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That night, Randy and I came back drunk after hitchhiking into the tiny town of Mars, Michigan, where we had cadged the proverbial old guy in a baseball hat to buy for us.
“They got ‘em here too, ain’t that somethin’,” I said.
“They’re everywhere, you dope,” Randy said, pulling that older brother shit on me like he was the veteran of the world, though I had actually had a real girlfriend the previous summer, Brenda Macklin, who had blossomed two doors down from us while Randy was off with his one sad Hustler magazine and his lunk-head friends whose idea of a joke was punching each other in the shoulder. My father liked Randy’s friends and would show them knife tricks and ways to win at poker on the rare occasion that he was home.
Randy and all his friends ended up in the factory too. I myself spent time there, but being two years younger, got laid off when Chrysler hit that wall they seem to hit every ten or fifteen years. Like some stubborn dolt, they keep ramming their gas-guzzling truck into that wall, expecting it to collapse, but it never does. Eventually, they seem to find a way to drive around it, but by then they’re way behind the Japanese or the Germans or whoever.
I’ve never been a ball-hat wearing drunk buying for the kiddies in the parking lot, by the way. I moved away to the tropical paradise of Wheeling, West Virginia, home of the Mud Sandwich and other delicacies to be had at Red’s Roadside Paradise, if you’re ever in the vicinity. Randy has all the family photos now, since our mother is blind, so this is all from my warped memory.
Anyway, we came back drunk, stumbling in, laughing, our parents sitting around the campfire with Carl whose name was once indeed Karl, it turns out. People told him it sounded too German, he said. Randy got in an animated discussion with Carl about this until apparently it became obvious that his animation was not Karl-induced and our father yanked us both out of there and gave us one of his famous talking-tos during which Karl asked our mother if she’d like to shimmy in his shanty after the old man nodded off. She declined.
After he died, our mother told us just about everything we never wanted to know. To this day, she’ll call up just to say, “Did I tell you I smoked marijuana once?”
Randy and I don’t talk much on the phone. Our wives talk to each other, and they give us synopses with footnotes. For example:
“Happy Birthday, dude.”
“Whacha doin’ with it?”
“Cake and shit…Hey, it looks like Wendy wants to get on the line.”
“I’ll get Mary Beth. Have a good one.”
Since he almost died in a motorcycle accident two years ago, Randy’s started telling me he loves me before signing off, and I tell him back because the old man never told us before he died. Though he did take us on that vacation to Carl’s Kabins, we remind each other.
The next day, which turned out to be the only sunny day that week, Randy and I figured on swimming some. Carl had no beach. We jumped off the dock into algae and quicksand. Randy and I stood there sinking into the muck and weeds. We looked around at the rest of the lake hoping there might be a girl in a bikini somewhere in that sad cup of tea.
We had to rinse the muck off our legs with a hose. I don’t know where Carl found that picture that was on the brochure. Probably over on Lake Huron, where they did have sandy beaches, beaches you could look down on from scenic overlooks, or outlooks, as my father called them, snapping yet another photo.
That afternoon, we drove to town in search of ice cream. My father found a pay phone to call Mitch and find out where the fun was.
“Ask him where the babes are!” Randy shouted into the old graffitied phone booth, but he still got to eat with us that night. “They all look like lesbians in that store,” Randy grumbled.
“You wouldn’t know a lesbian if one bit you on the ass,” I said.
“Why would a lesbian bite me on the ass, you dope,” he said.
Nobody came out in our high school. We didn’t even know what it meant — coming out from where to where? Randy was so convinced of his charms that he believed anyone who did not succumb must be a lesbian. His friend Gorpy turned out to be gay, but he didn’t emerge until his thirties, and that was after he’d been married twice. Randy avoided Gorpy after that.
Carl had a meth lab going on the premises, the State Police would later determine. That explained the ammonia smell that blew on the breeze from Carl’s own Kabin up near the road — it sure wasn’t from Carl cleaning the place. We didn’t see him much during the day. His German Shepherd almost ripped my father’s head off when he surprised Carl Thursday morning, wanting to ask him for advice on good fishing spots.
We knew we were in trouble when the old man started fishing. He’d never fished in his life. We knew he’d be wanting company, so Randy and I took off in one of Carl’s battered rowboats, heading straight across the lake, assuming there was a good side to the lake that was the opposite of where we were located. A land of sandy beaches and bikinis and beer and somebody playing the guitar and bongos. Girls doing the limbo.
We heard our father shouting at us, but we were far enough away so we could pretend not to hear. The lake appeared to be lined with other versions of Carl’s Kabins:
Kevin’s Cottages. Bunk’s Beach Houses, Harry’s Hide-A-Way, Fartin’ and Fishin’. Well, I made that last one up.
We did see a pretty girl on a dock, but she gave us the finger just for saying, “Hey.”
She was smiling though. “Maybe it’s a regional thing,” I whispered, rowing closer.
“Hey, is that a regional sign of affection?” Randy shouted.
“It’s a sign known the world over,” she said. “No affection in it.”
“What do you do for fun around here,” I asked, trying my own charming smile.
“You’re doing it, big boy,” she said. “Row around till you get tired, then if you’re lucky, you sink.”
“Ha,” I said.
“Ha ha,” Randy said.
She was older than she first looked, older than us — maybe even married.
Randy eventually took a crack at rowing himself, he was that bored. “Let a man take over,” he said. We shifted positions. I leaned over the front of the boat and looked into the water for fish.
“I hope dad catches something,” I said.
“Why?” Randy asked.
I was suddenly sad. The long, slow days at Lake Limbo had pulled me down. It was the most time I’d spent with my father in my entire life. The most I would ever spend. An entire week. And he was fishing. And he was catching nothing. Certainly not us.
“Something to cheer him up, man,” I said.
“He’s always like this,” Randy said, pulling hard on the oars.
“Is he?” I asked.
“I think so,” he said.
“I don’t know if he knows who to blame this one on,” I said. “He seems confused.”
“They,” Randy said. “They did it.”
The way he said they, a dead-on impression of the old man now that his voice had changed, made me laugh despite the sadness.
When we got close to shore, I shouted, “Any bites, dad?”
He startled, nearly knocking his cardboard tub of worms off the dock.
“They’re hiding on me,” he said. When he reeled in his line, there was no worm on it.
“They stole my bait,” he said, though as much as he knew about fishing, the worm could’ve just swum right off the hook. “Mitch says you gotta use a boat to get the big ones. Didn’t you boys hear me hollering at you?”
“We just thought you were excited to see us go,” Randy said, but he couldn’t get another rise out of our father that week. It was like, given enough time, our father would have lost his edge completely, opened up to us, even though we had our own edges now. Randy was like a bully, disappointed the kid he was picking on wouldn’t fight back.
He either said “You’re hopeless” or “It’s hopeless” as he pulled up the oars and I jumped on the dock. He walked away without me.
Not biting, eh Mitch?” Carl said.
“I am not Mitch. My friend is Mitch.”
“Right, right,” Carl said. My father waited for Carl to remember his name — Bob — but Carl did not care enough to find it.
My father could fix anything in the world that was broken and could be fixed with tools, but he could not catch a fish.
I could tell my father was humiliated that week. His shoulders slumped as he sat in one of Carl’s splintery deck chairs in his antique bathing suit. The elastic had dried out, and the suit was constantly sagging to reveal his butt crack. It was too much pressure on one week of his life. We, his sons, had already left him behind while he’d been busy working overtime and fixing things. I felt his humiliation myself on the silent, stinky shore of that brown lake. Not enough to sit on the dock with him in the heat of the day — even I knew that wasn’t a good time to fish — and pretend to have some deep father and son moments. I’d be as bad as Randy in a couple of years, lashing out at him, crumbing up our room.
“Be cool, stay in school,” he always told us, as if that was something he’d made up himself. He had not stayed in school. He had gotten my mother pregnant with Randy and married her and dropped out to work in the factory until he was drafted. I was born while he was in Vietnam. Right after he got back, we took that trip to the sand dunes. In the photos, my father is slim and muscled. He looks both defeated and able to take on the world. The defeat part was in his eyes. Though he loved taking photos himself, he always hated having his own photo taken. He might’ve become gun shy after the war. He kept his old Army stuff in a wooden box, and in that box was a picture of his platoon, and in tiny, delicate script, he wrote “dead” beneath half the men.