HONORABLE MENTION, Fall 2016
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Leslie Lawrenson “Boat Ride”
BY MATTHEW STEPHEN SIROIS
He slid open the plate-glass door, glancing toward the band-aid he’d stuck at eye-level to remind his wife the door is shut and please don’t attempt to walk through it again. He strolled down to the water, the bite of morning on his bare arms, dew wetting his feet. He thought about plane crashes, house fires that start at night, and death by chronic illness. He lit a cigarette. This was how Bob started his days.
The lake lay flat and still, the yawning entrance to a mirror dimension. Every waterfront home, each individual tree, every cloud, bird, rock, and bug in Bob’s universe was met by its inverted double on the other side. The island, not a football field’s length from where Bob smoked, appeared to be suspended in null space—its own, tiny planet—with a tall tree and eagle’s nest on its North Pole and a tall tree and eagle’s nest on its South. His cigarette had only half burnt but he took a good, long pull and snapped it off the pad of his thumb and watched it arc over the water and heard it go tsss and saw it float there like a scratch on glass. Bob returned very slowly to the house.
Heather was drunk, or near enough to it. She’d poured her second tumbler of vodka, a hint of tomato juice stirred in as a formality—a nod to her biological need for food—at only seven in the morning. Heather had risen before the sun to do her hair, and her makeup, heavy and dark as raccoon markings. Her face was now a screen print, maybe a rubbing, of the subtler version she’d worn thirty years ago when they’d met.
Thirty years since Bob found himself sleeping in an Air Force barrack in some throwaway cow pasture county in Great Britain. If you dissected a very fine whiskey and reduced it to its soggy, elemental parts, it would smell just like that town. Heather had been another late blooming, chicken-legged teenager on a one-speed bicycle outside the pub. The tallish one who looked like a toothy Audrey Hepburn. Heather was bashful when Bob asked her to dance, though proved to be the better dancer. All the pilots assumed first pick of the local girls and good for them, but Bob had found her. Bob was too lanky for a pilot, his blood pressure too low. Bob was just a greaser-turned-flight-mechanic from a Maine lake town. He’d shot billiards and cruised drive-ins and, maybe, laconically, charmed a couple women—but he’d never gotten so lucky as this. He took Heather to a barstool and talked to her and Heather’s rural accent in his ears was like a well-bred hen getting plucked. It filled out Bob’s standard issue pants and she laid a hand right there, teasing him, looking away and back again with her big, wide, smoky eyes.
Heather robotically put his bacon and his coffee on, dropped two white planks down the toaster slots. She did it all with one hand because the other was clubbed around her drink. There was nowhere to go that day and the nearest neighbor was half a mile but as Bob walked into the kitchen Heather set down her medieval eyelash device and hung two glass bobbles from the worn slits in her ears. She said, “Coffee, Bob.”
“Thank you, dear.”
He pulled a porcelain cup, all flaking gold leaf and baroque filigree, from its place among the surviving tea service and half-filled it from the antique percolator. Reaching into an adjacent cupboard, Bob grabbed the opened bottle from a case of Bushmills and topped off his coffee with this. He took two ice cubes from the bin in the freezer and dropped one in his coffee to cool it a touch, the other in Heather’s vodka. This was such an old gesture that even Bob couldn’t remember whether it was affectionate or critical.
Heather gave an obligatory smile, but didn’t glance away from her affected newspaper-reading pose. A cigarette perched on the edge of a green glass tray, leaking a smoke trail through the air between them, gradually giving over to ash like an hourglass falling empty.
“That asshole Bush is sending more troops over,” she told him, pronouncing ‘asshole’using a soft A and a rounded-off L that sounded more like a W or like nothing at all. “Those poor boys . . . ”
“Poor boys,” he scoffed. “Those boys are keeping your gas cheap, Heather.”
“My brother says they pay ten pounds the liter, back home. They get by.”
“Your brother works for BMW. He could pay twenty.”
Bob sipped his coffee, glanced at the sports insert like a kid at his homework, topped off his cup again. He lit a cigarette and tried to enjoy the acidic warmth of hot whiskey in his stomach, but it would take a few more ounces to really help. He looked at his wife, seemingly engrossed in the front section, and imagined a dark, fist-sized cavity within his body. A round socket, with edges like a charred fire log left overnight in the rain. Where the infatuation had first caught, heating him in his bunk as Bob endured the breathlessness of other soldier’s farts and the rude, romanceless noise of other soldier’s jokes. The fluttering and panting of nights he’d taken Heather into the hay bales, put her skirt up and seen the long, pale slats of her thighs in the moonlight, smooth as sheets of paper.
Bob thought if he could stick a finger in there, the imagined cavity, it would feel wet and gnawed-at, like a melon rind. If every repressed emotion was a substance like flesh, he could mold an organ to fit that hole. Lust, pride, brief intervals of joy. His first panic at the sound of small artillery fire, maybe, and the broad, dull sorrow of his mother’s death. A memory of diving from the high rock as a boy, narrow and beautiful, cutting the water like an angel of careless light.
“The kids are coming up today, don’t forget,” said Heather, eyes on her fingernails, maybe the faux-marble counter. Her hair rose off her forehead like a confection made in a lab.
“Okay.” Taking a hat from the rack, taking his bottle. “I’ll be in by noon.”
Bob untied the boat and pushed it down the dock a few feet, cradling the half-full Bushmills in one elbow as he set his moccasin on a grip-taped gunwale. The boat dipped as he stepped lightly onto its deck, a bit of old reflex moving his hips just so. Bob could always get himself on or off a boat, however laden, however tipsy, whatever weather prevailed. He set his bottle in a cup holder and hit the ignition on the Crestliner. A red and white pleasure cruiser, it looked like the boat his dad had owned when boats looked like cars and cars looked like something from Flash Gordon. The engine lit up and Bob popped it into reverse with the gummy, rubber shifter. He backed the shining lozenge of a machine onto the lake and took a quick hit of Bushmills. Rocking and idling, the fifty horsepower Evinrude waiting for his command. The house already small on the hill. Heather might be up there, gazing down with a judgmental smirk, but probably not. Bob pushed the throttle forward and the boat surged, hugging an upholstered seat against his slight ass. The bow lifted and kicked up a white double-wake as he tore through the calm.
It was early enough that no one competed for the water. A couple orange-vested hippies in kayaks entering the channel a mile away, but otherwise only Bob and the birds. He took a turn around the island just for sport, just burning some cheap gas from some war-stricken foreign oilfield. He enjoyed the feeling of inertia on his body as he cut the wheel from port to starboard, if those terms even applied on a tiny, land-locked pond like this one. Eventually Bob set out for the deep north end, the trout and salmon grounds, tilting the whiskey high and driving like a teenager.
The one rod was already fitted with a rattle-trap minnow and set in its holder, dragging the plastic bait at about five feet down and fifteen yards behind. Bob fumbled with the downrigger and the other pole, eventually getting his live bait to pull along, thirty feet down and also a good span from the noisy motor. No telling if the fish were sunning or laying low, so best to work both angles. It was more tackle than most guys would want to keep tabs on while driving, but it was Bob’s method and he landed a handful of decent fish every season for the practice. The Gazette once ran a black-and-white of Bob with a trophy-sized pike and a smile on his face, but he hadn’t bothered to clip out the photo and save it. He’d thrown the pike back alive, since the damned things were next to inedible.
The wheel was locked to troll him in a wide circle, letting Bob sit in the rear-facing passenger chairs and chain-smoke, sip his Bushmills, watch his poles. He could see the orange leaders flashing out beyond the riffle of his wake. He considered, not optimistically, what might be down there today.
Heather was most likely phoning up the propane guy, Harold, on the pretense that winter was coming and they’d need to lock in a decent price. “How’s the bachelor’s life?” Bob could hear her saying, cradling the receiver like a casual habit.
“Oh, I’ll take care of ya, Heather,” Harold would say. “I got a separate pricing sheet for beautiful fishing widows. Give Bob my best, if ya see him.”
And the kids were coming. Bob and Heather had two daughters, but only one of them produced what anyone at the VFW would call a “family.” They all piled into a wood-paneled station wagon at quarter-annual intervals—the Catholic daughter, the gruff factory worker husband, their precocious, mouthy kids—to drive two hours north and eat Bob’s food and tear up the museum-like décor and just generally pry. Still, Bob loved his youngest daughter, his prettiest daughter, and he loved her kids. He was even getting on better with the thick-necked, brazen, son-of-an-Army-engineer guy she’d somehow married. They were all fine-and-well. What tried his patience was interacting with anyone while Heather held court. “Oh, Bob’s been out there, trapping raccoons like a sadist,” she’d say. “Bob’s got it in his head that we need a four-wheeler.” “Bob’s spending our money on . . . ”
The surface line jerked and Bob just caught the snap of the rod in his peripheral. He waited for the thing to bounce several more times before lifting the rod out of its brace and testing the weight of whatever was biting. Not a tremendous pull, but the fish gave good fight and Bob felt it in his arm, tightening his muscles and bulging his veins as he reeled. Bob had a tactile memory for fish, and he semi-consciously identified his quarry before it ever came into view. Small-mouth bass or yellow perch. A few more tugs, a tension adjustment on the reel.
Pickerel or yellow perch. The fish dove and Bob let it run for a moment, thinking, White perch or yellow perch.
When he landed the yellow perch, Bob let it dangle over the motor mount for a good minute. The ugly, useless animal hung by its jaw bone—a three-pronged hook having torn through the semi-translucent flesh of its gaping mouth. Spines rose from its back and around its gills, rising and falling, seeming to breath although the animal itself was drowning in air. Its eyes were like black marbles, each with a film of whitish organ sliding across and back over the surface, wiping at nothing, operating like broken elevator doors. The tail thrashed and subsided, thrashed and subsided.
Bob stuck a cigarette in his mouth and lit it, pulled a work glove onto his right hand. He grabbed the fish carefully by the fore-end, pressing its spines back against its own skin, and then worked the hook out of its jaw with a pair of pliers. He held it up, regarding the animal for a moment. Its gills sucked at the not-water, its eyes glazing in the unfiltered light. The yellow perch was a hapless thing, and would strike at any bait.
Bob raised the fish up and then smashed it, brutally, against the case of his outboard motor. The perch’s body went skipping off into the engine wake, later to be snatched by an osprey, but it left a slight mist of blood and brain matter on the outboard. This was Bob’s grass roots environmental campaign, culling an invasive species. A junk fish. Bob had barely exhaled when the other rod started singing.
Again the bait came up in the mouth of a yellow perch, and again Bob dislodged his tackle and then smashed its brains out. He took a good haul off the Bushmills and reset both rods, eyeing the ospreys who were now gathering, circling above. The morning was getting on, but little traffic came to that end of the lake. No kayakers in view, and the few houses on the waterfront sat dark and shrouded by trees. Again, the surface-riding lure was hit, and again Bob euthanized the idiotic perch that had struck it, taking his ill luck to heart and squinting through tobacco smoke. He was drunk, now, and beginning to revel in the rubbery bounce of fish-bodies off the motor. The downrigger brought one up, and then the surface rod again, and SMACK! he drove each spiny, flailing body against the metal housing, a whole harem of birds now picking up his gruesome leavings. The white enameled shell of the motor dripped with red and orange fluids. Reels whining and the bottle running low. Over bird-chatter Bob barely heard the downrigger drawing an entire spool of line.
The breeze froze, like a glass box had been lowered over the county. Bird cries died away and even the Evinrude coughed out and halted. The boat rode its own wake in one, final heave and then fell still. Yet the downrigger continued to squeal, as if a whale had hooked itself and run for the polar sea. One hundred yards of line. Two hundred yards of line.
Bob stubbed his smoke on his moccasin heel and looked for the shore. He couldn’t seem to find it.
All at once the line stopped whirring and the lake surface frothed like spaghetti water. A wide bulge formed just twenty feet from Bob’s Crestliner and bubbled and groaned, iridescent yellow and rising. The birds were already gone and the clouds dispersed and a row of great spikes rose from the troubled water like suspension bridge struts. Desiccated skeletons of men adorned them, hung like weeds, caught upon the cartilaginous barbs by their wrist joints and clavicles. Bob clutched his whiskey to his heart, for he knew the thing that rose from the lake was God and could only be God.
Its true mass finally showed above the pondweeds and shimmer of the water, hovering, too large to view all at a time. An armor of scales, each one the size and color of a rusted pickup truck, coated with cloudy mucus. Gills as large as barns. God’s two eyes surveyed His kingdom independently as a chameleon’s do, a hint of His duality, and His nictitating membranes sloshed away the lake water in torrents. His mouth opened and shut, opened and shut, with daylight shining through.
Bob set his bottle down on the bucking deck of the boat. He could see the down rigger line leading up into God’s mouth, the hook stuck so preciously in an upper corner of God’s lip. Bob thought of his grandchildren, first, and then on back through the chronology of his life. His own kids, his wife, his years in the Air Force, and his childhood. When this was finished, he wondered why there wasn’t more.
God raised a spiny fin, broad as an entire jet plane, and plucked Bob from the deck of his sports car of a boat. The deck flew away beneath Bob’s feet, and the cold, bony structure that had grasped him tightened as his smallish mass began to slip. Bob looked down from that height, clutched in God’s wet fin, upon the blood- and brain-spattered Evinrude motor so very far below. The deity raised Bob to Its eye.
“Hey!” said God, in a small, far-off voice. The voice of a young woman. Bob began to detect that the world was turning in circles.
“Hey!” cried God, once more.
Bob’s crotch was wet and cold, as if he’d pissed himself quite some time ago. His legs were splayed out in the rear of the boat and he’d slid almost completely from his backward-facing seat. The motor still chugged steadily but was wrenched all the way to port side, leaving the boat turning in tight, counter-clockwise doughnuts just fifty yards from shore. Bob’s downrigger and poles were bent, clustered, fishing line having wrapped around them and the boat’s wheelhouse and cinching all together in a taught, green web. An empty hook dangled before his face as Bob opened one eye, cautiously, squinting into the brightness of the lake going by.
Two kayaks panned through his field of view as the boat made another slow revolution. Two orange vests, casually unfastened to admit the breeze. Sun-ruddy faces that looked at Bob like a stumbled-upon cadaver.
“I don’t know,” he heard the girl say to her partner, as they both spun out of sight. “It might be too late to help him.”