WEDNESDAY: The Girl by the Lake


Copyright is held by the author.

I WORKED graveyard shifts at the plywood mill and I hated it, but it paid double a server wage. The forklift driver I worked with, Elton Frank, said “You’re a boy doing a man’s job.” Frank was two years older. He knocked over my pile of wood sheets. “They’re not straight enough.” That woke me up. I almost fell asleep on them, which was funny because after work I couldn’t snooze at all.

I took my Mom’s old car out to the lake and tried to dream under the trees. My buddy Barry showed up with his guitar, we played away the afternoons, until it got too hot. Then we splashed in for a swim, lifting our heads from the depths to view the shoreline trees beyond, or a water snake gliding beside us. After a long while, we’d turn back in, move towards our two guitars shining on the beach.

We’d been to a hypnosis show, and while I paddled in the water I tried to set up a rhythm that said “You will get out of this town,” then I made the chant into a song.

I took up a rhythm at work, too, piling sheets of plywood to “after you get out of this town, you will find a girlfriend.”

One afternoon Barry and I strummed rock and roll on the beach as usual, leaning forward into the sound while sitting flat on two big logs. I heard a whinny and from down the beach trotted a horse and atop that horse bounced a young girl, her brown legs gripping the animal’s sides. She looked up at us, hit the horse’s behind with the flat of her hand and rode straight out into the lake. We stopped our music and watched. I’ll never forget her black hair flying and the crashing of the water around her. She guided her horse out a ways then turned around and slid off its back into the waves.

I took off my shirt and ran in. “Hey!” I yelled, moving towards the horse as fast as I could. I didn’t see the girl until she surfaced beside me.

“Wow, you can hold your breath a long time,” I said.

She dunked her head in the water again, and flipped her hair up.

“Race you,” she grinned. She held the horse’s reins in her hand.

The truth was I didn’t like big animals. I could smell this one as it swam around beside us, but I said “Yeah, sure,” and began the Australian crawl. I won easily because I splashed as much as possible to keep the beast back. The girl laughed all the way, she led the horse to the shallows where the weeds grew, then turned round, hopped on her steed and put it to a gallop all the way past Barry to the laurel trees, her head down by the mane, her arms around the animal’s neck.

“We’re having a party here tonight,” Barry yelled at the girl, as I climbed out of the water and watched her pull the horse up by some picnic tables. She tied it to a tree and walked up to me, within conversation range, she stood in her cut-offs and white blouse tied above the navel. Behind her rose the heat waving forest, the blue sky dry and hot above her dripping black hair.

“I’m Rennie,” I said. “The madman in the water.”

“I like parties,” she said. “My horse is called Janine.”

I went up to the horse. It looked over at me. I didn’t touch it.

“Nice mane,” I said. “Janine.”

“I’m Lana,” said the girl.

“How’d you like to join us for some music, Lana?” I asked.

“I don’t know how to sing,” she said. But she came over to the guitars, I watched her bare feet step on the rocks. “I’m a flag girl,” she told me. “We don’t sing too much.”

Lana sat on the log, very close to my acoustic. I picked it up. Barry and I began to play. I watched Lana mouth the notes, then she hummed. I stopped playing, reached into my packsack, passed her the water canteen. She poured the contents over her head, and turned her face towards me. Then she started singing for real. The horse under the trees shook its head up and down. After the second number she said “I’ve got to go back. Janine is calling.”

Lana stood up and walked away, hair all dry now, bare arms and legs shining in the sun.

“You could join us tonight,” said Barry, but she didn’t look back and she didn’t show up.

As it grew dark, Barry and I built a fire down near the water. We were both too young to buy alcohol, but Barry had scored some off his friend Don. He sat drinking it. Barry drank all through high school. He kept a bottle of wine in his locker. I didn’t care for the stuff. “Why don’t you hypnotize me?” he said. “My head’s still full of that show magic.”

“Maybe after midnight,” I told him. “I could cure your drinking.”

“Not the drinking,” he said. “My nerves.”

As the fire crackled, we watched the sun smoulder red behind the hills. A couple of kids walked across the rocks towards us, Millie Acabo and Gordon Nichols, “I got a bottle of lemon gin,” said Gordon. He was about fourteen years old, his blonde hair framed light against the dusk.

Millie had a loose front tooth. She showed us by moving it around with her tongue.

“I fell on the cement,” she said. “My Dad’s coming to pick me up later.”

We all sat in front of the fire and stared out at the lake. Millie said she’d walked all day with Gordon. “I can’t remember where we went,” she said.

“We went up above the falls,” said Gordon. “Then up to the cliffs.”

After some drinking, Barry became a bit feisty. He started talking about how it was stupid to walk around all day with no purpose. He berated me for not getting Lana’s phone number. After the sun went down, he stood up, yelled, took a running leap and jumped over the fire.

“Did you see that on TV?” asked Millie. “Do it again, maybe I can take a photo.”

She looked up. Two car headlights moved slowly along the beach road above us. “That could be my Dad!” she yelled.

She hesitated, then stood up and ran towards the car. As she clambered up the embankment the vehicle stopped, and two men got out. They walked over to the edge of the parking lot and stood there. I stepped around in the dark, to check closer. Millie looked tiny talking to them. They all walked down towards our fire.

“It’s the cops,” said Gordon. “Maybe her Dad called them.”

“Goddamn it,” Barry whispered.

One guy had the uniform and the gun. The other one was Maurice Parent, my old French teacher from high school. He’d often told us he worked as an auxiliary policeman.

“I know this fellow,” he pointed at me, then smoothed his hand down the front of his paunch. “You’ve been drinking.”

“You all look underage,” said the cop, a buff, dark haired guy. He kicked at a beer can.

“You should pick up your trash.”

He looked at Millie. “This girl is 13 years old,” he told us. “You boys should have driven her home. Her Dad’s worried sick.”

“Wow, did her Dad call you guys?” Barry asked.

“Sorry,” Millie said. Her face looked very brown and red, reflected by the fire, I saw her put her hand up to her mouth, to that loose tooth.

“I want to see your I. D., boys,” said the cop.

I dug in the back of my pants for my driver’s license. Barry and I were both 18, too young to drink. Gordon sat there holding his gin bottle. When he saw the cop looking at him, he shoved it under the log he sat on. Maurice walked over and pulled it out.

“Who did you buy the liquor from?” asked the policeman.

We didn’t say anything.

“If you don’t tell us, we’ll charge you with withholding evidence.”

“I bought it from Don. Don Crusnett,” said Barry. His voice shook. He’d mellowed out considerably from his fire jumping. I figured maybe I should’ve hypnotized him.

“We need Don’s name and address,” said the cop.

“I don’t want to tell on him,” said Barry. “You know his address, Rennie.”

“I only met him one time,” I said. “Does he live in his car?”

The cop got the address off Barry.

“We’re charging you two with being minors in possession of alcohol,” he told us. “And “contributing to the delinquency of minors.” He looked at Gordon. “We’ll drive you and the girl home.”

After they left, Barry and I hauled water up in our canteens and put the fire out. Then we took our sleeping bags out of my car and lay on the grass above the beach.

“They pressured me,” said Barry. “I had to give them Don’s name.”

“Isn’t contributing to the delinquency of minors and being a minor in possession of alcohol contradictory?” I asked, staring up at millions of stars.

“You think too much,” said Barry. “You should go to college.”

The next night I returned to the mill. I pulled plywood strips off the green chain, piece after piece for eight hours. I drove straight home afterwards, lay in bed trying to sleep. A loud front door knocking startled me alert. My Mom answered.

“There’s a policeman here who wants to see you,” she yelled.

I got up and the officer from the beach stood holding a document. “This is a summons to court on the charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol,” he announced.

My Mom shook her head. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said. “Why did you keep this so secret?”

“I didn’t actually drink anything,” I told her.

“Yeah, right,” Mom said. “What else are you lying about?”

At Pinot City court house, I told the Judge the same thing. The Judge said it didn’t matter. “You were there at the time,” he told me. “That’s all the evidence we need, under the law. How do you plead?”

“Guilty,” I said.

The Judge gave me a $200 fine.

“The problem with you is you’re immature,” said my Mom. “And Barry’s immature too.”

“They charged him with contributing to the delinquency of minors,” I pointed out. “But he’s not even nineteen.”
“The officer told me Barry’s younger brother was there too,” she said. “He’s only 12.”

“He wasn’t,” I said. “They must have mixed him up with Gordon.”

I paid the fine from my mill earnings. The incident made the local paper. “Three charged with liquor offences,” said the byline. What it didn’t say was that Don Crusnett showed the Judge his poetry. Don’s parents were in attendance, sitting close together in the court.

“You don’t want to destroy a promising future, son,” the Judge told him. “Keep working on that verse.”

Don received a $100 fine.

“I wasn’t even at the party,” he told Barry. “That’s the last time I sell anyone alcohol.”

My Mom couldn’t make it to the hearing. She had to work. She didn’t talk about the incident except to say “Please don’t shame me like that ever again.”

At the mill, Elton Frank called to me across the lunchroom. “I hear you got busted.”

His bleary eyed buddies lifted their heads from the tables.

“Yes,” I said. “A $200 fine.”

“That’s not cool, man,” he said. “What 18-year-old doesn’t drink?”
“I don’t,” I said.

Elton thought that was very funny. He and his friends couldn’t stop laughing.

“So you pled guilty, and you didn’t even drink anything.” Elton wiped tears from his eyes.

Later in the shift, he helped me move my carts full of plywood.

“I think you know your way around this mill now,” he said.

After the court case, I drove out to the lake by myself after work most days, and dozed under the trees. One early evening I opened my eyes to the horse splashing sound. I lifted my head. Lana rode out in the lake with Janine. Behind them lay the mountains, hazy in the heat. No motorboats sounded. I heard the wind then, in the laurel trees. I walked down to the edge of the water, where the water lapped over the stones covered with green lake weed. I waved at Lana, an outline in the haze now. “I have to swim to her again,” I thought.

I took off my shirt and pants and moved forward, bound in one direction. I heard the sound of my arms and legs hitting the surface, and plunging in. The water was warm, and deep, and I had a purpose. Each time I looked up, I saw Lana and the horse against the mountain haze, each time closer.

Had she turned around?

“Hey!” I yelled. “It’s me, Rennie, the madman in the water!”

She circled. I was sure she’d seen me. A few minutes later she headed back, closer to the shore than I.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Lana! Where are you going?”

She looked back at me, then looked away.

“Do I know you?” she yelled across the water.

“Yes, you know me!” I said.

She stood on shore, her brown legs dripping, her cut-offs blue black and tight, the horse shaking itself.

I climbed out and stood across from her,

“We did the same race a few weeks ago.” I said. “And wow, what a race it was. I followed you out, just like today, and I followed you back in.”

“You think I don’t remember?” she laughed.

Everything shimmered round me, with Lana at the center.

“Do you want to say hello to the horse?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m crazy about horses,” and I reached up to the stinky wet head and rubbed it between the eyes.

“My brother Elton knows you,” said Lana. “He drives the forklift at the mill.”

“He’s not a bad guy,” I said, “If you stay on his good side.”

I tried hypnotizing Barry a couple of times after that, but it was like I was in a trance state myself. I couldn’t focus. Barry was drinking a lot anyway, and how do you hypnotize a drunk? I tried to convince him to do something constructive with his life.

“You’re only an actor,” he told me. “It’s all a big charade, your bogus hypnosis. Why did you plead guilty in court when you weren’t?” He continued on. “What do you see in Lana? She’s an ordinary looking girl.”

I told my Mom I was quitting the mill in a few months and going to college.

“Only rich people go to college,” she said. “It’s out of your league.”

I thought about that. Maybe she was right. It was a strategy, though, if nothing else developed.

I didn’t see Barry much after he chewed me out, but Lana and I went out a lot. It was like she’d gotten right inside me that day. We swam up and down the lake, went fishing, horseback riding. I borrowed Elton’s horse to ride with her. I didn’t like the animal, but it never bit me.

“If we live together one day,” Lana said “You could try for a management position.”

“What do you see in me?” I asked. “Barry says I’m just an actor.”

Lana took some time to answer.

“I like all your energy, from the first time I met you.” she said. “I remember the way you focussed at the lake that day, trying to race me. Very impressive. You have strength, and no bad habits.” She smiled. “What do you see in me?”

I wanted to say “that brown legged summer beauty, the look when you turn your head, the way you sing by the fire,” but I told her “all my dreams.”

She stopped her horse and looked over. “That’s pretty serious,” she said.

My life was so real and sharp and clear I could hardly stand being alive. My next shift at the mill was coming up, and the prospect didn’t seem so bad, another way to make a living. Work was a means to an end, a management position, college, who knew what might happen?

“Let me trance in this moment,” I thought, as we moved on again. I held on to the reins, steered my balky horse, and followed my lover along the lake trail all the way back to the edge of the mountain.