The Banks of Fairview Lake | Geoff Watkinson
When I was five years old, I took my last trip to Fairview Lake—a glacial lake one mile long and half of a mile wide in Sussex County, New Jersey. My maternal grandparents owned a cabin in the small lake community, which was sixty miles north of the town where I grew up. My first vivid memories emerge from the banks of that lake.
It’s July, late morning. I’m sitting in the backseat of my grandfather’s Cadillac. My younger sister, Kelsey, is beside me and my older brother, Bryan, is next to her. I watch the trees pass by, nursing a stomachache. Bryan puts down the window. I close my eyes and slabs of sunlight flash across the inside of my eyelids. Poppy sings “Row Your Boat,” and it turns into a round, all of us singing. At some point, I drift off.
When I wake, Poppy is turning onto Fairview Drive. The car plunges down the hill—like a log flume dropping at Disney World—and onto two miles of coiling dirt and gravel road. The Kittatinny Mountains surround us, southeast of the Delaware Water Gap that separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. As soon as Poppy parks in front of the cabin, Bryan and I take off our shoes, run out back, take our fishing poles from the shed, and run down the road toward the lake.
“Put those shoes back on and be back in an hour for dinner!” Grandma yells. There are copperheads and rattlesnakes and bears. That means little to us. I had once seen a water snake swim from beneath a grouping of lily pads and pass Grandma as she did the backstroke. The wildlife intrigued me.
Bryan and I reel in the sunfish. Time fades. I didn’t yearn for it to pass like when I was in church pews or school desks. Poppy walks down from the house to retrieve us for supper. The three of us walk along the vacant road as the fading daylight trickles between the trees. Fireflies flicker. Crickets chirp.
My parents had just arrived and we eat hot dogs around the long backyard table, swatting at mosquitoes that come at us like an infinite army. Mom and Grandma clear the table. Poppy sips a beer in the kitchen, whistling to the radio. Bryan, Kelsey, and Dad sit in front of the scratchy black and white TV.
I am excited to be left alone. I walk to the side of the cabin where the water heater is surrounded with rotting wood. I slip into the cobwebbed crevice behind it and sit on the dirt. I hide. I want to see what will happen.
After a few minutes, voices unite around the table. “Where’s Geoff?” one asks. They shout my name. I smile, proud of having found such a good hiding spot for a game no one else is aware is being played. Dusk comes like a thick fog, images in the distance losing clarity. Voices resound from the gravel road—some I don’t recognize—and my smile withers into the stale air behind the water heater as the yells begin to upset me.
There’s now a search party scouring the woods with flashlights. The game is over. In tears, I walk to Poppy in the road. He breathes heavy, scowls, and picks me up like a bag of sand, carrying me over his shoulder. “I have him!” Poppy yells to the others. He takes me to the backyard, pulls down my pants and smacks me with an open hand.
The door to real danger had been cracked open, perhaps, for the first time in my short life. I couldn’t quite see what was one the other side, but my intuition told me it wasn’t good. Years later I would hear stories about Fairview Lake: a drowning, a bear that had torn through a neighbor’s cabin, and a registered sex offender who was a neighbor down the road.
The darkness of night wasn’t just an absence of light. There were tangible things of which to be afraid. But fear requires a self-awareness that I didn’t have when I tucked myself behind that water heater. I was just a curious little kid. All these years later, I can still hear those voices yelling my name. I can still smell that murky air. I can still see the murky silhouette of my grandfather in the distance, the banks of the lake out there beyond.
About the Author:
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in early 2022 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.