Where words had once become life stood a smoldering pile of charred wood, broken glass, and scattered shingles. A garden hose lay on the ground nearby; water trickled from it. Nick Rodgers, wrapped in a tartan blanket, leaned against the flagstone deck adjoined to his late father’s house that he shared with his sister and her husband. He had not moved for what seemed like an eternity.
An old, battered Royal typewriter, covered in soot, with its ribbon pulled halfway out, blowing in the wind, lay at his feet. It was the only thing Nick had saved from the fire. He tripped running from the shed; the typewriter slipped from his hands and slammed onto the paver stone, breaking the carriage. Nick wondered if it was worth fixing or if he even wanted to fix it.
He stared vacantly into the rising damp smoke. The acrid smell reminded Nick of his grandfather’s hickory smokehouse and the burnt wires from a radio he had once built haphazardly from plans he had gotten from an old Popular Mechanics magazine. His sister, Hazel, and brother-in-law, Tom, came out through the screen door. Hazel was carrying a hot cup of coffee and put it down next to Nick. She picked up the cup she brought out earlier. He hadn’t touched it.
Tom sat down by Nick, pulled two cigarettes from his shirt pocket, and lit them both. He held one out; Nick waved it away.
“Are you kidding? That’s how the damn fire started in the first place… I think I’m gonna quit. I always knew those things would ruin my life sooner or later. Never thought it would happen this way.”
Tom dropped the cigarette on the ground; Nick stomped it like an annoying insect. Looking out at the smoking, black timbers, Tom shook his head in disbelief, then turned to Nick.
“Were you able to save anything?”
“Dad’s old typewriter,” Nick said as he looked over at the Royal. For the first time in his life, he hated that thing.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know what you meant. No, it all happened so fast. I just grabbed the typewriter and ran out. I should have taken the wooden filing cabinet. The fire spread too swiftly before I could get anything else. It’s all gone.”
“Everything?” Tom asked.
“What are you going to do?”
Nick ignored Tom’s question while eyeing the smoldering pile of what, only a few hours before, had been the sum-total of Nick’s existence. Tom stood up and walked over to where the tiny shed once stood and began to kick around the remains. He bent down and picked something up, looked at it, then tossed it. Tom kicked some more, shaking his head sadly at the destruction. Then he saw something. Tom bent down and picked up a thick folder. It was soaking wet and charred around the edges. He opened it and there were about thirty or forty pages, maybe more, in it. They, too, were soaked and charred. He peeled a sheet from the top and held it up in the sun to read the writing on it. Tom looked over at Nick and held it out for him to see. Nick stood up.
“Look familiar?” Tom asked.
“Bring it here.”
Tom stepped gingerly through the debris, carefully tracing his steps back to where Nick was standing. He handed Nick the folder with the pages in it. Nick studied one page after another. The paper had become translucent from being wet, but he was able to make it out.
“Just a bunch of silly poems and a couple of chapters from the first story I ever wrote,” Nick said. “There should be another folder with four or five more stories in it. It was with this folder.”
“I didn’t see anything else. That’s all there was.”
It was Nick’s first writings from when he was a young man with dreams of the literary life he had struggled with since. It was stories and poems that would be of interest to no one. He hardly remembered writing them. It was painfully embarrassing for Nick to look at those long-winded, poorly punctuated sentences and smarmy-flowery prose of love and nature. He threw the folder to the ground.
“It’s no good to me.”
“It’s a start, Nick.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I can build you another shed.”
Nick was numb. He disregarded Tom and all his sympathy and kind gestures, and his wanting to help in some way. He wandered back and forth past where the shed once stood and started to cry; he blubbered. Embarrassed, Nick pulled the blanket over his head and hid his face. He bit his lip to make himself stop. Tom tried to console Nick. He reached out and put his hand on Nick’s shoulder but Nick pulled away. Tom backed off. Hazel came stomping out through the screen door again. She was carrying something that was much too heavy for her petite stature. It was another typewriter about the same size as the Royal, except it was much older. She dropped it, hard and steady, on the picnic table. Nick looked over at Hazel as she wiped the dust from her hands. She had a proud look on her face, as if she had just saved the day and solved all of Nick’s problems. Nick’s countenance fell. Tom rolled his eyes.
“What are you doing?” Tom asked his wife.
“It’s Daddy’s first typewriter. I brought it down from the attic. Nick can make use of it while the Royal is getting fixed.”
There it sat, an Underwood No. 5 from the 1920s, almost one hundred years ago. For its age it looked to be in good condition except for the disintegrating, dried-out ribbon and the dust that covered it. Nick glanced at it with indifference. He had a romantic affinity for antique typewriters, just not this one.
“It’s Grandpa’s first typewriter,” Nick said. “He gave it to Dad when Dad went to work for him at the Chronicle. Dad never liked it and neither do I. The keys are too hard to push on.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Hazel sniped. “Maybe if you had gotten off your high-horse and rid yourself of that nostalgic notion you have for Daddy’s old Royal and used a computer in the first place, you would not be facing this dilemma. You could at least be a little more appreciative that Tom and I are only trying to help.”
Nick glared. Hazel knew this time she stepped over the line. Tom became infuriated.
“Zip it, girl!” he yelled as he stared Hazel down. Hazel turned away, folded her arms, and looked off at the mountains.
“Shut up! Both of you,” yelled Nick.
Nick stepped back from the smoking mess and sat back down on the edge of the concrete deck. Hazel brushed her hands on her apron and stormed back into the house, slamming the screen door behind her. Tom went over and sat next to Nick.
“It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
Nick shook his head and looked down. “It’s not the end of your world, Tom. Besides, what do you know? You only drive a truck.”
Tom kicked at the grass beneath his feet. Nick realized that wasn’t a fair statement he had made and tried to backtrack.
“I didn’t mean it that way, Tom. I just meant that…” Nick nervously shrugged the tartan blanket higher over his shoulders. “This is the worst day of my life; I don’t know what I’m thinking right now. It’s been a long night.”
“It’s okay, Nick. You’re right. It’s not the end of my world. I sometimes forget how much you have invested in this writing stuff. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling right now.”
“I’m not sure what I’m feeling,” Nick said.
“I just don’t want you to give it all up. You’ve come too far.”
“I have nothing more in me, Tom. When that last flame died out, something inside me died along with it. All my work is gone. Just ashes.”
“It will all come back to you.”
“If I weren’t so miserable, I’d laugh at what you just said. Those stories didn’t come from me. I was just a vessel, a tool. It all came from those mountains you see out there, and the valley below, from the rivers and lakes. I dreamt of things while walking in the woods. Words came to me from church bells, and train whistles, and fire tower sirens, from good people, and bad people, and just plain crazy people who live here in the North Country. The crickets would tell me things at night and the loon in the morning. I’m afraid because I don’t hear it no more, I will never dream those stories again. And if I can’t hear the words, I can’t write them.”
“Well, of course you don’t hear anything. You’re in shock. It’s too soon. It will all come back. You wait and see.”
Hazel appeared at the screen door. This time she did not come out but called to the men, telling them lunch was ready and that they should go wash up. She seemed more agreeable and better-natured than a few moments ago. Tom looked up and smiled. He was sorry for snapping at her. Hazel smiled back.
Tom slapped Nick on the back and got up to go inside. But before he opened the screen door, he turned back to Nick sitting on the concrete deck, wrapped in that old tartan blanket, looking out over the smoldering mess; he was a million miles away. Tom reminded him that the life they knew came from those mountains. Nick said nothing.
“After lunch I’ll head into town and put in an order at the lumberyard. You can come along if you want, or you can sit here and keep feeling sorry for yourself. Somehow I don’t think these mountains are ever gonna stop speaking.”