“I’m glad you could make it, it’s going to be a great weekend,” Jim said, swinging his tan Toyota down the service road leading out to Highway 11, some hundred miles north of Toronto.
It was Friday afternoon, the Friday before Labor Day, and Jim had picked Dave up at his split-level house on the banks of the river that stretched between two lakes to drive him up to the lodge for the weekend.
Dave Bryden first met Jim Stanton as his insurance agent before they became friends. They became good friends before Dave started sleeping with Jim’s wife. Dave still thought of Jim as a good friend.
Dave’s liaison with Ellen wasn’t something that happened suddenly; he had known Ellen for five years before he slept with her. It simply happened one night about a year ago, and since then, continued whenever the opportunity presented itself.
“Hard to believe the summer’s almost over,” Dave said, running his hand through his dark, closely trimmed beard. “We’re in the homestretch now.”
Dave had first made love to Ellen during the homestretch, the span of time between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Jim had stayed up to run the lodge, which was filled at that time of year with clusters of fishermen from Pittsburgh and Cleveland, while Ellen returned home to teach her fifth graders at the regional school. She and Dave made love two nights a week, and then Ellen spent the weekends up at the lodge with Jim.
The insurance business was going well, and that, coupled with an inheritance after his father’s death, enabled Jim to buy the summer resort three years ago from a local family who had owned it for three generations.
“We’re going to make it a real family place,” Jim had said to Dave when he first purchased the lodge.
And that’s what happened. Dave had to give Jim credit. During the first two years, Jim not only won over the traditional guests, but he also attracted new families by offering special deals and discount rates for children. By the beginning of the third summer, the lodge was fully booked for every week by early May.
Jim turned off the highway at the exit marked Swallow Lake, swinging around to the gravel road leading toward the lodge. He took the curve by the beaver dam a bit too fast and the car began skidding. Dave instinctively reached for the door handle, gripping it tight, while Jim regained control of the car and straightened it out.
He laughed and accelerated again, roaring down the gravel road, stirring up dust and pebbles behind, before finally slowing down as he approached the sign for Swallow Lake Lodge.
Ellen was behind the front desk when Jim and Dave walked into the main building after Dave had placed his bags in the studio apartment which was converted out of a loft in the barn located across from the back door of the lodge’s kitchen.
Ellen was busy, booking in new arrivals, and she seemed harried, though she was trying her best to smile and act cordial. She was a slender blond, her hair short, in her late thirties, with long, attractive legs.
“Look who’s here, honey,” Jim greeted her, slapping Dave good-naturedly on the back.
Ellen glanced up, then efficiently typed in the name of an arriving couple from Rochester on the word processor.
“We’re a great team,” Jim laughed. “I handle the public relations and Ellen is all business.”
“Someone has to do it,” Ellen snapped.
Then, turning to the Rochester couple, she smiled and said, “You’re in Bungalow Seven, Driftwood, one of the boys will show you where.”
Her eyes caught Dave’s, a quick sparkle as she explained the activities available at the lodge to the couple, who were elderly and looked like they needed rest more than anything.
“Let’s get a drink,” Jim said. “I think Ellen has the situation well under control.”
Dave smiled at Ellen, who returned his smile with a slight one of her own, her lower lip trembling, and then he followed Jim out through the porch and down the front steps of the lodge overlooking the lake.
Dinner was in less than an hour and guests, married couples with children trailing behind in dripping swim trunks, were coming up from the beach and marching across the freshly cut grass between the lodge and the lake..
Jim stretched, his green and gold jersey rising above his belly, as the late afternoon sun illuminated the front of the lodge.
They were sitting on the deck spread out before Jim’s cabin, a cabin he had built the year before for Ellen and their three children; two boys and a girl — the girl, Cindy, the oldest at fifteen.
Dave relaxed with his second bottle of Molson. Ellen was still up at the lodge, maybe taking in last minute guests, or possibly supervising the kitchen staff in preparation for dinner.
“What a surprise!” a husky voice with a French accent called out. “Good to see you.”
Dave looked up to see Chef Bob coming across the grass toward the cabin, a dirty white apron covering the front of his blue jeans and his white cap standing on top of his curly brown head.
He stood up to greet Bob, the chef inherited from the previous owners of the lodge, one of the few relics remaining since Jim had taken over.
Chef Bob, a broad shouldered man with short legs, bounded up the steps and vigorously shook hands with Dave.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” he said, lighting a cigarette and waiting to see if Jim would offer him a beer, which wasn’t forthcoming.
“How was your year?” Dave asked.
“The usual,” Bob said. “I’m up here till Thanksgiving and then it’s back down to Florida and another winter of clown school.”
He pulled three bottles of beer out of the cooler by Dave’s feet, juggling them in the air, catching one and releasing it as the next one fell
î into place, and then continuing the process.
“There’s always more to learn and it keeps me occupied,” Chef Bob said, the three bottles still revolving in front of his face. He then caught them one by one, placing two back in the cooler and snapping the cap off the third with a can opener that he deftly pulled out of the back pocket of his jeans.
“When do you officially become a clown and not just a student?” Dave asked.
“I am a clown.” Chef Bob raised his beer.
Ellen was coming toward them from the main building as the whistle sounded announcing that it was time for dinner.
“Guess I should get back,” Bob said, hastily draining the remainder of his beer.
He started down the steps, passing Ellen, who curtly acknowledged the chef as she continued past him.
“Don’t you think you should be up at the lodge?” she said to Jim. “This is the biggest weekend of the summer. I think the guests would like to see you.”
Jim finished his beer. “We were just coming, dear.” Then he excused himself, saying he needed to hit the john before dinner.
Ellen stood above Dave, who was still sitting in a lawn chair. She crossed her arms, then glanced over her shoulder.
“This is very awkward,” she said. “I wish I had some warning.”
“It was spur of the moment,” Dave said. “Jim called and invited me and I just took it for granted you knew.”
“I hope you didn’t expect anything.”
Dave’s hand tightened around the arm of the chair. He forced a laugh. “Why have expectations when you’re spending the weekend with friends?”
Rising from his chair, Dave’s hand brushed lightly against Ellen’s leg as Jim came out of the cabin.
“Time to meet the multitude,” Jim laughed, cutting in between Dave and Ellen, placing
an arm around each of them.
The three of them walked toward the lodge, with Jim still in the middle, carrying on about what a great weekend it was going to be.
“I can’t wait to show you the new boat,” he said to Dave. “Just got it in the water last weekend and it’s a beauty. Got a 75 horsepower Johnson and does it ever fly.”
After dinner, families lounged around the main building or went back to their cabins to play cards or simply rest up before the variety show that night. Others played shuffleboard and there was a volleyball game taking place in the sand pit off to the side of the baseball field stretching out before the point where they emptied into the river.
The sky was turning dark, dusk hanging over the lake as if a curtain was slowly slipping down to cover the faded blue backdrop rising from the water.
Dave followed Jim down to the dock, as the guest team declared victory over the staff in the final volleyball game. Flinging the rope across the front seat, Jim hopped into the boat and motioned for Dave to untie the stern.
The sputtering of the engine, as Jim started the boat and guided it smoothly away from the dock, cut through the silence surrounding the lake.
“Hold on to your seat,” Jim laughed. He jammed the throttle forward, the boat moving out at half speed, the wind rushing through Dave’s hair, forcing him to drop further down in his seat.
The spray of the water was whipping across Jim’s face, but he was oblivious, his hair wet and wild, as he zigzagged across the open stretch of lake leading to the channel.
Jim was talking, his face animated, but Dave couldn’t hear, the motor was deafening.
The boat did ride smooth, though, taking the waves in style, not choppy but almost gliding from the peak of one right to the crest of the next, landing level as it continued unimpeded on its course.
Out by the channel, Jim eased back on the throttle, bringing the boat almost to a stop as a cabin cruiser passed in front. The boat rocked gently on the large waves left behind in the wake of the larger craft.
“What do you think?” Jim asked. He was perched on the back of the front seat, one hand gripping the wheel.
Dave looked up. His shirt was drenched and he wished he’d brought a jacket. He reached for a towel underneath the bow.
Jim placed the boat in neutral and asked Dave if he wanted a beer.
“I keep a cooler in the back,” he said.
The two men sat up front, beers in hand, as the last light of day disappeared over the horizon.
“Do you ever think of getting married again?” Jim asked.
Dave took a long swallow of beer. “If the right woman came along, I suppose.”
Jim finished his beer and slipped off the seat to get another one from the cooler by the white encased Johnson mounted on the back of the boat.
“I sometimes think about getting married again,” Jim said. He handed a beer to Dave, and then drank from his bottle.
“You are married.”
“I mean if I wasn’t.”
“But you are.”
“I know,” Jim said. “I just feel like I’m in a rut.” |
“How can you be in a rut?” Dave said. “You have a new boat.”
Jim laughed, raising his bottle and clinking it with Dave’s. “Right you are, buddy boy,
I have a new fucking boat. Time to show you how it goes when I really open her up.”
Dave dropped down on the seat below the windshield. Jim let out a war cry and pushed the throttle forward, full speed ahead.
“Watch how she handles turns,” Jim cried, spinning the wheel so the boat swerved sharply to the left, sending Dave sprawling down against the side, his head almost in the water.
“Take it easy,” Dave shouted, but Jim was already cutting the boat back to the right, and Dave bounced across the seat bumping up against Jim’s leg. Jim looked down and laughed.
Dave’s shoulder was next to Jim’s knee, and then the boat was spinning back in the other direction, and Dave was sliding back toward the pass
wenger’s side and Jim was gone.
He was on his back, his head banging against the side of the boat as he caught a last glimpse of Jim flying out the other side. Jim was there one minute and the next, his body skipped twice across the surface of the lake like a pebble before disappearing into the darkness.
Lunging across the seat, Dave reached frantically for the steering wheel as the boat continued forward, full speed. He yanked the throttle back to neutral and the boat suddenly stopped, water pouring over the back by the engine.
He stood up, his legs wobbly, and scanned the lake for a sign of Jim. He called Jim’s name, in disbelief, cursing his friend for prolonging what had to be a stupid joke, a joke that wasn’t funny. Where was the flashlight? He needed a God damn flashlight.
This couldn’t be happening, but it was, he was sitting in the boat, behind the wheel, in
place of Jim, who moments before was laughing and having the time of his life showing off his new toy.
Leaning forward against the dashboard, Dave stared out at the blackness. His stomach was loose, squeamish. Why wasn’t Jim wearing a God damn life jacket? And then he realized that he wasn’t wearing one either.
He called out again. And again, and again. There was no answer, only the echo of his voice resounding over the empty lake. Dave circled around in the boat, first making a big loop, then drawing the circle in smaller and smaller.
He continued aimlessly circling in the dark, calling out Jim’s name. He wasn’t sure how much longer the gas would last. He was afraid that if he didn’t start back he would be stranded, with a friend still missing and no fuel to return to shore.
As he pulled into the dock, the bow bumped head on against it, the boat bouncing off, the stern swinging back around and tapping the dock. Dave hurdled the seat into the back and grabbed one of the metal rings on the dock, slowly pulling the boat so it was alongside it.
He tied up the bow and stern and looked up at the lodge. The lights in the rec hall were out, the variety show long over. He trudged up toward the main building, too exhausted to run, to find Ellen, to find someone.
When he entered the main building he heard Ellen’s voice coming from the lounge. He turned the corner and she was sitting at the far end of the couch in front of a large television set which was tuned into CBC nightly news.
Chef Bob, still in clown makeup, a red bulb of a nose and a pink and black polka dot outfit, sat up straight in his chair instantly aware that something was wrong.
“I don’t know where Jim is,” Dave said, his voice cracking.
Chef Bob and Ellen were both on their feet.
“He was driving too fast and he flew out!” Dave said. “He just flew out. I don’t know where he is!”
“Where did you last see him?” Chef Bob asked.
“Out by the channel.”
“And you came in without him?” Ellen said.
“I couldn’t find him. It was dark.”
Chef Bob placed his hand on Dave’s shoulder. “We should call the OPP,” he said.
“What the hell can the Provincial Police do?” Ellen demanded. “Let’s get a boat, let’s go out and look for him. We’re wasting time.”
Dave pulled away from Bob. He realized that Jim was probably dead. Whether he downed or was killed by the impact when he hit the water, Dave knew that Jim must be dead.
“I’ll call the OPP,” Chef Bob said solemnly.
Dave understood that this was now about finding a body, it was no longer about saving a life. He reached for Ellen but she stepped away.
It was over an hour before the first OPP boat arrived. Swinging out by the channel, one officer manning a large spotlight illuminating the surface of the lake, the boat circled about.
Within two hours, the lake was filled with boats, all trolling along, searching, scanning, trying to locate the body. Dave stood on the dock, smoking a cigarette.
He was tired. The police had questioned him endlessly, or so it seemed. At first, he had been defensive, feeling as if he was being interrogated as a prime suspect, almost as if the OPP Sergeant was hoping to catch him in a lie and pin Jim’s death on him. But there was no lie, it had been an accident.
Still, while Dave was sitting in the main office of the lodge, the burly OPP Sergeant, his blue uniform fresh and unruffled, standing over him, he felt guilty. He wondered if he had done enough. He had been the last one to see Jim alive and all he could say was that Jim was there one moment and then he was gone.
The police and the rescue crews kept up the search for over five hours, then decided to break until morning. One boat remained, cruising about the lake, but more as a symbol than out of any real hope of discovering Jim’s body.
Ellen was standing on the porch, wearing a t
~an sweater, her arms folded across her chest.
“You should get some sleep,” Dave said.
“How the fuck am I supposed to sleep?”
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said.
“I know.” She sighed. Her eyes were red and puffy. “It’s just that I thought this kind of thing only happened to other people. I never thought it could happen to me.”
He took Ellen by the hand. “I’ll walk you back to your cabin.” She didn’t resist and they left the porch by the side door.
“How did he seem?” Ellen asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You were the last to see him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Forget it,” Ellen said. “I’ll see you in the morning. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say or how I’m supposed to act.”
Dave trudged off toward the loft above the barn. He desperately wanted to be with Ellen, lying next to her, his arms around her, but now because of something beyond his control, he suspected he never would again.
He finally slept, waking up after three hours. He quickly dressed and stopped by the kitchen where Chef Bob was overseeing the preparation of breakfast.
Chef Bob poured Dave a cup of coffee. His white apron was stained and his eyes were strained.
“How’s Ellen?” he asked.
“I guess she’s holding up,” Dave replied.
Chef Bob shrugged, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
Dave looked at Bob, suddenly wondering if the chef knew about him and Ellen.
“It won’t be real until they find the body,” Dave said.
“I know.” Chef Bob paused. “Jim’s gone but it still seems like he’s somewhere else. And as long as he’s somewhere else, he can come back.”
“But we know he won’t.”
Chef Bob nodded grimly, then ordered one of the kitchen boys to get another carton of eggs. Breakfast was still expected by the guests.
The OPP boats searched the lake all day, and one remained and continued to search through the next day. Finally, the police called off the search and officially listed Jim as missing, presumably a drowning victim.
Activities resumed as scheduled at the lodge over the remainder of the weekend. Everyone knew about the accident, but it was vacation, Labor Day weekend, and what could be done? There were still three meals a day to be served at the lodge, bingo at night, water skiing during the afternoon, and families swimming together at the beach.
Ellen kept to her cabin, relegating the office work to others. She told Dave she didn’t
want to face people, didn’t want to hear the unspoken words as guests went through the formality of settling up their bills.
Every time Dave looked out at the lake, he couldn’t shake off the unsettling realization that Jim was out there somewhere. He walked down to the point, the link between the lake and the river, and spotted Cindy, Jim’s daughter, sitting on the end of a dock wearing a pair of cutoffs, her legs dangling in the water.
He stared at Cindy, so young, so much life ahead. He was envious. She didn’t know how young she truly was.
Cindy turned her head and looked up as she heard Dave approaching. Her blue eyes were glazed. Swinging her legs around and up out of the water, she sat Indian-style facing Dave, who stepped onto the dock.
He came forward and stood before the girl.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Flinging her hair back over her shoulder, Cindy lowered her head, then looked back up defiantly.
“Why should you be?” she cried. “My mother got what she wanted.”
The girl’s venomous accusation caught Dave off guard.
“Don’t act so surprised,” Cindy said. “She didn’t want to be with my father, and now she’s not.”
Dave crouched down in front of her. “You don’t mean what you’re saying.”
“How would you know?” Cindy challenged.
“He was my friend,” Dave said awkwardly.
Cindy raised herself up, all the while looking directly at Dave. “My father’s dead, isn’t he?” she sobbed, falling forward.
Dave opened his arms and the girl landed against his chest, both of them toppling down onto the deck of the dock. He quickly gripped her arms and lifted her up as he scrambled to his feet. She was still in his arms, trembling and crying.
“She hated him, I know she did,” Cindy whimpered. “I want my Daddy back.”
He wanted to soothe her but he didn’t know what to say.
“There, there, it will be all right,” he said, squeezing Cindy tightly against his chest.
She remained limp, still crying. “How? How will it ever be all right again?”
“Just remember, your father loved you,” Dave said.
Cindy suddenly pushed off his chest. “That’s not enough!” she screamed. “Why couldn’t you save him?”
She turned and started running down the dock. She leaped out and sliced down through the water in a perfect dive. Dave called after her but she continued swimming in a determined crawl stroke, until five hundred or so yards out, she stopped, treading water, her head a small object protruding from the flat surrounding surface.
Dave slowly walked back to the lodge. He hoped Chef Bob would be up to joining him for a drink; for many drinks, for that matter.
It was Thursday morning, six days after the accident, and Chef Bob was out in a small seven horsepower boat fishing near the marina by the mouth of the river on the far side of the lake when he hooked something big. He stood up, straining to pull it into the boat, but the line snapped and he fell back over the seat almost cracking his head on the bow.
Lying on his back, Chef Bob struggled to upright himself and rushed to the back of the boat. He spotted a trace of his line. He reached for it and started pulling the boat
alongside it. As he approached a pile of rocks off the shore, behind which the fishing line was twisted, he recognized the familiar green and gold jersey. Then he noticed a hand coming out of one of the sleeves, resting, crushed between two rocks.
His eyes followed the hand and then he saw it, the outline of the back of the head sub- merged in the water just before the shore.
He remained motionless. Then he slowly stood up and reached for the oars, fitting them into the sockets on the side of the boat. He wearily rowed over toward the marina, to break the news, to announce that Jim Stanton was no longer missing.
The OPP came to retrieve the body. The autopsy would follow. For now, without much fanfare, the body was wrapped in a black plastic bag and placed in an ambulance which took off witrh no siren and no blaring red light.
Dave was with Ellen when she looked down at Jim’s face as his body lay on top of the body bag. His face was disfigured and bloated, but aside from a cut across his forehead, his body was relatively unscathed.
Ellen choked, then tried to speak, but couldn’t. Dave told the OPP officer that it was Jim, and Ellen nodded. The officer then waved to the ambulance attendants, who quickly zipped up the bag, black plastic covering Jim’s face.
Dave took Ellen’s arm and walked her back to his car.
“At least he was found by someone who knew him,” she said, as she fastened her seat belt.
“What does it matter who found him?” Dave said.
He started the car.
Ellen placed her hand on his knee.
“Don’t get so excited,” she said.
“He was my friend.”
“I know, and that’s why I appreciate it all the more.”
Dave jammed on the brakes, then eased off to the side of the road.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he demanded.
Ellen pulled out a cigarette. She pushed in the lighter above the ashtray below the dashboard.
“It’s a shame it can never work between us,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I appreciate what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Of course not.”
“But I didn’t. It was an accident.”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Ellen waved her cigarette. “Can we just get back to the lodge. Summer’s over and there’s so much to do.”