The Shasta

Susan Ishmael-Poulos

     
   

Gary's wife, Molly, encouraged several of her lady-friend-clients to buy Shastas and then meticulously planned the trip to Yogiland with them and their partners. Gary had learned to say partners instead of husbands, because Rikki dated a woman named Tara who had two sons, and Ashley and Stefan agreed not to marry until same-sex couples could marry, although Gary heard on the golf course that Stefan was screwing the beer cart girl.

For the excursion, Molly placed a small chalkboard framed in Aspen bark on an easel on the new granite countertop inside the Shasta. (Gary did not ask how much this piece of granite cost, to their shared relief.) The board read Welcome! in blue chalk. By the time they backed into their slot at Yogiland, a modern campground edging the lake deep in the mountains, the new chalkboard had fallen to the floor and broken in half. Molly tossed it into the fire pit.

Gary unpacked the camping gear while Molly and their son, Mitchell, surveyed the camping area, walking hand-in-hand around large plastic statues of waving cartoon characters on the playground near the lakeshore. Instead of wood mulch, the playground was covered in shredded car tires recycled to look like mulch, which made Gary sad. He watched Molly teeter around the industrial-smelling jungle gym, holding Mitchell's soft hand. Her black hair fluffed wildly away from her face and she wore funny wedge shoes—like little platform high heels. The shoes struck Gary, also, as sad.

He continued unloading their Yukon, box after box. It was 80 degrees— too warm for September— and Gary perspired through his knit polo. Gary was an odd-shaped man, a softly built form. He carried his weight low, in womanly hips, in a way he was ashamed of. He wore large polo shirts that reached mid-thigh to disguise this flaw, yet somehow the shirts accentuated his weight gain rather than conceal it. He'd found several of these shirts incredibly discounted in a nice polyester weave, yet Molly mentioned, after he'd worn them all proudly for well over a year, that his nipples showed through the thin fabric. She'd even said the word man-boobs, something Gary had never heard before, and his mortification caused him to throw all the offending shirts away immediately. Now, large rings of dark sweat formed in his armpits, and he wished briefly for the thin discount shirts.

Once the others arrived, Molly strung Japanese lanterns between the campers, connecting them with delicate paper-hooded lights that refused their hooks. Each time they fell, Molly scolded Gary for something, though he wasn't quite sure what it was since it was she who'd bought the hooks and the lights and she who'd been the one to hang them. He stood outside the circle of lights, watching her. Molly made a joke about him having a hard time keeping things up. When everyone laughed, Gary laughed too.

Molly and Ashley fluffed out their matching tablecloths with burlap runners and the mismatched wooden candlesticks Molly had painted with the leftover Robin's Egg paint she'd used to refurbish the Shasta. Rikki and Tara lit a joint and smoked it beside their camper, in plain sight, while Stefan removed his shirt and lay in the sun. Gary watched Stefan look at his own biceps and flex, and then, satisfied, lie down on his back and tilt his chin upward. Mitchell, five, played in the dirt with the lesbians' sons.

He surveyed all of them, his eyes panning from one grouping of campers to the next, from the plastic animated creatures standing in their rubber playground to his wife, arranging place settings on the picnic table. A small frog jumped across the path in front of him.

"Hey, Mitch, look. A frog," he said, making sure his tone came across as friendly, and the boy beamed at his father and came running. When Gary was a child, his father told him stories about gigging frogs—stalking them at night in the cold creeks and stabbing them with baby pitchforks on long poles—an image Gary never could shake.

"Where?" Mitchell stood next to him, turning his head this way and that, looking.

Gary pointed. "Don't hurt him," he said.

Mitchell hurled his body toward the grass as the frog hopped away, and then he stood and looked at his father, perplexed. "Why would I do that?"

Gary smiled at the boy but suddenly felt like crying. He turned away from Mitchell and wandered to the shore, thinking about his father's stories, thinking about Molly's crass joke.

He hadn't been gone long when his phone rumbled in his pocket insistently. Molly. He touched the phone through the fabric of his cargo shorts, feeling it buzz through its protective waterproof case. He looked out over the lake, ignoring the call. He didn't care if Molly felt sorry for her mean joke; she'd still said it in front of the lesbians and Stefan, which made it worse. If she was sorry, she could say it to his face.

*

Earlier that year, in the spring, he’d bought the Shasta through Craig's List: seven hundred and forty-nine dollars.

Molly insisted on the purchase, stating it was her new thing. She decorated dens and nurseries and master suites for a living, although all Gary Snap saw of that living was that their friends’ houses looked eerily alike—a wash of tans and browns with chevron-printed throw pillows placed strategically whenever they stopped by for a cocktail or a play date for Mitchell. She liked to add the small chalkboards in Aspen bark frames on easels to kitchen islands, just like she did in their own camper. "So they can write their dinner menus down," she explained slowly, as though he had a learning disability. "It's unique."

Mitchell wanted the Shasta, too, Molly insisted, although Gary knew Mitchell wasn't old enough to want such a thing. Yet when he pulled the flimsy 1969 camper into the driveway—tilted far on its ass-end because his hitch sat too high (the damn thing threw sparks the whole trip from Knoxville)—Mitchell, in fact, had made a high-pitched squee and ran for his Barbies, which he lined up in the yellowed back window of the small camper before Gary even unhitched it.

Mitchell often cried at Gary's tone, that's how Molly put it: his tone. When he took the damn dolls away, for instance. When he scrubbed the pink rouge from the boy's cheeks one morning before pre-school. Once, in the middle of the night, Gary, overcome with tenderness for the boy, stepped in to kiss him goodnight. But Mitchell lay sleeping in a tiara—(a word that Gary had never used until Mitchell five-fingered one from Anna Caroline, the child next door. Oh, Gary, a tiara. Mitchell stole it, Molly had said.) Upon seeing Mitchell fast asleep in a princess crown, his too-long black hair curling around the jeweled frame, Gary left the room without touching the boy. He knew then things would not get better. They would get worse.

And now, this: The Shasta. That's what Molly called it, and so Gary and Mitchell did, too, although somehow it seemed to make camping seem less of what it somehow should be. Authentic vintage, she'd said, clapping, gleeful. She liked buying brand new things that looked vintage; this was her first foray into old, moldy, authentic falling-apart stuff. Yet her spirits didn't waiver as Gary thought they would. He'd assumed, wrongly, that the stench and deterioration of the flimsy camper would deter her, yet instead, she advanced determined and invigorated at the challenge of it all. Over the summer, she painted the bottom half and the top wings blue—Robin's Egg, she insisted—and painted the side trim and the top half a stark white. She'd stood in flip flops and cut off denim shorts in the driveway, painting, looking like a pinup girl, and Gary wasn't sure if he'd loved it or hated it— her out there like that, with all the neighbors watching. The paint line separating the colors stretched backward across the camper in a striking Z. Inside, she pulled out the original 1960s cabinetry in a fervor of sawdust and cracked wood, and replaced it with smooth and pale maple pieces from The Home Depot, adorned with burnished pewter knobs and pulls. They fought about this, the cost of the pewter pulls, and he'd asked what was wrong with the authentic vintage cabinets anyway, until Molly cried and hit Gary ridiculously on the arms, playfully at first and then not playfully, thrashing against him, until he acquiesced. In the end, the cabinets cost three times as much as the Shasta itself. Molly was happy, he reminded himself. This was important.

*

Now Gary sat, looking out across the lake, still smarting from Molly's slight. Can't get it up, he thought, tossing a rock into the lake. Nothing personal. Someone told him once this lake was 300 feet deep. Trash bundled itself into the cove corners. Insects swarmed low over the water. Humming. Algae hugged the banks, gripping sun-bleached beer cans in green clutches. The sky stretched blue and cloudless above him, and the lake shimmered a murky, bottomless black. He wondered if the lake harbored schools of fish teeming beneath the surface, hovering under boats, warily eyeing shiny hooks and wormy-shaped lures with their big, fishy eyes. He didn't know if all lakes had fish. He was from the city, after all, yet he felt certain they did—fish moving silvery and unseen beneath the rippled surface. Across the water and all around this bowl of lake, the hills rose steeply. He decided that the angle must continue as sharply underwater, plunging deeply down, into the dark.

Gary looked down at his skinny white ankles and the random black hairs that sprouted from the tops of his feet. He wondered if his heavy bottom and doughy shape had caused Molly's growing disdain for him, or if there was something more. He treated her kindly. He gave her things she wanted, like the Shasta. Or was this the way of marriage?

They'd been married now for over a decade, and with each passing year she turned more and more attention to Mitchell and to the emptiness of her friends’ houses—blank slates, she called them. He'd done all the things he thought he was supposed to do in a marriage. Of course he loved her, of course he did. And he loved Mitchell, this strange boy, born seven days late and so robust, a head full of black hair—just like Molly's, they'd said over and over: That boy has Molly's hair. Yet Mitchell had Gary's green eyes and long eyelashes. The child had weighed over ten pounds, tearing Molly open in ways Gary couldn't fathom, leaving his life sexless for years after the child's birth. Molly insisted this was normal, yet Gary, understanding and tender at first, no longer believed this.

Men at the golf club bragged about their wives appetites in bed. Mike Moody, the Catholic plumber who'd gotten rich selling tankless water heaters, had a habit of over-sharing after a few beers, calling his wife a great lay, telling Gary that she'd installed a stripper pole in their bedroom. My Sandra, whew! She's a great lay. He said this the way other men admired their wives' pork roasts. The Moodys had five children. And yet when Molly re-decorated the Moodys' master suite she never mentioned the stripper pole. It made Gary wonder if perhaps Mike Moody lied. Or, instead, if Molly was the one riddled with omission.

"I suppose we're the only men on this trip, huh, Gary?" Stefan, still shirtless, said behind him. Now he wore tiny thin running shorts with little slits on the side seams. Gary shrugged, trying to smile but fearing the strange twist of his lips didn't look like a smile at all.

"That Molly! She's amazing. You're a lucky man," he said to Gary. "Ashley brought the whole bar. The girls are setting it up now. I think they're going to shake some martinis. I'm heading out for a run," Stefan said, pulling his foot backward up to his hipbone at an angle, stretching something. Gary turned to him. Stefan dropped his foot and looked down to his wrist, clicking buttons on his watch. It was plastic and clunky with a Snap-a-Latch closure, a feature Gary's company had sold to Seiko back in 2001, before 9/11, when everything was simple.

"Snap-a-Latch, right?" Gary asked.

Stefan looked up. "Huh?"

"Your watch. It has a Snap-a-Latch, see? Right there?" He pointed to the watch, almost touching Stefan's wrist.

"Sure."

Stefan stretched his arms behind him in a weird yoga move, and Gary realized Stefan didn't care. Nobody cared anymore, yet the day he'd sold Snap-a-Latch to Seiko, Molly agreed to marry him and told him she loved him and stayed the night at his apartment for the first time. Now, years removed, this is how he knew it, all at once. Molly loved something then, but whatever it had been, she didn't love it, or him, anymore.

"Hey, man. Wanna come with me? We'll be gone exactly twenty-two minutes. You can clock it. Three miles on the nose."

Gary shook his head, "Nah, man. Bum knee," he said, patting the top of his right thigh. His knees—although untested—were fine. He wondered if Molly loved somebody else instead of Gary, or if it was just him that she did not love.

"Okay, man," Stefan said, taking off toward the marina, his shoulder blades pulled tight across his back, the line of his spine ramrod straight, his arms swinging as though on loose hinges.

When Gary finally walked back to the circle of Shastas, Mitchell ran up to meet him, bringing him a yellow flower. Gary slid it through the center buttonhole of his knit polo and held the boy's hand. Mitchell smiled at him with an unabashedly glorious face. "My dear Mitchell, are you happy?" Gary switched his tone again, and a strange lilt found its way into his question. He had no idea why he'd asked the boy about his happiness, yet Mitchell didn't seem to notice the awkwardness of it at all as he bobbed his head up and down, as though the Shasta and the flower and a kind word from his father in a jolly tone all together at the same time made him burst open with joy.

Gary looked at Molly. Was he a lucky man, as Stefan pointed out? She smiled at Ashley and held a thin-stemmed martini glass delicately in her hand. She set the glass down on the warped slats of the picnic table, now covered by gingham and burlap, and the glass fell over. She shook her head at the upturned glass, and her black hair roared around her head, like some kind of mane. She stood up and rested her hand on the aluminum side of the Shasta, and then patted it, pleased, as if it were a horse. She looked at him and smiled. Gary didn't smile back.

"It's cocktail hour, dear, you should be smiling. Martini?" she asked.

"Shall we?" he reached for her hand, continuing the strange formality.

She looked at him blankly.

"Take a walk around the lake together? Maybe to the marina and back?" He tried to drop the tone, knowing how she felt about tone, but somehow, inside the questions, there was that lilt he couldn't explain. The certainty of knowing she didn't love him crept into his words.

She righted the glass and yelled at Ashley in a jovial way. "Bartender! Shake me one for the road!"

Ashley tossed the drink together in a Tervis insulated tumbler, one with a snap-on clear lid and a little plastic straw made just for it. The cup proclaimed Happy Camper in retro green script. Ashley twirled it lazily and handed it to Molly, who swirled the ice in her drink, contemplating the idea of walking with Gary.

"Be a doll and watch Mitch for me, would you?" Molly tossed the request over her shoulder like salt for luck.

Ashley said, "Sure," and mixed herself another drink.

Gary squatted in front of the boy, his knees clicking and popping as he lowered himself to Mitchell's eye level. "We'll be right back. Just gonna go on a walk with Mommy, K?" Mitchell nodded and spontaneously kissed his father on the nose before moving stealthily away, his body close to the ground, his eyes looking for the frog. Gary stood and walked toward his wife.

Molly sucked at her straw as they left the campsite, taking the trail that led to the marina. She stepped delicately in the trendy wedges. "What is it, Gary? You've been nothing but a big party-pooper all day. I've worked hard for this, you know, to redecorate the Shasta, to organize things." She fell silent for a moment, taking another drink. She pulled her face into a more forlorn shape with every sip. "I actually think it might be my calling." She looked ahead of them as she spoke, and tilted her chin up with a certain resolution. Then she sucked the gin through the straw again, looking down. The ice Ashley added had already melted.

"What? Camping?" he asked. He wasn't sure if he'd misheard her or if he just wanted her to repeat it.

"My calling. Party-planning. I'd make money—more money than interior design. I could expand. And I've already got the clientele. Party-planning. Events." She teetered a little, stepping over an exposed root. "There's a need, you know, and my clients love me."

"A need," he repeated. His stomach flip-flopped, and he slowed down.

"You know, after Snap-a-Latch, I just assumed things would continue on with your inventions, I suppose. But now, I feel your expectations, Gary. I feel them."

"My expectations?"

She continued as though she hadn't heard him. "Is that what you wanted to talk about? The money I've spent? Because I can't help but feel that I'm in trouble right now with you for my spending. Bad Molly, spending too much money redecorating the Shasta." She giggled to herself.

They continued walking, her slurping the fat plastic straw, him nodding but saying nothing. He wanted to see how long they could walk without his saying a word. She babbled then, like a brook, he thought. Like water. Words pouring out of her like: cardstock, gourmet buffet, petit fours, themes. Flowing and rushing and pouring over him.

The marina stretched ahead of them. Long, narrow decking jutted out geometrically. Boats slid in and out of their rectangles. Cold shadows reached across the water. He could barely see back to the campsites through the thicket of forest around them. The Shasta seemed so far away, this thing they'd aspired to become. They'd been walking for a long time. He touched her elbow lightly as they walked across the skinny path of planks connecting the marina to the steep and rocky shore. They kept going, toward the pier's end, without a real destination, the wooden tilt shifting below them with the weight of footfalls. Their steps synchronized briefly, and the rocking of the deck matched their pace. Just as quickly as their steps found each other, Molly's slowed, and once again, the water sloshed below, off beat.

"Do you love me, Molly?" He looked straight at her, but she didn't turn her head.

"What kind of question is that?" She chuckled a bit, but it sounded drunk and nervous, like a lie.

He gripped her arm and stopped. They stood on the deck. The sway of the lake beneath them forced them to shift their weight from foot to foot. In that unsettling sway, a new question formed in his mind. "Did you ever?"

"Did I ever what?" She tossed her black mane in a way that reminded him of the first time he'd ever seen her. He knew the answer to his question.

"I think I'm leaving, Molly. I mean, I'm leaving." He released her arm and turned away from her, just as she stepped toward him, her face stunned. Later, he tried to imagine that face, what it meant. The thick wedge of her shoe rolled, that part he could remember, and her arms flayed out widely. He saw her falling, but instead of reaching toward her, he stepped back. Just like that.

Her weight overcorrected from forward to backward, and for a moment, Gary smiled for the first time that day. What a funny story they'd have now: the story of this day, the first trip with the Shasta, when Molly fell in the lake. Things could all be back to normal. But her mouth stretched open as she fell, and Gary knew it wouldn't be a funny story at all.

Molly's head was the problem; he realized that later. If she hadn't hit her head on the edge of the dock going down, she would have bobbed right back to the surface. Instead, she went into the water and her head clunked awkward and loud against the wood, and then she was gone. The surface smoothed out as soon as she went under. He didn't jump in. He waited for her, his weight shifting from foot to foot, his apple-shaped bottom swaying, until the Tervis cup floated to the surface, still appearing half full of gin.

"Good God, man! What are you doing?" Stefan shrieked from land. He was running, still running, but now running toward the marina and down the decking. Stefan was yelling at Gary. All Gary could think was to wonder if it had just been twenty-two minutes—the length of Stefan's run—since he'd known Molly didn't love him. Only twenty-two. He still wore the yellow flower from Mitchell in the buttonhole of his shirt.

Stefan stands next to Gary, looking straight down where Molly has gone in, and in perfect form, steps off feet first, like a pencil. Before he comes up for air Gary calls 911 from his cell phone. My wife fell from the dock. He looks at the splatter of blood on the splintered edge of the decking. She hit her head. He thinks about the shock of hair swimming around her face. Can she see through it all, to make it to the surface? Or is the water pouring into her lungs the same way the words poured out just a few moments before? Stefan bobs to the top, two, three, then four times.

"I can't find the bottom!" he shouts.

Then, they are all there: men in orange life vests holding beer cans and long poles, teenagers from the parking lot wearing angry tattoos and cut off short-shorts with frayed denim strings hanging low in their crotches. The police arrive. An ambulance pulls in fast and with sirens. Mitchell and the lesbians' boys come from the campsite first, followed by the women. Ashley begins to scream when she realizes what has happened and clutches Mitchell's hand. She won't stop screaming. Mitchell struggles to get away from Ashley, and reaches for his father. No one is in the water but Stefan. One of the men tosses Stefan a lifejacket. It splashes next to him, sending ripples out in clean and perfect circles.

Gary looks at the men in the orange vests and realizes there must be fish in this lake after all.

"Ain't no bottom to be found, brother," one of the fishermen says, shaking his head. "It's almost a hundred yards down, right here. Every time I pull my boat into my slip, I can't hardly believe what my depth finder says. This ain't happened since '98. They'll have to get the scuba divers out here to bring her body up. Shame."

That was the word Gary returned to: shame—as he drove home with Mitchell. He'd talked to the police. He hadn't reached for her as she was falling, or had he? Stefan told him later that he wasn’t sure, that it was hard to tell. She'd fallen so quickly. How much time had elapsed between Molly going under and Stefan jumping in? Why had Gary only stood there, frozen? Gary drove, gripping the wheel, shifting in his seat, not quite believing it had happened. To Molly. To him. Mitchell hadn't cried, that would come later. He hadn't asked his father anything at all—a fact Gary was thankful for.

They'd left the Shasta at the campsite. Gary couldn't imagine ever returning for it.

He'd put the boy to bed that night, but Mitchell wouldn't sleep. Gary even took the tiara to him, in case it brought him comfort, but the boy didn't want that. Mitchell wanted to sleep with Daddy, and so Gary said okay.

It was then, with Mitchell curled on Molly's side of the bed, that Gary thought about the missed phone call as he'd sat by the cove earlier in the day. Molly. He was changing clothes, moving in slow motion in the bathroom, when he felt the cell phone in his pocket. He fumbled for it, and it fell out of his hand and into the toilet. He stared, dumbly, and he remembered staring across the lake, thinking about schools of fish, wondering when Molly stopped loving him. This was all before the fall off the dock, before the accident. Remembering her crude joke: keeping it up. Frantically he dropped to his knees in front of the toilet, crying, clutching the bowl, reaching deep through his own piss-water to retrieve the phone.

He pulled it out, his hand dripping. He was gasping now, short and shallow breaths choking him between sobs. Mitchell stood in the doorway, in the threshold between bedroom and bathroom, watching his father with wide eyes, holding a naked and wild-haired Barbie, but not crying. His son. The phone blinked one light. One blip meant one unheard message. It meant the phone lived. He punched the phone screen wildly and shook it, hoping for something, some kind of signal.

"You have one new message," the voice spoke.

And Gary pressed the phone to his ear and listened.

     
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Susan Ishmael-Poulos is a tenth generation Kentuckian living in Texas. She will graduate with her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Tampa in January 2016. She is a co-founder and regular blogger for What Women Write, and her poetry and stories have been published in multiple journals. She is currently completing her first novel.