Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
It was pretty obvious that the street ahead, what there was of it, was going to peter out and die pretty quickly. I don’t want to say I was lost, but I’ll admit to not knowing where I was going, and in more ways than one. Not that I particularly cared – one place was as good as the next, as long as it was in a direction opposite to Brittany and my family. In the mood I was in right then, I wanted to be as far away from them as I could, and if they didn’t know where I was, so much the better.
Seeing as how it wasn’t likely that this street was going to take me anywhere I wanted to go, I figured that I ought to find a place to turn around. It was narrow, crooked, and headed downhill pretty steeply. I was starting to think I was going to just have to find some kind of a driveway, when things opened up a little. I could see I was near the bottom of the hill since there was a river in front of me; up ahead was a small marina with one of those old green-on-white Coca-Cola signs reading “Winchester Channel Stop.” The sign looked tattered and old and beat-up. There used to be a lot of them around but you don’t see them very much anymore. In smaller letters were the words, “Marine Gas – Diesel – Groceries – Pump Outs – Motel – Snack Bar.” There was a small parking lot with only a couple of cars in it.
That would do just fine to turn around, so I pulled my old Pontiac into the parking lot and cranked the wheel over, intending to get back up the hill, get some gas, and get back on the road.
As I turned around, the thought hit me that it probably would be a good idea to get something to eat, and this place was as good as any. I needed a break from the road anyway. I’d been driving a lot the last couple days, and it would feel good to stretch my legs for a bit, then sit down on something that wasn’t moving.
There were no lines marking spaces in the parking lot, so I just found a good place over near the edge, parked the car and got out and stretched. The air was cool with a smell of pine on this bright spring morning, along with the faint tang of something that smelled like lake – mint and something else I don’t know how to describe. In spite of the piss-lousy mood I was still in over Brittany and the way my family had treated me, it seemed like a nice day in a nice place.
The snack bar proved to be in a small cinder-block building not far from where I parked the car, and it looked like the lot was at the back side of the building. I walked around to the opposite side and could see that there was some kind of a sailboat tied up at the dock with a fuel line running into it. An older woman in jeans with short, sort of dishwater-blonde hair was talking with a guy on the boat while the pump was running. It would be neat to have a boat like that, I thought; it would be just fine to hop on it and sail away somewhere else to get away from it all. It wasn’t going to happen for me, most likely not ever, but it was fun to think about.
I stood there just watching and letting the fantasy go through my mind for a minute or two, then turned into the snack bar, which had big windows all along the front, and smaller windows looking upstream and downstream. On the door was a sign reading “No Shirts – No Shoes – No Problem!” Inside there were a dozen tables set for two or four seats that filled up about half the place. The other half had racks of stuff like candy bars, bread, and odds and ends of marine gear like life jackets and some fishing gear. There was a cooler with milk and pop and beer – a little bit of everything and not much of anything.
There were no other customers and it was totally quiet inside. Maybe, I thought, the woman gassing up the sailboat was the only person working today. “Anybody here?” I said loudly.
“Yeah, be with you in a second,” a female voice from the back replied. “Grab a seat; I’ll be out as soon as I get this gunk off my hands.”
I found a seat over by the window where I could get a good look at the river. In a minute a short, chubby redhead about my age and wearing a white apron came out, carrying a glass of water and a menu. She was kind of good looking, nothing spectacular, but not hard to look at, either. “Sorry it took so long, hon,” she smirked. “Barb had to go down and get that guy tanked up.”
“No big deal,” I told her. “What’s good today?”
“Everything’s good, hon,” she said with a smile. “It’s just some is better than others.”
I wouldn’t have wanted to bet on it, not in a little place like this. I’ve had some damn good meals in little out-of-the-way places, but I’ve had some horrible ones, too. “How about a burger and some fries?” I asked, figuring that it’s hard to louse up a burger too much.
“No can do on the fries, babe,” she said, shaking her head. “The deep fryer is on the fritz. Chips OK?”
“That’ll do, I guess,” I told her. “What’s the matter with the deep fryer?” I added, just to make conversation.
“Damn thing just won’t turn on,” she replied. “We unplugged it the other day to clean under it, and when we plugged it back in it, it went ‘pow’ and blew a fuse. Barb just hasn’t had time to find someone to fix it.”
“Was it working all right before you unplugged it?” I asked.
“Yeah, just fine.”
“I’m no great expert as an electrician,” I told her, “But let me take a look at it.” I really wasn’t much of an electrician, or anything else, but it seemed likely to me that the problem was in the plug itself, and that would be easy to fix.
“Be my guest, hon. It’s a pain in the ass to be without it.”
I followed the little redhead into the kitchen, which was small and filled with cooking equipment – an industrial range, a grill, several refrigerators, and other stuff. I had to get down on the floor to pull the plug for the deep fryer, but it only took one look to see what the problem was – one of the leads had pulled loose and had shorted out the plug. There was some burning and charring of the lead. “You got a screwdriver?” I asked. “Medium size, flat blade?”
“I think there’s one in the junk drawer up front,” she replied. I watched as she headed out of the room. She was short, maybe not much over five feet, and had a big butt that was barely covered with short cutoffs, considerably shorter than the apron she was wearing. Boy, I thought, let her get married and have a couple kids and she’s going to have an ass the size of Arkansas, and probably weigh three hundred pounds, too. She was back within seconds. “Here you go, lover,” she said
Sassy little brat, I thought, smiling to myself as I turned to working on the plug. I’ll bet her boyfriend has fun with her.
It only took a few seconds to get the plug all the way unwired. I used my pocket knife to trim off a little of the leads and strip back the insulation, and then it only took me a couple minutes to get the plug wired back up. I plugged it into the outlet and told the little redhead, “OK, turn it on and see if it works.”
“OK, lover, here goes nothing,” she said with a smile, and threw a switch on the front of the machine. Nothing noticeable happened, at least not down where I was, but in a second or two she said, “Well, the light comes on, and that’s more than happened before. It’ll take a minute or two before we know if it’s heating.”
“It’ll probably be all right then,” I replied casually.
I was just getting off my butt when the older woman came into the kitchen. She was almost my height, and not thin, just sort of thickened up like women sometimes get as they grow older. I would have guessed her to be in her forties, maybe on the high side of that. “Jesus, Debby,” I heard her say, “I sure will be glad when the girls get here, or we get a dock hand, or both. There’s just too damn much to do to get ready for the season.”
“One thing’s off the list,” the little redhead smiled. “This guy here just fixed the deep fryer.”
“It’s working now?”
“It seems to be warming up,” Debby grinned.
“Just a loose wire in the plug shorted it out,” I shrugged. “No big deal.”
“Christ, Charlie probably would have charged me fifty bucks to fix it,” the older woman whose name I guessed was Barb said as she shook her head. “That’s if he ever gets sobered up enough to try to do something. I guess I at least owe you lunch or something.”
“No problem,” I told her. “Just glad to be able to help out a little.”
“Everything helps,” she smiled. “Like Debby said, that’s one item off the list, and right now it’s a hell of a list.”
“I’ll get going on your burger hon,” Debby piped up. “But it’s still going to be a while on the fries.”
“No big deal, I can hack chips,” I told her as she turned to the grill. “Where are the rest rooms so I can wash up?”
“Out in front and around to the right,” Barb said.
A couple minutes later I was sitting back at the table, looking out at the sailboat pulling away from the dock and feeling pretty good, at least for me right then. For a few minutes I hadn’t thought about Brittany or the shit my family had handed me, and that meant I had reason to feel better. About that time, Barb came over and sat down at the table in front of me. “Hey,” she said. “Thanks again for helping out.”
“No big deal,” I shrugged. “Just trying to be helpful.”
“Well, I appreciate it,” she said, then smiled. “I don’t think I know you. Are you from around here?”
“No,” I told her, “just passing through.”
“Where you headed?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” I replied honestly. “Somewhere that isn’t around home.”
She took a long look at me, then said softly, “Girl trouble, I bet.”
“Pretty much,” I admitted. “Let’s just say she found someone she likes better and let it go at that.”
“And you don’t want to have it in your face all the time,” she said. “I sort of know how that works. Are you a college kid?”
“No,” I told her, “at least, not yet. Before this I thought about it for next fall, but now I don’t know if I want to do it. I wasn’t all that great of a student in high school, and I don’t know how much I want to put up with a lot more of that classroom bull . . . uh, crap.”
“With that butch cut,” she said, “something tells me you’re not long out of the service.”
“Yeah, Navy,” I admitted. “Deckhand, mostly chipping paint and doing crap like that.”
“So, you’re not going anywhere in particular, and you’re looking for a place to light?”
“That’s pretty much it.”
“Know anything about small boats?”
“Not really.” I shrugged. “I know they float, and that’s about it. I’ve been on whaleboats and liberty barges a few times, but just riding along.”
Barb leaned back and looked at me for a long time. “You interested in a job?”
“I heard you tell Debby you’re looking for a dock hand, whatever that is. I thought about asking you about it. I guess that means gassing up boats and such.”
“Pretty much,” she said and nodded. “Along with doing holding tank pump outs, filling water tanks, and whatever other odd jobs that need to be done in your free time, and there’s a lot of repairs around here, painting, general cleanup. Right now it’s pretty much Debby and me, and there’s no way we can get to everything that’s got to be done before the season starts. It’s about all we can do to take care of the snack bar and do stuff for customers now. My daughters will be home from college pretty soon, just about the time we get busy, and there’ll still be too much to do.”
“Just odd jobs and stuff, right?”
“Right. Here’s the deal. It’s pretty much seven in the morning till nine at night, seven days a week. There are times that it’s slow, and there’s times when you’re going to be so busy you won’t know whether to shit or go blind, but it’ll be that way for all of us when it happens. We try to give each other breaks where we can, but for the most part the time off comes in the winter. I’ll be honest: the pay is lousy and the hours suck, but there’s only so much I can afford and that’s that. I can throw in a room in the motel and you can eat free here, and maybe that’ll help take the sting out.”
I looked across the table at Barb. She seemed both sincere and hopeful, at least from what I could read of her face. I don’t want to say that this was the kind of thing I’d been looking for, since I didn’t really know what I’d been looking for, other than getting away from the downer that home had become. This seemed to have a lot of things I wanted, like income, a place to stay, and something that would keep me busy enough that I wouldn’t be spending all my time thinking about how Brittany had stabbed me in the back and my family had twisted the knife. “Sounds like it might work,” I told Barb. “I can at least take a swing at it and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, can I just say so later and no hard feelings?”
“Can’t ask for a better deal than that.” She nodded. “So, yup.”
“When do you want me to start?”
“How about right after lunch? I’ll need to get a W-4 filled out and all that happy government horse manure, but we can go from there.”
“Fine with me,” I agreed. The truth was that I would be glad to have a job, even a crap job. I didn’t have a lot of money on me when I stormed out of the house, not that I had much anyway, and a good bit of what I did bring with me had already been blown through the Pontiac’s exhaust pipe. The best thing was, this was a place where nobody in my family was likely to look for me. Maybe I would cool off, given time. Or, maybe not. About the only other option I had was to go back in the Navy. I knew that for a while I could go back in and keep my rating. Petty Officer Third isn’t any big deal, I thought, but I knew that if I shipped for six I’d be sure of making PO Second, and maybe even First, which would pretty much keep me away from chipping irons. The Navy hadn’t been the life I’d wanted, but right then being a PO Third looked a lot better than what I could expect at home.
“Good enough.” She smiled.
Just about that time Debby came out of the back, carrying a burger basket loaded with chips. “Here you go, sweetheart,” she said, setting it down in front of me. “I still think I owe you a hug and a kiss for fixing the fryer.” Right then and there she bent over, gave me a casual hug, and a kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks, Debby. Are you this flirty all the time?”
“Actually, she’s being pretty mild right now,” Barb snickered. “Believe me, she can be a lot more full of shit when she’s in the mood, which is most of the time.”
“Oh, I can see this is going to be interesting,” I said with a grin.
“Oh, yeah,” Barb laughed. “No doubt about that.” She turned to Debby and said, “Well, I’ve got us a new dock man to try out. Debby, this is . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“Jake,” I replied. “Jake Lewis.”
“Good to meet you, Jake,” Debby said, pulling out a chair at the table and sitting down. “We’re gonna have us some fun.” She turned to Barb. “You up for some lunch?”
“I could eat,” Barb replied. “But I don’t think I can face a burger right now. Maybe a fish sandwich. How’s the fryer warming up?”
“It’s going to be a while yet,” Debby told her. “Maybe twenty minutes, half an hour, unless you’d like me to do it on the grill.”
“I’ll take a pass on that,” Barb shook her head. “Do it on the grill and it’s going to taste of breakfast. Jake, after you eat, I’ll show you around this place and set you up in a room. Then after the grill gets going we can come back and Debby and I can have something to eat. Then I’ll get you going on a project or two. If someone shows up wanting dock service, Debby or I’ll take you out and show you how it’s done. You’ll want one of us around the first few times you do it.”
It didn’t take me long to get through the burger, which wasn’t bad, and the chips – I was hungry, I hadn’t eaten breakfast, except for a cup of gas station coffee and a granola bar, which hadn’t set very well with me. After I was done, Barb led me outside and showed me around the place.
I hadn’t really paid any attention when I first walked in, but there was a small motel sitting to the downriver side of the snack bar and store, with a dozen small rooms. It was an older building and showed some signs of its age. “It’s hardly ever full, even on the busy weekends,” Barb explained. “Every now and then we’ll get someone in here to do some fishing, and once in a while there’ll be someone who wants to spend a night on a bed that isn’t moving.”
The whole place was crammed rather tightly between the road and the river. While there was parking for several cars down by the snack bar, by the end of the motel there was just barely enough room off the road to park a single car. At the far end of the motel there was a tiny house. “That’s mine,” she said. “It’s real snug inside. Fortunately, when we first moved here the girls were big enough that Sam and I could let them live in one of the motel units.”
“Sam?” I asked.
“My husband,” she said with a shrug. “He’s been gone three years now. Heart attack.”
“Sorry,” I shrugged. I suspected there was more to the story than that, but let it go. It really wasn’t my business, after all.
“No big deal, you didn’t have any way to know.”
She led me over to my room and unlocked it. There was a hall that led past the bathroom, which was tiny and only had a shower in addition to the sink and stool. The hall opened out into a small room, where there was a double bed, a dresser, a small built-in closet and a couple of chairs that had seen better days. There was a dorm-room-sized refrigerator, a cube a couple feet on a side. At the far end of the room there was a window that overlooked the river, and a door to a small balcony where there were a couple of cheap folding lawn chairs. “Is this going to be all right?” she asked.
I looked around. It was smaller than my room at home, but at least it had its own bathroom. That was a huge improvement, since with three sisters, getting into the bathroom at home was always a matter of waiting in line. “More than all right,” I said. “It beats the holy hell out of living in someone else’s armpit like I had to do on ship. All I had there was double bunks all crammed together with thirty or forty guys, and my locker a ways away.”
“Yeah, there is that,” she agreed. “You can park your car out front for now, but when we get into the busy season it’d probably be better if you parked it on the back side of the parking lot.”
Barb led me back outside, pointing out the laundry room next door, which had an industrial-sized washer and dryer, along with a cart for cleaning the rooms, and some other cleaning supplies. She then led me around the front of the snack bar and down the stairs to the fueling dock. “There are about ten spots here where people can tie up. I say about, since it depends on the size of the boat. We charge for overnight tie-ups, and the maximum stay is two nights unless it’s really off-season or the weather is really shitty,” she explained. “I’ll let people tie up here for longer if they’re staying at the motel. We have to leave enough space open so people can get to the snack bar and store. We don’t ever want to let someone block the fueling docks.”
“Sounds complicated,” I shrugged.
“Not really, you’ll learn. At least you’re going to have someone to learn from, which is more than Sam and I did.” Barb spent a few minutes explaining how the fuel pumps and holding tank pump-out worked, ending it with, “Like I said, either Debby or I will be with you the first few times. Let’s go up and see if the deep fryer is warmed up yet.”
“Fine with me,” I said, taking a look around one more time. It really was a pretty small operation, hidden away in the narrow valley. It looked like it was going to be the perfect place to hide out and get over the heartache that was the result of Brittany’s betrayal. Time and distance may heal all wounds, I thought, even though right then it seemed like it was going to take a lot of healing.