The Lake Tenant
by Brendan DuBois
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
More than five years after the unexplained events occurred along the shores of Walker Pond in eastern New Hampshire, the exact facts of what happened and who was involved was still topic number one among gossipers at the volunteer fire department, the town hall, the Grange, and the Miss Walker Diner.
Yet all of the talk, discussion, and theories of what really happened and why it happened all came back to a fact everyone could agree on: It all started when a man named Russ Fox rented the old Tucker place at Warner’s Point for the summer. The house was really too big for one person, but the descendants of Homer Tucker—who made and lost a fortune on Wall Street back in the 1930s—didn’t mind that the place was being rented by a single man. It was better than renting it on a weekly basis to college students from away who thought crossing the New Hampshire border gave them diplomatic immunity from having loud parties, dumping trash into nearby yards, and otherwise raising hell among the year-round residents.
Plus, the man claiming to be Russ Fox wanted to rent for the entire summer—eliciting a sigh of relief from the Tucker descendants, who wouldn’t have to worry about answering summer-rental inquiries—and he paid in cash. At O’Halloran Realty, in late April, he politely asked that a routine background check on him be skipped—for privacy reasons, he shyly explained—and for which he paid a ten-percent cash bonus.
Before the rental agent could reply about how the rules really required a background check, the Tucker descendant took the cash, gave the man a key, and said, “See you after Labor Day.”
And Russ Fox nodded, dimples in his smile, and said, “It’ll be in great shape when I leave. I promise.”
Things remained quiet for a while after that, with only a few sightings of Russ Fox here and there. He had a small blue Ford Escort that he drove to the hardware store and the local Gas & Go Mini Mart, but never to the post office or to the town hall. He seemed to be an exercise fiend, and was often seen early in the morning, running along the dirt roads that encircled Walker Pond, which, in fact, was larger than some lakes in the state. Polly Denton, a waitress who lived on Potter Road, said Russ looked to be in his thirties, while Kyle Tucker, who gave Russ the keys to the Tucker house for the summer, said he was in his late fifties.
But all agreed that he was a sight to see, clad in black running shorts, socks, and running shoes—and nothing else—jogging along the roads. He was muscular, tanned, with close-cropped black hair and scars on his legs and abdomen. And he never ran in any particular pattern. Some days he trotted alongside the fine homes and cottages of Potter Road, and other times he went through the narrow dirt lanes of Hearth Harbor Road, which held battered cottages and mobile homes that hadn’t been mobile for about thirty years.
He also seemed to enjoy kayaking, traveling along the shoreline of the pond, skimming in and out of the coves and inlets, expertly paddling around sunken boulders and old tree stumps that had torn out the hulls of generations of watercraft on Walker Pond. While paddling around, he had a set of binoculars around his strong neck, and he was seen on several occasions checking out the loons on the pond, and a bald eagle that had set up temporary quarters on a tall pine tree on Spencer’s Island.
After a week or so, after the townspeople got used to seeing him running around the lake, and paddling, and shopping at the local Gas & Go, some gossipers started wondering why he was there and what he was doing. Blair McCann, who worked as a meter reader for PSNH, said that he came by the Tucker house one day and saw Russ typing madly away on a laptop while sitting on the rear deck, which made some think he was a writer. But Tracy Keene, whose daughter Kim was in the Girl Scouts and went to the place selling cookies, she told the customers at the Miss Walker Diner that she spotted Russ sitting by the water’s edge, drawing on a large sketch pad.
So maybe he was an artist. Or maybe a schoolteacher or professor taking the summer off. Although he probably didn’t know it, Russ Fox quickly became a person of interest at Walker Pond that summer, causing equal amounts of fascination and frustration. Fascination because the guy pretty much kept to himself, and frustration because, well, damn it, in this part of New Hampshire, neighbors never, ever went up to someone and asked what he or she did for a living. It was Just Not Done, and if somebody wanted to move into a cottage and stay inside most days and nights—like Kurt Dunson, who had moved in twenty years earlier and was rarely seen by anybody, even at Town Meeting—or if she kept twenty-one cats—like Donna Gardner—or never cut his hair or shaved his beard, like Billy Wrenn—well, that was his or her business.
And minding one’s business was pretty much Rule Number One, save for one exception: gossip, of course, was allowed and encouraged.
During the Memorial Day weekend, Russ Fox did something that caused the gossip quotient to increase by about fifty percent, and increased the frustration factor the same amount. To this day, exactly what happened remains an open question, but what is known is that it involved neighbors of Russ Fox—the Jordans—who lived at the next cove over. The most complete story came from Pam Heller, who worked at the the Miss Walker Diner, and as she said: “Well, Zach Jordan came in one day and told me that there was this group of college kids from away who liked to moor their pontoon boat in their cove and raise hell all day. Loud music, shouts, jumping into the lake. You know, Zach’s wife Marion, this is probably her last summer up here, and Zach just loves her to death, and he took his canoe out there and asked ’em if they could move their boat, so she could rest in quiet. Well, they gave him a ration of shit, even though the poor old bean dropped into Normandy back in forty-four, and he was practically in tears over that.”
So what happened then, came the question, about a half-dozen times that day from different folks at the diner. “Well, somehow Russ Fox found out about what had happened, and one hot day he paddled his kayak over and had a talk with the college kids on the pontoon boat, and then they left. I guess he threatened ’em something awful.”
How and what Russ said to the students on the pontoon boat remains in dispute to this day. Karen Sheldon said she heard that Russ told the kids that there were seven on board, and if they didn’t leave right away, only six of them would be going home that day. Pete Mulligan, he said he heard that Russ picked up a small cooler and told ’em that if they didn’t leave, he’d leave instead, with somebody’s head in the cooler. And Paulie Bain, he said everybody was wrong, he heard that Russ gave ’em a Ben Franklin and asked ’em politely to leave, and that’s what happened.
The fact that violence may have been threatened didn’t bother the folks of Walker Pond that much—there was just a police chief and two auxiliary cops in the summer, and most disputes in town either got settled over beers, through fistfights, or in small-claims court. And what was funny is that the hint of violence about Russ Fox intrigued a number of single and barely-single women in and around Walker Pond. A final number was never secured, but after the investigations into what eventually happened were concluded, word leaked out from a state senator with ties to the NH State Police that Russ had enjoyed the company of at least a dozen women during his time on Walker Pond that summer.
And from each of the women . . . the tales they told about Russ. He came from Boston, L.A., Boca Raton, or places in between. He had been a semipro football player, an accountant, or a college poetry instructor. He was single, widowed, or divorced. But the women all said that he was polite, strong, and enjoyed making breakfast for them the next day. Cassie Trout, who once worked for the Ford Models agency during the day, supposedly told investigators, “Hell, he was polite, had good teeth and breath, trimmed his toenails, and actually listened and tried to please me. That put him ahead of about ninety-nine percent of the bachelors around here.”
And his reputed cooking skills came to the fore about a week or two after the pontoon-boat incident, when the Walker Pond Volunteer Fire Department had a ham-and-bean supper as a fundraiser, five dollars per head, and Russ Fox came in with two mouthwatering spiced hams that he expertly carved up and passed out to the residents in attendance. He said the ham came from a secret family recipe, and more than one older woman tried to beg the recipe from him, with no success.
The ham-and-bean supper took place in the equipment bay of the Walker Pond Volunteer Fire Department, after they moved out the ambulance, the two pumper trucks, and the forestry vehicle. Folding tables and chairs were set up, and the handsome and muscular Russ Fox easily moved around the townspeople, wearing khaki shorts, Top-Siders with no socks, and a bright red golf shirt, with an apron wrapped about him that said “Kiss the Cook.” A few of the more forward ladies—single and married—whispered to each other that they’d like to do more than just kiss the cook. Gracie Poulton, nearing sixty years of age, said that she’d like to kiss the cook, jump the cook, and drain the cook, leaving him in an exhausted and happy daze. That caused the ladies at her table to shriek with laughter, and when her husband Mike stopped by and asked what was so funny, the ladies just laughed some more and Gracie told her hubby that she had just belched something awful, that’s all.
Afterwards, Russ stayed behind and helped pack up the leftovers, clean off the tables, fold and stack them up, along with the chairs. He swept the floor of the equipment bay and helped wash and dry the dishes, and when everything had been put back into its place, he asked to see Gus Demers, the chief for the volunteer fire department, whereupon they had a discussion that, alas, soured things some.
A number of volunteer firefighters and their wives were in attendance, so we have a pretty good idea of what was said.
Russ went up to Gus and said, “I’d like to join the fire department.”
Gus, who’d been chief for fifteen years and who’d probably had a couple of pops before coming over to the supper, said, “Why’s that?”
“I like this place. And I like the lake. I’d like to give back to the community. Simple as that.”
“You got any firefighting experience?”
“Plenty,” Russ said.
“Here and there,” Russ said.
Gus’s fat eyes narrowed as he stuck his hands into his pockets. “You movin’ here full time?”
“No,” Russ said, and for the first time since he had moved into the Tucker place, he seemed hesitant, not so sure of himself.
Gus shook his head. “Sorry. You gotta be a town resident. Not a renter or a tenant.”
Well, most of the people watching this unfold saw Russ’s face turn red, and it seemed like he grew a couple of inches and that every muscle and tendon tightened up, ready to cut loose. Most expected a real donnybrook, but instead Russ nodded briskly, turned away, and walked out into the night.
But that wasn’t the end of it. . . .
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"The Lake Tenant" by Brendan DuBois, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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