I suggested maybe one of us would want to stay behind.
"Just in case," I said.
"Just in case?" Dad said.
He'd given us each a loaded rifle, leaving two for himself. The entire stash that he'd always kept in a locked compartment Mickey had built below the bedroom floor.
"Just in case ... you know ..."
"I don't think I do."
"Neil's got a point," Todd said. "Jay and I have got kids. Families."
"Your grandchildren," my brother-in-law added. The assholes. I'd only brought this up with the idea that I should be the one staying behind. No kids. Marriage headed for the wrecking ball. Clearly, I was the one with the most to lose by going out on this suicide mission.
Dad pointed at Todd, then Jay. "You two decide who stays back. You've got one minute. Then I decide."
I raised my hands a little while Todd and Jay stepped back to confer between themselves.
"What?" Dad said.
"I'm no good with a rifle."
"You think I don't know that?"
"Jay's hunted with you guys."
"No," Dad corrected. "Jay pissed around in the woods for three days watching us hunt. And don't try selling me on that brother of yours."
Todd and Jay came back from their little talk. "Jay's staying back," Todd said, hardly sounding pleased at having to make the announcement.
"Fine," Dad said, turning for the dock.
"You flip for it?" I asked Todd.
"No," Todd mumbled as we followed Dad to the boat. He glanced behind him to make sure that Jay was out of earshot. "No -- the asshole -- he took out his phone and said he'd call Bethany if I wouldn't let him stay back."
The next family gathering was shaping up to be a lot of fun. If any of us were still around, that was.
Dad started up the motor as Todd and I climbed aboard. We didn't exactly hurry.
"Couple of things," Dad said, as he took us out, shouting over the motor. "One, try and look like a bunch of men for the first time in your lives. You got it?"
I glanced at Todd, who seemed too worried about what we were heading into to be insulted.
"Two, and I've never been more serious about anything in my life ..." He shifted the motor into a higher gear, the lake spraying us with cool water. Bottle rockets streaked overhead. "Don't shoot at anything unless I'm already dead."
So we were basically props. Seemed to me our brother-in-law could have done the job for the both of us. I thought about launching myself overboard. Taking my chances. Hope that Dad would just keep going. I looked at Todd, who seemed to be having similar thoughts. But then we were closing in on the north shore. Too late.
Dad motored us all the way onshore, tying up the boat to a leaning pine a few yards east of the barren hill. We could hear laughter and shouting trickling through the woods. We simply followed the sounds. But soon another sound was coming at us. Mosquitoes. I remembered then where we were. The little bastards were lifting off from the swamps.
"Keep going," Dad said, practically reading my mind. We were ripe. Easy targets. Hell, we'd spent the day coating ourselves in our own sweat. We swatted at the air. We slapped ourselves, we slapped each other. They just kept coming. Brutal.
Finally, mercifully, the woods began to spread, the glow of a large fire lighting through. That and the signature Stempel aroma -- a warm blend of beer and pot mixed with that smell that hangs around people who spend all day lighting off fireworks. We just about ran the rest of the way.
The lake was small, alright. So small it seemed like a pool that had been filled with too many people. Almost everyone was on the water, on inflatable rafts or pieces of driftwood. Hard to tell how many people were out here. Thirty, maybe forty, scattered in smoky clusters. About a dozen more were crammed into a fishing boat no bigger than my Dad's.
A wall of Tiki torches and small ground fires shielded the bottle strewn beach from the woods. I noticed that some of the women on the lake were topless. Perhaps, I thought, rather pathetically, my next wife would be somewhere out here. Maybe she'd be impressed by a guy holding a rifle. But even the women couldn't hold my attention for more than a moment.
Because the party's centerpiece was floating on the lake.
The Stempels had been busy, all right.
The truly amazing part was that this thing was floating at all. The raft was nearly the width of our cabin. Wooden raft, from what I could tell. Like those old rafts people anchored off their docks for swimming platforms. Maybe fifteen of them put together. Piled at least three stories high with lumber, logs, firewood, and pieces of our cabin.
And at the very top of this thing, like the lone candle stuck on top of a giant birthday cake, was that old outhouse they'd stolen from out back.
Dad was already in the water, swimming for the raft.
"Should we follow him?" Todd said.
"Be my guest," I said, thinking if Mickey was really up there, then they'd probably put a lock on the outhouse. There was no way I could tell from down here. "But we should probably get a key for that thing." And quickly, I thought. Because they'd already started the raft on fire.
It took a moment for Todd to follow. "Okay ..." he said, and then he was looking around the beach. "How 'bout up there?" He nodded up shore, where a screened tent was standing just off the shoreline, a torch at each corner. The bottle rockets were going up from the beach, just a few yards past the tent. Three man crew.
Look the part, I reminded myself as we approached the tent. I checked behind me to make sure Todd was still there. He seemed to be using the spectacle on the lake as an excuse to walk a little more slowly. The guys lighting the fireworks didn't notice us at all. I stepped in front of the tent where I knew whoever was inside would have to see me. It looked like they'd thrown another layer of netting across the screen. Smart. Except that I couldn't see a thing inside.
After a moment, the zippered doorway opened up and a tattooed hand slipped through. The guy that followed the hand looked like he could be about my age. He was shirtless and muscled, sporting the requisite shaved head these types seemed to favor.
"That thing for hunting?" the guy said, eyeing my rifle with what looked a little like boredom.
"Right," I said.
The guy nodded a little, looking past me as if he were hoping that a more interesting visitor would come along. "Does it shoot mosquitoes?" he said.
I didn't answer that one. I managed a glimpse past his head. There were a few more people back there. A small fire was going on the ground. A young woman reclining in a beach chair looked back at me. Then the guy's head got in the way.
I used the rifle to point at the raft. "Is there a key for that outhouse up there?"
The guy looked past me, then looked up, surprised. As if that outhouse had just fallen in from the sky. "Why don't you just find a tree somewhere?" he said. I don't think he was kidding.
Then a voice came from behind him, a young woman's, "He wants the bathroom key?" That got some laughs from the other people inside. The guy turned back for a moment, giving me a straight on view of the girl. She was wrapped in a cocoon of plush, cotton blue blankets. Hair pulled up and her face speckled with glitter that twinkled in the firelight.
I remembered, then, what Mickey had said about the Stempel daughters being more trouble than the boys.
"Come closer," she said. Her head tilting a little as she squinted up at me. "Let me get a look at you."
The guy stepped back inside the tent, pulling the doorway open a little more. I took just one step.
"Are you one of the brothers?" she said.
"Yeah," I said, wishing I'd cleared my throat first.
Her head came back straight on and her eyes opened a little. "You don't look like him."
I was in a daze. Was there something in the smoke? How could there not be? But there was definitely something about this girl. The way her face was sparkling inside those fluffy blankets ... I tried reminding myself that she was a Stempel, a blood relation to the slob who'd washed onto our shore all those years ago. It wasn't working.
"Hey ..." the girl was blinking. "I said you don't look like him."
Her eyes went to someone I couldn't see. Then she put the eyes back on me and blinked a few times. "You must be the smart one," she said. Her buddies thought that was pretty funny, and I suppose it was.
"Should we give him the key?" she asked her friends. The answers varied. Was I supposed to beg for it? Funny, considering I was holding that rifle, that I almost did. But a tiny hand had appeared from beneath her blankets, dangling a key tied to a small block of wood. Like the kind they use at gas stations. A key for a padlock. She tossed it to the guy at the doorway, who passed it over.
"You'd better hurry," the girl said, and then she was behind the zippered screen again, a blurred figure in a wrap. Thoroughly humiliated, I turned around. Dad was already gotten past the fire and was halfway up the pile. Halfway up to an outhouse that needed a damn key. The fire growing quickly.
Todd was waiting for me. He pointed to a motor boat that was moored a little ways north. Better than swimming, I thought, and we ran over. I pushed us off, Todd at the motor. The lake was an obstacle course of bodies and floating garbage. "Just go," I kept saying. And after every clunk, "It was just a bottle." Although no way a bottle could have thumped us off course the way some of these things did.
A crowd was forming around the base of the raft, cheering on our dad. We drifted behind the crowd. This was as close as we were getting. I noticed three guys on the edge of the raft who were tossing fireworks into the blaze.
I cupped my hands and shouted for Dad. He looked down, both hands locked onto some piece of the hill. I shook the key above my head. Dad found purchase with both feet, then stuck back an open hand.
"Are you kidding me?" Todd said.
He was right. No way in hell that key would make it up there. Watching those morons dancing around on the raft gave me an idea.
"Hey!" I called out. "Hey!"
The one who was completely naked turned and looked at me. I held up the key. The guy looked at me and laughed. So I gave the key a little shake. Like you would with a baby, or a dog. He laughed some more. And then he held out his hands. Perfect. I tossed it over.
"It's for that guy!" I yelled, pointing over his head, pointing at my dad. And then I mimicked climbing a ladder with my hands. "That guy!"
The naked guy craned his head at the inferno rising above him. He glanced back with a grin and then he gave me a cheerful salute. He wouldn't remember any of this tomorrow. He was halfway up the bonfire in all of forty seconds. Got the key to my dad, then dropped away, smoking, yelping and hooting all the way into the lake.
Dad scampered the rest of the way up to the outhouse. There wasn't room at the peak for him to stand, so he was leaning on it, fumbling at the lock. The fire catching up to him now, just a foot or two below, pressing smoke up to the floor of the outhouse, where it was meeting resistance and spreading out. He finally got the door opened and he stuck his head inside. Then he was back out. I couldn't tell if he was looking at us or if he was just looking down the long slope of the fire.
I spread my arms and yelled up to him, "Where is he?"
Dad didn't reply. The smoke was enclosing his legs like a ground fog. I followed his gaze as it went over our heads and out to the shore. I looked behind us, where the girl had stepped outside of her tent. Standing in those blankets of hers like a walking shroud. Dad saw her, and in that moment I'm pretty sure he knew exactly who she was.
"My boy?" he said. He didn't shout it. He didn't need to.
The girl seemed to shrug inside her blankets. "He was up there an hour ago," she said.
Of course Mickey had gotten out on his own. We should have known. Locking that boy inside his own outhouse was like locking Houdini inside a dressing room.
Something exploded inside the bonfire. Todd grabbed me to keep me from falling completely overboard. The lake filled with shrieks and cheers. The guys who'd been catwalking the raft's perimeter were diving overboard. Another explosion followed. No way this was Mickey's doing. He never would have blown the raft with Dad stuck at the peak. This was something the Stempels had packed into the rubble earlier in the day. Something big and loud. Something with a kick.
And the bonfire was coming down.
Dad had about a second or two to consider his options. Jump from that ridiculous height. Or go down with the fire.
I wasn't surprised that Dad chose the outhouse. The Stempels had gotten that pile awful high.
He climbed inside just as another explosion sounded from about halfway up. Then he poked his head out the door one last time. The outhouse seemed to be swaying. For some reason, he'd grabbed one of the magazines Mickey kept in a rack he'd built inside. And then he waved the magazine over his head. Was he waving at us? I couldn't be sure. But who the hell else would he be waving at? He reminded me of one of those guys who's about to go over Niagara Falls in some idiotic contraption. The hopeful wave that usually turned out to be the last time anyone saw them in one piece.
He ducked inside the outhouse, then. Closed the door behind him with the magazine tucked under one arm.
"Why'd they leave the magazines in there?" Todd said to me as we waited for something to happen.
"Good question," I said.
Seconds later, the outhouse plunged into the bonfire.
"Good god," Todd said.
* * *
Here I'm questioned by my kids. Their grandpa's been dead for some years now, but they know he sure as hell didn't die in an outhouse at the bottom of a lake they'd never even heard of.
"Did you jump in after him?" my youngest daughter asks.
I could say that I did, but they'd hardly believe that.
"I'll tell you what I remember," I say.
The bonfire had billowed after another explosion, sending pieces of kindling tumbling into the lake. Pieces of the cabin falling away, trailing little flames, like they were diving after Dad. Then the raft split in half. The rest was mostly steam and lake spray. I remembered all the times I'd put sticks into a bonfire, then dipped them in the lake. The hissing sound the water made in putting out the fire. Here was that sound. Just a hell of a lot louder.
"We can find him," Todd said.
For a moment, I thought we were going to have to at least try. And the idea of diving for the bottom of this lake was just about the scariest thing I'd ever considered. But then I spotted someone swimming straight for the center of the wreckage. Someone who was swimming far too fast and too crisp, too sober, really, to be anyone other than Mickey.
Thank god, I thought. Oh, thank god for Mickey.
He went under. I'd say he was under for about a minute. A very long minute. And then they were up. Dad clinging to Mickey's shoulder. I waved and shouted while Todd motored us over to them. Mickey hoisted Dad into our arms then followed him inside.
"You wouldn't believe the shit that is at the bottom of this lake," Mickey said.
I said I could probably believe it.
Dad, soaked and shivering, seemingly shrunken with Mickey's massive arm around his shoulder, looked me over like he was seeing me for the first time. Then he pointed a shaking finger at me. "Those people we bought the cabin from ..."
The guy who'd lost his fiancée and half his head? I wondered what he was doing right then.
"They built that thing right," Dad said, coughing now, or was he laughing?
"That's right," I said, "They don't make outhouses like that anymore."
Mickey nodded along with Dad, giving him a long hug with that one arm. Then he stood up and ordered me to hand over my t-shirt to Dad. I could have pointed out that my sweat soaked shirt wouldn't be much drier than what Dad had on, but it didn't seem worth protesting at this point. As long as he didn't ask for my shorts.
"Where the hell were you?" Dad asked Mickey after he threw on my shirt.
Mickey told us how he had gone up to the Stempel cabin looking for his Winchester and for some dry clothes, unaware that we'd finally come looking for him. We hadn't come out all day, he said. Why should he have assumed we'd be there now? But he came back anyway. Just in case. He'd also heard some cheering.
We took a minute to relax. Mickey took off the t-shirt he'd grabbed from the Stempels and wrung it out over the water then threw it back on. A t-shirt advertising the newest innovations in light beer from about twenty years ago. When a group of drunks tried overtaking our boat, we figured it was time to get moving.
"I still want that Winchester," Mickey said.
"I can get you another one," Dad said.
"I don't think so," Mickey said. He ordered Todd to take us into shore a little south of the tent. From there, he led us onto a trail that took us straight up to the Stempel cottage.
"Where's Jay?" he said once we'd reached the backyard.
We told him. We also thought it might be time to mention that the cabin was gone.
"Yeah," Mickey said. "I know."
He knew. How'd he know? He didn't say. He never did, in fact. I supposed at the very least, he must have recognized some of the furniture when he was sneaking down the bonfire.
"We'll get it back up," Mickey said matter-of-factly.
"That's right," Dad said.
"You bet we will," Todd added.
"Not a problem," I said.
And I suppose it was really quite simple, wasn't it? The cabin was something that could never be taken away. The logs and the piping and wire and the roofing and the furniture, all of that could be replaced. And would be. No matter how many times the Stempels kept coming back. The true cabin was something captured in the imagination. Which was probably what Mom had realized all those years ago, after she'd vowed to torch the place. I still think it would have been worth a try. But then, of course, we never would gotten our Mickey.
At the Stempel back door, Mickey turned to us with a little smile. "Door's unlocked." He led us inside, where we found ourselves in the darkened Stempel kitchen. Funny how just last night the idea of entering the Stempels' cabin would have seemed utterly inconceivable. And terrifying. Now, I really didn't care. Not after everything we'd been through. Not with Mickey back.
Something smelling like fabric softener hung in the air. A clean, perfumey scent mixing in an oddly pleasant way with smoke. I could see the red pip of a cigarette floating over a table.
Mickey flicked on the light.
That Stempel girl was sitting at the table, finishing off her smoke. Still wrapped in those blankets of hers. She must have come up here right after the bonfire went down.
"You don't believe in lights?" Mickey said, taking a seat at one of the other three chairs at the round table. A bottle of Jim Beam was the only other thing on the table.
"I didn't think you'd come inside if the lights were on." Good lord, there was something about her voice, something even more alluring now that there wasn't a skinhead in between us. Too bad Mickey was here.
Mickey leaned back in his chair and just stared at her for a long moment. "You comfy?" he finally said.
She blinked those glittered eyelids, then nodded. "Where'd you get the clothes?"
She nodded again and made a little twirling motion over her head. "My home is yours."
"Uh huh ..." Mickey scratched at the stubble on his jaw.
She poked the stub of her cigarette in our direction, where the three of us were still standing like idiots. "These guys build a good bonfire."
Mickey didn't say anything. Dad took a seat, then, next to Mickey and reached for the Jim Beam.
"I wouldn't drink that," Mickey said.
Dad ignored him. So Mickey clasped a hand over his wrist. "I mean it."
The girl was smiling now.
"I'll buy you a drink as soon as we get out of here," Mickey said.
Dad stood up, then, pushed in his chair. "So what are we waiting for?"
Mickey tapped a knuckle on the middle of the table. "My Winchester."
The girl lit up another cigarette. Camels.
"You'd better still have it," Mickey said.
"Yes, yes ..." the girl said, dragging on her Camel and then tapping the ashes onto the table. The thing was pocked from one end to the other with burn marks. How many generations of Stempels had sat here, just like this girl, forgoing the convenience of an ash tray? "You just tell me something first," the girl said.
Mickey waited. We all waited.
She blinked those eyes again. Some sort of tic perhaps. Held the Camel up close to her mouth.
"How'd you get out?"
Funny, I'd been wondering the same thing.
* * *
"So ... ?" my oldest daughter asks.
"What do you think?" I say.
Not that it was that big of a deal. Mickey had always been more than happy to talk about how he'd gotten out. The big secret, the one none of us had ever gotten to hear, was exactly how he'd let himself get caught. Although I definitely had a theory about that one.
"The magazines?" my youngest daughter ventures. "Something inside the magazines?"
Yes, Mickey had kept a small jackknife in a copy of Field and Stream that had been tucked in that magazine rack all these years. They'd left him tied and naked. Though not tied very well, he said. So all he'd really had to do was break out. The Stempels had nailed some kind of metal sheeting below the floor, so he'd had to carve his way through the lower wall. Which meant first squeezing through the toilet hole.
The girl sat at the table, holding her Camel with mild amusement as Mickey pulled out the little red jackknife from the pocket of his borrowed shorts. Held it up in the dim kitchen light.
"You never know," he said. "You're out there at night and something comes sniffing around. What are you supposed to do?" And as he's saying this, I'm thinking that only Mickey would think of using an outhouse in the middle of the night when there was a perfectly capable toilet just fifteen feet from his bedroom.
"You never know ..." Mickey said, tucking the knife back into his pocket, now finished with the story. He started running his fingers through his wet hair, getting impatient. Just wanting the rifle so this day could finally be over. We were all tired by now. The adrenaline had worn off. It was only the girl who looked like she wouldn't have minded keeping the night going.
"So ..." Mickey said again. "The Winchester."
The girl smiled again. This time, I didn't like the way it came across. She gave a half turn of her head and that was when I noticed our skinhead friend from the tent standing just outside the doorway. Him and a few others. I didn't see Mickey's rifle with any of them, but I did see what looked like a taser.
Mickey laughed at the girl, then.
"I'll come back for it," he said.
"I'm counting on it," the girl said.
And then our friend with the tattoos on his hands reached his long arm into the kitchen and flicked off the lights.
It really didn't do them a lot of good.
* * *
"Well?" my youngest daughter asks.
I shrug. "Mickey got us out."
"That simple?" the oldest says dryly.
"We still had my dad's rifles."
There was also the table going over, spinning across the kitchen. Todd and I colliding and Dad just standing still, completely frozen. And the girl backed up against the wall like she was watching a movie playing out right in front of her. I swear to this day that she winked at me from across the room. This was right before Mickey hauled me out on his shoulders.
"Those rifles came in real handy," is the only other thing I say about this.
Silence. I suppose it wasn't the ending they were looking for.
"Did Uncle Mickey ever get his rifle back?" My middle daughter asks.
"He did, but that's another story."
"Not tonight. Besides, it's not as interesting."
"That's it, then?"
That's pretty much the story.
"Whatever happened to that girl?"
I shrug, like I don't know anything else about her. Mickey rebuilt the cabin by the end of the fall. Even put in a new outhouse that looked just like the old one. The Stempels never bothered putting up another boathouse. There were more problems over the years, but nothing like that Fourth of July and the winter before it. Mickey went and got married. The rest of us swore off the cabin for years, which didn't really bother Dad once Mickey and his wife started giving him the pure cabin-loving grandchildren he'd always hoped for.
"But we like the cabin," my daughter says.
"That's because we're only here two days a year," I say. "Trust me on this. It's the only way to do it."
The girls tell me, then, that they don't believe one word of my story.
"Ridiculous," the oldest says.
"Insulting," the middle one says.
Even my precious youngest has to agree with them.
My dad doesn't fit with the grandfather they knew -- a plodding, quiet old fellow by the time they'd come around. And they only know their Uncle Mickey as the guy with all the problems. One kid in jail. One in and out of the rehab clinic. Mickey's a pathetic figure to them. Always looking a little beaten down. In and out of jobs. Always needing money. He'd pretty much peaked that summer he was kidnapped for the day.
It's that wife of his, I want to say to my daughters. That's where the trouble all started. But I don't. When they're older, maybe. Though they'd probably figure it out for themselves long before that. If they haven't already.
Mom doesn't say much when they ask if any of these stories are true. "If that's what he says ..." is the best she can give them. She confirms, though, that I was married and already divorced before she met me. This turns out to be the juiciest part of the tale for my daughters. They want more of that story.
"No," I say.
They wait until the next night to apologize for saying they didn't believe my story.
"Are the Stempels still out there?" the youngest asks, probably, at this point, just to humor me.
"Yes," I say.
There's a pause here. The fire crackles and the night is otherwise quiet.
"You'd think they'd still want to get back at us, then."
"Because of the boathouse?"
I shake my head.
"But they're still out there?"
I laugh a little. "Yes," I say. "The Stempels are there." And I smile then. "But they know if there's any trouble, they'll have to deal with your Uncle Mickey."
And then it's their turn to laugh. My daughters laugh it up like it's the funniest thing I've ever said. I suppose they've been holding that in since last night.
Good thing Mickey isn't around to hear them.