Late September


Bob imagined some cosmic wall out there beyond the stars where everything ends. But Bruce had a feeling that the stars stretch on forever.

Late September

Bruce eased his paddle into the lake water, slicing the dark substance noiselessly, watching the droplets drip from the end of his wooden blade, interrupting the rhythm of his strokes to observe the shimmering return of water to water. Wet diamonds, Bruce thought, as he watched the droplets recombine with the lake.

For the moment, they were the richest and loveliest jewels he could know.

It was late September, and the predusk air was just beginning to acquire the distinctive and leafy mustiness of early autumn. The Connecticut evenings were chilly already, yet Bruce sensed the first morning of frost was still weeks away. When he was younger, the coming of the frost mattered little to him, for September meant only one horrible and inescapable event: the removal of freedom. He was not conscious of beginnings then, as he was today; he was aware only of endings. He smiled as he pushed the paddle deep into the water again, for he could still feel the horrible cringe in his mind that haunted him during the last weeks of summer every year. How he hated to relinquish the freedom of his summer to the walls of a school.

And they had been extraordinary summers. After finishing his job at the pet shop or completing his gardening assignments at Geysmar’s estate, he would hop into his beat-up VW, pick up Bob at the gas station, and they’d rumble and downshift their way over the winding roads to the lake. A few cans of soda, some bug repellant and fishing tackle, and they were set at least until dark. Sometimes longer.

Again Bruce smiled, this time more to the familiar back that occupied the forward seat of his canoe than to the endless water. He had picked Bob up tonight at his gas station, both of them curious to try out the old fishing spots one more time before Bruce took off for Utah and then Germany. They had left the station at 4:30, and when they arrived at the lake, there still were a few hours of daylight left.

“You really think there’s fish left in this puddle?” Bob asked, as he and Bruce lifted the canoe off the roof of the Bug and carried it over their heads to the water’s edge. “Bet the acid rain has just about wiped this place out.”

“Sure there’s fish. How can you doubt it? You just have to find them.” But they had found none so far, Bruce had to acknowledge, though the reawakening of memories had been well worth the trip.

“Hey Bruce, can’t you remember those stars?” Bob said. The silent onset of dusk had begun to slip in over the lake. “Don’t you remember those nights?” He was silent for a moment, then continued. “It really isn’t that long ago—just two years since the last time we were up here, right? But man! Those stars. Sometimes when I work the pumps at night now, I remember those stars.”

How could anyone forget them, Bruce thought, checking his line for bass as Bob spoke. They had been trolling the lake for about a half hour now, but still no luck. Sometimes it was like that.

“Those stars, Bruce.” Bob laughed. “Man, I still can’t say what they make me feel.”

They stopped paddling, then floated freely, words stuck in the stuff of their memories. Suddenly it seemed to Bruce that he was 14 again, and he and Bob were lying on their backs on the seats of their old rowboat, their lines limp at the side of the boat.

“Hey Bruce, do you think there’s ever an end to those stars?” Bob had asked. And Bruce had felt it then, as surely as he knew it again this evening, that the stars stretched on forever.

“Can’t you imagine a wall out there, Bruce? Can’t you feel it? You know, all of a sudden you reach the end of the space, and then there’s this big giant wall. Bam! That’s it. The big end.” And they had laughed.

But Bruce had found that he had to stop laughing that night. The waters licked softly at the base of the boat; a peeper sounded from the shore. There was nothing but blackness in the middle of the lake, all that black and silent water. Bruce shook his head vigorously, shutting his eyes, sitting up so suddenly that he hurt the bones in his back on the seat of the boat.

“No way, Bobby,” Bruce said, still shaking his head. “I just can’t handle that. It’s like something cracks—snap!—in my head. You know what I mean? I just can’t handle a wall in space. I just can’t handle it ending. Things have got to go on. Don’t you think, Bobby?” But it was more feeling than thinking, he knew.

Nights like that had made it easier to believe the missionaries, Bruce realized, when they had come knocking on his parents’ door. Nights like that had helped his new faith to seem almost reasonable. If space was endless, then life was endless, and endless life demanded a God. And if there was a God, Bruce just couldn’t imagine any other church being truer than the one that the missionaries had taught to him. He’d felt it as sure as he felt the warmth of the sun. And so he’d done it. He’d slipped gently into the bright waters of baptism, knees bending, his white clothes clinging to him as he felt his body going down and then up, lifted from the wetness by some power much greater than skinny old Elder Larsen. He had felt himself rising from the waters, a new person.

Water. It was always water for him. Once, when he was ten, he had tried to walk on the lake water. Lying on his back on the dock near his parents’ old cabin on the lake, he had become curious with the possibilities of faith. He had heard the story countless times in his Methodist Sunday School of the Savior walking on the water, but now his wondering made him restless. If he had enough faith, would the substanceless substance become firm beneath him? He stepped confidently out, then fell clumsily into the water.

“You caught any fish back there?” Bob asked, snapping Bruce back into the present.

Bruce looked at his line; it hung lifelessly in the dark.

“Maybe it’s time to head back,” Bob suggested.

Bruce said nothing. It was hard to stop fishing. He was always filled with the wild hope of just one more minute, just one more moment of patience, and then the tiniest movement of the line would come. If you weren’t careful, you would miss that gentle sign of interest, and the hope would be gone.

“Another 15 minutes, Bob. Let’s wait till it’s real dark. Then we’ll go back.”

Bruce reeled in his line, then pulled the pole back and cast out with one final hope for success. Setting the rod in the bottom of the canoe, he turned in the seat to get more comfortable and bumped his pole in the process. It jerked precariously, the line getting caught under the bow of the canoe. Impulsively, Bruce reached his hand into the black and unknowable water, the dark liquid now fused with the dimming horizon that was tentatively lit by a few of the earliest stars. Bruce tugged at the trapped line with his hand, freeing it, and then, for some reason, felt reluctant to let it go. Unexpectedly, the line raced through his enclosing fingers, pulled taut with certain promise.

“Hey Bob!” Bruce called softly, carefully pulling his hand in from the water, unwilling to disturb the pulse of the line. “I think I’ve got something, my friend.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard D. Brown