Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
It wasn’t long after that when the time came for Nate to take Mike to the airport for his trip back to the Ranger. After Nate returned, things on the Chinook III got back to normal, and I was back to doing this and that around the Channel Stop. A week or so later Nate had a day with no customers, so Rachel and I got in the Pixie with the intent of just sailing up to Gull Island and having lunch.
It was blowing a little harder than when we’d made the trip the previous time, so we just skipped the lunch and the sunbathing on the little island and kept going on up the coast, enjoying the lively sailing, and the boat’s charging across the waves. We went farther than we should have, and when we finally gave up and turned around it was getting pretty late. It was well into the evening when the breakwater at Winchester Harbor came into view, and the wind was just about dead. Even the jenny wasn’t helping much, so I had to break out the kicker and we came back in under power. Even with that, it was the best day’s sailing we’d had all summer.
Although John was working at the golf course and still officially living at home, for practical purposes he lived in Debby’s room at the Channel Stop. By now the two of them had firmed up their plans for their wedding, which was to be in late September at the golf course, just about the time the fall colors perked up. The three of us sometimes sat out on the balcony in the evening and talked about their plans. I learned that the two of them had been looking for a house right in close. They hadn’t found what they wanted yet – at least anything they could afford – so it looked like they might be staying at the Channel Stop for a while. It was still too busy at that time of year to do much else.
It also looked like Debby was going to keep working at the Channel Stop. They had a good kitchen out at the golf course, but it was seasonal, and the woman who ran it had no desire to leave the job in the near future. It was pretty clear that Debby was eventually going to take over the place, but no one was in any great hurry about it. She seemed satisfied to continue being the cook at the snack bar for the time being.
Along in there Rachel had her birthday. Because her mother was doing so poorly, she thought they shouldn’t make a big deal about it, but I guess Marge and Barb overruled her. We had a little party for her at the Channel Stop much like the year before with mostly the same people present, Susie being the only absentee. It was only memorable because it was the last time I saw Marge out and around. She didn’t look very good, and only stayed a short while.
A day or so after that Nate had a cancellation, and Rachel and I made tentative plans to take the Pixie out again, going down the coast the other way for no more reason than we hadn’t gone that direction in the little boat before. But, Nate had a list of people to call if an opening came up at the last minute, and before dark he informed us that Rachel and I would be going out in the Chinook III again. The two of us had been specifically requested by the customer, which was something of a surprise. No great loss, I thought, though I’d looked forward to getting out in the Pixie with Rachel again.
The party turned out to be a real surprise: Greg and Lisa, along with Greg’s father and mother. It seemed that our taking Greg out on the Fourth of July weekend had hooked him on the kind of fishing we did, and his father seemed interested, too. Greg’s father proved to be a nice guy, easy-going, and it was clear that he smelled of money.
As before, Lisa joined me on the flying bridge while everyone else stayed in the cockpit. I was a little surprised when she peeled off her outer clothes to reveal a rather conservative white one-piece swimsuit that still managed to show every curve she had. “A little straight for you, isn’t it?” I said with a smirk when I saw it.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “Greg and I are trying to act, well, like we’re not sleeping together when we’re with his folks. Fortunately, they’re not up north all the time, and not even most weekends. When they’re gone, we’re a little more, uh, casual with each other, but I don’t think we’re fooling them any.”
Although it had been pretty clear that Lisa had been sleeping with Greg even back on Memorial Day weekend, this was the first time she’d come right out and admitted it. “Lisa,” I said, “just out of curiosity, are the two of you just playing, or is this going somewhere?”
“I think it’s going somewhere,” she said. “We, uh, haven’t made any commitments yet, but we keep heading in that direction. A lot depends on what happens when we go back to college. I’m hoping we both spend a lot of time on the road between Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor.”
“Well, all I can say is ‘best of luck,’” I told her. “You’re going to have to be the one to make it work. Do the folks know about this?”
“Well, sorta yes and sorta no,” she said. “They know I’m staying with a friend, but . . . ”
“You haven’t made it clear whether your friend is a boy or a girl, right? Watch out, Lisa, that kind of shit can catch you out, and you ought to know it.”
“I know,” she said with a sigh. “But still . . . damn it, it’s hard to just come out and tell them.”
“Yeah, and it can be harder for girls than it is for guys,” I said in sympathy. “And on that subject, any word on Brittany?”
“Not much,” she sighed. “Nothing direct, but according to Greg, apparently she’s still staying with Adam. He and Adam aren’t real close. That info came through some other friend of Greg’s. Adam was just a last-minute fill-in to even up the guys and girls when Brittany joined us last spring.”
“Good,” I said. “I hope it works out for her.”
“God, I hope so. I might feel better if I knew more about what’s happening with her.”
We wound up having a pretty good day. Although only Greg and his father were fishing, we limited out on lake trout and coho. Rachel and I felt particularly pleased about that, since we’d been in a summer slump. It was the first time the boat limited out in days, though at least there hadn’t been any skunk days.
As usual, the hot days of summer sped by in a blur. As we got into the middle of August and Labor Day approached, it was possible to look at the calendar and realize that the end of the really busy season was in sight, only a few more days to go.
I was just getting ready one morning when Annette came knocking on my door. That was a bit of a surprise, because she tended to be as much of a late-to-bed, late-to-rise person as she could manage. When I opened the door, she had a sad look on her face. “Mom just called,” she reported. “Marge died in her sleep last night. Nate just found her. Mom’s on the way over there, and maybe you’d better go deal with the fishing party.”
I got dressed in a hurry. This wasn’t a huge surprise. We’d all known it was coming, although we didn’t talk about it very much, and hadn’t really made any plans for what would happen.
Rachel was waiting for me when I got down to Nate’s house. She was looking sad, as she had every right to, and I could see she was holding back tears. “We’re going to have customers here any minute now,” she said after I offered my condolences. “There’s no way I should be going out with you today. Do you think you could do a solo?”
“I suppose if I have to,” I said. “I’d better tell them what happened and give them the option to back out, though.”
“That’ll be fine,” she replied. “I’ll go tell Dad.”
I went and got a cigarette and my Zippo out of my car and leaned back against a dock post to smoke while I thought. This was going to louse things up for a while, and I knew it. About all I could do was try to keep things going. It was a goddamn shame. While I hadn’t come to know Marge real well, I’d liked what I’d known of her, and her long illness had been a drag on all of us.
The fishing party showed up a little later, three guys in a single car; I recognized them, since they were previous customers if not really regulars. I got them off to the side and explained what had happened. “I can take you out if you want,” I told them. “But I can’t guarantee anything. I’m not an expert like Rachel or Nate. But they’d like me to keep things going if I can.”
The three of them talked things out for a bit, and finally decided to go out. I got busy warming up the engines on the Chinook III and doing what I could to go out and fish.
We had a lousy day fishing. I spotted a few on the fish finder, and we even got a couple on, but we never managed to boat one. I was about as busy as a one-armed paper hanger trying to deal with the rigging and steer the boat from the inside pilot station. There was no way I could do everything on the flying bridge, and the only way I could do it in the pilot house and cockpit was because the customers helped out with the steering and the rigging. Finally, along in the afternoon we all mutually decided to give it up as a bad job and headed back in. I felt really crappy, not just because of the skunk day, but because of Nate and Rachel and Barb.
Nate was waiting for me on the dock, and he looked pretty down. He did handle the shore lines, and watched as I got the customers picked up and off the boat. The customers all told him how sorry they were to hear about Marge, but said that I’d done a good job even if we hadn’t gotten any fish – it wasn’t my fault the ones that had been hooked couldn’t be landed.
After they left, Nate and I just stood and talked for a while. I hadn’t talked to him in the morning – he’d had other things to do, of course – but now I told him how sorry I was. “I knew it was coming,” he said sadly. “But that don’t make me feel a damn bit better.”
“I can understand,” I told him. “I’m ready to do what I have to, whatever you need.”
“Yeah, I’ve learned I can depend on you,” he said. “Damn glad of it, too. Look, we’ve got a full load tomorrow. Can you take them out?”
“I can. It’s a handful to try to do everything by myself but I’ll make it work somehow.”
“Comes with practice, and it ain’t easy for me, either,” he said. “But I’m going to tell Rachel to go with you tomorrow. She needs to get her mind off it, and that’s the best way. Same thing the day after tomorrow, but I’ve cancelled the day after that. That’s going to be the service, and somehow I need you to find the time to get the boat spiffed up and all the gear put away in lockers or left in the boat shed.”
“Yeah, Marge and I agreed to be cremated when the time came. We want our ashes spread on the lake, so that’s how we’re going to do the service. You run the boat. I don’t think anyone else qualified is going to be up for it.”
“All right, Nate,” I told him. “It’ll be ready.”
“Good, I knew I could count on you,” he said. “Now, I got one more thing I need you to do, and I’m a little glad you’re back early. I need you to take the car and go down and pick up Mike at Detroit Metro.”
“Yeah, Nate,” I said, “I can do that. It’s going to be late before we get back.”
“I ought to do it, but I need to be here too,” he said. “I know it’s going to be tough what with you going out in the morning, but you’re young, and you can deal with that shit.”
He gave me the information about how to meet Mike at the airport, and in a minute I was in his car – actually, I thought of it as Rachel’s car – and was on the way. If everything goes right it’s close to a five-hour drive down to the airport in Detroit and the same on the way back, so if I was able to meet Mike right at the passenger pickup it was still going to be after midnight when I made it back.
It was a long damn drive, even with some back-road shortcuts I took to get down to the Interstate, and then the traffic was heavy, even though I hit the worst part well after rush hour. At least the Zilwaukee Bridge wasn’t raised. That could back up traffic for an hour or more, and I was glad to get past it.
As it turned out, I found Mike leaning against a post in the passenger pickup, seabag at his side. In only minutes we were heading back north. “Hey, guy,” I said, “sorry this happened.”
“Shit, I am too,” he said. “At least it’s not like I didn’t know it was coming, and thank God we weren’t out on deployment way the fuck somewhere in the Western Pacific.”
“I don’t know if that’s any better than the Indian Ocean,” I told him. “I spent a shitload of time out there.” At least we were both sailors, and we could talk like it.
“Yeah, either way it’s a pain in the ass,” he said. “At least I got to see Mom before she died. Thank God we’re going to be in and out of Bremerton for the next year or so. That makes things a little simpler.”
We talked back and forth about our Navy experiences – it helped make the miles go faster – and it was a while before I got around to saying, “The last time we talked, you were making sounds about staying in. Is this going to change anything?”
“Christ, I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Right at the moment I could say ‘fuck the Navy’ and walk away. But I’ve got another year and a half to go, a little more than that, and I could change my mind. It’s not a bad life when you get right down to it.”
“I’ve given some thought about going back in,” I told him. “I was a PO3 when I got out, and I don’t know if I could hold that rating if I went back now. I don’t really want to do it, but it’s something to fall back on. I got out mostly because I had a girlfriend who I thought was waiting for me, but it turns out she wasn’t.”
“That shit happens. Hell, I don’t think a mail call goes by when somebody or other doesn’t get a Dear John, or at least a bitching letter that amounts to the same thing. At least I knew Susie wasn’t exactly waiting for me. We’d already known we were going to split up, so I guess it was for the best. You ever hear anything about her?”
“Not much,” I admitted. “We got to be pretty good friends last summer, but we knew it was going to be just friends and it wasn’t going to last. The last I heard about her from Barb was that she got a job down in Chicago and is doing well. Apparently she likes it in the big city.”
“Yeah, that was what she always seemed to want,” he said. “It was part of the reason why we broke up, but we broke up friends, at least. It’d be nice to have a girlfriend, but there ain’t no way it’s going to happen any time soon. Since I’m an ordie, I’m always going to be out on some damn flattop somewhere.”
“Or about to get on one or just getting off one,” I agreed. “I know how that goes. Hell, I wasn’t off the Kennedy for two months before I was on the Morton heading right back out again. That makes it hard to have a girlfriend.”
“Yeah, lightning might strike, but I doubt it. On the other hand, when I get done with this hitch I’ll be a quarter of the way to retiring, and I can hang it up on twenty and still only be thirty-eight. With any kind of luck I ought to be a Chief by then, that’s not a bad retirement pay. Can’t live on it, but it sure would take the sting out of having a job.”
“I tossed that thought around a little myself,” I agreed. “Of course, I was only in for four, but same difference.”
“There’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to get out,” he admitted. “But a lot is going to depend on what happens at home in the next year. I don’t want to have to go home and run that boat with Dad, but I guess I’ll do it if I have to. It might be a little different if I knew Susie was waiting for me, but she ain’t, and we probably shouldn’t get together anyway.”
“I can tell you that for the moment everything is going to be fine in that department,” I told him. “Your dad and Rachel do a great job of running the boat, and I’m getting better at filling in. If you don’t want to deal with it, I don’t think you have to worry about it.”
“You think Rachel is going to stay doing it?”
“Hell, yes,” I told him. “It’s only been her grades and her mother and father leaning on her that’s kept her from dropping out of high school to run the boat as it is.”
“Yeah, but what happens when she grows up and finds a guy?”
“It’s not going to change anything,” I said. “Look, I was watching when Rachel and my sister had a long talk last month. My sister was trying to talk her into trying college, and Rachel was struggling to keep from throwing my sister overboard. She’s found her calling, and I don’t think there’s a guy out there who’s going to keep her away from it.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Mike replied. “Like I said, I don’t want to get out of the Navy to run that damn boat, you know that. At least that’s one thing I won’t have to sweat. What’s more, it’s good to know you’re going to be around to back them up.”
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be around,” I told him. “But I don’t plan on letting them down while I’m still here.”
Rachel was uncharacteristically quiet and reserved when we took the fishing parties out the next two days. The fishing wasn’t great, but at least we weren’t skunked. We’d already made plans to come in early the second day. When we reached the dock there were half a dozen people waiting for us: Annette, Mike, Laura, and some of the breakfast regulars from the Channel Stop. We got to work on the Chinook III, unloaded everything we could to make more room, and went over the boat with a fine-tooth comb. No matter how nice you try to keep a boat, there’s going to be stuff that slides when you use it from day to day, but by the time the bunch of us were done the boat looked just about like it was new.
Because of the size of the boat, the attendance for Marge Kunkle’s final services had to be limited, but there were still more people on the boat than we expected. I never got a final count, but it was somewhere over thirty, far and away the heaviest load I’d ever experienced in the boat. The cockpit was full, the cabin was full, and there was barely enough room on the flying bridge for me to steer the boat. We even kept the fuel load down to try to keep from overloading it, but it was wallowing and uncomfortable when I steered it across the harbor. It was way the hell over the limit of the six passengers I could carry on my license, but Nate had a higher-level license even if he never got near the wheel.
Fortunately the wind was coming from onshore so it was pretty calm out on the lake. I steered the Chinook III out through the channel on Marge’s final voyage, and there weren’t many of us who didn’t have tears in our eyes. I know I did.
I ran the boat well offshore, to where Winchester Harbor was just a thin green haze on the horizon, then turned into the wind and idled the engines, leaving the props turning just enough to keep us quartering into the breeze. With that out of the way, I turned to give my attention to what was happening in the cockpit.
Nate was standing there, tall and proud, but obviously in sorrow, too. “Marge and I were together a long time,” he told the crowd in a voice just barely loud enough for me to hear. “We just about grew up on the water, and when the time came for me to get my first Chinook, she was my crew. She pretty much stayed my crew up till the time she started to get sick a few years ago. We always liked it out here, and thought this was where we ought to be. We decided a long time ago that when we died, we wanted our final resting place to be out here on the lake where our lives had been, not in some graveyard on land.
“Unfortunately, it came sooner than we expected, and Mike and Rachel and I, as well as a lot of other people, are going to be poorer for it. We had our ups and down, and a couple tragedies and mistakes along the way, but we always came back to each other and were better for it. None of our lives are going to be the same without her in them.”
Nate turned to face over the stern, holding the urn with Marge’s ashes. “I guess I can’t put this off any longer,” he said. “Goodbye, honey. I love you, and I’m going to miss you until I join you out here, but I’ll come out to visit you.”
With that, he took the top off the urn, gently sprinkled the ashes into the lake, then tossed the empty urn in after them. In only a moment, there was no sign left of any of it. He stood there watching silently for a while, just like the rest of us. Finally, he turned around and called up to me, “OK, Jake. Let’s go home.”