He stands naked at the end of his dock. His body isn’t used to the cold anymore, and goose bumps rise on his sagging skin. Years ago, when Emmet stood against the autumn breeze early in the morning, he could feel the air rush over every pore of his body, making the short gray hair on the soft spot of his neck stand on end, sometimes freezing the follicles inside his nose. He read somewhere, maybe in Esquire or Time, that swimming in cold water is good for the muscles and helps the mind relax. Now, watching the sun stagger toward the horizon and leaves drift down from the trees, Emmet isn’t sure whether it’s the water swaying or his body.
He remembers the first time he stood staring down at the water, trying to find the courage to dive in. He gazed across the lake that early gray morning and watched the yellow reflection of light shimmer on the water from the cottage up on the bluff. An old couple in matching orange jogging suits appeared in their yard and walked over to the cliff edge to see what Emmet was doing, standing naked in fifty-degree weather. Emmet couldn’t see their expressions, but he imagined their tight mouths and their eyes squinting in disgust. From then on, whenever he stood on the dock, sometimes turning completely their way because he knew they couldn’t see him clearly, they’d call the sheriff. By the time the officer found his way through the forest to Emmet’s cottage, Emmet was inside reading a book by the fireplace or working in his shop downstairs; he even suggested on one occasion that perhaps the couple was growing senile. Elisa, his wife, her dark eyebrows raised in question, would vouch for him, nodding her head as she stood behind her husband, the blue wad of her son’s half-knitted sweater in her hands. The officer would shake his head and murmur his resentment at having to come out to the lake this early.
Emmet considers the couple’s death as his eyes roam the neglect of their cottage across the water — green, chipped scraps of paint along the ledges, shattered upstairs windows like broken eyeglasses, rusted skeletons of lawn chairs teetering at the edge of the bluff. Perhaps there was a plane crash or a car accident. Maybe a suicide pact. Maybe she became ill, passed away, then weeks later he died of a disease he refused to acknowledge, an affliction hidden in a dark and distant recess of his body. The absoluteness of their deaths never weighed much on Emmet’s mind; instead, it hovered like a fog on the lake early in the morning when he stood on the dock peering through the whiteness, trying to see if their lights were on, aware that their house had been vacated for some time.
He sees a man in a boat near a cove below the couple’s cottage. Emmet and Benny used to fish that spot when Benny was a boy. Once, on a Sunday morning, just as the fog on the lake was diminishing, with orange shafts of sunlight piercing the sky, Benny stood up in the boat. They were close to shore, and the boy’s line was tangled in a willow limb that slouched over the water. A raccoon had wandered down to the shore, and it stopped, its gray-and-black hair bristling at the sight of Emmet and Benny so close. Benny forgot his line and watched the animal, disregarding his father’s warnings. Though the lake is small, it’s fed by underground springs from Lake Superior; some parts of it are so black and deep that Emmet has never been able to get a reading on his depth finder.
When Benny fell over and didn’t rise to the surface, Emmet waited a few seconds; the boy was a good swimmer, at least when he swam off their dock. Emmet yelled for his son to quit clowning. His voice echoed into the forest around him, mingling with the call of a distant crow flying somewhere above the treetops. Emmet dove in. He rose to the surface, then dove again and again, until the fear and cold water had numbed him and puckered his skin. The fact that his son could vanish so easily, so imperceptibly, into the steely black water two feet from the shore had never pressed down on him before, not even when Benny was a baby and loved to sit in the shallow water of their beach, his small, pale hands flicking drops of water onto his father and mother.
Emmet treaded water and considered ways he could tell Elisa, explain it all to everyone. Inside his chest and stomach he felt a hollowness grow, as if he hadn’t eaten for days. He began to weep as he hovered in the water and stared along the surface for his son. When he turned back to the boat and looked up, he saw Benny sitting there, Levis and sweater drenched, displaying a meager smile with one missing tooth.
“I wanted to see what you’d do,” Benny said, laughing at his father’s attempt to lift himself back into the boat.
“Goddamnit, Benjamin!” Emmet hollered, squeezing the water from his purple sweater, his arms and legs trembling. “You don’t do things like that. What’s wrong with you?”
He clutched Benny by the shoulders, swore, shook the boy a few times, even told him he was grounded. Benny continued smiling, his face still lit from his joke, until all Emmet could do was stare at his son, shaking his head. “Never again, Benny,” he said. “Never.”
When Benny was nineteen, Emmet saw that smiling look on his face again, the day the boy came home and announced that he had enlisted. He was going away to a land he had often asked his parents about on the nights they sat on the back porch, drinking beer and watching the sun go down. Benny never could explain why he’d done it. During gin rummy games, Emmet would look across the table at his son, staring into his shadowed eyes, wondering if he really knew his son at all. Perhaps the boy felt the same as he himself had when he’d joined up during World War II — a feeling that things might pass by without his participation. To Benny, maybe the war was just a game, like the one he and his friends played as children, waving plastic rifles in the air and shouting orders as they ran around their house in East Detroit. They pretended apples from the tree in back were hand grenades until someone got hit in the head.
Sometimes, as Emmet stood on his freshly cut lawn, or smoked his pipe on the back porch just before sundown, he remembered Benny’s figure before it disappeared into the blackness of the DC-10 the day he left. Brown oil slicks scarred the white pavement. Benny wore his new uniform as he walked into the fumes of jet fuel shimmering like heat in the air. He turned around, waved, then stood there a minute peering blankly through the haze of Metro Airport at his parents, his blond hair brighter than at any other moment in his life. It was on those endless nights, standing outside in his yard, that Emmet wished his son had been born handicapped or deformed.
After the letter came, Emmet comforted Elisa, helped her to bed, and gave her warm milk at night, and he found relief in her green eyes when she looked to him for comfort. He could see Benny in her eyes and in the way she arched her eyebrows with unspoken questions. Emmet found solace in her touch when she reached for him in bed the nights they couldn’t sleep. Her skin had taken on a presence he had felt only once, just before their marriage, a softness and smell he equated with her fertility. Now, older, wrinkles starting to web on her body, Elisa had regained it. As they lay awake, Elisa’s tears falling silently on his shoulder, Emmet wondered if her love was much more deeply rooted than his own. He couldn’t cry in front of her.
He felt weak, incapable, especially in doing the chores that his son had once performed without question: taking the trash out Tuesday evenings, cutting the lawn, clipping the shrubs. Emmet would stand alone outside the garage, watching the sun set. He’d never been a religious man, but he liked to believe that his son was up there, somewhere above the sky in the dark emptiness of space, staring down at him and making things in his life more fluid and less inconsequential.
The years that followed Benny’s death were filled with an endless running. Trips to Australia, the Mediterranean, London, Switzerland. An army brat, Elisa had been everywhere before, she and her mother following her father around the world, eating in the cafés of France and West Germany, skiing the alpine slopes of Switzerland. She showed Emmet the relief that could come from such an escape. They wandered the streets and alleys of foreign cities deep into the night like two drunken teenagers, clutching each other’s arms.
When she got sick, Emmet couldn’t imagine what had caused it. For days, she didn’t say what was bothering her, just as Benny had done when he shrugged off illness. But the morning she couldn’t get out of bed, Emmet knew. He thought perhaps the water in Mexico had given her hepatitis; it was one of the few places she’d never been with her family. The disease bled her of all her energy, rusting her intestines, until the day she died in the hospital, clutching Emmet’s hand and whispering about the lake where they were married, or the day Benny was born in the elevator of a high-rise in Chicago.
He tried to pull himself together, to reel some sort of courage into his life. He would muddle through, he told himself, muddle through as before, a man half awake, so absorbed in his work now that his tool-and-die company was growing rapidly, branching out across Michigan and Ohio. His awareness of the things around him became blurred, as though he were continually drunk.
There were three women in the years after Elisa, divorced women who took trips with him on his yacht off Lake St. Clair and gave him sex on the deck in the hot sun. Women who had pictures of their college-age sons in their wallets, boys dressed in athletic jackets. Emmet had envisioned his son going to college, perhaps playing football, or meeting his future wife so he could give his father a granddaughter, a brown-haired, green-eyed girl who resembled Elisa in all exactness of detail. Emmet could briefly suspend his losses with these women, but eventually, usually in the wake of their lovemaking, the smell of sex lingering on their bodies, he found himself empty and awake. He probed the tanned skin of their turned backs with his fingers, feeling the few pockmarks from childhood sicknesses like crevices on the moon. He wanted a sensation to arise, one he felt when Elisa was alive. But there was something hollow in his touch.
Now he stands naked, watching the dark water form circles and slap against the gray wood of the dock. The man fishing earlier near the cottage lurches in his boat toward Emmet. Emmet is sure he can be seen for what he is — an old man, gray hair spiraled all over his body, his stomach scarred with stretch marks, his chest drooping like an old woman’s. A man with cataract-clogged eyes, yellowing dentures, two houses, and a yacht.
The boat glides up to the dock. The fisherman looks down into his lap, says, You OK? He places his rod behind him.
Yes, Emmet says.
The young man glances around the lake, then at Emmet’s cottage standing behind him, dandelions and buckwheat overgrown in the back yard, the dead oak trees creaking. There is a For Sale sign at the side of the house. The faded wood rails of the porch are loose, and both ends hang down to the ground.
Sir, it’s only fifty degrees out. You must be freezing. Emmet looks at him. He sees broad shoulders, a dark, three-day beard. The young man’s small, brown eyes are averted, squinting against the fading glare of the lake. He wears a college athletic jacket that reads Spartan Hockey #19.
Who told you about this lake? Emmet asks.
The fisherman cocks his head, squints more intently at the trees and weeds behind Emmet, at the attic window, cracks radiating like a spider web. He scratches an ear, hesitates.
I, ah . . . well, my father did. He lives down in Traverse. He’s fished here a few times. The young man looks down at the water. Sir, don’t you think you should put something on? It’s getting chilly out here.
I haven’t been here since 1968, Emmet whispers. He scans the lake. At the far end, near a cove with greenish yellow willow trees hanging over the water, a new cottage is being built, its wood skeleton already up. Long time, Emmet mumbles.
The young man looks toward the sky, a hand shielding his eyes. Sir, you should put something on. Here, he says, reaching for the white blanket draped about his knees, would you mind wearing this?
Emmet stares at the young man until he puts the blanket down. Emmet is looking for something in that face, perhaps an idea of what Benny might have looked like at his age, twenty-three, twenty-four.
The young man gazes firmly into Emmet’s eyes for the first time. Sir, it’s cold out here, and it’s only going to get worse. Please, take my blanket. I’d hate to leave you like this.
Emmet nods, smiling at the young man’s generosity. He takes the blanket and with trembling fingers wraps it around himself. Then the young man rows on, down past a thick stand of trees, the oars of his boat dipping into the amber spots of sun reflected on the water. He looks over his shoulder a few times. The sky above is blue, growing bluer as the sun drops toward the horizon. Somewhere beyond the lake someone is burning leaves.
Emmet lets the blanket fall from his sloped shoulders and dives in. At first the smack of cold water stings his bones, making him suddenly aware of all his movements. Then he opens his eyes underwater and sees bits of mud hovering in the murky water like dust motes caught in a ray of light. He reaches out to disturb a clot of weeds floating above him on the surface. The texture is soft, smooth, like wet toilet paper draped around his fingers, and when he squeezes it, the weeds come apart in clumps and float away from him.
Everything on the surface is blurred: the dark blue sky, the willow trees, the wooden dock. Emmet wants to stab a hand through the surface and bring these things underwater with him. Then he surfaces, letting the water rush over him, through his thin, gray hair, up the crack of his collapsed, aged rear. He treads water for a few seconds. His arthritic knees are steady, painless, and he thinks he could melt into the water, become the current underneath, float somewhere slow and undemanding, to a place in the lake where leaves sit placidly upon the surface until their fragile skeletons have dissolved into the water.
Then, as he pulls himself from the lake, bones creaking, stiff fingers clutching the worn wood of the dock, Emmet imagines the couple from the cottage across the lake looking down at him from their small bluff. Perhaps, wherever they are, they can see him still and are telling each other, It’s him, the one who used to fish with his son down in our cove, the one who swam naked.