Read Lake People Online

Authors: Abi Maxwell

Lake People (10 page)

As we turned from mainland to cross over, I caught sight of a man walking onto the bridge, heading our way. Then I looked toward the lake just as a red-tailed hawk, wings expanded, dove from a tree to float on a wave of sky. Only when the car thumped and I plunged forward against the back of the driver’s seat did I lose sight of that hawk. We had hit it, I thought suddenly. But then I looked out the window to see that instead of a hawk, the body of the man we had hit flew over the edge of the bridge. How he soared, suspended on an invisible ledge of air. When he dropped it was sudden—that air just let go. He hit the water and, seamlessly as a maple’s leaves turning, the lake transformed to a pool of red around him.

Devnet began to scream, though it seemed not out of horror but out of incredulousness. “That man jumped in front of us,” she said a few times. “That man jumped in front of us!” Then her statement matured.

“That man just committed suicide!” As she repeated this her head darted back and forth—she seemed to think there was a crowd of people about her, all waiting for an explanation.

“But—” I began, quietly, but Devnet spun around in her seat.

“Shut up,” she said. She reached for my collar and grabbed hold, clenching her teeth. “You’re the one who’s not even really a part of our family, so you just shut up. I know where you really come from. You just shut up.”

We were entirely righted on the bridge, just at the crest, so
that all we could see ahead was that great expanse of dim purple sky, another world entirely. I didn’t know what she meant. Her words just entered me, steady and vacant. Within a week they would make a home. For now I simply noticed how well dressed Devnet’s father was. He took up the linen blazer, which earlier he had removed, and from his pocket withdrew a flask.

“Drink,” he said, and turned in his seat to face me. I did, one gulp. It was brandy, and to this day even the scent turns me nauseous.

“Don’t you say a word,” he said. He was remarkably serene. He had done this many times, it seemed that way. “This will calm you down,” he said, meaning the liquor. “You say a word it’s jail for all of us.” That calm voice, he could have been suggesting what we might have for dinner or what game we might play.

“That man committed suicide!” Devnet screamed again.

“It’s true,” her father said to her. Then he turned to me. “If you open your fat mouth,” he said, “then you and your father will be dead.”

“That’s true, too,” Devnet said. “I seen him kill before, my father’s serious.”

He whipped around then and smacked Devnet hard across the face. Her hand went to where he had hit, but she didn’t so much as shudder.

Why didn’t I jump out of the car, swim to that floating man? He could have been alive. I knew how to swim. I couldn’t have saved him but surely to try would have said something about my character.

By now that man, George Collins, twenty years old, had disappeared. But he would be found soon enough, caught in the twisted roots of the large pine that reached over the bank, into the water. It was the same tree that hawk had soared from, and it still stands today. Devnet’s father eased us down the bridge
and pulled off to the side. He handed Devnet his flask and a full bottle that he pulled from beneath his seat, and told her to empty them both in the lake, fill them with water, and come dump them over the front of the car.

“Anyone drives by while you’re down there, you jump right in the lake. Car comes while you’re up here, you pour that water over your head and make a show of cooling off.”

Devnet seemed sickeningly pleased with her role. As I sat in the back and let her father continue his slow, firm threats, one hand holding so tight to my thigh that I had blotches of yellow and purple skin for months to come, I watched Devnet complete her task with efficiency.

By the time we got back to the house it seemed that Devnet and her father had already forgotten. They hulled the corn together and put it on to steam, an exemplary father-daughter pair. My father stood in the corner, sipping on a beer. I went to him, stood at his side. Had he thought to ask me if I was all right, how the drive went, any such thing, I would have fallen open. As it was he said nothing and shortly we were in line for our lobsters. I was last in line, and by the time my plate was made everyone else was seated at the dining table, which was in that large room that was open to the kitchen but three steps down. At the top of the steps I stood, quivering, that poor dead bug on my plate. As I inched forward to take my first step, the lobster slid off and dropped to the floor.

Devnet, seeing my misfortune, announced with glee to the table, “Alice is a preteen.”

To this the women erupted in drunken laughter while I stood there alone with my secret knowledge that a man had just exited this strange life forever. Sweet Thomas came to my rescue. He is
a doctor now. (“Can you believe it?” Devnet recently said upon telling me that.) He jumped out of his chair and exclaimed that he would save the lobster. Across the floor he crawled, and picked the dead lobster up, spoke to it, said, “There, you little jumping clopper,” and firmly placed it on my plate, then took my arm and walked me to my seat.

As we headed home, I rehearsed in my mind the way I would tell my father all that had happened. The man, the accident, and those words Devnet had said to me. But all I could get out was, “If a man told you to keep a secret or he’d kill your family, and he’d killed someone before, would you keep the secret?”

Maybe he was drunk, or tired. “Yes,” he said without interest, and turned the country station up. Then, as we lowered ourselves toward mainland, my father saw something bobbing in the water.

“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit,” he said.

It was my father who went to the police, only after he’d gone into the water and dragged that poor lifeless body out. The headlights of my father’s truck—just replaced that Saturday afternoon—were what lit that man up like an elevated ghost. The man was young; I could see that when he was upon the shore and my father had a flashlight on him. Dressed in a white shirt with a small, waterlogged notebook in his breast pocket. In the days to follow, everyone attributed my strange behavior to the fact that I’d seen a dead body. I had crossed a threshold, as Devnet had said I would.

Of course I thought of Devnet over the years. She, and not her father or young and dead George Collins, stood at the center of the awful night. So small and young, she seemed to have manipulated
that entire episode and then just as quickly returned to her regular life. But I did not think of her in any tangible way. I did not say her name—not until the night this year when my husband and I went to the bad Mexican restaurant over on the pier. It’s the only place open through winter. Summer you can get your picture taken in the booth and drive a bumper car, even take a train ride the three hundred miles around the lake. But darkness and cold set in and all you can get down there is a plate of greasy beans and cheese along with a margarita, which we like to do now and then just to get out of the house. My husband had three drinks that night. We sat at the bar and spoke to a man who believed he was a sailor just headed out on the big lake for his winter’s catch. He looked the part, too, a gray beard and those remotely focused eyes, a bit of a limp. But of course the lake had been frozen for months. I didn’t bother to say as much and nor did my gentle husband, which reminded me of why I had chosen him so many years ago. The man showed us his black tooth, said it was made of pure iron. Seeing that, my husband asked how it happened, and the man put his hand on my shoulder and gave a little wink and said, “We alls got secrets, doesn’t we?”

My husband put his arm around me just then, pulled me toward him and laughed a bit. He was claiming me. No, he was saying. My sweet Alice don’t have no secrets.

By the time we left the iron-toothed sailor, the snow had turned our small world to a plate of clouds. We cut easily through what had accumulated, which was at least an inch, and as my husband drove I watched our path in the rearview mirror. The tracks could have been those of a horse-drawn carriage, so silent they looked, and so quickly covered. When I looked ahead again we were about to pass the bridge to the point. This year there had been another accident on that bridge. The arch of it is so steep that it’s like a jump, and if your car is moving fast enough
it can catch a bit of air at the top. For generations teenagers have loved to press the gas to the floor and try to launch themselves in this way. This time the wheel got turned in the air, and those kids flew right over the side. They landed in the water and swam up one friend short. At the courthouse girls cried on the stands and their boyfriends shook but no one would say who’d been driving. I went to the hearings, every one of them, for I am a newspaper reporter. But I had not been over that bridge since childhood. Now I asked my husband to turn. He switched on that even-beating blinker and over we went.

The mansions were nearly all deserted, as they always are in winter. Our headlights created a strong but limited path, and in their tunnel I had a quiet feeling that a man would emerge like a ghost from the woods, causing us to slip on the ice and slide down the ledge and break through the frozen water. No such thing came to pass, and it was as we were headed back to the bridge that I glimpsed the letters on mailbox number 24.

“Stop,” I told him. “Back up.”

Why did he do that without question? The snow was falling so carefully, as though some invisible hand were guiding each flake down to the place of its eventual disappearance. That hand kept all snow from the name on the mailbox. Devnet R. Sawyer.

My husband drove us off the point. It wasn’t until we were back on mainland that he asked me who lived there, if it was someone from the case.

Devnet Ricker her name had been. Surely this would be the same Devnet.

“Yes,” I said to my husband, but only after the word was out did I realize that that might not be a lie, that not only had there been a Sawyer girl up on the stand, but there also had been that glamorously dressed woman with a long white cigarette waiting in the lot every single day. Her face had seemed vaguely familiar,
but she had always fixed her gaze elsewhere, and quickly, when I appeared.

About a week after the drive with my husband, I returned to that mansion. I had expected to find Devnet standing at the great metal sink filled with lobsters, as though it were still that childhood day. Instead I found no answer at the front door, so I put it out of my mind, convincing myself that this was only a summer home, in spite of the fact that the walkway had been shoveled. It wasn’t but three days later, when I went to a little shop to buy some Christmas presents, that there she stood, providing me with the sense of destiny fulfilled. She would not have spoken to me had I not spoken to her first. But we were in a small shop, I said her name, and she was cornered.

“Look at you!” she said. She flashed a large diamond my way and patted her curled bangs. A young daughter tugged at her arm and Devnet scornfully handed her a credit card. To the counter that daughter went, where she met her brother. The two of them had a heap of gifts. “I don’t even know what they’re buying!” Devnet said to me. “Probably all junk.” She shook herself out and then leaned in and took my hand and said, “What are we, sisters? Second cousins or something? My daughter has your ears! Lacey, get over here, meet your aunt!”

As the kids bought their gifts, Devnet told me that she had just moved back to Kettleborough, that she went through a rough divorce but it was good to get out of Florida all the same, and look, she got to keep the ring!

“King’s Point is where all my best memories are,” she said. “Won’t you come to our house? Please? For family’s sake?”

The strangest part was that after the initial article of George Collins’s mysterious death, the papers, too, deemed it a suicide. Apparently the police had received a phone call from a man who had known George Collins well. The man described George as
depressed, said he spoke frequently of suicide, had had some trouble with his father, and had not left behind a note but had told the man before he went for the weekend at the lake that they would not ever see each other again. Back then it never did occur to me just who could have been behind that phone call.

Andrew Collins, the father, was reported to have said that his son had had a hard time of it lately, yes, very difficult.

A search for the driver? There was a note at the bottom of each article—contact the police if you have any information. There were only three articles. Our town is small. I never heard another word about it.

Yet I have followed Andrew Collins a bit. He worked his entire adult life as a history professor at the state university. Now he is retired, but he continues to keep an office on campus. After the accident of more than two decades ago he divorced and lost the other children to his wife, who moved out west, and he never married again. Just the way you would imagine an old professor, he walks down the hall with a hunch in his back and a finger to his mouth. He dresses in a V-neck sweater, and he always has a patch of hair in the hollow of his cheek, which he missed in his morning shave.

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