Thomas Benz
Winner

Retrieval

Whit was going back to the camp, retracing the accustomed path from years ago, straight north to recover the doll. Cleaning out the lost and found where it had fallen behind a cabinet, someone had seen it tagged with the old reservation, called to tell him the mermaid was still there. Hanging up, he’d become immersed in that feeling one got when a vanished friend or buried grievance reemerged, stirring a chain of half-forgotten scenes to life. It might simply have been shipped, and Corinne, incredulous at the idea he would travel all that way, insisted as much. He countered that the figure, a vestige of their daughter Phoebe’s youth, was a kind of relic and would be a great surprise for her birthday, that for her it would be like the retrieval of a precious stone.

Though as much as Whit hoped that would be the case, what immediately struck him was an excuse to go back up to Explorer’s again. They had gone to that same resort in Bone Harbor for a certain stretch of summers a decade ago. Even considering what had happened there on the last visit, the resort loomed in his imagination like a phantom landscape, whose contours kept slipping out of focus. It seemed to represent a golden time early on, Phoebe small and dreamy and ebullient, the bloom of his marriage at its zenith. He just wanted to fix his gaze on the camp one more time so that perhaps the image might remain a little longer.

On the way up, Whit began to plot out the things he most remembered―the drive-in and the archery range and Minerva Point. The trip was uneventful, even monotonous, at least compared to the charge of his anticipation. All that stood out was a rainbow after the bay made its ethereal arc to the west. It was splendid yet frustrating, because from his vantage, like so many things of late, only half was visible, the other side dissolving into a fine gray mist. Yet once he had gone far enough up the peninsula, he could feel the effect of the pines, the clean, conical, asymmetrical beauty of them. The light fell differently through those trees, muting its force without negating it, filtering through in shafts to the carpet of needles below.     

Whit wound past the golf course at the edge of the grounds, along the stone wall with the globe lamps which were held aloft by columns, beginning at the beach and outbuildings that marked the perimeter of the lot. When he finally arrived, as the lodge coalesced out of the hazy twilight, the lamps all flickered on at once with their amber glow like a magic trick.

From all appearances, there had been no attempt to modernize the place. A couple kids lingered despite the dusk and the hollow scraping sound of ancient shuffleboard discs over the fading cement triangles was surely the same as it had been fifty years before. A vast wood porch above a white clapboard façade with green dormers faced the cove. Cabins, laid out in miniature streets, were designated by an animal and an emblem on a shield, as if each represented the escutcheon of a unique lineage. The whole concept was of a camp, he thought, for families who wanted the world to stand still.

Whit expected Marge, the old woman who had always been stationed at the cedar front desk, and wondered how she would react to his return. But it was another woman, maybe two generations younger who stood in front of the archaic ledger. She was by herself in the expansive lobby, gazing out across the harbor, where a few skiffs were docked, toward Manitou Island.

“I’m sorry, how can I help you,” she said, looking a little startled from her reverie, yet smiling quickly to disguise this.

“Yes, two nights, Grafton,” he said, setting his bulging duffle bag down. He figured he would get the basics out of the way before broaching the business of the lost doll, which was bound to baffle her at first.

“I see it, in Hedgehog.”

“Sounds luxurious.”

She had an oval face, somehow peaceful and soothing, a reddish tint to her long, simply styled hair, large brown eyes, though she displayed a certain remoteness, as if her thoughts had not fully drifted back from where they’d been.

“The names are a bit silly but honestly that’s one of the best ones.”

She was very pretty but he tried hard not to stare, instead glancing around the room at the decors; a replica of a 19th century schooner, a snow shoe, a weathered oar, an ancient tennis racket, its strings turned to the color of straw. A look of recognition came across her as she froze over the splayed date book and she took off her delicate glasses. “Oh, you’re the one returning for the…” She seemed to retreat from naming it, maybe fearing some embarrassment, a grown man on a mission for such a childish, feminine thing. “You wouldn’t believe what gets left behind. There’s a regular menagerie back there,” she said rapidly, to preempt his having to explain.

“Yes, a good pretext to come. It’s been too long,” he said, deflecting the subject. He tried to imagine the trove of miscellaneous junk she was referring to, the congeries of clothes and cheap jewelry and hats and souvenirs all thrown together in a heap, their only common thread having been overlooked. Whit had always liked rummage sales for their sheer profusion of the discarded, the veiled history of what had been cast off.

“Your item is safe and sound,” she said after logging him in. “Should I get it for you now?”

“No, I’ll just get settled. There’s plenty of time for that.”

She handed him the key with the chain that itself must have been a half century old, pressed with the image of the cabin’s totem. Another couple was approaching, festooned with enough gear for a round-the-world expedition, but after the long ride, the forced solitude, he couldn’t help himself and asked about the chance that the lodge might be sold. When he’d made the booking, the website hinted as much. This kept happening lately, places falling prey to the wrecking ball or simply being made into something else. Another small piece of life effaced, transformed, unrecognizable, gone.

“Nothing imminent. But it’s very likely, yes.” For a moment, she looked a little stricken or maybe it was simple annoyance at the uncertainty of it all. Then she covered her reaction, glancing at the restless tourists in line. “My name’s Dana if you need anything else.”

That night, after dinner in the growing village, when he felt under a spotlight of solitude, Whit went to the Galaxy Theater. It had always been a favorite, Phoebe sometimes sitting above an extinguished headlight next to the antenna, counting stars, encompassed only by the sky. There was the way Corrine still clung to him on those nights up there, as if the forests and fields and absence of civilization stirred something primal in her.

He missed the oblique entrance in the pitch black of the country road, glimpsing the dimly lit sign―a board strung with low watt bulbs―only as he passed it, and needed the high beams not to misjudge the spot again after a U-turn. The halting procession of cars snaked past the shack where the money was collected, into the vast lot marked out by posts anchoring ancient speakers. They had been casted in another age, were heavy as shotputs and slatted for the crackling, metallic audio to come through. This held the wistfulness of a more primitive era when sound was a simpler thing, not invisibly delivered from its source.

Corrinne had always liked the Galaxy, the sense of a communal gathering outdoors like a modern form of worship, clusters all fixed on the same object, yet each in their own cocoon. Lately, she had kept broaching what she called her “places we used to go tour,” spots forsaken amid the segues of family life, the gravitational pull of other obligations. When they were newlyweds, dancing at the Rialto, an expensive candlelight dinner at The Homestead, a weekend at a rustic bed and breakfast near the state park. She said, “Now that the kids are older, let’s go back, reprise the whole thing.”

“Maybe, but it won’t be the same. It’s not like we can time travel.”

“If that’s your reasoning, we would never do anything more than once. Nothing is ever the same.”

He had a theory that all the nostalgia had to do with her confession. Six months before she had revealed the existence of an affair, yet not one that was ongoing or just ended but one that had occurred years before. It was like she thought it could be eradicated if she were transported to the time before it occurred, when the entirety of innocence remained. According to her account, the affair had lasted only a couple days and then she realized she was out of her mind. “Non compos mentis” as her grandfather used to say. But it was temporary, a set of circumstances converging like a once in a century storm. She was so desolate that he felt sure she would never do it again, would never fully comprehend why she’d done it in the first place.

The screen seemed quaintly small compared to the one which had so long resided in his imagination and the feature was awful, with its excessive reliance on explosions and special effects. But it was a clear night such that the movie seemed merely a sideshow. The outlines of chassis, all pointed in the same direction, took on the aspect of an armored division arrayed for an assault. It was the place, the fact of his being where nature was not so subdued, as if a lot and a shack in the middle of nowhere were a portal of remembrance.

Even in the half dark, he noticed that the vehicle parked beside him was a Pontiac Lemans, a sporty model, with an odd, undulating shape worked into the grill. A young couple sat necking in the backseat even before the previews had finished. After about a half hour of predictable dialogue and shoddy plot devices, Whit made his way over to the low building that held the concession for popcorn, for something to accompany the beer he had already smuggled under a jacket. Then, in the wan, twitchy light that emanated from the projector, he saw Dana slowly navigating her way through the maze, hesitating a few seconds before honing in on the exact position of her car. He watched her get in on the driver’s side and already begin to say something to her passenger, another woman, partly shrouded by the angle and the expectant rank of hoods.

This was not the serendipity it would have been in Minneapolis or Chicago, there in that smaller world, the land tapering into a strip that jutted out into the massive bay. Whit made an effort not to watch, conscious Dana would want to flee all ties to her daily servitude, but he noticed the dangling sway of an earring that glinted in a flash from the film and could not help but be drawn in. He was powerless to keep from wondering what, in her lilting cadence, she had said.

It was fairly late when Whit got back, such that his intention to call home no longer seemed a good idea. He decided to inspect the lodge’s quaint features, especially considering they might soon be scattered to relatives or the local establishments. A great brass urn stood at the hall entrance like a venerable trophy. The drab preserve of games featured a scratched ping-pong table and sagging net, vintage arcade machines with motorcycles negotiating treacherous passes, robotic heroes and villains. The shelf above contained old board games, Sorry and Candyland and Stratego, which had informed the charts and expeditions of his own youth.

The deserted great room, which served as a kind of archive, was as ghostly as a museum. The space was so large Whit wondered if it might have been used as a makeshift dance hall in the 40’s. It had furnishings from a bygone era―upholstered divans and Queen Ann chairs― the nooks lined with objects and photographs and little plaques. There was a giant change counter that looked like a WWII decoding machine, a hotplate, a postcard listing different types of fish, a gas lamp, a crude map of the area framed with nautical symbols of the four directions.

One of the pictures was of Marge, an attractive woman then with a dress down to her ankles, getting out of a bulbous Chevy. She playfully extended a hand out toward the lens, as if to ward off her image being captured. During the years that the family had booked a week there, she had been pleasant enough but aloof, as remote as the island, Corinne once said, as if she didn’t want to get too attached to anyone. Whit had felt that way once too, but when the woman drowned he felt he began to understand people like that. Certain events could take up a place in you, a kind of black hole present yet undetected where nothing could emerge, containing things one could forget for years at a time but which would sometimes drift up for a moment before receding again.

Once inside the unit, he was amazed at how primitive the accommodations still were; the stuffy air with traces of insecticide, the absurdly small TV, the plates with fine cracks radiating as from an unseen impact, a dribbling shower. The mattress was stiff and creaking in its iron frame. What Whit and Corinne tolerated as part and parcel of the rustic life, Phoebe had adored for its miniature scale, for its declaration that they had entered another universe where none of the usual rules applied. He thought to call Corrinne again but when he looked at his cell phone, it was obvious the battery was dead. Without the charger, there was no way to replenish it. He felt a twinge of remorse that Corinne would be cut off, but she would surely intuit what happened, and if not, didn’t she deserve a little discomfort for her transgression, no matter how long ago it had occurred?

He wondered what he had failed to register, what vacancy had led to her betrayal, but it just seemed easier to forget than grapple with absolution, which seemed raw and complicated like some kind of surgery one had to perform on oneself. It was a gift he had, blotting out certain pieces of life. If his memory were a painting, there would be many patches of blank white space where no mark was, redacted, without even showing what had been removed, at least until something jolted it into being again.

Just before he went to bed, Whit drew the warped blinds but noticed that a convertible was pulled up on the lawn of the neighboring cabin. The top was down―a rarity anymore, rather impractical in the erratic Midwest. Even in the dark, the clouds were visible and a few drops of rain had begun to fall. Not yet undressed, he trotted over to alert whoever was inside to hurry and protect their investment.

When he was not quite halfway, he saw it was the Pontiac from the theater, but before that could sink in, the neighbor’s door flew open releasing a volume of rancor, a pitched argument at the apex of its ferocity. The rain began to come down harder, popping on the windshield and leather cushions, as the man raced out holding a jacket over his head, looking almost as if he meant to take flight with it, jumped in and began to retract the roof.

“I told you,” a young woman harangued him from the threshold, only her bowed arm emerging into the open, the squall holding her there.

“Don’t worry. I’ve got it.”

“If you had just listened. It’s already soaked,” she raged underneath the torrent. “The damage is already done.”

The humming gadget that pulled the canvas cover forward over the car did so with what seemed a maddening slow motion, while the man, wiry as a teenager, cursed and must have felt the water seep into his clothes. Whit was glad that he had not gotten far enough to intrude, had merely been a furtive witness. He retreated without being observed and the couple apparently managed not to kill each other, as he heard nothing for the rest of the night.

After breakfast in town the next morning, Whit figured he would grab his camera and drive south along the shore to Minerva Point. But when he got back, a crowd was gathered outside the lodge where a man in an odd robe―it couldn’t have been from any real religion―was eulogizing Marge, and he suddenly realized this was why there’d been talk of the land being for sale. “She lived for this,” the portly minister said, as he swept an arm across the compound and a section of the dazzling water behind him. “It was like a marriage for her, till death do us part.”

Whit lingered at the periphery even as he felt like an interloper. He didn’t see Dana at first, but when he drew a fraction closer, she was there at the base of a hill, partly hidden by a leaning Douglas Fir. She must have sensed some movement because she looked over and saw him and just as quickly her eyes darted away. The ceremony had come to a moment of silence, except for a faint clanging of masts.

When the gathering began to murmur again with that instinctive need for release, he considered engaging Dana about something, anything, catching her somehow off duty. He could explain the significance of the doll, all out in the open, just two people finding themselves together on a slender scrap of ground between two vast inland seas. But when he rose back up from these thoughts, she had slipped off somewhere and he headed back to the cottage to get the car.

There was still plenty of time for a drive further up the peninsula―Cold Bluff, Minter’s Bay, Kingfish, White Birch―to see how much they had changed, if he remembered any of the landmarks. But when he turned the ignition, Dana was jogging toward him along the edge of the dirt path with a box.

“I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t another mishap,” she said when she reached him, one hand drifting to her waist as she caught her breath. “You can’t imagine the things which are left here. I hope you don’t mind.” In her demeanor, she conveyed a mixture of coyness and duty, handing him the parcel, glancing toward the crumbling tennis court. It mildly shocked him that he had almost forgotten, though that would have been just like him to journey all that way and leave without the very thing he had come for.

“Of course not, that’s good of you.” He could conjure back its peculiar grin, its aquatic scales and crown, how Phoebe had named it Wavy. But he hesitated, fearing that it would not live up to expectations, that time would have damaged it like everything else. The doll was for his daughter anyway and the rare gratitude it might elicit from her, like those summers over a decade ago. So Whit casually tossed the package in the back seat not wanting to break off from Dana, a light breeze riling the edges of her skirt and thick, chestnut hair.

“You’re not going to open it?”

“It’s all a bit silly don’t you think?”

“No, the strangest things are important.”

“Let’s make a deal then,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I’ll show you the contents if you give me the lowdown on Marge. Over dinner.”

She froze a few seconds as if she no longer seemed wholly there, probably assessing the degree of company treason, picturing how the two of them together might look.

“I suppose that’s fair,” she said, from her tone, still unconvinced but one side having overruled the other. Then her cell went off, an insistent buzz somewhere in the depths of a pocket. “Oh, they’re looking for me and there’s no place to hide,” she whispered, with a mock grimace. “I’ll come around later.”

Minerva Point had a majestic bluff and was perhaps three miles around the gradual curve of the lake across from the island, which was designated a nature sanctuary. Whit had looked up the word ‘Manitou’ once, discovering it meant a good or evil spirit as an object of reverence. It puzzled him that the good or bad were not separated, rather fused in the same idea. He strode past the lightly attended beach that rented kayaks and paddle boats, beyond the archery range where Corinne once improbably got a bullseye. He watched the gulls swarm and strafe the surface, traveling back and forth across the channel. He remembered how Phoebe kept fashioning tales about them when she was still in that netherworld of childhood, free from the steady assaults of reason.

At the Point, the tours for the lighthouse had not begun but he wandered up the unguarded, winding staircase and studied the compact room. A small antique telescope allowed him to glimpse the island’s skimpy dock and marina. Whit had always liked seeing things from a distance, being privy to a remote scene yet staying outside of it, so he could not be tugged into its vortex. He watched the way the water’s rippled parts and shadowed ones, those strangely glass-like patches, kept shifting with the caprice of the wind. He swung the tube to the left up the coast and saw a cluster of sailboats, their sheets flaring in the gusts.

Whit knew it must simply be some club out for the afternoon but it made him think of a regatta, the ragged line of them and the way they tacked to remain in formation, like there was an imperceptible course they were running. For a moment, he thought he glimpsed something else in the water, smaller, a loose buoy or raft or driftwood but just as quickly, he saw nothing. Right away he knew it must have been a figment of the mind, some vestige of the accident that had intruded upon them all. 

Those years ago he was out walking back to the camp by himself when he’d seen a woman, sleek and compact in a taut bathing suit and cap, on a ribbon of sand near the harbor. She couldn’t have been older than her early twenties, yet her one-piece was quite tame, almost like something from an old newsreel. Perhaps because they were the only two on the beach, she had announced, “I’m swimming across. I’m an excellent swimmer. It’s not as far as it looks and I’ve done it before.”

Something in the excitement of her voice gave the impression that she was boasting, pumping herself up with a dangerous optimism. Noting the hour, the sinking sun, which perhaps had thirty degrees left above the rim, he cautioned her that maybe she should wait until morning or not go alone. She pointed to a catamaran still riding the flow and said, “Don’t worry. They’re going to watch me. Have you ever been to the island? It’s enchanted, it really is.”

He had wanted to linger, to stall and see if he might dissuade her or at least watch her make her way, but he couldn’t be late again, not after a quarrel with Corrinne the day before. Whit had gone off to read by himself and gotten lost in a memoir, such that he was an hour late getting back. She felt this threw the schedule into disarray like a planet off its axis. It was a small row but amid the usual joy of the setting, the barb had stuck, and he knew he couldn’t afford to make the same mistake again.   

“Yes, I suppose so, be careful,” was all he said, feeling the tug of his promise, and kept on going. It was only a few minutes later, when the horn sounded calling the vessels in, that he could see the boat steadily moving toward the quay. He knew that she couldn’t have gotten across that fast, but the light was slowly dimming, so that she wouldn’t have been visible. Whit pictured her reaching the boat, her exhilaration upon climbing out of the water, returning to what was solid.

The next day after the report of her drowning, there was a rumor that she was unstable, and he wondered if he should have seen through her unlikely bravado, if he should have gone for help, should have known all along. Whit had consoled himself that there was only so much another person could do, only so close one could venture. At times people couldn’t tell the truth, even to themselves, and if occasionally they did, they would store that knowledge in a place meant to be forgotten.

Dana agreed to accompany Whit for a drink at the Hawk’s Nest, perched on the bluff’s promontory, but only if they took her car. She was probably used to such uninvited attention and he had expected her to deflect him, but something, some melancholy restlessness, must have made her yield to the risk. Whit didn’t want to consider what the whole thing looked like; he just needed some company amid the hush of those trees. Yet there were moments along the twisting road, with Dana intent on her driving, her beguiling profile framed in the crisp air when that pretense began to fade, when everything that had come before felt somehow eclipsed.

      They were lucky and got a table on the patio with the overlook, perhaps because a fog was drifting in. They could only see segments of what was below, hazy pieces of the shoreline as if they had risen above the atmosphere.

“So, why come all the way up here for a stuffed toy?” she asked with a directness that seemed to abandon her role as an employee altogether. When she had picked him up, she admitted to taking it out and looking at its faded blue-green dimensions, its mute strangeness, and he could tell it had affected her in some obscure way.

“Sentimental value I guess. A kind of heirloom. And there’s something about the reappearance of even the lowliest object when you thought it was gone for good.”

“I guess it’s my turn to tell you about Marge,” she said, dropping her head a little. A half moon was just rising out of the haze even before the sun had fully set. The color of the lake altered little by little until far out it almost seemed to merge with the sky.

“Yes, a toast to Marge and all explorers.” He wondered if there was anything in her will, a curse or something, on whoever dared to hand over the property to the real estate barbarians, or if she had finally relinquished her hold. He raised the spherical glass of cabernet and she solemnly mimicked him.

“There isn’t much to tell but she made the lodge. It was practically an extension of her. I’ve heard about people and certain places. Almost like being in love.”

There was something thrilling about the way the last word dropped casually from her lips, how her mouth started to form the lines of a knowing grin at the thought before pulling back, not wanting to show too much.

“When it gets sold, what will you do?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” she said with a pensive cast, as if this were some insoluble riddle. “But I never meant to stay here forever.”

It was not just her loveliness or spectacular novelty but also her woundedness that drew him like a strong tide, that made it hard not to immerse himself, to become snared in the eddy of her secrets. Whit didn’t want to probe too much, sensed that she was not the type to pour out her life to a stranger. She was probably between real jobs, still in the grieving process of a recent setback. He guessed she was in the middle of putting herself back together, searching for a port in a storm. Judging from the mixture of injury and resolve in her eyes, she still had much farther to go.

Dana peered out over the vista, at what was left when the sun descended below the water. Especially there, he was struck by the gradients of nightfall, the deepening shades of blue fading to black. Sailboats were moored with naked lines swaying, ghostly in silhouette, forming part of the aftermath, the penumbra of the horizon. The shape of the island lingered there like a dark, irregular shadow inside a more diffuse one.

“That summer maid who tried to get out here must have been awfully confused,” Dana said a little drowsily, having caught him staring at the last faint outline. “It looks closer than you think. That’s what Marge used to say.”

Whit had always been ill at ease as a passenger but Dana made it clear she wouldn’t relinquish the wheel and did not outwardly seem altered from the wine, except for a dreamy quality that seemed to have come over her. When they left, the bay was already submerged in darkness, though he could still hear the light jostling of the surf. As they swung onto the slope at the edge of the lot, the times were getting all mixed up in his head, eleven years ago with Phoebe in tow, and Marge’s museum, the confession, the chimera and Dana all swirled around chaotically as if they co-existed, were somehow contained in the air itself.

The steep elevation was daunting but Dana went slowly around the curves, high beams illuminating a shallow swath of pines. They gingerly made their way down, in a sort of spiral to the shore, though Dana slid a bit on the dirt shoulder a couple times and had gone silent as she concentrated. At the bottom, the fog was more dense still―an enveloping ether. There were a few faint pinpricks of light from Manitou pier and the camps above. The wall and the globe lamps marking the lodge property did not reach where they were, but Whit could barely make them out farther down the crushed gravel road.

Dana sighed when they finally came to rest at the quiet three-way branch where one lane diverged toward town. “Look at the lights on the island. They look like stars,” she remarked, as their position was angled toward them, and the contrast made them seem to float.

Whit felt uneasy, wanted nothing to do with the island anymore. He remembered Marge standing with someone else at the water line after the police had left. She was motionless staring out at the salvage vessel and he overheard her cry out, “No one saw her.” Whit had told no one about the encounter but it had never really been erased, been put to rest for good. Like Corinne’s affair, he had missed the signals, though both incidents seemed distant, in some inaccessible region of himself, somewhere forgiveness could not reach.

Dana crept out from the stop sign when another car came tearing over a rise, its headlights concealed by the elevation and the condensed night air until the last second, its tires kicking up stones from the margin of the pavement. Somehow Whit recognized it as the convertible with the flowing grill, and the laughter it did not quite contain was coming from the couple next door. Dana panicked, swerving abruptly into the thistles and long grass toward the embankment that plunged down to the water. Yet still there was not enough room and the other car rushed with a blind momentum, aided by the sheer force of gravity, the wild abandon of inertia.

He grabbed the wheel and wrenched it violently toward the fall-off that led down to a set of boulders and currents licking against them, then back again so that the tires straightened and ran parallel along the edge. The sports car must have veered a few inches at the last instant, just missing them, grazing the wall ahead with a screech of metal, and shooting sparks like roman candles into the bay. The two cars came to rest and there was only a faint ticking from one of the engines.

Then Dana was crying, sobbing into his neck but she was fine, as was he, unscathed except by such proximity to disaster, blessed by an unmistakable gift of another chance. He knew he would simply get her back to where she lived, safe and sound this time, and need not ever come back. Whit saw that the mermaid had been flung up over the dashboard, the benign countenance and sinuous form pressed against the glass, her arms still extended as if gliding through the waves. In the stillness, he felt released, certain that what had clouded his heart didn’t matter anymore.

 

 

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