Across the Lake

story about childhood

For one summer, George Burns set up an orange-and-green folding chair at the edge of our lake. The town was a place that was no place in particular, and the lake was the size of a spaghetti pot. No one can prove it, but he was there.

The Munchkins knew it; fourteen under-eights whose counselor had been felled by mononucleosis. The under-eights were no counselor’s first choice, not when you could command Arts and Crafts or impress the eleven–twelves with your knowledge of Sassy magazine and the hidden meanings of Smashing Pumpkins lyrics.

But the under-eights of 1994 were feral dwarves with advanced degrees in treachery. They hid open-faced peanut butter sandwiches on paddleboats and waited for the nine–tens to get gooped. They glued googly eyes to the camp director’s car. They pulled crawfish from the lake and fried them on the tennis courts with magnifying glasses. They attempted incessantly to murder one another.

The under-eights had a counselor so sweet and long-suffering, saints and angels rolled their eyes and made barfing motions with their fingers. Kim sang folk songs and washed Maia no matter how many times she wet herself. She built a peace labyrinth and led the under-eights through it, holding hands at the end of every day. She rebuilt the peace labyrinth every time they rearranged the stones into words under-eights should not know.

She lasted three weeks before her doctor said she needed bed rest.

Camp Walden offered many amenities, including a Snacky Shack selling Funyuns and Now ’n’ Laters preserved intact from the Eisenhower administration. There were pavilions in which a legendary thirteen–fourteen had etched the complete and unabridged catalogue of Jimi Hendrix lyrics. There was a theater counselor who conducted three rounds of auditions for each summer’s masterpiece and could be counted on to hurl her body onto the ground weeping at least once.

But there were no counselors to spare. There were no penitentiaries with accommodations for under-eights. There were no answers to the prayer that the earth might open up and gently, humanely swallow fourteen dwarves.

This was not on my radar, as I was busy rocketing to fame. I had vaulted through three rounds of auditions to secure the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I had established a pro bono psychology practice, offering hugs, encouragement and hand beaded YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL bracelets. I had created the Camp Walden Gazette, consisting primarily of Saved by the Bell fanfiction, Lip Smacker flavor reviews and the nine–tens’ drawings of superheroes. My counselor had declared me the ‘pearl of the eleven–twelves.’

My counselor told the camp director that I was ‘joyful and mature.’

I was, frankly, insufferable.

The camp director decided to see if she could help.

What if we called up my understudy to assume my Dorothy duties? What if we ‘promoted’ me to Assistant Theater Counselor? What if we cast all fourteen under-eights as Munchkins, and assigned them to the care of one joyful, mature eleven–twelve?

I saw it clearly. The flattery smelled worse than the discount hot dogs they fried on Fridays, spreading eau de flatulence across the county. I gnawed a Now ’n’ Later. I snapped all four of my YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL bracelets against my wrist.

I snapped.

They knew me.

I thought I knew what I was getting into, but the Munchkins had taken a sacred vow of hooligannery. Mike said I was too ugly to be Dorothy. Vanessa crawled under the table and drew frowny faces on my Converse sneakers. Edmund studiously ignored me while assembling kebabs of grapes and tadpoles. Maia wet herself with delighted spite.

There was only one thing to do.

‘I am only going to ask one thing of you,’ I promised. Mike reassured me that he hated me. Edmund applied mud to his cheeks, presumably in preparation to conduct a raid on our suburb. Kelli removed her pants and hurled them into Lake Walden.

‘I am going to ask you to be loud.’

I can’t say for certain where this holy wisdom came from. Perhaps the camp director’s prayers finally reached the angels, who paused to fling me an idea before fleeing the scent of discount hot dogs. Perhaps Now ’n’ Laters, stored in a damp and humid place for four decades, mutated into a psychedelic substance that inspires visions.

Perhaps a legendary ninety-eight-year-old man caught my eye across the lake.

Whatever the source of my salvation, the under-eights were listening.

‘You do not need to sing well,’ I said. ‘In fact, let’s throw that under the table entirely.’ Vanessa, still under the table, bit my ankle.

‘Let’s sing as terribly as we can. Let’s sing so terribly, no one will ever forget.’

I saw hatred quietly let itself out of Mike’s eyes without slamming the door.

‘Your parents will be here,’ I reminded them. ‘My parents will be here. We must give them a performance they will never forget.’

Edmund nodded solemnly. ‘Never.’

‘But you must be louder than you have ever been before.’

They were listening. I wondered if I had triggered the apocalypse.

‘Do you know how loud you must be?’ I asked. They shook their heads. They almost looked like children.

I pointed across the lake. ‘Do you see someone across the lake?’

They looked. Nathan ran up to his chin in the water. Edmund acquired additional tadpoles. Kelli wrapped her pants around her head like a Tuareg herdsman.

‘I don’t see anybody.’ Mike’s hatred ran back in the door and stomped muddy footprints.

‘Look closer.’ I saw him. I actually saw him. No one can prove it, but I saw him.

‘I see him!’ Maia was the first.

‘Who is that?’ Mike saw him but didn’t like him.

‘I think I know that guy!’ Kelli threw her pants with violent force.

‘That man is named George Burns,’ I informed them, ‘and he is ninety-eight years old.’

‘That’s disgusting,’ Mike observed.

‘He is here because he’s heard about you,’ I said. ‘And he wants to hear you sing as terribly as you possibly can. He is very excited that you’ve been cast as the Munchkins.’

‘You’re lying.’ Nathan looked as though he wanted to believe.

‘I’m telling the truth. But he’s ninety-eight, so he can’t hear very well.’

‘GEORGE!’ Maia began shouting. ‘WE WILL SING FOR YOU, GEORGE!’

I am telling you, they sang. It was terrible. And, rising from his green-and-orange folding chair with all the ceremony of an earl, George Burns applauded.

The next day, Mike and Edmund made a voyage to the far side of the lake to apply an open-faced peanut butter sandwich to George Burns’s chair. But Camp Walden’s only ninety-eight had once been an under-eight, too, so he’d had the good sense to put it away.

‘We saw the holes from his chair in the sand,’ Edmund reported. ‘We saw them. He was there.’

‘Would I lie to you?’ I feigned hurt feelings. This was, of course, a mistake.

‘You are a lying liar,’ Mike reminded me.

But those chair marks made an impression. Week by week, the Munchkins gathered volume for George. Lollipops on distant shores surely shattered at the sound. Our Cowardly Lion turned fainthearted when he walked by our rehearsals.

I was not enough of a lying liar to tell the under-eights that their music was lovely. I could only confirm that their ninety-eight-year-old patron was giggling.

No one can prove it, but he was there. And I will tell you this for free: there is no lake so deep, and no delinquents so juvenile, that he cannot be found. You must simply remember to sing so terribly that no one will ever forget.




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