Charley was able to accomplish a great deal in just a few days and was pretty confident that the decorator, Melissa, could finish what needed to be done in a few short weeks. Melissa could supervise the refurbishing of the wood floors, send in a chimney sweep, schedule the interior and exterior painting, stock the kitchen with small appliances, plates, glasses, pans and cutlery and buy new mattresses and porch furniture. She promised to text pictures before making purchases and Charley promised to make sure she was paid within a week of any purchases no matter how large or small.
And then the house would be like new. Oh, they would still need odds and ends—linens, comforters, rugs large and small. Melissa hoped to haunt some of the thrift shops and antique dealers to see if any side tables, a dining table and chairs and such could be added to make the place special, and Charley approved of that idea. The existing wood furniture, dressers, end tables, etc., looked like they’d be okay after some cleaning and polishing but Melissa thought she could do better with a little effort and not much money.
Just seeing the place after it had been cleared of trash and cleaned made Charley feel good about being there. It was a functional and cozy house—wide-open from living room to kitchen. She’d arrange a sofa, love seat and two large chairs in front of the fireplace, something rarely used during summer visits. A large area rug would have to be bought to cover the wood floors. The wood kitchen table that could seat six—and with extra leaves opened up to seat ten—sat behind where the sofa would be placed. Beyond that was a breakfast bar and work counter fronting the spacious kitchen. There was also an island with a vegetable sink.
Really, the kitchen needed to be gutted and remodeled with new cabinets, sink, countertop and updated work island, but for now the existing cabinets would be fine. More extensive work could be done later, when the house wasn’t in use.
Melissa promised to have the cabinets cleaned, wiped down with lemon oil and in good repair for now and do the same with the bathroom cabinets and countertops.
“Are you sure you can get everything done, Melissa? I promised my sister we’d be here by June.”
“Four weeks isn’t even mid-May,” Melissa said. “I work with some remarkable subcontractors.”
“The porch furniture, Melissa. Make it nice. When the weather is good, which is most of the time, the best place to be is on the porch. The one thing Meg said she wanted was to sit on the porch on one of those sunny summer mornings and look at the fishermen out on the lake.”
“It’ll be resort quality,” she said. Melissa pursed her lips for control and her eyes got a little wet. “You’re such a good sister.”
“She would do this and more for me,” Charley said. “Four chaise lounges, a couple of chairs with ottomans—wicker, maybe, I don’t know. A couple of simple side tables. It’ll all be moved to the boathouse for winter. And pick a good quality screen material—we don’t want the bugs in but we want to see out.”
“I hope you can do this,” Charley said.
“It will be my priority. I don’t have any other big jobs right now and I have help. Let me clarify—okay to text you as often as necessary as long as it’s during business hours?”
“Certainly. And thank you.”
“And I’ll take a look at the boathouse, if you like. You said it once served as a guest room?”
“Go ahead,” Charley said. “I doubt we’ll have need of it. If we have more than five people at one time, I’ll faint. In fact, I think it will be me and Meg, her husband on weekends, maybe a visit from my two guys, my son and his father. Otherwise...I’m not betting on anyone.”
“But you want the house ready in case?”
“I want it like it used to be,” Charley said.
“Are you leaving now?” Melissa asked.
“In an hour or so. I’m just going to look around a little.”
“You must have had such a wonderful childhood here,” Melissa said.
“Mostly,” Charley said.
* * *
The summers were mostly wonderful, even that last one, right up to the end. That summer, when Charley was sixteen, would turn seventeen in late July and was headed for her senior year in high school, she fell in love. She was tall, lithe, pretty, smart and brazen and he was twenty-two. She’d had boyfriends before, hadn’t missed a winter formal, prom or homecoming dance yet, but she’d never been in love before. Not like this. And with all the summer romances and flings she and Hope and even Krista and Meg had had, for Charley this one was special and a little forbidden. Hot and heavy. His name was Mack and he was so handsome her knees buckled when she looked at him. He was a graduate of the University of Minnesota and headed for Harvard Law School. So, she fudged a little bit and said she was eighteen and had just finished her freshman year at Berkeley and was home visiting her family for the summer. She threatened Hope, Krista and Meg with dire consequences if they sold her out.
It was Mack’s first summer working at the lodge. His father was a rich attorney in Minneapolis and wouldn’t even consider letting Mack lay around all summer waiting to go to school back East. He liked to talk about work being a virtue. Mack figured the best way to work and play was a job at the lodge.
The girls used to sneak across the lake to the lodge on hot summer nights when some of the waiters and waitresses had parties after they got off work. Charley would’ve braved the wrath of Louise every night, but the workforce didn’t play every night. The lodge employed a lot of local kids but about a dozen were from out of town and for them there were a couple of small dormitories—cabins with bunk beds and chests. They didn’t dare party on the lodge premises; they’d get canned. They went around the bend to a cove that was just right, just private enough, for a lot of messing around. They’d have a fire, and most of them drank a few beers. Someone usually managed to pilfer some snacks. They’d sit around and tell jokes, stories and probably lies. There was a lot of sneaking off behind the trees or bushes; there was a lot of making out in plain sight.
Charley picked out Mack right off the bat that summer. He told her about himself, his important dad, his plans to be a kick-ass prosecutor and put away all the bad guys. She told him of her plans to be a broadcast newscaster. She let him get to first base, to second base; she went to second base on him and then she found herself in over her head...
“Come on, Charley. I’m too old for these games. We gotta either do it or move on.”
“What games? This isn’t a game! I’m not exactly ready. I’m not on the pill or anything.”
“Why not?” he asked. “Man, you’re the first college girl I’ve ever met not on the pill!”
“I didn’t have a reason to be on the pill!”
“You didn’t have a boyfriend...ever?”
“I’ve had plenty of boyfriends, but never one who threatened to break up with me if I didn’t get birth control!”
“Seriously?” He laughed. Then he grabbed her and kissed her and said, “That’s sweet. But I’m too old for this. We have to get on with it.”
“I told you, I’m not ready...”
“Then let’s get ready,” he said, snuggling her to the ground and going after her mouth with his. “I have protection. I have a condom. Let’s just take our time, how about that?”
“I don’t know...” she said. But the truth was, she was getting turned on and she had begun to have fantasies. She thought about moving out to Boston while he attended Harvard, working while he went to school. She never thought about the fact that she was probably smart enough to get into Harvard herself. She’d killed the SAT; her grades were excellent, always had been. But instead she thought about being his forever girl, then his supportive wife. They’d both be very successful, be a power couple, maybe even have children someday. They’d live in a big rural house, commute to the city, go home to each other every night—a lifelong love affair. They’d have lots of friends, join a club, have parties, go to dances at the club, take trips together.
While she was busy thinking about how ideal their life would be, he was sliding off her shorts and pressing himself against her. He was whispering, Baby, baby, baby. He had his fingers on her, in her, and she was about ready to explode. She tried to ignore the fact that it was a little uncomfortable. He was a little clumsy. Or maybe she was; she was the one without experience, after all. So she snaked her hand down between their bodies to touch him as intimately as he was touching her.
She felt herself because he was pressing right into her.
“Mack,” she said softly. “Where’s the condom?”
“Ugh,” he said. “Crap. Just kiss me a second while I get under control...”
So she did. And while she was kissing him, he was pushing deeper and groaning. He was pushing inside her.
“Mack!” she said, panicked.
He pumped his hips a couple of times. He moaned. “Crap,” he said again. “Oh, man. I shouldn’t have had so much beer. It’s okay.”
“What’s okay?” she asked.
“Nothing really happened,” he said. “It’ll be fine. But you shoulda told me you were a virgin.”
He pulled out and tucked himself away. He helped her pull her shorts up. He kissed her deeply.
“Yeah, I think I did! And something happened, all right,” she said. “And it happened without a condom!”
“Sorry,” he said. “Don’t worry. No one ever gets caught the first time. It’ll be fine.”
She sat up and slugged him in the arm. “‘I have protection,’” she mimicked. “‘I have a condom!’” she said. “You idiot!”
He flopped over onto the grass, his hand on his forehead. “Don’t bitch, Charley, okay? I got a little hot. Your fault, you turned me on so much. But I’m telling you—it’ll be okay. Trust me.”
“Fat chance I’ll ever trust you again!” She got to her feet and walked through the bushes to the lake.
“Come on,” he cried. “Come on!”
“Charley,” he called, following her. “Hey, come on!”
But she walked right into the lake and began to swim.
Charley swam across the lake in the moonlight, unable to cry after the first half mile. Waseka was a large lake and from the party site to the Berkey cabin was about a mile. The girls were fish, all of them, but swimming at night while under the influence and emotionally upset was a very dangerous thing to do. Charley knew it but really didn’t care at that moment if she died.
She should have at least made him say he loved her first. He couldn’t get a piece of her fast enough. And then he berated her for being a virgin? She would have to rethink growing old with him.
“You went all the way, didn’t you?” Hope whispered that night.
“Shh, don’t let the little girls hear you,” Charley answered. “They’re big mouths. I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? How can you not know?”
“It...it happened so fast. It hurt. I wasn’t that sure...”
“Did he...did he rape you?”
“Shh. No, I said okay. But I shouldn’t have and he didn’t use anything...or pull out...or...”
Charley was upset by what happened and she needed time to think things through. She hung close to home, where she got a clear reminder of why she had been avoiding the place. Her mother was irritable and preoccupied; Aunt Jo was more spacey than usual. There was another couple who Uncle Roy had brought and they stayed on, upsetting the balance of things for a while. It was some Russian guy and his much younger girlfriend and things were tense for some reason. Charley didn’t understand why but they created drama. Then, before Charley could get a grip on her own issues, the Russian guy took off, abandoning his girlfriend, and Lou took the young woman to the bus station in Brainerd, and after that Lou and Jo did nothing but bicker. Lou was in a foul temper that rose every ten minutes; you didn’t dare spill or talk back or leave a mess—she was constantly on a tear. And Jo was withering, clearly very upset, probably with Lou. When asked what was wrong, the malady was described as “family trouble.”
“Well, no shit,” Charley muttered under her breath. Though no one knew exactly what had set the sisters at odds that summer, it was definitely made worse by the strange couple. Years later Charley realized that up to that point, that summer, her mother always seemed to be capable and decisive. Aunt Jo had always been sweet, supportive and attentive. They bickered as sisters will but rarely, and making up quickly. That summer they both fell apart. They became unaccountably useless as caretakers.
Charley described her own withdrawn behavior, which was barely noticed by her mother and aunt, as cramps. Not that anyone cared.
After about a week of thinking things through, she went back to the party spot across the lake. She asked several waiters where Mack was. “Gone.”
“Didn’t hang around to talk it over.” One of the girls she knew said, “You should’ve told him you were only sixteen, Charley. Turns out you scared the shit out of him. He hit the trail.”
“Who said I was sixteen?” she asked.
“Your cousin Hope.”
The worst thing, even though Charley had made up most of the biography she’d given Mack, was it never once occurred to her that he might make up some of his. She heard he was not twenty-two but nineteen. He was not a graduate or even a college student and law school was not in his future. At least not anytime soon. His daddy was not a rich lawyer but a humble farmer and he didn’t have any way of escaping his fate if he had sex with the underage granddaughter of a superior court judge.
“You should’ve told Mack ol’ Grandpa was a judge,” said one of the waiters Charley had known for two summers. “You shoulda seen his face. I didn’t know a person could get that color!”
“I didn’t know anyone knew that!” Charley said.
“Hope told me. Hope told anyone who would listen about her rich, powerful grandpa.”
Well, that’s just great! Charley thought.
Gone. Gone. Gone.
Charley’s heart didn’t break because Mack had run off and left her lonely, nor was she in a panic about him getting in trouble because she wasn’t going to accuse him of anything. Nor did she hurt because he was a liar who had used her. The lesson that hit her in the chest with the weight of a hundred-pound boulder was that she’d fallen for it. That was something that would stay with her forever—she could take almost anything but looking stupid. That was the worst pain she could imagine.
When it was just the six cousins and their mothers, no daddies or grandparents or unwelcome guests present, the four oldest girls slept in sleeping bags on the screened porch, their mothers slept in the big bedroom together—when they were speaking, that is—and the little girls, Bunny and Bev, got to sleep in the upstairs loft, which had two bedrooms. Of course they wanted to be outside on the porch with the big girls, but they were exiled as “babies.” So, Charley tucked into her sleeping bag night after night, sometimes weeping soft, silent tears as she wondered how she could have been so easily duped by such a well-known male trick. She rarely fell asleep before dawn. She had dark circles under her eyes. She wasn’t hungry. But only Hope noticed. Only Hope tried to console her. And as far as Charley was concerned, Hope had caused the trouble by bragging about the judge.
Even though Charley and Hope were best friends, they were nothing alike. They were as different as Jo and Lou. Charley wanted to be Barbara Walters or at least Jane Pauley, and Hope wanted a nice, rich husband. “Rich as Grandpa Berkey and ten times as handsome,” she would say. So, to help Charley with her tears Hope would say, “Ohhh, don’t cry, Charlene, you’ll find another guy—a better one!”
It was only a couple of weeks after Charley lost her virginity that Bunny drowned. And suddenly the summer was over. The summers at the lake to come never would.
* * *
The lake house transformed under the fierce and yet gentle hand of Melissa Stewart. Charley often thought if she’d had an assistant like Melissa during her talk show days, her life would have been almost carefree. During the month of April Charley returned to the house on the lake three times and every time she saw such growth and improvement she was completely impressed.
“I’ve paid some of the best designers available in a big city and never saw results like this,” Charley said. “You’ve done amazing things, under budget, sourcing everything in small towns.”
“Maybe that’s the trick—small towns,” Melissa said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I know everyone. When I put the word out that I need a new dinette set that will seat ten, I get calls. When I email subs I’ve worked with that I’m considering a kitchen cabinet redo, I hear from cabinetmakers to renovators to antique dealers who are artists at restoration. Not just antique restoration but I know a guy who can make 1950s cabinetry look like it was built yesterday. You’re going to be ready in plenty of time.”
With the help of Melissa at Lake Waseka and John able to spend extra time looking after Megan, Charley thought it was time she go back to Palo Alto to spend time with Michael and Eric. Playing it safe, she called Michael and asked him if he felt like seeing her. “Of course,” he said.
“Can we do this without fighting?” she asked.
“I could have my lips sutured shut,” he said. “But then you might let something slip out and I’d have to defend myself.”
“Oh, I’m not going to let anything slip out,” she said. “I want to enjoy my family for a few days.”
“And I want you,” he said.
Because it had been so long since she’d seen them, both Michael and Eric went out of their way to clear their schedules as best they could to spend time with her. They had a lovely day in Carmel, went into the city for a great dinner at the wharf and Eric actually spent a night at the house rather than on campus with his friends. They watched a couple of movies, played Scrabble, sat out on the deck at night to enjoy the spring in the Bay Area.
One thing she did not do—she did not visit with old colleagues from the station or the network. There were still friends among them and several who kept in touch by email, but she admitted, only to herself, that it had hurt to be unceremoniously dumped by her station. There had even been talk of a farewell event, but she made excuses—she wasn’t planning to stay in the area for the immediate future. To a couple she had said, “My sister needs me. She’s been ill.” Michael, who knew her better than anyone, said, “You had twelve years of extraordinary success on that dying of beasts, the daytime talk show. That counts for a lot. Maybe you could take the high road. Attend a special luncheon or something. Thank the suits for all their support.”
“I could,” she said. “Except that would make me want to shoot myself.”
Seriously? she thought. Thank the people who fired her? Maybe someday. Right now she couldn’t do it.
Michael’s plans to spend six months in England studying Britain’s electoral system would begin in September. He stuck to his word and didn’t badger her about going along but he threw out some bait, just the same. Eric had expressed an interest in a year of study at Cambridge. Michael thought he could get a little help in facilitating that.
“Not see either one of you?” Charley asked, stricken.
“Don’t be silly,” Michael said. “Even if you never warm to the idea of joining me there, won’t you visit? Provided Meg can do without you for a while?”
“But both of you?”
Michael chuckled and lifted her chin. “I know it gives you a sense of security to think we’re both waiting for you here in Palo Alto but it isn’t like that anymore. Eric has things to do, people to see, a life to live. We get together for dinner every couple of weeks and that’s it. I guarantee you, if he gets to go to Cambridge, he won’t be hanging out with his dad! And if he stays here while I’m away, you’re not going to get much of his time, either. He’s grown, Charley. He’s busy building a life.”
“All these changes,” she said. “All at once...”
“I’ll make sure to visit you this summer at the lake,” Michael said. “I’ll make sure Eric comes. When did you last take Eric to Minnesota?”
“I think he was six. He hated it. After that I went alone. My obligation visits.”
“He’s more mature now,” Michael said. “In most ways.”
Nights in Michael’s arms brought back such memories it only left her confused, wondering what was wrong with her. She couldn’t imagine a woman on the planet who wouldn’t rush to hold him in some marital knot. He was so perfect. They’d been together so long, and yet when he touched her, she still came alive with desire. Better yet, she had only to whisper to him and he was ready for her. Familiarity was such a blissful aphrodisiac—practiced love meant they had a beautiful routine together. He knew where to touch, she knew how to move, he knew what to say, she knew what sounds turned him on. When he rolled her onto her back and pushed her shoulders into the mattress, she lifted her knees and spread them for him. That always made him chuckle a little. “In a hurry, honey?” he would ask. “No, take your time,” she would always say. And he would. He would tease and tempt and make her beg him to hurry, to finish. Michael would always make sure she had two orgasms and he would take one. He could work her body as though he’d programmed it.
But she could do the same to him. She knew exactly where to touch, kiss and caress to drive him mad. Making him a little crazy was not only her favorite thing. It was his. “Why do you do that to me?” he would ask. “Because you want me to,” she would say.
About nineteen years ago, when they’d been together about three years, after one of their wonderful lovemaking sessions while he was still above her, she touched his cheek. “Michael, I’m pregnant.”
He had merely lifted his eyebrows. No gasp, no grimace. “How’d that happen?”
“I think I might’ve missed pills or something.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“Do?” she asked.
“Do,” he repeated. “We’re good together. Please say you want to have it.”
Her heart soared, but she kept a poker face. “I want to, but it will be difficult. Inconvenient. I have a job. A good job.”
“You’d have to take some family leave, at least a couple of months, but my schedule is pretty flexible. I’d be involved. I swear.”
“Right,” she said. “I’m holding you to that, Michael. We have to do this together or not at all.”
And they had.
* * *
It was the end of April when Charley returned from California to find Megan looking quite well, for all she was up against. There was now a thin, fuzzy cap of hair covering her bald head. It wasn’t much, but it was there. She looked as though she’d gained a couple of pounds and her color was improved.
“How was your visit?” Meg asked.
“Perfect,” Charley said. “I think the advantage of seeing Michael so rarely is that he takes time. I don’t remember him ever having so much time to spend with me. Of course, I was a bit short on free time myself.”
“I hope you’re not grieving the show unnecessarily, Charley. This is a temporary setback. A small break in the action, that’s all.”
Charley began idly looking through a stack of magazines. There was a reason Meg had so many subscriptions when the rest of the world seemed to be getting their news and articles online—she had to rest a lot and couldn’t sit at the computer for long periods of time. Just like the magazines, TV talk shows were an endangered species. “That would be encouraging, but I’m afraid it’s not true. Talk shows like mine have been on the decline for a while now.”
“But maybe your next step will not be a televised talk show.”
“What do you suppose it will be?” Charley asked, for that was the real dilemma. The network hadn’t offered her a position. She feared that at forty-four she was considered too old for television. There were other positions, of course—at the executive level, behind the camera, in the field. But she’d loved her show.
“Hey, look at this,” Charley said, holding up a purple envelope. “A letter from Hope! It’s opened. You didn’t mention... What did she have to say?”
“Same old Hope,” Megan said with a shrug.
“Can I have a look?” Charley asked.
“I guess you might as well,” Meg said.
“But if it’s private...”
“It’s not,” Meg said. “Really, go ahead.”
Charley opened it and read.
My darling Megan,
How wonderful that you’re opening up the lake house for summer! We’ll be there! I’ll have to get back to you on the exact dates. We usually spend a couple of months at the Cape but of course we’ll cut that short this year if there’s a chance to get together with the family. I won’t know whether Franklin will come for the duration until closer to the date—he’s so overwhelmed with his company. I know he’ll do his best! And Bobbi and Trude will be thrilled. They’ll have such a good time. Does the lodge still have a stable and horses to use? And is Grandma Berkey going to be able to come? I’ll dash off a note when we have a few more details about our summer.
Charley fanned herself with the note card. “Oh, Meg, what have you done?”
Meg shrugged again. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“How many of them did you invite?” Charley asked.
Megan briefly bit her bottom lip. “All of them.”
“All of them?” And Megan nodded. “Oh, God,” Charley said.
“Don’t worry, they’ll never come. Hope surprises me...but I bet anything she’ll change her mind. The lodge is no longer like a country club the ladies can go to for bridge. It’s just a hotel now. I don’t mean ‘just.’ It sounds like a nice hotel. But I don’t think the guest services are available to the lake people, just the guests.”
Charley raised an eyebrow. “And you know this how?”
“I looked into it,” Megan said.
Charley eased down into a chair. Megan reclined on the sofa. The den was a small, cozy room. It contained only a sofa, one chair, a side table and coffee table, a bookcase and a small flat-screen TV in a niche in the bookcase. Charley looked at Megan, huddled in a knit wrap. She was perpetually chilly, having so little meat on her bones. Eyeing her now, thin and nearly bald, her cheekbones so prominent and her constitution weak, it was hard to remember what a force of nature she could be.
“I forget how stubborn you can be,” Charley said. “Have you heard from anyone else?”
“Everyone, I think.”
“Care to expound on that?” Charley pushed.
“Well, it shouldn’t surprise you, Hope was the first. Beverly called. She said she was very doubtful—she’s pretty sure she’s not in a good place with that yet. But she’ll keep it in mind. Aunt Jo said it sounded to her like just the thing this family needed—time to get beyond all the trouble and angst and move on. Of course, she also said she wouldn’t feel right about going unless Louise asked her. And I don’t see that happening.”
“And Mother?” Charley asked.
“Oh, she’s furious. But there’s not much she can do. I guess she could arrest us and post a guard.” Megan laughed rather brightly. “I wouldn’t put it past her, to tell the truth. But she’s mostly angry that I invited Grandma Berkey and now she expects to be carted down to the lake and Mother’s pitching a holy fit about it.”
“Of course I did,” Megan said. “I wouldn’t leave Grandma out. The house belongs to her.”
“Oh, brother,” Charley said. “Well, I think you take after her. Did any of the others ask how you were feeling?”
“Oh, yes, they’re actually very lovely people, our family.”
Charley just shook her head. Hope hadn’t asked. Typical of Hope. She didn’t think about other people much. “You know the best part about your recovery? You’re not going to get away with this shit anymore!”
“Lighten up, Charley. It’ll be fun. Even if it’s just the two of us.”
“I have a feeling it’ll only be fun if it’s just the two of us,” she said.