Making Up the Gods is equal parts quirky and sincere in its thoughtful exploration of tragedy and recovery, of new and old relationships, and of deeper questions of when to let the past rest.
Simone, a retired widow, would live a quiet and isolated life, if not for the lingering ghosts of her family. Spring has arrived, alongside Martin, who claims to be her cousin. When Martin asks if Simone is willing to sell her cottage by Lake Superior, a proposition made sweeter by the prospect of a condo in Florida, Simone, though pleased at the thought of a cousin, also questions his intentions.
Where among her past has Martin even come from, and why has he emerged in this moment? The burden of making a decision is all the more difficult because Simone has agreed to take care of a nine-year-old boy, Chen, for a short time while his mother enjoys a much-needed vacation. Simone finds her match in Chen, a curious and precocious boy grieving the loss of his father and stepbrother in an accident that has shaken the entire community.
Can Simone hide her ability to see her family ghosts? Will Martin succeed in extorting Simone's beloved home--and worse, is he a danger to Chen? Because of Chen and Martin, Simone is caught between her ties to the past and her desire to embrace the company of the living.
About the author
Marion Agnew's essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, inluding The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Atticus Review, The Walleye, The Grief Diaries, and Full Grown People, as well as in the anthologies Best Canadian Essays 2012 and 2014. She has been shortlisted for the Prairie Fire contest as well as for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Originally from Oklahoma, she realized her dream of becoming a Canadian citizen and moving to the her family's summer property in the Canadian Shield, where she had spent the most magical summers of her childhood.
Excerpt: Making Up the Gods (by (author) Marion Agnew)
The morning after I didn't call Jessica back, but before I was done feeling bad about it, a knock made me look up from my book. At first I thought it was a bird, braining itself on the bay window on the road side of the house, a sound that had startled me from a nap a million times. But it came again. I put down my book and headed toward the front door.
"Door!" Carmen's voice carried from the kitchen table. I bit my lip to keep from shouting back, "I know!"
I opened the door a crack. Yep, someone was there. I stepped onto the front porch and pulled the door almost closed behind me. We needed a storm door. Also, a peephole. We meaning me and my ghosts.
"Cousin Simone?" This from a middling-looking man, not too tall, younger--maybe fifty. Beige-to-brown hair, thinning on top, some grey at the temples. He wore a light jacket, tan. His hands, in the pockets of his khaki slacks, didn't seem to be hiding a weapon. He was, in fact, distinctly un-threatening.
"What." It was not a question.
"Are you Simone LeMay? I'm your cousin, Martin."
"I don't have cousins." I pushed back against the door, one step away from safety.
"On your father's side."
I stopped. In theory, I could have some of those. "And?"
My voice held no more warmth than before, but I'd stopped, and he'd noticed.
"I tried to call, but I couldn't seem to reach you." He half-turned and waved a hand at the red pines screening the house from the road. "I was just--"
"Do not say you were in the neighbourhood." I kept my voice uninviting.
He pulled the corners of his mouth back toward his ears, a smile of a man trying too hard. "Right. Sorry. I wanted to see you."
I debated. With my nearest neighbour a mile or more away, I had to be careful. Senior scams were a regular feature on the evening news. Carole's friend had paid a guy $300 to stain her deck. He took cash to buy stain and disappeared. You just never knew.
On the other hand, the guy in front of me wasn't dressed for work like that. And drama bored me. My rarely used cellphone sat in my pocket. I could always use it if I got worried.
Most of all, I was tired of being mean. I already felt like a jerk about Jessica. I might not be ready to call her back and keep her kid, but I didn't have to be rude to this stranger. So, I indulged my mild curiosity. "Look, come in for a cup of coffee."
In the entryway, he sat on the bench to slip off shoes--the semi-dressy lace-up kind, I noticed--and padded in dark socks down the hallway to the window over the kitchen table. I followed and was relieved that Carmen had disappeared.
He whistled. "Some view."
I glanced out too, though I'd looked at it every day for decades. In the distance, the lake winked at me, mostly ice-free. Some small floes lingered near the shore, waiting for one last windstorm to push them out into the big lake.
I moved the bowl of rocks from the table to the counter and set out a mug, milk, sugar, and a spoon. "Sorry I can't offer you a muffin or something. I can't keep them around. They seem to get stale too quickly." Great, why don't you just tell him you live out here all alone?
"Do you feed the birds?"
That question surprised me. I assumed, cousin or not, he was selling something, and birdseed wasn't on whatever scammer's script I thought he'd have. Although maybe he was selling a bird feeder and expensive specialty seed on a subscription plan that was, impossible to get out of, like a gym membership.
"Sometimes. We have bears from time to time, so I don't put out feeders. When I see whiskey jacks around, I put out crumbs, though. They're quick eaters."
I pointed at the kitchen table, and he sat down. I filled our mugs and we sat, fiddling with milk and sugar. I came to the point. "Now. Martin, was it? Martin. Who are you really?"
"Your cousin! Really." He laughed and then hemmed and hawed around.
Eventually, his story was smooth enough. His father had died a few months back. The father's will mentioned his older brother, who had a daughter. Me.
Ah, the catch. "He died leaving debt, I presume, and you're looking to share responsibility?"
Martin's shock didn't look fake. "No, nothing like that. He'd consolidated his affairs a while back. There was a little cash and some real estate. You know, a condo in Florida, another in Ottawa. But the information about you--well, it was a surprise."
"Hmm." I let him drink coffee for a moment before pushing ahead. "I'm sorry for your loss, by the way. Was it recent, his death?"
"Late last summer. August. And expected. He'd been sick. But still, paperwork takes time." He looked down at his coffee cup and back up at me, flashing a brief smile, a real-looking one. "When I couldn't get you by phone, this seemed like a good time of year for a road trip."
"You're lucky. We often get snowstorms in late April. Where are you from?"
"Oakland. In Southern Ontario, not California." His laugh was almost exactly a "ha-ha," which amused me. "And I have to say, spring was a lot farther along down there than it is up here. Lots of daffodils and crocus, even hyacinth blooming. Do you garden?"
"Just a planter or two on the deck. I generally let Nature take care of the rest. I do mow. And rake leaves. And cut up trees that fall."
"You do? That's impressive."
He meant, "for my age," and although I was proud of my chainsaw prowess, I didn't bite. "So tell me about your family."
"My mother died when I was fourteen. I have a sister in London."
"England. I haven't seen her in a while. She and my father weren't close. I get along with her okay, but I imagine she'll never come back to Canada. Not to stay."
"Sometimes people find the right place for them and don't see the need to leave."
"That's how she is." A pause. "You don't have brothers or sisters, right?"
I shrugged, unwilling to confirm personal information to a stranger.
He waved a hand. "Sorry, uncomfortable question. I forget you didn't know about me until, like, five minutes ago."
I was doing so well--I understood what he was claiming and was pretty sure it wasn't true. Then Carmen sat down at the other end of the table. Instead of cocktail attire, today she wore work clothes, her other preferred fashion. Her baggy navy slacks had ragged hems. A grey Lakehead U sweatshirt, ripped at the elbow, sported splotches of primer on the shoulders. I caught a whiff of enamel paint. I tried not to stare, but I was interested in that primer--was it wet? What kind of hell-like heaven required priming before painting?
She spoke, doing her "I'm just a little-ole housewife from the Missouri hills" act, which she'd adopted to make fun of our neighbours. "Time's a-wastin'. Let's git his story and git him outta here."
I felt slightly dizzy, as I sometimes did when my mother appeared, and my face heated up. Martin didn't seem to notice either my flush or Carmen. I was a little surprised he hadn't disappeared into the vortex of her larger-than-life personality. She'd been charismatic, a born salesperson most of the day and a sharp-tongued, booze-loving bundle of bitterness at home. She always demanded I call her "Carmen," never "Mom" or "Mother," and I was supposed to care for her, without complaint, when the gin got the upper hand.
I looked out the window and thought about my father, and Martin. "So how are we related, really?"
Martin looked out the window, too. I cleared my throat in case I had forgotten to ask aloud. But before I repeated myself, he sighed and shifted his mug on the table. "I know I said his name in the will was a surprise, but I have to say, I was shocked. I don't know how I didn't know anything about him--or you, either."
"Yes, about that. Did he have my address? Maybe my father's? How did you find me?" I cast a sideways glance at him, and his eyes darted away from mine.
"Nope. Internet." He swallowed.
"Oh, of course."
He relaxed. Ergo, he thought I was technologically inept. But he was wrong. I knew the basics. I checked email on the computer in the den. I'd set up a Facebook account when the church sponsored one of those "Seniors and Gadgets" workshops, though I hadn't used it since. Okay, my cell was a "dumb" phone--it made calls, nothing else. Even that was more connection than I wanted, but Rev. Phil pointed out all the times I was alone, out mowing grass or even downhill at the summer camp, and might need help. Mostly, technology didn't interest me. Figuring out this world, the one with people, remained challenging enough. Especially with ghosts.
Still, I knew more than Martin thought, and I was pretty sure Martin couldn't have found me online--at least not much beyond the "survived by" line from William's obituary. Public records would give him more, maybe.
I regrouped, blinking against the smell of paint wafting from my mother. I tried a little charm on Martin. "Why don't you tell me about your father? What sort of man was he?"
Again, Martin took his own sweet time answering. Meanwhile, I worried I'd said something horribly wrong. Maybe he didn't like answering questions about parents--I sure didn't. Maybe his father had embarrassed him. Way to be rude, Simone.
Finally, he spoke, his voice casual. "There's not much to say. When I was a kid, he worked for a while for the government up near Ottawa, but I never knew what he did. He carried a briefcase. Wore a suit and tie. He worked long days, and I didn't see him much. When I was about ten, maybe, he started selling cars. He liked being his own boss and did well, becoming part-owner of the dealership. But I still never saw him. Then Mum died from cancer, and I started skipping school. You know." He flashed a sheepish smile that made him almost handsome.
"Sure. It would be a tough time."
"Really, it was just kid stuff. Anyway, because of it, my father sent me down to live with my aunt, my Mum's sister, near Brampton. I finished school there. Dad wanted me to come back and work as a mechanic for the dealership, but I liked southern Ontario."
Martin spoke easily and naturally, looking out the window when speaking of his mother. I believed him, mostly. For one thing, his father sounded a lot like my father, at least the briefcase and rarely home part. For the rest? Well, who could say. We all tell ourselves stories about our past. "And your sister?"
"Oh, well. We talk occasionally. You know, we email. She's a little older. After Mum died, she did one of those Eurail passes. Went all over Europe. Met a guy and never left England. She works in an office. Insurance." He cleared his throat. "But we're there for each other, you know? When the hard stuff happens. That's how family works, right?"
Martin pulled out his wallet and extracted a dog-eared photo. I expected it to be him and his sister, but it showed a slim young man in a white navy uniform laughing down at a freckled kid of 6 or so who saluted him. I'd never seen it. I knew my father had served in some branch of the military, in some capacity. Still. In this blurry black-and-white picture, the man in uniform could have been anyone's father. Same with the kid.
I stared at it, trying to get the man to speak to me, perhaps in some ghostly way. Nothing. I turned it over, both to examine the back and to give my mother the chance to see it. She didn't seem to care, which surprised me. Then again, I found her interests hard to predict.
"Huh. No writing on the back." I gave it back to Martin.
"The kid is my father. James, always called Jimmy. With your father. Charles, right?" It was Martin's turn to stare at the figures.
"Yes. Charles. Never Charlie. And--James? Jimmy. Do you have any other pictures of your father?"
Martin's eyes darted to the photo and back to my face. "Um."
I pressed harder. "That's okay, I don't generally carry around family photos, either. So, do you want to swab my cheek or something? Maybe we'd match up on some online DNA site." Where I was not even remotely interested in registering, but he didn't know that--though, smart move, Simone, what if he took me up on it?
What if he really was my cousin?
And what if he wasn't?
Out of patience with myself and the whole situation, I stood up. "Well, no matter. This is a lot to take in, you know. Leave me some information about your family. You're staying in town for a bit? Excellent. Write your phone number somewhere." Ha. As if I'd call.
Martin looked some combination of surprised and relieved. He slid the photo back into his wallet and pulled out a small piece of paper with "Martin LeMay" and a phone number written on it. And he talked all the way to the door.
"Thank you for the chat. You have a great place, nice view. I'd love to hear how you came to live here."
He sat to deal with his shoes. They were loose in the heel. His thin socks would have a hole soon.
More babbling. "Don't you get lonely out here, all by yourself? Safety, that's probably a concern." He tied a bow. "And lots of upkeep on a place like this. Especially in winter. I'd love a tour." He zipped his jacket against the breeze.
"Sure, okay." Real estate. I bet that was his interest in coming. Was everybody obsessed with owning property and making money?
Finally, he was on the porch. I smiled to keep my voice pleasant. Fruitlessly, as it turned out. "Look. You show up here out of the blue with a wild story, and I need a chance to think about it. Don't come back for, I don't know, a week. Enjoy the area--maybe drive out to Ouimet Canyon, hike at the park on the Sibley peninsula. There's a historic fort. Go look at the lake." I sighed. I knew I'd been rude. I said, "Just give me time, okay?" and closed the door.
My mother's voice carried all the way from the kitchen table. "No need to waste energy worrying about him. He's a fraud. Harmless enough, though."
I stood at the bay window facing the road to wave goodbye. When William was alive, we'd always waved to visitors. I could do this polite thing, at least. IAnd it also had the added benefit of letting me be sure he'd really gone.
To my surprise, Martin lifted his hand from the wheel and waved before he backed up.
Back in the kitchen, I said to Carmen, "So he's a fraud?"
She shrugged and raised an eyebrow.
I cleared my throat to ask directly. "Could I have a cousin on Daddy's side?"
"Depends on how lonely you are."
"I'm not lonely!" I sounded like a thirteen-year-old.
"You don't want it to be true. You want to say 'no' right away."
I muttered, "Sometimes it's easier that way."
I took this to mean I could have a cousin. I wondered if I owed Martin an apology. Maybe I'd misjudged him. Online, I searched for senior scams. "Grandchild in distress" cons were at the top, followed by real estate. I wondered where "long-lost cousins" came in.
But what if he really was my cousin?
I wondered if he'd stay away a full week. If I got as far as Monday without seeing him again, I'd consider that a win.
While I was at my computer, with a search engine open, I typed "'James LeMay' + 'Charles LeMay.'" My pinkie drew circles on the return key. I clicked out of the browser and left the den, turning out the light on my way.
In Making Up the Gods, three grieving strangers--an elderly widow, a young boy, and a middle-aged alcoholic in tenuous recovery--meet on the cusp of spring at a lakeside camp to face down their ghosts, their fears, and a pair of hungry bears. In the process, they forge connection, friendship, even something like family. This wise, funny, and generous-hearted novel shows us how shared labour and shared love for a distinctive landscape can become a vehicle for healing, mutual understanding, and growth.Susan Olding, author of Big ReaderFull of humour and heart, Marion Agnew's debut novel is both a love letter to northern Ontario, and a moving meditation on grief, community, and family--the one we are born with, and the one we choose. No matter where you are in the world, reading Making Up the Gods will make you feel like you are standing on the shores of Lake Superior, and, like the memory of skipping rocks across the water or spotting the silhouette of a bear on the horizon, this story and these characters will stay with you for a long time.Amy Jones, author of We're All in This Together and Pebble & DoveMarion Agnew gathers together a cast of unlikely characters and sets them on the shore of Lake Superior with their ghosts. While each of them holds on to the past, like a collection of rocks plucked from the shore, it's their connection to each other that helps them find the strength to surrender their loss like stones returned to the sea. A heartwarming story of grief, love and hope, the healing power of community and the creation of family through shared experiences, friendship and trust. You'll be charmed by Chen, cherish Simone and cheer for Martin as their lives intersect in Making Up the Gods. A welcome addition to stories set in Northwestern Ontario where characters draw strength and inspiration from the inland sea that is Lake Superior.Jean E. Pendziwol, bestselling author of The Lightkeeper's Daughters