- Pages: 400 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9781101625989
An Excerpt From
The Lake Effect
WANTED: Strong eighteen-year-old guy with reliable means of transportation and reasonable handyman skills to work for eighty-four-year-old widow in relatively good, if controversial, health at her house on Lake Michigan. Candidate must enjoy swimming, sunsets, beach volleyball, girls in cowboy hats, attending funerals, blue paint, things that jiggle, flamingoes, small dogs, new words, Episcopalians, noodle kugel, losing friends, losing family, and watching his life as he knows it pretty much come to an end. Knowledge of the intestinal tract, including the role of the ileum, helpful but not required. Smokers and tourists need not apply.
This wasn’t the ad for the job I took last summer.
But it should have been.
It was a couple weeks before graduation when I got the job working for Mrs. B. I’d been bussing tables, part-time, at Cascade Country Club for four years by then. I worked like a dog, but the money was good. Especially after big parties. I always went home with tips and phone numbers from women who wanted me to meet their daughters. I didn’t call them, because what was I going to do? Say, “Hi, I’m the guy who schlepped your mom’s dirty dishes all night. Want to go out sometime?” Plus I had a girlfriend—for a while—and, anyway, that’s not how I wanted to meet someone. Still, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge ego feed.
Moms loved me. Especially Taylor’s mom, who called me a catch, which really pissed off Taylor, which kind of amused me. “Does she think I would go out with someone who isn’t a catch?” she asked me one night back in April, ten days before we broke up.
But, yeah, moms loved me, including my own, I’m not embarrassed to say. She bragged I had a million-dollar smile. Dad called it a $5,600-smile, which is what they paid for my braces in eighth grade. $5,651 to be exact. Dad reminded me enough times and gave me all sorts of grief, a couple years later, for chewing gum, until I finally just quit. I mean, I get it. $5,651 is a ton of money. Especially for someone else’s teeth.
Grandma Ruth just said chewing gum in public was common. As if common was a dirty word.
My smile and Grandma Ruth got me the job with Mrs. B. There wasn’t an old lady in the world I couldn’t charm after handling Grandma Ruth all my life. I learned to fake this kind of carefree, easygoing, unbothered smile just for her. Fake it till you make it, my dad said, and he would know. I mean, carefree, easygoing, and unbothered were three things no one ever felt around the woman. More like tense, tired, and dyspeptic, which is a word I learned at the beach. Before I got the job with Mrs. B., I just said sick to my stomach.
My smile came from playing cards with my grandmother for hours on end, watching HGTV, and force-feeding myself jars of her homemade grape jelly, which I’m pretty sure she made with toadstools and piss.
She was my babysitter—her house, after school and every weekend—from the ages of nine to eleven when Mom and Dad were swamped by life. There was no saying no to Grandma Ruth. Not even no, thank you. She was kind of a fascist, and my parents were not part of the resistance movement. Too busy to take sides. So I learned to get along. With a smile. Like you do with dictators when you really just want to be left alone.
I honed it over the years—this smile—and developed others, especially when I went to work at a country club. I learned from going out with Taylor that every expression has meaning behind it. My Country Club Smile said, No matter how nasty, demanding, or bat-shit crazy you are, I can get along because I’m getting paid, and one of us is leaving soon, so [big smile] how may I help you?
One of the women at the club—Mrs. Conkright, overly tanned and dripping with gold—always told me after her two-martini lunches how much she liked my smile. “Oh, that smile, Briggs. The hearts you’re going to break with that smile.” She’d press her hands flat against her chest—jewelry clinking—and add, “Mine is already one of them.” And she was, like, fifty, and married, so this was just the game, you know?
My dad always said that much of life was a game, so it was important to know the rules.
Mrs. Conkright owned an elder-care advocacy company and had recently been hired by Mrs. B. to find suitable live-in help for ten weeks over the summer. Mrs. B. owned a house on the beach in South Haven, here in Michigan, that needed some minor work. She didn’t drive but wasn’t ready for assisted living, and really only lived in the house from late spring through summer. She had a second place somewhere warm for the rest of the year. When Mrs. Conkright learned I’d done my senior-year service project volunteering at Bluestone Court Assisted Living Center—and smiling till my face hurt—she hired me on the spot.
“Try not to break her heart,” she said to me, after telling me a little about Mrs. B., and I said, “She’ll probably end up breaking mine.”
Mrs. Conkright grinned at her lunch companions and said, “Ladies, what did I tell you?”
She gave me a ten-dollar tip, which I put in the tip pool. She also gave me her niece’s phone number, which I put in my pocket and only threw out after she left.
I mastered a bunch of different Old People Smiles at Bluestone Court, which my dad called Bluehair Court, like it was the punchline to the most hilarious joke he’d ever told. I had to be careful not to say it that way when I was there. His jokes had a way of sinking into my mind, whether I wanted them to or not.
There was my:
• There’s My Girl Smile
• Why, Yes, I’d Love Another Hug Smile
• All Right, Law & Order’s On . . . Again! Smile
• Your Granddaughters Are Beautiful Smile
• Yeah, You Farted and We All Heard It Smile
• No, Nixon Is Not the Current President Smile
• Yes, I Would Love to Hear Again How You Met Your Husband Smile
• Cards? I’ll Deal Smile
And the classic . . .
• Yes, It Is a Good Day to Be Alive Smile.
At home, it was pretty much just my Yeah, Dad, You’re a Hoot Smile, 24/7.
I met Mrs. B. a week after graduation, which came and went much faster than I thought it would. Senior year was crazy busy, crazy stressful. Then suddenly it was over. It was graduation morning, and I didn’t have school, swimming, baseball, studying, volunteering, stressing, work. I had this whole day with nothing but the ceremony that evening, so I made coffee for my parents and then had coffee with my parents and kept thinking, Man, this feels weird. For the last two years, we all had mismatched schedules. First one up—that was me—made coffee. Last one to leave—that was Mom—washed the pot. We only drank coffee together on Christmas. On every other holiday or weekend, at least two of us were working. The other was sleeping in.
I was quiet until Dad said he wasn’t proud of me. As only my dad could. Mom and I smiled to let him know we found him funny.
Mom listed some of my highlights from the year:
• class president
• ranked ninth academically
• captain of the baseball team
• co-captain of the swimming team
• double letter winner
• Academic All-State baseball
• Scholar Athlete of the Year
• homecoming king
• full academic scholarship to the University of Michigan
• makes coffee every morning
“And he remembers to put the toilet seat down,” she said. “Our son’s quite a catch, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.”
Dad didn’t look up from the newspaper when he said, “Are we supposed to be proud?”
“You’ve got to admit it’s a good list,” I said to him.
“It’s not a bad list.”
“It’s a good list,” Mom said. And she would know. She lives by lists.
Dad put the paper down and dropped his hands on top of it. “It’s high school,” he said to Mom. “I have always expected our son to do well in high school and graduate, so, no, I am not proud of him for doing what was expected.” Then he reached out his long arms—I inherited his build, his height, but Mom’s light coloring—and rubbed my head and said, “Ah, you need a haircut.”
And since I always wore my hair super short, he found this hilarious.
Such a cut-up, my dad.
To me he said, “If you were a halfwit, then I’d be proud of you.”
“If I were a halfwit, you’d have to be one too,” I said. “You know. Apples and apple trees and all that.”
Mom said, “If the two of you were halfwits, I’d have put whiskey in this coffee.”
She put a splash in whenever Grandma Ruth dropped by. Not that she was a halfwit. She was just Grandma Ruth. And she liked to show up unannounced. Always unannounced. And she left the same way. Without warning. Coming or going, she was like the wind. The wind or diarrhea.
This was my family. The Henrys. We had expectations. We achieved. We catalogued our successes, and we never needed our hair cut. We were a riot at Thanksgiving too.