It was half past five in the afternoon by the time John and Elise Graham finally found their way into the little village that lay at the center of Willow, Maine, like a fleck of grit at the center of some dubious pearl. The village was less than five miles from the Hempstead Place, but they took two wrong turns on the way. When they finally arrived on Main Street, both of them were hot and out of sorts. The Ford's air-conditioner had dropped dead on the trip from St. Louis, and it felt about a hundred and ten outside. Of course it wasn't anything at all like that, John Graham thought. As the old-timers said, it wasn't the heat, it was the humidity. He felt that today it would be almost possible to reach out and wring warm dribbles of water from the air itself. The sky overhead was a clear and open blue, but that high humidity made it feel as if it were going to rain any minute. Fuck that - it felt as if it were raining already.
'There's the market Milly Cousins told us about,' Elise said, and pointed.
John grunted. 'Doesn't exactly look like the supermarket of the future.'
'No,' Elise agreed carefully. They were both being careful. They had been married almost two years and they still loved each other very much, but it had been a long trip across country from St. Louis, especially in a car with a broken radio and air-conditioner. John had every hope they would enjoy the summer here in Willow (they ought to, with the University of Missouri picking up the tab), but he thought it might take as long as a week for them to settle in and settle down.
And when the weather turned yellow-dog hot like this, an argument could spin itself out of thin air. Neither of them wanted that kind of start to their summer.
John drove slowly down Main Street toward the Willow General Mercantile and Hardware.
There was a rusty sign with a blue eagle on it hanging from one corner of the porch, and he understood this was also the postal substation. The General Mercantile looked sleepy in the afternoon light, with one single car, a beat-to-shit Volvo, parked beside the sign advertising ITALIAN SANDWICHES PIZZA GROCS FISHING LICENCES, but compared with the rest of the town, it seemed to be all but bursting with life. There was a neon beer sign fizzing away in the window, although it would not be dark for almost three hours yet. Pretty radical, John thought. Sure hope the owner cleared that sign with the Board of Selectmen before he put it in.
'I thought Maine turned into Vacationland in the summer,' Elise murmured.
'Judging from what we've seen so far, I think Willow must be a little off the tourist track,' he replied.
They got out of the car and mounted the porch steps. An elderly man in a straw hat sat in a rocker with a cane seat, looking at them from shrewd little blue eyes. He was fiddling a home-made cigarette together and dribbling little bits of tobacco on the dog which lay crashed out at his feet. It was a big yellow dog of no particular make or model. Its paws lay directly beneath one of the rocker's curved runners. The old man took no notice of the dog, seemed not even to realize it was there, but the runner stopped a quarter of an inch from the vulnerable paws each time the old man rocked forward. Elise found this unaccountably fascinating.
'Good day to ye, lady n man,' the old gentleman said. 'Hello,' Elise answered, and offered him a small, tentative smile.
'Hi,' John said. 'I'm...'
'Mr. Graham,' the old man finished placidly. 'Mr. and Missus Graham. Ones that took the Hempstead Place for the summer. Heard you was writin some kind of book.'
'On the in-migration of the French during the seventeenth century,' John agreed. 'Word sure gets around, doesn't it?'
'It do travel,' the old party agreed. 'Small town, don'tcha know.' He stuck the cigarette in his mouth, where it promptly fell apart, sprinkling tobacco all over his legs and the dog's limp hide. The dog didn't stir. 'Aw, flapdoodle,' the old man said, and peeled the uncoiling paper from his lower lip. 'Wife doesn't want me to smoke nummore anyway. She says she read it's givin her cancer as well as m'ownself.'
'We came into town to get a few supplies,' Elise said. 'It's a wonderful old house, but the cupboard is bare.'
'Ayuh,' the old man said. 'Good to meet you folks. I'm Henry Eden.' He hung one bunched hand out in their direction. John shook with him, and Elise followed suit. They both did so with care, and the old man nodded as if to say he appreciated it. 'I expected you half an hour ago. Must have taken a wrong turn or two, I guess. Got a lot of roads for such a small town, you know.' He laughed. It was a hollow, bronchial sound that turned into a phlegmy smoker's cough. 'Got a power of roads in Willow, oh, ayuh!' And laughed some more.