by Greg Clark, January 14, 1939
It will be a good three hours,” said Jimmie Frise, “before he can get the clutch relined.”
“Do you mean to say,” I demanded, “that the whole clutch is gone?”
“It just went all of a sudden,” explained Jim.
“Nothing in a motor car goes all of a sudden,” I stated hotly. “If we’d been in my car, this wouldn’t have happened. Here we are stuck for three hours in a peewee village, on a nasty stormy night…”
“Curl up in the back seat of the car,” suggested Jim, “and have a nap.”
“I don’t feel like a nap,” I informed him. “I feel like getting home to Toronto.”
“Okay,” proposed Jim, “you walk on and I’ll overtake you presently and pick you up.”
This absurd suggestion required no answer, because it was one of those nights of howling Arctic wind and snow drifting cold and wraithlike off the fields and across the bitter pavement of the highway.
“Maybe,” said Jim, “we could get a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Wait until I inquire.”
He went back into the gloomy garage where the garage owner was already disembowelling Jim’s car. In a village the size of this one, it takes five minutes even to ask a man if there is any place to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
“No restaurant in this village,” said Jim, finally coming out. “But there is a lady down the street a little way who runs a hot dog stand in the summer. He says maybe she would oblige us, unless she’s gone to bed.”
“It’s only 8 p.m.,” I protested, looking at my watch.
“Okay,” said Jim, “let’s go.”
“I don’t want a cup of coffee,” I declared.
“Well, for Pete’s sake,” cried Jim, “what do you want? Here we are stuck, through a little misfortune that might happen any time…”
“Jim,” I demanded, “why don’t you have us towed to Toronto? These village blacksmiths don’t know anything about clutches and things like that.”
“It would cost $6 to have us towed,” said Jim. “And this man can fix our clutch as good, maybe better than any city garage. In the city, my clutch would be only one of 17 clutches to be fixed at the same time. But here, it is the first clutch he has looked at since last September. I will get special attention.”
“Maybe he has never seen a clutch before,” I suggested.
“He says he has,” said Jim, “and if I had to choose between this fellow, and a lot of apprentices and high pressure workers in a city repair shop, with a dozen clutch jobs to do before closing time, why I’d prefer this village mechanic. Think of all the old cars around here that he has to keep in operation.”
“Then you brought that crate of yours to the right place,” I agreed bitterly.
“Sometimes,” sighed Jim, “I think you and I ought to always travel in separate cars.”
“From now on,” I retorted, “believe me, we will.”
Jim stepped out the door of the garage office into the bitter night and stood breathing deep of the air and gazing up and down the village street. I followed him.
It was a typical highway village. A church, a garage, a general store and about 10 houses, most of them one-storey frame cottages. Seven naked electric street lights served to illuminate the place. Through the branches of barren maples that in summer bower this little hamlet and make it a landmark for a million merry travellers, the winter wind moaned and blasted. Not a living soul was in sight. The only sign of habitation was a dim light glowing in the steamy windows of the general store.
“Let’s go for a little walk,” said Jim, very friendly.
So we turned up collars and stuck fists deep in pockets and bowed our heads and walked up past the store. We halted and looked in the windows, but nothing of merchandise was visible through the steam on the glass.
There seemed to be the usual array of pails, axes, harness and some boxes of groceries.
Inside, we could see a couple of figures that moved and the sounds of human voices came distantly to our ears.
“Let’s go in,” said Jim. “I crave human company.”
“Later,” I said. “Wait until we get cold. Preserve this as our sole entertainment.”
So we hunched up and walked briskly past three or four little dark houses and came to the end of the village. And we turned and walked back more slowly, past the store, the garage and so out to the farther end of the village.
“Isn’t it ghastly to think,” I said, “of these people living in self-imposed solitude? Look at it. Probably 50 people in this village. And it is as if they were dead and in their graves. Not a sound nor a sign. Only three, four, five lights burning. What on earth are they doing?”
“Oh, they’re happy,” said Jim. “They’re probably all busy in a quiet way. I bet there is a radio in every one of these homes. In what way does this village differ from Toronto?”
“Puh,” I scoffed.
“In Toronto,” said Jim, “they live in the front of their houses, that’s all. There is a little more light.”
“Oh, nonsense, Jim,” I cried. “Think of the streets, at this hour, the shopping streets, full of people; the movie crowds; even the residential streets full of cars and everything.”
“Nonsense to you,” retorted Jim. “In Toronto, everybody is a slave. Rich and poor, all are slaves. They get up in the morning and rush to their labor. They labor in fear and trembling all day, the rich, trying to safeguard and increase their riches, the poor in fear for their daily bread. But, for a little hour or two each evening, they are free, or imagine they are. So they walk about, in the streets, pitifully, in the bright shopping streets, and go to the movies to lose themselves in dreams of love and freedom; and drive gaily about in their cars, from house to house, visiting and pretending to one another about the wide and varied interests of their lives. But all of them, the rich, the poor, remembering tomorrow, and the fatal grind, and the long, anxious day.”
“It’s chilly out here, Jim,” I suggested.
A Social Centre
“But in this little village,” continued Jim, “and in a thousand thousand little villages like this all over the world, there is peace and quiet and security. Not in the front, but in the homely back of these houses, men and women and children are engrossed in happy things, in reading, knitting, talking gently. There is no fuss and no pretence, for they need not pretend. Each home has its job for tomorrow, a simple and honest job. And it waits for them. And they for it. And because everything is quiet, including their consciences and their hearts, they can go to bed any time. They can go to bed now, at 8.15 p.m., because they do not have to stay up late, trying to extract some desperate interest from their lives.”
“Huh, huh,” I argued, halting and turning to walk back into the village to which we were condemned for nearly three hours more.
“You’ve got to look at something else than the front of houses,” said Jim, getting in step. “In ninety-nine out of a hundred houses in cities, my friend, people are doing no more than these village people. But doing it hopelessly.”
“Ho, hum.” I concluded.
And we passed all the silent, dark little houses and came again past the garage, where we looked in and saw the mechanic darkly bent over the organs and entrails of Jim’s car, laid out on a bench; and once more to the general store.
“Let’s go in.” said Jim.
“What for?” I inquired.
“Just to look around,” said Jim. “You won’t find these village stores like city stores, with a clerk dashing at you full belt. This is a sort of gathering place. City stores are purely mercantile. Village stores are social centres.”
“Haw, ho,” I subsided.
So we knocked our boots against the step and pushed open the door with its jangling bell.
It was warm and foggy. Down at the back end of the store was a stove and around it sat or stood six men, all but one of them in their heavy winter coats and caps and mufflers. Temperature means nothing to the country, apparently. When you put on your winter clothes, you put them on, that’s all. This store, dim and crowded with merchandise, with its hot stove humming, was stifling. But everybody had his heavy coat on and his hands in his pockets.
The one man without coat was sitting at a little table around which everybody was grouped, and he rose, after Jim and I had stood for quite a moment in the gloom of the forward part of the store, and came towards us.
“Yes, gentleman,” he said, absently. “What can I do for you?”
“Do you keep cigarettes?” asked Jim.
“A few brands,” said the storekeeper, still absently. “What kind do you fancy?”
Jim named his brand.
The storekeeper opened a showcase and hunted thoughtfully amongst the four or five kinds he had, all clearly visible. He named them over. He drew out a couple of different packets and studied them intently.
“No, I don’t seem to have your kind,” he said.
You would think a storekeeper would know what kind of goods he had.
“I smoke a pipe myself,” he said, as if explaining.
“Well,” said Jim, looking about.
“Sorry,” said the storekeeper. “Is there anything else?”
“No, I guess not,” said Jim. “We were just stuck for time, having our engine fixed next door…”
“Oh, come right in,” said the storekeeper, with kindly understanding. “Make yourself at home. We’re just having a go at checkers here. Join up. By the fire.”
And he hurried back to the little table and the patiently waiting gathering, and Jim and I awkwardly followed after him.
Friendly faces looked at us, without too much interest, and everybody in silence concentrated his gaze on the battered checker board on which only a few pieces remained, three white crowns, three black crowns, three white pieces and two black pieces.
With nothing but the humming of the stove and an occasional sniffle from one or other of the silent watchers, the board was intently stared at, while the storekeeper made several false starts, changed his mind, and then finally moved one of the black kings.
Everybody sighed and stirred.
Opposite the storekeeper sat another elderly man, heavily coated and muffled. He instantly made a move with one of his white pieces.
An electric shock seemed to shake the room. Like a pouncing hawk, the storekeeper moved a king and in three more moves, the game was ended, the storekeeper the winner.
Everybody relaxed and there was a lot of laughing and going over of the plays.
“Anybody else?” cried the little storekeeper, gaily. “It’s cigars all round.”
Jim looked at me and I at Jim.
“That’s a sucker’s move,” murmured Jim. “That white piece.”
“Sit in,” I urged.
So Jim, after waiting a polite moment, piped up and asked if strangers were admitted.
“Delighted,” said the storekeeper.
“Is this game for money?” inquired Jim, jovially.
“No, sir,” said the storekeeper. “Just cigars all round. That’s the usual, hereabouts.”
Jim sat down and took his overcoat off. I stood behind him. Jim is a good checker player. He can see three moves ahead. In a moment, all was tense once more in this quiet place of business. Only the stove hummed and a couple of friends sniffled. Jim started his well-known wedge play, right up the centre.
The storekeeper, with becoming caution, paused and studied the board keenly. He began several false moves but snatched his hand back. Jim continued his aggressive drive up the centre. The little shopkeeper continued his cautious, countrified game, nearly making moves, then pausing to reflect.
Jim, coming to the end of his wedge, started up his rear guard.
With serpent-like suddenness, the little shopkeeper picked up one of his back men and jumped five of Jim’s. I saw it coming the instant he started, and loud exclamations and deep sniffles of delight came from the crowd and Jim, sitting violently back, saw the game over hardly before it had begun.
“Cigars all round,” cried Jim, merrily, while the storekeeper jumped up and passed the box: five-centers, fortunately.
“Seven cigars,” I counted aloud. “Make a note, Jim.”
Jim relayed out his men and a second game started. This time, Jim took a little time with his famous centre wedge play. He too started backing and filling and reconsidering his play.
“Get the sides up.” I said quietly.
Everybody looked at me, and three of them sniffled.
“Put two behind that forward one,” I suggested a moment later.
Jim gave me an impatient bunt with his elbow, and all the other watchers shifted their position a little and smiled briefly at me.
“Look out,” I cried, as Jim started to move one of his men.
“You don’t talk, during checkers,” said the shopkeeper, gently to me.
Jim moved. From a side position, the storekeeper shifted one checker, and there was Jim, cornered.
“Cigars all round,” I cried heartily, and again the box of five-centers were passed and all the lads opened their overcoats and slipped the cigars inside.
Three more visitors came noisily in the front door.
“May I?” I inquired, as Jim rose from the table.
“Certainly.” cried the shopkeeper
“You’re sure I’m not holding up any of you gentlemen?” I inquired graciously, around the group of watchers, standing and leaning.
So we set out the pieces. No wedge game for me. I play what you might call random checkers. A sort of guerrilla warfare. Devil take the hindmost, as it were. By assuming an air of concentration and mystery and moving any old piece, I often come out as good as the next fellow, and sometimes actually win.
At first, I had the shopkeeper buffaloed. In fact, I made two double jumps on him and could feel the tense air of the watchers around us. But then, quite suddenly, the storekeeper made a four jump and then got three kings out of nowhere and soon I was slaughtered.
“Cigars all round, nine cigars, make a note of it!” cried Jim, cheerily, and again they were passed and a new box opened. Two more strangers dropped in, stamping their feet.
“How about another game?” challenged the storekeeper.
“Okay,” I replied heartily.
So we had another game, and the cigars went around once more and then Jimmie said it was 10 o’clock and our car would be ready. So we thanked everybody for a pleasant evening and got the car and soon left the lonely little village far behind.
Editor’s Note: This is a common theme for some stories. Greg and Jim are stuck or lost and end up in some strange small town. They get into some mischief, and the story unfolds. This story also appears in the book “The Best of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise” (1977)