Mike and Peggy Bulmartin are in for the surprise of their lives when their annual vacation in the pastoral setting of the Poconos is interrupted by strange phenomena from the minute they drop their suitcases. Their next-door neighbors the Henshaws seemingly don’t exist, but their odd behavior has the Bulmartins on pins and needles. —From Amazon
For me, it’s an ongoing challenge to review short stories without spoiling the ending. These stories are short by definition. When a story has a plot twist at the end, it informs everything that came before it. At times, it feels impossible to discuss the story outside of that context. Ricko Donovan’s story is called The Best Kept Secret. It announces its intentions up front. I wasn’t surprised that things at the bucolic Oak Haven retirement retreat are not as they seem. However, Donovan’s final Rod Serling-style reveal had me reconsidering every detail on my second read, and it’s a little hard to discuss my impression of the story without also discussing my interpretation of the events.
The plot is simple. Mike and Peggy Bulmartin’s pleasant evening in cabin seven is interrupted by screaming in cabin eight, their neighbors, the Henshaws. The fighting eventually stops with no explanation and the Henshaw’s red convertible disappears. For the next two days, the Bulmartins speculate about what happened and dither over whether to notify management of the disturbance. As they are drawn deeper into the mystery of the Henshaws, Mike and Peggy begin to lose touch with themselves.
Sounds promising, right? The story was certainly intriguing. Through gesture and aw-shucks dialogue, Donovan creates vivid but intentionally thin portraits of his main protagonists, Mike and Peggy, a couple straddling the line between middle-aged and old. By day, they are capable of winning mixed doubles tennis against a younger couple in straight sets. By night, Peggy applies cold cream while Mike reads the New York Times on the john. They use cell phones and debit cards, but otherwise, they could be the lead characters in a 1980s family sitcom. Outside of a few scenes of which I couldn’t discern the meaning, Donovan paces the story well by dropping a bread-crumb trail to follow through the climax to his unsettling conclusion. What I found most interesting, though, was how I re-interpreted the bread crumbs once the mystery was revealed: it is not the Henshaws who are hiding something. It is the Bulmartins. This ending, which I’m being so vague about, required me to really reach for a interpretation of what Donovan’s intentions are. Perhaps he means it to remain open-ended, but I tend to think he knew exactly what he was setting readers up for. I’m just not sure I got it.
In his only appearance in the story, Henshaw surprises Mike who believes he is alone, fishing in solitude on the shore of a well-stocked lake tucked in the woods.
“This place is the best kept secret,” Henshaw said.
“You mean this spot?”
“No. I mean this whole place. Oak Haven.”
Here, Donovan serves up his biggest clue. The best kept secret isn’t what is going on between the Henshaws and the Bulmartins. It’s Oak Haven itself. This little group of cabins in the woods, inhabited by vacationing retired folks who drink Heineken, play cards, and grill freshly caught fish, is a literal haven. I believe there’s a reason the guests aren’t very interested in the conflict between the Henshaws. In my interpretation of the story, Oak Haven isn’t real. Those vacationing there are like the community of alternate identities living inside the mind of someone with multiple personality disorder. They live in their own world with only the barest awareness of the reality of the mind or minds hosting them—in this case, the Henshaws.
Donovan drops a hint right from the beginning:
The Henshaws were summer regulars at Oak Haven, a tucked-away cabin resort up in the Poconos. Everyone who knew them said they were sort of an odd couple. But it wasn’t until the screaming and shouting escaped their walls one night that their neighbors the Bulmartins began to pay close attention.
The Henshaws’ interactions with the Oak Haven world is ephemeral. They seem to appear and disappear at odd times and from nowhere. In their encounters with Mike, both Henshaws make the finger-to-lips quiet gesture, symbolizing they are aware of their ability to create a disturbance. Mike is baffled when Henshaw predicts rain on a sunny day, but a storm does come, as if the Henshaws’ escalating violence affects the weather. The more Mike tries to save the Henshaws, the more Peggy resists.
“I have and awful headache and I’ve had about enough of this.”
“—It’s none of our business and frankly it’s ruining our vacation.”
This is a sentiment she expresses repeatedly, and to her credit, her prediction comes true. By acknowledging the turmoil, Mike seems to be acknowledging reality, and in the real world, there is no safe haven.