Oh, how she loved these summer days, still, even after these many years. Years during which entire wars had been fought, diseases conquered, and planets walked upon. Even seen in that broad landscape, a summer day was still a thing unto itself, perfect in its promise, in its ability to make you believe it would never be winter again.
That Millicent could still feel buoyed because of the ethereal promise of summer made her chuckle to herself, something she found herself doing more and more lately. It was her optimistic nature, she supposed, and there was no fighting your nature once you were seventy-two years old.
It felt good to be walking the steep path down the ravine toward the lake this early in the morning. She hadn’t done it the last few days – just couldn’t get herself energized. But this morning everything was different. It was a day she and Walter had decided would be “the day.” She would go down to the lake with Dodger, take her morning swim, and when she came back… Well, when she came back Walter would be gone. This time for good.
. . . . .
Not a good idea to think about that right now. Now the thing to think about was the rocky, rooted slope of the path, the stones dislodging from the dirt and causing hazard, the mosquitoes circling the slow-moving trickle that defined the bottom of the ravine. Up above and behind her now, Walden Bridge (newly restored by an ambitious community fundraising project of which Millicent herself had been a co-chair), was a thing of both beauty and simplicity. There was something about a community that would lovingly restore a bridge over a ravine that cars couldn’t even travel over – a bridge that really went nowhere, unless you were walking over it or under it. It seemed like a living thing to her; it was part of the scenery of her life, much like the lake itself, and the ravine, with its own timelessness.
. . . . .
Millicent the Magnificent Walter had called her in private. She supposed most couples had endearing names for each other. Hers, for him, had been inexplicably, Bumpkin or My Sweet Bumpkin or most often just Bumps. She had no earthly recollection of where that appellation had originated. No matter. It had been years since she’d thought of those silly names, anyway.
But Millicent the Magnificent. That made her smile even now, as she slipped her saggy, cotton terry robe off, and stood at the water’s edge, an old woman with crepey skin in an old-fashioned rubbery beige one-piece bathing suit that she had probably bought decades ago at the Marshall Field’s in Market Square, back when they still sold such things. For that matter, back when there was a Marshall Field’s.
Dodger barked twice sharply in anticipation. She patted his knobby, balding head, “Good boy.”
It had thrilled her back then, she supposed, that someone like Walter thought she was magnificent. She had always secretly, even as a girl, thought of herself as more than ordinary. She knew she was capable, imaginative, and clear thinking. But magnificent was another thing altogether.
The humidity was rising quickly, the air thickening with August heat. She knew the lake would be cold, and the sound it made as the small waves lapped the smooth stones was soothing. The sound calmed Millicent greatly. Most summer mornings this small crescent of beach was unoccupied. But this morning there was a tiny bird-like young woman in a bright yellow tank suit sitting on a beach towel and reading a book, and a middle-aged couple who were sitting close together on a large flat boulder, kissing every now and then. Millicent stretched her limbs and faced the pale hazy glare of sun that was now just above the eastern horizon of the lake.
The lake was different every day. That was one of the things Millicent loved about it. As she waded in, her feet by this time of summer callused against the small stones and cutting pebbles, Dodger began to bark furiously, as though she were planning to swim out and never return. He always did this. She fully entered the water, and he ran crazily in circles at the edge of the lake yapping like a possessed demon dog, and then suddenly he stopped barking and swam out to meet her. To save her, she liked to think. Millicent was absolutely certain that every single day of every single summer that damn dog thought she was swimming out to her death. And every day he swam out to save her, despite his complete and utter fear of water.
Once in the water the dog was quiet and concentrated on his lifesaving skills. As Millicent skimmed methodically along on her right side toward Michigan, and then turned to her left side heading south toward Chicago, Dodger stayed intent on keeping up with her. Such an admirable and conscientious companion. And he expected nothing in return, Millicent realized. He just saved her life day after day, because it needed doing, and he was there.
Millicent floated, suspended in the cool water. She decided she would always remember this exact moment; she would store it away with other moments like it to be drawn upon when life seemed too hard. She thought now of other pleasing times – the last time she had hugged her grown son and felt his stubble against her cheek, a recent morning at the farmer’s market where she had stood and eaten a small basket of the sweetest cherry tomatoes before she even got to the car, the way the cicadas had sounded last week just before a thunderstorm had broken furiously at mid-afternoon. She had gone out on the front porch, and sat in one of her white wicker porch chairs during the storm, and had felt its electricity and its awesome power go right through her body. As girls she and her sisters used to run outside in their swimsuits during such rainstorms, frolicking and sliding on the grass, shrieking with fear and pleasure. It amazed her now that her mother hadn’t stopped them. Hadn’t she been afraid her daughters would be hit by lightning?
And Walter. After all these years to have Walter back in her house. What had once been their house.
He hadn’t called her himself. He never would have. She had heard from one of the kids (she still thought of them as kids even though they were middle-aged) that their father was ill, dying even. And that Janine had left when it got to be too much for her. Apparently she wasn’t cut out for chemo and issues of bladder control and endless doctor appointments. Who was?
It certainly wasn’t her responsibility, Millicent had thought when their son had first called. Not that Kevin was even suggesting it was – far from it. It had remained an unspoken precept all through the years after Walter had left (with Janine), that Millicent had been wronged. She had been the injured party. Walter had left the same week their youngest had left for college.
It was funny though, and she couldn’t even say when the idea had taken shape. But once it had, it seemed to be the natural order of things. There was a certain inevitability to it. After all she had been married to Walter for twenty-five years, had loved him and borne his children. She had never had such an intimate relationship with anyone else in her life. And never would again.
Suddenly chilled and a little tired, Millicent turned back to her right side and started her glide in toward the shore. Yellow bathing suit hadn’t moved as far as she could tell and the kissing couple must have hiked back up the ravine. Dodger panted excitedly as he realized from habit that today’s life-threatening water tragedy had been averted once again, no doubt thanks to his superior canine abilities.
Walter had moved back into the house, much to the shock of their children. Only this time he was in the spare room downstairs that had once served as her office. That part of her life was largely over now, except for an occasional former student of hers who wanted her to critique some piece of writing. She didn’t really need an office for that.
Walter had come home to die. He had started crying when she first called him to tell him her idea; that she would like to take care of him, but she had told him brusquely, “If you are going to cry, the deal is off. That’s all behind us now.”
He had been here nearly three months, his condition deteriorating rapidly. How handsome he had once been! She could still see that in him, even now. That was something, she thought, to be the one person to see in another what has been lost to everyone else.
Mostly she read to him, and enjoyed doing so. She hadn’t read aloud to anyone since the children were in the middle grades, and she had read them The Trumpet of the Swan, Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She had loved those days, hadn’t wanted anything more. She was reading Straight Man by Richard Russo – something two academics could laugh at together.
Her daughter had been the one to ask her – how could she forgive him, even now? Margot tended to be judgmental, especially where her father’s actions were concerned, and probably thought Millicent was being taken advantage of in some way, once again.
It didn’t matter, though. None of it did any more. She didn’t have to explain herself to anyone.
. . . . .
Getting out of the water, Millicent suddenly felt dizzy, and had to sit down on the towel she had laid out on the gravelly sand. She must have sat down hard, because when she looked up yellow bathing suit was standing next to her asking if she was okay. Dodger barked once, sharply, and Millicent saw that the sky had turned dark. When had clouds rolled in? She knew their pact was that she would stay down at the lake until he was sure to be gone; until the pills had worked. It was their agreement. But out of nowhere she began to tremble, and her mouth became dry. Maybe she wouldn’t be too late. Maybe there was still something they could do, some holistic treatment that had eluded them. More vitamins perhaps, the right combination. She had heard about drugs bought in Mexico that weren’t available in the U. S.
She pulled on her rubber soled flats and her robe, gave a brief wave to yellow bathing suit as if to let her know she was fine, and headed up the path. She knew time was precious – when was it not! If she could only hurry.
Up the ravine she hastened. She was amazed at how light she felt, how surefooted. She felt a few large drops of rain through the trees overhead, and heard a distant rumble. Dodger followed closely behind her, panting. Finally, that last steep ascent up to the bridge, helping herself up the last stretch by grabbing a low hanging tree branch. And then, at a lope – she couldn’t remember the last time she’d run – she was across the bridge and in two more blocks home.
. . . . .
The storm broke open while she was in the house. Walter was there in his bed in her office. He looked like he was asleep, but she knew. He had left her a note on his bedside table, in his precise, sloping handwriting. She wouldn’t read it now, maybe she never could. What could he say to her now, after all of it? She needed to call someone, but who? It was too early. She was too late. She couldn’t think clearly; it had been a mistake to let him back in. What had she been thinking?
The rain was coming down hard now, pouring from the sky in torrents. She stepped out on her porch and slipped off her robe once more. She went out into the storm and let the rain cascade over her, while Dodger barked his shrill fear for her from the open doorway. This time he wouldn’t come to her; she knew she would have to go to him.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in a wide array of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals including The New York Times, Red Rock Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, Clapboard House, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and numerous other publications. Her short story “Homeland Security” appeared in the Same this past fall. She has lived in New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida, but is now settled in her beloved true home of California. Connect with her online at www.kathystevenson.com and on Twitter: @k_stevenson01