Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Busted Axle Road
a novel by
Wes Boyd
Copyright ©1993, ©2001, ©2007, ©2013

Chapter 1

April, 1987

Thirty-six is too damned old to be pregnant, Kirsten Langenderfer thought to herself for the umpteenth time in the last five months. This kid was giving her twice the problems that Tiffany and Henry combined had done, and she hadn’t exactly been a youngster when they’d come along, but it had been six years since Henry, and that had made a big difference.

She looked out the window. It was starting to get light out there, and it looked like it was going to be a dismal day.

Spearfish Lake was at its worst in the spring with the trees naked and the snow mostly gone. What snow was left was black and grungy from the accumulated dirt scraped up when the streets had been plowed. The snow that had looked so pretty lying on the ground now was gone, exposing all sorts of junk that had been better covered up. A bright, sunny day would help, but this one was going to be cloudy and depressing, she thought.

The clock read a quarter after six when she glanced at it. Since it was a Wednesday, and Mike’s turn to take the paper to Camden, he had already left, and was probably halfway there by now. It was still too early to get Tiffany and Henry up, and that didn’t leave her many options. "I’d better go try it again," she thought, grimacing.

She’d never had problems with constipation or hemorrhoids with either Tiffany or Henry, but little whatever his or her name would be was making up for it in spades. So far, this kid was proving to be a pain in the butt.

It had been two days, now, and the longer she put it off, the worse it would be. No matter what all the ads on TV said, since she was pregnant, she didn’t dare use something like milk of magnesia to give nature a nudge, and if something didn’t happen soon, she was going to have to give herself an enema – again. The mere thought both pained and disgusted her.

There was no putting it off, then. She poured herself a cup of decaf – a poor substitute for the real thing. It was another price to be paid for getting wild with Mike one night, going out to Turtle Hill, and getting it on in the back seat, like she’d done more than once with Henry Toivo, back in what had to be another lifetime.

She shook her head; thoughts of Henry Toivo still hurt, after all these years. Taking the coffee with her, she went up to the bathroom, set the coffee down on the counter, pulled up her housecoat, and sat down on the pot, hoping something would happen and this time, it wouldn’t be too bad.

Best try to get her mind off of it, she thought. The bra she had rinsed out the night before hung from the shower head, and she wondered if it would be dry enough to wear today. That was another thing; with this kid, she even had to wear a bra to bed, and Mike didn’t like that one bit. But, as big as she was, and bigger yet with all the hormones the kid was pumping into her, she didn’t have much choice. After all, there were times that wearing a bra wasn’t appropriate for her, so she knew she’d have to limit the damage.

How lucky those flat-chested girls who had envied her were! Girls like Jackie, like Linda. She remembered how she’d discovered that Linda Clark habitually wore a couple of inches of armor plating to make her look bigger. She’d been Linda Caserowski then, when Kirsten and Linda and Betsy Toivo had shared a sauna with Henry Toivo and a couple of friends. That was the night Henry had picked her up and thrown her naked, steaming body into a hole cut in the ice of the Spearfish River, and somehow in the process become the love of her life. That had been what? Twenty years ago? Every bit of it, she realized.

Poor Henry; even with her son named after him, it still hurt to drive out on the highway and see the sign that said, "Henry Toivo Post 17, American Veterans of the Vietnam War." The post had been pulling every string they could find for years to get permission to send a group to Vietnam, to look for clues to how Henry had disappeared back in ’71. She’d never actually married Mike, just on the long chance – she’d never admitted to herself the impossibility of it – that Henry might somehow, someday reappear.

She looked up at the bra again. She’d have to get up to see how dry it was, and she admitted to herself that while she was up, she might as well get the enema bag and get it over with, since nothing was happening. She looked at the clock on the counter; if she was going to have to do it, she knew she’d better do it before she got the kids up for school, and it was almost time.

Resigned to the inevitability, she sighed and got to her feet. It was only a couple of steps over to the bra, and more disappointment; it was still damp, and she’d have to get out a clean one, one that didn’t fit as comfortably, and she’d be hurting before the day was over with.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see something move as she turned away, and she turned back to see what it was – and let out a scream as loud as the whistle on a railroad engine.

There was a little black snake, half in and half out of the bathtub drain, wiggling hard, trying to get up onto the white porcelain of the tub – wiggling that ceased even before Kirsten’s scream died out, as the result of the impact of a hair dryer, the first thing she could lay her hands on.

The hair dryer shattered with the impact of Kirsten’s blow, and she started to swing it again, until she realized she was only holding a handle with a couple of wires hanging from it.

"Mommy, what’s the matter?" she heard Tiffany’s voice from the bathroom door.

"Th-th-there’s a sn-snake in the t-t-tub," Kirsten stammered.

"Oh, let me see," Tiffany bubbled brightly, opening the door.

Still terrified, Kirsten flattened herself against the far wall, as her daughter came into the room and looked into the tub. "D-don’t touch it," she stammered.

The nine year old ignored her. She went over to the tub and crouched down. "Oh, Mommy, you killed it," she said, disappointed, then brightened, "Can I take it to school for show and tell?"

"I don’t care; just get it out of here!" Kirsten yelled. "Don’t let me see it!"

"OK, Mommy," the little girl said, picking the snake up by one end. "Thanks."

"Get it out of here!" Kirsten repeated, still shouting, with some small part of her mind wondering how her daughter could stand to touch the slimy thing.

"OK, Mommy," Tiffany said, still unconcerned. She stuck out her hand, the snake dangling from it, and Kirsten flattened herself even tighter to the wall. "Mommy," she said, pointing at the mess on the linoleum, "Did you poop on the floor?"

*   *   *

When old man Sanderson died a few years earlier, and George Webb and the rest of the staff wound up owning the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald, Mike McMahon had become the news editor, and allowed himself to dare dream that he’d finally be able to quit grubbing around with the newspaper circulation on Wednesdays.

Webb had long believed that newspaper front office people – advertising and editorial and front office people – needed to keep a sense of perspective by doing some of the dirty work. Since the paper was a weekly, there was no such thing as a mailroom staff, so every Wednesday for a dozen years Mike had pitched in with the printing, addressing, and delivery of the Record-Herald. When Webb had left himself in the rotation, Mike knew there was no way he was going to get out of it.

There was one compensation though; he thoroughly enjoyed it when his turn came to take the van to Camden, where the paper was printed. It was a long drive each way, with a couple of hours sitting around drinking coffee in the middle, and it made a marvelous time to think. It gave him the chance to just sit and chew on a problem, reflect on it, and assess the possibilities. There were times he had put off a major decision until it was his turn to do the Camden trip, just so he could consider the options without being bothered by yelling children, ringing telephones, angry subscribers, or other such interruptions.

The problem that Mike was thinking about this morning wasn’t the one he’d had on his agenda though; this one had come out of the meeting of the Spearfish Lake City Council the night before. It hadn’t been a major item at the meeting, and Mike hadn’t even mentioned it in the story he’d thrown together for the paper in the late hours of the evening before, but it put another brick into a decision that Mike had been contemplating for a couple of years.

It had actually been item eleven on the agenda, titled "Storm sewer separation." Mike had been hearing about storm sewer separation for the dozen years he’d been covering the Spearfish Lake City Council, so he really hadn’t been paying much attention when City Manager Don Kutzley reported, "The DNR turned us down on the storm sewer separation grant again, but said to reapply next time. However, they did say we’ve got to move ahead with the project."

"What are our options?" Mayor Ryan Clark asked.

"We can reapply for the grant," Kutzley said. "There’s also a possibility that we might be able to get a grant for the project from the Farm Home Administration, but that’s a longer shot than the DNR. But, if we get shot out of the saddle again, we’re going to have to consider a special assessment district. The last letter we got from the EPA wasn’t nice at all."

Clark nodded; he knew the answer to his next question, but there were a couple new people on Council who might not, and there were people in the audience, as well. "If we had to get on it, how big is the project going to be?"

"We had the engineering work done several years ago," Kutzley reported. "We did manage to get a DNR grant for that. At the time, it was estimated it was going to be about a three million-dollar project. However, construction costs have gone up since then, and bids have been coming in high, so four million wouldn’t surprise me."

"Well, I move we reapply and take a shot at the Farm Home grant," Councilman Ray Milliman said. "A special assessment district ain’t gonna go over real well."

The measure had passed unanimously, and the council went on to other business, while Mike made a mental note that he’d have to do a story on the whole storm sewer separation business. Maybe next week.

After a dozen years, he could have written the story in his sleep. The problem was fairly simple; while some of the storm sewers draining the downspouts and street gutters emptied directly into the lake, there were many that drained through the sewage treatment plant. Most days that wasn’t a problem; on a normal dry day, the plant treated about a million gallons of combined sewage and storm water, and it could handle four times that. When it rained, the plant could be asked to handle twenty million gallons of water, or more, and the overflow had to go into the lake. While the overflow was admittedly dilute, it was still raw sewage, and that drove the state Department of Natural Resources ballistic.

Last year had been wetter than normal, and the storm sewers had overwhelmed the sewage plant twenty-three times. The DNR and the Environmental Protection Agency had not been pleased with the year-end report, to put it mildly.

The solution was fairly simple: build some new storm sewer lines that would take most of the rainfall load off of the sewage plant – but those new sewers would cost that four million dollars Kutzley had been talking about, and someone would have to pay for them.

That’s what had Mike thinking. A special assessment on property taxes would only affect the property owners involved. However, the problem area was mostly in the south side of town, and that included Mike and Kirsten. Without knowing the interest rate and the term of repayment, it was hard to be sure, but Mike guessed that a special assessment district for the storm sewer separation would cost them somewhere between six and ten thousand dollars in extra property taxes over a period of years.

The decision was clear to Mike, and had been clear for quite a while: it was time to move on, and if possible, before it was public knowledge and a potential buyer could find out the impact of any impending storm sewer costs.

The potential of the extra taxes was just another nail in the coffin of the decision, at least as far as Mike was concerned. The house wasn’t that great; it was nice and cozy when he and Kirsten had first bought it, but it was crowded with two kids, and a third would only make matters worse. It wasn’t the greatest of neighborhoods; while not a crime problem, or anything like that, it was grubby. The Camden and Spearfish Lake tracks ran right by the house, and in the summer, when the rock trains were running, the blat of a diesel air horn on one of the engines could knock him out of bed any time of the day or night. And so on, and so on.

But that wasn’t the problem with moving; mostly, Kirsten didn’t want to move.

Back before they both started to take a small but growing financial interest in the Record-Herald, when old man Sanderson died, Mike had given some consideration to moving on to a better job at a bigger paper, but Kirsten had dug in her heels. She really didn’t want to leave home, and Mike was sure the memory of Henry Toivo was most of the reason.

She didn’t want to sell the house, either; she had lived there when she was small, and she and Mike had bought it from an elderly, widowed aunt of hers, so it sort of belonged in the family.

Mike also sort of suspected that Toivo got indirectly involved with that as well. Since Kirsten wouldn’t actually marry Mike, on the impossible chance that Toivo might someday return, the joint ownership of the house meant something like a wedding to her. She’d once said that selling would seem like getting a divorce.

So convincing Kirsten to move was going to be the problem, and the ten grand would be another argument he could use. And, he’d have to convince her soon, before the storm sewer project could drive prices down.

So, Mike thought as he drove into the edge of Camden, that was the stick. Was there anything he could use for a carrot?

*   *   *

Tiffany Langenderfer-McMahon was the only child in Linda Clark’s class with a hyphenated name, and it bothered Mrs. Clark more than it should have. As well as anyone in Spearfish Lake could, she understood the reason for it, but nevertheless, it bothered her.

First, it was a long name, and that caused any number of troubles anytime there was a standardized form to fill out. There were plenty of those, since fourth grade was a time of testing. There were five different standardized tests the children would have to take for various statistical purposes over the course of the year, in addition to three or four they had to take every year. Every test had a computerized form, and each one of the forms had a block that allowed only sixteen letters for the last name. "Langenderfer-McMahon" added up to twenty letters, counting the hyphen, which the computers ignored. If you tried to squeeze the extra letters into the form, then the results came back with "LANGENDERFERMCM" printed out in dot matrix.

On the other hand, if she tried to send the test through as "MCMAHON, TIFFANY L," she’d catch it from Tiffany’s mom, who she’d known since kindergarten.

That situation would only get worse, as the school was going to computerized grading the next year. Thank goodness some fifth grade teacher was going to be the one to have to come to grips with the school computer.

Linda had brought the subject up to her husband, Ryan, once, since he knew more about computers than she did. He hadn’t been any help. "It could be worse," he’d said. "Imagine if she ended up marrying someone else with a hyphenated name? I mean, how’d you like to have to deal with, oh, Langenderfer-McMahon-Caserowski-Clark?"

For that matter, if you were going to put the kid into alphabetical order for some reason or another, like in a grade book, where did you put her? Under L, or M, or maybe Mc? If you chose the last, did the Mc go ahead of or after the M’s?

She’d had Tiffany in the classroom for seven months now, and still hadn’t come to a working conclusion, but usually put her in with the L’s, since the child insisted on the use of the full name. She, at least, didn’t have to worry about it; that wasn’t an issue to bother a nine-year old.

Snakes apparently didn’t bother her, either, although there were plenty of girls in the class and some boys who let go with a totally predictable, "Oooooh, yuuuuukkk! when Tiffany pulled the peanut butter jar containing the dead snake from her paper bag. "My mommy found this snake crawling out of the bathtub drain this morning," she reported.

Trying to be businesslike, Mrs. Clark asked, "Tiffany, do you know what kind of snake it is?"

"I don’t know," Tiffany said seriously. "I tried to look it up in the library, and it looks like a picture of a water moccasin, but the book says there aren’t any water moccasins around here. Could you try and find out for me?"

Even though she had a biology minor, Linda Clark wasn’t much more thrilled about snakes than Kirsten Langenderfer. She had three reasons to be somewhat cooler: the snake was (1) dead; (2) in a closed peanut butter jar, and (3) hadn’t surprised her by crawling out of the bathtub drain.

"Leave the snake and the sack here," she said, "I’ll take it over to Mr. Pacobel, over at the high school, and see if he knows."

*   *   *

Another tough thing about being pregnant was that you had to pee every thirty seconds, Kirsten thought, sitting behind her desk at the Record-Herald. She bit her lip and tried to hold on as long as she could.

She had managed to settle down a little from the shock of the snake crawling out of the drain, mostly because she’d had to deal with getting Tiffany and Henry off to school, whether she was up to it or not.

And, she really hadn’t been up to it. With an embarrassment that had been sharper than the shock of seeing the snake, Kirsten had cleaned up the mess on the bathroom floor and had thrown away what was left of the hair dryer, but getting dressed had been a struggle. Thank goodness Tiffany had taken charge as if nothing had happened, or sleepyhead Henry would still be snoozing.

She’d made it down to the office by nine, but she hadn’t been able to deal with much of anything. She hadn’t told anyone about the snake – the aftermath was just too embarrassing to admit, much less contemplate. Every time her mind wandered, and it wandered repeatedly, she could see the snake there in the bathtub, and the more she thought about it, the worse it got to her.

No matter how bad she had to go – and by the time Tiffany had Henry ready for school, it was pretty bad – she could not force herself go to into the bathroom again. It was hard to get made up in the bedroom, but it would have to do, no matter what. Even as bad as she had to go to the bathroom by the time she got to the office, she could barely force herself to go to the bathroom there. She’d held out until just before the pee was dribbling down her leg.

And now, she had to go again. She wondered if she’d ever be able to use a bathroom again without seeing a snake wiggling in the bathtub.

It probably would have been better if there had been something to do other than sit there and think about the snake, but Wednesdays were her slow day as the Record-Herald’s advertising manager, at least until it was time to work on the papers. Usually, she sat around the front office and shot the bull with her friend, Carrie Evachevski, the social editor, and had an extra cup of coffee, but Carrie was off covering some North Spearfish Lake Woman’s Club thing, and everybody else had gone someplace or another. There was nothing to do but to sit there alone and think about the snake – and about how bad she had to pee.

It was ten before Mike McMahon made it back to the Record-Herald with the papers. The next few hours were always a hassle, since the post office got very antsy if they didn’t have the local papers addressed and to the post office by three o’clock or so, when the carriers came off their routes and began to set up their shelves for the next day. They also got extremely antsy if they didn’t have the rest of the papers by five, in time for the mail truck. With nearly 5000 papers to address, that meant some hustling on the part of the Record-Herald staff.

Usually, Kirsten helped with unloading of van, but she’d missed the odd week or two in the last month, when she wasn’t feeling good. It didn’t seem to Mike as if her pregnancy was going as well as the others had, but with only Mike, his sportswriter assistant Pat Varner, Kirsten’s assistant, Sally Szczerowski, and Webb, the job went slowly. This week, Sally was supposed to ride with Mike while making the store drops, so Mike set her to counting bundles while he went to see what was keeping Kirsten.

He found Kirsten in the front office, staring morosely at the wall. "Hey, c’mon," he told her, "there’s an Addressograph waiting for you."

"Thank God you’re back," she said. "I think I’m going crazy."

That was a strange admission for Kirsten to make. While Mike loved her more than anything else in the world, he wasn’t blind to the fact that, at times, she took a veering, sometimes even obsessive approach to some things. Some of that went with her being a woman, he knew – who could figure them out, after all? However, the fact that he had been unable to persuade her to marry him after two and two-thirds kids and a dozen years of living together proved that something out of the ordinary went on behind those pretty blue eyes. Whatever it was, he had learned to accept it. "What’s the matter?" he asked.

"I’m scared to go to the bathroom," she admitted.


"I was sitting on the pot this morning when a snake crawled out of the bathtub drain," she said. "It scared the shit out of me." It never occurred to Mike that she was speaking literally.

"It wasn’t your imagination, was it?"

"I was not imagining it," she bristled. "I broke the hair dryer killing it, and Tiffany put it in a jar and took it to school for show and tell. How she could touch it, I don’t know. Right now, I’ve got to pee so bad my eyeballs are turning yellow, and I’m scared that if I go into the bathroom, I’ll see a snake in there."

Mike shook his head. "Kirsten, you’ve been potty-trained for what? Thirty-four, thirty-five years now? You’ve seen one snake in the bathroom. It might be thirty-five years before you see another one."

"Yes, Mike, but it might be the next time I go to the bathroom, too. There might be a nest of them living under the house. I know I shouldn’t be scared to go to the bathroom here, but I am. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to use the bathroom at home. Isn’t there something you could dump down the drain to kill them?"

Mike recognized an opening here that hadn’t existed before. "Beats me," he said. "If we lived out in the country, where we had a septic tank, then there’s probably something I could find. But, we’ve got that combined storm/sanitary sewer, so they’re probably getting in from the swamp somewhere. There’s no way you could kill them without defoliating half the county."

Kirsten shook her head sadly. "We’re going to have to find someplace else," she said. "I can’t live there if I’m scared to go to the bathroom."

"Then let’s get the place up for sale and start looking," Mike counseled. "Who’s holding the hot hand in the real estate business around town right now?"

Kirsten frowned. "I don’t know," she said. "Binky Augsberg out at Northwoods Realty seems to be doing more advertising than anybody else."

"Well, give her a call and set up an appointment for as soon as you can. Maybe this afternoon, after I get back from the Warsaw run. Get out and get to stamping those papers."

"But Mike," Kirsten pleaded. "I still need to go to the bathroom."

"You’re scared to go here, too?"

"I shouldn’t be," she nodded, "But I guess I am."

"All right," Mike said, "I’ll check the bathroom here for you, and I can make sure the sink drains are closed."

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