Paul Lask is a writer, musician and kayak instructor living in San Francisco. Feel free to contact him here.

The Northerners

posted Dec 3, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I found this camera in the woods yesterday. I was out at the Whitetail Forest Preserve, where I've been walking while giving Jean her space. Her recent routine has been to come home after dropping Claire off at school. She stays here reading or sleeping or marathon watching seasons of shows on Netflix, until picking her back up. She has her walks, too. She likes to tell me all about them--the still-flat rear tire of the RV in the neighbor's driveway, or some kids playing catch with a football. But it's a dangerous excitement. It bottoms out by nighttime, and I won't reach her again for a day or two.

The storm will pass. They all do. But instead of staying home and increasing tension I now and then pretend to be out on a job, but a lot of the time I'm actually walking, too. It's November now and the leaves have dropped and the ground is harder. I sometimes miss fall in the city, but after Jean's mom passed we could no longer live in her mom's three flat. It was too much. So I finally bought the used truck I'd always wanted, which wasn't any specific truck, and talked Jean into moving to my parent's town in southern Wisconsin. My argument was three pronged: the air was good, the living simpler, the schools better for her daughter.

But the camera. I could see its silver edge peeking out from under a carpet of leaves. It had been rained on and the tiny screws were rusted and it didn't turn on. I knew I had to get it to the Walgreens; I'd take out the memory stick and install it into one of the camera stations. But I didn't want to know right away. I wanted to let it build. So instead I drove over to the Menards my dad works at.

There are sometimes jobs posted on the bulletin board by people too old to use the internet, someone needing their gutters cleaned or house painted. I do have a somewhat steady maintenance contract for the Alpine Oaks Apartments. The Oaks are twenty-plus units of two flats whose outer wood baseboards gray squirrels chew into. The manager has hired a landscaping crew to fight rodents and tend the lawns, and is cheap with the rest of the maintenance--only so many walls need fresh coats of whitewash or dishwashing machines need tinkering or roof holes need tarring. I've been watching the sky for the snow to begin. I've already got the plow on the front of the truck, and my old man says I'll get at least the west half of the Menards parking lot.


We drank vending machine coffees in the employee lounge, which is in the middle of the store, sectioned off by four low walls that anyone taller than five foot can peek over. I pay gawkers no attention.

"How's Jeanie doing?" Dad asked.

"She's alright," I said.

Over the years the shame and sadness have been eased out of Dad's eyes. He hasn't touched booze since '90, the summer we lost Katie. He kept working, stayed on his feet, and him and mom long ago cut swear words out of their vocabulary, meanwhile training themselves to hold their posture well. I myself sometimes curse. I often have to think about sitting or standing up straight, especially when selling a job. Even people paying you to haul out their old washer and dryer don't want a slouch doing it.

"You let things go on too long, they blow up," he said.

"She's alright," I said.


"Fine. They're doing gingerbread houses in a couple weeks. Jean says she's gonna help out."

"And work?"

"She's looking."


"She saw something online about restocking those dispensers that spit out coupons in the grocery store aisles."

"Eric," my dad said, "she was a teacher. A good one, from what you've said. You need to get her back into a school, at least as a substitute or after school tutor or something."

"She's doing the gingerbread thing in a couple weeks," I reminded him.

Dad shifted his paper coffee cup a few inches across the plastic table.

He lowered his voice some. "People think you're living on her inheritance," he said.

"When did you care what people thought?" I shot back.

But I knew he cared what people thought. It's why he left Illinois in the first place. Why he and mom had Sarah, to fill the space of Katie's void and recreate the initial family. Why he steady goes to the mega-church and volunteers for security detail twice a week.

"It's not about what people think," he said. "It's about you need to take care of that girl while she's down."

"I am, Dad. It's almost been a year, since--"

"You can't put a time on these things," he said, taking a sip.

A co-worker stepped into the lounge and nodded towards the window and doors section, where Dad works.

"Got a guy looking at some Pellas," the co-worker, his blue cashier vest decorated with pins, said.

"I've got to get back," he said. "You out at the Oaks today?"

I of course didn't tell him about the camera I'd just found. I didn't answer his question directly, either.

"Need that snow to hit," I said. "We're still good on the west half?"

"Far as I've been told," he said. "You can have my coffee if you want." Then stood up and headed back to work.

My old man is good at selling people things. He has the thick sort of belly that to me suggests health and inspires trust, like the plaid or flannel shirts he wears tucked into his jeans. Since he's technically a vendor, he doesn't have to wear the silly blue vest. Though thin and white at the temples, he's kept most of his gunmetal gray hair, and part of easing the sadness from his eyes has been training them not to dart around. All this is to say women find him attractive, and that, though he acts otherwise, this is a quiet source of conflict for him: your dad could have any of those sad mega-church women, Jean once said.

I took the opportunity to leave, seeing as he was being pushy. As a salesman he's good at changing faces, and it's best when he's in one of his bullshitting or superficial sexist moods. He surprised me some by bringing up the inheritance. I wanted to remind him we're renting, and that our biggest purchase has been my five thousand dollar truck, and that her mom's three-flat sold for just over half a million. I wanted to remind him that Claire is in a regular public school here in Lakeland, not the private one over in East Troy.

Instead I walked over and interrupted his sale, knowing that would just help his sale; it was a guy older than Dad, who I knew would appreciate the father/son thing. I told him I'd see him and ma Wednesday for dinner. I'd said ma intentionally, because this too helps the sale.

The old guy had watery blue eyes and strong-looking hands and faded red suspenders. He was probably going to try and install the window or hang the storm door himself. He gave a smile of approval, and I wondered at how well capitalism and the traditional family unit jell.

Read the next installment