Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Even after they got back in the van, the words Tricia had spoken stayed with her. She was still very new in town and there was a lot to learn, but she was beginning to see that she could make this place a home – not just the duplex, but the town. That would be strange; while she hadn’t exactly been sleeping under bridges or anything, it had been years since she’d had a place she could call home; even her apartment in Milwaukee didn’t qualify. It seemed especially surprising after the agonies and worries of the night before. She felt wanted here, and she doubted Peppermint Patty would have been received with anything like the same degree of enthusiasm.
She’d be seeing Danny again in the morning, but this time they really would be talking about furniture. When she’d walked into the store that morning, about all she could think about was how fast and how far she’d have to run. Mood changes? My god!
The two of them drove back out to Northwoods Realty, where Binky had a few papers for Tricia to sign, and handed over the keys. It didn’t take long; soon Tricia was in her battered old Neon, following Binky back to her house on Hannegan’s Cove.
The house had smelled amazingly good before, thanks to the beef that had been simmering all day; now with potatoes and onions and carrots added it smelled even more exotic. It had been a long time indeed.
Binky’s husband Steve arrived before very long. He was a small guy, not much larger than his wife, wearing a business suit. She’d actually met him at the chamber reception the night before, but then he had just been one of any number of faces and names she’d known she couldn’t remember. Surprisingly, she remembered the face, not that she could have put a name with it.
“Dr. York,” he said before he got settled in, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been in a suit long enough for one day. Let me get into something casual.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she replied. “But please call me Tricia. I worked very hard to be called Dr. York, but I don’t want to be reminded of it all the time.”
It turned into a fun evening, the kind of evening just sitting around talking with friends that Tricia had rarely experienced. Over the course of the evening Steve told the long version of the story of recovering Henry Toivo’s remains, and yes, it had a couple of eerie elements, things that didn’t quite make sense but couldn’t be just attributed to good luck, either.
More importantly, Tricia learned a lot more about Spearfish Lake, especially about Clark Plywood, the largest employer in town by a long ways. Although everyone called it “the plywood plant” or something similar, Steve explained that they didn’t actually make plywood there and hadn’t for more than a quarter century. These days they mostly made chip board and composition board, terms that meant nothing to Tricia until he took her out to his little shop in the garage and showed her samples of each. She realized that she’d seen them before, but never thought about them; it seemed strange in a way that a town, an industry, and the lives of a lot of people could depend on such a relatively mundane thing.
“With the housing industry going soft, it’s going to impact the plant and the town,” he explained once they got back inside. “Much of our production goes into new houses, so we’re trying to diversify into other areas. Actually, that’s been going on for a while. A few years ago we started a wood pelletization plant in an effort to make use of material that would otherwise be waste. With the cost of heating going up, wood pellets in wood-burning furnaces are getting to be more popular than we had anticipated, although it’s still a relatively small industry, and we have a couple other ideas in the works. You can’t stand still when times are changing.”
“Oh, do I ever know that,” she shook her head. “Medicine is changing very quickly, too. There are things that are very different today, even from when I started med school.”
“No doubt about it,” he replied. “I haven’t been very involved with the program that brought you here, but even I can see that keeping up is more important in medicine than it is in wood products. If you don’t keep up you actually are heading downhill fast.”
Tricia didn’t want to just come out and say that she thought Dr. Luce hadn’t been keeping up for a long time, and it was apparent he was heading downhill fast, taking the quality of medical service he provided down with him. But then, with these two it was something that didn’t need saying; they understood it already, and it was probably clear to a lot of people. Although it was a main focus of her concerns, especially for what would likely be the next few months, right at the moment she didn’t want to talk about it; just sitting around talking with new friends, learning about Spearfish Lake, was more interesting. “What kinds of things do you have to do to keep ahead of the pack?” she asked, hoping that would get the topic off medicine for a while.
“What we can think of,” he replied. “For example, up till a few years ago we used very little computerization in the plant itself. Oh, we used it heavily in the office, and for other things, but really not much had changed in the plant for many years. We were having a warehousing problem, you know – basically just keeping track of inventory – and it was clear we needed a better system than we had, preferably computerized.
Ryan and I came up with the idea of bringing in a computer specialist to work on the problem, rather than an industry specialist. It took him a while to understand what the problem was, but as soon as he understood it and the system behind it he was off and running. He found a system that was designed totally for something else – well, inventory control, but not wood products – and made it work perfectly for us. There were some huge changes in how we do things, but it paid for itself in only a little more than a year, and our warehousing control problem just evaporated, and at considerably less cost than if we’d brought in a consultant familiar with the industry. It worked so well we turned the computer specialist loose on other areas. He’s cut costs and increased efficiency across the board. The hell of it is, Ryan and I have been friends with this guy since we were back in school, and we never even thought of using him till it was almost too late.”
“He was on the Vietnam expedition with us, too,” Binky added. “I mean, he’s that old a friend.”
“He helped me a lot on this house when I was rebuilding it years ago,” Steve shook his head. “Hell, in those days I’d barely even heard the word ‘computer’ and never dreamed they would be as common as they are today. Our friend Mark built the first computer in the county from a kit, oh, back before I met Binky. It’s probably thirty years ago now. It’s unbelievable how things have changed in that time.”
“I’m going to have to get out and see your plant sometime,” Tricia said. “I just can’t imagine what it would be like.”
“Ryan or I would be glad to set up a tour for you sometime,” Steve smiled. “For as many people from town who work there it’s sometimes a little surprising how many people here don’t understand it. But there’s more to Clark Plywood than just the plywood plant. There’s the pellet plant, of course, and some other things, but our forest management division is just about as big a deal. Clark owns, oh, maybe a third of the forest land in the twenty miles or so around here. For the most part, while we refer to it as forest management, much of it is nothing more than tree farms. State land also makes up about a third or more of the forest land in this area, and we harvest and manage some of it under contract. Private ownership makes up the rest, and even there some of it is commercially managed.”
“I even own a couple square miles of forest land,” Binky smiled. “It’s come to me in various ways over the years, but I’ve learned from Steve that it’s more profitable to manage it than it is to sell it.”
“If I let Binky have her head she’d probably wind up owning the whole damn county,” Steve snickered. “Or, at least more than Ryan does.”
“Owning it is one thing,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “Managing it is another thing. The land I own, I just contract to Clark for the management, and I get a nice check twice a year.”
“In any case, at Clark Plywood we have more forest land than we really need so we often sell the excess wood products elsewhere. Tricia, I don’t know if you’ve heard the name ‘Wayne Clark’ or not, but you’ll probably hear it sooner or later.”
“I took her by the Wayne Clark cottage today,” Binky said.
“Huge place,” Steve shook his head. “Way the hell too big for a real person, but that was what he wanted. He bought it for literally a couple of pennies on the dollar back in the depression, and he bought a lot of the stump land around here the same way at the same time. I don’t think ‘pennies on the dollar’ is the right term because he got it even cheaper than that, and it wasn’t worth much to begin with. I’m told people thought he was crazy, and they thought he was even crazier when he hired out-of-work people to go out there and plant trees. Some of those forest lands he planted have been cut over several times since then. He was crazy like a fox, and that’s why Clark Plywood has so much land around here today. For the most part, we still use the same general sustained-yield principles Wayne Clark started, and in this case there’s no need to change just because we’ve used them for a while.”
“Maybe I ought to look into buying some Clark Plywood stock,” Tricia grinned.
“Not a chance,” he shook his head. “Hell, I’d like to buy some, too, and I can’t. While it’s technically a public company, the stock is pretty closely held by the Clark family, mostly Ryan and his son Randy.”
“You probably met Randy last night,” Binky added. “He has that house across the Cove I pointed out to you. It’s where the reception is going to be tomorrow night.”
“I think I remember him,” Tricia nodded. “A little guy, not much taller than I am, a natty little beard? Several people pointed him out to me.”
“Let me tell you, the Clarks, father and son, are very good people,” Steve said. “They know they have a huge responsibility toward the community, and they work hard at living up to it, harder than most people. Randy may have a pretty house, but he’s not exactly a Richard Corry living in the house up on the hill, so to speak. Give him a chance, he’d rather be out running a grader or a backhoe at the construction company. The union gives him hell for doing it all the time. Clark Construction is a separate company, but both Ryan and Randy own it and we share services a lot. Since I handle union affairs among other things, it’s usually me who has to lock horns with the operating engineers union when they get into a snit about him running his own equipment.”
“What Steve is trying to say, I think,” Binky put in, “is that while realistically the Clarks are big cheeses in this town, they don’t act like it and they don’t want to be treated like it. It’s something you really ought to remember. Hell, you saw it last night. You remember who was running the serving table?”
“I remember Nicole Clark,” Tricia frowned. “There was a Rachel somebody with her.”
“Rachel Wooten,” Binky said. “She’s actually a Clark; she’s Randy’s sister and is a bookkeeper at the construction company. Her husband is a construction superintendent, and my understanding is that they agreed to live on what they make and ignore the fact that Rachel is pretty well off, although in capital terms, mostly forest lands, rather than pure income. Their kids sure aren’t going to have to worry about paying their way through college, though. Nicole is Randy’s wife, and she’s a teacher. Neither of them had to be running the serving table. Hell, the deal last night was catered anyway; the caterer could have handled it, but no. It was just a little something Nicole and Rachel did for the good of the community, and so common nobody thought about it. They do stuff like that all the time.”
“I probably ought to point out,” Steve added, “none of the Clarks are actually what you could call rich. Yes, they represent a lot of money, but it’s all capital money. Profits for the most part are put back into the companies or the work force, which is to say the community, in one way or another. It’s not supposed to be public knowledge but it’s no secret in this town that Ryan’s annual income is a ways shy of six figures, and Randy’s is less than that. That’s something they learned from Wayne Clark, too.”
“This Wayne Clark must have been an interesting guy.”
“Must have been,” Steve shook his head. “I’m not sure I ever met him. I was real little when he died. He had his dark side and there are stories going around about that. There are people around who are still a little touchy about those stories, too. What do you know about the Donna Clark Foundation?”
“Nothing much, other than they funded my coming here. I guess it was a little more complicated than that.”
“Yeah, it was. There were several people, groups, and companies involved, including Northwoods Realty,” Steve nodded in the direction of his wife. “It was the logical thing for the Clark Foundation to take point on the deal, since there are people on the staff at Clark Plywood who handle the foundation’s business, so they had the staff and the tax status to do it. But the roots of the Donna Clark Foundation go back to Wayne’s dark side. I don’t know a lot about it, but Donna Clark used to be the wife of Garth Matson, who was part of the family that ran the local bank. Garth was in the National Guard, and got called up when World War II broke out. While he was gone Donna got into a hell of an affair with Wayne, and when Garth heard about it, he divorced her.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened,” Tricia smiled.
“No, it wouldn’t,” he laughed. “A lot of things spun off from that, most of which we don’t have time to get into right now,” Steve explained. “But, after the dust settled, Donna married Wayne, and she was like his second or maybe third wife, I’m not sure. But getting involved in an affair like that, well, it cost her a lot of status in what was then a somewhat smaller community. She spent the rest of her life trying to repair her reputation, mostly through doing a lot of community service stuff. When Wayne died she got a big chunk of the shares of Clark Plywood, and for close to twenty years there was a battle for control, which I also don’t need to cover now. When Donna died, she wasn’t on speaking terms with her son, and her daughter was already dead. In fact, Ryan was about the only one in the Clark family Donna was on speaking terms with, and Ryan doesn’t know anything about her motivations, but she left her stock in Clark Plywood to him and the rest of Wayne’s money to the Foundation. Ryan and a couple of local women’s club types got named to the board, but over the years Ryan has managed to bring the board membership back into the Clark family too.”
“I hadn’t heard any of that. Is this some kind of big secret or something?”
“No, it’s pretty well known if mostly forgotten about. The big thing is that for the most part, Donna’s intent for the foundation worked. Today she’s seen as a huge community benefactor, close to a saint in this town, and hardly anybody remembers that it started with a rather sleazy little affair of hers.”
It was a long evening and an interesting one; Tricia learned a lot more about Spearfish Lake than she ever dreamed could even be there, and there were some lessons in it for her.
Perhaps what stuck with her the most, as she drove back to the Spearfish Lake Inn much later than she had intended, was the point Steve had made about the Clarks, because it applied to her. She realized that in small towns doctors were looked up to, and almost sanctified, at least by some people. Highly respected, and perhaps a bit apart from the common run of people. She didn’t really look at herself that way, Peppermint Patty aside, but it was at least partly because she’d spent a lot of time around doctors and other medical people. They were just normal people to her, but she realized that many people wouldn’t treat her as just a normal person. A physician could get a hell of a big head that way, very easily, and she’d seen it happen.
In fact, it made her understand Gene Metarie a little. Well, Shovelhead – she could think the name, now, although she still didn’t think she could use it to his face. The name, the beard, the Harley, and some of his other interests like the music were a way of compensating for the fact that he had been the leading physician in the community for some years. They made him human, not superhuman, like some people expected doctors to be. It would be hard to put someone named “Shovelhead” on a pedestal.
She could see how most people could put the Clark family on pedestals the same way they put physicians there. But the Clarks seemed to fight it off in their own way and go the extra mile to be a working part of the community, not just as employers, but as normal people who felt they had a responsibility toward the community. She realized that she was pretty much in the same boat with them; somehow she was going to have to become part of the community, not just above the community like many people would want to place her.
The story of Donna Clark rang with her in ways that Binky and Steve could not have expected. Donna Clark had a history, perhaps not as bad as Peppermint Patty’s, but much more public. Donna had had to work very hard to overcome that, and from the way the story was told she had never totally managed it in her lifetime. When you got right down to it, Tricia could identify in some ways with Donna, who, while she may have been an adulteress, hadn’t been a prostitute.
Being a part of the community was going to be more than just being a physician – that much was clear now. Maybe if people knew she had been Peppermint Patty she would seem more human, but probably not. She didn’t want to take the risk of it happening in any case, because there was no telling how that would come out, but the odds didn’t favor good in the slightest.
All in all, it was a lot to think about. She was glad to get back to her motel room, which seemed anonymous like so many other places she’d lived, or at least spent the nights. Well, she wouldn’t be spending many more of them in places like this – the duplex may have been bare, but it seemed like an artist’s bare canvas waiting to be filled. In a way she’d never quite imagined, it was going to be hers.
She was yawning when she got her clothes off and headed to the shower. It had been a long day but a full one, one that had come out much differently than her worries of the night before.
First thing tomorrow morning, she thought, right after breakfast, she needed to go back down to Spearfish Lake Furniture and Appliance and get Danny to help her start to fill that blank canvas.