If you’ve ever been through Piney Woods County, tucked up in the northeastern corner of Vermont, when the snow’s beginning to fly and Christmas lights are twinkling around the steamy windows of the Double Axle Diner over in West Burville, VT, population 683 give or take, you probably stopped in for pie and coffee. If you ski you might remember an instructor named Sander Klauss. No? You wouldn’t be the only one. If your visit up that way was around Christmas, let me remind you what happened.
Hooter was concentrating hard on Klauss as the man ambled his way. What was wrong with this guy? “I’ll be damned Klauss but something ain’t right about you.” Hooter said in a low voice.
Klauss chuckled. “It depends on what you mean by “right”, Hooter. A lot of things aren’t right. And a few things are. Know what I mean?”
Behind the truck the Counter Dwellers were puzzling that one out. Flock and Lambert decided it might be a good idea to take some notes and began noisily divesting themselves of their insulated coveralls in an effort to find a pen when old Mel yelled, “What’d he just say?” That pretty much blew their cover.
Ignoring the commotion behind the truck, Hooter spat, “What the hell are you talking about? Don’t talk stupid to me, Klauss, it don’t up the ante in your popularity in these parts to make fun.”
“No harm intended, Mr. Gibson,” Klauss answered shifting from one foot to the other and stuffing his cold hands into his pockets. “Look, let’s get to the point here. What is it you want from me?”
“I want some answers.” Hooter responded in the same low menacing tone.
Hooter stood facing Klauss. Neither man moved for a few seconds. Finally, Hooter admitted, “I seen you, we all have, eyeing up Linda Mae. How long you been here? Two weeks? And already she’s burned the meatloaf twice and run out of pie. This some kind of game you playing with her? ‘Cause if it is, it ain’t going to end the way you might be hoping.”
Klauss stared at him.
“Why you staring at me? Don’t you have nuthin’ to say?” Hooter asked.
Klauss opened his mouth to speak then shut it again. The snow had begun to come down with a vengeance and the two were wrapped in dime-sized flakes. “I don’t have much to say right now, Hooter. I just think you might be making a mistake, that’s all.”
“Now listen here, Klauss. Linda Mae is a good girl.”
By now the Counter Dwellers were out from behind the truck crunching across the snow and preparing to defend Linda Mae’s honor and her pie making skills. But they sure were hoping it wouldn’t get physical.
“Me and the boys here have known Linda Mae for a long time and we’re pretty fond of her. She makes the best damned meatloaf in the entire county and maybe the next one over to boot. And she ain’t bad to look at either, if you know what I mean.”
Klauss nodded as if he knew.
“We don’t want our girl hurt and we ain’t standing for any foolishness. No broken hearts, you got that?”
Klauss nodded again.
“Ain’t you got nuthin’ to say? Dammit, man, this is serious stuff.” Hooter was riled. This wasn’t going the way he and the boys thought it would. Klauss was agreeing with him. What was wrong with this guy?
“Look boys, I’ll meet you halfway. I’ve grown fond of Linda Mae. She’s special. Really special. I knew that the minute I saw here. I think you’re going to have to wait, just like me. I don’t have much to offer aside from that.”
The boys looked at each other.
Klauss turned and walked into the falling, swirling snow. In a matter of seconds he was swallowed up. The snow had picked up considerably during the time they were outdoors and lingering in the parking lot didn’t seem like a good idea. As Hooter turned to head for his pickup, a thought hit him. What did this Klauss guy drive? No one had seen him in a vehicle and Hooter made a mental note to ask the other Counter Dwellers what he drove. Come to think of it, where did he just go? Linda Mae was closing early to get home to decorate and Vonda Sue had already pushed off in her ancient Datsun Avenger. Odd. Hooter was alarmed. This Klauss bore watching.
The following morning Linda Mae was bustling about the Double Axle, dishing out her usual smiles with an extra helping of happy and humming to herself.
“Now what?” Hooter mumbled under his breath. The rest of the Counter Dwellers had picked up his sour, suspicious mood and were watching Linda Mae flit from one end of the diner to the other. Something was up.
By the end of the 10 o’clock pie and coffee shift, Linda Mae made an announcement: “I’m closing early this afternoon, everyone. Right after lunch. I’ve got a…a… date.” She let it drop like an A-bomb in the diner. Linda Mae blushed and gave a little burpy giggle and went to retrieve the coffee pot. Down the length of the counter, coffee cups slammed down on saucers, spoons clattered, pie forks dropped, and the Counter Dwellers swallowed what was in their mouths before their jaws hit their knees.
“Aw, c’mon, Linda Mae, you’re not going out with that ski bunny, are you?” Bunchy chimed in. Linda Mae only smiled a simpering sugary smile and plumped her blonde curls. The boys exchanged looks.
There might not be time to handle this latest development with their usual attention to detail but there might be time to make sure a second date never happened. A hastily arranged stake out of Linda Mae’s house for the early evening hours was delegated to Flock and Dayrel, with high hopes they wouldn’t go ring the doorbell and ask her where she was going.
The next morning the pair reported that Klauss arrived right on the seven o’clock button in a boring looking Ford Fitch and rang the doorbell. He also, apparently, turned and winked at Flock and Dayrel who were hunkered down behind the arborvitae. Linda Mae was dropped at her door with not so much as a kiss at around eleven o’clock. Flock and Dayrel said they were guessing about the kissing part because they had moved to Dayrel’s pick up when the cold got too bad.
The next phase was more subtle. Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers were convinced that something fishy was going on and the “Klauss business” needed to conclude well before ski season did. So far all they knew was that he showed up at Linda Mae’s in an old Ford. If they were going to give Linda Mae any helpful information that might sway her thinking, they’d better get cracking. It was beginning to look a little too serious on Linda Mae’s part.
The Counter Dwellers elected Old Mel Winchel to spearhead the investigation up at the mountain. Old Mel was one of those Piney Woods classics who had his teeth out sometime in the Fifties and never saw the need for replacements. As a result, his lips were now sucked in so far the locals speculated he could swallow his face. But Old Mel had a talent. People told him things. Maybe it was the way he looked. A bit of this and a bit of that and the next thing you knew he had your whole life story.
After a conversation with the other boys, Old Mel made for the mountain in his battered Chevy pickup. Halfway to the base lodge, he hatched his own plan.
As usual, the parking lot up at the base lodge was filled with out-of-state cars and mouthy flatlanders who whined if the weather was bad because they couldn’t ski and whined if the weather was good because they couldn’t ski long enough. And they always asked for things like low-fat milk and their salad dressing on the side down at the Double Axle.
Old Mel was considered “local color” up at the mountain. This entitled him to certain privileges like using the main door instead of the employee entrance the way everyone else from town did. Sashaying through the air lock and narrowly missing being speared by a pair of long red skis the width of a stilleto, he headed for the ticket counter. Behind the window sat Judy Cosgrove, who reigned over the ticket booth for the past twenty years.
“Hey, Judy, how goes it today?” Old Mel offered.
“OK, Mel. How you keepin’?”
“Good, good. Can’t complain. Nobody’d listen anyway. Hey what you think of that new ski feller? You know, that Sander Klauss?”
Judy smelled a rat. “What are you boys up to this time?”
Old Mel couldn’t think of a good comeback that wouldn’t further rouse her suspicions. After a couple of minutes of hopeless poking and prodding and getting nowhere with Judy, he slunk away. Rattling back down the mountain, he was no wiser than he was on the trek up.
The next day was the start of the final shopping spurt before Christmas and things were hopping over at the Double Axle. What with hungry shoppers, the vigilant Counter Dwellers, and Linda Mae mooning here and there, it was shaping up to be a heck of a Christmas. Klauss on his forays into the diner acted about as besotted as Linda Mae.
The Counter Dwellers spent a considerable amount of time asking each other if Klauss ever worked or if he really knew how to ski. So far, Old Mel had been unable to find anyone who had actually seen Klauss on a pair of skis.
It was sour grapes for lunch at the Double Axle with only two shopping days left until Christmas. Linda Mae floated around humming to herself and winking at the Counter Dwellers. What was she up to?
What she didn’t know was that the boys were planning one last full out attempt to get rid of Klauss.
“Damn the man,” Hooter grumbled as he watched Linda Mae. How were they going to get rid of him before he broke Linda Mae’s heart. Among the suggestions was disabling Klauss’ Ford Fitch. No one knew where he parked it but they knew he took Linda Mae out in it and that was good enough for them. Hooter was volunteered to track the Fitch down and disable the engine.
A ride around town yielded nothing and Hooter realized that no one knew where Klauss lived. Strange. The only other choice was one of the parking lots up at the mountain. With a groan Hooter shoved his pickup in gear and made for the access road.
After a couple of hours of driving real slow through each lot, he spotted the Fitch. At about the same, security spotted Hooter. For the past hour they had been watching Hooter’s slow progress past the vehicles in the packed lots.
As Hooter heaved himself out of the driver’s seat and reached for his tools, security pulled up.
“Okay, buddy, want to explain what you’re doing?” said a bull-necked security guard. Hooter stammered something about looking for a friend’s vehicle.
“What’s the name of your friend?” the guard sneered. Hooter obliged. “Klauss, Sander Klauss. He’s one of the ski instructors up here. He locked his keys in his car.”
“Klauss? Who? Never heard of him. Listen, friend, if I were you, I’d hike my butt back down the mountain and we’ll forget this ever happened. Come up here again and I’m taking you inside. Got it?”
Hooter got it. Climbing back behind the wheel he wasted no time finding the main road. It didn’t make sense to Hooter. Nothing was adding up. No car, security never heard of him, no one knew anything. Who was this clown?
Back in the parking lot at the Double Axle the Counter Dwellers were not pleased to hear Hooter had failed. Old Mel indicated that his dead auntie could have done a better job and everyone retired for the evening mad at everyone else.
Christmas Eve day had arrived with no answers. Keeping with tradition, if not with each other, it was a sullen, miserable crowd that hauled itself onto the stools at the Double Axle for their annual cup of Christmas cheer.
Linda Mae had outdone herself in a dazzling white uniform with the sweetheart neckline the boys loved. From her ears swung gay little Christmas trees and pinned to her ample bosom was the twinkling wreath. Her coiffure was a study in the architectural possibilities of hairspray and her lips were rouged a luscious Cranberry Cinnamon Swirl.
With a collective sigh the Counter Dwellers hearts melted. This was their girl. But the spell was not to last. As Linda Mae handed around cups of spiced eggnog she hummed a little tune. Wait. Hooter recognized that tune. He’d last heard it over twenty years ago when he and Martha Louise had pledged their troth. She couldn’t be humming The Wedding March. Could she?
As the last of the cups met hands, Linda Mae wished her faithful patrons and admirers the best of the holiday season. As they gave her their best three cheers, Linda Mae just smiled.
To be continued…