Lake Monsters

I hadn’t cleared the Governor’s School Audition and my parents couldn’t afford a fancy performing arts program. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t find a job walking distance from the house. And so, I accepted an exile to Virginia the summer before senior year, where instead of traditional teenage things, I loitered around the antique shop reading Faulkner novels, eating Twizzlers, and smoking right out in the open because Nana wanted someone to smoke with.  My social coterie consisted of elderly customers at the shop who wondered aloud if I knew how important it was to bring good gloves and my own silver to college. A silver pattern can say a lot about a girl’s moral character. Pick the wrong one and you could end up married to a horse man from Maryland and you know what that means. I didn’t, but I made sure to include it in the long letters I wrote to my friends like  that new Fugazi record is rad as fuck and Nana’s friend Eleanor is worried I’m going to end up with a centaur from Baltimore if I don’t wear gloves.  Sidenote: should I join the D.A.R. and write a ‘zine about it?  They sent postcards back recounting awkward hook-ups with skateboarding Mathletes and illicit “Unweeded Garden” themed weed parties with the “Hamlet” cast at Governor’s School and hey did you hear that Wonderland got a job at the mall record store back in Asheville? How do you figure she managed that?  I acted like I wasn’t jealous. I was jealous. Not just of Governor’s School and “Unweeded Garden” parties and Wonderland’s improbable record store job, but of the people I knew with dumb summer jobs back home, spending nights cruising around town, smoking at the Waffle House, figuring out elaborate new schemes to see bands play in Athens or Atlanta or Chapel Hill with or without parental consent.

I doubt Nana observed any unhappiness on my part, but my aunt and uncle were a generation closer to my age. They also might have  also been concerned I ‘d suffer permanent lung damage from hotboxing Virginia Slims Ultra Lights in an unventilated house (Nana believed fresh air caused disease and sunlight would damage her oriental rugs, or vice-versa). Or maybe they were worried I’d find myself betrothed to some grand dame’s grand-nephew Randolph Randolph Taliaferro IV–“Nabs” for short–who’d been expelled from Hampden-Sydney College for dueling with a crossbow.  Whatever the case, my Aunt suggested I come with them to the lake for a day of swimming, waterskiing and riding around on their friends’ boat. Their friends were fun, she promised. “And wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the house for a day?”

It would. I hadn’t spent much time outside in a bathing suit, despite it being a cool 90 in the shade and Nana’s house being a block from the neighborhood pool.  Nana was cautious around water, nervous even at the shallowest of shallow ends. She’d nearly drowned as a young woman, and also believed that wet hair would both give you pneumonia and other people the wrong impression . Only marginal characters had wet hair—criminals, trashy women, the sort of girls that end up shacked up with centaurs in Fell’s Point.

“Here’s the thing, though” said my aunt. “Maybe don’t tell Nana you’re getting in the lake.”

***

The lake didn’t used to be a lake.

In my part of the world, we don’t really have natural lakes. Not the kind you’re imagining anyway.  Those that do exist are easterly and tend to be indistinguishable from swamp. Th big freshwater bodies of water tend to be manmade.  Smith Mountain Lake, the lake my aunt and uncle would take me to, is a hydroelectric lake, stretching over part of three counties, created from the damming of the Roanoke and Blackwater Rivers in the early 1960s. The developer, Appalachian Power, began buying up land as early as the 1920s. The county was poor, then, had been poor, would continue to be poor, even outside the Depression years. The time was ripe to convince landowners to offload land, especially low-lying acres at the river’s edge. The dam broke ground until 1961. They started filling lake a couple years later, in September of 1963

Power lakes transformed the south.  New dams electrified rural communities and smoothed the topography by obliterating everything under the waterline. It’s hard for me to grieve for a thing I can’t imagine, but Nana knew the underneath of Smith Mountain Lake when it wasn’t underneath,  the  houses, churches, graveyards, a whole part of the world before they flooded it. Part of her family’s farm was under the water. Her people had owned  land  on both sides of the road in that that part of Franklin County, since some apocryphal 18th century ride as far as you can in a day and between the stakes is  yours grant. Then those people married the rest of her people. They planted tobacco. They built a big house. The bought slaves. The war came. Twin brothers, Saunie and Sammy, went off to fight. Great-great great Uncle Francis buried the silver in the tall grass down by the Blackwater River when he heard the Yankees were coming. They lost one of the twin brothers, the big house, the fortune, even the map to the silver. Everything save the land itself. This was understandable and justifiable. War is hell. Wrong side of history. Wrong side of morality. And these days, I’m not sure there was ever as much as they claimed.[1]. And by  the time, Nana entered the world, the farm was no longer profitable. Her own father had long-since decamped west into the mountains to find better and more reliable employment as a coal miner. He probably would have stayed at it too had a mine collapse not broken his back and sent him home to try and feed his growing family with tobacco farm left fallow in the years he collected a regular paycheck.

I don’t know whether my great-grandfather got any money for the land under the lake or whether his slightly-better-off cousins did. I suspect Nana associates that lake with loss, even if it is loss a thing she never really had. I remember when they flooded the valley, she’d say. And I have this image of her, still a young woman, her dark curls billowing in some cinematic big fan breeze, standing on the rise above the farmhouse, beside the rusting skeleton of the old Model T my great-grandfather called the jalopy, watching the valley beyond slowly disappear under the turgid confluence of two rivers, under a matte twilight.

I can’t recall exactly what portion of that scene Nana described, and what my imagination filled. But it absolutely didn’t play out like that in real life. For one thing, it took a long time—three years–to flood the valley. For another, even if Nana had been standing there on top (perhaps skirt hem, not hair, rippling in the wind because her hair was already permed, set, and shellacked into her queenly bubble by then), she wouldn’t have been able to see anything, save more farm, a dark scrim of trees, the parallel gash of tractor tires in red clay dead-ended at the edge of what an small-scale tobacco farmer, crippled from a mine accident, could hope to maintain at sixty years old.  There was no view of the lake. Had there been a lake view the land might have been worth something.

Nana described the  flooding of the valley and the loss of the landscape over dinner the night before I went with my Aunt and Uncle and implored me to  please don’t get in the lake, honey. There are things underneath. Promise me you won’t get in the lake. 

I had never visited the lake. I hadn’t even seen it until a few years before when  I visited my great-grandmother at the farm for the last time before she died. I’d been so confused by talk of the lake—how big it was, how close it was, how heavily it bore on the family consciousness. I couldn’t even visualize it; my mother drove me down there on the way back to Nana’s. The lake was half a mile, maybe less, down the country road, past old barns and single wides and tidy ranch houses with plaster statuary, past the Methodist Church. The road dead ended at a boat ramp into a shiny green-black surface that reflected the overcast sky and the gabled roofline of massive lakeside A-frame on the hill across the cove. I remember thinking, I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to London. And yet, it takes this long for someone to show me this stupid lake just down from the farm.

***

My aunt and uncle waited in the driveway the morning we went to the lake, allowing me to slip out of the house before Nana had a chance to scoff at my purple high tops (then scrawled with boys’ names, song lyrics, and that  most cliché of Oscar Wilde quotes) or remind me that a heavier girl, such as myself, should avoid shorts, especially denim cut-offs, which, like eating while standing, smoking while walking, and wearing pretty much any shade of frosted lipstick, broadcast to the world that you were almost certainly a prostitute.

I’d spent the night dreaming of monumental drowned kingdoms, more Xanadu than Franklin County, inhabited by pale, barnacled wraiths, grasping at me as I tried to surface. I tried to shake off the chill by making eyes at my one-year-old cousin in the backseat beside me. He babbled happily, and I wigged my fingers over his golden head and tried, like a good witch in a fairy tale, to endow him with all the qualities I thought he’d need to be a success at life. Be crazy smart and funny. Be good at something cool, like skateboarding. Don’t be weird around girls. Don’t be mean to people. Have decent taste in music.[2]

My aunt and uncle’s friends’ place was in a leafy cove at the end of a gravel road. They’d bought the lot and marked their property with a fancy, multi-tiered boat dock, with diving platforms and boat storage and charcoal grill. The matching house, with multi-tiered porches would come sometime later. For now, we toted coolers and baby paraphernalia down the muddy hillside, the same carnal red as the earth under Granny’s farm, which I was really trying hard not to think about. My aunt noticed my hesitation, the way I stared down at the ground, and complimented my shoes. I’d love to wear shoes like that , but I’m too old, she said. I found that both perplexing and sad, but it took my mind off the drowned world.

We gathered on of the top deck, warm and new enough that you could smell the stain, spread out towels and let the July temperatures slowly work us toward the dark water beneath. It moved, but barely,  from the distant wakes of motorboats. Dragonflies hovered on the surface, alighting on my bare arm, already sunburned by the time I finished lunch.

The rest of the crowd splashed off the pier with inner tubes and pool noodles. I dangled my feet in the water. You should dive in, they said. I could jump in, maybe, if I worked myself up to it, but certainly not headfirst. What if my cheek grazes a headstone? What if I impale myself on the spire of an old church? What if something tried to pull me back in?

I didn’t say any of this. I knew how it would sound. And the only thing scarier than being afraid is other people knowing what you’re afraid of, because that means they know how to scare you, or worse, humiliate you. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts. I didn’t believe in ghosts, at least ghosts of  the literal, ethereal, hollow-eyed sense, but I was—I am– a southerner, and I knew for a fact that places have memory. And what sort of memory might find me under the surface?

I was hot, though. So, when my uncle told me to come in, the water feels great, I stripped off my shorts and leapt in. The water stung my thighs and as I plunged feet first. I felt the shocking chill under the sun warmed surface. I kept my eyes closed until I emerged. I laughed, gasping. “Feels great,” I said, because it did, and because it kept me from squealing when something bony stroked the water-treading sole of my foot.

***

I grew up on a lake. It didn’t used to be a lake either, but a bit of low-lying scrub around the edge of a creek, dammed in the 1920s to anchor a housing development, where it spent ten years as a popular swimming site before so many people drowned that the city shut down the beach and made swimming there illegal. People still did.  Swim, I mean. At night, as a child,  I’d sleep upstairs with the windows open and listen as police bullhorned Get out of the lake and tinny-voiced swimmers called back Come get us at on crickety summer nights. The water was foul and the bed so littered with trash and debris that illicit swimmers got caught in downed trees or on rusty car doors and died. I remember catching the school bus to elementary school on late August mornings at the bottom of the hill, riding past police vehicles, ambulances, and for hours, listening to the drone of a boat motor while they dragged the lake for whatever missing teenager had jumped in and never surfaced.

My mother loved living on the lake, but she was overprotective. She worried about me getting too near, getting in, walking the dam, hanging out on the rocks under the bridge at the spillway, where she believed dangerous men lurked in the crags and might steal me away.

We weren’t lake people. Like most people that live inland, we vacationed on the coast, at the edge of the continent, in less claustrophobic waters. Our one big lake trip had been  a trip arranged by my father’s company that found us at a muddy power lake, just down from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in a cluster of moldy, bug-infested guest houses my parents famously referred to as The Last Resort.  I was really young on that trip. What I mostly remember were giant furry spiders in the bathtub and the passel of shirtless men with droopy mustaches and Farrah Fawcett hair in the house next door who built bonfires and rebel-yelled into the night.

I never told anyone I was afraid of those men. I never told anyone that I worried they were the ones my mother believed would come grabbing at me under the bridge, that they might set everything on fire so I would have to take my chances with the lake.

***

When my aunt and uncle brought me home, I was sunburned and damp. Nana clucked at the cut-offs. You know what people will think if you wear shorts like that?  She asked if I had a good time. I said yes, because I had. The lake was beautiful, by the time we took the boat out, I’d almost forgotten the underneath. I’d fully surrendered to the simple pleasure of feeling the wind get handsy me as I sped over the water. We caught air on unexpected wakes.  I giggled like the dumb teenager I was. I didn’t look down.

Nana didn’t ask if I got in the water, though she certainly would have noticed that my hair was wet, like a marginal person or someone who’d crossed her fingers when I promised not to get in the lake. She chose to believe I hadn’t.  That’s her way, a stubborn insistence to stay buoyant, to keep from getting dragged beneath.

Whatever you have to do to stay above water, I guess.

***

Some years after my aunt and uncle took me to the lake, my mother would marry a man with a love of lakes and motor boats. We would start spending summers on various regional lakes that didn’t used to be lakes. My favorite was a remote gem of a power lake in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina, a few gasps from both the Georgia line and a fairy tale of an old-growth forest. I was dazzled by waterfalls that came tumbling down lush mountainsides at the terminus of each cove as I sat on the prow of my stepfather’s boat, letting Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot soundtrack the violet hour through discman headphones. I thought might write a story, maybe even a long one, about a woman trying to suss out some dark secret sunk deep beneath the surface of the water of a remote power lake. I spent a summer at the library looking at old maps and plans for dams and historical photos of lakebed clearances, which were, it should be noted, clearances.

On some intellectual level, I guess I knew that the houses and towns and graveyards and churches had been moved before the water came, that stubborn landowners didn’t sit down for a last meal as some river water tidal wave smashed through the kitchen, that real life didn’t play out like the end of O Brother Where Art Thou, that Nana really and truly did not literally stand on a hill, silhouetted against the sunset as if god were her witness and she’d never be hungry again, and watch her family history disappear under the lake. But imagination is a tricky thing, almost as precarious as memory. Were there really white men with droopy mustaches that rebel-yelled throughout the night, while three-year-old me shivered in moth-clogged sheets in  their reflected firelight at The Last Resort? Probably not, as it happens. But I still dream about them.

***

There’s a term for when the lake achieves full lake-ness. Full pond. It sounds so innocuous, so gentle. As if a park bench and a willow tree materialize on a bank perhaps with some cattails, a lily pad and a mallard or two and you saunter down to the edge with a canvas hat and a fishing pole. I’ve gone full pond. Full pond doesn’t evoke elemental transformation. It doesn’t suggest irrevocable loss. Full pond describes a series of black and white photos of a clear-cut tract of land and a puddle slowly growing in the center. Nothing to be afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I read that UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that temperatures were on are on track to rise a devastating 3 degrees Fahrenheit possibly over the next eleven years and almost certainly by 2040. And with that comes catastrophic storms, droughts, fire, famine, extinctions, heat waves and, of course, floods. Homes will be lost. Communities will disappear. Cities will be inundated. Entire counties could disappear from the map, lost under a rising sea, still not yet at full pond. The houses, churches, graveyards will be Miami, Venice, whole islands, most of Bangladesh . . .

I dreamed about the lake that night. I dreamed about the cove down the road from Granny’s farm, but it was dark, and teeming with men on flaming skiffs like Viking funeral barges. The water was rising. My ankles had already disappeared into the murky depths, and as my clothes filled, I turned my back to the lake and my eyes to the sky. I let myself fall with grim resignation, back onto the surface, into the depths. The hands beneath came out of the water, but instead of pulling me down, they lifted me to the surface, to still my thrashing, to keep me steady until I relaxed and just floated.

 

 

______________

[1] So many white southerners claim ownership of some improbable prelapsarian abundance before the war, it would seem that the antebellum south was entirely composed of white people living in baronial splendor  with their contented slaves. Suffice to say, this doesn’t exactly jibe with the historical record.

[2] I don’t want to brag, but this totally worked.

 

 

 

 

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