Lask lives and writes in Chicago.
We’d kept the windows open to fall asleep to the waves splashing the rocks. Late in the night, Jean got up to go lay next to her daughter. I’d tossed for a while, feeling for grooves in the hotel bed and papery pillowcase, and after 20 minutes or so I was about back asleep when this fishing boat started.
It sounded like a big pickup truck, with guys laughing and cracking cans like tailgaters outside a stadium. It wasn’t even 4:30. I moved the stiff blankets over and got up and went outside.
They were down on the concrete pier. Their boat had two lights mounted to a crossbar in the middle, rocking on the dark water. A man wearing a pullover sweatshirt, ballcap on, walked a cooler down the pier, and I understood that this was a guided fishing tour, an outfit. This was why the laminated sign in our room said not to clean fish in the sink. Jean’s father, I thought for the second time that night, would have called us suckers.
I stood there barefoot pretending the floor of dry pine needles felt good. I watched one of the outfitters untie the rope at the front, another the back. I remembered fishing a much smaller lake with Jean’s father, his aluminum boat’s concrete-filled coffee can anchor, him tying a leader onto my line because I was too impatient to learn the knot. Him calling my fingers ladylike. I told him they were guitarist’s fingers, and he handed me a set of pliers and told me to crimp the barbs on the end of my hook. That I’d get squirmy if I had to rip an uncrimped hook out of a fish’s belly.
Watching the boat take off, the lights getting smaller as they disappeared into the oceanic lake, I thought about the old man in his last days, thanking me. I’d asked for what.
For filling in for the boy that knocked his daughter up and ran off, he said.
I told him I loved his daughter and granddaughter, and he nodded and went back to watching the market reports on the hospital room’s hanging TV.
Now that the outfit was gone I thought about waking Jean and Carissa to show them the moon. It was low and round, with a sliver of dark orange in it. Around it were the last of the night’s constellations, unseen back home.
When I came in Carissa was alone next to Jean’s bed indentation. A rush of water from the room above ours travelled through the pipe attached to the ceiling. The pipe was painted white like the cinderblock walls, the low-ceilinged room itself connected to an Ace Hardware store. But from the kitchen table you could see the lake. So they’d called it a “waterfront suite,” and it wasn’t long after I whispered in bed last night that her father would have called us suckers that Jean went into the other room.
I was unsurprised, though a little frustrated, not to see her in our bed either. Since her father passed in June she’s taken to going to her mother’s apartment at night. To check on her, she says, her mom having gotten the three flat in the divorce years earlier. It’s a well lit and busy enough street we live on, but when she leaves I don’t sleep. Carissa has more than once gotten up to say she heard the door shut. And last weekend I canceled playing an out of town show, telling Jean I didn’t really want to play it. She said I was being overprotective.
I grabbed the room key off the table. After locking the door I went down to the little iron table where the three of us had dinner in the grass by the shore. I hopped up the low rock wall and stood looking up the sand, thinking we’d come here for Carissa’s fourth birthday. Would she remember having to look for her mom? We’d first gone to the small lake her grandpa and I fished on two summers ago. A huge new fake log cabin was there, and the water was cluttered with slick boats pulling tubes and skiers. So we shot over to this peninsula, and after not finding a campsite we got the hotel. I figured, walking back to the room to wake her up, that if she remembered anything it would be the more general blur of trees and water that was upper Wisconsin.
When I came in she’d been sitting on the edge of the bed, feet hanging off. “Is mama out again?” she said.
“She just went for a walk,” I said. “Probably to find us some donuts. Why don’t you grab your blanket and we’ll go find her.”
As we walked out the sun was showing just above an arm of pines across the bay. A breeze off the lake rustled Carissa’s light hair. We got in the car.
“Seatbelt,” I’d said, putting on mine.
“Mama slept in my bed last night,” she said.
“Was she mad at you?”
“She just wanted to be next to you. Are you having a fun birthday?”
The hardware store’s parking lot fed into the boat landing. The car weighed on its rear wheels as we backed to the steep incline, and I stepped on the brake hard before shifting into drive.
“It’s pretty good,” she said. “But I wish grandpa could be here for it.”
“You still have the Snoopy pole he gave you, right?”
“You’d said his fishing spot was changed yesterday,” she said.
I thought about those slick boats again. One of them was carrying a kid on a wakeboard doing acrobatics, a girl with a handheld camera filming from the back. They had people on shore waiting their turn.
“We might find somewhere today,” I said.
We pulled onto the main street, quiet with floating mist the sun had yet to burn off. We turned south. We drove past the restaurant whose fish boil we skipped because of the price. The big pot, the cauldron, was still sitting on the wood pallet in the side lot. The concrete around it was a different shade of grey, changed from a summer of contact with boiled-over water. We passed a house converted into an antique store, an ancient tractor on its well-clipped lawn, its seat holding a hand-painted sign that said ANTIQUES. We passed the bar where we’d gotten our takeout dinner. We were soon at the end of town, the speed limit sign changing to 45 and the trees starting to tunnel.
“We’ll have to turn around,” I said. “And keep a better eye out for donut shops this time.”
“There she is,” Carissa said, pointing. She was pointing at a clearing in the trees, turning her head to look as we passed it. I eased the car onto the shoulder. Its gravel was still dewy, the tires making slurp sounds as we reversed.
“Yeah, there she is,” I said. The clearing was a small orchard, maybe ten rows, running up a hill. The spindly branches looked to be holding peaches. Jean was walking in the dark dirt, her shoes in one hand, wearing the leather coat that no longer fit her mother.
“How did you see her?” I asked.
“I was looking,” Carissa said, opening the door. A gust of air blew in and she left the door open to walk into the shallow road ditch before starting up the hill.
“Right,” I said to myself.
I got out too. I set my elbows on top of the car and watched. Jean had turned around when I shut my door. She waved, and I nodded. She and her daughter had the same light hair and dark brows, and as the little version scrambled up the other side of the ditch I for some reason thought about where I’d have been at this hour last week had we played the show. Probably awake on a futon in another strange apartment.
“What do you say?” Jean shouted down the hill. “Should we find some birthday donuts?”
I shook my head no. Carissa had by now taken off up the hill and her mom dropped her shoes and crouched a little to receive her.
“That sounds about right,” I shouted.
She caught her and raised her up and let her wrap her arms around her neck. She grabbed her shoes and started toward the car. I got back in. I watched her pale muddy feet and rolled jeans coming down the row, the sound of their voices getting less drifty as they got closer. I leaned over and pushed open the passenger door, inhaling the wet gravel smell, not even hungry.