Along the shore of his lake in the city of lakes, he fashions boats from waxed paper, affixes huge tissue heats to the corners, sets candles inside and lights them so that the miniature craft are drawn along on the dark water. Lovers pay fifty cents to see their hearts set on fire and set adrift only to witness their incineration somewhere near the opposite bank, the cinder and ash ascending into the grey twilight, the smell of burnt paper, like kindling that flames and is quickly gone, filling the air, an acrid, comforting smell of home fires and warmth.
No one asks him any questions about the meaning of all of this or how or why he started, nor does he think of it too much. He thinks only of the delicate feel of the tissue, the lightness of the string, the slippery paper smoothed and sealed by wax, the fire on the water, the lovers’ faces as they stare at what they have paid for, prompted by who knows what, fascinated to see what becomes of their boat though they all must know what will be so why do they stay to watch? It is a mystery. Are they sad or satisfied somehow in the justification about their beliefs about tissue and hearts and fire, or had they hoped to see their boat, of all others, land on the other side?
Every night a woman who brings him a snack of rice and vegetables wrapped in a tortilla pays him fifty cents to place something small in her boat – tiny babies from Mardi Gras cakes, bodkins she wore in her hair when she was a girl, pieces of wool from her sewing basket in which she kept materials to make socks for soldiers, crosses she buys in packets of ten, pieces of kibble. She always has a prayer and dedication which she asks the man to recite though every night he protests he does not have his glasses and every night she gives him her late husband’s readers from the nightstand, and as the boat floats out, he says her prayers for the soldiers, the young life, the married couple, the single women, the woman herself and her cat and her grandchildren.
He found himself saying a prayer for himself one night as he set a boat in the water containing a gold heart. He snatched the boat back, soaking his trousers. He retrieved the heart. This is my gig, he said gruffly, as if she had affronted him with something. She asked for his blessing upon the heart. She asked him to kiss it. Instead, he chucked it out into the lake with all of his force where it plunked into the dark center and disappeared. They stood for a moment, the frogs screeching in judgment. It’s time to get a move on, he said. People are waiting. Indeed, a line had formed and that was the last night he saw her.
Every night he was hungry for the food she gave him and every night he had nothing to wonder about, what she would put into her boat, how she would ask him to pray, the feel of her late husband’s glasses upon his nose. How he missed that feel, strangely enough, and the strange prayers she had written, not like the coherent prayers he knew, but her erratic thoughts upon a subject, not a petition, but a statement as if she were telling someone how things were. He missed it.
And so he collected things for her, things he thought she would like, things he liked too, things forgotten and dusty in closets, things from childhood and a career and family from another life, and he put them in boats and watched the hearts burn and the boats sink with prayers on his lips uttered in a strange tongue, her way of speaking and thinking that had infused him and he believed himself capable of finding that gold heart had only there been money for proper equipment and younger lungs. In its depths the dark lake held his gift and he did not mourn but for the first time understood why couples waited until they saw what they knew would come to pass, and that in the waiting they anticipated what was most beautiful, a beginning and an end, all at once.