portrait of a place

The lake, mostly round, is

fringed by houses in many shapes:

Ramblers, cottages, waterfront villas, double-wides, and

one, a narrow, white two-story, with a

deep-red deck and white picket fence, that

was my summer home, at least

for a while.

 

Around the lake there are oak trees, cottonwoods,

hemlocks; there, tousled by the breeze, sways

a weeping willow—hear the susurrus of

its leaves above the water.

Keep listening, and soon the heron

starts to speak: Grok! Grok! Graaawk!

It croaks

with the bullfrogs, above the din of

crickets, cicadas; in quieter moments,

doves mourn, grackles cackle, and the

Carolina chickadee chick-a-dee-dee-dees,

while a woodpecker drums away

at a snag.

 

For much of my life, I lived

in two worlds, stepping

from one to the other

with the coming of summer.

From as soon as I could fly—that is,

step onto tarmac, climb a

flight of stairs into

a pressurized cabin, and take off

on wings of steel—as soon as I

could do these things,

I was migrating from Seattle

to the Midwest, to summer

in northeast Indiana, home

to amber waves of

rolling grain; of flea markets

in Shipshewana; of taco nights

at the American Legion

in Orland; of Amish

corn grown seven feet tall

under a marbled sky.

 

In accordance with the climate—hot,

muggy, deliciously wind-swept—

my appearance changed:

I took on my summer skin, shedding

the layers, finding myself

perpetually shirtless in swim trunks,

a fishing rod in one hand, a

fine-mesh net in the other.

If they were biting, I’d catch bluegill,

sunfish, bass, perch, catfish. If not,

I collected insects—beetles, butterflies, dragonflies,

damselflies; I captured

frogs, toads, turtles,  and snakes.

I waded the bogs and shallows with impunity,

feeling out soft-shelled turtles sunbathing

in the swamp with

my bare feet, careful to pick up and

toss aside any hissing

mud turtles, mouths agape.

Duckweed dried onto my arms

and legs; the loamy stench

of bog muck followed me

from fishing hole to fishing hole, until

my grandmother ordered me to rinse off

in the lake before coming in

for dinner.

 

Memories of this place

seem more like dream

than reality—or at least,

the oneiric and the generic conflate,

so that everything is bathed

in nostalgia.

I recall turtle races at the civic club, picking raspberries for pie,

currants for wine (this accompanied by

the smell of brewer’s yeast,

the frothy bubbles in the carboy);

playing basketball in

a friend’s barn, dodging the bats fluttering

under the rafters.

I remember the heady excitement

upon discovering my grandfather’s Playboy collection

under the guest bed; I remember fawning

over a much-older girl named, appropriately, Summer,

whose bikini-swaddled breasts

and bum

were a constant fascination to me.

Summer was from Alaska—another

summer migrant—and she hunted

turtles on a paddleboard,

so naturally, I was

enthralled.

 

Sitting in the prow, paddle

in hand, I dip into the

sun-warmed waters, marveling

at ripples colliding, overriding,

distorting my view of

the bottom below: here a school

of pumpkinseed, guarding their nests; there, a

largemouth bass shoots off, as if

from a cannon.

And there! A mossy boulder

that crawls across the weeds! It is a turtle,

an alligator snapper, and

I am glad to be afloat, my feet tucked

beneath me. “Hey you!” comes a voice

from astern, “Keep paddling!”

My brother is eager to

return to the house, to return to

that rustic modernity,

and so we

churn the limpid water, keeping our

eyes to the lake’s edge,

using the white picket

as a landmark.

 

Things were different here: for one,

there was real thunder, the kind that

rattles windows and sounds as if

the sky is being

rent asunder, right above your head.

Neighbors spoke

to one another—“Hey Dick,” someone would

call, and my grandfather would reply, “Mornin’!”, or “Afternoon!”, or “Evenin’!”,

depending on the time of day—and if

you lived on the lake, you were

a neighbor, and people would wave to you

and know your name.

Meals were taken at the table,

no exceptions; manners were minded,

bedtime was at ten, unless—!—there was

some quality programming on

T.V. that everyone

could enjoy, in which case we

could stay up until eleven,

after milk and cookies.

 

Sometimes the fireflies danced all night, and

sometimes the chorus of frogs

kept me from sleep.

Sometimes, even,

I would grow homesick for Seattle,

but it was not a terrible

longing, for I knew

my summer home would soon

be shuttered, and the lazy days

and sticky nights

would draw to a close.

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