When I was thirty-two and renting the basement apartment from Mr. and Mrs. Webb, who lived off Route 22, my car sat on blocks next to their garage – a constant reminder that this was where I had gotten stuck two years ago. The car now needed things that I couldn’t afford in order to make it move.
The land surrounding the Webbs’ home was Shangri-La Mobile Home Village – eight acres of dead grass pockmarked with vinyl-sided doublewides. Not long after moving in, I had given the trailers names, like boats in a harbor. I called them things like Lincoln Logs, White House, Emerald City. The one closest to the house, about fifty yards away, had, at one time, been blue before the elements had got a hold of it – that was the one I called Blue Horse. It reminded me of the children’s book I used to read when I was little. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see? I see a Blue Horse looking at me! The Blue Horse was always my favorite. You never see a Blue Horse in real life.
I didn’t know much about the Shangri-La tenants outside of what I heard the Webbs say – it was mostly unfaithful husbands, young unwed mothers, a few drunks, and some combinations thereof. I felt like it wasn’t my place to judge though, the Webbs’ had taken pity on me and offered me their basement since I couldn’t even afford an actual trailer.
I looked up, hoping to see some stars, but the night was polluted by the flickering fluorescent streetlamp across the road that Mr. Webb said he’d put up for “security” but the most it would protect us from was moths and epileptics.
I lit another cigarette and propped my feet up on the rail, catching my reflection in one of the downstairs windows. I looked old. I think there might have been a time when I was handsome – I had even been on the baseball team in high school. Now, the sandy blonde hair above my temples had relocated to the shower drain and my hands and face felt encrusted with a layer of dust, courtesy of the antique shop. I was stuck, and I was beginning to think that getting stuck made you old.
Right as I was starting to feel really sorry for myself, I heard a screen door slam in the distance. Somebody was coming out of the Blue Horse and moving steadily towards the house. I managed to catch shadowy flashes of the figure. It was a girl, she was wearing a white T-shirt and an oversized dark jacket; she had twig-thin legs sprouting underneath her, taking root in a pair of what looked like men’s work boots. She had long hair but I couldn’t make out her face or what she was carrying under her arm. It wasn’t until she lifted it to eye-level that I realized it was a rifle. I stood to yell at her but before I could, the crack of a gunshot rang in my ears and glowing white sparks like snow floated down from the streetlamp.
She shot the goddamn light out.
Without so much as a wave, she turned on her heel and walked briskly back to her trailer. I stood there in shock for a few minutes, letting the quiet stifle everything again, and then I stamped out the cigarette and started making my way down to the Blue Horse.
Up close, the trailer was nicer than I was expecting it to be. I had spent a few Saturdays helping Mr. Webb put in new underpinning or layer Kool Seal on the roofs of a few of the other trailers. Most of them had the odd broken Fisher-Price car or splintered doghouse out front, but as I jogged down towards Blue Horse, I realized that, except for a dark green plastic Adirondack chair on the small deck, the land surrounding it was fairly well kept. For a minute I wondered if this was really the right trailer, at a glance there didn’t seem to be any signs of life inside. As I got closer, I saw the faint dizzy glow of candlelight behind the mini-blinds. I knocked on the vinyl siding and, when the girl answered the door, I realized I had no idea what to say.
I wasn’t expecting the face that greeted me. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen; her hair was thick and dark brown, falling just below her shoulders. Her skin reminded me of milky coffee and she had dark brown eyes. I wouldn’t necessarily call her beautiful; her nose was too small, her chin was too prominent, and her brow was furrowed in a way that made me certain tonight was not the first time she’d fired a gun. It wasn’t until she looked me up and down and asked, “What?” that I realized I had been staring. It took a few minutes for me to remember why I had walked all the way down here in the first place.
“What the hell are you doing shooting a gun off that close to a damn house?” She responded by rolling her eyes and drifting back into the house, which made me even angrier. I poked my head in the trailer and every instinct told me to turn around, close the door and leave. The layout of the trailer was not unlike all the rest in Shangri-La – a “great” room, kitchenette with a stove, sink, and mini-fridge, and a door leading to a bathroom just big enough to hold a shower stall, toilet, and another sink. The oven door sat open, packed to the brim with shoeboxes and paperback books. The only pieces of furniture in the great room were a large, threadbare La-Z-Boy recliner, a plastic folding TV tray, and what appeared to be an air mattress covered with T-shirts and towels. There was not an electrical device to be found; instead, there were dozens of candles lining the room. It occurred to me that this was most likely not for ambience, but rather a direct result of unpaid utilities.
In the few moments I spent surveying the interior, the girl had made her way to one of the kitchen cabinets, grabbed a box of what appeared to be off-brand Rice Krispies and was now seated in the recliner holding a small paperback open in one hand, shoving cereal into her mouth with the other. My resentment toward her escalated; I couldn’t stand her nonchalance. All I could think about was how disappointed I was by the person who turned out to be the owner of the Blue Horse.
“Who the hell are you anyway?”
“I could ask the same question of the strange man standing in my living room,” she replied through a mouthful of Rice Crackles or whatever they were called. Something about the way she spoke made her seem older.
“Congratulations.” It could have been the beer and cigarettes or the shock of having a rifle shot fifteen feet from me, but my head was spinning and for a minute I started to forget what had actually possessed me to come down here.
“Why did you shoot the streetlamp?”
“It kept flickering, it was giving me a headache.”
“So you couldn’t come up to the house and ask Mr. Webb to fix it?”
“You caught me. I wanted an excuse to use my gun. Haven’t had a good break-in attempt in months.” Her every word was laced with sarcasm. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to laugh at her humor or walk right over and slap her. I decided against the latter; of the two of us, she had better aim.
There were a few more seconds of tense silence before, without looking up from her book, she thrust the cereal box in my direction and asked, “Want some?”
“No,” I answered. She shrugged as if to say, More for me and continued reading and munching. I tried a different approach.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
What? “What’s your name?”
More silence. Finally, with an exasperated groan, she slapped her book down on the TV tray and set the box of cereal on the floor. Suddenly, she was inches from me. She was very short, the top of her head barely reaching my chest and she had to tilt her head back to look at me.
“I wish to offer you my deepest condolences for shooting out your beloved flickering streetlamp. In lieu of flowers, I can only offer you cereal. Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to pee.” She held her pointer finger to her brow in a casual salute and made her way to the small bathroom, humming as she went.
+ + +
When I woke up before the sun the next morning with my jacket still on, I had the sickening taste of stale cigarette smoke in my mouth. I showered quickly and made my way upstairs.
Sometimes I was convinced that if Norman Rockwell had painted religious propaganda, it might look something like mealtime in the Webb kitchen. Mr. Fenton Webb sat at the table in his boxers and undershirt, sipping coffee while he read the Bible. Mrs. Maureen Webb stood at the stove, this morning she was stirring oatmeal while her Earl Grey steeped. She was a thin, pretty woman who looked much younger than her sixty-eight years. She always wore blue jeans and her husband’s hand-me-down flannel shirts with her hair pulled back in a low bun, but, despite her dress, she was a very proper woman. Above the telephone hung an old, stained piece of cross-stitching that read “…but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. – Joshua 24:15.” A small turtledove clasping an olive branch guarded each corner.
“Morning Jack, oatmeal? Cereal?”
“No, I’ve got to get down to the shop. I’ll just have some coffee.” Mrs. Webb poured me a cup and I stirred in some milk. It reminded me of Hazel’s skin. That aggravated me.
“Do you know the girl who lives down in the blue trailer? Closest one?” Mr. Webb placed his satin bookmark somewhere in Hebrews and leaned back in his chair.
“Blue… Maureen? You know?” Without a word, Mrs. Webb opened a kitchen drawer, pulled out a worn steno pad and flipped to the second page.
“Oh, no Jack honey, that trailer’s owned by a man. Dale Crothers. You sure you don’t mean another one?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason. I ran into somebody, but I must have had the wrong place. I’ve gotta get going to the shop.”
+ + +
Matheson’s Antique Shop stood on the corner of Holt Street and Dogwood Avenue. The Matheson family had apparently owned it since cavemen had started antiquing or something like that. When I had ended up in town two years ago, Mr. Matheson said he would offer me a job so I could save up to get my car fixed. Three months ago, he and his wife had left to spend some time travelling and visiting their grandchildren and left me in charge. I opened up the shop every morning, kept the dust off things, delivered and picked up items when I had to, but mostly I was just a warm body to make sure nothing caught fire or got stolen.
I would be lying if I said I was unhappy. There was a large wingback chair and matching ottoman in one corner of the shop. Most days, I sat there and read whatever book I’d checked out from the library, sometimes I even kept a journal. Customers would come in sometimes when the weather was nice enough to warrant a stroll downtown, but mostly my only visitors were Frank on his lunch break or Mrs. Webb bringing me leftovers, insisting I that I didn’t eat enough to keep a bird alive.
On this particular Saturday, the sky was a slate gray and there was a serrated feel to the icy wind. Once I had the shop unlocked, I made my way to the back room to turn up the thermostat. When I made my way back out front, Hazel stood in front of me, thumbing through a milk crate of vintage magazines. For a minute I wondered if she was stalking me, or maybe haunting me. As far as the Webbs knew, she didn’t exist.
“Hola, Jack. Comment ça va?”
“How’s it going?”
“What are you doing here?” She was now making her way around the store, making a point to touch everything in arm’s reach. She was wearing a pair of men’s jeans, sneakers, and a sweater that was so big, she had to cuff the sleeves several times just to allow her fingertips to poke out. I wondered if she owned any clothes that actually fit her.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re not especially friendly?” Before I could answer, she reached up to a shelf and pulled down a china teacup, “How much for this?” I walked over to her to get a better look. I turned the tiny cup upside down in my hands to see the pattern name on the bottom.
“The Royal Albert Cottage Garden pattern? I think it’s three hundred for the set.”
“No, no. Just the teacup.”
“Well I can’t sell you just one teacup. They’re a set.”
“But I don’t need the whole set.”
“What do you need one teacup for?”
“Drinking tea.” I honestly don’t know what I was expecting, so instead of responding I just walked to the counter and started sorting through receipts.
“Do you want food?” She had quickly followed me and was now leaning on the glass counter next to the register.
“I want some waffles. Do you want to go get food with me?” I wanted to tell her no, that I had to work and I wanted her to leave me alone. But then I remembered what Mrs. Webb said this morning about someone named Dale Something-Or-Other living in the Blue Horse, and my curiosity got the best of me.
We walked a block over to the Waffle House; we were the only ones there. Hazel got a blueberry waffle and orange juice, I got coffee.
“Well,” I began in a weak attempt to break the tension that apparently only I was feeling, “tell me about yourself Hazel. Other than your violent disdain for streetlamps, of course.” She shook her head and smiled. She was actually pretty when she wasn’t holding a gun or shoving fistfuls of cereal into her face.
“I’m eighteen. I like mysteries. My grandfather taught me how to play the violin when I was five and how to shoot a gun when I was eight, he died before he could teach me how to dance though.”
“How come the Webbs think you’re a man named Dale?”
“Oh, Mr. Crothers? That’s my husband’s dad. He’s dead too.”
“Your husband or his dad?”
“His dad, he’s the one who owns the trailer. It’s where me and Adam are gonna live when he gets back.”
“Adam’s your husband?”
“Well, he will be. He’s working in Albany right now. Once he’s got enough money saved up, he’s gonna come back here and we’re gonna get married.”
“What work is he doing in Albany?”
“No, it’s my turn. Why do you live with the Webbs?”
“They let me stay with them while I work on my car.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It would take less time to tell you what isn’t wrong with it.”
“What are you gonna do when you get it fixed?”
“I don’t know. My mom died about three years ago, she was sick. After she passed away, I had to sell our house and stuff to pay for the medical bills, so I just sort of got in the car and left. The transmission fell out about a mile from Shangri-La.”
“What was your mom sick with?”
“My grandpa too.”
“No. Sorry. I don’t know why I said that. He had a stroke. It was sad though.”
We sat at the Waffle House booth for two and a half hours talking. Hazel was weird, but a different kind of weird from Frank; I didn’t mind when she said strange things and she stared at me in a nice way when I talked about my mom or baseball or the antique store. She talked about hunting with her grandfather, whom she called Pops, before she was big enough to lift a gun. She told me about Adam, whom I got the impression was a good bit older than her and, for some reason, when I pictured him in my head, I imagined him being bald and fat. She told me about the books she liked; her favorites were anything by Agatha Christie. I learned that her favorite colors were “wet cement” and “ox blood” which I was pretty sure were just some form of gray and burgundy. There was still something about her that aggravated me, but I was starting to think that was more my fault than hers.
+ + +
A couple of months passed and I started seeing more of Hazel. In fact, we became friends. I started walking down to the Blue Horse after I closed up the antique store and, as the weather warmed up, we would walk around Shangri-La and talk about mystery books she had leant me. Once, I even told her about the names for the trailers and she laughed when I told her about how hers was Blue Horse, but then she started naming some too; she came up with odd names I didn’t always understand, like Versailles and Terabithia. I introduced her to the Webbs although, for legal reasons, we both decided to introduce her as Mr. Dale Crothers’ daughter. She spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Webb about the Bible, which I assumed was one of the many things her Pops had taught her about before his death. I never let Frank meet Hazel, but he would question me relentlessly about her. I had to explain to him that it simply “wasn’t like that.”
One day, an early spring shower coated Shangri-La. The antique shop was closed on Sundays and the Webbs were at church all day. I was lounging on the couch in the den upstairs, reading A Shilling for Candles, it was a mystery by Josephine Tey that Hazel had leant me out of her oven collection. There was an unexpected knock at the front door, and when I got up I was surprised to find Hazel. She looked upset.
“What’s wrong?” She came inside without asking and made her way to the couch.
“I got a letter from Adam.” She stared straight ahead at empty space.
“Is he okay?”
“He doesn’t want to get married anymore.” I sat down next to her. I didn’t know what this meant and certainly didn’t know what to do. My father had left my mom when I was four and I remembered her staying in bed for a long time and then we didn’t talk about him anymore. I wondered if I was just supposed to let Hazel go to bed for a while and then things would be okay.
“I’m not sure what to do.” She squeezed her eyes shut and slowly laid her head down in my lap. I couldn’t say anything, so I didn’t. I just held her hand while she shook and cried quietly. After a few minutes, she fell asleep that way. She looked nice when she slept, snoring gently. I finished my book with her sleeping on me like that. Trying my hardest not to disturb her, I shifted gingerly and lay down next to her on the sofa, wrapping her up in my arms. I leaned my forehead against hers and realized she smelled so nice. I thought I might have been imagining it when her eyes slowly opened and stared into mine for a minute. I wanted to say something profound to her, give her a reason to feel better. I wanted to tell her that Adam didn’t matter because we had oven books and the Waffle House and this trailer park with all the made up names. I was knitting words together in my head when she pressed her lips against mine. She was warm and soft just the way I thought she would be, there was something frantic about the way she held herself against me, just like the there was something frantic about everything she did. It’s funny how when you find yourself in these positions, kissing a sad girl like Hazel, the subconscious parts of your mind take over. I didn’t have to think about wrapping my arms around her waist and pulling her closer to me or running the pad of my thumb gently down her spine. Her legs were floating around gently next to mine and I wanted to exist here for the rest of my life. The moment broke though when I felt wet, hot tears on my cheeks. They were hers. She pulled away from me, stared at me as if she were trying to figure out a difficult math problem, and then she simply kissed me on the forehead and fell back to sleep.
She slept like that for another hour or so, meanwhile I just lied there, feeling tense and manic. Did she even know she had done that? Had she even be awake? Should I not have kissed her back. I played a hundred scenarios over in my mind that could play out once she woke up. None of them actually happened. She woke up shortly before it got dark outside and told me she needed to go home, so I walked her down to the Blue Horse. When we reached the front door and the green Adirondack, she turned to me almost shamefully.
“I think I need to leave here,” she whispered.
“I need to leave. I can’t stay here anymore.” That moment felt big. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I wanted to tell her it would be okay and that she should stay, tell the Webbs that she was living in the Blue Horse and have them turn the electricity on for her. She should wait until I got my car fixed and then we could go somewhere together. I wanted to kiss her. Instead, I nodded.
“Where are you gonna go?”
“I have an aunt in Ohio. She told me I could come out there whenever I want and I guess I still have some money Adam sent me, enough for a bus ticket at least.” I nodded again.
The next day at the shop, I took one of the Royal Albert Cottage Garden teacups off the shelf, wrapped it in newspaper and put twenty dollars in the register. That night, I knocked on the door of the Blue Horse and when Hazel let me in, the sight nearly broke my heart. There was a black garbage bag next to the La-Z-Boy filled with all of her candles and a clump of duct tape that I could only assume was her air mattress. She was stuffing her T-shirts and towels and books in a big duffel bag. Her Pops’ rifle was in its case, propped up against the wall. The oven door was shut for the first time.
“So, tomorrow?” I asked. She turned to me without saying anything. “I got you something,” I muttered holding out the clump of newspaper in front of me like an embarrassed little kid. She reached and took it from me, but before she could tear into it, I mumbled, “Wait to open it.” She set it on the kitchenette counter and I saw that she was trying to hold back tears.
“I’ll write to you and stuff,” she said with a sad rasp to her voice.
“Then I’ll write back,” I said and realized how stupid I sounded. Without allowing myself to think about it too much, I wrapped Hazel in my arms and hugged her. When I hugged her, she felt younger than eighteen. Holding her in my arms, I felt all the moments she had told me about – playing the violin, shooting squirrels with a little BB gun, crying when her Pops died, reading Agatha Christie for the first time. I wanted to believe that the longer I held on to her, the more okay she might eventually be. When I finally let go, she walked over to her duffel and said, “I want you to have this.” She handed me her copy of And Then There Were None. It was the most worn out book I had ever seen; it was Hazel’s favorite and I knew she had read it twelve times. Before I could say anything, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on my chin. I think she had been aiming for my cheek and missed but it broke my heart nonetheless.
+ + +
Two days later, Mr. Webb asked me to help him clean out the Blue Horse and get an estimate on repairs before they could lease it again. As we made our way down towards it, I saw that Hazel had put the La-Z-Boy, the TV tray, and the Adirondack out in the yard, presumably to be donated or thrown away. Mr. Webb handed me his key ring that had the master key for each of the trailer and asked me to go inside and check the appliances while he climbed up to the roof to check for leaks.
I opened the door, not expecting to see anything. But, sitting on the counter, was the Royal Albert Cottage Garden teacup and a note. I put on my reading glasses and held the note. In Hazel’s cramped, shaky script, it read simply:
You can’t sell just one teacup. They’re a set.