Trip of a Lifetime
Something Turns Up
By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
A Note to the Reader
It's March, 2001. Brenna Trent and her husband Ed Fletcher are getting
ready for a three-month-long canoe trip to James Bay. It seemed so easy at
first. Just wait for ice-out, pack up, and go. Now that the real planning
is under way, however, some difficulties look overwhelming. Who's going to
mind the store while they're gone, for one thing? Brenna's afraid they'll
have to sell out, but Ed's reassured her that "something
will turn up." Was he right, or is he only whistling in the dark?
November 14, 2000
Brenna closed the shop door behind her and
stepped out into the street. Traffic hissed by, spraying salty slush onto
the sidewalks. A slight southerly breeze ruffled the exposed fringe of her
short, brown hair. Seeing a break in the stream of cars, she jogged across
the highway, hoping to make it to the other side without getting soaked.
No such luck. A speeding silver Toyota Tacoma splashed her just as she
reached the curb. "Damn!" Brenna muttered to herself, brushing futilely at
her now-damp jeans.
The plate glass windows of Shirley's Diner were fogged over, but Brenna
could see that the place was packed, even if the standing and seated
shapes all looked like wraiths emerging from a mist. She pulled the heavy
oak door open and went in, to be met by a rush of warm air, bearing the
welcoming odors of cinnamon, bacon, and coffee. She walked up to the
counter and sat down on the lone empty stool. Though it had only been a
couple of hours since she'd eaten breakfast, her stomach gave an audible
growl. Her mouth watered.
"Hiya, Brenna," said Shirley, whose improbably blood-red lips were
framed between a sharp, thin nose and an aggressively pointed chin.
"Whatcha want? The usual?"
"Not this time, Shirley," said Brenna. "I'd like six sweet rolls."
"Six rolls! For just the twosaya?" Shirley chuckled. "Somebody's
birthday or somethin'?" As she spoke, she levered the sticky cinnamon buns
off a baking sheet and dropped them into a white cardboard box, separating
the tiers with layers of waxed paper. Each bun was bigger than a saucer.
The box bore the legend, "Shirley's World-Famous Buns."
"Nope," Brenna replied. "But we are celebrating something." Her
eyes followed each bun hungrily, and her words came out in a rush. "We're
gonna go back north this summer. Gonna paddle our canoe right up to James
Bay. We'll be gone for three whole months."
"Three months!" Shirley exclaimed. "Who's gonna mind the store while
you're away? Somebody die and leave you money?" She smiled to show she was
"Not likely," Brenna shot back. "Maybe we'll just shut the shop
or maybe sell up."
"What's this town commin' ta?" Shirley said. "Everybody's shuttin' down
or retiring. Everybody but me. When's the last time I even took a
vacation? Nineteen-sixty-five, that's when!"
"Come off it, Shirley!" teased Brenna. "You always said you liked this
place too much to leave. And anyway, didn't you go to Atlantic City last
"A trip to Atlantic City ain't a vacation, honey." Shirley's voice was
all injured innocence. "Don't you know nothin' about finance? It's an
in-vest-ment opportunity!" They both laughed. Shirley slid the white box
over the counter and turned to ring up the total.
Brenna paid. It was a good thing she'd had at least one big sale that
morning, she thought. Then she said her good-byes and hurried to the door.
Sitting at one of the small tables in front of the window was her "model"
from yesterday, the white-haired man who'd taken so long to choose a
single paperback. He was alone except for an empty cup of coffee, and his
back was toward her. The book he'd bought was propped open against a
napkin dispenser. Brenna noticed that he was nearly finished. Whatever the
book was"What was the title?" Brenna asked herself, and then
remembered that it was Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finnit had
him well and truly hooked. He was lost in a world of his own, far from the
bustle of Shirley's, going down the Mississippi in company with Huck and
When Brenna got back to the shop, Ed was nowhere to be seen. She called
out to him.
"Back here!" came his shouted reply through the open door to the work
room. Brenna found him on his knees next to a radiator. "No one was in the
shop," he explained. "Thought I'd finish bleeding the air out of the
system. We've still got a month or two of cold weather ahead of us."
"Good idea," Brenna said. "I'll make us some coffee to go with the
buns. Hope you're feeling hungry."
She turned the hot plate on, filled the kettle at the utility sink, set
it on the hot plate, and spooned coffee into the carafe filter basket.
Then she heard the harness bells on the shop door ring out. A customer,
she thought, and went to see who'd come in.
It was the white-haired man. "Hi," Brenna greeted him. "Saw you in
Shirley's. Looked like you were really lost in that book."
"Yeah," he replied. "I was. It's a great book. When I started it, I
thought, you know, that it was a kid's book, but it wasn't." He shuffled
his feet unconsciously, clearly ill at easea tall man suddenly at a
loss for words. Then he pulled the book from a pocket in his well-worn
greatcoat and put it on the counter. The slight slapping noise it made
seemed loud in the quiet shop. "I was
wonderin' if I could trade it in on another one, that is
." His voice
Brenna looked up at him thoughtfully. Then she launched into the old
and too-familiar spiel about how The Book Locker wasn't a public library,
and how she'd be happy to take the book for credit toward another book,
but she could only give him a quarter for it
. And then, for some
reason she couldn't quite understand, her voice, too, trailed off.
The silence that followed seemed endless. Neither she nor the
white-haired man spoke. He stood quietly before her, one hand resting
lightly on the book on the counter. She looked into his deeply-hooded
eyes, wondering just how else to say what she'd already said once. Just
then there was an enormous, echoing bang, followed immediately by the
sound of rushing water, and Ed's voice, raised to its full
sergeant-on-parade bellow, hurling obscene entreaties at a malevolent
Without thinking, Brenna rushed for the doorway to the back room, the
white-haired man right behind her. The sight that greeted them had all the
elements of slapstick comedy. Still kneeling in front of the radiator, Ed
had his thumb forced tight against the end of a water pipe. The pipe was
newly-broken by the look of it, and water was jetting out like the spray
from a garden hose. Ed looked like the little Dutch boy in the story,
Brenna thought, holding back the flood with his finger in the dike,
butand now she began to be alarmedEd wasn't having the Dutch
boy's luck. There was already a film of dirty-brown water over the floor
in the back room, and more was coming out of the pipe every second,
despite Ed's best efforts. Even the map of Canada on the wall was soaked.
Brenna was still trying to remember where the nearest shut-off valve
was when she noticed the white-haired man. He'd scooted around her somehow
and snatched Ed's old Army poncho up off the stack of book boxes where Ed
had set it down earlier, when he was clearing out the room. In less than
ten seconds, the stranger had pulled a clasp knife from his pocket, opened
it one-handed with practiced ease, and trimmed a big square of heavy,
coated-nylon material from the poncho.
Ed, having run through a lifetime's carefully-hoarded stock of curses
in a minute, was now silent, his thumb still clamped tight over the end of
the broken pipe. Water continued to spurt out around it. The white-haired
man spoke. "Got any pliers?" he asked, and Ed pointed toward a storage
shelf where a small pair of Channellocks rested. The white-haired man
crossed the room in two long strides and snatched up the pliers. On his
way back he grabbed a length of malleable iron wire from a discarded
packing crate. Then he knelt beside Ed, dropping the pliers and wire in
front of him and shaping the square he'd cut from the poncho into a rough
cone over Ed's hand. "You let 'er go, now," he said. "I'll fit this here
over the end of the pipe, an' hold 'er there. You just wrap that wire
round the skirt and twist her up tight with the pliers. And don't waste no
time, hear me? You got a nice little pressure head in that pipe. I ain't
goin' to be able to hold her on forever."
Nodding unnecessarily, Ed eased his scalded thumb off the broken end of
the pipe. Water now sprayed out with unconstrained force, soaking both Ed
and the white-haired man in seconds. With water dripping off his glasses,
Ed groped around the floor near his knees for the wire. Meanwhile, the
white-haired man shaped the fabric square around the broken end of the
pipe and tightened his grip. His wrists shot out from the sleeves of his
greatcoat, the tendons standing up in startling relief. Ed found the wire
and wrapped it quickly around the free edges of the fabric cone. Then he
grabbed the pliers and twisted the ends of the wire together, tightening
it down on the pipe like a tourniquet.
Seconds later, Ed was done. He stood up. The white-haired man, too, got
to his feet, though much more slowly. The coated nylon fabric cut from the
poncho ballooned alarmingly, but it held.
Brenna exhaled. Only then did she realize she'd been holding her breath
the whole time.
"I'll be damned!" Ed said, flexing his thumb experimentally to see if
it had suffered any lasting harm. "I'll be damned." The white-haired man
At that moment the harness bells on the shop door clattered again.
Another customer, Brenna thought, and she left to see who it was, closing
the back-room door on the sodden chaos behind her.
When she'd finished helping a woman looking for a book on formal
English gardens, Brenna headed back to the work room. She'd been hearing
muffled snatches of conversation all the while she'd been in the shop.
Opening the door, she found Ed and the white-haired man drying themselves
as best they could on opposite corners of an old Army blanket, another
souvenir of what Ed liked to call his misspent youth.
"Brenna," said Ed, abandoning his attempt to dry himself on the coarse
wool, "meet Jack Van Dorn. Jack, this is my wife Brenna."
"Hello, Jack," said Brenna, smiling. Jack just grinned shyly, ducking
his head in a quick nod. "Good thing you were here," she continued. "If
you hadn't been, I'd still be looking for the shut-off valve, and we'd
have an indoor pool instead of a work room!"
Jack's grin broadened. "'Tweren't nothin', Brend
," he hunted for
the unfamiliar name, "Brenna. Glad to be some help. Be a pretty sorry day
if an old engineer couldn't stop a bit of a leak. Lucky you got a hot
water system and a punk boiler, though, and not steam, or Ed 'an me'd be
needin' new skins."
"Engineer?" said Ed, thoughtfully, looking at the old man in the shabby
greatcoat and wondering how he might have learned what jets of hot steam
could do. "You were a power-plant engineer?"
"Oh, not one of them college-boy engineers, that's for sure," said
Jack, chuckling. "I was an engineer in a Labrador schooner, y'see. Boy and
man. Then, come the Warthat's World War II, y'unnerstan'I went
into the Merchant Marine on the North Atlantic run. The money was good.
Real good, you know what I'm sayin'? But I always liked the schooners
best. No German subs tryin' to sink us, for one thing. An' for another,
you weren't shut up in no riveted steel coffin, neither. On the Labrador
it was just me and the other boys'long with the rocks, an' the wind,
an' that cold, cold water. And the engines, Lord, the engines! Old
Remington Hotheads. Burn just about anythin' you care to name. But don't
you never let 'em stop when there's a drift settin' inshore. If an engine
cools down, you got to pull the bulb and get a torch on 'er right away to
start 'er up again. And God help you if you find a rock before you get 'er
goin'. That water's mighty cold, it is."
And he paused, almost as if he'd said too much. Almost as if he could
see cold water surging in through the stove planks of some luckless
schooner, settling down hard on a sharp rock on an ebbing Labrador tide.
Long seconds passed before he spoke again. "I went back to the schooners
after the War," he continued, "but it really warn't the same. A lot of
things had changed, y'see. I didn't stay long." And he stopped again.
Just then Brenna remembered the kettle she'd put on the hot
platehow long ago?and looked across the room to see it boiling
furiously, almost dry. "You want some coffee, Jack?" she asked. "And how
about a couple of Shirley's world-famous buns?"
"Don't mind if I do," said Jack, smiling again, the Labrador rocks and
the cold, cold water apparently forgotten.
Some minutes later, after the kettle had been refilled, the coffee
made, and the buns handed round, all three of them were seated on packing
cases. Conversation lapsed as they gave their full attention to Shirley's
buns. Jack chewed with the studied efficiency of a man who wasn't always
sure where his next meal was coming from. He finished first. Then he wiped
his mouth on the back of his hand, said "Mighty good, thank you, ma'am" to
Brenna, and walked over to take another look at the radiator.
Ed caught Brenna's eye and nodded toward Jack, now kneeling to inspect
the ballooning fabric bulb on the end of the radiator pipe. "What did I
tell you, Brenn? Somethingno, make that someonehas
To be continued
Copyright © 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.