The Attraction of Magnets by Grace Keating
There was this little corner store in town, just across the street from where we lived. And one evening when they were open and everything else in town was pretty much closed, an old-fashioned station wagon pulled up, parked and emptied. A mom and a dad and four kids got out in pandemonium and they all went inside. That would be the Thompsons. When they were inside, a blue pick-up truck came round the corner and ran into the front end of the station wagon. Not causing much damage, but causing enough to mean the Thompsons could not move their vehicle and it would have to be towed. And fixed. It being a Saturday evening and it being a sleepy town, it also meant the next day might see a tow truck, or it might not.
With all the commotion, the street soon filled with people. There were the Thompsons, May and Joe the store owners, some of the Findleys from next door to us, Charles Robichaud and his three girls from the building across the street and next door to the store, and there was George, the driver from the pick-up truck, and us, the Harveys, half of the twelve of us anyway. There being no great event, as quickly as the street filled, it emptied. And that is emptied, except of course for my parents and the four of us kids who were not out at the dance, not away or not staying overnight at the Swift house, as Addy was.
Names were bandied about and before long it was decided the Thompsons would stay the night, or a few nights if need be, at our house. The assortment of Thompson kids and us Harvey kids would stay in the two tents that were already set up in the backyard. My parents, being my parents, insisted the Thompson mom and dad take their double bed and they would sleep in the single beds vacated by some of us kids staying out in the tents.
As you so often do when you look back, you see things that were invisible at the time, mainly because there are so many other things to see and there is much commotion in the air. That first night with the Thompsons, I remember watching the youngest holding his fork and stabbing his food. This, I thought at the time, was odd. Odd because none of my friends held forks that way, no one in any circle I had ever been round held their fork that way. And I guess looking back and us Harveys talking about the Thompsons, we had all noticed it, but none of us spoke of it ‘til much later on.
A moment can happen like a dot on a piece of paper. Precise and tiny, a quick little ‘moment in time’ dot, then it’s over and time moves on. And a moment can also happen as though it’s a drip. And when the drip drops and it goes splat and it’s spread out, you can see that it was a much bigger moment than the drip in mid-air looked to be. And still again, a moment can be time stretched out sort of like blowing up a balloon, like the air inside when it’s filled to capacity, big and round and full. It was that sort of a moment, a really big balloon moment, when at the table the Thompson mom sort of cleared her throat and the youngest quickly changed how he was holding his fork and the slack muscles in his back tightened and he sat up straighter. Suddenly, everything looks as it should be, and you look over to the others to see if anyone else spotted the fork incident but you can’t quite tell, it’s almost like the balloon popped and nothing was out of the ordinary. No one comments, because no one can. That would have been the first clue. But on this night, no one was seeing the signs, not just yet.
The dad Thompson was saying just call me Doc, everyone else does. And right there, we all immediately put it in our heads that James Thompson was a doctor and that Betty was the doctor’s wife.
Doc Thompson explained that he and Betty were in the neighbourhood to see where Betty’s grandparents were from and although they now lived in Connecticut they thought of moving. He had just finished his studying or very nearly and considering there was a rather large plot of land with a house on it, well they might just possibly make the move.
The evening settled into a comfortable sort of an evening, but not without the Peters being called over, as they were almost every Saturday night. Not without the Miltons also being called and the Swindons. And not without the liquor coming out of its safe daytime hiding spot, being neatly measured and poured and being swilled about with ice and lemons and various mixers. The newest acquisitions, Doc and Betty, the guests from Connecticut, were on display. They chimed in well, and remarkably, they know quite a bit of the local lure. Maybe a little too much for a couple just passing through a sleepy town. But no one at the Harveys that evening saw any of this at the time.
The Thompson kids and the Harvey kids have flashlights and a battery operated radio which plays the latest of the top tunes and for the most part, they are not unknown to either group. There is a captured harmony outside in the backyard tents. Three more Harvey kids arrive home after the dance. They’ve brought with them the Peters kids, it being a safe bet that the Peters parents would be at the Harvey house as they usually were on a Saturday night. And they also brought with them Lorraine Swindon, there being a hint that Jay Harvey might just be sweet on her. The party happening indoors and the backyard tent party were not out of place events at the Harveys. The new Harvey kids and the new Peters kids along with Lorraine Swindon say their polite hellos, meet the Connecticut Doc Thompson and Betty, and are off to continue the night with a little swiped alcohol from the hiding spot and a rather large stash of snacks. They poke their heads into the larger of the two tents, which house all the other Harvey kids and Thompson kids and the music and the flashlights, and say their hellos there too. They make their way over to the far side of the yard, where the trees with summer foliage give them a sheltered and private area and where the teens were used to having their own Saturday midnight gatherings.
That night under the trees and stars, the new group sat round the picnic table or perched themselves on the decorative boulder rocks, while a few settled into the mismatched collection of lounge seats. Great conversations ensued about the coming fall and how Jay would be moving to the city, Jay being the second eldest of the Harvey kids. Lorraine Swindon might be going too, but she hadn’t quite decided, and Marybeth Peters would be going to the local university in town. They talked about theatre and politics. They touched on religion and the latest gossip on Charlene, the current favourite person to gossip about. But all this is only to say that the one thing the teens did not talk about were the newest guests, the Thompsons. They hardly went noticed. In fact, that’s just how ordinary and normal they seemed to everyone.
The next few weeks still saw the Thompsons staying at the Harvey house. The station wagon had its new parts ordered, arrived, paid for and installed. The newest complication was that the Thompsons were moving to our town and taking possession of the Coldwell house, Betty’s grandparents’ old place, which wouldn’t be ready for another week or two. The Harvey parents continued to sleep in the single beds and the Peters and Miltons and Swindons and others continued to drop by for visits. Doc and Betty were becoming more and more popular and the casual get-togethers led to card party invites, dinner invites, and inclusion to just about every social event our sleepy little town had to offer.
The Thompson kids took to the summer activities of the Harvey kids with enthusiasm and vigor. You’d think they hadn’t seen a river before or set up a picnic table for a comic book trading convention or you’d think they’d never been a part of boxcar races. They took to climbing trees and hanging out in the tree house as though they’d done it all their lives. They fit in with other kids from the town too, but the favourite activity of all, was the raising of tadpoles. Now this, they had for sure never done and us Harvey kids, being the local frog experts, were quick to fill them in on the whole business.
At a special spot in the river where it bends and pools and where it’s quite shallow, the Harvey kids had set up a tadpole world. They called it ‘the river tads’ and as the tadpoles grew, they were gently moved or corralled from one screen meshed-in area to another before they were let go at their final frog stage of life. Fencing in any animal has certain responsibilities and the raising of tadpoles was serious business. Not only did it involve the careful cooking and freezing of lettuce for when the tadpoles were tiniest, but it also involved catching small flies and bugs for the froglet and frog stages. As they grew, they went from being completely underwater to being mainly on land and they needed big dry rocks they could climb to, a place in the shade and a place in the sun. The Thompson kids learned to sweep butterfly nets over long blades of grass to collect insects, they helped move large stones around and helped with making bridges and caves. As summer rolled on, ‘the river tads’ became ‘frogs’ hollow’ and it wasn’t long before they were all grown and let go.
All through this time, Doc and Betty were fixing up the old place and settling into their new home. Betty was even setting up a little gift and flower shop on main street right next door to where Doc’s office would be. Walking by, it was easy to see into the gift shop window as shelves filled up and a big glass cooler was installed where eventually buckets of stemmed flowers would be. But seeing into the Doc’s office was a different story. It was much more difficult as the windows were spread with newspaper and nothing was written on the door. For a short time, there was one small spot where the edges of the paper didn’t meet and if you peaked past the headlines and twisted your head in just such a way you could see words painted on the wall, “amazing results . . . increase concentration and focus . . . rid yourself of pain forever”. It was useless trying to get anything out of the Thompson kids, they seemed to know nothing more than we did. Their dad was a doctor and their mom was a mom. None of us kids really took much notice other than that the curiosity was fun. It wasn’t until the day they opened that we saw the sign “Dr. J. Thompson, Electromagnetic Therapy”. And I don’t think there was a person in town who knew what that meant. In fact at that time, I don’t think there was anyone in our town who could even say ‘electromagnetic’ without stumbling over the word.
It wasn’t long before both the businesses built up and the poor old station wagon found a permanent home on an old corner of the Coldwell property. It sat lined up along the perimeter with other vehicles left behind by Betty’s grandparents. New car, new paint and a tidy front lawn. The Thompson kids adapted to their new school and soon, everyone in town seemed to be walking with magnetic insoles in their shoes. Doc Thompson was gaining a reputation and it seemed to everyone, that the power of magnets was the miracle they’d been waiting for.
When we all get together and talk about the Thompsons now, we can never quite agree on the exact way it happened. But what I remember is that us Harveys were at the cottage for the Easter break and this was after a fourth season in the river with the tadpoles and after the Thompson kids had been at school for a fourth year and spent a fourth Christmas with us. They were supposed to have come with us to the cottage that Easter, but they’d received some news of Doc’s brother. He’d been involved in an accident and they’d be making the drive to Connecticut — at least that’s the way I remembered the story. We arrived home from our cottage late in the night and it would’ve been on the Sunday, because Monday was the last day of the holidays. We all just thought the Thompsons hadn’t returned yet.
The next day, a few of us Harvey kids went to the flower shop and right away we could sense something was creepy. For starters, the door was unlocked and we could push it open and just walk right in. And even though the shelves were still stocked and the cash drawer was open and empty, the way it was always left at nights, and there were no flowers in the buckets in the cooler, just the way you’d expect it to be, it didn’t feel like it should. Things didn’t feel right. It was almost as though a soft wind had blown in, picked things up, twisted them in the air and laid them back on the shelves slightly out of place.
Going next door to Doc’s office, that was a different story. Nothing at all was in order. There were empty and upset boxes, not everywhere, but off in the corner stacked askew. There had been a negative ion machine sitting on the counter and all of us kids would take turns and stand in front of it. None of us knew how it worked, but it always made us giggle and laugh. It was gone. That was probably the one single item that made the whole of the place seem hollow and empty. When Leo called out “it’s gone,” we all knew right away what he was talking about without even looking. We felt the weight of the seriousness sink in.
And it was then that we noticed the bits of paper strewn about, ‘misleading statements . . . serious violation of the law . . . lack of education or training . . . injunction, and civil penalties.’ Even in our small world, and not knowing what it all meant, us Harvey kids knew the Thompsons were in serious trouble.
In a small town, when something or someone is introduced to the community, there is a certain responsibility felt by the person or people who first made the connection. And the level of responsibility is felt even stronger when the new thing or person introduced is accepted and embraced by the whole of the community. The effect of the disappearance of the Thompsons on the Harvey family was monumental. At first, there was great embarrassment and disbelief. This was followed by anger, a feeling of rejection and then a driving curiosity. But it didn’t matter how much curiosity and anger any of us Harveys or anyone else in town had, there was no trace of the Thompsons. Us Harvey kids would often go to the edge of the old Coldwell property and look at the shell of that old-fashioned station wagon; even open the doors and sit inside for a spell, wishing the Thompson kids back. They were missed, fondly remembered, laughed about, talked about, loved and hated. That there was any connection to the old Coldwells at all was debated for years. None could be found.
Magnets, despite their lifetime warranties, seemed to no longer work and no one knew where to find the Thompsons. It was almost as though the Doc himself was needed to make their healing powers work. And then out of the blue, four years after they left, a card arrives. It’s just before Christmas and us Harvey kids hear nothing of it until we’re all gathered round. No one is out at the dance, no one is staying overnight at the Swift house, the older ones are home from the city and from university and when we’ve finished with the final tree decorations, and with evening refreshments and drinks poured, Mom begins reading:
To our dearest friends The Harveys
After all these years I hardly know where to begin. I guess the only place that makes any sense is to first say sorry. How many times have I wanted to write? How many times was I told I couldn’t? You will see from the newspaper clipping enclosed, that Doc passed away unexpectedly in August. It has taken me this long to find the courage to put pen to paper.
As Mom continues reading, I look around at the others; Leo is wiping a tear from his eye, Jay has his head bowed low, Abby and Stella are rocking back and forth with the sound of mom’s voice and I can hardly keep my composure. It’s like that moment again, like that really big balloon moment and I think I’ve drifted off somewhere and I want to sink and cry and at the same time, I want to cry out loud. And inside that really big balloon moment, I’ve been to the river and the water has come over the tops of my boots. I’ve been building bridges for frogs, hammering out bent wheels for box cars and sitting in the grass catching crickets. A comic book slips from my hands and Timmy Thompson has just leaned over and kissed me on my lips. My first. He says he wants to marry me when we get older. The sun is shining and I am sitting alone in the old-fashioned station wagon along the edge of the Coldwell property. I am crying.
The balloon deflates itself and I’ve missed the whole of the letter, but I can read it later. Mom is saying what do you think? Will it be alright to see them again if they come for a visit?
In the moments when I’d felt so alone trying to sort out anger and trying to understand silence, there was never a moment when I didn’t want to see the Thompsons again. I was the first to say yes, and slowly, from around the table, the rest of us all agreed. We all wanted to see the Thompsons again. We would take any of that old world back. The Thompsons held their own power of attraction.
Grace Keating was born in a Canadian east-coast university town at the tail end of a large family of storytellers. When not working freelance in the world of theatre and film, she spends her time writing.
Askance included The Attraction Of Magnets and The Importance Of Healthy Eating in the Positional Vertigo short story collection, since when Grace has won the SLO Night Writers award and had several stories short-listed for other prizes.
old car photo credit – Hayden Walker via Unsplash
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