Ben Leeds can’t stop sighing. Getting off the plane is a hassle, like crawling out of a peanut, too small for his body, everything miniature. He sighs as he lifts up his carry-on, sighs when the stewardess thanks him for riding the airline, and sighs as the drone of the turbines fades into bustle of O’Hare Airport. It’s all so tiring, and he’s done his part, worked hard for years, even written up his will. It should be over now. He should fade into the sunset, should have faded five years ago, when he still had his health. But he remains awake, for indistinct reasons. He is certainly awake enough to see Toby and Mary Ann approaching, and a sour taste comes into his mouth.
Toby reaches him first. “Hey, Dad! How are you? You look thin!”
Ben feels ancient. “I have no clue about my body anymore. You don’t pay attention when you’re on borrowed time.”
“Dad, that’s morbid.”
“Well, you do look good,” Mary Ann says. Looking good yourself, he thinks. Better than she has in years, which is strange to him. He has never found her particularly attractive; too tall, even gawkish on certain days. Curvy but with sharp edges. A nice face, yes, that face and her attitude are what got her on local TV in the first place. He sees what his son has seen in her, barely, but nothing beyond the physical, nothing beyond a two month fling, which it looked to be at first and then they were married and gone.
Toby is speaking. “We thought we’d take you out for dinner around here, and then head up to the lake house. Where would you like to go?”
“Got any barbeque?” Ben asks. He’s been thinking about ribs for the past couple of days.
“Good call, Dad. There’s a new place that just opened.”
Ben and Mary Ann look at each other by mistake. Eye contact with his son’s wife is sharp and unpleasant, awkward friction between two subconscious minds. He holds his gaze, trying to read her, and she holds hers, too, the bully. Her green-eyed stare is actually painful for him, as if invisible shrapnel were flying against the whites of his eyes, digging in, slashing toward his irises. Not looking for confrontation, Ben is the first to look away.
At the restaurant, with pink posters of pigs on the walls and swollen plastic swine hanging from the vaulted ceiling, Ben heroically orders the “prehistoric boar-sized rack of ribs,” grinning across the table at his witnesses. But when Mary Ann goes to the washroom, Ben pulls his son close.
“I need to know how the two of you are doing,” he says.
“Who, me and Mary Ann?”
“Clearly,” Ben says. “I don’t want to die wondering if you’ve ended up happy or not.”
“Well, things are actually looking better now. I think we may have turned a corner.”
“Yeah, Dad, people make changes. They figure stuff out.”
“How is that?” Ben asks. He senses something beneath the water of his son’s mind, a squirmy grey fish trying to hide.
“No reason, really. We had a talk, worked some things out.”
“Yes, a talk. About everything. Can we drop the subject?”
So vague, Ben thinks. He may be getting stupid but the kid is up to something. No good can come out of this marriage. He can’t believe it’s lasted twelve years, both of them always annoyed, practically clawing at each other. And the kid acts like he deserves it.
Mary Ann returns to the table, looking spruced, curvaceous as before. Ben looks for all those bony points but can’t find them. “Well,” she says, “how’s Charleston?”
“Charleston? Oh, it’s fine, really. The place is nice. Great history there but still a lot of ignorance. Would you believe it, after all this time?”
“Well,” Toby says, “there’s always room for change.”
The waitress arrives, skinny and pale but looking humored. “Prehistoric boar ribs for the grandfather,” she says, and slides a steaming plate of sweaty meat under him, bony and red like a caveman’s xylophone.
“Thanks,” Ben says. “I don’t know how I’m going to eat this.”
Toby laughs, then leans back to receive his pulled pork. Mary Ann seems content to pick at a salad doused in chicken chunks. Ben stuffs a napkin in his shirt collar, peels off a rib, and tries to suck meat off the bone. With all of them eating, a silence fills the table, and Ben once again thinks that some strange secret is in the air. All of it is a mess when he tries to think about it or guess, especially with his mind in the state it is these days, feeling like a dried-out attic, full of smoke from some internal fire that he can’t find but knows is burning, waiting to flush him out.
“Dad,” Toby says. “You’re not eating.”
Ben looks down at his plate, and the meat seems bloated and unnatural, too much for his body. “I’m getting there, kid, I’m getting there.”
“This is why you’re so thin? Because you’re not eating?”
Mary Ann nods. “His cheeks look a little sunken.”
“I’m right here,” Ben says. “You’re talking like I’m not in the room.”
“We’re just concerned, Dad. Are the ribs cooked alright?”
“Yes, they’re fine. Let’s change the subject. What about my lake house?”
Toby frowns. “What about it?”
“Are you two taking care of it? Paying the real estate tax?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“If you don’t they can kick you out of the house.”
“I know, Dad.”
“What about the pipes? Did you have them drained over winter? And the water turned off?”
“Dad, come on. Mary Ann and I are both adults. We’ve been taking care of the lake house for years.”
“Well, I want to make sure everything is like it used to be.”
“It’s better. We’ve even made some improvements.”
“Improvements,” Ben says, pushing the plate away.
On the ride to the lake house Ben is tired, looking out the window at blurry flashes of light. He sits in the back seat and feels his eyes open and close, open and close. The ride takes two hours, up into the forests and vineyards of coastal Michigan, and Ben tries to keep up with the conversation but ends up getting lost. Toby asks about the Cubs and Ben feels a familiar damp cloud settle over his mind, stifling his desire to talk. There comes a time, he thinks, when silence is truly preferable.
Ben unbuckles his seatbelt and lays down. He closes his eyes and the murmur of Toby’s sports talk fades away. Mary Ann has rolled down her window and the car gives off a wind tunnel sound, a steady roar in his ears, like the old fan he had next to his bed as a boy. The fan: a tall square of pale blue borders with a plastic cage and a dirtied knob on top, would start with a dull lurch and then speed up like an engine-fed propeller, dousing him in sound and a thickening breeze. He’d turn it on high at night. He’d turn it on high and that wind tunnel sound would carry him away, humming and fading as he drifted into darkness, his bed becoming sky. He wonders if his own death will be the same: a wind, wide and loose, blowing. Fading away. Ben feels someone shaking him.
“Dad, you alright? We’re here.”
He opens his eyes and finds himself in the grey cave of the garage, rakes mounted like weaponry. “Already? How long have I been out?”
Toby leans against the car and sighs. “Thirty minutes. You tired?”
“No. Kind of. I’m telling you, I’m always tired, so it’s hard to figure.”
“Well, are you ready to go inside?”
“Is Mary Ann in there?”
“Of course, Dad, she’s my wife.”
Ben has trouble grasping this. “Right, kid, just making sure,” he says. He grunts as he picks himself out of the car, a hundred bulky pieces somehow tied together.
“Jeez, Dad,” Toby says.
“No, no, I’m fine now,” he says, and means it, feeling himself reconnecting with reality.
Toby opens the door in the garage and Ben walks up three steps, into the kitchen, thankful for his healthy knees. Mary Ann is nowhere in sight.
“I’m going to go upstairs to bed, Dad. You need anything?”
Ben is trying to remember something from dinner.
“Dad, you need anything? Hello?”
“No,” Ben says, finally. “Do you? Do you need anything?”
Toby yawns. “No, Dad, everything’s great. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Toby’s footsteps thump upstairs to the bedroom, and Ben stays where he is, in the vacation home that used to be his. The kitchen has been expanded—the tiny nook with the cutting board and utensil-shaped cabinet knobs is gone, traded in for granite counter tops and chic, dark wood. The adjacent living room has fared better. The white brickwork and stone fireplace remain, but on the wall, replacing the chipped steering wheel from his father’s 1965 Chris Craft, is Monet’s The Beach at Trouville, or so the inscription says. No doubt Mary Ann’s work. They hadn’t even asked him about it, and he wonders where the wheel is now. Locked in a closet, maybe. Or gone.
Ben opens the sliding door and walks onto the deck. The summer air is cooler now. He removes his shoes and socks, placing them neatly next to the door, then runs his bare feet along the cedar planks, feeling the tiny grains of sand under his toes. Sand that’s been trailed in from over thirty years of family vacations. The house is up high, surrounded by darkened leaves, and below he can hear the shore and the sighing of the waves. They can’t take this away from him, he thinks. The entire house can be remodeled, every heirloom traded in, but the lake below will remain.
He makes his way up to the guest bedroom, finds his suitcase waiting next to the brand new queen bed, with its almond comforter and stylish tracings of fish. Outside the window, he can see the darkened spread of dune grass leading out to the shadowy swell of Lake Michigan. There are a couple framed pictures on the bedside table, along with a tall and skinny cosmopolitan lamp that wasn’t there before. He looks at the old photographs. One of them depicts Mary Ann’s parents, Ted and Sheila, from years ago, grinning. The other is of Ben and his son. Ben marvels at how young Toby looks, probably still in college, with that sure-fire cocky grin that he got just before he broke up with his high school girlfriend. Still, at that point he was doing alright, happy. Ben sees himself and thinks that yes, he too looks good in the picture. His thick head of hair, his gristle, his brown eyes intelligent and the old sadness fading. Those had been good days. The huge dip after Cindy died, a wild rockiness like someone jumping off a boat, had been laid calm eventually, understood, and life had found a second peak. Ben had even dated around a little.
After brushing his teeth and tossing cool water onto his tan, grey-grizzled face, Ben drifts back to the guest room and into the bed, sinking deeply in the folds. The sheets are cool and the ceiling above him is spotted with shadows from the surrounding maples. Then he hears the sound of the big, plastic fan calling him, a sound that keeps coming back from somewhere inside his ears and then all around the room, that longing drone from when he was a boy, when he would turn the pillow over restlessly, trying to find the coolest side to nestle against his cheek and ear. Beside his bed had been a book about space; wormholes and shooting stars. His sheets had been light blue and his bed had been soft in the middle, sagging down slightly in a way that he had liked, though his mother always talked of buying a new mattress. His mother had wanted things. His mother. He feels dreams beginning around him, starting up without his permission. He sees Cindy with her back to him, her short hair tossing in the wind, walking on the beach in Santa Barbara like she always did before. Her legs…her long, beautiful legs are walking away. He tries to follow with his eyes but she disappears. It’s so odd, he thinks, that you can never remember the last moments before falling asleep. You can never witness yourself passing or be aware of the soundless, pitch-black dropping into the other realm, an inverted fall into yourself, a silent circling fall that brings you toward a universe created out of hope and lust and pain, next to seas of glistening triangles that reach up and lap your skull and you can see for miles though there’s thick powdery mist but you can still see and there are lights and a cliff and his wife is inside him and he feels her hand on his lips like the breeze as he falls.
In the morning, Ben makes a heaping bowl of cereal, pouring expertly, the flakes hitting the inside of the bowl like sprinkling rain. He’s always had a certain grace in his motions. Toby, he knows, has lived differently. His son walks into the kitchen, pulls up a stool to the counter, and watches him pour the milk.
“Dad, how’d you sleep?”
“Fine, Toby. Just fine.” Mornings are the best for him. He feels sharp, and the sunlight through the sliding doors is promising.
“When do you want to head down to the beach? I figure we can go early. Ted and Sheila should be up here in a couple hours.”
Ben turns to look at his watch. “Right. Whenever you want, son. They’re her parents.”
“Yeah, well, they really get a kick out of you. I guess Ted has some new jet skis he’s bringing for the occasion. The new high-tech ones with the jump button?”
“Don’t know about that. Where’s the sugar?”
“Front cupboard. No, over there. To the right, Dad.”
“Sugar’s supposed to be out in the open.”
“Anyway, these jet skis sound pretty fun. I mean, I don’t know if you’ll want to take them out, but it would be entertaining to watch.”
“Okay, just finish with the damn sugar and then listen.”
“Toby, I don’t think it’s going to happen with the jet skis. It was a nice thought on Ted’s part, but I’d much rather read on that beach chair. What’s the padding on that? Calf skin? It’s like a throne.”
“Yeah, well. Whatever. Listen, there’s something else I want to talk to you about. It’s important.”
“This doesn’t sound promising,” Ben says, fixing his eyes on the stainless steel refrigerator. This is the secret he sensed at dinner.
“Look, Dad, it’s just that…Mary Ann and I have been talking, and—”
“Talking? You two never talk.”
“Just listen, alright? Some of the things you’ve been doing lately have been worrying us. You know, falling asleep in the car when we’re talking to you, not eating, waking up and not knowing where you are, the general confusion—”
“Sorry to interrupt you, kid, but I’m old. Old people fall asleep in the car at night. It happens. I just hope you’re not going where I think you’re going.”
“Try not to fight me too much, okay? There are tons of great facilities you could live in. Places around here, I mean. You would have all the care you need; regular visits to the doctor, restaurants and movie nights, and plus, we would be able to visit you. You understand what I’m saying, right?”
Ben stirs his cereal and thinks of the old home in Chicago.
“There’s a place called River Brook, for example.”
“A bit redundant.”
“Just listen. It would be so much easier for you. They’ve got a great cafeteria, movies are shown every other day, and the rooms are fantastic. Seriously, Dad. Bay windows. We can get you a place up high, overlooking a natural prairie. It would be perfect.”
“What do you think? It’s not a special home or anything like that, you know. You’d have complete autonomy.”
“I don’t need to be a genius to figure out who cooked this one up. Where is that witch, anyway?”
“Dad, she’s my wife.”
“Your wife? All you two do is catfight and suddenly you’re her knight in shiny armor? Why don’t you tell me what’s really is going on? Do you honestly think that putting me away will make your marriage better?”
Toby sighs. “Nobody said that. I never said that.”
“No,” Ben says, “but you believe it. I can see it in your eyes, and I could see it last night. Tell you what. That’s fine. I’ll live in Old Man River Waters, or whatever it’s called. I’ll play poker with ninety-five year old men, and I’ll take everything they own. You’ll see a pile of walkers and teeth in my room after about a week. That’ll be my winnings. And during the day, I’ll stare at the TV, watching game shows with a little bowl under my chin to collect the drool. Right? Come on!” For the first time, he looks at his son and gives him a slap on the back.
“You don’t have to be so sarcastic,” Toby says.
“I’m not! That’s the best part. Your old man will be senile by association over there. Congratulations.”
“Great, Dad. Just great.”
“I said I would do it. Now can we please go down to the beach? I think I will use those jet skis after all.”
Ben hears hurried footsteps and turns to see Mary Ann, walking briskly in a yellow sundress, with the dark straps of a swimsuit snaking across her bony shoulders. On her arm is a cream colored beach bag with Kadima paddles and a glossy pink paperback; beach reading, no doubt.
“You two talking?” Mary Ann asks.
“We just finished,” Ben says, glaring openly. His mood evaporates. Now he sees those bony points. Elbows and collarbones and nobby knees—a small consolation.
“Oh, good. I hope it was a nice talk.”
“Where’s my steering wheel?” Ben asks.
“My steering wheel? From my father’s Chris Craft? It was on that living room wall for thirty years. I’m wondering where it went.”
“It’s a simple question. Where did it go, Mary Ann?”
Toby shakes his head. Ben stares at his son’s wife, who chews on her lip unremorsefully.
“It’s in the closet,” she says, finally.
Ben squints. “The closet?” Even her nose looks bony.
“I mean the attic. We had to put it in the attic. The paint was chipped and flaking down on the couch. It couldn’t be helped. It was a great wheel. I tried to make do with that painting. The Monet?”
“Can I see it later, Mary Ann?”
“Not the Monet. The wheel.”
“Dad,” Toby says again.
Mary Ann waves him off. “Sure. I’ll look for it. We can both look for it. There’s a lot of stuff up there, so it might take awhile. But we can definitely look.”
It’s gone, Ben thinks. Taken out to the trash long ago. She thinks I’m too stupid to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
“How about that beach, Dad? You want to head down now?”
“Jet skis,” Ben says, remembering that it’s still morning. “I’m ready.”
Ben loves the new jet skis. They make barely a whisper, they can’t be broken, they jump high off waves thanks to the boost button and they don’t hurt your damn crotch, which is why he kept away from them in the first place. These ones, sleek and black like little stealth airplanes, are safe and exciting. At seventy-six years of age, with his son looking at him like a crazy man, Ben rides half a mile off the coast to do wave jumps with Ted, Mary Ann’s father, and Toby. Lake Michigan merges from green-tinted cloudiness to a deep black swell of expansiveness. The water feels colder. The breeze blows against his face and the jet ski cuts and bobs through the water, spraying chilly droplets on his forehead and nose and lips, a twang of mineral on his tongue. The beach behind disappears into a white strip of floss. Ted is far ahead of him now, pressing that jump button and sending his jet ski high in the air. Ben doesn’t dare go for the jumps yet; he wants to get close and make sure it’s actually safe. It has to be; they have these babies for rent in the ritzy areas of Florida and they let them out to kids a quarter of his age. He gets closer, craning forward on the handle bars, watching as Ted goes up in the air off one of the rollers. The jet ski unleashes a breathing, spraying sound and explodes off the wave at the press of the button, hanging about three feet in the air. It would make a great photo, Ben thinks, minus the hairy back. They’d have to airbrush that mess right away. Ted comes down with the gracefulness of a lily on the water, something about the hollowness of the craft and the resistance jets make every landing impeccable. This is technology, Ben thinks. It creeps up and you don’t know what’s different until you start comparing it to the past. He hears a soft hissing sound and sees Toby coming up behind him, riding alongside and waving. The engines are so soft they can speak easily.
“You okay, Dad?”
“Yes. Why? Everyone tells me I should get out more. You’re worried about me riding this little toy?”
Toby waves him off. “Just checking, old man. And why don’t you have your life vest buttoned?”
Ben looks down, sees the blur of orange flapping in the wind. It’s a hindrance, really, a straight jacket—
“Dad, are you crazy? Snap that life vest together.”
“It’s getting in the way. I’m taking it off.”
“What?” Toby looks so startled he almost capsizes.
“Come on, son. I’m trying to enjoy myself.”
The wave runners hit a roller that bucks up the noses and sends a fresh spray of water and foam in the air. When they land, Ben sees that the vest has partially slipped down his body, dangling on one of his forearms. He shrugs it off and feels the wind take it away.
“It’s okay,” he laughs. “It’s all in good fun.”
Ben squeezes the right handle and twists it up and the black stealth under him zooms across the water, lightly bumping, leaving Toby behind. He feels good, despite everything. He drives faster. His eyes tear up and his thoughts wash away with the the breeze. The wind is getting wild and the sky is turning grey on the horizon. Maybe they’ll see a storm tonight after all. He rides in silence, hearing only the whir of the motors, seeing the thickening green rollers that Lake Michigan hardly ever gets, but are getting now because of this wind. The wave runner bounces again.
A storm. Stormy nights at the lake house are usually enjoyable. Ted will bring out cards and they’ll all play poker, and Mary Ann will get enough booze in her to relax and stay quiet. A storm would be nice—he remembers the way the heavy winds used to rattle the windowpanes when Toby was a kid, and how Toby would put his hands against the glass, fascinated, until he heard the thunder. Then he would scatter and run to bed, and Ben would pour himself a glass of red, a heavy cab, and listen to the storm by himself. Ahead, in the far distance, Ben sees a single white sailboat. He’d like to get a closer look at it, but the wind—it’s still picking up. He goes faster. The water sprays wildly, striking his face and blurring his vision, and Ben doesn’t see Ted fading back and back and back. He doesn’t see Ted waiving that his engine has died. He doesn’t see Ted trying to get untangled as he circles idly in front of Ben’s field of vision. Ben is concentrating on the sailboat, and he thinks the yelling has to do with the wind and the water. Ben, roaring with speed, hears the yelling that is now very close, and sees a sudden snapshot of Ted’s bearded face and gold-flecked eyes, a quick frozen snapshot of fear and then a wild smack of plastic on plastic and there’s water in the air like a geyser and someone is mumbling while Ben feels weightless, silently falling.
He sees nothing but white spray and turns in midair and suddenly the nose of a wave runner appears, sharp black, and jumps toward his face and mouth and there is blackness and a plunge of sheer cold and he hears motors above him like planes but knows he’s underwater. A wave recedes and air opens up and one of his eyes are open, and he hears more shouting and sees blurred objects but another roller comes in and he’s under again. He feels his head, numb and aching, slide against the upturned jet ski, drifting under it, his nose a gaping hole with blinding hot needles. He chokes for breath but water snakes into his lungs like a cold tentacle, chilling him as he retches, and then the air opens up and someone has a fistful of his hair and is tugging, and someone is shouting “Dad!” and Ben opens the one eye that works and sees red rivulets all over his hands, coming from his nose and mouth, leaking down across his body, and then the hold on his hair slips and he drops into the cold depths like a stone.
The motors seem farther away and Ben can’t breathe now. The tentacle in his lungs is squeezing and he feels his feet kicking feebly at nothing, and briefly he thinks sharks but realizes that it’s a lake and it doesn’t matter, because he’s still sinking, he hasn’t stopped, and the cold tentacle tightens its grip into his chest, and he feels a queasy dizziness and a lifting away and a brief but startling image of a woman smiling. Too quickly, though, the figure vanishes and he’s back with the lazy black bubbles, and he is grateful as he hears the sound of the wave runners above him, a sound so familiar he almost forgets where it’s from. He hears splashing and an arm slings roughly around his neck but he’s thinking about the engines above, thinking as he fades, that they sound exactly as his fan did when he was a boy. The slippery arm is tugging him upward, trying to get him out but he can’t see and everything feels white even the water looks white and light and the cold tightness in his chest isn’t cold anymore and a brief dream of his wife comes into the light again and then there is no vision but the whiteness and the bubbles and the lifting. All he can hear is the roar of the motors and he thinks that this is what he’s heard all along, every night, not the fan but this, always these engines, always these engines.
Erik Fassnacht has studied in Ireland, taught high school English, and collected over 100 vintage Chicago Bulls games on DVD. His fiction has previously appeared in The Smoking Poet, and he currently lives in Chicago while working on his M.F.A.
© 2011, Erik Fassnacht