Lady of the Lake
by Kathleen Clauson
“Fell in the weeping brook, her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
Till that her garments heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
from Hamlet (4.7.137-54) by William Shakespeare
“These goddamned students wouldn’t know a cross-walk if it bit them in the ass.” I said as I slammed on the brakes. Two giggling blond coeds had materialized in front of my car, wearing sleeveless tops and embroidered jeans, backpacks slung over their shoulders. I rolled down the window and yelled at them like they were a couple of nine-year-olds. Three times in a row, in a deliberately slow, booming staccato, I snarled at them, “C-R-O-S-S -- W-A-L-K,” making sure they heard the sound of every single letter. And then to exaggerate the point even more, I pointed wildly to the street and drew parallel crosswalk lines in the air with my finger. “And these are our future leaders,” I thought.
The Cindy-Lou-Who twins suddenly turned vicious, contorting their fresh faces and flipping me off simultaneously. The girl with the Tigger backpack spat out “fucking loser” at me with enough venom to kill an elephant. The other girl, wearing a bright yellow headband and red lipstick, took up where her friend left off and yelled “get a life, deadbeat.” Their coppery voices echoed down the street for everyone to hear. I stepped on the gas and sped away, in a hurry to get away from my nothing job and back to my nothing life. Those little bitches were right. In six words or less they had summed up my entire existence, without even knowing me.
It was full blown fall, cool nights and a sea of autumn leaves, gold and red confetti, streaming from the sky. I was working at the University Research Institute, not as a scientist, but as guy who wrote other peoples' ideas, and their publications, on note cards. A bibliographer of sorts.
I had graduated with an MS in Biology, but I had taken a civil service job so that Marta, my wife, (now long gone) could pursue her graduate degree. After all, she had waited tables in a greasy diner while I was in grad school, coming home at night smelling of fried onions and hamburgers. She finished her undergrad work and I finished my thesis. It was my turn to work. I eventually intended to go on for a PhD or work in a lab.
This job was a cop-out; at least that’s the way I saw it. I’d always heard that if you kill yourself, you reincarnate as a civil servant in the next life. Maybe that’s what happened to me—bad karma, plain and simple.
Day after day, while staring at the gigantic periodic table that covered the entire wall in front of my desk, I shuffled an endless blur of science books. I should have been publishing my own research, instead of shelving the works of others.
My life started going to shit after Marta started grad school. She was keen on medical research. A few weeks into the semester, she started working late at the lab. I didn’t give it a second thought because testing a hypothesis was like being addicted to heroin—without warning there was a warm, liquid thrill and nothing else mattered. At least that’s how it was for me. My research centered on the regeneration of limbs in amphibians. At times I had more interaction with frogs than with my wife, working sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning, until I couldn’t tell how many legs my creatures had. Marta always understood (or at least I thought so at the time.) After she got off work, she’d bring me sandwiches and Cokes and offer to clean-up test tubes and slides.
What I didn’t know, until after Marta was long gone, was that she was getting some special tutoring from Dr. Flanagan, chair of her thesis committee. They locked themselves in the lab and fucked like minks on the white speckled counters where zoology students dissected shark embryos and mutant rats.
Marta finished her thesis and our marriage at the same time. No explanation, no apology, no kiss-my-ass, no nothing. Five years down the tubes. Marta took few things from our house. Everything important to her fit neatly in a red plastic laundry basket. We signed our divorce papers without a single word. Our marriage vows seemed as unimportant as empty promises to re-pay student loans.
Marta and Flanagan moved away to set up house. I found out from Carly, Marta’s best friend (who had known all along about Flanagan) that he accepted a position as director of a research unit at an Ivy League college while she kept house, growing gardens of snapdragons and daffodils, instead of strains of virus. Flanagan even divorced his wife. Maybe it was time I admitted I was already floating in nothingness, like a piece of gnarled driftwood in the sea, long before she left.
I wondered if Carly got off by telling me.
I was in PhD limbo. Limbo, where those with unfinished dissertations lived in hell on earth, in shame, under the scrutiny of their advisors, the department faculty, and worst of all, their former classmates who had long gone on to good jobs and careers. I worked Monday through Friday, from 8 in the morning to four-thirty, an hour off for lunch. My work wasn’t challenging, but it paid the bills. I got up the same time every morning, had breakfast at McDonald’s (Egg McMuffin, two hash browns, coffee, and cheese Danish), went to work. I shuffled books all day and scribbled bibliographic annotations on index cards, and then I went home to an empty house. My life was sadly predictable, at best, feet first in a grave-like rut.
I worked for Flossie Davidage, PhD. She had been in charge of the Research Institute for more than two decades. I had heard she and her husband were hired for faculty positions, but after a budget crunch, they only had room for him in the department. She screamed discrimination and they put her in the Institute. The only color she ever wore was gray and her glasses were as big as petri dishes. And she never let me forget my rank.
“Mr. Foust, would it be possible for you to prepare a list of resources for Professor Bloom’s graduate organic chemistry class?” She scribbled out an equation and crammed it in my hand.
“Sure, no problem.” And before I could make a move, she snatched it out of my hands.
“Oh I forgot, you studied Biology—unfamiliar with the elements.” It was as though she didn’t recognize biology as a science, totally ignoring all the chemistry I had taken. She probably balanced equations instead of having sex.
The only thing I looked forward to was the drive home. Ambrosia Boulevard was the oldest street in the town, paved with brown cobblestone, walked on by horses a hundred years ago. The trees arched over the street in a lazy green canopy, sleepy flowers beneath. Sunlight filtered reluctantly through the branches, creating leafy shadows for a sidewalk dance. Lake Constance was on my way home. Constance Pomeroy invested three million dollars of her dead husband’s money to landscape sculpted gardens and tiny lakes all over town. Charleston Pomeroy blew out his brains on a snowy country road when his long-time mistress threatened to expose him when he refused to divorce Connie.
A fountain cascaded in the center of the lake, illuminated at night by fluid color, blue then green, then blue. Lily pads floated effortlessly on the water, nudged occasionally by gulping orange goldfish that nibbled bits of bread and crackers thrown to them by visitors. Unbelievable serenity was sweet in the air. After Flossie’s put-down I went home, more bummed out than usual. Thunder rumbled like timpani and lightning zigzagged across the horizon. The sky was dapple gray, like the flank of a spotted white horse, traces of blue, fading fast.
I reached the lake and traffic had stalled completely as police sorted out a minor accident. Horns honked. Drivers bobbed their heads, up and down, to see what had happened, like those glass-eyed dogs with jiggling heads in the back windows of cars. Three students sat together near a patch of bright-faced zinnias. Under a weeping willow, a young couple sat entwined, gazing into each other’s eyes.
Just a few yards away, standing on the mossy bank of the lake, I noticed a tall thin girl with hair, the color of emerald glass. She was pale, with little expression. She wore a black spandex top and pants, tucked into tall red boots, tied up with a cat’s cradle of hooks and strings. Over the top of it all, she wore a gauzy green dress, which fluttered playfully in the breeze. I tried not to stare but I couldn’t look away. She gazed deep down into the water. It was as though she had captured a glimpse of sparkling diamonds on the bottom of the lake. Maybe it was just the trees, the water, the grass, but this girl radiated a blue-green aura, making her beautiful. She didn’t shift her gaze; she didn’t move. The wind blew all around her, rustling the jagged hem of her dress. Finally the traffic cleared and as I put my car in drive, she stretched out her arms, in divine gesture and scattered phantasmic flower petals in the air.
At home I ordered a pizza and watched Drew Carey. I drank six beers, ate the pizza right out of the box, and lined up the swinging witches in a row. My thoughts drifted back to the girl at the lake and I conceived a hundred questions, wondering who she was and what she was doing.
I swam an ocean in my sleep that night, dreaming of green-tailed mermaids, baring naked breasts. A white bubble rose to the water’s surface and the green-haired girl emerged, her dress floating in misty swirls. She motioned me to swim toward her with curled fingers. As soon as I was close enough to look into her eyes, I woke up, aching to see her again.
For several days, I didn’t see the green-haired girl. The air turned cool and the sky streaked with blue sheets of cold rain. After work, it poured. My defroster wasn’t working, so I drove with the window down, using an old plaid dishtowel to wipe off the moisture as I drove.
I turned on Ambrosia and there was the girl, standing impishly under a huge green umbrella. Suddenly she twirled the umbrella, like she was in a parade, and danced in the rain. Her eyes followed as raindrops quivered into large concentric circles on the lake.
When I went home that night, for the first time in years, I pulled my thesis from a dusty shelf. I had promise, I was told. I thumbed through the pages and saw notes, hand-written by my faculty thesis committee. Marta was gone and so were my excuses for not getting on with my career. I popped open a beer as I pondered getting back in the mainstream. My inspiration was short, but it felt good.
The next day, things start to happen. Rose, my student worker, with bangs the color of a neon pink post-it note, thought I looked much too chipper for a Tuesday. Flossie asked me, without sarcasm, to annotate an extensive bibliography of biology articles. I poured through them all day, inspired by the work of others, anxious to look into a microscope again.
For the first time in years, I felt alive. That night I went home tired. It was a good tired, the kind that comes from a wrinkled brain, deep in conscious thought. I called my friend Brian and we decided to head downtown to shoot pool at a smoky bar near the college.
On my way to Brian’s, I saw her again. A rich, velvety blue twilight blanketed the sky. The green girl was looking deep into the water, totally ignoring a young man at her side. I pulled over to watch them. He was much taller, a dark ponytail hanging down his back. In one hand he held a rainbow of painted daisies. I could see his lips move, but the girl didn’t respond. He took her hands and cupped them around the flowers. She didn’t speak. She plucked off the petals, creating a pastel breeze. The young man stormed off, the hurt carved into his face. I drove away, wondering what had happened.
That weekend my kid sister came up for the home football game. We parked the car on a side street and cut through by the lake. Grace and I lingered long enough to enjoy the reflection of the trees on the glassy water. I looked down into the water, standing where I had seen the girl. The fountain bubbled, like uncorked champagne. In the clear depths I thought I saw sparkling white lights.
“Grace, look in the water. Do you see anything?”
“Like what, a buried treasure? I don’t see a thing,” she said impatiently.
“I thought I saw something sparkle,” I said as I lost sight of the shimmer.
We started to walk toward the stadium and the green-haired girl appeared beside me. She wore dark sunglasses and sang with a high, silvery voice.
"Doubt thou the stars are fire. Doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, But never, never doubt that I love you.”
She firmly grasped my hand, and whispered, “It’s not too late for you, sir.” Her hand was ice cold. She turned and ran, her green hair streaming behind her.
Grace gasped, pelting me with questions. “My god Tom, do you know that girl? What a freak.”
“Hell, no. Let’s go.” I didn’t know her, but I knew what she meant. Somehow this girl knew my secret.
The following Friday, I decided I’d change my route to work. The sun blazed in the sky, swollen orange, peeking over the treetops. I wanted a new life; ready to shed my tired old skin and pick up where I left off. Like a tadpole sprouting legs. No regeneration was required.
When I reached the lake I could see something floating. I realized it was “someone,” not something. I pulled over the best I could and jumped out of the car. I jumped in the water and swam out to the center.
The goldfish bobbed at the surface, begging for breakfast. The girl with the green hair floated, face up, her arms hanging loosely at her sides. I finally saw her eyes. They sparkled like diamonds through a watery mist. I dragged her out of the water. Her clothes tangled in the lily pads, snagging loose branches and sticks as I pulled her toward the bank. I saw someone walking and I yelled loud for help. I checked for a pulse.
Her body felt cold and lifeless, like a dead guppie in a fish net. I tried to resuscitate her; still no pulse.
A few minutes later, blue lights flashed and sirens screamed. By then, curious on-lookers gathered at the lake, looking for a glimpse of death’s face. An ambulance driver wrapped a warm blanket around my shoulders and I waited to give the police a statement. A green blanket lay crumpled on the bank, abandoned, weighted-down by a backpack, a few books, and a green umbrella. Tiny black frogs leaped around my feet.
I looked at her blanket-shrouded body. I could see strands of her wet green hair, a trace of her dress, and her hands, limp and dead. I turned away quickly and drove straight home.
For the next month, I didn’t go near the lake. I still thought about the mysterious fate of the girl. According to a short article in the paper, the green girl was an Honors student, well-liked by her friends, peers, and professors. Everyone was shocked by her death, ruled a suicide.
I was shocked by the photograph of the dead girl in the newspaper. She was dark-haired, with a pale, hollow complexion, and eyes as lifeless as a doll's. This could not be the same girl, I thought. She was completely different than the girl with the green hair. I even thought of following up with the detective on the scene who had questioned me. I had picked up the phone several times and started to dial, but realized he would think I had lost my mind. So I let it go, the best I could, even though I still saw her in my dreams, on the spongy bank of the water, picking flowers that weren't there.
Finally, near the end of October, I had the courage to drive down Ambrosia Boulevard. The lake was covered with a soft, green fog. I smiled, but I didn’t stop to look.