Sophie McGannert hustled over to the boathouse to get the rental going and left Lyndis Foyervogel and Llew McGannert, her stepsister and half brother in town from Topeka, at the edge of Stow Lake ogling the grebes. This jaunt to Golden Gate Park was an idea hatched by Sophie, the idea of a native San Franciscan at a loss for how to entertain two bored and boring Internet-addicted Midwestern kids she barely knew—and about whom it was assumed she cared—while her father and his current wife (two years Sophie’s junior at 34) did some “shopping.” Once a year, the Topeka McGannerts swooped down on Dad’s boyhood turf, and this time they’d nested, ostentatiously, in a suite at the Fairmont Hotel.
Soph marched up to the snackbar window and took out her wallet. “One rowboat, please,” she said to the cashier.
The young man looked up from his book of manga comics, his bleached bangs doing a carwash number on the bridge of his nose. “Hot dog?”
“No, thanks,” said Soph. “Still burping up a burger.”
“Life jackets?” Soph glanced back at Llew and Lyndis, 8 and 15, in their bulky white “Fisherman’s Wharf, USA” sweatshirts (embarrassing!), the two of them surveying the man-made lake, peering with marked disgust into water the color and consistency of artichoke aspic. Llew was leaning too far forward over the concrete rim; Lyndis was doing nothing to curb him, and Soph (after lunch just now with the parents, Llew being so cloyingly good, so hideously polite to the waiter) could well imagine why. She turned back to the cashier, shooed at a pigeon loitering by the napkins (the pigeon didn’t move), and asked, “How deep’s the lake?”
“‘Bout four and a half feet.”
“Forget the life jackets.”
“Your life,” said the cashier, and rang up the boat. Soph had never been to Stow Lake as an adult, though she’d been brought here as a child; today was the first time she’d had to fork over out of her own pocket. Maybe if she’d been a boob-jobbed real-estate vixen like her dad’s current wife instead of a stringy-haired, rosacea-plagued, spinsterish scribbler of blurbs for supermarket circulars, the cashier would have pressed harder for the lifejackets. And once Soph saw the patched and battered tub to which they’d been assigned (the good ship Beagle, as indicated on the prow), the idea of lifejackets didn’t seem so preposterous.
Llew, a splinter on springs, hopped in first and took the oars.
Soph motioned the boy onto the opposite bench. “I rented, I row,” she said, gruff but teasing, inviting a half-brotherly tussle.
Llew, the Perfect Little Gentleman, smugly switched benches. The boy was heir to the McGannert hooded brow and simian upper lip (to which Soph so viscerally objected in her own appearance), but his cowlicked fly-away hair echoed the current wife’s mane—minus the lacquered ratting.
Lyndis, her looks doing little to redeem her poodle perm or the tiny silver hoop through her left eyebrow, set a tentative sneaker down in the boat and straddled the widening strip of water, her every step and counter-step causing the Beagle to metronome. Llew eyed her efforts angelically and offered zero help. Soph could just picture the scene at home with the shiny new kid, product of the shiny new union, outshining the product of the old. Stepsistering up in exasperation, she reached out and buttressed Lyndis as the girl coaxed her other foot on board and squeezed in next to Llew on the bench. Hunkering there against the July chill in their matching white sweatshirts, they looked like two eggs.
Soph climbed in and perched by the oarlocks and felt, in her black pullover, like the rotten egg of the brood. Eleven months ago, she’d had a lump the size of a hummingbird egg cut from her left breast; as neither parent had inquired after her health or welfare in years, she’d kept mum about the lump. To her young siblings, she said, “Shall we?”
They blinked at her.
Doing her best not to gag on the lake’s stench of rancid chlorophyll, Soph shoved off with the oars and got rowing, awkward at first as if flexing untried wings. It was weird facing backwards, weird for the other novices as well, judging from the many good-humored collisions and entanglements all around. Even though Soph was soon plowing along capably enough, threading through bridges and straits, she couldn’t stop craning around to see where the hell they were going.
Just as they rounded the rocky wooded slopes of Strawberry Hill, a coasting seagull squawked down at them and crapped right into the water; to Soph, even that—about birds—was captivating now. Last month, on a lark, she’d signed herself and her mother up at Fort Mason for a non-credit course in ornithological illustration. Two weeks into it, Soph had birds on the brain even though the class had drawn nothing so far but feathers: semiplumes and filoplumes, retrices and remiges, coverts (minor and major) and fluffy natal down.
Mr. Ròmolo, the instructor, prowled the classroom critiquing sketches and spouting words like “brevirostrate” and “nidifuguous.” This past week, he’d waxed eloquent on the Masked Booby, a seabird notorious for its “asynchronous” egg-laying and for its “preferential investment” in its older/larger chick over its younger/smaller chick, specifically, for standing by as the former gave the latter a deadly boot out of the nest. Yes, such an arrangement allowed the parents to focus their care and resources on the chick more likely to thrive and reproduce, and yes, such an arrangement provided, in that second chick, a backup, a Plan B, an insurance policy should the first chick be a dud, but Soph’s mother didn’t appreciate having her evening spoiled by such dire information so glibly dispensed, and after class she’d told Mr. Ròmolo so—to which Mr. Ròmolo, with a smirk, had replied, “Strike a nerve?” In future, Soph expected she’d be doing her ornithological illustrating alone.
A breeze kicked up on the lake, and Soph was grateful for this kiss of cool on the lather she’d rowed herself into. Dreading tomorrow’s sore muscles, she un-cricked her neck and turned around to face the two ova, Llew getting quacked at by a flotilla of ducklings he was trying to splash, Lyndis staring fatalistically into space. Earlier today, when Soph had met the family at the hotel, they’d been squabbling about where to go for lunch. Soph had always preened herself on shunning the local tourist traps, but Lyndis wanted Chinese food in Chinatown, and Llew wanted Bastille Burger on Pier 39—and crowed when granted his wish. And so, surrounded by plaster stones and electric sconces, to the amplified warble of Edith Piaf ne-regretting-rien, Soph had unfurled the cartoonish menu and skimmed past the “Guillotine Gusher” and the “Dungeon Double Decker” and the “Oubliette ‘Croak’-Monsieur” and resigned herself to ordering and pecking at the least gallows-humored burger available: the “Liberté, Égalité, Steak Haché,” a Jamaican-jerk portobello something-something-cheese-du-jour (Velveeta) on a sourdough baguette.
Still. Burping. It up.
“You know,” said Soph the galley slave, doing the conversational heavy lifting, “twenty-plus years ago when I was a kid, our dad brought me here for a boat ride.” And he’d taken that fatherly moment to clue her in on the divorce.
Not a peep from L. & L.
Soph cranked harder at the oars, her palms chafing against the wood, and pondered how L. & L. might handle the news should her dad and their mom announce a split. Not so tough, maybe, for Lyndis, who had her own shit-disturbing “real dad” back in Topeka; but Llew, like Soph, would get the full-blooded wallop. Young Soph had gone to live with her mother in an apartment on Haight at Fillmore. She lived there with Mom still.
Panting from her exertions, Soph glanced behind her and saw sunlight slicing through the trees and striking the lake, chiseling an absinthe-green chasm in the water. She rowed through it, angling the boat toward a canopy of branches, and lifted the oars for a rest; the Beagle drifted on momentum and nosed up against a semi-submerged log. Soph blotted her brow on her cuff. “So,” she said to her boatmates, “enjoying Stow Lake?”
“I wanted to go to Alcatraz,” chirped Llew with a prissy waggle of his head.
Lyndis seemed hypnotized by a large stiff gray-speckled feather floating by, a feather Soph could identify, thanks to Mr. Ròmolo, as a flight feather or “remex”—an “oarsman” feather from the Latin remus for “oar”—one of the primary remiges designed to get the bird aloft. Soph was on the verge of sharing this information with her stepsister (or of telling her half brother he could buy his own damn ticket to Alcatraz), when Llew sat up and pointed at a squirrel skittering overhead.
“Look!” he said, scaring the rodent into higher branches as an acorn hit the water. Llew flopped onto his belly and teetertottered over the side of the boat, his face inches from the algae soup, and stretched his arm toward the bobbing acorn.
Lyndis grabbed his belt. “Sit up, stupid.”
“Let go!” said Llew, flailing.
Soph got to her feet in the pitching vessel and helped Lyndis haul the boy back in. Once Lyndis was resettled on the passenger bench next to a pouting Llew, Soph eased back onto her own seat and clamped her blistered palms around the oars, pushed off from the log, and rowed gingerly out from under the branches. And she’d rented this boat for an hour? A swan glided by, razzing her with a honk.
Soph tried a new tactic. “Lyndis, just now you were so helpful and responsible... ,” she started, and Lyndis met her gaze, the girl’s eyes a blue almost too bright and clear, the pupils too black, and Soph continued, “would you like a turn at the oars?”
Lyndis rose immediately and balanced, arms out, with the poise of a seasoned tightrope walker. Startled, Soph rose, too, and steadied herself in the rocking craft. She and Lyndis were just tango-ing cautiously around each other when Llew darted up and pushed Lyndis, who crashed into Soph and dropped to her knees in the bottom of the boat as Soph thunked back down at the oars. Lyndis shot Llew a venomous glance and hefted herself back onto the bench beside him. The instant her rump touched down, Llew shoved her—hard—and Lyndis shoved him right back. Over he went topsy-turvy with a splash.
Sophie had always considered that she herself, as a girl of twelve late that Sunday afternoon in a boat alone with her dad on Stow Lake, had taken the news of the divorce quite well, really, only clamming up for the rest of the ride, her heart in a tailspin, and bolting from Dad once they’d docked, and barreling down the hill to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which she’d followed through the trees and hedges for what seemed hours in the deepening dusk to the park’s oceanside end at the dilapidated Murphy Windmill. A roost of ravens cawed down at her from the ledge under the mill’s cap, its copper pate soaring six stories high above the trees in the sea-salted air. Decades ago, for public safety, the cap had been stripped of its rotting spars, which lay heaped off to the side like pterodactyl wings moldering into the earth, their latticework barely distinguishable under layers of moss and feathers and cobwebs and vines.
To Soph at the time, bundled up warm in her goose-down jacket, the sheltered door set deep in the mill’s concrete base had seemed as good a place as any (more peaceful than home) to spend the night. No one came looking for her—or no one found her—but oh the flapping and clucking and fuss when she’d shown up the next morning at school.
The parents still broke up.
Now, all these years later, Soph had read in the newspaper that the centenarian Murphy, on whose water-pumping brawn Golden Gate Park had sprung forth greenly out of miles of barren dunes, was slated for restoration. Nature had wanted the Murphy back, and a stalwart band of citizens had flocked to the rescue and told Nature no. It was the civilized thing to do.
Llew’s splash fell back with a splash of its own and smoothed out green, no bubbles from below. Sophie sat strangely paralyzed, but Lyndis had already peeled down to her tank top; before Soph could stop her or do the job herself, the girl slid handily over the side of the boat and went under, Stow Lake lapping over her poodle curls with a speckled green churn of muck and ooze and sediment that, right then, made Soph swear off pesto for life.
She dropped her face into her smarting palms and tried to channel her thoughts toward what on earth to say to her dad and the current wife upon delivering their slimed and sopping progeny back to the Fairmont Hotel. The boat rolled, and Soph looked up from her hands and saw a bedraggled Lyndis heave a soggy Llew out of the water. Soph caught the boy’s armpits and lugged him sputtering into the Beagle as cheers went up all around from boaters and joggers and dog-walkers and vagrants alike. Lyndis hooked an arm and a leg over the side and nimbly hoisted herself in, a landlubber no longer (if, thought Soph with narrowed eyes, she’d ever been one).
Llew, his sweatshirt soaked green, was bawling. Lyndis grabbed her own sweatshirt—still dry, still white—and looked tempted to wrap the boy up in it, but then quite sensibly pulled the shirt on over her own head. Soph latched onto the oars and started rowing, rowing faster, rowing as if she could row away from her fractious cargo. In no time, they reached the boathouse and disembarked; the cashier took one look at them and issued a refund.
On the hike downhill to the parking lot, Llew kept clutching at Soph’s arm. “She pushed me! She pushed me!” he said. “She’s always like that. You have to tell Dad!”
Soph glanced at Lyndis, who was looking from Soph to Llew and back, a challenge in her blue eyes—the challenge of the older chick—and Soph, an older chick herself, had no quarrel with the deal. She shook the boy off. “I know what I saw.”
Llew stumbled along, shivering. “But she did it on purpose!”
Soph tossed Lyndis a wink and let their blood brother in on a little revolutionary, evolutionary secret. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Jeannie Galeazzi’s work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in thirty publications including Fence, The Literary Review, Permafrost, Southern Humanities Review, The Portland Review, and Main Street Rag, and is forthcoming in The Distillery, Amarillo Bay, RiverSedge, Feathertale Review (Canada), and dotlit (Australia).
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