Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Part OneIt Runs In The Family
It wasn’t until Hjalmer Lindahlsen turned down County Road 919 that Jackie Archer realized that the only place he could be heading was Turtle Hill.
Jackie wasn’t sure she wanted to go to Turtle Hill with Hjalmer. Turtle Hill was probably the best-known spot around Spearfish Lake for kids to go out and park in the late hours of a date. It had a beautiful view of the Turtle Lakes, and Spearfish Lake beyond, a view that was considered sufficiently romantic to lead to some serious necking – and more. Sometimes much more; Jackie could remember the hints she’d gotten back in high school from her girlfriend Kirsten Langenderfer, about what had gone on out there in the back seat of Henry Toivo’s old Ford.
Even the thought of Henry made Jackie sad; he’d been missing in action in Vietnam for nine months now, since last summer, and poor Kirsten was half out of her mind with loneliness and despair.
The thought of Henry and Kirsten added to Jackie’s unease a little. Not that she was above a little innocent kissy-face with Hjalmer, even though it was their first date; she’d had little enough of it in her nineteen years, and the prospect seemed a little exciting and daring. She’d always been a tall girl, lanky and gangly as long as she could remember; at an even six feet, she was a head taller than all the other girls in her class, taller than almost all the boys, and unusual enough that she’d not been popular.
And, always, there were the whispered stories of her mother – not Sarah, but her real mother – stories well-known in a town as small as Spearfish Lake.
As a result, the number of dates – real dates – she’d had in her lifetime was small enough to count on one hand, so a little casual necking could be enjoyable, if it went no further. It was a hell of a long walk to anywhere on this chilly, clear, spring Friday night, but she’d walk home if she had to if things got out of hand. She was used to walking, after all.
Not that Hjalmer wasn’t a nice guy. She’d known him for years, but a first date was a first date, and she wasn’t the sort of girl to let things get out of hand on the first date, or even the thirty-first. Whether that was what Hjalmer had in mind, she didn’t know, and a part of her didn’t want to find out, at least not tonight. Perhaps if they’d gone out a couple of times, first . . .
But it was neither here nor there, now. If she didn’t go along, at least a little bit, there might not be another date, anyway. She’d just have to keep it from going too far.
Hjalmer slowed his Pontiac for the turn up the two-rut lane that ran to the top of Turtle Hill. Though Jackie didn’t know it, he knew there was no danger of getting stuck in the narrow, sandy trail through the woods, now in the middle of the spring thaw. Just on the off chance Jackie might be amenable to a little necking, he’d driven out to make sure the track was open, before he picked her up to take her to the movie down in Albany River.
He figured there was a good chance of a little necking, and perhaps eventually more. A girl like Jackie didn’t get many chances at romance. In addition to her height, which he knew put off a lot of guys, she kept herself rather plain. She could be pretty, he thought, if she’d let her cropped brown hair grow and maybe get rid of those ugly, black-framed glasses – and if she’d let herself be pretty.
Dropping to second gear, he eased his car up the path. So far, so good, he thought: she’d put up no protest yet. He figured his chances of getting on the scoreboard tonight were approximately zero, but he could put down a foundation on which to build. Not that he thought he’d ever want to marry this girl, but if a few dates did ultimately lead to some back-seat action, it would be worth the trouble. And, tonight would be fun, anyway, even if nothing else ever happened.
"The view from up here after dark is terrific," he said, as much to put her at ease as anything. "The stars seem so close, it’s like you could reach out and touch them."
She didn’t reply, but slid over next to him; a good sign, he thought. He reached up and put his right arm around her, while he continued to steer the car up the twisting trail with his left. Already, he was anticipating what would come next; he’d stop the car looking out over the lakes, shut off the engine, pull her close, kiss her gently on the lips, and then maybe a little more. At some point along in there, he’d "accidentally on purpose" brush his hand over one of her breasts, although he doubted if she’d notice. He suspected those none-too-prominent bumps on her chest consisted largely of cotton armor padding. Depending on how she reacted, he’d be able to assess if they could go further.
It seemed like a lot of work these days when girls reportedly would drop their pants before they asked your name, but this was Spearfish Lake, after all, not California.
Only a few more seconds, now. The car burst on to the clearing at the top of the hill; he’d turn right and . . .
"Oh, shit." In his headlights, he could see half a dozen cars, most with trunks open. There were several people standing with their backs turned; there were tables and equipment scattered about.
"What is it?" Jackie asked.
"Damned astronomy club’s out here," he replied, his mind racing. Well, that blew this location, he thought. Where else could they go? How about the driveway to the West Turtle Lake Club? The gate would be locked, but there probably wouldn’t be anyone there this time of night, this time of year. It was a poor second best; it didn’t have the romantic view, and a lot of people around Spearfish Lake had bad vibes from the West Turtle Lake Club. He didn’t know if Jackie was one of those people nudists made nervous. It was about the closest place he could think of, though . . .
"Oh, neat," Jackie said, actually interested, although relieved to have an excuse to break up Hjalmer’s plans without actually saying anything. "Let’s get out and have a look."
"Might as well," Hjalmer grunted. It might make her a little less defensive later, or next time, or whenever, he thought. Stopping probably wouldn’t take long, after all. He shut off the lights and had to rush to keep up with her as she hurried toward the cluster of telescopes.
"Hi," she said to no one in particular. "Can we have a look?"
"Sure," a dark form near her said in a deep voice. A red light flicked on in his hand, lighting up the eyepiece on the side of a short, white tube.
Jackie had to squat down and bend over quite a ways to get to the eyepiece as the telescope was on a short stand. She saw a dim glow looking back at her. "What’s that?" she asked.
"M-51," the man with the deep voice said. "The Whirlpool Galaxy. Your eyes are probably not real dark-adapted yet, but if you study it for a while, you can begin to make out some of the spiral structure."
"I’m starting to see it," she said. "Parts are glowing more than others."
"That glow is millions upon millions of stars," the man said. "Now, if you look off in the corner, there, you can see a fainter glow. That’s another galaxy that crashed through the Whirlpool recently, only a billion years or so ago. You can’t see it with this telescope, but in photos you can see how the collision scattered stars from hell to breakfast."
Jackie realized it would be more comfortable if she got down on her knees, but the ground was wet and cold. She studied the galaxy in the eyepiece as long as she could stand being bent over.
"You guys going to be out here long?" Hjalmer asked, as innocuously as he could.
"All night," the man said. "We want to wait for some summer and early fall stuff to come up."
Jackie stood up, to let Hjalmer take a look. "Why not just wait for fall?" she asked.
"That’s kind of a long story," the man said. "Two hundred years ago, there was a Frenchman by the name of Charles Messier. Now, old Chuck was a comet hunter, and he spent hours and hours hunting around the skies with a telescope not a lot larger than Dave’s Unitron over there, although Dave’s is better. He was hunting for comets that might blaze real bright across the sky. You remember Ikeya-Seki, about six years ago?"
"I got up before dawn several mornings to see it," Jackie said. "I couldn’t believe it was so beautiful."
"I did, too," the man admitted. "Anyway, old Chas was looking for the faint, fuzzy objects in his telescope that might turn into something like that, and he found a few. But, as he kept hunting around the sky, he kept finding these faint, fuzzy objects that didn’t move against the surrounding starfield from night to night. They couldn’t be comets, and he started to get mad. I mean, here he’s scanning the skies, and he finds some faint, fuzzy object, and he gets all excited, thinking he’s found a comet, and he goes back to look at it a night or two later, but it’s obviously not a comet, so he started to get disappointed. I mean, take a look at M-51 there, and you can imagine how, in a poor telescope, it might look like a comet."
Jackie nodded her head, although in the pitch darkness the man couldn’t see. "I can imagine," she said, when she realized how silly nodding her head was.
"Well, anyway," the man went on, "After a while, old Chuck got wise, and he started keeping a list of these faint, fuzzy things, so when he found one of them while he was searching he’d know he hadn’t found a comet. Over the years, his list reached 110 objects. Now nobody would remember Charles Messier today, if it weren’t for the fact that these 110 objects are pretty much the best deep-sky objects to look at in a small telescope. Along about this time of year, if you start right at dark and work right into the dawn, you can see all 110 on a dark night. It’s the only time of year you can do it. I’ve seen them all, but not all in one night. That’s what we’re trying to do out here tonight, and it’ll take us until the sun starts to come up."
"Well, we shouldn’t keep you from it," Hjalmer said, trying to get back to what he had come here for.
"Oh, no big deal, right now," the dark figure said. "We’re in a flat spot. I’m just kind of waiting for the Virgo Cluster to get a bit higher before I look for more. I’ve pretty well wrapped up everything to the west of it."
"What’s the Virgo Cluster?" Jackie wanted to know.
"It’s a cluster of galaxies, about ten degrees across, in the constellation Virgo. There’s hundreds of them there, and about twenty of them are on the Messier list. They’re pretty faint, which makes it one of the toughest parts of the list."
"Can you show us what it looks like?"
"I can, but frankly, it won’t look like much," the man said. "You’ve got to be used to looking at really faint stuff to make much sense out of Virgo. I’ll show you a couple of other neat galaxies, though."
While she and Hjalmer waited, the man pointed the telescope to the right and down a bit. He bent over the tube and twisted it this way and that. "I always have a little trouble finding this," he said. "There aren’t a lot of easy markers nearby. Ah, there it is . . . " he said, standing up, and flicking on the red light to show where the eyepiece now was.
Jackie bent over to have a look. In the eyepiece was another spiral galaxy, seen at a little more of an angle. "You can really see the dark part of the spiral well," she said.
"Look down," the man said softly.
Jackie looked lower in the field of the eyepiece. "Oh, it’s pretty," she said. Under the spiral galaxy, there was another one, almost edge-on, a bright streak with a brighter core. She stood there, bent over, studying the two galaxies for a long time before she asked, "What are they called?"
"M-81 and M-82," the man said. "I don’t know if they have given names."
Jackie stepped back from the telescope, to let Hjalmer have a courtesy look. "Can we see something else?" she asked.
"Sure," the man said. "Let me change eyepieces to drop the power down a little, and I’ll show you one of the real showpieces of the sky." Jackie stepped back, to let him fiddle with the telescope for a minute, then he aimed the telescope off to the west. "There you go."
Again Jackie bent over the telescope, and let out a gasp. "Wow, that’s pretty," she said. "What is it?"
"Beehive Cluster. Another Messier object. It’s one of the few you can make out with the naked eye under a dark sky."
She stood up to see, and he showed her where to look. Out of the corner of her eye she could just make out a dim glow. "I can see it," she said, "But it’s better in the telescope." She turned back to it for another look.
The two of them stayed there for a while longer, looking at several star clusters and a couple of double stars. Jackie was perhaps a little more familiar with the sky than most girls; some of the things her father had taught her on their camping trips had stuck with her. It was a real joy to look through the telescope. She was glad she’d come out here with Hjalmer, after all.
After a while she began to get cold, in spite of being dressed for cold weather like any sensible northern girl at this time of year. The astronomers were dressed a lot more warmly, with snowmobile suits, long underwear, and heavy boots; they knew how cold they would get before morning, and there was no way Jackie and Hjalmer could stay with them. "I guess we’d better get going," she conceded finally.
With a degree of relief, Hjalmer got back in his car and got the heater going, while Jackie sat down next to him, not snuggled up to him like earlier, but close. He thought of suggesting a brief stop in the driveway to the West Turtle Lake Club, but she said, "I guess I’d better be getting on home. I’ve got to work in the morning."
There wasn’t much Hjalmer could do but take her home. They sat in her driveway talking for several minutes, and they did kiss a little. In their squirming around, Hjalmer did manage an "accidentally on purpose" touch of her breast, but couldn’t conclude whether there was cotton or girl there. "Can we do this again, sometime? Like maybe, next Friday?" he asked.
Dates came infrequently enough to her, and this one had gone all right. "Don’t see any reason why not," she told him. She smiled to herself and thought that maybe the next time she let Hjalmer take her out to Turtle Hill she’d let him sneak a better feel of her breast.
Sarah was sitting in the living room, reading a murder mystery when Jackie went inside, not necessarily waiting up for her, but up nonetheless. Her father would not be home this evening; it was a night on the road. Ever since he had been bumped off of his regular Spearfish Lake run a couple of years ago, her father, Walt, had to drive to Camden every third day, spend a day running a train to the division point at Syracuse, spend the night there, and then run a train back to Camden the next day. Sometimes he had to be gone two nights in a row. Perhaps one day he would be able to bid back onto the Spearfish Lake Subdivision of the Decatur and Overland Railroad, but for now, his schedule made life inconvenient.
"How did your date go, Jackie?" Sarah asked conversationally. Sarah may have been Jackie’s stepmother, but Jackie never resented it. She had come into the Archer family about the time Jackie was getting old enough to need more than her father’s guidance, and Jackie had been glad of it.
Sarah was as much a friend as anything, and Jackie didn’t mind talking to her. "Pretty well," Jackie said. "I didn’t particularly care for the movie, but we had fun afterward." She decided not to mention running into the astronomy club on Turtle Hill; Sarah may have been a friend, but Jackie thought it was better to not raise the question of why they had been on Turtle Hill in the first place.
"Are you going to go out with him again?" Sarah asked gently.
"Probably," Jackie said. "Next Friday night, I guess. He’s OK." She looked at her watch and yawned. "I’d better get to bed. I’ve got to be in at six tomorrow morning."
"I suppose I’d better go to bed, too," Sarah yawned, trying to not let on that she’d been waiting up for her stepdaughter’s return.
Jackie went up to her room. Growing up an only child, and with her mother gone so long ago, she had spent many a lonely night there. She felt lonelier now, with Hjalmer’s arms around her, and the warmth of his kiss, the touch of his hand only a memory. For a while tonight she hadn’t felt lonely at all.
Hjalmer would do for a date or two, maybe a little necking, but she couldn’t see marrying the guy. She peeled off her clothes and put on her warm, fuzzy flannel pajamas, the better to be snug and cozy on a cold night like this. As she threw back the covers and crawled into bed, she wondered how the guys in the astronomy club were doing. She suspected they’d be a lot colder before morning.
As she waited to fall asleep her mind replayed parts of the evening. She suddenly realized the part of the evening she had enjoyed best had not been the movie or the little bit of necking they’d done, but their visit to Turtle Hill. Hjalmer would have been disappointed to know she fell asleep dreaming of star clusters and galaxies.
* * *
The alarm went off far too early the next morning. She and Hjalmer hadn’t been out real late the night before, but it was more than late enough on a day she had to work the next morning. Jackie was tempted to hit the snooze alarm and get ten minutes more shuteye, but she’d already set her schedule as tight as she dared. Begrudgingly, she threw the covers back and prepared to meet the new day.
Still full of sleep, it was hard to pull on her white uniform. This morning she resented it more than most. Being a waitress at Rick’s Café was a lousy job. She was on her feet more than she wanted to be, tipping had never taken hold in Spearfish Lake, and the pay was nothing to be happy with. Still, she wasn’t spending a lot of money, and was able to save a bit. It was a job, not a good one, but the best she’d found after she’d graduated the spring before, though she knew it wouldn’t last forever. It was still better than babysitting for her four-year-old half-brother.
Dressed and ready to go, she pulled a pair of jeans up under her dress; she would take them off once she got to work, but she knew it was too cold outside for bare legs. It was still pitch dark when she went out to the garage, and again she wondered if the astronomy club was still out on Turtle Hill. The sky looked different, now; she knew enough about the constellations to realize she was looking at the skies as they would look in the evenings next summer.
Once she had the garage door open, Jackie fired up Sarah’s car. It took some juggling, but she managed to get along without a car of her own; it would be easier tomorrow morning, when she could drive her dad’s car to work. It was worth it to save money; she had plans to try junior college the next year, but didn’t want to get buried under a student loan until she was sure she could handle the school work.
It was still dark when she parked the car in back of Rick’s, but she could see a dim glow in the east that forewarned the coming dawn. Inside, she began setting the tables for the early breakfast customers; in the back, Lori already had the grill going. As soon as she had a Silex filled with coffee, Jackie poured herself a cup, and another one for Lori.
A couple of pulp cutters were the first customers to arrive; Jackie could tell at a glance they’d been out too late at the Pike Bar the evening before and hadn’t recovered from it yet. She managed to get coffee on the table and the menus down before getting the first suggestive remark from one of them. Once she got the order, she took it back to the kitchen and mumbled to Lori, "God help me if I ever get desperate enough to marry a logger."
"I know what you mean," Lori agreed. "I married one. I don’t ever want to do it again, either."
Over the next half hour, a half-dozen more customers filtered in, one by one and two by two. All of them took booths or seats at the counter. Then, all of a sudden, it was as if the bears had arrived: six big men in snowmobile suits all arrived at once and began to peel off their outer clothing.
As Spearfish Lake was a northern town, nobody was too surprised to see people wearing snowmobile suits, even this late into the spring; but as Jackie watched, she realized that these guys were all wearing Carhartt overalls under their snowmobile suits! These guys were really dressed for cold weather.
As Jackie watched she saw the brown work suits worn under the snowmobile suits come off, and realized these guys really weren’t bears, just dressed very warmly. "Let me tell you," one of them said to another, "My hat’s off to the guy who can roust M-30 out of the morning sky without setting circles." That voice was familiar – it was the one from last night, the one who showed her some celestial sights – and she realized this must be the arrival of the astronomy club.
As she served them coffee, she asked, "Well, did you all see all 110 of your Messier objects?"
"Naaah," one of them, a guy who looked to be about fifty, said. "I don’t think anybody got M-30. I missed on M-76 and M-33 last evening, so I was up the creek from the start, then I missed on M-72 and M-73 as the sun was coming up. Young-eyes Gravengood, over there, got everything but M-30, I think."
"I just barely got M-73," the man with the familiar voice said. "You know, if old Chuck had stayed in bed the night he logged M-30, think of how much easier it would have been for the rest of us."
Jackie turned to look at him. He was a tall young man, perhaps a little older than Jackie, with a somewhat gaunt look, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and short hair – in this day of Beatle cuts and longer hair – and even beardless in a day when it seemed every second guy had a beard. He seemed vaguely familiar. "Your dad is Phil Gravengood, isn’t he?" she asked.
"Yeah, I’m Mark," he said. "You’re Walt Archer’s girl, aren’t you? I’m sorry, but I’ve lost your name."
"Jackie," she said, her mind starting to fill in blanks. There was no reason to remember much about him; he’d graduated when she’d been in seventh or eighth grade. "I thought you were in the Army," she added.
"Got out last fall," he told her.
"Hey, look," she said. "I want to thank you for showing me those galaxies and clusters last night. That was really neat."
Mark frowned a little, then said, "That was you and your boyfriend?"
"He’s not my boyfriend, not really," she said defensively. "It was just a date."
"Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it," he said. "I kind of like showing off stuff in the sky. I just wish you’d been there earlier. You missed a couple that are maybe the neatest objects in the sky. They’d set by the time you got out there."
"Would you show them to me some time?" she asked, surprised at how forward she was being.
"It’s going to have to be in the next few days," he said. "They’re pretty low in the west. Another couple of days, we’re going to have moon in the west, and when it’s gone, they will be, too."
"Could we do it tonight?" she asked. "I’m not doing anything."
"Might as well," Mark said. "I’m planning on sleeping all day today, anyway. Do you want to meet me someplace?"
"I’m not sure I can have a car tonight," she told him. "Can you pick me up?"
"Sure," he said. "About six all right?" She nodded, and he went on, "You still live with your dad at the same place?"
"Same place," she said. "Now, would you guys like to order?"
In the next two minutes, Jackie took a pile of orders for waffles, French toast, bacon, hashbrowns, and all of the other breakfast goodies. These guys were hungry.
As she turned to go to the kitchen, she heard one of the older men say, "I don’t know how you do it, Gravengood."
"Do what?" the young man asked.
"Get a date with the waitress even before we get to order."
Jackie thought about it as she handed Lori the stack of orders. Well, yes, it could be counted as a date, although it wasn’t going to be the normal kind – but it was still something to wonder at: dates two nights in a row, a different guy each night! That had never happened to her before!
* * *
Mark was yawning and groggy as he drove his old ’56 Vicky Ford home. The car was a clunker; he’d paid fifty bucks for it, but figured he could get thirty five from the junk yard when he wanted to get rid of it. It did start in the winter, and it got him around town, even though it needed a muffler and used only slightly less oil than it did gas. He wouldn’t need it much longer, anyway.
Despite – or perhaps, because of – being so tired he couldn’t see straight, Mark was just the least little bit needled at McComber’s teasing him about putting off breakfast in order to get a date with Jackie. Heck, she’d practically asked him! He didn’t really think of it as a date; she just wanted to see some more of the sky. Besides, the last thing he needed in his life right now was a girlfriend, no matter how much he’d like to have one.
Whenever the thought of a girlfriend crossed his mind – and it did often – thoughts of Mei-Ling were never far away. She’d been a paid girlfriend, true, but in the less than a week they spent together, she’d brought out a part of him he’d never thought existed.
He’d met – perhaps "hired" is a better word – Mei-Ling on his second R&R, the one he took to Bangkok, after he’d extended for six months in Vietnam. He’d taken his first R&R in Australia, because he had wanted to see the Magellenic Clouds, Omega Centauri, the Southern Cross, Eta Carina and NGC 5128, along with some of the other sights of the southern Milky Way. He had been able to find an amateur astronomer in Sydney who had taken him out to dark skies for a couple of nights.
The second R&R, in Bangkok, came on a whim. He hadn’t wanted to spend the money, but the slots were open, and some friends were planning on having a good time. Realizing he’d probably never have another chance to see an oriental city other than Saigon, he’d decided to go along, too. He hadn’t realized the first stop for his friends would be to hire girls for the week, and there was no graceful way for him to avoid it, too.
Mark had not been much of a social lion while in either high school or the year he spent in college. He wasn’t the handsomest guy to come down the pike; he’d been kind of introverted, too, and really more interested in other things, anyway. Not like a girlfriend wouldn’t have been nice, but why wish in vain?
So it happened that the few days he spent with Mei-Ling was the only time he’d spent with a woman in a social/sexual situation. For a week, she had been his, and it had been a memorable week. He had not been surprised when she’d lifted his virginity within half an hour of picking her at random out of a lineup. It had been an exciting experience, opening a world of doors to him. She had, at least apparently, been surprised when he asked her to take him to sample some real Thai food; she’d been surprised when he said he liked it. She told him she’d even been relieved when they went right back to the hotel room instead of going out drinking; in good English, she said she’d gotten a little tired of guys who’d tried to screw her while they were puking drunk.
Over the next few days, Mei-Ling showed Mark a good deal of the city, including some magnificent temples and pagodas, and he’d gotten a taste of how the people lived. Moreover, she’d showed him a lot in the hotel room, too; things he’d never dreamed of in his life.
But, most importantly, this little Chinese/Thai girl showed him just how pleasant it could be to be with a woman – and that was the greatest door of all she had opened for him. When they finally kissed goodbye, he knew he would never see her again, but he knew, too, he’d never forget her until his dying day.
Home wasn’t far from Rick’s Café. He hadn’t bothered to put the Carhartts or the snowmobile suit back on, and he was a little bit chilly as the old Ford’s heater struggled to keep the windows clear, but Mei-Ling was on his mind, now, helping keep him warm. His week with her had been just about two years ago, and he still thought of her often. The memories still haunted him; for a few days the door to another kind of existence had been open, and he’d had a peek through it.
Yes, a girlfriend would be nice, but there were other things to get done, too.
Once at home, he grabbed his heavy clothes and headed inside. The telescope could stay in the car; he’d need it again tonight. He hung the clothes in the back hall, then stumbled up the stairs to his old room, where he peeled his clothes down to the inner layer of his long underwear. Before he crashed onto the bed, he did something he’d been trying to avoid doing: he dug down into a drawer and stared for a moment at one of his pictures of Mei-Ling, as if her image weren’t burned into his mind.
She was still smiling in his mind’s eye when sleep came over him.