by DS Levy
She walks down the two-track through jack pine and birch, past the yellow rental house at the edge of the road, up the hill and around a bend beyond the ratty cottages handed down through generations. Finally, she arrives at the marina with its gas pump, rickety wooden slips, and a flat-roofed restaurant whose clapboard is painted conch-shell blue, the new owners going for a Key West vibe. The place serves authentic Cajun food, a rare find for northern Michigan.
On warm days, patrons sit outside on a patio built over the choppy lake, waves splashing underfoot beneath slatted two-by-fours. From a tiny overhead speaker, Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” is barely audible.
Today, it’s raining. Inside, crowded.
Olga, the blonde, blue-eyed Russian who manages, is affable. Slender, with firm, perky breasts, she reminds Adele of a professional tennis player who once dominated the women’s circuit and for whom Adele often cheered.
The smiling waiters and waitresses arrived that spring with thick Slavic accents and a handful of English words crammed into their jeans pockets. Olga keeps a severe eye on them, reprimands when necessary.
In the kitchen, Jamarco, the head cook, and his brother, Simeon, sweat over the long, blistering grill. In October, when the restaurant closes for the season, the brothers will go back to Jamaica, some cash jangling in their pockets.
Adele Evans hangs out at the bar, drinking rosé. Always two glasses. That day she decides to treat herself to a glass of absinthe.
The old-fashioned glass fountain trickles water through a sugar cube. She hunches over the polished mahogany bar watching creamy ringlets fan out from the center of the lemony-green drink. The green tint comes from chlorophyll in the wormwood, anise, and fennel--elixir herbs mixed into a romantic brew.
When the cube dissolves, she hefts the glass to her lips. “To Köllwitz,” she whispers, her idol.
Back at the cabin, a monochromatic waits for her like a lover. On her palette, one color, many values. Skin texture so vivid it appears real, a two-dimensional lover. The last “late-style” of an old woman-artist. Well, it must come to that, she thinks, sipping. At least she’s had some styles. Lovers, she’s not had, and has almost forgotten what it’s like to lie with someone, pressing warm flesh to her own.
Benjamin Stoddard sits at the far end of the bar nursing a Corona with a wedge of lime. He comes here every day. Everyone pats him on the back. Olga always squints her twinkling blues, says with a faint accent, “Today, on the house.” But he doesn’t go out the door without paying, knows you can’t run a business on kindness.
He owns several acres of lakefront property, also the woodlands on the other side of the road. Used to own this place. Called it Stoddard’s back then. Years ago he tried handing it down to his sons, but they weren’t interested. They moved their families downstate, away from lake life. Now they prefer sugar sands and turquoise oceans--Florida, Cozumel, Aruba, the Bahamas--their blood too thin for hardy northern Michigan winters.
He’s staring at the molding above the window, leaning his bald head back, almost falling off his barstool. He was always going to fix that damn molding someday. The new owners did a decent job renovating, but they too somehow missed it. He takes a swig of beer, looks around.
For a Tuesday night, not a bad crowd.
Olga met Jason online--but not like that. Not a “Russian bride.” They’re not married, though Jason says he’s not getting any younger and wouldn’t mind settling down. Though when he says it like that, Olga thinks maybe he would mind. English, like Russian, is slippery. So many nuances. She speaks well enough to get along, but doesn’t understand the language’s finer twists and turns.
Like those expert runs at Crystal Mountain. Standing at the top, she’s never sure she wants to push off, follow him down. He’s a good skier, knows how to traverse the slope. She’s watched him from behind, seen the way he lets go, trusts the skis and poles to get him to the bottom all in one piece. But is that what she wants? Is he what she wants?
Jason has a nice ass, which even ski pants can’t hide. Between the covers, she tells him so, and then laughs, and he laughs--it seems all they ever do is laugh. They live upstairs, the scent of today’s, yesterday’s and tomorrow’s grease oozing up through the vents, the lake lapping against the boats down below. Is this what she wants?
In the restaurant, she sees the girls checking him out. They whisper and giggle. She doesn’t have to overhear to know what they’re saying. When they bring their orders to the kitchen, she corrects them in Russian so the patrons won’t know what she’s saying. The other day she made Ludmila cry.
“Jamarco put the jerk back in the chicken.” That’s what Jason says.
Jason hired Jamarco sight unseen. Jamarco is wary of his boss but doesn’t worry because Jason seldom wanders into the restaurant. Jason’s off “doing business,” although what that business is no one seems to know. Jamarco thinks, drugs.
Olga--she’s the one he has to look out for. Sometimes she can be a bitch, but at least she’s nice to look at while she’s chewing him out. Anyway, she let him bring his younger brother over to help in the kitchen. But what kind of help is that? Simeon will surely get himself killed from drugs or chasing after these tiny Matryoshkas with their tight-tight-tightass knockoff jeans.
Simeon’s got eyes, sometimes hands, all over the littlest one, Natalia. They go out behind the wooden fence, next to the waste bins, and smoke those black Russian cigarettes. He hears them laughing through the high screen window over his grill. Dead flies line the ledge. Every day, he counts another, thinks, Simeon.
Laying raw strips of tilapia on the hot glistening grill, he chants to himself, “Jamarco put the jerk back in more than just chicken,” and clucks his tongue.
Adele swirls the licorice-flavored drink in her mouth, telling herself it’s not that potent. Ah, but she knows it is. Of course, not as strong as in the days when Hemingway sipped it in some shadowy Parisian café. But definitely stronger than wine. In her mind’s eye she envisions her canvas, the naked shape forming there.
At the other end of the bar, Ben Stoddard stands up, scans the crowd. Probably sees them as dollar signs, Adele thinks, which is unkind of her, but so what? On the way out his old veiny hand brushes against Olga’s shoulder. Olga turns, hugs him cozily. Well, Adele’s heard the rumors.
From the kitchen she hears their voices, patois thick as some of her oils. A happy sound, yet she knows better. The other night she saw Simeon and the girl, Natalia, down by the boat launch, cuddling in one of the dry-dock boats, their voices thin and whispery. It was dark, the stars faint pinpricks overhead, the moon bloated. They hadn’t seen her out on her walk, and she hadn’t seen them at first, her mind still back there in the cabin, seeing the colors taking shape on her canvas. Hazel, sorrel, chestnut, umber, coffee, buff--hues she’d once used only to paint her beloved trees. Tall, soft-skinned beeches with smooth, sleek bark. Limbs reaching to the heavens. She imagined being down there by the lake, in the arms of a lover, waves lapping against the shore.
Later tonight, after work, he’ll come creeping up the backside of the dune with its clandestine covering of jack pine and birch, staying off the road, going unseen. Already she sees him, her young model; his dark ebony eyes, his slippery, smooth fingertips.
DS Levy's work has been published in Little Fiction (nominated for Pushcart), the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, South Dakota Review, Brevity, The Pinch, and others. Their collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press.