|Chagrin River Review||
The curtains had tangled around the rod and beyond the water-skiers the hills knuckled the cottages to the far shore and the aluminum siding and windows waved urgently. From the sagging dock my brother Jimmy cast a wooden lure sidearm and low into the bright wind while my father and uncle inspected the rented boat and behind me my mother and aunt unpacked suitcases in the tiny bedrooms. I turned away from the lake and watched my aunt pause to gaze at her shaking hands. The adjacent bedroom where Mom was unpacking was hazy despite the open windows. She slammed a drawer and marched into the living room, edged me aside, and said, “Start unpacking your stuff.” Face askance to the screen, loose ends of her hair bun flapping, she yelled out one side of her mouth, a cigarette waggling from the other. “Hey, you guys bring me along to be your washerwoman? You could help unpack.”
“Be right in, honey.”
Her nose nearly touched the ball of cotton plugging a hole. “Who’s he—disciple Simon?”
“I said I’ll be right in.”
After watching Jimmy make another cast, the lure slicing the wind and then abruptly halting and falling directly to the lake, Dad started toward the cottage, the greenish boards bending and creaking. In the boat, Uncle Jerry lost his balance as he lifted his thick dark arms to peel off his tee shirt. His big belly white between thick patches of black hair, he steadied himself against the gunwale before he moved to join Jimmy up on the dock, the aluminum boat rising and falling with a hollow booming while out on the lake speedboats banged on the waves like hammers on wood.
“I wanna go fishing too.”
“You get in there and help your aunt.” Ash and bits of glowing tobacco streamed from my mother’s cigarette. She whispered, “Watch and let me know if you see any pills. If she falls asleep with a cigarette, we’ll all burn even before we get to hell.”
During the two-hour drive to Cattaraugus Lake, my father had reminded us boys that Aunt Lena was to be pitied. My aunt and uncle lived on our street in Glaucon and Dad knew that children poked fun at her when Uncle Jerry wasn’t around—which was most of the time—imitating her slurred speech and tortoise movements. But before Jimmy or I could respond, Mom said, “Well, you already know what I think. I seem to recall she slurred her words before she had back trouble. I think she hurt her back in that factory because she was already zonked out. It’s not safe to work like that unless you’re a musician.”
I watched the telephone poles and mailboxes blur by and held a white tissue in the wind, pretending it was a ghost as it billowed and flapped and disintegrated. I wondered whether Dad had heard Mom, but eventually he said, “The way I look at it is you never know anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
“The way I look at it is that she needed to use her shoes to kick her husband in his fat ass.”
“You women libbers.”
“It won’t take any libber to kick your ass.”
As Grandpa Lanahan liked to put it, his daughter “would fight someone with the nails of her feet,” especially if that someone was male—but talk of women’s rights irritated my mother. When her cousin Rebecca, a kindergarten teacher, condescended to her at a Lanahan family reunion by urging that she take a high school equivalency exam and enroll in the local community college, Mom looked at Rebecca as if she had just crawled from under a cow pie. “So I could stop being just a housewife, you mean? Like my husband, filthy and sweaty all day and his pores and lungs full of fly ash? Like yours at the chemical plant, his skin yellow? Like you—wiping twenty snotty noses and working for a principal who got the job because he was the only teacher in the school with a dick? Or like him, gulping antacid and kissing the asses of the farmers on the school board and the cookie-bakers in the PTA? Is that what you mean?”
Rebecca took two steps back before shouting as if across a ravine. “Well, Marie, let us just hope your husband remains healthy.”
“Well, I hope so all right—but I don’t know about the us part.” By then Dad and Rebecca’s husband had abandoned their game of horseshoes and were hurrying toward their wives as if intending to pour their beer on a small fire. “But don’t worry about me,” she said as Dad reached out to touch her shoulder. “You know what they say. There are other fish in the sea.”
After our first day at Cattaraugus Lake, Mom put down her child-rearing rake. None of the adults seemed tired even though they had stayed up late playing cards and drinking beer and whiskey at the kitchen table. Mom stopped demanding that we boys pick up after ourselves and eat vegetables and brush our teeth.
On our third morning, Dad woke Jimmy and me in darkness. Uncle Jerry was already in the kitchen frying eggs and sausage and burning the toast. After breakfast, we went fishing, casting into the fog near docks and weed beds, our fiberglass poles arching as the big net and cold hard stringer were readied in the boat. Back on our dock again, sweating beneath the climbing sun, Dad and Jerry scaled the morning catch and sliced off fillets and heaved the waste out into the lake. Then Dad poured a pail of lake water over the butchering place, though a coating of blood and slime and scales would remain all day, the flies feasting and glittering green. After wrapping the fillets in foil and refrigerating them, the men celebrated with shots of whiskey before joining their wives in bed. I wanted to return to bed too, but Jimmy tugged me outside. The lake and road and cottages on each side of ours were still quiet and we overturned flat rocks near the nudged shore and caught crayfish and dropped them into a coffee can so that we would have bait when the fishing became good again in the evening. My brother didn’t mock my whimpering when one clamped down on my right middle finger, as he would have back home, and demonstrated how to twist off the claws.
That afternoon we had contests with our father and uncle to see who could throw a football the farthest while swimming and make the fanciest dive. Once as Dad bent over the water, his long arms raised into an inverted V and his bushy toes curled over the end of the dock, Mom shoved him face-first into the water. Several seconds passed without his surfacing. She said, “Don’t worry. He’s just holding his breath.” But then a minute had passed and the grins on our faces had frozen into desperate hope and the sound of a motorboat passing by called to my mind the murder weapon in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She said, “Oh, my God.” She dove and when she surfaced she gasped and shouted, “Did he come up?”
Then he swam out from under the low dock, where he had been all along. “Did who come up?”
She slapped the water as she swam and then began to strike his head and neck and shoulders as if she’d changed her mind about wanting him to live, but soon they were both laughing and embracing and treading gently, diluted blood streaming down his cheek. On shore, Lena, whose speech had shed its usual slur, was bent over at the waist in smoky laughter that reminded me of the barking of the seals at the Buffalo zoo. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d witnessed Lena smile so broadly, and as he already had several times during our vacation, Jerry said, “Now isn’t this fun, Toots? Just this? Don’t you feel just great?”
Bluish smoke drifted from the charcoal grill morning to night. All week we had been visited by kin and neighbors with offerings of beer and meats and pies and salads, and when my grandparents Lanahan arrived with yet more drink and food, we already had enough to last another week even though it was our final full day at the lake. From the steep and rusty iron stairway from the road to the cottage, Grandpa said, “Dia daoibh.”
He was thin but waddled like a pregnant woman as he descended with a case of beer held to his abdomen and seemed very old to me even though he hadn’t retired from his job at the machine shop. Out on the water, Lena and Dad waved to us as Jerry turned the boat toward the cottage, the bow thrown high as it hit the wake of a speedboat.
“Well,” said my mother, lifting her bottle of beer to salute Grandpa, “If it isn’t the Irishman from the Stone Age. They don’t greet anyone with God be with you anymore, Dad. Not even the religious fanatics in remotest Donegal.”
At the bottom of the stairs, he halted to catch his breath and gape at my mother, who said, “Take that beer from your grandfather before his back goes out.”
He was still staring. “You understood what I said?”
“Last I knew it was you who was losing his hearing.”
“All these years I thought you hadn’t any Irish.”
“Well, happy birthday.”
“My birthday isn’t until October.”
“Whatever.” She flipped a blackening thigh and leg of chicken and stepped back from the sudden sputtering flames and oily smoke.
Jerry slowed the boat as it neared the dock and Jimmy came out of the cottage in his swimming trunks and asked, “Did you bring your fishing pole, Grandpa?”
“He didn’t,” said Grandma from behind him. “But he brought beer.”
“You didn’t bring it?”
He finally let me take the case from him and slipped his right hand, the one with only three and a half fingers, into a pocket of his pants. “Did I ever tell you how my father poached fish from the streams?”
“I think you did.”
“Fishing with a pole was for people who had time for hobbies. It was a hobby for those people who could afford to buy fish at the shop. What he did was to pour some manner of secret solution of his into the flow of water and for a distance downstream the trout and salmon would soon go belly up and I would grab them as they floated by and toss them into a sack.”
“Neat,” said Jimmy as he turned away. He started down to the lake to help dock and lash the boat. “But you already told me that.”
“You shouldn’t be telling the boys,” said Grandma.
“These boys didn’t come down the river on the first bubble. These are not innocent lads in need of our protection.”
“A grandfather should be a good role model,” she said mildly.
“Lucky for you, my father sold enough fish to earn our family’s passage to America.”
“Oh, yes,” said my mother, “lucky Mom.”
“And many a profitable pheasant we threw into that same sack. We scattered grain soaked in poteen and soon got them so drunk they couldn’t fly or even run. Just picked them up and rung their necks and threw them into the sack.”
My mother said, “Remember that, Mom, the next time he comes home three sheets to the wind.”
On our last night at the lake, my father, who had vowed in Korea that if he should make it home alive he would never again sleep outside, agreed to sleep out with his sons. With the bundle of firewood Dad had bought at a gas station, Jimmy and I started a fire near the edge of the water and soon were sticky with sooty marshmallow. We guzzled soda and Dad beer and stared into the flames and conversed only occasionally and in murmurs that meant here I am near to you in the night beneath the starry sky. After unrolling mine between Dad’s and Jimmy’s on the dock, I was the first to slide into a sleeping bag. Dad said he needed to say goodnight to Mom, but did not return from the dark cottage until after I had fallen asleep to the sound of waves licking the shore in the sheen of the dying fire.
The lake was perfectly still when hours later I woke to my father’s grunt-punctuated snoring. When I peed from the edge of the dock it sounded to me like a waterfall. Then when I was back in the warmth of the bag and had stopped shivering, I heard a doorknob rattle and saw a dim human form leave the cottage. I nearly cried out.
It was Aunt Lena.
She had become almost like a normal aunt during our vacation, commenting on how fast I was growing and asking boring questions about what I’d done that summer and what I thought about moving up to the middle school in September. I’d heard Jerry tell my father that he had been allowing her pills—“but not so many.” Jimmy had two nicknames for our aunt: one was Sloth Lena for the aunt who was heavily drugged, and the other was Rat Lena for the one who was suffering withdrawal, and now Rat Lena scurried up the steps to the road in her white nightgown, leaving the cottage door wide open. As I caught up to her, I whispered, “Are you okay, Aunt Lena?” Knowing she wouldn’t remember, Jimmy would have said, “Are you okay, Rat Lena?”
She didn’t reply, and I stayed close behind in my pajamas, afraid she would become lost or get run over. When she was near her and Jerry’s car on the shoulder of the road, she squatted as if about to pee but instead reached behind the front bumper and into its hollow curve and I could hear her fingernails digging at the rusty metal. Eventually she retrieved a small plastic bottle dangling duct tape. I offered to help as she fumbled at the lid with quivering hands, but she seemed not to hear or see me and began to tear with her teeth, twisting and pulling until suddenly the lid popped off as her head jerked back. Even in the night I could detect her neck muscles working as she swallowed pills with nothing to wash them down but her saliva, and though the drug could not have taken effect that quickly, she presently transformed into something other than Sloth or Rat Lena. It was as if her soul had stepped from her body with the knowledge that she had the pills in her hands and stomach. Thin nightgown billowing, Soul Lena quickly floated down the stairs and then, until I recalled that she had left the cottage open, it appeared that she had passed directly through the glass and peeling wood.
I stretched on the gravel driveway and stepped into the yard and gazed around with some surprise, feeling as if I’d been away for years. Until our vacation, the longest I’d been away from Glaucon was one Memorial Day weekend with my grandparents Lanahan, who lived in nearby Buffalo, and though we’d been at the lake for only a week, merely seventy miles south of my home, my neighborhood now seemed different from how it had been before our vacation, even the Reynolds couple who sat motionless in their rockers on the front porch across the road. Jimmy and I had once set off a chain of firecrackers in our front yard in an attempt to make the old folks utter a sound, but during the sparkly smoky popping they had simply glanced at each other before resuming their mute ghostly stillness, relegating us to the distant past with other annoying boys they had known during their many years of life. Mom called for me to help unpack the car. It was Sunday evening and men were in their yards clutching beady bottles of beer and listening to transistor radios tucked beneath the lawn chairs or doing the mowing they’d put off until the final hours, all of them somehow stretching their little remaining time away from the plants and mills and warehouses that somewhat distantly circled the clustered green lawns and clean homes and safe streets of Glaucon. She called to me again, shrilly and loudly now, as if I were in someone else’s yard. I ignored her as a youthful greeting seemed to rise from close behind me and thinking it was one of my neighborhood friends I spun around and saw no one, just my overgrown lawn and small home, and felt a clammy chill as if I were close to the mouth of an underground cave.
Photo Credit: Tracy Bloom
Mark Phillips recently took up the writing of fiction, but his essays have appeared in Salon, The Sun, North Dakota Quarterly, Commonweal, New York Times Magazine, Notre Dame Magazine, and in many other journals. He is the author of the memoir My Father’s Cabin, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, of which Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “I don’t believe I have ever read so relentlessly honest, unsentimental, and unsparing account of working-class life.”