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Ed LaBeaux walked boldly along the shoulder of the county road. He was an upright piece of gristle, and as he walked he casually tapped a Number 10 can against his knee. The can held a few inches of dirt plus a wriggling handful of earthworms. The man wore a jaunty grey hat with a band sweated dark. June had come with a vengeance and caught him out on the road. He walked on the left shoulder because if by chance a car came along and might hit him, Ed wanted to look it in the eye.
“You’re on the wrong side,” Christene had told him. “You’re gonna get hit.”
“Who says this is the wrong side? Who says?”
“You’re gonna get clipped by a milk truck or some car doing a hundred miles an hour. Bumper going to hit you and toss you into the ditch like a fawn deer.” She had said this as she walked on the right side, a few steps behind him. As they walked she peered ahead as if to see the unlikely oncoming car of destruction before he did. It was, he recalled, maybe nine, ten years ago. When she was still able to walk more than across the room. He shook his head at the memory.
“I’m going fishing,” he had told her over breakfast. “Catch us a mess of fish.”
The bacon was lean, and she was having difficulty with some of it. She lifted a napkin and gently tongued it out. “You going to the river?” she asked.
“Naw. We got fish right here. Grandpa’s lake.”
“I was hoping you were going to the river. Check on our investment.” She set the napkin beside her plate and pushed the scrambled eggs around with her fork. “Might not want to wait much longer. If Braden is running the place into the ground it’d be nice to catch a piece of it before it’s gone.”
“The bar is not going anywhere,” he said. “It’s going to outlast us all.”
They had leased the Black Bear Tavern to Jack Braden. He was one of the outlaw Bradens and was a shirttail cousin of sorts to Ed. Jack had been good, mostly, for the payments. It was a lease-to-buy arrangement that Christene and Ed had insisted upon. Not a bad idea, Ed had to admit. Miss two payments and the contract goes to straight lease with the payments no longer applied to purchase.
He watched her eyes drift from the plate to the TV. They had just splurged on a colour TV to replace the black-and-white. To Ed the colours looked false, too blue or too yellow. He had pointed it out to Christene the very first day.
“Look,” he said, “look at the colour of the horse Little Joe is riding.”
The Cartwrights were riding three abreast, Ben, Joe, and Hoss. The youngest one of the riders flashed Hoss a grin.
“Oh, he’s giving it to Hoss,” Christene said. Bonanza was her favourite show. “Wish I could hear what he was saying.”
“Probably dirty,” Ed said. “That’s why they don’t let us hear it. Joe has got a dirty mouth.”
“Look at his horse, Christene. It’s purple.”
“It is not.”
“It is. Look at the sides of the trail. The weeds are purple too.”
“That’s sage, you dummy. Haven’t you heard of the purple sage?”
“That doesn’t explain the horse.”
“Don’t care,” she said, and had climbed from her chair to turn up the volume.
Today after breakfast Ed went to the garden shed and found a pitchfork. He stabbed it into the ground between the tomatoes and the potatoes. Yes, the garden needed weeding. He overturned a few forkloads of dirt and stomped them open to find worms. His practice was to spread cow manure on his garden every fall. When Albert Muska was tilling the acres he rented from Ed, he knew that part of the rent was to harrow the garden. When Ed broke a clod of dirt in his hand he paused to sniff it. Might ought to put some wood ashes on it, he decided. When he had enough worms, he knocked the dirt from the fork and put it away.
The lake wasn’t far. It was a kettle pond set in a copse of trees. Eons ago a recalcitrant chunk of ice had broken free from the glacier and lay in a nest of sand and gravel. While the river of ice retreated, the ice chunk lay in its insulated bed. Eventually it melted, leaving a round, deep depression in the newly exposed land.
The gravel and sand banks eventually wore dryas, then alder and spruce. It was low enough and deep enough to remain full of water with banks that grew spongy in times of wet. Ed walked the road until he made a few steps across the shoulder into lank grass and then was swallowed by trees. These were low, woolly pines, and Ed pushed through them like they were a fragrant curtain.
County maps listed this as Labeaux Lake. It was a few hundred feet across, and the trees that circled it cast deep, dependable shadows over most of it. Ed’s eyes had to adjust to the semidarkness, and he paused to breathe in the cool.
He could feel the moss and bog grass give a little underfoot. If he stood still, his shoes would fill with the seep. Just to the left was his boat, and he went to it. A fallen log wet its head in the pond, and Ed stepped onto its bare trunk, careful of the slickened wood, to sidle to the snagged branch with a string knotted to it. The boat was a wooden thing, low and wide. No more than eight feet long. He was uncertain if it was put here by his father or grandfather or any one of the LaBeaux who visited. Its hull held water not much different than the pond around it, so Ed used the snagged branch to lower himself into the boat. A bleach jug scoop floated in the bilges, and Ed knelt on the stern thwart to scoop water out.
It took a while, and Ed paused. The pond was a mirror of sky. Once again he was impressed by the silence. The first time Christene had come to the pond she had not liked it. She had stood by as he bailed the boat on a cool spring day.
“It’s spooky,” she had said.
“This lake. It’s black as molasses. You don’t know what’s down there.”
“It’s the cedar,” he said. “Like a tamarack swamp. What’s down there is supper.”
“Maybe, but what else?”
Memories, he almost said. For at once he had been reminded, in painstaking clarity, of how his first wife, Elsie, had come here the first year of their marriage. She was a fragile woman, nineteen years old and had worn a white dress patterned with wood violets. Her shoes had been old fashioned, laced high with a one-inch heel. Ed had swept her into his arms and carried her easily, joyously over the wet.
“Oh,” she had said when he placed her in the boat, “my love, you have brought me a jewel.” She had waved at the trees that surrounded them. “I had no idea this was here. It’s so beautiful.” He had rowed her across the pond and then paused in the middle. Sun backlit her as she sat in the bow, and he told her she looked like an angel.
“I feel like an angel,” she said. “Some sort of spirit. A woods sprite. Oh Ed, I can breathe here.”
Ed had paused his bailing at the memory. The water had become still, and he watched a water strider emerge from the bank weeds to dance across the surface. The sun reflected into his eyes in a thousand small stabs of light. He lowered his head to resume bailing.
Soon he untied the boat and pushed off the log with an oar. These were old but not so old as the boat. Cheap things, he thought, for the blade of one had split and the varnish was mostly a thing of the past. He made a few strokes and floated out away from the bank. He kept a can pole laid across the thwarts, and lodged in one of the frames was a tobacco tin with hooks and an extra length of line. When he unwound the line attached to the pole, he thought it good enough. He eyeballed the location of the bobber before thumbing a wriggling worm onto the hook. As he swung the pole over the water, the worm was mostly coiled around the hook with its fingerlike head extended and reaching for the water. Ed lowered it in until the bobber floated.
The sun was warm across his shoulders. The boat needed paint, he reminded himself. Again. He recalled it being a light grey with buff interior when he rowed Elsie on the lake.
“What is the name of the boat?” she had asked him.
“This one? It doesn’t have a name.”
“It should have a name. It deserves one.” She had patted it like a dog. “Let’s think of a good name.”
One of their bedroom pleasures had been to share a pillow and to make up names for the children they would have. “William,” he had said. “Bill. Or Billy. Another one named Pete.”
“Lillian,” she had said. “Lillian Inez. Or Elizabeth. I like Elizabeth Ann.”
“Sounds like a name out of one of your books.”
“What’s wrong with that? My love, we can name our child after our family members or we can give them lovely names full of potential.”
“Lizzie?” He had winked.
“Elizabeth. Bethany if she has to have a nickname.”
“You win. Elizabeth. Protected by her big brother, Bill.”
The memory pained him, a stab in a place that never healed over. They had no children, of course, and a doctor counselled Ed that he should refrain from “relations” with his wife as pregnancy would hasten her demise. He saw, again, too clearly, her dark hair against the pillow. Saw a cloth held to her mouth that grew crimson before his eyes as she chuffed another painful cough. Ed closed his eyes.
Ed LaBeaux woke in a surfeit of sound. His hearing had faded as with men of his generation, brought on by unmuffled tractor engines, by jack hammers, or by the deliberate percussive nature of war. He shook himself awake, upright in the boat. Ed had been hard of hearing when his first wife walked the earth, and had bent close to her as she lay in the bed of the TB ward.
“What, Elsie,” he said, “what are you saying to me?”
“Not too close,” she breathed. “Don’t want you to catch it.”
With the second wife, Christene, hearing wasn’t so important. She was also remarried, two to his one, and had learned to speak loud. It was useful in the bar they owned, her cry of last call a sure bark to end the evening. It was a cry of authority and finality. No men would gather in the back room when she worked, gathering to play cribbage or pinochle while Ed cleaned up. She used the same tone on the telephone when wives would call for their husbands.
“He’s here,” she would say, and stare at the man in question. “He’s right here.”
“We’d do better,” Ed told her as they emptied the till, “if you were less hard on the men.”
“Works both way,” she answered. “When a fella gets a tab I go see the wife. She pays it out her egg money or some such thing. The women pay back my honesty.” She shook a finger at her husband. “You let Bill Kvapil fall behind on his bar tab and he never paid.”
“Of course not. He died.”
“If he’s a been married his widow would have paid.”
“If he had been married he wouldn’t have been in that tree spying on the schoolteacher’s bedroom. He wouldn’t have broke his neck over some lacy drawers.”
“So you say. I wouldn’t put it past him to die in some other foolish way.”
“That wife,” Del Sooner would say to Ed, safely out of her hearing, “she’s a pistol.”
“I know. And I’m a son of a gun.”
But they did alright in the bar. Ed had got a loan from Christene’s brother, Herman Hennig. Herman had been led to believe it was for his new brother-in-law to purchase a few milk cows. Ed had sixty acres and surely that meant the man was going to farm them. When he found out the money went to purchase the Black Bear Tavern, he threatened to never speak to his sister again. He was a crew cut block of man with a gap in his front teeth. Some said he resembled a fat Teddy Roosevelt.
“Go ahead,” Ed told the man. “She won’t miss you spitting on her.”
Because Herman would not speak, they ignored his letters asking for the money back. “He never got me a wedding present,” Christene said. “Not last time, either.” A bar is easier to carry if the mortgage is already paid. The tavern was six miles from the sixty acres Ed had inherited. It sat on the bank of the river neighbouring what had been a village of Chippewa that was home to one of the oldest Catholic churches in the northern part of the state. Chippewa Mission was what the village was called. To old-timers it still carried its original name: Squaw Point.
The tavern was always the Black Bear. It was once a house, quickly converted to sell booze to river men and lumberjacks bringing rafts downriver to the sawmills. The back of the tavern was stone, and Ed kept a cot in the small storeroom there. Times he was too tired to drive home he might stare at the hewn rafters and think about the conversations the old wood retained, conversations in French, Chippewa, German, and whatever tongue the men shouted in. Ed had found a ledger from 1886 back there. If Armand Pelly or Jack Sturges ever rose from their graves and came into the tavern, Ed would have to remind them of their unpaid tab.
“Why do you read those old things?” Christene had chided him. “You spend too much time in the past.”
Ed felt a tug on the pole. Instinctively he tugged back. When he lifted the pole he had a small, thrashing trout on the line. He raised the pole over the boat and hand-over-handed it to where he could reach the line. The fish arched and writhed in the bilge, so Ed put a shoe on it.
It was a small wonder that the fish caught in the lake were always the same size. They were lively, hungry trout that fit four to a pan. Ed could not recall catching larger fish or tiny ones. It was as if the fish grew to one size, suited to the size of the pond, by some sort of agreement. Ed worked the hook from the fish’s mouth and killed it. He rebaited the hook and swung the line back over.
Ed’s eyes swept the lake. Toward shore he saw motion and squinted. From the shadows of the pines a blue heron stepped forward. It had a white cravat of feathers with its blue suit, and Ed thought it was dressed like one of those English dandies in a book. Lord Heron.
The heron froze. Ed watched it peer into the water. In a movement quick as the eye it speared the water. Ed could hear the splash. It raised its beak with a trout speared neatly behind the gills. Ed watched the heron lower its head to the water and then lift it again to swallow the fish. We’re even, he thought. You got one and I got one. See who catches the next. He smiled.
“My love,” Ed said, aloud. I should name this boat MY LOVE. For Elsie. I wouldn’t name the boat ELSIE. That wouldn’t be right. She called me “my love”. He imagined the lettering on the stern of the boat in lettering finer than he could do himself. MY LOVE. He could hear her voice now, dulcet and for his ears only. “My love.”
Whether it was his voice or the bird seeing the boat, the heron leapt away. It spread its wide wings and splashed a few awkward times with its long legs. As Ed watched, the heron skimmed the dark water of the lake, pumped its wings, and flew away. He lost sight in the tree line, uncertain if it landed among the pines. Across the pond as it went away Ed heard the bird’s outraged squawk, a curse or worse with no one else to hear.