I knew how many steps it was from the kitchen door to the mailbox. I knew how many days would pass before black raspberries would bloom in the woods. What I didn’t know is why Ben cashed in his life insurance on the day he died. And that left me in a hole of trouble deeper than the one under the backyard outhouse we finally got rid of last year Ben had won a personal injury case for a high-rise construction worker in Traverse City, and we used the proceeds to remodel our old house. We weren’t thinking of a bed and breakfast when we remodeled, but the place was perfect for it. I hoped that converting it into one would help me keep the home I loved.
Chuck was hammering hard. I asked him to put locks on the three bedroom doors for guests. I turned the family room downstairs into my private bedroom and office, and he was going to put a lock on that, too.
Chuck was a stocky man with hairy arms and legs, and a nose that was perpetually red. He never wore anything but shorts, no matter what the weather. He was in his late thirties. When he wasn’t sailing, he was a handyman of sorts. According to Ben, Chuck had dated a series of girls, but had never married. One look at his yard gave you a clue to why he was still single. There were two pickups that might or might not start on a cold winter day, and a broken-down van he used more for storage than for transportation. Tucked in between the vehicles were two boats, neither of which looked seaworthy. His lawn was smothered with haphazard stacks of lumber and bricks from the odd jobs he took on from time to time. One could only imagine what the inside of his house looked like.
I hardly knew Chuck, but he and Ben were old sailing buddies. Chuck knew everyone in town who had a boat, and everyone who was looking for one. He’d sold Ben’s sailboat for me. It hadn’t brought as much as I had hoped it would, but it would help me finish the work on the house.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and lifted the towel covering the bread dough rising in a stonewear bowl on the kitchen counter. It was a new whole-grain combination I was trying; Whole wheat and rye flours, with enough bread flour to make a lofty loaf. I punched the dough down and started shaping the loaves to fill the buttered pans waiting by the sink. After a second rise they would be ready for baking. I love baking bread. Whenever there is something troubling me, I start baking. And when someone I know dies, I always bake a batch of bread and take it to the deceased’s family. When my sweetheart of a husband Ben died. When the funeral director had carried Ben’s body away. After I had been left alone. That’s when I put my hands into the flour to mix a batch of dough. Kneading the dough to satiny smoothness, shaping the loaves, and smelling the bread baking to golden goodness, was a ritual that soothed me. Today, baking a loaf helped calm my jittery nerves about my decision to remake my house and start a business I knew nothing about.
Callie, my Calico cat, pushed against my leg. I picked her up and let her snuggle against my neck. When Ben was alive, she was a lap hopper, going from Ben to me, and back again. Now she was my buddy , big time. But she was an independent old girl. A couple of strokes down her back, and she was ready to get down and find a good spot for her morning nap.
When it was almost noon, I thought it was time to see how Chuck was doing with the locks.
“Hey, Chuck, are you getting hungry?” I called down the hallway. “I’m going to have a chicken salad sandwich and a cup of tomato soup. I could fix the same for you.”
He looked up from the locks laid out on the floor. “Maddy, sounds too good to pass up. You get it ready, and I’ll be right there.”
After we had eaten, I got up to clear the table. I had my hands in a sink full of soapy water when I sensed Chuck behind me. In no time his hands were on my breasts, and his arms were pinning mine down. His bulging crotch pressed against my backside. Searing anger gave me strength and I shoved his arms up, scattering suds everywhere. I spun around and brought my knee into his groin. With the expected result.
“Jeez, Maddy. I was just trying to show you a little affection.” He was bent over. “I thought you were probably looking for some, with Ben gone and all.”
“You’ve got that wrong.” To keep from punching him, I pressed my hands on my hips. I was breathing hard, but it felt good. I looked straight into his eyes. “I want you to leave right now, and I don’t want you to come back. Let me know what I owe you and I’ll send you a check.”
“You don’t owe me anything. Ben did me a lot of favors over the years. I was just trying to pay him back.”
“You’ve got a strange way of doing that, Chuck.” I was still breathing hard. “Now get out.”
Chuck gathered his tools as quickly as he could and practically ran out the door. When he was gone, I started to shake. I grabbed an opened bottle of red wine and a glass and headed for the woods. Still fuming, I walked fast, hardly noticing where I was going. I found myself in the clearing where Ben and I ended up on most of our after-dinner walks. It was a peaceful place, a grassy little glen, ringed with black raspberries. There were a few boulders in the shade, and I perched on one. I poured myself a glass of wine. There was a slight wind that carried the richness of the damp earth from an early morning shower. A few birds rustled in the trees, reminding me with their twittering conversation that I was in their home, but that I was welcome.
I thought about Chuck, and I thought about the lame excuse he had given for his behavior. And, yes, I had to admit that I might be looking for some male attention at some time in the future. But not right now, and not ever with Chuck Baker. I thought my dear gentle Ben, and how unlike Chuck he was. How secure I felt in his embrace. How could I ever open myself up to someone new after losing a man like him. I took another sip of wine and started thinking out loud.
“Ben, if you’re out there, I could sure use some help. I don’t know if I can do everything by myself. I depended on you for so many things. I’m just not worth much alone.”
I waited quietly. There was no answer. The light breeze had stopped. There was no butterfly lighting on my shoulder. None of the things you read about in stories happened. It was as if the world was turning a cold shoulder to my misery. Then, as though someone had thrown a switch, I went from calm meditation to being completely miserable. I tried to regain control, but I couldn’t help myself. I started to cry, letting great big sobs roil up from deep inside. Finally, the sobbing slowed, and I was able to calm down. I felt empty. I used my sleeve to wipe my runny nose. Exhausted, I found some tissues in a pocket and mopped up the rest of the mess on my face. I hadn’t let myself grieve right after Ben died. I thought I should be stoic in front of other people. Maybe that was a mistake. As I gradually regained my composure, I began to feel better.
I looked up and saw a lone doe, with a fawn at her side, staring back at me. They stood as if captured in a photograph. I tried not to breathe. Then, without warning, the doe bounded away. A second later, realizing his mother was gone, the fawn followed.
Was Ben sending me a message? If he was, what was it? With or without a message, I decided I couldn’t do everything all by myself. I could see no way out. I had to trade my woodsy home for an apartment in Traverse City and a clerical job in an office.
“Ben, what did you do with the money?”