Monday, August 2, 2010

The Story of 'Driftwood'

By Dr. Thursday
(Written for my friends at Loome)

It was a cold Friday, the eighth of December of 2006, and a faint mist was falling from the gray morning sky in the little town called Quayment – the famous book-town on the Atlantic shore about two hours south of Philadelphia. Mary Weaver hurried down the front stairs of St. Ambrose's, where the 8 o'clock Mass had just finished. She was taller than average, dark-haired and beautiful, and today was her 25th birthday. She peered across the little bay, where she could make out the flash of the lighthouse sweeping around – then she raised her eyes to the huge central tower of the church, where the partner of the lighthouse lamp gleamed out to the sea. Out on the bay, a ship's horn sounded, and she set off for her father's bookstore where she was the manager.

The Weaver bookstore is the largest of the 13 major bookstores of Quayment: the only one on the north side of the bay, housed in the former "Psephic Church of God" up on the hill not far from St. Ambrose's. This curiously shaped old building had been closed for some years when it was bought in 1907 by John Weaver, the youngest son of Ebenezer Davis Weaver, the famous mayor of Quayment; John was the great grandfather of Philip, the current owner and Mary's father. A strong love of books ran in the Weaver family, and imitation or opposition soon led to the founding of other bookstores, though these were all on the south side of the little bay, in the "downtown" part of Quayment.

As Mary walked she wondered what could be waiting for her there: her three younger triplet brothers were juniors at the Ambrosian in western Pennsylvania, and they were known for playing remote-controlled pranks, even though they would undoubtedly throw her a celebration when they came home during Christmas break. She didn't mind their joking. Besides – whether as in past years they would send her a stuffed groundhog with reading glasses, or an incredibly hilarious triplet-produced Reading For Dummies by overnight post, there was sure to be something nice waiting for her. The Weavers tried to maintain an austere Advent, but today, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, they would have a little party in the store. It was just a simple thing – coffee and donuts, music, a few small gifts for the regular customers – but it was always special for Mary. The five years she had spent at college she had missed it, and its simple joy appealed to her true childlike character.

Dorene Smith was already in the store when Mary came in. Employed as clerk, Dorene was an old friend of the family, almost an aunt, and she gave Mary a quick hug as she wished her a happy birthday. "I guess you miss those three truant brothers of yours," she smiled. Mary took off her coat and hat, and gave a quick brush to her hair. "Oh yes. Of course you never know with them – they're clever at making this day exciting for me, even from far-off Pennsylvania. But they're juniors now, and slowly maturing, so I expect they'll take me to breakfast over the break. They're good about important things – like meals, birthdays, and parties – you know, things with food."
"Don't I know it!" Dorene said. "What a nice dress, Mary." It was deep blue, edged with a lighter blue. Mary was a very bookish young woman, but she was also very lovely. When she began working in the store, many young men of Quayment began to express a distinct and hitherto neglected interest in used books. Mary was always friendly with them, though she had a few special friends – she was far too serious about her life to make any major decisions without careful study. But her dignified aloofness just seemed to increase the attraction, and she took advantage of their interest to get good books into their hands. But there were plenty of others besides these young men who frequented the Weaver bookstore. Quayment, one of the greatest book-towns in the world, preserved its pleasant "small town America" style – besides, it was a sea-side town. For many reasons, then, Quayment attracted a continual flux of tourists – for fishing or for nostalgia or for a delight in small towns. Some visitors were caught by the town's 13-fold literary lure and had taken up residence there. Others could trace their family lines in the area for 150 years or longer, and though others of their family had set out into the wide world, they remained there and watched the waters of the Hardystone River flowing through their little bay and into the Atlantic. Bibliophiles of all types who lived in the area came with more or less regular frequency to their favorite bookstores, and for those who were regulars at Weaver's, today was a festival day.

That Friday, soon after the store opened at nine, a handful of these regulars had arrived:
Nick Soffia, a stocky, gray-haired, pleasant man, the father of twin sons; he was retired from the Port Authority, and divided his time between the bookstores and fishing.
Mrs. Angela Biddell, a short gray-haired widow from the south side; she seemed to be of delicate build and withdrawn disposition – her friendly smile concealed so much. Mrs. Lisa Tenniel Richards, another widow and a close friend and neighbor of Angela; a lady of culture who has been everywhere.
Ray Ludlow, a cheery and robust man, rumored to have almost incredible wealth – and a secret sorrow.
Jeff Smargada – the local curmudgeon whose wife Mabel gave him free rein to dawdle in bookstores or in the fishing department at Felsen's – providing he brought her freshly caught fish every Friday.
Elwood Porter, tall and ebony-skinned, a grandfather and an insatiable reader, who played stand-up bass in a local jazz band.
Miss Gloria Adamantine, a young nurse at the Quayment Hospital; she worked third shift, and often came at the end of her "day" to relax with friends among the quiet and the books.
There were others, of course, but these were some of the most loyal of regulars at Weaver's. They were standing around the check-out counter, drinking mugs of coffee or tea, and eating donuts. As usual, Jeff was speaking – or perhaps the verb ought to be griping...
From left to right: Ray Ludlow, Jeff Smargada, Mary Weaver, Mrs. Lisa Tenniel Richards, Mrs. Angela Biddell, Elwood Porter, Nick Soffia (sorry Gloria Adamantine got there after we took the photo)

"Another bland day in the Morning News today! Why Dave Carmody doesn't print some of the local stories for our edification I'll never know."
"Let it rest, Jeff," Elwood smiled as he sipped some coffee. "Today's Miss Mary's birthday, it's not a day for griping about the newspaper."
"Thanks Elwood," Mary laughed, "but actually, I'm curious. What stories do you mean, Jeff?"
"Heh!" Jeff blurted. "There are dozens. I know some but I'd like to hear the others. I'm sure none of us could tell the story better than you, Mary, about old Ebenezer Davis Weaver – except of course your father. And all of us know about the Dacker place and World War II, or the Verney fire, or the Chandler railroad. And I can't even begin to list the sea-faring tales! Then there are others which are still hidden..." He glanced with a strange leer at Ray Ludlow, who ignored it.
Angela Biddell shrugged. "Any town has countless such stories, Jeff. But what kind would you wish, Mary? A mystery, or a romance, or an adventure?"
"Adventure," stated Elwood and Nick.
"Romance," voted Lisa and Gloria.
"Mystery," chose Ray and Jeff.
"Since the Chair must abstain," Angela pointed to herself, "that means you, Mary, must cast the deciding vote. Which shall it be? Romance, or Mystery, or Adventure?"
"What's the difference?" Mary smirked. "Any good story has to have some of all three."
"Certainly," Elwood nodded. "But often one or the other theme is dominant. It's the same with music..."
"What sort of Quayment story would fall under the Romance head?" she asked.
Angela winked at Lisa and replied, "Oh – dozens. One of my favorites is the story of 'Driftwood'."
"I don't know that one," Mary said. "You mean the bookstore that has the bed-and-breakfast upstairs, next to Harry's Pier?"
"That's right," Angela replied. "And for Mystery, I'd pick the tale of Serendipity."
All the others began to chatter at this. "Oh!" Mary gasped. "That is a mystery all right. I get goosebumps just thinking of it: a magical bookstore which appears in a single night – and disappears just as quickly."
Even Angela shivered with joy. "Yes! And for Adventure – well... we've all seen our share of wrecks. And it's been too recent – barely five years – for anyone to speak of the Phosploion without tears."
"Perhaps the story of the Argent Eagle?" Lisa said hopefully.
"Ah!" Elwood gasped. "The rescue of Martin Appleton... a great name in the musical history of our town."
"What choices – a veritable feast," Mary smiled. "But I remember that wreck too... it certainly was an adventure, even for a 12 year old girl. And somehow, even if one of you knows the truth about Serendipity, I cannot bear to have that mystery shattered – it's just too entrancing a vision. So I shall cast my deciding vote for Romance – and ask to hear about Driftwood."
"Very well," Jeff shook his head with disappointment. "But if it's one of those dull 'pretty' stories, I'm going fishing."
"Please stay, Jeff," Angela put her hand out. "I think there's enough adventure in it for you... it's a shame Attorney Drucker isn't here today; no doubt she would have some useful insights. But, ah," she paused in thought, "where to begin?"
"Begin at the beginning," Ray Ludlow insisted. "Go on until you reach the end, and then stop." (He knew his Alice – or perhaps he knew something about computer science.) "No – give us the dramatis personae first, if you please."
"Well – I'll see what I can do, Ray. I won't go into the complications of who was related to whom – some of you will recognize the local family names... but – ah – let's see. The story starts a fair number of years ago, when a local man named Roger Stillman married a local girl named Veronica Carmichael. They lived over on the south side; neither had anything to do with books. As I recall, Roger worked in one of the warehouses... Roger and Ronnie had a daughter named Joanne, and Roger died soon after she was born."
"Of what?" demanded Jeff Smargada, seeing an odd look on her face.
"Well, they said it was a heart attack. There's a little mystery for you if you need it – just don't expect me to give you the solution, as I do not have it! But the important thing about Roger Stillman is that at some point during his life, he acquired the deed to the 'Driftwood' property, which passed at his death to his wife Ronnie. But – of course you understand this was some years back – there was no Driftwood, and no bed-and-breakfast – and that nice pub was just another trashy sea-front bar. The Stillmans lived further up the south hill."
Jeff grunted. "All right. Go on."
"Anyway, Joanne grew up, pretty and intelligent and good-hearted – unfortunately, she also grew to despise the town. It wasn't really a hatred, but a lack of love. Nothing in Quayment gave her any delight – not the townspeople, not the sea, not the books – nobody, nothing. Her mother never got over Roger's death, you see, and slowly withdrew from existence – and from her daughter."
"So that's why the 'Driftwood' place was run down?"
"No doubt, Elwood – but Joanne was also run down. For her, the town was an agony. She had just graduated from high school – and she was a waitress at the Coney Island restaurant on the south side when he walked into her life..."
"He?" Jeff asked. "I guess this is where the Romance comes in."
Angela smiled primly at him. "He was Willis Hacker. People say he breezed in on some ship – but nobody really knew how he had gotten here. Tall, blond, hardy and handsome, with a good sense of humor, and something powerful... people like to call it 'personality'. And he fell into love with that girl who brought him a couple of chili dogs and a soda. In two weeks they had left town for somewhere out west. Ronnie (that's Joanne's mother) always claimed she had given her blessing – and, as you'll see, Joanne stayed in her mother's good graces. I don't know if it was mining or some other sort of engineering Hacker did, but he had money and he certainly lavished it on Joanne. I don't want to leave anything to your imagination, Jeff, so don't make faces! They moved somewhere out west, they were married and they were happy – he worked hard at whatever it was, and she gave him a good home, and eventually they had a daughter named Jen."
Angela sipped some coffee then said, "Jen was about five when word came that the mine had collapsed."
Mary Weaver was biting her lip. "And he died?"
"Yes." Angela passed Lisa a hanky. "Joanne Hacker found herself with a young daughter and a mortgage – there was insurance, and some savings, so things weren't desperate for her, but she couldn't be idle, it would be too much for her. So she took a job at a neighborhood restaurant where the owner and the cook also had young children... Such was the state of affairs when, scant weeks after Willis Hacker died, a letter came to Joanne from Quayment. From the law offices of Evanston, Nodell, and Drucker."
Ray met Nick's eyes; Jeff snorted; Elwood took a deep breath; Lisa and Gloria made little gasps, and Mary said, "Oh no."
"Yes. Her mother had died, and had left her everything – such as it was. The little house up on the south hill, and the property down by the docks..."
"And Joanne came home to Quayment and renewed the place and everything was wonderful – right?" Ray Ludlow guessed with a quirky expression.
"No, Ray – but I think you knew that already. Joanne shook her head and tossed the letter into the trash and went in to work. Until the cook found her sobbing in the pantry." Angela handed Lisa another hanky, and sipped the fresh cup Ray had brought her.
"'I can't go back there!' Joanne wept. 'You have to, Joanne,' the cook told her. 'Just go, get them to sell the property, then come back. Do it for Jen's sake.' The cook sent her home for the night, and the next day Joanne came in to request time off. She went out and bought new outfits for herself and for Jen, packed and came back to Quayment."
"Ah... and that was when things changed."
"Not quite, Ray! She had to be frugal about money; she didn't know how much she would inherit, and she had to think about Jen's needs, and her own – she hardly could imagine going to college or a technical school; she was chained down by emotion and loss, and by her tender care for her child. She came back to town, and took a room in a little hotel called Bert's." Angela smirked. "You all know you won't find it if you go to the south side now – no matter how hard you search – not any more." She shook her head. "This sort of story doesn't work so well when the audience is intimately familiar with the geography of the place!" She giggled. "But it stood where the Driftwood parking lot is now."
"Oh!" Ray chuckled warmly, thoroughly entranced.
"Yes. And even though the old bar (the predecessor of Harry's Pier) was just a waterfront bar, they did have a cook who was better than ordinary, and they had an old wooden patio on the western end where you could sit under big old beach umbrellas and have your lunch – or your beers – and watch the ships docking over at Benny's."
She paused; the others waited patiently for her to continue.
"Of course when Joanne came to Quayment, there was some sort of stupid delay. Kurt Nodell was called to Baltimore for another case, and she had to wait for him to return. She rode the train up to Blueville to speak with the court officials there, but they told her in no uncertain terms to wait for Nodell. So she returned to Quayment – she could not bring herself to examine her old home, or her other inheritance – she had already seen the old bar and its patio – so she took her daughter to the beach, or to the bookstores, or on walks around the town – and she ate at the old bar, since it was a sea-side tavern and comparatively inexpensive."
"I thought you said this was a Romance," Jeff grumbled. "Or did you mean that fizzle-out thing with the dead engineer?"
"Just hold your horses," Angela scolded him, "You're spoiling the niceties of the drama. Now where was I? Oh. So Joanne took Jen on walks around town, and Jen began to fall in love."
"Oh! The Romance is in the rising generation!" Jeff smirked.
Angela ignored him. "It was a nice place for a little girl. There were things to see, there was a lovely beach, there were bookstores, there were cats which hung about the patio where they ate. Yes, Jeff – there was a Romance in the rising generation. Jen fell in love with the town... but there was another way of using that verb, and that is where the Romance enters. You see, Joanne had gotten used to eating on the patio – she became a regular there. She came at the same times, she sat in the same place, she ordered the same meals. She knew the various waitresses, and began to know several of the regulars. Sailors being what they are, and she being a lovely young woman, she got the occasional invitation or fresh remark, but she had a strong personality, and she had a daughter, which is an even stronger argument – and the regulars were wise enough not to make more than one attempt. As I said, she got to know them, or at least recognize them, even if she didn't know their names. And among them there was one who had that strange skill – the desideratum of all authentic detectives – the skill of being so ordinary that nobody notices you."
"Indeed," Ray Ludlow nodded. "But Joanne came to notice him."
"Exactly. There was a certain man who came by around the time she was eating. He came up a little wooden staircase that went down to the beach below the bar – you know there's a small inlet off the bay, and a couple of old buildings clustered around it... Back then there was a tiny dock below the bar, and a couple of fishermen would tie up there and sell their day's catch to the bar kitchen, since the cook was particularly good at seafood. Anyway, this certain nondescript, normal-looking man docked there and came up those steps nearly every day, carrying his creel or trap. He wasn't a bum, but he was always wearing old beat-up clothes, and an old blue cap. He nodded to Joanne the first couple of times, then ignored her. But – hold on Jeff! – as I know very well, there are different kinds of being ignored, and he was no more neglecting her than he neglected the planks of the patio upon which he walked. He greeted neither, not from any sense of disrespect, but from a simple sense of familiarity. He had too much dignity to be rude – either to her or to the planks."
"How can you possibly know this, Angela?" Elwood asked, his eyes wide.
"Oh, you'll find out, El," Angela smiled. "Anyway she neglected him too, since he did return her smile that first time or two, and she got used to seeing him with his catch, and so she paid him no more attention. Thank God he was alert, even if she wasn't... for one day a new cat appeared on the patio when Joanne and her daughter had just sat down for dinner. It must have been someone's pet – something fancy, I've never found out whose it was, or even what it looked like – but something about it must have beckoned to Jen."
"A witch's familiar, eh?" jeered Jeff.
"Or a saint's, as you shall see. Joanne had finally obtained a copy of her mother's will and was reading it as she waited for dinner. She didn't even notice that Jen had left the table to follow the cat... down the stairs to the little dock. But there was some loose board, or a rotten plank, and..." She got out a third hanky for Lisa – but Lisa shook her head this time. "Joanne didn't even notice the splash."
"Ah, 'fallen in' – not into love, but into the sea!" Jeff chortled. "I get it."
"That's right. As I said, Joanne didn't even notice she was gone. But that nondescript fisherman had just pulled up to the dock in his little rowboat, and he saw Jen plunge into the water. In a flash, he dived in after her. That inlet isn't very deep, but it's not a very nice place for a swim – too many drains lead into it, and there's lots of junk, and it's dark underneath the dock... But as you must have guessed, this nondescript man was an excellent fisherman, and his biggest catch that day was a little girl named Jen Hacker. And no matter what spell of invisibility he may have possessed, it failed utterly when Joanne heard her daughter's screams and she saw this man carrying Jen – both dripping wet – up the old wooden stairs to the patio."
Everyone broke into applause.
"And of course we all know that man's name," Jeff broke in. "He's no other than Harry Carvey."
"Luke," Angela corrected him. "His real name is Luke, though just about everyone in town does call him Harry."
Jeff stared. "Wait a second. Then who's Harry?"
She smirked. "Harry is the cook, who now works at Harry's Pier, – he's still well-known for his fabulous seafood dishes. But you're jumping ahead again. Anyway, no matter how much she loves her husband, a mother finds something strongly attractive about a man who has just rescued her child... and in this particular case, Joanne Hacker happened to be free to pour out her love on this bland-looking but attentive young fisherman. They were dating seriously before Kurt Nodell returned from his Baltimore case, and Luke gave Joanne good advice about proceeding to deal with her inheritance. For it turned out there was a nice little sum waiting for her, invested by her father long ago, but forgotten by her mother in the complexities attendant upon his death. Joanne was soon deeply in love with Luke – and Luke with Joanne. And neither of them could bear to take Jen away from Jen's beloved Quayment. So they got married – they lived in Luke's tiny apartment while the old Stillman home was refurbished. Meanwhile, they began work on the dockside property... and all of you have seen what it is today. A very nice seaside pub and restaurant, a fascinating bookstore for maritime works and colonial Americana, and upstairs, an elegant bed-and-breakfast." (This time Lisa accepted Angela's offer of the hanky.)
"And right next door, a clean, well-lighted parking lot – not to mention a completely new dock by the patio," added Ray Ludlow. "Nick and I have docked there several times."
"So that's the story of the Driftwood," Mary Weaver sighed with a happy smile. "I've heard a little about it, but mostly rumors."
"Yes... I've forgotten what grade Jen is in, she's growing to be a lovely young lady, very intelligent; she has a dashing little half-brother now..."
"Joanne – uh – Carvey runs the bookstore?" Ray asked.
"She runs the bed-and-breakfast. They hired Barbara Stern to run the bookstore, but Joanne has a keen awareness of literature...."
"Dad says she has a real knack for the trade," Mary said.
"Yes – after all, she reads a lot. And every so often she travels up and down the coast for stock – she's very sharp. And of course Luke handles the restaurant and pub, though I doubt he has much time to fish. Such a couple – they work so well as a team, but then he is a brilliant man..." Angela broke off rather abruptly.
"Yes?" Jeff snapped. "Go on. How is he brilliant?"
"Well," Angela looked a bit embarrassed. "I guess that's the part of this story that falls into the 'Mystery' category."
"Ah..." Mary smiled. "That's good. It's better that way... maybe at another party I'll get to hear some more."
"Or maybe you'll meet him and you can find out directly," chided Jeff.
Mary shook her head. "I'll let you do that sort of research, Jeff; it's more your style. But there is one little question I'm still curious about..."

A pleasant chime interrupted her. Shortly afterwards a young man in a dark brown winter uniform came up to the group. He was carrying a huge something swaddled in tissue paper. He smiled nervously at Mary but out of habit he glanced at his clipboard and asked, "Mary Weaver?"
"Yes, Kerry?" she smirked. (He often stopped in to browse the books, even when he didn't have a delivery to make.)
Carefully he sat the wrapped something down on the counter, and handed her the clipboard and pen. "Just sign here..." he pointed, but his eyes were on her face.
"Here you go." She handed the clipboard back, but he just stood there casually, enjoying the atmosphere.
Lisa noted melting flakes in Kerry's hair and said, "I see it's started to snow."
"Snow? Sure has," Kerry said, his eyes on Mary.
"Oh, blast! And I've still got to catch some fish!" Jeff grumbled. "I'll finish this mug then get outta here."
Mary pointed to the refreshments. "Kerry, why not relax for a minute and have some coffee? Or a donut?"
But under her friendly gaze he smiled awkwardly and looked away for a moment. "Thanks, Mary – but I got other deliveries to make." He tapped the clipboard, then looked at her again. "Uh... you'll wanna be careful when you unwrap it – it's fragile." He sighed faintly as he turned away. "Bye." He trudged back out, though Mary saw him turn back at the door for another glance at her.

Mary rubbed her chin as she looked at the wrapped object. "It's almost certainly something from the boys..." With narrowed eyes, she carefully began to unwrap the thing, removing yards and yards of tissue. The others watched with anticipation. In moments she saw it was a dozen huge red roses in an oddly shaped glass vase. Their scent filled the air. There was a little card nestled among the greens – she pulled it off, and glanced at it. "It's from the triplets..." she murmured as she stuck it into her pocket.
Noting her unease, Angela said, "What lovely roses! They're especially delightful at this time of year – they remind me of another story..."
"Excuse me," Mary interrupted her. She shifted the vase to a safe position on the counter. "Before I forget – Angela, I had a question about this story, though perhaps it's another mystery. Why did they pick the name 'Driftwood'? It's a very nice name, I think."
"Appropriate, too," added Lisa.
"Ah," Angela smirked. "It just so happens that I know the answer."
"You do seem to know a lot about them, Angela," Elwood said with just a hint of expectation.
"Yeah, and frankly we had enough mysteries for today," snapped Jeff as he set down his empty mug.
Angela smirked. "That's because I was Veronica Carmichael Stillman's childhood friend – and later her executrix. Joanne was cool to me at first, but soon after she became pregnant again we became friends – and she told me all these other details. It's funny, Elwood, because I asked her myself about that name. As Lisa said, 'Driftwood' does seem to be a very appropriate name for a bookstore on the beach..."
"On the waterfront, perhaps?" Ray suggested.
"Yes; thanks, Ray – that's more precise. Likewise, there is a precise reason Joanne selected that name." Angela sighed, then pulled out yet another hanky – this time for her own use. "Every time I think of it, I start to cry... you see, it's because of what Luke said as he brought poor water-logged Jen up the stairs to her mother."
"What did he say?" Mary asked.
"'I think this lovely Driftwood belongs to you'."

Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Thursday

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Dr. Thursday. So good of you to post more of your stories!