Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
October 21, 1971
Charleston, South Carolina
Dear Dad and Sarah:
We’ve been here at Charleston for a few days now, but I guess we’re going to move on. Charleston is a pretty old town, with a lot of gingerbread architecture, and we’ve enjoyed wandering around and looking at it. Yesterday, we took a boat ride out to Fort Sumter, which is kind of interesting, for a quick trip.
The weather here hasn’t been real nice. It’s been chilly, and overcast a lot. I know you’ve probably have had snow on the ground by now, and all the leaves are gone, but here, they haven’t started to turn yet, and things are still pretty green. We’re beginning to realize how much we missed the lush greenness of the north and the east by spending the summer mostly out west.
I don’t know where we’re going from here – south into Florida, I guess. We’ve pretty well exhausted what we wanted to do here, and so I guess it’s time to be moving on.
We did finally get back to Boone to get our mail, but not until we were halfway across North Carolina did we remember it. It got to us very late, as we told you when we talked on the phone, but we didn’t plan to stop and work on the Appalachian Trail for as long as we did, and that sort of goofed up the schedule. If we’d known we were going to be here that long, we would have had you send mail here, but since we’re leaving, we’ll have to set up another drop. For right now, don’t worry about it. It’s not impossible that we’ll be home for Thanksgiving, anyway. We’ll let you know, one way or another.
* * *
Jackie put her pen down and turned to Mark, lying beside her in the tent. "Do you think we might be back in Spearfish Lake for the holidays?" she asked.
"If we don’t find a place to light pretty soon, we’re pretty well going to have to," Mark said. "I thought you weren’t too crazy about going back to Spearfish Lake."
"Well, for a few days over the holidays, and staying there are two different things," Jackie replied. "I suppose a lot will depend on whether we find work or not."
"I don’t know," Mark said. "I just can’t get too crazy about spending the next six months busting suds in some restaurant, and that’s the only sort of junk jobs open around here."
"I suppose that waitress job might come through for me," she said, "But that’s not enough for the two of us to live on, and I don’t want to spend the next six months living in this tent around here."
"Me either," Mark said. "What’s more, I don’t want to spend the next six months in some big city. You got any ideas?"
"What about Titusville?" Jackie asked. "That’s a fairly small town. It would be warmer there, and we might be able to catch another launch or two."
Mark shook his head. "I really doubt it," he said. "From what I hear, they’ve been laying off at Cape Kennedy a lot, and there may not even be much available in the way of junk jobs."
"Well, how about St. Augustine?" Jackie asked. "Maybe we don’t stay there, but it would be a good place to go into the unemployment office and see what’s happening. Maybe even some place over on the gulf coast would be even better. Some place like, oh, Naples. From what I remember from looking at the map, that’s a fairly small town."
Mark rolled over onto his back and stared at the roof of the tent. "What it comes down to," he said finally, "Is that there’s no point in staying around Charleston. Let’s crank up Rocinante in the morning and fly down south of Tampa somewhere and check out the prospects. If we don’t turn up anything in the next two or three weeks, let’s just say the hell with it and go home. We’ll still have a few bucks we can use to get through the winter with, and maybe I can get Mr. Corman to jump the gun on my going to work for him. Maybe we could move in with my folks, although I don’t think either of us wants that. Push comes to shove, we can probably sell Rocinante for more than I’ve got in her."
Jackie was shocked. "Sell Rocinante? You don’t want to do that, not after all the three of us have been through!"
"No," Mark said, shaking his head. "But it does give us something to fall back on, if all else fails. As far as that goes, though, I suppose I could get a bank loan on her to carry us until I start in with the phone company."
A range of prospects fluttered past Jackie’s eyes. "We’ve got a better chance of finding work somewhere away from Spearfish Lake in the winter than we do there," she said. "It’s probably worth giving it an extra long try."
"A short-term job is all right for the short term," Mark said, rolling over to face her. "The thing is, we’ve got to have made up our mind by next spring whether we’re going back to Spearfish Lake or not. I think that means that we’ve got to find some job that’s going to have long-term prospects near as good as the phone company."
Jackie nodded. That would mean going back to Spearfish Lake to stay, and all the concerns she had about going back. "That’s going to be tough," she said. "It almost has to mean phone work."
"Yeah," Mark said. "And it means finding it in the south, somewhere if you want to stay warm in the winter. Summers would be hotter than hell, though. I don’t know about you, but I can dress up for cold, but there’s a limit to how much I can dress down for the heat."
"There is that," Jackie said. She didn’t want to concede it to Mark, just yet, but she was just about resigned to having to go back to Spearfish Lake and make the best of it.
But, perhaps they could put it off until spring. She put the pad and pencil away, then rolled over and took Mark in her arms. They lay there for a long time, just holding on to each other.
* * *
They had to detour far to the west to avoid the maze of military operating areas around Ft. Stewart, Georgia the next morning, before they could turn to the south. It was a beautiful day, crisp with the promise of fall, even for the Deep South. They stopped at Tifton, Georgia, for fuel, and then continued south, still flying low across the piney woods, but even then they could see military traffic going overhead.
It was Jackie’s turn to navigate, while Mark flew. Navigating in this country, at this point, wasn’t a big deal; all they had to do was to hold a course of south, or perhaps a little to the west of south, until they ran into the Gulf of Mexico, at which point they would follow the coast southbound. It was the kind of navigation that both of them liked the best; the kind where they didn’t have to pay much attention to maps, and could just look out of the windows a lot.
Still, Jackie kept a sectional chart unfolded to at least keep a mental track of where they were going and where they had been. As they flew across the Florida border, she flipped the sectional over, to continue following the course on the back side.
Looking at the chart in that area brought back memories. She had held the same chart in her hand back in April, when they had run into the thunderstorms that had landed them at Twillingate. "You know," she told Mark over the noise of Rocinante’s engine, "We’re not that far from Twillingate. Maybe we ought to stop and return Brother Erasmus’ Bible to him."
Mark nodded. "Sure wouldn’t mind seeing him again," he said. "And this is as good a chance as any."
Twillingate proved surprisingly hard to find. Mark had never been quite sure of where it was; they had just happened on it when they arrived, and they had just happened on the highway southeast of Tallahassee when they left. On thinking about it, Mark thought he had a pretty good idea of its location, but his idea proved to be wrong. In the end, they were reduced to picking up the shoreline of the Gulf well to the west of where they were sure Twillingate would be, and then followed the coast eastward, a mile or so inland, until all of a sudden things began to look familiar.
The river and the little town sprang on them from out of nowhere. For a long time, all they had seen was pine woods and swamp, and then, all of a sudden, they were there. Mark banked Rocinante to circle the town.
Even from the air, they could see that there was a plane, a twin of some sort, sitting in the T-hangar. "Must be quail season’s open," Mark commented, looking at the windsock. "I don’t suppose Mr. Cowgill will mind if we land there again and tie down out of the way."
In the six months since they had left Twillingate, not much appeared to have changed from the air. It was still possible to see where the tornado had passed through, but with difficulty; a season’s fresh growth had obliterated much of the damage. The runway was as neat as a pin. When they left, it had been cleaned of all the tornado debris, but now there wasn’t even a sign of the debris where it had been stacked around the edge of the runway.
Mark braked to a stop in front of the T-hangar, and taxied Rocinante up to the tie downs where it had sat a week back in April. "It’s strange," Mark said as he and Jackie tied the Cessna down. "Even more so than Waverly, I feel like we’re coming home again."
They got Brother Erasmus’ Bible out of the chart case where it had ridden for six months, and began to walk the familiar dirt road down to the church.
The church seemed familiar, friendly, standing in the middle of the small clearing in the woods in its neat white paint, with Jackie’s silver and white sign on the front, and no trace of the roofless, damaged way they had first seen it. No one was around the church, though, and when they walked back behind the church to Brother Erasmus’ cabin, no one seemed to be there, either.
"You’ve got to figure that Ethylene is out working some place, and that Brother Erasmus is out tending to his flock, and E.J. is in school," Jackie said. "They’ll probably be back this evening."
Mark shrugged. "Well, if we’ve got to hang around, we might as well go into town and get something to drink, and maybe say hi to Mr. and Mrs. Thibodaux," Mark said. "After all, we’ve got nothing better to do while we’re waiting."
The walk into town was familiar, although there were not many people to be seen – no surprise in the middle of a working day. The woman who ran the General Store remembered them, though, and asked what brought them back to those parts. "Just visiting," Jackie told her.
They walked across the dirt street and up a ways to the Thibodaux house, which had the phone company in the front, and knocked on the door. "Come on in," they heard Paul Thibodaux’s voice call.
They found Thibodaux sitting at the switch board. "Well, look what the cat drug in," he said. "I’ve thought about you kids a lot, and wondered what you’ve been up to."
"We’ve been around," Mark told him, and explained what had brought them back to Twillingate.
"Brother Erasmus will be out with the quail hunters," Thibodaux said. "I suspect you saw that plane in the hangar. That’s the first one of the season. Ethylene will be putting on a big feed for them, so I wouldn’t expect either of them back until late."
"Well, we’ll just have to hang around till late," Mark said. "It wouldn’t do to pass through and not see him. How’s Bessie doing?"
Thibodaux shook his head. "She’s not been doing well," he said. "She’s been in and out of the hospital in Perry a couple of times, now. Gallbladder’s giving her trouble, and they’re going to have to operate. That’s why I’m sitting here running the switchboard, instead of being out stringing wire for the new system."
"Are you having to do everything by yourself?" Mark asked.
"Pretty much," Thibodaux said. "I can get one of the guys from the phone company over in Perry to come over and help me out every now and then, and when I do, Miz Sprague will come over here and sit with the switchboard, but we ain’t getting nothin’ done to speak of. I know there’s been many times I’ve sat here and wished you’d drop in out of the sky again."
Mark looked at Jackie, who nodded. "Well, Mr. Thibodaux," he said. "I’ve got to admit that Jackie and I have been kind of looking for work to hold us over the winter."
"Can’t afford to pay you much," the tall Cajun said. "But I can afford about a buck an hour over minimum wage, and pay Jackie here minimum wage to sit at the switchboard and look after Bessie some while we’re out working on the system. It’s costing me to have all that new system sitting in boxes, and not paying for itself. The job won’t last all winter, though. If we can get right to work on it, maybe it’ll last till around Christmas."
"How long would it take to learn how to run the switchboard?" Jackie asked.
"I can show you how to run it in half an hour," Thibodaux said. "’T’would take you twenty years to learn how to run it the way Bessie does, to learn all the families and where everybody is all the time, but folks around here know that Bessie ain’t well, so they’ll understand."
"Give us a couple minutes to talk about it," Mark told him.
Outside, Mark said to Jackie in a low voice, "It’s a job, and it beats the hell out of busting suds," he said. "But, if we spend two months here, it’ll mean that’s two months that we can’t be looking for a permanent job."
She nodded. "That means the chances are that much greater we won’t have any choice but to go back to Spearfish Lake," she said, understanding Mark perfectly.
"On the other hand," Mark went on, "If we’re careful with our money, that probably takes care of the worst of the money troubles until we have to be back in Spearfish Lake, so it puts the decision off until spring."
"Let’s see if we can find a place to rent," Jackie said, the decision obvious to her. "If we’re going to be here for two months, I don’t want to spend it living in the tent."
"That’s going to cost," Mark warned.
"I don’t know that it won’t be worth it," Jackie told him. "I’m getting a little tired of living in the tent."
"Me, too," Mark admitted. "I can think of worse places to spend the next two months than Twillingate."
They went back inside and told Thibodaux that he’d hired himself a staff, but that they needed a place to stay. "It doesn’t have to be much," Jackie told him. "Just some place where we can stand up while we’re getting dressed."
Thibodaux leaned back in his chair and thought. "Ain’t no place empty ’roun’ here that I know of, not now that it’s getting on to winter," he said. "S’pose there’s a lot of people ’roun’ here that would take you in for room and board, but I’d reckon that you to would want to be on your own."
"Hadn’t thought of it that way," Jackie said. "But I guess you’re right."
"Mr. Cowgill might have a place out to the plantation open for the winter," Thibodaux said, thinking aloud. "That’d be kind of a long walk, but I s’pose I could go out and pick you up and take you home, but it’d be better if you could stay closer in to town."
Mark shook his head. "I suppose we could live in the tent if we had to."
"Don’t think there’s no need to do that," Thibodaux said. "There ought to be something . . . well, of course." He reached for the switchboard, shoved a plug into a hole, and gave the handle a crank. "Well, good morning, Sue Ann," he said into the headset. "Is Homer out there?"
It took a couple of phone calls to track Cowgill down; he proved to be at the sawmill. Thibodaux explained to him that Mark and Jackie were going to help out with putting the new phone system in, and needed a place to live. "I was sorta wonderin’ if you was going to be using the Billie Jean the next couple of months."
Mark and Jackie couldn’t make out the other end of the phone conversation, but Thibodaux was silent for several seconds, listening into the headset. "That’s right nice of you," he said into the mouthpiece finally. "Don’t matter that it’s up to the fish camp. They’ll be a mullet fisherman hanging around somewhere."
Thibodaux thanked Cowgill again, unplugged the line, and turned to Mark and Jackie. "Just took thinking of it," he said. "Three-four years ago, a fella bought this shantyboat up around Mobile somewheres. He was gonna retire on it down on one of the canals down south. He was towing it from Apalachicola down towards Tampa or somewheres with this rowboat and this little bitty outboard, and he was out on the Guff, and it kicked up some. He finally got it into the river here, and he was so damn seasick he said he never wanted to see it again. I think Mr. Cowgill give him a hundred bucks for it, and moored it up to his fish camp for when he had more Yankees than he had beds. He says he don’t think he’s gonna be using it this winter atall, and if you kids want to clean it up and fix it up, then he says you’re welcome to live in it for keepin’ it up."
"What’s this shantyboat like, anyway?" Mark asked.
"Kind of like a houseboat," Thibodaux told them. "Not a real nice sort of thing made out of fiberglass and chrome like you see down south, but rough-built out of wood. Got a couple of beds, a wood stove, and like that. Be a little close in there, but probably it would seem like all the room in the world, after all the time you two have been living in that little tent. "Sounds like it would work," Jackie said, thinking to herself that it sounded sort of romantic. "Does Mr. Cowgill want for rent?"
"Just keep it up and clean it up, was all he asked," Thibodaux said. "He wants the new phone system in as bad as anyone, maybe more than most, and this’ll get it in quicker. We’ll have to pay some mullet fisherman to go up there and tow it down here, and that’ll be ten bucks or so, and we’ll have to find some place to moor it. Maybe down there by Brother Erasmus’ church would be good, better than right down town, anyway."
Half an hour later, Mark and Jackie found themselves sitting in an old wooden rowboat, with an Evinrude outboard of uncertain age pushing it, being run up the river by an old black man named Samuel, who was of equally undetermined age. Samuel wasn’t much of a man to talk, but Mark thought he remembered him from the raisin’ back in April.
The river was wide and deep and sluggish, barely differentiated from the swamp that surrounded it. There wasn’t much of a channel, but it flowed through huge areas of sawgrass and then stands of cypress with Spanish moss hanging from them. They had not gone more than a few hundred yards before Mark was totally turned around, but Samuel obviously knew it like the back of his hand; he barely gave the outboard any attention, but rolled a cigarette from a bag of Bull Durham and looked half-asleep.
It was an hour or more up the river before they finally came upon a little cluster of shacks perched on one of the higher pieces of ground they’d seen. A dock stuck out into the river, with three or four boats tied to it; just past the dock was what looked like a small shack, planted on a wooden barge. A porch roof stuck out over the deck on both ends of the barge, and there were a couple of old wooden chairs on the larger deck at one end. Samuel cut the outboard motor, and let the rowboat drift up alongside the floating shack, and lazily put a line on the barge.
"This the Billie," he said, the first words he’d spoken in half an hour or more. "We be wantin’ the plank and poles."
Mark and Jackie clambered out of the rowboat onto the deck of the shantyboat. The cabin was unlocked; Mark took a brief look inside, and saw a double bed, a small wood stove, and a couple of boxes that looked like they might be used for dressers of a sort. "It’s not much, but I guess it looks like home for a while," he told Jackie.
"It looks like it’ll do," she said.
Mark turned to look at the mooring arrangement. The shantyboat was held away from the bank by a couple of poles, but four ropes held it there. There was a gangplank to walk across. "I guess what we’ll have to do is to take in a couple of those lines, loosen the other two, pull in the poles, take in the other lines and get across the gangplank before this thing drifts off," he told Jackie. "That about right, Samuel?" he called to the old black man, who was lashing the rowboat tightly to the side of the shantyboat.
"It be," Samuel said. "I be keepin’ you from driftin’ off."
The next few minutes were sort of a shambles, as Samuel had forgotten more about boatmanship at the age of five than Mark and Jackie had ever known. It wouldn’t have worked at all, except for Samuel keeping the shantyboat from drifting off, and the fact that the little breeze there was setting them toward shore, rather than away from it. Finally, Mark was able to get the last line cast loose, and he ran across the gangplank, pulled it in and stowed it on the roof with Jackie’s help. Samuel started the old Evinrude, backed the unwieldy tow away from the bank, and swung it around to head back downriver.
Samuel and the old Evinrude couldn’t push the shantyboat very fast, and there were places where they didn’t want to go very fast, anyway, in the twisting, winding waterway back to Twillingate. "Samuel, you be telling us if you need us to do anything," Mark called. The old man nodded, and rolled himself another smoke, while Jackie and Mark found chairs on the front deck to watch the river slide by.
It was a lazy way to spend a couple of hours, just sitting there on the deck, looking at the swamp and the forest, looking at the birds that flocked around. There was a wider variety of birds along that stretch of swampy Florida river than either of them had ever seen before. It was the height of the migration season, and several of the water birds – ducks and geese especially – seemed familiar from their northern home.
Around them lay a vista without a trace of human occupation, except for the odd piece of junk floating in the water, where kingfishers were perching. Periodically the wind sent long ruffling waves through the grasses and the massed needles of sand pines on the shore. A boat-tailed grackle flapped by with a snail in his bill; a cormorant was beating the water in his effort to get into the air while he was still wet. Seaside and Savannah sparrows sat on clumps of bear grass. Occasionally there were little patches of palm jungle, dense and shiny-leaved, the trunks of the younger trees covered lattice-like with the projecting frond bases of dead leaves. Huge, long-stemmed crowns of glinting green leaves sprang nearly trunkless from the youngest palms. They heard the flapping of the wings of great blue herons as they flew into the sky. It was mid-afternoon by now, and the air was quivering with the heat in this half-land, half-sea of unbroken subtropic, marsh beside jungle.
Jackie wished that she had her fishing gear from Rocinante; it would have been fun to troll a line out from the deck of the shantyboat, even though it seemed unlikely that she’d catch anything. She looked back at Samuel, in the rowboat alongside, and saw that he’d unlimbered a handline and was trolling it in the water, but for what she wasn’t sure, but after a while, there was a fish flopping on the floor of the boat. Someone’s dinner, she presumed.
Mostly, they just sat back and watched the forest and the swamp flow slowly by them. After a while, Jackie, then Mark, walked back into the cabin of the shantyboat, to get an idea of how much cleaning up would have to be done.
It was surprisingly clean. While it was dusty, it wasn’t dirty, so to speak; it showed signs of having been kept up, although there were places that could use paint. The cabin had some big windows on the side, and although they were dirty, it wouldn’t be any big deal to clean them, and even as dirty as they were, it was interesting to watch the view of the riverbank floating past. "It’s going to be a little cozy," Jackie said, "But I think we’re going to like it in here."
Eventually, they reached Twillingate. The waterfront of the little town was grubby and junk-cluttered, a real eyesore, which was probably why Thibodaux had said they wouldn’t want to tie up there. The river here was wider, getting set for its plunge into the Gulf of Mexico, and Samuel took them right past the town and around a little bend, then swung the tow around and pushed it toward shore.
"Right here’s good," a familiar voice called. "Throw me that line, and let’s get you tied up."
Mark and Jackie looked up, to see Brother Erasmus and E.J. waiting for them on the shore. "It’s good to see you again," Jackie called. "How’d you know we were coming?"
"Mist’ Thibodaux done called and said what you was a-gonna do," he said. "Figgered you’d need some help gettin’ the mooring rigged."
"I saw how we took it apart," Mark said, as he picked up a line and started to swing it around, to toss it up onto the shore. "But I never figured out how we were going to get it back together."
"I drove you a couple of mooring posts," Brother Erasmus told them, picking up the line, as Samuel cut the motor. "Figgered we could moor you to trees for the others. It’s sure going to be nice to have you folks back with us for a while."
With the help of Brother Erasmus and Samuel and E.J., all of whom appeared to know what they were doing, the shantyboat was moored to the bank in only a few minutes.
"Preacher," Samuel said as they finished up, "I done caught a little bass I thought you’d like to have for supper."
"Well, Samuel, I think Ethylene would like to have you and Mist’ Mark and Miss Jackie to supper tonight," Brother Erasmus said.
"Don’t guess I’d better," Samuel said. "Got to catch the turn."
"Tide don’t wait for no man," the preacher commented. "You come on up for supper some other time, Samuel."
"Sure ’nuff," the fisherman said as he got back into his rowboat and cast it off from the shantyboat.
"Thank you, Samuel," Jackie called to him. "You’ve been a big help."
The black man nodded to her, smiled, and started his outboard once again. The four of them watched as he sped down the river toward the mouth. "Seemed like an interesting old guy," Mark said. "Not much to say on much of anything, though."
"Old Samuel, he been fishin’ this water seventy, eighty years," Brother Erasmus said. "He don’t get much call to talk to people, but he do talk to them fish."
"Brother Erasmus, it’s good to see you again," Jackie said. "We stopped off to give you back your Bible, but Mr. Thibodaux asked us to stay for a while. I’m afraid we left the Bible up at Mr. Thibodaux’s house, but we’ll get it to you."
"He say to come up and get his pickup truck, so’s you can get your stuff from your plane," Brother Erasmus told them. "But Ethylene and me do want you to come to supper tonight, ’cause me ’n her ’n E.J. are gonna want to hear all about your trip."
"We’ll be happy to," Mark told him.
"Supper’ll be late," Brother Erasmus warned. "Ethylene is going to stop off and cook something for them. Miz Thibodaux ain’t well, and it’s done been hard for Mist’ Thibodaux to run the phones and try to nurse her, too. Guess she gonna have to go to the hospital up to Tallahassee next time."
"We didn’t even see her when we were up there," Mark commented. "She must have been asleep, or something."
"She been hurtin’ bad, down in her chest," the preacher told them. "They gonna have to take out her gallbladder, or somethin’. Most everybody in town is sorry for her, ’cause everybody knows her like family."
Mark shook his head. "I suppose we’d better be getting back up there," he said. "I guess Mr. Thibodaux is going to want to show Jackie how to run the switchboard yet this afternoon, so we can get right to work tomorrow."
"Don’t be forgettin’, you’re gonna be havin’ supper with us tonight."
"We won’t forget," Jackie told him. "We came back to Twillingate to see you, after all."
* * *
While Thibodaux took some time to show Jackie the ins and outs of running the switchboard, Mark took his pickup truck to the airstrip and unloaded Rocinante – really unloaded it, even down to the charts and everything else. It was as empty as the airplane had been since they left Spearfish Lake the spring before.
He knew that Jackie would want to participate in setting up housekeeping on the shantyboat, but he decided that there was no reason he couldn’t get their things from the plane and put them aboard. After driving to where the shantyboat was moored, it took several trips between the pickup and Billy Jean before he had everything transferred, but before he went back up to the Thibodauxs’, he dug around in his backpack and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. This pack dated back to Massachusetts, and was getting perhaps halfway gone by now, but this was a good time to lean back in the deck chair and have a smoke.
The decision to stay in Twillingate and work for Thibodaux for a couple of months set well with him, he realized; he was glad that Jackie had agreed to it so readily. One of the things that Mark had come to learn on this trip was that he was not much of one to sit around and do nothing. He could do it for a day or two, if he had to, but he was the sort of person who had to be busy at something, and the happiest times that they had spent on the trip were the days that they were busy doing something. As it turned out, the trip had not been a bad idea, if only to learn that; besides, it had done wonders for getting the wanderlust out of his system. If this deal in Twillingate hadn’t turned up, they probably would have turned Rocinante’s nose toward Spearfish Lake before the month was out, or not much later than that.
It was a foregone conclusion they had to be home by the end of April, but that was still six months away. Mark had been recognizing Jackie’s reluctance to return to Spearfish Lake for months, now, and he was pretty sure that he understood why she had that opposition, although perhaps she hadn’t yet realized that to return there as a married couple would put a different spin on things. Well, she realized it in her head, if not her heart, he decided as he took a deep drag on the cigarette. Probably the reluctance to get married she had so often stated stemmed at least partly from the same reason: if they didn’t go home, then they wouldn’t have to get officially married, although they were married now in everything but name, and Jackie even admitted it.
Last night – was it actually last night in Charleston? – he had Jackie all but admitting she was ready to go back to Spearfish Lake to live, if not now, then when the time came. Mark suspected she’d continue to come around to the realization that it was the only sound course for them to follow. The job with Mr. Corman was just too good to pass up; they could build a comfortable life from it.
Jackie’s preoccupation with her mother was just as strong as ever, and Mark had become accustomed to it. There was no doubt it was just as much a risk as it ever was, but there was no way of telling. The risk still seemed worth the benefits, much more so now than when they had last been here in Twillingate.
The cigarette was now getting down toward the end; Mark took a final drag on it, then tossed it into the river, where it made a little hissing noise as it went out. The afternoon was wearing on, Mark realized; it was time to get back in the pickup and get up to the Thibodauxs’. It would be good to sit and talk with Brother Erasmus and Ethylene tonight, he realized. Brother Erasmus was full of good common sense, and maybe some good would come out of it.
Back up at the Thibodaux house, Mark found Jackie sitting behind the switchboard, the headset on. Mr. Thibodaux was sitting at a table in the room, going over some paperwork. "I think I understand most of this manual for setting this system up," he told Mark, "But there’s some things I don’t understand, and I’d be pleased if you could go through this. I think you probably know more about it than I do."
"It’s like any phone system," Mark said. "It’s not that complicated, but it just seems complicated. I do need to read over the manual, because there are a lot of different ways to go about doing things."
"I s’pose you and Jackie ought to slide back down to the Billie Jean and get moved in," Thibodaux told him. "I don’t know if there are any lights down there for you to read by after dark, so I’ll send a hurricane lantern with you."
"Don’t know how much I’ll read tonight," Mark told him. "We’ve got to unpack, and have supper with Brother Erasmus, and that’s going to eat the time up a bit."
"We got mostly wire to string for the next few days, anyway," Thibodaux said. "And we’ll be seeing our fair share of Brother Erasmus. He’s been digging holes for poles for me."
Mark carried the hurricane lantern and a manual and a couple of technical books, while Jackie carried Brother Erasmus’ Bible as they walked back to the shantyboat. "I still didn’t see Bessie," Mark commented as they walked down the sandy road. "How is she?"
"Not good," Jackie said. "She seems like she’s in a lot of pain, and the heat isn’t helping. She’ll be going to the hospital in another week or so for her operation, but she’s going to be a while recovering."
"How’d you like working the switchboard?" he asked.
"It was all right, although there were only half a dozen calls all the time I was there," Jackie said. "It’s a little difficult, since nobody gives a number. They just ask for Maizie or Elmore or somebody. Mr. Thibodaux says that’ll end in time, as people learn I don’t know everybody."
"It’s going to be a sad day in Twillingate when the dial system starts working," Mark reflected. "People will have to remember phone numbers, instead of just calling down to the exchange to ask Bessie if they know where someone is."
"I suppose you’re right," Jackie agreed. "The whole community will have lost something that’s been nice about being a small and warm and friendly town."
"It’s happened all over," Mark said. "Twillingate won’t be the first place to see that happen. In fact, it will be one of the last. It sort of makes me wonder if we’re doing the right thing by helping Mr. Thibodaux out, but it’s getting so that he really doesn’t have any choice."
Back at the shantyboat, it took them a while to get their gear unpacked and to find places for it. It would seem strange to not be living out of their backpacks, to not be moving every day, to be able to get dressed while they were standing up.
The sun was sinking low by the time they finished up. "I suppose we’d better wander up to Brother Erasmus’," Mark said. "Let’s try to not be real late. I need to spend some time going over this technical stuff."
"Don’t let me forget," Jackie said, "I need to finish that letter to Dad and Sarah I started yesterday and tell them that they can send our mail here."
"Might as well," Mark told her. "Send it whenever they want. It looks like we’re going to be here for a while."
* * *
"So, you be goin’ to stay with us for a while?" Ethylene asked.
"Couple of months, it looks like," Mark explained. "I haven’t got any idea yet of how much work it’s going to be to put in the new phone system, but that’s what Mr. Thibodaux figures."
They sat and watched the twilight from Brother Erasmus’ porch. It was late enough in the year that the mosquitoes had pretty well backed off, and it was enjoyable to sit outside. Being from the north woods, Mark and Jackie knew what clouds of mosquitoes were like, and had learned from childhood to put up with them. They figured that Brother Erasmus and Ethylene and E.J. probably had to have the same immunity.
Supper had been good; the fresh bass had been just about right to go around, when added to Ethylene’s corn bread. It beat eating out of cans, anyway, which was what Mark and Jackie had grown used to over the past six months.
"You two sure have seen a lot since we saw you last," Brother Erasmus said. "We often prayed for you, that the Lord would keep his hands on you, and would keep you from danger."
"We got into trouble, now and then," Mark told him. Over dinner, he and Jackie had told the Greens about some of their adventures, like the thunderstorm at Waverly, the takeoff from Leadville, and the rescue of the Pittingers. They had also talked about many of the other things they had done and the places they had visited. "So, what’s new around Twillingate?"
"Not a whole lot," Brother Erasmus said. "You already know about the new phones, and Miz Thibodaux. Couple of people have died, but I don’t think you met any of them. They been a few people married." He laughed, and said, "You remember, after the raisin’, I said how it wasn’t real Christian-like for them people to be sneakin’ out into the bushes at a church raisin’?"
Mark smiled. "Yeah, I remember that. People will be people, I guess."
"It all worked out in the end," Brother Erasmus smiled. "We done had two weddin’s out of that raisin’. Real weddin’s, too, not just commissary weddin’s."
"What’s a commissary wedding?" Jackie asked. "I don’t remember hearing that one before."
Brother Erasmus smiled. "Back in the teppentine camps, sometimes a couple would just move in with each other, without gettin’ married in a church, and the commissary would just start puttin’ what they bought on one bill, ’stead of two, and that was what we called a commissary weddin’. People still call it that, though we don’t have the company teppentine camps no more."
Jackie shook her head; it sure sounded familiar. "That’s what Mark and I have, I guess," she said.
"I often wondered about that," Brother Erasmus said. "What with the two of you not havin’ the same last names, and all. I thought for a while you must have been related somehow, but never thought it was right to ask. You two plannin’ to have a church weddin’?
Mark thought he had better explain; perhaps he could pin Jackie down a little more. "When we were here before, we didn’t know if we wanted to get married. In fact you couldn’t even say we had a commissary wedding then. We were just friends taking a trip together. We’ve made up our minds that we’re going to get married, but it’s going to wait until we get back home. We kind of thought it wouldn’t be right to get married somewhere away from our families."
"The good book says that a man and a woman should be married in the eyes of the Lord," Brother Erasmus said. "I guess you got good intentions, anyways."
"It took us a while to reason it out that far," Jackie said. "It was just kind of something we slipped into."
"Happen like that for a lot of people," Brother Erasmus agreed. "Course, often enough, they’s a little one on the way to make it happen a little faster."
"Well, that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about," Jackie replied. "We’ve decided that we don’t want any kids. Ever."
"Childr’n make a man and a woman come closer together," the preacher chided. "The book, it say, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’"
"I don’t think the book says to multiply if the result isn’t going to be fruitful," Jackie said, and found herself explaining about her mother, how she had been lost to the world for years, and how she had died last summer. "It bothered me real bad," she said. "It bothered both of us. We came that close to getting in the plane and flying back here to talk to you about it. But I guess God was guiding us, because we didn’t, and it was the next morning that we found the Pittingers. Brother Erasmus, if that wasn’t a miracle all the way around, then I don’t know what a miracle is."
"The Lord was surely using you as his tools that day," the black man said, a little reverently. "But this heaviness about your mother is still on your heart, isn’t it?"
"Yes, Brother Erasmus, it is."
The preacher leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. "What you got to understand," he said finally, "Is that you ain’t supposed to know what the Lord has got in mind for you, but he’s goin’ to do to you what he’s goin’ to do, anyways. You just done told me how in dyin’ your mama gave life to two people through the Lord’s work. It ain’t always our purpose to know what the Lord is up to, you just got to have faith that he knows what he’s doin’."
"I think I know that," Jackie said. "But knowing it, and having the faith to truly believe it are two different things, especially with the example I’ve had."
Brother Erasmus shook his head. "Here you been tellin’ me of an example that ought to be all anyone should need to show you how the Lord works. You are just goin’ to have to reconcile yourself that you are the Lord’s tools, and he’s goin’ to do what he wants. You be thinkin’ about that some, and then we talk about it again."
* * *
It was after dark before they got back to the Billie Jean. Mark figured out how to light the kerosene lantern, and Jackie pulled out one of the pack stoves to heat water for a late cup of coffee. While the water was heating, Mark pulled out one of the technical manuals, and began to leaf through it, just to get some idea of what would be involved. "There’s a lot of work here, but it doesn’t look too strange," he concluded.
"I don’t know," Jackie said. "I guess I’m still thinking about Brother Erasmus. I guess he didn’t say anything I didn’t expect him to say, but it was still good to hear him say it."
"About what I told you he’d say, back there in California," Mark agreed. In his own way, and for his own reasons, it seemed as if Brother Erasmus had come to pretty much the same conclusions that Mark had reached a long time before, but Jackie was still looking for them. Perhaps it would help her deal with the uneasiness she still felt, he thought.
"I know," she said. "Have faith, and the Lord will provide, unless he decides there’s a reason not to. You know, when you say it that way, it sounds sort of fatalistic."
"Well, it is," Mark said, glancing at another manual. "But, if it gives you some hope to cling to, then it counts, I guess."
"I guess I know we should be married, and not just a commissary marriage, like we’ve got now," Jackie said. "But Mark, I’m still scared."
"Jackie, I hate to say it, but I think you’ll always be scared a little," he said. "But remember what you told Bruce, back there at Waverly. Don’t let your fears get the best of you."
"I guess you’re right," she said. "The water’s hot. You still want coffee?"
"Yeah," Mark said. "I’ll even make it. Why don’t you sit down and finish that letter to your dad and Sarah while we’re thinking about it?"
* * *
PS: (Next evening) – Guess what! We’re back in Twillingate, and it looks like we’re going to be here for a while. Mark is going to work for Mr. Thibodaux putting in their new dial phone system. I think I remember either writing to you about him, or talking about him on the phone. It looks like we’ll be here for a couple of months, so I guess you can send our mail here. Mrs. Thibodaux, who runs the switchboard, has been sick, so I’ll be filling in for her. Both of us ought to be pretty busy.
I’ll write and tell you more later. I’m sitting here writing this by a kerosene lantern, and I’d rather do it in the daylight, but I want to get this out when the mail goes first thing tomorrow. – J