WHEN IT THAWS IT WILL NOT BE THE SAME.
Maude. Charlie will call her from the water. The creek will be deep and
too cold in May. It'll run fast and knock Charlie down, betraying his
boy legs, and he'll swim under the surface and be dead until turning up
on the bank a few minutes later, sneaking back and throwing acorns at
her from behind a maple. The lilacs will bow low come June on the hill
above the creek, and Maude will think how the petals get trampled into
the dirt by dogs and other kids, but June will be a month off yet, and
she'll see the buds shivering in the crisp morning air of not yet summer
while wondering if Charlie's drowned. The sun will drop through maple
and oak branches to nip her neck, and Maude'll be convinced she can see
all the way back to her house off Lyndale, the new Tudor where Momma makes
lemonade in the afternoons, even though the house stands over the hill,
a quarter mile distant, and Momma will have been gone for almost a year.
But Dorothy's up there, and Pop at supper time, and until then there's
Charlie creeping up with his dirtsnout, with his snotted hands, robbing
Maude's afternoon of mystery and creekish confusion.
The house, the blue house on the lake thirty
miles from that lemonade home where she grew up, has turned old. Years
ago, when Harry left for weeks or months at a time, when Maude hoped still
for a family, she'd sit nights in the house and think hard on means of
bringing it to life. But the seasons accomplished the feat more skillfully
than she could hope to do herself. Summer was silent, mosquitoes fluttering
near every doorway until the light evening midwest drizzle dropped and
scuttled their squads. Fall breathed and she with it, the first puffs
of white air sighing out of her lungs, out of the bottoms of doorways,
when November clomped in. Winter whistled its power to her in the afternoons,
snow drifts piling on the bluff that dropped off to the lake, hiding its
edge. The trees sagged. The roof sagged. Maude would have. Her toes were
cold on the floor in winter the whole house over. The pinewood was frigid
around her. She held her breath until spring. Harry came and went. She
waited for water to take him again to places she could imagine but never
The creek is a place she will want to come
back to but will be unable to find. The Minneapolis mobsters, bootleggers
and gunrunners beholden to no one, will let their empire crumble and get
themselves deprived of their land. The hills near the creek will be parsed
and packaged for the boomer families back from the war and ready to breed.
Harry will have taken Maude away from the Tudor off Lyndale by then, up
the creek to Holcombe, where his family's stead languishes above the old
swampland that James Holcombe prospered in deep past years. She'll want
to go back to the creek, to find the lilacs, not similar to the lilacs
these days, anywhere, even the creeksame ones near the old house. Pop
will be buried up near Calhoun in the cemetery off King's Highway and
an oak will block his view of all but other stones.
But first there is California. War and
the beach and Maude in a white Navy uniform decoding and coding for the
fleet. This is where Harry comes in, black haired, nineteen, approaching
her on the boulevard where she walks with her friends. He says his family
name is Frisk, and she laughs, and this emboldens him to go on. The creekwaters
would be swollen this time of year with melted snow were she there to
see them, but she's fixed on the coast instead, walking evenings with
Frisk and her girlfriends and sailors and strangers while the waves and
war crash nearby. Then Harry's on the boat, but he's from Minneapolis
like her, and he'll meet her by the creek when it's done and tell her
how his grandfather built Lake Reed. She bides out the war, codes unkinked,
and takes the train back to wait for Frisk, wondering what else she could
Old Harry played favorites with workers
from the crew and Maude made them sandwiches when he brought them home.
The blue house swung open with summer breeze, screen doors slapping and
waves plunking against the dock down the bluff. Harry worked summers for
the city, fixing boats to cut weeds from the water, and they paid him
less than they should have, but he was out on the lake at sunrise and
this was the only place Harry ought to have been. They were in their eighties.
The blue house peeled when the sun came out. Harry too old to paint it
again, too stubborn to hire someone else. He moped more now, now his water
wandering had come to an end and the bays of Lake Reed were his final
vista. The house was full of pictures of friends and nephews and nieces
and their children not Maude's and books and maps and engine innards that
Harry would not throw away and mementos from sixty years of watching Holcombe
turn suburb, convert to a new money playground after it had failed as
an old money one.
Summer fritters out. On the beach up the
shoreline from the blue house, couples gather courage for early winters,
the first Holcombe winter for some in the darling new homeland. The bustle
bleeds off. Shed of leaves, the oak tree, a sturdy young trunk, quiets
itself down in the now familiar October.
Where are you going? Morocco, then Cairo, then Istanbul.
How long will you be gone? Eleven weeks. I want to come with you. A
boat's no place for a. I need you around, the house is too empty. Why
do you have to make an ordeal out of this? The house is empty, everything
will be dead when you get back. When I come home I won't leave again
until spring, and we can take the train to Milwaukee and see your aunt.
How will I spend my nights? There's the church socials, your book club.
Have Lottie over for coffee.
Harry had a new favorite, and Maude marked her, too.
The young woman, proud against assaults on her dignity from the work crews,
the weed cutters, was there the year the oak came down in the front yard.
Her hair was like red hair ought to be and it cowed them when it fanned
out in the lake wind. Harry let his long blue look fall on her when they
fixed the boats together, and Maude brought sandwiches down the bluff
to the shore and looked at her looking at James Holcombe's island across
the open water.
Harry had old, stern religion. On the beach
in California he told her he wanted a God fearing wife to raise a family
and she saw that he knew God with precision not possibility. If she had
anything stern it was Pop's coldly calculated affection, doled out from
his reading chair in the evening while he read trade journals and reports
and slipped comments to her about her schoolwork or her braids. Harry
believed God bound all men and such was their fate to love him for it.
When the shipping ended in later years, a few before Cynthia brought her
red hair to the blue house, Harry kept to the seas for a few more seasons
with Scripture in hand and missions on his mind. Maude imagined Harry
preaching in a firm father whisper to the men working for him while their
boat drifted through Atlantic darkness bringing medical supplies to regions
of obscure geography. If Harry had an inclination to convert heathens,
Maude just wanted to have a conversation with them. Not that she met an
unbeliever often. Her Holcombe web wound from one Christian household
to another. The book club and the bake sales and the Holcombe Heritage
dinners and of course Sunday service itself at the Lutheran church. If
Maude knew Christ, he was her father calling from over the creekhill with
August sweat beading on his brow. He was Harry leaving for two months
in Capetown. He was the shadow of the blue house in the morning as it
fell out across James Holcombe's grange.
She felt obliged to invite Cynthia to church
that summer. She didn't like to talk to people about religion like Harry
felt she ought. She brought her husband and the red haired young lady
sandwiches, and when the young lady started asking questions about the
lake, she showed her the journal that belonged to Harry's grandfather
and let her tumble into the history of Holcombe rather than asking her
to come to the white Lutheran hall, new built the year before on the boulevard
running up from the docks that cleaved Holcombe north and south.
Maude. Hi Trent. Lottie's up at the church. Oh, I
was going to go. I forgot. Well, it probably hasn't gotten started yet.
Sure is snowing like the dickens out. Yep. Mary and Nancy around? Already
in bed. Hm. Harry get off okay, Maude? Sure did. Okay, well. God almighty,
Trent Nüssbaum, you gonna let a lady freeze on your front step
without inviting her in for coffee?
There are years and years in Holcombe, and Maude has
ample time to think about what the creek will come to before it is done.
The water will be cold, yes, but still the ducks will come down the line
and Charlie's acorns will loft out over the eddies and miss a duckling
not by much and she'll say an uglier word than she ought to know and he'll
cower his face behind the maple trunk and the ducks will make it safely
by in their file.
She remembers wanting to hold Charlie's
hand, wanting to hit him across the face, while she lies under Trent in
Lottie's bed. Harry's afloat and Pop's long dead and her Momma's somewhere
west with the curly mustache and delicate fingers who Maude saw through
the window one afternoon while drinking lemonade and smoothing her skirt
on the grass. Pop forbade her to talk about it. After he died, she came
to Holcombe with Harry, where she got letters from Seattle in Momma's
silk hand. There was no visit and then Momma was gone for good, too. Trent
smells like coffee and pot roast under that and aftershave all on top
of everything. The blue house is sidled down under snow five blocks away.
Years after Cynthia's red hair lit up the
yard, Lydia Körper's boy and his wife slid off the Yardling Bridge
into the January air and crashed through a skin of ice covering the surface
of the lake. The temperature dropped that night and hung below zero for
two weeks. The car couldn't be pulled out until spring showed. The Körper
house was left to Lydia's two grandsons, and Maude sent Harry to invite
them to visit the Lutheran church like their parents would have wanted
because Lord only knew what went on in that house not because Harry wanted
her to nudge him or because she felt she ought to do as he wanted. When
he came back, Harry told her the older boy moved like a buck, all muscle
and trouble for the taking. Harry was one to talk about too much strength.
His knuckles were shiprope knots. His stomach domed but had stayed firm.
The skin hung off his elbows but he'd have no trouble swimming to James
Holcombe's island from behind the blue house if he had need. His short
muscles his flat fleshed boat built body bruised her by accident.
She will forget the Episcopal church her
parents brought her to when her father stops waking her in time to dress
and drive to services Sunday mornings after Momma leaves for good. Instead
she will adolesce with snippets of hymns and psalms and thou shalt nots
coursing through her head only occasionally. The pews she'll recall with
pleasure, the velvet touching her under the legs where she hasn't pulled
her dress all the way down.
There's the ice fishing house. You must be kidding.
The one with the aluminum door, about two hundred yards out around the
bend. When would we? After dark, before supper. What if Lottie comes
out, Trent? She hates it out there. I can't imagine why. You want this
to happen again, yeah? I'll come out next Tuesday. When does Harry come
back? So I'll come out next Tuesday? Next Tuesday. Give Lottie my best,
Cynthia took old Chester Frisk's old brown journal
and if old Harry had known he would've had a fit. Old Chester who old
Harry never met old or young. Chester who begat Oscar by Susannah, Oscar
who begat Harry by Alice, Harry who begat none by Maude but bedizened
her in the blue house and sailed boats across seas she hadn't seen. Chester
who Harry claimed made James Holcombe the man he was, so swore Oscar,
Chester Frisk who built Holcombe and the other six suburbs on Lake Reed
with his bare hands, so Harry told his Maude once again the night they
visited Holcombe the first time as man and wife, when the blue house was
still locked up in Harry's head and they strode together up Main Street
toward the ice cream parlor. Maude pictured a Harry Oscar Chester, stout
and strong, paddling up the Northwest Creek with an impatient but charming
businessman and a hoard of workers in tow past where the ducks will float
fifty years before it'll occur to Charlie to hurl acorns. Cynthia took
the journal and Maude waited for Harry to demand she tell him where it
had gotten to, waited to shout maybe if he moved some of his junk to the
garage he would come across it, but she never needed to say so. Harry
never remembered to ask.
Cynthia was someone to want. Not that old
Harry wanted her like black haired Harry wanted Maude on the beach near
San Diego, not like any Harry wanted to be onboard a boat for weeks at
a time, not like Maude wants Trent Nüssbaum thirtysome years before,
not like she could almost imagine cupping her unwanting of Cynthia into
wanting like the work crews might. In the yard, hauling Harry's oxygen
and acetylene to the edge of the bluff and hurling long hoses down to
the boat below, Cynthia drew Maude to herself with unintentional lines.
Maude sliced sandwich bread and wondered, if she invited Cynthia to church,
if then Cynthia might want to invite Maude any place at all, of course
not, not some old lady, but might she say she wanted to sit and talk on
the porch in the blue house breeze until dusk?
Enough. It's enough for the time being
to meet Trent in the iceshack on the lake. To get out of the empty house
and to dodge thoughts of the creek. She wears slippers with rubber soles
and the long coat with a faux fur collar that Harry bought her the year
they were married. The ice mumbles beneath her and sheets of snow crunch
counterpoint. She takes a lantern but doesn't light it, down the bluff
on the wooden steps and out onto the ice in the dark and the cold that
grips her face and hands. She sees little at first, but by the time she
makes it out under the moon, away from the trees and the earth with the
blue house a dark box behind her, she can spot the ice fishing shacks
dotting the plain. The empty lungweight of Minnesota December pushes in
on her. The iceshack looms up and a gust catches the door as she draws
near, the metal slapping the back of her hand when she reaches for the
handle. Neither the Nüssbaums' place nor the blue house are visible
from where she stands. Nüssbaum is ready inside. The room is nearly
dark and water gurgles in the ice's rift in front of him. A fishing pole
rests against the wall unbaited. There are forty minutes before Lottie
serves tuna noodle casserole.
I could sneak over to your place next time. Trent
don't be absurd. I could walk down to Cartwright and cut up through
the woods. Sally Sorenson will see you out her back window. I don't
like meeting here. As long as Lottie doesn't come down it's fine. Do
you hear from Harry? Can you be here Thursday, Trent? Does Harry write,
Maude? Trent. Does he write?
The creek will be warm come August, and she will pick
Charlie up next door even in spite of the acorns and they'll go back down
to swim in their clothes and dry off on the big rock so no one will know
they swam together especially not Pop or Dorothy. Momma will have sent
Pop a letter by August with another letter for Maude tucked inside it,
and Maude will steal the one for her out of the study while Dorothy's
cleaning the kitchen and take it down to the creek because she will understand
that Pop won't give it to her otherwise. Out of her dress she'll pull
it and read it to Charlie with long pauses, inventing its unimportance
on the spot. Darling, she'll say with melodramatic anguish, and Charlie
will laugh his high squeak at first, caught off guard and unsure where
the rendition is heading while he pulls apart a cattail. You must understand
I would love to have taken you with me but I simply could not. Now we
must talk to each other this way as I'm sure your father will permit.
I am heading west to find fortune as it is possible. Charlie will have
stopped laughing and a bit of cattail fluff will find its way up Maude's
nose, drifting over from Charlie's hands on the creek breeze. She'll tuck
the letter back in her dress and refuse to jump in the creek that afternoon,
lazing her eyes upward while lying back on the big black crooked rock
and hearing Charlie try to splash water up onto her from below.
So Harry did not want Cynthia perhaps,
but he wanted her around. He wanted Maude to know he could want her around
and he wanted Maude to want her around as well. Maude should have invited
her to church but she refused. She would not oblige old Harry no matter
how he hinted at supper on the porch with the pink sky over the lake and
Cynthia long gone back to wherever she lived or maybe to pack up with
the rest of the crew members at their site. He grunted through his pasta
salad and went as far as saying that she might be expected to extend an
invitation to this nice but obviously godless young woman. For him to
do so was ridiculous. It would be awkward. She'd be more receptive to
a woman, a woman of Maude's maturity. She said she'd think about it and
that she'd already mentioned it indirectly to Cynthia once but that she'd
try again even though she knew she would not let herself. Harry dozed
in his chair and the wind carried his white bangs up off his forehead
and held them in the air in front of his face while she cleared the dishes.
The iceshack chills Maude through December.
She leaves slushed slipperprints on the kitchen floor after meeting Trent
that she does not wipe up for weeks. Harry returns five days before Christmas
and Maude halts the dusky meetings, boarding herself up in the blue house
until they travel by train to Milwaukee for the holiday. When they return,
Harry tells her he's leaving again a week after New Year's. She sees Trent
in the iceshack once before Harry's even gone and then twice a week while
Lottie cooks up dinner a few hundred yards away. Harry sends a telegram
saying he will be gone until March and Maude redoubles her efforts. She
disappears from the benches at the old brick Lutheran church for several
Sundays in a row. It occurs to her that when March arrives, Harry will
return and Trent will pull the iceshack off the lake and Lottie will stop
cooking casseroles that come out of the oven at exactly six thirty and
start preparing lighter meals to help Trent lose the winter lard he's
layered on. Harry will tromp through the blue house and the clutter he'll
bring back from his trip will choke off the hallways a little more than
before. The snow blanket outside the blue house will shrink in on itself
and separate into clumps that will dot the gray grass beneath while the
trees try to stretch themselves again, bending back toward whatever old
poses they can recall. It all went on and quickly became something else
memorable. The ice slacked away and the air held a pulpy flavor like wet
mulch that was too warm for March and everyone knew it but that was also
identical to the taste hanging around on the night Lydia Körper's
boy and his sweet wife crashed through the ice below the bridge forty
five years later on the other side of the lake.
How's the house? House's fine. Looks clean. Cleaned
it yesterday. Snow's really melting. You dented one of the green suitcases,
Harry. Heard one of the Kettleburn boys fell through the ice last week.
That's why I told you not to bring the good suitcases. Did he make it?
Hypothermia, bed ridden for now, but yes. I'll be upstairs unpacking
until dinner. I'll call you down, and watch those suitcases on the stairs.
Trent remains a stalwart when it ends, and she sees
him in summer clothes soon enough when the Nüssbaums invite her and
Harry out on their new boat in July. The blue house comes to life in spring
and she sets up a hammock in the shade of the big oak that fell the summer
Cynthia came by, and with Harry safely asleep inside it, she takes a hike
all the way down through town to the headwaters of the creek where it
splits off from the shallow bay that pushes right into downtown Holcombe
and is then dammed, and she decides what the creek will become. Harry
convinced her to convince him to go invite the Körper boys to church
although she did not let herself invite Cynthia some years before. She
attributed this to weakness and told herself that with no hammock for
Harry to nap in during the summer since the oak came down, she must make
it up to him in other ways. The creek runs out in a swift shot past the
dam for half a mile before bending to the south and winding through trees
and hills that seem steeper than they in fact are before arriving at the
big rock where she will ignore Charlie and run her hand on Momma's letter
where it's spread out in the sun. Pop will call her name from over the
hill, waking her and Charlie from a nap that lasts too far into the afternoon,
and Charlie will sprint down the creek bed and double back around the
hill to avoid being spotted. And in May before the creek is warm enough
even for Charlie to stand it for long, she will sneak from the house at
night and make her way down to the rock, fearless but also longing for
lilacs, and will watch as the stars turn on squawking hinges and say nothing
to her at all.