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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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

Chapter Three

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 joking.

"Not likely," Brenna shot back. "Maybe we'll just shut the shop down…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 summer?"

"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 Finn—it 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 Jim.

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 ease—a 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…uh…that is…I was wonderin' if I could trade it in on another one, that is…." His voice trailed off.

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 universe.

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, but—and now she began to be alarmed—Ed 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 only smiled.

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 War—that'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 plate—how 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? Something—no, make that someone—has turned up."

To be continued…

Sunset Fires

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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