String of Fish
by Shannon M. Turner
My grandmother spent the last six years of her life sitting in a rocking chair, worrying over how she could have raised a daughter who would do something like she did. She would pull me into quiet, furtive conversations in her bedroom. I tried to reassure her that there was nothing about the money we missed, but I was hiding my own grief as well. No matter how bored I thought I was, that place was a part of the fabric of my life. And then it was just gone.
Sometimes, though, late on a hot summer night, I go outside and look up at the stars to remember.
I remember camping outside the lake house in a tent Papaw would put up for me. I can still taste my grandmother’s peach jam, see her gnarled, crooked fingers already washing dishes before breakfast was over. I remember the feeling of lying out on the warm wood of the deck as the water knocked underneath, a book resting on my chest.
And the sound of cicadas so loud they could almost drive you mad.
I’m lying in Aunt Dianne’s walk-in closet on a summer day. It’s sticky hot outside, but cool inside here. I’m tucked between her shoes and a paper sack.
The sack is why I’m here; it’s full of romance novels.
At first I thought other members of the house would notice and be alarmed that I have started consuming such filth. I don’t exactly try to conceal it. One day, out of sheer boredom with morning game shows, I casually picked up Aunt Dianne’s book and started reading it. My grandmother was sitting right there. Although, admittedly, her sight was already starting to go bad.
No one said a thing. I begin carrying around the books from room to room, outside onto the porch, down to the dock, reading for hours at a time. Why isn’t anyone bothered by this? Maybe, I think, they don’t want to shame me for reading anything, period. Maybe they are afraid of being hypocritical by saying Aunt Dianne reads something that is bad.
And finally, it occurs to me that actually no one is paying attention at all.
I am fourteen years old. My sister and I are on our annual two-week visit to my grandmother’s house on Laurel Mountain Lake in Madisonville, TN. It is a manmade lake dug out of the top of a mountain. It takes hours to get there.
Summer before, I had a similar reading binge with my grandmother’s Reader’s Digests, getting particularly invested in the “Drama in Real Life” section. I nearly made myself sick and wild-eyed on stories of the 8-year-old boy bitten by rattlesnakes or the woman trapped in a tractor that became electrified after hitting a transformer.
This year, however, I am clearly in a different place in my life. Especially because I have come here straight from a United Methodist Youth Assembly at Hiwasee College, where my giant crush on Patrick Suggs has left me forlorn and waiting for the mail like a war bride.
When Aunt Dianne comes home, we can go fishing. The days here, they stretch on and on. Her job at the bank keeps her away until about 5:00 or so. Most of the time, she doesn’t seem to like me very much.
Dianne is a little, rotund woman with dark hair and skinny ankles. Most of the members of my father’s family are built this way. All are less than average height, have round bellies, thick shoulders, broad backs and oddly misshapen rear ends. Misshapen in that they are somehow both large and flat at the same time. We stand atop strangely muscular thighs tapering down into shapely calves and delicate ankles. Aunt Dianne is the prototype of the Turner model. While she’s in her late forties, she somehow seems much older.
One day in particular, we decide to fish off Mrs. Baker’s deck, a few houses up the cove from ours. We have been quiet together in our canoe for a while, but the fishing was good earlier. We’ve caught several blue gill, a few red gill, and one decent-sized bass. All of our bounty is hanging off the side of the boat, swimming alongside us on a chain. Periodically, the chain shifts and scrapes the side of the boat as the fish wriggle, trying to get away. This is the most fish I’ve ever participated in catching in one day, so I’m pretty excited.
I shift over to stare down into the water at the fish as they swim alongside us. The lake is murky green, and I can only vaguely see their shapes swimming with us. I undo the clasp and pull up the chain so that I can examine the fish all together again. They are such beautiful, ancient-looking creatures, shining and pearlescent in the late evening sun. Water drips off their feathery tails. They begin to flop around, struggling for air, cascading water onto me and all over the boat. I quickly try to put them back in the water, but the chain with the clasp slips out of my hand, into the lake.
The whole string is gone. Dianne looks at me and then, incredulous, we both look back at the concentric circles spreading out where the chain has disappeared. When she looks back up at me, she rolls her eyes, conveying disdain so effectively she might as well be raging mad.
The thing I eventually learn about the romance novel, whether it’s a modern one that’s only about a half-inch thick or one of the meaty, two-inch thick bodice rippers with Fabio on the cover is that they’re all built on a similar formula.
The characters meet or, often, are thrown together in some circumstances beyond their control.
They immediately dislike each other. Why do they dislike each other? This part of the formula confuses me. In fact, it profoundly impacts my interactions with men for years to come.
Despite their dislike or distrust, they find themselves drawn together by attraction and sexual tension.
They continue to be, “thrust together” by their circumstances. [“Thrust” is a word that you have to come to really embrace in the romance novel world.]
Eventually, unable to control the “mounting” energy any longer, they have sex for the first time. In the book, the first sex scene is generally the lengthiest and most explicit in its imagery. Somehow there are always these mysterious “juices” involved. I pour over these scenes, trying to understand the juices. [“Mount” is also an important vocab word in Romance 101.]
After a time of getting to know one another and adding more characters/complications, separation must occur - a misunderstanding, a battle, a kidnapping, a turn of the screw. During this time of separation, the man generally comes to understand how much he loves and cannot live without his woman. The separation which causes the man to crave and seek out his woman, yearning to partner with her forever, is also something that screws me up for years. It makes every break-up become painfully protracted as I wait and fantasize that my fellow will change his mind and see the error of his ways.
Resolution - The man rescues the woman from physical peril, the universe is restored, the two characters are returned to one another, are married. All is made right. Unless there is a sequel.
I’m not sure what to do about the string of fish. A rescue or recapture attempt was beyond us. It’s not that big of a deal in the long run, I guess, but Aunt Dianne just seems so annoyed with me. She seems annoyed a lot actually. I’m not quite sure why.
For years, I’ve somehow known that Dianne was married when she was very young, but it ended in a nasty divorce. Her husband was caught in bed with another man’s wife, and the man beat him up pretty bad. I don’t know how I know this. I can’t remember anyone telling me.
Dianne got a job in a bank in the town nearby. My grandparents built an addition onto their house for her with its own garage, kitchen, and the walk-in closet. But Papaw died just a few years later, and she was his favorite. The fact that Aunt Dianne was his favorite will factor prominently into this story years later.
I think about what a paradox it was, the way Dianne seemed to be kind of annoyed with me a lot, and then that she would spend so much time with me when I was there. I mean, I know I was underfoot, but she didn’t have to do all those evening activities with me. Did she wish that she had children of her own and therefore secretly resent me and my sister, Jenni, and all that we represented? Did she wish she was still young? Or was she just the center of her own universe?
It was in these summers after Papaw died that the time there stretched out during the days. Aunt Dianne would go to work in the mornings, and Jenni and I were faced with hours of The Price is Right, Days of Our Lives, or the midday news from WBIR in Knoxville. Outside, we could walk the 2-mile loop around the lake, take the paddleboat out, or wait for an adult to be willing to take us swimming at the other end of the lake. We weren’t allowed to go swimming by ourselves for fear we would drown.
My dad and Aunt Dianne had a sister, Aunt Rosemary, who fell down a flight of steps when she was a young girl. The fall left her with a brain injury that lessened her mental and emotional capacity for the rest of her life.
In the first years after her divorce, Aunt Dianne lived in a trailer, but eventually she moved out; Aunt Rosemary moved in. Rosemary had lived with my grandparents and in assistance facilities for most of her adult life, but the trailer began her only phase of independent living.
Most of the summers we would come visit at the lake, Aunt Rosemary was there too. Periodically during the long days, she would come “check on me.” I would be reading, watching TV, tinkering with something, and along would come Rosemary’s heavy, plodding steps through the house. She would stop, find me with her giant, bespectacled eyes, and then we would stare each other down. In my teenage years, because I didn’t understand her, I deeply resented this action.
Had she never been injured, Rosemary would have been the boss of everyone. While Aunt Dianne had the quintessential Turner body, Rosemary’s personality was like every member of the family—amplified. Bossy, stubborn, nosy, into your business.
I think that’s what she fancied herself doing when she came to find me with her eyes. She was supervising me. I did not appreciate being supervised as a teenager. One time when she came to stare at me, unable to take it any longer, I looked back at her and snapped, “What?”
In my adult life, I have gone on quite a journey in relation to that moment, from shame to justification to finally acceptance that it was just a regrettable teenage moment.
After I finish off my fifth of the novels, I understand the formula and immediately grow tired of reading the whole story.
Which is how I wind up in Aunt Dianne’s closet.
I’ve ascertained that if you flip through the first third and look for long passages with no dialogue, then it’s pretty easy to find the sex scenes. I go through the whole paper sack in an afternoon. Later in the afternoon, I finally emerge from the closet to go to the bathroom. When I wipe “down there”, in a blinding epiphany like Paul on the Road to Damascus, I finally figure out what those mysterious juices are.
Other things that break up the long days at the lake are the occasional trip to town, family from down in the country coming to visit, and of course there is church. It’s incredible how the days and hours can stretch on, making a trip to Wal-mart feel like Disney World.
But when Aunt Dianne comes home, fun things commence. Fishing, swimming, canoeing. Every once in a while, when all evening activities have been exhausted, she sits and brushes my hair for a long time as we loll about in polyester nightgowns under the fan and fluorescent light in the kitchen. We are trying to mesmerize ourselves toward sleepiness, despite the encroaching cicadas, the natural restlessness of summer.
Aunt Dianne even knows how to sing crazy songs. When I trip, she sings, “She flew through the air with the greatest of ease.” Later on in life, I came to know that song as being about the girl on the trapeze. It has a verse about how the girl was “just seventeen and already divorced.” Thinking back, I wonder if that’s why Dianne loved that song.
At the end of the summer visit after I lose the string of fish, I don’t know what gets into me—I am going through a phase—but as we are packing up to leave, I decide I really want one of Dianne’s shirts. I don’t know why, but I just want it. Maybe I am trying to get her back for being so annoyed at me.
The flaw in my larceny is that it is the shirt hanging right in the front of the walk-in closet. It is the first thing you see. So, when she comes home from work after we leave, she notices immediately it’s gone. We stop at Aunt Rosemary’s trailer on the way home. Dianne calls. They ask me if I know what’s happened to the shirt. I feign ignorance of course.
And then, in an act that I can only describe as grace, they take me out for ice cream. Before I leave, I hide my suitcase because I know what’s up, but I am still trying to cover up my crime. When we get back home, I open up the suitcase. The shirt’s gone. Nothing else is said.
It’s almost like this is my one-time free pass, and I know it. This is not the person you’re meant to be. By not calling it out, they have shamed me even more than if they punished me. I never stole anything again.
I wish I could say the same for Aunt Dianne. Eventually, she got me back. She got us all back.
Even though I was smart enough to figure out the formula of romance novels at such a young age, it took me years to understand the grand deception of it all. The people are always beautiful. A lot of the women have dark, auburn hair and green eyes, which by the way, is genetically unlikely. The men are always sinewy, and even when I looked up the word “sinew” in the dictionary, I still don’t quite understand what that means.
The main characters are always white; they are always a man and a woman. Sometimes their sex scenes take place in bizarre, ridiculous, and what I can only ascertain would actually be quite uncomfortable places.
Very little genuine conversation takes place between the hero and heroine. The man grunts and stalks off when she offends him, then turns around, grabs her, and smashes a kiss on her mouth to quiet her yammering. The whole plot is built on misunderstandings. The couple never parries about what to cook for dinner, health insurance, retirement plans, or when would be the appropriate time to meet her kids from a previous marriage.
But by far, the biggest deception is the ongoing insistence about the rescue. As soon as these stories started to seep into my consciousness, my whole worldview contorted. In order to prove love exists, and will be enduring, the man must rescue her physically, while she generally rescues and resurrects him emotionally. The idea that two people who are on their own paths to self-fulfillment might meet and choose to walk the path side by side is, well, undramatic I suppose.
The deception is ubiquitous, insidious. I think about all those women over the years, clandestinely meeting in church parking lots and office break rooms, passing romance novels off to each other in paper sacks like they were drugs. Before the Internet and audio books put a dent in the market, this was their sexual education. No one else would tell them. Marriages were unfulfilling; they had no access to their own sexual power. They poured over these stories as a gateway to sexual energy. At what sacrifice? Aligning themselves with pouty, petulant women who waited in their turrets for rescue.
Years later, a man named Blake from Upstate New York moved to the lake, and before any of us understood what was happening, he and Aunt Dianne were in love. He rescued her from ongoing spinsterhood.
The first time he came to visit our house before they got married, they stood and kissed—juicy, smacking kisses—in the hallway before going to separate bedrooms. I wondered if maybe they were just putting on a good Methodist show with the separate bedrooms. I did know what went on in her romance novels after all.
They were married within the year and took off in an Airstream trailer to see the country months at a time. Meanwhile, my grandmother went blind, and Rosemary had a stroke. Dad moved them in with him.
One day, when my dad was at work, Aunt Dianne and her husband showed up and took my blind grandmother to a lawyer and got her to sign over the deed to her house. They turned around and sold it immediately. Dianne was so afraid that she was going to lose her birthright as Papaw’s favorite, that she stole it before my grandmother was even dead.
I haven’t been back to the lake since then.
Despite our past antagonism, Rosemary and I became great buddies in my adulthood. I was her traveling companion. On trips, we would get in the car and start driving each day to a new adventure, sometimes with amazing vistas laid out before us, and within five minutes, Rosemary would be fast asleep, snoring on my shoulder.
We even went to Hawaii to find Elvis impersonators. When one of them took the scarf from around his neck and placed it around her shoulders, while singing “Wise men say only fools rush in…”, and kissed her ruddy cheeks, I’m pretty sure I had the privilege to witness the best moment of Rosemary’s life. She got off the plane, yelling to my father across the airport, “Elvis kissed me! Elvis kissed me!” Given that this was 2004, my father looked at me with great confusion.
One day, when I was in grad school, I got the call. Aunt Rosemary had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My parents brought her to visit after she started treatment, already beginning to lose her hair. I took her out wig shopping. I teased her that this was a great opportunity to experiment with a different style from what her frizzy, permed brown hair had been. I pointed at the long, blonde curly wigs, raised an eyebrow and teased, “Dolly Parton?” She just looked at me like I’d lost my darned mind, pointed at one that looked exactly like her, and asked flatly, “How much is the ticket on that one?”
Rosemary died the following spring, without her wig on. We were all there, standing around her hospital bed. It had been three years since the house was gone.
In the last minutes of her life, as her heartbeat began to fade, we all stood, held hands, and sang “Amazing Grace” to ease Aunt Rosemary across. Of course it ended up that I was standing next to Dianne.
My mother looked at me across the circle, willing me with her eyes to hold Dianne’s hand. I hated this woman so much. I wanted to yell at her, pelt her with truths about how she had ripped our family apart, about what she’d done to her mother, and deep down how betrayed I felt. Looking at my own mom, I knew that would never happen. This moment was for all of us. I reached over and took Dianne’s hand. Because that’s what you do when you’re part of a family.
My grandmother spent the last six years of her life sitting in a rocking chair, worrying over it all. She would pull me into quiet, furtive conversations in her bedroom, afraid we wouldn’t have anything when she was gone. I tried to reassure her that there was nothing about the money in the house we missed. However, I tried equally hard to hide my grief at no longer being able to visit the house itself. No matter how bored I thought I was when I was there, that place was a part of the fabric of my life, and of my family. And then it was just gone.
Sometimes, though, late on a hot summer night, I go outside and look up at the stars to remember. I remember camping outside the lake house in a tent Papaw would put up for me. Waking in the morning to stumble back inside and find the aunts bickering in the kitchen. I can still taste my grandmother’s peach jam, see her gnarled, crooked fingers that could curve into the corner of a mayonnaise jar just to get the last out, clean a turkey carcass to the barest of bones. The feeling of lying out on the warm wood of the deck as the water knocked underneath, a romance novel lying on my chest.
I imagine the string of fish still swimming together at the bottom of the lake, awkwardly pulling and bumping their way along, learning to live, tethered together. If they didn’t do that, surely they must have died quickly.