This story originally appeared in Dirt, a University of Pittsburgh publication, in 2004.
When they were very young Wynn’s parents had eloped and been married in Idaho, an event they discussed with such rigorous absence of sentiment he suspected they were in fact desperate romantics and would not admit to it for fear of seeming, in this cynical age, ridiculous. They had been just twenty. The marriage had lasted long enough to produce Wynn and to create, upon its dissolution, a furious anger on the part of his mother and a fond, wistful bafflement on the part of his father. Wynn resembled his father in most ways and particularly in matters of love, apt to escort bees from the room in a cup and liable, especially in his younger days, to profess undying devotion at the drop of a hat. This tendency moderated as he grew older and his own marriage was a model of affection and passion, and as a man he was proud of the life he had built for himself. His parents had each remarried and for some years he did not have to worry about what was happening with them. His father moved to Baltimore and his mother sold her house and moved to a houseboat. Eventually his father grew sick and began to die. He was a short stocky man with a white mustache and a wild head of elderly hair, an affectation, as in his working life he had been conservative in dress and manner. Against the pillow his hair was a tangle. “Who do I look like?” his father asked.
“Exactly! That’s what an old man should look like. Should look like a damn-it-all-to-hell,” said his father. His father’s second wife was there, Juliette, a woman twenty years younger but as passionate, and as capable of fury, as Wynn’s mother. His father had exchanged women but had not strayed far from his original intent. Juliette knew this, Wynn suspected, and in Wynn’s presence anyway she behaved with the self-conscious directness of an understudy. Baltimore was not Wynn’s favorite city in the world but his father’s gravestone would not be there, it would be back in Kansas City, where his father had been born unimaginably long ago. It turned out to be a nice stone, black and polished, standing on a little hill in a way that reminded Wynn of his father himself, the way he had seen the man as a child, very tall and dark and stern and slender, unbreakable. Now he had broken. His mother across the country was almost senile by then, but she knew the name. “That bastard,” she told him. Her houseboat needed maintenance but Wynn could not afford to pay and neither could she, and there was a sickening list in the living room that caused the furniture to slide. “You know what he’s all about. He’s all about sex. S-E-X!”
“He’s dead, ma,” Wynn said.
“Dead, dead, dead, whatever. That’s what it was all about! That whole trip! That whole experience of my life!”
His mother died soon thereafter and Wynn scattered her ashes off the end of her pier. She had had a good time living on the lake and he liked the idea of her living there forever in some way. He inherited the houseboat and eventually saved enough money to keep it afloat and upright. Evenings on the lake were particularly nice, the lights of the city sloped up from the water and the seaplanes when they landed feathered the air. He and his wife in their own retirement spent a number of nights there, though the acoustics of the place were peculiar and beneath their heads the water knocked around the pontoon with a hollow slap. It had been a long drive to Idaho in the old days, he knew; it would have taken his parents a day at least to get there. He struggled to imagine it. Why had they had done it? What animal surge of passion could have taken them that far, eloping in silence on those terrible roads? And what would his children say about him? What would he be remembered for? What moment would they choose and say, This was my father, can you imagine doing this, can you imagine such a thing, oh! what a strange and marvelous man he must have been?