Carl Peterson

Maude. Maude. Charlie will call her from the water. The creek will be deep and too cold in May. It'll run fast and knock Charlie down, betraying his boy legs, and he'll swim under the surface and be dead until turning up on the bank a few minutes later, sneaking back and throwing acorns at her from behind a maple. The lilacs will bow low come June on the hill above the creek, and Maude will think how the petals get trampled into the dirt by dogs and other kids, but June will be a month off yet, and she'll see the buds shivering in the crisp morning air of not yet summer while wondering if Charlie's drowned. The sun will drop through maple and oak branches to nip her neck, and Maude'll be convinced she can see all the way back to her house off Lyndale, the new Tudor where Momma makes lemonade in the afternoons, even though the house stands over the hill, a quarter mile distant, and Momma will have been gone for almost a year. But Dorothy's up there, and Pop at supper time, and until then there's Charlie creeping up with his dirtsnout, with his snotted hands, robbing Maude's afternoon of mystery and creekish confusion.
      The house, the blue house on the lake thirty miles from that lemonade home where she grew up, has turned old. Years ago, when Harry left for weeks or months at a time, when Maude hoped still for a family, she'd sit nights in the house and think hard on means of bringing it to life. But the seasons accomplished the feat more skillfully than she could hope to do herself. Summer was silent, mosquitoes fluttering near every doorway until the light evening midwest drizzle dropped and scuttled their squads. Fall breathed and she with it, the first puffs of white air sighing out of her lungs, out of the bottoms of doorways, when November clomped in. Winter whistled its power to her in the afternoons, snow drifts piling on the bluff that dropped off to the lake, hiding its edge. The trees sagged. The roof sagged. Maude would have. Her toes were cold on the floor in winter the whole house over. The pinewood was frigid around her. She held her breath until spring. Harry came and went. She waited for water to take him again to places she could imagine but never conquer.
      The creek is a place she will want to come back to but will be unable to find. The Minneapolis mobsters, bootleggers and gunrunners beholden to no one, will let their empire crumble and get themselves deprived of their land. The hills near the creek will be parsed and packaged for the boomer families back from the war and ready to breed. Harry will have taken Maude away from the Tudor off Lyndale by then, up the creek to Holcombe, where his family's stead languishes above the old swampland that James Holcombe prospered in deep past years. She'll want to go back to the creek, to find the lilacs, not similar to the lilacs these days, anywhere, even the creeksame ones near the old house. Pop will be buried up near Calhoun in the cemetery off King's Highway and an oak will block his view of all but other stones.
      But first there is California. War and the beach and Maude in a white Navy uniform decoding and coding for the fleet. This is where Harry comes in, black haired, nineteen, approaching her on the boulevard where she walks with her friends. He says his family name is Frisk, and she laughs, and this emboldens him to go on. The creekwaters would be swollen this time of year with melted snow were she there to see them, but she's fixed on the coast instead, walking evenings with Frisk and her girlfriends and sailors and strangers while the waves and war crash nearby. Then Harry's on the boat, but he's from Minneapolis like her, and he'll meet her by the creek when it's done and tell her how his grandfather built Lake Reed. She bides out the war, codes unkinked, and takes the train back to wait for Frisk, wondering what else she could be conjuring.
     Old Harry played favorites with workers from the crew and Maude made them sandwiches when he brought them home. The blue house swung open with summer breeze, screen doors slapping and waves plunking against the dock down the bluff. Harry worked summers for the city, fixing boats to cut weeds from the water, and they paid him less than they should have, but he was out on the lake at sunrise and this was the only place Harry ought to have been. They were in their eighties. The blue house peeled when the sun came out. Harry too old to paint it again, too stubborn to hire someone else. He moped more now, now his water wandering had come to an end and the bays of Lake Reed were his final vista. The house was full of pictures of friends and nephews and nieces and their children not Maude's and books and maps and engine innards that Harry would not throw away and mementos from sixty years of watching Holcombe turn suburb, convert to a new money playground after it had failed as an old money one.
      Summer fritters out. On the beach up the shoreline from the blue house, couples gather courage for early winters, the first Holcombe winter for some in the darling new homeland. The bustle bleeds off. Shed of leaves, the oak tree, a sturdy young trunk, quiets itself down in the now familiar October.


Where are you going? Morocco, then Cairo, then Istanbul. How long will you be gone? Eleven weeks. I want to come with you. A boat's no place for a. I need you around, the house is too empty. Why do you have to make an ordeal out of this? The house is empty, everything will be dead when you get back. When I come home I won't leave again until spring, and we can take the train to Milwaukee and see your aunt. How will I spend my nights? There's the church socials, your book club. Have Lottie over for coffee.


Harry had a new favorite, and Maude marked her, too. The young woman, proud against assaults on her dignity from the work crews, the weed cutters, was there the year the oak came down in the front yard. Her hair was like red hair ought to be and it cowed them when it fanned out in the lake wind. Harry let his long blue look fall on her when they fixed the boats together, and Maude brought sandwiches down the bluff to the shore and looked at her looking at James Holcombe's island across the open water.
      Harry had old, stern religion. On the beach in California he told her he wanted a God fearing wife to raise a family and she saw that he knew God with precision not possibility. If she had anything stern it was Pop's coldly calculated affection, doled out from his reading chair in the evening while he read trade journals and reports and slipped comments to her about her schoolwork or her braids. Harry believed God bound all men and such was their fate to love him for it. When the shipping ended in later years, a few before Cynthia brought her red hair to the blue house, Harry kept to the seas for a few more seasons with Scripture in hand and missions on his mind. Maude imagined Harry preaching in a firm father whisper to the men working for him while their boat drifted through Atlantic darkness bringing medical supplies to regions of obscure geography. If Harry had an inclination to convert heathens, Maude just wanted to have a conversation with them. Not that she met an unbeliever often. Her Holcombe web wound from one Christian household to another. The book club and the bake sales and the Holcombe Heritage dinners and of course Sunday service itself at the Lutheran church. If Maude knew Christ, he was her father calling from over the creekhill with August sweat beading on his brow. He was Harry leaving for two months in Capetown. He was the shadow of the blue house in the morning as it fell out across James Holcombe's grange.
      She felt obliged to invite Cynthia to church that summer. She didn't like to talk to people about religion like Harry felt she ought. She brought her husband and the red haired young lady sandwiches, and when the young lady started asking questions about the lake, she showed her the journal that belonged to Harry's grandfather and let her tumble into the history of Holcombe rather than asking her to come to the white Lutheran hall, new built the year before on the boulevard running up from the docks that cleaved Holcombe north and south.


Maude. Hi Trent. Lottie's up at the church. Oh, I was going to go. I forgot. Well, it probably hasn't gotten started yet. Sure is snowing like the dickens out. Yep. Mary and Nancy around? Already in bed. Hm. Harry get off okay, Maude? Sure did. Okay, well. God almighty, Trent Nüssbaum, you gonna let a lady freeze on your front step without inviting her in for coffee?


There are years and years in Holcombe, and Maude has ample time to think about what the creek will come to before it is done. The water will be cold, yes, but still the ducks will come down the line and Charlie's acorns will loft out over the eddies and miss a duckling not by much and she'll say an uglier word than she ought to know and he'll cower his face behind the maple trunk and the ducks will make it safely by in their file.
      She remembers wanting to hold Charlie's hand, wanting to hit him across the face, while she lies under Trent in Lottie's bed. Harry's afloat and Pop's long dead and her Momma's somewhere west with the curly mustache and delicate fingers who Maude saw through the window one afternoon while drinking lemonade and smoothing her skirt on the grass. Pop forbade her to talk about it. After he died, she came to Holcombe with Harry, where she got letters from Seattle in Momma's silk hand. There was no visit and then Momma was gone for good, too. Trent smells like coffee and pot roast under that and aftershave all on top of everything. The blue house is sidled down under snow five blocks away.
      Years after Cynthia's red hair lit up the yard, Lydia Körper's boy and his wife slid off the Yardling Bridge into the January air and crashed through a skin of ice covering the surface of the lake. The temperature dropped that night and hung below zero for two weeks. The car couldn't be pulled out until spring showed. The Körper house was left to Lydia's two grandsons, and Maude sent Harry to invite them to visit the Lutheran church like their parents would have wanted because Lord only knew what went on in that house not because Harry wanted her to nudge him or because she felt she ought to do as he wanted. When he came back, Harry told her the older boy moved like a buck, all muscle and trouble for the taking. Harry was one to talk about too much strength. His knuckles were shiprope knots. His stomach domed but had stayed firm. The skin hung off his elbows but he'd have no trouble swimming to James Holcombe's island from behind the blue house if he had need. His short muscles his flat fleshed boat built body bruised her by accident.
      She will forget the Episcopal church her parents brought her to when her father stops waking her in time to dress and drive to services Sunday mornings after Momma leaves for good. Instead she will adolesce with snippets of hymns and psalms and thou shalt nots coursing through her head only occasionally. The pews she'll recall with pleasure, the velvet touching her under the legs where she hasn't pulled her dress all the way down.


There's the ice fishing house. You must be kidding. The one with the aluminum door, about two hundred yards out around the bend. When would we? After dark, before supper. What if Lottie comes out, Trent? She hates it out there. I can't imagine why. You want this to happen again, yeah? I'll come out next Tuesday. When does Harry come back? So I'll come out next Tuesday? Next Tuesday. Give Lottie my best, Trent.


Cynthia took old Chester Frisk's old brown journal and if old Harry had known he would've had a fit. Old Chester who old Harry never met old or young. Chester who begat Oscar by Susannah, Oscar who begat Harry by Alice, Harry who begat none by Maude but bedizened her in the blue house and sailed boats across seas she hadn't seen. Chester who Harry claimed made James Holcombe the man he was, so swore Oscar, Chester Frisk who built Holcombe and the other six suburbs on Lake Reed with his bare hands, so Harry told his Maude once again the night they visited Holcombe the first time as man and wife, when the blue house was still locked up in Harry's head and they strode together up Main Street toward the ice cream parlor. Maude pictured a Harry Oscar Chester, stout and strong, paddling up the Northwest Creek with an impatient but charming businessman and a hoard of workers in tow past where the ducks will float fifty years before it'll occur to Charlie to hurl acorns. Cynthia took the journal and Maude waited for Harry to demand she tell him where it had gotten to, waited to shout maybe if he moved some of his junk to the garage he would come across it, but she never needed to say so. Harry never remembered to ask.
      Cynthia was someone to want. Not that old Harry wanted her like black haired Harry wanted Maude on the beach near San Diego, not like any Harry wanted to be onboard a boat for weeks at a time, not like Maude wants Trent Nüssbaum thirtysome years before, not like she could almost imagine cupping her unwanting of Cynthia into wanting like the work crews might. In the yard, hauling Harry's oxygen and acetylene to the edge of the bluff and hurling long hoses down to the boat below, Cynthia drew Maude to herself with unintentional lines. Maude sliced sandwich bread and wondered, if she invited Cynthia to church, if then Cynthia might want to invite Maude any place at all, of course not, not some old lady, but might she say she wanted to sit and talk on the porch in the blue house breeze until dusk?
      Enough. It's enough for the time being to meet Trent in the iceshack on the lake. To get out of the empty house and to dodge thoughts of the creek. She wears slippers with rubber soles and the long coat with a faux fur collar that Harry bought her the year they were married. The ice mumbles beneath her and sheets of snow crunch counterpoint. She takes a lantern but doesn't light it, down the bluff on the wooden steps and out onto the ice in the dark and the cold that grips her face and hands. She sees little at first, but by the time she makes it out under the moon, away from the trees and the earth with the blue house a dark box behind her, she can spot the ice fishing shacks dotting the plain. The empty lungweight of Minnesota December pushes in on her. The iceshack looms up and a gust catches the door as she draws near, the metal slapping the back of her hand when she reaches for the handle. Neither the Nüssbaums' place nor the blue house are visible from where she stands. Nüssbaum is ready inside. The room is nearly dark and water gurgles in the ice's rift in front of him. A fishing pole rests against the wall unbaited. There are forty minutes before Lottie serves tuna noodle casserole.


I could sneak over to your place next time. Trent don't be absurd. I could walk down to Cartwright and cut up through the woods. Sally Sorenson will see you out her back window. I don't like meeting here. As long as Lottie doesn't come down it's fine. Do you hear from Harry? Can you be here Thursday, Trent? Does Harry write, Maude? Trent. Does he write?


The creek will be warm come August, and she will pick Charlie up next door even in spite of the acorns and they'll go back down to swim in their clothes and dry off on the big rock so no one will know they swam together especially not Pop or Dorothy. Momma will have sent Pop a letter by August with another letter for Maude tucked inside it, and Maude will steal the one for her out of the study while Dorothy's cleaning the kitchen and take it down to the creek because she will understand that Pop won't give it to her otherwise. Out of her dress she'll pull it and read it to Charlie with long pauses, inventing its unimportance on the spot. Darling, she'll say with melodramatic anguish, and Charlie will laugh his high squeak at first, caught off guard and unsure where the rendition is heading while he pulls apart a cattail. You must understand I would love to have taken you with me but I simply could not. Now we must talk to each other this way as I'm sure your father will permit. I am heading west to find fortune as it is possible. Charlie will have stopped laughing and a bit of cattail fluff will find its way up Maude's nose, drifting over from Charlie's hands on the creek breeze. She'll tuck the letter back in her dress and refuse to jump in the creek that afternoon, lazing her eyes upward while lying back on the big black crooked rock and hearing Charlie try to splash water up onto her from below.
      So Harry did not want Cynthia perhaps, but he wanted her around. He wanted Maude to know he could want her around and he wanted Maude to want her around as well. Maude should have invited her to church but she refused. She would not oblige old Harry no matter how he hinted at supper on the porch with the pink sky over the lake and Cynthia long gone back to wherever she lived or maybe to pack up with the rest of the crew members at their site. He grunted through his pasta salad and went as far as saying that she might be expected to extend an invitation to this nice but obviously godless young woman. For him to do so was ridiculous. It would be awkward. She'd be more receptive to a woman, a woman of Maude's maturity. She said she'd think about it and that she'd already mentioned it indirectly to Cynthia once but that she'd try again even though she knew she would not let herself. Harry dozed in his chair and the wind carried his white bangs up off his forehead and held them in the air in front of his face while she cleared the dishes.
      The iceshack chills Maude through December. She leaves slushed slipperprints on the kitchen floor after meeting Trent that she does not wipe up for weeks. Harry returns five days before Christmas and Maude halts the dusky meetings, boarding herself up in the blue house until they travel by train to Milwaukee for the holiday. When they return, Harry tells her he's leaving again a week after New Year's. She sees Trent in the iceshack once before Harry's even gone and then twice a week while Lottie cooks up dinner a few hundred yards away. Harry sends a telegram saying he will be gone until March and Maude redoubles her efforts. She disappears from the benches at the old brick Lutheran church for several Sundays in a row. It occurs to her that when March arrives, Harry will return and Trent will pull the iceshack off the lake and Lottie will stop cooking casseroles that come out of the oven at exactly six thirty and start preparing lighter meals to help Trent lose the winter lard he's layered on. Harry will tromp through the blue house and the clutter he'll bring back from his trip will choke off the hallways a little more than before. The snow blanket outside the blue house will shrink in on itself and separate into clumps that will dot the gray grass beneath while the trees try to stretch themselves again, bending back toward whatever old poses they can recall. It all went on and quickly became something else memorable. The ice slacked away and the air held a pulpy flavor like wet mulch that was too warm for March and everyone knew it but that was also identical to the taste hanging around on the night Lydia Körper's boy and his sweet wife crashed through the ice below the bridge forty five years later on the other side of the lake.


How's the house? House's fine. Looks clean. Cleaned it yesterday. Snow's really melting. You dented one of the green suitcases, Harry. Heard one of the Kettleburn boys fell through the ice last week. That's why I told you not to bring the good suitcases. Did he make it? Hypothermia, bed ridden for now, but yes. I'll be upstairs unpacking until dinner. I'll call you down, and watch those suitcases on the stairs.


Trent remains a stalwart when it ends, and she sees him in summer clothes soon enough when the Nüssbaums invite her and Harry out on their new boat in July. The blue house comes to life in spring and she sets up a hammock in the shade of the big oak that fell the summer Cynthia came by, and with Harry safely asleep inside it, she takes a hike all the way down through town to the headwaters of the creek where it splits off from the shallow bay that pushes right into downtown Holcombe and is then dammed, and she decides what the creek will become. Harry convinced her to convince him to go invite the Körper boys to church although she did not let herself invite Cynthia some years before. She attributed this to weakness and told herself that with no hammock for Harry to nap in during the summer since the oak came down, she must make it up to him in other ways. The creek runs out in a swift shot past the dam for half a mile before bending to the south and winding through trees and hills that seem steeper than they in fact are before arriving at the big rock where she will ignore Charlie and run her hand on Momma's letter where it's spread out in the sun. Pop will call her name from over the hill, waking her and Charlie from a nap that lasts too far into the afternoon, and Charlie will sprint down the creek bed and double back around the hill to avoid being spotted. And in May before the creek is warm enough even for Charlie to stand it for long, she will sneak from the house at night and make her way down to the rock, fearless but also longing for lilacs, and will watch as the stars turn on squawking hinges and say nothing to her at all.