Authors: Jennifer Wixson
Hobart, a self-employed carpenter who lived “off the grid” in Sovereign in a post and beam cabin he built himself, hopped from his 4-wheel-drive pickup. The six-foot, well-muscled Hobart, a handsome, steady man, inhaled deeply, drawing the pleasant scent of wood smoke deep into his lungs. He pulled his denim jacket closer around his muscular chest and tugged his Boston Red Sox cap down over his neatly-cropped, dark-blond curls. The February sun had set, and he felt the winter chill creeping into his jean-clad legs. Hobart kicked a frozen snowplow remnant out of his path sending shards of icy snow scattering like marbles across the parking lot. “Score!” he said aloud.
Hobart strode confidently through the double-glass fronted door of Gilpin’s and called out a greeting to the owner. “Hey, Ralph! Where are ya?” The store smelled like Murphy® Oil Soap, and Hobart knew that business must be slow since Ralph Gilpin was cleaning again. He took off his leather gloves and stuffed them into his back pocket.
“Ain’t likely to be too far off,” replied the wizened shopkeeper, hustling up to the front with a floor mop in hand. Ralph Gilpin, 76, great-grandson of the original Gilpin’s founder, kept the store pretty much the same as it was during Charlie Gilpin’s time, with a few exceptions, most notably electricity. A true general store, Gilpin’s still sold everything from hardware to dry goods to wedding dresses. Ralph’s rubber sole shoes squeaked on the wet wood floor as he advanced. “Haven’t seen ya in a while, Mike,” Ralph said, extending an arthritic right paw. “Watch the floor.” The two men shook hands.
“I been working, Ralph. How’s Maude?” asked Hobart, easily.
Ralph leaned the mop against a shelf of canned peas and corn, and settled in for a friendly chat. “She’s Maude! Cookin’ up a storm for some church fundraiser goin’ on tomorrow. They’re tryin’ to get money to replace them pew cushions. She’s doin’ jest fine; but I ain’t so good,” he added plaintively.
“Jest the rheumatism. But it’s to be expected in February, I guess.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Hobart replied, sincerely. “Seems like spring’s gonna be early this year, so hopefully we’ll
feel better soon.”
“Ya ain’t got no reason to feel poorly—yer just a kid!” Gilpin scoffed.
“Don’t try to make me feel sorry for you, Ralph; it won’t work. You haven’t aged a day since I moved down here from Maple Grove 12 years ago,” Hobart rebutted easily. “Tell Maude I said ‘hello’ and that I’ll stop in for some of her bread pudding soon.”
“Ya better come ovah for suppah tomorrow night and tell Maude yerself,” the wiry shopkeeper suggested. “She misses having a handsome face around.”
“I thought that’s why she kept you,” joked the carpenter, hooking a thumb into the belt loop of his jeans. “Five o’clock on Saturday, still?”
“Ayuh,” said Ralph. “Show up then and there might be some dessert left.”
As if on cue, a wall-clock melodically chimed the rural Maine supper hour. “Hey, do you still have some drill bits back in Hardware?” Hobart said, turning to business.
“Think I might,” replied Ralph. “What big project ya got goin’ on now, Mike?”
“Aw, nothing major; just finishing Joe Cooley’s sugar house up on Common Hill,” said Hobart. “He wants it done before the sap starts to run, which looks like it could be any day now. I broke my bit earlier. Cheap piece of junk from the big box store.”
“Tut, tut,” said Gilpin, a bit gleefully. “Ya get what ya pay for. What size ya need?”
Hobart glanced around the thinly peopled store. He had been planning to buy just the one drill bit, but he changed his mind. “I’ll take a complete set, if you’ve got one,” he answered.
Ralph Gilpin grinned and twisted adroitly like a player on an old-timers basketball team. “Follow me, Mike,” he said, threading his way among half-empty but neatly-stocked shelves to the back of the store where the hardware department was situated. “Let me see – ah, here she is. Complete set of drill bits; only $32.95.”
Hobart knew he could purchase the drill bits much cheaper at the big-box store in Bangor, but then, as Ralph said, you get what you pay for. Plus Hobart regularly tried to support Gilpin’s dwindling business. “I’ll take ‘em,” he said, reaching for the plastic package and stuffing it into his jacket pocket.
“Anything else ya need?”
Hobart was about to reply in the negative, when a movement two aisles over caught his eye: a waif of a woman with a shiny black coif like a chickadee was carefully examining a display of old-style kitchen items. She was a stranger to Hobart, who knew everyone in Sovereign. The carpenter thought she was the freshest, most natural-looking girl he had ever seen.
What was SHE doing in Sovereign, Maine?
Unconsciously, he caught and held his breath.
The old shopkeeper followed Hobart’s stare. “Pretty gal, ain’t she?” said Ralph, in a confidential tone. “The two of ‘em came in the store a short while ago, wantin’ somethin’ for a hostess gift.”
Hobart only half heard the shopkeeper. His gaze was arrested by a set of defensive dark eyes – brown? hazel? – which had discovered his open admiration. On a subconscious level, Hobart knew that he was being rude. But on the physical level, he discovered that he couldn’t – wouldn’t – look away. Her appearance in Sovereign was so unexpected and sweet, much like the first bright crocus blossom that thrusts up through the deep, white snow in March. The young woman dropped her eyes first. Hobart exhaled, and only then realized that he had been holding his breath.
Who WAS she and where did she come from? More importantly, where was she going and when could he see her again!
“T’other one said they was goin’ to spend the weekend with a friend up on Russell Hill,” Ralph Gilpin continued. “Maybe I better go see if they found what they was lookin’ for.”
“Stop,” said Hobart, putting out his arm and catching the skinny shopkeeper by the chest. “Let me go. It might be something heavy.”
“I kin still throw a bag of grain, Mike,” said Gilpin, slightly offended. “I might be feelin’ poorly but I ain’t dead yet.”
“Listen, put the drill bits on my tab, Ralph, and shut up already. I’ll see you and Maude tomorrow night.”
Hobart felt a strong magnetic pull toward the girl, much like the undertow of a full-moon tide. He practically floated into the aisle where two women – the mysterious girl and an older female companion with shoulder-length brown curls – were openly admiring the general store’s line of vintage kitchen utensils. Hobart watched the waif examine a wooden rolling pin that was crafted by a local woodworker. She rolled and twisted the polished honey-colored wood from one slender hand to the other, and he knew he would never think of a rolling pin as ordinary ever again.
“Can I help you?” Hobart offered, putting himself forward.
The young woman looked at Hobart’s ball cap and denim jacket, and then regarded him with suspicion. “You work here?” she challenged, a slight flush spreading across her cheeks. She lightly placed the rolling pin back on the shelf and turned to face him.
“Lila,” her companion whispered. “The man is offering to help!”
Hobart whispered the name to himself. Was there ever a more perfect name than
“I worked here when I was at Unity College,” Hobart answered, ingeniously. “Sometimes I still help out when Ralph is busy.”
The girl glanced around the empty store. “Right. Busy, like … tonight?”
An impish look appeared in the girl’s hazel-gray eyes. “Hey, maybe you COULD help us,” she said. “Maybe you could help us find a BRASSIERE for my friend?”
exclaimed the motherly brunette, blushing. “Pay no attention to her,” the woman continued, hastily, taking Lila’s arm and pulling her close. “It’s a private joke. We’re looking for a hostess gift. For a friend.”
Unabashed, Hobart tried to recollect what special item from Gilpin’s would make an appropriate “hostess gift.” He pushed his baseball cap back a bit and scratched his head. Hobart surveyed the nearby shelves helplessly to see if he could find a suitable suggestion. A bachelor who lived alone, Hobart’s familiarity with household accessories was limited.
“Uh, sure, give me a minute,” he said.
The young woman, Lila, regarded him with growing impatience. “He’s clueless,” she said. “Let’s go, Becca.”
“Wait!” It occurred to Hobart that if he knew to whom the gift was to be given, he would have a better shot at finding a suitable item. “Who’re you visiting?”
The motherly woman spoke up. “We’re spending the weekend with Jan – well, perhaps you know her? – Jan, uh, Jan – Lila, what’s Jan’s last name again?”
“Miss Hastings?!” exclaimed Hobart, relieved. “Oh, everybody knows Miss Hastings. You’re … friends?”
“She’s one of my Tweeps,” said the girl. Her voice held a hint of boredom. “One of my followers on Twitter,” she added, as an explanatory note.
Hobart felt his masculine hackles rising. She had pre-judged him and dismissed him! She thought he was a clodhopper who chopped wood (well, he did chop his own wood) and lived under a rock (he did
) and who didn’t know anything about social media or smartphones or designer coffee (he did know all about it, and that’s some of why he lived in Sovereign). Hobart’s pride was nicked, and for a moment he wanted to play the
. But the carpenter’s better nature prevailed and he shrugged the slight off. Unfortunately, some of the shine dissipated from the young woman, as well.
Hobart felt himself sinking back down to earth. The sparkling light seemed to get sucked out of the shop. He even noticed a dust bunny that had eluded Ralph trying to sneak under the nearest shelf.
Hobart turned away from the waif to address her much more pleasant companion. “I’d take Miss Hastings a bag of black oil sunflower seed if I were you,” he said, kindly. “Matilda loves bird seed – and Miss Hastings loves Matilda, as do most of the children in town.”
“You know her?” the woman asked.
“Everybody knows Miss Hastings.”
“Of … course.”
“I hear she has about 4,000 followers on Twitter, now.” Hobart couldn’t resist letting the girl know that he wasn’t a complete idiot.
“Hmmm,” said Lila, with the faintest interest.
“Sounds perfect,” interjected her friend. “Bird seed it is – OK, Lila?”
Without waiting to hear Lila’s reply, Hobart strode over to the ‘Seed and Feed’ aisle, and hefted a 50-pound sack of black oil sunflower seed onto his shoulder as easily as though it was a small child. He carried the bag up to Ralph Gilpin, who was now awaiting them at the check-out counter.
The girl, Lila, reached the counter next, and pulled out her wallet to pay for the birdseed. “How much?” she asked Ralph, ignoring Hobart. She smiled sweetly at the apron-clad shopkeeper.
“Twenty-five dollars,” replied Ralph, grinning, a bit foolishly. Hobart noticed he altogether neglected the register.
“Plus tax,” Hobart added.
“Right—plus tax,” said Ralph, hastily. “ ‘Twould make it $26.25.” The shopkeeper rang the sale into the register and the drawer
Lila pulled two twenties slowly from her wallet. Hobart waited patiently, shifting the heavy weight of the birdseed on his back. As the girl reached over the counter to hand the money to the skinny shopkeeper, he caught a whiff of some kind of natural soap scent. Hobart took the opportunity as she leaned closer to examine her face. Her smooth skin was pale and wan, and dark shadows ringed a set of pretty hazel eyes.
So, things were not as they appeared on the surface!
Transaction complete, the girl pocketed her change. She smiled again at Ralph, this time more naturally, and Hobart, who was still assessing her, caught the edge of her smile and felt the sun burst through the clouds. She moved toward the glass door with the grace of a white tail deer, and Hobart felt his innards tighten and his hopes begin to rise again.
Wake up, Mike
, he cautioned himself, feeling bedazzled.
Don’t do anything stupid.
Behind him, Ralph slapped the register drawer shut, breaking Hobart’s heady trance. The carpenter waved a parting salutation at the shopkeeper, and exited the store.
The girl reached the car first, and pulled her navy wool jacket closer against the dampness of the evening. She shivered slightly. “You can put it in the backseat,” she said. “Our stuff is in the trunk.”
Hobart shifted the birdseed to his left shoulder and opened the car door with his right hand. He tossed the 50-pound bag into the back seat, straightened up and brushed off his front. “Tell Miss Hastings I’ll stop by in the morning and unload the bag for her,” he said.
Lila started to protest, but her companion stopped her. “That would be lovely; we’d appreciate that,” she declared. “Thank you … Mr. …?”
“Hobart. Mike Hobart,” he said, offering up a firm hand.
The motherly-looking lady shook his hand in a friendly fashion. “I’m Rebecca Johnson and this is Lila Woodsum,” she said. “Thank you
much for helping us, Mike. We city girls really appreciate it!” She glanced at Lila, but the younger woman had already retreated to the passenger side of the vehicle and clambered inside. Rebecca sighed, but gave Hobart a reassuring smile. “See you tomorrow, then,” she said.
“You can count on it,” said Hobart. He backed up deliberately in the direction of his pickup, and nearly tripped over a bag of Ice Melt the shopkeeper had just set outside. “Dammit, Ralph!” Hobart ejaculated under his breath. But he recovered himself enough to lift a hand in a farewell salute as Miss Hastings’ mysterious visitors – Lila Woodsum and Rebecca Johnson – pulled out of the parking lot and motored off in the direction of Russell Hill.
Life is looking up!
Hobart thought to himself. Then he hopped back in his truck and drove home to his little cabin in the Sovereign woods.
Lila affected not to see the friendly wave offered by the good-natured Mike Hobart, whom they had just left at Gilpin’s General Store. Instead, as the two friends motored back onto Route 9/202, she stared out the passenger’s side window pretending to be engrossed by the view. Within moments – and almost despite herself – Lila felt herself falling under a sort of a trance produced by the rolling central Maine farmland. The area was white and fresh from a recent snowstorm, which looked in the gathering dusk as though a rapid hand had indiscriminately unrolled a thick layer of cotton over everything: trees, rocks, old haying equipment, and pregnant hay bales. It was a surreal-looking world, almost the opposite of what they had left behind in Boston: noisy, rushing, with concrete and steel cityscapes.