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Your Oasis on Flame Lake


At our twentieth high-school reunion last summer, BiDi and Devera were both voted "Least Changed." They pranced around the stage giggling, pumping their cheap little trophies in the air like they had won the Stanley Cup or something.

BiDi did look good, standing on tiptoe in red high-heeled shoes with no backs, her tight little body squeezed into this red leather dress. ("It's leatherlike," she explained later while we stood eating Triscuits and Colby cheese at the buffet table, "and I sweat three pounds off every time I wear the thing.")

Devera looks the same in the face--she should, the jars of Noxema she pickles herself in--but you can't tell me her body looks like it did when she was doing back flips on the Rebelettes squad. When she's got her clothes off, you have to wonder: How does skin pucker around a butt like that? When did her breasts take that drop in altitude?

If I asked her, she'd probably say something like, "If you don't like the view, don't look."

The thing is, I do. I'm just curious about gravity's toll is all.

Once we were dancing at King Olaf's Hideway and I said whoa, no more of that shimmying--all that loose flesh is going to pop me in the face. She just about popped me in the face after I said that, but instead she grabbed the car keys right out of my sports-coat pocket and gunned out of the parking lot, the gravel under the wheels flying like confetti. I had to hitch a ride home with Glen Pauley, an insurance agent who likes to talk about his work, as if normal people are fascinated by actuarial tables and annuities.

Devera married me the day after her twenty-first birthday. We both were going to White Falls State, but she had been thinking of transferring her credits to "somewhere exotic"--the Sorbonne or the University of Cairo or UCLA"--but then her dad, Evan "Fair Shake" Bergdahl, was robbed and pistol-whipped (with a toy gun, but Dad Evan said when you're smacked in the face you can't tell the difference between real and fake). After that, Devera put her plans of exotic study on "temporary hold" and decided to stay home.

"Always remember," Devera reminds me, holding up two crossed fingers, "Daddy and I are like this."

I always answer back with my standard joke. "Easy for him, he's not married to you."

They caught the guy who robbed Dad Evan; he was holed up in a shack on Uncle's Lake, ice-fishing and drinking Champale. They arrested him on a bunch of charges, including assault, robbery, and fishing without a license. They must have tagged him for exceeding the limit, too--Sheriff Buck told me there were over two dozen northerns and crappies swimming around in pails in that icehouse. At his trial I wanted to ask the guy what he used for bait but Dad Evan would not understand any mingling with the accused. He takes loyalty very seriously, and I take my new-model Caddies and the future ownership of Viking Automotive pretty seriously myself. I'm in line to run Viking Appliance and Norse Man Liquors, too, but it's the dealership I care most about, being a natural at car sales. So of course, I just sat there quietly in the courtroom, bored, with Devera and her hysterical mother, Helen.

"Just look at that man," she'd say, shredding Kleenex like a hamster. "If he's not put away for life, he'll come after us for the final revenge."

The poor guy was French-Canadian, and his accent, you can bet, added a couple of years onto his sentence. Around White Falls, people tend to think you can judge a book by its cover and foreign accents are most often up to something.

After our wedding reception, Dad Evan and Helen drove us out to a three-bedroom ranch house on Flame Lake. The front door was wrapped in ribbon like a present and Dad Evan tossed me the deed like it was spare change. Dad Evan likes to give big presents away as if he's doing nothing more than picking up a check for pie and coffee. It burns me--his Mr. Casual act--so I go right along with it, like it's no big deal. Of course, as a bridegroom of twenty-two, I hadn't figured this out yet and I jumped right along with Devera, hugging and kissing him like he was Monte Hall.

Last fall we bought a bigger lot and built a new house--five bedrooms and a sauna in the basement--on the east side of the lake, because Devera thought it was time to move up. My wife keeps our upward mobility on a tight schedule.

At thirty-nine, Devvie is going through an early midlife crisis. It's harder on me than our daughter's puberty. The things I'm sure would please her--a "greatest hits" disco CD, a bottle of Jungle Gardenia--now make her cry or get mad. She says things like, "Have I ossified?"

To answer her I sniff the air. "I thought I smelled something."

She started taking some night courses (she says just because she earned a degree doesn't mean she learned anything) and she takes a book wherever she goes. She tried to read at the dinner table, and even my daughters backed me up in letting her know there is a limit to rudeness.

I'm hoping it's a passing stage. When we moved to the new house, she threw out her little plastic "Least Changed" trophy, saying she now considered that award an insult. I've noticed BiDi still has hers in the glass-and-walnut display case Sergio built for Franny's hockey honors.

Our daughter Lin won't have anything to do with Franny; she calls her a dork with a capital "d" which perturbs Dev and BiDi, who'd like their best friend thing to be passed down to the daughters. I get along okay with Sergio, but I'd known Big Mike, BiDi's first husband, since the second grade, so there was this loyalty thing there. Big Mike and BiDi divorced about four years ago. Big Mike said he needed his freedom. He told me this one late-October day when we were laying on our stomachs in a duck blind. I almost shot my arm off, I was so shocked.

"Freedom from BiDi? What are you--crazy?"

The wad of tobacco Big Mike always had in his mouth traveled the length of his lower lip. "She's a lot different at home, Dick."

"I'll bet," I said, wiggling my eyebrows.

Big Mike laughed and waved his gun at the autumn sky, a big full blue.

"Damn ducks know we're here," he said. "They've changed their flight pattern." His tongue poked the chew into the corner of his mouth. "Believe me," he said, squinting up at the sky, "BiDi puts on a hell of a show, but at home it's like living with a warden. That big cookie jar? The one that's shaped like a caboose that she made in ceramics? Every time I do something that bugs her, I gotta put a quarter in it. A quarter if I chew in the house. A quarter if I don't put the toilet seat down. A quarter if I drink more'n two beers a night. Christ, pretty soon it'll cost a quarter just to put my arms around her."

I wanted to pursue this, but Big Mike just shook his head and spit out a slimy wad of tobacco.

BiDi went through sort of a wild period after the divorce was finalized and Big Mike moved to Wisconsin; she was out dancing at King Olaf's almost every night, getting drunk with strikers from the meatpacking plant and truck drivers who had pulled off the interstate.

Sergio had a booth at a confections and chocolate convention in Fargo and came across King Olaf's on his way down to Minneapolis. He and BiDi were married three weeks later, in our backyard, under a trellis Devera made me rig up. BiDi wore a dress that looked as if it would transfer straight to the honeymoon, no problem. Pastor Egeqvist miffed a line or two; put a cleavage like that in front of any man--of the cloth or not--he's going to get flustered.

Sergio started up a store on Main Street--about five blocks from the car lot--and he's done so well that he's thinking of going national. He'll become a rich man off chocolate cakes, of all things. They are good, though, and I'm not all that big on chocolate in the first place (unlike my wife). Sergio says the original recipe came from his Spanish grandmother who fell in love with a Viennese baker.

Sergio's family has led dramatic lives--his father was an opera singer who lost the use of his voice during his first week in America. He was mugged and punched in the throat by some thug wearing brass knuckles (whenever I think of that story, my hand automatically goes to my Adam's apple). His mother was a psychic, but Sergio says if she had a gift for it, she never unwrapped it. She died last year in a bus crash, an accident, Sergio points out, she obviously failed to predict.

Sergio's an interesting guy, but, man, he's got way too much energy for me. I think the only time he sits down for an extended period is when he's driving his car. Ask him to shoot a game of pool with you and you'll get dizzy watching him run around the table.

Franny's nuts about Sergio, even though she's Big Mike from her shoe size (huge) to her skill on the hockey rink. (Big Mike's hat trick won White Falls its first and only state high-school championship.)

BiDi told us when Sergio met Franny, he actually cried.

"I cannot believe you have the name of my own beloved grandmother," he said, holding her head in his hands. Franny (he never calls her by her nickname, it's always Francesca) had gotten scared and BiDi had to explain that Sergio didn't mean to frighten her, he was just an emotional guy. Now Sergio plays goalie in Franny's pickup games on the lake. He wears boots because he never learned to skate.

Lin won't acknowledge us on Family Skate Nights; she just hangs around in a cluster of teenagers that somehow manage to look surly, even on ice.

Devera just laughs and says, "She's fourteen years old, Dick, what do you expect?" Still, I'm happy that Darcy at eleven lets me hold her hand when the "Blue Danube" or "Tennessee Waltz" is piped through the loudspeakers Alf Johannson rigged up in his icehouse.

Dev is a good skater, better than me and she knows it. She's not fancy--no pirouettes or double axels--but she's fast. She wears black speed skates, and even if I didn't have a mild nicotine habit, I'd never catch her. She skates around the rink that we've cleared off on the lake, bent over and moving only one arm like she's on the Olympic team, and I think how much pleasure it would give me if she wiped out.

She always laughs when I tell her that and then I say, what the hell, show-off, I love a fast woman. Most of the time she unlaces my skates when we're ready to leave and rubs my feet until they're warm. It's one of those married things I never knew I'd be such a sucker for.

Excerpted from Your Oasis on Flame Lake © Copyright 2004 by Lorna Landvik. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Your Oasis on Flame Lake
by by Lorna Landvik

  • paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0449002985
  • ISBN-13: 9780449002988