Okay, so I met Alison at an AA meeting. We went out a few times for coffee, for ice cream. She was doing pretty well then, so she invited me over for dinner to meet her mother, Jacqui.
What to say about Jacqui? She was overwhelming, loud, funny, talked about herself non-stop. Alison told me she was bipolar. Up or down, on or off. Jacqui was having a manic episode while we were having jerk chicken.
Then Alison started drinking again. She hit the bottle, hit the bars and hit the road. No one knew where she was. Jacqui started calling me three and four times a day, weeping, sobbing, said she couldn’t leave the house, the phone, couldn’t get dressed, couldn’t bathe herself. A wicked bad depressive episode obviously.
It was fall, October. We were having a stretch of days as crisp as Macintosh apples. Trees were a crazy quilt of color.
I stop telling my story and look up at my friend Patrick to see if he is following it. We are drinking espresso at my kitchen table.
Patrick says, “We are all the stories we tell.”
“Even the false stories?”
“Yes, even the false ones.” He sips and nods, so I continue.
As I said, fall. Beautiful cerulean skies. I think about Jacqui, depressed and housebound. Granted, I do not know her well at all, but I decide to call her up, suggest an outing. In AA you learn how to care for others in trouble. So I call her and invite her to go paddleboating with me on Dow Lake, something I had wanted to do for a while. I remembered going paddleboating with my dad on Jackson Lake at the Tetons, and it was a joyous memory, the boat one even I could handle, more like riding a bike than piloting a boat.
That Saturday I drive out to the lake. I have my little Yorkie with me, and he is wearing his life jacket. It is a perfect day, sunny, chilly, clear. I scan the park and see Jacqui approaching.
Okay, Jacqui is a big girl, maybe three hundred pounds. And she is dressed as if we are about to go explore the Amazon, a camouflage jacket, outback hat, a duffle slung over her back. But she is smiling. Better manic than depressive for boating.
It rained the night before, so the attendant is bailing our boat. Jacqui is on some talking jag that I cannot follow about photography and boating gear. She is still ranting when the attendant summons her to board and she steps right into the drink.
The clumsiness is not her fault. We are both recovering from leg injuries. Jacqui has broken her ankle three times in three years. I lost the use of my left leg for four months; no one can tell me why.
Jacqui tries again, and this time pitches headlong into the boat. I toss her gear on the console, and board with Little Dog, and the attendant launches us.
Jacqui starts unpacking her gear. She has provisions for us – jerky, bottled water, hard biscuits, granola bars, energy drinks, and for Little Dog – biscuits, pepperoni. She also unpacks flares, waders, flashlights, foul weather gear.
At the deepest part, Dow Lake is three feet deep. If we capsized, we could walk to the shore, but so be it.
Little Dog seems content, eyes closed, wind riffling his fur. Good thing because I quickly realize that the weight imbalance has me working double-time. I push the pedals hard, but we keep circling. Jacqui’s approach to pedaling seems laid back, even lackadaisical. I wanted a workout to strengthen my leg, but this may prove more than I can handle.
And all the while she has a monologue going, commentary on the lake snakes, the weather, other boaters, some passing fishermen who are swilling beer and laughing as they pass us, pointing. That, she misses.
She talks and I grind away at the pedals, trying to get us underway and out of the loop. Her stories – something about an Evangelical sister who torments her for being a fallen woman, another about a neighbor who left her a half-eaten cake when she was convalescing, another about a bad brake job on her vintage Caddie. The stories went on and on, and I couldn’t find the connective thread. Sometimes I worry that I do not live in the narrative of the external world.
Patrick rises and pours himself another espresso.
He says, “But we have inner lives.”
“That only lasts for a while,” I say.
He rubs his head, laughing and rejoins me.
This is when Jacqui decides that the paddleboat is a photo op. She plops down on a forward gunwale , portside and starts snapping at Little Dog and me. Of course this really throws the boat balance off and I am huffing and pedaling and chuffing, and we are taking on water. The boat is supposed to be self-bailing, but the water is coming in too fast. I grope around for a bailer, no go. I empty one of the emergency bottles of water and squeeze it trying to siphon up some of the water.
Squeeze, pour, squeeze, pour.
Finally I tell Jacqui that she has to get back in her seat where she merrily begins attacking the emergency food supplies, smacking down three health food bars, three dry biscuits, a turkey jerky, and two bottle of water.
After an hour my leg and I have had enough, so I aim for the landing. Jacqui is disappointed, but I explain that I cannot keep up the pace alone.
Of course, she is impulsive. Her theme song could be, This Manic Moment. As we approach, she tries to jump for the dock, knocking her gear and Little Dog overboard. Panicky, he dogpaddles around the boat until I make a good swipe and fish him out. I do not care about her gear. That is her look-out. Once on the dock, she lies on her stomach, loon laughing, and trying to lasso it, and yelling, “Yee haw.”
Patrick is laughing sympathetically.
A long afternoon, funny in the re-telling, not so funny in the living of it.
Before we part, Jacqui says to me, “I do not know where Alison is, but I do not care if she comes home or not.”
I do not know how to feel about that. After all, I do not know what they went through together, a bipolar mom, an alcoholic daughter. But on the drive home, wet Little Dog in my lap, I cry. I realize that I won’t call Jacqui again, and I am thinking about Alison – drunk, lost in herself and outside of herself, in danger perhaps, in bad company, trying to find a story-line, trying to find her way home. We are all just trying to find our way home.
I cry a little now in the re-telling.
I say, “I worry sometimes that people are not entirely real to me. I mean, they are but they aren’t.”
Patrick takes my hand, says “It’s okay,” then, “Overweight manic-depressive borderline stranger, her gear, and a small dog in a boat. Don’t you see?”
I look up. I don’t see.
“That’s how you know that you are a fiction writer. You got in the boat. We always get in the boat.”
Waiting, I guess, to see how things turn out.
-- Joan Connor is professor at Ohio University and a former professor in Fairfield University’s and Stonecoast/University of Southern Maine’s low residency MFA programs. She is a recipient of a Barbara Deming Award, the John Gilgun award, a Pushcart Prize, the Ohio Writer award in fiction and nonfiction, the AWP award for her short story collection, History Lessons, and the River Teeth Award for her collection of essays, The World Before Mirrors. Her most recent collection, How to Stop Loving Someone won the Leapfrog Press Award for Adult Fiction and was published in 2011. Her first two collections are: We Who Live Apart and Here On Old Route 7. Her work has appeared in: Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Chelsea, Manoa, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, The Journal of Arts & Letters, and Black Warrior, among others. She lives in Athens, Ohio and Belmont, Vermont.