The Circular Nature of Lakes
Pam McGaffin lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, Mark Funk, and sons, Casey and Charlie. In 2011, after more than twenty-five years in journalism and public relations, she took a leap of faith to concentrate on fiction and write a novel. Her work has appeared in Eclectica magazine and once before in Amarillo Bay.
Andie scans the parking lot for a silver truck. If she sees the right make and model, she'll check the plate. She hasn't completely memorized Guy's number—she's no stalker—but she knows it when she sees it. He's not at the lake today, at least not yet. He could show up while she's running. That's happened. Her obsession annoys her. This used to be her lake. She's been coming here since she was a kid. During the summer, she practically lived here. Slathered in cocoa butter, she'd take her Schwinn bicycle down busy 65th to ride around and around on the path or hang out at one of the floating docks. She used to do backflips off the diving board, but she's lost that body memory, along with some others, to age and fear. Cartwheels off the dock—she can't do those anymore, either. Now she just comes to the lake to run, in spite of her arthritis. The pain isn't so bad that she can't take comfort in the mind-numbing sameness of her route. She knows every turn, every rise, every dip, every landmark. But he changed the meanings, down to the big green G painted on what's left of the old Aqua Theater arena. G for Green Lake, but, in her mind, it stands for Guy.
She knows he usually runs the lake clockwise, so she runs counterclockwise. That way, if they happen to pass each other, they will be facing. He will be forced to acknowledge her, to remember, at least for a moment, the times they ran together, complaining about but never solving the problems in their lives. Every Wednesday night for two years, until he said he couldn't look her husband in the eye. They mutually agreed to stop seeing each other, but they continued to go to the lake separately. She knew his schedule, so it wasn't difficult to time her runs when she was most likely to see him. Feigning surprise, she'd wave or say hello. They might exchange updates about her kids, his job, and the running that brought them together . . . but never what split them apart.
Has it really been ten years since the remodel? She came home from work—she remembers wearing that skirt that's now too tight—to find a crew of men standing in her yard preparing to rip off the roof. Guy didn't stand out at first. He wasn't the best looking or the most outgoing. He wasn't funny or charming. He was older than the others, and had a shy smile just for her. When she found out he liked to run Green Lake, she suggested, more out of habit than anything, that they go together. She was always looking for running partners, especially during the short, dark days of winter. Andie's husband couldn't run, in winter or any other time. Arthritis.
And now, she has it, too. "Bone on bone" said the arthroscopic surgeon who, with his magic wand, clipped and sucked away the shredded meniscus (like cotton candy) in her left knee. She couldn't help thinking it was God's punishment, even though she doesn't believe in God. Her joints still twinge and ache, but she can manage short distances on dirt paths. Green Lake's dirt path, alongside the concrete one, is perfect for her. The thought that he can run anywhere but chooses to come here sends her mind along its well-worn loop: If he keeps coming here, he must want to see her; if he wants to see her, he must have feelings for her; if he has feelings for her, he must be thinking about her. Or maybe not. Maybe he's just a creature of habit.
She's forced to go around a slow-walking couple on their first date. She can always tell. They're overdressed and over-animated. The woman, cocking her head prettily, wears a tight black skirt and high-heeled sandals . . . to walk 2.8 miles. Hope he's worth it, dear. The smell of the woman's perfume lingers in her nose as she passes by the Bathhouse Theater on the west shore. The landmark reminds her of that time it snowed, paralyzing the city, but they ran the lake anyway, planting their rubber-soled feet carefully to avoid slipping on the ice.
They only talked about sex, or rather the lack of it. The grove of cottonwoods on the north shore recalls the night he talked ad nauseam about Burning Man and the woman who called herself Jezebel. Everyone coming to the desert arts gathering was required to provide a service, and hers was free love. He didn't partake and clearly regretted it.
"My service would have been handing out condoms," she had said, lapsing into mother-mode, their ten-year age difference never far from her thoughts.
She's coming to the busy east side of the lake, where he told her about his daring rescue of the child in the runaway baby jogger. He caught it mere inches before it tipped over the concrete edge and into the water. He confessed to having hero fantasies. As a kid, he was always a superhero for Halloween, continuing to wear his costume long after the holiday was over. When he told her that, she laughed, thinking it was endearing. Now, she just sees it as one more example of the boy who never grew up, never took responsibility. Nothing was ever his fault when he complained about his boss or his ex-girlfriends. That he was in his forties and still single should have been her first clue. When his looks finally fall to age, all he'll be is a bald and bitter man. She tells herself this over and over again.
On the home stretch—she can see the Aqua Theater ahead—she repeats the one thing she would say to him now if she had the nerve. "Thank you, Guy," she'd say. And when he asked, "For what?" she'd add, "For saving me from myself. See? You were my superhe—"
Shouting and heavy footfalls behind her . . . An arm bangs against her side, almost tipping her off balance. She lets out a little shriek, but the man doesn't say "sorry" or "excuse me." He just keeps running, flashing a bare butt where his shorts ought to be. People stop in their tracks, open mouths turning to half smiles, looking behind them for the camera or the laughing group of fraternity brothers, but all they see are two guys, grim and red-faced, chasing him. The naked man is yelling something, but all she can make out is a word that sounds like "now" or "pow" as he makes a beeline for the water.
# # #
His pole in place, Frank sits on his bucket and waits for a bite. He should have gotten here earlier, before the hordes. His favorite spot—a picnic table on the southwest shore between the lily pads—had already been taken by a newbie fisherman and all his gear: Winston rod, Cabela's fishing vest, hip-waders (as if this were some wild river), and a cooler bigger than a God-damned microwave oven. So Frank was forced to haul his pole and bucket farther south, near the former Aqua Theater. No sooner did he sit down, than a big noisy family piled in next to him. Fuck it. He wasn't going to move again.
The noisy family's three kids start feeding bread to the ducks, which isn't good for the lake or the ducks. He thinks about saying something, but they probably wouldn't listen, and their bruiser of a mother looks like she could take him on. He bets she uses her food stamps to buy junk, like that white bread they're throwing in the lake.
His mom tried, though she was often too tired to cook. Staring up at the relic of the old arena, he's still able to pinpoint where they sat for that Aqua Follies show, a gift for her birthday. His sister loved the synchronized swimmers—the Aqua Darlings—but he loved the clowns, with their goofy, splashy jumps off those high towers. They were the first to go, those towers, when they closed and dismantled the place, leaving a concrete monument to someone's big dream gone bust. Nowadays nobody remembers or cares.
Too many people now, in the city, at the lake. He actually prefers it here in early spring, when his line jumps with restocked rainbow trout, and the cool weather keeps the masses away. Green Lake is a big bowl; there's no escaping the wind. It gets you coming and going as it whips around and around, churning the water into whitecaps even on sunny days. Only the hardcore fishermen then. Frank tolerates them—a couple he even calls friends—but he can't stand the hobbyists and weekenders. Even with their fancy gear, their casting is laughable. More likely to snag someone walking behind them than anything swimming in the lake.
Yep. It's tourist season all right. The lake's starting to look like a duck dodge—sailboarders, canoers, paddle-boaters and paddle-boarders—half of them not knowing what the fuck they're doing out there. The crew people are the worst, not in skill, but in arrogance. Bunch of rich prep-school kids and their rich prep-school parents, taking over the whole southwest corner with their over-long boats, sprawling tents, loud music and louder voices.
An amphibious assault. All that's missing are the choppers. The few, the proud, the forgotten. In the dream, Ed keeps talking even though his face is half gone. He keeps talking, but Frank can't hear him. He reaches into his buddy's pocket where he knows he will find two photographs, one of Ed's beloved dog, a yellow lab named Mike, and one of his girl, a nice-looking brunette named Alice. He liked to tease Ed. Writing a letter to your dog? Does Alice know? Ed would laugh. "I got more than enough love to go around," he'd say. That boy was all heart, even after basic training, even after two months in Vietnam. He might have made it through the whole God-damned war—the Teflon kid—but a shell found him. They were running side by side when a white flash knocked Frank ass over teakettle. He found Ed lying face up, his one eye wide open, but not lifeless. It looked hurt, confused. In the dream, his lips keep moving, like he's asking the same question over and over again. Frank tries to hear, tries to understand, but he finally gives up, closes Ed's eye and weeps.
"Power to the people!"
Over his shoulder, a body in motion. Incoming. Fuck! He crouches, bracing for impact, but the man veers off just in time and splashes into the lake. Two men running after him stop at the shore and curse. Off in the distance, he hears the first siren.
# # #
Maybe it's menopause. Or some brain-eating bacteria. She's heard of people dying from the germs they pick up swimming in warm, urban lakes. Green Lake is warm . . . and green. Army green. The algae that gives it its color—and causes a thing called swimmer's itch—swirls past Wendy's goggles like dust motes. When she breathes, she tries not to suck it up her nose or into her mouth. Even so, a killer bug could easily find its way into her head and start chomping away on her gray matter. Horrible as that sounds, she would rather have a brain-eating bacteria than what she fears most and can't bring herself to say out loud. Alzheimer's doesn't so much eat your brain as gum it up, like the oobleck-mired kingdom in that Dr. Seuss story. She's done some reading. She knows proteins are to blame. They cause "plaques and tangles" that block off and kill nerve cells. Her thoughts, like those disconnected cells, sometimes feel like they're circling around words and memories, but can't retrieve them.
It happened just now with "Betsy." They were putting on their wetsuits, and Marcia said she'd run into Betsy—no last name, no context, no physical description—just Betsy, like they'd all immediately know who she was talking about. And everyone seemed to, except Wendy. She was deep inside her head searching, searching, recalculating, as the snotty lady on her GPS would say. Her husband had given her the GPS for Christmas because, in addition to forgetting things, she kept losing her way, literally driving in circles, especially on the Eastside. It took her two hours once to get her son and his friend to their football game in Issaquah because she took one wrong turn after another.
Was she imagining it? That look she sometimes got from her husband—her kids, too—a cringing, pitying kind of look that said, "Should we tell her?" like she had a piece of spinach stuck in her teeth, but worse—much, much worse.
Recalculating . . . So, Betsy was a member of their triathlon training group, but what year? They've been together now for what? Three? Yes, she's done three Danskins. She remembers finishing her first. Not so much the others.
Rotating her body from side to side, she does her reach-catch-pull, just like the swim coach at the pool taught her. A good stroke is surprisingly complicated when you break it down, but Wendy is at a point now where she no longer has to think through the steps. Her body is on auto-pilot, calmly slicing through the water, while her riddled brain searches for Betsy.
Shake it off. She doesn't have Alzheimer's. Her only problem is anxiety. She worries too much, just like her mother and grandmother before her, and it's only gotten worse with age. She should enjoy this beautiful swim on this beautiful day. The sun is shining. It's shining right through the murky green waters of the lake all the way down to the milfoil, which she can now see. Like all green plants, milfoil needs the sun to grow, so it grows close to shore where it's shallow enough. She knows it's an invasive weed that could turn the lake into a marsh if they didn't control it, but she finds its presence reassuring. When she was new to open-water swimming, the appearance of milfoil meant she was out of the deep and close to touching bottom.
It's also rather pretty. With the sun filtering down, the stems look like fuzzy, lime-green canes curling up from the dark. A poet might describe them as "a ghost garden of walking sticks." Ha! How can she be losing it and still come up with lines like that?
Overhead, some geese are honking to beat the band. She always thought they sounded like squeaky door hinges, rust in their throats. Wait . . . that's not . . . White cap. Swimmer in the white cap! Are they yelling at her? She stops swimming, looks up. Reflected in the surface of the water is a small white motor boat with three men in Navy blue uniforms and black sunglasses.
"Will the swimmer in the white cap please clear the area!" one of them barks through a loud-speaker. Was she doing something wrong? What about that bearded guy over there, swimming without a cap? They're not telling him to get out. She blows bubbles out her nose, like some creature that belongs in the water, an elephant seal perhaps, just so they know she's peeved. Then she turns for the nearest shore.
# # #
Guy has to park in the lot across the street because the one he usually parks in is full. What's going on over there? He sees police cars, hears the thrumming of a helicopter overhead. He knows the drug dealers use that pay phone near the old Aqua Theater, but this seems like overkill. He gets out, shuts his door and presses the lock button on his key until his horn honks. After checking the handle to make sure it's locked, he puts the key in his shorts pocket and zips it closed. The chopper is from one of the TV stations. KOMO. He walks across the street towards the sound of a police radio and sees people gathered near the crew dock.
"What's up?" he asks a man on the perimeter.
"Some lunatic," he says, nodding his head towards the lake. "Tackled a couple of kids, then ran into the lake."
Guy tries to get a better view. Everybody must have stopped what they were doing to watch. There's a family straddling their bikes, a mom sharing a bag of chips with her kids, an older woman with her dog, a couple of fishermen not fishing, and some women with their wetsuits half peeled, towels tied around their waists. All eyes are on the lake and a man draped over an orange buoy, displaying a glowing full moon. Three cops in a boat look to be negotiating with him, but he's not moving.
"Christ," Guy mutters.
The woman with the dog turns around and gives him a "phfft" and a wave of her hand like she's seen enough. She leaves, and that's when he sees her, sitting on the dock, her back to him. Andie. He recognizes her by her wild hair, a cloud of frizzy gray-blonde curls. He was always tempted to touch it, among other things. God, but she drove him crazy with her shorts and tights and sports bras. He feels a little voyeuristic watching her watch the naked guy. But then, she wants to be seen. That much is obvious. She keeps coming down here, looking sexy, looking for him. Most of the time, he's just not up to it, the small talk around the proverbial elephant in the room. They're attracted to each other, but they can't do anything about it. He's no home-wrecker and she won't leave. So, more often than not, he pretends he doesn't see her.
Of course, given the circular nature of lakes, that's not always possible. He'll be running one way, she'll be running the other, and they'll have to exchange greetings. Her fluttery waves always seem rehearsed, but maybe he's imagining it.
The man is still clinging to the buoy. Several of the onlookers marvel at his strength and speculate what might be wrong with his head. One of the wetsuited women suspects he's bi-polar and off his meds. Others guess at some delusional mental illness.
"Picked a good day for it," says one of the fishermen. "If this were last month, he'd be dying of hypothermia."
"Agreed," says the other fisherman. "Say, is that rod a Winston GVX Select?"
One of the wetsuited women erupts in laughter at something the man beside her says. There are more comments, nods of agreement, a chuckle and a sigh, like they're all hanging out in someone's kitchen drinking beer and bitching about life. Whatever their problems, they're not as bad as the naked man's. Guy doesn't think the man is literally crazy. He may just be on drugs, which, he supposes, is its own kind of craziness.
"He's moved," says one of the fishermen.
The man is no longer on the buoy. Guy tries to find him and finally spots his arm holding on to the side of the boat. With some care, the cops manage to haul his naked ass aboard without harming anything. He accepts the blanket they give him and wraps it around himself. Sitting in the middle of the boat, between the officers, he turns towards the people watching from the shore and salutes.
They all clap like they're at a performance, though it's not clear if it's the man or the cops they're applauding, or both. A stout policewoman moves everyone back so the boat can come in and the man can be hauled off to whatever evaluation or processing they have to do with him.
Andie stands up, brushes herself off and turns around. "Show's over," she says to no one in particular.
Squinting into the sun, she sees him. Guy smiles and makes a twirling motion with his finger next to his head. She laughs.
He stretches briefly, then turns to run, clockwise from the old Aqua Theater where Jerry Lewis once did his nutty professor shtick for a sold-out crowd.