First there is Maureen pacing a wide cement dock, watching rescue divers dip below the frozen lake and emerge minutes later numbed, empty-handed. This for hours.
Everything that comes after—condolences, casseroles—will happen to a different Maureen. The Maureen of now worries the lid of a gas-station coffee long gone cold. She tucks strands of gray hair under her hat, shuffles her boots against cement. By this point she could tell you many things about the dock: forty-five steps long, twelve steps across, pebbled and barnacled and slick with black ice where the lake has lapped up over its bounds. Large enough for a number of boats to tie up (in better weather), for over a dozen police officers to cluster, walkie talkies squealing, and yet the expanse feels too small to contain her.
She, this Maureen, still thinks there is a chance, or did think so; the feeling recedes with the sliding sun, lower and lower as the lake and horizon blur into an endless icy blue.
* * *
No—first is Whit, raspy-voiced and reedy, neither bad nor good. Whit manning the fuel pumps at his uncle’s gas station. Whit silent beside her at a school dance, his hand a thrill against her back. In an army uniform, in waders, in a borrowed suit on their wedding day. Whit who is not quite the man she expects, after they marry, but then again who is?
There is Whit with his hand a vice at the nape of their sons’ necks, just daring them to fuck up. His hand a vice around her wrist. Whit in his recliner with the TV blaring, and at the dinner table forking peas into his mouth, nothing to say, and in their still dark bedroom during deer season, soft and tender, telling her to get back to sleep while he tugs on thick socks. There is Whit at the end, collapsing through the ice with a Bud in one hand and a fishing pole in the other.
But there’ll be time enough to think on this later.
A diver is pulled back to the dock on an inflatable raft. Shivering, weak, he unhitches a harness from his shoulders. “It was like looking through tissue paper under there,” he says.
She thinks of an elementary school project, crinkled waves and seaweed inside a shoebox. Whit a flimsy paper doll glued to the cardboard.
The police chief guides her toward land. “I’m sorry. We’ll continue the recovery when conditions improve,” he says, and she’s lived through enough winters to know the difference between a rescue and a recovery. Overnight the temperature will plummet and ice will clot every opening in thick, jagged slabs. There’s no chance of finding him alive. Now they are only hoping for a body.
A new Maureen lets the chief lead her toward her car. The old Maureen waits a moment longer at the edge of the lake, not so easily convinced, then hurries to catch up to herself.
* * *
Maureen and Maureen return home in silence. Here is the double wide with vinyl siding. Here is the slab foundation and four and a half acres. Here is three bedrooms and two baths and the old kitchen in avocado green. Here is Ray, the fishing buddy who’d scrambled clear of the breaking ice, treading a line across the living room rug and looking from Maureen to Maureen, saying alternately that there was nothing he could have done and that he hadn’t done enough.
Here are her two sons, men now with lives and homes of their own, silent on the couch wrenching baseball caps in their hands. They belong to Maureen less and less as the years go by. Some days, they are strangers. Had this happened to another family, the old Maureen could tell them what to do, what comforting words to offer. But as she is their own mother, they have no idea what to say.
She would like to tell Ray, At this point, it don’t matter if you pushed him in yourself.
She would like to tell her sons, Go home and sleep. Stay. Let me be. Never leave.
What she does, the new Maureen, is drop to her knees and unplug the TV. A basketball game disappears into a black hole, the squeaks and whistles turned to silence. Old Maureen frowns at her, but she ignores this; it was too loud. She could hear it, some high buzzing whine, even when the TV was off. Now they hear nothing.
* * *
They wake with cold noses, cold fingers, a chill descending even as the radiator burbles and steams in the corner. They wrap themselves in wooly cardigans and make the bed, pulling the sheets taut over Whit’s unused pillow, old Maureen reminding the new that they should call the police straight away.
But in the living room they stop—Whit is there in his recliner, still dressed for fishing, his boots dripping slush onto the footrest. His eyes are clouded but open wide. He stares at the blank TV screen, the remote clenched in his hand as if it were any other morning.
The new Maureen gasps. Except it’s not Whit, not exactly. His skin has a slippery, translucent shine, the familiar angles wrapped in a film of ice that seems—but how?—hollow, a hint of the recliner’s upholstery showing through his face, the muscle and bone scooped out and discarded elsewhere. More the suggestion of a man, cast in glass, than a man himself.
They can feel the cold before they touch him, a corona of arctic air so strong it nearly glows. They reach for his cheek, his hand, each surface slick and unyielding. A frozen ribbon of milfoil twines behind one ear. Even his parka is stiff and glazed, clumps of snow hardening on the fabric like a steak left too long in the freezer.
“Whit?” the old Maureen whispers. His head swivels toward them with the jerky crudeness of a dying animatronic. He works his lips open and closed, open and closed, but only lake water dribbles out. A hoarfrost beard grows down his chin.
In the kitchen they confer—Is it…? How…? What should we…? But they can’t imagine describing this to their sons or the police; everyone would think they’ve gone loony. The new Maureen wonders if the shock of yesterday has brought on hallucinations, if it’s all some sort of dream. Or could it be a ghost? Finally, the old Maureen snaps that of course it’s him, or some part of him anyway. That of course Whit is too stubborn to let even this be easy. They might as well get on with their day.
They put the teakettle on, start the grocery list. When the police chief calls to say conditions are still too dangerous for a search, the old Maureen offers polite thanks and returns to dusting. She moves through the living room, wiping the coffee table and the bookshelf, working the rag along a row of VHS tapes. Every time she turns around Whit is still in the chair, gazing at nothing, his frozen limbs creaking quietly as the ice expands and contracts.
Maureen and Maureen eat dinner in silence, feeling more tired then they’ve ever been. But when they finally turn in that night they can’t fall asleep; instead they imagine Whit sunk to the very bottom, his body puckered and berry blue, turtles snapping at his toes. Or worse, Whit surfacing the lake like a horror movie, arms first, hoisting himself up through the ice. Taking huge waterlogged steps toward home. Perhaps taking huge waterlogged steps toward them at this very moment. The old Maureen sighs, climbs wearily from the bed. She fumbles through the dark of the living room, reaching blindly along the baseboard until she finds the cord and plugs the TV back in.
* * *
Days go by, and then a week. Two. The lake is impenetrable, frozen more than a foot thick. Ice cocoons the wrought iron railing of Maureen’s front steps. It coats even their tall privacy fence with a transparent sheen, preserving like museum glass the paper plate signs Whit tacked to the wood last fall: OWNER IS ARMED AND READY TO SHOOT and NO DOG SHIT HERE!!! He used to make them on Sundays, the air sharp with the smell of permanent marker, his lips pressed together in stern concentration. TCM played old movies in the background and they would both mouth the dialogue from their youth. It might be nice to plant flowers in front of the fence this year, the new Maureen thinks; she’ll have to remember when the snow is gone.
Instead of finding comfort together during this time, each Maureen barely tolerates the other’s presence. They disagree about what to feel and think and do. They follow each other like shadows through the house, watching with quiet suspicion as they tend to the usual chores, and also new ones they’ve never dealt with before: the cable bill, the oil bill, adding salt to the water softener, conferring with the police chief during his periodic calls. They argue at breakfast about the eggs, which have always been scrambled with toast but maybe, the new Maureen says, it’s time to try a different recipe.
The only thing they can agree on is the ice. After their own meals, they fill a mixing bowl with ice cubes and bring it to the living room where Whit waits with a gaping jaw. They place the cubes in his mouth one by one, even giving them a little push so they glide easily down his throat and out of sight. He doesn’t seem able to chew; in fact, he doesn’t move on his own at all except to mash his mouth open and closed or swivel his head creakily. Sometimes he sputters a weak mist of water from his lips when he grows frustrated. Frustrated with what, they aren’t sure. They thought he might be too cold at first, and tried offering a blanket, coffee, warm food, but none of it took. Eventually they realized that he was less agitated if they kept the heat down and fed him a steady supply of ice and otherwise left him alone.
* * *
It storms for a week and their sons take turns stopping by to shovel snow and salt the driveway. The old Maureen watches them from the window while the new Maureen makes sure the living room door is shut tight. She hasn’t decided whether what’s sitting there in the recliner—Whit, but not Whit—is even real, or just their imagining.
“We shouldn’t tell anyone,” she says, and the old Maureen is inclined to agree. For all that she doesn’t understand, she does know, with certainty, that whatever or whoever is in the living room is not the boys’ father. Not really. Their Whit is still lost, frozen somewhere deep below the lake’s surface.
Both sons keep their hats and jackets on whenever they come inside to the kitchen to say hello and kiss the old Maureen on the cheek. They are both tall and quiet like their father, though softer than he ever was. Still, they rarely stay for a meal. They make polite inquiries about Maureen’s day while staring at the floor. They rub their hands together, ask the new Maureen if the furnace needs to be looked at.
“It’s cold in here,” they say. But Maureen doesn’t want to explain why the house feels so cold, why the heat is set too low.
“Everything is fine,” she says.
After that, they run out of words. Theirs was never a particularly chatty household. The sons know so little about their parents’ lives before them. The old Maureen never even told them about their older sister, Alice, who lived only a day. Maybe now would be the time to share that story, the sons a captive audience, silent and subdued in her kitchen doorway. Yet she can’t bring herself to mention it. Thinks she doesn’t want to burden their freedoms any more than she already has.
The old Maureen used to think how different life would be if Alice had survived. Imagine, if there had been a bright, cheerful girl to sit in the kitchen telling stories of her day while Maureen washed the dishes. A girl to share secret doughnuts with on weekends when Whit took the boys hunting, and to walk her little brothers to the edge of the driveway and hold their hands while they waited for the bus. They would all read aloud together before bed, and take vacations or camping trips to places Alice had studied at school, her daughter a sweet, curious rascal—Maureen had named her after the girl in the book.
But both Maureens know that most likely, things would have been the same. Same house, same conversations, same life, only with one extra person. And if the women her sons had brought around over the years were any indication, Alice probably would not have liked her mother much. These women—some warm and kind, some less so—all moved through the world with a self-assurance, an effortless sense of belonging, that was a mystery to Maureen. She was a woman of a different time, raised a certain way. Of course there were women of her time who had strayed from expectation, who had done the things they were told not to do, but not anyone she knew, certainly not her own mother or aunts or teachers or even her small circle of friends. And Maureen had always been old-fashioned, even for her time. Whit, too. She imagines Alice would have protested against setting the table and helping with dinner, wearing dresses and staying at home during the hunting trips. Alice would have sneered at her. But why, the old Maureen asks, should she think of her dear little Alice with a sneer? And why should she think of Whit floating lifeless underwater? Why would she?
* * *
One of the strangest things about Whit’s disappearance is that they have never seen so many people so often in their life. There are updates from the police, of course, and friends who call or visit for tea. A few times a week someone from the church brings meals, even though the family hasn’t attended regularly in years, not since both boys reached high school and Whit said, “All right, now your souls are up to you.” Maureen went on her own for awhile, but in truth she has never found comfort in God. The idea only makes her nervous, fearful that every moment is being judged and she must always prove that she is someone good. Still, people from the church come, mostly women, with food and talk of miracles and a better place.
One night their neighbor even stops by, a busty woman who works in the high-school cafeteria and has only spoken to them once or twice before. She sets a box of chardonnay on the kitchen table and the old Maureen is startled when the new Maureen dusts off the wine glasses and fills them to the brim. The neighbor clinks her glass against Maureen’s and says, “Well, isn’t that just like a man? To pull something like this.”
Maureen and Maureen were anxious the first few times they had these unannounced guests. They kept them in the kitchen and tried to rush them out as quickly as possible, terrified that someone would stumble upon the scene in the living room—because if it was real, if Whit was really there, no one would understand why they hadn’t called the police.
Finally, after they discovered puddles of melt soaking the rug under the recliner, they decided to move Whit to their bathroom. It was easier than expected; he was very light, and they were able to move him to the dolly, roll him down the hall, and place him in the bathtub without a problem. Now, a few times a day they load up the big soup pot with ice cubes and lug it to the bathroom, then empty it in the tub. Whit hardly seems to notice, except for emitting a soft whistling sound from his lips that they take as satisfaction. They keep the bathroom door shut most of the time and use their sons’ old bathroom down the hall for their own needs.
Despite the visitors, Maureen and Maureen are mostly alone. Trailing one another from the living room to the kitchen, or waiting to turn into the driveway with the blinker softly ticking, the old Maureen will be struck with a thought: that was my life, and now this is. The idea plays in her head like a mantra. How strange, at this age, to get to know a new version of herself. At the grocery store they shop for one; they buy smaller portions, but of the same foods they bought before, some habits impossible to break. At night Maureen squishes together on their usual side of the bed, listening for the crackling of ice through the dark.
* * *
In April the police dredge up a body, bloated and blanched white. Their eldest son drives them to the morgue but Maureen goes in alone, hand-in-hand, to identify Whit. Only his face is visible, the rest of him covered with a sheet, and he looks more smooth and serene than in memory. Certainly more serene than the Whit in the bathtub, his brow creased with ridged ice, his eyes hard and blank, his mouth wide when they threw in ice cubes that morning.
On the way home they stop at the mall where the new Maureen buys herself black pants with an elastic waist, and two crisp white button-downs for their sons. They won’t be out this way again before the funeral.
Whit is buried in his family plot, beside a patch of ground that will one day be Maureen’s. They stand stoic by the grave with dark sunglasses on, the kind given out after cataract surgery, wisps of their hair caught loose in the wind.
Someone, their sons maybe, arranged for men in uniform to play “Taps” and present the old Maureen with a folded flag that she nearly drops, so little does she want to remember in this moment Whit’s own memories of the war. Then it is time to say goodbye to the only man she has known. The man she had married, because of his smile—a rare and arresting sight. Because he had asked, and who else would have had her, where else would she have gone? And because they got pregnant with Alice, their first little baby. Though Alice isn’t buried here. They never even had a memorial for her. It was better, Whit said, to forget it had happened at all.
The reception is in the basement of the church. Whit’s old coworkers from the gas station and his friends from the VFW and the town bar line up to greet them. “He was a real man,” they say, offering handshakes, far more people than they expected, some of them even looking broken up. At the buffet the Maureens weave past Whit’s remaining family—a dotty sister, cousins from New Hampshire. His nephew who has lived hard, there toothless and sallow, rakes his fingers through the potato salad then sucks them clean. After two bites of food the new Maureen crumples a paper napkin over her plate and pushes it aside. She feels the start of tears. Someone hands her a baby, thinking perhaps that this will comfort her, and she and Maureen sit quietly jiggling the baby knee to knee, looking at the crowded room with wonder. That was my life, and now this is.
* * *
At home everything is wet and mushy with spring thaw. Their sons linger for awhile, making sure everything in the house is okay, making sure their mother is settled for the night. Once they finally leave, Maureen hesitates before the bathroom door.
“Do you think he’s gone?” the old Maureen asks. She fears both possibilities. But inside, Whit still fills the tub, staring ahead at the mildewing tile they haven’t cleaned since before his disappearance.
In the weeks that follow, the Maureens pass most of their time indoors, refilling the tub with ice, keeping the house well dusted. They work on some knitting, but often wake up in the recliner to the sound of Whit’s whistling, knitting needles dropped to their lap, finding that hours have passed. At night it is worse, the house even colder, the whistle sound louder and deeper, more of a moan or a low, eerie wind. When they go in to check on him, he fixes them with that vacant stare and spits—feebly as he can—frigid water in their direction. As if he knows what they have done with the other Whit, and isn’t happy about it.
“He’s acting up,” the new Maureen says. She suggests they stop with the ice all together, see what might happen if they simply ignore him. The old Maureen tries to go along with this, at a loss as to what else they can do, but finds herself slipping ice cubes into the tub when his whining gets too loud. She thinks back to when her sons were babies and she could never stand to hear them cry. She would hardly sleep, spend hours at the crib or in a rocking chair, trying to soothe them. She feels the same now. Losing sleep, waking tired, neglecting the household duties. She starts from one room to another and forgets what she meant to do, or why she should do anything at all.
* * *
In May a week of hard sun firms the ground and one morning dandelions overtake the yard. That same morning a third Maureen appears; they discover her standing at the fence out front, where the paper plate signs have faded and the ink has dried in bleary rivulets so the words are no longer clear. She has done up her hair in some sort of twist, clean and out of the way. The third Maureen looks at them with seeming disgust. Her eyes are sharp and well-rested. Old Maureen and new Maureen struggle to keep up with her as she yanks each plate down, crumples the whole sodden mess into a ball, then strides across the lawn and brings the trash to the burn pile in the backyard.
The third Maureen starts toward the house, then pauses and glances at them.
“You can help,” she says, less a permission than an order, and so they follow her inside. Together, Maureen works in concert, yanking shirts and jackets from swinging hangers, clearing old razors from the bathroom drawers. They collect a stack of mildewing thriller novels and newspaper clippings, a pair of worn slippers. When the old Maureen hesitates, the new takes a bundle from her arms and dumps it all onto the growing pile out back. The third Maureen rushes in and out with boxes of blaze orange hats and doe urine, fishing vests. Last is the TV, an ancient model that ends up being too heavy for them to carry, but with a smile the new Maureen unplugs it, snips the cord, and tosses that on the pile.
The house is noticeably emptier, lighter. There are a few blank spots on the walls, the paint around them faded, from where they took down plaques from fishing derbies and two ugly reproductions of Civil War oil paintings. Staring at the stripped walls, the Maureens sense the first real act of defiance in their life—not the removal of belongings, not the burn pile outside, but their sudden, overwhelming sense of relief.
Only the kitchen feels the same. They gather there, flush with the breathless satisfaction of hard work. The house is so clean now, nearly everything cleared out. Only their bathtub is left. The third Maureen rifles through the junk drawer by the stove until she finds a box of matches. She fishes a bottle of lighter fluid from the cabinet under the sink. Old Maureen and new Maureen exchange uneasy glances. The third Maureen pours everyone a stiff drink and tells them to relax, she can take it from here. They may go.
The Maureens drain their whiskey and shake their heads; they will see this to the end.
Amanda Emil Anderson is a writer from Vermont. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Rumpus, and Sonora Review. She has an MFA from Emerson College and reads fiction for The Knicknackery.