The storm assaulted the shoreline just before midnight. While this was nothing unusual for November on the Great Lakes, this one had death written all over its menacing approach, but not in the sense anyone expected.
The Coast Guard was on alert and warnings had been posted from St. Ignace all the way to the feet of Lake Michigan where it washed ashore in Chicago. Out of respect, the locals always capitalized the L in Lake, and this night would prove why.
Old timers gathered in Murdock’s downtown on the channel that led to the Lake. Tonight’s special was roast turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of gossip. Storms always resurrected the topic of the Edmund Fitzgerald and its fate on another such November night.
There were always those foolhardy who waited; sitting in cars facing the shoreline with their headlights to watch the incoming waves rise up in their fury. These were generally tourists from inland, intrigued by the romance that a November storm promises at the shore. Occasionally one might actually venture out on the pier, anxious to experience the icy spray in the lighthouse beam. He generally washed up somewhere the next morning. The Coast Guard, brave men that they were, were obligated to launch their cutter and go in search of the foolish; endangering themselves and any innocent who legitimately needed rescue. The faces of the dead were engraved on a sign at the entrance to the pier, but the foolish have earned their reputations.
Sheriff Buell Thompson sat in his cruiser a couple of blocks from Murdock’s. He had come to town from somewhere in the east and the locals had yet to adopt him. This gave him a somewhat defensive attitude and he often looked for opportunities to demand their respect. He was a large man, barely fitting behind the wheel of the patrol car. The county had a small budget, an installation of the Coast Guard as well as a post of the State Police, so the Sheriff’s department generally did little but set out bad tenants and serve a few summons for overdue parking tickets. Thompson, despite his size, had come cheap and therefore fit the bill.
Sheriff Thompson had his eye on a couple of teenagers who were skateboarding on the channel boardwalk. Their coats billowed in the rising wind; acting as sails when they faced eastward. While there was no curfew in this tourist town, he didn’t trust teenagers; boys particularly. He’d been one himself; he could tell them a thing or two. His chin was puffed up like a toad waiting to snatch a fly; his fingers tapping the top of the steering wheel as he waited for them to commit some suspicious act.
The door to Murdock’s buffeted somewhat in the wind and the overhead sign banged against the building. Groups of people came and went, shouting over the gale to be heard. It was a noisy night in Hidden Cove and nerves were on edge.
If Sheriff Thompson hadn’t been so new to town, he might have found the fact that Lew Billit’s truck was parked outside his hardware store, a bit suspicious at this time of night. Everyone knew that Lew was a timid sort and seldom ventured out at night. Lew was a member of the local bridge club who played on Saturday nights in the Methodist Church basement, but was always careful to ride along with another player, as he didn’t like the chance of getting stranded with a flat tire or such on his way home. However, Sheriff Thompson was new and intent upon saving the town from a pair of teenagers sailing on skateboards.
Murdock’s announced a two-for-one special on draught beer just as the storm came ashore. It made for a cheery, friendly atmosphere and a bit of unforeseen profit for Murdock on a Tuesday night.
At the corner table furthest from the door sat the regulars. This position gave them vantage to see who came through the door as well as priority seating in the unisex restroom when nature called. It was also only feet from the dartboard, a feature of particular importance when it came to settling an argument that no one could resolve. When memories failed, dart expertise settled the issue. The history of Hidden Cove had been changed more than once by a bullseye.
The door blew open suddenly and lay flat against the wall. A blast of rain showed up as the culprit, soaking anyone within fifteen feet of the doorway. Murdock ran, along with a couple of his bartenders, toward the opened door and it took all their shoulders to force it shut. Murdock threw the bolt and slid the jukebox over to block the door. “We’re closed to newcomers,” he announced in a loud voice and a cheer went up in the room. The party had only just begun.
* * *
Hidden Cove was one of the few towns still punctuated by a railroad track, splitting one entire block of Main Street right down the center. When the engine sounded its ear-splitting whistle, the locals knew to find the nearest empty parking place at the side of the street and eventually, the tourists would catch on as well. Many was the time that an errant child ran across the center toward the candy store at the last second and an anxious mother was left screaming on one side while Junior was running amok along the toffee bins inside The Sweet Shop.
The train serviced the town’s electric plant with coal when the channel was too frozen for barges to get to it. There was no “wrong side of the track” until you got beyond the city limits, and most particularly about a mile out.
This is where the Widow Smith and her son, Porkchop, lived in a small trailer sitting on concrete blocks. The Widow Smith had earned her first name when her husband died in the late 70s on an old rail handcar, still used in the rural areas to check seldom-used track. The handcar had hit a rough patch on the track and it left the track going as fast as Tom Smith and the other three men could pump it. Tom hadn’t survived and the Missus became Widow in the blink of an eye. Their son, Thomas, Jr. had seen the body when they carried his father home, and he hadn’t been the same since.
Times were hard and the Widow got one of the men to butcher the only thing of value they had owned; a hog Tom had raised from a piglet. The Widow and her son survived the winter with the help of a few donations of canned goods and the meat from that hog. Thomas, Jr. was still too young to understand too much about poverty; all he knew was there wasn’t anything better in the world than his mother’s fried pork chops.
Every morning, Thomas, Jr. scrambled from his pallet in the corner of the living room and asked, “Mom, are we having pork chops for dinner?” with excited anticipation.
“Yes, son, indeed we are,” she replied each time. It was a blessing that the boy liked pork or he’d have been eating beans and biscuits alone all winter. The people in town talked about this between them, each grateful that they had plenty to eat.
Years passed and when Thomas was about 19-years-old, the engineer found Widow Smith lying next to the track as the train passed out of town. Her neck had been broken. The boy, who was now a sizable man, had never matured mentally and when questioned, could only shake his head. The Widow had been almost 80 and the sheriff at the time couldn’t find any clues as to anyone else but the boy who could have done it. That said, no one ever saw him and the sheriff thought it would be a shame if the boy was to go to prison for the rest of his life just on an assumption.
Thus, it came to be that when the townspeople heard the story, they referred to him as “Porkchop” – a moniker derived from the boy’s long winter of eating that hog. The Sheriff went out and had a talk with Porkchop; a child’s mind but with hands big enough to hold a basketball in one palm. The sheriff had been a bit nervous and was tapping his holster as he talked.
“Now, son, if you say you don’t know nothin’ about what happened to your mama…well, I’m gonna believe you. But, son, the folks in town…they’re sort of skittish, if you get my drift.”
Porkchop just watched the sheriff with a blank look on his face. There was no emotion, even at the loss of his mother.
“Now, son, as long as you stick to home out here, and don’t be comin’ into town, well, we’ll just call this a accident and that’ll be the end of it. Do you understand me, boy?”
Porkchop continued to stare, his eyes devoid of a spark or any indication of intelligence.
“Well, that’ll be what we say, then. You stay home, now Porkchop, you hear?” With this, the sheriff climbed into his squad car and drove back to town. The engineer reported that Porkchop stayed at the trailer, spotted as he passed each day. Porkchop could be seen on the grassless patch of dirt in front of the trailer, sitting on a turned-over barrel and whittling. No one knew where he got his money, and nobody asked. Things were fine as long as he kept to himself.
* * *
The storm held the town in its embrace long into the night. Murdock finally shut the lights off at 4 a.m. and folks made their way home.
Dick Schultz was about to climb into his ’68 Dodge pickup when he saw a light on inside Billit’s Hardware. He figured Billit was in there kind of late for him, but thought he’d stop by and see if everything was okay and maybe pick up a spare flashlight in case his power was out when he got home.
Dick peered through the front window but didn’t see Billit anywhere. He knocked and then beat on the front door; the rain was still coming hard and it was noisy out. Shielding his eyes, he flattened his face against the glass and that’s when he saw it.
There was a prone leg extending from behind the front counter of the store. It was clothed in pants and socks, but there was no shoe.
Dick beat on the door, calling Billit’s name, but the leg didn’t move and no Billit answered the call. His heart beating hard, Dick ran for his truck and the beat up old cell phone he kept in his glove box for emergencies. This qualified.
Dick called 9-1-1 and within minutes, Sheriff Thompson’s squad car spun out in a U-turn and with lights flashing, pulled up to Billit’s Hardware. Dick could see the sheriff grab a slicker from the back seat, but he had to heft his considerable form out to put it on. The wind whipped it around him, making it difficult for him to slide his arm into the sleeve. By the time he made it under the awning of the store, he was soaked. His gun was drawn and he motioned to Dick to get back out of the way.
It never occurred to Dick that somebody could have done this and might still be inside. He back-stepped quickly around the corner and then ran for his old Dodge to take shelter. He had his phone open and began calling his wife and buddies to tell them what happened.
Within a half hour, a hundred or so townspeople were clogging Main Street. Sheriff Thompson, disgusted, had retrieved a bullhorn from the trunk of the squad car and was ordering people to leave. An ambulance appeared, but the body couldn’t be moved until the coroner had done his part.
The sun was beginning to rise by the time the coroner, Tom Smith, got there. Main Street was a shamble; the wind, rain and crowds had taken their toll. In the midst of this all stood one lone man to the side, a rain slicker covering his form and the hood pulled low over his face. He watched quietly from the receded entrance to a gift shop and once the coroner was finished and the ambulance pulled away, he turned and smoothly rounded the corner on his way out of town. No one noticed him; no one except…