There’s a body at the bottom of the lake. Probably many. The way you react depends on your definition of the word natural. Probably also on your moral compass, but I can’t just start with bodies. Life is about having stories.
Once upon a time, a reporter stopped by from the West Bend Daily News. She said real nice, “Tell me about the lake.” I said, “What lake?”
If she had said, “Tell me about your grandmother’s death,” I would have said, “Let me begin by telling you about the lake.” When my seventy-three-year-old grandmother died of a brain tumor, I was ten. I imagined the lake only because there is nothing in my life that does not swim through it. When the fish first saw me, on that October day of her death, they suspected mischief. Though there was none, I’m a person the same as you and would very much have liked to believe in magic.
It used to be called Paradise Valley Lake. That’s what most old maps say; I suppose because when you drive past you go up a little at first, like the crest of a rollercoaster, then dip down. It cools about ten degrees if you’ve got your windows open. And you should. Most people, probably that reporter on her way to stopping by uninvited, step on their brakes, something about speeding that makes everyone on a country drive nervous. The crest is blind, and that’s what I enjoy. Drive the speed limit until that roll takes me fifteen miles an hour beyond it without giving one single thought to hesitation and when I dip into that valley I can see the lake with x-ray vision through the trees, those ten less degrees giving me chills until the old lady driving the white Buick in front of me taps the black pad. Red lights. Moment gone.
When I was sixteen, and he was too, a boy I went to high school with died while speeding over the top of a similar hill about three miles from the lake. Another girl I went to high school with found him. The moments are different, though not by much, and I can’t figure out just how to separate them.
Some people started calling it Paradise Lake, local people I think, and now most people just call it Paradise.
It used to be an old gypsy camp, then a ten-cent swimming hole, and then this place where ten people with some money made it private and built nice houses around. Not on it, but up that hill half a mile into the woods. My parents were two of those people. You could see the houses from a canoe in the middle of the lake only in winter when leaves dropped. A canoe, that’s key. No speedboats. No jet skis. No kids screaming about their dad whipping the water ski line too hard through the shallows. Just this thirty-acre ironically man-made pond between two streams, a little sand poured in at each end for beaches. Lot of lily pads. Lot of bull rushes. Few people.
I’m afraid of death, so I imagined a lengthy project. I imagined spending every penny of my hard-earned money buying up those few houses around the lake, though I’d never have nearly enough. I bag groceries at Piggly Wiggly. I’m not worried in public. I can say “good morning” and “good afternoon” and “thank you for coming,” because that’s where I’m under water. People don’t die at work. I can ask whether they prefer paper or plastic and feel good about it, because people don’t die together. Early every morning and I try most nights to stay late. Every time else alone. Don’t get me wrong, I need to be alone; but alone is a different place when there’s this idea in your brain. It’s not the kind of alone that old people worry about. They just want to talk. I don’t think being alone is about not talking. It’s not the kind of alone that teenage girls worry about when their boyfriends don’t call on Saturday nights. It’s the kind of alone that you can’t possibly know until there’s this thing in your brain, and then it’s hard to explain, maybe because of the thing. And it’s not a tumor like Grandma had. It’s not a thing you could feel poking at the base of my skull. But it’s a thing that makes sure no one will touch you, because maybe they don’t know how or maybe they’ll be the one who accidentally moves it. Maybe they hug you a little too hard and squeeze you just enough that your blood pumps through one more gulp than it might have otherwise, and then your head swells maybe a millimeter when the gulp gets right there next to the thing.
So every time a house was listed, and sometimes even before, I imagined putting in an offer, a real good offer. I’d walk over with my attorney almost immediately and say hello and things like, “What a shame you’re leaving the neighborhood. I’ll be so sorry to see you go.” And then usually I, because I’m the outspoken one, would say something like, “Yeah, it really would be wonderful to keep the lake so pristine, keep it in the hands of fellow neighbors who know how to take care of it.” After I’d purchased the four other homes, I’d knock them down one by one. Hours by hours by hours and hours. I’d hire a local construction company to help with first efforts. Then I’d spend long days hauling out siding and cracked-up concrete until there was nothing left. I’d drive a dump truck up several steep narrow driveways in reverse. And every time I imagined it, there was something odd in the sweat that felt productive, felt like creation, construction, but, at the end of the day, there was always less than when I’d started.
When everything was gone, I turned up the earth and planted trees and wild raspberry bushes, transplanted Trillium and Crocus and Sumac. A lot of work for one young woman, but young people are eager to do what they think is important.
You’ve probably figured out that this thing in my head is an idea. Not really an idea in my brain but a disease. And not a disease exactly but more like an obsession. It’s an obsession and so the thing maybe that separates us. Not really what physically separates us but what, most specifically, keeps me from being that reporter.
The first house for sale was Mrs. Hifer’s. Her husband had died three years before in a snowmobiling accident, and her new boyfriend had a place of his own. She was old even when I was young but always answered the door in shiny pajamas. I dropped off boxes of Girl Scout cookies to a woman in purple silks and pink satins. By the time I was in high school she’d hired a lumber company, or, rather, they’d hired her. Whatever the relationship, they gave her ten grand and then harvested all the mature trees from her property, house, hillside, lakeside. That was the day I decided to buy the houses.
The last house to actually go was the Dietzlers’. It was an ugly house too. It was gray and blue-gray with a sort of turreted tower out front, plastered with artificial stone. The feature in which the Dietzlers took most pride was their central vacuuming system. Tiny vents at floor level throughout the house and when a switch flipped all vacuuming hell broke loose, sucking from every angle. Birds flew away, squirrels scattered, and we headed inside for a long lunch. It was an empty-nesters house, and by that I mean it had no privacy. It was a space that a couple could run around in, a den that lofts to a bedroom, a kitchen that simply extends to a patio complete with hot tub, but no space to sit and think. Alone. I had seen hoards of grandchildren visit over the years and now I pictured them all, grandparents and parents and kids, asleep on the floor of the great room snoring in collective space.
And then, finally, there was the lake.
Stocked nice and full with bass via the two short adjoining streams. Then came the day when some idiot from the other side dropped in a big fat invasive carp without even asking anyone. I bet he thought a nice big fish like that would be great for fighting, great for reeling in on a hot summer’s day to show what a real man he was. Show his friends. Show them he knew right where this great big fish was always hiding. Most people don’t know much about what they’re doing. I spent fifteen years trying to catch that bottom-feeding fish, always stirring up the muck, the moving water like one big stagnant swamp. I tried cornflake balls and Stink. I tried netting him, spearing him, flushing him into the shallows near the pebbled Bluegill nests, thinking he might just beach. Finally I forgot all about him. Went fishing for those nice largemouth bass I was telling you about. Well, I wasn’t having any luck and it started to down pour on top of it, big drops and the threat of thunder and me not in any kind of a mood to get wet. I went twirling around like crazy gathering gear and accidentally kicked my best pole off the pier. So in the middle of the lightning and the rain I rigged up a big stick and some line and tied on everything heavy I had along with me, trolled for that damn pole. Scraping along the bottom there, my car keys and some sinkers, a few weighted Rapala, and even this little bitty anchor I use for the paddleboat on windy days. Before I could even give a thought to that fish, he bit on the keys. Sucked them right up. Almost snapped the big twig right in half. I yanked him up, pulled the car keys out of his throat and left him on the shore. Life just works out sometimes. So that’s the lake, but only one part and probably not the part the nice newspaper lady was trying so hard to ask about.
So then she said, really behind the ball at this point, “Down that hill. There’s a wonderful private lake, right?”
“There sure is,” I said.
“Well,” she said then, kind of accusing-like, “you definitely sound as though you might know something about it. Mind if I come in and talk? Or we could maybe take a little walk and go see it? I’d love to do a full cover story.” I said that of course I did know something about it and that of course I did mind if she came in. I said that there was nothing full about a story and that I liked walks without other people. Although maybe I was more polite. I guessed that what she wanted was to jot down the lake’s mystery on her little note pad, that what she wanted was to write down some ancient secrets the pond must hold. “Something strange in the water down that hill,” I could hear Old Man Tucker in his rocking chair reading from a crisp Daily News on Main Street. It couldn’t be that it was just a lake, just a peaceful place where a few people liked to swim in summer and a few others liked to ice fish during the winter. It couldn’t be that it bothered people they were no longer allowed, that they simply couldn’t know. I went to my high school reunion a few years back. I walked in and this guy from my physics class whose name I’ll never remember said, “Michelle, right?” “Laura,” I said. Then he said with such enthusiasm, “Oh, right, Laura. Well, anyway, you still living out there on Paradise?” It couldn’t be that people would just leave it alone.
I didn’t go on a walk with that lady but went on walking on my own while we were both standing there. She was still talking, but I was still thinking. I thought mostly about Tamarack trees. Deciduous trees but with the looks of conifers. Everyone thinks that because these trees are always in swamps and streams that they must love water. What their seclusion really means is that they dislike competition. Truth is, they just like being left alone.
I thought about a rusty bottle opener I found one day chained to a tamarack down along the shore. The story I would make up, if I had to, was probably what really happened. That some guy or some group of eighteen-year-old kids or some regular person would come to the cute little swimming hole every year. It was the 1950s after all. And they’d picnic and spend the afternoon in the same spot next to the shore every year, next to that great big willow tree with the nice cool shade, and, low and behold, they happened to like beer. And, low and behold, it’s a pain in the ass when you’ve got your bottled beer all nice and cold in one of those big blue coolers and you can’t find the damn opener. So then that guy or one of the kids said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea.” And he grabbed that bottle opener and chained it to a tree. When the swimming hole closed and then the gypsies passed through and then the winter snow came and rusted it, then, also low and behold, one summer day, I found it.
The story this lady at my door, I think her name is Michelle, would make up was probably not what happened. She’d say that she came across this tool tied to a tree. The beautiful sienna-rusted piece must have been from the 1920s, or even the 1910s. Amazingly, it had some strange engravings on it. She, in all her dedication, would take it to an antique dealer to see if he could identify this great find. And then, also amazingly, he would say to her that it was indeed a bottle opener but from this rare maker who only crafted twenty-two of them, and they were only given out to three families in the whole world. And who were these families? Where did they come from? Why were they at this lake in Wisconsin, and why did they leave such an ancient priceless treasure behind? Then her story would leave you open-ended and in the same spot you started, not really having learned much of anything. I thanked her for coming. She said, “No, thank you.”
The next morning at about seven, I came up the carpeted stairs from folding laundry in the basement to make some breakfast. There was a strange man standing in my backyard. He stood along the edge of the woods, past the hand-carpentered playground my father built when the three kids were little. The man stood just beyond that wooden playground looking down the hill toward the lake. Blue workman’s shirt, something that might have had his name sewn on it if he had turned around, big boots, lots of scraggly gray facial hair: I was compiling the police report in my head. I grabbed my cell phone and looked at the clock: 7:12. I watched from behind the big wooden island in the kitchen, ready at any moment to duck. He was a statue. I snuck upstairs and looked out a window at the other side of the house; found his truck parked in the driveway. White, Chevy, older model with an ugly gray racing stripe, hookup on front for a plow, trailer hitch on back. I could only make out a few symbols on the license plate: letter L, something, something, number nine, nine, something. He stood there until 7:58 when he walked along the tree line, got into that truck, and drove away. I didn’t know who he was, but I wasn’t at all surprised it happened. People love investigating a good mystery.
And there were mysteries. My sister and I found a door in the lake once. Face up lying in three feet of water along the far shore. It looked as if we could just creak it open from the left, pivot it on its rusty hinge and walk right in, down, through the water, and out the other side.
I’ll leave you with something even more sentimental. When we were little, we picked up every frog in the pond. We quietly named each something fitting to his look. There was one I called Small Sandy. He was little, never got any bigger, and sat next to the sand, his color the closest to its hue by far. Small Sandy, I called him and set him gently back in the cool shade.
I had a birthday party at the lake, probably when I was eight or nine, took all my friends swimming. I saw a boy in my class, don’t remember his name, pick up a frog and fling it into the deep of the pond. The frog swam fast and desperate as Sunfish and Bluegills nipped at his feet, at his arms, at his head. No lily pad nearby. With each nip, his body would bob under just a little. A little. A little more. I saw one large Pumpkin Seed Sunfish rise with great speed, and at the next bob, the frog’s body was no longer dark green (it had not been Sandy) but white, belly up. The white sank slowly, convulsing and twitching, the crowded school of fish emboldened. The frenzy picked at his soft sinking body. I watched until I could not see.
And when I could not see, I turned to the boy who had thrown the frog, at least certain he was mortified, certain he was sorry. He was looking for another frog. Who was it, I thought, who had shown him the secret spots between shoreline and lily pad where they hide? I wanted no more birthday parties. I sent no more invitations.
When we were little, we caught and released every fish in this lake, which is of course an exaggeration, sometimes swishing them back and forth along our canoe to get fresh oxygenated air running through their bright red gills, watching them swim strongly away. We made whole lunches of water cress, spicy like radishes but green and only green, and we ate that meal in the bed where two huge Willow tree branches split from one another to form a hammock eight feet off the ground but filled with soft natural Willow sawdust. We boiled sap from the Maples, gathered gallons to make a teaspoon. My sister and I sat still long enough to watch Blue Heron land and King Fishers dive, dive, dive, deep into thirty feet of cold. My brother and I saved a young duckling from an old turtle’s mouth, which snapped just above the lake’s mud entrance from the stream. Yes, that’s right, a turtle, with a big pointed beak and large webbed feet, big enough to carry you away as a child, but we were brave and knew what was important.
My parents didn’t move out until they were dead. The first home they purchased together was where they stayed, not even a couple for vacations. Not a couple for retirement to any place without snow. Not a couple for retirement at all really. They retired on the lake too. Which made me nearly old by the time I moved in. I moved my things into the house when I was fifty-eight, which was much more time than the minimum I would have needed to enjoy it. The Dietzlers, I believe I mentioned them earlier, by some stroke of stubbornness, were still alive when I moved in. To them, I looked something unnatural, a fifty-something-year-old child and misbehaving at that. But they were only a few years younger than my parents. I didn’t tell them that they would die too, but isn’t that always the plan?
And when they did, it was the first time I actually put in an offer. I actually watched the house taken apart. I dismantled the mailbox and the highly organized flowerbeds, as I’d had no real experience in deconstruction prior to that. I made lemonade for hearty nieces and nephews and slowly backed a black pick-up to a few small scrap piles. There’s only one thing to stop a plan and that’s another.
You may have figured by now that this thing in my brain, this thing that separates us, the only thing, is this story and this telling of it. And finally, when I deconstructed that house, I wasn’t old; I was living.