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Starting Late book cover

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

Chapter 3

The four of them in the motor home were not as far ahead of schedule as they feared they might be when they pulled into the edge of Decatur. They were now driving on six- and eight-lane expressways in the midst of the morning big-city rush hour under what passed for a clear sky in a smog-ridden city. Mike was driving the motor home now; after all, he knew the way. “I think we might as well stop somewhere for breakfast,” he announced. “There’s no point in showing up early and getting Cindy bent out of shape.”

“We’ve probably got her bent out of shape enough as it is,” Kirsten agreed. “After all, if something isn’t her idea, she usually doesn’t like it.”

“Boy, that’s the truth,” Mike shook his head; after all, he mostly shared his wife’s opinion of their son’s significant other. “All right, I’ll look for something. Jackie,” he said to his friend, who was now in the front passenger seat, “you look too. I’ve got to herd this monster through this zoo.”

Mike and Kirsten’s son had long had a rocky relationship with Cindy deLine, going clear back into middle school. It had been on and off several times over the years, and although it had been on for several years now, Henry and Cindy showed no sign of getting married, a fact of some relief to Henry’s parents.

While Cindy had been fairly reasonable as a young teenager, she had also been a little sensitive and retiring. However, as soon as she got a little older her true colors began to show through – an intolerant flake who thought her way was the only way, was not exactly real bright, and was mostly a pain in the neck. In that, she’d taken after her mother Lisa, who had been one of the most obnoxious hotheads, if not the absolute worst, that Mike had ever had to deal with as editor of the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald. For fifteen years and more Cindy’s mother had done her best to stir up political trouble around town, occasionally succeeding. Much of that trouble wound up in the paper, either way. Lisa was opinionated, loud, and had her mind made up; even the facts weren’t enough to satisfy her.

When Cindy was in high school she’d been embarrassed by her mother’s antics, which included detailed meddling in every aspect of Cindy’s life and the lives of her friends; as a result, Cindy’s relationship with Henry all through school had been very much underground. Very few people actually knew that Henry and Cindy were any more than casual friends, although for several years the McMahon house had provided an occasional temporary refuge for her, a chance to catch her breath.

Toward the end of high school, Cindy’s announced intention was to graduate from high school and get as far away from her mother as she could. In her senior year, she’d announced plans to go to a relatively local college, but out of sight of everyone but Henry, had also applied to and been accepted by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was about as far away from Spearfish Lake as she could get and still be attending college in the United States. She actually managed to get away, but somehow her mother tracked her down, and quickly moved to Fairbanks and bought into a condo with the intent of continuing to control her daughter’s life.

Cindy accepted it with equanimity, at least for a couple months, but as soon as the term ended with the outside temperature about forty yards below zero, she announced that she’d transferred to the University of Miami, and that if her mother followed her to Florida, she’d transfer again. It took a while before her mother finally got the message, at which point Cindy transferred to Central Michigan University to be with Henry.

While Henry had stayed more or less friends with Cindy, with her move to Alaska he’d also pretty much put her in his past, rather to his parents’ relief. He’d moved out of a rather noisy dorm into an off-campus apartment, and was between girlfriends when Cindy showed up and announced she was moving in with him. They’d mostly been together ever since, although Henry’s parents were a little mystified as to why their son would put up with a girl like her for as long as he had. The announced reason they hadn’t gotten married was that Cindy was afraid her mother would show up again and she’d have to move to some unknown somewhere with no notice. Mike and Kirsten secretly hoped that Lisa would show up, which would give Henry the excuse he needed to be rid of Cindy once and for all. For now, about all they could do was be civil when they had to be around her, which fortunately wasn’t very often. As far as they were concerned, the sooner Cindy found someone else to harass, the better.

It took them longer to find a place for breakfast than Mike hoped. Jackie finally picked out a sign for a likely looking restaurant at an exit a few miles up the road, and with the help of everyone else he soon found a hole in the traffic that would let him get into the right lane in time to make the exit. The chain restaurant had a big parking lot, which didn’t appear to be very full. It was about as good a place for breakfast as any, Mike thought as he turned the motor home into the place. It wound up taking two facing parking spaces, and pretty well filled them at that. “Finally,” he sighed as he put the transmission into park and shut off the engine. “This is really too damn big for traffic like this. I wonder how the hell semi drivers manage it.”

“Maybe it’s because they get more practice at it,” Jackie said helpfully.

Everyone on the motor home was logy and out of sorts. While they had all managed some sleep, no one had a full night of it, nor was it very good. They found a table in the sparsely filled restaurant, and waited for a waitress to show up with water or menus or coffee or something. “Good grief, what a night,” Jackie shook her head as she sat down. “I wish it had been possible to stretch this out a few hours so we could have made this trip down here like civilized human beings.”

“Yeah, no fooling,” Mark yawned. “We aren’t kids anymore, that’s for sure. It’s harder to bounce back from a night like that than it was, oh, thirty years ago.”

“We’re all getting older, and that’s a fact,” Mike agreed. “It sure gave me some second thoughts about how bad I really want to get a motor home when I retire. I sure wonder how some of those old farts you see in them can put up with it.”

“They don’t drive all night, for one thing,” Mark pointed out. “I agree, that’s not one of the brighter things we ever did. It wouldn’t have hurt anyone to get some sleep and come a few hours later.”

“Well, it’s not like I have to make my mind up about getting a motor home right away,” Mike shrugged. “It’s still a while before I can retire, something in the eight- to ten-year range, I guess. It’s hard to tell at this point, and a lot could change between now and then.”

“Like whether you can come up with a replacement or not,” Jackie nodded. She’d heard this discussion out of him before, and not just recently. But, it was something to talk about that didn’t take much thought.

“That’s the truth,” Mike agreed. “I’ve been doing this for well over thirty years now, and I sure don’t want to do it for another twenty. Which makes me think: don’t even hint to Henry, and especially not to Cindy, that I’d like them to consider moving back to Spearfish Lake so I could start setting him up for it. He knows it as well as I do, but it’s a touchy subject. Henry is a damn good reporter and could carry the Record-Herald on for a long time if Cindy would let him do it.”

“Cindy gets real nasty at the suggestion,” Kirsten added. “She doesn’t even like to come back to Spearfish Lake on a visit. She took enough crap about her mother while she was in high school that it’s the last place she wants to be.”

“Well, you’ve still got a few years on that,” Mark said; it was a familiar topic to him, too. “Maybe he’ll come to his senses eventually.”

“We can hope,” Kirsten sighed. “Realistically, we do have some time. We really can’t retire until about 2015, and a couple more years after that might be worth the wait.”

Mike shook his head. “I figure Henry has about five years to make up his mind before I have to start looking somewhere else for a replacement so I can have whoever he is trained and ready and I can start taking a little time off to get ready for retirement.”

“It gets more complicated because of the Record-Herald employee ownership,” Kirsten explained. “Mike and I own a majority of the stock between us because of our seniority, but we won’t be able to hold onto it after we retire. That means we have to be careful and have someone ready to replace each of us when we do retire. I’m not terribly worried about it for me as Debbie Evachevski will be ready to move into the publisher’s chair without missing a beat when I retire. But with junior reporters coming and going, there’s never been a good one around long enough for Mike to develop into a replacement for himself.”

“Usually if we have a junior reporter who I wouldn’t mind staying around, they’re the ones to get the good job offers to move on,” Mike agreed. “If Henry decides to not come back to Spearfish Lake in the next five years or so, we’ve got to come up with some other solution, and I’m not sure what that’s going to be. If we can’t work something out, then I’m not going to be able to retire. That concerns me a little, since we don’t really have anyone in line who could do my job if I got sick or something.”

Mark sat back and smiled without saying anything for a moment, while a waitress finally showed up, carrying coffee cups and menus; her interruption gave Mark a moment for contemplation of his own retirement plans.

Again, Mike and Kirsten’s eventual retirement was something he’d heard discussed before. He and Jackie were a little closer to retirement, if only for the fact that he was about five years older than Mike, while Jackie was Kirsten’s age, three years younger. In theory he could start drawing Social Security in three more years, but if he were to hold off for seven years, Jackie would be able to draw it as well. He’d start drawing his telephone company pension about the same time. That was one favorable thing about the offer to buy Marlin.com. If he sold it, it would mean he wouldn’t have to worry about selling it in the future, when the market might not be as favorable. If he did, the money, sitting in a good safe investment account somewhere, would still be available to them, at least assuming the economy didn’t go to hell. That was not a safe assumption, as far as he was concerned.

Jackie’s business, though, was a little more of a problem. She’d had the sign-making business since shortly after they’d returned to Spearfish Lake in the early seventies, and had very little local competition. While her business had had some ups and downs over the years, it had been a significant source of their income all the while. But it was pretty much her business, and there had never been a hint of a person to take it over. It was something they hadn’t even talked about very much, and it needed to be seriously explored sooner or later.

Whatever they wound up doing, it was still off somewhere in the foggy and distant future. But still, Mark was looking his sixtieth birthday right in the eye. He figured that when the big six-oh arrived, retiring was something he really needed to start considering, even if he didn’t plan on hitting the hammock anytime soon.

“Yeah,” Mike agreed after the waitress disappeared to let them look over their menus. “And that raises the question of what I want to do when I retire. I honestly don’t think I’m ready to move to a double-wide in some retirement community in Florida, even ten years from now. I can’t see sitting around on my dead butt waiting to die.”

“Well, me neither,” Kirsten agreed, “but what that is, I don’t know. It would be nice to do some traveling. I know I was thinking about Mike’s idea of buying a boat when I couldn’t sleep last night, and that might be a possibility. But it’s still probably close to ten years off for us at the earliest.”

“I can’t see it being anytime very soon for us, either,” Jackie agreed, “and I can see our little spur-of-the-moment decision last night putting it off for six to ten years. When you stop and think about it, that timing more or less fits into our plans, anyway.”

“That’s true,” Kirsten said. “If the younger girl – Brianna, is it? If she’s twelve she’s probably just finishing up sixth grade, so there’s another six years till you can have her out of high school right there. And there’s college, or whatever, so it could easily be ten years, even if she doesn’t have a college career as free-form as Susan is managing.”

“Very true,” Mark agreed. “Not that I think either of us is up for another eight-month trip in a two-seat airplane at our ages, sleeping under the wing every night.”

“Yeah, but it was a good trip,” Jackie smiled back at him. “That really was a trip of a lifetime.”

“Even six to ten years is being conservative,” Mike pointed out. “That’s assuming everything goes normally. From what you’ve told me about Shannon, somehow I doubt everything is going to be normal with those two.”

“There is that,” Mark agreed. “I didn’t know Shannon very well, and I doubt if Mom knew her any better than I did. It’s been years since the last time I saw her. I can’t even tell you what she did for a living. What little I’ve heard tells me that she had to be pretty unconventional, so who knows what that’s going to mean in terms of the kids.”

“There’s no way of telling right now,” Jackie sighed. “We may know more in a few hours, and we may not. We’re all going to be strangers for a while, and it may well take us all a little settling in before we’ll know what problems we’re dealing with.”

“And even then you may not know,” Kirsten smiled. “At twelve and fourteen, kids are changing rapidly. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out they’ll change and come at you from an entirely new direction. Then you’re starting over again. Pinning a kid down at that age is like shooting at a moving target. That’s one thing about Tiffany. She was unusual in that she was predictable, at least as long as dogs were involved.”

“Not that Susan was any different, at least in being dead set on accomplishing what she wanted to do, no matter how unlikely it was,” Mike shook his head. “I sometimes think Henry was the only kid we had who was something approaching a normal teenager. Even then, he missed the mark a bit. They really are all different.”

*   *   *

It’s usually pretty hard for a restaurant to louse up a simple breakfast, but this one accomplished it; the toast was burned, the eggs were runny, the hash browns muddy, and the sausage tasted vaguely of pine tar, which is not one of the more pleasing tastes to be experienced. Even the coffee was weak and didn’t taste very good. Mike made a mental note to not stop at one of that chain’s restaurants anywhere again, not that the opportunity was likely to arise very soon.

Still, if they weren’t going to appear at Henry and Cindy’s much earlier than expected, they still had some time to kill, and this place was as good as any to do it. They ordered refills of coffee all around and looked for other things to talk about. “Have you done any thinking about where you’re going to put the kids?” Kirsten asked Jackie at one point.

“Well, there’s plenty of room upstairs,” Jackie said. “We’ve kept one room set up as a guest room, although we rarely have any guests. The other rooms have more or less become storage. You know, if you have room it’s easier to throw stuff in them than it is to throw it away. I suppose if the girls need separate rooms we could consolidate some of that stuff and clear out another room in the process.”

“Probably a lot of it ought to just go to the dump, or to the secondhand store,” Mark pointed out. “There’s clothes up there neither of us will ever wear again, for example. Some of that stuff has been kicking around since we moved into the place.”

“Out in the country where we are is not a good place to have a garage sale, that’s for sure,” Kirsten agreed. “But you could get a couple tables downtown when they have the city-wide garage sale in a month or so. You could get rid of some of it that way.”

“Yeah, or set up a table or two in front of Marlin Computer,” Mike suggested. “You might not get rid of everything, but you could get a few bucks for some of it. Then anything you don’t sell could go to the secondhand store.”

“It’s an idea,” Jackie conceded, “although that’s always struck me as a lot of work for not much reward. Still, we ought to get rid of some of it sooner or later, and this might be a good excuse.”

“Just as a thought, you might get the girls to take on some of sorting and rearranging things,” Kirsten suggested. “That might help them feel like part of the team, sort of a getting-to-know-you thing.”

“It has possibilities,” Mark replied thoughtfully. “Although, once again, we can’t know for sure until we get to know the girls a little. I mean, considering Shannon and all, they might be the kind of kids we can’t trust unless we’re standing over them with a baseball bat in hand. If that proves to be the case, we might not be able to take the time to set up a garage sale anyway.”

“Boy, I sure hope they don’t turn out that bad,” Mike said. “That would be an awful lot of stress on you two. Once again, I think Kirsten and I could handle it, because we’ve had kids and have some idea of what to expect. Everything is going to be new for you two.”

“Well, obviously I hope they don’t turn out that bad, either,” Mark sighed, “but then, you never know.”

“True,” Jackie agreed, “and that’s not all we have to do. At least one of those rooms hasn’t been cleaned since we moved into the place, and I know it’s been a while for the guest room. A lot of that is going to have to fall on me, but at least I hope the girls will be a part of it. I mean, the rooms are going to be theirs, after all.”

“I’ll help where I can,” Kirsten promised. “But you’re right, you need to have the kids involved in the process. That gives them a little bit of a stake in the ownership, if nothing else. Besides, the odds are it’ll be the last time you’ll see the rooms truly clean until they move out. Susan usually kept her room pretty neat and organized, but when they were teenagers, the only difference between Henry’s or Tiffany’s room and the city dump was that we don’t have a city dump anymore. Most mothers I know refer to their kids’ rooms as disaster areas, so I’d have to guess that Susan was the exception to the rule. And, I guess it runs in the family, since I seem to recall that my room at that age could have been considerably neater.”

“I was always something of a neatnik,” Jackie shrugged. “But then, things were a little different for me. That was about the time Mom went away, and, well, things were a little stressful in those years.”

It was something of a surprise to the rest of them to even hear Jackie refer to her mother; it was a touchy subject around her and something she just never did. Kirsten remembered well that it had been even worse when she and Jackie had been in school together a long time ago; there had been a lot of whispering going on behind Jackie’s back, stories and nasty rumors told and worse. It had gone a long way toward Jackie not wanting to return to Spearfish Lake when she and Mark were flying around the country on their honeymoon.

“That’s something you ought to keep in mind,” Kirsten replied a little gingerly. “You had a big trauma when you were about their age, so that may give you a point of contact with them. It’s not quite the same thing, but there are some similarities.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Jackie said reflectively. “But you might have a point. There are some differences, but there are a few things where I might have some insights where you wouldn’t.”

“I can’t imagine there hasn’t been some trauma with them over this,” Mike replied thoughtfully. “And if they don’t know what actually happened yet, I can see how it could be even worse than it already is.”

“And we don’t know how bad it is already,” Mark said. “Rebecca seemed to have her act pretty well together when I talked with her on the phone last night, but I didn’t talk with her very long. About all I can say is that she and her sister seem to have accepted it initially. I mean, they said they’d talked it over and had agreed they’d rather avoid going to a foster home. That means to me the reality has hit home with them at least that much.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Mike agreed. “I can tell you this much. Everyone reacts to the reality of a close death differently. Some accept it calmly, with resignation, some wail to the gods, and everything in between can happen, too. From what you said, it sounds like they are reacting to it fairly well, but on the other hand, they could still have been in shock when you talked to the girl.”

“I hate to say it,” Mark shook his head. “We can sit here and kick this back and forth all day, but when you get right down to it, we don’t know enough to do anything but speculate. Maybe it’s time we finished our coffee, headed over to Henry’s, and found out what we’ve really got to deal with.”

“Might as well,” Mike shook his head. “This coffee isn’t enough to keep me here, that’s for sure.”

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