Thursday, March 13, 2008

LAKE EFFECT by Kelley Walker Perry

Fifteen years. So much water under the proverbial bridge…yet as I walk this wooded trail that leads to the lake I can still hear him screaming.

In another season, I would not be able to see it up ahead—Upper Fish Lake. But it is winter, and the leafless trees make scraggly black lines against the diamond-studded snow. Hoosier winter: all is a brilliantly frozen wonderland.

If it were not for the somber task before me, I might enjoy it.

I pause for a moment, puffing out foggy gusts of breath. In another time, I would have been able to keep trudging on another quarter-mile or so, until I reached my destination. I might be less than 30 years old, but I haven’t seen the inside of a gym since mandatory physical education class in high school.

Besides, I reason, sliding my hands down my thighs to my knees, I am carrying quite a load.

An estimated 50 pounds rests on my back in a navy-blue backpack. The bag is not the same as Charlie’s had been that day; I couldn’t find one the same shade of blue. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, it makes no difference what color the damn thing is, as long as I have the contents right.

I unzip the backpack, suddenly worried that I have not chosen well. Each item has untold meaning and significance. Each item holds the promise of redemption—an end to the nightmares that plague me. An end to choking every night in my sleep, dreaming of swallowing dark, icy water and screaming myself awake with its flat mineral taste still in my mouth.

I check the bag.

One ruler: the clear plastic kind you can get in the school bookstore for ten cents, or could in those days. I don’t know what the going rate is now. A defective drawing compass with a dull point.

Five spiral-bound notebooks, wide-ruled, in various garish colors. No pictures of 3-D tigers or underwater scenes or professional sports teams. They aren’t “cool”—but then, they aren’t supposed to be.

Two of those trusty Old Yeller pencils: Eberhard Faber, Number Two. A Pink Pearl eraser. A blue Bic ballpoint. Nothing fancy. Certainly none of those slick gel-ink pens or mechanical pencils.

All items you can find in any school bookstore, although I purchased the majority of these during a harried, and rather furtive, shopping spree at the Walgreen’s in Fort Wayne.

Digging deeper, I pull out a couple of dog-eared sixth-grade textbooks: Science & Technology (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), Everyday Mathematics (McGraw-Hill). The usual. Also a box of Spectrum language flashcards, the kind they use if you stammer or have dyslexia and go to once-a-week speech therapy during homeroom. That last one took me longer to find than the others. Thank God for Ebay.

More important than all the rest of the bag’s contents is a jumbled collection of rocks. The bottom of the bag holds a veritable treasure trove, geologically speaking. I tried to gather what I figured Charlie must have carried around with him all the time: shale, limestone, sandstone, gypsum, and coal. Chipped arrowheads by the dozen. Dust-covered fossils.

Once, I thought of them all as just frigging rocks; and a totally craptastic hobby, besides. Most of us back then had collections of one thing or another, yeah, sure—Pokémon trading cards, video games for Super Nintendo, maybe some Star Wars or Star Trek figures. Whatever. None of it mattered; it was all just something to do, right?

Charlie’s mom told me later—after—that he had lugged those rocks around with him all the damn time for a real reason.

He and his dad started collecting on fishing trips. Trips, ha. Like their family ever had enough money to go on a real vacation. They were LaPorte County’s crème de la trailer trash; everybody knew it. Adults looked at Charlie and his folks with a mixture of pity and superior disgust; kids, unfamiliar with these advanced emotions, wanted to either ignore him or kick his teeth in. Anyway, they’d picked up a rock here, a fossil there…pretty soon old Charlie had himself quite a hoard.

He’d brought ‘em in to class once, and got so worked up telling us about finding an amethyst geode during the summer of 1990 that he lost his perpetual stutter. Most kids might stammer when they get excited; with Charlie, he had to be excited to stop. Come to think of it, that was the only time I ever saw him excited about anything, but I never paid much attention. Nobody did. Hell, it was just Charlie. Ole Chucklehead. Or Upchuck, as I affectionately thought of him: the kid spewed on a fairly consistent basis in elementary school, and I just happened to get unlucky enough to sit behind him and smell a combination of vomit and the janitor’s spearmint-scented Absorb Dry for three years straight.

His dad got killed in a car wreck sometime during our fifth-grade year. After that, the kid kinda weirded out on us. Not that he was really normal before. But after his old man died, Upchuck started wearing the same raggedy clothes all the time—and not because he was going for the ever-popular grunge look, either. He began to reek. I mean, he smelled god-awful, like rotten Limburger cheese and
year-old gym socks. His dishwater-colored hair hung in greasy strings across his be-pimpled forehead.

And those stupid rocks. He always carried that lame collection; you never saw him without that raggedy blue backpack. At about 75 pounds soaking wet, the weight of the bag caused him to walk slightly bent, like an elderly hunchback. He always had this look on his face, this look of grim determination mingled with something else I could never quite put my finger on. Not that I gave Upchuck a great deal of thought in those days.

He was always our favorite geek to torment, but that collection made it worse. He was such an easy mark; all you had to do was pretend to touch that bag of his and he’d go off the deep end. That was why after school on January 25, 1991, Trevor, Kyle and I decided it might be fun to indulge in a friendly game of keep-away.

It was a Friday, we were headed home along the edge of already-frozen Fish Lake, and we were in high spirits. School was out, always a plus; and, a huge snowstorm had blasted down fresh powder from Lake Michigan earlier in the week. What the meteorologist on TV called a “lake effect.”

We had big plans to screw around all weekend long on snowmobiles, ATVs, sleds, inner tubes, and anything else we could get our grubby, 12-year-old paws on. All except Trevor—as one of the oldest kids in our class, his paws were already 13, since he got held back in fourth grade.

Trev wasn’t a bad guy, don’t think that. He was just a kid, trying to make folks forget he wasn’t very bright. Kyle wasn’t bad, either, not really. Just a follower. He would have done anything Trev said, I guess, short of being queer with him. Sometimes I wondered about that, too, ha. And me? Me, I’m not so sure about. See, I knew better. And still, I went along.

“Hey, Chucklehead, got any big plans for the weekend? Gonna duh-duh-do your mama?” hollered Trev.

No response from Charlie, a.k.a. Chucklehead. He just plodded onward, having resigned himself to this kind of treatment years beforehand.

Kyle—who always reminded me of Chester the Terrier shadowing Spike the Bulldog in the Looney Tunes cartoons—joined in, eager to impress: “Nah, he’s gonna be too busy getting his rocks off all by himself, right, Numbnuts? Get it, Trev? His rocks—?”

Again—no response from Charlie, alias Numbnuts, who continued to move ahead of us with the subtle dignity of those exploited from birth.

“How ‘bout it, Chucklehead? You got a hot date with Mrs. Palm and her five lovely daughters?” Trev inquired politely.

This last clever witticism was followed by a very mature humping gesture involving Kyle and his own trusty backpack.

“Heh, you are such a total jerkoff, Kyle,” Trev noted. “Sincerely, dude, you’re a fag.”

I just snorted, but didn’t say anything. It was kind of embarrassing, really. Especially the way the poor guy never fought back, never even tried to defend himself. Where was the sport in that?

After a flinging a barrage of tasteless comments like crude linguistic Frisbees—none of which were granted so much as a reply from the impassive recipient—Trev got bored.

“Dude, it’s nipply out here. I need to get my groove on before something important freezes and falls off,” he said, to no one in particular.

We walked on, kicking up skirls of new-fallen snow.
Trev scooped up a handful, frowning and petulant.

“Well this sucks.”

It wasn’t the good, easy-packing kind—which rendered weekend snowball combat impossible. A giant booger in the nose of progress, Kyle and I concurred.

“Hey, you guys, keep-away! Yeah!” Trev cried, as if he’d just had a sudden burst of creative inspiration. Like he was friggin’ Leonardo da Vinci.

“Rock on, dude!” came Kyle’s immediate and predictable response. I often wondered, years later, what he ended up doing. Probably turned to a life of crime, or else politics. He’d have made some lucky senator a fantastic yes-man.

Trev glided forward, lithe as a Doc Martens-clad speed skater, and grabbed the infamous backpack by one of its black nylon shoulder straps. This came as a surprise to its wearer, who staggered with the sudden shift of balance. He went down a pathetic loser…and got up a fighter of considerable substance.

“Give it back,” he said. His calm voice belied the deep-seated pain and anger behind his narrowed eyes as he judged the distance between himself and Trev, who was the closest offender.


“Nah, I don’t think we will, my good man,” Trev said gently. He smiled, cocky as hell as master of his innovative game. “Bitch, ain’t it?”

Righteous indignation aside, a wimp like Upchuck was no match for a tag-team like Trev and Kyle. They slung the bag across the ice to each other, cheerfully screaming obscenities into the frosty air.

Still, I had to hand it to Upchuck: that boy could really shag ass when the need arose. Who knew such speed and grace could be found in such an unlikely package? He flew across the ice with a vengeance, each time landing with a dull thud immediately after his backpack transferred hands.

“Heads up, Josh, ya friggin’ wanker!” Trev shouted, bypassing his Number One fan to shoot his new-found hockey puck to me.

Startled, I did a little sidestep: a conscientious objector. It slid past me beautifully, heading out to virgin territory toward the middle of the lake.

Upchuck lunged for and seized his precious backpack, but fell hard. I heard a crackling sound and instinctively winced: that had to hurt. He stayed in the same fetal position for what seemed like minutes, but must have been mere milliseconds. Less.

He screamed shrilly as he crashed through the ice. The rest of us stood around in frozen shock, and watched him go under. Our eyes—mine and Charlie’s—locked for one agonizing moment. The bag took him down mercilessly, but as far as I know he never let go.

Our fearless leader panicked and ran away. Kyle goggled—first, in the direction his shining hero had gone, and then at the jagged hole in the ice. Then back to the long-vanished Trevor. I regarded him for a moment, saw that he was of no use on the scene whatsoever, and briskly told him to go for help. He seemed grateful for instruction, only hesitating for one final darting glance at the dark water where Charlie had disappeared, then scrambled up the bank. I watched him go. He fell only once.

I grabbed a heavy branch from an overhanging tree nearby, planning to extend it out toward the hole. Hoping Charlie would see it and grab on. But, as I inched closer to the middle of the lake, I realized I had no idea where the ice was thin and where it was safe. Most of the time, the lake was frozen several inches solid the better part of the winter; in fact, Fish Lake once was the center of a booming, pre-refrigeration ice business, selling mainly to Chicago meat packers.

I had thought it was plenty safe to walk across. We all had.

I considered the prospect of crawling across the ice on my belly, stretching out the branch toward “the victim,” like I’d seen them do on TV. Instead, I just stood there, staring blankly at the sharp-toothed, yawning cavity that had swallowed Charlie whole, feeling helpless and scared. Impotent.

Volunteer EMTs came, along with a water rescue team from the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department. Their wailing sirens arrived about ten minutes before their vehicles did. I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they used ropes, poles and a rescue sled and frantically worked to find him.

By the time they found Charlie and pulled him out of the water, it was too late. They tried, they really did. Forty-five minutes, they worked. They zipped him into a hypothermic stabilizer bag and kept on trying. But I could see his blue lips and the way his head lolled almost bonelessly on his neck, and I knew. I acknowledged it with
sick dread before the EMTs wanted to admit it. He was pronounced en route to the hospital.

Trevor and Kyle worried quite a bit about their own skins, about someone finding out what we had been doing at the time of the so-called accident.

I just felt morose and partly responsible. A lot responsible, actually, although the newspapers called it a “tragic juvenile fatality caused by stress fractures in the treacherous, snow-covered ice.”

Never the best of pals, we talked less and less, after. What else was there to say?

No one ever said anything. Not one word of reproach or condemnation.

Paul F. Boston Middle School held a special winter-safety convocation the week after Charlie died. The same EMTs came to demonstrate their equipment. I managed to sit through it without puking.

Usually an A-B honor roll student, my grades plummeted. I barely made it through that year.

And to be honest, it’s taken me awhile to get to this point.

Maybe it’s been a long time coming, but I made it, Charlie. I’m here.

I take a handy ice-fishing saw—$25, online—and cut a neat circle in the ice.

I lay down the saw and prepare to heft the bag, the one which contains a reasonable facsimile of Charlie’s short, sad life, into the hole I have made. I pray he is watching, and that he can finally forgive me. That he understands this is all I know to do.

Unbelievably, I hear the frozen water splinter beneath my weight. The ice caves; I hear myself shriek once before I am plunged into water so cold it takes my breath away.

My entire body feels as if it is being stabbed by a thousand needles.

Although I am wearing weather-resistant gear, my clothing soon becomes waterlogged. I go under, spluttering, still clutching that damnable backpack. When I let go to grasp for purchase on the edge of my icy prison, one of the shoulder straps slips around my left ankle, dragging me down.

Something tugs hard on the backpack, and on the collar of my L.L. Bean parka. I sense, rather than see, a dark presence under the ice with me. Panicked, I imagine retribution dealt by Charlie’s cold, bony fingers covered in decaying flesh and strings of the lake’s slimy moss. This much and more is easily imagined, even in a state of abject terror, for it is the stuff of my nightmares.

Just before I lose consciousness and fall into utter blackness, I feel my body being propelled upward.

I come around seconds…minutes…possibly hours later to droplets of cold water splashing my face. Peering up, I locate the source: sunlit glints of ice, their droplets melting off overhanging branches. I breathe deeply into my lungs the unexpected gift of crisp, clean air. I breathe in the knowledge of my atonement.

“Thank you, Charlie,” I gasp, voicing aloud my gratitude to the lake, the sky — the universe.


LAKE EFFECT earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.


Kelley Walker Perry is a former Hoosier State Press Award-winning journalist and personal columnist. She currently is a freelance writer. She feels inspired to write for children and at-risk teens, to share her experiences and insight; as such, her personal testimony, Premeditated, was published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of At the Center magazine. She is the single mother of three children.