When Nana left Ben the house and acreage it took him a full week to remember he’d spent much of his childhood in Strange. A month after the funeral he missed and between jobs, he decided the Saab could use a good road trip. Time to figure out why he could barely recall the closest thing he had to a hometown.
Crossing into the valley from the cool California coast was like entering a hostile planet’s atmosphere. He cruised up Highway 101 to Ukiah taking the exit for Highway 20 and enjoying the way the car handled the swift succession of turns as the road wound around Clearlake. By eleven o’clock, the sun pounded his scalp and the dust kicked off the road from fruit laden semis clogged his sinuses. He put the convertible top up and turned on the AC. He almost missed the turnoff for Highway 16. A quick downshift and a tap on the brakes earned him a tight turn with the hint of tire squeal on pavement. He loosed a self-indulgent grin at his own reflexes. Ahead, the narrow two-lane road opened up into a valley with a string of simply named towns: Capay, Barley, Reed. So this is home.
The town Strange didn’t exist according to the navigation and not a single green county road sign marked it from the highway. He pulled over, scanning the directions from the lawyer in Woodland who had executed Nana’s will. They ended at a grocery store: Four Corners Market. Then, without looking, he pulled onto the road and sank his foot on the gas. Brakes squealed behind him over the accelerating purr of his own engine. In the rearview mirror he caught an extreme close-up of the big pickup he’d cut off. He gunned the Saab’s engine.
“Sorry, farmer John,” he said.
He left the pickup in heat waves rolling off the pavement, turning at the faded brown road sign pointing to the town. Buildings appeared out of dust and glare: old homesteads bleached grey by weather and often so shapeless it was impossible to tell the farmhouses from barns. In cracked fields irrigation pipes rusted. The real estate agent had said the house, two almond orchards and a pasture Nana rented to local ranchers turned out to be worthless on the market. Looking at the neighbors he wasn’t surprised. Nothing could be worth much around here.
As he entered Strange proper, he noted cracks in the pavement sometimes large enough to set two pieces of road uneven. He winced every time the Saab bumped over the cracks. He peered through the fine powder on the windshield at the town. If memory, dejavu and vertigo all could be rolled into one it would be the feeling washing over him. How could he not remember this when it seemed so familiar?
On generous consideration, Four Corners Market was an overgrown convenience store with a wraparound porch. Beside the door, a man that could have been anywhere in age from a hard-lived forty to a sprightly sixty reclined in the warped rocking chair.
“Martinez,” he said, rising to greet Ben.
In his youth Martinez had been a big man, with a barrel chest and a long back now bent from age. His grip was one of a man much younger. He sized Ben up with a good head-to-toe look leaving him feeling like the sandy haired elementary school kid he had been years ago.
“You’re the Goodwin boy,” Martinez said, without waiting for an answer. “Looking for the house then.”
“Benjamin,” he said. “Ben.”
Martinez didn’t seem to consider the lack of directions odd. He combined hand signals and traditional directions, landmarks thrown in for good measure, concluding with:
“That’s what I heard this morning from Tom.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean, and who was Tom – the city planner?
Ben looked out into the heat at the rumble of an engine to see an old red Chevy with more dents than paint left pulling a horse trailer down the broken pavement. Face shaded by a wide brimmed hat, the driver raised an index finger from the steering wheel. The old man cracked a smile full of tobacco-yellowed teeth and lifted a hand from his belt buckle. Ben also made the gesture with a lopsided smile. The driver’s chin lifted enough for him to see a narrow chin with skin color of Madrona bark and a full lipped, frowning mouth. While he watched she replaced the single raised finger with its less polite, next-door neighbor.
So this was the truck he’d cut off.
“It’s Farmer Joan then,” he said under his breath.
“Joan,” Martinez said, scrutinizing him as though he’d just started reciting Shakespeare. “That’s Mara Hughes. She’s down the street from Nana’s these days.”
Great. He’d already made friends with the neighbors. The truck slowed without braking. The old man jerked his thumb in the direction of the road leading into the rolling hills east of town. The hat brim tipped down once and the truck made the next turn, up the Second Street.
“I guess it’s been a while,” Ben said. “Better get up to the house before it gets dark.”
“Power’s off.” Martinez hitched his belt beneath his paunch and took a few laborious steps into the store, still talking. “You’ll need some candles and a lantern. Susie at the post office will get the power on in the morning.”
Great. The post office doubled as the utilities station?
“And a phone, she’ll fix that up too,” Martinez said from the back of the store.
And the phone company. Rich. The headache migrated to his temples.
“You’ll want dinner,” Martinez said, returning to the porch holding an oil stained paper bag with the top rolled down to the lumpy contents within. “Nana had everything town couldn’t use donated to the food bank.”
The old man flashed broken teeth and held out the bag. Nana had a particular attachment to Spam. Ben’s imagination jumped to his father’s stories of growing up on Spam sandwiches. To be polite he took the bag and mentally vowed to starve before he ate anything in it.
“Tina’s got mincemeat pie tonight, best in town,” Martinez said, gesturing down the road to a little brick building with an empty table out front.
He wheezed laughter at his own joke.
“Only in town,” he said. “Still the best.”
Feeling more foolish, Ben thanked him and started down the sidewalk.
Attached to a canary colored house, the restaurant perched on the corner with honeysuckle climbing the cyclone fence around the patio. A dog, almost identical to the building in color but faded with age, lay in the shade under the awning. The dog heaved itself to its paws, clumsy with the belly hanging under its ribs. That didn’t stop it from limping around Ben’s heels with a wagging tail and bright eyes.
Again recognition darted just out of his reach. He dragged open the restaurant door. Inside the sensation grew stronger. The smell of the place washed over him and his stomach rumbled despite the heat. His nose picked out cilantro, garlic and peppers.
“It’s little Ben Goodwin!”
The lanky woman behind the counter grinned, slipping a long silver braid over her shoulder so it raced down her back. She came around the counter and opened her arms for a hug.
“¿Cómo estás mijo?” she said, “¡Mira cuánto has crecido!”
The awkward smile returned before he could speak. The other diners, two ranchers and a woman in a postal uniform, looked up and nodded greeting.
“Let go of your Spanish, then?” She pushed him back to arm’s length and frowned. “Used to be I hardly tell you apart from my own kids, you spoke so good.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben said, shaking his head. “It’s been a long time.”
Her eyebrows lowered. He could see the fine lines in her face this close. She must have been near 50 but her age was as elusive as the place in his memory where she should have been.
“It’s Tina,” she said. “You’ll remember more once you’ve been here a bit.”
She looked up into his face, searching for something familiar. Like Martinez her eyes had a youthful glow.
“Welcome home,” she said. “I’ll get you some dinner. You’ll eat here, right?”
“I’m headed up to the house,” he said, hesitating before he added: “I’m just in town to settle things. I live in the city now.”
She disappeared into the kitchen before he could finish. He grabbed a seat at the counter and waved his fingers at the two jean and Stetson clad ranchers who kept glancing his way. They looked like father and son. He realized what struck him as odd – they spoke Chinese. Embarrassed at being caught starting, he focused on his phone until Tina came back with a heavy foil covered plate. She tried to make conversation but he pleaded a desire to get to the house before dark and left as quickly as he could.
The house smelled as if it hadn’t been opened in months. Dust formed a protective coating over the furniture and windows. He walked through the main hall and into the parlor, scanning the photos on the mantle. Some of them must have been over a hundred years old. In a fading Polaroid, a girl no more than 11 sat astride a pony. An unsmiling boy stood at the pony’s head, holding a suitcase in one hand. Himself, he realized with a start. He looked miserable.
“Get the house settled and get the hell back to civilization,” he said to the boy on the mantle. “They don’t want you here anymore than you want to be here.”
The oil-stained bag contained candles, a lantern, matches, and a few lighters. He stuck with the battery-powered lantern; not confident the dusty old place wouldn’t burn down in candlelight. A wise choice, considering he didn’t last a minute once he’d lain down on the musty mattress.
He woke once during the night. He had the same disoriented sensation he’d experienced after waking to find an massive earthquake caused a section of the Bay Bridge to collapse on itself. He turned over, certain it came from sleeping in a new bed. He didn’t remember fault lines in Strange.
In the morning he put on his running shoes. The short jog to the Post Office would be a good warm-up for a longer run out to Highway 16. He hoped to use his cell phone – he got no reception in town. The post office was not “just down the street from Tina’s,” as Martinez indicated the day before. He got in the better part of his run looking for it. On his third time running past Four Corners he noticed Martinez on the porch and smiled with a little wave.
“First Street, past Oak,” Martinez said, pointing in the opposite direction.
Ben raised a hand in salute and wondered if something was wrong with the old man’s memory.
She pumped the brakes, cutting her wheel to avoid slamming into the Saab darting from the shoulder into the single lane of blacktop. The trailer loaded with horses swayed behind her truck and her arm went over the bench seat across the boy beside her.
“Asshole city drivers,” she said.
“Ouch, Mar,” Manny said, clearly more put out by the gesture than any discomfort.
She gave Manny a slantwise look.
“I forgot eight year olds are made of rubber,” she said. “Next time I’ll let you bounce off the dashboard.”
His eyebrows dropped beneath a shaggy forelock of dark hair.
“I have my seatbelt on,” he said, rubbing his solar plexus. “You cussed.”
“I’m a grown woman,” she said. “And until you’re 18, I’m the boss of you. So do as I say, not as I do.”
Squinty eyed at the glare, he scowled and stared out the window. She smiled, peeking at him. If he were a colt, she would have said he would be big and bold– a champion sporthorse. They often started out like he did: all limbs and the largest head she had ever seen on a kid his size. According to his teacher he read at a fifth grade level, and Mara ignored the implied surprise that an orphan raised by a horse trainer could be smarter than most kids his age.
Too bad his mom hadn’t stuck around to find out just how great he turned out. She supposed small towns could be like prisons in some ways; getting adjusted to the outside was too hard for the ones who weren’t hell bent to get away. Strange had it’s own pull. The folks that started out there never did fit right anyplace else. Mara had years on the outside to prove it. It wasn’t until she came back that she realized what she hadn’t been able to see when she left.
She watched the Saab pull away. It followed the faded brown county sign pointing out the turn for Strange – 11 miles – vanishing into the heat waves rising from the baked pavement over the next hill.
“What’s he doin?” Manny’s eyes tracked the plume of dust from the car’s tires. She slowed the truck and put on her blinker.
“I supposed if he made a wrong turn we’ll find out when he tries to run us off the road on his way back,” she said.
“And if not?” Manny said.
“We’ll hear from Tina when we take you to get a haircut,” Mara said.
Manny groaned as the truck rolled onto the gravel and Mara focused her eyes ahead just in case the Saab did come tearing back her direction. She’d have to stop at Four Corners; even at this distance she could see things had changed.
“What do you think that city a-hole wants in Strange?”
“Manuel Enrique Fonseca.” Her voice held the same edge of warning that made the young horses settle down.
“Didn’t say it.” He grinned.
“Dunno,” she said. “But Martinez will know first.”
“Everybody stops at the Corners for directions,” he said.
“Yup,” she said. Welcome to Strange.
I hate haircuts. Miss Tina’s cool and all, but I hate being told to sit still for the ninety-ninth time in Spanish and English. She thinks if one doesn’t work, the other will? Then the hundredth time, Tina slaps the back of my head, mangles both and says, “Be still mijo.”
She cuts it too short, too.
Today, she and Mara can’t stop going on about Ben Goodwin. He’s been in town a couple of days talking to people. Sizing things up, she says. Mara says ever since the city people decided a slower paced lifestyle was the next new thing they’d been zooming up and down the valley in their European sports cars buying up property right and left. Perfectly good farms and ranches turned into weekend playgrounds for yuppies.
Mara says he’s one of them but I saw him at the Post Office talking to Suzie about the power. He looks like Nana Goodwin in the eyes. Like he watches everything. He’s tall like Nana too. I think people and horses are similar, you can tell a lot about how they’re gonna act by which ancestor they look like. Tina says Mara’s the spiting image of her dad, except pretty, who himself was the image of the first Hughes; a retired buffalo solider who came to Strange to raise horses. Mara’s as good a trainer as both, maybe better, so there’s truth to that. Ben said hi to me, but Mara said not to talk to him so I just looked at him out of the corner of my eye and nodded.
“All done,” Tina says, brushing the hair off my shoulders and ears. “People who belong in Strange always find their way back. You should understand that better than most.”
At Corners, we wait to talk to Mr. Martinez because Mrs. Fitzgerald who runs the boarding house is on a tear. I call her Fits cause she’s always p.o.’d. Her freckly face looks like a tomato when she’s fired up. Mara calls Mrs. Jansen a recluse and says Fits hasn’t had any boarders in years so no wonder they got put next door to each other. People always get put where they need to be. Look at Mara and me. Both our dads have tombstones in the cemetery.
I go to the counter while Mara pretends to read the stock listings. Mr. Martinez winks and slides a peppermint across the glass at me.
“Things’ll change soon enough,” he says to Fits.
“It’s that Goodwin boy,” Fits says. “My place is next to Nana’s, so nothing moved.”
“Be careful not to put the blame where it don’t lay, Ellen,” he says, calm as Mara working one of the stubborn colts. “Lots of things been on the move since Ben arrived. Just not your block. You might consider why that might be.”
Then he just acts like she isn’t there. Fits storms out. Mr. Martinez shakes his head and smiles.
“Mara, what’s in your bonnet?”
“Ben has been talking to people, interviewing them,” Mara says.
Mr. Martinez hooks his thumbs in his belt and joins her at the window.
“Shaker had puppies last night,” Mr. Martinez says to me. “Behind the counter. Go see.”
The three puppies are small and chestnut colored. Their eyes aren’t even open, and they wiggle around each other mewing like kittens. Shaker wags her tail at me, licking each one. I know she’d never take off. I pick the smallest one up and hold it against my neck where it’s warm and safe. Mara said that’s how she got me to stop crying the first morning.
“He’s just trying to figure it out,” Martinez says. “Nana said he works as a reporter for a big newspaper. He asks questions, that’s his way.”
“He doesn’t belong here,” Mara says. “This is our town.”
“Careful how you talk there, Miss Hughes,” Martinez says, and I look up cause he never calls anybody formal. “Your grandfather and Nana Goodwin’s folks were the ones who made the bargain of this town because of talk like that.”
“Yess’um,” Mr. Martinez doesn’t even get upset when Mara talks about the founders that way. I guess he has lots of practice.
“If he writes a story and word gets out,” Mara says. “It could be the end of things. We can’t take the chance.”
She’s standing with her arms crossed over her chest. Her jaw is clenched so tight I can see the muscle bulge. The weird thing is, she looks more scared than mad.
“You forget,” Mr. Martinez says, “Ben Goodwin is Strange folk.”
“He left a long time ago.”
“A boy just a bit bigger than Manny left here. Seems you and Mr. Goodwin got some business to finish up.”
“I don’t owe him anything.”
“Did the city folks give you a hard heart with all the book learnin, Mara?”
I go back to looking at the puppies – I don’t want to see Mara cry.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Tina approach with the coffee carafe and leaned back from the napkin he’d been doodling on. She poured a little too early. Ben flung himself away from the hot splash of coffee landing on the napkin.
Tina smiled, finishing the refill. “I didn’t get cha did I?”
Ben looked at her, annoyed by her utter lack of alarm. He dragged his napkin out of the mess, but the ink was blotted. So much for his map.
“It’s fine,” he said, forcing a smile.
“What are you working on there?” She said, peering at the rest of the papers as she swiped at the wet table with the rag in her other hand
“Research for a story,” he said.
“May I?” She said, slipping into the booth across from him before he could nod. He dragged a notepad over the photocopied aerial shot of the valley.
“I heard you were a reporter,” she said. “Or do you write books? You used to talk about how one day you would write a book about space ships and Martians or a cowboy and his horse.”
He shook his head, even as a chill raced up his spine.
“No time for a book,” he said. “Maybe one of these days.”
“What paper do you work for?”
“I sell my stories to lots of different papers and magazines,” he said, amending. “Mostly the Examiner though.”
Her fingertips played at the edges of the photocopied articles. He resisted the urge to pull them away.
“How long have you owned the diner?” he said.
“It’s been in the family for generations,” Tina said. “Like writing’s in yours. Did you know your abuela was a fine chronicler?”
He shook his head.
“She kept all the records of this town,” Tina said. “Writing’s in your blood.”
“What is it about this town Tina?” he said, leaning toward her. “There’s a story here, I can feel it. I just have to find it.”
She laughed again and slid out of the booth, lifting the carafe.
“Is that why you’re making silly napkin maps and going to Woodland looking for plans?” she said. “For a story?”
He covered his papers with one hand. She started back toward the counter then turned halfway and met his eyes. He couldn’t decipher the look on her face, but her eyes were no longer laughing.
“Just don’t miss what’s important,” she said, “looking for your story.”
After lunch Ben wandered outside, sucking down the last of a soda from the glass bottle and wondering why they always seemed to taste better than in cans. He squinted out into the heat waves rising off the cracked pavement. It was 10am and almost 90 degrees in the shade. The rest of the day would be unbearable.
The man he had nicknamed Sisyphus after the doomed Greek pushed his wheel barrel full of gravel along the road. At every crack he would pause and scoop shovelfuls into the deepest fissures. Everyone Ben met called Sisyphus by a different name, and he didn’t speak a word as far as Ben could tell. He ate at Tina’s and slept in a shed out back of the diner, Ben supposed in exchange for his endless public service. Social services, Strange style. On impulse, Ben lifted his hand in greeting. Sisyphus smiled back at him before looking into his wheelbarrow and continuing down the road.
Ben finished his soda and set the glass in the recycling bin next to the door. For a moment he allowed himself to think his theory was an early warning symptom for heatstroke. If he believed it, he’d say things that shouldn’t be moving were. The reporter in his brain refused to let it go. He’d started writing down addresses, noting the changes, and talking to everyone he could.
After a week in town the only thing he knew for sure was everyone was hiding something. His Nana’s old friends were polite or senile, or at least they seemed to be when it came to questions about the town. There were no more leads in town to follow. He checked his notepad and the single name that had not been stricken.
Mara Hughes. Thirty-four years old, college educated and training horses in a nowhere town. They had been in the same grade and bussed to nearby Capay for school as kids. Like a tic under the skin she just kept popping up. She lived alone with the kid Manny, who wasn’t hers but shadowed her everywhere. People in town deferred to Mara almost as much as Martinez, but Ben never saw her around. On days he managed to find the house it was empty. As the sign on the door constantly indicated, she was “out riding.”
He considered a trip out to the highway to get cell reception. Maybe something in the water or air brought on some kind of mass delusion. Who did he know in psychiatry? He kicked at a pile of pebbles next to the road. The lines were still there, dividing the pavement in no discernable pattern.
He looked up at the sound of an engine cutting off and the creak of an old pickup door. Mara stepped out, the toes of her boots peeking out from jeans faded thin over her knees. It was as though age had only stretched the girl on the brown pony in the picture to adult height.
She leaned back into the truck, laughing, and emerged with Manny dangling piggy-back around her lean frame like a baby possum. Small for his age — except for an enormous head — his weight hung against the wiry arms wrapped around her shoulders. Then she saw Ben. She said something and Manny slid to his feet, running into the Post Office. When the boy was gone she straightened up, brushing the hank of sun faded dreadlocks, each twisted and no thicker than a pencil, over her shoulder.
She crossed the street without looking: the act would have been suicide in the city. In Strange, the fact that he couldn’t leave the curb without checking twice made him stand out. She walked straight toward him. Considering he had been trying to track her down most of the week he couldn’t explain why his mouth felt August dry. He pushed a hand through his hair, wincing at the soreness that was probably pre-cancerous sunburn on his scalp.
She stopped at the curb a few feet from him, resting her foot on the angled concrete. Beneath hat brim’s shade her pale brown eyes were freckled and ringed with black. She did not smile.
“A good hat will save your life around here,” she said. “Ben Goodwin, it’s been awhile.”
“We were kids around here at the same time?”
“Neighbors. For a while.”
He tried to read her but her expression gave nothing away.
“I’m sorry for cutting you off,” he said. “On the road.”
“I’m learning to drive defensively around you folks,” she said. “How long are you in town for?”
“A few more days I think.”
“That’s too bad, ” she said, without a hint of disappointment. “No time to catch up then.”
“Maybe we could get a cup of coffee?”
Her eyebrows lifted at the suggestion, making him aware of the bead of sweat rolling down his temple.
“Iced tea?” He amended.
“I’m working a horse for sale all week and I have a feed shipment coming,” she said. “I won’t have spare time.”
“It would just take a few minutes,” he said. “I’m working on a feature piece, for the Weekender Magazine. I was hoping to talk to you.”
Any sort of humor left her eyes. “About what?”
“Rural farming communities,” he said. “Did you know most towns this size are dying – but Strange – funny thing is the population has been increasing over the last few years. I looked at the census data and the increases aren’t so much in birthrate as in adults. People are coming back.”
He flashed the smile that had broken down many a resistant subject. “Like you. Your name popped up on the competition circuit down south. I heard you made it out to Ocala. That’s big time for horse people.”
“You want to interview me?”
“Is there a better time?”
“No.” Her arms crossed her chest and locked there.
“Okay, if I could just get a few minutes,” he said, pulling out his recorder.
“You misunderstand – I’m not a subject for your article.”
“It’s about the town, and peoples’ relationship to it.”
“No thanks,” she said. “Nice seeing you again.”
She started to turn away.
“Four horses you’ve started have gone on to be grand prix contenders,” he said. “People have shipped them from as far Florida and New York for you. You could live and train anywhere. Why a dried up town in walnut country, California?”
She spun on one heel, her mouth set in a tight line.
“Who are you to tell me where I belong?” she said. “This land has been in my family for generations, Strange is my home. I don’t expect you to get that.”
He’d pushed to far without knowing what had set her off. He took a deep breath, might very well be his last chance. “You probably know this town better than most then. What do you make of the changes?”
He heard caution, not confusion in her voice.
“You know, here one day, over there the next,” he said.
“It’s been hot,” she said, her voice low and a little husky with effort of control. “I know you’re not used to that. Maybe it’s making you think there’s something going on that’s not.”
To his reporter’s ear, the end of her statement was almost sympathy. He had one last card – rather, a bluff.
“Look, they’re going to run the story,” he said. “I’d be delighted to work with you. I’ll also run it without you. I’ve got enough interviews. Hell, the guy that cut up his wife when she killed herself is in the state facility in Sacramento. Said he was trying to ‘rearrange’ her like the town did ’cause no one would believe him. Makes for some interesting stuff.”
He realized the composure on her face had been a mask when it slipped away. A memory sparked from the Polaroid photograph on the mantle struck him between the ribs like a stitch in his side.
He pushed Brownie’s nose away before the tears in his throat could spill free. Behind him, his dad honked the horn.
“Come to the city,” he said to her backing away. “When you grow up.”
She twisted the pony’s reins with uncharacteristic impatience and gave it a kick. The pony crow hopped and Ben leapt sideways to avoid hooves. In a cloud of dust she was gone. He crawled into the car beside his dad and tried not to cry.
“Don’t worry Ben,” his dad said, patting his shoulder. “Where we’re going there’ll be lots more kids like you.”
He winced, looking at the woman with the girl’s eyes. They hadn’t just been in the same grade riding the same school bus; they’d been friends.
“I’ve heard lots of things about reporters,” she said, never raising her voice. “But you are ruthless. What happened to you?”
She walked into the Post Office.
Ben picked up a bottle of water at Four Corners and lingered on the porch, keeping his eyes on the old pickup. Mara and Manny emerged from the post office hand in hand. She opened the door to the truck. Before the boy slid across the seat he put his arms around her neck. She planted a kiss on his forehead. When the boy was inside, she hopped up the step to the bench seat, meeting Ben’s eyes. He looked away first.
Rocking in his chair, Martinez lifted a hand as the Chevy pulled away. “Something the matter with your water, Ben?”
He shook his head, studying the heat waves rising off the baked pavement.
Ben got lost on his way back to the house. Flummoxed, he stood on the corner of Oak and Second Street and counted houses. He walked back a block, looking for Ash Street. He scrambled through his notes. Sheets of paper fluttered around his feet and he crouched over them on the sidewalk, shuffling.
He snatched up a yellow page torn from a legal pad. “Goodwin House, 117 Second Avenue, left on Second past Corners, cross Elm, third house on the right. Left.”
He puzzled at his own handwriting. The word ‘right,’ once written distinctly had been crossed out. Elm – once had been Ash. He glanced over his shoulder the way he had come. Six or eight blocks down he could see the yellow building and the house –- Tina’s –- and if he looked farther down he could see the American flag hanging still in the heat in front of the post office.
Wait. He stared, then rifled through his notes again. “Post office, 23 Oak Street?”
“What do you have there boy?”
An age spotted hand snagged the yellow piece of paper from between his fingers and shadow fell over him. He rocked back on his heels. An old woman with skin the texture of thin parchment and an enormous, lumpy head held his note page in her spider thin fingers.
“Jesus,” he muttered.
She bared her teeth and put her hands on her hips, defining her bony frame in the otherwise shapeless floral muumuu.
“When I was a girl, you take the lord’s name and ‘WHAM’ with a ruler,” she said. “Nowadays you wretches talk like the devil is in your mouth and nobody even blinks. World’s off to hell and gone.”
“Sorry, Mrs.–” he said.
He stood, towering over the slight figure and caught a whiff of Mentholatum and bourbon. On closer inspection, the lumps outlining her head turned out to be rollers jutting out from the scarf covering her graying hair and adding inches to the circumference of her skull.
“Jansen,” she offered.
“Ben,” he said.
“Goodwin,” she finished. “I know, boy. It’s a small town. Even I hear everything – especially now that red-headed biddy is next door talking sun up to sun down.”
She cast her voice loud enough for the stout woman in the neighboring yard to pause pinning a sheet to the line and look. The woman flung a glare at Mrs. Jansen before her face softened into a brilliant smile.
“I heard you were in town Benny and I was wondering when you’d make it down this way,” she said. “Mrs. Fitzgerald, from Sunday school.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, it’s been a while,” he said.
“You can’t have forgotten Mrs. Fitzy?” She pressed her palm between her abundant breasts.
“Of course he did dear,” Mrs. Jansen said. “This good looking boy has no reason to remember an old hen like you. Now get back to your laundry – it’s my turn to tell tales, right Ben?”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak and risk the chance of smiling.
“I’ll make you something cold and we’ll talk,” she said, tugging his arm.
Jansen’s house smelled of mothballs and Mentholatum. She sat him down at a chipped Formica table that wobbled on the linoleum floor.
“You’re wondering how we keep the lights on, and the stove burning, with all this moving around.”
He pulled out his notepad.
“Not so fast, Mr. Hot Shot reporter,” she said, sucking her teeth.
She snapped the pad out of his hand.
“Those fools think you’ll come around on your own,” she said, waving her hand. “Or Miss Mara ‘high horse’ Hughes will help you, but I know better.”
“I’d just like to jot down a few things,” Ben said, reaching for his notepad.
She tapped his temple and pulled the pad out of his reach. “Jot away.”
“So how do you keep the lights on,” he said. “The phone for that matter. I can’t even reception on my cell.”
“You won’t be able to,” she said. “There’s more to living in a place than turning on services. You have to agree.”
“Agree to what?”
“To be a resident,” she said, smiling. Years rose off her cheeks and chin. “Did you know I was a beauty queen once?”
She rose without waiting for his answer and left the room. When she returned she laid a little photo album on the table between them. She pointed at the plump, attractive young woman in a rhinestone Miss Central Valley crown.
She handed it to him. He slipped the photo from the sleeve, holding it by its edges and peered at the date on back. If he believed the photo the woman in front of him had to be in her eighties. He covered his surprise with a wink.
“That can’t be you,” he said, half teasing. “Is this your mother?”
“You always were a sweet talker,” she said and her smile turned impish.
“You remember me?”
“Benjamin James Goodwin,” she said. “When you were 6 years old I caught you in my strawberries, you had eaten every berry right off the crown. You told me it was my fault for growing the best berries in the valley.”
“When you were 10,” she went on. “You and Mara Hughes come through my yard on that old brown pony. Riding the same horse and calling yourselves cowboys and Indians.”
She shook her finger at him. “Kicking up dust all over my laundry. Mrs. Fits and I used to laugh at you little ingrates after we finished yelling. We would make coffee and complain when the Hughes place wound up too close to town. Course that was before she and I had a falling out.”
She paused, a former beauty queen’s smile on her face.
“I hardly remember it,” she said. “Isn’t it funny?”
“You two were friends?”
She nodded, looking out the window.
“Oh my Lord! Ben, get Martinez.”
“It’s Ellen.” Mrs. Jensen ran for the door.
Ben glanced out to see Mrs. Fitzgerald in a crumpled heap next to her laundry basket in the opposite yard. He would have thought her a discarded pile of wash, if not for the red hair.
Mrs. Jansen tottered out of the house to the clothesline. “Hold on, Birdie!”
She praised the Saab’s speed as they roared along the two-lane road. Damn sports cars were good for something after all.
“My cell’s in the glove box, should we call ahead?” Ben didn’t take his eyes off the road.
She had the phone out, dialing before he finished.
She had been waiting at Corners for Martinez when Ben ran up. His shirt was stained dark with sweat. She knew he liked to run, but thought even he had better sense than to go for a jog in 100-degree heat. Before she could write this off as some extreme sport she noticed the look on his face.
“We need an ambulance,” he panted, looking into the shuttered and locked store.
“Martinez is gone,” she said, jogging down the porch. “And there’s no time anyway. It’ll take an hour to get here and back. We need a car. Who is it?”
“Mrs. Fits collapsed,” he said, and remembered to add. “Oak and Second.”
He put his hands on his knees, swallowing great gulps of dusty air. She started running. He followed for a pace or two then dropped back.
“I’ll get my car,” he said.
She had just reached the yard when she heard the little Saab’s engine roaring down the street. It took both of them to get Mrs. Fits into the back seat and Mrs. Jansen refused to be left behind.
At the hospital Mara talked to the doctors and nurses. She knew hospitals well and it was easier the second time around. She remembered the call from Tina and the older woman’s voice fuzzy on the line as she explained how Hank Hughes had collapsed working a three year old in the round pen. His heart just quit. By the time Mara got there, all there was to do was talk to doctors. Her father never regained consciousness.
Coming back to Strange hadn’t seemed optional at the time. The ranch and his horses needed her. The owner of Hill Jumper Farms had made it clear there would be no more rides for her if she left during the peak of show season. She could have gotten work at another barn or sold the place and started a few horses on her own. But when she pulled into Strange she knew she was tired of living above someone else’s stalls and answering to some idiot owner who wanted so much out of a horse too young to give it.
Coming home helped the hurt some but it did not ease the loneliness.
While they waited, she watched Ben drop to one knee at Mrs. Jensen’s feet like a suitor. He pressed her fingers around a coffee cup. She patted his cheek and tears escaped her lashes. While Mrs. Jansen dabbed her cheeks he looked up and met Mara’s eyes. Something sad and hard lingered about edges of the man he’d grown up to be.
How he’d changed from the boy who helped block her father’s path to an age beaten pony standing listlessly in the pen.
“Mar this pony is a hundred years old and sour,” Hank Hughes said. “He’s not worth half the work it’d take to bring him around.”
Mara shook her head, unable to speak.
“We’ll take him,” the boy said. “Mara can do the training. I’ll help.”
Mara gaped at him. Ben nodded. She looked back at her father.
“You said I could have my own horse,” she said.
“Mara you don’t want that old jughead,” he said. “I only brought him home because somebody needed to put him out of his misery. What about the jumper we looked at in Woodland?”
“Brownie’s got good legs and a nice eye,” Mara said. “Somebody was mean to him but he was a good pony once. We can turn him good again.”
“Strange takes care of everybody,” the boy said. “Even ponies.”
Her father’s lips twitched under his thick mustache. That was always how she knew they’d won. Then he handed her the halter. “Your pony, your responsibility. Solid feed. I’m taking it out of your allowance. Light exercising in the pen. No riding until I say.”
In the hospital waiting room Mara watched the grown up version of the boy. Assigning blame came easy: this is your fault, she thought, coming to town stirring things up. On the ride home Mara kept her face to the darkening fields out the passenger window. It was easier to think he’d changed beyond recognition. She didn’t like seeing the familiar in him.
“They want her to move to Woodland?”
“A home,” Mara said. “It was mild, but it was still a stroke.”
“Do you think she will?”
“Mrs. Fits is old Strange,” Mara said, shaking her head. “She’d rather die at her clothesline than in a home somewhere. As soon as they let her go she’ll be back. Sounds like Miz J might move in with her, though. It’ll be good, neither one of them needs to be alone at their age.”
“I guess whatever static between them is cured,” Ben said.
“That’s Strange for you.”
“You believe this town rearranges itself to make people resolve their problems with each other.”
“Martinez says making you forget things might be the town’s way of protecting itself,” she said, as a peace offering. “You’ve forgotten a lot.”
“What happened to Brownie?”
Surprised, Mara hesitated.
“I remember a few things,” he said.
“He died in his sleep, nose in his feed bucket, when I was 16,” Mara said. “He never changed much. Still as likely to nip you as do tricks for treats.”
“How did you wind up with Manny?”
“After his dad died his mom had a hard time,” she said. “She wasn’t from Strange. One night she packed up and left everything, including Manny. In the morning my bedroom window was facing their yard. I heard him crying. He’s been with me ever since.”
“I guess Strange still takes care of everyone,” he said.
Goosebumps rose on her arms. He took his eyes off the road when she spoke.
“Even ponies,” she said.
He dropped her off at the driveway to the farm.
“Are you sure, I could–”
Mara shook her head and climbed out of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “For coming here. If it’s made it hard for you.”
Mara shook her head and her smile touched her eyes. “You saved Mrs. Fits.”
Mara fed the horses and left Manny watching a horror movie marathon. She spent some time scanning the stock auction listings for a couple of good Thoroughbreds that hadn’t made much of themselves on the track but might be good prospects. She went to bed, tossed and turned. It wasn’t the heat or the restlessness that sometimes kept her awake.
She went down to the horses. In a big stall at the end of the barn, a leggy mare waited with head thrust over the door as if she had been waiting. Called Azza, the horse never made money because, as the trainer told Mara: “She just loves to run. Not race. Not win. Just run.” It suited Mara fine. Mara threw a looped rope around the horse’s neck then opened the stall door and vaulted astride.
When she came back to Strange she came home. Before tonight, she would have been sure Ben was not one of them. Being in Strange meant taking care of their bonds and learning to work it out, because they had to or they were all lost. He hadn’t forgotten the important things.
If there was thing he appreciated about the central valley summer it was the way night settled on a warm breeze over the sun soaked hills. He dropped off his car, opened up the windows to let the house air out and decided to go for a walk. Sisyphus and the faded yellow dog were out front at Tina’s. He waved as he passed. The lights were on at Four Corners and he wandered in without thinking. Martinez greeted him with a six-pack and they drank four in companionable silence on the porch.
Just before midnight, he declined the wad of chew but took the offered beer and started for home. He forgot to ask for directions. He wondered if Mara cracked a beer once in a while and what she was like when she had a few. Had she outgrown the churlish giggle that drifted up through his memories of riding behind her on the sway-backed pony? He was walking toward where the house should be – or maybe where it was yesterday or the day before – when he heard hoof beats.
A coal black horse stared down at him. “I have to show you something.”
Talking horse? Nonplussed, he looked higher. From the horse’s bare back, Mara smiled down at him as if reading his mind.
“You want me to ride?” He asked.
It hadn’t seemed so scary when he was ten and the horse had been a lot smaller.
“That’s the plan,” she said.
He took a deep breath and shrugged. “As long as I’m not driving.”
She maneuvered the horse next to the fence. He climbed onto the low rail and wavered. She offered her hand. It was warm and callused across the palm and fingertips. He slipped. She sighed.
“Don’t you remember how to get on?”
“It’s been a while, Mar.”
He got it on the second try, only just.
“Have you been drinking?”
“Martinez,” he grunted by way of explanation as hung on.
She caught him before he slid off and spent a minute calming the startled horse.
“Hold onto me, and whatever you do, don’t kick,” she said.
The horse felt like flesh-covered steel beneath him. Its every breath pressed against the insides of his thighs. He scooted closer and wrapped his arms around her waist, resisting the urge to look down at the ground. The scent of lavender and alfalfa came from the hundreds of thinly twisted locs pressed between them. She clucked and the horse started to walk. He lost track of the time and the distance they traveled. It took the better part of his concentration to hold on to her.
When he looked up again they were in the hills outside the town. Strange lay before them, an imperfect grid of houses and shops splaying out to a rambling assortment of barns and sheds, ranches and orchards around the edges.
She faced the town and the horse dropped its head, grazing.
“No one knows how it does what it does, Strange,” Mara said. “But you can feel it, when it changes.”
“It’s not every night these days,” she said. “But if it does it’ll be soon.”
It started slow, the air shifting the same way heat waves did rising off pavement. When he glanced up, the stars wavered in the sky. The more he tried to follow the shifting movement the more it evaded focus. Instead he watched the houses as each one became less distinct. As the waves dissipated the towns new placements were revealed.
Memories hit him physically, knocking the wind from his chest. In the strongest one they lay belly down in the grass and shoulder to shoulder, counting the stars that streaked across the sky until one of them nudged the other.
“What do you see?”
“There it is?!”
The familiar clench in his gut, like vertigo or an earthquake.
“Oh where’s the ranch?”
“Bet I can find the Post Office first.”
Ben returned to himself. Did she realize she had let her weight go, leaning into him? “How many times did we do this?”
“Almost every night until you left for good.”
When Strange shifted she saw a patchwork quilt being rearranged before the seams were set. She watched Mrs. Jensen’s house rise and spin over the Post Office, and Tina’s diner drift a falling leaf into place past Elm on Third. Her own ranch on the edge of town slid sideways and Nana Goodwin’s place wiggled underneath it, settling in the space at the bottom of the long driveway.
“You snuck out most nights,” she said. “Your dad thought I was a bad influence.”
“He said you didn’t know how to be a girl,” Ben said.
She snorted and gave her calves a squeeze, indicating to the giant horse: move on.
“Stay put,” she said to Ben.
She asked the mare for a jog and then an easy lope. Ben’s grip on her tightened and his body tensed. Relax, she willed him, remember. She didn’t ask for a walk until they reached the edges of town. Behind her, Ben began to breathe again.
“You okay back there?”
“I’ll live,” he said.
“You used to like that part,” she said.
She laughed as the horse’s hooves clopped on the pavement.
“Why did you leave Strange?” he said.
“Is this part of your interview?”
“Will you answer if I say yes?”
“Strange seemed small at 18,” she said. “Hell, you told me I should come to the city.”
She was glad he couldn’t see her face flush. Azza halted at the touch of the rope on her neck, nosing the rose bushes beside Nana Goodwin’s gate.
He slid down from the horse and looked up at her. “Can you come in?”
She looked at him, eyebrows raised.
“I finally got you talking,” he said.
“Only if I can leave my horse in your yard,” she said.
“I suppose so.” He cracked a tired smile.
He apologized about the state of the house twice before they reached the front door, and once more after he’d found the lights. She sat down at the table where he’d spread his research from Woodland, flipping through the photocopied pages and notes.
He returned with an armload of photos and a dust-coated bottle of wine unearthed from the back of the pantry. Frames clattered against each other. The loose ones fluttered as he walked. He wobbled to the table and she caught the top one as it slid off the pile. She held the Polaroid of a little boy standing next to a girl on a skinny brown pony. The day he left Strange. He dumped the photos on the table.
“Tell me,” Ben said. “Remind me, of these stories.”
She handed him the Polaroid in exchange for a glass of wine.
“Your dad thought we were pretty crazy for sticking around,” she said. “You told him it would be boring to live anywhere where everything stayed the same. I guess he figured it was time to get you out of here before you were lost completely.”
“The Founders.” She held up another photo.
In this one, toned sepia with age, a team of heavy-set horses stood in front of the original Four Corners Market, pulling a wagon load of grinning kids that could have come out of a multicultural 70’s Coke commercial.
“A bargain was made, three maybe four generations back,” she said. “We asked for help to live together. This is what we got.”
“And Strange has rearranged itself ever since?”
“Or Martinez fixes it the way it needs to be,” she said. “The man is older than dirt and he always seems to know what’s going on. Odd, huh.”
She pulled out another set of pictures – teenaged Jansen and Fitzgerald girls standing arm and arm beside crates full of artichokes labeled with the Jansen logo. In the next, young a couple stood on the steps of the little chapel on their wedding day. He recognized Nana’s script: Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Fonseca. Manny’s parents. When he yawned she stopped telling stories.
“I should go,” she said, rising from the table. “These are good memories and without Nana we have no one to keep them safe.”
When he put his hand on hers she knew loneliness because of its sudden absence. They went up the stairs together, two at a time.
She woke up alone in the dark. She slipped on her jeans and t-shirt, carrying her boots to avoid clacking across the floor. Ben slumped over the dining room table in front of his laptop in a pair of shorts, his breath deep in the crook of his folded arm. Her heart beat hard against her collarbones. She brushed her finger across the touchpad and the screen came up with the title bar “Small Strange Town, For Weekender Magazine.”
He’d described everything in unmistakable detail.
If he had his way, Strange wouldn’t belong to just them anymore. He blinked owlishly at the sound of the laptop fan and she jumped. He looked from her to the screen and back.
“Still working on that story?” She said.
He wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Damn you Ben Goodwin,” she said. “You saw it. You know what it is. Why would you threaten it?”
The center of her ribcage had the same sharp pain as when a horse landed a kick.
“Mar, wait.” He caught her arm.
“When I got to the city, I thought I would find something better than what’s here,” she said. “You know there’s nothing better than Strange. I’m not gonna lose that. Publish your story Ben. We’ll deny every damn word of it.”
“It’s a great story, Mara,” he said, his voice tender. “I don’t mean any harm. If people come here it might save the town.”
“We don’t need saving but from folks like you,” she said. She yanked her arm free.
In the front yard, Azza had grazed Nana Goodwin’s roses to the thorny stems with the pleased expression of a child given free rein at a candy dish. The mare had also left a steaming pile right in front of the gate to the driveway where Ben’s Saab was parked. Mara noted it with distinct satisfaction as she vaulted astride and rode away. She was feeding horses an hour later when Manny staggered down to the barn, yawning.
“No more midnight marathons, Bub,” she said. “Get that truck ready to leave, we’ve gotta take the grey to the gal in Santa Rosa today. If we leave by 10 we can catch dinner and a movie.”
His eyes grew wide. “In the theater?”
“Sure, we’ll get a nice steak somewhere and a movie or two.”
He vanished into the house. After she finished dumping hay she spent a long moment watching the horses. They were much better at figuring out how to live with each other. We’ve lost a lot, she considered, getting civilized.
He watched the plume of dust rise behind the Chevy as it towed a shiny slant load horse trailer out of town. He thought of Mara sleeping soundly in the space he’d never known was empty, and the sound hooves on the lawn as she rode away.
When the truck disappeared he went back into the house and finished packing his bag. The screen on his laptop registered new mail – the phone had been working this morning so at least he had dialup. His editor wanted a status update on the story.
He stopped at Tina’s for lunch though his stomach felt as if a rock had settled in the space it used to be.
“You leaving hoy, mijo?” Tina refilled his iced tea.
“That’s the story,” he said.
“Gonna miss you, ¿lo sabes verdad?” she said. He found himself missing her already. She cleared his table and smiled. “Persistent, more than most.”
“Terco, necedad.” Stubborn, he said. Amazing how much had come back to him almost overnight.
“That’s Strange folk for you.” She laughed, shaking her head. “We have to be to make it out here. Don’t be gone por mucho tiempo Ben, ¿me escuchas?”
He promised to come back soon and left a big tip. Driving out of town he stopped at Four Corners to say goodbye.
“How’s that story,” Martinez said.
“Stranger than most,” Ben joked.
Mara drives to Woodland every Sunday since Ben left. Sometimes I go along if she says we can stop at the library. She buys Ben’s paper, turns every page and then throws it all away. At the library she searches the Internet for his name. I don’t know why she’s searching; when Ben calls the house once a week she shakes her head at me when I answer the phone. He asks me about the pup Martinez said I could keep and school. He’s gotten pretty good at not sounding disappointed cause she never calls back. One Sunday, she finds it. We stand at the corner of Cherry and Main in Woodland while she reads every last word.
“He didn’t do it,” Mara says, hugging me so hard I think my ribs might crack.
On the way home I read it too. The article is called, “Small Strange Towns,” but there’s nothing about our Strange at all. At the bottom it says writer Benjamin Goodwin lives in Strange, California and is taking a break to work on his first novel.
I wonder if he’ll be home when we get there.
Copyright 2013 Rashida J. Smith