Chapter 4 — Typical Day


The air had cooled already and the poplar trees’ shadows slid eastward as sunlight gilded the grassy meadow behind the garden and spotlighted the wild reveling of gnats and mosquitoes as they rose with the warm air into the last rays of evening.

Axel, shirtless, tawny, and glistening with sweat, released the throttle and let the lawnmower engine die.  He straightened himself and wiped his wet forehead with the back of his arm.

“That ought to do it,” he told Dixie.

Dixie had been rolling on her back on the fresh cut lawn but, when the mower quit, rolled onto her belly, ears piqued, ready to dash at the sound of Axel’s whistle.

“All I’ve got left is the watering and picking,” he told her and pushed the lawnmower into the shade of the sycamore to let its engine cool.  The faint odor of gasoline scented the warm air.  Dixie’s ears drooped at the news they would not be heading directly to the river.

“It won’t take long,” Axel assured her.

Next, he energetically unspooled the garden hose and dragged it towards the vegetable patch.

It was his vegetable patch because he was the only one to plant and tend it.  Miss Plackie suffered a visceral disinclination towards any activity involving either crawling on her hands and knees or fiddling with dirt.  Though she did enjoy the produce which Axel’s garden provided, and even if it saved her a thousand dollars on her annual grocery bill—which it did not—that still would not have been enough to cajole Miss Plackie out of her prejudice against dirt.  After all, dirt was dirty and ladies and dirt did not mix, or so she believed.  So, of course, it goes without saying that Miss Plackie did not garden.

Axel dragged the hose until it ran out, about three yards short of the garden’s edge.  There he dropped the end and returned to the spigot to turn on the water full blast.  The loose end of the hose coughed a couple of times then shot a cylindrical bow of clean water into the air and onto the lawn.  Dixie attacked the arc of water, barking and snapping at it like it was some kind of aqueous snake.  But finally she broke into lapping the stream in a lubb-dubb rhythm.  Meanwhile, Axel had gone around to the back of the toolshed and returned with two empty five-gallon buckets.  He let Dixie finish drinking then filled both buckets with water, took them to the garden, and began watering, first the tomatoes then the beans and so on, down the rows until he had watered everything.  Dixie waited without complaint.

After watering the plants and picking the vegetables it was time for supper.  Axel filled Dixie’s bowl with large, round kibble and poured water over them so that the kibble made its own “Beefy Gravy” as advertised in large print on the kibble bag.  Dixie dove into her supper with relish.

“Uh, haven’t you forgotten something?” said Axel in a parental tone.

Dixie stopped eating, sat down in front of her bowl, and whined impatiently.

“Say the blessing,” said Axel.

Dixie mumbled a series of high-pitched syllables which sounded vaguely like “Now I lay me / down to sleep”.

“Amen,” said Axel.

Immediately Dixie stood and resumed bolting her supper.

While Dixie ate, Axel gathered the produce he had picked then went into the main house through the back porch.  He was allowed, as part of the permission to live in the toolshed, to also use Miss Plackie’s kitchen and the hallway bathroom.

He entered the kitchen quietly knowing that his patroness might be sleeping, which she was.  She lay in one corner of the living room in her pillowy recliner, snoring softly.  Miss Plackie was, more or less, a nocturnal creature who took afternoon naps which often stretched into the evening.  Axel was nocturnal too but his and Miss Plackie’s sleep patterns seldom synchronized.

In the kitchen Axel quickly constructed four bologna and American cheese sandwiches.  He used only one slice of bologna on each sandwich and, as usual, spread butter on the bread instead of mayonnaise as a condiment.  He had never liked mayonnaise plus butter did not require refrigeration so was less likely to spoil.  Then he carefully sealed three of the sandwiches into zip-able plastic baggies and stored them in the side pockets of his cargo pants.  The fourth sandwich he ate while he tidied up the kitchen and returned the bologna and cheese packages to the refrigerator.  Miss Plackie did not stir from her sleep but continued snoring blissfully in her corner of the living room.

Axel noticed the liquor bottles left on the kitchen counter.  The gin bottle was a third empty but the vodka was still in its paper bag and unopened.  Axel wanted to put the liquor in the kitchen cupboard but had learned not to.  Doing so sometimes caused problems.

When he had come in to make sandwiches, Axel had put the garden produce in the kitchen sink because it needed rinsing before being used.  But now he decided it would be better to wash the vegetables and put them in a bowl to make them more appealing for his neighbor when she woke.  He worried that Miss Plackie was not eating enough.  Already she appeared too skinny for her own good.  So Axel washed the vegetables and arranged them in a bowl—shaped like a sea turtle—and wrote a note, as he sometimes did, and left both on the kitchen counter.

From the window at the sink, he witnessed the day dying so that all that was left of it was the smear of the sun’s blood, staining the western sky.  Upon finishing the note, Axel turned out the kitchen light and quietly left through the mudroom and back porch.  Miss Plackie continued sleeping undisturbed in her chair.

Outside, Dixie had finished supper and, in a state of excitement, ran circles around Axel as he legged it quickly to the toolshed to fetch his backpack, lantern, and fishing gear.  He looked forward to the quiet murmur of the Old River and fishing his favorite holes which were as familiar and necessary to him as old friends.  This was what he and Dixie lived for.

Axel believed a person could not know the spirit of a river unless he had fished it at night.  Thus, he knew well that the Old River was a jolly soul who was a trickster by nature but she also loved hearing stories and could be distracted from her high jinks with a well-told yarn and would pay for such with a good catch.

Soon Axel and Dixie, like figures growing dark under the aging varnish of an old painting, made their way into the thickening dusk, towards the river, as the birds fell silent and the night began hushing the Earth for rest.


Miss Plackie startled awake and was disappointed.  She had dreamt that Albert was alive and that, together again, they had visited the planetarium.  They were happy, arm-in-arm, taking turns looking at the moon and other planets through the gigantic telescope, and whispering to one another their discoveries.  But while she enjoyed the experience of learning new and interesting things about distant bodies and the universe and seeing the “big picture” for herself, Miss Plackie was, at the same time, preoccupied with thoughts of Albert, specifically how much she could not wait to have him alone, back in their apartment on Water Street.

It was a dream Miss Plackie would have gladly traded for her present existence, so she was disappointed when the dream evaporated and she found herself lying in the gloom of her living room and in the denser gloom of her life.

“Oh Albert,” she pined as the dream slipped into oblivion.

Miss Plackie had not changed her name after Albert Plackie divorced her.  She had decided that at least he would not take that from her.  In her heart she would remain his devoted wife and he her husband—till death do us part—just as she had promised on their wedding day.  At the time of the divorce, she half-believed that God would not let Albert remarry, though, as it turned out, Albert did remarry—twice.  But then, Miss Plackie knew that God did not sanction either of those marriages because, first of all, God, she was certain, only recognized a person’s first marriage and, second, both of Albert’s subsequent marriages were to loose women who had sullied reputations.  Certainly, God would not bless that, she reasoned.

And oh how she had wanted to be at Albert’s side when he lay on his deathbed during those final days of suffering.  But Albert would not let her, nor would his third wife.  That was the last and deepest wound he would inflict on her.  If she had been allowed to at least comfort her beloved Albert on his deathbed then Miss Plackie might have been able, afterward, to right her emotional ship.  But that did not happen.  Instead, her heart and life were dashed on the rocks of love when Albert died of pneumonia which was a complication of his severe emphysema.  Albert had smoked his entire life.

Only a faint light crept through the living room window where the drapes where partially drawn.  Miss Plackie released the leg-support of her recliner and rocked forward.  It took effort to stand.  Her bones ached and her head spun and her stomach felt like it was full of rotting potatoes.  She looked for her slippers on the floor until she found two dark shapes resembling them.  With her toes, she groped the shapes and, at last, found the openings to slide her feet in.  Then with arms extended and grasping whatever surfaces were available, she steadied herself and shuffled slowly across the room and down the hallway and into the bathroom where she turned on the light.

Holding the sides of her head with her hands and sitting in a somewhat Rodin-esque position, she used the toilet.  At the washbasin, she propped herself up by gripping the porcelain sink then leaned forward to look into the mirror and inspect the face before her.  The sight of it peering back caused her to moan.

“God, I need a drink,” she said.

She tried to improve the image by fiddling with her hair but soon realized that no amount of fiddling was going to erase the marks of disappointment so apparent in that face.

Miss Plackie freshened up at the sink and brushed her teeth.  Then, from the etagere above the toilet, she took a small bottle of rose-scented perfume, uncapped it, and rolled little circles of the fragrance on her wrists.  The perfume made her feel slightly better.

Her head had finally awakened and began sending throbbing pain through the optic nerves behind her eyes.

“Oh god,” she moaned.

She made her way to the kitchen, pressing her temples with the index and middle fingers of both hands.  In the kitchen the vodka and gin were waiting.

“Thank god!” she exclaimed when she found the bottles on the counter.

Immediately she began opening cupboards, searching for her juice glasses.  They never seemed to be in the same cupboard all the time.  Instead they migrated from shelf to shelf like those sinister toy elves which parents use to cajole their children into behaving less bratty during the month of Christmas.

Finally one of the “elves” appeared on a lower shelf; Miss Plackie grabbed it and hurried to the bottles at the other end of the counter.  She found the vodka and took it out of its paper bag, letting the bag fall to the floor.  For a moment she just held the neck of the bottle in her hands as if uncertain what to do next, but then grabbed the cap and began wrenching it with all her might.  It took a great deal of effort but at last the seal broke.  Miss Plackie twisted the cap frantically until it was off.  She poured three fingers of vodka into the juice glass, gulped them down and exhaled, satisfied.  She poured two more fingers, drank those, and waited for the throbbing behind her eyes to subside.  Finally it did.  She refreshed the glass once more before capping the bottle.

At that point she relaxed a little, enough to look around, and found the bowl of garden produce and Axel’s note on the counter.  The note read:

Miss Sharon, The vegetables are fresh.  Eat all you want.  Gone fishing.  Back at dawn.  Axel.

Miss Plackie mumbled something inaudible, waved her hand dismissively, and left the note where she’d found it.  By then she began to feel better.

Miss Plackie took her glass and went outside to the back porch steps and there sat in the purple twilight, alone.  One robin in the sycamore tree recited her four-line poem, over and over: Tweet-tweedle-tweet-twee; Tweet-tweedle-tweet-twee.  After all of the other birds had already gone to their roosts and fallen silent, the robin alone repeated its verse.  And in concert with the robin, the evening filled with the love songs of crickets, cicadas, and frogs.

Miss Plackie sipped her drink and watched as Venus brightened in the western sky.

Tweet-tweedle-tweet-twee! insisted the robin.

“Tweet, tweet, little chickadee.  Are you calling me?” answered Miss Plackie while sitting in the deepening gloom.


The Old River murmured in its stoney bed.  Axel sat slumbering on his camp stool, motionless, in the predawn light, his chin resting on his chest which expanded and contracted like a tide as he snored sonorously, not unlike the crashing of surf on the shore.  Beside him, the butt of his fishing pole sat on the ground with a large stone for an anchor behind it and the pole itself angled upward and towards the river, held upright by a forked stick which Axel had fashioned for that purpose.  The fishing line from the pole slacked towards the river as the hook, bait, and bobber end of it had drifted harmlessly back against the bank.  The kerosine lantern guttered in the dewy morning air, fighting to stay alive, and sat on a flat rock a few feet from the river’s edge.

Meanwhile, Dixie had thwarted a cottonmouth snake from getting to the river where it intended to fish for breakfast.  Dixie bounced playfully back and forth keeping the snake from flanking her.  The snake stood on its tail and swayed with Dixie’s bouncing motions and continuously held its mouth open, exposing the stark-white lining inside.  The cottonmouth wanted to intimidate Dixie, but Dixie knew its game and knew also that the snake had no stomach for a real fight: all its theatrics were a bluff.  To watch her, it would appear that Dixie was taunting and laughing at the serpent.  Then Dixie assumed a sort of football lineman’s stance in front of the snake, challenging it to make a run for the river.  But the snake understood the danger and stayed where it was, standing on its tail.  So Dixie barked as if say: Come on, you chicken, I dare you.

Axel awoke.  As his head cleared of sleep, he found Dixie engaged in the standoff with the cottonmouth so whistled and called for her to come.  Dixie, reluctant to give up her prize, ducked her head and turned sideways but still kept an ear tuned to the snake in case it moved.  Axel had seen Dixie kill snakes before, even cottonmouths, and knew it would take an exceptional snake to outsmart her.  But this was a dangerous game Axel did not like.  Dixie getting bitten by a venomous snake had only one grim and predictable outcome.

“Leave it alone, Dix.  Come on girl.  Let it go,” said Axel calmly.  Finally, Dixie obeyed and the snake shot to the river and disappeared in the water.

Axel stood and stretched then put out the lantern.  A cool breeze, scented with sweet gum and poplar, passed over the river but already the breeze carried with it the promise of another hot day.

“We’d better get going,” said Axel.

Dixie busied herself with the trails of other animals while Axel broke down and packed up his fishing rod and gear then gutted and scaled the half-dozen crappie he had caught that night and stowed them in an ice pack inside his backpack.

By then dawn had almost arrived and, as it did, began coloring the landscape.  The sky turned a powdery gray and the trees appeared in bold silhouette against it.

“Well, girl,” said Axel, “time to go home and fix breakfast.  How do crappie and eggs sound?”  Dixie voiced her approval with a sharp bark.

Axel shouldered his backpack, picked up his fishing rod in one hand, the lantern in the other, and headed upstream along the river.

Before long they came to the location on the river known as Painters’ Point.  Axel had heard that in the old days Painters’ Point got its name because it was the favorite subject of plein-air artists who lived and worked in the area.  In fact, a few of the old taverns still owned and displayed oil paintings from those times which depicted mostly rustic and bucolic landscapes of the region.  Rumor goes that the taverns came into possession of the less-skillful works when they accepted them as payment against bar tabs run up by thirsty artists.  The best paintings, of course, all found their ways into the private parlors of Waterford’s and Clemden’s more sophisticated collectors who had the means to purchase them.

At Painters’ Point the river widened.  There a number of large, river-worn rocks appeared above the surface of the river like giant steppingstones and extended from the west bank all the way out to the center of the river.  In the springtime the flat-topped boulders made excellent platforms from which to fish.  But Axel always avoided Painters’ Point in the spring because it was the favorite spot of area anglers who fished it that time of year and would, in fact, overfish it.  One reason why so many fishermen used the Point was because there was access to it by way of a single-lane, gravel road that snaked over the knobby terrain from County Route 631 out to the river.  Without the gravel road, Painters’ Point would have been completely inaccessible except by foot.

That morning, as Axel and Dixie arrived at the Point, they found it strewn with trash.  Dozens of beer cans and bottles, liquor bottles, broken glass, discarded red plastic cups, and various kinds of paper trash bearing the bold insignias of fast-food franchises littered the area.  There was also damage—obviously the work of so called all-terrain vehicles—where spinning tires had destroyed the natural flora.

“Look at this goddamn mess,” said Axel in disgust.  “Worse than pigs!  It’s no wonder the fishing’s not worth a shit anymore.  Remind me tomorrow, girl, to bring a garbage bag so we can clean up this mess,” he told Dixie.

They continued walking the river a good distance until at last they reached the iron bridge which the County had painted silver.  Axel and Dixie climbed the high river bank and crossed the bridge which provided pedestrians no more than two-feet of sidewalk against a low curb on which to walk.  But it was still early so no cars crossed the bridge that time of morning.  That morning, Dixie crossed as she pleased, without regard to the sidewalk, but knew to follow Axel single-file when cars were present.

“Come on girl.  Watch out for cars,” warned Axel, “you never know what’s around the corner.”

The road crossing the bridge was also County Route 631 but at that spot it was closer to town than at the fork where the gravel road led to Painters’ Point.

Route 631, also known as Clemden Road, connected the sister communities of Waterford, towards the west, to Clemden, eastward, and provided only two narrow, hilly, and twisted lanes of travel.  But at certain times of day, Clemden Road handled a surprising volume of traffic—mostly commuters.  Though not the most direct route between the two towns, many motorists preferred it as a shortcut because it had no traffic signals with which to contend and slow them down.

The draw at Clemden—the larger of the two towns—was its new, upscale shopping plaza and its revitalized “Old Town” which bragged of a couple of chic nightclubs and as many gourmet restaurants and brewpubs.  So at times Clemden Road could be quite busy with traffic racing one direction or the other.

At the end of the bridge, the road made a quick dogleg which was impossible to see around so the speed limit was posted at thirty-five miles per hour.  But drivers often ignored the speed change and entered the zone doing fifty.

Axel and Dixie arrived at the bridge at dawn, started down Clemden Road on the westbound side, and picked up the pace.  Axel was uncomfortable walking that three-quarters of a mile stretch before reaching the railroad tracks because there was precious little shoulder to walk on.  But soon they reached the tracks and left the paved road and, from there, could breathe more easily the rest of the way.

For a while, Axel walked, just listening to his thoughts.  Then finally—

“I’ve been thinking,” he said to Dixie, “maybe it’s time we pull up stakes.  How long’ve we been here?  Seven, going on eight years?  That’s a long time in one place for wanderers like you and me, don’t you think?”

Dixie walked a few feet ahead of Axel and, now and then, sniffed the track-bed for hints of rabbit, skunk, or possum which had passed that way some time earlier.

“I’ve always wanted to try Montana,” continued Axel.  “You’d like it there, Dix.  They call it ‘Big Sky Country.’  Sounds pretty grand, doesn’t it: Big Sky Country.  I wanted to go there back in ’68 after they let me out of the hospital and I got my discharge.  I should have.”  Axel sighed.  “I wish I had all those years back; I’d make different choices this time.  Sometimes, girl, I wish I was a dog like you and didn’t have to make choices at all.  You’ve got it better than you know.”

It was a brilliant, fresh morning.  The sun was superb and full of promise.  A cloudless sky stretched overhead.  No sound broke the peace other than the mockingbirds talking and breezes shaking the tall grasses.  The knee-high burdock, sunning itself along the track, and even the creosote from the railroad ties smelled sweet.

“You know what’s great about Montana, Dixie?” said Axel, picking up his thought where he had left it, “No people.  I mean, yes, there are a few people but not that many.  And I’ve read that in Montana they’ve got all kinds of beautiful lakes and rivers.  Fast rivers; deep, pristine lakes and all of them filled with wild salmon and trout.  You’d like it; it’s not like here.  So how about it, Dixie, shall we go to Montana?”

Dixie barked.

“I thought so,” said Axel.

The railroad tracks took them to Waterford village.  At Waterford, the tracks clipped off a corner of town then angled southwest towards Turner Mill.  Axel and Dixie continued walking the tracks, beyond town, for about a mile.  There, they entered a nameless road which crossed the tracks and headed south.  Eventually, they came to a trail that shortcut across a feral stretch of land and led to Miss Plackie’s backyard.

From the fishing holes on the Old River to home, the hike took about two hours.  By the time they got home it was seven a.m. and Axel and Dixie were famished and ready for a hearty breakfast of eggs and panfried fish.


Axel pulled out the camp stove and two frypans and set up kitchen on the card table behind the toolshed.  He also filled a plastic tub with soapy water and fetched the tin can he used to hold his cooking tools and placed those on the tree stump.  All of these things were tools Miss Plackie had loaned him.

Dixie took a drink of the soapy water before Axel noticed.  But when he did notice, he made Dixie stop drinking from the tub and turned on the spigot to fill the paint bucket, he’d kept for that purpose, with cool water for her to drink.  Of course she would be thirsty after such a long hike that morning.  Then Axel had everything he needed—salt, pepper, and small bags of flour and corn meal—all except the eggs and his can of bacon grease.  He would have to go inside the house for the eggs and grease since they were kept in the refrigerator in the kitchen.

“Miss Sharon, you up?” called Axel quietly as he entered the kitchen.  No answer.

The house was cool and dark inside.  There were two polystyrene containers holding eggs in the refrigerator, a blue one and a yellow one.  The blue one had “AXEL” handwritten in pen on its top.  When it came to eggs Miss Plackie liked to keep things defined.  Axel opened the blue carton and found only two eggs inside.  They would not be enough for breakfast so he opened the yellow carton and took three more eggs from it and placed them with the others in the blue carton.  He planned to tell Miss Plackie, when he saw her later, that he had borrowed the eggs and would repay them as soon as he got to town.  This would probably annoy Miss Plackie somewhat, but she never made too big a deal out of such things, though she might advise him to use better foresight in the future.

Having gotten the eggs and the peach can of bacon grease, Axel returned to his open-air kitchen.  Food cooked outdoors, he believed, always tasted better.

While heating the pans, he scaled the fish, filleted them, and removed their heads then seasoned and coated the fillets (as well as the heads) with flour and corn meal but left the skins on.  Then he melted bacon grease in both pans and scrambled the eggs in a bowl with a fork and washed the fork in the tub of soapy water.  He would need the fork to eat with when breakfast was ready.  Then he fried the crappie fillets, skins down, in the hot grease which produced the most delicious aroma that wafted upward and filled the canopy of the old sycamore.  He fried all of the fillets, then the fish heads, and when they were almost done he began the eggs in the second skillet.  He cooked up a large, fluffy mound of scrambled eggs, the sight of which made his mouth water.

Dixie stood by, monitoring the progress of breakfast by tasting the cooking aromas that saturated the air.  Her tongue hung out and dripped profusely with saliva.  Finally, she leaped into the air and barked when Axel rang the edge of the frypan with his fork.  Dixie, of course, recognized the dinner bell.

Axel carefully deboned two fillets and broke them into pieces for Dixie; he also scraped half of the eggs and four of the fish heads into her bowl as well.  Dixie sat at attention, waiting for Axel’s permission to begin.  At last everything was ready.

“Okay, Dixie, say grace,” said Axel as he removed his hat and bowed his head.

Dixie spoke a short series of guttural utterances articulated by a rolling tongue.

“That’s it?” asked Axel.  “That’s all you’ve got to be thankful for?  I think you forgot your brush with the cottonmouth this morning.  That could have gone differently.  Well, okay then—Amen!”

Amen was the magic word.  Dixie stood and began eating.  Axel made his plate and sat on the tree stump where he would eat his breakfast.

“You know, Dix, you want to remember to always be thankful for what you get, no matter how much or how little it is,” said Axel.

Dixie had heard this same sermon many times, so kept eating.

“It’s not so much the act of saying thank you that counts as much as it is the amelioration of the attitude of the one who expresses it.  That’s what really matters.  Whenever you say thank you, you always feel better.  That right there is the key to happiness.  Okay, Dix?”

Dixie looked up at Axel while crunching a fish head in her mouth.

Dixie finished her food and wanted more.  Axel gave her the last of the heads.  When he had finished breakfast, he washed the dishes and pans and stacked them on the stump to dry.  With that done, his day was complete.  So he entered the shed, took off his boots to let them air, stretched himself on the cot and, in one minute, fell soundly to sleep.

But before he slept, his last conscious thought that morning was of himself:  He pictured himself standing on the shore, in the pink light of dawn, casting a line far into the mirrored surface of a deep mountain lake somewhere in Montana.  To Axel Browne, such a place was paradise.

Copyright by Dale Tucker.  All rights reserved.