Ghosts of the Lake
Jim "Zee" sat in a lounge chair on the grassy knoll between the cottage and the lake watching as Ciara Noll exited her grandparents' house and walked across the yard toward him.
Zee had seen that same image for the past fifteen years and it made him smile every time. Today, Ciara was wearing dungaree cutoffs over her bikini bottoms and an unbuttoned white blouse over her bikini top. Her brown hair was pulled up underneath a white hat visor. She was carrying a wine cooler and she collapsed into the chair next to Zee.
"How's Alice doing?" Zee asked.
"It's hard to tell, day to day," Ciara replied with a shrug.
"Do you agree with what she said yesterday?" Zee asked. "That Pappy's Place is a dump?"
"You can't take what my grandmother says personally, Zee," Ciara replied. "She's slowly losing her mind and with that comes a lack of boundaries and politeness."
Zee glanced over his shoulder at his family's aging cottage that had been dubbed 'Pappy's Place' years ago as it once belonged to his great grandfather long before Zee was born.
The cottage had a haphazard look to it as the family hadn't put a lot of money into upgrades over the years. It was a summer place, after all, whereas the Weaver House next door was a modern year round house built within the past thirty years.
The Weavers – Tom and Alice – were Ciara's grandparents and Ciara spent most of her time there instead of with her single mom in Miller City twenty miles away.
Zee lived in Enfield Connecticut a good sixty miles away but the family spent their summers at Pappy's Place on Sun Rise Lake. Their father, an insurance executive working in Hartford, commuted back and forth on weekends and some weekdays in the summer, but Zee's mom was a school teacher able to spend most of the season at the lake.
Zee's mother called the cottage 'rustic' but now Zee wondered if Ciara's grandmother was right in calling the place a dump. He glanced at the Weaver House that looked like it belonged on the cover of a real estate brochure – well-maintained and attractive.
Pappy's Place featured a large living room with a panoramic view of the lake through picture windows that allowed the sun to burst through with rays of gold. But the walls were thin, the interior décor and kitchen were outdated, and the four small bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs left much to be desired.
"You only go up there to sleep and poop," Zee's mother reminded her son and two daughters in younger days when the children complained about the small living spaces.
Zee's favorite part of the cottage was the screened in side porch that ran the length of the cottage. The kids took turns sleeping out there on warm summer nights, especially when they had friends visiting. The porch was also where Zee became a prolific reader.
Zee had been coming to the lake with his family for as long as he could remember, the place his father said was full of beauty, tranquility, and peacefulness.
"This is our refuge," Zee's Dad would proclaim with authority.
The only real work came at the start of the season when the family opened the cottage for the first time (usually in early May) and at season's end (usually the end of September) when they closed up the cottage for the winter.
Opening up meant dragging the dock out from the storage space underneath the porch and anchoring it along the shore, floating the wooden raft about twenty feet out from shore, getting the row boat and canoes lake worthy, cleaning the cottage's interior from its winter sleep, priming (and often unclogging) the septic tank, and turning on the water and electricity. The chores were reversed at season's end, sealing up the windows and doors with plastic to prevent the brutality of winter to enter inside the cottage.
Zee's Dad toyed with the idea of winterizing the house to make it year round habitable but the cost for such a renovation was excessive for a second home, although the roof had been re-shingled a few times and small cosmetic repairs had been performed over the years.
"How 'bout getting a refrigerator not from the 1960s?" Zee's sister Andrea complained each year.
Zee never cared about appearances and refrigerator models before, at least not until Ciara's grandmother made that rude crack the previous day with such disgust and distain in her tone that it caused Zee pause.
"Do you think your grandmother always felt that way about Poppy's Place?" Zee worried. "All these years, staring out her window with contempt at the dump the Zuckers owned next door?"
"You can't hold a woman with Alzheimer's accountable for what she says," Ciara replied. "Let it go. It's a summer lake for heaven sake's. There are plenty of old camps, cabins, and cottages around here."
"I focused on the nostalgia and tradition of being here every summer," Zee replied. "I had a sense of belonging. I thought your grandparents liked us."
"Of course they like you," Ciara said with a groan. "Your family and our family are friends none of us want to lose."
"It's been almost a dreamlike existence having this here," Zee said.
"A classic idyllic summer experience all these years," Ciara agreed.
"I forget about everything else whenever I'm here," Zee said. "The real world fades away. It's all about the lake, the water, and a carefree summer I treasure for the rest of the year."
"Time slows when we're here," Ciara observed. "Even as we get older there's still a rustic magic and grace - even with the sounds of the motor boats! A peaceful walk around the lake. The cries of the loons. The gentleness of the breeze. The scent of the trees and people's camp fires and propane stoves. The laughter of children. Playing cards on the porch. Watching a storm roll in. Taking a boat ride. Going for a swim. It never gets old. We never get old."
"My summers here have been the happiest days of my life," Zee stated. "I'll remember them forever."
Ciara breathed in the scent of the nearby pine needles. "I still capture tadpoles," she admitted. "I just don't keep them in jars anymore!"
"Do you still hide stones in the water around the dock?" Zee asked.
"Of course," she grinned.
"We've really been blessed," Zee smiled.
"And now with my grandmother in her fading sunset it makes me appreciate it all the more."
"You think your grandparents might sell their place?"
"My grandfather will keep her at home for as long as he can," Ciara predicted. "After that, who knows?" She sighed.
"I can't imagine not having you guys next door anymore," Zee pined.
"How long do you think you're going to keep coming back, Zee?" Ciara asked with interest. "We're in college now. Who knows where you'll go after that. You could be far from here. Andrea does even come anymore."
Andrea was Zee's older sister. There was also Zee's younger sister, Erin. Ciara hung out with all three growing up at the lake.
"My parents will never sell this place," Zee replied. "I can't imagine my mother not sitting at the picnic table in the kitchen in the morning having her coffee, staring out the window at the lake."
"She was always the first to join us in playing games like Pitch or Scrabble or Monopoly on the porch," Ciara recalled.
"Remember the times she water skied?" Zee laughed.
"I remember the aroma of her lasagna," Ciara said with affection.
"Well, your grandmother was basically the same," Zee offered. "Just an older version. Always cheerful. Always smiling. Always pitching in and helping out. Always baking stuff for us."
"She still loves her swing," Ciara revealed. "Grandpa continues to bring her out there at dusk so she can watch the sun set."
"I like the dawns better," Zee said. "The sounds of the morning birds make me feel safe and there was no hurry to get out of bed."
"We'd swim all day," Ciara said, staring out toward the lake. "I remember the summer I first learned how to swim."
"The torture of having to wait after eating before we could go in the water," Zee said.
"And we'd still get shriveled skin!" Ciara laughed.
"What's the record for most dives off the raft in a row?" Zee wondered
"Two-hundred and three," Ciara recalled.
"How 'bout the time you were getting in shape for your high school swim team and you practiced your long distance swimming all around the lake with me in the row boat?" Zee smiled.
"And the strawberry and blueberry picking," Ciara said with sentimentality.
"Walking along Shore Drive to get a treat at the Country Store."
"Climbing all those trees," she said, gesturing to the clump of pines on the other side of Pappy's Place.
"I guess it first started to change when I got that job caddying at the golf course," Zee said.
"I hated seeing the traditions fade," Ciara frowned. "It was hard to let go of our youth. Especially when I got the waitressing job at the Lake Shore Diner."
"You know, my parents could sell Pappy's Place eventually," Zee worried. "A lot of the older rustic cottages have been gutted and remodeled into modern year round homes."
"They can't take away our cherished childhood memories and coming of age milestones no matter what happens," Ciara said. "I remember the first fish I ever caught here."
"Maybe we can go fishing off the dock later," Zee suggested.
"I'd like that," Ciara smiled.
"But, as you said, life and circumstances change," Zee sighed.
"We'll still be friends," Ciara claimed. "No matter what."
Zee threw her a glance, hoping that was true.