"Things are not always as they seem," Nancy said, smoothing the boy's hair. She let her hand linger as she pondered; is it time to take the shears to his thick, dark locks?
He had come through the door with a look of excitement on his face. His exuberance was always a joy to her, but she had cautioned him that the younger children were in bed and not to be disturbed.
"Joshua, what's happened? Why are you late?" She motioned for him to take a seat next to her. This was their quiet time together when they shared the events of the day. Her oldest child was so much like his father it scared her. He was her friend and confidant.
He had just met a man who he described as 'cool' and that was the reason for his tardiness.
She let Joshua rave on about it, to get it out of his system. There would be time later to council. Without throwing up roadblocks she would warn him not to make too much of a first meeting. 'Men, ' she thought, 'will come and go. Some could be trusted and some would do as a stand-in father but that man would be a rare find.' She
did not trust her youthful son to make the selection.
Joshua explained why he was late arriving home. He had left the cafe soon after 9 p.m., which was the normal closing time. As he passed the widow Perry's house, he had seen the license plate on the truck parked in the driveway. 'New Jersey, ' he thought, 'that's far away, to the east.'
The light over the garage was on, and a man was standing there by Mrs. Perry's old Buick. The man waved and Joshua walked up the drive toward him.
"You must be Joshua," the man said, extending his hand.
"You must be Harry," Joshua replied, noticing the firm hand shake and the specks of gray in the man's otherwise black hair.
The two were almost the same height. The older man wore wire rimmed glasses, and his clean shaven face looked tanned, as if he had come from a warm claimant. There were thin lines in his cheeks that resembled dimples when he smiled.
"I would have hung around to meet you, but Peter said that I had better get down here and get settled. He called Mrs. Perry to reserve a room for me but, she wouldn't accept that. She said it would be better for me to come along before someone else took it. That's why I didn't stick around," Harry said apologetically.
Joshua strangled a laugh. Everyone knew that the only roomers who ever stayed at Mrs. Perry's were the dishwashers from Pete's Cafe and they never stayed long.
"Did you get settled in okay?" Joshua inquired. He was taken by the older man's accent and the way his teeth clamped together as he smiled. They were not quite even.
"Everything's fine I think, she didn't like the idea of me having a computer and needing a telephone line. I guess she doesn't trust the Internet." He grinned.
"He has a computer and everything!" Joshua exclaimed.
'Things are not always as they seem, ' Nancy had said. She was skeptical about it. 'Why would a man from New Jersey stop in an out-of-the-way place like Mid Way and take a job washing dishes?' She shook her head in wonderment. 'And live under the same roof with that woman?' Nancy had thought.
Joshua went on about noticing the repaired stool at the counter the minute he and Wanda had come through the door of the cafe. He spun the seat to make sure it was secure. The bare shaft protruding from the floor had been an eyesore for some time. Both Peter and Joshua had attempted to reattach the seat without success.
"Who did this?" he asked.
Jenny was the only one there. She told them about the new dishwasher; she seemed quite taken with the new hire. Wanda wanted a full description and Jenny filled them in, right down to the color of his eyes.
Joshua praised the man he had just met for the next half hour. Besides repairing the broken stool, Harry had also unplugged a pipe to the sink that had been draining slowly for the past week. He had even swept and mopped the floor, jobs that Joshua usually did when he arrived.
"And he knows about cars, Mom. Harry was changing the oil in Mrs. Perry's car, and he started it up while I was there. He didn't like the way it sounded. He said it needed a tune up. Mrs. Perry came out the back door and asked if he was finished, then she turned out the light before he even had the time to answer!" Both mother and son laughed, knowingly.
"Did he say how long he would be here?" Nancy asked, thinking that he would be gone as soon as he got his first pay, staying only long enough to implant strange ideas in her son's head and then disappearing without so much as a wave.
Weeks later, when the new man didn't make his exit, Nancy began to worry. Every night, she listened to her son recount the virtues and accomplishments of his new friend. It seemed that no subject was foreign to Harry. He stayed each day to converse with Josh, but he was on friendly terms with the others as well. The waitresses were enthralled with him, even Ruth spent more time at the cafe than she had since her marriage to Peter.
Harry knew the regular customers by name and always found time to exchange pleasantries.
"I'll be late tomorrow night, Mom." Joshua announced one Thursday night. "Harry is going to help me with a speech I've got to do."
Nancy was dumbfounded. "You've never needed help before. I could help, what's the speech about?"
"I know, Mom. But Harry knows about this stuff. He used to be a teacher, and he's going to show me how to do some research on the Internet."
They argued about it, but she finally gave in. The man was driving a wedge between Nancy and her son, and she didn't want it to worsen. "Why can't you do it on Saturday?" she asked.
"I think he's got a date, Harry's been talking with Jennie, and she's been walking on air," was the answer.
Nancy pried information about the stranger from her son each night and, when he was late getting home she paced the floor. It seemed that the more she learned, the more her suspicions grew.
According to what she had learned, Harry had bounced from one occupation to another with each new moon. He had been a school teacher, an auto mechanic and a bar tender. He had also worked in a number of restaurants in a number of locations, and at one time had been a newspaper reporter. The underlying question was, 'why had he chosen Mid Way?'
Perhaps it had been a mistake to return here. It had always been a safe place to bring up children but now Nancy wondered if leaving the city after her husband's death had been wise. While the surroundings and people were familiar the homecoming had been strained by an awareness that 'things are not always as they seem.' Even the old house had a different feel about it.
"He's buying the place!" Joshua burst out as soon as he came in the door one Friday night. He was late again.
"Shush, the children," Nancy whispered, placing a finger to her lips.
But she was all ears. She patted the cushion next to her and motioned for Josh to sit there.
"Harry and Peter were in the office all afternoon. Crystal said they went in there even before the lunch crowd cleared out. I had to wash his noon dishes."
Nancy watched her son. His eyes fermented with excitement.
"How do you know he's buying the restaurant?" she asked.
"Mr. Tuttle told us," Joshua said, nodding for effect.
"Oh, I see. Mr. Tuttle would know, wouldn't he?" Nancy tried to stifle a giggle and assumed as straight a face as she could manage.
"They called him in to help with the contract," Joshua said as if he was playing a trump card. "They called Ruth in to sign some papers too," he added.
"I see," Nancy said. Her mood was in danger of slipping to a frightful place and her body felt drained. "We should go to bed," she said.
"Yes, honey?" She turned to watch him fumble with the laces on his shoes.
"I did the speech today. I'm sure I got an A." His eyes were his father's. They had that innocent look that always made her melt.
The following night there was more news. Peter and Ruth were going away for a few days on a well deserved vacation and... Joshua paused in mock drum roll..."Ruthy bought a new car!" Then he added, "It's a convertible."
"Oh yeah, Harry wants me to help paint the banquet room tomorrow, is that okay?"
"That's Sunday," she said but seeing the expectant look on his face, she couldn't refuse.
"Yes, honey, I suppose so, but you really do need some rest."
How could Ruth buy a new car? She was a crude woman, an opportunist. Since her marriage to Peter, Ruth had limited her time in the restaurant to one or two days a week.
Gossip had it that she collected full pay and the other waitresses complained that Ruth ordered them around when she did elect to work. She gave instructions as to what color uniform they were to wear on certain days. Ruth's uniform was always a
How could Ruth buy a new car? It was common knowledge that Peter barely scraped by. He could scarcely keep the doors open. There was no excess money, certainly not for a new car?
And why would Harry want to paint the banquet room. It was seldom used. Nancy couldn't remember the last time a group had met at the café. Organizations of any size no longer even inquired about using the room.
"I told you I would get an A on the speech, and I got a B plus on the paper that Harry helped me write," Joshua boasted as soon as he arrived home on Monday evening.
Nancy was loosing her grip. A strange man had taken over her job of raising her son, advising him and influencing him. She was certain of it.
Changes were taking place and Nancy was not sure that she liked them. Her son had new interests. No matter what the subject, his enthusiasm bubbled.
Joshua wanted to know how the younger children were doing and lamented the fact that he seldom saw them. His grades were improving and he was bringing home books to read.
"Wanda sat with me on the bus today," he divulged one night.
"Really? That sounds interesting. What did you two talk about?" Nancy asked. She tried to hide her skepticism. Wanda was one year older than her son, and years past him in experience.
"Mostly about Harry, she knows we're friends," he boasted. His youthfulness was showing like a flagman's warning.
Nancy wanted to take Joshua in her arms and cradle him. She wanted to caress him and kiss his forehead. She wanted to warn him, 'Things are not always as they seem.'
Instead she said, "It's time for bed."
"Did you see the sign?" He had that same wide-eyed look that she was beginning to expect.
She nodded. At the turn-off from the state road stood a new billboard with broad lettering saying, 'Half Way, ' with an arrow pointing in the direction to the small settlement known as Mid Way. In the center of the sign was an advertisement for Pete's Cafe. At the corners there were ads for Tuttle's Real Estate, Yardley Builders, Crane's Service Station and Barney's Market. The sign was tasteful, yet gaudy.
"How could he change the name of the town? It's an outrage!" Nancy said. She knew that it was Harry who had done this, the man from New Jersey who had practically inundated her son's being.
"The name was adopted by the 'town fathers, ' that's what Mr. Tuttle said," Joshua explained patiently.
"Town fathers? Who are the town fathers?" Nancy asked incredulously. There were no town fathers.
The small settlement was not even incorporated. Hand printed signs saying 'Mid Way' had been placed at each end of the settlement years ago but the name did not appear on any map. It was just a wide-place-in-the-road, too small to even be considered a
village. Besides Pete's Cafe there was the service station and Barney's Market; all three businesses were on the brink of failure. There were no churches and the few homes were occupied by people like Nancy's family who remained because they owned a house and were too poor to move any place else.
"There's another billboard on the other state road," Joshua dispensed the news in a confident tone that frightened Nancy. "And the menu has changed. Harry says it's been urbanized. Oh, and we're getting a dishwasher."
"Urbanized? Do you mean 'citified?' I thought that you were the dishwasher? Nancy was loosing her senses, she felt it.
"No, it's a dishwashing machine; it's being installed this weekend. I've got to go and work, Mom. Okay?"
'Why do you even ask anymore? Harry's making all the decisions about your life.' She wanted to say. 'Crying would be wrong, I mustn't, ' she thought.
"When are Peter and Ruth coming back? They've been away two weeks, haven't they?" Nancy asked.
"Harry sent them some money and told them to stay another week. I believe they're still in Florida."
Joshua handed her his pay check when he came in on Wednesday night. She looked at him questioningly. The amount was nearly double what it had always been before.
"I got a promotion," He grinned. "With the dishwashing machine installed, I have time to seat the customers and do other things like take reservations and handle the cash register. Harry calls me the 'Maitre d' Hotel."
She stared at him in dismay. 'You're taking reservations?' she thought. He looked so happy and smart. She liked what she saw. What had this man done to her son? 'If Harry takes off now, I'll kill him, ' she vowed.
"Mr. Tuttle sold a lot and Yardley is going to build a house," Joshua almost shouted when he came in one night.
"Mister Yardley is going to build a house," Nancy corrected him.
"They're a couple from St. Louis and you should see the 'chick'... daughter, I mean." His eyes gave him away.
Nancy teased him but later got caught up in what he was describing.
Business was good. Harry had hired another waitress for each shift and an assistant cook. The shortage of parking space at the cafe was becoming a problem. Mr. Tuttle had practically set up shop there and the service station across the street had never been busier. They had not seen Barney for weeks but there was word that he had hired another clerk and he also had a shortage of parking space at his lot.
"When are Peter and Ruth coming back?" That was all she could think of to ask.
Nancy went to the cafe. It was closing time but a few customers lingered.