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Short Story
5,144 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot

by Jack Driscoll

I told my dad, “As far as I know,” when he asked if the entire clan would be there. Meaning my best friend Darwin and both his parents, Mr. and Mrs. LaVann, who owned a cabin on a lake about an hour’s drive north of Cadillac in decent weather. And, although we couldn’t have known it then, that was where the sheriff’s department deputies would search first thing after Mrs. LaVann went missing. “Went renegade” was how Darwin would amend it after she finally did call from somewhere far out of state, but only to let them know that she was alive and not to worry and that she’d come back home when she could. When she was ready. Though of course she never did.

She was secretive and distant and had a foreign-sounding name, which was how, a year earlier, she’d introduced herself to me the first time I stopped at their house after school: Marenza Czarny. I imagined some war-torn country, like maybe she’d been a refugee or something, but when I later asked Darwin where she was originally from, he said, “Bay City. Born and raised.” She’d dreamed the name and legally changed hers to it the day she turned eighteen. “A conversion,” he said and rolled his eyes, but he offered up no details, and I left it at that.

My dad would not have liked her: Tall and thin, high cheekbones and long, shiny-dark hair with red highlights that showed through in the sun. Not a line in her face. The kind of beauty that rarely—if ever—was available to men such as my dad, men who knew it and so maligned its very existence.

I calculated her to be mid-thirties, max, a good ten years younger than her husband. Together they constituted the most perplexing mismatch I’d ever seen. Not that Mr. LaVann wasn’t upbeat and good-natured enough. And occasionally he was even fun to be around, and way less strict than most other dads. But he had one of those fat, flat faces, like he might have played tuba in junior high band. How he and his wife had gotten together defied in my imagination what a certain woman’s attraction to a man might be. Other than money. He’d spend his afternoons drinking coffee and poring over spreadsheets fanned out across their dining room table.


Darwin and I had both turned fourteen that summer our lives changed, and then changed back, though possibly not for the better. Anyway, it was Mrs. LaVann—that’s what I called her to be polite, and she never corrected me—who said at the lake one day, “Here,” and handed us half a dozen perfectly good pie tins. “See if you boys can find a suitable use for these.” True, I’d yet to see her bake anything. Or cook for that matter, unless sliding a bagel into the toaster oven qualified. We bypassed panning for gold, and Darwin grabbed a hammer instead, punching a hole through each tin with a single swing and a ten-penny nail. Then we hung them from a gnarly apple tree branch with different lengths of fifteen-pound monofilament: giant wind chimes that we took aim at and made dance and spin with at least a thousand high-pitched BB dings.

Their cabin was rustic, “weather distressed” as Mr. LaVann put it. Authentic. “It’s a look people pay for,” he said and shrugged, and I wondered if that held true for the slightly cockeyed windows and the skull plate and antlers anchored above the front door. There were exposed beams and a shallow-pitched corrugated metal roof that sounded, whenever it rained, like snare drums. “Vintage 1950s,” he said. “Someone’s change-jar, one-board-at-a-time dream getaway.” One that he’d picked up for a song, he said.

When I later mentioned this to my dad, like maybe we could swing it, too, our own vacation place, he just nodded, the canned laugh track from some TV sitcom filling up our living room, my mom silently clapping her hands. “Pandering shitcoms,” as my dad called them, came as close as my mom, withdrawn and prone to depression, was apt to get to making it through each day.

It can happen—it does happen—the doctors concurred, with a bad enough scare. That scare turned out to be having kids—having me.

She never offered advice one way or another on much of anything. Mostly she’d go silent and look away. It was my dad who ragged on me to canvas the neighborhood. “Go door to door,” he said, “and lock in a few contracts weeding and edging and mowing lawns. A paper route—it’s not too late. Hell’s bells, sell some damn crickets and night crawlers to the local bait shops if that’s what it takes. Anything to get you centered. To do right by what’s expected of you around here.”

I didn’t really know what that was. Better grades, a tidier bedroom. Community college looming somewhere in my future? Or possibly enlistment in the army, which would at least lock on to one thing we’d have in common. He’d spent two tours in Vietnam, just before the war ended.

“That’s the problem with your generation,” he said. “With all you kids. Everyone’s lost and mouthy and muddle-minded. Can’t think straight or tell fake from real, the goddamn Hope Diamond from a glass doorknob up the ass.”

He said something about pursuit—what he called “pressing ahead, no matter what”—as opposed to selfishness and extravagance and greed. Suckering up to the almighty dollar. This was epitomized, though he didn’t name names, by Mr. LaVann, his money clip, and his Oldsmobile ’88 convertible with a front seat so deep and soft it was more like driving a couch.

I’d never openly contradict anything my dad said. But sometimes, to secretly get back at him, I’d sit on our couch and imagine a steering wheel and a tinted windshield, and then fantasize about running the back roads after I got my driver’s license in another couple of years. Top down and the radio blasting and, hopefully by then, a girlfriend crowding right up tight to my shoulder and hip, throwing her arm around me.

By contrast my dad pointed out that he’d never in his entire life owned a new car, a fancy redesigned model straight off the showroom floor. He bought used and hadn’t missed a day of work in twenty years. “And why do you suppose we buy butter and cheese by the brick?” he’d ask. “Any idea, Wayne? Any clue whatsoever?”

He sold life insurance, his sales pitch being that if the dead could speak, who would they thank? “That is correct...yours truly,” he’d say. “All those grieving wives and daughters and sons of the deceased.”

Mr. LaVann, on the other hand, had made a killing manufacturing deep fryers, a business he’d started, and which now afforded him as much time off as he wanted—weeks and weeks. Like Darwin and me, he had the entire summer to just screw around and be a kid again. Raise some innocent hell, he said, that you could later translate into stories to joke and laugh about. He claimed Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King as clients, but I’d never once gotten any freebies when I’d bike over to either establishment and drop his name, as if I were his heir and only living son.

At his angriest, my dad actually had trembling hands when he talked to me, his face turning crimson, as if the very air I breathed was bankrupting our household.

“Okay?” he’d say, pointing close up as if he meant to poke my chest, and I’d nod and nod like, yes, I understand. “Do you?” he’d say, like deep down he knew that such a narrow, insistent certainty such as his could never dictate where I was headed in my life. I hated how every conversation took on the urgency of a hurricane or tornado drill, and all I really wanted was to get as far away from the dangers of that house as quickly as I could. So when the LaVanns invited me—their treat, they said—to spend an entire month with them, I jumped at the chance. Against all odds I appealed to my mom—who, for once, when the subject came up that night at dinner, turned to my dad and said, “Harold. It’s too late. I’ve already told him he can.”


The cabin had only two bedrooms, so I slept alone on a cot in the loft. Back then I was not a sound sleeper. Almost any noise and I’d be wide-awake, listening, as I was that night, already halfway through my stay, to those same low-grade whimpers and moans, which I anticipated but still hadn’t grown accustomed to.

Why I opened my eyes and stared out at the lake, its shimmery pewter-colored surface, I’m not sure. Maybe to concentrate my attention away from what was going on right below me. It never lasted very long, and afterward the cabin always quieted, and eventually I’d doze off. But when I heard footsteps, and then the screen door slowly opening and closing with a slight wheeze of the hinges, Mrs. LaVann appeared on the lawn: not ghostlike, exactly, though the moon was bright, and ground mist lifted and resettled in thin, vaporous clouds around her.

I had no trouble seeing that she was naked, and how she took hold of the hand pump’s heavy red arm. She lifted and depressed it three or four times until the water gurgled and then surged full force. On a rope around her neck hung a bar of soap that glistened white as snow and no doubt felt just as cold when she spread her legs and washed herself down there, and then rinsed off, which seemed, even for her, an odd and unusual way to shower, given that there was always plenty of hot water inside.

I wondered if she was okay. If maybe she was feverish or tipsy or possibly sleepwalking. She did not look up to where I was spying down on her, if that’s what it constituted, and by the time I got outside she’d already wrapped a towel around herself, and she didn’t appear all that startled or surprised to see me.

I pretended I hadn’t known that she was out there. I said, “Oh, sorry. I was just about to head out fishing,” which on a lot of nights would have been true. With one hand she held on to the spot where she’d tucked in the towel flap below her breastbone, and she smiled and—as if I’d asked—said, “I just needed a little fresh air is all.”

I nodded as though I understood, and she nodded, too, as if standing there together was the most ordinary occurrence in the world. A complete nonevent like almost everything else that summer, meaning that we could pretty much come and go as we pleased—me and Darwin, together or alone—and so I’d tiptoe out with my spinning rod and tackle box and row to the north end of the lake, into a certain cove of stumps and sunken deadfall where the fishing was always way better. Walleyes, mostly, which I’d catch with glow-in-the-dark split-tail jigs, and when I’d get back I’d tie the stringer to a dock cleat and wait until first light to gut and clean them. Usually everyone else slept in, and like magic there’d be a batch of fresh fillets in the refrigerator, the flesh as orange as spawning steelhead or salmon. Sometimes I’d leave a fish whole if it was big enough, head and all, and Mr. LaVann would stuff it with breadcrumbs, olive oil, and garlic, and then wrap it in tinfoil and grill it for dinner. And, as if it were part of a ritual, he’d salute me and wink.


One morning a week or so before the pump incident, Mrs. LaVann, always the earliest riser after me, pushed her chair back a little ways from the table and slung one long leg over the other when I entered the kitchen from outside. She was barefoot and wearing a sleeveless, loose-fitting cotton sundress, the neckline not so low, but plenty low enough. I’d recently undergone a growth spurt, and, at almost 5′ 8″, just looking down to meet her eyes made me nervous enough. “Are you having a decent time here, Wayne?” she said.

“Yes. Thank you. I like there not being any neighbors, and that this time we’re not just up for the weekend.” I said. “And I like hearing the loons, too,” and mentioned that even though my dad rarely took me, fishing was my number-one favorite thing to do.

“Come over here,” she said, and I did. “Now give me your hand.” And with her polished red thumbnail she carefully lifted maybe half a dozen scales from my palm that I had no idea were there.

I liked how that felt kind of tickly, and I said, “Yeah, I was out again last night.”

“Yes, I know. All by yourself on the water. I wonder, what would your parents say about that?”

“I’d never tell them, uh-uh. And Darwin, he’s sworn to secrecy. He’d never say otherwise, and in return I don’t bug him to go with me. He gets antsy if the action’s slow, and he hates changing baits. He says we ought to chum them with a few blasting caps. Every closed-mouthed lunker down there would turn belly-up, and all we’d need is a long-handled net to heft them into the boat.”

“He takes after his dad in a lot of ways,” she said. “He’ll do well in a man’s world.” She smiled at that, and when she let go of my hand I took a few tentative reverse steps and stopped.

“I’m always careful, Mrs. LaVann. And I’m a strong swimmer.” And then right out of nowhere, she said something about train miles. Like they were somehow calculated differently, and that there was a whole other universe out there, which she believed, over time, I’d see my share of. “I hope you do. It’s in you,” she said, and I thanked her for that, too.

That was as close as we’d come to a quiet, private conversation, prior to finding myself with her as she stood nude behind a quarter inch of towel. And her saying, “Maybe one of these times you’ll take me with you. I don’t fish, but I could swim close behind in your wake. I’d like that. Something to break the monotony. Something different to look forward to.”

I said, “Sure. If I see you out here,” and I imagined muscling the oars in a way I’d never done before, and how I’d help her into the boat if she got chilled or exhausted, or if she simply felt like shooting the breeze on a laid-back midnight boat ride.

It wasn’t a lake that accommodated pleasure crafts, pontoons, or ski boats. Or even those low-horsepower outboard putt-putts you sometimes saw on johnboats or on the flat backs of canoes on other lakes. As Mr. LaVann pointed out, there was not a single public launch site anywhere. And the cedar shoreline was so dense and tangled and spongy that if you somehow shimmied through and took half a dozen steps in any direction you might never, even with a compass, find your way back. Thousands and thousands of wilderness acres were forever decomposing along the water’s edge, so when the air got muggy some afternoons and lightning struck high up in the sky, a bitter taste of sulfur intensified tenfold on your tongue.

Darwin and I explored only as far as we could pole into the inlets and feeder creeks, which were crystal clear and shallow, and where one time we found the bone-white spine and ribcage of what had to be a black bear.

“Or some fucking Sasquatch,” Darwin said, and we reversed as fast as we could to get out of there and back into the lake. “Come on, let’s just haul ass out of here,” he said, but I was sweaty and hot and mosquito bitten, and so I stripped to my Jockeys. And when I dove in I stroked hard for the silty bottom, where there were water pockets so frigid you could feel, in a matter of seconds, your lips turning purple and your nuts contracting to the size of twin pearls.

I stayed under for as long as I could, close to a full minute and a half, and when I surfaced Darwin was just sitting there motionless and smoking a cigarette. Each day he’d pilfer a few from his mom as she floated on her back out front of the cabin. I wasn’t sure if Mr. LaVann even owned a swimsuit, and ankle-deep was as far into the lake as I’d seen him wade—his pants rolled up, his shin bones pale and hairless—to yell to his wife that he was headed into town. That he had a shopping list, and errands to run, and was there anything else that she needed? “Hey, do you hear me? I’m talking to you.”

One time he actually broke open a roll of quarters and skimmed maybe two or three bucks’ worth, one after the other, across the calm, flat surface right at her before he turned and walked away. I imagined her wincing, as I’d seen her do on occasion when she heard him pull off the two-track and into their driveway. She didn’t quilt, or play solitaire, or read paperback novels, and so I figured maybe this was her hobby: drowning out her husband’s voice, her head tilted back and her ears submerged. But maybe whatever understanding they’d reached as a couple might be solid enough to survive these momentary standoffs.

“How does she stay in so long?” I once asked Darwin. She was way thin, her one-piece tight and shiny black like sealskin, and he said, straight-faced and matter-of-factly, “She’s part reptile.”

“Right,” I said. “And the sun’s her heat lamp.” He just stared at me like, Wait long enough and you’ll find out.

And that’s exactly what I did, with only one week left before I’d have to go back home, and two weeks before I’d have to go back to school and Ms. Cosgrove’s English class. She was one of those teachers who believed that not only would we smarten up by incorporating into our limited vocabularies the Word of the Day, but that we’d become more worldly for it. I’d managed just fine thus far, without any heavy-duty studying, to maintain a straight B average. I hated school, so above all else I did not want the summer to end. I even considered, as a protest, sneaking into the classroom early on the very first day and erasing whatever exotic, impossible-to-remember word she’d written on the blackboard and substituting DAREDEVIL, or JITTERBUG, or HULA POPPER.

I’d been thinking a lot about Mrs. LaVann, how she’d do this lotus thing out on the far end of the dock. Just hunker motionless out there for an hour or more, nothing moving, her arms held out like she might rise and silently fly away without ever once looking back.

It was strange sometimes to think of her as Darwin’s mom. Or anyone’s mom. As foolish and misguided as I might have been, I’d wait for her outside in the boat for up to half an hour before I’d give up and push off on my own. Not to fish, which in itself should have been a sign, but rather to lie back on those two life preservers that neither Darwin nor I ever wore. Not even that time an early evening thunderstorm blew up out of nowhere, and he, on his knees, grabbed hold of the gunnels while I navigated the wind-driven swells until we beached just a few feet from where his mom was standing, soaked to the bone and sipping a glass of wine, her sunglasses pushed back on her head.

“Good thing your father wasn’t here to witness that,” she said, and I noticed the corked bottle in the sand by her feet. She always drank more in her husband’s absence, and he’d been away this time for three straight days and nights. I wondered if Darwin had ever asked to go home with him, if I’d be given the choice to stay, which is what I would have done. Then maybe I’d lie to Mrs. LaVann about how, for special occasions, like Thanksgiving or Christmas at our house, I’d get to sip some wine, though in truth I’d yet to experience the effects of even a single drop. And, until that summer at the lake, the urge hadn’t culminated in anything more than an invitation from Joanna Pliss, a girl I liked okay, to someday steal a couple of my dad’s Miller Lites, and then together we’d figure out the right time and place—which we never did.

It wasn’t until the night before we were supposed to leave that Mrs. LaVann materialized out of nowhere. I don’t think I ever really believed—just hoped—she would show up to swim behind me, but when I bent to untie the bowline and stood back up, I found her there. The water was warmer than the air, but still I’d put on a sweatshirt and long pants and a Tigers baseball cap. But there she was wearing a bikini, one I hadn’t seen before. My eyes had already adjusted to the dark, but the bright yellow iridescence half-blinded me like a flashbulb.

She leaned toward me and whispered, “All set?” and before I could even answer she stepped to the edge of the dock and shallow-dove, and when she surfaced she was already stroking toward the middle of the lake.

Have I mentioned the lake’s name? It’s Half Moon. Or that my mom is 5′ 2″ and overweight and afraid most days to leave the house? That my dad is my dad, but everything in this life is conditional, like it or not? He wouldn’t have liked me standing upright late at night in a tippy fourteen-foot aluminum rowboat so I could keep a watch on my best friend’s mom. I fastened on her and did not for one second look away. Not up or sideways, and especially not back toward the cabin where a light, at any moment, might come on.

For a few seconds I would lose her, but each time she’d reappear when the clouds separated and those star clusters cast just enough illumination for me to spot her yellow backside, like a trapline buoy being towed by some monster pike or muskie.

I’d taken one oar out of its lock to use like a paddle, wishing that Mr. LaVann had equipped the boat with one of those high-intensity sealed-beam searchlights powerful enough to cut through mist or fog, reaching out a hundred feet or more.

“Slow down,” I wanted to call out, but even soft talking carried across the water, and the last thing I needed was for Darwin or his dad to hear me and discover the two of us missing. The plan, or so I thought, was for Mrs. LaVann to breaststroke directly behind the boat as I rowed. A slow, relaxed pace. I wondered if she had any idea where she was, or where she was headed, like possibly to some sunken island I hadn’t discovered, where suddenly, from out of the deep heart of the lake, there she’d be, standing up to her knees and waving me in, the other hand planted on her hip.

That, however, did not, and still doesn’t, approximate what transpired. Had things gone differently, gone badly, and had I been called to testify, I would have sworn to nothing more than a summer about to end, a final boat ride, and a woman I suspected had already entered the final days of her marriage and who, for some reason, wanted me to know that.

But no one would ever ask. No one would be up waiting for us, to hear how my chest had tightened and how, fearing the worst and having lapsed into panic, I’d cupped my hands around my mouth as I’d quietly called her name. I don’t remember how many times. Over and over, and in every possible direction. “Answer me, please. Answer me wherever you are.”

When finally she did, she said, “Wayne, I’m right here.” Exactly where she was supposed to be, just a few feet behind the boat, which sat in a still drift while she treaded water right there below me.

I said, “Jesus, Mrs. LaVann,” though I was hyperventilating so badly I almost couldn’t get the words out, and my teeth were chattering. “I thought you’d drowned.”

“No, no,” she said. “I’m sorry. I was on my back, just thinking about things. You’ve seen me do that every day. And how distant and muted the world becomes underwater. And besides, I’m a floater. I couldn’t sink if I wanted to. I’d have to jump overboard hugging an anchor.”

“I couldn’t see you anywhere,” I said. “And nothing else mattered. It didn’t make sense something so awful could happen.”

“Here, help me,” she said, and I reached over and held both her hands, and she all but walked out of the lake and into the boat.

She said, “Look at you. You’re shaking. I’ve frightened you something terrible.” And the next thing I knew we were sitting side by side on the center seat, as if rowing together we could make better time getting back, and maybe build a fire in the fireplace and sip some wine or, even better, some brandy, a blanket draped across my shoulders and back.

And the truth is that I have, in fact, done exactly that, though certainly not in the LaVanns’ cabin, but rather in my own, on another lake in another state, and with a woman my age who became my wife for a time. A good twenty years after Mrs. LaVann said, “Shall we stay then for a few more minutes while you calm down?”

I had no idea how late it was, or how long it would be before we’d be packing the car to head home, me and Darwin in the back seat, the two of us silent and staring out at whatever zoomed by on opposite sides of the road, while Mr. LaVann glanced back at me in the rearview.

“Look, Wayne,” Mrs. LaVann said. “There’s the Goat Fish.” And then she pointed above the lake’s south end and said, “And there’s the Double Ship,” as if the sky were a sea, and we were mariners charting a course to who knows where. “There—the Wreath of Flowers,” she said. “The Lover’s Knot...the Dragon’s Tail.”

Our heads were touching, and her wet hair stuck to my right cheek. The sky was clear. Back then I couldn’t differentiate one star from another, though I understood them to be millions and millions of light-years away.


I saw Darwin just one time after he and his dad moved downstate. As I did, too. First for college, where I earned a degree in fisheries from the University of Michigan, and then to work for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, where I am still employed. I’m single again and have two children, a daughter and a son. They’re nine and eleven. We—my ex and I—share joint custody, and most weekends during July and late into August they spend time with me at the cottage I bought a few years back. It’s a fairly short drive from where they live with their mother, with whom I’m cordial. For a while we even considered getting back together, a second go-around, but the outcome seemed so clearly forgone—and no one, especially the children, needed to go through that again. We care for and trust each other, and that’s another kind of love.

If anything, she believes me to be overly protective. Our kids, Delaney and Gregory, are not named after my parents, who against the odds are still together. My mom is still wrestling with her demons, and my dad has finally grown tired of railing against the world’s inability to measure up.


Again this year, before I drained the pipes and closed up the cottage for winter, the kids and I rowed out, as we always do, to a spot we know, and I slowly let down the anchor. The kids, wearing wet-suit vests and snorkel masks, slid quietly, one after the other, into the lake to float motionless above a massive trunk, its branches alive with snagged plugs and lures, a few of them mine. The tackle tree is what we call it, and the water there is ten or twelve feet deep and clear as a well. I made a show of drawing into my lungs all the air they can hold. “I’ll be right back,” I said. “Don’t you guys go anywhere.” And they both smiled and nodded.

When finally I kicked my fins and dove, baitfish flashed and scattered everywhere around me, as though we were on a reef, the hovering sun weightless on my children’s backs. Instead of a knife strapped to my leg, I carried a pair of miniature sewing scissors to snip the tangled leaders at the swivels and collected what I could: a Johnson Silver Minnow, a Rooster Tail, a shiny chartreuse Krocodile. A Berkley Power Worm that twisted and wiggled as if it was alive.

Then came my favorite part of all: looking up and watching the slow-motion rise of my air bubbles toward those two sets of wide-open eyes, magnified behind their masks. They’ve got their mother’s eyes—bright blue—and my dark hair, and the way they breathed so easily through their snorkels made them sound as if they were dreaming, arms outflung in free fall.


After they’re in bed and asleep I’ll sometimes turn off all the lights and stand just outside the front door to stare across to the far end of the lake. Maybe sip a cold beer and be alert for shooting stars, feeding fish, voices that just might trail back on a certain current or breeze. Women and boys and time gone missing, gone elsewhere, gone lost.

And this: I have listened to migrating snow geese fly toward a moon as thin and silver as a hook. I’m forty-two. I band blackbirds whose molten gold irises glow with the fury of fanned embers, and I get paid to stay watchful and record how many return. The miles and the months, and whatever that passage might tell us.


—Title story from Driscoll’s eleventh book, The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot (Wayne State University Press, 2017); appears here with his permission

SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Jack Driscoll

has received two NEA Creative Writing Fellowships, and is the author of four books of poems, four novels, and three short story collections. His novel How Like an Angel (University of Michigan Press, 2005) was a Michigan Notable Book in 2006. His collection The World of a Few Minutes Ago (Wayne State University Press, 2012) won the Society of Midland Writers Award, and his collection Wanting Only to be Heard (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992) won the AWP Short Fiction Award. He has also received The Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, Best American Short Story citations, and seven Pen Syndicated Project Short Fiction Awards. Driscoll teaches in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program in Oregon.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury