Population: 3 – Fiction


Autumn 2010

Once upon a time, in a little, tiny town, in the middle of nowhere, there was a house.  Not a big house, or a tiny house, just simply, a house.  It was as average as a house can be, with red brick and brown wood and clear windows. If you were in the town, you might remember that there was a house there, but you would be at a loss to describe it and you certainly wouldn’t think on it past the moment of seeing it.  It almost isn’t worth mentioning, except that it is.

The tiny town was also quite average.  There was a grocer’s, a post office, a gas station and a school. People walked on the sidewalks and drove on the roads much like all other towns. What was not average about this town was that three people lived there.  Just three: one above the grocer’s, one behind the post office, and another in a trailer near the gas station. Three people is a very tiny town, and in that, the town was quite out of the ordinary. People driving down the road that wound through the tiny town remarked on the population, or they might chat with the gas station attendant if they had to stop for fuel, and then they would drive on. The town never seemed to grow larger or smaller, and no one ever moved there or away. It was, in a word, forgettable.  In fact, even the name had been forgotten. The three residents had known each other a long while, and never needed to call the town by name to each other or anyone else. There must have been a sign stating the name at some point, but it had long ago succumbed to weather and bored kids with shotguns. All that was left now was the small sign stating boldly: Population: 3

For the sake of this story, however, we will name the town.  It would get cumbersome, otherwise, to constantly talk about ‘the town’ and besides, every character in a story deserves a name. In this case, Harold shall do nicely, and it also happens to be how the three men thought of the town.  Harold was an old town, though its buildings were of an indeterminate age most people placed at either the turn of the century or someplace in the mid-century. The most modern thing in the town was the gas pump; it had been upgraded several years ago to accept credit cards. The phones still had dials, and the stoves still needed a pilot light lit every now and again. Though, with only three stoves in town, it made that job a bit easier. The people of Harold, all three of them, were proud of their little place. There were organized picnics in the neat park next to the post office, and sometimes they organized festivals on the weekends when the traffic through town was expected to be heavy.

I’m sure you noticed that I said that there was a school in Harold, and it is true there is, even though there are no children in town. It is an old one room schoolhouse, and it is still in use.  You see, the small valley where Harold is situated is home to several other tiny towns.  None are as small as Harold, and children reside in a few of them. As Harold already had a schoolhouse, the other tiny towns opted to send their children there, rather than build their own schools. The teacher happens to live two tiny towns over from Harold, and she drove in every morning to teach her very small class. The students are all ages, from kindergarten to just entering high school, a fact which threw the poor young teacher.  She wasn’t prepared for finger painting and algebra to happen at the same time and it took more than a month before she was able to keep the entire class busy at one time. Her students loved her, and invitations for supper with their families were often extended.  She always politely declined and returned to her home in the evening. No one in Harold really knew much about her. Well, no one in Harold really knew much about the students either.  The school and its inhabitants were part of the town, but very much separate.

I can hear you wondering, “Why doesn’t she get a name?” My answer is simple, she is not yet a character in need of one. Our teacher is a passing mention as of now. Perhaps later she will be like the town, and we will find her a name. Names are powerful things, and this story will need many.

Now, we must come back to the house.  We have discussed the other features of Harold, and all that is left are quite a few trees, a lot of rocks and grass, and the house. The house already has a name. On a small brass plaque to the left of the door, which you have to be quite near to read, there is one word: Fancy. It was an odd name for a house, and those who had seen it never quite knew what it meant.  The house was not fancy. It was quite plain, and unremarkable. Fancy was solid, well built and old. It was the one thing in town that looked like it had been there for quite a long time.  No one lived there now, nor had they for a long while. There was dust on the sills, and leaves in the corner of the porch. However, other than a slight air of disuse, this house was otherwise in perfect condition. Only the style in which it was built gave it a sense of age. No windows had even the slightest crack.  There were no weeds growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk, nor ivy growing up the sides of the house. Fancy looked as if her owners had merely gone on an extended vacation, but would be back at any moment.

The three residents of Harold had all walked round the house many times. They claimed that they did not know who owned it, nor had they been in it. Sometimes, they chased off the odd teenager looking to break in, or shooed away stray animals trying to find a home under the porch. The called the house by name, as one should when a thing’s name is known.  When someone asked about it, they merely shrugged and said it had always been empty. Most people didn’t press, but some asked if there was someone to contact about renting it, or if it was for sale. The answer was always the same, “I wouldn’t know.” For all that they said they had never even seen inside Fancy (the curtains had been drawn when the owners left, and had never been opened as far as anyone knew), they protected her, and watched over her.  None of them would admit it, but I suspect that they were the ones who pulled the stray weeds in the sidewalk or pulled off the ivy before it got hold. Whatever she was, whoever she belonged to, at present, Fancy was theirs.

This brings us to our three residents:  the grocer, the gas station owner and the post master.  These three men were a part of Harold as much as Harold was a part of them.  I think that one would cease to exist without the others.  They were reliable in that they were always there when people drove through, and that they never seemed to change.  Even their clothes looked slightly out of period, as if they had worn them for a very long time. This is the way of most small, out of the way towns though, and not especially remarkable. Even their names and occupations seemed slightly removed from the present.

The Post Master was called Barney. He wasn’t really the Post Master, merely the person who owned the building the post office was housed in. He received and sorted the small amount of mail that was sent to the post office boxes in Harold. The title of Post Master had stuck, however, and he wore it with pride. His given name was Barnaby, and old-fashioned sounding name that people had simplified over the years until all that was left was Barney. He was a solid man who was very conscious of his duty.  He was never late, and the first to volunteer for anything that needed doing. Granted, in this small town, that wasn’t much, but he strung up the Christmas lights and put out the Fourth of July decorations. The task of mowing the small park near the post office fell to him more often than not, and he did it without question or argument. People sometimes asked him why he worked so hard in such a tiny town, to which he replied, “Because it must be done, and who better to do it?”

Dermot, the grocer, was a pleasant man.  He was open and had a sunny disposition. He was just as likely to chat with you as sell you a carrot. The grocery store was small, and stocked an impressive array of fresh food.  The folks of the small valley flocked to it, even with the recent opening of a supermarket several towns over. Dermot could always be counted on to have whatever you needed in stock, no matter the season.  The only exception being that if you wanted something more along the lines of potato chips or tv dinners, you couldn’t find it on the shelves of Diarmuid’s. This was the name of the store, and come to it, also the name of the owner.  Diarmuid, like Barnaby, had slowly given in to the simplification of his name and become, to everyone outside the town of Harold, Dermot. His store still bore his name, though the letters on the awning were greatly faded.  Every so often, someone would ask him how to pronounce the store’s name (DEAR-muid,
muid – rhymes with squid) and where the name came from (a family name), and once in a blue moon, if that was his name. With that question, he would smile, pause, and answer simply, “It was the name of a man long ago.”  If the customer noticed that he had not answered the question, they never seemed to mind, for Diarmuid’s kind smile made it seem unimportant.

The gas station was owned and operated by Mack. He was a serious man, some might say dogged. He did his work with diligence and when it was done, he went home. You couldn’t call at the gas station even one minute after closing time and expect to find him there. In all the history these three men shared, he had never volunteered, or done anything outside of the things that were expected. While he was not what one might call a go-getter, his work was always done and done well.  No complaint could be made about his thoroughness or his commitment, even if the spirit was a bit lacking. Mack, like the others, had a name that had not withstood the test of time. Christened Cormag, which had then become Cormack, and finally landed on  Mack, he was worried that he would one day lose his name entirely and be “the gas station guy in Harold.”  Of course, the town had already gone through several names, so one day, he said grumpily, he might just be “that gas guy in the next town over.”

Diarmuid, Barnaby and Cormag had been through many a year together.  Their friendship was reliable, in that way that familiarity lends itself to trust and rapport, but this threesome had not been sought out by any of them.  Barnaby and Diarmuid had known each other as young men, and had become true friends. Their lives drifted apart and back together again until they found themselves again together and here in Harold. Cormag, however, had ended up with them through no choice of his own. He couldn’t exactly be called bitter, but he was rather reluctant about the situation, even after all these years. He was absolutely trustworthy, and could be depended on, but as with his gas station, no one expected him to pick up anything extra. Diarmuid often found himself mediating between Barnaby, who was always doing that little bit more, and Cormag, who had no intention of helping further. Their disagreements were usually short lived and while they would never be best friends, they had grown to enjoy each other’s company. Many evenings they could be found in one or the other’s home, having a drink and laughing. The men all called each other by their given names, not the shortened modern versions the other people in the valley used. Few noticed, but those who did inevitably asked why. All three men gave the same answer, “When you have known someone as long as I’ve known the both of them, the first name you learned is the name that sticks.”

Those who drove through the town on a Sunday morning would see the three men walking down the town’s one sidewalk together, until they reached Fancy’s walk.  Every Sunday one of them (all of them took rounds, though it was more often Barnaby) would split from the other two and make a circuit around Fancy, stopping to check on their house, while the others walked on.  At the edge of the woods, some 50 feet further down the walk, another would split off and walk into the sparse trees, while the last one (usually Diarmuid, as he was the most charismatic) would continue down the road (another 100 feet) to the sign that read Population: 3.  The man at the sign would wave to passers by or answer questions about when the gas station would open, smoke a pipe, or just lean on the sign post.  At some unheard and unseen signal, he would straighten and walk back, stopping at the edge of the wood and again at the walk up to Fancy to gather the others, and the three men would continue back to the town proper. Everyone in the valley knew that the town of Harold was closed on Sunday mornings, but that by noon the three men would have grocer’s and the gas station open, while Barnaby did odd tasks around the town. Those who hadn’t seen this weekly ritual assumed the men went to church on Sundays, like most did in the small valley. The ones who happened upon the men wondered about stills or drug labs in the woods. Of the few people who had tried to follow them, all had found themselves caught up with Diarmuid, standing at the sign and happily chatting the morning away. None had managed to follow the others into the woods or to the house, and after spending a morning with Diarmuid, they no longer tried.

Harold was a content, if not happy, town. People got their mail, gas and groceries when they needed them, and things ran as they should. Harold was a reliable tiny town with three reliable residents. The oddly empty house and unusual Sunday strolls were the least of the concerns of the folks in the valley. If they were asked about Harold, all would agree that the men of Harold were the solid and reliable foundation of life in the small valley, no matter what they did in the woods on a Sunday morning.

Author’s Note:

This is part one of a short story/novella. I will be posting parts every Tuesday until it is complete. It is by no means finished, so please share your questions/comments/suggestions.  

The story continues here:

Part 2: A Harvest Festival

Part 3: The Sentencing

Part 4: Journey’s Beginning

Part 5: A Visitor

Part 6: The Tree

Part 7: Barnaby’s Task

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