No warnings needed for this chapter, not even for Rita sightings.
"Okay! Try the hot water now!"Rick shouted up the stairs from the basement where he'd been working.
He heard the faint hiss of water running in the kitchen sink above. He waited.
"It's working! Oh, that's great!"
Rick nodded and allowed himself a small smile. "Let it run for a minute or so, then you can shut it off," he called out.
"Sure thing. You bet." The female voice above sounded pleased.
Rick gathered up his tools, and the old, worn-out pipe section that had been the cause of this particular repair job.
He climbed the stairs with heavy feet. The heat seemed to rise several degrees with every step Rick took.
Leda Weckenmann met him at the top. "Hot one, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Don't remember the weatherman saying it would be this warm today."
"What report were you looking at? They said it could ninety by what I saw on Channel 7. Need something to drink?"
Rick glanced over at the kitchen sink, still running hot water.
Leda caught the look and laughed. "I meant something cold. I have iced tea in the fridge, maybe even some lemonade."
"Thank, Leda, that'd be very nice."
"It was so nice of you to come out so quickly when I called," the woman said as she pulled out a pitcher from the bulky, white Frigidaire.
"That's all right. I wasn't doing much this afternoon, anyhow."
"I heard dripping in the cellar, and there was water all over the floor."
Rick smiled. "No, you did right – and you got the line shut off quick, before I came, too."
"It's not hard." She handed him a glass.
"No, it's not. But you’d be amazed at how many people turn out to be helpless in a situation like that." He took a long pull.
"Len taught me a few things, I guess."
"How are things going? When does his deployment end?"
The woman looked at the floor. "We're hoping he'll be back by the July Fourth holiday. They've got him based in Okinawa."
"Air Force Reserves, right?" He asked, even though he knew.
She nodded. "Resupply and refueling. It's just so hard right now. Once the kids get out of school for summer vacation, maybe it will be easier. I'm just being run ragged with end of school this, and beginning of summer that. Little League. Soccer. Len usually handled half of that."
"He'll be home before you know it. And you'll have most of the summer with him, won’t you?" Rick tried to be encouraging.
"Yeah. That's right. Maybe you'll be married by then, right?" Leda wore a sly grin. "Heard you had a hot date the other night."
"Who told you that?" Not that Rick needed to ask. This wasn't the first time he'd fielded this inquiry in the past twenty-four hours.
"I've got my sources."
"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there aren't any wedding plans. I'll let you know when I make any." Rick drained his glass. "Thanks a lot for this. Really hit the spot." He picked up his things and made for the open screen door. "You say 'Hi' to Len for me when he calls."
"I will, Rick. Thanks."
Rick walked out to his truck feeling annoyed. He didn't stomp around the vehicle or hurl his equipment into the back, but he was pretty emphatic in putting it away. Damn this small town. Damn the gossip. Damn, damn, damn. Rick slammed the rear door shut and stood there, glaring at it. Gotta get out on the lake. Before supper, not after. Take out the canoe and go fishing. Just get away.
He got in the truck and backed out of the Weckenmann driveway. He could drop the van off at the shop and then head home. There weren't any more calls to be taken care of, and he could put the parts from the Weckenmann job on the bench to be put away later.
But when Rick pulled into the garage bay at the shop, Irene was waiting for him.
"Your dad called." She wore a smug kind of smile.
Rick tried not to show his irritation. "Did he say what he wanted?"
"Wants to talk to you."
"Why didn't he call my cell phone?"
Irene tossed her head, shaking her carefully permed, bright orange curls. "Probably because he wants you to call from a land line." Her tone betrayed her impatience. "I'm done here for the day. I've got an appointment down in Wausau. Use my phone."
Rick made a face. Irene had a speaker phone, a useful feature when talking with Heinrich Senior. One could stand back and not have the blast of sound injure the eardrum.
"Thanks. I will."
Irene hastened out of the garage. She probably knew everything the old man was going to say already, anyway.
Rick just heaved a sigh and got on with cleaning up the remains of the day's jobs: busted pipes, scraps of metal, tools to put away, plus the cash and checks to be put in the safe, along with the copies of the receipts. He wasn't in a hurry, anymore. Now he wanted to delay the inevitable.
But twenty minutes later he sat down at Irene's desk and dialed the five-two-zero area code and number for the condo where Heinrich Senior and his stepmother, Trudy lived.
"Hello? Heinrich Ernst speaking," the old man spoke loud and clear. Very loud. Rick punched the speaker button and sat back.
"Hi, Dad. Irene said you called?"
"It's about time you phoned back, boy. Where've you been?"
"Over at Leda and Len Weckenmann's place, fixing a busted pipe in their basement. I just got back." It was a small lie, but not one the old man could check on.
"Weckenmann, Weckenmann…let's see, is that Sepp Weckenmann's third boy?"
"The second one, Dad. They bought a house over on Doerr Street."
"Okay, okay, I remember now. So what about this big date you went on?"
"It was dinner. A very grateful customer offered, and I couldn't exactly say 'no.'
"The Meadowview? That's more than just a ‘thank you,’ boy."
"She's asked me to do a lot of work for her customers, and I've been keeping up with it."
"This is the McKee woman, right? The real estate lady?"
Rick let out a slow breath. "Yeah, that's right. Rita McKee."
"I hope you offered to pay." The grumpy voice was the same as it had been when Rick was twenty.
"Yes, sir, I did. And she refused."
"Well? Was it a good dinner? What did you talk about?"
"Jesus, Dad, are you pumping me for information?"
"Well, how the hell else am I going to find out?" Frustration flared all the way from Arizona over the line. "It's not like you ever tell me who you're seeing – I have to hear most anything about it from everyone else in Eagle Lake. And it's not like you've actually taken any real interest in a woman for years, as far as I can remember. But it's about time you finally got off your keister and paid attention, I can tell you that."
Rick tried to keep calm. "Well, seeing as you have to know, it was a fine dinner, Dad. And she paid for it. Mostly, she talked business."
"What kind of business?"
"She's got a building project in mind…" Rick stopped himself. He did not want to get the old man wound up over something that might not happen.
"Building project, huh? A couple of spec houses? Wants us to do the plumbing?"
Rick sighed. It hadn't been us for a long, long time. "Seems that way. She thinks it's going to be a sizeable development."
"So there'll be plenty of work in it. Good, good. When can we start?"
"It's too soon for that, Dad. She didn't let on how many houses, or where, or when things will get started. I know she hasn't got any permits or anything, and I haven't heard about any other contractors being lined up. I think Rita just wants us in her back pocket."
"Well, you better get into her back pocket, and damn quick."
"Oh, for Christ sake, Dad, really?"
"Of course, really. You could do a whole lot worse than her, from what I'm hearing. Sounds like this woman is a go-getter. Just the kind of girl you need. If I've said it once, I've said it thousand times, what you need is supervision."
"Dad, she's a business contact. A client. I'm not going to go sleeping around with customers."
Heinrich Senior made an exasperated sound. "Why the hell not? Seems like just this once, you ought to make an exception. You might actually get a marriage out of it."
"Maybe Rita McKee isn't what I want."
"And maybe you haven't realized it's getting too late for you to be choosy.I'm not getting any younger. Where's the grandson who's going to take over the business from you?"
Rick closed his eyes. How many times do we have to go down this road? No. I'm not going to fight with the old man, not again, not right now. I'm too damn hot, and too damn tired.
"Dad, it was just a business dinner. Really. She's not interested in me for romance."
"Jesus in a bucket, boy, that's my point. You've got to make her interested. Do you need me to come up there and show you how it's done?"
Rick shuddered. "No, Dad. I'm capable of handling it."
"What's this woman look like, anyhow?"
"She's medium short, built kind of…I don't know…compact, I guess. Reddish dark hair."
"That's it? That's all you can tell me? Boy, you've got to notice women more."
Rick had nothing to say.
The senior Ernst went on. "She got any family? Where's she from?"
"I don't know, Dad." Rick's voice betrayed his weariness. "She came up here from Madison where she says she made a pile of money. Before that, she was in some little town on the lake. Scilla Bay, I think she said."
"So there's nothing wrong with her, is there?"
"Dad, you make her sound like a piece of used welding equipment."
"I'm coming up for my summer visit next month, anyhow. Maybe I should come early," the old man said, undeterred.
"Don't bother coming on my account. Just stay out of it. Please."
"Well, then, you best get moving on this. No time for your foot-dragging like you usually do. Next time we talk, I want to hear about progress."
Rick sighed audibly over the phone. "You'll hear what there is to hear, Dad." And probably before I hear it, too. He changed the subject. "Getting any golf in?"
"A little, here and there. Trudy plays in some league.She wants me to join, too, but I'm not letting your stepmother talk me into it. Mixed couples and a pile of money spent on drinks at the club afterwards. It's a shame and a waste, if you ask me."
"But she enjoys it?"
"Of course she does. And she's all happy with Anna's news."
"What news is that?"
"Don't you ever talk to your stepsisters, boy?"
"Not very often, Dad. Anna and Sophie never call me, either. So what is this news?"
"Anna and Patrick are moving to Phoenix. He's got a new job, and they'll be a lot closer."
He searched his memory, trying to recall what Patrick's old job was.
His father was still speaking. "…that man has a good head on his shoulders. It's going to be a good move."
"Well, good for them."
"And us. We'll see a lot more of them. Trudy's already planning to help them paint and decorate."
"Great." Rick's hopes that this distraction would keep old Heinrich from recalling the earlier part of the conversation were dashed.
"Now if I know you, boy, you still have cleanup left to do in the shop. I want you to take my advice: just leave it, this once. Go home, take a shower, and call up this McKee woman. Take her out someplace. Hell, maybe go for a walk on College Hill. That's romantic enough – a walk in the woods."
The old man was nearly cackling.
"The shop's already clean," Rick replied, stung. "I'm going home now. Good night, Dad."
"'Take care of things, boy. And don't forget my advice. Get her into the woods!"
The words rang in Rick's ears as he drove back to his house by the lake at the east end of town. Why couldn't he just tell his father the truth? He wasn't going to bed Rita McKee or any other woman. He was gay. He couldn't see the old man taking that news very well. He'd probably be disowned, and fired from the family business, too. The elder Ernst would probably sell the business before letting a useless queer son inherit.
Hell, what would his father say if Rick told him he’d checked his dating app – his gay dating app – over lunch? The old man would have choked to see the glowing message on X-Pants.com:
Need a guy to bend over for me. hmu.
Rick had actually thought about it for more than a few seconds. He checked out ‘SexyHunk’ and his profile: “Busy and successful man looking for fun and pleasure. Have pics to share.” A couple of shadowy face pictures showed a mature silhouette. He’d ignored the crude suggestion on the app message, along with the vivid photo of the man’s genitals.
What would be the point of telling Heinrich Senior the truth? It wasn't as if Rick had anyone to tell his father about, not even Mr. SexyHunk. The piano teacher was pure fantasy. True, the enigmatic man haunted his dreams and thoughts, but Rick knew better than to get any kind of hopes up in that direction. That kind of thinking was just plain crazy.
Rick pulled his truck into the driveway. The house wasn't much to look at, but he liked it. Solid and comfortable, he'd painted it himself, a light blue with white trim.Pines and spruces lined the west side of his lot; a dense hedge of forsythia hemmed in the east. The north side, the far side, faced the lake through a row of old pines. He knew his canoe was pulled up on the shore.
The real question was whether or not to grab a beer first, or paddle out onto the lake right away.He chose beer.
Rick entered through the garage, which let him into the kitchen. He hesitated. It would probably be good to go upstairs and change, but maybe something cold would be better. He moved toward the fridge.
And the moment he did, the landline phone rang. The ringer was meant to be loud, and it was. On sunny Sundays, when Rick sat out on the lawn right by the lake, he could hear that phone loud and clear.
Someone needed him.
"Hello, Rick Ernst speaking," he spoke rapidly into the handset.
"Rick? It's Caroline Lee."The voice of his neighbor across the street sounded in his ear.
"What can I do for you, Mrs. Lee?"
"It's my chickens. They've gotten loose again."
Rick cursed under his breath.Nope. No lake for you. Those damn birds get loose every month. It's a wonder she has any at all. But he said into the phone: "I'll be over in a sec, Mrs. Lee."
Rick sighed, long and deep. He had to go. The widow's children were all gone and grown, and she was alone. She had her dog and her flock of chickens for company. Though everyone in town knew and respected her, Caroline Lee was more than a little isolated. She was one of the few Asian faces in Eagle Lake, and a daughter of immigrants.
Rick knew what would happen next. If he was lucky, the chickens would be recent escapees from their enclosure behind the Lee house. In that event, the birds would likely still be gathered in a body somewhere on the grass behind her home. He and Mrs. Lee would be able to shepherd them back into the chicken run with a minimum of fuss in a half hour or so. But if the chickens had been out from behind their wire fence for a couple of hours before the nearsighted old woman noticed, then they'd be searching the nearby streets for signs of the missing poultry.
At least he had years of experience. He knew to arrive equipped with a couple of wide landing nets, and an old bedsheet. Unfortunately for Rick and his plans, there weren't any chickens in the Lee yard when he arrived.
"I'm so sorry, Rick, I don't know how they got out." The old woman was very apologetic. "I think I didn't latch the cage right."
She frequently said this.
"That's all right, Mrs. Lee, we'll find them."
She took a net from Rick and carried a long stick with a hook on the end of it, too. Her dog, an old Labrador named Vincent, panted gamely next to her. They were old hands at this game.
And for the next two hours, Rick, the old lady and her dog combed the neighbor's yards and for the missing fowl.Vincent was very good at directing the chickens they found toward one of the humans who had a net. Once a target was sufficiently close, the bird could be netted or even gently grabbed.
They caught the rooster early on, Rick popping his net over his quarry as it pecked under a lilac bush.
"Thank you so much, Rick. You're such a saint," the widow told him as he carried his prize back to the chicken run.
"Nothing saintly about me, Mrs. Lee." Rick grinned. "I don't do this for just anyone."
But he would surely do it for her. Caroline Lee was someone who had been kind to him for years, since his mother died. She'd never offered empty words to him as a grieving, silent teenager, only hugs and treat of some kind pressed into his hand whenever she saw him. And Caroline Lee had helped him buy his house – she'd called him the moment she knew it would be on the market.
"Besides," he called out over his shoulder, "we can't have all these stray chickens laying around. It's messy." It was an old joke between them.
Later they nabbed three hens as they sampled bird seed in the back yard of another house while the homeowner looked on with a tight smile. But for the rest, there was a lot of stalking and scraping and searching done.
Their work actually became easier as time wore on, because the hens began to roost as the light failed. These could be approached carefully, and taken by hand, without the nets.
"We have eleven – there should be twelve," Caroline Lee said, shaking her head, as they deposited their latest captive in her enclosure.
"You’re sure?" Rick was tired and hungry.
"Yes. We're still missing Isolde."
"That's her name. The chicken. The markings around her neck are very distinctive."
"But it's getting dark and late. I think I'll have to wait until morning to look for her again."
"You don't mind going on your own? I have to work tomorrow."
"Rick, I'm not such an old woman that I can't look for my own chickens by myself. But I wouldn't mind borrowing your net."
"Okay, okay. If you want to, that's fine." He gestured toward the net she still held. "You keep that until you're done with it." Rick shrugged in the gathering gloom.
" 'Night, Mrs. Lee," he said, and turned to cross her yard and the street.
It was almost dark out. For an instant, he recalled Heinrich Senior’s instruction to call Rita that very evening. His stomach growled. "Screw it," he said aloud to himself.
At home, Rick slapped together a big sandwich in a hurry – meat, cheese, mayo, bread, nothing fancy – then grabbed a bottle of beer out of the fridge. He stalked out the far door to the kitchen which opened onto the deck, and then down to the grass.
Just once today, I'm going to do something that I want to do. He was going out on the lake.
I am very grateful to @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday for reading and helping to improve this story. If you have a comment or reflection, I'd be very glad to see it. I value anything you might have to say.