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By Kelli J Gavin
Michael winced at the pain in his shoulder. It had started hurting by about the fifth time he put the oar in the water. How was he going to make it home? Michael let the small boat float a bit as he took another drink from his water bottle and used the handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow and neck. Irritated that the water levels had dropped, he wasn’t able to drop the motor into the water. Using an oar would be the only way he would be able to return.
The morning he set out for home, he swore under his breath as he approached the dock. He didn’t have a plan, he wasn’t prepared for the elements. Michael knew that the phone call from the Sheriff was important, but he still wished he hadn’t answered the phone. His father had taken ill and hadn’t been to town in months. The road was almost impassable. First, washed out by floods and then so many huge holes that formed when the water receded. The Sheriff tried to check on him but couldn’t get his boat through the muck. He returned with a smaller boat a second time. With the water levels so low at this time of year, the Sheriff wondered if Old Man Lemond’s boat may have been stuck in the mud and he couldn’t reach out to anyone for help. The second time the Sheriff reached the narrow end of the channel, Old Man Lemond greeted him with a single shot from his old shot gun. No words were exchanged. That single shot was a warning to stay away.
Ms. Zimern tried calling every few days, but the phone stopped going to voicemail and now just continued to ring. Ms. Zimern was actually the one that alerted Sheriff Wallin to the fact that Lemond was ill in the first place. She was also the one that made sure the Sheriff knew he hadn’t been into town for a couple months for his staples of bread, frozen meals and powdered milk and plenty of canned goods.
Ms. Zimern was always incredibly friendly when she called Sheriff Wallin. Quiet and kind, that was Ms. Zimern. Michael was nine when his mother died, and Ms. Zimern had been called in to help care for Michael and his little sister, Nicolette. She had never married and found that caring for other people’s children brought her so much joy and filled the void. When she started cooking for their family, she also found herself then putting the children to bed at night and anticipating Lemond’s return home from the long shifts he worked at the factory in town.
Ms. Zimern cared for Lemond much more than she would ever admit. She once had dreams that they would marry one day and raise Michael and little Nicolette together. Such dreams never came true as Lemond held on to a liquor bottle much tighter than any relationship he had ever had. Lemond grew cold and distant and as his children grew, the need for Ms. Zimern became less. When Michael turned sixteen, she visited once a week to clean their home and to cook meals for the next few days which included plenty for leftovers.
When Michael turned seventeen, Ms. Zimern said it was too much for her and couldn’t return. Lemond had gotten drunk, came home in soiled clothing and tried to take advantage of her. In that moment, any dream she had about possible love and companionship dissolved right in front of her eyes.
Michael left home at the age of twenty. He had stayed at home two extra years just so he could keep a watchful eye on his little sister. When Nicolette graduated from High School, she ran out of the front door of the old cabin at the end of the narrow channel and never looked back. She and Michael excelled in their Freshman year at a small community college and once he saw that Nicolette was going to be just fine on her own, he knew it was time to start his own life. He dropped out of the school that they both attended and decided he wanted to pursue art while going to night school.
Michael’s artwork was dark. Mostly paintings of trees, grass and water, the vines were what grasped most people’s attention. They often were reaching out for people, strangling them and sometimes even pulling people into the deep. Night school enabled Michael to experiment with other mediums. Sculpture, clay, drawing, but he always went back to painting. He was at rest when a paint brush was in his hand.
Michael came to the realization that all he ever painted were scenes from his home. Where everything was green, muddy and wet. He felt a release when he painted. A calm would wash over him and he knew he could continue on. Michael took jobs here and there, washing dishes, cleaning barns, helping with cattle and horses, but only to pay his rent and put food on the table. He was fortunate to sell a few pieces and then scored a showing at the local art gallery. Every wall was bare by the end of the show. Commissions started pouring in and life became a bit easier.
Michael began creating art full time and found a great space for a studio with an apartment above. He called Nicolette each week to check in with her. He started sending her money each month so that she wouldn’t have to worry about anything. She was grateful that her brother helped her pay off student loans and pay her rent.
When he left home with Nicolette in tow, he knew that his dad would just fall further and further into oblivion. Michael tried calling home a few times, Christmas, his dad’s birthday, but was always greeted with a snarl, “Who is this? Why are you calling?” The conversations always went downhill from there since his dad was probably double fisting bottles just to get through another day.
Michael knew going to see his father now that he was ill wasn’t going to be easy. If he fired a shot in the air at the Sheriff, chances are it would also happen to him. Michael also knew that he would need to announce himself as he slowly approached the property at the end of the channel.
Toiling over the fact that this might be the last time he saw his father, Michael realized his chest ached just as much as his shoulder. This was stress, he kept telling himself. You are fine. Just check on him, tell him who to call when he needs help, say goodbye, and go. That is all you have to do.
As he neared the property at the end of the channel, he observed that the water was no more than about three feet deep. No wonder the Sheriff couldn’t get his boat down there the first time. Michael shouted, “Dad! Dad, it is me, Michael! Dad, I am here to see you!”
There was no response. Michael announced himself again and his father never emerged from the small house. Slowly floating up to the rickety old dock, Michael reached out to grab the first metal post. He proceeded to throw a rope around the post and stepped out of the boat. Fearful that the dock wouldn’t hold his weight, he gingerly stepped on one board at a time until he reached solid ground.
Discovering that the front door was secured, he walked around back to see if that door had been left unlocked. It was unlocked just as it always had been when he and Nicolette lived there. His dad intentionally left it open for when they returned from school. Michael knocked as he entered. Old Man Lemond was seated at the kitchen table, bent over resting with his head on his arms. There were dishes and trash here and there and Michael knew that his dad must be passed out from the liquor that had already been consumed that morning.
Michael hesitated as he prepared to place his hand on his dad’s arm. That is when he saw the handwritten letter on the table and the discarded pen.
Dear Michael and Nicolette,
I am sure by now you know that I am sick. Liver Cancer. The doc said maybe a few more weeks. I don’t know. Each day gets more difficult. I hurt a lot and the pills he gave me don’t seem to help. I am lonely and it is time for me to go.
I love you guys. I am sorry. For everything. Your mother and I loved you both. I am sorry I was never the dad you needed. That I couldn’t be the dad you deserved.
My pension is now managed at the bank in town. They also have an account that will pay for my final expenses. Burn this house. It isn’t worth much.
The boat is at the bottom of the channel. The truck wouldn’t start. I couldn’t walk to town. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t call anyone to come get me. Who would I call?
Tell Ms. Zimern I am sorry. Tell her. Don’t forget.
Thank you for…
Michael quickly flipped over the single sheet of paper to see what else it said. That was it. Nothing more. His dad must have passed out as he was writing it. He stuffed the paper in his pocket and reached forward to wake his dad.
Old Man Lemond wasn’t to be woken. Michael checked his neck for a pulse and placed his hand in front of his nose to check if he was breathing. He has passed away probably within the last twelve hours, Micheal thought. He sat down next to his dad and just sat in the quiet for a few minutes. No tears, no emotion. Just an acceptance of what had happened in the hours before he arrived.
Michael reached for his cell phone to call Sheriff Mallin. He told him his father had passed recently while writing a letter. And that they could probably get out to the house if they brought a 4×4. Sheriff Mallin was stern and serious, but never offered an apology to him that Old Man Lemond had passed.
Michael went to clear out a few things from the bedroom. His parents’ wedding picture, his mom’s dairies from the bedside table where they were always kept, and the Family Bible from the coffee table. He took his grandma’s silverware from the hutch and both the high school graduation pictures which hung in the hallway. That was it. Nothing else of worth, nothing else that was treasured. He found a duffel bag in the bedroom closet and placed each item in there.
As Michael prepared to leave the house for the last time, he paused and went back to the kitchen. He pretended for just a moment that his dad was sleeping. He reached and touched his hand and saw that he was still wearing his wedding ring. Old Man Lemond had never recovered from losing his wife. Michael bent over and kissed his dad on the top of his head.
At the end of the dock, Michael sat down after placing the duffel bag of belongings in the boat. He removed his shoes and let his feet dangle in the water. When he got back to town, he would see if he could hire Ms. Zimern to clear out the home and then would place the property up for sale. Someone would like this land for hunting and fishing. But this land wasn’t a property he ever planned to go back to.
The Sheriff and Coroner arrived within a half hour and removed their hats. They took pictures and notes, made a few phone calls and then told Michael it was okay for him to leave. Michael then told him that he would be in town for a few more days and that he would plan on having his dad’s remains cremated and buried and that he would take care of the arrangements with the local funeral home. No service was necessary. Sheriff Mallin clasped Michael on the arm and nodded at him. Michael then returned to the dock and the boat which had carried him home.
Michael sat in the boat rowing slowly and knew that there was no going back. He would not return again.
That evening, he called Nicolette. A brief call, only to explain what had happened. No tears or consolation needed. Just an exchange of information. He then called Ms. Zimern. He shared the news. He asked her if he could hire her to clear out the house, and she immediately said yes. She went on to explain that she somehow knew that this would be the final way that she helped both he and Nicolette. She said she would indeed clear out the possessions and either leave or sell the furniture. He explained she could keep any cash she made.
“Ms. Zimern, my dad wrote a letter to my sister and I that I found on the kitchen table. He asked me to tell you that he was sorry.”
There was a long silence before Michael heard a stifled sniffle. “Thank you Michael for telling me that.”
Michael returned to his home, to art and the life that he created and loved. He hung three picture frames in his hallway. His parents’ wedding picture and Nicolette and Michael on their graduation days. The Family Bible and their mother’s diaries were kept in the duffel bag under his bed.
Michael was thankful for the last letter that his dad had written. He was thankful for an apology and thankful for a bit of closure. Micheal wanted to try something new. He felt inspired. No more darkness, no more vines and water and despair. Michael was going to focus all of his efforts on the sky, landscapes and nature. Scenes filled with light, with promise. Paintings filled with hope for the future.
Please visit Kelli on her blog: https://kellijgavin.blogspot.com