Marvel crumpled the letter in his hands. He drew in a slow, deep breath and exhaled hard. It was another Friday at the mailbox – the mail came only once a week in this town of 200 – and as with every other Friday for the last 19 months, Marvel was forced to wait at least another seven days for the realization of his dream.
Marvel walked across his dirt driveway and into his empty house, the silence hollow like a vacuum, and into his room at the far end. He took the letter, not bothering to read all of it, and impaled it on a nail in the wall with 73 of its unfortunate relatives.
74 down. Lord only knows how many left to go.
* * *
Thank you for sending me a copy of your submission guidelines. Unfortunately, due to the large number of submissions I must make in order to have even a snowball’s chance in Texas of getting published, I don’t have the time or energy to tailor my submission to your exact specifications, especially when jumping through so many hoops is likely to result in nothing more than a form rejection letter. Thank you for understanding.
Marvel pulled the sheet from his electric typewriter and stared at it.
There. A fine piece of work. Too bad none of them is likely to appreciate my sense of humor.
He pinned the sheet on his bulletin board, next to a photo and a bloc of quotes of his favorite author, Gil Guthrie, and not far from framed pictures of his family. Marvel used the quotes for entertainment and inspiration, and he was feeling in need of both at the moment.
He put another sheet in the typewriter, then set himself to staring at the blank page for several minutes. Any observer might have guessed he was suffering writer’s block, but he was lamenting the fact the he couldn’t afford a computer and Internet service. Northern Maine was not an economic hotbed, and his job at the sawmill – where about ninety percent of his town worked – paid just enough to keep himself fed, clothed and sheltered. It had taken him six months to save up for the top-of-the-line electric typewriter.
At last he turned his attention to work, and then he really did experience writer’s block. After fifteen minutes of fruitless staring, he decided to take a walk.
One of the great things about his job at the sawmill was that they were done at three o’clock, which left half the afternoon free. Many an afternoon found Marvel wandering down one country road and across another, or through any of the many fields and wooded trails that filled his town. Wherever he found himself at any particular time during one of these treks, he was within sight of at least one favorite spot, probably more than one, likely including the very spot on which he was standing. Of all his favorites, however, an old farm a few miles from his house topped them all. The farm was shabby – no one had lived there for years – but someone kept the fields hayed, and the place had never been posted against trespassing, so Marvel availed himself of it often. It was a peaceful place, where few vehicles passed by and where cricket, breeze and birdsong could be heard with stark clarity, and for Marvel it was a symbol of the ideal life – quiet country, good honest labor, simple and straightforward, a place where flowers graced your path and the summer breeze whispered nonstop. On this day, he decided to head there. But he never made it.
He walked the faded pavement – right down the middle of the road, there was such little traffic in his neck of the woods – and when he neared a certain intersection, he saw a Jeep parked off to the side of the road, smoke rolling out from under its open hood. He saw no one around, though.
When he got close, he found the driver – sitting in the shade of a nearby maple.
“Hello,” said Marvel. “Can I give you a hand?”
The man looked up at Marvel. And Marvel stopped dead.
“I sure hope so,” said Guthrie, beads of sweat resting above his salt-and-pepper beard.
Marvel’s thoughts ran ablaze: Gil Guthrie lives in New York, born in Illinois; what’s he doing in Maine, especially the sticks of northern Maine?! Oh my word – this could be my chance! What do I say? What do I do? Then he remembered that Gil Guthrie was sitting beside the road, his vehicle dead. Marvel fought to collect himself and act normal.
“What, uh … what happened?” he said.
“I don’t know,” said Gil. “Just driving along and I heard something explode, and she started belching smoke like a dragon.”
“Any idea what the problem is?”
Gil pursed his lips and shook his head. “Nah. I, uh, I’m not mechanically inclined.” He blushed a bit, which surprised Marvel.
“Well I ain’t much in that area, either, but tell you what: I live back up the road just a quarter of a mile, and it’s all downhill from here to there, so if you want to hop in and steer, I’ll give her a push. Then when we get to my house, I’ll call the local grease monkey for you.”
“That’s more than I hoped for. Thanks.”
So Gil got in, put it in neutral, and Marvel strained to get it moving.
I can’t believe this! I’m pushing Gil Guthrie’s car to my house!
It was the happiest moment of his life.
* * *
“So what’s your name?” said Gil as they coasted along.
“Marvel? Really?” Marvel nodded. “That’s cool. I’ve never heard that before. Unless you count Captain Marvel, but that was his superhero name, not his real name.”
“Well, I’m no superhero.”
“You are to me. I’d been sitting there for a good little while before you came along. Might’ve been there a good while longer if you hadn’t’ve shown up.”
The strangeness of rolling along in a quiet, coasting vehicle was enhanced by the floating sensation in Marvel’s chest. He started to blush. “So, uh, you don’t have a cell phone, obviously.”
“Nah. Never had much use for them – before today, anyway.”
“Here’s my place,” said Marvel, pointing. “Take her right up next to the front door. Soon as I call the mechanic, you can use my phone to call whoever you need to.”
They glided into Marvel’s driveway and went into the house. Two minutes later, Marvel had bad news.
“Big Jim — Jimmy – that’s the mechanic – says he’s backed up and couldn’t get to it til tomorrow afternoon at least, maybe longer.”
Gil nodded, lips pursed, as though measuring his anger. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Well, there’s nothing to it, then, is there? If you’re stuck in the mud, enjoy the cool.” He smiled, then looked startled. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that this town is mud.”
“No problem. I know what you meant.”
“Good. I ain’t so smooth with my words sometimes, you know?” Marvel considered the fluid prose Gil wrote, then realized that some of Gil’s spoken words to him had, in fact, been stumbling; this surprised him. “But if you point me to the nearest hotel, I’ll get out of your hair; I’ve bothered you enough.”
Bothered? No bother here. “Actually, we, uh, we don’t have any hotels. We hardly ever get any visitors, and when we do, it’s usually only because they made a wrong turn.”
“So what brings you to our town?”
“Give you one guess.”
They chuckled, and Marvel’s nerves were almost drowned in adrenaline with the next thought that passed into his mind; he couldn’t believe he dared to say it, but he found himself doing just that: “Well I’ve got a spare bedroom; it ain’t the Ritz, but it’s yours if you want it, no charge.”
“Oh – I couldn’t do that. Not for free, at least.”
“It’s no problem. I wouldn’t want you to, you know, have to sleep in your car or something.”
They laughed. Then Gil hemmed and hawed for a few seconds; Marvel didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t care, for when Gil said –
“Okay. I’ll stay here. But you’ve got to let me pay you something.”
– Marvel’s dream-hopes of literary success blossomed further.
* * *
Marvel sat on his bed, thinking. Gil was in the bathroom cleaning up, but all Marvel could do at the moment was stare at the wide-open door of opportunity in front of him. He imagined himself approaching that door, then stepping through it, the glorious light of publication and validation falling on him and clinging to him like a wet towel. He started to take another blissful step forward, but a thorny thought out of nowhere jabbed his conscience, and the image burst. He was in his room again, seeing the same things he’d seen every day now for who knows how long, his heart and mind saddled with one thing: You can’t take advantage of him.
While Marvel was still processing this horrible thought, his heart constricting with the apparent death of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the bathroom door opened, jolting him. Like a good host, he went out to check on Gil, yet his guest now seemed not like a walking opportunity but a taunting reminder of what he might never have, the fading echo of a dying star-dream.
Gil had already made one phone call, before he went into the bathroom to shower, but Marvel offered his phone again.
“Thanks, but I’m alright for now,” said Gil. “I don’t like too many people knowing where I am – one of ’em’s liable to come and find me, and I hate being found.” He grinned. “So, I guess it’s about suppertime; any good restaurants in town?”
“You like diners?”
“You mean, like, a real diner? All the grease you can eat, and for one low price?”
“The very same.”
Twenty minutes later, down at the Friday Nite, Marvel was watching Gil demolish a deluxe burger and fries like he hadn’t eaten in days.
“Aw, man,” said Gil through a mouthful. “This stuff is … fantastic.” Marvel was surprised when Gil then actually stopped for a few moments. “Where I grew up in Illinois, we had lots of these places. But in the Big City? Forget it. You can’t find food like this. There are some places that try, but it ain’t the same. I used to think it was, but my taste buds are now telling me otherwise.”
Then he dove into his food again. One deluxe burger and fries, strawberry shake, and pie a la mode after he started, Gil at last pronounced himself full.
This guy could rival Big Jim, thought Marvel.
After leaving the diner, they returned to Marvel’s home and were surprised to find Gil’s Jeep gone. A note in Marvel’s door read: “Things cleared out faster than I thought. Your car should be ready by late morning tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s good news,” said Gil.
“Yeah,” said Marvel. The sooner my shattered dream leaves, the better.
Marvel opened the door, shocked by his own thoughts. “Come on in and have a seat, or have a look around if you want. I just gotta run downstairs for a sec.”
Marvel went down to his basement and conferenced with himself.
What are you doing? Don’t treat him like he’s done something wrong!
I know, I know. I just … can’t believe the absurdity of this! For almost two years now I’ve been trying – so hard – and when the door finally opens, it’s booby-trapped!
But still, you don’t really want this guy to leave.
No, of course not.
Because there’s still a chance.
Yeah, there’s still– Is there? No, there can’t be! Any chance I have involves me pushing myself onto him, me taking advantage of his state of need. I can’t do that!
Of course you can’t, but there’s still–
NO! There’s no chance! Put it out of your mind right now! Just enjoy this for what it is: A chance to hang out with your favorite author and then– he heaved a great sigh –he’ll go his way and you’ll go yours.
Figuring it was time to get back upstairs, Marvel cast around for an excuse to explain his trip to the basement. He picked up a broom and swept a small patch of floor – he hated to lie. A minute later he was back upstairs.
“Sorry to leave you,” he said to Gil, who was sitting on the couch in the livingroom. “Had a small mess from earlier I had to sweep up.”
“Not a problem.”
“Did you get a chance to look around?”
“Yeah, you, uh, have a nice place here. You must be a bit of a carpenter.”
“Yeah. Not because I really want to be, but when the purse strings are tight, you gotta do some things yourself. How’d you guess?”
“Most houses today are cookie-cutter – sheetrock painted white, basic clamshell trim; pretty basic stuff. Postmodern, I think they call it. Bunch of garbage, if you ask me. But you’ve got some fancy trim, nice scrollwork on the railing on the front steps, some solid but decorative shelves in the spare bedroom – you don’t see much of that these days.”
“Thank you.” Marvel was feeling a bit embarrassed again. “I, uh, was out for my afternoon walk when I found you; I usually go further, so I was going to go out now and finish what I started – you up for it?”
“Sure,” said Gil, who stumbled a bit as he got up from the couch, his enthusiasm getting the better of him. “Oops. Sorry.”
As they left Marvel’s driveway and started down the road, Gil said, “So how far do you usually go?”
“Oh, five or six miles round-trip, sometimes more.”
Gil seemed to quail a bit. “Well, I don’t know if my legs will like it – they prefer subway trains – but I’m willing to give it a go.” He grinned.
They made small talk for a while, mostly about the area, the history of the town, but then Gil came around to the question that Marvel had been dreading ever since he knew that he and Gil would be spending some time together.
“Do you have any family around?”
“Um,” said Marvel as the despairing thought reel played in his mind, “no. They, uh, they all died, killed in a car accident; my Mom, Dad, two brothers and a sister. They were traveling to a family reunion; I was supposed to be with them.”
“How come you weren’t?”
Marvel’s insides winced; he was sure that Gil had not meant the question as an accusation, but Marvel’s mind refused to hear it any other way.
“I had to work, couldn’t get out of it. I cursed my boss at the time, but I guess I should be thankful.” Marvel didn’t sound convinced of that, though.
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to open any wounds.”
“It’s alright. Someone told me I should talk about it sometimes, said it would help.” Marvel didn’t sound convinced of that, either.
“So what do you do for work, anyway?” said Gil.
Oh, great, thought Marvel. This was his second-most-dreaded question, for politeness required that Marvel reciprocate and ask Gil about his work, which of course was writing, which on one hand Marvel wanted to hear about – firsthand comments from a successful author are a rare privilege – but which on the other hand he didn’t want to hear about, for it only reminded him of his once-in-a-lifetime nonopportunity and made those 74 rejections seem like just the beginning of what was sure to be a lifelong string of literary failures. He also knew that he couldn’t mention his own writing – the temptation to grovel for help at Gil’s feet would be too strong.
“I work at the sawmill.” Marvel was surprised at how happy he sounded.
“Oh yeah? Cool. You, uh, operate the equipment there, or … what do you do?” Gil knew as much about sawmills as he did about mechanic work.
“I drive forklift mostly, hauling stacks of lumber around the yard. Pay’s okay, and they’re the only company around that offers full benefits; that’s quite a perk these days.”
“That’s forty hours a week, I imagine.”
“Yeah, sometimes a bit more.”
“You do anything on the side?”
Oh no, thought Marvel, and before he knew it, his brain was screaming, “Tell him! Tell him!”
“Ahh, no. No.” Marvel didn’t consider it a lie; he presumed that Gil meant any paid work on the side, and Marvel had not yet earned a single penny from writing.
“So what do you do for work?” said Marvel.
Marvel thought there was the slightest pause before Gil answered. “I’m a writer.”
“That … sounds like fun.”
“It is, it is.”
Marvel didn’t know what else to say, but he also didn’t want to say anything else. The tug of war he felt inside him was making his nerves quake and stretching his willpower almost to the breaking point; he had to get out of this territory soon or else he’d be reduced to a shameless self-promoter.
“So what do you do when you’re not writing?”
“Nothing mechanical, believe it or not.”
They laughed, and Gil gave a somewhat-stumbling, half-embarrassed account of his hobbies and interests, innocent though they were. Marvel breathed an internal sigh of relief, glad that his diversion had worked.
They had gone only a couple miles when Marvel thought about turning around; he didn’t want to overwork Gil, yet he didn’t want to offend him either, so he decided on using the impending nightfall as his excuse.
“Well, it’ll be getting dark pretty soon …”
And then an idea struck him.
“… but I think we’ve got time to go a bit further if you want; I’d like to show you one of my favorite haunts.”
“Yeah, let’s check it out.”
Ten minutes later found them climbing a short rise in the road; Gil was astonished that they’d gone this far on an actual road and not met a single vehicle.
“If you think that’s cool,” said Marvel, “wait’ll you see this place.”
Gil took note of the excitement in Marvel’s voice; it was like that of a kid telling his parents about some great amusement-park ride he’d just been on, and it made Gil excited to see what was coming.
“I know it’s a bit dusky out now, so it won’t be quite as good as seeing it in broad daylight,” said Marvel, “but I still think you’ll appreciate it.”
They topped the rise and started down the other side. Then, as they rounded a gentle corner, the trees fell away and there, on a low ridge surrounded by several fields, stood the old farmhouse.
Gil stopped cold. After several moments, he managed to squeeze a few words through his gaping mouth. “Can we go up to it?”
“Yeah,” said Marvel, and two minutes later they were standing in the upper part of the driveway atop the ridge.
As he’d walked up the sloping lower half of the driveway, Gil felt like a long-exiled king ascending to his throne once more. Standing now at the top of the drive, which served as a sort of courtyard between the house, the barn, and a couple of small outbuildings, he recognized with fondness many long-unthought-of details of his kingdom.
“Clapboards, a weathervane, real shutters.” A half-laugh escaped him. “It’s just like my home – back in Illinois, where I grew up,” he said to Marvel. Then, under his breath to himself, “Where I came from.”
They investigated a bit more, peering into the windows of the house (all the doors were locked) and walking around all four of the buildings; nary a word pierced the cooling air the whole time.
“You know,” said Gil, “I told you that a wrong turn was what led me to your town, but it was actually several.” He looked back up at the farmhouse, for they were now down behind it in one of the fields. “And several more before that brought me far from home.”
The sound of metal banging against metal called out behind them, spinning them around.
“What was that?” said Gil.
“I don’t know,” said Marvel as he gazed across the downward-sloping field before them and into the wooded hills beyond. “There’s nothing back there except wild country, and an old shed that’s been out of use since the farm went under. Could be an animal poking around in there, knocking old tools over.” He turned to Gil. “I know it’s almost dark, but do you mind taking a look?”
“No, not at all.”
They jogged down across the stubbly field, which had been hayed just the week before, and climbed up a bush-covered knoll that stood by the edge of the forest. As they neared the top, they heard clanging; they crouched and peered over to the backside of the knoll: There was the shed, almost overrun by young trees, and a low light was on inside.
“That ain’t no animal,” said Gil.
Gil gave Marvel a funny look.
“Some of the guys in this town would qualify as less than human,” said Marvel with a smirk. “I’m gonna go down and have a look. Care to join me?”
It could’ve been the light reflecting, but Marvel swore he saw flames flicker in Gil’s eyes, flames that Marvel had seen kindled when Gil first spotted the farmhouse.
“You bet. Lead on.”
Marvel inched his way down the backside of the knoll, zigzagging through a maze of junipers, low bushes, and pine saplings, and Gil was right behind. The stiff junipers sometimes prickled their hands, and soft pine branches brushed against their faces, dragging their sweet scent near; Marvel and Gil remained quiet, however, and undistracted, their eyes fixed on the shed. As they got closer, they saw shadows moving inside, and they could hear things loud and clear.
“The sounds of industry, I think,” said Marvel.
“Yeah,” said Gil, whose heart rate had picked up with the ever-increasing intensity of his nerves.
They came to a stop at the base of the knoll – a mere 10 feet from the back corner of the shed; dim light spilled out through two dusty windows in the side wall, and a lot of soft clanging and shuffling was now evident from inside.
“Can you see anything?” said Gil from just behind Marvel’s shoulder.
“Not really. We’re at a bad angle, and these alders are in the way, too.”
“Wanna risk a closer view?”
Marvel smiled. “You bet.” And then he was off on all fours, creeping through tall grass and between trees. Gil crawled after Marvel, and soon they were at the first window. Staying low and moving with tedious precision, Marvel peered through the corner of the window – and his brow furrowed with confusion.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” said Marvel.
“What – who’s in there?”
“It’s … Big Jim, and some other guy.”
“You mean Jimmy? The mechanic?” Marvel nodded. “What’s he doing in there?”
“Well, that’s why I said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this’ – he’s got your Jeep in there.”
“What?!” said Gil, shuffling closer to the window.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Marvel, thrusting out an arm to hold Gil back. “We’ve gotta be careful: He’s twice our size, and he’s got another guy in there with him.”
“Well … what’s he doing with my Jeep? … And why are you smiling?”
“I was thrown at first, but then I remembered my high school days.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jimmy’s a good guy, and he does good work. I’ve never had a problem with him, and neither has anyone else, as far as I know. But he still has the same weakness a lot of us guys never outgrow.”
Gil’s face was a question mark.
“He likes to take joy rides.”
Marvel enjoyed the look on Gil’s face for a few moments, then said, “I’d forgotten that there’s an old wood road not far from here, with an old, out-of-use, very large gravel pit at the end of it – the ideal place to take a vehicle like that Jeep of yours for a fun little spin. It all came back to me when I saw what they’re doing in there – taking off the regular tires and putting on some big-treads.”
“For better traction, right?”
“Yeah. And judging by all the tires and tools in there, yours isn’t the first vehicle they’ve worked out. I figure they must’ve cut a trail from the wood road to set up shop in this shed, then they bring every vehicle here for a tire change before and after.”
“So everything’s out of sight, out of mind – the whole operation.”
“Right. I imagine there’s a few people who can hear them when they’re tearing around the pit, but they probably just pass it off as high school kids playing around. And the sheriff doesn’t work nights, so these guys don’t have to worry about him.”
“He doesn’t do rounds?”
Marvel shrugged. “Not much to patrol in a town of two hundred.”
Gil chuckled and shook his head.
“This ain’t the Big City is it?” said Marvel with a grin.
“No, it’s not.”
“Come on,” said Marvel. “They’re still putting the big-treads on, and Jimmy’d be hard-pressed to beat a turtle in a foot race, if you know what I mean; we’ll go wake the sheriff and have him down at the pit before they get a single speck of dust on your Jeep.”
The sheriff’s house was a mile in the other direction, opposite the way they’d come; they hurried there and then rapped on his front door, and about a minute later he flung it open, his tousled hair and untucked uniform making him look like he’d just passed through a hurricane.
“Phew,” said the sheriff after Marvel explained everything. “I usually don’t get stirred this time of the evening unless it’s something serious. Oh – no offense meant by that, mister.”
“None taken,” said Gil.
They sped to the wood road in the sheriff’s car, and so it was that when Jimmy and his friend showed up at the pit in Gil’s Jeep, the sheriff had them dead to rights. Jimmy, sheepish, confessed on the spot to numerous such joy rides, but before the sheriff put him into a 24-hour lockup (the punishment being small because Jimmy had never caused any real damage, and in fact had polished each car after every joy ride, sending it back to the owner looking better than before), he made Jimmy give Gil a free oil change as well as a freebie on the repairs.
“Well,” said Gil as he shook Marvel’s hand the next morning in Marvel’s driveway, “that’s twice you saved me. Thanks.”
And twice I’ve passed on the bargaining chip of a lifetime. “Not a problem. It was the most fun I’ve had in quite a while, actually.”
“Me, too.” Gil sighed after getting in his Jeep. “I think I’m gonna miss this place.”
“Come back anytime. I’m sure I’ll still be here.” Doing the same old thing.
Gil smiled, looked for a moment like he was going to say something, then just gave a quick nod and said, “I’ll see you later, Marvel.”
“Yeah.” I wish. “See you later.”
“Quick! Quick! Quick!” screamed his brain. “This is your last chance! Say something NOW!”
Marvel made a slight movement towards Gil, the most tantalizing of literary thoughts rocketing through his mind, but then it was cut off – No, I can’t do it.
Marvel watched Gil back into the road and start to pull away, then turned to go inside; he’d neglected his typewriter while Gil had been there, and felt the need to punch its keys once more, even if they never did lead him anywhere but to the byways of his own imagination and the cold road of rejection letters.
He heard a car come to a hard stop. Turning around, he saw the Jeep at a standstill in the road, Gil leaning out the window.
“I forgot to tell you,” Gil called across the distance. “I read some of your writing when I was giving myself a tour of your house – I hope you don’t mind; it was sitting right on your desk, and I couldn’t help but look.” Gil looked a bit embarrassed, but Marvel was motionless, unblinking, not daring to believe what he was hearing, or might be about to hear. “Anyway, I told you I’d pay you, so I left my agent’s address on the kitchen table; send him some of your stuff soon – he’ll be expecting it.”
Marvel gave a slight nod and barely got out an “Okay.”
“And one more thing: Um, that picture of me is kind of old; I’ll send you a new one.”