Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Tuesday, October 13, 1998
As towns go, Bradford, Michigan is nothing special. It’s just a country town of about 3,000 people, like hundreds or thousands of others. It’s far enough away from bigger towns with more shopping opportunities like South Bend or Bolivar or Hawthorne, so there are several stores of various natures that serve most routine needs, including a fairly large grocery store. In general, prices are a little higher than you’d find in the Walmart in Hawthorne, but when the time and gas to run to one of the bigger towns is figured in, the numbers often change the other way.
The big thing Bradford has going for it is its location – it’s right in the fuzzy area where TV sets tuned to baseball games can about equally be watching the Detroit Tigers or Chicago Cubs. In only a few miles on I-67 the traveler comes to the Indiana Turnpike, with Chicago to the west and Cleveland farther to the east. It’s very centrally located to a fairly large percentage of the country’s population, at least as the truck drivers see it.
A good connection to Conrail completed the deal for General Hardware Retailers just as Jason had gotten out of the Army and was looking for a job that could be expected to last for a while. The nationwide chain decided the central location and rail connection made Bradford an ideal location for a regional distribution center, and virtually since the beginning it had been far and away the largest business and biggest employer in Hawthorne County. Just outside town on the other side of the overpass from the Chicago Inn, General consists of a huge warehouse with nearly a hundred truck bays and two dozen rail platforms. Surrounding the warehouse is an even-larger parking lot, usually filled with literally hundreds of semi trailers, with trucks coming and going steadily at all hours of the day or night. It’s a busy place, and several hundred Bradfordites are among those from surrounding towns that make up the work force that moves, sorts, stores, and ships an unimaginable array of merchandise in considerable confusion, but with only rare mistakes.
Jason got hired into General on the third major round of hiring in early 1973, so was now one of the senior employees. The continual hustle and bustle, along with pressure not to screw up the merchandise transfers and loadings made it a stressful environment, and people who couldn’t hack it tended not to last. In spite of considerable stress at times in his life, along with the stress in the plant, he’d stuck it out since then. His seniority was such that he could bid just about any job on the plant floor and get it, but he’d pretty much stuck with driving a fork truck since the early 1980s in spite of several offers to be a dock supervisor. That would have meant that he’d be back to being on his feet all the time and the extra pay wouldn’t be enough to put up with the pain. Besides, his seniority guaranteed him a day shift on a fork truck, which was by no means assured as a dock supervisor. The stress level was a little lower, as well; dock supervisors were responsible for making sure that what was supposed to go on a truck actually made it onto the truck, while the fork truck drivers only had to get it to the right dock in the first place.
Jason’s real secret to dealing with the stress was he could go home and relax by banging on a piece of hot iron. If it was late or he didn’t feel like hammering, he could sit down in one of a couple different work areas around the house to work on finishing a knife. Hardly a day went by that he didn’t mentally thank the Army in general and Sergeant Morgenstern in particular for igniting a life-long passion that had served him well.
For no good reason other than it sounded like something that might keep him from carrying a rifle, he’d chosen to enlist in the Army to train as a welder. He did all right in the school, but when he got to the maintenance battalion in Vietnam he found they had plenty of them. He was stuck with scut work and dumb jobs, but one day he got assigned to help Master Sergeant Paul Morgenstern in what passed for a blacksmith shop. He’d had a smattering of the subject in the Army school, but MSG Morgenstern was a true artisan. They were out in the middle of damn nowhere in Long Binh without much to do off duty. He soon learned it was more fun to just hang around the shop with the sergeant after work than it was to head over to the enlisted men’s club and drink – mostly because the old sergeant was a knife maker on the side, and taught him some of the tricks.
It was actually a pretty good deal. There was a market for knives as souvenirs, usually the bigger the better, and occasionally, there would be someone, often a Green Beret, who decided the issue field knives weren’t quite what he wanted. Morgenstern, and later Jason, could supply those needs, usually using busted jeep or truck leaf springs as raw material. Jason actually still had the first knife he made; it was nothing to write home about but had sentimental value. The next couple hundred, though, were turned out there in the blacksmith shop at Long Binh, with Morgenstern teaching him with every one. He learned things like normalizing, annealing, quenching, tempering, and heat treating, what each one is used for and how much, the differences between steels and how to deal with them. He also learned that experience, a good eye, and good instincts often count as much if not more than numbers on a chart.
Morgenstern told him there was a limit to what they could do with the tools and materials at hand, and hinted at some of the things that could be done. When Morgenstern rotated home about a month before Jason, Jason figured that sooner or later he’d find someone who could teach him those things. A couple months later, after leave in the states, Jason headed on to a maintenance battalion in Germany, and he was surprised to walk into the shop and find Sergeant Morgenstern there. By some Army quirk – a real long shot – the team had reassembled.
Now Jason began to learn some of the more advanced techniques, for in Germany they had access to advanced tools and materials, including awesome varieties of steels. No more cheap, quick-and-dirty toad-stickers for guys who wanted to show off how much testosterone they had. In the ’Nam, they might have turned out three or four knives an evening between them; now, they might spend a week or more – sometimes much more – on just one knife. Morgenstern was trying to master the ancient technique of pattern welding Damascus steel, which could be used to turn out some incredibly beautiful, flexible, and strong swords. There was some static from the officer who ran the shop and objected to them using the facilities in the off hours, but that ended when they told the battalion commander they couldn’t finish the beautiful Damascus steel ceremonial saber they were making for him. When he finally headed back to Bradford after nearly two and a half years of working with Sergeant Morgenstern, Jason was well grounded in the basics and pretty well had finished his apprenticeship, but like any good journeyman, he had been working on the nuances and the artisanship ever since.
In the long term, it was one of the sorrows of Jason’s life that he’d been unable to pass the skill on to his son. Duane could make a serviceable toad-sticker, but didn’t have the patience or the delicacy to turn out a work of art. A number of people over the years had told him they’d like to know more about it, and he’d shown them some of the basics, but it had never grabbed anyone the way it had grabbed him.
Oh, well, I’ve got another twenty or thirty years, he thought as he stared into his cup of coffee several mornings later out at the Chicago Inn. He’d woken up early for no good reason, and rather than trying to go back to sleep he’d come out with the idea of having an extra cup of coffee, which is what he was doing when Kevin Holst came in and sat down across the table from him. “Morning, Kevin,” he smiled, glad of someone to talk to. “Did Emily get over her snit from Sunday?”
“Oh, yeah,” he nodded. “That’s one thing I’ve always liked about her. When she gets a bug up her ass, it never stays there long. It was a downer from Saturday night, that’s all, and I got her over it Sunday after we left here.”
“How’d you do that?”
“It was such a nice day that I suggested we go riding. She wasn’t too hot on that, but we got the bike out, and I made her drive.” He snickered and went on. “I don’t know why we don’t do it that way more. She likes running it, and I don’t exactly mind hanging onto her boobs.”
“Hell, that makes you the rare one,” Jason snorted. “Nine Harley owners out of ten would no more ride in back of their wives than they’d ride a rice burner.”
“Well, yeah, it’s a macho thing,” Kevin smiled. “I mean, hell, it’s that way most of the time with me, but I figured it was worth it under the circumstances. And it worked.”
“Maybe what you ought to do is get her a bike of her own,” Jason smiled. “That’d do a number on that doing-nothing-special rant she was carrying on about. Hell, everyone likes to feel a little special, so do something special. That’s why people get tattoos, get piercings.”
“Or make knives and wear kilts,” Kevin grinned. “But that’s the idea I had, too.”
“What, have her get a tattoo and a couple piercings?”
“Hell no, get her a bike,” Kevin smiled. “What I’ve got is too damn big for her, there’s no getting around it. You wouldn’t happen to be thinking about selling yours, would you?”
“No, not really,” he nodded, thinking of the ’56 he had sitting in the garage, and rode once in a while. Like the Firebird, he’d bought it young and held onto it, but it hadn’t gained in value anything like the Pontiac had. “It’s like the Firebird, I don’t ride it much, but that panhead engine makes it a collector’s item. I mean, I’d sell it if someone came along and offered me a bunch of bucks for it, but it’s too big for her, and even though it’s nothing special, it’s probably out of your price range.”
“Yeah, that’s an issue,” Kevin sighed. “I don’t have a hell of a lot of money to throw at it. Face it, it’s a toy, and I’m still not smoking so I can make payments on the big bike.”
“Better for your health anyway,” Jason nodded, lighting a cigarette. Smoking was one thing he didn’t worry much about; if some of the stuff he’d breathed around hot metal over the years hadn’t killed him, he didn’t figure there was much chance that a few cigarettes a day could manage it.
“There is an alternative,” Kevin replied, keeping his voice down. “There’s a guy I know who’s got a ’76 Sportster he’d let me have at a pretty good price, even if it has problems.”
“If it’s a ’76, it is a problem, right there,” Jason replied. “That means it’s an AMF, which means it’s a piece of shit, you know that.”
Jason didn’t have to explain that Harley-Davidson had been bought up by a conglomerate, American Machine and Foundry in the late 1960s. The company, also known as AMF, was better known for making bowling pinspotters and had bought up other recreational companies with marginal success. In an effort to cut costs, they’d run up the production rates but let quality control slide. Bikers were quick to pick up on it; sales dropped, and the bikes got even crappier – new bikes were known for leaving puddles of oil under them on the showroom floor.
Eventually the whole works was getting set to go down the tubes, Harleys and pinspotters and all. In the last days, a few stalwarts managed to enlist the help of an investment bank, and with a great deal of courage (and a little help from the International Trade Commission, which instituted a temporary tariff on large imported bikes) managed to save the last remaining American motorcycle maker. The new management – which included Willie Davidson, the grandson of one of the founders – turned ruthless about quality control, and in the next few years turned Harley-Davidson into an American icon and a major success story. By that time, there were plenty of new cars that cost less out of a showroom than a snorting, really rather primitive Harley – and the cars weren’t on a waiting list either.
It wasn’t all bad, at least from this perspective: there had been a lot of AMF bikes made, and prices on them were not high, especially because those AMF bikes that had survived were not the collector’s items that older and even some newer bikes were. Prices were more reasonable as a result, but that was only if you could put up with them being the unreliable mechanical monsters they had the reputation of being.
“I know,” Kevin said. “It’s in a box; the guy started to go through it and blueprint it, do a total restoration, and get rid of the stuff that has a reputation for breaking. But he ran out of steam on it, and I can get it for five hundred, and hell, I know I could rebuild it. It’s mostly a case of putting the pieces back together, and he’s already got the engine done.”
“You might have something there, after all,” Jason nodded. “The thing of it is, those box jobs usually turn into a bigger chore than you’re expecting.”
“I know that,” he sighed. “Hell, I’ve done it before. The problem is that this time, I’d like to make it a surprise to Emily. Maybe give it to her for Christmas. That means I couldn’t do it out in the garage.”
Jason smiled, seeing the problem. “That means not only are you looking for a place to do it, but you’re looking for an excuse to be away enough to get it done.”
“Right. I mean, I’d tell Emily what was coming down, but if I do it I’ve put myself under a deadline, and I’ll catch hell if something happens and I fall behind. I’d thought of asking you, but she and Vicky are thick as thieves, and there goes the surprise.”
“Maybe not,” Jason told him. “Vicky got an earful of that rant on Sunday, and she seems pretty sensitive to the issue. The thing is to not try to keep her out of the secret, but make her a part of it. She’d be able to cover for you better than you ever could yourself.”
“Still, it’s a hell of a big favor to ask,” Kevin said. “I was going to ask you to do a couple things on it anyway. You still do chrome plating, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but mostly on smaller stuff, and not very often. Generally speaking, a chrome-plated knife is a crappy knife, but sometimes I get orders for them. Bigger parts, I’d just say send to a shop equipped to do it. But I could build some custom stuff to help individualize it, like a custom sissy bar or something.”
“I’d be glad if you could,” Kevin smiled. “But as far as actually doing the bike, I’ve still got the problem of an excuse to get away to work on it.”
“Kevin my man,” Jason grinned broadly. “You’re not thinking it through. You ever think you’d like to learn how to make a knife?”
“I’ve often wondered how you do it, but I don’t know how I’d ever be as good at it as you are.”
“I didn’t learn it overnight,” Jason said. “It took me two and a half years to get a good grounding in the basics, and the stuff I turn out now is way past the basics. It goes real slow in the beginning. Hell, it took me days to turn out my first toad-sticker, and that was with a real master helping me. I could kick out that same toad-sticker in a couple hours of actual working time now, except I don’t usually do toad-stickers. That buys you a lot of time to work on the bike.”
“Yeaaaaah,” Kevin smiled. “That could work. I mean, it could really work, but I feel like I’m going to owe you a hell of a lot.”
“We’ll figure out some way to make it up,” Jason offered. “I mean, hell, if nothing else my house needs a coat of paint next spring, and I’ll tell you one damn thing, I don’t like ladders.”
“I don’t like them much myself,” Kevin nodded. “But I work with my brother painting some, and he uses a travel lift when he can because he doesn’t much like ladders, either.” He let out a sigh. “All right, I’ll see if I can beat the guy with the bike in boxes down another fifty or hundred just on general principles. It’s going to take some dancing around on the schedule, and I’m not going to be able to work on it all that much. I’m hoping it’s not going to be that big a job, because I have other things to do, too.”
“Maybe a night or two a week will be enough, we’ll have to dig into the box and see,” Jason shrugged. “Hell, I have other things to do, too. Which makes me think – did Emily ever get to talk to Eve about that party we were talking about Sunday?”
“She couldn’t catch up with her Monday, but talked to her last night,” Kevin reported. “I figured Eve would tell her to go straight to hell, but Emily put it to her so nice that she said she thought it would be a cute idea.” He let out a sigh and continued, “So I guess I get to wear a dress in a few days.”
“Och, laddie!” Jason smiled, slipping into his fake Scots accent. “I kin tell ya, mon, that bein’ free of havin’ ta wear troosers, ’tis a blessing, not a curse.”
“Shit, you can say that,” Kevin snorted. “Mostly because when you’re wearing a kilt you’ve got a dirk in your belt and wristlets with throwing knives, maybe one or two in your boots just on general principles. There’s not many people who are going to argue with that, especially knowing there’s a hell of a lot more cutlery where those came from. I don’t have that argument. I mean, it’s not one of those things that I can make an issue about under the circumstances.”
“Aye, lad, but it’s just an evenin’, an’ Halloween a’ tha’.” He slipped out of the accent, and continued. “It might even be fun at that. Part of the reason I wear a kilt once in a while, especially around town, is I get the goddamndest reactions out of people. I have to admit while I didn’t meet Eve last weekend, I’m surprised Emily talked her into it. She must really have talked like a politician.”
“Or a used car salesman, same difference,” Kevin smirked. “I’ll tell her you said that.”
Thursday, October 22, 1998
To say Vicky hated her job was an understatement – she despised it and loathed it. If there was any downside to her leaving Augie two and a half years before, it was that she’d left behind a decent if not a spectacular job as a bookkeeper in the process. It had not been easy to find her current job when she came back to Bradford, and she stuck with it only because it was at least better than nothing. It ground her ass every time she thought about it, which was frequently; she had not endured four years at Central Michigan University to be a cashier at Walmart.
By any measure, it was a lousy job. The pay reeked; it wasn’t much more than minimum wage. She was on her feet all day, and it seemed like every other customer who came through the line was crabby. The scheduling was such that she might find herself working any old hours that happened to come up, and the management was really a bunch of Nazis unless her drawer balanced to the penny. Worse, even after two and a half years she was still on part-time – the management didn’t like to have employees on full-time, since that meant they might have to pay benefits and not treat the employees like it was a concentration camp. She often envied Jason his job at General – the management there was fair and proactive with their employees. They seemed to think employees were an important part of the team, not just slave labor to be taken advantage of. Maybe it was partly because they had a union, but Jason had worked there before it had been voted in and said things had been little worse before. Walmart, however, has been known to close stores where the employees voted to unionize.
There was some advantage to being part-time, even at a scumbag place like the Hawthorne Walmart: it gave her plenty of chance to file applications and résumés anywhere she could think of, and often allowed her to be out and about during business hours. Maybe someday one of those résumés would come through, she thought as she drove home toward Bradford.
Her car was nothing to write home about. It was an Olds Cutlass Ciera, basically a good car that hadn’t needed much maintenance, although it was nine years old now and starting to show more than a little cancer from all the salt Michigan threw around on roads in the winter. It was another relic of Augie; she’d wanted a new car with a little pizzaz, but his sister had given him a good deal on it so there wasn’t much room to argue. At least it was paid for, out of terms of the settlement. That was good, since on the pittance she made at Walmart she couldn’t afford a replacement. It had given her good service, even when she’d driven it to Las Vegas and lived there for a while to hide out during the early months of the divorce. But it was getting old enough and tired enough that she was starting to get a little reluctant about taking it very far from home.
Nevertheless, she valued her time behind the wheel of the gray Olds, because it gave her a chance to think, time she had away from home with her mother having the TV going all the time. The last few days she’d been thinking a lot about the epiphany she’d had a week ago Sunday. It did not take much thought to come up with several potential downsides beyond that of possibly lousing up what was a pretty decent thing if the plan didn’t go right. To top it off, there would be a huge stumbling block hidden down the road a ways. If it came down to it she might be faced with having to give up one of her oldest and closest-held dreams to make everything else work – but the potential upsides seemed to be worth it. It wasn’t going to be an easy sell and obviously was going to take time; it was going to have to seem natural, unrushed, even unintended, with the temperature coming up so slowly that it would hardly be noticeable.
As she pulled into Bradford, she noticed that the gas gauge was getting down a little, so decided to swing by the Spee-D-Mart, since it usually had the cheapest gas in town. She was not surprised to see Emily’s minivan sitting at the end of the parking lot. As the manager, Emily had to work odd shifts to fill in hours when there might not be coverage, so the chances of her being there at any given time, day or night, were always up in the air. Vicky often worked as a fill-in, too, although the pay was less than Walmart, if such a thing were possible. She liked the job a little more, since there’d often be someone to talk with, rather than just enduring an endless line of sheep who thought Walmart was a good deal for the community. She wouldn’t have minded working at the Spee-D-Mart full-time under the circumstances, but she and Emily had agreed long before that it might not be a good idea since they were such good friends. All in all, that was fine with her.
She pulled up to the pumps, got out and filled the tank, then headed inside to the register. “Hi, Ems,” she said, using the nickname she’d occasionally called her friend since early teenhood. “What’s happening around Bradford today?”
“Oh, the usual,” Emily smiled. “I got a note from Dave Patterson saying he was sorry he couldn’t make it to the reunion, but one of his kids was sick.”
“That’s a shame,” Vicky replied. “I’ll bet I haven’t seen him since the summer we graduated.”
“It’s been a while for me,” Emily agreed. “He doesn’t make it back here much; he’s too much of a New Yorker now. I think the last time I saw him was when he stopped in for gas a year or two ago.”
“Yeah, he went up the on-ramp pretty hard and hasn’t looked back, from what I hear,” Vicky commented.
“He’s not alone,” Emily sighed. “Just another ’88 who went up the on-ramp to better things, fun, and adventure. Add to that, a pretty good paycheck from what his mother says.”
“While we sit back here in Bradford and wish,” Vicky nodded, reading Emily’s mood perfectly. She was still a little irked about the comparison with some of her classmates at the reunion.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that,” Emily replied, confirming Vicky’s suspicion. “I guess it’s like Jason said, you have to think it up, and you have to do it. You’re going to be voting in a couple weeks, aren’t you?”
“I suppose I can find some Republicans to vote against without working at it too hard,” Vicky nodded.
“When you do, why don’t you write in my name for city council?”
“What?” Vicky frowned.
“You knew Alton Tennant died, didn’t you?”
“Sure, it was in the Courier,” Vicky replied, referring to the local weekly paper. She’d known Tennant by name and by face, although she wouldn’t have wanted to bet the other way around. He was long retired, and had been a fixture around town as long as she could remember.
“He was running for council,” Emily explained. “So now there’s a blank spot on the ballot. Then I heard this morning that Bill Driscoll had taken out papers as a write-in candidate, and I don’t think there’s any way we want that yahoo on council. Marci from city hall was in for doughnuts and said no one else seemed interested in running as a write-in. Well, I got to thinking about Kevin heading over to Jason’s to work on knives and leaving me with the kids.”
Vicky did her absolute best to keep a straight face. A week ago she’d been hanging out with Jason, shooting the bull about nothing in particular as he worked on engraving a blade while she was busy with an old dentist’s drill doing an elaborate scrimshaw of a buck’s head on a knife handle. It was something else he’d started teaching her in high school. She’d proved to be good at it, good enough to inspire her to take a fine arts minor at Central; those had been her better and more fun classes. The doorbell had rung, and there was Kevin with the bed of his pickup filled with motorcycle parts. The two guys had explained what was coming down, and enlisted her help in not only keeping the secret, but in working on the motorcycle with them. She’d extracted one promise for keeping her silence: somehow, she had to be there when Kevin presented it to Emily.
The motorcycle wasn’t just in a box. It was actually a number of boxes, not just one, with some loose larger pieces, and looked like it was going to be a serious project. Really, there aren’t all that many pieces to a fairly simple motorcycle, but in looking them over, the guys thought several seemed to be missing. That was not all bad; from the advice Kevin had gotten at the motorcycle shop, several of those absent would have ended up in the trash anyway, but apparently the replacements hadn’t been ordered yet. That looked like it was going to be an ongoing hassle until the job was finally completed. Still, after looking it over, and over consultations involving several cigarettes and a couple beers, the three of them decided since it was torn down this far they might as well make it a real showpiece, rather than just another Harley.
Vicky’s art courses at Central had left her with some usable skills, and one of them was using an airbrush, so the paint work had quickly become her responsibility. She was still in the prep stages, working with sandpaper, but she had some interesting ideas for when the paint began to fly. She and Kevin had agreed right from the beginning that the basic color had to be royal blue, which both of them knew was Emily’s favorite color.
Because of other projects and interruptions, they’d only gotten one good night in on it together over the past week. Part of that time had to be spent out in the garage with the forge, showing Kevin the basics and warming the place up, just in case Emily should happen to drop by expecting to see some knife work in progress. With a little judicious hiding and scattering of parts, they hoped the bike would look like just more shop junk until final assembly was nearing. When that time came, still a ways off, they were just going to have to keep her the hell out or find a way to hide it under a tarp or something. Hopefully, though, when it got that far, Emily would be bored enough with the process of knife making that the likelihood of her dropping by would be small.
They also weren’t going to be able to work on it much until the weekend, but they planned to put some time in on Sunday. There was a NASCAR race on, and Jason had a TV in the shop, although he rarely watched it. Along with everything else, that might reduce the temptation for Emily to drop by and see what was going on.
“Well, you have to cut the guys some slack,” Vicky counseled gently, hoping the message might stick.
“I know,” Emily smiled. “But I decided I needed something that would get me out of the house without having to take the kids, too. And then I got to thinking about Kevin mentioning Jason’s statement that I ought to be a politician, so while I was on break I snuck over to city hall and signed up. Let him stay home with the kids while I’m at council.”
“Sounds fair to me,” Vicky grinned. “You doing anything about campaigning?”
“I’m not going to do much, other than to let people know I’m running, and I’m an alternative to Driscoll,” she replied. “Maybe I’ll put a little ad in the Courier next week.”
“Tell you what,” Vicky smiled. “I’ll run home and get the digital camera, get a picture of you and run off some flyers on the laser printer. If nothing else, you can have something to stick up in here.”
“I’d thought about that,” Emily nodded. “Nothing too far out, just something like ‘Write in Emily Holst for City Council.’”
“Stick ‘Bradford’ in there,” Vicky suggested. “I’ll keep the ‘Write in’ and ‘City Council’ parts a little smaller. That way the message is ‘Emily Holst for Bradford’, and I think that most people who know you understand that. You’re not going to be one to grind axes like Driscoll.”
Emily let out a sigh. “If I get elected, will you come to a council meeting once in a while, just so I can see a friendly face?”
“Sure, although Emily, you’re not going to lack for friendly faces. Anyone who sees you sitting up there instead of Driscoll is going to have a smile for you.”