The Speed of Stopping
Probability is relative, right?
One-in-a-thousand chance that Burgundy can catch the shiny trout. A mysterious creature protected by the summer-still water of a private Croatian lake. How's about them odds? To the fish?
Good enough, he thinks. It's possible.
It's this fair-enough approach that's eased the old man into an appreciation of the intellectual integrity of life. Everything simply is until something else comes along, bumps up to it. Now that his life has unspooled, he knows, it's these collisions that give value to everything and anything.
He spreads his hands, now dinosaur-old and creature-spotted, flat in front of him, palms parallel to the water. Soothing it, really. Calming it. He feels as if he could smooth and tuck the lake's muddy corners in - neat as an army bed. But army beds are a long time ago for Burgundy and this, here at the lake in the heat and the no-breeze still of a Croatian August, is more of an energetic smoothing and soothing. A vibrational guarantee that one-in-a-thousand isn't such bad odds, when you know it can be done.
One way or another.
Burgundy stands still, managing his balance on the small boat, nothing but water and sky and his own beefy realness in the little wooden slip.
He'd come to live in Croatia several years ago. Not here, to this restful lake (pop. 75, give-or-take), but to Zagreb (pop. 792,875). Not as a young man (those days have already been lived) but as a younger man, when his two daughters were grown-ups but not yet the middle-agers they are today. Both girls still have their health and Burgundy’s still at it, too. More than many other families have to their withering names.
Mom, of course, has been dead for years now.
Burgundy looks out across the water, smooth (by design?) but with communities of fish deep down below, swimming their own superhighways. A universe down there, buzzing and multiplying. But here above: Still.
Mom's been gone since the girls were...
He sits down on the slight wooded bench embedded in the boat. Boat rocks just a bit and the water does a gentle ripple. Fisherman-proof sonar: Danger above. Fish dart in unseen new directions below.
Mom's been gone since the girls were in college. Though Marisol, our oldest, must have been done with all that. She was in Georgetown working by then.
Before Croatia, and when his grip was still tight. Yes, she was in Georgetown, he clearly remembers now. He'd picked her up at the little airfield in Charlottesville on the day Mom died. She had all those bags with her, all colors of the rainbow, it seemed.
Burgundy thought, with all the bags, that she'd meant to stay for a nice while. Forget it.
When they'd pulled in the drive at home, it was sizzle-sunny. Hot scald, really, as soon as they'd stepped from the car. And he remembers this well: a boy on a bike, behind him sun so bright so as you can't make out his face, but he's coming fast and you hear the tires a-whirl and Marisol saying something...going too fast...and she's lopping one colored bag after another onto the sidewalk.
And then Marisol notices and you notice too - the boy's holding a leash. A dog! Racing along ahead of him. Goodness of all the stupid things. But he's fine, he's happy. Dog's happy, that's for sure. Small dog, tongue hanging. And you say (even though they are fine, happy - in control, probably) you still say:
Can I Help You?
Marisol blames Burgundy for the boy’s ugly crash (though why she tallies still, this thing, who knows): Why'd you distract him? It was Marisol who'd called the ambulance and police and all.
The child had been in the University of Virginia hospital too. He went in, probably, as Mom was on her Way Out.
But he didn't die, or anything like that.
He's OK, neighbors said. Mom was buried and Marisol, now joined by her sister Judea, dropped some dessert off for the family. It was kind Judea that described the scene to comfort Burgundy... The boy had all these toys around and the mom was smiling in very tight red pants, looking back over her shoulder at the boy with his little dog on lap. Wrapped in blankets. Everyone more happy and fine, probably, than before the hospital. It was a close call, after all.
"See Dad, you didn't do anything wrong.'' Like Burgundy had indeed done something wrong by distracting the kid but since it all worked out, he was absolved. See Dad? In the name of the Mother, the Daughter and the Holy Spirit. An incomplete consecration.
Back when his girls were girls, with fluffy pink rugs on their bathroom floor, Burgundy wasn't much of a second-guesser. He was a richly confident physicist with work at the university. He golfed. They went to the club. Even when there were questions of the girls smoking or skipping school (and there were always questions, wink-wink), Burgundy hadn't worried about His Girls. They weren't that kind of a family. And anyway (so lovely were His Girls) if they would have been that kind of family they would have worn it well. Being well-paid, occupied and cohesively married does wonders for a man's confidence.
But when taking an honest look back through time, Burgundy can see (clear as a chart on crisp computer screen) that his happiness could be accurately described as a Doppler Shift. When the expansive panorama was considered as a whole (fluffy pink babies, fluffy pink rugs, smoking, multi-colored bags, fishing on a Croatian lake) the deep, satisfying value of familial moments increased with a vibrational whir until the precise moment when Mom died. Back then, it was all compressed. After that, the whir decreased steadily, pushing off into the distance. Time elongated.
Still. Smooth. Soothed. A nothing, now.
If he'd only known...on the day before Mom died, that he was at the peak of his experience. A flawless knit of stressed compression. Most valuable player, at that moment.
But Croatia (and India and the Persian Gulf and even Las Vegas) had worked in many ways to seemingly decrease the importance of being a father. At first, it was his work had been the harbinger of the rich and far-flung travels. Sam Metnick, a friend and former colleague, (Burgundy would always, always remember Sam as uncomfortably awkward on the phone, like many physicists: Brilliantly introverted with an ability to listen to the goings-on of their own mind) called him with an offer to visit CERN. The globe-shaped building home to a project involving a tube of tiny (you can't really imagine how small) particles - racing perhaps at the speed of light.
The particles, for a brief period, were befuddlingly thought to perhaps, maybe, exceed the speed of light. Upending, maybe, a century of physics and (it's not an understatement) the World as We Know It. But that all wasn't until later. And eventually the whole magic fizzled. In Croatia, now, Burgundy rests his mind on the fish and notes relief in his solar plexus; the speed of light is still the universal speed limit.
He tosses out a cast. It lands, satisfactorily, right where he wants it. This might be the reel-in that gets it. If, even for a time, there was shimmer of doubt that E really does equal mc2, why not consider that today's the day for Burgundy?
Mostly Burgundy has this lake to himself, though there are several homes decorating the perimeter. They are all wood-toned, tucked into the mossiness of the forest surrounding them. They’ve got little cedar decks facing the lake. Inside each, probably, lives a person with their own speed-of-light story to tell. It's Burgundy's position that they are all well-to-do. Retired or retire-ish, and most are expats. Not all Americans, though, not even all European.
Burgundy sees that Mathilde, the dark French doctor, is on her little deck. A straw hat is on her head.
He reels in a bit, teasing the fish below. He is comfortable sitting in the boat. Across from him sits a blue plastic cooler. Inside is a brie-on-baguette and two Croatian beers. Cold as can be, he knows. He pulls in the cast gently; the ratcheting reel makes the world's only sound. Inward, inward, ratchet, ratchet.
One-in-one-thousand odds on that trout. Ha. He's actually been told that by a neighbor. A true Croat, happens to somehow serve in the little office that stocks the lake with fish (something to do for worldly retirees). He knows, pretty much, which fish live here and how many there are. There is a census on file in the office.
Before Mom was Mom, she was Loren. Lore-In. God, she was beautiful. Burgundy feels, at this thought, a pull on his solar plexus. It's Her Energy.
He casts again. From her deck, Mathilde's mobile rings. Rings again.
``Allo?,'' her voice echoes over the water, not loud, but if she'd not followed her conversation inside he'd have been able to hear most of it. His line's in the water and he's going to think about Loren.
Her energy is still so strong in him that it's a physical relief to set aside time to recall his wife. It's occurred to him that if he truly focused, remembered with detailed feeling, he could reincarnate the whole thing - relive some of it. Experience her again. It's all there, isn't it? He can feel it, dammit.
On any given night in his lake house it's like this: Say he really had to pee on the night they were stuck on the tarmac in an O'Hare snowstorm in the ‘80’s, maybe ‘83, whenever... He can feel that fullness, so he gets up and takes a long piss, right here and now, in his compact Croatian bathroom. He’s got the snowstorm moment so wrapped up, so alive in his energy that it's all happening concurrently. He's the same guy, right? He leaves the lights dim and he feels his way back from the bathroom and with a small inward pull of his senses, she's there. There's no shortage. He feels her. And of course, he's himself, he always was... All he has to do is experience her.
She turns a page of her book and shifts her weight a bit. We've waited two hours and around us people are antsy. Hell, I'm antsy. And bored. Loren has perfected these things, a real role model in patience and manners and she won't lose it over this.
Then as now, Burgundy knows he could start a conversation with her and she wouldn't mind the interruption.
She closes the book and turns toward me, her cleavage shifts pleasantly. She rubs her blue eyes, lays her head on the seatback, face towards me.
He could, then as now, say whatever he wants. He could complain, ready to move on (hates holding patterns), or he could remark on someone's behavior (mobile phones, for example) or he could wonder aloud about the girls. And whatever, whatever, he said it would be ok with her. But back at O'Hare he kept quiet and she read until they finally brought some drinks and then they did talk a bit, but something in the energy must have shifted because he doesn't remember that part clearly.
But he might be scared to upset the speed-of-light-universal-reality by bringing the dead to life so he tries to abandon the terrible intensity of memory because he knows what could happen (even though the odds say no-way): He'd have her back.
Of course, then he'd have to explain the evening he shared with Mathilde. By her fire. It ended with a kiss and that's all. Really it is, since the peak of his life on the day before Mom died which was the nexus of his life in so many ways...
Catching a fish is actually unimportant. Something to do, as a well-off retiree in Croatia.
If the girls hadn't grown up so fast - if there were any bubbles of time that popped open during their childhood - he was certain they'd all feel a pleased sense of self-reliance pickled with a reserved love. But God, it had flown by. Was there even time, in All That, to ride a bike down the street with a baby doll in the basket? He knows, of course, that they Learned to Ride and Learned to Ski and Learned French and Studied Abroad... But did they ever just bob around, loving that so-sweet life they were given? Was it all relative to something else? To their own Doppler high-point? Did it all happen at that universal speed limit? Almost breaking that boundary but only almost?
Was the playful boy with the bike and the leash and the hospital stay speeding toward a wormhole headed to adulthood as his daughters once were or was he just living in a moment that had untangled from the rest - revolutionary and fun, nutty and real...
Can I Help You?
Mathilde returns from inside her home and waves at Burgundy. Waves and then waves him in, like a wife with dinner on the table. He sees she's in a very long white dress. Always dresses lovely.
He pulls in his cast, no trout today, and reaches for the oars. Hitting the surface, they send out signals in the water, ripples that tell the fish they can come on out, their wife has dinner on the table and it's time to come home.
About the author:
Jill Barth is an internationally published author. Her fiction has been featured on NPR, published by several journals and was awarded a spot in a print anthology. Jill also writes about French wine and Yoga. She lives in Illinois with her husband and children.