Spring 2010, Volume 8

Fiction by Mona Panitz

Summers in Maine

On a chilly morning in early September, Harry Bessmer stretched his middle aged arms wide, slapped his bare chest and deeply inhaled the piney Maine air. Barefoot, he bounded down the three wooden steps of the lakeside log cabin with its one all-purpose room, prefab shower, toilet and tiny kitchen.  It was here at Lake Winiwiki that he and Bunny spent every summer of their twenty year marriage.   

From her perch on the toilet Bunny waited for the slam of the screen door, then took a big bite of the Snickers bar she had secreted in her bathrobe pocket and resumed reading her B.D.Cane mystery, featuring Detective Rosie Rozinsky, middle aged, five one and two hundred forty pounds.

She and Harry had been at the cabin since July 4th and now it was past Labor Day. All the summer people were gone and the few village denizens had reverted to their normal sullen ways yet, Harry told her they were going to stay one more week. 

“I want to swim the lake to test my stamina, now that the water’s much colder,” he said.

 Bunny nodded, knowing how vain he was, and too, that he was probably carrying on with Emma Robling the skinny, youngish wife of Malachi Robling owner of the village general store. Bunny hated staying at the cabin, with its splintery floors, rough hewn walls and patched window screens that let in the ferocious mosquitoes that bit her buttery corpulence unmercifully. She was sick of the pine trees and the rocky trails that hurt her corns.  And this summer the squirrels found her cache of chocolate covered malted milk balls. The days were humid and hot and the nights freezing cold. But never once did Bunny complain.

Raised by her millionaire, iron willed father, D.G. Crawford, Bunny learned early that girls should be seen and not heard. She learned too, that the man of the house was a king in his kingdom and never to be contradicted. Thus Bunny spent every summer for twenty years, completing dozens of mosaic candy dish kits, leather lanyards and mystery novels while she ate and ate and ate.

At last they were going home the next morning.  The cabin was strewn with  shoes, shirts, fish smelling cargo pants, stinking socks, wading boots, fishing gear, and the boxes of pine cones that Harry brought back home every year.  It was Bunny’s job to gather up and return to Emma Robling the sizeable pile of useless stuff Harry bought from the store.  

Bunny was struggling to zip up the last suitcase when she heard a commotion on the beach outside.

“I saw him from the back steps of the store,” Malachi Robling exclaimed to the group that had gathered around him. “Swimming strong on his way across the lake, his habit of many years, when all of a sudden he was thrashing around like a fish on a line and going under. I untied old Boonie and started up the outboard.  We were racing to the spot, but got there too late.  Lucky I had the grapplin' hook, fished him out by the seat of his trunks.”

Doc Stitcher stepped forward and placed a big calloused hand on Bunny’s shoulder,

“Miz Bessmer, the uninformed might think your husband died of drownin’ and they’d be partly right, but I’d bet my license he had a heart attack and then went under.  As a practitioner I can tell all the signs, blue in the face and eyes as crossed as a muskrat.  Went quick for sure.  Too bad, a trim healthy lookin’ fella too,” He shook his gray head, “Shame.” 

Bunny stared at him with blank blue eyes, and then slowly turned her head to look down at the outline of Harry’s body. Some one said, “She’s in shock!” Harry was lying there on the pebbled beach, covered up by an army surplus blanket that had been on sale at the general store for years.

“Miz Bessmer,” Robling said, “Do you comprehend what the doc here is sayin? Your husband, Mr. Bessmer died of a heart attack.”

Bunny nodded twice. Her double chinned, moon-shaped face was untouched by lines or wrinkles and typical of those who seldom cry or laugh. She blinked her eyes and then said, “But Harry was very healthy.  BMI 23... BP 120 over 66, and cholesterol 170,” she parroted.  “He warned me all the time that if I didn’t exercise and lose weight I would drop dead of a heart attack.”

“Well,” the doctor said, rubbing his grizzled chin, “looks like he beat you to it. Funny, often it's them health nuts that go first.”  He rubbed his chin again and said,”I serve as the coroner around these parts, and will sign his death certificate." You plannin’ to ship him back on the plane or what?”

 “He wanted to be cremated,” Bunny said, “It was in his will.”


Bunny sighed as she sank her big body into the soft worn leather armchair in the Family Room of Pearson’s Mortuary. The chair was roomy enough for her wide hips and big behind. Its cushioned head rest invited her to lean back and close her eyes.  A warm hush enveloped the room, with just the hissing sound of the fake fireplace and the barely audible organ music wafting down along with the dust motes.

Refracting sunlight shone through a large stained glass window on the opposite wall, and the reds, blues and greens turned her old yellow sweatshirt into an exotic batik that blended with ripples of her fat beneath.  She felt the warmth of the sunlight and squinting, looked up at the window, knowing it was a habit that Harry detested.

“Makes you look like a near sighted cow.” He’d tell her... “Wear your glasses for god’s sake.”

When they met, Harry was a traveling brassiere salesman and Bunny was a tall but still well proportioned woman, big boned like her father D.G. Crawford. At thirty-five, she’d already accepted her place as an old maid in the society of Crushing Montana. Her mother Arabella, a rare beauty died giving birth to her.  Bunny weighed in at twelve pounds.  As was common in those days, babies often were blamed when the mothers died during child birth and D.G. never forgave Bunny.  Thus she grew up not knowing the love of a mother or a father. DG’s one act of kindness was the iron-clad trust fund he set up, willing Bunny sixty-five percent of his copper mining millions with the remainder going to the NRA.

Harry, traveling through town, was by then close to forty, and knew a good deal when he saw one.  He wooed Bunny throughout the lashing cold of the Montana winter. At last, getting DG’s reluctant blessing, they married, and Harry moved Bunny to a four bedroom plus maids’ quarter’s co-op across from New York’s Central Park West, DG’s wedding gift.

Bunny concentrated until the stained glass scene materialized. It was the Angel Gabriel, his strong white wings outstretched and hovering close to Mary.  She, with head covered by a long white cloth was leaning closer to better hear his Good News, the miracle that she had conceived immaculately. Early in their marriage, Bunny longed for a child, someone she could shower with the love that was frozen up like an iceberg inside her.  But after a few years of trying she learned she could never conceive, and now at fifty-five she was past conceiving anything...

Her mind was so tired. Bunny was not accustomed to thinking or deciding or making plans. That was Harry’s job. “But Harry is dead,” she whispered to herself, and a sound strangely resembling a nervous giggle came bubbling up from Bunny’s throat.  Mr. Pearson approached on silent feet, interrupting her reverie.

“Can my wife bring you a cup of tea, Mrs. Bessmer?”

“I would like some coffee please,” Bunny said, “with cream and sugar and a donut or two if possible.”   How easily she was able to make her request, she thought. Had Harry been there, he would have spoken for her, and never allowed the donut, no less two.

Pearson nodded “of course, we can get you that.” Then he cleared his throat and said, “The cremation process will take about three hours. We must first attend to certain mechanical matters, like firing up the retort. Your husband was not a big man, and that should speed things up a bit. When you are ready my wife will drive you back to the lake and we will deliver Mr. Bessmer's cremains late this afternoon.”

Their cabin had no telephone.  It was one of the charms Harry would boast about whenever they had dinner with his business associates and their wives.

“Yep...we have to walk at least a mile to the general store just to get to the nearest phone.  That’s what I call wilderness,” he’d say, exaggerating the distance as he did most everything else.

The following morning, Emma Robling agreed to let Bunny use the store’s telephone.

“There’ll be an extra five dollar charge for getting the long distance operator,” she said curtly.

It was 6am in Malibu and Harry’s sister Maureen was not amused.

“Do you know what time it is here?” She spat.

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, why the hell are you calling?”

“Harry is dead.”

“What, are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” Bunny said. “The doctor here said it must have been a massive heart attack.”

“Ha!” Maureen gave a cynical laugh. “You’re crazy. My brother was healthy as a horse!”   

There was a long silence, and Emma Robling pointed her finger up to the big wall clock. When Maureen came back on, Bunny could hear her exhaling her cigarette smoke.

“Bunny, call the airline immediately and find out exactly what needs to be done to fly his body back here. My God, I’ll need to make so many calls, the newspapers, his business associates and the cemetery.”

Bunny knew Maureen was fully awake now and giving her orders just like Harry did.

“Maureen,” Bunny interrupted,


“Harry was cremated, yesterday.”

“You’re talking shit!” Maureen screamed. “No brother of mine will be burned up.  We have a family plot here in Malibu and hundreds will want to come to his funeral.”

“It was in his will,” Bunny said. “He wanted to be cremated and his ashes, well, he wanted them sprinkled over the old Brooklyn tenement you both grew up in.  He always said the neighborhood was so dirty they’d never notice.”

“Liar!” Maureen yelled so fiercely that Bunny had to take the phone away from her ear.

Bunny stared at the little holes in the receiver, and then gently placed it back in its cradle.  Her hands were trembling. Never before in her life had she hung up on anyone.

It was mid afternoon before Bunny got under way. The temperature had dropped suddenly and a rare September snowfall now blanketed the narrow two lane road to the airport. Her hands were ice cold, but she wouldn’t risk wearing gloves with the big slippery steering wheel that seemed to have a mind its own.

Her fingers lacked the strength to pull the seat belt tight around the heavy square box that held a brass urn and a thick plastic bag filled with Harry’s ashes. It shifted with every curve, making the creaking, complaining sounds of cardboard on leather.   The box was as restless as Harry, and maybe, she thought, he resented having her behind the wheel and he in the passenger seat.  With the sudden snowfall the road was slippery in spots that were darkly shaded.

Bunny was driving the big old Mercedes that Harry had nicknamed Miss Winiwiki. It was the car they stored at the airport when they left the lake to fly home and it was polished and ready for them when they returned every summer. Now the trunk was jammed full and Bunny had to pile up all the leftovers onto the back seat and the floor.

It was unthinkable for her to stop along this road to rearrange anything and so she drove on peering through the windshield and navigating by her side view mirrors. The heater was on high, and she was too hot in her Nordic jacket. She dared not take her eyes off the road and soon salty sweat ran down her temples and into her eyes.

At the lake, Malachi Robling had coming running up, just before she pulled out.  

“Just stay on the M15 and head south for fifty miles,” he instructed, “until you see the airport signs, and by the way, don’t get out of the car for any reason. Just got word there’s been an escape at the county prison. Could be armed and dangerous. You never know.”

The lights of an oncoming car temporarily blinded her and seconds later Bunny saw a flash of something dash across the road, then a thump as her right front tire ran over something. Was that a howl?  Yes, she was sure of it, But Robling’s admonition beat in her brain. She kept her foot on the gas, imagining some small animal whimpering on the road and slowly dying in the cold and dark.

Now it was night. Her brights cut a swath of light through the blackness, and the trees whose colors were lit up in the daytime now stood tightly packed, silent and ominous on both sides of the road. Icy flurries flew into her windshield and the wind made a high crying sound in the trees as her tires crunched along. She was descending a hill, and the tight hairpin turns kept her foot hovering over the brake. At last she was on a straightaway and risked a quick glance at the odometer. She had covered thirty miles!  Bunny allowed herself a deep breath and rotated her shoulders in an effort to relax her tight muscles. For miles now she had to pee, and silently prayed she’d reach her destination before her bladder gave out.

She spotted a tiny moving light ahead in the distance and then an old tin shed emerged from the darkness. A single bulb on a wire hung from its corrugated roof and danced crazily in the wind.  Bunny could hold it in no longer and pulled over onto a small cracked square of pavement and turned the motor off.  The bulb swayed, moving the light in arcs and circles. Beyond desperation she squinted through the windshield, to the left and the right, and heart pounding, swung her door open and stepped out, slamming it shut behind her.

An icy wind rushed across the ground and blew snow and dirt up into her face. She slipped the car keys into her pocket and knees together, hobbled like a penguin around the car to shield herself from the road. Struggling with one hand to pull up the Nordic without unzipping and grabbing hold of her elastic waist sweats with the other, Bunny painfully squatted, knees popping, holding tight to the fender for balance and then...Bliss.  The hot stream of urine sent up small clouds as it snaked away and disappeared in the snow. Bunny shivered, and as if applauding, the single bulb flew up, and looped around itself. Safely back in the car she pushed the lock button, inserted the key and was about to start the motor when there was a tapping at her window.  

Bunny froze, eyes looking down at her lap, afraid to lift her head and turn to see who was out there. Her door handle jiggled and she cried out in fright. There was a man, standing there silent, one hand in his coat pocket, the other at his side.  His features barely visible beneath a battered felt hat pulled low. He pressed his face closer to her window. Now she could see that his lips were cracked and his jaw was covered with five o’clock shadow.  Bunny’s heart thumped, sending blood coursing through her veins. She opened the window a crack.     

“What do you want?” she asked in a trembling voice

“Throw out your purse,” the man said his voice gravelly and menacing.

Bunny thought for awhile and then remembered that her purse was at the bottom of the heap of stuff in the trunk.

“I don’t have one,” she said. The lie, like fairy dust, flew from her lips. “But I do have a wallet, you want that?” She asked hopefully.

”Yeah,” the man said, “Throw it out, and make it snappy!”

Bunny reached over to open the glove compartment when the man yelled, “No funny business.”

“Oh no,” She said earnestly, as  her fingers desperately scrabbled beneath the jumble of maps and old gas receipts for the dummy wallet Harry always kept there. It was stuffed with monopoly money, three real twenties and an expired Bloomingdale’s credit card. She lowered the window an inch and pushed the wallet through.

“What’s in the box on the seat?”  The man growled, as he stooped to retrieve the wallet.  Bunny didn’t answer.

“I said what’s in the box?”  He repeated.

Bunny bent her head toward the box and whispered, “Harry, Harry I’m scared. This guy looks dangerous. Wouldn’t you rather be scattered here in Maine than in your dirty old neighborhood?”

”What’s goin’ on there?” the man yelled, pulling a small pistol from his coat pocket and pointing it straight at Bunny. 

Wide eyed and shaking, she said, “All my jewelry is in there.  See all the stuff in the back seat?  I’m moving to Florida and I always feel it’s safer to have my jewelry with me.”

The man shook his head and rolled his eyes. 

“Ok, Ok, stop with blah, blah and hand it over!”

Bunny opened her door slowly at first and then with such force that it knocked the man to the ground. With trembling hands and tears running down her face, she released Harry’s seat belt and grabbing the box with both hands, flung it out. She slammed and locked her door and fired up Miss Winiwiki, pausing before putting it in drive to watch as the man got to his feet and ran toward woods struggling to keep hold of his unwieldy burden.  Bunny smiled and wiped her face on her sleeve.  Then unzipped her jacket and pulled out onto the road with a heart feeling as light as a fresh croissant.


BIO:  Mona Panitz, having spent her early years in Brooklyn, New York, is a retired executive and psychotherapist, living in Long Beach with her husband, Ed. A winner of the Drury Award, she credits her growth as a writer of short fiction to the excellent faculty of the Long Beach City College Creative Writing Program.