Chapter Two

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Chapter Two

A recent rash of burglaries prompted Mayor Ian Jennings to call a meeting of concerned Dunnville residents, and a good number of townsfolk now sat anxiously waiting for Mayor Jennings to approach the podium centered on a stage before heavy maroon curtains. The air conditioning wasn’t sufficient for the June sun that heated the stifling community room so several windows were opened to allow a lilac-scented breeze in. Nevertheless, women fanned themselves with everything from old church programs to hand-held electric fans that whirred quietly, doing little to assuage the stifling heat.  Three months after the deadly explosion, small items began disappearing. People at first assumed they had just misplaced things, but when his wife’s pearl necklace went missing, Jennings decided something had to be done.

Parking her overflowing cart beside an adult-sized tricycle with a rear wire basket under the shade of the Town Hall’s façade, Annie ascended the five concrete steps and into the auditorium seemingly unnoticed.

Securing a vantage point in the corner by the door, she surveyed the assembly with interest. A police officer and his harness-wearing K-9 partner stood on the opposite corner. Although the officer didn’t directly acknowledge her, the German shepherd eyed her with a curious tilt of the head, his long pink tongue lolling to one side. Annie half expected the officer to banish her from the premises but he merely covered his nose discreetly and stepped back two paces. Annie was used to her own body odor and scowled in offense at his reaction.

However, Annie herself detected a pungent simian odor and was slightly bemused to see a capuchin monkey squatting on the windowsill, toying with what appeared to be someone’s iPhone. He wore a tiny pocketed vest and a flower-printed diaper from which protruded a long bushy tail.  Annie’s self-consciousness ebbed, realizing it was the monkey’s odor that offended and not her own.

The monkey glanced Annie’s way momentarily, and then turned his attention back to the device in his furry hands.

Annie’s gaze finally rested on the backs of two attendees in particular; a woman wearing a yellow crocheted jacket with a matching hat and the bald man sitting three rows in front of her.

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Seventy-two-year-old Agnes Harper sat on the beige bridge chair scowling at the balding head of the man three rows in front of her. She and Harvey Dilwood lived just two houses down from each other yet it had been twenty-five years since they had spoken. Wearing a lacy crocheted sun hat and matching long-sleeved lace jacket, she scratched her forearms vigorously while the rotund woman next to her coughed dryly.

     “This meeting better not last too long,” Rita Bloom grumbled in her nicotine-roughened voice as the mayor approached the podium in a crisp gray suit. “I gotta get back to the diner. No tellin’ what Olive’s burnt.”

          Agnes nodded, still glaring at Harvey Dilwood’s back. Just the sight of him made her eczema flare up. “And I’ve got four loaves of sourdough bread to put in the pantry. At least I had time to wrap them all in brown paper bags before I left this morning. You know the crusts will get soggy if you store sourdough bread in plastic bags.” She continued to scowl at the bald man’s cranium.

          “Just look at him, the obnoxious old fool,” Agnes snarled, clenching her arthritis-gnarled fists. “Managed to avoid Harvey Dilwood for twenty-five years and there he sits, right in front of me.”

          “It’s a small town and you live within a cat’s shadow of each other,” Rita reminded her in a gruff whisper. “How the hell can you avoid the man?”

           “If he’s sitting on his porch, I stay inside and quilt or bake,” Agnes explained. “And if I see that ugly Buick of his parked in front of Finnegan’s I won’t go in. Not even for your lunch specials.”  Still scratching her forearms, Agnes took a deep breath and scanned the crowd. Twisting her head to the back of the room, she smiled at the sight of the young police officer posted near the door with his K-9 companion. Even the dog wore a uniform of sorts; a black harness with the name KAISER emblazoned in white along his shoulders.

“Doesn’t Jimmy look smart?” she whispered proudly. “He just made Lieutenant you know!”

          Rita nodded, and then succumbed to another hacking fit. Agnes retrieved her cream-colored purse from the floor next to her and set it heavily in her lap.

          “You need a hard candy, dear,” Agnes whispered, unzipping the cavernous purse. “Let me find you one.”

“On behalf of Helen-Ophelia and myself,” Mayor Jennings began, gesturing to a plump woman in a powder-blue silk pant suit, “I want to thank all of you concerned Dunnvillers for coming out this morning for this very important town meeting.” Mayor Jennings smiled, wearing an expression that conveyed just the right combination of professionalism and solicitude. “I’m pleased to inform you our town has obtained a new asset to everyone’s safety and security.” He motioned for a uniformed police officer to approach the stage. The officer held what appeared to be a laptop computer in his hands as he took his place next to Mayor Jennings on the stage. He was in full uniform complete with his service revolver holstered at his hip.

As Mayor Jennings continued speaking, Agnes began rummaging discreetly through her purse.

“I know I have a roll of Life Savers in here somewhere–”

“I’m here to announce a solution to our town’s crime wave.” Jennings announced, nodding to the officer who manipulated the laptop on cue. A mechanical whirring sound was heard, causing Agnes to look up from the depths of her purse. What looked like an armored praying mantis rolled onto the stage.  From her seat behind the podium, Helen-Ophelia clasped a hand to her fleshy throat, her painted lips gaping in what was clearly mock surprise.

The strange contraption stopped just a foot away from Mayor Jennings, who gestured proudly while the crowd muttered in confusion.

          “What the hell is that?” Harvey Dilwood demanded.

          “That, my friends, is a Foster-Miller Talon,” Mayor Jennings smiled proudly. “An Explosive Ordinance Disposal apparatus, or EOD, for short.”

          “How much of my taxes did it take to buy that damn thing?” Harvey demanded.

          “A surprisingly small sum,” Jennings insisted. “We acquired this Army surplus model second-hand.”

          “How’s it going to stop the crime wave?” Someone else asked.

          “Why, it’s like another police officer on duty,” the mayor replied. “But it doesn’t require a paycheck!” Jennings chuckled at his own joke, and then coughed slightly. “We can send this robot into situations that would be unsafe for a human officer.”

          “Can a robot track down the terrorists that blew up my old garage?” Harvey demanded.         

          Some people chuckled at Harvey’s question and from the back corner, Lieutenant James Vickers spoke firmly, “That wasn’t the work of terrorists, Mr. Dilwood.”

          Agnes looked up from her purse and craned her head to the back of the room. You tell him, Jimmy! She thought proudly as her fingers probed the bowels of her purse.

The assembly erupted into more chatter. From her chair on the stage, Helen-Ophelia implored the excitable crowd to hush by patting the air in front of her while Mayor Jennings wrapped a gavel on the podium and then seized a pen and tossed it carelessly onto the stage.

          “Allow Officer Wallace here to demonstrate the Talon’s capabilities,” Jennings went on, signaling to the young cop who held the robot’s controls.

          The crowd fell silent and shifted forward in unison as the EOD whirred into action. From the window the monkey shifted from foot to foot, chattering in alarm.

 The Talon’s mechanical arm extended while a pair of grippers lowered to the stage floor and deftly secured the pen while Jennings extolled the robot’s virtues and Helen-Ophelia looked as though she’d witnessed a miracle.

“Isn’t that marvelous?” Helen-Ophelia beseeched cheerfully.

          Agnes turned back to the stage and stared at the ugly contraption as it maneuvered on its tracks, performing tricks like a mechanical dog. She failed to see how the thing was going to protect anyone. Unimpressed with the town’s new acquisition, she continued burrowing in her purse until she found a half-opened roll of butterscotch Life Savers beneath a larger, heavier object which she withdrew to better access the bottom of the bag.

          “Found them!” Agnes whispered happily.

          From the stage, the young cop dropped the EOD’s controls and yelled, “GUN!”      

I’m Writing Again!

The Muses have returned, and in celebration thereof, I’m posting the first rough draft of Chapter 1 of Book #4. Comments are greatly appreciated.

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BOOM!

The early morning explosion shook the entire town of Dunnville. It shattered the stained-glass windows of the United Church that cold December morning at precisely 2:32 am. After the flames were extinguished, emergency vehicles left the smoldering remains of what once had been HarWood’s Garage with a somber lack of urgency.

 The abandoned office remained somewhat intact, containing a desk, filing cabinet and chair. The office ceiling was nothing more than a canopy of mostly broken tiles, and the few intact ones were blemished with brown water stains with ragged edges. In one corner on the debris-strewn floor lay a filthy patchwork quilt, once a cherished heirloom, now a discarded remnant of some forgotten woman’s handiwork. But saddest of all, lying just outside the office door like a child’s discarded rag doll was a body. It had been thrown against the far wall and collapsed face-down on the cold cement floor. Charred beyond recognition, its identity was presumed to be that of a homeless person seeking shelter against the bitter cold. It appeared someone had stored a leaking propane tank in the vacant garage’s bay which ignited when the homeless person attempted to build a small fire for warmth.

   Homelessness had been a problem in Dunnville ever since the mid-nineteenth century, when the first locomotive chugged into town like a steam-bellowing serpent. Jeremiah Dunn had just planted a cottonwood sapling on his homestead and named the new hamlet after himself. Both Jeremiah and the cottonwood were dead now, but the decaying tree still stood reverently in the city park. Known as Dunn’s Cottonwood, it was a cherished local landmark.

 After recent economic crashes, the homeless population mushroomed to the point where a small encampment established itself on the outskirts of town. Most of the homeless chose to live in this conglomeration of tents and lean-tos with the exception of one lone woman who preferred to live under the Drake Street Underpass. No one knew her name, so she was referred to by many monikers like  Mumblin’ Mary, Scowlin’ Kate and Bag Lady Beth. Most people, including the police and most of the patrons at Finnegan’s Diner, referred to her as Underpass Annie. Even in blistering summer heat, she wore a moth-eaten stocking cap above strands of graying hair that hung in greasy strands like the tentacles of a dead jellyfish down her back. She muttered to herself incessantly which only reinforced the assumption that she was dangerously unstable. When she wasn’t reclining against the cold supports of the underpass scowling at passersby, she was often seen pushing her heavily-burdened shopping cart through the tree-lined streets of Dunnville proper.

During the coldest of weather, she often sought shelter in abandoned buildings. Unless, of course, another homeless squatter had already taken residence, in which case she would leave without confrontation, muttering her disappointment to no one in particular. Underpass Annie was a recluse and she preferred to be left alone.

But that didn’t mean she wasn’t observant. Every afternoon she heaved her creaking cart down Applewood Drive scavenging for discarded plastic or aluminum cans to recycle while at the same time discreetly observing two homes in particular; the ugly orange stucco structure collectively known as The Peanut House because of the comma-shaped strokes of brown paint that paraded across its four walls and the Craftsman bungalow across the street and two houses down from it. Their house numbers were 403 and 420, respectively.

Underpass Annie had a particular interest in those two houses. On her daily excursions, she perused 403 beneath her worn cap with something akin to longing. A pet portal pierced the front door. Sometimes she caught sight of the elderly woman through the picture window, gray head bent over a quilting frame, expertly rocking a stubby needle between the layers of fabric and batting. A large lead crystal sun catcher dangled in the window and Annie imagined the constellations of miniature rainbows dancing across the walls. Annie loved rainbows.

 When she passed 420, however, she averted her eyes. Often the homeowner of 420 Applewood Drive would burst onto his wood-planked porch, the American Flag positioned at a 45 degree angle in its sconce, and yell, “Get off my street, you scum!”

To which Annie would mumble more to herself than to the outraged homeowner, “I’m sorry, Harvey.”

The Oldest Person I Ever Knew

I first came to know Johanna Knudsen Miller when I was 16 and she was 98. We became acquainted at the First Presbyterian Church in Westhope, North Dakota. She lived alone and unassisted until she was almost 100 years old, then due to balance issues, she told her daughter Margaret she was ready to move to the Home.

There I continued to visit her, listening to stories of how she remembered playing on the shores of the North Sea before immigrating to America in 1891. Once I took a small cassette recorder with me to record her stories. Occasionally she’d notice the little gray contraption and ask sweetly, “Are you going to take my picture?”

“No, Grandma,” I’d explain, encouraging her to talk and the machine would record her voice.

She’d resume her story, then momentarily would notice the recorder again.

“Are you going to take my picture?”

This scenario would repeat itself maybe 3 times.

When I met Dave, I introduced him to Grandma Miller, as I called her, although we weren’t related. Even though she’d only met him once, she never forgot I had a boyfriend. Whenever I’d visit her, she’d ask, “And how is your young man?”

Johanna was born April 19, 1883, and lived to be 104. She’s still the oldest person I’ve known.

Meet Author Erin Royce!

Canadian author Erin Royce has written Mommy Why? , a book to help parents answer questions their very young children might pose to them. Read below to learn about this author!

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1. What inspired you to write Mommy Why? The thousand and one questions from my daughter asked a thousand and one times! Every question posed and answer given in “Mommy, Why?” was from real life experiences with my daughter. I looked for books online and in the bookstore to address what my daughter was asking me, what perhaps many kids were asking parents and I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. I thought, well, I use to write, I love books, I’m mom, I know “a few things”, why don’t I just address her questions in my own book. Then I thought, wholly smokes, am I actually going to do this!! Yep, I guess I am!
2. Do you plan to write for other age groups as well?
I’m not certain yet – at present the other story lines I am working on will likely be within the 6-10yr age. This said, I wouldn’t rule out any age group – what I write,why and to what age group will be a combination of what interests me, what experiences I have had, and timing of what stories are a good fit in the moment. I just had recent conversations with very old friends of mine suggesting I write about the “many ” conversations of life experiences we’ve had as adults and during our growing up years, as subject for story lines, this also would be an interesting avenue and age group to consider.
3. What was the most rewarding part of the writing process for you? 1) The writing itself, seeing the story develop with each pen stroke, it was so fun, exciting and it felt “right” to be sitting down with pen to paper after such a long time. Secondly, when I held my first copy of Mommy, Why? in my hands. It was rewarding and surreal completing something that I had to learn each step from scratch along the way –  what needed to be done, why and when, and to continue the process regardless of how daunting it was, and still can be.
Most challenging? Marketing and selling books – this is still and probably always will be the most challenging aspect of the literary process for me.

4. What can we expect from Erin Royce in the future? Hopefully more worlds that people of different ages will be able to lose themselves in, in the very best way and feel better for it each and every time.