I am a drenched man inside clothes that are weighing me down. I didn’t expect to be stranded five miles into the lake, not so suddenly, but I’ll make do. I’ll make do. My body has already gotten used to the temperature, to the sting of cold water.
I am dressed like a professional, but I do not feel like one, with a suit from shoulder to toe. I use one hand to balance the shoebox of my father’s ashes above my head, palming the cardboard underside like a serving tray. First to go is the suit jacket. I move my opposite shoulder in imprecise circles until my arm slips out of the sleeve, free like an eel. I do the same thing to the other side and I’m out. I’m lighter than I used to be and feeling good. I let the jacket float away across the surface of Lake Michigan.
I had never been to the lake before today. As I pushed my boat into the water, I felt the immensity of it all, the miles I needed to travel for my father. He knew how to talk slick. One night I crept into his room while he slept. I stole a tie, kark green like algae with thin black stripes. The knot was still there in a perfect triangle. I fell asleep with it around my neck and dreamed of becoming a man.
He read facts and people, my father. He tried passing those things on to me, but my little brain never held. I couldn’t make myself think like him, but I tried, I tried. He called it that, my little brain. I understood my love for him, but that was never enough.
The water swells around me, wants to pull me in and keep me.
I wish my mind stored information from informational shows. I could survive in the water on my own for days, catch fish with my bare hands. In the lake, I’d be king. I wish I had been educated. Today I only paddled four miles before I felt exhausted. At five and a couple hundred yards the wooden boat capsized. A small hole in the bottom opened up and took water into its frail stomach.
I hold my father’s ashes high above my head. His place is in the middle of the lake.
He told me that he had once hooked worms here by himself. My father and a dinghy. I admired his independence and wanted it for myself. What I’m doing now isn’t special. It’s a son’s duty. My father said this is what he wanted after he died, that only I could do it, and it had to be in the center. I didn’t know he loved the water so much. If you can, he said, get me there. I know less about my father than I care to admit.
I float with my bare feet dangling underwater. I try to push myself forward using my free arm and kick my legs out to the side. Swimming motions. I move slowly and with determination. I wonder how I can travel this way for another hundred miles, but I let the thought go. I keep on.
Seaweed catches itself between my middle toe and the toe next to that one. I shake my foot, but it doesn’t come loose. With my free arm I reach down and try to grab it. As I get a hold of it, the shoebox slips and a corner hits the water. I quickly recover, but some water has already leaked through the box. If his ashes are damp, I’ll have failed. I could easily empty it now and swim back, but my father’s last wish would go incomplete. No, they can’t be spread here. He trusted me to reach the center on my own, so I’ll do it.
When I was young, my father told people that I had slowness in my blood. After that aunts hugged me for too long at family parties, and everyone gave me watery looks. I had been to doctors: I didn’t need medication, I didn’t need help. My social skills were just tired. I let people talk at me, and I would give them an expression—any expression—to show that I cared. I determined that my father simply had what people called parental concern, so I continued to smile after hearing sad stories.
In the distance, moving in front of the setting sun, I see the outline of a sailboat. I duck my head underwater to keep from being spotted. I can only stay under for two minutes at a time before needing air. With each bob and return, the boat advances. As I break the surface again, I sputter and cough. Whoever’s onboard hears, turns his head and steers toward me. I consider hiding again, but it will only look like drowning now.
The boat glides alongside me. The man controlling it has a thin neck, and I notice a single blue vein on the side, pulsing.
What’s in the box? he says, reaching down at me.
I raise it up to him and say, Be careful, okay?
He places it on the floor of the boat.
I put out my hand and he grabs it, hoists me up. My knees reach the side railing, and from there I climb inside.
I run to my father. The box feels slightly damp. I open the lid, and everything except for the outermost ashes looks dry.
Did you want to be saved? the guy says from behind me. He doesn’t understand that he’s not doing me any favors. I feel conflicted about standing in the boat. It can help me reach the center, but I’m breaching my father’s rules by allowing someone to get me there.
I think, What if I could use the boat but not the man?
How long have you been sailing? I ask.
Today? he says. A couple of hours, but I’ve had this beauty for three years now.
He pats the side of the boat as if it were a pet. I hold the pole with the sail attached, and I imagine operating it on my own. I pick up my father, keeping him secure under my arm, and stare out across the lake. Pink rays of light scatter across each ripple, soft glimmers I couldn’t see from within. The distance from here to the other side seems immense. It would take days to cross. How did my father expect me to do it alone?
The guy asks how I got into the lake. I tell him my boat sprang a leak.
He says, in a tone accusing me of some injustice, You swam inward.
I sit down and cross my arms, resting them on the box. I notice a fishing rod on the floor. Its lure dangles.
Why do you do it? I ask. Sail.
He looks at my eyes, not in them. He doesn’t see me as a person. Only a pair of pupils with damp hair.
Seems like you don’t belong here, he says. The boat rocks back and forth and back again as he stands up to face the lake. He says, I sail because one day I know I’ll find something.
Had my father hoped to find something, too? Why else hadn’t he taken me with him onto Lake Michigan and shown me how to catch?
I carefully set him down beside me and reach out for the fishing rod. The line feels strong and taut. Had he been searching for a sense of humor in the senseless?
The other man faces me and says he should turn the boat around, get me back to shore. I clench the fishing line between my hands. The sun has turned pink behind a file of clouds, and the air smells sweet. I pull the line tighter until blood rushes through my arms and down through every finger. On the back of my hand, a faint scar shows white, glowing against the red.
In Florida, on vacation, I remember feeling sand under my feet for the first time. The bottoms of my feet burned on the beach, and the water brought seashells to the wet edge of the shore.
My father walked behind me and held my hands above my head in support. Like a puppeteer, he walked me to a damp area of sand. My feet sank deep into the ground until I thought I’d be swallowed up altogether. Then I felt myself being pulled straight from the dark earth. Heavy clumps fell from my feet.
We moved together into the shallowest part of the ocean. The sun warmed the water. A ray bounced off the surface, catching my eye. A jellyfish swam underwater a few feet ahead. I turned my head to look at my father for guidance. He stood there and nodded. His height allowed him to see what floated in front of me. Go on, he said, arms crossed. You can touch it, go on.
I stared at the jellyfish drifting beneath the surface. I let my head dip below. I held my breath instinctively and opened my eyes. The water blurred my vision, and I could see the long tentacles moving in every direction. My heart beat faster as I extended my arm, stretched my fingers. I saw the jellyfish’s movements as beautiful, not dangerous. When we finally touched, it left a red kiss on the back of my hand that ached. It felt hot and alive. I came up for air, clutching my hand, screaming in pain.
As if he knew I’d need him, my father already stood close to me in the water. He immediately grabbed me in his arms. My eyes faced the ocean as I rested my head on his shoulder. He walked up the beach past damaged sandcastles and empty soda cans. He kept me close to his body. As I held my own hand, I felt soft vibrations of laughter coming from somewhere deep within him. He said, It won’t hurt for long, and I let his thin pulses of contentment carry me all the way back.
The boat sways to and fro and to again as we stand on opposite ends, my father between us.
Laurence Yates is what’s in the box, I say.
The man walks forward slowly, boots thumping against the floor of the boat. You’re spreading his ashes, he says.
I nod because if I try to talk I’ll choke. The words will get lost, more lost than me maybe. I’ve spent the past four years playing the part of successful son. Truth is, I don’t know why I button my shirt every morning.
I look out at where I imagine the center of Lake Michigan rests. The man sees what’s in my eyes welling up, and I stretch the fishing line firm.
I can help you, he says. I can help you get anywhere on this lake. His eyes and mouth open at once and he says, exasperated, that he thinks I’m it. I’m what he’s been looking for out here.
My muscles relax as I consider the possibility. It feels good, having someone need you. Has my father been the one to play me for a fool this whole time? I thought he trusted me. I thought he trusted me to come out here on my own, to reach the middle of Lake Michigan, to face the cold—all for him. Why would he send me on an impossible task?
I throw the fishing rod down and run to him. My thoughts start to form a larger thought, one I hope will make sense of things. I peek into the shoebox because it feels like the right thing to do. Maybe staring at the ashes will help. When I look inside, I feel no emotional attachment to him, to them: the black remains. I walk to the side of the sailboat and balance the box on the rail. If it just teetered the wrong way, it could all be over.
Then I think of the man on the boat, how I’m the thing he’s been looking for. If I give up now, he’ll have no one else to help. I can offer him closure, and him, me. I turn my head and watch as the man stares at the setting sun. Tonight we could be co-captains.
I face the stern and get ready to carry out my original plan. I will deliver the ashes on my own terms, proving to myself that I can while giving the man on the boat the adventure he has been searching for.
I reach for my father, but a small wave crashes into the side of the boat and it wobbles. He’s already falling, spilling out of the box and into the cold air. I act without thinking and jump after him. The water chills my skin as I break the surface. I sputter and cough and wade, trying to stay afloat. I accidentally swallow a mouthful of ashes. I look around. The water is dark, thick with remains. It feels warm now. In the tussle I realize that I’ve pissed my slacks, and the urine has spread out around me.
I look up at the man on the boat, who looks down at me. We’re only fifty feet from one another, but the distance seems immeasurable. I struggle to breathe. Over the noise of the waves and the thin whistle of wind above water, I hear the soft rumblings of something else, something deeper—something like laughter.