Drinking in the Loons by Stephen MacKinnon

Stephen MacKinnon's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Armageddon’s Buffet, Conte, Fugue, Ontario Review, Plum Biscuit, Rosebud, The Southeast Review, The Talking River Review, and Whistling Shade. He has received award recognition from Carve Magazine, Rosebud, The Southeast Review, and Ontario Review. He is at work on a novel titled Mercy’s Wake.

Notable Story - Million Writers Award


My wife Helene says she now has a lover who makes her purr like a kitten.

“Why don’t you have the decency to just leave me?” she says during our drive. “Why do you insist on sticking around?”

I comment on the budding trees. In a few minutes all will be forgotten. She’ll start waxing poetic about the loons again, but more and more I get the feeling that half, at least half, of what she says comes straight from the heart. The brain, I recently learned, contains one hundred billion nerve cells, just as many neurons; and a hundred trillion connection points. Hers are not all dead. I’ve asked her neurologist to explain how human memory actually works, but so far he has not given me a clear answer. What I’ve been told is that even people in Helene’s condition are capable of saying exactly what is on their mind.

I’ve tried to make her happier. We go for a drive every Sunday, usually by the ocean in Gloucester or Rockport or anywhere popular with birds, and we often just sit enjoying the vast scents and colors nature has to offer. But despite my effort, she never misses an opportunity—say, when a beautiful flower garden or an ocean-front home with white spires comes into view—to tell me I could have done better, that she could have done better.

One summer day twenty years ago we were driving to my parents’ place in Webster, Massachusetts to introduce them to our young daughter, Isabelle, who is now in college. That day we’d barely turned onto the highway when Helen told me again what to say to my parents: we want to buy the lake house. My father had been talking about selling it for years.

“I heard you the first time,” I said.

“There’s no need to be snippy, Adam. I just want to make sure we’re both on the same page. Adam?”

“We are,” I said.

When we pulled into the driveway my father made us back out onto the dirt road; my tire was pinching the air hose to his pneumatic nail gun. Helene went inside the house to see my mother. I stayed outside with Isabelle. I walked around admiring the new cedar shingles he had nailed on the house. I wondered if he and my mother had changed their minds, and whether they planned to spend their retirement living there year-round. People were doing that—putting in insulation, furnaces, and thermal-paned windows. For many years the house was not much different than it had been when it served as an ice house during my forebears’ semi-successful foray into the ice harvesting business more than a hundred and fifty years before. His hands were sticky with caulk and tar, but he wouldn’t have shaken my hand anyway, and I didn’t have any intention of shaking his. I made myself busy checking out his progress, commenting on how neat and clean the new shingles looked and smelled. The house, with its sturdy, locally milled exposed beams, stood to acquire a welcoming glow, what with Helene’s plans for re-decorating. The bow window afforded a million-dollar panoramic view of the lake, which has an Indian name that translates into “you fish on your side, I’ll fish on mine, nobody fishes in the middle,” which pretty much describes the situation now with Helene and me—two people joined by the big divide.

That particular day, my father had finished most of the final row of shingles a little before dinner. I remember watching as he trimmed the final shingle with a block plane to make sure it fit right. Isabelle was rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, wanting to be put down, but there were nails everywhere so I just kept her in my arms. “You’re getting somewhere, Dad,” I said.

“I guess,” he said with a characteristic grunt. I remember his blue eyes dulled into the crow’s feet that anchored his ruddy face. He grunted again.

I’m still learning about how memories work—the difference between true memories, which are like facts, and recollections. Most of us embellish our memories, making them stronger and more vivid than the actual experience. I try to avoid doing that because it’s just a guide for sadness. The leader of the spouse support group where Helen lives, a retired minister with a smooth face and annoyingly quick smile, says this is actually counter-productive. He says, “Adam, you can control thoughts to some extent, but not feelings. Memories, forget it, they’re with you for life. Let them come.” I can just imagine the frown he’d muster up if he were to see the “analysis paralysis” I am putting myself through this afternoon. But he also says that thoughts are sometimes just that: thoughts. I can’t imagine anyone ever having benefited from his counsel. I am having more than mere thoughts; an endless movie has overtaken my mind.

That day of the visit to my parents, my father told me the property taxes had just gone up. It was a perfect opening for making my wife’s and my interest known, but to avoid a scene, to avoid baring my wants and needs, I simply asked him what he was going to do.

“Burn it. Collect the insurance money. Head to Florida.”


“Shit, yeah.” He tilted his head to the side. He sneered and let out a low little laugh. “Funny, Adam, fifteen years you don’t talk to me, suddenly it’s old home week. I’m burning it and nobody’s going to be able to tell.” I could hear Helen inside telling my mother to put some fresh chive into the potato salad. Knowing dinner was coming helped me relax. My father said, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

“What am I thinking?”

“‘Who fixes up a house then burns it to the ground?’ That’s what. Well, a little electrical short around some kerosene soaked attic insulation - poof; nobody’ll know the difference.”

I don’t remember what we talked about for the next ten minutes. I watched him work. Eventually, my mother said “Supper!” out the window and Helen appeared at the picnic table with a plate of cold chicken and steaming corn on the cob. She set it down on the table next to the rest of the food and a G clef-shaped pine napkin holder I’d made in seventh grade. She gazed out over the lake, a late-day glassy green, staring at the congregating loons. I remember quite clearly the way the piney wind whipped the beautiful blood hair she had then. I remember the way the wind shift caused the loons to spin around and re-synchronize their food search, which seemed to be a teaching experience for the baby loons judging from the way the mother loon kept nudging the young ones.

“Look at that, Isabelle,” my wife said, “Look at those smart birds. I could just drink that in all day.”

. . .

Now as I drive Helen back to Shady Oaks, the nursing home where she lives, we pass a flock of pigeons. “Aren’t they lovely, those loons,” she says.

“Yes, honey, they are,” I say.

 “They are loons, right?”

“Sure, can’t you hear them?” I say.

“I don’t know. They seem awfully quiet.”

“They’re just resting,” I say.

“Maybe, but—”

On the approach of the stone-pillared entrance, she pushes her feet hard against the floor, something called preemptive anxiety, memory at work, which her doctor said is often seen in torture victims—a cruel yearning for what life used to be like before trauma. Her doctor says it’s mostly subconscious, and essentially painless, but he also says the quicker I get her out of the car and into the home, the less chance there is for the emergence of separation anxiety. Two months ago she walked off grounds during a fire evacuation drill. The staff found her knee-deep in the pond across the street, calling out to the birds.

What I do next is pretend we’re going to dinner. It’s the only way to manipulate her compliance. We even talk about the menu. I tell her I am looking forward to dinner, which is technically true. I am looking forward to dinner, just not with her. But for a moment she smiles, thinking about dinner together, something not allowed on the days we go out together, because according to the doctor it causes boundary confusion.

“She’ll regress,” he says. “It will make her think life has gone back to the way it once was and that she doesn’t belong here. Dropping her at the door is preferable.” So against my better wishes I’ve given in. I don’t argue with the doctor anymore. I have resigned myself in many ways just as much as Helen.

. . .

The dinner with my parents was predictably tense. Despite my mother’s request, my father didn’t take off his carpenter’s belt. He sat down, opened an Old Milwaukee, and without a word tore through his chicken breast. Then, like a man on a mission, he dug into his mound of potato salad. He opened a second beer, guzzled it down, ate some more potato salad, then wiped his mouth, stood up, and went right back to work on the shingles, leaving my mother, Helene, Isabelle, and me to stare at the loons.

I looked across at Helen and we exchanged smiles. Like I’d struck a deal. I didn’t have the heart to give any indication of the truth, not after all the decorating plans she had made with graph paper and Post-It notes for furniture markers. I let her think what she wanted, which, looking back, was regrettably cruel and selfish of me. For months she’d been drawing a screened-in porch she wanted me to build her from which she planned to “drink in the loons” and play her flute. Somehow I had convinced myself to wait until my father changed his mind. I told myself it was the prudent thing to do. He didn’t really plan to burn the place to the ground, I reasoned; he was just fishing for a reaction. What’s important, I told myself, is your daughter’s memories of this day, for her to hear the four voices of the loons—the one-note hoot, for intimate communication with mate and chicks;the wail, for long-distance contact; the tremolo, which conveys annoyance or alarm; and my favorite (Helen’s too), the yodel, which is the longest, most complex of the loon’s repertoire—a slow, rising note followed by several undulating phrases, something that marks territory and is intended to drive off intruders.

A week later, the lake house burned to the ground. According to the newspaper reports, the fire raged for a half-hour before the fire department responded. A night fisherman who saw a ball of fire called the forestry department. Eighteen acres were lost by then. Funny, none of my father’s firefighter buddies had any record of the call from the fisherman. Practically a quarter of the lake was drained putting it out. My father took his settlement check from State Farm and bought a little place on Sanibel Island, where he was, I guess, happy until death.

Now I am retired. I took a generous buyout from General Electric. No money worries, just nobody to enjoy it with. I take early-morning drives to the Dunkin’ Donuts just to have a purposeful destination. I feed not on muffins or glazed donuts but the high-powered energy of the people, the ones who stand in line with cell phones fixed to their ears while their cars idle in the parking lot, all doing what I used to do. I could buy most of the shoreline on that old lake, but there’s no reason to now.

. . .

When I pull up to the nursing home a nurse comes to the door. I put the gear shift in park. I walk around to Helen’s side, hoping to get everything done in one fluid motion. But she is too quick for me. With her finger pressed down on the inside latch my key is useless. Gently, softly, I ask her to please, please lift her finger off the latch. She calls me a bastard, and I begin to holler just to be heard through the glass. Then she calls me a fucking liar. I bang my hand on the roof just hard enough to startle her and cause her finger to slip so the key works. In one swift motion, the car door swings open, and she falls onto the pavement. I lean down to help her up and she bats me away. It won’t be long before the doctor says, “No more Sunday drives.”

It will kill me. It already kills me. But this is the only place, I keep telling myself, she is safe. I know what could have happened to her two months ago. I didn’t need to be told “she could have been killed crossing that busy street.” But they told me anyway, like I’d been brought in for questioning. Weren’t they the ones that were supposed to be watching her? I wanted to say this, but I didn’t. I just remember the blinding rage I felt at this staff. For the first time in years I raised my voice and almost said what was on my mind—“I give up”—but instead I blurted out something that has been on my mind for two years, something I never, ever thought I’d have the courage to utter. I said, “Well, maybe she got to see something beautiful, for a change.”

That nearly broke the nurses’ hearts.