Spring Cleaning

by
Fiction - June 30

It was a gloomy, late March day and opening up the summer cottage was going about as expected. Not that a gorgeous Spring afternoon would improve her spirits—if anything, gorgeous weather would carry even more of a mocking sting to it—but the low-lying clouds and damp, cold wind didn’t help much.

June listlessly dropped the pruning shears to her feet, shoved her hands in her coat and looked around, her sigh getting heavier the longer she exhaled. The wooden front stairs needed fresh paint, the yard needed raking and the grass cut, the canoe and rowboat had to come out of the boathouse—and that was just outdoors. Inside the cottage, the outdoor furniture had to be carried from the living room back on to the porch, and everything had to be unpacked, aired out, dusted and freshened up. And for what? Just so they could rent the cottage out to people who had no real appreciation for the place.

No, wait; that wasn’t fair. Renters always loved the small house; some even took better care of it than she and Rich did. Still, June felt an ache every year when she handed over the keys on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend. Grandpa had built the place as a fishing shack back in the ’20s, and Daddy had fortified it, turned it into a real, proper cottage when he came back from The War. She’d spent every summer there while growing up, swimming to the rocks in the middle of the lake, sleeping on the screen porch when it was too hot, flirting with boys at the Community Beach. That was the way to spend a childhood summer—forever surrounded by the sound of warm breezes sifting through the pine trees.

Her grandkids, of course, thought otherwise. “Grandma, I’m bored,” they always complained. “There’s nothing to doooooo!” No internet, no cable, no TV set, in fact. They hated it. She’d once teased them that the only thing there with a screen was the porch. They were not amused.

But it didn’t matter anyway; the family hadn’t spent the summer there for a while. It wasn’t cheap to have a second home, even if it was inherited. Rich had retired from the Post Office, consigning them to a future on a fixed income, but the taxes had remained anything but immobile. After a few years of hemming and hawing, Rich finally— gingerly—told her they were either going to have to sell the place (over her dead body!) or do the unthinkable: Rent it out the following summer. He figured they’d easily make enough to cover the taxes, rent an RV and take a nice vacation for the summer months.

They had brought in a realtor at the end of August that year, to get an idea of what to charge. After coming down through the woods on the winding dirt driveway, he’d parked, opened his car door, stood up and simply laughed. June smiled, remembering the compliment. It had been involuntary—the sound of a jaundiced relator overwhelmed. He’d arrived as the sun was setting over the far side of the lake, shooting a blinding shimmer across the water that bathed the white clapboard cottage and its green shutters in a light that turned even the shadows golden. Between the lake, the grassy field leading down to the water and the surrounding hills of green, it was a Hudson River School painting come to life.

“Whatever you do, make sure you show the cottage at this time of day,” the realtor told them later, after begging for the rental listing. It was good advice; every year, they made almost enough for the tax money—a disappointment and a relief at the same time, though they were now exiled to their apartment for the summer.

That wasn’t what retirement was supposed to be, she thought. You scrimped and saved all those years so you could hand over your home to strangers? But they hadn’t really been thrifty; she knew. They’d spent what they earned on shoving the kids through college, maybe nicer Christmas presents than they should’ve…and life. Getting by cost money. She and Rich hadn’t buried their acorns back then, and now another summer in the apartment awaited—air conditioner chugging hoarsely while they rattled around the three rooms, walls gray from shades drawn deflecting the heat all day.

No nights playing Bridge either; instead of two floors down, Joanne and Dean would be in Rome or somewhere else far away. Their friends had saved their money back then—had nothing else to do with it, really, thought June. They hadn’t had kids; seemed like a tragedy at the time. All Joanne and Dean would have when they got old was each other, and when one died…. Now they actually were old—all of them—and considering how much she saw her kids, maybe she and Rich were the ones with the bad luck. Rome didn’t sound like a consolation prize anymore.

In any case, it beat a stuffy apartment—but the renters would only get the cottage for three months, she reminded herself. The best three months of the year, true, but that was still weeks away, so it was best to get the place in order and enjoy it until the dreaded Key Day. Right now, that meant getting the stone path to the dock raked up.

“Eduardo—I need you to rake the path,” she called toward the cottage, as she bent over to get the shears. She added as an afterthought, “Please!”

The front door opened on to the screen porch, and out came tall, lumbering Rich, walking backwards, windbreaker and comb-over both flapping in the wet March wind as he carried one end of the outdoor loveseat. Eduardo emerged at the other half, and together, the two men placed it cater-cornered at the far end of the porch. With the last of the outdoor furniture now out of the living room, they could finally get into the cottage proper.

“Rich, put that down right now,” she said, entering the porch, though he was already dropping into the couch’s overstuffed cushions. “For God’s sake, that’s why Eduardo’s here, honey.”

Eduardo nodded his head and smiled at June, who was oblivious to the gesture. Rich caught it, though. Maria, their cleaning lady back home at the apartment, had suggested her husband help unpack the cottage after the winter months; given the money situation, it was a reluctant, but necessary, concession—but clearly money well-spent, thought Rich. Like it or not, cleanup took longer every year; they were slowing down, and the kids didn’t come help, no matter how much June nagged them. While they’d known Maria for years, Eddie here was something of an unknown entity. Dressed in worn flannel and fleece, the guy was obviously no stranger to hard work and more than willing to get his hands dirty, but how much did he understand of their conversations? Was he just following visual cues? Ultimately, it didn’t matter; he seemed like a good guy.

“Ed here’s an ox,” said Rich, glancing at Eduardo, who smiled and nodded again. “But you can’t expect him to move all this by himself; it’s a two-man job.” He exhaled loudly and paused. “If you need Eduardo’s help, go ahead. I’m just going to stop here for a minute.”

“Don’t take too long; I invited Dean and Joanne to drive up here later.”

“That,” he sighed. “Why do you always do that? You’re going to get sick trying to set all this up before they get here. Plus they’ll probably bring more of that awful wine.”

“They were all for making an evening of it, and it’ll give us something to look forward to; opening up the cottage is always so tiring.”

“The answer to exhaustion is sleeping, not entertaining your friends.”

“Well, sleep if you like, but I’m borrowing Eduardo,” she said. Again, the smile, the nod. “Come on,” she added, turning to the day’s assistant. “Let’s go rake the path.”

June and Eduardo left the porch, the wooden screen door announcing their departure with a slam. Rich was already well on his way to dozing by the time the pair had walked down to the boathouse, where the rakes were kept. “Boathouse” sounded so much nicer than “prefab shed.” Long and thin, with barn-style doors that opened towards the lake, the small edifice was a catch-all drawer writ large, filled with boating and gardening equipment, popped inner-tubes for the grandkids that would never get patched, a small workbench for Rich to putter at, and far too much bric-a-brac.

They each grabbed a rake, and soon June was taking a few token stabs at raking while Eduardo did the actual work. Tiring quickly of watching the short man scrape leaves together and then bag them, June started wandering the perimeter of the area. While the cottage might be far from the main road, they were clearly in a hot spot. Sandwich wrappers could be found in one of the bushes, and more than a few empty beer cans were lying discarded on the shore. She and Rich weren’t the only ones who liked the lake view here.

Peering around, June’s eye settled on a loose pile of industrial netting behind the boathouse. A jarringly orange, plastic mess, it had been lying there since last November, when they’d closed up for the winter. Rich had brought it home from a construction site he’d passed while taking a walk, having salvaged it from a rubbish pile with the intent of blocking off the driveway during the winter months. He reasoned the garish netting would keep people from turning down their driveway, thinking it was a road to the lake, but naturally he’d forgotten to actually use it, and the ugly mesh had sat in a heap behind the boathouse ever since.

“Eduardo,” she said, pointing at the netting. “Let’s move this into the boathouse, where it isn’t ruining the view.” He smiled, nodded and was about to pick it up, when suddenly he changed his mind. Instead, he violently poked the pile with his rake, then waited.

“No mice,” he said.

“No mas? No, no, no—I need you to put that in the boathouse right now. We have a lot to do today.” He nodded again but the smile was fading. Pulling on his workman’s gloves, he bent over and picked up the unruly pile of plastic mesh.

June gasped. Eduardo glanced at her, waiting to be informed that he was doing it all wrong, but she was transfixed, staring at something on the ground. Turning sideways with his arms full, he could see a wrinkled, plastic freezer bag, lying in the mealy, dark worm dirt where the netting had been. There was something in the baggie, but its color blended in with the dark earth beneath it.

From her angle, June could definitely see what it was, but she wasn’t moving a muscle. Now she’s too good to pick up a plastic bag all by herself, he thought. With a sigh, Eduardo heaved the netting aside on to the ground, turned and grabbed the sealed end of the freezer bag, all in one swoop. Standing back up, he held the bag high at arm’s length to see its contents in the light.

Silhouetted against the slate-gray sky, was a thick, black revolver.

***

The gun was old; that much was evident through the hazy freezer bag, now lying on Rich’s dusty workbench in the boathouse. She pulled over the draftsman lamp and peered at the weapon. She could make out hints of scrapes and nicks on the handle and muzzle, but the bullet part—what was that called, the chamber?—was in better shape. Which made sense; if you carried a gun around, it was probably a good idea not to treat the part with the bullets poorly, she thought.

Glancing out the window, it was getting dusky out, but she could still see the outline of Rich at the other end of the field, a sleeping lump on the porch loveseat.

Eduardo had gone home quickly, the poor thing.

“This must be yours,” he’d said, handing her the freezer bag like a hot potato. It was a ridiculous thing to say, of course, but she’d accepted the bag anyway—carefully— and followed Eduardo into the boathouse as he carried the orange mesh. She’d stared at the gun for a good 10 minutes on the workbench, agonizing over whether to open the bag, while outside, Eduardo’s rake continued to scrape against the flagstone path. A rapid-fire stream of Spanish had drifted into the boathouse; he was whispering into a cell phone.

Suddenly he had reappeared and hastily announced he had to get home to Maria by 4 o’clock.

“What will you do?” he asked. “Police?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” she replied, honestly. He looked her in the eye, forehead glistening from raking and worry. “Please do not say I was here.” There was no smile, no nod.

A driver’s door slam and a roaring turn of the ignition, and Eduardo’s truck had blasted up the driveway. Rich slept through the whole thing.

Impulsively, she ripped the bag open and picked up the gun. It was lighter than she expected, but it still had a weight to it—a heft of authority reminding its possessor that it was not to be trifled with. Using her bare hands was a mistake; she knew that much from TV. She was contaminating possible evidence with her own fingerprints, or perhaps implicating herself in whatever the gun had been used for previously. “Used for.” That was interesting. She held the gun in both hands, arms outstretched, turning around the room with one eye winced closed, taking aim at different objects. It felt good. Surprisingly comfortable. Like it was perfectly normal to point a deadly weapon at a Dora The Explorer lifejacket. It felt…

Powerful.

The thought unsettled her. Quickly, she put the gun back down on the workbench. “Used for.” What an odd choice of words. Looking at it, lying dark and naked under the lamp, however, they made sense. A hammer lay nearby. On the wall was a saw; wrench sockets lay haphazardly on the shelf. The gun was a tool, meant to be “used for” a purpose. A machine of efficiency, really, like a photocopier—except copiers didn’t kill things. Didn’t send a shiver down the back of her arms. Didn’t scare her yet nearly command her to pick it up and feel the handle’s curves slide perfectly into her palm, inviting, beckoning her to wrap her boney fingers around its metal again.

Now she’d put even more fingerprints all over it. Not that it mattered; she guiltily knew she wouldn’t be calling the police. They’d just take it away, and that wasn’t fair. Finders keepers, as they used to say. The gun was hers. But more importantly, it was interesting.

For the first time in years—perhaps ever—June wished there was a computer at the cottage, because she wanted to know everything about her new gun. How to clean it. How to open it. What it was called and how old it was and what kind of bullets it took.

Could she buy them or did she need a permit? Didn’t they sell them at Wal-Mart? That would make for a great shopping basket: laxatives and orange juice and a new doormat— and ammo.

Outside the boathouse, dusk gained ambition and turned into night, with the wind dying down and the air growing colder. Through the window, she could see the automatic light on the screen porch had come on. Rich remained asleep on the loveseat—she watched him until he shifted position, still unconscious. Had to make sure he wasn’t dead. He pushed himself so hard these days, unwilling to admit that he was getting older; she could tell he’d resented Eduardo’s presence. At least he was getting some rest before—

Joanne and Dean were coming! She glanced at the dust-covered alarm clock on the shelf—they’d be there in an hour and she hadn’t done anything inside the cottage.

Hadn’t cleaned, started food, even turned on heat to warm up the place. They’d have to wear their winter coats as they ate around the table. It was terrible.

June was stepping out the boathouse door when she felt a weight bounce against her thigh—without thinking, she’d placed the gun in her coat pocket. That was not a good idea, she scolded herself. She didn’t need it and certainly didn’t plan to tell anyone about it. What a dinner conversation that would be! Rich would get huffy and upset, and insist they call the police. Dean had been in the military, so he’d probably seen a million guns. And Joanne would find a way to one-up her as always—maybe pull a machine gun out of her purse, an antique that just happened to have been Al Capone’s once.

She glanced around, then tucked the gun behind a box of dried up tulip bulbs on a shelf by the doors. It would be safe there. It would be her secret.

Minutes later, Rich awoke to the clatter of pots falling out of the kitchen cupboard, and was quickly put to work straightening up the cottage—sweeping, vacuuming, hastily throwing quilts over the bare mattresses in the bedrooms—while she got dinner underway. It would be chicken cutlets this evening; a rustic meal for a rustic setting. It was so simple that she could make it with her eyes closed—which was fine, because her mind was still down by the waterside, focused on a shelf by the boathouse door.

It was exciting having a secret. There weren’t many of those these days. Strange how an object could transform your world—it really had power beyond the obvious, didn’t it? Not that she would actually use the gun, she assured herself; she didn’t know how, after all, and it did seem drastic, a last measure against unforeseen, and for now certainly imaginary, adversaries. But the idea of having another option, even one so final, to be held in reserve for unknown debacles—that was enticing. It gave her power simply by way of the fact that she wouldn’t use that power. She would be a paragon of restraint, silently benevolent to a dismissive world unaware of her secret.

It was good to have a secret.

Joanne and Dean arrived soon enough, exchanging air kisses, wine bottles at the ready, straight from a lovely little vineyard in Sonoma they’d visited the previous summer that June and Rich really ought to come see with them sometime. Soon the two couples were seated around the rough-hewn farm table in the main room, digging in and catching up. The NBA season was disappointing, and Joanne’s nieces were taking a class trip to Washington, D.C., but the baseball season looked more promising, and maybe we should start a rooftop gardening club in the building or a charity drive, and it was all very pleasant but a blur nonetheless to June.

Why did she want the gun? That was the sole detail that wouldn’t go away; she couldn’t quite put a finger on that one. The gun wouldn’t change anything—wouldn’t make her rich, or take her to Sonoma, or re-roof the cottage. The gun was meaningless, really; an illusion. She didn’t have any…it didn’t have any power if it didn’t change things, and for the better. What was she going to do with it—hold up the country store down the way? Appear in the paper under a smirky headline like “Granny’s Got A Gun” when she was arrested?

It was just another object. Clutter. Or an accident waiting to happen. What if the grandkids found it? The renters? She’s have to take it home to the apartment during the summer. No, that was an awful idea. The gun was becoming so much trouble.

Rich was recounting a TV show about sub-atomic particles, while Joanne passed her the pie dish.

“I have a gun,” June announced.

Rich droned on, but Dean and Joanne turned to her, brows furrowed. “A what?” asked Dean.

“I have a gun.” Rich stopped talking. “I found it,” she added.

“When did that happen?” asked Rich. His face was a puzzle, jaw slightly slack. Don’t mention Eduardo, she reminded herself.

“It was down by the boathouse, under the—“ Wait, did the gun belong to Rich?

“—orange mesh.” No, it didn’t. He was pouting that she hadn’t told him. Joanne looked particularly awed, however. Nauseous, in fact. This was a secret worth spilling.

Dean regained his composure first: “Can we see it?”

They abandoned dinner, grabbed a flashlight and walked out the front door, not even stopping to put on coats. Outside, the late winter chill had dug in its heels; clouds of breath dawdled in the air as they headed down the short path to the boathouse. This would have to be quick; it might only be 7 o’clock, but it was cold.

June pulled the doors open wide and hit the light switch, the boathouse now a gaping, bright mouth just feet from the water. They stepped in. She reached up behind the tulip box and pulled the gun out from behind, broken cobwebs now dangling from it. She brushed them away and presented it proudly, held out in front of her with two hands. Look at the treasure she had found.

Joanne stepped back, while Rich leaned in to peer at it, astonished. “Does this gun belong to you?” asked Dean, crisply.

Rich shook his head no, but June replied, “It does now.”

“Do you know who might’ve left it there?” Dean was using that military mind now, she thought.

“No.”

“Do you know how to use it?”

“No.” June and Rich said it together. They glanced at each other. “May I see it?” asked Dean.

“Yes,” said June. She stepped forward to him and held the gun higher; its dull black finish seemed to glint despite the dark evening. Dean clasped it, carefully, expertly, and drew it away from her. He turned it around in his hands, assessing the weapon.

“Double-action .22,” Dean said absently. “Harrington & Richardson. Pretty inexpensive; holds eight shots. Same kind of gun they used to kill Robert Kennedy way back when.” He turned it over, then looked back up from the gun. “Nice find,” he said.

“Does it have any bullets?” asked June. “I couldn’t figure out how to open it.” Dean gave her a long, hard look.

“Let me take a look,” he said.

With that, he stepped to the doorway, leaned back and hurled the gun as hard as he could. It disappeared immediately into the darkness, no hint of its direction. A moment later, a distant splash could be heard.

June gasped and stumbled forward, a sudden ache in her chest, like the wind had been knocked out of her. Rich caught her and held her up. She found her feet and drew air.

Dean turned back to face them. “You don’t want that around here,” he said. “Nothing but trouble.”

June lashed out and slapped his shoulder, words failing her. Dean stepped back from the ineffective swat. “What if the real owner comes looking for it?” he said. “You don’t want to meet him.”

“I would’ve taken it to the police!” June shrieked. She swatted him again, harder, her hand now a tiny fist.

Joanne gently took hold of Dean’s other arm and pulled. “Honey,” she said, eyes unwaveringly on June. “We should go.”

“Yeah, I thought you might give it to them,” said Dean. “The police would make things worse, ‘cause the serial number was filed off. That gun’s not for skeet shootin.’ Say the police find out who it belonged to—you feel safe here then? Whoever owned it would know who told the police.”

“You had no right, Dean!”

“Now if someone comes back to get that firearm, it’s gone, end of story. No one’s gonna knock on your door saying, ‘Hey, seen my gun?’”

“It was mine!” June slapped him hard across the face. He wrenched his neck back around slowly and stared at her.

“I did you a favor.”

June turned, stormed over to the workbench and stood defeated, hands clenched, head hung low, peeking over her shoulder like a child sent to her corner to see the men exchange glances.

“Rich,” said Dean. “Sorry I ended the night like this. Think we’d better get.” He stuck out his hand and Rich shook it—how could he? Traitor. He shook hands looking visibly relieved, though whether it was because the gun was gone or Dean soon would be was hard to tell. June turned away and glowered.

“We’ll…” Joanne managed a meek smile. “We’ll see ourselves out.” June drew a deep breath.

“Dean,” she said, still facing away. She paused. “Thank you.”

The words stung coming out of her mouth, but if she didn’t lie now, it’d take a lot more of them to fix things later. “I’m going to stay here; Rich will see you off.”

The three left quickly—gladly, by the sound of their steps. June walked to the steps of the boathouse and sat, where she stared at the dark lake for a long time.endcap

Clive Young is the editor-in-chief of the music technology trade magazine Pro Sound News and prosoundnetwork.com, and is the author of two non-fiction books, HOMEMADE HOLLYWOOD (Bloomsbury/Continuum) and CRANK IT UP (Hal Leonard/Backbeat). He will finish his MFA in Creative Writing at Hofstra University this fall.

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