by Ken Brosky
Janine was dying. Before the stroke, she was living, and after the stroke, she was dying. She lived in northern Wisconsin, tucked away on a plot of land carved out of a forest of hemlock trees whose sturdiest branches held bird nests that sit precariously on blunt, flattened needles. Just beyond the house was a small lake shaped like a flattened hand with the fingers pressed tightly together. One of Janine’s sons liked fishing on the lake. The other son like hunting in the woods. Her daughter, Linda, enjoyed neither of these things.
But Linda was the only one who volunteered to help. She moved up immediately after the stroke and then, when school was over and all of Dale’s grades were turned in to the Arts and Sciences department, he moved up too.
Janine was Linda’s mother. Dale called her “Ma” just like Linda did. He’d been doing it for over ten years and couldn’t remember exactly when it started. Probably during a Christmas get-together. For the past fifteen years, Janine’s favorite gift to her daughter and two sons was money. When she turned seventy, her second husband had died. Then her knees went out and she could no longer travel. Then, slowly, she started to forget the world. A white rubber eraser running gently across memories. After the stroke, the eraser pressed down harder and carelessly left behind little black pieces of rubber.
Linda and Dale moved into the basement. It had old seventies-style yellow shag carpeting and a pool table and a little bar that hadn’t been used in decades. On the shelves in the bar area were pictures of Janine and her late husband and other seniors from town gathered for drinks. Janine’s hair was silver, not white, her wrinkles shallow and her glasses distinctly aged, too round and thick to be in style now. All the men wore button-down shirts tucked into waistbands, their stomachs bulging.
Also in the basement were a small bedroom and a small bathroom. The bathroom’s toilet seat was cushioned. The shower was cramped and covered with yellow tile. The bedroom had a long history of bat infestations. No one knew where they came from. They just appeared in the corners, little black spots that your mind always tells you are anything except a bat.
The week after they moved in, Dale called a contractor to get the roof re-shingled. The contractor, Craig, came over with two other men. They were all in their mid-thirties, a decade younger than Dale. Craig was the only thin one on his crew. The other two, smoking cigarettes, introduced themselves by presenting calloused, hairy hands. One was Moneymaker and the other was Mootis—neither volunteered elaboration.
Dale said he’d help if Craig cut him a deal. Craig said fine.
The second day, Janine came out onto the patio and tried to climb the ladder. “No, Ma,” Dale said, guiding her inside. “They know what they’re doing.”
“The shingles are crooked,” she said. “They need to be straight. I have a ruler somewhere. A long one. The grandkids always use it like a sword.”
“You just leave the shingling to us,” Craig told her. He had a good, warm smile, even though frowning was his natural look.
They ended at five every day. Dale took long hot showers and then ate whatever Linda prepared. They sat in the living room and watched TV because that was what Janine wanted to do. Linda sat with her mother on the blue couch that was dotted with little white flowers. Dale took the brown recliner, nursing a sore back.
When it got dark, Janine became confused. She needed to be led to her bed. After she was in bed, they needed to lock her in her room so she wouldn’t wander and fall again. She’d already fallen once; Linda, sobbing, had tried to pick her mother up and only succeeded in wrenching her back.
On a Friday, they took Janine out to a fish fry at the local supper club. They sat on the patio outside so they could see Maiden Lake. The water reflected the setting sun and the pine trees along the shoreline. The patio area was full of people Janine’s age. The bar inside was packed with younger people.
All the older crowd knew Janine. Many were friends from the country club, where Janine still owned a golf cart even though she hadn’t golfed in years. Everyone liked her, even the waitress—a youngish brunette who was married to the supper club’s owner. She smiled when Janine demanded half of her glass of milk be poured back into the carton because a whole glass was just too much.
The roof was finished the following week. Craig called a few days later.
“I’m tearing apart a boat house. Re-shingling it, replacing all the rotten shit. I’ll pay thirty an hour, under the table.”
Dale agreed. It was something to do and he was incredibly bored. The young people drove around in their ATV’s and then ended up in bars every night.
Linda had her own copywriting business and worked on her laptop on the dining room table. Dale peer-reviewed submissions to an anthropology journal, but he had a hard time focusing. He found Janine’s TV programs incredibly distracting and addictive. Her hearing was going and so the volume was almost maxed out.
“Where are the other guys?” Dale asked Craig on the second day. They were kneeling on the top of the boathouse roof with two claw hammers between them. Old shingles layered with moss sat on the ground. The wood was rotted through in some places and smelled putrid.
“You’re the only guy,” Craig said, handing over a claw hammer. He was sweating already, especially around his forehead where his blonde hair had begun to thin. He swatted at a fat fly hovering near his face. “We don’t need the other guys.”
“We would get it done sooner,” Dale said.
Craig grunted. “Barry drinks on the job. Can’t stop him. That’s how he works. Gerid grew up around here. Never learned how to work hard. Just takes whatever work people offer and spends the rest of his time with his dogs. He’s just waiting for his parents to die so he can sell their house.”
Dale pulled another shingle away, wondering if Gerid was the one nicknamed Moneymaker or Mootis. He turned and looked at Maiden Lake. Small waves lapped at the boathouse’s concrete launch. The bay was clear and shallow; ten feet out, a tree had fallen into the lake long ago and drowned. It looked green underneath the water.
On his way home every day, Dale stopped at the supermarket in town. He bought fresh fruits and veggies and everything else Linda wrote on the shopping list. Sometimes he bought a bottle of wine from the liquor section. Red. Cheap. Next to the liquor section was a magazine rack and a bookrack with a sign that read “Local Authors.” Dale scoured the titles, which were all self-published and had poorly formatted covers. Most were romances. He thumbed through each of them, smelling the pages.
Sometimes, on a whim, he bought a firework to shoot off on the dock down by the lake. The Crawling Panda had a little toy panda that crawled up the base of the firework, then flew up into the sky and exploded. The Taliban Killer was a shower of red and white sparks that vanished when they touched the water. The Surface-to-Air Missile fired a red firework high into the sky and seemed to shatter the night sky, sending white stars whistling in every direction like angry bees.
The liquor store in town sold fireworks. The candy shop sold fireworks. The coffee shop sold fireworks. The bait and tackle shop sold fireworks.
The zoo sold fireworks.
Dale stopped there one afternoon, surprised by its very existence. Like everything else, it had been carved out of the forest, and all three of the buildings were made of treated wood that seemed an unnatural light brown, like rust. There was a yellow sign in the window of the Visitor’s Center that said the zoo was permanently closed. He wandered along the fence beside the main building, passing a brown llama and two donkeys. In the windows he could see zoo-related toys and shelves full of fireworks. He hopped over the chain closing off the main trail and walked over to the tiger cages on the far end, where a young blonde woman wearing green galoshes was tossing slabs of meat between the black bars.
There were four tigers, all of them young. Two were white. Dale thought they were beautiful, the way they stared at him and paced, the way their defined shoulder blades bobbed up and down as they walked. They were hesitant of the woman and her galoshes, taking the meat only when she moved to the next cage.
“What happened?” he asked her after introducing himself.
She shrugged. “Town didn’t reapprove the permit. They hate this place. They hate anything new. We just tried to give the young kids something to do.”
When he got home, the house was empty. He put on fresh clothes, took a shower, and then walked down the driveway to the main road. He saw Janine and Linda near the bend far down the road where the paper birches encroached on the blacktop. Both looked upset. Linda’s smooth forehead glistened with sweat.
“What happened?” he asked. “Here, Ma,” he said, gently grabbing Janine’s right arm to take some weight off her hips. She looked tired.
“She went for a walk without telling me,” Linda said. “She got lost.”
“This isn’t my neighborhood,” Janine said. “I don’t recognize any of it. The Williamsons lived there. Right there.” She pointed to a brown house sitting back away from the road. It had a blacktopped driveway and a gray Chevy sitting in front of the old garage. “They had a mailbox with a little wooden cardinal on it.”
“They passed away,” Linda said. “Jerry and Francine live there now.”
“I don’t need you here,” her mother said. “Go home. You’re not helping anyone.”
Later, in bed, Dale told Linda about the zoo and the tigers.
“I should have visited more often,” Linda whispered. “These last few years especially. Now she’s not the same and I’ll never have her back.”
He nudged her. “Let’s go look at the stars.”
“I’ll rub your arms.”
They went upstairs quietly, sneaking out through the front door. In the driveway, they looked up and stared at the stars. Thousands of them lighting up the sky. It reminded him of pictures of uncivilized land in far-off countries, where there were no bright lights for hundreds of miles to pollute the sky. This was like that, only with mosquitoes.
Dale rubbed Linda’s arms as she started to cry. “Come back, Mom. Come back.”
“This isn’t her,” he said. “It’s the stroke. She doesn’t mean what she says. Don’t ever forget that.”
“I don’t want to die like her,” she whispered. “I’m not going to. When I’m too old to … to live … I’m just going to go quick.”
Dale felt his chest tighten. He wouldn’t be able to follow her if she went like that. Death frightened him. The thought of nonexistence made him hope he would go just as Janine was going: slowly losing consciousness like an untethered boat drifting away from its dock, toward the center of Maiden Lake. That was how he wanted to die. He didn’t want to know it was coming.
From somewhere on the lake came the haunting mating calls of loons, each one patiently waiting for his turn. Their song was a long, lonely symphony, a reminder that the natural sound of a lake isn’t speedboats and splashing. The loons understood this. Life is short, their calls said. Where are you? Come to me.
By mid-summer, Linda and Dale both wished the loons would fuck and get it over with.
“They’re late,” Dale muttered in the morning, sipping his coffee. “They’re supposed to be nesting by now. It’s global warming, I bet. They’re all confused by the warm winter and the long summer.”
Linda helped her mother out of the bathroom, handing off the plastic bag. Dale put it in the trash before his nose could catch the scent, then tied off the bag and put it in the trashcan in the garage.
“Smelly poop,” he said to himself. He was using that word now a lot: “Poop.” What was once juvenile had now become the only logical way to describe what was happening. It wasn’t shit because shit was something derogatory and aggressive. It wasn’t feces because that word was used by scientists who had no intimate connection to that which they studied. It had been strange at first, handling the diapers, but then it got easier. The awkwardness had dissipated, but not the smell. He never got used to the smell. It was the smell of age. It was a constant reminder that the Janine who, on Dale’s wedding day, had kissed him on the cheek and told him she loved him and would always be there for him … that Janine was gone.
But she’d followed through on her promise. She once said she believed God had brought Dale to Linda because he fit perfectly inside their family. The last sliver of theist in him believed it. He liked Janine’s spaghetti. He liked the way she subscribed to the New Yorker just for him so that when he visited, he had something to read. He liked the fact that she said she loved him, which was something his mother hadn’t done and then his mother had died with the calmest face, as if she didn’t even realize she’d forgotten to say something so important to her son before passing on.
He rubbed his eyes. He and Linda were both tired. Exhausted. Janine had had a bad week, yelling at her daughter every single night. She said things like “You’re wasting your time being here” and “You just want my house” and “Dale is stealing money from my dresser.”
The loons weren’t helping.
It was hard not to get upset. By the end of the week, Dale was sick of being accused of stealing nickels and quarters. He forgot about Janine the person and couldn’t see past what was left, and so he argued with her as if his honor depended on it. He took a walk on the road that cut through the pine trees and led to the supper club, waving at everyone who drove by because they waved first.
Many of them were young, in their thirties or forties with heavy stomachs and lots of outdoor equipment—riding mowers, chainsaws, trailer hitches—sitting on the grass outside their houses overlooking Maiden Lake. Their homes had satellite dishes. Some of the houses were new. They’d torn down the old ones that had belonged to their parents and built a house with bigger glass windows, more aggressive angles, roofs with new gutters. Many were taking care of aging parents. Parents with disjointed memories and brittle bones and muscles that didn’t work. People with no purpose. Burdens.
Back at home, he went into the basement and began searching through the closets in the laundry room, remembering the paintings Janine used to create. He found them, along with a stack of New Yorkers. A reminder of how rarely he’d visited over the past five years, too preoccupied with his career at the university. She’d never stopped subscribing, even after life had sped up and their visits had grown less frequent. He cried, reaching out and clutching one of the paintings of a winding road. It was beautiful. His hand refused to let go so he sat there a while, storing little memories of Janine inside the closet in his mind. A simple joke about cookies. Tossing lawn darts and eating a dinner of pasta and broccoli on the picnic table. Golfing at the country club. Trips to the bird sanctuary. Gin rummy on the patio with Janine grinning over her winnings—potato chips and cookies.
They gave Janine a bath after dinner. She liked taking baths. Linda and Dale liked that she liked taking baths, because showers were impossible now. She didn’t like Dale to be there because she didn’t think it was proper, but sometimes he had to be because Linda couldn’t always pull her mother out of the tub. In the interest of being respectful, he closed his eyes, diplomatically clutching soft flesh hanging from aged bones.
“I love that painting you did of the road, Ma,” he said. “The winding road lined with trees and all the leaves changing color. It’s so amazing.”
“I painted that twenty years ago,” Janine said. Her hands clutched his arm as she stepped out of the tub. “It’s the county road on the west side of the lake.”
The next day, Dale drove to the road. He expected to see the ash and maple and pine trees from Janine’s painting in all their fiery autumn glory, but instead the road was lined with new one-story houses. Only a few trees with green leaves remained between the houses. One pine tree’s trunk was scarred from where a car had hit it.
Craig called again in early August with another job. Same sort of thing: tearing apart a roof. Only this time Dale recognized the house. He’d been there before, dozens of times. The house had a stone exterior and was nicknamed “The Gingerbread House” because of the candy-colored paint covering the stones and the wood trim around the windows.
“I used to take our nieces and nephews past here with my mother-in-law,” Dale said as he helped Craig unload the boxes of shingles from his truck. “My wife’s brothers’ kids. That was about ten years ago, right before they hit their teens and got awkward.”
“You stayed here?” Craig asked.
“No. We just drove by with Ma. Sometimes, we saw deer. This place seemed like it was something right out of a fairy tale.”
They would stop in their car, and Janine would tell stories about the people who lived there. Not the real people, the imaginary people who had used licorice support beams and gumdrop rivets and chocolate chip cookie tiles. In the garage was a lion—no, no!—her grandchildren and Dale had all agreed it should be a tiger. There were two chimneys because one of the fireplaces was actually a big oven for baking cookies and gingerbread.
In the afternoon, Craig went into the house to use the bathroom. Dale stayed out, content to keep the memory intact. He could see through the filmy old windows that the house was anything but picturesque. The colorful paint was flaking off like sunburned skin, the window frames rotted. Dale inhaled through his nose, expecting to smell peppermint, the flavor of gum Janine had always chewed when she drove because driving made her nervous. Now all he could smell was the absence of it.
Dale told Craig about the zoo. Craig said he wasn’t surprised. “Cages were built too small. I told them that, stupid bastards.” He rested the ladder against the Gingerbread House. The gutters had been white but were stained by decades of wet autumn leaves. Leaves from Janine’s painting, perhaps. The idea warmed Dale’s heart. To think: here was a connection to that beautiful painting. Here was a perfect reminder of her best years.
At the house, everything was quiet. Linda had taken her mother to church, something that seemed to refresh Janine. She loved singing. Linda loved singing with her.
Dale opened the sliding glass door in the kitchen and stepped out onto the patio overlooking Maiden Lake. Janine’s flat one-story house was built next to a small bay with a single wooden dock. The wooden dock was rotted. So was the patio. They could replace the dock so Janine could sit out by the lake. That would be nice. She always enjoyed sitting by the lake, especially at sunset.
When Linda and Janine returned, they went out to dinner.
“We went here every time I visited when I was out of college,” Linda said after they were seated. The place was half-bar, half-restaurant like most of the places in town. At the bar was a mix of young and old. The women drank wine. The young men drank dark mixed drinks. “Remember, Ma?”
“She always got the fried chicken legs,” Janine told Dale. “Every single time. For eight years, she always got the same thing. No breast or thigh. Just chicken legs.” She sipped her ice water with a shaky hand. “Are you still teaching, Dale?”
“He’s at the university, Ma,” Linda said.
“You know what you need, Ma?” Dale asked. “You need an ATV. Then you could really tool around the lake. Let the wind blow through your curly locks.”
Janine smiled. “Honey, I don’t even use an ATM anymore.”
They all laughed. A waitress brought them bread and took their drink orders. Janine said everything was too expensive, so Dale told her the ribs were half off tonight only. Janine ordered the ribs. They took their time eating. Janine asked questions she’d asked before—life in the city, the anthropology journal, Linda’s New York clients—and they answered like the questions were new.
In late August, Janine began to have more accidents. Her mouth sometimes made a sucking sound and she couldn’t focus on the TV. Linda had trouble sitting with her for too long; it made her so sad that she would start bawling. Dale sat with her and kept a hand on her boney back, rubbing gently. When his own mother had died, Janine had come to the funeral. She’d sat beside Dale, hand on his back. Dale burst into tears at one point and Janine had gently rubbed his back, not stopping until the service was over.
Then, one night, Janine was gone. She lay on her back in her bed, her mouth hanging open just a bit as if holding the last note of a church hymn. Linda sat with her for a long time, talking to her and telling her how much she loved her. Dale went into the basement and grabbed Janine’s painting of the road. A relic to remind them of Janine’s best years, and all the memories that came with them.
Ken Brosky received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and teaches at UW-Rock County in Janesville, Wisconsin. His first Young Adult series is The Grimm Chronicles. He's currently represented by Fairbank Literary and is shopping around a mystery novel about a smuggled tiger.