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Starting Late book cover

Starting Late
A Tale from Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2011, ©2013

Chapter 1

May 2007

Snow hangs on late in the north country of the upper Great Lakes. Even though it was the first week of May there was still some to be found back in the shade of the pine trees, on the north side of buildings, and, surprisingly, even a small patch of it just beyond the deck attached to the house. Under most circumstances the air on this clear, blue-sky evening would be considered coolish, but after a bitter winter it seemed almost balmy to Mark Gravengood and Mike McMahon, even though they were both buck-naked. They were stripping the thermal cover off the deck’s hot tub, while their equally nude wives Jackie and Kirsten looked on.

This wasn’t the first time the two had performed this chore, or even the hundred and first – maybe somewhere around the thousand and first, though no one had ever bothered counting. For twenty years the Gravengoods and McMahons had gotten together on the average of once a week, winter and summer, for a soak in one or the other of the two families’ tubs, some relaxation, and some gentle talk about whatever came to mind. In the winter it was usually, but not always, at Mike and Kirsten’s since their tub was on an enclosed porch. But when the weather was nice they usually got together at Mark and Jackie’s; theirs was out on the deck, under the open sky. The nudity was normal – unless there was someone else present – and it had always been that way, right back to the first time they got together for a soak.

“Ought to be a nice night,” Kirsten remarked to no one in particular.

“Yeah,” Mark heard Jackie say. “Probably won’t see much of Orion, it’ll be pretty well down in the west, but Taurus and the Pleiades will still be up, and Leo will be high.”

Mark shrugged to himself as he and Mike set the tub cover off to the side; the water was warm enough and the evening cool enough that tendrils of vapor floated up from the water. At one time, years ago, both he and Jackie had spent untold hours on clear nights pointing one or more telescopes at celestial objects. The largest telescope in the county sat in an observatory out behind the barn – but these days it only got used a few times a year, for mostly the two had moved on to other interests. Even though those days were past they still enjoyed the splendor of a clear, dark night sky with no lights around to ruin their night vision. One of the items in the locker beside the hot tub was a set of cheap 10x60s in case someone wanted binoculars for a closer look. Often someone did.

Though it was a familiar sight, Mark couldn’t help but grab a glance at the women as they sat up on the tub’s deck and swung around on their butts to get their legs in the water before sliding into it – Jackie especially.

His wife was long and lanky – six feet even, a little shorter than her husband. She didn’t have much of a chest and only had noticeable hips from the fact that she still was pretty small in the waist. Her shoulder-length brown hair, now with visible strands of gray, was pulled back into a pony tail. Back on their “honeymoon” she’d bought what was then considered to be a pretty daring bikini. She could still wear it, and did once or twice a year for old times’ sake. Not a bad looking woman for fifty-five, he thought absently.

By contrast, Kirsten was close to a foot shorter than Jackie and probably weighed more. While not what you would call fat, she’d put on some pounds in recent years, and definitely had curves where Jackie had angles. She was still blonde, although Mark suspected that a bottle was used to keep it that way. In any case, she didn’t look bad for a three-time mother and two-time grandmother.

Kirsten was always a contrast to Mike, at six-foot-four, the tallest of them. Relatively thin and muscular, a long-time local-level amateur athlete, his hair now had gray patches too, like Mark’s, and like Mark he had put on a few pounds in recent years, especially since he’d cut down on participation in various volleyball leagues.

Back when Mark and Jackie were talking about getting married during their “honeymoon” – it lasted eight months of roaming the country in their ancient Cessna 140, and ended, rather than began, with their getting married – they’d given some serious consideration to not returning home to Spearfish Lake at all, since Jackie felt very uncomfortable with the treatment she’d gotten in high school. Only the prospect of a good job for Mark brought them back with the understanding that they’d pretty much keep to themselves and have as little to do with the town as they could. For fifteen years that had pretty much been the case. While not isolated hermits, they mostly avoided social contact except for their affiliation with the Baptist Church and Mark’s limited veterans’ activities.

However, in the late eighties a number of mutual interests combined with being near neighbors had brought the two couples much closer together. The biggest of these was dogsledding; Mark and Mike had led the revival of the sport in the area. They had each kept teams for years, raced occasionally on a strictly amateur level, and took winter camping trips. As time went by, the dogsledding was taken over by Jackie’s much younger half-brother, Josh, and Mike and Kirsten’s oldest, Tiffany. The two had gotten married a dozen years before and still had a huge number of dogs. They raced a lot less now, but continued to raise and train dogs for another Spearfish Lake musher, Phil Wine. Tiffany ran an outfitting store in town, while Josh was more or less the manager of the local short-line railroad.

As they got older, both Mike and Mark had gotten out of keeping teams of their own since if they felt like running dogs, Josh and Tiffany always had some that needed trail time. Over the years, the two couples had become close friends indeed. More importantly, they’d long since gotten to the point where they could use each other as sounding boards when something needed to be worked out.

And Lord knew, that was the case tonight.

Sometimes, when the four gathered in the hot tub, conversation would be fast and lively, at other times quiet and reflective, with long silent breaks. Now, as the four settled into the warm water and let the bubblers massage them, it wasn’t either. Both Mike and Kirsten knew their friends well enough to tell they had something on their minds, but it was Mike who piped up and said, “Something bothering you guys?”

“Well, yes and no,” Mark replied honestly. “I got an offer today to buy me out. Well, Marlin.com, anyway.”

When Mark and Jackie had returned from their honeymoon he’d gone to work for the local independent phone company as a lineman and repairman, more or less expecting it would be a lifetime job. He knew his way around electronics, and telephones in particular. In the late seventies, strictly as a hobby, he bought a kit to build an Altair 8008, one of the first personal computers. He could never get it to do much because it wasn’t capable of doing much, but soon after came an Apple II, and later a series of IBMs. Over a period of years he’d become the local expert on computer care and feeding, and spent much of his spare time fixing them for other people, to the point where it was a pretty rewarding sideline.

Then in the early nineties the local phone company got picked up by a huge regional conglomerate, and the next thing Mark knew they wanted to transfer him to Timbuktu or somewhere. Not desiring to be a corporate slave and give up a home, friends, and a couple of businesses he and Jackie had spent decades building, he hung on for a fairly short time until he got his twenty-year retirement vested, and quit the phone company. He formalized his sideline just in time for the Internet to take off. In the process he had started one of the first local Internet Service Providers. Now it was the main ISP for an eight-county area, offering dialup service, along with DSL where the local phone lines and phone company permitted.

“Good offer?” Mike asked gently.

“Pretty good,” Mark nodded. “Better than I would have expected. I don’t have to be in a big rush to make a decision, but I can’t let it sit too long, either.”

There was silence for several moments before Mike replied, “Maybe it’s time to get out while the getting’s good.”

Mark looked up at the dimming sky. “I’ve thought about that,” he sighed. “Being a pioneer is one thing, but the service provider business is so damn big and so damn volatile right now that there’s getting to be less and less room for the little guy. On the other hand, I don’t know that I’m all that ready to retire, either.”

“Would you have to retire?” Kirsten asked. “You’d still have the computer sales and service and the phone business, after all.”

“Oh, I suppose I could stay busy with that,” Mark shrugged. “The problem is that the last few years I’ve had to throw so much attention at the ISP that I’ve pretty much let my people take over the other parts of the business. It wouldn’t be fair to them to shoehorn my way back into their business from the top.”

“I get your point,” Kirsten nodded. “Back when I took over as the publisher of the Record-Herald, I had a heck of a time keeping my fingers out of the advertising department and letting Sally and Debbie do the jobs we paid them for.”

“Yeah, that’s part of it,” Mark agreed. “On the third hand, I don’t know that I’m not getting a little stale about the whole thing. If you don’t stay current with computers you fall behind in a hurry, and I haven’t worked with consumer-level computers enough in the last few years to stay current.”

“I hear you,” Mike replied. “There’s always something new.”

Mark glanced up at the sky, trying to put his thoughts into words. “I guess I’ve learned that I need a new challenge every now and then, and sometimes old interests fade into the background. Frankly, the whole business is starting to turn into something I’ve done. Even when there is something new it’s not different enough to get my interest. But at the same time, it’s what I know; do I really want to change now? Let’s face it, I’m probably retiring in the next ten years or so, whatever happens.”

“Yeah,” Jackie snorted. “And I’ll tell you what, I’m not looking forward to him retiring. He’d go nuts without something to do, and he’d drive me nuts in the process.”

“Right,” Mark agreed. “You’d be the same way, too. I know you’re not planning on hanging it up soon, but Mike, Kristen, what do you think you’d like to do when you retire from the paper?”

“That changes continually,” Kirsten snorted. “I have no idea what wild hair he’s got up his fanny this week.”

“Hell if I know,” Mike shrugged. “I’ve often thought of getting a big motor home and spending a year or two on the road, sort of like you and Jackie did in your plane years ago. But over the winter I came up with a variation on that. Buy the right boat about this time of year, spend the summer on the Great Lakes learning how to handle it. Then, go down the Mississippi in the fall, spend the winter on the Gulf Coast and in Florida, then north up the Intracoastal in the spring, figuring on being back home in the fall.”

“It’d be a nice trip,” Jackie smiled. “There’d be a lot to see and you’d have some fun. But I’ll bet it wouldn’t be cheap.”

“No it wouldn’t,” Mike agreed. “But it’d be something that could be done on a once-in-a-lifetime basis. I haven’t done any real study of it, but I’ll bet you could drop twenty grand on gas, dockage, and those sorts of things before you even count the cost of the boat.”

“And just how much would that be?” Kirsten asked, just a little suspiciously.

“Not cheap,” Mike replied, realizing that his wife had him right in the cross hairs. “I spent a little time checking prices. Typically, used trawler yachts in the thirty- to forty-foot range run fifty to a hundred grand or more. On the other hand, we wouldn’t be buying it for a lifetime, just for two years, and the right boat we ought to be able to sell for about what we paid for it, so mostly we’d be using the bank’s money. That means the out-of-pocket costs for the ownership of the boat might only be a few thousand.”

“Might be something worth thinking about,” Jackie smiled. “You think a boat that size would be big enough?”

“Not that I know a hell of a lot about it,” Mike shrugged, “I would think that if it was just Kirsten and me I’d want to stay toward the smaller end of the range, just so the two of us could handle it better. On the other hand, if you guys were to come with us, then the upper end of the range might be a little snug.”

“I can handle snug,” Jackie snorted. “After all, Mark and I spent most of our first eight months together in a so-called two-man tent, and the next three years in an eighteen-foot travel trailer with an outdoor biffy.”

“And trips to your folk’s house or mine every couple days for showers and usually dinner, don’t forget that,” Mark smiled.

“Yeah,” Jackie conceded. “It sure seems like a long time ago. Hell, it was a long time ago.”

Kirsten sat thinking for a moment. “Our first apartment wasn’t a whole lot bigger than that, and that was with a baby part of the time,” she said absently, then perked up. “But it might be fun to think about the four of us taking a boat trip like that, even though we couldn’t do it in the near future, anyway.”

“Yeah,” Mike agreed. “At least not till Susan’s out of college, and that’s a while off.”

“It’s already too late if we wanted to do it this year,” Mark replied thoughtfully. “But if it’s something we’d all like to do, it would be worth working on it some now to get our ducks in a row for when we are ready to go.” He leaned back again, stared off into space, and once again considered all the ramifications that had been running through his mind for the last eight hours.

The offer he’d received for Marlin.com was very good, better than he’d ever expected to get, and realistically, it was probably a good idea to go with it. After a lot of considering the issue, the basic facts remained the same: he wasn’t quite ready to retire yet. He wasn’t far from turning sixty, and the cash from the sale, invested properly, would go a long way toward making up for the lost income. But he was still several years from being able to draw Social Security or his phone company pension, and he’d pretty well figured that he’d have to wait that out before he could hang it up completely. If he were to sell the company he’d have to find something else to do for the six years till Jackie could start to draw Social Security, and he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to start something totally new at this late date. But, he had a few days to think about it. It wasn’t as if the decision had to be made now. In fact, that was probably the best thing to do – just let it simmer in the back of his mind for a few days without worrying about it, and in a week the answer would be obvious.

Mark didn’t know how long he sat staring out into the gathering darkness flipping over pros and cons, but recognized that he’d tuned himself out of the conversation when he realized that Kirsten, Mark and Jackie were talking about Susan’s latest wild idea. “ . . . so now she’s thinking about taking off from college for a year and giving it a try,” Kirsten was saying.

“Japan?” Jackie replied with a bemused smile. “That’s getting away from home, all right.”

“This gal she talked to said the cost of living was real high, but so was the pay, and she was close to fifteen thousand dollars ahead when she came home. So, Susan and her roommate Mizuki are considering it.”

“It’s hard to believe that someone could make that much out of teaching English in a high school there,” Mike remarked. “But it might settle the little globetrotter down long enough to finish college. I underline the ‘might.’”

Mark and Jackie had never had kids of their own. When she’d been younger, Jackie had been deathly afraid that her mother’s mental illness might somehow be genetic and hereditary. She slowly got over that, and in the late eighties the two of them had decided to try for one of their own, so she went off the pill but never caught, not for the lack of trying. Now that they were both old enough that it was no longer an issue, they really didn’t feel like they missed that much, for over the years they’d been sort of secondary parents first to Jackie’s half-brothers, John and Josh, and later to Mike and Kirsten’s three.

Mike and Kirsten had spread their kids out a long way. The oldest, Tiffany, was looking thirty right in the eye and had been married to Jackie’s half-brother Josh for over ten years now. She was the one who had caught the dogsledding bug bad and had spent several years as a professional racer before she and Josh settled down to raise a family. Their oldest, Michelle, would turn six in the fall; their boy, Curtis, was three, and Mark knew that they were considering another. Tiffany was the only one of the three to remain in Spearfish Lake – in fact, just a quarter mile up the road, and “Uncle Mark and Aunt Jackie” were still occasional babysitters.

Henry, three years and change younger than Tiffany, appeared to be the straight one of the bunch. Mike and Kirsten ran the local weekly newspaper, the Record-Herald, and Henry had always been drawn to the news business – indeed, he’d covered his first fire for the paper in fifth grade and had been a more or less official part-time reporter through high school. However, in college his attention had been drawn to the broadcasting side of the business. Right out of college he got a job as a reporter for a TV station in Springfield, and had moved a couple times since. Just last year he’d moved on to a better-paying job in Decatur, closer to home but still four hundred miles to the south, where he was living with his high school sweetheart, Cindy. The two had a long and turbulent history, made more so by the fact that Cindy’s mother was a certifiable flake. Most of the four in the hot tub more or less tacitly agreed that it probably was a good idea that the two had never decided to have kids or tie the knot.

It’s not abnormal for kids from a small rural town want to get away and see the world, but Mike and Kirsten’s youngest may have had the worst case of that bug that any one of them had ever seen. Her long-stated goal was to find a job that would pay her to live all over the world. The best student of the three McMahon kids, she had an unnatural talent for languages, speaking German, Spanish, and French fluently, along with being comfortable and getting even more so in Japanese. The French came from high school, the Spanish mostly from a family that had run a Mexican restaurant in town, the German from Kirsten’s parents and as an exchange student after her junior year in high school with a family that lived in Regensburg. The Japanese came from college – not a class, but her roommate. A few days before, she’d come home from college, dumped her stuff in her room, packed a few things, and took off for a summer of bumming around Europe on bicycles with some friends she’d made as an exchange student.

If that weren’t enough, from a very young age Susan had said that she had very limited patience with little kids and no desire to be a mommy. Knowing Mark and Jackie, Mike and Kirsten could swallow that and even encouraged that attitude, at least until she was through with college. Her parents were made more than a little uncomfortable the evening of her eighteenth birthday – Mark and Jackie were present – when she announced publicly that although she had no desire to get married or be a “breeder” now or ever, she was bisexual and liked going both ways.

Somewhere in there Mike and Kirsten had come to admit that their youngest was a little more independent than they bargained for, but they still loved her and were proud of her. Still, they suspected that they were just as glad that what happened out of town mostly stayed out of town.

Mark glanced over at Jackie with a slight smile on his face, to be rewarded by a smirk from her. After three and a half decades, sometimes not much needed to be said. The message that passed between them was obvious – while there may have been times that they regretted not having kids, it also meant they didn’t have to deal with a handful like Susan.

“Well, I suppose there are worse things she could do than teach English in Japan for a year,” Mark smiled. “She could tell you she wants to be a stripper in Vegas.”

“I don’t know that I’d put it past her,” Mike snorted. “Hey, is that your phone I hear?”

“Sounds like it,” Jackie shook her head as she sprang from the tub. “I hope it hasn’t been going for too long.”

Mark couldn’t help but watch as his naked wife ran for the sliding glass door that led inside. Even after all these years, it still turned Mark on to see his wife in the altogether, especially on soak nights, for the sensuality of the tub often turned into sensuality in bed afterwards. Naturally, their sex life had slowed down from what it had been three and a half decades before. They were older and less flexible than they had once been, the juices didn’t flow like they once did, and their endurance was down – but Mark couldn’t complain about what was left and didn’t think Jackie would either. “Wonder what that’s all about,” he said to no one in particular as the back of his mind contemplated possibilities for later.

A minute or so later all three of them saw Jackie heading back out onto the deck, cordless phone in her hand. Mark could tell from the look on her face that it wasn’t good news. “It’s your mother,” she said solemnly. “Shannon’s dead.”

“Oh, shit,” Mark said as Jackie handed him the phone. He put it to his ear and said, “Mom, what happened?”

“I don’t know,” his mother said. “The call I just got was from some social worker at Family and Children’s Services down there. They want to know if someone from the family can look after Rebecca and Brianna, or else they go into a foster home. There’s no way I can do it, not at my age. You and Jackie are the only possibility left.”

Mark thought rapidly. He hadn’t seen those kids in years; they were the grandchildren of his late brother Larry. In fact, he only half knew that they existed; news from Shannon, Larry’s daughter, didn’t often percolate as far as Spearfish Lake.

“Mom, how old are they now?” he asked as Jackie settled back into the hot tub. “I have a mental picture of them as little tykes. I don’t think I’ve seen them since Larry’s funeral.”

“Twelve and fourteen,” his mother replied. “I think I’ve only seen them once since Larry died, myself.”

Oh, good grief, Mark thought again. It would be hard as hell to say no under the circumstances, even though the family could in no way be called close. “I think I’d better run it by Jackie,” he said finally. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

“I hate to have to ask you, Mark,” his mother said. “But I can’t think of anything else.”

“I’ll call right back,” he said, and hit the cordless phone’s off button. “Jackie,” he spoke up, “did Mom tell you what happened?”

“No, just that Shannon was dead and she needed to talk to you.”

Mark sighed. “Well, the short version is that her kids have no place to go and she asked if we’d take them in. They’re twelve and fourteen, and considering their mother there’s no telling what they’re like.”

“Oh, wow,” Jackie shook her head. “Talk about instant family. There’s no place else, huh?”

“Not that I know of,” Mark replied. “You know just about as much about it as I do. Shannon’s mother died right after she was born, some kind of childbirth complication I never understood. Larry and his second wife raised her, but they were divorced before Larry died and there’s no telling where she’s at now. From what I’ve always understood, if Shannon ever knew who the girls’ fathers were she never told, other than they’re not the same. They’ve always had shit for luck on that side of the family. Shit for brains too, as far as that goes. But basically it’s us or a foster home.”

“You don’t know how that’d work out, either,” Mike nodded. “Sometimes kids work out OK in a foster home situation, but they often don’t, too.”

Jackie let out a long sigh. “Well, we’ve always wondered what it would be like to be parents,” she said slowly. “I guess we get to find out.”

“I guess,” Mark sighed as he hit the speed dial to call his mother back.

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