No Fool Like an Old Fool
The tech writer’s tale
by Jule Ward
Most likely you’ll think I made the story I’m about to tell you out of whole cloth, that it’s a complete fable, but I swear by my grandfather’s grave that in the town where I grew up, this really happened and people are still talking about it today.
In the town, let’s call it Whitters’ Corners – just for the sake of the story, there’s about 5,000 folks that all know each other pretty well – well enough that there’s a lot of mutual distrust and distain circling at all times. So, it was no surprise that when old John Carpenter proposed to the beautiful Alyssa Jacobs, lots of twittering went on behind closed doors.
Just so you truly understand, I’ll explain. John didn’t really have a friend in that town. He was superb at his trade, but he was a skin flint. He charged high prices for every project he crafted and refused to make even the smallest change in the original design without adding on an exorbitant fee. You would have thought his business would fade away, but good carpenters are hard to come by especially in the rural hills of Eastern Oregon. Folks just put up with his ornery personality, paid what they had to and felt grateful for the fine work whether it was a beautifully wrought new set of kitchen cabinets or chicken house that would last until the apocalypse. Still and all, John didn’t get invited to “come along for a short one at Murphy’s.”
Just as well. He wouldn’t have gone anyway. He knew well enough that liquor was cheaper at home. Thus, between his high prices and his miserly ways, John became a rich man. Even though he didn’t believe in throwing money away, he dressed with care, landscaped his yard with showy perennials, never let any building on his property fall into the slightest disrepair, and drove a Lexus SUV when he was on his way to a job in his Ford Crew Cab Limited.
As happens in small, backwater towns, if the kids in Whitters’ Corners young people got to college, they never returned. Those who remained struggled to keep body and soul together, financially and mentally. There were only a handful of men in town as well off as John. And all the others had married their high school sweethearts years before.
So, here you had Alyssa Jacobs, inexplicably exquisite. Although she wasn’t above medium height, her limbs were long and willowy. She moved with such grace that watching her float down the sidewalks of Witter Street was akin to seeing an angel skim along the concrete surface. As she flowed along, the tow-colored strands of her wavy hair lifted gently no matter how light the breeze. Her soft-grey eyes seldom focused on her surroundings. Rather they gazed always to the hills as though some kindred spirit called her there.
I remember being just a little tyke the first time I saw her, probably not more than four or five years old. And even I froze in my tracks like every other male in her vicinity. As Alyssa advanced through the three main blocks of Whitters’ Corners, all others arrested into still life.
Yet, the girl herself was no ice princess. Her skin glowed warm and peach. Her lips were deeply rose, and when she spoke, she gurgled, her words the happy tumble of sparkling stream. She didn’t belong in our town. But there she was, daughter of a mother, seldom seen or heard. I thought she must be an orphan child until I was old enough to understand the word, “barmy” and gradually come to discern both why Mrs. Jacobs remained hidden and why Alyssa didn’t feel free to leave town.
As it happens, I know more of the story than a lot of other people because my babysitter, Nancy, sometimes worked in the Jacobs house, helping in the kitchen.
“When that old bastard came calling,” Nancy claimed, “he didn’t so much propose as he propositioned. You’d hardly believe it, but he had this briefcase full of papers. Laid ‘em right out on the dining room table to show her how much he was worth.”
“But that wouldn’t make her love him,” I objected.
“Course not.” Nancy said. “But he knew it would get her thinking that she could be sure her mother would always get the best of care. Never was a child more devoted to her mom than that girl.”
Nancy had it right. It was a quiet wedding. Guess Alyssa didn’t want any show since her mom couldn’t be there. Probably was just fine with John – cheaper the better for him.
And now suddenly didn’t he become cock of the walk. No more staying at home for him. Couldn’t keep him out of Murphy’s. Constant talking about “My beautiful wife this and my lovely wife that…” until everyone was sick of it.
Got so every one in town was avidly looking forward to the first week in August. At that time every year John took off for the annual carpenter’s convention in Vegas. For two solid weeks before the date of the convention, guys were laying down bets about whether he’d take Alyssa or not. On one side you had the faction that was dead set that he was dying to show her off to all his carpenter buddies from around the country. Laying bets against them were those that said he was just too cheap to take her along – and besides he didn’t want her seeing the wider, brighter world outside Whitter’s Corners.
As you can guess, the skinflint in John just took over and off he went without his beautiful bride.
The morning after his truck roared out of town, I found Nancy giggling in our kitchen so hard she had to hold her side.
“What’s so funny, Nancy?” I had to ask.
She shook her head. “I can’t say. You all’s too young.”
“Don’t give me that,” I said. “I’ll be twelve next month. There’s not much I don’t know. C’mon, you know you want to tell me.”
Nancy looked around like the stove and fridge could hear her and lowered her voice. “Soon as old John’s truck was out of sight; Billy Boyd was slipping in the back door of his fancy house.”
“Yah, so what? Billy’s the milkman for the whole town. He goes in everyone’s back door.” I guess I was a lot more naïve than I knew.
Then the giggles got Nancy again. When she finally stopped sputtering, tears were running down her checks. “Maybe so, young man, but he didn’t have no milk crate in his hands and he’s been in there for hours.”
I cocked my head and stared in her watery eyes. I was getting the picture. “How do you know that?”
“My sister LouAnn works for the folks across the alley from the Carpenter place. She saw it with her own eyes. She’s been checking all afternoon. Billy’s truck hasn’t moved.”
And so, at least according to Nancy’s grapevine, it went on the whole week that old John was in Vegas. And him none the wiser. When he arrived home, he burst through the front door bellowing for Alyssa and she came out of the kitchen all rosy from having just cooked his favorite meal – ham hocks and cornbread.
By now, of course, the whole town knew about the dalliance with Billy, but seeing as John hadn’t a friend among us, no one said a word. Personally, I thought he had to be pretty thick cuz every Sunday while the preacher was going on about hell and heaven and what not, Alyssa and Billy were sneaking moon-eyed looks at each other across the aisle. And Nancy told me, Billy was forever leaving extra treats like the best grade of butter and real whipping cream in his order for Alyssa. It was only a matter of time I was sure before the two of them would throw caution to the winds.
But I hadn’t expected to be an eye-witness to the actual showdown when it happened. That was just, as they say, the luck of the draw.
Billy and Alyssa came up with an elaborate scheme. When Billy made his usual round on Tuesday to the Carpenter home, he asked to speak to John in private about a very confidential matter that he was sharing only with a few of his best clients. Very shy and demure, wringing her hands in her apron and staring at the floor, Alyssa conveyed his message to husband.
“Mr. Carpenter,” Billy intoned in his most somber voice, “Very dire information has come to my attention thanks to a friend, whose name I cannot reveal due to the confidential nature of this matter. This friend works at the dam. He told me it is a matter of certainty that any day now the dam will burst. The officials know it will be a disaster, but have no remedy. So, it is being kept quite secret. I, however, am sharing this news with my valued customers so they can take precautions should there be a flood.”
“My god, my boy, what can I possibly do,” John asked in panic.
“The best thing would be for you to get out of town,” Billy assured him.
“What and leave all that I have, all my fine art, my expensive furniture, my beautiful house. I cannot possibly abandon everything. What if this disaster doesn’t occur?”
“I thought perhaps this would be your natural reaction, sir,” Billy said in barely a whisper. “There is one other possible solution.”
“What is it? Tell me at once,” John demanded.
“You must haul a sturdy boat up to your attic and outfit it to be your bed. That way, if and when the flood hits, you will simply float safely above the waters. If the scientists are wrong and the dam doesn’t burst, you would have abandoned your valuables unnecessarily.”
“Brilliant, my boy, but how can I get a boat all the way to the attic?”
“Sir,” Billy assured him, “I am more than willing to help such an honorable man as yourself. And, of course, it must be big enough for both you and your wife.”
Well, John hadn’t given Alyssa a thought until now, but he said, “Oh, right you are. Right you are.”
“My uncle,” said Billy, pleased his plan was working, “left a fine boat in his yard when he moved to Austin. I’ve got a hitch on my truck. We can haul it over here this afternoon.”
And that’s how I came to see the plan blossom into action. On my way home from school that afternoon, I came across the astonishing sight of John Carpenter standing at a huge opening he had made in the side of his attic. A rope dangled from the dark space to the ground where Billy Boyd was securing it at several points to an old rowboat.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
Billy turned around, put both hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and told me the story. Then he winked and grinned. I bit my bottom lip to keep from guffawing. Instead, I yelled up to old John, “I’ll come up and help you pull up your boat.”
As I ran through the living room, I caught sight of Alyssa, quiet as a church mouse, rocking slowly in a big oak rocker as she knit some as yet undetermined garment. She appeared to not even notice me.
It was some job, I can tell you, getting that boat up three stories. But we did it. Then John, skilled as always, rebuilt his attic wall. Alyssa appeared at the top of the stairs caring pillow, linens and a comforter. She managed to make the boat into an inviting bed.
The rest of the story I wormed out of Billy after things fell apart.
At first, the scheme worked like clockwork. Each night, soon after sunset, John and Alyssa would climb the attic stairs, crawl into the boat-bed, make themselves as comfortable as they could, and fall asleep. Well, John fell asleep. Alyssa waited patiently until his snores were regular enough that she knew he was gone to dreamland. Quietly, she slipped from the boat and down the stairs to the spacious comfortable bed in the master bedroom where Billy and true love waited for her. After a few hours of bliss, she reluctantly kissed Billy farewell and crept back upstairs.
It couldn’t have lasted forever. That’s for sure. Someday John would surely figure out that the flood wasn’t as imminent as Billy had predicted. But it all came crashing down much more quickly due to an unseen factor.
Billy wasn’t the only young Whitter’s Corners man in love with Alyssa. Just about the time that John had married Alyssa, a new assistant pastor had begun service at the True Bible Church our three players attended. This young man, Alexander Drexel, was all alone, far from home, and very vulnerable. The first time Alyssa floated down the center aisle of the church as Alexander was placing the prayer books in the pews, he, like all the other males before him, froze in place. Pastor Simpson had to come down from the altar, shake him and admonish him to finish his task.
After the service, the pastor told his assistant in no uncertain terms that Alyssa, the wife of a wealthy parishioner was off-limits and that it was best that he have nothing to do with her. His advice fell on deaf ears. Suffice it to say that from that first Sunday, Alexander never heard a word of the pastor’s homilies. He simply stood behind and off to the side of the pastor and gazed at Alyssa. She was so accustomed to this, she paid him no heed.
Against the strict orders of Pastor Simpson, Alexander began to make house calls. Not just to the Carpenter abode. That would have been too obvious, but he convinced himself, if no one else, that the frequency with which he rang their bell far outnumbered the calls received by the widows, the sick and the poor. Neighbors also did not miss that he visited most often between ten and two, a time John was likely to be out on a job.
Since he came from the church, Alyssa dutifully fed him scones and tea and listen to him prattle on for about thirty minutes before pleading chores that needed to be done. Usually this worked. But one afternoon, as she stood and turned to get his coat, he grabbed her hand, “You must realize, beloved lady, that I come because I cannot. I love you more than life itself. Even though the devil himself may claim me, I find myself unable to honor your marriage vows. Please say you return my affection.”
She had been afraid this would happen. She wasn’t the least bit interested in Alexander. She was in love with Billy. Were there some way out of the marriage, she’d head straight for Billy’s arms and wouldn’t give this boring fellow the time of day. But she couldn’t very well tell him that for fear he’d go to her husband with the information.
She improvised. “I’m very closely watched over by my husband. If I see you at all, it has to be in the dead of night. My husband has taken to sleeping in the attic, but I sleep in my room after midnight. Never come to me before that. If you do, toss pebbles at the living room window so I know you are there.”
She strongly believed he was too weak to carry out such a plan and promised she’d look for him the following Wednesday, but he mustn’t come during the day anymore or suspicions would be raised. There, she thought, I’ve gotten him out of my hair.
She underestimated his courage or overestimated his intelligence. Either way, she and Billy were in the midst of a sweet embrace around one in the morning the following Wednesday when they both heard rattling against a downstairs window. At first, they ignored the sound, but it happened three times in a row.
Disgruntled, Billy stood up and pulled on his robe. “I’d better see what that is.”
“Wait,” Alyssa grabbed his arm. “Sit down.” Then she explained.
“That idiot,” Billy exclaimed. “I’ll teach him a lesson.”
He slipped out the back door and crept up behind Alexander and swung a sack over his head. In a deep gruff voice, he intoned, “You fornicator, how dare you seduce my wife. Leave now or your life is forfeit.”
It had taken every last ounce of bravado that Alexander had to follow Alyssa instructions. As the sack cut off his vision and encumbered his breathing, his anxiety rose to fever pitch. He began shrieking, “Disaster, Disaster. I’m going to die.” His shrieks were ear-splitting and tore open the night.
Awakened from his deep sleep, John rush to the attic window, convinced the flood had begun. There in the yard below him, he saw the two men wrestling and crying out. He rushed down to find Alyssa standing at the front door, a look of horror on her face. Thinking his household under attack he ran for his shotgun. Back in the doorway, he attempted to take a shot, but Alyssa grabbed his arm crying, “No, John, no.” The gun went off as shot scattered in the air. Sensing what was going on Billy let go of Alexander. He attempted to go to Alyssa, but when John pointed the gun at him, he ran. That left only Alexander dancing around shrieking with the sack on his head.
Well, not exactly. By that time neighbors from all side were in their front yards watching the show. It was better than Prime Time. John heard them laughing, stared at the dancing Alexander and the retreating Billy, and pondered his stone-faced wife. Alyssa shook her head, turned on her heel and went to bed.
John wasn’t seen bragging in the taverns after that.