I Shouldn’t Have Googled That
As I lay down on the cool cement garden bench next to the Japanese maple, I close my eyes and try to imagine that the streaming sweep of the incoming airplanes are really pulsating drifts of lake waves gently hitting my canoe. Then I am abruptly reminded again of the fighting couple next door who announces through their open windows who is cheating on whom on this glorious Saturday morning. The neighbor across the alley is fixing his Studebaker Lark convertible, loudly revving the engine, as if he can resurrect his good old days. The cobbled-stoned waterfall and pond I designed and built helps me detach from the noise of Portage Ave., but it was a failed experiment (unless it was 5:00AM on a Sunday morning). The day-glo-orange Koi, almost on cue, dash to the surface looking for a possible treat, all trained to be taken out of my hand. At forty years old, I feel like those Koi, pacing around in a rubber- lined pond inhaling chemically-treated water, trained to want someone else’s idea of a good life.
There is an unspoken neighborhood competition every summer on who can have the most perfect looking lawn. My neighbors leave for work in their BMW’s with cell phones ironed to their ears, always too busy to notice a wave hello. They don’t even stop and admire their professionally planted Victoria Blue salvia and French marigolds growing in perfect geometric designs along their razor-edged driveway. The neighbor’s poodle is yapping again because of another falsely triggered car alarm. There is no croaking of frogs to be heard at dusk, there are no night crawlers popping into their holes in the glare of a shining flashlight, and now I have asthma, semi-controlled by steroids. It is like I am on twenty-four- hour surveillance, with neighbors able to peer into my backyard from their second story windows at any time. I don’t need much, monetary things don’t really matter to me, I don’t need a McDonald's close by, but I guess I have always been a little different.
If I close my eyes and try hard enough, I remember how good things used to feel and I can remember that summer when my father’s stained metallic-smelling hands slowly turned white and soft. It was the year he said we would go fishing every day after he quit his factory job, the year he took off the entire summer before opening a very soon to be busy TV repair business. I was only ten years old.
The sun felt like it reluctantly wanted to rise around 5:30 that morning. Sitting at the kitchen table, I restlessly waited for my father to finally get up. I was replacing the dirty blue fishing line that had been snapped by an unexpected pike late last summer. I wasn’t a girlie girl, I knew how to fish, I knew how to string a line, and yes, I wormed my own hook.
My father was usually up the earliest, drinking coffee, scarfing down his breakfast in three big gulps and rushing out the door on his way to a job he called “the race to death.” Today was different; it was the first day he didn’t have to go to that place. This time I was up before him, all dressed and breakfast made just like he taught me: black coffee, fried eggs with ketchup, thick sliced bacon and toast. I had already packed two lunches: two slices of old fashioned loaf on whole wheat bread with brown mustard and a tiny bit of horseradish, my father’s favorite sandwich. He’d always said I made the best sandwiches.
My heart was beating fast because today was the day that we were going to find East Lake, a hidden lake across the dirt road from our house, the one we discovered on an old county map at the Elkhart County Historical Museum. We had lived in our secluded country house for a couple of years and had no idea there was a small public lake located within a half mile in the middle of our neighboring Amish farmlands. There was no public access, and it couldn’t be seen from the road because of all the hills, hills large enough to host the Iron Horseman Hill Climb Championships every year.
I knew these Amish pastures well. I loved to play in the gullies for hours, looking for the perfect hideout and finding old thrown- away junk. I frequented one certain gully in the back-woods that was used as a junkyard, that is, until the neighbors started discarding their cut up cow parts. Maybe it was due to a disease or maybe the cows became crippled. Eventually I found the perfect place, a deep and narrow gully that was covered thick in briars all the way around, but open on the inside. I made an entry just big enough that I could crawl through without it being noticed from the outside. It concealed me and all my stuff, even in the winter when all the leaves had fallen away from the bushes.
I found an old baby highchair that had one leg missing, so I hack- sawed off the others and leveled it just right in the dirt so it would recline. This was my best prize find and since I was a skinny kid, it fit my body perfectly. While leaning back, I could look up to the sky through all the branches overhead and if I blurred my eyes enough it reminded me of looking through a kaleidoscope of white, brown and blue designs. I dug a narrow dirt shelf on one side of the gully next to my chair where I displayed my collection of found stuff I liked: old brown and blue medicine bottles, horseshoes, various spice cans and other neat looking things that I had no idea what they were originally used for. I also found a chipped rusty porcelain bowl which stored my ever- revolving stash of old 1960’s National Geographic magazines. When I became hungry there was always something to find to eat without going home. There were wild black raspberries to pick, strawberries, mulberries, little sour apples off the trees, sweet white and lavender clover flowers, and crisp young kernelless field corn.
In the summer, my narrow hideout felt cool and damp against my skin like the stone walls of an old cellar during the hottest of days. I brought a small canvas tarp from home that I tied to the overhead branches all rolled up and ready to use as a rain shield. I loved the hollow tapping it made when it rained, like someone playing a hand drum, and many times it just lulled me to sleep for hours. Many times in autumn, I had to peel off penny sized reddish- brown ticks that seemed to have become magnetized to my scalp. I sliced them into equal parts with an old steak knife, it amazed me just how much blood they could hold in their bellies. In the winter I made little fires to keep my hands and feet warm enough. I even tried to smoke dried hollow weeds that were sticking out of the snow with a girlfriend of mine once; that is until the inhaled black smoke burnt our throats raw- we vowed never to smoke again. I loved my special place; I could read all day, watch all the birds, animals and bugs around me and daydream for hours without being bothered by anyone.
With fishing poles in hand, our lunches in brown paper sacks and crescent shaped leather canteens filled with cold well water hanging around our necks, we both walked fast as if we were beagles on a hot trail of rabbit tracks. The ankle-high dewy grass made my blue Converse’s wet all the way through to my toes and gave me a chill. I am not sure if it was from the crispness of the dew or the excitement I felt going on an adventure with my father. I climbed through many barbed- wired fences along the way, strands my father held apart with his worn leather work boots. Trampling through the deep layers of fallen leaves and sticks of ground squirrel infested woods, we didn’t care if we made too much noise since we weren’t rabbit hunting.
The grass was now dry and it seemed like we had been walking in circles for many hours and I was getting tired. As we walked out of the woods and down a hill, the ground started to feel springy to the step and the air felt heavy. We soon came upon a wide ditch and we had no choice other than to go through it. Dad said he would go first and as he stepped closer to the edge of the water, he suddenly plummeted deeply into the wet black muck all the way to his waist. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or feel terrified because he couldn’t move his legs; he was really stuck. He handed me his fishing pole and told me to pull him out with it. I stood there not certain what I should do, I was scared and I didn’t want to fall in like him, but I knew better than to disobey him. With all my weight I drug him out slowly; he was covered in black and smelled like the neighboring hog farm. The excitement of the day soon left his eyes as he said we better get back home. I was feeling disappointed, too, but I knew he wouldn’t give up, he would find a way to that lake.
Shortly after our failed attempt, my father found out that for three dollars, Orva, the Amish neighbor, would allow us access through his field paths leading to the lake. Finding this out was rather difficult since the Amish tend to be very quiet about things like that, perhaps it is because they respect the land and don’t want anyone, especially “the English” to mess it up. But since we always let them use our telephone, they divulged their secret. Orva even gave us free brown chicken eggs when we would return from our fishing trips; he knew how to be neighborly after all. We eventually bought our milk from him too, real thick unpasteurized cow’s milk that would stick to the sides of a drinking glass.
The small kidney shaped lake was located at the bottom of three pasture hills, hills where cows and work horses grazed on grass next to the fenced-off corn fields. At the bottom of the hill was usually an overturned green canoe stored under a solitary white oak tree. The lake’s perimeter was almost completely overgrown with cattails. The only way into the lake was though a narrow path which only a canoe could maneuver through. Along the path you could sometimes see jelly black-peppered frog eggs, after the surprise of their parents diving under for cover. Male Red-winged black birds foraging in the cattails gave their warning barks as I came near their sparrow- looking mates, hiding in mud packed homemade baskets of grass and moss. This lake reminds me of one of my favorite novels as a child, The Secret Garden. Contained within the thick walls of cattails was a nature sanctuary, just like within the walls of that garden in the story. There are no houses, boat motors, and usually no people around, except maybe a straw-hatted farmer singing in Pennsylvania Dutch as he worked in his fields.
The water was so clear you could actually see the fish nibbling your bait from many feet away above the lake’s sandy bottom. Dragon flies would hover over, fighting each other over who would get to land on the bobber, sometimes sharing. Then when I got a nibble, the dragon flies would flee frightened, as the bobber dipped into the water.
There was this feeling of peace watching my dad finally being able to relax- he leaned back against his boat seat with a long exhale. We didn’t need to talk, we just enjoyed being with each other. Even though I was fiercely afraid of the water due to an early near -drowning incident when I was three, somehow I felt protected here. Feeling the coolness of the metal canoe against my bare feet, I could close my eyes and almost fall asleep in the hot sun, keeping my fingers in contact of the line in case I would get a bite. Eventually my wormy- fish smelling hands didn’t even bother me while eating my lunch. Like my father promised, we spent many days that summer fishing almost every day. But there is a time during that summer that I can remember the most, a time that almost seemed magical.
One evening we were heading back home just before dusk, after a mostly unsuccessful attempt at catching many fish. We had only caught a few small crappie and lake perch that was stored in our wire basket hanging over the side of the canoe. I liked to drag my line through the water at the back of the canoe as my father paddled back, hoping to attract a huge bass. And that was what I was doing when all of the sudden, I got this heavy hit that pulled the line tight with tension and swirled the back of the canoe around. Well, Dad got all excited and grabbed my pole before the fish took me and the pole with it into the weeds. I was thrilled that I was going to finally catch a huge bass, but it didn’t jump out of the water like one. With much relief that we weren’t going to lose the fish burrowing down into the thick patch of lily pads, he pulled it in and I scooped it up with the net. It was actually an eight inch bluegill. Feeling rather inspired, we kept fishing and caught one fish after another. The lightening bugs were coming out, like little flashing lighthouses warning us to come back to shore because it was getting really dark. That night it was cloudy and when one is in the country, it gets dark as a cave; we eventually had to pull the hooks out by feel only. There were no lights around to even guide us back through the little path out of the lake. We finally found our way out, by luck really, and it was a good thing because he said we would have to stay out all night if we couldn’t find our way out. Maybe he was just kidding. I am not sure I would have minded.
When we got back home and looked under the porch light we counted that we caught eighteen bluegills. Because they were so big, dad actually filleted the thick meat, which was better than picking out those sharp bones. Even though it was really late and everyone else had gone to bed, we were really hungry so we dipped the fillets into some homemade beer batter and fried those fish up for a late night supper.
Maybe it is the nostalgia of it, but I swear no fish has ever tasted as good as it did that night. Maybe that is why I love sushi so much, I just miss that really fresh fish taste, or maybe it is something else… Tonight when I remembered East Lake and I decided to look it up on a satellite map to find out where that lake really was located in relation to the old house, I was thrilled to see the huge oak tree with the canoe still under it by the edge of the lake. But as I scanned the map up to view the entire lake, I felt heaviness within my gut. There were now three huge million dollar mansions, with glowing green golf-course-like lawns; with a winding private drive leading to the lake. Feeling numb and wanting to hide away from the world, I clicked off the map page, shut down my computer, and felt my natural instinct of wanting to crawl into another hidden gully again.