In late summer 2002 I went to stay at the lake cabin for a week by myself.
The lake was important to me.
My great-grandfather was one of the original shareholders in the Hickory Grove Lake Company. He helped fell the trees and shrubs that stood where the water now was; he helped run the machines that scooped out all that earth.
My grandparents built the lake cabin next door to where my great-grandparents had built a year-round place, and my mom and dad used to come to the cabin back when they were dating. When she was a girl, my mom water-skied on the lake with her brothers and sisters. Her dad had a speedboat and a bad heart and about 15 motorcycles.
My parents had purchased the cabin from family members earlier that year. I’d been to the cabin all my life, but I’d never spent the night there; I’d never been at the cabin all by myself. I was 26. Come fall, I was going to graduate school to study fiction writing.
To be honest, I was kind of a young 26.
Years earlier, when my great-grandparents were getting old, my parents bought the lake house next door to the cabin; it was the second home they’d lived in together as a married couple.
I was conceived in the lake early one August evening, according to the math. My parents talked frankly about sex, and my dad liked to say that the place of my conception accounted for the fact I was such a strong swimmer. But my parents had never specified the month of the year when my mom wrapped her legs around my dad’s waist while they treaded water down near the boat dock in front of the cabin.
The water just a few feet from the dock runs twenty feet deep. The white bottoms of my parents’ feet hung in the water far above the whiskered channel catfish scavenging the lake floor. Those fish never would have seen my parents from so far away. The lake water in August is an indescribable color: it’s something like hazel, and opaque. The air is filled with bugs and the cries of locusts.
The winter after I was conceived, my mom spent a lot of time alone in the house looking out over the lake while my dad was at work. As her stomach grew with the child that would become me, the lake became more and more frozen, the ice a bright white that appeared to my mother simultaneously very hot and very cold.
Sometimes, she would hear the ice shifting, explosions from deep beneath the surface; they sounded like gunshots and echoed for what felt like minutes, loud and sharp. This was rural west central Illinois, about thirty miles from the Mississippi River, quiet, and it was as if she had found herself at a firing range. She had no idea of the place from which the shooters were taking aim, what they were firing at. She would wrap her arms around her belly and hold them there, rocking gently in place, looking out at the lake through squinted eyes until the ice stopped sounding.
There are a lot of people who live at the lake year-round now. Back then, it was pretty much only my parents.
My mom couldn’t believe how lonely she felt. She’d ice-skated on the lake hundreds of times when she was a kid; she’d sipped lemonade and hot chocolate at her grandparents’ house sitting in almost the exact spot where she sat pregnant on the couch. Still, the lake in those months looked to her like a foreign country.
The lake is only five miles from Monmouth—it takes my dad just seven minutes to drive to work each day that winter—but my mom imagined town was much farther away than that. She felt most of the time like it was just her and me, like she was bearing the child who would inherit the entire empty and ice-rimed planet.
There were other stories I knew about the lake.
One was about my uncle, my mom’s brother, Larry. Larry was a schizophrenic now, but when he was just a kid in middle school, this skinny brown-haired thing with long arms and legs and a fondness for science fiction novels, his mental health intact, a thing happened at the lake that involved a tree swing.
My mom and her brothers and sisters had fastened a rope to a sturdy limb in a tree down near the water and then tied that rope to a squat log. This worked well as a swing for most of the summer; my mom and her brothers and sisters swung out over the water and unfastened themselves from the log, flying, screaming, splashing. Then one day the log got hung up in the tree on its backswing after someone let go of it.
Another lake-goer—this big, muscled kid, according to my mom—climbed the tree to untangle it. My mom was the only one watching the kid, and she was fascinated; he climbed the tree bare-footed, she said, in just seconds. Larry was down there on land with everybody else, waiting for his turn on the swing, not really paying attention. When the muscled kid loosed it, the log arced through the air right into Larry’s mouth, knocking out several of his front teeth.
Larry was pretty much normal back then, but a few years later, just after he graduated from high school, when he began to hear voices, he became convinced they were emanating from the plates in his mouth that held his false teeth. These plates were expensive, and he smashed four or five of them with hammers and heavy books and the soles of his boots before everyone figured out that he needed help, that he wasn’t just on drugs and acting out.
These are the kinds of things I wanted to think about during that week I spent at the cabin by myself. Maybe I would take some photographs of the ring of spent bark worn away by rope high in the maple tree down by the water; of the cabin’s front room, a small addition my father had helped my grandfather build; of the still and buggy patch of water at dusk my parents had swum toward, just moments before they began to put their hands to one another.
I considered mapping the lake, maybe making a family tree. I thought about going to the county library and looking through microfiche.
Mostly, though, I read and watched TV. I thought about all of the writing I hoped to get done once I started graduate school.
At night, I would go for a run on the road that circled the lake—a two-and-a-half mile loop shaped, if viewed from above, a little like a thick-bottomed anchor. When I would return to the cabin, I would put on swim trunks and float in the water in the dark.
I’d never swum in the lake at night. I mostly floated on a red raft not far from the dock and watched the moonlight ride the riffling waves. Every now and then, I’d tread water, letting my chin dip intermittently beneath the lake’s surface.
I would convince myself during these swims—the top of my head still sweating from my run, the lake so quiet and dark—that there were monsters in the water, just waiting to unfurl, to let themselves be known.
I couldn’t believe how much I was able to frighten myself just thinking of these monsters. It was as if my thoughts had made them real, brought them scaly and angry and momentarily dormant to life.
Nine years later, I drive out to the lake with my wife, Jane, after I give the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, after the luncheon.
We meet my dad and my brother and his girlfriend there, and the five of us sit on the deck and stare at the water, not talking, not sure what we’re supposed to do, why we’ve come.
A week earlier, just eight days after the diagnosis, my mom had been staying at the cabin but was unable to sleep due to back pain; she’d been unable to breathe.
She and my dad had owned the cabin for nine years now and were hoping to stay there one last weekend together.
She didn’t sleep all night, and then that morning, as the sun began to rise, she sat outside on a deck chair and put her head down on the patio table. My dad woke up and took a shower and got dressed and found her there, her arms hanging toward the slatted wood floor.
He was worried she’d died. He wanted to check on her, but he wanted her to sleep, too, if that’s what she was doing. He stood close enough to her he could hear her labored breaths and then he stepped back inside the sliding glass door he’d helped his father-in-law install and whispered it closed.
My dad doesn’t stay long at the lake after the funeral. It is easy to see that he keeps remembering finding his wife on that morning in the place where his daughter-in-law, Jane, now sits. It is easy to see that he is thinking about the way my mom’s forehead was pressed flat against the glass, how he’d thought she was already gone.
I wrote some things into my mother’s eulogy about the bird watching she did at the lake, and after my brother and his girlfriend leave, Jane and I get out Mom’s binoculars and pour tall vodka and tonics. It is July; our glasses sweat puddles onto the table.
I spend most of my time with the binoculars scanning several hundred yards of shoreline looking for a particular type of duck or bird I’d seen recently on a pontoon boat ride around the lake. There were four of five of this duck or bird, whichever it was, swimming in a row; they were smaller than the usual ducks at the lake and mostly brown. When the things caught sight of the boat, they dove beneath the water’s surface. I looked for them for several minutes but never saw them emerge.
I hadn’t realized there were ducks or birds that could swim beneath the water like that, and I told my mom, who’d stayed behind at the cabin during the ride, about them. She thought she knew what they were. She’d seen them, but only a couple of times. Mom and I looked through her bird books and narrowed it down to two different species. One was a duck, an eider; the other was a bird, a grebe. The sighting had all happened so fast, I couldn’t remember what I’d seen.
Sitting on the deck with my wife, I want very badly to see that duck or bird again. First, I want to figure out whether I’d seen an eider or a grebe. Second, I want to watch about ten of them, all at once, dive beneath the water.
I’m not sure what I want to have happen after that, though: whether I want them to disappear completely or rise in some new place, far from where they’d sunk.
Jane and I open the patio table’s umbrella and sit in the shade and drink more vodka and play gin rummy until early evening, until the day begins to resemble some other Saturday the two of us might have spent at the lake together. We did this sometimes: We called my mom and asked if we could have the cabin for a night. She let us, though she never seemed too thrilled to give the place up.
About an hour before dark, Jane and I put on our swimsuits and grab the rafts, float out into the water. The water is warm, and nobody has their pontoon boats out yet. Soon, they will begin doing laps. I haven’t decided yet whether I want to take out the pontoon on this particular night. My mom, the last couple years, didn’t care about boat rides the way she used to. She would stay behind and smoke on the deck while my dad drove the rest of us around the lake at three or four miles per hour.
I’m worried that if my wife and I take the boat out, once we reach the place across the lake where I’d been scanning the shoreline for that duck or bird, I will look up at the cabin and expect to see my mom sitting out on the deck holding a cigarette in one hand and waving at us with the other.
Once, when I was out at the cabin with my brother and my brother’s friends, I got high and floated on a raft almost all the way across the lake.
There were rules: You weren’t supposed to do this. You were supposed to remain within fifty feet of the shore to stay out of the way of those slow-moving boats.
That day when I got high, we were as alone at the lake as my mom had been when she was pregnant with me, only it was summer, not winter, and beautiful out.
I hadn’t intended to drift most of the way across the lake. I was on my back on the raft and stoned for the first time in years; I let the water take me.
I had recently celebrated my 30th birthday, and I’d celebrated it hard, just as I’d celebrated my 25th, as a kind of milestone. I had worried since the age of 13 or so that I was going to wind up like Larry, my mother’s brother, that I had the disease inside me just waiting to manifest itself in the form of some voice only I can hear.
I knew about genetics; my grandmother’s mental health wasn’t so stable either. She had a sister, too, who’d been institutionalized back before the state hospitals were reformed and/or shut down. My parents went to visit her once and found her sitting in a kind of cell in a puddle of her own urine. When she saw them, she crawled across the floor on her hands and knees to the door, begged them to help her escape.
I reached the middle of the lake that day and looked back toward the tree with the ring of stripped bark and couldn’t believe the tree swing had missed me. I’d thought for sure I was going to look up one day and see some thick branch right there, inches from my face. And then, seconds later, there I’d be: spitting up blood and teeth.
My mom thought lot about genetics, too.
Her dad died at the age of 56 after living from one heart operation to the next in the last several years of his life. A few days before she died, my mom said she’d known her entire adult life that she wouldn’t live past fifty-six. I had never before heard her mention this. Her 57th birthday was three days away, on July 14th.
We brought her home from the hospital on July 11th, and she sat in a chair and didn’t move for almost thirty hours. The cancer was everywhere—her liver, her lungs, her brain. The stuff in her brain was messing with her body temperature, and she couldn’t get cool, couldn’t stop sweating. My dad and my brother and I put a fan on a footstool right next to her and aimed it at her face. It felt cruel with the way she was sweating, but she grunted to us that she liked it.
People started coming by the house to say goodbye, and my mom was in and out of consciousness, mostly not really there. In the living room, Jane and I and were talking with some relatives about my mom’s birthday, how the next day she was going to turn fifty-seven, the age she never thought she’d see, and one of my mom’s sisters walked into the TV room where my mom was and shook her hot arm until she woke up. My mom heard something, from the room where we were sitting, about her birthday as she was waking up, and she thought she’d turned 57. She said in the terrible gasping and high-pitched voice she’d been using the past few days, “I made it! Hey!” and threw her arms into the air to hug her sister.
Her birthday was still eight hours away, but no one let her know the truth. Eventually, she got there.
We had moved her into the hospice bed in the guest room by then, and a small group of us sang happy birthday to her at midnight while she slept, seven hours before she died.
Jane is out of the water, and I have drifted farther from the shore than the rules say I should.
The sun is setting at end of the lake, the sky above the dam cloudless and orange. The pontoon boats are out now. I see them trolling the opposite shoreline and decide to wait until they’re closer before I head back to where I’m supposed to be.
Floating so far from shore, I could be anywhere, and I’m not yet ready to leave this new place I inhabit.
I look at the sunset through closed eyelids, hear boat motors in the distance.
When the Hickory Grove Lake Company decided to build the lake, they imagined a place where families could vacation right there in Warren County, Illinois, just a few miles from home. Lake members owned all of the land within ten feet of the water, so you could fish the lake’s entire perimeter without worrying about walking on someone else’s property. People borrowed one another’s boats and spent the night on towels on each other’s rickety cabin floors.
It’s mostly retirees now, and they come from everywhere. Some of them buy places at the lake for a ridiculous amount of money and only visit once or twice a year.
There’s a board that regulates what people can and can’t do to their houses, what they should and shouldn’t do with their pontoon boats or in the water.
It’s easy to want to defy these strangers and rule-makers even when you haven’t just that morning delivered the eulogy at your mother’s funeral. I use my hands to rudder the raft even farther from shore.
The first pontoons in line have reached the dam and are beginning to turn the corner that will lead them back toward me. A single yellow light hovers above each canopy, a dim beacon.
I slip down into the water and rest my arms across the raft. It’s not yet dark enough that I might begin to conjure monsters waiting beneath the water’s surface. The dusk is soft, unfocused; the water feels like a second skin.
I don’t want to head back to the dock, but I begin whip-kicking, guiding the raft in that direction but somewhat aimlessly, just drifting. I close my eyes again, and when I open them, there is a boat bearing down on me.
I’m not worried about safety—the light’s still good, the pontoon is barely moving—but I don’t want to be chided, not today, not by the likes of these people. I begin to kick a little faster, and in just moments, I am within twenty feet or so of the dock. I languorously tread water with my arms still holding on to the raft, thinking about that duck or bird I’d seen just a month earlier, back when Mom was complaining of headaches and stomach pains that wouldn’t go away. I wonder how long it would take me to slip beneath the water, how far I might be able to swim from that spot where I am hovering before I have to surface.
The man driving the boat slows down until the craft is barely moving; there is meanness in his voice as he lets me know that there are rules. When I refuse to give him any attention, the woman at the front of the boat tells me not to worry.
“It looks like you got lucky,” she says. “I saved you.” ◊
Chad Simpson won the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press for his collection of stories, Tell Everyone I Said Hi. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Esquire, and The Sun, among others, and has received awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Illinois Arts Council. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and teaches fiction writing and literature classes at Knox College.