It was the way Gwen was standing, head tilted admiringly, that made my heart leap, that got me wondering. But then, with a cough, I came down the path, and the two of them, laughing, turned from the lodge stoop. Gwen, her hands on her hips, hair done up over her head in a dark knot, eyes bright. Clark, my old friend, tall and stoopshouldered, grinning.
"Hey there, Paul," he said, or at least that is what I think he said, and something shot away, like a night bird, a shadow.
"What's up?" I asked.
I was carrying a stringer of walleyes; they thumped against my leg as I walked. It was a good feeling. I put a foot up on the stoop, and Gwen and I exchanged glances. We had a variety of signs we used around guests -- a certain flat look, for example, meant, keep it moving; a narrowing of the eyes warned we needed to talk alone.
Gwen gave me that warning look now. It was after eleven and I had a party to take out early, so I had no intention of chitchatting. Clark pointed to the fish.
"Gill netting again?" he teased.
"Nah," I replied.
There had been some rough weather earlier, only it had moved off to the south. Now the air was damp, with electricity in it; thunder rumbled in the distance.
"You hear that?" I said, hefting the stringer with one hand and reaching for Gwen with the other.
"Dynamite," I said. "Brings 'em to the top every time."
On the path back to the cabin, Gwen stopped now and again. There was something in her step, a lightness I wasn't sure I liked.
"Clark's funny," she said.
Yes, he was that all right, I agreed. Clark was very funny, in that offhand, dry way of his. We climbed the spine of the island. Down toward Hayes Junction lightning flashed. The cobalt-blue rectangle of Gwen's shirt bobbed ahead of me in the dark.
Gwen said something I didn't hear.
I was thinking about the money, and where I'd get it. I was trying not to let my near panic show. I had just days to come up with our next payment or we would lose the cabins, lodge, everything. I'd lent my old, and estranged friend, Al, a small fortune and had little hope of getting it back. Gwen had no idea.
And there was this, too: I got the feeling that something had changed around the lake, and in town, while we'd been gone over the winter, and the change wasn't good. People weren't talking to me, crossed the sidewalk in Pine Point when I approached.
It was as if something dangerous had attached itself to me, and getting too close meant trouble. Tchibai, the old ones called it, or walking shadow.
Following Gwen now, I wondered who'd put it on me. If it was fatal.
"Al call this afternoon?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"No," Gwen said. She gave me a quick glance over her shoulder.
I pulled a face. For my old friend Al. A boogeyman face, tongue out, eyes wide. In short, trouble. Al had gotten deep into everything I'd run from up there on the reservation. All that Medicine Society hocus-pocus and politics.
"Stop it," Gwen said, laughing.
Yet there was little consolation in that. Al would call; I don't have it, he'd say. I'd lie, to Gwen, and to some officer at my bank in the Twin Cities, who'd want to know what the trouble was. Why is your payment late? -- and then I'd begin the scramble to turn things around.
I watched Gwen's hips shift as she climbed, her legs sinewy and slender.
"The washer died," Gwen said.
Gwen chronicled the day's losses. I knew them all. In November, when we'd shut down for the year, I'd taken inventory. Things did not look good, Now, the end of May, we'd been up at the lake two weeks and the lodge was coming apart around us.
"The pilot light goes out on the Hobart -- "
That was the industrial-size oven I'd bought at an estate sale.
"-the thing in the bottom of the washer -- "
"The impeller -- " I said.
"Well, whatever, it doesn't work."
She stopped on the path where the spur angled off to our cabin, and I very nearly bumped into her. I thought she was going to ask me why I wasn't doing anything about it, but it was worse than that. She turned her face away; the moon shone in her hair.
"Gwen -- "
"No, don't. Don't say anything," she said, her eyes shiny in the dark. "Please don't be funny now, will you? I just couldn't bear it. I mean it, Paul."
I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Now, here it was all over again.
I thought, standing behind her, just say it. Or shout it. I was to blame. Get it over, now. just not all this -- distance.
Our boy, Bobby, had died the November before; we'd all had a hand in it, Gwen, Clark, and I, though, it seemed then, Clark had had the deciding one.
"It'll get easier."
"No," Gwen said. "Stop. Just stop. You're always -- you're always thinking things. You've always got some angle going. Can't you just let things be? Do you always have to tangle everything up?" Her eyes were hard; I'd never seen her look so bitter. "I don't want to be convinced things are different. That they aren't bad."
"I'll fix it," I said.
"You can't -- fix -- anything," she cried. "So can you please just stop it?"
"Gwen," I said, reaching for her.
She stepped back, shaking her head. She was lovely, and crying again. She'd misunderstood. I wanted to explain. But how could I? I hadn't meant Bobby, but Bobby was everywhere and in everything. Our winter down in St. Paul seemed not to have helped one bit.
"I'll have the old Taj Mahal -- "
"Jesus -- stop -- please."
"I'll fix it," I said, taking her hand. "Really."
"Like what? Like all of it."
"Oh, god! " Gwen said.
I pulled her close. She laid her head on my shoulder, the weight of the world there, and gritting her teeth, tried not to cry. In seconds she had me doing it, too.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It's not your fault."
"It is," I replied.
"Oh, shut up!" Gwen said, pushing me away and running up the path.
At our cabin, in bed, Gwen propped herself on her elbow, toying with her hair. The room was stuffy and I opened one of the windows overlooking the lake. It was one of those molasses-dark nights, the trees outside the window rustling in the breeze off the lake.
We were trying to be cheerful again.
"So," Gwen said. "You're going to take the money from Clark?"
Undressing, I kept my back to her. I nearly laughed to myself, relieved. So that's what it had been there on the stoop.
Earlier, over breakfast, Clark had been hedging around something but had never gotten to it. I'd wondered about that most of the day, his embarrassment.
"Am I ?" I said.
I wanted to go easy here. I didn't want to rule out the possibility offhand.
"He said you were."
"I'm thinking about it," I said.
And I was, just then. I was trying this thing out, getting a feel for it. It made me sad to see what Clark was doing, trying to help, by going through Gwen.
"Well, anyway, I didn't ask," I said.
"Because he offered?"
"Something like that," I told her.
It would be an in-between thing, I said. just a month or two, a stopgap deal. Why bother with the bank, I said. We talked about it all very matter-of-factly, what it would take to get by.
"But I'd rather not," I said.
Gwen coiled her blue-black hair around her finger and tugged at it. She didn't seem convinced. She was working on something. Those fine, Irish eyes of hers had a distant look in them.
"What if Clark lent it to me?"
Somehow, just the thought of her owing him anything, much less a substantial outlay of cash, cast Clark's offer in a new and especially unattractive light.
"We can make do without putting ourselves in hock to Clark," I told her.
I sat on the bed, springs creaking. I'd been toying with the idea of selling a boat I had in storage, at my old place on the reserve. Now the possibility took on real proportion. The room seemed suddenly smaller for it, the knotty-pine paneling, Gwen's bric-a-brac, cobalt glass and beading she collected, what had been in the past warm and inviting, all oppressive, poorer.
"So you won't," Gwen said.
I wasn't sure what she wanted me to say.
"No," I said.
"Money and friends, don't mix."
"Something like that."
Gwen lay back, the covers pulled up around her waist.
"We're in some kind of trouble, aren't we?"
"No, not really," I lied.
I tried not to be aware of the clock ticking on the dresser. The curtain billowed in. I watched. This is the way you lose things, I thought. They get by you, like wind. Rarely did we have anything to say to each other now, these months since November. The slightest upset, it seemed, might finish things. So I said nothing.
Gwen ruffled my hair, laid her arm across my chest, squeezed me.
"Hey, you," I said in return.
Copyright © 1999 by Wayne Johnson