At the end of July, Ida Lindeman was certain she had to tell Nack about Spearfish, South Dakota. At the start of August, she had decided, again, that it wasn’t none of his business.
Ida flipped the lights on. The still dim garage smelled of oil and grease. She rolled up the bay doors and the morning light flooded in. She had known Nack since she and Momma moved to Boyd, Indiana, had thought maybe he and Momma would get married someday. Ida had worked for him almost 14 years, off and on since she was 15, but he paid her either way. He’d been their constant dinner guest, her employer and friend. But Momma said not to tell anyone, and Ida never had. Even after Momma died and she had no one to talk to about Spearfish, she kept it to herself. She recalled what had happened the last time she’d told.
Ida walked through the garage and into the dusty office. She stepped over boxes then around a broken chair and unlocked the front door. She laid a box of glazed doughnuts out on the cluttered counter and put a pot of coffee on to brew.
The gas pump bell cord clanged and Ida looked out the filmy window to see if it was a customer, or Nack purposefully driving over it just to tweak her. His 1950 maroon Chevy truck rolled past the office window with Nack waving and smiling, his bald head reflecting the morning sun. She grinned and rolled her eyes.
“Good morning, good morning!” Nack’s deep rumbly joy rolled in like fog enfolding her.
“Good morning, Nack,” she said and leaned her long backbone against the dented army green filing cabinet. Nack ducked as he came through the doorway into the office.
“What’s on the schedule this morning?”
He knew exactly what cars were lined up and what had to be done to each. He was interested in what pastry she had brought today.
“Glazed,” she said.
“Alright!” Ida could practically hear his lips smacking.
He poured black coffee, his hand devouring the small cup, and swallowed a doughnut almost whole. Then he took a bite of the other he had slipped on his little finger to eat more slowly.
Ida poured herself a cup and sipped the dark, steaming liquid.
“If you change the oil in the bug, I’ll do the brake job and inspection on the jeep. And the tune-up on the Dodge,” he added, chewing.
“What about Doc’s MG?” Ida asked.
“Tomorrow. The new alternator should be in then. I’m practicing retirement this afternoon! I’ll be over by six with a bucket of lake bass.”
The pump bell dinged and Ida put her cup down. “Off we go,” she said.
The morning rushed by. It took her three hours to change the oil in Lynda’s beetle because of that bell. She felt like a mother whose kids kept calling Momma. She’d be right in the middle of something, like emancipating a stuck oil filter, and Momma, draining the oil pan and Momma, pouring in new oil – Momma. Some nights she dreamed about that bell jangling. She told Nack that it sounding like Momma to her and he had said it sounded like Money to him.
Nack taught her oil changing about 4 years ago, but pumping the gas was her main job. Pumping, washing windows, checking oil and air pressure was fine, good even. She hid behind the routine of it, especially when people started asking questions. How’s your Momma? Whatcha doing this weekend? Where did you and your Momma used to live? Why are you so quiet?
She would learn how to change brake pads next.
It was lunchtime when Ida finished the Beetle. It was early enough for her to snatch the end stool at the counter of Belle’s Diner. Lynda, who everyone called the new girl but was neither new nor young, brought the order Ida had called in before leaving the garage.
“Your bug’s ready. I finished it before I came over.” Ida removed the paper and poked the straw into her soda.
“Great,” Lynda tucked a loose gray-brown hair behind her ear. “I’ll walk over with you. My shift should be done by the time you finish eating.” Lynda, eye level with the sitting Ida, started to turn away.
“I need a pastrami on rye with chips to-go, for Nack, and a quart of coleslaw, too,” Ida said.
Lynda added it to the order form, nodded, and walked away.
Ida picked up one of the fries. It was almost too hot to hold, but the fragrance encouraged her to suffer the heat. Her stomach gave a rumble and she glanced around to see if anyone noticed. Taking a bite, the salty warmth travel down her throat until it plopped in her stomach. She savored it for a second, then ate more.
The diner door flew open and slammed against the wall. A loud laugh and Joe Denton followed with three men wearing the orange vests of the road crew. Diner heads turned to the noise and almost immediately away.
Joe walked over to a four-top table. “Right here,” he directed his crew, placing his filthy safety hat on the shining tableware. Clumps of dirt dropped from the hat and Joe’s caked hands.
“Hey Belle,” he waved his hand at the serving window and clomped to the restroom, leaving a clay trail behind.
Lynda was placing iced water on the table when Joe returned. His stubby fingers reached out for her but she pushed a menu into his thickset hand.
“Don’t be that way, Baby,” he purred through the gray mustache hair that drooped over his upper lip.
“Someone will take your order in a minute,” Lynda almost whispered and walked away.
Joe scraped the chair out and dropped heavily down, a breeze lifting the scraggly ponytail up from his otherwise bald head.
When Ida finished the last of her burger, she paid, and with her to-go order, walked out the back where Lynda dropped her apron and grabbed her purse.
As far as Ida could tell, Lynda stayed to herself. The only exception she recalled had been when Momma was sick. Lynda had been Momma’s most frequent visitor, besides Nack. She brought meals and she’d sit with Momma to let Ida work a shift at the garage or just get out of the house.
Ida had been surprised when she heard Lynda had gone out a time or two with Joe, but after what she saw today, she figured that was over.
They walked in silence for a bit.
“You okay, Lynda?”
“I’m ok, but I miss your Momma, Ida. I could tell Willa anything and sometimes you just need someone to talk to.” Lynda eyed her feet like she expected them to go in a direction she wasn’t planning.
“I’m good at secrets,” Ida said and thought If she only knew how good.
“I know you are. But it’s a burden to carry your own and someone else’s secrets.”
Did Lynda know her secret?
Lynda gazed up at her and smiled. “You’ve probably been carrying the secret of Nack’s name around most of your life.”
Ida barked an unexpected laugh. “That’s no secret! But you should hear it from him.”
Lynda agreed to join them for fish that night and promised to bring her homemade potato salad.
After dinner, the three were sitting around the kitchen table when Lynda faced Nack.
“I’ve got to know. Your name. What is Nack short for or is it a nickname?”
Nack laughed and ran a rough, oil-stained hand over his bare scalp.
“My durn father. He loved a good joke. My name is Nathaniel and my twin’s name is Nicholas, he lives over in Gas City. When I was a kid, I was helping him rebuild a carburetor, he said I had a knack for mechanics. After that, he started calling us Nick and Nack and of course, it stuck.” That low rumble of a laugh rolled out and made them both laugh.
“Too bad you didn’t have a sister Patty and a brother Jack,” Lynda said. Nack tilted his head to the side and gave her a questioning look. “Then he could have called ‘Nick, Nack, Patty, Jack – give the dog a bone!!’” Nack threw his head back and laughed.
“Dad would have liked you!” He said.
They ate lemon pie on the porch, Lynda and Nack rocking, and Ida on the swing. The lightning bugs were wild with activity. The creaking of Nack’s rocker playing accompaniment to the tree frogs. A slight breeze was blowing the smell of honeysuckle. Ida didn’t want to move. She didn’t want anything to change.
“I need to tell you both something,” Lynda had stopped rocking, her voice just above a whisper. “I expect you will hear soon enough, this being a small town, but I want you to hear it from me.”
When she was 10, Lynda said she had run home from a friend’s at twilight and was suddenly surrounded by bright light. Her hands trembled and her voice shook as she talked. She said it was quiet but the light was pulsed down from over her head, right at her. The beam got intense, and she felt pain in her head. Then she blacked out. When she woke, she was inside what seemed like an enormous egg – it was bright and she couldn’t focus. But she knew there were others with her. There was a high-pitched squeal and she lost consciousness again. When she woke the next time, it was days later and she was laying on the ground next to a lake, miles from her home.
Lynda was looking at her feet. Nack asked how she got home and she explained that a man fishing at the lake found her and recognized her, from the story in the paper, as the missing child from the next town over. He took her to the police. No one had believed her story and suspected that the fisherman had abducted and drugged her.
“Well, you were just a kid, Lynda. Kids’ memories can warp to protect them, especially with time.” Nack said and started to rock again.
“No,” Ida said. She had stopped swinging long before. Lynda and Nack both turned to her.
“Don’t tell Lynda something didn’t happen to her because it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you choose not to believe it, that’s okay. But don’t try to bend her to make you feel better.” The red was starting to rise in Ida’s neck but she kept her head down and her voice even. This was why she couldn’t tell Nack.
“It’s ok, Ida,” Lynda said.
“No Lynda, only you know what happened to you. When someone is afraid of something or doesn’t understand it they try to make you question yourself, or get people to take sides and bully you to change or make you go away so they don’t have to be reminded that you make them uncomfortable. That’s not right.”
It was quiet for a long while, then Nack cleared his throat.
“You’re right, Ida. I’m sorry, Lynda.”
“Thank you, Nack,” Lynda said.
Nack continued. “What did you mean by we would be hearing about this soon?”
She glanced over at Ida, still hanging her head, and sighed. “I was seeing Joe for a while. He was sweet at first. I thought I could trust him. I guess I hoped it, so I told him. He laughed. He called me a “nut case.” Then he started teasing me. Now he’s calling me in the middle of the night, getting drunk and coming by the house, dropping by the diner, telling other people who look at me sideways or just make fun. I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave town.
“Can you get a restraining order against him,” Nack asked.
“I can’t restrain his mouth, Nack. If he keeps telling people, I won’t be able to live here.”
Later that night, Ida laid in bed listening to the trilling of the tree frogs. She kept replaying Lynda’s story, her own getting twisted inside Lynda’s. She wanted to talk to Lynda and tell her she wasn’t alone, comfort her. Ida’s stomach churned and convulsed a bitter acid taste in her mouth. She laid still listening to the tree frogs, matching her breathing to their rhythm, and slowing her breaths. What would it be like to be a tree frog — hanging onto the bark, just calling, hoping someone would come.
The next morning Ida got to the diner earlier than usual, her hair pulled into a ponytail so tight that her head hurt. She tried to loosen it but just made a mess. She sat at the counter nursing a cup of coffee, waiting for her box of bear claws, when Joe Denton stumbled in, still drunk from the night before.
“Where’s Lynda,” he yelled.
Lynda came out of the kitchen with a tray of breakfast orders.
Joe grabbed the waitress by the wrist, spilling the eggs, toast, and gravy down himself and Lynda. He whispered something into her ear and guffawed. Lynda wrenched her hand out of his grip and backed away, her face frozen.
“Aww, don’t be that way, honey,” he fumbled with his zipper and started pulling his pants down, trying to expose himself to her.
“You want something outta this world, I’ve got it right here for ya.” Lynda turned and ran to the back.
“Get him out of here,” Belle yelled from the kitchen door.
Two men came from the kitchen and dragged the laughing Joe out the door.
Ida followed Lynda into the kitchen. She was standing silently by the screen back door, tears streamed down her face.
“You okay?” Ida asked.
“It’s starting all over again,” fatigue or failure in her voice.
“Maybe you should get some pepper spray?” Ida suggested.
Lynda faced Ida directly. “Pepper spray won’t stop them from painting Alien on my house or Space Cadet on my car. It won’t stop kids from following me down the street, throwing rocks, and yelling UFO.” She sobbed, her shoulders pumping. Ida rubbed her back, then awkwardly hugged her. She wanted to comfort Lynda.
“I know,” she said and paused. “But other than that, how do you like it here?”
Lynda tilted her head up at Ida, stepped back from the embrace, and started laughing.
“Well, other than that, it’s great!” Lynda wiped her eyes and changed her apron.
“I’m not very good at this,” Ida said. “But with me and Nack, you’ve got two friends in this town, and I know Belle and Charlie care for you, too. That’s four! I’ll bet there are more. Joe can say whatever he wants and that won’t change.” But was that really true?
Lynda squeezed her arm and thanked her, grabbed a mop, and left the kitchen.
Nack was pulling the alternator off the MG when Ida told him what had happened at Belle’s. He clamped his mouth into a straight line, his lips turning almost white.
“It would feel really great to just throttle Joe,” Nack said.
“Yep,” Ida said.
“I hope she talks to the sheriff about a restraining order. Grab me those pliers, this nut is stuck,” Nack said.
“Why do you suppose she told Joe?” Ida asked.
Nack stood up and wiped his hands on the greasy rag hanging out of his back pocket.
“I guess she wanted to be something to someone.” Nack took a long drink from a water bottle. “Caring for someone is a risk. You risk being hurt, rejected, losing them. But when it’s good, it’s worth the risk. I guess she was willing to take the risk.”
Ida helped with the alternator between the demand for gas and thought that next time she might do it herself, with help.
The garage was closed Saturday afternoons, so Nack left at lunchtime. Ida swept up and straightened the tools on the workbench. She locked the service bays and drove home passed the lake. Nack’s truck was parked by the dock. His bright red fishing boat was gone.
Nack had said that caring for someone was a risk. She hadn’t cared for many people in her life, but she knew that was true. It would be safe to go on as she was, working for Nack, coming back to an empty house, not risking how Lynda had. Nack had been talking about retiring a lot lately, though and she didn’t know how much that would change her life. She wasn’t sure safety was safe.
At home, Ida washed clothes, hung them out to dry, then cleaned the bathroom. She tried to straighten the house, but there wasn’t much to do in that regard, so she swept up again. She took the chicken out of the fridge and began to cut it up. She thought about her conversation with Lynda. Ida had told her that Joe could say whatever he wanted and her friends wouldn’t care. If that was true, why didn’t she tell Nack about Spearfish? She kept hearing Nack say that caring for someone was a risk. Did she really care about Nack or was she just using his friendship to her advantage like Joe had used Lynda? Was telling him risking losing him? Nack had said caring was a risk of losing. She thought about the tree frog again, calling and hoping someone would hear.
Ida wiped her hands, picked up her phone, and dialed.
“I’m frying chicken for dinner. You coming?”
Nack laughed, “Soon as I throw this three-foot bass back, I’m on my way.”
Ida smiled. “Good. I want to talk about tree frogs.”
Karen Sleeth earned her BA in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1991. In Spring of 2023, she will receive an MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University, where she is an editorial assistant for The Lindenwood Review. Karen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Main Street Rag, Cafe Lit Magazine, and the anthology Mother, a title just above queen.