Ardensville

Chapter 17

I’m Comin’ Out Darlin’

She had seen Penny’s inside outside dual identity truck from the road, so finding the home of her first Ardensville encounter was no problem. Like many here, homes that is, there was a business in the front and a home in the back. Few people commuted to work much more than passing through a separating door or walking around to the other side of the building.
     

This is a curious thing. In N.Y.C. for instance, few would live that close to their business, and few own their business, and a 10 mile commute might bite an hour or 2 from their time-starved day.
 

Here in Ardensville, the aggregate opposite of hyper-urbanism, closeness is prioritized. Close to work, close to home, and close to neighbors.
       

Penny’s home was set back from the road where her mailbox was. A distance that might have qualified as exercise. Celia wondered if she drove to pick up the mail or walked. She did not appear to be someone who suffered the ravages of exercise. Most likely, she just stopped the truck on the way in or out.
       

The house was like most in Ardensville; 2or 3 stories with steep roofs, wood siding but expressively sturdy, and none would be seen in public without at least one proper porch. Some were maintained better than others, but none, none occupied were neglected.
       

There was a large circular rut out front where it was apparent vehicles came, stopped and ,left. In the axis center of that circle was a sign standing in a modest rock and flower arrangement.
     

Not as meticulous and fabulous as Miles’ flagpole, but well, content. The sign said:      
                       -----------------------------   
                               Penny Corinth
                              Garment Design
                                    Tailor
                                 Seamstress
                              A
                                 Stitch
                                          In
                                            Time
                        -----------------------------
       

Cute Penny.
 

Celia killed the engine and approached the house with the largest of the three boxes. No return address?
       

Penny’s exterior was definitely at the lower end of maintenance standards but by no means neglected. Her porch steps did creak, more than a little. The depression in the cushions of one of two large porch chairs informed how much it was habitually inhabited. Close by was a large flower pot with a large dead plant. Its death probably due to the wealth of cigarette butts, dead lighters, bottle caps, lemon rinds, matches and, spent cellophane snack packaging. Some folks will thrive in that environment but not plants and definitely not that plant.
                                                                               

                                          Cute Penny.
       

Celia put down the package and peered in the screen door. Looked like a cluttered old tailor shop. Dim, dusty boxes of things and racks with dresses and forms and stuff. She looked for a bell or a buzzer and finding neither just called in and knocked on the screen door. In that moment of interruption, the shop and the house, seemed to gasp and hold its breath.
       

“I’m comin’ out darlin,” a voice cried out from the interior wilderness.
       

Celia commenced to lean on the house and survey the landscape.
                     

                       This is why people paint landscapes. Huh.
       

She heard steps and stood erect. Penny appeared through the screen door.
       

“There you are,” while she unhooked the door hook at eye height on the screen door. “Come on eein.”
       

Inside the shop now was as if Dorothy had turned and gone back into the black and white house. There were patches of light from windows but mostly there was dimness. You could not really discern the dimensions of the room as the dimness obscured where objects ended and walls began. Shreds and cuttings of material covered the floor like eastern leaves in autumn. Jars of buttons and boxes of zippers and all manner of things attached and now unattached to Penny’s craft were everywhere.
       

Celia did not know where was a good spot to put down the box let alone the other two.
     

“Well what were you expectin’, a Christian Dior runaway?”
       

“Don’t you mean, runway?” quizzed Celia.
         

“That’s what I said, runway. Well those postal blues are a real fashion upgrade for you. Keep it up cowgirl.” Penny smiled broadly. “When you get tired a’them postal blues and ya startin’ to think you’re turning into Miles, promise me you’ll come and get fitted for some duds you want to get into on any given morning.”
       

“Someday, when I grow up, I hope to dress myself. And yes, I promise.“
     

 Penny studied this answer unsure of its depth.
     

“Well just drop that over there and stay still. I’ve got something for ya I‘ll have to dig out.”
       

Penny disappeared into the dimness and boxes and racks. She could be heard now but not entirely seen. She asked polite questions about the progress of Celia’s acclimation into Ardensville culture and geography.
     

“Gotcha ol buddy!!” Penny reappeared with a garment under arm. “Let’s look at’er outside in the light.” The women stepped out onto the porch.
       

Penny shook out and presented to Celia a jacket. A jacket of Josephian gravity. In form it was only a varsity jacket sort of thing but Penny had thoroughly refaced the outside and inside, so that it was an impossibly beautiful patchwork of materials and colors and shapes. After a pause, Celia picked up her jaw and spoke.
     

“Penny! Are you a good witch or a bad witch? That’s the most beautiful garment I’ve ever seen. You can’t give that to me. I’m not worthy,” gasped Celia.
     

“I ain’t no witch at all ya damn mailman. Try’er on. If’n it stay in that box the bugs’ll have at’er and that will be the end of it. We all need to see the light’a day every now and then. See if’n it fits while I get us some refreshments.” Penny again vanished into the abyss.
       

Once alone, Celia put it on. The experience was more like getting naked than dressed. This is what a beloved garment does. It was her. All over. It was still a warm day and Celia would have no sooner taken off her jacket than she might have torn out her own fingernails. She did not think to ask for a mirror. In fact, she closed her eyes.
 

“Second I saw you, I said, you two were meant for each other.” Penny had returned with a tray holding two highball glasses, an insulated ice bucket, most of a quart of Jim Beam and a big bag of big pretzel stix. “I got us a three course meal here with all the fixins ’n most of the food groups but I’m a country girl and don’t know no better, nor do I care to. Well I’d say you two were already ole friends. Fits ya real good cowgirl.”
     

“Penny, I don’t know what to say. This should be in a museum, not on me.”
       

“I make clothes for living bodies, not mannequins,” Penny said putting ice cubes in the glasses. “Sometimes the mannequins move a lil and I get throwed off. Not this time,” now pouring big boy drinks and busting open the pretzels. “Come’on now, sit ’n visit a while.”
       

Celia and her jacket parked it in the big patio chair that most likely was not where Penny sat and the tray was between them. Penny handed her a glass. They clinked, sipped, and Penny took her seat.
       

“So where ya from? Who’s yer people and what in the world brings an eastern flower like yourself out to farm country like this?”  
         

Celia sipped and spun her ice. With her eyes on the sunset horizon, and thinking through a fleeting moment of compressed time, Celia considered the theatrical situation she was in. If she got over now, with this woman, nothing else could go wrong.

 

“Well, I was working at a P.O. outside of  Litchfield Connecticut where I was being stalked by a sorter who…..”

 

“Sort a what?” Penny interrupted.
         

“Not what, who. Someone who sorts mail. A sorter.”
         

“Oh, right. Please continue.”
         

“So the stalker who was sorting me……”
           

“Huh?”
           

“The sorter who was stalking me wasn’t getting fired by the manager who was harassing me. So it’s my day off and Jimmy Earl the stalker comes into the P.O. to shoot the place up, only no one’s there on account of everybody went to see a lumber yard burn, so he settled for shooting up the office, himself, and the goldfish I kept on my desk.” Celia stopped and sipped.
       

“Whew ! I’d say you dodged a bullet right there cowgirl,” Penny exclaimed raising her near empty glass.
       

“Goldfish was the last straw. I put in for a transfer, and your town seemed far enough. While we’re on the subject, why would a magnolia like yourself be out here with the cottonwoods? If’n ya don’t mind me asking?” Celia drained her cocktail and Penny prepared the next round.
       

“I do love them cottonwoods, such elegant and noble plants. Now you are a bit young to remember it but whatever, and all you learned about the civil rights years was not even half the story. The further out into hill country, for me, Alabama hills, the more vicious and personal it got. For my family, it was like losing the war all over again. I never shared their philosophies and I just left first chance I had and never went back. My kin forgot about me and me them. Sometimes gets lonely out here, but then there’s now.
“There’s a good spirit in Ardensville. Can’t say what it is. I don’t question it and I love my neighbors. That’s a good life in my book cowgirl.”
       

Clink! The girls sat, sipped and chewed pretzel stix while the sun kissed the horizon in red and blue and gold.
                                                                                Right on time.

 


Chapter 18

It’s a Small Town Sistah

“Gods bless a cast iron tub.”
Must have been a hundred years old. Celia had a shower in New York, just a shower. Her entire bathroom in NYC was a little bit bigger than the tub she vacationed in now.
       

Porching with Penny left Celia just a bit too relaxed to actually fill out her Network reports, but she could think about them. Big ole’ hot bath was indeed the ideal place to do just that.
       

She thought about civility and what that meant. The city had all the civilization that was the other air primary for Celia, and you paid for that divine resource in no small part by conceding that to pursue your muse you will either endure and ignore massive incivility or, through force of wealth, insulate yourself from it. That’s the deal.
       

On the other hand, where there is no struggle, no drama. The will that smells like stubborn, that’s the thing. Art that comes like sweat. A resting body doesn’t sweat, though it might start to smell bad. 
       

Celia’s desire to investigate all she was thinking and all she could not make sense of flew off in all directions.
       

What was it about this place? The urban/rural comparisons did not hold up to scrutiny. Life was good, unstressed and marvelously civil and yet, there was a kind of drama. Sometimes it breathed beneath the covers like some Kafkaesque dreamscape, and at other times it flowed, as in the improbable chatter of a completely acclimated Penny.
       

How could Celia produce substantive reports for the Network, when with every advance in familiarity came greater enigma? Anyway, it was a good day. Shouldn’t ask for too much more than that.
       

Celia was not one to suffer having drank enough the night before. It felt like having taken a hot bath. Same for her mother, but this was not something they might ever have discussed on the porch.
       

Up. Had her coffee, got to the P.O., loaded, chewed it with Miles a bit and hit the road. Did the poetic soul of Miles accidentally say things that sounded like Keats, or had he taken long hot baths in the mineral rich hot springs of John Keats?     
           

What is going on here?
       

In her few days on the job now, which hummed along with legato ease, she had seen nearly every address in the county, almost.
       

It was past noon on a particularly hot day. Not yet having tried Mr Stephens with the rag top on yet, she was parched due to sun on her face and dust in her mouth. She pulled into Torado’s for something cold to drink. She was familiar with the place now, and went directly to the line of refrigerators that housed the soda and beer and milk and everything like that. 
     

There was a woman in the aisle, muttering as she scanned the variety through the glass doors. She wore her hair a little higher than most in Ardensville, and she wore a little more blush than most women in Ardensville, and the sunglasses were decidedly not local. And in typical irony, she was no more or less regular irregular than anyone else here. Little agitated though.
    

“C’mon, c’mon. Gimmeaspecial, gimmeaspecial. Shit,shit,shit. Cmon, boysgetstinkingcubansandIcan’tgetaspecilal, fachrissake, shitpopandpopandpop pop pop jesusmaryn’joseph.”
     

On and on. Celia kept a distance, did not stare but listened hard. Eventually she grabbed a couple of bottles of tonic, picked up some wrapped packages at the service counter, handed off by the big bear sort of a man and headed for the cashier. Grabbed from behind by her curiosity, Celia followed. She did not wait for her change at the cashier and kept pace with the mysterious woman in the parking lot. Celia caught up with her as she was putting the key in her locked car door (?).
       

“Excuse me but I couldn’t help but notice you seemed to think out loud in fluent New Yaghkkkkkkk…”
       

Grabbed from behind again though this time by Mike the bear from the counter. He held the back of her neck in a paralyzing grip. Additionally, there was something poking in her back which Celia soon surmised was the barrel of a pistol.
     

“Aw right Barbie, where ya from an’ who sent cha or ya gonna be participating in a huntin’ accident. Maybe you’d like to see how da inside of a wood chipper works?”
       

Mike’s grip eased off enough to allow Celia the air required to breathe.
     

“Do I know Brooklyn or do I know Brooklyn, gahkkk?”
     

“In the car Mike, let’s drive.” Mike responded silent and obedient. Both doors, driver’s and the one behind opened and closed. Celia was in the back with Mike and his apron and his pistol, and the woman drove like a demon swearing in thick Brooklyn all the way home.
       

Home was a comparatively dingy house though like so many others might appear from the road. She had noticed this house before, but had not delivered any mail, which she thought anomalous. 
     

The woman came to a skidding stop right in front of the porch steps. They left the car and Celia just sorta floated up the steps with Mike’s arresting assistance. In yet another strange reversal, going into this house was like leaving a full color outside world and into an Oz-like black and white interior. Check that, white mostly.
       

Suddenly, with a shattering slap to her consciousness, Celia saw behind the curtain. There was a whole lot of white. White carpet, white Venus d’ Milo, white furniture etc. There was a small shrine to Saint Ursula with fresh flowers and scented candles, and there was a larger shrine to Connie Francis with fresh flowers and scented candles surrounding an album cover signed,
                                  “From Connie 
                                                  to Mary.”
“Mary.”
   

“Sit, ahh, an wipe ya feet! I just shampooed that carpet. Mike, you step off that mat I’ll cut ya fuggin heart out.”
 

With Mike’s prodigious paw around most of her neck, obedience came easily, but he did let go, she did wipe her feet, and he did stay on the welcome mat.
     

“Okay Clavin, you will tell us who you are with an’ who you’re workin’ for or you will be goin tru da wood chipper. Clear?” Mary pronounced pacing slightly with her arms crossed.
   

“The Network,” Celia answered drinking in every second of this cinematic moment.
     

“Who’s at? Some new Jersey family? Are you wit’ Mendel Pannetone? Tell me, c’mon. We should’a shmeared that kosher salami before we left Mike, when we still had FBI protection,” she finished, speaking to Mike.
     

“I wanted to do it Mary, but Phil said he was tryin’ to get us a spot in da Virgin Islands. Did’n wanna piss off da Feds.”
     

“Yeah, fuggin’ idiot. Fuggin’ Feds. Fuggin’ Mendel. Fuggin Network? Who the fuck is the Network? Colombians?”
     

“Nope,” Celia shook her head.
       

“Who den?” Mary demanded.
       

“T.V.”
       

“T.V.?”
       

“Network T.V.”
       

“Mike! Go warm up the wood chipper and not too close ta da house. You’ll bring every crow in the county.” Mike dutifully left the house.
       

“I’m tellin’ ya da trut. I’m like ahhh, location scout for Network TV. My mutha sent me out heah and I got no fuggin idea who you are.”
     

“T.V.?” Mary akst.
     

“Yeah, T.V.” Celia answered.
     

“How’s home ?” Mary inquired in a changed tone.
     

“San Genaro is wall to wall tourists and Arthur Ave is all Albanese. And the mayor, oye, don’t get me started.” Celia heard Mike trying to chain start the wood chipper.
       

“Fuggin Albanese.” Mary lit a cigarette.
       

A large man in farming sort of clothes burst in the door carrying a baseball bat and went for Celia. Now, unlike before, Celia was truly scared.

 

Mary screamed! “Ya walkin on my carpet ya fuggin moron! I just shampooed that carpet! What’s ya problem?!” Mary was irate.
       

“Aw jeez Mary, I’m sorry, I’ll take her out back n’ cave her head in.” Phil was contrite.
       

“It’s okay, Phil Celia, Celia Phil. Celia’s with some TV show or something. They wanna shoot a soap in Ardensville or something like that. That about right Cel?”
     

“Yeah, bout right,” Celia was breathing again. “What are you guys doin’ out here?”
     

“The Feds are hidin us. Phil ova heah decided to drop a dime on some of our business associates back in Brooklyn. Our kids are okay, out of the business, so we went on a long vacation. The boys make salami n’ cheese like when they were kids and the wives we got a hair and nail salon which don’t do too much business but it’s okay. Kinda like home only no family, no track, no Broadway, no trips to Vegas, and no restaurants.” Mary lamented.
   

“The food at that café is pretty damn good I’d say,” Celia piped in.
     

“The good thing out here is, there’s no freakin’ opera. Too much Christian radio but no opera thank God.”
     

“Aye la Donna Mobile! Marone, Babby can cook but she thinks we’re Mexicans, so when we come in we always get mole’, which I’ve grown to like but I wish she would make some pasta faggiolle sometime.” Phil lamented.
     

Mike came back in, and staying on the welcome mat explained the chipper was low on gas so he needed to get started if that was alright. He also had biscotti in the oven and needed to get back to the store.
     

“Fagetta bout it Mike, I think we’ll keep’er. Go on back. Phil’ll drive us back in a lil’, and take off that apron if you’re driving my car.”
     

“Yeah sure, Mary.” Mike smiled, waved, said ciao and left. He turned off the chipper before pulling away.
     

“How about a Cinzano, Celia?” Phil proposed not really waiting for an answer.
     

“How do you get good booze out here?” Celia asked now, cruising the remarkable collection of photos on the fireplace mantle. 
     

“The Feds take care of us pretty good. Good liquor, good cigars, sometimes fresh fish, but what we really need is a good opera company!” Phil handed around the Cinzanos with ice. 
     

“We’re in the west ya fuggin moron. There’s no god damn opera. Horses, soybeans, and flat. No opera fa chrise sake!”
     

“Cent’ann,” Celia toasted.
     

“Glad to hear it, Cent’ann,” Phil repeated.
     

“Cent’ann,” Mary concurred. “And please Saint Ursula, let it be in Brooklyn!”
     

“So no one out here knows who you are?” asked Celia twirling her ice.
     

“Nope,” answered Mary, “They think we’re Mexicans. We’re polite, they’re polite, everybody’s polite, we mind our business, they mind theirs and that’s it. Fuggin yahoos in overalls.” 
     

“Well then, how come everybody knows my business?”
     

“Oh yeah,” Phil remembered, “how’s it goin at Irma’s? She’s good people, don fahgget’t.”
     

“Yeah, like that.” Celia rolled her eyes and drained her beverage.
     

“Tsa small town sistah, get used to it, you betcha.” Mary drained hers and winked.

Chapter 19

Cupid’s Bo

       Up early, sipping coffee, it occurred to Celia it might not sit too well with the Federal government if reality television came in and outed their witness protection people. Be none too healthy for the witnesses neither. Hmmm. 
       She stared at the conspicuously blank scouting forms, undecided as to how to handle this conundrum. The gang, the only term she had come up with to address them, collectively seemed not only happy but interesting genuine people for whose existence she did not wish to be the instrument of destruction. The show would be a little different from Mr. Woodchipper. She resolved to give herself at least the day to think about it. “Tink about’t”

       Miles's regularity with the mail was astounding. If everything ran as perfectly as Miles ran his little tumbleweed P.O., well, who could imagine. He was not from this place, she thought. Couldn’t be. Ardensville might make an Irma or Morrow but Miles, Penny, the gang? Never happen.
       Celia, the mail, and her one true love Mr. Stephens hit the road again, not only another day more familiar but bearing an entirely new insight. That being: if things seem they are not or could not be what they seem to be or say they are, good chance they’re not. Or are. Or are lying about it, maybe. You betcha.
       Close to noon, Celia heard the lunch bell and looked forward to going into Torado’s and seeing the whole thing in a new light. A great theatre piece in which this crew, crew yeah, maybe “the crew,” hid from the reality they embraced. Indelibly.
       “Que se dice, Mike?” Celia hailed.
       Mike seemed to move slow, but his eyes were like lightening. As some civilians were in earshot, maybe, he opted to respond to that in Spanish.
       “Muy beeyen, y tu, como estan?” Mike smiled his smile which looked like a one-side lip raise to show a gold tooth.
       “I don’t want to blow your cover Mike, but that’s about the worst junior high Spanish I’ve ever heard.” 
       “Aye, fooled you! I took French. What a ya havin young lady?”
       Celia closed her eyes. She was no longer the type to look for answers on a menu. “Hot soppressata, turkey, mozz, lettuce, tomato, red onion, chopped olives, roast peppers, oil n’ vinegar on black bread,” Celia considered her answer and gave closure to it. ”Yup.”
       “Aye, son ofa bitch, that’s my sandwich! How da ya like that?! Where did ya say your people were from?”
       “Connecticut, if memory serves.”
       Mike had that sandwich standing tall and wrapped with a pickle in a New York minute. He reached over to hand it to her but as she grabbed it Mike did not let go.
       “Mary tole me to aks if ya wanna come by tonight for cards?” Mike let go.
       “Yeah sure, ‘at id be great. Should I bring anything?”
       “Hows bout ya pay.” Mike showed the tooth again.
       After this monumental lunch, half a day’s work still stretched out before her. 

       Her last stop was Delbow Hickles. She had delivered mail to this name but only to the mailbox on the road. The house could barely be seen from this distance, and on this day she had a substantial package. She proceeded up the unpaved drive to deliver the package.
       “Hello, Mr. Hickles, anybody here, hello-ooo.” Celia hollered getting out of the jeep. All quiet. She carried the box up the porch steps, and setting it down provided hands to knock on the unlatched screen door or ring a bell, which could not be found. She called into the house and the answer was the same. She turned and left, resolved to leave the package on the porch and call it a day. At the bottom of the steps, she froze in her tracks. 
       She was surrounded by wild animals. Each as big as a watermelon with pointy faces and fierce claws that glistened in the sunlight. Evenly spaced in a circle around her and erect on their haunches, they seemed ready to pounce, simultaneously. Classic pack behavior. Were these the dreaded wolverines that terrorized the west in the 19th century? Her cook was goosed. How would the obit read. Shit.
       “Don’t leave, I’m coming,” a voice called from behind the house. The devil dogs dispersed. Didn’t run away. Just went about their business, sniffing things or rolling in the gravel. One jumped in a low-hung tire swing.
       The voice came out from behind the house and it was attached to a man. He carried upon his shoulders some piece of farm equipment that seemed impossibly heavy. Had he carried the tractor required to pull it, it would have appeared no more improbable. He wore those genuine farmer overalls with one of two straps unattatched or fallen. Beneath that he wore no shirt. His body was covered in agriculture and sweat and dust and motor oil. His was the physique you did not get in a gym. Toned, tanned, and supercharged. Nothing but gorgeous. Celia almost swallowed her tongue, which would account for her sudden loss of the gift of speech.
       “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting. Guess you’re the new mail ahh, woman ahh, mam, mailmam. Well, I’m Delbow Hickles but folks just call me Bo.”
       Celia was as if turned to stone, unable to speak in the presence of the living Apollo.
       “I hope the chucks didn’t scare you. They think it’s their farm but you can relax, I’m sure they already like you.” Bo smiled and his perfect teeth glinted in the sunlight. He remembered he was shouldering this farm thing so he let it down slowly with an amused little groan and leaned it up against a tree. The tree was not so amused. Celia had not yet found her tongue. Bo started to consider if this woman had a disability or something. He raised his voice and spoke slowly.
       “You must be the new P.O. woman Miles mentioned. Welcome to Ardensville. How’s it workin’ out for ya?”
       Bo took a rag from his back pocket and briskly tried to wipe all the day's work from his hands and chest. Celia watched and imagined she was that rag. Bo waited for any response and was starting to worry.
       “Fine…fine I mean yeah, fine. Everyone’s been warm and moist in me, ahh for me, to me, since I came, ahh arrived, got here, yeah, fine. Me’s your hail, here’s your mail, ahh mail, your letters, ahh package. Bo, how do you do you do me. Fine yeah, yes, okay.”
       Bo wondered, did the P.O. have a program for employing...challenged minds?
       “Are you okay Mam? Can I get you something cold to drink? Might you like to get out of the sun?”
       “Celia.”
       “Come again.”
       “Excuse me.”
       “I didn’t get what you said.”
       “Celia, my name is Celia. I’m the new woman, P.O. woman.”
       Celia was starting to speak in sentences again and Bo was relieved.
       “I know.” 
       “Know what?”
       “You’re the new PO woman. Your name is Celia, and I think I’ll get you a glass of water and a beer for myself.”
       “Beer works for me!” Celia was coming out of it now that Bo had gone in the house for the beers, and the milling about of the woodchucks captured her attention. He returned with a tee-shirt on that failed miserably to conceal his sculpted awesome body. He sat on the second porch step and handed a very cold bottle of beer to Celia, who took a seat on the top step which afforded her eye level with Bo. The chucks came to check her out in no time. One deposited a small dead snake right where Celia had momentarily parked her beer.
       “U-huh. I know my chucks alright. Sybil has taken to you, you betcha.”
       “Sybil?”
       “Yup, that’s Sybil, Douglas by the tree, Davy in the birdbath, GET OUT THE BIRDBATH DAVY!!   Jennifer sleeping in the tire swing, and Steve in your jeep.”
       Sybil was in her lap by now begging for belly rubs.
       “I hope he’s not going to screw with the mail. It’s a federal offense you know.”
       “No, mail’s safe but look out for small dead snakes in your mailbag,” Bo smiled, sipped, stretched, and flexed in a simple country, not self-conscious modesty. Celia almost crushed the bottle.
       “Are you alone here, Bo?”
       “No, I got the chucks. Watch this. HAWK!”
       The chucks instantly fell and played dead. They didn’t even seem to breathe. After 30 seconds Bo said “clear” and the animals just resumed what they were doing, unperturbed.
       “You train your woodchucks. Wow, Bo. I’ve never seen the like. You must be from around here I imagine?” Celia started poking around.
       “I was born right behind this house,” Bo beamed.
       “Why not in the house, may I ask?” as Sybil pulled on her shiny buttons.
       “Ma was riding the old tractor that day and couldn’t make it to the house in time, and Pa was birthing a calf, so it was just me and Ma behind the house.” Bo killed his beer.
       “Are they here with you, Bo?”
       “Oh sure, right out there by that stand of willow trees. Plus a sister, 3 grandfolks, 2 aunts, 4 uncles, and a fella named Bob who came one harvest time and didn’t see a combine coming. He don’t take too much space.” Davy had knocked over an empty bottle trying to get the last drop of local brew from the bottle.
       “I’m so glad to know you, Bo, really.”
       Celia was smitten by a man she could have never imagined and would not have found attractive if she had imagined him. He was the genuine article. Apparently intelligent, in place and at peace in his home, without artifice or vanity (considering he was the most visually spectacular man Celia had ever known), mild, self-reliant, and unquestionably decent. A decent man. Imagine that.

Chapter 20

Don’t Let Fred Catch You Sleeping

       Celia parked Mr. Stephens by the back door, her door, back at Irma’s. Even after porchin’ with Bo and delivering her whole day’s load, she was home at 4:30 and not expected with the crew till 8. 
       She swung out of the jeep grabbing her satchel and yup, two small dead snakes flopped to the floor of the jeep. Celia started to tear up. “I’m losing my mind. What the hell is going on here?”
       She continued that conversation in the bathtub. Her plan, loosely, was this: bath, dinner at Babby’s—probably last call—and then cards at 8. 
       As the night might be cool, she grabbed her treasured jacket on the way out. Maybe Mary or Babby could tell her more about that nice Mr. Hickles.
       Celia drove in real slow, like she didn’t want to disturb the sunset. Never took it out of first. There was only a lone pick-up parked in front of the café. 
       “Bo is real. Not the crew. Irma is real. Morrow is real. Miles? Babby? Hmmmmm....”
       Celia rolled to a stop, quiet and slow, like a predator. No chatter and hum came through the screen door. It was closing time. Celia had one foot in the screen door and caught sight of Babby’s piercing eyes though in the little mirror.
       “How’s it going chef?”
       Babby did not appreciate being busted in her surveillance mirror. She continued to wipe down counters and bring salt pepper n’ tabasco into regimental arrangement. Celia was aware of something less than hospitality, so far unknown in Ardensville.
       “Am I too late to eat, or are you all broken down?” chirped Celia.
       Babby considered Celia’s restaurant lingo. New York? L.A.?
       “Yes to the latter but I was about to eat myself, by myself, but now, I guess you’re my date. Park it at the counter.”
       Celia had not heard the café so quiet up to this moment. You could hear the crickets outside tuning up. Then there was a sound. A toilet flushing and the women’s eyes met, crashed really. Whoever flushed that toilet was coming outta that bathroom any second. All possibilities were on the table. Counter. Celia waited for a revelation. Breathing stopped.
       Next was heard the sound of running water, and then the hand dryer concluded the performance.    
       A very large man came out of the john. He worked on getting one of his overall straps re-attached, but with his massive calloused hands he might as well been threading a needle. Mission accomplished, he slapped his prodigious gut and spoke, now aware of Celia’s presence.
       “Your liver, bacon and, soybeans has made me the man I am today Babby. I mean that, coast to coast, you betcha. You must be the new P.O. lady livin’ at Irma’s. How’s that workin’ out for ya? I’m Jem Fulton.”
       “It’s workin out fine Jem! I’m Celia.”
       Celia stepped up and put her hand out. Babby rolled her eyes. Like others, Jem was not accustomed to a woman shaking hands like a football coach. Hesitantly, he took her hand making careful sure not to crush like he would a spent beer can.
       “And on that note ladies, I will say good night. Good night, and I wish you a pleasant evening in the knowledge we will be together tomorrow again.”
       Jem took his cap out of a pocket and parked it on his bison-sized head. The hat said “Scotch.” An enormous bearded man in a plaid shirt smiled broadly displaying a big gap in his teeth, two made of gold.
       “Good night Jem. Glad to know you.” Celia was charmed by this gregarious giant elf.
       “Good night Jem. Get home safe and don’t let Fred catch you passed out in your truck.” Babby’s ever commanding voice was always heard in her place if she was facing you or not, reaching under a table for a dropped fork or standing straight looking right at you.
       “When we gonna tie that knot Babby?” asked Jem viewing Babby’s stern poking out from under a table.
       “When the dead rise up and ride through town on tractors. Now get outta here ya damn leprechaun.” Babby rose showing her retrieved fork and a half eaten chicken wing. Jem tipped his hat again and left. Babby followed him to the door, not too closely. She turned off the dining room lights, on a couple of exterior lights, flipped the lock on the door and returned to the localized light of the counter and kitchen.
       “That’s the first time I’ve seen anyone lock a door in Ardensville. You expecting company?” Celia’s honest question was like a siren.
       “Story of my life, honey,” said Babby, busted again.
       “I’d love to hear the story of your life, honey.”
       “Calm down, we don’t want The Times in here.” Babby slipped behind the counter, set places for herself and Celia and reached down into the lowboy pulling up 2 beers.
       “I met Bo Hickles today. What a may’an.” The women tapped cans. “I would think women were lining up to set up house keeping with him.” Celia licked her chops after her first long tug on her beer.
       “That’s what most say but when one comes around, those chucks put in their 2 cents and run off bachelorette #3. Bo stays with the chucks, and that’s the end of it. Territory or jealousy or chucks who smell a snake, I don’t know but he is a good tipper. Real gentleman.” 
       “Well that is very interesting, hmmmmm.” Celia imagined herself in a gingham apron holding a pie.
       Babby folded a bar mop and placed it on the counter between her plate and Celia’s, turned, and went back into the kitchen. She returned with a covered ceramic casserole and placed it gingerly on the folded towel.
       “Do you like fricassee?” Babby teased the moment a bit, not removing the top, and then pulled it off with style.
       “Whoah!!!” The vapors grabbed Celia’s face and shook it.
       “Babby, I’ve known cooks but you’re from another planet, in a class by yourself. Did you study formally or were you born with this precious gift?” Celia inhaled like the steam was all she needed to eat.
       “My Dad taught me to cook,” responded Babby, watching Celia and thinking she was working it just a bit much.
       “My Dad taught me how to cook but not like this, not like you. You’re a freakinfricasseein freakin genius.”
       “Calm down we….”
       “Yeah yeah yeah, don’t want the Times in here.”
       Babby half smiled and raised her beer, acknowledging her opponent had anticipated her. Sort of a touché toast.
       “Speaking of toasts, is there any wine in Ardensville, or is it local beer start to finish?” Celia waited. Babby rose, grabbed the two half-consumed beers, and returned to the kitchen. She returned with a bottle of wine, good wine, and a corkscrew handing both to Celia. Babby watched how Celia read the label, removed the foil, and operated the old-fashioned corkscrew with sommelier skill. Babby went to the kitchen and returned with 2 long stem glasses. Celia had the bottle open, and had taken and savored her first bite. 
       “Babby, what are you thinking? These are white wine glasses!” Celia smiled with her head cocked a little and using the tone of her mother. 
       Babby’s nostrils flared as she reached under her counter, fumbled for a few seconds, and with a resounding tear of tape, pulled out a big fat pistol and nearly had it in Celia’s nose. Celia stopped chewing and the women looked at each other hard.
       “Okay, now who the fuck are you, and what do you want in Ardensville, or do I cap a pop in your head?” Babby was shaking. Celia resumed chewing, then wiped her mouth before speaking.
       “You mean ‘pop a cap,’ don’t you?” Celia retrieved the serving spoon and looked for a neck bone.
       “You know what the fuck I mean, so start talkin’ bitch, or I’ll be cleaning up more than fricassee tonight.”
       Celia was entirely pleased with herself for being able to “out” another Ardensville mystery man. She smiled broadly and proceeded to not hesitating to out herself. This was becoming fun.
       “My evil mother sent me out here to scout for a bad network T.V. show that would give this place national visibility. But ya know, this town, Irma, Miles, Bo, Bo, you, Bo and your leetle frien, are all kinda growin on me and I don’t think I want to throw you all to the wolves.” Celia poured for Babby first and then herself. Babby put up her weapon, then down, then picked up her glass.
       “I’m hidin out.” Babby confessed.
       “No shit,” answered Celia sucking on a neck bone. “From who?” 
       “From the Seventies,” fishing for potatoes.
       “1970s?”
       “You betcha.”
       “Why Ardensville?” Stabbing a carrot.
       “Oh, for the questions that answer themselves.” Sausage.
       “Well how’s bout a hint?” Celia poured again.
       “I took over the diner...café, from 2 old sisters who ran it since the forties. They got it from their parents and willed it to me. Mighty decent ole pair of spinsters.”
       “You just told me about the diner…tell me about you.” Celia began dunking hunks of bread in the pot and getting them out when saturated.
       “You’re just a tad young to remember what was goin’ on in the ’60s and ’70s but, you may have read about how the Panthers got all unraveled in the Nixon years and….”
       “You’re running from the FBI?!” 
       “Hell no, I’m running from the Panthers. My cokehead boyfriend thought kidnapping Bozo the clown would advance the civil rights movement. My friends were going to get killed on ‘operation big shoes’ so that that idiot could nail white college chicks, like you. My ‘sistuhs’ couldn’t see it.”
       “So you just left?”
       “Nope, shot’em first.” Babby confessed sucking on a neck bone.
       “I’d a shot’em too, maybe. Did you kill him?” Celia asked a little afraid of the answer.
       “No, no no. The FBI finished him a few months later. He was a dog and I’ve forgotten what he looked like. That whole scene seems like a bad novel I didn’t bother to finish. I drove outta L.A. that night and kept driving till the money and the gas ran out. This town was a bit livelier then. Not much but some. Sisters here took me in, were good to me, didn’t ask me a whole lotta questions, unlike yourself. I could cook, and that’s all they needed to know. 
       “I took the place over when they both passed. Buried both of them, bless their hearts.” Babby drained her glass. Celia filled it.
       “Who’s Fred?” Celia asked emptying the bottle into her own  glass.
       “Who’s Fred?” repeated Babby.
       “Yes, Fred?”
       “Fred who?”
       “You told Jem Fulton don’t be caught sleeping in his truck by Fred. Fred. Who’s Fred?”
       “Ohhhhh, Fred.” Babby was back on board, chuckling.
       “Yeah, Fred.” Celia now intrigued and a tad impatient.
       “Fred’s the county ghost. Drives around on a old ghost tractor looking for the head he lost in a combine accident. If he catches you, he’ll take your head. A charming touch of neo-archaic folklore. Scares the hell out of the kids, the few kids that are left. Funny shit. 
       “Now, what about you, undercover girl. What’s your story. Shall you bring heaven’s fire to Ardensville. Tell me again who the fuck are you and why do you work at the post office?”
       “That’s just my cover. I’m really an actress.” Babby pursed her lips hard considering what a ridiculous thing Celia just said, seemingly unaware that she said it. This chick must be drunk already. Cheap date.
       “My mother is like the evil queen in a Disney cartoon about network television. She sent me to….”
       “I don’t want to hear about yer mommy, I want to know about you.”
       Celia raised her glass and smiled. Another touché moment.
       “What’s the word for a person who only visits real life occasionally and would prefer to spend the rest of her, or his existence in the fabricated impersonations of and about what others refer to as life. Well, whatever that word is, it might be synonymous with insolvency because I can’t put 2 nickles together and get a dime. Really quite pathetic. So I live my thespian life in New York supported by my deceased father’s will, but of late, my evil mother has put the kabash on that arrangement, hijacked me, and I have become the unwilling functionary of an uncivilized and malevolent cabal. The good news is that my complicity in this revolting project will rescue my ’umble Shakespeare company from perishing and rescue me to do everything and only what I want to do. Namely, play-act and sing and dance and paint and write, on and on and on. And if I could just get out from under my mother, all would be well.”
       “Damn girl, you’re a bit near the top of the hill to be crying mommy foul, dontcha think. But, you have my heart, and I don’t regular have time for this poor lil’rich girl bullshit. Wha’cha’gonna do?” Babby drained her glass and Celia hers. They were done.
       “I don’t know, but I’m not going to drop a dime on you
and Irma and Bo and this town. I have to ask, Babby, how is it nobody ever suspected you to be who or what you are? I’m not Sherlock Holmes, and here we are.” Celia fidgeted in preparation of her exit. “Can I help you clean up? I have to go.”
       “I guess I’d call it neighbors and fences. There’s a funny kind of tolerance here in Ardensville. I could never put my finger on it, but I’m ducking most of the time myself. Everyone is nice here, very polite. No one pries, unlike yourself. I’ll clean this up, no problem. I have inventory stuff anyway. You run along now.” Babby stood up. 
       Once again, in the face of simple honesty and humanity, Celia felt her heart melting. It was all she could do not to throw her arms around Babby and start bawling. She broke for the door.
       “Thanks for dinner, Babby, I’ll see you in the morning.” She was almost out the door when Babby called her back.
       “Hey, Don’t let Fred catch you sleepin’ in your jeep!”

Chapter 21

Bensonhurt West

       Had Celia not known exactly where the Torado abode was, she would not have found it in twilight’s light. Its exterior was a very dingy affair. Compared to the pedigree façade of Irma’s, the home she was pulling up to now was a junkyard dog. From the road, it vanished into the scenery, the flat brown scenery. 

       There were no cars in front of the house, so she correctly assumed the thing to do was to park, like the others, behind the house, and yes, the cars were parked back there.

       As she cut the engine, she noticed a sliver of light coming from a window whose curtain had been minimally pulled aside to accommodate a watchful eye. And then it was dark again. 

       “A regular welcome wagon.”

       Phil met Celia at the door, happy to see her, and Phil was a man who one might suspect, assigned the sacred duty to be always a flawless host. 

       The scene inside was as diametrically opposite to everything else in Ardensville as one could ever imagine. Once again, had she awoke in this home, she might be convinced she was in Bensonhurst or Howard Beach or North Jersey. 

       Everyone was drinking and smoking, except that small bird-like man from the market who sat somewhat off to the side and only drank, though he did chew celery sticks with urgency. The boys smoked cigars and the girls smoked cigarettes. Introductions were made, and Celia could not remember when the drink showed up in her hand.

       “You know Mary and Mike over there. That’s Rose on the couch with Vincent. Jimmy waitin' to play cards and Lina and Barbara in the kitchen.” Lina and Barbara waved from the open kitchen.

       “Who is that distinguished gentleman in the corner?” Celia asked, her curiosity peaked.

       “Oh, yeah, ’at’s my cousin Lou. He’s always been a lil’ loopy but he’s one of us so we brought’m and he helps in the store. He’s harmless. My aunt Giselle devoted her life to him.” Phil crossed himself.

       “Did we come to play cards or should I deal solitaire ova heah?” barked an impatient Jimmy, clearly not a charm school graduate.

       Silently, with stealth and then some, an austere and elegant man, perfectly attired though entirely distinct and in-homogeneous to the group, glided into the room, seemingly from nowhere.

       “Aye, Celia, this is Hank but he’d like it if ya called him Henry. Ain’t that right Henry. Hank is our “liaison” to the Feds and the world. He brings the good cigars and booze.”

       “How’s bout a case of Manhattan Specials fa chris sake Hank?” was Mary’s two cents while putting the sandwiches on the card table.

       “How do you do Celia. I am special agent Henry Durrant. Mary informed me about you and your visit to Ardensville. Welcome to our fair city.”

       “I didn’t inform, I mentioned it, I mentioned it fa chris sake. Fuggin’ feds.” Mary went to but also did not graduate charm school.  

       “You must possess highly developed investigative and social skills,” continued Agent Durrant, “to have realized, infiltrated, and survived our little enclave here. I applaud you, Celia. Really, I do.”

       “Okay, c’mon,” announced Phil, “Are we playin’ cards here

  or What’s My Line?”

       The assembled men, excluding Lou and Hank, who parked himself on a strategically placed stool, adjourned to the card area with its grand casino-style card table, dramatic lighting and everything. The wives stayed where they were, and all was regular except for the new and unusual woman who was now in the game with no apparent culture shock. In fact, she even grabbed a Cuban, and in impersonation of the men around her, ritually prepared it, lit it, and it hung from the corner of her mouth to the awe and great respect of the boys. And Hank. 

       The game was going on an hour or better now. The better part of a fresh bottle of tequila was gone, and Celia was up. A lot. As she re-ordered the just dealt hand, she began to hum. For most of the men, this meant another hand they’d better fold on, but Phil realized something else and started to hum with Celia.

       “Aye, I know dat,” Phil rejoiced. “Wus dat tune?”

       Hank was delighted and amused. He seemed to sense what was going to happen, clearly.

       “It’s Verdi, Para Migi Caro, last act of Traviata,” Celia answered, not sure if she had said or hummed something wrong while laying down 3 jacks and a pair of sevens.

       “Yeah, yeah, Para migi caro,” and Phil was singing in a rich full tenor. The cigar departed from Celia’s lips and she began to sing.  Para migi is a romantic and tragic duet. The men put their cards down, and the whole table and Hank were bathed in the light of operatic content.

       “Ohh!!, just fuggin great. Who invited Maria Callas ova heah. Aye Hank, what they run outta Dusty Spingfields back home? Maybe ya gotta Tina Turner sittin’roun’ not doing anything.”

       Mary and the girls were out the door with a bottle of Cinzano and a newfound appreciation of the night sky.

       Glasses were full, cheeks were red, and the men and Celia swayed as one. The women were probably not far enough from the house to know how wonderfully the group sang the drinking song.

       Hours later, very tired, somewhat drunk, and a little bit hoarse, Celia was holding up the wall at the bottom of the stairs that led to her apartment and bed. The method she employed was to fall forward up the stairs while still leaning on the wall. If she could get to the top step and then maybe crawl the rest, that would be good. Or maybe just take a short nap on the landing.

       Halfway up, Celia caught her shoulder on one of those picture nails left in the wall by Irma’s ancestors, and added to the falling up the stairs momentum, she felt a tug and heard a rip. 

       The victim of this chance meeting was Celia’s precious jacket. The Penny jacket. Suddenly sober, Celia charged upstairs to assess the damage to her holy vestment.

       Upon examination, yet again, Celia came to discover what Penny failed to remember or confess on the porch. Beneath the beautiful patchwork quilt work lied the truth about Penny’s past from which she was now a refugee in the present. 

       She found patches, the sort of patches one would attach to a football jersey. These were not those patches, not exactly. Instead of Smithtown Bulldogs, one patch said S.D.S. Another now exposed patch did not say Uniondale Lady Lions. It said simply “Authority?” Another displayed “SNCC.”

       “Well hello, Miss Penny!”

       The haze of tequila lifted. The dust on the road settled, and Celia saw the landscape and the horizon in the cleansing light of, 

“U-huh, what it is, what it is, what it is.”