The Hamm’s Beer bear clock, yellowed and brittled by decades of sun from the nearby window, said 11:12:06 for four seconds. Then it lurched to 11:12:10. The second hand had been producing this warp in the space-time continuum every minute for a decade and not one customer had noticed.
Perched on his stool under the clock and near the old brass cash register on the bar, Lardbutt looked out the front window over his gravel parking lot scattered on both sides of paved County Road 47.
At 11:14:11 Lardbutt announced to the empty bar, “Old Timo’s late today.”
A voice from the back of the room answered, “I betcha he conked over in that big empty house a his.”
Lardbutt labored himself off his stool to draw a large tap beer and set it on the bar next to the till. He returned to his stool to watch his parking lot. Turtle Freeberg hiked his bent body up onto the stool and sniffed the beer. “What kind of beer is this?”
“It’s potluck. If you’s gonna keep comin’ in through the storeroom, you’s gonna drink whatever beer I put in front a you.”
Turtle, the slowest moving man in Colson Township, and always had been, pointed his left hand at the storeroom door. He thought he was pointing with his index finger, but it was long gone. “That red sign over the door says exit.”
“Yeah, but it don’t say entrance.”
Turtle drank a third of the beer in one laborious swallow and eased the glass back down on the bar. “It don’t much matter what beer it is. My taste bugs is prit-near dead.”
“Taste buds, Turtle, not taste bugs.”
“It’s my birthday today. I’m 73.”
No it ain’t an’ you ain’t. Your birthday was last week an’ you’s 78.”
Turtle grinned. “Well, hell, then. My ol’ man died at 77. I out-lasted him.”
Lardbutt turned away to avoid watching Turtle pour the second third of his beer slowly down his gullet. Lardbutt stood sentry over his parking lot, or more to the point, sentry over the community of Colson, from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. An empty logging truck rattled and roared through his parking lot on County 47. “Them two boys of Tricky Dick’s is gonna run that truck in a swamp one a these days.”
Turtle was too busy to answer. As happened every day that Turtle came to the bar, Turtle was sorting his cash into piles of ones, fives, tens, and twenties. Lardbutt leaned his bulk across the bar to slip a twenty off the pile. “When you’s drunk this up, I’ll tell you an’ you can walk back home out the front door.” Turtle lived a mile south down the gravel of County Road 19.
With his sorting completed Turtle stared at the fifty in his hand. Lardbutt said it with him. “Where’d this come from?”
“Turtle you’s had that for a couple months now. Give it to me.” He took it out of Turtle’s hand. “I’ll send it over to Judy an’ she’ll fix you up with some food to bring to your house this afternoon, and she’ll keep the rest on account.” Lardbutt’s wife Judy ran the small grocery store on the opposite side of the wall behind him. The store also had a little bit of everything for loggers, campers, fisherman, and residents. Turtle took a small sip of beer. To avoid being aggravated by Turtle’s slow pace of sipping after he had taken his first two swallows, Lardbutt looked out on his parking lot. Sip by sip, Turtle would hunch over the bar all afternoon.
A dusty dented 1969 Lincoln pulled in below his window. Pony Hyponen stepped out of the death trap side of the car and walked up the steps into the bar. His wife stayed in the driver’s seat, her ear tipped to listen to the radio. “An Elvis song must be playing,” Lardbutt said to Pony as he entered.
“Yep. Dem damn Blue Suede Shoes. You got the grill workin’ up to temp?”
“It’s Thursday. You remembered that, then.”
Thursday was two-for-one hamburger day, an idea suggested to Lardbutt by Old Timo. Pony, short for Pony Express, was the retired community carrier of mail and gossip. He could fry a mean hamburger with fried onions, and with American cheese for customers who were so inclined.
“Sal’ll be right in,” Pony said. Two-for-one hamburger day drew a good crowd.
Digging his wallet out of his soiled old jacket, Turtle said, “Give me a burger, then.”
Lardbutt answered, “Two-for-one day don’t start ’til 12:30. You’s paid already. That’s why I took a twenty. An’ I’m figuring on you buying a couple pickled eggs later. I’ll tell you when.”
There he came. Old Timo parked his restored 1951 Chevy pickup in the lot across County 47. The Chevy towed a pristine fourteen-foot aluminum boat with a restored outboard motor of the same vintage as the pickup.
Lardbutt hid his eagerness waiting for Old Timo to enter. Old Timo opened the door for Sal and followed her in. She headed back to the storeroom for the Taystee bread they used as buns around the two-for-ones, never toasted. Old Timo waved to Pony and patted Turtle on the shoulder. Old Timo did not look his sixty-eight years. His thin Finnish frame was still erect. His pale skin was clear, his hands steady. His speech was precise. The “Old” was added as a front porch to his name thirty-five years earlier.
Lardbutt gave him a triumphant broad smile. Old Timo said, “By which you mean, Mr. Publican, that Mrs. Maki has completed her daily shopping.”
Turtle looked at Old Timo. “You don’t mean Lardbutt’s a damn Republican, then?”
“No Mr. Turtle, I did not say that. However our local entrepreneur is, in fact, a Republican, which puts in him league with his fellow business moguls.”
Turtle replied, “You’re right about that. Them damn Republicans is nothing but a pack of mongrels.”
“You speak the truth, Friend Turtle.”
“That’s why he voted for Ronald Reagan,” Lardbutt said.
Reagan is a good Democrat,” Turtle insisted. “He’s not the same guy as that actor is he? My wife liked him.”
Lardbutt ignored this time-worn question to gloat, “Mrs. Maki was in the store an’ gone a good twenty minutes ago.”
Raising a cloud of dust, three big pickups pulled into the lot. Two men got out of each. Lardbutt continued, “Thursday two-for-one was a good idea of yours, ‘specially not serving them up ’til 12:30 so I can sell ’em all some beer first. You’s a smart man, Old Timo, ‘cept when it comes to Mrs. Maki.”
Sal was now behind the bar to draw beer. Lardbutt could stay on his throne.
“Mrs. Maki,” Turtle said. “What’s her first name?”
“Mrs.,” Larbutt answered, but it was too worn a joke to get a laugh. “Do you even know, Old Timo?”
“I do not.”
“What got you two started?”
“The evils of alcohol. Mr. Barkeep, my two bottled beers please.”
“Two each day; two every day! You’re smart enough to figure out two-for-one Thursday but too dumb to buy a case an’ keep it at that big house a yours.”
“And forgo the pleasure of your company and Turtle’s handsome face?”
As Old Timo turned to leave, Turtle asked, “You not staying for a burger, then?”
“Today, Turtle, I would have to stay for two burgers. But more importantly, Mrs. Maki awaits as do the two fried baloney sandwiches in my vehicle.”
Looking out the window, Lardbutt said. “I sure admire them curved windows on your Chevy.”
“As do I, which makes all those hours of restoration worthwhile to hear your praise.”
He left with his two bottles of beer and drove two miles west on County 47, where he took a right turn onto a gravel road, Township Road 1. He drove two miles at eight miles an hour. As he approached the bend before the Colson Community Cemetery, he slowed to a crawl. When he edged his way around the bend, he was relieved to see Mrs. Maki was not in the cemetery. By good luck she must have taken her groceries home first before coming here. Because his pickup and boat trailer were too long to turn around in the small cemetery, he parked outside the gate. Carrying one beer and his restored 1950’s era black lunch pail, he sat down on the bench in the center of the cemetery. Aging had taught him patience; he could wait for her. He nibbled on one of the fried baloney sandwiches and sipped on the beer. The first one to the cemetery had the initial high ground in their duels.
Mrs. Maki sputtered her 1971 black Buick inside the gate and stopped. She pronounced it Pew-ick. The sound of the engine reminded Old Timo it was time for him to give her car a tune-up. She carried three bunches of fresh-cut flowers to three tombstones with the name Saari on them. She pulled out the wilted bunches and replaced them with her new ones. After she put the wilted flowers on the floor of the back seat of the Buick, she took out her old cane, which was a gift from Turtle after his wife died. After aligning her scarf on the very point of her chin, she limped her way towards Old Timo, looking as if she would tip over to her right on every other step. Only one other person beside Old Timo knew how old she was; maybe she didn’t remember.
When she stopped in front of him, he asked, “Why are you not called Old Mrs. Maki?”
“So how come you’s called Old Timo?”
“My hair turned white when I was but a strapping lad of thirty-two or so.”
“It was the shocking sight of an old witch haunting a graveyard.” For exclamation point he took a large bite of the sandwich.
“This ain’t no place for picinics an’ wouldn’t be if you hadn’t brung that bench in here.”
“It is my generous contribution to the community.”
“Scooch on over.”
He did. She sat next to him, gripping her hands on the upright cane as if the bench might lurch and throw her off.
“Would you enjoy a beer? It is a less than robust American pilsner of a common brand.”
‘Beers don’t belong in cementeries. An’ no billonly sandwiches neither.”
Her “cementeries” was his favorite of her butchered words. She pronounced it “cement-airy.” It had its logic, he had to admit. He finished his sandwich and licked each of his ten fingers in luxury. She watched him out of the corner of her right eye, her better eye.
“Your wife ain’t buried here, neither.”
“No, she is not. Where is Mr. Maki buried?”
“Right over in that corner by them mountin’ mashes.”
He looked. “Is that a fact? I see no fine upstanding tombstone. You do not bring him flowers.”
He sipped his beer. “How did he die?”
“You had a good wife, Old Timo.”
“That I did, Mrs. Maki.”
“I didn’t have me a good husband. So, everyone can just call me Mrs. Maki. That’ll show him!”
Old Timo no longer argued with her reverse sense of revenge. “Your first name never to be revealed to anyone?”
“Not to men who drink beers an’ eat billonly sandwiches on scacred ground!”
“It is hard for me as a Lutheran to accept hard sterile clay littered with boulders as sacred.”
“Ain’t you gonna go fishin’?”
“I have yet to finish my beer.” He sipped again.
“Mr. Maki used to go fishin’ real early ’cause he said that’s when them fish are bitin’.”
“I am a man of morning leisure. Catching fish is not necessarily my purpose.”
“Your good wife, now where’d you bury her?”
“In her home country. A rural cement-airy such as this one down near Lake Superior.”
“Haven’t you told me that before?”
“On most days that we meet.”
“Why you come here? You got nobody buried here.”
“For the peace and quiet.”
“I ain’t giving you no peace an’ quiet!”
“You never do, Mrs. Maki.”
“You know, one day I may not show up an’ you’ll know why.”
“It is my duty, Mrs. Maki. When that sad day comes, how will we know what name to put on your upstanding tombstone? I ask because you have no family.”
”How’d you know that?”
“You have told me so.”
“On most days that we meet. What Christan name for your tombstone, Mrs. Maki?”
“Ain’t you got all my papers an’ know all that kinda stuff? I forget.”
“I do have the papers, which do tell me your Christian name.”
“Don’t you go sayin’ it down there at Lardbutt’s. That’s an awful evil place! An’ you know my tombstone’s all done already an’ it says on it only Mrs. Maki. That’ll show him, the no-good so-and-so! An’ don’t you go buryin’ me next to that no-good so-and-so!”
“Your grave was long ago purchased. I will make sure you are buried in it.”
“Where is it, then? I forget.”
“We are sitting on it now.”
“Right here where you gluzzles beers? Why I never!”
“I have never guzzled a beer in my life.”
“Haven’t we been through this all before?”
“Many times, Mrs. Maki”
She rose and limped her way to her car, this time almost tipping to the left on every other step. He deduced it must be the lay of the land.
Before she closed the door of her Buick, she shouted in her squeaky voice, “This ain’t no beer hall or diner. This is scacred ground.” The Buick sputtered away.
As Old Timo finished his beer, he faced the biggest decision of his day: in which lake to lower his boat. Since he was not feeling tired today, he decided to drive twenty miles west to a lake he had not seen for a few years, Cradle Lake. Once off the gravel road, he headed west on County 47 at sixty miles per hour to avoid impeding any impetuous young drivers of lumber trucks. Cradle Lake was only a half mile off of 47 on a rough gravel road, where he could poke along as slowly as he wished to the boat ramp. Before backing the trailer down into the lake, he checked the gas in the outboard. He had checked it before leaving home, but he did not want to risk having to row the boat any distance.
With the wheels of the trailer backed in the water, he unlatched the boat, cranked it off the back of the trailer into the lake, and tied it against the small dock. The dock was tilted to the left for its first half and to the right on the second half. When the pickup and trailer were parked and locked—thefts did occur in boat ramp parking lots—Old Timo stepped down into the boat from the drunken dock. He carried his second beer and the lunch pail. He was careful. If he fell here, who would know? He needed to outlive Mrs. Maki. To himself he always referred to her as Mrs. Maki, for fear that if he used her Christian name, he might slip and reveal it to others. As always, the motor started on the second pull. He turned and putt-putted his way along the shore. Old outboards such as his were designed for slow speeds. Listening to them was satisfying, especially when the echo of the motor off the trees was syncopated with the motor itself, which happened when he found the correct distance from the shore. He savored the sound-effect for a hundred yards and then turned out towards the middle of the lake.
As he recalled, a line of seaweed grew out from a rock point on the other side of the lake. When last here, his two sons were in middle school. The boys had found the seaweed with their lures. He had stopped and freed their lines, after which he showed them how to cast along the bed of seaweed where fish were likely to be. First Kenny and then Bobby had snagged their lures again in the seaweed. And yet again. Old Timo had been impatient with them, as he had often been. At his current age he dawdled. Only five years ago, he was still rushing. When his first son was born, Old Timo had promised himself he would not be a father like his father, a promise he did not keep. Perhaps he had chosen this lake today to face down his regrets. Did Mrs. Maki carry regrets or only resentments? His impatience that day with his sons, he wanted to believe, was because it was the summer when he converted the hunting shack he inherited from his father into a four-bedroom house.
However, he had always been in a rush. Some large project always had to be done. A few other projects always waited for him on his to-do list. If his wife Sarah had ever written him a to-do list, it would have said, “Relax. Slow down. Enjoy the moment. Take a trip with me.” Kenny and Bobby did not mind the bus ride into town for school. but the north woods into which he had moved them was of no interest to them. Old Timo had been a civil engineer for the county for thirty-four years. Kenny was a software engineer in Mountain View, California. Bobby was an electrical engineer in Boston. Old Timo was not sure if he was sorry or pleased they had his math/mechanical aptitude.
When he found the rock point and then the bed of weeds, he disengaged the clutch on the outboard. Would he troll or sit and cast? He enjoyed the rhythm of casting and did not like the dullness of trolling. The question was about his upper body: of what was it capable today? He decided to risk awakening pain and to cast. He shut off the engine. On his third cast he had bad luck. His line was almost too heavy to reel in. He hoped it was a snag. He held the line to see what happened. The large fish on the end of his line grew impatient and tried to swim free. It swam toward the boat. Old Timo reeled in more slowly than the fish swam. The slack line did not induce the fish to swim free of the hook. A dozen minutes later he had a large pickerel beside the boat—about five pounds, an elongated body, gold and black stripes on its back, a long snout, small sharp teeth. Old Timo could see the hook was not well set. Hoping the fish would dance its way free, he lifted the line in the air. It hung limp. A suicidal fish, he decided. Then it jumped in contortion and was back in the water and gone.
He would not mind fresh fish for supper, but not a large one. A few casts later he pulled in a tiny bluegill, which he released. Two casts after that it was a nice northern, maybe a pound and a half. He clipped it on a stringer and let the boat drift back to the rocky point. He tilted the motor our of harm’s way and let the boat bump lightly along the shore as he opened his beer and the lunch pail. He would skip the second fried baloney sandwich. His appetite was decreasing. Despite not having much of a sweet tooth, the Oreo cookies appealed to him. Chocolate and beer—he decided it would work. But he did not taste the beer or the cookies while he ate. His mind had quit avoiding the question to answer today, or soon. Not the question of where to fish or what to eat. The question was: who would take care of Mrs. Maki after he died. To think she would outlive him after all. She was a tougher old Finn than he was. The only real answer was Lardbutt’s wife Judy, who was already tracking or even taking care of a half-dozen people like Turtle and Mrs. Maki. But if he told Judy, she would not keep his secret or Mrs. Maki’s secret. Lardbutt would know, which meant everyone would know about his cancer and Mrs. Maki’s Christian name. He did in fact buy his two beers each day for the pleasure of the man’s company, and Turtle’s, and all the other regulars. He would stop on his way home and give Lardbutt the northern. Lardbutt did not fish or admit he liked fish, but he did enjoy an occasional meal, according to Judy. Maybe before Old Timo died he should start calling Lardbutt, a fellow Finn, by his Christian name. No. By now Lardbutt was his real name, earned over time on his stool with his watchful eye on the parking lot, on his Hamms bear clock, and on the community.
Old Timo heard a boat motor come to life across the lake, a large modern outboard. He was no longer alone. The boat, with a windscreen and foredeck rose quickly to speed, perhaps a bit too fast for this small lake with scattered shallows. The boat followed the shoreline in a clockwise direction. The wake would bounce his small boat hard against the rocks beside him. Old Timo used an oar to pole his boat along the shoreline to a small rocky beach. He pulled out the boat and sat down again on its seat to wait the passing of the other boat.
A father with a son and daughter of middle school years, their hair pulled back by the wind. The sumac behind him must have camouflaged Old Timo and his boat. By the time they came around again, with the girl driving the boat, he had put down the cookies and was sipping the beer. A minute after they passed, their motor went still—off or idling, his old ears could not tell.
The doctors had offered him the radiation/chemotherapy route, but Sarah had walked that painful path to no results. It was a slim chance for him, they said. He had arranged a flight east to Boston next week and then one west the week after. When he called his sons with his plans, they had been suspicious but busy, very busy. “The apple and the tree,” he told himself. Judy could keep a close eye on Mrs. Maki while he was on his trips. Last week he told Mrs. Maki he had a bad cancer; she, of course, forgot before she left the cement-airy.
The other boat was still quiet. Old Timo pushed off. Just as he started the outboard, the large boat came by with its modern quiet engine turning over slowly. All three of them had a line trolling in the water. He waited until their lines had passed to engage the clutch. The boy saw him and waved; then all three waved. The girl’s line snagged in the weeds. The father stopped, backed up the boat and helped her clear the line. Just as the boat started forward, the boy’s line snagged on something heavier, perhaps a sunken tree. All three were laughing. Old Timo pulled alongside the boat and stopped. He held out the packet of Oreos, noticing he had eaten only two. “I just was not very hungry,” he explained.
The father looked suspicious, but the girl grabbed the bag before he could speak. The children said an eager “Thanks.” The father went back to working free the snagged line. Old Timo wanted to tell the father not to rush, to hold onto this moment, to be patient with his children.
Old Timo threw in the clutch and putt-putted towards the landing. As he syncopated along the shoreline, he whispered and repeated and repeated, “Kerttu Saari Maki.”
At the age of the father he too would have resented anyone giving him advice. Old people, he decided, are here to give wisdom to young people for them to dismiss.
Until they grow old enough to tell young people the same wisdom.
Which they in turn will ignore.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017