Oswald: The Prologue

Rethought the opening of this story.  Expanded the scene  to bring in most of the elements of the  overall story in one place.  Seemed like it would streamline the telling.

 Oswald’s War, The Prolouge.

The Diner was shrugged under the last of the gigantic spruce  trees that once stood like a castle wall around the Inn’s property, tucked into the drooping green barrier  a spy, like some country kid on the roof of the grocery with binoculars watching the New York girls on the lakeside veranda, laying on their  blankets with their bikini tops unhooked, their tight little asses  tanned against the  white bikini bottoms, waiting for one of them to roll over and for one magic second point a pair of sharp white titties to the sky.  Did they not see us on the roof, Henderson always wondered? Did they not know how exotic they seemed to the collection of teen-aged boys  gathered there, grabbing the glasses out of each others’ hands  and yelling, then  ducking when one of them thought one of New York girls might have looked their  way?  But of course they didn’t see us, Henderson knew.  They arrived with their families in long sedans, stepped from the back seat with  shades and headphones, tight shorts and cut-off t-shirts and stretched, arching their backs like  a cat, then took three steps and lowered the  shades half way and with an  Oh my God, mother, what are we doing here, glanced up and down  the dusty main street of Mount Jensen, Maine with its five houses, old schoolhouse, unpainted church and a grocery store and decided that the two days at the Inn, before their week at tennis camp, were going to be the worst days of their lives. Then they would lounge on the veranda, sleep on the Inn’s green towels or order a salad, dressing on the side, and unsweetened iced tea, which they would eat while sitting under the green umbrella; eat, if that was the word, more like pick at the vegetables with a studied distain and then wave their glass at the waiter, More iced tea, please. And a slice of lemon.

But by the second day, the New York girls began to flirt with all the county boys who were the waiters and bellhops, and if they stayed at the Inn a night or two at the end of tennis camp, Henderson knew they would be on the lakeside veranda that last morning, and he knew for a fact that more than one of those New York girls  with her bikini top unsnapped sat  up half naked and began to apply suntan lotion just as casual and open as if she was in her  room alone, because at tennis camp someone told the New York girls that the county boys were watching from the grocery roof, and she thought, why not; slowly rubbing the lotion on her arms and neck, stretching her head to the side; on her shoulders and flat belly and long legs, then placing both hands on her chest and sliding  them slowly down over her white titties, now even whiter against her dark tennis camp tan, before she laid face-down on their towel again. Unless her mother saw her and yelled something  that the country  boys on the roof could hear but not understand, before she stood up and covered her daughter with a towel, and then glanced around toward the roof of the grocery where all the country boys ducked behind the roofline, and  rolled and giggled and covered their mouths in wide-eyed surprise, Oh, man did you see that? Henderson  more than once was the country boy with the binoculars when the New York girl rubbed her soft shoulders with lotion and his mouth would be open, and his left hand was fighting  off the grabbing of his friends and pants would be swollen because even that far away New York girls were beautiful.

The roof of the grocery was their lookout, where they affirmed their places in the small-town universe of  Mount Jensen, where they watched the lumber truck roll down the hill from Darcy’s woodlot, brakes squealing, motor chattering in protest before it swung the turn wide, surprising the hell out of some Indiana tourist in a minivan because that sort of thing never happened in Indiana, apparently,  before the truck with its fifty-foot load of trees wandered down the middle of the narrow main street before taking the left at the schoolhouse and heading up Loon Road toward Skowhegan and the paper mill; the great snort of the gear change timed and regular as the driver gained speed, and even with the rig  a half-mile away,  the country boys on the grocery roof could still count the gears, until the silence absorbed it, the distance erased it; watched as the sunlight pulled back across the lake from yellow to orange to red and the transparent water turned green then grey then black, and the lights in Franklin’s milking barn came on as the hidden loons cried out from the  shadows and trout began to rise, creating  silent rings that spread across the dark water just catching the dying light to shine translucent for one dissolving moment; then sometimes a large bass would break the surface as a dragonfly dipped too low, and the soft splatter of its reentry would reach the ears of the country boys on the grocery roof   too late for them to see the fish, but not the ripples as  the sputter of a small outboard leaving Bachelor’s settled to a drone, and behind the shield of a dozen tall spruces the lights in the rooms of the Inn flicked on, one by one, golden beacons reflected off the white walls and green shutters of the Inn; one  by one in the rooms where the New York girls stood naked under hot showers, dreaming.

Henderson on the grocery roof  in the fading sunlight would stare in awe at the Inn, so white, so gleaming, so forbidding behind its wall of tall trees and the wide porch and then look at the rest of the village fading  darkly, retreating with the daylight and decide it was easy to think that everything in Mount  Jensen is getting older, except the Inn, easy to dwell in the dreams of youth.

He opened the diner the year the Inn closed for good, about thirty years ago.  After a stint in the Army, he came back to Mount Jensen and found the village pretty much as he left it, as if the buildings along side the narrow winding lake road were a movie set, propped up by two-by-fours to give the appearance of a village, when there in fact was none; most the same color.  The grocery, the two-room school house, the Founders Farm, still a gleaming yellow farmhouse set back on the rise across the Inn, the Grange Hall, the Post Office and fire station, all still standing, even the five maples and white picket fence of the house at the village’s main intersection where the Farmington Road and the Augusta Road met were apparently unchanged.  It was the house owned by the spooky Black sisters, spinsters the kids thought spied through their front window at everyone, suspicious old bats, seen mostly standing in the shadows of the dark house behind lace curtains, muttering. When Henderson bought the three-story red brick house across the street and adjacent to the Inn lot, he found the Black sisters had died while he was gone and for just a moment he was sorry he had soaped their windows  on all those Halloweens years ago.

Happened over night, Dennis LeGrange said.  He was one of the gang that grew up together: Dennis, Tender Johnson, who was known then as Everitt,  but that was before the mill accident, Oswald Neggerson, and few others, Jeff  Hill,  Danny and Denise Waters, and Nola Jensen, whose family put their name on the settlement back after the War Of Independence, and built the first substantial house, Founders Farm, with its hidden closets, tunnels to the lake and woods and escape routes so that the women and children could run or hide while the men clutched their long rifles and whispered  nervously as they watched a dozen Penobscot hunters  cross the lake in stout canoes.  The interstate highway came to Augusta and just like that, restaurants and hotels with air conditioning and swimming pools, LeGrange told him.   Dennis was a deputy sheriff and game warden so of all the old friends he had more business in the state capital than others.

“Should have seen it, Henderson,” LeGrange  said as he helped Henderson gut the first floor of the red brick house where the diner was going to be built. “One weekend the streets were jammed, you know how that went, cars parked on the lawn, half in the road all the way to the school, and like the next weekend, there was none.  Went like that for a year or so, till the folks just gave it up.  Wasn’t the only place, small camps and inns all over the area closed down. Then I heard they stopped getting the fishermen in the spring and the hunters in the fall, and then what’s left?   A shame, it was.  The family that owned it just left, moved away.  Then the squatters almost burned it down.”

Guess that explained the scorch marks on the back of the annex.  Later, after he finished working on the diner, Henderson walked past the  leaning chainlink fence that had been put up after the fire, maybe two years before, and stared at the broken window caused by the local fire brigade when they fought the fire.  No one had closed up the window, so for all that time rain and snow and wind poured through the opening, something, Henderson decided, was not right. He walked back to his red-brick house and found a scrap of plastic sheeting, a few used lathes, a hammer and a pocketful of nails and went back to the Inn, intending to close up the open window, wreck or not, he thought. It’s like the village. It stands because we patch the holes, sew those things that hold us together; stands because the laughs and tears and hurts and joys tie us all in one place. The thought of decay gnawed at Henderson, and the thought of losing the Inn was even more galling. It was the symbol of the village.  There were postcards visitors could send to their relatives in Iowa. The town government used its image on its official letterhead.

His eyes followed the sagging roofline of the annex, then followed the lines back to the main building, finally resting on the long front porch, the center of which had collapsed when the main support beam rotted.  The once-brilliant white of the building – they painted it every year — had long faded, the unpainted boards dark and forbidding as a hole in the woods that probably held snakes and spiders.  The porch planking creaked under his weight and he carefully stepped around a couple holes and pushed open the wide front door. The wreckage was more than the destruction of an old building, and the damage ripped his heart.  This was  where the Mary Smiths and Bobby Williams married and were swept off the wide porch into a waiting Caddy, where  high school seniors held drunken graduation parties were the boys dove naked out of second-story windows into the cold lake and the last girl slowly lost at drunken strip poker and stood shyly in just her panties, clutching her arms across her chest while her last card was turned over  to show that the pair of  deuces she had been bluffing with would not beat the straight held by the last boy in the game. Then her arms would be held by her girlfriends who had already lost and stood draped in sheets, as one of them, to a ragged chorus of “Strip, Strip, Strip!”  slowly  drew down her panties, held her tightly because she wanted to run and be covered, but held her to face the price of losing – to be ogled by the grinning boys, breasts tight, trying to cross her legs so they would not directly see her patch, just as she had  stared at the boys who lost, standing naked with their hand crossed at their waists, rocking from foot to foot; then both wanting to run and wanting to stand defiantly naked, head swirling, caught in the moment of change that might never happened again,  grateful when a sheet arrived and she covered up, hours later at dawn waking in a room with five other girls, sober and asking if anyone had seen her underwear. The place where every year or so the county politicians gathered in the wide lobby in suits with sweaty armpits, ties wrenched to one side, with cigars and glasses of ice and  bourbon, nodding with a knowledge no one else possessed.

Faint light from the dirty windows cast weak shadows as Henderson moved slowly toward the staircase to the annex to fix the window, the massive fireplaces standing like fortress walls at either end of the lobby.   There once has been a dozen game rooms in the lobby space, tiny dark warrens where men with flowered shirts sat with a pile of chips, a stack of  one-dollar bills, ashtrays filled with cigarette butts and always wanted one more Johnnie Red on the rocks. That had been Henderson’s first job at thirteen, serving whiskey to gambling husbands  while their wives sat under green umbrellas  on the redwood veranda as  their daughters – Henderson smiled despite himself – tried to flash the country boys  on the grocery roof.  Later he was assigned to the lower level kitchen with its massive black stoves and a swarm of cooks and waiters. Henderson recalled the chaos of the place, orders being shouted, the head chef bellowing at everyone , especially his fourteen year old apprentice, and more often than at Tender Johnson or Dennis LeGrange, neither of whom seemed to clear tables or wash dishes fast  enough; the clatter of plates and sliver, waitresses calling out Where’s my toast? Who took my steak? Who’s got table six? Before rushing off to the main dining room with a tray.  Henderson smiled in the dark. It was like yesterday. We were all here, caught in the chaos, running in eight directions at once, but thrilled for the chance and caught in the action, all part of a some wildly spinning machine, some noisy hullaballoo; his heart beat faster, his muscles tightened and in echo  he heard one more order for steak and eggs.

And yet, there it stood, deserted inside its wrapping of an old fence.  Even the road sign,  suspended on a bent metal pole  attached to the  spreading oak in the front yard, now dangled from one eyehook, its brilliant blue faded and the white “Mount Jensen Inn,”  once painted in a crisp semicircle, was now a mere stencil. Henderson laughed. Even in the best of times that old sign’s metal fittings creaked and groaned in a stiff breeze, creating a thin, eerie sound that hung in the air, seeming to come from nowhere certain, a sound the natives told startled guests was the voice of the Ghost of Mount Jensen.

The broken window was in the ballroom, for Henderson the most special room at the Inn. Once a month they rolled up the carpets and exposed the hard maple floor whose shining surface gleamed in the darkness of those elaborate dances lighted only by the silver fractured light of a spinning magic ball.  His job on those nights was to keep the floor clean so that the dancers in their hard-soled shoes would glide across the hardwood like ice skaters. At the end of the night he would coat the floor with green sawdust that picked up all the dust and debris; he felt proud when he would look at that floor after his sweeping and see the glint of moonlight reflected on the floor.

Henderson smiled again as he found the broken window and began to nail up the plastic.  On those weekdays when the Inn was quiet and the owners out, there was another use for that green sawdust.  He and Nola would cover the floor with it thickly and with a blanket, run down the straight corridor from the kitchen to the ballroom and dive headfirst on the blanket across the floor and they’d crash in a heap at the opposite wall, giggling and covered with green specks.

Maybe for that reason alone, Henderson thought, maybe for only that memory am I nailing plastic over a broken window in a broken building.  Maybe  I want the moonlight to shine in that floor one more time. Maybe I want there to be elegant couples waltzing in a light dappled haze, for there to be kids splashing in the lake, yelling, Mommy, Mommy, look at me, for there to be beautiful, tanned  New York girls, ankles crossed, eyes closed, languid on green towels, for Nola Jensen to barrel  across the polished floor and slam into me, then to rest a moment, shake the dust from her hair, then look at me and smile; for the road sign again to creak in the wind and evoke the Ghost of Mount Jensen. It was better when we had  ghosts.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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