An Excerpt for Chapter 1
If you’re going to have a fistfight in a small town – and avoid a lot of talk about it – the post office is not a good place for the battle.
And shortly before five o’clock in the afternoon – when it seems ever merchant in town is dropping off the mail and lots of the tourists are buying stamps – is not a good time for it.
The fight between Joe Woodyard and Hershel Perkins erupted in the Warner Pier Post Office at 4:32 on a Monday afternoon in late June. Later I decided that it had been planned that way. And I didn’t think Joe was in on the plan.
I was one of the local merchants who witnessed the fight, since I walked into the post office with a handful of outgoing statements for TenHuis Chocolade just in time to hear Joe speak.
He sounded calm. “What are you talking about, Hershel?”
Hershel Perkins did not sound calm. He was almost shouting. “It’s about the old Root Beer Barrel. Don’t try to act innocent!”
“The old drive-in? I’m trying to sell it.”
“Yes, you money-grubbing piece of…”
Those were fighting words to Joe, I knew, because Joe – who happens to be my boyfriend – was in a financial hole right at the moment. It’s a long story, but he needed the money, even if he had to grub for it, and the sale of the dilapidated and abandoned drive-in restaurant might be the raft that kept his business afloat.
Joe raised his voice just a little when he answered. “What is your interest in this, Hershel?”
“I hear you might tear it down!”
“Tear it down? It’s already fallen down.”
“It’s a piece of history!”
“History?” Joe sounded puzzled, as well as annoyed. “It’s a bunch of boards lying in a parking lot. It’s junk.”
I was all the way inside the post office now, and could see Hershel. He seemed to be puffing himself up. Not that Hershel was all that small. He was at least five nine, just a few inches shorter than I am. He was around forty, with a broad face and a wide, narrow-lipped mouth that made him look like a frog. It was a resemblance he seemed to relish – he combed his thin hair flat and a always wore green shirts, flannel in winter and cotton in summer. Even his voice was a froglike croak, and he went places in a green canoe named the Toadfrog.
He gave an angry grunt. “Junk!” You call it junk? It’s vernacular architecture!”
Hershel went nuts. He rasped out incoherent phrases. Words like “typical commercial,” “innovation,” “rehabilitation,” “social geography,” and “culturally significant.” None of it made sense to Hershel, either. Hershel is not one of the brightest bulbs shining on Warner Pier, Michigan.
Joe tried to talk over the ranting, which meant he had to raise his voice. “Hershel, I already talked to the Planning Department. The Historic District Commission has no interest in that property since the building was destroyed by an act of God.”
Hershel kept up the angry bullfrog act, although hollering out “architectural ethnicity!” is not an effective way to argue.
Finally Joe did absolutely the worst thing he could have done – even worse than laughing. He turned his back on Hershel and reached for his post office box.
Hershel gave a loud roar and began to pummel Joe’s shoulders with both fists.
Joe whirled around, throwing up his elbows to protect his face. Then he caught hold of Hershel’s arms – first the left and then right – and he whirled again. He pinned Hershel against the wall of post office boxes, almost the way he had pinned his opponents to the mat in the days when he was a high school wrestling champ.
Hershel finally shut up.
“Hershel,” Joe said very quietly, “you can’t go around hitting people. Get in your canoe and paddle home.”
A couple of Warner Pier locals – one of them Hershel’s brother-in-law, Frank Waterloo – appeared beside Joe. From the back of the room I heard another deep voice, this one smooth and slightly accented with Spanish. It was our mayor, Mike Herrera. “Yes, Hershel,” he said, “pleeze go home. We have a forum for discussion of these design matters. You can bring it up at the Preservation Commission. There ees no need to battle it out here. Not weeth all our summer visitors as weetnesses.”
The altercation had upset Mike. I coud tell be his long “E’s.” Mike was born in Texas, and his accent usually tends more toward a Southwestern drawl than Spanglish.
Frank Waterloo, who’s a bald, hulking guy, made his voice soft and gentle as he spoke to his brother-in-law. “Let’s go, Hershel,” he said.
Joe let go of Hershel. Hershel eyed the ring of guys around him. I swear he flicked his tongue in and out like a frog after flies. Then he walked slowly toward the street door, ignoring Frank. After Hershel pulled the door open, he paused and looked back. “That’s what you say!” he said hoarsely.
He went outside, followed by Frank, then poked his head back in for a final croak. “I’ll file charges!”
And he was gone. Nervous laughter swept the post office, and a couple of guys went over to Joe and assured him they’d back him up if Hershel filed any kind of complaint.
“The guy’s crazy,” Trey Corbett said. “The Historic District Commission has no interest in seeing the Root Beer Barrel rebuilt.” Trey is a member of the commission.
“You haven’t voted yet,” Joe said.
Trey ran a hand over his thin, wispy hair and adjusted his thick glasses. To me, Trey looks like a middle-aged boy. He’s only in his mid-thirties, but his worried expression and nerdy appearance make him look as if he ought to be older. He doesn’t sport a pocket protector, but he looks as if he should.
Trey shook his head. “Besides, Hershel hit you first. You only punched him in self-defense.”
“Joe didn’t punch him at all,” I said. “He just griped – I mean ‘grabbed’! He grabbed him.” No harm in getting that idea foremost in the public mind right away.
Mike Herrera said, “Joe, you handled it as well as you could. But we sure doan want any gossip right at this point, do we?”
I wondered what that meant, but I decided this wasn’t a good time to ask. So I spoke to Joe. “Are you hurt?”
Joe shook his head. “I’m fine, Lee.” He turned to Mike and Trey. “Let’s forget it. Hershel’s just a harmless crank.”
“He’s a crank,” Trey said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s harmless. Some cranks wind up walking up and down the streets with an Uzi.”
“I’m no mental health expert,” Joe said. “See you later.” He turned to me. “You going back to the shop?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m there till closing.”
“I’ll walk down with you.”
I dumped my invoices into the proper slot while Joe closed his post office box an stuck his mail in his shirt pocket. We walked down Pear Avenue toward TenHuis Chocolade. TenHuis – it rhymes with “ice” – is where my aunt, Nettie TenHuis, makes the finest European-style luxury bonbons, truffles, and molded chocolate in the world and where I’d be on duty until after nine o’clock.
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