Lawrence Paulson

So Did You Dance?

It has been a year since Jenny died, and I know it’s time to make a decision about the house at Echo Lake. Tim has been taking care of the place, keeping down the weeds and making sure ice dams don’t form on the roof in the West Virginia winter, but I know he only does it because he was fond of Jenny. His job is building houses, not taking care of ones he completed twenty years ago. I need to visit the place again, maybe for the last time.
I leave for the four-hour drive on an afternoon in mid-April, too late in the spring to be ambushed by a snowstorm like the ones that Jenny and I used to encounter once we crossed Big Savage Mountain on I-68. But spring runs backward as I pass Frederick and Hagerstown and cross the thin shard of Maryland that holds the canal town of Hancock, the green new leaves reverting to brown wintry branches. I speed through the gray wound incised by the highway into Sideling Hill and pass the old Queen City of Cumberland, splayed out in its splendid bowl of hillside and valley. Past Frostburg I turn south off the interstate and follow the winding roads of New Germany State Park (where we’d stopped once for a mother bear and her cubs) to Oakland and across the line into West Virginia.
“It almost seems as if we’re sneaking in,” Jenny said late one Friday evening when we’d set out for the lake house after a long week in Washington.
“Brass band next time,” I said. But we always arrived quietly, sometimes in the early hours of Saturday, and slept in until lunchtime.
On this trip, without Jenny, the sky is still holding a bit of light when I check in at the gate house and turn up the hill past the lodge to the rise where we’d built “Yr Hafod,” as the tile plaque by the front door proclaims. It means “mountain house” in Welsh, a language Jenny had for some reason learned in college. I haul my roller bag up the steps and retrieve the key Tim has been using from under the mat. A few steps into the great room (on seeing Tim’s plans for the house, Jenny said, “It’s a good room. I’ll reserve judgment on the rest.”) tell me that mouse remediation needs to be one of my tasks.
But the mice, and the whole notion of being at the house without Jenny, can wait, and dinner and a couple of drinks can only help. I roll my suitcase into the back bedroom, lock up again, and set off down the hill to the lodge. There’s a mountain chill in the air and the daffodils in the border beds in the front yards of the mostly dark houses are showing only a few brave fingers of green.
At the bottom of the hill I glance quickly at the lake, the water indigo in the twilight, and pass through the double doors of the lodge into the deserted lobby. In one of the numerous retrenchments ordered by the Homeowners’ Association to save money, the actual dining room is only open on weekends. Dinner on this Wednesday is in the tavern, which is only half filled with year-rounders.
Tim is at the bar, as I expected, talking to a blond woman I don’t recognize. I notice that he’s apparently driving to McHenry for his haircuts. The style is a far cry from the mullet he sported when Jenny and I first knew him twenty years ago. I take a seat at a high-top table near the back; I figure he’ll notice me soon enough. I’m already halfway through my hamburger and most of the way through my first draft beer before he turns away from the woman and surveys the room. He spots me and comes over to my table.
“Hey stranger,” he says. “You should have told me you were coming up.”
“It was a last-minute decision.”
“So—how have things been going?” He asks this with slightly downcast eyes, so I take it as a question about how I’m getting along without Jenny.
I give my standard answer: “Some days are better than others.”
“Of course.”
“But I’m doing pretty well, considering. How’s the house-building business?”
“It’s really picking up, and Jason sold a shitload of lots last fall.” Jason is Tim’s realtor brother.
“Glad to hear it.”
“Have you made a decision about your place?”
“Well, I wanted to talk to you about that,” I say. “Not here, it’s too loud. Why don’t you come by the house for a drink? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I’ve got appointments until 7. I could come over after that.”
“That works,” I say. “Are you still a Scotch drinker?”
“More than ever,” he says. “See you tomorrow.” He goes back to the blond woman. I drink another beer, then head out the door. Tim and I exchange waves.
It’s much colder as I walk back to the house and I wish I’d turned up the heat before I went to dinner. There’s an artificial log in the fireplace grate from the last time Jenny and I were here and I open the damper and set the log ablaze for its psychological effect if nothing else.
I want to deal with the mice before I go to bed. I think I know where the little bastards met their end. There is for some reason—Tim would know why but I’ve never asked him—a small gap between the outside wall of the house on one side and the interior walls on the first floor. The rodents crawl into that space as the temperatures drop in the fall. I pull off the baseboard in the back of the closet in the second bedroom, clear out the carcasses, clean the death chamber with the shop vac, spray it with Lysol and then nail the baseboard back in place. Mouse Patrol, as Jenny called it, is far from my favorite task at the lake.
With that done, I check the hot tub on the back deck. Tim emptied it last fall and I consider filling it, but quickly decide the chances I will feel like using it on this visit are close to zero. It was something Jenny and I did late at night, perhaps with a glass of wine, the vivid West Virginia stars visible through the trees. I stand on the deck for a few minutes listening to the night noises, the rustlings and occasional cries that we’d speculate about but realize we’d never really understand. Then I go back inside, pour myself some bourbon, and watch the fake log burn itself down.

In the morning I walk around the lake. About a dozen grebes are hunting breakfast near the boat house. Along the forest trail that borders the east side of the lake, some of the cherries are showing faint white and there are buds on the dogwoods. It’s what Jenny once called the “time of incipience.” (I told her I’d find a way to use the phrase in a story.) Most of the houses with lake views—you aren’t allowed to build directly on the shore—are still closed up. In a few weeks the weather will be glorious and the returning snowbirds will be cleaning their gutters and raking the leaves from the daffodil beds. Soon the drone of power tools will echo across the hills.
I’m determined to keep busy. After the walk I drive to Oakland to pick up a bottle of Scotch for my talk with Tim. I get a sub and a lemon iced tea at Sheetz for lunch and eat in the parking lot. I save half of the sandwich for later, thinking it may have to be dinner. At the liquor store in the strip mall across from Sheetz I buy a fifth of Chivas and a can of mixed nuts.
Then, inevitably, I go to the book store, cleverly named The Book Store. It’s a surprising feature for such a small town, probably kept in business by the Washingtonians who are building million-dollar places on Deep Creek Lake. But Jenny and I made it a point of buying books there whenever we were in town.
I find I’m not really in the mood for browsing. I pull a mystery off the shelf almost at random and put it down on the desk in the middle of the shop. Meg the owner looks up from her computer. “Hey!” she says. “Where have you been keeping yourself?”
“I haven’t been able to get up here for the past year,” I say. “I’ve missed this place.” “We’ve missed you. Where’s your lovely bride?”
“That’s—that’s why it’s been a year. She—“
Meg’s eyes widen, and then she looks down. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” I say, my standard response.
She rings up my book and hands it to me with a store bookmark. “It will get easier,” she says. “Time really is a healer.”
I have my doubts, but I thank Meg again and say, “See you soon, I hope.”
My last stop is the hardware store, for another artificial log for the fireplace. It’s as close as I’ll be able to come to building a campfire, and aren’t campfires fine places for telling stories?
It’s only midafternoon when I get back to the house, and I’m really not sure what to do with myself until it’s time for Tim’s visit. I’m tired and think longingly of a nap, but sleep has been difficult in the past year and naps impossible. But I close the blinds in the bedroom and stretch out on the bed and immediately fall deeply asleep.

I’m roused by a call from Tim telling me he’ll be a half-hour late. That gives me time to throw some cold water on my face, light the fake log, and pour myself a preparatory drink of Chivas. I flick on the porch light and open the front door when I hear his oversized pickup crunch to a stop in the gravel driveway. “Welcome,” I say, with what I hope doesn’t sound like forced enthusiasm.
      He walks into the great room and looks up at the beamed ceiling. “That’s nice work, if I do say so myself.”
“You did a fine job,” I say. “I’m sure I’ve told you that.”
“Always good to hear, though.” Tim sits in one of the armchairs facing the fire. I offer him a drink and he accepts. “Fireplace is drawing well,” he observes.
“Really Tim, the house is fine. Except for the mice.”
“Well, you know, mice.”
“I’m afraid I do.”
“I hate the bastards,” Tim says. I hand him his drink and take the other armchair. Then I get up again and fetch the Chivas bottle from the kitchen and put it on the table between the armchairs, along with the can of mixed nuts.
“Good thinking,” Tim says. He takes a long drink of his Scotch and swallows a handful of nuts. “So are you any closer to making a decision about the house? If you want to sell, this wouldn’t be a bad time.”
“Really?” Nothing wrong with starting off on property values.
“Well, you know we’ve always been kind of a poor man’s Deep Creek Lake, but prices have gone insane over there. So a lot more buyers are looking at us as an alternative. I’ve got a possible six starts in the next three months, if I can find the crews. As for existing homes—“
“So I’d make big bucks.”
“Big-ish.” He names the selling price of a house similar to this one.
“That’s not bad,” I say. “But I still—“
“I know it must be hard . . . “ His voice trails off. I pour us a little more Scotch.
“So this house,” I say after a minute or so. “Do you remember when it was being built?”
He looks at me curiously. “Of course I do. Although I’ve built a shitload of houses since then, so the details might escape me. That was twenty years ago.”
I say, “This was the first house Jenny and I built from scratch—had built for us from scratch—and we wanted to see it go up, at least once the framing started. We were going to stay a couple of weeks at the lodge, in one of the motel rooms.”
“Yeah, you wanted to know if you’d get in the way. I said I thought we could handle it.”
“But it turned out there was a trial in Washington I needed to cover, so Jenny came up by herself. I’d try to come up later. Do you remember?”
“Uh, where are you going with this?” Tim asks, reaching for his glass. “Just stay with me a minute. This is important.”
“Okay, go on,” Tim says.
“So do you remember Jenny being up here by herself?”
He shakes his head as if to clear it. “Yes, all right. Of course I remember. She walked up from the lodge every afternoon. Always asked good questions. I appreciated that. She said she worked on her book in the mornings. She ever finish that book?”
“No, not that one.”
“Because she—“
“Did you get together in the evenings as well?”
Tim drains his glass and pours another. I should get us more ice, but I want to hear his answer to my question first.
He takes a deep breath. “We had dinner together at the lodge most nights. Didn’t she tell you that at the time? That was twenty years ago.”
“Yes, you’ve made that point.”
“So have you been worrying about this for all that time?”
I get up and go to the kitchen and bring back some ice in a soup bowl. Tim thanks me and adds a few cubes to his drink. I say, “Actually no, I haven’t been worrying about it for twenty years. In fact I’ve only thought about it in the past few months, when I realized it was time to do something about this place. It seems relevant, somehow. To my . . . decision.”
“So you wanted to know—“
“Look, Tim, it wasn’t really the trial that kept me from coming up that summer. The paper would have found someone else to cover the trial if I’d asked them. Jenny wanted to go up by herself. It was her idea.”
“To work on her book?”
“That was part of it.” Why am I talking so much? The idea was for me to get Tim to talk. It’s supposed to be his story, not mine.
But I go on. “The fact is, we were in trouble. It was my . . . I definitely contributed to the trouble. Maybe I was the whole cause of it. So was this house supposed to be the solution? At least we didn’t decide that having a child would fix everything. You can’t screw up a lake house for life, right?”
t pour myself another drink. Tim says, “Yeah, I got the impression there were—issues. But she didn’t really talk about it. Was that what her book was about?”
“Maybe in part. She never let me read any of it, and she never finished it. She tore it up, figuratively speaking. She deleted it.”
“There was actually a band one night,” Tim says. It takes me a second to realize he’s talking about the dinners.
“So did you dance?”
“Uh, one or two numbers.”
“Yeah, Jenny liked to dance. I’m a terrible dancer, and I usually just embarrass myself, so I tried not to be in dance situations. I should have—”
“She was a good dancer,” Tim says.
“I know.”
The fake log breaks in half with a deep hiss, stirring sparks. I say, ”We built this house to—preserve something, I suppose. And it worked, after a fashion. At first housebuilding was a subject for us to talk about that didn’t go too deep. And then we just went on with things. You can’t solve everything. A lot of the time, you probably shouldn’t even try.”
Tim takes that in, then says, “I keep waiting for you to ask me the next question.”
“Would you answer it?”
He seems to consider this for a moment, but he doesn’t speak.
I say, “I’ll ask you a different one. Were you in love with her?”
He’s silent again, then says, “Still am, I suppose.”
“Did you—“
“I tried to contact her, once she got back home, but she wasn’t having it. She was always friendly when you’d come up after the house was finished. But there was nothing more.” He drinks the rest of his Scotch. “How was it—“
“At the end? Hospice came, and it was peaceful and I think pain free.”
I wonder if I should tell him more than that, but I don’t.
There doesn’t seem to be much more to say. Tim stands up and heads for the door. He thanks me for the drinks. He asks, “Will you be staying for awhile?”
“No, I think I better get back tomorrow. I have an article due in a couple of days.”
“I’ll keep looking after the place, for as long as you want. Until you decide.” We shake hands and I step out on the porch and watch his truck reverse down the driveway and head down the hill.
There are just a few dishes and I wash them by hand. I think of finishing my Sheetz sandwich but decide I’m not really hungry. Maybe I’ll have it on the way home tomorrow. I step out on the back deck. A doe is crossing the yard only a few yards from the edge of the deck. It’s amazing how quietly she moves through the fallen leaves.

I sleep well, despite yesterday’s nap. In the morning I find some year-old coffee beans in the refrigerator, grind them, and make bad coffee. I pack the few things I’ve brought and stow the bag in the car. Before I leave I make a list of the things I should bring next time I come: some new CDs, clean sheets, fresh coffee. After locking up I put the key back under the mat. I buy gas and some doughnuts at the Exxon in Oakland. Spring returns as I get nearer to home, white and pink in the gentle valley between Hagerstown and Frederick, and green, like Jenny’s eyes, in the low hills.

Lawrence Paulson lives in Hyattsville, Maryland. His poetry and short fiction have been published in Southern Voices, Eunoia Review, Fiction on the Web, and The Dillydoun Review and received an International Merit Award in the Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition. He has been a journalist, copy editor, association executive, publisher, and the owner of an unsuccessful yarn shop.