Lake Tulaby is a a quiet Minnesota retreat not generally known for scandal. It's become the summer haven of bachelor Ansel Landers, the reluctant new manager of the Lake Tulaby Inn; Joe Lesmeister, a freshly-retired security officer living next door to the Inn with his wife and demanding mother-in-law; and Twyla Stokes, an aging Minnesota beauty who has returned to Lake Tulaby determined to rekindle the affections of her now-married high school boyfriend, Sandy Sanders.
As May gives way to June, a series of developments ripple the usually smooth surface of Lake Tulaby, culminating in a discovery during the annual Fourth of July Boat Parade that threatens to change the lives of the Lake's inhabitants forever.
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Summer On Lake Tulaby
By S.T. Underdahl
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 S.T. Underdahl
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMay 10th
When the newspaper that had been covering the windows of the Lake Tulaby Inn disappeared overnight, the buzz that flew around the lake sent the loons clamoring noisily into the early May sky.
"Looks like there's some activity over at the Inn," commented Joe Lesmeister to his wife, Helen, over breakfast. After his retirement from the U of M security force earlier that spring, he and Helen had moved to Lake Tulaby permanently. They were sharing the cottage of Joe's mother-in-law, Aggie, and while no one said it out loud, Aggie was pushing 80 and had a bad ticker. Everyone knew it couldn't be that much longer before she passed on, or bought the pine condo as Joe sometimes thought of it. When that day came, the cabin would finally belong to Joe and Helen, and Joe would be able to spend the rest of his days on Lake Tulaby in a perpetual quest to snag the big-mouthed bass and silvery walleye that swam invitingly beneath the cool, blue Minnesota waters.
Until then, however, he seemed destined to spend his days as Aggie's personal handyman. "Good morning, Joe dear," Aggie would greet him sweetly when he came down for breakfast in the morning.
"'Morning, Aggie," Joe would mutter, reaching for the cereal bowls and steeling himself for the inevitable.
Aggie had yet to disappoint him. "Would you be an angel today, Joe, and trim those tree limbs hanging over the driveway?" she would say in a voice that had taken on a subtle quaver in the last few years. If it wasn't trimming trees it was reinforcing the front steps, or sanding the rough spots out of the deck, or climbing up on the roof to clean out the gutters. Joe was beginning to think that he'd retired from one full-time job to work another one for his mother-in-law.
"No problem, Aggie," Joe would respond through clenched teeth, picturing the service revolver he'd handed in when he retired from the university force. I don't know what happened, Officer, he'd have told the Naytauwash police when they arrived, I could've sworn the safety was on ...
"She's an elderly woman, Joe," Helen would remind him unsympathetically, whenever Joe complained. "And besides, why should Mother pay someone to do these things for her when you're living right here under the same roof, with all this time on your hands?"
"Isn't that why I retired?" Joe would grumble under his breath, "So that I could have 'all this time on my hands'?" He didn't say it loudly, though. Thirty-nine years of marriage had taught him the limits of Helen's auditory threshold, and he seldom misjudged it.
Joe's sole measure of comfort was the knowledge that the cabin would someday belong to him and Helen, meaning that in essence any repairs that he did were all for the good. Still, there were those moments when he wondered whether it was all worth it: the moments when the bottoms of his feet were aching from half a day spent standing on the rungs of Aggie's rusty old ladder, his hands full of gutter muck, moments when he would suddenly glance up to see the mid-afternoon sun dancing invitingly across the miniature white caps of Lake Tulaby. In those moments, Joe would admit to himself that, in all honesty, seventy-nine years of age wasn't even considered 'old' these days. Why, Helen herself had commented that several of Aggie's friends at the Mahnomen County Senior Citizen's Center were in their early nineties, and two were nearing 100. That meant that ten or even fifteen years from now, Joe might still be spending his days taking marching orders from Aggie. It was almost too much to think about.
It wasn't that Joe disliked his mother-in-law; not at all, in fact. He and Aggie shared an entirely pleasant, almost polite, relationship, with the usual striped sweater and fresh batch of white socks tagged "For Joe, Love, Mother" under every year's Christmas tree. Joe knew Aggie probably liked him just fine, but he had a nagging suspicion that Aggie still wished Helen had married her high-school boyfriend, Ted Halvorson, who had gone on to become the owner of a successful chain of dry-cleaning businesses in Detroit Lakes.
"Helen, did you hear that 'Your Ted' was named 'Martinizer of the Year' again?" Aggie would announce, seemingly oblivious to Joe's sour expression at the mention of Helen's old boyfriend. Your Ted was how Aggie invariably referred to Ted Halvorson when she was regaling Helen with Ted's latest accomplishment, a subtle designation that never failed to annoy Joe.
"It's been a long time since he was 'my Ted', Mother," she would say mildly, glancing at Joe, who was further irked by the fact that the look on Helen's face was vaguely guilty. Exactly what did that mean?
He and Helen had been married for nearly thirty-five years, but Joe still didn't enjoy thinking about what might have gone on between his wife and Ted Halvorson back in the days of letterman jackets and class rings and late summer evenings making out in the back seat of Ted's '68 Charger on Varsity Hill. Of course, Joe didn't know for a fact that Ted drove a '68 Charger (he'd never actually worked up the nerve to ask Helen), but it was the car Joe had most wished for as a teenage boy, and he was fairly certain that Ted Halvorson would've been the kind of guy who had everything that Joe wanted.
Helen had dated Ted all through high school, and he had been her 'first', that much Helen had told him. When Joe had finally met Helen during his senior year at the U of M, she and Ted were on a break, and Helen was disillusioned with the whole idea of marriage to Ted or anyone else, for that matter. Within a couple months, however, she was pregnant with Michael, and the rest was history. When they'd come home from school to announce their engagement, Helen's father, Zeb, was grimly accepting, but Aggie had made no secret of her feelings. It was clear she'd assumed that Helen was only sowing the last of her wild oats with Joe and would eventually come to her senses, at which time she'd marry her Ted and live happily ever after as everyone expected. When she heard about the baby, Joe had watched as the color drained from Aggie's face, and her lips compressed into a tight, white line. She'd politely congratulated them and made excuses about needing to take out some steaks to defrost, but not before they had all seen the tears welling in her eyes. Years later, Helen had confessed to Joe that later, as Aggie washed the dinner dishes and Helen dried, her mother had suggested delicately but firmly to her daughter that there were 'alternatives' for a woman in Helen's situation.
In spite of this, Helen and Joe were married a few weeks later by a JP at the courthouse in Duluth. Zeb and Aggie didn't attend the ceremony on the pretense of a previously-scheduled trip, but Joe knew Helen had been hurt by their absence just the same. All had been forgiven, however, once Michael arrived, followed closely over the next three years by Emily and, much later, by David. Joe and Helen's children were the apples of their grandmother's eye, no more so than during summers spent playing on the sandy shores of Lake Tulaby. Joe and Helen had gone on to make a good life together, and he figured Helen would be of the same opinion, if he were to ask her.
Helen's father, Zeb Milner, had passed away by the time David was in the first grade, but his pension had left Aggie reasonably well-fixed, so that she had no financial worries to speak of. When she turned sixty-eight, Aggie sold her house in Duluth and came to live in the cabin on Lake Tulaby year-round. She'd seemed happy enough, but as Joe neared retirement, Aggie began to make plaintive noises about how a four-bedroom cabin was too much for an old lady to manage herself. The place had plenty of room for Helen and Joe, she pointed out. By this time all their own children had left home: Michael was in the seminary in Wisconsin, Emily was a nursing assistant at a retirement home in Minneapolis, and David had moved to St. Cloud where he was working as a public defender.
"I really hate the idea of Mother living out there at the lake all alone," Helen had sighed one evening before bed, as she rubbed night cream into her hands. Joe didn't respond immediately; in the dim light and without her makeup Helen bore a resemblance to Aggie that was unnerving.
"She's managed fine up until now," he said finally, as Helen finished with the night cream and screwed the cover back on the little glass pot.
"I know, Joe, but I was thinking ...," Helen said, and six months later they had their own house on the market and were moving to Lake Tulaby.
Helen's two older sisters conveniently lived several states away years ago, and this meant that after Aggie moved to Tulaby, Helen had always been the one she called upon to accompany her to important doctor appointments, or to perform the endless other errands that Aggie required. Joe's job at the University had mostly relieved him of these responsibilities, so it came as a genuine surprise the first morning he awoke at the cabin anticipating a fine day of fishing, only to find that Aggie had already drawn up a lengthy to-do list for him.
It had been that way ever since; at breakfast it would invariably be "Joe, would you be a lamb ...?" followed by a day-long list of chores, and by the time Joe was finished the prime fishing hours would be gone. He'd thought it would end eventually, but after several months Aggie showed no signs of running out of things for him to do, and Joe was starting to suspect that she'd spent her earlier years on Lake Tulaby compiling an endless roster of tasks with which to ruin his retirement.
Over the years, Joe had discovered that the Lake Tulaby Inn was a perfect place for him to gain a half hour or so of time to himself during a family visit to Aggie's place, time during which he could sit, have a cold beer, and shoot the breeze with Gus Harstad, the owner. A century in existence, the Inn had once been a collection of quaint cabins, but time and generations of new owners had brought change, and by now the term Inn was a rather grandiose misnomer. Most of the cabins had been gradually eroded by forces of man or nature, and bit-by-bit the land had been sold off to neighbors looking to enlarge their own properties, leaving only a third of an acre of land stretching down to the lake on which remained one smallish cabin covered with aging pink stucco, and the Inn itself. The Inn itself had also evolved over the years, and was now both a convenience store and a tiny bar that sold 3:2 beer and set-ups.
Activity on Lake Tulaby seldom slowed; summer regulars and newcomers fished, boated, and swam in Tulaby's clear blue waters from June through August, ATV-riders and hunters flocked to the area in the fall, and ice-fishermen and snowmobiling enthusiasts overflowed the place in the winter. Spring tended to be a quieter season, a brief respite when the year-rounders had the lake mostly to themselves.
Having bought the Inn from his own mother-in-law several years earlier, Gus knew all about mother-in-laws and didn't mind expressing his opinions, something which Joe found extremely refreshing. The first time Joe dropped by the Inn after he and Helen moved in with Aggie, however, he was disappointed to find the door locked and the windows covered over. "Gus Harstad sold the place last winter," Aggie had informed him when he'd asked. "Kind of sudden. I suspect there was some sort of trouble, she added meaningfully. "With the IRS."
Joe momentarily entertained a fleeting fantasy of what it might have been like to buy the Inn himself, imagining pleasant hours spent behind the tap, refilling glasses and visiting with other Tulaby residents. "Who would want to take that on?" Helen commented, throwing cold water on his hopes. "I'm so glad we're finally retired." She smiled warmly at Joe, and he'd answered with a weak grin.
Still, Joe was dejected to hear that Gus was gone, knowing that now he'd never enjoy another satisfying commiseration with Gus while condensation ran off their frosted mugs and pooled on the knotty pine bar. After the snow melted, he'd watched the Inn's tin sign sway gently in the cool spring breezes as he worked around Aggie's place, storing away the shovels and raking up decomposing piles of dead leaves and branches that had been hiding under the last stubborn vestiges of snow. Vigilant as he was, he never saw any new owners around the place. What he did see were plenty of annoyed customers who pulled up in front of the Inn, intending to fill up with gas or buy some snacks for the road. They climbed out of their cars eagerly, only to climb back in, disgruntled, once they realized it was closed, their tires grumbling discontent against the heavy gravel as they drove away.
It wasn't until the second week of May, when Joe was resealing Aggie's deck, that a tall, narrow man pulled into the Inn's lot and climbed out of a car that looked much too small to contain his lanky frame. Joe leaned back on his heels and pulled off the canvas bucket hat that Helen insisted he wear to protect his balding pate from the devious spring sunlight. He fully expected the man to realize the Inn was closed and drive away in disgust like the others, but this fellow ambled around the property, looking uneasy.
Joe watched with mild envy as the man reached up to smooth down his thick shock of hair, which was being ruffled mercilessly by a sudden strong gust of wind off of the lake. This, and the easy way the man moved, placed him somewhere in his early to mid thirties, by Joe's estimate.
Just as Joe was deciding to go over and see what was what, a second vehicle pulled off the highway and into the lot, prompting the tall man to hurry back. Joe watched him open the door for an older woman who climbed out nimbly in spite of her age, stood up, and stretched as if she'd been driving for awhile. She smiled brightly, then went around to open the sedan's trunk; at her direction, the tall man retrieved a box of what appeared to be linens, then glumly followed as she led the way down towards the Inn's lone cabin.
Joe's spirits rose exponentially. It looked as if the new owners had arrived, and he allowed himself to hope that the Inn might be open again soon. As Joe dipped the brush back into the tub of deck sealant, he made a deal with the Gods of the Water. "If I can just have one good hour of fishing a day, and a cold beer at the Inn," Joe bargained, "I won't complain about Aggie's lists."
"At least not out loud," he added as an afterthought, in the interest of honesty to the watchful Gods.
Chapter TwoMay 16th
Ansel Landers sighed heavily as he unpacked the last pairs of neatly folded boxer shorts into the dresser drawer, and slid it closed. Lowering his lanky frame down onto the lumpy plaid armchair, Ansel scanned the four pine walls of the cabin, and sighed again.
Ma had been right, he knew, it was time for him to move out on his own. In fact, it was long past the time when most others had gone out into the world to find jobs, buy homes, start families, and do all the other things that grown men were nearly finished doing by the time they were Ansel's age. And yet ...
"Thirty-five's not that old," Ansel scoffed aloud, "Besides, Ma appreciated having my help around the place all these years. I know she did."
Or at least she had, until Jeremiah Johnsrud showed up at Christ on the Cross Lutheran Church one Sunday morning, and set his sights on her. To Ansel's complete surprise, Ma had returned Jeremiah's admiring gaze with interest, the end result being that four months later she and Jeremiah had up and eloped to Sioux Falls. Ansel might have eventually adjusted to this development, and even the intrusion of Jeremiah sharing the house on Bacon Street with him and Ma, but when they returned from their honeymoon to Mt. Rushmore, Ma had sat Ansel down and told him that she and Jeremiah had decided to move to Duluth, where Jeremiah's daughter and two grandbabies lived.
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