This is the story of a headless general and a quilt. But more importantly, this is a story of a boy and his musical, and the unlikely events that caused the reunification of a tiny town known as Topea. It was not a great musical perhaps–most of the performers were staunch amateurs in the nicest sense of the word. They had never sung before, danced before, or believed in something before. But as for the acting–we all do a fair share of acting in our lives. It’s just how you choose to play the part that determines how happily the events of your life will pan out. Normally, musicals are reserved for fancy places like New York and London. But this particular musical was performed with a quilt for a curtain and an out of tune piano for a pit, in a 1200 square foot room affectionately called “the meeting hall”. It wasn’t a meeting hall, really, it was more of a place where the entire town would gather to argue about the lack of fencing on the Randall property, or whether or not the statue in the town square should be replaced. The statue is really where I should begin.
When Topea was still on the map, the government chose the town to be the proud recipient of a heroic statue of some general of some great battle. Rumor has it that even the government couldn’t remember who he was, so it seemed only fitting that the sleepy town of Topea would be chosen to receive such an honor. Then, just a day after the grand reception ceremony (including a highly officious looking government representative) , the biggest storm in Topea’s living history arrived. When the wind died down and Darryl–the city’s single maintenance man– had finished shoveling the five inches of pure Topea clay mud from main street, someone noticed that poor general so-and-so had, quite literally, gone and lost his head.
The town of Topea did the only thing it could do–they called a town meeting. At said meeting, Mayor Henry Hank Thomas the Third gave a highly inspired speech about the need for a resolution. Of course, Mayor Henry Hank Thomas the third gave no suggestion for resolution, but instead opened the floor for discussion. Without knowing it, Henry Hank Thomas the third also opened the floodgates to an argument that, until a short time ago had not been settled. The particular details of what happened at that fateful meeting have long since been forgotten (whether conveniently or not), but what is known is that three distinct camps were created out of the chaos.
First was the Reparationist party. Simply commission a new head. The problem with this argument was that General So-and-So didn’t have a name plate, and it seemed disrespectful to put another man’s head on another man’s body, especially when said body had fought so valiantly for this country. The second party was the Removalists. Move the statue to the basement of the library and make room for a ball field. (This argument was particularly supported by Billy Halliden’s father who had been famously injured in high school and, some suspected, was living vicariously though his son). The third, and most conservative party was the Reasonists General So-and-So’s unfortunate head had been smitten off in a burst of lightening, then obviously a greater being was trying to tell us something, and we couldn’t just overlook the message of such an angry and revengeful God.
From the moment the meeting closed with the angry murmur of voices and the futile banging of Henry Hank Thomas the third‘s antique ceremonious gavel, it seemed that Topea would never be the same. Weeks passed, and even the town’s most optimistic citizens grew weary of the argument and wondered if this would blow over soon. As the months turned into a year, two years…three years….it was clear this was an argument of ridiculous proportions. Even when the war came and the town’s sons grew up and shipped off, the farewells at the train station involved a certain degree of separation between opposed parties that lent tension to an already awkward situation.
Of course they tried to maintain some semblance of civility. The quilting circle still held it’s monthly meetings at Mrs. Edna Ethington’s humble home, but normally Mrs. Edna Ethington was the only one who came. She would sit quietly in her dusty parlor, determinedly sewing yet another square, while the bunt cake she had prepared for this week’s meeting got soggy on the table behind her. One could actually find the exact moment at which the quilting circle found itself in disagreement. The annual Harvest Festival quilt, normally a collaborative effort, rested not only with Mrs. Edna Ethington, but also with Mrs. Elizabeth Cartwright and Mrs. Donna Reed. Three camps, three quilts. The idea was once to combine the three into a ceremonious ‘reunification quilt”, but the idea had failed miserably, and three matching red quilts (of quite similar pattern and style) remained separated, just like Topea. Most assumed that the manufacturing of said quilt for the famous Harvest Festival had ceased, but the annual dissemination of all quilting needles, backing and autumn fabrics from Fable’s General Dry Good Store seemed to belie otherwise.
And so, the years went on and the war got worse, and with it, so did the town. We blamed it on the war, the deaths, the bombings, the rationing, the nerves that every mother felt when she answered the door, but everyone knows– that statue broke our town long before the war. As another long summer drew to a close, more sons left, a lucky few came back, and some not all in one piece. Billy Halliden was the most unfortunate of this lot. He limped into town carrying his army-issued bag over the one good arm he had left, and the other sleeve folded neatly into a packet and pinned to his shoulder. And unfortunately, a one-armed quarterback is not what most colleges were looking for. So Billy, like most of the town, settled down, stayed put and stayed stubborn. And Bob Halliden stopped fighting for the ball field, and started fighting whoever might try and take away the bottle that became a permanent attachment to the two perfectly good arms that he was left with.
Topea was originally to be named “Duckersville” for its founder, Larry Ducker, but a small coalition of sniggering boys (and men, if we‘re to be brutally honest) at the first town meeting spared the town a lifetime of painting over certain sign changes. Instead, Topea was chosen, a now long forgotten combination of Larry Ducker’s daughter’s names, but it’s proximity to Utopia was always mentioned, at least until the statue came. Topea’s name became more and more ironic as the years passed, and no one ever bothered to repaint the sign that cheerily welcomed the absent visitors to town. As Topea’s town-wide feud raged, it became more of a battle ground and less of the thriving town that it once was. Of course, the more influential people of the town were blamed, and gradually the feud over General So-and-So became personal vendettas over arguments that couldn’t be solved and a draft that did not discriminate between beloved sons.
These feuds ranged from the mundane and perpetual argument between George Randall and his ever-shifting fence line to the serious and much avoided topic of the circumstances surrounding Susan Jacobsen’s tragic accident, and whether or not the road had been slick or Ed Jacobsen was just drunk when he hit her and rendered his daughter’s legs useless. And of course there were the whispered rumors of whether or not Dr. Bob Thorngren’s longstanding feud with Ed Jacobsen had been part of the reason why nothing could be done for poor Susan. This feud was personal and ran much deeper than most in the town liked to admit.
Even with all these slight personal grievances, it was not entirely unknown for a divided group to stand entirely against one person. Unfortunately, this person came in the dumpy and flower-printed form of Ms. Maribell Waters (unmarried): the town’s unofficial but not unappreciated gossip . She had discovered a nasty and highly unusual habit of peeking out her window just as government representatives pulled up in their somber black cars to deliver their somber news to mothers.
She had taken it upon herself as well to be the town crier, so it was a cause for much discussion when Maribell would hurry to the general store to proclaim this news with a false sense of sadness and much elation at the fact that she knew something that they, in fact, did not know. Most mothers of Topea despised Ms. Maribell Waters as much as she despised day-old news. Ms. Marribel Waters also wanted the statue to be left as it was.
There were many other petty feuds and fights of course, but these I mention for a specific reason. They were the current and tide of Topea. Nothing happened–from the birth of a child to a funeral (usually only attended by the family members still concerned enough with saving face to stop by) –without someone bringing up one of these famous fights. But there was one member of the town who chose not t partake in the petty fighting and gossip, and thus rendered herself a most fitting target for most of the gossip in the own.
Her name was Amanda Bell, of 1534 North Apple Road. Amanda Bell lived alone in a pristine white cottage with a white picket fence bordered by geraniums. The fence never opened and the geraniums never died, and most assumed that she must come out at the dead of night to tend to them. For not one person in the living memory of Topea had ever seen her. Children took to standing guard outside of her home, waiting for her to emerge, but nerves and the unfortunate rumor that Amanda Bell was responsible for the lost kittens and missing children in Topea usually caused them to abandon their post after only an hour or two. There was a rumor that Tommy Parker had once stayed all of five hours in the dead of winter, but Sally Waters pointed out that there were no geraniums to tend to in February, and that rumor was quickly put to rest.
Amanda Bell was also the person who held the second longest residency in Topea, after Mayor Henry Hank Thomas the Third. Because of this prestigious honor, she was granted, along with the other 12 oldest residents of Topea, a seat on the town council. And, by an odd twist of fate, Amanda Bell held the tie-breaking vote in a fiercely debated 4-4-4 tie. When it boiled down, Amanda Bell would decide what would happen to the statue. But as her seat was always empty and the minutes always declared her “absent”, it seemed that Amanda Bell was too busy with her geraniums to care about the plight of a granite statue.
There was a by-law that stated when a town council member became to old to fulfill his duties, an election would be held. But as no one had come out for a town election since poor General So-and-So had lost his head, a quick change at an unpublicized poker night allowed for council members to pass on their seat to a member of the family, but Amanda Bell’s only known relative was buried in the local cemetery under a small, unobtrusive headstone that read “Anne Bell: Beloved Sister”.
And so this became Topea. A town, but not a town of citizens and similar ideals and beliefs and hopes and dreams, but a town based solely on property alone. A series of independent battle ships with only a few neutral ports. Fables’s Dry Goods Store became the most popular, and it was here that some well meaning citizen had once put up a community bulletin board. It was here, around this weathered beacon of information that we would gather in small groups, carefully excluding any outsider with rounded shoulders and hushed tones as they ventured to Mr. Fable’s for their daily bread. And it was here, that a distinctively dumpy and flower-covered form puffed up to the porch and waved a thin sheet of newsprint at the group standing idly on the porch.
“It’s over! The war’s over”. With this news, Maribell Waters became the most hated town hero the world has ever seen.
With Maribell’s help, the entire town had heard the news in a little under an hour. Soon Fable’s Dry Good Store was soon flooded with people purchasing all manner of celebratory goods. The small town of Topea would soon be getting back their sons. And perhaps–perhaps this would mend some of the old wounds that seemed to fester in their absence. Unfortunately, on the day that the most of the sons of Topea returned, it rained tears. And everyone knows salt isn’t good for wounds.
For weeks after Maribell’s unceremonious exclamation, the mothers of Topea waited anxiously for news. No telegrams arrived, nor did the phone ring. There was only a heavy, dusty silence that seemed to linger in the humid summer air. And then one day the train pulled up to the tiny Topea station (a daily and highly anticlimactic event), but this time, three boys in military dress heaved their rucksacks onto the wooden platform and rushed into the waiting arms of their families. Once again, Fable’s tiny store was filled with feast-seekers and a very annoyed Maribell Waters, who snippily inquired as to why they hadn’t sent word ahead of them.
So the men returned. In ones and twos at first, and then entire trainloads would pass through the Topea station, and wistfully glance back at their brothers in arms as they finally parted ways with each other on the crossroads that led into, and away from town. It was this proof, the dusty footprints left on main street and the countless clippings posted on Fable’s community bulletin board that finally nailed in the realization that the war was, in fact, finally over. It was also the gentle shift from the sons and boys of Topea to the returning men of Topea. The town, broken, dusty, peeling and still stuck on the missing General So-and-So’s head was growing up. However, as months passed, there was one boy who didn’t return. The town’s refusal to admit him a man was a clue that the citizens of Topea were not yet ready to admit that perhaps all of their boys had grown up and moved on. And so, without telegram, letter, newspaper clipping or whisper of some amnesiac soldier in a far away country, the town of Topea began to worry that Noah James Pickett would not be coming home.
Noah James Pickett was born with the cord wrapped unluckily around his neck . It was said that he took one look at the barren white room that he was delivered into and stopped breathing. Dr. Thorngren would slap Noah on the back and say that it was because Noah just wanted to leave before things got any worse. And they did. Not only did Noah never grow to be as large as the other boys, his streak of bad luck followed him everywhere he went. He excelled in things such as music and art. He loved poetry and the classics, and would spend many nights staring up at the stars and pondering his own existence, paging through ragged tomes of Plato and Aristotle. Unfortunately, to the strapping man Noah called father, these traits screamed of failure, and this attitude followed Noah throughout all of his short life.
Laurel Emily Ambrose, quite on the contrary, was born lucky. Twenty years after her effortless entrance into the world, it was still widely agreed upon that she was the most beautiful girl in town. Perhaps it was the way the light reflected off of her long auburn hair, or the way her eyes would fill with tears when she would listen to music or the cries of small child…. either way, the first consensus the town begrudgingly held was that Laurel Emily Ambrose was the nicest–and prettiest girl in town.
Unluckily for Noah, Laurel lived next door. Because of this unfortunate association by land, the two grew up best friends. Summers were the best time for the pair. Every night, they would lay out under the stars and discuss life and page through their musty books–they would have read something different, but these same tattered pages were all the Topea Public Library had to offer. It was here that the unfortunate Noah discovered that he was completely and utterly in love with Laurel Emily Ambrose, the prettiest girl in town.
Laurel was tall for her age. She’d always been tall. It was a great point of pride for her short-statured mother, who would beam up at her daughter as she read by the fire. Even when she was young, she would hoist Noah into their favorite tree and clamor up behind him. It was there, in the whispering leaves that they would sit and muse over their favorite books. Laurel’s blue eyes would sparkles and her fingers would lightly trace the words as they traveled the pages. Noah would lie against the rough bark, listening to Laurel’s voice and imagine himself as a pirate captain or lost adventurer in the deepest jungles of Africa. As they grew up, the stories changed, became the thoughts of great philosophers (and sometimes dreaded homework rather than pleasure reading) the tree’s branches seemed smaller and the world larger, but still they would sit, legs dangling, hunched over the musty pages of the Topea Public Library’s newest acquisition. Eventually, between the two of them, they read the entire collected works of Topea’s tiny library. When Topea’s first movie house opened the summer before Noah left, they had gone once, and only once to see some farcical romance. They had enjoyed it, but after the credits ended and the projector wound noisily to a halt, they both realized that they preferred the comfort of their apple tree and the screens of their imaginations.
It should be said that this was no pair of star crossed lovers. This was the second reluctant agreement–that Noah James Pickett and Laurel Emily Ambrose were meant to be together forever. And so, when the news of the war broke out and Noah enlisted, Laurel locked herself in her room and cried. The town buzzed with the news of more enlistments, and then word got round of a draft, and still Laurel cried.
Most viewed the sudden and impulsive enlistment of Noah as the last desperate attempt for his father’s acceptance, and it was of some consequence that the first time Noah’s father ever shook his hand (or looked him in the eye) was as he boarded the train for training. And on the platform in the still, oppressive heat of that July morning, Laurel cried.
Laurel cried for three months. And then, one day, much to her surprise, she woke up and discovered that she couldn’t cry. Try as she might, she was dry on the inside. Most of the town saw this as some sort of progress, but as the months passed and her letters were returned to sender, recipient unknown, Laurel’s previous status as the nicest girl in town was soon forgotten and she became known as the saddest.
And then in March, on a quiet Wednesday evening some four years after Laurel found herself unable to cry, the 7:34 train pulled into the Topea station and ground to a rusty halt at the platform that had seen this same ritual so many times before. Incidentally, the station master had chosen that particular Wednesday to go home early, so there was no one there to greet this particular train, nor the highly unlikely body of Noah James Pickett as he quietly swung off of the train and picked up his army-issued rucksack and walked into the night.
As he determinedly walked towards his childhood home, he found himself passing the familiar Fable’s Dry Good Store, where he felt the inquisitive eyes of a dozen town elders boring into the back of his skull. He turned, mostly out of amusement, for the same group of men had been sitting and chatting in that same location the day he had shipped out. He raised his hand in greeting and immediately an explosion of noise erupted in the quiet night.
Cries of “Noah? Noah is that you, boy? And “Look at you—home and in one piece!” mixed with general exclamations and whoops of joy at seeing the last son of Topea come home, and Noah found himself being escorted inside Fable’s by a crowd of joyous well-wishers.
Fable’s Dry Goods store was left over from a time when traders and merchants would barter for goods and services in the light of oil lamps. Fable’s was the oldest and most well respected institution in Topea, passed down through three generations of Fables. The store was not large, one room, divided into four sections. Grocery, hardware, soft goods and other. There was a consistency with Fables that the town took comfort in. The high shelves and the dusty items on them, the inexplicable smell of sawdust that came free with every yard of fabric, and even the dim lighting provided by the electric bulbs that Mr. Aaron Fable Sr. had very reluctantly put into place. The oil lamps that were still affixed to the carved wooden beams stood as testament to Mr. Fable’s determination that this newfangled electricity would not last for more than twenty years or so. From the very back of this dimly lit room, a quiet female voice carried over the raucous din and froze time.
It’s a funny thing that happens when time freezes. Often as not, those around the two people who are frozen in that very moment are unaware and will do awkward things such as offering a hand to shake or questioning the frozen parties about their particular feelings on a headless statue in the town square. However, even the most tactless member of the Topea gossip society knew that this was not a moment to be interrupted by petty quarrels and longstanding feuds regarding unnamed generals and separated quilts. This was a moment to be relished, a moment that not everyone experiences in their lifetime. This was the reunification of the last two hopes in destiny and true love that Topea had.
Laurel spoke again.
It vaguely occurred to Laurel as she walked slowly through the silently staring crowd that she had dropped her packages. It also occurred to several members of this awkwardly captivated audience that this was the second time she had uttered his name in five years. And just as some moments have the power to freeze time, other moments have the power to speed time. And in that moment, the five years, three months two days and seventeen hours and 12 minutes that Laurel had spent missing, worrying and praying for Noah were suddenly erased. And finally, after traveling across half the world and fighting for his life and the noble ideals of freedom, Noah James Pickett received his first kiss.
Three days after Noah’s unannounced return, Laurel wondered if she had done something wrong. After they kissed, Noah had mumbled something about “needing to unpack” and then rushed off. He had barricaded himself inside the old guest house behind his home, and no one had seen him since.
It became a nightly ritual. Laurel would sit in her window, and watch the lights of the guest house burn through the haze of lace curtains. Every so often, she could see Noah’s dim outline as he passed the window, but she didn’t dare knock. There was something about him that had struck her. He had changed somehow. Perhaps it was the summer nights in the apple tree, or the days down by the stream hunting frogs, but Laurel and Noah shared a connection that suddenly was gone. This bothered Laurel immensely, for even though Noah had returned unscathed, she felt as though the damage ran deeper than his pristine exterior reflected.
It wasn’t until Laurel heard the music that she began to wonder what Noah spent his time doing. It began quietly, a chord here, a single piercing tone there, but it began to swell nightly, until Laurel heard entire songs. They were strange songs, songs she had never heard before. But they were beautiful. Laurel knew music–15 years of piano lessons mandated by her father allowed her the luxury of judging this music. And it was good. Very good. Perhaps it was only this knowledge that lent Laurel the courage to knock. But exactly one month after Noah has returned home—one month after they had kissed–Laurel Emily Ambrose mustered up her courage and knocked on the door. It was opened immediately.
“What took you so long?” said Noah.
Laurel rushed into his arms and fiercely hugged him. It was this feeling of security that she had missed so much. And perhaps it was the distance or the time, but either way, even Laurel’s special connection with Noah did not inform her that Noah was thinking the exact same thought.
Twenty minutes later, Laurel was lounging on a mangy brown couch that she vaguely remembered salvaging from an alleyway to put in their tree house. Of course, a couch in a tree house is impractical to even the best tree houses, so it was hidden away in the unused guest house.
“We are all connected. Whether by –” he smiled slightly “friendship, family, foible or feud, we mean something to each other. And that–that’s the one thing that has kept this town together.
There is an intrinsic truth in life that the ratio of friends you make in life is directly proportional to the goodbyes that you will have to say. Because of this, Noah was always careful about whom he made friends with.