The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 1

The Plainness of My Fall

by Janice Macdonald

As a special online supplement to the Spring 2008 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2007 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.

I am sinking fast. Soon, my bony corpse will rest on the bottom of Little Doe Lake. An undertow of alarming strength has taken hold of my ankles. The knot in my hair has untied itself. I am a tropical fish in tap water, stunned motionless by a sudden drop in temperature. I am a ridiculous, purple-bellied pantsuit unable to rise up against the lake—my lake. A spire of green water encircles me. My mouth opens and out pops another torrent of bubbles. They jettison to the surface and fly away unnoticed into the early evening air.
     Overhead, I hear the excited screams of children somewhere down the beach. Their tiny voices are muffled, muted by the growing distance between us. Above and outside (for I now consider myself to be inside the lake) a deep sunset presses its full red belly down on the dock, oblivious to and unconcerned with, the last frantic gasps of this old cottager.
     My tiny grandson has run for help. He will tell his mother with stuttering speed that granny has fallen off the dock. But I am an old fool to even consider the chance of a rescue now.
     The gust of wind that blew off my hat has long gone. A seemingly innocent breeze but capable of so much mischief—tangle a fisherman's line, blow an unwilling water-bug from its mate, kill an old lady. I would smile but the muscles on my face are frozen, locked into an expression of sudden death. It's the surprise that has disheveled me, not the water, because in fact, I'm a pretty good swimmer. Or at least I used to be.
     I force my eyes open, but can see very little. It is growing darker as I sink deeper into the lake. There was a lot of algae this year and some lingers on, even now. I concentrate instead on listening. I am tethered to the life above, still attached to the sounds of the lake. Sandpipers are pecking on the shore for fleas, children dig on the beach, a hammer booms out from somewhere, repairing a boathouse or a dock perhaps. All these things are clearer now, as if I am listening for the first time.
     And my mother, I can hear her now too. She is calling me from the back door, as thin as a shadow and looking more awkward and apologetic than usual. I can tell from the way she is folding and unfolding her hands that I have interrupted something. She would rather be stitching, but she calls anyway, again and again.
     I won't answer. I never paid any attention to her when she was alive, it seems wrong to now. Besides I am busy on the beach, scavenging for dropped coins and discarded pop bottles. My striped cotton shorts billow like flags above my bony legs. My skin is burned. And my hair, so red it almost looks sore.
     My mother stands anxiously waving from the blue painted deck on our cottage. She is wearing an apron over a faded sundress. "I've told you a thousand times. Don't go out without your hat. You'll cook like a lobster."
     She is wringing the dreaded hat like a dishcloth. Twisting and twisting, until I want to grab it from her hands. I am overcome with a feeling of pity for the poor lifeless rag. The sun is fierce by the lake. It bounces off the water and clings to me. It shines around my mother like a halo, illuminating her pale skin so that I have to shield my eyes just to look at her.
     The new girl in the pink ginger cottage is out on her porch, too. She is lounging on white lawn furniture, sipping from a straw. I follow her gaze, down the yellow grass slope, across the sand beach, out over the lake.
     My father's hammer is ticking out the seconds, pacing my approach. He is building a new dock, a floating dock. The girl, distracted, shifts in her seat and watches me. Suddenly I feel embarrassed by my mother's worn apron. "That hat," I say in a low voice, "makes me look like an old woman. I wouldn't be caught dead wearing that old grandma hat." My mother ties the strings beneath my pointed chin and pats me on the head.
     "Don't exaggerate. You look just fine." My mother is a bumpkin. The girl next door has a long-limbed mother who wears a two piece bathing suit and sunglasses like mirrors.
     I skulk away into the coolness of the woods behind the cottage. I shove the horrible hat into a plastic bag and bury it under a pile of rocks.
     Her name is Emmaline, the girl in the pink cottage. I have heard her mother slide the name from between orange, frosted lips. "E-m-m-a-leeen." She is everything I am not. Her skin is bronze. Her eyes are the color of the water. Her yellow hair is brighter than the sun.
     It is the hottest day in August. I am as crisp as bacon. If I could just meet her, I think. The water is as warm as a bath. The red skin on my shoulders stings. The pink on my nose cracks. I melt into the lake like an ice-cube. And then, Emmaline is smiling at me.
     It is the happiest day of the summer. I want to skip stones on the lake or angle for sunfish. She wants to file my nails into a perfect arc and pull the hairs from my eyebrows until they are as thin as thread. I have secrets to share with Emmaline. August blueberries, a dragonfly the size of a sparrow, glass beads hidden in a milk-carton under the back stairs.
     We comb for treasure down by the marina. A pearl handled penknife, left by a fisherman, finds its way into my sack of bottle caps and matchbooks. It is our prize possession.
     We dance on my father's new dock and play a transistor radio and strip off our bathing suit straps to get an even tan. Emmaline knows things. "The Barton twins," she says, "hide in your boathouse on rainy days." And so we wish and wish for rain until at last the smell of frogs and worms and water snakes rises up, as thick and steamy as the devil's dinner and I know, with absolute certainty, that it is going to rain.
     Clouds wash over the lake, so low we can feel the mist on our skin. Drops begin to fall, one at a time, beating down on the dock, the cottages, the overturned rowboats. The adults close themselves into screen porches and bring out their decks of cards and bottles of beer and oil lamps and flashlights and candles and matches. It never rains on our lake without lightening.
     We huddle in the boathouse, Emmaline and I, and wait, breathless and scared. I can hear my mother calling me, her voice rising and falling like the waves of electricity that roll over the lake. The thunder in the distance warns me that this is to be the worst storm of the season.
     The Barton twins arrive. They laugh and whisper and retrieve a bottle of sharp tasting rye from a pail filled with fish hooks and leeches. "I hear your mother calling," says one of the twins.
     "Don't worry," replies Emmaline. "It'll only take a minute," and she laughs and laughs at her own joke. She unzips his pants and I catch my first sight of boy-flesh. A hand slips down my blouse. Suddenly it is very black in the boathouse, as if all the lights in all the cottages and all the stars in the sky and the moon and even the fireflies have all burned out at once.
     And rain pelts down on the roof. I can feel the swell of the lake beating against the side of the dock. I can feel the Barton boy's breath, hot against my cheek. Emmaline is sighing. The twins are sighing. The thunder cracks and I think that a tree close by must be hit, and just then the door of the boathouse opens and the entire lake lights up.
     My father is standing in the doorway like a giant. He lifts the Barton twins up and with strength beyond his size. He tosses them onto the dock. They scamper away like kicked puppies and I jump to my feet, relieved that my father has arrived in time, but sorry too, although I'm not sure why.
     Emmaline doesn't have a father. She describes with gruesome detail how his illness lingered, how he withered away and died. But she doesn't cry. I am frightened by her anger.
     "If I was sick and knew I wasn't going to get better, I would want someone to kill me."
     "Me too," I say, although I'm really not so sure. "What if you're not sick, just old?"
     "Same," she says. "At least you can wash your hair and put on your best nightgown. It's the surprise I don't like. Everyone dies at the worst possible time."
     "Then let's promise," I suggest, half-hearted, "that when one of us is ready to die, the other will do the job."
     "No. We have to agree to die together, at the same time. Or else the one who is left won't have the other to help."
     "Right," I say. "I swear, we'll die together, anyway we want. Standing up, sitting down, dressed up in our best clothes or totally naked." At last, Emmaline laughs. I don't want to talk about her father anymore.
     The days grow shorter, the evenings cooler. I am going back to my small town and Emmaline is going home to the city. "Promise you'll come back," I say. I toss my beaded necklace into the lake, and she, her tiny gold ring with the cornflower blue stone. Together we hold the pearl knife and with a single hand we throw it into the water.
     And I do return, summer after summer but Emmaline does not. Not the year of the caterpillar infestation or the summer when the rowboat sank. Not the year when one of the Barton twins drowned in a water skiing accident. Not even then.

There is a girl who works at Marley's Department Store on Huron Street. I can't chase her image from my mind. Her rainbow face captivates me. Crimson lipstick, black eyebrows, yellow hair. It is her fate to tempt aging plain-Janes like me to her make-up counter.
     "Cold cream is the stuff that keeps you looking young," the girl says. She opens a jar and takes a long deep breath. "I remove my make-up with it, I use it to soften my elbows and heels." She absently fondles her golden hair. "I even sleep in it."
     "Okay," I say to her. "I'll have a jar. Make that two jars." She smiles knowingly. I watch her package the cream. I tear my gaze from the girl and return to the street.
     The sidewalk is steaming in the aftermath of a summer shower. It smells good, like soup in winter. Only it isn't winter. It is only the end of July. Tourists linger at storefront. Tanned women and their hairy men saunter and point at the quaintness of the local window displays. They have come from the city.
     I think about the cottage. Will I go alone? Has it really been so long since I was a lanky girl doing belly flops in the lake? My father is dead. My mother spends all her time sewing aprons for charity. I step off the curb.
     I think about Emmaline. Something pushes me so that I am walking a little too fast. I nearly break into a run. My arm is stretched out before me, the bag of cold cream dangling. The traffic begins to flow with a green light.
     What ever happened to that old hat my mother wanted me to wear so many summers ago? Was it still buried behind the cottage? The toe of my sandal catches the edge of the curb and I lunge forward, arms reaching, knees bending. My jars crash onto the pavement. I quickly look about to see who has witnessed my stumble. I am at the same time relieved and disappointed by the plainness of my fall—a trip on the curb, a couple of expensive jars of cold cream broken.
     Then I feel a strong hand under my elbow. Jack has come from nowhere and I am red-faced, partly because I am kneeling on the ground, but mostly because of the mess of pink cream on the sidewalk.
     "Let me help you up," he says with a silken voice. And I feel as if I have always known this man's name. And that I have always known this man. And that I always will.
     Jack and I take over the cottage from my mother and pay her enough to live forever in a new building in town. The summer wraps its arms around us. And soon after, our first baby is born.
     "Emmaline is a nice name," I say between pains. And the water breaks. I feel the warm liquid slide down the inside of my thighs. Jack is rushing me out to the car, holding me in that familiar way again, one hand under my elbow, the other hand around my bulging waist.
     My breathing is so irregular. I am sure there must be something wrong. They lay me out on a hospital cot and wheel me down the corridor. The doctor is speaking softly to a pretty nurse. Her voice is full of concern, or regret, I can't tell which. The light overhead is hot and white, penetrating my closed eyelids.
     So many electronic bleeps and pulses, I wonder if it can all be for me. Then the long cold steel of a needle in my hip suddenly makes the pain go away. Someone is tapping my wrist. The lights go out and I am reminded of the boathouse so long ago and Emmaline, and the Barton twins. Which one drowned? Which one had touched me?
     A full sweeping weight centers itself on me and I try to push the memory of the boathouse away. I look for my father and a chance to be rescued. I've gone too far this time. The pain between my legs is real. I gasp for breath. The lightening flashes, the door swings open, thunder cracks like a baby's first cry and someone faintly says to me, "It's not Emmaline. It's a boy."
     Our son. He is laughing in the sand, blowing bubbles from a cup of soap, cuddled up under a sleeping bag. First steps, lost teeth, baseball scores. All the years of my David's boyhood are counted and remembered. He is seven, he is twelve, he is fifteen. And then without warning, childhood is suddenly swept away.
     It's the coldest summer on record. My mother is bad tempered and bored. It was a mistake to bring her to the cottage this year. David reads to her and sits with her and tries to cheer her up. But it is as if she knows death lurks close by. She tells David stories of the lake that even I haven't heard.
     "His name was David, too," Mother mumbles. "That Barton boy who drowned. Remember that boy?" she asks me. She is accusing me of something but I don't know what. I leave the cottage and walk to the dock and sit down on a wobbly, yellow lawn chair to read the newspaper. I won't let my mother remind me of things I want to forget. It is cooler than ever by the lake. But who cares? My shoulders are wrapped in my husband's old fishing jacket, the one I gave him on our seventeenth, and on top of that I have a green striped towel, smelling a little sour for want of a wash, but it's warm.
     My mother's tales drift from the screen porch. My son's interest peaks and wanes. I unfold the newspaper and close my eyes. A motor starts up across the lake, an early evening fisherman getting ready to try his luck. The geese are squawking overhead, already headed south. Perhaps they know something is wrong, too.
     A breeze carries the scent of charcoal across the lake. The smoke has reached me. I can feel its blackness brushing against my cheeks. I open my eyes just as the door on our porch slams shut. We need more wood chopped or we'll freeze to death in our beds.
     But David is helping my mother thread a needle for another one of her damned aprons. So the chopping is left for Jack. The trees rattle with the wind and shake like the devil. Squirrels chatter, acorns drop onto the ground like great heavy weights pounding the forest floor, so that I can hear them falling, each one separately, all of them together.
     And I just sit there on my silly yellow chair watching the lake, listening to the tiny waves licking the shore, folding and unfolding a newspaper.
     And Jack's heart just stops beating. Just like that. He falls to the ground with the first swing of the axe. The wind doesn't stop blowing, my mother doesn't stop talking. But the pull and tug of her sewing thread, like the pounding of the acorns, becomes quicker and louder until I can no longer separate one sound from another. And Jack's heartbeat becomes just a minor voice in the great choir. And the absence of Jack's heartbeat isn't missed at all. His life is simply swallowed up by the lake, absorbed by the squawking birds and buzzing insects, by my mother's stories and the creaking dock that floats so gently beneath me.
     And I think back to Emmaline and her father, and my own father and to how death always comes at the worst possible time.

I have measured my life not by seasons or events, or even days, but by what I will leave behind. My son has a wife and a child of his own. Soon they will own the cottage and all the things that go with it. The single bed and the back bedroom will become my grandson's. He will sleep with remnants of the past. The crayon drawing on the white chest of drawers that I can't bear to wash off or paint over and the mirror with so many black spots where the silver has disappeared.
     "My face is wearing out," I tell my daughter-in-law.
     "You should have taken better care of your skin," she replies. "Cream, maybe." She holds my arm and leads me from the room. I have labored with my hair but not a soul will notice. It is too long, but Jack had liked it that way and so I keep it as a shrine. The red is completely gone now, replaced by a ghostly white.
     We shuffle along. My daughter-in-law's patience is excruciating, nearly as painful as the hiss of her thongs on the linoleum floor. Her toenails are painted bright red. Her lips are outlined with precision. I am reminded of the make-up girl at Marley's.
     I scan the room for my old, flowered grandma hat. It is sitting beside a photograph of Jack. He is holding our son and I notice for the first time the placement of his hands. One is hidden from the camera beneath a diapered bottom but the other hand is cupped under David's chubby elbow.
     "Just a minute," I say, pulling on my hat.
     "It's too windy to wear a hat," says my son's wife, as she gently strokes her blonde hair.
     "Is the water cold?" I ask. But she doesn't reply. She deliberately rations out courtesy as if small bits are more valuable than chunks. My annoyance is suddenly replaced with the memory of my own mother. I wish now that I had been kinder. She was never the same after my father died. Just aprons and more aprons.
     Outside, I hear my grandson playing with a neighbor's child. They are squealing and screeching and I know without a doubt they are testing the lake. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be," I say to my blue-eyed, daughter-in-law.
     She wraps her arm in mine and I hobble from the cottage for the last time. The graying dock rises from the lake and my watery eyes embrace each plank. The pebbled stretch of beach is littered with red pails and toy trucks. Children are digging in the sand, some I don't recognize.
     I savor the day with all its familiar parts and all the strange parts, too. It is comforting to know that there will be another sunset, slow and lingering, with or without me to watch it.
     And then I am drawn to the freckled face of my grandchild. He is balanced on the end of the dock, the same floating dock that my father constructed so many years ago, still sturdy enough to support another generation. I leave my daughter-in-law trailing behind and I catch up to him.
     "Your Dad will teach you how to swim this year," I say. "And dive, maybe." But his face is a question mark. We stand silently together, bending in the breeze, staring down at the water. Something flashes. A rock perhaps, or is it a fisherman's hook? No matter, we admire it, for it is shiny and that is enough.
     My grandson is more than just a bundle of genetic hand-me-downs. I can see that now. He is the culmination of all that I have learned about the lake and life and death and love and no love.
     "Don't stand too near the edge," calls my daughter-in-law. She is returning to the cottage. And so her painted face isn't close enough, her red toenails aren't fast enough to stop the inevitable. The wind has grabbed my hat and thrown it into the water—my flowered hat, the one I always wear. The child reaches out for it. He teeters near the edge. Below, the object winks. I look one last time. So many years on this lake, so many things I have found.
     And now it is my turn to reach, not for the hat, but for my grandson. And I reach for my mother and father, and the Barton boy who drowned, and the husband I loved, but mostly I reach for Emmaline. I have thought of her so often, but this time I am afraid she has really come. I feel my fingers stiffen around my grandson's shirt. His mother has entrusted me and I clutch at her fear.
     The other children on the beach don't stop playing, not even for a second. They are safely wrapped in their innocence, unable to predict disaster even when it stares them in the face. And the insects don't stop buzzing and the birds don't all leave the sky and the fish don't walk out of the lake and weep for the one who is about to join them.
     But the worst thing is, that even as life balances on the edge of the dock the breeze doesn't stop blowing through the fir trees. I can hear that damned wind whistling across the tops of the bobbing rowboats. I can hear it laughing at this foolish old woman who thinks she can cheat death out of its due.
     I am old, my reflexes are slow, my bones are weak, my joints are stiff. Some miracle slips in unnoticed and my grandson regains his balance. But it is too late for me. I tip off the dock like a wooden statue and sink into the cool, green water.
     And now, as the fragments of my life join together, crystallize, compress, I reach out one last time. My hand, the hand that could not hold onto those I loved in life, has come to rest on the bottom of the lake and in its grasp, like magic, I feel, or think I feel, or just imagine that I feel, the tiny cornflower blue ring that once belonged to my very dear friend, Emmaline.

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