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Off the Track

For James McMurtry

The day before Terry had to report to Deerlodge to start his sentence he went fishing with his grandpa. It was late summer and the lake was choked with lily pads, the surface a near solid mat of rubbery green. Terry rowed and with each stroke his oars churned and uprooted the plants, the pads slapping the aluminum hull with a sound like a clapping crowd heard from a distance. It was hot and everything was shades of green—the pad-covered lake, the Russian olives and willows that crowded the bank, the flat manicured carpet of his grandfather’s lawn sloping up to his house. Terry tried to get it all in his memory, each degree of green, the pitch and drone of the cicadas, the roughness of the oar grips, the sweat running into his eyes, the fetid smell of the lake. He tried to save it all up for a time not too far distant when he might need it. Terry rowed and he thought about two years, all the ways it could be figured—twenty-four months, seven hundred and thirty days, two trips around the sun an eighth of the total time he’d been present on the earth. Terry stared at his bobber and he was scared.

 

Terry’s grandpa had taught him when he was just a kid that the best way to catch bass, truly large bass, was to use a shiner minnow under a bobber. He showed Terry the proper way to rig the minnow, sliding the hook point just under the dorsal fin below the spine.

“Too deep you kill the minnow,” he said, “not deep enough and the minnow flies off when you cast. Now you try it.”

Terry could still remember his first minnow-rigging experience, the shiner struggling in his hand, the slight crunch as the hook point scraped through the tiny ribs and passed under the spine. That crunch, something more felt than heard, gritty and uncomfortable, like chewing a piece of egg shell in your omelet.

His grandpa had taught him that when fishing for bass with shiners you can tell if you are about to get a strike by watching the movements of the bobber. The shiner minnows were big, some of them five inches long, and although they couldn’t quite pull the bobber under, their movements would set the bobber bouncing. No movement meant you had a dead shiner; slight bouncing or jiggling meant the shiner was doing its thing, alive and swimming around calmly; violent jerks and dragging from side to side meant a bass had appeared and the minnow was agitated. This was when you had to get ready.

“A bass likes to inspect his meal,” Terry’s grandpa said. “He’ll sit underneath a minnow and just wait. The minnow will be up there going crazy and the bass will be sitting there trying to figure it out. He’s used to minnows fleeing. A minnow that stays put and just swims in circles is unfamiliar to him. So he waits and watches until either his predatory impulse overwhelms him or his innate caution sends him swimming off in search of food that acts the way it should. That’s all there is to it really. You just present the bass with a choice and he either takes it or he doesn’t.”

With less than 24 hours before his incarceration Terry couldn’t concentrate on the fishing. The small rowboat was confining and he found himself moving constantly, shifting his weight, repositioning his feet, making the boat lurch from side to side.   They hadn’t caught anything. Terry’s grandpa said it might be because it was so hot. The bass, he said, had retreated to the deepest part of the lake and hunkered down until dusk, when things would cool off a little. Terry had sweat running down his back. He had to press down on his knees to make his legs stop jigging up and down.

“Pretty hot,” he said, squinting at his bobber.

His grandpa nodded and reeled in his rig. His minnow had died. He removed it from the hook and pitched it out to the lake where it landed on a lily pad with a wet slap.

“Let’s call it a day,” he said. “It’s hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock out here.”

“Let’s call it a day,” he said. “It’s hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock out here.”

This made Terry laugh and when he pulled up the anchor and began rowing back to the house he felt a little better.

In the kitchen Terry’s grandpa made tomato sandwiches, the tomatoes heavy and warm, fresh from his garden, liberally salted between two slices of soft white bread. There was a Tigers game on the radio. They ate and half-listened to Ernie Harwell’s gravelly play-by-play. When it started to cool down they went out on the back porch to watch the nighthawks skim mosquitos as dusk came down over the lake.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen that way,” Terry said eventually. “That counts for something doesn’t it?”

His grandpa sucked in his cheeks as he worked at a piece of soft bread stuck to a molar.

“Going into a place like that, you are accepting a certain amount of risk. That’s how I feel. No one is a complete innocent or complete victim in a place like that. That guy had a wife and a kid. What was he doing there in the first place? It’s over and done now, of course, beating a dead horse here, but that bitch judge thought you needed saving and she was the one to do it. Would have been better if it had been a man.”

“I think if my dad was the judge I’d have gotten the chair.”

“Fathers are always the harshest judges. That’s the way it’s always been. But still, there’s something in me and you that’s not in your dad. Sometimes these things skip generations. And I’m not saying it’s a good thing or it’s a bad thing, probably life’s a whole lot easier without it, whatever it is. But, how do I say this? You father was a good boy and is a good man but he could never fathom a situation such as the one you got yourself involved in. Something like that is as foreign to him as breathing underwater. Your dad can’t understand what you got yourself into and he can’t understand what going inside that place for two years is going to be like for you.   I think I got an inkling and I know it ain’t going to be a trip to candyland for damn sure. But you’ll do it, and you’ll get out, and you’ll find that there is a lot of life for you left and you’ll have learned some things at a young age that take many men a hell of a long time to get figured out.”

It got dark and Terry’s grandpa went inside. Terry stayed out on the porch. He pulled two chairs together and stretched out on his back. Mosquitoes gathered around him in a droning chorus and when Terry raised his bare arm a half a dozen clung to his forearm in a line, like pigs lining up at a feed trough. He swatted at them, creating a smear of blood, a process he would repeat innumerable times until the sun came up and his grandpa came out to get him for the three hour drive down to Deerlodge.

 

Terry had always been big for his age. That had probably worked against in him in court. The judge looked at him and saw the broad shoulders, the large hands, the deep-voiced yes ma’ams and no sirs, the stubble on the cheeks that Terry had begun shaving when he was in barely through middle school. Terry looked like a man and he would have been judged like a man if it wasn’t for laws about prosecuting minors. As it was, he got two years in the Deerlodge juvenile detention center. Some said that was too much. Some said it wasn’t near enough. After all, there was a man who wasn’t ever going to return to his family—a woman without a husband and a boy without a father.

According to the police report read during the trial, Terry showed up alone at Hiphuggers gentleman’s club with a fake I.D. He played three games of nine-ball and won all three. He had six shots of Ezra Brooks whiskey and chased each one with a draft beer.    Some time before last call there was a scuffle and the patrons of the bar streamed out into the parking lot. The ones slow to get off their stools saw nothing but the aftermath. By the time they made it outside all there was to see was Terry standing—another man, on the ground, bloody, his body racked with seizures.

 

Denise, Terry’s kid sister, cried for two whole days after he went away. She cried, aware for the very first time in her life that something had passed and things would never again be exactly how they were before. That is adulthood and it comes in many forms. For Terry it came in the parking lot of that topless bar, two counties over, where no one knew his name—his breath coming hard, blood leaking into the gravel, a long neck bottle broken and clenched in his fist. Or, if not there, then some time after, in his bunk after lights out, looking up at the mattress above him, the exposed box springs like the skeleton of honeycomb, the rusted spring coils groaning under the strain of his bunkmate’s masturbatory vigor.

 

While Terry was away his grandfather died. They found him sprawled in the grass next to his back yard lake, his torso and legs still on the ground, his head and arms and hands trailing out into the stagnant water like pale, moisture-seeking roots.

“I already talked to the people there,” Terry’s father said when he called. “They’re not going to let you come to the funeral. I told them it was your grandpa and that you were close but they said it doesn’t matter. No releases of any kind for the first year.   It’s bullcrap, Terry, I know. But, maybe it doesn’t matter. It’ll just be a body there, at the service. Your grandpa has passed on to his heavenly reward and that is something in which we should rejoice. He lived a full life, and that’s what we need to remember. Anyway, it’s going to be a closed casket. They said he had a stroke and the way he fell, in the water like that, well, it wasn’t pretty. There were a lot of turtles in that lake, you know that. Remember you and your sister catching those little baby snappers and trying to get them to race? Anyway, he was in the water for a couple of days like that and the turtles had been at him a little bit. Your mother took that pretty hard. She was the one who found him. She went over there to trade him some rhubarb from her garden for tomatoes from his. He was overrun with them this year, you know, couldn’t give them away fast enough.  Anyway, I told her it was just his earthly vessel and it doesn’t matter because his eternal soul is sitting at the right hand of Christ our father in heaven.    Well, son, I have to go be with your mother now. It seems that God has given us many trials this year, it is important to keep the knowledge of your faith at the forefront of your consciousness. We pray for you every Sunday.”

A year ago Terry might have cried at the news of his grandfather’s death. But now—holding the phone in the sweat-and-mashed-potato-smelling common area in Deerlodge—he did not.  He just listened to his father speak, heard his newly discovered god-love dripping from his every word like a self righteous accent.  He hung up and went to his room and laid on his bed and stared at the bunk above him until the box springs swam before his eyes.

Later, when his bunkmate came in, and, predictably, the mattress started to shift and squeak, Terry rose without a word and grabbed him by his neck and leg, pitched him from the bunk onto the concrete floor, and gave him one silent, sharp, vicious kick to the face. He was a skinny kid, about half Terry’s size. He had an explosion of zits across his scrawny back and he laid face down, whining, one of his hands still jammed down the waistband of his boxer shorts.

That kick got Terry a new bunkmate and an additional month’s time. Sometimes he had dreams where he was fishing with his grandpa. He would turn to him in the boat and see half the flesh stripped from his face—leaking, gaping chunks missing from his neck.

 

Sometimes he had dreams where he was fishing with his grandpa. He would turn to him in the boat and see half the flesh stripped from his face—leaking, gaping chunks missing from his neck.

While Terry was away Denise had her 13th birthday. He called her and told her he was sorry that he couldn’t get her a present and she said it was OK. Mom and dad were finally letting her get her ears pierced and she was going to the mall today to get it done.

“They make you get studs, at first,” she said. “And you have to wait two weeks before you can change them.”

“Why’s that?” Terry said.

“It’s so the hole doesn’t close up. After two weeks though, it’s permanent and the holes will be there forever. Did you know that grandma never got her ears pierced? She used to wear clip on earrings. That’s what mom said.”

“No, I never knew that.”

“Mom said that grandma always wanted to but that grandpa didn’t let her. So she got clip–ons and only wore them when she went to the store and stuff. Anyway, I’m going to get some blue ones with gold studs, I already picked them out. But when the two weeks are up I’m going to get some that have feathers on them.”

“Feathers?”

“Yeah, dangly ones. They sell them at the mall. All different types of feathers. From real birds. They come with a little card that tells you what kind of bird the feather is from, and also about the Indian tribe.”

“Indian tribe?”

“They’re made by Indian women from somewhere out west. They pick the feathers up off the ground and then they attach them with pretty gold-and-silver wire to earring hooks. My friend Kristy has some made from heron feathers and they are so pretty. They are so light. They just float around her ears, like, well, feathers. I can’t wait.”

“That sounds great. I can almost picture them. How’s school?”

“It’s fine.”

“Do people talk about me?”

Denise was silent for a moment. Terry could hear the sound of her phone cord hitting the receiver as she twisted and untwisted it absentmindedly.

“A little, not too much.”

“Yeah? Anyone giving you a hard time?”

“No, not really. But, Kristy says that you’re hot and that she would totally make out with you, if you weren’t in there. I told her she is a slut.”

Denise laughed and then Terry’s time was up on the phone.

“You tell Kristy that in about four years I might take her up on that offer, and you, missy, better not be making out with anyone you hear me?”

“Eww, gross, Terry.”

“I’m serious.”

“I don’t like any boys. And I’m not going to date or get married until I find one that’s exactly like you, you know that.”

“Ok, I have to hang up now Den. Happy Birthday. I miss you.”

Terry went back to his bunk, laced his fingers behind his head and searched for a long time but couldn’t come up with anything, one single thing or person, idea or possibility, now that his grandpa was dead, that he loved more than his sister.

 

While Terry was away his mother, Janelle, let the vegetable garden go to weed and decided instead to cultivate a relationship with a woman she met in a bereavement group at the church. Merriam was forty years old, three years younger than Janelle, with no children or husband. She had lost her twin sister to breast cancer and she told the group it was like she’d had a limb amputated, or a lobe of her brain removed. She was an operating room nurse and sometimes she laughed and referred to her sister as her phantom limb, and then would cry in tight dry gasps with her hands over her mouth and her eyes clenched shut. Janelle went to the bereavement meetings initially because of Terry. She felt a little out of place at first because, after all, Terry wasn’t dead. But, he had caused death in another and, to Janelle, this meant that her son had changed in some fundamental way that was not unlike actual death, just more shameful.

After their group met Janelle and Merriam often went to a diner close to the church. They sat in a booth, coffee going cold in the cups in front of them while they talked. One day Janelle told Merriam that she would rather Terry had been killed himself. This was the first time she had admitted this fact aloud and saying it was like letting out her breath after holding it for a very long time.

“If he were simply gone it would be easier for me to live with,” she said. “And that makes me a horrible person. What kind of mother am I?”

“Well,” said Merriam, handing Janelle a tissue from her purse, “if it makes you feel any better I had a doctor friend write me a script for 1000mg Valium because I said I was having a hard time sleeping. I sometimes pour the whole months’ supply in my hand and sit there crying, the pills in one hand a glass of water in the other and I can’t make myself do it, quite, and that makes me feel worse than before.”

Surprisingly, this admission did make Janelle feel better, or, maybe, it was Merriam reaching over the table to grasp her hand and the way their hands locked on the table between them. Merriam’s strong capable fingers and blunt cut nails interlocked with her own, skinny and pale, her nails long and freshly painted before their meeting.

It was a month before they talked about anything other than Merriam’s sister or Terry. And then, gradually, Janelle started telling Merriam about how she had decided to put new wallpaper up in Terry’s bedroom and how Denise was refusing to help. They agreed that thirteen was a difficult age and that muted beige with plaid pattern trim would be a good choice in wallpaper.

“And then when he moves out,” Merriam said, “you can still use the room as a guest bedroom and it won’t be overwhelmingly masculine.”

“That’s a good idea,” Janelle said. “I’d never thought about it like that.”

 

Janelle and the kids used to attend church every Sunday. It was a Lutheran church, stolid and small, whose pastor had a lisp that always sent Denise and Terry into convulsions of suppressed laughter, especially when he said certain words like “salvation” or “Christ-crucified.” Terry’s father, Todd, never went to church. Sundays, for him, were a day spent on the lawnmower with a beer in an insulated cozy and a radio with headphones tuned to the classic rock station. When Terry was ten he asked Janelle why his dad never went to church and she replied that mowing the lawn was how daddy prayed. The next Sunday, Terry informed her that he thought going fishing with his grandpa was the way he prayed best and then didn’t talk to her for a whole week when Janelle made him go anyway. During the week he didn’t talk to his mother, Terry thought long and hard about God and the possibilities of hell. One night, lying in bed in the silent house, his family asleep, he clenched and unclenched his fists, raised his arms above him to fend off the lightning bolt that was sure to strike him down, and then he turned over and pressed his face into the pillow and said it so quietly that no one could possibly have heard it except for a God who could hear everything.

“Fuck you, Jesus,” he said.

With the release of words and the firebolt that didn’t come, Terry felt himself relax, felt a lightness come over his body. He turned over and sat up in bed, shadow bars from his window blinds cast across his body. He said it louder.

“Fuck you, Jesus.”

He laughed and said it the way Pastor Lundt at church might say it, with feeling, “Jethuth, you cockthucker. Fuck you!”

When Terry informed Janelle that Jesus was make-believe and that he didn’t want to go to church anymore she told him that until he was confirmed, he didn’t have any choice in the matter. So, until he was fourteen, Terry went to church. He sat in the pew with his mother and sister and—to Janelle’s great embarrassment—refused to stand up and sing hymns with the rest of the congregation. Pastor Lundt would say, “pleath sthand and join in sthong,” and everyone would rise and hold their hymnals, except for Terry, who sat staring straight ahead with his arms crossed over his chest. He had always enjoyed the singing before but now it felt wrong, like singing happy birthday for someone who wasn’t even having a birthday.

During this time Janelle came to the conclusion that Terry’s behavior was a direct result of his relationship with his grandfather and forbade Terry from seeing him. No more fishing, no more weekend sleep-overs, no more afterschool bus drop-offs. Todd tried to convince Janelle that keeping the boy away from his grandfather was not going to help matters but she was adamant.

For a month, if Janelle entered a room, Terry left it. If she asked him to do something, he did it without acknowledging that he’d heard her voice.   Toward the end of the month Janelle was going out of her way to do things for him, making ribs for dinner twice a week, even letting up on harassing him about his schoolwork. Terry accepted these new developments in stride and still refused to interact with her in any meaningful way.

The day Terry won, was, fittingly, a Sunday. As usual, Terry took in the service immobile in the pew, clad in a too small polo shirt(he was forever outgrowing his clothes) and wrinkled khaki pants, with his arms crossed over his chest. In the van on the way home Janelle suggested they go for ice-cream. Terry shrugged noncommittally.   Behind the wheel of the van, in the church parking lot, Janelle broke down. At first she tried to restrain herself.

“I know you idolize him and that’s only natural. But your grandfather was, is, not a nice man. Ok? You don’t know him, not what he’s really like. Maybe it’s time you learned some things. I have bit my tongue and bit my tongue but I won’t any longer.”

Janelle’s voice started to rise and when Terry turned briefly from looking out the window he saw her knuckles go white at the wheel.

“Your father grew up in fear of your grandpa. Did you know that? When I first met your father he wouldn’t take me to meet his family until we were engaged to be married. It was because your grandfather is a tyrant. Do you know what that means? It means a very bad man who makes other people do what he wants them to do without thinking at about what they might want to do themselves. Do you understand? Your grandfather, who you idolize, wouldn’t let your grandmother leave the house without his permission. For twenty years! How would that make you feel?”

Janelle was yelling now. She was crying and wiping at her eyes. In the back seat, Denise started to whimper. Terry didn’t say anything. He just kept looking out the window. He thought about the way his grandpa could cast a Jitterbug farther, and with more accuracy, than anyone in the world. The way, with just a flick of his wrist, he could send the lure sailing in a flat arc to land precisely where he wanted—the shadow under a dock, a small gap in the lily pads, right up underneath an overhanging bush. Terry himself couldn’t do that, not even close, but if he tried his whole life maybe he could. And that’s what he wanted more than anything.

When Janelle finally wound herself down, they sat there for a while in silence and then Terry said he’d rather not get ice-cream. And, that if Janelle could just drop him off at his grandpa’s house, he could ride his bike home later.

At this Janelle exhaled through her clenched teeth and rubbed her temples.

“If you’re not careful, mister, you are going to end up just like him. I can see it in you and I don’t like it.”

 

While Terry was away his father accepted Christ into his life at New Directions Church and it was like he had discovered some necessary bodily function that he had somehow been living without. He accepted Christ like eating, like drinking water, like sucking down great draughts of cold, clean air.  When Pastor Clint got up on the stage and gave his sermons Todd felt his words as if they were meant for him and him alone. Todd liked the way that New Directions did away with all the old religious claptrap. There were no robes or candles or ridiculous ceremonies involving dunking people in water. At New Directions it was just the words of Pastor Clint, a thousand brothers and sisters in Christ pressed around you in support, and some music that really glorified god, with drums and amplifiers, the way music was meant to be played.

Eventually, it was Todd who forced Denise to attend New Directions with them on Sundays. He told her she would come to church and receive the Word of God if he had to drag her there and tie her to a pew.

“Maybe I failed your brother,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t fulfill my duties as a father in the eyes of the Lord. But I will not make that mistake with you. You will be a godly young woman and a sister of Christ.”

And, on a Sunday when Denise refused to get out of bed and locked the door against him, Todd, sure in the in the knowledge of the lord, kicked her bedroom door open and pulled her, sobbing, from her bed.    Denise lay sprawled on the floor while he ripped clothing from hangers in her closet and threw them at her. She screamed for her mother. Janelle didn’t come. Denise eventually got dressed and slumped in the back seat of the van. For the whole church service, and most after that, she watched her father, his eyes closed while he absorbed Pastor Clint’s sermon, and she imagined, she wished, that Terry had killed him instead of that guy at the bar. With Todd gone, two years with Janelle would be bearable until Terry came back and then they could go somewhere else to live. Where didn’t matter. What they would do when they got there didn’t matter. As long as she and Terry could be together they would be OK.

 

At first, Terry thought about it constantly. The events of that night on an endless loop reeling through all his waking thoughts, polluting his dreams. And then, halfway through the first year, he didn’t think about it much at all. It became something about him, an alteration that was somehow more physical than emotional. Some people have their wisdom teeth out, some people don’t. Some people have diabetes, some people don’t. Some people live with the knowledge that they caused the death of another human being, some people don’t. Whenever certain thoughts reared their head Terry breathed deeply while staring at a fixed object and they passed, like car sickness.

For some reason he was less successful in his attempt to forget the day of his sentencing. The thinly veiled look of revulsion on the judge’s face when she addressed him. The way she moved her glasses down low on her nose and told him she hoped two years was enough to get him back on track. He regularly carried out imaginary conversations with this woman, debates where he pled his case eloquently, expressed his sorrow in a completely honest and believable manner, where he presented, unequivocally, the truth that two years at Deerlodge would not, could not, get him or anyone else, back on track.

Once, he had a dream where he skewered the judge on a giant hook, pushing the point right through her skin, through her ribs and under the spine, and then tossed her in great blank body of water where she hung suspended under a bobber so big it blotted out the sun.

 

Over the course of the two years there had been visits. For the first few months they made the drive to Deerlodge every weekend. They sat in the communal visiting area and listened to the subdued voices of the other families at tables near them. Other families, with other sons, who all seemed to have a lot more to talk about. During the second year the visits had decreased to just holidays, an arrangement that suited everyone except Denise who would have camped in the waiting area had they let her.

It was June when they let Terry out and he hadn’t seen his family since Christmas. Terry’s father shook his hand and said, “Welcome back son, praise the lord.” Out in the parking lot, in the bright sunlight, Terry thought Todd seemed older, grayer. He wore a gold crucifix and had his shirt tucked into his jeans. Terry’s mother hugged him and cried. She seemed to have lost some weight. She had dyed her hair to cover the gray and her nails were painted tomato red. Denise came to Terry last.  She hugged him as well, jumping up to get her arms around his neck, practically clinging to him. He could smell her shampoo.

Terry picked her up and slung her squealing over his shoulder, realizing as he did so that she wasn’t his gangly, tomboy kid sister anymore.

“Jesus Den,” he said as he put her down. “I don’t see you for a little while and you get full grown on me.”

Denise turned red and didn’t say anything and when Terry got into the back seat of the van she sat next to him, her head resting on his shoulder. It wasn’t until they were almost home that Terry’s dad told him about the house.

“Your grandpa left it to you, his truck too, pretty much everything he had. It was a surprise to us too, believe me, no one was expecting that. But the lawyer says it’s legit and a man’s will is a man’s will and there’s nothing anyone can do about it if he is proven to be of sound mind and body at the time it was drafted. He got it drawn up pretty soon after you went away. Didn’t tell anyone about it. It definitely came as a surprise to us, but, well, I suppose it’s god’s will. You’re a homeowner son. Eighteen years old and you got a house that’s paid for. What do you think of that?”

Terry nodded and said he thought it was fine.

“Could you drop me off there,” he said, “on the way by?”

“But I planned to make you dinner,” his mother said, turning in her seat to face him, “I’ve had spare ribs in the crock pot all day.”

“I’ll come over later. I’ll drive the truck over. I just want to look at the place. Have a look at the lake.  I guess that’s where I’ll be living from now on. I guess it’s mine.”

“I just thought we’d all have dinner together,” she said. “It’s been so long. I thought a good dinner would sound nice to you.” She smiled and her lips moved like she was going to continue but Terry’s father put his hand on her arm and she turned back in her seat.

They dropped Terry off at the house. Denise wanted to stay with him but Todd said that Terry might want some time alone. Terry shrugged, “It’s fine with me if she wants to stay.”

“See? It’s fine with him.” Denise started to get out of the van but Todd stopped her.

“You’re coming with us,” he said. “Leave your brother alone.”

Denise slouched back in the seat with her arms crossed and they pulled away—Todd with both hands on the wheel staring straight ahead, Janelle waving out the window and exaggeratedly mouthing something that Terry had a hard time understanding for a moment until it became clear. Spare ribs, she was saying, Spare. Ribs.

Terry stood in the driveway and considered his grandpa’s house. The house where the school bus used to drop him off, the house where he spent every weekend night until he discovered girls, the old white farmhouse that creaked and groaned and had a root cellar and woodstove, glass globed lightning rods on the roofline, a slight sag in the porch and his grandpa’s worn overalls in the closet. All of it his now, memories to foundation.

The lawn was a tangle of green. A knee-high jungle of weeds grew where his grandpa’s tomato patch should have been. Inside, the house was musty and hot. Terry wanted to open the windows but there were no screens—his grandpa always took them down in the fall and put them back up in the spring and Terry used to help, standing on the ladder, his grandpa handing the screens up to him. Here it was, mid-August and no screens. You couldn’t open the windows without mosquitos coming in the house. His grandpa never would have put up with that.

From the kitchen Terry could see out over the lake. The lily pads were as thick as ever, in bloom, the green mat festooned with spiky white flowers. He went to the porch and sat on the step looking at the lake, the small row boat overturned on the bank, the splintered old dock half submerged and leaning into the lake like a broken-toothed smile.

The turtles were out, lined up on fallen trees on the bank, their heads poking out like periscopes around the open water of the dock: box turtles and painted turtles and even a few huge snappers, their backs mossy and ancient, their necks craned to catch the last rays of sun coming down over the tops of the willows

Terry sat, hunched on the step with his arms around his knees, and watched the turtles. Then he went back in the house and down to his grandpa’s den. Normally the old roll-top desk was open and cluttered with papers, greasy lawnmower parts, old wood bass lures, hula poppers and jitterbugs, a cribbage board made from deer antler, spinning reels in all shapes and degrees of brokenness, and always—presiding over this mess like a miniature duke and duchess of chaos—a pair of stuffed fox squirrels that some sophomoric taxidermist had arranged in an eternal act of coitus.  Now, the desktop was perfectly empty, not so much as a single piece of paper on its scarred oak surface. It sat in the room like some strange alien craft, sterile and foreign. Terry pulled open drawers until he found keys to the gun cabinet.

Against his parent’s wishes, Terry’s grandpa taught him how to shoot when he was young. Terry’s grandpa shot skeet at the gun club every weekend and liked to wander around out in the fall woods looking for grouse and woodcock. When Terry turned ten he bought him a youth model twenty gauge that immediately became his most prized possession. His parents wouldn’t let him keep it in the house so it stayed in his grandpa’s gun cabinet, lovingly cleaned and oiled after every use. Terry had outgrown the shotgun in a few short years and for his sixteenth birthday, three months before he went away, his grandpa bought him a new Bennelli 12 gauge pump-gun. It was a little too much gun for woodcock and grouse but it was a clay pigeon breaking machine. The last time Terry and his grandpa had shot at the gun club he’d gone fifty-five for sixty on skeet, the first time he’d ever beaten his grandpa.

The gun cabinet stood in the corner and when Terry swung open the door he breathed in the familiar tang of Hoppes no. 9 gun oil. There were boxes of shells in the cabinet drawers and Terry filled his pockets and loaded his gun, racking the pump action as he climbed the stairs.  He strode across the lawn to the edge of the lake, and, in the last few moments before the sun went down, he shot as many turtles as he possibly could, hammering the pump so the foregrip was a blur, spent shells smoking and spinning into the grass, the turtles diving frantically, breaking and sinking, the pieces of shattered shell and beaks and claws and tails and blue-black blood, iridescent and slick like motor oil, fouling the lake’s surface.

 

The gun cabinet stood in the corner and when Terry swung open the door he breathed in the familiar tang of Hoppes no. 9 gun oil.

There were a few beers left in the fridge, long gone to skunk, but Terry drank them anyway. He ran an oil-soaked rag through the barrel of the 12 gauge and rubbed a little oil on the stock and grip before putting it back in the cabinet. He got out the screens and put them in the downstairs windows, opening them wide, and then he sat in the easy chair in the living room and watched the curtains blow.

When he knew everyone would be asleep he got his grandpa’s Ford started and drove over to his parent’s house, killing the lights down the drive and coasting the last few yards on momentum. The door was unlocked and he kicked his shoes off, padding quietly down the creaky wood floor in the kitchen. The crockpot sat on the counter, still warm, and Terry filled a plate with ribs, eating and wiping his fingers on his jeans as he headed up the stairs. In his old room Terry shut the door behind him before flipping on the light. He sat on his bed with the plate of ribs and regarded the changes: the new wallpaper, a stack of vintage suitcases, an antique lamp made from an old earthenware jug, a shaker style rocking chair. His dresser was still there, presumably his clothes, and his bed, but other than that? Nothing. His Field and Streams and Grays Sporting Journals (subscriptions his grandpa had started for him years ago). His football trophies. The mangy raccoon mount his grandpa had given him. And, he got up from the bed and lifted the mattress to check, his Penthouse collection. All of it gone.  Janelle had told him about her wallpaper project, she had neglected to mention the systematic eradication of his presence from his own bedroom. He finished the ribs and wiped his hands and mouth on a brand new 400 thread count Egyptian cotton pillowcase. He was lying on his back with his hands laced behind his head—considering the freshly textured beige ceiling—when  Denise came in.

“I stayed up ’cause I knew you’d come over eventually.”

She had her hair pulled up on her head in a way he’d never seen before and he was struck again by how much older she looked. She had earrings on, each one made from the iridescent bottle green eye of a peacock feather. The earrings were huge, and rather ridiculous the way they bookended her narrow face. He wanted to say something to tease her but when she sat down on the bed—solemnly tucking her hair behind her ears—he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He leaned over and flicked one of the feathers with his finger nail.

“Nice,” he said.

“Yeah, thanks. Do you like them?  I got them just in time.”

“Sure. What do you mean?”

“The store in the mall. Remember I was telling you about the Indian women who gather the feathers and then make them into earrings?”

“I remember.”

“Well, they shut the store down. I guess the women weren’t just gathering the feathers when they fell, you know what I mean? They were killing all the birds, even the endangered ones, like herons and cranes and stuff. So someone found out and shut them down. I’m pretty lucky I got in there in time. A lot of girls didn’t. I had that rich bitch Macey Simons offer me a hundred bucks for mine. Can you believe it?”

“What did you tell her?”

“Come with two hundred and then we’ll talk.”

This made Terry laugh like he hadn’t in a long time. He laughed until he had to push his face into the pillow to muffle the sound.

 

When he left the house he brought the rest of the ribs with him in a plastic bag. Denise came behind him with her backpack on. She got in the truck and Terry sat behind the wheel with the key in his hand looking at their childhood home in front of them, shadowed and silent. He turned to Denise, her earrings catching the faint glow of the yard light, making the side of her face pale green.

“What are you doing?”  he said.

Denise had her arms around her backpack resting on her knees. She didn’t look at him.

“Get out.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“You can’t.”

“Let me.”

Denise slid over in the seat and tried to put her head on his shoulder but Terry shrugged hard, his hands still on the wheel.

“I could come with you. Why not?”

Terry reached over to open her door and when she tried to hug him he grabbed both of her thin wrists with one hand and squeezed until she whimpered. He pushed her out of the truck and she landed awkwardly in the gravel, her hair undone and in her eyes, crying. Terry pitched her backpack out beside her and shut the door.

“If you come over tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll take you out in the boat.”

The truck rumbled to life and Terry backed slowly down the drive way. He didn’t turn on the headlights until he hit the main road.

As he drove he remembered the last time he’d spoken to his grandpa, on the phone, a month before his death. He’d called Terry at Deerlodge to tell him he’d caught an eight pound bass, the biggest one he’d ever gotten out of the lake.

“The thing had a mouth on it that you could have stuck a dinner plate down. Didn’t fight worth a damn either, just let me reel her in like a wet dishrag. A big female. Belly on her like a basketball. I think she was full of eggs, it’s that time of year. “

They were quiet for a moment; theirs was not a relationship that lent itself well to the measured give and take of the telephone. Terry would find himself nodding, forgetting to respond verbally, and his grandfather’s speech would often take on a stiff formal tone that was unfamiliar to him.   Often, one of them would rush to fill a silence, his words colliding with the other attempting to do the same thing.

“Well, Terry, that’s about it,” his grandfather said after a while. “I just wanted to call and tell you about the bass. It was a fish of a lifetime and I thought you should know.”

“Are you going to get it mounted,” Terry blurted before his grandpa hung up.

“That might be hard to do,”  he laughed, “she’s still swimming around out there I suppose.”

“You put it back?”

“I know. I know. Surprised myself too. You know I always said I wanted a real big one to put up in the den. But then when I reeled it in and the damn thing didn’t even put up a fight—like she knew she was swimming to her death and decided to do it with some dignity—hell, I don’t know. I’ve killed thousands of bass. I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe I’m finally getting soft in my old age.”

“Now no one will believe you. I’d of killed it.”

“What? Are you saying I’m a liar, boy?”  Terry’s grandpa dropped his voice, pretending he was mad.

“No. I believe you. But, you can’t believe anything anyone says about fishing or their dick, unless there’s proof. That’s what you always say.”

“Yeah, I know what I always say. But you know what else I say?

“What?”

“My give-a-damn is broke. I don’t care what people think. Anyway, you’re the only one I’m going to tell so it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to let you know that I caught it and it’s still out there. Maybe you’ll get her when you get back home. I thought maybe that might help you out in some small way in there—knowing that a fish like that can be caught out here.”

Terry didn’t believe in premonitions, not really, but whenever he thought about this conversation he got a sense that his grandpa had known, somehow, that his time was near. He wasn’t sure why but he couldn’t help but think that if his grandpa had killed that bass, he might have lived another 15 years. He felt like his grandpa had known this fact as well and his decision was something that Terry had a hard time wrapping his mind around.

 

” I thought maybe that might help you out in some small way in there—knowing that a fish like that can be caught out here.”

The yard light was burned out over his grandpa’s garage. There was a small sliver of moon and the oaks in the front yard cast their towering shadows across the driveway.   The house was dark, and, upon entering, Terry had the disconcerting experience of not being immediately able to locate a light switch. It was strange, after all the time he’d spent there, that he should have to grope around to find the kitchen light. It seemed like something he should have known, some simple piece of knowledge that a mere two years spent away should not be enough to eradicate. But, then again, how many times had he ever entered this house as he did then, alone and in the dark? His grandpa had always led the way, or, was already inside, the kitchen lit up, the Tigers play by play coming up faint and incoherent from the basement as if the house itself were vocalizing its own garbled interior monologue.

Terry eventually found the switch, tucked in between the door jam and the windowsill, and the kitchen flooded with light. After the kitchen, he moved around the rest of the house. He floundered through the living room, bathroom, den, dining room, bedroom, finding the wall switches, the pull chains of the lamps, his arms leading the way through the pitch-black as if he were swimming.

When he had every possible source of illumination in the house glowing he sat on the couch. He’d left all the windows open and the house has taken on the damp odor of the lake. He could smell it in the upholstery, in the curtains, the musty dankness of it rose from the carpet, and, as if heeding its summons, Terry went out across the back yard and stood on the first splintered board of the dock. The moon threw just enough light that Terry could see out over the surface of the water, the lily flowers closed up into hard white buds against the darkness.

The dented aluminum rowboat was next to where he stood in the grass and he flipped it over. There was a silhouette on ground under where the boat had been—a sun-starved outline that glowed a sickly greenish-white under the moon, like skin on a broken arm after the cast has been removed. Terry fit the old, warped oars into the locks and slid the boat off the bank. He rowed as slowly and as quietly as he could, the pads whispering against the hull, the oars emitting a barely audible squeak with each stroke. The lake smelled differently at night, more subdued, the frogs were silent, everything tucked into itself and no longer broadcasting.

He was out in the open water, as near as he could tell to the middle of the lake, when he stopped rowing. The moon, weak to begin with, had finally succumbed to the clouds and the sky was a dense inkblot above him. There was no wind and the boat didn’t rock or drift, it just hung, as if suspended in a void. Terry found that if he tilted his head back he could look up into a fathomless universe of blackness, a starless sky so immense that it seemed to pull at his eyes. It was like his pupils were made of small pieces of this same dark matter, broken obsidian shards of it that he’d been carrying around with him his whole life as if they were his own, only to find out that they were borrowed, and that now their true owner wanted them back.

But then, if he turned around, behind him, the house glowed, an overflow of light spilling from all its windows like a welcoming beacon. And, from this distance, if he squinted his eyes just right, he could make shapes, like shadowy human figures, move across the windows. He could almost convince himself that someone was there, waiting for him to come back inside.