The Fading of the Wally Byam Airstream Club
Doris Kristoff hunched in the chair, warming her numb fingers on the coffee mug. She held her chin high, tried not to shake in front of the sheriff. She felt the bruises under her arms where Mr. Jens had pulled her from the lake, remembered opening her eyes to see him bent over her like a ghost. If the clouds cleared her mind and let her think, she would figure it out. But that was the thing. She had no control over her mind, her thoughts. Dr. Perkins had told her, hadn’t he? Plaque, he had said. Plaque in the brain.
The images just came, like a watercolor painting that never dried, the foggy shapes of color running down behind her eyes before molding into a solid form, and then she saw them clearly for a time. It began as an occasional recollection, a frame or two of past memories, then a daily occurrence in longer juxtapositions of pictures. She was thankful for them at first, prided herself on the fine memory she had, and she told herself Perkins was wrong.
She thought of it as a picture show behind her eyes. A scent or sound could do it, but sometimes the pictures just came. Everything else slipped away. When the present came back to her, she’d say to herself, “Mercy sakes, I was there.” Sometimes when she came back she didn’t know where she was.
Now, seeing the sheriff sitting in front of her started the pictures. He was speaking to her, saying something. Behind her eyes the picture show started.
Her father was walking with her. She felt the wind off the pastures toss the hair around her face, covering her eyes until her father brushed it away. That sweet smell, the green of the corn, the deep bass voice of him, louder as he bent to her.
“You’ll wind up in Minn-a-sodda, Doris, you don’t keep that hair out of your eyes!” He stood and began humming as they walked, the bag of groceries slung over his shoulder. He added words, and after the first few lines she sang the end chorus until she was lost in a forest of giggles. Her father held her tiny hand, and she stared at her shoes as every step sent a cloud of dry dust into the summer wind. “I’m tired, daddy,” she said up to him. And in one quick movement she was in the air, lifted high above his head, her shoes dangling as he held her there and plopped her on his shoulders. She felt the lunge of his hips with his steps, felt her teeth clatter with the force of it, could see the large boots swing forward from a bird’s eyes view, and then the hip shift to the other side as she held on tight to his forehead. She covered his eyes and shrieked, throwing her head back in rapture as he zigzagged down the dirt road like a blind man.
“More coffee for you?” Sheriff Stanley had crossed the room with the coffee pitcher in his hand. “Think I lost you for a moment. Are you warm enough? Should I have the deputy get another towel?”
She shook her head and widened her eyes, sending the pictures far behind them, focused on him. He seemed nice enough. “Yah, just fine. Guess a little shook from this afternoon. The heat.” She had changed into dry clothes but her hair was still wet, the gray strands darker and pasted to her forehead.
He sat across from her at his desk and smiled. “Yah, the heat. Mr. Jens was real worried about you the way you fainted and all. Could’a drowned. Now a proper hospital is quite a ways from here, so Dr. Norris here in town is on the way.” He waited, watched her face for any sign of agreement. Her face remained taut, the eyes lost as if dreaming. “You understand? He’s going to have to check you over and from there we decide what to do. Now, I know you had a long day, but why don’t you tell me how you came to be by the lake there at Shady Acres? We want to contact your family and tell them where you are.”
She stared at him and smiled, bringing the warm coffee cup to her lips. So nice of him to get her coffee. The parents pass on manners like that, she knew. So polite! “Mr. Stanley, that is what I don’t want you to do.”
Stanley folded his hands on the desk and sighed. “Now why is that, Mrs. Kristoff?”
She squinted at the pictures on his desk.
Stanley reached behind the desk and placed her purse on it. “You left this on the shore.”
She reached for her purse and found her bifocals and studied the framed pictures on his desk. “How nice. You have beautiful children.”
“Yes, thank you, I do. You?”
“I have a daughter, Mr. Stanley, stubborn from the day she was born. Finally divorced that husband of hers.” Her lips pursed like a prune. “My grandfather would have said too much burnt toast.”
He grinned. “I see. Are you running from her?”
She took her bifocals off and gently put them in her purse. “No. I have some things to sort out. I haven’t broken any laws, have I?”
He crossed his arms. “’Course not.” The grin again, and a hesitation. “Can’t say many swim in that lake. Don’t even know how deep it is, so muddy. Blood suckers as big as my hand.”
She set the coffee cup on the desk, clasped her fingers on top of her purse. She was cold now, tried not to show it.
“I’m a bit puzzled about that myself.”
“I want to run your name through the database. Before I do, you want to tell me anything?”
She pursed her lips again, gave him a puzzled look.
“National Crime Information Center. Missing persons.”
She ironed the pleats of her skirt with her hand. “I’d like you not to do that. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
He stood up from the desk and came around the front of it, sat on the edge. “Can I call you Doris? That database just tells me if anyone is looking for you yet.”
“I understand. Why don’t you hear me out first?”
“It’s a very small town we got here. We got one grocery store, one post office, and Dr. Norris is our hospital. When Cliff Jens called from Shady Acres Camp and told me he found this sweet grandmother wade’n out in the lake with her clothes on, well, you understand.” His gun twisted against the desk and the leather holster cracked as he shifted once to release it. “And Jen’s Camp not set up like that, see, this time of year all those trailers are rented out to folks on vacation, so he doesn’t normally take any pull-ups like your trailer. Lucky he let you stay. You stuck out like a purple hen in that Airstream.”
“Yah, imagine so.”
“You understand his concern. You don’t strike me as someone on vacation. He seemed to think you were troubled about something, and I think you are.” He stood up and walked to the window, looked out over the dirt parking lot of the small police station. He spoke with his back to her. “Not much happens around here, cats in trees, dogs waking up neighbors, kids trespassing on old man Bishop’s land.” He turned to her. “While we wait for Dr. Norris, why don’t you just tell me your story, and we won’t make any calls right now. But I’m going to have to eventually. Especially if Dr. Norris thinks you need to be in a hospital.”
Doris clutched her purse in her lap with both hands. She waited, heard footsteps on the wood floor outside the open door. The embarrassment! A sheriff calling Edward, Come get her.
“Very well, Mr. Stanley. You seem nice enough. You’re starving for a story? Most small towns are. May I have your word you won’t pick up that phone when you’ve heard me out?”
He sat on the desk again, the Boy Scout smile. “You have my word. But that means you’ll have to make that call eventually.”
She turned her head toward the open door and waited. He jumped up, yelled to the big deputy she passed on the way in. “Willis, tap on the door when Norris gets here.” He closed the door and clasped his hands together. “Tell me.”
“You know, Mr. Stanley, what gets faster every year are the days. Maybe you’re not old enough to appreciate this. My great grandmother Larson used to tell me, ‘It gets faster every year, Doris, every year!’ and she was right. The days all blend together as you get up in years, moments pass sometimes before you can savor them, they do. Sometimes I remember things long ago as though it were yesterday.” Her face changed, became sullen like a child told she couldn’t have an ice cream. She turned her head to the side and gazed out the window.
“Then at times it gets so foggy, like it’s a chore to keep remembering.”
Doris told him she drove five hours straight that first night, saw the sign for Brisbee and got off the exit.
She had left the note for Edward on the kitchen table in the fruit bowl, had gently explained she had to leave, had to think, not to worry, don’t get the police involved, and can you please stop and get milk when you run into town? She hitched up the Airstream as competently as Edward, had certainly watched him plenty of times. She woke up alone the next morning for the first time in fifty-six years. Spend years sleeping next to someone that snores like a chainsaw, his mouth open wide as Montana, you’d think you’d not miss it. When she did sleep, she dreamt of the men in white surgical suits and masks. They surrounded her as she lay on the cold steel table. Edward was there. “Why did you leave? Why didn’t you tell me about the tests?” he said. She tried to call out to him, explain, tried to tell him not to worry. She couldn’t speak.
She was younger in the dream, looked at her arms and hands and saw no age spots, no wrinkles. She had felt her face, moved her hands over the smooth skin, relished it. Had thought to herself, All those years of Jergens cold cream. Dr. Perkins was there in the dream, there to tell her the results of the tests were false and he’d made a mistake. Then she woke up and wished it were true. The truth was there was no test for what she had. Dr. Perkins had told her that, had her come back to his office and he had closed the door and opened a file.
“Doris. You are suffering from early dementia.” His voice was a monotone drawl, and she recalled him tapping his pen on the folder as he spoke, as though it were all rudimentary and something he had to explain so he could move on with his day. “Your brain has developed plaques, eh, like glue, among your brain cells.”
“Fine. This is between us. Ed does not need to know now,” she had said.
“You will need support. Memory care. The episodes you’ve been experiencing tell me it is well advanced.”
“Then why call it early dementia?”
As she looked in the mirror now she smelled the medicine odor of the dream. She turned to face the emptiness of the 22 by 8-foot Airstream trailer. She saw Edward when he first brought the thing home.
“1967 Safari Classic!” He had already backed it into the garage and was standing in the doorway sideways, holding his right arm out like a game show host.
She stood there with her arms folded, as though he had just brought home a stray dog and wanted to know if he could keep it. “What are we going to do with it?”
He moved to the trailer, ran his thick hand over the dented silvery shell of the thing. He tilted his head sideways to her. “Doris! Doris. I’m going to restore it. Inside out. Just like it was when Wally built them!”
When he was excited the gestures became rhythmic, the arms and hands moving in twitches, his effusion of words catapulted to near gibberish.
She flipped her hand at him.
“Doris. Wally Byam! He invented the damn things!” He moved to the front of it where a window was broken, the screen hanging. He gently tucked the screen inside, whispering to himself like he did when he was planning a project. With his fingers tracing the frame of the broken window, he turned his head to her.
“Do you remember the movie with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, ‘The Long, Long Trailer’? Well, this is our Short Trailer. The Silver Palace!” He spread his arms wide. “What do you think of the name?”
Could have been worse. Many men up in years get foolhardy enough to buy a motorcycle or jump out of a plane, but Edward had sublimated his three quarter of a century yearning for a 1967 Wally Byam Safari Classic Airstream Trailer. The images fogged behind her eyes and she focused on the interior of the trailer. She looked at the cabinets redone in oak. Edward had spent months in the garage, sawing, drilling, hammering, perfecting. The radio played Cole Porter, barely audible over the noise. The neighbors looked upon the project with vague curiosity. He worked like a dedicated carpenter, often refusing to stop for lunch, coming in later, at times after seven at night. Finally, she asked him what the hurry was, it can’t be good for you at your age.
“Doris. The Wally Byam Airstream Club Rally is July twenty-fifth.” Edward had gone and joined the club, and she was a member whether she wanted to be or not. It said it right there on the wallet card that came in the mail for both of them. The Rally that year was held in Las Vegas, swarms of Airstream trailers full of retired folks like them. Silver bubbles on wheels stretched out across the desert in a glittering maze. From there they would caravan to other states, in a group the Wilmington Register had called a “subculture of retirees breaking out of the rocking-chair stereotypes.” She read it herself right there in the Neighbor section.
It was during the Nevada Rally that the picture shows started, the flashes of memory blackouts that made her forget where she was. Heat like that could make anybody’s mind play tricks. It was hot there in the desert, scorching. She mostly hid it from Edward, though he finally caught her when he had gone to the shower and left her with the trailer key. When he returned, she was seated outside the trailer, holding the key.
“Ed? What is this for? I don’t know.”
He had insisted then she go for neurological tests when they returned to Wisconsin. And Edward seemed to lose patience with her after that trip, as though he knew whatever was wrong with her he couldn’t fix. The next year he said nothing about going on the annual caravan, let the WBCCI newsletters pile up in the den. Fact was she hated the Rally, hated being cooped up in a trailer that really wasn’t big enough for two people. Why couldn’t he have bought a bigger one? She told him, too, it wasn’t for her, didn’t want to live in 1967, already had, didn’t have any rocking chair stereotypes to break out of. (There was a rocking chair on the back porch and she never used it, so there.) The silver shell of the thing sat in the garage, where he continued to collect vintage appliances that matched the trailer: toasters, TVs, a Hurricane fan. He was content showing it off to the neighbors, sitting out there in front of it with Sam Jasper in their lawn chairs like they were camping out in some remote Wally Byam wilderness in 1967.
The watercolor blurred and she blinked her eyes.
Her stomach. She had become keenly aware of her body, its movements and habits, ever since she went in to see Dr. Perkins. Doris reached for the chrome SunBeam Vista toaster Edward had found at the Red Tent Flea market (Just like in 1967, Doris!), saw him for a moment standing in the garage inspecting the old cloth cord for holes, and pushed the toast lever to dark. The Curse, she thought. She stared at her reflection in the chrome, let the pictures come.
Burnt toast was the worst thing that could happen in a household according to her grandfather Larson. He called it The Curse. It could ruin good Protestant marriages, make you curse like a snake, give you bad luck. He should know, he invented the first automatic toaster in 1919. Never made him a cent. He died from a heart attack when Doris was four. Grandma Larson always said burnt toast killed him.
The first automatic toaster Doris remembered was the Toastmaster. She must have been six. Most people they knew couldn’t afford them in 1926, but grandpa invented them so they had to have one. It became a shrine to grandpa after he died, and Doris and her sister called it the Shrine Toaster. Doris remembered her mother making a prayer sign when the toast burned, rolling her eyes to the ceiling while her lips trembled. The Toastmaster had enormous handles like gas pedals and enough spring power to send the toast into space when it was done. Doris liked to launch the toast, see how high she could send it. Her sister guessed how many feet. Once when the toast burned, it shot out of the toaster and hit her mother in the back of the head. They could not contain their giggles, and her sister laughed so hard the oatmeal dribbled out of her mouth. She’d never heard her mother swear before, had a mouth as clean as the Protestant church. But that morning she spun to Doris and her sister, waving the smoke out of her eyes.
“Goddamn it! We will not have burnt toast in this house!” she said.
“Mama, you cursed.”
After that, Doris continued to burn the toast. She liked to watch her mother rush into the kitchen, liked to hear her swear, see her wave her hands in the air. She began to count to herself, see how long it took her mother to open the windows. She counted how many times she swore, then waited for her to turn and insist Doris and her sister never use language like that. “Grandpa Larson can see you in heaven and you know he hates burnt toast.”
To Doris, burnt toast was not a curse. There was beauty in burned Wonder Bread, the way the crumbs came off the toast when she buttered it, forming constellations of black stars on the old white Formica counter. Almost every year the toasters improved, became more accurate and smaller. Every year her mother insisted they get the newest model in memory of her Daddy, and the old ones were arranged in the spare bedroom, the Shrine Toaster Museum as Doris called it. It got harder to burn the toast when they put timing adjustments on them. Doris had to hold the pedals down after that.
The pictures shifted behind her eyes again. When her parents first met Ed. She heard the knock at the door, wanted to answer it first, let him in before her parents did. She had butterflies in her stomach, ones with wingspans like hawks, had been pacing back and forth in the foyer waiting, nervously twisting her dress into knots. She took a few deep breaths, opened it, stepped outside and closed the door. Edward stood there still in his flannel work shirt, tucking it in with his hands, holding a gallon of fresh milk from the cows. “I didn’t have time,” he whispered to her. She wet her fingers and slipped them through his then thick hair, rubbed some crop dust off his white face. She glared at him, pulled him in the doorway by his collars.
“Go wash up quick. For Pete’s sake!”
Her parents didn’t like him, could tell by the way they exchanged glances. She had to kick her sister under the table several times to stop her from staring at him, making little noises like she had never seen a boy before. Doris went upstairs after he left, giggling on the staircase at the wet kisses on her cheek, listened to her parents discuss Edward Kristoff and how much better her future will be without him.
“Edward Kristoff,” Doris said now, standing the center of the silver trailer. Then the pictures dropped again like a curtain.
Edward had asked her to marry him, had shouted it across the cornfield that day.
“I said yes,” she said, staring at her mother. Her father read the paper and smoked his pipe while her mother knitted. The sweet tobacco smoke in the room made her sneeze. Her mother went on knitting, did not look up. Her father folded one corner of the paper down, peaked over the top of it with the pipe at the corner of his mouth. She kept her eyes on her mother, waited. She watched her hands swirl in circles around the yarn at the tip of the needle; her fingers sent the needle deep into the sweater, looped around and reappeared, faster, until the fingers lost control. The needle slipped from her hands and she dropped the ball of yarn. She exhaled like a frustrated accordion. The yarn rolled forward across the floor, leaving a line of green that divided mother and daughter. Finally her mother looked up.
“You’ll finish school first.”
Her father rose silently, folding the paper under his arm. He removed his pipe and kissed her cheek, a sweet tobacco kiss, and shot her mother the Frankenstein grin he gave them as children.
The black toast had popped up with a load click, burnt, the way grandpa Larson hated it.
Now Doris found a payphone at the shower building. Her gait seemed slower today and her left hip ached, the doggone bursitis, reminding her of the fall she had had just months earlier. She was stepping from the car in front of the supermarket when it happened. The next thing she knew a clerk was helping her up.
“I backed right into a shopping cart, stupid me,” she told Edward as he frowned at the discolored bruise. No need to worry him.
She watched a man Edward’s age scurry from the building with a towel wrapped around his waist as she dialed the number. His walk reminded her of Edward, fast and deliberate, always thinking. The man stopped at the horseshoe field like he was waiting on someone.
“Elin?” she whispered into the phone. There was the hiss of static in the silence. She felt the distance, further from her daughter than she’d ever been. Somewhere in that void of deadness her daughter was attached to the other end, her ears hearing the familiar voice, gathering the anger so she could answer with the proper tone.
“Doris? Jesus Christ.” Her daughter had always used her mother’s first name when she was angry, never dropped the habit that started when she was eight, certainly wouldn’t stop now in her forties.
“Leave Him out of this. There is a man dressed only in a towel by the horseshoe field. Is that odd? Don’t ask me where I am because I won’t tell you.”
“That’s great, mama. Why are you doing this?”
Now Elin was switching back and forth, Doris to Mama. She was upset. It made Doris proud in a funny sort of way.
“I’ve some things to sort out.”
“So you hitch the Silver Palace to the Ford and take off? You’re a Grandmother!”
She bit her lip. “Hush! Have you talked to your father?”
“He read me the note. He even went and got the milk. Thinks you’re coming home soon.”
“Wondering where her Grandmother is. I told her you had to go on a trip, but she’s not stupid. Dad came over raving about the Silver Palace, how you stole it in the middle of the night, wondered how you managed. She wasn’t here, but what do you think she thinks?”
“I need you to understand.”
“Then help me. Where are you?”
The static hissed, and she pictured her daughter leaning on one hip, twisting the phone cord around her arm like she did. Doris watched the man with the towel, observed his patience as his wife walked to his side and he reached for her arm. “When I first brought your father home for dinner to meet your grandparents he brought a jug of fresh milk from the cow, was still filthy from the field. Mama didn’t like him.”
“Is this about you and dad?”
“When your father started losing his hair he couldn’t get an erection.”
“...young people, they seem to think older couples don’t have the same experiences as they do, that we move beyond the normal phases and become detached, but it’s all so --”
“Mama, are you out of your mind?”
Doris heard the question as she came back. She stopped talking. What was she saying?
“I need you to understand.” She hung up.
She stood there for a long moment, her shoulders collapsed and head pressed into the payphone, her hand still on the receiver squeezing the life out of it. How long could she do this? For a moment she thought she’d call her back, explain. Explain what? That I’ve lost my courage. Her mind was racing. In an instant she was holding Elin, her little arms thrashing in the air against her breasts, the small mouth open as if to shriek, muffled air grunts pushing out from the little lungs instead. The fine black hair matted against the tiny forehead, the smell of a baby’s head! The eye slits afraid to open. She never cried unless she was hungry, such a good baby, yet able to express discomfort and make you pay for it. She felt the rawness in her nipples from the child gnawing on them, smelled the flannel blanket that enveloped her small pudgy frame, the baby scent of the skin and earthy odor of the milk from her little mouth.
She saw her daughter in her teens, no less bolder in her expressions, the hopeless sigh with the shake of her head, her arms folded across her chest in defiant rigidity as she stomped across the living room. She did not retreat to her room, but lingered there in front of her mother, displaying the wide range of facial expressions of teenage anger, the many movements of her thin arms and hands, first unfolding to slap against the hips in a loud clap, then coming forward toward her mother in violent waves of gesturing, much like her father. Doris finally said yes to the constant rifling of expostulations. Her daughter’s anger melted away and her muscles went soft, the face placid and forgiving, even tears flowed on demand, and then she was a different person, soft, apologetic; an angel emerged.
“Everything okay?” Cliff Jens, owner of Shady Acres, stood facing her.
She began speaking before she turned to him, embarrassed that he caught her lost in thoughts.
She lied to him and told him everything was fine, and you?
Doris made the bed in the trailer like she was at home, fluffed the pillow and smoothed the sheets with her hand. She reached for the enormous leather suitcase near the bed and grunted as she picked it up. It had been her mother’s, and the worn leather cracked and peeling announced centuries of use. She placed it on the bed and opened it. She had packed it when Edward was out running errands the day before she left, was a wreck that day, so the clothes were half folded, wrinkled. She stared at the suitcase. Elin used to play in it up in the attic. She closed her eyes, smelled mothballs and wood. She was such a small thing, and now in her plaqued brain she watched her crawl into the suitcase and curl into a ball. The sunlight from the window formed a triangle on the child’s forehead, and particles of dust danced in its rays. She smiled. “You going on a trip, are you, Elf?” she whispered.
The child giggled, curling up in the suitcase. “I take a nap! Then I float to Toaster Land in a big balloon!”
Doris smiled. Elin had loved it when she told her toaster stories. When she opened her eyes and blinked Elin faded, and her mother replaced her, standing in the sunlight.
“You’ll miss the train you don’t hurry.”
“I’m afraid.” Doris stood there with her suitcase packed at her feet.
“You? You will not be afraid! We’re afraid of the money it costs us to send you. Let’s get a move on.”
Doris picked the suitcase up and tears started.
Her mother moved forward to button her coat. “Don’t think just because Foster excludes boys you won’t have your share of them trying to work their charms on you.” She ran her hands down her daughter’s coat after fastening the last button, brushing off lint that wasn’t there. “They’ll be in every shadow for a girl like you. And they only want one thing.” She grabbed her scarf and tied the ends. “Your father’s waiting.”
The horn outside the trailer brought her back for a minute, but reality was like a watercolor blurred into where she was in the picture show.
Father was honking for her. She had to hurry, he was waiting.
She had been aware of the movement of her body, felt the heaviness of it I’m moving through syrup, felt the pulse throb in the temples, knew she was approaching the lake. The watercolors flashed in her eyes, reality lost at the edge of the colors, bleeding into other images. You’re a grandmother! She saw the lake, the sparkles on the surface. I remember that. A group of ducks scattered as she came closer, and wobbled to the water in a vapor of white feathers. Your father’s waiting. She could see the cotton edges of several trailers on the far bank in the other reality of the picture show. Where was daddy? She brushed the bench off and braced herself on the hand rest; she would sit and wait for him. Where was he? She wanted to tell him she was coming.
The algae and damp mud. Yes. I know that smell. She closed her eyes, saw waterbugs dance across her eyelids. And then she was there. Lake Green. A summer long ago. The water was black, and she was afraid to go any further, didn’t like the fact that you couldn’t see what was on the bottom, didn’t like how they named the lake Green when it wasn’t. Her sister was already at the buoy, waving her hands in the air and splashing like a fool.
“Chicken! Doris’s afraid! Afraid of everything!” Chicken clucks echoed in the still lake air. She tossed the long strands of hair out of her face and looked to the shore. Her mother waded out in the water and stood waist deep, turning to her.
“Doris. What are you afraid of?”
She flipped to her back and stroked to where her sister was. “Am not afraid!” She called to them.
They splashed and waved, clucking like chickens as the sun’s brightness forced Doris to shade her eyes to see them, silhouetted shadow figures against the light, halos of silver dancing off their skin in swirls of specs like she saw whenever she stared at the sun. She moved a little further into the lake, felt the cold mud tingle at her feet. She kept her eyes to the water, ignoring the calls of her mother and sister. She stopped again and looked in front of her at the calm blackness, grunted loudly and slapped the water. She turned to look to the shore, saw her father coming toward her. “Daddy, make them stop! I am not afraid!”
He bent to her in the water, and she could smell his perspiration and see it in drops running off his nose as he smiled at her, see the fine wrinkles as the sun lit up his face. The fishy scent of the water mixed with the sweat, and she thought it the best smell in the world. When she embraced him her hand slid around his oiled back like a bar of soap, making her giggle. He held her in the water, submerged nearly to her chin.
“I’ll tell you what. I happen to know where the plug is to this very lake, we’ll swim over and unplug it and drain the entire lake. Your mother and sister will be left standing there with all the fish flopping around at their feet! What do you say?”
She threw her head back in laughter, felt the wet hair plaster to her neck. She could see herself in his eyes, see her reflection, imagined she lived in them, lived in two places at once. She was motionless, floating in their warmth.
They watched the wind change the lake’s surface to black dimples. She thought she could stay there forever, the fish and sweat smell of safety, living in his eyes. The chill of the water made her breath come in spasms of air, some of it went through her nose and burned as she exhaled. She held to her father, to the oiled arms as they enveloped her and pulled her with him toward the buoy.
And then she remembered.
She let the pictures fade. How could she forget? She just spoke to her and it never crossed her mind. No. I can’t stay, she thought, looking down at the black lake water where she stood up to her waist. She heard a shout. She turned her head to look toward the shore, but she was shaking, unable to focus. Voices echoed in her mind. Why did you leave? Where are you?
“I’m right here!” she said out loud across the lake. She felt her toes squash in the mud. When did I take my shoes off?
She couldn’t tell how long Cliff Jens had been standing at the waterline, saw him as a vapor when she looked again, was trembling so much. She began to push to the shore, barely heard his shouts. The ducks had worked their way to the shore, just feet from where she was in the water, so the sudden movement sent them again into a cloud of whiteness and squawks, a flap of desperate wings.
What was he shouting? She used her hands to help push her toward the shore, felt like she was moving through cement now. I’m so tired. Before she reached him her body gave up. She felt the vacuum of water, felt her ears fill with blackness, the supreme silence, felt her hands claw the pillowed mud. Her face broke the surface once, tried to push the water out of her lungs in a scream, yet there was no air.
Then her body floated there, her mind remembering what she had forgotten.
I forgot to tell her I love her.
“Mr. Stanley, that’s about all I can tell you. You know the rest.”
The sheriff held his wide face in his right palm, and now he moved his hand, and deep red blotches appeared on the side of his cheek. He rubbed his heavy eyes. “I understand your diagnosis is a tough one. Mr. Jens seemed to think you were planning on hurting yourself, Doris.” There was a tap on the door.
She opened her purse and removed a tissue, lightly dabbed her eyes. Her hands shook. She stared past him, out the window again. After a moment she stood, folded the towel the deputy had given her, and placed it on the chair.
He followed her movements. “Dr. Norris is here. Why don’t we go out and let him talk to you.”
She was facing the door and turned to him.
“I want to go home, Mr. Stanley. I’m tired.”
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