The small, bright lake shone every morning, even when it rained. You could see the sky without looking toward heaven. All souls were reflected there.
I walked its two-mile circumference every day for almost a month. I was in exile, upstate, estranged from my wife, waiting for her to move out of the apartment in the city. Only once was the water roused enough by wind to punctuate the surface with neat white-tipped commas. It was late in my stay.
That was when I noticed the withered forest in the lake. The trees were still standing, so I supposed their island had been recently swamped. They didn’t bend in the wind that day, they just broke off and hurried toward me in serried rows that looked like rafts. I bent to retrieve one sliver, a crooked timber smoothed by drowning. I used it as a walking stick. It kept me upright, for a few days, anyway.
The dwellings facing the lake were all at a much higher elevation than the water, as if they had been warned by those trees. Some of these houses were serenely perched on hilltops, surrounded by green lawns and accompanied by wind chimes. Most were backed a hundred yards up into dark overgrowth, protected by chain-link fences against everything except the weeds and the saplings. All displayed the same blue sign: NO TRESPASSING.
The abandoned vehicles congregated on the eastern edge of the lake, where the wind arrives. An orange backhoe sat there, perfect testimony to the bankruptcy of the construction company that had started some renovation uphill. I climbed into it one day, just to see if I could remember the pedals and the levers I had once used to make a living, before I met my wife. I worked construction, she edited books. We were long past star-crossed. When we ran with her crowd, I was always way behind, a trailing ornament on a homecoming float.
The key was in the ignition, so I started it. Everything came back to life. For the hell of it I raised it up on the stabilizing plates, turned the shovel south and dug a grave. It took five minutes. I could have stayed there all day, digging some more, remembering all the people I had buried, but I turned the shovel back east and climbed down.
The rusted white 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 was next door, if that’s how you plot a position in the middle of nowhere. It faced south. Somebody had backed it into this space hoping, or just wanting, to leave. The vehicle had settled in so far to the ground as to look like just another outcropping—a different rock formation, a jagged edge of shale? The tires were sunk in the dirt to the point where nobody could kick them.
I opened the driver’s side door and climbed down into the seat. The key wasn’t in the ignition, but it dropped from the shade, like in a bad movie. The engine started when I turned it. Now what? Drive away? Head south?
I sat there, listening to the exhaust manifold protest its suffocation. The urgent sound expired after twenty seconds. The gas tank was empty, anyway. From the sunken driver’s seat I couldn’t see the lake, only the sky, and it was now blotted by random shards of mud on the windshield. In these dark shapes I saw two symmetrical creatures, arthropods, fight to the death.
The door wouldn’t open when I tried to get out. My weight had sunk the Cutlass even further into the earth it had defied all these years, now more than thirty. I was trapped, but that felt good. I steadied my breathing, thinking that I’d preserve the oxygen—I couldn’t open the windows—and fondled my walking stick.
When the sun pierced the windshield after noon and the temperature rose, I called my wife on the cell phone. I wanted to speak to her before I boiled alive.
“How you doing?”
“I’m fine. I’ll be out by the time you get back. “
“I don’t think I’m coming back.”
“Oh for god’s sake, would you just once in your life stop saying these stupid things, making the rest of us respond to your, what, your needs, your provocations?”
“I don’t think I’m coming back.”
“Fine, don’t come back. I’ll move back in. I like this apartment.”
“OK. I like this car.”
“What car? What are you talking about, the Subaru? That’s my car, too, you know.”
“No, it’s a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass, I’m sitting in it. An abandoned vehicle, like me.”
“Oh for God’s sake, you are so stupid, you left me, remember?”
“That’s not how I think of it.”
“Well, think again. “
She hung up.
Two hours later, I broke the window with the walking stick and climbed out. When I started to pack for my return to the city the next day, I decided to leave everything behind, my clothes and all the books I brought. The walking stick, too. I left it deep in the woods, where everything decomposes.
But then I got to NY 17, future Interstate 86. I turned right. I drove west.