Erie is no joke. A Janus lake—calm and tempestuous, wildly unpredictable—it was the lake that gave me the story I’ve been telling myself for years in defence of my otherwise lifelong pursuit of complacency.
For three summers I traveled the Great Lakes to the sort of backwaters tourists don’t mark on maps. I worked on shoebox ships for poor wages as an engine room cadet. On graduation from a satellite college with a degree in marine engineering, I went to the M.O.T and wrote my ticket, but I knew I’d never hack it. A career in seasickness is no life. Instead, I took a position offered by an uncle in a Toronto bank. And when it was over—my fling with the romantic life—I couldn’t say I missed any of it except Erie, and not for the lake itself but for a woman who’d seen something in me.
The summer I was nineteen, I signed ship’s articles on the Georges River, a cementer that ran regular contracts between Toronto and Carol’s Beach, Ohio. Carol’s Beach was as nowhere as you could get, but it had a bar called Hawthorne’s that really shouldn’t have been there. It was too imposing, too rich: tall ceilinged, with a massive oaken bar and cathedral windows overlooking Lake Erie. Imagine a Bay Street bar in Gimli or Come By Chance. You didn’t need a suit to get in. It was enough to be there to feel like you were wearing one.
Early in the summer I found myself infatuated with a married woman I met at Hawthorne’s. It started as conversation. She was impressed I was a sailor. I was impressed she was married and talking to a sailor. She was beautiful. I was not, and I had the unattractive quality of being at least five years her junior. A kid by her standards. Through June and July we met as regularly as the Georges River could crisscross Ontario and Erie. Always when I arrived she was at the same table by one of the tall windows.
When I asked, “Do you wait for my ship?” she denied it.
Nevertheless, in August we fucked.
The next trip, my last of the season, I waited alone at our table perilously long without seeing her and only just made it in time to the ship to help the deckhands pull up the gangway.
“Lucky,” they said.
“Not this time,” I replied.
I never went back, never saw her again. But in memory she was always there at the table we’d shared, the woman who taught me that whatever else I’d do, whatever compromises I’d make, I am capable of breaking rules.
A couple years later at the bank, to make myself interesting, I would tell people about my summer adventures which, when I edited out the mundane rituals that predominate a sailor’s life, left little to say. It didn’t matter. Most people don’t have a clue how banal the job is, but to say you were a sailor is to side with antiquity, and to unimaginative people antiquity is inexhaustibly interesting. I never forgot the view from Hawthorne’s big windows and at times I would talk about that—minus the affair—and I would talk about the water in the mannered way of sailors, even though I’ve never gotten it. Water has always just been water to me: no more poetic in a lake than in a bathtub. I was performing a poem that someone else had written and that I didn’t particularly feel, but at least I knew the words.
And I recited it until, one day, someone stopped me.
“Carol’s Beach? That can’t be right. Carol’s Beach is in Wisconsin.”
The speaker was changing money at my wicket and had engaged me in a conversation about a trip he was taking to Toledo. I didn’t want to be strident with a client, even one straightjacketed and sweating in a cheap navy suit, so I put on a practiced expression meant to reassure him I didn’t take offence at his error and let the matter pass.
The next time it happened, again at work, I felt I ought to say something: “I’m certain it’s on Lake Erie. I used to…”
“Lake Michigan, you mean. My brother-in-law’s from Carol’s Beach.”
“I use to work on lake boats.”
“What ship were you on—the Flying Dutchman?” It was the sort of statement a man makes and looks around to see who’s impressed.
Privately, I bristled. Bank policy is to defer when being insulted. I tried for a whimsical tone.
“Who knows? I worked in the engine room.”
“Then you wouldn’t know.”
What sort of logic was that? Clients at other wickets, engaged in their own affairs, took no notice; still I was rattled by the man’s confidence. Was it conceivable I was wrong?
Anyone can see my great metamorphosis in life has been from whatever a child is into a plodder, and I don’t care. I can find no poetry in the faces of bank customers who come on in waves of impatience. I find no beauty on my walk home from work past hungry people, some with briefcases. My bar is a chain restaurant. Its principle charm is that it’s safe. I know everyone, know the things they say. I see no point in being political, having observed that our causes are usually reactions.
Or I do care, but I acknowledge that we all lose something.
The third time I was corrected it was by a woman I’d met through an internet dating service. Her profile indicated she wanted “Someone sensitive. No head games.” She arrived to our date formally attired. We were at Starbucks where I was trying to come across as the man of her ads when she stopped me cold: “Bullshit. Carol’s Beach is in Wisconsin.”
I watched her walk stiffly out of sight, marvelling at my disaster, at her anger. That night I googled Carol’s Beach.
It was in Wisconsin, a state I’d never visited, not even by car.
I felt the chill of evaporation, like something inside of me had disappeared suddenly: a woman whose name I no longer remembered; a woman who suggested the only transcendence I’ve ever experienced.
What others find in nature I’d found in her. Every social label that would keep us apart—her married status, the fact she was American, the first American to confide in me, the fact I was a Canadian sailor and not particularly good-looking—had dissolved into the purely animal. And now that I sided with being a clerk, the ability to document that experience was gone. In absence of evidence I had the memory of a memory of a memory…strands of the ephemeral. Touch and taste that, like rungs on a ladder, receded into darkness.
I stood at my open apartment window looking out onto the pitch black form of Lake Ontario. The view revealed no waves but I knew that they were there, and riding them the occasional lights of lakers. Everywhere something was happening that would leave no record. Everything moving. Audible to the imagination only.
I imagined the colossal roar of engines under bobbing lights dampened in the distance to silence. I could smell nothing outside my apartment, but I knew the lake. It was that time of year when the lake smell is a dead fish smell—the perversely green odour of an August shore. Skimming the shoreline. Breezing past signs warning not to fish, not to swim.
Who was she? Someone who wore a Princess Di haircut to meet a young sailor in an ostentatious bar. That was real. I knew it. But something was wrong. I tried to arrive at her name, imagined it was something I could approach at the end of a downward ladder in a crowded room of false memories…of…
“Sandy,” I heard myself say.
She looked up from her fist. She’d been debating. Something.
I heard her ask if I’d ever committed a crime. I was a sailor after all.
“Imagine if you’d been arrested. Not just once but every time you jaywalked. Imagine if you’d been convicted of every small crime you ever fucking committed. Do you know what you’d get?”
“Life.” She tilted. “Our small crimes give us life.” She pressed her chin awkwardly against her fist.
All the same, she assured me an hour later, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Probably she knew I wanted to say that I loved her. That’s the usual way a man makes sense of his sins. We were in the alley behind Hawthorne’s where I felt fearfully exposed. My pants around my ankles, I was trying to keep clean.
“Say it doesn’t matter. And keep saying it.”
“The whole time?”
I chanted “It doesn’t matter,” with the rhythmic insistence of a lover, but not for long. What I came to imagine as my moment of transcendence was just that. When I pulled on my pants they were potched with alley shit.
There was no beach. I remembered how the water slapped the rocks.
Why would the town be called Carol’s Beach when it had no sand? A clerk’s mind generally isn’t so given to transference.
I did what I should have done from the start. I googled Hawthorne’s and found my bar in Carol’s Cove, Ohio, a town with a dock for unloading cement. That was the answer: my mind had played a neat trick, writing her name, Sandy, on the landscape—translating Carol’s Cove into Carol’s Beach.
In the ad I clicked, Hawthorne’s is as big as I left it. It hasn’t shrunk as things do when you revisit them after many years. Clearly visible in the photograph, a man and woman a bit older than me sit at what was once my table—our table—the man preoccupied with his food, the woman staring out into a flat, blue horizon with an anxious expression.
André Narbonne is the reviews editor of the Windsor Review. His writing has been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and won the Atlantic Writing Competition, the FreeFallProse Contest, and the David Adams Richards Prize. A short story collection, Twelve Miles to Midnight (Black Moss Press), was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award.
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