Loon Lake

E.L. Doctorow

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1979, Vol. 1, No. 1.

If you listen the small splash is beaver.
As beaver swim their fur lays back and their heads elongate
and a true imperial cruelty shines from their eyes.
They’re rodents after all
Beaver otter weasel mink and rat
rodent species of the Adirondacks
and they redistrict the world.
They go after the young trees and bring them down—
whole hillsides collapse in the lake when they’re through.
They make their lodges of skinned poles, mud and boughs
like igloos of dark wet wood
and they enter and exit under water and build shelves
out of the water for the babies.
And when the mahogany speedboat goes by trimmed with silver horns
in Loon Lake, in the Adirondacks
the waves of the lake inside the beaver lodge lap gently
against the children’s feet in the darkness.

Loon Lake
was once the destination of private railroad cars
rocking on a single track
through forests of pine and spruce and hemlock
branches and fronds brushing the windows of cut glass
while inside incandescent bulbs flickered
in frosted glass chimneys over double beds
and liquor bottles trembled in their recessed cabinet fittings
above card tables of green baize
in rooms entered through narrow doors with brass latches.

If you step on a twig in a soft bed of pine needles
under an ancient stand of this wilderness
you will make no sound
all due respect to the Indians of Loon Lake
the Adirondack nations, with all due respect.
What a clear cold life it must have been.
Everyone knew where they stood
chiefs or children or malcontents
and every village had its lovers whom no one wanted
who sometimes lay down because of that
with a last self pitying look at Loon Lake
before intoning their death prayers
and beginning the difficult business of dying by will
on the dry hummocks of pine needles.
The loons they heard were the loons we hear today
cries to distract the dying
loons diving into the cold black lake
and diving back out again in a whorl of clinging water
clinging like importuning spirits
fingers shattering in spray
feeling up the wing along the rounded body of the
thrillingly exerting loon
beaking a fish
rising to the moon streamlined
its loon eyes round and red.
A doomed Indian would hear them at night in their diving
and hear their cry not as triumph or as rage
or the insane compatibility with the earth
attributed to birds of prey
but in protest against falling
of having to fall into that black water
and struggle up from it again and again
the water kissing and pawing and whispering
the most horrible promises
the awful presumptuousness of the water
squeezing the eyes out of the head
floating the lungs out on the beak which clamps on them
like wriggling fish
extruding all organs and waste matter
turning the bird inside out
which the Indian sees is what death is
the environment exchanging itself for the being.
And there are stars where that happens too in space
in the black space some railroad journeys above the Adirondacks.

Well anyway in the summer of 1937
a chilling summer high in the eastern mountains
a group of people arrived at a rich man’s camp
in his private railway car
the men in fedoras and dark double breasted sulits
and the women in silver fox and cloche hats
sheer stockings of Japanese silk
and dresses that clung to them in the mountain air.
They shivered from the station to the camp
in an open carriage drawn by two horses.
It was the clearest night in the heavens
and the silhouettes of the jagged pines on the mountaintop
in the moonlight looked like arrowheads
looked like the graves of heroic Indians.

The old man who was their host
an industrialist of enormous wealth
over the years had welcomed to his camp
financiers politicians screen stars
european princes boxing champions and
conductors of major orchestras
all of whom were honored to sign the guest book.
Occasionally for complicated reasons
he received persons strangely undistinguished.
His camp was a long log building of two stories
on a hill overlooking Loon Lake.
There was a great rustic entrance hall
with a wide staircase of halved logs
and a balustrade made of scraped saplings
a living room as large as a hotel lobby
with walls papered in birch bark
and hung with the mounted heads of deer and elk
and with modern leather sofas with rounded corners
and a great warming fireplace of native stone
big enough to roast an ox.
It was a fine manor house lacking nothing
with suites of bedrooms each with its own shade porch
and the most discreet staff of cooks and maids and porters
but designated a camp because its decor was rough hewn.

And this party of visitors were romantic gangsters
thieves, extortionists and murderers of the lower class
and their women who might or might not be whores.
The old man welcomed them warmly
enjoying their responses to his camp
admiring the women in their tight dresses and red lips
relishing the having of them there so out of place
at Loon Lake.
The first morning of their visit
he led everyone down the hill
to give them rides in his biggest speedboat
a long mahogany chriscraft with a powerful inboard
that resonantly shook the water as she idled.
He handed them each a woolen poncho with a hood
and told them the ride was fast and cold
but still they were not prepared when underway
he opened up the throttle
and the boat reared in the water like Buck Jones’s horse.
The women shrieked and gripped the gangsters’ arms
and spray stinging like ice coated their faces
while the small flag at the stern snapped like a machine gun.
And one of the men lipping an unlit cigarette
felt it whipped away by the wind.
He turned and saw it sail over the wake
where a loon appeared from nowhere
beaked it before it hit the water
and rose back into the sky above the mountain.

The old man rode them around Loon Lake, its islands
through channels where beaver had built their lodges
and everything they saw the trees the mountains
the water and even the land they couldn’t see under the water
was what he owned.
And then he brought them in throttling down
and the boat was awash in a rush of foam
like the outspread wings of a waterbird coming to rest
and slowly sedately gliding into the boathouse
a log building extending over the lake.
Two other mahogany boats of different lengths
were tied there each in its berth
and racks of canoes and guide boats upside down
and on walls paddles hanging from brackets
and fishing rods and showshoes for some strange reason.
And not a gangster there did not reflect
how this dark boathouse with its canals
and hollow sounding deck floors
was bigger than the home his family lived in
when he was a kid, as big as the orphans’ home in fact.
But one gangster wanted to know about the lake
and its connecting lakes, the distance one could travel on them
as if he was planning a fast getaway.

Just disappearing around the corner out of sight
was the boathouse attendant.
And everyone walked up the hill for drinks and lunch.
Drinks were at twelve thirty and lunch at one thirty
after which, returning to their rooms
the guests found riding outfits laid across their beds
and boots in their right sizes all new.
At three they met each other at the stables
laughing at each other and being laughed at
and the stableman fitted them out with horses
what seemed to be dangerously high horses
and the sensation was particularly giddy when the horses
began to move without warning ignoring them up there in the saddles
threatening to launch with each bounce like a paddle ball.
And so each day the best gangster among them realized
there would be something to do they could not do well.

The unchecked walking horses made for the woods
no one was in the lead, the old man was not there
they were alone on these horses who took this wide trail
they seemed to know.
And the gangsters looked around for guidance
but there was none not even from the best gangster among them
and nobody laughed
they were busy maintaining themselves on the tops of these horses
stepping with their plodding footfall through the soft earth
of the wide trail.
By and by proceeding gently downhill they came
to another shore of the lake, of Loon Lake,
and the trees were cut down here and the cold sun shone.
They found themselves before an airplane hangar
with a concrete ramp sloping into the water.
As the horses stood there the hangar doors slid open
a man was pushing back each of the steel doors
although they saw only his arm and hand and shoetops.
And then from a grey cloud over the mountain
beyond the far end of the lake an airplane appeared
and made its descent in front of the mountain
growing larger as it came toward them
a green and white seaplane with a cowled engine and overhead wing.
It landed in the water with barely a splash
taxiing smartly with a feathery sound.
The horses nickered and stirred everyone held on
and the lead gangster said whoa boy, whoa boy
and the goddamn plane came right out of the water
up the ramp, water falling from its pontoons
the wheels in the pontoons leaving a wet track on the concrete
and nosed up to the open hangar
blowing up a cloud of dirt and noise.
The engine was cut and the cabin door opened
and putting her hands on the wing struts a woman jumped down
a small woman in trousers and a leather jacket and a silk scarf
and a leather helmet which she removed showing grey hair cut close
and she looked at them and nodded without smiling
and that was the old man’s wife.

She strode off down the trail toward the big house
and they were not to see her again that day
neither at drinks which were at six thirty
nor dinner at seven thirty.
But her husband was a gracious host
attentive to the women particularly.
He revealed that she was a famous aviatrix
and some of them recognized her name from the newspapers.
He spoke proudly of her accomplishments
the races she won flying measured courses
marked by towers with checkered windsocks
and her endurance flights some of which
were still the record for a woman.
After dinner he talked vaguely of his life
his regret that so much of it was business.
He talked about the unrest in the country
and the peculiar mood of the workers
and he solicited the gangsters’ views over brandy
of the likelihood of revolution.
And now he said rising I’m going to retire.
But you’re still young said one of the gangsters
for the night the old man said with a smile
I mean I’m going to bed. Good night.

And when he went up the stairs of halved tree trunks
they all looked at each other and had nothing to say.
They were standing where the old man had left them
in their tux and black ties.
They had stood when he stood the women had stood when he stood
and quietly as they could they all went to their rooms
where the bedcovers had been turned back and the reading lamps lighted.
And in the room of the best gangster there
a slim and swarthy man with dark eyes, a short man
very well put together
there were doors leading to a screened porch
and he opened them and stood on the dark porch
and heard the night life of the forest and the lake
and the splash of the fish terrifyingly removed from Loon Lake.
He had long since run out of words
for his sickening recognition of real class
nervously insisting how swell it was.
He turned back into the room.
His girl was fingering the hand embroidered initials
in the center of the blanket.
They were the same initials on the bath towels
and on the cigarette box filled with fresh Luckies
and on the matchbooks and on the breastpockets of the pajamas
of every size stocked in the drawers
the same initials, the logo.

The gangster’s girl was eighteen
and had had an abortion he knew nothing about.
She found something to criticize, one thing,
the single beds, and as she undressed
raising her knees, slipping off her shoes
unhooking her stockings from her garters
she spoke of the bloodlessness of the rich not believing it
while the gangster lay between the sheets in the initialled pajamas
arranging himself under the covers so that they were neat and tight
as if trying to take as little possession of the bed as possible
not wanting to appear to himself to threaten anything.
He locked his hands behind his head and ignored the girl
and lay in the dark not even smoking.

But at three that morning
there was a terrible howl
from the pack of wild dogs that ran in the mountains—
not wolves but dogs that had reverted
when their owners couldn’t feed them any longer.
The old man had warned them this might happen
but the girl crept into the bed of the gangster
and he put his arm around her and held her
so that she would not slip off the edge
and they listened to the howling
and then the sound nearer to the house
of running dogs, of terrifying exertion
and then something gushing
in the gardens below the windows.
And they heard the soft separation
together with grunts and snorts and yelps
of flesh as it is fanged and lifted from a body.
Jesus, the girl said
and the gangster felt her breath on his collar bone
and smelled the jell in her hair, the sweetness of it
and felt the gathered dice of her shoulders
and her shivering and her cold hand on his stomach
underneath the waistband.

In the morning they joined the old man
on the sun terrace outside the dining room.
Halfway down the hill a handyman pushing a wheelbarrow
was just disappearing around a bend in the path.
I hope you weren’t frightened the old man said they took a deer
and he turned surprisingly young blue eyes on the best gangster’s girl.
Later that morning she saw on the hills in the sun
all around Lake Loon
patches of color where the trees were turning
and she went for a walk alone and in the woods she saw
in the orange and yellowing leaves of deciduous trees
the coming winter
imagining in these high mountains
snow falling like some astronomical disaster
and Loon Lake as the white hole of a monstrous meteor
and every branch of the evergreens all around
described with snow, each twig each needle
balancing a tiny snowfall precisely imitative of itself.
And at dinner she wore her white satin gown
with nothing underneath to ruin the lines
and the old man’s wife came to dinner this night
clearly younger than her husband, trim and neat
with small beautifully groomed hands and still young shoulders and neck
but brackets at the corners of her mouth.
She talked to them politely with no condescension
and showed them in glass cases in the game room
trophies of air races she had won
small silver women pilots
silver cups and silver planes on pedestals.
Then still early in the evening she said goodnight
and that she had enjoyed meeting them.
They watched her go.
And after the old man retired
and all the gangsters and their women stood around
in their black ties and tux and long gowns
the best gangster’s girl saw a large Victrola in the corner
of the big living room with its leather couches and
grand fireplace
the servants spirited away the coffee service
and the gangster’s girl put on a record and commanded
everyone to dance.
And they danced to the Victrola music
they felt better they did the fox trot
and went to the liquor cabinet and broke open some scotch
and gin and they danced and smoked
the old man’s cigarettes from the boxes on the tables
and the only light came from the big fire
and the women danced with one arm dangling holding empty glasses
and the gangsters nuzzled their shoulders
and their new shoes made slow sibilant rhythms
on the polished floors
as they danced in their tuxes and gowns of satin at Loon Lake
at Loon Lake
in the rich man’s camp
in the mountains of the Adirondacks.

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