FICTION ISSUE #23

“Mansfield from Lake Champlain” by Matt Brown, 10 1/4” x 10 1/4” Color Woodblock Print, Mud Season Review
*Image: “Mansfield from Lake Champlain” by Matt Brown, 10 1/4” x 10 1/4” Color Woodblock Print

Fly in the Ointment

By Nathan Leslie

 

Happiness is a place called Fawn Lake. Happiness is the rose-laden trellis by the pool, the gentle burbling of the hot tub; the pool dangles over the lake improbably. The sun glows delightfully—neither too hot nor too distant. Perfect sailboats dot the lake, their sails blowing in the ever-so-slightly wafting wind that blows through the leaves of the old-growth forest remnants we have preserved just for the visual delight of the Fawn Lake community. I don’t know sailboats, but they are always there. Sailing. I am there still.

We live for the perfect choreography of elements. We live for the amenable amenities, for the smiling children, the teeth shining in the honey-glazed sun.

A slowly idling motor boat on Fawn Lake churns by as I sit in the hot tub. I dangle my toes into the cascade of bubbles. I feel the warmth of jets on my tender Achilles (I can relate to the nomenclature). It is early still. My coffee steams next to me on the shelf made just for this purpose. Black and perfect. I am alone.

I have my checklist on hand, ten feet away. My mental checklist is even more extensive. If I complete my checklist on any given day I cycle back through and begin at the top. These are rare days. Frequently my checklists—mental and otherwise—exceed my physical ability. I wish this were not so. I overshoot because I care. I am on the downward slope.

 

Abigail is my friend. We had known each other for years, since her family lived a block up on Crestview Circle. She had wisdom and maturity beyond her years. She referred to me as Big Daddy. Her own father passed on a decade ago—tragic beach drowning.

I received a message from Mr. Smythe. He is Chair of the Board (COB), a rotating position.

“Grover—please come see me at your earliest convenience. No urgency.”

“No urgency” coming from Mr. Smythe usually did mean urgency. One did not receive messages from Mr. Smythe if they were not urgent. Urgent was his milieu.

Abigail was my friend. A friend for life.

 

I enjoy order. I suppose I have always enjoyed order. I am orderly. I appreciate a clean row of bricks, a well-painted wall, a crisply ironed white shirt.

Seventeen years ago I began this journey into caretaking. Seventeen years ago Fawn Lake was all old-growth forest, but I was elsewhere. I was a previous incarnation. Early on I was positioned at a place in the sky—a place with space, a place where I needed to maintain a certain decorum. I handled the refreshments. I made sure everyone was hunky-dory. There is nothing wrong with a male airline attendant. It is a valued and worthy position in society. Nothing to be ashamed about.

However, did I desire a life of constant maneuvering? Did I desire a life of continental breakfasts and priceless beds and constant time adjustments? Not particularly.

Instead, I found myself at home—unemployed, sacked, laid-off. The great airliner went under. I was adrift.

 

Abigail was a good help. When I did Sweeping the Green, she’d pick the pine needles up one at a time. When I did Deadheading the Rose Garden, she’d bring her own pair of scissors. When I did Rolling the Courts, she got the lines. She especially liked to help me with Polishing the Knobs and Cleaning the White and Pocked.

There were other Fawn Lakers, of course. I was one of many. Abigail, if I could speak for her, liked the way I joked and told stories and admired the care I took with each step of the job, with each task. When she was eleven or twelve she’d follow me around and her parents didn’t mind. They trusted me. They knew where I lived, behind the retaining wall that separated the tennis courts from the woods.

“Come over for supper,” her parents would tell me. “We have pork loin and grilled zucchini. There’s no way we can eat it all.”

“Oh, you should see what I have in the fridge! My wife is going to town for me tonight.”

If only it wasn’t a fib—the dinner and the wife. I was all too married. Bethany had her room; I had mine. We were comfortable together. We spoke often enough.

 

The Code was the Ten Commandments of Fawn Lake. One had to follow its ethical strictures. Since I had been employed at Fawn Lake for years I was “grandfathered in.” I had to “pass,” but didn’t need to suffer the indignity of affirmation or reaffirmation. I was a fortunate man.

Each house had a plaque of the code affixed to a foyer wall.

The plaques shined and dazzled the eye. The golden cursive, the marbled wood (how did they do that?). One could barely look away.

To live on Fawn Lake was to live the Code.

To live on Fawn Lake was to accept the premises of the Code and all it entailed.

 

My mother loved me in her own way. My mother’s way was not the usual way. My mother’s way was the way of tending to orchids and photographing hummingbirds. We had a greenhouse. We had a planetarium on the top floor. My father wanted to make her happy and we were all happy, but my mother was happiest of all.

She dusted with fury. Each morning she dusted. We saw her fluffing the house in this way, applying feather to wood and plaster. In this way the house remained museum-clean.

When my mother put me to bed as a child, she used to tell me stories from her childhood. There was the one where she learned to speak with cardinals—they recited their dreams to her. There was the one where she climbed the town Christmas tree from the inside to affix herself as an ornament. There was the one where she ate frogs for a week on a dare. There was the one where she created a dictionary of smells for her classmates, going so far as to invent new smells, and new words and utterances to describe those smells.

My friends found my mother odd, beyond description.

I loved her despite this, because of this perhaps.

 

“Evening on Lake Winnipesaukee” by Matt Brown, 7” x 16” Color Woodblock Print, Mud Season Review

“Evening on Lake Winnipesaukee” by Matt Brown, 7” x 16” Color Woodblock Print

Abigail swam in the lake. She dove into the water from the wall which separated the lake from the pool. As I tended to the coleus and begonias, which I carefully nestled into the soil, three inches apart along the edge of the wall, she waved up at me and announced which stroke she was in the midst of performing (I was expected to clap and offer copious praise for each). She was particularly interested in learning the butterfly. After attempting it for several minutes, slashing the water, she’d stop and shout: “Mr. Grover, how was that?”

“An excellent butterfly,” I said. “You can do it even better though.”

This added fuel to the fire.

“Okay, I’ll try again,” she’d say. “This time it’s the moth.”

Then she’d say she was trying the dragonfly, making up strokes as she went along.

 

In the early days I didn’t live on Fawn Lake, as they wouldn’t permit it. The board drained the lake, as it was for a time unseemly. Difficult to believe in retrospect.

I lived in a cabin by the Rust Creek, forty minutes away up in the hills. The cabin was a shack. It had a single bedroom, a room to eat and another to bathe and shit. The stove had two burners and would flicker out on occasion (so would the power). The walls smelled of squirrels. They ran through the rafters at night.

On the drive to and from Fawn Lake, I would watch the trees. They became so familiar, I knew the patterns. I knew the gulches, the places where billboards popped up, where telephone wiring criss-crossed the road.

I’d see a woman sometimes. She sat on a stump by the gravel road that led to her cabin. She’d sit there slouching in the dark waiting for me to drive by. If I saw her, I’d turn in. I’d seek my refuge. If I didn’t see her, I’d drive on home.

Then she died. A tree fell on her cabin and crushed her in her sleep, or so the story goes. She always said she heard voices in the trees. They were poplars, a wicked species. She said the arboreal voices had evil in them. I try not to think of her any longer, though sometimes I relapse.

 

I seek perfection in everything. Certain rug makers, I am told, bury small imperfections in their work as an honor to God. I strive for perfection only.

Some days I would tend to the fly-fishing pond. I would rake the outlying edges of the pond until they looked exactly right. I would rake and cut the reeds and sticks and leaves so that if someone happened to take a photograph of that exact spot it would capture the ideal image of beauty itself. If it were possible, I would rake the water. I would rake the sky. When I raked the Parking Lot, Abigail would help.

 

Abigail grew. When her family first bought in Fawn Lake she was six. Then she was no longer six. She was eight. She was twelve. She was fifteen. This began a new pattern—it was a pattern of growing. This began a new Abigail, a new Grover.

Men and teenage girls are not to be friends. Men and teenage girls are not to associate, outside of limited exchanged. This is just the modern restriction, the barrier. I was expected perhaps to cease contact with Abigail once she developed. Once she developed, she became a precious object. She became glass. I was supposed to look away. But we were friends for life. She saw my soul, made me whole.

 

I had friendships with the board, with its members. When I say “friendship” I mean something above and beyond acquaintanceship. I mean something better. They offered their respect to me, and I reciprocated. Appearances are always themselves fragile, however.

In particular I was friendly with Glena and Harvey and a woman by the unlikely name of Silvia Gold (I chastised her parents in my mind, though Silvia said it was a fictional surname—I wondered if she was on the lam). They saw me waxing the trash receptacles or pulling dead leaves from the red maples and they offered glad tidings. Glad tidings I received with open arms.

“How are you, Grover?”

“Mr. Grover, the grounds look divine.”

“The most valuable member of our community. You are such a help.”

They never said I “worked” for them. I “helped” them. I “assisted” them. I was a member of the Fawn Lake “team.”

 

By the time she could drive, Abigail had a steady. His name was Rick. On occasion I would call him Rich. It was not a conscious decision. He detested “Rich.” Abigail seemed to find it funny.

“He’s just saying you have money,” she’d say.

She was precious and perfect.

“It’s not my name,” he’d say.

Rick had a head of spikey hair he kept hard and gelled. His face was chiseled and smirky, as if he knew something about me. He liked to arch his eyebrows, to talk quickly. He had six younger brothers. Rick must have borne the brunt of expectation.

They walked by the road, hands swinging. They glommed by the pool. He kissed her neck by the boxwood I had trimmed the day before. I could see them.

“Rich is good,” I said. “Nothing wrong with that name.”

“I don’t like it,” he said, stepping toward me. He lifted his shoulders, as if attempting to appear taller.

Live your vacation. Life is your playground.

 

If I had a spare minute I might glance at a book in the lending library. The lending library was inside the clubhouse. The clubhouse was above the pool, above the gym. In the clubhouse everything was polished wood and brass.

We had bestsellers, serious nonfiction, romance. I was never much of a reader, not having finished school myself. Who had the time? But I knew what made sense to me. I could speak.

In one book I read about a man detailing how to dissect a conundrum. First, you identify the problem, he said. This takes the power of observation. Then you confront the problem, which takes courage. Then you break the problem down to its root causes, which takes brains. Then you attempt to piece the problem back together, which takes know-how.

It was something like that.

I remember the book had a bright blue cover, with clouds and a man standing in the forefront, dressed in a maroon suit. I wish I had that book now.

 

I found her in the pool parking lot. She was lying on the hood of her car. It was dark and later than I’d normally lurk around Fawn Lake. The night was humid and moths thumped against the parking lot lamps. I watched the Wellingtons walk home from the restaurant. Vickie needed me to help fill a gap in the kitchen, which I was happy to do. I did that sometimes.

Abigail waved me over. She wasn’t exactly crying, but her eyes were swollen and inflamed.

“Mr. Grover,” she said. She smelled of Merlot and goat cheese.

I sat on the hood next to her.

I knew exactly what had happened. She didn’t need to tell me the gory details. She knew I didn’t need to hear them.

Her breathing was quick and short. Her head was loopy. She sighed and breathed.

I kissed her on the cheek and patted her thigh. That is all.

“Goodnight,” I said. “Go home. Your parents are waiting.”

“I will,” she said.

 

“Moon over Mt. Monadnock” by Matt Brown, 10 1/4” x 10 1/4” Color Woodblock Print , Mud Season Review

“Moon over Mt. Monadnock” by Matt Brown, 10 1/4” x 10 1/4” Color Woodblock Print

 

Rick saw it all. He was skulking about inside, pacing, waiting for her to come to her senses.

He saw me kiss her cheek.

It was as innocent as a snail sliding through grass.

“You have been charged with indecency. You are indecent, in fact.”

I was shocked, my mouth frozen in place. The words wouldn’t form on my tongue—I said nothing. It was a simple, friendly gesture. We are friends. This is what friends do.

I had such a clean conscience that I hadn’t a clue as to what the board meant.

“You have been charged with indecency,” Glen Handard told me.

“According to The Code, this necessitates immediate dismissal. We are sorry and we thank you for your services.”

“With the purpose of improper relations,” Sylvia Gold added. Even Sylvia!

I watched the wind shift through the grass. I watched the smallest dead parts of the grass slough off into the wind, carried off in it.

 

I have found the city is a good place for me. It took me some time to figure this out.

I don’t need to be perfect here. I have two rooms and they are clean enough for me. I vacuum once a week, watching the patterns in the rug appear and disappear as I run the vacuum.

My wife is happier, also. She feels less confined in the presence of others. She has friends and activities. Our relationship is better.

I thank the board for the improvements. My life has been a matter of small adjustments, only some of which I control. Others are controlled for me, one way or another.

Janitorial work is not a bad way for me to go. The hospital pays me well and I am essentially my own boss. I steer clear of the pediatric ward. Aaron, the new guy, takes care of that. I am eternally grateful.

I often think of Abigail and wonder what has become of her. On several instances I’ve begun drafting a letter to her, my wife asleep in the other room. But I stop myself, suspecting it would not find a receptive audience. I crumble those attempts and bury them at the bottom of the kitchen trash. Instead, I sit in the near-darkness and think of her and attempt to make this thought visible to her in whatever way I can. I think of the pool and the lake behind and the gentle breezes and Abigail sitting on the edge of the pool, her feet dangling in the perfect water. Me watching.

 

Nathan Leslie

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Madre. His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012. Nathan is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including BoulevardShenandoahNorth American ReviewSouth Carolina ReviewSouth Dakota Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for over five years. He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column. Nathan has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize several times and his work will appear in Best Small Fictions 2016.

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