Frost Heave

by Charles C. Cole


The widower Lester Stanhope wearied of winters, having experienced seventy-two of them, embracing instead the warmer weather, the time to putter in his gardens, a hobby developed in retirement. Many relaxing days he’d weeded and dead-headed, side by side, with his lovely wife, Margaret.

The couple had met in a city park, nearly forty years before. He had been power-walking at lunch and discovered her on hands and knees, searching for four-leaf clovers, enough to equal her age. It was a birthday tradition passed on by her grandmother, as he learned when he was offering to help.

He had little to show for it at first, improving when she suggested he look for the faint white near-circle made by the four leaves “holding hands.” His first gift to her, when they began dating, had been a bouquet of twenty-seven four-leaf clovers.

But now it was winter, and he was alone. He pulled in his gravel driveway from a shopping errand, cutting the corner a little tight, and bounced over an unexpected frost heave.

“Nasty business,” Lester mused. “No matter, with the spring thaw, everything will settle back into place.”

In April, when the snow was nearly gone and the ground was once again thawed, the stubborn frost heave seemed bigger, as if a large rock was slowly and stubbornly burrowing its way out of the ground, against all decorum and gravity.

“Enough,” said Lester. He grabbed a shovel from the shed and went to work removing the source of his annoyance.

According to the president of the historical society, who had stopped by once while campaigning for state senate, Lester’s house had been built on the site of an old sawmill. Sometimes when he dug in his lawn, like the time when he’d planted a red maple, one could actually encounter a substance that looked very much like a layer of sawdust.

This time, Lester uncovered hewn lumber. He reached his fingers and felt under the edge, prying and pulling, but the mass was substantial and wouldn’t budge. He was curious.

He grabbed the pickaxe from the shed, an old-fashioned, hard-labor tool he had inherited from his father-in-law and rarely used. He attacked the ground, widening the hole cautiously so as to not damage the buried timber, loosening the surrounding gravel, making a mess of his driveway, forcing himself to drive on the lawn when coming or going.

“If Margaret could see me now,” he muttered, carelessly wiping the sweat from his brow with a dirty work glove.

His efforts took all weekend, most of three days. In the expanding hole, he uncovered an upside-down rowboat, seemingly homemade, with a squared bow, little bigger than his dining room table. He knew there had been a small pond once in the neighborhood years before which, like Puddle Dock of Strawberry Banke, had been filled in to make way for later development.

“Of all things,” said Lester, finally, resting against his car. He phoned his nephew, Philly, to help heft the treasure out of the ground.

“That’s quite a find,” said Philly. “Amazing how it has no rot at all. It might be worth money to the right person.”

“Thank you, Philly, but I think I am the right person. I mean, it lay there for years, no one knowing anything about it. If it turns out to be as sound as it looks, maybe I’ll take it for a test ride.”

“Sounds a bit risky,” said Philly. “Think what Aunt Margaret would say if she were still around.”

Lester considered a moment. “She’d tell me that I was a little late with my promise to take her boating on Highland Lake, and she’d be right.”

“We all make promises,” said Philly, “but sometimes they’re really just conversation fillers. I do it with my girlfriend all the time.”

“Maybe but now a real unexpected opportunity has presented itself. If you borrow your dad’s truck, maybe we can toss this thing in back. Then I can check one more item off my bucket list.”

“I thought it was on her list,” said Philly.

“I inherited it; she passed it along to me when she died. When you and Idaho get married, you’ll understand.”

“Her name’s Wyoming.”

“That’s right,” said Lester absently. “Well, we’d better get to it. I’ll hose her off while you’re gone, maybe fill up the insides to see if she holds water.”

“That’s one way to see if she’s seaworthy,” said Philly. “I better get us a couple of life preservers just in case.”

“Us?”

“Always better to observe the buddy system, Dad says.”

“Your father still camp director at Hinds?”

“Every summer,” said Philly.

“Well, see if you can borrow a couple of oarlocks. I found the holes where they go. And a couple of oars.”

“Hatchet or macon blade?” asked Philly.

“Whatever you can get.”

“Do you want pogies? Fingerless gloves to protect your hands. The water’s still cold this time of year. I can get some.”

“Just the oarlocks and the oars will be fine,” said Lester. “And the truck.”

Philly returned an hour later. “Wyoming says to wish you luck,” he said. “How’s the boat?” It was a third-full of water. “Guess it will float.” They rocked the boat and dumped out the water. Lester towel dried the inside. They loaded it upside-down into the truck bed, leaning the bow up against the passenger’s side.

When they lowered it into the reeds on the edge of the boat launch, Lester sighed, deeply and audibly. He had expected to be happier at this moment.

“I think I need to go solo the first trip, if it’s okay.”

“Who’ll navigate?” asked Philly. Lester shuddered, as when Margaret would pat his stubborn cowlick. “As I recall, you and Aunt Margaret always practiced the buddy system.”

Lester smiled.

“I’d stay far from shore, just in case. Head to the middle, then I’ll guide you back as you return to shore.”

“You’ve been great, Philly. But I think I’m all set.”


Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole

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