Here we are, and it’s nice that we’re together. We are sisters. We may be dead. I’m not sure I want to clear up the question, for what good would it do to know? We might have to take action of some sort, and there are no instructions, no help of any kind on offer.
How appropriate that it seems to be a coffee house. A place where coffee is served and you can sit for hours. Is it still called that? Time may have passed, things may have changed. My position was always that I was au courant, on top of things. My sister said no to change. But she had a cell phone. It was only a no in principle.
She purses her lips, she knows I’m thinking this. She can read my mind. But this has nothing to do with being dead, if we are, because we could always do this in an unreliable way. “Are we dead?” I ask her. “What do you think?”
She refuses to answer. She doesn’t like to be wrong, or out of control. She likes to steer, metaphorically but also literally. There is a family story that we were in a canoe, placed there by our well meaning parents, who always thought we were going to turn out to be more active or athletic or competent than we were. A canoe—anyone can do it. An idiot can paddle a canoe. I was twelve and she was nine. By chance I was put in the end of the canoe where you have to steer. The bow? the stern? both ends looked the same.
The lake was small, flat, nearly waveless, except for the thrashing started up by other canoers. There was no question of drowning, or almost none. Our mother stood on the dock making exaggerated paddling motions with her arms, digging great scoops in the air. She called instructions to us, but even without having done much we had floated far enough away that we couldn’t hear her anymore. Or didn’t want to. She was wearing a coral blouse, new then, which she wore until it was a rag and beyond that, finally letting it end its days in picking up dust in tandem with a can of Pledge.
We were alone in the canoe, making feeble stabs at the water with our paddles, moving out into the middle where, we knew, something fearful waited. How deep was it, we asked each other. My sister has a good head for facts, but this one had eluded her. Twenty feet? fifty? How deep was fifty feet? We’ve never been good at spatial thinking, and we had to imagine fifty feet as a series of six-foot men (our father) stacked on each other, head to foot, the bottommost one standing on the floor of this lake, the eighth with his head still two feet below the water. I imagined I could see this head under the waves, its hair (sparse, like our father’s) lifting away from the scalp, and said so, but my sister rebuked me. “You can not,” she said, and of course she was right.
It was somewhat like being dead, out there on the middle of the lake, with no idea how to get back. No idea how to turn the canoe around, or how to steer it in any direction at all. That is, if we are in fact dead.
My sister recommends that we make a list. She is the practical one. We don’t have pens or paper, so it has to be a mental list.
First, are we dead? Find out.
Is there anyplace else besides this?
If dead, how did we die?
Do either of us by any chance have a candy bar?
It’s a short list, but we are pleased with it. “Did we die on that lake?” I ask, even though I know we didn’t.
“Don’t be silly,” she says. We laugh.
I know we didn’t because I have all the memories of what came after. Not just the memory of being towed in, and other people laughing, and our mother explaining how we’d never been in a canoe before, but everything after. My decision not to play at dolls with my sister anymore, high school, dating a boy just because he was taller than me, my job at a bank where my boss came on to me, early marriage, being pregnant in giant, elastic-waisted blue jeans, dying my hair for the first time, my decision to go on estrogen, all that and more.
Of course, as my sister points out, these could be false or implanted memories. It could be a construct of the mind in the moment of death, as Swedenborg theorized. The mind can’t accept its dissolution, and so creates a world of memories in an instant, furnishing a life with elastic and Miss Clairol Auburn and coin-counting machines. But why wouldn’t I make up a better life for myself, I say to her. Why let my hair go gray? Why would a twelve-year-old think of estrogen?
“Maybe the canoe itself is false,” she says. “Did you think of that?”
I don’t want to let go of the canoe, and I hug to myself its curves, its shabby green color, the puddle of murky water that had gathered in its lowest point. Our parents had grown small. From the center of the lake, they were no bigger than half my finger. “We were empowered,” I say to her. “It was the beginning of adulthood.”
“See how well that’s turned out,” she says. She gets bitter when she’s feeling depressed, and I squeeze her fingers.
“I wonder if there is any coffee,” I say, to distract her. I don’t drink coffee anymore, because of my jumpy heart, but if we are dead, maybe I could tolerate it. If there is any coffee. If the dead drink.
The coffee house is dusty, disheveled. The chairs are pulled out as if everyone else got up and left a minute ago, in a hurry to go someplace else. There are empty cups here and there, and crumpled napkins. “We could write on the napkins,” she says, and I know she is thinking of the list, but there are no pens that we can see.
There is a display case on one side, the kind that showcases pastries, but there are no pastries in it. It’s empty except for a flashlight, a wooden statue, and a few paperback books, which I am glad to see. I hate to go anywhere without reading material.
The coffee house has two doors, one to our left, one behind the counter where a cash register should be but isn’t. An espresso machine hulks on the other side of the counter, rusty and ancient. There are no windows, and even though this seems like a minus, I am glad. I don’t want to know just yet what might be outside these walls.
“Isn’t this ironic?” I say to my sister. “A coffee house with no coffee.”
“Just as well,” she says. “It’s not very sanitary.” She runs her finger across the table and shows me the fur of dust it has picked up. Fastidiously, she wipes her hand on one of the napkins and brushes at her skirt to remove invisible motes. She has always dressed better than me, wears skirts more often, often an accent scarf at her neck, earrings even on ordinary days. It used to be that I had better hair to make up for it, but this advantage waned as my hair got grayer, more wiry, and finally started falling out. Unless this is a false memory. Maybe I have never had to resort to Rogaine, 2% strength for women. Maybe my hair is still luxuriant and well behaved. But where would this docile and beautiful hair be, in what universe or plane of existence? It’s enough to give me a headache.
“So,” I say with the air of one planning a campaign, “are we dead?”
“I remember a hospital,” my sister says hesitantly. “Beeping, machines, a nurse with teddy bears on her scrubs. A purple vase of carnations falling on the floor?”
“I remember that, too,” I said, “but that was when Dad was in with his broken hip.”
“So, not us.”
“Unless it’s a false memory,” I say. Which takes us back to the canoe. Just as then, we are indecisive. We look around the coffee house as we looked around the lake, wanting something to hold on to, something to give context. I remember thinking in the canoe that perhaps if I had been a better girl, more religious, better behaved in school with the nuns, that I could have walked over the water. I thought about trying. I thought I might be able to figure it out and teach my sister. It would have taken only a few minutes to walk back to the dock if we got the trick of it. I remember putting my hand in the water, testing its softness.
“We knew how to swim,” my sister says, and this time it seems more strange that she has read my mind. The air seems more elastic, a little gelatinous, a fit medium for thoughts. We did know how to swim.
“I didn’t like the look of the water,” I tell her, and she nods. The water was opaque, unlike the translucent blue water of the swimming pool at the Y where we had lessons, where you could see the black lines on the bottom marking the lanes. The water in the lake was dark green, bottomless. There were probably fish in it, and we had no truck with fish, no desire to know them more intimately. If we had had to swim back to shore, we would have stayed in the boat until the lake dried up, until the glaciers crept back and engulfed us with ice, until the atmosphere lifted off and was sucked into space by the close approach of a black hole.
I had told her at the time of my plan to walk across the water, and she had pretended to consider it. We both pretended. Our parents seemed so far away by then that they might as well have died and been reincarnated into a new life which was being lived out on dry land, leaving us behind in a watery world, furnished by a water bottle and a discarded pair of sunglasses in the bottom of the canoe. We had one Snickers bar squashed into my sister’s pocket, which she divided fairly by biting it in half.
The memory of the Snickers bar made me hungry. Do the dead hunger? It seemed that they might, and even though I hadn’t eaten a Snickers bar for years, I longed for one. “Do you remember the Snickers?” I said, and she nodded. Later, we always ate Snickers bars when we got high—the inrush of dope made a space in the brain that was exactly fitted for caramel, nougat, peanuts, chocolate.
I got up and went behind the counter, driven by this candy vision, and started going through the drawers and cupboards.
“Is there anything?” she asked. I shook my head, even as I opened more doors, peered into the backs of more shelves. A few coffee filters, some ancient crumbs, a mouse trap, still unsprung. Nothing interesting or useful.
“Are we dead?” she asked, and I didn’t know what to say. If we were, it seemed like such a pointless kind of death. (Although wasn’t death always pointless?) And boring. I went to the display case to check out the paperbacks. There were three: a horseracing mystery, a Zane Grey, and a novel by someone named Wilson. I brought them back to the table, and we examined them, but if they held clues, we couldn’t figure out what they meant. They had been read hard. Corners of the pages were bent back, the covers soft and worn. Wilson’s book was falling apart, the pages would have scattered like leaves if we had taken less care. The pages were stained, as if they had gotten wet and dried out imperfectly.
The Zane Grey made me nostalgic. I had read a number of them the year I was thirteen, the year of the canoe. I had imagined myself on a horse, riding hard to someone’s rescue. I had imagined myself in the canyon with a man who loved me. “Roll the stone, Lassiter,” I had imagined myself saying as Jane does at the end of Riders of the Purple Sage. This vision of myself as heroic had taken a hit from the canoe incident, for not only did it turn out that I couldn’t walk on water, couldn’t rescue my sister, couldn’t even turn the damn canoe around, but I had to be rescued myself, and not romantically by a good looking slightly older boy who might ask if I was doing anything later after my parents had gone to sleep in our mildewed cabin, but by the park manager, who was bald and red-faced and really mad at us. I had sometimes dreamed about him as I got older, those unhappy dreams where the world skews around you and there are spiders under the rugs, and your husband won’t vacuum them up, but pretends they aren’t there.
“We were married, right?” I said to her.
“I believe so,” she said, as if considering it, as if remembering something that had taken place a long time ago. “If it was not a dream.”
When we were in the canoe, we had already thought of marriage, of course. We had bride paper dolls, and we married them off to stuffed animals or the Indian doll in his fake leather and feathers. We expected we’d be married, but it would happen in a different country. We hadn’t learned the language yet. We knew we had to go to high school first and perhaps to Niagara Falls, which was always promised but never happened. Our father’s vacation was always too short. By the time we married, we would be someone else, and this turned out to be true. “Did we have children?” my sister said.
“We might have,” I said, hedging even though I remembered children. I didn’t want to bring them here, not even in a memory. Not even in a memory that might be false or created. The only children we had were the two of us in the canoe, in the middle of the lake, on the dark water. We drank the water in the bottle, we ate the Snickers bar. We took turns trying on the sunglasses. We described our clothes to each other, pretending we were models. In the distance, people called. Cars zoomed on the highway far away. Picnickers sat at their tables on the shore and ate out of coolers. Our future husbands might well have been there, our employers, the beautician who dyed my hair orange when I distinctly told her dark red, the man at the bank who always pretended he didn’t remember my sister although she’d come there a hundred times. The librarian who saved books for me, the neighbor who was a minister and insisted on talking to my sister when she only wanted to go into the house and pour a glass of wine.
Had we gotten into a car that day? had someone wrapped blankets around us even though we weren’t wet? Had someone called the ambulance? Did my head rest uncomfortably on the stony ground? Did my sister’s hand lie limp across her chest, showing the bitten-away vacation nail polish?
The lake, the beautiful, possibly false, implanted lake lay across my memory, its sheen bright and blinding, its depths unfathomable. The canoe floated hesitantly on it, like a leaf or a scrap of light. When we held our hands in the water they looked greenish, translucent, and we snatched them up because they seemed ready to float away, hardly a part of ourselves anymore. When we bent over to see our reflections, we looked older, our hair darkened, our eyes filled with knowledge.
I took my sister’s hand. “We are dead,” I said to her, because I was the eldest and a decision had to be made.