Spring 2008, Volume 32, Number 1
Alone on an aluminum fishing boat rocking on gentle waves, I can see the island just ahead, though the hand-built cabin at its center remains hidden from view. Its familiar presence tugs at something behind my chest, not the heart, but somewhere nearby. Easing off of the accelerator lever at my backside brings the lightweight, twenty-five horsepower motor clamped to the rear of the boat to a low rumble. I throw the motor into neutral and kill it. The boat comes in slightly off angle and I have to catch the dock with my hand to prevent a collision. The single plastic bumper tied to the side of the boat hits the water with a tight plop when tossed overboard. With only one bumper in the middle of the boat, instead of the logical pair with one tied at each end, it does little to keep the boat away from the dock. Instead, the lone bumper, unable to function outside of a pair, acts as a fulcrum around which the boat swivels back and forth. There are already two fair-sized dents in the side, one at the top and one at the bottom, where the aluminum siding has caved inward.
Stepping out on the dock, I loop the stern rope through and around the two mooring cleats at the corners of the dock. The boat secured, I scan the island, no larger than a football field. I caress my shaved head from the top of my scalp all the way down to the nape of my neck, admiring the way the prickly texture hugs the not-so-feminine curve. Someone would probably mistake me for a man, if there was anyone around to make such a mistake. I breathe in deep, hard. By mid-fall the weather will have already started to turn. The leaves will wither, peel away, and take flight. The first snowstorm will roll through and instill the air with a crisp, sterile scent like a hospital restroom. Another month and the entire lake will freeze over. If not disassembled and taken ashore, the permanent docks (as their fraudulent builders call them) will be forced out of place, distorted and destroyed as enormous shifting blocks of ice from below the surface of the lake are forced upwards by newer, deeper sheets of ice forming at even greater depths, lifting and grinding the docks up against the earth. After about two months, the two-lane road leading up to the marina will periodically be declared impassible, often for weeks at a time. By then the lake will be empty and alone, except for me.
The only noise within earshot comes from the lonely call of a single loon somewhere off in the distance, a distress call as if it has been separated from its mate. It gets no response and soon even it will leave this place.
The scent of a long and inevitable Canadian winter is in the air, is the air. This is my winter home. But this is not my island.
Winters here are ruthless and the island is far from a seasonal retreat in the cold months (which greatly outnumber the warm ones). I used to be a mother, well versed in the importance of planning ahead. Arrival duties cannot bear procrastination. The screws on the outhouse door have to be removed and the whole door taken off by its hinges so that the outhouse can be restocked. The door will stay leaned against the side of the outhouse for the rest of the winter, a coating of ice usually holding it in place from November to March. I stock hundreds of economy-sized toilet paper rolls in the only cupboard in the outhouse and empty two boxes of tampons onto the shelf directly above the seat. As an impromptu trash can for used ones, I set out one of the empty boxes on the floor and place a rock inside to weigh it down. The tampons can’t go into the pit because neither the rayon in them nor the plastic applicators will biodegrade by spring.
The outhouse is cramped, no more than a mere four-foot by four-foot wooden cube with corrugated fiberglass sheeting forming an impromptu ceiling just inches overhead. The enclosed quarters reek from a summer of constant use and even the top layer of yeast that’s been poured down the pit does little to stem the tide of the stench as it billows up from below. The outbuilding hasn’t, to my knowledge, been moved in decades. Not once since I was little.
I peer down into the pit at the excrement stacking up. The yeast has eaten up some of what’s on top as it spreads and climbs the earthen walls, but, as it looks to have been dropped recently, I can still differentiate one pile of droppings from the next. For my own amusement, I try to guess which ones were left behind by my husband, which by our children, and which by his new wife.
The water tower has to be pumped in order to take hot showers or baths. The water is too cold to just lather your body up and jump into the lake like my brothers and I did when we were younger. While I doubt it’s cold enough to send my body into hypothermia just yet, I’d still rather not risk pneumonia. Without hospitals, one learns to be careful. Again, planning ahead. So I set out to pump the tower. This requires filling the pump’s motor with gasoline and waiting for it to finish pumping lake water up a hundred and fifty foot black, rubber tube and into the five-hundred gallon tank suspended high up by two-by-fours. The tank full, I fumble around underneath the water heater in the bathhouse, looking for the pilot light. Only after all of this can I take my first hot shower in nearly five months. All of the electricity here comes from small generators powered by diesel or propane, eliminating the need to worry about extra energy usage showing up on Micah’s electric bill. All I have to do is refill any gas tanks I get into before leaving and it’s like I was never here. Mostly.
I look forward to washing the layer of sweat, dirt, and dandruff that has solidified into one homogenous, Crisco-like substance out of the stubble on my scalp, so much so that I won’t even bother with unloading supplies from the boat or using my long expired credit card to jimmy open the locks on the main cabin until I’m thoroughly clean. Cleanliness sure hasn’t ever led me to godliness, but I still welcome the change of pace.
After showering, the tank must be emptied, just in case the temperature drops down below freezing overnight. By December it will rarely, if ever, rise above the freezing point and I will again be unable to bathe until right before departing in April. These days, there are only about two months out of every year during which I throw a scent even remotely feminine.
One night a few years back, after one too many glasses of Canadian whiskey, I forgot to empty the water tower. I awoke the next morning to find one side of the tank cracked open and the tower tilting dangerously far to the side as the weight of a five-hundred gallon ice cube began sliding through the crack, bearing all of its massive weight against one end. It cost me two whole alimony checks to get it fixed. It would’ve been cheaper just to buy a new one. But, of course, that wasn’t an option.
There’s a man, Kent, who summers on the next island over. Kent is divorced, too, but when he talks about it he says, “We ain’t divorced. Just separated.” Well, they’ve been just separated for five years now, going on six. Kent is in his mid-forties, older than me by almost a decade and a half. When I’m feeling particularly lonely, I take my boat over to his place for a few drinks, chat him up for a while. Before I leave, I sometimes let him lead me to the fold-out futon in the back corner of his one-room cabin and undress me, sometimes not. Kent and Micah are longtime acquaintances from up here and they still go fishing together during the summers. I feel bad for Kent. He hates having to lie. All I can do is assume they don’t talk about me at all.
On occasion, I’ve asked Kent about Micah and his second wife.
“They do alright,” he says, or something equally meaningless and obscure. “You ought not to worry about them two. Some doors are just closed.” When he says this it reminds me of the outbuildings and the cabin doors that I pry open annually. Just meaningless associations and empty words, I wash them from my mind.
Almost invariably, I regret ever bringing the subject up. But one time I dug deeper, wouldn’t let it go until Kent hooked me with his steady gaze and said, “You think he worries about you when he’s up here? You think he ever asks me how it is you’re doing?”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know damn well what it means.” He looked away. Or maybe I did.
We don’t get into it with each other too much, but it seems like we spend most of our time gearing up for a fight that never comes. Most of the time it never gets far before I let things drop. But backing down gets me all awkward, robs me of words. Within about five minutes, either we get to screwing each other in silence or I head out on the water alone.
Like most of the people that own cabins or summer homes up here, Kent’s never spent a whole winter out on the lake. “Too dangerous,” he says. But he never leaves until late in the season, until the first, centimeter-thin layer of ice creeps over the top of the lake in the early morning when it sits as flat and still as glass. Only then does he pack up and head back to his real home down in Atlantic City (not even a quarter of the people that come up here are Canadian, most of them American well-to-dos) leaving a trail of shattered ice behind him.
Kent always laughs when I say things like down in Atlantic City. He grew up in rural Mississippi, right on the river, where he claims “they’d knock your dick right in the dirt for saying something ignorant as that.” He always laughs, but I never get it. One place is good or bad as the next, ultimately neutral. I’ve never, in my whole life, been farther south than the quaint, muted towns of upstate New York, motionless as if lifted from some enlarged model train set, as lifeless as here, when you get down to it. I haven’t set foot on American soil in over half a decade and I don’t regret it. Nothing about my old life prompts nostalgia or longing. Whenever I tell Kent this he always says the same thing: “Sounds like someone’s climbing up the bullshit pile, again.” He always talks like that, backwoods slang. An adage for every situation, no matter how unlikely or obscure.
It’s funny how I’ve started saying things like used to and s’pose so, the way I’ve taken to his terse clipped speaking. Kent being the only other person I’ve had any substantial amount of conversation with in years, I’m picking up his accent and mannerisms as if I’d moved to some one-man foreign country and begun the lonely, humbling process of assimilation.
Sometimes, I pretend the reason Kent stays so late into the season is because of me. Other times, I just accept it as fact.
Before the cold gets too bitter and the fish get sluggish and retreat to the lake bottom to either hibernate or die, I like to take my boat out at night for some muskie-trolling. Muskies taste like shit, but they’re such a challenge to reel in that catching one is almost worth having to eat it. This is the ideal time of year to go fishing out here because they fight less when the water is cold. Still, it can take hours of reeling and letting out slack, over and over again till they tire themselves out.
Tonight, the lake is calm enough that all surface movement is sure to be noticed by anything prowling beneath the water. Because of this, and that I prefer to let my hook drag rather than having to continually cast and reel, I switch out my noisy motor with one of the trolling motors Micah keeps under the cabin. It barely sounds or disturbs the water as it pushes the boat along and drags my spinning lure just beneath the surface. I sip whiskey straight from the bottle. Water resistance tugs at my pole, cramps my hand. Rather than set down the whiskey to hold the pole with both hands, my one hand grips tighter, fights through the dull pain.
I troll by night, preferring not to deal with any of the game wardens because I don’t have a fishing license. The woman that sells them from her shop at the marina knows Micah and feels it’s her religious obligation to bring up my morally questionable divorce and lifestyle whenever she sees me. Even though we both know she doesn’t have it in her heart to tell Micah I’m here, I avoid her, nonetheless. If she hasn’t mentioned it before, why would she start now? What would Micah do if he knew? Would he even come, or would he leave things be so long as we kept mutual boundaries? I push it out of mind.
They used to have muskies out here so big you needed at least two people to net them. Muskies so big they could’ve shredded your hand in a single shark-like bite. One year when I came up here with my parents, right around my tenth birthday, we were down at the marina loading the boat up with supplies to carry back. Three boys—they looked like brothers, but behaved more like high school drinking buddies—pulled up to the dock, whooping and hollering. One of them carried the biggest muskie I’d ever seen under his arm. The other two boys cheered him on, so taken by the moment that they hadn’t even bothered to hide the beer cans they each had in hand. The boy with the muskie got out of the boat and carried the fifty-plus pound fish over his head with both hands. For grip, he had one hand tucked up inside the fish’s cavernous gills, where the soft, slimy scales parted in folds, hiding the razor-sharp bones underneath from sight. Blood ran all the way down the boy’s arm. Alcohol had left him oblivious to pain.
My brothers giggled as he marched past us with the muskie held up overhead, but all I could do was stare at the little red droplets raining down into his hair. My daddy pointed out the boy’s injured hand to him. “You’re bleeding there.”
The boy stopped and clenched his face unevenly, a puzzled grimace. Then, taking in our nice, unstained clothes, he dismissed us with smug laughter as ignorant, urban tourists. “Just some fish blood is all,” he said. “Had to give him a few good whacks to the head to stop his fighting.” He gestured toward a metal chair leg he’d fashioned into a club. Fastened to his belt by the steel pivot ball at its end, the leg swung loosely at his side like an asymmetrical tail when he walked.
“I don’t think that’s the fish bleeding, son,” Daddy said.
“You don’t think so, aye?” The boy laughed some more and then marched on past us toward the marina’s shops, no doubt planning to take his catch to the taxidermist to have it sprayed and mounted, a practice Daddy would not tolerate on our island. Any game we took was to be eaten or never taken at all.
I watched the boy as he left, the blood now running down the length of his arm and soaking into the back of his tee-shirt, unable to understand why he was so quick to hostility.
My daddy flicked my ear with one of his thick hairy fingers, the sting bringing me back to the present. “Here,” he said, forcing a tray of blood red strawberries into my arms for me to load into the boat. “And you stay away from those boys if you see them out on the water.”
I was used to this kind of overprotection. From the time I was out of diapers and recognizable as female, Daddy had always assumed that every man and boy within eyeshot had their sights locked in on nothing but my crotch. Nonetheless, he took an immediate liking, a trust even, to Micah. They used to go out together, just the two of them, to shoot skeet. At first, I’d always turned down these outings as I’d sooner stay home with a glass of wine than waste good ammo shooting at ceramic pottery. But after a while I started tagging along because I couldn’t put it out of my head that they were talking about me behind my back. I remember the last time, near the end of our marriage, when they had gone out alone one last time. That time, I wasn’t invited.
I haven’t seen either of my parents in several years, though I do ring them up from a calling card every other weekend. I tell them I live in Seattle with a new boyfriend. That I’m going back to nursing school. That I’m planning another family. A million other lies, none of them even passable as half-truths. When I finish my spiel, Daddy asks me the same tired questions.
“You still drinking?”
“Not too much really.”
“How’s the island?”
What can I do but hang up? He knows I’ll call back eventually. I always do.
I’m pulled from my daydream by a firm tug on the line and I snap the pole back quickly to drive the hook home. Whatever I’ve caught, its pull doesn’t feel fishlike. Rather than tugging in jerks it has a more constant pull, but not quite steady enough to be a snag. Bracing the pole against my thigh, I reach for my steel flashlight and reel my catch toward the surface, shining light down into the water to see what’s there. A snapping turtle with a shell only about six inches across, caught not by its beak, but by the side of its face. One of the three hooks on the lure has punctured through its left eye. Even though the snapper is relatively small (I’ve seen plenty up here with shells measuring several feet in diameter) and I could probably get him off the lure, I know better than to mess with it. I bite the line in two, and the turtle disappears beneath the surface of the water, muddy darkness swirling in around it.
I think maybe tomorrow I’ll go and see what Kent has been up to over the past few months. He may only spend “summers” here, but they’re long summers encompassing half of the year. He retired early, made his money in real estate and got out early, just as soon as he’d saved up enough of a nest egg to live and die modestly on.
An hour later, while putting away my fishing tackle and pulling up a stringer with nothing on it but a small perch and bass, both just barely keepers, I notice the snapping turtle. Resurfaced, it floats motionless in the water. It’d be a shame letting it go to rot there. Birds won’t be able to peck through the shell, and there’s nothing in the water near big enough to swallow it whole. A hooked turtle doesn’t quite count as game, but Daddy’s words still come to me: “Eat what you take or don’t take it in the first place.” I’ve never had turtle, but Kent once told me how people down in New Orleans fix it into soup. I pull the boat up beside the floating carcass and use a net to hoist it up into the boat. At least I get my lure back. When the lodged hook pulls free, the eye tears open and a thick brown liquid dribbles out.
I remember that I’m past due on making a phone call to my parents.
The next morning I have to use an old, rusted hammer from the cellar to crack the shell open. It gives with a bubbly squish and a squirt of dark blood. Once fried, the meat has a texture similar to wet burlap. Without anything to moisten it except the little bit of grease I fried it in, the chewed up chunks scrape against the inside of my throat like pinecones, but I finish my plate anyway and store the rest of it in the cellar beneath the cabin. Packing ice over the body, I use my hands to compact it tightly, sealing in what scant freshness the tough meat has. The cold works its way through my gloves, causing my fingers to go numb and useless, the way whiskey does your mind in the morning. I try to remember at what point it was that I first became comfortable with existing this way, scavenging, subsisting on sea mast and other organic waste, about as fickle as the catfish or the chubsuckers out in the lake.
They say that the bayous of Lake Ontario and a few of these small freshwater lakes north of Toronto are the only places in the world where lake chubsuckers can still be found in the wild and that even here they’re disappearing rapidly. A dying breed. Looking out over the water, I wonder when I too will take to settling down into the thick mud and tranquility of the lake’s bottom, retreating from all that lies in waiting just above the surface.
The amount of supplies I have to keep in store here is ungodly. There isn’t enough storage space in the cabin, not even with the cellar. Careful planning is again key.
The optimal place to store things isn’t immediately intuitive. I keep firewood inside the cabin, because if left outside water gets into the logs and freezes, making them difficult to separate and impossible to burn. The insulation in the walls is poor, just a few inches of foam sprayed between the boards, so I have to keep the furnace running nonstop for the entire winter or the inside temp quickly drops down to the same level as the outside temp. Even a small amount of carelessness can lead to frostbite. Freezing to death by morning is a constant concern. At night, I set two diesel-battery alarm clocks (in case one stops working) to wake me up every few hours to throw more wood in the furnace. I cut my own firewood but I can’t collect it from the island because the damage done to the vegetation would be obvious. Instead, I harvest it from the mainland during the summer. Over the next month I will make at least half a dozen trips a day to my old campground to haul it back to the cabin. I move all the furniture out of the bedroom and stack the logs to the ceiling.
Jugs of water are stored both inside and outside. The outside ones have to be emptied of a third of their water and squeezed to remove excess air before screwing the cap back on. Otherwise, they’ll bust when the water freezes and expands. I run a long line of docking rope between the holes in the middle of their pour handles and tie them all down together so they won’t blow away in a storm.
As much meat as can fit in the cellar is put away and packed in snow where it’s safe from wolves and other scavenging animals that sometimes roam onto the island once the lake goes solid. Whatever won’t fit into the cellar, which is a lot, is buried outside under the snow. Entire deer carcasses lie packed in snow where I can only hope nothing will come along and dig them up. Burying all of your meals takes a lot of effort, but at least this way I don’t have to worry about game wardens inspecting all my stores. Poaching is illegal here and the conservationists have really cracked down. There are all kinds of rules on when and where you can kill what, with what license, under what astrological sign, and all other manner of arbitrary stipulatio. I don’t bother with all that. I just keep to myself, live by my own rules, fashion my own order.
Once the lake freezes, no one will be around and there is no landline to run a phone through, so if my water, food, firewood or fuel ran out, I would likely die. But as long as careful planning is adhered to and enough extra of everything is put away, it’s reasonably safe to stay the whole winter through. Kent’s just a big, old pussy. You just have to keep one step ahead of the elements, your head just over water till the storm subsides.
I’d have done well in my younger years to plan ahead this well for everything in life. But survival mode doesn’t kick in until it literally becomes a matter of life or death. It should come as no surprise that few marriages are salvaged in survival mode. If I could ever go back to that bitch of a marriage counselor we used to fork out a forty dollar co-pay to every Wednesday, I’d probably try to explain this to her. And she probably wouldn’t listen. The two of them would find some way to turn it around on me. Micah was always forming fronts against me. If it wasn’t him and the therapist, then it was him and my parents, him and the kids. Always someone, something.
I keep over a hundred half-pint bottles of cheap liquor put away on shelves that run all the way around the main room of the cabin. At least one bottle for each night I’ll spend alone here by myself. I didn’t always drink like this. I was raised Baptist and temperate, but at some point sobriety just started to make less sense than the opposite. I’ll be well in the grave before I ever admit what that point was or why I crossed it. But I guess either admission is about as self-evident as the next.
Every year, Kent asks why I shave my head down to the scalp when there “ain’t no bugs here in the winter.” He’s right there. The mosquitoes and biting horseflies are terrible in spring and summer, but that all changes after the first freeze. I tell him that there are ticks and lice in the woods where I wait out the summer, where I wait out Micah and the kids. And I tell Kent that some habits are easiest to maintain when you just keep at them.
Kent is always asking me dumbass questions. I try not to let it get to me.
I’ve been coming up here by myself every year for five years now, but that’s not counting when I was still with Micah and even before we got hitched. This place—the island, the cabin, all of it—used to be in my family. My grandparents bought the island in their thirties after my grandfather got back from the war. He spent a decade working in an auto-plant—first down on the line and then standing watch over it—to save up enough money to buy the island. Then he came up here and worked one minimum wage shit-job after the next just to have enough to pay the property taxes and put food on the table. That was enough for him. When my parents inherited the place, they brought me here every summer. They eventually lost interest, but not me. I kept coming on my own. I love it here. Because people can’t be allowed to hate their own lives, things just wouldn’t work that way.
Now the island belongs to Micah. His lawyers won it for him in the divorce. And both the kids. Tired of fighting, I skipped the court hearing. I called my lawyer the next day to get an update. He asked if I was hung-over, which I denied.
“So how’d it go?”
He hesitated, and then said, “Not good, Suzie Q. Not good at all.”
“Your father testified. On Micah’s behalf.” I hung up, never called back or returned a phone call of his ever again. I guess Micah must have picked up my legal bills on his tab because I haven’t heard about it since.
That was also the day I hung up on my old life. I haven’t seen my kids in five years, maybe because I’m lazy, maybe because I’m a bad person. I have visitation rights, but I don’t exercise them. Micah has summer pictures of them framed and hung up around the cabin so that every winter I see them growing up through a disjointed perspective, like watching Claymation puppets in slow-mo. I’ve seen pictures of all their firsts. First fish. First time to get up on skis. Pictures of them snuggling with my husband and his new wife in the same bed I sleep in during their absence.
I suppose that when Micah passes on he will leave the island to our children. So when it comes right down to it, the island is still in the family; it’s me that’s not.
The boy is seven now, the girl almost nine. I try not to think about my kids too much.
For the third morning in a row, I’m woken up by the shrill cawing of a pair of crows that have taken up residence in the pines next to the cabin. They start cawing at dawn, just as soon as they see the first weak rays of red sunlight creep up over the horizon. Crows are odd birds because, even within the same species, only some are migratory, others not. Even a few of the Canadian ones stay put all year-round. They don’t have summer homes. They mate for life.
I can’t take another restless night’s sleep. Not bothering to get dressed, I just drape one of the many blankets from my bed around my body like a cape. Even though it’s below freezing, I still sleep naked like when I was married. It’s a stupid habit, considering the extreme climate, and yet I can’t break it. I grab my shotgun, running one hand up and down the cold steel of the barrel to prime myself for the task at hand, the violence ahead. Not every valid kill is game. Some kills can produce waste while still being useful and necessary.
The sides of the cabin are lined in pines; foliage dense branches and soft wood make them unsuitable for climbing. But there is a single, dead live oak that hasn’t gone entirely to rot yet at the back of the cabin. I look for the sturdiest-looking branches and test them against a small portion of my body weight. When I get halfway up the tree my blanket snags and I have no choice but to let it go. Naked and cold, I hoist myself up onto the roof, a stiff wind pulling the hair follicles away from my exposed skin, my exposed scalp. I get the irrational urge to cover myself, even though I’m alone. I can’t help but notice the tight stomach and thigh muscles of my twenties softening and giving way to the more pliable and rounded look of a woman in her thirties. I think about how, if there was anyone here to spy on me, I’d look like a lunatic dancing naked on the roof with a shotgun. I hold the gun up close to my body, shielding my breasts and thighs from the probing gaze of fictitious onlookers.
Turning in circles, I search for the nest, careful not to trip myself and tumble down the steep slant of the roof. Between the thick calluses on the soles of my feet and the numbing cold, I can’t even feel the sandpaper texture of the shingles. From up here the entire island is visible at once, the western half still covered in darkness, the eastward side enjoying the first meager light of early dawn.
The crows have gone silent now that I’ve come looking for them. It takes a few minutes for my eyes. Spotting them in a nest built up near the top of the oak, I wonder if they’re still trying to hatch eggs this late in the year or if they’re just huddling in a defunct nest for warmth, waiting out the winter too. The latter seems more likely.
I raise my shotgun, brace the butt against my shoulder and take aim. Still hiding, the birds remain still. They stare me down; I them. The shotgun is my only firearm, and, since I don’t want to keep a rifle just for deer hunting, I keep the chamber loaded with course triple-aught buckshot, not the best thing for taking down birds. I worry that a piece of shot may drop one while the other flies away alone. Hesitation. Tense moments pass. Tenser on which end of the barrel, I can’t say for sure.
I drop my aim and climb back down the dead oak and back into bed. Covering my ears with an extra pillow, I tell myself that I’ll boat down to the marina tomorrow morning and pick up some ear plugs from the shop, if they’re still open. If not, I’ll have to hitch a ride with Kent into town to pick some up from the tire store. Or I could just stay at his place until they leave. I haven’t been over to see him in a while and I suppose some company might be nice for a change.
I decide a ride to the tire store is enough, all I can really expect.
It’s a few hours past dawn and I’m sitting out on the front dock, the whole structure broken and pushed up onto the ice so that the front sits four feet higher than the back, my legs dangling just over a field of ice. Most days I am unbelievably taken and moved by this land, the harshness of it, the deadness. It numbs me, pleasantly so. But sometimes, in a moment of clarity, I’ll realize that out here, alone in the middle of the winter, you live every day within an arm’s reach of death. And that’s a frightening way to live, no matter how much the land has already hardened.
I haven’t seen the crows in a few days and it worries me. Even without them around, I still have trouble sleeping well, rarely getting a full night’s rest in one sitting.
I had a falling out with Kent and he went back to the States. I scan the lake expecting to see a snowmobile—maybe a game warden, maybe even a real cop coming to slap the cuffs on and take me away. Maybe even Micah himself.
But there’s no one, nothing. The lake is empty. Kent is gone. He never stopped by the island to say goodbye like he usually does, which bothers me more than it ought to. This morning, after brewing coffee inside an iron pot in the furnace, I poured it over a bit of whiskey, just to take the edge off.
The last day before Kent left—this was several months ago, after we’d returned from town with the earplugs—we decided to build a fire on his island in a pit that’d been dug out naturally by erosion so we could grill some deer meat over it. He was out of firewood and rather than going to get some from my island and hauling it back, he got out the chainsaw he uses to trim the brush around his cabin. He cut down a cedar, sawed the base of it into circular segments while I rolled them over to the pit one by one and kicked them in. We doused the pile in gasoline and flicked a match on top. The flames reached high up into the air at first, threatening the nearby pines which might have caught fire if they hadn’t been slick with sleet and ice.
Tired from splitting and dragging timber, we were in no rush to gorge ourselves. We cooked the deer slowly, listening to the crackle and pop of wood turning to ash. The smoke worked its way into the deer meat, giving it the scent of a woodshop. We ate outside in the cold, relishing the last days of bearable, though far from comfortable, weather. Afterwards, we washed our meal down with a bottle of Yukon Jack that Kent brought outside and poured straight with no rocks into two touristy coffee mugs purchased from the gift shop at the marina. One had the image of the Canadian flag wrapped around it and the other had a cartoon drawing of a largemouth bass hooked through the lower lip. The artist had painted the fish with a gleeful expression as if it looked forward to being suffocated, skinned, and fried. Kent handed me the mug with the bass on it.
“Shit,” he said. “Almost forgot.” He went inside and came back out carrying a portable radio in one hand and a cassette tape in the other. This is one of Kent’s little rituals.
“This really necessary?” I asked.
“A man without traditions is rooted about as well as a sapling.”
I sighed. Even though I respected this stance, adhered to it myself even, I felt argumentative. “That a big concern of yours?”
“Not up for getting washed away,” he said over his shoulder while wedging the radio into a crevice between two branches. He shook the radio to test its support and, satisfied that it would stay lodged there, slid the tape in. Springsteen’s Nebraska. He fast forwarded, looking for the song “Atlantic City.” He did this every year when he invited me over on his last night before returning home. “Besides, you of all people ought to understand tradition.”
We listened to the Boss’s muted acoustic strumming, the wail of harmonica played in minor key, the rough reverb of the harmony grating against the general melody. All conversation ceased until the song ended. Afterwards, Kent’s face twisted into an expression of awkward pensiveness. Whenever he’s turning something over in his head, his forehead wrinkles up and one eyelid sinks down lower than the other so that he looks like he’s squinting at something through sunlight.
“Care if I ask you something?”
I shrugged in acquiescence. He would’ve eventually gotten around to bringing up what was on his mind, regardless of whatever I said against it.
“I know you and Micah had problems, but who don’t? How come he just up and left you like that?”
Looking down, I admired the shoe laces of my winter boots, the way they crisscrossed over and under each other in perfect order. I downed my mug, savoring the smooth burn of the sweet liqueur against my throat. Empty, I held it out, waiting for him to pour me another while the occasional snowflake landed inside.
“Like that,” I repeated, mimicking his voice, exaggerating his slow drawl. He handed me the mug back, now filled to the brim. He often tries to get me drunk whenever I come over. He says to “fix my bitchiness.” But I think it’s just because it makes me easier.
“He never told you?”
“I never asked.”
“So you save all your dumbass questions for me then, that it?”
He ignored my attempt to change the subject. “I never could make sense of it. Micah used to go on and on about you all the time and…”
I cut him off with a flick of my hand. “I left him.”
He looked at me with eyes so glazed over they might’ve held cataracts. “That’s not the tune you been singing.”
“And what tune is that?”
Kent didn’t answer, just sat and mulled it over, unable to take two and two and walk away with four. I knew he was looking for a motive. A few minutes passed in awkward silence and I wondered if I should leave. I would have, but I didn’t want to be alone. With the lake starting to ice over, he’d be leaving soon.
Finally, he said, “Don’t believe you.”
Sometimes I don’t, either.
“I don’t see how come he’d put you up here if you left him.”
“No one’s putting me up anywhere. By all right that ought to be my goddamn island.”
“All I’m getting at…”
Too deep. I cut him off. “Hell, believe what you want. Just pour me a drink while you’re at it,” I said, tossing the mug back to him again. It spun around twice in the air before he just barely caught it, inches from landing in the snow from last night, and all the nights before. He refilled the mug and passed it back. “I just got tired of people trying to fix me,” I told him.
Later, we had sex outside, practically fully clothed, my pants pulled down past my ass, him hanging out between his zipper. Freezing rain, so fine it fell like mist, tickled the flesh of my face. I wished I’d been wearing headgear and wondered how it was that Kent could even keep it up in the bitter cold.
He propped himself up by one hand and with the other ran his fingers across the little bit of skin I had exposed. He caressed my neck with his thick fingers stretched out, thick like my father’s, wrapping them nearly all the way around my throat. It was then that I realized how alone we were, no one around for miles except the two of us. Something inside of me wanted to get up and leave, to scream out against something… something too much. His hand moved up my neck and over my face, across my shaved scalp. On top of me, between huffs, he asked if I’d come back with him to Jersey for the winter, insinuating all sorts of things by expression, the uneven set of his eyes. I pushed up against his chest with my palms, a signal for him to stop. That I was done.
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked. His expression told me no, he was not. “Why?”
Kent sat up and leaned back, propping himself up with his arms behind him. He was still erect and sticking out of his pants, the misty rain drawing a hint of steam from his crotch.
“I dunno,” he said.
“I’m no good at…” I was already crawling backwards to get out from under him. “Look, you don’t want me around you. Not all the time.”
“Who’re you to say? You don’t even know what you want. If you want to be alone, how come you’re always coming over here?” He pointed out at the lake. “Always acting like things are fucking dandy so long as you can wait it out with your head just over the water.”
I hiked my pants back up, struggled with the zipper.
“Well, fuck. You not even gonna mull it over?” he asked. I shook my head no. “Why the hell not?”
The last thing I said to him was, “Don’t need to.” In retrospect, I realize the number of ways that he could’ve interpreted that, misinterpreted it, were every bit as incalculable as the stars on a lakeside, backcountry night.
I walked back to where my boat was docked. Kent called after me. “You gonna leave me out here alone with my pecker hanging out?”
“That what you’re all pissed about? Put it away then.”
“Know what,” he said, zipping up his pants, “maybe you do need some goddamn fixing. And you’re hearing that from me of all goddamn people.”
I kept on walking, refusing to look back. Neither did he, I guess, because now I’m here alone, nursing an eye-opener of coffee and whiskey, sitting on a busted dock that refused to give even the slightest, staring out over a barren landscape of flat ice, nothing to break up the view but a few lonely islands here and there. The air is still this morning. No wind-chill at all, but I still have on three layers of winter clothes and a wool hat stretched over my head to keep the cold out. Or, more precisely, as Kent would say and often does, to keep the last of my warmth in.
The mainland is so far off in some directions it’s barely visible in the dim morning light, hiding behind the layer of fog rolling in over the lake of ice. I think about how the island isn’t really alone at all, how it’s just sitting here by itself in the middle of all this empty space, only feigning isolation when there’s so much white vastness just out of sight. Just over the horizon.
One time, the last time I came here with Micah and the kids, we sat out on this same dock at dusk after a long day of water skiing. Drinking spiked lemonade, I watched Micah quietly as he joked with his daughter, roughhoused with his son. I tried to imagine myself like that and what it would be like in twenty years, forty. And I couldn’t. Looking back, I can’t remember what it was that I did see for myself. Was this what I had in mind? That was the night I told Micah I was leaving. The night that he said he thought that might be best.
The last few days I’ve done this, sat out here all day long sometimes, just sitting and thinking, watching and waiting for someone to come and drag me away. I figure that Kent, probably embarrassed and pissed as hell, must’ve said something to Micah by now and maybe got him to call the local authorities. Who knows what Micah would do, what he’d think. The snow has been fierce lately, and it could be weeks before anyone can get out here to check on the island. But still, every day, from dawn to dusk, I wait, expecting to see a snowmobile coming up over the horizon at any moment. But, no one comes.
The truth is that they all have to know I’m here. There’s no way they couldn’t. Micah would have to work at ignorance to stay unaware. And still, no one comes.
Through the morning fog, I can see it all now from the vantage I have here on the dock. I can see everything, my entire future crammed into one small, lonely, frozen island. The days that turn to weeks, weeks to months. Spring coming, the lake softening up, a new season ushering its own way in. The wildlife opening its eyes to the promise of another year as if it were birthright.
I try to relax and push it all out of my thoughts, to clear my mind and imagine the possibilities, open myself up to all of them, even to the possibility that no one’s coming, that no one will ever come. I quickly decide either way—coming or not, staying or going—is okay. The rest of the morning gets spent on the dock trying to decide whether or not that’s a bluff, whether or not someone like me would call it.
Andrew Mortazavi, born in Nashville and raised in Texas, is a Beverly Rogers Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Arizona. Other fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review. Currently, he writes for the Tucson Weekly, edits Sonora Review, teaches fiction writing, and practices the pedal steel daily. A 19th-century Texas farmhouse sits vacant near the Oklahoma border, calling his name.
Tags: Spring 2008