Authors: Susan Wilson
It was dark now and I chided myself for not leaving a light on in the cabin. I clumped up the steps, instinctively warning any predator of my arrival. I knew a light chain dangled from somewhere near the
center of the kitchen space, I swung my hands in unintentional mockery of the blind before I could see the faint glow of a tiny luminous Scottie dog suspended in midair. One sixty-watt bulb, nestled in a blue cardboard shade, warmed the room. The pervasive smell of mold seemed more pronounced than when I had first come in that afternoon, the night's dampness raising the ante. Of the cabin's three rooms, the kitchen/living room space was biggest. The two bedrooms, originally one room now halved by particle board, were only large enough for two camp beds in the one and a three-quarter bed in the other. Both held only one three-drawer bureau into which a summer's worth of clothing had to be crammed. The recent addition of a bathroom, a lavatory really, encroached on the porch. The only shower, lake-water-supplied, was outside. The walls were painted pine, mostly shades of tan, varying where each summer's painting began and ended. The pine floor was dark brown, and here and there scatter rugs covered the worst of the gaps in the floorboards. An island counter separated the sitting area from the half-size stove and gas-powered fridge. The other attempt at modernization, a picture window, took up half of one wall; in the dark it was a black mirror, but in the day I knew that it overlooked the lake and the little islands rising out of it. The White Mountains served as backdrop. A screened porch jutted off the side of the cabin, precariously balanced on stilts.
I opened the windows against the musty inside air, letting in a chill early-summer breeze. So quiet. I pulled on a sweater and went out onto the porch. No, I was mistaken, it wasn't silent at all. I breathed in the fresh lake air and listened. The night sounds of bullfrog and cicada pierced the gloom. I strained to listen over it. Not one human-made sound. I stared out into the dark. Trees loomed more darkly than the night sky. They ringed the lake, massive pines hushing gently in the light breeze. From the porch it was clear-cut to the lake's edge. Unlike the ocean, the lake was still and made no noise except for the occasional splash of a jumping fish. Ungentrified, rustic, it was perfect.
Directly across from where I stood there suddenly appeared a soft yellow light, flickering slightly, as if not made of stable electricity.
The screeck of a screen door carried across the water from the small island opposite my shore. So, I was not entirely alone. Sipping warm chardonnay—my single glass of indulgence—I stared at the beacon, thinking of Jay Gatsby longing after Daisy.
Random thoughts flickered like the light across the water. I wondered for the first time if this sabbatical might be as much time out from marriage as it was from everyday stress. A little separation to renew the faltering romance of a busy and distracted relationship. I poked at the thought a little to see if I could make it flame. The specter of past conflict was there, it was never entirely absent in our marriage. I loved my husband, but I couldn't entirely trust him. I never had any doubt that he loved me, but, like his father before him, Sean couldn't stop himself from flirting. I remembered the first time Sean brought me home to his family. We were new lovers, besotted with one another, keeping no less than a fingertip's distance, and yet, immediately, I felt the flattery of Francis McCarthy's attention. “Come sit by me, young lady,” blue eyes so like Sean's glittering under shaggy brows, “tell me about yourself.” Lacking a father, even while he was alive, I felt charmed and somehow
by Francis McCarthy's interest in me. I thought it unfair of Sean to pull me away as he so quickly did.
“Bred in the bone,” Alice McCarthy said when I complained to her about Sean's compulsion to flirt. “Pay it no mind or you'll never be happy.” It was advice I shouldn't have taken.
A drift of piano music floated across the still water toward the screened porch where I sat, mired in old memories. The music was almost a perfect backdrop to the conflicted emotions I had pressed into being by allowing myself to dwell on what was supposed to have been past. The piano chords were a rising, inharmonic progression leading toward a natural resolution. They stopped before they touched the chord which would have put them into sense, leaving me with an auditory frustration not unlike missing the last rung of a ladder.
Eventually the porch light from across the water went out, and I went inside.
slept later than I had intended. Already my resolution to be up with the dawn, coffee in hand and laptop humming, was dented. I consoled myself, there was always tomorrow and tomorrow beyond that, extending for ten blessed weeks, interrupted only by the two weeks at the beginning of July when my family would join me. Tim would make us crazy wanting to use the canoe lodged now beneath the porch, Lily would explore the riches of the woods. I pictured family picnics down by the lake, board games by the dim kitchen light. No TV, no radio, we'd be forced to enjoy each other's company. I had ten days to get enough done that I could prove to Sean I was making good use of this sabbatical, but not so much done he would wonder why I stayed behind as they drove back to Providence without me.
The lake was quiet in the morning; a robin deep in the woods called and, in the farthest distance, a chain saw buzzed, the only attention-grabbing sounds. I was surprised to feel the mild air when I opened the porch door. After last night's chill, I hadn't expected to find summer outside. The lake looked a lot bigger in broad daylight, the three little islands much smaller.
A raft lay equidistant from my shore and the island opposite. I judged it to be just at the midpoint of my swimming ability, perhaps
three hundred feet. The lake was so still I couldn't detect any rocking, it was as motionless as something sitting on ice.
Still in my T-shirt and boxers, I set up my laptop on a table on the porch. I'd let the old-fashioned range-top percolator go too long and my coffee tasted a little burned, but with enough kick to get me started.
Open file: novel. Page 26. I'd led even Grace astray. This book wasn't just unfinished, it was bloody well unstarted. I paged backwards, reading paragraphs, hunting down clues to my plot. Protagonist Karen's description was something like my own. I usually had short heroines, but some urge made Karen tall, thin, and dark-haired like me, except her hair was long and straight while mine was short and wavy. I hadn't yet given her an eye color, but would probably default to green. Do we always make our characters doppelgangers of ourselves? Or just what we wish we could be? Karen at twenty-eight was ten years my junior, single, childless, and clever. And in twenty-six pages she hadn't yet met the man who would become the object of her desire.
I stood up to pour out my cold coffee and refresh the cup. Across the water I could see my only neighbor. He was hanging a load of wash on a single line strung between two trees and occupying the sole sunlit patch of yard near his cabin. Shirtless, he wore a khaki-colored baseball cap and jeans. As his arms rose and fell in the process of pegging the various articles of clothing, I admired the flex of his long back and shoulders. When he turned to pick up the basket, I was grateful for the shadows of the screen hiding my blatant observation. At first I thought he must be a young camper, but when he took his cap off to run a hand through his dark hair, I could see a little tonsure of baldness at the crown, signifying a grown man.
A pair of bird-watcher's binoculars hung on a peg near the sink and I casually took them out to the porch, as if simply interested in the lake's rampant bird life. My neighbor was still out there, hanging the wash in the odd way of men, using clothespins profligately, never clipping things together end to end to conserve them, instead single socks pinned side by side. I tested the binoculars, drawing the far shore, beyond the island, into focus. Then, slowly like a spy in a trench, I lowered the glasses toward my target.
Sharp features softened only a little by middle age, his nose quite high-bridged and prominent between high cheekbones. He turned back toward his cabin before I could see more. A gentle face, I would call it. A face we would call good-looking, not handsome. A nice face, my mother-in-law would say of men like this.
I studied his wash. White V-neck T-shirts and colored boxers, two pair of faded blue jeans, khaki shorts, and a pair of tan chinos. Fully half the line was filled with freshly washed polo shirts, white and mauve and blue and navy. Two odd garments fluttered in the breeze, they might have been men's dress shirts, but they were collarless and short-sleeved, I could pick out strings hanging from either side and I realized that they were faded hospital johnnies.
I lowered the binoculars and turned my attention back to my work.
Within a day or two a pattern evolved. A wind-up alarm clock prevented any more wasted time. By seven-thirty I was on my porch, coffee in hand, laptop functioning. When the coffee pot was empty, I'd go for a run before lunch, a luxurious stretching run. Following well-trod trails up and down the pitch of the slope, between trees and rocks, I found the soft humus-packed track a delight for my pavement conditioned feet. I thought I could run forever. Even in late June, the water was still a little too cold for me to plunge into, so after my run, a lake-water shower heated by the inadequate hot water heater. Then I'd make a peanut-butter sandwich and go back out onto the porch and eat it while watching my neighbor do the same. Most times he tossed bits of meat to the cats. I had to smile, watching him as he casually twisted Oreo cookies apart and licked the icing off before fitting the two halves back together and popping the whole thing into his mouth. Clearly he thought himself safe from observation.
I'd work until the late-afternoon sun was in my eyes, drawing down the long day as it lowered behind the mountains in the distance. In the first shadows, my neighbor's light went on first. The porch light across the way putting paid to my solitude. Sometimes I would watch him light it, lifting the chimney off the base and touching the wick with a match. Spending a moment adjusting the flame to a
smokeless level and then setting the glass chimney back on. I supposed he didn't have electricity out on the island.
In those first few days I enjoyed watching him split wood and stack it, building a lovely wooden wall between opposing pines. Obscured by my fine-mesh screening, I watched as he set the wedge and swung the maul. Little rivulets of perspiration caught the sunlight . The sound of the maul hitting the wedge echoed off the hills, a split second's delay from the observable strike. Two echoes, metallic but dull, tickled the pressure in my ears.
A cat kept coming up to him and rubbing against his legs. He'd stop and swing the gray striped tiger into his arms, ruffling its fur and scratching it under the chin, then set it at a safe distance, only to repeat the action a few minutes later, when the persistent cat wove its way around his legs for more attention.
To justify my binocular-aided spying, I worked it into my story. My protagonist's love interest, Jay, burns off frustration and anger at Karen by chopping wood. His aim clear and steady, muscles rippling in the sun. Thus I consoled my conscience, voyeurism is a legitimate tool of writers.
By prearrangement, every evening, just at seven-thirty, I drove the four-by-four along the rutted drive until I reached the point where the cell phone would work. Every night it was the same, I listened patiently to Lily's recital of complaints about her brother. Tim, oblivious to the griping, was only interested in asking when I'd be coming home. Once I got him talking about his skateboard accomplishments, the whining stopped. Love you's and kiss-kisses said, they would turn the phone over to their father.
“Hey, Clee, how're the woods?” Sean would ask every night.
“Wild. Lions and tigers and bears.” There was so little I could share with Sean at this point. I never spoke of my works-in-progress, a superstitious sense that to tell my ideas out loud would corrupt them. Besides, Sean wasn't all that interested. The writing process, amorphous and somewhat undignified, made him uncomfortable. Sean liked quantifiables. Numbers, action plans, and goals.
We met our last year of college. It was, we often said, something
of a miracle we ever met at all. Our paths being so divergent. I had spent too long meeting with my advisor and was at the wrong end of the campus to get to my usual dining hall before they started breaking down for the night. The dining halls were supposed to serve until seven, but inevitably they started clearing out at six thirty. I glanced at the clock tower and grimaced. Somehow, eating at Hope Hall dining commons was like invading someone's private space. It felt wrong. I had only a yogurt sitting on my dorm windowsill and I was far too hungry for that. Looking around, the only familiar face I saw was Sean's. I couldn't quite place him, but with his distinctive red hair I knew that we had probably been in a class together at some point. He was sitting alone at the only otherwise unoccupied table.
“May I?” My shoulder ached from the weight of my canvas bag full of books and notebooks.
“Please, of course.” And, unbelievably, he stood to pull the chair out for me, tall enough to lean across without having to leave his side of the table. “Sean McCarthy.”
“The pork roast is really good tonight.”
“Is that what it is?”
Sean laughed around a mouthful. “Weren't you in my macroeconomics class?”
“Not a chance. I've avoided anything with the word
in it. How about Professor Fisher's survey course?”
“Survey of what?”
“English lit, from Shakespeare to Joyce.”
Sean mimicked a shudder, “Not a chance there, either.”
Our hunt took us through dinner, and we lingered a while, or at least until the dining commons staff began to make clear our presence was an annoyance and we belonged on the other side of the twin sets of double doors. Having discovered that we both lived at the southern end of the campus, it was natural that we walk back together.
“I always eat in Hope on Mondays and Wednesdays because its closer to my last class.”
As good as an invitation.
* * *
I didn't tell Sean much more than it was going well. That it was very quiet and a bit lonely, but necessary. Nothing that wasn't true.
And he told me that's great. We're fine here. We'll see you soon.
One morning I woke just as the sky was brightening, the first glimmer of dawn silvering the light in my unshaded room. Fighting the need to pee, and thus leave my warm bed for the early-morning chill, I lay awake to hear the first call of the earliest bird. The dawn sounds were of another key and tune than the harmonics of the night. Bullfrogs quieted, day birds tuned up. Losing the battle, I got out of bed and trooped to the lavette. Coming back, I looked out of my big picture window and saw my neighbor facing my cabin. As I enjoyed the nightly spectacle of sunset backlighting his place, now he seemed to be admiring the sunrise over mine on the opposite shore. By now the sun was streaming through the open room and I was quite visible standing there, framed by the window. I couldn't be sure he saw me, but I waved anyway, lest he think ill of me; assuming he had never noticed my spying. He either didn't see me or he chose not to respond. Then I realized his eyes were neither on my cabin nor on the sunrise behind it but on a pair of swans gliding toward him. As I watched, my neighbor pulled open a plastic bag and began feeding the swans. He had the technique of long experience, knowing just when to let go of the bread before the aggressive white birds closed on his fingers. He didn't attempt to touch them, keeping to his place and letting them come to him. I was amazed at the size of the two birds. The larger one's head reached nearly to the man's waist, and when it stretched its wings back in a little warning to its mate I was reminded of “Leda and the Swan.” No wonder they evoked so many classical allusions. Eagles evoked power, crows mischief, but swans portrayed mystery, beauty, and sex, obscuring the hidden viciousness of their natures.
My neighbor stepped back toward the shoreline and dumped the crumbs into the water. A little flock of ducks scrambled toward the
debris. It was then that he saw me watching him. A little embarrassed, I waved again. This time he lifted his empty hand in a brief gesture, not exactly a greeting, but certainly an acknowledgment.