"A Spearfish Lake Story"
"It is always this bad?" John asked his prospective new partner as Diane headed for the door with the outgoing mail.
The post office in Spearfish Lake stayed open until midnight on April 15. John and Joe had a wad of returns and requests for extensions that made it down not long before closing. It was like being a runner breaking the tape after a marathon, and John felt winded.
"This isn’t bad at all," Joe teased him. "If you had gotten here a month ago, we might have been done as early as ten PM."
"Walker, Wade is looking better all the time," John teased right back. In only a week, he’d grown quite a friendship with the personable older accountant. It had taken only about fifteen minutes to go from "Mr. McGuinness" to "Joe," and by now they were pulling each other’s leg as often as not, at least partly as a defense against the exhausting desperation of tax season.
John was still amazed at how quickly it had happened. Only a week before, he’d been out of work and wondering where his next paycheck was coming from, but had been sure it would be in some big-city office somewhere. He hadn’t dreamed of the prospect of actually returning to Spearfish Lake, and already it seemed something of a drag to have to return to Decatur to prepare for the move. It still seemed like a dream.
They’d found some slack time in the tax grind to work out a deal. John would make a down payment to Joe to buy into the business, and would buy him out over a period of ten years. Making payments wouldn’t even involve checks, just a paper transaction, but it effectively meant that for a number of years he was going to be making less than he would have made at Walker, Wade, unless they could substantially increase the amount of business. But, there wasn’t a lot of concern about that; Joe had been turning away business for some time for the lack of time to deal with it, and they’d already picked up a couple new accounts on the strength of John’s joining the business.
The actual transaction wouldn’t take place for a few days, since John would have to tap his bank account in Decatur for the down payment, but there was more than enough money there to do it, considering what he’d put there in recent months cashing out of Rotunda stock.
It proved that he’d cashed out just in time, too; the earnings report announced on Monday was abysmal, and Wednesday, Rotunda filed for Chapter 13 and announced a huge round of layoffs. John thanked his lucky stars that he’d had the sense to suspect what was coming and get out while there was still time.
"Yeah, but at Walker, Wade, you don’t get the view you get here, at least in the summer," Joe smiled. He had a point. While Walker Wade had a panoramic view of the city from their 37th-floor office, John’s new office window as at ground level, and faced the beach, which Joe insisted was alive with bikinis all summer.
"Don’t you go mentioning that around Candice," John said, "Or she’ll be down here hanging curtains."
"I know better," Joe smiled. "Don’t you go mentioning it around my wife, either. Let’s blow out the candles and get out of here. I’d suggest we go get a drink, but anywhere we go, someone is going to be wanting to talk taxes, and I don’t even want to be thinking about that until at least Monday."
"I suppose," John agreed. "Guess I’ll see you Wednesday."
There was still a huge amount of work to get done around what would be McGuinness -Archer Accounting in a few days; a lot of regular work had been put off under the crush of tax season. John and Candice had agreed that the boys were going to have to finish out the school year in Decatur; this close to the end of the year, it would be a real distraction for them to have to move with only a few weeks remaining. Besides, it would take a while to get set up to move, and they still had to find a place to buy in Spearfish Lake. The only way they’d been able to figure out to deal with that issue was to take Candice and the boys back to Decatur – it was already hard to think of it as home. John would have to spend Monday on business down there, like getting the house listed, and would drive back to Spearfish Lake on Tuesday. He or Candice would make a round trip most weekends to be together, and to prepare to make the move. It was not a happy prospect, but there weren’t a lot of alternatives.
But, one of the happier things that they’d already worked out was that for the time being Joe and John were each only going to work four-day weeks; that gave John time for arranging to move or traveling, and it gave Joe time to get out kayaking. In among all the tax work the previous week, Joe had picked up the word that the Little Spearfish River was up and raging. He and Rod Turpin, his longtime whitewater kayaking buddy, had been talking about incomprehensible things like "boofing" and "steep creeking" as they planned their trip for tomorrow. John had no idea what that meant, but suspected that he’d find out soon enough.
"Have a safe trip," Joe told him. "That’s got to be a bitch of a long drive. Don’t feel you have to rush back if you need to spend an extra day."
"Hey, Dad," Shay said as they were in the car, heading south out of Spearfish Lake, "Does moving up here mean we can get a dog?"
John and Candice glanced at each other across the width of the front seat. She smiled and cocked her head, which John well knew meant that she could go either way. "I don’t know, yet," he told his son. "It’s not impossible, but your mother and I really haven’t had much of a chance to talk about it. A lot will probably depend on where we wind up finding a house."
Earlier in the week they had taken the boys aside and quietly told them that there was a good chance they’d be moving up here for the next school year, and he and Candice had been a little surprised at how well Shay and Cody were taking the idea. Both were a little disappointed at having to leave their school friends in Decatur, but with the prospect of either Hopkins or Valley Christian hanging over Shay, he was happy at the alternative, which tempered the disappointment considerably. Cody had taken his cue from Shay, as usual. Besides, there were other compensations; they’d get to see Grandpa and Grandma a lot more.
Walt had done something special for the boys to help them get over the initial disappointment. Back at Christmas, he’d offered them a ride on one of the railroad engines, but the timing hadn’t worked out. The day after they’d told the boys, he’d made up for it in spades, with more than just a move around the yard – he’d taken both the boys in the SD-40s on a run up to Big Pit. John had taken a similar ride with his dad twenty years before, not long after Walt left the D&O, which had meant a seventy-mile commute to work and an overnight run every third day, and gone to work for the C&SL. In those days, it had been an all-day run to get to Warsaw and back, and John remembered the intense boredom he’d felt, but the track was so much better now that a run to Big Pit and back, twice as far, was only a half-day affair. The boys had thoroughly enjoyed it, and when Candice met them at the edge of town they seemed ready to go on to Camden with their grandfather. Both the boys announced that they wanted to be railroaders when they grew up. It did run in the family, though.
Candice had taken advantage of the boys’ absence with their grandfather to check out the schools in Spearfish Lake. The arrangement was a little different; Shay would be in sixth grade next year, but that was still elementary school here, not middle school like in Decatur. The elementary school building was the same one John had attended many years before, but it was in good shape, unlike Shelby Elementary in Decatur, where the boys currently attended. Spearfish Lake took spring break a different week from down in Decatur; classes had been in session, and she’d visited two or three. She was pleased, but not especially surprised, to be favorably impressed with the staff and the programs at Spearfish Lake Elementary, and she’d given a brief look at the Middle and High Schools as well. There would be no Hopkins horror here. She’d been so impressed with the schools that after lunch she’d taken the boys over to the schools to get them acquainted, and they seemed to look forward to the change.
Best of all, she’d learned that there was a wide range of summer activities for the kids, a summer recreation program and a number of ball leagues, plus a new-but-active soccer league that would help the boys get involved with their new classmates before school started. John was looking forward to getting a case of bleacher butt watching the kids play ball; it beat them sitting around the house in Decatur.
"Aunt Tiffany said she’d teach us to drive a dog sled," Shay reported. "I think that would be neat."
"I said a dog," John teased. "Not a whole yard full."
"Did she really drive a dogsled to school?" Cody asked.
John smiled. This would tease Candice, anyway. "It was after I left here," he said. "But your grandfather told me that she drove a dog sled to school most days there was snow after she was in seventh grade, so we’ve got a little while before we have to work that out."
"I don’t know about a dog sledding team," Candice replied. "That’s a lot of work. You know how much work Aunt Tiffany and Uncle Josh have to do just to feed the dogs and clean up after them. On the other hand," she continued, twitting John right back, "If it was horses we were talking about, it might be different."
John thought for a moment before replying. He knew that one of the things that Candice had missed most from her girlhood in Arvada Center was having horses; such a thing had never been possible while they’d been married. John had thought that the desire had been burned out over the years, but apparently it still lingered. On the other hand, the whole week had gone so well he felt a bit expansive. "Horses are bigger," he said finally, trying to keep it light. "You have to feed them even more than dogs. And, there’s more of what comes out the other end, too. But it might be something to think about."
"Maybe someday," Candice replied. "I don’t think I’d care to show horses again, but it’d be nice to do some trail riding again."
John shot her a look that he hoped she would take as "We’ll talk about this later." No, the bug wasn’t dead, just lying dormant, after all. He knew he needed to change the subject quickly, before the boys picked up on it. "The thing is, you have to feed them whether you’re riding them or not," he said. "But you don’t have to feed a kayak. Joe is starting to get me a little interested in that. I think I’m going to want to give that a try."
"You’re not both going to be able to get away at the same time to run some horrendous drop in Outer Mongolia or somewhere," Candice smiled. "I don’t think I’d get too interested in whitewater, if I were you."
"I don’t know," he said with a smile. "It does look like fun. But, I did get a chance to sneak over to Josh and Tiffany’s store one day this week, and they do have some interesting boats in there. That actually looks like it might be something pretty reasonable to look at. And, I do think that if we’re going to live up here, we should take advantage of some of the things that we can do here."
"Yeah, but kayaks are so slow, Dad," Shay protested. "If we were to live on the lake, we could have a jet ski."
Over my dead body, John thought. He didn’t even get out on the water and the yahoos on jet skis still irritated him.
"We might be able to find a place on the lake," Candice said. "I got a copy of the real estate flyer the day before yesterday, and there was a place in it that was less than our house should sell for."
"Then there’s something wrong with it," John snorted. "They don’t give lakefront property away, even up here."
"I drove by it," she persisted. "I didn’t talk to an agent, or anything, but the ad said it was on Point Drive, and I found it from the picture. It looked pretty good to me."
"Pretty far out on the point?" he asked.
"It’s out on the back side of the point," she explained. "About four miles from downtown. It wouldn’t be a bad bike ride. It’d be pretty level."
"I don’t think we want it," John said flatly.
"Why?" Candice wanted to know.
John explained that the city of Spearfish Lake sits at the root of the north side of a point jutting out into the lake itself. The north side of the point is relatively high and sandy, with a broad, sandy ridge perhaps twelve or fifteen feet high not far back from the lake shore. Point Drive runs out along this ridge to the tip of the point, then a little ways back on the south side of the point before it turns to a two-rut, then peters out. Close to town, Point Drive is lined with large beachfront houses, some a century old or more, making it the best neighborhood in Spearfish Lake. People with money like the banker, Frank Matson, and Jennifer Evachevski had their homes there. Farther to the west, Point Drive and the lakefront are lined with somewhat more modest houses. No cottages lined the south shore of the point, or most of the south side of the lake, for that matter. Though potentially valuable, the ground was very low, only inches above the lake and frequently flooded. God had insufficiently divided the waters from the lands here; while there were places that a boat could float, they were relatively rare, and getting to them was tough.
"In other words, it’s a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes," he related. "The farther out on Point Drive you get, the closer to the swamps you get. While right now, the place would probably look pretty good, in a month you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and it’d be bad all summer. It’s OK when the sun is out and there’s a breeze blowing, but as soon as the sun sets, they’d suck you dry."
Candice shook her head. "Well, maybe not, then," she replied. "We couldn’t keep horses there, anyway."
There was the mention of horses again. Well, he wasn’t going to draw a line in the sand over the idea now, but it wasn’t something that he wanted to face right away, either. "There might be some places out north of town where we could have lakefront and some space for horses," he said. "But I’d imagine that the price would be quite a bit higher, and probably out of our range. That’s something I’m going to have to work on next week."
"Lakefront would be nice," she replied. "It’d be nice to get back in shape again, maybe be able to wear a swimsuit decently, and get a little tan."
John looked over at his wife, her long, straight black hair hanging well below her shoulders. She always looked as if she had a bit of a tan, with olive skin that John surmised was inherited from her long-dead Italian war bride grandmother. A smile crossed his face, one that he was sure Candice picked up, although it was concealed from the boys. He remembered the kind of swimsuits that Candice had worn – well, barely worn, since there hadn’t been much to them – back in the days when they were first married, and before. She smiled back. Yes, she was thinking the same thing, but it was best not to get on that subject while the boys were with them.
"Well, that’s something we need to talk about while we’re driving today," he said, trying to hold onto the image she’d placed on his mind. "We need to get some idea of what we want. Like, we need to consider if we want to be in town, or not."
"That is a consideration," she said, seriously. "Shay, Cody, we want your thoughts on this, too. That was one of the down sides of living out on the farm. It was really too far to ride a bike to go visit a friend, or ride to school. If you had after-school activities, then you had to get someone to drive you, and sometimes there wasn’t anyone around. Living out in the country might affect your being on ball teams, or whatever."
"It would be neat if we could ride our bikes to school," Shay said. "It would mean that we could hang out with friends after school, and not have to have a ride."
"It wouldn’t be a big deal if you weren’t as close to school as we are now," John said. "I think you’re getting old enough that you could take care of yourself after school, at least in Spearfish Lake. We’d have to see, but maybe if you looked after your brother, both of you could ride your bikes when the weather is nice." And we couldn’t even consider that in Decatur, he thought, not with some of the traffic between the house and the school. Their neighborhood was pretty safe for Decatur, but people still made sure their doors had good locks. His house had never been locked when he’d been a kid.
It was really something of a reach for him to consider buying in with Joe and moving up here. Money would be a lot tighter, and a number of things about the way they lived would change. But, all in all, they were changes for the better. Maybe they were still just in time to keep from raising a pair of city kids.
On Tuesday morning, John headed back up the highway for Spearfish Lake. He was in a strange netherworld – already Decatur wasn’t seeming like home, but Spearfish Lake wasn’t home again, either, although he would be living with his parents again, at least for the next month or so. The next few weeks were going to be strange, with either he or Candice having to do the eight-hour one-way drive to be together. They hoped to be able to change off weekends, and the four-day weeks he’d be working would help.
What was really strange was that he’d be away from Candice. While there had been many nights that he’d been home very late, in a dozen years of being married, they’d never faced the prospect of having to spend the night alone until now.
Candice had gotten up early Monday morning and left on the hour-plus commute through heavy traffic that she’d face getting to the Windemere office in Woodland Park, while he’d gotten the boys off to school. The length of her commute meant that the boys were going to have to walk home from school and be home alone for at least an hour each evening, and they hadn’t been happy about the prospect.
That morning, he had arranged for a fund transfer from his bank account, gone to visit a realtor to get the house listed, got the oil changed in his car and a couple other errands run, then returned home to find Candice’s car in the driveway. "I guess I get to be a stay-at-home mom again," she announced with a broad smile on her face. "While we were gone, they terminated my position entirely."
"Nice of them to tell us," he said. "We could have used the money."
"I was a little bummed about it on the way back," she agreed. "But then, I got to thinking about it. I was taking a cut to go over there, anyway. Add that to the extra cost of commuting to Woodland Park, and I’ll make more on unemployment than I would have working. I don’t think I’m going to be too anxious to look for work when we get up to Spearfish Lake, at least till the unemployment runs out. Besides, we can use me here for the next few weeks, too." There were still things that needed to be done to move out of Decatur, and she’d now have the time to deal with them.
So now, he was headed north with the car pretty well loaded. Since they were going to be driving back and forth anyway, they’d decided that there was no point in going with the car empty, and it would cut down on the hassle when the time for heavy moving came.
It had only been two weeks ago that he had decided it was time to get out of Rotunda without waiting for it to fall on its face, and he’d made it just in time. He had considerable severance pay from leaving, and it would go a long way toward making the down payment with Joe. If he’d waited only a few more days, that would most likely have gone by the wayside.
He was still a little amazed at how things had turned around. The outlook had not been promising when he’d walked out of Rotunda on his last day, and even if they’d stayed in Decatur, it would have been in a life that was chafing at him more than a bit. Then, totally unexpectedly, the chance had come to build a new existence, one that would be better for his family and himself, one where he felt like they’d have some control of their lives.
There would be problems ahead, he was sure; but he thought that they would be worth the trouble. And, so, he drove north to the future with a degree of anticipation of moving toward better things.
It had been a long time since he’d lived in Spearfish Lake, and John wasn’t entirely sure that he’d ever been in the Spearfish Lake Café, but his dad had a run in the morning, and said that he usually had breakfast with the gang there when he was working. "You oughta come along," he said. "Joe usually eats breakfast there, and Josh and Phil sometimes, too."
There wasn’t much untypical about the Spearfish Lake Café. It was like what must have been ten thousand other little breakfast-lunch places, right down to the deer heads on the wall and the last year’s basketball schedules hanging underneath them. There was a counter at one side, and booths along the far wall. In the back corner of the room there was a big table in the corner with three or four chairs empty. They took seats there.
Joe was indeed there, a big bandage on his head. John wondered what that was all about. "I see it didn’t take you long to find this place," Joe smiled.
"I had help," John replied.
"Well, this is a good chance to introduce you to everybody," he said "You know everybody here?"
Mark and Mike were both seated at the table, as was Gil Evachevski, Brandy’s dad, who John remembered a little from the old days and from the wedding a few days before. That was about half the table. "A few," he replied.
"Those of you who don’t know him," Joe said, "This is John Archer, Walt’s kid, and my new business partner. He’s moving back here from Decatur."
"After you walloped your head, I wouldn’t think you’d want more time out kayaking," Gil snorted. "John, you may be getting yourself in for more than you expect."
Joe shrugged off Gil’s wisecrack and introduced John around the table. After introductions, John thought he remembered Ryan Clark, the plant manager at the plywood plant, and Steve Augsberg, the production manager; Ryan’s son, Randy, an executive at Clark Construction; Denny Szczerowski, who ran the LP gas business, and Hjalmer Lindahlsen, who managed the lumber yard. "I’ve heard about you, I think," John smiled. Of course – now that he could put the name with the face, he could remember quite a bit. The guy had a reputation as a practical joker – a good guy, but with a skewed sense of humor.
"I didn’t do it, and I can prove I wasn’t there," the jovial little guy laughed.
"Something to do with chili, I think."
"That just goes to show you," he laughed. "You can laugh, and no one knows it. You can cry, and no one knows it. But make one damn pot of chili, and you never live it down."
"Lotta faces missing here this morning," Walt commented.
"Well, let’s see," Mike said. "Bud left for Florida. Josh is asleep. Phil has been pulling big hours on some software project for Brandy. Frank is at some conference. I don’t know where Dave and Jim are, and Chris left a few minutes ago. He said he had some extra switching to do at Warsaw. Oh, and Marty was in. He said the 603 is done and you’ll have it today."
"I ought to explain," Walt said. "This is sort of the place that the railroaders hang out. Back when we ran both rock trains in the daytime, we had it set up so that we’d have our meet here at lunchtime. Kinda handy, sitting right next to the passing track and all."
"So, Joe, what happened to your head?" John wanted to know.
"Well, Ben and I were creeking over on the Little Spearfish, doing the center drop at Quaker. I missed my boof and pearled, wound up in a backroller and got windowshaded a couple of times. It was a little gnarly there for a minute till I hit a bottom brace, but at least I didn’t have to swim."
"I presume you’re talking about kayaking?" John asked, a little stunned at all the jargon.
"Don’t worry about it," Mark laughed, before Joe could say anything. "He’ll have you talking like that before you can say ‘high brace.’"
"So, have you moved up here, yet?" Augsberg asked.
"Not yet," John admitted. "The kids are in school, and we’ve still got to sell the place in Decatur, so my wife is staying there while I find a place up here."
"I’ll tell Binky you’re a local boy, and to go easy on you," he laughed.
"There are other real estate people in this town, but my wife handles more than anyone else, I think. You really ought to talk to her."
"She’s had the hot hand in real estate up here for, oh hell, fifteen years, now," Mike confirmed. "She advertises more than anyone else, for one thing, and that’s to her benefit. Of course, in my business, advertising is good. But she does have a reputation for being fair and honest, if she thinks you’re not out to cheat her. But the bottom line is that she works harder at it than anyone else."
"There’s honest, then there’s honest," Hjalmer snorted. "You ask her, and she tells the truth, and I can’t take that away from her. It’s what she doesn’t tell you and you don’t think to ask that hurts."
"Binky is an operator, always has been," Mark said. "We’d never have found Henry if she hadn’t been."
"We were lucky to have her," Gil agreed. "We’d never have gotten past first base if she hadn’t been with us."
"That’s the Toivo deal, right?" John asked. Almost thirty years before, a Spearfish Lake boy – then the fiancé of Kirsten, who later became Mike’s wife and Tiffany’s mother – went missing in Vietnam. A group of local veterans had promised his father and Kirsten to go looking for him if the chance ever arose. It took over ten years for the chance to come, but they’d kept the faith, found his remains, and brought them back to Spearfish Lake. John knew about the expedition, but little about the details. It was long ago, and he hadn’t been living in town when it happened.
"Yeah," Gil replied. "They can say what they will about Binky, but I’d rather have her with me than against me."