Although the two events had nothing to do with each other, Theodore always associated the draining of Marataw lake with Mrs. Ashbury’s death. The first one was less dramatic than he had expected, the second far more so, being unexpected. Both were silent, and both took place the summer he turned nine.
They drained the lake on a Sunday. Theodore would not have remembered this, except for the fact that he could hear the mosquito drone of the racetrack as he sat on the swing and watched the water creep back from the bank. He had expected the men with the hats to explode the dam, that he would watch the water swirl and bubble away like it did at the bottom of his tub. There was no explosion though. Someone turned a wheel somewhere, which lifted a door by the hatchery and let the water through. Theodore had always perceived a vague injustice in the concrete pools of the hatchery, and he imagined the fish wriggling in delight as the lake water washed over them and set them free. It was a long way to the sea, he knew from the laminated maps that Gregg used for placemats, but they wouldn’t have to do much swimming. Just below the flour mill, the water from the lake reunited with the Quinnepec, which had been the sister of the Marataw before the rubber men dammed it in the sixties, and from this point, he imagined, the fish could flip belly up and just float until they tasted brine. When Gregg told Theodore that these were freshwater species, and that the sea would likely kill them, Theodore decided instead that they would head upriver towards the Adirondacks. There were plenty of pools there where they could stay. Years later, the sound of mosquitoes would remind him of the racetrack.
Where the lake used to be was flat and ugly and filled with trash. Before, when it had water, it was like a gap in the earth, as blue and endless as the sky above it. With no water, though, Theodore realized that he had been duped, like the first time he saw the spots on Mrs. Ashbury’s face without all that sweet-smelling powder. No hole to the center of the earth, or anything like that. Just a shallow, flat stretch of mud and rusted metal. The lake bottom made him uneasy, like the missing shard in Gregg’s rearview mirror where his reflection disappeared.
It stank, too. This was one of the few days without rain, which might have explained the racetrack sounds, and it wasn’t three hours before the lake bottom began to bubble and steam. When the wind blew towards him, Theodore almost fell off of his swing.
He went inside to find Gregg shutting all the windows and making peanut butter sandwiches to take with them. They were going to stay at a motel for a few days on account of the smell. Theodore brought his green ammunition bag filled with exploring equipment just in case: journal, colored pencil, his Boy Scout knife, a straightedge, a bungee cord that used to hold shut the trunk, an orange bandana, some fruit snacks.
When the house was sealed up tight, they left through the side door with their sandwiches in the bottom trough of Gregg’s toolbox, which he wedged in the corner of the flat-bed between the paint-cans. The screen door spring had been broken since Theodore’s mother’s dramatic exit, so Gregg asked Theodore to cut him a piece of wire, which he wrapped around the aluminum frame and the doorknob within to hold it shut. It still swung open a few inches, but from the road, you could hardly tell.
“How long are we going for?” Theodore asked.
“Not long,” Gregg said. “We’ll just take a vacation for a few days and then come back when it’s time for me to go back to work and you to go back to school.”
“Work for who? The lake’s gone.” Theodore held out his arms and was lifted by Gregg into the high passenger’s seat. He buckled the seatbelt on his own.
“There’s still people to take care of. The weekend folks will stop coming, but the rest will stay. Some people lived here before the lake, and they stuck around. Now that it’s gone, they’ll do the same thing.” Gregg shut the door and leaned in through the open window. “You know Marilyn’s been here for sixty years? She needs someone to keep her gutters clean. That’s me. And she needs someone to eat her pineapple cake. That’s you. So we have our jobs to get back to. Don’t worry about that right now, though. We’ll have fun for a few days, come back when it’s time.”
Every time Gregg used that name, Theodore had to translate it into Mrs. Ashbury in his head. He had never heard Gregg address anyone by their first name—besides Theodore’s mother, of course, but that was parent business—it was always mister and missus. But with Mrs. Ashbury, Gregg was different. He showed her a care that she never seemed to reciprocate, even when she paid him. Also, Marilyn didn’t match: it was the name of beautiful women, Theodore knew, not an old lady with an eye like porcelain and hands that shook.
Theodore began to worry that the lake smell would stick in his clothes. As Gregg took one last walk around the house, he rolled up the windows with the knob on the truck door. His mother’s car had had automatic windows, but he preferred the feeling of cranking them up himself. Gregg called the passenger’s seat “Theodore’s throne” on account of him spending so much time there. Even before they had only one car, this was the only spot Theodore liked to ride: next to Gregg, way up off the ground, on a leather seat that smelled like pine needles and loose tobacco.
They drove along what used to be the lake until they reached the upper junction, where Gregg turned onto the state road that, forty miles away, met the sea. The highway terminated in a parking lot where people waited on summer mornings to take the ferry out to an island with a lighthouse. Once you got to the lighthouse, though, you couldn’t get any farther.
Gregg turned onto Main Street. The antique shops and wine bar were closed, likely because the lake was gone. Then Theodore realized that it was Monday—Main Street was always closed on Mondays. Really, everything looked the same, lake or no lake. At least for now. They would see on Friday, though, if the low-slung cars with New York plates came gliding in down the highway.
The motel was about a half hour down the road. It was a single-story affair squatting alongside an empty parking lot, and the concrete outside their door was polka-dotted with the ashen craters of spent cigarettes. Gregg carried the bags in and let Theodore pick his bed, although he deemed that they were equally squeaky. That night, they ordered pizza from next door and watched a movie about Marines on Iwo Jima. Theodore had seen it before and tried to find the island on an inflatable globe he hung from his ceiling fan. He couldn’t find it in all that blue, but perhaps Gregg should have blown harder. If they inflated it big enough, he supposed, anything would be visible, even Lake Marataw. When Theodore caught Gregg with his eyes closed and his hands folded on his chest, Gregg noticed and said, “I like the sound parts best.”
The next day, they went to a bowling alley that smelled like popcorn and motor oil. Theodore had a bright orange ball with white swirls. It was the lightest they had. Gregg’s was dark and heavy, like him, and he rolled it in the large palm of his hand. When Theodore won by a single point, he bought Gregg a sticker from the quarter machine—an apology for winning every time.
“Thank you,” Gregg said, and put it carefully in the big pocket of his canvas pants.
That night, Theodore lay in the dark and watched the ceiling above his bed fill with black and white squares. The pipes humming in the walls and the rustle of his sheets were too loud, too close to his ears, but the periodic moments of quiet were even more stifling. The squares kept growing and he knew that the ceiling wasn’t big enough—Theodore worried that he would get smaller and smaller as the room expanded to hold them all, and the cotton sheets would swell around him like waves in a storm, building and crashing into silences that felt like holding your breath too long.
He found Gregg’s hand. “Anxious?” he asked. Theodore nodded. Gregg lifted the covers and let Theodore crawl in. He took Gregg’s left hand and placed it over his chest, to stop the beating. Gregg’s hands were warm, and they never trembled. As always, Gregg accepted this situation with quiet grace.
Theodore awoke just as Gregg finished with the windshield. He watched the suds collect in horizontal blue lines across the glass and then disappear under the black rubber squeegee. Theodore saw that he was still in his pajamas, and that he was sitting in the passenger’s seat. The truck dashboard said 8:17, which meant that it was 7:17, and Gregg was washing the truck, which meant that they were going to see Mrs. Ashbury. Gregg saw Theodore rub his eyes and made a silly face in response.
“Good morning,” he said when they were back on the road.
“Are we going to Cedar Hill?” Mrs. Ashbury’s house was the only house Theodore knew to have its own name.
“We are. You can stay in your pajamas if you want.”
Theodore would certainly not stay in his pajamas. When his mother took him to the Cedar Hill Brunch every Sunday, she would make him wear a suit they bought from the Halloween store and the silk bowtie his father left. He would sit in the rocking chair in the corner of the sunroom and look at furniture magazines while all the ladies drank tea or, like his mother, whatever was in the high cabinet. Before long, Mrs. Ashbury would evict him from this chair and fall asleep with her head leaned back and her mouth open. Sometimes, she would even drool, although Theodore learned not to laugh.
These days always concluded with Theodore standing in the driveway rotunda beside his mother, who clutched her high heels in one hand and Theodore in the other. They were invariably the last to leave. Mrs. Ashbury’s driver was always nice enough to drive them home, until Gregg entered their lives with two hands on the wheel of his flatbed truck. He was a careful driver.
The entrance to Mrs. Ashbury’s driveway was marked by two stone columns which had begun to sink and tilt despite Gregg’s best efforts. He made an impatient sound as they passed by. The driveway curved up and to the right towards the house, which was tall and slate-colored, with a spine of sloped roofs that looked like storm waves breaking on the hillside.
Gregg stopped the car up by the garage. “I’m just here to look at the gutters. Won’t be more than thirty minutes. You can stay here or see if Marilyn is in,” he said.
Theodore looked at the knobby ankles protruding a few inches too far from the hem of his pajama pants. “I think I’ll stay here.”
“I’ll keep the radio on.”
Gregg lifted his toolbox out of the back and disappeared around the corner near the moss garden. After a few moments, Theodore unbuckled his seat belt and clambered over the cup rest into the driver’s seat. He touched a row of buttons on the dashboard and turned the wheel as far as the manual transmission would allow. The buttons and knobs made satisfying clicks. Theodore put his forehead on the steering wheel and read the two sets of numbers on the speedometer. It didn’t make much sense, that there were two, but perhaps it was like the hour and minute hands on a clock.
The odometer read 23,750, exactly. If those little wheels clicked backwards and unraveled those miles like a tape measure, where would that put him, he thought. Somewhere in the blue around Iwo Jima, maybe. Or in the Amazon, to the south. The children’s atlas from the library said the Amazon had more than 2.5 million insects, which was sort of an interesting fact, but he preferred the stack of old National Geographic magazines with their pictures of small nude people with pieces of bone stuck through their lower lips who frowned at him with cloudy gray eyes. Like Mrs. Ashbury’s, except only one was that way, and it was white.
He needed a drink of water. The driveway gravel cut his feet as he made his way to the side door, which he found unlocked. The coat room smelled like mothballs and old wool. Theodore stood there and bit his cheek. He had never come in this way. His mother only ever entered through the front door. She wouldn’t even look at the doorman who stood to the side for them, but Theodore saw his eyes once and recognized him as one of the customers in the Quickclip where his mother worked. Mrs. Ashbury would be standing with one hand on the banister and a thin glass in the other, which she held out to his mother when they entered.
“Finally, someone to keep up with me,” she would say. Her voice was surprisingly strong for such a small woman. Theodore had never seen his mother look more in love than when Mrs. Ashbury did this.
The front hall was right through the double doors at the end of the coat room. Theodore stopped with his toes in the thick carpet and listened for the sound of Gregg working. He heard nothing.
The front hall led to the flower room. It was long and thin with windows that looked out over the lake and, on their sills, vases of flowers that were like Mrs. Ashbury: shrunken, colorless and dry. The sun’s reflection on the furrowed mud outside almost made it look like water.
He found her in the rocking chair. Her head was thrown back and a wet stain ran from the corner of her mouth down the hollow of her cheek. Her knees were splayed to both sides and the begonia-patterned skirt she wore had ridden up her thighs. One the mantel, on a stack of furniture magazines, sat a thin glass with a lime wedge on the rim. Theodore put his nose to it. It smelled like bedtime kisses.
He shut the door on the way out and managed to climb from the sharp gravel into the passenger’s seat. He wondered if those people in the Amazon took the bones out when they slept, if anybody would notice if Iwo Jima disappeared, if the fish were happy in the Adirondacks. Even with his head pressed into the leather seat, he could hear his heart pounding.
“Theodore.” Gregg was holding open the driver’s side door. “Didn’t find a station you liked?”
Theodore shook his head.
“Did you find Marilyn?”
Gregg’s hands were flecked with bits of wet and crumbled leaves. If Theodore ever saw Gregg cry then he might see his hands shake, and that would mean he had to find someone else to hold his heart when it got worked up.
“Well, I’m all done. How about we get home?” Gregg shut the door and backed the car down the driveway. Theodore watched the dark house disappear over the hill as they drove home. The expanse of mud to their left steamed in the afternoon sun, and Theodore wondered where in the world all the water from the lake was now. Maybe it was in the ocean, or maybe it had turned into rain. He knew, though, that water ran downhill. Barring an act of God, it wasn’t coming back.