The first snowfall (the one before the snow gets up to your keister and the car won’t start) kicks off the preparations for the holiday season in Piney Woods County, stuck way up there in the northeastern corner of Vermont. And, as it does every year, the seasonal merriment swirls around the Town of West Burville and its local eatery, the Double Axle Diner.
For the Counter Dwellers, who ran afoul of Sheriff Les Good and the Fecteau clan over that business out in the woods, this is a chance to rest up before their date in court. But this Christmas season things might not be what they seem. After all, nothing’s ever more certain than something’s going to change…
When the skies start to take on a steely determined look and the wooly worms are nowhere to be found, the locals who reside in the Northern Hills begin to batten down for another deep winter. But not right away.
The first flakes of snow and the first icy blast of cold wind off the Arctic makes the firewood tossing, plow blade sharpening and snowmobile tuning take on a pace. Mixed in with these mundane annual tasks are visits to the best eatery in all of Piney Woods County, the Double Axle Diner, located in downtown West Burville, population 683 give or take.
Anyone who’s ever spun a stool at the Double Axle knows the owner and operator is the buxom Linda Mae. And today, just three weeks before Christmas, Linda Mae was looking particularly fetching in a teensy bit too tight starched white uniform accentuated with a festive red apron with itty bitty pine trees embroidered along the bottom, and one of those little wreath pins with the twinkly lights pinned right next to her assets. With her blond hair catching the morning light like spun sugar and her carmine lips, she was a sight to behold. And the Counter Dwellers were parked in their usual seats taking in the view.
“Morning, Linda Mae. You’re looking mighty pretty this morning,” Hooter gushed.
Linda Mae gave Hooter a wink and an extra warm up on his coffee.
“Mornin’, Hooter,” she smiled.
For the past decade or so, Linda Mae had wielded the coffee pot at the Double Axle, taking it from a tin can roadside hash house to the culinary capital of Piney Woods County. It wasn’t just the Meatloaf Special or Linda Mae’s signature Pecan Festival Fantasy Pie that drew the Counter Dwellers. For over a decade Hooter and Bunchy Meacham, along with Old Mel Winchel, Lambert Thistle and Flock Lambert, Dayrel Giroux, and Ludovico Haynes, when he could get off the log truck, would occupy the counter stools to share a meal and ogle Linda Mae’s amenities. For her part, Linda Mae would prod the boys with slabs of meatloaf and thick slices of pie served up with a saucy wiggle.
Now maybe it’s because the Double Axle was the only diner within striking distance of the local slopes or maybe because it had a reputation among the out-of-state ski crowd for great food and colorful local characters, the Double Axle would fill up every weekend with folks headed to the mountain. By the time the new year rolled around everyone in West Burville was pretty much used to crazy driving, horn honking, loud talking, big spending out-of-state skiers passing through town. The trick was to look both ways before you hoofed it across the road.
But two weeks before Christmas Eve something unexpected happened that shook the Counter Dwellers down to the soles of their felt packs. Someone arrived in town that made the ladies hustle over to the Double Axle for some lollygagging and a light lunch.
Around about noontime on a particularly busy Saturday the door opened to admit a burst of winter and six feet of fork dropping manhood. Word spreads quickly in a quaint village and even faster if there’s a new man in town. The ladies occupying the corner booth and nursing the low cal cottage cheese and hard-boiled egg platter were riveted to the vinyl upholstery. So was everyone else in the Double Axle. Strangers come and go. But not this kind.
The center of the commotion was ignoring the attention and making a beeline for one of the counter stools. And it didn’t go unnoticed by Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers. With a single movement that might do a ballet dancer proud and involving a lift, a half-pirouette, and a butt shuffle to the left, all seven Counter Dwellers came to rest one stool over blocking any new arrivals. Perhaps the stranger was among the many folks who don’t know that the counter in a small town diner is the property of a few townies who set the rules about who gets to sit where. At the Double Axle the unwritten rule was strictly enforced.
And here’s something else: a quick lesson in small town romance. When a woman lives in a town the size of West Burville, where every available man smells like eau d’ two stroke and wears logger boots for a date, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the reaction of every woman in the diner, including Linda Mae and little Vonda Sue, who was in for the rush. Linda Mae had slipped the coffee pot to a precarious angle and stood slack-jawed, dripping hot coffee onto the red linoleum floor. Vonda Sue had forgotten who got what and the place was in chaos. Hooter and the boys were speechless.
As the eye-catching stranger decided on a side booth by the front window, Linda Mae set the coffee pot down on the counter, just missing Lambert’s right hand, and bustled over with a menu.
“Hi, stranger, welcome to the Double Axle. I’m Linda Mae. What would you like? I mean, uh, from the menu.”
“Well, hello there, Linda Mae. Nice place you’ve got here. I’m Sander Klauss. I’m giving ski lessons over at the mountain. I think I’ll have a cup of hot coffee and some of that delicious looking meatloaf. Say, Linda Mae, let me ask you a question. Do you ski?”
With a doll-like head nod, Linda Mae offered that she had always wanted to learn. The groan from the counter was audible.
Shifting his bulk to get a full view of the competition, Hooter narrowed his eyes and turned back to his pie. Hunching over the plate he watched Klauss in the mirror over the pie case.
In the next few days, things went from bad to worse for the Counter Dwellers. The food was still piping hot and the best around but Linda Mae was distracted. To the Counter Dwellers she seemed to spend her day checking her updo in the mirror and watching the door. Whenever Klauss came in, the temperature would go up in the place and Linda Mae would get all flighty and there’d go the conversation and the warm ups on the coffee.
After about a week of this, Hooter called a powwow. It was time for a little chat with this pretty boy ski instructor. Old Mel suggested he and the other Counter Dwellers might act as backup for Hooter. Not too close to be noticed but close enough if Hooter needed anything and they could maybe hear him. When Hooter became suspicious of what seemed like a plan to leave him to face Klauss alone, old Mel clucked that none of them was as smart as Hooter so they’d just lie low behind their vehicles in case things got rough.
The time for the powwow arrived a few days later with skies that looked like two feet of drifting snow and the wind picking up. Klauss had just finished his usual lunchtime foray into the Double Axle and the hearts of the ladies of West Burville. For Hooter, it was time to ask a few questions.
Seeing Klauss arrive, the Counter Dwellers deployed to their vantage point behind Lambert’s rusty pick up. The backup plan seemed to be working just fine, except for the muttering about the cold and the stamping and the shuffling and the twelve legs visible from the knees down below the rotted undercarriage.
As Klauss was making his way across the parking lot, Hooter saw his chance.
“Hey, Klauss, I’m coming right to the point here. You mind if we have a talk?” Hooter offered.
The muttering stopped.
“Sure, Hooter, sure. Now is as good a time as any,” said Klauss flashing a pearly grin.
Hooter stopped and stared. Something didn’t seem quite right here. But he couldn’t place it.
To be continued…