The Secret in the Lake
by Joseph Grant
|part 1 of 3|
Every Fourth of July, the war would come back to him. It came back to him in sniping bursts of firecrackers, echoes of long-ago battles. While others were out enjoying the sunshine while camping, or at the beach or at a family barbecue, he could not join them.
Night would descend cruelly upon his mind: a blackened sky without stars or moonlight, and everything around and above him would explode inside his head, erupting in a tide of blood red, ghostly white and bruised blue.
When the noise finally grew still beneath his alley window, the lingering tinge of trace gunpowder would still be there, brought in by a gentle breeze.
He despised the view from his bedroom window. It looked out onto an alley, a green garbage dumpster, and his neighbor’s bedroom window. Windows, he thought, should look out onto a view, not in on him.
He was not as fortunate as most, he thought, for he had survived the war. Rather, he had survived the battles that made up his war, for no one ever truly survives a war. Inconceivably, he had made it through the entire war without so much as a scratch. His Navy buddies said he was lucky, blessed even. When it was all over, however, he found his mind had been a latent casualty of the war that had raged around him.
Each day of peace he survived, the more the war killed him inside. The question of why he had survived and the others had not tore him up internally. He did not consider himself lucky at all. He wished there was a war he could go to now.
War was what Stonewall Jackson had said before he was accidentally killed by his own troops and what every soldier has said before or since: war is man’s version of Hell on earth. All great men made that transition of going to Hell and back: Cochise, Ikkaosai, Lee, Sherman, and Cornwallis were the names that came to his mind when he thought of great, fearless leaders.
Many famous men had been tested under fire for better or worse. From Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Washington, Arnold, Patton, Ike, Tojo, Hitler, MacArthur and all the way back to Sun Tsu again. It was what they had learned and had done with their existence thereafter that defined them as heroic, tragic or damned. Hemingway had done it too, and look what that got him: a shotgun lobotomy.
Conversely, the war had taught him how to survive. It was something he had accomplished in the most meager of existences. As a former Navy diver, he had few skills, and the underwater salvage company he owned had gone bust two years before. What he had not yet sold off was gathering rust in a storage shack at the Navy Yard across town.
The underwater salvage business had sustained him for a number of years, but his disability check and veteran’s pay were the only reason nowadays he could keep his head above that same water.
“Charles Fetter.” He heard his name called by the clerk at the Administration Desk of the Veteran’s Administration.
Charles stood and straightened his shirt and walked dejectedly over to the morbidly obese woman sitting at the circular counter.
“I’m Charles Fetter.”
“You have to fill out the correct form for disbursement of savings. Last time you filled out Form K, you should have filled out Form G.”
“What?” Fetter asked, dumbfounded.
“I said... Oh, God...” the obese woman muttered under her breath. “What you need to do is fill out Form G. You filled out Form K. You filled out the wrong form.” She spoke down to him as to a child.
“But I need that money!”
“There’s nothing I can do, sir.” she huffed. “Next!”
“But I need that money now!” he repeated.
“Look there’s nothing I can do,” she said, mouthing the words slowly and succinctly. “Do-you-un-der-stand?”
“But-I-need-the-money.” He said in an imitative, mocking tone.
“Then you shouldn’t have filled out the wrong form.” She answered him in a rude echo. “NEXT!”
Fetter could not believe it. Not only was he not getting the money, money that rightfully owed to him by the U.S. Government, he was not getting it for another four to six weeks, he grumbled as he walked out of the line.
He stormed out of the dreary Veteran’s Administration building with its lifeless interior and almost equally lifeless occupants. The warmth of the early spring sunshine enveloped him, the beauty of the day canvassing his dejected mood. The oncoming depression seemed almost something to which he could aspire.
The heavy wooden door creaked slightly as Fetter let in the obscenely bright sunlight. Eyes of the patrons at the bar narrowed at the sudden burst of light, and the sour wet cardboard and cigarette smoke stench of the barroom greeted him as he stepped into the darkness.
Only faint red light from behind the bar burned, and Fetter amended his tired eyes to the dimness as those at the bar had adjusted them to the light. It had been ten years since Fetter’s last drink. His dry odyssey was about to end.
He ordered a beer and a shot with a calm voice. The bartender looked at him for a second and brought him the drinks. Fetter was surprised at how his hand no longer shook when he picked up the mug or how easily the liquor welcomed him back from such a long reprieve.
The beer was ice cold and refreshing in its cheap, bitter aftertaste. Mid-point he followed it down with the Daniels whiskey. It burned his throat as it went down and he could feel it slowly chase the beer all the way down to his gut, and as the slight feeling began to take him, all was okay in his world again. He smiled. He watched the Knicks and ordered one beer and a shot continuously until he was pleasantly buzzed and unpleasantly broke.
He began to gather his thoughts and his thirty-five cents off the bar, which the bartender eyed almost protectively. The bar had not grown in customers; rather a few who had been there had gone and been replaced by a generic and luckless blueprint. A conversation from the back poolroom made him have second thoughts about leaving so soon.
“I tell ya, Mickey.” The shorter of the two said. “There’s a whole town underneath the water, there. Under the water, I tell ya.” The guy took and missed the shot.
“Stop joshing me, Frankie.” His friend also missed.
“Nope,” he said and missed another.
This caught Fetter’s attention. If there was one thing he was any good at, it was his dexterity with a cue stick. The thought crossed his mind that he could play these guys for their drinks and obtain some additional information on that mysterious story. As a former diver, it certainly piqued his curiosity.
“I’m Charlie Fetter,” he said to no one as he walked over to the odd pair playing pool.
The taller of the two nodded and went about making his shot. The shorter one eyed him cautiously and moved his wallet, which he had placed on the window ledge next to his beer, just a little closer.
“You guys wanna play?”
“We’re already playing,” the shorter one interjected.
“Good then.” Charlie smiled and placed a quarter on the edge of the pool table. “I’ll play the winner.”
This brought no form of protest form either and Fetter bid his time against the dusty sunlit window ledge, watching the traffic along Eighth Avenue.
The smaller of the duo walked over. “It looks like I play you, guy.”
Charlie shrugged and got up off the ledge and grabbed a cue that hadn’t been chewed to pieces and revolved it around in his hand and bent to make a few shadow shots as his opponent racked up. The two friends exchanged odd looks behind his back.
“What’re we playing for?” The other one piped in and drank from his mug as he leaned against a stool.
“Rounds, if you want.”
“We can do rounds.” The guys answered competitively.
“Fine, then.” Charlie smiled. “We’ll do rounds.”
Charlie let the other guy break. It was a poor break, the balls barely reacting.
“You’ll get ’em, Frankie,” his friend said, still leaning against the stool.
“I’ll get ’em, Mickey,” he answered.
Charlie maneuvered around the table the way a prizefighter would, telegraphing the shot. He found one, hit it, then shot another and as he realized both of his opponents were staring at him, he purposely missed an easy shot.
“That was on the pocket,” Frankie exploded. “I can’t believe you missed that!”
“Neither can I,” he said convincingly.
“For a second there, I thought you were playing us, Carl,” Mickey added.
“Huh?” Mickey asked, confused.
“It’s Charlie, not Carl.”
“I wish I was that good.” He smiled and shadowboxed at the guy.
“Let’s just play, huh?” Frankie interrupted. “It’s not old friends week, is it?”
“Easy, Frankie.” Mickey laughed.
Charlie seized the moment. “So, I heard you guys mentioning a city that had been hit by a flood or something?”
“No,” Mickey said rudely as his friend missed another shot.
That was too easy, thought Charlie.
“Actually, a town in Jersey that the state bought and then threw everyone out of so they could make the Fallbrook Dam. The town was called something like Hoverstown or something,” Frankie said.
“Doverstown,” Mickey corrected him. “But only we know where it is,” he added petulantly.
“I know where that is.” Charlie said. “My dad and I used to go shooting up there.”
“Well, you can’t get there anymore,” Mickey told him.
“No, don’t mind Mickey, Charlie.” His pal spoke up.
“So, they flooded the damned thing?” Charlie ignored Mickey and his friend’s several missed shots. He cared more about hearing of the mysterious town.
“Well, they got the whole place blocked off, the roads are closed...” Mickey huffed.
“That’s not true, Mickey please. Let me just tell our friend here the story. “They got everyone out of there almost overnight, the National Guard and the State Police came in and moved everyone out supposedly, see. They said some nuclear waste had seeped into the water system to get them out.
“It caused a real ugly scene from what I heard. An older neighbor who lived there used to tell me stories when I was a kid, I remember. Used to scare the bejeezus outta me, telling me that they didn’t get everyone out in time and they flooded the place.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Frankie.” Mickey shook his head in disbelief.
“That’s what he told me!” he yelled at his friend. “He also said he didn’t know for sure, but he used to say he’d stake his life on it that there were valuables still down there.”
“That’s it!” Mickey cried out. “Why don’t you just go ahead and tell him everything?”
“Chill, Mickey,” Frankie cut him. “Just chill, all right?”
“Why’d you have to tell him, Frankie? Chrissakes, it was supposed to be our find!”
“Mickey...” He groused. “It’s under seventy-five feet of water, that’s why!” He shut him down. “It’s out of reach, that’s why!”
“I know, but why’d ya have to let him in our secret?” Mickey growled
“Don’t worry about it.” Charlie waved him off. “I’ve heard about the place before. I’ve been there, there’s great bass fishing there. You hear stories how every once in a while objects float up to the surface, like an old shoe or a coat or even an antique toaster oven or a stop sign.”
“That’s just an urban myth,” Mickey spat. “No one’s ever proved it.”
A light went on in Charlie’s attic as he pushed his way between the pool table and his opponent, who was taking liberty with Charlie’s interest in the conversation. “Excuse me,” he said and proceeded to eliminate his competition shot after shot.
When he finished, Charlie muttered two statements. “A shot and a beer.” And “It’s not necessarily out of reach.”
While Frankie struggled to figure out what he meant, Charlie sent Mickey to go get his drinks.
Copyright © 2009 by Joseph Grant