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Ned ‘The Arm’ Armour

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BB“You’re crazy!” Vera said as she poured the dark and bitter coffee into his mug.

“I’m just telling you what I heard,” Ned replied, glancing up at her. Vera was always full of piss and vinegar but she was also the best waitress he’d ever known. In the 30 years he’d been eating his breakfast at the Donut Hole, he’d never seen her spill even a drop of coffee.

“Well, I heard that when it rains over in Onondaga that money drops from the sky but you don’t see me racing over there on stormy days,” she retorted and arched one eyebrow at him. She moved the coffee pot around the table, filling the other cups with pure, black coffee. No decaf for this table and heaven forbid the thought of serving these men tea.

Ned puffed up his chest as the other regulars around the table looked to him. It wasn’t unusual that he found himself the center of attention. He had lived in Bakersville his entire life – the same as the other 65-year olds around the table – but unlike them, he had a made a permanent mark on the town that still counted to this day. As a sophomore in high school, Ned had brought their football team a state championship, leading the way as the star quarterback. He did the same his junior and senior years. That football field – just down the road a bit – held all of his glory moments. He was so popular back then that when he was a senior, the school administrators had designated a section in the stands to him: The Ned ‘The Arm’ Armour Bleachers. It was where his parents and sisters and girlfriend proudly sat each and every game.

In Bakersville he had never lost that status and it was made even more permanent when, after graduation, he was one of the few locals to leave for college down-state. When he returned to Bakersville four years later, he ended up teaching at that very same high school. He was promoted to principal when Art Opie retired back in 1991. At the school he had been known as Principal (The) Arm until he, himself, had retired three years ago at the age of 62.

For some reason he had never married although had been close one time way back in his thirties. But he was fine with his life-long bachelorhood. He got to do whatever he wanted.

Finally he shot back at Vera, “Brady Willright saw the monster himself!”

“Oh, peshaw,” Vera remarked and Ned frowned. She had the most annoying knack of using ancient slang phrases or words; ones you hadn’t heard in years unless you regularly watched old Rock Hudson movies.

“I think I saw it, too,” Jes Sampson piped up from the lunch bar and all the heads turned towards him. He was younger than the men at Ned’s table and was not retired which meant, according to the unspoken diner rule,  no sitting at the regulars’ table. Every morning, though, Jes made sure to secure t the stool nearest to their table.

He swiveled on his stool and faced the men.

“You’re all crazy,” Vera declared before Jes could say any more and Ned watched as she walked back to the lunch counter, her apron tightly wrapped around her middle, the bow tied directly above her rear.

Jes Sampson ignored her and continued.

“I was down at the docks off Big Bear fishing the other night. I had a real hankering for some fresh walleye. Anyhoo, I had been sitting there at the dock for, say, 15 minutes when I heard a loud splash. ‘Hooray!’ I think ‘cause I figured I just caught a good size one but when I tugged on my reel there was nothin’ there. Then I heard the splash again and I looked up and saw it!”

Jes paused for a moment either for dramatic effect or because he had forgotten his train of thought. It was a toss-up either way. Jes Sampson wasn’t the smartest tool in the Bakersville shed.

Ned cleared his throat which started Jes’s engine again.

“The thing was sitting on top of the water for a few seconds and it was big! Way bigger than any fish I seen. I think the bastard even had wings but by then it was gettin’ dark and I couldn’t see all that good. It ducked under the water and disappeared before I could get a good look at the face but it spooked me pretty bad. After that I packed up and got outta there.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

“I ended up having hash that night,” Jes added as though that made sense.

Ned nodded his head. He wasn’t all that happy to get the confirmation on the beast in the lake. He thought the stories were fun to talk about but hadn’t wanted it to be real, whatever it was.

The men at the table began chattering but Ned was distracted. He glanced over at the large deer head strapped to the wall behind the cash register. In the diner, the dead buck was known as Zeke and he had been hanging there as long as Ned could remember. Ned always thought that Zeke’s eyes looked so sad; it was the poor animal’s lot in life to be stuffed and displayed for eternity in a diner 200 miles north of the next biggest city. It didn’t seem fair. He thought Zeke probably had deserved better. Even now Ned could tell he had been a regal and beautiful animal, but Ned knew no one else thought of Zeke this way. They were all hunters in Bakersville; it was a way of life in the north. The opening day of deer hunting season was even declared a school holiday each year. The hardy folk of Bakersville hunted and trapped and fished and, in general, were the usual outdoorsmen and women you’d expect to inhabit the small, northern towns. But even though Ned had been born and raised in Bakersville, he had never felt as comfortable as the others with the creatures of the woods or water.

He could hear Vera’s cackling laugh back in the kitchen, hurrying up the cook so she could get the food out to her customers. How could it be that a 60-year-old, 5-foot-nothing waitress could be afraid of nothing at all, not even some Loch Ness-like monster in a lake just a mile away, he wondered? That damn woman was fearless. Once a feral fox bolted crazily into to the diner and he had seen Vera shoo it out with just a ratty broom. He had also witnessed Vera stand up to a roving motorcycle gang who had stopped into the diner one lunch and almost refused to pay. Vera had even pick chunks of glass out of Ned’s own face last summer when a local trouble-maker had thrown a rock through the diner’s front window. That day he feared that she was even going to grab the sewing kit behind the counter and stitch up his wounds on the spot but instead she had grabbed a baseball bat and ran out the diner and down the street, chasing the kid, cursing the entire way.

Of course she wouldn’t be afraid of some beast in a lake, he thought. She knew it wasn’t real and even if it was, so what? Ned was sure that the creature would be more afraid of Vera than she of it. She was a force to be reckoned with.

The good old boys had moved on in their conversation. They were making bets on the Friday night football game wondering if the quick-footed running back would make 100 yards again this week. Jes Sampson was turned back to the counter, scooping up the eggs on his plate. A section of his egg white sat quivering on the edge on the fork and after a few seconds it fell helplessly to the plate, a lone snowflake from the cloud.

And then, out of the blue: “Mister?”

Ned looked down to see a small girl with pigtails standing next to him. Was it the Jensen girl who lived down the street, he wondered? He looked around and saw her mother, Patsy Jensen paying the check and nodded to himself.

“Don’t you know there’s no such thing as monsters?” the child said. “Everyone knows that. You’re crazy!”

Ned rocked back for a moment, surprised. The little girl turned and ran back to her mother but not before waving to Vera who quickly handed her a dollar. The waitress smiled a sneaky grin and her eyes flashed at Ned before she headed back into the kitchen laughing to herself.

Damn, he thought; that woman is fearless. He wasn’t sure why it was today that he was so focused on Vera; after all she had waited on him for 25 years. Perhaps it was all the crazy talk about a ghost-monster inhabiting an inland lake in the northern woods of Michigan. Or maybe it was his surprise when, earlier, he had noticed Vera standing near Zeke the deer, staring at her order pad, aimlessly stroking the animal’s chin. Or it could be his shock at her sheer moxie at paying a child a dollar to chide him in public. Whatever it was he suddenly felt the proverbial light bulb go off above his head and he knew: it was about time he asked that annoying, salty, fearless woman out on a date.

And with that Ned rose from his chair and headed to the lunch counter, a silly grin spreading across and creasing The Arm’s face.

 

A Healing Place

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cabin

“Hit it!” he yelled and the boat roared into action, skipping and weaving down the dark blue lake. The man struggled to pull himself upright but after a few moments, he flopped back into the water, head first. The rumble of the boat’s engine shifted down as it circled around the skier for another try.

At the next dock down, the black and brown retriever – a “dog pound special” as his owner called him – lapped at the waves set in motion by the boat. His master pointed furiously at the ball bobbing in the water a few feet out.

“Buster! Buster!” he cried. “You’re gonna lose your ball…”

It was early that morning, only 8:00 a.m. or so but warm, the temperature already inching towards 70. The sun was but two clicks up from the horizon but the lake already glimmered and reeled, the water cross-hatched with beams of light and dark. A bird darted near the dog’s ball, dive-bombing close to check for fish. Disappointed, it turned on its wing away, swirling through the early morning sky.

It was perfect, she thought, but then it always has been.

The woman was at the family cabin, the one her grandfather had built so long ago. He had chopped down each tree and then sanded and cut and hammered until the log cabin was pushed up from the earth as though it had always been part of the land. A large stone fireplace stood in the center of the place and each time the woman saw it anew, she was struck with wonder. It astounded her that her own grandfather, an assembly-line worker at the Chevy plant, had built the beautiful fireplace, stone-by-stone, with his own hands. He wasn’t a mason, he wasn’t a brick-layer, but he had figured out how to do it, anyway. Back then it seemed that everyone knew how to do most everything. There wasn’t a Home Depot you could call.

The cabin was simple, beautiful, and peaceful. It was set deep in the pine trees that scooped around Arbor Lake. Just beyond the cabin were twelve wooden steps that took you down to the weathered dock and the clear, cool water.

She had come to this cabin for 35 years, first as an infant with her mother and siblings, then through the years with one brother or the other, a sister-in-law, a niece, a new dog. Her father had died before she was born and she only knew him as a staunch man wearing a suit coat in a silver picture frame on the shelf at home. She had asked her mother about him many times over the years but since he had never been in her life, she didn’t really miss him. To her, it had always been her mother, her two brothers and her.

As an adult she continued to accompany her mother to the cabin at least twice a year. The boys had drifted off as boys do but she was still close to her mother – very close – and their relationship had deepened as they both grew older. She looked forward to traveling with her the 150 miles up the rural highway to the cabin in the woods. The two of them would spend their time outside on the dock reading Barbara Kingsolver and John Grisham. Later in the afternoon they might flit around the lake in the old wooden canoe that her mother had picked up at an estate sale. At night they would gather fallen branches and dried wood and make a fire in the pit on their small beach and stare into the flames, mesmerized.

Each year as life became more complicated as it so often does, the cabin remained a simple haven for the woman. An oasis. She began to think of it as her very own fountain of youth. Well, maybe not youth but definitely strength. It was where she came with her mother to gather and center herself after heartbreak from a broken romance, the loss of a job, the death of her beloved dog, even the suicide of her best friend.

The cabin always seemed to heal her.

She wondered if it could possibly work this time.

The woman sat on the dock alone this year, her feet draped in the water, kicking back and forth, back and forth. Across the lake a couple was pushing off from a creaky dock, settling into an old paddle boat. She could see their legs begin to pump furiously. The water cast off behind them curled into a vigorous stream.

“Slow down,” the wife laughed but the husband continued pistoning his legs in their own rhythm, focused solely on the duty at hand. Before the day was out his nose would be sunburned and his eyes sleepy but he will be glad that he accompanied his wife on the lake instead of sitting on the beach reading the latest Sports Illustrated.

The woman could feel the fresh water move over her toes, licking the soles of her feet. The sun was bright and it warmed her shoulders and slowly some part of the tension and anxiety she had felt over the past three weeks eased. She could feel herself fall into a trance-like state. Sometimes she thought she could stare at the lake for eternity, its ripples and waves breaking the still and silent glass surface. It was as though her mind no longer needed to think, to feel, to hurt. The lake did that for her.

After a while the couple in the paddle boat made their way down the lake and she could no longer hear their laughter. The power boat was silent, its frustrated skier giving up for the day. Buster-the-dog lay on the sand at the dock down one sunning himself, the wet ball at his feet. It was quiet for the moment, but soon, she knew, children would be out splashing in the water and the boats would speed by and in the midst of Arbor Lake, it would be just another day.

Life shouldered on, fairly or unfairly, she knew. The lake remained. The pine trees grew taller. The cabin sat where it had sat for the past 80 years. But her mother was gone, now, slowly fading away in her sleep three weeks ago.

“A good death,” they had called it.

The woman squeezed her eyes shut and the tears began softly drifting down her cheeks.

Her mother was dead and she didn’t know what to do. Who do you become, she wondered, when the ones who give you life are no longer alive, themselves? Are you now in charge of the world?

She looked back out onto the lake, wishing her mother was sitting next to her regaling her with some funny story from her seniors’ book club. Her mother had always made her laugh; she had always made her feel safe; she had always made her feel that all was right with the world.

The woman could feel her mother close now that she was at the cabin; the place where they had spent so much time together. But even so, the longer she sat on the dock thinking about her mother, the clearer it became that it really hadn’t been the cabin at all that had been her safe haven; it had been her mother. Of course it had.

The breeze blew through the tall pines behind her ruffling her hair and tossing it in her face. The wind caught the water and the wave ran over and out from her toes. She watched as it made its stalwart journey across the lake to the docks on the other side.

She loved the cabin in the woods, the dock by the lake, the silly canoe; probably even more so, now. It didn’t feel empty or lonely. The entire place was filled with her mother and for the first time in weeks the woman smiled.

She could hear her mother’s voice, warm, comforting, and very near.

“It’s going to be alright, honey,” she said. “You’re going to be alright.”