Winter Solstice 2003
Y WIFE AND I were in Spain dog-sitting for my parents when I got the news that my friend Tim had died in a drowning accident at his summer place in Massachusetts. The note that unfurled itself from the fax machine in my father's study was only about a paragraph long, but it said what it had to. The morning before last, Tim had gone out for a swim and hadn't come back.
Tim's ex-wife, Pippa, had hand-written the fax; I recognized her script because it always fascinated me with its ability to express gracefully what it needed to while maintaining its almost childlike loops and bubbles. Enormous loop for the lowercase 'l', prodigious dot atop the otherwise miniscule 'i'.
I stared at the note for at least five minutes. Eventually, it occurred to me that I might have read the note wrong and that now, having been shocked so powerfully by what I thought it said, I had rewritten it in my own mind.
I folded the note and tucked it away in the hip pocket of my jeans, determining not to think about it again until I was ready.
My wife, Nora, was asleep in the guest bedroom; we'd had a long night last night, and though Nora didn't typically booze it up much, she'd soldiered her way through the three bottles of Pinot Grigio we drank with dinner.
I left her a short note ("Went to do chores. Back soon.") and headed down the mountain on my dad's little motocicleta. When I reached town, I parked and ate lunch at El Bambu, one of the dozen chirungitos along the beach.
It was a calm, sunny day, so I sat outside at one of the several umbrella-shaded tables.
There was a good beer I remembered from my prior visits: Alhambra Especial, Mil Novecientos Veinte Cinco. I ordered one, downed most of it in one go, then ordered another, drawing a hard look from the barkeep. Spaniards drink in quantity, but they don't drink to get fucked up. I was, and the old man knew it. I hoped he wouldn't say anything, though; I wasn't in a chatty mood.
An hour later I was ready to look at the note again.
I took it out of my pocket and unfolded it, spread the crinkly paper flat on the bar.
I read it. Twice.
It said precisely the same thing it had a few hours ago, only this time I noted a brief addendum I'd missed in the first reading, written in a neater, almost machine-like hand toward the bottom of the page. Lawyer handwriting, I thought. It said, "Service will be held Friday at noon at Greenburg Presbyterian Church, Greenburg, Massachusetts."
I refolded the note and set it down, then looked out at the placid Mediterranean.
When I returned to my parents' house at the top of La Punta de La Mona, I called my assistant in Boston and asked him to book Nora and me tickets on a flight home as soon as possible, and certainly by the coming Friday. He called back an hour later and told me that every seat on every flight was booked through next week, and that the soonest we'd get back to the States was our scheduled return date, the Monday after Tim's funeral. At the end of August, finding a transatlantic plane ticket on such short notice was less probable than winning the lottery, as he put it.
"Listen. My best friend just died, Calvin," I said. "His funeral's on Friday. This Friday. Whatever you have to do, get me home!" I set the phone down too hard and sat on the couch. Two of my parents' five dogs, a brother and sister black lab duo, sauntered over to investigate the sound of the receiver crashing down on its cradle, then wandered listlessly away when all they discovered was me, fuming silently.
Calvin called back about twenty minutes later to tell me he'd checked on the availabilities for several private charters, but there was just nothing left. Nothing.
"You'd get back quicker swimming, Mike," he said.
The word broke something inside of me. I began to chuckle, tried to stop, and found myself sickeningly unable.
I heard Calvin on the phone asking if I was okay. I dropped the phone, fell to the floor, laughing.
My sides began to ache. Tears rolled down my face sideways, dripping to the floor as I jerked with my hitches and wheezes. I couldn't breathe and was alarmed at the speed of my heart, the percussive thumping of my pulse in my ears; I actually thought I might die, that I might die laughing on the floor of my parents' home in Spain. What if I had a heart attack? An aneurysm? A stroke? Would my face retain the orange-slice rictus of my inexplicable mirth even in death? What would people say? Laughed himself to death when he found out his best friend bought the farm? What kind of a sick bastard--
But the fit was passing now, and I thought I might be able to stop. I heard Calvin on the other end of the line. I could imagine him in his office in Boston, standing behind his desk, holding the phone in front of his mouth like a microphone, yelling at the top of his lungs into the mouthpiece, the secretaries and other agents peering in at him, wondering what in the holy fuck was going on.
Get it together, I thought. Pick up the damn phone and tell Calvin you're all right before he hangs up and calls in the cavalry.
A little late, my mind put two words together, one Calvin's, one mine. Stroke. Swimming.
It got me started again, even worse than before.
I no longer heard Calvin, just the sound of blood rushing in my ears. I felt my face going too hot and too red, and it wasn't funny.
I thought of my best friend since childhood, lost somewhere at the bottom of White Pond amidst the coils of reaching reeds and weeds, and it wasn't funny.
But I laughed.
I laughed until I fainted. And that is no joke.
A WEEK LATER, WE flew back to Boston and were met at Logan by our driver, Phil. He took Nora and me to our home in Chester, New Hampshire, a stone, cottage-style house surrounded by a ten-foot stone wall. It was the home we'd both always dreamed of, and the success of my first three novels had allowed us to have it. The screen option for the second paid for the pool and my wife's greenhouse.
I helped Phil get the bags inside, then told Nora I needed to do some things in my office.
"Okay," she said, "I'm probably going to head into town for some supplies. Want anything from the market?"
I told her no, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and headed upstairs.
In my office, I gathered a few things into my briefcase: my laptop, a pad, some pens, my dictaphone. Not that I really thought I'd use them where I was headed, but you never knew. Finished there, I went to the bedroom and gathered a few things into an overnight bag. I took a second to scrawl Nora a short note telling her where I was going and left it on the kitchen counter.
In the garage, I popped the trunk to my black Mustang convertible and dropped my briefcase inside.
I was about to climb in when something stopped me.
My golf clubs stood leaning in the far corner of the garage, half obscured by deep shadows. I hadn't used them since the summer before, when I played with my brother and sister back in Philadelphia during an uncomfortable, and thankfully short, family reunion. I stood with one foot in the car, wondering. I rarely ignored my intuition; it had served me well as a writer and as a man. My mind was trying to tell me something.
I stepped back out of the car and walked to where the clubs stood. With a downward swipe of my hand, I brushed away the few cobwebs stretching from one wall of the corner to the other, strapping the bag in with their silky-thin fibers. I ran my hand over the red and blue bag, then each of the club heads, searching for some clue as to the source of my unease. But I felt nothing.
"What then?" I said. The feeling that I was supposed to do something here hadn't diminished. I trailed my hands over the dusty bag again, interrogating the bulges and indentations like a cop patting down a suspect.
When that failed to produce results, I searched the two ball and equipment pockets, digging through spike cleaners, several rags, and at least three spray-cans of insect repellant.
In the second pocket, my hand settled on a single golf ball.
That's it, I thought, pulling the ball out and squeezing it tightly in my hand.
I waited for some additional recognition to settle in, some mental notification as to why this ball was important, but none did. Was it some kind of nudge from my subconscious to contact my sister and brother? We weren't close, never had been. My sister was a travel agent in Vegas, and my brother did drugs where he could get them, working in the remainder of his days as a silk-screener, gas station attendant, or dishwasher. Seeing them was like seeing old friends, but old friends to whom I had nothing much to say anymore. Plus, that just didn't seem like the right explanation. Something else, then.
When nothing came immediately, I stopped thinking about it. My mind worked best when left to its own devices. Trying to force a realization was useless. When whatever it was finished incubating and felt ready to make itself clear, my psychic egg-timer would give its familiar ping and I would return to it.
Early on in our relationship, while we were still both in college, Nora had dubbed this process, 'The Tinkering of the Mind Gnomes.' Since my personal thought process closely echoed my professional one, I constantly frustrated Nora when she wanted an immediate answer but found me unable to provide her one.
"It's like I ask you a question, and then ten hours later you're finally ready to answer it, but by then it doesn't even matter anymore," she'd said, sitting naked and cross-legged on her dorm-room bed, a Scooby-Doo sheet draped over her shoulders like a cape, a pillowcase carefully arranged atop her head to resemble the headpiece of a nun's habit. She'd been sent to Catholic School by the orphanage, and had a special place in her heart for the clergy, especially nuns, to whom she referred as 'those bitch dykes.'
A bottle of beer sat propped against her crotch, and I remember wondering how something that cold touching somewhere that sensitive could possibly feel good.
"Yeah," I agreed, toking hard from the moist end of a joint and following it with a sip of my beer, "but when I finally decide something, you can be damn sure I've thought it all the way through."
"You?" she said skeptically, lifting her beer to take a drink and causing me to lose almost any interest in what she was saying as my attention quickly focused elsewhere. "Or your Mind Gnomes?"
Mind Gnomes, she patiently explained, lived in my skull and were responsible for the machinations of my subconscious. When I relegated a difficult decision from the realm of the conscious to realm of the subconscious, I was in effect surrendering my decision to the whim of the Mind Gnomes.
"So I'm not making my own choices?" I asked, amused.
She shook her head, causing her breasts to sway hypnotically.
"And I'm not the one writing those stories?"
"Not if you're letting the Mind Gnomes do all the work. They write the stories, so all you really have to do is copy them down on paper and take the credit."
That she believed my writing to be so easy, that she could even imply it jokingly, stoked the spark of my pride, and though I tried to pretend I wasn't bothered by her Mind Gnome theory, she must have noticed something in my behavior at the time, because she never let me hear the end of it. To this day, whenever I can't give her a direct answer, she trots out the Mind Gnomes and dangles them over my head.
I pulled free of the memory and slipped the golf ball into my jacket pocket, then got into the car and started it up.
Enjoying the throaty rumble of the engine, I guided the Mustang out onto the Interstate and headed south, back toward Boston.
I had an eventual destination in mind, but the spirit of this trip was at least as important as what I would do when I got there. The only way I knew how, I was going to pay my respects to Tim.
I was going to say goodbye to my friend.
ALL TOLD, TIM AND I had been friends, best friends, for thirty-two of my thirty-five years.
Both our fathers taught at Strathmore College, a small liberal arts school located a few miles outside of Philadelphia. Following my birth, my parents had moved twice in quick succession, searching for the right house in which to raise a family.
In the summer of '67, when I was a year and a half old, they moved into a redbrick on Crum Ledge Lane, a dirt road that wound its way a mile deep into the woods bordering the south side of the Strathmore campus.
At the time, there was only one other house anywhere close, and a few months later, Tim's family moved in.
There are some great pictures of us together as kids. Looking through my parents' basement in Spain a few days after receiving the fax from Tim's ex-wife, I'd found a shoebox full of them.
There was one of five year-old Tim holding a mud-pie in his pudgy hand, more mud streaking his face and clothes, staring me down as I threatened him with the spray nozzle of the garden hose. Another of Tim, myself, and two other boys whose names I couldn't remember standing in front of the Crum Ledge house, wearing Indian head-dresses, holding plastic bows with suction-cupped arrows notched in the strings. There were many more, and in all of them, Tim looked precisely the same. Five or twenty-five, bearded or clean-shaven, long-haired or buzz-cut, I'd have known Tim anywhere. I knew his face better than my own.
And now, as I held the wheel of my Mustang steady on southbound I-95, my mental egg timer went off. PING. I had it. I suddenly understood about the golf ball.
Flipping through my parents' pictures, I'd discovered one from when Tim and I were eleven or twelve. It was black and white, square, not rectangular. My mother and father never took black and whites, so I knew immediately that Tim's dad, Mr. Gorman, had probably taken it and given it to my parents.
The photograph, snapped at White Pond, had been taken using a zoom lens, but even still, most of the features were grainy and somewhat indistinct.
It showed Tim and myself, wearing dark swimming trunks, standing on the large wooden raft moored a hundred feet off the Gorman's private beach. Both of us stood on the same side of the ten-by-ten wooden float, and that edge dipped precariously down into the water, lifting the opposite side into the air. Seeing myself in the middle of all that water, I felt a swift pang of anxiety; I hated the water and always had, even as a kid. In all the times I'd been to White Pond, I doubt I'd touched the water five times. But there I was, and smiling, even if the smile looked forced and strange.
We were aware of the photograph, and had our arms raised in salutation, yelling something back to the beach. Even with the poor quality of the picture, I could read the expressions on our tanned faces. Tim's, confident, carefree, happy. Mine, trying to look all those things for the camera, but undercut by something. Thinking about the photograph, it suddenly felt like a clammy hand squeezed my guts.
When I'd discovered the photo, sitting in the basement of the house in Spain, it had meant nothing special to me, just another shot of Tim and me together, the two musketeers. But now, the picture sparked a memory, maybe the one I'd been searching for since the garage.
Two or three days before the picture had been taken that summer, I'd caught Tim looking into the neighboring cabin's bathroom window from a perch high in a tree we sometimes climbed. I could hear the shower on in the bathroom, and I could even smell the soap and steam through the open window. I remembered the shock of seeing Tim up in that tree; I wasn't old enough yet to understand what he was looking at, and I don't think he understood either, but I knew that what he was doing was wrong. I reacted without thinking. I called out, Tim! Come down! A second late I'd realized that if the sound of the shower was audible to me, then my voice was almost certainly audible to the person in the shower, and I'd been right. The water cut off suddenly and a face popped in and then quickly out of view.
A moment later, just as Tim dropped to the ground next to me, the phone started ringing in the Gorman's cabin. The look Tim gave me when he heard that phone ringing contained not hate, not anger, but shrewd calculation. I knew I'd fucked up, and I knew I was going to get it. The only questions were when and how.
And that was where the photograph came in.
In Tim's hand, clutched between his thumb and first finger, which were circled to form the A-OK sign, was something white.
A golf ball.
Sitting in the semi-dark space of my parent's basement, I hadn't been able to make out what Tim was holding, and the memory hadn't been there to help me figure it out, but I knew now, without question, that's what it was.
Despite the fact that it had to be well over eighty degrees outside the car, I suddenly felt cold. I pushed the Mustang's vent control all the way over to hot and clicked the fan on to its middle setting. But it was no good. The chill I felt wasn't physical, but remembered. The feeling of cold pond water slimy on my skin.
A child's voice, Tim's voice, sounded in my mind. I could hear the lapping of wake up against the side of the raft.
C'mon, Mike. Let's play..
My own voice, then, scared. I don't want to, Tim. Let's do something else, okay?
It wasn't just words and sounds I got from my memory, either. Layered over the road in front of me, I could see a new scene, a watery one, the pond. The densely treed shore lay far off, maybe a hundred feet, which would put me where? On a boat, or a float? It only took me half a moment to realize I had to be on the Gorman's float. This was the scene from the photograph, of course.
The cold fingers I'd felt squeezing my guts now gave another nasty clench and in my mind, in my own childhood voice, I heard a burst of singsong rhyme. I did not do it on a boat, I did not do it on the float…
Tim's voice cut through, goading now. C'mon, Mikey. What are you afraid of?
My own voice in return, Nothing, Tim, I just don't want to.
But even as I held the steering wheel of my car steady, heading down the interstate toward Massachusetts, I could hear the real response to Tim's question, the one I hadn't given him all those years ago.
Sitting in my car, a thirty-five year old man, successful in the world, I opened my mouth and said to nobody but myself, "Mister Magoo."
AN HOUR LATER, I exited the Interstate and merged onto westbound Route 2. From here, it was only another fifteen minutes or so to the Gorman's place.
The sun's light was losing its intensity fast. In a couple of hours it would be dark. I'd already considered the possibility that this trip might be an overnighter and said as much in the note I left for Nora so she wouldn't worry.
The driving here was much more pleasant than on the Interstate. Since the road had only two lanes, with a considerably lower speed limit, but what it lacked in speed it made up for in beauty. Trees overhung the road and formed an archlike canopy, admitting only intermittent splotches of late afternoon sunshine.
I drove through a couple of small towns, neither of which boasted more than one stoplight, one supermarket, or one bar, and then, at around four fifteen, entered Loganville, one of the several small communities surrounding White Pond.
I had come to this place with the Gormans on shopping trips during the summers I spent with them here.
I recognized some things, the Stop n' Shop, the Five and Dime, the Dairy Queen. But others were obviously new, most notably a mini-mall in the town center.
I also saw a Bed n' Breakfast called the Donovan House, a looming Victorian in wonderfully good condition. It was nestled between the Deluxe Candy Emporium, painted a gaudy yet somehow inoffensive light pink, and a real estate office that looked to be about the size of a closet.
I parked my car and went inside the Donovan House.
Behind the desk nestled in the foyer's far corner sat a young woman, maybe twenty years old. She had short blond hair and blue eyes and a swatch of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
"I'd like a room," I said.
She glanced down at the ledger and flipped one page ahead. "Just one night?"
"That should do it."
I paid in advance with my Visa, then watched as the girl scrawled my name next to the number 7 in the hotel's ledger. That done, she plucked a key from a hook on the peg-board behind the desk and stood.
"This way, Mister Rollins."
THOUGH I HADN'T BEEN to Loganville since my childhood, I had been back to White Pond several times. The last time had been just the summer before, and I still remembered the liquor store where Tim and I purchased our usual fifth of Cuttysark whiskey and several packs of cheap cigars. The store was about three miles out of town, just off the dirt road that wound its way back to the pond.
I went in and bought a bottle of whiskey and a pack of Swisher Sweets, the thin ones with the white plastic mouthpieces. Tim and I became infatuated with them at the age of sixteen and still smoked them whenever we met up.
On the way back out to my car, I stopped and looked at the spot where the dirt road plowed off into the woods. It was only about half a mile from here to Tim's place, and I considered taking a trip back now. But I didn't. It was past six.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'd spend the day saying goodbye to Tim.
I drove back in the direction of the bed and breakfast, but on the way realized how incredibly hungry I'd gotten. I'd intended to return to my room so I could get started on the booze and cigars, but if I didn't get something in my stomach first, I'd be lucky not to end up swimming in a pool of my own bile. The last thing I'd had to eat was breakfast on the plane, a muffin, fruit cocktail, and one watery cup of coffee.
At the periphery of town, I pulled into the lot of a place called The Deliberate Bar & Grill. Now painfully aware of the burning in my stomach, it occurred to me to hope the restaurant's name was a bad pun on Thoreau, not a disclaimer about the speed of service.
I went inside and sat at the bar, ordered the biggest burger on the menu and a beer. While I waited for the food to come, I ordered a shot of Black Velvet and another beer.
By the time the waitress brought the burger, I was well on my way to what Tim used to call Shitfaced Central.
The way I tore through the meal, I don't know how I managed to not choke myself, but before I knew it, I'd ordered another burger and was working on my second beer and third shot.
"Slow down, buddy," the bartender said as he slid another mug of Miller in my direction, "you got all night."
I nodded and said, "That's true," then took a huge gulp of the cold beer, draining half the glass at once. The bartender shook his head and walked to the other end of the bar, evidently determined to forget all about me. The small, still reasonable part of my brain didn't blame him one bit. But that part of me was small.
When I finished the beer about two minutes later, I rapped the glass hard on the polished surface of the bar. The bottom of the mug cracked and it fell to pieces in my hand, leaving me holding a disembodied handle.
The bartender walked over, slapped my bill down, and said quietly, "You're done. Pay and leave."
I fumbled two twenties out of my wallet and dropped them on the bar. It was about fifteen too much, but I was too buzzed to give a flying fuck. I pushed myself up and away from the bar just as the waitress arrived with the second hamburger. As I headed toward the door, I snatched at the sandwich and somehow got it without knocking the plate out of her hand.
"Thanks," I said.
Outside in the cool air, I finished the burger in five enormous bites as I leaned against the hood of my car. When I finished, I opened the door on the passenger side and fell heavily onto the leather seat. I tried to lie back, but felt something hard underneath me. When I pulled it out, it turned out to be the whiskey and cigars. Why not? I thought.
I cracked the bottle open and drank from it, wincing in pain and pleasure as the whiskey burned down my throat and set fire to my belly. Using the car lighter, I lit one the little cigars and puffed, puffed. The tobacco was so weak I could inhale without coughing, so I did, then blew the smoke out through my nose, like a dragon.
I propped the bottle between my legs, dug my wallet out of my back pocket, and flipped it open. My driver's license picture stared up at me from behind a sheet of plastic, but it wasn't that I was interested in. I slipped my increasingly clumsy fingers into the area behind the license and pulled out two small, faded pieces of crinkly paper. So much like the paper of the fax which had told me of Tim's death.
The papers were credit slips, receipts. I'd been carrying them in my wallet for almost three months now, since early June, when I'd discovered them in Nora's purse while searching for our checkbook. I'd glanced at them only in passing, but what I found destroyed me.
The receipts, folded in two, were both so worn at the crease from my constant folding and unfolding that they'd begun to tear. But I opened them yet again.
The first was from a gas station and was for a piddling amount, $4.12. It wasn't itemized, but it didn't need to be. Whether my wife had purchased gas or a six-pack of Coke wasn't what mattered.
The second receipt came from a coffee shop called Plum's Buns. This one was itemized. One double café latte, one café mocha, and a scone, $7.53. Again, unimportant.
The thing that mattered, the detail which had undone my life in under two seconds, approximately the time it took for me to figure out what I was holding in my hand, was the small strip atop each of the credit slips. Nora's card had been run through on similar machines, so the printouts were nearly the same. Only the information was different. The first read: CHELTHAM, MA 9:13 AM 6/7/00. The second: LOGANVILLE, MA 11:57 AM 6/7/00.
Nora had been in Loganville. What's more, she had been in Loganville the very same day I had dropped her off at the Portland Jetport to catch an impromptu flight to visit a college friend in Columbus, Ohio.
Thinking there must be some kind of mistake, I called the Jetport and asked the USAir attendant to check their records for that day. Had Nora Rollins purchased a ticket? Had she shown up for the flight?
The attendant wasn't allowed to give out that information, but I was able to talk the Alamo Rent-a-Car clerk into looking up rental records for June 7th.
And there it was. My wife and my best friend were having an affair.
I crumpled up the receipts and dropped them onto the floor of the car, then took another swig from the bottle of whiskey. Teeth bared in a grimace, I spun the cap back onto the bottle, then tried to start the car, missing a couple of times before finally fitting the key into the ignition.
The drive itself was a blur. During it, the whiskey began to exert its full effect, and I could feel the world swimming further and further away.
In what seemed like thirty seconds but must have been at least five minutes, I was swinging way too fast into a parking space outside The Donovan House, jumping the curb up onto the sidewalk and dinging the silver metal lamp-post with the Mustang's front fender. I backed the car up and heard something groan with protest as the front tires dropped the six inches down to the road, one by one. Finally, ridiculously satisfied with my parking job, I turned the engine off.
I climbed out of the car and weaved my way up the B & B's flagstone pathway. The lightpole continued to sway like a tree in strong wind, creating a swimming effect with the light that made my stomach churn queasily.
I reached the door and, after swiping at the doorknob several times without success, finally got a hand on it, yanked it open, stumbled inside, and let it close behind me.
IN THE DREAM, I floated above myself, looking down, the kind of thing you hear happens in dreams all the time, but which you never really believe until it happens to you. I don't remember my dreams, never have, and I've always kind of suspected that's the reason for my success in writing, like maybe that's where the dreams come out, on the paper. But when this dream starts, it feels familiar, like I've had it a thousand times, maybe more. This familiarity is powerful even through the alcohol haze.
I am behind Tim in the Gormans' canoe, rowing on the pond. He isn't wearing a shirt, and I can see every rib and nub of spine in his back clearly. His skin isn't tan like it should be, but is instead a mottled white, stained here and there with splotches of rotten green. Though I'm dreaming, it occurs to me to wonder why he's so thin. Never in his life has Tim been underweight. In fact, the last time I saw him, he had been heavy almost to the point of fatness. For some reason I am bothered by this detail. It itches at my brain like a rogue hornet.
I forget all about it, though, when the canoe suddenly cants radically to one side. I grab the edges with both hands, nearly dropping the paddle I hold. If I drop it, though, I'll have to reach in after it, and that is something I cannot do.
This is as close as I am willing to come to the water, and even in the boat I feel the anxiety twisting in my guts. What if we tip? What if something tips us? We are adults in the dream, and this makes it somehow more terrible, since I know what I am seeing is a scene from my childhood. We never tipped when we were kids, but if we're adults, then all bets are off, the rules are moot.
Where are we going? I ask Tim, and when he looks back at me, the canoe rocks perilously again.
Just for a ride, he answers, out to the float. As he talks, water leaks from his mouth and in it I can see dark long greenish-gray strands of pond weed. He smiles at me, and there are more weeds stuck in his teeth, like spinach.
Not too far ahead, I can see the float. Of course, the float: it makes perfect sense, but I don't know why.
I see that Tim has lifted his paddle from the water and is sitting still. I stop rowing, too, and am not surprised when the canoe actually picks up speed.
The front of the silver aluminum boat bumps against the float. Tim climbs out and helps me do the same. When I take his hand, it is like holding a dead fish, but soon I am standing beside him. With one of his feet, Tim pushes the canoe away from the float and it drifts off toward shore.
What are we doing here? I ask. I realize suddenly that I'm not wearing a shirt either, and I'm cold, terribly cold. I cross my arms over my chest and rub my upper arms, which are covered with goosebumps.
You know, Tim says, and he's right, I do. The time has come to pay up; did I actually think I was going to get off free after what I'd done?
Smile for the camera, Mikey, Tim says. He turns toward shore and raises his arm to wave. I do the same and see a distant flash. Turning back to Tim, I notice how unbelievably thin his arms are. And not just his arms; his face is narrow and pinched, and the skin there is stretched tight.
My dad and his fucking pictures, Tim says.
What are you going to do to me?
I'm not going to do anything, he says, I'm not going to do anything at all, Mikey. We're going to let old Mister Magoo decide what happens to you. You'll live or you'll die, it's not up to I. Then he laughs, and somehow that's the most frightening thing yet, because the laugh is the old Tim's laugh. There's nothing sinister about it; he's just having a good time with his best friend Mikey. And something about that makes me angry, and I can't stop myself.
Is that what happened to you? I ask. Did Mister Magoo decide what happened to you, Tim? Did he pull you under because you fucked my wife? Did he?
But Tim doesn't answer. Instead, in that same good-natured voice, he says, Come on, man, let's play.
I FELT FINGERS SOFTLY tracing the lines of my face and sighed. I was hot and cold, alternately, and at once. A prickly sweat covered my face and body, and it felt like my stomach had been used for an ashtray at an AA meeting. But the fingers…
They ran the length of my eyebrows, down the slope of my nose, over my chapped lips, up and around the curve of my cheeks, moving slowly. Nora used to do this during the years just after college when I'd gone on one of my benders and woke up sick. But that was impossible. Nora wasn't here. Still, I tried to say her name. A dry croak was all I managed to produce.
"Shh. Quiet. I'm here, baby," I heard whispered back. "It's okay, I'm here now. Just sleep."
When I woke up later, Nora was sleeping beside me, fully dressed.
As quietly as I could, I rolled over and climbed out of bed, sending my hungover brain into a rapid downspin. I barely made it to the toilet before throwing up the remains of my dinner. The noise of my retching must have woken Nora, because she was quickly beside me, down on her knees, cool hands on my forehead, pushing sweaty hair out of my eyes.
I threw up once more, then said, "What are you doing here?"
She didn't look surprised at the question. "You called me late last night and we talked. You sounded bad and asked me to come. I remembered how to get here from last summer, so I did."
Sick as I was, I had to fight the urge to laugh. Remembered from last summer, my ass.
"Thanks," I said. I couldn't remember calling her, but then I couldn't remember much of anything after dinner. This was not unusual for me after a night of bingeing. Sometimes the memories would come back, but just as often they would not.
Moving slowly, I showered and dressed in jeans and a button down, then pulled on my jacket.
"Coffee?" I said, coming out into the bedroom, where Nora was sitting on the bed. She smiled and nodded. "Good idea."
We got into Nora's car, a Subaru Outback, and she drove, taking us into the downtown area. I saw a familiar sign on the side of the road and told her to pull over.
"Here okay?" I said, pointing at a restaurant with a blue awning. It was Plum's Buns, where she'd ordered a café latte on June seventh of this year. I watched her face for recognition. She showed none.
We sat at a table near the floor to ceiling window at the front of the café. When the waitress came, Nora ordered a café latte and a blueberry bagel with cream cheese.
When I heard her utter the words 'café latte,' I had to close my eyes and clench my hands beneath the table to keep from screaming in anguish. Just months ago she and Tim had sat in this restaurant, maybe at this very table, and she'd ordered a café latte, he a café mocha.
Right before he put his cock inside her.
The waitress was asking what I wanted. I took a breath and said, "A café mocha, please. And a scone."
Score one for me. Nora looked at me and then quickly away again. But I saw it.
"Can I--I need to ask you something, Mike," she said.
"Why are you here?"
I paused a moment, then said. "Tim died two weeks ago."
It shocked me. I hadn't told her. "How?"
"There were messages at the house. You left too fast to see them." She sat quietly for a beat, then said, "Why didn't you tell me when you found out? At your parent's house?"
I didn't know what to say. Because I knew you might admit to fucking him, and I didn't want to hear you say that. Because you didn't tell me what I didn't know, and I didn't want to tell you what you didn't. Because as soon as I knew for sure, I knew our marriage would be over. I could have said any or all of those things, but I didn't.
I just said, "It wasn't the right time. I wasn't ready."
"Is that the only reason?" She was trying to gauge how much I knew. Her gaze was shrewd and calculated. She didn't want our marriage to end. She was not going to admit to the affair. Now that Tim was dead, her secret was safe, she thought.
But I knew better.
"Yes," I said. "That's the only reason. I just wasn't ready to face it yet." I felt almost like laughing, or crying. I wasn't quite sure which. "But I am now. I came here to say goodbye to Tim. Let's go do it together."
THE CABIN LOOKED JUST about the way I remembered it, gray stone walls and a simple, sloping roof, covered with slate-gray shingles.
It had one story, and I knew it contained just two rooms, one of them a bedroom, the other an 'everything-else-room', as Mr. Gorman used to call it, furnished with a table and chairs for eating, an old pull-out sofa, and two lime-green bean bag chairs which constantly leaked their filling from about a hundred different holes. It had been that way when I was a child, and it had still looked the same when I brought Nora down the summer before to visit.
There were no other cars here, but I hadn't expected there to be. Except for the girlfriend Tim's ex had mentioned in the fax, there was really no one else with any reason to be. Who wants to sleep alone in the house of someone who just died?
Nora was sitting next to me, in the Outback's passenger seat. "Are we going inside?" she said. The question made me think she knew about the key Tim kept hidden in a fake log in the woodstack outside the front door. I wondered if Tim had brought her here. Could he have? Could he have really brought my wife to this place where he and I had spent so many days and weeks together, both as children and adults? Could he have fucked her on the pull-out bed in the everything-else-room where Tim and I slept side by side when we weren't talking and laughing, or sipping stolen beer on the sly? Could he have done that?
"No," I answered, trying to keep the raw emotion I was feeling out of my voice. "I had something else in mind."
I pulled the Outback to a stop beneath a shady pine tree and killed the engine, then climbed out. Nora did likewise, and I heard her feet crunching over twigs and leaves as she followed me down the slope toward the water.
The Gorman's beach was a ten-foot wide sandy stretch between dense thickets of underbrush. To hold back the opportunistic weeds, Mr. Gorman had long ago hauled two fallen trees down to the beach and positioned them about fifteen feet back from the waterline. The trees also doubled as benches.
I sat down on one and shucked off my tennis shoes and socks, then rose and dangled the toes of my right foot in the water, balancing on my left.
"Cold," I said to Nora, who was staring at me. "But that's okay."
I removed my jacket and dropped it on the ground, then began undoing the buttons of my shirt.
"What are you doing?" Nora said.
"Come on. You, too."
"Come on. What are you afraid of?" I couldn't believe the words that had just come out of my mouth. It was almost the exact same thing Tim had said to me twenty-five years ago as we stood in this same spot.
Come on, Mikey, what are you afraid of?
Tim held a golf ball in his hand, and I asked him why. He was mad, pissing mad, but the look on his face was cool. Get in the canoe and come out to the raft, he said. I'll tell you there.
Nora looked skeptically out at the pond, then each way along the shore. Nobody in sight. No boats out on the pond. It was September, and the summer was almost at its end. Schools were starting back up, and people who had to work were at work. We had the pond to ourselves. Me, Nora, and Tim; there was no doubt in my mind that he was here with us.
Reluctantly, she slid out of her black leather jacket and draped it carefully over one of the logs, then began on the buttons of the ivory-colored cardigan she wore.
I finished undressing and, wearing only my blue silk boxer shorts, walked slowly to the edge of the water. But something wasn't right…I went back to the pile of clothes and dug through them to my jacket, reached into one pocket, then the other, found what I wanted, and straightened, the golf ball clutched in my left hand.
Nora was waited for me, standing at the water's edge in white bra and panties only. Her skin looked tight from the chill in the morning air.
"What are we doing?" she said. I didn't know how she meant it. So many possible ways. Probably she didn't really believe I was actually going to go in. I'd been with Nora a long time, and she knew how much I hated the water. But that didn't matter now.
"The raft," I said, pointing. "Come on."
I plunged into the water, gasping at the predictable cold, but still not ready for just how cold it really was. I heard Nora come in more slowly behind me, talking to herself. But then I was swimming, and the only sounds in my ears were of water and my breathing.
The day Tim and I had come out to the raft all those years ago we'd gone in the Gormans' canoe, but I didn't know where it was now and didn't want to take the time to look for it. Besides, I had nothing to worry about. I was clean, man, fucking pure. For someone who hadn't done much swimming in his life, I thought my strokes were smooth and strong.
It took less time than I thought it would to reach the floating conglomeration of wood and metal. The old wooden ladder had been replaced with a new metal one. I climbed quickly up it and flopped on my back on the wood, already warm from the sun. I felt great.
Nora reached the raft a few seconds later and asked for a hand up. I stood and grabbed her arm and helped her up the ladder.
She stood on the raft's edge, rubbing her goose-bumpy arms.
"Warmer in the water," she chattered, giving me a little smile that said she didn't like this but was doing it for me. I didn't feel too sorry for her.
"What now?" she said. "We just going to stand here until we turn into ice?"
What are we doing out here? I heard my own words echo yet again over the expanse of the years.
"No. We're going to play a little game Tim made up." I opened my hand and showed her the golf ball I held. "It's called Mister Magoo. I remembered it on the way down here."
She looked unsure.
"What do you do?"
Uncanny. My childhood words, almost as if she read from a script.
"It's simple," I said, repeating Tim's words as well as I could remember them. "I drop the ball in the water, it's only ten or fifteen feet deep, and whoever picks it up off the bottom first wins."
"Wins what?" She moved closer and put her arms around me, resting her head against my chest. Her touch repulsed me, and I wanted to pull away, but didn't want to make her suspicious. I wanted her to play our game.
"Wins The Title," I answered, and Jesus Christ if my voice didn't even sound like Tim's now, "The title of Righteous Dude. Or Dudette, in your case, I guess. It's what we did to…to resolve disagreements, that sort of thing."
You think it was wrong of me, looking in Mrs. Thompson's window? Tim said, both of us standing on the raft.
I guess. I don't know.
Well, I think it was wrong of you to get my ass fragged by my dad.
I didn't mean--
He shook his head. That's not the important thing, Mike. The important thing is this. He held up the golf ball I'd seen him carrying earlier. Maybe I was wrong and maybe you were wrong. I think we should let Mr. Magoo decide.
"But how can you even see the ball down there?" Nora was saying to me. "Isn't it too dark? We'll never find it." She didn't want to play, but I still thought she would.
"The ball's white. You can see it pretty easily."
"I don't know, Mike…"
"Come on," I said, "for me?"
She didn't want to say no to me, not to something that I obviously thought was so important, but she didn't want to play either. Looking for any way to postpone the inevitable, she said, "Why's it called that?"
I thought about how to answer. Not the real answer, not the one Tim gave me that afternoon on the raft when I asked the same question. She would never play then. I couldn't tell her that the game was named after Mr. Granthum, the old man who used to live a quarter mile around the edge of the pond. Mr. Granthum, who Tim called Mister Magoo because of his shiny bald head and the bowler hat he sometimes wore to hide it, and who Tim used to tell me took children from town and did things to them in his basement and then ate them raw and drank their blood from wine glasses. Mr. Granthum, who Tim said drowned one summer when his little outboard clipped a submerged log and flipped over on top of him. Mr. Granthum, or Mister Magoo, who would let The Righteous Dude live, and who would pull The Sinner down beneath the water forever.
That was why we called it Mister Magoo.
To Nora I simply said, "Because Mister Magoo was a cartoon character with a bald head, like a golf ball."
It seemed to satisfy her.
"You ready?" I said, inching my way to the edge of the raft.
She smiled a sad smile--I think it was supposed to tell me that she was thinking of my grief over Tim's death--and moved to the edge also, causing it to dip down, covering our feet with the pond's clear, cold water.
In a different time, two boys stepped to the edge of the raft, and the taller of them raised a ball-
I raised the ball over my head, holding it between my thumb and forefinger. "Okay," I said, "On three now."
Nora put her hand on my arm. "Wait a second, Mike."
"What?" I was impatient, but hid it as best I could.
"Are you sure you aren't upset with me? Last night when we talked on the phone, you said it was okay, that you understood why I didn't tell you about Tim, why he couldn't tell you, either. God, Mike, he felt so bad keeping it a secret from you, but he just…he loved you so much." She was crying a little as she spoke.
I didn't know what she was talking about--not surprising considering how cataclysmcally fucked-up I'd been. At the same time, though, I felt like there was something there, just out of my reach. I saw Tim, the way he'd been in my dream, pale and gaunt and rotting, the sunken eyes and cheeks.
"I know," I said, "it's fine. I understand everything, baby. Now let's do this, okay?"
"All right." She seemed heartened by my words.
I raised the ball up high once more and said, "One…two…three!"
I released the ball, and it fell from my hand. I watched it hit the water--
--and splash, then sink away into the gloom.
Nora was jumping. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her launch head-first into the water, and as her sleek body arced through the air, I caught a glimpse of her face. It was Tim's.
I took a breath and dove, hitting the water a split second after my wife, dropped my head, angled down, kicking hard.
The ball was still sinking. I saw it weaving its way fast toward the floor of the pond. It disappeared into a clump of pond weeds.
The water was cold on my skin and in my open eyes, but invigorating. I felt good and full of breath, like I could stay down here forever. But it wasn't going to be me doing that. Mister Magoo punished sinners, not the righteous. Tim's death was indisputable proof of that. Maybe peeping on the neighbor while she showered wasn't enough of a sin to warrant the punishment of death, but fucking another man's wife, fucking your best friend's goddamned wife, that was--and what of the woman who cheated on her husband?
Nora shot past me, breast-stroking hard, kick after powerful kick, knifing through the water. She was going to get it!
I grabbed her ankle and yanked her back, using her weight to launch myself ahead. I heard a muffled scream as she kicked to free herself from me grasp. She raked at me with her nails as I passed her by.
A few more feet now, well ahead of Nora. I caught a breeze of water as she swiped for my leg and missed. I could see the ball, white as bone in the middle of the weeds. I reached out.
With a current of water, Nora jetted past me with a powerful kick and snatched the ball, then in one quick motion planted her feet on the floor of the pond and pushed toward the surface, streaming bubbles from her mouth as I watched in stunned astonishment.
NO, my mind screamed. No, not again! I was righteous! Not her, not him! They weren't supposed to win! This wasn't right! She'd fucked my friend and he'd fucked her and now he was dead, pulled to his death by Mister Magoo because he was no longer a Righteous Dude.
I reached out and grabbed at Nora's leg, pulled her back. Even underwater I could hear her scream of anger and surprise.
Just the way Tim had when we were kids, she kicked at me, only Nora made contact with my cheek, snapping something. But I kept my grip. My fingers made it all the way around her slim ankle. This was where Tim had won out last time because he was stronger than me and because I couldn't hold my breath as long as he could, but I wouldn't let the same mistakes beat me twice. I was going to win this time.
But she kicked with her other leg, making progress, pulling me up. The side of my face blazed with pain where her heel had clipped me.
I searched the bottom of the pond with my other hand. It slid over slimy weeds and rocks, then encountered something rusty and metallic attached to stone. The raft's mooring. I latched onto the big rusty ring and held on as Nora struggled against my other hand, pushing down on the water all around her with both hands and kicking with her free leg.
Something white came floating down and I realized she'd dropped the golf ball. I could grab it and win.
But I held on to Nora instead, Nora and the mooring. I stayed like that until she stopped struggling and hung in the water from the end of my arm like a pale balloon in the shape of a woman.
I let her go, but she didn't rise, just hung there in the water, lungs full of water.
My own lungs were on fire. She'd almost outlasted me. Just one more thing and then I could go up into the air.
The ball rested within my reach, next to the same clump of weeds into which it had fallen before. Growing frantic with lack of air, I reached out for it, palmed it, a victorious roar filling my mind. I win! I win!
When I surfaced, I pulled myself back up onto the raft. A roar of victory echoed in my skull. When I'd recovered some measure of my wind, I dove back into the water and headed for shore.
THE INSIDE OF THE Gormans' cabin hadn't changed at all.
After stashing the key back inside the fake log, I scrounged a towel from the linen closet and soaked under hot water in the shower for a good twenty minutes, trying to get rid of the chill from the pond.
While I dried off, I noticed two beige pill bottles on the bathroom counter. I picked them up and looked at them. The first was something called Sinequan, the second was Marinol. With the towel wrapped around my waist, I walked out into the kitchen, hot coffee on my mind.
I was about to open the fridge when something unusual caught my eye. At least ten more pill bottles stood on the kitchen counter. I knew something looked strange when I came inside, but I just hadn't been able to isolate it.
"What the fuck?" I said, letting the fridge door swing shut. I picked one of the bottles up. Prozac. I looked at the next. Methotrexate. What the fuck was Tim doing with all these drugs? Inside my skull, my metal egg timer was on the move; I could almost hear the little gears clicking and turning. The Mind Gnomes doing their job.
I grabbed the phone and jabbed my fingers at the numbers for Calvin's office. He answered on the first ring.
"Calvin," I said, "it's Mike." I could hear the shake in my voice, but there was nothing to be done.
"Mike, you sound terrible man, what's wrong?"
"I need you to go online and look up the names of some drugs for me. Can you do that?"
"Yeah, sure," he said, and I heard clicking on the other end of the line, "which ones?"
I read him the names. "Sinequan, Marinol, Prozac, Methotrexate." I waited, but didn't hear him hitting any keys. "What are you waiting for?" I asked, but suddenly I didn't need to hear anything he had to tell me. PING. My conversation with Nora last night was flowing back into my mind like water filling an empty room. The breath went out of me and I slumped and almost fell.
Then Calvin spoke, his voice was quiet and respectful, the way you might talk to someone whose wife just died. "Who has cancer, Mike? My mom took those pills for years. It's not you, is it?"
"No," I whispered, "it's not me."
I hung up the phone and sat down at the kitchen table. The only sound I could hear was the pat pat pat of the water as it dripped from my body onto the floor.
© 2003 Mark Dunn, all rights reserved
Winter Solstice 2003 Issue, Updated February 13, 2004
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.