Knowing Marjorie, she’s far too preoccupied with her own troubles to see the little girl has troubles too. It’s only been three weeks since I “abandoned” her in Wisconsin’s Last Wilderness, as our tiny town of Winegar is so aptly called, and now all she can think about is returning to civilization. Living without me, my dear wife is beginning to realize, will take friends, courage and money, and Marjorie Thane is lacking in all three.
She’s been consoling herself with food and drink (mostly drink) and now the cupboard is bare: peanut butter, chicken noodle soup, Nutella, gone; my little orange cheese crackers and the Toasted Head, gone and gone. The only thing left is a jar of spaghetti sauce with a lid that will not budge. Testament to her helplessness, Marj has hidden it away behind the light bulb stash in the broom closet because the sight of it makes her cry.
When she and Harriet, our yellow Lab, left for the market around ten this morning, the swing set, standing near the entrance to Grand Manitou Estates, was empty. But now, when she drives back in, it’s not. She stops and watches the little girl, who appears to be six or seven, wind herself up in a sort of chain link cocoon and rise higher and higher until just the toe of one muddy, white rubber boot touches the ground. Then closing her eyes, the child lifts that boot, breaks her tenuous connection to earth, and surrenders to the thrill of centrifugal force. Two long blond braids fly out from her head like antenna, and seeing this, Marjorie smiles. She’s partial to girls because we never had one, only boys, and for that she blames me. Not unfairly, not at all.
There’s a wonderful moment in young lives—the moment right before the sprained ankle or broken wrist—when many believe they can fly. Marjorie, familiar with that moment, inches along, fearful the girl will suddenly leap off the swing and into the path of the Subaru. Lots of kids come and go at Grand Manitou, especially during the summer months, and even though my wife is acquainted with many of the young “Manitousians,” as we call ourselves, I can see by the tilt of her brows that she does not recognize this particular one. I don’t either, and neither, evidently, does Harriet, who’s poking her nose out the backseat window, trying to get a good whiff.
Marj rolls down her window. “Hello there,” she calls. “I’m Mrs. Thane, like window pane. Who are you?” The girl ignores her, goes right back to her winding. Despite cheeks chapped to the color of raspberries, and a rope of mucous running from nose to lips, this child is a beauty, one as rare as the albino deer that’s been spotted in the area lately. Still, if Marjorie were to take a closer look, I think the eyes would tell her something is not quite right. Though the same deep blue of a cloudless sky, they’re as vacant as Dick’s, my prize buck, whose head hangs above the fireplace in the cottage.
“Where’s your mother?” Marjorie shouts. The girl responds by glancing over her shoulder, at June Bug, one of the small cottages up near the road. A metallic green Buick Skylark—2001 or 2002—is parked outside with a black and silver sticker on its rusty bumper proclaiming: Snow Makes Me Wet! “So, your mother’s a friend of Walter’s?” The girl, now seconds away from the next spin, does not reply, so Marj eases her foot off the brake and continues down the hill, left to ponder the caretaker’s love life.
Our cottage, Little Firefly, ironically the largest of the seven that make up Grand Manitou Estates, sits closest to the shores of Papoose Lake. There’s also June Bug, as I’ve mentioned, Ladybug, Cricket and the Flies: Butter, May and Dragon. Our family rented up here for years—last week of July; first week of August—so Wendell, Davy and I could get, as Marj would say, “that back-to-nature, hunter-gatherer, guy-thing out of our systems,” as if all we had was a bad case of dysentery.
Then one day about ten years ago I get this letter. Grand Manitou is going condo; do I want in? And I think: You bet I want in. I want to buy Little Firefly and make it my own…our own. So anxious was I to close the deal, that I did not glean, despite having been married to Marjorie for a good, or mostly good, quarter century by then, that she was not completely on board with the idea—especially the part about eventually retiring and moving up, lock, stock and barrel, forever. The problem, as we discovered is: Forever can to be a surprisingly short time.
“It’s only money, Marj,” I said, sweeping my ballpoint across the dotted line like a regular John D. Rockefeller. “What am I going to do? Take it to the grave?”
“You never get to heaven ‘til you die, George Thane,” she warned, but I didn’t believe her, not then.
In any case, before I left, I made Marj promise to keep Little Firefly in the family forever: a cool oasis of shimmering memories in what could feel, from time to time, as barren as the Bonneville Salt Flats. She held my hand and nodded. But now? I don’t know. From the way she’s sitting there, glaring up at my antique canoe paddle, as if it were me hanging over the back door, I’m beginning to think that she may have had a couple of fingers on her other hand crossed.
“God almighty, George,” she says. “Who, in their right mind would ever buy this place?”
What can I say? I’m not a fortuneteller. I am…or was only a professor of Logic down at the University in Madison.
Marjorie throws the car into park, gets out and opens the hatch for Harriet. Harriet, who’s sixty in dog years—only five years younger than I am…or was—takes off after Vince, a mischievous red squirrel with one nibbled off ear, as if she were still a teenager. Marj gathers up as many bags as she can, climbs the steps to the backdoor and stops, as if waiting for me to materialize. Finally, sighing loudly, she puts down the bags, frees her fingers from all the twisted loops, digs out the key from her purse and unlocks the door. “This is for the birds,” she says, and she’ll get no argument from me.
After she puts the groceries away, she finds the receipt in the bottom of one of the bags: a real doozy that must be a good three, four feet long. Marj has never paid much attention to the length of these things, or the little numbers printed on them either. But now that has to change. She unfurls it, slides a finger down, down, down right past the total, to the savings: $3.72, and smiles. This must be just the sort of economic vigilance the guy from the bank—what’s-his-name—has in mind. In fact, I can almost see her squeezing a little reminder into that crowded mental file of hers—Who wrote the song “A Boy Named Sue?” What does M&M stand for? How many grooves on the edge of a dime?—to mention it to him the next time he calls, which she hopes will be never.
He called yesterday to tell her he’s sorry I’m gone. Oh, and while he had her, it was, possibly, as good a time as any to talk about, you know, financial planning.
“What?” she said. “A budget? What’s wrong? Did George take it with him after all?” She laughed a nervous little laugh—ha, ha—and moved into the great room where she collapsed onto the sofa, picked up the needlepoint pillow she made for my back—If you shake the family tree, a few nuts will fall out—and smelled it. “Yes, of course, I’m aware of the medical bills. I was one of the people…you know, being medicated. And George’s condition, his cardiomyopathy? Well, FYI: removing part of a heart isn’t cheap…or safe, as it turned out, and, wouldn’t you know, he was six lousy weeks away from Medicare. What? Really? That’s it? Wow, those are some mighty impressive math skills, Vern.” (Evidently, he shocked his name right out of her.) “I suppose, that’s why you’re the financial planner and I’m th—”
She closed her eyes as if the word pained her. She couldn’t say it, hasn’t said it yet; maybe she never will. Marj is nine years younger than I am…was, and at fifty-six, she’s far too young to be a…you-know-what. “Yes. I understand. I will be careful. Maybe I’ll go back to work at the Pioneer Press. You like that idea? Good. So, there’s really no need to worry, Verne. Plus, just between you and me, George left me a little nest egg… Yes, I know, it’s only for emergencies, which this isn’t…is it? Excellent. Then have yourself a great day. Good bye.”
I held my breath, figuratively speaking, of course, as I no longer have any real breath to hold, and watched Marj move slowly back into the kitchen, as if she were drifting through a dense fog, to put the phone back in the charger. Vern’s words, like slivers embedded under fingernails, bothered her. Was he telling her that it was possible to lose everything—that is, to lose even more—and become homeless? There are “the boys”…well, there were; now there’s only Wendell, who is not a boy anymore, but a full-grown man with a life of his own. And knowing Marjorie, she’d rather live in a refrigerator box under a viaduct than ever impose on him and Helen.
“Oh, George…” She drops her head into her hands, then takes a quick peek at the receipt, finally at the total, crumples it up in a tight ball and tosses it in the trash. This budget business is going to take some getting used to. Then before I know it, she’s out the door and at the car, tearing into a new case of Toasted Head. Grabbing a bottle by the neck, she yanks it out, and for the first time since my demise, I’m a little bit glad I’m not there, beside her. Harriet, done romping with Vince, follows her into the house, and when she spots the familiar brown bottle of wine she tilts her head as if to ask: Is it cocktail time already?
Marj looks at the happy dancing bear on the label, a little like the way she used to look at me, then quickly stashes it away in the fridge. “OK, I’ll wait,” she says. “I’ll wait and ration and make it last.” Then taking a deep breath, she pulls the phone book from the drawer, flips to the realtors’ listings and dog-ears one. “I’m sorry, George,” she says. “I know I promised, but please, you’ve got to understand I really have to leave.”
And once again, my heart breaks…