When I called Mike to let him know I was in Burlington, visiting for five days on business, he was short and guarded with me, almost suspicious. My reason for being in town looked like an innocent coincidence—I was consulting on the financing for a new rec center at the University of Vermont—but it also was true that I’d jumped at the assignment so I could see my best friend again. On the phone, he said without conviction that he’d love to get together but that he was working late all week at his job as an administrator at a food bank and then had to get his boat out of the water for the winter on Saturday—sharp reminders of just how little I knew of what he’d been doing the past two years. I got that he meant the task with his boat as an excuse and not an invitation, but I volunteered I’d come along and help. He hesitated but then agreed by saying, “Um, OK, I guess.”
I met him in the lobby of my hotel and was struck at once by what I didn’t recognize. His hair was longer than ever before, parted carefully in the middle and curled behind his ears, and he had grown a gray-flecked beard. His pillow-soft middle was gone, ironed into something flatter, which made him seem younger than the last time I’d seen him. Although the slight, closed smile was familiar, even that, in this case, surprised me. It lacked the old warmth.
We shook hands, shuffled our feet, and repeated with awkward enthusiasm, “So how’s it been going, man?” He snapped his fingers twice, and I almost laughed aloud in surprise. Two rapid snaps were his tell that he was anxious and worried. Nobody besides me knew about it, including, I was sure, Mike himself. It had always been the one thing that made him seem human to me growing up, a clue that his perpetual calm and confidence was not as complete as it seemed.
Mike was living nearby with Grace, his girlfriend of two years, while he looked for a new apartment. When we’d first spoken, I’d offered to meet him at her place since it would give me a chance to meet her, but he scuttled that right off and told me the waterfront “just made more sense.”
“How long you been living with this Grace then?” I asked after we settled into his Subaru Outback—Vermont’s state car, he joked, as had two other people in the short time I’d been in town. Mike’s car was loaded down with what appeared to be his complete belongings, and it smelled, unmistakably, of pot.
“I don’t know. A couple months probably. It’s tough to find a place at a half-decent price around here. I’d love to move in with Grace, but she’s got a thing about living in sin. Strange these days, isn’t it? Seems to be the one thing from her parents that stuck.”
“Don’t you live with her now?”
“No, no, no. I’m visiting her. Visiting. A big difference.”
“It’s nice she’s looking out for you like that. Keeping you out of hell and all.”
Mike and I had grown up together in Raleigh. When I say together, I mean it, too, like we were as close as brothers. Mike’s parents had been devoted to their jobs and wildly successful. Both worked long hours, leaving the house and Mike in the care of Rosie, a grumpy housemaid who didn’t care for Mike’s incessant talking and insuppressible energy. We’d lived three doors down, and Mike had come and gone as he pleased. He made the guest room his own, kept several changes of clothes there, and often spent days at a time without seeing his real parents, though his mother would call mine for daily updates.
Mike soon became the golden boy in our family. We were capable only of minor successes, and he mesmerized us with his talents. He was popular, successful, and charismatic, waltzing through classes with A’s, picking up girls at will, and starring on various sports teams. I drifted happily in his orbit. After high school, he became a campus folk hero at N.C. State when he walked onto the football team and turned into a special teams demon, culminating with a blocked punt that beat Carolina our junior year. He thrived after college, too, marrying a beautiful, accomplished woman and rising to run his own hedge fund by age thirty-seven. We had bought houses in the same neighborhood and for a while had met for dinner, along with our wives, every Friday night and for golf every Saturday. He was the godfather to my daughter. Then his fund fell apart, done in by some reckless maneuvers—bold, he called them—and, in one six-month stretch, he declared bankruptcy, watched his wife walk out the door for good, and then disappeared like a wanted man on the run. I’d caught him a few times on his cell phone in the two years since then, though he rarely picked up for me and never called me back.
I’d walked the streets in Burlington since I’d arrived, past the artisanal bakeries and dreadlocked street musicians, keenly feeling the distance from our home and wondering how Mike could manage it. Now I’d seen him, though, seen his transformation, and I wondered if he’d simply left us in his past for good. I’d assumed this was a temporary flight, but he seemed like a different guy. He’d been the most driven person I’d ever known, and now his car was piled with boxes and stunk of weed. He looked like a Vermont stereotype, as though he’d arrived in the city, absorbed his new world and then resolved to strike the appropriate notes to fit in.
Mike drove us fifteen minutes south to a quiet neighborhood in Shelburne. Gray houses sat deep on their lots, guarded by abundant pines and maples and oaks. Sunlight seeped onto the windshield and hood in trembling lines and flashes. He parked behind the one-car garage of a Cape Cod with dark windows. Beyond it lay Shelburne Bay, glassy and stirring. The wind off the water was brisk, but the sun was strong and the sky clear. He remarked on the unusually warm temperature for so late in the year. We walked through a sprawling, overgrown backyard to the water’s edge. A guy named Case sat on a log, sleepily smoking a cigarette. Case nodded through Mike’s introduction to me—“a guy I knew back home,” Mike called me—seeming unimpressed. I felt like a silly tool in my khakis, loafers and light jacket. Case and Mike wore ragged jeans, untucked flannel shirts, and days-old beards. It looked like a costume on Mike, and I wondered if I’d have thought the same if I didn’t know him so well.
An old aluminum canoe rested upside down on a beach pockmarked with footprints. Mike pointed to a pile of ashes surrounded by overturned beer bottles in the sand. “Good time last night,” he said, grinning. Mike’s boat, an eighteen-footer used mostly for wakeboarding, was moored offshore. Case rowed us in the canoe.
Mike started the engine, and we gave a wave to Case and headed out. We had the water almost to ourselves. Most everyone else, Mike informed me, already had stored their boats for the winter. The fall colors were fading, the trees crowding the shoreline of Shelburne Bay already less brilliant and full than when I’d arrived.
We skipped across the water at first, and then Mike increased the speed until we were leaping off swells at thirty miles per hour. Each time we landed it felt as if we were a shift of wind away from capsizing. I gripped the dash in front of me, but Mike stood undisturbed, operating with an ease that I recognized from just about everything he’d ever done. When we approached a boat with lines dangling off the rear, Mike slowed so as not to worry the fish gliding through the world beneath us. We had passed from the bay into the open lake and were about three-hundred yards off the Vermont shore. New York lay to our left. On the Vermont side, sheer, grand cliffs rose straight up by the water, climbing high above us. The cliffs were lashed with curious bands of red and tan rock that canted to the west, as though blowing in the wind. Mike told me these were called the Red Rocks.
Then the boat cut off.
“This damn thing,” he said, laughing.
He turned the key and the motor sputtered. He continued turning the key, but the motor only coughed in return. “I’m sure it’s just flooded,” he said with a shake of his head. “We’ll let it sit.”
We looked across the lake. The slight turbulence of the water felt relaxing now that we were still.
“So, what’s new in Raleigh?” Mike asked with a sigh, as though he’d been forced to bring it up.
“Not much. Ted and Eveline got married last month.”
“No shit. I thought they broke up in the mid-nineties.”
“They got invited to the same cocktail party last year and were making out in the bathroom before the night was done. I was there, and lemme just say it wasn’t what you’d call subtle.”
I studied him. “You really are out of the loop, aren’t you?”
“I guess I can handle it.”
“You don’t miss it? Home? The guys?”
“Not most days.” He paused. “Or any of them really.”
Mike once again turned the key and held it forward, hoping to transfer his desire through the key and into the boat, to make the motor feel what he felt. “Start, dammit. Start,” he muttered.
The motor soared hopefully with sound, began the familiar process of ignition and then—with a death rattle and a puff of smoke off the top of its head—died. A scene straight out of a cartoon.
“That looked pretty final,” I said.
Mike turned and looked across the lake. We had drifted back toward Shelburne Bay. The fishermen’s boat floated in the distance, so peaceful it appeared uninhabited. Mike honked the horn and waved his arms as if he was back in P.E. doing jumping jacks for Coach Ballowe, but it quickly became clear no one was listening. Mike moved to the back of our boat, lifted the cover off the motor, and began to fidget inside.
I felt like an idiot peering over his shoulder, foraging my mind for something half-intelligent to say. He was in charge, and I waited for his next move. It had always been that way. Mike had possessed enough sense for the both of us, and I’d leaned on him throughout our time together. When it was time to make a joint decision—what movie to see, where to eat, which sport to spend our afternoon playing—we each always understood it was ultimately his call. In the time since he’d left, I’d often found myself reaching for the phone to ask his advice and then stumbling when I realized I’d have to figure it out without him.
“This thing isn’t going to run today and we’re not getting any closer to land,” he said.
“Is there a flag we’re supposed to fly or something? Do you know how to signal SOS?”
“No, but I do have a cell phone.”
Soon, Mike was on the line with a Coast Guard officer. He proved to be a disappointment as far as saviors go. The Coast Guard could not come and tow us unless we were in actual danger. We knew that we could not make that claim yet. Floating in the middle of Lake Champlain on a caressed fall afternoon, surrounded by the last gasps of the season, we were doing OK. The officer did say he could put out a call for any boats interested in towing us. Apparently, there are vultures waiting by the radio all summer, swooping in on stalled boats and dragging them to safety for a fee. The question was whether any of them were bothering to operate this late in the year.
We were listening when the call came across the radio, which Mike was surprised to find still worked at all. There was loud fuzz and then suddenly the Coast Guard officer came on and announced in an urgent voice that “Phil Ashio” needed a tow. Mike had asked for that handle. I almost fell overboard I laughed so hard, and Mike wasn’t much more composed. The guy from the Coast Guard kept repeating our handle and our location over and over again. Tears came to my eyes and my stomach seized up in pain. It was big, over-the-top hysterics, much more than the joke deserved. High school all over again.
When our laughter died down, I was reminded of a funny story from college, involving a series of drunken prank calls, and I told it, beat by careful beat, as though Mike hadn’t been there for it—as though we each hadn’t heard the other tell it to others a half-dozen times. I was an animated storyteller, my hands fluttering as I jumped to my feet to act out a crucial scene. Mike laughed like he meant it, nodding his head and slapping the steering wheel. He looked like the Mike I’d always known.
He stepped in with his own story then, building on my memories, talking too as though we both didn’t already what happened, didn’t know what he would say next. He talked about the full-mooned night we went cliff-jumping at a private quarry with some of our friends, sneaking through a hole in a fence. We all took a few trips to the same sheer rock, a few breathless plummets into the dark water below. When we jumped, it felt as though the water would never arrive and we would fall through the air forever. The thrill was unimaginable, and it quickly overwhelmed our caution and lifted us into delirium. We shouted, we celebrated, we mercilessly hounded the reluctant, cautious, and reasonable.
Then a group of police officers were on the cliff barking through a bullhorn as we scattered for some sort of cover in and around the water. They flashed powerful lights toward us, spotting a few unlucky souls, but Mike and I were situated behind a floating dock, clutching the side of it. He’d urged me there. He’d also taken my wallet, keys, and shoes when we arrived and hid them under a bush with his stuff, while the others dropped their possessions thoughtlessly to the ground, alongside empty beer cans, where the cops could study them. Any of the guys who had not been seen gave in and climbed to the cops’ side when they heard their names read off their drivers’ licenses. Mike and I were the only ones who didn’t get busted that night.
I noticed he was the savvy one in the story he chose, the one who saved the day. I wondered if that had always been the case if the stories he told always put him in the same light, and I was just now noticing it.
When the trouble with his business struck, he changed. He couldn’t handle the thought that he’d been diminished in front of me and my parents, the ones who had held him up as an object of worship his whole life. He’d come to depend on our awe and open belief that he was a phenom without flaws. He stopped answering the phone and ignored dinner invitations. I visited him at his empty house—his wife gone, most of the furniture with her—but he’d stand the whole time, acting antsy and distracted, snapping his fingers in an incessant two-beat rhythm, and then invent an urgent errand. My parents were consumed by him, and all of our conversations turned toward him eventually. Then one day he was gone.
Now he sent us cards on birthdays and anniversaries, but little else. We’d felt every one of his triumphs and failures throughout his life as though they’d happened to us, and we knew he must be hurting because we were hurting, too. However, Mike never called and he never came home. He’d departed for Vermont after meeting Grace online, and he hadn’t been back since.
When I visited my parents before leaving for Burlington, my mother held my face in her hands and said in a trembling voice, “Don’t you stay up there and forget us, too.”
I hadn’t come right out and told him he’d injured us as I’d often imagined I would. Once I saw him, I realized how badly I wanted things to be the way they were before, so I tried to pick up where we’d left off. As we told those stories on the boat, I laughed and loved it at first, but then this rehashing of our histories became a condemnation of Mike and the way he’d treated us. We had always been there for him. We’d gone through so much with him. Then he’d turned from us as though we meant nothing.
After his story, Mike seemed to become absorbed by the lake. We were both quiet for a while. Then, when he spoke again, he talked out over the water, instead of back toward me and the boat. “You know, this lake freezes over some winters,” Mike said. “Sometimes the whole lake freezes, sometimes just sections of it. People come driving out in their cars to go ice fishing or skating or whatever. You hear about people coming out too early or too late or going too far and then their car crashes through the ice and there has to be an elaborate rescue operation.”
“I guess the Coast Guard considers that endangered, huh,” I said.
“I guess,” Mike said with a grunt. “People come out on their snowmobiles and skis and snowshoes and everything else, too. You see people just walking their dogs out to those islands out there. The lake looks like this flat white desert.”
The wind had picked up and as I reached over the side of the boat a swell rose and smacked my hand against the side of the boat. The end of my sleeve was soaked. I cursed my luck.
The swells began to push us more insistently, smacking and sliding against the hull of the boat, and I bristled at the rhythms of this irritation. It was like being perpetually shoved. We rose and fell on the waves, watching the lake close in front of us as we retreated back into Shelburne Bay, away from where we wanted to go together. It was getting colder, and I crouched lower to catch less of the wind.
Mike was quiet and seemed deep in thought. He had his arms crossed and was staring at the shore. I watched him, feeling myself growing increasingly angry at the look of cozy satisfaction on his face. He straightened up, reached in the pocket of his vest and pulled out a joint. Then a lighter. I should have seen it coming, but I still didn’t get this version of Mike. He grinned at me, lit up and took a big pull. He looked lovingly at the sparked joint, took another pull and handed it over to me casually as if we were back in some hazy off-campus apartment surrounded by empty pizza boxes. It was intimate, unspoken, and I could feel him reaching back out to me.
I took the joint, studied it for a moment and chucked it over the side of the boat as far as I could. The wind held it in the air for one magical moment—it seemed frozen against the sky—before it dove into the lake.
Mike shot to his feet. He leaned on the gunwale and scoured the water, as though searching for someone who had fallen overboard. For a moment, I thought he was going to dive in. “What the fuck did you do that for?” he said. “If you didn’t want a toke, you could’ve just given it back to me.”
“What’re you doing up here?” I said, feeling the words come on their own. “Look at you. What the hell happened to you? Who do you think you’re kidding?”
Mike turned in my direction and considered me for a moment. His expression softened. I felt embarrassed. My hands dug deep into my pockets and I shot my legs straight out before me. I slouched low in the chair and studied my feet. He sat down and exhaled dramatically.
“I read something in this nature column in the paper last year that I haven’t been able to get out of my head,” Mike said. “I was just now thinking about it.”
I looked at him in astonishment. Had he even heard what I’d said? “Cool,” I said “Neat-o.”
He smiled at me as though at a petulant child. “Be patient with me for a second. I think this will help explain things, OK?”
“Sure, man. Knock yourself out.”
He kept his smile, though it tightened. “Thanks. So the water in this lake? It’s layered in the summer. Cut in half. The warmer water above the cooler water like vinegar on top of oil. Isn’t that bizarre to think about?”
“I guess,” I said, still wondering what the hell was happening.
“Understand it’s not as simple as the water just gets colder the lower you go. There’s a clear boundary. And when the wind pushes the warm water on the surface across the lake in one direction, the warm water pushes down on the cold water and shoves it in the opposite direction. So half the lake is going one way and the other half is going the other. Can you imagine that?”
“Just barely,” I said, genuinely trying my best to picture it.
“But then fall comes, and it gets cooler like it is now, and things begin to change. The water on the top starts to get colder, and, by December or so, it’s actually colder than the water on the bottom. Because it’s colder, it’s also denser. So, and this is the part that I really love, the bottom water rises for the surface and the whole goddamn lake flips upside down. They call it fall turnover, but it takes all the way to the edge of winter for it to happen completely. And, of course, when the turnover does happen, it’s just chaos beneath the water. Think about it. Everything that’s been resting hidden hunkered down in the deepest, darkest corners of the lake come flying up and mixing in with everything else. All that water just colliding and crashing and bumping around. Amazing, am I right?”
Mike made a clucking sound to emphasize the disbelief that should accompany his story.
“Then, things eventually settle down again, except that when they do the lake is different than it was before. It’ll never be the same. It’s changed for good.”
We had drifted even with a lakeside park populated by citizens and their rampaging dogs. From that distance, there didn’t appear to be a concern among them.
I didn’t know what to say. I had asked Mike a direct and personal question, one we probably both wished I hadn’t asked, and he’d shrugged it off and given me a science lesson in return. Fine, I thought. We’ll let it go.
But Mike had only stopped for a moment. “It wasn’t easy cutting ties with home, but I did it. I know I did it. I’m not proud of it or anything—I feel bad about your parents—but I don’t regret it either. Coming up here was my fall turnover. It was my chance to turn over and shake things up and it’s changed everything for me. I needed that. Everything’s different for me now.” He smiled. “Everything’s better.”
Mike stared through me as if he was challenging me to refute him somehow. He was like a mediocre actor delivering lines, grasping for the proper sense of gravity. He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes and gently hooked some loose hair back behind his ear. His elbows rested on his knees. I detected a hint of a smile curling up at the edges of his mouth, betraying his satisfaction at a well-delivered speech. I could see the deliberation behind every gesture. I felt the last remnants of my admiration leave me. It occurred to me that he’d prepared for this moment, maybe even rehearsed it in his head. He’d dreamed up the metaphor, placed himself grandly in the cycle of nature. And again he was the hero of his story. He thought he’d nailed it, too, and I knew it would be simpler for both of us if I could find a way to let him believe that was true. I didn’t want things to be simple this time, though. I wanted them to be honest.
Mike leaned back and looked over the water toward shore. Then he snapped his fingers twice. He seemed to realize what he’d done and glanced toward me quickly to see if I’d noticed. I felt myself sag, felt the resolve in my gut dissolve in an instant. Mike put his hands on his knees and squeezed them tight. The smile on his face was forced and desperate.
I reached over and slapped him on the back. “I think it’s really great you’ve figured things out like you have, Mike. I really do. Good for you. Mom and Dad will be excited to hear it.”
Mike smiled and nodded, looking relieved and proud. “Thanks, man. That means a lot to me.” He paused. “I’m glad we got together like this.”
I didn’t say anything to that. I didn’t want to hear him say another word. The boat continued to drift, helpless to the mysterious desires of the shifting, flipping lake. The sun was lowering, beginning to set behind the Adirondacks, producing a mix of colors so wild and vivid they seemed incorrect. It would be dark very soon. How long, I wondered, until we qualified as an emergency?
I studied the crowd in the park. They were mere figures at that distance but also distinctive to me. They had grown subdued and still, tamed by the scene, as though captured in a painting. Pausing on the boardwalk, lounging on benches, resting on their elbows in the grass, they stared as if hypnotized at the setting sun, knowing it would soon disappear but hoping for a final, fleeting moment that it would not.
Tom Gresham's work has been published in Day One, LUMINA, the Coal Hill Review, Third Wednesday, Aethlon, and Gravel, among other publications. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.