The following is an excerpt from The Lake, The River & the Other Lake by Steve Amick, forthcoming from Pantheon Books in May.
There was a policy on Lake Meenigeesis regarding jet-skis: a curfew limiting their use to ten a.m. till dusk. It was a bit of a gentlemen’s agreement, making enforcement sketchy if the offender was truly hell-bent on being a jackass. By the time you called the sheriff’s office and someone drove out, the kid could be docked and back inside his air-conditioned palace, playing video games or downloading porn.
It galled Roger Drinkwater to think what they were doing to this famously clear lake: jet-skis, with their two-stroke engines, could dump as much as thirty-percent of their fuel straight into the water. He’d read somewhere that the fuel in the water from jet-skis each year amounted to fifteen times the Exxon Valdez spill and that one hour zipping around the lake was the equivalent, pollution-wise, of driving a car for a year. But he didn’t need to read these facts to know them to be true: he could see it. He remembered, as a kid, making lemonade right off the dock. His Grandma Oshka would give him a slice of lemon or, in a bind, a bit of sumac, and one of those old aluminum drinking glasses they used to have, and a long wooden spoon, and he’d sit there, feet dangling off the side, and scoop up a glassful and mash it all together and drink it down with a grin. No way would he be doing that now. It was still a beautiful lake, sure, but he knew the difference from how it had once been, B.J—Before Jet-skis. Before Jackasses.
If you lived on a cul-de-sac, Roger always liked to point out, and the neighbor kids—some too young to drive a car—rode around in circles endlessly on whiny, two-stroke mini-bikes, right in front of your house, there would be no question it was wrong and illegal and you could take action, pronto. And yet, there were no real laws against them doing this with the marine equivalent. The problem with jet-skis was that the technology developed much faster than the law. Sometime back in the late eighties, jet-skis were everywhere, almost overnight, with no rules in place to govern them. It was a case of the gizmo catching on long before the legislators did—by the time lawmakers heard any backlash, the things already had a strong foothold in the summer culture. Plus, they were tied to big motorcycle companies, which meant they contributed significantly to political campaigns and had a lot of PAC money in their corner. It was all nasty business, rotten politics.
And besides the noise and pollution, there was the danger. Since jet-ski operators were usually either sugar-addled teenagers trying to impress some pre-pubescent girl by acting out a Mountain Dew commercial or weekend warriors or their guests who wanted to “take it for a spin” and therefore had no experience in handling the thing and no knowledge of the rules, this all added up to real peril during his morning swim. Because, despite the etymology of the lake, Roger got in that water not just in August, but every single day from usually mid-May to Halloween. And not just a quick shrieky, “double-dare” dip, howling and carrying on like the rest of those pussies and outsiders and white men: he swam. From his dock, straight across, to the Petersons’ and back, over a mile total, every morning starting at six forty-five. The way over was never a problem—not even the craziest teenager was out plowing the water that early—but on the way back, when he was weary and perhaps more loglike, sometimes, they were out. They weren’t supposed to be out, but sometimes they cheated and snuck out early. When he’d ask around later, he’d find it was a renter, just up for the week, who didn’t know the rules, or somebody’s nephew who supposedly would never do it again, but inevitably, they lied. They always did it again. Still, you had to call them on it. It was the principle of the thing.
And they got close, on occasion, probably just as surprised to see him as he was alarmed to see them. He usually heard the roar starting up as a low, leaky sound underwater, long before they approached, but still, it rattled him, the thought of that jockied torpedo, essentially, clipping him even in passing, cutting an artery or the hull itself cracking his skull, sending him sinking deep into the blue, a purple cumulous cloud, like a streamer, the blood leaving his body and joining the lake.
It made his teeth ache, just imagining it; made him puff harder than he should, pushing his stride; made him break entirely, treading water to heads-up and reconnoiter the asshole’s position every five seconds: generally, a pain in the ass. So there was no reason he had to dirty his hands dealing with such things. Not when they paid taxes for a sheriff’s department.
Of course, if the kid insisted on being an irredeemable little turd and denied he’d been out there or if the parents didn’t care or weren’t around, the sheriff would be useless. But that didn’t mean you could just lie back and take it.
Just a few days after he found the first lost toy of the season floating in the lake, he had his first narrow miss of the season. In the home stretch of his morning swim, no more than fifty feet short of his own dock, he surfaced to the wake and roar of a jet-ski cutting right across his path. The kid was wrong on three counts: he was less than one hundred feet from Roger’s dock, wasn’t yielding to swimmers, and was out at least two hours too early. Roger watched him arc over to the Petersons’ place, whooping and grinning. He thought of the Plains peoples, like the Sioux, and their need to “count coup”, the pride they took getting physically close to their enemy. Perhaps it was because his own people were more settled and domesticated, but those Plains traditions always struck him as foolish.
He stood and walked in the rest of the way to shore, glaring over at the asinine little savage. Roger waited for some response, an acknowledging glance. The kid seemed intent on ignoring him, so he went inside and called it in.
He pictured one of the deputies, Janey Struska, taking the call. Her coming out would at least improve the situation. He’d always thought highly of Struska, whom he’d known since she was a smart-alecky member of the girls’ swim team and he was her coach. He hadn’t had a lot of dealings with her since, but she was clearly well liked and respected by both the locals and the summer people. She was practical and diplomatic and even pleasant—which made it even more stupid that she hadn’t been made sheriff. Typical white man politics had ruled the day when the sheriff recently retired and she was passed over in favor of the new and untried Jon Hatchert, some outsider who met the minimal, unspoken requirements of being white and male. Roger had yet to speak to the man and didn’t particularly care to.
But when the cruiser pulled in, crunching gravel, he saw from the angular shape at the wheel that it wasn’t Janey Struska. It was Hatchert, responding personally. And uselessly—all he agreed to do was talk to the kid in real general terms about operating his craft more safely and making an effort to give swimmers the right-of-way. He wasn’t about to enforce the curfew policy.
“This curfew you people have,” he said, shaking his head. “See, it’s not truly a law. It’s sort of a handshake agreement. Between the Department of Natural Resources and this “lakes association” you people put together and old Don Sloff. But he’s not the sheriff anymore, and frankly, I don’t know as this lakes association represents all the homeowners so evenly. What I suggest is you get yourself a bathing cap. They make them in all kinds of Day-Glo colors—orange and red. Like that.”
Roger mustered his best stone face and told the new sheriff, “Don’t fuck with me.”
“Hey, I’m not kidding. They’ll see you a mile off in a bathing cap.” He smiled, got in his patrol car and drove away.
It was moments like this Roger wished he could be as eloquent and succinct as the legendary Chief Joseph One-Song. That guy knew how to make a statement.
Back in town, in Scudder Park—between the drinking fountain and the little shed that supposedly housed the missing tennis nets and the badminton equipment you used to be able to rent (only someone lost the key years ago and no one had bothered breaking open the padlock to check if it was there or rotten or what)—there was a statue of this last great Ojaanimiziibii leader, whose real name was Bezhik-Nagamoon. The plaque at the base commemorated his appearance before the U.S. Congress in January, 1837, making him what was believed to be the first Native American to ever address that assemblage. He was invited, along with a retinue led by the acting Territorial governor, the twenty-five-year-old “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason, to appear at the granting of Michigan’s statehood. The chief’s speech was actually only two lines—eight words plus a healthy helping of wheeze and spittle: “Nimaanaadendam gaa zhi binaadkamgiziik.Aaniishpii ge nimaajaa yin?” In translation from the Ojibwe, roughly: “You have all been a great disappointment. When are you leaving?” And then he walked back to the Hotel Liberté and lay himself down on the floor in his room, skipping the fine goosefeather bed, and died. That evening, when President Jackson was debriefed on the day’s events and informed of the short words from the old “Chippeway” from Michigan, Jackson insisted he would “thrash that ingrate savage” and “flay his red hide.” Half in the bag, the old Indian-fighter tore out of the White House and rode bareback across the Mall, straight to the Liberté. But upon arrival, when he was informed by the house doctor that the great elder had been declared dead, the President cooled somewhat and retired instead to the hotel bar where he confided, to the aides that finally caught up with him, out of breath, that the thrashing “would likely prove most ineffectual, at this late juncture…”
Roger loved the idea that at least once it was the white man left holding his dick, realizing he was just a little too late to do anything to correct the situation. And he loved Chief Joseph One-Song—wrote papers about him when he was in grade school, stopped and paid his respects every time he passed the statue in the park, thought he might even name a son Bezhik-Nagamoon (if the theoretical mom didn’t think it was nuts)—because the chief never quite, as they used to say when Roger was a Navy SEAL, went along with “the program.”
He did try the bathing cap. Once. Gave it a fair chance, he felt. He didn’t actually go out and buy one, just borrowed one from the high school. They had a bunch in the supply closet in the coach’s office that he doled out for the girls’ swim team.
It wasn’t one of the flamboyant Day-Glo colors that that asshole Hatchert had described. White, he decided, should be sufficient. It shouldn’t be necessary to dress up like a highway traffic cone just to avoid getting creamed by a jet-ski.
It was tight getting it on, but the hardest part was pushing the image of Esther Williams out of his mind. He felt like any minute there’d be strings and a full orchestra and he’d be expected to swim with one leg up and do his part to imitate a chrysanthemum in mid-bloom. It felt weird, the way he cut through the water, no sensation of his own hair. He worried, too, that it might be even more dangerous, the way it covered his ears. Everything took on a dull hum underwater. Midway across the lake, he wished he’d started out even earlier in the morning. If anyone saw him they’d laugh themselves silly. He imagined then what his old Navy SEAL buddies would say if they could see him, if they weren’t in a million pieces in the afterworld. If they weren’t already dead, he’d probably have to kill them just to keep them silent.
By the time he reached the far side, he was disgusted with himself. He remembered his claim to the athletic department that it was against his religion, wearing something on his head in the water. He peeled off the rubber cap, wishing he could fling it, but polluting the lake was not an option. He looked around for a place to put it and realized he was very near that giant A-frame with the his-and-hers jet-skis, in matching pencil eraser pink. An idea was forming.
He dove down and swam underwater parallel to the shore, toward their dock. He came up for breath once, just his chin and nose, employing the stealth swimming techniques he still practiced when he taught Guardsmen up at Camp Grayling, and dropped down again till he touched the dock pilings. He came up under the dock where no one would see him. Water lapped against the jet-skis. He doubted the owners were awake yet, if they were even in town, but he was on automatic now, working in that old cold way that, innately, made him err on the side of caution rather than regret. He reached around along the planks overhead till he found a spot where the point of a ten–penny nail poked through and, gripping the cap in both hands, ran it against the nail till he got it to tear. Working carefully, he continued until he had one long jagged strip of rubber. Dropping down again, he took only two dives to feed the long strip of rubber snuggly into the jet-ski’s intake pump and then he was out of there, hugging the lake floor and swimming hard away.
It was sort of a kick. He only wished he’d worn two bathing caps.
—Excerpted from The Lake, the River & the Other Lake by Steve Amick. Copyright (c) 2005 by Steve Amick. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.