On A Lark
Lark Berg entered my life when I was twelve. The day is entrenched in my memory because Lark's mother was in a wheelchair and Lark was on crutches when they moved into our next door neighbor's house, Lark's grandparents The Doyle's. My mother told me there had been a horrible car accident that killed Lark's father and severely injured Lark and her mom but I didn't ask a whole lot of question about what happened.
I did chores for Mr. Doyle so I was around the house a lot. Mrs. Doyle invited me to stay for lemonade and cookies and that's how Lark and I initially forged our friendship – sharing cookies and lemonade. It was weird because Lark didn't talk much and she struck me as forever sad. I guess being in a car accident that kills your Dad can do that to you.
I tried to be cheerful and funny and once in a while Lark would smile but for the most part she was grim-faced, depressed, and quiet. Her mom spent most of her time in her room. Lark didn't go to school. Her grandmother home schooled her so she didn't have the opportunity (or interest) to make new friends and I kind of fell into the role as her only friend.
Lark's grandparents sometimes took her out and they often invited me along – a cone at Red's Tastee Freeze, a dip at the public pool in Greenville, and dinner at Denny's. My mom tried to help out too by having Lark join our family on outings but she seemed invisible around my loud boorish older brother and talkative popular older sister who found Lark to be socially inept and "almost mentally retarded".
When we turned old enough, Lark and I went downtown together for a milkshake at Johnny C's Diner or to goof around at the Five and Dime. Once in a while, we'd take the bus to Greenville on a Saturday afternoon for a movie matinee or to shop at Donovan's Department Store. I had my guy friends with our guy stuff to do – little league baseball (eventually promoting up to Babe Ruth) and when I turned fourteen I was hoping to land a part time job that paid more than what Mr. Doyle coughed up for the odd jobs I did for him.
Lark didn't give me a hard time about that stuff but I knew she considered me her only friend and I felt obligated to be there for her as much as I could. I didn't think of her as a charity case but I felt sorry for her knowing how much the accident had affected her and her family.
Lark's mom eventually got better physically, in time getting out of the wheelchair but she walked with a permanent limp and her left arm was partially paralyzed. She rarely left the house and she was so sad that she made Lark look perpetually happy. Lark's mom was nice to me but it wasn't a whole lot of fun being around her because she was so depressed all the time.
I was surprised the summer we turned fifteen when Lark invited me to go on a vacation getaway. Her grandmother wanted to get Lark's mother out of the house for a change of scenery and Lark didn't want to go alone. I was flattered she asked me along but my mother was uncomfortable with the idea of me a fifteen year old boy sharing a cottage with a fifteen year old girl even though we would be chaperoned. My father made me promise to behave myself and avoid any scandalous trouble and my mother finally gave in. Actually, I really didn't want to go because the situation felt weirdly awkward. Would Lark and her mom be morose depressed messes the entire time? I also had a part time job at Fontaine's Department Store and I didn't want to give up shifts plus I was supposed to be working out getting in shape for approaching football practices.
In the end, there was no way I was going to disappoint Lark. How could I - her only real friend - turn her down? If I was really her friend I'd help her out. So on a Sunny July Saturday morning I brought my suitcase across the lawn to the Doyle's place. Mrs. Doyle drove with Lark's mom in the front seat. Lark and I sat in the back among the overflow luggage and supplies that didn't fit in the trunk.
Mrs. Doyle acted like a Cruise Director Hostess with over the top cheerfulness and fake excitement, really overdoing it trying to make a positive impact on the rest of us but Lark's mom didn't have a lot to say and Lark was her usual quiet self. Mrs. Doyle carried the (often one sided) conversation while Lark's mom mostly stared blankly out the passenger's window and Lark remained silent. I wondered if I had made the wrong decision in coming along.
We drove for nearly two hours before leaving the interstate and cutting through all sorts of back roads that led to the boonies. We stopped at a small country store and loaded up on food and other supplies. Lark's grandmother gave her a fifty dollar bill and told her to buy whatever goodies she wanted so Lark stocked up on cookies, chips, soda, and other snacks to keep us fat, dumb and happy for the week!
We drove another ten miles - Lark's Mom studying a piece of crumpled paper and giving Mrs. Doyle the directions scratched on it. The cottage belonged to a friend of Mr. Doyle's but all I saw was woods, followed by forests, followed by more woods until Mrs. Doyle finally turned down a dirt road and we came upon a "rustic" (said Mrs. Doyle) looking cottage on a small lake. The place was outdated in need of repair and updates but it was clean and it had both electricity and running water (pumped from the lake) so nobody was complaining.
There was an open living area inside the cottage, a kitchen area with an old outdated stove and a refrigerator from the 1950s. The lights hung from the ceiling with uncovered bulbs. There were two bedrooms down a side hall and a small funny-smelling bathroom. There was a cot on the side porch for me. There was no air conditioner - just the breeze through the open windows and one fan in one of the bedroom windows. The furniture was old and not necessarily comfortable.
The yard grass was long and shaggy. We didn't see any other cottages or camps in our vicinity and it was hard to tell if there were any other places further down the shore because of the many trees. There wasn't a beach front at our place and there was no dock. I found an overturned canoe on the side of the cottage which appeared to be in working order. A few paddles and life preservers were with it but Lark didn't seem to be much interested in taking it out.
We unloaded the car, unpacked the supplies and settled in. I liked the smell of the trees but it was almost eerily quiet although occasionally the breeze would bring the sound of distant voices our way from elsewhere on the lake. There wasn't a television - just a beat up old radio with a turntable and several albums from the 1960s. There were also a couple of bookcases full of books and games. Mrs. Doyle took charge of activities and events as she assumed the role of House Mother. Lark's mom mostly stared out the window at the lake with little to say.
The first few days were mostly spent hanging around the cottage. There wasn't much to do other than read books, play board games, make jigsaw puzzles or hang out in the sun by the lake shore. I swam a few times (although it was kind of hard getting in the water with no beach) but Lark didn't go in as much and it was a chore just to get Lark's Mom to leave the cottage to sit in the sun.
Mrs. Doyle kept things rolling by continually suggesting activities and keeping us busy but as relaxed as I felt doing nothing it quickly became boring too, especially with Lark not having a whole lot to say. I think both her and her mom were thinking about Lark's father a lot.
I finally convinced Lark to join me for a canoe ride. I needed to escape from our little spot on the lake and see what else was out there. We dragged the craft to the water and I taught Lark how to steer and paddle as we floated around in the water close to the shore. Mrs. Doyle urged us to explore the lake as long as we kept our life preservers on so we headed out onto the deeper water, Lark in front with her long brown hair blowing in the breeze.
We discovered that the lake wasn't very big and there weren't all that many camps and cottages on it. Some places had docks and rafts and rowboats and kayaks but there were no motor boats or other larger crafts. The lake was largely undeveloped with lots of woods and rocks. When we reached the far end of the lake, we noticed a small sandy beach with several buildings nestled in the woods. It looked to be some sort of summer camp from the distance with volleyball nets, horseshoe rings, a buoyed beach, and a raft with a diving board and chute on it about thirty feet from the shore. It wasn't until we got closer that we realized that the people on the beach were…..naked! There were some kids and teenagers and young adults, along with plenty of older people – like, over forty! It wasn't something I expected to see this far out in the middle of nowhere: a nudist camp!
Two people emerged from the water onto the raft and waved us over. It was a man and a woman – both naked!
"Maybe we should leave," Lark remarked, glancing back at me with wide eyes.
"We should be friendly," I replied, feeling slightly embarrassed. "It's a small lake."