He woke up, slowly, as from a dream, though he had never been asleep. The icy waves lapped at his toes, and slid up his calves with the frigidity of spring. His boots were at his side, tossed in the sand, and his coat was folded neatly at his side. He wiped his eyes, what was he doing on the lake shore? A gull circled lazily overhead, squawking, and the pale blue lake stretched out until it touched the sky. It was calm today, filling the horizon with an understated beauty; but it was large as a sea, and unrelenting, an angry god that could swallow him whole.
He stood up, shakily, and grabbed his coat. In this part of the country, spring is the last death gasp of winter, still clinging to the land in snow banks in the shadows, and in the crispness of air that pierces to the bone. But the land was slowly coming back to life, robins poked in the dirt, looking for worms, and new leaves covered the treetops in a pale green halo. His feet felt numb but he stuffed them into his boots, and climbed up the bank. He looked back at the lake shore, a neat white ribbon between the blue water and the grassy shore. It ran for hundreds of miles, splitting the worlds neatly into two. There was a narrow track in the sand from the water to where he had been lying. Where had that come from?
He tried to remember his day and found he couldn’t. His brain felt like it was underwater, moving a fraction of its normal speed. Had he taken something? Not that he could remember, and he certainly never drank during the day— not anymore. He’d seen too many of his friends fall into that trap, wasting their lives in some hole in the wall. On a cold February morning, he’d a made a vow to myself not to slip down that path. So far he’d stuck to it. But he felt strange, the sky arched above in vivid shades of blue, and everything was crystal clear — like the world had been born anew. Individual water drops clung to blades of grass, and the cracks in the sidewalk spread out like spider webs in their square domains. Had he always been so oblivious to the beauty of the world? He shook his head, what would his friends think of such a thought? He had to go home, take a hot shower, and then he’d feel better.
He started walking briskly back to his house, but soon slowed to a stroll. The orioles filled the air with their cheerful melodies, and the trees cast sprawling shadows on the barely green grass. The air felt lighter than it had in months, summer was on its way. There was a lingering sense of expectation permeating one of the first days of spring.
He crossed through the park, past the tall dark pine trees, and the old artillery guns from World War II. He rounded the corner of the old vinegar plant. It was unused now; the mortar was cracked in places, and many of the bricks. He touched the wall gently, how long had this been here? Who built it — men like himself? He never asked, even though he’d spent all of his life in this little town. He placed both hands against it, and looked up the wall. His whole life, and he’d never noticed the mosaic of auburn, crimson, and burgundy bricks, it was pretty actually. Had he always been so inattentive? A dog barked and he stepped abruptly away, what if someone saw him — pondering the mysteries of bricks and mortar? He shook his head, he needed to go home.
He continued down the block, past the old bar where they had fish fries on Friday, and the hair dresser where his mother still went before special occasions. Not that there were many of those anymore, his father had passed away several years back, and his older brother, Chad, had moved to New York a decade ago. He said he needed a change of scene over whiskeys and soda water one night. Recently divorced, Wisconsin held nothing for him anymore, except memories and long, bitter winters.
“Even my memories seem frozen in the snow here… It’s better not to let them thaw out. You know Trudy never liked the cold, ever. Hated scraping the car off, shoveling the driveway, all of it,” Chad had said. “And yet we stayed here all of these years, isn’t that ironic?” It was actually. She took a business trip to Florida, instantly fell in love with the palm trees and white sand beaches, and missed her flight home. A day later she told Chad she wasn’t coming home, ever, and that he should have known this was coming.
“She said Florida was hers, just like that. I mean the whole god dammed state? Can you believe that John? I knew she was off her rocker at that point, and I was better off alone.” Although Chad wasn’t, he missed her greatly, and fell into a bout of spending every night at the bar. Then one day he snapped out of it, packed his car, and drove to New York for 16 hours straight.
And he was right, the east coast suited him better. But his mother never liked the idea, still didn’t. Her chances of grandchildren had gone out the window the day Trudy missed her flight, and that was what really upset her. It diminished each year that Chad didn’t remarry, and came home at Christmastime with only presents. And she didn’t place any hope in him, that much he knew. He’d never had much luck with the ladies, although his looks weren’t to blame. He was a bigger man, but not overweight, actually pretty good for these parts. He had light blue eyes, and a pleasing smile, or so he’d been told. He had a decent job as a mechanic, which, though not very lucrative, paid his bills. Women were a mystery to him. One day they liked him, one day they didn’t. And then they’d just disappear, entirely, like they’d been destroyed by some sea creature.
That’s what happened to the last one, a girl he met at a bar. Actually she was the bartender, named Nicole. He had instantly liked the Celtic knot tattooed on her bicep, and the bourbon cocktails she made with such care. One day, after weeks of late night dates after the bar closed, she simply vanished. Like so many things in life, he thought bitterly. Perhaps there weren’t any more milestones to celebrate in life.
He looked up, he was standing in front of his childhood home. His mother still lived there, his own house was several blocks farther from the lake. It was a green and white two-story home built in the 1920s. Slanting maple and pine trees framed it, and lilac bushes grew in the back. He loved those, the drooping purple blossoms and delicate scent wafting across the yard in the springtime. When it was late spring, his mother would plant tulips and crocuses behind the house, and strawberries in the garden. By the time summer hit, the small patch of garden would be covered with red berries, and the bushes next to the shed would be full of blackberries.
The sun came out from behind a cloud and the windows glistened. The lawn rolled down from the front porch in two waves, the house perched atop like a tower. The sunlight hit his cheeks, and he felt its subtle warmth. It had a new vibrancy extending through the day, a slow salvage from the darkness. For the first time in many months he felt at peace. Perhaps it was the house, it was magnetic almost, the sense of connection with this place. He had so many memories from his childhood here, not all good, but they formed the fabric of his very being. Who would he be if he had grown up elsewhere? Surely different than the man he had become. It was poetic almost, being shaped by your surroundings, like the saplings growing along the driveway. He realized he’d never thought about that before. He’d never really thought about a lot of things. He’d been focused on the alarm clock in the morning, the after work beers with friends, the football game on the Sunday. Was that all there was to his life?
A mourning dove called out its doleful song. He was gazing up at the house, probably looking like a fool, he thought. For the first time, he noticed the stillness. The gas station across from the house was empty, and no cars were driving down the street. That was odd, since 10th street was one of the main thoroughfares of the city. He realized he hadn’t seen or heard anyone since he had left the lake shore. It was Thursday morning, had he forgotten about a holiday? He wavered for a minute, and then decided to ask his mother what was going on. She was retired and bound to be home.
He went around to the back door, and knocked. No one answered, and he knocked again. He turned the doorknob, and the door creaked opened, she was at home. He stepped over the cracked, white threshold into the small kitchen.
“Mom? Are you here?” The kitchen looked different somehow but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The familiar drab countertops were still there, underneath the same cat clock with its tail marking the seconds. But something had changed. Then he saw it, the old lime green bread box was out, his mother hadn’t used that for ages. It always had cinnamon raisin bread in it, which he’d used for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. It was his childhood favorite, actually it still was. Every week, he went to the grocery store and bought the same bread.
“Mom?” The clock said it was 12:30, she should be home. He opened the fridge and pulled out a beer, forgetting his vow against day time drinking. His mom usually kept Coors light for him, but all he found was Budweiser. He opened it up and took a sip. He gagged, it tasted like dirty water. He poured it down the sink and grabbed another one. This one slid down his throat with the grainy, earthy taste of beer.
“Mom?” he walked into the living room, and saw an elderly woman sitting on a worn, green armchair. Her thin shoulders were turned towards him, and she was reading a newspaper with her glasses perched on the end of her nose. It was unusual for his mother to have guests. Perhaps she had met her at church or her bridge group. He walked over,
“Hi I’m John.”
“I know who you are.” She turned around, and John dropped his beer. It was his grandmother.
“What are you doing?” she scolded. “Pick that up!” She got up and returned from the kitchen with a pile of towels. She knelt down, agile for a woman of her age, and blotted the carpet with a towel. “Well are you going to help me or not? You made this mess.”
“Grandma…” his hands were shaking uncontrollably.
“John?” she peered up at him with unveiled disapproval.
“Why are you here?”
“I was helping your mom out, cleaning things up, after all, you two boys are so messy.”
“Not that you’re much help. Look at her carpet now,” she sighed, looking at the wet stain on the faded brown carpet.
“Go get some carpet cleaner, it’s under the bathroom sink. This isn’t going to come out otherwise.”
He took a shaky breath, and just managed to whisper, “How did you get here?”
“Your mother picked me up before work.”
“But…” he took another deep breath, and tried to calm his pounding heart. His legs felt like they might give out from beneath him, and he sat heavily in the armchair. “You died 25 years ago.”
She didn’t reply, and kept blotting the carpet. She gave him a piercing look, “John you look like what the cat dragged in. You’re wet, and covered in sand. Have you been down by the lake again?”
He looked down and saw his pants were wet, and crusted with sand. His feet were still tingling with numbness, he tapped them lightly against the carpet. How was his grandmother here? Had she been alive all these years? That was impossible. She would be over 110 years old by now, and he’d seen her buried in the cemetery on the north side of town. On the coffee table next to the chair, a pair of gloves were folded neatly. His grandmother’s, she had always used those to keep her fingers clean from the ink. She had been a no-nonsense, fiery woman, while his mother was good-humored, and slow to anger. As a child, he’d never really felt at ease around his grandmother. When she had passed away, he had mourned her death as the loss it was, of a presence he had known since the beginning of time, a tangible, flesh and blood, a string to the past, someone he carried viscerally on into the future, whether he wanted to or not. Later in life, he had grown to appreciate her feistiness and strength of spirit. After all, she had been raised in a time when women were expected to smile and acquiesce. Such subtleties had been beyond him when he was younger though, and he only saw her sternness.
He realized she was watching him, she had a gaze that missed nothing. “John, you don’t look well. I’ll get you something to drink.” She got up from the carpet and went into the kitchen. He closed his eyes and felt like he was floating, his brain was more awake but still moved sluggishly, like honey flowing from a jar. He must have taken something, although he’d sworn off drugs too. He didn’t like the way they made him feel.
He’d relax at first, and then the ground gave way, and he felt as if he might slip over the precipice. The euphoria and then the crash brought it closer, and it glittered in all its glory, like some dark jewel. It had been too tempting, and he’d sworn to just liquor and the occasional cigarette. That had helped for awhile, like Nicole did. She had been a distraction, with her pretty dark eyes and texts at night. She was a bit rough around the edges, but when she softened, she had a beautiful laugh. She had been a challenge, ignoring him at first, but he didn’t mind. He kept going to the bar where she worked, and chatting to her, until finally he got her number. Everything had been going so well. That is, until one day, she stopped responding to his texts and calls. He went to the bar where she worked a couple times, but didn’t see her. After the third time, he lost his nerve, what was he doing hanging around the bar where Nicole worked? It was pathetic.
“John, here you go,” his grandmother placed a steaming mug besides him.
“Thank you.” Her lips curved upwards, and she disappeared down the hallway. He grabbed her gloves, they were light, and made of gray leather. Funny that she had always used these. It’s odd the things you remember about someone once they’re gone, their favorite dessert, a pet peeve, a piece of jewelry they always wore. Little idiosyncrasies, small passing moments were what survived the sieve of time. Perhaps that’s all there ever was, a random note here and there. Only through the lens of time did it make a melody. He sipped the drink, it was a hot apple cider — his favorite drink as a kid. She had remembered, or had he just remembered that she did? He had been wrong about his grandmother all these years, she wasn’t so bad. She was all bark, and no bite. Why hadn’t he seen that sooner?
She came back with a bottle of carpet cleaner, and knelt down to apply it to the stain. She scrubbed the spot vigorously with a small cloth. “Now that’s better, coming right out now.” He watched her work, and wondered — had he helped her as a child? Or appreciated everything she’d done for him? The answer was no. Funny thing about children, they don’t realize what someone does right, just what they do wrong.
“Here I’ll help.” He stood up, and felt something pass over him. The scene wavered before him, and he felt a wave of heat pass through his body. He sat back down again.
“John? Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” he lied. He felt weak, simply talking took an effort he wasn’t used to. He closed his eyes, and tried to rid himself of the sensation that he was sinking. He opened his eyes, his grandmother was peering down at him.
“Grandma, is this real?”
“Stop asking stupid questions, John. You were always a smart boy.”
He felt a pang, his grandmother always thought he had the brains in the family. He had too; as a kid, he wanted to be an engineer, building bridges and skyscrapers. He wasn’t the best student in high school, but he got decent grades, and studied instead of drinking cheap beer with his friends at night. When he graduated, he enrolled in the local community college. He planned to transfer to UW after a year, where Chad went. He had signed up for calculus, physics, and English lit. He repeatedly fell asleep in his calculus class, until the professor pulled him aside one day, and told him he’d better get some coffee or stop coming. Physics was worse, his professor was a petite Asian woman, and he could barely understand her thick accent. Not that he cared, it all seemed irrelevant, who cared about falling bodies? English lit, on the other hand, was a subject he loved. The poems and novels captivated him, and writing didn't seem like homework, it was fun. He dropped out of physics and calculus, but kept going to English lit. He didn’t dare tell his mother, but asked his brother for advice. Chad was horrified.
“Bro, you’ll never get a job with English, only girls study that. You’ll be working in a coffee shop the rest of life, with a ton of college debt. Go back to engineering."
He didn’t want to work in coffee shop, but he didn’t want to retake calculus either. So one afternoon, impulsively, he dropped out. His mother was disappointed but adjusted soon enough, and eventually was glad to have a son in town. He did odd jobs for awhile, waiting tables, delivering furniture, and working in a hardware store. Eventually, he went back to the community college, and enrolled in the automotive mechanic training program. In 6 months, he finished and got his first job as a mechanic. It was work he had enjoyed, he liked working with his hands and chatting to the customers. He didn’t mind the grease that was always under his fingernails. Recently though, he’d grown tired of it. A restlessness had overtaken him, there was little he hadn’t seen before. Now he spent his work days watching the clock, waiting for it to hit 5 p.m. But what else could he do? He had no training or experience for any other kind of work.
His grandmother was still standing in front of him patiently, and a sense of guilt pressed down on his chest. “Grandma, I wasn’t as smart as you thought. I tried engineering and hated it. I gave it up after a semester. Chad got his degree in business after all. But I just couldn’t stomach college. So I was a mechanic instead, but I don't like that anymore. I’ve been a disappointment, I think. To myself sometimes too.”
She seemed to consider this information thoughtfully. Several moments passed before she responded, “You kids… You always seem to think everything’s so tragic. These problems aren't anything new, really. You don't like engineering or repairing cars? Do something else. You must have discovered that some cars can be fixed, and others can't. And there’s your problem, because you have to choose, like we all did at some point. So choose carefully, because they’ll be new cars to fix the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. And your time can't be gotten back — not once it’s gone.”
He nodded, and picked up the mug of cider, and sipped it slowly. He put it back down, and noticed his fingernails were clean. A light flickered, it was Thursday, why wasn’t he at work? What was he doing at noon at his mom’s house? I was a mechanic. Something opened, and the memories washed back in. Monday morning, the alarm clock went off at 6:45 a.m. He hit snooze. He hated getting up so early, in the dark and cold. The alarm went off again, he cursed and sat up. His head ached, he had been drinking whiskey the night before. It helped for awhile, until it wore off, leaving him worse than before. The sun barely peaked over the horizon, and his bedroom was veiled in shades of gray and deep blue. And he just couldn’t any longer, not another week of the same dull job, the same bar every night, and watching for messages on his phone that never came. A wave of anger surged through him, and he threw his alarm clock against the wall. He wasn't going in. And then, he decided he wasn’t going in, ever. His boss called and left a message, and then another. He called the next day, and said if he didn’t come in, he was fired. And he was fine with that, until today. Why had he done that — without at least thinking it through? He couldn’t tell his grandmother he’d left his job so unceremoniously.
She was staring down at him, unflinchingly. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes, I’ll think about it. I mean actually that’s good advice.” He felt lighter, as if something had shifted and fallen away from his ribcage. He had underestimated her, always had. Was this all a dream to show him what he’d missed? But here she was, in perfect detail, wearing her favorite collared shirt, her skin mottled, and her gray and brown hair pressed into small waves. He felt the rough cloth of the chair beneath, and the beating of his chest. The slowly shushing of the heater was just barely audible. He felt incredibly tired, but his thoughts were coming more quickly now, perhaps whatever he had taken was wearing off.
She picked up the towels and disappeared down the hallway. He got up, his legs feeling stronger. He went back to the kitchen, and grabbed another beer from the fridge. The yellow walls were garish by any description, but he found the shade comforting. There was a familiarity in the way the sunlight lit up the room, shone off the walls, and bounced off the polished table. The kitchen had always been his favorite room in the house. He'd spent most of his time there as a kid, doing his homework over the scents of his mother’s cooking, talking to his Dad, and reading National Geographic magazines. He and Chad used to team up and steal chocolate chip cookies from the cupboards when his mother wasn’t watching. Chad, he’d been avoiding his calls for weeks, he should really talk to him. But by this time, he was going to be annoyed, and he couldn't handle being admonished, not now.
He took a sip of his beer. His kitchen in his own house never had the same appeal. He'd had some parties where his kitchen had overflowed with friends and food, and had a few meals with Nicole, but that was it. None of the family and years of time filled that space — memories that gradually soaked into the walls. Things that a stranger would never notice, never appreciate, not like he did. Maybe he should paint his own kitchen yellow, it’d be more cheerful that way. He liked that idea.
The cat clock still there, painted white with black spots, comfortably ticking off the seconds with its plastic tail. He glanced at it, and a wave of tingling needles ran over his skin. It was 12:30. Same time as when he came in. Was it broken? He looked at the stove clock, 12:30. He felt short of breath, and his teeth began to clatter.
“Grandma!” He went to the living room and down the hallway that led to the bedrooms. He looked in each one, she wasn’t there. He ran back to the living room, and opened the front door. She wasn’t in the front yard. He ran out the back door to the pale sunlight of the garden. It was still, like the silence after a flock of birds has taken flight. “Grandma!” No one answered. “Why am I here?”
Only he knew the answer, knew it all along, he realized. He felt a shock, like he’d been turned violently over. Last night, he had called Nicole, letting the phone ring over and over. A dozen, two dozen times, he needed to talk to her, just once. Just once more. Finally, she picked up and he gasped, it was his last chance. And then he heard the click as she hung up the phone. He'd been crushed, an empty vessel tossed into a stormy sea. That lasted through half a bottle of whiskey. And then something creaked and burst, and it was different, he didn’t care about the pieces scattered around him. None of that mattered anymore.
He awoke the next day to the sense he was made of ice. The fire in his stomach was gone, and the thoughts that flittered in his brain like paper butterflies had disappeared. He got up and saw the thermometer. It was warmer today, one of the first days of spring. Soon the days would lengthen with golden light, the crickets would sing at dusk, and the land would unroll in a carpet of vibrant green. And he wouldn’t be able to after that.
He felt his fingers tingling, and his arms began to shake uncontrollably. A robin chirped, shattering the silence. There was a spark, buried deep underneath. It fizzled and spat, he wasn’t frozen. Why had he ever left the lake shore? That division between water and earth had always fascinated him, the edge between the torpid summer heat and cool surf. One was unpredictable and untamed, some days threatening to overtake the other, waves crashing down in a frothing fury, while the other was implacable, a monolith. Today the lake had reflected its neighbor, windless and serene, concealing its true nature in the depths. He felt something percolate through him, drip by drip. It seared unexpectedly, tinged with regret. He jolted, he had to move. He started running back to the lake shore. He made it as far as the old vinegar factory, and leaned against its old brick walls, panting heavily. His heart was racing wildly, and he felt like he was about to collapse.
Those feeling and impulses were long gone, so he thought, products of youth and a mind gone awry. Until one misty autumn night, driving down the freeway, it all came back. And he realized he had been wrong, for here was all of life, in one second, with one slip on a curve, on a rainy night. It had always been there, every day, and every night and he had forgotten it was even there. For how many years? He dismissed it as a whim, foolish really. But the next day it glittered, like some forbidden pleasure, and he pushed it aside. Then, in winter, it returned again and again, seeping into the snow and ice. With each icy dawn and every frigid night, it was there, glistening, like an ice crystal giving off light.
He had to keep moving. He stood up and swayed unsteadily. His legs felt like lead, and floating spots filled his field of vision. He steeled himself and started walking, painfully, towards the lake shore. He could see the corner of the park, a small patch of green that looked like an oasis. He was close.
He’d gone to the lake shore that morning. The pale blue water unfolded as far as the eye could see, and the gulls soared overhead. He liked taking walks along the lake, always had. He liked the fragile balance, the plants clinging to the shore, the thrill of being so close to the water. That morning it was calm, like a glass surface, almost too good to be true. The lake air grazed his cheeks like a water deity beckoning to him. He’d been an avid swimmer since he was a little boy. It felt like returning to something primordial, the ocean from which we’d all come. Slipping into the water, and feeling it buoy your weight, was for a moment, like being cradled in the divine. He’d walked down the sandy bank to the lake shore, unhurriedly, letting his feet sink into the sand.
Halfway through the park, he doubled over. He could see the sandy bank just before the lake. His legs had nearly lost all sensation, and his heart pounded like a ball bouncing in an empty cage. His jagged breaths didn’t fill his lungs, but he had to keep going. He could feel his energy draining away, but he was almost there, to the lake shore. He dragged his foot forward and took one step, then another.
He’d stood there this morning, next to the lake on whose shore he’d spent all his life. It was a silent companion, the picture of wild beauty, but unforgiving. The blue surface reflected the sky in perfect detail, like some cosmic mirror. It divided the dark depths below and the heavens above, and all the space in between. He hesitated for a moment, and then remembered, he had nothing to lose.
He made it to the bank, and fell to his knees. His whole body shuddered and convulsed. He had no choice but to start crawling. His heart was beating slowly, and a dull roar filled his ears. He made it to the top of the bank and then he saw it, in the shallow waves, lying face down. He screamed but made no sound. He rolled down the bank, and with all his effort, pushed himself up. His hands started to burn, and then his arms. He’d underestimated the power of the lake, the attraction to its fierce strength. Bright spots of light flashed before him. He had to reach the water. He got on his knees, and moved forward one inch at a time.
He’d slipped in and floated up, a sense of peace filling his soul. A few moments, that’s all he could ask for. Surrendering to the infinity, feeling himself melt away, that was enough. He’d returned home. And then something jarred him as the glacial water enveloped him, sinking to his skin. He remembered what he’d realized long ago —every wave and raging storm, misty morning dawn, bitter gust of wind, cloud filled horizon, and spotless open sky – was there, in that moment. All of that, and nothing more. And he had forgotten, forgotten it was even there.
He fell down violently, and water filled his lungs. And the lake cradled him in its icy grasp, sirens singing in his ears. And he gave up, already had. That time was gone. But sometimes there’s more, things we barely perceive. Slight, but interwoven, strings connected back through the murky depths of time. And, over the deepest part of the lake, a single drop struck the pure blue water. A ripple started, and it grew, a pulse of energy across the great lake. It raced through its freedom, the unattainable horizon and wide sky above, a wrinkle through a small silver of time. Then came the end, and a new beginning, from the ashes that crashed into the shore. The water rose, and dropped. He felt the gritty sand of the lake shore, and gasped for air.
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