by Tim Strom
Jane was sitting on the dock at Plywood Mansion, making little circles on the calm water with her bare feet, when the Ghost of Round Lake rose up and bit her toe off. Gordy chased the Ghost away with an oar.
For thirty years, the Ghost had been seen by many, hooked by few, and caught by none. It was a legendary tiger muskie—a rare, striped, sterile cross between a muskellunge and a northern pike.
At the ER, while trimming Jane’s new stump, the attendants argued about whether spawn like that was freakish. Some insisted nothing created by nature was abnormal, but struggled explaining why nature would bless the octopus with nine brains, three hearts, and blue blood. Jane, thoroughly whacked on high-grade painkillers and not wanting to appear overly-contentious to people sticking her with scalpels and needles, kept her opinion to herself.
She and Gordy had seen the Ghost’s face when it latched onto Jane’s foot and started spinning like an alligator, flashing its snowman’s belly. For Jane, it seemed full of inscrutable malice. Its eyes were hazed over with cataracts. Its jaws were lined by rows of jagged hooks trailing broken leaders and ragged lines. For Gordy, the Ghost’s face seemed complacent, no more barbaric than a moose chewing reeds.
Gordy was convinced the Ghost would easily break Louis Spray’s world record 63½-inch, 69-pound muskie. Well-wishers encouraged Jane to keep that in mind and remember that her toe was not taken by some common or ordinary fish. Jane was used to bad luck, and saw some humor in her situation. She had just started thinking she had put most of her troubles behind her by shacking up with Gordy at his estate, when there they were again, this time in the form of a mutant, sterile, world-record muskie.
Gordy swore vengeance. He hunted the leviathan day and night. Gordy was a curious blend of bumpkin, barbarian, and small-town robber baron. He had returned after a stint in the Army, bombed out of community college, took over his father’s struggling lumberyard and, within five years, was producing more plywood than anyone in the Upper Midwest. He went a little crazy after his wife divorced him, legally changed his name for business reasons to Gordon F Plywood, and started Gordy’s Plywood World, a tourist trap where customers drove souped-up go-karts on OSB boardwalks through replicas of the wonders of the world built entirely out of marine-grade particle board. It was wildly profitable.
Jane, who never expected to go through life unscathed or undiminished, became reconciled to losing her toe. She continued complaining about phantom pains, that aching in nothingness, but only to keep getting oxycodone. She didn’t limp, fall more than usual, or walk around in tiny circles like some ridiculous windup figurine. But there was an ugly fleck of bone sticking stubbornly out of her tumor-like nub, it embarrassed her, and Gordy hated it. He expected perfection in all things, be it his estate, his lovers, or his pallets of moisture-resistant sign-grade fiberboard. He didn’t mind Jane being a notorious lush and druggie—he was no angel himself—but couldn’t get that little dewclaw out of his mind. He kept hinting she should look into toe prostheses, and she kept telling him to go to hell. Their passion dwindled until they became like two dragonflies mating back-to-back at the edge of some weedbed. Jane knew her days in Eden were numbered.
* * *
The ceremony to release Bucky the Baby Otter was scheduled for just after suppertime on the first Saturday after the Fourth of July at the public landing across the lake. Bucky had been found several months earlier in a trap, and volunteers nursed him back to health.
That day, just after sunup, the new guy from the lawn service parked in the turnaround with his rider and trailer. Gordy was about to chase the Ghost, but came over to help him unload. It turned out they knew each other.
James Quimby had been Gordy’s Classics professor at the community college when they were in their twenties. Quimby explained that the college jettisoned the Classics, he didn’t teach anymore, but enjoyed doing odd jobs. Gordy knew that was bullshit, and was happy the tables had turned. Back in the day, Gordy had to call Quimby Professor or Doctor. Now, when he showed him what he wanted cut at his estate and walked around naming things, he made a point of calling him Jimmy.
Quimby mowed the back yard—down by the dock, boathouse, and rabbit hutch—all morning. He kept looking for Jane, because everyone said she was back in town shacking up with Gordy. After lunch, he switched to the front lawn, which was flat, hot, and only slightly smaller than most Prairie States. It took twenty minutes to complete a circuit around the yard and, each time, he passed below Jane’s bedroom window.
It woke Jane up. She tossed on a peignoir, pulled one of Gordy’s Converse high-tops over her bad foot, and clomped down to the rabbit hutch. She chased her hangover with a fat blunt, fed the bunnies clover through the chicken wire, and wound up on the veranda, drinking cranberry juice and vodka. She watched the new guy mow. He was fat, soaked with sweat, and looked vaguely familiar.
She saw Lugnuts and his new buddy, Jonah, pedaling along the road and turning up the driveway. Lugnuts was Gordy’s fifteen-year-old son. Everybody called him Lugnuts, even his father, teachers, and minister. The mower guy waved at Jonah, and Jane saw Jonah pretend not to notice. Then the fat guy looked at her, the way guys used to back when she was stripping. She scowled down as if from an opera box, blotted him out with her tennis shoe, and rearranged her dressing gown.
She heard Gordy’s boat coming off the lake. The boys clattered up the steps, reminding her that she promised to drive them to the celebration that evening.
* * *
Quimby panicked when he saw Jane, and knew he had stared too long. She was still gorgeous, even with that dirty look, and obviously didn’t recognize him.
Every boy in high school had been smitten by Jane twenty years ago, especially those who—like Quimby—never admitted it. She was brilliant, poor, and wounded. She had a way of looking up at a 45-degree angle when pondering something, as if the answer might be just . . . up . . . there. She was sweet, kind, and funny when she wasn’t stoned, angry, and suicidal. On the back of her hand she had tattooed the word STOP.
They shared a table in AP literature class. Jane loved poetry, especially Wallace Stevens, but misunderstood his line about “a body wholly body, fluttering its empty sleeves.” She pulled her thin arms inside her white t-shirt, embraced herself underneath and swayed, fluttering her short sleeves. “Guess who I am!”
“You’re not the woman in the poem,” Quimby explained. “He’s talking about the sea.”
“Okay, I’m someone else. Guess.”
“I don’t know.”
“I give up.”
“Venus de Milo! Aphrodite to the Greeks! Now maybe I’ll finally get some respect around here.”
But she didn’t. She dropped out and left town. Quimby graduated, went to college, nabbed his PhD, got married, came back, taught the Classics, gained 100 pounds, lost his job, lost his wife, scraped along, but never fell out of love with her.
* * *
Gordy bounded onto the veranda from the kitchen, eating an apple. He went to sit with the boys, sidling past Jane. “Excuse me.”
“That’s ‘Excuse me, Goddess,’ to you, Plywood.”
He caught a whiff of pot. “You okay?”
“Bored. Can I sack a servant?”
“Start with Fatso there. What a racket.” Gordy chewed vacantly. “So! Jonah! You know what the best bait is for big muskies?”
“You’ve stumped me, Mr. Plywood.”
“Well, it’s got to be big and thrash around a lot. I’ve been using bunnies. The problem is, your average bunny only swims around for about five minutes after you’ve stuck it full of number-five treble hooks. Then it goes into shock and starts lollygagging around. So I’m trying to breed a hardier strain. And here’s another thing. I’m convinced the Ghost isn’t interested in white bunnies, so I’m spray-painting them.”
Jane got up. Gordy went to the railing. “Boys, always remember everyone’s special. Case in point—Fatso down there. He used to be my college professor. He taught us weird shit like this poem about some dumbass having a conniption fit because he couldn’t decide which road to take, or this snowman who couldn’t see nothing or only saw nothing or some damn thing.” Gordy rested both hands on the railing like the captain of a five-ply pressboard whaler. “Life is sweet. I’ve got a college professor mowing my yard.”
Jane went inside and clomped around the kitchen. Gordy sipped her drink and frowned. “I’d love to chat more, boys, but I’ve got bunnies to spray-paint.”
The boys talked on the veranda after Gordy left. Jane heard them through a screen window.
“Jane was pissed,” Jonah said.
“She’s wasted. She’s always wasted.”
“Why does your dad keep her around?”
“Have you looked at her?”
“Really looked at her?”
“There’s your answer. Can’t that moron buy a muffler?”
“Leave him alone, okay?”
“He’s my Dad.”
“Oh. Shit. Sorry. If it’s any help, I hate my Dad too.”
“I don’t hate him. I’m ashamed of him.”
“You’re ashamed? My Dad’s going broke chasing a fish. He changed his name to Gordon F Plywood. Everyone thinks my name is Lugnuts Plywood, and says we live with the town whore. Try that for a while.”
* * *
The ceremony began with the swim team paddling in a listless circle—meant to symbolize wholeness, perfection, and eternity—to a mournful rendition of “Born Free.”
Jane caught the boys spiking their sodas with a pint pilfered from home. She confiscated it. “You’re going to get it when we get home, Lugnuts.”
“What, you don’t drink? What are you going to do?”
“Wrap you in tinfoil and throw you in the microwave. No, here’s punishment enough for both of you—good advice from someone who’s always scorned it.” She held one finger up. “Leaven your judgment with mercy.” She examined the bottle. “Looks like I’m going to lose my brave battle against alcoholism again.”
The Game Warden, wearing elbow-length protective gloves ordinarily reserved for artificial insemination, carried Bucky’s cage to the dock and chucked him in the water. Bucky started paddling around. The crowd cheered. He flipped on his back and cleaned his adorable whiskers. They clapped. He submerged, and popped back up with a frog in his mouth. The crowd went crazy. They’d done it! He was one with nature! The little showman flipped on his back again, cradling the frog.
Then he bit the frog’s leg off and slurped it down. The frog struggled. Bucky raked its eyes out. The crowd went silent. Most had never heard a blind frog shrieking in agony and despair. Bucky slowly sank his fangs into the frog’s good leg, cackling with pleasure. Everybody heard it. He was actually chortling.
Suddenly, there was an enormous swell of water, gaping jaws festooned with hooks and lines, and the flash of a snow-white belly. The Ghost had arisen like a tornado and swallowed Bucky whole. The whirlpool subsided. Little waves spun out toward eternity. Jane stumbled up behind the boys, steadying herself with one hand on each of their shoulders. “Circle of Life, Lugnuts.”
* * *
Lugnuts drove them home, even though he didn’t have his permit yet. It was nearly dark. Jane’s face was plastered against the cool passenger window. Lights were m1oving in the yard. “Isn’t that . . .,” she mumbled.
Quimby met her eyes. All afternoon he daydreamed about Jane, making himself the hero of his own romance, and there she was with a green face, baffled eyes, and the gasping mouth of a fish behind aquarium glass.
He drove the rider onto the trailer and started strapping it down. He was tired. He had gone around in circles all day, cutting everything, reaping nothing. They weren’t even circles, he realized—every time he reached the point of beginning, he swerved one mower-width, so they never articulated. It was an illusion of eternity, like stripes on a barber pole. All day long he had pursued an end, not a destination, and now it was almost dark.
Jonah came over. They hopped in the truck. The Plywood kid, who Jonah hadn’t introduced him to, was helping Jane up the sidewalk. “Is she okay?”
“I better help.”
“Don’t. She’s drunk, okay?”
Quimby put the truck in gear, spun his wheels, and headed out. “I used to know her. Did she mention me?”
“I was wondering what she might think of me.”
“You’re the guy who cuts her yard. Okay? That’s what she thinks of you.”
* * *
Jane staggered up the sidewalk, leaning against Lugnuts. “I seem to know him,” she slurred.
“What are you talking about?”
She giggled. The truck was going down the driveway. “I know not seems.”
“You’re crazy.” He half-carried her inside.
“Let be be the finale of seems.”
He saw scars of old stitches on her wrist. “Walk straight!”
“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris!”
“Shut up!” He pushed her into her bedroom.
“Sed in nomine diaboli!”
“He’ll kick your slut ass out!” He slammed her bedroom door.
Jane undressed in the dark, tossed on her white robe, and laid down. The bed started spinning. She sat up. She giggled again. Lugnuts was doubly right—Gordy would kick her out, and she was crazy. Years of counseling had not succeeded in making her a dry husk. She had one more thing to do.
She made a walking penance barefooted down to the rabbit hutch. The lake was a black void surrounded by glittering lights, a mindless head with a jeweled crown. Out in that darkness, running blind, circling a weedbed, the King of Plywood heard a woman singing indistinctly on the shore.
Jane opened the latch and clumsily herded the rabbits and bunnies. They gathered around her feet, as if she was a shepherdess. Her mind reeled in an alcoholic loop. She kept saying that nature was a sick twist, and warning them about hungry things that lurked in the dark. She towered above them, white as snow, gleaming like marble, chalky and lunar, prodding them with her maimed foot until they disappeared into the underbrush.
She reeled and stumbled back to the house, like someone coming from the lake on a teetering clamshell. Her hands didn’t work. Pills from the oxycodone bottle spilled, and skittered in the sink like balls in a roulette wheel. She crawled into bed and it started spinning again. To steady herself, she kept reaching for a bedpost, and kept missing it. She had taken too many. It seemed she couldn’t hold on to anything anymore or, as some might put it, couldn’t hold on to nothing.