:: SPRING 2016 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Speedos, Congressmen, swimming, Maine, Jesus, carpenters, planes, roach clips, L.L. Bean, fiddleheads, dreadlocks, blackened pillows, Mallomars & one of the worst sins.
The girl can swim far, which scares her father. She likes the immersion, her limbs slipping through water. While floating and watching the pine trees, it’s possible to imagine she’s not human at all. She hears through the water in her ears. Buoyancy is all she’s permitted to feel. She envisions a different kind of existence, one where swimming is required to survive.
At school there’s a boy who believes the girl is responsible for killing Jesus. He boasts about his father’s anti-Semitic tattoo and, when he’s captain, he picks her last for teams. She’s interested in this boy because of his serious eyes and because he runs faster than anyone else in gym class.
The girl knows she’s responsible for shifts in volume and temperature in her parents’ house and assumes it’s the same on the lake. It’s not always unpleasant. She’s an experiment, a source of interest. The spotlight beams down, microscopic cells smooshed between glass slides. No one knows what she is or how she’ll turn out.
At school there’s a boy who believes the girl is responsible for killing Jesus.…She’s interested in this boy because of his serious eyes and because he runs faster than anyone else in gym class.
The girl’s father yells from the dock. He’s not kidding this time.
She’ll have to explain again—the survival gene in her DNA—that she won’t go under. She can live where others can’t, because of her adaptation.
It’s only after she returns, heaving herself onto the dock, that she feels human again. Her lungs work, her shoulders ache. It’s the best sensation she knows, this after-swim tiredness.
Her father is wearing his good shoes. He holds out a brown towel. “You don’t have to swim so far. Where’s your mother?”
The girl doesn’t answer because they both know she’s at the office still.
“Did you hear me from out there? Is it cold?” Her father likes to swim too, but he hasn’t brought his swimsuit.
She wants to say, The chill of the water—it doesn’t last. Most grown-ups can only think about the smack of it, the dread. This is what it means to get older.
The skinny carpenter jumps in, hooting.
“Fuck!” he says. Then, “Sorry,” remembering the girl.
The carpenter is always there—tall, long-haired, barefoot. The grown-ups call him JC. He’s helping Ned with the amphibian, a plane that lands on water. No one wants it on the lake except Ned, JC and the girl. It will be noisy. The frame blocks the view. The epoxy drips into weeds and may kill the cattails. But they keep building. They smoke joints and laugh and try to understand the manual. (The engine was the wrong size. A wing split after a storm.) They’ve been at it for five years already.
The girl is not allowed to ride in the plane, ever. She doesn’t argue this point because she doesn’t want to fly. She wants to watch it glide on the water like a loon.
“Daniel,” Ned says to the girl’s father. No one else calls him this. “No suits required.”
“I suppose not,” her father says in his Maine accent. His smile isn’t real and he doesn’t move to undress.
Ned laughs like her father has just said something brilliant, a bellow that reminds the girl of the boy in gym. It could be an I’m making fun of you laugh. It’s hard to tell.
Behind his back, her father laughs that Ned is paid to listen. A shrink!
Her father says he would pay to see it, Ned sitting quietly in a chair listening for an hour.
He has a roach clip and a pocket watch. He has L.L. Bean flannel shirts and many pairs of Speedos, and this is all he wears in summer over his barrel belly and tiny legs.
The girl suspects she’s the only one who truly likes Ned. He has a roach clip and a pocket watch. He has L.L. Bean flannel shirts and many pairs of Speedos, and this is all he wears in summer over his barrel belly and tiny legs. He was a lifeguard once. He taught her how to breathe in the water, how to blow out bubbles from her nose by ducking under and holding onto the ladder.
Last week, Ned tried to teach the girl how to use an ax, and her father protested.
Her father can’t understand how important it is, using a tool to cut things. He doesn’t fit in at the camp, with his sobriety and lack of swearing. But he’s here because he’s semi-retired, because he’s a lot older than her mother and he never really liked practicing law anyway. He liked politics, but that was a long time ago. Now he writes letters to the editor and organizes anti-nuke meetings. There is a little machine in her parents’ bedroom that measures radiation. It beeps and blinks a red light whenever it detects something.
Her mother fits in at the camp because, in college when Helen was her roommate, her mother used to hitchhike and wear miniskirts and undress for handsome Italians in youth hostels. This is what the girl has learned from being at the lake. The hitchhiking, in particular, is fascinating to think about.
On the dock with the men, evening arrives. There are bugs that bite and the smell of pot. Ned offers the roach clip to the girl’s father and again he refuses. Helen builds a fire outside in the pit and the girl throws in plastic forks, watching them curl like fiddleheads. There’s a hammock that’s always damp where someone’s butt has been. There’s cheese that looks like it should be thrown out, but instead the men are cooing over it, smearing it onto crackers you can’t find in Maine.
There’s the usual talking, debates that circle and climb and cause sparks, and Ned takes the opposite side and the girl’s father tries not to bite but he can’t help himself. Soon he’s shouting even though they all agree. Her father doesn’t mention being in Congress, doesn’t say Kennedy, Johnson and Ford. Because he doesn’t, Ned has to make up stories that no one can counter. He has to make himself fatter, even though he’s the fattest one there.
There’s no room for the girl in this kind of talking. She practices in her head but by the time she’s ready they aren’t talking about the same thing anymore. She feels she’ll never be loud enough.
It’s her own fault, she understands, for not speaking up, which is one of the worst sins.
The girl finds her Sony Walkman and takes the hammock seat and plays the Journey song she’s memorized. There is something exciting about it, the way the drums drive it forward.
The girl smells the dampness in her hair. Not quite mold. Active algae, pond scum, places good for frogs. She wants this stuff on her skin, wants to be closer to those creatures and further from the adults around the fire.
Without asking she borrows Helen’s yellow sweatshirt, balled at her feet on the hammock. The sweatshirt smells like sour wine and garlic, which is what Manhattan smells like, the girl decides, because that’s where Helen and Ned are from.
Every summer Helen’s hair is different—brown or red, shoulder-length or chopped. This year she has dreadlocks and everyone says she looks fantastic. Someone says it every day, which gives Helen a momentary shine.
“Great hair-do,” her father tries today, during a pause in an argument with Ned.
“Thanks, Dan,” says Helen. There is calmness between them, an accord.
“You’re shivering,” her father says to the girl and it’s true, there is a jangle she’s been ignoring, her lips moving on their own.
The girl tips herself from the hammock and follows Helen and the men inside, but there’s too much commotion to ask about a snack that isn’t cheese. Helen searches for the beautiful salad bowl, carved from a foreign tree and shiny from use. She chops the greens, asks the girl to help set the table. The girl feels too shy to refuse. She’s getting the good Helen today. She tells the girl about her high school students, drinks her wine. She’s the cool teacher who takes them on the subway to see theater. She directs the student play, never a musical. Musicals are vapid, she says, though she knows the girl has the soundtracks to Godspell and A Chorus Line and hopes to play Diana Morales someday, the “I Feel Nothing” solo.
Helen slices the onions evenly and Ned tells the story again, the one where he ends up in a jail in Mexico. Helen lets the girl unscrew the next bottle and the cork comes out in one piece.
“Perfection,” say Ned.
She has a collection at home, red stains on lower halves.
Finally the girl’s mother arrives, pretty in a long white skirt with no slip and everyone smiles a lot as she calls out hello. The girl wants her to go swimming but it’s too buggy, too cold, and instead her mother sips the wine Helen has poured. She lifts a piece of cheese, then puts it down. She tells a funny story about a crazy client and the girl’s father sits close, his hand on her shoulder.
The girl holds her belly. “Are you hungry?” the girl’s father asks.
“We’re having steak,” says Helen.
“We should go home and feed the puppy,” says the girl’s father.
“Daniel,” Ned says. “Relax.”
“I’ll just finish this,” says the girl’s mother.
The girl’s father reaches for his coat, but it’s Helen’s coat. He didn’t have one.
“I’ll be right behind,” says the girl’s mother. Her legs are splayed, her skirt hiked up. Her eyes shine. Her toes are the gnarled nubs of a former dancer. The girl can stick a pin in one callused side and the mother doesn’t flinch.
The girl’s father kisses the top of her mother’s head, closing his eyes as his lips meet the curls.
W hen her mother comes home her hair is wet. “I went swimming!” she says, which is hard to believe.
“How come?” the girl asks.
“Was it cold?” her father asks. He’s making pasta and a salad while the girl sets the table.
“I didn’t have a suit,” she says. “I had to borrow one of Helen’s.” But they both know it’s a lie. Her skirt is damp and see-through where she didn’t dry off.
“She’s my oldest friend,” says her mother. She wraps her thin arms around her father’s waist.
“I know,” he says. He kisses her mother, removes her hands, then whacks the iceberg lettuce with a blade.
At dinner her parents talk about the law office they share, her father’s voice rising in annoyance at people who aren’t there. Her mother laughs or doesn’t laugh, or reminds him to send the bill, or asks the girl if she’s still hungry.
The girl knows her presence is important. They need her there to talk around and under, if not to.
They talk about Helen’s hair.
“Awful,” says her mother. “But. She likes it. So what’s the harm?”
Is it awful or is there no harm?
“It’s too bad you sold the camp,” the girl says to change the subject. Her parents are quiet as they chew. She knows why they sold it. There was only a tiny changing house and a muddy trail of two-by-fours. When her father stopped being in Congress, when her mother decided she wanted to be a mother, they moved to Maine from Washington, DC, and found they didn’t have much money left. The mother thought of her college roommate first, still in Manhattan. Who wouldn’t want a summer place on a lake? They’d shingled the house together as teams, Ned and her mother against Helen and her father.
“Who won?” the girl asks. “The shingle contest?”
“We did,” says her mother. “Not that it was a competition.” She laughs. “We can go there anytime we want. That was part of the deal.”
“I want to go swimming every day,” says the girl.
There’s an ongoing competition, the girl understands. Each day the teams and maneuvers change; someone advances, someone retreats. It’s hard to tally the results because she misses the nighttime, when all the action happens.
Her father sits at the head of the table and taps his glass of water with his wedding ring. He looks hard at the chiseled flecks in the glass, the way light shines in through the liquid.
“It’s my turn. I’ll take you tomorrow,” says her mother, her voice a decisive bell, and the girl feels relief. Tomorrow she can swim far and her father doesn’t have to know.
W hen the girl shows up with her mother to swim again, there are white slivers on the kitchen floor. Helen’s favorite throw pillow is blackened (snatched and tossed in the fire pit). Her eyes are swollen. It’s the first time the girl has seen Helen without shadow and liner.
Ned has taken the van somewhere for the day.
“I’m sorry,” says the girl. She means about the pillow, because it was something Helen liked.
The girl has started saying I’m sorry a lot, though her mother tells her not to.
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” her mother says.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Her mother stays inside to talk to Helen, and JC takes her to the dock. They sit on the old boards and JC snaps a long stick into tiny pieces.
There’s an ongoing competition, the girl understands. Each day the teams and maneuvers change; someone advances, someone retreats. It’s hard to tally the results because she misses the nighttime, when all the action happens. Plates get smashed, Helen trips, the gardener isn’t invited back.
As far as the girl can tell, she’s the one who’s winning because she doesn’t have to play yet. Soon she’ll be judged by whom she can quote, which opinions she can recite and how quickly. There won’t be time to think; she’ll have to hurl herself in, jam her foot to stop the slamming door.
“What did Ned do?” the girl asks to break the quiet.
“Oh, nothing. He was just being a dick,” says JC.
Was it nothing or was he being a dick?
JC, on the dock, tells the girl that he’s related to her in a complicated way, not a brother but a cousin, twice removed. Before the girl was born, when JC was a teenager and didn’t have anywhere else to go, the girl’s father took care of him for a while.
She has an almost-brother? Why has no one bothered to mention this before?
He listens now as she tells him how far she can swim. JC seems genuinely impressed by this. Then he goes back to the airplane hull to study the manual.
Because her father isn’t there, the girl swims to Moby Dick, the white rock across the lake. The rock is part of an island with a path through the woods, which leads to the YMCA camp on the other side.
She swims, singing show tunes in her head until she gets there. The steady breathing, the even strokes—she’s a different creature now. She slides herself onto the white rock to feel her chest moving, deep and solid.
She follows the trail, careful of where she steps. The soldiers are chasing her and she can’t leave any sign. The German shepherds have her scent. She has to go fast enough to lose them but not so fast she’ll break twigs or leave a trail of water. The men will shoot without thinking, just because she’s half Jewish. This is what the boy at school tells her at recess.
She’s so absorbed she thinks the sounds are real soldiers. But the shouting she hears is actually her not-brother. He’s canoed to the rock, trying to find her.
“Fuck,” he says, leaning over, resting his hands on his knees like a gym teacher. He wheezes air into his smoky lungs and spits into the pine needles, orange and soft on the ground. He wears cutoff jeans with the pocket flaps sticking out and no shoes. His feet are almost black. “How did you swim all that way?”
The girl realizes she’s in a bathing suit, crosses her arms over her chest. She decides not to mention Nazis.
“Your dad would shit a brick,” he says. They stay that way, facing each other in the woods, chirrups of small birds around them, waiting for her not-brother to catch his breath. He’s not as old as he seems. He has the terrified look she feels so often inside and in that moment she understands it’s the truth, she’s related to him somehow.
“Good swim?” her mother asks later in the car. “I hope you didn’t go out too far.”
“Am I related to JC?” the girl answers.
“Oh, very distantly. Everyone’s related in this town.”
“But we are related somehow.”
“Somehow, yes. You’ll have to ask your father.”
There are visitors from away. They bring food you can’t find in Maine: Mallomar cookies and Hebrew National hot dogs. They read boring magazines and hog the hammock, peering at lines and lines of words. Few of them have children.
An accountant from Brooklyn brings a large inflatable rowboat named Das Boot, a joke the girl doesn’t understand. JC jumps from the dock into the boat’s center and lands perfectly, slicing the bottom with the X-Acto knife he forgot to remove from his belt. The girl cheers until Das Boot begins to hiss, the air released.
“We can fix that,” says her father. “Do you have a rubber patch?” But no one can find the little kit that came with the float. It sits there, sinking, until it’s a flap of gray rubber roped to the dock. A week later, the accountant long gone, JC heaves it from the lake, waterlogged. A week after that it’s dry enough to burn, which the girl can’t wait to see. She helps build the fire and imagines the float will curl magnificently—a giant plastic fork, folding in and disappearing—like the Wicked Witch of the West, the ugly thing gone at last.
Except that it doesn’t burn. It smolders, making black smoke so noxious the fire marshal comes. Her father shakes the fire marshal’s hand and apologizes before hosing it out himself.
Ned is embarrassed. The girl can see it in the set of his jaw and his silence, his whiskey glass, refilled. Her father could have leverage, could berate him at last. But her father says nothing until they’re at home with the dog they need to feed.
“Dipshit,” he begins.
Her mother passes the salad.
By the time the plane is done, the girl is a sophomore in college. JC is also in college, having decided to finish his engineering degree. Ned and Helen are footing the bill. Ned is so big he can no longer fit in the cockpit, but they fix this by moving the gearshift. Then Ned has gastric bypass surgery, just to be sure.
Only Ned is at the camp on the day of the crash. Helen has gone to ride her horse, Hematite, in slow circles on a beautifully groomed pasture in Damariscotta, the next town over.
Ned wears jeans over his Speedos. The air is damp, the dock slick. The neighbor from New Jersey, leaning from his anchored Sunfish, waves with his baseball cap. Ned ignores him. The same neighbor has reported their wafting drug smells to the sheriff more than once.
Ned squeezes himself into the cockpit, taxis the plane to the far end of the lake. Through the warped Plexiglas he sees the sturdy pines, neat houses, his own house, the largest on the lake. The heat in that tight space makes him itch, makes him want to forget the whole thing and just dive in. But he accelerates. He rises like a bird, skimming and skimming until there he is, lifted. The box he made carrying him out and above.
Then down and down. Pine boughs crack. He clears his own dock by a few feet, smacking the water like a man inside a whale.
He pushes against the cockpit door until his heart feels large, until he manages to snap it open.
He pushes against the cockpit door until his heart feels large, until he manages to snap it open. He reaches toward the dock like an Olympian, I’m a swimmer. A lifeguard. I taught the girl to dive. The plane on its side in the mud is hooked by weeds but he can’t think about that now. The neighbor jumps up and down from his boat but it’s quiet in Ned’s head, except for the chimes by the hammock, a sad little interval. Minor third, the girl has told him. Then the phone through the open screen begins to ring. Ned feels pressure in his ears and thinks, organs. There is a rushing sensation behind his forehead.
He stumbles to his van and drives to the Congressman’s house. He bursts in, still wearing his waterlogged jeans, and heads to the fridge for a beer. The Congressman sits dry and poised in his armchair with a thick book. President Clinton’s face is on the cover. The girl, now a woman wearing complicated sandals, creeps in from her bedroom and stares.
“What happened?” she asks.
“I need a toot,” says Ned. He drinks. His voice sounds loud in the hole that is his brain. In this neat, brown house far from water. He remembers the epoxy stain he left in their bathtub. How the girl’s mother made him clean it himself with steel wool.
“Your head,” says the girl. “Something’s bleeding.”
He laughs. “I crashed the plane!”
“Why?” the girl asks, and realizes this is the wrong question. How, she meant. How.
Her father doesn’t move. The color in his cheeks is bright, the expression new. His wrists are bandaged from recent carpal tunnel surgery.
Ned strides across the living room, his belly lunging, and grasps her father’s fingers, lifting them to the streak on his forehead.
“Don’t you fucking touch me,” says the Congressman, little gunfire pellets of sound, and Ned laughs at the “fucking” part, a bark so mean and otherworldly the girl doesn’t know who to look at anymore.
“His wrists,” says the girl, wanting to explain. Her father tries to bend his thumbs in slow motion.
But Ned isn’t looking at either of them anymore. He sits in the good chair, making it wet. He tips the bottle back and devises the first of many stories about the crash. That neighbor’s sailboat, drifting from anchor and catching the airplane wing. A giant loon breaking its neck on the windshield. A comet singeing the pines in his path.
“Maybe you should lie down,” says the daughter. “With some ice.” He continues to drink in silence.
When he leaves, it looks like someone peed in the chair. They stare at it for a while, father and daughter, until the van engine disappears down their long dirt driveway.
They could blame the dog and forget this ever happened. But her father surprises her by saying, “I guess you won’t ride in that plane.” He laughs. His face is relaxed, his loose hands cradle the heavy book, his eyes bright but small behind the wrinkled lids.
“No one will ride in it,” she says. How did you get so old?
She rises to grab a beer for herself. “Where’s Mom?” she asks.
Her father doesn’t answer for a while. Then he looks at her, as though he’s just remembered. “She went for a walk, I think.”
Lara Tupper is the author of A Thousand and One Nights (Harcourt/Untreed Reads), an autobiographical novel about singers at sea, and Off Island, a fictional account of Paul Gauguin’s lusty adventures (TBD). She co-wrote the screenplay adaptation of A Thousand and One Nights and is at work on a memoir/ghost story set in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. She taught writing at Rutgers University and now presents workshops throughout New England. www.laratupper.com