I have continued to retreat to the lake in the summer, keeping the same cabin we always occupied each year. For the last few years, Carl has maintained a full time residence in the larger cabin. Kathleen and Denise are both gone now, all the kids that are left have spread across the country.
The lake as a resort area is well past it’s prime; the dirt road circumnavigating the shore ungraded, the lake shore dotted with fewer and fewer rental cottages and the mom and pop ‘resorts’ consisting of tiny faux log cabins or little A-frames hardly more than lean-to’s are mostly empty and run down. Time has passed the lake by in terms of its desirability to vacationers. Even a change of name by the locals from Carp Lake to ‘Lake Paradise’ didn’t help, and the obvious irony in the name (obvious to everybody except the locals) seemed to have actually hastened the loss of interest compared to glitzier places on nearby lakes with better beaches, better views, better restaurants, all-inclusive packages and deeper water. Our cottages, a cluster of three (in fact one was actually just a cabana), had been part of our family since the 60’s. Situated in a small cut in the lake shore, they share a long dock, maybe 150 ft that goes out in to the lake with a swim platform at the end, making it “T” shaped. The waterfront is the nicest part of the property. Back in the day, a 14 ft aluminum skiff with expired MC numbers was tied there, a 15 HP Merc mounted on the transom that moved it along smartly; enough to get Carl and me quickly out to the weed line where we would fish for crappie and walleye and sunfish.
But now, most mornings we join each other (a couple old widowers) for breakfast at The Lighthouse, a crummy little joint on the north shore of the lake, in a row of 3 or 4 shops that we call “The Mall”. This morning was a bit different, as it was the first we had met since Kathleen’s funeral. Carl was already at the table; he always took a four top and sat facing. He looked up from his phone and saw me coming in when he heard the door chime.
“So what’s happenin’ Harrison?”
“Everything.” I said. “Somewhere. You?”
“Livin’ the dream, man.”
“You all right?”
“No. Who is? Not anybody we know, that’s for sure.”
As soon as I sat down, Carl got up to go the bathroom.
“Don’t order until I get back, heayh?”
When he came back there was a Dylan song playing. On what? Not the jukebox. They don’t have those anymore. This was playing on their XM channel or something. Some music service maybe.
He came dancing up to the table and that is the kindest term I can use for what was really nothing more than a soupy shuffle; a bowlegged Popeye the Sailor deal, except he was grabbing his balls and holding them up like they weighed 10 pounds each.
“Gotta hand it to him.” he said. “Big balls in Cowtown. Doesn’t do an album in five or six years and then puts out a double with a bunch of songs he ripped off. Opens with a Chuck Berry song and a bunch other 1-4-5’s. Sick.”
Kathleen loved Dylan. She once told me that he was the only man she would ever leave me for. Which was just like saying she would never leave me. I knew the record he was talking about. I knew the song. We had it playing when she died, I was right there next to her. I can’t listen to that song anymore. The last few weeks were horrible, even if (and some people actually told me this might be true) we had acted like we actually planned them that way. I can tell you one thing. I am not the one doing the planning, in that case. At any rate, there we were right in the hospice room and Carl leans over to Kathleen and says, “It’s ok, it’s ok to go, baby.” It was his sister after all.
Which, at that she took a couple deep and seemingly peaceful sighs and stopped breathing. I had just told her I was here (whoever I am, and wherever here is) and had laid my head on her shoulder and was holding her hand. There was no pressure or response to my squeezes but a perfect tear formed at the corner of her eye and rolled down the path made by a previous one I hadn’t seen and dropped on my cheek. I looked up and saw her spirit escape through her mouth. I kissed her cheek and noticed (there’s a strange word – noticed) the wet from the tears and I licked them off her cheek. To get her salty essence into me.
I studied the lines on her face; no answers there. A couple of diagonal creases on her forehead over each eye; were they new? How could I have never noticed them before? I went to the mirror right there in the hospice room and tried to replicate them in my own face. I could not. Scowl. Frown. Nothing. How did they get there? Was there a message there or just some sort of twisting muscle in death that involuntarily makes them?
I have this incredible sadness. So many missed opportunities. Mistakes were made. Apparently. Not the least of which – that’s the understatement of the century – was what we started out calling “The Accident”, then later as if to take the sharp edges off, to eliminate the need to name a prime mover as one would in an accident, as in what caused said accident, it was just called “The Incident.” An incident has no cause. Incidents just happen. And who creates them? We all do. No one person does anything. I didn’t throw the baby in the water. But I might as well have. By what I did. Or didn’t do. At any rate, I don’t think there is enough time left to sort it out. So I’ll just pretend that this is exactly how it was supposed to happen. It’s all part of the show folks. Life appears, and then it is gone. A shimmering rush of events and happenings, none of which it seems that we have any control over; striving, pulling, fooling, loving, dying.
There. That’s said. OK, where was I?
Breakfast was ordered and came. Carl looked at me across a big platter of biscuits and gravy, his eyes all rheumy. He had to take his glasses off between mouthfuls and wipe them. At that point he stopped and stared at me with unfocused eyes. I bit.
“What’s on your mind, Carl?”
He began firing questions at me left and right and center. Weird questions too; “Did you and the old lady ever go to strip clubs – get lap dances? Did y’all ever watch porn together? Did ya ever fuck Kathleen and have thoughts about fucking someone else? I mean, maybe somebody you already fucked somewhere sometime, or wanted to fuck, or wish you could fuck somewhere sometime? I guess ya never, huh? Like, I guess I can see that, if you are totally in love. Like you and Kathleen. Lame.”
Oh, wait, there’s more.
“D’ja ever go south on the old lady, Harry? Was that something you did for her? I always done it for Denise, and believe you me, buddy, she really ‘preciated it.”
By ‘goin’ south’ he did not mean a trip to Disney World. In between all this he was shoveling it in as fast as he could, scooping up sausage and gravy and grits, throwing salt and pepper and hot sauce on everything and putting it away. Little speckles of it flew from his mouth.
I was about to say something about a glob on his chin – I wasn’t going to answer any of his questions – but what he asks me next annoys the Bejesus out of me.
“Harrison.” He stopped eating, fork loaded with a quarter biscuit sopped with butter and sausage gravy inches from his lips. “Harry. In all them years did you ever lay pipe outside your own yard?”
Carl was looking at me; he was expecting an answer to his question. Apparently this was his idea of grief counseling. I gave him the one he wanted.
“Yeah, Carl.” I told him. “I did.”
Carrl stopped talking and looked at me, leaning back in his chair. Food was still in his beard.
“Yeah. Plenty of times. In fact, I did it with the hospice nurse one time in the hall outside of Kathleen’s room.”
“Ah, fuck you Harrison. I’m serious.” Then, “You ain’t gonna tell me are ya? Well that’s OK, because you know what – I did fuck around on Denise. A lot. I just never knew about you.”
There. See what I mean? Although I have always been fond of the rolling Appalachian dialect that Carl speaks in, the curious words and phrases he uses like ‘chimley’ and ‘it does it automatic’, I have never become totally accustomed to the coarse limpidity of his speech. This was the kind of subject matter Carl liked to bring up from time to time, though usually just when he was drunk. Which was not as often as it used to be, but still frequent. He had been known to once be so drunk that he ate cat food that Denise had sitting out in a bowl on the counter. There were always cats. Doesn’t leave a lot to be said. Already it’s more than he’d ever said about the drowning. He stared at me a beat and before he said anything else, his phone buzzed. He tapped it and after a quick look, shoved it over to me.
“Harry. Check out this sandstorm in China.”
I mean you never really know what someone else is thinking. They could be setting the table or watching TV and thinking about killing their boss.
By “old lady”, he meant my wife Kathleen; Carl’s little sister. Well, half-sister; they shared a mother, who had raised them with her husband and Kathleen’s father, Mick, who Carl always thought of as his father. Mick and Marie. M & M. As sweet a couple as ever graced the earth. Marie had Kat after her change, and supposedly did not even know she was pregnant until she went in to labor. Carl’s real father was an itinerant musician who, after learning of Marie’s pregnancy, had found the pleasures of life on the road with a gospel bluegrass group more alluring than family life. It was often offered in his defense that his relationship with Marie was a kind of an off and on affair, and after all it was ‘mama’s baby, daddy’s maybe.’
Carl’s mother was sure of his paternity, even though the days of off-the-shelf DNA testing were yet in an alternate present. But this was a secret she kept to herself for many years. Still, whenever Carl referred to his “Daddy” it was Mick, the hardworking maintenance foreman from Cheboygan, not the picker from Logan. Every Christmas and most of Carl’s birthdays, Helm showed up and visited, with gifts, Carl’s mom and his old friends Mick and Marie, and without acknowledging it, his bastard son. It was this history that was made known to Carl years later at a drunken wake for Mick. Perhaps this was what lead Carl to question the paternity of his own first child, a little girl, born in the first year of his marriage to my crazy sister Denise, dead now some two years and several months ago. I don’t know. I never had to find out my dad wasn’t who I thought he was, so I would not offer an opinion on what that might do to a man.
Kat and I never really talked that much. About that. We both knew what was going on between my sister and her half-brother. I don’t know if Denise fell for Carl because of his accent and his guitar playing, his long hair or what. Maybe it was his tattoo, a fucked up looking daisy, all in blue with eight or nine petals around a circle. I mean it is dead ugly. I think he did it himself when he was about 15.
“You could get that tattoo cleaned up a bit.” I told him once. “Looks like shit.”
“Oh, OK Harrison. I’ll do that just for you. Maybe I should get it blended into a sleeve over my whole arm, all psychedelic birds and mythical beasts and shit. Whaddya think? Or maybe just clean it up a little and get a hipster kind of tattoo with a quote from some obscure poet or philosopher on my inner arm or someplace that can only be seen when I specifically yet casually and seemingly without self-consciousness reveal it.”
I took his point and never said anything else about it.
Carl’d come around when Kathleen and I moved in together and bring his guitar. Carl is a musician. Of sorts. Like his real father before him, he plays guitar, not too badly really. But he doesn’t have the cachet or the easy familiarity that real musicians have with their instruments. We’d have a few drinks and burn a little bush. Nothing too serious. One night Denise was visiting when he dropped by and that was it. I have often thought about that. If she wouldn’t have come by, they never would have met. And maybe her daughter would have been born to someone else, someone who deserved her. Or maybe she would have never been born at all. I don’t know how that works. Fate and all that. But there seems to be something to it. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. [The body] that is sown is perishable and decays, but [the body] that is resurrected is imperishable. That’s what happened. God put a sould in Adam and he passes it dwn with his sperm, and so on and so on through all the males. Of course you have to have a mate to carry the vessel for the new sould, so thts why women were made. I mena it sounds dumb, but thts the way it goes. So she was ooing ot be born to someone. Its just kind of sorry that she was born to someone who threw her in a lake.
She always seemed to go for the bad boys. There was one guy who treated her real nice her first year out of high school. Had a good job turning wrenches, and was real polite. She strung him on for a while then dumped him when Carl came along. Poor kid kept calling me up asking me about her and what he had done wrong. Nothin’, I told him. It isn’t you. Some girls are just like that.
Next thing we know Denise shows up with a ring on her finger and a five month along profile. A few months later she had the baby, a little girl. Carl wouldn’t hold her, wouldn’t touch her. Carl’s cruelty to Denise almost from the beginning was mystifying. Even more mystifying was Denise’s acceptance of his shit. Small ‘i’ incident after incident. The hand slapping game where he was ‘teaching her to develop quick reflexes’, slapping the backs of her hands as they rested on his palms before she could remove them, until they were welted with tiny blood blisters. Once emptying a shaker of salt on her food to mock, in his opinion, her overuse of it. And the jealous rages; suspecting her of all sorts of disloyalty and duplicity.
Carl’s baseless suspicions of Denise took on a lacerating and aggressive tone during her pregnancy. The baby was born in April, and when we all took our two weeks that summer at the little lake getaway up north, his constant ragging on her settled once again on the matter of paternity of the child Denise was carrying. Out of nowhere he accused her of having another man’s baby, just like he had been carried in Marie’s womb. Helm, his real father, never raised Carl, nor even acknowledged him as his son. He grew up thinking that someone else was his father, and that Helm was just an old family friend. So you could say that his mom, Marie, did the same thing to Malcom (“Mick”, the man who married Marie on the rebound from Carl’s real dad Helm when she was about three, maybe four months along with Carl), as Carl accused Denise of doing to him. Except Denise never was unfaithful to Carl, not for one minute.
We were all sitting around the fire one night, just a few nights before The Big ‘I” Incident. Carl was holding his guitar, idly playing a few chords.
“Here’s a little tune I wrote a few years back.” he said.
I thought he did a pretty good job with the song, but it rankled the hell out of Kat to hear him say he wrote it.
“It’s The Mighty fuckin’ Quinn, Carl.” She said. “You didn’t write that song. Bob Dylan wrote that song.”
To that he replied “If you hit a chord and just let it ring out totally, till the very last good bye, you think it will never end. But the notes tell you good bye. They really do. You think it’s over then you hear all the harmonics like a little tiny chorus of black girls. And yeah, he stole it from me.”
Carl and Denise were like wildcats that whole trip. Their arguing and slamming around could clearly be heard in the evening as Kathleen and I sat out on the deck trying to outlast the mosquitos while the sun went down in a blaze of reds golds and blues across the little lake. It was a twilit night in late June with lightening bugs thick as stars. Across the yard we saw Carl on the riding mower tearing up and down near the deck, a beer in one hand and steering with the other. We had an ancient Craftsman riding mower up there that we used to knock down the weeds a couple times a year. It was also fun to take the kids for little rides. I watched as Carl swung through the yard – what we called a yard. Nothing more than a stretch of about nine kinds of ‘ground cover’ Kathleen called it, that sloped down to the edge of a deck then to the dock itself and a set of steps leading to the beach. A couple hundred years ago the lake was a stop on the underground RR for fugitive slaves to fall into on their way to Canada. I imagined the poor devils coming across the lake in the near dark, stung shitless by mosquitos and black flies. Looking for a light signal from shore that would tell them they had found the safe house. They would run their sorry little boat or raft up onto the beach, which wasn’t really a beach at all (see that’s what I mean about words) and once in the water, they would find the bottom was a bunch of flat stones, almost like paving stones that had been laid in. They were moss bordered and slippery as snot, and Kathleen gave herself a nasty gash one year slipping on them and gouging her shin right down to the left front tibia (yeah I know that the tibia IS the one in front) right through her fair freckled skin on the Sunfish rack. But a few yards farther out where the baby was thrown in, the bottom changes to a loose soft sand, stained by the tannin in the water a dark, coppery brown.
He progressed more or less in even rows, transiting back and forth (I know there’s a better word for that) getting closer and closer to the deck. Denise and Kat had planted several big pots of flowers there. They looked real nice against the white deck. I don’t know what kind they were but they had some kind of blossom that was well known in the area for being rare and hard to grow and bloom. They were pink.
Bang. Carl ran hard in to the one nearest us. The pot didn’t break, but it spilled on its side and most of the flowers launched in to the lake. There must have been a dozen or so of these pink petals that were floating like little fairy boats on the water. Carl got off the mower and kicked the rest of the flowers and the pot; the whole thing, off the deck. Nobody else was around to see this, but he turned and looked around just in case, saw us, grinning and amazed, and gave us the old Spanish Shrug, as if to say, there you have it. I actually I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but I don’t anymore.
Sure, I get it. Everybody wants to know who a baby looks like. It is a subject of constant speculation. There is a guileless examination of the child; her eyes, her hair, the little vein on the bridge of her nose appearing through the translucent skin, the peaked ears. And beyond her physical appearance; her laugh, does she sleep well, demonstrate petulance or determination or is she easily frustrated, like Uncle Harry? We are pleased to determine that yes, indeed there is a family resemblance. But at the root of this is always the possibility, the suspicion, the unstated question in Carl’s mind; who did her mama? Who her daddy? Ooooo. Is that red hair? Nobody in the family has red hair for three generations. Ha ha. Better check the mailman. Aww. How sweet says Al the African American mailman, as he looks in to the bassinet. “At least she’s white.” As he slips a $50 dollar bill in to the bassinet.
This is as old as history; the desire to catch someone, to expose them is as powerful as the guileless curiosity – who do you think she looks like? But the question gets asked often and as the child grows, the physical similarities to dad better become obvious.
It’s hard enough if everything is on the up and up, mama and daddy are who you’d think them to be, who you’d expect them to be. But if question leads to suspicion and suspicion leads to what is euphemistically called a “curiosity test” and that test comes back “Chance of fatherhood” — ZERO. Now you got a situation. But this was before off-the-shelf Daddy kits. And polite people just did not speculate openly about such matters.
That the baby’s looks had become such a trigger for Carl was somewhat of a surprise to me. I knew Carl was edgy, drinking a bit and taken to leaning on the railing of the deck while we were barbecuing and snorting like a buck moose. Whatever he decided on the morning of the 9th of June at the cottage pretty much settles the question for him though. On that morning Kathleen was sitting on the porch of our cabin and saw Carl march down the dock and untie the boat and fire up the Merc. What she told me later was that from the swing of his shoulders and the heaviness in his tread that shook the dock you knew was pissed. About to show his ass.
The motor was usually obstinate; it rarely started on the first pull and was well known for it to require 10 or 12 shoulder jarring yanks to fire up. Not today. One pull and Carl roared off in the direction of the middle of the lake at full speed, throwing a sizable wake. Then he turned sharply, so sharply that I thought he would capsize, and headed back right at the dock, banking off at the last second and roaring back out into the lake. Kathleen stood up and started toward the dock, but stopped and instead said, “Harry! Come here! Something is happening with Carl.”
He repeated this maneuver twice; thrice, and then headed out maybe a quarter mile into the lake and cut the motor, or it stalled. By the time I got there, the morning once again became very quiet, and the call of the loons resumed. I heard a screen door slam and saw Denise coming out of the cabin and onto the dock, dressed only in baby doll pajamas and an open housecoat of some filmy material that flowed out around her in the onshore breeze. She was barefoot, and holding the baby on her hip most of the way out onto the dock, her voice breaking and wailing her husband’s name.
“Carrr-ul! Carl! Carl, God damn it!” Her voice echoed across the still lake. “Why are you doing this? Come and get your baby! Don’t do this! She IS yours…ohCarlplease! Please. This is your baby! This is our baby!”
Even from where I was I could hear the soulful, mournful tone of her entreaties.
The motor must have been idling, because as soon as he saw her come out he headed back without pulling the starting cord, the bow of the little boat cutting a white wake in the dark water of the lake. He was going too fast and for a moment it looked like he was going to come right over the swim platform, but he tacked over at the last second and cut back the throttle and started to glide alongside the dock. She held the baby out in front of her now, a tiny bundle loosely wrapped in a pink blanket. “Take her! Come take her! She’s yours! This is your baby, Carl! YOUR FUCKING BABY! Come and get her!”
At first I thought it was some sort of charade, a bit of theater they were performing for our benefit. It was something they were not unknown to do on occasion.
What appeared to happen next? Even now, there is some question in my mind as to whether she threw or dropped the baby. It looked like she threw it, pushing it out in front of her, and the tiny bundle flew in a shallow bow toward the boat and Carl; the blanket fluttering off and floating on the water. But maybe she tripped. No, she pushed the baby at Carl, in the general direction of the boat as it approached the dock. It was a baby, for Christ sake, a baby flying in a low arc about 10 feet out over the water and what crossed my mind? That it was a pretty good throw for a girl. She threw it like a girl does a basketball from the foul line, but with less height. For a second I thought that the baby would land in the boat which was rapidly approaching the dock, but spinning slightly (she must have pushed harder with her right arm) it followed a shallow crescent trajectory. It didn’t make a sound that I heard, but its arms shot out wide in that startle reflex they have when they realize they are falling. It landed in the water with a flat splash, on its back. She disappeared almost immediately, sinking out of sight under the dark water. The pink blanket floated on the surface. The water was still disturbed from Carl’s antics, and little waves from the boat’s wake were now lapping gently at the shore.
Denise sank or fell to her knees and put her hands palm down on the dock and hung her head down between her shoulders. I imagined her to be sobbing, but I could not tell. I got up and started to move toward the dock. It seemed like I was trying to move through some sort of thick air, or run with elephant feet. I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream.
A lot of things went wrong that made a big difference. The bottom was all chewed up from Carl’s digging in that little Merc and tearing around the dock. The baby sank. I thought babies floated. I’ve seen picture of little babies thrown in swimming pools and pictures taken with Go Pros underneath the water show the little critters swimming like frogs. Not this one. Carl and I kept ducking down under the chest deep water looking for the baby. I was afraid I might step on her. Denise’s continual screaming didn’t help, and neither did Kat’s bossy instructions on where to look. And then when we did find her, she looked so bad that we didn’t do any CPR on her. Not that anybody knew how to do it anyway.
It was Carl who found his daughter and wrapped her back up in her pink blanket that was still floating next to the dock. And then he waded over to the dock and offered her back up to Denise. I think it was the first time he had ever held her. She just nodded at him and then sat on the edge of the swim platform holding her until the cops came. Anyone could tell that the baby had just died there.
Denise and the baby didn’t seem real. Carl didn’t seem real, sitting there on the dock next to Denise. Kathleen didn’t seem real. And I definitely didn’t feel real. The dock and the boat and the cottage – all these it felt like I was looking at them for the very first time; that those things themselves had actually just appeared from out of nowhere and not me not you not anybody had ever seen them before.
It was a horrible tragedy we all agreed. A terrible accident. A young mom trips on the dock and just like that. Boom. A little boy burned up at a fireworks display over on the point a few years ago. Ten thousand people die in an earthquake in Chile. These things happen. And we were all in agreement to that. Just horrible. And it seems just as horrible to me today, even though babies don’t seem as important as they were then.
Carl waved off the waitress who had come around with the coffee pot. Carl said he heard on CNN that it was now OK in certain states for doctors to kill a baby that survived an abortion.
“They have to ask the mom first though.” He said. Then playing the part of the doctor he said, “Are you sure you don’t want this baby, ma’am? Because, umm, we didn’t quite get rid of it for you. So if you changed your mind and want it now, you can still have it. Or we can finish it off for y’all like you wanted in the first place.”
There were a number of options open to Carl when Denise died two years ago; an infinite number, really, if the truth were ever to be known (it won’t). All equally good and bad. So no difference. In out. Up down. He did what was written, looking back. He sold the excavating business in Detroit. “Abandons” is perhaps a more accurate description. He was broken with drink, all fucked up and without successors. He liquidates the inventory and sells the equipment at auction. Each of his other two step-sisters urge him to move to their respective towns, where they say they can care for him and frankly, align themselves properly for the distribution of his estate, when the time comes. He’s the only one in the family with any wealth, so I get that.
He loves his sisters, but can’t brook the liberal politics of the older one and her husband, who live in Wyoming, Michigan. A town that doesn’t know if it is a state or a city. The younger sister Mary (or Mercedes as she is known professionally these days) lives in New York City, and makes a handsome income by “camming”, an activity the exact duties of which Carl is unsure of. Whatever “camming’ is, her calls asking for money have stopped. Even though his emotional compatibility with her is far greater than with the older sister, New York has only slightly more appeal as a domicile to him than hell, and is equally retributive. Not to mention what he suspects the nature of her career to be. So he stays up north; lives at the lake all year round in that tiny cottage, where a baby who was or wasn’t his daughter drowned so many years ago.
We pay our bills and stand outside trying to get out of this mood, not doing really well, and that song came on again through the outdoor speakers, and made me think of Kat and how much I loved her and how much I miss her and how there is nobody in my life now I can talk to the way I talked to her and probably never will be. Probably never was.
I can feel my bones in my body and I do not like the feeling. I can feel them moving inside their sinews; slipping along the musculature. I can feel them when resting on hard surfaces. I am afraid they will turn to jelly. That they will liquefy and I will not be able to stand. Or that they will become rubbery and cause me to walk in a rolling gait, willing my muscles and tendons to hold them straight. I start to cry like an old man does; constricted throat, wheezing, and more dampening of the eyes than actual tears, than actual bawling. Carl doesn’t notice.
Words are so raw, so fluid. So many things could happen now depending on how well we love, or are loved. Eventually, none of it will really matter. But there was all that that happened, apparently. And what had to be said. And for now, it seems so important. We’re just left starving in this mystery.
I looked at Carl and saw him without thought rubbing the tattoo. There was a bit of flecking on his cheek. We heard something dying down by the lake, like it was being strangled. A rabbit maybe, although they tend to scream.
H. Scott Derkin