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Authors: Susan Wilson

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BOOK: Cameo Lake
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“Eggs? Oh, no. Fortunately I didn't fall off. I hit a broken beer bottle. I wasn't looking where I was going. Lost in thought as usual. A failing of mine.” I had my eyes on the road so I couldn't see if he was smiling in self-deprecation or not.

“Should we drop the bike off somewhere?”

“No. No, this is good. I'll take care of it. I usually fix them myself.” Another tenth of a mile. Then two more silent tenths. I was about to fall back on the traditional weather gambit when Ben spoke. “So, how do you like the lake?”

“Oh, I love it. So peaceful.”

“Won't be in another week. Once July hits, the lake gets pretty busy.”

“Grace told me there's a pretty active social circuit here.”

“I suppose there is. I pretty much keep away from it.”

Grace had called him a loner. “Well, I imagine that I will, too. I came up here to get away from those kinds of distractions. Besides”— and at this point I arrived at the access road—“I don't know anybody here to socialize with.”

I drove him down to the boat ramp, where he had a canoe tied up. Ben climbed out of the SUV and fetched his bike and groceries from the back. “Thanks for the rescue, Mrs. Grayson.”

“Please. Call me Cleo. Mrs. Grayson was my mother.”

He smiled, “Well, Cleo, now you do know someone. Even if it is just me.” He held out a hand and once again I looked into those mild brown eyes. “By the way, you know that you can use the raft?”

“I will.”

When I looked out the picture window of Grace's cabin, I could see Ben paddling a green Old Town canoe from the direction of the boat ramp. Lashed across the bow was the bicycle. The only moving object on the still lake, the canoe left a mild etching of wake behind as the sharp prow neatly pushed through the dark water.

He paddled with slow strokes, coaxing the canoe, not forcing it, across the expanse of lake toward his landing. I watched until he made landfall, stepping neatly from boat to beach, pulling the canoe, with the bike still athwart, securely onto the shore. The screek of his screen door pierced the quiet dusk.

A self-described shy person, I am quick to recognize that characteristic in others. Sometimes our reserve as shy people comes across as snobbery, sometimes as being quiet, or standoffish people. Sometimes our shyness is inbred, sometimes it's learned. My mother used to say of me, “Still waters run deep.” I suppose to explain to her friends why I wasn't talkative in their company, to excuse my failing to be witty in their midst.

Benson Turner seemed to be a shy person. Not shy as if he had been born that way, but shy as if he'd become that way. As if he was recovering from an illness and needed all of his strength to get well.

Three

T
he next day was unnaturally hot. When I woke up it was already stifling in the cabin, the night air had given no hint of this surprise-change in the heretofore temperate June weather. I opened all the windows and, fighting a little with the expandable screen inserts, no matter how I pushed or pulled, there remained a mosquito-wide gap between the top of the screen and the bottom of the window.

The breeze off the water kept the shaded screen porch cool enough that I was fooled into thinking it would be perfect for taking my noontime run. Even before I had gotten up the initial slope of my track, I was drenched in sweat. The air was dense but I kept going, enjoying the sense of a hard workout without the hard work. The heat loosened my muscles and eventually I reached that silken flow of stride and breath which keeps runners running. The rhythmic pum pum pum of my feet against the humus in time with the music on my Discman, a steady quarter-note motif. All the way around I held the cool thought of plunging into the lake at the end of my run. I made the turn for home and sprinted for about a hundred yards. Halfway back I began to downshift until I came to a pulse-slowing jog for the last thirty yards. I might be eager for my swim, but not for a heart attack—the water was still ice cold. At the water's edge I balanced on first one foot and then the other to pull off my running shoes and socks, dropping them next to the Discman.

I yelped as I hit the water. The shock was mildly pleasant in a masochistic sort of way. I stood up in the waist-deep water, then plunged again, striking out for the raft anchored halfway between my shore and Ben's. The redwood surface of the raft was lasciviously warm in the afternoon sun. I lay my chilled, exhausted body flat against the wood, luxuriating in the palpable waves of heat already drying my nylon tank top and running shorts.

Lulled half asleep as the noon sun sucked the chill out of my wet clothes and the raft rocked ever so slightly, I was slow to become aware of piano music until it stopped. And then started, and then stopped again, each time the same few notes, varying a little in rhythm. I listened casually, without lifting my head, letting the tinkering drift in and out of my consciousness. Then the notes began to coalesce into a recognizable new theme, new chords embroidering it until what drifted to the raft from Ben's cabin really was music. Music which stopped abruptly with an irreverent “shave and a haircut, two bits.”

I rolled over to bake my still damp nether end. In the distance I heard a screen door slam and a soft splash accompanied by mild swearing in acknowledgment of the lake's chill. Just as I flipped onto my back, Ben's head crested the edge of the raft. The startled look in his eyes was clear evidence he had no idea I was out there. His surprise forced us both into quick, unnecessary apologies and laughter at ourselves.

“I'm sorry, I didn't know you were here.”

“Hey, there's plenty of room for both of us.” To demonstrate, I slid over another board-width.

Ben hauled himself up without using the ladder, arriving aboard with a cascade of lake water. “Forgot your bathing suit?” He gestured at my odd swimming attire.

“Running.”

Ben thumped the raft to scare away a big water spider.

“Was that you? Playing just now?”

Ben nodded without looking at me.

“It was lovely. Except perhaps for the bit at the end. A little trite, don't you think?”

Ben laughed, a nice amused chuckle. “You've just been treated to the new theme for some car coming out in the fall. I forget which one. Luxury sport utility. Oxymoronic, if you ask me.”

“So, then. You're a composer.”

Ben laughed again, but this time the amusement was derisive. “Sort of. I write commercial music. You know, advertising jingles.”

“Would I know any?”

He named a potato chip and an adult dietary supplement. I recalled both products and their TV commercials, but no music came to mind.

“It's subliminal. You really aren't supposed to be aware of it. Sometimes it's pseudo-rock and sometimes it's pseudo-classical. Not like the old days, when ad jingles had words . . .”

“Oh, you mean like the Toyota theme?” Unusually unabashed, I sang the little ditty I associated with Toyota commercials for years.

“Something like that. I don't write lyrics, just music.”

“It's funny but such things are so much a part of our culture. I mean, who can't sing the ‘I'll wonder where the yellow went when I brush my teeth with Pepsodent.’”

“You'll.”

“What?”

“You'll
wonder where the yellow went . . .”

“Right. Well, generally speaking, people do remember those things, like cigarette slogans, long after the products disappear, or evolve.” I stood up. “You're part of the American subconscious, Ben.”

“More like the American unconscious. Anyway. I promised myself a swim when I got that piece of Americana out of the way, and now I must go tackle a breakfast cereal. Something incredibly sweet and garishly colored. They sent me a carton of it for inspiration.” He named the cereal.

“I have to admit, that one's my kids' favorite.”

A stillness dropped between us, a slight wedge whose provenance I thought was the mention of kids, maybe a little surprise that I was there without family. He quickly broke through the pause, “By the way, I've read all your books.” It came out as if he had had to steel himself to make such a personal remark. “You're a good writer, Cleo.”

“Thank you, Ben. I have a good editor. But, you know, it's funny, I don't usually introduce myself as Cleo Grayson. That was like introducing my alter ego. McCarthy is my married name. I don't know why I did that.”

“Maybe because while you're here, you are Cleo Grayson.” Ben stood up, dry already in the baking sun.

“Thanks for the company, Ben. I hope I didn't intrude on your privacy.”

“No. Not at all. I've been pretty solitary lately and a little company is nice.”

He poised himself at the edge of the raft facing north, which puzzled me for a minute as his cabin was due west. Then he stepped back and gestured to the west side of the square raft as if aware of my thought. “Cleo, you should know that it's really dangerous to jump off that side of the raft. There's a submerged boulder and it's hard to judge where it is as the raft tends to swing a little.”

“Thanks for the heads up.”

“I keep meaning to paint a warning on the edge, but I'm the only one out here. I mean, usually.”

“I'll make sure my family knows that when they come.”

Somehow he didn't seem convinced by my answer and repeated, “Remember, never jump off that side.”

“I won't, Ben. I promise.”

That seemed to satisfy him. Ben dived then, a graceful arc of lithe body, entering the water with only a slight splash. In twenty strokes he'd curved back toward his own shoreline.

I dived off the east side of the raft a moment later, though with much less grace. I arrived, breathless, on my shore and bent to retrieve my shoes and Discman. When I stood up I could see Ben on his shore, one hand raised in friendly salute, as if acknowledging my successful return to shore. I waved and went back to work.

Four

T
he nocturnal music of bullfrogs and crickets, a rare owl, and myriad other night sounds surrounded me. Breaking through my random thoughts, another sound. The light music of a breezy piano piece, Mozart, I thought, not being musically confident enough to be sure. A sweet sound competing equally with the natural sounds of the lake. The only human sound until next week, when the other cottages would fill the air with televisions and radios, and two-cycle motors on fishing skiffs. But for now, Ben's music was the only human-derived sound, wafted to me on a breeze which riffled through the trees, carrying on it also the promise of a storm.

I was awakened sometime after midnight by the first volley of thunder. The surrounding peaks echoed with the sound and the blackness was riven with lightening. I lay in my bed and watched, thrilled by the storm, electrically charged by its bright intensity, no other light invading. Even my little digital alarm clock was blank, the power out now. I pulled the blankets to my chin and enjoyed the event.

The storm rolled off the lake like a lover, leaving the area with only sporadic rumbles followed by a hissing sound. It took a moment for it to register, then I recognized the sound of hard rain falling on the water. It was as dark with my eyes open as it was with them shut. Just
knowing the electric pump wouldn't work was enough to make me need to pee. I was enough of a girl scout to have a flashlight ready, and the little ecology couplet came to me, “If it's yellow, let it mellow.”

On my way back to bed I glanced through the picture window. The dark ridges of the hills stood out against the darker sky. The only light was Ben's little porch light. Gatsby's kerosene beacon.

The morning sun betrayed no vestige of the night's storm except the resolutely blank face of my electric clock. I was grateful for the gas stove and brought my morning mug out to the porch to start work. My laptop's battery ran out within half an hour and I wished I had someone else to blame for not recharging it when I should have.

I pushed myself away from the table and flopped down on the old porch glider, making it swing with a slightly on-the-water sensation. Unexpectedly without the focus of my solitude, I felt truly alone. If this had happened at home I would almost without thinking have pulled on my shoes and headed over to Alice's for a cup of tea. Or I might have piled the kids in the car and headed to Roger Williams Park Zoo for the afternoon. I would have taken advantage of the situation. Here I was, where I boldly proclaimed I needed to be, yet, without my raison d'être, I was at a loss, and lonely. There seemed nothing left to do but go for a swim.

I paddled around for a little while close to shore, enjoying the smooth, silky feeling of the brownish water, yet feeling less buoyant than when I swam in salt water. We usually spent a week at Narragansett in July, Sean and the kids and I along with one or another of the other McCarthy families. We rented the same place annually, a cottage not too far from Watch Hill. The beach there brilliant white in the hot July sunshine, the waves sometimes aggressive, and the salt water tangy against my skin.

Narragansett. Despite the eight years since it happened, despite wonderful family vacations, the name still had the power to raise the memory of Sean's betrayal. The time we never spoke about aloud, somehow leaving responsibility for keeping the peace on my shoulders
because I told him I forgave him. But I never went there without him again. Not until now, coming to Cameo Lake, had I left the door open so wide. By leaving him home, I implied a trust I was uncertain I felt. I dived under the surface of the still water and, rising, made for the raft. With every stroke I told myself, of course I trust him. He was younger then, he's a different man now. He is not his father.

Ben was already on the raft when I got there. “You're early.”

I hauled myself up onto the deck. “I'm neglectful, no juice in the battery.”

“Well, I'm just being lazy today. I had a couple of late phone calls and somehow all my juice ran out.”

I looked at him, sitting with long legs dangling over the side, aware of a note in his voice which clanged a little against his flip words. “Is everything all right?”

Ben looked at me with a little glance of surprise at my blunt question. “Yeah, fine.”

I could see the psychological hand held up, holding my natural concern at bay. Don't intrude, I told myself.

“But thank you for asking.”

So, I thought, there was something going on. He was a little like Tim. When Tim had his feelings hurt, he clammed up. A little tight quahog which needed, wanted, a little steam to open.

“You just sounded a little sad.”

“You have a very good ear.”

I let it drop then, as I would with Tim. In his own time, I thought, and then wondered why I had such curiosity. I really didn't know him well enough to be so invested in caring. Except that every night I could hear his music, not the jingle stuff, real music, float toward me across the expanse of the lake. Music so evocative it made me think I knew him.

We lay down, not talking, just enjoying the subtle rock of the ten-by-ten raft in the slightly choppy lake.

“Cleo, assuming the electricity stays out for a long time, would you like to take a hike?”

“Are you telling me to take a hike, mister?”

Ben rolled over and propped his head on his hand, “No, a hike up that hill,” and he pointed north. I would probably call what he pointed to a mountain, but I know that in New Hampshire they have different standards than we Rhode Islanders do about elevation.

“Love to.”

“It's a good day's hike.”

“It's a good day for it.”

It was only about nine-thirty when we met on the raft, so we planned to meet at the boat ramp at ten. I put together a knapsack of clean socks, bottled water, and Band-Aids. We'd agreed to buy sandwiches on the drive there, so the trip began to look like a picnic. I was unaccountably excited. I thought maybe because it felt kind of like a snow day. But there was a different tang to the excitement than just that. I was excited about being friends with Ben. Pals. Sean and I had a lot of couple friends, and I was blessed with terrific girlfriends in my sisters-in-law. And Grace, queen of best friends. But I'd seldom been friends with boys. Girls' schools, a girl-filled neighborhood, no cousins. I guess that Sean was my first boy friend, and, soon after, boyfriend. I remembered so clearly that first flush of excitement at making that friend, of hanging out together and the slow evolution to love. Of course, that wasn't what was happening now. With Benson Turner I'd just have the first part of that journey. The fun part.

I was actually surprised to see the number of cars in the trailhead parking lot, somehow it had seemed like a unique idea to spend a June Wednesday climbing a hill. We got out of my car and shouldered our packs, my schoolgirlish Eastpak a poor cousin to the big L.L. Bean on Ben's back. “I thought this was a day trip, Ben.”

“My scoutmaster instilled the rules of ‘be prepared’ in me a long time ago.” I caught the little glint of mischief in the corners of his mouth.

“Somehow I think you're telling me the truth.”

“Always truthful. After you, ma'am.”

“That would be the ‘courteous’ rule, right?”

“No, the self-protective rule. There's bears up there, lady. You go first.”

The banter was so easy, so comfortable and natural, it seemed as though we knew each other from long association. I kept getting the feeling that we were like passengers on a commuter bus, habitually sharing a seat, sharing a little banter, but knowing very little about each other. I couldn't express what that bus was or where it was going, but I latched on to the sensation and gave over to it. I'd find out where we were going soon enough, and whether we had more than a bus seat in common.

Initially, the trek was pretty easy, a slow graduation in elevation, easy on the thighs, comfortable on calves. We chatted along the way, our pace fast enough to pass other hikers taking more leisurely walks. I don't think our quick pace was intentional, more a result of Ben's long stride and my natural tendency to move quickly. We winded ourselves pretty soon, just as the trail narrowed and we were forced to climb up a series of natural steps created out of roots and rocks. The mosquitoes and the deer flies began to torment us as we began to sweat.

“Hold up for a minute, Cleo. Reach into my pack and find the bug spray.”

He squatted a little so that I could reach deep into the outside pocket of the blue knapsack, a curiously intimate act. My hand found the can of repellent. I handed the can to him, but instead of spraying himself, he started on me, spraying my neck and the back of my legs, then handed the can to me to finish the job. I did the same for him, and when we were both done, I replaced the can.

“You need a hat, there's an extra in the main section of the knapsack, reach down deep.”

I fished around until I pulled up a worn baseball cap. “The Yankees? Really, Ben?”

“I'm from New Jersey.”

“I'm not sure I can wear this, I'm a loyal Red Sox fan.”

“Sure you can, it was my wife's and she was from Boston.”

Just by the way he said it, I knew that the past tense was not due to ordinary circumstances like divorce or separation. That simple declarative sentence creaked with old aches. I put the hat on and wondered why he had brought it with him, or had it simply remained in his knapsack from some long-ago hike. But it fit pretty well and I was glad of the protection, even if it was a Yankees cap.

Our conversation petered out as the elevation steepened. I tried to pay attention to the magnificent forest on either side of the path, but the various hazards along the way and my increasing tiredness made me keep my eyes on the trail. Ben led, holding overhanging branches out of my way, calling out a warning at a particularly slippery spot. The storm-cleared sky was obscured by the pines and birches above our heads. I heard the loud call of a warbler but couldn't find the bird with my eyes. Just as I thought I was going to have to give in and beg for a rest, Ben held up a pausing hand and pointed toward a small clearing where a three-sided lean-to had been erected and the remnants of campfires indicated an authorized rest stop. With great relief, I shrugged off the knapsack, which by this time was cutting into my bare shoulders, and flopped down on the bench inside the lean-to.

Ben off-loaded his own knapsack and sat on the floor. “We can't sit long, or we'll stiffen up.”

“Okay,
Kommandant,
but can we eat?”

“Jawohl.”

“Bitte danke, Herr Turner.”
I pulled my sandwich and bottle of water out of my bag and commenced to eat. The air around us was cool, much cooler than at the base of the mountain. I shivered a little and wished that I had brought another shirt. The sweat on my tank top was drying, adding to a general feeling of discomfort. Ben wordlessly reached into his bag and, like some kind of magician or den mother, hauled out a flannel shirt and handed it to me.

“Thanks. You really are prepared, aren't you?”

“I do this a lot.” He amended himself quickly. “I did this a lot.”

“You and your wife?”

“Yeah.” He turned his attention to his sandwich, not looking at me but out toward the amazing vista open before the clearing. “It was one of the few things besides music we both loved equally. I haven't done it in a long time.”

BOOK: Cameo Lake
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