I turned sixteen the summer my parents and their clan put up cabins on Lake Raven and sipped margaritas from frosty pitchers. The cabins were no more than glorified shacks, with windows and doors that didn’t sit well in their frames, and flat roofs covered in black tar paper that leaked. It was a hot summer and there was no air conditioning and no trees for shade. No bushes sprouted thickly around windows to absorb sunlight or muffle sounds.
The rickety shacks huddled too close together, free of boundaries, of property lines. Conversations from one drifted into the next and there were few secrets. The sloppy pale colors – creamy mint, faded yellow, soft pink – made the forlorn community look out of place, like a colony of runny pastels on the moon.
The colony was at the end of a dusty lane on a bare, narrow point jutting into the lake. It was exactly 22 miles from Kalamazoo and proper houses of value, with doors and frames that fit each other well and did not squeak or grate and swung fluidly on hinges; but Kalamazoo was also where professional lives had decayed, grown dreary and dutiful, prompting weekend getaways and the illusion of pirates and poets and painters and philosophers and other fantasies fueled by the quiet desperation of boredom ignited by margaritas in frosty pitchers.
Mostly, they were just a bunch of drunks looking for a cover story.
I glanced at my watch that afternoon and knew my father would soon arrive lickety-split from Kalamazoo, a cloud of dust in the wake of his red BMW convertible. I strolled down to the dock and waited until my mother finished spraying Raid and the toxic cloud abated before I sat across from her in a lawn chair. She was then 42, lean and tan – sinewy, I supposed – and her blond hair had faded to straw; but she was still pretty.
Vivacious was a word I often heard to define her.
She was usually the first to appear on the dock when communal happy hour commenced on late Friday afternoons, mostly because she had stopped teaching to write mediocre poetry and often spent the entire week at the lake searching for her elusive muse and writing cliched but earnest stanzas in a notebook she carried everywhere. My father filled cavities and installed crowns until it was time to race out to the lake, his collar pulled open, and tie tossed in the back seat along with his shoes and inhibitions. On weekends, he longed to be something of a beachcomber, and he embraced the lack of responsibilities and ambition that came with it.
My mother studied me a moment before asking, in that flat tone that signaled the margarita was kicking in and her interest level had tumbled, what might be on my mind. I fidgeted in my chair, not sure at all what was on my mind – what should be on it – and finally I said quietly and with a practiced straight face, “Okay, so, tell me – why doesn’t Jesus actually speak to us?”
My mother sniffed, nodded slightly, and then sipped more of her drink, looking away for a moment, at nothing at all, cupping a hand over her eyes because it was a day bathed in amber sunshine, and then back at me, no emotion on her face except the smirk etched there by the tequila.
“You know,” I added, “Jesus could speak to us over the car radio, or from a talking cat.”
“Aaron,” was her only reproach, and she issued it quietly, flatly, fatigue in her voice.
I leaned toward her, anticipating more, a poetic reply, perhaps too obviously trying to coax it out of her. She often spoke in poetry—her own mixed in with the works of others. Some Shakespeare from time to time. Mostly from the sonnets. You can’t go wrong with Bill Shakespeare, she liked to say, happily unaware of just how often she said it.
But all the answers, she insisted, were in the sonnets for anyone who cared to look. It seemed like one of the very few things she still felt confident about. That and the magic elixir tequila.
I watched her face, and the smirk relaxed some, and then the process of connecting voice to thoughts attempted to override the tequila. But as if on cue to quash an unwanted dialogue, especially about the ability of Jesus to speak to mere mortals through a talking cat, which I felt sure was lurking somewhere in Bill Shakespeare, I was deprived of the sonnet du jour because the first of her friends appeared.
It was the Remingtons, of course – always the early birds those two – waddling in their swimsuits under open, sumptuous white robes. They picked their way down the short path from the cabins to the dock, arms full of lawn chairs and towels for a swim, and my mother smiled and waved to them. The cavalry had appeared in the nick of time, and she looked relieved. Reality had been beaten back once more.
Old Bill Shakespeare had to go sit on the shelf again.
Julie and David Remington – he tall and plump, her short and drifting toward Rubenesque – clomped along the dock, their sandals slapping annoyingly and vaguely like a bullwhip. But they maintained good, erect posture and projected a regal air, perhaps that of Roman patricians entering the Senate forum across a marble floor. The Remingtons settled into their chairs and accepted margaritas from a cooler at my mother’s feet. David swallowed a great gulp of his drink, and Julie unspooled the latest gossip from Kalamazoo, which delighted my mother.
“But you know, Julie, there’s definitely a sonnet for that,” my mother said with a nervous chuckle after politely waiting for Julie to finish.
“And which sonnet would that be, dear?” Julie replied, knowing from experience it was the only correct reply.
But my mother’s words became merely formless sounds to me, and I looked away, out into the lake, at a motorboat far away. It hugged the far shore. Its bow sliced the waves decisively, effortlessly. It was just far enough away that I couldn’t hear its motor. The skier it towed, a gangly girl in a bright orange one-piece bathing suit, long dark hair flowing behind her, suddenly fell and tumbled comically, a human bowling ball with arms flailing, legs askew.
The water that day was brilliant blue.
Ten years later, my father was dead – too much tequila and not enough curve one night on the lake road. There was no Shakespeare sonnet for that one, I assumed, but my mother found one anyway and recited it at the funeral. I heard the words, but they flew over my head and rushed out the door of the church into the clouds.
My mother went into mourning at the lake. She could be seen at all hours, a ghostly figure walking the shoreline, often scribbling into that little book of hers. A year later, she was found floating dead in the lake, the notebook in a blouse pocket, but the water had washed away years of whatever it was that had poured out of her.
At her funeral, I avoided Bill Shakespeare and instead recited lines from The Beatles, from “Eleanor Rigby,” and there were murmurs in the audience and nervous coughs, even glances of disbelief, but I believe the ones who truly knew my parents understood and accepted it:
All the lonely people
where do they all belong?
And then everyone filed out, the sound of shuffling feet heavy on the marble floor, and most shook my hand and expressed condolences, and some looked away quickly, or down at their shoes. Some offered a reassuring pat on the shoulder and a muted “There there.” The Remingtons waddled by, grayer, plumper, and muttered something I now don’t recall.
After the service, I went over to our old summer shack. All of the shacks had been abandoned and slouched toward collapse, now only the empty shells of that last summer of piracy and lunacy. Ruins unearthed, perhaps, from another civilization, another century long buried in the ancient past.
I walked to the end of the long dock, looking out at the water, at rolling whitecaps. I soon remembered that summer when I saw the girl skier fall and tumble, the water brilliant blue. A soft breeze washed over me. I could hear my mother’s tequila-soaked voice reading her favorite sonnet by Bill Shakespeare. I even remembered asking my mother why Jesus didn’t speak directly to us through a talking cat, but getting no reply, a question I still have no answer for, but I’ve long since stopped asking it.
Then I remembered the task that was still only a notion when I said goodbye to my wife and young daughter in Chicago to drive up to my mother’s funeral. In her last days, my mother had become fascinated with Vikings, with the culture, with its artifacts, and morbid fascination with death. Fascinated with an honorable death, I suppose. I never read much about Vikings like she did.
Paganism was just one of the many false personas the clan of my mother tried on that last summer. Fueled by increasing amounts of tequila, she often exclaimed that the Viking funeral pyre was the only sensible way to exit stage left. It had all the drama and cleansing she imagined were necessary to writing someone’s final chapter. Maybe, in her waning moments, she stepped into the lake imagining she was stepping on to a Viking longboat and into her own blazing and glorious funeral pyre.
Cleansing, I thought, was a good word for it. I knew what to do and any hesitation evaporated. I soaked the shacks and lit them up, the flames just tiny tongues of orange and blue at first, licking hungrily at the wood. I stepped back, smoke climbing into the sky.
The flames erupted, consumed, the shacks now ghostly outlines engulfed by orange flames. I imagined I saw the ghost of my mother, now a Viking princess, rushing from room to room, a glowing apparition fueled by fire, happily embracing the slipping of earthly bonds and passage to Valhalla.