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‘The old man wasn’t so crazy, you know. Not all that bloody crazy. Do we have a beer?’
‘Thank God for that.’
‘Can you walk?’
‘Can I walk? Am I mad? What bloody nonsense. A time of national-emergency and of course I can walk. I can walk, be damned! A beer.’ Harvey threw an arm around Addie’s brown shoulder.
They came out of the bomb shelter.
Mammoth clouds had stiffened over the forest, very high and well to the southwest. Tumbling, flopping like earth under a spade, swirling in, coalescing and darkening and fusing into a single expansive element over the forest.
Harvey sniffed the air. ‘Mustard gas. Jesus of Mercy, who would’ve thought they still had mustard gas?’
The promise was great.
There was certain rhythm.
Jud Harmor still sat in his lawn chair. His eyes were closed.
‘Poor old Jud,’ Harvey muttered. ‘Stuff got to him … We must all now buck up. The end is coming and we shall go with class. A little class never hurt. Buck up, chaps. Let us mourn old Jud, a finer man, parades and all.’
The clouds swirled high, a breathing, soft respiration. Harvey filled a paper cup with beer. ‘A toast to Jud! A finer man we could not find, a finer man …’ Odours rose from the forest tissue, compounds of chlorophyll and wastes. Great cavities opened, steam rose from the leaves, the clouds tumbled high, vapours filled the forest, obscene smells of salamanders and pine. ‘The end is with us,’ chanted Harvey. ‘And the old man was not crazy at all.’ The clouds stiffened and swelled. Old Jud lay in the lawn chair, eyes closed as the clouds rolled towards Lake Superior, huge and threatening but refusing to rain. ‘Let us … let us mourn old Jud,’ Harvey was saying. ‘A free spirit. A false prophet. A free spirit, thank God, free, free at last, old Jud.’
‘Hush,’ Grace whispered. ‘He’s sleeping.’
‘Ha! Aha, you’ll see. You’ll see. The fallout’s got him, sure as hell. Look at him. Let’s examine the old gent’s testicles. Ha, that’ll tell the old tale.’
Perry brought out four chairs. They watched the clouds roll towards the great lake.
Jud suddenly sat up. He started cackling, raised his fist up. ‘What did I say?’
The air was hot.
Energy charged out of the clouds. The sky went, wild. Thunder created a wind of its own.
‘Marvellous,’ Addie breathed.
The clouds moved fast.
‘Heat storm,’ Jud cackled. ‘What did I say?’
The storm tumbled over on itself, and there was no rain. Grace pulled her sweater tight. Addie lay back in her chair. Harvey was shivering. A slice of electricity shot like white ribbon from the clouds. ‘Marvellous,’ Addie murmured. Her eyes were black. The clouds tumbled and flopped, rushing eastwards, the lightning exploding in fluffs, the whole forest stopped. Grace whispered something. Addie’s eyes were black. She was barefoot. Her feet were under her, her legs were dark. The sky crashed. Grace was whispering. He watched Addie. Her cheekbones were high and shining. Asiatic, Indian, primitive, shining, upward looking, and the lightning flashed again, and her hair was long and back over her shoulders without knots or bows or curls. ‘We should be going in,’ Grace was whispering, but the heat storm thrashed in the forest, all around them, and the wind swept in hot, and Addie’s eyes were lighted, and Grace whispered, ‘We should go inside.’ She whispered, ‘I’m cold, hon.’
He heard her. He curled an arm around her. She could embarrass him.
Slowly the storm rolled overhead, high like a battle far off. It rolled towards the east and left a clean night sky behind it. There was no rain.
Jud Harmor stood up. ‘Show’s over,’ he announced. He’d found his straw hat. ‘I’ll be going.’
Harvey did not get up. His eyes were wide open to the sky.
Perry helped the old man to his truck. Jud climbed in and slammed the door. He leaned his head out. ‘Just a lousy heat storm,’ he said. ‘You gotta watch your brother. I think he’s insane.’
He lay there. The storm was over.
Restless, he got out of bed and went to the window. A light was burning in the bomb shelter. He showered, lay down again. ‘Sleep,’ he said. He tried not to think. Addie. It didn’t matter. Grace was awake. She whispered something.
He got up, went to the bathroom and shaved. Then he dressed. He roamed about, restless, tried to read, sat at the kitchen table. Then he went outside. The crickets were back. The lawn chairs were empty. The bomb shelter light was off and everything was quiet. He followed the path to Pliney’s Pond.
The smell could be awful. All in the mind. He sat on a rock. Addie and Harvey, the names rattled back and forth. The water was deep and quiet. The creature he’d met as a child. Pincers and black eyes attached by cords to the ganglia. A body shaped like a barber’s electric clippers. And the deep-down pond, he remembered. Addie and Harvey. No matter. The place could stink. It was algaed and full of primitive organisms.
No matter, he was older now, he wasn’t a kid, he had a wife and his father’s house. His father had taken him to the pond to learn to swim. His father. Harvey had come, too. That had been another July, and they’d gone the three of them to Pliney’s Pond and his father had said, ‘This is where you’ll learn to swim. No back talk, just jump in.’ Perry remembered undressing slowly. ‘It stinks,’ he’d cried, going in. Mosquito eggs, crayfish, larvae, slime and Junebugs, frogs and newts and snakes and toads and lizards, Indian shit and rot, and Harvey had gone in, too. Harvey had gone to the middle of the pond. ‘No back talk,’ the old man ordered, and Perry waded in, waded in and fell headlong into the stinking water, eyes in terror and sobs choked in sewage. Ash and sewage, he remembered it. Then the creature, its pincers and dangling black eyes, an inch from his face, a quarter-inch, a real monster closing in, and he’d sobbed, sucking in more of the thick water, and the creature came.
The pond did stink. There was no question. Addie and Harvey.
Perry sat on the rock. It didn’t matter. The place was quiet, the forest grew to the edge of the pond, and the pond was quiet. He relaxed. Things could be put in perspective. That was what had to be done. He dipped into the pond and took out a handful of water and let it straight through his fingers. Harvey and Addie, some luck. The water left a black residue. It was late. It was always getting late. He decided it was time for reformation. Begin exercising. Eat less. He would be kind to Grace; she deserved it. He would be kind to Harvey. He would get involved, paint the house, go into the woods, go deep. He heard a loon. It was far off. It wasn’t such a bad night. It was getting cool. Harvey was fine. Addie was fine; she was something else again. The way she walked, heels down. Grace was fine, too. The loon called again and he got up.
Things were always better. He brushed himself off, followed the path to the house. There were no lights. The bomb shelter crouched low in the yard. There were no lights anywhere.
He folded up the lawn chairs, carried them to the porch and stacked them. He was careful to be quiet. He looked up and smiled. The sky was surprisingly light, and there was a moon and many stars.
‘Feel better?’ Grace whispered.
‘Yes. I had a walk.’
The sheets were cool now, and Perry held her.
‘Hmmm, I was sleeping. Storm over?’
‘All quiet. Getting nice out there.’
‘No. No rain yet. It’ll come.’
She whispered. ‘Your face is burnt.’
‘It’s all right. I feel better. I don’t know what gets into me.’
‘Let’s put some cream on your face.’ She gently touched his nose. Perry took her hand. ‘You are a woman,’ he said. ‘Gee,’ she whispered. She got the cream from the nightstand. They undressed and Perry lay face up on the bed. He closed his eyes. He breathed easy. He felt the lotion on his chest. He did feel better. He breathed slowly. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Putting lotion on you,’ she whispered. ‘Hold still now.’
But he wasn’t thinking. He was tired. Wings clipped by the old man. No bulls here. Rushing from nowhere to nowhere and learning to swim. ‘Just lie still now,’ she whispered. But he wasn’t listening because the thick waters were against his ears. ‘Shhhhhh,’ she whispered, ‘does that feel good now? Lie still, lie still,’ part of the pond, soft as water. He concentrated, finally opening his eyes, and she smiled at him. She reached in the dark for a tissue and wiped him. ‘Such a fountain,’ she whispered.
‘Can we have a baby someday?’
Soft as water. He tightened his arms, squeezing, and he held her and squeezed, all his energy, squeezed until she said to stop.
They called it a dying town. People were always saying it: Sawmill Landing won’t last another decade. But for all the talk, Perry never saw the death, only the shabby circumstances of the movements around him. It was a melancholia, seeded in the elements, but he had no idea where it started. It might have started with the Ice Age. Four glaciers advancing and receding over the course of a million years, freezing, stinging with crystalline cold, digging out boulders, ice a mile deep, a permanent stillness. Then the Stone Age. Indians. First the Sioux, later the Chippewa. In the basement of the town library there was a museum that housed all the relics: broadheads, pottery, clay pipes, hides and drawings. Then the French, taking what they could. Then the Swedes. The Swedes built houses. Pine planks, dirt floors, hard-rock fireplaces. The Swedes hacked at the forest, broke their backs and ploughs trying to turn the Arrowhead into corn-bearing land.
In 1854, the Chippewa ceded their timber and fish and game for a few hundred square miles of reservation.
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