Small Town Service

First place in 2018 non-fiction category of WWA’s Jade Ring Contest

Living in a small town is often romanticized, mostly by those who haven’t tried it. At first, newcomers are mesmerized by the peace and serenity. The sense of isolation comes later. Feelings of belonging take time to build and acceptance often arrives in unexpected ways. A memorable example for me involved an old TV and a rusty, battered microwave that was used in a most unusual way.

Our television, one of those old, box models, had to be played with a lot just to get it to turn on. My frugal husband wanted a full autopsy before dumping it. I agreed, reluctantly, to take one more shot at it.

I found a TV repair shop in the phone book. The only one listed. It was at the man’s home in a wooded area on the edge of town. On the phone, he gave me directions to his shop, saying to look for the microwave.

“You can’t miss it,” he’d said. And I didn’t. Actually I’m pretty sure the microwave doubled as both a mailbox and the sign advertising his business. A piece of cardboard with the fire number hand-printed in large letters filled its glass window.

An older man, he wore faded work pants, scratched up boots with tattered laces and a wrinkled baseball cap. He carried the TV in and placed it on the floor of his shop which was really a dark and musty garage. Looking it over, he perked up when he saw it was a Zenith.

“I’ve got some parts for those,” he said. That got my hopes up too.  He wrote my phone number on a crumpled notepad and placed it on top of a saw horse. After a week, assuming his sophisticated filing system had failed, I called.

He said he’d tried everything but the TV just wouldn’t respond. As though asking for permission, he said there were a couple of other things he wanted to try. He wondered if he could keep it a few more days. Who’d say no to that.

After another week, I called and got the grim news. Then he asked if I’d dispose of it myself since the local dump no longer let him bring in TV’s. I made my way once again to the microwave mailbox. With TV back in my car and ready to leave, I asked what I owed him.

“No, nothing,” he shook his head as he fumbled with indiscriminate metal parts scattered on his workbench. I was silent a minute, thinking that through.

“That doesn’t seem right to me,” I ventured.

“I don’t charge if I can’t fix it.” He sounded both matter-of-fact and certain.

“But I should at least pay for a service call. Don’t you think?”

“No. I don’t charge if I can’t fix it.”  We went back and forth a few more times. But his mind was made up. Not wanting to push any further, I said thanks and drove off to the dump where I paid a $5.00 disposal fee.

We went on with our life and bought a new 21st century TV. But my interaction with this man was still on my mind, still in my head.  I had to do something I reasoned, so I wrote a letter to the editor of the local once-a-week newspaper.

Letter to the Editor:
Last week I had an experience that may be common in small towns but, being a transplant from a big city, it made quite an impression on me. I’d taken my TV to a local repair shop. After trying very hard to fix it, the dealer said he couldn’t. I wasn’t surprised since it was a 1983 model. But what I didn’t expect was that he refused to let me pay him. I felt I should pay at least a service charge and told him so several times. But he was adamant. “I only charge if I fix it,” he said. So, let me pay him in another way. Thank you Howard D*** TV and Appliance Service of Eagle River. Thank you for your superior customer service and your work ethic, both which seem in shorter supply these days.

The day the paper was delivered, a co-worker came to my office. She thought my letter was neat and said the TV repair guy was her husband’s cousin.  He’s known as Butch, she informed me.

Later that day, my co-worker’s husband came by and commented on my letter. We had a nice time talking about his cousin, Butch. Butch and his dad shared the same first name, so that’s why the nickname. But Butch doesn’t like to be called that anymore, he added. After our conversation, Howard/Butch was someone I felt I knew pretty well.

Then a few days later, I saw an acquaintance at the grocery store; I’d never, ever gone to the grocery store without running into someone I knew.  She couldn’t say enough about how wonderful it was that I’d taken the time to write that letter about Howie.

“Howie is my uncle,” she said. “He was always good with electrical stuff, even as a kid. Vivian, his wife, she works here at the grocery. Yah, she usually does bagging. They are such nice people. And they had those three kids. Howie had a sister who had problems and they had it tough when he was growing up. So, that’s why it’s just so great you wrote that letter. He really deserves that and maybe this will bring him more business.”  Now I felt like I really knew Howard/Butch/Howie. But her final comment was the kicker.

“We don’t usually get that from city people.”  She cocked her head and gave me one of those knowing looks women give to women. Just for a moment I felt like I really belonged in this place where newcomers were treated with reserve and hesitation.

And that’s the thing about small towns. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody is related to everybody. And I know there’s an up-side and a down-side to that. But I also know it only takes a moment for a casual conversation to meander into a lengthy, historical record. And what you hear, as I did with Howie, is a lovingly told story of the meaningful and mundane details of someone’s life.

And these stories go on and on through time. So, years from now, maybe my name will come up over a cup of coffee at the local diner; perhaps someone will remember that nice woman who, though not from here, wrote that wonderful letter. And maybe they’ll begin to believe city people aren’t so bad after all.



The Dog Who Came in From the Cold

First place winner in WWA’s 2018 Jade Ring Contest, humor category; published in 2018 Creative Wisconsin Anthology

My Siberian husky, Nikki, was leading a secret life. Clandestine meetings; trading favors that resulted in a bounty of untold riches. For her. Though she’d probably never forgive me, I just knew I had to protect her from herself.

We lived at a ski resort located in the Big Snow Country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Being about 10 miles from Lake Superior meant we got 200 to 300 inches of snow every year. A skier’s paradise.

It was also a builder’s paradise, which was why my husband, a building contractor, and I lived there. We were the only year-round residents on the wooded cul de sac a half mile from the ski lodge.  The other homes were ski chalets, rented by the week or weekend during ski season.

Besides skiers and builders, this location was also perfect for Nikki.  The surrounding woods were her playground. Huskies are known for being runners, but Nikki was good. She always came home.  And she loved the snow.

When I let her out on snowy mornings, she’d put her snout down into the 12 to 18 inches of newly fallen, airy, fluffy lake effect snow; then she’d run at full speed, spewing a snow-plow-like spray as she buzzed the length of the driveway.

Each day after work, I’d release Nikki for her check of the neighborhood. But I had no idea what was really going on and became aware of it quite unexpectedly. These ski houses were purchased as an investment by private individuals and rented through the ski resort rental association. The owners of the house next door had called, asking me to see what utensils and glasses their house needed before the next season began.

While checking the cupboards, I noticed the bulletin board hanging in the hallway filled with pictures. Lots of pictures of Nikki. My Nikki. There she was, cuddled up near the fireplace being hugged by a couple of young children as though she were a part of their family. Another showed her on her hind legs, begging for a morsel. She was having a ball!

The guest book was filled with renters’ comments about the friendly dog who visited daily throughout their weekend or week-long vacation. One guest recommended to future renters that the friendly dog who came around really liked ice cream. So, be sure to keep it on hand.  No one had to tell me how friendly and loving Nikki was. But the ice cream comment surprised me. I always thought her favorite snack was popcorn.

But then I began to worry.  I recalled the many times I’d stood out on the porch and called for her, gave up, went in and then ten minutes later tried again. Finally, I’d hear a far-away door slam and soon Nikki would magically appear. Now it all made sense.

But there were six ski houses on this road. Did that mean she makes the rounds to each of them? Knowing Nikki, this seemed likely. I knew I had to do something.

I went to see my friend Helen, who owned a local leather and gift shop. She suggested attaching a leather tag to Nikki’s chain. Helen made an oval, flat piece of leather, approximately two by four inches where she’d pounded a message: DO NOT FEED OR TAKE INSIDE.

I felt devilish as I attached the tag to Nikki’s collar. Sometimes it’s hard to be a good parent. Almost immediately, I was pleased that she showed up promptly when I called; there also were no more mysterious slamming doors.

Then one day, Nikki returned with a little surprise for me: a piece of notebook paper rolled up in her collar. The hand-written note said it was so great that an owner cared so much for this beautiful and friendly dog. The writer thanked me and was happy to honor my wishes.

Our life went on with Nikki on permanent house arrest. She continued making her rounds of the neighborhood, showing up right away when I called. Arriving back home she always got a treat for being such a good girl. Rotating between ice cream and popcorn.





Talk Like a Writer

There’s nothing worse than when a non-writing friend or relative asks what you’ve been writing lately. That’s on the rare occasion when they ask at all. Regardless, you excitedly relate you’ve just finished that story, the one you’ve been struggling to find the perfect ending for. Or you proudly mention publication of an essay in that literary journal you’ve been trying to get into for years.

First, they get that far away, confused look. They seem uncomfortable.  You feel awkward. They don’t have any idea what to say next beyond the perfunctory “that’s great.”  You feel bad the subject even came up. They have the best of intentions; they want to come off as interested and supportive. But they are visiting a foreign land.

Writing is a sub-culture, complete with dialect, norms and mores, rituals, rites of passage and ceremony. For writers, we feel right at home; for non-writers it’s a maze that’s incomprehensible. I know well that feeling of not belonging because at the beginning of my writing life, I felt pretty much the same. Was I really a writer? How will I know when I really am one?

It’s been a long journey and one that started at age eleven when my essay was published in a student magazine.  I received $25.00 which was quite lot back in 1957. I wrote it in the voice of a book, asking students to treat me and my friends well. It never occurred to me that I was a writer. It was just a school assignment. Thinking of myself as a writer would come much later and be done in fits and starts.

I dipped in a little bit at a time and through the years I’ve learned the lingo and built myself a nice writing community. As years passed and especially in retirement, I’ve come to think of writing as more than a hobby but less than a job. I felt I’d really arrived when I set up my own website that now holds nearly two hundred of my pieces. I revel in the comments and likes from my followers.

Every summer I attend a week-long writing conference at UW – Madison. I call it my annual spa retreat. The instruction is top-notch and I always come away energized. It’s also great to be immersed in campus life and to make the most of the leisure built into the schedule. But the best thing is to spend time with other writers, writing, talking and thinking about writing. That’s only one of the opportunities that enhance my life.

There’s nothing like the din, the laughter, the chatter on the first day of any writing conference when everyone is getting to know each other. All you have to say to a stranger who happens to sit down next to you: “what are you writing?”  And off you go.

There’s nothing like the animated conversation that often ensues in writing group. These are the people you’ve shared your deepest secrets and yearnings with as you work out together the details of a story or essay. They sometimes become more of a family than what you have at home.

I recall attending my first poetry workshop.  I wasn’t sure I could call myself a poet. The class introduction said ‘bring six poems.” I counted. I had six, only six. I assumed that meant I qualified. Imagine me in a room with twelve life-long poets and an instructor who was a former Wisconsin poet laureate. They were kind and encouraging. Treated me like one of their own.

I now belong to a poetry group that meets once a month for reading and critiquing over breakfast. Out of that I write and post a poem every month on my wesite. I’ve learned the language and know I belong.

Writing is just one of many sub cultures out there. For example, I have a friend who belongs to a national chair caning organization. They have a board and regular meetings and everything. And language all their own. Also, think pottery, genealogy and barber shop quartets.  They’re everywhere. So, I no longer feel bad when a non-writing friend seems awkward. That’s because there’s probably somewhere in their life with some group of people where they belong, where they know the language and I don’t.

Do Something Different

Yoga class was distracted from humble warrior pose
by rain coming down in a deluge.
Instructor Terri ended meditation with a kind suggestion:
today do something different; even a small thing.

As we hoped the pouring rain would abate,
Pat and I challenged ourselves.
Rather than wait, why not follow the suggestion.
Do something different.
Why be held hostage by the weather.
Let’s both use Pat’s umbrella;
walk to her car together then I take the umbrella to my car.

After jostling around for the just right mix,
me on one side of Pat and then on the other.
Me hanging onto Pat’s arm,
we wobbled and lurched across the parking lot.
I left for the last leg of the trip
with rain coming down in sheets.

The driveway was drenched,
water swirling down the sewer drain.
Walking carefully; small steps.
squishing shoes, soaked through,
clumsily jostling to close the umbrella and car door,
relieved when I made it.

Driving to the restaurant with wipers at full speed,
by now my backside was wet and shivers had set in.
Settled into a booth and looking out the window,
we see the rain had stopped.
We could have waited a mere ten minutes.
But no; we had to do something different.
Namaste, my ass.


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