Fran tracked the binoculars past the bare limbs of a maple grove to a small cedar building with a puffing chimney. That morning she'd seen the boy run the snowmobile in joyous circles around the large property, Ted waving him on. When she had looked again, shortly before lunchtime, the two of them, both swathed in towels, entered the sauna, closing the door behind them.
The Marches hadn't learned about their neighbour until after they had moved in, but nothing could have kept them from buying the attractive lakefront house north of Sudbury. Retired teachers, they had dreamed of leaving Toronto to watch the sun set over the largest water they could afford. Undeveloped except for a ribbon of summer camps and a few permanent homes, Lake Wapiti was their personal paradise.
Shortly after their August arrival, a minivan pulled up, and a chubby blonde woman climbed out, casting interested glances around the yard. "Welcome, folks. I'm Lydia Merriman. Five lots down," she said, presenting a foil-wrapped package. "It's a cheese grits casserole. Bet you've never had one."
Accepting their hospitality as they sat on the huge deck, Lydia the snowbird sipped a gin and tonic and started to recite the local lineage, trolling the shoreline like an underpowered houseboat, finally pointing to a property across the small bay. "And Ted Timlin. Have you heard about him?" The couple looked at her expectantly. "He's a blight on the road, even if his family used to own everything down this end."
"What's his problem?" Fran asked. She thought they'd escaped the big city landscape with its delights and horrors.
"Goes back donkeys’ years, when kids were always at Ted's camp. Nieces and nephews from Ottawa, our youngsters, too. Everyone's favourite babysitter. Took them for a swim at the dunes. BBQ's on weekends. Fridge full of pop. Had a snowmobile and motorcycle for the young lads." She stressed the last word. "Can't see much at his place with all those trees, but there were rumours. Innocent skinny-dipping at one point, perhaps. Then about fifteen years ago, the paper said that he had been charged with molesting."
"Was he sent to jail?" Larry asked, glancing at his wife. Fran knew he was remembering the disabled girl he had counselled, the one who had claimed that he had kissed her in his office. Afterward, he kept his door wide open and welcomed the first early retirement package.
"Fine, probation. Slap on the wrist those days. I don't even know which kid. Can't print that."
Fran refreshed their drinks. "How do people treat him now?"
"Keeps to himself. Still does some backhoe work for those not particular."
"Such a long time ago. Any doubt to his guilt?" Larry asked, draining his glass faster than usual.
"If it was Robbie, his nephew, I might think twice. Hardly reach the pedals, he was driving Ted's truck. His parents parked the boy there one whole summer. Later he went a bit wild. Suspended from school. Shoplifting at the Marina." Lydia fanned herself in the warm breeze. "Drugs, too. No-good like that might have made up any kind of lie for fun."
With fall set in and the cottagers gone, the Marches often passed Ted's white Buick, their acknowledgements progressing from a simple nod to a more friendly salute. One day while they took their constitutional, he crunched to a stop. Cherry blend pipe tobacco flowed out in a fragrant cloud. "You must be the Marches. Fran and Larry, is it? Heard you bought the Christakos place," he said. "Any trouble with the septic system?"
"Lift chamber froze with the frost, but we took off the check valve, and it's been fine," Larry said, shaking his hand.
"Ted Timlin's my name. Anything you need, I got it. Plumbin', wirin', carpentry, the whole shebang. I like to keep busy."
A defective water pump gasket sent Larry over the next weekend. "What a workshop," he told Fran. "Every tool and part in the world. 'Instruments of precision,' he called them." Then he handed her a Ziploc bag with dried brown shreds and a paper. "Moosemeat jerky. Recipe's inside."
"We will have to ask him over now," Fran said, nibbling the treat with approval. "But don't mention anything questionable."
That Saturday, Ted presented a bottle of Glenlivet, drank sparingly, praised her Chicken Paprika, chatted like a maiden aunt, and left before eight, promising to return with his tractor to root out a cumbersome cedar stump. An obsolete courtliness seemed second nature to him. Swearwords never passed his lips. But no tire tracks other than his own led to that end of the road all winter.
When May 1st brought the Marches over with misdelivered mail, they found him parked in a lawn chair on his neatly trimmed Kentucky bluegrass, training giant field glasses over the lake, then next door to where small children wearing sweaters built sandcastles on the beach.
As Fran and Larry paddled by from fishing for bass at the inlet, he'd hail them, run with icy beers to the dock, and tie their canoe line. His supper invitations meant thick barbecued filets and expensive Bordeaux. "Don't usually buy Frenchy stuff," he said, "but I know city people appreciate it." Another specialty was burritos, which he had learned to cook from a television show. He served them browned carefully, plates tented with napkins and condiments marshalled: salsa, black olives, sour cream and grated cheddar.
In his fabled workshop, hundreds of tiny plastic drawers lined the walls along with scavenged first aid cabinets. A router with carbide bits, electric planers and sanders, even a lathe stood ready. A wet-dry vacuum sucked every morsel of sawdust or metal shaving. Nearby sat a riding mower, bush motorcycle, and snowmobile. Outside was a backhoe he used to putter on his driveway, rearranging the drainage or smoothing the gravel, the cold steel teeth of the bucket stroking and raking, perfection always a single movement away.
In his kitchen one afternoon, Fran watched Ted spray Windex on the microwave, knife-edge around the tap edges to ferret out every crumb, wring the dishcloth twice and wipe the sink dry. "I've been on the lake for nearly fifty years. Dad bought ten acres for peanuts in 1957. Oldest son, I got the end piece, best piece."
"So your...brothers have camps here?" Fran asked, trying to sound casual at the first mention of his family.
"Ticker trouble got Mel. Wife sold out. Ben rents his place to some fancy friends from Ottawa, lawyers, doctors. Ask me, they were jealous that I got the prime. The kids never wanted nothin' to do with Uncle Ted once they got growed up and snobby."
Serving her coffee in the living room, he picked up a guitar and strummed a few cords in perfect harmony. "Used to love those hootenannies. Singin' and roastin' marshmallows." He began reminiscing in a soft voice about snowmobiling to Peterson's Lodge with "the young lad." Twenty below it was, but they had a snug cabin. A tremor moved his large white hands, and he rubbed his shoulder.
A winch accident to his arm had led to a generous settlement from his job at Weimer Castings. "Can't raise her up at all. Mornings it's not bad, but gets sore later. Some little girl down at the St. Joe physio wrenches it out of the socket, and they call it therapy." As if that weren't bad enough, he had high blood pressure, though the lingering smells of frying bacon and potatoes infused his camp. Fran wondered if he ever opened his windows, even in summer. Heavy curtains were drawn after dark.
Ted enjoyed visiting old women at the Extendicare Nursing Home. "Can't take 'em out," he would say, "or they expect it every time." Clarabelle, his favourite, was eighty-four and had lived next door to his parents in Copper Cliff. "I told them she had a stroke. But they didn't find out until the second Catscan. The first she was lyin' down, and it didn't show on the brain." Since he was always taking his "dears" rheumatism remedies, copper bracelets and other nostrums, he offered Fran a pair of mysterious gloves with two metal pieces. "Heard you talkin' about arthuritis. Try wearin' these babies to bed." The brown cotton knit had pockets for the magnets.
"Mumbo jumbo. It's the gesture, I guess," she said later to Larry.
After the scotch had been flowing freely one night, and the trio sat on the lush lawn blessing the helicoptering dragonflies for devouring the mosquitoes, Ted offered his common sense about social problems. "Kids got to be kids. No rules at this fellow's camp except to have fun. Get dirty, then jump in the lake. Drive the motorcycle if you're careful. No wonder there is all this delinquency today. Nag, nag, nag."
Fran and Larry exchanged glances, but Ted was warming to his topic. "They" were making more and more laws, keeping people from happiness. Fran had sipped enough malted fuel to press further. "What about sex crimes?"
"There is no crime in sex." The busy hands stopped fluttering, falling to rest on the sharp creases in his pants.
"Even rape?" She ignored Larry's red face and eyebrow gestures.
"Maybe that." Ted coughed in dismissal. "But the worst punishment..." He looked over the miles of whitecaps to the giant dunes. "The worst punishment is bein' locked up away from friends and family."
On Sunday when they stopped to return a chainsaw, Ted's car was leaving the drive. "Church," he explained, a friendly place over in the valley, some form of Pentecostal. He wore an immaculate blue three-piece suit with a paisley pocket puff, his thick silvery hair brushed with care. "I'm readin' from Psalms 70. Always ask me to read. Guess I have the voice." He patted a well-thumbed Bible on the seat. "Dad's. He was a healer. One day I'm going to take a course like my cousin. She cured her sister of one of them fireball tumours."
Fran found the verse that night as Larry dozed in front of the television. Psalms 70. Prayer against the wicked. Deliverance from enemies: "Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward, and put to confusion, that desire my hurt." She closed the book and flexed her swollen knuckles.
Soon after, with his heart "acting up," Ted asked Larry to drive him to the pharmacy for angina medication. For extra peace of mind, he connected the Marches to a crackling old CB in case he needed help in an emergency. "Durned if I'll pay big bucks to run in a phone line, and those cell things don't work out here," he said.
On the first July scorcher, Ted passed Fran at the garbage box; he was sitting behind a young boy driving his bush bike, one huge arm snug around him, the other waving in cheerful abandon. She let the lid drop and wheeled back to the house.
Breathless with indignation, she stormed into the living room, telling Larry what she had seen. "Angina, nothing. The old fool is at it again!"
"Someone's probably down at the camp waiting for them." He scribbled at his crossword. "Say, what's a five-letter word for 'inquisitive'?"
"This is wrong, Larry. If you have a history of..." She heard him gasp. "He shouldn't be near young people period. It has to be that church."
"A church! Now you're really off base."
"Did he stroll down the aisle with a scarlet letter on his forehead? Churches don't run security checks like the Boy Scouts. It's the ideal place for a molester." She paused, and her voice grew quiet and deliberate. "The valley's twenty miles away. They don't know who the hell he is."
The Marches heard about Ted's new family when he arrived to level the gravel Larry had ordered and came in for a coffee. The old man was beaming, suddenly proprietary. "Met Stevie and his mother at Sunday service. Bethany is practically a kid herself. Dunno the whole story, except they don't have a pot to piddle in. I took 'em across to the North River. Should have seen the young lad's eyes when I gunned the 70 Merc. 'Turbo' he called it." Ted laughed as he stretched his bad arm over his shoulder to get the sweetener from the counter.
A few weeks later Stevie drove a shiny red 100 cc Honda, Ted leading the way on the bush bike. The next day, the boy peeked over the steering wheel of the huge Dodge four-wheel drive plow truck, barely missing the ditch as he swerved to avoid Fran, who was taking a walk.
That night she couldn't relax. "All those dangerous turns and hills. And when they stopped on the way back, I made conversation about his age. 'Bet you'll be getting your license soon.' And then the old goat chuckled and patted the boy's bare knee. 'Three more years,' he said. I could have reached in and slapped the bastard. The kid looked so vulnerable. And his coat was too small for him."
Larry ran a nervous hand through his thinning hair. "Jesus, don't keep going on. What solid evidence have we ever seen?"
"Of course you're not going to see anything. Ocular proof is a concept out of Othello, not real life. Isn't he such a perfect man? And he plans to take Stevie camping at Lake Chinaguchi. 'Toughen him up,' he says."
"You can't call the authorities about mere suspicions." Larry furrowed his brow. "I wonder what the mother thinks."
"I saw the merry trio yesterday going to the fish fry at the Marina. She looks barely thirty. Works at the Beef and Bird in town. Glad to swap her son for a free afternoon. Meet Mr. Clean. Well-off, mannered, and interested in her cute little boy. Very interested." She pummelled the sofa pillow.
"Think of it another way. Maybe they're getting plenty out of the old man." He yawned, folding a page corner on a tattered Agatha Christie mystery.
"If that isn't a cynical view. You're the one getting plenty. He's so handy, isn't he? Stevie is only thirteen, damn you." Slamming the door, she paced around the deck, staring down the shore to Ted's property. A late August chill was raising clouds of steam from the water. Camping would be cold, even with a tent and warm sleeping bags. At the image which came unbidden to her mind, she choked back a sob.
They saw the pair a month later as they took the garbage up to the box. Luckily Ted, not the boy, drove the Dodge. She had planned to make a remark. The old man addressed himself to Larry. "Gettin' on to winter. Guess Stevie and I'll have to put the bikes up." The boy was unsmiling, fiddling with the radio as a baseball game faded in and out. An expensive down parka had replaced his shabby coat.
Larry grinned so broadly that Fran's stomach tightened. "I'd like to use your grinder to sharpen the maul. Good dry oak, but some chunks need more splitting."
"Bring her up to the truck. Be jim-dandy tomorrow. Oak, eh? Thought you was a poor pensioner like me," Ted said. "Maybe Stevie can give you a hand with the piling. Make a real bushman out of him. Hey, did I tell you we're buyin' another snowmachine? I promised Stevie we'd see some country. Maybe follow the trails as far as Michigan. Right, Stevie?" The boy nodded vaguely and wiped at his nose. His eyes met Fran's briefly, then closed for a moment. How many times did the old man have to say the name? Like the cadences of a prayer.
Ted leaned over the seats to retrieve an Arctic Cat folder. You two ought to be thinkin' about gettin' one yourselves. See what you think of the 600cc. Real comfortable. One-up seat. Reverse. No bullwork. Al's you need is ...." He wriggled his right thumb on an invisible throttle.
While Larry ran like a puppy to fetch the tool, Fran stood awkwardly by the truck. Although she couldn't see into the high cab, the mirror had tipped when Ted reached back, and in its reflection she watched the man's strong hand snake toward the boy's. Stevie's face flushed, and his lip quivered. Ted's icy blue gaze was untroubled as he searched her face. "Any plans for Christmas, my dear?"
On New Year's Eve, a bright winter sky had gradually darkened and begun dropping snow as slow, undulating waves urged the slushy lake toward its freeze. Fran hoped that Larry had reached Barrie safely, risking four hours on Highway 69. He would insist on spending the weekend with his brother, fresh with some ideas for an e-business. She was tired of arguing about Ted. When she called the weather around three o'clock, the phone went dead seconds into the recording. Forty centimetres of snow was predicted. Going out on the deck to make sure the shovel was handy, she used the field glasses to search through the skeletons of trees toward Ted's place. The sauna stove had long gone out. They were back in the house. The boy would have to stay until Monday when the town plow would appear. "Forgive me, Stevie. I can't help," she said, turning her back in defeat as she capped the binoculars.
With a stew simmering in the slow-cooker, Fran settled down in the living room to enjoy her solitude. She snapped off the CB radio, whining in its annoying fashion. A tot of single malt scotch cheered her as she thumbed back issues of Ellery Queen. Absorbed, she barely heard the keening wind etch its way around the windows and suck air up the chimney.
As the darkness pooled, an insistent knock at the door broke into her sanctuary. Stevie stood in front of a new Arctic Cat. He wore no helmet but was muffled up in the parka, the wolf fur frosted with his breath. His long lashes glistened with wet snow. "He's dead," he said.
"What happened, Stevie?" She pulled him inside and shut the door against the cold blast.
"He's in the sauna."
"A heart attack?"
"He...he was..." The boy swallowed and locked eyes with her, his face chafed and icy. "There's no breath or pulse. I learned that in the Scouts."
Fran hung up his clothes and gave him hot tea laced with sugar and lemon. She placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. How small and thin he seemed. "The phone's gone out in the wind. There's nothing we can do until morning. Is your mother at the camp, too?" She suspected the answer but asked from discretion.
"She went on a bus trip to Casino Rama." He noticed the television and asked if he might watch the Animal Planet channel. When she looked over later, he had fallen asleep.
Then she remembered that he and Ted had entered the sauna before noon. Questions about what had happened in the long interval would never be raised; she'd see to that. Strong, though prudent words would be reserved for the mother, too, and Stevie would have Fran's phone number in case another rich uncle entered his life. She stirred the stew, set an extra place, refreshed the scotch and put on a recording of Elgar's Starlight Express Suite. The tenor sang, "Oh, children, open your hearts to me." She sank sweetly into the sofa cushions as the snow poured down like honey.