by Nancy J. Hedin
Mary Caine is pushing sixty and pulling her hair out because the one thing she counts on—the Midsummer Carnival—may not even happen this year.
Mary openly adores the Midsummer Carnival and secretly hopes each year that her mom, who abandoned her as a child, will return with the carnival company. And Mary passionately loves Sadie Barnes, her first love, who left town thirty years ago. Mary wants a second chance and feels like she might get it when Sadie comes back to town to take a school administrator position.
Suddenly, everything goes to pieces. Not only are the rights to the carnival barbeque sauce recipe in question, but two dead bodies are found by the lake and somehow Sadie is implicated in both.
With the help of her pilfering, talking crow named Win and her faithful hound named Bob Barker, Mary is determined to win back Sadie’s love, exonerate her from the murder, solve the suspicious deaths, preserve the carnival, and for extra credit, help Sarah—the pregnant teen Mary has employed at her grocery store.
Old Love proves that a second chance at love can come at any age—even in a small town.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"This book was inspired by the Midsummer Carnival in my hometown of Swanville Minnesota. The service organizations and volunteers at this event have kept Swanville alive and thriving compared to many towns its size. It is a small tribute to a big group of caring citizens."
—Nancy J. Hedin
The Lesbian Review
The character development is superb, and I loved the warm community feel that grew as the story progressed. A really good mystery, with a second-chance romance.
Mary Caine and the General Store
The temperature outside was murderouslyhot. Mary Caine placed a bag of frozen peas on the back of her neck. She hadconsidered using the frozen tater tots but that seemed just silly. As she watchedout her store window, she complained to Mr. Bob Barker VI, “It’s only late Juneand it’s Africa hot and Southeast Asia humid.”
She liked maps and global comparisonseven if she’d never been outside of Minnesota and rarely away from her hometownof Whistler other than the four years she went to college in a city only twohours away. “The air is so thick this morning I have to chew it before I takeit into my lungs. Do you know what I mean?”
Bob Barker VI didn’t answer. Thesmelly, brown and white Springer Spaniel groaned and repositioned himself onthe cool linoleum floor. Every dog Mary owned had been named for the star of ThePrice Is Right because Bob Barker was her father’s favorite game show host.The name was first homage, then a joke, and then a sad convenience when herfather started losing his memory.
“And another thing, ‘Hot enough foryou?’ I’d about liked to strangle the next imbecile who says that to me. I’d doit too if I wouldn’t be arrested and didn’t have this store to run.”
Binoculars hanging from her neck, Marypeered out the large sheet-glass windows of the grocery store her family hadowned for three generations and she’d run alone since her dad died five yearsbefore.
“Dad would have made eighty-two lastmonth if he hadn’t died. Death keeps you young.”
Mary prided herself on her death math.She could tell you how old her lost loved ones would have been if they hadn’tbeen lost to her. “Mom, if she’s alive somewhere, would be seventy-two thismonth.”
She habitually threatened to close orsell the store and move away from Whistler. These were empty threats. Mary andall her neighbors knew she could never leave. It was a voluntary choice,although sometimes she behaved as if she were not a person but an inanimateobject like a fence post pounded into the ground by an unseen force. She was apost in the ground without will or volition.
Still, some days, she wished to beanywhere else. She was tired of waiting and she wanted quiet. While in searchof the sounds of silence Mary had retained her personal computer, but she’dhoisted her TV out the upstairs window into the store’s Dumpster below. Shepaid the trash hauler a couple sirloin steaks that were about to go off todispose of the shattered TV properly, but Mary felt a great sense of relief.She didn’t want to hear any voices blathering on unless they needed to buysomething from her general store or if they had something to say about theMidsummer Carnival. Then, she’d listen. Then it was important.
The truth was Mary Caine was restlessbecause she had heard Sadie Barnes had moved back to Whistler. “Sadie. Say itloud and there’s music playing; say it soft and it’s almost like praying.” Marystole the old Leonard Bernstein lyrics to announce her own westside story. Sheand Sadie had been lovers a lifetime ago when Sadie and Mary were fresh out ofcollege. Sadie had moved to Whistler to teach English.
Now Sadie had returned to take a job asthe new high school superintendent. That gossip both excited and scared thehell out of Mary. There was plenty of hell left in Mary, but she had felt aquart low since the news and didn’t know if her heart could take seeing Sadieagain.
That wasn’t exactly it. Her heart wouldsing to see Sadie again, but it would stop, frozen in her chest, if Sadie leftagain.
The store was empty. The morningrush—ten to twelve customers needing something before their morning workcommute to bigger towns with industry—had petered out. Mary had counted themoney in the till and reviewed her bank statement three times. Like her fathershe penny pinched, stretched the dollar and every other metaphor for stinginessdisguised as frugality. Her closed-fisted attitude with money was not acharacter defect she hadn’t yet detected in herself. She’d found it, others hadpointed it out, and she’d noted the family resemblance for quite a while. Sheshared the trait with her father as surely as she had his brown eyes andstraight teeth. Skimping was still a hard habit to break or “rabbit to bake” asher father had said when he was three sheets to the wind drunk.
Her breakfast of oatmeal and cinnamontoast was eaten. She felt hungry again but restrained herself from eating intoprofits. She’d read from her morning affirmation book and prayed to her HigherPower to not drink and be of service to her fellows. Mary wrote a quote for theday on the store blackboard, “In a world where you can be anything, bekind”—author unknown.
It was almost ten o’clock. Mary wascounting the days until the Midsummer Carnival. “A week from this Friday, myfriends. Then we’ll have Lions Club barbequed chicken, Women’s Civic Club pies,and Legion Auxiliary hamburgers. It’s a feast I tell you, and that’s besidesall the food trucks that accompany the Midway outfit. It’s a new company thisyear named something like, Transformation Amusements. That’s curious, don’t youthink?”
Mary eyed the yellow cat that rested inthe store’s front window next to the sale display of bug dope, sunscreen, andcup coolers. “Vanna White, just thinking makes me sweat! How can you standwearing that fur coat?” Vanna White licked her undercarriage and completelyignored Mary, as was Vanna White’s style and the habit of every cat Mary andher father employed. “I’d take off all my clothes if I wouldn’t be subjected toridicule and possibly an arrest.”
Nothing. Vanna White lifted a back legout. The gesture gave Mary cramping up her own leg into her butt. The catlicked her upper thighs. Mary couldn’t watch any more. Vanna White’s only job,beyond the extermination of mice, was to look pretty and she did so without thebenefit of sequins, heels, or the faintest concept of word puzzles.
“I believe I’ll eat a bag of minidonuts every day and two bags on any day I don’t eat cheese curds.” She putboth hands on her belly.
“Gospel truth,” Win squawked from hisperch in an oversized cage that hung from a chain bolted to the ceiling in thefront of the store. As opposed to Vanna White, Mary’s pet crow shined to wordgames.
Mary smiled with pride as she rewardedthe winged mimic with a peanut in a shell. “See if you remember this one?” Shebegan reading crossword puzzle clues to Edwin, “Win” for short, a crow she’draised since he first fell from a nest in one of the red pine trees thatskirted the parking lot of Mary’s store.
Today, truth be told, Mary wasperturbed at Win. He’d stayed out all night the night before. She had told himtime and time again, “Be back by store closing time or I’m locking the door.”She had patrolled the skies with her binoculars for him for a full two hourspast closing, and he hadn’t returned. The next morning, she found him loiteringon the front steps of the store like nothing had happened. He was disheveled.Detritus he’d likely found or stolen hung from his beak like icicles. Win was acarousing thief, but she played with him anyway.
“Four down, six letters, life cut shortby foul play.”
Win pursed his beak, looked off in thedistance through the bars of his open cage like he was worrying at the problem.If he planned to answer, he didn’t. The store door swung open wildly, the bellsabove the door clanging that there was a customer. Mary was so glad for thebreeze that she didn’t scold the patron for letting the air conditioning out.
“They found two bodies.” Perspirationwas beaded on the boy’s acne-peppered face. “Dead. Do you think that will messup the Carnival?”
Bob Barker’s eyes perked up. The houndyawned. Win squawked, “Murder.”
“What bodies? And why would that messup the Carnival?” Mary gave another peanut to Win and then concentrated herattention on the boy.
The boy’s head swiveled to look at theshiny, black bird, but he continued his tale. “There’s two dead bodies down bythe dock. My phone died.” He waved a small, flat, black thing at Mary. “Can Iuse your phone to call home?”
The boy was short of breath. Marysupposed it was to be expected. He’d probably run to the store from the lakeand he spoke of two deaths in one sentence. He approached Mary’s counter andpointed at one of the last landlines in the world, a harvest gold wall phonewith an extra-long cord so that Mary could take inventory, order stock from anyaisle of the store, and of course look out the window in case someoneinteresting walked by.
“Go ahead.” Mary nodded toward thephone. She despised cell phones even before the stories about risks for braincancer. She refused to squander her money on one and she detested the notionthat if she had one, she would be expected to answer it and always beavailable. It seemed like elevating her importance to that of a deity and Maryknew she was no god.
Bob Barker barked.
She talked with her crow but understoodher dog as well. She turned to Bob Barker and scowled. “Slow your roll, pup. Wearen’t going fishing at the dock.” To the store, the universe, and God Marysaid, “Nobody better mess up the Carnival.”
The dog put his head down and coveredhis eyes with his paws. Mary turned to the crow. “You got four down. How abouta 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film with a famous shower scene?”
The high school boy was dressed in lastyear’s Carnival T-shirt. Hemust have worked on setup the year prior. The Whistler Lions Club bought theshirts to give to volunteers. Mary had one in every color and in every designsince the Carnival’s inception when she was a child; her favorite one wasyellow with a white vinyl drawing of a Ferris wheel over her left breast.
Just the thought of the Carnival madeMary’s heart race and teeth itch in excitement and anticipation. She couldalmost smell the chicken, slathered with the best barbeque sauce in the world,grilling in the chicken shack. The food at the Carnival was Mary’s onlyfinancial extravagance. She never touched her inheritance from her grandma.That was to sustain her in her old age, and her savings—all her recent profitfrom the store—was intended for a roof garden that would provide organicproduce to the store at a reduced cost.
Suddenly, she was thirsty for beer. Notjust any beer, but beer tapped from a keg that had been chilled by ice cut fromLake Pepin last January. Her breath came fast, and she had to wipe the cornersof her mouth just thinking about the amber refreshment. She convulsed like BobBarker expelling water from his coat. She put that thought of beer out of hermind. She was forever a drunk, but she didn’t drink anymore. She sighed, lostin her memories, and warded off the self-pity of revisiting her drunkenregrets.
“Ma, this is Jimmy.”
Mary startled, remembering that the boywas in the store and had a connection to the outside world and a tale to tell.She recognized him. Well, not really. She was familiar with his productioncompany. He was a Royce. She couldn’t have identified which one. The Royceswere like Chevys—a new model every year. The models didn’t differ much fromyear to year and she assumed they were all pretty much the same under the hood—fairlyreliable. Were they one of the families that felt compelled to use the samefirst letter for every child’s name? She didn’t know. She hoped not.
Mary listened in on the boy’s conversation.It wasn’t like it was eavesdropping—it was her store, her phone.
“Yes, Mom. I signed up for every workcrew they had, but please don’t come get me just yet.” He looked over at Maryand crossed his fingers. “County sheriff’s in town. They found two dead bodiesdown at the dock—one in the water and the other up on shore.”
If Jimmy used his definite articlescorrectly Mary reasoned that the bodies had been found at the community dockand boat landing. It wasn’t “Hutchin’s dock” or “Howard’s dock” on Little Swanbut “the dock.” That likely meant that the body was found by the public landingon Lake Pepin, a few blocks from the store. Interesting.
From the sighs, eye rolling, and whinytone that came next, she got the impression that Jimmy’s mom had said her boycould not remain in town longer even at the promise of glimpsing dead bodies.
Win shook his feathered head side toside in derision. “Psycho.”
Jimmy again looked suspiciously at thewinged, black squawk box.
“Some people would argue it is one of hisbest films,” Mary said to Win, more from wanting to show off his trick than anyconviction about the movie.
“Bullshit!” The bird’s voice was arusty hinge.
“Does that bird really know the answersto that puzzle?” the boy asked.
“He’s showing off for you. We bothwere. We solved this puzzle together last week.” Mary pointed at the boy. “Youwant to see the dead bodies, don’t you?”
The boy nodded.
“I get it. You haven’t seen many deadbodies and few without fur, feathers, or scales. Those of us older”— she didn’ttell him that she was creeping up on the front side of sixty— “we’ve alreadyseen too much death.”
A quarter of Mary’s high schoolclassmates had passed. Her birth mother was as good as dead. Mary’d barely evermet her and had no conscious memories of her that weren’t seeded and likelyembellished by her father. Some stories were verified by photographs in an oldalbum upstairs.
“My father passed five years ago. Astroke. He would have been eighty-two last month.” Mary didn’t know how thosewho had served their country in the military, police, or fire ever slept withthe parade of dead bodies they had in their heads. The absent ones in her ownlife haunted her daily.
“I don’t care to see another dead body,unless it’s my own and I can hover above and see who gets stuck making thegoulash and box cake mixes for my funeral. Actually, that’s not true. I don’twant the excessive expense of a funeral lunch. If there’s anyone who wants tosend me off, they can eat at home before they come. I want to be cremated anddumped out the window of a fast-moving car driving around Little Swan Lake.”
“Okay.” Jimmy’s forehead knitted up.“Thanks,” he said, head down, shoulders slumped as he lumbered toward the door.
“Jimmy, what do these dead bodies haveto do with canceling the Carnival?”
“I don’t exactly know, but the sheriff saidmaybe it was a serial killer.”
“Are you kidding me? A serial killer inWhistler, Minnesota? Sheriff Spelt is an ignoramus, no offense to otherignoramuses or his parents who had anticipated a far superior dunce.”
“I don’t know. The sheriff was really angrybecause he said killers should have the common decency to kill just one personat a time.”
“Right. The first thing you think aboutwhen it comes to murder is common decency.” Mary chuckled slightly at thesheriff’s sloth, but she felt heartsick thinking of any of her neighbors beingdead and felt worse to think that any of them were murdered. “Did you seeanything?”
“No! I mean, sorta.”
“One dead guy was on the lakeshore. Ididn’t get to see anything but his feet. He had big feet.”
“You know what they say about bigfeet?”
“He wore black dress shoes. The sheriffhad him covered with a tarp. The other body was in the water—bobbing there likea floatie at swimming lessons. The sheriff poked at it with a long pole. Isuppose he was trying to get it to float closer to the dock. Then the sheriffyelled at the girl deputy to wade out and haul the body out of the water. Itdidn’t look like a person in the water, but it did once it was pulled toshore.” The boy’s eyes widened. “It was someone local. That’s what people aresaying.”
“What color clothes?”
“Blue. Jeans and a shirt.”
“Man or woman?”
“Man.” The boy looked more closely atMary, who wore blue jeans and an oversized, blue men’s work shirt. “Or a woman.I guess, but I can’t say for certain.”
“There must have been some talk aboutwho it was?” Mary knew folks in Whistler could identify their own at fiftypaces by clothes alone unless the corpse was wearing a Whistler Wildcat jersey.Then it could be just about anybody and a closer vantage point would berequired for proper identification.
“I heard somebody say it looked likethe ‘Latiskee mistake,’ Ms. Caine.” Jimmy cocked his head like a goldenretriever. “What’s a Latiskee mistake?”
Mary could think of several correctanswers to Jimmy’s question. She wracked her brain for something positive or atleast neutral to say, like she was devising answers for a multiple-choice test.
She could say that Latiskee was thename of a family who lived north of town. The small spread’s roadside appealflashed immediately into Mary’s brain. Their farm was neat and tidy. Themachinery—mostly John Deere—was parked in a straight line between the barn anda row of Norway spruce trees. Another row of closely planted balsam fir treescreated a natural windbreak on the other side of the property. The fields wereplowed, planted, and harvested promptly. Their gardens’ black soil enrichedwith chicken manure nourished vegetables, berry bushes, and fruit trees.
Mary had heard that Old Man Latiskee,the patriarch of the family, shot at people who drove or stepped on hisproperty uninvited. Even the school bus driver had parked a hundred yards fromthe end of Latiskee’s long, paved driveway for fear that Latiskee would shoothim during the morning pickup or afternoon drop-off. The story was legend, butnot necessarily true.
The reference to a mistakeprobably meant it was the last boy, Lloyd, known to most as Buddy, whograduated a few years ago. It was a cruel way of making mention of an unplannedpregnancy. Mary suspected there were plenty of mistakes living their lives justfine. She often felt she must be one. Otherwise, why would her mother haveleft?
The other Latiskee children were grownand gone to out-of-state colleges when Lloyd was born. He lived in town. Maryhad seen him, of course, but she couldn’t tell Jimmy a useful thing about himother than possibly a fairly accurate reconstructed memory of his grocery list.
Like her neighbors, Mary had never beeninvited to the Latiskee place. She’d driven by eight or ten years ago whenthere was a rumor Martin Latiskee had invested in a few solar panels, and shehad meandered that direction a year ago when she heard he installed a wind turbine.His forward thinking on energy added to Martin Latiskee’s aura of mystery anddanger. She wanted to drive up to the house and ask him if the technology wasreally worth the investment and how much was he saving, but she valued the wayher head sat on her shoulders too much to set foot out there uninvited.
Sure, they’d shopped at her grocerystore some, the General Store being the only grocery store in Whistler, butthey rarely stopped in and only to barter for things they didn’t already grow,raise, or cobble together themselves. It was rumored Martin Latiskee was an inventorof some profit and renown.
Mary remembered having taken freshlybutchered chickens from Mrs. Latiskee’s knotted, arthritic hands. The chickenswere antibiotic-free and grass-fed and probably in better health than Loisherself or Mary for that matter.
Lois Latiskee was older than herhusband, Martin. Her mouth, a slit underlining her red, chapped nose, nevergave a hint if the bargain she’d struck with Mary pleased her. She just gatheredup the toiletries, fabric, or nails she’d traded for and stuffed them in aburlap sack, nodded, and clomped out the door in leather work boots too big forher feet and never intended for her gender.
Mary had wished she could offer thewoman an afternoon of an undisturbed bubble bath and nap—not that the womanwasn’t clean. She was neat and clean, her red hair brushed to a sheen. Ofcourse Mary didn’t say anything about a bubble bath to her.
Mary looked at Jimmy as he waitedpatiently for her definition of a Latiskee. She sighed, “Latiskee is the nameof a family of people who are part of our town.”
“Oh.” Jimmy left.
She supposed her reply temporarilyanswered the boy’s question, but Mary’s mind was buzzing with unsettledinquiries. Was it really the youngest Latiskee in the water? Why? How? Who wasthe other dead person? Why the hell hadn’t Sadie Barnes been in Mary’s storeyet?
Mary flashed a prayer into the etherfor the hearts that would be broken by these losses. She removed the binocularsfrom around her neck and placed them behind the counter. The store air felt evenmore suffocating than before Jimmy’s arrival and unexpected tale. Technically,the store was air-conditioned. The machine poked out from the wall like alouvered wart. It made a racket like it was doing something. A coolish breezeemanated from it if Mary stood really close, but she suspected that themajority of cool air just rose up and tickled the tin ceiling tiles. Sheimagined dollar signs floating above her.
She swayed back and forth on her feet.She sat down. Her leg bounced and she began biting her nails. Even though shedidn’t want to see a dead body, curiosity and the futility of ever feeling coolgot the best of her. She grabbed her store keys. She returned the bag of lessthan frozen peas to the freezer, nestling them in among the other bags of peas,frozen corn, and bags of vegetable medley.
“Come on, Bob.” Bob popped up off thefloor and stood by Mary.
Win paced on his perch and then said,“Hey, hey, hey.”
“What?” Mary stood with hands on herhips and stared at the crow. “You want to come along too? You didn’t get enoughfresh air when you were gone all night last night? Come on, then.” She wasn’tas perturbed with the bird as she pretended to be. She envied the wingedpirate. She wondered what it felt like to fly.
The big, black bird flew out of hiscage; the door to the cage was rarely closed. He landed on the metal rack withthe serving-size bags of potato chips, corn chips, and beer nuts, overpricedand ready for impulsive shoppers and overeaters. He waited on the display asMary approached the front door.
“How about you, Vanna White? You wantto see a dead body?” No answer. Mary flipped the plastic sign to read “Closed,”turned out the lights, opened the door for Win and Bob Barker, followed themout, and locked the door. She scolded herself for the lost dollars in sales. Onthe bright side, her early closing might spark some speculation. That was worthsomething. She smiled to herself.
Win soared away into the cloudlessmorning sky, his wings extended and his feathers splayed like black gloves. Heprobably knew exactly where he was going. His receptive language was impressiveeven if his expressive language wasn’t much more than what Mary had bribed himto mimic. Mary watched him briefly rise in the air, clear the tops of thebuildings across Main Street and disappear in the direction of Lake Pepin. Asshe walked along the sidewalk she looked down at her clothes—blue jeans andblue chambray work shirt, sleeves rolled to above her dry, achy elbows.
“Hell, Bob, if I played my cards rightand stayed out of sight, maybe somebody’d start the rumor the body floating inthe water was mine, but what on earth was I doing with someone in dress shoesat Lake Pepin? Nope, that ruse wouldn’t hold.”