The Formula for Skipping Stones

For two summer weeks, on and off, we’d seen one another, the fisherman and I. He was in an old motor boat out at the end of the C of the New Hampshire cove, and I was sitting on a boulder well within the center of the letter at the lake’s edge. I’d just turned fourteen, brought by my aunt and uncle to take care of my cousin. When three year old Kenny napped and my aunt did whatever she liked in the large cabin, I was free to search about the woods and shore. I often ended up at what I named Lonely Rock that looked out onto the wide Winnepesaukee. The water around the giant rock was deep and clear. I often watched minnows in miniature schools. Out at the pine-covered point of the cove was the fisherman. I never waved at him, but each day he brought the boat in a little closer. By the end of two weeks, I could see more than the silhouette of the man. He looked old, in his late fifties, his long face a mottled tan. It seemed to me that every time he threw in his line, he reached back with a shining fish he’d admire and then toss back before it drowned in air.

When he brought the boat right up to Lonely Rock, I held stiff as the stone.

“Hey, you,” he said, his thin body shaking at the steering wheel. I knew how to handle a boat as big. My uncle rented one, and I was proud he’d taught me to dock the twenty-four footer easily even though home in New York, I was two years too young even for a learner’s permit.

I didn’t answer him. The breeze blew across his back, from the lake toward the land. I breathed pine and water, pipe smoke and sweat stink. It was a strong male smell, like the beer another girl in the cabin colony and I had discovered. The brown glass bottles had been hidden in a stone-covered roadside culvert. Kathy and I tasted some of the beer before we broke all the rest, shattering them against a low stone wall nearby.

“Hey, you,” the fisherman repeated. “Wanna ride?”

He nudged the boat up against Lonely Rock. In the stern, I saw feathery lures arranged in a metal tackle box. I looked over my shoulder to the hill clearing and cabins.

“Wheah ya friends?” he asked.

“I don’t have any friends. No one’s talking to me.”

“Me eithah.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“Long stawhy,” he said.

The teeth he wasn’t missing were brown-speckled, like pebbles in the sand at the lake’s edge.

He moved quickly for all his shaking, leaning over the boat’s glass windshield, giving me a hand stepping onto the bow. Then I climbed over and sat on the mate’s seat. He turned on the ignition, which coughed wetly a few times, and backed the boat out into the cove. In a few moments, we were well beyond it, on the open lake. Speed lifted the prow out of the water and gusted the summer air. I shook out my loosened braids.

“You look’t like a Penacook boy,” he said, disappointed, “but ya eyes ah blue. Y’act like a boy. Why’s no one talking to you fah?”

“It’s a long stawhy,” I imitated. Then I blurted, “I did something bad.”

“Who ain’t?” He cut the motor.

“No one likes me anymore.”

“I don’t like guhls. Name’s John.”

“Well, John, where’s all this forgiveness you hear about in church?”

“Guess that’s wheah it stays,” he said.

“How do I act like a boy?”

“Got no brains. Like t’go fast?”

He started up the engine again and raced us across the water faster and farther than I’d ever been out before. We must have been miles from the cove. Still, there was more and more lake, more bends and curves we took at high speed, water splashing in our faces when he steeped a turn. I stood up to feel the spray hit, and John yelled over the motor noise, “SidDOWN, goddammit!” He reached out and pulled me into the seat and slowed the engine. Gasoline fumes sweetened the lake air. He turned the boat around and headed back to the cove. He left me off not at Lonely Rock but on the narrow lip of beach by the point where he usually fished.

“Next time weah a suit so ya can swim,” John said.

***

Every day it didn’t rain I went out on a different boat with Old John. I didn’t tell anyone about him. I thought it served them all right since no one was talking to me. My aunt was tightlipped around me and kept shaking her head, muttering about my father and what would happen when I got home. Meanwhile, she didn’t have any problem with me playing Cinderella to her Wicked Stepmother. She told me the unidentified bites or rash I’d gotten were fair punishment. I had to wear dishwashing rubber gloves and couldn’t go swimming, she said, because it could spread. So I sat in the big white Adirondack chairs on the hill, watching my little cousin race his toy cars in and out of the elaborate pine cone obstacle course I’d created for him. I looked down the hill to the lake where Kathy, my beer-smashing pal from Beverly, MA, was off duty from babysitting her four younger brothers and sister. She was swimming with the Swampscott minister’s son Tim, his thirteen year old half-sister Diane, and Jay, the townie boy from Passaconaway. Both boys were handsome.

Some days, standing on the beach, the boys skipped stones. Jay’s always flew farther than Tim’s. While I wondered what Galileo or Newton could make of it, Kathy and Tim’s half sister cheered the boys on.

In our first week at Winnepesaukee, Diane and I had taken out a row boat and shared stories about our older brothers.

“Behind a billboard?!” I choked. Diane rowed the boat in circles while I reached to regain the oar I’d dropped. When I tried to explain what incest was, she refused to believe that she was no longer a virgin.

During my cousin’s afternoon naptime, I’d go sit on Lonely Rock. I imagined how it locked into the lake in winter when Jay said you could walk across the ice. Jay lived on a farm. He said that after the frozen months what New Hampshire looked forward to most was the coming of the new lambs. He said he’d pulled live lambs right out of ewes. In the summer, he also worked at a bakery in Wolfeboro where I’d seen him, “selling overpriced cookies to overweight tourists.”

I’d hear whatever boat Old John was in that day before I’d see him clear the point. I’d jump up and run through a pine-needled forest hemming deeper woods, running over the rocks and hollows among the trees, fleet as the Penacook Winnepesaukee natives I imagined there long before. The boat sputtered in neutral. I got on without Old John’s help. He snorted at my aunt’s orders.

“Found a fine place to fish,” he said, before he gave me the wheel and I pushed the throttle into drive, “and ya go ahead swim.”

He directed me around turns to a new, hidden cove. I couldn’t tell one bend in the lake from another, but they seemed recognizable to Old John. By this time I’d confessed to him, and we had a way of doing things beside one another. Some talk, Old John tied knots, taught me Cat’s Cradle or fished, and I’d swim. He’d show me a fish and name it and tell me its ways while it squirmed in his shaking hands. He’d lean over the boat and let the fish back into the water near enough to where I was treading to make me squeal at the thought of it swimming through my legs. It always made Old John laugh, and then I’d laugh, too.

“What do you do?” I eventually asked when were returning to the point at our cove.

“Always keep one for supper and one for breakfast,” he avoided. “Wha’d’ya do?”

“I go to school, of course. I’m going into ninth grade. What’s your profession?”

He snorted again. “I do what I can.”

“I mean it, John.”

“I’m an escaped convict.”

I was thrilled. “Like Magwitch in Great Expectations! That’s a book on our list for next year so I read it ahead. So I’m Pip? You steal these boats? I could change my name.”

“Bahrrow ’em. No one the wiseah. Ya name’s okay. ‘Leenda,’ they say. Means pretty. Changed mine to John. Lotta Johns. Lotta leaves ont trees, ev’ry one jus’ ta leaf.”

I agreed. “It’s my father’s middle name. Dr. Theodore John McDermott. He makes me eat calcium tablets bigger than communion wafers because the Russians resumed above ground testing, and he’s afraid the Strontium-90 will leach calcium from my bones.”

We neared the point, and I slowed the boat. He held the wheel as I turned, reached for a sweatshirt. While it was still over my head, Old John said, “It wasn’t such a bad thing you done with eitha boy, the ministah’s son. Was t’othah one, Jay’s fault, talkin’ ’bout you.”

I’d described kissing Jay when he’d walked me back from the beach in the dark and confessed about going into the apple orchard behind the cabins one night with the Swampscott boy, how I’d run away from Tim after fighting him off.

With the sweatshirt still covering my face, I said, “No, I was all wrong. Diane told me what Tim did. I knew Kathy liked him and didn’t tell her. When he said to meet him, I did. Back home in New York, I’m a Good Girl. Up here, they’re all blond and I’m not, so they think I’m a …” I couldn’t repeat the word Jay had called me.

Old John pulled the sweatshirt down so my turtle head popped out. “Jus’ ’cause you wanted some kissin’ and have th’sense of a buttahfish?”

We were at the point then, and I started clambering off the boat, but not before Old John caught my sleeve. I thought it was to steady me. He made me fall back against him. His smoky, sweaty smell was friendly by then. But he pulled me to him and kissed me harder than either boy had. Those mottled teeth hitting mine! He tasted sickening of beer and age, and I pushed him with enough force that I fell out of the boat. My heart thundered with adrenalin. Stunned, I treaded water and saw minnows scatter. Old John backed the boat away.

“You said you didn’t like girls,” I shouted.

He yelled over the motor, “I like you!”

***

Linda was neither an old child nor a young adult. On the number line, she saw herself going up only to fourteen for her recent birthday, a primer page in a Universal encyclopedia of possibly infinitely numbered, disconnected dot to dots. She’d heard a singsong: Freshmen don’t know they don’t know; sophomores know they don’t know; juniors don’t know they know; and seniors know that they know! Linda didn’t know that she didn’t know she possessed any agency, nor that she lacked fear. She only knew things happened. The Earth moved around the Sun, and the Moon around the Earth in ways better explained by science than mythology, which is what Linda called religion ever since, at eleven, she had been stunned by her mother’s reaction to Sputnik, “But where does God live now?”

The convict’s kiss shocked, flattered, repulsed, and disappointed her. Those were some dot to dots to try to connect. All the recent kisses had no different effect from her secret practice at home against the wooden leg of a Queen Anne chair while the family had watched TV. So far, kissing was all mechanics and momentum, no communion. She thought there must be something wrong with her. She was like the Betsy McCall paper doll on the last page of her mother’s monthly magazine. She had stopped cutting out and playing with them but still looked for them every month. Betsy McCall was flat, two-dimensional, a little girl. Linda was a big girl who acted like a boy and felt nothing when kissed.

The next day, Linda was in hiding, waiting at the point for Old John.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the pines. He had been sitting behind the wheel trying to calm his shaking hands by tying knots. It was late August, autumn chill in the air, leaves turning. There wasn’t going to be much time. Beside him on the mate’s seat was last week’s newspaper whose rumpled front page reported that in Moscow, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Ten years didn’t sound long.

Linda was dressed in jeans and a thick sweater. The motor idled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“Why’d ya come back fah?’

“To say good bye. We’re going back to New York later today. To ask.”

“What?”

“Why do you shake all the time?”

He held up a sloppy bowline knot. “Parkinson’s. Ev’ry thing’s got a name when they don’ know whah t’is.”

“I didn’t feel anything with you either.”

He laughed. “Me, neithah. Ya not a boy, jus’ a green apple. Ya shoulda felt scaihed.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Not much left t’. Surpris’d ain’t bin found, but maybe wasn’ much lookin’.” He tapped the newspaper. “Don’ worry so much about Russians and bombs. But don’ you nevah go nowheah with a strangeah again.”

***

My father smelled like the brown bottles and Old John. It was the cherry pipe smoke and sweat. My father didn’t shake, but he looked sad. Kathy and I had smashed the beer against the low stone wall, laughing at the explosions of foam, glad to be rebelling against grown up deception.

When I returned from New Hampshire, my parents and brother were waiting in the car in front of my aunt’s and uncle’s house. After the long drive and longer summer, it was good to get out of the car, a new 1960 Buick station wagon, that Clydesdale of automobiles. I hugged my father, but he didn’t come inside where I carried my sleeping cousin. I put Kenny to bed while my uncle went around opening windows, and my aunt did something in the kitchen with my mother and brother, who, I noticed, hadn’t stayed with our father. Just another disconnected dot.

As I came out of the bedroom, my mother grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the pink and gray hall bathroom. She shut and locked the door.

“Your aunt told me. You are just like your father,” she hissed.

I’d never seen her that angry even during the Kennedy-Nixon bouts she had with my father. They argued about everything, but before I’d left for the summer, it was politics. He’d voted for Eisenhower, and she and my aunt were not only Democrats, but also Catholic like Kennedy, who I only cared was handsome.

“It will take every cent we have – and my uncle who is a State Supreme Court judge — to keep your father out of prison and save his license!”

I became so dizzy, I fell. It took hours of that day and years later to make sense out of my mother’s fury. At home that same night, she sent my older brother to my bedroom.

“Are you chaste?!” he demanded.

For the first time in my life I said, “Fuck you.”

Later that September, before the Kennedy – Nixon debate, the family drove up to Troy in the huge Buick station wagon. I sat in the smaller rear seat with Kenny, feeling carsick facing backwards at the past rather than ahead to the future. I attempted and failed to keep Kenny busy for awhile playing with string; a three year old’s attention span and finger control were equally unreliable. I did a few of the eight turns Old John had taught me: Soldier’s bed; Candles; Manger; Diamonds; Cat’s eye; Fish in a Dish; Clock; and Cat’s Cradle. My uncle was at the wheel, and my aunt sat beside him. With my maternal grandmother, my mother was crammed between my father and brother in the middle. The radio was on in the front of the car, and my uncle was explaining about “payoffs” when my brother snapped, “You’re stupid.”

There was some swerving and yelling, and Kenny didn’t know whether to cry. My brother’s cramped position – also as firstborn and family genius – he eventually won a Nobel – kept any hand from being raised to smack him.

In November, Kennedy won the election. Three years later, after skipping my senior year of high school, I felt the same dizziness again. I was a freshman at a college where tests were administered on a non-proctoring honor system, so it was a shock when our French professor entered, crying, “Ah, mademoiselles, on a assassine Le President!”

Even before we’d left New Hampshire, I knew my aunt had been wrong about swimming spreading the rash. In time, I ripened and mastered Cat’s Cradle, studied geometric topology, and won a minor award in 2007 for a paper chronicling the 1867 faulty atomic theory known as the Tait conjectures that quantum theory eclipsed for awhile. By the end of the 20th century, knot theory had reemerged. Useful regarding DNA and polymers in biology and chemistry, its related braid theory figured in the development of quantum computers’ resistance to decoherence.

My father’s license was suspended during my college freshman year, but thereafter he practiced medicine until he died the year I was pregnant with my firstborn. To his wake, one of his immigrant patients who had paid in barter since the 50’s, brought jugs of homemade wine and frozen packages of deer he’d hunted. A Guinness World Record for stone skipping was set in 1992, thirty-eight bounces, filmed on the Blanco River in Texas, bested once in 2007 and twice in 2014. Galileo and Newton had gotten the laws of motion moving, but it was a French physicist who developed a formula for estimating how many times a stone would skip based on spin and speed. The key to a good skip, Lyderic Bocquet said in 2004, lay in spinning the stone. Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a HyperSoar airplane, which would skip along Earth’s upper atmosphere at five to twelve times the speed of sound.

In 2010, Boeing was reported designing an experimental military weapon that could fly twenty-five miles above Earth, then drift up into space and down again. When it hit the denser air of the upper atmosphere, it would bounce back up like a stone hitting water. Eighteen skips would be enough to get HyperSoar from Chicago to Rome in seventy-two minutes. As of June, 2015, the U.S. military was reportedly developing such a new hypersonic vehicle that could take flight by 2023, building upon research from a 2013 test flight of the experimental X-51A Waverider..1

What’s it to be, then, sorrow over the depths to which a stone may sink or celebration of its defiance of gravity? Kathy surprised me by calling at the very end of that August at the beginning of the 60’s. She put her phone up to her radio and told me to listen to the song that had just come on, the one we’d sung to each other all summer. Then with the radio in the background, Kathy sang and once again together we imitated Brenda Lee’s melodious growling of Sweet Nothings.

1. US Military’s Hypersonic Jet Could Fly 5 Times the Speed of Sound


L. Shapley Bassen’s “Portrait of a Giant Squid” was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. Her “What Can the Matter Be?” was the title/featured story in the special Kenyon Review Poetics of Science issue. She is Fiction Editor for Prick of the Spindle and the author of the novel Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media) and Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press) ) and the January, 2017 publication of a new novella/story collection, Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and others. A native New Yorker, she’s grateful now to be living in Roger Williams’s Rhode Island. She can be found at lsbassen.com

 

 

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