“Stop right here,” she said.

Willi used her hand to guide Junior’s line of vision over the hill’s steep edge. It snowed since the accident, but she still could make out where her feet sank as she tried to catch her boy. Her prints formed a dotted seam, which made it seem as if the earth could split easily along that line. 

“See that?”

Junior squinted at her pointed finger. “What am I lookin’ at?”

“That’s where it happened. That’s where Cody died. How do you think you’re gonna make that up to me?”

Willi sobbed loudly, and she didn’t care if Junior saw or heard her. His hands were stretched out, palms up, as if he were surrendering. Junior said her name as he came closer, but Willi took a swing, catching him on his face in one solid shot that made him grunt. She collapsed, sobbing and pounding the snow with her fists. Junior came close again, but this time she didn’t resist. She let him help her to her feet and use his arm to guide her into the house. 

The dog charged the door, threatening to bite Junior. Willi told the animal to stay as she walked toward the couch.

“Here, let me get your coat,” Junior said, and she stood passively as he slipped the bulky black cloth off her and threw it on a chair. “You gonna be okay?”

She didn’t answer, but lay back on the couch. Her eyes fluttered. 

“I think so.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I feel so tired. Just leave.”

“Right, I have to get somewhere.”

“Then, go.”

Junior got up to feed wood into Willi’s stove. He brought more from the shed, stacking the logs near the stove, now hot enough to turn down. He stood in the living room. His eyes traveled the room. She knew he was staring at Cody’s things.

“Willi, listen to me. I wanna pay the money I owe you. Just tell me how much.”

She watched him with sleepy eyes. 

“It was never just the money. We needed you.”

Junior exhaled deeply and mumbled, “yeah,” as he went for the door. 

LINK: Here’s the link for Kindle readers to buy Northern Comfort. Only $2.99. Paperback readers will have to be a little patient but that version is coming soon.

Northern Comfort

Sisters Willi and Lorna in Northern Comfort

Willi Miller has a difficult time after her young son dies when his sled slips away from her and into the path of a truck. But fortunately she has her rough-and-tumble younger sister, Lorna, to help her pull through. Willi and Lorna are characters in my new hilltown release, Northern Comfort.

Life hasn’t been easy for Willi. Her childhood was marred by the death of her father, then being raised by her insensitive mother and the abusive man she married. She made a bad choice marrying Junior Miller, who left her and their disabled child. Willi got a break when her kind grandfather took them in and left her his cabin. She did her best by Cody, cutting hair in a country beauty shop.

Then tragedy struck. 

Fortunately, Willi has a tough-as-nails ally in Lorna, who still lives at home and works in a bakery. “Lorna took after Daddy’s side of the family, the Merritts, tall and husky. Willi felt childlike when she stood beside her.” Her relationship with their stepfather, Joe, is vastly different than the one Willi has.

When her sister needs help, Lorna, is there, like a protective guard dog. She accompanies Willi to see her boy’s body for the last time and stands beside Willi at his funeral.. Lorna is the one to call Junior to tell him about his son’s death, tracking him down at a bar. Lorna stays with Willi until she says she can be on her own and even after she is there to help. There are later scenes in the book that show them even having sisterly fun.

I so enjoyed creating Lorna’s character. She reminds me a little of Annette Waters in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. The two of them would have a great time together.

Here’s a scene that shows Lorna’s mettle. The chapter is called No Better Than Us. 

Lorna parked her beat-up Ford near the general store. Willi had stayed home since the funeral five days ago, and now she didn’t want to leave the car. Her clunker didn’t start, the battery drained from sitting so long in the cold. Lorna volunteered to take her. 

Her sister made puffing noises as she leaned inside the car.

“Willi, there’s nothin’ to eat in your house. You can’t just live on the stuff I bring you from the bakery. Come on, get your butt out here.”

Willi peered up at her sister.

“I think it’s time you went back home, Lorna. I can manage now. Really.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. It’s cause of what I said last night about packin’ up Cody’s things. How I said it was too depressin’ to see all of his stuff all over the house. I’m sorry I said it and the other stuff, too.”

Willi winced.

“I know he’s gone, Lorna. I just can’t do it now.” She blinked back tears. “Please, Lorna, I just wanna be left alone.”

Lorna gave her sister a square, hard look.

“I was gettin’ tired of that lumpy bed of yours anyways. And you snore.” She paused. “Now get your ass in the store. We’re here already.”

“Okay, okay, I’m comin’.”

Willi reached into her jacket pocket for a white handkerchief to wipe her eyes. She opened the car door and slowly followed her sister inside.

The store was filled with customers. Some stopped to offer their condolences, but a few stayed away, suspicion playing on their faces.

Lorna saw it, too.

She spun toward a woman, wife to one of the town’s selectmen.

“Did you say somethin’? No? Could’ve sworn you did. My mistake.”

Willi was embarrassed and grateful when the woman went to another aisle. She stood in front of the shelves of canned foods, trying to decide what soup to buy. It was too hard. Lorna dumped one of each kind in her handbasket until Willi got tearful.

“Please, Lorna, that’s enough, please.”

Lorna took the basket from her sister’s hand.

“Shush, I’m only tryin’ to help. Let’s get some milk and cold cuts. Do you need food for that mutt of yours?”

Willi couldn’t keep up with Lorna. The woman had ticked off her sister, and now she was walking and talking fast. Then Lorna was out the door, with three grocery bags in her arms. Willi ran from the store to get to the car before her sister.

“That snotty bitch. Who does she think she is?” Lorna muttered as she dropped the bags on the back seat. “You should see how she is when she comes into the bakery. Talkin’ about that precious son of hers. The architect.” Lorna sneered. “She’s no better than us. Don’t you ever forget it.”

“Oh, Lorna.”

Link: You can find Northern Comfort on Amazon in Kindle version. It’s only $2.99. Paperback readers will have to be a little patient.

Northern Comfort

Meet Miles and Junior of Northern Comfort

My new book, Northern Comfort, starts with a tragedy — a child’s sled sends him into the path of a truck despite his mother’s attempts to stop him. For this post, I wanted to write about the two men most impacted by this tragedy. One is Miles Potter, who was driving the truck. The other is Junior Miller, who abandoned little Cody and his mother, Willi Miller.

Both men are natives in the hilltown of Hayward, but their backgrounds are so different. The same is true for the lives they lead. Let me explain.

Miles Potter could be described as a man of means and opportunity. His educated parents had high hopes for him, but college didn’t work out. When he returned home, he found work with a carpenter, Linwood Staples, who became his mentor. Working with his hands was more to his liking. Now on his own, he usually works on high-end homes. He and Willi may have been in the same class in school, but until this accident she was just another person living in the same town.

Junior Miller’s divorced parents had no ambitions for him. He loved Willi enough to marry her, but after their boy was born brain-damaged, he didn’t put any effort into their homelife. Then after he left Willi, he didn’t bother paying any child support after the first year or even be a part of his child’s life. When the book starts, Junior has a rather aimless life, driving truck for a lumberyard and crashing at his current girlfriend’s mobile home in New Hampshire.

But all of this changes that wintry day.

At the start, Miles does the right thing, leaving money for Willi and going to Cody’s funeral. But after Linwood advised him to think deeper, Miles tries to give more meaningful support. Eventually, he finds he and Willi have more in common than just this tragic accident.

Junior has a bigger challenge because of the longtime neglect of his responsibilities. His ideas of reparation at the start have little meaning to Willi, not surprising given the lousy role model his own father provided. It takes him longer to face his failings and make amends that have meaning to Willi.

These are two of the characters in Northern Comfort. As I do for all my novels, I create characters that feel real to me. I hope that’s true for you.

In this scene, Miles and Junior have a confrontation at the Bull’s Eye, the local watering hole. Junior is there with his brother, Mike.

Miles lurched forward as a hand slapped him on the back so hard his chest hit the edge of the Pine Tree’s bar.

A man’s voice said, “Hey, there, buddy, how you doin’?”

He looked into the face of Junior, who took the stool beside his. Junior’s brother Mike sat on the other side, grinning like he’d won big at cards and couldn’t wait to tell somebody. Both were high or drunk or both.

Now was the reckoning, and Miles was unsure how to proceed. It didn’t matter what he said or did, he was going to get it. Mike was heavier than Miles. He carried the weight of someone who liked booze and greasy food. Junior was short and always trying to make up for it.

Miles put down his bottle. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. He wasn’t fooled. 

Mike’s friendly comment was definitely fake. But Junior? Yeah, he, too, but he’d cut him a break. 

“I’m sorry, Junior, about what happened to Cody.”

Junior fingered the front of Miles’s shirt. “You mean hitting him with your truck?”

“That’s not the way it happened. I tried to save him.”

Junior glanced toward Mike. “That so?”

Miles nodded solemnly, but Junior snorted. “I know what you’re thinkin’, Miles. I’ve got brass balls pickin’ on you ’cause I didn’t give more to that boy or Willi. He was my blood, and I loved his mother when he was born.” Junior brought his face closer and gave Miles’s shirt a tight twist. “And another thing. I don’t want you bothering Willi no more. She’s been through enough.”

“Get your hands off me, Junior.” His voice stayed calm, although his heart had a steady pound. “If you wanna keep this going, let’s take it outside. What’s it gonna be? The both of you?”

Junior loosened his fingers.

Miles stared at one brother, then the other. When Mike made a snorting laugh, Miles gave him a quick, light shot on the shoulder. Both brothers got to their feet. He stood, too.

“I’m gonna say it again, asshole,” Junior said. “Stay away from Willi.”

Miles drew his eyes tight. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“You’ll listen to me if you know what’s good for you,” Junior said before he and his brother moved to another part of the bar.

Miles drank face forward. He focused on the mirror behind the three shelves of booze. Junior and Mike sat far from the mirror’s reach, but by now he didn’t care. The two brothers wouldn’t be back. They had made their point.

He finished the beer, and although he would have liked another, he fished for a buck in the front pocket of his jeans and flattened it on the bar’s top. He made a slow but straight path to the door.

Curious? Here’s the link for Northern Comfort.