It is the crickets that steal her attention as she stops for a delicious drink of water at the roadside spring. Their insistent chirping, variations of a redundant theme. If it wasn’t dusk and she wasn’t getting groggy from travelling, she would’ve sped past the village. But here at the wayside she decides to look for a (most likely) dank, homely room for the night, and she will get a fresh start for home come dawn.
But Vanessa just sits in her car before turning the engine over, letting the crickets captivate her. It is one of those sounds that has beckoned and calmed her since childhood, like fireflies with their blinking soft lights, darting here and there like tiny dancers. She can’t say why–she grew up in various desert towns. Ended up in Las Vegas, to which she is returning.
The air’s rich undertow of pine and musty leaves stings her nose as she climbs back in the roadster. She starts the car, drives at a casual pace down the main dirt road, its obscure wooden sign stating: Fox Lake Corners. She unwittingly seeks out a fox’s flicking tail or triangular face along the road, then laughs at her own naivete. They are far too clever to be noted. She admires that although she is the opposite, in fact, as a showgirl, always in a center of attention, but not so much to distract from the flashier, far better paid stars. But there is an element of hiding in plain sight, just like the fox. Just another showgirl blinding the audience with sequins and feathers and long legs moving in sync, yet never really seen.
The village appears as so many others in this Midwest lake country. Tattered and slumping, blending into nature’s palette. Comprised of a gas station, general market, auto body shop, groupings of cabins and cottages among forested wooded acreage. A lake is tucked somewhere behind these; she’s been skirting such waters for days. Whether large or small, it dominates all else. That’s how it is around there: fishing, hunting, fishing, boating for fun and sweat-drenched work outdoors. The late spring light is tree-filtered and dappled, and warms her as she enters the more populated part. The village is more perky than she expected. Her shoulders relax when she spots an old–1940s?– motel; she catches a glimpse of deep blue behind it. She admits this is why she took vacation in lake country: the potential for peace. Which has mostly eluded her.
She pushes wide the low car door, climbs out and sees a man opening the motel office door to greet her.
“Ma’m. Can I help?” he says with a gap toothed smile, lifting a greasy baseball cap a half inch and resettling it. He admires the dusty green MG openly but only nods at it, and then her.
“A room for a night–you surely have one that looks directly onto the water.”
He shakes his head; thin lips stretch wide. “Lucky day. All do, comes free with the rent. Step on in.”
He opens the squeaky hinged screen door and she enters first.
Behind the desk sits a woman of indiscriminate age although she may be his wife, certainly business partner. She raises eyes to squint at Vanessa a moment too long, then smiles briefly, a hand unwittingly touching her short grey hair. Vanessa understands. Her own hair is pulled into a high pony tail but it is blindingly penny red. And there is the rest, the body that has carried her so far in the entertainment world even now, although she is well covered for this northern country. She is tall, taller than the string bean proprietor who offers her a seat. She stays on her feet. She doesn’t care to chat.
“What room, then, and how much?”
She pays $95.00 which is highway robbery but so it goes, then takes the key.
When she unlocks the room, suitcase in hand, she is surprised. It smells welcoming, like faded wood smoke–there is a small wood stove in the corner–and a soft scent of lavender, not her favorite but still, nice. Too much calico or vintage floral–whatever it is– for curtains and bedspread. Four pine walls. But it is clean and through opened curtains is the lake.
Fox Lake. She is still, breath held lightly. A wide curving expanse opens up before her. Bluish twilight encroaches upon the last of sunset rays limning the waves, and the shushing of water plays against a rocky shore. The screen window lets in a full score of soothing nature sounds. She has been at an elegant resort for a week on Lake Michigan. But it was not this tidy lakefront, not this welcoming view. She unpacks her suitcase and goes in search of food.
Which is right down the road at a small bar and grill, Lettie’s Landing.
All heads turn when Vanessa saunters in. She’s used to this, the pause and stares and ignores them, perches at the counter to order a ginger ale and a burger with fries.
“Visiting Fox Lake, I guess?” The sloping shouldered bartender pushes the plate and bottle across the counter. His eyes are deep brown; when he smiles at her, skin around his eyes crinkle above high cheekbones. “Like half the group here.” He slaps at the counter a couple times with the damp towel, makes a cursory swipe of crumbs.
“Just for a night, on my way back home.”
“Not around here, then.”
She takes a bite, shakes her had, ponytail swishing back and forth. Let him wonder over it. People can be nosy in the north country, unnervingly direct. She appreciates it but is too tired to have a such a conversation. One might say she is even feeling depressed– if they knew her well. She raises her eyebrows at him in flirty friendliness, well practiced.
“Too tan for here. Enjoy,” he says and slips away to the next customer.
The meat is well seasoned and juicy, the fat fries crisp, the place another surprise. She didn’t know simple food like this could taste so delicious. It has to be the tourist trade that brings out the best in these backwoods business people. And the bartender is at ease, might be nice to chat with if she had time.
“I’m Lettie, welcome to my place.”
The older woman’s voluminous blond hair is piled atop her large head and around her neck dangles a cord with a medium sized wooden fox attached to it. Its eyes are amber, the wood rich. She leans into Vanessa’s space but not too much, not enough that Vanessa asks for a to-go box, to shove off and go to bed.
“Vanessa. Here one night only,” she says and takes a swallow of her of soda. “Good food here.”
“Glad you enjoy it.” She stands up, stretches arms above her head, twists side to side. “Got a bad back, keep limbered up.”
“I have an aching back from driving so much. Nice to stop and breathe. To enjoy the views you have. So pretty.”
Lettie stares at her, blinks, looks at the counter, fixes on her face again. It is annoying. The woman’s eyes are round, deep blue, a bit red-rimmed. “You from around here–like, maybe in the past?”
“Oh, no, I’m a desert dweller from way back. I would not survive here in the woods.”
“You look a tad familiar, is all.”
“You probably say that to all the passersby,” Vanessa laughs and raises her bottle, swigs the last of it. “We must blend together since we come and go all season long.”
Why is she taking to this woman? She wants to finish up, walk by the lake, fall into bed.
“Nope.” Lettie shakes her head and portions of curls slip over barrettes that anchor them as she continues to appraise her. “I have a really good memory for faces.”
Vanessa shivers suddenly, frowns, slips off the stool. Not the kind of chitchat that ever interests her. Plus, time for bed.
“Goodnight, Lettie, thanks for the hospitality and vittles.”
“Enjoy your stay, Vanessa. Come for breakfast, doors open at seven.”
The night is silken, deep. Nothing hurts her length and breadth, despite the bed seeming at first too firm, despite her hips becoming arthritic too young from years of hard dancing. Wind is her whispering companion as she is loosened from sleep, stares over the black-blue expanse of water, the slanting rain darting across a roiled surface and spattering through the screen. But there are stars as clouds dash by. And they seem brighter than necessary as she feels their ancient light as a cool caress. She sits on her narrow bed, falls back, gathers the bedspread’s garden of flowers over her body, to her face, and sleeps on.
A night owl listens, calls out, and the fish turn over and the crickets are mute in the swell of darkness.
“It got to you, right? The lake air and the quiet. Gotta love this life.” Bartender Ralph winks at her as he wipes down things, grabs her plate from the kitchen, offers steaming scrambled eggs with dill and grated colby, topped with four redolent sausages.
“You been here forever, too? Seems nobody leaves the north country.” Vanessa stuffed a whole sausage in her mouth, no apologies. It was ten o’clock and she was starving.
“Naw, moved here many years ago–before that I worked in insurance, Detroit. Hated it. Love it here. Met a gal here one summer, got married, learned how to make drinks, stayed on.”
“A synopsis like that sounds good. Happy endings for you.”
“Well, we all get bruises, some slow healing wounds. I had cancer last year but am pretty good now.”
Vanessa looked at her eggs. “Sorry.” She knows about that illness; her mother knew much more of it.
“No need. Got it taken care of. So, you’re a genuine desert person?”
“Lettie already brief you?”
“Of course. She says you remind her of someone.”
“Would not be the first or last time. Must be my rather ordinary face or how much a chameleon I can be.”
“Hardly.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “Lettie never forgets a face. Some mad memory she has.”
“I have surely never been here.”
“Oh, well–enjoy your breakfast,” he says, moves down to the end of the counter to serve another.
She doesn’t see Lettie as she finishes up. A couple she saw the night before is hunched in the corner, slurping mugs of coffee and each reading pages of a newspaper of sorts. A woman with a shiatsu dog at her feet sits with chin on one hand, a cinnamon bun in the other, which she nibbles. An attractive young man has his feet propped on a side chair, and slowly eats waffles topped with blueberries and whipped cream as he checks out the window, waiting for someone. Two men in caps and worn out khaki jackets are debating something, gesturing toward the lake.
The lake of foxes, how beguiling it looks. Cumulus clouds hang in a sparkling blue sky here and there; the rain has left all things shining. She eyes it’s placid, brilliant teal surface longingly. If she only had time…she would like to stay one more day. She could stay if she left very early in the morning. Another gulp of strong coffee and her eyes sweep the room again. The old guys hoot and chortle, rouse themselves, exit. The young man hails his possible girlfriend who slaps him gently on the shoulder. The couple put papers aside and chat.
No slot machines, no boozy fools, no stale cigarette smoke.
She, in fact, will linger. Just for a little while.
It feels more than a bit familiar but she doesn’t know why, what it could mean in some greater context. Maybe it is just her secret geography and she never knew it before. She is so used to cactus flowers, rattlesnakes, vastness of sand under and around tamed spots, burning heat, chilled indoor air blowing on her day in and day out, and gaudy confines of the stages. She is used to the razzle-dazzle, raucous applause; of sweat racing along her spine and fancy drinks often uncounted and guys breathing down her neck: hey baby wanta dance all night with me?
Here she feels much less like herself. But she is feeling more alright with that the longer she remains.
Vanessa is walking along the rocky shoreline in clean navy sneakers, searching for good stones, feeling her long, heavy hair lift and fall from her shoulders which are no longer hunched up like a bird of prey, tensed and ever watchful. She feels unsought and even unseeking. Cleaned out of old worries and the nagging emptiness. Legs feel lanky and strong again as she jogs a bit, sees a motorboat pull a female water skier across tufted wavelets and wishes it was her. She halts her steps. She has never water skied but now wants it so much she can nearly taste mud-tinged, weedy water spray on her lips, feel it release her of aches. The exhilaration. She could do that, she would love doing that.
“Thought I’d find you down here.”
It’s Lettie, catching up with her. She’s in a holey tan sweater and rumpled fisher hat, with one hand on a carved staff and another on a leash, at the end of which is an aged, dutiful Brittany springer spaniel.
Vanessa smiles, genuinely this time, and pats the dog on his fine head. “Enjoying all this before I go.”
Vanessa nearly trips over a big black rock. and then presses her hands hard on her chest, mouth agape.
“Yes, ma’m, I knew you were familiar, and that’s it. Meredith came here for four summers back in late ’70s to early ’80s. Then I didn’t see her again. Or hear from her, either, and we were real friends. But something happened–I knew.”
“You knew my mother? She was here? She never told me that…”
“I knew her well for awhile. And then she got pregnant, told me at the end of that last summer. Left fast and that was it for us being friends, I guess.”
Vanessa eyes filled. “Oh, my gosh, she passed away three years ago.”
Lettie’s bright eyes closed. “Oh! Oh dear, Vanessa…I am too sorry to hear that. I was even hoping to reach out to her again.” She let out a long, raspy sigh. “But you know what I’m saying, right?”
“This is too much. I never knew she lived here. That she got pregnant, of course, and back then it was a scandal of sorts…It was me who arrived.”
“Yes, I imagine it was if you were the first–only?– child. But she was summer folk. Her parents rented a cabin downshore every summer for those years. Three months at a time, and her father joined Meredith, her little brother, Todd, and mother on week-ends. She was from… think it was Columbus, Ohio, yep.”
“That’s right. Columbus. But she moved to the southwest after college. Had me, got a decent job.” Her heart is thudding, face shiny with unbidden tears. “You knew her, when she was so young.”
Lettie puts her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder, feels a stab of pain at her deep sadness. “Look, she was a superior gal, and a dear friend those years. She, that last summer, met the guy. They had a thing a few weeks–she got pregnant… and her family never returned. Gavin was his name, right?”
“Yes, I even met him– once. When I graduated from high school. He seemed nice enough. It was so weird, not good. He had a wife and three other kids by then. What could we say? He gave me a crisp hundred dollar bill, as if that could mend things. I didn’t know who he was, he never knew me except for my pictures, updates from mom as she felt like it. He sent me Christmas gifts, for my birthday–they stopped when I hit my teens. Mom refused to see him, but said he wasn’t a bad sort, just irresponsible and their lives diverged. I didn’t think that much of it; she was dependable, a loving mother. She was all I needed.” She bit her lower lip to stop one more trembling, embarrassing tear.
“Yeah, he was so suave, carefree, sporty like she was. They went swimming, fishing, boating, water skied even daily. I thought she was better at stuff than he was.”
“She was athletic, yeah.” She saw her mother running in the cooling dusky sandy, rocky landscapes, calling to her to keep up, they had miles to go, she could do it, keep at it, breathe and reach.
“Want to come back to my place and talk? Like what did she end up doing? Did she stay single?”
“I’m supposed to check out in an hour or so, I’m afraid. I’m a day behind schedule so must get on the road, get back home and to work. Las Vegas is a long way, still. I’m a dancer for those big revues.”
Lettie stares at the water, caught in present and past at once. “I see, my oh my.” She rubs her neck, then smiles like it is second nature to do so.
“I have a small talent for dance that supports me–but Mom was smart, ambitious; she was eventually a high level college administrator. Later she got sick, off and on for years. She married my father, Dave, my real dad. But they divorced after twenty-five years.”
Vanessa wants to say more but she also feels she has said too much. Lettie is hanging on every word, but it is just not enough and this can go on and on. She needs to get home, back to her real life, away from this idyllic and curious place. Still, it stuns her. She is so drawn to the same village and lake as her mother was. She feels she draws in and exhales Fox Lake’s air, is in concert with it before she realizes what is happening. Like falling in love. She loathes leaving it, the new and tender connection to, perhaps, a better world. A least a quieter one, where no one cares about her other life which grates and clamors and even claws yet pays her way.
She barely grazes Lettie’s hand with her finger. “Maybe I could come back later this summer.”
“Book a room now, dear. I’ll circle the date in orange!”
They take some time getting back to Lettie’s Place. They talk about Lettie’s growing up and not ever venturing far from there; about Meredith’s athletic ability wasted on a desk job even if she was good at that; how Vanessa had wanted to be in musical theater once. And Vanessa keeps looking at that beautiful water, then they are at the entrance so they have to wrap it up.
“Well, I have to say you are some like her.” The older woman pulls her sweater close despite the warm breeze that skims her face.
“Maybe. You don’t know me.”
“But I do see you, Vanessa Kane, you have heart, a good mind and much to offer, like your mom. Plus, you have her square jaw, beautiful eyes and mane of hair. A bit like the way she walked, too.”
“How do you mean–how did she walk then?”
“Like the dirt and stones welcomed every step. And she well loved it all back. At the core she was more one of us, of Fox Lake. Maybe you will be, too, who knows?”
“She did crave outdoor life on week-ends… Anyway, I’ll be in touch.”
Vanessa pays her bill, makes an expensive reservation for a coveted late August date, then climbs into her MG. Idles a moment. The pine trees rattle their branches at her, a blue and yellow lake light winks from the distance. It is the place she was looking for, she thinks; it offered a slice of peace so needed. And one day she may find her way back for good, when she has had quite enough of the spotlit stage and glitzy parties, the good money. It is beginning to take more from her than can be replenished.
Ralph and Lettie watch from a window as she shifts into a faster purr and roar and stirs up dust, the glinting sheen of her auburn ponytail lifting, her hand suddenly raised in a wave. He reaches an arm around his grandmother. Gives her a strong squeeze– she squeezes back– before they get back to the summer season’s workload.
Half a mile away, Vanessa is looking for foxes, thinks she sees a nose, the tip of a tail, skids to a halt. But only elegant wild grasses lean her way.