Chapter 1: Stones on Water
I remember the train station as a cavern of thick, white light. My father stood before us, mouthing his goodbyes as if he was going on just another business trip. It being late Winter, with the tang of chill in the air, he wore a gray trench coat and a small-brimmed hat.
“Take care of the boy,” he said.
Mother said nothing. Her fingers gripped my small wrist until it hurt. Mother and my father did not kiss. My father put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze, then turned and walked slowly along the platform. For a few moments, he was tall and black, thick as a summer shadow. Then, as the light worked to dissolve him, he began to shrink and fade to grey. Then he was small and pale as the ash from mother’s cigarette. Then he was gone.
That was the last of him.
The clatter of train and track tapped against my back like waves. I walked at mother’s side. It felt as if my shoes had filled with clay.
That evening, while I ate my T.V. dinner, mother explained to me that my father was going to be gone longer than usual and not to be worried if she had a friend come visit her to keep her company while father was away. She told me that I was going to be the man of the house for a time, more or less, and that one of my responsibilities was going to be not to talk about my father, as that would only upset her and make the loneliness hurt deeper.
“Do you understand, Lanny, what I’m telling you?” She asked.
I told her I understood fine and that she could count on me.
She told me I was a good boy, and then she lit up a cigarette.
Barely a day passed before I met mother’s friend, Mr. Allen. He was a very large man with rough hands with big gold and diamond rings on nearly all of his fingers. He smoked even more than mother, and he pretty nearly always came to the house with a brown paper bag under his arm. I had the feeling he wasn’t especially partial toward children, and I didn’t much mind that I was always sent to my room when Mr. Allen came to help mother with her loneliness problem.
However, as time went on, Mr. Allen seemed to be acting more like the man of the house. On Saturdays he showed up with his brown bag around noontime. When the last snow fell, he pushed the snow blower up and down the driveway, hollering and hooting, like he a TV cowboy on a bucking bronco. Half the neighborhood came out to stare. After the first grass poked up its little green heads, he fired up the lawn mower and cut it down to where you couldn’t hardly tell it was grass no more, then he handed me a rake.
“It’s about time you started earning your keep,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” I answered. I didn’t like looking at his big pink face, so most of the time when he talked to me, I just stared at the ground.
My trouble with Mr. Allen started on one of those Saturday afternoons.
Mr. Allen was cutting the lawn, like usual, when then the mower died on him. It just coughed and stopped. He tried yanking the cord a bunch of times, but nothing happened. He threw his cigarette down on the grass and cursed real loud and kicked the lawn mower.
“My dad could fix it,” I said.
Mr. Allen walked up to me slowly. I glanced up at his eyes. They were red.
“What did you say, boy?”
“If he was here,” I answered. My knees were shaking and they felt watery inside. “My dad could fix it.”
“I thought we had a rule around here,” Mr. Allen said, more like a growl.
“I didn’t mean—”
“Where I come from, a rule is a rule.”
“Get in the house.”
I went in the house and straight to my room. I waited. I didn’t wait long.
Mr. Allen’s voice called me to the kitchen. I walked down the hall. I knew something bad was going to happen.
Mr. Allen was standing by one side of the kitchen table. Mother sat at the other side, looking out the window, smoking a cigarette. Mr. Allen had his belt from his pants wrapped around his hand, with the buckle part hanging loose.
“Rules is as rules does. That’s what they say where I grew up.”
Mother never looked at me once. I followed Mr. Allen out to the garage where I used to watch my father take apart the lawn mower and clean the pieces with a rag and gasoline and then put them all back together again. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry, but I did. A lot.
That night I tried not to feel the pain and I covered my head with my pillow so I wouldn’t hear much of what was being said in the kitchen. They were shouting, though, and some of it carried through.
A few days later I rode in the back seat of the car. Mother drove. Not once did she turn around. She just kept on facing the road, showing me only the back of her head, the dark brown hair pulled into a braid that dropped from a pink pillbox hat. Ribbons of smoke from her cigarette slithered out the crack in the window. The tin radio blasted music from the Canadian side of the border.
“Love is like an itching in my heart,” the voice sang. “Tearing it apart.”
The red brick houses of the town became wooden ones, then scattered and thinned until there was only a red farmhouse now and again, or a barn with the name of a chewing tobacco painted on the side. Then the forest began to gather.
The trees, brilliant in their new Spring coats of green, smudged past the window. One dead oak stood at the edge of the road, a lone vulture ornamenting its black limbs, appearing, for a moment, like the figure of father slouching toward his leaving train. I slumped back into the new-smelling seat cover and closed my eyes.
“Lanny, wake up. We’re here.”
I opened my eyes to see mother’s face pressing close to mine. Her lips were unnaturally red, painted to look like a squat heart. Her cheeks were rouged, and her brown eyes were circled with black, the color of the dead oak.
I rubbed my eyes and crawled out of the car. I had to catch my balance. It was a big step for a little boy.
“So when’ll we be seeing you again, Julianne?”
I recognized the voice of my uncle Jim. He had been to our house a few times. Mother had never liked him. She said his missing finger made her sick at her stomach, but my father argued back at her that her dislike ran deeper than that. That was one of a lot of arguments they never finished in front of me.
Uncle Jim stood a few feet from the car, the toe of his right foot scuffing the gravel. He kept one hand in his pocket. He was looking down. My mother was looking at a cloud passing in the blue sky.
“Soon, Jim. But I can’t say exactly when. I’ll leave you a message at Cabot’s to let you know I’m coming down.”
“That’ll be fine,” Uncle Jim said.
She pulled something from her purse.
“No,” Uncle Jim said. “You keep it. We don’t need it.”
Mother didn’t hesitate in stashing the green roll back in her purse.
Mother crouched and put her face close to mine.
“You behave for your uncle. Understand?”
“I don’t want any bad reports coming back to me.”
I shook my head.
“He won’t cause you any trouble,” she said.
“Glad to be of help,” Uncle Jim said.
Mother leaned over and pecked the top of my head.
She turned toward her car and then turned back.
“And one last thing, Jim,” she said, hard. “I’m leaving him American. And that’s how I want him back. American.” She looked down at me and twisted her lower lip. “You understand what I’m saying.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Uncle Jim said. His eyes had a faraway look in them. “I understand” was all he said.
“Not one single mention of C-H-I-N-You-Know-What.”
“Not a peep.”
“And that goes double for MayLynne.”
“American,” Uncle Jim said. “Red, white and blue.”
Then Uncle Jim and I stood side by side, watching the big blue car roar away along the dirt road, skipping like a stone on water. It being Spring and just after a rain, the car didn’t raise much dust.
Chapter 2: The Cabin on the Lake
“She’ll be back,” Uncle Jim said as the car disappeared around the curve.
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
“Fact of the matter is, I’ll bet she’ll be back to get you real shortly.”
I just nodded my head.
Uncle Jim hefted the suitcase full of most everything I owned onto his shoulder and set off toward the house. I followed behind. Uncle Jim was a short man, but powerful. He seemed to me to be just about as wide in the shoulder as he was tall. He whistled as he walked, a song I’d never heard before, strange, but happy.
“Come on, young man,” he called back. “Need you to get the door for me.”
I skipped ahead and pulled the latch of the battered screen door.
“Lanny,” he said, whistling from the effort as he lowered my suitcase onto the floor beside a stairway.
“That’s a fine name. That was your Granddad’s name. Your father ever tell you about his daddy?”
Uncle Jim wiped the back of his hand across his forehead and whistled a fragment of that strange tune.
“Your daddy’s a busy man, being in business and all that. But me, I’m what you’d call retired. I got time on my hands. I got time in the cupboard. Heck, I got more time than a skunk’s got stink.”
He went to the fridge and took out a beer.
“I guess I can spend a little of it teaching you about your Granddad.”
A voice came from rooms away, a woman’s voice.
“Be right there, MayLynne.”
He whispered to me.
“That’s your Aunt MayLynne. She hasn’t been feeling herself lately, so she’s taken to bed most of the time. Your coming is, well, it’s gonna be a bit of a surprise for her. But don’t worry. She’s got a head harder than a tree stump, but she always comes around. You can bet money on that.”
I had been a surprise package for a few aunts and uncles over the years when mother and father had broke into a big fight, and I kind of knew what to expect. Mostly, I was treated like a stray dog they’d just as soon dump off at the pound. Uncle Jim seemed to be a nice enough man, though, taking me in on such short notice as he had and being friendly and all.
“Stay put now. Be right back.”
I stayed put long enough for Uncle Jim to leave the kitchen, then I followed him, tiptoeing so I wouldn’t get found out.
Just past the kitchen was a big living room, paneled with knotty pine. There were windows on one side, and on the other two doors, which led to Uncle Jim’s bedroom and then Aunt MayLynne’s. Uncle Jim had closed the door to his sister’s room, but I could hear voices behind it.
“Did I hear something come in with you?” Aunt MayLynne said very sternly, as if she was talking to a boy my age, not a man, even one Uncle Jim’s size.
“Well, see, MayLynne, I—”
“No more strays, Jim! After that raccoon, you promised, no more strays! They carry diseases, Jim. Lord knows, that’s why I’ve got the spells. Maybe the raccoon brought it in with him. Maybe he was a carrier. Lord knows, I might have caught the plague.”
“You don’t have the plague, MayLynne. Doc said you got tired blood.”
“It’s not my blood that’s tired, it’s my heart, worn down by caring too much for the likes of you.”
I left Uncle Jim and Aunt MayLynne to their discussion and went on to explore the house. Past the bedrooms was another door, which led to a screened porch. It was fresh-painted white. Outside was a yard that seemed to have been chiseled right out of the forest. There was grass and a few tall trees, two of them joined by a rope hammock. On either side of the yard, though, was a wall of what looked like solid green where the forest took over. In between, framed by the thickness of the limbs, was a patch of the bluest water I’d ever seen.
I walked down to the lakefront. A dock, made out of steel pipe and wooden planks, stuck out twenty feet into the water. Beside it floated a metal boat, green, brown and red paint showing through the chips in the fresh coat of blue. The oars were the same blue color, with the same chips showing through. A small motor balanced on the back end, the propeller blades dangling a few inches out of the lake.
From the end of the dock I could see pretty much the entire lake, except to my right, where the lake took a turn and disappeared behind the trees. That corner was all trees. Across the lake were a half-dozen cabins with their yards running one into the next, not all carved into the forest, like Uncle Jim’s. These were spaced even from each other, and each one had its own dock and a boat up on blocks next to it. The water went on a long way on my left. On the far bank, a dirt road began flush with the shoreline and went back into the forest for a space before it disappeared. That and the six houses were the only signs of people to be seen. I’d already got an eyeful of people, as much as I wanted, and I felt good that what people there were were a good way off and separated from me by a green forest and blue water.
A hand landed on my shoulder, and I spooked and jumped and would have probably landed in the water if Uncle Jim hadn’t caught my arm with his other hand and steadied me.
“I explained to your aunt about your staying here with us awhile,” Uncle Jim said. He rubbed his short greying hair with his knuckles. “She had a bit of a spell, but she’s all right now. She’ll probably be ready to meet you by tomorrow. Wednesday, tops.”
We walked back through the house. I could have been imagining it, but it seemed like Uncle Jim walked extra softly as he passed Aunt MayLynne’s room. In the kitchen, Uncle Jim once again hefted my suitcase and climbed the stairs with me just a couple steps behind.
My room was at the top of the stairs. It was narrow, but it ran the full length of the house. There were two small square windows, one at either end, and a weak breeze blew through them and carried a smell of pine that brightened the air. Against one wall was an old chest of drawers, and a chair and a table and a lamp beside it. On the other side of the room were three beds, running parallel with the long room.
“When there’s company, you’ll have to share,” Uncle Jim explained.
That night I lay in my bed, sobbing, with my face pressed in the pillow, so the sound wouldn’t carry. That was a trick I’d learned some time back when I was staying with Aunt Rita, from my mother’s side, who used to make me wear diapers any time I cried or did anything in such a fashion as to appear unmanly in any way. Like mother, Aunt Rita smoked cigarettes, and she always smelled as if her hair, which was short and stuck close to her head, had caught fire and somebody had put it out with a towel soaked in dirty dishwater. The pillow trick came in handy, too, with Uncle Dick, mother’s eldest brother, who had a thick, broad wood paddle he called Officer No-Baloney Maloney and breath so whisky-strong it could have set the fire that took off Aunt Rita’s hair, although it was my understanding that the two of them hadn’t spoken to nor seen each other since long before I was born, even.
I guess Uncle Jim must have had unnaturally good hearing. The lamp clicked on, and Uncle Jim’s shadow fell across me, moving onto the wall as he got to the side of my bed.
“What’s the matter, son?” He asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just hot. That’s all.”
Uncle Jim pulled one of the blankets down.
“You miss your mom and dad.”
Uncle Jim knelt at my bedside and brushed the hair away from my face.
“Sometimes, when I feel lonely and I can’t sleep, I just try to listen,” he whispered. “Listen. You know what that sound is.”
I listened. At first, I heard only confusion, all these voices rising and falling in different rhythms and pitches, as if none of them heard the sounds the others were making.
“You know what that is?”
“Frogs,” Uncle Jim said. “There must be ten thousand of ‘em out there, singing because they’re lonely and they want to find a friend.”
“If there’s so many of them, then how can they be lonely?” I asked.
Uncle Jim laughed quietly.
“I guess they’re like people in that respect,” he said. “The more of them you get packed into one place, the lonelier they seem to be.
I listened to the voices of the ten thousand frogs. All of a sudden, it was beautiful, and it made me feel better, knowing they felt lonely, like me.
“Keep listening,” Uncle Jim whispered. He stood up.
“Your momma’s coming back,” he said. “If I know women, and I do, I just know she’s coming back for you real soon.”
Uncle Jim turned out the light and climbed down the stairs. I listened to the songs of the frogs, and as I did, my eyelids grew heavier and heavier.
Continue on to Chapter 3
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