the caretaker

 

“it’s empty”

he whispered to himself as he faced the stone fireplace in the living room

“and i need a place to stay.”

 

if the cabin had been occupied

simon would have left the island on the evening ferry as planned

but he was happy not to be returning so quickly to the dull heat of the prairies.

it had turned out to be a very hot july.

 

the main door to the cabin was locked  

as was the sliding glass door on the front deck

but the back door next to the wood pile was blatantly open.

in the living room   simon pulled back the blinds and sat down on the loveseat.

the view of the ocean   of trees and rocks   and of the arms of the island   

was painfully beautiful.

enthralled by this vision   he decided that he would stay for a few days.

that night   he slept on the couch next to the fireplace

under old wool blankets from the vintage chest.

in the morning   when he returned to the loveseat and took in the view again

simon agreed to stick around into august.

two weeks later   he turned on the fridge and started stocking perishables.

by september   he had taken down three slender trees at the side of the property

and stored them in cut logs next to the back door.

he was invested for the winter.

the crosbys   he thought   would never visit in the winter.

 

every week   on thursday morning   just before she left for bowling

simon called his mother in saskatoon.

she had so many questions   very few of which he could answer directly.

every week   she asked him to call earlier   even ten minutes

so they would have more time to talk

but he ignored her.

 

for years   simon’s family had put up with behavior like this.

he had been a floater for most of his adult life   especially since the death of his brother.

his family and friends learned to expect surprises from him.

he changed his plans often   even his best plans.

the visit to the island was no different   joining his parents only at the last minute.

afterward   he had surprised them again by staying on the island.

his mother worried   but his father had given up years ago.

 

there were two bedrooms   neither of which he used.

he decided to limit himself to the living room   the bathroom   and the kitchen

and only the back door   leaving the other two locked.

he never used the driveway   always the trail along the water that met the bridge.

people may have noticed him stepping out onto the road

but it was common that others used the trail.

tourists frequented the island   not in masses   but in a steady trickle.

 

his parents had pointed out the crosby cabin during the previous week

when the three of them were out for a walk.

not that they knew the crosbys

but they knew that the property was beautiful and that the owners were rarely there.

simon had nodded casually.

 

it was beautiful

prime waterfront real estate

with about five acres of pine trees   arbutus   and low-lying brush

and two beaches   separated by a rocky outcropping right in front of the cabin.

the larger beach stretched out to the left and pushed around the corner of the property

toward the single-lane bridge that spanned the narrow waterway

between the north and south parts of the island.

the little beach to the right formed a delightful crescent-shaped bay.

a gravel driveway wound its way from the road to the cabin through the bush.

consequently   the cabin itself was not visible from the road nor from any neighbor’s house.

it was sheltered   though not entirely secluded.

the trail was open to the public and   according to law   so was the beach to high tide

inviting occasional explorers in the summer   but seldom few as winter approached.

as well   boats of various shapes and sizes frequented the waters

especially the channel dividing the island   but rarely into the little bay near the cabin.

 

by mid-october   simon started using the fireplace

a risk he was needing to take.

 

most of the islanders kept to themselves

though there were a few older ladies who were famously nosey.

simon had met them   but offered them little

deceiving them diligently with passing tales about house-sitting for friends.

 

in november   at the grocery store

the girl at the checkout called him by his first name.

simon had no recollection of telling his name to anyone on the island.

 

on december twentieth   in the afternoon   

as simon sat in the living room   he heard something.

it was the sound of an axe on wood

and it sounded close.

he ventured out through the back door and peered down the driveway.

he saw nothing at first   but followed the sound tentatively.

about half way to the road   simon saw an old man working.

he was pulling small cut logs out of the bush and throwing them onto the driveway.

simon kept walking slowly.

he was in full view of the man before he stopped.

 

“merry christmas”

the old man rumbled without making eye contact.

 

simon did not reply.

 

“if you help me   i’ll pay you.

not much but...”

 

simon took a few more steps toward the old man who was still busy retrieving the logs.

 

“i saw smoke in the chimney”

he said as he finally glanced up at simon.

 

without hesitation   simon followed the old man into the bush and grabbed a log.

in silence   they worked together   salvaging the logs one-by-one.

after the pile in the bush was gone   the old man began splitting the logs on the driveway.

simon began stacking.

side-by-side   they gave themselves to the task at hand.

 

eventually   the old man turned to face simon.

“jack”

he said as he touched the brim of his weathered tweed hat.

 

“simon.”

 

in an instant   the two men measured each other.

as jack turned away and reached for another log   he continued in a solemn tone

“you must be the caretaker.”

 

simon swallowed.

as he faced the bush   he began to move his head up and down coolly

hoping that jack was watching him.

 

“yeah   i remember them talking about the idea”

the old man continued just before he swung the axe into another log

“especially mrs. crosby.

too bad about her.”

 

“yeah   too bad”

simon agreed quickly and evenly.

 

the title of caretaker thoroughly pleased simon.

he never liked any of the labels of his former jobs:

milker   egg picker   chicken catcher   even forklift driver.

they all lacked the dignity simon longed for.

but caretaker

especially the caretaker

touched a chord in his heart like never before.

somehow   it fit.

it sounded big   strong

like the title of a book or a movie

so powerful   in fact   that it made him forget another label   disabled.

 

the next day   he was awake early   listening for the sound.

they worked together on the driveway for two hours.

afterward   jack gave simon twenty dollars.

that afternoon   simon went to the hardware store and bought some lumber.

by that evening   he had fixed the two stairs at the back door

which were badly rotten   and had been bothering him for months.

he was no carpenter   but he did the job slowly and carefully

and in the end   he was proud of his work.

 

a couple weeks later   early one morning in january

simon heard a different sound as he lay curled up on the couch.

a boat

in the little bay.

by the time simon parted the blinds   the engine was off   returning silence to the dawn.

directly in front of the cabin   a hundred meters off the beach

simon saw a medium-sized motorboat bobbing up and down in the waves.

the boat had a cover on it preventing him from seeing anyone on board.

the sky was filled with clouds.

 

he slowly stepped away from the window and sat down on the loveseat.

simon waited and listened and tuned a simple plan.

 

out in the bay an old man put down the anchor

and released a small wooden rowboat into the water.

he crawled into it carefully and rowed his way unhurriedly to the beach.

after pulling the boat ashore   he ambled up toward the cabin.

 

simon didn’t move when he heard noises at the back steps.

he remained calm as the door opened and the man entered the cabin.

 

“hello?”

the old man’s tone was dignified.

 

simon was silent.

 

as the man moved into the living room   approaching the loveseat from behind  

simon’s gaze was fixed on the vertical blinds directly in front of him.

his left hand was resting on his lap

while his right hand was plunged deep between the cushions   hidden.

 

once the old man could see simon’s profile   he stopped.

“who the hell are you?”

 

“the caretaker”

simon spoke without hesitation.

 

“no you’re not.”

 

“yeah i am.”

 

“this is my cabin.

who asked you to be the caretaker?”

 

“mrs. crosby.”

 

the old man looked at the blinds.

he squinted his eyes   and pursed his lips.

 his face turned dour.

“get out!”

 

simon’s right hand tightened on the handle of the kitchen knife between the cushions.

he turned his head and looked up into the face of the cabin’s owner.

in a steady voice   he asked

“why?”

 

mr crosby breathed quickly.

he began to snivel   his chin quivering.

“because i don’t…

want you…

here.”

the old man’s eyes now blinked uncontrollably.

 

simon watched as something like terror overcame the old man and he began to crumble.

the pain in his face sank through his chest and drained his whole body.

his old knees buckled and he lunged at the couch

sitting himself down on the blankets that had kept simon warm for months.

 

simon’s mind began to race as he looked down on the vulnerable old man.

the body would be easy to hide   he thought to himself.

the boat would be more difficult.

on second thought   the boat was perfect.

it could be the grave itself.

 

mr crosby’s large hands covered his face.

he leaned back into the low couch and began to steady his breathing.

 

“it’s okay”

simon said as he loosened his grip on the knife.

“it’s okay.”

 

as mr crosby’s hands dropped to his knees   

he erupted with an apology

“oh   i’m sorry.

i wasn’t ready for this.”

 

the two men looked at each other across the living room   both of them alone.

 

 “ready for what?”

simon asked.

 

“for any of this

for all the hassles of death and dying.

it’s a hell of a lot of work.”

 

“i’m sorry”

simon said.

 

“it’s okay”

mr crosby replied   letting out a big sigh.

his head fell backwards and he began to chuckle.

quickly   his chuckle became a laugh.

 then his arms shot out toward the ceiling and he shouted   as if addressing the heavens

“i don’t care!”

soon he was in hysterics   his chest heaving up and down.

he began shaking his head and then yelled it again   one word at a time

“i

don’t

care!”

 

they were the loudest words simon had ever heard in the cabin.

he began to squirm and reached again for the knife.

he could feel adrenalin coursing through his veins   empowering him.  

 

just then the old man gathered himself

and in one swift motion he moved to the front edge of the couch

pushing his face toward simon and asking forcefully

“did you fix the back steps?”

 

“yeah.

yeah   i did.”

simon answered intently.

 

the old man sat still

only his chin lowering slightly and his tongue slipping out from between his teeth.

simon was stunned and unsure about everything he had planned

yet he found the strength to match the old man’s stare.

the cabin was silent.

both men could hear the lapping waters in the bay.

both men could smell the remains of last night’s fire.

neither was eager to leave   or to move   or to give in.

 

finally   the old man leaned back

and with a small smile on his tired face   he uttered his verdict

“okay   you can stay.”

 

“what do you mean?”

 

 

 

(click here to see page 2 for the continuation of the story)

Property of Namesake Writing, Inc. All rights reserved. All photographs are original. 

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