As Emmy’s historian and confidante, the minister’s visit to her house a few days later seemed especially important. Although Marty, the Lutheran minister, didn’t end up testifying—citing pastor confidentiality—he and I later talked about his conversation with Emmy. She always enjoyed chatting with Marty, who we grew up with, and never did figure out why she was lucky that he refused to testify about her competency. Emmy never did quite understand the question. That’s probably why she couldn’t answer it to everyone’s satisfaction.
After Emmy had finished her morning exercises—and pulled on clothes--she noticed the fisherman out far on the lake, beyond where the eagle’s nest was. Sitting in an elderly, webbed lawn chair she ate a muffin as the eagle flew lazy circles around the boat, apparently hoping for an easy breakfast.
“Hey, Emmy--got enough for two?”
As the fisherman drew near enough to yell, she recognized Martin LaPlant. “You’re in the loaves and fishes business--let’s see how many muffins you can make from my leftovers. If you caught anything, we can gather the town for a picnic.”
“Nothing’s biting,” he yelled back. Laughing as he docked, Martin said, “It’s always refreshing to talk with you, Em. My collar doesn’t impress you, and you don’t watch every word for fear you’ll scandalize me.”
“I don’t see the collar. I see the boy who teased me when my mom cut my bangs crooked in second grade.”
“I wasn’t the only one.”
“All you fifth grade boys used to pick on me.”
“And any little girl in our path.”
Emmy nodded grudgingly. “Probably. I only know that I was your target. Figure it’s my job now to keep you humble. Too many people see the collar and forget the man.”
Marty sat on another wobbly lawn chair. “Rory sells lawn furniture now, you know. Even delivers. You’re a poor advertisement for the family business. Didn’t your folks get these chairs that first summer Rory played in little league?”
“I think so. And they still work. And when they finally don’t hold my rump any more, I’ll probably put a kitchen chair out here. I’m against conspicuous consumption--you know that.”
“Those people in the big cities who are selling their Porshes to learn to live simple lives should spend a week with you. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, Thoreau said. You really learned that unit well in Junior English.”
“Miss Henry would be proud.”
Marty laughed. “Miss Henry? Who had more shoes than Imelda Marcos? Who thought that shopping in the outlet mall strip over by OshGosh was a sacrament? She made us read Thoreau, but she never understood him.”
The silver in Marty’s hair shone in the morning sun, reminding Emmy that the ten year old who teased her was long gone. Another winter and the rich cocoa brown hairs would be outnumbered. He was one of those men who aged well, Emmy and I agreed. He looked more distinguished and wiser as the years went by, even while wearing an old flannel and work pants, a typical get up for serious fishermen. His waist might be thicker than it was when he spent his summers swimming off the bridge with the other high school kids, but he seemed filled out, not fat. Since a majority of the jobs in the area involved physical labor, it was usual to find men who were fairly muscular and vigorous well into their eighties. Marty, in his late forties, was still in his prime, with only the gray in his hair and slightly weather-beaten face belying his age.
“You’re up early to fish. Thought you usually fished in the evening, at Arrowhead.” Arrowhead was a few miles away, connected by a stream to Loon. Marty’s cousin’s lived there, so he could use the family’s dock. Public access to many of the lakes in the area was very limited; quite a few of them had no public boat launch readily available, although legally, all most of the 28 lakes in the county had public docks. That was the trade-off for getting some federal money years ago. However, the boat launches were well hidden and not kept up, so in practical terms, Arrowhead had no public access. Loon Lake didn’t either, although for the price of a beer, Delores and Frenchy let almost anyone use their ramp and dock.
“I have to go to a conference in Milwaukee for two days. Leave at ten this morning. I thought I needed a bit of solitude before going to the city, so Loon’s better. No little cousins wanting to catch croppies with me.”
“You love it.”
Marty surveyed the scene. Light danced and shimmered from the sun that was quickly coming up to his right. From the corner of his eye, almost like a shadow, sat the house Emmy grew up in, two stories with a large porch facing the lake and wrapping around to the driveway. When we were young, this house was a showcase among the resident’s houses, although it wasn’t in the same league as the houses owned by the doctors, lawyers, and wealthy businessmen who owned a lion’s share of the lakefront property.
The patio where he and Emmy sat was overgrown, with EARLY SPRING FLOWERS cracking the cement. The edges of the patio, once ringed with marigolds and geraniums, now were littered during the summer with Queen Anne’s Lace and weeds. In fact, the edge towards the lake had disappeared in a crumble of rocks. The large brick fireplace, reminding Marty of the one Lucy and Ethel tried to build in a favorite “I Love Lucy,” had inspired many nearby families in the early sixties to buy bricks from Arden’s and begin cooking out in style. Marty still knew how to mix mortar from the workshop Arden’s held to encourage do-it-yourselfers to try this simple, do-it-in an afternoon project. Gideon would be furious if he saw the missing bricks and rusty grill.
“Looks like your patio needs some work. Does Jason know how to do cement?”
“Probably, but I’m not worrying about it.”
“No reason to worry. It’s easy enough to take care of.” Marty knew he was overstepping the bounds of small talk, but he’d heard the rumors about Emmy quitting her job as well as some other disturbing quirk. He needed to check up on her--as a concerned friend, not as her pastor.
“If I wanted it done, I know how to mix cement. I grew up in a hardware store, remember?” Emmy took a deep breath, deciding whether Marty was worth explaining to. “It’s a balance, nature and people. Nature wants this patch of ground more than I do. It’s fighting for it, sending strong plants and winds and water to beat the concrete. Nature loses enough places; I’m choosing to let it win here.”
Marty looked around, and noted that the walkway to the house was overgrown, too. As he looked closer, he realized that the only sidewalk that looked as if it had been used lately was the one going into the camping trailer. He’d heard through the grapevine that Emmy was getting odder, but no details. For the first time, he wondered if the gossipmongers knew something he didn’t know. “How does it happen that the sidewalk to the house is overgrown, but the path to the trailer looks used?”
“I go into the trailer often.” Emmy kept focused on the water and the loons swimming by, almost refusing to look Marty in the eyes. Her body language changed dramatically, Marty noticed. Emmy was one of those people who listened with her whole body, a born listener. It disconcerted people who preferred the glibness of small talk. Communication with Emmy was always intense and genuine--only it wasn’t right now. Marty’s professional training told he needed to find out what Emmy didn’t want to tell him.
“Oh? Fixing it up to sell? Or for the nephews?” Marty knew to wait for an answer. Emmy had always been comfortable with silence, so she didn’t rush, knowing that most people would talk to cover her silence, her awkward moment.
The mental battle she had before she answered was over. “I’ll tell you the truth, Marty. But I don’t think you’ll understand. Stop me when you’ve heard enough. First, I’m not hysterical or imagining things. I’m as rational as you.”
“Of course. You’ve always been thoughtful and serious.”
After taking a deep breath, she faced Marty squarely, looking as intensely earnest as Joan of Arc. “I’ve lived in the trailer since February. I will not ever step foot in the house again.” Marty started to reply, but she raised a hand to stop him as she continued. “I know my parents are dead. I understand that. But their arguing is getting louder and louder--I couldn’t sleep. So I moved out.”
Why do I believe her, Marty wondered. All his training in seminary seemed wasted. She was earnest and sane, yet she moved out of a nice house because the ghosts were arguing too loudly. “What are they arguing about?”
“It varies. This is weird, you know.” No kidding, Marty thought, instinctively raising an eyebrow. “Seriously. Mother and Father never ever argued in front of us. They have to know I’m in the house. I can’t figure out why they’re arguing in front of me now.”
“Wait-they never argued in front of you?”
“Never. Ask Rory or Amy.”
“But everyone thought your dad was difficult to get along with. How did he get that reputation if...”
“We’d leave the house, or they’d wait till we were at school. If fact, when they were arguing, Father would come home for lunch just to continue the argument. But we only saw traces on it--like the wind. By the time we knew anything about it, Mother and Father were united, usually spouting Father’s original opinion or decision.”
“I never knew that.”
“That’s why their arguing is so weird. They were keeping me up--driving me crazy. Moving out was the only reasonable response.”
“Do you have heat in the trailer?” Wisconsin winters get cold, and that old camping trailer didn’t seem built for winter.
“Propane. It gets pretty cozy, actually.”
“Running water? Plumbing?”
“I figured out how to take care of those.”
A fish jumped by the dock, reminding Marty that he was supposed to be fishing before he left for his trip.
“Amy--beats me. Rory knows I’m not in the house, but started yelling when I tried to tell him why, so I’m not sure how much he understood.”
“Can anyone else hear the arguing?”
“Rory was there when they were arguing, but he didn’t mention it. Katey didn’t hear it last time she spent the night, but she was nervous and jumpy all night.”
“I’m not sure what to say. I want to believe you, but...”
“It’s Ok. Just don’t disbelieve me. I’m fine out here.”
“And you’re staying in the trailer until...?”
“Probably forever. Unless Mother and Father settle their differences in my lifetime. Don’t worry, Marty, I’m fine.”
“Still, you need to take care of the house and the property. It’s less valuable if it’s not taken care of.” That argument concerned most people. Hitting them in the checkbook usually pulled their true values front and center. And it distracted him from more disconcerting matters.
“That only matters if I’m interested in selling. I’m not. Ever. This is my spot, and Mother Nature and I work together pretty well here. I offer thanks for the fish the lake gives me, and the land blesses me with a few tomato plants and some lettuce. I let The Mother claim everything I don’t need for survival. Besides, Marty, you know that every lakefront foot I own is worth more than any square foot in Milwaukee or Chicago. It’s embarrassing how much this lake is appraised at by people who think that way. A bit of crumbling concrete can be fixed for less than six inches of my property would sell for. I may be flaky, but that’s a choice. I understand how the real world works, Reverend. I just choose to disregard it.” Although she said the words calmly, there was passion driving them.The sunlight that glinted off the water danced in her light eyes, almost making her glow. Marty knew ministers who would literally sell their souls to sound so passionately calm and wise, to look so inspired. Emmy was born in the wrong time, Marty realized. As an Indian wise woman or a Druid priestess she would be the stuff of legends. He took another muffin from her basket as he considered his next comment.
“It’s surprising you come over by the church at all, if I understand your philosophy right.” He chewed, giving her time to respond. Some people don’t answer direct questions but honor metaphor and implication. Emmy was, and people learned more by not asking than asking-- something Rory, Anne and Amy never understood. Their parents were often quiet, but it was the quiet before or following the storm; in their house, Rory and Amy learned to cover silence with a veneer of banter and small talk to ward away the storm; Emmy became as comfortable with silence as a Quaker, and retreated during the metaphorical storms.
“I enjoy singing. Where else do adults get to sing together? It keeps a community in tune to sing praises together.”
“So you believe in God.”
“Fervently. All of them, in fact.”
“Any spirit with enough gumption to seek deity deserves it, don’t you think? After all, the church promoted an ambitious carpenter to God. I’m just more actively equal opportunity.”
This discussion could go for hours and Marty realized he still wouldn’t have answered the question that caused him to borrow Frenchy’s boat to fish on Loon Lake in the early hours. “I’m just glad you come sometimes, whatever the reason. And some cold winter night, we can quote philosophy to each other until one of us converts the other. It’s too beautiful outside today for dogma.”
They watched the loon family swim out towards the island. The row of babies must be learning how to fish today, Emmy commented. She told that the loons passed most mornings while she was eating her breakfast.
“This is a beautiful spot for breakfast. You’re one of the lucky ones, you know.” Emmy nodded. “So much lakefront doesn’t belong to regular residents--it’s surprising your family didn’t do like some of them: sell for an outrageous price, then move to Baywood. Your parents must have been nature lovers after all.”
“No, they just hated change. If Rory had been set on college, they might have sold, I think. But from the time he was little, he was proclaimed the hardware king. I honestly don’t have a clue how Rory himself feels about selling hardware--and I doubt he knows, either. He never had a choice. Did you know that his first toys were those big plastic tools? He never knew other choices existed, I think. Anne’s had to work hard to make sure Jason knows that he doesn’t have to be the hardware king next.”
The minister looked thoughtful, “What about Amy’s boys? Either of them interested? Didn’t one of them work for Rory one summer?”
“Tommy. It was penance for wrecking Tom’s car. He stayed long enough to earn the money for repairs. And he hated it. Maybe Terrance--he’s still pretty young. I don’t know what he likes, so maybe he’s the one. Or Tom.”
“Amy’s husband?” Marty was surprised. He’d believed that Tom really liked the middle management job at the paper mill in Green Bay.
“When Dad first started getting sick, Tom wanted for all of them to move back. Amy could help out at home, Tom could buy into the store. Dad always insisted that husbands could, but not daughters.” To Gideon, dividing up Arden’s Hardware was simple. Rory was male, and Rory had worked there since childhood. The hardware store, therefore, was his. Amy and Emmy each got twenty percent of the annual profits, but Rory had been reinvesting the profits in the business for years. Gideon’s will gave the girls no say in the running of the business, but allowed their husbands to buy partnerships with Rory if they wanted
“I heard.” In fact, Reed Maltby, Gideon’s lawyer, was a member of Marty’s church. He talked confidentially with Marty when Emmy’s father drafted his will, feeling very uncomfortable about the girls getting shorted. He knew that Amy and Emmy wouldn’t see their share of the profits as long as Rory controlled the budget. Gideon didn’t care if that was how Rory handled it, well aware that Rory was likely to raise his salary and use any profits for improvements if no one forced him to give it to the girls. Maltby, the only lawyer in the area at that time, had to handle the will but disliked Gideon’s manipulativeness. If Emmy or Amy ever decided to contest the will, he had told Marty, he would represent them.
“There was quite a to do about Tom’s suggestion. Turns out he’d rather live where his folks are—they’re getting on in years, too, you know.” Marty knew them well, and knew that they would love having Tom nearby. “Amy apparently threatened divorce. The threat worked.”
Marty knew that Emmy rarely talked to Amy. “How’d you hear all this?”
“Anne. Amy told her. Rory didn’t really want anyone to buy in, so Amy made sure he knew. Guess he helped by talking to Tom and griping about how badly the store was doing. And the summer Tommy worked there, he let things slip. I listen, so I find out more than most people do.”
“We should build a confessional here, then.” The loons were circling the eye now, the baby loons dipping their heads in the water. One of the babies must not like water in its eyes. It kept shaking its head from side to side when it came up, Marty noted.
“Look, the baby caught a fish. Just can’t figure out what to do with it.” Emmy’s eyes were sharper than Marty’s.
Laughing gently at the baby bird, Marty said, “They’re like humans, I guess. We fuss and torment ourselves over things we think we want, then don’t know what to do when we succeed. There’s a sermon in there somewhere.” With a start, Marty realized he’d been there much longer than he intended, and still hadn’t raised the issue he’d come about. “Speaking of what people really want, are you sure about quitting your job?”
Emmy looked at him, so intently that Marty thought she could read his mind. “Doing Rory’s dirty work, Reverend?” She asked so quietly that it seemed the wind carried her words just short of Marty’s ears.
Slightly flustered, Marty took a deep breath before answering. “No. I haven’t seen Rory since Christmas. Ironically, you’re the most regular church attender in the family.” The answer must have satisfied Emmy, as she relaxed slightly in her seat. “I hear things, and I’m concerned. Especially about friends. That’s all.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I can tell you a couple things I know that seem to have escaped the gossipers. You’ve resigned your job, which has most people sure you’re crazy. You’re like Playtex--no visible means of support. Especially since it’s no secret that you don’t have a share of the hardware store.” Emmy nodded as Marty continued. “However, I just bought a computer. Big thing--can do everything except the dishes. I have no clue why I need it, but I have learned something interesting.”
Emmy’s eyes sparkled, anticipating Marty’s next sentence. “Seems that Nicolet has a presence in cyberspace, Surprised me. Surprised me even more when I learned that the premier web designer--whatever that means--north of Milwaukee lives around here.”
Emmy smiled. “Lots of people dabble in it. I’m not sure Premier Designer is the right title.”
“I have my sources. How long have you been freelancing?”
“About a year, although most of my early pages were pro bono. Good experience.”
“According to my source, you’re still doing a lot of pro bono.”
“It’s good for the soul, Rev.”
“Can you make a living at it? Seriously?”
“I don’t need much. I’ll be fine.” Emmy spoke confidently.
“I’m puzzled by something. Do you have a computer?”
“I don’t even have electricity in the trailer. I decided I didn’t need it. I use the computer at the library.”
“Which explains why you’re helping Miriam. I see.” The loons were resting on the overgrown island, and the sun was well over the horizon. About 9 o’clock, Marty judged. Time to get going. “I found your personal page. It’s interesting. Eclectic. Do Rory or Amy know?”
“Nope. They’ve never asked politely or seemed sincerely interested. They seem to enjoy worrying. Why spoil their fun?”
Why indeed, Marty wondered as he returned the boat to Delores and Frenchy. He’d talked with Emmy much longer than he intended, and learned more than he was sure he wanted to know.
A single woman, alone with her ghosts, no electricity, no real job--what bothered Marty most was that it didn’t bother him. Emmy would be fine. She understood what she was doing. Marty had decided not to mention the rumor he heard about Rory talking with a real estate developer from Chicago. Emmy sounded certain that she was not considering selling, and it probably was not appropriate for the minister to spread gossip.