by Jan Wiezorek
Ms. Hinchon’s left elbow bothered her again, so she bent her arm twice before maneuvering the wiggly silver canoe toward the shore. Someone was walking along the beach in her direction, south along the lake. She could not tell how far away that someone was.
Floating eastward, she paddled till the bow of the canoe rested on the sand. Ms. Hinchon disembarked into the cold lake and tugged the canoe by rope over the sand and through the fallen leaves. The pulling sent aches up from her lower back and across her shoulders. She heard the canoe scrape along the beach. Her feet caught a rustle of leaves. Ms. Hinchon saw that leaves had fallen into the runoff that rushed across the sand and into Lake Michigan. Some red maple leaves floated into stagnant yellow puddles of tadpoles and water bugs.
Her breathing expanded, and every step seemed like it took a minute to complete. She focused on her sneakers, and the high ground steepened underfoot. After reaching the summit, she had elbowed her way some one-hundred yards from water’s edge to the high woods.
“Now’s the time it would have been helpful to have a man around,” she said out loud to herself. She snickered, dropped the rope, and massaged her elbow again. Eventually, she took the red scarf off her mousy-brown hair and stuck it in her quilted vest pocket.
Elbowed in the woods was Ms. Hinchon’s cottage, a dark gray with dormers. After her brief rest, she dragged the canoe into the metal utility shed and walked toward the house. When she looked up, she saw Harry the gardener at eye level with a rake in his hand.
“Why didn’t you tell me you needed so much raking done?” he asked. He twisted his red baseball cap off his head and rubbed his wet forehead.
“I’m too busy, I guess,” she said, glancing down to avoid his steely blue gaze.
He hacked and spit in her direction, but she avoided the unpleasantness and headed past the stinky gingko on the side of the cottage where Harry parked his old, blue Chevy pickup.
Opening his unlocked door, she sat in his bucket seats until her back and shoulder pain had eased. Her elbow tightened again, so she shook her entire arm the way a handwriting student does when a cramp comes on. The pain continued. The left elbow throbbed as her right hand reached into the glove box and then under the bucket seats. She found three quarters and put them in the right pocket of her vest. Nothing of any interest drew her to linger, except Harry’s road atlas. It was tucked away in the holder. She slipped it under her arm and slammed the door.
Harry heard the slam and shuffled back as Ms. Hinchon walked away, with a weather-worn smile on her face, glancing down and attempting to move her left arm and shoulder in small circles.
“Looking for something?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“Want me to move the truck?”
“No, it’s fine right there.”
“Thought I heard you slam the door,” he said.
“Oh, no matter.”
“You were in my truck?”
“No, my car.”
“Just my road atlas,” she said. “From the car.”
She saw Harry give her the queerest look, but she paid little attention and walked up the steps to the cottage, smelling the gingko fruit again.
“Harry,” she said, “when you’re done, pick up that rotten yellow fruit and throw it away—unless you want it for tea.”
“No, I do not,” he said, as his foot wobbled and his gait slumped. She noticed his eyes were overlarge, the sides of his nose flamed outward, and his face hadn’t recovered from a hint of distrust.
“Why don’t you buy a leaf-blower—something useful for a change?” he asked, demanding.
“Check the storage shed.”
On the porch she sidestepped a trail of pine needles. “Oh, and when you’re finished with the gingko, there are needles here that need to be swept,” she called out.
“At your service, ma’am,” he said. She heard him spit.
Inside, she put the atlas on the coffee counter and pulled out a black journal from behind the sugar bowl. She wrote the date and added the words “canoe, paddle, atlas, .75—a.m.” She closed the notebook, thought back on the week’s escapades, and heard the leaf-blower at work. It must have been that noise that prevented her at first from knowing there was someone pounding on the porch door. When she turned from the counter to the door, she saw a silhouette of a man, tall and big, and she couldn’t imagine for the life of her who would be up pestering on a Saturday morning.
“Yes,” she said, opening the door to the porch. He was big alright, she thought, and very official looking, with some sort of a gun, badge, and dark uniform.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said.
“Good heavens,” she said. “You’re a tall one,” looking upward into his square jaw and black eyes.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I’m Officer Wentworth.”
“Yes, do come in,” she said, running her right hand like a comb through her hair.
The officer stood inside the door until she directed him away from the kitchen counter and into the sitting room that overlooked the pines and the lake.
“How can I help you?” she said, standing at first and then deciding to sit across from him near the mahogany coffee table.
“We’ve been looking into a string of thefts along the lake here, and I noticed someone pulling a canoe—could that have been you?”
“Canoe?” she asked. “Not with this sore elbow,” she said. She massaged the left arm where it bent. She heard her voice giggle.
“Well, it could have been someone else,” he said.
“Have you found anything missing lately—recreational gear, gardening equipment, or the like?”
She thought for a while before answering. “It seems to me that someone took my planting pots, but I may have asked the gardener to put them in storage for me.”
“Have you seen anyone suspicious along the shore?”
“No, I can’t say I have,” she said. “It’s all so peaceful here.”
“Right.” He rose and walked toward the porch door. “Well, if you notice anything unusual, please let us know.”
“Absolutely,” she said. “And thank you for your visit, officer.”
“Welcome,” he said. “Goodbye, ma’am.”
“It’s Rose,” she said. “Rose Hinchon.”
“Goodbye, Ms. Hinchon.”
She walked out onto the porch and studied his sturdy gait as he paced across the lawn and back down toward the beach again.
“Where’s his car?” she wondered out loud. Then she thought he may have parked it up by Blueberry Beach, maybe a half-mile walk or so. She wondered whether he was the walker she saw south along the beach.
“Harry,” she hollered, waving. The leaf-blowing stopped.
The gardener sauntered over to her, having missing the officer altogether.
“Harry,” she said, “I just had a visit from the police, and he said there have been some thefts along the lakeshore. Have you seen or heard anything?”
“No, I haven’t seen, and I can’t much hear.”
“You see anyone rummage around here or along the beach?”
“Good. Let me know if you do.” He stared at her again before he went back to leaf-blowing, and she saw how his right foot shifted in the lawn, pulling him downward from his hip, like he was all out of joint. She caught her right hand massaging her elbow as she walked past the side of the house.
She had a notion to call the officer back. Ms. Hinchon cupped her hand and shouted with all her lung power down the hill toward the beach. Her yell was loud enough to be heard. The officer came sprinting up the grade, past the yellowing pools, and though the rustle until he met Ms. Hinchon near the shed.
She thought about it all the while the officer was running toward her. She thought, and she figured she’d know how to explain it. “Officer—,” she said. She stopped and turned back to see whether Harry was far enough away and busy with the leaves. “I’m not accusing, but on second thought I’ve been worried about my gardener, Harry.”
“Why?” the officer asked.
“You look in that gardener’s shed, and you tell me what you see.”
She thought it was her civic duty to speak up. Long after her husband had left her for a truck-stop floozy, she had taken pride in making a go of it. She was the one who kept up the house, wrote her children’s stories, supported herself, and called the shots. She made certain others were held accountable. And the way Harry treated her. Rejection, spit, and all. Well, he had it coming, she thought.
The officer unlatched the door and swung it wide open. What he saw matched the descriptions on the reports—canoe, lawn mower, golf clubs, assorted toolboxes, and gardeners’ implements—most everything brand new.
“Are these items yours?” the officer asked.
“Never saw them in my life,” she replied. “He came by during summer asking for a job. I needed help, and I said he could store whatever he wanted.”
“The canoe’s still wet,” Officer Wentworth noted. “Did he carry it here?”
“Must have,” she said. “Officer, I’m only doing my duty, and I don’t want to cause trouble, but what will come of him?”
“We’ll take him in and see what we can find out.”
“I only ask because he had mentioned something about a tussle with the law years ago—as a young man—but I just didn’t imagine he’d still be a thief. That’s what you get for helping someone out.”
“We’ll take him to the station at Four Oaks.”
“I appreciate it, officer,” she said.
“We’ll take care of it—and him.”
“Thank you so much.” Then she said, “I hope I did the right thing.” She raised her face and looked into the officer’s black eyes. She felt safe—now—looking into them.
The leaf-blower stopped and Harry wobbled his way to the shed. “Morning,” he said to the officer, and he spat in Ms. Hinchon’s direction.
Ms. Hinchon left the two men to sort things out. She walked back around to Harry’s blue Chevy on the other side of the cottage. In the back seat, she felt for the warm hand-woven alpaca blanket that looked so nice in the truck. She rolled it and carried it out, sensing a damp chill coming from the northwest. “Here’s my warmth,” she said out loud.
Step by step she winced and wound the blanket around her elbow and over her shoulders. It gave her what she needed right then, and she sat on the porch swing.
She swaddled, swung, and daydreamed. She had a fragment of a new story in mind, a sad tale about a red maple leaf and a tadpole . . . .
The tadpole wanted out of the yellow pond, Ms. Hinchon thought to herself, for it was turning cold as winter neared. A beautiful leaf fell from the heights into the water by the tadpole.
“Miss Leaf,” the tadpole asked, “won’t you allow me to lie on your back?”
“What on earth for?” Miss Leaf replied.
“Because the wind will carry you and me from this pool, across the beach, and over to the lake, where I will be safe, and you will float on water forever—as free as you please.”
“Oh, well, I certainly will try,” Miss Leaf said.
So, the tadpole lay on Miss Leaf’s back, and the wind blew, carrying them out and over the beach. But the wind came up short and died away. Miss Leaf and the tadpole found themselves cut off from the lake and falling onto the sand.
It was there that the tadpole died owing to lack of water, and Miss Leaf dried and curled, a victim of the cruel cold.
Even if they both had made it to the lake, Ms. Hinchon thought, the tadpole would have frozen eventually. As for Miss Leaf, wasn’t she really dying the moment she fell from the tree? “What was that tadpole thinking?” Ms. Hinchon asked herself. But then she thought out loud and asked, “Is there anything wrong with dreaming otherwise?”
The question lingered in her mind. So, Ms. Hinchon sat on the porch swing and swung in thought until she noticed the officer had Harry in custody.
“Ms. Hinchon, I asked a squad car to come by and pick us up,” the officer said.
“Oh,” she said. “You men think of everything. Here I thought you’d walk back to the beach.” She giggled on the swing, but it was painful, so she stopped.
Harry’s gaze looked disconnected, as though his sight made no impression on his brain. All he could do now was spit and plead. “I’m telling ya,” he said, “I don’t know anything about any thefts. I saw nothing—and I can’t hear well.” He hacked and let it fly.
“Goodbye, officer,” she said. Rising from the swing, she twirled around and grabbed the chain on the swing with her right hand. She leaned on it like a girl coaxing a visit from the boy next door.
He waved and the car left. “What a shame Officer Wentworth couldn’t have stayed longer,” she said to herself.
“But then, perhaps he’ll drive over next time, and I’ll have a chance to see his car. She stifled a giggle and directed her chin toward the needles on the porch. “I’ll need another gardener,” she said.
Ms. Hinchon wrapped her elbow tight in the alpaca and swung for an hour to ease the pain. When the telephone rang inside the cottage, she got off her swing and walked inside with the blanket.
“Hello,” she said. “Oh, yes, Officer Wentworth—. I’d be delighted to have you stop by.” Her eyes came alive and her elbow pain seemed to subside. “Yes, well, I’m certain I can explain everything. That’s right. Yes,” she said. “Oh, that soon? Well, yes, I’ll expect you then. Goodbye.”
Ms. Hinchon worked quickly. She pulled out a wood party tray from the cupboard, opened the refrigerator, and took out some cold ham. She sliced the ham and added gold cheese slices and rye bread to the tray. She found a good Bordeaux by the bar and opened it to let it breathe. Looking up, she caught her own image in the mirror, and she felt her face, puffy and flushed. She thought a little makeup would help even out all the rough edges.
“And when he arrives, we’ll have a little wine to relax,” she said out loud.
Her faded gray eyes brightened at the thought. “He’ll want to search a little more, so I’ll invite him upstairs.”
Looking at her face again, she believed an eyebrow pencil would help. “We’ll chase each other around the bed and then he’ll have a lie down. I’ll wear him out.” She enjoyed her giggle through the pain. “Whatever you say, Officer Wentworth.”
Would the officer like her makeup? she wondered, tucking the alpaca around her shoulders. “Winter’s coming,” she said, smiling and then wincing. “At last, a man to keep me warm.”