Jack in the Box

Chapter 3

Tim Atkins - Arlington Road : June, 2000

My partner Dave and I had felt a desire to move for a long time. We'd been born and had grown up in New England, but as age crept up on us we wanted a change. Nothing was wrong, it was just that we felt we knew every person, every road, every town. Familiarity was making us feel older than we really were.

On an antiques expedition into the mid-south I'd come upon the small town of Morton. It seemed perfect to me, so I called Dave. He was extremely reluctant to leave at all, and he was anxious at the same time. I'd do whatever he wanted, and sensed he didn't know exactly what that was. He wasn't usually indecisive but he was about this idea, so I pressed the issue. I talked to him every night on the phone, but the day I discovered Morton I called him with a real feeling of excitement.

"Davy! I found a house for sale! It's got a big yard and it's a really pretty spot! It's a neat little town - one restaurant, one gas station. No McDonald's! They're lookin' for teachers, too! Junior high, Dave, like what you do now. Wanna take a look?" I had to stop and take a breath.

I'd always thought that Dave did what I wanted even when he didn't want to. This was too big a deal for that. "Listen, Davy. It's not real important, I just want to know what you think of the idea. I like it here, but I can't decide for both of us. Just fly down on Friday or Saturday and check the place out, okay?

I could sense the humor in his voice. "Sure, Tim. I'll just fly down there. You buyin' the tickets?"

"Yeah, I'll buy. Let me know when you're getting in and I'll pick you up. We can fly back together on Sunday."

"You sure you want to do this?"

"No, I'm not sure. We can just look around and have a nice weekend. I'll show you the house I saw and we can talk about it. You can check out the job situation."

"What about your shop?"

"I'll sell it to the employees and start a new one here. Just say you're coming down. We don't have to commit to anything right now, but maybe we'll get some good ideas. Who knows ... you might hate the place."

"It's just a big move. Everybody we know is right around here. I know we've talked about it, Tim. Still, it feels different when you start thinking of really doing it. Okay, I'll come down and look. Call me back in a couple of hours. I should have plane reservations by then."

I smiled at the hotel room wall. "Thanks, Dave. You know what?"

"What's that?"

"I love you."

"I love you too, Timmy. Let me see what I can do here. Call me back later."

I fell back on the bed. This was one of the nicer Sheraton's that I'd stayed in. I didn't think much of the city, but the surrounding areas were really nice, especially to the north.

I had gotten hopelessly lost driving around out there that day. I never really minded being lost when I wasn't in a hurry. I'd found myself in one area where all the roads seemed to fork. There wasn't a simple right or left hand turn anywhere. Even the forks had forks. What wasn't a road was a hill, and a lot of those were pretty steep.

I finally turned around and tried to back track, but I just stayed lost. I eventually came to a regular intersection. There was only one sign, and it had a left facing arrow that said 'MORTON 3 MI'.

I'd been lost for a while and decided to see what Morton had to offer. The answer was 'not much' as it was just a village. I filled the car with gas, then parked it and walked along the main street. Morton is not exactly a center of commerce. The few shops there seemed to do double or triple duty to survive. One offered plumbing supplies and auto parts. The bakery also housed the travel agancy. I laughed when I walked by, thinking 'Ma Martin's Apple Pie and Airline Company.'

When I came on a drug store with an old-fashioned soda fountain. I went in for a milkshake.

There was a gent behind the prescription counter and a lady behind the soda fountain. I was the only customer. I sat down and ordered a strawberry milkshake. The waitress engaged me in small talk which, within a few minutes, became an interesting discussion. The pharmacist was her husband, and he came over to the counter and sat beside me. I told them what I did for a living and they gave me all sorts of suggestions about where to find good antiques in the area. They told me about life in the small town, about how people had to make their own fun or face driving for forty minutes to buy some.

Before long, the place filled up with kids getting out of school. I was totally impressed with them. Every single one acknowledged my presence with a friendly word and a smile. I left the place with a smile of my own and directions back to the city. I hadn't driven a mile when I came to an intersection with a stop sign and a blinking light. There was a 'House for Sale' sign tacked to a telephone pole and it had an arrow pointing to the right. Simple curiosity prompted me to flip the blinker and turn. After about another block of town I found myself on one of the prettiest roads I'd ever seen. It was straight and led up a gradual incline that seemed to go on for miles. The road was narrow, and the trees along both sides created an intermittent canopy over it. The area was lightly settled and the homes along there seemed to be from every era, from ancient to ultra-modern.

The older ones were very close to the road, the newer ones set back farther. There were places I couldn't even see. I'd notice a mailbox and the entrance to a driveway. Which would disappear up a hill into the woods. There weren't very many houses to begin with. By the time I got to the one that was for sale I'd driven four miles and maybe passed thirty or forty homes.

I pulled over across the street from the for-sale sign and looked at the house. I couldn't tell how much land went with it, but it was an attractive little ranch in a very pretty setting. It was close to the house next door, their driveways only separated by about ten feet. It looked like it might have a lot of land, though. I couldn't even see the next house on that side of the street. I wrote down the number of the agency and went back to my hotel and called them. The house was on twelve acres, mostly cleared and level. The asking price was higher than I expected, still a song compared to New England real estate. I made an appointment for noon on Saturday.

I fell asleep on the hotel bed with my thoughts. The next thing I heard was a knocking at the door. I jumped up and looked through the peep hole to see a room-service looking kid holding a tray.

I opened the door and said, "I didn't order anything."

He walked past me, then put the tray down on the desk. "This was ordered from outside, sir. Can I get you anything else?"

I was hungry. I grabbed the room-service menu from next to the bed and gave it a quick scan. One of the reasons I liked Sheratons was that they always had a decent steak. It didn't matter where you were in the world, it would always be cooked and served the way you wanted it. I looked at the kid. "Get me the New York strip nice and rare, house salad and a baked potato with just butter." I looked at the tray on the desk. "Who ordered this?" I thought I knew, and when I lifted the lid from the tray and saw a dozen oysters sitting on ice I was certain.

"I don't know, sir. The order came from outside the hotel. I'll be right back with your dinner."

I smiled at the kid. He was a skinny little twerp with skin that told me he'd had a problem with acne not too long ago. "What's your name?"


I fished in my pocket and came up with a ten, which I handed to Enrico. "I'm hungry, kid. Don't take your time, okay?"

He looked at the bill in his hand, then back at me. "Let me use your phone. I'll be back as fast as the elevators can bring me."

He used the phone to call the kitchen, then disappeared. I washed up and started in on the oysters. They were delicious, and I knew why Dave had ordered them. I was sure I'd get another dozen the next day and more the day after. Dave was convinced that oysters gave me the horn. The truth is that Dave gave me the horn, but since it was his Visa card involved I didn't argue. I love oysters.

I turned the TV to CNN and was polishing off the ninth oyster when Enrico came back with my dinner. He brought a table with it and set everything up. I gave him another five bucks and he surprised me by saying that I'd already tipped him. I just smiled and told him that I hoped the extra five would change his life.

I knew it wouldn't, but I'd learned a long time ago that generous tips didn't go unrewarded. What's a few extra bucks if it ensures discretion in hotels, preferential seating in restaurants? For my ten bucks I knew that whatever Dave and I decided to do, Enrico would try to make sure that he was our one and only attendant.

I lost the thought and dug into my dinner, then called Dave when I was done. He sounded tired and sleepy and that made me smile. When we were kids I was always the sleepy one at the end of the day. Davy always thought I was fading out, but I was just tired. I was growing faster than him and it took a lot out of me. I pretty much stopped growing just when Dave started. He soon learned how much energy the simple act of growing to your adult size takes out of you.

"Dave! Are you awake enough to give me your flight time?"

"I'm awake. Did you get a surprise?"

I grinned at the thought. "Yeah, I got your surprise and they were delicious. What made you think to send them?"

"I don't know. I just want you to be excited to see me."

"They work, you know."


"I didn't hear anything, but I know what you're thinking. I'll meet you Friday. I'll be waiting."


"After all these oysters I'll be lucky to get my pants on. I love you, Davy. I really, really do.

"No more than I love you. You going to sleep?"


"Me, too. I love you, Tim."

I made some good connections and bought some things during the next two days, and really fell in love with the area. I loved the people and their almost musical accents. I loved the scenery and the laid-back lifestyle. I'd been south before, many times actually, and this area was different. It wasn't filled with 'Good Old Boys' in baseball caps with guts overhanging their belts, but rather with friendly and genuine people.

I picked Dave up when his flight came in at 8:50 on Friday evening. I was already in a good mood, and seeing him made it even better. He was thirty-seven and looked ten years younger. I'd been attracted to him when we were kids. He was what you'd call cute then. He had grown into a very handsome man and kept himself fit. What I loved most were his eyes. He always told me he liked my laugh, but I always loved those eyes. They were such a dark brown that they appeared to be black from any distance, yet when you were up close you could see the translucence, the depth, the softness in them.

It wasn't too late to do something, but Dave was tired so we just went to the hotel and ordered some of the good room-service steaks, asking if Enrico could deliver them. Davy laughed a little after Enrico left. "He calls you Tim?"

I looked down at myself, then back at Dave. "I am Tim. That's my name."

He laughed again. "You makin' friends with bell-hops now?"

"What's wrong with bell-hops? He's a nice kid."

"Let's eat. This smells good. What's on the agenda tomorrow?"

"I thought we could drive around. I want to show you Morton and the house, then maybe we can catch a show tomorrow night."

We started eating and were silent for a while. Dave looked at me as if he was seeing something new. "You really like it here, don't you?"

"Not so much here. I'm not nuts about the city, but north of here is beautiful. I just want you to see it ... to see what you think."

"They're really looking for teachers?"

"I didn't tell you. There was a school bus crash last year. It was awful. Two teachers and a bunch of kids got killed. I guess they're having a hard time getting teachers into a rural area.

"They're having a hard time getting teachers anywhere. There's a real shortage right now. Some places are paying bonus money, subsidizing mortgages, all kinds of things. Do you really think we should up and move?"

"I just want to see what you think about the area. Eat faster, I'm still feeling those oysters."

We finished our food and put the tray in the hall, hanging up the little 'Do Not Disturb' sign, then put the oysters to good use. We fell asleep every bit as in love as ever.

When we got up in the morning we went for a short run, then showered and got ready for the day. Dave thought we'd eat in the hotel, but I had a little surprise for him. I took him to the nearby Krispy Kreme for some hot doughnuts. I knew it would take more than a house and a new job to lure him into moving, and something sweet usually worked. I got a mixed dozen and two coffees.

As soon as Dave took his first bite he looked up at me with a dreamy look on his face. "You're cheating! These are amazing!"

"I thought you'd like them, and they're low in fat and cholesterol."

"Bullshit! If I could have these every day I'd weigh six hundred pounds in a year." He was looking in the box. "You got different ones?"

"Yeah, and they're all good too, especially the hot honey glazed. When they cool off they're just doughnuts. Oh, but when they're hot ..."

We finished our breakfast then stopped back at the hotel to use the bathroom. I called the real estate agent to confirm our appointment, then we headed up the interstate. The area looked boring from the highway, which was no surprise. Most areas look boring from highways. As soon as I took the exit that led over to Morton I could see Dave's interest begin to tweak. There were the usual gas stations and convenience stores and chain restaurants right off the exit, and then we were in the country. It was quite flat at first, and as we headed east hills formed and the road began to twist and turn.

The first town we went through was Arlington, then we turned onto Morton Road. It became Arlington Road when we reached the Morton town line. I hadn't come in this direction before and I realized I'd already driven past the house when I was approaching the center of Morton. I asked Dave if he liked what he'd seen so far and he said he did, so I suggested we see it again and turned around. I found the house this time and pulled into the driveway.

Dave got out of the car and walked around to the back of the house. I followed him. He was looking around the yard, which had several huge old oak trees. It was level around the house, then started a gradual rise. It was lawn up to there, then just wooded as it turned into a hill. He hadn't really done more than glance at the house itself. The property was beautiful.

Dave turned to me. "Buy it, Tim. I already love it here."

I laughed a little. "Don't you want to see inside?"

He had a light in his eyes that I hadn't seen in a while. "Who cares about inside when you have an outside like this?" He was looking around again, then he faced me, eyes wide. "I mean, I like our house now, but this is .... this is a YARD! Do you know where it ends?"

We were interrupted by a woman's voice from behind us. "Mr. Atkins?"

We both turned around to see a chubby woman in a black dress wearing a lot of beads.

"I'm Tim Atkins."

She held out her hand. "I'm Delia. We spoke on the phone the other day." She looked at Dave. "And this is?"

"This is my brother, Dave. Can we walk around the property before we look at the house?"

"Sure. The owners showed me all of it. It's a special piece of land. It's not very big, but it has some beautiful features and no wetlands except along the back border."

We walked the property for about a half hour. She was right - it was a pretty spot. When we walked into the woods it looked like dense forest at first, but it soon thinned out. The back end bordered on a wide rushing brook lined with pine trees. We all sat on a bed of pine needles and watched the water go by for a while. Dave didn't say anything, but I knew that in his mind he'd found another one of his special places. He had always loved to sit and watch moving water.

I think Delia caught on to it, because she mentioned that the land across the brook was for sale separately. It was over a hundred acres, and it was fairly cheap because there was no road frontage. It just had an easement across another property, so nobody could build on it. The easement only allowed for a cattle crossing. I briefly considered Dave after a year of Krispy Kremes and wondered if he might qualify as a cattle. I intelligently kept that thought to myself.

We walked back to the house. It was in good shape and had rooms that would fit our furniture nicely. The selling point for both of us was the kitchen. It was a bit beat up, huge square of a room. Dave liked the sheer size, but I had been saving kitchen things from the forties and fifties for a space just like this. I could fix this room up just as it had been when the place was built.

We both had many more questions for Delia, and I got her cell phone number so I could call her on Sunday. We stayed a while longer, checking out the plumbing and heating. The service was a deep well and a septic system. The well water tasted fine. I didn't know much about septic systems, but we hadn't smelled anything unpleasant outside so I guessed that it was working fine.

Our questions answered, we asked Delia for a restaurant recommendation. She suggested Frank's in Arlington. She said it was good, and it was also the only place in the area that was open for dinner. There was a restaurant in Morton that was open for breakfast and lunch only. She left and we looked around outside for a while longer, then drove to the restaurant to eat. We had spent six hours looking at the house.

Frank's turned out to be the kind of place Dave loved. It was in a strip mall and wasn't a big place. There were two dining rooms, smoking and non, and a separate lounge area. When we walked in there was a board with the daily specials on it, all lit with fluorescence. It was busy but not packed. A waitress walked by and told us to sit wherever we wanted, then brought us surprisingly big menus. They had a little of everything I'd been eating steaks all week and Dave was afraid of ordering seafood this far inland, so we both ordered lasagna.

While we had our drinks and waited for the food, we just absorbed the atmosphere of the place. The surroundings were pretty blah, but the people weren't. It was definitely small town America. People knew each other, and the young kids running around were admonished by parent and neighbor alike. People were talking to people at other tables, even hollering between the smoking and non-smoking areas. We could hear a lot of it, so we just sat and listened for a while.

Our food came. I looked at Dave. "You like?"

"I didn't taste it yet."

"I mean the area ... the house. Do you like it? I know you liked the brook, so don't try to bullshit me."

I was looking at his best smile. "Let me taste the food. If it's good, it's a go."

"You having good thoughts about it?"

We both took bites of the lasagna. It was delicious, not at all like the stuff you usually associate with the southern interpretation of Italian food.

Dave smiled. "I'm having real good thoughts. This is good! Who'd think you could find a real Italian chef in the heart of hillbilly heaven?"

I looked around. "Sshh! This isn't exactly the hills. I like the people here, Dave. I think you will too, because there aren't too many bullshitters."

Dave laughed. I looked at him with intent. "I mean it. It's not fake southern hospitality, not the bullshit 'Hi y'all' you get in the Carolinas and Georgia. These people really talk to each other. I've been listening since I got here. Eat and listen, Dave. You'll see what I mean."

We ate and we eavesdropped. It wasn't possible to follow a single conversation, but the humor and concern in different people's voices was evident. We were hearing whoever was loudest at the moment. What was most important was what we weren't hearing. People were talking about other people but it wasn't gossip. They were talking about jobs, kids, neighbors, the weather, politics, cell phones, car troubles, the internet, just normal things. What we weren't hearing was scorn for any of these things like we'd expect to hear at home. It was just interesting people talking about everyday things. I could see that Dave had gotten caught up in it.

We really enjoyed our meal and took our time in the restaurant. We had planned to take in a show that night, but ended up in the hotel bar with a few cocktails. I was having fun watching Dave have a silent conversation with himself. I could almost read his thoughts just by watching his expression change. I knew when he smiled that it was about the property or the food. When he frowned it was a frown of doubt about leaving home, his position, his friends and family. The ball was in his court, and I just waited to see which way he rolled it.

His eyes finally looked into mine, opening wide in the process. He smiled. "You really want this?"

"Only if you do. It'll give us the space we always wanted."

"What if I can't get the job?"

"You can work with me if you don't, but you'll get it. Did you bring your paperwork?"

"Yeah, I brought it. You really think the school board's gonna be open on Sunday?"

"They won't be open, but I'm sure Delia will get it in the right hands if she makes the sale. You can just write a cover letter and give it all to her. We can try it for a year. We don't have to sell the house right away. We could just rent it out."

"We can afford it?"

"Not a problem."

Dave just looked at me. I knew what was going through his head, and it didn't please me. He was comparing our incomes as if they were separate again, and it really depressed me when he did that. He worked harder than I did, but only earned a teacher's salary. I'd done well in the antiques business, owning both a shop and a restoration company. Between them I had thirty-two full time employees. Dave had always been funny about the finances, insisting on paying half of everything.

"Dammit, Dave. Stop thinking about the money, will ya? Just tell me if you want to give it a shot. I think it'd be smart to buy the extra land, too. That way if we decide to move back we can sell it to a developer and make some money on the deal. Think of it as an investment."

Dave sighed. "You're right. I just don't like it when you pay for everything. Let's go to the business center and write a cover letter for my vita."

Minds made up, we took our drinks and walked over to the business center. Dave sat at a computer to write his cover letter and I called Delia to set up an appointment for the morning.

We met the next day at the only restaurant in Morton, a little place with four tables, four booths and a counter. The joint was pretty full and we had a coffee as we stood waiting for a space to clear, and for Delia to show up. It was mostly families there, and the friendliness we'd witnessed the night before was just as evident. The rapport that everyone shared was palpable and real.

I was watching and listening to the people. Dave was looking at what they had on their plates and watching the cook, who seemed to be doing five things at once. It was a fun place.

When Delia got there Dave had a lot of questions about the school district and she had the answers. She also told him the very sad story about why they were looking for new teachers.

We ate a great breakfast, then excused ourselves from Delia for a bit to determine that we were doing the right thing for ourselves. It didn't take us long. Dave went to the car and got his paperwork. We were going to give it a try.

We followed Delia to her office and put formal bids in on both properties. The only stipulation was on the land out back. We made it contingent on our bid for the house being accepted. When we left, a beaming Delia promised to take care of everything first thing in the morning. All I had to do was wire transfer the deposit to her company's account.

Dave was excited on the way back to the hotel. He'd fallen for the area just as hard as I had. I felt the same doubts about leaving home as he did, but it also felt like a new adventure. We'd make new friends, taste new foods, do new things.

It would be a second beginning, and just the two of us.

Continued …

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