This is a quasi-sequel to the previous story. You do not have to read “Trysts in the Swamp,” but this story will be a little fuller if you do.
I’m a nosy old biddy, I admit it. I have a forty-power telescope and a pair of military-grade 10 X 60 binoculars, in camouflage, no less. I snoop on my neighbors: their home construction, their comings and goings, their child-rearing, even their sex lives. If humans had been allowed to move in by me, I would have snooped on them just as much as I do the wildlife. So it’s good they didn’t. And never will now, I guess.
And I’m angry. I admit that, too. Not as angry as I was five years ago, but I’m still carrying a big fat grudge on the DNR.
I live on land my great grandfather bought out in the woods. It was out there when he bought it. Now it’s more in here. He didn’t much care for Serbia, mostly because he was near to starving to death. So with some cousins he came here to northeast Minnesota and got hired on the railroad. He worked his way up to brakeman. First money he saved up he sent for my great grandmother, who waited patiently for four years, not that she had much else going in her life. Second money he saved up, he bought this land a good three-mile walk out of town, him being the kind of man who didn’t much trust people who weren’t Serbian, the town growing full of all sorts of people, even Croatians. What with recent world events, you know now about Serbs and Croats, if you follow the news. Land ownership was a big deal to the immigrants coming from countries where the land belonged to the church and to the rich. Third money he saved up, he built a house out here, the junk-filled old little one a hundred yards off in the brush from this house. The brush and old sheds are still full of my father’s and grandfather’s junk.
Great grandfather had three sons and four daughters. The oldest son inherited the place, which caused some bad blood between the sons. So I have cousins out there in many places I don’t even know about. One of the daughters married a Croatian and was not welcome back in the house. Even we have Romeo and Juliet in our family tree. I figure our family tree is a tamarack, the way they look in the fall, all lit up with fire. The tamaracks like swamps, too, such as on the edge of what used to be our family swamp.
Grandfather worked his way up to section foreman, working outdoors the way he liked, even in winter, taking care of the tracks and right-of-way. He married a good Serbian, half-blood, the other half Italian, which my great grandfather didn’t seem to know about. They had two sons and three daughters. My father, the older brother, but younger to two sisters, inherited the place, like primogenitor back in Europe. Except he paid his brother half, but not the sisters, giving me more disappeared cousins.
Then, boom, no more sons. Just little old me and my dear sister Maria. My mother was Italian and Cornish, making me more Italian than Serbian, I guess. If John and me had had kids, they would have been Heinz 57. John, who was mostly Norwegian, said all the time he was part Indian, but everybody in northern Minnesota wants to be part Indian. Nobody wants to be all Indian, except the Native Americans, I hope. John and me lived in town, with me tending some bar and waiting some tables, until we could get some kids. We wanted only two, someone to inherit this land, but we wanted to wait. After John was killed, I was sorry I did not have a child right away. But now I’m glad. Well, maybe. John was another railroader, a switchman. He went to work drunk. With all the railroaders in my family, I should have known better. Lots of railroaders were hard drinkers, lots of alcoholics. John got “smashed up ’cause he was smashed,” Father used to tell people. Father would go to a bar in town, usually walking, the town being closer by then. He worked one beer for a couple hours just to talk sports and argue politics. He never got drunk that I know of. I don’t know how much drinking goes on on the railroad anymore, there not being many railroaders left up here, period.
I moved back in with Father and Moms to help with Maria, like I did before John and I eloped. Then Maria died, which was so sad for all of us, sadder than John getting killed. Maria was Downs syndrome, which back then was public shame. We took her out with us all the time, anyways. Moms died two years later of breast cancer. Women died quick of it back then. I took the insurance money from John and drove to Duluth to become a teacher. I sure did not want to be a nurse. I started teaching up in the forest in a two-room school. Those all got closed. So I took a job here in town. I never married, too busy teaching, at first still learning how to teach first grade. I traveled in the summers on my own. After nine months with twenty-five first-graders, I needed to be alone. You would, too.
Then Father died. The city kept moving out closer to us. Even way up here, north of most everything, we have our bit of urban sprawl. Those people out on the coasts who call us the “fly-over states” would call this a town. The state of Minnesota calls us a city. Some developers wanted to buy this land. For that price I was ready to sell out and retire early. I would have bought a camper and just driven the country alone for five to ten years, mostly out west in all the empty spaces. Maybe I would have run into a lost cousin. Most of them are out that way somewhere. I could have done some bartending along the way or waited some tables and put some money back in my account. That way I could have talked to people, being a nosy old biddy on the sly, like bartenders and waitresses can be.
But the DNR says no, those developers cannot turn the swamp in front of my house into the required catchment basin, which kills the deal. Next the DNR wants the swamp. They propose I deed it over to them. Fat chance! I ended up with “fair market value.” Since only the DNR wants it, you can guess how much was a fair price! So I kept teaching first-graders, not that first-graders are so bad, better by a long shot than their parents or administrators or a few of the teachers. I’m getting off track.
The DNR puts in a raised walkway looping through the swamp and a parking lot out by the road. They did not tell me they were going to do the parking lot. I can see it all from my bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom windows. So now I have to pull down the shade in the bathroom. I already had the telescope and binoculars to stick my nose into the lives of the geese, ducks, frogs, muskrats, and whatever else came along, fox and raccoons to name two. Some bald eagles come around once in a blue moon. Now I can watch the human animals invading my swamp. I’m still mad at the DNR, but it has made my life more interesting since the ribbon-cutting ceremony, with only dignitaries, reporters, TV cameras, and pretty much only me watching with my camouflaged binoculars.
Right about then I came down with a bad case of myastheia gravis and had to take permanent disability, which about says it all. I was only 59. I sub every so often when I am up to it, more just to get out and snoop around.
At first all kinds of people came out to walk the swamp. Funny, isn’t it: driving somewhere to walk. Then pretty much nobody came. Then it turned into a bunch of regulars, I suppose forty or so, some coming every day, some every week or thereabouts. Some weren’t all that regular, but I got to recognizing them. It got interesting. Gave me “scope for the imagination,” as Anne Shirley said. I would still have rather been out west, seeing all the places I had not seen, like those sequoias. I like the smell of pine; I bet those sequoias have a grand smell.
The DNR put two wood benches out on the boardwalk. I have my telescope pointed at the first bench, the one closest to the parking lot, most of the time. People walking I follow with the binoculars. I do not snoop all that much, mostly in afternoons while I cook and eat my dinner alone, not doing much in the way of cooking, mostly salads or a small breakfast for dinner, eggs being quick to cook. Okay, I admit it; I also snoop while I make and eat my sandwich for lunch. I only eat a banana or orange for breakfast. Then I shop or read, falling asleep on the sofa and not seeing the swamp much during the morning. I write letters, too, to a few cousins I do know and to a few students who have written me letters, which was very nice of them. It is pleasant to sit at the table and glance out the window to snoop while I write. I do still watch the wildlife, too.
My M.D., old Doc Val, as we call him, keeps telling me I need to eat better, “fatten up for the winters,” Doc Val says. For a couple decades I’ve been called “Old Abe” at school, what with my Italian nose. Roman nose sounds better, but I have a Dago nose, pure and simple. Back when the steel industry mostly collapsed—thanks to the big eastern steel companies and the big eastern unions and the big eastern federal government—I got bumped up to fifth grade for three years, but I held onto my job, unlike some, for who I felt sorry. I got just about wore out learning all that new stuff to teach. That first summer after that I did not travel at all. Since I taught American history and look like this, with all the worry lines in my face, the kids called me Old Abe, behind my back of course, not to my face, what with the way I keep control of my classroom. Kids have a knack for doing that, summing something up in two mean words. I thought it was funny. I wasn’t going to let them know. On the last day of school each of those three years, I dismissed class by saying, “I hereby issue my emancipation proclamation.” None of them every got it, except for one smart tiny girl. The thing about fifth graders, you can tease them a bit. I would tell them I had the Serbian evil eye. Thing is, I am a bit cross-eyed, just a bit. When a couple women retired, I went back to first grade where I belong.
Some folks out on the boardwalk I know. I mean, I know who they are, like Adele Paulski, wife of one of the bank presidents in town. She is one of my very irregular guests, as I call them, it having once been my family’s swamp. She comes a few days in a row; then I don’t see her for a couple weeks or more. She brings an apple and a water bottle, always an apple and a water bottle. She reads more than walks, sitting on the second bench, out on the end of the loop, behind some swamp brush, so she can’t be seen from the parking lot. I can see her from any of my windows. When she sits on the bench all bent over with a load of cares, she looks the back-end parenthesis, like this ). More than once she has sat out there reading in December, on warmer days, but still bundled up. Suzanne, a cousin of mine, tellers at that bank. She says that Adele always looks worried and that maybe it’s her husband who causes her worries, maybe about what he does when he travels down to The Cities all the time. My cousin and I kept track to see if her appearances matched his disappearances. But no match there.
Because of Adele Paulski, I started walking the boardwalk now and then. It’s not too bad if there are not too many mosquitoes out. Adele and I would say hello when I walked by. I thought I could tell something from the books she reads. Except she uses one of those electronic book readers. Some people have a way of saying with their bodies “let’s talk.” Her body said, “do not disturb.” I have yet to figure her out. She still comes, not as often. I can imagine many things, all bad things, I must admit. But she may come for good reasons. Those are harder for me to imagine. I suppose most of us old biddies like tragedies. I had a literature professor who said tragedies make better stories. I want good things for Adele and most people, except for the DNR. It’s only that I have trouble imagining good things.
Then there is that young attractive tiny woman who comes and does yoga, putting down a mat by that first bench. When she starts her stretching, she looks like this: X. Once walking out towards Adele, I passed that little slip of a woman, bending her body around like a pretzel. When I passed, she calls my name. It was little Laurenlee. She was the smart girl who got my emancipation proclamation joke. I had her in first and fifth grade. Next thing I know she’s hugging me. Says she has her teaching license because of me. Right now she’s subbing in the area, hoping to get a job next year. Teaching jobs are tight in Minnesota. She hugged me again. She asked if that was my house over there. After that she comes for tea with me every now and again. I told her to go ahead and call me Old Abe, but she never does. She laughed about my telescope, which I said was to watch the ducks. She laughed at me for that, too. She noticed I have no TV. She hugs me every time, both coming and going.
Once or twice a week a young couple walked the boardwalk holding hands. He was tall and awkward. I bet he keeps being asked if he played basketball in high school and he gets tired of explaining that he is not a good athlete. She was rather round and short, or looked short next to him. They looked like this together: Io. She had straight dishwater blond hair; his hair was strawberry blond, out of control curly. Their clothes: I’m not up on fashion for the twenty-year-old crowd, but they did not look in fashion. The couple did not look very hip, I’ll say. But I bet the word hip isn’t hip anymore. I asked cousin Suzanne. Suzanne, being all bust and hips looks like the number 8. She laughed when I used the word hip. Suzanne said the couple sounded rather geeky. Then the next month I had a very bad week with my MG. Suzanne dropped by on a Saturday to see me, check on me was more like it, but it’s care and concern either way. I suppose the word I should use here is love, but I feel geeky for saying it is love. We watched the swamp for awhile and drank tea. When the couple walked by hand-in-hand, Suzanne got all excited. She said she should have guessed who they were. The girl’s mother was in Suzanne’s bridge club. The story was that the couple was saving up money for buying a big house before they got married. Suzanne said young people don’t buy starter homes anymore; everybody had to have a 2400 square foot home right off the bat. The guy did technical consulting, and very well, said Suzanne. The girl was an accountant, who had all the numbers figured out about buying a big house. They each lived with their parents to save up the money.
After Suzanne left, I watched that poor pair of kids. They always do four or five loops. I should, I know, have gone out and congratulated them for their wise financial planning. But instead, I quit watching whenever they came to my swamp. Oops, the DNR’s swamp! I wanted to run out there and tell those two not to wait, to elope or have a quick small wedding with family and friends. I wanted to tell them to start their family now. “Carpe diem,” I would yell at them, more than once. It was so sad watching them wait. A few times before I stopped watching them I yelled into the double glazing of my picture window, “Get out of the swamp and get your life rolling.” But I never went out and told them. I may be nosy, but I’m not bossy. For one thing, he might have been a drinker, or her, for that matter. Then they quit coming. Suzanne said he got a better job down in The Cities, and they moved away.
Right after the swamp was opened, the biology teacher brought a class out in the morning and then another one in the afternoon. He must have had only two sections, which showed how much the school district shrunk. If it weren’t for all us old farts hanging on refusing to die, or for the snow birds buying up homes on the cheap to live here for four or five months of the year, we would not be having this bit of a building boom for kids like that young couple, except they moved away. The biology teacher brought his classes here only that one day. I could see, as usual, one or two had to spoil it for the rest, spoiled brats or troubled problem kids. Behind the spoiled brats is usually the same dull story: parents who are after the money and ignore their kids or want to impress the world through their kids or think their kids are the center of the world so their kids think so too. A plumber here in town, a big time holy-roller, once told me that the rules were important for the other kids but did not apply to his four little brats. The stories behind the problem kids are different, the real tragedies, stories of abuse or neglect or drunken parents, or now that we are in the modern age up here, drug users or pushers. “More good kids come from bad homes than bad kids come from good homes,” I told my double-glazed picture window.
In a classroom most of the kids are good kids. It’s the same in the swamp: most of the few people who walk the boardwalk are good people. It is often young women in twos or threes or a lone person who seems to want to be alone just to enjoy the swamp. The groups of young women are always happy and talking away like sixty, tearing along at high speed, looking like a flying W. I am glad they get to enjoy it like I have, which is the one good thing about the DNR stealing it from me. I see that biology teacher out there alone some early mornings. He bends down and looks closely at the swamp life, which makes him look like this @. It seems to take him away from the troubles that I hear he has to deal with at home.
One couple bothered me the most of anything out there. I hoped they were not a couple. Those two must have been fifty or more years apart. I’ve known him all my life: Leonard Gould, who ran a clothing store for many years before Wal-Mart moved into the next city over. He sold the store, Suzanne says, for pretty good bucks. Then the people from Duluth who bought it, who should have known better, went bankrupt. Gould’s Fine Clothing rots away downtown with the hardware store, the drugstore, the furniture store, the butcher shop, and all the others now closed. I saw a young man taking pictures downtown a couple years ago. He was taking pictures of all the fancy parts of the closed buildings: the brickwork, the cornices, the gingerbread. As I walked by him going to see my old Doc Val, who still practices alone down there and not at the clinic on the other end of town, the camera guy told me what a shame it was the buildings were not being preserved. I asked him if he shopped at Wal-Mart and all those other foreign stores. He got my point, I could see, and went back to his business, in other words ignored the nosy old biddy. The camera guy was wearing a baseball cap backwards, the bill to the back. I understood why he was, needing the bill out of the way of his camera. It irks me that I let it bother me when teenage boys and young men wear their caps backwards. It looks smart-alecky. Why should it? I’m just being an old fart. If the caps were supposed to be worn with the bill to the back, then I’d think it looks smart-alecky to have the bill in front. I saw a little girl doing that, the bill to the back with her straw-colored hair sticking out of it. On her it was cute. She was wearing her soccer uniform. I try not to look too much at little kids when I am out. Now I am off the track. Back to Leonard and that young girl who met him out here.
When I first saw Leonard out there, I did not recognize him. I saw this short round old guy wearing bib overalls bent over pushing a walker. About the third time he was there, I put the telescope on him. I could not believe it was Leonard. In bib overalls! Leonard, seller of fine clothing, in bib overalls! He did sell work clothes or he would not have made a go if it around here. But Leonard always wore a suit coat and tie. He didn’t wear the dark dress clothes that men around here wear. He wore bright colors. It looked good on him. He was never slim but now he was a little butterball. Maybe bib overalls were all that would fit that body. The funny thing was that even though he was a butterball, he still looked bent over. If Leonard and I were standing side-by-side, we would have looked like this I’o. The apostrophe is my nose. Leonard being in a swamp was a stunner, too. Leonard usually showed up most every day or so, once he started coming, around eight or nine in the morning.
Not long before Leonard became a regular in June, a young woman came out here Monday through Friday about the same time in the morning. She would walk twice around the loop, like she was being paid for it on the first loop and then lazy-like on the second loop. She drove an old pickup. She always wore the same clothes, which my telescope told me was a waitress uniform. She looked about twenty-seven. Later I found out she was only twenty-one. Pretty, I would say, short with black hair and a big chest, which I bet got her big tips. As I said earlier, I often fell asleep on the sofa trying to read after my breakfast. Towards the end of June, just as the swamp flowers were blooming, I woke up having to pee, and there they were sitting on the first bench together, Miss Chesty and old Leonard. I looked through the telescope to see better. The were holding hands! I almost wet my pants before I got to the bathroom and pulled down the shade. There’s no fool like an old fool, Moms used to day, meaning always old men. That young chesty woman, Miss Chesty, was a gold-digger for sure.
This lasted through the summer and into the fall. I noticed that Miss Chesty was bringing him treats and a thermos of coffee to share. I lost morning sleep watching them and worrying about poor old Leonard. Was she going to get her hands on his money and not his kids? Did he have kids? Suzanne might know, I thought. Suzanne did. Leonard’s wife had died a year ago. They had only one sickly girl who died years ago.
After Labor Day Miss Chesty wasn’t there every day, but most days. Leonard missed a few days. They kept coming wearing warm coats and mittens into the middle of October. Then Leonard did not come anymore. Right up until Halloween Miss Chesty kept coming every day and waiting, but no Leonard ever again. So then good: he escaped her gold-digging after all. I walked out there just to see her up close. As I walked by, she said “hello” sweetly and smiled. She had a pink face with lots of freckles and long eyelashes. She asked if I wanted coffee. I was about to tell her that I didn’t have any gold to dig, then she started crying. That female trick doesn’t work on me. I walked out a ways and came back.
She asked, “Don’t you live in that house over there?” Well, that put me back a bit, I can tell you. Could people see me spying? I told her that I did and asked how she knew where I lived.
She said, “It’s your plaid red jacket. I noticed it because my father wore one like that in the fall. It caught my eye when you left your house and walked over to the parking lot.” I realized with all the leaves and tamarack needles dropped, I would stick out plain as day. She was still crying. I almost told her that those fat crocodile tears down that sweet face would win over many an old man, but not me.
“Would you like a blueberry muffin? I always bring one to share with a friend who was meeting me here, but he has not come back. I really don’t like blueberries.” She held up the muffin to me. Her eyes were bright blue and soft, what with the tears hanging in them. I felt sorry for her and relieved that she did not know I was snooping, or was pretending she did not know. I sat down and offered her a tissue from the pack in my jacket pocket. In the end she used up the whole pack.
“He was such a sweet old man, really funny, too. I do not even know his name. I never even asked him. I guess we talked too much about me and not enough about him for me to bother even asking. That’s pretty selfish don’t you think?”
I didn’t really answer. I was trying to decide if she was for real or just that good at it. She kept using up my tissues right along as she talked.
“I graduate from the community college this semester and will be moving away. I was going to say good-bye to him because with winter coming he should not be coming out here. I hope he is all right.”
So there I was in a moral dilemma. Should I tell her Leonard’s name? Should I just walk home? Should I act like I trusted her?
She said, “I see you are not eating the muffin. Would you like coffee with it? I don’t really like coffee either. I like tea, but I would bring the muffin and coffee from work for him, whatever his name is.”
“I’m a tea drinker myself,” I said. She took the last few tissues to use.
“My boss lets me bring it. He’s a nice guy. He doesn’t stare at my breasts and make jokes the way some of my customers do. Sorry, you don’t want to hear all this, I guess.”
So, I put my arm around her, like I don’t really like doing. But I did hold her for awhile. Then I invited her to tea at my house. She thanked me, but she had to rush off to class. She said she would come back one more time to see if he would show up. Snow was in the forecast in two days. I don’t get the local newspaper, for one reason not to see the obituaries. I get the St. Paul paper in the mail, making my news always a day late. I told Suzanne if the world ends, I’ll never know until the next day and outlive everybody else by a day.
I called Suzanne, who said she would stop by for lunch. She brought me Leonard’s obituary from last week. He had no relatives listed. Suzanne has a friend in her bridge club who works for an attorney who told Suzanne that Leonard did not really have much money. His house is one of the big older houses, which back then were the big deal ones to own. Since those houses are near the community college campus, his would probably end up being made into student apartments like the others. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery down in Duluth.
So I was sad all day. I put the obituary in a big envelope, which made me realize that I did not know the young woman’s name. The next day I put the envelope on the bench under a rock so it wouldn’t blow away. I wrote on it “for Miss Freckle Face.” I added an invitation for her to come have tea with me after reading the obit. I made muffins. The ingredients I went out and bought in the afternoon after Suzanne left.
So there she came. She stopped when she saw the envelope. Then she read it and sat down crying, looking like the number 9. She looked at my house and waved. I could see her still crying as she headed to her old pickup. I took down the telescope before she came over. She did not stay long. She had to turn in a short story for class by noon. She had wanted Leonard to read it first, which now he wasn’t going to be doing.
It snowed on and off for two days, not amounting to more than maybe three inches. Then most of it melted off the day after that. I was worried about Patrisha; that is her name, Patrisha. Funny, isn’t it: first I was worried about Leonard over her, and now I’m worried about her over Leonard. I put the telescope back up to watch the birds in the snow. A woodchuck came along the front of my yard heading to the swamp. Rabbits left tracks around. Some ducks and geese rested up in the swamp before heading south. I saw the biology teacher out on the boardwalk during the snow, just watching like me. He had binoculars, too.
The next day was Saturday. There was Patrisha walking the loop in regular clothes and not her uniform. I walked out to the front of my yard, not really a lawn. I whooped loud as I could with my MG voice. It was all quiet and still so she heard. I waved for her to come over. She waved back. We had our tea and some biscuits I had made. I’m better at biscuits than muffins. Maria liked my biscuits. Patrisha noticed the telescope. I told her it was to see the wild life. She didn’t say anything about it. She was in no rush to get to a class or any place else. She told me her life story, which is sad. I won’t tell it here, giving her her privacy. Before she left, I read her short story. It was a hoot. She told me I had very pretty eyes. I told her they were Italian like my nose. She said, “They are beautiful, deep and dark and warm. I could disappear right into them.” By then I knew she was an English major. But it is a good thing she is not a gold-digger. She sure could have dug some gold talking like that to us old farts.
Tish, that’s her name now. Tish came most weekday mornings until the end of the semester. We spent Christmas together, so my cousin Suzanne did not have to take me in like a waif.
Tish transferred to St. Cloud State to finish up. She got a job right off in a Perkins. She writes to me now and then, which is nice. I write to her about the swamp and her great aunt Fiona, who I visit in the nursing home. It is hard work visiting a woman who cannot talk back to you. I tell Fiona about the swamp, the birds and beasts, and my guests.
Over the winter I was stuck to mostly watching wildlife. A few folks would brave the snowed-over boardwalk, like that biology teacher. Adele came now and again to read in her car in the parking lot, which I knew thanks to my telescope. In the spring I will go back to watching humans again. I will try to imagine good things for my guests. I’m still not ready to imagine good things for the DNR, who I think of like this &*#@!!!
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017