Mr Miller had lived in the cabin in the southeast corner of Porter’s field for as long as most people in town could remember. Everybody called it Mr Miller’s cabin, but really it was just a little wooden shack. If you were riding up Porter Road, you might not even notice it, tucked away in the clearing behind the stand of Eastern White Pines. When the wind blew through those trees, you could hear their eerie song all the way down the hill. When the big hurricane had blown away most of the shingles, Mr Miller had installed a new corrugated metal roof. A worn wooden table leaned against the south side of the place, along with a shovel and a garden rake.
Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, he walked into town to buy supplies. He’d stop at the corner grocery store for staples and sometimes a cut of meat from the butcher counter in the back. Conversation with the shopkeeper was generally limited to comments about the weather – “right nice day out there,” or “bad one’s coming from the north.” Some days he stopped of at the grain and feed store too, where he could buy nails and chisels and such as well as seeds for his garden. If his army green satchel was full from the grocery store, he would stuff seed purchases into the pockets of his bib overalls.
In early June, the old wooden table would be moved to the side of the road from its winter home at the side of the house, where it had survived the winter under layers of snow and ice. When the tourists arrived, always on the lookout for newly discovered “primitive art”, he could make enough cash to provide for his needs for the rest of the year. His whittling creations were things that would have been animals if God had possessed a sense of humor. “Abstract art in wood” some people called them. “Kindling wood,” some others said. Art after all, is in the eye of the beholder. When one of the summer people asked him what one of his pieces was, his answer was “It’s whatever you want it to be.”
Most days during the summer, he tended his garden. Laid out in an artistic array, with radishes and carrots creating borders around sections displaying circles of tomato vines and squares of cucumber patches, it was in stark contrast to the disciplined straight lines of neighboring gardens. He grew the vegetables for his own table, canning a great many jars to carry him through the winter. Sometimes he had a bumper crop of tomatoes, cucumbers or radishes. At those times wooden bins filled with garden fresh vegetables would appear alongside the abstract wooden creatures. There was an old coverless blue enamel tea pot with a broken handle in one corner of the table. “Take what you need. Leave what you can,” read the neatly lettered sign in front of the kettle. Many of the townspeople had bumper crops at the same time, but the summer people didn’t have gardens. They snapped up the garden fresh pickings, leaving twice the store price in the kettle. As outsiders, they knew the locals were suspicious of them. It was nice being trusted to feed the pot properly. Sometimes he’s put out bundles of flowers, too – but when the yellow day lilies opened their faces to the world, he always wrapped a big bunch in newspaper and dropped them off at Mrs Taylor’s front door on his way to town. When her apple trees were ready to give up their fruit for pies, Mrs Taylor told him to help himself to as many apples as he could use. At least once each year, he made a batch of applesauce, dropping off a few jars on her front porch when he passed by.
No one ever knew for sure what started the fire. There were the usual rumors about kids playing in the woods, or a careless smoker tossing a butt out the car window. What is known is that on that hot, dry summer evening, the flames jumped quickly from fir tree to fir tree, consuming everything in its tracks. The volunteer fire chief said there was no evidence of a crime. It took all night to kill the fire, and it was only accomplished then because a heavy summer rain came just as the winds died down.
The talk at the corner store centered around the success of the fire department in containing the fire before it could spread to other homes along the road. Some people wondered what would happen to old Mr Miller now that his home was in ashes. One woman didn’t bother to wonder. In the early morning hours on the night of the fire, while the fire was still crackling in some areas, Mrs Taylor walked up the hill with a thermos of coffee and a basket of donuts for the fire crew. As she left, she motioned to the old man who stood paralyzed by the side of the road staring at the destruction. “Come with me. It’s time to go,” she said. “Yes. It’s time to go,” he mumbled as they walked side by side down the dusty road.
Appearing in the kitchen after his bath, dressed in creased navy blue pants and crisp white shirt with rolled up sleeves, he smiled at the smell of bacon and eggs. On the counter next to the old black iron stove there was a pan of hot biscuits. “Thank you,” he said. She smiled as she motioned him to take a seat at the green painted kitchen table where strong hot coffee waited, steam rising from the heavy ceramic mugs. “You’re a bit taller than my husband was, but it will work. The shoes are another matter though. Your feet are much bigger than his, so I hope you’ll be able to clean off enough of the dirt and ashes to make them wearable.” Neither of them had ever felt a need to use a lot of words. They ate their breakfast in silence.
Over the next weeks, he slept soundly on the screened-in summer porch. She had made up the sofa bed with crisp white sheets and filled the maple chest of drawers with more of her deceased husband’s clothes as well as bathing and shaving supplies, a sketch pad and some books from her collection of mysteries and short stories. In her teaching days, she had acquired as many books as possible, sharing them with her students who, living in a town with no library, had little access to books. During the day, he worked in her gardens, trimming the hedges which had gone wild and straggly since her husband’s passing years before. He reorganized her flower gardens, creating rock gardens that would need less care and less water during the hot dry months.
On the third day after the fire, when they both had caught up on much needed rest after the disaster, he made his usual walk into town. At the store, he bought two thick pork chops, a dozen large eggs and a sack of carrots. Analyzing Mr Miller’s fresh clean shirt and creased trousers, the storekeeper greeted him with “What can I get for you today, Senator?” After he left to walk back up the hill, the town was abuzz with talk. Where would he go now? How long would she let him stay there? “He looks downright respectable now. I wonder why no-one had helped him before,” one woman wondered aloud. “Well, he’s always been an outsider,” answered another. “Nobody ever really knew him.”
Three weeks after the fire, Mr Miller woke up, had his coffee and toast on the back porch, and spent 3 hours in the gardens, trimming, transplanting, watering. He took a leisurely walk around the gardens, talking from time to time to the herbs hiding amongst the rocks. After mowing the front lawn and carefully watering the petunias by the porch with the water can, he sat down for lunch with Mrs Taylor. He thanked her for helping him in his time of troubles. She told him that he didn’t have to thank her, she had only done the neighborly thing, and that he had more than returned her favor with his meticulous work in the garden, not to mention his companionship, which she enjoyed greatly. Of course he knew that, he told her. But he wanted to tell her out loud, to be sure that she would never forget. It was the longest conversation they had ever had. Then he got up from the table, grabbed his old khaki hat from the hook in the hall and, placing it on his head, said “It’s time to go.” “I know,” she told him. He opened the screen door and walked out the walk and down the road.
A week later, Mrs Taylor received a check in the mail. The amount had a lot of zeros on it, and the payor was somebody called “The Miller Foundation.” There was a note attached, saying simply “I know that you will be able to figure out the best way to use this. I think it might be enough to buy a bunch of books and a place to put them.” In the fall, just as the maples lining the street prepared to put on their colorful annual show, various outsiders were seen roaming about Mr Miller’s fields. The third time that Mrs Taylor saw a group of outsiders wandering about, she filled a thermos with fresh brewed coffee and headed up the hill. The young couple and their architect were discussing where to build their new home. The young women thought building back on the other side of the clearing would provide more privacy and still allow lots of light on sunny days. Her husband thought building closer to the street near the old chimney would feel more neighborly, being outsiders in a new community and all.
“We’ve always wondered who owned this property, since we had never seen you here,” she told them.“Oh, we just bought it,” the woman told her. “We would have bought the entire property, but their attorney said that the Miller Trust is donating the other half to the town, to be used as a library and arts center.”