Updated: Feb 11
If there's a moral to the tale below, it's this: be careful what kind of stories you tell to a great-niece with an overactive imagination... enjoy!
She was an old lady, just past eighty, and handsome in the way that many old ladies are. Short, mostly white hair. Watery blue eyes behind every so slightly out-of-style glasses ever. Crisp buttoned-up shirt, gingham-checked, over elastic waist jeans that were perfectly pressed, crease as sharp as a paring knife. She was seated, barefoot, with her elbows resting lightly on the dining table, her thin toes flexing and relaxing into the rose colored carpet underfoot.
The coffee she served me was inky and so hot that it smoked. The slight pssshhh of the oxygen machine was her metronome, precise and mysterious. I broke apart one of the rusks that were arranged in a crumbly stack on a chipped plate. I ate it dry.
“I found a dead body once,” she said abruptly. I was taking the first sip of my coffee and scalded my tongue. She sat back with amusement as she watched me fuss over my mouth. Old people love to shock the young, and I was still young. Barely, but still. Even though I had gray hair myself. And wore slightly unstylish glasses. But I was wearing them to be ironic – that was the difference.
“I was sixteen. It was my second year at the Hungry Bear Lodge in Marquette. That’s in the UP,” she added, drawing out the yoooo like a true Swede. The UP, Upper Peninsula, Michigan in name only.
“I was a cabin girl for the second year in a row as well. That may sound like something special, but it wasn’t. I was basically a housekeeper, assigned my cabins to straighten and dust. I kept the pillows fluffed and the bathroom sinks free from hair. Not glamourous by any stretch, but that year I had received a promotion of sorts. I was now one of the Northside Cabin Girls. The Northside was considered better than the Eastside or Westside.
“Why?” I asked, my tongue still hanging out to cool.
“Not sure,” she laughed. “Other than the high rollers, they stayed in those cabins most often. Probably because they were so close to the Lake.”
The Lake being Lake Superior, I knew. The Lake featured large in the old lady’s stories, a life source for all her words, a world away from the perfect, uniformed rows of soybeans outside of the picture window behind her. She dipped a rusk into her slightly cooled coffee as she continued.
“There was no Southside, because that’s where the Lodge was. But the Northside, well, it was right next to the Lake, right on it really. Just a thick stand of Northern pine trees separated them from the water.”
Her oxygen machine thrummed hypnotically. She adjusted the nose piece before continuing. “Muskrat was the northernmost cabin and reserved for Mr. and Mrs. Pratt whenever they took it upon themselves to come up from Escanaba. He was a state politician - Senator, I think – although I only vaguely knew that then. But I’m sure he was a Democrat,” she said with pursed lips, followed by a long draught of coffee. I smiled, ducking my head into my own cup, so that she did not see.
“James and Felicia Pratt. Her father owned a chain of furniture stores in the area, which made her powerfully attractive to him, I’m sure. His third wife. Not much to look at but she was a really sharp dresser.”
She popped up abruptly, causing her chair to rock a little. “Shit, the mail!”
The old lady grabbed a few pieces of mail and hurried them to the condo’s front door, flipping the long tail of her oxygen line as she walked. With singular purpose, she attached the outgoing mail with a binder clip to the front of her mailbox. She busied herself silently refilling my coffee cup after she returned, her oxygen hissing softly.
“They were odd,” she continues. “Really just plain weird when you got right down to it. Neither one of them ever looked you straight in the eye. Not that I had much occasion to talk to them directly, but the few times I did stuck with me. She always reminded me of a bee. Her eyes never seemed to land on you, darting here and there. And him, he always stared at your chin, so much so that you had to reach up and check to make sure that you hadn’t left some of your lunch on it.”
She swirled the end of her rusk in her coffee. I dared to take a decent mouthful of mine. Perfectly bitter.
“I do remember their clothing was beautiful though. Always pressed and dressed they both were, and their car was always that year’s model. Impressive people, really. Money always talks, always has, but especially during that time.”
She stopped, lost to her memories, before she picked up again.
“No, I didn’t really know them. But I did not like them. When you clean for someone, you learn both the good and bad things about them. Their nitty-gritties, I call them. Who leaves toothpaste gobs in the sink. Who leaves their underwear on the floor. Who leaves their gin bottle on the floor. I had one cabin under my charge in my first year that Mr. Penwell – he was general manager – asked them politely not to come back. They were a BIG NAME – you’d recognize the family even today, but they could return. The man had too much interest in one of the line boys and got involved in a situation at the end of their stay. All very quiet of course, but even with all their money they were asked to stay away. Because it was a nice place.” She emphasized the word nice as if I’d gotten the wrong impression and she wanted to set me straight.
She coughed then, a rumbly cough laced with ancient nicotine. She still smoked, I knew, but never in front of me. She still had her secrets.
“So the Pratts come,” she continues, the oxygen pumping breathlessly. “It was high season, just after July 4th, when things really started to kick off. The Cabin Girls were charged with meeting their people if at all possible. That means not only that their cabin was clean and fluffed within an inch of its life, but that Mr. Penwell would ring down to our bunks when our charges arrived. Whenever they arrived. I had a family with two sets of twins that came several times a season and they always showed up at two am. Said their kids traveled better that way, yet they were always screaming their big blonde heads off when they arrived, so I’m not sure how that was better.” Here, she shook her head. “Some people just don’t make sense.”
“Anyway, the Pratts’ last visit began just as high season did. I was there to meet them. I was dressed in a fitted white blouse and a striped skirt that floated out from my waist. Not really in style, which worried me at the time, but it was our uniform and so I had to bear with it. Of course, Mrs. Pratt was dressed to the hilt, complete with a silk head scarf and driving gloves. She was slim, like most women were in those days,” she murmured, glancing sideways as I picked up another rusk. I smiled. My German heritage always surfaced at the table.
“She always drove. Not sure why, as Mr. Pratt didn’t seem the type. Maybe it was so he could write his speeches – he was famous all over the state for his beautiful speeches – or maybe so he could nap. I just don’t know.”
She broke off and I thought maybe I had lost her. My coffee had grown cold, but it didn’t phase me. Having four children – but not two sets of twins, thank God – I was used to drinking beverages that ended up opposite of what they began as. Hot became cold, cold became hot, icy became waterlogged, so on and so forth, amen.
“He was dressed in seersucker,” she said abruptly, “as was popular again then. Although he wasn’t really the type for it. Very powerful build, too broad across the chests. A handsome man, truly, all things considered. Lots of beautiful wavy hair. Lovely eyes, very soft and black. Like the Devil’s hat.”
She chuckled, imagining, I suppose, the Devil in a tall hat, a dapper gentleman waiting for someone to pass so he could doff it.
“But he wasn’t attractive. Something about him was very off-putting. It’s a wonder that he was ever elected to be the county dog catcher, let alone to state government, with those eyes that never looked right at you. But he was, several times. Just been re-elected the prior year. People loved him, thought he was real swell – right up until he killed his wife.”
Bombshell dropped, she got up to adjust her oxygen flow on the stationary tank. Her movements were as crisp as her shirt. If I closed my eyes she might have been sixteen again, bustling around, snapping her linens as she let them float down over the bed. Once a Cabin Girl, always a Cabin Girl, I thought wildly.
“No, I did not like them,” she said as she slid gracefully back into her padded chair. “They weren’t likable people. Not on a personal level anyway. I couldn’t have said this at sixteen, but I knew it just the same. They were the type meant for a grand stage, for scripted speeches. Beautiful people, pressed people never meant to be seen up close. Better behind glass.”
“Anyway, I met them in front of the Muskrat during the start of high season that year. They were beautifully dressed. I did not like them, but I was their Cabin Girl.” The old lady recounted the main points of the story so far, like bullet points in a stump speech. She pulled out her oxygen ever so slightly to wipe at her nose with a crumpled tissue.
“Mr. Pratt said, ‘Hello, Jean’ in a friendly enough tone to me, even though that’s my middle name and I did not like him calling me that. She didn’t say anything, of course, but smiled pleasantly enough, her doe eyes darting about like they did. I babbled something about being glad to have them back again – even though I was not, Mr. Penwell had drilled us in the art of what to say without really saying anything – and how, of course, I was there to make sure the cabin was up to their standards. Because I was their Cabin Girl. Even though I didn’t want to be, I didn’t say it. I never said it out loud anyway. “
She sat up straight, folding her hand under her chin. Her voice was strong, not honeyed at all with age. Sharp like the crease in her pants.
“I unlocked the door, pushing a little because it had swelled with the season’s humidity. No air-conditioning then, of course, but the room was cool despite the heat outside. It was actually too cool considering the weather, but I decided later that I only thought that because of what happened after. Making too much of small things, you know,” she said.
“That’s the human condition,” I added.
“Yes. Well, I don’t know much about that, but memory has a way of giving too much importance to random events, I think.” She licked the tip of her index finger and began picking up crumbs off of the tabletop. Not absently, but with purpose.
“I’d freshened up the room well before they came, but it was a cabin, so it was still somewhat dank smelling,” her fingered jabbed as she continued. Like an old pair of leather shoes – not entirely unpleasant but not fresh either. I noticed that Mrs. Pratt’s nose wrinkled up, although she didn’t say anything – she never said anything. I told them if there was anything I could get them at any time they could just ring down to Mr. Penwell and I’d bring it up right away – my standard line. She nodded, her smile never changing, and he said, ‘Thanks for taking care of us Jean,’ and I left the Muskrat as quickly as I could.”
“There was a party that night, a small get-together organized by Mrs. Penwell for Mr. Penwell’s birthday. It was fairly tame by today’s standards. But I did spend almost the entire night talking with Robert. He was kitchen help there, his fourth year.”
“Wasn’t that your first husband’s name? Robert?” I asked with a curious tilt of my head.
“Yah,” she commented shortly. “Anyway, I was quite tired that next morning as I walked up to the Muskrat to bring fresh linens. I knocked first, but it wasn’t terribly early; I thought that maybe they were down getting breakfast at the lodge. Anyway, the flag wasn’t out to tell me that they didn’t want to be disturbed, so I pushed on the door. It stuck again so I pushed harder and it opened a crack. I called out my hello, but I heard nothing so I pushed a third time and that’s when I looked down and saw Mrs. Pratt’s foot. Her beautiful kid leather shoe was still on. I didn’t know what to do so I left the door as it was and ran back to get Mr. Penwell.”
My coffee had gone cold. The oxygen hissed unrepentantly.
“I was only sixteen,” she said in the face of my silence.
A new pot of coffee burbled through its final stages. She got up and poured us both a fresh cup.
“Of course, Mr. Penwell rushed right up there to see for himself,” she finished. “He must’ve seen enough because he rushed right back and called the Marquette Police. They were there faster than they should’ve been which probably had to do with who it was in that cabin. Money and power both talk.”
“At any rate, they both were dead, single shot to the head. I was called to Mr. Penwell’s office and questioned for a while about any strange behavior on their part – Did I notice anything out of the ordinary? Anything that wasn’t quite right? Did they say anything in my presence? – but I could not provide anything of use. Mr. Penwell was with me because I was only sixteen and my parents had been called but weren’t there yet. He sat there, too close really, patting my hand the whole time they questioned me. I remember feeling sorry for him because he’d just celebrated his birthday and then this terrible thing happened. i didn’t want him associating death with his birthday. I didn’t want that for him. He was a good man.”
“I did not have much of anything helpful to remark on during the questioning. I did not tell them that I didn’t like the Senator or his wife. I didn’t think that would be helpful then, but maybe…” She trailed off.
I sat for a few beats in the not-so-silent silence until I was sure she would not say anymore, then I asked, "So why? Why did he do it?” I was nearly breathless with the not knowing.
“Oh, it wasn’t him – it was her. She shot him. Took off the top part of his head. Messed up that perfect hair for always,” she said darkly. “Then, the police supposed, out of remorse or God knows what, she shot herself. Right through the temple. Besides the blood spatter, she looked fine. Preserved.”
“They showed you pictures?” I asked, genuinely horrified.
“Yah, sure. I was the Cabin Girl,” she shrugged. “Wanted to see if I had any clues as to why. If the room showed any sign of something amiss. Well, besides the dead bodies.”
“But they found nothing. Two dead people – a state senator and his wife – and there was Nothing. No affairs. No embezzlement. No political scandal. The two ex-wives would say nothing either. There was just nothing they could drum up anyway. The senator and his wife were just… dead.”
“And so all of her trust money went to her brother, because they had no children. Her parents, because they had loads of money - more money than sense, my own father said – put out a $10,000 reward for information. They didn’t believe that she did it. They thought it was a mob-related hit, Pratt being a politician and all, but I always thought that was silly. He was a state senator from Michigan,” she snorted, as if this was the end of the conversation.
She put her finger to her lips. “I suppose I should stop telling people that I saw a dead body. I actually only saw her foot. And it looked fine. Lively even, like she was stepping out to dance.”
“Wait a second.” I sat up straight, straighter than the old lady in her crisp shirt and pressed jeans. “I thought you said earlier that he killed her.”
“Yah.” She took another long drink of her black coffee, cooled finally to a palatable temperature. She set the cup down, breathing steadily as the pulse of the oxygen gave life to the quiet. She touched my hand, and I understood:
As she turned to go, to leave them there in the Muskrat, just south of the Lake and the stand of northern pines and all of that cold, clear water, his blunt square fingers - the same ones he used to punctuate the speeches his people loved him for - caught the edge of her skirt as it floated around. He tugged gently, only once and then let it slip. It settled back without a trace of disturbance. Nothing more than this, and his wife with the darting eyes did not take notice. But when the Cabin Girl raised her eyes to his face, he was looking her square in the eye, black to blue, and she was breathless when he smiled.
“Yah,” she repeated, releasing my hand before patting it twice. Her hands were twisted, but still so terribly strong. My breathing was shallow, so it did not mask her words as she stood.
“Both of my husbands were named Robert, you know,” she said, flipping her oxygen cord just like the ponytail she used to wear during those summers a lifetime ago, when she worked by a lake that she could never fully swim in, because it was forever too cold and so very, very deep.