Today Is Home

by Paul Bergstraesser

Appears in Other Voices #44

First day on campus, Vincent Dubow realizes two things: that he feels old and that he’s made a horrible mistake by returning to school. Both sentiments last only a moment before he’s buoyed by the personal philosophy he developed the last few months before he left Los Angeles: that all his convictions are useless. Adding to his contentment is the presence of the woman, the girl (twenty-two?) standing next to him in the parking lot, Mandy Meade, a fellow graduate student in education who happened to sit by him in their first class of summer term.

“It’s called the Dry Dock,” she says. “Out on Route 28. I work from eight until close.”

Vincent nods.

“You should stop by. Why not? Unless you’re worried it’s not like an LA bar. Because it definitely isn’t.”

“Oh, I’m not like that. No urban snobbery here.”

“Good.” Mandy sits in the car, starts the engine. “I didn’t think so.”

As she drives off, he waves and thinks about his role as a novelty item—the Californian—not unlike the years he spent as an American in Korea. During class introductions, he gave a rundown of his life: four years teaching English in Korea, his return to Los Angeles to write screenplays (what was that all about?), enrolling in this small university in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to escape from the city. He’s come to expect that any of life’s new projects eventually turn sour: the first year in Korea was eye-opening, teaching and getting drunk with ex-pats in a new culture; the second year the same; the third year made bearable by traveling to Thailand during his winter break and renting a beach bungalow with his Australian girlfriend, the two of them snorkeling and smoking pot all day; the fourth year virtually intolerable as he longed to return to the States. Yet this move still seems like a good idea. All the other grad students he’s met are either from Michigan or somewhere close by in the Midwest; Mandy is a native of Flint. She was also the most attractive female in that room, Vincent thinks, and decides right then to pay her a visit at work.

Locals call it the “Dry Dick” instead of the “Dry Dock,” he learns at the Citgo, and as Vincent exits his lightweight two-door Toyota he can hear the strains of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” inside the bar. He pushes open the weathered wooden door, brass porthole in the center, and stops for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. A TV flickers down on Mandy who’s restocking a glass cooler behind the bar with bottles of Labatt. A line of men sit hunched on stools, their drinks settled on dogeared coasters. One man lights a cigarette and blows the intake in Mandy’s direction. A few read the closed-captions of the silent Twins-White Sox game. Vincent slides onto a stool at the turn of the bar.

“Glad you could make it,” Mandy says.

“Gordon Lightfoot is truly underrated.” Vincent smiles and points at the musician in chunky Ray-Bans sitting at a synthesizer and singing about the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. A few couples watch from booths, waiting their turn at electronic darts.

“Get used to it. It’s everyone’s theme song after a couple years up here.”

“I can’t believe it’s still light outside.” Vincent looks at his watch. “Ten after nine.”

“Get used to that, too. Sometimes in the summer the light doesn’t fade until ten thirty, eleven. It’s not like this in LA, I bet.”

“Not at all. And before you ask, everything they say about the smog is true.”

One of the men perks up when Mandy says Los Angeles. His glassy eyes settle on Vincent.

“Los Angeles? You’re a long way from home.”

“I am.”

“What brings you to the U.P.?”

“I’m here to take classes. In secondary education.”

The man pauses. “You a fag?” He stares at Vincent. “Kidding, friend. Mandy, get this man a beer. On me.”

“I was going to, Ken. Vincent, don’t listen to him. He’s got a woman inside him just dying to get out.”

“If she had tits like yours, I’d never go out,” Ken says.

Mandy leans into the cooler and with her off hand gives him the finger.

“Miller?” Mandy asks. “First one’s on the house.”


Mandy uncaps the beer while Ken talks at Vincent about the town, winters in the U.P., his wife and daughter (very briefly), and his relationship to Mandy. Turns out she rents a one-room cabin in back of his house. Behind the cabin is a small river that feeds into Lake Superior a couple miles away. They both invite him over to go canoeing, have a drink, play cards. Ken’s just rebuilt his deck and needs to break it in.

Vincent nods and asks for another. He likes the two of them, both rough around the edges. Especially Ken. That’s just fine with him. Salt of the earth, but what did he expect from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? Nothing. This exactly. And Mandy can spar with the best of them. Ken is right, though: her breasts are startling. Firm and steady. Definitely those of a twenty-two-year-old.

Ken’s house is hidden behind a natural wall of spruce and pine trees. The only indicator of human dwelling is a mailbox sunk into the ground at the end of a dirt driveway; Ken’s shaped into a beer can and painted bright white. Easy to spot day or night, Mandy had said when giving him directions, and as Vincent pulls into the enclave, she is waiting with her golf bag slung over her shoulder.

“Ready to lose?” she asks.

Vincent pops the trunk and she loads in her clubs. “I haven’t played in a while.”

“Excuses already,” she smiles.

Vincent has been at the Dry Dick for all of Mandy’s shifts the past two weeks. Through conversation, her interest in golf—all sports, really—became apparent. Vincent should have known this by the boxiness of her body, that of a female basketball player. The previous evening they decided on an 8:30 golf outing, though neither considers it a “date.” A round of golf in the morning, sandwiches on the beach afterwards. They’ve never spent time together outside of class or the bar, and Vincent expects nothing. He hasn’t even begun to consider what he should expect. So far, he just likes her company.

The golf course at which they have a nine-o’clock tee time was recently constructed and, except for a few green patches, the fairway grass is dead. Brown. The teenage clerk in the clubhouse (an unpainted Quonset hut, giving the whole place a temporary feel) apologizes several times for the “dormant” grass and ticks Mandy off the schedule book and hurries them along, although the page is blank above and below her name. At the first tee Mandy dubs the course “Dormant Acres” during Vincent’s downswing and he tops his drive. The ball shoots down the fairway like a marble on a basement floor.

As their scores swell into the high nineties, Vincent thinks about his seamless transition from Los Angeles to Michigan. It’s as though all the weak, resistant parts of his nature were left somewhere on the road. Maybe in the Rockies. Or the Plains. What he can’t help feeling, watching Mandy tee up on the eighteenth hole, is that today is home. And there’s no dark underside to it, no abrasive second-guessing. His only hope is that it lasts.

She drives the ball hard, straight—he sees a definite improvement in her swing on the back nine. She’s got an athlete’s keenness that allows her to shore up physical lapses after a few hours of simple repetition and is not unlike the focus she displays in class. Vincent is continually impressed by the way she seems to engage with her work, even challenge their professor. Maturity beyond her years.

“Nice shot,” he says.

Mandy nods and Vincent tees up, cranking his drive past hers.

“There it is,” she says, happy for him. They replace their clubs and start down the fairway.

The stretch of beach which they’ve chosen to picnic on is several miles east of Ken’s house and Mandy’s cabin. Vincent spreads out the ratty blanket that he’s had in the trunk of his Toyota for years, a precaution in case of a late-night breakdown, useless in mild California except for infrequent trips to the ocean. Lake Superior fills the horizon just like the Pacific but the crispness of the freshwater suggests constraints that an ocean could never adhere to. They unpackage their sandwiches and chips and watch a woman, the only other person on the beach, throw a piece of driftwood to a dog who bounds into the water.

“Look.” Mandy points to the dog swimming through the water to retrieve the stick. Its face has a panicked look.

“Maybe he won’t make it,” Vincent says.

“Dogs don’t drown.”

“How do you know?”

“Have you ever seen a dog drown in a movie?” Mandy asks. “Never. But humans do all the time.”

“But I’ve never seen a human drown in reality,” Vincent says.

“Yeah, neither have I.” Mandy leans back and blocks the sun from her eyes with her forearm. “Listen, Vincent. I’ve got a boyfriend. He just graduated in May and got a job in Madison and moved there. His name is Ted.”

Vincent chews a bite of sandwich and takes another and works it down his throat. “We’ve all got Teds. My best friend in LA is a Ted. I talked to him a couple weeks ago.”

Mandy laughs and turns onto her stomach. She points to her shoulders. “A little lotion?”

“As soon as I’m done here.” Vincent holds up the last of his food and watches the dog throw off a blanket of water.

When Vincent drops off Mandy at home, Ken greets them, gin and tonic in hand.

“There’s my kids.” He balances himself on the roof of the Toyota with his forearm.

Vincent thinks his statement is odd but appropriate: although Ken can’t be more than forty-two or -three, maybe five years older than he, Vincent’s a student and, as one, has some claim to youth. Mandy retrieves her golf clubs from the trunk while Vincent gives his blanket one final shake down.

“See you in class tomorrow?” Mandy asks.

“Of course.”

“Today was fun.”

Vincent nods as Mandy slings the bag over her shoulder and makes for her cabin, fifty yards in back of the house. Ken buddies up to Vincent, the gin like acid on his breath. He points to Mandy with a raised glass.

“Do fries go with that shake?” he says, loud enough for her to hear.

Mandy doesn’t turn but briefly shakes her head, like she’s heard the same type of comment before, over and over.

Ken shrugs. “Vincent, friend, how do you crack her? Can you tell me?” He finishes his drink and flings the last of the cubes and lime into the nearby brush. “What’s the secret?”

“The game’s called Shotgun Frankenstein.” Vincent pushes away a firefly and deals three cards each to Mandy, Ken and Ken’s wife Alex. Citronella candles are placed strategically around the newly constructed deck to ward off mosquitoes. To celebrate the end of their class, Ken invited Vincent over for an evening of poker. The stain on the deck is fresh and gives an astringent smell to the woods that crowd the house.

“It’s five-card draw,” Vincent says. “You bet after the third, fourth, and fifth card. Then draw and the winner has to beat Frankenstein—a dummy hand made up of all our discards.”

“I like it.” Ken pulls on a cigarette.

Alex holds aloft a glass of wine and her own cigarette. “Where’d you learn these games?”

“Los Angeles. A group of us played once a week.” Three good buddies, Vincent thinks without exactly missing them. All struggling for fame or at least general acknowledgment of their creative talent along with armies of the same. This, the long sun, and the poison sky of LA finally forced Vincent to leave.

Ken wins the hand, as he has all the rest, and quietly stacks the chips in front of him.

“Bastard,” Mandy says, shaking her head and smiling. “He always does this, Vince. He told me earlier today that he wanted to take your West Coast money.”

“I did not.” Ken laughs.

“I heard you too,” Alex chimes in.

Ken flips a chip into the center, still smiling. “O.K., maybe something like that. Anyway: ante.”

Pleasant banter has carried the evening. Vincent is impressed with Ken and Alex, their hospitality, their support of Mandy as more than just a tenant. Even Ken seems more good natured than he’s ever been in the short time Vincent has known him.

Lisel, their ten-year-old daughter, slides open the door from the kitchen and walks like a robot straight to her father. “I’ve brushed my teeth. Smell.” She opens her mouth. “I’m going to bed now. Don’t worry, I’ll tuck myself in.” She goes around the table receiving kisses from everyone and a handshake from Vincent.

“Before you go up,” Ken says, “do one thing. Get your father a beer. Please.” At this request, the evening grinds to a halt. Alex looks off one way, Mandy the other. Lisel stares at her feet.

“A Budweiser. Please.”

Lisel walks off and the evening restarts, but now the engine driving it is awkward, troublesome. Vincent immediately feels it in his bones—Ken’s been drinking sodas all night. His switch to alcohol makes the three females seem as though they’ve been tranquilized and netted.

Four beers in and the chips start flowing away from Ken’s cache. Five more and all his money sits in front of Alex who’s had a hell of a run. Ken sits quietly, fuming, a mosquito gorging on his forearm until it’s too heavy to fly. He stares down the insect while it feasts and finally pops it. The ease that once lightened the evening is gone.

“I think I’m done,” Alex says. “I’m tired.”

“No you’re not,” Ken growls.

Alex stands. “It’s late. I’m going to bed. You can use my chips. It all comes from the same place anyway.”

“I don’t want your fucking chips, I want you to sit down!”

“Easy, Ken,” Mandy says, and Vincent wishes that she hadn’t.

“Oh, bitch number two speaks now.” Ken switches his glare to Vincent. “And what about your girlfriend, bitch number three?”

Vincent rises awkwardly because of the heavy deck furniture. He’s been in one adult fight in his life. A Korean cab driver had purposely bumped his girlfriend at a stoplight and Vincent had dealt with the man quickly, pulling him out of the cab, shoving him onto the hood, walking away. But the driver wasn’t drunk and, though nimble, didn’t match his weight. Ken is probably forty pounds heavier. The worst part is Vincent’s aggression has been muted in his move to Michigan. He can hardly sustain anger at drunken name-calling.

“Let’s stop there, let’s just stop it.” Alex corrals Ken and begins the drawn out process of moving a stubborn, angry drunk from deck to house. “Why don’t you two head back to the cabin? Nice to meet you, Vince.”

“You too, Alex. Thanks.”

Ken emits a bark which can be construed as a goodbye, but probably not, and the two depart. Outside the cabin Mandy suggests that Vincent get the blanket from his car. “I want to show you something,” she says.

They follow a path of worn, split logs that leads down to the river which cuts through the forest. At its greatest width the river spans no more than fifteen feet, and it’s maybe five feet deep. A canoe sits in the water, tied to a makeshift dock. Mandy spreads the blanket on the dock and lies down.

“C’mon.” She pats the blanket.

Vincent lies next to her and looks up: a clearing in the trees allows a view of the sky. The lush stars crowd the night.

“I could see maybe ten of these in LA The urban glow outshined everything.”

“That’s not right,” Mandy says.

“I agree.” Vincent pauses. “How bad is it with Ken?”

“Pretty bad. Sometimes Lisel sleeps with me in the cabin to get away from him. I think the only reason he works in construction is so he can fix all the things he breaks around the house.”

“Does he hit them?”

Mandy breathes in, lets it out. “Things just aren’t right.”

“Why do you stay?”

“Somebody has to, I guess. Anyway, the rent’s cheap. And Ken can be the nicest guy around. Generous and all.” She turns to Vincent. “I can handle the comments he makes…would you stay near a drunk like Ken?”

Instead of answering, Vincent thinks about Mandy’s resilience. Her ability to shrug it all off. An indifference seasoned by…what? Something right. Something decent.

Instead of answering, Vincent slides his hand into hers and it takes.

The portable phone is jammed between Vincent’s shoulder and ear. He snips off the tip of his thumbnail and it flies into the toilet. “Funny you should ask. I’m standing above it right now.”

“My dad used to clip them wherever,” Mandy says. “I’d step on a fingernail at least once a week. We all learned to wear shoes around the house.”

Vincent tries to picture Mandy’s dad but gives up.

“Anyway, I’ll be back from Madison on Saturday. And then, if you’d like, we’re invited to a fundraiser for war vets. At the high school. Fifty bucks a plate, all on Ken’s dime.”


“He feels bad about the other night. He said ‘Vince’s not a pansy. Not at all. Why don’t you two come to this dinner?’ I told him I’d ask you.”

“Is Alex coming?” Vincent asks.

“Yeah. They’re getting a sitter for Lisel. Could be a late night from what I hear. Open bar. Huge raffle. We could win five thousand bucks.”

“That seals it, then. I’m in.” Vincent’s done clipping his nails and moves out to the living room. Their conversation fades, but Mandy’s warned him of this: she dislikes talking on the phone and will often give up with a quick “goodbye.” Vincent hangs on to see what will happen.

“Ted said he’s pretty lonely down there,” Mandy says. “His job sucks.”

“I know what he’s going through. He could probably use some companionship.” Again, the conversation dies. Vincent pictures Mandy holding the phone out, shaking it a bit. But then she’s back on the line.

“I haven’t told many people this, Vince. In high school I used to jack off guys over the phone. They knew to call me. I started doing it with my boyfriend at the time, and he might have told some of his friends, I don’t know. But I took to it immediately.”

“Was it always the same guys?”

“Usually. They’d sometimes call back two or three times a night.”

“My God. You single-handedly took care of the student body.”

“Not my hand.”

“Nor your body.” They laugh and, for the final time, the conversation lulls. Vincent has no faith that it’ll pick up again and he’s right. “I’ll call you Saturday,” Mandy blurts, and that’s it. Earlier in his life he might have thought this phone etiquette odd, but not now. Who’s to say what the rules are for a proper phone call? Is there some kind of paradigm? And, most importantly: was she offering him phone sex? Vincent mulls over this question and thinks, yes, if the offer had been explicit, he would have pulled off his shorts, readied himself, etc. And not because sex has been infrequent in his life lately (it has) or because he is fixated on orgasms (they’re short-lived). It’s because everything with Mandy is so uncomplicated. Simple as that.

Nothing is right about the car ride home. Ken is driving, drunk, irritable, not bothering to suck in the ten pounds of beer he’s poured into his gut—as though his bloat will act as an airbag in case they plow into a tree. He notches up the speed, too, and the center line whips by under the glare of the headlights. Alex sits calmly in the passenger seat, smoking a cigarette. She could be relaxing at a sidewalk café, watching the crowd pass, as composed as she is. She either has utter faith in Ken’s drunk driving expertise, Vincent thinks, or, more likely, has struck some type of deal with death in her time with Ken. Vincent turns to Mandy whose face is not more than a couple inches from his. When unable to convince Ken that he should drive, Vincent insisted that he and Mandy lash themselves together in the backseat, his shoulder strap in her buckle and vice versa. This intimacy is not unwelcome and, to add to the closeness, Mandy’s free hand (the other in Vincent’s) holds a gift certificate for a two nights’ stay at the local Ramada Inn, won in the raffle following dinner.

Vincent had actually missed the calling of their ticket number. After a turkey dinner in the high school gymnasium (Vincent seated under a basketball net) he had gotten a vodka tonic and inspected the trophy cases outside the gym. Most of the school’s glory was derived from their hockey team. In one case a series of photos showed a young player decking another, stick first, seemingly crushing the boy’s windpipe. The crowd behind him looked jubilant, cheering; the caption beneath the final photograph read: Adam Hakien digs in. Vincent finished his drink and threw it into a scuffed plastic drum. He was done for the night.

Back at their table, Ken was furious. When Vincent sat down, Ken knocked back a whole beer and then half of another and stood to get more.

“Two nights for the lovebirds at the Ramada,” he said mockingly. “I heard that the beds shake. If not, I’m sure you’ll make them.”

Mandy was ignoring him and showed Vincent their prize.

“He’s not driving tonight,” Vincent said, thinking mostly of his own skin. He’d often driven after numberless drinks and transported passengers, some he loved at the time, others friends, others mere revelers he was carting from one LA bar to another. Why they stepped into the car with him he never questioned, but there was no way he was going to be linked with Ken in death.

The first one to see it is Alex and she screeches the animal’s name. The deer is in mid-leap and bucks its hind legs as though it’s attempting to fend off the demon bearing down on it. Ken’s feeble swerve is useless: the right front end of the car nails the deer who does several rag-doll three-sixties before falling to earth. In any normal world, Vincent thinks, a driver would slow down after this, assess the damage, perhaps turn over the keys to someone more stable. But Ken’s far past that and, even though the right headlight has been shattered, the hood bent to an inverted V, he plugs through the night, smoke pouring out of the engine. Alex’s cigarette has been dropped somewhere in the car, and Mandy laughs hard, maniacally, the only way she can fight it all off.

When they arrive home, the babysitter parses the situation immediately and takes her money and bolts. Alex goes in to check on Lisel and leaves Ken to stumble around the yard, belt unbuckled, looking for a “piss to patch on.” Mandy and Vincent hide out in her cabin, the door locked tight.

“Christ,” Vincent says, “Christ. We’re home.”

“I’ve driven with him a few times like that. But he’s never hit a deer before.”

“That thing flew.”

They sit closely on the bed, as though they’re still strapped together in the backseat.

“You’re…you’re welcome to stay if you like,” Mandy says. “Ted’s not fully in the picture anymore.”

Vincent leans in to kiss her and they link. Wonderful, he thinks. Wonderful stuff. Within a few minutes her breasts have been unhitched and they’re in the sheets, Vincent in boxers and a T-shirt, Mandy only in boxers, and he buries his head in her chest and feels the warmth ride through him like it hasn’t in years, not since the Australian in Korea, maybe longer. They grope for a while and then doze and then grope some more, finally falling into a twisted sleep that’s interrupted by a low grunt at the window.

“What’s that?” Vincent asks.

“What?” Mandy stirs, groggy. “Could be a deer. A buck. I’ve seen one around lately. Nothing to worry about.”

She falls back under but another grunt, along with some huffing and scratching, brings her out of it.

“Slap the window shade,” she says. “He’ll go away.”

Vincent sits up in the bed and slaps the shade. The huffing stops. Mandy turns over again. “See, no problem. Michigan is full of deer. LA, cars.”

Suddenly the sound of glass being smashed comes from outside the cabin. Mandy throws open the door, Vincent behind her. Ken stands in the darkness holding a spade in one hand. The driver’s side window of Vincent’s car has been shattered. “

“What the fuck—” Vincent pushes forward. This is bad. A bad situation. If I charge him, Vincent thinks, he’ll get at least one shot at me. Best to talk him down instead. “What’re you doing, Ken? Put down the shovel.”

Ken threatens the Toyota again but stops. He stares at the two of them, roused from their tryst, a couple now. “Ah fuck it. Fuck it all.” He stumbles backwards and with a mighty swing puts the spade through the back window of his own car. He moves to the side windows, knocking in each one, until Alex sprints from house and tries to hold him back. Without hesitation, Ken throws her against the side of the car and she bounces off and onto the ground. Before he can do it again Vincent tackles and immobilizes him, his knee to the back of Ken’s neck.

“Call the cops. We have to get this guy away from here.”

Mandy, in Vincent’s shirt, ministers to Alex who’s dazed but not seriously hurt. She helps her up and Alex puts a hand to her back and winces.

“Call the cops,” Vincent repeats.

“No,” Mandy says.



Vincent appeals to Alex who also shakes her head. He thinks about making the phone call himself, but that would require him getting involved in a situation that seems to have deeper roots than he could imagine. Maybe the cops have been called before and this would be Ken’s third strike. Though hard to believe, maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. People adapt to their afflictions. Evil can be recast as inconvenience, just as happiness often passes unrecognized for what it is. Anyway, Ken’s done for the evening. He muddles back to the house and Alex follows, hugging her torso.

Cuddling and closeness are over for the night, both Mandy and Vincent realize; so is talk, and they maintain a stiff separation in bed. After a fitful sleep Vincent gets up at dawn, dresses and leaves without waking Mandy, though he figures she’s probably conscious of his departure. The cool August morning suggests renewal but Vincent is reluctant to participate. He uses a snow brush to wipe the pieces of glass off the car seat and not until he starts the engine does he notice the envelope on the dashboard. Inside are three hundred dollar bills. He briefly considers it a gesture of goodwill from Ken, but highly doubts it. The money has to be from Alex, whose embarrassment probably weighs as heavily on her as contrition.

A week passes during which Vincent golfs, buys books for the fast-approaching fall semester, takes notes on the opening chapters—anything to avoid Mandy. How quickly his time in Michigan has become unpleasant, he thinks. At least Korea gave him two solid years; LA about the same. The one bright spot is that Mandy has failed to call him, too. They’re both floundering and Mandy’s solution to life’s tainted moments seems to be the same as his—walk away, divert your energy elsewhere, convalesce under the rules of each day’s muscle. In fact, after a week, Vincent relents. He drops in on Mandy at the Dry Dick.

“You’re on page what?” Mandy asks.

“No. Finished. I’m done with the first book for class. Notes on it, too.”

“Dork.” Mandy smiles and uncaps four bottles of Labatt and passes them to a woman pushed up against the bar. The Dry Dick is hopping and Mandy can barely spare a moment for Vincent but keeps him in beer. Vincent’s fine with that. He feels relief in just seeing her and senses that she feels the same.

“Why don’t we meet later?” Mandy suggests. “The Northern Lights are supposed to be out tonight. We can see them from the dock. I’ll get there as soon as I can after work.”

“I don’t know,” he says. He’s reluctant to go anywhere near Ken.

“If it’s Ken you’re worried about, take heart—he seems to have given up drinking. Hasn’t had a drop in a week, not since Alex and Lisel left last Sunday. She called it ‘time apart.’”

Vincent nods. He’s allowing himself to get pulled back in without hesitation—all he needs to do is keep Ken at arm’s length. But even if he has to deal with the man, he will, because Mandy will be there on the other side. Vincent takes this feeling with him on his drive over to her cabin and while he spreads out the blanket on the dock. She’s right: the Northern Lights are throbbing in the sky, a ghostly yellow that seems guided by the eye of the moon. Vincent relaxes, arms behind his head, and watches the show. He dozes for what seems only a minute before hearing a car door slam. Mandy. Vincent props himself on an elbow.

The figure approaching in the dark is bear-like, plodding. Not Mandy. Ken.

“Get up, cocksucker.”

Ken drunk.

Vincent tightens up. “Relax, Ken. I’m just waiting for Mandy.”

“That’s exactly why you’re going to get up and leave, you little faggot. She doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you here.”

“She invited me here.” Vincent’s fear turns to aggression and he stands, adrenaline racing through him.

“Well I’m telling you to go. Now get the fuck out.”

“Think of your family, Ken. Just take a breath and think of them.”

“That’s another reason for you to get out of my life. They went away. Never did that before.”

At that, Ken rushes at him like a linebacker, head down. Vincent smells the reek of alcohol on Ken as they connect. The man is clumsy with it. And although he himself has had few beers, Vincent keeps his balance and manages to shove Ken into the river where he thrashes around, cursing Vincent and his masculinity.

“There,” Vincent says, “there.” He walks away, up to the cabin, into his car. He can no longer hold to his earlier promise of dealing with Ken no matter what. Assaults on his person and Mandy go hand in hand. No way he is going to put up with that. No way.

The next morning comes and goes and part of the afternoon before Vincent exits his small rental house. Although it’s still August there’s a bite in the air that hints at fall and Vincent thinks about how far north he is, Canada is just across the lake, a few thousand miles farther the North Pole. If necessary, there’s always somewhere he could escape to. But he’s signed on for two years and, if nothing else, he’s learned how to steamroll the rough patches when starting in a new place: a long morning’s sleep and a trip to the beach. Or anywhere far from the buzz of society with its news, its flux, its dogged pursuit of revelation.

Luckily, the beach is empty. Unluckily, the blanket is not in the trunk of the Toyota so he sits on the sand and monitors the horizon. Of course, he thinks, the blanket is at Mandy’s and probably still on the dock unless Ken has thrown it away. He also feels some remorse about the previous evening: Mandy never showed up but she probably had to work later than she planned. And Ken would never mention that he had been there, especially after his poor showing in the fight. So basically he stood up Mandy and has sealed the end of their relationship. But that’s what he wants at this point…right? Christ, he thinks. He has to at least talk to her. Her next shift at the Dry Dick is the following evening. He’ll see her there.

At a stoplight on the way to the Dry Dick Vincent watches the temperature steadily drop on a bank sign. The time remains the same while with each tick it gets colder. A northern is pushing its way down and Vincent welcomes it. Welcomes the change.

The tavern is virtually empty and Mandy is nowhere to be seen. Vincent saddles up at the bar and when Mandy emerges from the back with a case of beer her face drops then brightens and finally masks itself, as though she’s lost complete control over it.

“Ken’s dead, Vince.” The bottles knock together as she heaves the case onto the bar.

“What? My God. Dead?” Several scenarios flash through his mind. A drunk driving accident. Killed by Alex who returned for revenge. Suicide, perhaps.

“He drowned,” Mandy continues. “They’re calling it an accident for now.”

And then it hits Vincent and the blood departs his head but he has to hold it together and does, bracing himself against the bar to fight off the vertigo.

“I know, Vince. It’s terrible.” Her eyes well up but no tears fall. “A canoeist found his body yesterday at the mouth of our river, where it feeds into Superior. Alex and Lisel are back. Lisel refuses to go down to the dock.”

“It happened in back of the house?”

“Yes, that’s what the cops think. They were all over the place last night and today. I told them about how drunk he gets, how he might have gone down to watch the Northern Lights and fallen in.”

Vincent steadies himself again: the blanket. He left the goddamn blanket.

“You look like you need one of these.” Mandy opens a Miller. “It’s going to be all right, Vince. Really. Lisel and Alex are back now.”

“The police are saying accident,” Vincent says, unable to form it into a question.

“Yeah. Or a suicide, though I can’t imagine Ken killing himself.” Mandy stacks the bottles in the fridge behind the bar. “I’m glad you’re here. After you didn’t show the other night, I thought I might not see you until classes started.”

“No, I’m here. I’m here.” Vincent puts a twenty on the bar. “Keep ’em coming.”

“On the house,” Mandy says, and cracks open another Miller.

Mandy closes up the Dry Dick an hour early and leaves with Vincent, her only customer for the better part of the night. A cold wind blows through the trees but the summer leaves hold fast. He follows her in his Toyota back to the cabin and, once inside, she loads the woodstove with newspaper and logs.

“Get that started, would you? I’ll be back in a minute.”

She closes the bathroom door and Vincent searches the kitchen area for a book of matches. Unable to find any, he walks across the cabin to the nightstand and picks up a lighter and immediately drops it because on the bed, folded neatly into a square, is his blanket. He holds it to his nose—smells like detergent. The blanket’s been washed. He places it back on the bed and returns to the stove. Mandy emerges from the bathroom in boxers and a T-shirt.

“Get that thing started and let’s get in.” She slides into bed and pulls the topsheet up to her chin. “It’s cold.”

The flames flicker to life and Vincent strips down and gets in next to her.

“We’ll need this tonight.” She sits up and undoes the blanket, pulling it over them. “Let’s wait until the middle of winter to use that weekend at the Ramada. When the snow’s three-feet deep. We’ll go swimming. Warm up in the jacuzzi.”

“I’d like that,” Vincent says.