Tom Tolnay operates Birch Brook Press. More than 30 of his stories have been published in literary and consumer periodicals.
Lorelei on Cranberry Lake
Dense clouds, like layers of gritty snow after they'd been plowed off the road, were hanging low over Cranberry Lake, and Mrs. Penny Gauntlet was studying them from the kitchen window of her weather-grayed house. "You should not go out on the lake today," she said to her husband, as if she'd divined something regrettable in the offing.
"Fishing season's dead after today," Jace replied, seated at the white tin-topped table.
"Clouds have been stacking up and getting blacker all morning."
"With my leg going bad on me, I hardly got in any fishing this summer."
"There's always next spring."
"Who knows what shape I'll be in by next year?"
"Especially if you do something stupid this fall."
Jace frowned darkly at her. "Instead of staring at clouds like some mad meteorologist, you ought to eye my beautiful Morning Star. She's sleeping at the edge of the lake, dreaming about being paddled through her natural home on water."
"Canoes don't dream, they flip over in bad weather."
"Weather really isn't all that bad, just a little cloudy."
"It's heavily overcast and very chilly out there," she insisted, allowing a shiver to tremble across her meaty shoulders.
"In the 40s and the water's smooth as ice."
"Turn your back for five minutes in these mountains and the skies'll come crashing down on you."
"You always expect the worst out of everything and everyone, whether it's the sky or your husband."
"You're over sixty years old, for chrissake! Stop behaving like a child."
Aiming his chipped, yellowy teeth at her, he said: "My Morning Star is lonely--she's only been out on the water a couple times this year."
His wife's crumpled face resembled a crushed brown paper bag. "Why don't you face the fact that it's a shitty day for canoeing or fishing?"
"God dammit, Penny, a man's got to fish when he can for as long as he can because one day he won't be able to."
Mrs. Gauntlet had learned long ago that when she was trying to sway her husband toward doing or not doing something she would eventually run into the wall of his "pigheadedness," and all she could hope to accomplish at that point was to slow him down from doing something crazy. Bringing her reflection into focus in the window, she patted the loose strands of her gray-streaked hair before turning away from the window. She took the half dozen steps required to reach the black, wood-burning kitchen stove, which was crackling softly. "I'll pour you another cup of coffee," she said.
"Had two cups already, and I'm already late getting out of here."
Jace drained off the last cold drops from his cup, stood up unsteadily, and plucked a scarred apple out of the bowl on the table. He limped to the wooden coat rack beside the door, pinched the brim of his canvas fishing hat, and tugged it over his clump of white hair. Grabbing the rain slicker off another hook, he forced the apple into its pocket and draped the jacket over his arm. Without looking back at his wife he said: "Wish me luck."
Penny hissed as he pushed his way out the doorway. Soon as the coiled spring slammed the door shut she moved back to the window, peeking out from the edge of a curtain cluttered with prints of pine cones. She cringed as her husband staggered toward the pine-plank shed he'd built years earlier. When her husband disappeared inside the shed, Penny scowled in the direction of the canoe.
Jace emerged from the shed clutching a fiberglass fishing rod in his left hand and a scarred plastic tackle box in his right. The green jacket had been tossed over the shoulder of his red-and-black checkered wool shirt. The closer he got to the canoe, the more prominent his limp became, until he stopped alongside the Morning Star: In the spray of flaky light it shone devil red, with strips of oak lined along its gunwale. Two cane seats and a pair of oak thwarts divided the interior. Jace stood wavering slightly, staring into its belly, as if trying to figure out the safest way to climb into it.
Leaning across the gunwale, he lowered the fishing rod, tackle box, and slicker beside the paddle in the canoe. He took hold of the yellow knitted nylon rope, tied to a metal loop on the bow, and dragged the canoe over the flattened, brownish weeds until half of its curvaceous 15.5-foot Kevlar body was set on water. Gingerly bending at the knees, he gripped the oak rim with both hands, and slowly lifted his left, good leg over its side, planting his foot firmly in its bottom. Swinging his rear end toward the cane strips in the stern, he dropped his body onto the seat, causing the canoe to tilt sharply. "Easy does it, Red."
Still watching him, Penny gripped the sashes on both sides of the window as if she, rather than her husband, was clasping the canoe's gunwale, trying to steady the craft. Once Jace seemed to have gained his equilibrium, his wife loosened her fingers on the sashes and turned away from the window. She stomped to the cook stove. Lifting the coffee pot off a black cast iron disk, she poured a steaming cup of coffee, and settled her broad hips onto the ladderback chair at the table.
"Dumb ass!" she spat.
Jace centered himself on the seat, took hold of the wooden paddle, jabbed it into the muddy bottom of Cranberry Lake, and pushed away from shore, its keel grinding across a scattering of stones. He thrust the paddle through the gray-green waters, causing the canoe to flutter hesitantly before floating away freely. "We're on our way." By this time the tempered breeze had kicked up a notch, giving off a low thrumming sound, and he found himself surrounded by rows of ripples. Continuing to thrust the paddle with conviction, he felt twinges of soreness in his shoulders and biceps, but he continued to paddle hard, expanding the distance between himself and shore.
The canoe had been propelled to more than a hundred feet off shore when he noticed the breeze had increased in strength yet again, and after another hundred feet the wind began to take over the canoe's locomotion, carrying him farther and faster than he'd anticipated. But the position he found himself in, adjacent to a cut bank in the shoreline, was close to where he'd caught a monster big-mouth two years earlier. Back paddling to slow his movement, he grabbed the anchor--a rubber coated electric wire wrapped around a weight-lifting disc--and lowered it overboard. Though the water was too deep for the anchor to reach bottom, his canoe seemed to understand what he wanted to accomplish, and the craft bobbed bow and stern without drifting very far from his[T1] prime fishing spot.
Jace opened the tackle box and shuffled through a cluster of lures, selecting a blue and gold Rapala and clipping it onto the tiny swivel at the end of his line. Scanning the lake's surface, which had begun to boil with two-inch-high ripples, he took a full breath and raised the rod--equipped with a chubby Zebco spinning reel--back over his shoulder, and powered it forward. The lure with its dangling hooks sailed thirty feet to the right of the canoe, his thrust rocking the canoe wildly. "Settle down, Red," he said, gripping the gunwale with his left hand.
Allowing time for the lure, weighted by a thin strip of lead, to find its own stasis in the lake, Jace sat motionless, without troubling the line for nearly a minute. Soon a veil of peace settled over him that was as discernable as a physical experience, as if some unknown woman had draped an afghan over his body while he was napping on a cool autumn afternoon; it was this weightless, timeless, seamless sensation that had first attracted him to fishing and had kept him at it for fifty years. In his experience, no other activity in life could arouse such quiet repose.
Jace jiggled the line a couple of times, and let it rest. With no response from below, he jerked the line and then sat still holding the rod steady. The peace he felt continued to flow through his inner space, but calmness was not what was occurring in the atmosphere around him: the wind had gotten pushy, sculpting ridges of choppy waves, transforming the complexion of the lake from borderline tranquility to agitated. On his fourth cast Jace thought he felt a light tugging at the end of his line, and he yanked the tip of his rod too soon, and didn't manage to connect with anything below the surface.
Jace heard the patter of rain on his slicker in the bottom of the canoe, and he eyed the little explosions of drops on the surface of Cranberry Lake. Already he could hear Penny's raspy voice: "I told you so, but you never listen to me!" In his mind he replied: "A fisherman has to fish--no matter what God throws at him."
"Don't you go blaming God. You're the one who insisted on going out in a canoe in a thunderstorm."
"I didn't hear any thunder."
Only then did it occur to him to pick up the jacket and drape it over his shoulders, but in doing this he knocked the fishing rod over the side of the canoe and it was swept away into the lake. "Shit!" Focusing on the place where his rod had blown, he paddled furiously, trying to close in on the bobbing rod, but in less than a minute the rod and reel had disappeared. Rain running down his face like tears, he struggled to force his arms into the jacket, nearly swamping the canoe. Breathing heavily as he steadied the craft, he experienced a series of clawing pains in his right leg, from the calf up into his knee; the pains were so sharp they stopped his breathing momentarily.
The rain intensified, slapping loudly on his shoulders and hat; with the heavier pelting came stronger winds, so strong they began to carry the canoe--he reminded himself it weighed only 36 pounds--far away from his favored fishing spot, out to much deeper waters. "Anchor's not helping at all," he muttered, and drew it out of the water and set it behind his seat. Then the wind added an additional insult by plucking the hat off his head and sending it skipping twenty feet over the lake. In moments his rag of white hair became thoroughly soaked. For awhile he couldn't summon sufficient energy to paddle against the wind and rain, so he slid its blade out of the water and shoved it under the thwarts, allowing the wind to carry him even farther from shore. What the hell, he thought, I'll let her drift until the rains calm down. Soon he was more than half way across the miles-wide lake, and he found himself bucking in the direction of a single-story white cottage with green roof shingles, smoke sailing wildly out of its brick chimney; a pile of split firewood was stacked on a wooden deck out back. Only two other houses--seasonal residences, he believed--were visible from where he was situated, separated from each other by a couple of miles. Away from Cranberry Lake Village, the houses were few and far between, and that's what he liked about living here, that and the abundance of good fishing.
A woman in khaki slacks and a cable-knit sweater appeared out back of the cottage and scooped an aluminum chair off the deck, folded and carried it into the one-car garage. Out the garage's wide open door she hurried and collected another chair, folded it, and dragged it into the garage. Bouncing along in the canoe, gripping the gunwale with both hands, Jace watched the woman as she lost her grip on the last chair: It flew out of her hands all the way to water's edge, and she ran down the slope to retrieve it. Realizing he was getting too close to this woman's private domain, Jace slid the paddle out from under the thwarts and began thrusting to prevent his canoe from landing on shore. But he was helpless against the storm, which continued to sweep the canoe toward the sloped beach, and the force of which made it feel much colder than when he had started out.
When the woman caught up to the flying deck chair at the edge of the water, she noticed the man in the canoe. As Jace kept sailing swiftly closer to the slope, he saw the beach was covered with little white pebbles. Suddenly the air around him became filled with white pebbles, too--the droplets of rain had transformed into balls of hail.
About forty feet from shore the canoe, buffeted by blasts of wind, began rocking crazily. Jace tried to steady the canoe by poking the paddle into the water, but he couldn't reach the silt below, so he yanked the paddle into the canoe, bent low, and gripped the gunwale on both sides. The canoe concluded its remarkable dance by toppling over onto its side, dumping him overboard and instantly flooding with water: The red craft carried swiftly away from him, while his tackle box bobbed off in the opposite direction. Struggling to hoist his body up on two feet, chest deep in water, Jace was shivering fiercely in the icy water as the hail began turning into pellets of snow. The pain in his right leg was muted by the cold water as he slogged a couple of steps in the direction of the canoe. But he quickly realized it was no use--partially submerged, the canoe had already sailed twenty-five feet away from him.
The woman, whose sweater and slacks were plastered with rain against her body, and whose rusty hair was wetted down against her skull, carried the deck chair into water up to her knees. With the snow swirling thickly around her, she shouted at him: "Are you alright?"
Jace staggered toward her through the wind-broken water and slashing snow. "I'm okay," he called out, "but my canoe and fishing gear are gone with the wind."
As he moved closer to the woman, she said: "Why don't you come inside--I've got a fire going and the tea kettle's on."
Ten feet away from her Jace Gauntlet stopped to catch his breath and he gazed at the cottage: He saw that a section of its white siding was missing, along with a patch of green shingles, and its chimney was tilted slightly toward the south. "I'd appreciate that very much," he said.
Without another word the tallish woman turned and started taking long strides up the pebbled slope. Jace followed, though more slowly. A coating of frozen white crystals had crusted over the dead lawn by the time she had placed the chair in the garage and climbed the stairs onto the deck. She slid open the glass door and entered the cottage. Two minutes behind her, Jace stepped onto the scarred oak floor inside, leaving muddy boot prints. "Sorry about the mud," he said, closing the door behind him.
"That's alright--I'm the only one who'll notice the dirt."
The fireplace, with scorched brickd on both sides, was blazing noisily. On an iron lever hanging near the fire was a bulbous tea kettle, and it was singing. The woman told him to sit down on the woven rug "right in front of the fire" while she got out of her wet clothes. Jace did as he was told, and she disappeared down a narrow hallway, giving him time to look over this new setting. Planks of knotty pine surrounded the room. A plaid-upholstered sofa and matching armchair faced the fireplace, and a coffee table and lamp table, both built with stained birch, completed the furnishings. A half-filled ring of firewood stood to the left of the fireplace, a rack of fire-tending iron tools to the right.
The woman returned to the living room wearing soft tan moccasins and a cream-colored fleece robe, her shins bare. Her short hair resembled a gathering of slick feathers. Gazing down over him, she said: "You got to get out of those clothes or you'll catch your death. If you don't mind wearing a dead man's robe and slippers, you can use the ones I left in the bathroom."
Jace thought this an odd way of referring to garments that had belonged to a deceased partner. "You're a widow?"
"No," she said, "I meant my ex is dead to me."
This comment perplexed Jace even more, but he got up off the floor stiffly, favoring his right leg. After extending his damp hands toward the flames a few moments, he started down the hall, tracking more mud. Into the tiny, pine-walled bathroom he went, untied his soggy boots, disrobed, and chucked his wet jeans, wool shirt, underwear, and rain jacket into the bath tub, on top of her wet khakis, blouse, sweater, underpants, and brassiere. He tied himself into the blue flannel robe, and pushed his damp feet into the felt-lined slippers. Jace shivered momentarily not because of the chilly air so much as questions he had about the man who had worn these garments before. Looking himself over in the medicine cabinet mirror, he saw the rain and snow had creased his pale, grizzled face and, until that moment, he hadn't noticed just how white his hair had become over the past year or two.
Back in the living room, he found the woman seated on the sofa before a mug of tea--its bag still soaking--on the coffee table. On the table next to the armchair there was a mug filled with dark, steaming fluid, its bag soaking. "This is very nice of you," he said, sinking into the armchair and immediately slipping his finger into the porcelain loop of the mug.
"I hope you like herbal tea sweetened with honey."
The coffee drinker nodded, took a sip, then said: "May I ask you something?"
"What did you mean when you said your ex is dead to you."
"It's a long story."
"I've got plenty of time."
"You sure you want to hear all this?"
"If you wouldn't mind telling it to a stranger."
Taking a sip of tea, she spoke: "Three years ago my former husband--his name was Hank--got out of bed one morning, strapped on his overalls, climbed into his pick-up, and drove off to work: He worked for a small heating-plumbing contractor in the Village. Just an ordinary day around here except for one thing . . . he never came back. I waited through the night, and in the morning I called the state police."
"That's a terrible hand of cards to be dealt."
"Believe it or not, you're the first man to step into this house in three years." All of a sudden she exploded--crying loudly and wetly, burying her face into the plush arm of the robe.
Jace had never learned how to deal with tears; he wanted to go over and pat her on the shoulder, but he remained seated and silent.
Just like that she stopped sobbing, wiped her face, took a noisy breath, and rasped, "Excuse me--I'm fine now."
Jace took a quick sip of tea.
"All we ever learned was that he never showed up at work."
"How hard that must've been on you."
"The police and I went out into the woods and drove around the lake looking for him for several days. Though it took a couple of weeks, I finally faced up to the truth: Hank didn't come back because he didn't want to come back."
Jace was sorry he had asked her to tell him such a personal story, and he couldn't help thinking this was her problem, not his. He had his own problems--by this time Penny would surely be concerned about him, and might even call the police just as the woman had done. Despite this woman's problems and his own, however, he couldn't deny that he was feeling pretty good by this time, considering the dip he had taken in the icy lake, and that he'd lost his canoe and gear; yes, he found the crackling fire, the sweet fragrant tea, the soft cushion of the armchair, and even the missing man's robe and slippers very comfortable.
Sighing noisily, the woman leaned in his direction and asked quietly: "Where do you live?"
"About five miles away on the other side of the lake."
"With my wife Penny."
"How are you and your wife enjoying life on Cranberry Lake?" she said, gripping her mug with both hands to warm her finger tips.
Thinking over what he considered a very complicated question, he said: "Not as much as we used to."
Bringing the mug near her lips without drinking from it, she muttered, "Not getting along these days?"
"It's just that we've been together so many years I know everything she's going to say before she says it, and she knows everything I'm going to do before I do it. . . ."
"I know what you mean."
"Maybe we've just grown tired of living with each other in close quarters."
"A common affliction," she sighed.
"It's no one's fault really, it's just the way things go in marriage after many years."
"A son, Jeff--he lives in Seattle so we never see him any more."
"Hank and I had a daughter, Sharon, but she died as a youngster."
"Very sorry to hear that."
"It happened right here in the lake."
"How awful for you."
"That was so many years ago I don't feel the pain any more."
"Could that be why your husband didn't come back?"
"His leaving had nothing to do with our daughter; it was about him and me--we no longer knew what to do with each other."
Jace brooded over her comment and then, without expecting this from himself, revealed: "There are times when I don't feel like going back home either."
Inching toward the edge of the sofa, she asked: "Why do you keep going back?"
"Just too complicated not too return." He cleared his throat, as if trying to get rid of what he had told her.
"After I got used to Hank not being around, it occurred to me one night that by not returning home, he was being very courageous."
"When you think about how so many long-term relationships go, that sounds like a reasonable notion."
As if she wasn't quite sure she wanted to be heard, she said faintly: "If you ever get an urge again to be courageous, now you know where you can hide out."
Jace laughed. "Okay, but what would you do if I got that urge right now?"
She looked into Jace's speckled eyes. "You wouldn't hear any objections from me."
"But you know absolutely nothing about me," he smiled.
"And you know absolutely nothing about me."
"Not even your name."
"I'm Lorelei. What do they call you?"
"Could just as easily have been Adam and Eve," she said with a sly curl to her lips.
When Jace didn't respond, Lorelei continued: "Seems to me, Jace, that two people not knowing anything about each other would have an advantage--you know, starting from the very beginning without any preconceptions about each other."
"True enough," he chuckled, getting into the spirit of the game he felt they were playing. "But what would happen when they started looking for me?"
"Eventually they'd find your red canoe at the bottom of the lake, and maybe your fishing box," she said. "But Cranberry Lake is nine miles long and four miles wide in places, and the water's as much as forty feet deep."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"Your body would never be recovered."
A raw laugh burst out of his chest. "Especially since I wouldn't actually be floating around in the lake, with fish nibbling on my toes. I'd be enjoying a cup of tea with Lorelei."
"All you'd have to do is stay seated in that armchair, sipping tea, and your adventure would begin without having to do a thing."
As Jace was emptying his mug of tea, he couldn't help thinking about the man whose lips had pressed against this mug: What if Hank hadn't run away from his wife? What if his wife had somehow helped to make him disappear? To shake off these darker thoughts, he looked steadily at Lorelei, as if trying to understand just what sort of woman he was dealing with. She was attractive in a weary kind of way, probably in her early fifties. The flesh on her body seemed loose, as if she'd lost a lot of weight recently, but despite all that she said she'd gone through, there was still a sparkle in her green eyes. Years earlier, he thought, she might even have been referred to as beautiful.
Standing up and swinging the lever holding the steaming kettle toward her, Lorelei said, "Would you like a refill?"
"Yes, please. I've enjoyed a mug of spicy water so much."
Lifting his mug off the end table, dropping a new teabag into it, Lorelei touched the lip of his mug with the spout of the kettle, filled it to the brim, and said: "Does this mean it's settled then?"
Jace was startled that the game he thought they'd been playing had turned serious, that he was suddenly being asked to make a decision. His response to this altered circumstance was to take a deep breath and allow the air to escape very slowly from his lungs. Now he realized the woman was staring at him rather intensely, her eyes flickering from the flames in the fireplace; he sat absolutely still, sensing something he couldn't name coiling around him in the heated air, with a soft tugging that seemed to be drawing him, a millimeter at a time, in her direction.