by Pete Tucker
Part One – Getting Used to It
Dorothy Zook sat outside on her rocking chair. It was a perfectly warm Spring day in late May. The breeze wafted over her balcony infusing essence of Lilac for anyone who might sample. That is, if there was anyone. Loneliness was Dorothy’s melancholy.
The house couldn’t have been more centrally located on her 607 acre farm here in Tioga County. That buffer alone meant infrequent visitors. Now and again she’d see her tenant farmer, but he would mostly just wave as he roared by on his monstrous John Deere tractor. He had fields to work and little time to chat.
Dottie, as neighbors called her, was now two years a widow. Bertram, her deceased husband, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. No children had come of their marriage. They hadn’t thoroughly discussed a contingency plan for Dottie to follow when Bertram passed on. His demise had come rather quickly.
She spent most of her days contemplatively there on the balcony. The widow status was painful; an adjustment that was taking longer than she foresaw.
Her days were interspersed with winsome moments, then pangs of reality and heartache. This was the way life would be, she surmised, until the curtain was drawn.
Bertram had payed all the bills. Dottie was still getting used to that chore. Making ends meet was not always a given , an abiding struggle of farming.
Her tenant farmer was barely paying enough for her to stay there on the Ponderosa, as her and Bertram would jokingly call it years ago. It was the loneliness, though that remained her real nemesis. Days would pass, void of any conversation with another person.
At length, Dottie faced the reality of life sans Bertram. If she ever expected even a modicum of human interaction, she’d have to make that happen.
It wasn’t as though Dottie was not a gregarious individual. It was just the reality of widowhood, after decades of doing everything with him, that required uncomfortable adjustment. Eventually she took steps to put herself out there a little bit; Bingo at the firehouse, Pancake breakfasts at the Lions Club and the like. She even took a stab at Facebook, though a bit unsure of just how that worked.
Initially Dottie perceived herself as a fish out of water with such initiatives. They weren’t really part of what she did, but she kept reminding herself that it was the loneliness that she was trying to combat.
At age 72, she thought it wasn’t too likely that any suitors would be hovering around her. Dottie was aware that her name was on the deed to one valuable piece of real estate. She certainly did not aggrandize that fact in her own mind. The farm, to her, represented nothing but hundreds of acres worth of hard work. Beyond that, it had been Bertram’s pride and joy.
Nonetheless, she was vaguely aware that deceit and trickery existed in the world. She was appropriately wary of her changed status. Adequately so? That was another question.
In the meantime, Dottie wiled away her hours in the bliss of Pennsylvania sunshine. Her balcony afforded her a view that was the envy of anyone who beheld it. She and Bertram had commonly remarked to each other on the spectacular beauty of the location. They were “land rich”, as is said.
One morning Dottie had a good chat with a lady at one of the local breakfasts. A common interest in reading quickly sparked their nexus. They’d both recently read WIDOW of the SOUTH and both were eager to discuss it.
One thing lead to another and a change of subject or two. Dottie learned that she could play a Scrabble- like game with her new friend, Liz, online. The game was called WORD FLURRY.
In the short order of a few weeks, Dottie and Liz got on famously at their new game. It even had a sort of email feature, a message board that enabled them to communicate during the play by play. That was particularly pleasing to Dottie. Liz lived clear to the other end of Tioga County, but they could play and chat in the comfort of their own homes.
Better yet to Dottie, she was winning three of every four games and it was Liz who introduced her to the game in the first place. Dottie soon found that other folks were playing all over the country. Hector in Yuma, Arizona was playing Bonnie in Wells, Maine. Dottie was admittedly a simple farm girl, but WORD FLURRY was a whole new barn dance to her !
How convenient it was. A game would consist of intermittent turns throughout the course of a day; sometimes two…. no time limit to get to the next turn. Fit the next move in when the day’s schedule allowed. The leisurely pace suited Dottie just fine.
Part Two – Wrong Move, Right Move
Not being terribly savvy with her new message board, Dottie inadvertently pushed a wrong button. Unbeknownst to her, she had just challenged Jim Waverley in Hendricks, West Virginia to his next word bout.
Dottie was a little befuddled . Surely this was not her intention. For a moment she witnessed a twinge of guilt, but knew that was a reaction that Bertram wouldn’t want of her. Anyway, what was done was done.
Liz sometimes told chapter and verse of games that she was having with different men. Liz was happily married. Why, Dottie reasoned with herself, why on Earth should she feel guilty about a game with some guy in West Virginia?
Dottie surmised that this feeling was part of “letting go”. It was painful. She hoped the day would come when she wouldn’t have to feel this way, but Bertram would always be part of her life.
At any rate, Jim in West Virginia took the first turn. Dottie countered. At the end of round 1, the two were tied.
On it went, intermittently, for a good portion of the morning. At length, the board was jam-packed with words. The total of available remaining letters had dwindled to three and Dottie was leading by two points. It was unusual to be so nearly deadlocked this late in a game of WORD FLURRY.
There was one thing that she admitted to herself. It was intriguing. She’d been playing a game with this chap the morning long. He must have time on his hands, probably retired. Yet she’d never know… unless, of course, they communicated. Dottie wasn’t about to initiate that !
Maybe she would hear from him. The game did make that a simple possibility. All players had the option to register their own messaging address that was exclusive to them as a WORD FLURRY player. Dottie had registered, though apprehensively.
He sure does play a wicked game of Flurry, she mused to herself. He’s obviously a bright guy. She afforded herself the furtive little wish that maybe he would write.
Dottie was immersed in finding her next word when her phone rang. It was Liz asking an odd question or two. Had she received a letter from a company called Wyomissing Energy ? Something about a local meeting? Something about Marcellus shale and natural gas?
No, no and no were Dottie’s replies. Liz indicated that they’d talk about it later. The call was brief. When Dottie got back to finding the word that would finally catapult her to a comfortable lead, there was a message on the game board.
She opened the message. It was from Jim in West Virginia. His note went something like this:
My dear Dorothy,
A Good Day to you. I am humbled by your competitive nature. Our game has been brisk, to say the least ! Keep up the good work!
Dottie was pleased by the message. If nothing else, it couched their game with a kindly demeanor. For the time being she opted not to reply.
Jim had no idea of her age, though he was intent to find out. To that end, he ventured briefly to Facebook and plugged in her name to search. On the Flurry message board he remembered that she had once mentioned her place of residence to be Roseville, Pennsylvania. This was a shot in the dark. Jim had no idea as to whether she even got near Facebook.
Bingo ! In a second there she was, complete with mailing address. That raised his brows. He made two immediate observations. First, from her photo, they were probably about the same age. Two, she was pretty cute ! He did think it quizzical that she was this free with some of her information.
What serendipity, he thought. Why not send her a ‘friend request’ ? He did, right then.
Bottom line, Jim spent little time with such online contrivances. Back when he’d been in business, he was seriously busy with little time for for such digressions. A little late to he party, he now saw a bit of social value to what seemed to him a waste of time years ago.
By most unusual coincidence, the game drew to an end at a dead tie with no letters remaining to play, a draw. Both players were incredulous. Was this some sort of sign ? They both silently wondered.
The unordinary finale wasn’t lost on Jim. He messaged Dottie making two points: First, he quite looked forward to a re-match. Second, would it ever be possible to meet with her acquaintance?
Hmmm, Dottie pondered. In their brief communication thus far, neither of them had discussed their respective marital status. Jim, obviously, was single, or, at least, he better be.
Dottie, still apprehensive, messaged her reply: Now mind you, Jim, I’m a stretch from West Virginia.
That was the extent of her reply. Jim figured that was her roundabout way of saying, “Well, maybe”.
Part 3 – The Letter, the Meeting
It was getting near sunset when Dottie took her daily stroll out to the mailbox. As usual, contents were the expected smattering of junk. One typewritten envelope suggested a personal letter. A handsome typeface spelled out the return address of WYO, Wyomissing Energy Corp., Reading, Pennsylvania. This must be what Liz had phoned her about.
The mail was normally a melancholy reminder to Dottie. Most of it was addressed to Bertram Zook. This letter was no exception. At least it included Dorothy, too.
Dottie wasn’t about to spend the balance of this gorgeous day sifting through mail at the kitchen table. She settled at her much favored spot out on the balcony where she opened all of the mail that she hadn’t already trashed.
The noted letter began:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Zook:
The tax maps indicate that you are the owners of Block 10, Lot 78-2 in Tioga County, Pennsylvania….
The letter went on to explain that WYO Energy was a Pennsylvania corporation engaged in the discovery and distribution of petroleum and natural gas. Land owners may have learned, the letter continued, of the vast underground deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania. That meant most of Tioga County. In fact, natural gas was slowly becoming the buzz around the countryside.
This letter was to be presented for admission to a very local meeting, the purpose of which was to explain WYO’s interest in obtaining drilling contracts and rights to sell the resulting resources discovered via their exploration.
The meeting’s agenda would include a WYO presentation about their enterprise, a question and answer session, then a “handshake session” enabling exchange of contact information between WYO personnel and interested landowners.
No specifics were offered as to what people’s expectations should be as to incomes that may or may not be generated from drilling on their properties.The letter stressed that this question was far premature.
Dottie had arranged to attend the meeting together with Liz and her husband. The meeting was tonight at 7:30. At least WYO had done some homework. The back room at Ozzie’s Diner was the go to place around here for any such a gathering. It was even sound-proofed.
The gentleman conducting the meeting was very professional, articulate and thorough. Anyone in attendance who may have been apprehensive or skeptical certainly got all of their questions answered, even the understandably persistent matter of what people’s revenue expectations might be.
He was careful to stress that the answer to this key question was entirely dependent on the productivity of each individual well, which will vary.
“None of us has a crystal ball”, he noted. “It all depends on what we find when we drill, often to the depth of 9,000 feet.”
The only thing that he could share now were generalities regarding prior WYO drilling successes… and duds. He topped that off with a wry smile, assuring attendees that they WOULD want to hear that. The hand-shaking phase of the meeting drew near.
Dottie was intrigued by the entire matter. She stood in line behind Liz and her husband waiting to meet the WYO rep. She felt reasonably sure that if Bertram was here, he’d at least want to learn more about this.
Dottie was comforted that she’d have Liz and her hubby, Don, with whom to compare notes. They owned just 56 acres, but the WYO rep had assured them that that wasn’t necessarily a factor that would preclude their land from a proposed drill.
Before things drew to a close, Dottie had a meeting date with the WYO rep. So did Liz and Don. All were squared away with their questions. Anticipation was in the air !
WYO was insistent on a further two week period for any concerns to ‘settle’.
Part 4 – The Drills Turn
It took two more weeks to contemplate contracts, dot i’s and cross t’s with the help of both party’s attorneys .
It didn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that if Dottie, or if Liz and Don, had met with even moderate success in drilling gas wells on their properties, it would change their lives. They would not become fabulously wealthy, but their wealth would certainly be sufficient. They would live comfortably for a long time.
That fact took a huge burden from Dottie’s shoulders. It was just a matter of waiting for WYO’s drill rigs to do their thing at four locations on the Zook farm and one on Liz and Don’s. It was now a waiting game.
The complexion of life in Tioga County slowly started to change. In that WYO would soon be running heavy drill rig trucks over the tired, tertiary roads, the company had made a major commitment to road improvements.The attendant upheaval of new pavement was in full swing.
Even an unknowing visitor would figure that something major was going on. This just couldn’t be business as usual.
Not normally seen car makes and models began to appear… Lincoln, Mercedes, Corvettes . In many areas these were common. Here they were remarkable. A demographic change was holding sway.
So was controversy and discord quite attached to the natural gas movement. Environmental questions boiled to the top of the pot. Surely two divergent arguments revolved around the “fracking” question. It was safe. It wasn’t safe. It polluted drinking water, that is water that stunk to high heaven of gas long, long ago.
“Drinking water” around here was, at best, a euphemism. Bottled water was a part of life. Before that, many folks boiled their water prior to drinking it. Surely there were multiple sides to environmental arguments. Emotions flared.
Who was right? Who was wrong? Dottie, Liz and Don, like many in Tioga County, were caught in the crossfire, befuddled by the endless arguments even while the drill rigs rumbled up their respective driveways. With many, the almighty dollar was the only consideration. Dottie herself was fraught with mixed feelings as the initial drill made its first turns on the Zook farm.
A few weeks passed. Bingo ! Quadruple Bingo ! Dottie had “gushers” , four of them. She was elated as her lawyer explained to her the upshot of the contract that she was about to execute with WYO Energy. She didn’t say as much to her attorney, but if this wasn’t wealthy, she didn’t know what was ! Dottie could hardly believe what she was hearing.
Making ends meet with her dreaded checkbook was no longer going to be a problem. She said prayers of thanks. How was it that she, one person, could be so lavishly blessed? Dottie was genuinely humbled.
Liz and Don’s well was not as productive as the least of Dottie’s. Unfair, she thought, as she proposed to somehow share her bounty with them. They wouldn’t hear of it, but jocularly suggested that Dottie could buy them dinner more frequently. Liz and Don were perfectly happy with their net result, but what a stroke for the lady who had become their dear friend.
Part Five – A Stranger Comes Knocking
Again, Dottie sat at her balcony. There sure had been a fever of activity over the last few weeks. She had much to contemplate, so much for which to be thankful. Kind fortune had visited her.
Life was now getting back to normal. That meant the quiet solitude of peering out over the farm from her balcony; the occasional darting deer in the distance or the far away bray of a neighbor’s mule. There was Babcock’s old two-cylinder John Deere put-putting at corn cultivation. These were peaceful sounds, but still a nameless longing was visited on Dottie’s soul.
She again missed the man by her side. She feared the interminable loneliness that might creep back into her day to day being.
A bit later that morning, Dottie saw a car at the distant end of her lane. It had turned off the road and toward the house, very slowly. Her stomach tightened. Its pace seemed to suggest a driver who must be unsure of their whereabouts, or, perhaps, was casing the place. Who knew?
Perhaps it was her newfound fortune that riled Dottie. What details about that had people conjured while she wasn’t looking? Or, was some new-found paranoia becoming part of her reality? Lord, she hoped not!
As it came a tad closer, Dottie could see another possible reason for the slow pace. The car was a convertible with the top down. A slower speed meant the stirring of less dust.
Dottie relaxed a little. This didn’t look like any troublemaker in a troublemaker’s car.
She couldn’t distinguish the make of the car, but suffice it to say that it was a beauty. Dottie had to wonder if the driver wasn’t a WYO guy wanting to bend her ear about something. They did seem to sport some mighty expensive cars that stuck out like sore thumbs in Tioga County.
Dottie squinted through the railing of her balcony as the car came close. It did not have the familiar Pennsylvania plates, but she couldn’t make out the state.
The driver, a man, caught her stare. He smiled cordially, nodded and waved . Dottie, feeling a little more comfortable with the situation, arose from her chair and waved back.
“Whoa”, she pondered. “If he is a WYO guy, he’s one I’m yet to meet; a handsome-looking fellow, for sure.”
Dottie still had no idea what make of car he was driving, but never mind that.
“Good morning”, he projected, with a little glint in his eye from the sunshine.
“Good morning”, Dottie countered as she clutched the top of the rail. “Could I help you?”
“Yes”, he enthused. “I’m sorry for the unannounced visit.”
The fellow turned off his car.
“Do I have the pleasure of greeting Ms. Dorothy Zook ?”
A hundred thoughts raced through Dottie’s mind before she answered. It was Saturday morning, the weekend. If he was a WYO guy, why would he be working? Be careful. He’s a total stranger. Sweet manner, though, and just too damned good-looking. How could he know my name ?
“And if I was?”, Dottie inflected her reply.
“If you are, do know that I’ve driven 326 miles this morning to say… ‘nice game’”.
Dottie was baffled by his answer. Was there some context here that was lost on her ? She cut to the chase.
“ Who are you?”, she replied with a serious face.
“Well, we’ve communicated recently. I’m Jim Waverley. How do you do ?”
Dottie knew she had heard that name, but it was a contextual thing. This fellow was still a stranger to her. No connection dawned on her yet. She still had that “deer in the headlights” look on her face.
“You know”, Jim said, “We have to settle things with a Word Flurry re-match.”
An obvious sense of relief washed over Dottie’s face. She smiled.
“Well, Jim Waverley. How did you..? You’re supposed to be in….? you’re …You’re supposed to be walking up those stairs to my balcony to shake my hand!
Jim laughed. Out of his car now, he moved toward the railing.
“You know what”, he said, as he ascended the first steps, “You’re even prettier when you smile.”
“Never mind that, smooth talker, what do you take in your coffee?”
“And what kind of car is that ?”
“Just black, thank you”, Jim replied as he stepped onto the balcony . “That’s a Bentley.”
Momentarily they locked eyes with palpable emotion. Dottie hoped that she hadn’t made a mistake inviting someone she barely knew to within spitting distance of her house.
Then, in the next instant, she sensed greater confidence.
“You know”, Jim softly said, “epiphany is way too long a word for the Flurry board, but I feel like this is one.”
“You know what else,” Dottie replied, “You might have something there.”
They both laughed.
“Now then”, she re-composed , “I was getting you coffee. Do you mean to tell me… you’re in West Virginia, right? Are you telling me that you drove from there to here to say ‘Nice game’ ? You think I’m that gullible? Thanks a lot!”
“No, no”, Jim chuckled . “The story’s a bit longer than that. A while back, I inherited my grandparents’ house; actually just a little cabin on 15 acres over in McKean County. I’m here fixing it up a little bit.”
Dottie listened with total surprise. This was a little too coincidental. McKean was two counties to the west from her farm. How likely was it that a guy from West Virginia owned property right here?… not to mention a guy who she haphazardly met over some word game by a mistaken push of a button?
Dottie noted to Jim those very sentiments, but she was still bothered with a little suspicion. There was just a bit too much coincidence here .
“I was thinking the same. What are the chances? I suppose stranger things have happened, but I’m not sure when”, Jim conceded.
To Dottie, his smile was almost beguiling . She thought to herself, how did this most charming guy make his way up her driveway? Between him and the spewing gas wells, luck was being a bit too kind. Her sweet fortune was compounding at a too-good-to-be-true pace.
They sat on the balcony sipping coffee and spoke of varied topics. Eventually it got down to brass tacks. What was the real reason that prompted Jim’s unannounced venture up the lane today? Dottie wanted to know.
She mentioned the occasional, and less-than-subtle, male ‘troller’ who would make himself known to her. He was sure that she was some sort of land “baroness.
Jim waved Dottie off on that one.
“That wouldn’t be me”, he assured her. “The last thing I need is more land ! No, from an asset point of view, I’m set.”
He went on to describe the sale of his manufacturing business some years ago. With carefully chosen words, Jim made it clear that money was not an issue with him.
“I’ll level with ya, though . I seek enjoyable company. Our little bit of back and forth over Flurry was pretty enjoyable. The notion of getting to know you grew on me.”
“That, plus the fact that I was up for a drive today.”
“Yeah, but three hundred miles worth?” , Dottie teased.
Jim bowed his head momentarily.
Dottie perceived the start of a tear welling in his eye.
“You see”, Jim said, “I don’t mean to lay my tale of woe on you, but I get a little lonely. Yes, indeed, three hundred miles worth. I lost my wife a couple of years ago and, well, I miss her more than you’ll know.”
Dottie was floored by what Jim had just said. He perceived an unexpected compassion in her face.
Dottie teared slightly, as well.
“No”, she replied to Jim. “I just might know.”
They quickly came to find that the similarities of their circumstance were uncanny, but a final punctuation in their collective stories astounded them both. Slightly more than two years ago, Dottie and Jim had lost their spouses … within two days of the other.
Part 6 – Implausible
And so it was, an improbable visit revealing next to implausible circumstance. Dottie and Jim found themselves locked in moments of incredulity. What were they to make of this ?
“Are you a religious person?”, Jim asked of Dottie.
“Not from a church-going standpoint”, she replied. “I’m just not good with the politics of it all. That’s not to say that I’m not a believer. I mean, just look at today; all these hours of our visit. Don’t tell me that there’s nothing at work here.”
Jim was laughing, obviously laughing at her answer.
“What?” Dottie questioned.
“Nothing. It’s just the sameness here, I’m amazed. That is, just about verbatim, how I would have answered that religion I question, had you asked me”, Jim replied.
A silent moment passed as the daylight waned. To them both, this day seemed to have whizzed by.
Dottie cleared her throat.
“You’re not going back to West Virginia tonight , are you”, she asked.
“No”, Jim said. “I’ll just sleep at the cabin.”
“I forget”, Dottie said. “What was the reason you came calling today in the first place?”
“I’m glad you asked”, Jim said. “Thanks for reminding me. You worry me a little. I hope you’ll understand why I sought to poke my nose in your business a little.”
“Wait a minute”, Dottie said. “We just met today. You live three hundred-some miles away, and I worry you? I’m intrigued.”
“Not a biggy”, Jim said. “It’s just that you’re a bit of an open book. Let’s say I’m the local half-wit or psychopath with nefarious intent. You live here alone, ya know. Well, I needn’t look far to find your exact address. Heck, plug that into my GPS and, voila, here I am. Where are you? Upstairs in bed ?
“It wouldn’t be hard to make yourself a little less accessible. I’m not saying that you can’t be on Facebook or a dozen other platforms, but you could use a pseudonym. For that matter, your name doesn’t even need to be on your mailbox, much less Facebook.”
I’m just thinking about your safety. Now that I’ve met you, l’m really not liking the thought of something bad happening to you.”
Dottie was listening intently. She reached over and placed her hand on Jim’s wrist.
“You know something, Jim Waverley, that’s the sweetest thing that anyone has said to me in a long time. Thank you for caring.”
The catalyst was apparently cast in their conversation. In the next moment they shared a kiss that showed little sign of ending.
It did. Eventually.
They both acknowledged it to be the first affectionate moment since the loss of their respective spouses. Yes, the kiss ended. The palpable emotion, not so quickly. How tightly could heartstrings be taut ?
“I do have a couch, you know”, Dottie intoned. “That kiss with morning coffee would be sweet.”
“Wait a minute, we just met”, Jim reminded her in jest.
They enjoyed a bit of laughter. Jim relented to the couch idea, not before another kiss.
Jim slept more soundly than he would have in his cabin bed. It was one contented slumber. He was awoken by the final gurgles of Dottie’s coffeemaker.
Her soft, early morning manner was ever-so-gentle on Jim’s mind. He imagined himself the pleasantry of waking up to her each morning. Her subtle enthusiasms were contagious.
Truth be told, Dottie was having reciprocal thoughts, but in silence each were admonishing themselves for their hastiness . For goodness sake, they’d just barely had a sip of coffee.
Quite predictably, their first volleys of conversation focused on a singular, overriding phenom: What the heck happened yesterday? How much circumstance can one day offer? Was it Divine intervention or was it heavy-duty storybook ? Did it forecast things to come?
Certainly Jim and Dottie agreed on one thing: They wanted to find out ! And, time was flying.
They didn’t over-linger at coffee. Whatever they did today, they immediately resolved to do it together. For beginners, they strapped themselves into Dottie’s John Deere Gator and embarked on a farm tour . Dottie drove. Jim was wowed !
Why stop now, they agreed. Dottie announced that she could be packed in half an hour. Like a couple of wild and crazy college kids, they were West Virginia bound by noontime.
Thus far, Jim had seen just the Dottie side of the equation. Not fair, Dottie proclaimed.
When would they return to Tioga County? They hadn’t discussed that yet.