Translated from the Dutch by Josh Pachter
Late on a pleasant Friday afternoon, as I drink beer with Jake Brown on his front porch, I realize it’s something of a miracle we’re sitting here together. If it had been left up to a couple of our city’s notables, he’d still be sitting somewhere very different. And as you’ll see, my wife Jen and I came very close to never being in a position to sit anywhere, ever again.
I’ve been visiting with Jake for decades, starting in 1992, the year after Jen and I moved to—well, I’m going to leave out the name of the town. I know, I just referred to it as a city, but it’s really nothing more than a village, especially when you consider the narrowmindedness of its citizens. I sometimes think I ought to be living somewhere else, but my work keeps me here. Jennifer too. A few more years, and we’ll be ready to retire. I’d like to head south, maybe Florida, but Jen’s got other ideas. She’d prefer to return to her roots in small-town Massachusetts, an hour and a half from Boston.
For the time being, though, we remain in this desolate corner of Northwest Nebraska. Our town’s got a supermarket, a gas station, a steakhouse (which I have to admit is pretty fabulous), obviously a post office, a bank, a beauty parlor, a liquor store, a bar (right next to the liquor store), a notary public, a doctor, a dentist, a drugstore, an elementary school, a motel, two churches, two gun shops, and a train station past which trains rumble several times a day: three locomotives pulling a hundred or so freight cars heading alternately from Omaha to Casper, Wyoming, and from Casper to Omaha.
And then of course there’s me and Jen, because any town that’s worth its salt has got a legal practice. The sign above our office on Main Street says “Coleman-Whittaker,” and that’s us. Coleman is Jen, and Whittaker is me, Steve Whittaker. Sounds like some famous international law firm, doesn’t it? I suppose we are well known, but not much further away than Scottsbluff. With a little luck, there might be a judge or two who’s heard of us as far off as North Platte.
It was different for Abe Huckleby, who had the practice before us. Who doesn’t remember his name? He’s known from sea to shining sea, and—if Jake ever agrees to let his story be turned into a movie, which probably won’t happen until after he’s passed on—maybe his fame will go worldwide.
You ask Jake what the purpose of life is, he’ll say it’s to sit on your porch, drink beer, and watch the world go by. I expect Jake was born on that porch—he’s as associated with it as the Mona Lisa is with the scenery that surrounds her—and I expect he’ll die there. (Although as far as that’s concerned, Dame Fortuna came close to deciding otherwise.) You talk with them who’ve lived here longer than Jen and me, they’ll tell you he’s been sitting on that porch forever.
Okay, fine, everything has its exceptions. Winters, when the blizzards blow down from the Dakotas and the mercury drops below zero, Jake’s porch is uninhabited. I think the freezing point of beer might be the deciding factor: once his bottle of Bell’s turns from a liquid into a slushy, it’s time to move indoors.
Jake’s favorite seasons are spring, summer, and early autumn. That’s when he sits there and watches over the town. He pays attention to who’s out and about, who’s heading where, and when they return. He counts the kids on the school bus, observes Sheriff Bulowski making his rounds, watches the D&S truck drive by on its way to restock the grocery’s shelves and, twice a week, the armored car pull up outside the bank, since feeding the ATM machine is every bit as important as feeding the townspeople’s bellies. He sees Reverend Bleecher walk from home to the church for Sunday services and whenever there’s a funeral or—less often—a wedding. He sees Mr. Hoover, the notary, head into work, and he knows that when Peggy Forrester, Dr. Johnson’s receptionist, bikes past, it’ll be fifteen minutes later that the doc’s patients will start showing up for their appointments.
And of course he sees Jen and me stroll by twice a day, to open our office on the corner of Third Street at the stroke of nine and then after our workday ends at half past five.