My cousin? Nile? Never mind, file him under “women’s troubles” and forget about him.
We have other coronary matters to consider. For instance, the unnamed man who washed up on the beach, and who provoked what is called an “equivocal death analysis.” Of course, it was Nile who found him, no getting around that. With his verminous instincts, he even upstaged the flies, which came tumbling after him in a busy, buzzing mass. The lake coughed up the man and served him on a bed of dried marsh grass, an impromptu nest that would have crackled with his sodden weight, a sound that no one heard, no one human. Unless Nile, owl eared, was listening with his usual predatory acuity.
This surprise stiff was very well preserved for someone who had been dead for five years, a figure determined by the forensic analysis, I’m not making it up. The cold water had kept him relatively fresh. The guy didn’t look that much different than Aunt Faith, who, regrettably, was still alive. He’d been on an epic journey, an underwater Ulysses cruising like a wayward flesh torpedo along the lake bottom, sliding smoothly past schools of fish and over logs, shooting into the broken hull of a sunken schooner. A nightmare man months snagged in the tumbled rigging, then exploding out of a porthole.
He owned a cottage on Lake Michigan, a black Speedo bathing suit, and a gold chain. Early morning, a quick dip, that was the plan. Coffee, a healthy knob of butter glistening on a stack of pancakes (or flapjacks, this being the States), and a Lucky Strike cigarette—irony at its most gauche—smoked down to the filter and flicked into the crapper with a gratifying hissss. Simple pleasures for what may or may not have been a complicated man. Crossing a watery border into another country had not been on the day’s agenda. Somewhere along his circuitous trip to the morgue (and I have a very good idea where), he lost the gold chain. But not the Speedo. Nothing like a bit of bloat to firmly secure such a slinky little article. How many people said, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing…before realizing and choking it off with a laugh.
Our mystery man—underwater ambassador (of considerable puffery) and self-made raft borne in on a swift succession of bright waves—eventually acquired a scanty if disappointingly dull covering of detail. Who, how, where. But at first his whole, provocatively intact body gleamed with possibility. In his silence, he seemed to insist that we cobble our rural wits together, in order to grant him an identity worth all of the trouble taken on his incredible journey. Plus the cost of the fare.
Fine, fine. Honour the dead, however unwelcome, sing his praises, if unearned (anyone can drown—how hard can it be?), build him a cairn out of a disassembled fire pit. Go crazy. What I wanted to know, the sliver of truth to be plucked from this corporal hunk of driftwood, was the real reason for Nile’s opportune presence. By this time, you see, I’m afraid I had taken an interest. In him, Nile, if you can believe it.
“Watch out for that cousin of yours, Hero,” Mother warned.
“Don’t get into his car.”
Words. Like chipping away with a chisel. I sometimes think she returned from her own so-called travels simply to warn me about the exact things she continued to do herself. I was what, fifteen? (Practically, for all intents and purposes.) Nile, twenty-five. Do the math. These numbers belonged together. Here was a sequence, orderly, beautiful, inevitable (if you can count past ten). Just dig the equation of this perfect pairing: him + me, cousin + cousin, smartass + smarty-pants = 1 hot unit. Chemistry, we had it.
Honestly, I didn’t see the problem. Or, I should say, that was the problem: keeping the slimy bastard—and not the one prone on the beach—in sight. He haunted the edge of everything. If you had 20/20 vision, he’d go twenty-one, a shade beyond seeing…and believing. My lying quarry, up to no good and not even bothering to deck it out in any credible finery, as I might.
So what was he doing so far from town on this southern shore on this part of the lake that wasn’t shy about coughing up the dead?
“You were not fishing.” Nor, at this point, were we discussing nuclear physics.
“That right? ”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
God, why did I bother? Just take a look at him. He was grease incarnate. And what was that suspect smell rolling off him? Did he ever wash? Grooming aside, he also had a devil burrowing into his heart like a worm mining an apple. I could practically hear it if I got my ear close enough to his chest.
He looks at me, looks away, laughs.
What, what, what?
Not that it mattered, despite how I felt, longing shooting out of my head in spikes. Nile was not destined to be my first love, not really, the one true thing that I’ll needlessly wreck and never forget, spawning the seductive figure who will slip out of the shadows and into my dreams, even when I’m an old bat. No, Nile was emotional mulch, the preparatory ground, romantic tilth. I wanted to sink my hands into this fertile earth deeply, deeply. Eros’ little gardener.
My mother needn’t have worried, if worry was her motivation. Never was I invited into his plush, sex-lit sanctum on wheels. Nile had no compunction whatsoever about feeling up anything even remotely female, livestock and minerals included. But he would not touch me!
“You’re skinny,” he said. “You look like a drowned rat.” Or, more winningly, “What nose did they pick you out of? Eh, Scuts? ”
Nothing but fond family talk. I wondered, though, didn’t he know the difference between a cousin and a sister?
Yes, yes, all right, while my future physique might best be described as Junoesque, I was still admittedly somewhat on the goddess-nascent side. Larval, if you will. I knew I had potential, because I was beginning to catch looks from boys my own age. Guys without cars, muscles, chest hair, wallets with chains, swagger, dirty yellow combs sticking out of their back pockets, or smokes glued to their bottom lips. I kept an eye on their manly development nonetheless. Juno Fidia.
His girlfriends? No contest, all cross eyed and bucktoothed, I kid you not. Some were fat, some halt, and some so old they obviously needed elastic bands on their underwear to hold them together and keep them upright. Body bags, all. Generously, Nile paid them court, indiscriminately portioning out his charms. A single focus, one girlfriend only, even one bejewelled with a goitre, would have been a more dangerous proposition, unless of course the one girlfriend was me. Not that I can’t be dangerous, especially when riled. Juno Fulminator.
Nile in love was a disturbing thought.
I flipped through the phone book to see who might be living in the island’s southern reaches, in some enchanted cedar scrub populated by the inbred, the unemployed, and perhaps a witch. Or a siren, working the beach, who may have called out to a corpse bobbing irresolutely in the water and convinced it to call it a day, to come sculling in like a lonely seal and lie at her feet. RIP, my pet.
Mother snapped her fingers in my face, told me to stop mooning around, do the dishes, do something. I shifted to my room and slammed the door. Hurled myself onto the bed, at one with my randomly discarded clothes, a host of selves slaughtered by ill-use. Childhood was still so close I could taste it. No going back, though, no whirling carefree down the road on my bike, no spinning dizzily on the tire swing out front, pulling my immediate world down a drain hole vortex. Clearly I was sick, infected with maturity.
But this thing, please don’t call it puppy love. It was more like something that ate puppies.
Fact is, I was older than Nile in many ways. My command of language, for one. Always silver tongued, I could now spin gold, forging one aureate link after another. Listening to me (I think he listened), the best Nile could do was swill beer, nod, belch.
Evidently, there would be no catching him in a linguistic snare. My campaign required actions, not words. Mother commanded me to do something? Okay then, I will, I most definitely will, just you wait.
My friend Beatrice, firm in her sympathies, nonetheless regarded me with alarm. Her naturally bulgy eyes bulged a degree more.
“You’re not serious, are you? ”
“Of course I am.”
“This is not a good idea, you know that.”
“Why don’t you come, too? ”
Bea’s parents were less distracted than mine, a feature of our domestic arrangement that I was counting on. Her parents rarely left the house, their own bulgy eyes relentless in surveillance.
“Sluts,” she shook her head in wonder. “Tramps.”
Bea’s own verbal reach was modest, but she managed to produce the essentials as required. In this instance referring to the kind of women who attended the Saturday night dances held in the boathouse on the town dock, dances that not infrequently featured vile language, vile manners, punch-ups, knives, random grunting, and adulterous screwing in dark corners. In other words, über-adult affairs. If Nile was to be found anywhere, this was the place.
“You’ve got to wear a skirt.”
“A skirt? Jesus!”
“And a bra.”
Getting out of the house on the night of my romantic crusade was a snap. All week, I half-expected my parents to deviate from their usual behaviour and unwittingly throw a spanner into the works, some plot complication in our ongoing family sitcom to bugger things up. On Saturday, possibly alerted by my unsolicited bout of hygienic activity (washed hair, brushed teeth), I feared they would smell a rat (one with a dab of Evening in Paris behind each ear) and, in an unprecedented move, award me with the full blessing of their attentions. Make popcorn, break out the Monopoly board, attempt conversation, or worse, jokes, and basically seal up the windows and doors with a gluey clan ambience.
But no, Mother’s fork had barely cooled on the dinner table before she was peeling down the drive, off to bingo. (“Hell, I’d shout ‘Bingo,’ too, if he was that good,” says Auntie Viv.) Father ambled into the living room, flicked on the TV, flomped onto the ersatz La-Z-Boy, kicked off his shoes, wiggled his toes, yawned, scratched his chin. Gone.
So no complications. I didn’t even bother to slide pillows under the covers and sculpt them into a surrogate self. Who would look in later to check on me to see if I was okay—in situ angelic and unharmed, or out frugging the night away? Children’s Aid? The actual sitcom remained confined to the tube, unspooling viewer-free as I snuck out, while our particular plot remained predictable, if unfathomable.
Once out of doors, the question of transportation arose. Options: take the bike to town, or be transported along the shore on my own sneaker-shod feet. The road was quicker but came with perils, mainly from a Saturday night spike in traffic. A rural spike, intermittent at best, but still. I risked recognition, dust up my nose, and agonizing death in the ditch at the heedless hands of a driver already half-cut and with his tongue planted not in his cheek, but in his lady friend’s waxy ear. This thought was so revolting that I decided on the shore.
No need to hurry anyway. Things didn’t heat up at the dance until dark, and with the boathouse crowded and lights dimmed for body contact activities, I planned to slip in unnoticed. I could afford the dawdling more than I could the cover charge. Or being turfed out before Nile had a chance to take me under his wing, fledgling vamp that I was.
I passed some time on the shore, skipped a few stones, sat on my favourite rock, roosting on fossils, hazarding hemorrhoids. With night well on its way—Nyx in flowing, funereal dress advancing across the sky, black chariot, black horses—cold began to seep into the rock, chilling my little cheeks. Trouble with skirts, they let in too much of the outside world.
“Picture yourself twirling,” Beatrice had urged, her saleswoman future already in force as she thumbed through the borrowable stock in her closet.
Friends, it wasn’t me. A plaid, pleated number, browny orange, that fell below my knees. What finally clinched it? The thing was reversible, a feature I’m a sucker for, whether in a product or a human (figuratively speaking). The reverse side wasn’t all that different, a browny-green plaid, but I liked the idea of a secret skirt and making a quick switch in mid–manic twirl, hey presto, part dervish, part magician. Wouldn’t that just floor them.
Halfway to town, much darker now, waves chatting up the shoreline, I began to wonder what it might be like to stumble across a floater. In island life, always a possibility. Like the man from Michigan, deceased water-borne tourists did occasionally show up requiring accommodation. With visibility low to nil, a person might easily trip over one and land smack on top of it, sending a fountain of lake water leaping out of its mouth.
Nile hadn’t seemed troubled in the least about his beach find, but then his life’s mission was to cause trouble, not feel its effects.
I picked up the pace. (I ran.)
The place was hopping when I got there, live band, the Blacksmiths, they were terrible. I hung around on the dock, crouched behind a pile of junk—coiled ropes, nets, wooden crates, a broken outboard—and caught a lucky break when the guy manning the ticket booth went out for a piss and a smoke. Slipping in, I navigated the wall, finding the most shadowy spot from which to observe the goings-on. I’m telling you, it was a study. Fast dances, slow dances. During the slow ones, couples tried to crawl inside each other, and during the fast ones they couldn’t get far enough apart, bobbing their heads, shaking their fat deposits, writhing like they were covered in snakes and trying to fling them off.
Of course, I knew most everyone there except the out-of-towners, and I’ll admit to being a little shocked to see Miss Lewis, the grade five teacher, among them. In my drippy skirt, I looked more like a schoolteacher than she did with her high heels, tight pants, tight top, and scarlet lips. (Wait till Bea hears about this.) Strutting past, Douggie Williams was so busy leering at her that he failed to notice a puddle of puke dead ahead, stepped in it, then sailed across the room, executing a perfect triple Lutz before knocking over Hercules Orr, who worked as a pin boy at the bowling alley and was accustomed to missiles heading his way. The room burst into hoots and applause.
Have to admit, I was enjoying myself. I settled back, sticking to the wall like adhesive, when out of the steamy miasma composed of sweat, bad breath, booze, and eau de earthworm (the boathouse sold bait during the day), a skeletal hand reached out, latched onto mine, and yanked me into the fray. Some guy, a total stranger, scraggy and old, needing dental work and hair.
“Hey, baby,” he said, looking me up and down, grinning. “Left yer tits at home, didja? ”
I took this to be a rhetorical question, and frankly I was too stunned by the appearance of this spectre to respond anyway.
“Take off, dipshit.”
Not me saying it (though it should have been), for Hero’s hero—undetected up till now—had arrived! Nile applied his palm to the side of the guy’s head and shoved. Crick went the interloper’s neck.
“Watch it, asshole. I found ’er first.”
“Fuck off,” Nile said, so casually I gave him a thumbs-up. Such class.
And seeing as he came with a complete set of toned biceps, currently on display, my geriatric date did just that, spitting expletives as he stumbled through the crowd.
Nile stared at me.
“What are you doing here? ”
“It’s a dance, yeah? I can dance, you should see me. Want to? Let’s, c’mon. It’s really something, you know. How I can dance…”
“Listen.” He slid his dangerous hands into his pockets, looked down at his pointy shoes, looked up at me. Dark eyes intent. He sighed, softly. But, magic in the air, that sigh had enough wind power to scatter the prohibition that had been placed upon me like a spell. He reached out, both hands, touched my hair and hooked it behind my ears. He trailed his fingers down my neck, over my shoulders, tenderly smoothing the wrinkles out of my shirt, briefly lingering on the straps of my training bra beneath. He ran his hands slowly down my arms and gently held me by my wrists.
Exactly what you might say to a dog.
“How? Will you drive me? ”
“Why not? ”
He relinquished his hold and turned away. My own hands fell limp at my sides as I watched him move like liquid past the band and out the open doorway. I was about to follow—I had no intention of letting him escape so easily—but someone else stepped in front of me, blocking my exit.
“Uh, want to dance? ”
Matt Finch. A boy from high school, upper grades, tall, not bad looking, but I’m afraid Matt was the appropriate name for him; psychologically speaking, he was a clump of tightly wound and interwoven neuroses. Also, since I had a decent view of his shirt, I saw that he had a piece of meat stuck on it. Hot dog fallout, I surmised. A small sample, but effective in clearing the room. Of me, at least.
“Sorry,” I said, dodging around him. “Gotta find my cousin. It’s urgent.”
“Oh, don’t,” I heard him say to my retreating back. “Don’t go out.”
Have I ever been accused of listening to sound advice? I have not. I went out.
Not a soul on the dock, strangely. No couples out for a breather, a smooch, a dance that might advance into the lake, depending on their level of blood alcohol.
And no Nile. Typical. The more I wanted to see him, the less I saw. My man, making himself scarce, rationing himself out. The secret of his success (and my failure).
I raced down the length of the dock to the parking lot. A tactical error. His car sat motionless in the dust, as forsaken as me. The band, venue sensitive if nothing else, was playing “Smoke on the Water,” loudly, but not so loud that it masked the sound of an outboard starting up. A Peterborough, by the sounds of it. I loved being out in a powerboat at night, tearing along, pure freedom—or a convincing enough illusion of it.
I loved it a whole lot more than sitting on the splintery end of the dock, digging my nails into my knees and sucking in motor oil fumes as I watched the water cresting in the boat’s wake. So it wasn’t my hair that the wind got to play with. Nor was that luminous, ghost-white dress, fluttering so evocatively, worn by me. I knew her—all too well—but my brain refused the information, keeping her safely generic, blank as her dress. (What would our family do without the faculty of denial?)
I wondered if they stole the boat. Both stood in the bow, not touching, she steering, facing the open water.
Where Nile had touched me it hurt, as if he’d laid down a trail of bruises or burns on my skin.
I raised my hand to my chest, too late to protect myself, and felt something lumpy in my shirt pocket. Digging in, I pulled out a gold chain. The gold chain, grave robber’s loot, and a gift as dexterously given as it was perplexing. If our Michigan friend, pre-autopsy, remained something of a mystery, he was not a patch on Nile. Cut him open, and you’d be no wiser.
Pouring the chain from hand to hand, this hand, that hand, my heart contracted, pitiful and pitiless. I imagined a dark shape moving in the water below, and with a self-conferred power of occult redress paid out the chain into the lake, righting all indignities. I looked up at the starless night sky and imagined rain, a hard, painful, obliterating downpour.
And then it came.
This appeared in the May 2014 issue.