Everybody’s Favorite Neighbor

When it rains, it pours.

I’m sitting in the cop car, staring out over Panther Creek on Sunday, looking at the back of the cafe, waiting for the cop to take down my statement about the body upstairs in the house where we’re parked. He’s being very kind to me. But he’s not a fast typist. My mind races with all the things I could be telling him about the deceased, but I have to keep my words to a minimum so he can capture them.

Panther Creek is raging. We had four inches of rain on Thursday. More on Saturday. Snow has given way to these unceasing torrential downpours. I long to see the waters of Panther Creek run clear, to hear the sound of spring peepers and know that Mother Nature is finally going to push back winter’s grip, temper the raging waters, and permit the sun to warm the ground.

The stream bank we rebuilt last summer held through the rains, but the roof over the cafe didn’t. We’d already lined the crawl space above the dining area with buckets to catch the water, but as Will and Tess sat at the counter eating their lunch last Saturday, more started streaming in on their heads. Will held the ladder while Bob climbed up in his chef whites and set out more buckets. We put bowls out on the espresso bar ,too, to catch more of the drips. Good thing it was slow. Not even Tom Edmunds came in. Now we know why.

If you’ll go back through my archives, you’ll see a lot of references to Tom, the guy who sat at the corner of the espresso bar. He was the ranger around here until his seizures forced him into early retirement.

“How do you know Tom?” The officer asks.

I point across the water. “I own that cafe over there.”

“How did you know to come look for him?”

“He didn’t come in for breakfast.”

The officer looks over my shoulder to the cafe behind the raging waters. “That cafe,” he mutters almost to himself. When does it ever open?” That makes me laugh.

The cafe seems to be taking on an air of mystique with these officers. It figured prominently in the shootings a few weeks back. It wasn’t open then. Now I’m sitting in a cop’s car, giving a statement about Tom Edmund’s death, and the cafe comes up again.

“We only open Saturdays,” I explain briefly. He doesn’t have room in his statement for my reasoning: that West Fulton is full of people like Tom and me, who prefer to read by the fireside or disappear into the woods every chance we get. The cafe is open one day a week so that there’s ample time for books and forests and streams…ample time to run the farm. But it’s also open one day each week so that all the introverted rural dwellers who come in for their one day of social interaction can reliably count on seeing everybody else. Everyone funnels through, gets their time together, then disappears into the woodwork again.

Tom understood that. He’d come in from hikes, from paddles, from camping adventures. Or if the weather wasn’t good, he’d spend the entire day at the counter, sipping mochas and saving an egg sandwich. He was a slow eater. He could make an egg sandwich last for hours. That’s because he loved to talk when he ate. He always had time for good conversation.

“But why did” you come and check?” The officer wants to understand.

“He wasn’t responding to anyone’s phone calls or messages. His ex-wife asked me to come.”

Again, that’s the short answer. There’s another answer. It’s probably too weird, so I don’t say it out loud:

Because Sanford told me to.

Sanford died in 2003, right before Saoirse was born. He was 96, and he lived his entire life in this town. As a teenager I used to help him on his farm: shoveling out the cow barn, clearing the pipes that ran water from the springs along the mountainside, fixing barbed wire fences. And just like Tom, he enjoyed good conversation. The entire time we worked he would tell stories. Some would be funny, like the time some bees nested in the minister’s wool trousers and he didn’t find out ’til they started stinging him in the middle of a service. Sometimes they were just nice, like stories about ice cream socials.

But a lot of the stories were dark, the type of things that would make a town sound like a bad place: about murders and suicides, the burning of the hotel and the creamery, or about finding dead neighbors. Sanford told me about entering the houses, about the smell of death, about what happens to a body that isn’t discovered right away. He never lectured, but still I learned. If you live someplace long enough to become a part of it, there are days when you need to check on your neighbors. That’s just life.

“At point did you suspect Tom was dead?”

“The smell started at the third step. I couldn’t go the rest o the way up. Corey, my son, confirmed his body was in the room.” I’m crying now.

Another cop taps on the window. The officer rolls it down. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he begins. And then he starts telling a story about being on patrol with Tom. “He was a true brother in blue,” he laments. “A true brother.” He looks truly lost.

Til now, I hadn’t noticed all the cops standing around. It started with two. Now there were five or six. That’s a lot of cops for one dead man.

And then it dawns on me. They probably heard the 9-1-1 call. I didn’t know Tom’s street address when I called it in. All I could tell them was, “I’m at Tom Edmunds house.” That was enough. They were here for their friend.

I look around. As far as my eye can see, every house in town holds known friends of Tom Edmunds.

And more tears stream down my cheeks.

Tom’s been suffering with these seizures for more than a decade. We kept special foods back in the cafe kitchen for when he’d come in after one: coconut oil and unsalted grassfed butter to whip into his mochas, extra almond butter and even avocados…Anything to help feed his brain with fats. I think it’s possible he knew nearly person in this county.…Or at least a member of their family. But after the seizures, he forgot names, places, most of his words. Our job on those mornings was to administer foods as medicine ’til he could find his way back to his familiar smile.

He used to tell us, “one of these days I’m going to have one of those seizures, and I’m just not gonna wake up.”

I’m not sad for Tom. I’m sad for myself. I’m sad for all of those homes, where someone is peering out a back window, looking up at his tiny little house over the creek with all those cop cars in front of it, wondering, fearing. What more can this little town take in the course of just a few weeks? The shooting, and now the loss of everyone’s favorite neighbor?

I look back out at Panther Creek, waiting for the officer to catch up with his typing. I point at her raging waters.

“Spring isn’t here yet,” I tell him. “Tom would let us know when spring came. When the creek’s waters went down enough that he could walk across to breakfast balancing on that fallen log, it was spring. We’d cheer the first morning he could do it. We even cut a special tunnel in the shrubs, so he could walk through.”

I stifle some sobs while the officer finishes typing. He reads back my statement and I sign it.

But this is my real statement:

Our town is in pain. We’ve gone from deep fear to deep grief.

But Sanford’s words and tales resonate in my heart, reminding me that the measure of a community has nothing to do with how nice things are when things are good. It’s about how we hold ourselves together during the tough stuff.

There will always be tough stuff. True, we’ve had a few good years to do great things: to start a cafe and Scrumpy Ewe Cidery and the camp grounds and the AirBnbs and Panther Creek Arts. Now we get the inevitable bumps that we’ve endured for the past 150 years. Now is when everyone gets to see what we’re made of.

But I already know.

Two days later, the sun finally emerges. The peepers chorus up through the hamlet of West Fulton. Bob, Saoirse, Ula and I sit out on the bank of Panther Creek listening to them as we bask in golden light. The water level has gone down, and it is finally running clear. I think, if he wanted to, Tom would have been able to cross the log this Saturday to come have breakfast, finally announcing the arrival of spring. We’ll miss you, Tom Edmunds. Thanks for all the happy memories.

The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow podcast happens with the support of my patrons on Patreon. And this week I’d like to send a shout out to my patrons Susan Israel and Suse Bell.

Thank you, folks! I couldn’t do it without you! If you’d like to help support my work, you can do so for as little as $1/month by hopping over to Patreon and looking up Shannon Hayes.

Please note: There will be a family/friends/community potluck, concert and jam session to celebrate Tom Edmunds on May 29, not May 19th, as the podcast states. Email me through the contact form if you are a friend of Tom’s and would like the details.

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