(This is something I just started noodling with – I have a few stories about these characters milling about in my head – so this might be the beginning of a novel or a collection of related short stories – time will tell)
Technically, according to any calendar, it was still spring of 1979, and would be for about another week. But practically, with the last day of school and the graduation ceremony having commenced a week earlier, summer was already well under way, the days long and bright and green, darkness held at bay until after ten o’clock, when the sound of crickets would start reverberating, setting a pulse, a rhythm, to the night. It was summer all right, even though the night air that blew through the rolled down windows was cold and reminded us that it wasn’t that long ago, only two months, since mid-April, that the ice finally went out on the lakes.
All five of us were there. We were riding out to Zimmerman Lake in Jimmy’s dad’s AMC Matador, Jimmy driving, me riding shotgun in the front passenger seat, the windows all the way down, the night wind blowing through my thick brown hair, with Jeff, Roger and Tony in the back. Now days, if you’d see that car, you’d say, “what a fucking boat,” but back then, in mid-June of 1979, it didn’t seem so big. It was the time in Wisconsin when the drinking age was eighteen. Me and Roger and Jimmy were of legal age and had just left the Wagon Wheel, shooting pool and hanging out with the old manure-kickers that were her regulars. We had a few beers and did a few shots, and we were all feeling pretty good at 11:00 when we walked out into the cool night air. We rode to Jeff’s house, about a block away from the bar, and picked up Jeff and Tony.
It was a confusing time for us. We’d all been friends since middle school, since seventh grade, and every year, when school got out, we’d celebrate the start of summer vacation by staying out until morning. It started as sleepovers and as we grew older and started driving it evolved into chaperoned camping trips. By the time summer arrived this year, 1979, we were all old enough that we could do whatever the fuck we wanted.
We’d picked this night, a Thursday, for this year’s celebration, but this year felt different. We’d just graduated high school, and we were all supposed to be figuring out what we wanted to do with our lives. This wasn’t the beginning of another summer vacation, this was the beginning of the rest of our lives. We all knew it, we all felt it, as Jimmy pulled off of Highway 67 onto the long and narrow two dirt tracks road to Zimmerman Lake’s boat launch, the narrow beam of the headlights illuminating the dirt ruts and the over grown brush on each side, until it finally ended in the empty gravel parking lot. We all knew that something, none of us could describe exactly what, maybe it was childhood, maybe it was our friendship, maybe it was just the goddamned seventies, but we all knew that something was ending.
We got out of the car. Jimmy opened the trunk and Tony and I each grabbed a handle at each end of the metal cooler and lifted it out of the trunk and walked it over to the circular arrangement of rocks next to the shore line that was the boat launch’s fire pit. The cooler was filled with ice and beer, cans of PBR, and we each reached in and grabbed one, little chunks of ice sticking to the cans or melting in our hands. The boat launch was lit by a single light on top of a twenty, twenty five foot pole between the eastern edge of the parking lot and the lake, lighting up the pier. Zimmerman Lake was small and shallow and muddy, known as a place where you could get a lot of pan fish action, little crappies and bluegills, by just dropping a worm and a bobber. The more serious fishermen preferred chasing the trophy muskies and walleyes that were occasionally pulled out of the flowage, about ten miles from Zimmerman. We liked it because on the west side, the side of the boat launch, nobody lived there year round, there were just a couple of summer cabins that were unoccupied this early in the season. We could be as loud as we wanted and drink undetected by the cops, who if they ever had a reason to check out the boat launch we’d see their headlights down the long rutted road into it well before they’d see us.
None of us, not even Tony and Jimmy, who were going to college in the fall, had any fucking idea of what we wanted to do or be. Jeff and I had just gotten jobs at the window factory on the outskirts of town; we were scheduled to start the following Monday. Roger still walked with a limp from the car accident he was in when he was fourteen. He had the night off from his job behind the cash register at the PDQ. Come the fall, Tony was going to Eau Claire, Jimmy to Marquette, down in Milwaukee, after they’d finished working for Tony’s dad on his farm for the summer.
“Craig!” Jimmy yelled, and I turned just as the Frisbee was about to hit me in the face. I was able to get a hand up and at least block it just in time, as Jimmy laughed that high pitched hyena laugh of his. Tony and Jeff had gone into the woods and returned with handfuls of dry sticks; they brought them to Roger who put them in the fire pit along shore, next to the pier. Soon Roger had a fire going, and Tony and Jeff brought back bigger sticks, logs. Jimmy pulled two lawn chairs out of the trunk of the Matador. He handed me one and we walked to the fire, me carrying the lawn chair in my left hand and Jimmy’s Frisbee in my right hand. We got to the fire and before I unfolded my lawn chair I flipped my right wrist and released the Frisbee in the direction of Tony, who was standing on the edge of the woods, barely in the light. After I threw it, after I knew Tony wouldn’t have time to react, I yelled “Tony!” He turned his head just as the Frisbee arrived, hitting him square in the face, prompting Jimmy and I to laugh loudly while Tony muttered “stupid sons of bitches.”
We sat, Jimmy and I in the lawn chairs, the rest on the ground, next to the fire. We talked about and laughed at the same things we’d been talking about and laughing at for the previous six years, which may as well have been forever. In addition to the beer, Jeff had bought some wine, TJ Swann’s or Boone’s Fam, I can’t remember which one, just that it was real cheap shit, and Tony brought a small bottle of Yukon Jack, and we passed the bottles back and forth until they were dead soldiers thrown into the fire.
We talked about where we were going and the choices we’d made. Jimmy asked me again, “Why the fuck aren’t you going to college?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had enough school for a while.”
‘Well, you’re too fucking smart to stick around here,” Jimmy said.
“Maybe I’ll go in a year or two,” I said. “I just want to work and make some money for a while. Plus, my folks can’t really afford it.” This part wasn’t really true, as my mom and dad told me they’d swing it if I really wanted to go. They left it completely up to me, didn’t push me one way or another. They’d grown up during the depression, both poor, and college was never an option, never a realistic thought for either of them, and they’d done fine. They never really talked about it to me, it was never a priority to them, and therefore it wasn’t a priority for me, either. But now, with Jimmy going off in the fall to Milwaukee and me staying behind in Neil, I thought about it all the time, and I had a nagging suspicion I was going to miss out on something big, something big and important.
“The problem,” Roger started, “is that I have no fucking idea what I want to be when I grow up.”
We all knew that this was true. Roger, or none of us, for that matter, didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we also knew that in Roger’s case this wasn’t the real problem. The real problem with Roger wasn’t the damage the accident had done to his body, either. It wasn’t even the fact that his mom was dead. The problem we all saw with Roger was his dad, Steve Harris.
Steve Harris was, in the summer of 1979, in his mid-forties. Thin and tall with fading blonde hair and a pale and blotchy complexion, he was a used car salesman, owner and operator of a lot a block off of main street. It was cheap and sleazy and unimaginative, exactly like a thousand other lots in a hundred different cities, bordered with pennant shaped triangle flags, the year and model and sometimes the price displayed in gaudy neon-green letters stuck to the inside of the windshield. The lot was filled with junk, pieces of shit the Ford and Chevy and Chrysler dealers took in on trade ins but didn’t want to be associated with in their own used car lots. Roger helped his dad out whenever he could, washing the cars and sweeping out the office and any other odd jobs that needed to be done. Sometimes Steve paid Roger, most times he didn’t.
We all knew that Steve was an asshole, even Jeff, who bought a 1972 Chevy Vega from him in his junior year, only to take it home and find a huge puddle of oil in the garage where he’d parked it. It had a cracked block that had been sealed with some kind of silicone sealant that gave out after a few hours. Jeff’s dad, a former Marine, was furious with Steve and threatened to kick the shit out of him. They ended up getting lawyers involved and reached a settlement where Jeff and his dad got almost everything they’d paid for the car back, and Steve had to tow the piece of shit back into his garage, until he was finally able to offload it to some junkyard somewhere. The whole deal had no effect on Jeff and Roger being friends. They both knew their dads, knew what they were and were not.
None of us, even Jeff, for that matter, had a problem with Steve being a douchebag car salesman. In fact, we all found his antics to be pretty funny, even Roger, and we all loved it when Roger told us the inside baseball stories of rolled back odometers and paint job touch ups. If that were all there was to Steve, if that was his only flaw, we could have laughed him off as one of Neil’s Mayberry-esque characters, like Tom Newton, the proprietor of the barber shop on Main Street who we insisted shared an uncanny resemblance to Floyd on the “Andy Griffith Show” (we all saw it, and it became more vivid and funny when we were rolling doobies and watching reruns in Jimmy’s basement rec room). But what we couldn’t forgive was the way Steve treated Roger.
Roger’s older brother, Randy, was a star running back in high school who’d graduated in 76. He was good enough to get a free ride downstate at Whitewater. Roger’s dad made it to every one of Randy’s games, driving all over the countryside, but had no time for Roger, who’s artificial leg and limp was a constant reminder that not only was Randy perfect and untouched, but of the fact that Delores, the boys’ mother and his wife, was dead, killed in the same car accident that took Roger’s leg. Between Randy’s scholarship and the legal settlement, Steve could have easily funded Roger’s college tuition, so it wasn’t a matter of cost. It was neglect, and it was more. It was meanness, pure and simple, and when Roger wasn’t there, the rest of us would talk about how much we hated Steve, and tell stories of the latest example of Steve being a dick, like the time Laurie Schmidt, Jeff’s hot blonde girlfriend was in the lot with her dad. Roger was there, with a bucket and a squeegee, well within earshot, washing one of the cars, when Laurie’s dad introduced her as a sophomore in the high school, to which Steve replied, you must know my son, the little gimp with one leg, ‘ol Hopalong I call him.
We couldn’t tell these stories when Roger was present; we’d tried that once, and Roger got real defensive, saying “you don’t know what my dad’s been through.”
“I know what you’ve been through,” I said, “and you don’t deserve to be treated that way.”
“Fuck you,” Roger said, trying to hold back the tears that were pooling behind his eyes, “and mind your own fucking business.” That was Roger – aside from the good natured teasing about his dad’s sleazy business ethics, Roger never said one negative word about his dad. In fact, I can’t remember Roger saying anything negative about anybody, and when we’d get going like we frequently did, ripping someone apart, Roger’d get real quiet. He was like that, physically crippled, but in so many other ways, he was the best of us.
At about a quarter to four, we looked around the fire and Tony was gone. “Where the fuck did Tony go? Jimmy said. “Fuckin’ light weight, he’s probably curled up in the back of the car asleep.”
“He ain’t sleeping,” Jeff said. “Look.” He was pointing towards the pier.
There, at the end of the pier, Tony was hopping on his bare left foot, taking the sock off of his right foot. He stood there, unzipping his jeans as Jeff started ba-da-ba-ding the stripper’s song.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Jimmy said.
Tony finished taking off his jeans, then he lifted his t-shirt off over his head, and finally removed his underwear. “Anybody want to go for a dip with me?”
“You’re crazy,” Jimmy responded. “That water is freezing, probably 50 degrees.”
“Oh, who’s the little girlie man?” Then Tony jumped off the pier, making the unmistakable sound of a serious belly flop as he hit the water and then we heard a blood curdling scream. We didn’t know if he’d hurt himself or was just reacting to the cold water. “Come on in,” he yelled, “the water’s perfect.”
I was the first to get up, taking my clothes off as I approached the pier.
“Before you get in,” Tony announced, “you have to be birthday suit naked.”
Jeff followed me, and then Jimmy. By the time Jimmy got to the pier, I’d already dove in. The water was ice cold. I went under and got my head all wet, experience told me that the faster you exposed your entire being to the cold the faster you got used to it. I tried touching the bottom, the water at the end of the pier was about six foot deep, so I could barely reach it, but it was cold and mucky, and it felt like it’d swallow you if you put too much weight on it, so I just treaded water. Jeff and Jimmy dove in, screaming at how fucking cold it was.
It didn’t take long to get used to the cold water and once you did, it felt great. We were all laughing, when I looked back to the pier and suddenly felt horrible. It was Roger, standing alone on the pier, fully dressed. Jeff, who’d had enough to drink that he was even stupider than normal, said, “Come on, Roger. Don’t be a pussy. Get naked and get in here.”
“Jeff,” I said, just loud enough so he and none of the others could hear, “Roger can’t. He can’t swim, remember?”
At one time, five years earlier, Roger always went swimming with us. He was as good a swimmer as I was, and I was the best swimmer of the bunch. Then, late in the summer before eighth grade, Roger and his mom were in their Buick LeSabre, on their way to the high school to pick up Roger’s brother, Randy, from football practice when Justin Warwick, a skinny little prick who’d just got his license two days earlier, blew though the stop sign on County Highway A where it intersected with Highway 67and broadsided the LeSabre, killing Roger’s mom instantly and flipping the car over in the ditch on the other side of the road. The driver’s side had caved in and lacerated Roger’s mom, he could feel her lifeless body pressing down on him, and he became aware of the pain shooting through his right leg. It was bent backward at his knee so that his foot was under him, even with his waist, trapped between the seat and the door, and he became aware of the blood shooting out of his leg, just above his knee, and just before he lost consciousness he remembered seeing that his lower leg was barely attached to his upper leg. He woke up in the hospital in Rice Lake and it was a week later, he’d been in a coma. In the week that he was unconscious, they’d amputated his right leg, treated the burns on his abdomen, and buried his mom.
“Roger,” Jeff said. “You can come in, can’t you? Even in the shallow water?”
“Fuck, yeah,” Roger said, and he started undressing, revealing his plastic prosthetic leg and scarred mid-section. We all broke into applause and shouts of encouragement, impressed by the fact that Roger must have been really wasted, because he’d never do this if sober. He unsnapped the leg and left it in a pile on the pier with his jeans and shirt, and he hopped off of the pier, hitting the water sideways. Jeff swam toward him, and made sure he was okay. “Fuck, yeah!” Roger shouted, and there was triumph in his voice.
Once I knew Roger would be fine, I turned around and faced the center of the lake, and started swimming. It was the first swim of the year, and I became aware of how much I’d missed it, the feeling of gliding over the water, the feeling of my muscles stretched tight and taught, the heaving of my chest with each breath I took. More than anything, it was the dark, and as I swam further out from the shore, the light in the boat launch parking lot became a tiny dot, and the voices of the others faded until all I could hear was the rhythm of frogs croaking on the shore and my own breathing, and I was alone in the night, the sky black and starless, the water black and deep, until they became one all-encompassing blackness, and I couldn’t tell where the lake ended and the sky began, and for a moment I couldn’t tell if I was gliding on the water or the sky. I’d become a stone, smooth and dark, skimming over the surface of the lake, thrown side-armed and released from the inside of God’s bent index finger. I swam all the way to the center of the lake and stopped, certain that if I’d just close my eyes and tread water there in the middle of the lake, I’d become one with, a part of, the unending blackness, a part of water and sky, the most elemental substances of the universe. I wanted to be held there, suspended in time and space, and I wanted the moment, with me alone in the blackness in the middle of Zimmerman lake, to last forever.
But the moment couldn’t last forever. Soon I heard the distant cries of “Craig!” and “Tyler!” The others were looking for me, they probably thought I’d drowned.
“I’m here,” I hollered back, and turned and started swimming back to the guys. By the time I made it back to the pier, there was a faint pink line on the eastern horizon, and I could see the rest of the guys sitting by the fire. I climbed on top of the pier and, of course, was not surprised to see that my clothes were missing. I had no choice but to walk up to the fire stark naked. “Okay,” I calmly said, “where are my clothes?”
“Oh, Craig,” Jimmy replied. “Fancy meeting you here tonight.” Then, looking me up and down, said “Kind of cold out here tonight, isn’t it?”
The other guys all giggled.
“Step close to the fire, that’ll warm you up,” Jeff said.
“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” Jimmy sang and everyone laughed again.
“Ha ha,” I said. I was starting to get really cold.
“Well,” Jimmy said, motioning to the pile of fabric sitting on the ground next to his lawn chair, “I think it’s about time we make a sacrifice, a little something to appease the fire gods.” He then took the stick he was holding and reached down and lifted my underpants up with it. ‘What do you say, guys?”
“Burn, burn, burn,” they chanted.
“Well, it’s unanimous,” Jimmy said, and he lifted the stick and dropped my whitey tighties into the fire, to the wild cheering of the other guys. Then he took the stick and lifted up my jeans.
“Not my pants, ass wipe.”
Everyone was laughing, Jeff and Tony chanting “do it, do it,” when Roger yelled, “Guys, look,” and pointed towards the road. A pair of headlights was running down the road to the boat launch. In the east, the pink line had gotten broader, and morning was breaking.
We moved very quickly, Jimmy giving me my jeans and t-shirt. I put them on, going commando, while the rest of the guys quickly picked up all the empty cans and bottles and threw them in the trash can. Our first and only thought was it was the police, but as the car got closer, it revealed itself to be an ancient pickup truck, and we could make out the outline of a trailer carrying a boat behind it. The truck made it into the parking lot and circled around, and we could see there were two old guys in it. The one on the passenger side didn’t have any teeth. The driver quickly backed the trailer down the launch next to the pier, and the toothless guy got out. The boat was a non-descript, gray aluminum fourteen footer with a little Evinrude outboard motor mounted on the back
“Hello, Mr. Weatherwax,” Tony said.
“Tony, how the heck are you,” the toothless man replied.
“Going fishing?” Tony asked
“You bet. Bluegills and Crappies,” he said. ‘What about you?”
“What do you mean?
“You guys going fishing?”
“No, no, we were just having a little get together, celebrating us graduating high school and all.”
“You decided to get together at 5:30 in the morning?”
“Um, no, we were just finishing. We started last night.”
Mr. Weatherwax shook his head. “Well, that’s you damn goofy kids these days. Never did make a lot of sense.” With that, old Mr. Weatherwax and his silent partner finished putting their boat in the water and got in, Mr. Weatherwax in the back. He started the little ten horsepower Evinrude. It cried a high pitched whine and Mr. Weatherwax, his hand on the motor’s rudder, steered the boat to the other side of the lake.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“That was old man Weatherwax. Owns a farm out by us. Gotta be about eighty years old now, still works the fields. He just can’t understand why some guys would stay out all night and waste the daylight.”
The sun was all the way up now, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was going to be a perfect day, and as close as we were to the summer solstice, it’d last about seventeen hours, the last glow of daylight ending around ten thirty.
Jimmy drove us all home, waking us up one by one as he got to our respective homes. I was the last to get dropped off, and as I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes, I thought about Mr. Weatherwax and the sin of wasting daylight, and with the sun’s warm glow on my face, I knew what he meant. But I also knew what Mr. Weatherwax either never knew or had forgotten, and that is how wonderful the night and its chilled and hidden treasures can be.