He sat on the porch of the new cabin looking out at the same view of the lake he had known since early childhood. The cabin was different, the location the same, and the blue water of Ontario spread out from the familiar dock to a slender row of weeds and out beyond to the other shore where the green woods blended behind the sands of the beach. He sipped his coffee, debating whether to go for a swim. Slipping on a pair of cutoffs, he could be off the porch and into the water in a minute. Instead, he decided to savor the summer afternoon, the warmth of the sun easing through the overhanging branches of the trees next to the new cottage. The old cabin had been standing for over seventy years, its existence tottering on stacks of cement blocks propping up the foundation on the corners.
One morning, and he knew it would come soon, everyone in the cabin would wake up surrounded by the collapsed roof in their rooms. So the decision had been made over the winter, the historic old, with its rough green shingles patched over the outside walls, came down and a new one was up by late June.
The new cottage was modern, a Day’s Inn motel replacing something out of Tobacco Road, and he had adjusted easily, the transition immediate, though he was aware of a vague sense of loss that something was missing. It wasn’t the mice, he laughed to himself. The bathroom in the old cottage had shifted over the years, creating a one foot gap between the door and the main body of the structure, an opening where field mice scooted in and out.
No, the bathroom was definitely an improvement, motel atmosphere or not. There was a door which closed flush and even locked, unlike the old days of a little latch and a sandy red brick placed at the bottom of the door to serve as notice that the bathroom was occupied if someone tried to gain entry. And there was a bathtub, one you could stretch out in instead of having to take hurried showers in a white metal stall with rust crawling up the sides as if one was bottled up on a Coast Guard rig.
He looked over at the next cottage and saw her slowly wading into the lake. Her two children, maybe ten and seven, were already out past the end of their dock, splashing and carrying on. He liked the way the woman carried herself, confident and solid, as the water creeped further up her tan legs with each step. He wanted to call out to her, to cry, “Wait for me, I’m coming,” but realized that was ridiculous, and inappropriate.
She was all woman, her taut feminine body just modestly concealed by a black bikini. A young mother, yet a woman in whom he detected loneliness, from her movements, for he could not see the specifics of her face from where he sat. But also from where he sat, as he watched her lean forward and plunge out, swimming toward her children, where they waited and then all grabbed hands and circled before plopping down and laughing in the water, there seemed to be no evidence of a husband. He had been a husband, but now, at the age of thirty-three, he was losing his wife. They had met up at the lake while he was staying at the old cottage and she was working as the snack bar waitress at the lodge up the road. She was twenty and he was twenty-one, and he remembered her in a bathing suit and couldn’t believe at the time that life could be so good. She was Canadian, a nursing student from up in North Bay, the gateway to the Northwest Territories, and he was American, but that posed no great problem. Now he was back in Canada for a two week vacation at the lake and she was an American citizen living outside of Chicago and suing for a divorce.
When he looked back up, the woman and her children were gone, back inside, no doubt, preparing for supper at the lodge. His mother appeared at the screen door behind him, holding hands with his three-year-old niece, whom his sister had dropped off to spend the day and sleep over.
“I made reservations for the three of us at the lodge,” his mother said. He said okay, then silently thought about the unlikely combination of a mother, her grown son, and her daughter’s child, a coupleless family for the night. His niece ran ahead, up the gravel road in pink shorts, white sneakers and a white and pink t-shirt. “We are going to the store,” she laughed with excitement.
He walked with his mother. His niece, his younger sister’s daughter, circled back toward them in her run. Her eyes were wide, absorbing all with wonder and possibility.
“We are going to the store,” she laughed. “We can buy many things at the store.” He smiled. His niece had not yet mastered all the letters of the alphabet so her words came out, “We are going to the whore.” The lodge’s dining room was divided into two sections, large and small. It, too, had undergone renovations since he was a child. The most striking change was knocking the wall down between the two rooms and replacing it with a counter, which, of necessity, meant the disappearance of the portrait of Queen Elizabeth sternly watching over diners, the majority of whom were from the States and could have cared less.
The young hostess, a local girl, in shorts with powerful, attractive legs, led them through the large dining room, which was empty now, and over to a table in front of the exit door of the kitchen in the small room.
“Have a great dinner,” the hostess said, a little too loud, a little too enthusiastically. Her name tag, pinned on her sweater above her left breast, said Jennifer and
There were six other tables in the room; an empty one next to theirs, and one across from it, next to the screen door, and then four tables for five pushed up against the wall with a picture window facing the road heading up to the lodge. The woman who had been wearing the black bikini was sitting at the second table from the left by the window, diagonally across from him. The other three tables were filled with families from Cleveland, who either knew each other before, or blended together as a tribe from the same home base once up at the lodge.
Her eyes were glancing in his direction, as she took another bite of roast beef. For a brief instant, there was contact, and her eyes silently smiled. Her fork lingered, resting on her bottom lip, as her eyes reached out. Then her eyes were gone, focused on her daughter, who was straight and slender, still in that ambiguous stage before the onset of adolescence. The daughter was speaking in a subdued tone, or maybe she was just drowned out by the
Over coffee, after dessert, his niece scrambled on to his lap. He looked over at the woman and she was smiling at him, her eyes warm, as she savored her coconut cream pie. It could have been his child, his niece, maybe that’s what the woman was thinking. What was she doing here? A young woman up at a lodge with two children. He should talk to her, he should ask, not too overtly, but through casual conversation, conversation which could hopefully last through the night. She was a loving mother, he could tell that; and though her love, and her life were inseparably linked to her children, the wealth of her feeling was such that he knew she had more to give.
Rising from the table, the woman looked in his direction one more time, nodding, as she turned and followed her children, one running, the other skipping, out of the main dining room.
After dinner, he was occupied with his niece, a bundle of energy, going nonstop until it was story time and then the lights went out. He enjoyed being with his niece, trying to draw exuberance and joy from her, hoping to share a piece of it, though that time for him had long since passed.
Even at three, his niece’s little legs propelled her forward faster than his walk. He dutifully kept up as she led him on a wild course around the lodge. Balancing like a tightrope walker on the wall by the main beach, then over to the swings, directing him to push her higher, then demanding that he stop, she was up and away and could manage on her own. Then up on the wooden fortress, five metal rungs high up to the platform at the top where a yellow slide was connected, and as he waited below, she turned into the homestretch, laughing and waving, and he scooped her up at the bottom, bringing her down in a perfect landing on her feet.
“Again,” she cried. And again, and again, and the repetition of the slide never diminishing her excitement and amazement when once more she was standing by his side, her little hand in his.
Finally, he got her back to the cottage and turned her over to his mother. His niece would be leaving tomorrow. His sister was picking her up and he suspected he wouldn’t see his niece again till Christmas, and then he would have to become reacquainted with the child who by then would have entered the next evolving stage.
His mother was preparing his niece for bed when he decided to walk up to the lodge. He didn’t know why he was going but he was overcome by the need to get out of the cottage. Perhaps he’d get an ice cream cone, a strawberry ice cream cone. He remembered the thrill he and his sister felt everyday when they were children when their father, dead now three years, used to give them fifteen cents to spend at the lodge. It was enough for an ice cream cone or a bottle of pop, but not both.
They, he and his sister, used to deliberate each afternoon in the snack bar, the same snack bar where he would later meet his wife, which they would choose. Invariably, whichever one made the first move, the other never picked the same, until one day his sister was particularly thirsty after a hike and they both had pop and they were probably never as close as they were that day, brother and sister, drinking bottles of creme soda and orange out on the rocky point off the beach, dangling their legs in the water.
As he entered the porch of the lodge he was unprepared, almost stumbling over the young mother who was seated in a wooden chair talking on the pay phone. Her back was to him and he was able to regain his balance and step aside.
She saw him pass and smiled, cradling the phone receiver under her chin. She was listening intently, but she raised her index finger, indicating she wouldn’t be long. He nodded, taking a seat on the couch facing the screen overlooking the channel out by the twin islands separated by the small wooden lighthouse bobbing on a float.
No privacy at a family lodge, he thought, lighting a cigarette. He missed the old eight foot high oak enclosed phone booth. The new owners of the lodge had sold it to a museum and now two contemporary square
He was trying not to listen but he couldn’t help it. He was on his feet and she looked at him, raising her finger again.”We miss you, too, honey,” she said. Then she paused, the look on her face destroying all hope of the evening for him.
“We’ll be home Saturday afternoon,” she said. “Yes, the kids are having a great time.”
She hung up and for a moment they stood facing each other, close enough to fall into each other’s arms.
She smiled, a pure, friendly smile. “It’s all yours,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, sitting in the chair with no one to call.
“Good night,” she said, and started off the porch back to her life.
“Goodbye,” he said.
He dialed information and asked for a number in the
Maybe he would get that strawberry cone after all. He was at the lodge, and one day ran into the next, and so on, until vacation was over and then he would see; but for now, for the first time, he could go back to the cottage and take a bath, the warm flowing water shutting all out, for awhile.