We caught and threw back so many fish that summer on the lake that we had names for all of them. It’s a mystery why they continued to take the bait over and over. At some point they had to know it always led to a sore mouth. Like Dale and me, I think they were just bored, looking for some kind of action – any kind of action.
We weren’t lake people. I had lived fifteen years and never held a fishing rod until that summer we spent in exile. My dad had finally left for good and Mom just wanted to get away from all of it, so the day after school let out we packed everything into the station wagon, strapping what wouldn’t fit onto the top. I just wanted to stay home and hang with my friends, go to the movies, maybe sneak a few beers, maybe convince Allison Stacey to go all the way, but I’d seen Mom cry too many times and if this was what she wanted, I didn’t see how I could stand in the way. She let Dale come with us. He practically lived at our house anyway and I think she knew she’d have an easier time with me if I had a friend along.
The lake house was a rental, a shabby little place with cheap wood paneling, threadbare carpet and water pressure so low you practically had to wring it out of the faucet. It looked like the boathouse for one of the larger, more respectable lakefront estates that crowded around the water. Dale and I shared a room at the back of the house – two narrow twin beds with barely a foot between them. But we spent ninety percent of our time outside anyway so we didn’t care.
Mom slept in the “master” bedroom at the front of the house and she spent ninety percent of her time indoors, migrating from the bed to the couch, then to the kitchen to fix another drink before returning back to the bed or the couch. The Gimlet was her drink. At the beginning of the summer they were a production – a shiny, crystal tumbler packed with ice, fresh-squeezed limejuice, a finger of Tanqueray topped off with soda water and a sliver of lime as a garnish. By the summer’s end, the tumbler was replaced by a foggy tea glass with three fingers of gin and the ghost of an ice cube. To this day, the smell of gin and lime juice, together or alone make me sick to my stomach.
I know you’re probably picturing this abusive drunk lady in a robe with disheveled hair, but you would be wrong. Mom was always put together, even late in the day when she must have been well out to sea. She never raised her voice, never threw a plate, never stumbled or knocked anything over. Her make-up was always on, her uniform of white capris, and a pastel button-down tied at the waist, Maryanne style, was always in place. Looking back, I suppose she was beautiful. She was certainly young and young at some level is always beautiful. But she was like that one ghost of an ice cube, cold, floating and slowly fading away.
Within the first week of being there we had established a routine that worked for the three of us. Dale and I would wake up around eleven, pour a couple of heaping bowls of corn flakes and eat out on the front steps of the porch, looking out at the lake. By then, Mom was always awake and stationed in front of the TV watching some miserable show. After we rinsed our bowls, I would fix her a couple of pieces of toast and leave them on the coffee table, then kiss her on the forehead before Dale and I headed down to the dock.
By noon we had a couple of lines baited and in the water. We’d sit back in the shade of the rotting boat slip where an ancient vessel bobbed sympathetically in the wake of a passing speedboat. We’d both stop talking and watch the bronze-skinned girl with lean muscular legs carve a tight line across the water, her mane of blonde hair whipping in the rush of wind.
“We should do that,” Dale said once the sound of the motor was no more than a buzzing mosquito.
“Yeah,” I said. “Looks like fun.”
“We could make this thing sea-worthy,” he said. “No problem.”
“Yeah, no problem,” I said. “Except for the fact that it ain’t got no motor. I don’t think I could paddle fast enough to get you up on a pair a skis.”
“We can find a motor,” Dale said.
And I knew we would. Dale was the most optimistic guy I ever knew, but he wasn’t an idiot either. If he said we’d find a motor, I knew we would.
The very next day as we were coming out of the Piggly Wiggly with groceries, he spotted a hand-painted sign: “Larry’s Small Engine Repair – Lawn Mowers, Outboard Motors, etc.” and below in italics: “If it’s broke we can fix it…”
Fifteen minutes later as the ice cream was melting in a grocery bag in the back seat of mom’s station wagon, we were standing in a dark hole of a place, sharp with the tang of gasoline and grass and talking with Larry himself.
“You wanna do what?” the old guy asked as he mopped a sheen of sweat off his bald head leaving a streak of dark grease behind.
“We want us a motor for a ski boat. Just for the summer. You got any old ones layin’ around here you might be willin’ to sell or even rent?”
Dale had more confidence than anybody I knew. It never would occur to me to simply ask for something I wanted. He also had a knack for sliding into a believable good ol’ boy accent when it was called for.
“Well how you reckon you’d pay for such a thing?” Larry asked.
“See, that’s the thing,” Dale said leaning over the counter. “We don’t exactly got any money, but we’d be willin’ to work it off.”
That’s how Dale and I wound up three mornings a week sweating our balls off for Mr. Larry Wilkes. It was never clearly established, the price of the decrepit outboard engine that Larry hauled out of a dark corner of the garage that afternoon, but I was sure after two weeks that we had worked enough to buy a brand new one. Besides the fact that every other day we had to haul the damn thing back into the shop so Larry could coax it back to life.
Every time he saw us dragging the thing in he would get this wicked smile on his face, shake his head and say, “I reckon before the summer’s out you boys is gonna be expert small engine repair men.”
And he was right, between watching him do repairs and actively working on the old piece of shit we were indentured by, we did know a hell of a lot about the workings of a small engine by the end of the summer. But after that first ride on the open water, I don’t believe Dale or I had any doubt it was worth it.
In the days before we actually got the motor running for the first time, Dale and I cleaned that boat from stem to stern, removing generations of cobwebs and sedimentary layers of dust and grease. We were both surprised to discover its original color was white. It had these classy red pin strips running down the sides and in a lipstick red cursive hand, the name, “Mystery Date.”
We found a pair of old skis, a towline and a life jacket in a container beneath one of the bench seats of the old boat. I found a boating safety pamphlet in one of the mildewed compartments and read it cover to cover, not because it was a particularly interesting read, but because I was just like that – if I was going to do something, I was going to do it right. Dale was a jump in first and learn to swim later type, so I guess we balanced each other out.
We had a time getting the old engine mounted onto the boat. It had never occurred to either of us that the engine the old man had picked out might not fit the boat or even if it would be enough horsepower. After Dale’s fourth call to Larry that afternoon, asking one question after another, the old repairman told him to “cool his fuckin’ jets” and he’d swing by after work to take a look.
“Shit, boys, this here’s one hell of a boat – it’s a classic,” he said a couple of hours later as he stood over it with a can of beer in one hand.
Within an hour, he had the engine mounted and purring like a big cat.
“Either o’ you green dicks ever drove a boat before?” he asked over the noise of the engine.
“O course, not.” Larry answered his own question, which he often did. “Well get in, let’s see what she’ll do.”
We clamored into the boat and Larry piloted it expertly out of the slip. Once we cleared the dock and he angled it out towards the open water, Larry cranked the throttle and Dale and I both fell back on our asses. The old guy laughed and shook his head as the wind nearly blew his baseball cap off.
We circumnavigated the entire lake, enjoying our new status as “boaters.” Larry was a good teacher and made sure we both had a turn behind the wheel. He was also sure to tell us a couple of grizzly stories about boating accidents, which to this day I’m not sure if he made up or not. By the time we eased back into the slip, it was dark and we had burned the whole tank of gas.
And so the summer routine evolved, at least for Dale and me: sleeping, working, fishing, boating and skiing. The skiing part was by far the hardest and most humiliating. We each spent a high percentage of the time either pulling our swim suits out of the cracks of our asses or swimming around frantically trying to pull them up from our ankles before a boat full of girls rode past. After a couple of weeks, we each could stand up and go for a mile or two without eating water, but it was clear neither of us would be auditioning for Sea World.
I only talked Mom into coming out on the boat with us once and by the end she looked a little green so I never asked her again.
The lake was man made, the result of one of the huge power companies buying up an entire valley and flooding it. For this reason it had many little fingers and coves notched into the landscape like the tentacles of a starfish. Just when we thought we’d seen and even anchored in every part of the lake we would discover some new inlet cut off except for a narrow channel.
On a late afternoon sometime later in July, well after the fourth, Dale and I were just idling lazily around the shoreline, trying to conserve gas. We’d spent the afternoon screaming across the water with the throttle wide open as we took turns on the skis. My legs were so tired they were quivering and the skin on my face felt tight from the sun and the wind. Dale was behind the wheel steering lazily with the wrist of one hand, sipping a Mountain Dew with the other.
“Check it out,” he said sitting up.
I followed his gaze, standing up so I could see over the windshield. There was an outcropping of rocks at the water’s edge on a wooded point and just around it, what appeared to be a narrow waterway you couldn’t see unless you were going slow and close to the shoreline like we were.
“Slow down and see if you can get in there,” I said.
Dale eased off the throttle and made a wide circle around the point. We drifted facing the mouth of the channel, which was no more than eighteen feet across but appeared to be deep enough. The tall trees crowded right up to the water’s edge on both sides made it feel even more narrow and darker. Once we committed, there was no way to turn around.
“What do ya suppose is back in there?” Dale asked. “I can’t see any houses from here.”
“I don’t know, but let’s check it out,” I said.
Never one to be risk-averse, Dale eased up on the throttle and the old engine puttered behind us, pushing Mystery Date into the channel. It was deceptively long and we must have traveled two hundred yards before it opened up into a little cove. What struck both of us immediately after Dale killed the engine was the silence. You couldn’t hear anything but the waves lapping against the shoreline and the creaking of the trees in the wind. It was only around six, there should have been a good two hours of daylight left, but it felt later as we surveyed the shoreline.
At first is seemed there was nothing but trees, but after a closer look, I could make out what looked like an old outbuilding just under the tree line. There were no docks and no boats tied off on the shore. It was beautiful and wild and still and we felt immediately like it belonged to us.
I cracked open my own can of Mountain Dew, then baited my line and cast into the dark water. Dale followed suit and we sat there watching our red and white floaters drift on the glassy surface of the cove. We cast three or four more times, trying different spots for the next hour, but never got so much as a nibble. It was twilight by then and I started reeling in, ready to pack it up. Just as I was about to say as much to Dale, we heard her.
“What ‘chall doin’ out here?”
The disembodied voice made both of us jump, Dale dropping his rod and me spilling my drink. We hadn’t seen or heard anyone approaching and out of nowhere this woman’s voice was right behind us. We turned quickly, looking around in all directions, but still didn’t see her.
“Down here,” she said.
We leaned over the starboard side of the boat and there she was, treading water. Her hair was long and floated in the water like a dark halo around the moon of her upturned face. Her shoulders were bare and beneath the surface, the milky ghost of her naked body was a watercolor outline. Neither Dale nor I could do anything but stare.
“Hello?” she said, “I asked what ‘chall was doin’ out here.”
“Um, just fishin’,” Dale said, “or tryin’ to.”
“We were just leaving, actually,” I said.
“But I just got here,” she said, a scornful tease in her voice.
It was impossible to gauge how old she was. If I had to guess I would have said eighteen, just because of her voice. It sounded older.
“You live around here?” Dale asked.
“Yup,” she said.
“Where?” Dale asked looking around incredulously at nothing but trees. “There’s no houses.”
“Maybe not the kinda houses you’re used to seein’” she said.
“Are you a mermaid?” Dale asked, beginning to enjoy himself.
“Maybe I am,” she said. “But I’m gettin’ pretty damned tired treadin’ water here.”
“Sorry,” Dale said, then looking over at me as if to test the question added, “You wanna come aboard?”
“I thought you’s never gonna ask,” she said reaching up with one of her hands.
Dale and I just stood there hunched over the side of the boat stupidly.
“Well I ain’t gonna bite ‘cha,” she said impatiently.
Dale reached down with his open hand, which she immediately grabbed hold of. Before I knew it, he was over the side. When he surfaced shaking his head and sputtering, the girl was laughing hysterically.
“Shit,” Dale yelled, “What did you do that for?”
“You didn’t think I’s just gonna hop up on the boat in nothin’ but my birthday suit with you nice boys did ya?”
“Cmon Dale, let’s get outta here. It’s getting late,” I said.
“Mommy got dinner waitin’ for you?” the girl asked.
“No, it’s just getting late,” I said trying to sound like seeing a naked girl in the water was something I’d seen so much that I was board.
Dale was starting to swim around the back of the boat to the ladder. The girl swam after him, attempting to grab his foot.
“Leavin’ so soon?” she asked. “Dontcha’ wanna collect your prize for playin’?” she added rolling over onto her back and cupping the swell of her naked breasts above the surface of the water.
She was talking to Dale, but she was looking up at me, completely aware of how powerless I was to look away. Dale had stopped paddling and turned around.
“Come on, Dale,” I said deliberately as I tore my eyes away from her and looked to him.
Two minutes later he was up in the boat drying off and the girl was swimming slowly back to the shoreline behind us. She hadn’t said another word.
“Well that was pretty fuckin’ weird,” I said sitting down behind the wheel.
I turned the key to crank the engine. It sputtered weakly, the propeller gurgling in the water behind us. I cranked it again. Nothing this time. It wouldn’t even turn over.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I said, slamming my hand on the wheel. I tried three more times.
“Quit man, you’re gonna flood it,” Dale said irritated.
“There’d have to be gas in the fuckin’ tank to flood it,” I said.
We sat there in silence, drifting. Thirty yards away we could see that the girl had made it to shore and in the failing light her naked, white body stood out like a beacon against the dark tree line.
“Jesus…” Dale said. “Would you look at that?”
She turned around and waved.
“Havin’ some trouble boys?” she shouted, her voice echoing across the open water.
“Won’t start,” I shouted back. “No gas.”
She said nothing for a minute, just stood there wringing her hair out then she shouted back, “Come on, I can help you out.”
Dale and I just looked at each other. What choice did we have? We were in the middle of nowhere. It was dark. We had no gas, or worse, a bum motor.
“It’s fuckin’ fate man,” Dale said before he dove back into the water.
Ten minutes later we were dripping wet, standing on the shore next to the strange girl who was now wearing a white sundress that clung to her wet body, making her nakedness almost more pronounced. She was tall and maybe the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, except for when she smiled. Her teeth looked like she’d never been to a dentist. She seemed to know this and did not smile much. When she laughed, she covered her mouth.
We followed her through the woods on what appeared to be little more than a deer trail. In the cover of trees it was almost full dark and the temperature was dropping as we picked our way up the steep path trying to avoid sharp rocks, roots and briars. We were wearing nothing but our swim trunks.
“How far is it?” Dale asked after a few minutes.
“Just over the next hill,” she said over her shoulder.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Moonrise,” she said.
“No, seriously,” Dale said, “What’s your name?”
“Moonrise,” she said. “That’s the one they give me.”
“My name’s Dale, and this here’s Dean.” I wondered if she had noticed the subtle transformation of his accent.
At the top of the hill we could see warm rectangles of light from some type of dwelling. I say dwelling because it didn’t look like any kind of house I’d ever seen. The closer we got, the stranger it became. From a distance I thought it was a two-story place, or maybe it was sitting up on top of another hill. It was actually built up in the trees.
“You live in a tree house?” Dale asked.
“Yeah,” she said as we approached the trunk of one of the enormous oaks below the house. “Purty cool ain’t it?”
“Yeah, it is,” I said, meaning it. “We don’t wanna put you and your folks out. Maybe we could just use your phone… or borrow a gallon of gas.”
“We ain’t got no phone,” she said over her shoulder as she began to climb the rungs of the rope ladder. “Daddy ain’t home, and Mama won’t mind a little company. We might have a spare gas can.”
She was half way up the tree now and Dale had not started to climb. His eyes were big and questioning as he looked at me. I’d never seen Dale in a situation he couldn’t handle. He raised his hands to emphasize this and mouthed the words, “What are we doing?”
“I don’t see any better options,” I whispered, brushing past him and beginning to climb up after Moonrise.
It was about a thirty-foot climb and I was beginning to get a little queasy near the top. I don’t like heights. She had sprung open a trapdoor above us and she was peering down at me, framed in a square of light, like a window into another dimension.
“Mama, I’m home,” she hollered, “and I brought compny’.”
The girl moved out of the way and I lifted myself through the door and onto the decking in order to make room for Dale. It was not Robinson Caruso, but it was damned close. I was amazed at the size of the space. We were in what appeared to be a living room, but I could see narrow passages to either side of the tree trunk that led to other rooms. The walls were a combination of rough-hewn timbers and reclaimed wood from an old barn. There were actually a couple of glass paned windows, but they were old, mismatched and clearly salvaged from some other house.
The room was decorated as if the editor for Better Homes and Gardens and a castaway hippy shacked up. There were tie-dyed sheets for curtains and against the trunk of the tree, a miniature grandfather clock, flanked by stacks of books and old National Geographics that sat on slab of timber, which served as a mantle. The room was lit by a couple of kerosene globe lanterns. A flock of moths orbited them, casting spastic shadows across the corrugated tin roof which, to my surprise, was high enough for me to stand up.
“Well now, look what the cat dragged in.”
The woman, I assumed was “Mama,” had emerged from the left passageway and stood with her hands on her hips. She was as round as her daughter was thin, but I could see the resemblance in their faces. She wore a floor-length mumu with a faded African print design and her wrists were musical with an uncountable number of bangles and bracelets. Her eyes traveled the length of my body before they locked on mine.
“Daughter,” she said without taking her eyes off me, “did this lovely creature just fall from the sky, or did you fish him out of the lake?”
“Hello ma’am, we’re sorry to bother you,” I said. “Our boat ran out of gas in your cove. You’re daughter said you might have a gallon of gas you could lend us…”
“I see,” she said, looking down at Dale who had just emerged from the hole in the floor. She didn’t say another word for an uncomfortably long time, just stood there with her eyes closed, breathing in and out as her face went through a series of expressions as if she was listening to some dialog only she could hear.
Dale and I just stared at each other wide-eyed, wondering what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.
“She’s readin’ your auras,” Moonrise whispered.
“Of course,” Dale said.
Then suddenly, she whirled around with a jangle and moved back through the passage around the tree, leaving a cloud of patchouli and body odor in her wake.
“Come, come,” she said, almost singing.
The room she led us into was what appeared to be a communal bedroom with wall-to-wall pallets and heavy, plush pillows and sheepskins. There were at least a dozen candles placed on every available surface and their flickering light made the boundaries of the room seem to shift chaotically.
“Please, sit,” the woman said with a deliberate, sweeping gesture of her open hands.
Dale and I both scanned the floor, looking for what would be the appropriate place to sit, but finding none, we just sat down.
“You must be thirsty,” the woman said. “Moon, please find these young men something to drink.”
Moonrise disappeared from the room and returned so quickly, I barely registered that she was gone. She extended to me a bulging, animal skin flask, which I could only guess was made from a deer.
“No, thank you,” I said far too quickly, “I’m okay.”
She did not lower her hands, but pushed the thing against my bare chest, forcing me to take it. The bladder was heavy in my hands and felt like a living thing, warm and yielding like the belly of an animal.
“What is it?” I asked, trying to control the expression on my face.
“Summer tea,” the woman said. “Our own special brew, guaranteed to fix what ails you.”
“What’s in it?” I asked, stealing a look over at Dale whose eyes were wide like a small, trapped animal.
“You always ask so many questions when somebody’s just tryin’ to be friendly?” Moonrise asked.
All eyes were on me then, including Dale’s. I uncorked the mouth of the flask and slowly raised it to my lips, trying to smell it before I committed. I’m not sure if the drink was completely odorless or if my senses were just too overwhelmed to catalog what I smelled. Apparently I had stalled for too long because Moonrise’s cool, insistent hands closed around mine and tipped the bladder up. My mouth was suddenly filled with a liquid that to this day I can’t accurately describe. It was body temperature, had a silky texture not unlike milk, but there was a sweetness to it followed by a heat I can only compare to the chilies commonly found in Thai curries. I swallowed and it went down easily. Moonrise had not released my hands, and she continued to urge more of the drink down my throat.
When she finally allowed me to lower the flask, my heart was racing, a cold sweat had broken out across my cheeks and my lips pulled back slowly into a smile that felt somehow detached from the rest of me. Moonrise took the flask and knee-walked to my right so she could offer the drink to Dale. He must have taken it, though I don’t honestly remember.
Everything in my life can be broken cleanly into two halves – the half that came before I drank and the half that followed.
The rest of that night, in my memory is a kaleidoscope of fractal images – the light trails from the candles burning around the spinning room, the bright amoeba shapes in the pattern of the strange woman’s dress shifting and crawling as she moved around above me. Moonrise’s tongue in my ear and on my neck, her cool, slender fingers on my belly and the smell of her, a mixture of wood smoke, sandalwood and sex, surrounding me like a fog. Humming beneath all of this was the call and response of a thousand cicadas so loud as almost to become white noise.
I do not know what really happened beyond what I’ve described. I don’t know how long I was in this altered state. The last picture imprinted in my memory from that night is of a black, muddy, engineer boot so close to my face on the floor that I could make out a dark, oil stain on the toe and smell the old leather.
Dale and I never told my mom what happened that night. When we returned late the next morning, I’m not sure that she even realized we had been gone. She was stationed on the couch staring through the television, the tea glass in her hand nearly dry – the ice cube, long disappeared.
It’s just as well I think. I would never have been able to explain how Dale and I woke up, dehydrated, sunburned and naked except for our swim trunks, in the middle of a scrubby field with the sound of trucks thundering by on highway 29. How could I tell her we didn’t even know where we were until we walked almost two miles along the highway and finally recognized an Esso station where we had gassed up once a few weeks earlier?
We never found Mystery Date, or learned what happened to her, though we half-heartedly talked about borrowing a boat to go search for the cove again. We spent the remaining week and a half of summer mostly in our own heads, casting our lines off the dock, our legs dangling over the water. Occasionally, when I glanced over at the empty boat slip with the length of rope disappearing into the water like a leash that’s quarry had long-escaped, I would feel my stomach flop over inside me like one of the ugly catfish we would pull from the lake.
But no one ever asked about the missing boat. Larry Wilkes never came around and asked about the old engine. I guess he figured we had already worked it off by then.