Lisa Maguire Fiction

The Work of Mourning

loon lakeMy first summer at the lake without Doug was coming to a close the day Lenore Wyler dove off the dock and did not come back up. It was late August. Leaves were already turning yellow, as they do this far north. For summer people, who live by the calendar and for whom the summer ends at Labor Day, it always seems premature, no matter how many summers we spend here. I doubt the trees think so.

Lenore was an exuberant summer person who ran down the path every morning to leap off the dock into the cold water. This is more extraordinary than you might think. Our lake is 120 miles north of Montreal. Even in the dog days of July, when I might take a dip, I find myself skimming the sun-warmed surface like an insect. The lake water is black and glacial.

Lenore tucked her hair into a swim cap as she ran. You have to pick your way carefully, since the way to the dock is steep, but the path is soft with brown pine needles and easy for bare feet. Drinking my coffee at the kitchen window, I could see her through the trees. By the time she hit the dock she was in a dead run. She launched herself into the air, her body describing a wide arc. As the years went on we stopped really seeing her do this. Instead we heard the splash, and, after a few beats’ pause, the sound of her kicking the water, swimming to shore.

The Wylers were retired and stayed the whole summer, as we did, although we were not retired. People did not understand how Doug could leave his patients for two whole months, and other psychoanalysts made uncharitable comments and used words like abandonment. But Doug felt everyone in treatment needed a break from their therapist to reflect. We came to the lake at the end of June and stayed until the end of August. Doug left the number of his emergency answering service.

Lenore and her husband George were Americans, and drove ten hours to come here. This set them apart from the rest of us. We never bumped into them in Montreal at other times of the year. They also did not speak French. We did not befriend the cottagers on the French side of the lake, but we idled our boats and chatted with them on the water. The Wylers could only smile and wave.

Doug and I shared a dock with the Wylers, and so we knew them better than the others. It would have been un-neighborly not to visit with them. They showed up on our deck for drinks once or twice a summer, with a bottle of that terrible Portuguese jug wine they liked, and a bag of pistachios. Lenore had this way of stopping me to chat on the sandy path between our houses. She would be dripping wet or swatting flies or putting the flat of her hand to her forehead shading the summer sun and staring at me so expectant and eager that at least once or twice a season I cracked and said why not stop by? Then I came home and said to Doug please clear the papers off the deck the Wylers will be coming over, and Doug always said fucking hell.

I should have been the first to notice no sound of Lenore resurfacing, but on this particular morning a bird had crapped on an Adirondack chair, and I was behind the house with some Clorox, scrubbing it off. I had wakened to the sound of the bittern who lived in the reeds at the marshy end of the lake. Doug had so loved the bird and his froggy, gulping call, and I was scouring the wide paddle arm of the chair with steel wool in a fury, stripping off the paint.

It was late morning when the Sureté from Saint Donat and the CETAM from Nominingue arrived at the top of our dirt road. When I walked outside to see, they were already in the Wylers’ cottage. The police left lights of their Dodge Charger flashing. The CETAM driver was leaning against the back of the ambulance, foot on the bumper, smoking a cigarette.

Bert and Mavis Gowdy were standing at the water’s edge, scanning the lake. They lived on the far side of the Wylers. Bertie talked a lot and never seemed to blink. It might have been the glasses–oversized, round, with thick frames–that gave him that permanently startled look. Mavis had a pink tremulous lower lip that made me think she was about to cry at any moment. Her lip was especially noticeable today.

“What a terrible thing,” I said.

“Yes,” said Mavis. “Why do you think she did it?”

“Did what?” I asked.

Bertie sliced his finger under his chin. He was a bird dog for drama. I avoided telling him things.

“You don’t think it was a rock?”

“What rocks?” said Bertie. It was true that the lake bottom was soft, slimy underfoot, and at least once a summer someone’s kid came screaming out of the water with a bloodsucker on his toe.

“Could have been anything. They won’t know until they find her.”

“I bet pills. She took a bunch of pills and jumped in.”

“What pills? Do you know she took pills?” I asked, irritated.

“How else could she do it, a strong swimmer like her?” It occurred to me that we did not know whether Lenore could swim well or not. There was that showy plunge every morning. She did not stay in the water.

“She would never do that,” I said. Bertie shrugged and drew lines in the wet pebbles with the toe of his sandals. The sandals had an elaborate leather weave, like Mexican huaraches. No adult man we knew wore anything like them, something Doug had never failed to point out to me whenever he saw Bertie. I might have been friends with Mavis, but Doug had had a particular loathing for Bert Gowdy, for his owl glasses, his floppy hair, his huaraches. Doug had never forgiven the Gowdys for painting their cottage a sick-making combination of hunter green and bright yellow, which Bertie and Mavis defended as traditional rustic boathouse colors. We came to the lake each summer to get away from trivial suburban resentments, but recreated them here anyway. As at home, it was hard to be married and find friends who came in pairs.

Doug had come to this lake every summer with his family when he was a boy. They had owned a summer house across the water before it had become the French side of the lake. Doug said everything over there was better. There was a little strip of sand, almost like a beach, and the configuration of lots on the lake front offered more privacy. And on this side of the lake, he said, we are cheek-by-jowl with the worst kind of West Island suburban bore. I asked him once years ago if he didn’t prefer to sell our place and move back to the other side of the lake, but he just shrugged. French neighbors would be friendly, but we belonged here, on this side.

I didn’t tell the Gowdys that I had seen Lenore just the week before. I was picking blackberries in the bracken at the top of our adjoining dirt road. There had been another house which had burned down years before we all started coming here. The lot had stayed empty. It had no mature trees, just scrubby underbrush that had grown up in the ash; wild raspberry in prickly hoops, and bushes with small, tart blackberries that Doug had liked in my custard trifles. I looked up from my picking and saw Lenore coming along the road, the hatchback full of groceries from the village. She stopped suddenly, put the car in frantic reverse a few feet, spewing pebbles, and then forward again. And then reverse again, and forward again. She put her head on the steering wheel for a little while, then she threw the car into reverse again. She had probably run over a squirrel or some other little creature, and was putting it out of its misery. I had done this myself. But something about the fury in the reverses and way she put her head on the steering wheel made me bend over the bushes and resume my picking so she would not notice me.

The police walked with George out of the house. He was still in his plaid bathrobe. One of them had a hand on his shoulder and was speaking into his ear, but George looked blank. I said: “Do you need a translator?”

I knew the patrolmen from the village. At least, I knew their faces. There were only two squad cars in Saint Donat. “Rien à faire. Il nous faut des plongeurs,” he said.

“There is nothing they can do, George. They need to get divers.”

Desolé,” said the patrolman, but George was already walking to the water’s edge. He stood there staring.

The police explained they needed help from the SPVM in Montréal. There was no one in Tremblant or Rivière Rouge with equipment for this sort of search. I did not bother translating this.

Once the ambulance and squad car left, the neighbors began to disperse. George had gone back into the house. From the porch I could see him walking around inside. I knocked and asked through the screen door if I could come in. He did not refuse.

The few times I visited the Wylers, I did not go beyond their deck. It was my first time in their house. The living room did not have usual summer cottage decorations of snowshoes or driftwood. The low walls were dominated by Expressionist canvases in black and white. I remembered Lenore saying she enjoyed painting, but I had pictured Laurentian landscapes. The surface of every table was filled with family photos. I recalled that one of the reasons we did not take to the Wylers was that they were always boasting about their adult children–at least Lenore did, George never did say much–and Doug and I had no children of our own.

I told George that it would be much later that night, maybe even the next day, before the police could come back, if they had to send for a team from Montreal. “Why not come to our house to wait? You should not be here all by yourself.” George shook his head. I put an awkward arm around his shoulder. It is so hard to know what to do or say in these circumstances. Doug did, because he had gone to school for that. When the Wylers arrived at the beginning of the summer, the Gowdys had filled them in about Doug. They came to our deck with a basket of some hairy exotic fruit and stood in the doorway saying how sorry they were. George looked down at the cedar planking, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Thank you,” said George. “I’ll stay here.” He rubbed his face with his thick, mottled hands. He looked old. He was a big, beefy, red faced guy, that physical type you don’t see much anymore, not even on lakes and country club golf courses, now that people wear sunblock and don’t drink so much. He sat down at the table and put his head in his hands. There were two frilly placemats with the morning’s coffee mugs sitting on them. When they visited us, Lenore did most of the talking, and George listened with his head tilted, smiling at her. And as she spoke, she would sometimes catch his eye. There was always a second conversation going on between them, somewhere in the ether above our heads. I went home and turned on the porch lamps in case George changed his mind.

The next morning, I resumed chores that had consumed me much of that summer: going through Doug’s things, our things, deciding what to keep and what to give away. I don’t know why it took so long, there wasn’t much. Doug was a committed chucker-out. When the phone rang, I recalled that when we had first started coming to the lake thirty five years ago, we’d had a party line. The two short rings was us. But Doug had told his answering service to be discreet about speaking to him if they relayed any messages, because of course anyone could listen in.

“Mrs. Eileen Howard.” It was a declarative statement.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Oh! My name is Mona Katz. I was a patient of Dr. Howard.”

I knew the name Mona Katz. When I was first married to Doug, and he was starting out his practice, I would type up his bills and receipts. Mona Katz had been a patient from the beginning, when she was Mona Katz, then Kurland, then Albini, then Friedlander, then Katz again.

Mona was a patient for over thirty years. Not exactly a patient by the end. She had come to Doug for problems before her first marriage, and resolved them by dumping the first husband, who Doug said was a no-account. After that, she continued to see Doug from time to time. It was more like checking in with him. It was unusual, but Doug thought it could be helpful and grounding as she embarked on a new marriage, then a new job, then moved away. Then she asked if she could call him on the phone from time to time, which was highly unorthodox for analysts back then, but Doug had by that time begun leaving his practice for the summer and already did not care what his colleagues thought. When the second husband died of a sudden heart attack, Doug went to Calgary to see her, and even went to the funeral. He had already breached so many boundaries by then, he said, telling her about events in his own life, telling Mona little bits about me.

I asked Doug if he did this because Mona had been ‘cured,’ but he did not like those categories. She’s better, she’s living her life, he said. I am not sure why he continued to agree to the checking in for decades after that, except that maybe Mona was an early success, and he was fond of her.

“Yes,” I said. I did not know what I should let on that I knew.

“I heard that Dr. Howard passed away last winter.”

‘Yes,” I said.

“I normally called him a few times a year, and the last time I called, a few weeks ago, they said he was gone, the office was gone.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Oh, my dear, how are you doing? I am so sorry.”

I put down the receiver and took some deep breaths. I picked it up again. “I am all right. How did you get this number?”

“Dr. Howard used to go away, and I knew he went to a lake, and he once mentioned that there was boys’ camp nearby, sometimes you’d see their canoes, and I remembered—“

She had been doing some sleuthing, or light stalking. “I am sorry no one told you. I had all his patients notified, but I guess because you were not a regular patient—“

“No, that’s all right dear, I just wanted to call because I wanted to know how you were doing. I lost a husband, too, so I know.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Katz.”

“Mona.”

“—Mona. Very kind of you to call.”

“Actually I would like to see you. May I see you? Can we have lunch?”

I can’t explain why I said yes, except that everything about the patient Mona Katz was unusual, she had known my husband for over thirty years, and he had shared enough of his life with her. There did not seem to be any harm in meeting her. It was me she was meeting. No one could say Doug was doing anything untoward.

She was in Montreal, heading to a legal conference held in a hotel in Sainte Agathe. Did I want to meet for lunch in the town tomorrow? Knowing I was not the purpose of her visit made me feel better. I said yes, I would.

Later that day, the divers came to the lake. Bertie, Mavis, and a few of the others neighbors stood on the shore at first, but came and went as the day wore on. A few grumbled that they could not take their boats out, and families with children went away for the day, for fear of seeing something terrible.

Night fell, and the divers found nothing. How deep could this lake be? George and I watched as the Sureté put their diving gear back in their van.

“Don’t they have lights?” asked George. “They should have lights—floodlights.”

“They will probably come back tomorrow. Get some rest.”

The Sureté drove off, leaving yellow tape hanging off stakes in the ground along the shore.

“That’s it?” said George. “They’re quitting? Can they do that?”

Another police officer, not the patrolman from town but one I had never seen before, came up on my deck, radio on his hip. The yellow rank insignia on the shoulder of his short sleeved poly-blend shirt had several stripes. We watched him carefully compose an English sentence in his head before he spoke. “We would like to speak again to George Vee-lour,” he said. They led George away and took him into his house. They must have been in there a while—I didn’t see them leave.

It rained overnight. The morning air was heavy, and the lake had a fine mist over it. The woods had that fuggy smell of damp tree bark and damp earth. The Gowdys strolled over to my side of the dock. Bertie tried to be casual, but he must have seen the police in George’s house.

“So why did the divers leave?” he asked.

“Maybe they need sounding equipment. It’s a deep lake.”

“George is—he won’t answer the door,” said Bertie.

“A lot of people are packed up to go home. A dead body in the lake, even if they find it…ugh, who wants to go in it?” said Mavis.

I would have gone too, except that I thought it would be unkind to leave George, even if he did not want my company.

I knocked on the Wylers’ screen door, but did not see or hear George. Their car was still parked in the gravel behind the house. I grew worried until the Sureté came back and George came out to meet them. He was still in his bathrobe, and his thin hair stuck out at all angles, but he otherwise looked normal.

When I left for Sainte Agathe, the divers had returned, accompanied by a second van and a few more cars filled with police. I was glad to have a reason to leave for the day. As I drove away, the police were once again cordoning off the beach, and the divers were getting into their gear.

Mona and I had agreed to meet at La Crêmaillère, a French restaurant of the old style–not a bistro, but a real restaurant with snow white tablecloths and cream-laden dishes. Mona was remembering a Quebec of thirty or forty years ago, when she was young. She may have come to this same restaurant, or one just like it. No one went to places like this anymore, and we were surrounded by an elderly tour group.

Mona came up to me. I was surprised that she was so pretty. She was slender, with large dark eyes, silver hair cropped short. She wore a long narrow suit jacket, no lapels, expensive and Italian. She looked slick as a seal.

“Q-tips,” said Mona as we were seated.

“Sorry?”

“The people here. We all look like Q-tips.” She made a massaging gesture on the top of her head- all the grey and white hair. It was odd how she smiled at me, as if we were old friends who shared their own little jokes.

Suddenly shy, I picked up my menu. It was one of those pretentious leather folios. “Your husband was a good man,” said Mona.

“I know,” I said.

“He helped me a lot.”

“He helped many people.”

“He loved you very much.” She reached over the table and took hold of my arm. “He had a happy marriage. He told me.”

“That’s nice that he felt he could tell you that.”

“He told me lots of things.” She blinked her big eyes at me.

I looked down at the menu. Lots?

“He was like a friend, by the end.”

I felt my face grow hot. I was embarrassed by what I knew, more than wives of analysts would know about patients, because of typing the bills, and the traveling. And because, well, it was Mona. But what did she know?

“He was a good man,” she said again. “I am going to have the confit du canard. What are you having?”

Mona had a hearty appetite. She ordered duck, a bottle of wine, a green salad, and cheese to finish the wine. She talked through the whole meal. “It’s been years since I have been back. I live in Calgary. I am in-house legal counsel for an oil company, Wild Rose Energy. Dr. Howard really got me onto a career path. He convinced me to go to law school. He built my confidence.” Her voice rang out across the restaurant.

“That’s good.”

The rest of the conversation went like that: Mona Katz telling me her life story, all the exciting twists and turns, and how Dr. Howard intervened at just the right time to guide and advise. And my noncommittal replies. She missed Dr. Howard. I was a convenient vessel. And so I listened.

She did not ask me much about myself, except to say “Why did you come up to the summer house by yourself?” she asked.

“It would have been worse, not going.”

She told me I needed to join clubs, maybe take a class, or host a party. “You should get out there.” I did not tell her that I did not want to get out there. In here was as much as I could manage.

When lunch was over, we walked to our cars. I held out my hand. “Thank you. I enjoyed meeting you.” Mona did not accept my hand and instead embraced me tightly. I smelled her Fracas.

“I hope to see you again,” she said. “Let’s keep in touch!”

Why would we see each other again? We knew each other only because of Doug; our mutual curiosity was now satisfied.

I drove away with a nameless feeling, something itchy and unsettling. The Monas in life do that to everyone, I reasoned. The Monas in life were hard work. I wondered what it would be like to go to an office and listen to people like Mona all day long. I had never been ambitious. I enjoyed staying home and keeping house for Doug. Puttering in my garden. I had held jobs over the years. Nothing that added up to a career, not like Mona’s. And of course most jobs would not have allowed me to spend the whole summer at the lake, which I now know was the best part of our lives. I strove to be the opposite of work. I did not force him to listen endlessly. At home, Doug was the talker, probably because he had to stay quiet all day long, listening.

When I came home, the Sureté were still there. More police, more cars and equipment vans. They were parked the length of our dirt road, and I had to drive slowly to pass them without scraping my car against the trees.

Mavis Gowdy was standing in front of my deck. She had been waiting for me. “They’ve found her. Bert’s gone into Saint Donat to get the papers. He wanted to find out if there is anything about it in the local news. Do you want to come over? Everyone else on the lake is gone now.”

“Where’s George?”

“He’s in the house. They’ve been standing around all day and now they have found her and they said it’s too late to get her out.”

“So she’s still in the lake.”

“Yes. And they are leaving for the day. I don’t understand all this stop and start, chop and change. I mean, how hard could it be to fish someone from a lake bottom?”

I resolved to close the cottage and go back to the city the next day. My backyard was a parking lot for police cars. George did not emerge from his house, or answer the door, or the phone. There was nothing more I could do for him.

I was already in bed that night when I got a knock on the door. I was relieved that George had seen the porch lamp and wanted some company. I opened the door to see Mona standing there. She wore a long floaty summer dress, bangles on both arms. As if I had invited her to a party on the deck.

“Hi Eileen. I wanted to drop by.”

I stood staring at her in the doorway. Not knowing what else to do, I invited her in.

“How did you find me?”

“I got as far as Saint Donat and then I stopped to ask the people in the dépanneur. People here are so friendly. They were all very fond of Dr. Howard.” She circled the room, looking at pictures on the walls, objects on tables. “Do you have any Scotch? Dr. Howard did love his single malts.”

“Mona, I am not really up for a visit.”

She spied the open suitcases with clothes laid in them. She saw the sealed up cardboard boxes marked Doug. “Are you going somewhere?”

“I have to finish packing. It’s just not a good time. There is a dead person in the lake.”

Mona did not react to this. “I am sure you have some Scotch here. Just a drop.” I decided to give her a drink and then tell her to leave. I came back from the kitchen with a tumbler of ice to find her curled up with her shoes off, her head on the arm of the sofa. She held out a bangled arm to take the glass. “This is a wonderful house. I love wide plank flooring.”

“I am sorry Mona,” I said. “It’s really not a good time. Someone drowned in the lake, and the police have been here for days–”

She sat up. “I only came because I wanted to see you, see the house. This was Dr. Howard’s favorite place, where he had been so happy. I wanted to see it.”

“Mona, you must go now.”

“All right. I understand.” She started weeping.

Before I could go over to her, she jumped up. “I’m sorry,” she said, throwing open the front door. She ran out.

“Mona–”

I followed her outside. She did not go to her car but ran into the trees. I started out after her but I was wearing slippers and the woods were pitch black. I returned to get a flashlight and sneakers, and of course by then I’d lost her. I walked up the dirt road, looking into blackness and calling Mona. There was no reply. I heard sounds in the bush, but when I pointed the flashlight into the trees it only illuminated moths and gnats. I recalled how we used to have bonfires on the little strip of pebbly shore we called a beach, and how Doug thrilled the city dwellers by turning his flashlight into the woods to catch the reflections of dozens of pairs of little eyes, forest animals drawn by the fire, watching us.

I followed the shore line. I walked as far as the reeds, where the marsh began, but no Mona. When I got back to the cottage, Mona was sitting in the car. Not her car, but mine–rather ours, the boxy old Volvo that was our cottage car. Doug’s and mine.

“Mona, you need to come out of there. Come inside,” I shouted at the car window.

What now? Doug would know what to do. All the other cottages were dark. Nothing but the buzzy insect sound of late summer and the lake lapping on the pebbles. The water looked oily in the moonlight.

Mona opened the window a crack. I thought it meant she wanted to speak. But as I walked up to the car she lit a cigarette. How angry Doug would be, someone smoking in his car.

I put my hand on the door handle. “Please, Mona–” She had locked herself inside. I always left the car keys in the passenger seat. It saved me from having to look for them.

“Mona, please don’t do this.”

Mona wiped her tear stained cheeks and smoked her cigarette, staring straight ahead. Her face was hard. Dr. Howard used to leave me alone all summer. I wanted to see the place that could make him do that.

“I will call the police.”

If I called the police, they would know this address because of Lenore. Some over-eager sergeant de police would no doubt try to tie it all together. Bertie and Mavis would talk about this all winter long. Did you hear about Doug Howard’s nutty patient? Must have left some of that work undone. And if the police knew, it would be all over St Donat, and the French side of the lake, too. Toujours ces histoires chez les Anglos.

I walked around the car, wondering what to do, when George appeared on his deck, still in his bathrobe. “Anything wrong?” he called.

“Yes, a bit.”

“I heard the shouting and then I saw the strange car still here, after dark. Some of these people aren’t just curiosity seekers.”

“No, nothing like that. An old patient of Doug’s. She followed me home. Now she won’t leave. She’s locked herself in my car.”

“What’s her name?”

“Mona.”

“Got a spare set of keys?”

“No.” The spares had fallen in among Doug’s things I boxed up. I would not have known where to start looking,

George stumped over to the car. “Hi Mona. I’m George.” He put out his finger to the crack in the window, as if to shake hands. Mona put out a finger and they shook hello. I stepped away to let him speak to her. He stood there for some time, one arm on the roof of the car, leaning in, smiling and chatting easily. He had the same expression Doug wore with street crazies, a look of bland concern masking sharp appraisal.

George came over to me. “She just wanted someone to talk to. She misses Dr. Howard.” She misses Dr. Howard. Well, so did I, and I did not follow people home or occupy their cars like a petulant three year old locking herself in a closet. “Can you get us a drink? I think I can get her out of the car.”

George put another arm on the roof of the car, settling in for a chat. When I returned from the cottage with the Scotch and the tumblers, George was in the passenger seat. I heard him say: “Waste of time, trying to fish in that lake. You can’t catch anything but sunfish.” They poured out the Scotch and clinked glasses over the gear shift. George waved me away. I sat down in an Adirondack chair and waited. I must have dozed off, because when I opened my eyes it was daylight. The car was empty. George and Mona were standing on the dock, and George was casting his arms out over the water. He must have been telling her about poor Lenore’s accident. Or perhaps reminiscing about the many years she took her morning plunge.

I went into the cottage to get on with my packing. Leave her to George, I thought. As they together looked out over the lake, I saw his big head lean into her smaller, minky, silver one. One would have thought they were a long-married couple.

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