Only thirty minutes separated my grandfather’s death from Lorena’s. I didn’t find out Grandpa was dead until the next day, but I knew he was dying, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise. I figured the selfish old bastard would live a few more months, at least. His lungs had seemed fine when we’d argued that morning.
About the time dear old Grandpa was dying I was pulling a dripping oar into a canoe on the Chattahoochee River, thinking it would be nice to drift with the current for a while. The morning had been one long relentless paddle upstream (metaphorically speaking) and I felt I deserved a break.
“You don’t think she’ll get fired, do you?” Lorena had asked drowsily as we drifted. “I didn’t mean to get her in trouble, even though she was incredibly rude to me.” She was still ruminating about the argument she’d had with our waitress at the Blue Boy Diner. I was ruminating about the argument I’d had with my grandfather that morning, which had far greater implications for our future.
What I didn’t know at the time was that we had no future. We had about twenty-five minutes.
“I’d feel terrible if she got fired,” Lorena added.
“I doubt they’ll fire her,” I said, not sure if that was true. The truth was, I thought Lorena had overreacted a little. If it had been my pancakes I would have let it go. But I’d never tell Lorena that now. What would be the point, except to make Lorena feel bad?
It had been one of those loud, public confrontations that made me cringe inside, even when it was taking place at someone else’s table, and as I said, I’d already had one extremely traumatic argument that day. Lorena had asked nicely for the waitress to take the pancakes back, and I distinctly remember her telling the waitress to hold the butter. Of course she had—she’s lactose intolerant. She always does.
When the pancakes arrived and Lorena pointed out the butter, the waitress suggested Lorena move it into the cup that held the little cream containers. She’d been frazzled, slightly huffy, her dark bangs pasted to her forehead by sweat. She was about our age—late twenties—and had long tattoos of assault rifles morphing into flowers trailing up each of her forearms. The tattoos suggested she was an easygoing neo-hippy sort of woman, but her eyes suggested much of that peace, love, and good times listening to Phish had been blunted by double-shifts at the Blue Boy.
Faces had lifted from grilled chicken sandwich platters to watch Lorena and the waitress go at it.
I said I’ll take it back.
I heard what you said. It’s the tone and the eye roll I didn’t appreciate.
The waitress had backpedaled from her huffiness as soon as Lorena reacted, but it was too late. Lorena looked like such a sweetheart that people sometimes made the mistake of thinking they could push her around, but Lorena was a sweetheart who would bite if poked.
“Look at the bright side—we got our meal for free,” I said.
“Not that I could eat after that. My lunch is still in my throat,” Lorena said.
I’d dropped a ten dollar tip on our table when Lorena wasn’t looking. Somehow I sensed that the waitress had been having a bad day, just like us.
The scenery unrolled along the Chattahoochee River, shifting from dense forest to cozy cabins to grassy hills. I can still see it. Dense clouds formed a low ceiling just above the treetops. Everything was crisp and clear.
Eyes closed, Lorena stretched languidly, her wrists bent, her Latin-with-a-touch-of-Asian face turned toward the sky. “This is so beautiful. We should do this more often, when we’re not feeling so depressed.” She reached out and massaged my neck. I remember feeling that familiar jolt of pleasure and surprise that this incredible woman had married me. It was a sensation I’d felt almost hourly during the first few months of our marriage. In all of our wedding photos I look stunned.
“Can I say something that’s sneaky and makes me seem like a bad person?” Lorena asked, kneading the knots in my neck.
“You? You’re incapable of sneaky. You’d bleed out your ears if you tried to be sneaky.”
“Oh, that’s a lovely image,” Lorena laughed. “It would be sneaky, though.”
We paused to admire a dilapidated shack leaning out over the river, clearly abandoned. On another day we might have paddled over to take a peek inside. We both had a weird fascination with abandoned places.
I turned in the canoe, sat with my hands between my knees. “So what’s your sneaky idea?” I had no way of knowing how profoundly her words would affect my life. Not her life, of course. Just mine.
Lorena waited a beat, as if deliberating on whether she should say it.
“Do you think your grandfather set it up legally so you can’t continue the comic strip after he dies? Maybe he just told your grandma that’s the way he wanted it.”
“I don’t know. I could see him doing either.” We passed out of thick woods into open fields; I noticed a line of black clouds dividing the sky. I pointed at them. “We may get rained on.”
Lorena looked up, shrugged. “Oh, well. We’ll survive.”
“Grandma would never go against his wishes,” I said. I was pretty sure my grandmother hated my grandfather, but they had faced the outside world as a grim, unassailable wall for sixty years, and I didn’t see that changing just because he was dead.
It was so hard to grasp that he was dying. This morning as he sat hooked to an IV bag, telling me in no uncertain terms that I would not be succeeding him as the artist of his comic strip, Toy Shop, he seemed ready to roll himself to the summit of Bear Mountain in the wheelchair he’d occupied for the past fifty years.
“How much is he leaving her again?” Lorena asked. She knew it was almost nothing. Grandpa had never made huge money, and he lost most of what he’d made bankrolling Toy Shop Village, my father’s lunatic idea for a themed amusement center (and, unbeknownst to me at that moment, soon to become my home). Grandma would get the house and some merchandising and royalty money, but after the strip was discontinued the merchandising would dry up. When was the last time anyone manufactured a Nancy and Sluggo t-shirt, or a Dick Tracy toy radio watch? When a strip dies (unless it’s an iconic strip that’s become part of the fabric of our culture. Like, oh, I don’t know…Peanuts?), people tend to forget it.
An icy rain began to fall. I looked at the clouds, heavy and dark, bunched like fists. “Maybe you’re right, maybe she would be willing to cut a deal after he’s gone,” I mused. “She’s a child of the Depression, not one to put sentimentality above the practicalities of paying the bills.” I considered for a moment, then shook my head. “Nah. I couldn’t do it even if she was willing.”
“I feel slimy even bringing it up,” Lorena said, shrugging.
“There’s no harm in looking at all the options.” Lorena had nothing to feel slimy about. She’d been nothing but kind to my grandfather in the face of his thinly veiled contempt. Grandpa was certain all Latinos would be cleaning ladies and lawn mowers if not for that “affirmative action crap.”
My phone rang. It was my mom (calling, I would learn much later, to tell me Grandpa was dead), but I stashed the phone in my pocket as the rain turned into a pelting downpour, soaking my thin t-shirt.
Lorena shrieked with delight and held a sweatshirt over her head. In a moment the sweatshirt was soaked and she tossed it aside. We grabbed our paddles and got moving.
“We’re probably half an hour from the pickup area if we go hard,” I said, shouting to be heard over the splashing. The rain formed a lovely dappled pattern on the surface of the water. I still remember that so vividly.
“That’s okay. I love it,” Lorena shouted back.
As I paddled I thought about Lorena’s suggestion. From Grandma’s perspective, it sucked that Grandpa was putting his pride of ownership in the strip ahead of her financial well-being. Maybe as time passed I would change my mind, especially if reviving the strip meant Grandma could live more comfortably.
The sound of the rain took on a hard edge. Laughing, Lorena grabbed a little red and white cooler that had held our lunch and tried to shield her head from hailstones. They thunked off the steel canoe, ricocheting madly. I hunched my shoulders and paddled, laughing too. The little chunks almost, but didn’t quite, hurt, like a too-vigorous massage.
“This is so weird,” Lorena shouted over the din. “It was sunny two seconds ago!”
A long, growling rumble erupted all around us.
I stopped laughing. We were in a metal canoe, on a river. “Shit.” I paddled harder. “We need to get off the water.” I looked at both banks: they were steep, but we could use the waist-high weeds to pull ourselves up.
A tremendous bolt of lightning tore across the sky, thick as a tree trunk. I turned toward shore.
“What are you doing?” Lorena asked.
“We have to get off the water!” I paddled like mad, splashing water everywhere.
“Not over there,” Lorena said, “there could be snakes!”
“Not in the rain,” I said, not sure if snakes took shelter from rain or not, but with no time to argue. Lorena was terrified of snakes—the word “phobia” didn’t begin to cover it.
I wasn’t making any progress. I glanced back: Lorena was paddling against me, away from shore.
“What are you doing? We have to get off the water!” I paddled harder, but got nowhere. I stopped, looked down the river for another place to get off, one that wasn’t as weedy, but there was nothing.
Another boom of thunder, like dynamite going off. I cringed, expecting to feel the jolt of a million volts rip through me. We were going to die if we didn’t get off the river, and we were moving away from the shore as Lorena continued to paddle. She said something about going further downstream. We might have time to do that, but it was stupid to take the chance.
Seeing no other option I stood up, gathered my balance, and jumped into the river, one hand outstretched to grab the canoe. I sunk chest deep before feeling the sandy bottom under my sneakers, the water warm compared to the hail and chill wind above.
I dragged the canoe toward shore, ignoring Lorena’s squeals and panicked paddling.
I pulled the nose of the canoe onto shore. “Come on,” I shouted, scrambling to the top of the bank to show her there was nothing to fear in the weeds. I waved her on frantically. She shrieked incoherently, shaking her head, still in the canoe.
“I’ll carry you,” I offered. I clutched a tall jimson weed and stepped down the bank, seeking firm footing in the runny mess.
A blinding golden zigzag of lightning struck the far shore, accompanied by a deafening electric sizzle that sprang across the surface of the water.
Lorena jerked like a marionette as the water danced with a sideways current that looked like nothing so much as a thousand slithering snakes.
I don’t remember screaming. I imagine I did as I leapt down the bank and caught Lorena as she crumpled, expecting to feel the current race through me. Her head flopped sideways across my shoulder.
Her clothes were smoldering. The soles of her boots were gone. So were the soles of her feet. I was saying something over and over, but I couldn’t make out my own words as I laid her on the grass above the bank and pressed her chest. Air hissed between her lips like it was leaking from a flat tire. I shouted her name, told her she needed to wake up now, needed to breathe, needed to fight, as the hail pelted us and thunder cracked, farther away now, heedless of what it had done. In between my exhortations I shouted for help, shouted so hard it felt like someone was raking my throat and lungs.
When do you give up pushing on your true love’s chest, breathing into your true love’s lips, when you know that when you stop, her life is over? You push forever, or at least for what feels like forever as you watch her lifeless eyes, afraid to look at her ruined feet.