House

By Cris Mazza

Essay

Prickett Backwaters“Dogwood,” Silver Mountain Road, Ottawa National Forest, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

I haven’t written a fishing essay, nor sat on a lakeshore, writing. The former: I still will not have, including this one. It’s not about fishing. The latter: I likewise still haven’t. Although I set up my camp chair last night at the lake, my notebook remained on the passenger seat of the Jeep. Was going to go back for the paper and pen, but a bluegill took the bait I’d put in the water before unfolding the chair. Then I never did get the notebook, or sit, the remaining 90 minutes I fished.

Angler … it means a person who is fishing, or who fishes, with a hook and line. Or a person who gets or tries to get something through scheming. Someone maneuvering for position, designing a tactic, a strategy, a line of approach, of attack. Maybe all that defines fishing too. I’m using angler here because fisherman is wrong and fisherperson wretched. But let’s see if the other characterization works too.

So … an impatient angler, I frequently move on. To the next tantalizing contour of shoreline, the next weed bed or stick-up, the next creek mouth or fallen tree, the future around the next bend of river. If I don’t get that bang-bang hit on the bait or lure, I don’t stay.

I’ve relocated a few times, although hardly excessively. Five different addresses in 10 years in San Diego after leaving my parents’ house, three different states after leaving San Diego. Then, seemingly ensconced in Illinois, I’ve drifted from a near-west Chicago suburb to an unincorporated agriculturally-zoned Xurb, and now back to a subdivision (called a tract in my childhood Southern California). I wasn’t, in any case, evicted from one or assigned another. Where I write today: a cabin named Dogwood, surrounded by national forest … although not a cabin at all. No logs, no chimney, doesn’t even have a fireplace. The insurance company wouldn’t cover it if it did, being three miles down a dirt road, then half a mile down a forest service route, unplowed in winter. No cell reception, no internet, but it offers running well water, propane furnace, landline phone. Locally it might be termed a camp, since camps (or “deer camps”), like Dogwood, frequently have proper names. The Hi-Lo Chalet, BuckSnort, Big Rack Lodge, Porcupine Acres. Camps, however, are not typically year-round houses with electricity and satellite TV. And, to my Californian lexicon, camp is not a noun but a verb, something you do with a tent in a cleared space with a rock-ringed fire pit. To become a noun it changes to campsite.

This non-camp, non-cabin is also non-waterfront. The nearest lake four miles on a one-lane dirt road with turnouts.

Prickett. An uninspiring name for a wilderness lake. And not really a lake, although truly in as much wilderness is possible for something manmade. The word reservoir conjures, for me, bodies of trapped, desperately-needed water surrounded by steep rocky, arid hills; an incongruous sea evaporating under a scorching sun and bleached sky in Southern California. I like the words used for manmade lakes in the upper midwest: flowage and, better yet, backwaters. Prickett Backwaters. Still without the poetry of other local lake names: Sudden Lake, SixMile Lake, Vermilac. (By now we all know that Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River was actually the west branch of the Fox River, which he either purposely changed to disguise his favorite trout stream or selected a different, but actual, Upper Peninsula river for the music of its name.)

But Prickett fits. In a less poetic, more rhyming way.

When created in 1931 — not to store already plentiful water but produce a tiny amount of electricity — the dense forest on the Sturgeon River was to have been harvested before the river basin was dammed. The power company maintained a strict schedule, the logging company not so much. Half the timber was still standing when the dam was closed and the channel flooded. It is now a backwaters with a somewhat thinner forest of naked treetops rising from the water’s surface, a much denser forest of serrated stumps and tipped-over root-claws lurking submerged, and a vast supply of floating trunks bumping up against some part of the 6 or 7 miles of shoreline.

It is a prickett of fish habitat. Normally the water’s edge — 99% inaccessible on foot — is lined with that logjam, easily up to 12 feet wide, bumping against the steep sides of the gorge the river once flowed through. Logs also accumulate on the edges of shallow reed beds. Maybe not unfeasible to cast out over them, but impossible to land any fish who takes the bait out there. Usually when it’s too windy, thunderstorms threaten, or — like this week — I have no help to launch a boat, the only shore access for fishing has been the floating pier, installed where the lone road access, another single dirt lane, dead-ends at a 10-car parking area and boat ramp.

This year, however, the lake has been lowered about 6 feet. The power company does this, not weather patterns. Now log-littered strips of mud surround some bays and weed beds. Room enough for a camp chair, a minnow pail, a tackle box. To try to be patient; to intend to abstain from wandering with a spinnerbait. To instead sit and scratch notes for an essay contemplating the house in Illinois I’ve almost finished moving into but don’t yet live in, while waiting for the bobber’s distinctive bam-bam gone-under-the-surface — when the bluegill or smallmouth or even northern pike are, as I’ve heard, on-the-bite.

While I wasn’t writing, wasn’t even seated in my camp chair, something splashed in a small, shallow cove right up against shore, the surface covered with tiny floating leaves like miniature lily pads in a diorama replica lake. I thought it was probably a frog, then saw something wiggling on the mud right beside the thin line of water’s edge. It looked like a minnow. As it tried to squiggle itself back to the water, I put my palm over it, scooped it up in two hands. It was a Muskie spawn. Or Muskellunge. It lunged out of the water going after its baby prey. Three inches. I put it into the minnow pail. I still have it here in the basement, now in the larger minnow bucket with the aerator running.

There are aerators in the “ponds” in my new house’s subdivision. Rounded-off rectangles surrounded by uniform-size rip-rap, the water colored a strange, synthetic deep greenish-aqua: what they are are retention pools. When prairie became farmland, the rainfall and water table didn’t need as much new control: but farmland drainage was upgraded with underground tiles and run-off roadside ditches. (I can’t even fathom installing terracotta tiles under a cornfield, let alone 80 to 100 years ago.) What I do sort of understand is that when farmland (or prairie) is paved, something has to be done with the predictable rainfall that would soak down to 5-foot deep prairie-grass roots and replenish the underground water table. So paved areas need drainage systems to collect that water, and retention pools are commonly employed, near strip malls and shopping districts and municipal buildings with large parking lots. The local hospital rents a pair of swans every year (from who, a swan-rental company?). They nest, raise a gaggle of ugly ducklings, then the whole family is whisked away before winter.

My new house is “waterfront” (or “pond facing”) but my view is an adjoining neighborhood’s pond: this one bordered naturally with trees, a few snags (dead trees), reeds and cattails, marsh grasses, and bushes that limit shore access in some places. The color of the water is changeable with the weather and atmosphere, from a genial reflection of summer sky, to dawn-tranquil mirror-finish, to steely overcast indifference, to angry gunmetal with wind-blown whitecaps. In the house’s yard, right beside the glass slider, in the middle of a clump of ornamental grass, a mallard (I didn’t have to rent) laid her eggs, hatched them, and then lead her string of ducklings across the lawn, across the “common area” grass, to the pond. Out on the muddy bank, in the clouds of flora of a low-oxygen lake, a typical footprint of another introduced species: a half-submerged water bottle, a lidless worm container, a faded aluminum beverage can.

At Prickett a few evenings ago, mine was the lone vehicle in either the parking area or the line of 6 deep-woods primitive campsites. My footfall in last autumn’s leaves the only heartbeat of incursion. But as I baited my hook, and as I took the rod with the lure to try other offshore structure, I saw the debris proving others of my kind had seen the same promise. Five beverage cans for five different drinks, from soda to hard cranberry lemonade. They outnumbered the single worm container, the empty snelled hook packaging, the snarl of discarded line. What is the mindset, I wonder, to drain the last mouthful of carbonated sugar or fruity alcohol from the can, then just toss it, as though it’s one of the forked branches used for propping a pole now no longer needed so returned to its status of just being a stick. Just toss it. A fabricated perfect cylinder of chemically synthesized liquid-then-cooled-and-hardened metal, purchased somewhere where there were fluorescent lights and automated inventory control, consume it then just drop or toss. And go on engaged in your wilderness pursuit of fishing. How does it compute, how does it exist in the same brain?

But I took the baby Muskie. I only imagined freeing it into one of the ersatz-blue rip-rap ponds representing the second word, “lakes,” in my subdivision’s two-word title. I will resist the urge to set up a natural-lake aquarium and try to watch him consume prey and grow at an unworldly rate. I can’t make him a home. He would likely die.

 

I have carried on a private war with the real estate industry’s (and those they’ve indoctrinated) jargoned use of home.

Homes from the low 200’s.

Estate Homes of Fox Grove Prairie.

New Home Construction Increases

Somehow a phrase as innocuous as “look at the big homes on this lake” is as white-bread cheesy as the garish “Indian Trading Posts” in Arizona on I-40. Those aren’t homes, they’re houses. We each only have one home (at a time), the one we’ve made that way with anything from our taste for color, light and décor to our favorite junk strewn in a familiar, comfortable way. Home should have a possessive pronoun in front of it. My home. Your home. His home. Our home.

Even Home inspection service is a service that inspects a house. What irregularities might a “home inspection” uncover? That you put dirty socks under the bed? That you store your cooking pots and towels in the same cupboard? That you’ve hoarded so many different brands of cleaning supplies they’ve actually putrefied? A house has a plumbing system, a foundation, electrical circuitry, a roof, venting that needs inspecting, a code to live up to. A home’s code? A home’s safety violations? That your drawers are so disorganized you always go buy new scotch-tape every time you need to tape something because you can’t find any?

Maybe the term “home tour” can stand. You’re peeping at different people’s homes, the way they live in their … house.

I bought a new home. No, I bought a house, and it’s only new to me. Right now, do I have a home? This “cabin” called Dogwood can suffice, since I’ve put my summer stuff in its closets, cupboards and basement shelves. I’ve put the food I’ll eat in its pantry. I’ve put pictures I’ve chosen (and/or taken) on its walls. I’ve filled display shelves and cabinets with driftwood I’ve collected, striped and swirled rocks that have caught my eye, and the skulls from roadkill I’ve cleaned and bleached. I can nap to the familiar cry of raven from the trees outside open windows, the close-up buzz of wasps outside the screen, the drone of the minnow bucket aerator in the basement.

The little muskie likely won’t eat any of the minnows swimming with him in the bucket. “They won’t eat in captivity,” said of every frog, lizard, snake, or black widow spider I tried to keep in a terrarium or jar. I’ve already eaten at the new house, pausing in daylong forays of installing pantry shelves, painting closets, or removing carpet tacks to chew a sandwich, standing in the unfurnished “family room” (where I am to be the “family”?), looking out at the lake, the pond beyond my fence that consigns more rules to my house, by virtue of my “pond view” status, than others in the neighborhood. Rules presided over by “the association.”

The association. Made up of residents, but instead of a coffee klatch of nosy gossips, it has bylaws, elections, officers, a budget, meetings, and … power. Association is a new term for neighbors. That’s what I have now. They — we? — determine if we’ll tolerate elements easily found, and considered unremarkable (or some, by me, unendurable), in other places I’ve lived, in cities and college towns, and the U.P.: an old sofa on a front porch, music that shakes everyone’s foundations, a house wrapped in insulation paper then never finished with siding, yard sales every weekend never quite put away, a Chevy painted to resemble the BatMobile in the front yard, or a flower bed with a headboard and foot rail installed at either end (get it?) accompanied by a toilet overflowing with petunias set out by the mailbox.

Besides the pall of living with published (and enforced) rules, the association means people. Neighbors. Well-meaning, friendly, sometimes even intelligent fellow inhabitants … living at closer range than I’ve been comfortable. Every time I go out my new front door or emerge from the garage, there are usually people there in their own yards and driveways, needing to be waved at, expecting a smile and chitchat. Is this so awful, so invasive? I’ve arrived at some of the smaller wilderness lakes up here — the aforementioned Sudden Lake, the less poetic Pike Like — and have left without launching the canoe because there was one other car in the clearing beside the boat ramp, one other small jon boat on the water. In these woods, over water, even from more than a hundred yards, voices carry at the same uber rate that the baby muskie will grow. From my new, peacefully grey-and-white office in the new house, I will hear whenever two neighbors exchange pleasantries down on the sidewalk.

 

The specter of the association and its broader definition has distracted my writing, for a moment. I see I’ve skipped over (with only the brief parenthetical alert) a key piece: the house’s family room. And those who will populate it. Not the neighbors I dread having. It will, in fact, become our family room, when the family becomes Mark and me, together, finally, after 30 years of … well, two different experiences. For me: not knowing what I might be missing but deeply suspecting I was. For him: the whole span of years spent knowing exactly what he’d wanted and hadn’t gotten, also recognizing that what he’d taken on to distract himself from not having it had itself been a protracted calamity. Just last night Mark found out that the step-grandson he’d raised until the boy was 8 — child of a semi-prostitute deadbeat step-daughter who he’d financially supported as a child, and again and again as a purported adult, even after she stole from him and painted gang-writing on his walls and the police were called for “domestic conflicts” (screaming brawls) she’d initiated — he learned that the child she’d produced then abandoned and Mark had stepped in to provide shelter, nourishment, medical care, clothing, schooling, Christmas and Halloween decorations all over the yard and roof, kid movies and plastic lawn sports, soccer leagues and cub scouts … in other words a home with 2 adults who loved him … last night Mark discovered that the kid, now 14, had been expelled for drug possession, had scared off his grandmother’s new male companion, had taken the state funds she’d gotten for his support and used them, typically, for his own devices, had threatened a counselor’s life on his facebook page, and would, as soon as his probation was up, go live with the disaster that was his biological mother to finish transforming into the kind of thug she was always attracted to.

“There’s nothing left of who I’ve ever been,” Mark said over Dogwood’s landline phone, his voice wavering. “All the houses I grew up in have been torn down, all the people I knew drifted away or dead … my job — the school district trying to crush the teachers — everything I got close to or tried to care about … everything that was ever a part of me is going or gone. Except you. You’ve been the same, and best, part of me for 30 years, even when I didn‘t know where you were and could only imagine what you were doing and what a life with you would have been.”

The 30 years, the would have been, are probably why I can’t imagine the new house in Illinois as home … yet. Not because I haven’t had other homes, or made homes out of implausible houses in far more unsavory locations. But because for him, since we’ll live there together, that house he hasn’t yet seen is the only home he’s ever wanted. Despite the colors I’ve chosen for the walls — the ideal quiet shades of grey, clean white, dramatic charcoal — despite the closets I designed and constructed to contain my photo files and manuscript archives … it can’t be mine until it is ours. I left room in the closets for his jazz LP’s, his saxophones and amps, space in the family room for his grandfather’s desk, shelves in the cabinets for his collection of “Nature” episodes taped to VHS. He’s the reason I bought this house in the first place. He’s the one, not the house, who knows me, accepts and nurtures me. Certainly nothing about the house, except perhaps the allusion created by the “lake,” provides me — what is the best word? — security, solace, serenity …?

Belonging.

An awkward verb turned into some form of intangible noun.

I put the muskie spawn back into the lake last night. After I fished him from the minnow bucket with my left hand, I readied my camera, then opened my fist. He lay on my palm for the picture. As soon as I pressed the button, his body flexed, he lunged — just a little twitch at his size now. Someday he’ll be able to turn my canoe around, as an un-landed monster once did in the middle of Prickett. He flipped himself into the water just a foot below. I saw him there for a few moments, tiny fins fanning, blending with every color of green and brown in the idyllic habitat, plenty of sunken log structure, flowing submerged vegetation, reeds that start underwater then emerge to present flower heads to buzzing bees and flies, and a bounty of minnows, beetle larva, frogs and tadpoles to feed his growth frenzy. Then he was gone, and I could no longer identify him in the pools near shore. He could live in these backwaters for 30 years.

I switched the camera to view to see my last shot of him. I had only a photo of my empty palm, open above the water.

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CRIS MAZZA’s latest book is Charlatan: New and Selected Stories. Mazza has seventeen other titles of fiction and literary nonfiction including her last book, Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir; she then became co-producer, writer, and lead actress for a feature film, Anorgasmia, a fictional sequel to that memoir. She is a native of Southern California and now splits time between the exurbs of Chicago and the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She can be found digitally at www.cris-mazza.com

One response to “House”

  1. Rae Bryant says:

    Cris, This essay drew me in so quicly with the fishing, as my pappy and I plainly called it in Ohio, where we fished for bass, muskies, catfish… That red and white bobber. Memories. I went on to enjoy trout and fly fishing more but spinner rods and bobbers are in my blood. We did our fishing in a little boat on the Ohio. No fancy bass boat for us. just a few sandwiches Mammy packed and a book for me. Apparently, I was Pappy’s fishing companion because i was the grandkid who could sit still and silent for hours on end, just enjoy the water and anticipation of the bite. God, how I miss those moments with Pappy. This essay reads a little like home to me. Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed it.

    And, hah! Homes, houses, associations. Where I live now, rural, farmland Maryland so close to DC you could throw a stone and hit it, the mini-mansions are taking over, which is sad in a way. You have mirrored so much life in this essay. Beautiful and wryly drawn. Lovely.

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