When he woke at noon to the sound of buzzing cicadas and fuggy heat, the first thing that came to Lloyd Sherman’s mind was a memory of water. The slip of the canoe into the bay, that first ripple of the morning with the sun pink on the horizon. His days hadn’t begun that way in well over a decade. Not since middle school, and definitely not since he’d started working the late shift at the diner, the one on Route 4 near the turnpike exit. Not since his grandad passed. It hadn’t felt right to take the old cedar canoe out to Sandusky Bay or any of its tributaries on his own, not without the man who made it. It still stung, the aftereffects of loneliness. After so much time spent under a blanket in the shed, passing the years without a proper sanding and revarnishing, the vessel wouldn’t be seaworthy anyhow.
Lloyd sat up in bed, kicking the twisted sheets aside. Outside, the riding mower growled to life in the yard. It was the first time the darn thing had worked right in ages. Lloyd had been jumping the solenoid for two years with a screwdriver before finally replacing the damn thing. Even then, it only ran if and when it chose, possibly due to a faulty key switch, which he hadn’t had time to sort out. When it worked, it worked, and it did that often enough.
The mower sailed by his bedroom window bearing his sister and nephew, her eight-year-old boy set between her knees. His little fists gripped the wheel as she guided it through tangled tufts, chewing everything in its path. Something about his sister’s posture, a clamshell around her son, reminded him of their mother. Their coloring, too, fifty percent Seneca, they got from her.
Lloyd went straight to the shower, turning the water to cold. His hair still smelled like yesterday’s cooking oil and fried meat. The shampoo was empty, so he substituted body wash, lathering all over in one go. He emerged wearing a pair of old basketball shorts, damp hair trailing half-way down his bare back. The house felt stuffed to bursting with humidity, the living room carpet as absorbent as a moss mat. Lloyd found his nephew kneeling on the kitchen counter, rummaging through the snack cupboard. He lifted him into the air, asked the boy where his mama went and where Mamaw was. His nephew wriggled away laughing, diving onto the sofa with a juice box in one hand and a box of crackers in the other. Lloyd concocted a lunch based on his family’s leftovers, eating over the sink. Outside the mower quieted and the earnest songs of insects and birds drifted through the open windows. He wished a breeze would do the same.
His sister waddled in, leaning backward to counterbalance the weight of her bulging belly. She swore after the first one she’d never have a second, but there you have it. Far as Lloyd knew, the same man fathered both, Lloyd’s eight-year-old nephew and the one soon to be born. Since the dad was a professional truck driver who spent more nights bunking in his cab the family hardly ever saw him. That was another thing his sister had sworn she’d never do, marry a trucker, not after black ice claimed their father on a run up in Wisconsin. Though, technically, she hadn’t broken that oath.
“You’re teaching him bad habits,” his sister scolded, with a definitive nod toward her son who was rolling across the cushions through a trail of cracker crumbs. “Get a plate.”
“Look, I’m done,” Lloyd said, hands raised in surrender.
She grabbed the pack of Pall Malls off the table and stepped back outside onto the patio.
“You need the truck this afternoon? Think I’m gonna head into town,” he called through the screen door.
“Nope. I’m off today. They finally found a replacement for that girl who was shoplifting from the back room. It’s a goddam discount shoe store, for chrissake. Who the hell steals ten-dollar pumps?”
“You need anything while I’m out?”
“Get me another pack,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t.
Instead of heading straight into Sandusky proper, he drove his truck, windows rolled down, north towards Bay View. For many fishermen, including his grandad, Bay View represented one of the best fishing spots in Ohio. They came from Bucyrus, Cleveland, Mansfield, Toledo to catch channel cat, perch, bass, crappie, and steelhead trout. Every night anglers filled the shoreline from the main drag all the way to the pier. In spring, during the walleye run, they shifted to the riverbank, searching out spots where the current wasn’t as strong.
Lloyd considered taking an hour or two out of the afternoon to visit some friends across the bridge in Danbury, at the mobile home park there on the bayside. But the day had peaked at ninety-five and he decided he didn’t have the energy, not with a busted AC unit. In that singular respect, he looked forward to his shift. At least the diner’s artificial cooling system functioned.
He stopped by the hardware store to pick up what he needed, then on his way home he bought a self-serve soda from the gas station and filled it halfway with ice. He spent the rest of the afternoon sweating in the shade of the house, working to patch a hole in the siding while his nephew ran through the lawn sprinkler.
At ten to seven, Lloyd parked the truck in the diner’s gravel lot in the corner spot furthest from the dumpsters. He ran his hands over the worn leather grip of the steering wheel, watching customers leave their cars and go inside. The air was so still even the corn stalks that crowded the landscape far as the eye could see stood still. Finally, he spotted Linda getting dropped off. Lloyd got out, grabbing his apron from the passenger seat. Up close, Linda looked haggard and unhappy to be there. Even so, she had the polite graces to ask after his family, how they were doing and such. He told her he hoped her grandbaby was feeling better, recalling the grief his own family had suffered back when his nephew had colic.
Lloyd was the lowest paid person in the place but had little motivation to move up the ladder. As bus boy, he got to work in the shadows, so to speak, making everyone else’s job a little easier without the hassle of dealing with customers. He made a point never to favor one server over another, carried a few pens in case they ran out, and helped wash dishes if they started backing up. When he got it right, his coworkers passed him extra tips. He spent the first hour helping Linda flip tables so incoming diners weren’t left hanging in the doorway. By the time eight rolled around, family units were replaced by singles and truck drivers stopping in off the turnpike, and the pace slowed to a more manageable speed. One woman wearing a 4H t-shirt held him up long enough to chat about the heat wave and wonder aloud whether the lake would get algal blooms as bad as last year. As the midnight hump crested over into tomorrow, the bored teenagers, EMTs, and late-night cops drifted in. Next would be the drunks. So it came as some surprise when, at half past one, a woman―a girl―with hair the color of fireworks flew in begging for the restroom. Linda leaned over the counter and pointed around the corner.
When the girl emerged a few minutes later, Lloyd once again noticed her hair, the most remarkable persimmony-gold he had ever seen. She had it pulled into a ponytail that hung nearly to the waist of her denim shorts. He noticed, too, that he wasn’t the only one to notice. The girl actually turned heads. Instead of exiting the diner, though, she slid into a booth. Beside her, already seated, was a shaggy-haired boy of roughly the same age. On her way over to take their order, Linda asked Lloyd to clear the bar and mop the spill under table twelve.
He was unloading a plastic bucket into the wash basin when he caught the distinct sound of raised voices coming from the dining room. It wasn’t uncommon, this time of night. Just in case, he pushed through the swinging door. The red-haired girl and her companion were arguing for all to hear. More than anything, he was surprised to see them still sitting there.
“You’re literally flirting with other dudes behind my back, right in front of me,” the redhead’s companion said, which was enough to make Lloyd stop and think.
“That is not fair,” said the girl. “He’s a friend from school. He’s got anxiety and insomnia.”
“God, you are so stupid. What do you think he’s doing, Quinn? Huh? He’s a guy!”
The girl’s face flushed before collapsing into tears. The boy made a show of acting like she had brought it on herself before storming out. Lloyd, entranced by the spectacle, watched the girl fish a wad of singles from her pocket. She tucked the bills under the half-empty plate before hurrying after her companion. Lloyd went to sweep the mess of fries they’d left under the bench.
At two thirty, he started closing duties. He was in the dining room gripping a mop and wheeling a bucket of chalky water when she returned, the girl with the red hair. She took a seat in a booth, a different one than before, and shoved her hands under her thighs. Apart from her, there was only one other customer, a man in a Browns cap hunkered over the bar.
“Closing in thirty minutes, love,” Linda called over her shoulder. “What can I get ya?” When she received no answer, Linda turned. “Weren’t you here earlier, hon? Everything alright?”
“Just waiting for someone,” the girl said. Under the scooped neck of a baggy t-shirt, Lloyd could see the ties of a bikini digging into her freckled flesh.
Linda approached carrying a half-empty coffee pot stained the color of used panties. “Hey. You sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine,” the girl answered.
“Uh, huh,” Linda said. “Well, lemme know if ya need anything, ya hear?”
Lloyd passed by her table, working the mop as he went. “You came back.” he said.
“Yeah,” she agreed, but didn’t appear to recognize him, he could tell. He guessed she was younger than him by three, or maybe five years. He wasn’t a good judge of stuff like that.
“Where’d your boyfriend go?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What, he left you to hitchhike?” Lloyd almost laughed, but she wasn’t joking. He tried to think how he could help her. Anybody who’d seen the two of them together could tell something was skewed between them. Should he call the cops? Apart from looking tired, though, she seemed okay. Unbruised. She even smelled good, like the lilacs that grew in lavender bunches outside his house in spring.
She watched him rinse the sopping grey mop tendrils, dangling like a dead octopus in the greasy water. Then her eyes dropped to his shoes. Scuffed, faded, torn. He wished he’d let his sister use her employee credit to upgrade him to a pair less care worn.
Feeling embarrassed, he moved further down the aisle. “What do girls even see in guys like that?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes toward the window.
“Sorry. Not my place to judge,” he said, backing up. “He must have some good qualities, right? Why’d you start dating him?”
“He’s sweet. Talented. Real good-looking.”
“Can be. Used to be.”
With ten minutes to closing, Linda asked whether the girl needed anything, whether she was alright. Inexplicably, or so it would seem, the girl started crying again. Linda pulled a wad of napkins from the pouch at her waist and sat down beside her.
The girl mopped her eyes. “I’m fine now, thanks.”
“You got somebody you can call, hon?” Linda asked, but the girl just shook her head.
When Linda disappeared into the back looking concerned, he took the seat across from her. “I’m Lloyd,” he said. “I know, it’s a weird, old-fashioned name.”
Lloyd nodded, as if she’d stated the obvious. As if she looked like a Quinn. “Like the Dylan song. Ain’t seen nothin’ like the mighty…” he trailed off.
“I don’t know.”
“Rough day, huh?” He tried to make it sound casual, but also like he was genuinely interested.
“Pretty awful,” she admitted. “And I got sunburned.”
“I can see that. Cedar Point?”
“Ah. Yeah, it’s nice, that whole area. Been fishing out there a couple times.” He claimed a saltshaker and spun it between his palms.
She took a deep, seizing breath. “You got any pain killers, by chance?”
“Uh, I’ll check,” he said, and returned carrying a few pills and a glass of water.
“Thanks.” She downed the tablets, then said, “I got my period on the way home. That’s why we had to stop. I didn’t want to bleed all over the seat.”
“Thanks,” she said again. “I’ll feel better in like twenty minutes.”
“So, how’d you like Marblehead?” he asked, thinking he might distract her from whatever pain she was suffering.
“It was a whole group of us. Me and my boyfriend, the one who was here earlier, and his bandmates and all their girlfriends. We took three cars, this whole caravan deal…I don’t know, I felt kinda out of place all day. Those guys’ve known each other since kindergarten so I’m the odd one out.”
He nodded, thinking he understood. He’d been the only Indian kid, minus his sister, in an all-white school district. “How’d you meet, then?”
“He picked me out of a crowd at a concert. They were the opening act.”
“Must’ve been the hair,” Lloyd said.
She nodded as if that was the right answer, then looked out the window at the dark parking lot. “You ever been to the lighthouse?”
“We walked around there today, but mostly we hung out at the beach. It was fun up until we got in that fight. Usually, we can sort it out. I mean, he actually likes to fight, I think. It gets him―” she bit her lip. “Never mind.”
“But this time he just up and left.”
“…Sorry, what’d you say? I’m feeling really out of it.”
“It’s okay,” he said. He tried to sound empathetic. He was empathetic. He’d endured some questionable relationships in his day. “You don’t have to tell me. Especially if it hurts.”
She told him anyway. “At first, it was great. We spent every day together. He was always complimenting me and was super nice. After a while, though, all he cared about was doing it. Maybe that’s fun for a while, when you’re feeling good, but not when you’ve got other things on your mind, like the fact your mom got a bad mammogram result or you’re failing statistics because you come to class every Monday not having slept over the weekend thanks to the after parties you had to go to. Or if you didn’t go, someone else would take your place.”
Lloyd studied her, keeping his face neutral.
“I hoped we would fall in love, you know?” she continued. “I wanted to have fun, wasting time in a nice way, just the two of us. That’s what I wanted.”
He thought he knew what happened. She’d mistaken his eagerness for affection.
Quinn sniffed. “So…how’s your day been?”
“Not bad. Same old. Routine’s underrated, in my option. It’s steady.”
“Do you always work this late?”
“Unless they really need me during brunch. Even though we sell breakfast any time of day, that’s our busiest time.”
She acknowledged this without comment. “We saw the sunset today, out over the lake. It was pretty amazing.”
“I used to get up there more, back when my grandad was alive. He loved fishing. Made his own canoe and everything, so we’d go out every chance we got. Even before school sometimes. On Catawba Point, out where you were, he could get a white bass on almost every cast. Back then, I was just a kid, but I could identify every fish in Lake Erie. We live by the quarry, though. These days I end up just driving back and forth on autopilot.”
“I don’t know where that is. I’m from Cleveland, on the West Side, and my boyfriend’s from Toledo. We only come here to go to the beach.”
“Why is that, you think?”
“The beaches here are the best. They’re clean and quiet ‘cause they’re small. Plus, there’s a lot of trees and cattails and stuff. Sometimes when those guys get too rowdy, I’ll wander down the beach till they’re out of earshot. I like to listen to the birds and watch the dragonflies swooping out over the water where it’s shallow. I think it’s nice.”
“I meant, Toledo’s on the water too, right? So is Cleveland. Why do people give up on where they’re from and try to go somewhere else? I never could figure that out. Maybe I’m the crazy one ‘cause I’ve always loved it here. Guess it’s in my bones.”
“People want better opportunities. My boyfriend says he wants to move to Chicago first chance he gets.”
“What about you? You going with him?” Lloyd asked, hoping she’d say no, for all sorts of reasons.
“I don’t think they’ll make it,” she admitted. “The band, I mean.”
“They’re messy and disorganized. They care about the applause but get lazy when it comes to putting in the work. My boyfriend, he’s the only one with any real talent, far as I can tell. He taught himself to play piano when he was five.”
Lloyd had to admit that was pretty impressive.
“The rest of them, they’re fine when it comes to plucking out a harmony, but they can’t write music, not like he can. They’re not dedicated. Not enough to keep up with, you know, like, the industry demands, not long term. Even I can see that much.”
“Bummer,” Lloyd said. “For them.”
“I’m starting college in a couple weeks anyway.”
“Lemme guess. OSU?”
“No way. I’m not cut out for a big place like that.”
Her answer felt oddly gratifying. “Sometimes I think that’s why I never left,” he said. “Then again, my family’s from here, going way back. So, I gotta hold down the fort, you know?”
She looked at him like she didn’t know but didn’t say so.
“Look, I don’t wanna kick you out, but…I gotta kick you out.” Really, he didn’t want to. He wanted to keep talking to her, like this.
She glanced at the clock above the bar. Ten past three.
“You got somebody you can call?” he asked, wondering if she’d try summoning that boyfriend of hers.
“He has my phone,” she said. “And my bag.”
Without asking how that had happened, Lloyd pulled out his own and set it in front of her. When he swiped the screen, it unlocked without any passcode, as if he had nothing to hide. She didn’t reach for it.
“I don’t know any numbers by heart,” she said. He couldn’t gauge whether or not she was telling the truth.
“You need a ride, though, right?”
“I live like an hour from here.”
“So, what, you gonna sleep in a booth? Gimme a sec,” he said, then disappeared into the back. He explained the situation to Linda and Miguel, the chef on duty. The other guys had already left.
When Lloyd returned to the dining room, he sat across from Quinn.
“Okay, so Linda’s gotta get home to watch her grandbaby and Miguel’s gotta give his mom her insulin when she wakes up or something, I think that’s what he said. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”
“Don’t worry, hon. Lloyd’s a good kid,” Linda said, emerging with a sagging purse slung over one shoulder.
Lloyd folded his hands on the tabletop.
“Okay,” Quinn agreed, and scooted across the seat, exiting the booth.
Linda and Miguel followed them out, turning off the lights and locking the door. Linda’s ride was waiting for her in the lot. One of the headlights, Lloyd noted, was out. The warm night air smelled like hay.
“Get home safe,” Linda said. “See you tomorrow, Lloyd.”
Lloyd led Quinn to his burgundy pickup, noting the rust over the wheel well. “Sorry about the mess. And the smell. My sister smokes.”
“It’s fine,” Quinn said, as if she’d seen worse, though really the only thing out of place was the empty takeaway cup from earlier. The seats, like the frame, were worn through in places but the Iroquois blanket with its white turtle motif, folded over the seat back, covered the worst of it.
“I saw a big animal in the grass earlier,” Quinn said, buckling herself in. “I sat over there on that parking block for, like, half an hour after he left.”
“Probably just a coyote,” Lloyd told her. “Could’a been a wolf, though. They’re making a comeback.” He finagled the gear shift around as they backed up and maneuvered toward the exit. “Here,” he handed her his phone. “Put in your address.”
She opened the unlocked phone and found the map app. She typed in an address then propped the phone in the cup holder. Lloyd peeked at the screen before pulling out onto the blank stretch of pavement. They didn’t speak again until he collected a ticket from the turnpike kiosk.
“So, what d’you think you’ll do?” he asked.
“About the boyfriend situation.”
“I dunno,” Quinn admitted. “The last time I tried to break up with him it didn’t go so well. It was after a gig they had in Columbus.”
“You’ve tried more than once?”
“I don’t know. We use it like a threat, to get back at each other.”
He thought about that. “What happened last time?”
“He got wasted at the after party and we got into another fight. I don’t even remember what we fought about. I honestly have no idea. All I remember is that he puked all over my jeans and my new shoes, these cool high tops I’d been super excited about wearing. I had to hose off, like with an actual garden hose. Luckily, it was a warm night.”
He waited, anticipating more to come.
“Anyway, I told him it was over, so he threatened to kill himself if I left.” She said it matter-of-factly, as if that was the normal way of things. To him, it was like watching a semi veering toward the highway median. “Thanks for listening, by the way.”
“When somebody tells you something big, you have to take responsibility for listening.”
From the corner of his vision, he saw Quinn stare at him, as if she had never heard anybody say anything so profound―or so stupid―before. “You mean, like…” but she didn’t finish whatever she’d planned to say.
“It’s something my grandad used to say. Like, you gotta pay attention, obviously, but respond in a way that helps. Sometimes, listening on its own is enough. Sometimes you need to do more. I think that’s how he meant it.”
“You must’ve been close with your grandad, if he took you fishing and all.”
“Yep. He used to live with us. He died when I was still in school.”
She crossed her bare legs. The frayed denim hem of her shorts reminded him of girls’ ponytails, the ones boys pulled on playgrounds. He wondered how a girl her age, someone so composed and so obviously pretty, could end up with a guy like that.
“You ever have anything like that happen to you?” she asked.
“Getting left in a parking lot in the middle of the night like a pet nobody wants.”
He thought about it. “I had a girlfriend right out of high school who convinced me to give her money for an abortion. She didn’t actually need one, she just wanted the cash to get a tattoo.”
Her mouth fell open, and she laughed. “I don’t believe you.”
“Swear to god,” he said, grinning. “I was working my first full-time job, in a warehouse moving pallets and stuff, so that was a lot of money for a kid like me.”
“Oh my god. That is crazy.” They were quiet for a while. “So…is Lloyd a family name? I don’t know anybody with that name.”
“That was his name, my grandad’s. Lloyd Sherman,” he said. “He was a pretty important guy, where I come from. And now you do.”
“Now I what?”
“Now you know a Lloyd.”
When they exited the turnpike, he dug quarters from the console to pay the fare. Twenty minutes later they reached the driveway of a stately brick house surrounded by tall trees. His pickup felt conspicuous. Vulgar, even.
“This it?” he asked.
“Yeah. Thanks,” she said.
He felt a flood of warmth for her, an overwhelming feeling that it was a mistake to leave things this way. He wanted to offer some level of reassurance, but she probably didn’t need him for that. Nor did she try to meet him halfway. Instead, she offered to run inside and grab some cash―to pay for gas, the turnpike toll, his time. Lloyd said, sure, he’d wait. He sat there long enough to see her dig a key out from under a frog statue and let herself inside.
Before she could make it back out, he got on Route 2, the freeway this time, and headed back.
For the first twenty minutes, he gripped the wheel, glaring at the road as the truck hoovered it up. Whatever he was so angry about, it wasn’t enough to keep his eyes open. More than once, he caught himself jerking awake to the sound of the rumble strips tripping up his tires. He pulled off for a coffee somewhere around Vermillion and stood drinking it at the pump while he filled the tank. He’d spent the better part of an hour with her, more than that if you counted the diner, but it hadn’t been enough to change her mind. If he had it to do over, what would he tell her? To ditch that sad excuse for a man and choose him, someone like him, instead? What sort of difference would that make? He told himself he couldn’t correct the missteps in someone else’s life, not overnight, but even as he thought it, he didn’t believe it. Maybe the problem was, he wasn’t the sort of man who could fix her sort of problem.
By the time he got home the eastern sky had turned dusky blue. Light filled the living room window. His mom would be awake, fearing what might’ve happened to him. He wouldn’t tell her. He knew what she would say. “My god, Lloyd, you drove halfway across Ohio for some white girl?” His sister would berate him for wasting the gas.
He sat a minute longer in the truck with the window rolled down. He could hear the neighbors’ roosters warming up. Maybe he had planted a seed, he thought, though he didn’t even know her last name. Most likely, he’d never see her again, but she knew where he was if she was of a different opinion. But she wasn’t. He didn’t even register as a blip on her radar, he felt sure of it. All her devoted attention was fixed on a man unworthy of a woman’s love. It made him ache.
His mom stepped onto the front stoop. “I was worried sick,” she said as he walked up the drive.
“Sorry, I should’ve called. I’m heading out again, actually.” He waited for the next question, willing her to ask, but it never came.
His mom folded her arms and watched him until he disappeared around the side of the house. From the shed, he collected a rod, a net, and the tackle box, then loaded up the truck. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, he drove up to Bay View. On a morning clear as this one, he’d be able to see across the water all the way to Marblehead.
When he was young, he’d cheered whenever his grandad reeled in a catch. It was Lloyd’s job to get the landing net ready once the fish was good and tired. “Net no fish before its time,” his grandad used to say. Rushing in a green fish because you wanted to catch it so bad you could feel it was the surest way to lose it. When at last he scooped up the flailing body, only sun flecks floating on the surface of the water slipped through. Lloyd had cried at the blood and the gaping mouth. The gills, opening and closing, were like a trap designed to snare six-year-old fingers. More often than not, they threw the breathless creature back in. Catch and release.
Emily Grandy is a biomedical editor for General Dynamics, a major contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense. Before that, she did scientific research at the Cleveland Clinic. Her debut novel, Michikusa House, was awarded the Landmark Prize in 2022 by Homebound Publications and will be released this coming October. Her writing has appeared in both scientific and literary publications including, most recently, the American Literary Review and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Milwaukee, WI.