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A CANDLE ON THE DECK
Friday, October 24, 2003
It was, thought Linnaeus Duncan, fixing to be a fi ne weekend. It was his favorite time of year, the seven-days- a-week of summer hubbub having ended, so a man could relax and enjoy himself and his surroundings.
And, my, what surroundings: a Technicolor forest encircling the small lake, and the sun still capable of lifting the temperatures into the 70s if a north wind wasn’t blowing in.
Linnaeus (whom everyone called Linn since his days in the service, when they shortened it at mail call) and his wife, Maggie, were part-owners of the Inn of Watervale resort on the south end of Lower Herring Lake, a small lake in northwest Michigan tucked on the other side of some sand dunes, scrub brush and pine trees from Lake Michigan.
Their share of the sprawling complex was eight buildings on three and a half acres on the lake and another forty acres of undeveloped adjacent property. They rented out seven of the buildings and lived in the other.
Two of the houses were right on the lake, with 160 feet of frontage—a big Victorian with six bedrooms and four bathrooms to the left of a small boathouse and a small cottage to the right.
Their other cottages were set back from the water. The remaining twenty-five cottages of the resort were owned by Dori Turner, Maggie’s cousin. Though the Watervale looked like one large complex, it was run as two organizations, Dori handling her cottages and the Duncans theirs.
Summer weekends were always busy, with renters checking out Saturday morning and a new batch checking in Saturday afternoon. The resort was about booked up solid from Memorial Day to Labor Day, year after year. Many of its renters had been coming for years. Summer, you could only rent by the week.
Color season offered another burst of activity, which was about done, now. The relatively warm waters of Lake Michigan provided a mini-climate that stretched out the color season into late October, tourists coming to see the bright reds of the sugar maples and the yellows of the beeches and tamaracks, well past the time that forests in the interior of the state had lost their leaves.
This year, though, the Duncans had closed down their cottages early, wanting to get things ready for the winter before they took a short vacation to the West Coast, which they’d just returned from. Before they’d left, Linn had turned off the water to the various cottages, but he hadn’t gotten to another end-of-season chore. He decided that today he’d clear the chaise longues and chairs off the roof of the boathouse, which served during the season as a gathering place for guests. That’d leave him all weekend to enjoy himself.
The boathouse roof was about twelve feet above the wide concrete apron that lined the small breakwall along the lake, the water shallow there, about six inches deep.
About 2 p.m., Duncan began lowering the fi fteen or twenty pieces of furniture from the roof to the apron, dragging or carrying them across the deck, hoisting them up onto the rail, balancing them while he attached a rope and hook, then lowering them to the apron below as he leaned on the wooded railing.
He left one chaise where it was. It was a big sucker, made out of two-by-fours, too heavy for him, getting old now, to lift by himself. It had a rustic look, wouldn’t harm it much to sit out all winter, so he decided not to mess with it.
Later, his wife told him there was going to be a set of guests up for the weekend—Mark and Florence Unger and their kids. The Ungers had been coming to Watervale every summer for years. Once, when they first started coming, Linn and Mark had shot a round of golf together, a rarity for Linn, who wasn’t much to socialize with guests. Not that he was rude or unfriendly, just the opposite. He figured when he was on vacation, he didn’t want any motel or resort own ers pestering him, so he tried not to pester his guests. His wife handled the bookings and did most of the socializing at check-in.
Even folks who’d been coming for years, Linn only knew by sight, didn’t know most of their full names. He certainly knew Flo by sight—who wouldn’t, face like that?—but didn’t know much about her.
When the Duncans had gotten back from out West, there were several messages from Mark asking about a cottage, and Maggie called him back and explained that they didn’t have anything for them, they’d been on vacation, themselves, and had shut everything down before they left.
She told him to call her cousin Dori, which he did, and he got a reservation for the Mary Ellen, one of the cottages she owned.
The Ungers arrived in mid- afternoon Friday. Dori didn’t check them in, but looked out of her house about 4 p.m.—all the houses or cottages at the complex have names, and the one she lived in was the Johanna—and saw Mark and two boys playing with a dog, the kids and the dog racing around like only kids and dogs can, a happy, joyous scene.
A little later, the Duncans went out to eat. So did the Ungers, a place in town called Dinghy’s.
Fred Oeflein had it made. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, he lived at Camp Lookout, a children’s camp at the north end of Lower Herring. He owned a software company in nearby Frankfort, a sleepy little town in the offseason, a busy tourist town Memorial Day through Labor Day, and he was part-owner of the camp.
From Labor Day through Memorial Day, for the last twenty years, he’d rented a cottage from the Duncans.
He’d known the Duncans his whole life. A lot of northern Michigan folks move south for the winter, he just moved a lot fewer miles than most of them, from one end of the lake to the other.
It was a good deal for all. He got a place cheap, on the lake, and didn’t have to worry about trying to heat his own old, drafty cabin at the camp. They got a trusted friend to serve as care- taker while they were in Florida for the winter.
That afternoon, Oeflein helped a buddy, Tom Turner, fi x his bicycle. He got back to Watervale at 8 and was about to head across the lake to the camp, where he planned to spend the night. In the morning, he had to drain the water pipes that connected the various buildings in the camp so they wouldn’t freeze and crack in the winter. No worse work on God’s earth than crawling under an old cabin in the woods to hacksaw and solder broken pipes in the spring, lying there on your back in the cold, wet muck.
On the way from his cottage to his small boat for the ride across the lake, Fred saw a candle burning on the rooftop deck of the Duncans’ boathouse. He walked over to see what was up, wearing a sort of miner’s headlamp to light the way. He knew about a wedding that was scheduled for Saturday, but who was this?
As he got near, a woman hollered out, “Linn?” thinking he was Linn Duncan.
“No, it’s Fred,” he said.
A candle balanced on the railing, on the far side, overlooking the lake. The boathouse was built into the slope to the lake. From the back, you just went up a couple of steps to the roof. As he walked across the deck toward the couple, they walked toward him, and they met in the middle.
They shook hands and introduced themselves. The couple said they were Flo and Mark Unger, from Detroit. Staying at the Mary Ellen. Up with their boys, who were 10 and 7. Just got back from dinner.
Fred apologized for bothering them. It looked to him that he’d interrupted a romantic interlude between the two. “No problem,” they replied, in unison.
Florence asked if the Duncans were around. Out for dinner, he said.
There was a strong wind blowing south, coming down out of the hills on the far side of the lake, and it blew out the candle. The lake is oblong- shaped, on just about a perfect north–south axis, and when the wind blew out of the North, it rolled up big waves in a hurry. They chatted a bit. Flo struck Fred as bubbly.
Oeflein said he needed to get going, pointing out his boat. He’d be catching some spray, no doubt, as he bucked into the waves.
“Camp Lookout?” asked Florence.
“Oh, I could never do that. I’m afraid of the dark,” she said. She said it sort of casually, but her fear was anything but casual. It had been a dominating motif of her childhood, something her parents grew to accept and deal with rather than try to change.
As an adult, if she was visiting her next-door neighbors at night, one of them had to walk her home, even though their front walks were just twenty yards apart, and they could easily watch her the entire distance from their porch to her front door. Watching wasn’t good enough, she had to be escorted.
In the summer, if Mark wasn’t home and she wanted to sit out on the deck in the back yard, she’d try to recruit friends from the neighborhood to come over so she wouldn’t have to sit out alone. Or she’d come home, realize Mark wasn’t there, and call friends on the cell phone, waiting in the car in the driveway till someone would come over and walk her into the house, making sure nothing bad was waiting for her on the other side of the front door.
At Watervale, in summers past, she’d called friends she knew who were on vacation nearby to calm her down when she heard noises at night.
So when she said she was afraid of the dark, it wasn’t a throw-away line. She admired Oeflein for his willingness to get into a boat and head into the pure black that filled the air over Lower Herring on a cloudy night. Even on clear nights, there is an up-north darkness over the lake that shocks city dwellers. There are no big cities nearby—Traverse City isn’t big enough to diffuse its light this far—and plenty of trees to blot out porch lights, headlights and streetlights. City folks’ll look up, their first night here in the summer, and say, “So that’s why they call it the Milky Way!”
As Oeflein walked down the slope toward his boat, he heard Mark ask her if she wanted a chair or a cushion.
She said no.
Oeflein’s small boat was about thirty-five feet to the east of the boathouse. There was water in the bottom, which he started to bail out.
“Do you have a motor on that boat?” Mark hollered out.
“Yes, I do.” Oeflein started the small, 9.9-horsepower motor and headed out. He got to the camp about ten, twelve minutes later, built a fire in his cabin, lit the stove, got dinner cooking and turned on the TV. Dateline was on, which told him it was after 9.
A little later, he went out for some more fi rewood. It was raining, now, the night as dark as dark can get.
Excerpted from Afraid of the Dark by Tom Henderson.
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Henderson.
Published in December 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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