In my novel, The Tumble Inn, Mark Finley looks back to when he and his feisty wife, Fran, unable to conceive a child and bored with their high school teaching jobs, followed Fran’s wild plan and left their friends and families in suburban New Jersey to begin new lives as innkeepers of a ramshackle hotel on a lake in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. At this point during their first year as innkeepers, it was “mud season,” and things were not going well.
During March, when, thank God, we were closed for business, the inn itself became a swamped vessel. On the roof, water backed up behind ice-dams, leaked around flashing, and seeped down walls upstairs. In the basement, jets of groundwater spurted through the foundation, making a kind of bilge. Meanwhile, the brook in the woods became a raging torrent, having busted out of the ice that had encased it for months. It hurled huge ice-slabs over its banks, along with boulders and uprooted trees. As for the lake, its level rose ominously, covering the beach and almost surrounding the boathouse. On stormy days, waves broke over the dock, carrying with them a thick mat of stinking mundungus, an Indian word for the decomposing leaves and other filth that our sylvan lake disgorged on the beach each spring.
So while the rest of the world bathed in Easter sunshine, we up here in the Adirondacks were besieged by water and muck. The skies were slate; so was the lake. There was no hope, no resurrection. Everyone was cooped-up, climbing the walls, by turns lethargic then border-line murderous, and I’m sad to say that Fran and I were no exceptions. Our baby-making activities over the last couple of months had been less pleasurable, more mechanical, more freighted again with our imperative to be fruitful and multiply, and when Fran’s period arrived around the third week of May, we were at each other like tomcats. As “the supposed man of the house,” “the so-called Mr. Outside and Mr. Repairman,” I wasn’t “pulling my weight” anymore, she said. I’d become “Mr. Wait-Until-Summer” or “Mr. Sit-by-the-Fire.” The grounds, she went on, were “a mess.” Limbs down. The driveway impassible.
So what was I supposed to do? Go outside with an umbrella and say, “Please rain, stop, so I can clean up?” Or maybe I should put on my swimming trunks—no, a wetsuit!—and try to round up the mundungus? “If you feel so strongly about it,” I said one gray afternoon as we sat in the downstairs living room, “why don’t you go out there? You’re not exactly Mrs. Dynamo these days! Reading in bed for half the morning! And whose brilliant idea was it to come up here in the first place? So we could have jobs we know nothing about? So we could experience this lovely spring in the Adirondacks?”
You’d think I’d slapped her in the face, which I guess, metaphorically speaking, I had. Chin on knees and hands squeezed between her legs, she shriveled down into the sofa. Her silence said everything. Livid with self-reproach, I stomped out through the kitchen and up the back stairs.
We went on like this for another week or so, a regular Adirondack mud-season couple. Then eventually the rain slackened, the brook confined itself to its banks, the lake receded inch by inch, and I managed to get myself out on the beach where I raked the mundungus into piles, shoveled it into the cart behind the tractor, and hauled it to the compost heap in the woods. Meanwhile, Fran started washing the musty curtains and quilts in the guest rooms, and one evening while I was trying to fix a leaky faucet upstairs, and she was cleaning up in the kitchen, we heard something that made us go out on the porch together. From somewhere on the lake, came the calls of loons, that wild laughter and the lonesome, mournful wails bouncing off the hills and mountains, echoing and entwining.
The loons, it seemed, had returned from wherever they’d spent the winter. We spotted a few of them swimming low on the water, gliding softly and mysteriously, their heads curved like the handles of canes, their bills moving like scissors. And I think it was while we listened to and watched the loons—watched them disappearing then whole minutes later reappearing on the water—that most of the spite we had left drained out of us, and we were more or less ourselves again.
Soon other birds—sparrows, wrens, red-winged blackbirds—woke us in the mornings. And on Memorial Day weekend, we heard the first motorboats sputtering to life, then buzzing like mosquitoes. A few guests had made reservations: bird watchers with cameras and big lenses, and fishermen anxious to get a start on the season, loaded with tackle boxes, rods, nets, and bulging camouflage vests. At night, specks of light glimmered on the shore: summer residents checking up on their cottages to see what the winter had wrought.
That weekend we also beheld a miracle—three solid days of sun!—and everything exploded with life, as if the chance might never come again. Trees leafed out. Ferns unfurled. The knoll got shaggy. A yellow-green wave of new foliage raced up the mountain, and in the evenings, as the light was dimming, we heard peepers off in a bog in the woods: that faint, high-pitched, almost electrical twanging, like sounds from another world.
Then on the following Tuesday, after the guests had gone, Fran and I hiked up the brook. It wasn’t a planned outing. In fact, just a few words, a look in Fran’s eye, and that way, with her finger, she slowly traced a vein on the back of my wrist—that’s what made it all happen. We’d finished our lunch at the kitchen table, when she reached out and touched me like that. Then looking straight at me, she said, “Mark, I wonder what’s up the brook.”
After that, “up the brook” would become a kind of code for us. “You feel like going up the brook?” she’d ask in that same shy yet insistent way. How could I ever say no? Even now, all these years later, “up the brook,” just that phrase, melts something inside me.
On that afternoon, the temperature must have broken into the seventies—uncharted territory!—and we were wearing exotic clothes: light sweatshirts and wrinkled shorts that we’d exhumed from the backs of bureau drawers. With the air wafting against our reborn legs, we walked out the driveway, across the road to where the trail begins and winds toward the woods through a field of blueberry bushes. In the woods, the air was cooler, the sun sifted into dancing dots, and the ground was springy with pine needles and leaf mold. We climbed up a gentle hillside of hemlocks and swamp maples that led to higher stands of spruce and pine. Ahead, we could hear the brook getting louder, a tumbling sound. We picked up our pace. Ferns, still unfurling, brushed our shins. The trillium and wild azalea were blooming. Black mushrooms had poked up their heads. Everything smelled rich and alive, and then we came to the water.
The brook, in this stretch, is a classic Adirondack mountain stream: clean, clear, and very purposeful, especially in the spring. It doesn’t bother with whirlpools and eddies. It certainly doesn’t meander. It has things to do, appointments to keep. It rushes around and over rocks and logs, if it can’t push them out of its way.
On its east side, we followed the narrow path under limbs, over gnarled roots, and, grasping onto saplings and bushes, we edged step by step along the bank as it got steeper. Soon the only way up was in the middle of the brook, scrambling from boulder to boulder.
We took off our sweatshirts and tied them around our waists. The backs of our t-shirts were soaked. Our skin, cocooned for months in wool and flannel, was the creamy color of the underside of fungi that grow on fallen trees. Without stopping, Fran rolled her short sleeves up to her armpits. We were breathing hard now. We seemed to be racing. As we climbed, the brook got narrower, louder, and faster, rolling in crested standing waves, pouring through gaps between mounded boulders, or charging headlong over ledges, then roiling into bubbles and foam.
Further on, though, it leveled off, quieted, seeming to pause before its wild descent, and fanned across a wide, domed, mossy rock in an open swath of sunshine.
We stopped. Except for a huge, uprooted birch lodged between the banks a few feet above the water, there was only us, the rock, and the sky. We were standing face to face, beneath a big open space in the trees, exposed, where nothing could be hidden.
Fran always described herself as a feminist, “a feminist of the heterosexual persuasion,” and as you must have already gathered, she had no aversion to taking the wheel when she knew where she wanted to go. So it won’t surprise you that, with an idea firmly in mind, she reached up with both hands, pulled my head toward her, and kissed me hard.
Instantly, we were pulling at each other’s clothes—our sweaty, clinging shirts and shorts—and soon, except for our soggy socks and boots, we stood there in all our glory: bony hips, pointy elbows, and patches of kinky hair.
We did those things that you do with your hands. Groping. Fumbling. Then, as if to luxuriate, to both hold and hasten the moment, we lay down on the soft, water-swept moss. It was a beautiful, romantic, pastoral impulse, a thing for shepherds and shepherdesses, or even for lumberjacks and gritty girlfriends, but not quite a thing for us. The frigid water undid our handiwork. The moss felt like slime. So we were up again, at work again, in a slightly different rustic venue. With her back against the curved trunk of the uprooted birch, Fran sort of reclined, sort of hiked herself up with one leg and one elbow, while I, facing her, sort of draped myself over her, with my arms clamped around her bottom and the toes of my boots wedged against the rock.
In this novel position, unreported in “How To” manuals, we slipped, slithered, and lost our balance, but eventually gained headway again, moving together, our skin getting clammy in the sun.
Then in our ears and from all around us, came a perplexing, whirling, buzzing hum that seemed to be getting louder. It wasn’t a hummingbird. It wasn’t bees. It wasn’t motorboats or helicopters. It wasn’t even mosquitoes, or anything we’d ever known.
If you’ve lived through a spring in the Adirondacks, or even if you’ve only exchanged pleasantries with someone here during that season, then you’ll know about black flies. Their wormy, gooey, comma-shaped larvae grow by the millions along the stream banks. As one, they hatch and emerge as full adults: small, humpbacked, strong-jawed, stocky as linemen, hungry, and on the wing. They rove in packs, seeking flesh, preferring areas of moisture and warmth where blood pulses near the surface. Clothing and fur offer little protection. Hair offers none. With barbed legs, they affix themselves like Velcro, and unlike a mosquito’s surgical drilling, they chew and excavate, strip-mining, and, craving more, they hold on for dear life.
At the moment they landed, Fran and I, too, had affixed ourselves. Our hands were occupied. Our skins flushed. To the flies, my ass must have looked like a gleaming, white peach, and they must have thought they were born into paradise.
I wish I could say that we surrendered to them, but “surrender” presumes more thought and free will than were available at the moment. Our will was otherwise engaged. If I thought at all, if I could have willed anything into being, it would have been to have grown a tail, a long, swishing horse’s tail with which I could have casually brushed off the flies.
As it was, we were helpless. I had no tail. The flies had their way. And you’d think that Fran and I would have instantly untangled ourselves, then, madly itching and swatting, trying to keep our private parts from public consumption, we’d have run for the nearest depth of water, and plunged our sorry selves in.
But that’s not how it happened. As the flies bit into us, as the pain multiplied, Fran and I, with even more intensity, dug deeper into one another. It was as if, in our pleasure, we were trying to keep ahead of the pain, less to outrun than to outlast and outlive it, and surely not to ignore it. It was as if we were trying to take it all in, every bite and excavation, and somehow turn it to our advantage. With the flies ravishing us, we poured every last bit of ourselves into saving us—or at least that’s how it seemed. Only after the flies were done with us were Fran and I done with each other.
Then as suddenly as they’d come, the flies en masse moved away upstream, perhaps to rest their jaws and digest, to have a smoke and put up their feet. It was quiet, except for the brook sliding over the rock. Trembling, Fran and I peeled ourselves from the fallen tree. We stood before one another, husband and wife, still in the bright, exacting sun, with our clothes scattered like blown trash. We were covered with small, red, bleeding dots—more dots than Fran had freckles—and each was upheld on a swelling mound of pink flesh.
“At least we had the sense to keep our boots on,” Fran said, and we smiled, but mostly on the inside. The flies seemed to have found particular pleasure behind our knees, on our necks, in the crooks of our arms, and in the soft flesh around our mouths. So when we moved, even to smile, we were stiff and slow, like rusted farm equipment. Our eyes were puffing up. My ass was on fire, and this still astounds me: a couple of flies, brave as sperm, must have squeezed, squiggled, and swum their way into the act itself. For that part of me that had labored in the deep and dark, most hidden and protected, was now oddly bumped out on one side, re-swollen as it were, like an inner tube with a weak spot.
“You look lopsided!” Fran just had to point out. “Poor fellow.”
“All right,” I said, cutting her off. “What tonic you are for my self-esteem.”
But looking back, I don’t begrudge any of it: not the fun poked my way, not all the itching and scratching, not even the lopsidedness that made urinating a wayward adventure, not even the three days when it took a half hour to get dressed, when I walked bowlegged, when at Orma’s general store we got the strangest looks—What the hell happened to you?—and when at nights marinated in witch hazel and Rhulicream, and still didn’t sleep a wink . . .
No, I don’t begrudge it. I’d do it all again.
As I’ve mentioned, we hadn’t ever seen or heard of black flies at the time, so guessing, we called them gnats.
“If anything—if anyone—comes of this,” Fran said as we gingerly put on our clothes, “I guess we’ll have to call him Nat.”
I saw my chance to get back at my hetero-feminist wife, a little. “Or we’ll have to call her Natalie,” I said.