The old dock shuddered at the touch of Judy’s bare feet on the green furred boards. Feeling her sixty-seven years, she walked to the end of it, set down the tackle box and a glass jar with worms in dirt. Then she sat herself. Legs dangling, her feet did not quite touch the water. The surface of the lake was cheerfully ruffled, and after a moment of settling she felt in her bottom the faint slap transferred from the waves against the pilings.
The fishing pole was a relic. She found it while scrounging in the lean-to behind the cabin, which belonged to her sister, Nan. Her hands remembered what her head did not. She tied on a hook. She clamped on some BB sinkers. She impaled a worm. She secured the line on the pole with a forefinger, opened the bail, raised the rod vertical, lifted her finger, and cast. The skirr of the reel as the line played out from the spool stunned her with its familiar strangeness, and Boggs Lake in August sun rose up and swallowed her, all that would never come back, all that would never go away.
Boggs Lake was a working-class body of water in an unrepentant part of the Adirondacks. It was as if long ago something terrible happened, and the mountains didn’t care. They rose like village elders around her, indifferent and secure. It was the territory of secrets, and holding your breath. The cabin had no telephone, and Judy had purposely left her cell at home in Buffalo. Any message worth getting could arrive on the wind.
After a few minutes a fish nibbled at the worm on Judy’s line. A bluegill or a sunny, must be. She flicked the pole, trying to hook it, and cheered aloud when it got away. Mitchell Ebbets was a crab, that was the nub of the matter. Her husband was a bellowing red crab with vicious claws. She had been taking his grief, year in and year out, taking it, collecting the anger and unending meanness in a bucket. What was she supposed to do with it now? Her sense of dribbled away life was overpowering.
She had not told her husband she was going away.
She caught a couple of sunfish and a smallmouth bass and threw them back. She would have thrown them back even if she’d had a license. The catching was one half the pleasure, releasing them the other. As she walked back to Nan’s cabin the air was glass, a window she stepped through on her way to something a bit better.
That night she lit a fire in a pit and watched sparks ride the updrafts in a motion that paralleled a lift she felt inside, as though things might get better. There was no reason to feel that way. Things would not get better. But she chose not to analyze her mood shift. She drank a glass of Nan’s husband Randy’s pinot noir. In bed, pulling fragrant sheets up around her, she knew it was time to go home.
Next morning she packed the car. She turned off the water, locked the door, and hid the key. She figured she would drive all the way home that same day but on a whim stopped in Rochester at a Red Roof Inn. She ate fried chicken and drank iced tea and slept hard. In the morning she drove slowly home expecting trumpets as she turned into the driveway. She had never disappeared before. In all their years together she and Mitch had never not known where the other person was. The shock of her desertion would surely cause an explosion. Was there a silver hammer in her husband’s toolbox? More likely he would club her with hard words. She switched off the ignition and sat there a moment with her hands on the wheel. Would tears humble her or give her strength?
They lived in a clapboard house built in the 1920s, and everything about it harked back. Looking for Mitch she saw old things with new eyes. The Amana range with obsolete dials. The closet door with the kids’ heights and the dates they were measured marked in permanent pencil like something left behind by Egyptians. The satisfyingly solid wood steps she took down to the cellar. Something had gone wrong. Not knowing what perplexed and angered her.
There he was, standing at his workbench with his back to her, alongside the shelves where she used to keep the vegetables she put up, back when she understood what she heard on the radio. Mitch was not a tall man and had a slight build. A sixty-watt bulb in the ceiling cast a queer light giving him the appearance of a boy not yet broken on the iron wheel of hurt.
He did not turn around. “You seen my channel lock, got a blue handle?”
“Well I sure as hell didn’t lose the damn thing myself.”
The toolbox had a tray for smaller items, like his tape measure, the big things being stored underneath. Mitch slammed down the tray, slammed down the lid, and shoved the toolbox to the back of the bench. He ranted a while, somewhat distractedly as though something more important than a mislaid channel lock was on his mind. Judy waited. When he ran out of steam he would finally ask her where she had been, what she had been doing, why she hadn’t told him she was leaving. They would finally have it out. But when Mitch stopped ranting he only reached for his coffee mug. It was blue and had the General Motors logo on it. She could see it was empty. He drank from it and eased his body onto a high-legged stool.
He appeared to forget she was there. Dismayed, Judy could not catch her breath so sank onto a stair. Hearing her gasp, Mitch asked her if she wanted a glass of water but made no move to get one. After a few moments she made her way up to the kitchen herself, conscious only of a terrible sagging. It was everywhere, in the foundation of their old house, the upholstery of her memory, the treacherous walls of the time tunnel she was slogging through.
That evening she did not make dinner. Mitch did not seem surprised, nor did he complain. He ate a bowl of Cheerios in front of the television watching baseball. He followed the Mets and lost it when his team lost. Any time one of the players struck out or made a bonehead play, Judy could hear him bellowing from the Florida room, where she spent the evening looking at magazines. She was particularly interested in pictures of places a person could travel to. Half the photographed world seemed to be made up of islands with palm trees. Once, after Mitch cursed the Mets’ pitcher for walking a batter with two men on base, she got up and snuck a look at him.
Without turning his head he said, “Bring me a beer, will you?”
No, she whispered, I will not. An ageless image of her husband before he retired came to her. He had worked in the payroll and accounting department at the GM plant in Tonawanda and always wore a tie. Not a suit jacket every day, but he never stepped out the door without a fresh shave and a clean shirt and a tie. Was he as grumpy, back then, as he was now? You’d think the answer would be a simple yes or no. But if she tried to bring back their life of earlier days, it was like being swallowed by the lake again.
She slept in the guest room that night. It was a pleasant space with lavender walls, a fashionable valence of darker purple fabric, and a quilt on the bed with a chaste star design. Spending time there was a treat since she seldom went in except to dust. In her funk, the room had the feel of a safe haven. She slept pretty well but woke in the small hours. On impulse she went quietly downstairs and out into the back yard.
The neighborhood was still except for a tomcat a few doors down monotonously griping raw deal raw deal raw deal. Light from the overhead moon made stories of everyday objects. The picnic table, a rake lying where it shouldn’t, and a matronly peony spoke their silent lines as Judy walked a slow circle, the hem of her nightgown getting soaked and sticking to her legs. On her second circuit of the yard she was ambushed by a question. If I left him what would I do all day? She waited until she was sure she had no answer before going back to bed.
In the morning Mitch sat at the kitchen table with coffee and the paper and could not get up. For the longest time he would not admit it. He fumed at something he read, he asked for more coffee, he drummed his fingers on the Formica. Finally she asked him what was wrong.
He shook his head. “Pins a little weak this morning.”
“Do you want to see a doctor?”
In a voice borrowed from a less angry man he said, “Remember that place on Dryden?”
He was talking about the upper half of a duplex they had rented when they were first married. She told him yes, she did remember.
“Had a push mower,” he said. “No engine. Something about cutting grass that way. Quiet. I’m thinking maybe I’ll get one for here.”
This was the friendliest he had been in a while. He seldom told her what he was thinking, and never what he was feeling. She had to interpret what reminiscing over a lawn mower meant and chose to take it in a positive spirit.
“Let’s go to Horseheads,” she said. “I’ll pack us a lunch.”
Natalie, their youngest daughter, lived in Horseheads. Natalie would deny it, but she had pretty much stopped bringing her kids home because she didn’t want them soured by a grumpy grandfather. Much as she missed them, Judy did not blame her.
When Mitch did not respond, Judy said, “Just a quick trip. Overnight. We’ll come back tomorrow.”
He shook his head fastidiously, as though she had suggested something unbecoming. “Those kids, they don’t want to hang around a bunch of oldsters.”
He looked down at the paper, shook out the city section and jabbed a stubby finger at a headline, and Judy thought the conversation was over. She should have known better. Say ‘Horseheads,’ and he had all the excuse to start up again. He blistered her ears, still going strong when she left the house to pick up groceries. When she got back he had changed his location. He was sitting on the front porch quiet as death, so completely still his earlier tirade seemed impossible.
Whatever was ailing him, forcing him to stay in a seated position, it was not physical. Judy knew the man only too well and was certain of that. She made him a ham sandwich, carrying it out to him on a tray with pretzels and a glass of water.
“Maybe we should talk about a divorce.”
He looked up at her with a dreamy expression, and all the fish that had ever swum Boggs Lake thrashed around her in the invisible water, which was as deep as the day, and as cold as the certainty of her loss. For an interminable instant she remembered everything that had ever happened but could hold onto none of it. In the lull before Mitch answered, her heart hardened against him, relented, then hardened again.
“Say we get divorced, Judy. Where would you go?”
It was her turn not to answer.
Over the next few days she worked systematically to move her things from the bedroom to the guest room. What came about, with no planning and precious little thought, was a division of the house into two zones, which intersected in the kitchen. Fall was in a hurry to come. An early frost stripped the trees and blanched the grass and pushed the sky higher, out of reach. Judy felt the earth shrinking, heard it cracking under the strain of change. Mitch did not complain about anything she did, and he stayed out of her zone. He was moving less each day, although occasionally he acted like his old self, fussing with projects at his workbench down in the cellar. More often, he sat in front of the television with the sound down, lips moving, telling himself the longest story in the world. He started to have trouble shaving, and the silver hairs that came out made him look older than the seventy three he still was.
Once, when they happened into the kitchen at the same time, he looked surprised to find her still there. He was breathing oddly and took his usual seat at the table.
“Buddy called,” he told her.
Buddy was their son, Mitchell Junior. He had a good job in Syracuse and knew the importance of kissing his young children often. Judy was pretty sure Mitch was lying, or else remembering something that hadn’t happened.
“I never heard the phone ring.”
“We didn’t talk long. I said the wrong thing. It’s funny.”
“I pretty much always say the wrong thing.”
She turned back to the stove where her soup threatened to boil over.
Another frost. Another night so long it stretched her bones, it emptied her head, it clogged her heart with foreboding. The truth was, Mitch didn’t use to be this bad. He was never a hearts and flowers man, but he knew how to give love, in his way, and how to take it. Now, in the course of the long night, she had a glimpse of who she was underneath her name. A feeling of perfect aloneness shivered her, and she resolved to make something of the life that remained to her to live.
Her pledge to herself worked, in a way she had not foreseen. Through October and the first snow of the year, as Mitch ground to a stubborn halt, she experienced moments of exhilaration she would not have traded for anything. They were triggered by the slightest, the most random things. The sound of a child on a tricycle on the walk out front, a crow feather falling in the side yard, a ladder of sunlight through the east window of the guest room. A slow bath, and the minor miracle of cream dissolving in black coffee. This is what I have. What I see, what I feel, what delights me. She imagined a place where all perception was stored. It was a vast underground warehouse in a place where people seldom went, and some day she might well find the map to it, the key to its door.
The weather was music, a soundtrack to whatever it was she and Mitch were enacting. A foot of snow fell overnight the second Sunday in November. A curious sound woke her the following Monday and she lay in bed listening. Early as it was, Mitch was up and out, shoveling the sidewalk. The sound was the scrape of his shovel on concrete. She was flabbergasted. Dreading the onset of winter, she had quietly called around looking for a teenager who could be persuaded to shovel them out for pay, without even considering that Mitch might remember his old duties.
She got out of bed, pulled on a robe, and went to the kitchen. She made coffee fully expecting to hand Mitch his GM mug when he finished shoveling. She heard him come into the house, knocking the snow from his boots onto the mat. But he did not come into the kitchen. He clumped upstairs, and Judy sat looking into the back yard where a band of marauding starlings had settled on the bare branches of their elm. She felt with mysterious precision the tiny unyielding grip of forty pairs of claws on the naked bark as though it were her skin.
An hour later, there stood Mitch, shaved and showered and wearing a clean white shirt. A red tie with blue stripes she had no memory of was around his neck. His shoes were shined. His gray flannel pants had a crease. He looked radiant.
He had never done anything like this. She had the sense she should take it in stride. “Do you want coffee, Mitch?”
He shook his head. “No time for that. I’m going to give them a piece of my mind.”
She understood that she could not ask whom he was talking about. She nodded. “I still think you should have a cup of coffee.”
He shrugged and took the mug. He drank standing up.
“I’m going to tell them to stop,” he explained, gesturing with the mug. “Not tell, demand. I mean give it up, the whole damn thing, today. The project. They tried to pull this stunt before, you know. I won’t let them get away with it.”
“Do you want toast?”
He brushed aside the offer. “Just one question, Judy.”
“Are you with me?”
Her answer was involuntary and definite. “Yes.”
“Then you better get dressed. We don’t want to show up looking like Ma and Pa Kettle.”
Getting ready for what came next, she worried that the wave Mitch was riding would suddenly flatten out and he would crash, but it did not and he did not. He sat patiently waiting for her in the kitchen, his overcoat over the back of a chair, gloves and the plaid scarf she had made him on the table. Knowing nothing, feeling a great deal, she followed him out to the garage. He lifted the door.
“I’ll drive,” she said.
“You remember how to get there?”
He seemed relieved not to have to drive himself and surrendered the key with a flourish. She backed the car carefully into the street. The city plough had already come by, throwing up banks that looked like Buffalo winter. Here it was again.
“You’re sure you remember?” he said.
So this was what it came down to, what she had. No angels in diaphanous bedsheets, no euphoria, no sold-out concerts of sound and sense. Just an animated Mitch, on his way to a nonexistent meeting with people who lived only in the nether reaches of his mind. What she had was the sufficiency of is. Coming up, at the corner of Creeley Street, she would have to decide whether to go right or left. She could do that. For a moment, the strength that came to her equaled the pleasure she took in it. As they approached the intersection, her foot touched the brake as her hand hit the blinker.
A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including Southern Humanities Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Schuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award. His website can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.
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