The Simplest Thing by Cookie Mueller

BOMB 24 Summer 1988
024 Summer 1988

Floating on Confidence Lake, on a queen sized inflatable rubber pancake kind of thing, was Molly, the woman who lately had been thinking of herself as a joke. She almost was, but in this setting who was around to laugh?

This was a quiet hidden lake, way off the Cape Cod highway, accessible only by a narrow dirt road, where tiny cars could barely fit one at a time. The road and the lake were surrounded on all sides by a corpulent emerald green forest.

For Molly, this forest was very feminine, the trees that grew there were all like girls and old women. The haughty birch trees were tall and hip looking like runway models, the scrub pines were loud and bitchy when the wind blew through their needles, the oaks friendly like floozies, the Dutch elm trees were spinsters and half dead with that disease of theirs. Fat low bushes wore spreading green skirts.

The lake too was like a woman. All the lakes scattered around those parts. Confidence Lake, Patience Lake, and Sincerity Lake were old exotics, women of mystery, actual phenomenons formed in prehistory by glacier ice. Geologists had pondered these ponds since H. D. Thoreau, and said that they were glacier fed and deeper than anyone ever had the nerve to discover so maybe it was true, maybe there were underwater express tunnels direct from the North Pole. The water was cold enough and clear as clean windows to ten feet. Below that it was a mystery, murky and black.

“Just like women,” Molly thought and smiled.

Someone would have to care a lot to go down there.

It hadn’t escaped her thoughts also that aquatic dinosaurs could conceivably still be breeding around the bottom, wherever that was, maybe near to the earth’s heart, the molten bull’s eye core.

She had been getting paranoid while she was thinking about mammoth leafy women watching her from the shores, but she was more frightened thinking about huge things under her in the blackness, so she centered herself in the middle of the big floater so nothing dangled in the water. No toes or ankles to be bitten off by big snapper clamp jaws. A big mouth could eat the whole air mattress, she thought and laughed. It’d be just like eating a marshmallow.

Her imagination was always scaring her lately. It was bigger than she was, but at least she could laugh about it, the big joke.

On eddies she drifted to the middle of the huge lake and she drifted asleep. The sky around her was sapphire blue with a couple of back-woods beach birds in it. Molly would have seen them if she’d been awake. She was on her back.

She was there on that lake because of an invitation from two close friends. Barry and Emory, identical twins. Molly had been extremely overworked since December, seven months, and very hostile but fragile, much like a thin cracking china cup full of bitter hot tea. She deserved a rest more than anything, she was confused and frantic about the course of her life, she felt as if there was a secret about existence she was missing out on, so when the twins said, “Come stay with us for a while on the lake, you’ll relax and learn a few things,” she went. She hadn’t been out of the city for five years straight.

The twins, born connected, had this lake cottage, an inherited grandparents’ old summer home. After all the years and soil erosion this house was practically sitting squat in the lake, just a hop, skip, and jump out the door from the kitchen table to two feet of water where water plants, the kind in gold fish bowls, grew on the sandy bottom.

Barry was watching her from the kitchen window.

“Hey Molly,” he yelled to her, “Let’s eat.”

She didn’t hear him because she was so far away dreaming.

In the blue water, that was as placid as a plate. she reminded Barry of the Blue Plate Special served on Sundays at the EAT PAY AND GET OUT diner back home in Boston. She had been soaking the sun, and now she was as burnt as an over-cooked ham steak. Barry thought about how she’d probably be sitting in a bathtub of vinegar later that night, to ease the sunburn pain.

“What a dummy. She’s getting crisp,” Barry mused out loud and turned to his chicken salad. “Emory, you wanna eat?” Emory wasn’t there.

Meanwhile Molly was dreaming that a giant woman was holding her in her palm and whispering about things under her, “All the living things down here, Molly, are much smaller than you.” This was definitely a good dream because Molly never thought anything was smaller than herself. She was the smallest thing she could imagine.

“Hey wake up,” Emory was hauling himself onto the mattress, panting. The cold water he splashed Molly with made Molly really pissed off, but she didn’t yell at Emory, after all it was Emory’s lake, Emory’s water.

“I almost died getting out here. I didn’t think it was going to be so tough. It’s really far. I almost drowned half way and then I couldn’t turn back and I panicked. I yelled to you. I was yelling for help! You didn’t hear me! God Molly! I could have died!” Emory whined like the runt he was. Wimpier than his twin Barry, like the negative of Barry’s photograph, he was always less definable in the landscape, almost like his body outline was melting into what was behind him in life’s picture. He looked just like Barry, except Emory’s very being wasn’t very substantial. If he had been a piece of fabric, he would be a chiffon veil, like the shadow material that came off of Peter Pan. Barry, as fabric, would be heavier woven stuff. Burlap twill maybe.

Molly liked both of them equally.

“I didn’t hear you.” Molly said, “I was dreaming, I think.” Maybe it was something she remembered instead of a dream. Maybe she was experiencing a flashback to the time she was in a fetal state inside the big womb. It all made sense, the women all around, the whispers.

“God, you’re really burnt. Better get out of the sun. Paddle us back, I’m too exhausted,” Emory said and spread himself out.

“We can’t drift back?” Molly asked.

“Drift back? No we’re drifting over there.” He pointed to the opposite shore. Molly looked there. That shore seemed a different zone. Foliage that bent reflections in that part of the lake seemed akin to Jurassic epoch flora. Over there it was like a slow stagnant swamp that hadn’t kept in step. The water looked thick and slimy there.

“You have to kick or something. I can’t do it all myself.”

“Molly just paddle us back.”

A half hour later they made it to the cottage and Molly’s arms were very sore and trembling. She could hardly lift the bowl of chicken salad.

That night on the front porch after dinner, Molly got drunk with the twins. The mosquitos weren’t biting, the mosquito authorities had just sprayed and there was a bug light and green mosquito coils burning.

“So this lake has no bottom? That’s really frightening. I was scared thinking about it today.”

Molly said. “There’s a bottom somewhere. But it’s so dark down there that you wouldn’t see the bottom if you found it,” Barry said.

“I got scared,” Molly admitted, but she didn’t want to mention the sweet water monsters or the lake trees that were just like women, unsavory women.

“You got scared of the bottomlessness? You think it goes all the way to China?” Barry laughed. “Molly, you have an active imagination.”

“That’s why we love Molly.” Emory said. “She’s always good for a laugh.” “Shut up,” Molly screamed because she was very sensitive about her joke quality.

The scream silenced the forest, as if it had been thunder. The chorus of bull frogs and nocturnal winged singers stopped for a full five seconds and every living thing there listened to nothing.

 Suzanne Williamson, Eagle Mound Earthworks, Newark, Ohio, 1985, gelatin silver print, 16 × 20 inches. Courtesy of Ledel Gallery.

Suzanne Williamson, Eagle Mound Earthworks, Newark, Ohio, 1985, gelatin silver print, 16 × 20 inches. Courtesy of Ledel Gallery.

Emory was hurt because he had only intended affection.

When the frogs started again the conversation started again.

“Ever explore the other side of the lake? The side that looks swampy?” Molly asked them.

“Of course, we spent every summer on this lake,” Barry said.

“That’s the side that used to scare me when I was a kid. I used to pretend it was a primordial swamp with dinosaurs,” Emory said.

Molly talked and talked. She ranted and demanded answers. She angrily threw her glass into the bushes at one point. The twins grew weary of her hysteria and when she finally wound down and fell asleep on the wicker porch sofa, the twins left her there. They felt that sleep for her was optimum. They figured she was headed for a nervous breakdown.

They left her there, Barry and Larry, to be surprised by morning flies, the kind that hover over dung. They had laid some measly thin shield of a blanket over her but when the first rays of 7 AM sun started cooking her she festered like something rotting and sat bolt upright on the porch next to the water.

Oh what had she told those twins last night? She had probably offered her soul and they had probably stolen it.

For a while she watched water bugs surf the ripples, then she decided to go across the lake to the shore she was so curious about.

On the mattress half way there, she started to get paranoid again about the trees and the darkness under her. In terror she paddled hard toward that shore. The water was laughing at her in splashes.

When she finally reached shallow water near the creepy shore, she discovered that the surface was covered with fine kelly green polka dots, little plants with no distending roots, just tiny life forms. It was like minestrone, a green magma. Iridescent hummingbirds and dragonflies drank from the lake like elk. The trees were already whispering and jeering, jealous, like most women, and she was exhausted, but all ears and on pins. She was vaguely aware that she might have been hallucinating.

The trees were leaning over her trying to put their shade on her, trying to snatch her from the strength she could soak from the sun. She didn’t like these trees. In fact, she hated them. More than this, she hated everything. She felt superior, but cheated. Her life had never been easy, not as easy as the life of trees, or lakes. They had it good, she knew, so she hated them. Who did these trees think they were anyway?

“How dare you? Don’t you know who I am?” she asked them.

And that was when she heard the loudest sound she’d ever heard in her life. A very tall dead Dutch elm tree began to scream. It tore itself in half and split from its branches down to its center. It chose to fall. The whole thing came falling toward her, but she didn’t move. When it hit the sand and the water it missed her by a yard.

Why had this tree fallen right then? With her sitting right there? There wasn’t any wind that pushed it. Apparently it had just given up the ghost. Something ran up her spine that made her shimmy, and in a flash, as if a light exploded in her, she remembered something she’d known a long time ago.

She looked at the sad dried up face of the tree, lying on its ravaged side, and she suddenly remembered that this tree did know who she was, knew her right down to her corpuscles. How could she hate that?

She looked at that tree and remembered that delineations didn’t matter, didn’t exist. Molly was right in there with the tree, she and the tree were just a bunch of swirling atoms, a jumbled chowder. Her skin appeared to bag her up, like all human skin appears to do, but that was just the way it looked. She suddenly remembered that she couldn’t separate herself from everything around her.

“You’re in the soup, Molly,” she told herself.

Molly was indeed.

For the first time in months, she just sat there breathing.

In a split second she was flimsy Emory and tough Barry. She was pounding like a tall woman, stationary and grand as a girl tree, she was the whole of the lake, so so deep with miles of tunnels to the Arctic, cold, frigid and hot on the surface. She was the sun and the sky, the beach birds. She was the glacier ice, the earth’s core, a fetus. She was the air she was breathing, the bathing suit she was wearing, the air mattress she was on, the tree beside her. She was all the work she’d done in the last eight months. She was in the soup, same as all the people, same as the frogs, same as the chicken salad in the refrigerator in the cottage across Confidence Lake.

Ahhh, no, she wasn’t a nervous twit or a joke, or else she was both of those things magnified. She was a mass mess spaghetti jumble of nerves and the biggest joke in the world. Both. But neither. All. She was everything and everything made sense. She’d known all this simple stuff before, she’d just forgotten it.

A huge sense of calm settled over her like a fat mushy blanket.

She felt suddenly a fool. Everything was so simple it was hardly thinkable.

All at once now, she didn’t hate anything because she didn’t see any reason to take everything so seriously, things were okay after all. The sun would go up and down, she’d walk in it, days would go by, she’d eat and sleep in them. She was okay. Everything seemed a bit more friendly once she knew it was her everywhere she looked.

Cookie Mueller acted in John Waters’s films. Her book of epistles, Fan Mail, Frank Letters, and Crank Calls, is coming out this summer through Hanuman Books. She is just completing her first novel, tentatively entitled, No Clothes.

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BOMB 24, Summer 1988

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024 Summer 1988