Retreat

Fiction
Jim Ray Daniels


Photo Credit: Bill Froberg/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

August. The beach stunk with warm algae slime. The green neon landscape of some alien, post-apocalyptic planet, not the serene artist’s retreat Steve had imagined when he bought the cottage eight months earlier.

The yellow blot of sun brightened the already-fluorescent algae. Steve pushed the rubber raft, Sea Cruiser 2000, into the water. The algae stirred slightly, staining the sides of the white raft, draping itself over the looped rope dragging behind. It clung to Steve’s pant legs as he pushed off and hopped in across from Amy. They rowed in circles around the small pond. It was not a lake. Not large enough to even have a name. It was called “The Lake” by the other cottage owners, whose own names Steve kept forgetting.

He and Amy had planned on heading back to Morgantown later that afternoon, or even the next day—school wouldn’t start for another two weeks—but Amy panicked when the car wouldn’t start. She’d wanted to drive out to Drover’s Tavern and Dry Goods Store to purchase a Sunday paper that wasn’t The Intelligencer, the local conservative rag that Steve used to start their fires.

He thought maybe she’d flooded the engine or drained the battery or both. She’d planned the newspaper as a surprise—sneaking out while he was asleep—only to have to shake him awake. “The car won’t start”: the four dreaded words that made the coffee bitter, and the pancakes dry, no matter how much syrup he forced on them. “The car won’t start,” she repeated on a loop, like a Bible verse repeated on the one station their old clock radio picked up, its bent antenna poking against the window screen.

“It’s too early to get help,” Steve said. “Let’s go out on the lake and calm down a little. Maybe it’ll start when we get back.”

“Oh, like magic?” Amy said, but she followed him down to shore, stepping in his footprints to avoid the goose shit. The wild dogs and the geese fought over noise rights. The geese seemed to be winning, based on the amount of shit, though at the moment they must have been encamped on one of the other small ponds in that small corner of southwestern Pennsylvania where West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania blended together. But it was like garlic mixed with salt and pepper—it all smelled like West Virginia, the strong tang and sting of hill country spilling over the back roads.

*

Steve grabbed the small blue plastic paddles and began rowing. He closed his eyes and imagined the tiny chlorine-filled backyard pools of his friends in suburban Detroit, where they swam in circles long enough to create a whirlpool, then jumped on a float, and drifted away the hot afternoon.

He’d—they’d—bought the place in October, the weekend of their first anniversary, the pond clear of algae, glistening in autumn stillness like the wet insides of an apple. The tree out front—Ted didn’t even know what kind—still bright with red and orange leaves, enormous and rippling in fresh wind over water. The money was his, and that was one of many secret grudges they held against each other.

In that glossy postcard moment, they hadn’t imagined raking those leaves. They’d overlooked the impressive array of equipment lining the slightly listing walls of Babe’s old wooden garage: the leaf spinner, the leaf claws, the weighted leaf-collection bags, the big rakes and the small. Babes. If there ever was a woman who did not match that nickname, it was Babes Harkness. How she acquired it, they never found out. Her real name was Henrietta, they learned when they signed the purchase papers. If only that had been the last of Babes.

She couldn’t give up the place, despite turning over the keys, cashing their check. She lived in Follansbee, a small industrial town on the Ohio River about twenty miles away. She seemed to show up every time they were there—who knew how often she drove by when they were not, her car on autopilot, or firmly trained, like Babes’ yappy little dog, to obey. Steve suspected she’d kept a set of keys and snooped around while they were back in Morgantown. He meant to change the locks, but he liked the smooth feel of the tarnished keys.

They were happy the cottage got no cell phone service, but like many things about the place, the positive turned negative, their quiet mornings disturbed without warning by Babes’ sporty little Mazda crunching up the gravel driveway. She always had a reason—something she forgot to tell them about the septic, the pipes, the electric.

*

And there she was, skidding into gravel on that hot Sunday morning. Steve kept rowing through algae toward the center of the pond. He strained to hum loud enough to drown out Babes’ arrival. Amy nudged him in the groin with her foot from where she sat in the tiny raft that seemed to have been designed for a person and a half, not two. “Babes,” she hissed.

“We’re busy,” he said. “Preoccupied. We don’t see her. Enjoying this lovely day on this beautiful lake so enormous that we are invisible out here.”

“It’s so tiny she can hear every word we say,” Amy said.

Babes was striding down the hill to the water’s edge where each year the Wellcroft Cottage Association dumped a load of dark brown sand and called it a beach. The geese shat on it like their private litter box.

Babes was waving a piece of paper in the air as if signaling them in some coded language. They could hear it rustling—the water magnified all sound. Steve’s sweat stuck against the thick rubber raft.

“Maybe she can give us a jump,” Amy said, both resigned and hopeful. She hadn’t completed a painting since they’d bought the place. He was worried. Was she beginning to think life with him was a bad idea, sinking into her own murky pond polluted by unknown or nonexistent contaminants?

“I found it, I found it,” Babes called out. Her voice, a blunt instrument, a dull persistent drill that punctured the calm of their raft. What bad news did was she clutching now? Steve reluctantly spun the Sea Cruiser, and the algae bunched up like sickly green frosting on a child’s Monster birthday cake as they headed back to shore. “Perhaps we need a Sea Cruiser three thousand,” he said. “That, and a map for buried treasure.”

*

They bought the place with money Steve got by cashing out his retirement fund in a frenzied manic moment of spontaneously combustible insanity right after he’d divorced his first wife, Keren, who’d discovered his affair with Amy, a new assistant professor. She was younger, cuter. Mentor and mentee, lover and lovee. Cliché and clichée. He was dyeing his hair and gobbling vitamin supplements and Viagra. Fresh start! New life! Amy had no money, no job, and a history of mental disorders, and Steve was paying alimony and child support—was he poison and she ivy, or vice versa? The vague stink of scandal hung over them, as if they’d bathed in that algae. They had no real friends, and her pills took away the imaginary friends. The Sea Cruiser 2000 of their lives had no reverse.

*

Babes held up the paper, a treasure map that showed the exact location of the buried septic tank. “You’ll need it someday,” she said in a voice reeking of made-for-TV wisdom. Steve grimaced, taking the wrinkled, yellowed piece of loose leaf smudged with old dirt, or maybe shit that had backed up from the tank—nothing to do but invite her in to explain the cryptic diagram. Amy grabbed his hand, as she always seemed to do in the gruff, menacing presence of Babes.

“It smells like bacon in here,” Babes said, licking her lips, swaggering into her old kitchen, letting the screen door whap against Amy’s hip behind her. Babes was used to being alone, but maybe she wasn’t so crazy about it.

Steve jumped as the door hit Amy.

“We had bacon and eggs for breakfast. They taste better out here in the country,” Amy said, discretely rubbing the jut of her hip. “Don’t you think?”

No one answered.

“By the way,” Steve said, “one of the burners on this stove doesn’t work. Do you know anything about that?”

“Oh, I never used more than one burner myself, so I couldn’t say… An old woman like me, by herself…”

If she was going to stick to them like grease congealed inside the oven, Steve was intent on getting her to fix all those little flaws you discover after moving in a new place. Or move in with a new someone.

Babes’ yappy dog yapped at the door.

“Squeaker loves it here,” she said for the thousandth time.

“Let him visit some of his old friends out there,” Steve said, gesturing vaguely with a swoop of his arm toward the “out there.”

“I’ll let him in,” Amy said, jumping up.

*

“My husband Al hated it here,” Babes said, slurping her cold coffee. She’d been rocking for hours on her old glider with the hard plastic cushions, Squeaker’s head across her lap on the screened-in porch.

“Tell us about Al,” Amy said, and Steve gave her a look. His strategy was silence to encourage departure, but Amy had been raised on manners—she listened to her elders, and that included Steve himself. The art department blamed the whole affair on Steve. They knew and liked Keren, a divorce lawyer who was well-known for her blunt, accurate assessments—a rarity in the odd, nuanced blood sport of academic politics. They liked Amy too.

Babes wore a wedding ring and had in the past made vague references to a husband, though the only cottage owner who had ever seen him was Brad, the quiet alcoholic who lived in the next cottage. He claimed that Al had come with her twenty years ago when she first bought the place, but she now had him tied up in the apartment back in Follansbee and was cashing his pension checks from Weirton Steel.

*

“I’ll tell you about Al. First, you tell me your story,” Babes said, turning to look directly at Amy. “Why do you two have different last names,” Babes asked. “You are married?”

Steve clenched his fist and shoved it forward to display the ring glistening with what he imagined was menace. He didn’t care about Al, and he wouldn’t tell her anything she could hold over them. The cottage was meant to be a refuge from the gossip and a peaceful place to paint. What made her so bold today? Was the map her last scrap to feed them?

“Oh, there’s no story,” Amy said. “We fell in love, got married, bought the cottage.”

“Yes, my place,” Babes said.

“And we owe you nothing,” Steve said. “All paid up. We paid our Association dues too… We paid all our dues.”

“My husband’s dead,” Babes said abruptly.

They skipped lunch, hoping to quicken her departure. Steve’s stomach growled. Babes raised the thin disconnected lines of her eyebrows, her short white hair shaking with the effort to disapprove.

“I know your story,” she said. “I don’t know your story, but I know it. I lived your story.” her bare wrist thudded down against the armrest. The Zen of Babes—Steve rolled his eyes. He twisted his ring.

*

“Is this map in inches or feet?” Steve asked, studying the crude lines and figures.

Babes waved her hand as if to swat an invisible fly. She’d validated her ticket and was now in her seat. “Oh, you can figure it out. Just start digging.” She barked an abrupt laugh. “I’ve been trying to figure out something myself. Steven, how old are you? Around my age? I’m sixty-two.”

Steve scratched at his long hair dyed a uniform black. Amy knew he dyed it now, though most people recognized it immediately as a dye job. She was helping him touch it up, which chilled him with vague foreshadowing—would she be his caretaker, undertaker?

“Oh, he’s much younger,” Amy said. “Just look at him!”

Steve was fifty. Amy was twenty-eight and wanted kids, and he’d agreed to try and have one with her. He’d had a daughter, Suzanne, with Keren. Five years younger than Amy, she barely spoke to him. She hadn’t come to the wedding. She told Steve that Amy wore too much make-up and talked baby talk.

*

The bubbling aerator purchased by the Association to (in theory) reduce the algae growth—kicked on, as it did each night. It sounded like the dying trickle of a waterfall. The Association had also illegally transported algae-eating fish across state lines and dumped them in the pond. Steve occasionally spotted enormous gold or white fish emerging through the slime, but they also had no impact on the algae. The algae would live forever, hibernating in winter only to emerge in full, terrible blossom in the spring. Steve had thrown out his back trying to rake it all in to shore earlier that summer while Brad next door swilled a six pack and chuckled, watching from his shaded porch. Steve imagined floating in his coffin down an algae-covered stream, and shuddered.

Babes had stopped gliding and had wedged herself into the corner cushions.

“Well, it’s getting late,” Amy said for the third time, louder, but still Babes did not respond. Steve had openly yawned at least twice. Babes emitted a low grunt, and he peered over to see if her eyes were still open.

“She’s snoring!” Amy whispered.

*

Artists and professors, and they both had summers free. How productive they would be out here in the woods! Undisturbed in nature! Artists! Legitimate! Eccentric! Vindicated!

Around Detroit, many dreamed of having a “Place Up North” to drive to in the summer, joining the hordes snaking up I-75 each Friday afternoon and returning to the city each Sunday night in the same bumper to bumper to bumper.

Steve inherited that dream from his father, a factory rat at Ford’s who’d died of a heart attack at fifty-five, the father of six who had not saved a dime but had talked about retiring Up North for years until his untimely demise. Steve brought the dream to Morgantown. He bent and shaped and repurposed it into an artist’s retreat, intent on fulfilling it himself. He wasn’t waiting for retirement. Hell, he was going to be a father again. He was going to out-live the algae!

*

“I think she’s dead,” Steve said.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Amy said. She lit a cigarette. They loved to smoke together on the porch—they imagined it as a pause before creation, Art with a capital A, just waiting for them to rise and head inside to their separate studio spaces. Amy reached over and flicked her cigarette into an old glass ashtray Babes had left behind. They’d never seen her smoke, though perhaps Al did, and she’d been ready in case he came back. Was he really dead? Was she really dead, right now?

“No joke,” Steve said. “I’m ready to kill her myself.”

Amy eased quietly over to Babes and got up close to her face. The little dog raised its head and sniffed at her.

“Still breathing,” Amy whispered, steadying herself against the glider arm.

“Let’s go!” Amy said suddenly, motioning for Steve and scrambling quietly inside the cottage.

*

“Yes, leave,” she said. “Before she wakes up!” Amy was trembling. Steve grabbed her cool hands and held them. A sudden breeze blew through the screens. “We don’t need to pack,” she said.

“Our car won’t start, remember? We can’t just leave her here,” Steve said, numb and exhausted from the long afternoon, the quicksand of the treasure map. “Can we?” He had left many things behind, unresolved. His paint tubes lined up, an untouched canvas on a large easel in the cottage loft. His paintings had always been large, bold, and bright—the talk of Morgantown, he joked, but he understood his failure as an artist, and wondered whether Amy did yet, or how soon she would.

Amy snatched Babes’ keys out of her purse on the kitchen table. She seemed more alert and focused than she had in weeks, as if suddenly she was staring through pure, clear water. Steve dove in after her.

*

Outside, they maneuvered the cars in place, their Focus, her Mazda, then she quietly took over, lifting the groaning hoods and attaching the cables. As every step crunched over the gravel, he winced.

“Maybe we just give her the place back?” Amy whispered. They retreated to the separate cars. Steve was glad that he could barely see her face in the quickly falling dusk.

He started Babes’ car, Amy cranked their car. It took the juice from Babes’ Mazda and started right up.

Steve turned off the Mazda and crept back up to the house to return the keys. Squeaker was whining at the door, and he let her out. She raced straight toward the lake and sent the sleeping geese into a flurry of flapping and honking. Steve hurried back to the Focus. Amy reluctantly moved out of the driver’s seat. As they swung past of the cluster of cottages around the pond, the circle of bright algae glowed against the surrounding grass, against the clear, darkening sky, mocking the quiet that surrounded it.

“Is that the screen door slamming?” Amy asked. Steve knew the sound couldn’t carry that far, but he paused to listen, then pulled out onto the paved road.

*

On the dim-lit twisty country back roads toward the city, Steve made wide turns, crossing the yellow line against the lack of oncoming traffic. Sunday evening, and whoever lived out there was staying put.

“You’re good at this,” he said warily. “A clean getaway.”

He wanted to say something about how hard it was to let things go, but Amy’s entire face was out the passenger window, hair streaming back in like a shaggy dog’s, as if she could not suck in enough of the fresh dark air of motion. He tossed the map out the window.

“Did you really hear her breathing?” he asked.

pencil

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of six collections of short fiction, including, most recently, The Perp Walk (Michigan State University Press, 2019). His fiction awards include a Michigan Notable Book prize, finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize, and awards from the Midwest Book Awards, the Independent Booksellers Association, and the Foreword INDIE Book Awards. He is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University. Email: jd6s[at]andrew.cmu.edu

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