There was the cat in the window and the sound of the clothes tumbling in the dryer. There was the hiss of the gas that lit the flame under the pot of water on the stove, but not the sound of boiling water, not yet. There were the yellow walls and the shadows moving across them in invisible increments and drizzle shushing against the red leaves of the Japanese maple. There was Chardonnay chilling in the fridge and the amber bottle of pills waiting in the drawer for evening when it would be okay to let them out. There were all these things, Jane reminded herself.
Every few days the letters came. The writers of the letters called, too. They had warned Jane, the letters and the recorded voices, but there was nothing she could do about it now.
Dear Ms. Fuck-up, the letters began.
Dear Ms. Winston was what they really said, but Ms. Fuck-up was what they meant. Today’s letter went further, telling Ms. Winston that they, The Bank, regretted to inform her and so on and so forth. Jane put the letter on the table and turned to squint at the clock on the microwave. Ryan would be home from school soon. Each afternoon, when he walked in the door, the clock started moving at its normal speed, but for now the letter had slowed it down and had frozen the lick of shadow on the yellow wall. Even the cat was motionless on her windowsill.
The sun came out and the raindrops on the leaves turned into diamonds. There was that, Jane reminded herself. And the water in the pot, now bubbling on the stove. Jane poured in the pasta. Ryan came home from school and ate his macaroni-and-cheese. He spooned up the orange-colored tubes while pouring into Jane’s ears the story of the day he had just spent in third grade: Ms. Johnson brought them donut holes for a surprise, but Dayton couldn’t eat them because his mom didn’t believe in sugar; a lock-down drill, someone farted but no one admitted it. An A on his math quiz. And so on and so forth. Jane nodded and poured more milk and said okay, one cookie you’ve already had donut holes today, and allowed Ryan to have two anyway.
Jane’s mom, Ryan’s grandma, arrived to watch Ryan so Jane could go to work. Jane’s mom’s name was Alice and she had two deep lines that ran from her nose to the corners of her mouth. Ryan sometimes observed that Grandma looked like Pinocchio when he was still a puppet. Don’t say that, Jane would tell him then; it’s mean. But Ryan heard the smile in her voice and said it again so he could hear it again.
Jane’s mom chided Jane for letting Ryan play too many video games and grimaced when she saw Jane in her red Target uniform. Still no luck, she said, and Jane confirmed that there had been no luck in her job search. Before Ryan’s dad, Jane’s ex-husband, had left, Jane had worked for the pharmaceutical company two exits down the interstate. After the lay-offs, thirty thousand including Jane and Ryan’s dad, Ryan’s dad had decided to move to another state to see if job prospects would be better there. They were and so were the girlfriend prospects because he had both now.
Jane worked Maternity from three to ten. Tania, Jane’s manager, handed her a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels. The maternity section at Target was rarely busy so there was a lot of time to fill. Tania’s job was to make sure that Jane filled it. Tania was twenty, but looked about fifteen. She wore her thin blonde hair in a high ponytail. The freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks reminded Jane of Ryan, but the acne, irritated and angry, on Tania’s forehead did not.
Don’t forget to get the base of each rack, said Tania. One squirt per rack and one sheet of towel, she reminded her.
Jane nodded and knelt before a rack of Hawaiian flowers in fevered fuchsia and orange. She wasn’t sure if they were blouses or dresses. Jane knelt and polished and knelt and polished until a very pregnant woman asked her where the bathroom was. In this way, an hour passed. Target time was especially slow. There was music that passed through Jane without leaving an imprint and florescent light that mingled with the smell of coffee from the Starbucks near the register.
Did you finish? asked Tania.
Yes, said Jane even though she hadn’t.
Why don’t you make sure the nursing bras are in size order, Tania said in a way that sounded like asking, but was really telling.
Jane was holding a beige 34C when she heard a male voice from behind her. You’re really beautiful, you know.
She turned. He was Ichabod Crane, but cuter, even if he was wearing the red Target uniform.
What? she said.
I think this belongs to you. He held out a package of nipple cups. I mean to this department, he said and blushed red all the way to the tops of his ears.
Oh, said Jane, taking the package.
I mean it, he said. About your being beautiful. I work over there. He pointed to Electronics, which was down the aisle on the left past Women’s. I’ve seen you. Not that I’m watching you all the time or anything. He blushed again. I’ve noticed you, is all.
Well, thank you, said Jane, not sure if she meant for the nipple cups or the compliment.
I’m Harry, he said and held out his hand.
He had large knuckles and long fingers. Jane shook his hand. Jane, she said.
I know, he said, pointing to her Target nametag: JANE.
She was still blushing as she watched him walk down the aisle back to Electronics.
When were you going to tell me about this? Jane’s mother asked when she got home. She waved the letter from The Bank in front of Jane’s face as if she were fanning away a fly.
Jane shrugged. I don’t know.
What are you going to do? Have you called your shit of an ex-husband?
Sh, said Jane. You’ll wake up Ryan.
Don’t shush me, said Jane’s mother. I hope you don’t think you’re going to move in with me! I really hope you’re not thinking that. Because it’s not going to happen. Jane’s mother plunged her arms into the sleeves of her puffy winter coat. She zipped up the coat to her chin and put a knit cap over her hair, pulling it down so it covered her ears, then picked up her purse. Because I have enough on my plate, she continued. It’s all I can do to keep my head above water myself with the medical bills from my operation.
I understand, Mom, said Jane.
Isn’t it enough I drive all the way across town three, four nights a week to babysit Ryan? Of course he's a love, although he’s terribly spoiled. You let him spend too much time playing those god-awful video games. She looked around the room. Where’s the piano? she asked.
I sold it, said Jane.
They both looked at the wall where the piano had been. Jane had been meaning to buy a plant to help fill in the space, but hadn’t gotten around to it.
How will Ryan practice?
We’re taking a break from piano lessons for now.
What about you? You love to play. There’s nothing more lovely than the way you play the piano. It’s like you go off into another world. Jane’s mother’s face looked damp and heated from the puffy coat and the knit cap and the disappointment.
You better go, Mom. It’s getting late, said Jane.
Jane’s mother sighed. She put the envelope from The Bank on the kitchen table and tapped it with the index finger of the hand not holding her purse. She opened her mouth as if she were going to say something, but closed it against whatever had been on its way out. Instead she hugged Jane, pulling her into the puffy coat that smelled of Jane’s mother’s dog. When she finally released her daughter, Jane could see that her mother’s eyes were wet. Jane wiped a hand across her own eyes and sniffed.
Good night, Mom, she said.
Jane’s mother closed the door behind her quietly so as not to wake Ryan. The cat came out from wherever she had been hiding and rubbed herself against Jane’s leg.
There is this, Jane thought, bending to stroke the cat’s triangle ears.
Mind if I sit down?
Jane looked up from her paper cup of coffee in its protective sleeve. Not at all, she said, and Harry sat down across from her.
I’m on break, he said.
They blew on their coffee before taking tiny tentative sips.
Hot, Harry said.
Jane agreed that the coffee was hot.
You look very lovely this evening, he said.
Jane looked down at her red Target uniform. Thank you, she said.
No, I mean it.
That’s better, he said, when she smiled.
They blew and sipped under the florescence.
I used to be in research and development, Harry said after a few moments, and he named the big photography equipment company that had recently declared bankruptcy and laid off tens of thousands of workers. I’m only doing this until something better comes along.
Jane told Harry about her job at the pharmaceutical company. She pictured her desk with its framed picture of Ryan as a gap-toothed toddler, her computer, her telephone, her pile of papers and coffee mug filled with blue and red pens. I miss wearing something different to work each day, she said.
Well, red suits you, he said, gesturing towards Jane’s uniform.
Jane liked the friendly way his Ichabod’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down when he sipped his coffee.
Want to see a picture of my kids? he asked. He pulled a phone out of the bib of his uniform and handed it to Jane. A boy and a girl. The girl had her father’s lankiness; the boy’s features were fuller, denser.
They’re beautiful, she said, handing it back.
He narrowed his eyes at the phone for another moment then slipped back into his uniform. They live with their mom, he said.
Here’s mine, Jane said, offering her own phone. Ryan was her wallpaper.
Looks just like you, he said.
When Jane got back to Maternity, Tania was waiting, hands on her hips. You’re late she said.
Sorry, Jane said even though she wasn’t late.
In retaliation, Tania set Jane to refold the two-for-one pocket tees on the display table in the front of the department. The table was about the size of a dining room table and stocked with six rows of tee shirts, three stacks deep. Each individual pile had about twelve shirts. The two-for-one pocket tees came in white, black, red, yellow, green, and blue. The table hadn’t been disturbed by a browsing customer since Jane set the shirts out at the beginning of her shift.
All of them, said Tania.
Jane refolded the folded shirts. Once she looked up and caught Harry’s eye across the aisle and when he grinned and tipped an imaginary hat to her, she smiled back and forgot, for a moment, that her feet hurt. When Jane’s shift was over, she found Tania in the stockroom. Tania’s nose was so pink that the freckles didn’t show. Her phone lay in pieces on the floor near a box of maternity support garments.
What? Tania said. Her voice had the same plugged quality as Ryan’s in the crying jag aftermath of a tantrum.
Nothing. Good night, Jane said. Then she said: Are you okay?
When Tania shook her head, strands of ponytail stuck to her wet cheeks. Jane sat down next to her and then Tania was crying into the shoulder of Jane’s uniform. Between sobs, Jane pieced together that something had happened with a boyfriend and a best friend (now former). And now I have no place to live! I’ll have to sleep here in fucking Target! cried Tania, sweeping her arm to indicate the storage room.
What about your parents?
Tania shook her head. I can’t. My dad said if I moved in with a boy at my age that I couldn’t come home again. He said I made my bed so I can just go ahead and lie in it!
I’m sure he’d—
You don’t know him, Tania said. She wrapped her arms around herself and hiccupped.
The front of Jane’s uniform was smudged with Tania’s mascara, but Jane was sure she could get it out. You can come home with me, she said.
Tania was so surprised, she stopped crying. No, she said. That’s okay. I can call a friend.
You’re sure? Jane asked, standing and easing herself towards the doorway.
Noooooo, Tania wailed.
Jane sighed. Then come on, she said.
Outside, the wind was ice. The florescent light was here too and shone on the cement balls that lined the entrance to the store. The balls were Target-red and stood about waist-high and appeared to be bobbing on the surface of a black parking lot lake.
I think that man is crying, said Tania, pointing to a man crouched next to a car with his head in his hands. The car was white and very dirty or maybe it was rust.
Jane and Tania traversed the black lake until they reached the man. It was Harry. Are you okay? Jane asked.
He stood and Jane saw that he hadn’t been crying after all. The car was jacked up and tilted to the side. I lost a lug nut, he said.
Tania and Jane helped Harry look for the lug nut, but they couldn’t find it.
Do you have Triple A? Jane asked. Harry did not.
I can give you a ride home, Jane said.
It’s late and it’s too far. I know you have to get home to your son, Harry said.
You have a son? Tania asked.
Jane pulled out her phone to check the time. Past ten-thirty. Her mother would be furious. The wind blew low and hard and all three tugged their coats tighter around their bodies to shield themselves from it.
You can come home with us, she said.
Tania and Harry looked at Jane. Us? said Tania. Really? said Harry. I couldn’t.
I insist, said Jane. I can’t leave you here.
I’m simply furious, said Jane’s mother before she was even in the door. Do you know what time it is? Do you know how worried I’ve been? Anything could have happened to you. You could be dead in a ditch for all I know. Jane’s mother took in Tania and Harry who were slowly backing away from Jane, but Jane motioned them in with a wave of her hand and shut the door behind them. She unwound her scarf and unzipped her jacket.
Sorry, said Jane.
Jane’s mother picked up her purse from the table, opened it, rummaged inside, and then closed it again. The purse was the size of a shoebox and was black patent leather. Nice, said Jane’s mother. Out with your friends and you didn’t even think to call me.
I’m hungry, said Tania. Do you have anything to eat?
Jane’s mother put her purse down on the table. Hungry? she said.
Jane ducked her head and smiled.
I could eat something, said Harry. He had taken off his coat and hung it on the coat tree next to the door.
Jane’s mother opened cabinets and peered into the refrigerator. Then there were pots on the stove and something frying in a pan. Jane’s mother cooked and talked, moving from counter to refrigerator to stove. She talked about how Ryan spent too much time playing video games and watching TV, described her knee operation last summer, and complained about her dog that refused to let her brush his teeth. She talked about her late husband, Jane’s father, and the lovely funeral they had had for him, was it two years ago now? Jane yawned and let the talk wash over her. Tania had taken her hair out of its ponytail and it floated like cornsilk around her face. When she smiled, Jane could see she still had braces on her bottom teeth. Harry told a funny story about a customer and when they all laughed, the cat leapt on the counter and then to the top of the refrigerator and glared at them with her eyes like cold emeralds.
Is this a party?
They turned. Ryan stood in the doorway to the kitchen, rubbing his eyes against the light. He was wearing his Transformer pajamas and holding his pillow.
No, honey, said Jane. We’re just having a little snack.
Ryan was hungry too so they moved into the dining room so there would be enough room for everyone. We never eat in here, said Ryan. It’s for special.
It’s okay, said Jane. This is special.
Jane’s mother served them plates of eggs scrambled with fresh dill and some boursin cheese Jane vaguely remembered from the depths of the refrigerator. There was turkey bacon and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. There was toast and jam and a bowl of strawberries.
One more thing, said Jane, and came back with the bottle of Chardonnay, which was still almost full. She took four of her good crystal wine glasses out of the breakfront. Only a little for me, said Jane’s mother. Me too, said Tania. I’m not even old enough to drink. More for me then, said Harry, smiling at Jane.
They ate until all the food was gone. Ryan nodded in his chair. C’mon, buddy, Jane said. She navigated him upstairs and tucked him into bed. He was asleep before she turned out the light.
Downstairs, her mom was plunging her arms into her coat. Mom, it’s way too late for you to drive home; you’re staying here tonight. You can sleep in my bed.
Don’t be ridiculous. I can see myself home.
What about the dog?
He’ll be fine.
Jane’s mom went to bed, still talking as she climbed the stairs to Jane’s bedroom.
Tania, you can sleep in the guestroom, she said, and I can make up the couch for you, she said to Henry.
This is a big house, said Tania. If you live in such a big house, how come you work at Target?
Long story, said Jane.
After Jane had settled Tania into the guestroom with a pair of borrowed pajamas, she returned to the living room to make up the couch for Harry.
There’s still some wine, said Harry, who had cleared off the table and stacked the dishes in the dishwasher, and stood waiting for Jane in front of the fireplace. Let’s make a fire, he said.
Jane had one Duraflame log. She handed it to Harry and he placed it in the fireplace and lit it with the grill lighter that Jane’s ex-husband had bought for this purpose. Then they sat on the couch and finished the wine. They talked about their former spouses and former jobs, their children. Harry yawned, then Jane yawned, and then they both laughed. When he kissed her, he made a quiet sound from deep in his throat. Then he put his arm around her and Jane rested her head on his shoulder until the log had almost burned itself out.
One summer, when Jane had been eight, her brother had dared her to swim out to the dock. Jane had never swum that far before, had never been in water deeper than the height of her own strong girl’s body. She swam fast to keep up with Jimmy who, at ten, far exceeded Jane in size and wisdom. The lake was brown with darts of fairy light. There were things in the water illuminated by the light, but they didn't gross her out because she had grown up on this lake. The water was warm with surprising pockets of cold and Jane swam on after her brother towards the dock. Then she was tired and her arms felt heavy. It was hard to lift one, then the other. Jimmy, she called, but he was too far ahead. She could see his head, brown hair in the brown water. Jane stopped swimming. Jimmy, she called. She sank. The fairy lights showed her a watery brown sky. She broke the surface, striking it with her arms, willing it to hold her up. She sank again and rose again. Water filled her mouth and nose. Then her foot glanced against the grit and slime of the bottom of the lake. She put the foot down, then the other. And realized that if she stood on tiptoe her mouth and nose were free. She didn’t even mind later when Jimmy called her a baby. She didn’t tell him how she had almost drowned but saved herself when she realized that if she put her feet down she could stand and simply walk herself out.
That was long ago, but Jane remembered the feeling of relief. Mostly, she remembered how embarrassed she had been to discover she wasn’t drowning after all.
Hey, buddy, move over, Jane said, nudging Ryan to the inside edge of his bed.
We’re having a sleepover?
Yes. Now go to sleep.
Mmmmmm? Jane was almost asleep.
Can they live here with us?
Jane opened her eyes. Who?
Tania and Harry. They’re nice. And then we wouldn’t have to give our house to the bank.
Don’t be silly, Jane said. His face was inches from hers, their noses almost touching. How did you know about the bank? she whispered.
I hear stuff, said Ryan. So can they?
I don’t think so. I don’t know. We’ll see, said Jane, but Ryan had fallen back to sleep.
Now there was only the wind and shards of ice that hit the window with sandpapery rasps. There were the metal baseboards pinging with the rising heat and the lingering smell of bacon. There were the beds with the people sleeping in them and dreaming in them. There were all these things, Jane reminded herself.
Susan Lago is a lecturer in the English department at William Paterson University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Per Contra, Monkeybicycle, Verbsap, Word Riot, as well as Pank Magazine who nominated one of her short stories for a 2011 Pushcart Prize. In addition to having a Master of Arts degree in English from William Paterson University, Susan serves as a nonfiction editor of the university’s literary magazine, Map Literary.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I was inspired to write “Swimming the Lake” after the school year ended and the beginning of summer was only seconds away. Driving past my town’s beach club one day, I remembered the time when I almost drowned, the feeling of utter panic, and then my embarrassment when I found that I wasn’t drowning after all. I’ve tried to keep that in mind—the feeling of being able to save myself—when dealing with the various problems life throws my way.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, John Cheever, John Updike, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: In my house with my cat drowsing nearby.
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s the shoes.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on putting together a collection of my short stories as well as seeking representation for my novel.