The Shore of Erie
I would have preferred to wait and fly in for the funeral, but Sarah convinced me to see him while he was still breathing. She made a compelling argument: “I’m not paying the therapy if you don’t see him.”
I shrugged, as I do when she’s so correct that I’ve got no rebuttal, and then shuffled off to pack some casual clothes and a funeral suit. I knew the suit he’d choose as his last clothing, a tired navy-blue Sears number with a lapel wide as Montana. I opened my closet, where the suits hung in order, dark to light. I was convinced this wouldn’t be an event sad enough for black. From what Mom had said on the phone, the man was tired and ready to go, so I reached dead center and pulled out a simple gray suit, then the two shades that flanked it, for good measure.
Sarah said she’d fly into Pittsburgh when it came time for the funeral. The kids, she said, hadn’t known their grandfather well enough to spend God-knows-how-long moping at the man’s bedside. That was, apparently, my job.
“Make sure you get some skating in,” I told Andrew. “Tryouts in two weeks.”
“I’m well aware,” he said, then turned to glare at the ridiculous red circle I’d drawn around tryout day on the kitchen calendar. It had seemed a good idea at the time.
“Just make sure you’re ready,” I said. “This is your year for varsity.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, and sulked off. I hugged Sarah and left.
I weaved through our suburb, Tanglewood—which was laid out, apparently to mimic its name—and steered the car east, pointed it downhill toward sea level, off our safe Denver mountaintop, down toward the south shore of Lake Erie.
On the way to Denver 10 years earlier, I stuck to four-laners the whole way, the cruise control set to 15-over as I put a dozen states and every possible foot of altitude between us. For this return trip, though, I swiped the McNally atlas from Sarah’s beige minivan and used a black marker to plot a route that snaked down the thinnest roads fit for mapping. I knew I’d have to buy her a new atlas, that she’d find my markings and folded page corners unacceptable.
I piloted my black Mercedes (the car he dismissed as flashy and excessive) through the plains. I drove down the center of one-and-a-half lane roads, no opposing traffic for miles on end. I watched out the side windows as machines chewed bronze fields and spat them into silos. Winding through parts of America that had no business being involved with this trip, I became the sort of driver I most despise, loping below the posted speed and invoking great numbers of honks from fellow travelers as I refused to pass creeping farm implements. I watched the gangly arms of Nebraska center-pivots stretch across vast fields toward what felt like the edges of Earth, and I was happy to copy their nearly imperceptible slowness.
When bells rang at railroad crossings, I eased off the gas instead of rushing forward to beat the gates. The trains with four engines were best—they pulled strings of cars that stretched to one end of the horizon when the gate went down and then reached the other by the time the gate rose. It’s amazing how much hydrochloric acid cuts north through the plains and how much corn syrup rolls south.
Farther east, I wondered why it is that some trees grow so bright in autumn, and others fade so dull. I stopped at ridiculous tourist traps—a 50-foot-tall teepee in Kansas, Carhenge in Nebraska, even a house shaped like an ice cream cone in Illinois. These were the types of places that had set my eyes rolling when Sarah piloted family trips, places where I pretended to sleep while she and the kids explored.
I stood beneath the Gateway arch at twilight and marveled at how terrifyingly ugly and corroded it looks in the wrong light. St. Louis seemed like a place that often wore the wrong light. I slept at one-story motels with pink neon vacancy signs and ate greasy T-bones at truck stops, all the while knowing that when I finally got on with it, I’d find Mom sitting in that same spot on the porch, that she’d lead me to a twin bed covered in the same white sheets (not with Sarah’s hospital corners, but with Mom’s plain, regular tuck under the mattress), that she’d probably even have a roast and tea waiting on the table. I knew exactly what I’d find, no matter when I arrived, and yet my hands turned the wheel every direction but east. When roads forked, I steered to “business district,” instead of “bypass,” telling myself over and over again the lie that I might actually stop in a shop if one caught my fancy. But town after town was dead or dying and there were no shops worth entering, just the same pattern on repeat: corporation sign, church, abandoned school, new factory-shaped school, liquor store, second-hand shop, Burger King, another excuse to avoid easterly progress. I sometimes wonder which was sadder: my destination, or my trip.
On the fourth morning, I dragged my feet one last time and walked through the bombed-out downtown of Youngstown, Ohio. People there live in the shadows of decaying steel mills where they once worked, hulking rust dinosaurs that litter the skyline and color every moment of existence. I wondered why they didn’t just demolish the things and start over, but then I considered my own trip and figured we were sharing the great rustbelt futility: the fruitless wait for last-minute changes in the inevitable. That’s when I gave up, broke down, got on with it. I got back in the car and flew past the Pennsylvania line, made the city limits of Erie by noon.
Mom was knitting on the porch when I arrived. I pretended not to see her, pretended to miss the driveway and turned around at the cul-de-sac—made a second pass. I pulled in and there she was, wearing her too-warm smile, one that said everything I knew she’d avoid in conversation.
“It has been a while, I suppose.”
I reached in to hug her, and she wrapped one arm around me, gave my back a quick pat and stood.
“Hungry?” she asked, then opened the door and walked in. I followed. “Of course you are. Made a roast the other day. Figured you’d take your time getting here, so I made something that kept well. Cheesecake’s in the deep freeze. That’s in the basement, you’ll remember, which can be accessed through that door right there.” She pointed, and I trudged off to fetch desert. By the time I got back, she’d already taken my bag to my old bedroom.
She always liked meals to seem pleasant, so she told me about the neighbors while we ate, paltry things neither of us cared about, like how the Thompsons had filled in their old swimming pool and how the Andersons had put their place on the market with plans to move south, Florida, maybe. While she talked, my eyes kept wandering to the closed door at the end of the hall.
After the cheesecake, I grabbed the plates and took them to the sink.
“So that wife of yours finally taught you how to wash a dish,” Mom said. “I must’ve underestimated her.”
“I think you did. Her name is still Sarah, by the way.”
“She wouldn’t have been my first choice. The Davis girl is still single, you know. Pretty little blonde, that one. Full of spirit.”
“Full of a few things I don’t think you’d want me to catch.”
I should have left it at that, but I added, “She’s more Evan’s type.” I stopped myself before mentioning how often she had been Evan’s type.
Mom shook her head and walked off toward his bedroom. When she returned, I was drying the last beige plate, tracing with a towel the green pinstripe on its rim, remembering the way those pinstripes framed our meals before Sarah and her pristine white tableware arrived in my life.
“He’s asleep,” she said, then nodded toward the back door. “Go wander around a bit, get your bearings back. I’ll come get you if he wakes at a decent hour.”
From the back porch, I watched the sun retreat across the lake. The opposite shore wasn’t quite visible, but the light halo cast by Buffalo hovered over the water. With nothing but sky and water before me, this had always been the one place where I swore I could actually see the earth curve. A familiar breeze swept my hair upward, revealed significantly more forehead than the last time I stood there. I walked to the shore through grass I’d never seen so unruly—four inches tall and uneven with a handful of blighted spots where the sandy earth stood cracked and bald.
Then, I saw the boat slip. Its planks stood rotted and decayed, nearly consumed by weeds and reeds. But it held shape and form, defiant against those persistent lapping waves. An entire winter, my first season of varsity, he’d skipped every last hockey game to sit home, drawing up plans and pre-cutting boards in the garage. He went all-out on that damn thing—bought drafting paper, mechanical pencils, a new compass, an enormous T-square. It was a midlife crisis without gearshifts. I don’t know what got him set upon it, but once he started, it was unbridled obsession. That spring, convinced he’d grow tired of his project and be overcome by desire to catch up on lost sport-related bonding time, I signed up for baseball. I hated baseball, and he didn’t come to a game. Mom showed up to a few—she sat alone in the bleachers and looked up from her romance novels when it was time for me to strike out. Meanwhile, Jacob stayed home and helped him build while I kicked at every right field anthill in the northwest district and spent every evening and Saturday afternoon chasing that great American futility: the hanging curveball.
He came inside to meet my prom date in a tank top and his work belt. He extended toward her a hand caked in sweat and sawdust, which set that night on a predictably irredeemable path. All spring he worked on that thing—they worked on it. While I was flailing miserably at the last three pitches of our lone tournament game, Dad and Evan were overseeing the delivery of a weathered old 12-foot sailboat, bought off a classified ad.
Mrs. Thompkins dropped me off just in time for me to catch Evan smashing a bottle of Iron City beer over its hull. They had the thing fifty yards out into the lake before either one of them noticed me standing there. Dad waved and shouted something to me, something I couldn’t make out—though there my have been a lack of effort on my part. I didn’t stand there long enough to find out whether or not they came back to shore for me. That night I waited until I could distinctly hear all three of them snoring and then made for the kitchen. I stole an Iron City can from the crisper drawer, drank it, and snuck out the back door to christen the vessel my own way. I never did go to sleep that night. Instead, I lay there converting everything that’d ever happened in our house to some evil plot against me. That was the night I understood I’d been excluded from my father’s existence. And in response, I excluded myself from his. My family has always had problems with patterns. Just like the rest of them, we ignored this one, never bothered to try fixing it until the last minute.
“How is he?”
Mom closed the door to his room, and I heard her footsteps tracing the house behind me until she reached the kitchen.
“He’s awake, about as lucid as he’s going to be. Tea?”
I was drinking coffee as a stand-in for breakfast. She was sleeping when I woke, and so I’d already made a trip to the Starbucks on Lake Street. I downed the last bit and shoved the cup down inside a trashcan, pushed a piece of newspaper over it so she wouldn’t see and get indignant.
“Lipton’s okay? Or do I need to go to the market for some of that froofy—”
“Lipton’s is fine.”
I listened to her calm cadence. Despite the wall between us, I knew she was opening the right cupboard door and then the left one. Pans moved with a gentle clatter as she slid them aside to reach for the kettle—always hidden in the back despite being the most-used item in the kitchen.
“Lake’s lovely this morning, Mom. Just the slightest hint of a whitecap out by—”
“I figured that’s where you’d gone.” She walked to the doorway and leaned against the frame as she pulled teabags out of paper wrappers. I didn’t tell her that I was actually looking forward to drinking plain black tea that wasn’t organic, fruit-infused or meant to awaken some sort of inner awareness.
“Lake’s always where you ran off when you wanted to hide,” she said. “Decades don’t change much, do they—aside from putting more lines on your face?”
“You didn’t expect me to come home and stay put in one spot did you? You were sleeping when I left.”
“It’s just the timing, that’s all. The morning he’s got his wits about him, you’re barefoot strolling.”
I was past arguing, though I had feeling that it had become her primary vessel for showing affection. I suspected she’d forgotten how to do it any other way.
“He still awake?”
She nodded. Then, no harm done, I wanted to tell her, but it would’ve accomplished nothing. I checked a clock—I hadn’t been gone an hour.
I stood and walked to his room, turned the handle without pausing and walked in. He seemed to be asleep, but I touched his shoulder, just in case. It was warm, and when squeezed more tightly, I felt the slightest trace of a pulse
“Dad?” I whispered, and he didn’t answer. Mom had the curtains pulled so tight that the room was nearly dark. I couldn’t see anything outside the triangle of light that projected through the doorway. I sat on the bed next to him, tried to think up what I might say to him when I saw him awake—I realized I hadn’t spent a single mile of that trip planning for this or preparing myself for what it would be like. I watched his chest rise and fall meekly until Mom tapped at the door and whispered, “Tea’s ready.” I patted his mattress before I stood, then told him, “Best talk we’ve had in years.”
I went back in after tea and Mom’s sugar cookies (which were better than I remembered—somehow, less plain). Mom had the curtains drawn so the sun came straight in. It was so bright I could see particles of dust suspended in the air. I stood in the doorway until my eyes adjusted, then looked around his room. It was jarring to see his silver pocket watch resting on his dresser—it was the first time I’d seen it separated from his person; that chain had always been visible and connected, draped from some pocket or another. Even as he built the slip, that watch chain always hung from the pocket of his work jeans.
The rest of the room seemed largely unchanged: sparse and pristine with a soft musky smell. On his bookshelf rested a row of volumes I knew he’d never read, arranged in order of size. Some of Mom’s things were still in the room, though she’d been sleeping across the hall for months. I stepped further into the room and the tired oak floor groaned under my foot. From the center of his king-sized sleigh bed, he opened his eyes and turned toward me.
He struggled to sit up. I wedged a pillow under his back to hold him there. His eyes seemed sunken, and the lines in his face were deeper, but I half expected him to leap out of bed and order me to gas up the mower. Instead, he just stared blankly.
“Dad?” I asked again. I sat down on the corner of his bed closest to the door.
“Evan, that you?” he asked. “Good of you to come, son. Good of you to come. Your mother needs help with the chores, me being all laid up like this.”
“Dad, it’s Jake. I just drove in from Colorado—”
“Just because my eyes aren’t working good doesn’t mean you can pull one on me.”
He chuckled, but that turned into an extended cough. He grabbed a glass of water off his bedside table and took a drink, half of which spilled down his shirt.
“Let me get that for you,” I said, looking around the room for some sort of rag or towel.
“I can take care of myself. Now, Evan, tell me how—”
“It’s Jake. It’s me. Mom asked me to come…home.”
“Stop covering for your brother,” he said, his voice growing harsh. “The boy quit us. Up and left us behind. You quit talking about him.”
I didn’t believe him, and this irritated me. If he was messing with me, that was irritating in itself. But more difficult was the realization that in this, of all moments, I didn’t know whether I could trust him.
“Fine, Dad. Fine. Can I get you anything?”
“A cigar and some whiskey might be nice.”
“I don’t know if that’d be appropriate right now,” I said.
“Christ, you do sound like Jake.”
I got him distracted talking about the Steelers, then sat and listened to that train of thought disintegrate into a rant about Democrats, which flowed right into a rant about goose droppings that were ruining his lawn. I nodded and tried to make sense of it, sat there and waited until I smelled the lunch Mom was making in the kitchen.
“I’m going to go help her, Pop. I’ll be back.” He said nothing, and I walked out.
I set the kitchen table, while she stirred a pan of pasta sauce.
“Is he screwing with me, or can he really not remember?”
“Does it really matter?”
I thought, but didn’t say: what a stupid remark.
I went back in the afternoon, with a new thought in the back of my head: maybe he was smarter than I’d given him credit for. Maybe he was using Evan to say the things he couldn’t say otherwise. To apologize, to put things right. And so I walked in, ready to listen. Hopeful. I took him coffee—Mom wouldn’t have approved, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
He took the mug and smiled a sly smile, nodded at me. He set it on the bedside table.
“Thank you,” he said. “She never lets me have anything fun anymore.”
“Don’t tell her I brought it.”
He slid his thumb and forefinger across his lips as if zipping them, then flicked his imaginary key toward the coffee.
“There anything in it?”
I kept waiting for him to address me, or Evan—someone. I got nothing.
“How are your pillows?”
He shrugged, didn’t say anything.
“Need anything else?”
He shook his head slightly.
I tried not to get mad, tried to be patient, tried to wait out the silence. I would’ve have preferred he sit up and call me a useless bastard. But I just sat there staring at him, and he stared at the ceiling. The coffee stopped steaming, went cool. He fell asleep, and still I waited. When Mom called for me, I lingered for another moment. I knew I should tell him I loved him. I started to, but nothing came out. My lips refused to move. It hurt a little just to think this, to admit it to myself. I couldn’t tell it to even a sleeping man who couldn’t hear and couldn’t care.
I stood and leaned to kiss him on the forehead, then tiptoed on my way out so the man could rest. I paused to run my right index finger over his watch, and shuddered at how cold it felt, so far from its place. I pulled the door shut behind me and leaned against it, shut my eyes, and tried to replay the whole tiny, dumb conversation about coffee, to brand it so firmly into my mind that it would never escape. I hugged Mom, then took another walk. When I reached the beach, I took off my shoes and walked for miles barefoot, chinos rolled halfway up my calves. I wrote an internal speech, tabulated all the things I wanted to tell him, the apologies I felt compelled to give and the forgiveness that he’d shrug off anyway. He hated sentiments of that sort—they both did. I drafted the monologue again and again, knowing how pointless it was, knowing that if he had anything nearing his wits about him, he’d tell me after two minutes to stop blubbering, then he’d change the conversation to something manly. I revised it over and over until I stubbed my toe on a buried rock and realized I’d be better served by paying attention to the familiar but quite distant place around me. Soon, I’d have a wife and kids to tour around my hometown. I knew this might be my last chance to gather bearings, to make sure I’d know what I was talking about as I hauled them around.
I walked up the peninsula, where bad pop music blared from the beach concession stands. Kids just off school for the day were trying to squeeze a few final minutes out of the summer with Frisbees and footballs and beach towels. I called home, told Sarah that Dad was still hanging in, that Mom hadn’t changed a bit. She reassured me Andrew was keeping up with both practice and school. She said the school’s baseball coach had cornered him in the hall and told him he had the build of a power hitter, and that the team was lacking just such a player—that he could be a star.
“What’d he say?” I asked. I’d stopped walking, slightly nervous.
“He told me he shook coach’s hand, thanked him, then said, ‘baseball’s boring.’”
“Good boy,” I said, and started walking again. “Is he around?”
“Nah,” she said. “He’s at the rink.”
I looked at my watch and calculated the time distance. I knew she was lying, and smiled, shook my head. We talked for a couple more minutes, then she told me she had some errands to run and hung up.
When I ran out of beach to walk, I put my shoes back on, and went downtown. All my old hangouts had become something else, or had been boarded up. Same as all the towns I’d driven through on the way in, except this one meant something to me. Even the Tastee Freeze had been plowed under. That place had been ancient when I was a kid, so it didn’t surprise me that the ramshackle building was gone. But it irked me to see a sterile, boxy Dairy Queen standing in its place. I peeked through the window, saw all those swarthy, logoed cups sitting behind the counter instead of the plain white ones that should’ve been there. I was glad to see the place empty. Served them right.
“Evan worked a double shift at the plant yesterday,” Mom told me when I got home. “So he’ll stop by for dinner tonight. Try to act like you can get along, for your father’s sake. And mine.”
Evan wore a camouflage shirt and a bright orange hat. He stunk, but I couldn’t figure out what the smell was.
“It’s not deer season, is it?”
He leaned back in his chair and laughed. Mom smiled at him.
“It’s always deer season, long as no one catches you.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Where do you think dinner came from?” Mom asked.
“Christ, this is deer?” I scooted back from the table.
Evan gave Mom a soft punch on the shoulder. “He’s just a gullible as ever, isn’t he? Why would I waste perfectly good venison on you?”
“He has a good point,” Mom said.
“Cute, guys,” I said. “Just don’t pull this on Sarah.”
“We’ll leave the lady be. Besides, she doesn’t need our help figuring out she’s to good for you. She’ll put that together on her own, someday.”
I stopped the conversation by eating, which reminded him there was food, and he turned his attention to the plate. That’s always been the best way to shut him up—remind him that there’s food. There weren’t five words between us the rest of the meal.
We both helped with the dished—Mom washing, Evan rinsing, me drying, and for a moment, it felt familiar and not entirely terrible.
After we finished, Mom went for a walk around the block. “Doctor’s orders,” she lied, then left us there to try and put up with each other.
“He think I’m you,” I told him, after he’d flipped through half the satellite channels. He settled on a wildlife show and turned toward me, scrunched his brow.
“Either that, or he’s acting. I don’t know. Keeps calling me Evan.”
“Of all the things for him to scramble, I would’ve bet he’d keep us straight. What’s he telling you? Or me. Or whoever.”
“He keeps telling Evan to take his watch and hide it so Jake doesn’t take it,” I said.
Evan rolled his eyes. “Him and that stupid watch. I don’t get the fixation. Yeah—it’s supposed to be mine. Mom showed me the will. I’ll just take it to the pawn shop.”
“Are you kidding? I leaned forward away from the plush sofa back.
He shrugged. “The hell am I going to do with it? I’ve got a phone if I need to keep time. It’s useless.”
“But he loved that watch. I mean—”
“Listen, mister sentimental. You want it? Make me an offer. Otherwise, I pawn the thing and buy some beer.”
“You’d trade Dad’s favorite possession for beer.”
“You don’t even like him. What do you care?”
I felt my fists clench and I looked away. I couldn’t remember feeling more angry than in that moment—the beloved son shrugging off his father’s favor. Or maybe it was just that our angst had grown so ingrained we were willing to take opposite sides on any issue, even a dying father. I took a deep breath, then asked, “How much beer?”
He laughed and punched me in the shoulder, hard enough to sting but not bruise.
“I’d say that’ll take a couple cases.”
“What kind of beer? Hell—you’re serious, aren’t you?”
He leaned back in his seat, then looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said. “Two cases of Iron City, and the watch is yours.”
Without a word, I stood up and walked out the front door, got in my car, backed out without looking and nearly hit a Ford that was zipping down the street. The driver honked and flipped me off. Evan stood in the doorway, shaking his head and smirking. I brought the beer without listening to the total price—just handed over a fifty and took the change without counting it. I drove back and placed it into the cluttered bed of his rusted Chevy pickup.
He reached out his hand when I walked back into the living room, and as much as it repulsed me, I reached out mine, and we shook.
“Have at it,” he said. “I made out like a king on that one.”
We went in together—all three of us—before he went home for the evening. Mom stood in the middle, an arm around each of us. I could’ve sworn Dad was awake, but his eyes stayed shut. I imagine he wanted the awkward family moment to end as much as we did, but for Mom, we stood, together, one last time, all four of us breathing softly at our own pace. Evan left first, and on his way out, he flicked the watch with his index finger, sent it sliding across the dresser. It just barely clung to the edge, narrowly missing a plunge to the floor that would’ve probably destroyed it.
Mom said nothing to him, but pushed it back from the edge on her way out. I leaned over and kissed Dad on the forehead then paused on the way out, watched those tired old hands labor to keep spinning. I left it sit there there and went to sleep.
When I finished my shower the next morning, she was sat at the table, waiting for me, with a mug of tea for each of us, and toast. We ate fairly quietly. She asked about my day, I asked about hers. I told her I’d just talked to Sarah who had said hello. None of this was true, of course, but I knew that in a few days I’d need them to put up with each other, or at least create that appearance. She washed the dishes and I dried them—by then it felt routine again—and then I walked down the hallway toward his room. I heard her footsteps behind me, and before I could reach for the doorknob, she said, “Don’t.” I turned around to ask why, but she didn’t wait.
“He’s not doing well today. Let him rest. You can see him tonight, maybe.”
“Can I at least sit by—”
“Just leave him be,” she said, then turned away, walked into the living room.
I heard the television come on, and under the cover of its noise I turned the doorknob anyway, and took a step inside. I stopped by the dresser and watched him for a moment, so frail and distant in the middle of that huge bed. She had blinds and curtains pulled down tight again to dim the room—she seemed to have some sort of schedule for this, but I hadn’t figured it out. I caught one glint of brightness—the hallway light bouncing off the edge of the pocket watch. I finally picked it up and for the first time in my life felt its remarkable weight—so much more substantial than the steel and titanium face wrapped around my own wrist. I thought about placing it in my own pocket—not for good, just to see how it would feel, how that weight would affect me. Instead, I wrapped my fingers tight around it, prayed the floorboards wouldn’t give me away, and tiptoed to his side. On the bedside table sat the coffee I’d brought him the day before, still untouched. His nose whistled slightly every time he exhaled, and his lips were chapped and broken. His shave was uneven, his pajamas were loose against his pale frame. He looked awful, and I made myself stand there and see him. After a moment, I reached down, placed the watch in his hand where it belonged and closed his fingers around it.
I wanted to run through the whole speech I’d composed on the beach, but decided that could wait. Maybe he’d hear me then. Maybe, he’d understand. I decided to give him the condensed version.
“You could be a bastard sometimes,” I said. “But I really can’t help loving you.”
I walked out, not caring what the floorboards did. I’m sure they squeaked, and I’m sure Mom heard them, but she didn’t rustle or make a peep as I walked through the kitchen and out the back door.
In the ramshackle shed, hidden behind tufts of cobweb, the hand mower was fueled up—God knows how long that gasoline had been in there, but it started up just fine and I made each pass neat and straight as I could, marching back and forth across the dewy lawn. In the trees that surrounded me as I worked, I no longer saw contrast—the bright and the somber—but instead, saw them unified and barren. I paused in the middle of the lawn and looked up at his window. I wondered it he was watching me, thought I knew how unlikely it was he could have moved himself to the window. Still, a part of he hoped. I wanted to know he was paying attention. I wanted, just once, to see him smile—to hear him thank me. I wanted to hear the man speak, just when I knew it was least likely. Instead, I pushed forward, cut path after path from his failing lawn.
I surveyed the work from the back porch, and knew the lines weren’t crisp enough. Dad wouldn’t have approved, anyway. I thought about the zigzags I’d drawn all over my wife’s map, my crooked swings at all those curveballs—how incapable I was of accomplishing anything remotely linear. And I imagined that somewhere, sealed up in an envelope inside some lawyer’s files, was a document stating that my father had willed me his T-square. I raked and bagged the clippings, thought about how Sarah would have made me throw them into compost. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and turned it on, but stopped short of dialing to tell her I missed her. She was still asleep, I knew. I grabbed a pair of lawn shears from the garage. They took a moment to find—Dad hung his tools in alphabetical order, so I checked the “L” section before finding them in section “S”, right next to the (tomato) stakes. As the sun pulled itself upward from the horizon, I set about clearing reeds and cattails from the warped, moldy remains of the boat slip. I groomed that shore to the syncopated waves. The shears creaked with each squeeze of the handles, the vegetation whispered with each slice. Grasshoppers chirped, lightning bugs blinked and frogs let out their throaty moans. Any other morning, the dissonance would’ve been maddening—I would’ve raced for the first set of earphones I could find. But in that moment, the noise was right.
Having cleared the slip of overgrowth, I decided to scale those boards once more, maybe even dangle my toes for a moment in the cool, dark water. There was no slumping, no sound or warning of any sort—on my third step, the tired wood beams underneath me snapped, shrugged, and plunged into the shallow edge of Lake Erie. I landed hard on my back and hit my head on a board. I lay in the lake, surrounded by the wreckage, then used the last upright piling to pull myself up.
I pulled one of the broken timbers from the water and remembered the hands that had so carefully crafted the slip, hands that had weathered along with the wood. I knew that when I turned around, I would see my mother standing on the back porch with her arms folded and a vacant expression on her face, that it would be time to call Sarah and arrange a flight. That the watch now belonged to me. And so I remained frozen, the water lapping at my ankles, broken boards jutting through the surface at all angles. I squeezed the plank in my hand, a piece of two-by-ten the length of my forearm, sawed at one end and splintered at the other. I pulled a penny nail from the broken end and held it—still smooth and gray all these years and so many waves later. I dropped the board back into the water. Coat after coat of waterproofing served their function and kept it afloat. I watched it bob back and forth among the rest of the ruins, as if uncertain whether to beach itself on this shore, or to float off in search of something else.
Brooks Rexroat lives and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing-fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his work has appeared in such publications as Weave Magazine, The Montreal Review, The Cleveland Review, Alt Hist Magazine, and Boston Literary Magazine. Visit him online at http://brooksrexroat.com.