Tom Cantrell



Fish on

Awkward and introverted, Scott Coolidge is the Fish on the Sand.

An aspiring author, Scott finds himself thrown into a life he never expected. Making the the best of his new situation, he tries to focus on fixing up his friend's cottage while working on the novel he's always dreamed of writing. Instead, he must navigate living in this small Northern Michigan town where everyone knows your business.

Scott must overcome his own lack of self-confidence to find himself. Along the way, he'll encounter a distinctive cast of characters including Posey, the town cougar who always seems to show up at the worst time, Sandy, an overly talkative meddler and her equally untalkative husband Frank and Cece, the Jesus-loving waitress to name just a few. Most importantly, he meets Betts, the beautiful woman who sees Scott as her ticket out of town, and Betts' ever scowling force of nature best friend Adrian.

Oh, and to top it off, the cottage just may be haunted.

This romantic-comedy but is not your typical novel. Scott's mostly futile writing attempts depicting the adventures of Flint Lowell (who's name comes from a highway sign) are integrated into the story. His poor writing samples are unintentionally funny, but give a snapshot into Scott’s state of mind.


Fish on the Sand

Chapter 1

Fruit pies. 

I should have gone with the fruit pies.

When I first arrived at Bear Lake, there were two choices. Eat at one of the local restaurants or get fruit pies from the gas station. Now, standing alone in Vickie’s, some 250 miles from anything I know, and with everyone in the place staring at me, I’m thinking gas station fruit pies would have been just fine. 

This is not where I want to be. I don’t want to be at this restaurant. I don’t want to be in this little North Michigan town. What I want is to go home. But the facts are, for the time being, this is my home.

It takes an eternity, but eventually the crowd tires of watching me and returns to their food. It's time to leave. The only person still paying any attention to me is a woman sitting near the door. She gives me this sympathetic motherly look. “Best to set yourself, dear. They’re real busy.”

Setting… seating myself would be terrific if there were somewhere to sit. There isn’t even an empty stool at the bar. The woman glances around and comes to the same conclusion. “Oh, dear. There’s no place for you to sit. Why don’t you come join us?” She pushes the dirty dishes around to clear some space.

And I thought standing here in front of everyone was bad. Another check of the crowded bar turns up nothing. “That’s okay.” And it is. The idea of sitting with perfect strangers does not appeal to me in any way. “I’ll just go—”

“Nonsense.” She pushes a chair out and gestures toward the table. Turns out my desire to eat outweighs my fear of socially awkward situations which is saying something. Besides, she’s so enthusiastic about the whole thing I find myself nodding.

“If it’s no trouble.” Part of me seriously hopes it is trouble, but that’s clearly not the case.

“Not at all, Frank and I love company. Don’t we, Frank?” Frank doesn’t react except to turn his head slightly in my general direction. There’s room for four more at the table which leaves me with no excuse, so I take the offered seat. The woman brings a hand to her chest. “I’m Sandy. Sandy Hackner. This is my husband, Frank.”

“Hi. Scott Coolidge.”

Thankfully, it’s not too noisy in here so I can hear them. The country song playing isn’t one I’m familiar with and the place smells like grease and fish. While Frank is staring off at nothing, Sandy hasn’t stopped studying me. “New in the area.” This is a statement, not a question, and she doesn’t wait for an answer. “Where are you from?”

Best to go with the short version. Grew up in Marshall, went to Grand Valley State for college, got a job, moved to Port Huron, and now here. The entire time I talk, Frank doesn’t appear to pay any attention while Sandy is enraptured. Sandy has the look of someone who’s spent a lot of time in the sun. What stands out is the great poof of light brown hair on the top of her head that bounces when she talks. She’s wearing a print sundress, and her entire body is in constant motion as she talks. Frank has a weathered look, dark hair flecked with silver, a bushy mustache, and is wearing a worn NASCAR hat, and even though it’s a warm summer evening, a faded blue windbreaker zipped to his neck. He hasn’t said a word, but there is something in his dark eyes that makes it look like he’s thinking. Then Sandy asks what I hoped she wouldn’t. “What brings you to our little town?”

Not a simple question to answer. Do I start with getting fired from my job as a PR writer at LJ Publishing? Perhaps explain that my best friend and his girlfriend talked me into moving up here to fix his dead father’s place so he can sell it? Maybe skip all that and tell her I’m here to write the novel I’ve always dreamed of writing. All three are true and intertwined and would take multiple sentences to answer complete with dreaded follow-up questions. Reviewing my options leads me to what seems to be the simplest answer. “My friend Ellis asked me to come up here to fix up his father’s cottage. His Dad passed—”

“Oh, the Ellis place. Jimmy Ellis. What a wonderful man. We do miss him. Don’t we, Frank? That’s a beautiful cottage. He always kept it so tidy. It’s fallen apart since he passed. How bad is it?”

Turns out that wasn’t the simplest answer at all. “I’m not sure. I just got to town and hadn’t eaten anything, so I came here first.” 

While she’s nodding, I can’t say she’s listening. “Oh, the whole story is so tragic. Poor Jimmy. One day you’re up and about. The next you’re in a hospital and you never come home. You said his son asked you to fix it up?”

How about that? She was listening. “Yes, that’s right.”

“I do remember Jimmy had a son. What did you say his name was again?”

I didn’t, but that doesn’t matter. “Steve.” Using his first name is weird. I haven’t called him anything but Ellis since our college days at Grand Valley.

Sandy’s eyes light up. “That’s right, Steve. Jimmy talked about Steve. Didn’t he Frank? Oh, my. It’s been years. Is he up here too?”

Frank may have shrugged. I shake my head. “He might come to visit, but I’m not sure. He plans to sell the cottage after I’m done.”

My words leave Sandy stricken. “Oh, no. That won’t do. Jimmy loved his cottage. I’d hate to see it sold. It should stay in the family. He shouldn’t sell it.”

Now, I feel accused. As if this was my decision. But it’s not. This was all Ellis. Steve doesn’t have any siblings and, despite knowing for sure he plans to sell, I’m compelled to soften it up. “Well, maybe he won’t. I don’t know for sure. I… I’m just here to fix it up.”

“Well, that’s good. Selling it is a bad idea.” Sandy appears very satisfied as if the matter is settled. For a split second, it looks like Frank is considering saying something. This is fascinating because in the brief time I’ve been sitting here, it’s the closest he’s had to any real facial expression. Sandy sits up in her seat and waves her hand. “Oh, here you go. Adrian, Adrian, over here.” 

I follow Sandy’s gaze and see a woman wearing a white “Vickie’s” T-shirt and a pair of tan shorts. About my age if not younger, she drops a beer off and then comes over to gather the used dishes from our table. On the shorter side, her blond hair is tied up in a hasty ponytail and she has this shiny glaze on her face like she’s been exercising. But what stands out beyond anything is her scowl. Her furrowed brow, set jaw, and angry brown eyes are about all I can see.

“Sorry about the wait.” The tone of Adrian’s voice matches her expression. “I’ll get this out of here and get your check.”

Sandy practically slams her hand down on the dirty plates. “Oh, never mind that. Scott has been waiting for a long time now. Can you take his order?”

The scowl, somehow, grows more intense. Adrian stops for a moment and sighs. “One thing at a time. I’ll be right back.” She gathers the rest of the dishes and carries them off. As she leaves, Sandy gasps, “Oh, no.” For a moment, I’m wondering if she wasn’t finished eating and realized the waitress had taken her food away, but instead, she’s glancing around the restaurant. “Betsy hasn’t gone again, has she Frank?” 

Frank takes a slow gaze across the bar, and I find myself doing the same. Seems like the least I can do, despite having no idea who Betsy is or what she looks like. This also gives me a chance to check out the place. Everything in here is brown. The tables, chairs, the bar itself, and the uneven floors are all brown matching the wood-paneled walls. The only thing that breaks up the endless sea of brown is a few neon beer signs and posters for Michigan’s sports teams. 

Sandy is bordering on hysterics, “Do you think she left? She wouldn’t leave, would she? Not so soon after last time?”

Now Sandy is staring at me as if I should know what happened. How would I? The only response I have is a shrug, so she turns towards her husband. “Do you think she left, Frank? She wouldn’t leave with it so busy, would she?” Frank almost appears amused by all this but who can tell for sure? He rises from his chair and walks toward the bar. 

I’m trying to think of something to say when a menu lands in front of me. “You want the special? I can take your order now if you want it.”

The waitress, Adrian, is standing next to me. Her pen poised over her pad; her mouth still fixed in that scowl. Now I feel cornered. “Um, can you give me a minute?”

“Sure, I’ll be back.” 

She shoves the pad into her back pocket and hurries off. Pretty sure she mutters “eventually” as she leaves. Frank ambles back and shrugs so I guess this Betsy is AWOL. It feels very important to not risk angering the waitress so, I focus on the standard bar fare listed on the menu. “Any recommendations?”

Sandy remains consumed by taking everything out of the condiment holder. It appears she didn’t hear me, and I’m not about to ask again. But then, she glances up at me. “Oh, I’d get the special.” She’s trying to sound enthusiastic, but it’s not working. “It’s really good tonight. You’ve never gotten the special from Vickie’s?”

Not sure how that would be possible since I just told her, I’d never been here before. Granted, she is distracted so I shake my head. How I even found this place is nothing short of a miracle. Bear Lake is isolated, and this place is outside of that; a lone building standing on the side of US 31. Sandy begins refilling the condiment holder. I’m wishing the scowling waitress would come back, but she’s across the room now. With Sandy playing with ketchup packets and Frank watching her, I read through the menu again just for something to do. When I glance up, Sandy has returned all the condiments to the holder and her eyes are fixed on me. “Tell me more about yourself, Scott. Are you married?”

The directness of the question, along with her sudden shift in demeanor, throws me. Even Frank is interested enough that he almost looks at me. This is another lousy topic for me. Honestly, I haven’t had anything anyone would deem a serious relationship. My dating history is mostly me pining for some woman who didn’t know I was alive. The first key to getting into a relationship is having the other person know you exist and getting people to know I exist has never been my forte.

“Have you decided yet?” A brusque voice cuts in. The scowling waitress has returned. She looks and sounds so annoyed right now it feels like an act. With a smile, I offer her my menu. “Coke and a smile.” Any logical reason why I would say this totally escapes me.

“What?” Her voice is ice. In response, I let out a light laugh to let her know that was a joke which seems to piss her off even more. This entire exchange reminds me there is more than one reason I have never had a serious relationship.

“Okay. Got it. Any food?”

Now I can’t remember at all what I wanted. 

“Well?” She has her pen poised over her pad. My mind settles on the first thing that comes to me. “Uh, the… the special.”

This earns me a vicious stare. “You could have ordered that before.”

Her reaction leaves me so frazzled it’s impossible to think straight. I’m not even sure what I ordered. I’m compelled to salvage the situation, so I try to sound all light and breezy. “Uh, right. Just wanted to peruse your wide selection.”

This was meant to be complimentary. It really was. But it comes out sarcastic and does nothing to improve her disposition. At this point, it would probably be best to shut up. “And do you have Oberon on draft?”

“You want a coke and a beer?”

“I didn’t order a Coke.” My thoughts fall back to my failed joke. If she has any sense of humor, now is not the time to test it.

With a deliberate stroke of her pen, Adrian draws a line through something on the pad, and her eyes bore into me. There is a steely coldness in her eyes. Suddenly it feels like I’m back at LJ Publishing and this waitress is going to tell me I’ve been fired. “What— do you want— to drink?”

“A… a do you have Oberon on draft?”

“No. A bottle work?”

Yes, anything to get this over with. My nod is all she needs. She jams the pad back into her pocket but drops her pen. It clatters to the floor and rolls under my seat.

“Dammit.” She throws her head back and glares at the ceiling. It feels like the pen falling is my fault. I’m deeply sorry about this turn of events even though that doesn’t make any sense. When I lean over to retrieve it, I’m struck by the very unusual pair of shoes she’s wearing. The sole is thicker at the toes than it is back at the heel. They are an earthy brown and look old. Not old as in worn out, rather like an older shoe style. While I’m staring in awe at these vintage shoes, she stamps her foot which makes me sit up too fast. My head bangs against the table and the pen clatters to the floor again.

“Never mind.” Her voice is sharp, chilling. I pick the pen up as fast as I can, but she’s already gone. 

For an instant, it appears Frank is smiling. Sandy reaches over and pats my hand. “Don’t mind her. That’s just her way. It can get a little stressful.” 

The only thing I can manage is a nod. My heart is beating so fast I’ve become lightheaded. Or maybe it’s a concussion. That’s a missed opportunity. If I’d hit my head harder, I’d of knocked myself out and could forget any of this happened. 

My head is still spinning as Sandy talks about how wonderful the fish is here, thankfully forgetting her prior question about my past relationships. But all I can think about is the lump forming on the back of my head and how that waitress just violated every rule of good public relations and customer service I was ever taught.

The rest of my time at Vickie’s doesn’t get any better. The waitress puts my beer down and then practically drops “the special” in front of me, which turns out to be the fish. While I’m eating, I do my best to pay attention, but Sandy’s storytelling overtaxes my ability to process information. When I’m finished, it takes another half an hour to extract myself from the table. Sandy says she’ll stop by, which has to be an empty promise, but I do manage to thank them for letting me sit with them. Utterly exhausted, I am thrilled to be heading to my car. And as I start up the engine, one thing is certain, tomorrow I’m finding a grocery store.


By the time I pull into the driveway of Jimmy Ellis’ cottage, I’m on fumes. I got lost trying to find the place, but it is just as Ellis described. The two-story A-Frame is set among many tall trees and has clearly been neglected. Spider webs hang below the roofline of the house and the detached garage; the lawn has gone wild, and the blue paint is discolored and peeling. The cottage is set lower than the garage, and a huge pine tree has grown over almost the entire stairway leading from the driveway to the sidewalk running alongside the house. One of the flowerboxes lining the lower windows has broken through its bottom, leaving a pile of dirt on the front walk. Even though I promised Ellis, I’d let him know when I arrived, I’m not feeling it right now. Slamming my car door doesn’t make me feel any better. But when I come around the corner of the house, Bear Lake stretches out before me. There is a light breeze sending ripples across the water causing the sunlight to dance over the reflective surface. Dozens of cottages are nestled in among the trees lining the lakeshore and a lone pontoon steers clear of several fishing boats as it moves along the shoreline.

It’s not a big lake, but from where I’m standing on the deck of Jimmy’s cottage it looks amazing. Especially the way the sky appears to go on forever and the trees come right up to the water. Now, this plan doesn’t seem so farfetched. Tomorrow I’m going to start fixing the place up and, more importantly, start my novel. 

This just might work. 

Then, I open the screen door. It comes off its hinges and bashes me on the head.