In Lakeland, most mothers warn their children to keep away from the lakes. Sink holes and pancaking, cottonmouths and alligators, just to name a few reasons. But my mother. Unlike most. Didn’t care.
Lake Beulah, punchbowl and reedy, sometimes coffee-colored, sometimes gunmetal gray, notorious for swamp gators and cat drownings, was dubbed our lake, like some kind of abandoned fortress, where we’d rule as kings.
One day, off to the lake, I found my mother, standing at the kitchen sink, staring out the window with an unlit joint she’d twisted between her fingers. It being a Saturday, she was supposed to be working at the Sears return counter. I’d stopped to check the refrigerator for something to drink. Grabbing and shaking a near-empty carton of milk, I looked inside the near-empty fridge, gazing hard as if it were chock full. I asked her, “Aint there nothin’ to drink?”
“What you doin’ here, anyways,” she asked, coughing. “Aint you got a ballgame?”
“Have you been with your father?”
Hanging on the open refrigerator, its cool breath across my face, I thought hard about asking what she was doing there. She’d worked nearly ten years, pretty steady, real big on Joplin, came from Texas herself, like Janis, who she called, Pearl, the Pearl of Texas, and always with a hazed look in her eyes, never a sense of clear calm, in them, I’d hear the voice of Pearl, restless and scratchy.
“Then what you do’n?”
“I’m go’n to the lake.”
“You aint go’n in?”
I shut the door hard, burping it. “Aren’t you ever go’n to work?” I asked.
“Aren’t you supposed too?”
“Nope, not again . . . ever.”
“You have to.”
“Not cleaning up the house ever, ever again—”
“And not fixin’ anyone’s supper anymore.”
“You havin’ a boycott or something?” I asked.
“That’s sounds about right,” she said, and lit the joint.
I grunted, half-hoping she’d leave right then, but she closed her eyes, puckered her lips, and took a long, single inhale, sucking the joint down. I knew certain that she didn’t love me, she couldn’t, she incapable, because she’d craved too much, and would pour her soul to any stranger with a fucked smile and clear plastic bag of homegrown.
“You tell your father I aint fixin his lunch. Ya hear me?”
“Tell him I’m on strike, and don’t be coming in expecting a damn thing.”
“What about mine?”
She flipped me a cheese sandwich on no plate, ripped open a packet of grape Kool-Aid she’d pulled out of drawer, filled a plastic cup with water, stirred it with her finger, and handed it to me. I drank it down quickly, and as I ate the sandwich, she watched, fiddling with the joint in her hand, smoking, momentarily breaking her strike, just for me. She must have felt some sense of responsibility, some sense of guilt, or displeasure, or the opposite, pleasure, but one thing was certain, she‘d aimed to keep her secret.
Groping for a thought, she said, “And tell him one other thing,” and tossed the bud in the sink, dousing it under the faucet. I didn’t wait, and ran out. “Get back here, I aint finished,” she called, hollow, like spent casings.
Out the door, scrambling to a friend’s house, my father, outside in the yard, hood up, working on his car, stopped me cold. He asked me, “Do you know why our mother’s been sittin’ on her can all week.” She’d been home the last ten days straight, and being big on Janis Joplin, he’d thought she was staying in her bedroom, smoking, listening to her records all day. He wasn’t sure if she’d quit her job or taken some time off, but one thing he was sure of, he didn’t have a rat’s ass of a clue.
He slammed the hood down and fumbled for his beer bottle wedged in his back pocket.
“She say nothin’ to you?”
I stood tall next to him, but that was no measure. He was a scrawny, shirtless man with boney features: a narrow brow, a collapsing chin, and pathetic snub of a nose. He’d grown up in Lakeland, skipped two wars—too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam—but talked a heap about fighting gooks. A deep fervor, and despite my mother’s constant bitching of his inability to grasp any situation of any significance, he’d go halfcocked just the same. He worked at the only garage in town, Shay’s, that’d take in foreign cars. Said people came from all over. He was the only mechanic who could reach the camshafts in Honda engines. Small hands, but not to his disadvantage, something he’d boast about, holding them high like cheap carnival dolls. Weekends he’d stay outside, hiding under the hood of his Bessie, a’67 maroon Cutlass, feeding it motor oil, or fingering its carburetor, or touching something that didn’t need touching.
“Says she’s on strike,” I told him.
“A strike!” He took a swig. “You aint lying to me, ‘cause you better not be?”
Not standing around I ran off, not bothering to ask him if he’d think I was lying, if I told him that his own wife was, in fact, a bona fide whore.
I’d first headed over to Daryl’s. He lived with his grandmother, in a trailer house parked on five acres of what’d used to be a real working farm. I knocked on the screen door and saw him slumped in the dark, not moving. I’d let myself in. He looked at me, lost and solemn. His blond-colored buzz cut gave his head a square shape, though his eyes, round and dark, rested just above his flushed cheeks.
“You coming?” I asked.
“Caint,” he whined softly.
“Just the once.”
I’d never been in his place, never, and couldn’t help looking around. There was nothing valuable, just cramped furniture, landscape paintings, the boring and dusty kind I’d see at garage sales. A big walnut-shaped radio. A black-n-white set. And a blue sofa covered in plastic. So were the big lampshades. But the brown armchair, uncovered, had duct tape across its seat cushion. I thought maybe there was a cat. His grandmother, though, had two yellow parakeets, each in their separate cages. I tapped my finger on one of the cages and asked him what their names were. He grumped that his grandmother just calls them birdies, but he called them, cunt and asshole, not being specific on which was which. I told him those were my parents’ names.
He didn’t laugh, and whatever had gotten to him, kept him tied to the sofa, an island of doom, surrounded by ton of old photographs. On a coffee table, the end tables, and more on the wall shelves that divided the trailer into its two halves. In my whole house there wasn’t a single photo. Somewhere in a kitchen drawer there were Polaroids with me as a baby that someone else took. My mother was sitting on the ground, holding me, and you could only see my father’s bare feet and knobby knees. That day, she wore a floppy straw hat with a big sunflower. Like a prop in all the pictures, it’d hid her eyes, not showing if she was happy or not. I was either crying or sleeping in each photo, except for the one—a brown trout taken next to a Busch beer can.
I stopped to look at the photos. Daryl squirmed onto his knees. There was a colored picture of Daryl’s father in his naval uniform, and beside it, a fresh-looking military face I’d never seen before. I picked up the photo and asked him who it was.
Daryl looked at it, and said, “My cousin Brad, he enlisted.”
I didn’t want to say anything, because I knew Daryl’s father was killed in Nam, and his mother, being called the nut job, had wandered off a couple years back, leaving Daryl alone with his grandmother.
I set it down and asked him, “Why don’t I tell your granny there’s an emergency?” His eyes lit up for a second, and moaned it wouldn’t work.
Moments later, she crept out from behind a wood-paneled wall, fluffing her gray, thinning hair. A bird’s nest, lopped to one side, she might have been napping. Her faded blue dress looked more like a housecoat with its large, white buttons down the front. Her nylon stockings were rolled down just below her puffy knees, same way our baseball stirrups fell. She shuffled off to the kitchen, golden slippers, a shrilly voice, telling Daryl he could get up, and asking me if I wanted a sandwich and a glass of milk.
I’d just had the cheese sandwich, but I was still hungry, and said, darn sure.
I knew Daryl didn’t like living with his grandmother—maybe the difference in ages—and he’d become instantly sluggish, an unresponsive snail around her. She ordered us to sit at a small kitchen table.
Tightly clutching the glass milk bottle in one skeletal hand, a jar of mayonnaise in the other, she hip-checked the frig door shut. “Do you pray, young man?” she asked me.
She’d set the milk and mayo jar on a counter that was no longer than a couple feet of green linoleum. “I reckon,” I said, shrugging at Daryl when the old woman wasn’t looking. She looked back. Her hands on her hips, a broken smile, her upper dentures ran above her chin like a fence rail. Then nastily, she said, “I don’t think you’re a boy that prays.” A portion of her white bra had shown from a gap in her dress caused by a skipped button.
I asked her if she thought that Charles Manson prayed.
“Is he one of your friends?” she asked, causing Daryl to snicker, but it’d sounded more like he said, shit, shit, shit.
“That mouth or yours,” she shrieked, and slapped him on the back of his head. He curled back into a shell, while she opened a bag of Wonder Bread, pulling out two heals. “Heavens,” she muttered aghast, “you’ve eaten all the bread!”
I sensed Daryl’s deeper embarrassment. Seldom did I come to his house, this little trailer, and I knew why he made things up. Cows hang around his trailer, stray chickens shit in his front yard. The wood siding, peeling and splintering, no sidewalks, porch lights, streetlights, any kind of light at all, and I felt it rural and desolate, lack of any kind of modern conveniences, but we all had septic tanks, smelly rotten tanks that flooded our yards just the same.
She told us to stay put while she ran to the store. Patting down her hair, she muttered something about her keys, and swaddled out of the kitchen, disappearing behind that paneled wall where she’d first appeared.
“C’mon,” I said hurriedly. “Let’s get out of here.”
Daryl sat frozen, words iced on his tongue, and he shook his head.
“Dammit,” I said. “Fuck her.”
We left together and met up with George at a crossing of two worn paths, one that led through the woods in the direction of the lake, the other back to my house.
Daryl, practically bragging, said he was being punished and skipped out. “She doesn’t know I’m here,” he said. “See a pig?” George didn’t seem to care. It was a hot, windless day; the sky, birdless, had the same film-colored haze of granny’s eyes. We hiked not talking much. And as we walked, my suspicions grew that George wanted to be alone. He carried a good size stick, and I asked him what he was going to do, now that his father wasn’t around. He gave me a one-shoulder shrug.
Daryl, wound up, said that he’d seen Charles Manson on TV, and heard him called, Charlie. “That’s your daddy’s name, aint it?” he said to George, and then crossed me with a blank stare that I wouldn’t touch.
I knew well enough not to rib George, given how his father ditched his family. Despite his old man being an all-out son-of-a-bitch for leaving, he was pretty cool, and when he was still around, he’d play catch and ride bikes with us. Although, leaving without a word was kind of strange, not a note, a kiss-my-ass, and I knew that it was painful for George, yet in some ways I’d envied him, envied him good.
“Cut it,” George said, using the slender branch like a sword, swooshing it in the air, nearly striking Daryl in the face. The air was as stale as an old boot, and his hands bunched into fists, turned his brown eyes hard as acorns. He had a perfectly round head, straight out of the Peanuts comic strip, and eyes just as round and comical. I could tell though, whatever was on George’s mind would come out. It was as if he was warning me. “Let’s go to the lake,” he said.
On the way I talked about the movie we saw the week before. “Remember the fight scene in Billy Jack?”
“Sure,” George said, “that was a great movie,” and he hacked at the vines with the stick, then, off-tune, he started singing, “Go ahead and cheat a neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend.” We all sang along, crossing over a pit of sticky-black mud, balancing on a fallen tree trunk like circus performers. We walked through the trees, along the scruffy underbrush, where wild pigs tilled the soil grubbing for acorns and earthworms and this early, the ground was stickier under the leafy canopies. The wild pigs around there were small, no bigger than a good-size dog, which you’d expect to see in the woods. But it’s never the same—the Floridian wilderness—and most unsettling were streams popping out of nowhere as if hemorrhaging blood from the ground. We cut through the overgrown woody junipers and silktassels, and ducked under flowering railroad vines, coating old oak trees. This was where we’d play war. I reckoned, in these woods, there weren’t much in the way of enemies.
The afternoon languished; and when we got to a wooden gate, past a row of big willows, we stopped to rest.
“Why don’t we crash there,” I said, pointing to a large tree truck fallen on its side. “We can rest. Maybe a hog will come by.”
“Smells like one,” George said, tossing his stick into a clump of palmettos.
“Sure does,” Daryl said. “Like pig shit.”
I picked chiggers. George sniffed the air again, and then, in a normal tone, he said, “There’s something I got to tell you guys.” I thought he looked serious enough to pay good attention. “My mom . . . my mom wants to leave Lakeland. Move us to Tampa.”
I snapped a twig in half. “What?”
“That means we won’t be spending the summer together.”
“She thinks my brother and I would get a better education, and . . . ”
“And . . . ”
“Get better friends.”
Everything fell out of me, learning what his mother had thought of us—a woman who couldn’t keep her marriage together, judging Daryl and me, our characters. He couldn’t have hurt me more if he had struck me with that stick. I saw her in my mind. His mother, yelling at her husband, throwing tufted grass with clumps of dirt; standing on the lawn, a bundle of clothing cradled in his arm, his father, seemingly an easy target, weighed down by pants, and jackets, and dress shirts, neckties dangling, and a shoe fell, then another.
“You godda stay, George, if nothing else.”
“My mom’s been a little weird; she sits in the backyard in a lawn chair and smokes and cries, then laughs out loud, like your mom.”
There was no comfort in what he said. I wanted to tell him how sick his mother was, driving us apart, and that I’d hated her almost as much as my mother, but that I’d kept that to myself.
For days, I’d hear her howling through the bedroom door, singing, “Me and My Bobby Magee,” and she finally came out, glassy or teary eyed, when our septic backed up and stunk up the yard. After, coming home from the lake, my father wasn’t out front in the yard, and I’d caught a neighbor in our backyard. “Your mama’s still got her company,” she said, holding a flyswatter. She wore an expression of blame, not the foolish one caught peeping. I know I’d looked nervously at her, saying nothing. She flipped the swatter and headed towards her house, looking back over her shoulder every so often. Wasn’t much I could say. I’d seen his pump truck, tank fixed for days, parked down the street.
His short name, Gus, was stitched on the breast pocket of his blue coveralls. He’d come to fix our septic tank when we could no longer tolerate the foul smell.
She was sunk low in the living room couch. Her face rung with a halo of smoke, barefoot, toes balled-up into fists; she looked at me, mindful of her cigarette. She’d known that she’d hurt my feelings. Her eyes were puffy, red sponges, and her hair was shoved forward as if a burst of wind snuck up behind her, and she said, “Del, we need to talk.” I’d already turned my eyes into lasers, firing light beams, and she said, “Del, don’t be mad. I got needs.” It’d made me sick to think my mother had needs.
She got up, blouse open, dangling her whorish behavior in front of me, as if somehow, it’d go right through me straight to my father. I jerked away when she touched my arm.
“He gets me good pot, sweetie.”
I had enough of her lame excuses. “Where’s dad?” I asked, grumbling into the kitchen, sticking my head in the refrigerator.
“Your father is with that colored, Robinson,” she said, following me. “Helping him build back his rotted-out dock. Her face smudged, eyes hollowed, lost in some kind of dream. “Beer,” she then said, her voice dying out. “Doing it for a lousy six-pack of beer.”
I hadn’t told him, my father, and for days thought about it, but didn’t know what to say—how I saw my mother, playing her LPs for Gus, the way she’d sung—eyes closed, singing the words she knew, humming the forgotten ones, even long after the song had ended. I regretted knowing what I knew. More weight then I’d ever imagined, a feeling of hatred so immersed, it’d surprised me.
“One day,” I said angrily to Daryl and George, “I’m leaving this shithole and going to New York City, join the Mets. Second base in mine!”
“No way my mom would ever let me go,” George said. “She expects more of me.”
“My grandma would kill me,” Daryl said, “If she don’t kill me yet.”
I burst. “Come on,” I said, “Let’s get to the lake!” and I led the way, marching through the woods, stepping on the rocks and logs, avoiding mud and cricks, singing radically at the top of our lungs, One tin soldier rides away, and as the sunlight wilted through the thin, wiry branches, feral mushrooms and conks flourished, small shadows sprung, and with mold darkening the sides of tree trunks, we weren’t far from the lake.
At the lake, we gathered branches for spears and rocks for grenades, and piled them onto the small, broken-down pier that jetted out a good ten feet from shore. George was silent through the effort, and Daryl wasn’t his usual tease. Normally we’d blow off steam, go at each other, but today, we’d harass the gators, those leathered bastards, lazing in sun and water.
The late afternoon was still hot and sunny, a dry breeze, and we dropped to our hands and knees, scoured the water’s blank surface. Daryl and I off the pier, George, keeping an eye peeled for any movement in the nearby grass. He removed his ballcap and wiped his sweaty brow with his arm.
After several silent minutes passed, Daryl broke the tension, yelling out that he’d found something.
George yelped with excitement. “A gator?”
“How long?” I shouted.
Daryl, who lived somewhat on a farm, pointed like a good bird dog. Looking over the pier’s edge, the surface was placid, and normally all that we could see was the quiet reflection our distorted heads. I couldn’t stop imagining our fate, the black lagoon. The murk behind our eyes: the moon not shining, the stars not out, a bottomless pit, and I couldn’t begin to imagine, what, if anything would happen to us.
The water was clearer than usual, tinged only by the graying skies. “I don’t see nothin’,” I said, positioning my eyes low on the deck.
“Chuck a rock,” George said.
“No,” I shouted. “We caint disturb the water.”
The harder we looked, the more we saw. The bottom, like a fur coat, and fish, shimmying over, sparkled jeweled. But what caught my eye, lying a few feet beneath the film of green algae, tucked in the mire and murk of the lake’s bottom, was a metal box of sorts.
“Look there,” I shouted.
“There, a silver box.”
“What do you think we should do?” George asked, leaning out, gripping my shirt, and poking the branch like a dipstick in the water. Daryl, without hesitation, said he’d jump in and yank it out himself, and he started stripping off his clothes, already having one of his sneakers lying beside him. The old pier swayed with the devil’s determination to knock us off. Splinters stabbed our palms like sharp knives, but we didn’t care. The day had seemed to regain some life, some alternate meaning to our lives, as if the clouds had opened up and showed us their sliver linings. And like Daryl, I was excited. Just seeing the glimmer of a box wrangled a thought or two: a treasure chest full of gold coins, or rubies, or stolen cash, but I shouted stop. “It’s wedged down deep,” I said. “We’ll need a rope.”
“Aint time to go back and fetch a rope,” Daryl said.
Off in the distance, white clouds had columned straight up for an afternoon shower. The box, the silver box was lying a few feet below the water’s surface. It was torturing me. I was nervous and uncertain, and perhaps an element of greed ran through me, or perhaps a bigger element of fear, and I said, “Then we go in together.”
“I aint jumping in,” shouted George. “Snakes.” He looked around. “Remember, gators!”
I said to him, “Aint nothing we can do about them gators, aint nothing we can do about anything, but what’s in that box, it could change everything, and if we don’t fetch it, we’ll know, for sure, that dreams caint do a damn thing.”
We heard a splash. Daryl had jumped in and we dropped to the edge. A cloud of silt and shit rose, and he disappeared.
“I aint seein’ him,” George shouted. I started yanking off my shoes, and just as I flipped them off, Daryl’s head broke the water. We reached for him and yanked him back up on the pier. In his other hand he had the box.
“Is it heavy?” I shouted. “Gotta be heavy.”
Daryl, sopping wet in his clothes, landed the box next to his sneakers. “Bet its just sand,” he said.
“Not sure if we should open it,” George yelled. “Not sure if I want to know.”
I hung my head low, gasping for a breath. “Open it,” I said.
Daryl, cleaning mud out from between his toes with his fingers, said, “Like I said, bet it’s just a bunch of sand.” His short-cropped, flesh-colored hair sparkled with wet droplets, on his back, more beads of lake water, so clear and clean, you wouldn’t suspect that they came from Lake Beulah. He kept his head down, pulling a long splinter from his foot.
I had pictured the metal box, possibly magnified by the sun’s refraction, bigger. It’d turned out no more than the size of a shoebox. Much smaller than I’d hoped, and it wasn’t silver. Galvanized. George unlatched it. Inside, wet sand, just as Daryl said. Thick and gooey as brown turds, smelling as bad. On one hand I’d felt relief, on the other, anger—and if I’d jumped in, at least I could’ve felt its weight, experiencing the excitement of pulling the box out of the water. A boy’s dream can race through his mind in seconds flat, like a rapid current of electricity or burst of wind, and yet, be taken away in a single breath.
George turned towards me, shading his eyes. “So what were you think’n?” he asked.
“About what was inside.”
“I thought gold coins for sure,” I said. Finally, divulging my secret.
“Wish it was pearls,” George said. “My mom could’ve used some pearls.” I imagined a white strand around his mother’s scrawny neck, and was about to say how bad she’d look in pearls when I thought about George leaving. Then Daryl interrupted.
“Fuck,” he said, “I was think’n there’d be a map of some sort.” He stared across the water. “Finding a map is better than finding old coins or pearls.”
“It caint be,” I said.
Daryl shrugged. “But it can lead you somewhere,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting about finding a map—not knowin where it’d take you.” Then Daryl, shading his eyes, squinted as he looked into a partial sun, towards the far side. The lakes around Lakeland were plentiful, but never that big you couldn’t see the other side, which provided no sense of mystery or adventure. Lake Beulah was no exception, slick, dark, useless water, with nothing but bottom-feeders swimming about, and an old gator or two, and a worn-down, wobbly pier. Where was the mystery? I reckoned Daryl was right. I reckoned he had a solid point.
Then George moaned. “Gosh, I’d hate to tell everyone we fetched out an ol’ box with nothing but sand in it.”
“Yeah,” Daryl said with one leg folded, propping up his chin. “What was in that ol’ box was important.”
I touched its metal for the first time, tapping its side with my fingers, reaching in and grabbing a fist of wet, sticky sand, while in my mind I still believed I was reaching into a chest of gold coins. So brilliant, so precious, it’d seemed weightless, and when I opened my fingers to let the sand drop in clumps, I wanted to tip the box back into the water. But then it hit me.
“A gun,” I shouted. “I say we tell everyone we found a gun in the box and . . . and that we hid it.”
“Why’d we say something like that?” George asked.
“It don’t matter what kind!”
“How ‘bout a pearl-handled pistol?” George said.
“It don’t matter,” I said. “Just a gun, that’s all we need to say.”
We sat for a while. Hazy, stale air, washed by a half-dead sun. Insects buzzed around our heads. An afternoon thunderstorm was rising rapidly from the east. Goosebumps all over Daryl’s wet, white skin. His teeth chattering. The metal box a stranger. My mind spinning. The name Charlie. Dangerous yet comforting. Then suddenly, Daryl reared up and shouted, “A revolver,” hands jammed into his wet pockets, thin arms quaking, hair barbed, and his blue eyes wide, dark pupils vanishing like small black sparrows, spooked, without as much as a single shot fired.
Then I heard it. My mother’s voice, calling me, and I looked back and saw her wedging through the trees. She called again and waved.
Anthony Roesch is an architect and writer, lives in downtown Chicago with his wife, and is published in Inkwell Journal. He was a Top-25 finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2007 Fiction Open and 2008 Very Short Story Competitions. He’s currently focusing his writing time on a novel and screenplay.