Having a few beers in my system was no excuse for nearly drowning my best friend, Terry Wickersham. We were drinking and drifting at anchor in a cove about thirty yards from the shore of Elk Lake. Well, he wasn’t my best friend yet. He was going to be a senior in high-school and I was still hanging out with Cliff Teabury and my cousin Donald Mills. We were home from college for the summer and had worked seasonal shifts at the pickle factory. They were indifferent students, as it turned out, who now faced imminent notices from Lapeer County Draft Board.
By the time green season was done, we were all pretty indifferent to the grunt-work at the plant. It was my fourth summer at Valiant Foods. The advantage of the place was that they always needed help when the cucumbers were ready. And, it didn’t cost much to get a depressed migrant worker to make a run for a few cases of beer and some Annie Greensprings. The weekend we got laid-off, my parents were away on a real cruise. It was time for an end of the summer-after-the-Summer-of-Love party.
“C’mon, Fritch. Please? I left a pack of smokes in my car.” Terry was one of the seven passengers on my parents’ pontoon boat.
“Oh, quit whining. I’m not dragging that anchor up ’til we’re ready to leave. It’s not that deep. You can probably wade.”
I had hoped to keep the revelry at a low pitch, including running the boat in and out. How desperately could he need a cigarette at his age, anyway? The water was near body temperature at the end of August. A piece of the proverbial cake for him to just ditty-bop on up there in support of his own nasty habit.
Everyone had taken a plunge earlier, when we were out deeper. We’d motored around the perimeter of the lake while I could still see to avoid the shallows. Even the two high-school girls swam in their underwear. Cousin Donald had met them running one of the clanging cappers. Driving a high-loader, he delivered boxes of lids to their machine. They got laid-off the same day we did so the guys talked them into coming along for the alcohol. You couldn’t see much when they climbed back up the swim ladder. I tried to show some class by not staring. But their skin was a deep mauve as the sun settled into a hazy, red horizon. At the same time, a swollen moon had started its climb through the tree-line of my parents’ property.
“I don’t know, man. That muck is nasty.” Terry peered over the rail. The water here was tomato scented, rot-gasses bubbling from the reedy cat-tail ooze. It would soon be dark, and the preview of a harvest moon meant back to school for me. Packing those jungle-green, gallon cans of GI dill chips was as close as I wanted to get to my generation’s war.
“Dude, just wear your nasty-assed tennys. The girls have already seen your skivs,” I told him. “No one’s gonna see you up there, either. I left a flashlight on the dock.”
The land was on a private gravel road, not much more than a two-track, which accessed the rustic east end of the lake. My dad had hauled in a few yards of gravel for a parking spot. He carved a path down the wooded hill. My brother and I helped clear enough of the wet-land at the bottom for a floating dock. We lugged patio stones down for a fire-pit. Our bit of shore hadn’t been dredged except by the prop of the outboard motor.
“You know I don’t swim too well,” Terry announced, but he’d dropped his jeans again. The damp jockeys gave back a weird light. It looked like his grubby shoes hadn’t been white since spring. He wore an Australian digger’s hat, with one turned up flap. A tall kid, the raft’s canopy kept rearranging the hat on his tumbleweed haircut.
“I did not know that, dude. How would I know that? And I told you—I don’t think it’s that deep.”
He’d opened the gate above the swim ladder but still hesitated. The girls giggled. Not at him, I didn’t think, but because the apple wine was working and they’d started making out with Cliff and Donald. I kept hearing better not and uh-uh, then the ice slushing in the cooler. Dick Lester, the other third-wheel aboard, fiddled with his big transistor radio. We were losing the Flint rock station, Creedence’s Down on the Bayou diluted to static by the bottomless dome of night.
“So, but you’re not sure.” Terry slapped at a mosquito. “We need to light a few more coils.”
“Do you want a life-jacket?” I groaned. “Or, look. I’ve got the landing pole. I’ll stick it out in case you need it.
He peered at me in the last of the gloaming. “No, I don’t need a life-jacket.”
I unclamped the telescoping aluminum pole from its place on the starboard rail. “Feel better?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sorry.” He adjusted the bush-hat again and scratched at the mutton chop sideburns which, for his age, were an obvious source of pride. “Hey, can I take a beer? I might wait up at the car in case Patty Rhoden shows up.”
A nagging apprehension now resurrected itself. “Patty Rhoden! Damn it, are you crazy?! She’ll bring another half-dozen dumb-ass teeny-boppers. No offense,” I spoke toward the back of the raft.
Donald Mills reclaimed his tongue from one of the girls long enough to add his protest: “Not even, dude. You’re gonna be up there in your underwear? with alcohol? And one of the neighbors drives by? There are too many cars up there already.”
I’d gotten a ride out in Teabury’s Cheve, a graduation present that had already seen us through many adventures. Donald’s Monza Spider was probably much faster than he should have been allowed. Wickersham’s boxy, battered Toyota with its taciturn wiring was an object of patriotic derision. We’d filled out the available parking.
I could see Terry’s frown. “Yeah. You’re right. Shit. I told her nobody else. She won’t show up anyway,” he grumbled. He examined the landing pole.
“It’ll be fine,” I said.
The raft drifted gently around to face the moon, the starboard pontoon now our nearest point to shore. Terry took hold of the railing on the outside. He moved hand-over-hand to the front and I went with him, pulling out the sections of the pole. I stepped over the cooler and a pile of sleeping bags.
“Hell, I think I can see bottom,” Terry said, leaning forward like a gawking bowsprit.
I, too, could see the broccoli-green weed-bed over which we floated—undulating aquatic ghosts. “Go for it, then,” I said.
He stepped off, plunging feet-first between the slimy fronds. But then he kept going, straight under.
“Oh, fuck.” I scrambled over the rail, thrusting the hook into the spreading turbulence.
Terry came up thrashing under the channel marker of his hat. “Over my head!” His arms flailed, one hand banging the hollow aluminum of the pontoon, the other finally closing on the plastic tip of the boat hook. “Shit, that’s nasty!”
“Can you touch?” I felt him tugging the pole back toward the raft, looking for another hand-hold. His free hand latched onto the anchor rope.
“No,” he gasped. “That’s kinda the definition of over my head! I hit that silt gunk. Jesus! Like some kinda jelly.”
His impetus and then the struggles in the water had pushed us back out a few yards. “Yeah, you’re probably in about two feet of water over five feet of weed and water.”
“How deep does the muck go?”
“Who knows?” I said. “What do you wanta do?”
Terry let go of the line and I dragged him around to the swim ladder. He hung there catching his breath. “I want a damn smoke.”
“Well, you’re already wet. Can’t you swim at all?”
He shook his hippy mane like a retriever. “Dog paddle. A little.”
I collapsed the boat hook and opened the gate. I crouched above him, ready to help him aboard. “Can’t you stay above the weeds for twenty, thirty feet? Those shoes can’t get any worse.”
He looked up. He wasn’t smiling. “And I lost my hat.” He made no move to start climbing.
“I’ll look for it if you still wanta go. We’ve got the 6-volt spot.”
Terry blew a long, preparatory sigh, perhaps gathering his courage. “I thought you didn’t wanta draw attention.”
“Well, I don’t. But…” The faintest whisper of a breeze swung us back toward shore. It might be now or never for him. “I don’t want you to lose your hat, man. I’ll put the light on you ’til I see you stand up.”
His knees tucked up and ready, he braced those nasty shoes against the pontoon. “Well, tell Ma I love her. Don’t let the search party have that hat.”
One more deep breath and he pushed off, the raft again lurching west. “I’m joking.”
I found the yellow spotlight, its lens wide as a saucer. I put the beam on the noisy geysers of Terry’s kicking. I couldn’t see his hands doing that dog-paddle, but his shoulders were gyrating in panic mode.
Pretty soon I could see him slogging upright in the channel the raft had worn through the reeds. He muttered to himself, low but carrying distinctly as the muck sucked at each lunging step. When he’d dragged himself onto the dock, the flashlight winked back at the raft. I turned to the search for his bush-hat. It was just about to capsize, ten feet from the swim gate. By hanging way out, I was able to thrust the hook just far enough. I watched Terry’s beam make its way, by stumbles and starts, up the hill.
He was gone quite awhile, longer than I thought necessary. It made me more nervous than ever about irritating our neighbors. There were only three cottages on the eastern cove of the lake, but all were within easy hearing distance. Just to pique my anxiety, I thought I heard Terry cursing at something up there by the cars. But really, on such a still and sultry evening, other voices carried across the water from every direction. I could see at least two fire pits going on either side of the cove, so ours was not the only party in progress. Then I was distracted by one of the girls hurling over the stern rail.
“Oh my,” she squeaked, then retched again, the vomit making a particular splash—of solids striking the water—not like the merry gurgle of pissing over the side.
“Already?” My cousin Donald stood up slowly.
“Please tell me you missed the motor,” I said. I reclamped the boat hook—for the last time, I hoped.
“I’ll be OK. Sorry.” She coughed and spat a few times. With a soft spurt, Donald pulled a ring-tab for her. “Thanks.” She gargled beer, I guess, or tried to. She spat over the rail again. What a trooper, I thought.
Finally, I heard the noise of Terry’s labored slogging approaching from shore. “Can I have some light here?” He called. By the time I’d adjusted the spot, he was swimming again, after his fashion, big feet roiling the water like leaping carp. He carried a pack of cigarettes in his mouth.
“Have you ever been duck hunting?” I asked. With his mouth full, he was the only one who couldn’t laugh. I opened the swim gate and waited for him to hand me the smokes. Still hanging in the water, he asked for a beer. He drank it while catching his breath.
It wasn’t half-an-hour later that Donald and Cliff Teabury announced that they were ready to leave. “The girls need to go,” my cousin informed me.
“You have got to be shitting me,” Terry said. He shook the last drops of lake water out of the bush-hat and jammed it onto his uncombed head.
“Hey, numb-nuts. Don’t blame us for your nicotine jones,” Teabury barked. “You couldn’t wait a little longer? We’re leaving most of the beer. What more do you want?”
Terry calculated for a moment. “Nothing, I guess. I’m cool.”
“They have to go? Or, you wanta go?” I asked. “Why don’t you finish with whatever and come back? You guys haven’t even had your share.”
Donald was already pulling up the anchor—cement in an old coffee can with an eye-bolt stuck in it. He plunged it up and down to clean off the bottom goo.
“We’re taking a few, don’t worry,” Teabury said.
“And you’re good to drive? That was the whole idea of sleeping over.” I shone the spot on the helm pedestal, located the ignition, and then handed the light to Donald.
“I been holding back.” Cliff’s smirk suggested that they wouldn’t be taking the girls directly home. “If we can’t split ’em up, I’ll have to bring Mills back for his car.”
I fired the outboard and turned the wheel a bit to the right. Donald focused the spot and motioned me to bring the craft ahead. I wanted to use just enough throttle and then coast. Almost immediately, he waved cut it.
When they’d all hopped onto the dock, I kept my annoyance to myself. My friends were taking their better fun on the road, leaving me with two guys I hardly knew. I could throw the motor in reverse, or just stay in the mooring where the mosquitoes had a better shot at us. Either way, I wasn’t ready to give up on the party. The evening was too fine, the moon kiting directly over us with plenty of PBR still awash in the ice.
“Hey, how do you feel about pushing us back out?” I asked Terry. He was still forward, watching the progress of our flashlight moving up the hill.
Turning, he snorted. “Not too good. Why?”
“Well, so we can be quieter.”
He held up a finger. “Might not matter anyway,” he whispered. “Dickie. Turn that off a sec, would ya?”
Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Man, rasping from the big station in Windsor, Ontario, abruptly stopped. Again, I heard angry voices coming from the top of the hill. “Who the hell is that?” Now a porch light came on just down the road.
“Not me this time,” Terry chuckled with satisfaction. “I forgot to tell you. Patty did show up. She was in my back seat with Mike Sherman. On my beach towel, which I couldn’t use then. I kicked ’em out.”
I had to smile. Patty’s embarrassing night might discourage the other girls. “Yeah? I didn’t see any headlights.”
He was leaning out again, trying to hear—maybe Patty and Sherman begging for a ride back to town. “They hiked in from Attica Road. We must’ve been on our boat ride. That bastard. I think they were gonna try the Cheve next.”
Now I heard that neighbor shout from his front porch. “Shut the hell up, over there!”
To my relief, none of my friends responded. There were no more expletives or argument and I was grateful when both cars started. They backed out and departed as quickly as the rutted trail would allow.
“All the more reason for us to be off-shore,” I told Terry. “Should we see if they come down?”
His lighter clanked and flared, illuminating him. “Hell, no.” Then he surprised me by climbing over onto the pontoon and easing back into the waist-deep water. “Well? Let’s get it over with,” he said. The cherry of his smoke brightened then he found a place to wedge it under a mooring cleat.
I quickly pulled on my own canvas shoes. I wasn’t going to wade in the dark, either. The water felt like a filthy bath. “Grab one of those mooring cleats when you have to. Don’t drown on me.”
“It’s in use,” he said. “How far do we have to go? That swim almost killed me. My heart was beating like an automaton.”
We weren’t going anywhere until I could quit laughing. “I’m sorry? A what now?”
He paused. “Like, a robot sort-of? Something that goes automatically? Like, on its own? Its own will?”
I stared into the shadows of the canopy which blocked the moonlight. I couldn’t make out his expression. “I’ll take your word for it.”
When I started to push forward, he leaned into it as well. The bottom wanted to take my shoes, but the raft gathered momentum. “What you need to do is to quit the smokes.”
“Sure, mom,” he answered above our splashing. “But I was pissed off, too. So, the adrenalin? And I got out of gym last year for marching band!”
The water was at my chin. “Never woulda guessed. Ready?” I warned him. “It’s dropping off.”
I grabbed the cleat on my side and hung on. The raft eased through the last cat-tails. Terry lurched a few more sucking steps then let it tow him. I could hear him sucking air. “Geez-us,” he wheezed. The cigarette butt made a sparkling ark and hissed in the water.
“Wow. I think my automaton is defective.”
Dickie Lester added a few yocks above us but he had also brought fresh beers.
“Awww, eat some shit, botha you,” Terry groaned when he’d recovered his breath. “I may be gettin’ drunk, but that’s still a word. I’ve got a pocket Webster’s in my glove box.”
It was then that I had an inkling we might become best friends. “Show me in the morning, OK?”
He began to pull himself clumsily around to the swim ladder with one hand, reluctant to let go of the cold PBR Lester had handed him. “Sure. If you don’t manage to drown my ass.”
Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in Michigan, USA. He feeds two wood-stoves, hikes, bikes, sings in Presbyterian choir, watches English football, camps at sports-car races and spends too much time in Starbucks. Mr. Dungey has more than 45 story credits, including ten in eight different publications in 2014. His work can be read online at City Lit Rag, riverbabble, Flyover Country, Marathon Literary Review, Madcap Review, and Literary Commune (UK).