Chapter 1

“SPLUT!” went an enormous glob of mud against the window of Mr. Hollerbuck’s Industrial Arts classroom. Mabel Crockett winced at the sudden squeal of chairs scraping the floor as almost every child at Willibunk Middle School scrambled for a view out of a classroom window.

“Sweeeeet!” cried a boy next to Mabel, as the wind outside whipped by with extraordinary vigor, pelting the windows with sticks and more mud.

“Okay everyone, calm down!” called Mr. Hollerbuck, in an attempt to restore order to his classroom.

“SPLOT!” went an even larger mud glob.

“Oh, nevermind,” muttered Mr. Hollerbuck.

In the school office, the staff had no time to marvel at the strange turn in the weather. They were too busy fielding phone calls from parents who had not lived in West Logjam long enough to have seen such a phenomenon before.

“No, Mrs. Hoolihan,” said Assistant Principal McDuie into the telephone, to the seventy-fifth worried parent. “The buses will be perfectly safe, and school will let out at the usual time.”

Across the Willibunk River, in East Logjam, folks took the weather in stride. They grabbed an extra sweater and went about their business, nodding at each other with the greeting, “Seems the river’s acting up again.”

The Willibunk was not a large river. Barely fifty feet across, it normally meandered southward, between forested banks and occasional farms where, even if a thirsty cow lost her footing and fell in, she could always scramble back to shore without drifting more than a few feet.

But every rare once in a while the waters of the Willibunk forgot to flow gently from the north. Eddies appeared, disturbing the surface and growing into whirlpools which roiled the water into a murky, churning stew. Such tantrums were always accompanied by an unseasonably cold wind, gusting from the north, which caught the mud and sticks the river spit out, and heaved them, in this case as far as the windows at Willibunk Middle School. Along the river bank trees danced and flapped in the wind and, between gusts, rustled and whispered like ghostly voices.

But by the time Willibunk Middle rang its closing bell, the sun had returned, the trees and the wind had settled down, and the children on bus number twenty-one could see, as they crossed the bridge from West to East Logjam, that the river was politely gurgling along as if nothing unusual had happened.

The schoolbus slowed to a squeaky halt on River Street, across from O’Boyle’s Soda & Sweets, to discharge passengers. Holly Bumper, blonde and chubby, was followed by her equally blond and chubby younger brother Petey. Behind the Bumpers came Ricky Fairwether and Mabel Crockett.

“Okay everyone,” said Holly Bumper importantly, as the bus’s red lights flashed, “we cross now.” But no sooner had Holly stepped beyond the nose of the bus, when a dark green van honked, then screeched to the left and around the school bus.
Holly squealed, and jumped unsteadily backward, knocking Petey into Mabel.

“Petey,” said Mabel, giving him a helpful shove, “you’re squashing me.”

The flabbergasted bus driver checked that the children were safe, motioned them to cross, shook his head, and drove on.

Mabel was still dazed from having landed underneath Petey Bumper when a blur of leaves, dust, and white fur blew past her, speedily pursued by Milo O’Boyle of O’Boyle’s Soda & Sweets.

“Riflin’ through my storeroom! Knockin’ over boxes, the cur!” exclaimed the waddling, gray-haired man. “Oughter be a law against it!” He paused, and gave his mop a final shake in the direction of a small white, wire-haired dog.

Thirteen year old Mabel looked reproachfully at the dog, which paused at the corner to look at her.
“Maybe Sparkle’s gotten a little too used to your cookie sandwiches,” she said. “She’s looking chubby.”

Mr. O’Boyle huffed, and waddled back into his shop.

“Sparkle, you need to behave yourself,” said Mabel. She shook her head at the dog and gave her backpack a hitch.

“Come see me later. I’ll have something to show you,” said…somebody. At least Mabel thought she’d heard it. She looked around the street. She was at her bus-stop, where she’d just gotten off. There were people about, but no one seemed to be speaking to her. She glanced around again and shrugged.

The little white dog trotted south. Mabel half walked, half danced down the brick sidewalk until she came to a blue door in a plain brick wall bearing a cleanly-lettered white sign which said “Eurus Press.” Opening the door, she entered a room which, despite the solid brick front wall, was suffused with daylight. Multiple insets of glass block in the remaining three walls illuminated a wide-plank oak floor, numerous work tables strewn with paper and graphics, and a huddle of thoroughly scuffed wooden desks, where Mabel often liked to do her homework surrounded by the hubbub of office noise.

Upstairs were printing facilities, and offices for her parents’ quarterly travel journal, “A Different Drum.” Mabel and her parents lived in a compact brick house behind the press office and across a gardened courtyard, but she usually found them in the office after school.

Mabel dropped her backpack on a table in the corner. Quick footsteps were descending a corner staircase, and Mabel turned to see her mother holding a freshly minted magazine up for display.

“‘A Different Drum,’ issue forty-nine, hot off the press,” said Clara Crockett with a big smile. “I thought you might like to take a copy down to the co-op. The piece on Mona Lisa’s came out really nicely.”

Clara Crockett was tall and lean, with an olive complexion and auburn hair pulled into a chronically disheveled bun. Mabel, her fair skin peppered with freckles and her almost-black hair in a waist-length braid, bore no apparent resemblance to either her mother or her sandy-haired and ruddy father.

“Yes, I would…” said Mabel taking the magazine. She grinned at the cover photograph which featured a cluster of smiling, but decidedly odd-looking, individuals standing in front of a rosy-beige stucco building which looked like it had been plucked from an Italian villa district.

“I don’t have too much homework, but I need to start a report on some kind of local history.”

“Well,” mused Mrs. Crockett, handing Mabel a tangerine, “there are certainly people you can talk to around Logjam.”

“Mom,” said Mabel, “I need to write something believable. Some of the kids, and teachers, think I make things up.”

“Mmm-hmm,” answered her mother shrugging sympathetically. “Some people suffer from a very limited reality, don’t they?”

“Ooh, Mabelina!” called a very short man, lumbering in from an adjacent storeroom with a teetering stack of paper.

Only the overall-clad legs of Paulo Remini were visible behind the mound of paper until he dropped it on a table with a satisfying thud. Now Mabel could see the sparse but frizzy black hair, tortoise-shell glasses, and tiny smile of the man who almost single-handedly kept the company’s printing press operational.

“You goin’ to the co-op?” he asked. “Tell them guys, more spicy stuff in the marinara, ok?”

“Okay, Paulo,” replied Mabel, smiling at the little man with the notoriously pipe-tobacco-dulled taste buds.

Mabel headed out the blue door and turned right onto River Street. East Logjam’s only commercial thoroughfare, River Street was so called because it ran parallel to the Willibunk River. On both sides of the street a mismatched collection of stores and offices covered four blocks, connected by a brick sidewalk which was broken periodically by a small plot of flowers, a fruit tree ringed by a bench, or a small assembly of residents who had pulled creaking metal lawn chairs into a circle and were discussing the weather or the effects of tourists.

Today was a typically bustling Fall afternoon. Across the street from Eurus Press was the Fairweather’s house, which Mr. Fairweather was endlessly renovating, and which, at present, had a partial new tin roof. Mrs. Fairweather waved from her open-air kitchen where she was pulling muffins out of the oven, while the little Fairweathers swung from the joists above her head.

Minny Filo, in her hair salon, was puffing up the coiffure of a skinny client. At Willibunk Savings and Loan, there was small line at the automated teller. An elderly couple squinted at a television in the window of Bumper’s Stuff Shop.

Mabel skipped, and occasionally twirled, by the storefronts until she spotted, on the riverside, the building pictured on the cover of “A Different Drum.”

An imposing columned entrance faced the street, with a sign over the door saying “Mona Lisa’s.” A small glass case next to the doorway held a hand lettered menu. Mabel passed this entrance and ran around to the side of the building.

On a small porticoed terrace which housed several cafe tables, a large, gangly man paused from his sweeping to wave. Mabel waved back, and entered the building through a screened door.

An intriguing ensemble of scents filled the room which she had entered. It was a large, predominantly stainless steel, kitchen with an endless array of pans, utensils, and peculiar looking dried plants suspended from ceiling racks.

Three cooks in aprons and mushroom-shaped hats stirred, sniffed, and made faces at bubbling pots from which wafted odors of basil, garlic, and something unidentifiably fruity.

A woman looked up from a chopping block where she was dicing a fruit from what appeared to be a stack of bananas with wrinkly orange peels.

“I don’t know what to call it yet,” she said to Mabel, “but Porter Halfslip brought me this bunch from the botanical center. He says it’s a banana crossed with a kumquat. Here, taste,” said the woman, handing Mabel a chunk of the peach-colored flesh.

It was like a hundred bubbles gently bursting in Mabel’s mouth, releasing the taste of bananas, peaches, and an unfamiliar, but deliciously sour, twist.

“It’s really…tropical,” she said, smiling. “Thanks, Mrs. Peale.”

“Sure honey,” said Mrs. Peale, continuing to chop. “This one’s an especially nice surprise after Porter’s last new fruit ended up tasting like burnt seaweed. I’m going to work this into a rice pilaf.”

The chopping block was set high, as were most of the kitchen fixtures, to accommodate Mrs. Peale and several other unusually tall cooks. Mrs. Peale was over six feet tall, with orange-red curls pulled severely into a bun. Her large hands and cleanly washed face revealed an impressive collection of old scars.

“Van’s in the gallery,” said Mrs. Peale. “You know how he likes to do his homework with Hippocrates.”

“Oh…” began Mabel, suddenly remembering her errand. “Look, the magazine’s out, with you guys on the cover.”

Mrs. Peale’s scar-lined face broke into a grin. “Hey, can you show that to Mr. Peale? He’s really excited about it, and I’ll take a look when I’m not up to my elbows in fruit.”

Mabel walked through a dining room decorated floor to ceiling with paintings and sculptures. The tables were prepared for the evening’s business with a hodgepodge of silverware and coffee cups, hand-batiked tablecloths, and napkins. Beyond the dining room, where she would have come in had she used the main entrance, was a gallery of art for sale. Interspersed with wooden rocking chairs were numerous works of art, representing a spectrum of styles from classic to modern. Plants spilled over the edges of urns and hanging baskets. Mabel fingered the shiny jade leaves of a healthy philodendron.

From the south wing of the building came the strains of stringed instruments being tuned. The front door of the gallery burst open and in rushed a lanky brunette with voluminous hair. It was the woman Mabel had seen in Minnie Filo’s salon. She was not so tall as the other people at Mona Lisa’s, but her large hands, feet, and joints made her look as if she were constructed of giant Tinkertoys, and she carried a viola in a case. She smiled at Mabel and took off down the hall at a trot calling out, “I’m sorry folks, Minnie was running behind schedule today!”

Van Rijn Peale was just where his mother had guessed, sitting on the edge of a corner fountain on top of which stood, in thoughtful concentration, a marble likeness of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. Van was just closing his math textbook. His sandy hair was cut close to his head. An oversized tee-shirt covered his husky frame, and he sported wire-rim glasses.

“Hey, Van,” said Mabel. “Do you ever drop your homework in the water?”

Van leaned toward her conspiratorially and whispered, “only when I have to write poetry.”

Mabel giggled. “You know, Van?” she said. “For a guy who lives with all these artsy types, you’re sure a geek.”

“Yup,” he agreed.

“Hey, where’s your dad?” asked Mabel. “The magazine is out.”

“Listen,” replied Van.

Mabel listened. And she felt. Footsteps from unmistakably large feet were coming from a hallway opposite the dining room. Into the gallery strode, with surprising grace, the largest man in Logjam. Noah Peale stood seven feet tall. His prematurely gray hair was combed into a long ponytail at the nape of his neck. He was clad in fashionably baggy khaki pants, and a white buttondown shirt, and his visible skin was every bit a scarred as his wife’s. He quickly spotted the magazine which VAn was now thumbing through, and broke into a grin of happy surprise.

“Yesss,” he said. “Recognition!”

Mabel grinned back. “Mom says it’s good,” she said as she handed Mr. Peale the magazine.

Mr. Peale flipped intently through the pages.
“‘No trip through the Willibunk Basin is complete,’” he quoted rapturously, “‘without a visit to Mona Lisa’s and the Logjam Artists’ Cooperative.’ Can I keep a copy of this?” Mr. Peale’s voice was soft and mellifluous, often coming as a surprise to people who were initially alarmed at his appearance.

“We have stacks,” answered Mabel. “You can have it.”

Mr. Peale carefully eased his tremendous frame into a rocker and continued reading, his expression blissful.

Across the dining room, the kitchen door swung open with a bang. A chef named Franz, whose pale blond curls resembled dandelion fluff, and whose scars were as apparent as any other co-op member, stuck his head out of the kitchen.

“Van and Mabel! Children, I need you!” he called. “Oliver is too busy practicing with the quintet for dinner tonight and I need you to deliver a carryout order for me, please?” He smiled beseechingly.

Mabel and Van looked at each other, and both nodded.

“What lovely, nice children,” sighed Franz. “It’s manicotti for two, and it goes to Dr. Rotter’s. You know we like to treat the doctor right.” He held out a white insulated delivery bag.

Mabel took the bag, and Van tucked his schoolbooks into a cabinet.

The children exited through the kitchen’s rear door onto the riverfront. A brick promenade, running along the water at the rear of the building, was busy with after school lessons. Several co-opers, as they were called, were seated along the length of the walkway, each with a student artist or two. Mabel and Van zig-zagged to avoid the easels and, at the very end, a girl playing a flute under the tutelage of an ungainly but enthusiastic instructor dressed in an African dashiki robe.

Heading north along the riverfront, they passed the untidy loading dock behind Shirtle’s Dress Shop, then the Reminis’ exquisite backyard vegetable and herb garden. A calico cat sat regally on a shipping crate behind Logjam Hardware and watched as the children ran one way, and the river the other. The last business on the block was a natural food store with green and yellow striped awnings. After that came a vacant lot, and then a small, weathered, shingled church.

The vacant lot was not completely empty. Surrounded by heathery, rarely mowed grass stood a stone chimney with a fireplace facing the road. Occasionally Mabel stopped to visit the old chimney, and tried to picture the house it had once belonged to. Sometimes she sat on the raised hearth and imagined it was her house, and she was in her own living room. But today she and Van had a job to do, and she started across the lot with no intention of stopping until she noticed that Van had slowed down and was staring at a green vehicle parked at the edge of the lot.

“Van!” Mabel whispered sharply. “That’s the van that nearly ran over Holly Bumper when we got off the bus!”

“What do you guess he’s doing?” asked Van, pointing toward a man who appeared to be sifting through the grass next to the chimney. “I’m gonna ask.”

Van took off across the tall grass toward the stranger. Mabel hesitated, but couldn’t think of a good reason not to follow him, so she did.

The stranger looked up as they approached. Mabel supposed he was in his forties, maybe a little younger than her father. He was slightly built, with small but sharp features and had chestnut hair, very short and very curly. His one raised eyebrow and questioning look caused Mabel to feel that perhaps he wouldn’t welcome this intrusion, but Van did not appear to be discouraged, and the man smiled as Van greeted him.

Mabel noticed that there were several stakes in the ground, connected by a string which formed a rectangle bordering a house-sized area in front of the fireplace.

“It’s the boundary of the house that stood here,” said the man to Mabel, in answer to the question she hadn’t even asked. His expression as he looked at her, first one of surprise, changed to such inquisitive intensity that Mabel began to feel uncomfortable.

“Are you rebuilding it?” asked Van.

“No,” the man answered, chuckling slightly. “Just doing a little digging around…looking for information. You might call me an…oh, a historian.”

As the man spoke, he continued to direct his gaze at Mabel who began to feel as if she were being examined.

Van nodded, and seemed satisfied with the answer.

Mabel, feeling awkward under the stranger’s steady focus, felt a need to fill the empty airspace. “What are you trying to find out?” she asked quickly.

“Let’s just say I have a personal interest in the people who lived here,” he answered with an peculiar smile which did not strike Mabel as a happy one. “By the way,” he continued, “I’m Verdon Arbogast. Would you mind telling me your name?”

Mabel was feeling a strong need to squirm out of the man’s line of vision, and did not answer.

“Your name, young lady, who are you?” he repeated.

Van glanced back and forth between Mabel and Arbogast and wrinkled his nose.

“I’m Ken and she’s Barbie,” said Van, “and we’ve gotta go. See ya.”

Verdon Arbogast smiled at Mabel as if he knew an unpleasant secret about her. She was beginning to feel as if she couldn’t move at all when she felt Van grab her by the arm and pull. She turned quickly and retrieved the insulated bag, but the strong sense of being stared at from the rear made her suddenly develop a limp. Not until they were many yards down the sidewalk did she begin to relax.

“Boy,” said Van with a grimace. “That guy was way weird. He acted like he knew you or something.”

“Yeah,” replied Mabel, “but he doesn’t. Come on, let’s hurry up, before the manicotti gets cold!”

Mabel began to run, with Van following, and she could hear, to her left, that the river was again having an unusual fit of spitting and splashing.

Trackback URL

No Comments on "Chapter 1"

You must be logged in to post a comment.