A Free Novella
by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
“Hand-Me-Down Town” was originally published in Analog Science Fiction Magazine in 1989 and was my first published work of fiction. I wrote it in reaction to the criminalization of homelessness by a California town trying to protect its tourist industry. The name of the town in this novella is fictionalized. (The wonderful illustration is by Janet Aulisio,)
Stu Williams pulled his jacket across his chest and zipped it all the way up to his chin. It was damned cold for February. He dug his hand into his left coat pocket and counted the change there without taking it out to look. About $4.00 in quarters; enough to buy a decent breakfast at Caroline’s or a not-so-decent breakfast and a newspaper. He decided in favor of a decent breakfast and a trip to the Sears electronics department around noon to catch the news on the tube. Of course, TV’s didn’t have tubes anymore, he reflected. Old habits die hard.
Mike Hanrahan fell in with him on the way down Hennessy, grumbling about how difficult it was to make it on recycling these days. “Problem is,” he complained, plucking burrs off the front of his disreputable Rob-Roy, “everybody’s doin’ it now. Everybody! And his Aunt on top o’t. Th’only place the market’s not jam packed is the freeways.”
“Freeways, Mike?” Stu wrinkled his nose. “Naw, you don’t want to get into freeways.”
“Damn right! But a man’s gotta eat, doon’t he?”
Caroline’s was warm and smelling of coffee and baked stuff and bacon cooking. They ordered breakfast and sat back to enjoy a discarded newspaper. Stu disappeared behind the sports page.
“Well, damn it all to hell!”
Stu lowered the paper and peered at Mike over its edge. “Excuse me?”
“Those blue-suited bureaucrats an’ their idiot measures an’ bills! Good Lord, they think they can legislate the world away. Do you know what they’re proposin’ to vote on today at noon?”
“I have no idea.”
“That damn Bag Lady bill.”
Stu dropped the sports section. “Let me see that.”
Mike flipped the paper across the table.
Stu fielded it and found the offending column easily without the aid of Mike’s out-thrust finger. There it was in black and white—“City Council Votes on Criminalizing Vagrancy.” Noon today.
“We should pick up every transient on the Boulevard and go picket city hall,” Mike decided.
“What, and provide them with ‘Exhibit A?’” Stu shook his head.
Mike stared at him thoughtfully. “I suppose a college man like yerself’s got a better idea?”
Stu laughed. “Mike, if I’d had a better idea, I wouldn’t be sitting here with seventeen cents in my pocket worrying about being ‘criminalized.’” He glanced down at the column again. “But I might be picketing city hall, anyway.”
Annie Lee Paice stepped off the curb almost into the path of an oncoming truck. The air horn shoved her back a step and the truck rumbled harmlessly by.
Too bad, she thought. Might’ve been for the best.
A wash of cold guilt followed immediately. Her eyes found the dilapidated old Chevy wagon in the shaded lot across the street and misted when she saw Sammie waving at her from the roof. The guilt curled in the pit of her stomach and moved upward toward her throat. She swallowed it again—pacified it by walking to the corner and crossing with the light.
“Did you get it, Mom?” Sammie bounced off the hood of the car and met her nearly eye to eye. So tall for his age—going to be just like his Dad.
She shook her head, glancing over her shoulder at the HEW building. “She didn’t even have new forms for me to fill out. She said I oughta see a lawyer.”
“What the hell’s a lawyer gonna do for us?” Her oldest son, David, had hauled his lanky frame out of the passenger seat and hung on the roof of the car, chin propped on his crossed arms.
“Pry some money out of your Dad, I s’pose.”
“Huh! They’d have to find him, first. Did you tell her that?”
She grimaced. “I mentioned it. She said that wasn’t their line of work. So we were back to the lawyer again.”
David’s expression didn’t change. “Okay, so what’s next?”
He was trying so hard, she thought. Trying to act like everything was going to be just fine. It was just a matter of what’s next?
She fought a through a wave of cold panic before drawing some sanity out of his dark, resolute eyes. He was right. That’s what it was—what’s next? Small steps. She silently thanked God for him and prayed that by the time he turned fifteen he could go back to being a normal teenager.
She smiled brightly and ruffled Sammie’s hair. “Next, I look for a job.”
“Me too,” David said.
“Who’s gonna take care of Sammie and Trudy?”
“I can!” Sammie protested loudly enough to wake Trudy up. In the back of the wagon, she stretched and blinked.
David ignored him, his eyes kindling. “Make you a deal, Mom. We both look for work and the one who gets the best money works while the other one stays home with the kids.”
“I said, I can!” Sammie repeated. “I can take care of us. I’m not a kid.”
“Yeah, you are.”
“If I’m a kid then you’re a kid!”
“You’re a kid, Sammie,” David repeated.
“I’m twelve years old, dammit!”
“You’re eleven,” David corrected, “and watch your mouth.”
“You watch my mouth!” Sammie’s tongue made a rude appearance.
“In the car.” Annie gave the younger boy a gentle shove.
“Let’s go find a newspaper.”
Loucette Doucette rocked gently back and forth on the park bench, eyes on nothing in particular. The sun felt warm on her face despite the near freezing temperature, but then her face was the only part of her body not swaddled in layers of warm flannel and wool.
She was indulging in her favorite pass-time just now—‘membering. She was very good at it—excelled at pulling faded bits of sepia-tone out of dark hiding and colorizing them. No high-tech movie magic could do what Loucette Doucette’s memory could do.
God, it was all there today, too. New Orleans greens and blues, hot whitewashed walls, cool shadows, bright smiles in chocolate faces. And over all, the sun whispering a warm, loving benediction.
Her full lips curved as the smells began to emerge. New Orleans smells—hot, spicy, sizzling smells; dark red smells in her Daddy’s restaurant. And she sat on the stairs that led up to their flat, rocking back and forth to New Orleans sounds, eyes on nothing in particular, with that knowing smile her Daddy said’d get her in trouble some day.
It’d done that.
She stopped ‘membering and got up, hungry, longing for Creole food. They didn’t know Creole cookin’ at the Mission. Not like she did. Maybe Nancy’d let her putter in the kitchen today. She liked that.
Behind her shopping cart, headed across park, she started ‘membering again. Old, flat, crepe-soled sturdies grew sleek and high-heeled. Her steps tapped with the rhythmic authority of youth, hips swayed.
This time the memories carried her for three blocks—all the way to the front door of the Mission. She swept in like she owned the place, feeling that powerful flush of warmth that only came when many pairs of eyes were on you. Then many pairs of lips would whisper your name—“Loucette Doucette.”
“Lucy-Ducy! How you doin’, hon?”
Memories fled before the grizzled smile. Loucette parked her shopping cart by the door and returned the smile with one of her own. She still had good teeth that were still dazzling against her ageless café-noire skin.
“Allo, Guillaume,” she said and sat next to him at the long table, pulling off elbow-length fingerless gloves.
His smile deepened. He loved the way she always called him ‘Guillaume.’ Everybody else called him ‘Billy,’ thought of him as a gin-soaked old rodeo bum. Not Lucy—not Loucette. She was a class act and she thought of him as a class act—made him feel like one. Guillaume.
She nodded, shrugging off a few layers of unnecessary warmth, and smiled when Billy came around and took her elbow.
“Why, merci, Guillaume,” she exclaimed, as if he didn’t perform the same ritual almost daily. But she always acted out her surprised pleasure, always let him escort her to the chow line, take her down a tray and help her select her breakfast—putee dayjunay, she called it.
But today there was a surprise after all—the usually sunny group of faces behind the steaming trays seemed pinched and grim. Behind them, beyond the racks of fresh-baked rolls and kitchen utensils, angry voices carried over the hiss of running water.
“Inhuman, fratricidal, cold-blooded bastards!”
Billy paused in the act of handing his tray to the uncomfortable-looking black girl just that side of the scrambled eggs and peered past her, eyes seeking the source of the argument. He’d never heard Nancy Yee being angry before.
Wouldn’t have thought she had it in her.
The guy behind him in line poked a finger at the kitchen. “What the hell’s that noise about?”
The black girl (Delores, that was her name—he could never remember it because she didn’t look like a ‘Delores’) shifted from one foot to the other and cast a chocolaty glance over her shoulder.
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” yelled Nancy Yee’s voice. “I don’t want to calm down!”
A male voice mumbled something unintelligible in return.
Delores leaned over the scrambled eggs. “Nancy’s pretty steamed about that new bill.”
On cue, Nancy’s voice shot from the back of the kitchen. “Dammit, Leon, stop patronizing me!” She was obviously steamed about something.
“What bill’s that?” asked Billy.
“The city council is voting on a bill that would make transients criminals.”
“Transients?” Billy frowned. “You mean-“
“She means you guys.” Nancy Yee appeared between a couple of bread racks, her dark eyes back-lit with anger. Her assistant, Leon Squires, lurked behind her, hangdog. “They want to make bad luck illegal.”
Loucette set the dish of peach halves on her tray and turned to look at the young woman. “Theah must be somethin’ we can do,” she said. There was always something one could do.
“You can pray,” said Nancy Yee, and left the kitchen.
“Oui.” Loucette nodded thoughtfully. “One can always pray, because God will always listen.”
“Funny,” said the guy behind Billy, “I never noticed her havin’ a Chi-nee accent.”
“Vietnamese,” Loucette corrected him. “Nancy is Vietnamese. From a very old, very fine family. She speaks French very good, too,” she told Billy, and went to eat her petite déjeuner.
There’d been little on the noon news from the official contingent about the Vagrancy Measure as it was politely referred to. On the street, it was the “Bag Lady Bill” and no one referred to it politely.
What the news did show were man-on-the-street interviews (ironic, Stu thought) and a healthy uproar from religious groups and community service organizations. The men and women in the street were divided over the issue. Comments ranged from: “It sucks!” to what was shaping up to be a long-winded diatribe against the evils of laziness before the tele-journalist put a cork in it.
“I think it’s about time,” said a thirty-ish woman with an armful of toddler. “I mean, my kids gotta walk down the streets an’ see them people lyin’ there—pushin’ their little carts around an’ all that. I mean, I don’t know who those people are or where they been or what’s goin’ on in their heads.”
I wish I knew what was going on in yours, Stu thought.
Mike snorted. “Lovely woman,” he said.
The reporter next tried to flag down a young collegiate type who was in an obvious hurry. He afforded the discamera a second of anger. “It’s f___ed,” he commented, before the censor could react.
Mike laughed. “Ain’t it,” he said.
The next woman interviewee agreed, if more politely. “I think it’s an obscenity. I don’t believe we have the right to legislate people out of our cities just because they’re homeless. They need help, not a drop kick out of town. I don’t understand this bill at all. It’s not solving a problem, it’s just hiding it…or hiding from it. It’s morally reprehensible.”
“It’s absurd,” said a middle-aged businessman. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Santa Theresa was consumed by a ball of fire. Maybe we ought to rename the place—Santa Adolpho after Adolph Hitler.”
“Human litter,” said the next Santa Adolphan, shrugging. “You find litter lying around, you pick it up and throw it away. Same difference.”
An interview with members of the Inter-faith Council followed which went a long way toward reviving Stu’s faith in his fellow men and women. A graying Catholic priest and a young female Bahá’í with matching expressions of deep concern, represented the organization against the backdrop of city hall and picket signs.
“This bill will do nothing to address the problem of homeless people,” said the girl, earnestly. “We’re dealing with an age-old disease here, and this bill is only aimed at masking the symptoms.”
“So, you’re saying this is just a band-aid measure?” asked the TJ.
“It’s worse than a band-aid measure. It’s like putting a dirty dressing on an already infected wound. And it’s as much a tragedy for the people responsible for this cruelty as it is for the homeless. They can’t possibly understand the reality of what they’re doing.”
“There have been rumors that the churches and organizations of the Inter-faith Council will offer sanctuary to the homeless if the bill passes. Could you comment on that, Father?” The TJ poked her bright blue microphone at the priest.
“The member organizations of the Inter-faith Council are planning to offer shelter and sanctuary to as many homeless people as their facilities can legally contain. If this bill passes, and we’re praying it won’t, we’ll publish a list of centers that will be open for that purpose.”
“But, Father, won’t you be aiding and abetting criminals?”
“No. We’re simply taking them off the street. If they’re not on the street, they’re not vagrant. If they’re not vagrant, they’re not criminals.”
The newswoman swung to face the discamera, adopting that serious ‘on-the-beat-reporter’ look. “So, surrounded by a show of solidarity from the religious community, the Santa Theresa city council deliberates over this highly controversial issue. We’ll be on hand to report on their decision as soon as it’s made. This is Karen Culver for Channel Seven News.”
Stu shivered and shrugged his shoulders deeper into his jacket.
Mike made a rude noise and turned to go. “Better gi’ back to work.”
“Yeah.” Stu followed him out of the over-heated department store and out onto the sidewalk. They went their separate ways there—Mike returned to scavenging for aluminum cans, and Stu headed for the Murphy Street Mission for an afternoon’s gainful employment.
Nancy Yee must be climbing the walls, he thought.
A chipped kitchen counter and three broken chairs later, he ate dinner, listening to Lucy-Ducy talk in her smoky N’awleans patois about singing in her Daddy’s restaurant. He hadn’t seen Nancy all day. A frustrated Leon told him she’d disappeared right after breakfast, probably to join the picketers at city hall.
At six o’clock, Leon disappeared into the Salvation Army store next to the Mission and reappeared with a portable TV. He set it up in a corner of the dining hall and turned on the evening news. Everyone stopped talking, chewing or washing dishes to watch and listen.
The decision had come in at 5:30 and was written in the angry faces of the crowd in front of city hall. There was a futile confrontation on the steps of the building between exiting councilmen and picketers, then the list of religious centers open for sanctuary rolled slowly up the flat screen.
“There’s Nancy!” someone yelled, and they all watched her shout soundlessly into the face of an equally furious councilman while names and addresses slid over her tear-stained face.
Stu helped the Mission staff and evening regulars set up cots in case they had a lot of sleepers. Nancy showed up as they were finishing, eyes red from crying, voice hoarse from shouting. She paid Stu for his work and offered him a place to stay. He declined, pocketed his money, and headed for the ‘Y.’
He had to pass in front of city hall, skirted it quickly, the way a man hustles past an open grave, and hurried across the adjoining park. He slowed a little to enjoy the moonlit-lamplit beauty, watch milky tendrils of steam rise like wraiths from the damp sidewalk. He short-cutted across the frosty grass and came out on the parking pad, near its lone occupant—a battered station wagon with frosted-over windows.
He was about three feet from it when a flashlight beam lit up the inside of the car, throwing the shadows of two people into relief against the semi-opaque glass. He was in the act of slipping quietly away when a third, smaller shadow popped into sight and a plaintive voice wailed, “Mom, Sammie’s kicking me!”
His appreciation of the situation did an Immelman loop. The next thing he knew, he was tapping on the driver’s side back window. There was a moment of total silence inside the wagon, then the window rolled slowly down.
“Oh,” said a woman’s voice, in obvious relief. “I thought you were a cop.”
“You’re lucky I’m not. A cop would have to arrest you. I’m just going to warn you that you’d better move your car.”
“Can’t. We’re outta gas. Or just about, anyway. That station down the block is about as far as this old junker’s gonna get.”
“Well, ma’am, I don’t know if you’ve heard any news today, but there is a new law on the books that says if you’re caught loitering in this parking lot after midnight tonight, you’ll be committing a punishable offense.”
There was another silence.
“We’re not hurting anybody here,” she said.
“No, you’re not.”
“And we can’t move the car. We don’t have money for gas.”
“I do,” Stu offered.
“We can’t take your money, mister.” The adolescent voice was defensive.
“Yes, you can. Look, ma’am, I know you don’t want these kids to spend the night in protective custody, but I’m afraid that’s just what might happen if you don’t move this car someplace less conspicuous.”
Stu waited out the whispered conference, his eyes fixed on the halo of gold around a traffic signal at the corner of San Pablo and Main. A long, low car glided to a stop as the halo flared to crimson.
Stu leaned down to the window. “Ma’am, I’d suggest you come to a quick decision. There’s a police car at the corner.”
“Go around to the passenger side,” said the woman. The car rocked with the flurried rearrangement of its occupants.
Stu rounded the Chevy’s nose, keeping his eyes on the police car, which still sat at the intersection. They had to exit the parking lot practically in front of it and sidle past on their way to the filling station. It executed a wide u-turn and followed them, pulling up beside the mini-mart when they stopped at the pumps.
“Geez!” whispered Sammie. He watched the cops watch Stu pump gasohol while they bought and sipped hot coffee from biofoam cups. The steam looked wonderfully hot and delicious. A rap at the back window made him all but jump out of his skin. He rolled the window down viciously.
Stu peered in at him. “Let’s go get some hot chocolate for everybody, okay?”
Sammie forgot his anger at being scared and grinned. “Okay!”
His mother started to put a damper on his enthusiasm. “Mister, we can’t-“
“Yes, you can. It’s my money. I’ll spend it any way I want. And the name’s Stuart—Stuart Williams. Now, you want coffee, tea or cocoa?”
Annie relented. “Coffee… Thank you, Stuart.”
“I’ll have coffee, thanks.” David asserted his adulthood matter-of-factly.
“Chocolate!” cried Trudy, unconcerned with asserting anything.
“Okay. Two coffees, one chocolate. Coming?” He looked at Sammie.
“Sure!” Sammie catapulted out of the car. “You can call me ‘Sam,’” he stage-whispered, eyeing the police officer near the door of the mini-mart.
“Thanks, Sam. You can call me ‘Stu.’”
They smiled at the cop on their way in, collected their coffees and cocoas, paid with most of Stu’s meager earnings and smiled at the cop again on their way out. He managed a half-hearted response, then returned to his partner and his squad car.
Stu took over the driver’s seat and did some quick thinking about where they were headed. He decided the Mission was the best place, but realized halfway there that the police car was still tailing them. He felt a deep reluctance to let the cops know they were shopping for a place to crash. It would mark that old gold Chevy for future suspicion.
He silently cursed the situation. Part of him understood their curiosity—he could’ve kidnapped these people for all they knew. But most of him was angry. Angry that a quirk of fate—the loss of a job or, in this family’s case, he suspected, a husband and father—could transform a person from citizen-in-good-standing to suspicious character.
He was the same man he’d been two years ago, before all this—sure, a lot poorer and a little more cynical, but that didn’t mean he’d come unhinged. Maybe the members of the city council or whoever was in that squad car simply judged other people by what they thought they’d do under the same circumstances. Sort of an upside-down, inside-out Golden Rule: Do unto others as you suspect they’d to unto to you if they had the chance.
In the end, he took them to the Bahá’í Center, intending to see them settled in, then leave. But the place was over-run and under-staffed and he found himself useful as a distributor of blankets and pillows. When that was over, it was easier just to find a free corner to curl up in before he fell asleep on his feet.
At 7:00 a.m. the next morning, Stu quietly consumed a breakfast provided by the local Bahá’ís and Quakers before wishing the Paices good luck and heading for Murphy Street. He felt guilty about accepting charity. He may be out a job and a home, but he wasn’t drunk, disabled or destitute. Not like Billy or Annie Paice or-
He stopped, staring at the gleaming squad car parked boldly in front of the Mission. Two cops sat in it, watching the comings and goings of its ‘patrons.’
He watched as Loucette Doucette made her way out onto the sidewalk on Billy McGuire’s gnarled arm. She was without her shopping cart today—for obvious reasons. Billy shot the officers a sassy grin and touched the brim of his stained Stetson.
One of the officers flipped open a voice-activated compad and began mumbling notes to it. He was still mumbling when Stu passed by and entered the Mission. Nancy Yee was just inside, glaring out the big front window.
“Friends of yours?” Stu asked dryly.
“Not funny, Stuart.” She turned from the window, glossy, black pageboy fanning with the movement.
They walked side-by-side toward the kitchen.
“Got a lot of customers today,” Stu noted.
Nancy glanced at the crowded dining hall and nodded. Cots and mattresses and sleeping bags were propped or stacked or rolled against the walls. “Yeah. I don’t know how long we can handle this many people, though. We’re meeting with the Goodwill and Inter-Faith people tonight about forming an organized cooperative. You eaten?”
Stu nodded. “Nancy, you wouldn’t happen to need some extra kitchen help, would you?”
“Oh, I need it, alright. I just can’t afford it. I can barely keep what I’ve got. Why?”
He shrugged. “I ran across a family living in their station wagon. The mother and oldest boy could use some employment.”
“Sorry, Stuart. But I will keep my ears open.” She punched his arm and smiled. “I’ve got plenty for you to do, though.”
He smiled back. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
The news became the focus of the day’s activities. At noon the little portable flat-screen in the dining hall provided the Mission lunch crowd with some rousing entertainment.
The Mayor of Santa Theresa wasn’t the most popular celebrity in town, but he was easily the most controversial. He had everyone’s full attention the minute his face appeared on the screen. He got more than their attention when they heard what he had to say.
The anchorwoman did the warm-up in neutral tones: “It’s been less than twenty-four hours since the vagrancy ordinance came into effect, but there are already problems with enforcement. According to Mayor John Eastwick, a lack of cooperation from certain civic and religious organizations has impeded the ordinance’s effectiveness. Mayor Eastwick, what, exactly, are these organizations doing?”
The mayor’s very angry face appeared on the screen. “They’re subverting the law. The entire point of the ordinance was to safeguard the tourist trade that Santa Theresa depends on. Because of this gross interference on the part of a group of well-intentioned but misguided organizations, we are seeing only the minutest drop in the number of vagrants wandering our streets. I seriously doubt these people realize the impact this can have on our tourist trade.”
“But isn’t the incidence of actual vagrancy—by that, I mean people sleeping and pan-handling on street corners—significantly down even this early on?”
“Yes, it is. And those vagrants who were in violation of the ordinance were dealt with. Last night, the streets of Santa Theresa were conspicuously clean. The problem is that our sanctuary groups turned their charges back out onto the street at first daylight. That means the people we don’t catch will just wander the streets all day, then hole up in their missions and churches and halfway houses at night.”
“But if they’re off the streets at night, hasn’t the ordinance accomplished its purpose?”
“No, it has not. The intent of the ordinance was to drive indigents out of Santa Theresa, not force them underground.”
A loud hiss rippled around the dining hall and a wad of paper napkin sailed at the screen.
“What does the City Council propose to do about the situation?”
“We do have some legal recourse, but I’m not free to reveal what action we’ll take first.”
“Then you do intend to take action?”
“Only if these groups continue in this flagrant attempt to circumvent the law. I don’t imagine they can afford to offer this level of support for very long, but if they persist, we certainly will take legal action.”
“Mayor, it sounds as if you’re prepared to challenge the entire concept of sanctuary.”
The mayor looked momentarily uncomfortable. “Let’s say I’m prepared to question it.”
Whatever recap the anchor made was lost in the general outrage from the Mission audience. A flurry of napkins fell around the TV, prompting Leon to rush protectively to its rescue.
Stu Williams spent the day suspended in unease—and with good reason. The first legal action the City Council took when the “well-intentioned but misguided” civic groups revealed no sign of capitulation was to become unbendingly strict in its enforcement of the building capacity ordinances.
The sanctuaries reacted by shuffling their occupants from one room to another whenever the suddenly ubiquitous police force put in an appearance. The police counter-reacted by making surprise inspections at twelve midnight on a Sunday. By four a.m. the first group of indigents was transported to the Juvenile Authority to await final transport out of town. Mike Hanrahan was among them.
Stuart Williams didn’t know that until nearly two p.m. the next day. By that time, he’d found Annie Lee Paice’s oldest boy part-time work and helped several more single-parent families settle into the annex of the local Bahá’í Center. Like the Paices, they had to share single rooms, but it beat the hell out of air mattresses at the Mission or the underside of a staircase.
“What were you, Stu? Before, I mean.” Annie Lee pulled him out of a half-anxious/half-aimless stare across a park that was, for once, empty of everything but early tourists taking advantage of a warming in Santa Theresa’s ambivalent weather.
He shifted slightly on the faux-adobe bench, squinting at a pair of tourists who squinted back as if at a museum display—Theresan Couple at Lunch in Natural Habitat.
“An urban planner,” he said. “You know, one of those guys who’re paid to look at your orange groves and see shopping malls.”
Annie gave him a surprised glance. “I’d think you’d make a good living at that.”
“If you’re good at it. I wasn’t good at it. I looked at shopping malls and saw orange groves.”
“That why you’re doin’ odd jobs at the Mission an’ sleepin’ at the Y?”
He tilted his head, considering his own particular set of whys and wherefores. “My wife died,” he said. “We had all these plans that… Well, they were the kind of plans that only work for two people. So I found myself suddenly…”
“No place to go?” guessed Annie. “In here, I mean.” She tapped her chest.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I got sad and drank too much. Then I got sober and mad and picked fights with everybody I knew—my boss included. And somewhere in there I realized I didn’t want to be good at turning orange groves into shopping malls.”
“I got fired.” He shrugged. “I deserved to be fired, I have to admit. So, I sold my house and drifted around. ‘Going on sabbatical,’ I called it. I wanted to look at architecture, get some direction, some inspiration. Those were all my good reasons for not getting into counseling instead. I dropped out. Then, I ran out of money in Santa Theresa.”
“No, kids then, huh?”
He shook his head. “We were going to wait another year, till Beth finished her Master’s degree. She was younger than I am.”
He was depressed, suddenly, remembering that. He hadn’t thought about it much since he’d washed up under Mike Hanrahan’s staircase in a chilling rain almost a year ago.
Annie looked at her five year old Adidas and empathized. “My old man went on sabbatical, too,” she said. “Took his secretary with him. She was a temp.”
“Shouldn’t last too long, then,” said Stu.
Annie gave him a sideways look. He was looking back, face ultra-serious…all but his eyes. She laughed.
“How does a man do that?” Stu asked, as they made their way back to the Mission, later. “How does a man leave his family—his children, for God’s sake!”
“I dunno. I guess he couldn’t take me anymore. Showin’ a cute li’l Georgia peach off t’your National Guard buddies is a lot different than bringin’ your boss home to a high school drop-out who doesn’t even know what it is you do for a livin’.”
“What did he do for a living?”
“Something to do with micro-circuits. Hell, I thought it was something ‘lectrical. You know, like house wiring. I called him an electrician. Made an ass of myself. Never knew what was goin’ to pop out of my mouth. His friends at work thought I was cute. He didn’t think I was cute. He thought I was dumb.”
Stu glanced at Annie Lee, assessing her. She still looked like a cute li’l Georgia peach to him—a harried, hassled and worried peach, but peach none-the-less.
“You’re not dumb, Annie,” he said. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re dumb.”
The Mission was a madhouse this afternoon. People jostled each other for a place at the rear of the main hall—a place where a policeman entering the room might not see them and single them out. Children milled and squealed under foot. Somehow through it all, Stu saw Nancy Yee gesturing at them from the kitchen door and steered Annie in that direction.
Nancy pounced on Annie first. “Delores is sick and this place is a zoo. Could you possibly help out in the kitchen? I can pay you five dollars an hour.”
Annie glanced at Stu and shrugged. “Where do I start?”
Nancy flashed a relieved grin. “Thanks. Just go on in. Leon will put you to work.”
When she turned back to Stu, the grin was gone. He had the impression that it still hung in the air on the other side of her head, waiting for her to step back into it.
“Stuart,” she said, and he knew something serious had to follow. “Stuart, the police picked up Mike. They caught him scavenging for returnables along the Main Street off-ramp.”
Stu stared at her, suddenly chilled to the marrow. “Where do they… Do you know where he is? Jail?”
Nancy shook her head with a swish of gleaming black silk.
“Not jail. They don’t want to be responsible for these people, Stu. They were to be detained in an annex to Juvenile Hall until there are enough for a busload. Then they get bussed out to the interstate.”
“To do what?” Stu asked, heat rising into his face. “To starve or get run over or hitch-hike into oblivion?”
Nancy shrugged. “Who cares, right? They’re no longer Santa Theresa’s problem… Where are you going? You can’t bail him out, Stu.”
He stared at the small brown hand gripping his sleeve.
“I’ve already tried,” she said. “Only next of kin can get them out, and then only if they can produce proof of residence somewhere.”
“Proof,” Stu repeated. “Everywhere you go these days—everything you do—you’ve got to prove something to somebody. Prove you have credit, prove you’ve got a degree, prove who you are, prove you really exist…prove you even have a right to exist. And then, some god-forsaken place like Santa Theresa questions that right-” Tears of exasperation made him pinch his eyes shut. “Damn,” he finished.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Nancy murmured.
Even before she’d finished the cliché, Stu could see her challenging it. Her eyes kindled. “Yes, dammit! Yes!” She tugged at his sleeve. “My office,” she told him, and struggled toward it, sidestepping floor-sitters, side-jumping kids.
Forty-five minutes and half as many phone calls later, Nancy was fading, but triumphant.
“So, let’s say you can really mobilize these people,” said Stu carefully. “Then, what? You get all this stuff together and take it where?”
“We’ll have to find a place.”
“Find a place?”
Nancy was already on her feet, already sifting through a file drawer. “I’ve got an old map here somewhere…”
She came up with it instantly. Stu didn’t doubt that her files were as well organized as the rest of the Mission…under normal circumstances.
She plopped the map down in front of him—“SANTA THERESA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE,” it said, and “SANTA THERESA AND OUTLYING AREAS.” She tossed her credit card on top of it.
“Do you think Annie would let us use her car? I get followed everywhere in mine. I’ll pay for gas.” She pointed at the card.
She nodded. “And police. Would you ask Annie about the car?”
“Turn left here.” Nancy pointed at the faded sign. It proclaimed, to anyone who cared, the junction of Santa Theresa’s modest I-80 Business Loop and State Highway 19.
Stu turned onto the tree-lined washboard, grimacing at the tattered patriotism of a once-upon-a-time red, white and blue gas station. Fifty yards later, he had brought the car nearly to a crawl, staring out the window.
“What is this?”
Nancy folded the map neatly across her knees. “This is—or should I say, this was Serendipity Springs. You won’t find it on your GPS and it’s a little the worse for wear, but still worthy of the name.”
Stu turned his stare to Nancy. “Meaning, it still has springs?”
She slapped his leg with the map. “Yes! And it’s still lucky, lucky, lucky! Pull over.”
It was a mess—a disaster. The buildings were aging recluses; smothered with vines, over-shadowed by monster oaks, hemmed in by tree-sized rhododendrons and choked with dust. Three out of four roofs had accidental skylights and several front porches featured a direct path to the root cellar. There was a drug store-cum-grocery (a “Mercantile,” according to the drooping sign), a boarded-up café—replete with warped lunch counter, a post office, a drive-in of indeterminate age and another building of indeterminate use. There was also a church, a peeling, weed-choked motel with tiny, square cabins, and a quintet of houses that the most entrenched realist would declare haunted.
Stu stood tentatively on the porch of one of the almost-certainly-haunted houses and surveyed the street. The opposing house surveyed him in turn, its empty windows passive and benign. He felt a tickle of something like excitement struggle up from the pit of his stomach.
Nancy was watching his face. “Well?”
He shrugged, attempting to appear uncommitted.
Nancy stamped her feet. “This-is-it, this-is-it, this-is-it!” she said. “It’s perfect!”
He shook his head. “Nancy…I don’t know…”
She sobered suddenly, dousing the smile. She could do that. It was like having a deep hole appear in the sidewalk right where you were about to step. It always scared the stuffing out of Leon.
“Would you rather starve? Do you think they’d rather starve? Right this minute, there could be a bus loading up at Juvenile Hall. Your friend Mike could be on it. It’s going to take him to a place without roofs or walls or food or drink. This looks pretty good next to that.”
It did look pretty good next to that. “It’ll take a lot of work,” he said.
“Anything that’s worth anything takes a lot of work,” Nancy countered. Then she punched his arm. “Come on, Stu. What do you really think?”
He grimaced. “If I told you, you’d think I was out to lunch.” He slapped his thigh. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
On the way back into town, Nancy made copious lists of tools, supplies, sundries and urgent phone calls to make. Meanwhile, Stu paged through imaginary architectural renderings of red, white and blue gas stations and drive-ins of indeterminate age.
As a result, he nearly missed the scene that was unfolding in the parking lot north of the town square—nearly, but not quite. Nobody could fail to notice the trio of black-and-whites converged in one corner. Stu swore and pulled the car into the curb.
Nancy looked up from her lists. “What-? Lucy!” She was out the door before Stu could even think of dissuasion, clipboard forgotten on the empty seat. He sat there in uncertainty for a moment, then got out of the car and followed, cautiously.
Nancy was already involved in the standoff, putting herself directly between the cops and their quarry. She was gesturing wildly, her voice creating hot punctuation marks in the cool, crisp air. Behind her, the old woman sat cross-legged on the grass, her little piles of goods—pilfered from the dumpsters of the rich and famous—spread about her on colorful scarves.
Her head was tilted stubbornly, arrogant chin thrust upward. Dark eyes spat a tirade of steamy Creole invectives at the four young city soldiers, who were clearly not sure what to do. They eyed the small crowd of tourists and natives that had gathered to watch.
A fifth officer manned the radio in his squad car, no doubt seeking guidance from higher up. Apparently, he received it—he left the car and issued a report to his teammates that took all of two seconds.
Stu stook helplessly by and watched as both Lucy and Nancy were escorted to a squad car and ducked inside. Lucy’s goods ended up in the trunk of the same car. Her shopping cart—a late model Raleys—was left in the care of two blue suited boys who peered uncomfortably at the crowd. They peered back—interested, angry, uncertain.
That was when Stu saw the discams topped with station call letters; saw the TJs in their ersatz-wool blazers with matching microphone wind filters. One camerawoman zeroed in on the shopping cart. He followed the movement with his eyes and stared at the cart for a full minute before he could tear them away. When he did, it was to see Billy McGuire standing not five feet away, his colorless eyes squinted into desperate, miserable slits.
Stu moved quickly, pulling the old cowboy away from the scene, listening silently to husky whimpers of desolation.
“My Lucy…why’d they hafta find Lucy? Oh, damn that girl! Why’d she hafta go out peddlin’ her crap? Didn’t she know this’d happen? My Lucy…” And it started all over again.
Stu drove Billy back to the Mission, where someone would have to stand between him and that suddenly irresistible bottle of booze. A peculiar feeling that was neither shock nor anxiety nor good red anger roiled behind his solar plexus. He was calm telling Leon what had happened. Calm, because Leon could be counted on to panic and make his voice squeak incoherently. He was calm driving Leon to the police station, where it took over two hours to get Nancy released.
He didn’t know what he was saving his anger for until the three of them were back in Annie’s station wagon.
Nancy slammed the passenger side door and looked at Stu with eyes that had “mutiny” etched across each iris. “Now, we mobilize,” she said.
Stu nodded, gritting his teeth so hard his jaw ached. He gunned the engine viciously and jerked the car into reverse, checking to make sure that no one had wandered into the path of their backward plunge. In the rear view mirror, Leon’s face had gone suspiciously white.
David Paice wriggled in his seat and adjusted his baseball cap. The street looked the same as it had half and hour ago—dark, misty and quiet, except for the comings and goings of dart-like prowl cars. The garage doors he watched disgorged them it regular intervals.
He glanced at Stu. “Maybe they won’t do it tonight,” he said.
“Unless they want to have to feed these people another meal and put them up for the night, they have to move them pretty soon.”
“How about now?” David pointed across the street.
The sharp nose of a police van had appeared in the exit of the station parking lot. It rolled down the ramp that sloped to street level and turned left onto Darlington Avenue. Stu and David watched it glide past their side street observation post, streetlights flickering on the faces of its passengers.
“That’s it,” said Stu. After a discreet pause, he started the car, flicked on the lights and pulled out onto Darlington.
The van’s taillights glowed ahead of them at a traffic signal. They caught up before the light changed and rode the van’s trail out of town.
It was the proverbial piece of cake. The only problem was that the drop site was on the opposite side of town from Serendipity Springs. It was a grove of trees near an overpass. Chosen, Stu imagined, for its proximity to the freeway and a major county road. It was a broad hint to the indigents to take a hike—literally.
He by-passed the grove and pulled the station wagon onto a rutted dirt track.
David flipped off his seat belt. “I’ll bet I can see from the roof,” he said, fumbling for the door handle.
“Whoa!” Stu’s hand clamped on his shoulder.
“What’s the matter?”
Stu pointed at the roof of the car, then twisted the dome light to an off position. “Now go.”
David grinned. “Sorry, I forgot.” He was out the door and clambering onto the roof.
The car rocked briefly, then settled as David found a comfortable position. There was a bare five minutes of calm before the car began rocking again. The door popped open and David deposited himself inside.
“All done,” he said. “The van’s on its way home.”
The pitiful group of transients was still standing in a confused huddle when Stu caught them in the cold glare of his headlights. They all turned and blinked warily, then one stocky, glaring, red plaid figure separated itself from the group, assuming a defiant posture.
Stu grinned and brought the car to a halt. “Mike!”
Within fifteen minutes of their hurried conference, Stu was transporting a car full of indigents to Serendipity Springs.
Nancy had set up her command post in one of the creaking houses and was ready for an army of homeless. The nine that arrived were overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality of their greeting.
Stu was overwhelmed, too—with the complete transformation Nancy’s team had worked on the dilapidated building in a mere six hours. The interior had been scrubbed within an inch of its life and smelled, not of disinfectant, but cedar and spice. Oil lamps were scattered about everywhere, illuminating piles of blankets and goods. It was like Christmas at Aunt Mary’s or a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
Stu told Nancy where she could find the remainder of her lost sheep and accepted an invitation to a hot dinner. He slept in Serendipity that night and dreamed of drive-ins and malts and carhops on roller skates.
There were twenty-five homeless in Serendipity by morning. They were clothed, fed and the mostly sober put to work on Nancy’s scrub team. Stu spent the morning running errands for “The Committee”—the unofficial title of the ad hoc steering group of which Nancy Yee was the nominal head.
By the time Stu and his companions stopped erranding, another group had an unofficial title. The homeless had begun calling themselves the “Down & Outer Club,” and Billy McGuire solemnized the appellation with some boards and paint. Stu held the ladder while the old cowboy mounted the “Club” shingle from the porch of the shabby Victorian that served as relief center. The “Down & Outers” broke into spontaneous applause—the probably haunted house was theirs.
“Who owns this property?” Stu asked Nancy after the impromptu “ceremony.”
“I don’t know. State of California, probably.”
“Aren’t they likely to want it returned to them at some point?”
“Why? So it can continue to rot in peace?” Nancy’s dark eyes flashed. “I’ve seen you snooping around the foundations and poking your nose into the attics. These buildings are salvageable, and you know it.”
“Salvageable,” repeated Nancy. “Why are you trying so hard to be a wet blanket, Stu? This sort of thing should be right up your alley.”
“No, urban renewal. And we’re not stealing. Borrowing, maybe… Scavenging. These people are professional scavengers, aren’t they?”
When he didn’t reply, she gave him a sly glance. “You didn’t answer me. How come you’re being such a drip?”
Stu barely managed to keep from laughing outright. “I didn’t know I was being a drip. I thought I was being a realist.”
“Realist-shmealist. You’re being a drip.” Nancy got suddenly and disconcertingly earnest, scooting sideways on the porch step to face him. The step groaned in protest. “Stuart, Serendipity is no place for realists. It’s a place for dreamers.”
“You evicting me?”
“I’m exposing you. You’re no realist. A realist would still be in Chicago planning lucrative suburbs, not nursemaiding the refuse of Santa Theresa.”
The word “refuse” raised his hackles. He started to rise to the bait, then accidentally let his eyes get tangled with hers.
“Dream, dammit,” she said.
He sighed deeply and gazed around him. “It’s salvageable, Nancy. Every building but that old barn next to this place. That should come down.”
“Okay. What about this place?” She nodded back over her shoulder.
Stu grinned. “I was thinking it’d make a great Bed & Breakfast for the Down & Outer Club.”
Nancy’s answering smile was dazzling. “Then Bed & Breakfast it shall be. How many able-bodied souls do you need for your construction crew?”
Stu shook his head. God, but her mind moved like a cat. “Six or seven.”
“You got ‘em.”
Nancy was up and away, leaving Stu feeling as if he’d just visited Oz… Or the Twilight Zone, he thought, surveying the tree-shrouded street. Just beginning to bud, the half-naked trees looked benignly sinister. Their skeletal branches dangled like the arms of lonely wraiths, wearing nothing but bracelets and rings of peridot and emerald.
He shook his head. Definately Oz.
By three p.m. that afternoon, he found himself at the head of a team of out-sized Munchkins. Billy McGuire and David Paice were among them, as well as an out-of-work carpenter and an aging bricklayer. The remainder of the eight-person crew was young and inexperienced, but eager.
Stu put a group of four to work cataloguing areas that were merely unsightly, while he checked more thoroughly for structural problems. Annie Lee set about tearing down crumbling wallpaper, while her sons tagged obediently behind Billy, scavenging for usable wood. There wasn’t much, although a search of the ramshackle barn revealed a stack of warped but recyclable two by fours under a rotting tarp. Nancy Yee added wood to one of her ubiquitous lists.
The donations of food, clothing and supplies were astounding. Members of the Committee’s various civic groups would visit Serendipity with eyes wide open. “You could use ‘this’ or ‘that,’” they’d say, and disappear, to reappear later with the aforementioned ‘this’ or ‘that.’
By the end of their first week in Serendipity, the Down & Outer Club’s growing membership had lawn mowers, hand tools, power tools, wood, some odd lots of brick and cinder blocks and one small semi-quiet generator. They also received old furniture, rugs, and even a couple of wood stoves.
Nor were their less tangible needs ignored. There was no alcohol in Serendipity Springs, but there were a number of alcoholics. There were no drugs, but there were those who considered them essential to their existence. Nancy’s contacts with AA were immediately on the scene setting up meetings, recruiting people to attend them.
“Only seven?” Nancy asked, looking over the list of volunteers. “Only seven people signed up?”
Shelley Forbes shook her head. “Don’t let it worry you, Nan. These are just the ones who are ready to admit they have a problem. There’ll be more coming as soon as it sinks in that they’re cut off. The only way for them to get booze or drugs is to go back into Santa Theresa, and if they do that, they’ll just get kicked right back out again. A word of warning, though. They could cause problems for you in the meantime.”
Nancy nodded in resignation. Problems. There always would be problems. Somehow she’d hoped Serendipity would make them all go away.
Stu’s work crew expanded, so he expanded his renovations to the old mercantile. As it happened, that was a stroke of good timing—thanks to a few carefully placed suggestions, there was a sudden influx of day-old baked goods and other perishables from the supermarkets and bakeries of Santa Theresa.
“We need a refrigerator for all this,” someone said, and several old butcher cases and freezer chests appeared. Some of them were broken, but between the four members of the “D&O Electrical Group,” two meat cases and three freezers were soon restored to a semblance of functionality.
“I could can this stuff, if I had mason jars,” Annie said, eying the perishables, and jars appeared. Annie Lee and Loucette became the hub of the food preparation team—“The Cookery.” They turned questionable materials into stews and goulashes and broths.
If it was old, or new but not working just right, if it was perishable, unwanted, or not worth selling, it showed up in Serendipity. Which was not to say that many nice, new, shiny things didn’t also show up in Serendipity, but used things appeared in much greater abundance.
“Hand-me-down things for hand-me-down people,” muttered Mike Hanrahan acerbically, appraising a truckload of gnawed looking furniture. “This whole damn town is a hand-me-down.”
“Now, y’old mule-head,” returned Billy McGuire. “This stuff’d be great if it was refinished proper.”
“Hmmm. And I s’pose yer just the fella t’restore’t?”
“It’d be a job,” Billy admitted, “but if I had some varnish remover and sand paper…”
“Beautiful job, Billy!” Nancy admired his handiwork from the open front door of the D&O Club. The little Queen Anne table glowed with the warm sheen of wood oil from beside the half refinished staircase. “Who did the doily?”
“That’s tattin’, deah,” Loucette informed her, entering the hallway from the front parlor. “That dahlin’ old girl, Mrs. Etterly done it. Lahd, when she come heah, she’d a whole bag o’ tattin’.” She chuckled. “Totin’ that big ole bag, an’ not one stitch a’ clothin’ in it, jus’ lace an’ thread an’ them little crochet hooks.” She said something in French and laughed.
Nancy stared at her. “Lucy, where did you get that wonderful outfit?”
Lucy smiled her glorious smile and made a piquantly tottering pivot. “Isn’t it grand, though?”
“I certainly is you,” Nancy said, and meant it.
The old red dress with its padded shoulders and tiny waist almost made her see the elderly woman as she no doubt saw herself—a Creole Queen, eternally youthful. To add to the quality of agelessness, Loucette’s hair was sprayed and netted into a style that fit the dress perfectly. The whole effect was underpinned with a pair of worn black velvet pumps, complete with round toes and tiny, crooked red bows.
“A very kind lady from the Salvation Army gave me these,” said Lucy. “Can’t see why anybody’d throw out such a fine dress. Annie did my hair,” she added, patting the sleek, black coil.
“You look like a model-doll, Lucy,” Billy enthused.
Lucy’s black face glowed with delight. “An’ your table is trés belle, Guillaume.”
Nancy looked at the little table speculatively. “Billy, didn’t I see about three more of these little guys in the cellar?”
“Yeah, I got one for th’other house in the works.”
“Will they all look as good as this one, do you think?”
Billy scratched the snowy carpet of stubble on his jaw. “Don’t see why not. One’s got a cracked leg, but I think I can wood putty that just fine.”
Nancy crossed the hallway and brushed her fingertips across the warm grain. “Hmmm,” she said, and smiled. “What’s cooking? Smells Creole.”
It was Creole. Everything, from the potatoes to the plentiful zucchini to the fish, tasted of Louisiana kitchens.
Two rooms had been set up for dining, making use of the various shapes and sizes of second-hand tables and junkyard chairs that had found their way into Serendipity.
Nancy stayed to dinner, sitting at table with the Paices and Stu. She was tending toward moody silence until David’s “Pass the zucchini” became “Pass-the-zucchini-you-should-see-what-Phil-Kroeger-and-I-found-out-behind-that-old-filling-station!”
“David, where’re your manners?” asked Annie Lee reflexively. “Didn’t I teach you to say ‘please?’”
“Sorry, mom. Please. It was the neatest thing—this whole barn full of old junkers.”
“Junkers?” asked Nancy.
“You know, old cars. Really old cars. Antiques.”
Nancy’s eyes took on a speculative gleam. “Hmmm. I wonder if we could sell them to a junk yard or car mechanic?”
“Sell ‘em?” David laughed. “Over Phil’s dead body! He wants to—um, re—um, refur—um, fix ‘em up. You should’ve seen the way he drooled over this old Buick. Gag me! It was really pukey.”
“Yeah, pukey,” echoed Sammie, rolling his eyes.
Annie Lee bristled. “David Andrew Paice, you watch your tongue! You’re not too old to have your mouth washed out with soap.”
“Just to big, huh, mom?” David quirked a grin at Stu, who failed to return it. The grin faltered. “Uh, sorry, mom.”
“Me too,” said Sammie, not to be outdone, even in contrition.
Nancy picked up her half-empty plate and headed for the kitchen. “See ya,” she said.
Stu watched her go, suspecting that a new list had just sprung into being.
The truck arrived bearing a jumble of auto parts. It left carrying several pieces of Billy McGuire’s refinished furniture, a crate of The Cookery’s canned goods, and a bag of Pearl Etterly’s tatting.
Phil Kroeger was ecstatic, and closeted himself and David Paice in the rundown garage with a decrepit Buick and the parts. They were seen only at mealtime, looking like they’d been bathing in thirty-weight. Annie Lee quickly despaired of getting her oldest son washed up for dinner.
A bare week after the arrival of the auto parts, Phil stood sheepishly outside Nancy’s office at the Mission, looking as if he’d committed some heinous offense.
Nancy glanced up and saw him there—lumberjack cap in hands stained even darker than their normal mahogany. “Good grief, Phil! What’s wrong?”
Phil shuffled. “Well, Miss Yee, it’s like this… It’s my cars.”
She didn’t even help him along with so much as an ‘Oh?’ so he was forced to clear his throat and look even more sheepish and shuffle again.
“I finished one of ‘em.”
Nancy’s face lit up like Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. “That’s wonderful! You’ll have to take me out for a spin.”
“Well, Miss Yee, that’s just it.” Phil’s voice, soft as his over-sized black eyes, grew even more muted. He saw that Nancy was about to ask him to speak up (everybody did), and cleared his throat again. “I can’t take anybody for a spin. I don’t got gas.”
“Gas,” echoed Nancy weakly.
“Um…yes, ma’am. Real gas…gasoline. I managed to get a gallon here’n there to test the engine, but not enough to drive anyplace. Stuff’s hard to come by these days.”
Nancy flipped open a notebook and scribbled something. “Gas-o-line,” she said, then reached for the phone and her Rolodex simultaneously.
Phil boggled, watching her move—flipping through the Rolodex with one hand, picking up the receiver and punching out the prefix with the other. The Rolodex hand stopped and the phone hand completed the number.
“Hi! Is Mr. Garvey in? …Nancy Yee. Thanks!” She winked at Phil and picked up a pencil. “Hi, Mr. Garvey, Nancy here… What..? Oh, yes, the car parts were a God-send. We really appreciate- …Oh, no, thank you, Mr. Garvey… All right, Jim… Actually, that’s what I’m calling about. Phil’s got one of the cars in running condition, but it doesn’t have a converter and we don’t have any gasoline for it and… Well, that’d be nice… Well, I’m sure Phil would be happy to show it to you… Sure!”
She glanced at her watch. “How about one o’clock? You could have lunch out there with us… Nonsense, Jim. There’s plenty. All our friends have been just as generous as you have… Great. You like Creole? …Fantastic! See you at one, then? …Oh, it’s that old red-white-and-blue filling station on A19 at 80… Uh-huh. Just turn in there… Wonderful. We’ll meet you there, then.”
She hung up with a smile of satisfaction. “You shall have fifteen gallons of gas at one o’clock this afternoon. That ought to enough for a good spin.”
Phil’s slow smile was crooked and full of holes. Nancy thought it was one of the best smiles she’d ever seen.
Jim Garvey was as good as his word, showing up at 12:50 in front of the old filling station with three five-gallon cans of gasoline.
“What a gasser!” he chortled, ogling the faded red-white-and-blue pumps. “Little pun, there,” he informed Nancy.
She smiled and nodded. Phil shuffled.
It took ten minutes to pull Garvey away from the battered garage, but he finally followed them to where Phil’s pride and joy awaited what was probably its first square meal in forty years.
“Fifty-two Buick!” Jim Garvey breathed awfully. “Not bad shape. Little dinged up, though.”
“Haven’t got the stuff t’do much body work,” said Phil defensively.
Garvey waved that aside. “Pretty is as pretty does,” he said. “Let’s see how she runs.”
“She” ran like an Olympic marathoner—steady and smooth. Phil took Nancy, David and Jim Garvey on the inaugural spin and was toothily beaming from ear to ear when they pulled up again twenty minutes later in front of the gas station.
Stu was there, examining the underground gas tanks, when they drove up. He rose and waved, unable to resist answering Phil Kroeger’s infectious, lopsided grin.
“Sounds great, Phil! Good work.”
“Thank you, Mr. Williams.”
“Stu,” Stu corrected him (for about the fiftieth time).
Phil smiled and nodded.
Jim Garvey had gotten out of the Buick and was peering into the gas tanks. “Y’know these tanks look like they’re still good.”
Stu joined him. “I was wondering about that. Is there anyway to tell for sure?”
Garvey chuckled. “You thinking of setting up business?”
“No, just idle wondering.”
Nancy squatted down opposite them, staring at the stygian hole. “Of course, we could use some gasohol for all the relief vehicles, and gasoline for Phil’s projects.” She wrinkled her nose. “Pretty silly idea, huh? It’d take a fortune to fill these.”
Jim Garvey’s eyes fell on the Buick, returning only reluctantly to Nancy’s face. “I imagine it’d be real handy for you folks to have working pumps out here… Especially if Phil here is planning any more renovations. Wouldn’t hurt to check it out.”
Jim Garvey was mightily impressed with the Cookery’s Creole cuisine. He was also impressed with the amount of work the Down & Outers had done on their new quarters.
“This is great, Nancy,” he congratulated her after a lunch of filé gumbo and hot, sweet French bread. “You folks have done a bang-up job on this place. That little motel is looking real cute. Y’know, it kind of reminds me of the little town I grew up in. …Truelove. Truelove, Idaho.”
He smiled reminiscently, stomach and heart both apparently full. “I remember we had one of those drive-ins, too. You know, the ones that looked like a giant mug of root beer? Sat out by the highway…such as it was.”
He chuckled, then stretched and stood up. “Well, I got work to do this afternoon.” He rolled comfortably to the dining room door, then glanced back at Phil Kroeger. “You do body work, Phil?”
“Hmmm.” Jim waved a hand in farewell and left.
The double tanker truck showed up five days later with a big, red ribbon around its curved flanks. A huge banner across the nose of the truck announced it as a gift “From the Petroco owners of Santa Theresa.” It rolled into Serendipity at noon on a Saturday, escorted by Jim Garvey and a TJ from the local PBS station.
Nancy was immediately wary. “Jim, you know we don’t want any publicity.”
Garvey had the good graces to look embarrassed. “It wasn’t me, Nancy. One of the other owners happened to mention to his wife that we were doing this charity bit and she works for KETV. Next thing I know…” He shrugged and glanced at the journalist—an earnest-looking young Hispanic woman with glossy black curls that were bobbing vigorously as she tapped her first notes into a pocket compad.
Nancy scowled and opened her mouth to say something thwarting, when the young woman looked up and gave her a smile no less dazzling than her own.
“Hi. I’m Pepper Delgado.” She held out her hand. “You must be Nancy Yee.”
Nancy smiled weakly and took the hand. It had a very firm grip. “Pepper, I… We’re really not in the market for publicity. Could I convince you to…to leave?”
“Why? I’d think publicity would be exactly what you did want. You could be drawing support from statewide—even nationwide.”
“We could also be drawing unwelcome attention from statewide, Pepper. This little town may have owners somewhere who might suddenly decide their worthless property is worth something after all. Or at least that they don’t want it in the hands of a bunch of reprobates. I don’t want this to end up in the courts—we’d lose.”
Pepper was shaking her head. “Do you have any idea how much weight popular opinion carries in situations like this?”
“Actually, I do. But popular opinion didn’t save these people from being dropkicked out of Santa Theresa. I doubt it’d save them from a charge of ‘grand theft, town,’ either.”
“I’d be willing to bet you’re wrong. If the media took an advocacy role-“
Nancy’s eyebrows twitched. “Can the media take an advocacy role?”
Pepper had the honesty to blush slightly. “Not strictly speaking. But a journalist can. Please, Nancy. This is the most important story Santa Theresa has ever produced. This is isn’t just tourist pap, it’s-it’s an epic. It’s-“
“It’s the lives of about fifty homeless people at the moment.”
Pepper nodded, soberly. “I know that. But if this fifty people are successful, if they can survive, if I can get other people interested in their survival—get them to care about it… Nancy, that’s worth something, isn’t it?”
Nancy Yee sighed. “It’s worth a lot, if it would really work that way. But what if the wrong people get interested in Serendipity, Pepper? What then? You look at these folks and see heroes—so do I. But a lot of other people look at them and see drunks and junkies and derelicts and juvenile delinquents. If we show Serendipity off to the wrong people…”
“Then it becomes a media battle. It already is a media battle. I don’t think you realize what a stir this has caused. We still get calls asking what’s happened to these people. That’s why I’m here—because people still care. Out of sight isn’t always out of mind.”
Nancy considered that. “And who are these people? The callers, I mean.”
“Some are just concerned and curious. A few expressed a great deal of interest in helping.”
“Did you get their names and addresses?”
“They’re on file.”
“Can I have them?”
“Can I have a story?”
Nancy looked at Pepper speculatively. “How’d you like to do a documentary?”
“Yeah. Instead of just popping a human interest story, why not a feature: The Resurrection of Serendipity Springs?”
Pepper answered the other woman’s slow smile. “Something to air around the Fourth of July, huh?”
“I like the way your mind works, Ms. Delagado.”
“I have a cameraman whose mind works the same way. I’ll need him.”
“Can you trust him?”
“With my life. He’s my fiancé.”
Nancy tapped the top of her clipboard thoughtfully. “How soon can you have him here?”
Pepper’s fiancé, Georg “Sunny” Durande, was an amiable young man with glossy black dreadlocks and skin the color of bittersweet chocolate. He spoke with a tease of Jamaica and moved with a thin whisper of music.
“Don’t those give you audio problems?” asked Nancy, fascinated by the sheer number of tiny silver bells entwined in his hair.
He smiled blindingly and drew a soft, black hat out of his jacket pocket. “Part of my recording equipment.” He pulled the hat over his head, effectively silencing the bells, and hefted his Lasex PortAVee to one shoulder.
Nancy was quickly impressed with the way Pepper and Sunny worked. They were ubiquitous but unobtrusive—filming everything and everyone, but staying out of the way. The ceremonial filling of the gas tanks, attended by the entire population of Serendipity, was covered in full. Afterward, Pepper interviewed a few of the residents and took a tour of the inhabited buildings.
“You’ve done an amazing piece of work here,” she told Nancy over a cup of hot coffee. “This is a legitimate miracle.”
Nancy shot Stu a conspiratorial glance. “We’re just getting started. As soon as the motel renovation bears some fruit, we’ll be able to house more residents.”
“How are you housing what you’ve got now?” asked Sunny. “Fifty-seven, I make it.”
“It’s not easy,” Stu admitted. “We’ve got three houses livable. This one, moderately so, the others just barely. We’ve got running well water. We manage to get it hot once a day to allow bathing. There’s electricity for the kitchen and work sites only. No flush toilets yet, but we’re working on it. We had to dig outhouses,” he replied to Sunny’s raised brows. “Two of these old Victorians have five bedrooms. The other one has four. Plus, we’ve converted a couple of downstairs sitting rooms into bedrooms. Everybody has at least one roommate. Actually, we’ve got room for more. As far as feeding everybody…well, right now we do it in shifts, the cantina here only holds about thirty people.”
Pepper nodded, following his gaze around the cozy suite of the two converted parlors, which even now held about fifteen occupants. “This is a real cute place,” she complimented them. “Sort of faded Americana. I’ll bet it’s good for morale to have a place like this to hang out.”
“My patrons seem to be happy.” Nancy surveyed the Down & Outers in the “café” and felt a moment of intense satisfaction.
“So what’s next?” asked Sunny. “I’m sure your population is growing.”
“You bet! Especially since we’re literally soliciting citizens. These are just the folks that haven’t been able to get off the street in time, or who volunteered to come out here and put their supposedly useless talents to work.”
Stu smiled at his coffee cup. “When we hit one hundred, Billy wants to erect a population sign out on the Loop.”
“Billy McGuire is our master carpenter,” explained Nancy.
“We’ve sold some of his work in Santa Theresa.”
Pepper’s ears perked almost visibly. “They’re self-sufficient?”
Stu and Nancy both laughed.
“Not by half!” said Nancy. “But, we’re trying. It’s like digging for buried treasure—discovering half-remembered or never-developed skills, putting them to work. Sometimes the hardest part is getting these folks past the idea that they’re useless or worthless. They’re far from it. If we could just convince people of that, get them to invest in Serendipity…”
“One of our biggest material problems,” said Stu, “is power. We’ve got three little Honda generators and four full propane tanks. But to get this place fully modernized…” He shrugged.
“What about alternative power sources?” asked Sunny.
Stu nodded. “We’re looking into both wind and solar. But we need materials and expertise.”
Pepper looked thoughtful and tapped on her compad, while Stu wondered if she generated as many lists as Nancy did. He felt a niggle of something like guilt and cleared his throat. “Of course, those are just the material problems. We have human problems too. Some of these folks are alcoholics, some of them have other problems, some of them are just trouble.”
“Or troubled,” said Nancy.
Stu nodded. “Or troubled. A couple of them have the DT’s pretty bad. One guy’s coming off heroin… We’ve got people from AA out here all the time. “
“I heard you had some runaways,” observed Pepper quietly. “Can you tell me about that?”
Nancy glanced at Stu and shrugged. “They wanted coke. They wanted it bad enough to hike all the way back into Santa Theresa for it. One of them is in jail on a possession charge. The other one is still missing.”
“They were kids,” said Stu, and was angry but didn’t know who to be angry at.
“Sounds like you could use a full-time counseling staff,” Sunny said.
Nancy smiled faintly. “We can dream.”
Pepper’s compad squealed at the speed of her note taking. She wanted to do more than dream.
“I like them,” said Stu, after Pepper and Sunny had packed up notes and PortAVee and left. “I think they’ll help.”
Nancy sighed. “Me too. But they made me realize just how much help we need. I mean, this place is reclaimable, but at what cost?” She shook her head, looking, for the first time since Stu had known her, almost defeated.
“Is it the place or the people you’re thinking about?”
“Are we doing badly?”
“No. No, we’re not. Not right now. But Stu, it can’t go on indefinitely—all this largesse. People can’t keep pouring funds and materials and energy into Serendipity forever. At some point, we’ve got to become self-subsistent. And we’ve got to solve our own problems. Maybe we can give these people a place to start over—big ‘maybe.’ But we can’t make them want to start over. What if we get somebody who just doesn’t want to do it? What do we do? Kick them out? And if we did that, wouldn’t we be just as guilty as the society that rejected them in the first place?”
“Some people don’t want to be helped, Nancy. That’s just the way it is.”
“But what do we do with them? What do we do with Stark Benson if he won’t go to the AA meetings and he won’t work and he won’t even talk to the counselor?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that. But I do have an answer to the other problem. I think we can be self-subsistent. Hell, I know we can.” He got suddenly to his feet. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
He took her hand and led her out through the kitchen, past the coy looks of its staff, across the half-groomed back yard and through a recently re-hung gate in the unkempt hedge.
Nancy sidestepped the pair of shears lying near the gate and stopped, her eyes wide. In front of her, within the huge rectangle formed by the hedge, neat rows of tilled and furrowed soil stretched in a crazy-quilt pattern. On stakes marking each section, seed packets proclaimed what was planted between the furrows. In one corner, a monstrous growth of squash sprawled, a pile of clippings lying next to it on the earth. Other, less primordial-looking plants dotted the large plot.
“When did all this happen?”
Stu laughed at the expression on her face. “Not over night, I assure you. Some of our Club members found the plot and decided to try their hands at gardening. Seeds are cheap, so we approached a local nursery…” He shrugged. “We’ll know if any of us have green thumbs in a week or two.”
“But those great big…whatevers…” Nancy waggled a hand at the squash.
“Remnants of the previous residents. It was pretty wild, but I think we’ve trimmed it back enough to see some produce in season. And this isn’t the only plot. There’s another one in about the same condition behind the pink stucco. Plus, there’s the orchard on the other side of the motel. Peaches, cherries, apples. It’s pretty overgrown, but the trees all seem healthy enough. Some of them are starting to blossom already.”
Nancy smiled. “Just like the Down & Outers, huh?”
She laughed outright. “Can this be Stuart Williams, the realist?”
“Realist-shmealist,” Stu grinned. “Serendipity is no place for realists. We ran ‘em all out of town.” There was a definite dream-gleam in his eye.
Nancy saw it and nodded. “Yes, I feel much better.”
The rains came in early April and, with them, enough indigents to more than double the population of Serendipity Springs. Billy McGuire chose a piece of wood for his population sign.
Three units of the motel were finished and pressed into service and work started on the interior of the little church.
Glorying in the equipment lent by Jim Garvey’s Petroco, Phil Kroeger finished the bodywork on the ‘52 Buick and unveiled her during a break in the weather. Jim Garvey immediately handed him a check for $40,000.
Phil, who had never seen so much as a fifty-dollar bill, could only stare at it.
“She’s a classic car, Phil,” said Garvey. “And you did a classic job on her.”
“But, Mr. Garvey,” stammered Phil, still staring at the check, “you can’t drive her out on the road. She’s illegal—she burns gasoline. You need to get ‘er converted.”
“No, sir.” Jim patted the Buick’s gargantuan nose. “What I need is a classic car permit and I have one of those. She’s worth more than forty thou’, of course, but if I leave you the equipment you’ve been borrowing, we should be even up.”
Phil’s big, dark eyes filled with tears. “Thank you, Mr. Garvey. Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” said Jim. “Literally.” He studied Phil’s face for a moment, then said, “D’you mind if I ask sort of a personal question?”
“How’d you come to be a-a-“
“Hobo, sir. Tha’s what I call myself. Jus’ a hobo.”
“What I mean is, how come you’re not doing this kind of work for a living? You’re damn good at it, you know.”
Phil glanced at the check again. “Well sir, I used to do this sorta work. Then I got real sick. Didn’t have no bennie-fits. Y’know, hospital—that sorta thing. When I was well enough to work again, I was sorta broke up lookin’. An’ broke, too. Hadta go on welfare. Nobody seemed to want an old, broke up dude with no schoolin’. Nobody believed I could do what I said I could do.”
Garvey nodded. “Well, I believe you, Phil. You’ve got a touch with old cars.”
Phil smiled his slow, holey smile. “Tha’s ‘cause I love ‘em, I s’pose.”
“Yeah, and I bet they love you, too.” He patted Phil’s shoulder and headed off to take possession of his old new prize.
“Don’t spend that all in one place.”
The check was spent in many places, but the Committee made certain some of it went toward turning Phil’s ramshackle auto shop inside out and putting it back together in much better condition. He even got an old Coke machine to stand invitingly against the front of the building.
Billy McGuire painted his population sign red-white-and-blue and used the same colors on a sign for Phil’s garage. Both signs were reared the same day with all Serendipitans in attendance.
One sign said: “Serendipity Springs—Population 137.” The other said: “Phil’s Klassic Korner.” The news team of Delgado and Durande recorded the event for posterity.
They also recorded the return to Serendipity of several runaways. There was an angry and tearful welcome. There was a fight. Two stayed and entered the rehab program, one left and never returned.
When a couple of residents were found smuggling booze into Serendipity, Delgado and Durande recorded that as well. And when Billy McGuire, suffering from the lingering effects of their smuggling, went into DT’s, he insisted they be there to disc his agony.
“I want to remember,” he said. “An’ I want them kids to remember. This is what hell’s like. It ain’t no burnin’ place. It’s a damn drunk tank.”
His Lucy cried and that went down on disc, too.
They also recorded the ongoing restoration work. There were four crews, now. Two handled destruction and construction, two handled interior finishing. While one crew tackled further clearing and cleaning of the motel with inexpert gusto, the more experienced took over work on the two half-finished Victorians.
The finishing crews followed them around cleaning, painting, and wallpapering. “Granny wallpaper,” Annie Lee dubbed it. It was leftover stuff, mostly; dignified patterns in muted “granny” colors. It fit the aging houses to a “T”. So did the truckload of antique furniture and carpets driven into town by two smiling representatives of the local Catholic Relief Association. Nancy and Pepper, chopping weeds in the front yard of the Down & Outer Bed & Breakfast (or the D&O/B&B as it was affectionately called), ogled the rich assortment with unabashed lust.
“What’s this?” Nancy asked the beaming driver.
The woman looked as if she was fighting a raging case of giggles. “This,” she said, “is from the estate of Dorothy Calderon. She died two days ago and bequeathed all of her furniture and some of her cash assets to Serendipity Springs.”
After five seconds of silent amazement, Pepper giggled. So did the Catholic Relief ladies.
“This is just great!” sighed Pepper finally. “I’ll get Sunny and the discam-“
“Right behind you, and recording,” said Sunny’s voice.
“Nancy, are you going to open your present?”
Nancy laughed, eyes dancing. “Wow, you betcha!”
It was Christmas in April. There was a literal houseful of antiques, every one of them breathtakingly beautiful. The Down & Outers unloaded each piece with awful care, ooh-ing and ah-ing.
“I ain’t never, never had anything like this!” exclaimed one middle-aged woman cradling a Tiffany lamp in her arms as if it were a baby.
The riches were distributed between the restored Victorians, finding places of honor in parlors, front halls and bedrooms. All three of the late Mrs. Calderon’s fine dining tables went to The Cookery dining parlors. Those, with a few additional appointments and some of Pearl Etterly’s tatting, gave the establishment a breath of fading class—like a dried orchid pressed between the pages of a first edition of Jane Eyre.
Annie Lee laughed delightedly at the stunning effect of polished wood reflecting the dancing flames of a dozen oil lamps and candles. “This is fantastic! Lord, I wish we could open up for business. Can you imagine, Lucy?” She draped an arm around the older woman’s thin shoulders. “Now all we need is a piano so you can sing for our supper.”
“We do have a piano,” said Nancy. “A baby grand. That is, it’s ours if we want it. Or we can sell it for what it’ll bring at auction. They left it in town because it needs to be moved by pros. Do we want it?” She looked to Lucy for an answer.
“It’d prob’ly bring a lot at auction…”
Nancy shook her head. “Not important. The question is, do you want it?”
Lucy’s eyes glowed. “Oh, Miss Nancy, I would jus’ love to have a piano.”
They installed the baby grand in one corner of the larger dining parlor. Pearl Etterly draped it in lace and Lucy sat down to test the keyboard. It was well tuned and Lucy’s experienced but rusty playing filled both rooms with sweet, blue sounds. She played and sang for the diners that night, accepting their requests (when she knew them) with smiles, and their praise with flushed modesty. Her voice, deep and smokey, was seamed with the hairline cracks of age, but still had the power to enchant.
After dinner, Nancy called a town assembly. All adult Down & Outers and several of the older kids crowded into the twin dining rooms to hear what was up. The Delgado/Durande news team put the gathering on videodisc.
Nancy stood at the head of the front dining parlor on the raised flooring of the big bay window embrasure and addressed the assemblage.
“By now, you’ve all seen the beautiful furniture that’s been moved into the houses. It’s ours because a very sweet lady changed her will three weeks ago and made us—Serendipity—heir to her house furnishings and about $80,000 of her cash estate.”
A murmur of stunned appreciation circled the room, followed by enthusiastic cheers.
“I believe she knows how grateful we all are for her wonderful generosity,” Nancy continued, when the good-humored roar abated. “But I still wish she could be here tonight so we could throw a party for her. However, we’ve got lots of friends who are still very much alive, and I think it would be a nice gesture to throw a party for them.”
The idea went over like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Plans for the May Gala began immediately. Nancy compiled the invitation list and Jules Trevor, secretary of the Committee, printed the invitations and recruited a detachment of couriers to hand carry them to the recipients. Annie and her kitchen staff planned a sumptuous but thrifty buffet and Lucy practiced her repertoire of silky, sultry tunes.
The Construction and Interiors crews put in extra hours, exhausting themselves in an orgy of cleaning and finishing. They converted the remaining parlor of the D&O Club into yet another intimate and homely dining room, and turned the old house into a Victorian showplace.
Pepper Delgado surveyed the finished product thoughtfully, then hiked down to Phil’s Klassic Korner to use the pay phone. She returned to town looking like a cat backstroking through heavy cream just about the time Sunny was introducing Stu and Nancy to a gentleman with white hair, wire-rim glasses and a PhD in solar engineering.
The gentleman, Paul Walker by name, spent the afternoon in conference with Stu, either closeted in Stu’s office or wandering about Serendipity. Pepper, meanwhile, spent the afternoon softening Nancy up to receive one of her brainstorms. After chatting at length about the wonderful progress the D&O Club had made and how many new friends they had enlisted among the more influential citizens of neighboring Santa Theresa, she finally made an approach.
“That,” she declared, nodding at the D&O/B&B, “is a major accomplishment. I mean, it looks like it was done up by some hot-shot architect/designer.”
Nancy beamed at the old house. “It does look great doesn’t it? These are pretty exceptional people.”
“I kid you not, Nance. This place would look right at home on the cover of Home & Garden or California Life… It’s a shame it has to be hidden from the world.”
“What do you have in mind, Pepper?” Nancy glanced at the other woman’s face. “Or maybe I should have said, ‘Pepper, what have you done?’”
“Nothing reprehensible. It’s just that I have connections with a couple of magazine publishers. I called them in.”
“Called them in?”
“Favors. I share research with people, do some interviews, special interest stuff.”
“And what did you tell these connections?”
“That I had a special interest scoop—a unique restoration project.”
“I didn’t reveal anything important. Laid it out like kind of a ‘Mystery Spot.’ They love that kind of stuff. Whets their appetites. More to the point, it whets the readers’ appetites.”
She watched the expressions chasing each other across Nancy’s face for a moment, then said, “By the way, I’ve found us another benefactor… Can Sunny disc the Gala?”
Nancy choked on a laugh, then scowled with mock severity. “Sunny had better disc the Gala, or he’ll be the last course of the evening. And who’s this mystery benefactor?”
Pepper pulled a business card out of her pocket and handed it to Nancy, suspecting for a moment that she had wasted her trump card.
“Hey! This guy owns a lot of real estate. And isn’t he involved with civil liberties stuff?”
“He’s an attorney. A very wealthy, very nice, very generous attorney. He’s represented homeless people in court a number of times.”
“No kidding?” Nancy tucked the card into her shirt pocket and headed for the house, wielding her trowel. She stopped halfway up the porch steps. “By the way, wish the readership of Home & Garden ‘bon appetit.’ I hope they like Serendipity Surprise.”
Pepper whooped and ran all the way to Phil’s.
The May Gala promised to be bigger and better than anyone imagined. The guests begged to bring guests of their own, and started a new flood of giving. The “thank you” banquet turned into a fund-raiser with no prompting whatsoever from Nancy or her cohorts.
Offers of assistance poured in. Area high schools formed support groups and volunteered after-school and weekend help to speed the renovation process along. They dug and planted, scraped and painted, polished and waxed. And they took their orders in all of this from people who bare months or weeks before had been considered worthless by nearly everyone, including themselves.
Wherever they went, they left a gleaming trail. Everything gleamed. Everything from the finish on Loucette’s piano to the finish on Phil’s two newly refurbished cars. Even the four more barely finished units of the “Lucky Lullabye Motel” gleamed—with fresh spring green and white paint. And if the row of fresh Cypress trees along its sweeping gravel circle didn’t gleam, at least they looked “damn fine,” in the opinion of Mike Hanrahan, who engineered their planting. The motel units were immediately inhabited by three families and four young women late of Santa Theresa’s blossoming red-light district.
The night of the Gala, Phil’s two new antiques took places of honor flanking the Down & Outer Club’s white picket gate. Jim Garvey added a third vintage vehicle to the line up; his two invited guests brought the tally up to five. By 7:30 the main street of Serendipity was lined with limos, compacts, beat up station wagons—even a school bus.
It was a barely clouded night with a slight, balmy breeze. Japanese lanterns bobbed down the walkway on a silver cord, swayed under the eves of the B&B’s wide verandah and dotted the yard with little pools of golden light.
Nancy decided she couldn’t have begged for a better night. In the light of Serendipity’s four honest-to-God propane fueled street lamps, the place really looked like a living, breathing town.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” asked Annie Lee Paice from beside her on the verandah.
Nancy nodded and glanced at her. “Wow! So’re you! Has Stuart seen this get-up?”
Annie blushed. “It’s just an old square dance rig I altered, that’s all.” She stroked the lacy shoulders.
“Ah! Do I detect the fine hand of Pearl Etterly in this so-called ‘old square dance rig?’”
Annie nodded. “You really think it’s pretty? I mean, it doesn’t seem…silly or old-fashioned?”
Nancy studied Annie again. The verandah, with its lanterns and old white-washed porch swing, was a suitable frame for a pretty Southern belle at a garden party; her guests coming and going behind her, their conversations mingling with the breeze, music floating from her open parlor windows.
“It fits the night, Annie,” said Stu William’s voice from behind Nancy. “It fits the town. Old-fashioned…that’s just right here.”
Nancy grinned. “Took the words right out of my mouth,” she said. “S’cuse me. I’ve got to check up on the seating arrangements.”
Annie watched her duck into the house, glanced at Stu, then smiled shyly at the porch railing.
“I hope you’re not planning on hiding that pretty dress in the kitchen all evening,” Stu said.
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Why, you got something in mind?”
“Dinner and dancing. That is a dancing dress, isn’t it?”
“I guess it’s got a few dances left in it.”
“Then we’ll make sure they get put to good use.”
“Look at them kids!” snorted Mike Hanrahan. “They look like somethin’ out an old High School year book! White socks ‘n’ duck-tail do’s.”
“You complainin’ again, Irish?” asked Billy, handing him a large tray of vegetables and dip. “I like the way they look—takes me back, y’know?”
“Somebody oughta take you back, Cowboy, an’ see if they can’t fix yeh.”
“Guillaume est parfaitement,” Loucette informed him. She pointed at the kitchen door. “Now, you jus’ take that tray out to dining room one. Dining room one, you heah?”
“Yes, madam. I ain’t deaf, just-“
“Stubborn,” Lucy finished for him. “That’s what’s wrong with you, old man. You’re stubborn. You jus’ can’t stand to have any fun.”
“Fun? Pffft! You call this fun? House full o’ noisome strangers…laughin’, carryin’ on… Hmph! Fun won’t start, Miss Lucy, until you start singin’!” And he wheeled out of the kitchen with his laden tray.
“Old crocodile…” muttered Lucy, shaking her head. “Scowl at you, an’ then pay you a compliment.”
Billy shrugged affably. “Guess that’s the way he has fun, Sugar.”
“Um, Mr. Garvey?” David Paice’s fourteen year-old face looked as if it belonged to somebody caught tee-peeing the mayor’s house.
“Yessir, what’s the trouble?”
“Well, it’s this, sir.” David fumbled forty dollars and some change out of his jeans pocket and held it out. “Um, I think it belongs to you. It’s from gasohol. Well, some of it, anyway. Some’s for gasoline.”
Garvey put down his fork. “You had customers?”
“Well…yessir. I was helping Phil in the shop and this car pulled up and they wanted gas. They were real desperate—they were nearly out… Then, a couple more people came in and… Was I wrong to sell it?”
Jim snorted. “What else could you do, son? Give it away?”
“Coulda, I guess.”
“Hmm. And the gasoline?”
“Some guy with an antique car. He had a license for it—he showed me.” David grinned. “You shoulda seen the way he looked at that ‘72 T-Bird Phil’s doing for you. Nearly popped his eyeballs out.”
Jim Garvey looked thoughtfully at the handful of money.
“How’d you and Phil like to manage a franchise for me?”
The media was not blind, deaf or dumb. Nancy knew that. And she knew that whatever else it was, the Gala was a media event. It was a calculated risk, and today she hoped they were ready for the onslaught of attention. They had to be ready. They had something to fight for—and there were more of them to fight for it every day.
Billy’s little population sign featured a replaceable placard which tracked the rise of that statistic in increments of twenty-five. Just that morning, it had been amended to read: “Serendipity Springs, Population: 225.”
That same morning, Sunny’s plaid PhD friend had begun spec’ing alternative energy sources for Serendipity. And that morning, Stu had conscripted a crew of twenty to start work on his drive-in, while Annie Lee, Billy, and Lucy fielded a similar team to give the old café a thorough scrubbing down. And that morning, another group of Down & Outers had begun finishing work on the church.
And that morning, Stark Benson had stolen his roommate’s pitiful savings and some of his clothes, snatched a loaf of bread and some fruit from the kitchen of the B&B and taken off for parts unknown. A failure. Another failure. As many times as Nancy Yee told herself the failure was not hers, she still racked her brains for something she could have done—something she could do for the next Stark Benson.
She would still be pondering it that evening while she was being interviewed on national TV. And she would probably still be pondering it the following week when, a bit short of the Fourth of July, Sunny and Pepper aired their documentary.
When maybe all hell would break loose.
What broke loose was more like purgatory… No, Stu decided, that wasn’t quite right. It was just life to the power of ten. There were flashes of hell, bursts of heaven, and a very earthly sense of waiting in between.
The media was a pain and a pleasure. It was suddenly and constantly under foot, in the way, and generally obnoxious, but the influx of media resulted in the influx of something else that Stu was sure Serendipity Springs had never expected to see—tourists. And with the tourists came money.
MacDonald’s Mercantile, set up for the limited needs of the Down & Outers, found its supplies decimated in a weekend. But—wonder of wonders—there was money to buy more goods. Bea MacDonald’s staff started canvassing local farms for assistance and came up with enough response to open a produce section. Two farm owners even lent their skills to help the Down & Outers growing group of would-be farmers with their garden plots.
Phil’s Petroco station, with its fortuitous location, was doing land office business and so was his auto shop. Antique car buffs wandered in from far and wide, bringing their special-license machinery with them. The beat up red barn behind Phil’s Klassic Korner became a clubhouse for Jim Garvey’s Antique Auto Club—the “Great Gatsbys”—as they liked to be known.
“This place is a damn zoo!” muttered Mike Hanrahan murderously, glaring out the window of the Mercantile. “And we’re the damn specimens!”
“Nonsense, Michael,” Bea MacDonald had retorted. “We are not a zoo. In a zoo, the specimens don’t get to keep the proceeds.”
It was that, along with the genuine caring exhibited by most of their visitors that kept the residents of Serendipity from feeling like they were living in a literal zoo. It was the hell side of the equation that kept them from feeling like they were living in a literal heaven.
Some of the TJ’s were from the Tabloids. They weren’t so much interested in the progress made by a group of rehabbed street people. They wanted dirt. They wanted to hear about the runaways, asked if the “shady ladies” at the Lullabye were still practicing their trade, imagined secret murders and drug caches.
Several of them disrupted an AA meeting and had to be removed. Nancy simply called the state police. It was an irony, and the police were reluctant to respond at first, but they did come and they did get the Tabloid TJs off the premises.
No hell is complete without it’s arch-demon, and in this somewhat homespun version of Dante’s Inferno, it was Santa Theresa’s mayor, John Eastwick, who assumed the role of Old Nick.
When he had contemplated the possible results of the “Bag Lady Bill,” the appearance next door of a thrift-store township was not one of them. Outraged and embarrassed, he called on the police and had Nancy Yee and several other members of Serendipity’s guiding Committee arrested. Since he had no grounds to hold them, he was forced to order their release almost immediately. All he got for his pains was bad press and a headache to match.
He appealed to the county supervisor and sheriff, but they were both unsure of their jurisdiction. Serendipity Springs had been an incorporated township and that status had never been changed on the books.
Frustrated, Eastwick telephoned the Governor and was informed that Serendipity was rather far down on a long “to do” list. The mayor swallowed his impatience, and ordered his staff to find any landowners who might have soil underlying the upstart town. They found two—both irritatingly sympathetic to Serendipity’s populace. One said that for a dollar a month, he’d rent the place. The other made a family dinner once a week at the D&O/B&B the fee.
More frustrated, Eastwick contemplated ways in which he could use the press against Serendipity. His one and only attempt ended in a sharp focus on his own role in the town’s rebirth. He quickly realized that any meddling on that front would spread his own name across every tabloid teaser on every rack in every supermarket and convenience store in the country.
John Eastwick could do nothing but dodge reporters and wait for the Governor’s office to act.
“So, we’re still an incorporated township,” Stu repeated thoughtfully.
“I hate to sound dumb,” said Annie Lee, “but what does that mean, exactly?”
“It means that we can elect a city government. Should elect one.”
“Stuart’s right,” agreed Nancy decisively, pencil bouncing on her steno pad. “A city government could solidify Serendipity’s legal status, which right now is just a paper fact. According to expert opinion, it would give us a clear legal identity.”
“What would we need?” asked someone from the packed audience in the half-finished church. “What kind of government?”
“Do we get to have elections?” asked someone else.
“Sure. We’d elect a mayor, a town council…” Nancy looked to Stu.
He shrugged. “A police chief might be a good idea.” He chuckled at the “boos” that elicited. “Come on, folks! Not all policemen are bad guys, you know.”
“I think Mr. Williams is right,” said Phil Kroeger tentatively. “We need a police chief. I mean, after all, we got crime jus’ like anyplace else. Seems like it’s gettin’ better, but I still gets my tools took sometimes.”
“We need a school board,” said a forty-ish woman with a shock of red hair. “We’ve got enough kids here to warrant starting a school. Right now, our kids are truant. Or at least they have been. The last thing we want is for the state to take our kids away from us.”
There was a ripple of “amens” and sundry mumbles to that.
Annie was nodding vigorously. “I agree with Sharon a hun’ert percent. And we could start a school, too. Right here in the church building.”
“You used to teach, didn’t you, Sharon?” Nancy asked, her pencil suddenly active.
“Yes, I did. Junior high school level. I had a drinking problem,” she added. “That’s what got me fired. I’ve handled that. But, if it bothers anybody…”
“It don’t bother me,” was the general response.
“Just means you understand the rest of us,” said one of the ex-prostitutes. “Maybe you can pass that along to the kids.”
“So, we want a mayor, a town council, police chief or sheriff or something, school board, principal…” Nancy stopped scribbling and bounced her pencil a few times. “Most of these are elected positions…heck, we ought to just make them all elected.”
“So let’s have elections,” said Annie. “We all know each other pretty well. Let’s go for it.”
That night, Serendipity Springs elected itself a mayor, a town council, a police chief, and a school principal. The school board was gotten on a volunteer basis and made up almost exclusively of parents. There were no nominations, no time for campaigns, just names written anonymously on little pieces of paper and counted dutifully by Sharon Vandeman (Principle of Serendipity School) and Annie Lee Paice (a member of the school board).
The first action of Mayor Stuart Williams and his Council was to set aside the still vacant building of indeterminate use as the town library. The four young out-of-work ladies from the Lucky Lullabye immediately volunteered to stock the proposed shelves with the used books that had been flooding Serendipity since its revival.
The first action of Police Chief Michael F. Hanrahan was to consult with the town council about the fines and disciplines for various offenses. There was no holding tank, no jailhouse, just an office an old hat and a pair of handcuffs for the incumbent.
Most of the discipline revolved around work crews. It was unanimously decided that repeat offenders of the worst offenses be punished by deportation from Serendipity’s safe haven. You could get deported for drug abuse or violence, but little else.
The Down & Outers became their own police force—pushing and pulling at each other’s problems. Pleading, threatening, and hollering a lot as they struggled for order and self-esteem. A number of people got to see the inside of Mike’s office, whether they wanted to or not. Young most of them, angry most of them. Mike would give them the kind of talking to only Mike could give and find them something to do with their anger.
The Library opened on the Fourth of July amid great celebration. Also being celebrated: The debut of the Main Street Malt Shoppe—a gleaming bit of chrome and vinyl nostalgia replete with jukebox and endless counter. The tourists, many of whom attended the fête in the styles of the 50’s and 60’s, loved it. And they loved the barbeque held all along Main Street and the fireworks display that capped the evening.
Santa Theresa’s mayor, John Eastwick, did not love it. He loved even less that the Governor, as the guest of honor, was given the key to the “city” by Mayor Stuart Williams, and had more or less officially commended the re-founders of Serendipity Springs for their “courage, vision, and outstanding effort.”
He loved less than that the opinion of the governor’s office that there was nothing illegal about Serendipity’s inhabitants. They had settled with the landowners who had interest in the town and they had incorporated status and a city government. Their inhabited buildings were up to code, and they had been most cooperative with the county regarding health and safety regulations. Their business licenses were in order—their attorney had seen to that. They had a licensed nurse living in the pink stucco Municipal Building, and a licensed counselor in their Rehab Center.
So, Mayor Eastwick was forced to smile plastically into discam lenses and say, “I’m pleased at their success,” and “No comment,” through clenched teeth.
That July was a hot month for Serendipity could be measured by more than just the giant thermometer outside Police Chief Michael Hanrahan’s office. After the Fourth of July fête, the tourists came rolling in like the ground support forces in a benign war.
The multi-Faith church was opened for worship; its one large stained-glass window, designed by a local artist, dedicated to Nancy Yee, “who’s impulsive vision made Serendipity possible.”
“What should we call this place?” Annie Lee asked, staring at the window. Her eyes reflected the pantheon of color in the stained-glass replica of Earth displayed against sun and moon and star field. “I mean, it’s going to be a Synagogue and a Church and a Mosque and-” She shrugged. “Church just seems like too small a word for all that.”
“And My house shall be called a House of Prayer,” quoted Loucette, softly. “Book of Isaiah.”
And so it was. And it witnessed the prayers of Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Moslems, Bahá’ís and Native Americans. It also witnessed two weddings: Sunny Durande married Pepper Delgado beneath the multi-hued glow of Nancy’s window; and Billy McGuire took his Lucy to the altar, and from there to a cottage across from “Fortune’s Fruit Farm.”
In August, Stu and Annie Lee gave the House of Prayer its third wedding and opened the little drive-in caddy corner to Phil’s Klassics. Which institution provided Serendipity with enough converted antiques to clutter Main Street quite cheerfully. Each residence had its own vehicle parked out front, the keys assigned to a peg by each front door. Main Street was a portrait of “faded Americana.”
The August issue of California Life carried that portrait in a full color spread. So did the August issue of Time. The D&O/B&B displayed both in a big marquee’ on the front hall—“foyer,” insisted Lucy.
“Hometown USA,” read the Time article. “If you didn’t grow up there, you’ll wish you had.”
The tourists seemed to agree. They kept all three of Serendipity’s eateries bustling, and crowded the new units of the Lucky Lullabye. The Down & Outers opened a gift shop and a clothing store, which carried only fashions of the 50’s, 60’s, and ‘70’s. It was established that when one went to Serendipity, one dressed for it. It was a weekend’s fun: Put on your hand-me-downs (or your Hometown designer fashions), get into your classic car and drive to Hometown USA for a pleasant, carefree stay in the Lucky Lullabye Motel. Dine on classic Malt Shoppe faire, drive-in delicacies (delivered by real carhops with ponytails and roller skates), or Creole cuisine. Go to sock hops and hayrides and barbeques.
More homeless found their way to Serendipity. They became instant citizens, built homes and learned how to till the soil, pick fruit, raise windmills, adjust solar panels and greet visitors. They, too, wore second and third-hand clothes and didn’t seem to mind living in a place that looked as if time had abandoned it somewhere in the middle of a past century.
Most new residents learned quickly how to stay out of Mike Hanrahan’s office. Those that didn’t saw a lot of Mike. A few saw their way out of town. One or two saw the inside of the county jail. They weren’t the rule, but the exception to it.
People now came to Serendipity because they wanted to be there. It was a fresh start place on its way to becoming a legend.
Billy McGuire built a new population sign in the woodshop behind his furniture store and emblazoned the title “Hometown USA” across the top in bold red-white-and-blue letters. “Serendipity Springs,” read the royal blue letters beneath. “Population: 450.”
“Hometown, my aunt’s bunions,” groused Mike Hanrahan.
“It’s nostalgia, you old coot,” said Bea MacDonald, and dumped a bagful of fresh-picked pippins into an apple barrel.
“It’s nostalgia’s worst nightmare,” corrected Mike. “Claptrap, rundown, hand-me-down town. Don’t they remember what we’ve been. Derelicts!”
“It is not run down!” objected Sammie Paice-Williams, around a mouthful of green apple. “It’s neat! All the tourist kids wish they could live here.”
“Hmph!” Mike eyed the boy skeptically. “An’ I suppose yer gonna tell me you’d rather be here than some nice neighborhood with a baseball diamond an’ a shoppin’ mall an’ a McDonald’s an’ all, eh?”
“Sure! Anyway, we’re gonna have a baseball diamond next spring and, well…we already got a MacDonald’s.” Sammie cast a squinty glance at Bea, who chortled.
“And who promised you a baseball diamond, may I ask?” asked Mike.
“Dad did. And Mr. Walker even said we could have lights.”
“Hmph! Typical politician. Promise you the moon!”
Sammie bristled. “Dad’s not a politician. He’s the mayor.”
“Speaking of your Dad,” said Bea, “isn’t that him outside shouting for you?”
Sammie’s head swiveled so he could see out the front window of the Mercantile. “Wow!” he yelled. “He’s got a bicycle!” He was gone like a shot.
“Noisome brat,” groused Mike, blinking.
“Stodgy coot,” said Bea. “You love it here. You can’t tell me you’d rather be someplace else.”
Mike’s exaggerated gray eyebrows scooted up his forehead. “I could tell you that, old woman, but it’d do no good at all. Listenin’ to drunks howlin’ an goin’ through hell in the night. Watchin’ poor old gits like Gunnar dyin’ of Aids or poor young gits like Alice dyin’ of crack.”
Bea glared at him, exasperated. “At least there’s someone here that cares about those ‘poor gits,’ Michael Hanrahan. You care, too, but you won’t admit it. Won’t admit you care and won’t admit how happy you are here.”
“Happy? Pfft! What I will admit is that on a scale from scroungin’ in dumpsters to livin’ at the Ritz, Serendip falls somewhere in the middle.”
“Coot,” Bea repeated, and left him sitting among the vegetables.
It was a good year for Hometown USA. Thanksgiving was celebrated with a Harvest Festival that included a special service in the House of Prayer followed by a banquet in the new school building, and a Pumpkin Patch Hop in the open field behind the Fortune orchard.
December brought a week long Winter Fair in celebration of Christmas and the Solstice. There was no snow, but both of Serendipity’s streets were lit up with a riot of twinkling color. Even the windmills that powered the decorations were festooned with them. Four hot pretzel and apple cider stands kept natives, guests, and visitors warm outside, carolers and wandering street performers kept them warm inside.
On the Loop, Serendipity’s floodlit signboard, flanked by a shimmering, thirty-foot Douglas fir, charted the growth of the native population: 500 on Christmas day.
“We’re in the black,” Nancy Yee announced at the January Town Meeting. “The Harvest and Solstice Festivals actually gave us a jump on our budget for the first quarter. Folks, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we have extra money.”
The meeting hall erupted in cheers.
“And since we have extra money,” Nancy continued when the cheer mellowed, “the Town Council unanimously decided that everyone should have a vote in what we do with it. But, before we start collecting ideas, Stu has an announcement to make.”
Nancy yielded the stage to Mayor Williams, who smiled at the hall full of citizens before speaking. He smoothed the much-folded piece of paper and cleared his throat. “This came this morning, and I’ve got to say, it’s been hell waiting for the chance to tell you about it. Ladies and gentlemen, a group of about thirty homeless people have taken up residence in an abandoned mining town east of Barstow.”
A wave of electricity swept the room, bringing in its wake a slew of questions. There were no further suggestions as to where Serendipity’s extra money might be spent. Serendipity sent seventy-five percent of its “extra” money and a team of volunteers to Sage, California. Hometown II was born.
By April, Sage had amassed a population of over 200 and strong support from its neighboring communities. By May, Sage was not alone. A ghost town in Kansas, an abandoned riverfront community in Ohio, an old resort town in Missouri, a played-out gold camp in Northern California—all across the United States, the sleeping awoke and the dead resurrected.
The homeless began to flee the cities, flocking instead to the Serendipitys and Sages and Middleforks and Ahanus. And the media followed; and where the media went, so too went the tourists.
“It says here this new Hometown in Arkansas’ doing kind of a hillbilly thing,” said Bea MacDonald, perusing the Serendipity Sunday Herald. “That’d be something to see.”
“Hmph! Oughta send the ol’ Cowboy doon there,” groused Mike Hanrahan, fanning himself with his Police Chief hat. He groused as often as ever, but with much less acid these days. Sometimes, as now, the grousing was even accompanied by a smile.
Bea ignored him. “Well, I like our Hometown just fine. It reminds me a little of where I grew up. I remember my family had a red and white Mercury wagon—just like that one.” She nodded at the automobile in question, parked at the curb just below their shared seat on one of the benches that lined the Mercantile’s wide, shaded porch.
“Just like home, eh?”
“No, Michael. Not ‘just like it.’ This is home. It’s got all the things home’s supposed to have. Old folks, kids, dogs, cats, cat fights…a ballpark, a graveyard.” She nodded, acknowledging the rightness of that and thought of old Gunnar. “A graveyard with fresh graves,” she added. “And a place to pray for the dead—and the living. Old drunks and old houses, old cars…and old coots.” She glanced sideways at Mike.
“Gullible old biddy,” he snorted enthusiastically. “Gettin’ all misty-eyed over some ol’ hunk o’tin. Serendipity always was an’ always will be a hand-me-down town.”
“Coot,” said Bea disparagingly.
They were both silent for a moment, eyes going back to the street. On the curbing below, a couple of antique car buffs argued the relative merits of Mercuries and Fords while a gaggle of teenagers in worn denim and sneakers drank cola and watched and giggled. Across the street, three little girls roller-skated up and down the sidewalk, scooting and weaving through roving groups of people who laughingly accepted them as part of the scenery.
Up the block, against a backdrop of greenery, a dozen or so gyrating splashes of color dotted the ballpark between the House of Prayer and the new Rehab Center. An upbeat selection from the Malt Shoppe jukebox accompanied the wild ballet, punctuated by the squeals and shouts of the dancers, and underscored by the buzzing of summer lawn mowers.
Mike took a deep breath of the too-warm July air and stretched and slouched, making the old bench creak in protest.
“Biddy,” he said, with no acid at all.
Copyright © 1989-2009 Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff