Their cabin was rustic, “weather distressed” as Mr. LaVann put it. Authentic. “It’s a look people pay for,” he said and shrugged, and I wondered if that held true for the slightly cockeyed windows and the skull plate and antlers anchored above the front door. There were exposed beams and a shallow-pitched corrugated metal roof that sounded, whenever it rained, like snare drums. “Vintage 1950s,” he said. “Someone’s change-jar one-board-at-a-time dream getaway.” One that he’d picked up for a song, he said.
…THE CABIN had only two bedrooms, so I slept alone on a cot in the loft. Back then I was not a sound sleeper. Almost any noise and I’d be wide-awake, listening, as I was that night, already halfway through my stay, to those same low-grade whimpers and moans, which I anticipated but still hadn’t grown accustomed to.
Why I opened my eyes and stared out at the lake, its shimmery pewter-colored surface, I’m not sure. Maybe to concentrate my attention away from what was going on right below me. It never lasted very long, and afterward the cabin always quieted, and eventually I’d doze off. But when I heard footsteps, and then the screen door slowly opening and closing with a slight wheeze of the hinges, Mrs. LaVann appeared on the lawn: not ghostlike, exactly, though the moon was bright, and ground mist lifted and resettled in thin, vaporous clouds around her.
I had no trouble seeing that she was naked, and how she took hold of the hand pump’s heavy red arm. She lifted and depressed it three or four times until the water gurgled and then surged full force. On a rope around her neck hung a bar of soap that glistened white as snow and no doubt felt just as cold when she spread her legs and washed herself down there, and then rinsed off, which seemed, even for her, an odd and unusual way to shower, given that there was always plenty of hot water inside.
I wondered if she was okay. If maybe she was feverish or tipsy or possibly sleepwalking. She did not look up to where I was spying down on her, if that’s what it constituted, and by the time I got outside she’d already wrapped a towel around herself, and she didn’t appear all that startled or surprised to see me.
I pretended I hadn’t known that she was out there. I said, “Oh, sorry. I was just about to head out fishing,” which on a lot of nights would have been true. With one hand she held on to the spot where she’d tucked in the towel flap below her breastbone, and she smiled and — as if I’d asked — said, “I just needed a little fresh air is all.”
I nodded as though I understood, and she nodded, too, as if standing there together was the most ordinary occurrence in the world. A complete nonevent like almost everything else that summer…
One morning before the pump incident, Mrs. LaVann, always the earliest riser after me, pushed her chair back a little way from the table and slung one long leg over the other when I entered the kitchen from outside. She was barefoot and wearing a sleeveless, loose-fitting cotton sundress, the neckline not so low, but plenty low enough. I’d recently undergone a growth spurt, and, at almost 5’ 8”, just looking down to meet her eyes made me nervous enough. “Are you having a decent time here, Wayne?” she said.
“Yes. Thank you. I like there not being any neighbors, and that this time we’re not just up for the weekend.” I said, “And I like hearing the loons, too,” and mentioned that even though my dad rarely took me, fishing was my number-one favorite thing to do.
“Come over here,” she said, and I did. “Now give me your hand.” And with her polished red thumbnail she carefully lifted maybe half a dozen scales from my palm that I had no idea were there.
I liked how that felt kind of tickly, and I said, “Yeah, I was out again last night.”
“Yes, I know. All by yourself on the water. I wonder, what would your parents say about that?”
“I’d never tell them, uh-uh. And Darwin, he’s sworn to secrecy.”
… “He takes after his dad in a lot of ways,” she said. “He’ll do well in a man’s world.” She smiled at that, and when she let go of my hand I took a few tentative reverse steps and stopped.
“I’m always careful, Mrs. LaVann. And I’m a strong swimmer.” And then right out of nowhere, she said something about train miles. Like they were calculated differently, and that there was a whole other universe out there, which she believed, over time, I’d see my share of. “I hope you do. It’s in you,” she said, and I thanked her for that, too.
That was as close as we’d come to a quiet, private conversation, prior to finding myself with her as she stood nude behind a quarter inch of towel. And her saying, “Maybe one of these times you’ll take me with you. I don’t fish, but I could swim close behind in your wake. I’d like that. Something to break the monotony. Something different to look forward to.”
I said, “Sure. If I see you out here,” and I imagined muscling the oars in a way I’d never done before, and how I’d help her into the boat if she got chilled or exhausted, or if she simply felt like shooting the breeze on a laid-back midnight boat ride.
This excerpt is drawn from a story titled “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot” which was published in a book by the same name written by Michigan author Jack Driscoll. It is reprinted here with permission from Wayne State University Press.
Jack Driscoll lives in Interlochen and is the author of eleven books. His latest is “The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot,” a collection of short stories. Driscoll is the recipient of numerous awards for excellence in creative writing, including the Michigan Notable Book Award, AWP Short Fiction Award and the Society of Midland Authors Award. He is a two-time NEA Creative Writing Fellowship Recipient.