Making It to the Other Side of the Lake

Dan A. Cardoza

Rita was a colloquialism, "her bark is worse than her bite," some would say, the chosen few. With the passage of summers, I grew confident she was more nuanced than her thin veneer of gruffness, much more complex than the sum of her parts.

Over time, I concluded, her upper stratum was there for good reason. To most, she remained an enigma, thin hard clay near the surface, calculated in depth to prevent the intrusive from randomly digging.

Older now, I look back fondly on our banter, the awkward persona she presented in an effort to disguise a much deeper yearning to connect. Somehow I knew, someone was in there, just below the surface of an infrequent smile. As its warmth cooled, I observed the unique language her eyes spoke. The obvious vernacular was sadness. No doubt, it was her intention to keep everything buried.

I appreciated the fact that her emotional weather was mercurial, often sunny, with a chance of lightning. To me, there was a certain trueness, evident in the windswept, Saharan topographies of her tanned cheeks and furrowed brows. It was there too in the swoop of her sculpted avian nose, keen as a falcon. Like most birds of prey, she was intelligent, her talons exacting, more than capable of piercing one's weakness and insecurities. I considered myself fortunate to receive only the occasional verbal bitch-slap.

The blush in your jowls remained long after the night's campfire ambers were doused. Every flush was a life lesson.

The first time this happened, I worried sleep into the early morning hours, wrestled a sweaty sleeping bag. In my nightmares, I was Joseph K. in Kafka's The Trial, where indeed, someone had committed a high crime.

Was it something I said or did? Could she read my uncertain thoughts? My self-diagnosed paranoia soon dissipated, as most teen anxieties tend to do. This frequently happens when the angst serves no pragmatic purpose. With time, I've discovered that most of life's anxieties are like the holes in a favorite pair of socks that I insist on wearing.

Camping at Orr Lake was a rite of passage for three or four families each summer. A least a third of our third quarter solstice breaks were spent at the lake.

Father worked as the lead carpenter at our small town lumber mill. He was in charge of repairs and new construction. Other fathers worked the green chain, pulling defective boards from the chattering, twentieth century, mechanized conveyor line. Some of the dads were loggers. They worked in the cool shade of the woods, as tall any teal castle, using chokers, axe, and chainsaw.

Each summer, on a designated weekend, all the fathers would caravan their families to Orr Lake. We were lucky, our father always drove our family car, and left the paneled, tan and white station wagon for us to sleep in, or to drive anywhere, in case of any emergency. After a full day of fishing, dad bummed a ride back into town with one of the other weekday bachelors. He used his Chevy pick-up in town.

***

Mother's early breakfast was the best cure for any camper monotony. Breakfast meant Italian sausage, country potatoes, and caramelized onions. Minced red peppers and brown-shelled eggs would sizzle and dance the floor of the cast-iron skillet. I swear we had enough food and supplies to survive a Donner Crossing.

***

Mother was an only child. She and her father traveled to Ellis Island on the ill-fated Andrea Doria. She was only ten when she arrived.

Nonno died soon from liver cancer. I was only five at the time. Mother was in her twenties and had just gotten married. We'd all lived together.

Most of the important things she'd learn in her new country, she taught herself. Instinctively, she knew how to raise three children, share bottomless love, and just the right amount of distance for the sake of growth.

***

Nearly every night at our makeshift Orr Lake village, we'd roast marshmallows, and exchange true horror tales, share endless stories, chock-full of white lies. We all stayed up too late. It wasn't until the lake stilled and the campfire wicked out that most of us wander off to dream.

But, for us, our night had just begun. Rita, mom, and I would ready the Klamath fishing boat for the night's catfishing. This meant checking a list for cigarettes, more than enough food, and a six-pack of Coors. Rita would have me sing hell's theme song, God forbid if I forgot her thermos of coffee or bait box of nightcrawlers. When the aluminum boat was an aquatic porcupine of fishing poles, we'd load up the cooler and light up the Coleman lantern. Only then would we push away from the rickety dock and enter the lake in earnest, sail into the mysterious vapors of the swelling darkness.

"Danny, God-damn it, did you forget the worms?" Rita snarled.

"Right next to the gas can, near your right foot, Rita," I calmly said, having been accused of said high crimes and misdemeanors before. In the onyx of half past midnight, I smirked.

"You guys want a sandwich?" mother asked.

Before she could offer a beer or soda, Rita coyote yipped, "Hell no, Sylvia, we just got out here!"

"I'll have a sandwich," I blurted out. I was fourteen, a half-grown horse.

Mom was rebellious, paid scant attention to Rita's snips, "Here you go, Danny, salami, white bread, mayo, and cheese."

Rita bellowed words disguised as smoke, "Is this a freaking culinary convention? Let's catch us some catfish—Jesus."

I grinned again. No one could see me behind my black shōji.

If you knew anything about Rita, camping and fishing were her life. She was so dedicated. She'd even leave her trailer at the lake year-round. The lakes long distance from home meant nothing to her, yet everything.

"I have to take a leak," I said, with a hint of desperation in my cracking voice.

"I'll turn my head Rita quipped," nearly cutting her fishing line with the amber end of a cigarette, quickly sideswiping her eyes in the direction of the invisible shoreline of the lake.

At the age of fifteen, pissing off the bow of a boat is considered fine art. I was a fireboat in the San Francisco Bay, using a brass nozzle to spray into the air. It's a seafaring and maritime tradition. I was celebrating the arrival of the USS Enterprise, a Navy aircraft carrier, as it arrived at the port in Alameda County for R&R and to restock.

As soon as my zipper was anchored again, Rita ferreted her eyes back to the tip of her pole, raptor vigilant for a bite or wriggle.

The hours felt less drowsy with good banter, terrible jokes, and unclaimed farts. Rita says, "The lakes bubbles are the result of methane gas, arising from the gluttonous bowls of large-mouth bass." Mom and I choked and died!

In an arc, Rita struck lit her unfiltered Camel, quickly blew out the match. "Damned mosquitoes––they're biting more than the fish."

Mom continued to fasten her cats on the stringer, placing the fish back over the side of the boat, in the water. "You have to know what they really want," She bragged, "Not just what they need. Who said fish have low IQ's?"

***

That tarry night, we fished until the lantern mantles nearly burned out, just this side of daybreak as the mist shrouded the dawn. It was early morning, the place where most things don't want to be seen.

"Pull the anchor, Danny! And don't throw that damned beer can in the lake." Rita jabbed with an almost visible boxing glove. I was always allowed one beer.

"I am just filling it with water, "I said, "I need to wash the worm juice off my hands." I lied. I was actually getting rid of a second empty can.

The fish scaled moon followed us in, clear to the edge of the ancient dock. Shortly after, we unpacked and staked the stringer of catfish to the shoreline, cleaned up, and headed in different directions to catch a few hours of sleep.

Then we'd wake, not too long after sunup, and do it all over again. But this evening, there was going to be one last fish fry, to celebrate the end of summer.

***

That night, we gorged ourselves on sautéed catfish and brook trout, swimming in butter. Mother coated them in a crust of egg white and polenta cornmeal. It was really special, our way of saying goodbye. It seems life is always about saying goodbye to one thing or another. After supper, and a sleepy ride home, the following day, little did we know some of us would never return.

Heading back to school in September was always a reminder of the important things I'd lost. It meant more than a shallow chill in a river of warm wind, or the ever-darkening sundowns. It was like our whole glorious summer was dying. Sure, up north, Orr Lake was there, but it was brooding and sulking.

***

Bad news always arrives too early. It reaches you at light speed. It's a sun flare. The message only needs 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach you and the earth's crust.

After I'd gone away to college, Rita died from childhood neglect and abuse, oh, and a heart attack.

Mom died a few years later, from a second, hard-fought round against breast cancer, and late-life divorce. To mom, family was everything. Without it, she didn't exist. It took years for her to sign the papers. She died too soon, miserably, mostly from not wanting to let go. It seemed dad enjoyed our summers at Orr Lake too much?

***

I search for Orr Lake, using Google Maps at work. Fridays are slow here in programming. I'm forty-two now, the predictable age when a cubicle morphs into a gilded cage.

I zoom in closer and closer. I startle myself. I can see two rusted Coors cans at the bottom of the lake. I recycle now; I feel guilty.

At the shore, I see Rita's old trailer space. It's nearly inaccessible now, overgrown with willow and thorny blackberry. She'd like it that way, I know I do.

Using Google's Digital Globe satellite, I zoom even closer. I see myself swimming the length of the lake, in deeper water, far away from the memory of a cedar dock that once anchored the shore.

I'm fit and tan, summer's green-eyed boy. But there's so much water in front of me. So many waves.

I take a screenshot and send it to the printer, just to prove I existed. In my big screen monitor version, the water is blue and inviting.

As I glance up from my desk, it's late, and I'm alone at work. Everyone who surrounds me has gone.

Before I head home to an empty weekend, I retrieve the screenshot from the printer. I stare at the sepia water, now moody and restless, dull as slate. It takes me a while to understand why I'm no longer in it. There's a storm.

I'd like to believe I make it to the other side.


About the Author

Dan has an MS Degree in Counseling from CSU, Sacramento. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published internationally, most recently in 45th Parallel, BlazeVOX, Bull, Cleaver, Coffin Bell, Deep Overstock, Door=Jar, Dream Noir, Entropy, Gravel, Literary Heist, Mystery Tribune, New Flash Fiction Review, Poetry Northwest, and Spelk.