In those days, our daughter would bang her head on the floor. She would bite us, hold her breath until her face purpled like a blood blister. Her shrieks would pierce the neighborhood, carry outward into other neighborhoods, into downtown Spokane and over to Idaho and Montana, Seattle and Canada, up and out of the atmosphere, all the way to the former planet of Pluto. Everyone told us the fits wouldn’t last forever, but I became certain these people were lying. That they were in on it with her. After all, how could she take us hostage, without accomplices? She was only 3.
I would flee the house and eat cheeseburgers. Make up any excuse. Read the Mini-Nickel with a Big Papa burger and a tub of tots and eat until it hurt, and that was how I first saw the 2013 Crestliner Kodiak, a deep-V 16-footer with a live well and outdoor carpet. It looked nicer than our house. I took an afternoon off work — “sick” — and drove to Republic. The moment I saw it on the trailer beside the garage, dimly silver and scythe-like, I began plotting its purchase. I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, hear her as she sat in the car at the public beach, window cracked and smoking, talking bitterly about the people with their boats, just another way she had of seeing the world as against her. “Must be nice,” she would say, in her most hateful voice.
It would be a problem, getting this boat. It would take some doing. As for Kay, my wife, I’d have to make it a surprise. So to speak.
We never knew what might set Maddy off. Her face would begin to storm over. Sometimes she would growl. You could sense the pressure building — almost smell it — until she started to wobble and shake. Oh! Her strength! Her will! I feared her eyeball or heart might burst, but it was me who could not take the pressure. Kay managed, calm though frustrated, but the tantrums turned me into a desperate, seething animal. I would force myself to leave the room and find something I could break or throw or curse at. When I didn’t leave the room it was worse. Once, ape-brained, I leaned into her face and shouted, “BE! QUIET!” which made her scream harder, and which caused my wife to look at me in horrified wonder as she picked up flailing Maddy and walked away.
We loved her, of course. We couldn’t help that any more than she could.
I took an afternoon off and drove to the bank and withdrew $15,000 from the home equity line of credit we had agreed we would never use. The envelope with the hundreds was as thick as an unfolded disposable diaper, and it lifted me like a snootful of alabaster cocaine. The ad said, Like new. It said, $16,000 OBO. My BO should have been zero. There was no room in our budget for any kind of O. There was no room in our budget for the things that were already in our budget. The second drive to Republic — alone, buzzed on cash and the illusion of freedom, with no blemishing thought of return — felt like my first happy moments in months.
Sometimes Maddy would repeatedly scream a single word: binky, binky, binky. Sometimes she would speak in an alien tongue. Often she would just shriek wordlessly, and in those fits I would have my darkest thoughts, would see her as an opponent, an antagonist. My grandmother would tell us to ignore her. “She has to learn she is not the center of the universe,” she’d say. “Really let her know you’re not paying attention.”
What I envisioned was: Family times on the water. Teaching Maddy to fish. Little picnics in the boat, sandwiches and canned drinks. Something to fill every week with a dream of joy. When I got the boat home on its trailer, parked it in front of the house and went in to surprise Kay, she was holding Maddy with a look of flushed exhaustion. Maddy’s head was tucked against Kay’s shoulder, face lined with runnels of drying tears. It took me forever to get Kay outside. “I’m not sure I’m in the mood for any more surprises,” she said, and then, when she understood what I had done, “Oh, Henry. You have to take it back. You have to.”
It took her a long time to accept that there was no taking it back.
When we left the dock, puttering into the chop, the sky was halved. Ahead: pale and flat and gray. Behind: a falling smear of storm. We could smell it. Maddy was bundled on Kay’s lap, a paste of crackers and saliva covering her cheeks, binky in her fist. Kay looked off and away, above my head and into the sky.
Something was wrong in the sound of the boat. A catching, a chugging. Kay said, “Let’s do this another time. Please. Look at that sky.”
What I wanted to know was: When does this family life get right? I pushed the throttle and headed out into the lake. My wife shook her head very, very, very slightly. Behind us, the storm reached the edge of the lake, pebbling the water with rain. We would have to drive the boat back into it, straight into a wet, flensing wind. Maddy seemed happy, throwing her arms as the boat bounced. Her face was deep red, as red as the hood worn by the girl who doesn’t recognize the wolf. She dropped her binky.
The engine kept making that noise. My wife looked away from me with great purpose. We bounced over a ledge of wave, and Maddy shouted Ga!, and I tried to send my wife a thought: Look at me. Look at me. We bounced again, and then again – sharp, jarring bursts that threw Kay sideways and almost caused Maddy to fall, and Kay did look at me then, hard, and mouthed, “Go back.”
“But she’s loving it,” I shouted, and it was more or less true: Maddy was flapping her arms and shouting something I couldn’t hear. We bounced again, landing hard and off-kilter in our seats. Maddy’s head snapped forward and back, loose for a moment on her neck, and Kay killed me with a look – drove a stake in my heart, fired two shots into my temple, pushed me off a backcountry cliff – and shouted. “GO! BACK!”
How can I explain this? The rain had caught us, was pinging all around, and the wind was at our backs, and we were together in our new boat, the boat I had obtained for us, and Maddy was practically laughing, and the lake lay before us, awaiting our family, a family I for one refused to give up on. I pressed the throttle forward as far as I could. We’d have to go farther before we went back.
Shawn Vestal is a Spokesman-Review columnist and author of the short story collection “Godforsaken Idaho” and the upcoming novel “Daredevils.” He grew up in southern Idaho, where there are more irrigation canals than lakes, and as a result he will jump into virtually any body of water when it’s hot.
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