Sunrise, Banana, Chair
Every morning by five, Robert is on the dock casting his line. If he´s lucky he´ll climb the rocky slope back to the cabin sloshing a bucket of sunnies for breakfast. He´ll fillet them quickly with one of the seriously sharp knives purchased from an endless stream of catalogues.
But on this morning when he hooks a fish he releases it. He can no longer stomach the killing.
Georgianna spends most of the morning curled in a chair reading, relieved to be away from the city, away from their small apartment, happy to be retired from the school where she taught children she would never have herself.
The cabin is a rental. It was the same rental during the same two weeks every July, until the year they retired when they began renting it for two months in the spring and one month in the fall.
They want to have the pristine time before the summer crowds arrive, before the air is steamy and the lake is noisy, and they want the time after the crowd has gone away. They come to the lake for a sweeter kind of solitude than the solitude they also have at home.
She goes straight to the kitchen cupboard to make certain the mug with the chickadees (hers) and the mug with the tall pines (his) hasn´t been broken or taken home by the cabin´s owners.
Every afternoon, for the thirty-some years they have been renting the cabin, she swims the half-mile across the bay to Listening Point then back to their dock. Some days she swims the distance only once, but other days she swims it two, three, or even four times. Listening Point is said to be a place where you can hear someone speaking, even whispering, across the lake. It is the spot where the author Sigurd F. Olson built his cabin and devoted his life to protecting the wilderness of the Boundary Waters.
* * *
One afternoon she grabs onto the wooden boards from the water and, as she looks up, sees Robert reaching down to help her.
“What are you doing in a life jacket?” she asks, taking his hand, accepting the help.
“I can´t swim very far these days. This way,” he says, gesturing to the orange vest, “I can save you, if something happens.”
Watching her swim he wonders if direction in the water will be one of the things she´ll lose. Or will she always know it, the way she always knows the camp songs she sang when she was eight.
He asked her long ago why she swam, why she loved it, so much. She thought it an odd question, swimming being so totally a part of her. But it was in fact a question she could answer. She remembered the moment, the exact moment she knew she´d be a swimmer. She was seven years old watching her mother in the mirror try on one swimsuit, after the other.
“A woman,” her mother said to their reflections in the glass, “has perfect legs if you can see a space both between her thighs and above her calves.”
She´d seen the spaces, just above the knee and just below the knee. She also saw one above the ankle, which her mother hadn´t mentioned. Then she´d studied her own skinny, straight legs in the mirror.
“Not to worry,” her mother said. “You won´t always have twig legs. Not if you swim. If you swim you´ll have my legs.”
* * *
He notices it slowly, the change in her. She begins misplacing things. He assumes at first, of course, it´s simple aging; he misplaces things too, after all, they´re old. But somehow it´s different. Her frustration is greater than is warranted.
She also dredges up the past. Dredging is the wrong word, since the things she unearths delight him. She remembers when they were young, how he decorated their table with a wicker-wrapped wine bottle and patiently burned candles until the basket disappeared in a flow of red and green and white wax. She remembers his mother´s middle name, which he isn´t sure he ever knew. She remembers his college prowess on the baseball field. He´s flattered by her recollections; it´s as if she´s flirting with him.
For the first fifteen years the only communication with the outside world from inside the cabin, was End of the Road Radio, which, every morning broadcast messages to people camping and paddling in The Boundary Waters. Lost: fishing poles on Basswood Falls portage. Found: child´s life jacket. We left it hanging on tree at the Burntside boat launch. Jake: if you hear this, come home. Mom sick. Steven: have a blast. Catch the big one that got away from you last year and the year before and the year before.
They listened every morning and one morning she was astonished by the message: G. Just putting this out there to say I love you. R.
When she looked over at him sipping his coffee, he raised his eyebrows and said, “G and R. Could be us, Georgie and Robert. Or it might be, Gail and Roger, Glen and Rachel, Godfrey and Rapunzel.”
They used to make love in the water after sweating in the heat of the Finnish Sauna. Even now, in the lake, he can still hold her like a strong, young man while she winds her legs around him. Even now, they kiss and play.
They are paddling the canoe slowly across the clear water. The ancient rocks, huge under the surface, occasionally scrape the bottoms of boats. When it happens this day, he yells at her, angry she hasn´t been watching, but then he apologizes immediately.
She twists around to look at him; he never yells at her. She knows then, he knows what she knows.
Ahead she sees a pair of loons and points to them. She´s always shocked by their enormity, so much bigger than they seem when she watches from shore. She and Robert stop paddling at the same moment and the canoe floats silently toward the birds. The bigger one spins, facing them in the water, lifting up, flapping huge wings. They sit perfectly still while the bird makes two more attempts to frighten them off, then disappears under the water. It resurfaces within ten feet of them, dives beneath the canoe, crossing under then swimming the length of it. Robert´s hand is gripping the paddle. His knuckles are white.
Knuckle, she thinks, is such a strange word.
The bird dives.
She starts to speak but Robert lifts his finger to his lips. The loon surfaces next to its mate, and as both birds glide towards the canoe, the female lifts up slightly and out pops a tiny chick.
“It´s a gift,” Robert says.
* * *
One rainy evening they plan to gamble at Fortune Bay Casino. She goes upstairs to fix her hair and get her purse but when she doesn´t come down he climbs the steps and finds her reading in bed.
He tells her she has to see a doctor, tells her something is wrong if she forgot they were going to the casino. She insists they never agreed on it and she doesn´t need a doctor but stops arguing when he says, “And what about your mother, she didn´t need a doctor either?”
* * *
The Ely Clinic physician is available the next afternoon and together they drive to town. The doctor examines her and she thinks him over-zealous, prodding and poking as if her ears, her eyes, her lungs and heart might be the cause of her trouble. But then he asks her questions and even though she stumbles over the Vice President´s name, she knows the year and remembers the words sunrise, banana, chair ten minutes after he asks her to remember, so he declares her fit as a fiddle.
She knows not to tell the doctor, or Robert, they are the same series of words she has been asked to remember during her last two yearly check-ups. She will not say she often repeats them as she falls asleep at night.
Driving back to the cabin she thinks about the time she went to the supermarket where she asked in what aisle she could find a box of cake mix, and being told, wrote down the number four on her list. When she found the cake mix she noticed the number on her list and took four boxes from the shelf. She didn´t realize her mistake until she got home and unpacked them from the shopping bag.
* * *
One night she says, “We should stop renting out the cabin. I think someone is stealing our things.”
“You mean we should stop renting it,” he answers.
She looks at him, annoyed, and says, “That´s what I said.”
* * *
Her mother was angry and frightened for so many years. Georgianna has heard some people behave differently from her mother. Some people are happy, even falling in love with other patients. She saw the scenario in a movie based on real life, which she found comforting and wished it might have been so for her mother.
She doesn´t want to meet another man. She is already in love.
* * *
Robert stays in the cabin puttering while she crosses over the creek on the wooden planks to the neighbor´s sandy beach. The neighbors won´t arrive for another week. She´s glad he wanted to remain behind. She´s tired of his watching her like he´s some kind of lifeguard perched high above the novice swimmers.
Sitting alone on the beach she stares at the setting sun, the bright pinks and reds through the clouds, rosy, glowing, sailor´s delight. She thinks about delight, remembers the days she and Robert portaged and canoed all through the Boundary Waters. They lay naked in the sun on small isolated islands, he always modest and worried about someone coming, and she always carefree and promising no one for miles.
The rocks in front of her seem to dissolve into the falling darkness, blending with the water and the sky. She knows they are glaciated greenstone rocks, more than two billion years old. Rocks never change
, she thinks, though she cannot deny they must, and she knows how the changing within her, however gradual, will not cease.
In the dark she makes her way back to the cabin, up the stairs to the loft, and into the soft bed framed by pine logs. The red and green stripes of the cream-colored blanket cannot be distinguished but she knows how they look––how bright the colors. She knows exactly how good it will feel when she pulls the wool to her chin and tucks herself in next to Robert´s warm back.
* * *
When he wakes up in the morning she´s gone from their bed. She isn´t in the cabin. She never swims in the early morning but he hurries down to the dock anyway. He sees someone in the water swimming, passing Listening Point. He hopes briefly it´s someone else, but the splash of her kick, as individual as the fight of every fish he reels in, is unmistakable.
He grabs his life jacket, sits down roughly on the edge of the dock, and jumps into the lake. He can barely catch his breath in the icy water. He paddles out as best he can in the bulky life vest until he sees her disappear around the point; until he knows he will never reach her.
“It was me, Georgie,” he shouts into the wind, “on the radio, it was me.”