Fiction > Whitefish


We sat across from each other at a burl table in the Brownstone Inn, a rustic place with great food in AuTrain, far from every place else in the Upper Peninsula. It was our first vacation together, in the green reaches of Michigan, Lake Superior an enormous blue presence, almost too big for my fragile condition. I was taking gulps from a goblet of merlot. He wasn’t drinking, but I didn’t care about the advantage that gave him.

I don’t even remember what he asked me – something about my husband. “Tell me about the part that hurt,” I think he said. He often got me talking that way, or more often than not, crying. It was all still fresh and I teetered, with him, between fear of my new life, skepticism about his love for me, and intense longing to be in bed with him. My favorite way to sleep was my front to his back, a big strong back that reassured me, touched me. I liked to put my arm around him and reach for him. He didn’t care if I touched him when he was soft – he said it felt good either way. And if he wasn’t ready for me when I found him and curled my hand around him , he’d be there soon. I loved that about him. But now, in the moment I was trying to focus on, we were simply having dinner.

“Tell me about the part that hurt.” Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. My back tightened up suddenly, my spurned husband a knot in my solar plexus the size of a lemon. Charlie saw my face tighten. I didn’t want to lose control right then, and words came hard. I looked around the golden room, candles lit on every table, couples like us leaning into quiet conversations. Everybody seemed calm and happy to be there. There was a stone fireplace and quilts hanging on the back wall. Charlie watched the bartender and commented how good he was, how he kept track of everything, delivering the wine and Bloody Mary’s and juggling reservations, guiding people to just the right tables. Charlie noted how he helped a German tourist pick his scotch and how he even wiped down the bar with a certain panache, washing and cleaning glasses, all the motions as smooth as a dancer. Charlie said just watch that guy, how he knows every corner of this room. What a pleasure, Charlie said, to see somebody that good at his job.

“I don’t think he really loved me,” I finally said. “I don’t think I really grabbed him. I made him marry me. He never really said he wanted to. He just did the gentlemanly thing.”

“He loved you,” Charlie argued gently. “He was afraid to lose you.”

“He lost me anyway,” I said, feeling more and more miserable. “And if I ever go back to dead with him, I can’t imagine that it would be any better.”

“Do you mean back to bed with him?”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you said, ‘back to dead with him.’”

“Oh Lord.” My back convulsed, so tense I felt nauseous. The smooth dancing waiter appeared with our food. I had to wipe away tears. I was tired of my melodrama.

Charlie had filet mignon wrapped in bacon, mashed potatoes, maybe for the comfort of it, a big salad and a lemonade. We’d eaten steak every night that week, and I approved. I thought we needed protein to get through all my turmoil. I’d left my husband only four months before: the reality of it was starting to hit.

I left partly because of Charlie. Partly, I repeated to myself, trying to contain my guilt. Partly. Everybody – the friends on my side, my brother – said reliable things like “if it hadn’t been for all the other years of trouble, you’d never have given Charlie a second thought,” and “you were talking about leaving him years ago…” On the phone, my husband left a message: “I’m thinking of words that start with ‘A.’ Adultery. Abandonment. How can you do this to me?” I kept the message on the machine, week after week. I listened to it almost every day, lacerating myself, self-mortification I couldn’t give up. His familiar, but cracking voice over and over: “Adultery. .. Abandonment…How can you?”

It was good that I got away for awhile.

I needed red meat.

But this time I ordered whitefish, since it was the house specialty. I thought I should like whitefish. It was on every menu up there, broiled, Cajun, Jamaican, herbed, smoked. So many choices, so many seemingly great ways to eat it. “It’s so fresh it was swimming this morning,” the dancing waiter said, “and by the way our desserts are pure sin.” But when I got my whitefish it looked gray and disgorged, an unappetizing shingle on my plate. While Charlie dug into his steak, the heavy wide knife flying, I constructed a delicate little pile of bones, inch-long and transparent, in a teepee by the wilted parsley. I used up all the tartar sauce on my few bites, trying to make it taste like something. Finally I left most of it there.

Across the street from the restaurant, Lake Superior rippled on a long sand beach. We could hear the waves at night in our B&B down the road, alternating with S-10s whooshing by on M-28. After dinner we took a walk on the beach. We saw only one other person, a stocky, pleasant woman with her dog. He was so glad to see us he wriggled out of his muzzle. She murmured something to him, mildly, but none of us cared. He nosed us and we petted him and then went our way and they went theirs. I thought maybe walking on sand would help my back, but it only made it worse. I had walked on this beach – well, maybe not this exact beach, but one nearby – with my husband back when we assumed we’d be together for the rest of our lives. By the time Charlie and I turned back, our tracks were gone, ours, the woman’s, the dog’s. And under there somewhere, my husband’s, deeper than them all.

“This is such a seminal moment,” Charlie said when we were back at the B&B. “Your life is changing every day. So is mine.” He’d been divorced 15 years. He hadn’t made love with anybody for three years when we met. It started with e-mail at work that bloomed into long detailed messages we would read and write avidly before we went to bed in our separate homes. We knew what we were doing, radiating loneliness like strontium-90. One time he wrote, “I think women understand sex better than men – two into one into two.” Something about it grabbed me. I wanted a man who thought that, even if it wasn’t true. My husband never would have said anything like it.

The first night we were together I couldn’t keep my hands off him, so relieved I was to have someone to touch. I wanted him so primally that I would have led him to bed by his cock itself. Instead, I took him by the hand to my antique family bed, the only bed I’d brought to my apartment from my marital home. I took my clothes off before he even touched a button of his own. I wanted him to have me like that. The bed was so high we had to clamber up it to get in. And it was so narrow that we had to hold onto each other all night to keep from falling off. That was a lucky thing. Otherwise, he might have rolled away from me and run. I needed him too much.

“This is a seminal moment.” I knew that was what he’d said, but sometimes those days my mind took awhile to take things in. I wanted to pay attention, to the way he never said, “Isn’t it?” Or, “don’t you agree?” He just said what he thought and let me think about it on my own rhythm. There was always room enough for me. I drank in the way he made everything about me seem portentous. I was lying on the floor trying to snap my back in: it had me twisted and breathless.

“Would you walk on me?”

“Don’t you know how heavy I am?”

“Well, that’s what it takes. Do you know how to pop a back?”

I plopped over on my stomach and implored him to do it.

He tried, gently, as if he was afraid to hurt me. I had to explain it to him.

“I’ll take a deep breath, and when I let it out, push down hard.”

He did, but when he heard the double pop and my groan of relief, he jumped up and ran to the other room, a mildewy little sitting room in our economy suite.

“It’s like the sound of a needle going into the cartilage at the dentist’s office,” he said with a shudder. I wanted to get into bed as fast as possible, while my back felt fixed, to hide under the soft navy blue sheets, and pull up the down comforter. But when I did I banged my head on the knotty bedpost and cussed it out and when Charlie heard me he finally came back in and massaged my head and said, “Are you okay?” And I cried one more time and fell asleep cradled in his arms like a baby.

The next day we took the tourist boat along the Pictured Rocks. At the gift shop where we bought our tickets there was a poster of Lake Superior shipwrecks – a black and white map, no nonsense, images of all the doomed vessels cluttering up the black sea like pieces in a game of Risk. In the August calm, the lake looked so beneficent. As we rode the bobbing little steamer and listened to the jokes, we guessed the same jokes told by every pilot, every captain on the scratchy intercom, all of us eating our little bags of chips that came with the ride, and drinking Vernors’ ginger ale and Barq’s root beer and Diet Coke, and as we waved at the brave swimmers in the cold water at the camping beaches, we could only imagine the lake’s real nature. The pilot on our boat described 15-foot waves, and we saw arches and caves and columns bashed out by the winter storms, but we could only guess. It was all in the abstract, when the late afternoon August sun spilled color on the limestone bluffs, the giant barcodes of copper green, manganese black, iron red, calcium white. But I remembered that shipwreck poster, and clung tight to Charlie’s arm, leaning into him. I didn’t want to get seasick and make it all a metaphor. But I could feel myself slipping into some kind of dizzying fugue state, imagining huge waves, frightening nights, cargo crews in over their heads, the Edmund Fitzgerald going under in a November gale.

“Hey,” Charlie said, wrapping his arm even more securely around my shivering shoulder bones, “I see the nose on the Indian chief.” Along with Charlie and the jolly captain, I tried to make out the chieftain’s schnozz and the prow of cliffs on “Battleship Row.”

“People are always seeing things here,” the intercom cheerfully squawked, “Some people see Indian warriors riding through the desert on horses, and one lady even saw Elvis.” We all swiveled our heads to the rock formations, scanning for The King’s black pompadour. No such luck.

My husband loved Elvis. Sometimes he reminded me of him, drinking too much and getting all soulful about lost dogs and his dead mother and other lost women and a lost truck or two. He’d go off on his most romantic binges without me. Maudlin with whiskey, he wanted to sit alone in front of a dark window, his tumbler of Jack Daniels right there, as good a friend as he had. I think he trusted booze more than me. Not that I blame him, but that was why I left him, sat up in bed one night, like it was a dream, and said, “I’m going to leave.” It was too lonely. A man who won’t let a woman comfort him when he’s in his dark place is in for doubly rough times. But I was in for rough times too. That night when I told him I was going, I had no idea how awful it would get, being alone, wondering what in hell I had done.

“I don’t understand why he wouldn’t let me comfort him,” I said to Charlie. My ex-husband was omnipresent between us, the troublesome hypotenuse. “He wouldn’t let me comfort him. That was the part that hurt the most.”

“Maybe you scared him,” Charlie offered. “He couldn’t let his guard down.”

Some kid, the pilot’s son maybe, started feeding the gulls. A few three-foot swells rippled under us, and the gulls swooped and grabbed and glided overhead, their red webbed feet dangling amusingly or pushing back like ailerons into their tail feathers. The other tourists all started snapping pictures. Charlie and I hadn’t brought a camera – we had enough past and present developing to occupy our minds. I was half-afraid of how I’d look anyway – startled, my face distorted with shock and worry. I was afraid I’d look old, when I needed to believe I could start again.

About then the pilot squawked that on the right was Chapel Rock, an unusual formation. It was a thick cylindrical tower standing alone in the water about thirty feet from the cliffs. On its crown was a large, scraggly tree.

“Look at that, sweetheart! How does it stay alive?” Charlie said, just as the pilot uttered, “Check this out, folks.”

The tree had roots reaching across the gap, a strong tangle of black tentacles about twenty feet above the water, getting to land and soil.

“I want to remember that,” Charlie said. “That tree is doing everything it can to get what it needs. Look at it: it’s a survivor. Like you.”

“Too obvious,” I said. “You’re so…sunny. Come on.”

“Listen,” Charlie said, taking my face in both hands and drawing me close to him. “It’s not just hard for the people who get left. It’s hard for the people who leave. You were trying to keep from dying.”

I looked at him full face, my heart expanding with a little root of hope, and then I got embarrassed and looked back at the stalwart tree. We were still craning our necks toward it when the boat turned around to head back, our arms entwined. The wake cast a spray over our faces, making it possible to overlook whatever was there.

We eavesdropped on the people behind us. A Filipino missionary – at least that’s what I deduced, or imagined – was telling the woman with him that in 1992, the San Francisco earthquake damaged a couple of porn shops, “almost like God was trying to tell them something,” he opined. Charlie bent over my ear and said, “Yeah, and how about the hospital that collapsed? Was God trying to tell them something about modern medicine? What an idiot.”

Charlie’s cynicism reassured me. I liked him better when he wasn’t sunny. Neither of us could take the company of believers for long. Then the missionary and his companion, a wholesome thirty-something wearing a Bible college sweatshirt, got up and asked if they could sing a song into the intercom. We groaned, expecting a hymn. But they belted out the theme from “Gilligan’s Island.”. Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe the Filipino guy wasn’t a missionary. Maybe he was just saying that the San Francisco earthquake was a message from God to the porn store owners for casual conversation with his friend, just saying it to see how it sounded, without worrying about other logical issues like the hospital that collapsed down the street. Or, maybe they used the Gilligan’s Island song as part of their witness, to show they were regular people hip to pop culture and to maybe remind everybody else that you never know how your life might change when you went out on a simple little three-hour trip. Or sat up in bed and told your husband you were leaving. You could make Fate part of it if you wanted to, and rail against it, or maybe you could just accept what happened and try to enjoy it. Maybe you’d find yourself in a boat on Lake Superior having a very pleasant time with a man who seemed to love you, and you’d realize you were OK, that you were making it, and that it was not too late to reach for what you needed.

“I don’t trust those two,” I said to Charlie.

“I don’t either,” he said. “We’re almost there. Let’s talk about where to go for dinner.”

In our room, Charlie filled a pipe with grass and we took a couple of deep hits, blowing it out the window at the innkeeper’s golden retriever, who kept coming around and sniffing at the hollyhocks obscuring the screen like a row of green and white and pink minarets. We blew the pot out in quick bursts. The innkeeper was some retired Navy officer and we thought he might have trained the dog to catch old hippies like us. But we had our herbal appetizer anyway.

We picked The Crab and Anchor because we could walk to it, and because it hung out over the water on a pier where we thought we could catch the sunset. Walking stoned pleased me very much. I was aware of Charlie’s large palm encasing mine. I could feel every lovely crease in his hand, his lifeline, the soft pad at the base of his suddenly remarkable opposable thumb. I pressed my lifeline against his. I breathed in the air, feeling each molecule tickle my lungs and travel into my bloodstream.

“Will you let me comfort you sometimes?” I asked Charlie.

“Yes. Yeah. I’m not afraid of you. Well, not too afraid. Not any more than the average man is of women in general. As well we should be. You and your moons, you and your blood and your intuitions. It’s no wonder we’re afraid of you. Even though we need you and can’t live without you. Even though--”

“Shut up,” I said. “You’re stoned.”

We walked along, the soft sound of the gravel mixed with sand blown off the beach a lovely swooshing chant.

“I’m happy,” I said.

“I’m crazy about you,” Charlie said.

At the restaurant, a sour-faced waitress of about 80 in an improbably merry red sailor suit trimmed in navy grosgrain seated us under a heavy bunting of knotted fish net, with shells dangling down. Charlie pulled my chair out for me, but when I scooted in toward the wall, I somehow bonked my head against a conch.

“Not again,” he said, “I don’t want you hurting yourself and getting all tense like you did last night. Tell me this doesn’t remind you of your ex-husband. Tell me you never knocked your head against a conch with him.”

We grinned at each other.

“I never did,” I allowed. “I have never had this moment before in my life.”

The special was whitefish.

“It’s Cajun tonight,” the old woman said, “we’ve been selling it fast, so if you want the whitefish, you need to order it now and I’ll save some back.”

“I don’t want whitefish,” I said. “I don’t like it.”

“Suit yourself,” she snapped back.

Charlie made a face at her as she walked away and then looked at me straight. Softly, he said, “Please yourself,” and I said, “I will.” I opened the big, corny menu emblazoned with anchors and octopi, even though there was not a single octopus in all these deep fresh waters. I smiled and smiled. This time, I was going to order something really delicious.