Summer 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 1 FictionJune 13, 2023 |

Robber’s Lake

Genius has this idea of fabricating his own diving bell so he can walk on the bottom of Robber’s Lake. He bear-hugs a five-gallon water jug from his dad’s storm supply in the basement, carries it up the stairs, pours the water out on the gravel driveway, and shears the jug’s neck off with a coping saw. Genius goes inside, where his mom’s passed out on the couch, snoring in a midday shaft of sun. He passes her and heads to the kitchen, takes a knife from the knife drawer, and goes back outside. 

Genius’s old neighbor Dove Marvin is on the road, passing on his junkyard bicycle. He slows down to gape as Genius is stabbing the jug with the kitchen knife, carving a hole through which he can feed a bicycle pump tube. This is how he plans to get his oxygen, but he needs someone to give him air. 

Twelve-year-old Genius runs into the road and yells after Old Dove. The old man brakes and wheels around on his rusty-spoked bicycle, squealing with every pedal. Wide-eyed and bewildered, he stops in the road until Genius, who’s spoken to the old man only a handful of times in all these years, runs up to him. Genius tells Dove his situation: he’s making this diving bell. He needs to go to the bottom of Robber’s Lake, like James Cameron’s team when they sank to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Did Dove ever see that video? They made an entire movie, actually. Dove shakes his shaggy-dog head. No, he hasn’t seen it.

Well, Genius says, he should look it up on YouTube, it’s crazy, they traveled to one of the darkest, most inhospitable places on planet Earth, and made it out without a scratch.

At the bottom of Robber’s Lake, Genius knows, is a treasure trove of scrap metal and trash. People around Rhinelander like to throw their garbage into the lake instead of paying for disposal at the dump, which is run by a tyrant named Ice Man with chicken-scratch tattoos across his face. Ice Man upcharges, but he’ll handle anything. He’ll take your household chemicals and waste oil. He’ll take mattresses twitching with bedbugs. He’ll shoot your dog, cow, or horse in the skull and make its corpse vanish. He’ll take taped-up cardboard boxes with inscrutable contents and ask no questions. Most people would rather dump their trash in the woods under high moonlight than look upon Ice Man in the flesh, hence the mess of junk at the bottom of Robber’s Lake.

Dove shakes his head at Genius like, No, that is a bad idea. Pollution, he tells the boy. Which Genius obviously knows. But Genius also knows that Robber’s Lake is where, just last winter, his mom dumped all the artwork she’d ever made in her life. She was going through a Spell of Depression, just as she is now. If he gets to the bottom of the lake, maybe he can find the oil paintings she used to keep stacked in the computer room, in case they might remind her that she has a vivid imagination and wants to live. 

Genius gestures for Dove to wheel his junkyard bike up the gravel drive. He’s got it all planned out: he’ll attach the garden hose to the bike pump tube to give it length. He’ll feed the hose into the five-gallon water jug and plug its hole with silicone caulk. He’ll fit his head inside the water jug, weigh down his swim trunks pockets with rocks, and sink to the bottom of the lake with his own portable plastic halo of fresh air. Then he’ll finally get to see what’s down there, like the earliest explorer of a sunken planet.

… …

Dove has been living in his double-wide at the end of Birch Road, four doors north of Genius’s family, for twenty-five years. Dove wants to live out the rest of his days burning his cracked face in sunlight, fishing but catching no fish, reading only the last pages of adventure novels from the Rhinelander public library, and flying his whale kite on the shore of Robber’s Lake. His skin is drawn and wooden, stamped by sun and wind. He wants to read about men staking out far-flung corners of the Arctic, living and dying by the grace of a minute, but he doesn’t want to try anything new. He’s seen that sad windswept woman, Genius’s mom, wandering barefoot and crying down the road so many times that when he sees her now he only feels a warmth in his chest, because he’s so accustomed to her weeping that it sounds like home.

Dove has just a few things. He has his junkyard bicycle, his whale kite, his plastic wallet full of IDs and fishhooks, and a Folgers coffee can full of his boyfriend’s ashes. He has his double-wide trailer, painted red with a torn vinyl awning, beside a shed he built himself out of scrap plywood and pallets. When he was a boy, his father once bullied him into fishing in Lake Michigan on his uncle’s beat-up crabber, even though he didn’t yet know how to swim. He still remembers broad shadows straying in the water beneath his boat. He must have imagined them — the shadows, in his mind, are as big as sharks — but the memory still froths in his nightmares. He shudders to think of anyone purposefully sinking to the bottom of a lake, let alone a freakishly small boy who wears thick, military-style glasses strapped to his head like joke-store goggles.

But the boy is steadfast. He is small but he speaks clearly, like he knows who he is. In some ways he reminds Dove of himself at that age — slight, reedy, with a high-pitched voice — but he’s braver than Dove ever was. After Dove watches the boy fiddle with his jug for a while, Genius says to the old man, We’re going now. Through the open window of Genius’s house, Dove glimpses Genius’s dad bent over a laminated kitchen table, cursing into a telephone. It’s clear to Dove that he’s been at that table too long. His vision extends only to the fruit bowl before him, the toes on his own feet, his small kitchen orbit. Dove knows how grief can be. 

Genius walks with the bicycle pump in his hands, his dad’s aquamarine garden hose coiled around his neck like an honorary wreath. Dove carries the diving bell by balancing it on the handlebars of his bike. Hurry up, Genius says. He wants to get at least an hour in the lake before the light goes out. 

I’m old, Dove thinks about saying. Did you think about that?

Dove checks his plastic wristwatch. He wants to be getting home, even though he has nothing pressing to do: read and reread a dozen pages of a novel about Napoleonic sea battles, listen to the radio, talk to the Folgers coffee can. But something tells him that the boy has no one else to do this task.

Robber’s Lake is a small, dark kettle lake carved by Ice Age glaciation in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Dove goes fishing here for bluegill and walleye, as do the other fishermen of Rhinelander, but he sets himself apart on purpose, not wanting to talk about the weather or the Packers or who’s calling in sick during buck season. He likes to throw his line and think about whatever library book he’s been reading, or watch hawks carve shadows across the water. He thinks about the wind’s language. How the wind itself has been carving its signature on lake water and rock, all these years, without anyone trying to figure out what it’s saying.

On the shore of the lake, sitting beneath a tattered blue tarp, is the Canoe Anyone Can Use. The most ill-equipped fishermen use it when they’re in a pinch, or are so hungover in the morning they forget their boat. Teenagers use it to paddle to the center of Robber’s Lake and have awkward canoe sex for an audience of stars. Sometimes Dove just flips it over on the bank and sits in it when he wants to read but doesn’t want to be at home. It’s been pocked and mended so many times — with tape, rubber sealants, chewing gum — that Dove’s fairly sure it won’t fly. But Genius turns it over, pushes it onto the water, and lo! It stays afloat. 

They climb inside their bonny vessel. There are no proper paddles, just some grainy two-by-fours, green and slimy with lake water. Dove’s not going to paddle, he thinks. He didn’t sign up for this. But Genius looks pathetic trying to leverage himself against the oar. He is so small, arms twiggy, eyes bulging behind his glasses from the effort. He reminds Dove again of himself when he was a kid, so useless, picked on by everyone. The bullies used to hold him down and spit into his ears. Dove takes up both two-by-fours and starts pumping his arms like an Ivy League rower. 

Genius watches him. He says he’s surprised, no offense. Dove grunts a little. He’s used to being underestimated, when no one in this town even bothers to talk to him. 

As they glide onto the lake, Genius’s foot starts to tap against the bottom of the canoe, which is covered in a thin film of water. So the boat is leaking a little. Something to keep an eye on. With every tap of Genius’s foot, he makes a small splash. He’s leaning over the side of the canoe and peering down. He’s getting excited.

When James Cameron traveled to the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger, Genius says, they had to invent entirely new materials to make their submersible. They had to invent a new sort of foam.

A foam, Dove says.

A foam, Genius says. So it could handle major compression.

Genius keeps peering down, as if looking for someone who might be lost down there. When Dove follows his gaze, he can’t help but think of the Lake Michigan fish of his nightmares. His hands begin to shake. In his youth, Dove was a strong swimmer, but he hasn’t swum in a long time, not since before his boyfriend, Earl, died. They never went to Robber’s Lake together because Dove didn’t want them to be seen by any of their neighbors; that’s the kind of man he was back then. He used to make Earl drive them all the way up to Stella Lake, north of Rhinelander’s neighboring town Starks, at the very end of a cratered dirt road. If there were people at Stella Lake, at least they weren’t anyone Dove was likely to see at the library or the grocery store. These things seemed important at the time. The thought of losing Earl had never crossed his mind. Dove used to fly his whale kite while Earl fished, seated on the bank on a red woven blanket that matched his hair. They swam in the shallow lake together. Earl wore chunky turquoise-and-silver rings on his fingers, had a tattoo on his biceps of a pacing mustang. When they joined in the water to kiss, Dove kept his eyes open.

Nowadays, he has a simple routine: he reads, rides his bicycle into town, returns to his trailer, talks to the Folgers can, and falls asleep at sundown. Aside from the Rhinelander librarians and the grocery store cashiers, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and no one speaks to him. In the privacy of his own home, he wears Earl’s bracelets and his old paisley silk shirt, which is missing its two top buttons, but he removes these things before he goes outside. He hasn’t done anything this strange in many years, and all this newness is making him afraid. 

He needs to distract himself. He looks at the boy. Dove asks Genius what’s so interesting about this James Cameron footage anyway. 

What’s so interesting about it? Genius says, snapping his eyes back at Dove. He taps his foot harder against the bottom of the canoe. What’s so interesting about a human being traveling to the deepest part of the deepest oceanic trench on planet Earth? What’s so interesting about traveling to space, or quantum physics? What’s so interesting about the Seven Wonders of the World? What’s so interesting about the Egyptian pyramids? What’s so interesting about the stone idols on Easter Island? What’s so interesting about — 

OK, Dove says, pausing his strokes to hold up a hand. He asks Genius where he wants the boat, and Genius says, The middle.

The center of the lake feels warm and calm. Dove stops rowing in a square of sunlight that illuminates water bugs and tresses of algae, floating like coarse locks of hair. The sunlight makes him feel a little calmer — that, and the fact that there appears to be nothing in the water, no enormous fish, no screaming ghouls rising from drowned mountains of junk. He watches as Genius, still sitting in the canoe, wriggles out of his shorts and shirt until he’s only in swim trunks, which are green and patterned with tiny pink octopi. He looks so much younger than he must be.

Dove asks him what he hopes to find down there. Genius says, Some paintings. Then, without any further elaboration, he straps on a headlamp and places the plastic jug over his head. He looks like a deranged, scrawny astronaut. 

Pump air, Genius says, his voice muffled from inside the diving bell. He mimes pushing down on the bicycle pump.

Paintings? Dove says.

Then, before he can say any more, Genius grips the sides of the diving bell and jumps into the water. 

… …

He’s falling before he knows it. He clicks his waterproof headlamp as he sinks. All he sees are motes of dirt, wafting the way dust does in his bedroom on a sunny day. The plastic jug has filled partly with water, but its top third is filled with oxygen. He needs only to keep the diving bell steady and close around his head. He must keep one hand on the jug’s rim, breathe deeply, and stay alert.

The plastic jug obscures his vision, but if he tilts his head straight down, his headlamp carves a thin yellow path out of the dark lake. He sees a trout swivel in and out of view. He’s looking for one painting in particular, a painting that may do the trick. His mom made it in college, when she was studying English and art history in Beloit. That was how she and Genius’s dad met; he was three years her senior, but he stayed in Beloit until she finished her degree, because he couldn’t stand to leave her behind.

That’s the story anyway. They dreamed about buying a cabin in the Northwoods on a dirt road, near Rhinelander, where Genius’s dad’s family had deep roots, stretching all the way back to the settlement’s era as a lumber town. They didn’t live together until they were married. Their wedding took place in Hodag Park, on the shore of Boom Lake, and they had to delay the ceremony because a motorboat caught fire on the water. Genius’s mom stood barefoot in the grass, her hair laced with flowers she’d picked herself from the park that day, while she watched the boat burn. Genius doesn’t know when his mother first began doubting that she wanted to live. He doesn’t know if these doubts had lain dormant in her since she was a child, or if they wormed into her body in adulthood through her nostrils like errant vapor. Or if something terrible happened to her to cause them, something she’s never told Genius about. That isn’t part of the story, but Genius wonders.

He sinks, watching his feet grow closer to the bottom. The painting is a self-portrait of Genius’s mom on the porch of the house in Beloit where she lived just after graduating. It’s not particularly accomplished. If Genius was being honest, it looks like she painted it pretty fast. There’s a squirrel on the porch railing that looks more like a scared ball of twine than a mammal. But in it, his mom appears young and happy, her face being the clearest and most detailed part of the picture, as if she wanted to capture her feeling that day, and all the rest — squirrel, porch, grass, trees — was inconsequential. Whenever Genius used to catch her looking at the painting, he saw a dreamy, amused look on her face, as if she was remembering a good joke.

Genius is no idiot, hence his nickname. He knows that water doesn’t play nice with paint, and the picture will be damaged. But he has to do something. 

He sinks farther. His ability to breathe is in the old man’s hands. Fish dart between his legs. When he looks down, he begins to see musty, water-eaten outlines of objects protruding from the lake’s bottom: an aluminum paint can, a tall plywood box that looks like a broken chicken coop. Genius’s heartbeat grows fevered. When James Cameron arrived at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger, he sat for a moment in awestruck silence. Genius always wondered what that must have felt like — to journey to that far-flung oceanic world where no one else had gone and where anything might be found. He thinks he’s beginning to understand that feeling now.

His feet reach the bottom of the lake. He’s surrounded by dark heaps of trash, shaggy with algae and lake scum, rising out of the lake’s silty bottom like half-covered ruins in a desert world. With every step, he kicks up silt, clouding all he can see with murk. Water and darkness have rendered everything the same. He’s a stranger in the city. This world was created by people, but it belongs to fish and dust and the thin, dribbling moonlight that trickles its way through water. His mother lives here, he thinks. She has been slowly moving out of the house and into Robber’s Lake; with every painting thrown into the water, with every step she takes farther from Genius and his dad, she has been making a home here. 

There’s not much slack left on the garden hose. Genius takes a step toward a slab of wood angling slantwise out of the bottom of the lake. He has no idea how he will find what he wants to find. The bottom of the lake is spooky and cloudy, his vision limited to the narrow slice of light that his headlamp makes. He walks a few steps farther, toward a cluster of raw-edged scrap metal. Another fish darts against his leg, and Genius starts.

As he stumbles, Genius tilts the jug to the side, and it floods. He tries to take a breath, but there’s no oxygen left for him in the diving bell. He gulps a mouthful of lake water and gags. His small, exploring heart skips a beat. Instinctively, he reaches up toward the garden hose and pulls with all his strength. 

… …

Midstroke, Dove feels the entire bike pump yank from his hands and splash into the water.

For a moment he’s so surprised that he sits frozen in the canoe. He stares at the lake. The bike pump has rapidly sunk and disappeared. The pump, he thinks — is connected to a hose — which is connected to a jug — which is connected to a boy — a boy who is alone down there — 

He’ll be ashamed about it later, but he waits. He expects to see the boy’s head rising to the surface like a buoy. He wants to see the dull golden light of Genius’s headlamp riving the water apart. But moments tick past and nothing happens. Skeletal water bugs skate past him, piecing the lake’s smoothness back together.

 Dove stands in the canoe, knees veritably knocking. It should be the boy’s father here, shouldn’t it? Certainly not him. Or the mother, even sick as she is? Or a school friend? There should be someone braver and more decisive in this boat, who could have talked the boy out of his plan in the first place. His parents are at home, trapped in their private nightmares, which, compared to the nightmare unfolding before Dove’s eyes, are only dreams. Their house will collapse in on itself. They will never swim again. They will talk to coffee cans. They will be alive but dead. Dove kicks off his sneakers and strips off his shirt. He pitches his old, sunburned body into the lake, dark and swarming with an entire town’s past, which might as well be the coldest, deepest abyss on planet Earth. 

Emma Binder received their MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and they were the 2020–21 Hoffman-Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. In 2022, they received the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction and the Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Narrative, The Texas Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Originally from Wisconsin, Binder lives in Western Massachusetts, where they are working on a collection of short stories about queerness, rural life, and survival.

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