When I was eleven my father died in a tragic inner-tube accident. If he hadn’t, then maybe I would not have become what I am—namely, a forty-two-year-old brother betrayer, marriage wrecker, mother killer, second husband, ghost impersonator, amateur historian, and home renter. But I am these things, and that’s because my father died in a tragic inner-tube accident when I was eleven. It happened at my family’s lake house in northern Connecticut, in August, during those last desperate days of summer when you try to do the things you’ve been doing all summer except more so. My younger brother, Biggie, and I were throwing inner tubes into the water, sprinting the length of the dock, and hurling ourselves headfirst through the tubes. And because this was one of those desperate last days of summer, Biggie and I were throwing the inner tubes out farther and sprinting faster and diving deeper and whooping louder. My parents were drinking their drinks—it was cocktail hour, or close to it—and watching us, and maybe my father was thinking the kind of deep thoughts I myself am consumed with these days—about time and where it goes and how easy it should be to get it back—because he got out of his Adirondack chair, drank down the rest of his gin and tonic, took off his shirt, walked to the dock, and said, “Let me see one of those.” I gave him my inner tube. He walked with it to the end of the dock, threw it a little ways out into the water, took a couple steps back, shouted over his shoulder, “See you in the emergency room,” then jogged forward and dove into the tube.
When my father came up, I thought at first we would be seeing him in the emergency room. Because he had dived too deep in too shallow water—the way he’d always taught us not to do—had hit his head on the rocky bottom, and now blood was streaming out of a big gash in his forehead, down his cheeks and chin and neck, down his chest, down all the way to the inner tube, which—as my father walked out of the water—I could see was too small for him and was stuck on his prosperous, middle-aged-man’s gut. His face was dust gray, and the blood was the only color on it. My mother rushed to help him onto the shore; she wanted him to sit down, but he refused. Instead he turned to me and my brother, the streams of blood carving up his face, and said, “And that, boys, is what happens when you dive too deep.” We laughed, because it was just like my father to turn tragedy into pedagogy, and once, when our mutt Reggie was done in by a runaway Chevy Cavalier, my father turned it into a masterful lecture about speed limits and leash laws and why we needed to heed them. My father smiled, closed his eyes, as if satisfied by the lesson he’d just taught us, and then fell face first to the ground, dead, still wearing the inner tube, and so he bounced and rolled a little bit after he landed.
* * * *
Like so many men of my generation, I’ve not become the scratch golfer my father was, nor have I joined Kiwanis or the Elks, as his father had done, but instead I’ve retreated to my study and become something of a history buff, well schooled in the past’s whys and wheres and hopeful that knowing what Lee did after his Lost Cause and Napoleon after his Waterloo might help me to know what to do after my own. And as any amateur historian knows, you must break up history into periods, stages, if you’re ever to understand it.
My father’s death was the end of the first stage, a stage when we lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the year and went to the lake house in the summer and thought nothing of family except that we were in one. The second stage began afterward—after the ambulance came and freed my father from the inner tube and the paramedics pronounced what we already knew to be pronounceable and put him in that big, black bag with the zipper, after we buried him in Worcester’s Paxton Cemetery three days later—when my mother sat Biggie and me down to explain how life would be from here on out.
“Your father is dead now,” she told us.
This was obvious, and my brother—being the wiseacre he was and probably still is—began to snicker a little. I elbowed him quiet and said, “Yes ma’am,” because I understood that my mother wasn’t talking to us but to herself, and because she was talking to herself I found her scary, like those bums downtown near the bus station who muttered things about the world and the mess we’d made of it, things that made just enough sense, and so you crossed the street so you wouldn’t have to hear them.
“All we have left is each other,” she told us. “You have to remember this. There is nothing more important in this world than this family.”
“Are we going to sell the lake house?” I asked, because I’d been thinking about my father and his bloody, mangled head and the inner tube and how he keeled over onto it and died in it, how it seemed likely that the image would haunt me forever, but especially if I went back to the place where I saw it happen, and wouldn’t it be better to find a house on some other lake, where there might be ghosts, true enough, but ghosts we’d never loved and who could not hurt us?
“That house has been in this family for four generations,” my mother said, sounding not like the gentle, wry school librarian I knew her to be, but like the iron ladies I now read about, those great women who stare down parliament, who rule from behind the throne, and who throw overinflated pesos at the peasants from high on their presidential perch. “We will never sell the lake house,” she said, and then, to clarify, she added, “Not ever.”
That was the beginning of the second stage, the longest one, the one that lasted twenty-eight years, the one my history books always refer to as A Time of Peace. These are the stages that are dull and the most skimmable—because who really cares about Attila before he became the Hun, or Rome in between sackings?—and so I will skim here and say that soon enough my brother and I began to see the gene pool variations we were: Biggie became the black sheep who stole his share of booze from my mother’s liquor cabinet and who dropped out of a state college or two on his way to becoming a high school English teacher; I became the A student with strong feelings about potential and how sinful it was to waste it. Biggie stayed close to home, in Lowell, while I moved to Dayton, Ohio, and became a VP in charge of packaging and shipping the necessaries Procter & Gamble make for us. Biggie and I both got married after college, but I had children and continued the family line—which, as history tells us, is mostly hubris and thus part of our downfall—and Biggie did not. Biggie barely remembered our father and, when asked, admitted as much; but I thought of my old man often, in various ways—sometimes he was benevolent and peace-loving, like the Jesus liberal Protestants worship with the help of their acoustic guitars; other times he was severe and totemic with his mangled head and his inner tube and much like the Catholic Christ, bleeding and suffering and full of holes on his cross. But in either form, my father reminded me of what my mother preached when he died: Whatever your differences, you are Chandlers and you must love each other. This is what Gandhi said to his Indians after independence, and unlike them, we did.
We did, and nowhere did we love each other more than at the lake house, where we lived every summer. In the fall, winter, and spring we sometimes had our differences, but in the summer we were the lake house’s weathered cedar shingles and the bending birch trees and the dinged-up, forest-green Old Town canoe and the daily, leisurely laps we swam between the lopsided raft and the shore and the moderate, early-evening gin drinkers and good-natured, before-bed card players and the easy laughers and the baseball-on-the-radio listeners and the memory of the four generations of good Chandlers before us who acted in the summer as we acted. The point is, we were better people in the summer at the lake house than we were the rest of the year, in the same way Idi Amin is said to have had enjoyed a leisurely game of backgammon at his country villa, and Henry VIII was much more gentle with his many wives at his place in the Hebrides.
At the end of this twenty-eight-year Time of Peace my mother celebrated her eightieth birthday. This was in July, at the lake house. We were all gathered there—my wife, Elinor, our two boys, and our baby daughter, Rachel; Biggie and his wife, Sarah—all of us sitting at the sturdy pitch-stained picnic table my father had made way back in our first stage. After her speech twenty-eight years earlier, my mother had never said much about my father or about us as a family. Maybe she knew she didn’t need to. But that night my mother raised her wine glass, smiled at each of us in turn, and said, “I am the luckiest mother, mother-in-law, grandmother,” and then, looking up at the blackening summer sky, she raised her glass even higher and said, “and especially, wife.” We raised our glasses, too, and that was the end of our second stage, when nothing happened, when we Chandlers were happy and loved each other very, very much.
* * * *
This brings me to the third stage, the shortest one and the one I’m really here to tell you about. Like all important stages, it is not entirely clear where this one begins. Was Hitler not fully Hitler, the Nazis the Nazis, until he and they annexed Poland? Were the Mohawks done in by the smallpox my own pasty-faced English kin gave them, or, as some froth-mouthed Darwinist historian named Krebs claims, was there something inside them, some weak gene or rogue chromosome that was already killing them and they just didn’t know it yet? Who can say for sure where one’s third stage begins? Our third stage could have begun the September after my mother’s eightieth birthday, when Rachel, my year-old daughter—improbable as it sounds and even though she’d never lifted anything heavier than herself—developed a hernia and died of it before anyone even knew she had one. Or it could have begun in January, when my mother had a ministroke. Or it could have begun in April, when Biggie brought a woman who was not his wife to the lake house over the Easter weekend, while Sarah was visiting her parents. After that weekend Biggie called me, said, “I did this thing,” and then told me that he’d brought this woman to the lake house, had slept with her in the bed he’d slept in as a child and still slept in. Biggie and Sarah had been married for six years; they always seemed happy enough, and I didn’t know what to say, but my brother had paused, as if waiting for me to say something, and so I asked, “What’s her name?”
“Beth Ann,” he said. “She’s smart. Hot, too.” This was the first time I’d heard Biggie refer to a woman as “hot,” but before I could wonder about it, he went on and used all the metaphors in his vast English-teacher arsenal to explain how “hot” she actually was—what she said to him during, what she smelled like afterward—and I listened to the detail, closely, which was surprising, considering the modest Yankees I thought we both were. When Biggie was done, he again seemed to want me to say something, and again I couldn’t think of anything, and so again I asked him, “What’s her name?”
“I already told you,” he said. “It’s Beth Ann.” And then: “I really appreciate you listening to this, Nathan. I know you have problems of your own.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“I think I might love her,” Biggie said. “Please keep all this a secret.”
“O.K.,” I said.
“I know I can trust you,” Biggie said, and hung up.
I stood for a while in my kitchen, holding the phone away from me as if it might bite. My ears were full of white noise and my brother’s lover’s dirty talk and the buzzing of the unhung-up phone. The tile floor was shiny and operating-room clean and made my head hurt, so I turned off the track lighting and remained standing there in the after-dinner darkness. Toby and Bart were upstairs, playing some game that required them to make violent sounds—somewhere between a car crash and a hand grenade—with their mouths. Elinor was at her community-center ornithology class, where she was learning the many important differences between those birds that warble and those that don’t. That’s who I was thinking about—Elinor, and the big trouble we were in. Rachel had died seven months earlier—the hernia had overnight strangled her bowels and small intestines and neighbor organs, and that morning we woke up and she was dead, she was dead—and I sometimes could still hear Elinor crying upstairs, gently and continuously, like a vacuum cleaner someone had forgotten to turn off, just as she had cried in September, October, and so on. I understood this, I did, missed Rachel and knew I always would. But Elinor had moved beyond grief into the unreasonable place we historians don’t understand and are scared of, the Bermuda Triangle where some ships pass through and some disappear and we can never know why. I’d tried everything to draw her out, the way McNamara did with the Viet Cong in their caves and tunnels. I told Elinor the boys needed her, missed her badly, and didn’t she still love them, and she said, “I do love them, but it isn’t enough.” I mentioned that we should go to counseling, all of us, and she asked if there would be other people there, and I said probably, at least one other person, and she said that one other person was one too many, and no thank you. I told her that enough was enough, that it was time to move on, and she looked at me as if I were not her husband and true love but the sort of alien Hollywood makes for us—waving tentacles and extra slime and a single, centered veiny eye Cyclops might be jealous of. And just the week before Biggie called, I’d said in bed one night, “Everything is going to be all right,” and she said, “You’re lying. Don’t you ever lie to me again.”
I’m not a religious man, but later that night I got out of bed, walked to the bathroom, got down on my knees in front of the bathtub, and told my father, “I need help. I’ve already lost Rachel; I don’t think I can stand losing Elinor, too. What do I do?” And my father said what he always said, which was: “Whatever your differences, you are Chandlers and you must love each other.” And then he said, “The lake house, go to the lake house in the summer.”
So that was it: we would go to the lake and try to get better and it would work. Because it had to.
Except now it wouldn’t. Because it wasn’t as though Biggie had committed adultery just anywhere: he had done so at the lake house, and by violating his marital vows where he did, he had violated the place, too. This was the way I was thinking. I stood in the kitchen and tried to picture the wind-whipped birches and white pines and the raft rocking gently in the sun-dappled water and the loons, the loons, and all I could think of was Biggie and Beth Ann and what they had done and where they had done it and how I had to keep their secret and fix my marriage, both, and I was pondering time’s notable fratricides and whether I might add one to the list when Elinor walked in.
“Why is it so dark in here?” she asked. She was holding her Audubon guide over her heart like a Baptist would a bible, the way two months before she’d held her ceramics textbook, the way two months before that she’d held an auto-repair-for-dummies manual; she’d taken so many classes at the community center in the months since Rachel died that there was almost no hobby she wasn’t expert in, nothing she couldn’t fix or make with normal household items. She gestured toward the phone with the bird guide and asked, “Were you about to call someone?”
“What?” I said, and then hung up the phone and turned on the lights. “No, no, I just got off the phone with Biggie, that’s all.”
“What’s new with Biggie?” Elinor asked.
I know now that history turns on these questions and the answers we give them. What if the first slave trader in Dakar, when asked, “How much?” had said, “No, sorry, changed my mind, not for sale after all”? What if Oppenheimer, when Roosevelt asked him about the bomb and whether he could make it, had said, “A bomb? An atom bomb? Impossible. Can’t be done. Absolutely ridiculous”? And what would have happened if I’d told Elinor what Biggie had told me? She and Sarah were friends, good ones, and so maybe Elinor would have said something angry and true about the hateful peckerwoods most men are. Maybe I would have agreed. Maybe we would have decided that Chandler or no Chandler, I couldn’t keep the secret, Biggie was asking too much. Maybe we would have decided otherwise. Maybe we would have decided that just because my brother fucked another woman at the lake house didn’t change the fact that he was still my brother and that lake water was still lake water, the house still the house, and it was still the same place we always went in the summer and were happy. Maybe I would have said once more that I missed Rachel so much, I did, but she was gone and I was here, the boys, too, and what were we going to do about it? Maybe if I’d answered Elinor’s question honestly, things would have been different.
But I didn’t answer Elinor’s question honestly. I lied to her, just as she’d told me not to. Because family is family, I could hear my mother telling me so, could see my father in his inner tube telling me the same thing, and I couldn’t betray my brother’s trust. So I said, “Biggie and I were just talking about the summer, and how great it will be.”
“The summer,” Elinor said, “great,” and then started telling me why some birds have red breasts and some don’t, and I kept my brother’s secret, and he kept calling, week in and out, telling me variations on the same secret—he spent more time with Beth Ann at the lake house; afternoons, mornings, whenever he could—and asking me to keep those secrets, too, and I kept them and kept them, until finally it was summer again and we were at the lake house, with my mother and Biggie and Sarah, as always.
* * * *
History tells us that most nicknames are an exercise in obviousness—they called Alexander the Great because he was; William was named the Conqueror because he did—but Biggie was called Biggie because he wasn’t. My brother is a good five inches shorter than the six feet I am and my father was, and had always been at war with his diminutiveness. In high school he lifted weights twice a day. In college he wore motorcycle boots because of the three-inch heels. Even when he was a boy he walked around with his chest stuck out like a runtish rooster trying not to appear so runtish, which was why our father had nicknamed him “Biggie,” which is what we always called him instead of his real name, Philip.
As we pulled up to the lake house that July—it was already near dinnertime and we were the last to get there—Biggie walked down the stone path to meet us. When I got out of our car, hugged him as brothers do after a long separation, and said, “It’s good to see you, Biggie,” he grimaced, shrugged, and said, “Yeah, you know, I kind of wish you wouldn’t call me that anymore. Maybe you could call me Philip. Or Phil. Either one.”
“Sure,” I said. “Phil. No problem.” Although it was a problem, or at least I saw it as one. Because we all have those male neighbors with their midlife crises and their desperate divorces and younger second wives and their new, thirty-dollar salon haircuts and their sad self-deceptions and their elaborate attempts to pretend to be something they’re not and these things never work out in the end and everyone knows it, and yet here was Biggie, saying he wasn’t Biggie anymore. I felt sad for him.
But I didn’t say any of this. I asked where our mother was, and Biggie rolled his eyes and said, “She’s on the deck.” And then, “She’s gotten real mean, Nathan.”
“I knew that,” I said. After the ministroke she’d begun to send me letters—not her usual asking about the kids and Elinor and how they were, but wild letters with no apparent theme except Disappointment and Loss. I’d gotten one just two weeks earlier, in fact, telling me how excellent my father had been with money and how she’d noticed funds had been trickling out of her passbook savings and since I was in charge of the account (I wasn’t, didn’t even know one existed) that meant I was stealing from her—me, her son, and in the letter she told me that sometimes she wished I wasn’t.
“I repeat,” Biggie said. “Mean. Drunk, too.”
“She is?” I said, because my mother had never been drunk in her life. During our first and second stages she’d had one glass of white wine a night and that was it.
“Like I said, she’s on the deck. Go see for yourself.”
I did. Biggie helped us drag our bags inside, then went to help Sarah finish unpacking, and Elinor, the boys, and myself went to find my mother. She was on the deck, holding a half-empty glass. There was an empty champagne bottle at her feet, and next to that a full one sticking out of an Igloo cooler.
“We’re here!” I said, and my mother turned to me, and almost immediately I wished we weren’t here. My mother’s face had, as recently as the previous summer, seemed strong and youthful, and her wrinkles had always spoken more of wisdom than age. But now all that was gone: her face was slack and mean, as mean as her recent letters. She slugged down the rest of her glass of champagne and held her right fist over her mouth, hedging against a belch that never came. Her stroke had affected her left side, so her left hand was in her lap, shriveled and gnarled up and useless, and her left eye and cheek were pinched into a skeptical squint, like a pirate.
“What I still don’t understand,” my mother said, “is how a little girl, a one-year-old little girl, gets a hernia.”
It is said that when Bataygh the Tartar went syphilitic and paranoid and accused his lieutenants of plotting against him, his lieutenants pretended not to have heard him and began talking about the weather, how perfect it was for battle and slaying their enemies, and I would have done something similar if Elinor hadn’t first said, “Did you know that the state bird of Ohio is the bluebird?”
At that I looked away from my mother and at Elinor. For months she could talk only through her birds and the facts she’d learned about them, but until now they’d never been used so obviously for deflection. I missed her so much—she was standing right in front of me, except she wasn’t: she was somewhere out and elsewhere, beyond the lake and the roads leading to it, and since she wasn’t there, I was remembering things about her and missing them, as if she were already dead and a ghost: the klutz she was and how she could trip and spill coffee on herself and look lovely doing it; the slightly antique words and phrases she used, like “rascal” and “for crying out loud”; the vodka she kept in the freezer, not because it affected the taste, but because she liked the way it frosted the bottle; the way she used to look at me from across the room, wide-eyed and happy, as if she had something to tell and no one in the world she’d rather tell it to. Now Elinor was as far away from her former self as my mother was from hers.
“Now Bob Hudgins,” my mother said. “Bob Hudgins got his hernia from lifting one of his fat grandchildren.”
“And the grackle,” Elinor said. “Every seven years the grackle stays put for the winter. Sometimes he even goes further north. No one pretends to understand why.”
“Terry Waldrep got his hernia from just sneezing.”
“Pigeons molt everywhere except in one country,” Elinor said. “They don’t molt in the Netherlands. Or Holland, if you prefer.”
“But neither of them was a little girl. And neither of them died, either,” my mother said, her voice drifting off a little, and Elinor drifted off, too, back into the house. The boys went down to the lake to throw rocks at the fish. No one other than me had said hello to my mother, which seemed all right by her. She stared incredulously at the bottom of her empty glass, as if someone else had drunk her drink when she wasn’t paying attention, and without looking up, she said, “And you didn’t save her, either. Your father would have saved her.” With that, my mother pulled the second bottle of brut out of the cooler and asked me to open it and pour her a glass, and I did, poured myself one, too.
* * * *
Oh, how I would like to say that this was the beginning of the end, and that the end was brutal and swift. It would have been better that way, in the same way it would have been better for the Hundred Years War not to have been.
But it wasn’t the end. We rallied, as families mostly do. Inside, someone unwrapped the ground beef and pounded and cooked it into hamburgers; outside, I steered my mother away from the subject of hernias. I said how wonderful it was to be there, how beautiful the lake was, how lucky we were that the lake breeze was keeping away the mosquitoes and horseflies, how much we had missed everyone, how wonderful it was to be there. Biggie and Sarah emerged from the house with paper plates, plastic knives and forks, a red tablecloth for the picnic table. Elinor followed with the food—the hamburgers, plus the potato salad that always seemed to have been made that afternoon, every afternoon. We ate. The boys were well behaved, said please and no thank you and may we be excused when such things needed saying. Elinor sat next to me and our elbows touched now and then and she didn’t visibly recoil when they did, and when a finch fluttered above, she didn’t say whether it was a male or a female and how you could tell and why you would want to. Sarah told a funny story at Biggie’s expense—about how he wasn’t Biggie anymore but Phil—and Biggie laughed, good-naturedly, the way a man haunted by his cheating and lying on hallowed family ground should not. I was really scrutinizing him, too, looking for signs of the philanderer, the secret sharer, the summer ruiner I now knew him to be: because we all recognize the villain from his black hat, his shifty eyes, his facial tics and maniacal cackle. But there was nothing: no sign Biggie had a secret or had shared it with me, no sign there was anything wrong with him at all. My mother kept drinking, but her meanness detoured into sentimentality, and at the end of the dinner she said what she always said—how happy she was that it was summer and we were all together, again, as our father would have wanted it. We raised our glasses in agreement, and an hour later, we were in bed.
It should be said that we all slept in the same long room under the eaves, camp style, as we had done when we were boys and my father was alive. My mother, by virtue of her seniority, slept in the queen-sized bed, with one pillow for herself and one for you-know-who. The rest of us slept by ourselves in twin beds, and my sons in the bunk bed. It was as though we were all still children, even those of us who had them, but there had never been any problem with this arrangement. In fact, I never slept better than I did at the lake, in my own bed, with my family close by.
Until that night, that is, when I woke up to find my mother standing over me, peering into my face and saying, “Hal, Hal, Hal.” Hal was my father’s name. There is something more than spooky about finding your mother standing over your bed in the middle of the night chanting your dead father’s name, and I’ve learned through my reading that Ivan the Terrible had the same problem with his mother. He moved her into a dacha next door, but I didn’t have that option, so I did what I could: I closed my eyes with the idea that it, and she, would go away like the dream I hoped it all was. But it wasn’t, and she didn’t. I opened my eyes and she was still there, so I whispered, “Mom, what is it? Why are you saying Dad’s name?”
She seemed not to hear me; her face was wide open and innocent and confused, as if she were a child and an adult had asked a question that she hadn’t the life experience or the book learning to answer. “Hal,” she said. “Where is your inner tube? Why aren’t you wearing your inner tube? Why won’t you talk to me, Hal?”
With that my mother straightened, turned, and went back to bed. I sat up to see if anyone had noticed this exchange, but everyone still seemed to be sleeping, and since I was the only one affected it didn’t bother me much. In this I was like Ladybird, who didn’t mind LBJ talking in his sleep about sending our soldiers to their doom as long as he didn’t wake the rest of the family. After all, I sometimes talked to my father, too, often saw him where he wasn’t, and there was nothing wrong with me, nothing that a good night’s sleep couldn’t cure, and so I went back to bed and tried to get one.
The next morning was sunny, brilliant, the sort of day when it’s easy to forget the image of your aged mother standing over your bed in the middle of the night, chanting your dead father’s name. Elinor went on a long birdwatching walk in the morning, but it seemed to do her some good, and when she got back she was all smiles and even let me hold her hand as we watched the boys dive through inner tubes, as Biggie and I had done so many years earlier. My mother drank nothing stronger than coffee all morning and didn’t say a word about Rachel or the hernia she died of. She did, however, gripe about the big racket the boys made and about how Biggie and I needed to patch the holes in the gutters but hadn’t yet and didn’t really know how to fix them, either, and how our father would never have been so lax about home repair and discipline. I didn’t know what she was talking about—my father had never been much of a handyman and couldn’t even pick up a hammer without wounding himself with it. But I didn’t correct my mother; instead I asked if she’d slept well the night before, if she’d had any dreams, and did they keep her up? She said, “Dreams? No dreams. Never slept better.” Biggie and Sarah went for a canoe ride right before lunch, then came back praising the lake’s beauty and how they already felt, only twelve hours into the summer, like entirely different people. I knew what they meant, too. Because isn’t this why summer exists, so that the rest of the year doesn’t?
After lunch, it clouded up and began to rain. My mother decided to take a nap, the boys wandered off somewhere to read their comic books, and Elinor and Sarah went to the grocery store. I went to get something from the car, and when I went back inside I found Biggie on the kitchen phone, whispering. When he saw me, Biggie’s face got wide-eyed and panicky and he waved with manic glee. He was clearly talking to someone he shouldn’t have been, and I had a pretty good idea who it was. I kept walking, through the kitchen, through the living room, and out onto the deck—which is covered enough by the white pines to keep you dry—to watch the rain blow across the lake. There is something hypnotic about rain falling on a lake, and I tried to forget my brother and his illicit conversation and concentrate on the lake, the rain, the lake. But there was a leak in the gutter behind me. I could hear water dripping through, and all I could think about was what my mother had said—how my father would have known how to fix the gutter and would have done so already. While that wasn’t true, I bet my father would have known what to do about Biggie and his secret, and just as I was thinking this, Biggie came up behind me and said, “Maybe I don’t have to tell you this. But I’m lucky to have a brother like you, a brother I can trust. I know that.”
“That’s O.K.,” I said, because what can you do when your brother talks to you like that? Even Rob Roy, the fiercest of Scottish chieftains, was bound to accept the apologies of his most wayward and duplicitous clansmen. “Of course you can trust me,” I said.
The rest of the day was uneventful. We ate inside because of the rain; at the end of dinner we raised a toast to my father as usual, and went to bed soon after. I’d forgotten about the night before and was sound asleep when my mother got up out of bed, stood over me, woke me up by saying, “Hal, Hal, where is your inner tube? Why aren’t you wearing your inner tube? Why won’t you talk to me, Hal?” then went back to bed. I didn’t say anything this time. I just lay there, wishing my father would appear to me, too. What about Mom? I wanted to ask him. Is she senile? Or is she really seeing you? What should I do about Biggie? Will Elinor ever come back to me? What if she doesn’t? What about Rachel? Could I have saved her? Would you have saved her? Would you save me?
An hour later I was still awake, staring at the ceiling and wishing my father would talk to me, when I heard a woman say in a low, throaty voice, “I want you to take a picture of my pussy.”
I sat straight up in bed. My palms were wet and my heart about beating out of my chest. I knew whose voice it was. It was Beth Ann’s; Biggie had told me she’d said that exact thing to him the last night they spent at the lake, that she wanted him to take a picture of her pussy and keep it, so he’d remember it, and her, I guess. I knew I had imagined it, knew I was thinking about Beth Ann because I’d caught my brother talking to her on the phone, knew the voice was just in my head, but I had to be sure. I looked, first, at my mother: she was in bed, and I could hear the sleep in her ragged breathing. Elinor, too, was sleeping, her snoring light and adenoidal, the birdwatching book she’d been reading spread over her chest. Biggie’s and Sarah’s beds were at the far end of the room, and I couldn’t see them, so I got up out of bed and crept closer until I could tell that they were sleeping, too, as were the boys in their bunks. It is said that Joan of Arc ignored God’s voice in her head the first few times she heard it, which might explain how I managed to dismiss what I’d heard that night—although I wonder if, after hearing the voice, Joan managed to get any sleep, because I didn’t.
The next day it rained again. My mother needed to do some banking in Worcester, twenty minutes away, and Sarah and Elinor offered to drive her. Toby and Bart had read all the comic books the day before, but they’d managed to find an old road atlas—we are a family that loves maps—and were comparing it to a more recent atlas to find out which federal and state highways had had their numbers changed. I was still bleary from the night before, so I went to get my third cup of coffee, but before I even reached the kitchen, I could hear Biggie on the phone. He was saying, “I love you, too, so much. I can’t stop thinking about you.” Just a minute before, Biggie had kissed Sarah good-bye, the way I wished Elinor would kiss me, and told her to hurry back. And how does this happen? How does it happen that the lying and cheating brother has two women to love and the honest, secret-keeping brother has lost his one? Is there only so much love in the world? If you lose someone you love, do you stop loving everyone else, too? These were my thoughts and I was about to have others when I heard Bart yelling, “Dad, Dad, come here.” I came there and found my sons jumping up and down, pointing at one of the road atlases. I asked what was so important, and Bart said, “It’s a pond, it’s a pond.”
“This lake,” Bart said. “It’s a pond.”
Now, it’s true that ours wasn’t the biggest lake in Connecticut, or the deepest, but it was certainly a lake—Quinnepaug Lake, that’s what we’d always called it, that’s what everyone we knew called it, that’s what my father had called it, that’s what it was.
Except there it was, on the map, our small body of blue hard up against the red Massachusetts/Connecticut state line, and next to it the words Quinnepaug Pond.
“They probably made a mistake,” I told them, and closed the atlas.
“It’s a map,” Toby said. “Maps don’t make mistakes.”
“Christopher Columbus had a map,” I said, “and his map told him America was the West Indies.”
“Christopher Columbus is dead,” Toby said.
“I bet his mapmaker is dead, too,” Bart said.
Biggie came into the room. His face was flushed and he was whistling a happy tune and he also looked taller, more erect, as though after all those years of pretending to be bigger he’d gotten what he wanted. He really did look more like a Phil than a Biggie, and I must have stared at him for too long because he asked, “What are you looking at?”
“The lake!” the boys said together. And then: “It’s a pond!” They opened the atlas and showed Biggie, but he only shrugged and said, “Huh.”
My sons are serious boys, devoted to the literal truth, and so Toby said, “We’ve been calling this a lake, when actually it’s a pond.”
“That’s lying,” Bart said. “When you say a pond is a lake, that’s called lying.”
“Huh,” Biggie said. “It’s stopped raining. I’m going down by the water.” And then he left the house and went outside to stand by the thing we’d been lying about.
* * * *
That night it was business as usual. My mother woke me up, said what she had to say to my father, and went back to bed. I stared at the ceiling, waiting for my father to appear, wanting to ask him more questions. Did you know the lake is a pond? Did you lie to us? Does it matter? Is it impossible to tell the truth? Should we even try? I hadn’t forgotten about the lurid voice from the night before, but I wasn’t entirely waiting for it either, and so I was on the verge of unconsciousness when I heard the same throaty woman’s voice saying, “You make me so wet. You’ve always made me so wet.”
I sat up in bed again. I still knew, or thought, I was hearing things, but I considered the other possibilities. Maybe someone was talking in their sleep, but that seemed unlikely and besides, no one was saying anything else, now that I was wide awake and listening for it. It was true that the boys had been letting loose with the occasional “goddamn” and “shit,” but we’d warned them against it, and besides, they’d never said anything remotely like what I’d just heard. So clearly I was hearing things. That had to be it. But like Geronimo and Crazy Horse and so many of our great, peyote-eating native warriors, I chose to think of the voices in my head as not hallucinations but signs, and in my case, a call to marital arms. Elinor had never said these sorts of things to me, and I don’t think I’d ever wanted her to. But we’d barely touched in the ten months since Rachel died. Perhaps this throaty voice was a sign, a sign telling me to say something, say anything. Perhaps it was telling me that things had to change, and now. Perhaps the voice was telling me, It’s time, it’s time.
The next morning the rain had passed and it was beautiful again. Toby and Bart were cannonballing each other off the raft; my mother was watching Biggie and Sarah swamp and clean the canoe, and telling them how my father had been a more efficient swamper. Elinor was looking at something in the trees through her birding binoculars. I’d gotten less than an hour of sleep the night before, and felt as though I wasn’t entirely in my body—you know the feeling—as though I were watching another man sneak up behind my wife, put his arms around her stomach, and say, “I miss your pussy. I miss how wet I used to make you.”
Elinor dropped the binoculars, lenses down, and I could hear one of them shatter against a rock. She made a little noise—a gasp or inward sob—as she turned to face me. There are so many things she could have said, so many things I wish she’d said. She could have said, “I know, I know, I miss it, too.” Or: “Don’t ever, ever say anything like that to me again.” Or: “You and I made her, we made her, and now she’s dead and I never want you to touch me again.” Any of that would have been better than what she said to me, which was, “I’m pretty sure I just saw an Ecuadorian hummingbird.”
“An Ecuadorian hummingbird,” I said.
“They’re very rare,” she said, and picked up her broken binoculars, turned away from me and toward the trees, and I retreated, just as the Australians should have at Gallipoli, back to one of the chaise lounges. I closed my eyes and tried to get some sleep. Because this was the lie I was telling myself—if I could just get some sleep, everything would be all right. But I couldn’t. My mother was droning on about making a fire that night and how expert my father had been in making one and how no one would ever build one like he had built and so why bother. But she was lying: I had a clear memory of my father struggling to make a fire, blaming his failure on the wet wood, the matches, the low quality of the newspaper, and so on before giving up and telling us to eat the marshmallows we’d wanted to roast over the fire unroasted, because they were better that way in any case. Biggie swam out to the raft, where the boys were, and I could hear him saying, “Do you hear that wind? That’s quite a west wind, isn’t it?” I, too, could hear the howling west wind. Except it wasn’t.
“That’s not the wind,” Toby said. “That’s the highway. Listen, you can hear the trucks shifting gears.”
And then there were Sarah and Elinor, standing to my right. Sarah was telling Elinor how good her job was—she, too, was an English teacher at Lowell Public—how happy she and Biggie were, and at that moment Elinor yelled out, “It is an Ecuadorian hummingbird, it is!” except I heard her yell it in the throaty voice I’d imagined for Beth Ann and it sounded lurid and it made me long for something and everything and Biggie was out on the raft, saying, “I’m pretty sure that’s the wind,” and Bart was insisting, “It’s not the wind. It’s the highway,” and then I could feel the shadow of someone standing over me, and I heard my mother say, “You know, your father slept as soundly as I do. He never needed a nap,” and without opening my eyes I sat up and yelled, “I’m trying to get some fucking sleep here. Will everyone just shut the hell up!”
I heard a collective gasp, but they shut up, and I tried again to fall asleep. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t. Because my sons were right: I could hear the highway loud and clear, as though I were on it, headed somewhere else, somewhere away from the lake or the pond or whatever it is we choose to call the place we think we know and love, but don’t.
* * * *
I didn’t sleep that night or the night after, or the night after that, either. I stopped even bothering to try to fall asleep before my mother stood over me and invoked my father, which she always did. I then lay in bed, thinking about my father, waiting for the next voice to come, which it also did—one night saying, “Oh, you’re so hard,” the night after that saying, “Oh, I love it when you suck my tits like that,” the night after that saying, “I want you to fuck my cunt,” and so on. Each day, I’d catch Biggie on the phone with Beth Ann, overhear him saying, “I don’t know what I’d do without you, I can’t live without you,” just minutes after saying something similar to Sarah. Each day, I’d try to say something to Elinor about our love and how I missed it and would we ever get it back, and she’d answer by describing whatever winged creature she’d seen just a moment earlier. Each day, my mother would give one of us, all of us, a lecture about what a great man my father was and how we’d never see his kind again. Each day, I’d see my family through my heavy-lidded eyes, see them not as my family but as ghosts, ghosts I used to love, ghosts who lied about everything, even about being ghosts. Each day, I’d try to snap myself out of my daze by spending time with the boys, but I couldn’t concentrate, and right in the middle of teaching them to overhand cast, as my father had taught me, I’d notice how puny the lake was, how I could see every inch of its shoreline, and say, “You’re right. It really is just a pond.” Toby and Bart would look at me balefully as if they’d lost something, as if to say, “What are you thinking of? Why aren’t you thinking of us? Aren’t we enough?”
Which brings me to the end of the third stage, and the night I’m here to tell you about. Everyone was in bed, asleep. It was around eleven, an hour to go before my mother woke up, etc. I had my pen flashlight and was reading a book about Communist China, and in particular about the Long March. Morale was low; comrades were dying left and right—from starvation and dysentery and the like—and those who hadn’t died were despondent about how awfully long the march was and how it was never going to end and why not just give up. There was talk that maybe life would be better after all if they just gave up. So at night Mao would circulate among his starving, sleeping, bone-weary comrades and pretend to be one of the recently dead, a ghost who had nothing to lose and could do nothing but tell the truth. “Your family will be shamed if you give up now,” Mao told them. “You are weak. You are cowards. You are lying to yourself if you think surrender will stop you from being what you are. Stop lying to yourself. I’m watching you.”
There is nothing a true historian hates more than a reenactor, one of those men who live in tract housing and on the weekends put on the Union blue or the Confederate gray and drive out to some field and pretend it’s Gettysburg or Manassas or Vicksburg. The true historian knows you can never relive the past without looking pathetic and silly trying to do so. But I am not a true historian, I am an amateur, and that night I was an amateur historian crazed with sleeplessness and haunted by a family that wasn’t the one I’d loved and desperate about it. So I reenacted. I took off my shirt and shorts and put on my bathing suit. I crept down to the lake. I threw an inner tube into the water, dove through it. Like my father, I’ve developed a good-sized belly, and when I dove into the tube it stopped about halfway down the length of me. I wasn’t brave enough to hit my head on the bottom, in the same way the reenactors aren’t brave enough to use real bullets, real bayonets. So I went into the kitchen, sopping wet in my inner tube, found a bottle of ketchup in the refrigerator, dumped it on my head, and hoped that, in the dark, it would look something like an actual head wound.
I crept back inside to where my family was sleeping. I first went to Sarah, leaned over her, and whispered her name. She opened her eyes and gasped, but before she could say anything I whispered, “Biggie is cheating on you. Her name is Beth Ann.” Then I went to Biggie, stood over him until he woke up, and whispered, “You are my brother, you are Biggie. You will never be anything but a Biggie.” I went over to Elinor, woke her, and whispered, “A bird is not a husband, not a daughter either. She’s dead and never coming back. But I’m here. I am still here. Isn’t that enough? Why isn’t that enough?” I went to my sons, woke them, and whispered, “I love you, I love you both, but it isn’t enough. You need to know this. Love will never be enough.” And then, finally, I went over to where my mother was sleeping. I crawled into bed with her, on the side my father had slept on way back in the first stage. I put my hand to her cheek, and she woke up. Her eyes sprung open, and she made a gurgling sound, a sound I know now was prelude to the heart attack that killed her. But I didn’t know that then, and I whispered, “Maggie, it’s just me, your husband, an ordinary man. Even with my inner tube I’m just an ordinary man. There is nothing special about me, or us. You are not even a Chandler, except by marriage; you’re a Sant. There is nothing special about this place, this house, this body of water. I am dead. There is nothing special about that, either. Your whole life has been a lie. All of our lives have been nothing but lies!”
* * * *
I am telling this now from a different house, on a different lake, in a different state. My second wife, Marta, is outside with her children and my children, all of whom are playing together in the water, making the cautiously happy noises children make when they are thrown together for reasons they don’t entirely understand or like but make the best of anyway. It’s been three years since my mother died, two-plus years since Biggie and Sarah and Elinor and I got divorced and Biggie moved in with Beth Ann (everything I know about Biggie is secondhand, since he refuses to talk to me). It’s been two years since we sold our family’s lake house in Connecticut. Marta and I have been married less than a year. She has had her first, second, and third stages, too, and our hope is that this, our fourth stage, will be our last. We rented this house, just as we will rent a different house on a different lake in a different state next summer, and a different house the year after that, and so on. It is a fine house, clean enough and unremarkable, and that is why we rented it, and that is why we will never buy a lake house of our own, even though we probably have enough money. There are a few history books on the shelves—biographies of great men and women that I’ve already read and will probably reread—but other than that there is no history here, and we like it that way. There is a guest book, too, and the previous renters have signed their names to the guest book, but other than that they have left nothing behind, and no doubt they have their own ghosts, but they are not our ghosts, they are not ghosts we loved, or ghosts who loved us, and so we cannot hurt them.