Here we are in Paradise
BECAUSE he did not know what else to do, Vernon Jackson bought his wife, Peggy, a flock of ten mallard ducks and set them free on the pond. Vernon would not let Peggy sit outside during the day because the doctors said that her skin would be extra sensitive to sunlight, but he thought that the two of them could sit together on the porch in the evenings, when the sun was lower and not so dangerous, and watch the ducks swim. He thought that Peggy might like that. He repeated it to himself over and over as he drove home: These ducks will be just the thing Peggy needs. These ducks are just what the doctor ordered. The ducks squatted flat against the bottoms of the two cages in the back of his truck. They stretched their necks out straight and opened their bills and hissed.
Peggy had wanted to build a house in Rutherfordton, the next town over, after Vernon retired from Stonecutter Mills—they had always rented—but Vernon insisted on buying the twenty-five acres of land he had found off Oakland Road and putting a mobile home beside the pond. He said it would be like a place in the mountains, a summer home, a cabin, that it would be good for them both to finally get out of town, out away from the noise and the traffic. But Peggy never thought it was a good idea, and did not let go easily of the idea of owning her own house. She thought that if anything she could use a little more noise and traffic. But she signed the papers anyway without telling Vernon how much she hated it.
Peggy knew that Vernon meant well. He had been saving his money for years. When his co-workers in the weave room said at his going-away lunch that he still had the first penny he ever made, he did not mind the joke. He paid cash for the land—how many of those yahoos at the mill could do that?—and he financed the mobile home for three years only. They moved into it the day after Vernon retired from the mill. The sides of the mobile home were made out of thin vinyl, and Peggy was pleased to think that at least it was not substantial, that you could put wheels on it and drag it away, that it would not last for years and years after she died, that people could not drive by and point at it after she was gone and say that it was the home of Peggy Jackson, the one thing she had wanted all of her life.
When Peggy was still a baby, her father left Spindale and took his family to California. World War II had just started and he thought that he could make his fortune working in the aircraft plants. They rented a small pink and white stucco house in a new development named Rancho Apache, on a street with stunted palm trees growing up through the strips of dry grass between the sidewalk and the pavement. The development was laid out in straight lines in a valley between two brown hills. The streets were paved with new black ribbons of thin asphalt.
The first fall Peggy and her family spent in California the Santa Ana winds pushed a brush fire down the sides of one of the hills and into the edge of Rancho Apache, where it burned five houses. Peggy's mother bought a camera to take a picture of the fire but instead took a picture of Peggy and Peggy's father beside the palm tree in front of their house. She wrote "Here We Are In Paradise" on the back of the picture and mailed it to her family back in Spindale.
One day after Peggy came home from the hospital, she looked out the kitchen window at the red dirt bank cut into the side of the hill and realized that Vernon had never known her at all. The thought came to Peggy quickly, as if a hypnotist had snapped his fingers to wake her from a deep sleep, and she knew that it was the absolute truth. Vernon had for all these years loved who he thought was Peggy, some dream of his that rode in out of the blue from California when he had just about given up. She knew that Vernon still felt about her the way he did when he first saw her, when he did not even know her name. He had always treated her like something that would shatter if he touched it very hard, something rare and beautiful that he could not believe was his and did not deserve. The front of their mobile home faced the pond, and Peggy liked the view, especially right after sunset when the water was dark and still like a mirror and the whole world seemed green and lush, but the back windows faced the red dirt bank, which was almost as tall as their trailer. She thought, Vernon should have known better than to stick a trailer in a hole, and she thought, Vernon has got no right to think about me like that. It is not who I am. When it rained, red mud from the bank washed down underneath the trailer and out the other side onto their concrete deck. Vernon had to wash the mud off with a hose. The bank was scarred with gullies. That first spring Vernon tried to plant grass on the bank, but it didn't take. There was no topsoil, only the red clay in which nothing would grow. The straw he put down washed up underneath the trailer, and birds ate the seed.
Vernon refused to look at Peggy's scars. The color drained from his face and he looked away whenever she tried to show him. She needed him to see, but he left the room when she undressed. He was not even curious about the prosthetic bras, what it felt like to wear them, how they were made, how the cups were filled with silicone that was heavy like the weight of breasts, how they were even warm when she took the bras off at night.
One night in bed she opened her pajama top and took Vernon's hand and moved his fingers over her scars and imagined that the story of her life was written there in Braille. She thought, This is who I am, Vernon Jackson. This is everything you need to know about me. All you have to do is read. But the scars were still thin and Vernon's fingers seemed incapable of following them to their ends. Peggy had to guide his hand the whole time. She could tell by his touch that he did not understand what she meant at all. "I am so sorry, Peggy," he said. Whenever Vernon thought about the surgery he wanted to kill the doctor who had done it. He didn't tell anybody about it because he was afraid that they would tell him how it was wrong to feel that way, that they would try to make him feel better.
In the picture Peggy's father is wearing new aviator sunglasses and two-tone saddle shoes. He squats on his heels and holds Peggy's hands over her head—she couldn't stand by herself yet and is wearing only a diaper—and they both squint toward the camera. Peggy found the picture in a cigar box of old letters after her grandmother died. Her young father looked sad somehow, like nothing in the world but the small place in North Carolina he was trying to get away from. When she found out she was sick she dug the picture out and studied it. Her nipples were tiny and pale, like pencil marks.
Peggy's father died of lung cancer in a dark, badsmelling hospital ward in Los Angeles with a vaporizer on the other side of the room spitting out mentholated clouds of cold steam. The walls in the hospital were green halfway up, and white up to the high ceilings, and three telephone numbers were written neatly in pencil on the wall above her father's bed. There wasn't a phone in the room, and Peggy wondered who had written the numbers there, who it was they had wanted to call and what they had wanted to say.
Peggy helped her mother bathe her father two days before he died. She was seventeen. She stood on one side of the bed and her mother stood on the other. Her father had stopped talking altogether and looked at them accusingly, moving only his eyes, wanting them to do something. The morphine had stopped doing him any good. He weighed less than a hundred pounds then, and Peggy was fascinated by how the hollows between his collarbones and his shoulders held water. She squeezed her washcloth out into the little hollow until it was filled to the top like a bowl or a lake. "Stop that," her mother said, and reached across the bed and wiped the water away with a towel.
Peggy and her mother buried her father in a cemetery in Los Angeles where precisely aligned rows of white tombstones stretched away as far as Peggy cared to look. Hardly anyone came to the funeral: a few people from the plant, a few neighbors from Rancho Apache, no one they knew very well. Peggy's mother hadn't been able to afford shipping her husband all the way back to North Carolina, which she had promised him she would do. When she died of Iymphomatosis twenty years later she still felt guilty. Peggy's mother couldn't pay the hospital bills, and she and Peggy moved back to Spindale suddenly. They took a train east one morning before the sun came up, and did not leave a forwarding address. "We never belonged here, Peggy," her mother said. "We never should've come."
The ducks huddled together on the bank. Their low clucks and grunts sounded, to Vernon, like questions. He put the empty cages back into the bed of his truck and tried to shoo the ducks into the pond. He promised them that they would be happy there, that he would feed them yellow corn every day, that all they had to do in this world was swim for Peggy, but they would not go into the water. They waddled away from him and squawked and flapped their wings every time he got too close. They moved in circles around and around him, and in the late-afternoon light the luminous, dark heads of the drakes changed from green to blue to purple to black.
The pink and white house Peggy grew up in in California was identical to the one across the street from it. When Peggy was a little girl she used to go out into the middle of the street and close her eyes and spin around until she got so dizzy that she felt like she was standing on the side of a wall. Then she would spin a few turns in the other direction and open her eyes and, as the world revolved around her, try to guess which house was hers. Sometimes Peggy guessed wrong, and picked the wrong house, and then her house didn't feel like her house for the rest of the day. She felt as if everything she knew had been packed up while she was asleep and carried to the wrong side of the street, as if she were a different person than who her parents thought she was, as if nothing she knew were real.
The morning before Peggy was supposed to go home from the hospital, Vernon spread orange marmalade on her toast because she was still too sore from the surgery to raise her arms for very long at a time. Vernon told her that he was thinking about buying her a flock of ducks for the pond, and about how pretty they would be swimming on the green water. He told her that their wings would be clipped so they could not fly. He asked her if she would like that, if she would like watching her own flock of ducks swim on the pond.
Vernon seemed so excited about the idea that Peggy didn't tell him that she had never thought much about ducks one way or the other, that she did not think they would help, that at the moment she did not think that anything would help, that she could feel cancer cells hanging around outside her organs like looters waiting for dark. Peggy was so shy when they first met that she did not think she had anything to say. And later, when she realized that she did have things to say, it seemed much too late to suddenly start talking. The nurse came in and took the green plastic basin out from under the sink and winked at Peggy and asked Vernon if he would like to give Mrs. Jackson a bath. Vernon's face went white and angry and he mumbled something that neither the nurse nor Peggy could understand, some kind of apology, and left the room. After the nurse removed Peggy's gown, Peggy slowly raised and crossed her arms and ran a finger down the length of each collarbone.
Vernon met Peggy at a mill-sponsored square dance at the Spindale House. She had just enrolled at R-S Central for her senior year. Her mother was still wearing black. Vernon was tall and broad-shouldered, strong-looking, but with a narrow waist and a high round butt, and when he came into the gym Peggy noticed how everybody he passed spoke to him, how the men all wanted to shake his hand. Five or six small boys followed him around and tried to walk the way he walked. She also thought he was ugly—his nose was long and sharp and his black eyes were too small and too close together— and during all the years they were married she never changed her opinion much.
Vernon was the ace pitcher for the Rutherford County Owls semiprofessional baseball team, and had been for as long as Peggy had been alive. Peggy's father had even played a little mill-league baseball with him. The Cincinnati Reds once paid Vernon an eightthousand-dollar bonus simply to sign a professional contract, but he got homesick during the first week of spring training in Florida and came back to Spindale. He gave the money back to the Reds and spent the rest of his baseball career pitching against the semipro teams from Shelby and Cherryville and Lincolnton and Kings Mountain.
Vernon was thirty-two when he saw Peggy at the square dance, and he thought that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Nobody in California had ever thought that about Peggy—she knew she wasn't particularly pretty—so after she got to know Vernon she decided to let him think that way if he wanted to. Peggy was so petite that Vernon knew he could pick her up with one arm and raise her over his head. He stood close behind her and pretended to watch the band, but strained to listen as she talked to her mother. She had a California accent, which Vernon thought was sophisticated and exotic. In his mind he measured the new girl against his body and decided that she couldn't be more than five feet two or three. As Vernon stood there, almost close enough to smell her, he was filled with a desperation bordering on despair, a longing to keep anyone else from ever talking to her and marrying her before he could.
Peggy and Vernon created quite a stir at the square dance. Nobody in Spindale had ever seen Vernon Jackson talk to a girl, much less dance with one. When he walked out onto the gym floor with Peggy, people pointed and whispered about how Old Vernon must be in love with the new girl. The caller saw what was going on and directed all of the dance instructions specifically at Vernon: Bow to your partner, Vernon. Now bow to your corner gal. When they skipped around the floor, part of a circle so large that the wind from it blew the paper streamers hanging from the ceiling, Peggy noticed how everybody smiled as they passed. She decided that she liked being seen with Vernon, even if he was ugly.
Vernon decided that he was absolutely in love with Peggy a week later when he saw her climb into the old covered bleachers behind home plate at Legion Field in Forest City. The Owls were playing Bessemer City that night, and Vernon was so nervous that he walked the first three batters he faced, which was unheard of because he was known for his control. Once on a bet he stood on one side of Main Street and threw a baseball through the two open windows of a moving car.
With the bases loaded, and Bessemer City's cleanup man at the plate, Vernon stood behind the mound and rubbed the baseball. He was shaking inside, the way he had in Florida. The baseball felt strange in his hands. He was afraid of where it might go if he threw it again. He looked out from underneath the bill of his cap and up into the stands and found Peggy— she was wearing a blue jumper and saddle shoes, and she had a sweater around her shoulders even though it was a muggy night—and he thought that he could feel her pulling for him, wanting him to do well. He looked at her and rubbed the ball until he was sure of it. He imagined that maybe, just maybe, she loved him too, and that was why she had come to the game.
Vernon had never been in love before and he pounded the baseball into the pocket of his glove and considered what it meant. He thought about how the chicken-wire backstop was rusty and rotten and how sometimes foul balls sailed right through it and into the bleachers. He stepped back up on the mound and threw a pitch at the head of the Bessemer City cleanup man for even thinking about touching the baseball with a bat, and then he struck him out on three pitches. Vernon looked into the bleachers and tipped his cap to Peggy. Then he struck out the next two batters as well. Later the Bessemer City pitcher, who did not know that Vernon was in love, threw a pitch at Vernon's head for being arrogant.
By the time school started two weeks later, the new girl from California was also known as Vernon Jackson's girl, which Peggy did not mind because it spared her having to make friends. It seemed like everybody was already her friend. Vernon helped coach the Central baseball team, and although she did not know any of the players—she had been in school less than a month—they voted her their homecoming sponsor. Her mother and grandmother stayed up late and made her a lavender taffeta dress, which she wore in the parade down the Main Streets of Spindale and Rutherfordton. Peggy didn't mind riding through Spindale because the street was wide and the crowd wasn't that big, but in Rutherfordton the sidewalks were packed to the point that people spilled out into the street, almost close enough for Peggy to touch. Everyone seemed happy to see her, and hundreds of people waved at her, although she didn't see a single face she had ever seen before. They all seemed to want something from her, but she could not for the life of her figure out what.
Peggy always enjoyed watching Vernon pitch, although it embarrassed her—and later made her mad—whenever he tipped his cap to her after a strikeout. After it got to be a tradition, people in the bleachers turned around and looked at her, waiting to see her reaction. She always smiled and clapped, and meant it, but she resented people expecting it. She thought it should be her business whether she smiled at Vernon or not. On game days people she didn't even know used to yell out all the way across Main Street, Hey, Peggy, How Many Is Old Vernon Going To Strike Out Tonight?
Whenever Vernon went into his windup he drew his right leg up in front of him, like a flamingo—he was a southpaw—with his knee up tight against his chest. He leaned slowly back, extending his leg and raising his foot high over his head. Just when it looked like he was going to fall over backward, he strode toward home plate so far that he looked like he was going to step over it. His left knee dragged the ground. His arm whipped in a blur up over his head and down across his body, and his left leg flew up in the air behind him. He threw the ball so hard that it never looked to Peggy like anything more than a white streak. She didn't see how anybody ever managed to hit it. She loved the violent sound of Vernon's fastball hitting the catcher's mitt. She didn't like it when he threw curves or change-ups because they sounded like mistakes. Later, when they were trying to have children—and they tried for years—Peggy imagined Vernon's sperm to be baseballs traveling inside her at great velocity, and in her imagination tried to catch one, just one, and hold on to it.
Peggy had heard people tell stories about phantom limbs, about amputees trying to scratch arms and legs that had been cut off years before. She never missed her breasts like that—it did not ever feel to her like they were still there; even the first day after the surgery it felt like they were simply gone—but sometimes what she could imagine was the touch of Vernon's big hands. Vernon was a gentle man, but he did like to squeeze her breasts—he squeezed them when they made love until her nipples were so stiff and erect that she was surprised they didn't hum, and sometimes she found bruises on her breasts in the shape of his fingertips—and she wondered if over the years he had hurt her somehow.
Vernon and Peggy went up and over the mountains on Highway 74 to Asheville on their honeymoon. They stayed at the old Biltmore Hotel, which by that time was shabby, although Vernon didn't seem to notice. Their mattress smelled moldy, and faint pathways were worn into the red carpet in the hallways. The oscillating fan in the window of their room was broken and it lay on its side and rattled and blew air in only one direction.
The first night they ate dinner at the S&W Cafeteria and saw Giant with James Dean at the Plaza Theatre. They went to their room and undressed with the lights out. Peggy had never thought much about what a big man Vernon was until he climbed into the bed and covered her small body with his own large one. She thought that if God were looking down on them, he wouldn't be able to see her at all.
Peggy was relieved and glad that she was excited about making love, that she liked how it felt being naked with Vernon, the way her skin felt against his, that she was wet—she had been afraid she wouldn't be because her mother had given her a jar of Vaseline to put in her overnight bag, just in case—but it still hurt when he tried to put himself inside her. When she gasped Vernon jumped up and sat up on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands and refused to try again the rest of the night. She desperately wanted him to finish it, but she did not say anything. She knew already that it was easier not to tell Vernon things he wouldn't understand. On one of their first dates he asked her if all the girls in California were as pretty as she was and when she laughed he didn't understand why. He blushed and looked away and didn't say anything for a long time.
Peggy did not lose her virginity until two nights after her wedding night—after they had toured the Biltmore House twice, and driven all the way to Mount Mitchell on the Parkway, had a fried-chicken picnic on the lawn of the Grove Park Inn, and sat in the car on Beaucatcher
Mountain and looked out over Asheville and drank Coca-Colas and listened to the Game of the Week on the radio—because he was so afraid of hurting her. Peggy had wanted to scream, "Just do it, Vernon. Just shut up, just stop apologizing and do it and get it over with. I want to do it as much as you do. Just who in the hell do you think you are?" When the membrane finally started to tear Peggy had to put her hands on Vernon's buttocks and push him down hard to make him break through. The next morning he was terrified by the blood on the sheets and wanted to hide them from the maid. He didn't talk much during breakfast, and all the way down the mountain toward home he patted her knee like she was broken. Peggy put her hand on the inside of Vernon's leg, up close to his crotch, and left it there all the way to Spindale even though she saw that it made him uncomfortable.
Even after Vernon and Peggy had been married twentyfive years, and he hadn't touched a baseball in twenty, people used to come up to them in Scoggin's or Inland Harbor and tell Vernon how he would have been a star in the pros, how he would've been in the Hall of Fame by now. Vernon always told them how marrying Peggy had been more important to him than pitching baseballs. Peggy knew that Vernon meant it—and meant it as a compliment to her—but every time he said it she wanted to stand up on a chair and announce that the one time Vernon Jackson had gone to spring training in Florida she had been three years old, and lived in Cali fornia with her parents, and that none of it, absolutely none of it, had been her fault. Throwing a baseball had been the one thing Vernon did magnificently, the one thing he had been born to do. It was what made him different, and Peggy didn't think that he had ever understood the importance of his gift. All he had been after he quit pitching baseball was just a good man. That was all. Just another good man. The mills in Spindale were crawling with men like that.
Almost all of Peggy's hair came out at once. She stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom of the trailer and pulled it out by the handful. It didn't hurt at all. That was the amazing thing. Vernon went into the bathroom and got all of the hair out of the trash can, and all the hair out of her brush, and put it in an envelope. When she yelled at him and called him stupid he staggered backward and left in the truck and drove up Highway 74 into the mountains. He stopped in Gerton and called her collect from a phone booth and cried and told her how much he loved her and how he didn't want her to ever die. She told Vernon that she loved him too and to please come back, that she had yelled at him because she was sick. On the way home he turned off of the highway onto the bridge on Rock Springs Road and emptied the envelope of Peggy's hair into the dark river running below. Vernon cried instantly, and for a long time, wishing that he had saved Peggy's hair.
Soon after that Peggy started to think that everything was funny. Sometimes, when she wasn't even thinking about anything in particular, a single, loud giggle would bubble up and force itself out of her mouth. It happened one Sunday in church, during a sermon about Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego—it was those silly names that did it—and everyone turned around and looked at her with such sympathy—they thought something was wrong with her, not with those names—that she broke out laughing uncontrollably and had to leave the church. One day Peggy lathered up her head with Vernon's shaving cream and shaved off the few strands of hair she had left. Vernon said that she should wear a hat to keep from catching a cold, so she knitted herself a bright red ski cap with a big ball on top. She sent Vernon out for more yarn so that she could make it longer. She tacked a paper cone inside the hat so that it would stand up straight. It was a ridiculous hat and it made her laugh to wear it. It was over a foot tall. It made her almost as tall as Vernon. It looked like a siren. Sometimes she sat outside in her pointy red hat with her new silicone breasts strapped on—they even had nipples—and watched Vernon's ducks swimming and humping each other and laughed until her sides hurt. Vernon called Peggy's doctor and told him that Peggy was becoming hysterical. The doctor prescribed some pills, but Peggy wouldn't take them. The last thing she wanted to do, besides vomit ever again, was take more pills. Vernon brought her a wig to wear when they went out to eat, and she wore it, but she did not like to. It was made out of nylon, and it itched and did not feel or look like hair.
Peggy came to like the way her head felt bald, especially when she stood under the stream of hot water in the shower. She told Vernon that rubbing it would bring him good luck, but he refused. He said that it would work only if she was a catcher. Whenever she touched her smooth head, it somehow said more to her about who she was than any of her hairdos ever had. She liked the way it looked, too. The web of veins beneath the skin of her scalp was a delicate blue, like the lines on a map, the color of expensive eye shadow.
One day Peggy found a scar that she had forgotten she had. As soon as she touched the scar, she smelled the house in California she had grown up in as plainly as if she had been standing in it. She remembered being very young and running across the kitchen floor, which her mother kept waxed slick, and slipping and falling and hitting her head against the edge of the table. She couldn't remember where her mother was, but her father took her to the hospital, where she got three stitches and a green sucker. After that he drove her over the brown hills and down to the ocean. He took off his saddle shoes and tied the laces together and rolled up the cuffs of his pants and carried her on his shoulders across the sand.
From the top of one of the hills on the way home she saw the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles sprouting up in the distance. Peggy knew when she found the memory that it had to be the first time she had noticed the city. The sun glinted orange off of the windows, and at first she thought the buildings were on fire. Her father sat with one of his hands lightly draped on the back of her neck, and softly sang, Ruby, honey are you mad at your man, the song that always made her mother cry because it reminded her of home, and Peggy thought that somehow her daddy had made the buildings glow just for her. She slid up close to him and smelled Old Spice and tobacco. He always kept a pack of Lucky Strikes in the pocket of his shirt. The wind was cool and it blew her long hair, and she felt it tickling her father's face. She had forgotten all of it.
Peggy and Vernon's only child was stillborn. She had known from the beginning of her pregnancy that something was terribly wrong. She woke with a gasp the night she conceived and listened because she thought somebody had broken into the house. Her mother told her it was nerves. Vernon talked constantly about teaching their son how to make a fastball break in on a righthanded batter and about not letting him throw curves until he was good and strong, until his legs were as big around as fence posts. Their son, he said, would stick it out in the pros. Peggy tried, but could not imagine their son at all. The baby—they were going to name it Charlie, after her father, although only Vernon ever called it that; she didn't like to call it anything—grew too fast, demanded too much of her, and grew so big by the eighth month that Peggy could hardly walk. When the baby moved inside her it felt desperate somehow, almost as if it knew she was incapable of giving it birth.
When Peggy went into labor she told Dr. Keeter that she wanted him to deliver the baby by cesarean section. He laughed and said that it wouldn't be necessary, that she and the child would both be fine, that they were both healthy and strong. He had a mask tied around his neck, and Peggy wanted to poke his eyes out with her fingers. She was in labor for thirty-six hours, gagging, the room spinning, from the shots they gave her. She almost bled to death. They poured bottles of blood into her the whole time. They couldn't operate because she was bleeding. She thought the baby was going to rip her apart. It was huge, a boy, and bright blue. Dr. Keeter carried it to a small table on one side of the delivery room and blew into its mouth, but he couldn't save it.
Vernon cried when he saw Peggy and leaned over her bed and brushed her hair with his hand and told her that it was all his fault, that "you can't breed an ugly old Brahma bull with a pretty little Jersey cow because the calf would be too big," and that he should've known better and shouldn't have done such a terrible, terrible thing to her. It was several months after that before Peggy could even stand the sight of Vernon, before she got over the urge ¿o beat him with her fists every time he walked into the room, and a while after that before she let him touch her.
The ducks weren't mated pairs and they bred randomly. The drakes fought among themselves and chased the hens back and forth across the pond. One afternoon Peggy and Vernon watched three of the drakes take turns on top of the smallest hen. Peggy wore her pointed red hat. It was all she could do to keep from laughing out loud. One at a time each of the drakes hovered above the hen with its wings flapping, pushing the hen underneath the water. They beat the water into a froth with their wings and reached forward with their long necks and bit at the back of the hen, quacking like mad the whole time. Sometimes Peggy and Vernon couldn't see the hen at all. The whole flock pointed their bills at the air and flapped their wings and raised hell like they did at feeding time. Each time the hen got free it tried to get away, only to be chased down and mounted by another drake. Peggy thought, I wish Vernon would fuck me like that. She had never used that word before. She handled it like a lump. Fuck, fuck, fuck me, Vernon. The third drake mounted the hen. Peggy glanced over at Vernon and put her hand over her mouth to keep from saying "Fuck me." Vernon swallowed and would not look at her. A mud turtle materialized in the water behind the two ducks and with its terrible jaws attached itself to the struggling hen. The hen screamed like an infant crying and whipped its neck from side to side against the water. Peggy reached up and jerked off her red cap and twisted it in her hands. She felt the paper cone crumple inside it. The drakes beat their clipped wings against the surface of the pond and tried to fly away. The hen swam in smaller and smaller circles, crying out— the turtle pulling it down—its head barely above the water, and then finally disappeared. It floated back to the surface ten minutes later, the water slick around it. Five turtles rose to the surface of the pond then, appeared like round shadows in the water, their heads black and erect, and latched on to the hen's still body.
Vernon ran into the trailer and came back out with his deer rifle. He braced himself against the side of the trailer, sighted down the barrel at the back of the largest turtle, and pulled the trigger. A geyser of water and pieces of shell flew into the air. "You sonof-a-bitch," screamed Vernon. "You stinking bastard son-of-abitch." The other four turtles sank out of sight before he could shoot again. Peggy jumped in her chair and clapped her hands, thrilled by the ringing boom of the rifle and the echo of the shot off of the distant mountains, the language Vernon had used and the way he had shouted it. It was the most noise she had heard in months. Vernon was as quiet as a mouse around her. And polite. He actually tiptoed. Sometimes she wanted to smack him, just to make him mad. She wanted Vernon to shoot the rifle again, even though the turtles were gone.
Vernon bought a picnic table and placed it so that it faced the pond. He filled a sandbag and put it on top of the table. He used the sandbag as a support for the rifle when he shot turtles. Vernon kept a steady watch most of the time and killed three more turtles during the course of the summer. The turtles became wary. If Vernon did not lever a shell into the rifle before he came outside, they would disappear from sight the instant they heard the noise. The turtles meanwhile killed five more ducks. The rest of the ducks stayed in the pond less and less. Foxes killed three while they walked on the bank. Peggy and Vernon's last duck was a drake. It stood in the edge of the water and flapped its wings and quacked questions Vernon couldn't answer, until he thought that his heart was going to break. "I think we should name that duck," Peggy said.
"No we shouldn't," Vernon said. "I don't want to."
"We shouldn't have bought ducks with clipped wings," she said.
Vernon shook his head. He avoided looking at Peggy's eyes. "Then they would have flown away."
"That would've been a good thing," she said.
The first frosty morning of fall Peggy found swollen Iymph nodes in her neck and underneath each armpit. That was it. The looters were carrying her life out under their arms like television sets. Peggy's hair had come back delicate and fine like a baby's, and it was white as snow. She put a red barrette in it. She had stopped wearing her pointy hat and—except for when they went out to eat—her prosthesis. Vernon still sat at the picnic table, but he hadn't seen a turtle in days, and she had noticed that lately he stared into space as much as he stared at the pond. Peggy wasn't scared, not in a way she could explain—some days it wasn't scary at all, which surprised her; she felt excited more than anything else, almost as if she were going on a trip; they had sold her father's car and ridden trains all the way back to North Carolina and she had always wanted to do it again—she just dreaded being sick. Being sick was something that had to be gotten through, like Arizona and New Mexico and Texas, to get to the thing on the other side. Sometimes she hyperventilated a little thinking about it, but she couldn't exactly call it being scared. It was more like standing, with nothing to hold on to, on top of something very tall.
Peggy wanted to tell Vernon something. She wanted to sum up her life from the first things she knew—the pink and white house, the buildings in the sun, the way Lucky Strikes and Old Spice smelled on her father— and tell him everything that had happened up until now, every single thing she could remember and what it had all meant. She stared at his back a long time and said, "I just want you to know that I'm different than you are, Vernon."
Vernon turned around and looked at her and smiled. He had been watching the pond. "I know you are," he said. "You're from California."
"That's right," she said. "I am." That wasn't exactly true, Peggy knew—she had been born on Spindale Street, four doors down from Keller's Cafe—but she decided that it was close enough. Their last duck swam close to the bank. Its reflection swam through trees underneath it in the green water. Peggy pointed at the pond. "That's as pretty as a new baseball, isn't it?" she said.
"It sure is," Vernon said. "Official Major League. Straight out of the box." He scanned the lake. Their duck was the only thing moving on the water. "I think the old boy is going to make it," he said. "I haven't seen any turtles in a long time."
"I'm sure he's going to make it," Peggy said. "He's a smart one. He's going to be fine."
"I'm thinking about getting some more ducks in the spring," Vernon said. "I'm thinking about getting you a whole new flock of ducks. Maybe some Canadian geese."
"I'd like that, Vernon," she said.
Peggy remembered watching the three drakes mount the hen, and as she remembered the word fuck rose inside her like a bubble—so close to the surface that she could taste the hard, salty word, rich inside her mouth. But she knew that Vernon would not understand what she needed, even if she said it out loud. Vernon loved her too much. That was all there was to it, and she would not hurt him by saying it. The pond was still full of snapping turtles—they had buried themselves in the mud in the deepest part of the pond and waited only for spring—but she did not want him to know. Peggy looked all around her and supposed that it had been a good enough way to live.
The Prophet from Mars
MY HOUSE, the damkeeper's house, sits above the lake on Pierce-Arrow Point. The dam juts out of the end of the point and curves away across the cove into the ridge on the other side of the channel. On this side is the water, 115 feet deep at the base of the dam, and on the other side is air: the gorge, the river starting up again, rocks far down below, a vista. Seen from my windows, the dam looks like a bridge. There are houses on hundred-foot lots all the way around the lake, and too many real estate brokers. They all have jangling pockets full of keys, and four-wheel-drive station wagons with coffee cups sitting on the dashboards. The cofiee cups are bigger at the bottom than they are at the top. Sometimes, at night, the real estate brokers pull up each other's signs and sling them into the lake.
A family on Tryon Bay has a Labrador retriever that swims in circles for hours, chasing ducks. Tourists stop on the bridge that crosses the bay and take the dog's picture. You can buy postcards in town with the dog on the front, swimming, swimming, the ducks always just out of reach. There is a red and white sign on the Tryon Bay Bridge that says NO JUMPING OR DIVING FROM BRIDGE, but teenage boys taunting each other and drunk on beer climb onto the rail and fling themselves off. I could drop the water level down a foot and a half any summer Saturday and paralyze all I wanted. Sometimes rednecks whoop and yell Nigger! and throw beer bottles at Junie Wilson, who walks up and down Highway 20 with a coat hanger around his neck. Junie drops a dollar bill into the water every time he crosses the bridge.
The Prophet from Jupiter brings his five young sons to the bridge to watch the Lab swim. The six of them stand in a line at the guardrail and clap and wave their arms and shout encouragement to the dog. The Prophot drives an ancient blue Lincoln that is big as a yacht. He says he drove it in another life, meaning Florida. Down in the water, the ducks let the dog get almost to them before they fly away. They fly maybe thirty, forty yards, that's all, and splash back down. The townies call the dog Shithead. You may not believe me, but I swear I have heard ducks laugh. Shithead, as he paddles around the bay, puffs like he is dying. This is where I live and this is what I think: a dam is an unnatural thing, like a diaphragm.
The most important part of my job is to maintain a constant pond level. But the lake rises all night, every night; the river never stops. This will worry you after a while. When I drive below town, coming back toward home, I'm airaid I'll meet the lake coming down through the gorge. When Lake Glen was built, it covered the old town of Uree with eighty-five feet of water. As the dam was raised higher and higher across the river, workmen cut the steeple off the Uree Baptist Church so it would not stick up through the water, but they did not tear down the houses. Fish swim in and out of the doors. Old Man Bill Burdette, who lived beside the church, left his 1916 chain-drive Reo truck parked beside his house when he moved away.
The diver who inspected the dam in 1961 told the Mayor that he saw a catfish as big as a man swimming by the floodgates. It is a local legend, the size of the catfish the diver saw. At night I fish for it, from the catwalk connecting the floodgates, using deep-sea tackle and cow guts for bait. It hangs in the water facing the dam, just above the lake's muddy bottom. Its tail moves slowly, and it listens to the faint sound of the river glittering on the other side of the concrete. The Prophet from Jupiter says, When you pull your giant fish out of the water, it will speak true words. When they tell history, people will remember me because of the fish, even if I don't catch it.
The Prophet from Jupiter's real name is Archie Simpson. He sold real estate, and made a fortune, in Jupiter, Florida, until nine years ago, when God told him—just as he closed a $4 millio n condominium de al in Po rt St. Lucie—that he was the one true prophet who would lead the Christians in the last days before the Rapture. The Prophet says his first words after God finished talking were, Jesus Christ, you gotta be kidding. He is not shy about telling the story, and does not seem crazy. He has a young wife who wears beaded Indian headbands and does not shave under her arms.
Old Man Bill Burdette's four sons hired divers and dragged their father's Reo truck out of the lake fifty years to the day after the water rose. It was almost buried in mud, and hadn't rusted at all. The Burdette boys spent six thousand dollars restoring the old Reo and then said to anyone who would listen, I don't know why Daddy left it. It was just like new. Bill Junior, the eldest son, drives it in the town parade every Fourth of July, the back leaded with waving grandchildren. The oldest ones look embarrassed.
Before I start fishing, I pour ripe blood from the bottom of my bait bucket into the water. I use treble hooks sharp as razors. A reel like a winch. Randy, the assistant damkeeper, is an orderly at the hospital in Hendersonville, and fishes with me after he gets off work. He does not believe the story about the fish as big as a man. I fish all night. Sometimes small catfish, ripping intestines from the treLle hooks (they shake their heads like dogs, pulling), impale themselves and make a small noise like crying when I pull them out of the water. I hold them by the tail and hit their heads against the rail of the catwalk and toss them backward over the edge of the dam.
At dawn I open the small gate that lets water into the turbine house, throw the generator switches—there are four—and go to bed. The Town of Lake Glen makes a million dollars a year selling electricity. Everybody who works for the Town of Lake Glen has a town truck to drive. The trucks are traded for new ones every two years, and Lake Glen town employees use them like whores, driving at high speed through all the potholes they possibly can, because the trucks do not have to last. The Prophet from Jupiter makes miniature ladderbacked chairs that he sells wholesale to the gift shops on the highway. His young wife braids long bands of cowhide into bullwhips and attaches them to clean pine handles. With a hot tool she burns a small cross and the words EAKE GEEN, NORTH CAROEINA on the sides of the handles. She once said to me, I know tEat what my hnsband says about God is true because every time we make love he fills me with the most incredible light. The bollwhips she makes hang, moving in the draft from the cars on the highway, in front of the gift shops, and tourists stop and buy them by the dozen. It is inexplicable. In town, in front of the Rogue Mountain Restaurant, there is a plywood cutout of a cross-eyed bear wearing patched overalls. The boar holds up a red and white sign that says EAT. Once, during lunch in the Rogue Mountain Restaurant, the Prophet from Jupiter looked down into his bowl of vegetable soup and said, You know, in the last days Christians won't be able to get corn. LAKE GEEN, NORTH CAROEINA. The high-voltage wires leading away from the turbine house, you can actually hear them hum.
Sometime during the afternoon—cartoons are on television, the turbines have spun all day, in the Town Hall they are counting money, the skiers are sunburned in their shining boats, and the fishermen are drunk— the water level drops back down to full pond and the alarm goes off. I get out of bed and go down the narrow stairs to the turbine house and close the gate. The lake leans out over me. I feel better when I get back to the top of the stairs. All around Lake Glen it is brilliant summer: the town policemen park beside the beach and look out from under the brims of their Smokey the Bear hats at the college girls glistening in the sun. The night of the Fourth of July, the main channel of the lake fills up with bouts, and seen from the dam, the running lights on the dark water glitter like stars. The fireworks draw lines on the sky like the ghosts of the veins in your eyes after you have stared into the sun.
People who should know better play jokes on Junie Wilson. If they tell him that hair spray will scare away ghosts, he carries a can with him everywhere he goes, like Mace, until the joke gets around and someLody tells him differently. If they tell him that ghosts live in skiboat gas tanks, he will not walk by the marina for days or get within two hundred yards of a fast boat. The Prophet from Jupiter says that Junie has the gift of true sight. The Mayor gives Junie rides to keep him out of trouble.
This is what it's like to live on Lake Glen: in the spring, before the water is warm enough for the skiers to get on the lake, the sun shines all the way through you and you twist down inside yourself, like a seed, and think about growing. There are red and white signs on the water side of the dam that say DANGER MAINTAIN A DISTANCE OF 200 YARDS, but you can't read them from that far away. In April, the wind blows down out of the mountains and across the cove toward my house, and the sun and the water smell like my wife's hair. I don't know any other way to tell you about it. Along the western shore, in the campgrounds beside the highway, gas lanterns glow like ghosts against the mountain. Boys and girls who will never see one another again, and somehow know it, make desperate promises and rub against each other in the laurel; they wade in their underwear in the cold river. In the summer night bullwhips pop like rifles.
Lake Glen was built between the mountains—Rogue Mountain and Rumbling Caesar—in 1927 by the Lake Glen Development Company. They built the dam, the municipal building, and a hotel with two hundred rooms before the stock market crashed. My wife's name is Elisabeth. She lives, until I leave Lake Glen, with her mother in Monte Sano, Alabama, and has nothing to say to me. Twice a day the town gives guided pontoonboat tours of the lake. The boat stops two hundred yards from the dam, and I can hear the guide over the tinny loudspeaker explain how it would be dangerous to get any closer. Two summers ago the town made a deal with the family on Tryon Bay to keep Shithead penned until the tour boat came to the bay at ten and two. The ducks, however, proved to be undependable.
Shithead in his pen became despondent. Tourists pay two dollars a pop to take the tour. The proLlem was that the ducks swim on Tryon Bay every day, you just never know when. Elisabeth says that for years I had nothing to say to her, and that I shouldn't expect her to have much to say to me. I am ashamed to admit that this is true. There are hurricane-fence gates at each end of the dam, and only Randy and the Mayor and I have keys. When fishermen approach it in boats, I stand in the kitchen and ring the alarm bell until they leave. They shout at me perched on top of a cliff of water. This is something they do not consider.
The old people say that when Aunt Plutina Williams left her house for the last time before the lake was flooded, she closed her windows and shut and locked the doors. The Lake Glen Development Company planned, before Black Friday, to build four more twohundred-room hotels and five eighteen-hole golf courses. Some of the streets in the town of Lake Glen still have the old development company names: Air Strip Road, Yacht Club Drive, H. L. Mencken Circle.
Elisabeth, before she left, taught the church preschool class every other Sunday, and when she got home from church repeated for me, word for word, everything the kids said. One Easter she brought her class here for an Easter-egg hunt, and when she unlatched the gate on the front porch, they tumbled in their new clothes down the grassy slope toward the lake. Elisabeth followed me down to the turbine house once, and over the roar of the generators screamed into my ear, Why won't you talk to me? What are you holding back? The new police chief asked for a key to the hurricane-fence gates, but the Mayor refused to give him one.
The Lake Glen Hotel is sold and renovated about every five years, and banners are hung across the front of it on the days it reopens. A crowd gathers and drinks free Cokes. Old men sit and watch from the shade under the archos of the municipal building. A Florida Yankee makes a speech about the coming renaissance in Lake Glen. The Mayor cuts the riLbon and everybody claps. Most of the old streets are dead ends. The town of Lake Glen doesn't have an air strip or a yacht club: the hotel never stays open longer than a season. Most of the time, the signs of every real estate broker in town are lined up in front of it like stiff flags.
Elisabeth stood in the lake that Easter in a new yellow dress; the water was up over her calves. With one hand, she pulled her skirt up slightly from the waist. She held a glass jar in the other hand and looked into the water. The children squealed on the bank. Maybe then, watching Elisabeth, I believed for a minute in the risen Christ. This is what has happened: my wife, Elisabeth, is pregnant with the new police chief's child. Randy never mentions my misfortune, unless I mention it first. I am grooming him to be the new damkeeper. From the catwalk at night we see in the distance across the channel the lights of the town. There is no reason to come here and stay in a hotel with two hundred rooms. There is no reason to stay here at all.
Randy fishes for crappie with an ultralight rod that is limber as a switch, and will some nights pull seventyfive, a hundred, out of the dark water, glittering, like nickels. He comes to the dam straight from work and fishes in his white orderly clothes. He smells disinfected and doesn't stay all night. This is what I have done: I took the passenger-side shoulder harness out of my Town of Lake Glen truck and bolted it with long screw anchors to the side of the dam, behind the catwalk. I buckle up when I fish. I don't want to be pulled into the water.
Randy is twenty years old and already has two children. He is not married. His girlfriend is tall and skinny and mean-looking. Randy says she fucks like a cat. The old people say that the morning of the day the water came up, they loaded Aunt Plutina Williams into the bed of Old Man Bill Burdette's new truck. SomeLody asked Aunt Plutina why she closed her windows and locked her doors, and she said, Why you never know, sometime I just might want to come back. Junie Wilson has seen her. I am afraid that someday I will see her, too. Maintain a constant pond level. The last time I slept with Elisabeth, two hearts beat inside her.
Randy will go far in this town. He knows how to live here without making anyone mad, which is a considerable gift. Sometimes I can see Elisabeth bending her back into the new police chief. Randy says don't think about it. He is an ex-redneck who learned the value of cutting his hair and being nice to Floridians. He someday might be mayor. He brought his girlfriend to the town employee barbecue and swim party at the Mayor's glass house, and her nipples were stiff, like buttons. My shoulder harness is a good thing: sometimes late at night I doze, leaning forward against it, and dream of something huge, suspended in the water beneath me, its eyes yellow and open. At the party I saw Randy whisper something into his girlfriend's ear. She looked down at the front of her shirt and said out loud, Well Jesus Christ, Randy. What Do You Want Me To Do About It:
During the summers in the thirties the Lake Glen Hotel was a refuge for people who could not afford to summer in the Berkshires or the Catskills anymore. Down the road from the hotel, where the Community Center is now, there was a dance pavilion built on wooden pilings out over the bay. Elisabeth stood in the lake in a new yellow dress, holding a jar. The kids from the Sunday school squatted at the edge of the water and helped her look for tadpoles. The Mayor was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the spring, and waits to see if he had his operation in time. He owns a mile and a half of undeveloped shoreline. Real estate brokers lick their lips.
From my dam I have canght catfish that weighed eighteen, twenty-four, and thirty-one pounds: just babies. Randy said the thirty-one-pounder was big enough. He thinks I should stop. I think I scare him. I got my picture in the paper in Hendersonville, holding up the fish. My beard is long and significant; the catfish looks wise. I mailed a copy to Elisabeth in Monte Sano.
The new police chief drives up to the hurricane-fence gate after Randy goes home and shines his spotlight on me. I don't even unbuckle my harness anymore. The Mayor is not ranuing for reelection. I will stay until inanguration day. I learned this from the old men in the hardware store: the new police chief will live with Elisabeth and their child in the damkeeper's house; Randy's girlfriend is pregnant again, and the house isn't big enough for three kids. The Town of Lake Glen police cars are four-wheel-drive station wagons with blue lights on the dashboards. It is hard to tell the cops here from the real estate brokers.
The dance-pavilion orchestra was made up of college boys from Chapel Hill, and black mosicians who had lost their summer hotel jobs up north. The college boys and the black men played nightly for tips, in their shirtsleeves on the covered bandstand, tunes that had been popular during the twenties, and on the open wooden floor out over the water the refugees danced under paper lanterns and blazing mosquito torches. Bootleggers dressed in overalls and wide-brimmed hats drove their Model T's down out of the laurel and sold moonshine in the parking lot.
The new police chief came here from New York State and is greatly admired by the Florida Yankees for his courtesy and creased trousers. I try to hate him, but it is too much like hating myself for what I have done, for what I have left undone. I am the man who didn't miss his water. Florida Yankees have too much money and nothing to do. They bitch about the municipal government and run against each other for city council. They drive to Hendersonville wearing sweat suits and walk around and around the mall. Randy will not express a preference for city council candidates, not even to me. He will go far. His girlfriend will be the first lady of the town of Lake Glen.
The Mayor came here on summer break from Chapel Hill in 1931 and never went back. He played second trampet in the Lake Glen orchestra. He took his trust fund and bought land all the way around the lake for eighteen cents on the dollar. He is the only rich man I can stand to be around. At the end of the night, the Mayor says—three, four o'clock in the morning— after the band had packed up their instruments and walked back to the hotel, the last of the dancers stood at the pavilion rail and looked out at the lake. Fog grew up out of the water. Frogs scrceched in the cattails near the river channel, and there were cold places in the air. I can hear the new police chief's radio as he sits in his Jeep, outside the gates of the dam. The Mayor says that the last dancers would peel off their clothes and dive white and naked into the foggy lake. He says that when they laughed, he could hear it from the road as he walked away, or from his boat as it drifted between the mountains on the black lake, just before first light.
I hear laughter sometimes, when I am on the catwalk at night, or faint music, coming over the water, and it makes me think about ghosts, about those ruined dancers, looking out across the lake. Some nights I think that if I drove over to the Community Center and turned off my lights, I could see them dancing on the fog. Junie Wilson has taught me to believe in ghosts. The music I hear comes from a distance: I can never make out the tune. I remember that Elisabeth used to put her heels against the bed and raise herself up—she used to push her breasts together with her hands. Ghosts is with us everyw¿'ere, Junie Wilson says. Whenever I drop the lake down at the end of the season, the old, sawed-off pilings from the dance pavilion stick up out of the mud like the ribs of a sunken boat.
The old people say that the town of Uree held a square dance on the bank of the river the night before the water came up. They say that Jim Skipper, drunk on moonshine, shit in the middle of his kitchen floor and set his house on fire. The week before, the Lake Glen Development Company dug up the dead in the Uree Baptist Church graveyard and reburied them beside the new brick church on the ridge overlooking Buffalo Shoals. They even provided new coffins for the two Confederate soldiers who had been buried wrapped in canvas. The work crews stole their brass buttons. This is something that happened: Elisabeth and I tried to have a baby for seven years before we went to see a fertility specialist in Asheville.
The old people say that the whele town whooped and danced in circles in front of Jim Skipper's burning house, and that boys and girls desperate for each other sneaked off and humped urgently in the deserted buildings, that last night before the town began to sink. All the trees around the town of Uree had been cut. They lay tangled where they fell. The dead twisted and turned in their new holes, away from the sound of the river.
During the Second World War the government ran the Lake Glen Hotel as a retreat for Army Air Corps officers on leave from Europe. The Mayor says that the pilots—the ones who were not joined at the hotel by their wives—lay in still rows on the beach all day, sweating moonshine, and at night went either to the dance pavilion—where they tried to screw summer girls, and girls who walked in homemade dresses down out of the laurel—or to the whorehouse on the second floor of the Glen Haven Restaurant, a mile outside the city limits, where the whores were from Charleston, some of them exotic and Gullah, and the jukeLox thumped with swing. The Mayor says that the Glen Haven during the war was like Havana before the revolution. The house specialty was fried catfish, and hush puppies made with beer. The Prophet from Jupiter and his young wife live with their five sons in the Glen Haven building because the rent is so cheap. There are ten rooms upstairs, five on each side of a narrow hall. One room, the Prophet says, always smells like catfish, even though they have scrubbed it. One Sunday morning in the early spring, the Prophet's son Zeke told Elisabeth that he dreamed Jesus came to his house and pulled a big bocket of water out of a well and everybody drank from it.
The fertility specialist, Dr. Suzanne Childress, said that I had lethargic sperm. I knew it wasn't me, Elisabeth said. I knew it wasn't me.
Dr. Suzanne Childress said, Your sperm count is normul. They just do not swim well enough to reach and fertilize Elisabeth's ova.
They say that Jim Skipper camped out under his wagon for three weeks beside the rising lake. He borrowed a boat from the Lake Glen Development Company and paddled around the sinking houses. He looked in the windows until they disappeared, and he banged on the tin roofs with his paddle. He collected all the trash that floated to the surface—bottles and porch planks and blue mason jars—and put it in his wagon and studied it at night by a fire. He said he did not know how to live anywhere else. They say that before Jim Skipper shot himself, he stood in his borrowed boat and pissed down Old Man Bill Burdette's chimney.
Elisabeth said, You always thought it was me, didn't you?
Dr. Suzanne Childress said, I tLink that perFaps we can correct your problem with dietary supplements. Vitamins. Do you exercise?
Elisabeth said, I'm ovulating right now. I can tell.
Dr. Suzanne Childress said, I know.
They closed the dance pavilion for good in 1944 when a moonshiner named Rudy Thomas, in a fight over a Glen Haven whore, stabbed a B-27 pilot from New York eleven times and pushed him into the lake.
Rudy Thomas died of tuberculosis in Central Prison in Raleigh in 1951. They say that Jim Skipper was a good man but one crazy son of a bitch.
Several nights a week during his second summer in town, the Mayor leaned a chambermaid named Lavonia over the windscreen of his 1928 Chris-Craft and screwed her until his legs got so weak that he almost fell out of the boat. Junie Wilson says that the boxes on the sides of telephone poles—if the ghosts have turned them on—make him so drunk that he is afraid he is going to fall into the lake. The coat hanger around Junie's neck protects him from evil spirits.
Swect Lavonia, the Mayor says, had the kind of body that a young man wouid paint on the side of his airplane before he flew off to fight in a war.
The young Mayor took his clothes off as he drove his boat fast across the dark lake. Lavonia waited between two boulders on the shore near Uree Shoals. The Mayor cut the engine and drifted into the cove. Lavonia stepped out from between the rocks, pulled her skirt up around her waist, and waded out to the boat. The white Mayor glowed in the darkness and played gospel songs on his trumpet while she walked through the water. There wasn't a house or a light in sight. Lavonia told him every night while he squcezed her breasts, You're putting the devil inside of me. The boat turned in the water, and the Mayor owned everything he could see.
Randy in his orderly clothes, jigging for crappie, tells me there is nothing wrong with me, that to make a woman pregnant you have to fuck her in a certain way, that's all. You have to put your seed where it will take.
Junie Wilson woke me up one morning yelling, Open the gate, open the gate. One of the town cops had told him that ghosts wouldn't walk across a dam, that walking across a dam while it made electricity was the way for a man to get rid of his ghosts once and for all. Junie sees three ghosts in his dreams: he sees a man standing in a boat, he sees a woman looking out the window of a house underwater, and he sees his mama wading out into the lake. This dream torments Junie most, bocause he doesn't know how to swim. He stands on the bank and yells for her to come back. We walked across the dam, the water up close beside Junie, the air falling away beside me. Junie said, She better get out of that water if sEe knows what's good for her. What my wife said is true: I never thought it was me. Elisabeth after we made love kept her legs squeezed tight together, even after she went to sleep. Ghosts is keeping me amake, Junie said. I got to get rid of those gLosts so I can get me some sleep. Ghosts is crucifying me. Out in the bay the new police chief watched from his boat. The siren whooped once.
SometLing's wrong with me, Elisabeth whispered. I can't have a baby.
I said, I still love you. Shhh.
Before we went to see Dr. Suzanne Childress, I liked to sit astride Elisabeth, hard and slick botween her breasts. Lavonia tried to kill the baby inside her by drinking two quarts of moonshine that she bought in the pavilion parking lot from a bootlegger named Big Julie Cooper. Junie didn't speak until he was four. Ghosts began to chase him when he was twelve. The first time Lavonia saw Junie touching himself, she whipped him with a belt and told him that if he ever did that again, a white man would come with a big knife and cut it off. Elisabeth, when I was finished, wiped her chest and neck off with a towel.
Bugs fly like angels into the white light of the gas lantern and then spin and fall into the water. Randy jabs the air with his index finger: It's special pussy, man, way back in the back. It burus libe fire. The Mayor gave Lavonia a little money every month until she died, three years ago. He does not give money to Junie because Junie drops dollar bills off the Tryon Bay Bridge. He does it so that the ghosts won't turn on their machines when he walks by telephone poles. The Mayor says, Jesus Christ, if I gave that boy a million dollars, he'd thraw every bit of it off that damn bridge.
Randy says, Man, women go crazy when you start hitting that baby spot. They'll scratch the hell out of you. You gotta time it right, that's all. You gotta let it go when you hit it. He slaps the back of one hand into the other. Bang. You gotta get the pussy they don't want you to have.
Junie Wilson and I walked back and forth across the dam until the alarm went off and I had to close the gate and shot down the generators. I didn't tell Junie about the machines in the turbine house. The new police chief still watched from the bay. Elisabeth said over the phone from Monte Sano, I know you won't believe it now, but all I ever wanted was for you to pay attention to me. In a sterile men's room in the doctor's office, I put my hands against the wall and Elisabeth jerked me off into a glass bottle. The Mayor eats bananas to keep his weight up. Junie Wilson said that he did not feel any better, and I said that walking across the dam does not always work.
In August the air over the lake is so thick you can see it, and distances through the haze look impossible to cross. The mountains disappear before lunch, and even the sLiers in their fast boats get discouraged. The water is smooth and gray, and the town of Lake Glen shimmers across the channel like the place it tried to be. At the beach, policemen sit in their station wagons with the air conditioners running. The college girls are tanned the color of good baseball gloves. Randy's girlfriend is starting to gain weight, and Randy fishes less; the crappie have all but stopped biting. When it is this hot, I have trouble sleeping, even during the day, and eat white ice cream straight out of the box with a fat spoon. The Prophet from Jupiter winks and says that in hot weather his wife smells like good earth, and that God has blessed him in more ways than one. The Prophet and his wife have made love in every room at the Glen Haven. In the hot summer, the ghosts keep their machines turned on all the time, and Junie Wilson staggers through town like a drunk. If there is one true thing I know to tell you, it is this: in North Carolina, even in the mountains, it takes more than a month of your life to live through August.
September is no cooler, but the sky begins to br~ghten, like a promise. Gradually it changes from white back to blue, and the town begins to pack itself up for leaving. The college girls go first, their tans already fading, and motor homes with bicycles strapped to their backs groan up out of the campgrounds to the shimmering highway. Boys and girls damp with sweat sneak away to say good-bye in the laurel and make promises one last time. Around the lake, family by fam~ly, summer people close up their houses and go back to where they came from in June. The Florida Yankees have mercifally decided among themselves who the new mayor will be—he is from Fort Lauderdale and is running unopposed—but the council candidutes drive around town at night and tear down each other's campaign posters. My beard is down to the middle of my chest. Junie Wilson walks through town with his hands held up beside his face like blinders, to keep from seeing the bright faces stapled to the telephone poles. At night, the frogs hum one long, deep note, and one afternoon I slept in front of a fan and dreamed it was spring: Elisabeth waded in the lake and I sat on the porch and held a baby whose hair smelled like the sun. When I wake up now, my bathroom makes me sad because the mirror is so big. I dialed a 1-900 number for a date and charged it to the Town of Lake Glen. A woman named Betty said she wanted me to come in her mouth. In the closed-up summer houses, burglar alarms squeal in frequencies that only bats can hear, and the lights burn all night, turned on and off by automatic timers, but the rooms are empty and still.
In the fall, the wild ducks fly away after the summer people in great, glittering vees. Maples catch fire on the sides of the mountains around the lake, and weekend tourists drive up from Charlotte and Greenville to point at the leaves and buy pumpkins. The ducks skim low over the channel in front of my house, their wings whistling like blood, and then cross the dam, suddenly very high in the air. The Floridians born leaves in their yards and inhale the smoke like Mentholatum. Randy said, Man, I hope there ain't gning to be any hard pelings, and stopped coming to fish. Early one moroing my line stiffened and moved through the water for twenty yards. When I set the hook, the stiff rod bent double against a great weight. And then it was gone. And that was it. The next night the new police chief sat outside the gate in his Jeep and played an easy-listening radio station over his loudspeaker. In the town of Uree, Aunt Plutina Williams sits and looks out the window of her house. The sun is never brighter than a distant lantern. Jim Skipper wanders in and out of the houses. A giant fish moves through the air like a zeppelin. The new police chief said over the loudspeaker, Look, chief, I just want, and then stopped talking and backed up and drove away.
In November 1928 the Lake Glen dam almost washed away. A flash flood, shot brown with mud, boiled down out of the mountains after a week of rain, and the damkeeper, new at the job, did not open the floodgates in time. The water rose and filled the lake bed like a bowl before it spilled over the top of the dam. Old Man Bill Burdette, who lived five miles away, drove down the mountain in his new truck to warn people downstream: the lake had turned itself back into a river and was cutting a channel through the earth around the side of the dam.
They say that the men of the Lake Glen Development Company construction crews hauled six heavy freight wagons of red roofing slate from the hotel site and threw it over the side of the gorge. Local men, when they heard, came down out of the laurel and worked in the rain filling sandbags and tossing them into the hole. But still the water ran muddy around the side of the dam and over the tops of the sandbags and the roofing. The workers, without waiting for orders, rolled the six empty wagons in on top of the pile. They say that they carried all of the furniture and both stoves out of the damkeeper's house and threw them in. They poshed three Model T Fords belonging to the company, as well as the superintendent's personal Pierce-Arrow, into the channel the river had cut around the side of the dam. But the water still snaked its way through the wreckage, downhill toward the riverbed.
This OctoLer, Town of Lake Glen workmen hung huge red and yellow banners shaped like leaves from wires stretched between the telephone poles. They built cider stands and arts and crafts booths and a small plywood stage in the parking lot in front of the Lake Glen Hotel. The Chamber of Commerce hired a small carnival for the third Saturday in the month, called the whole thing ColorFest!, and promoted it on the Asheville TV station. Hundreds of tourists showed up, wearing bright sweaters even though it was warm. I saw townies look at me when they thooght I wasn't looking, and their eyes said I wonder what he's going to do. My beard is a torrent of hair. A high school clogging team from Hendersonville stomped on the wooden stage. Old men sat and watched from underneath the arches of the municipal building. Little boys stood at the edge of the stage and looked up through the swirling white petticouts of the girl dancers. Shithead's owners walked him through the crowd on a leash. The Prophet from Jupiter and his wife sold miniature ladder-backed chairs and bullwhips from a booth, and gave away spiritual tracts about the coming Rapture. An old Cherokee, wearing a Sioux war bonnet, for two dollars a pop posed for pictures with tourist kids. Junie Wilson, crying for somebody to help him before the white man came to get him, showed his erection to three of Old Man Bill Burdette's great-granddaughters, who were sitting in the back of the 1916 Reo truck.
In 1928 the workers at the collapsing dam looked at each other in the rain. Everything seemed lost. The superintendent of the Lake Glen Development Company produced a Colt revolver and a box of cartridges. Big Julie Cooper took the superintendent's gun when nobody else would and one at a time shot twenty-four development company mules right between the eyes.
The workers threw the dead and dying mules in on top of the cars and the wagons and the red roofing slate and the furniture and the stoves, before the rain slacked and the water retreated back to the lake side of the dam. Then the superintendent threw his hat into the gorge and danced a jig and said, Boys, you don't miss your water until your dam starts to go. When the roads dried out, the development company brooght in a steam shovel to cover the debris and the mules with dirt and rock blasted from the sides of the mountains, but not before the weather cleared and warmed and the mules swelled and rotted in the late-autumn sun. They say that you could smell the mules for miles—some of them even exploded—and that workmen putting the roof on the hotel, at the other end of the channel, wore kerchiefs dipped in camphor tied around their faces. They say that a black funnel clond of buzzards and crows spun in the air over the gorge, and that you could see it from a long way away. At night bears came down off of Rumbling Caesar and ate the rotting mules. It is all covered by a thick growth of kudzu now, and every winter, after the vines die, I think of digging into the still-visible spine in the gorge beside the dam to see what I can find. Big Julie Cooper says, By God, now let me tell you sometEing, that son of a bitch liked to of went.
When Old Man Bill Burdette's three great-granddaughters screamed, the new police chief twisted Junie Wilson's arm behind his back. Junie screamed, Jesus, Jesus, Oh God, Please Don't Cut Me, and tried to get away. The whole ColorFest! crowd, including the Indian chief, ran up close and silently watched while Junie and the new police chief spun around and around. I'm not gning to hurt you, Junie, the new police chief said. Two other town cops showed up and held Junie down while the new police chief very efficiently handcufied him and tied his legs together with three bullwhips that the Mayor brought from the Prophet from Jupiter's booth. The new police chief covered Junie's erection with a red ColorFest! banner shaped like a leaf. Junie's coat hanger was bent and twisted around his face. The new police chief pulled it off and handed it to the Mayor. Junie screamed for his mother over and over until his eyes rolled back in his head and his body began to jerk. Shithead howled. The high school clogging team from Hendersonville the whole time stomped and spun, wildeyed, on the flimsy plywood stage.
The first Monday after Thanksgiving, I raised one of the floodgates halfway and lowered the lake eight feet. Randy will fill the lake back up the first Monday in February. It will be his job to maintain a constant pond level, to hold the water in the air, to try to imagine what the weather will be four days or two weeks from now. Every day I try to piss off the river side of the dam in a stream that will reach from me to the bottom of the gorge, but it is impossible to do. The water comes apart in the air. When the lake level is down, the exposed pilings of the boathouses are spindly like the legs of old men. Randy's girlfriend has started to show, and her breasts are heavy. The new police chief spends three days in Monte Sano with my wife every other week. The hotel is dark and for sale and locked up tight.
When the water is down and the mud between the shore and the water dries out, the people who live here year-round rake the leaves and trash from the lake bottom in front of their houses, and replace the rotten boards on their docks and the rotten rungs on their uncovered ladders. All around the lake, circular saws squeal. The water over the town of Uree seems darker somehow than the rest of the lake, and I've always wanted to drop the lake down far enoogh to see what is down there. At the end of that last night, when Jim Skipper's house had burned down to a glowing pile of ashes, the people of the town of Uree sang, "Shall We Gather at the River Where Bright Angel Feet Have Trod," and then stood around, just looking at their houses and barns and sheds, wishing they had done more, until the son came over the dam at the head of the gorge.
The Mayor stays mostly in his house now. His successor has been elected. Randy wore a tie and met with the mayor-elect to discuss ways to generate electricity more efficiently. The Mayor keeps his thermostat set at eighty-five and still cannot get warm. The word from the state hospital in Morganton is that Junie Wilson has no idea where he is or what has happened and screams every time he sees a white doctor.
The lake began to freeze during a cold snap the week before Christmas. There were circles of whiter ice over the deeper water where part of the lake thawed in the sun and then refroze again at night. The temperature dropped fust all day Christmas Eve, and the ice closed in and trapped a tame duck on Tryon Bay. Shithead, going out after the duck, broke through a soft spot in the ice and could not get back out.
Within fifteen minutes, most of the people who live in the town of Lake Glen were on the Tryon Bay Bridge, screaming, Come On, Shithead, Come On, Boy, You Can Do It. Nobody could remember who had a canoe, or think of how to rescue the dog. The Prophet from Jupiter, before anyone could stop him, ran across the frozen mud and slid headfirst like a baseLall player out onto the ice. The duck frozen to the lake in the middle of the bay flailed its wings. I stood beside the new police chief on the bank and screamed to the Prophet, Lie Still, Lie Still, that we would find a way to save him.
The Prophet from Jupiter moved his lips and began to inch his way forward across the ice. It groaned under his weight. Cracks in the ice shot away from his body like frozen lightning. The Prophet kept going, an inch at a time, none of us breathing until he reached forward into the hole and grabLed Shithead by the collar and pulled him up onto the ice. It held. The dog quivered for a second and then skittered back toward shore, his belly low to the frozen lake.
We opened our mouths to cheer, but there was a crack like a gunshot, and the Prophet from Jupiter disappeared. He came up, once—he looked surprised more than anything else, his face deathly white, his
mouth a black O—and then disappeared again and did not come back up. On the bridge the Prophet's five sons ran in place and screamed and held their arms toward the water. Randy's girlfriend kept her arms wrapped tight around the Prophet's wife, who shouted, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, and tried to jump off of the bridge. By the time we got boats onto the lake, and broke the ice with sledgehammers, and pulled grappling hooks on the ends of ropes through the dark water and hooked the Prophet and dragged him up, there was nothing even God could do. The duck frozen to the lake had beaten itself to death against the ice. The new police chief sat down on the bank and cried like a baby.
Elisabeth's water broke that night. The new police chief called the Mayor and leit for Monte Sano, and the Mayor called me. I walked back and forth and back and forth across the dam until all the ghosts of Lake Glen buzzed in my ears like electricity: I saw the Prophet from Jupiter riding with Old Man Bill Burdette, down the strects of Uree in a 1916 Reo truck, toward the light in Aunt Platina Williams's window; I saw catfish as big as men, with whiskers like bullwhips, lie down at the feet of the Prophet and speak in a thousand strange tongues; I saw dancers moving against each other in the air to music I had never heard; I saw Lavonia, naked and beautiful, bathing and healing Junie in a moonlit cove; I saw Elisabeth standing in the edge of the lake in the spring, nursing a child who smelled like the sun; I saw the new police chief in a boat watching over his family; I saw the Mayor on his knees praying in Gullah with Charleston whores; I saw Jim Skipper and Rudy Thomas and Big Julie Cooper driving a bleeding pilot beside the river in a wagon pulled by twenty-four mules; I saw the Prophet from Jupiter and his five young sons shoot out of the lake like Fourth of July rockets and shout with incredible light and tongues of fire, Rise, Children of the Water, Rise, and Be Whole in the Kingdom of God.
MY MOTHER named me Randall after Lord Randall, this guy whose true love kills him by getting him to eat some poisoned eels. She won a talent show in high school playing the mandolin and singing Lord Randall's song. She doesn't seem to think any bad could come from naming a baby after someLody whose luck was that awful, but I'm not so sure. I drove a school bus for a little while when I was in high school, and one morning a first grader named John Fitzgerald Kennedy Canipe ran right out in front of me. I would've run over him if I hadn't been watching out for him especially, the way I always did, once I found out what his name was. I realize you can say that Jeff-Kay Canipe's name brought him good luck just as easily as you can say that it brought him bad luck, but what it proves to me is that the world is crazy with all kinds of luck and you can't be too careful. I quit driving the school bus.
Now Jeff-Kay Canipe pumps gas at the Municipal Marina, and I see him there on the dock whenever I go past, on the way up to my parents' place. He is famous among kids in these parts because he can spin just about anything on his finger—gas cans, ski vests, tackle boxes, coolers—and make it look like everybody ought to be able to do it. He does it without even realizing he's doing it, the way someone else might twist their hair or chew on their lip. He will stand and talk to you with a boat paddle spioning slowly on his finger, and never even look up at it. It will drive you crazy, waiting for it to fall. He doesn't remember that I drove his school bus the year he started to school, and doesn't know that I'm responsible for everything that has happened to him, good and bad, since 1973.
When I go see my parents, my mother throws open the door of their trailer and clasps her hands to her chest like she's dying and sings out in a high, quavery voice, "Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son? Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?" which even after all these years still makes me nervous. If I say anything at all, I say, "I've been down the mountuin because that's where I live." That satisfies her, but what she really wants me to do is sing, "I'm wearied with hunting, and fain would lie down," the way I did when I was a little kid. Back then she played her mandolin and sang the first part of the verses, and I sang the second part, and she showed me off to anybody who would stand still and listen. We had a regular act going until I got a little older and figured out just what exactly had happened to Lord Randall, and how there was no telling what kind of bad luck singing that song out loud over and over to complete strangers could bring down on my head.
My mother told me not too long ago that she seriously considered naming me Fain, because fain means happy and pleased, but that at the time she thought it sounded too much like Fabian, who had a song out she didn't like. I owe Fabian a big one. It's my gut feeling that no good could ever come from being named Fain, no matter what it means, although you can never say something like that for sure. Jeff-Kay Canipe could run a whole school bos full of kids off the side of a mountain on his way to work in the morning, and one of those kids could've been the one who grew up and figured out how to cure cancer. It might turn out that running over Jeff-Kay Canipe might've been the best thing I could have done with my life. It might've been the only thing I was meant to do, and I screwed everything up. Jeff-Kay Canipe has become friends with my parents, and spends more time at their place than I do. His whole life is something to consider, and considering it makes me tired. There's no way of knowing, not yet, how any of ~t ~s gomg to turn out. All I can say, at the end of the day, is how it didn't turn out. In the meantime, I wouldn't eat an ecl for a million dollars, and I'm fussy about shrimp and mayonnaise. I won't answer to Randall if I can help it, and Randy almost never. You meet more assholes who are named Randy than you do with any other name. My father gave me Lake for a middle name because we lived close to one, and that is the name I go by. Our last name is Tesseneer, but I don't have any idea where it came from or what in the world it means.
My parents are Bonuie and Bud Tesseneer, and they own a trout pond about the size of a good mudhole up above the Girl Scout camp. It's three miles off the main highway, and six miles from the lake, too far out and too small to ever do any good, although they'll tell you, and swear on it, that they're sitting on a gold mine up there, and it's jost a matter of time until word gets out and business takes off. They say that any day they'll be covered up with tourists tired of the beaten path worn around the lake, and hungry for fresh mountain trout. I think, Do?¿'t hold your breath, but don't ever say it out loud. My parents are past the point where knowing anything that resembles the truth would do them any good. They act like little kids running a bait stand, like they're going to make a million dollars selling worms. You have to look out for people like that.
The two of them have always thought they were going to strike it big, and live out their lives rich as royalty, and they've tried to do it a hundred different ways, nane of them any more successful than any of the others. Over the years they've run motels and Laundromats and campgrounds, and bait shops and ice-cream parlors and package stores, and service stations and gift shops and boat-rental places, and until the trout pond, always for other people. Every time they got started on something new, they called me up and said, "Lake, this is the break we've been looking for. This is the one, son," but
I could always tell, even on the phone, that they were already planning their next project, the big one, the one they've waited and waited and waited on. About five years ago, they got stuck with cases and cases of Amway products they couldn't sell, and they're still not sure how they did it. They just look at each other and giggle when you ask about it. Every time I go up there they try to give me a bagful. They never get tired of making jokes about suede cleaner. Sometimes I think that when they look at the trout pond, they can't even see it, not really.
Sometimes I look at it and try to imagine what they see, but what it always looks like to me is trouble. My parents are both over sixty and can't keep their hands off each other and don't have any insurance and worry the hell out of me.
For four or five years when I was a kid, they were caretakers at a summer camp for boys down on the lake. It was the thing they did longer than anything else. I liked living there a lot in the winter, when all the city kids weren't there, and almost every night I'd take the camp master key and a pile of quilts so big I couldn't hardly carry it, and go down and sleep in one of the cabins. A lot of nights my mother and father made a lot of noise in their room, and after I got old enough to know what it was, I didn't want to listen to it. I guess there were thirty or more cabins in the camp, all close enough to the lake that you could hear the water running up on the shore when the wind blew it, and every one felt different than all the others when you lay in it at night. I always told my parents which cabin I was going to sleep in, so they could find me in the morning, but sometimes they'd forget to come wake me up, and I'd miss the school bos and get in trouble at school the next day. I'd wake up and the sun would be foll out. I'd grab up all my quilts and run back to the house, and my parents would be sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, and my father would be drawing a diagram on a napkin with a pen. Whenever they looked up, I could tell by their faces they'd been making one of their big plans and had forgot all about me, so after a while I started taking their alarm clock with me out to the cabins at night, and they never seemed to notice it was gone.
I didn't like the camp that much in the summer because I didn't get to sleep in the cabins anymore, and because I had to spend a lot of my time hiding out in the woods. For some reason, the favorite game at that camp was chasing Lake Tesseneer, and in the free hour the campers got after breakfast, lunch, and supper, a gang of them would gather up and come sneaking around our place, looking for me. If they ever caught me outside, away from the house, they'd cut me off and I'd have to run and hide in the laurel above the lake, and try to circle back and get inside, until the counselors came at the end of the free hour and blew their whistles and called them off. I wasn't really afraid of any of those kids—not one at a time, anyway—and sometimes when I got bored or felt like playing I'd go down to the cabins just as they finished eating to let them get a look at me. All they had to do was just spot me, just catch a glimpse of me, and they'd start waving their arms in the air and yelling like they were crazy and light out after me. It was the damndest thing you ever saw. Sometimes I'd run straight up the side of the mountain, and after the gang got spread out in a long line behind me, I'd turn around and circle back and tear down the side of the mountain at full speed, and jump out of the laurel and holler and scare the hell out of the little kids and the slow kids who ran at the tail end of the line and weren't too keen on catching me anyway. There was never any question of them running me down, not even the new big fast kid who came every summer and was supposed to be able to catch me singlehanded once and for all. They were just a bunch of city kids from Charleston and Savannah and Atlanta who couldn't find their butts in the woods, but by the end of the summer hiding and running and being wary all the time would start to get old. I'd get mad and go down to the cabins late at night and throw big rocks from the campfire pits onto the tin roofs, just to make all the city kids inside whisper, "What was that?" and root around in the dark for their flashlights. After a minute every flashlight in the place would come on, and the beams would shoot out through the screens, and the counselors would yell, "Shut Up!" and "Turn Off Those Lights!" and come to the door of the cabin in their underwear and open it and lock around, as if they would be able to see me. If I was real lucky, they would be pissed off and yell out my name, which always made me feel good, hiding out in the dark and watching. It made the city kids howl out loud and swear that they would get me the next day and thrash around and take forever getting back to sleep.
The only big days my parents ever have at the trout pond come once or twice a summer when a troop of Girl Scouts rides up the hill in a big red schoel bus to fish. My parents look forward to them coming all winter, but I think it's one of the scariest things I've ever seen. The little girls stand shoulder to shoulder all the way around the pond and jerk trout out of the water as fast as the counselors can put corn on their hooks. They dance around and around and squeal when they catch one, and get their lines tangled up in the lines around them, most of which also have a trout thrashing on the other end. You can hear the ruckus for miles. I watch the whole thing from the kitchen window of my parents' trailer, through a crack in the curtains. That many kids that age all together are just poked-out eyes and bad accidents waiting to happen. From a distance it looks like the fish are jumping up out of the water and dodging around in the air, trying to fight their way out of the pond and make a break for the higher mountains where the real trout live, but the Girl Scouts are beating them back down into the water with long sticks.
The scouts always have a big fish fry down at the camp the night after they fish, and invite my parents. I went once and won't ever go back. All those little girls sat cross-legged in a circle around a big campfire, gnawing on trout, not even looking for bones, and my mother stood by the fire, even though it was a hot night, and played her mandolin and sang. She knows more songs than anybody I know, but in almost all of them somebody gets shot or hung or stabbed or poisoned because of a misunderstanding and dies with their true love's name on their lips. I say, "Mama, don't you know any happy songs?" and she says, "Lake, what could be happier than a song about Love?" My mother says about love what she says about everything else, that it's all in the way you look at it.
Once when I was a little boy I caught a bunch of lightning bugs and put them in a green bottle and put the bottle on the table beside my bed. My mother came in and told me how pretty my lightning bugs were, and then sat there and told me a sad story about how lightning bugs were lost souls flying around in the darkness trying to find their way to heaven. After that all I could think about was all the souls that would never make it because I'd suffocated them first in a 7-Up bottle. That night at the Girl Scout camp, after she sang four or five songs and got good and sad, she walked over and stood directly in front of me and sang "Lord Randall" like her heart would break. She even teared up when she got to the part where the mother tells Lord Randall that the eels were bad and he is poisoned. My father looked up at her like she was an angel, like he had never heard the song before, and had no idea she could even sing. He rocked back and forth and clapped his hands together, not even in time to the music. I could tell that all those little girls were studying us while they ate, and could figure out our whole lives just from watching. I couldn't see their eyes in the firelight, only black holes where their eyes were supposed to be. I could hear them chew. It made the short hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and I put down my plate and stopped eating. I figured that if I was ever going to get a fish bone stuck in my throat and flop around on the ground and die gasping for air, it would be right then, with my mother singing "Lord Randall" and crying and my father clapping and those wild little girls gathered around watching with trout skeletons in their hands.
I work in town down the mountain, where I am a janitor. I do not see anything wrong with this. I have plenty of insurance, medical and life. I play basketball on a team in the city league, because I believe that you start to get old the day you forget how to run. Running is the biggest thing little kids can do that old people can't. I'm thirty-four, and I make sure I do my share. Jeff-Kay Canipe, who is a basketball wizard, is on my team. He's very short, but he can spin basketballs on the middle finger of both hands at the same time until you get tired of watching. He can throw long passes behind his back at a dead run and hit teammates in the head who you would swear he had never looked at. He can see things we can't. Sometimes three or four guys on the other team will surround Jeff-Kay Canipe and try to hem him in and take the ball away, but he dribbles behind his back and through his legs and always gets away clean. My parents come to all of our games, which sometimes makes him show off. I personally am not very good. The boys in the city league call me The Lake Monster, I guess because they like the way it sounds when they say it, and because when I play I wear cutoff jeans and black high-top sneakers I found in a dumpster. There was nothing wrong with the shoes that a good washing didn't fix, and they were my size. They call Jeff-Kay Canipe Special K. He actually gave $150 for his shoes, and he won't even wear them outside.
Whenever I get on the floor—which is never more than four or five minutes a half—the other players roll their eyes and smile and tell the guy who guards me to look out for The Lake Monster. That I'm dangerous. I pretend I don't notice. When we have the ball, I run hard as I can in a big circle that goes from near midcourt to underneath the basket and back out again. After a while the man on the other team gets tired of ronuing around in a big circle with me. Then he starts saying "Jesus, Lake, where the hell are you going?" and shragging and rolling his eyes every time he rans by his friends in the bleachers or one of the guys on his teum, and just lets me go. That's my plan. When that happens, I just keep running in my big circle like I didn't notice, but I keep my eye on Jeff-Kay Canipe, who I never see looking at me, but know that he is. At least once a game he throws me the ball while I'm running close to the basket and all I have to do is toss it in. This may not sound like much of an accomplishment to you, but I don't know how to play basketEall. After I score a basket, while we run back down the court, Jeff-Kay Canipe slaps me on the butt and looks up and says, "Keep your eye on me, buddy. I'll take good care of you." He looks like he's going to float out of the gym, he's so happy.
I never know what my parents are going to do next. Earlier this summer at the flea market in Asheville they bought a miniature stagecoach and two ponies to pull it. I thought, A stugeconch. The ponies are named Roy and Dale, and my father said that the whole rig was a steal at $850. On Sundays he and my mother go down to the lake and take little kids on stagecoach rides, in a circle out the point from the Community Center to the Municipal Marina and back again. The stagecoach holds two kids at a time, sitting knee to knee, and my parents charge two bucks a kid. The ride takes fifteen minutes. Jeff-Kay Canipe steps out and waves from the Municipal Marina when my father turns the stagecoach around. Sometimes he will spin something on his finger—a boat paddle, a broomstick, a fire extinguisher—and the kids will hang out the windows of the stagecoach and look back backward all the way to the Community Center. For another two bucks my mother will take a Polaroid picture of a kid standing with my father and Roy and Dale, or just with Roy and Dale, if they prefer. My parents think they're going to pay off the stagecoach this summer, but I'm not so sure.
The stagecoach is painted bright red, and my mother painted THE B B STAGE COACH LINE, LTD. on the side of it in fancy gold letters. On the back it says THINK TROUT! My father wears blue jeans and cowboy boots and a red western shirt and two toy pistols, and my mother wears a long red old-fashioned dress and a big red-checked sunbonnet that she ties up in a big bow under her chin. Sometimes she rides up on the seat beside my father with her arm hooked through his, but usually she stays behind and talks to the parents. She keeps her mandolin and several jars of the preserves she makes and the honey my father gathers from the hives behind theit trailer and flyers advertising the trout pond and circular-saw blades that she paints mountain scenes on and an assortment of Amway products all arranged on a red cloth on the hood of their truck. If one of the parents points at the mandolin and says, "Can you play that?" my mother will say, "Oh, just a little bit." Then she picks it up and plays it like crazy and closes her eyes and sings one of her sad songs. The parents usually buy something then. Whenever my father climbs up on the seat, he snaps the reins and tilts his head a little back toward the windows and says, "Yee-Hah. I Hope We Don't See Any Indians On This Trip." My mother clasps her hands together and looks up at him like he was the grandest thing she ever saw. The little kids in the back roll their eyes.
My mother and father are able to chain their stage- coach to the willow tree behind the Community Center during the week, free of charge, but they have to keep Roy and Dale at home. They don't have a horse trailer to haul the ponies back and forth, though they say they're going to buy one as soon as business picks up. Roy is a liver and white pinto gelding, and Dale is a palomino mare. Dale's eyes are blue, if you look at them right, and she's pretty, like a toy. Dale won't let me get within ten feet of her, and I don't know what her problem is. My mother says it's my worldview. On Sundays my father walks the ponies the six miles to the lake, and then the six miles home again at the end of the day. He has angina, and keeps nitroglycerin pills in the pocket of his shirt. My parents never mention it, and look at me like I'm not speaking English whenever I ask. My mother drives the truck a little bit ahead of my father and the ponies and parks where the shoulder of the road is wide enough. She watches in the rearview mirror as they walk toward her. She lets them catch her and go on past out of sight, and then she starts the truck and catches and passes them again, and drives on to the next wide spot on the side of the road. She carries a jug of water for my father, and sugar cubes for Roy and Dale. It takes them two and a half, sometimes three hours to make the trip, going and coming. They leave for the lake before dawn and get home in the pitch dark. Half of the trip is on the state highway, and sometimes assholes pulling big ski boats behind their new trucks blow their horns or throw things out the window or lean out and yell, trying to scare the ponies, which isn't hard to do. Dale is nervous anyway. The cars go by close enough to tonch, and the traffic is bad on Sundays with skiers going to the lake and tourists going beyond the lake to the mountains. I'm afraid that one day Dale's going to run out into the highway in front of a bus and drag my father and Roy with her. That my mother will see the whole thing. Sometimes I wake up real early on Sunday mornings and lie in bed and wonder where my parents are on the road to the lake, and jost what in the world they're thinking.
Two or three times a day on Sunday my mother has to take her display of stuff off the hood of their truck and drive home to put gusoline in the portable generator that runs the aerator for the pond. Without the aerator pumping oxygen into the water, the trout would die in a couple of hours, all five thousand of them, and I have no idea what my parents would do then. The generator helds only enoogh gas to run four hours at a time, but it doesn't seem to make them nervous. My father gets up at two o'clock in the morning, and again at six to put gas in it. He does it seven nights a week. Sometimes my mother gets up with him and makes a pot of coffee and they sit in lawn chairs close together on the far side of the pond and talk all night. My mother says it's peaceful, but I don't see how. The generator is loud, and it's a fact of my parents' lives, the awful noise it makes. When you leave their place, after you've been there a while, you always think you've leit something, or forgot to do something important, but you can't remember what it is, all because the noise is gone from inside your head.
My parents buy all the gas they use from Jeff-Kay Canipe at the Municipal Marina. Jeff-Kay Canipe always asks how the trout are doing, as if he knew them personally, and on Sundays, il business is slow at the marina, he walks out the road to the Community Center to talk to my parents and pet the ponies. They bring an extra lawn chair so that he will have a place to sit when he visits. Once a tourist asked if he was their son. My parents tell him stories about how well I got along with the city buys at the summer camp, about how we spent our summers whooping and hollering and ranning through the woods. My mother has taken to calling Jeff-Kay Canipe my little brother, although she knows it makes me mad.
Jeff-Kay Canipe is especially fond of Dale, and Dale likes Jeff-Kay Canipe, which doesn't do a lot for my disposition, either. Dale has a deep sore on the inside of her right front leg that won't heal, and after Jeff-Kay Canipe gets off work in the evenings he comes up to the pond and helps my father put purple meclicine on Dale's sore, and motor oil around it to keep the flies away. After they put the medicine on Dale's leg, she runs around the pasture kicking and bocking and biting at the air and making a noise deep in her chest like fighting and won't let my father get near her for a long time. In a few minutes, though, she'll come right up to Jeff-Kay Canipe and butt her head against his arm. Jeff-Kay Canipe gives her sugar cubes and brushes out her mane and whispers in her ear. My mother asks him what he said, but he says it's a secret between him and Dale. She says to me, when Jeff-Kay Canipe isn't listening, "Lake, your little brother sure is gnod with animals," and I think, Well, maybe I could've just bumped him a little bit.
Unlike Dale, Roy will let me pet him, but doesn't seem to care much about it one way or another. He's even-tempered and indifferent to everything except Dale. My mother says that Roy is in love with Dale, but that their relationship was doomed from the beginning because Roy is a gelding, which keeps Dale from loving him back. Whenever Dale runs wild around the pasture, trying to buck the burning place off her leg, Roy trots aloog behind her, stiff-legged, with his ears up straight, blowing out through his nostrils. My mather says Roy is asking Dale if she is all right. Sometimes, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, just before dusk, Dale lets Roy mount her. Roy doesn't do anything— there's not much he can do—he just stands there until Dale turus around and looks at him like she just noticed him for the first time, and bucks him off and trots away. My father learned a long time ago to catch Dale first on Sunday mornings. If he led Roy away and never brought him back, Dale would be content to stay by herself in the pasture cropping at the grass, but if my father catches Dale and leads her toward the gate, Roy gets upset and follows Dale as closely as he can. My mother says that Roy wouldn't want to live without Dale, and that if she could make one wish, she would wish that Roy could be a stallion for a day. My father says that if it wasn't for the traffic on the highway, he wouldn't even put a rope on Roy when he led the ponies to the lake.
Jeff-Kay Canipe is a dreamer like my parents. His goal in life is to own Bobby's Place, a store on the water on the other side of the lake. All you can buy at Bobby's Place is cold beer and gasoline, and when you pull up to the dock, one of Bobby's girls comes out to tie up your boat and take your order. All of Bobby's girls have big blond hair and dark tans and wear cutoff jeans and bikini tops and gold necklaces. Sometimes the bay is filled with assholes in Ski-Nautiques trying to hit on Bobby's girls. If the assholes aren't buying anything, Bobby comes out on the dock and shakes his fist and runs them off, and when they tear out of the bay the noses of their boats jump straight up out of the water and the engines roar like bears. There's going to be a bad boat wreck there someday. Jeff-Kay Canipe says that with any luck at all he'll be able to save enough money to make a down payment on Bobby's Place by the time he's forty. He's twenty-four now. He's already asked my parents to help him run it, although both of them will be close to eighty years old. Of course, they signed up. My mother says she'll wear a bikini. Jeff-Kay Canipe doesn't stop to think that Bobby's Place might be out of business then, or not for sale, that it might burn down, or that the dam could wash away during a flash flood and that Bobby's Place when he's forty might be sitting on the edge of a giant pasture. Jeff-Kay Canipe probably doesn't weigh 110 pounds, although the mascles in his arms and legs are knobby and he can run all day. His hair is thin already and combed back on top. He crinkles his eyes up when he thinks about what you've just said, and hugs my mother every time he comes to visit. He helps her wash dishes, and spins the plates on his finger. My mother says that Jeff-Kay Canipe and I could be twins, even though I'm six feet five and my hair is as thick as it ever was. I think, Just enough to have knocked him down. Sometimes Jeff-Kay Canipe sits at night with my parents in the lawn chairs around the pond and they talk about ways to improve the business once Bobby's Place bocomes Canipe's General Store. Soft drinks, ice, suntan lotion, key chains that float, bottled air for scuLa divers. They'll have to add on to the building. Build an additional dock. Hire more girls. Jeff-Kay Canipe dreams about the day in the future that Bobby's girls will become his. In 1973 he was a tiny boy with a stiff blond crew cut, and I watched him run out his front deor and down through the yard faster and faster without a thought in his head. Now he dreams about standing on the edge of the dock at Canipe's General Store, while the Ski-Nautiques circle in the bay waiting their turn to buy something from him, and all around him are benutiful girls with soft brown skin that smells like coconut milk. Jeff-Kay Canipe's dream is my dream, in a way, because I watched out for him in 1973, but it's not a dream I can change, or make come true, and I don't want the responsibility of owning something I can't work on and fix. My parents point into the dark at the place on the other side of the trout pond where they say they're going to build a giant water slide.
The head gasket on my parents' generator is bad to blow, and I keep a spare one, and the tools I need to change it, in a box behind the seat of my truck. It's like trot around the pasture, and Jeff-Kay Canipe bounced up and down on her back. Roy trotted aloogside Dale, pressed up against Jeff-Kay Canipe's leg. Dale's head dropped a little each time she stepped with her sore front leg. "Yee-hah," my father yelled. "Ride 'em, Jeff-Kay."
My mother said, "Did you know that Jeff-Kay can spin a plate on his finger?"
I said, "Mama, tell Jeff-Kay Canipe to get off Dale."
My mother said, "He says it's all in the balance. That everything has a place where it balances, and he can feel where it is when he picks it up." She moved her arm up and down, testing the weight of the lantern. "Don't you think that's a lovely talent to have?"
I said, "Mama, Jeff-Kay Canipe's too big to be riding Dale like that."
"Oh, he's not," she said. "He's tiny. Dale likes it when he rides her."
I said, "He's going to break her down."
"You always think the worst," my mother said.
I think, Somebody needs to around this place. :
My mother held up her hand. "Shh," she said.
I didn't hear anything except the hoofbeats of Dale and Roy, moving in a circle around the pasture, and the
sound of my father rowing in the pond. ~ "Bud," my mother said. "Hold still." |
My father pulled his oar up out of the water. "What is it?" he said.
"Listen," my mother said.
Off in the distance then I heard voices, at first what seemed like hundreds of them, singing light and high.
The sweat turned icy on my back.
"What?" my father said.
"The Girl Scouts," my mother said.
I stood up and turned around and looked down my parents' driveway. In the road, 150 yards away, a troop of Girl Scouts was marching by in the dark. I could just barely make out their white shirts. I heard,
Hang down your head Tom Dooley Hang down your head and cry Hang down your head Tom Dooley Poor boy you're bound to die.
My mother held the lantern over her head and waved it back and forth, as if she were signaling for help. Out in the road a single flashlight blinked on and pointed down the driveway. My mother waved. I heard,
I met her on the mountuin
And there I took her life I met her on the mountuin And stabbed her with my knife
Out in the road the flashlight blinked out. The sound of the voices got smaller and smaller, going away. "Oh, Lake," my mother said. "Did you hear that? They sing like angels." Down the road the Girl Scouts started another verse, but I couldn't make out the words. Behind me I heard Jeff-Kay Canipe say "Whoa," and the hoofboats in the pasture dwindled down and stopped. I turned back around and looked at the generator. I don't know why, but for a second when I looked down into the blackness of the cylinders I felt like I was going to fall in and keep falling. "Oh, I'm so happy that thing wasn't runuing," my mother said. My father had his long oar poised above the pond, waiting, and when I looked up he waved like we didn't have a thing in the world to worry about. Not a thing. My mother started to hum. In the pasture Jeff-Kay Canipe hugged Dale and bent down to look at her leg. Lightning bugs blinked all around us, and the water in the pond was still, still, still.
WE SAW the geese from the road at dusk, a flock of mayLe forty or fifty. They dropped suddenly out of the sky, miles from the nearest flyway, and landed in a bottom on one of our farms, just outside Aliceville, North Carolina. This was in December, on one of those still evenings in the new part of winter when you cannot decide whether it is a good thing to inhale deeply, the air is so clear and sharp.
Uncle Zeno and I were headed home—I don't remember now where we had been—and the geese came down on us like a revelation: a single gray and black goose shot from out of nowhere directly into the path of our truck, flying faster than you would imagine anything that big could fly. It was so low to the ground that we heard the whistle of its wings over the sound of the engine. And before we were even through jumping in our seats, the air around us exploded with honking geose, so close and flying so fast that they seemed in danger of crashing into the truck. Their rising shouts