A glimpse of my favorite fiction. Watch for a special guest who arrives in the novel. He plays electric guitar.
We never remark on the moments that matter the most to us while they are happening. Only afterward, when the perspective of time has shown us what they meant, do we do our desperate best either to remember or to forget. We never marry our first loves; they are inevitably discarded and then mourned for a lifetime. Our youth is spent impatiently and then its remembrance is treasured and savored in our old age.
During that late summer on Hollow Lake, I sat on my porch in the evenings, and remembered Abby. I sat through the heat, and the rains, and the foretelling of autumn in the cool August nights, and I watched the lake. On its surface my daughter’s moments with me played like an old home movie in my mind. I relived the turns that had taken me here, and wondered at those that would have taken me somewhere else. I sat and dreamed of what had been, and thought not at all of what might yet be. I was oblivious; the chance of a new present slipped away, and a great evil approached ever closer.
On the last Tuesday of August, Bill and I hitched a trailer to the marina’s truck and headed south to pick up my project boat. Aruba had been left at the marina house with a very sleepy Diane; the two of them had disappeared inside to find breakfast. It was early morning, just past six o’clock, and though the world mostly was still asleep, the woods bordering the back lot behind the machine shop stirred busily with the humid dawn. The lot had been raggedly scraped out with a bulldozer long ago, and the forest met its edges in a nearly primeval wall, still dark, smelling of wet earth, and untouched by the day. Bill knelt by the back bumper, fiddling with trailer’s wiring connection. I stood to the rear, watching the twin red lights to be sure they illuminated. The ground under my feet was reddish and sandy, rutted by old tire tracks and still soft and dimpled from the night’s rain showers.
I turned at a noise behind me, and started when I saw the black bear standing about thirty feet from me. She was halfway between me and the edge of the woods. In the gloom behind her, I saw the shapes of her adolescent cubs moving in the trees before they turned and seemed to melt away, leaving her with me. Our eyes met, and neither of us moved.
I heard Bill behind me, back at the truck.
“Easy, Mike,” he said very softly. “Just stay still. She’ll get a little look at you and leave. Just stand quiet.”
It seemed to me that I had read that one should shout and scream if confronted by a bear, but I didn’t raise the point. I had no voice anyway.
“Just stay with it,” Bill breathed. “She’s not gonna do nothing.”
As if on cue, the bear took two swaying steps forward and sat down, looking like a very large dog. Her tongue fell grotesquely toward her chest, and then furled back towards the black hole in her face. I recognized her; she was the sow with the missing jaw I had seen in the dump. Her cubs had grown appreciably over the summer. She tilted her head to peer at me myopically; irritable as an old woman caught without her glasses. Her small black eyes held mine. The hair around her snout and eyes was spiked with moisture. Her breath huffed and snorted and gobbled from her nostrils and ruined mouth.
The noises she made came faster, and she pawed the dirt in front of her, hitching her hindquarters sideways. Her rump left a broad furrow in the wet sand as she slid sideways, and I had a sense of how large and heavy she was. She pointed her black nose skywards and began to issue sounds that rose from a low growl to a high keening noise that sang on and on. Her upper body rocked, and her tongue swung and swayed from her throat as if with a mind of its own. The black pelt on her chest was stiff with the uncontrolled and constant discharge from her mouth.
Lowering her head, she turned her head from side to side, as if to find the eye that would see me best. She grunted like a pig, over and over, the wreckage of her tongue seeming to block what she tried to say. Finally she sat perfectly still, her head cocked to the side, gazing at me as if to find reassurance that I had understood. I fought the irrational impulse to walk over to her and gather her enormous, devastated head to my chest, to soothe her and to find some elusive comfort for myself.
At last she broke the contact, and gathered herself and rose. She slid away backwards as she did so, as if not to alarm me. She turned and headed for the trees in that fat, deceptive, rolling shamble that bears use to hide their grace and speed, and in a blink she had entered the trees. There was a single snapped branch, and she was gone completely.
Bill came up beside me, and took my elbow.
“Son of God, I don’t think I ever saw a bear act like that. It was like she was trying to talk to you or something,” he said, shaking his head and gazing after her.
“Or something, I guess. Let’s get going.”
I felt very still inside. We got in the truck, and bounced out of the lot, the empty boat trailer rattling behind us. We headed south, and then west on secondary highways. I looked out the window, and we didn’t talk a great deal during the trip. It was the first time in months without the dog at my heels, and I was surprised at the strangeness of her absence. The day cleared, and by the time we reached Lake Huron and turned south along Georgian Bay, it had turned sunny and promised heat.
We stopped at a four corners for gas, and while Bill stood at the pump and unfolded the scribbled directions he’d pulled from his shirt pocket, I went inside to pay. There was a small restaurant attached to the station, and I looked through the inner door at the ranks of tables. A smattering of people was gathered for an early lunch. I imagined they all knew one another, had gone to school together, and married from among their own familiar ranks. I wondered what it would be like to live a life all in one place. I thought I’d like it.
Standing in line, I looked at the snack displays, and was hit again by the unexpected sadness that seemed to go away for a while, and then come back to ambush me. The chocolate and gum and potato chips brought back such a clear picture of Abby that my insides clenched. Any stop for gas on a trip had always brought a plea for a treat at the cash register. Invariably, I resisted, in deference to Angela’s rules. Abby was never prone to acting out or making demands. When I refused, she didn’t fuss, but would only clutch my hand and gaze wistfully at the array of sweets while we waited our turn to pay. In the end, I always relented.
“One small thing, ok, Ab? Hurry up, there are people behind us.”
Then there was the precious, unforgettable, irreplaceable smile up at me before she turned to the racks to choose.
“Thank you, Daddy. I’ll share, I promise.”
I paid for the gas, and walked out alone. Bill waited in the driver’s seat with the engine running. We finished the last of the trip with the huge waters of Georgian Bay glinting in the sunshine to our right. We stopped at a marina to unhitch Bill’s trailer. The old boat reportedly sat on wheels nearly as old as it was; we would need to come back here for the marina staff to switch the craft over for the ride home. Bill confirmed the arrangements with the office, and then we got back on the highway for the last two or three miles. He slowed and turned in at a small white Cape Cod, weathered white on a treeless green sea of Bermuda grass. It backed onto the bay, and the wind hit us as soon as we got out of the truck. Bill held onto his hat and we started for the front door.
“It’s nice now,” he remarked, “but I’ll bet it’s hell in the winter. Imagine this wind coming across miles of ice.”
The front door was answered by a man about my age. His appearance startled me. He had a full head of red hair worn long, over his shoulders and down his back. His features were fine and angular, with full lips that gave his face an androgynous quality. He wore a black leather vest and faded jeans over black boots. A snake tattoo circled his left forearm, and a cross rested from a chain on his bare chest. He regarded us steadily with pale blue eyes.
Bill spoke first.
“Good day. Been talking to you about the boat you’re selling?”
The man’s expression cleared. He shook our hands, and I could feel the heavy calluses on his fingers. Guitar, I thought.
“Oh hey, yeah. Good to see you. I’m Dave. Give me just a second, ok?”
He set a book down on a small table in the entry and went into the interior of the house. I saw that it was a paperback copy of the New Testament. Voices came from a room beyond our sight, and then he returned.
“Let’s go, this way, guys,” he said, and led us out.
“Nice place you have here,” Bill said, as we headed to the garage at the rear of the house. At the back of the property, past a line of long grass and scrub, the waters of the bay glinted in an endless expanse of light blue.
“Thanks, but not mine,” he countered. “My dad’s place. I lived in NYC, mostly. I’m hanging around here to take care of him for a while. He doesn’t want to go into a home.”
He smiled and pointed to a screened porch at the back of the house. We waved to a very old man sitting and watching us. His father raised a hand from his lap in return.
“You do for your family, right?” he continued. “Anyway, as long as I’m here I thought I’d get rid of my boat. I bought it when I was in high school, and put it in the garage. He must’ve gone nuts, just apeshit, about a thousand times over the years because he couldn’t put his car in. But even when I moved away, he never got rid of it. Now he can’t drive, doesn’t have a car, and I’m finally giving him his garage back. Funny.”
He leaned his slim frame against the garage door and slid it open. The prow of a varnished wooden hull emerged from the dimness inside. The old boat seemed enormous, nearly filling the space. Bill’s face was a study in delight as he squeezed in to examine his find. I was left outside with our host, who had walked off to the side, and was looking out at the water intently. He felt my look, and walked over. He carried the aging rock star persona with a certain dignity; he was obviously comfortable with it, and it somehow suited him.
“This is gonna be yours, right?” he asked. “Your boat?”
I nodded. He ran his fingers through his hair, brushing it back from his brow, and looked wistful.
“I’m glad. This thing could be beautiful, but it needs a guardian angel, and I can’t be a guardian angel for a boat, you know?”
“Any idea how much work it needs to get it in the water?” I asked.
“Put it in the water now! Things should be used. You probably think you have to restore this, but you really don’t. Clean it up and it’ll go on the water right now. I wish I had. I got busy with other things, and never did. Man, I wish I had, I really do. Now I never will.”
“Can’t you use it now?”
I regretted the question as soon as it was out. I hardly wanted to talk him out of selling. He seemed to read what I was thinking.
“That’s ok. No, I can’t use it now. I just want to get it out of my dad’s garage. I promised to, and I think it still bothers him that I never did. It’s just a thing, man. You can’t get anywhere if you try to drag things around with you, know what I mean?”
Bill emerged from the garage, and motioned me over. His face was neutral, but I sensed the emotion behind it. He spoke in a low voice.
“Well, good news and bad. I almost thought we were going to find a 1940s barrel back here. I was really excited about that. It isn’t, damn it…this is a lot newer, probably ’60 or ’61. I’m pretty sure it’s smaller than he says, about nineteen feet. The good news is that the shape it’s in is fucking amazing. We’ll need to check it, but I almost think you could clean it up and launch it. Amazing. It’s gotta be worth ten times what he’s asking.”
I glanced over to where Dave was standing. He was looking steadily at me. I went back over to him.
“I don’t need any more than I’m asking,” he said. “Neither does my dad. It’s all yours.”
I looked at him, surprised. His hearing was extraordinary for a man who apparently had spent his life with an electric guitar in his hands. I wondered if he read lips. He leaned toward me, and lowered his voice.
“You know what I always ask myself? I always say, ‘What have I got to lose?’ Once you understand that, when you can answer it honestly, everything changes. If you’d think about it, and really follow it, you wouldn’t be so sad all the time.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but I nodded. We finished the transaction, and dragged the boat out of its resting place into the sunshine. It was filthy, but its mahogany lines were ethereally beautiful. I felt the beginning of a thrill start in my chest, looking at it. I wanted to get it home. We went to the truck, and I shook Dave’s hand. As I did, the cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out and answered; there was silence on the other end. It wasn’t dead air, I could hear background noise, but the caller stayed silent.
“Hello!” I said, “…hello, can you speak louder?”
There was no answer, and I gave up and closed the phone. Dave looked at me and shook his head. His pale face had colored slightly.
“They’ll call back,” he said. “Oh yeah, they’re going to call back. Remember what I told you, ok?”
I looked at him quizzically, and he pointed a finger at me and answered my unspoken question with a question.
“What have you got to lose? When they call back, ask yourself, what have you got to lose?”