It recently occurred to me that I’ve lived with the characters of my new novel almost as long as I’ve known my children. Wendell Smith, the haunted World War II veteran; his saintly wife, Selma; their son, William; Wendell’s steadfast sidekick, Francis; Claire Cavanaugh, the beautiful young woman with a secret of her own; Claire’s devoted husband, Larry.
They are all good, struggling people (aren’t we all) who indeed feel like family to me, and today I’mso happy to share them with the world. “Every Common Sight” is now available in paperback and for the Kindle by clicking here, and for the Nook by clicking here. The book is only available from online outlets.
If you read and like the novel, I would be grateful if you would say so in the reader comments section of the “:Every Common Sight’s” Amazon page. I’m told it helps. And please help me spread the word with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other social media outlet you favor.
I’m very proud of this book. Fred Rogers was one of the novel’s first readers, and seemed to like it, too.
“You’ve passed the test (for me) of great art,” he wrote after reading an early draft of “Every Common Sight.” “You’ve helped me meet and learn and care for people who are painted by your words on a piece of paper. I find that an extraordinary accomplishment, Tim, and I congratulate you. What an enormous piece of work, beautifully composed.”
Writing fiction has been my ambition since I was 8 years old, so off we go. The novel, 21 years in the making, begins below. Hope you like it.
She conceived her desperate mission the moment she saw the crude sign by the country road, but Claire doubted from the first that she actually had the nerve to see it through. She doubted, in fact, right up to the moment she approached her boss at the information desk of the Arlington Public Library. Even then, Claire changed her mind three or four times waiting for Lucille to hang up the phone.
“Yes, dear?” Lucille asked finally.
Claire did it. She told her lie.
“I’m sorry, but I just came down with the worst stomach cramps,” Claire said.
“Child,” Lucille said. “No need to apologize. Take a break. I can cover the desk.”
“I was wondering. Do you think I could have the afternoon off instead?” Claire asked. “I’m sure a few hours off my feet at home are all I would need.”
“Of course, dear,” Lucille said. “Are you OK to drive? I could take you. Have you called Larry?”
Another jolt of panic.
“No need,” she said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She turned and was halfway to the door before she remembered her purse behind the desk. She scurried back to grab it, feeling Lucille’s concerned eyes on her until Claire disappeared through the sliding glass doors. It scarcely registered that the inside of the Impala was a furnace. She turned from the library parking lot, speeding past the Jiffy Lubes and Whataburgers and faceless subdivisions of brown brick homes, until finally the homes gave way to the rolling hills of the Texas countryside where cows competed for shade beneath spotty oaks. She chain-smoked, her window cracked to vent the fog, while trying to remember the route of the country drive with her family a few days before.
Larry would be furious — no, just deeply wounded — if he found out. Lucille, kind as she was, would no doubt fire her. Claire did the math again — roughly an hour to get there; an hour, max, to make her inquiry; an hour back. That brought her to three in the afternoon, well before she was due to pick up little Mike at day care. Who would be the wiser?
Thank God the little town was where she remembered it. At the lone stoplight she turned onto the busy two-lane road that led toward Dallas. In a few hundred yards the sign appeared on the side of the road and she sighed again with relief. She flicked on her turn signal and let a cement truck roar past in the other direction. She turned into dense trees and slowed to a stop so her eyes could adjust from the glare. That’s when the tears pooled, as she sat concealed from the rest of the world, alone with her folly. Larry was oblivious at the plant. Little Mike was napping on his rug after lunch. And Claire was…where exactly? God only knew what kind of murderous pervert lived back in these woods. She sniffled, brushed away her tears, and began to laugh at her insanity.
“Shit, mother,” she said out loud.
Just then she saw the large white truck rumbling slowly toward her through the trees, filling the road, leaving Claire no way to escape but the way she had come. She looked over her shoulder and jammed the Impala into reverse, but sat paralyzed as the truck slowed to a stop ten yards in front of her car.
She heard gears grinding. Two big men sat next to each other in the cab. The truck’s passenger door finally opened and the man on that side stepped down, walking slowly toward Claire’s car with his hands in his pockets and a pronounced limp.
He was very tall and husky, but older, with thick white hair matted at the temples by sweat. The knees of his green trousers were damp and grass stained. Perspiration darkened the armpits of a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Claire rolled down her window halfway and looked up at him like she would a traffic cop. The old man bent over, squinting through the window. He had huge gray eyes and a square jaw. The man straightened before speaking, then took a few steps away from the car. He took a hand from his pocket and scratched his head, a hand that shook like he had a fever or was really upset. She thought about running from her car, figuring she would be fast enough to beat a guy that age back to the main road. He turned and walked back to her window. His voice was scratchy, as if rusty from lack of use.
“What brings you here, young lady?” he asked.
“I came about the sign,” she said.
“By the road,” she said “The piano sign.”
“Sweet Jesus,” he said. “I only hope you haven’t come far.”
“From Arlington,” she said.
“That’s forty miles.”
“I saw it last Saturday,” she said. “My husband and I were on a long drive.”
“That’s a long drive, all right.”
“He wants to build in the country,” Claire said. “Larry even mentioned getting a few goats.”
“They do keep the grass down,” the man said.
“Shit,” Claire whispered.
“Though I prefer an old-fashioned mower.”
He looked into the trees and cleared his throat.
“You must want a piano pretty damn bad to drive all this way.”
“It would seem so,” Claire said.
“But I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Claire said.
She now felt more embarrassed than afraid. The guy didn’t seem like the murderer-rapist type.
“We haven’t sold pianos for years,” the man said. “Just never gotten around to taking down that old sign.”
She looked up at him.
“You must think I’m a complete idiot.”
“Don’t know you well enough to say,” he said. His face softened and he smiled. “But I’m awfully sorry for your trouble. The sign’s going to come down tomorrow.”
“I’ll just back out the way I came,” Claire said. “Sorry to bother you.”
She took her foot from the brake and checked over her shoulder. The car inched back.
“You’ve come a long way,” the man said. “Wait one second.”
For some reason Claire did as she was told, shifting the car into park. The old man pivoted and hobbled back toward the truck. He climbed into the cab and talked to his companion, who looked straight ahead, shook his head a few times, but seemed to say little. Then the man from the passenger side hobbled back to Claire’s car.
“Come back to the house for a cold drink,” he said.
“Oh, gee,” she said. “I can’t.”
“It’s just a little farther through these trees.”
“You and your friend look busy.”
“Young lady, I haven’t been busy in years and that old fart in the truck will make do,” he said.
“That’s very kind of you, but I need to be going,” Claire said.
“My name is Wendell Smith,” the old man said. “The other fellow goes by Francis. I didn’t catch yours.’’
Claire was suddenly exhausted from the hours of adrenaline. She rolled down her window the rest of the way.
“It’s Claire,” she said. “Claire Cavanaugh.”
He returned to the truck and the other man backed it through the trees. The truck retreated, stopped, and backed up some more as Claire inched along in front of it. After fifty yards, they passed through a white gate into paradise.
The trees thinned. Lush grass filled in around the oaks. Vivid clusters of red and pink roses, red geraniums, red and white tropical hibiscus, impatiens and begonias dotted the sprawling property. Crepe myrtles lined the road.
Wendell stepped down from the cab when the truck stopped by the old white house, gesturing for her to pull in beside him. The truck was loaded with boards and bags of cement, and it said Smith and Sons Lumber Co. on the door. Wendell hurried to offer Claire a hand out and she stood with him by her car, looking around at the property.
What looked like a guest cottage stood near the bigger house. A large red barn sat off by itself. There was a horseshoe pit near the barn and a large garden where the slender green leaves of cornstalks rustled in the occasional puff of breeze.
“Beautiful,’’ she said. “It must take a tremendous amount of work.’’
“My wife’s doing,” he said. “I just try to keep the weeds down.’’
He looked down at her, his hands still in his pockets. For the first time she noticed a pale scar that circled his right eye. He smelled of sweat and aftershave.
“Could I tell you something?” Wendell asked.
“I guess so,” Claire said.
“You look a lot like her,’’ he said.
“I beg your pardon?’’ Claire asked.
“Like my wife, when she was closer to your age.’’
She looked toward the truck where Francis remained behind the wheel, then the flower gardens. Jesus.
“I don’t know what to say,” Claire said.
“I’ve embarrassed you,” he said.
“I…ah…I’m sure your wife was much prettier than me.”
“Thought for a second back there that Selma had come back from the grave to march me around for a day or two more. That’s hard on an old man’s heart.’’
His face reddened and he grimaced.
“I’m so sorry,” Claire said. “Your wife has passed.”
“Six months ago,” he said.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Smith,’’ she said again.
He rubbed his eyes.
“Please call me Wendell.”
He led her back to the truck.
“This is Claire,” Wendell said when the other man rolled down the truck window. “Claire, meet my old friend, Francis.”
Francis looked at her briefly.
“Howdy,” he said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Claire said.
“Like I said, we’re going in for some tea,” Wendell said. “You gonna come?”
“Some folks still have to work for a living,” Francis said.
“Suit yourself,” Wendell said.
Francis rolled up his window and ground the truck into low gear before it rumbled off through the trees.
“I’ve known that man for nearly fifty years,” Wendell said. “He gets more pigheaded by the day. After you.”
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Claire said.
“I’ve frightened you with my strange talk,” he said.
“Maybe just a little,” she said.
“I’ll get you a glass to take with you then,” he said. “But it’s awfully hot. You’re welcome to wait inside.”
“I suppose I could sit for a minute,” Claire said.
He held the front door.
His house was dark and shadowed with the pleasantly musty scent of families who had come and gone. Only the steady purr of central air conditioning and a ticking clock disrupted the silence. Wendell led her down a hallway where family photographs filled the walls on each side. They also crowded onto end tables in the large living room at the end of the hall and the fireplace mantel and bookshelves and the top of an old spinet piano in front of a picture window.
“The last one left around here, I’m afraid,” Wendell said. “It belonged to my wife, though she could hardly play a note. She tried to get our boy interested, but he didn’t get far either. Make yourself at home. I’ll just be a minute.”
He limped through a swinging door, leaving her with the pictures. Most were of the person Claire assumed was Wendell’s dead wife. She had black hair and dark skin, a striking woman with huge, dark eyes. In one she stood by a large pond, playfully holding a fishing rod. In another she was on her knees in a flower bed, smiling over her shoulder. Then her arms fell lightly around the shoulder of a little boy who was also grinning broadly as he sat next to her on the front porch. Always the same radiant smile. You favor her, Wendell had told Claire. There was no resemblance that Claire could see.
The wife’s long hair was streaked with gray in some of the photos, but her face remained ageless until Claire came to one picture so different from the others that she lifted it from the piano for a closer look. Wendell’s wife leaned over the railing of a cruise ship or ferry, looking out across dark green water at sunrise or sunset, a brilliant sun fading over the horizon, her face lit in a dreamy smile. But the long hair was gone. Selma wore a baseball cap. She was pale; her eyes sunken and weary-looking.
There were no pictures of Wendell and this beautiful woman together, as if that would be too painful for him to see. Among the dozens of photographs Claire saw only one of Wendell. The larger color portrait of a smiling young man was probably a graduation picture because blue and gold tassels dangled from the frame. Next to it on the living room wall was a solemn-faced soldier in black and white, with the familiar gray eyes.
Wendell pushed through the swinging door, balancing a tray with two glasses of iced tea, paper napkins and two sugar cookies.
“That’s you,” Claire said. “The soldier.”
“A long, long time ago,” Wendell said, setting the tray on a coffee table next to a neat stack of Field and Stream magazines.
A newspaper crossword puzzle was nearly finished, done in pen. Black-rimmed reading glasses sat on top of the puzzle.
“Have a seat on the sofa,” he said.
He handed Claire a glass and took one himself, sitting in a wicker chair across from her. He raised his glass halfway to his mouth, but lowered it because of the trembling that caused tea to spill onto a hardwood floor. He blushed and returned the glass to the tray.
“I forgot to ask if you took sugar,” Wendell said.
“This is fine.”
She took a small bite of the cookie, slightly stale, and placed it on a napkin. She sipped tea, sinking deeply into a sofa upholstered in dark purple fabric. Artificial cool raised bumps on her arms. Ferns and philodendrons were placed around the room in terra-cotta pots, all of them thriving. The wife again, Claire thought.
“I was right,” Claire said. “Your wife, Selma, is that her name? She was much prettier than me.”
“Let me apologize again,” he said. “That was silly, even for an old fool like me. And thank you. Selma was beautiful.”
Wendell bit into a cookie.
“She taught around here, and all the schoolboys were in love with her,” he said. “Me included.”
“Your wife was your teacher?”
“We got together a few years after high school,” Wendell said. “But for one year she taught me English.”
He leaned forward, looking at the spilled tea, then up at Claire. Wendell’s elbows rested on his knees, his hands clasped in front of him. Claire considered asking about his wife’s illness but thought better of it. The air conditioning clicked off. A grandfather clock ticked in the adjoining room.
“You really keep this place up alone?’’ Claire asked.
“Like I said, I just keep the weeds down,’’ Wendell said.
“You’re being too modest, Mr. Smith,’’ Claire said.
“Wendell, please. And I’ve got nothing but time,’’ he said.
She nibbled on her cookie, realizing she had skipped lunch and was suddenly famished.
“From the sound of your accent, I’d say you’re not from around here,’’ he said.
“We moved down from Minnesota last November,” Claire said. “My husband was transferred from St. Paul to the auto plant in Arlington. I work at the public library there and look after our boy.’’
“Tell me about him.”
“Mike. He was three in February.’’
“A lively age, if my memory serves.’’
“Is that your son on the wall?’’
“My wife named him William, after Shakespeare,” Wendell said. “Funny to see him up there so young. He’ll be fifty before long, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it.”
Claire waited for him to explain but he didn’t. He just reached for his tea, lifting the glass tentatively to his mouth. This time he managed to sip without spilling.
“Don’t they have pianos for sale in Arlington?’’ he asked.
Claire’s heart skipped. She shuddered from a sudden chill and the swirling that had resumed in her head.
“Not on my budget,” she said.
“They are damned expensive,” Wendell said. “I guess you want one for the boy.”
“No. It’s for my mother,” Claire said. “She is the one in the family who plays, or she used to.”
“She’s down here, too?” Wendell asked.
She set her glass on the table. Now her hand trembled.
“What is it, young lady?”
She rubbed her eyes before tears had a chance to escape.
“I should be going,’’ she said. “I’ve taken enough of your time. You’ve been very kind.’’
“You’re welcome,’’ Wendell said, his voice now just above a whisper. “But like I told you before, time is one thing I have plenty of these days.’’
The next tears ran down her face, and Claire settled deeper into the sofa. Wendell stood and limped from the room, returning seconds later with a box of Kleenex. He pulled out two, laid them next to her half-eaten cookie, and returned to the wicker chair.
“My wife taught me something besides how to keep up a garden,” Wendell said. “Selma used to say: ‘Anything mentionable is manageable.’”
He still leaned forward. His gaze never left her.
“My mom’s in prison up north,” Claire said. “She has been for fourteen years. I’m the one who put her there.”
The air kicked back on. Wendell looked down at the floor, then back up at Claire, waiting for her to continue.
“She might be getting out soon and has no place else to go,” Claire said. “A piano is the least I could do. Jesus, why am I telling you this? You’re a perfect stranger.”
“Maybe it’s easier that way,” he said.
“Did your wife tell you that, too?”
“Maybe I’ve figured a few things out on my own.”
“I need to go.”
“No,” he said. “You don’t.”
“Anything mentionable is not manageable,” Claire said. “There are things better left unsaid. With all due respect, what your wife said was crap.”
She stood and scurried by his chair, starting down the hall. She heard his weight shift in the wicker chair and his creaking footsteps behind her. Wendell remained on the porch as Claire hurried down the steps toward the Impala, rummaging desperately in her purse for the keys before remembering that she had left them in the ignition. She turned toward him.
“I’m very sorry to have bothered you,” Claire said.
“You’ve done nothing of the sort,” Wendell said.
She glanced up at him once more, got in the car and put it in reverse. He stood with his hands in his pockets, looking like he desperately wanted to say something, without knowing just what.