The Midwest |

The Thin, Frozen Lake

by Matthew Socia

This is one I’ve needed to tell for a while. After I dropped out of Michigan State and moved back to Alpena to live with my parents up north, my dad hired me to help him on his electrical jobs. He was a good electrician, people liked him, fair priced, he got things wired up quickly. His stuff rarely went faulty, and if it did, it was usually the people themselves who fucked up the circuitry somehow, and then they would call my dad because they liked him, and he could fix it. It was about a month after I started working for him, January or February, when he got the call from Mrs. Behm that she wanted him to put in some lights she just bought. Mrs. Behm was an old artsy woman, with grown children and a dead husband. I think she used to work at the big art school on the other side of Michigan. So we got there to put in the lights, and as it turned out they weren't exactly lights, but exit signs. Like the ones you see in any mall anywhere, the silver rectangles with illuminated red lettering. Hers each had a little man leaning toward a door. There were four in total she wanted us to wire up, one for each door outside, and one for in the garage to just hang there ambiguously, which was exactly the wording she used.

Now my dad is an even tempered guy, but these signs got him all wound up. This will take some explaining. There's not a ton of people in Alpena, so all the electricians, carpenters, grout workers and drywallers know each other and are hunting and fishing friends and have barbeques at Lake Huron in the summer. Naturally, you like some guys better than others, so when you get a job, you recommend your friend. My dad's best friend was a carpenter who did these specialty cabin-style houses, and Mrs. Behm lived in one of them. I had been in a few of his houses, and they were really stunning. The guy liked to use a certain type of tree, stripped to its white flesh and lacquered clear like it had been sealed in time. And he didn't use slats, but bisected each tree from top to bottom so he could line them up vertically, round side facing in, blemishes and knoblets and all. It was like being imprisoned in an elfin jail. But the signature piece in every house was the banister for the main staircase. Here he would use a whole girthy tree, almost obscenely girthy, sitting there broad and stagnant and stunning as if it were some dead dictator entombed under glass.

My dad had wired up almost every house for this carpenter, including Mrs. Behm's several years earlier, and he had grown rightly defensive and proud of them. On our snowy ride to Mrs. Behm's that day, my dad went on and on about how after her banister went up, she had painted it pink. He told me she was a total nut. He told me that all the guys working on the house, along with his carpenter friend, had just stood there with their mouths open and heads shaking as they watched the painter paint the thing neon pink. I said that it was her banister and her money, and he told me it had been wasted on such a nut.

So when she opened the box of exit signs, it was too much for him. As she walked him through her house explaining where she wanted the signs to go, my dad got angrier and angrier. He kept asking her if she was sure she wanted the signs put up, as if she might say no. Finally, at the sliding door to the upstairs deck, which overlooked a thin, frozen lake, he went off on her. I had never seen him act that way before. He was blabbering incoherently about her pink banister and the exit signs. His arms were over his head, pointing at the junk she had dangling from the walls. It was really embarrassing, so I went into the garage and waited for him to finish. I didn't like the way Mrs. Behm had treated her house, but it was her house to ruin. The pink was worse than I imagined. It was a fluorescent, Fiestaware salmon. She had little clay trinkets on the stairs, between the beams that held up the banister. A few of her windows were abstract designs of stained glass. It was a crafty house for a crafty old widow, and it looked ridiculous, but it was hers.

After a bit, my dad must have given in, because he found me shivering in the garage, and we started immediately wiring up her exit signs. First we wired up the sign in the garage. Then we did the one near the back basement door, where Mrs. Behm had her art studio. She worked while we worked, throwing pottery I think, or already preparing her buckets for me. On the paint-splattered floor, there was an area populated by several bronze casts of people’s arms. There was no real organization to them, just arm piled on arm, reaching out with their bronze fingers, or giving peace signs, thumbs up signs, crap like that, like it was an arch zombie flick we'd stepped into. We wired that exit sign up quickly, none of us really speaking, then went upstairs.

Now my dad was accustomed to doing all the work on these jobs himself, so he had to search for menial things for me to do. Sometimes he used me to hold something in place while he screwed it into the wall, or to catch a wire he'd threaded through the floor. Mostly I would stand by a light while he flipped switches in the basement, so I could yell at him whether or not the light was working. I was there to make his life a little easier, and to make him feel better about giving me money. I spent a lot of time at people’s houses flipping over magazines and aligning books on end tables. But in Mrs. Behm's house, when we got to putting in the exit sign by the sliding doors in front of the deck overlooking the lake, he needed me for real, actual work. I had to handle the drilling while he did something outside on the ladder. I'd drilled tons of holes in my time working for him, but none in one of these cabin-style houses with the stripped, rounded trees. I was bound to fuck it up, I thought, and I did. While he was doing whatever needed to be done out there, I stood on a chair, aimed the drill bit directly at the small x he'd penciled on the wall, deftly holding the drill with both hands like I was wielding an ancient crossbow, and with the first twist, the drill went scudding off the lacquer and I gouged a deep hole in Mrs. Behm's wall. I tried again and the drill danced again along the wall's rounded edge. My dad was good enough with the drill that from outside he could hear that my mistakes were mistakes, and in he came from the snowy lawn to see the damage I'd done. This is when things started to get worse with me and my dad. I could tell he wanted to hit me or something. In the white wood, the gouges were a fresher, brighter white, deep and many and obvious. He wiped his fingers through the gouges and muttered fuck to himself over and over.

“You really fucked this up,” he said.

“Well, it was hard with the wood.”

He licked his thumb and drew it over the largest gouge. “This was such a nice one when we built it for her. Then she got her hands on it. And then you.”

I still find it hard to fully understand the anger that hurtled through me as we overlooked the snow-covered deck and lake. I seriously, for a moment, wanted to kill him. It would have been as easy as dropping out of college. I was still holding the drill, and the deck was on the second floor, so I could have wrestled him over the railing. He was a better worker than me, but I had a good fifty pounds on him at that time in our lives. But then I looked out over the deck, to the ground below and the lake afar, the white length of it all collapsing behind the horizon, and became totally ashamed of what I had allowed myself to envision. Perhaps I had merely become tired of his pity. I don't know. But after the moment passed, I watched him wipe his wet thumb again over every divot I'd chewed out of the wall. Then he did his little sigh, and I lost it.

“It's her house!” I said. “It's her house and she can paint that thing whatever fucking color she wants. She can put up exit signs. If she's mad about the holes in the wall take it out of my pay. Whatever. I'll pay for it. What do you care? It's her house, isn't it? She paid for it. Whatever…”

I think I went on in that way for a while. I'm not sure what all I said. As I yelled at him, my dad sort of stood there with his thumb at an angle by the side of his face like he'd forgotten why he'd jammed it in the gouges. He just looked at me, waiting until I got it all out. Soon Mrs. Behm came up from her studio to investigate. When I saw her I stopped shouting, but she had heard the fight and now we needed some sort of explanation. So my dad told her that he had asked me to shovel out her deck and front walk while he finished wiring up the rest of the signs. He pointed to the gouges and told her that he had screwed up with the drill, but he could get his carpenter friend to fix it for free if she wanted. She waved her hand at the gouges and seemed to forget about our fight.

There was an old, metal shovel in her garage that she let me use. I started out front, on her little porch. The shovel was heavy and hard to control. I was afraid of driving it too far through the snow and ice and gouging her porch wood, too. My dad couldn’t have covered for me in that case. I was the guy with the shovel. Slowly, I dug out the porch. Bench, plant pots, and all. Then I got the short curve of stone and cement that went between the porch and the driveway, where my dad would sometimes go to fetch something from the back of the car. When I was done, I went to the deck on the second floor and began pushing and shoveling the snow over the edge. It was about noon already. There was a bright winter sun out there, reflecting intensely off the snow. Mrs. Behm had a small beach at the end of her property, where there was an upturned boat and a dock reaching into the ice. I had never seen anything more Alpena-like than this thin, frozen lake, the boat and dock, and it made me wonder if I would ever be able to leave. As I stood there, staring dumbly at the dock, the sliding door opened behind me, and out came Mrs. Behm. “I need you to do something for me,” she said. “Down in the basement.”

She led me to her studio where she had prepared a large bucket of water and several small containers filled with a purplish powder. From a cluttered corner she pulled a large, motorized stick blender. Then, container by container, she began blending the powder into the water. “We're going to do your arm,” she said. “For my bronzes.”

I’ve discovered that there are times when the way another person says or does some little thing reveals to you their whole life, bare and plain, wriggling on the floor in front of you. For me, I thought I saw Mrs. Behm's whole life emerge in the way she said those words to me, swirling her stick blender through the thickening liquid for my cast. She told me of the steps involved in turning my arm to bronze, the life cast with the purple gel, the wax, negatives and positives, ceramic casings collecting molten bronze, and I could hear her saying the same thing to her disinterested husband, to the children who would flee the state once they saw what was available to them on the better coasts. I saw the sad days where she wandered alone in her house, laying her junk all over the place, painting things pink. And, watching her dump another container of powder into the bucket, I let myself believe that she waited in her ruined house for people to pass through, so she could choose the ones she wanted to remember and ensnare that memory in a bronze arm. I had been invited, I thought, to stick my arm in a bucket, to contort my hand in some distinguishing way so that she might have something to remember me by. The gel was nearly ready. I had decided how I would hold my fingers. Then, as I rolled up my sleeve, my dad came down the steps to fiddle with something in the basement.

“Doing the arm?” he said.

She turned off the blender. “What else?”

“Still got mine?”

“I sold that a long time ago.”

She put the stick blender dripping onto a filthy table and motioned for me to come over to the bucket, but I just stood there holding my arm at an odd angle, my fingers locked in the position I had chosen. “It's going to harden up,” she said. “You have to put your hand in while it's still liquidy.”

“No,” I told her.

“This stuff is expensive. It's only liquidy for a minute or so.”

“No. And don't have us do any more of your electrical work. You've wrecked your house enough already.”

She had this funny look on her face as I stood there, then she plunged her own arm into the bucket so she wouldn't waste the powder. There was nothing for me to do but leave out the back door, illuminated now by a new exit sign. I came out below the deck and had to step over piles of snow to get into the lawn. I walked past our ladder, which had tipped backward into the snow after my dad had rushed in. The closer I got to the beach, the fewer old footsteps there were in the snow, until, finally, by the boat, the snow was fresh and untrodden. There I grew warm with embarrassment as I relived the scene in the studio. Everyone who came into her house got bronzed. I wasn't chosen. I was just there. And in my disappointment, I had taken it out on her.

I walked to the edge of the dock and looked out over the frozen lake. It was thin enough to be a very wide river, and I could not see where it started or ended. A lake, I figured, would be safe to walk on that time of year, but a river would have been a guess. No one had made track marks on the lake. No snowmobiles, no snowshoes, no ski trails. It was as if a white wool blanket had settled over the water in the night. The ice might have been just a fine skin under there, just black plates meandering under their coat of snow. I jumped anyway. The ice was firm, and the snow on top came up to mid-shin. I walked out a short distance, in a shuffling way, kicking up the perfect snow as I had done when I was young. Then the sound of a car horn flew over the lake. I turned back and saw my dad come around the side of the house, pick up the ladder, then wave me in. I waved back and looked again over the bright lake, and I felt a slow dread build within me as I realized that I did not know which way to go and that from then on it would become harder for me to choose.