The Hardest Job I Ever Had

Whenever I think of Melinda, I wish I could wake up and find it was all a bad dream. It's been more than twenty-five years and she still creeps into my thoughts when I'm least expecting it. Like, I'll be clearing the table after dinner and suddenly I'll see us, both of us, in our white uniforms and little blue aprons, clearing tables in the big dining room of the lodge, wishing we hadn't signed on for the whole summer.

We were eighteen and it was the summer before we started university. We'd seen this ad in the newspaper for summer jobs at a fancy resort up north, and decided to apply. It sounded great. Fabulous location on a lake, swimming, water skiing, bonfires in the moonlight and a whole summer away from home. Except when we got there, it wasn't quite what we expected. The biggest disappointment was that all the boys were younger than us. The owner of the lodge wanted to discourage any fooling around, and decided this was the best way. He was right. The last thing we were interested in was a bunch of geeky sixteen-year-olds. The only older guys were the bartender, who was engaged to the owner's daughter, the chef, who was at least forty, and the sous-chef, who was maybe twenty-one and had a drinking problem.

The second disappointment was that we had to work all the time. I mean, from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week. By the time we set up, served and cleaned up after three meals a day for one hundred guests, we had maybe two hours free in the afternoon and whatever time we could manage to stay awake after ten o'clock at night. It was the hardest job I ever had.

But the reason I'll never forget that summer has nothing to do with hard work or sixteen-year-old boys. It's because of Melinda and her death that I wake up in the night sometimes, crying tears that should have dried a long time ago, and wondering how such a thing could have happened.

I knew Melinda was sneaking off after lights out some nights, but I never knew who it was she was seeing. I figured if she wanted me to know, she would tell me, so I never asked. I guess she had her reasons for keeping it such a big secret. Since there were only three guys in the place over sixteen, I figured it had to be one of them. I eliminated the chef pretty early on because he didn't live at the lodge and besides, he was the least attractive of the three. The sous-chef was a possibility, but he had this drinking problem and I couldn't see Melinda being interested in him. And if she was, why would she keep it a secret? That left the bartender, who was definitely cute and definitely engaged to the owner's daughter. Reason enough for secrecy.

When Melinda's body was discovered under a bush with a stocking tied tightly around her throat, the summer came to an abrupt end. A couple of the sixteen-year-olds had been tossing a ball around when one of them spotted a white shoe with a leg attached to it protruding from under a bush. He took a closer look and immediately lost his lunch. Melinda's face was all swollen and purple. Her tongue was sticking out and her eyes were bulging like two peeled grapes in her head. This description circulated pretty quickly, thanks to the two boys who found her. I sometimes wonder if they still wake up in the night with that memory staring them in the face.

The murder was never solved. We were all questioned and sent home and the lodge closed down for the rest of the season, which was about three weeks. I was left to cope with the loss of my best friend as best I could. I started university in the fall and the dreams never went away.

If anything, they got worse. Not knowing what had happened was the hardest thing to deal with. I imagined a hundred different scenarios, a hundred different murders. I pictured Melinda being tortured and raped. I pictured her screaming my name and begging for help. I knew I would never rid my mind of these images until I found out what had really happened to her. Maybe that's why I decided to spend my vacation at the resort last year. To my surprise, it was still in existence, still listed in the Guide to Summer Camps and Resorts. I called and booked a room for two weeks in July.

When I arrived, I was surprised to see the place hadn't changed much in twenty-five years. The main lodge had a new porch. The dock was new and the Muskoka chairs scattered across the lawn looked new. But the tables and chairs in the dining room were the same ones we had scrubbed down every week, and the sofas in the main lounge had been recovered, but in the same woodsy-colored fabric as before.

My room was one of the smaller ones, being a single, but I didn't mind because I didn't intend to spend that much time in it. I don't know what I thought was going to happen while I was there, but I know what I was hoping for. Some kind of resolution to the years of doubt and uncertainty I had suffered. Something to help me let go.

I didn't sleep well the first night, even though it was quiet and the air was cool as a forest breeze. I felt a little bit like an uninvited guest, but that was in my own mind and had nothing to do with the place or the hospitality. I came down for breakfast during the last fifteen minutes and remembered how we used to hate those guests that ate late because it meant we couldn't start cleaning up until they had gone. I tried to eat as quickly as possible and tried not to feel guilty.

He spotted me before I noticed him and came up to my table as I was finishing my coffee.

"Susan, isn't it?" he said.

I had the strangest sensation, as if the earth had opened up and I was falling into the center of it. Who was this person and how did he know me? I couldn't for the life of me put a name to the face, but I knew I had just heard a voice from the past.

"It's me. Paul. Remember?"

Yes. I remembered. Suddenly, I remembered the slightly pudgy face and the red rimmed and bleary eyes of the sous-chef who used to fry those early morning eggs for us twenty-five years ago. Paul Webster. But the face that smiled down at me was clear-eyed and careworn, still a little pudgy, but a lot wiser than the wayward young man with an unhealthy attachment to the bottle.

"Paul," I said. "This is a surprise."

He sat down at my table and signaled the waitress to bring him a cup of coffee. "Let's finish our coffee out on the porch," I suggested. "I'm sure they're anxious to clean up in here."

He laughed. "You'd know, wouldn't you," he said. There's some things you can't forget.

We went out onto the porch and found a couple of chairs facing the water. "It's still beautiful, isn't it?" I said, just for something to say. "Who owns the place now? Do you know?"

"The daughter, Janet. Remember her?"

"Oh yes," I said. "Did she ever marry the bartender?"

"She did. They're still married. And he still tends the bar." We were both staring out at the water as if it held us under a spell. Too many memories at once, I suppose. We were both reliving that summer twenty-five years ago, both caught up in all the reminders that hadn't gone away.

"Why are you here?" I asked.

"Same reason you are, I imagine," he said. "I want to know."

"You mean about Melinda?" I asked. He nodded. "But why? What did she mean to you?"

"Didn't you know? You were her best friend. I was sure she had told you."

I turned and stared at him. "You?"

There was a lot of sadness piled up behind his eyes and a quarter century of life in the lines on his face. "I was crazy about her," he said. "I would have done anything for her. I had even decided to quit drinking because she wanted me to." He took a sip of his coffee. "As it was, I only quit about five years ago because it was killing me and I had to decide one way or the other. It's funny, I always thought the drinking helped me forget, but it's no different now. I still have the same dreams. I still feel the same emptiness." He stared down into his coffee cup. "I still blame myself."

We talked a lot over the next few days, trying to sort things out. It was funny how we both felt the same about so many things. I had always felt that I should have done something to stop Melinda going out alone at night. I should have intervened somehow and prevented her from being murdered, as if the simple fact of her being out alone at night was what had got her killed. Paul had always felt that if it hadn't been for their clandestine meetings after dark, she wouldn't have been waiting for him that night, and that's why she had been killed. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Between us we had been carrying around enough guilt for an entire therapy group.

"You know, it wasn't my fault and it wasn't your fault that Melinda was murdered," I told him one night. We were sitting on the beach watching the sunset and I reached over and took his hand. "We probably couldn't have prevented it. Did you ever stop to think that whoever did it may have had a reason?" I could never imagine why anyone would want to kill Melinda, but Paul and I had talked it through so many times, I was beginning to see things in a different light.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I can't see that - "

I had heard someone approaching us from behind and turned my head to see who it was. Paul stopped talking mid-sentence and looked up.

"Oh, it's you," he said. "I haven't seen you around lately."

"I've been pretty busy. I see you have, too." The woman who looked down at us was tall and angular and her dark-rimmed eyeglasses caught the moonlight in their lenses.

"You won't believe who this is, Janet. Do you remember Susan Forester? She was here the same summer I was."

We both stood up and started brushing the sand from our clothes.

"You'd better get inside," she said. "The mosquitoes will be out soon." She turned and walked back toward the main lodge. I looked at Paul and he smiled and shrugged.

"I think she's jealous," he whispered and then laughed. I laughed too, but I wasn't really amused. Maybe he sensed it, because he looked into my eyes for a long minute and then he kissed me, very gently, on the lips. "She's like that," he said.

The next morning at breakfast he told me a little more about Janet. "I think she had a thing for me in those days," he said, sheepishly. "She was always trying to be alone with me for any reason. Like, she'd hunt me down to ask me what vegetable we were having for dinner. As if it mattered to her. I used to think I was imagining it, but then one day she cornered me in the bunkhouse and practically threw herself at me." He laughed self-consciously. "Jesus Christ, I thought. This is all I need. I'll lose my job."

"But she was engaged," I said. "To the bartender. What was his name?"

"Ron," he said. "I know, but that didn't seem to be important. Maybe she just wanted one last fling."

"Maybe," I said. "I think she still has the hots for you."

He looked at me and smiled. "I can't figure out what it is makes me so darned attractive to women," he said. "They just fall all over me wherever I go."

"I guess that's why you're here alone," I said. "Or are you just here for a well deserved rest?"

"Yeah, that's it," he said. "I didn't expect to find any attractive, single women here."

"Maybe we should call it a draw," I suggested. I wasn't sure I wanted to start something with the kind of memory baggage we had between us.

"If you say so," he said, "but I think it's kismet. We're not here by accident."

"I think I'll go for a swim," I said, and left him contemplating his coffee cup. On my way out, I noticed Janet watching him from the far corner of the dining room.

Things didn't end there, of course. We were attracted to each other, there's no denying it. But I kept wondering if it was for the wrong reasons. Melinda was always there between us like a big question mark. And Janet always seemed to be lurking in the background. Paul didn't seem to notice.

I felt like having a drink one night before dinner, so I slipped into the bar a half hour before I had agreed to meet Paul. I didn't think it was fair to drink in front of him when he was wrestling with that particular demon, so I just went in myself and ordered a gin and tonic. Ron was tending bar.

"I remember you," he said. "You worked here that summer."

"That summer" seemed to be on a lot of people's minds. "They never solved the case, did they?" I asked, taking a sip of my drink.

"Nope. It's still on the books as far as I know." He was wiping glasses and kept his eyes on my face.

"Don't suppose you know who did it?" I asked, smiling sweetly.

"Nope. 'Fraid not." He had gagged slightly on a chuckle that got caught in his throat. I guess he hadn't expected me to be so direct. Conversations about real murders can be a little uncomfortable.

"I wish I did, though," he went on. "It sure would be nice to put it to rest."

It was the kind of thing a smart person might say to deflect suspicion from themselves, I thought. Sincere. Carefully thought out. I shook my head. "Weren't there even any suspects?" I asked.

"Nope. She was hit on the head and then strangled with her own stocking," he said. "Could have been anybody." He paused, then added, "That had a reason."

I finished my drink and joined Paul in the dining room. They were serving a choice between duck à l'orange and sole meunière. I ordered the sole. Paul surprised me by suggesting I order a glass of white wine to go with it. "Go ahead," he said. "It won't bother me." I asked for a glass of Chablis.

The meal was delicious and I was starting to feel very relaxed. I had been sleeping better and the combination of fresh air and good food, not to mention a couple of drinks, had conspired to help me unwind a bit.

"Now I know why people come to places like this," I told Paul.

"Absolutely," he said, patting his stomach. "We should take a little walk tonight, wear off some of these calories." He had ordered the duck as well as a piece of pecan pie. "Since I stopped drinking, I seem to crave rich food a lot more," he confessed.

We took the path behind the main lodge that wound past the outbuildings and bunkhouses and led to a concession road just north of the resort. We hadn't been walking long when Paul stopped and said we really should have brought a flashlight.

"You wait here and I'll run back and get one."

I wasn't crazy about waiting there alone for him and it took me a few minutes to realize why. I was standing on the spot where Melinda's body had been found. I shivered at the chill reminder and pulled my light summer jacket tighter around me. Hurry up, Paul, I thought. Please hurry up.

I thought it was him coming up behind me. He wasn't making much noise, but I guess my senses were alert to everything at that moment and I could hear the faint movement of someone coming closer to me in the night. I turned with relief, just in time to see an arm raised to strike me with a dark, heavy object, like a croquet mallet. I grabbed at the arm and managed to deflect the blow from my head to my shoulder and cried out in pain.

I heard an angry expletive as the mallet was raised again and saw a flash of moonlight on my assailant's glasses. This time I charged, full force, knocking her down with a blow to the stomach. She fought like a tiger but I had twenty-five years' worth of rage stored up and I wasn't about to let her go. I think I might have killed her if Paul hadn't come back and pulled me off her.

"Janet," I heard him say, trying to rouse her. "Janet. Are you all right?"

She rolled on her side and pulled her knees up to her stomach and groaned. He looked at me in disbelief and I could only shake my head.

"I think she did it for you," I finally said. "She must have wanted you so badly."

I decided not to press charges because Janet confessed to killing Melinda all those years ago. I felt as if one of my demons had been laid to rest, but for Paul, it was different. He felt more to blame than ever. "You don't know how badly I need a drink," he told me.

I begged him to get help and not to give in. It's been a year now and he's still in therapy. I have struggled to salvage the relationship that I think we could have had, and there are days when I'm ready to give it up because Melinda is still there between us. But then I come back. Maybe it just needs a little more time.