guest post: There’s Always a Table for You

Today I’m sharing a short story by my brother Mark Stockslager, centering on the Ship Hotel, a landmark of the western Pennsylvania stretch of the Lincoln Highway. Whether you’re interested in the importance of research to creative writing (WRIT 402 students, take note!) or just love a good story, I think you will enjoy this!

There’s Always a Table for You

A Ship Hotel Story

by Mark Stockslager

“‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’”

Bob Dylan


              It was 1975, and Elmer was sick of it. Not the year, no, but mostly everything else. His job at Schellsburg’s one and only real estate business wasn’t on life support yet, but Elmer liked to say it was high time for some diet and exercise if the job wanted to see the 80s. His marriage was taken off of life support a few years earlier, and he was still sore about that. Not just sore that his wife up and told him one day that he was boring, he was fat, and he was balding and she wanted out, no — sore that he didn’t have anyone to complain to anymore.

              “And you complain too much, Elmer!” That’s something else she told him.

              Anyhow, the only thing Elmer much cared for anymore was Bob Dylan records and driving his car. He drove when he was annoyed (sick of it) and that was a frequent occasion these days. So it was on this day that Elmer got in his car, popped in the tape he’d recorded of Bob Dylan’s latest LP and started driving.

              “I’m telling you, Bill — Blood on the Tracks is gonna go down as one of his best,” Elmer told the one coworker he could tolerate, and told him again and again since Elmer picked it up in January.

              “Uh-huh,” was Bill’s reply. He’d said the same thing the other times Elmer had brought up Bob Dylan. To Bill, Dylan was just another anti-war hippie Communist who overstayed his welcome.

              It was a particularly beautiful fall day when Elmer fired up the first track “Tangled Up in Blue” and decided he’d point his Chevrolet Corvair west on 30, which Elmer affectionately referred to as “The Old Linc.” The Lincoln Highway stretched over 3,000 miles from New York to California, and was still held in high regard similar to Route 66, but the stretch through western PA that included Elmer’s hometown of Schellsburg wasn’t used by many folks. Not for long distance travel, at least. The PA Turnpike was more preferable to those trying to avoid the mountain, and the novelty of the gigantic teapot on the side of the road had worn off for those who didn’t appreciate the finer things. Like Elmer did.

              Elmer had checked the clock on his stove before leaving his house. It was just getting on 2 in the afternoon, it was a Saturday, and he had no responsibilities today. “The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on,” said Bobby, and Elmer agreed.


              Elmer backed out of his driveway and directly into the side of his neighbor Ellen Grayfield’s sedan. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Elmer barked. Both parties shifted to park and Elmer jumped out of his car.

              “Ms. Grayfield I—”

              “Don’t bother, Elmer. I’m already over it.” She stayed in the car, but her window was rolled down. She waved her hand like she was lazily waving away a fly.

              Elmer slowed in his tracks. “What? You’re serious?”

              “Well, you’re insured aren’t you?”

              He nodded. “I am.”

              She nodded, almost in unison. “As am I. And quite honestly, Elmer, I don’t know if I even see the need for that nonsense. You see any scrapes?”

              As she said it, Elmer looked at her car and noticed it looked almost brand new. “You know, now that you mention it—”

              “Okay and how about yours?” She nodded at his Corvair, and his eyes followed.

              Elmer squatted by the rear bumper and stared. “Nothing. There’s nothing.”

              “Well don’t act like it’s God’s miracle, Elmer, you barely touched me. It wasn’t a head-on collision.” Ellen Grayfield gave Elmer a half smile and waited for his reply.

              “So you want to just shake hands and call it square?” Elmer reached his hand through her passenger window and she shook it, firmly.

              “That’s what I’m talking about, fella. Where you headed on this fine day, anyway?”

              Elmer was so relieved that (a) Ms. Grayfield wasn’t upset and (b) their cars seemed weirdly fresh off the lot with nary a scratch that he laughed and said, “You know, I have no idea. I was just going for a drive to be honest.”

              Ellen Grayfield once again smiled and once again nodded and said, “Great minds think alike. The Linc?”

              “Yeah I — hey I call it that too!” Elmer began to feel a sense of deja vu, but the good kind. Almost like meeting someone new and realizing you were going to be friends. Only, he’d lived next to Ellen for years and had exchanged nothing but quick pleasantries with her throughout their acquaintance.

              “You headed east or west?” Ellen’s car was still running, as was Elmer’s, but neither seemed to mind.

              “I was thinking of going west. You?”

              “East. Not sure why or what, just flipped a coin in my head, I guess.”

              Elmer was leaning over to talk to Ellen through the window and normally by now his back would have protested. He didn’t feel any pain today. “Ha, yeah, same here.”

              What was going on here? Elmer was not good at small talk (the Dylan conversations with Bill were evidence of that), but he all of a sudden wanted to stand here and chat with Ellen for hours. They weren’t even talking, really, just batting niceties around like backyard badminton, but it came naturally and it felt good. Wonder if Ellen likes Bob Dylan?

              “Well Elmer, as much as I’d like to sit here and chat with you for hours,” Didn’t I just think that? “I’ve gotta scoot. The Linc is calling, and I must go.” She looked at him for a couple beats and added, “You gonna be alright there, Elmer?”

              Elmer shook his head slightly, as if to clear the cobwebs, and replied, “Yeah, oh yeah…guess hitting the brakes after bumping you made me feel a little fuzzy. It’s been really nice talking with you, Ellen.” He moved to straighten his back, just a touch, and felt a twinge.

              “Same to you, Elmer. Don’t be a stranger.” She gave him yet another smile and yet another nod, maneuvered to D, and started to roll. “Gravity pulls us down and destiny pulls us apart, Elmer. Or sometimes together. I don’t know.” Her car pulled up to the stop sign just up from Elmer’s, its left blinker signaled her forged path, and off went Ellen Grayfield.

              Elmer, somewhat dazed but feeling good, turned back to his car. “Idiot Wind” was playing now. And what was it Ellen just said? Gravity and destiny? Elmer knew that was one of many lines in the almost eight minute track, but how did Ellen know that was what he was listening to? Elmer didn’t usually crank up the volume until he was out on the main road — out of courtesy to his neighbors of course.

              The sun glared in his eyes as he turned right onto Route 30 (“The Linc is calling,” Ellen had said) and Elmer glanced at the clock on his dash. It was almost four o’clock. “That doesn’t make sense,” he proclaimed to nothing and no one, “We talked for barely five minutes!” It had felt longer, though, hadn’t it? But if they’d talked for almost two hours, why was the tape still on track four?

              “Whole thing musta looped around and started over,” Elmer said with a grunt of a laugh, but that didn’t quite add up either. It was the thing that made the most sense, though, and Elmer left it at that. He turned “Idiot Wind” up and he sang along loudly. It was, for Elmer, the song he liked to sing along with the most.


              Elmer had driven for barely a mile (“Idiot Wind” gave way to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) before his mind forced him back to the weird time jump he had just experienced.

              “Ok, look,” Elmer began (he talked to himself a lot since the divorce, it was easier to think that way), “It must have been later than I thought when I left the house.”

              Was it, though? His mind answered.  You looked at the clock on the stove when you left. It’s in big white block numbers. It said 1:57 pm, and you know it.

              “Alright then…the stove was wrong. Or the car is wrong!”

              Who changed the clocks then, Elmer? You’ve lived on your own since—

              “Yeah yeah, I hear you,” Elmer interrupted his own mind. “Any bright ideas then, smart guy?”

              Elmer’s prying brain seemed not to have any ideas worth noting, so his internal spat came to a quick and unsatisfying conclusion.

              Quick and unsatisfying, you say? Sounds like another reason why you and your wife had—

              “That’s quite enough out of you, thanks!” Elmer shouted at himself. “This conversation is over.” Side two had started and “Meet Me in the Morning” was on. It was a bluesy one, so Elmer turned it up even louder. He didn’t sing, but he beat hell on the drum kit of his steering wheel, dashboard, and doorframe.

              Schellsburg wasn’t much of a town to speak of, so Elmer was out in the country even before he and his mind had started trading haymakers, and Route 30 started its steady climb over the mountain. The sun seemed to be dipping lower and lower like God had hit fast forward on His VCR and the button was stuck.

              The day was almost over and Elmer felt like it had just begun. But it was Saturday, tomorrow was Sunday, and he didn’t have to let some stupid clock issue with his car (and possibly his stove) get in the way of his good time. Which these days consisted of driving and Dylan.

              The steady hum of his car grew to its usual dull roar when going over the mountain, so he turned Dylan even louder to hear it. Let’s face it, Elmer. It’s not about hearing it, it’s about feeling it. Especially when you’ve got the volume this high. Dylan was singing about Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts when the roar of his car gave way to a bang, and a hard jolt towards the oncoming lane.

              “My tire’s blown out!” Elmer yelled to no one. Luckily he was moving slowly, and no one was heading down the mountain, so Elmer corrected himself and his car slowed further to a 15mph crawl as Elmer collected his thoughts.

              “Just find a place to pull over, and we’ll figure something out. Flag somebody down, catch a ride, get a tow. We’re fine.”

              Are we fine?

              “Yes we’re fine. My back hurts and my head hurts but we’re fine.” And frankly, Elmer was proud of himself. The Elmer of the past few years would have been blowing a gasket at this point. The gasket probably would have already been blown after his little run-in with Ellen Grayfield’s sensible sedan, and a flat tire would have ruined the next few days for That Elmer. But This Elmer? He was still riding the buzz from the fact that his and Ellen’s run-in didn’t involve anything other than a pleasant conversation. It was the conversation, mostly. He hadn’t had such a friendly chat in well…

              “When I get up tomorrow, I’m gonna offer to go with Ellen to church. I’m sure she’d love the company. Who am I kidding? I’d love the company, too.” Who exactly was This Elmer? That Elmer — the snarky Elmer in his brain — didn’t recognize or exactly like him. That Elmer loved a complainer. He thought misery tasted good.

              For now, though, Elmer (This Elmer, Our Elmer, if you will) had the matter of his front left tire to worry about, and where exactly he was going to pull off. There weren’t a whole lot of options going over this particular stretch of the mountain.

              There is that old restaurant and hotel joint. The one that looks like a ship?

              “Oh you’re trying to help now, are you?” Elmer chided himself. But That Elmer had a point. It was coming up on the left, wasn’t it? It wasn’t what it used to be, back in the glory days of presidents and celebrities coming to visit, but it was a parking lot, and that’s all Elmer needed at the moment.


              It was only seconds after Elmer decided the ship was his best option that the structure loomed around the corner (and not a moment too soon — his tire was thumping loud enough to give up on Dylan). It took Elmer a moment to register two things. Number one — the building was beautiful. It was freshly painted, lit up like a used car lot (but in a good way), and the parking lot was jammed. Number two — the hotel was lit up because it was basically dark. He looked at his dash and saw that it read 5:45.

              “That doesn’t make a lick of sense, but I don’t care. That’s the least of my worries.” And it was true — Elmer hung a lazy left into the small lot and wasn’t sure if he’d find a spot. His Corvair crept along the small strip of parking on the side of 30 (the building was built on the side of a steep cliff on a mountain, after all), and shortly Elmer found a perfect spot. Right in front of the entryway.

              “Hey look at that!” He practically punched the roof in excitement. He eased the car into the space (perfect fit) and hoped the next time it moved was onto the back of a tow truck.

              Elmer sat in the now-quiet car and took a quick moment to close his eyes and collect himself. Yes, his back and head hurt. Yes, he got a flat on a day that seemed to be flying by him, but he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t even disappointed, really. This Elmer was trying to take it easy, baby, take it as it comes (Elmer liked The Doors, too, but nowhere as much as he did Bobby).

              Elmer could hear music, but it wasn’t rock and roll. It was big band music, and it was coming from the hotel. “Sounds hoppin’ in there!” Elmer got out of his car (his back gave him a holler, but not as big as he had feared it would) and made for the door. He knew priority numero uno was asking to use the phone to call a tow, but he was more excited to see what was going on inside.

              As Elmer reached for the door, it swung wide for him. The music came into a loud focus, as did the pleasant smells and sights. The first pleasant sight was an older man wearing a suit, a captain’s hat, and a warm smile, who had opened the door for him.

              “Come in, come in!” the captain said (Elmer assumed he ran this ship) and stepped aside to usher in an Elmer (This Elmer) who was feeling that good, good daze from earlier today at about 1000%. “I’m Herb, the captain of this ship. What can I do for you, Mister…”

              Elmer looked up and met Herb’s eyes. They were kind, patient eyes. The eyes of someone who was waiting for an answer but nice enough to give you time to gather your bearings before you answer. Elmer appreciated those eyes. “I, uh…I’m Elmer! I’m Elmer. My car—”

              “Flat tire, huh? That’s not fun at all.” Elmer gave him a puzzled look. How in the world? Herb recognized the look and laughed. “Oh, I heard you pulling in. Thumping like a bass drum, it was.”

              That was good enough for Elmer (maybe not for That Elmer — the music is way too loud for somebody to have heard that, he thought) so he recovered and asked Herb if there was a phone he could use.

              “Why sure there is, Elmer. Anything else I can help with? Hey, you hungry, Elmer?”

              Elmer was, and Elmer wanted to hang out here as long as he could, honestly. At least until the tow truck got here. It was Saturday (night) after all. “Yes, sir, I am, but is there even a table open? This place is hopping!”

              Herb smiled, gave Elmer a nod, and waved his hand towards the center of the small but charming dining area. “Of course, Elmer! There’s always a table for you.”

              Elmer followed as Herb led him to the small table, one chair already pulled out for its next occupant. “I’ve actually never been inside here, Herb. Driven past it all my life, though.” He looked at Herb then, who was smiling expectantly. “Wait, do we know each other?”

              “I don’t think we do — we get a lot of people in here these days, but I never forget a face. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of seeing yours before.” A small cacophony of music coming from the slightly cramped stage at the front of the dining room. No one was dancing —not yet — but Elmer had the feeling the tables would get cleared after dinner and this party would really get swinging.

              “Well, Elmer, if there’s anything you need, I’ll know. Somebody will come by to get your order.” Elmer and Herb shook hands, and Elmer sat down as Herb made his way through the room, smiling, nodding, chatting, and overall commanding the room like only those really special people can. Like a captain, for instance.


              Elmer had ordered drinks and dinner and was tapping his foot to the music when That Elmer tapped on his brain.

              Say Elmer, what did you come here for? It wasn’t just hopping music and fettuccini alfredo.

              Elmer brought his hand down hard to the table, but no one noticed over the music. “The phone!” He whispered to himself. He’d never called the tow! As if he’d heard Elmer’s whisper, Herb made his way over to him, hello-ing as he went.

              “You ready to make that call now? I figured you’d want to wait until you’d ordered so the timing worked out.” Elmer almost laughed in relief.

              “Yeah! Yeah, that’s good thinking, Cap. I’ll admit, I’d almost forgotten about why I was here in the first place.” Elmer stood up and allowed Herb to lead the way.

              Herb walked in step by Elmer’s side, somehow both of them able to walk comfortably even in the small room. “Oh, let’s say that the dinner and the show was the main reason, Elmer. The car trouble was just the luck that brought you here.” Herb took Elmer to a door off the dining room that led into a small office. Outside the office was a grand (grand for a small restaurant that looked like a ship built on the side of a mountain) staircase that led up to what looked like rooms to rent.

              Elmer laughed and said. “I like that idea, Cap. I like it a lot.”

              “Phone’s on the desk. Take your time, Elmer.” And with that, Herb was back at it.

              Gotta say, I really like this guy.

              “That makes two of us, good buddy,” and Elmer dialed the only tow truck service in town.

              The call was short, and the friendly but slightly stressed voice on the other end of the line assured Elmer that somebody would be out at some point this evening. “But it’s a Saturday night, sir, and it seems like everybody’s driving and everybody’s blowing tires tonight.”

              Elmer wasn’t fazed. “Hey, you can put me at the end of the list if you need. I was able to pull off a nice stop and I’m having dinner, so I don’t mind the wait, truly.”

              “Thanks for understanding, sir. Where is your car located right now?”

              Elmer gave the name of the Ship Hotel (“That old place? Sure, I know it”), thanked the voice, and rejoined the fray.

              As Elmer shut Herb’s office door, he noticed Herb talking to a woman by the front door who looked like she was the main greeter of guests. Herb wasn’t necessarily speaking angrily, but he was more agitated than Elmer had seen him all evening. He wondered to himself what could have the Cap rattled like that.

              Herb broke away when he saw Elmer and instantly flashed him a smile, not betraying that anything could have been bothering him mere seconds before. “Any luck, Elm?”

              “They’ll certainly be here before this party dies down, but hopefully not much before,” Elmer laughed. “Say Cap, everything alright? Not to pry, but you seemed a bit concerned just now.”

              They arrived back at Elmer’s table, his fettuccini just freshly dropped off, and Herb clapped him on the back as Elmer sat down. “Aw now…it’s nothing we can’t handle. Nothing that matters much — it’s doom alone that counts.”

              “Alright, Cap, but if there’s anything I can do….” Herb didn’t reply, but bowed slightly and smiled and off he went.

              Nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts…now where had Herb heard that before? It was right on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t place it. It sounded like a lyric. Like a Dylan lyric, his mind chimed in. Do you suppose the Cap likes Dylan too? Or what do you think is really going on here tonight, Elmer?

              Elmer wasn’t sure how to answer the question, so he decided to tuck into the best fettuccini alfredo he’d ever eaten in his life until further notice.


              The combination of Elmer’s hunger and the best fettuccini alfredo he’d ever had meant that he finished fast enough to want another plate, but he was keenly aware that two servings of pasta was a trend he’d better stop subscribing to if he wanted to see his feet anytime soon. So after making the wise decision of allowing his digestive system to work, he settled back to listen to the band and glance around the room.

              The Captain was nowhere to be seen at the moment, so Elmer took in the other clientele. It seemed to be your typical Sunday lunch crowd, folks in church-appropriate suits and dresses. It struck Elmer as a little odd for a Saturday night, in fact the whole setting seemed a bit old school, but it was A-OK by him. Nothing wrong with a little fancy dress and fancy music to break up the monotony of his usual TV dinners and leftovers by the record player.

              Elmer thought back on the events of the day. Or at least he tried to — what time did he get up that morning? What had he eaten for breakfast? Can we remember anything before leaving the house and running into Ellen Grayfield?

              Elmer put his hand to his mouth to disguise his muttering and said, “You know it’s getting real when you start saying ‘we.’” That Elmer had a point, though. Elmer thought hard and couldn’t recall anything before leaving the house in the afternoon to drive — but that’s probably because we had the same boring morning we always do, right?

              “You and I are thinking more and more on the same page, buddyroo,” and then Elmer decided to stop conversing with himself before anyone noticed.

              “How did that alfredo treat you, Elmer?” His smiling waiter appeared out of nowhere, who Elmer hadn’t seen since he’d taken Elmer’s order.

              Elmer took a second to recover. “It was the best I’ve ever had, uh…I’m sorry what did you say your name was?” Elmer wasn’t sure the waiter had given it, but he erred on the side of politeness.

              “It’s Robert, and I’m glad to hear that. You got room for dessert?” Robert produced a dessert menu in the same slick motion of clearing Elmer’s plate, and Elmer didn’t bother to ask how Robert had known his name.

              “I’ve always got room for dessert, Bobby,” and they laughed like old friends. Elmer ordered the cannoli (leave the gun) and hoped his tow truck was hours away. Come to think of it, what time is it anyway?

              There wasn’t a clock on the wall. Like magic, Herb approached Elmer’s table and said, “Glad to hear you enjoyed your meal, Elm. It’s coming on 9 o’clock, I’m surprised your tow isn’t here yet.”

              “9 o’clock! Time flies when you’re having fun I guess!” Yeah, at the speed of sound, and Elmer agreed. “I told them to take their time on the account of having too much fun here to be pried away.”

              Herb glanced behind him to see the greeter making a beeline for Herb and Elmer. “That’s what I love to hear —” She whispered in Herb’s ear shortly, and Herb turned to a curious Elmer. “Phone’s for you, Elmer. Sounds like it’s your tow.”

              Herb ushered Elmer not to his office, but to the small greeter’s stand which had a phone with its receiver sitting face down, waiting for Elmer. “Yeah, this is Elmer.”

              “Sir…I’m sorry to say…having trouble…the place…confirm the address for…” The voice sounded a million miles away with an ocean of static in between.

              “Yeah the address is—” and then the call dropped. Elmer turned to see Herb still with him and said, “I guess they’re having a hard time finding this place, and the call dropped on me.”

              Herb nodded apologetically, “Sometimes the phones are a little wonky here —us being at sea.” A beat passed and Herb and Elmer started giggling like they were two school kids sharing a dirty joke. “But hey, Elmer, looks like the dancing is about to start.”

              The tables had been cleared, and the band had kicked it into overdrive. Still older songs, but this time it was a song Elmer could actually place the title. They had begun playing an instrumental version of Sam Coke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and Elmer couldn’t resist.

              “Well they’ll get here when they get here, won’t they, Cap?”

              “That’s the spirit, Elmer. Get on out there!” Elmer didn’t have to be told twice.


              Elmer danced for minutes, or hours, he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t a good dancer (he was bad, if we’re being honest), but this crowd didn’t mind. Everyone became instant friends when the rock and roll started to play. The men had shed their suit coats, but even then everyone had a sheen of sweat as they danced to song after song.

              The fettuccini alfredo would have normally given Elmer a serious case of the burps, but Elmer felt better after this meal than he had in a long while. He didn’t even seem to care that his cannoli was long forgotten, but he had a feeling it would turn up at some point. Things just seemed to show up in this place.

              Several songs later, everyone was laughing, panting, and fairly well tuckered out. The band switched back to something smooth and slow and Elmer looked around for the Cap. Herb was on the far side of the small room, leaning on the wall with a content smile on his face. Elmer approached. “You can really cut a rug, Elmer,” Herb said as he pushed himself to a standing position. “I always like to hang back and watch people dance on the weekend nights. People seem so happy and alive.”

              Elmer was still panting a bit when he said, “I can attest to that, Cap. Say, what time is it now?”

              “It’s just now 11, Elm. You might be stuck with us tonight,” Herb once again had an apologetic tone, as if he was being an inconvenience to Elmer.

              “That’s just fine, that’s just fine. They’ll catch me in the morning, I’m sure. I just want to peek out at my car real quick. Is there a room available for me?”

              Herb smiled. “There’s always a room for you, Elmer.”


              Outside the air was cool but not cold, and Elmer breathed it in deeply. Elmer was more partial to the fall and winter (“You sweat less in the cold!” he’d say), and he was glad that the summer heat was in the rear view mirror.

              “Speaking of rear views, let’s have a looky at this car of mi—” Elmer blinked as he cut himself off. He blinked again, rapidly, as he stared dumbly at his Chevrolet Corvair. Now he bugged his eyes out as he squatted by the left passenger tire, the one that was a ragged piece of rubber when he’d sailed into this place.

              He didn’t need to squat, could have seen it ten paces away, but Elmer wanted to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. The tire was completely full, no holes, not even any wear on it. Elmer stood up too fast and put his hand on the hood to steady himself.

              “You good, Elm?” Elmer whipped around to see Herb standing in the doorway with a look of concern on his face. “You look a little dizzy.”

              “Just catching my bearings, Cap. But take a look at this.” Elmer stepped aside and Herb approached the car and squatted just as Elmer had a minute ago.

              He whistled. “Look at that, Elmer! That’s fresh off the rack, I’d say!” Herb stood slowly, scratching his stubbled cheek at the unexpected sight of the brand new tire.

              Elmer looked up at the considerably taller Captain. “What are you saying, Cap, they came by and replaced my tire without trying to collect any payment?” Elmer had a thought just as he said it, and checked the wipers to see if a bill had been left there.

              Herb followed his eyes and said, “No bill that I can see. What are you thinking, Elm?”

              “I’m thinking there’s some good samaritans out there, but this would be a random act of kindness of a biblical proportion.’’

              Herb laughed at that and replied, “You’re not wrong, Elmer. There’s ‘paying it forward’ and then there’s this. That’s assuming they did fix it gratis. I guess that means you won’t be staying with us?” Herb had a genuine look of sadness on his face when he asked it.

              “Well, I…I guess I don’t need to now, do I?” Elmer felt that same sadness. He wasn’t ready for the night to end.

              Herb read Elmer’s face and said, “The room’s still on the table for you, Elm. Car or no car, you’re welcome to stay the night. Free of charge.”

              Elmer protested. “Oh hey now, Cap, of course I’ll stay, but you gotta let me pay for the room.” They began walking back to the ship as they talked.

              The door was still open and Herb hung back to allow Elmer to enter. The band was finished for the evening, and the clientele were either making their way to the exit or up the staircase to their rooms. “Elmer, I insist. You’ve become a fast friend, and I like to take care of my friends.”

              “Okay, Cap, I won’t fight you. And I thank you — for everything. This whole night has felt…I don’t know…” Magical, his mind said.

              “Magical?” Herb suggested.

              “Yeah, that’s right.”

              Herb paused at the greeter’s stand to grab a key off of a rack that held several rows of key holders. “That’s what I like to hear, Elmer. You’re in room 14, last of the ‘first class cabins’ that we’ve got. The rooms aren’t big, but they’re cozy enough.”

              Elmer hesitated before going upstairs. “I guess I don’t have any toiletries.” He didn’t say what he really wanted to say.

              “That’s no matter. Check the cabinet under the sink, and if you need anything else come down and holler. We’ll get you squared away.” Herb smiled at Elmer’s continued hesitance, and he stuck out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have made your acquaintance —no, your friendship—tonight, Elmer.”

              Elmer shook — firmly and earnestly. “Cap, I can’t thank you enough.”

              “Come and back and see us sometime.”

              “That’s a promise.”

              Elmer’s room was indeed small but cozy, and the cabinet did indeed have everything he needed for the night. Almost like they knew, huh?

              Elmer, tired and happy, laid down in his clothes on the bed and sighed. “Yep…almost like they knew.”


              He woke feeling more refreshed than he had felt in ages. He sat up and surveyed his cabin on the SS Grand View Hotel. “The Ship of the Alleghenies,” he said to the empty room, and then his heart sank.

              Elmer wasn’t in a small cabin on the ship. Elmer was in his bedroom on Peter Street in Schellsburg. He shut his eyes, held for a moment, and opened them. Still the same bedroom with the same ugly wallpaper he and his wife had chosen together. Elmer threw himself on his back as if to will himself asleep again and gave up immediately.

              “This isn’t right, it can’t be right.”

              I know it, Elmer. It was so real.

              “It was real, dammit!” Elmer stomped out of the bedroom towards the front door. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he knew he was going to drive right back to the Ship. He was still there in his mind. If he was dreaming, he hoped he wasn’t sleepwalking too.

              Elmer whipped open the door and almost ran into Ellen Grayfield. “Hey, Elmer! I was just about to invite you over for breakfast and — say, where are you off to in such a rush? And still in your jammies, no less?” She looked like she was feigning surprise — like she already knew the answer.

              “I’m uh—” He stopped and looked down at his clothes. He was wearing his usual sleep attire—a white t-shirt and boxer shorts. Friday night’s boxer shorts, by the look of it. “I’m, well…” Elmer thought about it and for a second and figured he might as well tell Ellen the truth. They’d connected yesterday and surely she’d understand. He launched into his story — the flat tire, the ship, the Cap, the dancing, the dinner, all of it. He was talking so fast that he wasn’t sure Ellen would keep up, but she took it all in, nodding and smiling at him. She smiled like she was hearing a story she’d heard a bunch of times before.

              “So anyway, I have no idea why I’m here and not there and I just gotta get back to —okay, why are you smiling at me like that?”

              Ellen touched his arm and said, “Elmer, you want to go inside for a bit? We should talk. And you should grab a housecoat.” Elmer had a pout on his face, but nodded and turned to let Ellen in his little living room. He shuffled to his bedroom, and he heard Ellen in the kitchen banging around. He put on actual clothes, washed his face, and brushed his teeth — both to give Ellen time to make them breakfast and him time to collect his thoughts. Let’s go hear her out, Elm.

              Elmer looked at his face in the mirror. “Okay, pal. We’re ready.”


              “So you and the Cap became fast friends, huh?” Ellen and Elmer sat at the small dinette set in the kitchen, sipping coffee and picking at eggs and bacon. Well, Elmer was picking. Ellen was enthusiastically enjoying the fruits of her labor.

              “Yeah, he was…he was the best. Ellen…can you tell me what’s going on, please?” After a beat he added, “And thanks for the breakfast.”

              She waved. “Not a problem, Elm. Look, I’m just gonna tell it to you flat and true. Herbert Paulson, the founder of the Ship, died two years ago in 1973, at the age of 99. He died in a bathtub on his beloved Ship, as a matter of fact.” She stopped and looked at Elmer, allowing him time to process and respond.

              Elmer didn’t take any time to process and blurted, “No no no that’s not right! I was there! The Cap is alive!” He was becoming increasingly frantic. “And he was barely in his 70s, surely! Come on, we’re going there right now, together.” Elmer stood up with a jolt and sloshed coffee on the table.

              “Sit down, Elm,” Ellen said softly, which he did, looking like a child obeying his mother.

              Elmer, with his head down so as not to make eye contact with Ellen, murmured, “Are you telling me I’m a liar? Are you telling me I dreamed this?” To Elmer, the dream would be just like a lie. Or is it something worse?

              “I’m telling you that if we drove the 9 miles to the Ship right now, you’d still find it standing. But you wouldn’t find the Cap, and you wouldn’t find the hopping place you found last night. The Ship has seen better days. I’ve seen them myself.” Ellen reached over to touch Elmer’s hand.

              Elmer found it in himself to meet Ellen’s eyes. “Ellen, what day is it today?”

              Ellen smiled a sad smile, like she knew she was about to break Elmer’s heart. “Today’s Saturday, Elm.” That’s when the tears came to his eyes.

              “It was so real, Ellen.”

              “I know it was, Elmer.”

              “It was a dream?” He wanted Ellen to confirm, to slam the nail in the coffin.

              “That’s the closest word to it. I still visit the Cap too sometimes.” Her hand was still on his. “Was it a good dream, Elmer?”

              He choked out a small sob. “The best.”

              Ellen then took Elmer’s hand into both of hers. “Then that’s good, Elmer. That’s real good.” She took a moment and said, “Elmer, I think we’d be good friends. Would you like that? Would you like to be my friend?”

              Elmer smiled then, with tears still in his eyes. “Yes I would, Ellen. I would very much like to be your friend.”


“Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn

‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’”


Well…CRAAP! Is it time to SIFT the CRAAP?

Today we have a guest post from one of my brilliant graduate students, Miriam DeCock, who wrote this post for an assignment in my class. If you’re a teacher or student, especially at the college level, you may have heard of the CRAAP test for evaluating sources, especially websites. In this post, Miriam introduces us to the SIFT test, a sort of pre-screen that helps researchers determine whether a site is worth the time it takes to go through the CRAAP test. I had never heard of SIFT before reading her post, and I’m excited about this new tool for helping students become literate consumers of information–one of my passions. Even if you’re not a teacher or student, the principles of SIFT can help you sort through the piles of information that get virtually dumped on you every day.

What follows is the text-only version of Miriam’s post. If you’d like to see her original version, which takes you through the process using examples from a real website, you can find it here. The title of this post is Miriam’s too!

Credible, reliable sources…in this crazy, high-tech, low accountability digital age, how do you know what stays and what goes?

We all know that source credibility is paramount to a successful academic or professional paper.  How do you determine if your sources are credible?  How do you teach your students to determine source credibility?  What is credibility, anyway?

A commonly-taught method of determining source credibility is the CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) test, designed by librarians at the University of California, Chico.  Of course, these elements are important to consider when evaluating sources.  A problem, however, is that this checklist is geared towards print material; in today’s digital age, it is imperative that we can quickly, carefully, and accurately evaluate online sources.  In light of this new digital age we are in, Mike Caulfield has developed a tool, referred to as SIFT (Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, Trace claims, etc.) to help quickly determine if an online source is worth digging into deeper, or moving along and leaving it in the dust.  

Both tools are valuable and both are worth learning about.  Just like any tool, though, we must understand when each one should be used, and how it should be applied.  

Let’s focus on the SIFT test.  The SIFT test is designed to quickly (60 seconds or less!) evaluate an online source.  If the source passes the SIFT test, then it’s time to run it through the CRAAP test (but that will be a post for another day!)

What is the SIFT Test?

STOP: Is the site familiar?  What reputation does it have?

INVESTIGATE: What authority does the author have?  Are there “affiliate links” or page sponsors that might indicate a bias? 

FIND better coverage: Look for a trusted source to confirm the claim.

TRACE claims to the original source: Where did the information originate from? Can you trace the claim to its origin to “get the full story”?  If you are already looking a the primary source, you can search for another source to verify the claims; if you are looking at a trusted source, this step is not absolutely necessary.

Note from Dr. Tess: This is where Miriam takes you through the SIFT process using a real website in the full version of the post, which I highly recommend!

For further reading…  

Want an in-depth look at the SIFT evaluation method?  Make sure to check out Mike Caulfield’s site at   

Caulfield provides an excellent, free, mini-course to learn how to implement his system in various settings.  For more about the CRAAP test, visit

Sources Consulted and References

California State University, Chico, (2010 September 17). Evaluating information: Applying the CRAAP test.   

Caulfield, M. (2019 June 19)) SIFT The four moves.

Sawchuck, C. (2017 August 23).  Test anxiety: Can it be treated? Mayo Clinic.  Vaiana, D. (2020 February 12).  How to overcome test anxiety: 5 strategies that work.  College Info Geek.


a quick guide to being a great teacher

Like my title? Yeah, that’s clickbait. (And if you’re a teacher, you should know that.) But it also fits the story I want to tell you today.

Since 2016, when I designed the main online college course I teach right now, I have been requiring students to create a “research quick guide” in one of the last modules. The assignment is supposed to get them to reflect on what they know about how to do research in their field (“field” can be academic or professional, or in the case of my creative writing students, genre) and come up with a succinct way to share that knowledge with others. The important thing is the content, but somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten a little hung up on the design element of the assignment. I often find myself deducting points when a student’s guide is “hard to visually scan” or “more of an essay than a quick guide.” The problem is that there’s not a general consensus across contexts as to what a “quick guide” actually is. I’m committing that terrible teacher sin of asking my students to read my mind.

I should also point out that it’s pretty ironic that I’m judging other people’s design skills, as may be evident from the fact that I’m still using this template from when I started this blog in 2011. I mean, I know basic principles like “don’t use Comic Sans in a work email” and “don’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide (and then turn your back to the audience and read straight from said wordy slide),” but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So not only am I asking students to read my mind, but I’m also asking them to do something I don’t really know how to do myself.

Now, as part of a larger update of the course, I’ve set out to create a quick guide for my students. My initial motivation for this project was not to create a quick guide as such; instead, I wanted to respond to a suggestion a student made last fall. (I’ve been carrying around the now-grubby no-longer-sticky note in my planner ever since then.) It turned out that some of the off-hand tips I gave her in emails were actually quite revelatory for her as a first-time online graduate student who hadn’t written an academic paper in years, and she thought that other students might also benefit from the advice. She suggested some categories, like “how to check grades and feedback,” “what is an annotated bibliography?,” and “getting to know your professor.”

Meanwhile, many students have asked for an example quick guide, so I decided to combine these two endeavors. I would create a quick guide to being an English 602 student (very meta, if you ask me). I hoped to be able to send this out to current and future students and tell them, “Hey, I’m not a designer, but I made this in Word and it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take me that long. You can do it too!”

I finally started on the document yesterday. For visual interest, I decided to use a variety of Word’s prefabricated text boxes and sidebars. I also used some relevant clip art icons to create a short border between two of the sections, and I inserted a photo from my computer. Nothing fancy, but I think it looks pretty good (though I still need to do the second page).

Here’s the problem: It wasn’t easy. Once I got some of the text boxes on the page, dragging them around to accommodate new elements was frustratingly difficult. Inserting and resizing the picture was a stab in the dark–I wasn’t sure what those numbers meant or why most of the photo had disappeared off the bottom of the page. I had to get my husband to help me, and even he, who’s all-around better at this stuff than I am, admitted that he didn’t know how to do everything I wanted to do.

So I don’t feel honest telling my students that creating a document like this will be easy. I sometimes have students who have design backgrounds or who use Publisher regularly in their work, and they turn in beautiful, readable, user-friendly quick guides. But for students who are having trouble centering their title or inserting a paragraph break in a basic essay, what I’m asking them to do in this assignment could be panic-inducing.

I’m going to finish the quick guide and send it to my students with the message I had planned to give them, minus “it wasn’t that easy and didn’t take me that long.” I am also going to add that their quick guide doesn’t need to look as good as mine; even some bullet points or a numbered list will show me that they’re thinking about how not to overwhelm their readers. I am going to continue assigning the quick guide, because I think it’s useful for students to work on problem-solving skills in a class about workplace writing–who knows what their bosses may ask them to create someday? But now that I’ve gone through the process of creating a quick guide myself, I’ve learned what’s most important about this assignment, and I’ve developed some empathy for my students. And I’ll be able to answer questions better in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t ask your students to do something you’ve never done yourself. That may not be a quick guide to becoming a great teacher, but it might be a small step to becoming at least a good one.

what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!


calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!