On a Tuesday evening in late July, Miriam and her lover Ted watched a storm roll in over the lake. They met at her dock every evening after Ted returned from visiting hours at the memory care unit. There, like a loyal goose, he had shared dinner with his wife, who spoke to him in French, a language he did not understand, because she thought him to be a Belgian prince.
It was the kind of storm that made a sunny day go sour, turning not the sky, but the air itself, green. The kind of storm that, if you were from Michigan, you knew all day was coming.
“This humidity is teetering toward something awful,” Miriam, who was born downstate 79 years ago, said. Though tornadoes were rare Up North, the distant rumbling, the slow brewing, the promise of something spectacular reminded her of crouching under her school desk. This had been long before the invention of tornado sirens, when instincts for survival were intact, undiluted by technological advancements.
“It’s going to be a good one,” Ted agreed. During their year-long affair, Miriam had learned that Ted relished the anticipation of events more than events themselves. He stood behind her, rubbing her knobby, bunion-like shoulders.
A pontoon idled by, packed with adults and children in bright bathing suits that popped against the viridescent sky. The engine was cut and the boat drifted toward the wild side of the lake, where there were no houses or docks and pine met the shore and where once, in the kayak, Miriam and Ted found the carcass of a beaver licked clean beside its perfect dam of lake muck, deciduous tree bark, even a Petoskey stone.
“Where the beaver be damned,” Miriam had said. Natural death had never upset her much. It was early, unexpected death that rattled her—her hotheaded, sometimes downright mean husband who stroked out and died in their bed twenty years earlier; the stillborn girl between her third and fourth healthy deliveries; her mother, two weeks after a cancer diagnosis sixty years ago.
“How devastating that our structures survive us,” Ted had said, before receding somewhere, quiet, comatose, while Miriam paddled them back to her house across the lake.
“We should check the flashlights,” Ted said, now.
“If we lose power tonight, it would be a first.” Even in winter, when the winds came down from the Upper Peninsula and slashed across the crystalline lake, the power lines held.
Out on the lake, an empty tube meandered behind the pontoon. An orange buoy bobbed in the water, which had begun to form small crests as the wind picked up. At the stern, arms flailed. At the wheel, commotion as people yelled, “Start the boat, start the boat,” and “It won’t start, it won’t start.”
The man at the wheel dived off the side of the boat and began swimming.
“Oh my land,” Ted said when they tracked the path of the swimmer toward the orange buoy, which was not a buoy at all but a tow-headed child clinging to a life vest which, they later learned, was adult-sized and had slipped over the boy’s head as he somersaulted through the air off the tube.
Ted slipped off his shoes and unbuckled his pants and started toward the end of the dock.
“Don’t,” Miriam said, straightening her arm like a locked turnstile.
“I can’t watch this,” he said. Though he was a foot taller than her, he bent and burrowed into her chest.
“I know,” she said and stroked the remaining wisps of his hair, coarse as steel wool.
The man, the father, hadn’t made any headway. That particular recipe of atmospheric pressure had divided the subtle current of the lake in two; the drowning boy drifted farther from the pontoon with its failed engine and the father, who swam as if on a treadmill, could not enter the portal where his son slipped and slipped until he was just five fingers of flesh poking through the orange vest and then gone.
“The kayak,” he said, but he didn’t move toward the small patch of sandy beach where the kayak lay flipped over because he understood that it was too late.
The siren of an ambulance and the tornado siren wailed, competing like two shrieking toddlers to be loudest.
Three weeks later, Miriam shuffled Ted out the door hours before her family—her divorced, progeny-less son, all three daughters, seven adult grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and various spouses—arrived to celebrate Miriam’s approaching 80th birthday. Half of them would stay at a rental house two doors down, on the other side of Ted’s house, and the other half at Miriam’s.
“A lifetime of explaining my choices to my children and I don’t have it in me anymore,” Miriam told Ted when he suggested he stay and meet her family. He had effectively moved in with her after the drowning, each acknowledging that the flashbacks, the mother’s animalistic wails, made sleep impossible unless they were holding each other, their bodies forming a circuit through which the images traveled smoothly through the night, devolving into nightmares only if they detached. Ted, no stranger to tragedy, had become particularly morose since that evening. Three times, he had skipped dinner with his wife at the nursing home and had let Miriam cook for him. Miriam had used the bugs as an excuse to dine inside, setting the table in the bay of the window so their backs faced the lake. Still, its presence behind them was menacing.
Just as her affair with a married man would remain a secret, so too would the drowning. The lake had spit out the boy’s body near the spring. The television crews had dispersed and moved on to two new drownings in the bay. It would kill the spirit of the reunion and only make her family anxious, she reasoned, and already they lived with so much fear. Tides that would soon swallow Florida (not such a bad thing, considering, she thought). Children asphyxiating after contact with a single nut. Coups and the Internet. The publicity of private pain.
“Mom! Mimi!” Their shouts cut through the stillness in the kitchen where Miriam washed cherries. She had not heard them come down the driveway.
Her son Peter spicked her up, spun and set her down so she faced the lake. She pirouetted quickly away. Her daughters hugged her as if she might break.
“It smells in here,” said one of her great-grandchildren.
“Don’t be rude,” hissed a grandson.
On the first night, they made a fire beside the lake. The great-grandchildren, a precocious seven-year-old named Mabel, and two four-year-olds, waded in the shallow muck. Mabel convinced the younger ones that it was quicksand and the lake would gulp them into the aquatic underworld where they’d live among the eels and plants that swayed as if slow-dancing or drunk. The little ones, in their panicked exit from the lake, showered cakey water on the group gathered around the fire. A drop landed on Miriam’s tongue and she considered that the drowned boy had likely released his bowels into the lake. How crudely our bodies slip into death, she thought.
“If Dad could see us now,” Peter said when the children had been escorted back to the house for baths and bedtime.
Peter, a fifty-five-year-old, mildly famous author, who, like his father, drank too much, was prone to elegizing his father. He sweetened him so much that Miriam had come to view his ability to rewrite history, as if to guarantee his own psychological survival, with curious fascination. When telling a joke, Peter liked to reminisce, his father would laugh so hard at the anticipation of the punchline that he never managed to get there. He could line dance, jitterbug, and waltz, convincing even the stodgiest old widows to join in.
These were the memories to which her son clung, ignoring how his father’s presence caused a room to swell with pressure so great that windows threatened to crack. Perhaps, more simply, Peter also sought to prove that an honorable legacy and a lifetime of overindulging (in drink, in extramarital sex that ended Peter’s own marriage and might have ended Miriam’s if divorce had been more acceptable then) were not mutually exclusive.
Her daughters, wrinkled, post-menopausal, gray-haired if not for regular dye jobs, were too tired to be angry anymore. Or perhaps they, too, had come to embrace the benefits that selective memory conferred. Where they once challenged Peter’s depiction of their father, giving ambiguous reminders of the particular suffering they endured as daughters (Miriam shuddered to remember the time, several years ago, when her oldest daughter, Ellen, revealed a drunken groping.) they now buzzed by the lake with their own contented childhood memories. Impromptu trips to the penny candy store. Cards affixed to bicycle spokes. Backseat bickering over whether they should take the bridge or tunnel to Windsor.
Miriam, who didn’t believe in heaven or hell, and had only a vague faith in God or something like it, tilted her head up to the sky, which there on the western edge of the time zone had only just gone dark even though it was past ten o’clock. Across the lake, on the wild side, coyotes yowled. In the trees nearer, a raccoon or an opossum crunched through the brush. In reminiscing this way, her family gave Miriam the gift of believing, for the first time, that the good may have outweighed the bad. She didn’t mind that the alcohol, the honeymoon feeling of their first night together, the way the darkness cocooned around them—the lake licking the shore, the fire snapping sporadically like popcorn at the end of its microwave cycle—were what allowed them to prettify the past. There in her chair, she let herself fall into a dull sleep, lulled by her offspring and their offspring, the family that she and her imperfect husband (whom she had loved, despite) had created, buzzing and snorting and crushing beer cans and sending sparks flying into her shins because they did not understand how to gently lay a log. They remembered and repeated themselves and Miriam, a matriarch only in the technical sense, was almost fully asleep, until her oldest granddaughter spoke.
“Grandpa was an abusive prick.” Bianca, Mabel’s mother, was an unyielding feminist who worked at a shelter and had once told Miriam that she needed to release her trauma in therapy so that she would be able to live her last years free. It had been news to Miriam that she had ever not been free.
“It’s not your place,” Peter snapped at his niece and side-armed a rock a foot above her head into the lake, as if he were skipping a stone. “Look at what he did for this family.” Her son meant that his father had bootstrapped himself out of Alleghany poverty, become successful enough to build a lake house in retirement, which he enjoyed for only two years before his death.
“Jesus Christ, you could’ve killed her,” Ellen, Bianca’s mother, said. “Sit down,” she said to her husband who’d stood, ready to fight his brother-in-law.
“Relax, I wanted to see the ripples.” Peter had inherited his father’s ability to make others feel that they were the ones overreacting. He skipped several more stones to prove his point.
When no one spoke, Bianca said, “Mimi, maybe you should remind us about the stairs. Enlighten this deluded crew so we can stop this bullshit game of ignoring the trail of fucked-upness he left behind.” Her granddaughter, drunk, would later regret conjuring the trauma from over a half a century ago (long before Bianca was born) when Miriam birthed a stillborn baby after falling down the stairs during an argument with her husband.
Miriam, vehemently not a symbol, rose. “There’s aspirin behind the mirror in the powder room. I recommend two before bed.” Her left knee, the replaced one, throbbed as she walked up the stone steps toward the house. They threw a bucket of lake water onto the fire, which fizzled behind her. When she reached the patio, she detoured into the small patch of woods. The smoke from the extinguished fire followed her like a nefarious tail. She walked across the damp grass to Ted’s darkened, first-floor bedroom window. She tapped on the glass. When his light turned on, she felt fairy-light as she eluded discovery, snaking her way through the trees and home.
In the morning, jet skis awoke her even without her hearing aids in. But Miriam’s annoyance was short-lived when she heard a soft snoring from the floor at the foot of her bed. There, she found a nest of blankets, tangled white-blonde hair, a foot with painted blue toenails and an arm upholstered in unicorns.
Mabel opened her eyes. “I was scared, Mimi. I thought Great Papa’s ghost would come get me.”
By the time the first grandchild was born, his belt-wielding volatility had receded into family lore—tales her children told their children as either threats or to prove they had broken a cycle. Though he continued to expect Miriam’s compliance, and maintained a quieter control, her husband had been a redemptive grandfather, playing on the floor with their grandchildren, attending their recitals and games, never raising as much as his pinky finger in anger or frustration.
“What did your mother tell you?”
“She said it was like he had a big straw that poked the air and sucked up all the light and sucked up your voice and that’s why you’re so quiet.”
It irked Miriam that foul-mouthed, feminist Bianca—who as a child had depleted Miriam and her husband with her incessant jabbering and zigzagging through rooms—had spewed enough nonsense to frighten Mabel. Miriam patted the bed and Mabel lay down.
“It’s true I’m quieter than your mother. But she hasn’t told you the whole story.”
Mabel listened as Miriam told her how, the summer before he died, Great Papa had built the dock all by himself, one board, one nail at a time. She told the girl that she would bring him coffee as he worked, and how the sound of the hammer had steadied her like a drumbeat, like a heartbeat, and how sometimes on the dock in the early morning, she catches a whiff of him, sweat and cigarettes and aftershave and butterscotch candies baked into the weathered wood.
“If he visits me at night, I’ll tell him he shouldn’t have smoked,” the girl said.
Miriam made pancakes while the girl drew. The others emerged from bedrooms and the rental two doors down. They were red-eyed and hazy, smelling of campfire and complaining of jet lag and hangovers.
A grandson, still in college, came into the kitchen shirtless and groggy. Acne dotted his bare shoulders and his head of messy curls begged to be ruffled. The four-year-olds bounced at his feet, calling him Uncle even though they were first cousins once removed, and begged for him to throw them up in the air again. Ignoring them, he asked, “Who’s the geezer who thought it was a good idea to mow his lawn at 6 a.m.?”
“I saw him too, after my run,” a granddaughter said. “What a hunk, with those short shorts, knee high black socks, and safari hat.” She shook her pelvis; the others laughed.
“Watch out, Miriam, he might be on the prowl,” a spouse teased.
She refilled coffee cups and said, “That’s Ted. His only child died in a bicycle accident—twelve years old—and his wife has dementia. It started soon after they moved here three years ago. She doesn’t know who he is anymore.”
When they moved in, Miriam had made Ted and his wife, Adelaide, lemon poppyseed bread. She became friendly with Adelaide, who wore her hair dyed an impossible clementine orange, lined her green eyes in plum-colored pencil, and whose whole body juddered when she laughed so loud it echoed across the lake. She told Miriam their retirement plans had been delayed because Ted had refused to give up his radiology practice downstate.
“He’s distracted himself since the day we lost Ben. But I told him he needed to stop it with the bones before he becomes a bag of bones himself.” Adelaide and Miriam played gin rummy and drank a wine spritz on the patio. Ted had been in the garden by the lake, simultaneously pulling weeds and burying bulbs in the dirt.
Miriam’s husband would have dismissed Ted as prissy. He would have been compelled to compete with Adelaide’s piquancy through his own volume and boasting. That day, Miriam had been grateful that he was gone.
“Poor Ted,” Bianca said now, and she sounded like she meant it. “We should invite him over.”
“Yes, poor Ted whose son is dead. He must not be well fed while wed to a wife who is keen as lead.” Her son-in-law, a software executive who endeared others to him with his jokes and financial generosity, teased.
Her family needed an inside joke, an external target, because what otherwise bound them was precarious. The mix included a fourth-grade special needs teacher, a potter inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe; a neurosurgeon; an electrician for small appliances; a middle school band conductor; an anti-vaxxer homeschool parent (Miriam found both facts unsettling.); an unpublished author and rideshare driver whose perpetual envy of Peter’s successful writing career was awkwardly well-known; a former stay-at-home parent who self-described as “purposeless” ever since becoming an empty-nester; and a couple of lawyers. The wealthier of the bunch had rented the house two doors down while the ones who were financially strapped stayed with Miriam. Only a few remained in Michigan. They conversed infrequently between reunions. Before they had learned the benefits of divisiveness, and how strategic alliances could protect them from their father, her children had been as close as a pack of wolves. It depressed her that their common ground, and their offspring’s common ground, had dwindled to a joke and drunken recollections.
“You’re a cruel bunch,” she said. A couple of them looked guilty and mumbled apologies; Mabel stood next to her and took Miriam’s hand.
“The lake beckons us,” said the husband of her middle granddaughter, taking off his shirt. Through the bay window in the kitchen, they watched him bound down the mulched hill and across the dock before swan diving into the water.
“It’s not deep enough,” Miriam said, but the others, laughing into their coffee cups, either ignored or had not heard her.
They dispersed, to the lake, back to bed, into town. Her daughters shooed Miriam away from the sink. She was working too hard, they said, and reminded her of how the last time they were all together at the lake, several years ago, she ended up with a summer cold that led to pneumonia and a short hospital stay. Her grandchildren agreed, and they fluttered around her kitchen like phototactic moths.
Miriam took her tea to the patio instead of her usual place at the dock. Ted’s car was gone; he was probably at the nursing home with Adelaide. Fresh tracks lined his front lawn. Tomorrow, he would mow the back, sparing himself from the heat, attending to what he referred to in bed, in all aspects of life, as his “old man stamina.”
Adelaide’s decline had been abrupt, and she and Miriam had not yet become close enough for Miriam to unpack the fullness of Adelaide’s irrepressible zest. Out of respect for the woman who might have become a dear friend, and the marriage that still was, she avoided talking to Ted about Adelaide beyond polite inquiry into her wellbeing. But still, Adelaide intrigued her, and Miriam yearned to understand how someone so brutally stripped of her motherhood could emerge so vibrant. (Though never outwardly spirited, even as a girl, Miriam felt that she never quite resurfaced after the stillbirth. Somehow, Bianca understood this).
It perturbed her not that Ted had become their mascot, but that the possibility of their romance was mockable. To her family, she was past tense, the accumulation of experiences, romantic and otherwise, already endured, iconic like the lake house, there and falling gently—not so rapidly as to upset—into decrepitude. At that moment, she resented both her husband and Adelaide, who had extinguished as vividly as they had existed.
Down at the lake, one of her grandkids, she couldn’t tell which, drifted on a raft toward the center of the lake. The four-year-olds chased frogs by the shore.
Since the drowning, Miriam had been preoccupied with the underbelly of the lake. When rolling her trash bin down the long driveway a week after the boy died, a neighbor complained that the once robust population of fish—bluegill, pike, trout, bass, sunfish and yellow perch—had dwindled. He hadn’t caught a trout all summer, he said. There were rumors that the ribbon-like sea lamprey had infiltrated the lake from the tributaries connecting the lake to the bay. The bay fed into Lake Michigan, which had for 200 years hosted a habitat for the parasitic lamprey, which had found their way there from the Atlantic when the canals of the St. Lawrence Seaway breached the Great Lakes. Miriam imagined the horny teeth lining their suction-cup mouths, the latch, the finding of flesh, the slow exsanguination while the native, Medusa-turned fish swam toward their fates.
She understood now that the infiltration of the lake—by lamprey, by jet skis and speed-seeking tubers, by Miriam and her husband, who cleared the land and built the home over two decades ago—had killed both the fish and the boy. It was a vague, still forming thought—she had a tendency toward the existential in her older age. Ted would have listened and helped her process the connection of it all. He would understand her funereal mood. Suddenly, she longed to be un-infiltrated, for her children and their children and their children’s children to be gone.
Miriam endured the day, nagging the children to hose their feet after leaving the lake, mopping the muck prints from the floors when they inevitably forgot. When Ted remained the family’s joke (“Where is Ted you said? He bled from the head when he fell out of bed.”), she made up her own game, sprinkling signs of Ted in the house. She sprayed the cologne he kept in her medicine cabinet on their pillowcases; she left a pair of his briefs on the floor of the guest bath. She squirted some of his shaving cream into the tub. Though her family lacked the imagination to consider the possibility that she contained any mystery, she sought to stir in them some doubt.
When she left them at the fire that night, liquored, bantering, laughing, she again crept through the trees to Ted’s window.
“You’re a minx. I wasn’t going to let you sneak away like last night,” he said, startling her when she found him kneeling at the screen in his dark room before she could tap. She was happy that she had given him something to anticipate all day.
“They’re my family and I love them, but they’re insufferable. And lushes like their father. Or grandfather, as the case may be. Consider yourself spared.”
“I am sure they are lovely like their mother. Or grandmother, as the case may be. The little ones are cute as a devil. I wish you’d let me meet them.”
“Next time, perhaps,” Miriam said, and they both knew what she meant—that when Adelaide died, it would be easier.
Before bed, she checked on the children in their makeshift bedroom in the den. Miriam pulled the blanket over Mabel, asleep on the couch. The girl opened her eyes and said, “There are bits of him everywhere.”
“Great Papa. I smell him in all the rooms, in the halls, on you.”
Miriam told the girl that it was just her imagination and, anyway, Great Papa smoked and therefore never smelled so good.
The air was heavy when Miriam woke the second morning of their visit and Mabel was standing beside her. “Did Great Papa have blond hair?”
“When he was little, yes, like yours. Did you sleep here again?” Pollen and dust floated in the cone of light streaming in through the slit in the curtain; through the window, the faint smell of cut grass—Ted, perhaps, mowing the other half of his lawn.
“On the floor.” The girl pointed to her nest. “You limp when you walk. Mom says I sleep like I’m kicking field goals for the Lions. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Why’d you ask about Great Papa’s hair?”
“He was there in my dream, with his hammer building the dock but he was a boy. That’s when I came here. I was scared, but not as much as yesterday since you told me he wasn’t all mean.”
Miriam attributed the girl’s fascination with her dead great-grandfather to the fact that death had not yet permeated her life; in being here, his absence was obvious, looming, as if the girl understood that he had loomed in life, too. But he had also been subdued: he and Miriam head to toe on the floral sofa after the children had gone to bed, him taking her foot in his hand and laughing his baritone laugh as she recounted that day’s antics.
“No one is all mean,” Miriam said, believing that the girl might be the only person in the family proficient in nuance.
She found a Hanes V-neck of Ted’s in her top drawer and draped it over the swivel chair on her way to the kitchen, where her grandchildren fried bacon. When she joined the others by the lake after breakfast, she dropped a pair of his swimming trunks printed with lime green turtles on the dock.
She wore her new bathing suit, a black one-piece that scooped slightly lower than her mid back and provided good support for her breasts, which grew as if anticipating a future purpose while the rest of her withered. The biological explanation for her flourishing breasts in old age mystified her.
A granddaughter whistled as Miriam neared the shore and said, “Mimi, you’re going to send the geriatrics into cardiac arrest strutting around here like that.”
“Or she’s going to get Ted over here looking to hop in her bed.” Her youngest grandson was often vying to fit in with his older cousins.
“That’s my mother you’re talking about, you sick fucks,” Peter said.
Miriam said, “Maybe he already does get in my bed.”
Peter covered his ears and said, “Can you even fathom? Dad would rocket-shoot right out of the grave if tiresome Ted were his replacement.”
The others feigned disgust.
“Mimi, please, I can’t unsee that image,” a grandson said.
Miriam resisted the suction of the thick muck as she waded into the water, submerging herself, allowing their laughter to fade.
After lunch, she asked her grandson to pull the plastic bins full of Christmas and other holiday decorations down from the attic for the Salvation Army pickup.
“What are you, moving out?” Ellen, her oldest, opened one of the bins and cupped fistfuls of silver tinsel smelling still of cigarettes and pine.
“Not until it’s time to roll me into the incinerator. Please don’t bury me, for heaven’s sake.” She had made her wishes known in her will and verbally to each of her children—her ashes would be spread over the lake in September, the month of her birth, when the only boats left were canoes and kayaks and the lake was still warm.
She cared about this more than most things. When boarding an airplane to bury her husband beside his parents in western New York, his body in a casket in the cargo, a veiled woman had said to her, “You end where you begin.” During turbulence early in the flight, Miriam had been convinced that they were flying over her birthplace of Jackson, Michigan, and that the plane would crash there. Later, after she settled into the new quiet, after she taught herself to row and learned that she enjoyed cooking when not for a critic who might flip a plate, she considered how an ending could also be a beginning.
“I’m serious,” she said, when her daughter did not respond. “My ashes go here.”
“You’re not dying, Mom. Stop with the purging. You’re going to depress everyone.”
The morning after the drowning, she had watched from the dock as a water-skier squalled by. She picked up a rock and waited for the boat to loop back. When it did, she hurled the rock and screamed an expletive she had only said once before (when her husband apologized to her in the hospital, after the stillbirth). Even though the boat with the skier was far beyond the reach of her arm or her voice, this undoing had sated her.
She considers telling Ellen this. Instead, she says, “The only thing that’s depressing is you pretending that I’ll ever need this stuff again. We haven’t had a holiday here since your father died. Moving up, moving on, Ellen.”
“Moving up? As in dying? Jesus Christ, Mom, you’re still alive. Live like it.”
“For heaven’s sake, Ellen, I’m getting rid of some boxes. It might be good for you to do the same.”
Her daughter had resisted her reduction in responsibility as she transitioned from mother to grandmother, complaining to Miriam when her daughter-in-law insisted on hosting holidays because the travel was too much for their child. Miriam understood her resistance; Ellen had spent her whole life mothering. As a girl, to keep her younger siblings quiet when their father was on the precipice, Ellen would convince them to pretend they were fugitives hiding in a forest besieged by cannibals. To Ellen, the end of matriarchal responsibilities was synonymous with death.
Her daughter walked away with a fistful of tinsel in her hand, which, a month later, Miriam would find in an empty bird nest; the reflective, bedazzling wisps had either warded predators off until the birds flew the nest, or, flaunting their hideout, had been their death sentence.
That afternoon, Mabel swam too far off the dock and had to be rescued by her father. The scene was not overly dramatic—the girl was a strong swimmer and Miriam’s grandchildren, for all their late-night raucousness, remained somewhat sober and watchful of the children during the day so were quick to recognize the girl had gone too far. When her father asked her why she swam so far, Mabel cried into his chest insisting, “I saw something there.”
The four-year-olds swirled around her chanting, “I saw something there. I saw something there,” until Mabel kicked one of them in the shins.
It was humid and the lake thick, mucosal. “No more swimming today. It’s going to storm. The lake does strange things when it storms.” From Miriam, it was a rare command. Even when her children were little, she asked—her attempt to depressurize the atmosphere, balance the hotness of their father.
“There’s not a cloud in sight, Miriam. The kids can swim, it’s a sauna out here.” Her grandson-in-law, the one who had swan dived into the shallow waters the day before, was helping one of the four-year-olds put on her floatie.
Her son-in-law, the software executive, said, “Ted said you might sink like lead if you don’t know how to tread in the watershed so let’s instead go back to the homestead.”
“You are at my house. None of you are to dip so much as a toe into that water.” She held her pointed finger at her side and made eye contact with each of them.
She might have made herself logical by telling them about the drowning. They would have been angry that she had not mentioned it earlier but would have ultimately understood her desire to shield them—most of them were parents, after all. Instead, she left them murmuring by the lake, where they would stay into the evening, building a fire and roasting hot dogs on sticks, oblivious to the air puckering, turning green.
Miriam drew herself a bath, drowning out her family beside the lake. They might be questioning her wits, formulating a plan to convince her that the house was too much for her. They would be divided, Peter persuading others that she belonged in a retirement community, with Ellen vehement that Miriam remain in place. Those agreeing with Ellen would accuse Peter of being just like their father, and they would spit out the dreadful memories, the violence. Peter would say no, they had it all wrong.
Her replacement knee throbbed under the weight of the approaching storm. Her shoulders, untouched by Ted for days, ached from the extra hours she stood, carrying the weight of her own head to prove to them that she was not dry, withering, irrelevant. She lowered herself into the steaming water with the care she had learned to give herself. She added a handful of rose-scented salts. Miriam was not done. Spiced cider on the dock, the lake aflame in autumn. Forgiveness. Orgasms, more subtle now, but reverberating. Caretaking for an elderly lover—deep-in-the-bones gratitude, exhaustion, grief. This is what she still had before her. She bridged her hips toward the running faucet and let the water pour into her.
Out of the bath, into her nightgown, their voices traveled on the wind and swirled through the room. She closed the window when it started to rain. They would be gone the following evening, maybe never to return, at least not like this, all at once, and she would not miss them—not the mucky footprints on the wooden floors, the cells of the drowned boy dripping from wet suits through the house, the recycling bin overflowing, not even the white noise of them all together, the cohesion of disunity.
She receded into the pillow. Just before sleep, three taps on the window.
Miriam popped out the screen and fed Ted a stepstool. They stifled their giggles when his pants snagged while shimmying through the window.
“I was an obedient boy. Never did master the art of backdoor entry,” he said, and both flushed at the accidental innuendo.
“I can’t stop thinking about him,” Ted said, rain-soaked, turning serious.
“I know,” she said, and she knew that Ted meant both boys whose slipping away he had witnessed. Adelaide had told Miriam that Ted had held their son’s head—cracked like an egg—in his lap after the accident. Miriam and Ted formed their circuit, her body like a comma behind him, their hands clasped together at his chest.
Mabel would arrive sometime in the night, having conjured again the ghost of her great grandfather, or startled by the storm. Even if, in the mistiness of her sleep, she did not notice the other lump in Miriam’s bed, or the sounds of an old man snoring, she would be alarmed to find Ted in the morning, perhaps even scream, assuming Great Papa had returned in the flesh. But that was something to be explained in the light.
For now, she let herself meet Ted in his sleep. There, she sank into the lake, which was besieged by the storm that had extinguished the fire outside and driven her progeny indoors. She let it surround her. She succumbed as it reached and grabbed and swallowed whole anything in its path, spitting out carcasses and bones and other discarded things, merciless as it divided father from boy. But also pitying, in its aftermath, delivering to the shore not tragedy, but treasure for them to uncover in the morning sun: an eagle’s feather; a Vernors bottle cap; an orange life vest, ravished by some fish; even a Petoskey stone loosened from a beaver’s forsaken dam.