FICTION

You are the Greatest Lake (an excerpt)

BY GREG SCHUTZ

We are at the tip of the thumb of Michigan. The sky threatens sun, so John has reluctantly left the water and run into town for groceries. His waders, latex and neoprene, hang in the mudroom. They smell sourly of rubber and sweat and still hold the shape of his legs. I put a pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator to chill. The rental cottage is quiet. From the back porch, I can see Dot out in the bay, practicing the dead-man’s float. Dot is John’s daughter. She is eight years old. “I love you,” I say.

Distantly, she stirs in the water, as if she’s heard me.

The yard rolls down to the lake, grass giving way to pebbles and shells, pebbles and shells pouring smoothly into the water to form the firm, gravelly bottom that John says draws bass into the bay. I know nothing about smallmouth bass except what John has told me—a striped bronze fish, football-shaped with the slung jaw of a linebacker, that he wades for, casting, on cloudy mornings and afternoons. I know that in broken light they rise from the depths to prowl the bay for crayfish and leeches, mayfly larvae and minnows. I know the bay is broad and flat as a pan. A quarter-mile out, where Dot is floating, it’s only two or three feet deep. Still, I worry. John makes allowances for her that I could never imagine for my own daughter. She is so small.

“Dot!” I call from the edge of the water. “Hello, Dot?”

Dot lifts her head.

I cup my hands around my mouth. “I made lemonade!”

Her voice comes back to me: “What?”

“Lemonade! Do you want some?”

No answer. She may not understand; she may not care. Out in the bay, her body looks exactly like a tiny, floating body. I wrap my arms around myself, though it’s spring, and warm.

I climb the yard and pour a glass of lemonade. It hasn’t chilled yet. “Too soon, too soon,” I say, just to break the silence. On the porch, I lean against the railing, sipping lukewarm lemonade and watching Dot and waiting for John.

*

John would like to marry me, he thinks. I would like him to keep thinking this, and eventually to believe it. But of course it’s not so simple as that. We’re both divorced, John and I, and John more recently and acrimoniously than I. “How do you get over a person hating you?” he asked me once. “Real hate. Like you didn’t know you could make a person feel.”

*

Tonight I lie atop the stiff mattress in the cottage’s only bedroom. Dot is in her sleeping bag on the floor, sweetly snoring. John is curled like a comma, his back to me. It’s not easy—he’s a tall man—but I do my best to hold him. The back of his neck smells bluely of minerals, like the lake. I run my hand through his hair, fingers seeking his scar.

When John revealed our affair to his ex-wife, she hurled a cut-glass tumbler at him. He needed eleven stitches. A dull pink keloid, nearly an inch long, notches his hairline. In court, he was ruled at fault: his ex-wife won primary custody. For six months now, he has seen Dot only on the weekends.

“You are a good man,” I whisper.

It’s easy for me to say this because I believe it so much.

John leans his dreaming body into mine. I am his only regret.

I practice the ugly side of estate law, the parts that get gnashed out in court. It’s not so different from divorce, in a way. A central loss—of love, of a loved one—unglues a family, leaving each member to claw for advantage. Adrift, they take sides, cementing fierce new loyalties. I mouth Dot’s name into the back of John’s neck. An ellipsis: Dot, Dot, Dot. Below the foot of the bed, she growls sleep at the ceiling. I close my eyes and follow her down, arms open, sinking.

*

Near shore, the bay is the color of the spruces and pines it reflects. The open water is the depthless gray of the overcast sky. John is up before dawn. By the time I pour my half of the coffee he’s brewed for us, he has already stepped into his waders and into the water. I can spot him only by the distant hint of patterned motion against the irregular surface of the bay as he casts. There is no opposite shore here and, for a little while this morning, not even a horizon. Sky and water mix. When I stare too long at the place where they should meet, I begin to feel ill. We are truly at the edge of something vast.

Dot pads into the kitchen, knuckling an eye.

“Good morning,” I say.

She doesn’t look at me. “Hello.”

“Would you like some breakfast?”

“Huh,” she says. She pulls a chair out from the table and climbs into it.

“Would you like cereal? Maybe an Eggo?”

Dot folds her arms atop the table and lays her head down, concealing her face. Her downy blond hair will soon darken; John and his ex-wife are both brunettes. But her scalp is softly, pinkly visible through her hair, and I can’t help but hope this never changes. My ex-husband and I didn’t have any children. I never thought I wanted any.

“Eggo,” she mutters at last.

So I place a frozen waffle in the toaster, heat the bottle of syrup in the microwave, spread a pat of margarine over the waffle once the toaster spits it out, douse everything in the warmed syrup, and set the plate in front of her, along with a glass of milk.

“Fork,” Dot says.

I bring her a fork.

“You know,” I say, “that looks so good, I think maybe I’d like an Eggo, too. Could I eat my Eggo with you?”

“Huh.”

It’s an all-purpose sound, the thing she says when she doesn’t know what to say. Dot often finds she doesn’t know what to say to me. Does she understand what I’ve done, and what her father has done for me? Does she hate me for it? I’m waiting to find out. And while I wait, I make myself an Eggo. We sit across the table from one another, eating our Eggos together.

At midday, John returns to the cottage, his body slowly growing as he crosses the bay. I watch from the kitchen; Dot watches from shore. She has been lying in the grass, reading The Black Stallion—a book I remember from my own childhood, about a boy and a wild horse marooned on a desert island together. I wonder if she has reached the part where the boy gathers moss to feed the horse, or where the horse first pushes its soft nose into the boy’s waiting hand. But I cannot ask her; I wouldn’t know how to begin. Dot’s concentration—flat on her stomach, her bare feet swaying in the air like seaweed—is complete. She only tears her gaze from the book to look out across the water at the blur of distant motion that is her father, the man I love.

I have made sandwiches.

Ashore, John opens his arms. Dot leaps into them, her book forgotten in the grass. He carries her up to the cottage.

The fishing has been good: John is smiling, at ease, pleased with himself. “They move so silently,” he says of the bass he has caught and released. “The big ones have this effortless gliding motion, like whales.” He slides his broad hand across the table. It becomes a gliding bronze bass, swimming over to the plate of sandwiches, pausing to nip at a pickle spear. Dot giggles. The bass takes notice: John’s hand tenses, fingers arching. Dot snorts, stifling laughter. John’s hand darts out at her and she grabs it, squealing, and bites down on one of his fingers.

“Yowch,” John says mildly. “Let me go, little fish.”

Dot releases his hand and beams up at him.

I am amazed at the red toothmarks just behind John’s cuticle, the saliva shining his nail.

“Do you like your book?” I ask.

Dot’s face drains.

The Black Stallion,” I say, “was one of my favorite books when I was a little girl.” She studies the bubbles in her apple juice. John takes my hand. His finger is wet. It burrows into my palm and I hold it there, squeezing tightly.

*

After lunch, Dot becomes a superhero. She drags the garden hose into the backyard, using the trigger nozzle to launch jets of water in all directions. “I am the Greatest Lake!” she announces. “I’m made entirely of water!”

John sits with me on the porch, placid and happy, his long pale legs splayed in front of him. “Time,” he says, patting my knee. “Give her time.”

John is good at patience. A carpenter, he has spent his life measuring twice to cut once. He told the doctor who stitched his head that he’d banged himself on an open cabinet door. Now his daughter disappears every Sunday night and he doesn’t see her again until Friday afternoon, and he believes he deserves this. I want us to pool our lives together. Someday, he answers. I’m waiting, I say.

To read the rest of the story, order your copy of Issue 23.1-Winter/Spring 2011 today.

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A note on why we chose it:
“We are at the tip of the thumb of Michigan.” So begins Greg Schutz’s subtle yet stunning story “You Are The Greatest Lake” being published in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue. I was immediately drawn in by the precise, clear prose and the world of the story’s narrator where the “sky threatens the sun.” It is clear from the first paragraph—where a man’s waders hang in the mudroom and hold his form like a ghost of himself, and his young daughter practices her “dead-man float” in the lake—that though the tensions in this story may be subtle, they are anything but quiet. Throughout the story, the first person narrator attempts to make a connection with her boyfriend’s daughter. But we soon learn that it will be difficult for her to accept forgiveness from the young girl, because she cannot forgive herself. It is a story about regret, reconciliation, and the narrator’s lack of a superpower that will allow her to let time heal wounds that she cannot. I realize that the last sentence may make “You Are The Greatest Lake” sound like a dreary read during the shortest days of the year, but Greg Schutz has written a story with great buoyancy and depth, thanks to his effortless prose that immediately places you in the world of the story and never lets you go.

Conor Broughan, Fiction Editor

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greg shutzGreg Schutz holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and was recently a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. He teaches English at Washtenaw Community College and Concordia University in Ann Arbor, MI. His stories have appeared in Sycamore Review, Ploughshares, and Juked. His story You are the Greatest Lake appeared in Issue 23.1 Winter/Spring 2011.

1 comment to You are the Greatest Lake (an excerpt)

  • Jules Smith

    What a lovely excerpt. I can’t wait to read the rest. Your words are peaceful and soothing. I felt myself immediately drawn to water, imagine that. I would like to see more of your work in print. Thank you.