She who knew boats and ropes no longer played *
Algae sat on Lake Chetek year round, a layer of clotted cream sponge-like and lime green. As a kid I remember sitting on its frothy lip, feeling like a fly on the edge of a cauldron. Looking out, I thought how perfect it was for our family reunions to be held on this rank body of water. Even plants on the shoreline slouched and slumped towards the lagoon, futureless, sediment leaching through their weak roots. I watched trees fall in one-by-one like born again baptists in a failed ceremony, bodies left floating while their clothes rotted off. It was the saddest lake I ever saw.
A few intrepid pontoons tried their luck on Chetek most July Fourths. Dads with red skin from the sun (or the beer) helmed their metal inchworms, lugging along athletic, drunk children on innertubes. Jampacked under the awning like Hawaiian buns, moms and aunts in tankinis bristled with chubby uncles, sausage arms dangling off the boat’s padded edges. I was jealous of these kids. They had the type of parents who could swallow their pride and dress up on Halloween, or countenance the gauche life of a blow-up Grinch in their front yard. Maybe it wasn’t a matter of pride, maybe they even liked it, the perennial childhood of it all. My parents were adults through and through; my mother thought holiday decorations were vulgar. Our lone Christmas display each year was a towering tree, sparse as Charlie Brown’s and at one with our home’s endless angularity. The branches wore elaborate origami ornaments that she spent hours making in the months leading up to Christmas, spread out in our breakfast nook with her Earl Grey and sliced pears looking half-Japanese, serene and papery and thin. To this day I recoil at anything minimal. With his skimpy tree, Charlie Brown may’ve rejected Jesus’ birthday as commodity, but my mother was in my mind embracing darker forces: the puritanical, the controlled. I always thought she was a bit of a tyrant. In her poem Daddy, Sylvia Plath writes that Every woman adores a Fascist...well not if they’re your mother, I’d like to say back.
Our reunion was held on the grounds of Salvation Park Bible Retreat, the northern Wisconsin camp my mother had attended as a kid, skinny as a rail and soft spoken. During the summer that most girls her age got their periods, she got chased around by rowdy boys chanting Flatsy, flatsy two-by-four!, an easy dig at her underdeveloped chest. Even my mother’s body was unadorned. She finally menstruated at age 18, technically an adult and ready to ship off for college. The night I first spotted blood in my underwear at 11, a relatively common age, I looked down at the rusty patch and began to cry: I was dirty like everyone else.
Unlike mother, my dad was a real stranger to Northwoods white trash, not a Wisconsin guy at all. The rural poor could never tug at his sympathy, an emotion reserved for those he saw as acutely at risk: Black city kids, urban immigrant communities. He was himself a postwar refugee who grew up in a rundown part of Chicago’s South Side, and the space afforded to poor people in places like Chetek was its own kind of luxury in dad’s view. He got in trouble making jokes to his students at the university about the lives to be lived in conservative, white working class enclaves: "If you fail this exam you can say hello to flipping burgers in Rhinelander! I hear Arby’s is hiring!" He thought this was hilarious and didn’t much examine the fact that most of the kids in his classes were from little farm towns like Chetek and Rhinelander. I was taught to be pretentious in the strangest style, to rebuff rural kids and nurture soft spots for communities I was not even a part of. This contradiction rubbed me the wrong way, especially when I stared at boats. The same way Republicans launch attacks at the welfare state when its beneficiaries purchase cell phones or sneakers, liberals shake their heads at house poor motorheads. I wanted to be a motorhead. I wanted to pop onto one of those tubes with a gropey baseball player and get whiplashed. I wanted a fat mom who knew how to party.
As a 2-for-1, our reunions were always held around July Fourth, a fact that nicely inlaid resentment for me approaching the event as I would be missing celebrations with my own friends back home. We certainly didn’t go every year, but the ones we made it for were preceded by weeks of arguments, tantrums, and ultimatums spearheaded by yours truly. Sitting around eating flavorless snacks with Protestant moderates was my worst nightmare. Mother’s extended family was a grim net of risk-averse Holy Joes and Maries, pale and sickly aesthetes who said doilies were "too fancy." If you were going to be religious and conservative minded, I thought you should be the fun kind, the messy and drunk kind. Chetek’s impure waters swirled like the collective id of mom’s family, the flipside of moralism and lean meat. The lake sustained poor folks who had the audacity to revel in their bad luck. Watching them honor life’s various dishonors while I hung around clinically reserved men without boating licenses made me sick. As my great uncles nodded off in adirondack chairs, I longed to tip them over like sleeping cows. I pictured myself shoving them into the green muck of Chetek, where the slime would swallow them up like some fifties horror flick.
The summer before eighth grade juts out in my memory—a long straw that itches my cortex when I think about those Hansen Family gatherings now and again. The slower I pull on that straw the stickier it gets with old information. Names and smells emerge in oily puddles, ready to be stepped in and resented and washed off.
At the time, I was one of those preteens who fancied herself precocious without having any actual information. It is in a young girl’s nature to refute realities with intuitions, and I suppose you could say I didn’t excel at anything concrete. My dad still played records back then, and I became entirely attached to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, the song "Twisted" in particular. The lyrics unleash the genesis of Mitchell’s art, centering herself as a little girl. The child gets drunk and knows she is a genius at three. She refuses to ride in a double decker bus because there isn’t a driver on top. Vodka helps her sleep. I thought this was both very cool and completely relevant to my own stature as misunderstood prodigy. In our living room I’d listen to Mitchell brag and boast over and over, giving myself rug burns as I writhed on the floor like an epileptic. That year in school I had learned about Pentecostals, a kid in my class was one of them, and I was so jealous I could feel my heart boil everytime he described their church services. Speaking in a language whose meaning and accuracy you and only you could confirm seemed to me the most sublime expression of self, practically tailor made for my instinct-laden, jittery tongue. Mitchell got this, I thought, and had the confidence to relinquish herself as a vessel for something—or someone—else. Instead of one head I got two, she sang. Exactly! I thought.
I piled into my parents’ Honda Odyssey the morning of July 4, 2004 lost in my own jokes, knowing that I would be utterly incapable of acting present with my mother’s eerie family. Our van’s interior was coated in dog hair and had the middle seat removed so that I could lay on the carpet during longer trips. If I didn’t look out the windows I could pretend that I was in a moving room. My dad never questioned this desire and had happily dumped the row years prior. He and I were not "seatbelt people" anyways. New cars and their lousy beeps have stripped this preference from our kind.
Driving due north only to land in the armpit of Chetek bummed me out. If we kept on rolling towards Canada we could go to Lake Superior, my favorite summer spot, where you can see clear 60-feet down and swallow the water if you so choose. Our arrival in Chetek, rather, was cued by the abrupt proliferation of unnecessarily long driveways and "wood for sale" signs. Every house in the area had a flagpole fit for some kind of state department and a thousand wiry messages about our troops. I myself didn’t know any active military men. "The troops" was a tidy abstraction that kept people from asking too many questions. You either supported them or you didn’t, I guessed. Throughout the hour ride up my mother badgered me about my lukewarm attitude towards the Hansen’s; she didn’t see why I couldn’t be nice for one day.
"Why can’t you be nice for one day?"
I told her I was nice to people who earned it.
"I’m nice to people who earn it!"
I figured that the Hansen’s deserved a taste of their own reticent medicine, and I was happy to give it to them in the form of adolescent hostility. They weren’t even immediate family, not by any stretch. These reunions were a tenuous hodge-podge of locals, people who basically lived within a 100-mile radius of the lake. Our most recent common ancestor may as well be Ghengis Khan, I thought, once again envisioning my great aunts and their moth ball auras. I knew my mother had herself hated these people as a child, and her newfound amnesia paired with a last minute sense of duty that my dad and I saw straight through. In fact, my dad was the only one who authentically got along with the Hansen clan, even if it was in a sociological capacity. He got a kick out of their fucked up foods and emotional shortcomings. (In an exemplary Christmas celebration, he was the sole dinner attendee who finished his plate of the Nordic fish jello known as lutefisk.) The Serb in him felt like he was at a zoo, and the father in him felt proud of his acerbic daughter idling there, so clearly the product of his genetic contributions.
As we turned onto the long dirt road that led to the Salvation Park cabins, the smell of sulfur and cheap fertilizer seeped into the car. This is basically Chernobyl, I considered, dramatically, though the plot of land did objectively look bereaved. The grounds hit my soul every year like a poorly maintained memorial, to what I didn’t know, but the marks of disaster, death, and disuse were omnipresent. Felled trees dotted the forest with moss-covered axes resting on their stumps. Juiced up on chemicals, the overactive earth swallowed acts of human intervention in every direction. I was unsettled by such futile landscaping efforts and quietly spoke to myself about this while my dad looked for a spot to park in the lot. By the time we pulled up it was close to full with practical, unflashy vehicles: Hyundai Sonatas, Kia Sorentos, and Ford Foci in particular huddled together like nervous, milquetoast children. The most conspicuous vehicle in the lot was a Honda Element, a model that possessed my dad with visions of a revolutionized family dynamic.
"Now that’s a goddamn car," he said, walking up to the comically geometric SUV. "What have I been saying about this car? I’m going to win the lottery next week and get one of these. Hook a pop-up tent camper to the back of that and you can go anywhere, we’d never have to stay in a motel again."
"When do we ever stay in motels?" I asked. Our family, like most midwestern stock, rarely flew and on multi-day road trips dad drove through the night.
"Well we don’t but with the Element we wouldn’t even have to think about it."
While he and I litigated a hypothetical future, my mother, eternally tardy, fiddled with her purse in the front seat, re-folding her hankie and making sure she had enough soy-free soy sauce and sunscreen for the day’s activities. Finally getting up to go, she murmured an esoteric comment about the weather and signaled for me to help carry her pot of gazpacho. There was about a 2% chance that any of her relatives would eat this. In bringing a dish she knew they wouldn’t enjoy, she was participating in some kind of experiment in confirmation bias. This was of course passive aggressive, her bread and butter, however, that style of conflict was something she had plainly inherited from the same people she was about to punk. I loved to unwind this mire of quiet revenge and subterfuge, it was so alien to my own mode of confrontation, yet so essential to Hansen family politics.
I eventually took the lead and started walking to the park’s mess hall to drop off the food and begin the merry-go-round of stop-and-chats. The first person I caught sight of was my mom’s cousin Gary, a terrible omen. Gary had a Boss Tweed belly that he chose to emphasize with atrociously tight, grey t-shirts and belts pulled so snug I thought he’d explode. He wore shoes and cargo shorts from wholesale grocery stores and saw it fit to pull my ponytail every time I saw him. On the one occasion I encountered him with my hair down he gathered it himself, thinking it best to stick to the routine he conceived as ours. I didn’t want to have any kind of routine with cousin Gary. To top it off his face was blighted by psoriasis, a condition needlessly spotlit in contrast by a jet black mustache—that thing could clean a grill.
"So-feeeeeee-a," he said torturously, reaching for my hair. I let him have a yank or two.
"Hello Gary," I said, looking around hoping my parents would catch up. "Where are the girls?"
"They’re by the pool already. Did you bring your swimsuit?"
Wouldn’t you like to know, I thought but just nodded. The girls in question were Gary’s three "daughters." A handful of years ago, he and his wife adopted them in Atlanta as full-blown teenagers. They brought the girls back to the Wisconsin Dells, a chlorinated shithole if there ever was one, and enrolled them in private schools that taught intelligent design. I thought the whole arrangement reeked to high heavens of Gary’s own "intelligent design." Whether it had to do with taxes or something more deviant I didn’t know, but even as a middle schooler I could tell there was something fishy about the adoption. The girls all jokingly referred to it as the "abduction" which made me laugh though it strikes me at the moment as deeply unfunny. When I saw the film Dogtooth years later in high school, images of Gary’s family unexpectedly visited my mind. As the adult daughters fooled around in their father’s pool on-screen, I thought of Gary’s poor girls swimming laps whenever I saw them, desperately simulating something like freedom. To this day domestic bodies of water connote little for me beyond familial perversion—sexual and financial.
"Honey that thing is heavy, keep moving," my mother interjected, timidly approaching her older cousin. Neither of my parents were big fans of Gary and for this I was grateful. They made brief business of saying "hello," courtesy of my dad’s fine-tuned ability to never completely stop walking. This trait drove me nuts as a kid, I thought it was rude. I know now that it’s totally brilliant and have adopted the technique for my own purposes.
The mess hall sat near the lake, unassuming in its dark brown paint and ranch-style layout. A pair of screen doors marked the entrance where comings and goings were made known by a springy wood slap. Bare-legged children with see-through skin circled the building playing sheltered-kid games. Jacks, cards, Yahtzee. My brain shutdown like a computer when these distant cousins tried to explain their contests. I was plenty social, but my interests were prematurely horny and unfit for such a lawful scene. I primarily liked to loiter with my friends until something bad happened. Before one of these homeschooled cranks could corner me, I thankfully spotted my third cousin Anna and her brother Al. They were from Chicago and half-Italian, meaning funny. Our dads and the three of us were the only people in sight without a cock and bull "sun poisoning" story.
"Hey sweetie!" Anna hollered, approaching me with her new boobs and vacation braids. She’d been wearing halter tops sans tits for ages and I was truly happy to see her filling one out finally. Anna was about to be a freshman, she had earned it.
"Someone normal!" I joked, gesturing with my head for her to follow me. "I have to drop off this retarded soup somewhere."
We broke off from my parents and went inside. Hobbling down three carpeted steps to the main room facing Chetek, I paused briefly to observe the cliques of stiff-limbed retirees, supposedly my elders, pace the buffet area, perusing the fare silently as though at an art gallery. Somnambulant nods betrayed their most vivid concerns in life: hunger and patience. I created a small space for my body to squeeze through and took a moment to scan the offering myself. By and large I already knew what I would be up against for the next eight hours, digestively speaking. Most grotesque was always the tray of hors d'oeuvres known to many as "Wisconsin sushi": a snickerdoodle-like roll-up of pickles, ham, and cream cheese. Fully deranged. I set down the gazpacho (shockingly the plastic table didn’t buckle), snagged a piece of lefse (simple and sublime), and went out the back door behind Anna (staring covetously at her emerald booty shorts the whole way).
Anna’s grandpa Ben, my grandmother’s sister’s husband, intercepted us en route to the pool, eager, I was sure, to show off his latest duck sculptures. This was his great passion. He photographed birds in the pond behind his cabin and carved out their likeness from walnut. The old guy even painted them, they were pretty good! To this day I have some respect for him.
"Don’t you two make the prettiest pair in Chetek," Bill beamed, ensnaring us both in an airless hug.
"Not much competition," I accurately observed, causing Ben to smirk as he stepped back.
"That’s not very nice Sofia!" he "scolded," visibly entertained by my little attitude.
"I guess not."
Hours later, a certain incoherence had picked up around Salvation Park. It was subtle at the start.
I first took note as I pulled myself out of the pool, my skin all pruned and light pink. I grabbed a towel off the ladder’s railing and became aware that nearly everyone on the deck had passed out. It had been a long day in the sun, but this was mighty uncharacteristic for a group of adults whose work ethic Max Weber would have gladly studied. With the exception of one or two light beers they were practically teetotalers.
I fetched my bag from the cement and went to sit down on the edge of the shallow-end with my book, I think it was some YA emo dreck about self-harm. I read for a little, maybe 30, 40 minutes, until I realized how starving I was. As though they could hear my need, the sleeping relatives began to stir. In the midst of them I saw Ben. Reclined on his pool chair with ham in his lap like some drunken Silenus, he was slowly and methodically eating the butts of cigars from an ashtray. He smiled at me, teeth covered in charcoal.
It was suddenly cold.
I badly wanted my dad, but he’d left the reunion early to catch my brother’s soccer game. In his absence disquiet set in, blunting my perception and making my ears ring. There seemed to be an hourglass inside me, depositing sand in the far reaches of my limbs, making them heavy. My brain pushed on my skull like a baby, trying either to get out or tell me something. I threw on a hoodie with some basketball shorts. I needed to find my mother.
I left the pool area and made my way towards the overnight cabins nestled at the western edge of the park. Jogging the wooded perimeter, I scanned the grounds as best I could. Noisy birds and frogs kept my agitation at a fixed buzz. Hearing a twig snap, I stopped and zeroed in on my great aunt Dierdre: crouched like an animal and swaying. She was a rigid woman, a closeted dyke I’d been told. In her sixties, she had married some truck-driving oaf and the pair made a late life together in financial ruin, senselessly upgrading trailer homes every five years. Dierdre was always mean to me. To her I was as profligate as a movie star blonde just for wanting to take ballet. My mother said that she didn’t like little girls and had acted the same way towards her as a kid, and here before me was that same callous lady, reason dethroned, chucking herself about like Goody Proctor dancing with the devil. She usually wore western shirts shoved into stiff Wranglers and faded leather belts, really macho ones about four fingers wide with buckles bigger than my fists. Now she was ass naked with cream cheese on her face and a towel around her neck. She refused to register my voice. I knew I should give her a hand but my spirit that day was petty. Diedre was normally so impervious to pleasures of the mind, perhaps I was doing her a favor. I backed away from the forest, until I hit the open field.
It was green all over.
At least it felt that way. I swear I saw the color shed from the trees, filling the air like hookah smoke. The mossy rocks that flanked each cabin seemed to pulse rhythmically, ridding themselves of some prehistoric toxicity. The environment and the people in it were betraying each other, like some moralizing Edward Abbey story, I thought. Maybe it was just the weather, or maybe I was just hungry.
I continued to dart around and yell my mother’s name. Peeking inside an old stave church near the mess hall, I found my eldest great uncle instead. Walter had thrown himself off of his expensive wheelchair and was army crawling, dragging his distended legs along the chapel aisle by slow degrees. His proportions were horrifying. Bits of pickle stuck to the floor behind him in a ribbon of opalescent entrails.
"Walter?" I stammered. He looked insane. "Should I get some help?"
The fat man stared through me with vague, regardless eyes, blushing strangely like a schoolboy. His veins bulged and I pitied him. A Norwegian slug on Norwegian wood. With his pants sagging like the markets he watched so closely, I left him there, gesturing the Orthodox sign of the cross on my way out.
When I got to the mess hall’s main room I made my way over to the buffet table, thinking that I might grab more lefse to sustain my search. Not a drop of mother’s gazpacho had been consumed. Next to it, the tray of Wisconsin sushi was empty. Someone was approaching. I spun around with caution, terrified of which delirious relative I might face.
It was mother. Her linen shift was the only clean fabric in sight. A light above us flickered and she glared at me, taciturn as a tenured principal. Pointing to the vacant tray, her unnaturally skinny arm tensed with emphasis.
"Tell me right now did you eat any of that crap?"
"No ma’am," I assured her. Gun to my head I wouldn’t have touched that shit, she had trained me well. I was her orthorexic soldier.
"No one would be sick if they had eaten my gazpacho," she ruled, dropping her arm. Tension quelled for a beat and I grabbed her hand.
All around us, sweat-soaked Hansen’s shifted languidly between couches, melting down from their gassy illnesses. Tracks of peat streaked the linoleum and clustered near cracks and corners. We ran out the back door. It had begun to rain and Chetek’s foul-smelling waters were steadily closing in on the mess hall. On the makeshift shore I waved wildly for one of the rednecks out there to pick us up. My feet were doused in algae and mud and I was chilled to the bone but determined. I didn’t care that we looked like a couple X-Files victims, I had made up my mind: it was the health nuts’ turn to surrender.
A speedboat in the middle distance clocked us (more likely my mother, a very elegant woman) and beelined our way. I squinted to make out the boat’s name. Airbrushed on the side was the phrase "Any Given Sunday" in black-and-blue cursive lettering. It was in fact a Sunday. A sexy teenage boy wearing six or seven titanium bracelets and white-rimmed shades sat cockily at the helm. The shirtless captain, unmistakably the boy’s dad, let the engine tick over. Drifting with the waves, I could hear them yell over the motor’s rattle.
"You ladies want a lift?"
My mother drank three Coronas that day. They’re randomly gluten-free. I even got my baseball player and sat on that pitcher’s lap until my butt hurt. Between drinks he lit Roman candles into the dull, diseased sky. I felt framed in my young aloofness, fastened in place by the affection of strangers. Rendering their services to women, they too were pleased with themselves. The dad looked so sincere standing there in his puddle of seaweed and sand, I decided to call him Rick the Skipper. We were the only beings that day undiffused by hammy pinwheels and Chetek’s miasma of stink.
As these things go, Rick the Skipper got blasted. To the nth degree. Tequila, vodka, at least six Bud heavies. When the rain cleared up, he convinced mother and I to go tubing with an unadorned "are you chicken?" threat. Putting the boat in neutral, he stumbled over to the stern and reeled in the rope hand-over-hand until his tube was close enough for us to climb on. I stupidly asked for a couple life jackets and he looked at me like I was a census collector.
"Don’t have none of those around here," he promised.
I inched onto the bright red disc and my mother followed. We awkwardly arranged ourselves and gave Rick a nod. He threw the boat in drive. Chetek’s surface was as green as roulette table felt—our tube glided like a chip between hands. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Her family was still rotting on the shore. We had almost forgotten. I watched her breathe freely for the first time since she was young, or so I imagined. She looked proud of me for some hardwired, maternal reason. We were happy.
Without warning, Rick the Skip throttled his boat to the right, swinging us with abandon towards the thick wake of another rig. I screamed. We hit the tangled crest and went flying.
In the air all went quiet. I cocked my head and watched my mother tumble like a little girl, suspended upside down in the mist, prisms tattooing her skin. I could see she was still laughing.
*Title and epigraph from Lorine Niedecker’s "Paean to Place," written between 1968-1970 on Black Hawk Island in southern Wisconsin.