Mystery at the Hot Pond
Copyright © 2015 David DeVowe
All rights reserved.
You could see she wouldn’t last the moment the door creaked open. Teacher stopped mid-sentence as every head in fifth grade turned to the back of the room. She stood there with a curious look on her face, head held high. High, I suppose, for somebody that short. I guessed she was probably no taller than my nose. Something was different about her, though I wasn’t sure what it was. I wouldn’t have said she was pretty; no girls were pretty. But this girl surely was different.
Different isn’t very much welcome at Stoney Creek. And it’s a big deal here ‘cause new kids don’t come to our school much. Terry Nuckols was the different kid the first day I started fourth grade. He punched the Johnson boys right in the face at morning recess. It was the only time I saw a pair of bloody noses. Terry didn’t get to lunch ‘cause he got expelled for swinging at the teacher. I never saw him after that.
Different doesn’t last long at Stoney Creek, either, and that was just as well with me. ‘Cause I didn’t much like when things were different.
Stoney Creek is where I was born. Well, actually, I was born in our house, only a stone’s throw from the creek. Not much changes here. And I kinda liked the way things were. Mr. Kingman was always there when the post office opened. Lawrence Blankenshine kept to himself, walking the main road at night. Sometimes I would catch him talking to a pole, maybe even waving at a tree.
It was bad enough change when Ricky was born. He started talking the first time he got done nursin’ offa Mama. Now being four, he’s kinda pesky, keeping the house overflowing with words.
Ricky was just about as much different as I could tolerate. He made it so I didn’t mind havin’ to run to the market for Mama, which meant I had to pass by old Mrs. Krebbs’ house. That’s if I didn’t want to take the long way around. She’s one of them ladies that’s all wrinkled up with a screechy way of telling ya that something good just happened. “Bless you, son,” she’d say. “God made some beautiful flowers last night!” I think something’s wrong with her. But she’s always been that way; never any different. And not being different—like I said, that’s just as well with me.
MaryAnne DuPree was about to change all that. Never had a new kid come to Stoney Creek smack in the middle of winter. As I watched her standing in the doorway in her long brown coat and gentle half-smile, no one could have told me just how different my tomorrow would be.
Friday had started just like any other. “Hey,” Ricky said as he jumped up on my bed. “Look! See what I got?”
I opened one eye to the face of a mouse with dried blood on its nose.
“It’s a mouse. But he’s dead now. Me and Oscar catched it in the woodshed tomorrow. I sure do like mouses.”
“Ricky, do you always wake up talking? Why can’t you just be like a normal kid? Just once!” Ricky didn’t know pretend from real or tomorrow from yesterday. But two things were always sure with Ricky—that you could find him caring for some critter to death, and that Mama would never have to wake me for school.
Oscar was lying at the bottom of the stairs when I came down. He always laid there, wagging his tail for me in the morning. Oscar was my best friend. Dad brought him home for me in a crumpled box just after I turned eight. He was the best surprise ever—and it was the last time I cried. Mama named him Oscar ‘cause she said she liked that name. It wore on me, and Oscar and I never separated. Except when I had to go to school.
Mama stirred something in the pan. Probably scrambling eggs before she scrambled me off to class. “Mornin’, Shoe.”
“Morn.” That’s what she calls me, Shoe. That’s what anybody who knows me calls me—even Dad. Everyone at the mill knows Dad’s son is Shoe. That’s just how it is at Stoney Creek. Folks say that’s just how it is in the whole UP of Michigan. Most people go by a nickname. If you don’t have one, you’re probably from somewhere else.
“All set for school today?” Mama prodded.
“No!? Why not?”
“We got a new kid in class yesterday and Mrs. LeMarche put her in my row—right in front of me.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Mama wondered as she piled my plate with eggs.
“Well, we never had a new kid smack in the middle of the year—comin’ on a Thursday? Who does that? Besides, it was just fine with Mark in front of me. Now I got a girl. And she’s just…”
“She’s just…. DIFFERENT!”
“Now, Shoe, honey.”
I cringed every time Mama said that. I’ve been Shoe ever since I can remember. But HONEY?! O-o-o-of!
Mama didn’t understand how nice things were once you got used to them, like having Mark sit in front of my desk. Just turning the calendar last week to the year 1924 was about enough change for me. But Mama is one of them who likes things different than they were yesterday. Always tacking something new she cut out from the paper on the wall. Changing the nut bowl that sits in the middle of the table. Same un-cracked nuts, just a different bowl. Mama calls it “sprucin’ up.”
Dad’s not like that. He works at the mill stacking lumber—has been ever since longer than I can know. Dad is sure to be wearing the same coveralls he had on yesterday. And he’ll smell like fresh-cut balsam when he walks in the door after work.
“Mama, I wish you hadn’t brought her up.”
“I brought her up? I simply asked if you were ready for school!” Mama said, as she scrubbed the countertop for the second time. “Now hurry it up and eat or you’ll be late for class.”
I usually ran atop the snowbanks on the way to school. Not today. I scuffed along, thinking about my bad day ahead—sitting at my desk, new kid in my way. I kicked pieces of ice along the edge of the road just to make the walk last longer.
It didn’t work. I smacked a brown chunk of ice just as I turned the corner past the Co-op. It left the ground a bit, flew sharply through the air, and caught the hem of a dress peering out below a long brown coat.
It was her. Mary. That’s what the teacher called her. Mary… something.
“Oh!” she exclaimed as she spun around to spy who had targeted her. “Hi! You’re the boy that thits behind me. Glad to thsee we walk the thsame way to thschool!”
I offered a fake smile and looked around for another chunk of ice. I had been right. She was different. How had her tongue got tangled up like that? I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was shorter, too. Every other girl in class was taller than me. Most everyone was taller than me. But not her.
Just then Brady took notice. He’s one of the Fister boys; the eighth-grader everyone steers clear of. Brady leaned up against the lamppost in front of INO’s bar, hands in his back pockets. “Hey, Shoe, got yourself a g-i-r-l-friend?”
I steered my eyes to the ground and kept walkin’. The best thing to do around a Fister is to keep walkin’. She stayed with me while we put some distance between us and Brady’s wrath.
Once out of earshot, she continued, “I’m MaryAnne. That’s MaryAnne with an ‘e’—MaryAnne DuPree.”
No one I knew had two first names.
“That boy back there called you Shoe. Is that your real name, like shoesth?”
“It’s what everyone calls me,” I replied curtly.
She paused for a long moment. Which was nice. “That’s cute,” she said. “I like shoesth. I have brown one-ths that I wear when spring come-ths. And then I have these. They’re riding booths, you know. I only ride when I see Grandpa, which won’t be for a long time, but thsomeday, good Lord willing, I think I shall have my own horths and then I’ll wear my riding booths for more than just walking.”
I thought MaryAnne would be a great friend for Ricky. She and Ricky could share lots of words. I said nothing, and continued kicking pieces of ice as we got closer to school. Thankfully the weathered, grey building took shape in the distance, with smoke rising lazily from the stack at its middle. The promise of a warm stove beckoned me to move quickly as the morning chill nipped my face.
I managed to shake MaryAnne by ducking into the privy before we got to the front door. No one should see me come in with a girl. Especially a short, red-headed freckle-face that couldn’t talk right. I got into class without having to answer to anyone. The kids were all seated, and Mrs. LeMarche was writing something on the board.
Just as I slid my books in the cubby under my desktop, MaryAnne flung her long red hair back at me with both hands. Never trust a girl with red hair! She holds a grudge against everyone who’s normal. What was that smell? Mark had always shared an aroma of the barn that he did his morning chores in. I was used to it. But this smelled stronger; something like … soap. Did she bathe in Fels-Naptha? Saturday evening was soap enough for me, but now I was to suffer it all day? Not if I could help it!
Suddenly teacher rang her bell. “Class! Open your arithmetic to page 57. We will be working our long division again today.”
Long division in a bathtub. How I wished for a pair of snowshoes and a rabbit trail. And for Oscar. My eyes wandered out one of the two windows facing the road. Pondering a way of escape, I scooted my desk back a bit to ease the smell until I could find a means to dash out into some fresh, cold air. Black cast-iron toes on the feet of my desk screeched the boards below.
Mrs. LeMarche hadn’t noticed.
Pretending to study long division, I scooted back a bit more, hoping teacher wouldn’t hear. She didn’t. She was one of them ladies with gray hair all twirled up in a shape that saves on hats. Some said that was style. It made me wonder who she was doing that for, bein’ a widow and all. I heard Dad say that teacher’s husband died from the top of a tree that busted and hung up there until Mr. LeMarche stood just below. That’s why them hanging branches are called widow makers. Teacher knows.
But that was a long time ago. And she’s still Mrs. LeMarche with lots of gray hair and ears that don’t hear too good.
Math dragged on as it did every morning. I was daydreaming about a rabbit snare when teacher looked up and glared straight at my desk. I hadn’t done anything. She rose to her feet, glared at me and twirled her beads. Mrs. LeMarche wore white beads every day. We always knew when our test scores weren’t good or when she was upset about something else ‘cause she would start twirling, as if cinching that necklace tighter would ease the pain.
Mrs. LeMarche twirled her beads and headed straight for the back of the room. “Mr. Arthur Makinen!” she snarled, making her last step to the side of my desk louder than all the others combined. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
She glared at the floor in front of me then riveted her eyes back on mine as I slowly slid down in my seat. I made a quick guess that she was asking about the distance I had put between me and MaryAnne’s perfume. The generous space would have been greater except for the back wall. “Just my arithmetic, ma’am,” I replied quietly.
“I’m talking about your desk! Why have you pushed your desk all the way back here?”
I didn’t know what to say except for letting her know why I had gotten there. “Well, ma’am, the smell from the new girl was too much for my nose and I couldn’t think straight to do long division like you said.” Someone snickered. Every kid in class glared at me and Mrs. LeMarche. Them beads were almost choking her.
“Arthur, go stand in the corner, and don’t let your nose leave the wall!”
I’d seen lots of kids stand in the front corner. There was Ernie. It seemed like he was always in the front corner. I kinda felt sorry for him ‘cause he was embarrassed most all the time. But I had never stood in the corner, never having been in real trouble; not in school.
This bad dream Friday worked itself into a nightmare as I walked past MaryAnne’s desk, ready to offer up a sneer. Her pencil laid straight across long division, already complete. She didn’t even look at me. Snickering from the other kids tortured my thoughts as I reached the front corner, pressing my nose into a crack of musty wood.
How could this have happened? Yesterday things were normal. I missed the smell of Mark’s cow dung. And I missed him asking me how to do arithmetic. It was some comfort to know that different doesn’t last long at Stoney Creek, and neither would MaryAnne.
After forever was about done, teacher announced, “Mr. Makinen, you will stay after school and write on the board 100 times, ‘I will not misbehave in class.’ ”
I stole a glance toward teacher’s desk.
“Turn back around, young man,” she snarled. “You have another 20 minutes before spelling begins.” Mrs. LeMarche was still twirling.
My mind was twirling, too. I dreaded writing, but I dreaded more what was coming to me from Dad when I got home late from school.
Let’s just say that the switch I picked from the back of the woodshed wasn’t big enough for Dad. The last time I got the switch was when I put a dead fish down the Johnson’s privy. Their privy never smelt so good. I was just helping the neighbor. Somehow Mr. Johnson and Dad figured out it was me when even the Gustafs across the alley couldn’t take it no more. Dad let me choose my own switch then. It’s never good when Dad picks the switch.
Dad is mostly good to me. He is one of them that I can count on to be the same tomorrow as today. After sipping coffee each morning he kisses Mama just above her left eye before walking to the mill. On Sundays he sees us to church. Me and Ricky don’t like it much. The best part is when I get to ring the bell. And the next best part is when church is over. That’s when Oscar greets me on the porch just under the bell tower. Most everybody greets him, too, especially Mrs. Krebbs. “Good morning, Oscar. Did you hear a good word from the Lord today?” She even preaches to a dog, but it don’t irk him like it irks me.
I know Dad means well by taking us on Sundays. He doesn’t say much; mostly good things when he does. And I never heard him swear.
The only time I knew Dad got really upset was last July just before the mill shut down. At Stoney Creek everything stops for the parade. Even the sawblades. It’s kinda eerie. Then we all line the dusty road to watch the wagons roll by. And Mrs. Hawthorne’s yellow hat with the blue feather sticking out the side.
The Hawthornes owned the only Columbia Touring Car in town, and they let all of Stoney Creek know about it every Fourth of July. Not like we can’t hear the rumble on Sunday afternoons. Mr. Hawthorne is sure to be smoking his biggest cigar on one side of his mouth and grinning a few teeth on the other. There will be one hand on the wheel and one very large arm on the door. It’s always the same. The yellow hat with the blue feather will be riding atop Mrs. Hawthorne while she waves at all the young guys from town. I think she likes that attention. The rest of us common folk walk or jump a wagon when we’re lucky. But the Hawthornes are sure to show off their shiny red automobile with the same sign hanging from the radiator cap every year ‘Hawthorne’s Mill at Stoney Creek’. Folks who don’t know that the Hawthornes own most of town must be from somewhere else.
The only thing the Hawthornes don’t show for Independence Day is Buffalo Alice. That’s ‘cause she don’t show so well.
Alice is the Hawthorne’s only kid, who we see a lot of now since this is her second try at fifth grade. That means she’s bigger than all of us. She’s bigger than sixth grade, too. I don’t know who first called her Buffalo, maybe that kid is dead. Most call her “Buffy.” I don’t call her nothin’. Buffalo’s Mama doesn’t let her ride in the auto on Independence Day ‘cause there’s too much of her to show and we can all see that.
Still, we watch the parade with anticipation, and every time it’s pretty much the same. Except last year.
All July Dad was upset ‘cause of what happened to the Stueck brothers. We got woken up three nights before the parade by a frantic pounding on the back door. Mrs. Johnson pushed her way through as Dad turned the doorknob.
“The Stueck boys are…dead,” she stammered.
“Dead!?” Dad exclaimed. “What do you mean?”
Mrs. Johnson wiped her face with a handkerchief she had pulled from her sleeve while catching her breath. “Lawrence found Dietrich floating in the hot pond after dark. My Jim and some others went to find Gunther but he wasn’t home. They pulled him from the far end of the pond not more than an hour ago. If it weren’t for Lawrence, there’s no telling when the boys might have been found.”
Mrs. Johnson’s eyes bulged from her bright-red face. I knew she spoke about Lawrence Blankenshine, the one who’s always walking the roads. Folks say he was a great kid until he drank a bad brew some years back, and now he talks to poles and waves at trees. Most of the time I can’t tell what he’s saying.
“No one would have missed them after their shift since they live together,” Mrs. Johnson continued. “How they both could have drowned is beyond me. Oh, Lord, have mercy!”
Dad leaned hard against the wall. “It doesn’t sound like coincidence,” he contemplated. “We’ve had plenty fall in, but never a drowning.”
“Are you suggesting someone…? Oh, heaven forbid!” Mrs. Johnson exclaimed.
Dietrich and Gunther were log rollers at the mill. After the chaser dropped logs from the train into the mill pond, one of the Stueck boys rode them on foot, pushing them from the mill pond into the hot pond with a pole. In the hot pond, the Stuecks pushed one log at a time onto the bull chain that yanked ‘em out of the water and up onto the cutting cradle. The Stuecks were good. I never saw them fall, but Gunther had wet pants a couple times. That made me try rolling logs. I was under the biting cold water in a hurry. I should have rolled in the hot pond but would have been sure to get caught by the rearing crew.
Dad suddenly went to the other room, came back in his work clothes, and then slammed the door as he left the house.
I didn’t sleep much then. Thinking about Dietrich and Gunther and what happened at the hot pond. It was deep in the night when Dad got home. I could make out angry words through the floor vent as Dad spoke rapidly to Mama downstairs. Dad had never sounded that way to me. I spent the rest of the night hearing tree toads and Ricky’s snoring. Neither of which knew what had just happened.
Oscar was surprised by me being up so early the next morning. He wagged lazily and slobbered my big toe. I was sitting at the kitchen table when Dad came through.
He sighed heavily as he sat down in his chair. “Those were some good boys,” Dad said as he stared into his cup. “A couple of real good boys . . .” his voice drifted off. Dad kissed Mama above the eye that day but his coffee went untouched. He was awfully quiet after that for nigh two weeks.
And so the parade was different last summer. Most everyone brought their long faces. Even the county sheriff. I had only seen the sheriff once before, when INO’s bar got robbed. So having him at the parade, opposite our family, arms folded across the tight shirt over his belly, pistol on his hip; that made for a different independence. I hardly noticed the Gustaf’s red ribbon draped clear ‘round their wagon. Or Mrs. Hawthorne’s yellow hat.