by M.W. Irving
It’s a gravelly ten-minute walk from my parents’ place to the lake, with plenty of weeds, loose rocks, and thorny vines to trip on. A childhood spent walking along that path had resulted in countless scabby knees and hot tears. It’s a particularly awful trek at four o’clock in the morning, sleep-soaked and fretting in the dark. The relief when I spot Dad standing at the water’s edge is almost worth the torment. He’s a pale slash against the dark bush that lines the shore. I fish my phone from my jeans and text Mom that I’ve found him. She gets back to me right away.
Of course he’s at the bloody lake.
I tuck that conversation into my jacket pocket for later. The air’s damp chill is familiar and invigorating. I’d rather be asleep than invigorated. Dad’s insipid calves jut from the bottom of his blue robe looking like a pair of unbaked baguettes. He’s been out here for an hour. If it were winter, he’d be frozen.
“Dad,” I say. The ebbing adrenaline quivers my voice.
He doesn’t move. With his bald spot pointed at me, and his white hair pushed into a frenzied crown, he stares into the lake he grew up on. The robe he wears is open wide to the mountain looming on the far side. I hope he has something on underneath. A thin morning mist floats in the air above the water, silvery with a delicate look to it.
“Dad.” I say it louder, with a hint of frustration.
He startles at my voice and stumbles on loose pebbles. I worry he’ll fall, but he catches himself quickly. When he faces me, I’m relieved to find he’s not naked beneath his robe. The red t-shirt that came free with a case of beer and a pair of tighty-whities—neither tight, nor white—are a welcome sight. Confusion pinches his face, a flicker of anger flashes, then a lingering moment of blankness settles in. Finally, I see recognition dawn.
He asks what I’m doing up. He knows I’m not a morning person.
“Yeah, Dad, it’s early. Mom heard you leave the house. When you didn’t come back, she got worried.”
“Worried? She knows the best fishing is just before sunup. Look at that water, it’s like glass.”
The lake is a mirror with the inverted sky reflected upon it, appearing as a bottomless abyss. Dad stands there, on the precipice, tugging his robe tight around him. As I look at him standing there in the diminishing gloom, it could be twenty years ago—the longing for the warm bed I was dragged from, my mounting irritability, the predawn light. He gave up on pressuring me to go fishing with him when I was in my twenties.
“We haven’t come down to the lake in so long,” I say.
“I come here all the time.”
He speaks with the breathy, contemplative tone he sometimes takes on at the lake. It sounds strange without a lip-clutched cherry cigarillo making mumbles of his words. Mom made him quit three years ago after a cough didn’t go away for months. I look away from him to the clear sky. The formerly luminous moon has become ghostly.
“Your mother wants to sell the place.”
“She says it was your idea.”
“I thought you’d talk to me about it first.”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve talked to him about it. I could bring up how often he’s let the bathtub overflow, or the time he put the electric kettle on the gas stove, or the dozen other things I could throw at him, but would only get him shouting. Mom and I decided it would be better if I just came by and packed everything up.
“I’m sorry, Dad. We can talk about it now if you want.”
“I thought I would leave it to you,” he says before storming off with his elbows thrust out.
I hang back as he rounds the shed that crouches amid a snarl of blackberry. Once he’s out of sight, I consider what to do next. If I demand he return to the house with me, he’ll dig in and the situation will escalate. His stubbornness has hardened over the past couple years, calcifying into a nasty spur. Since the cherry cigarillo ban, he’s become surlier. I have to handle this just right. There’s a grunt and the slap of skin against aluminum. In a sprint, I round the shed and find him struggling to stand, legs wobbling next to his old boat. Damp from the tall grass soaks his robe. The wet fabric clings to him, and he shivers. He’s lost weight.
“Damn thing’s stuck on something,” he says, pointing to the boat and forcing composure into his voice.
“Let me get it,” I say, stepping next to him.
A grunt of protest is all the thanks I get when I put my jacket over his shoulders. At least he leaves it in place. As I bend to lift the boat, Dad puts his arms through the sleeves. Seasons of mossy growth and soil have crept over the hull like patches of spreading mold. Despite this, Dad’s boat remains in decent shape. I tug, and it budges a little. There’s a satisfying rip when I manage to get it free of the earth. A spider, brown and quick, skitters across my knuckles. Electric ripples of revulsion spread through me, and my hand jerks away involuntarily. The boat falls back down with a whomp. Dad cackles.
Before the spider-shivers are out of me, Dad has the boat flipped and grinding towards the water. Midstride, he plucks a wooden oar out of the grass. It’s a blackened, rotten thing. I start after him. I get out a “Dad, wait,” before he pushes off into the calm water, stepping aboard with the hunchbacked confidence of a pirate captain. In order to reach him, I have to take two broad steps into the lake. Soaked past the knees, I clamber in after him.
“I loosened it,” I say.
“Sure you did.”
He grins and, to my surprise, shuffles to the front. The oar he leaves for me. Dad’s always done the shoulder work, always paddled out to the middle of the lake where he’d fuss with his tackle, mumbling. I can’t remember the last time I used an oar. The first few strokes are embarrassingly awkward, but Dad doesn’t seem to notice. He’s too busy launching into the time-tested stories that have always accompanied such floats.
The first story is the one about the boy who lived on the other side of the lake, at the mountain’s hip. He hardly ever spoke and couldn’t bring himself to look another soul in the eye. From spare parts he constructed a fan boat. The boy would zip around on it, leaving a trail of blue exhaust and frothing water. The next story is the one about the first time his mother wore a two-piece bathing suit. They were just becoming fashionable. She packed a big picnic onto a farm horse, and together the family trundled to the lake. Her pale bulge of belly, poking out from between the two pieces of red bathing suit, drew the horse’s attention. It nipped at the exposed skin, and Grandma responded with a slap across the horse’s face as though it were a handsy sailor. Dad’s laughter turns into silent heaves.
The old stories sound different this time, as though it’s the first time he’s told them. New details emerge. He tells the story about the time he worked on the tugboats, dragging floating lumber upriver, but it doesn’t have the usual Huck Finn adventure tone. This time it’s terrifying. The logs broke free of the tugboat while he and two others were still tying them together. Previous renditions of the tale had him saving the day by swimming a rope against the current, back to the tug. This time, though, he tells me about a wave that forced two logs apart. He lost his footing and fell between them, into the river. The lumber came back together above him before he resurfaced, trapping him underwater.
“It was dark beneath those logs, and I was panicking. I knew I was a goner. I’d seen men go that way before. The problem with drowning is that it gives you plenty of time to realize you’re going to die.”
He says it like it’s a joke, but I pick up a hint of the panic he must have felt. Stopping himself from taking in lungfuls of river water was the most difficult thing he’s ever done, he tells me. Like a miracle, the logs trapping him underwater parted, and strong hands yanked him up.
“Wow,” I say.
I hate how inadequate my response sounds. I’m genuinely interested. And how close I came to never existing is alarming, but it has to be the hundredth time I’ve heard this story. Proper astonishment has become difficult to muster.
He grows quiet before telling a story I’ve only ever heard from Mom before. It’s the story of how his younger brother died. It happened not long before I was born. Mom always warned me not to bring it up with him. My uncle Derek was seventeen when he went on a hike with a friend that ended at the bottom of a cliff.
“He was pushed, I swear he was,” Dad says.
I’m desperate to know why Derek would have been murdered. When I ask, Dad can’t remember. It’s clear he feels as though he should. His face contorts like he’s lifting something slippery and awkward. For the life of him he can’t drag it out of the murky depths of his memory.
“There was something shady about it, something about money,” he says. Then he can’t remember his brother’s name. “Oh, for Chrissake, what was it now?”
“Derek,” I say.
He spits into the water.
“You were saying Derek was pushed.”
“Your brother, Derek. You were talking about Derek.”
Dad’s eyebrows reach for one another. A look of confusion, or fear. The story of my uncle’s death disappears from him completely. I know hounding him will help nothing, but I remain full of questions. Despite myself, I begin rattling them off.
What was my uncle like?
What was he involved in?
Did he look like Grandma, or Grandpa?
Why are there no photos of him?
Were he and Derek close?
When Dad shuts down, I give up. A cloud, the edge of a creeping overcast, slides across the sun. It grows cooler. I watch a mosquito land on Dad’s neck, latch, then zip away. A breeze ripples the lake’s surface, and the world seems to shrink in half.
“I’m getting pretty cold, Dad. Maybe we should head in.”
He sniffs the air, smelling the temperature, then nods.
“Fish skunked us again,” he says, though we have no rods.
The boat has been drifting. It’s not until I look around that I notice how far we’ve meandered. As soon as I begin to paddle, the ding of a text rings out from the inside pocket of my jacket. Dad, still wearing it, pulls my phone out and is reading before I can react.
“What do you think you’re gonna do with my boat?” he demands.
“Oh, is that right?”
He throws my phone at me. After striking my gut, it bounces towards the lake. I juggle it briefly before catching it.
“You might as well get rid of me, too, you bloody thief.”
The text is from Mom.
Don’t let him onto that boat, he’ll drown himself. Can you take it to the junkers today?
He turns like a tail-pulled cat to snatch the oar from me. I hold fast. I mean to laugh it off and suggest talking about it over coffee. I mean to tell him my ass has gone numb, and I want to go back to bed. What I do instead is try to wrestle the oar away from him. He holds fast. He tugs, and I tug back. After a brief struggle I hear the earthy splinter of dry rot. The oar snaps, and Dad lets go. The bottom half flips skyward, and he lands hard on his hip. I freeze. For an instant I imagine him going overboard. I imagine pneumonia and a hospital stay he doesn’t return from. He’s silent and motionless for a couple breaths. The flung half of the broken oar lands with a splat a dozen feet away. Ripples draw a target around it, pointing out how stupid I’ve been.
“Look what you did,” he says as he struggles to right himself.
I lean towards him, offering my hand. In my other hand, I’m still holding the useless half of the broken oar.
“Dad, are you okay?”
“You idiot. Look what you did!”
Once I determine he’s unhurt, my concern sours to anger.
“What do you mean what I did?”
“You . . . I can’t . . . How . . .” He grabs the remaining piece of oar from me. I let him take it, not wanting another struggle. Brandishing it like a weapon, he bares his teeth and cocks his arm. I move to restrain him, but Dad’s already swinging. We both miss our targets. The tears on his face stop me dead. His anger deflates, and mine follows in kind. I drop back onto my seat, harder than intended. That exquisite brand of tailbone pain sets in, along with a sullen silence.
“You know what?” I say, unsteadily getting back to my feet.
The boat wobbles, threatening to spill me.
“What are you doing? Sit down.”
The lake slaps at the hull. I peel my shirt off and yank at my belt. My nipples prickle to life in the cool air.
“What are you doing?” he says again.
“I want to go back to bed.”
Shoes next, then pants. Dad stares disbelieving at my underwear. They’re the same shade of blue as his robe. Before I have a chance to evaluate my plan, I leap ass first into the water. The cold bites as my head submerges. The lake’s underwater world rumbles in my ears for an instant before I come up gulping and chirping.
“What are you doing?” Dad says once again, this time with a grin.
The lake has stolen my breath, allowing only gasps. Regret has me clawing the water to get back to the boat. I get a hand over the lip, and Dad covers it with his own. He bends to speak into my ear.
“Slow your breathing down. Let the cold in.”
I do what I’m told, and the shock subsides.
“Well,” I say, the frigid water still clipping my words, “I’m in the lake.”
“You sure are.”
I kick and fan my way to the back of the boat and begin pushing Dad to shore. He barks instructions, guiding us in. The sound of my breathing is amplified and hollow, caught in the space between the boat’s ringing aluminum, the lake’s surface, and my face. Between my hands is a pink-hued spider’s nest. Staring at its fluffiness, I swim and follow Dad’s directions. I can’t stop imagining swarms of tiny arachnids bursting from the cotton candy package at my nose.
The cold’s sting dulls to a throb before fading into numbness. I think about all the conversations I’ve had with Dad on that water—the laughter and the wisdom I’ve forgotten, and will never have back. Perhaps those lost moments have sunk to the bottom of the lake, nestled amongst the fish crap, rotten vegetation, and lost lures. Maybe if I stay in the water long enough, they’ll soak back into me. My heart sinks at the metallic grind of land against the hull. I’m breathing hard. Though lake weeds tangle my limbs, and my shivering has grown violent, I don’t want to get out.