Maybe half a dozen times a summer we get what the local people call a fifty-center. I call it an island day. High cold air comes down from Canada, the sky looks like the inside of a Windex bottle and the mountains at the far end of the lake are as sharp as a buzzsaw blade. Sunshine is sweet on your skin. It's really too cold to go in the water but I usually do anyway, just to pay homage to the place.
I prayed to the mountain gods we'd have a day like that the first time I took Jeanine to the island. I wanted it to make a good impression when I introduced them to each other. On the interstate coming up from the city I see the mountains rising clear and sharp on the horizon. I see I got my wish.
"So tell me more about your island," she says.
"Nope." I grin at her. "You have to see for yourself."
She tickles the nape of my neck. "If you love it, I'll love it," she says.
I want her to see the island pristine, virgin, anew. We ride quiet and compatible for a while, comfortable.
For a while Jeanine contents herself with just looking at him. He's always a little bit tan, a guy who spends time outside and the hell with sunblock. He has a nice profile, a strong nose that might become Roman when he gets old. She loves the goofy grin he has when he looks at her. She loves to look at him.
But the drive seems endless. She itches to get out her phone and check Facebook and Twitter. But he hates that. Even when they aren't talking, he likes the idea that their thoughts are in one place, even if they really aren't. He hates seeing her go online, go someplace else.
"Did I tell you about the places I looked at for the reception?" she says. I only half listen. What I haven't told her yet is I want the wedding to be on Cathedral Island. It's a quick boat trip from our island, and it's beautiful. A natural nave of white pines, stupendous trees so dense nothing can grow underneath them. The sweet turpentine smell of pine needles every time you take a step. On Sundays somebody usually preaches a church service there, something interdenominational, and everybody boats over and ties up on the beach to go to church. Over the years people have built benches for pews, and there's a lectern made of a tall stump dug into the ground standing upright.
"So you've met Lacey, Matt, she was my roommate? And I think you met Caroline, in that disco on Huntington Avenue? She's taller than me, blond?" I don't remember, but I nod. "And then I've asked Judy, she's my oldest friend, from grade school, and Brittany, that I worked with at Kimmell, and Alice from the office…"
Suddenly I'm hearing her. "Wait, these are all bridesmaids? How many are you having?" This is not what I had in mind at all.
"Only six. I can't leave anybody out. Some people have eight or ten now."
I don't say anything. I keep driving. She keeps talking.
At Meredith Neck I pull into the boat basin and get out and breathe deep, the air like iced gin. I unload our stuff from the Subaru, a backpack for me and three suitcases for her. I heave it all into the skiff, which sinks perceptibly lower in the water. I jump down and reach up for her hand. I see she has on the wrong kind of shoes, thongy sandals. Silver, with little heels. Sexy, though.
"How do I do this, honey?" She squats, trembling a little, to take my hand. I love it, that she seems fragile and needs me to protect her.
"Okay, sit on the dock and put your feet in. That's it. Sit on that thwart there, right in the middle."
"What's a thwart?"
I get her settled and turn to pull the starter cord. The boat rocks as the motor torques, and she grabs the gunwales, sort of panicked. "You're okay, babe," I say, smiling big, and she smiles a little rabbit smile at me. I ease us out of the slip and motor down the inlet. The lake is sparkling like a million diamonds, and I'm so happy I could almost cry.
I point the bow down the channel and open the throttle. She gasps and lets out a little squeal. "You'll get used to it, Baby," I shout over the engine noise. "It's a great ride." She's as tense as a bowstring. Her hair blows back into her face; she tries to let go one gunwale and pull her hair back but it won't stay. That turns me on too, her hair -- streaked so cleverly that you can't figure what color it might be if she left it alone -- out of control, wild. Her mouth goes grim as she clings to the boat, bucking in the waves.
The thwart, if that's what you call it, feels like one of those bucking bulls you see the cowboys on TV ride. The ones where you win if you can stay on for eight seconds. This is longer than eight seconds. Eight hours, it seems to Jeanine. When she can see him through her blowing hair, she sees he has that goofy ecstatic grin on his face. That same grin he has when he tells her how much he loves her. Only more so, maybe. And he's not looking at her. He's looking off in the distance. He loves this place as much as he loves me, she thinks.
Off to port, Whiteface Mountain is so clear I can make out the fire tower at the summit, and farther up the lake Massasoit is blue and beckoning. I know them so well I can find my way to the island at night just by looking at their silhouettes. When I can see the tip of Madison rise above the flank of Whiteface, I know I'm almost there.
I grin at Jeanine and cut the motor. "The worst is over. We're here." She smiles her LED smile at me and turns to look at the beach, all of ten feet wide. These islands were laid down by glaciers in the last ice age, rock carried from Canada and dumped here as the ice melted, and precious little sand with it.
I cock the motor up so the prop won't go aground, then go over the side into the water and grab the bow line. She's game; she has her shoes off. "Sit tight, I'll get you," I say. I tie the line to my favorite spruce and wade back in, grab her and carry her ashore like I'm a bridegroom carrying my bride across the threshold. I set her down and turn her around to look out at the lake, the mountains. She leans back against me and I wrap my arms around her. "Like it?"
"It's beautiful. Like a post card."
"I knew you would." I nibble her ear, happy.
I wade back in for our luggage. She watches, shoes dangling in her hand. "Guess it means a couple of trips," I say, shrugging into my backpack and grabbing two of her suitcases. She pulls out the handle of the other and makes a stab at rolling it behind her, but the rocks and roots of the trail upend it right away. She stubs her toe, says a word I've never heard from her before, tries to brush the sand off her feet and put on the sandals.
The cabin smells as it always does after a season of disuse: smoke, old wood, mouse droppings. I smile a little, seeing the post on the back wall where we had our heights marked every year when we came to the island, each of us standing stiff and tall against the wall, our mom holding the book level, making a pencil mark, and handing us the pencil to sign our names and ages and the year. I used to lean in hard, gouging the wood, trying to make my presence here as permanent as I could.
Jeanine brings me back to today. "This is where we sleep?" I hadn't thought about the camp cots; I wonder if we'll both fit on one. Still I look at them with affection. I go outside to lift the storm shutters and get some air inside.
"What do you think, kid? Great, huh?" I grab her and kiss her hard, exuberantly, not sexily. "Let me find the vino and we'll get some chow, okay?"
I've packed a couple of good bottles of New Zealand sauvignon to go with the grinders we picked up on the way. I grab her hand and lead her back to the beach. There's a log there I like to lean on; she looks it over carefully and dusts off her knife-creased khaki culottes and sits on it. I open the wine and pour it into plastic cups, toasting her. "I finally got you here. Here's to us." She smiles, the smile I love, and reaches down to tilt my face up for a kiss, this time a deep kiss. I look at her hungrily.
"Want to put lunch off?"
Her face shuts down. "Like where? Not here in the dirt."
"Okay, back at the cabin?"
She tucks a strand of her hair back behind one ear. "There aren't any sheets or anything. Let's just eat."
After we eat I dig the sheets and blankets out of the storage chest and make up the beds. She helps and we laugh a little and finally make love.
"What about a swim?" I say. She shivers. "You must be nuts. This is like, Alaska. You go if you want to." I laugh and run naked to the beach and plunge in. The ethos of the lake is you can skinnydip first thing in the morning, but later in the day you're supposed to wear swim suits, all proper. This is New England, after all. Today I don't care. When I come out she's back on the beach in a bikini that's just short of obscene, sunning on a towel. When I flop down beside her and shake my hair like a wet dog she squeals and sits up, fake mad.
"Sorry. Just funnin'." She lies back down and I sit drinking in the day, the glorious day. I forget everything. It's like, zen.
I'm sitting there thinking about being a little kid on this beach -- it seems like not so long ago, and also forever ago -- when she sits up, her hair wild. "Matt? Where's the john?"
"Better put on your shoes." I lead her down the back trail to the outhouse. It's hard to find a place to dig a hole on this rock, so it isn't very near. I open the door and she stares speechless at the well-worn plank with a hole in it. "You've got to be kidding."
I shrug. "Not kidding. This is it." She would slam the door if it slammed; as it is it creaks shut and hooks with one of those flimsy hardware store hooks. She comes out holding a limp roll of toilet paper, soggy with the damp of the past winter.
"How can people live like this? Are you hillbillies or something?" She turns and heads back down the path, making it clear she doesn't need any help from me.
On the way back I look under the cabin and slide the canoe out, an ancient Old Town, heavy and green, with wicker thwarts. I dust the spider webs out, hoist it over my head and carry it to the beach. Jeanine is already spread out on the towel again. "Comfy?" I say.
She smiles and nods. "I have to say this sun is great."
My plan was to take her out and teach her to fish, catching our dinner. Now I'm not so sure that's a good plan. Still, I have to fish or we eat bologna.
"Want to go out fishing?"
A long pause. She lifts her sunglasses and looks at me. "Sure."
There's something in knowing where the bass are, but there's luck, too. This day the fish gods are good to me. I come back with the biggest bass I've ever caught on the lake. I'm holding it up in triumph as I beach the canoe. She lifts her sunglasses and makes a face. "What's that?"
"Dinner. The great huntsman returns."
She wrinkles her nose. "I suppose you have to butcher it and all?"
"Clean it. We call it cleaning a fish."
"And I'm supposed to eat it?"
"It's that or baloney. You'll love it. You'll never eat a fresher fish."
She lies back down. "Do it somewhere else. Please."
After a high blue day like this one the air gets cool at sundown, so I've bundled her into my polypro anorak. I build a fire on the beach and roast the bass over coals. She eats it. "Better than baloney," she admits. "You are a great hunter. Or fisher. Or whatever." I reach for her and kiss a smudge of charcoal off her lip. You couldn't find a more romantic setting: the sky becoming bruised behind the peaks to the east, little waves lapping a tune on the beach, the fire down to orange coals. I kiss her hair and ear. She snuggles into my armpit and I start thinking this is going great.
She sits up and kisses me back; I reach under the anorak and try to untie the bikini top. "Not here," she says. I take her hand and we stumble over roots toward the cabin. There's a rustling alongside the path and she screams. "Just a frog or chipmunk or something," I say. "Not a bear."
"Not funny," she pouts. Just then a loon calls, its nighttime call, weird and spooky and lonesome. She starts. "God, what is that?"
"Just a loon. A bird. I'll show them to you tomorrow."
She shivers and crosses her arms over her breasts, kind of huddling in on herself. "It sounds creepy. Like something out of a horror movie."
By the time we get to the cabin the moment is lost. We sleep on separate cots.
The morning dawns cloudless again, but hazy and warmer. Before my skinnydip I stand on the beach scratching my chest and thinking. I've dreamed of taking her to see the place where the loons nest. This is the perfect day for it.
She doesn't want to get in the canoe. "I'll hold it steady," I say. "Just grab the far side and ease your bottom in." She grabs the far side but puts a foot in and tries to semi-stand. In spite of everything I can do the canoe goes over. She comes up spewing water and anger. "You said! -- "
I'm having trouble suppressing a cackle. "You didn't do what I told you. Try again."
She sees the laugh behind my eyes. "Fuck that." She strides off to the cabin.
Jeanine is surprised he doesn't come after her. She expects him to come leaping up the trail barefoot and say he's sorry. Grab her, maybe wrestle a little in that boyish way and strip off her soaking wet shorts. And they would make love, maybe. At least he would apologize. At least maybe he wouldn't leave her by herself again. It's weird being all by herself. Especially here.
I take the canoe out alone. I paddle so quietly I get the boat within a few yards of a loon before it spooks and dives. They are amazing underwater swimmers; the water is so clear I get a glimpse of the bird shooting past the canoe's hull like a black torpedo. The game is to guess where it will surface. This one fools me good. After a while I see its head and neck like a black periscope behind me. I know better -- you shouldn't harass the birds -- but I love seeing them up close, their black-and-white pattern and their eerie red eyes. I paddle gently toward it again.
I get so engrossed in following the loon I don't notice the thunderhead building up. With a sudden burst, wind rocks the canoe. I'm half a mile downwind of the island and waves are building. I put my back into the paddle and make some headway, but the instant I rest I lose it all. I have no choice but to shelter behind another island -- I'm close to Caleb's Rock -- and wait out the storm. It won't last long.
Jeanine senses the change of weather before he does. Sunning prone on the towel, she feels the air go chill, rolls over to see the sun gone, the sky gray and churning. She gathers up her sunscreen, her towel, and picks her way up the path to the cabin. As she reaches it the first big drops splat on the dirt, the roof. For a few minutes she stands in the doorway watching. Everything looks sort of green, a weird green. Then the wind sweeps the rain into the door; it's like a fire hose, drenching, relentless, and she retreats.
Without warning a huge explosion of thunder sounds and the pine tree on the beach lights up like a gigantic July Fourth sparkler. Oh god oh god oh god. She watches the tree flare; half of it falls off, sliced as if by a celestial axe. Another bolt strikes so nearby that the flash and the sound occur at once. She sees whitecaps out beyond the beach. Thunder and lightning crash around her, bolt after bolt. The tops of the pines shriek like demons and sway frantically. He can't survive this, not in that flimsy canoe. It will capsize. He will drown. The certainty of this grips her. How will I get out of here? She has no clue how to start the motor, how to control the skiff. Frantic, she digs into her bag, comes up with her cell, punches in 911, waits for it to ring. Nothing happens. With horror she pulls it away from her ear and reads, No service.
Her brain ceases to work, but her body functions with the fuel of fear. She jams everything she brought back into the suitcases and snaps them shut. She stacks them in a corner, the corner farthest from the door, and huddles behind them, as behind a fort wall. God god god get me out of here.
After forever, the wind dwindles down to a whistle and a dim spot of sun lights up the beach for an instant. She realizes she is freezing. She unzips a suitcase and finds the warmest things she brought, a pair of capris and a shirt. That safari shirt that looked so cute in the store, disgustingly wrinkled now. She closes the suitcases and arranges them just inside the door. Okay I lived through that. And now I'm mad. She starts mindlessly down toward the beach. Far out there's a canoe, coming fast. It's him. He didn't drown. Damn it, he deserved to drown. She turns and stumbles back to the cabin, furious.
In half an hour the wind drops and the rain moves off to the east, apologizing to me with half a rainbow over Massasoit. I'm wet and chilled with guilt. Jeanine is the kind of woman that worries. I paddle like hell, reach our beach in twenty minutes, and pull the canoe harshly ashore, tying it up carelessly. I don't see her.
"Jeannie!" I yell. I'm panicked now. "Jeanine!" Suddenly she's standing in the door of the cabin, her arms folded. "Baby, I'm sorry, were you -- "
I reach to hug her. She slips away, turns and stares hard at me. A stare that turns me to stone.
"You didn't bring back any fish for dinner? A loon? A moose, maybe?"
For a minute I'm relieved, but she goes on.
"Because I would like a really good dinner tonight. A civilized dinner. At a table. In a restaurant."
I'm confused. "Well, sure, we could do that. We could go back to town -- "
"Good. And Matt, you might as well bring my bags with us. Because I'm not coming back here. Not ever."
Suddenly I get it. I push past her and get her bags. I'm not surprised they're already packed. I carry all three at once, all ninety pounds or whatever they must weigh. I dump them in the skiff while she climbs in -- she doesn't seem to have any difficulty, I notice. I start the motor and gun it toward shore. My stuff can stay here.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Marty Carlock. All rights reserved.