It was Monday morning, the start of a new week, and a few more inches of snow fell overnight. Though Joe Miller had other things to do, he felt compelled to visit his cavernous Serling House, 150 feet off his back porch. He felt oddly out of place today, and somewhat mournful and melancholy to boot.
He quickly revived, as he took in the breathtaking panorama he marveled at every day for over 50 years. If looking east, north, and south, with its uninterrupted view of snow-capped, sunlit mountains and tall pines, one would think total isolation. Does civilization exist? Looking west, it seems to mimic the isolation of the other directions, at first glimpse. Though a bit deceiving, there’s an easily reachable town only a few hundred feet in the valley directly below where Joe stood. Serling County, population 1,969, is an uncluttered, unassuming hamlet in western Colorado, and home to some of Joe’s family, neighbors, and long-time friends.
Joe walked slowly today, though the cold air would normally quicken his pace. As he approached the 10,000 square foot structure, he was trying to remember the exact date his father converted and modernized this former horse barn into the Serling Room. It was an aptly-nicknamed, 2-story, multi-use outpost that, over time, became the unofficial/official place to gather for residents of Serling County. Meeting space was limited in the small town, and decades ago Joe offered this spot to all residents who needed it, whenever they needed it. It was hardly ever empty, as Joe could attest, being there and living within eyeshot of the structure.
His snug and cozy home, a rancher built by his father, didn’t offer the opportunity to spread out. A large man, a feeling of open space was something Joe always needed. So, over the years, the Serling House served as his office, a place to watch sporting events, a late night refuge for privacy when he wanted to read or pay bills, or just a place to think.
As Joe approached the front of the building, he felt like he was walking in slow motion, and lighter than normal. For some reason, his size 11 boots didn’t seem to disturb the fresh snow either. Usually, a seeker of answers for all things not making sense, Joe quickly chalked it off to his overall odd feeling today. But why the soot on his hands, as he unlocked and opened the large front door?
Joe walked into the Serling House, and was quite surprised to see activity going on in the various rooms. He didn’t notice any cars parked on the side of the building, plus it was only 10:00 on a Monday morning. And didn’t he just now unlock the door?
He immediately made eye contact with Trixie Meadows leading her knitting group. Didn’t they meet on Wednesday and not Monday, he thought? Wait. Didn’t Trixie pass away a few years ago? “Thanks again, Joe,” the group said. In the Sports Room, billiard balls were clacking and darts were searching for center cork. “Joe, we can’t thank you enough again,” bellowed Somerset Frisby, as he spoke for the boys and himself. Joe then turned and took in the unmistakable aroma of Sweeney Goodman’s Cherokee Menthol pipe tobacco blend. Joe hasn’t smelled that in years. But, didn’t Sweeney pass away too? Sweeney winked at Joe and nodded his thanks. In the next room, scoutmaster Thorn Sherman was preparing a display of sailor knots and arrowheads for an upcoming Boy Scout meeting. Thorn thanked Joe for the use of this haven over the years and flashed his familiar toothy grin. It was nice seeing that smile again, Joe thought.
The thanks and accolades continued by the townsfolk. Joe was appreciative, but perplexed about why he thought folks who died were all here. Certainly, too many people to fit in the building all at once. Could he be wrong about who died, he thought? Were all these friends really here on a Monday morning? Joe’s brain seemed in slow motion again, as he accepted this suspension of disbelief.
At that, the soot on Joe’s hand quickly spread to other areas of his body. Joe felt calm, ethereal, as his thought processes shut down. He felt he was disappearing; breaking apart, but there was no pain.
The following day, this appeared in the Serling County Gazette:
Serling County lost a beloved son on Sunday morning, when long-time resident Joe Miller was killed by fire in his own Serling House – a place all county residents are familiar. A preliminary report by fire investigators stated that faulty wiring from the original structure might be the cause. County residents are heartbroken, most notably, the town’s younger residents. As 18-year old Betty Anderson stated … “our one regret is never officially thanking Joe at a gathering for all he did for us – the way the older folks once did for Joe – before they all passed away.”