We were out in the blue air and it was very late for me, later than I’d ever been up at the lake. We stood there silently, watching our breath pull out from our lips, touch the air, hover momentarily before dissipating.
His big mitted hand was near and I wanted badly to clutch it to mine, to feel it engulf my hand; but I just stood, manly as possible, wondering, worrying, thinking of her out there in the middle of the lake—maybe—or on the other side in the cabin sipping beers.
Treech shifted weight and crackled the snow. He was no longer angry, really, he was standing with his girl’s kid brother, searching for her, and he was happy to do so, to make something of just another endless high school Saturday night. From far off, distant, muffled and distorted by the fibrous dry snow, came the whine of snowmobiles.
“Come on,” Treech shouted into the air, pulling me by the arm across the ice and onto the lake. We were crossing a rutty span of purple ice, heading north towards the hilly land to a barren patch of sandy brier called Crows Neck, a perfect space for drinking, building driftwood fires, killing time.
He was strong, big and persistent as he led the way before me. His Eskimo parka made him look gigantic with the large hood up, covering his face, sticking way out and making his head rectangular. He was breathing hard as he walked. I struggled behind him. Beneath us, 30 feet of water shifted under a half foot of ice; the lake sighed. We paused, listened, then moved on.
We approached an ice fishing hole, steaming and gushing water, licking the ice.
Treech pulled me wide of the hole, paused to point at it and tell me it was treacherous, likely to crack around the edges at night when new ice was forming.
Five minutes later, we were in the center of the lake and the light was an incredible violet iridescent glow rising, blooming as if from the concentrated light of many stars.
“How’re ya doing?” Treech asked me, looking down blankly from his hood, his face dark.
“I’m ok,” I mumbled.
“You’re a tough kid,” he said, pulling me along again. “I’m gonna find your sister, have a nice talk with her. We’re going to mediate this problem. Do you know what that means, mediate?”
Before I would answer Treech answered— “It’s kind of somebody who comes between and patches things up, filters, the shit out.”
He paused, thoughtfully tilting his head to the side, then continued, “hell—that’s not it. I just wanted your company and figured you were good for it.”
“Right, you’re good company kid. You know things I don’t know, actually. And I’m sure you see things I don’t see. All kids do.”
I agreed with him. I could see things here that I’d never seen before, this being my very first time out at the lake in the winter, and my first time outside, with an older boy, hiking, at 11:30 in the evening.
He seemed a true friend, as he lunged across the ice, swinging his body forward without fear, absolutely certain of each foothold, boots crunching, nylon zinging as his sleeves rubbed his coat.
He was one of me, he was mine for the night; and, like me, he was being beaten down by my sister’s illness. It was like the lake, deep and murky, very cold, indescribable, coated over by a thick crust of resilient, ever-shifting ice.
On the lake I thought about my sister. I thought she suffered from a raw inability to not suffer, to not evolve pain from every experience of her life, every minute action that came before her.
She was my sister—and yet—she was not my sister. Many incidences disqualified her from my love. And yet I loved her.
Wallpaper: a rich tapestry of small red rose buds and thorny vines that Mom picked out for the stairway down to the living room. I watched the man lay the sheets up, smoothing the bubbles out with the stiff brush. Damp and floury, the smell of paste was organic and rich as he slapped it across the sheets, face down across three sawhorses.
A few days later, as if realizing the beauty and perfection of that wall, my sister kicked holes in it. Fueled by anguish her boots beat through the paper, the plaster, and revealed the ragged slatting behind.
There were no clues, no indications or causalities—just the three of us—Mom, Dad, and I—when we returned from dinner out to see the wall that way. At the bottom of the stairs we huddled and clung. She was gone two weeks.
The wall was patched but never the same. In four places the roses were graceless and unaligned.
“She’s sick,” my father explained to me; and it was enough, for then, to go on. The destruction of my mother’s beautiful new wall, as the destruction of so many other things in our life, had no other explanation. She’s sick.
Finally we got to the North shore where a large thicket of sage and nettles reached right up to the edge of the lake.
In summer men came here to fish bluegills from the grouted pockets where the natural springs rise to the surface and the fish sit all day, cooling down.
We shoved our way through the black web of branches, holding them back from each other and softly warning “watch it prickers” when a thorny branch was held taut like a whip.
Closer now, the snowmobiles turned from a high buzz to a low piston gurgle. Rubber tread ate the snow. Oily exhaust tainted the air and a few shouts, snow muffled, came up into the hills along with the headlights, cresting into the sky as the machines rollercoasted up and down.
We climbed the first dune hill, our feet sinking through the snow, turning up dark sand.
The machines stopped somewhere in front of us. Treech stopped moving and listened to the silence.
“Damn. I could use another beer,” he whispered. “Let’s find them.”
Pushing off, Treech sprinted the next crest.
“They’ll probably have some beers. It’s probably Mic and Donny with Kate and Pam. Rentals. Must’ve rented them down at the Bait Shop in the cove. Think Lou’s making some cash that way, renting his Snow Cats out.”
Finally, we looked down into the small valley formed by a mined out gravel pit.
They were sitting together with the snowmobiles rounded up like a wagon train for protection. In the center, a small fire burned, a few twigs broken from a tree spewing lots of wet wood smoke.
Beers were buried in a kicked-up pile of snow. Everyone sat on cushions facing inward, and from that distance I could see my sister’s red down ski jacket. Her arm was up around Donny Steffen’s collar, playing with the back of his hair.
Treech went down the hill hard, falling forward while his boots threw up the snow.
When he reached the bottom, he shouted in a jovial voice, “Hey man, what’s up?” His voice opened up into the thick night, then quickly muffled and deadened in the snow. “What’re ’ya doin’?” he said slowing down, shifting from foot to foot.
They slowly turned and gazed at us, dull-eyed and silent. I knew Steffen but the others drew a blank.
“Hi Treech,” Donny Steffen said softly. Donny was a big guy, bigger even than Treech, and he liked to fight: at least he was known as a big fighter.
She was looking right at me. Digging my heels to keep my balance, I stayed part-way up the hill.
“You twerp,” she shouted, “What are you doing out this late? Mom and Dad are going to killyou.”
“I’m going to tell them.”
“Shut up,” Treech said, motioning with his hand for me to come down next to him.
“He came here with me to get you. You were going out with me, or don’t you remember that you told me we were coming out here—on the phone, you told me we were coming out here alone.”
In the silent air, with everybody around him, the intimacy in Treech’s voice seemed unnatural.
“Plus the kid’s a buddy of mine, he needs a friend. You aren’t his friend.”
She pulled her hair from her eyes and threw her head back. Her laugh quivered. “You just brought him along to bug me you bastard.”
Out of nowhere, “Fuck you Treech,” Donny said softly. The others sat, staring into the fire. One guy poked it a bit with a twig, blew on it, then leaned back and sipped his beer.
Treech took two steps forward. Snow was beginning to fall again, it clung to the back of his hood, his shoulders, it dusted the black vinyl seats of the Skidos and the golden tops of the beer cans. It was a fine bitter dry snow that hissed off everything.
Someone sighed, “Ah man, come on,” and looked at the others tentatively.
But Steffen, his face ruddy with the cold, glared at Treech. Then he turned his eyes on me and I felt small, tiny and flimsy.
“What’s your problem man? Don’t you know when the game is up and you lost your chick?”
He stood up and leaned toward us.
Casually Treech swaggered over to the beers, tapped a couple with his boot toe, reached down and, with one hand, pulled two of them up, dripping with snow. Then he clicked one open and handed it to me. I took the can from him and drank a cold gulp that burned my throat. It was wheaty and tart, a new taste.
He popped open the second beer and took one long ceremonial swig. His Adam’s apple danced up and down and then he let out a loud sigh. He looked at Donny Steffen and belched. Then he smiled from behind the hood, a crooked smile that worked its way into his cheeks and formed dimples. Then he belched again, loudly.
“Why don’t you get the fuck out of here,” she yelled at us. “I hate both of you, especially you. Brothers don’t do this kind of thing, they don’t.”
The cold night was penetrating my jacket, causing me to shiver noticeably; Donny Steffen was restraining himself. He stood, chest punched out beneath his coat, leering at us with hatred. It was such intense hatred that I felt if I hadn’t been there, and Treech had been standing alone, Donny would have killed him right off. After all, these were still woods here, deep Michigan backwoods, and Donny had learned to shoot from his father, and there was a twelve gauge strapped to the pack on his machine.
The wind was picking up off the lake, the engines, cooling down, had stopped clicking to themselves and were now silent.
“Look, why don’t you jerks buzz off now and let us get along with our driving,” somebody said.
“But we’re still thirsty,” Treech yelled to them as he went back to the beers and picked up two more from the pile.
Donny moved now.
“Those are my beers.”
“Well these are for me and my buddy.” Again he opened the Miller with one hand and gave me my second beer of the night. I was wobbling a bit but feeling acutely brave. Taking on this scene from both a safe distance and from up front where it counted—I thought I would even be able to fight somehow, feel my fingernails digging into Donny’s face or knock my sister off her snow mobile and leave her spinning in the snow.
Before I could look up from my beer, Donny had jumped right down in front of Treech and he stood inches from his face.
Treech stood his ground, not moving, subdued by the snow and cold. I saw his legs quiver, buckling a bit at the knees.
“Do you understand,” Donny said. “That those are my beers and Katie is my chick now.”
“Those are your beers?”
“You’re damn right.”
Treech stood up beside him. They were both shaking now, about a foot apart.
“But is this your night Donny? Are these your stars or ice or goddamn lake; or is this your ice?”
He bellowed the words and as he talked, he moved back a few steps from Donny.
“You see this is me and the kid’s night really, just ours and a few beers and none of you have been here with us. We’re here alone. Alone.”
Clenched fists at his side, Donny began to form the first punch, pulling his elbow into his side and forming an arched arm.
But before Donny could lunge, Treech grabbed my mitt and turned us both around and we began to walk away from them, up the hill. Donny stood ground, shouting obscenities while somebody started a machine up. The headlights burned our stubby shadows into the hillside.
I glanced behind me down at my sister who was already on her snow mobile and starting to turn away.
We were reaching the top crest of the highest dune. The lake was a large white disk below. The machines whined and were gone, lost in the hard wind that had begun to blow from the north.
Stopped on top of the ridge, looking down, Treech whispered softly, “She’s sick, that bitch is really sick.”
My throat tightened. I was afraid that I might cry in front of Treech. If I opened my mouth I would cry, if I turned my head and looked into his heavy eyes, I would cry. Doing so would change me in his eyes.
But Treech was already crying, big tears. He rubbed his eyes with his palm and looked down at his boots, shrugged loudly and led the way down the hill.
“It’s the beers, you know. They kind of amplify your feelings like that, stop repressing or something like that and then bam, the tears hit.”
We were down in the brier brush and the thickets were shifting in the wind, rubbing the snow. It was falling hard, dulling the edges and biting our eyes. Behind us the machines were lost and so were my sister’s friends, whisked away over rubber treads as the headlights carved wedges of light into the night.
Treech’s arm latched around my back.
On the ice we walked slower, savoring the night, trying to take it all in.
“And maybe there are still wolves in the woods here, hiding in their caves half-asleep with the bears, and even they don’t understand the stars.”
We approached the center of the lake slowly, the wind, arrived hard from Canada, picked up the powder swirling it on the ice. It was very late. Treech held me up, his huge arm pulling me along.
“Maybe you’ll understand these things when you grow up, take ’em in stride like I do, most of the time.”
The dark fishing hole spilled water and sloshed before us; ink black, waxy. We stopped to contemplate its round perfection and the way it stood out with the falling snow: the boot tracks stomped around it almost lost in the dusting wind.
“Pan fish still biting down there?” I asked.
“Sure, way down, in the weedy muck on the bottom where it’s still warm, a little.”
“That’s deep ice kid, the purple stuff … takes a two-horse rotor to grind out a hole like that, and maybe an hour.”
We swung wide around the hole, retracing our steps. Our original path was obliterated by the new snow.
Where the boat landing formed a triangle to the very edge of the ice, we stood on the crust at the edge of the sheet and began to say good-bye to the night in the hard wind; and good-bye to my sister, who seemed lost now, far off in the hills, drinking beer.
On the drive home, I curled up near the heater on the floor of the pickup cab while we swayed down the slippery road. In the vestibule of my house he explained to my father about our trip, saying he was worried about Katie and had wanted to go looking for her but not alone, not at night, not at the lake: so he decided it would be better to have another man along just in case something was the matter.
“Did you find her?” my father asked softly.
“No, not really, but we heard the snowmobiles going and figured they were out hill hopping.”
Sympathetically, my father shook his head. His eyes were wide and he looked up at the snow until some hit him in the eye and he glanced away from it blinking.
We stood together while Treech drove away.
I saw him only a few times, later, when I was in high school.
He went to work for a furnace company, folding large sheets of galvanized iron into fitted box-pipe. Once, he came to watch me lineback in the homecoming game one Friday night. In the bleachers, he was hunched over, watching me intently.
No one found my sister, at least not with my help. And when I was older and visited her in the hospital she seemed calm. She played bumper pool in the lounge; she talked with her friends, her eyes glassy with Lithium, dark, deeper, sloshing, and dangerous like those ice fishing holes. For now, and possibly forever, I still circle wide around those eyes the way Treech taught me to; and as far as I can tell, so far, neither of us has fallen through.