A Week­end at the Lake

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS -

YOU’RE PULLING INTO THE CAMP­GROUND, you and Joe, and it’s al­most un­bear­able, how stricken it looks. Sure, the poplars are bud­ding, wil­lows swell yel­low, but it’s not enough, the impression is of win­ter rather than spring, so many trees and shrubs still pared back to their branches and the sky churn­ing grey, clouds rip­ping them­selves into rags. No dif­fer­ent than the land­scape driv­ing up, what else did you ex­pect? But you must have been hop­ing. Imag­in­ing.

And not a sin­gle other per­son any­where. Two round tents at lake’s edge—one red, one blue—sway­ing in the wind with a show of bravado but can­vas chairs in front of them slouched, un­oc­cu­pied. A teardrop trailer around the curve is shut­tered. The va­cancy is so im­mense you feel it will flat­ten you like card­board over the damp leaf­clot­ted earth. Thirty sites cut into these sparse woods, each marked by a rusted firepit and pic­nic ta­ble that re­peat like ditto marks around you, that speak not of wait­ing as much as de­ser­tion.

I just don’t feel like it, you say. I feel like turn­ing around and driv­ing back to the city.

Your hus­band sighs. He stretches the sigh as far as it will go, as if to make clear the con­tin­uum of im­pa­tience to patience you in­volve, such a fool to ex­pect heat and bloom and peo­ple this early in the sea­son. As if to re­mind you of ev­ery­thing you’ve ever said. Said this morn­ing in fact, that you could hardly wait to be­gin camp­ing again.

But he knows what you mean. We’re ahead of the pack by a month, he says, that’s all.

Noth­ing for it then but to get set up. He ma­neu­vers the trailer into a site with his usual fur­rowed con­cen­tra­tion, you slide the logs

be­hind the wheels, un­lock the elec­tri­cal com­part­ment, plug the cord into power. He lev­els the trailer, you bring out the chairs and table­cloth, spread the mat un­der the stepdown. You un­roll the awning to­gether, haul the ta­ble un­der it. Then he hooks you for a hug, says, It’s go­ing to be okay. He squeezes you like a wish, or maybe in­spi­ra­tion.

You walk to the lake. The wa­ter is slate-coloured, rough, un­ap­peal­ing un­der the wind. A field of crevices. You need some­thing from this view, a dose of per­se­ver­ance per­haps, but it isn’t there. You re­mem­ber Joe say­ing it’s hard for him lately to keep up with your shifts in mood. The shifts ex­haust you too, you said, and in case he hadn’t no­ticed, you’re stead­ier by the day—aren’t you? Be­fore you know it, you said, you’ll be bor­ing and pre­dictable again. He said it couldn’t hap­pen soon enough.

The wa­ter rolls and rolls, it chafes as if up­set. You re­mem­ber a tele­vi­sion movie you and Joe saw once about a mur­der at a camp­ground, a woman’s body sprawled in a ca­noe. Killed by some­thing blunt and bru­tal, prob­a­bly the straight edge of an axe. Waves rock­ing the ca­noe, tip­ping it up, tip­ping it back, al­most pret­tily in fact, ex­cept for the hor­ror in­side. Based on an ac­tual event, the cred­its said, and you re­mem­ber how help­less, how limp, the body was and you can’t stop watch­ing, though you should, and your heart rears, it clat­ters, you hear it pound out­side your chest, you feel you could die though you aren’t even close, you’ve been through this be­fore. You lunge to the chil­dren’s play struc­ture be­hind you and grab for a bar. You’re breath­ing hard and you count as you breathe and your heart creeps back into its cav­ity and be­comes it­self again, a quiet and sub­mis­sive or­gan beat­ing its lovely reg­u­lar beat. Your breath along­side turns reg­u­lar too, as if noth­ing was the mat­ter, ex­cept for the residue of shame that clings to you like grit and re­minds you of the time you and So­phie crawled through a cul­vert on a dare, claus­tro­pho­bia like tal­cum pow­der up your nos­trils. She was older so she went first, your big brave sis­ter, and when she emerged on the other side, she said, Easy peasy, Elly!

You make your­self walk back to the wa­ter. You plant your­self at the edge like a mar­itime woman, long-suf­fer­ing and rigid, whose gaze pierces and searches the sea even though she knows some­one she loves will never re­turn, will never be a speck of pos­si­bil­ity bob­bing on the hori­zon.

When you re­turn to your site, Joe asks if there’s some­thing go­ing on at the lake, you were gone an aw­fully long time, and you say no,

noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, but you feel stronger now and you ask if he re­calls that movie about the mur­der at a camp­ground.

He says it sounds vaguely fa­mil­iar.

The re­ally scary thing about camp­ing, you say, is that ev­ery­one has ac­cess to an axe.

He’s plac­ing kin­dling in a teepee shape but he lifts his head as if to study you, as if he recorded your sen­tence and has to rewind it. Hey, he fi­nally says.

What I mean is, if we yell, will any­body hear us? There’s no one around.

We won’t be yelling.

I know, but if.


Don’t worry don’t worry don’t worry, you say. I’m not afraid. He grunts.

Re­ally, I’m not. You were afraid at the lake­side but you aren’t afraid now.

He strikes a match, the kin­dling catches. She wasn’t mur­dered, he says, she died of can­cer.

You let his state­ment rest a while, as if to prove your for­bear­ance. He adds wood, places it care­fully. Your Joe is tall and lean, but hunched to his project he looks bean-baggy mis­shapen. Then you ask him why he sup­posed you’d been think­ing of your sis­ter.

He shrugs, says it’s where you al­ways go. Tan­gen­tially, at least. Tan­gen­tially. Good word, Joe. You like words, you no­tice them. Your in­ter­est in words some­times saves you from im­passe.

He spreads his hands wide over the flames as if he’s come out of the cold. Be­sides, he says, that movie hap­pened in the States. Min­nesota, I think.

Min­nesota isn’t that far from Man­i­toba.

Hey. Like a warn­ing this time.

You ought to in­form him about his overuse of hey. Has he any idea how of­ten it comes out of his mouth?

It seems too much ef­fort, how­ever, for the end of an af­ter­noon, the end of a week. You would have to pro­duce a list: the range of mean­ings a sin­gle three-let­ter word can carry when em­ployed by a spouse. He works for Hy­dro, he started in a truck, out and about trou­bleshoot­ing, but soon he landed in the of­fice to su­per­vise, and all be­cause of his pen­chant for cat­e­gory as a con­cept. You would have to cat­e­go­rize, ex­plain which mean­ings you pre­fer (those im­ply­ing

de­light) and which ones not so much (when con­de­scend­ing). A load of hey, you ought to say, but that would be an ef­fort too, even if you ban­tered back and forth com­fort­ably driv­ing up. The re­lease you feel when you leave the city, fifth-wheel trailer in tow, is im­por­tant, he gets it too. You camp to es­cape one set of rou­tines and en­ter an­other. When the fire burns down a bit you’ll grill pie-iron sand­wiches. Af­ter sup­per you’ll sit and read, or talk if you’re lucky. On the first night you al­ways make love. Camp­ing sex seems bliss­fully ado­les­cent, orig­i­nal some­how, the cozy make-do bed on the trailer’s up­per ledge, the foam mat­tress. Like play­ing house.

He gets up to split more wood and touches your shoul­der in pass­ing. Per­haps he’s think­ing of sex and pie-iron sand­wiches too. Sex, most likely.

I know, I know, you say. So­phie’s too much on my mind, I know. But how you get to a movie, a rather dumb movie if I re­call— Stop wor­ry­ing, Joe! You hear your voice and it’s florid, as unattrac­tive as a rash.

I didn’t mean wor­ry­ing the way you mean it. I mean con­cerned. As if any­one can stop what shows up in their head! I doubt if you can, Joe. I had a pre­mo­ni­tion, you know, that So­phie would die. Two weeks be­fore her di­ag­no­sis. I was gro­cery shop­ping, scru­ti­niz­ing bran flakes in fact, and there it was, So­phie’s go­ing to die.

This is the first time I’m hear­ing this.

Yes, and it—

But it only stayed with you be­cause two weeks later—

My point ex­actly.

But it made no dif­fer­ence, he says, whether you thought it or not. It wasn’t cau­sa­tion.

Cau­sa­tion! Ha, good one, Joe.

He does that gri­mace thing with his face.

So maybe the movie is noth­ing, you say, but we’ll have to be care­ful. We’re kind of alone out here.

He sighs again, says noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen.

Joe, I know.

The wind has calmed, the air feels warmer than be­fore. A pair of geese flies over, low­ers to rushes in a cove of the lake. They honk con­tin­u­ously, as if to prompt or con­sole each other. You’d like to in­sert the word mar­riage into the mo­ment, or even a word like nice, but you don’t, you fol­low the progress of the geese in si­lence un­til they land. You sense that Joe is aware of them too. I thought grief would be like

los­ing some­thing valu­able, you say. I never imag­ined it would be like fear.

Quickly you add, I’m not afraid at the mo­ment though. Just mak­ing an ob­ser­va­tion.

And then, as if to re­lieve, or maybe un­nerve you again, a mon­ster mo­torhome pulls into the camp­ground. The set­ting sun catches the side of it full-on and it hurts your eyes.

Straight off the line, Joe says. Forty feet and all the bells and whis­tles.

You say you re­ally love your an­ti­quated lit­tle trailer, but he’s ad­mir­ing the RV, which winds its way around the place only to stop smack at the site across from yours.

Looks like we’ve got neigh­bours, he says. Close enough to hear us.

Jeep­ers, Joe, don’t make fun of me, please. But this is like cot­ton candy in your mouth, you’re glad you can take some kid­ding.

So the neigh­bours have parked and be­gin to set­tle in and since the fire is low and per­fect for marsh­mal­lows, Joe fetches them from the trailer, and you each roast a few, but you’re star­ing at the cou­ple across from you. You don your sun­glasses so they won’t know. About the age of you and Joe, maybe five, ten years away from re­tire­ment. No chil­dren with them ei­ther. The man seems pleased with the site, sweeps an arm over the whole camp­ground as if to gather it in. The woman looks skep­ti­cal. Snob­bish, you sup­pose, though you can’t al­ways tell. Could be timid in­side. Could be pet­ri­fied. The man is large. Burly—beefy the bet­ter word—but smartly dressed. Not for camp­ing, though. For an ex­ec­u­tive game of golf. The woman much smaller. Short black hair. Too black. Prob­a­bly dyed. Dressed up too. Pants and sweater match­ing in ecru or tawny, some so­phis­ti­cated colour like that. They’re noth­ing like you and Joe in your jeans and match­ing brown plaid jacket-shirts, in which you also gar­den. Shirts sat­u­rated with the smell of dirt and smoke.

You think the new­com­ers have glanced your way so you wave and call hello. They ig­nore you. Joe tugs the brown blis­ter­ing skin off a hot marsh­mal­low, pops it in his mouth. They’re busy, he says, you can meet them later.

If I want to. They’re un­friendly, that’s what.

The woman un­furls a blue rug at the foot of their cam­per door and spreads a cloth in match­ing blue over the pic­nic ta­ble. The man

opens com­part­ments around the sides of the mo­torhome, takes out a bar­be­cue and then a bun­dle of wood, stacks it be­side the fire pit. Tips an axe against it. The axe han­dle is very black and shiny, con­spic­u­ous against the wood. It seems as fresh off the line as the mo­torhome. The man rubs his hands, then climbs a lad­der up the side of their unit and fid­dles with the satel­lite dish. The woman has gone in­side but he calls Mary! and she opens the door, speaks, and he climbs down. He’s ag­ile for his size. And then Mary’s at the door again, calling Harry to the man.

Oh good grief, you say, low and side­ways to your hus­band, don’t you find it pe­cu­liar when a cou­ple’s names rhyme? Harry and Mary over there. It’s just weird. One of them should switch their name around some­how.

Joe’s back at his book, one of John Gr­isham’s lawyer mys­ter­ies, but he looks up, says, You have the strangest thoughts. He’s grin­ning though.

And oh good grief again, Mary has come to the door with two white pots, brim­ming with pur­ple petu­nias. Ob­vi­ously lush from a green­house. Now I’ve seen ev­ery­thing, you say. These aren’t sea­sonal sites, are they, Joe?

His head stays down this time, he wants to read. You watch Harry take the flow­ers, bal­ance them on his palms while Mary pulls two stumps out of the wood com­part­ment. She holds them away from her body as if they’re con­ta­gious. She man­ages them both to the camp­site open­ing, sets them up­right. Harry places the flow­ers on these pedestals. Mary ex­am­ines the ef­fect from sev­eral an­gles, and Harry does too, as if he’s tied to her. As if he cares. His scru­tiny is man­nered, there’s some ten­sion over there.

But the petu­nias are thick and ex­u­ber­ant. There’s no deny­ing they add a homey touch, you can give credit where credit is due. It might be fun to bring flow­ers next time too. But hon­estly, how much home do you drag along camp­ing to get the feel of home?

You’ll have to ask So­phie. It’s a clever ques­tion, ex­actly the sort of do­mes­tic-philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion she’ll ap­pre­ci­ate.

Oh God! When when when will you stop for­get­ting that So­phie’s dead? The head-in-hands sen­sa­tion of dis­ap­point­ment, like hit­ting an air pocket on a flight. Not as pet­ri­fy­ing as the panic but still, al­ways hor­ri­ble, plan­ning what your sis­ter will en­joy and then ka­boom: but So­phie’s dead.

Think of the times we’re hav­ing, she said near the end. Which we wouldn’t be hav­ing if I’d been hit by a car.

The times! Three months, that’s all it was. And the af­ter­noon of So­phie’s death, your anger at that nurse. Not one of the an­gel nurses who floated in and out of So­phie’s room in the pal­lia­tive ward. That red-haired nurse in the cafe­te­ria. You landed be­side her at the cof­fee ma­chine and you told her. It burst out. You’d called Joe and he was on his way, and you’d called the kids in their other cities, but the calls were too small for that event, you had to blab to a stranger.

The nurse sat down across from you as if your blurt had been an in­vi­ta­tion. She told you that your sis­ter was be­yond the first or­bit and that would help. She leaned to­ward you and spoke slowly, ex­plained that a spouse and chil­dren, and par­ents per­haps, were in a per­son’s pri­mary or­bit and a sib­ling ex­isted in the next or­bit out. Re­la­tion­ships as a kind of so­lar sys­tem, she said.

It was ab­so­lutely the most in­sen­si­tive thing. So­phie never mar­ried, your par­ents are de­ceased. Who in the world did she have but you? Or­bits! What do you know about my or­bits? you snapped. The very word was em­bar­rass­ing, like dirty un­der­wear.

But maybe you only snapped in your mind be­cause the nurse didn’t re­act, she kept press­ing for­ward, keen to help.

The first thing you gave Joe when he ar­rived was what the nurse had said, that so­lar sys­tem stuff. He told you not to dwell on it. Dwell? Don’t dwell? you shrieked. When it’s my fuck­ing fam­ily that’s shrunk to noth­ing? You were prac­ti­cally spit­ting at him and then you were sorry be­cause he seemed un­happy you’d sworn and you knew that So­phie’s death had been pro­found and now you were spoil­ing it. You’d clasped the stick­ing-through bones and pa­pery skin of her hand, you’d sung to her. Chil­dren’s songs, lul­la­bies. Sleep my child and peace at­tend thee. Baby bel­uga in the deep blue sea. You wanted to sink your head into her chest but you felt she would van­ish if you did, col­lapse like dust. So you held and stroked her hand. But even So­phie’s hand had seemed in­dif­fer­ent by then, like that but­ter­fly you and Joe watched at the but­ter­fly house as it strug­gled out of its chrysalis, stretched its frag­ile wings to dry, then re­mained for a long time ut­terly inert, oth­er­worldly, sim­ply it­self and obliv­i­ous to you in awe be­hind the glass. And your sis­ter’s lan­guorous air in and out was a song for her­self and no one else, a wispy thrum like a far­away drum that got slower and slower un­til it stopped.

Joe had pulled you against him, said he un­der­stood. The red­haired nurse had said she un­der­stood. And there you were, in your hus­band’s em­brace, when your heart wrenched, your path to oxy­gen closed off. Be­ing smoth­ered or hav­ing a heart at­tack or some­thing.

While So­phie was dy­ing you ached to go along but now that was a lie. You didn’t want to die, not at all. Some­one poked, pressed, de­clared your vi­tals fine, or­dered you to breathe. Some­one else was talk­ing about be­reave­ment and how it some­times be­haves. Some­one else said they un­der­stood.

This was your first episode of panic and ever since then you’ve strug­gled to dis­tin­guish be­tween grief and alarm.

Across the way, Harry and Mary have ev­ery­thing ar­ranged. They mount their stairs and shut the door. Their trailer lights come on, creamy squares of ge­nial­ity in the grow­ing dark. One of them mutes the squares by pulling blinds over them. They’ve piled wood, set the axe in readi­ness, ex­ited the scene.

Some­thing odd about them, though, aren’t you feel­ing it? you ask.

Hey, Joe says. With the hard­ness of a leave-it-be.

Why camp, you think sourly, if not for fire? Joe has pumped yours up again and it flick­ers, it’s ex­cel­lent and be­guil­ing. He knows what kinds of wood to mix for the quick flame, for the low lengthy burn, for fra­grance and crackle. Grad­u­ally the wood will dis­ap­pear and at some point he’ll stop adding fuel un­til only coals re­main, a bub­ble sheet of crim­son un­der a layer of ash. There’s some­thing an­cient and se­duc­tive in this dance of heat and colour and light. It makes you dreamy. You feel se­cure. Sig­nif­i­cant.

But how thor­oughly you hated that red-haired nurse who man­aged to say so much in one pushy en­counter! It’s hard to be­lieve in life af­ter loss, she said, her voice pi­ous, in­ti­mate. Con­fi­dent though, as if she’d just come from a sem­i­nar on the topic of mourn­ing and knew ev­ery­thing about it. In this cor­ner, grat­i­tude, she’d said, and in this cor­ner, re­gret. Hoist­ing and thrust­ing her hands to­ward you as if to box. Hands with their short white fin­ger­nails fisted to­gether. The point at which they meet, she said, clasp­ing them, is the lo­ca­tion of your great­est sad­ness.

You re­mem­ber the buzz of flu­o­res­cent lights, their alien an­i­mos­ity, how you left your tray on the ta­ble and bolted away. Be­cause as far as sis­ters went, it’s true: grat­i­tude and re­gret.

No. You left be­cause Joe was on his way. You wanted to be in So­phie’s room when he came in. You thought you were in charge of her dead body.

No. You hur­tled your­self in his di­rec­tion be­cause you needed him.

Needy, needy Elly, So­phie scoffed in some teen ar­gu­ment about dat­ing. Do you re­ally think a man will solve what’s wrong with you?

On Sat­ur­day morn­ing you wake to the sound of a boat mo­tor revving open and purring away from the dock and you star­tle and fling your arm over to reach for Joe. It hits the low ceil­ing of your sleep­ing com­part­ment and lands on the mat­tress. He’s gone fish­ing. Of course.

It’s en­tirely too still.

Steps then. Some­one by the trailer and a sound like gun­shot. The cav­ity of your heart explodes, the same old race is on again. The feel of fall­ing. Breathe, you tell your­self. Just breathe. So you breathe and come right and af­ter some of this there’s quiet in your chest and out­side too. You creep to the tiny win­dow at the foot of the bed. The glass is hazy with dew and you wipe a spot and see the neigh­bours’ petu­nias bob­bing in some breeze as if amused and to the right, Joe at his morn­ing fire. You crawl down from the bed and stick your head out the door. Joe, you half whis­per, do you re­al­ize wood crack­ling this early is like a gun go­ing off?

Joe in the morn­ing is a cheer­ful man. Hello there! he says, full voice. I threw in pine. And by the way, it’s not that early.

Aren’t you fish­ing?

I told you yes­ter­day, not this week­end. But I’ll go out later for a ride.

Mois­ture crin­kles the grass like lace and noth­ing stirs at the Harry and Mary house and there’s no ac­tiv­ity at the tents yet ei­ther. You’re the only per­son up, you say.

You go back to bed and put in your ear buds and start the mu­sic track So­phie loaded for you and left be­hind. Ev­ery­thing from coun­try western to Beethoven’s Pa­the­tique. Tell me, what is it? Joe begged you once. He meant the fear. What it sig­ni­fied. And you said, Noth­ing and ev­ery­thing, but you couldn’t—wouldn‘t—ex­plain be­yond that. Re­mem­ber­ing and for­get­ting, both dread­ful in their way. Los­ing pre­ci­sion about your sis­ter’s face or your hours at her side. Al­ready check­ing pho­to­graphs, con­sult­ing your cal­en­dar, for specifics. It seems a fail­ure, too cal­cu­lat­ing, to have to re­search them like that. And fear of catas­tro­phe, of the next un­sched­uled, aw­ful thing. Fear that ran­dom thoughts are never ran­dom. Fear of let­ting your sor­row go, even though you’re sick and tired of the panic, the reper­cus­sions. Fear that So­phie never found you in­de­pen­dent enough.

Fears about Joe. The epi­taph a good man at­tached to him over the years. Yes, he’s kind, he’s good. But undis­clos­ing, stub­born too. And

why are good peo­ple the hardest to know? Your sis­ter had a mean streak that was vis­i­ble.

Maybe you’re not try­ing hard enough. What, for ex­am­ple, do you know of his fish­ing? You never ask a thing. You let the specifics of what he snags—lake stur­geon, wall­eye, pick­erel, bass, perch, what­ever it is—and his equip­ment and fish­ing strate­gies skim free of you. Does it bother him to carry those par­tic­u­lars around in a soli­tary sack he may spill open to his pals who fish but not to you? You’ve con­sid­ered your lack of cu­rios­ity a virtue, like a dis­pen­sa­tion of space healthy cou­ples of­fer one an­other, but you aren’t sure any more, you could be wrong about that. Wrong about ev­ery­thing.

Af­ter break­fast, you ac­com­pany Joe to the boat rentals dock. You ask him to tell you about his fish­ing. He looks at you and you hold his gaze, wait­ing for as­ton­ish­ment. Or thanks. His eyes are pale, his hair wo­ven with grey. The stub­ble of his beard can’t hide the run­nels from his nose to his mouth. He gives you a quizzi­cal smile, as if he hasn’t re­al­ized un­til now that he’s a fisher. Noth­ing much to say about fish­ing, he of­fers. But yeah, it’s sure some­thing I like to do.

Do you want to join him for the ride, is that what you mean? No, no, you say. You know he prefers to be alone on the wa­ter, you’ll go for a walk. He pushes off and you trek the high­way to the re­sort half a kilo­me­tre away, you buy an ice cream bar. It dis­solves down your throat like com­fort, like sum­mer green, and then you’re strid­ing the hard nar­row path along the shore, elated with its curves and the sun­shine, the en­ergy in your legs. To­day the lake is white and smooth and ra­di­ant.

But you can’t see the boat with Joe in it. Was So­phie se­cretly in love with him? Or he with her?

Im­pos­si­ble. You re­mem­ber the day he scanned the cover de­scrip­tion of your li­brary book and said, I know peo­ple in nov­els have trou­ble with this, but I plan to be faith­ful. Some of us may ac­tu­ally be stranger than fic­tion.

I should hope so, you replied. You were brusque. And then he said he’d promised God about this, the faith­ful­ness he meant, and you sup­posed he wanted to set it in ce­ment, but Joe never talks that way, not about God. It made the mo­ment awk­ward, like con­tri­tion. Im­pos­si­ble. But why do cer­tain ques­tions come to you?

Elly, So­phie said, you’re not weak. Had fi­nally said, days be­fore dy­ing, when re­duced to pure af­fec­tion, to grace.

But you are. You’re use­less in the af­ter­math of griev­ous cir­cum­stance, you’re like a bro­ken piece of crock­ery that win­ter frost and melt stir up. Still afraid your heart could clat­ter enough to end you. Anx­i­ety crouched on the rim of your brain. And love—it’s noth­ing like you ex­pected it to be when you were young. It’s fluid, not solid, and it has to be trusted. But surely only in­fants in their brief in­no­cence know trust with­out some wari­ness in it. You and So­phie a story with a squab­ble in every chap­ter. Your reliance on Joe.

And what if you get to be too much for him? What if your in­con­sis­tent, fluc­tu­at­ing self pours over in him like the rain bar­rel af­ter weeks of driz­zle?

He’s your con­stant, So­phie said. Your stal­wart.

You reach the camp­ground road, you’re nearly to the trailer, when you hear the gravel scrape be­hind you. Your right hand hits your lips, you whirl around. The Harry. He’s steal­ing a look at your breasts. Your other arm flies up too. You say, You fright­ened me. You hear your breath­less voice, you think you hear your heart. You re­mind your­self to breathe

I should have rung my bell, he says and chuck­les at his joke. As if you’re a pair of youth on bi­cy­cles. Well, ha ha ha. But it eases you a bit. You smile, say you should have checked your rearview mir­ror. Which makes him laugh. His belly quiv­ers be­hind his navy polo shirt. Harry, he says, ex­tend­ing his hand.

Oh, you say care­lessly, pre­tend­ing not to see it, I’m Elly. You think his hand will be a hard clutch.

His arm re­treats. Elly, he says like a sales­man, in that way they ca­ress your name. He’s big. You noted this yes­ter­day and now you see it close. Too close. You step back and he steps for­ward.

You step back again and in­quire if he’s in real es­tate and you can tell you’ve flat­tered him. Win­dows and doors, he says. But not on the floor any more. Sales man­age­ment.

Well of course, that’s no cheap mo­torhome.

So, you say, as if you’ve been chat­ting for hours, I have to go. It oc­curs to you that Mary may be frown­ing out an RV win­dow. But Harry ig­nores this and takes an­other step to­ward you while you shuf­fle back, and he’s ask­ing you ques­tions, braid­ing in your name, and the scent of him wafts to­ward you when­ever he moves. The scent of ex­pen­sive. You have to tell him where you and Joe are from, what you do for a liv­ing, what your kids are up to. You men­tion So­phie too, about the ill­ness, the rapid course of it, her death. He’s at­ten­tive

to ev­ery­thing. But re­ally, you have to go, chat­ter could be dan­ger­ous. You turn abruptly and you march away. Never mind him judg­ing the sway of your rear end, which has widened over the years. You’re like a stuck record, telling your­self to breathe. You close and lock the trailer door but noth­ing tran­spires and then it seems lu­di­crous, your hid­ing, so you open the door. Harry is nowhere in sight, the RV must have swal­lowed him. The wa­ter glis­tens be­hind the trees. You carry the lounge chair close to the lake, not far from the tents. One of the ten­ters is strum­ming a gui­tar. You’re be­side the wa­ter now and the trees are prob­a­bly leaf­ing out this very mo­ment and you’re un­der the sun where you ought to be on a splen­didly warm early-sea­son Sat­ur­day.

Joe re­turns and joins you. You tell him you walked and read and fin­ished a cross­word puz­zle in your book. You had to con­sult the so­lu­tion at the back for one tricky cor­ner. You say you met your neigh­bour. Your neigh­bour Harry, you say. You don’t men­tion his step ahead for your every step back, the sly in­qui­si­tion of his eyes, as if— ar­tic­u­lat­ing it now to your­self—he wished to snatch you up against his burly body and do some­thing with you, his smile enor­mous, his teeth too white. It’s nice out, you say, and I’m glad you’re back from your ride.

You cook meal-in-one foil pack­ets of sausage, po­ta­toes, onions, and corn over the fire. You have rhubarb pie along for dessert. You eat and wash the dishes and set­tle by flame and heat for the rest of the evening. Harry and Mary make a fire too and once it seems Harry is com­ing over to in­vite you for drinks but he turns and walks the trail around the camp­ground. Then he douses their fire with a pail­ful of wa­ter and they go in­side. They must pre­fer the flicker of TV.

At night, you’re jolted out of sleep. A crash. An­other. Some­one shak­ing the trailer. You feel your­self scream. Harry! you scream. Harry! Joe’s arm wraps you like a vise and he’s as bossy as a first re­spon­der. Elly! Elly, stop! he barks. It’s the wind!

Just the wind lift­ing the awning, fling­ing it down again. A storm, he says, but the trailer isn’t go­ing any­where.

Stop shak­ing, he says. The wind is bad enough.

You fi­nally re­laxe and he lessens his hold, but it’s hard to get to sleep again. You’re both ly­ing awake and your arms touch and you lis­ten to the storm yank and bang the can­vas out­side the door. You lis­ten to the thun­der. Light­ning lights and lights the trailer, like it wants to peer in at you and see what you’ve got.

You tell him you’re sorry you screamed. We’re fine, he says, it’s nearly done, but his voice sounds small, like a boy’s, as if he was sur­prised and fright­ened too, and now you’re ly­ing close in your high cra­dle of a cam­per bed and it’s just a storm and the storm is mov­ing away. The world may be vast but you’re cozy and you like the hu­mil­ity of this. Like a child stretched out in a field, gazing up at the clouds and pon­der­ing. It’s amaz­ing when you stop and think of it, you say. Sleep­ing to­gether. Two adults in the same bed. And I don’t mean sex. Year af­ter year, drift­ing into the un­con­scious­ness of night to­gether. So many nights. Sleep­ing be­side each other.

It’s never both­ered me, he says.

You laugh. Noth­ing both­ers him. But you were speak­ing of amaze­ment.

He kisses you and it’s an amorous kiss and you yield be­cause you’re glad for his pres­ence, his pro­tec­tion, and you’d like to re­ward his con­stancy and you de­sire him too and at this pre­cise mo­ment, some time in the vicin­ity of mid­night, ev­ery­thing seems like hap­pi­ness.

Sun­day you open your eyes to sun­shine through the trailer win­dows and bird­song go­ing crazy. You’ve never learned one bird call from an­other any more than the de­tails of fish­ing, but Joe can dis­tin­guish them all. Chick­adees, robins, jays, and on and on. You peek out. Oh my good­ness, the petu­nias are gone, the pedestals are gone, Harry and Mary and their mo­torhome are gone. Joe put­ters at his fire. You pop out­side in your pa­ja­mas, nod at the bar­ren site across from yours and ask him the ob­vi­ous, whether Harry and Mary have left.

I was up at six, he says, and they were pulling out.

You fin­ger your hair and you’re about to ask if he wrote down their li­cence plate, but then you clamp your lips. You thought it was Harry, com­ing for you, but it wasn’t. It was the wind and you knew bet­ter, as soon as Joe said it in the night. Some­times you’re just ridicu­lous. Though a slap in the face nev­er­the­less, Harry and Mary sneak­ing off like that, af­ter you told him all about your­self but know noth­ing of them, and you and Joe alone again in the mid­dle of the camp­ground. But re­ally, good riddance. The nearly empty camp­ground seems be­nign, seems or­di­nary, un­event­ful, the day­light bright and strong. From the tents near the shore, the twang of a gui­tar. The mu­si­cian is awake. You’ve achieved some­thing, haven’t you, in this week­end at the lake? And the last day of it still sprawled out be­neath the sun.

You’ll stay un­til mid-af­ter­noon, you have hours ahead of you to read, do an­other cross­word, walk, talk, gaze at the wa­ter. And your Joe is mak­ing you break­fast.

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