Maybe that needs explaining. “Upstairs”, the sequel to Down Cellar, got put on a back burner when all the characters went AWOL from the Official Outline. They went on strike, because according to them, “that’s not the way the story goes.”
Them having all the power over me, their humble scribe, I tried to please them. But when they handed me the revised outline, I simply said no. They walked away from the Bargaining Table. I let them. I have a life, thank you, I told them. You get what i give you!
They stayed away. I let them. IO have other, more willing characters, I said. Several short stories later, I tried again. They still refused. I played video games and dabbled in the stock market. They smirked.
Finally I looked again at their ‘proposal’. It was very Hollywood, and several of them died near the end. Serves them right I thought. I held the paper up in front of my computer screen and asked them if they really wanted all this cussing and violence and death. They all shouted back “JUST WRITE IT!”
So here we are. This is the roughest draft of Chapter One of UpStairs: The conclusion of Down Cellar. Please direct all comments to the cast. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pass them along.
It was noon and the Diner was as busy. Outside, early October snow was falling. The temperature was just below freezing and big wet flakes were melting as they hit the sidewalk. It was a perfect day for comfort food and the special today was Amish Chicken. Customers crowed inside the door, waiting for a place to sit. At one of the small tables at the back a man sat alone. He was a good looking, beefy blue collar type. His expression was serious, with a hint of angry or sad. Yeah, it’s me. Jim Worthington, owner of the nearly defunct Worthington Plumbing.
Business hasn’t been good lately to say the least. That might have to do with the fact that I live in a small town and spent last month in jail for a series of crimes I didn’t commit. Nothing much: a barn fire, a house fire, a stolen vehicle and murder. The fact that all but one of the crimes was committed against me seems to have no weight at this point. Nor does the fact that the insurance company has paid out on all my losses seem to matter. The murder—a gossip columnist for the city newspaper—was a hit-and-run using my stolen pickup. The kid who did it also set the fires, one of which put my fiancé in the hospital. Sherri is still in a coma, but she’s doing ok otherwise. Doctor says she could come out of it any time. The kid who did the crimes almost did me in. He drugged me and the officer who was guarding me, knifed the guard and would have taken me out if John hadn’t interrupted him.
John Green, my friend, is an odd character. At first impression he is a somewhat scholarly type who spends his time doing genealogy and buying books. He has a limp, a cane to assist him and a knack (so I say: no one else seems to notice) for getting things done that would be impossible for anyone else. He has a partner, Tim, who is the organist for a nearby church and the two of them live in a Victorian mansion. How this guy saved my life is still a mystery. I think he likes it that way.
So while I’m staring out the window, running all that through my mind, someone shuffles up to the table. It’s John. About ten minutes late with his drag-behind full of genealogy books, his footed cane, beige raincoat and fishing hat covered with snow.
“Sorry for the delay. I had a last-minute conference at the library about your Halloween Party.”
“No,” I said flatly. I know this guy. This is his way of volunteering you to help out a do-gooder group. And sure enough…
“I mentioned to them that you have enough animals for a petting zoo…”
“If business doesn’t pick up, I may have already eaten them before Halloween.”
“I have something that might remedy that, too.” He smiled the small smile he uses when he knows he just set the hook. I sighed.
“O.K., what are we talking about?” Even with the pretty snow and the third cup of coffee, I didn’t have the energy to fight. Like I say, I know this guy. He’s a great friend but he would wear me down to a yes and because I needed to hear what he had to say about work, I’d let him. John knows things. And people. And that translates to jobs. And the income I was in need of. And maybe, eventually, a repaired reputation in this town.
“The Friends of the Library are looking for a place to host their annual Halloween Party and they want a petting zoo as part of the activities. When I heard ‘zoo’ I immediately thought of you.”
“Of course. Because I’m a plumber?”
“Because you own animals that are fairly docile and because they are willing to pay rent on them for the two nights they want to have the party.”
My ears perked up.
“I suggested that to them. With the cost of transport and the extra anxiety to the animals, etc, etc, I said it might be appropriate to offer a gift certificate for feed and bedding. No money changes hands so there is less complication.”
“They were very pleased with the idea.”
“Damn! Am I this desperate? Renting out my pets for bill money?” In my head I answered—yes!
“That’s entirely up to your estimation, my friend. But the offer is on the table. They need to know by tomorrow so they can add it to the advertising.”
It really didn’t take much thought, and to be honest I liked the idea of introducing kids to small farm animals anyway. Plumbing isn’t all I do.
“You do have that new barn and house to maintain.”
A sociopath burned my barn and house this spring, stole my work truck and killed all my animals. But when the insurance finally determined that it was not my fault, I had a new barn built, first, and got some chickens, two goats and another dog. New addition: a pair of peacocks. I heard they were worth something at least for the feathers. The house, I decided to get one manufactured and put on a new foundation with a crane. Amazing what they can do these days. It was almost ready to live in, with a nicer fireplace than the old house had. In the meantime, I was still renting from John and Tim, an upstairs apartment in their house. We kept our lives separate for several reasons. For one, they are a gay couple and while I respect that, I’m not interested. The love of my life is in the extended care wing of the Freiburg Hospital, in a coma. She’s been that way since the house fire.
“Where is this party supposed to go down?” I had another feeling.
“I suggested your place for the sake of the animals.”
“Of course. But how about YOUR place John? We could use the dungeon and maybe…”
“Oh that wouldn’t be possible”
“Sure it would! I can put some of the animals out front even to attract passersby, and the rest out back. You have plenty of room for them. And you could use the manure. Free of charge. Besides, having it in town is way better than the couple of miles out to my place.”
“But they would want to come inside the house…” John and Tim have house full of… stuff. No judgment here. They are bachelors in every sense of the word, when it comes to housecleaning. More than once I suggested they have Maria, my own housekeeper, come over and ‘help out’. That suggestion got me two weeks of silence from John and about a month’s worth from Tim.
“You have a back cellar door, and they could come down that way to the Dungeon,” I suggested. “The secret stairs can be something they just look at. And that’s safer, too.” Yeah, I caught him in his own trap there.
“But Tim…” John was on the retreat.
“He’s out of town that month anyway, isn’t he? Some kind of organist convention?”
“Then it’s settled!” Damn I love dishing it to him. I so very seldom get to!
“I’ll take it up with the Committee.” John was crestfallen, but I knew mine was a better idea than his. He knew it too, and we both knew the Committee would love the idea of having the event in town. I also knew I would pay later for this. So I changed the subject.
“What work were you talking about? Some actual plumbing, I hope?”
“Oh. Yes. In the course of conversation at the Committee meeting today, there was mention of a restoration project beginning downtown. The building that houses the Perk Up is being renovated as part of the Historical Society’s local history project.”
“Plumbing only? Electrical as well, I would think.” I added, “It would make sense.”
“Yes, well, that too. Actually all the mechanicals are slated to be redone, but in stages. Apparently the electrical and plumbing are first.”
“Good thinking, assuming the structure is solid. Did they check that?”
“Oh, I think so. They seem to be a fairly competent group; somewhat different from the Library.” He kept a straight face. I smiled.
“So, what does that have to do with me? If they’re ready to begin they probably already have the bids in and are deciding….
“I didn’t hear anything about bids.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Like I say, they don’t do things the way the Library does. They have better financial backing, or so I hear.”
“They don’t bid their jobs?”
“They have a roster, I believe: persons known to them who do quality work. They don’t look any farther most of the time.”
“I’m not on that list.” I stated the obvious.
“True. However, I suggest you call this number,” John pushed a folded piece of paper across the table. As usual, there was no sign of what I was getting into beyond what he had already said.
“I’ll bite. I haven’t had a call in two days.”
He waited a little and then said, “Call now.”
OK strange buddy, I thought. But again, I know this guy well enough to just do what he says when he uses that tone of voice.
I called and a man picked up on the fourth ring. He sounded like he was in a hurry.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” he asked without waiting for my name. That suited me, considering my reputation.
“I understand you need a plumber… and electrician,” I said with prompting from John.
“Who told you that?”
“A friend of mine said you were doing a re-plumb and re-wire.”
“Who’s your friend?”
There was a pause, and John motioned me to hand him the phone. I did, he spoke a few words in a voice low enough that the diner noise muffled them. Then someone dropped a plate that shattered and the whole place erupted in applause. By the time it died down, John was handing me back my phone.
“Well?” I asked.
“He wants you there tomorrow at 9am. His office address is on that paper.”
I think my jaw dropped, but I managed to sputter a thank you.
“Hopefully this call will change things for you,” John said.
A truer word was never spoken.