Ghost Lake, p.1Bernard Fancher
Copyright 2011 Bernard Fancher
All Rights Reserved
The story that follows is fiction. Except where clearly historical, the people, places, and events portrayed are works of the imagination.
On select summer Sundays, we would return home from church, only to immediately get ready to set off again, for the lake.
While my brother and I ran upstairs for our swim trunks and towels, Dad would get the barbecue stuff from the garage and begin loading up the back of our beige Polaris station wagon. By the time we got back to help, he would already have fitted in the boxed grill, a half full bag of charcoal, and a rectangular squeeze can of Gulf fire starter, sending us off with a turn of his head, half still in the car, to procure a folding aluminum lawn chair for our mother, and a blanket for the rest of us to sit or lie down on; meanwhile, Mom would be inside transferring the refrigerated components of our beach picnic dinner to a green Coleman cooler set before the fireplace between the kitchen and back door. Invariably, the contents would include a Saran-wrapped bowl of potato salad, a fresh pound or two of ground beef folded twice in aluminum foil, a vacuum-packed offering of white hots and red dogs, and a colorful variety of Blue Boy canned sodas buried in the cubed and coalescing ice. Then Dad would come in, secure the lid, and take the cooler out to the car.
That left only the utensils and plates, the hotdog and hamburger buns, the mustard and ketchup for my brother and me, saving for last the tan and brown-speckled tin drum of Charles Chips potato chips delivered fresh off the truck two days before and stored, unopened, on the floor of the corner cupboard until the crowning moment whichever one of us had sat quietest through church got to carry it off to the car. After that, if things went real smooth, Mom would follow us out, carrying her square cloth bag of personal items and two or three books, like ballast, weighting the bottom. And with no interruption we would get under way.
But more often than not, we would have to wait while the bag sat buoyed upright on the dinning room table as Mom, critically appraising her look in the mirror above the sink in the half-bath off the kitchen, lightly touched up her lipstick and hair.
I can still see her standing there just beyond the door opening, with the toilet behind her, turning one way and then the other, wearing a black one-piece beneath a striped blue and white Van Heusen shirt extending in swallowtails down the backs of her thighs, seeming to reveal rather than conceal the luminous form of her body. Looking at the slit of thigh and bulging softness of her calves felt mildly indecent. But I could never just turn away, captivated as I was by the large mole centered like a darkly oxidized penny on the Achilles arc of her left ankle—the last thing I would concentrate on before giving up and going back out to wait with my brother in the back seat of the car.
Eventually, one of us would succumb to frustration, venting despair in a long wordless sigh, a signal of discontent Dad would address by half turning as if to address someone standing beside the open side window. Exhaling a small sigh of his own, he would counsel us: “patience”—advice which, I must admit, has stood me rather good with the slightly more volatile, yet better, half of our species ever since.
When Mom emerged from the back door and walked smiling, as if to reward us, to the car, we would proceed again the way we had come, continuing past the church to make the turn onto the county road that took us high over Cold Creek and beyond the old mill slowly imploding along the steep opposite bank. And then up Grindstone Hill to an ever more elevated vantage, my brother and I would sit silently looking across rolling green fields unfolding about us, extending to the wide river valley on one side or the far distant hills on the other.
When the road dipped and came up again slowly through a narrow corridor cut through the state forest, we would wait until the trees opened up at the top to watch again a continuation of what may have been the very same rolling corn and cut hayfields as before; contentedly, sedately, we gazed idly on until we passed the cast iron arched entrance to the old Podonque cemetery on the right after which, rising slightly in our seats, we looked left to take in the high bluff rising in dramatic fashion against a limitless blue sky and cotton balls of cloud. Sensing and timing the moment, Mom would lift her eyes from whatever book she was reading to look under the purple ridge of windshield, remarking in a wondrously breathy, barely audible voice: “That would make an absolutely perfect setting for a Western. Just imagine Indians sitting up there on horseback, waiting to descend on the unwary traveler…”
I would barely have time to imagine the scene myself, or concoct a drama to explain it, before the road ended, blocked by the perpendicular transit of another, wider road. Here we would sit for one perfect, motionless moment, ideally positioned to see to the other side where—tacked to the peeling white clapboards of a slightly sunken building long abandoned even then—a continuous length of hemp spelled out, like a rodeo trick in suspended looping cursive, Podonque Outpost.
Once, I leaned forward to ask what the words meant and felt my brother’s waiting breath on my neck as our parents first looked and smiled to each other before Dad, turning his face to the rearview mirror, smiled back at me. “It’s just someone’s idea of a joke,” is all he said. But what made it a joke, I wasn’t sure; yet hearing him repeat the words, exaggerating the enunciation in combination with a slow drawl, made my brother and me laugh, though I don’t think we actually knew, or would know even now, what was funny.
As I come to a stop at the same place with my own son, I point out to him the scene across the way, noting for myself, but deciding not to overtly address, how the roped letters have, in the interval of years, sagged along with building’s roofline. I over-articulate the first word of the sequence, just as my father did for my brother and me, and self-consciously explain it’s a catchall term for any place too small and remote to be of much, if any, significance.
A glancing and slightly contemptuous look from the boy lets me know the explication is entirely unnecessary—for him. And so, deciding against sharing my secret suspicion the words may actually be validly descriptive, I find myself feeling, as my father that long ago day might also have felt, somewhat chastened and slightly ridiculous. For the first time I understand his explanation as perhaps a too-tentative attempt to convey an otherwise unspeakable truth, wrapped in absurdity—a truth so simple and basic as to defy explication. The gist of the absurdity is we love our children more than we can convey; in his grunting, reflexive way, the boy makes only the smallest pretense of wanting to know what I can only wish to say.
I am left to decide it’s no use telling him anything more, accepting he neither cares for my story nor even particularly desires to hear the sound of my voice. He prefers instead to remain largely self-possessed, if not entirely disconnected. And yet, as a mere grudging concession, he lifts his head just enough to look out the windshield across the hood and the road, impassively acknowledging the view beyond before returning to the conveyance of his secretive text. In ever more chastening silence I am left to imagine an array of possible transmissions, the most juvenile I can imagine to be: Now @ Podunk. Yippee! So fun!
The comparison to earlier times makes the present seem insipid. I attempt to absolve myself of its failing by admitting failure in the past, imagining our relationship, the connection between father and son, as being worsened, if not irreparably damaged, by a history of absence. I quietly explore the happy premise of a better result had the boy’s mother and I remained together. Doing so leads me to conduct an interior monologue, concluding: the fault is mine, dear Boy, not one of poor interstellar alignment. If I had done better, we would be riding t
I give up on the impulse to further tell or explain how the road has changed over the intervening years. Risen above the sunken level of the long defunct store’s nearly forgotten and forsaken egress, two immaculate, bypassing lanes tilt before us like a broad asphalt ramp leading either towards or away from—depending which way you go—a still hidden summit. We turn left going down the new road, riding high for a half mile on a wide and luxurious expanse of still fresh and slightly adhesive pavement, making a smooth descent before decelerating, turning right over a short bridge onto the reassuringly narrow lake road paralleling, exactly as I remember, the channel of an old farmland rivulet swollen to the size of a deep and motionless river.
“I see the lake,” my companion observes. Casting a languid gaze across the invisibly extending tangent of the car’s downward
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