Cautionary Distances

Cautionary Distances

by Nathaniel Eddy

Elaine phoned and told him she would be staying late. She said that she needed to hit the books and to go ahead and eat without him. She said not to wait and that she would pick something up from one of the carts parked near the library. This was becoming a thing and Richard wondered about that. He imagined her twisted in some embrace or slumbering with her new lover under clean, white cotton sheets heavy with thread-count. He needed distraction and went for a can of beer. The refrigerator had been humming and when he opened the door it stopped and things became very quiet. He turned on the radio and listened to the college station and sorted the pile of mail that had accumulated during the week. The DJ was playing something new and poppy and when the song finished Richard wrote down the name of the band. He thought of going to the record store tomorrow and picking up some albums and maybe a CD for Elaine. Something he could listen to as well. Something not so commercial. He heated leftovers and sat down to eat and looked through one of the architectural design magazines Elaine subscribed to. It was very slick and the pages were heavy and filled with advertisements for sustainable flooring and eco-friendly lighting. Richard read an article about a parking garage in Miami that was covered in glass and featured a Zen rock garden on the roof. Local monks raked stones and recited mantras for safe commutes. A well-known chef had opened a restaurant inside and served food inspired by automobile culture. The article said the designer of the garage went all in. That this was the future of parking. Photographs showed vehicles glistening under fluorescent lights and very pretty people huddled in twos and threes and fours. Smiling and laughing, open-mouthed, bright teeth flashing.

When he finished, he wiped down the table and counters and washed the dishes and put them in the plastic rack to dry and took a shower, and when he came back out to the kitchen Elaine was eating something out of a white container.

“So you’re here,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek and felt the chill from outside.

“I’m here,” she said and raised her eyebrows like it was obvious. She was leaning against the counter and looking past him toward the large bay window in the living room. Richard turned his head and followed her gaze. He did a little wave and watched his reflection in the glass. He played their game and held his hands up in the air and pretended that he had been shot and fell to the floor. He listened to Elaine put her fork in the sink and walk away to the bedroom. He moaned her name Elaine and heard the sudden squeal of water running through plumbing. He lay there very still and didn’t move at all.

Richard sat on the edge of the bed and watched her in the mirror. She had her hair wrapped in a towel and stood naked wearing a pair of terry cloth slippers. Goosebumps raised along her back like Braille written into flesh.

“You’re not listening,” she said. She looked at Richard through the mirror. “You like what you see?” Elaine pouted her mouth and swiveled her hips. She turned and reached down slowly like picking something from the carpet. She tried a few more moves and then gave up.

“I’m listening,” he said. “I’m right here.”

She was telling him about the grocery store. About shopping and the labels and prices and calories per serving. She said she had counted eleven different varieties of milk. She turned to Richard and rocked her hands by her head and whispered low, “What does it all mean?”

“I’m overwhelmed by bread,” he said. “I haven’t had a sandwich in months.”

“It’s like this big game,” she said. “It’s Supermarket Sweep.

“I remember that show. I watched it during the daytime. We could have done that. We could have been one of those television couples running around with a cart full of diapers and steaks and fancy nuts.”

“That’s something,” she said. “That’s something right there.”

Richard stood and wrapped his arms around her. He bit softly into her neck. He said we could have been winners. She turned and pushed him onto the bed and she straddled his chest and she shook her hair and said here’s your grand prize, mister.

In the kitchen they sat at a small table by the window and had eggs and coffee and listened to a jazz program on public radio. Outside was cold and everything seemed washed out in colors pewter or brown and Richard said that maybe they could go for a drive in the afternoon. He said they could go to the lake and watch the men fishing through the ice. That they could even walk out there and take some pictures. She shrugged and looked out the window. She pressed her hand against the pane and took it away and they watched her print turn ghostly and fade into the glass.

On the table, a scattering of leaves had collected around a potted plant left mostly ignored.  Elaine picked at one.

“This isn’t good,” she said.

She raised the leaf to the light. Brown spots blistered throughout. She closed her hand into a fist and squeezed and when she opened small bits of leaf fell confetti-like. She circled the tip of a finger along the table and Richard took her wrist and moved her hand among the scattered pieces. A few still clung to her palm and Richard brushed these away. Elaine let herself go limp and he dragged her fingers across the surface sweeping everything into a little pile. He raised her hand and placed it on her head and she stood and walked away not moving her arm at all.

Richard was still sitting at the table when Elaine came out of the living room. She had changed into a thick sweater and a pair of tight-fitting jeans and said she needed to run some errands. That she was after some new products. She was thinking skin and hair and ethically tested. She said that she’d like to go out to the lake in the afternoon and she pouted her lips and blew Richard a kiss and he pretended to follow it slow and long across the room and watched it fall into his cupped hands and when he looked up Elaine was just shutting the door.

He stood and turned off the radio. He went to the kitchen and found the clear masking tape and scissors and a roll of thin wire used to hang picture frames and he sat back at the table. He sorted through the bits of foliage that lay piled and torn and arranged them back again into the shape of a leaf and stretched the clear tape across so that it all came together like a collage. He twisted the wire into the shape of a stem and fastened it to the back of the leaf with a piece of tape and then he wrapped the wire stem around the stalk of the plant. Richard backed away and looked and everything seemed natural and not that unremarkable at all.

They were driving along the single lane roadway that circled the lake and listening to a cassette tape of songs that Richard had recorded from the radio when he was in high school. The music was scratchy and sometimes the DJ faded the songs before the end or else they were cut off by some local advertisement. Snow blew along the asphalt in thin bands and shivered in the wind like ghostly wisps of vapor. They drove by summer homes shuttered and abandoned for winter and Richard wondered at their owners. Wondered at their ability to just vanish away. Elaine pointed to a general store and asked him to pull over.

She said, “I think I need something. Do you need something?”

“Something hot,” he said. “Something scalding.”

Richard walked along the aisles. He looked at the puffed bags of potato chips and rows of candy bars and chewing gum and sweet and sour gummies. He walked by fishing tackle and studied spinner baits and rubber minnows. Checked out the rods and the reels. He met up with Elaine by the row of beverage coolers in the back.

“I have a pretty good feeling about this,” she said. She opened the door and picked up something on a roll. It was wrapped in plastic and she held it to her nose and sniffed. She shrugged her shoulders and her coat made a scratching sound. “Tuna,” she said. “Catch of the day.”

At the register, Richard ordered a hot chocolate and watched the cashier mix up a packet of powdered cocoa and milk in a foam cup and put it into a microwave. She was wearing a parka that was unzipped and a thin tee shirt underneath that said World’s Okayest Mom in party-styled font. Her face was gray and lined and Richard guessed at her age and decided she was in her late forties. He asked her for a piece of beef jerky that was in a large, clear jar on the front counter and she said go ahead help yourself. She said it’s moose, actually, and Richard nodded and said who knew and took two strips and handed one to Elaine and she shook her head no.

“It’s moose,” he said.

Elaine looked at him like he was someone to be avoided. He put the piece in his mouth and tasted salt and meat and chewed and soon his jaw hurt and the moose felt like wet leather between his teeth. He said it’s kind of tough and the cashier smiled tight-lipped and spider webs cracked around her eyes and mouth and she tapped in prices on a calculator with worn keys. On their way out, a man came into the store and said hi Charlene and the cashier nodded and said hey there fellow. The man was thick and full bellied and smelled like diesel fuel and Richard felt a sense of déjà vu. He felt like those first seconds after being pulled away from a dream when everything is remembered.

They drove out to the landing and parked in a small lot. The lake had been frozen for a few months and was covered in long drifts of snow that seemed like film stills of distant wave breaks. Richard was startled by the flatness of it all. In the car they ate the food from the store and watched a group of snowmobiles race across the ice and out of sight and listened to the whine of the machines fade from somewhere behind the tree line of the bay. They walked to the edge of the lake and onto the surface, following tire tracks and boot prints and sled marks toward the cluster of shanties scattered further away. Everything was very white. Richard had his camera with him and he took some pictures of Elaine. She was walking ahead of him and he shot her from behind. He said her name and she turned around. The sun was high and bright and she shielded her eyes with her hand and looked as if she was searching for something in the distance beyond. Richard watched her through the viewfinder and took a few more photos before she turned away again.

They walked around the shanties painted in faded blues and greens and reds. Tip-ups with tiny flags marked holes punctured through the ice. A few people crouched on overturned buckets. They sat smoking cigarettes or drinking from dented thermoses. There was a truck on the ice and the radio was playing some classic rock station. Thin Lizzy blared. In the bed of the truck, a woman sat in a reclining lawn chair. She was wearing a bikini top and the insulated pants from a snowsuit.

“Hey there,” the woman waved a gloved hand in the air. “Another day in paradise, eh?” Richard looked behind him. He turned around in a full circle. He pointed to his chest and then he pointed to Elaine. The woman laughed. She said that’s right. She said what do you think about this and stretched her arms in a giant V to the sky.

“Life’s a beach?” yelled Elaine.

“That’s nice,” she said. “I like that.” The woman held an empty beer can over the side of the truck and let it drop to the ice. “Who needs a drink?”

The shanty had been pieced together with scraps of wood mismatched in size and color. Two benches ran across the length of the interior, and Elaine and Richard sat close and directly across from the woman and a man who the woman said was her boyfriend. The man was wearing a life jacket left unbuckled across the chest. Fishing lures hung like charms from worn orange fabric, and suddenly Richard felt very inadequate. He had never owned a life jacket. He had never owned any personal flotation device. In the center of the floor a piece of rectangle plywood had been removed. Two holes had been drilled and ice shavings piled nearby. It was very warm and Richard had his coat off and was listening to Elaine talk about architecture. She was telling the woman about bioclimatic housing. About structure and environment.

“You should have more windows in here,” she said. “Or a whole wall framed in glass. Think of the heat. Think of the light.”

Richard watched the man fish. He held a small rod with a large plastic reel and every few seconds the man would twitch his hands as if casting some small spell. The man reached under the bench and pulled out a bottle and brought it to his lips. He winked at Richard and the woman said okay here we go and the man and Richard passed the bottle between and soon everything that had been wrong seemed so far away from where they were now. Someone powered up a boom box and the woman and Elaine began to sing along to the chorus. They sang don’t do me like that don’t do me like that and when they didn’t know the words they closed their mouths and hummed along until the chorus came again. The woman stood and motioned for Richard to move and the man stood as well. The three of them turned themselves slowly in a circle until the woman was sitting next to Elaine and the man handed Richard the pole and the line and told them all he was going outside to piss. Maybe try to round up some more beers from the Denny boys. The man wrapped himself in a wool blanket and opened the door and Richard felt the chill hit his face and his breath fogged out before disappearing again into the heat.

The woman lit a joint and passed it around and the air became thick with smoke that drifted and spiraled upward and through cracks and out into the night. Richard held the pole and twitched his hands like the man had done and each time Elaine and the woman would start giggling and whisper between themselves. The water was still and dark and Richard took a penlight from his pocket and shone a beam of light along the filament line stretching far below. They watched a piece of algae float through the water and followed it like they would a cloud drifting in the sky. The woman put her head onto Elaine’s shoulder and closed her eyes. She said isn’t this nice all of us here together now and Elaine stroked her hair and said it’s as right as can be. Richard was very stoned and he watched as the line began to move slowly and then felt three quick tugs against the pole in his hand. Richard smiled and the pole danced again and he said I think I’ve got one. He said there’s something there and Elaine took the light from him and knelt over the hole.

“I can’t see anything,” she said.

She had her head nearly in the hole and Richard watched a strand of hair fall and mat in the water. Elaine began pulling up on the line.

“Holy shit. I can feel it.”

She sat back on the bench breathing heavy. Elaine told Richard to reel and he began to bring the line in. He was shaking and didn’t know if he was nervous or excited or scared and he wished the boyfriend were there to tell him what to do.

“Watch out if it’s a pike,” said the woman. “Those fuckers will take your finger off if you get too pretty.”

Richard hoped it wasn’t a pike. He looked down into the water and saw a dark shape circling far below. Everything seemed to slow and turn to honey and he felt only the heaviness in his hand. The fish seemed to be resting. To be thinking of options and escape. He suddenly began to worry the fish may not be one at all but rather something more exotic. Something strange and murky. Prehistoric and unknown. He heard Elaine’s voice jump and when he looked up the woman was standing over him with a small club in her hand. She said she was going to crack that motherfucker’s dome to the fruit. Elaine lifted her feet and tucked them under her legs. She was slowly shaking her head back and forth in disbelief or something else altogether. He watched her mouth say cut the line. His heart was thrumming and when he looked into the hole the fish was just to the surface and Richard watched himself pulling it from the water and suddenly the fish was on the floor. Everything was quiet. The fish was green and spotted with small white streaks that stretched along the length of its body and spilled onto the head. It looked like something ancient and began to thrash and slap against the wooden floorboard. In its mouth was what looked like a tarnished spoon and Richard watched as the fish violently shook the lure free from its hold. The fish stopped heaving and lay still. Gills opened and closed mechanically. They were very red and deep in color. Elaine pointed at the fish and said it’s trying to breathe.

“It’s trying to breathe,” she said again.

The fish twitched and pumped its gills and the woman began to push it along the floor with the toe of her boot. She whispered go home fella and they all watched it finally slip into the water from where it had just come. Elaine and the woman and Richard bent over the hole. The fish was swimming slow and down and soon it was just a bruised spot below and then it was far away and then it was gone.

Outside it was very dark. Clouds piled high above them and, across the lake, a few clusters of shanties spilled their light and glowed like distant halos. Richard breathed deeply and the cold felt like an inferno in his lungs. He lit a cigarette and watched it burn slow, trembling in his hand. Elaine came out and stood beside him.

“She thinks he fell through the ice. She said it happens.”

“Who?”

“The boyfriend. The guy.”

“He was just here. I just saw him. He left and I caught his fish.”

“Well she’s putting on her coat. She’s forming a search party.”

The woman came outside. She was holding a flashlight and waving it around and speaking very fast and she began to yell for the man. She yelled Ronnie and the three of them stood still and listened. She yelled his name again and again and again and she began to sob and Elaine made little cooing noises. The woman wiped her nose and said fuck it and began walking away. Elaine called out and the woman spun. She held them in the light. She said freeze and nobody move and then began to laugh. Elaine told her they would go the other way. She said they would search too.

Richard whispered to Elaine, “Are we really looking for this guy? Is that what we want to do?”

Elaine bit her lower lip and they watched the woman recede across the ice. Her boots crunched into packed snow and they listened until the woman was not a sound but just a small twitching fleck of light.

Elaine pointed toward the shore. “We’ll head this way,” she said.

She asked Richard to turn on his penlight and they walked by the truck again and looked in the ignition and saw a set of keys hanging from a skull.

“Ronnie,” Richard said.

“Ronnie,” Elaine said.

A pair of headlights appeared on the road beyond and floated in and out of sight. They walked toward the shore without saying anything. Richard wondered if he should take Elaine’s hand but thought he remembered reading something about ice safety. About cautionary distances. He thought of rescue plans should Elaine break through. Of fastening a rope made from torn jacket arms and pant legs and pulling her from danger. He imagined carrying her across the dark of the lake and rubbing fingers and toes and whispering itsokayitsokayitsokay.

Back in the car they sat facing the lake with the heater turned to high and blowing air that never seemed to warm.

“When I was in high school, a girl fell through the ice one night,” Elaine said. “There was a party out on a pond and someone had built a bonfire. We were drinking beer and just standing around and this girl went off and at some point someone realized she hadn’t come back.”

Elaine turned and her forehead pressed against the passenger side window.

“We went off in pairs to find her. I remember holding hands with a boy as we walked further and further into the dark. All across the pond you could hear these voices shouting the girl’s name, like calls for a lost pet. At some point we gave up and went home. We were just kids, you know? We thought maybe she’d found somebody else and wandered off. The next day a group of divers recovered her body. They said she was pressed against the ice near a crack of open water.”

Richard remembered a couple he saw last summer. They were sitting in a car with the windows rolled up and yelling at each other. The woman was very red in the face and was crying. He watched the man open his mouth and everything sounded muffled and when the woman shook her fists the car rocked back and forth.

“What are we doing here, Richard?”

Elaine dragged the letters across here and he could only shake his head. He looked at her, sideways, his heart drumming as if scoring this scene just for himself. He wondered if she could hear him beating away. If she could see the strange electric shocks sparking from his skin. Above them clouds had begun to break and seemed to be rolling into themselves and shrinking further away. Stars blinked faint in the darkness and Richard imagined himself staring up from under the ice at the small points of light above. He closed his eyes and watched through water the blurred night sky and wondered when he might take another breath again.

 

Image: @zubro / Wikipedia Commons

About the author

Nathaniel Eddy

Nathaniel Eddy lives and works in Philadelphia. He received a degree in English literature from the University of Vermont and has held an array of jobs: dishwasher, waiter, landscaper, librarian.