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The Center of Madness | 2010 | Paperback Writer

08.20.10 4:11 p.m.

Water which is too pure has no fish.  

-Ts'ai Ken T'An


Beside Still Water

"I'm King of the Cliches!"

Our annual vacation almost didn't happen. My older brother Dan started a business a few months ago after fallout with a previous employer (he had invented a device that saved them a million dollars per conveyor belt per factory, wished for a raise and was denied because he does not have a college degree, so he took his severance package and left) and money is understandably tight. Also, given that Lake George is our annual destination, we are a little over-familiar with it. There was a suggestion of day trips to local destination, but the compromise was simply that we would vacation for one day fewer.

Melanie did not join us. Her internship playing in the muck of the Hudson got a grant to pay her, making it a job. Even before they bribed her for her attendance, she had said she was probably would not be coming, listing her parents and returning to Ohio as the barrier then. I thought better than to dig into this too deeply and was gratified enough last night when, asking her what I was forgetting to pack, she suggested I should have packed her.

Melanie tells me to pretend she is here, whispering sardonic witticisms in my ear. I imagine my ghostly lover warning me against lakeside parasites and picking favorites among my nieces and nephews, pointing out straight girls whom she lusts for as long as they are within her sight. Even if it is commonplace, I want to share even these mundane moments with her. Even when Melanie calls later in the day, there is a gap between our experiences, her persisting in the last week of what her life has been this summer.

We call Dan on our way up and ask where he is. According to him, he is about forty miles behind schedule, which actually means sixty and he is trying to make us feel reassured. Fifteen minutes later, he calls again to inform us that his tire blew and he just skidded all over the thruway, so he'll be back on the road once his wife Becky changes the tire. We exchange glances, hoping that this isn't as severe as he has made it sound. Otherwise, this is a bad omen for the start of vacation. The shredded tire they pull from the trunk when they arrive an hour and a half late gives us our answer.
I can be oddly literal.

Lake George casts a shadow on my soul, like some celestial body threatening eclipse. For most of the year, there is a pull here, some part of my mind that is sitting by the lake and waiting for the rest of me to arrive. This is the week where I am somewhere else in a different paradigm, where I can do things that seem not so consequential. It is my Fairyland, moving at a different pace than the outside world.

I find that a lack of expectations helps on these trips. It certainly cushions us in the case of catastrophic tire explosions. I know that our custom is to take a boat tour the first day, but my brother's family's late start waylays that plan. I am content to write, read, and nap until plans can return to the itinerary. My younger brother Bryan is even more eager for this interruption to activity, as he plays on the internet for many hours instead of participating. I joked, but only slightly, that he was forbidden to be on Second Life for the duration of the vacation since he wasn't accomplishing his objectives in First Life.

Vacation is a place without time restrictions. No, we don't get to have every potentially worthwhile experience, but we decompress from the everyday. In fact, the whole of the first day, we don't actually do anything more than eat pizza together, and that is fine with me.

When I speak to Melanie that night, I mention that walking the town alone was somewhat sad without her.

She says, "But I love you. You are not allowed to be sad as long as I love you... which is always, so you can never be sad."

Even without Melanie here, I feel a little haunted. There is a 3/5-sized Melanie (that actually Melanie instantly renamed "Chibi Mellie") and an Emily the size of Tinkerbell (that I silently threaten to squish), both tugging on my pants to point things out. If I am to be alone, I feel I ought to do it without a psychic entourage.

Speaking of exceeding personal carrying capacity, this tourist town doesn't actually cotton to large families. When we go out to eat, we are seated as far away from civil society as the waitstaff can manage and then, if possible, ignored in hopes we will go away. But we have toddlers and will unleash them if not given food in a timely manner.
This almost killed my vacation. Oh, and my brother and his family. It almost killed them, too.

Dan's family impacts us in one other, surprising way. At the theme park, Great Escape, my niece Leelee throws a tantrum so volcanic that the rollercoaster into which she has been buckled, which she has eagerly asked to ride, has to be shut down (while my father, younger brother, and I are trapped in the previous train watching). Dan's children insist that they now abjectly fear all rides, meaning that there is even less incentive to return to Lake George next year.

Before we left for the park, Dan realized that their van had a dead battery and needed to be jumped. Instead of using a tool specifically for jumping batteries, we jump start it from my mother's car. This, as we soon realize, caused the fuses for her power steering to blow, which made navigating the way back to the hotel a trial. (We tried stopping at an auto parts store, but they only stock one fuse at a time for no explicable reason.) We chalked this up to another vehicular omen and hoped for no more.

The next day, when my brother had scheduled to take his family and my father to check out an apple factory for a future automation job, we instead go on our boat ride. It is precisely typical and I am glad for it. That is until we notice a sheen on the lake as we pull closer to shore, along with the odor of petrol. The captain announces that the boat is going to have to dock strangely to avoid the slick. Though he tries to downplay the severity, his voice betrays that he finds this worrisome (as would I if my livelihood depended on tourists forking over cash to be toured around Lake George).

As we walk back to our hotel, the odor only intensifies. We see the police dotting the perimeter of the lake, their hands on radios, looking forlorn. Oil isn't within their purview, not like the tourists skateboarding down Canada Street.

I decide I can best deal with this whole situation by not mucking about in the lake, as had been my plan, and instead splash around in the pool ten yards from the untrustworthy waters.
Aaryn looks this way whenever you point a camera his way.

Every summer when I was young, I had this ritual where I would dive into the deepest end of a pool. I imagined the water flensing away what plagued me during the school year, all the anxiety and drama. I would stay submerged as long as my lungs could take it. Summer Me would break the surface, the psychic baggage left to sink and dissolve. Lake George was always the last chance for this experience. Though the mechanics of the ritual were adhered to with a liturgical fervor, as I aged the feeling behind it ebbed to nothing. I mourned this slightly until I realize today that this speaks more of an integrity and wholeness, that my subconscious has accepted that it cannot compartmentalize my personality.

Of course, this year, I burst from the water to the unclad breasts of a thirty-year-old Canadian who is unaware or indifferent as to the American Puritanism toward bosoms. I did my best not to ogle, but instead calmly walk back to the rooms to alert any present males that there happened to be nipples for their visual enjoyment should they wish to pretend they were swimming. Dan laughs, but is taking care of his children. Bryan spews something about how he doesn't want to exploit women by looking at them and returns to the internet. I can only shake my head, having fulfilled my masculine duty.
Doesn't he look nice in direct sunlight?

By the time Dan brings his brood to the pool, her breasts are covered. However, as I cavort with my nieces, I realize that this moment with them is the best moment of vacation for me. It is hard to connect while managing the dozen problems five children create every ten minutes and it is relaxing to just be able to be with them in a productive way. Yes, they soon feel the jolt from the McDonald's they had for lunch and turn feral on one another, but there is a good half hour where I am chasing them through the water and it is all smiles. Even Bryan leaves his computer screen and dips his feet in the water, but he will accede to nothing more than that no matter how I playfully threaten him. He does outweigh me by a good thirty pounds and I am in the water, so it doesn't seem worth it to try to overpower him.

During dinner that night, I try to instruct Bryan on the vagaries of human flirtation, using our beleaguered waitress Britney as an example (though I don't let poor Britney know that she is a topic whenever she walks away to refill a drink, she has enough problems). I demonstrate eye contact, proper physical contact, signals. He is uninterested. I point out that a quick glance shows a dozen topics about which one could begin a conversation with Britney (including that she wears a pentacle ring and that she is compassionate to our brother's children). He takes a handful of the sweet potato fries and tries to ignore me, as though he can ruin my fun by not participating in my forced socialization. I tell him that I am going to make it my mission to help him interact with normal women instead of intentionally damaged people from the internet, whether he wants it or not.

That night, just after the weekly fireworks that do not set the unctuous lake ablaze, we hear a wail of sirens on the main road. My father and brother bring forth their radios, quickly reporting that there is a massive fire consuming several shops. In the midst of this, the radios report, a man slashes a firefighter across the face with a broken bottle for stopping him from attacking a woman. Bryan, who is a trained EMT and could theoretically be of use, mopes that our mother will not let him go up and check it out. Instead, he plays on his laptop inside the room while we sit on the porch, eat, talk, drink, and speculate as to the events in town. Finally, I pop my head in the room and say to Bryan, "You realize you are about a decade over eighteen and mom can't actually tell you not to go check it out, right? C'mon, we need a field reporter!"

He doesn't look up from his screen, but sniffs that he is staying put. He is safer there than at the waterside, enjoying splashing nieces and immodest Canadians, and is certainly safer than in a vehicle which contains a member of my family.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, publication.

last watched: Revenge of the Nerds
reading: World War Z
listening: Kate Nash

The Center of Madness | 2010 | Paperback Writer

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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