The Last Paddle
Jack held up the third loaf of bread.
“Did you lose count in your cart?” she smiled. “Sixty is young for your mind to be going.”
“Well, one of them is olive oil and rosemary, and you never know how much toast you’ll want.”
Lindsay studied the kitchen counter.
“We didn’t get the place a toaster yet, did we?” he asked.
Lindsay shook her head, lips pursed in amusement. Jack had known the expression since their first date in college, dinner before Chariots of Fire, though she had smiled that way less often since their daughter and grandchildren had moved across the country. Her look made Jack happy. They had arrived less than four hours ago, but Lindsay had already drawn youth from the lake.
Jack pulled their one skillet from beneath the counter. “Here. We’ll make our toast the old-fashioned way.”
“We? Toaster or not, when was the last time Jack Hamilton made his own toast?”
“I can make toast.” He gestured with the skillet and clanked it down on the burner. “I can rough it.”
“Yes,” Lindsay said, “rough it.” She took his hand like a schoolgirl and led him to Black Dog Landing’s sitting room, where windows ran the length of the cottage. “It’s a hard knock life by the lake.”
From their position on the dividing bluff, Jack and Lindsay could gaze at most of Keuka Lake’s western branch. The first snow had begun falling, large flakes that dissolved in the waves or lay on the wood of their dock. Since the property had become theirs, they had spent just one other night in Black Dog Landing, in October on the closing date. There had been no other time, not until these days between Christmas and the New Year. We should do something, Lindsay had said, after Gina’s family goes home on the 27th. He had asked what, and she had answered, We should go to the lake. He thought the travel would be too much trouble, but the next afternoon, Lindsay had spent hours with photo albums of their old vacations, and Jack relented.
He put his arm around her. “It’s ours,” he said.
“It’s ours.” She squeezed him. “And not just for a week.”
“For good,” he nodded. “For always.”
She chuckled and pointed to the far shore, three-quarters of a mile away. “Remember that house we rented over there, across from the state park? Where the wind picked up the table’s umbrella and shattered the glass.”
“It was further north, but I do. I remember writing an apology and paying the bill, too.”
She leaned in close, putting her head against his chest. “Well, now it’s all ours to break.”
Her reflection in the window appeared young, with her hair dyed its cherished auburn and the light obscuring her gentle wrinkles. Jack looked old beside her. He could no longer call his mustache salted and peppered: it was grey as the thin hair he blamed on office stress. He carried more weight than he should, so that his doctor had begun to mention blood sugar and cholesterol. He could exercise more when he retired next year, or the year after. He would swim from the dock every morning. He and Lindsay would paddle every day from May till October, not just for a stolen week at a rental every half decade or so. He looked to the yard below their second-story deck, where snow whitened the nose of the orange tandem kayak he’d purchased with the house. Long hours and fiscal prudence had yielded rewards: in retirement, the bluff on Keuka Lake would be their home for seven months each year.
“The snow’s really picking up,” Lindsay observed.
“That’s why we have three loaves of bread.”
“It’s a romantic place to be stuck.”
“We won’t be stuck long,” Jack said, “which is why we could come. The temp will hit sixty in two days, and all of it will melt. All eight to ten inches.”
“It’s crazy,” she said, “sixty in December.”
“That’s climate change for you. But it’ll get the road clear.”
“When do they stop maintaining it?”
“The sign says no maintenance November through March. It’s not worth the effort for them to plow the road for these vacation homes on the bluff. Which means you shouldn’t get used to this Christmas getaway.”
“No,” Lindsay said, “but just this once, stuck will be nice.” She pecked his cheek.
“Thank you, Jack.”
He woke just before dawn to a strange sound. Several foggy seconds passed before Jack realized it came from Lindsay. She made urgent, speechless groans, and the left side of her face drooped.
They had first rented Black Dog Landing 25 years earlier.
“I can’t find the goddamn light switch anywhere,” Jack had said.
“Me neither!” Lindsay laughed.
They had to dine beneath a dark chandelier that first night, until their daughter found the switch. It was on the rail post for the stairs, which they had passed a dozen times.
“Who puts a light switch on a railing?” Gina asked.
“Funny, isn’t it?” Lindsay said. “There are a lot of quirks to these old places.”
“Construction was less standard when these cottages were built,” Jack told their daughter, “and they were only meant for summer homes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you remember how steep a hill we drove down? A few inches of snow would make it totally impassible. People don’t live here in winter.”
“No, I mean what Mom said, about quirks in old houses. Are there more?”
Lindsay smiled. “We’ll find all the quirks we can, and we’ll know them all when we come back next year.”
But they had not returned the next year because Jack had to prepare for a merger, and then had to train new staff, and then oversee combined departments. Six years elapsed before they returned to Black Dog Landing, so Gina had been 17 instead of 11 and spent much of their vacation on the phone in the kitchen, more interested in calling her boyfriend than exploring.
She gripped his wrist and made the same desperate groans. Her left arm dangled uselessly at her side. She was crying.
“Hang on, Linds. Just hang on.” He picked his phone up from the nightstand and dialed 911. It did not ring, and no one picked up. As he hit redial, Jack saw the empty bars and the asterisk showing no signal. He threw off the sheets and dashed to the wifi router in the living room. No lights shined green. Jack groped the dark kitchen wall and picked up the phone, but there was no dial tone, and he left the receiver dangling from its cord to run in his pajamas to the porch.
The snow rose halfway to his shin and buried their Lexus. He could not tell where their yard ended and the road began. He looked left and right for neighbors’ lights but saw none—of course there were none. But two houses over he saw a fallen tree and wires down beneath.
Black Dog Landing had not been available during their later vacations on Keuka Lake—he figured a new owner had been less inclined to rent—but five years before their purchase, he and Lindsey had rented a cottage just a few hundred yards down the bluff. Kayaking north, Lindsay chirped, “There it is!”
Jack recognized it immediately. When Lindsay browsed rental property listings along the lake and, less often, when they found the week to stay in one, they still compared the houses to Black Dog Landing.
Lindsay held up her phone. “I’m texting a picture to Gina. I’m asking her if she remembers where the light switch is.”
“It won’t go through, Linds. There’s no signal here.”
“Just sent! We must be out far enough from the bluff.”
They had paddled a while more, until they drifted alongside the beach at Keuka State Park. People of all ages swam. Outside the lifeguarded area, a father and daughter threw a tennis ball into the water for their black lab. Jack and Lindsay drifted and watched for a long time.
“We should come here more often,” Lindsay had said.
He wrapped the blanket around his wife’s shoulders and held them. He looked at her nose because he could not bear the fear in her eyes.
“The lines are down, so we have no phone, no wifi and no signal. Even if I dug out the car, we’d never get it up the hill. We have to go on the water.”
Lindsay shook her head.
“We have to, Linds. We have to. When we’re out enough from the bluff we’ll have signal. I can make a call. I can get you to the park. It’s open year-round. Road crews probably already have it clear, and they can have an ambulance waiting. I’ll be back for you as soon as I can.”
She groaned. When he turned back toward her, Lindsay looked at him sadly with her drooping face, as though she expected him to understand. “I’ll be back,” he said, and she did not try again.
The second story deck had sheltered the kayak’s back half. Snow had gotten into the front seat where Lindsay would have to ride, but there was no other choice; the one paddling had to sit in the rear. He gripped the orange plastic and dragged it backward out of the snow. He grunted with the effort of flipping it over, lifted and dropped the nose three times to bang out what snow he could, then flipped the kayak right-side up and pulled out more snow with his hands. He had forgotten gloves inside. With the seat as clear as Jack could make it—he would grab blankets, towels—he hoisted the kayak onto the drifted white and shoved it: the boat slid a couple feet until the nose pushed down into the snow. Jack trudged beside the boat, lifted the front forward, and pushed again.
A few rays of sun emerged from behind the clouds. Flakes drifted lazily from the sky. Lindsay had planned for him to get the fireplace burning while she made coffee, and then they would watch the sunrise together.
He lifted the kayak’s front atop the snow a third time and pushed toward the shore. They could not use the dock: stepping down from it into the boat would be too precarious for Lindsay. He’d help her in on land, then shove the kayak into the water. He’d have to step through the lake to get in, carefully. His feet would be cold but alright because they had to be, but if he dumped Lindsay into the winter water she would never make it.
He had never kayaked before college. He had only done it then at Lindsay’s urging.
“It’ll be fun,” she said, “and a trip is a trip,” so he’d ridden in the student activities van with the others to the south end of Keuka Lake. An alumnus who had hauled the kayaks on a trailer gave them lifejackets and brief instructions.
“What if I flip it?” Jack had asked.
“Then you’re wet. Stop worrying,” Lindsay said.
The lake had been calm that day, so after some early wobbles, he avoided overturning. He paddled beside Lindsay for two hours that afternoon. He felt sunburn on the ride back to campus and did not care, and he knew he loved her.
“I haven’t gone for a paddle since camp, when I was a girl,” Lindsay had said. “I forgot how good it feels.”
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“I think my wife’s had a stroke. We need an ambulance.”
“OK, sir. Tell me your name and address.”
“Jack Hamilton, Lindsay is my wife. We’re off West Bluff Drive.”
“Sir, that’s a seasonal road.”
“I know. We got snowed in, but I’m going to get her to Keuka State Park.”
“How are you transporting her?”
“We’re in a kayak.”
The snow picked up again and the wind blew it into his face. He looked at Lindsay’s slumping back ahead of him, surrounded by water and gray clouds, bundled in blankets. He had pulled her pink knit cap over her head. “Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yes, sir, I’m here. I’m sending an ambulance to the park. How far away are you?”
He tried to remember. “I think thirty minutes. I’m paddling as fast I can. Maybe less. What about a boat? Is there a rescue?”
“Not at this time of year, but I’ll try, sir. What’s her condition?”
“Lindsay, honey, how you doing?”
He thought he heard a groan. The wind made it impossible to say.
“I don’t know,” he told the operator, “but she can’t speak. I need to keep going. I need my hands.”
“We’ll get you help as soon as we can.”
Jack dropped the phone into his lap. The operator might have said something more but the wind swallowed the sound and it did not matter. He gripped the paddle and resumed churning the water. The kayak was built for two paddlers, but he was not too old to fight. His arms ripped the paddle through the lake, creating little eddies beside the boat. They passed another cottage. He’d had to paddle so far out to find signal that their progress along the shore seemed slow, so making it beyond each building required dozens of hurried strokes. Jack had taken off his coat because its bulk impeded his movement. Each lift of the paddle flung droplets onto his bare arms, freezing pin points atop burning muscles. His feet had burned after he splashed through the water by the shore, but now they had numbed.
“Look at the snow, Linds,” he called. “Look how it falls into the water. If you look close, you might see some of the flakes melt into it.” The burn in his forearms intensified. He did not know how much longer he could sustain the pace. “We only ever came in the summer,” he said, “and not as often as we should have. It’s pretty in winter. You were right about this, Linds. We should have done this all the time. And we will now. We will.”
His burning forearms pulled, and the kayak moved forward. The nose hit a wave at an awkward angle so the water splashed over the nose. “Sorry, Linds,” he called. “Sorry about the splashing. I know your coat’s warm, but I wish I had more blankets.” He fought the acid forming in his muscles and forced the paddle through the water, left then right then left then right. “I wish we had a motorboat,” he said. “I wish a lot of things.”
“We could stay a few days. Come on Jack,” Lindsay said. “Live a little.”
“We don’t even have the furniture here yet,” he had said. “We’re sleeping on an air mattress, for God’s sake. I am too old for an air mattress.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“The sofa set won’t be here for another two weeks.”
“So we get some folding chairs,” Lindsay smiled. “We might not have furniture, but we have a lake house, Jack. For real now. What are a few days on an air mattress? Just look at those leaves.”
Gold and red surrounded Keuka Lake. The little cove by their dock reflected the blazing yellow of the maple shading Black Dog Landing, and when a breeze blew past them on the deck, dozens of the tree’s seeds spun their way to the ground and water.
“We could rent a boat,” she said.
“I bought their kayak, you know.”
“And we’re going out for a paddle this afternoon, but I mean a party boat.”
“Like my uncle used to own. A pontoon boat. We should buy one. Can you picture Gina and the kids on it, cruising around the lake with us?”
“We’ll see. Maybe after I retire.”
“I know, I know.” She reached her arms around his neck. “But for now, we could still rent one.”
They had driven back the next morning. Jack had to prepare for a meeting.
The boat steered directly toward them, and no other vessel was on the water. He pulled harder, though his forearms begged to slacken.
“That’s help, Linds,” he called. The wind had eased, but if she replied he still could not hear it. “See that boat? That’s them. Hold on, honey.” His paddle shoved the water behind them, and the kayak pushed over the waves. Lindsay sat huddled in the blankets and her knitted hat, framed by the lake. Snow fell gently around her.
Jack pulled the paddle through the water, left then right then left then right, each lift spraying more drops than the last as exhaustion eroded his form, but he pulled the paddle through the water and gritted his teeth against the burn.
“Get her in!” someone shouted as the pontoon boat pulled alongside. Two men lifted Lindsay from beneath her arms. Jack could see the state park a hundred or so yards away. He saw a brown pickup with a plow driving through snow, an ambulance trailing behind.
The two men had laid Lindsay on the pontoon boat’s bench. A woman leaned close to her pink knit cap and face, while the man in the navy coat helped Jack aboard. He stumbled so the man had to catch him. “I’m sorry,” Jack said, “I can’t feel my feet.” He fell onto the bench and watched the woman kneeling by Lindsay hold her wrist. She looked at the man in red beside her with widened eyes and shook her head tightly, then stood to begin chest compressions. The man more slowly shook his head, then restarted the motor. The pontoon boat lumbered toward the park while Jack shivered beneath a blanket and tried to understand what it all meant.
The orange tandem kayak drifted behind them in the falling snow. It rose and fell with the waves as their wake and the current slowly carried it toward Black Dog Landing.