The night before Rick Schempp was to retire from the General Motors plant in Kalamazoo, he found himself walking around the lake. Alone, in the dark, he wound around the width and breadth of Saxon Lake. He felt the heat of his steps on his callused heals, knew he was grinding down the back edges of his soles even further. His wife, Elaine, always complained about his walk, his posture; said he walked like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
It had rained the whole day before letting up on his drive home and the ground next to the pavement was soft and still muddy hours after dinner. He felt tired. More tired, more winded than usual. Under the floodlights of his garage, he saw that—owing to his gait—his tracks in the mud looked like upside-down question marks, which made him think about those universal questions that had dogged him in life, but he’d always managed to, for the most part, ignore. It dawned on Rick that if he were to walk around the lake again, he’d be running into his questions, making new ones, on and on, like the serpent that eats its own tail.
“Bora Bora?” he wondered if that was what that serpent symbol was called, but knew it wasn’t. But it did make him think of getting away, to some island paradise where huts are built over the water, where winters are as mythical as dragons, and he might go sun-blind from all the blue he’d have to look at. “Bora Bora,” he said. He hadn’t even seen a palm tree since he took his then-young kids to Disney two decades before. “Bora Bora,” he chanted. “Bora Bora.”
Rick sipped his decaf across the table from Elaine and hunched over the day’s Saint Thomas Tribune. He rubbed the new blisters on his feet against the rough Berber carpet and wondered if he, too was yesterday’s news. The next day promised him goodbyes and well-dones and cake and hand-shakes and maybe a watch or plaque from the company for his thirty-three years in the company. The plant was closing and fewer and fewer were even there. He’d seen some of his closest friends go already. He wondered when or if he’d ever seen them.
He held the newspaper over his face again. People were still talking about John-John’s plane crashing, even though it had been a week or so, “Eight-letter word for ‘derisive?’” Elaine had ripped the crossword page out of his paper, sat across the oak table they’d bought together from an Amishman in Nashewish.
The conversation about going somewhere tropical had started a fight. The first few years after their twin daughters, Rachel and Rebecca, had gone to college were filled with quiet nights in which the affection between them blossomed. Until sometime the past fall, there’d been a cooling between the two of them; as if the two had met their own, personal Towers of Babel and were now speaking two entirely different languages.
Younger, Elaine still had a few years left before she’d retire from teaching third grade at Middletown Elementary. At sixty-two, though, she could retire. And that was what Rick was trying to get at. It was time, he’d told her. They could rent a house in San Jose, be close to the twins. She’d replied it was only time for him and he was free to go without her.
Rick wished he could see out the window, but for the fake Tiffany light fixture and the darkness outside, he saw reflections of the kitchen, the table, his gray-black hair and goatee, his wife, nose turned down, reading glasses nearly spilling off her face. Rick had hoped to see the moon-dust-gray waters of Saxon Lake, calm as bath water, “Sardonic,” he answered and wondered if she was ever really asking after an actual crossword clue. Married for thirty-nine years, he knew it was in her, this passive sort of aggression.
Elaine nodded. Rick licked a forefinger and turned a page of the Tribune. He straightened, pressed his back against the oak rungs of his chair, shifted, feeling out of place, uncomfortable.
Rick rattled the pages of the newspaper open to hide his face, but the light made reading it too difficult. Every evening since their twins had left eleven years earlier, Rick had read the paper until the letters fell off the page. But despite the walk, he was angry. He rubbed his feet against the carpet and wondered if, like the calluses on his hands, the blisters on his feet would settle into the same rough surface. He took a sip of his coffee, held the mug next to his mouth, tried to separate the smell of the coffee from the rest of the kitchen, but found he could not. It was indistinguishable—and not just limited to the coffee. The entire downstairs of the house had that same bitter odor.
“Empty. Eight letters. Second letter e.”
Elaine always got the celebrity clues. Most of the art and literature and culture clues. But the words were always his. It had been that way since before there were gray hairs on either of their heads.
Rick found the obituaries and was relieved to find no one he knew, though there was a photo of a younger girl that reminded him of an older version of one of the twins’ friends from school. Or maybe someone else? Rick could not quite place her.
Elaine cleared her throat.
Rick sighed, “Desolate.” He had meant it to be a question, but somehow it came out like a declaration. He lowered the Tribune, all twelve pages of it, seized by the need to smell its print, to somehow relieve the smell of coffee in his nostrils. It didn’t work. The paper had been sitting on the table for a day and already it smelled like bitter coffee grounds.
“Right. Thanks.” Elaine worked across the table, pressing hard into the crossword she’d ripped out, stabbing down into the magazine beneath with each stroke.
She, too, was still seething. He knew he was being selfish, but she was too. Life was too short. They could get out. Leave and put their careers behind them. They had plenty in savings—more than enough for years and years—but Rick saw she just didn’t have the will. He looked at the reflection behind her, at her auburn-dyed hair in the looking glass-like evening window. He saw the reflection of the reflection from the other side of the bay window behind him. On and an it went. It seemed like her back was turned to him forever.
Rick did not sleep well. He woke up nervous, anxious. He did not know what he had just dreamed, but woke with the realization that it had something to do with the young woman pictured in the Tribune. He went to the bathroom, took a piss, rubbed his feet on the rug where he stood. He spent the rest of the night watching old black-and-white episodes of The Twilight Zone on cable television, weaving in and out of restless sleep.
Sticky-eyed, exhausted, Rick went to his plant for the last time in his life. Though the day went much as expected—light work in the morning, joking around with the facilities team he supervised, eating sweets people brought into his office—his smile felt fake; lacquered on with the finality of every step, each handshake. The plant manager catered a lunch. Rick’s body ached with fatigue. His team gave him a button-up denim shirt with The Taskmaster embroidered over the left breast pocket.
Rick’s stomach felt stretched tight and he tasted the herbs of roast potatoes and the grease of fried chicken crawling up his throat in reflux. He thought he might have a fever, but found it a comforting feeling as it allowed him to lose track of the time, push his retirement day along with the whimsical efficiency of a dream.
A couple hours before his last shift ended, he found that no amount of coffee helped to perk him up and he couldn’t wait to get back home, back to Elaine.
Terry, one of his millwrights, and someone whom Rick even knew as a kid, was the last one to speak anything other than “Goodbye” or “Have a nice life.” Rick decided he hated hearing that phrase by the second time someone said it.
“Hope you live to a hundred, Rick,” Terry shouted over the din on the factory floor. He made hundred sound like inert and even just thinking of the word inert made Rick tremble. He thought of himself even older than his sixty-two years, lying motionless, unable to move in his workshop behind their house.
“Thanks, Terry, you have a good one, now. Good luck in Muncie.” Rick yelled as he patted him on the back. Terry lowered his shoulder and pulled his pipe wrench down, hands flour-white with effort, dismantling the machinery headed to the plant in Muncie. “Take care of yourself and that family of yours. Haven’t been in a while, but maybe I’ll see you over at your brother’s church?”
Terry gave him a thumbs-up, but Rick knew he would never see him again.
Lunch still wasn’t sitting well, so Rick pulled off at a pharmacy on the fifty-odd minute drive home. He used to cut through hill and field and over rivers and through Amish country to get home. But he’d lost patience waiting to pass the buggies and farm equipment. Rick was tired of the Amish waving at him, smiling, pretending like they knew him. It added ten minutes to the drive and was less scenic, but today he was glad. He got a bottle of water, some Advil, and a large bottle of Tums.
The girl at the register asked him if he felt all right. When he got into his maroon Cadillac Seville, he checked his pallor in the vanity mirror. His skin looked gray. His eyebrows sprouted out like bamboo leaves. His eyes looked heavy, sagged. He felt his left eye twitching, spasming from how tired he felt. He crunched the Tums and washed down the powder with his water.
Six-letter word for fatigued: gaunt. The word that came to mind was peaked, and he thought about pulling over for a nap. But he also wanted to—needed to—make it home to tell Elaine about his day, to apologize to her for being so selfish. Just because he’d punched his last time card, it didn’t mean she was ready to wash her hands of her classroom kids. Rick knew he needed to understand that, felt as if he could if not for how terrible he his body ached and tingled. And maybe she would even apologize for treating his request so cruelly. They would make up and make plans through the autumn to spend her Christmas break in the tropics.
Rick left the outskirts of Kalamazoo and decided to drive the same way through the country roads like he had used to. Maybe it was the sense of nostalgia, though it carried its own baggage of desire and loss. Maybe he thought it would be enough to keep him awake, to keep him distracted.
Rick had forgotten about the hills. Up and down, each time his stomach heaved it felt the acid in his stomach lurch up his throat. He thought about slowing down, but accelerated, calculating how many miles per hour he’d have to go over the speed limit to be home in the next twenty minutes.
Finally, as he rounded a curve and sped down a hill on the east side of Lake Byron, Rick felt like he was moving through sand. He parked in dusty lot on a hill overlooking the boat launch and lake below. There was an old Chevy S-10 pick-up parked there with an empty boat trailer, as well as a sun-paled yellow car that Rick, distressed as he was, recognized immediately as an old Duesenberg convertible.
He shifted into park and stared at the vehicle, clutching his neck, rubbing it down to the ball of his left shoulder.
The radio played something low. His mind tried to piece it together. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it was Bowie’s Starman. He leaned the seat back, found himself rubbing his ribs and breast. He hummed the song, though Rick did not know if that was the truly the song on the classic rock station playing currently. He bent forward to switch it to the NPR station, but detoured, reached into the Cadillac’s glovebox and fished out a crumpled pack of menthol Marlboros in its green and white packaging. He’d given up the habit years ago, but every so often, he found that he enjoyed coming back to it. They were a kind of lodestone he had realized that attracted memories that he otherwise would never have recalled. There were so many years in which the cigarettes were a fixture of his hands. Holding them in his hand, bringing them to his mouth was like focusing a telescope on a memory for so much of his past. If something was blurry or indistinct, the past few years he’d realized that he could hold a cigarette in his hand, breathe it in and an event came back to him with the utmost clarity.
He shook out one of the pack’s last few cigarettes, used the car lighter to ignite it. He depressed the button to put the window down, hoping that between the cigarette and the clean air, that it would quicken his wits. And then he would pull the car back onto Harrison Road, turn onto Nashewish Road and be home in minutes. Elaine would be there. She might even be waiting and have prepared a congratulatory meal of pork tenderloin and hash brown casserole.
Rick closed his eyes and pictured his home. It’s two stories and basement-level garage that held the old Plymouth Duster he bought to restore. He saw the elm trees around his house swaying in the wind, but then he smelled something entirely different. He swore he could smell coconut. Even through the cigarette smoke, he knew that was what he smelled—coconuts. Eyes remained closed and he was there, over a lagoon, holding a coconut—even if Bora Bora didn’t have them. Maybe it was just that he could smell the bodies in huts nearby oiled up with tanning lotion. He could feel wind shaking the hut, could taste the salt of the sea below him. Below them.
He felt something pulling at him, drawing him as strongly as if his own mother was grabbing him by his collar and yanking him away. And Rick thought about letting it happen, though he did not think it would lead to a lagoon or a Tahitian-style hut and wafts of coconut on the wind.
“She’d miss you,” the radio said as if he had turned up its volume. Rick opened his eyes, saw that he’d slumped over the center console.
“If you could just make it home, Rick, I’m waiting for you,” the atonal voice said above the song. It was feminine, young, almost the voice of a child. At first, Rick thought he heard the voice of Rebecca or Rachel, but only for a second. This voice was younger, soft and fearful, but not innocent.
Rick asked the voice, “Can I lie down when I get there?” Rick hadn’t thought about the blisters on his feet all day. He wedged one loafer against the floor and pulled one foot out, then did the same for the other shoe and leaned up against his door. He felt a part of the seat belt digging into his shoulder.
Rick gazed out the windshield and saw an old man limping toward the Duesenberg. He was wearing Detroit Tigers cap and held the hands of two brown-haired little girls with eyes as big as cartoon characters in each of his. Rick saw the grandfather stoop awkwardly to buckle in the youngest girl into the back seat. Even the distance between vehicles, Rick could see the resemblance between grandfather and grandchildren. He saw that, before the skin on his face grew and sagged, his eyes would have been just as large, just as cartoonish. Behind the wheel, the grandfather adjusted his rearview mirror and smiled at the reflection. The girls behind him smile and the smile is the same, too. Rick knows the car—about the same age as him—has been meticulously cared for, preserved, and realized that the man’s grandchildren were also his preservation.
“She’s sitting at the kitchen table drinking her coffee. She’s too nervous to do her crossword. She’s worried. She keeps looking at the fake Tiffany light. She’s mad you didn’t let her spend the money on a real one, but she says she won’t be mad anymore if you come home now.” The radio told him.
Rick turned the knob so he could hear the voice more clearly, but without it speaking all he heard was Bowie again. It was Thursday and the station always played three songs straight from a given artist all day long.
“Don’t feel too good. Burned out. Could you tell her to come get me?” Rick asked. He felt like a kid and he was asking his mom to pick him up from school. Keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe, Bowie sang.
“Home is waiting for you. Get there, Mr. Schempp.” Rick finally recognized the dulcet voice in the radio. It was the Switowski girl, the one who babysat his girls and whose family had gone to Garron Lake Baptist those years ago; the one who got anointed, prayed over; died. Rick also realized that it was Grace’s picture next to the obituary yesterday. And he did not know if it was just some likeness of her he’d seen, some doppelganger, or if it was her and he’d projected his memory of her on that page. And Rick didn’t know why he’d hear Grace Switowski now. It had to be some part of him, the part of him that could never get over or reconcile the loss of her youth, her life.
“Okay. I’m fine. I’ll make it. You’ll tell her to wait for me, won’t you?” he asked her. “How am I talking to you, Grace?”
There was a sustained period of silence before she spoke over the next track on the radio. He heard more than saw the Duesenberg crunch through the gravel. It was slow, deliberate, all a part of the grandfather’s plan to care for the classic car are the cargo within. And then he didn’t hear anything other than…
“Nine letters. Snake eats own tail,” Grace said abruptly.
“Ouroboros,” he replied.
Rick thought of Elaine’s red hair, could see it in his mind how it grayed and frayed over the decades until he saw it dyed auburn. Rick saw Elaine’s face, saw her serious, but generous green eyes had grown lax with age, how the worry lines around her mouth were cracked and bent because when she smiled, she did so fiercely. They’d gotten older together, but they were not yet growing old together and that, more than a hut over a tropical lagoon, was what his heart desired.
Rick’s eyes closed. He heard knocking on the window behind him, but thought it was Grace, so asked, “Do you think,” he wondered, “I can make it home in ten?”