Water Treatment

Young Jake Sorenson starts a new job and finds himself embroiled in events that will change his life forever. How does he deal with them? Read on…

God, just a little peace and quiet please, Jake thought to himself. He was trying to concentrate on titrating a sample solution to determine whether it was acidic or basic and he needed to keep his hand steady. His lab was across the common area from his boss’s office but the two men’s voices were loud and angry and could easily be heard through the closed door. They were arguing again.

“Damn it, Al, I told you not to bring it up anymore,” his boss was patiently trying to make his point.

“Look, I can make good money. Double time on Sundays. Triple time on holidays.”

“Only if I OK the extra hours, and I’m not. So get your act together and get back to work.”

“Look, Lou, just give me a chance to make a little extra cash. I need it for Johnny. He’s starting college next month.”

“Out.” Jake heard his boss yell and could visualize him pointing toward the door. “Get outta’ here right now.”

The door slammed open and Al stormed out. “Screw you, Lou,” he muttered under his breath, not loud enough for his boss to hear. He stomped through the common area and pushed through the glass door leading outside. Jake heard his truck start up and in a moment it tore off, tires spinning and gravel flying, pinging off the door.

Jeez, Jake thought to himself, turning back to his titration, his hand shaking slightly, what a hell of a place to work.

Prairie Heights was growing suburb located south of the Minnesota River in Dakota County. It was one of those communities of spreading urban sprawl made up primarily of young families wanting the so called ‘good life’ away from the crime, congestion and pollution of Minneapolis. The people who lived there were family orientated, ambitious and upwardly mobile. They also flushed their toilets a lot and that’s were Jake came in. He was part of the Prairie Heights Public Works Department and his job was to test the water quality of the city’s sewage treatment plant.

Jake had been working for PHPWD for six weeks. In fact, he’d just had his first job review and it had gone pretty well.

“Like your work so far, Jake, my boy,” was how Lou had put it. “If we can just get through the next two months, we’ll be fine.”

Lou was a no nonsense man around forty years old who ran the Public Works department with an iron fist. He was a short, stocky, muscular guy, who liked to hunt and fish whenever he could. But he was also one-hundred percent committed to the Prairie Heights community and doing the best job he could for them. His background in the military probably accounted for some of that. Like he’d told Jake more than once, “First and foremost the military taught me discipline, Jake. Learned to depend on myself, but also to depend on my team. It’s how we got things done over there.”

Over there was Afghanistan, where Lou had ended up as a marine Sergeant and lead his squad on search and destroy missions in the hills in and around Kunar Province. He’d been back for ten years now, and was enjoying relative peace and job security over-seeing what was basically the maintenance of the entire Prairie Heights community. The Water Treatment Department where Jake worked was just one of many functions that Lou oversaw. But it was an important one. Just prior to Jake’s being hired, the community had been put on notice by the Metropolitan Waste Commission that it might be sued because of its poor water testing procedures. Jake had been hired to clean up the city’s act, so to speak. “No pun intended,” Lou had said to Jake at the time he was hired. But it wasn’t a laughing matter and Lou had a grim look on his face when he said it. Lou’s job was on the line and he was depending on Jake to make sure the tests were accurate and within the standards set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. So Jake had a lot riding on his young shoulders.

Every since he could remember, Jake had always loved water. It probably started when he was a kid with trips to his aunt and uncle’s lake cabin on picturesque Heartland Lake in northern Minnesota. Maybe it was being out in the boat with his uncle learning to catch sunfish and crappies. Maybe it was jumping off the dock into the waves when the wind blew fresh and strong out of the south. Maybe it was learning how to wake-board behind his uncle’s boat. It was all fun.  He especially remembered sitting on the edge of the dock, feet dangling in the lake, watching the sun set over the mirror-like water, the evening peaceful and calm, the sky changing colors from orange to mauve to purple before sinking below the tree lined horizon on the far side of the lake. Sometimes his mother would come down and join him, leaving his younger brothers up at the cabin playing cards.

“Isn’t it beautiful, Jake?” she’d asked, inhaling deeply the sweet scent of summer in the air.

He’d lean up against her, comforted in her presence, and answer, “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

And he’d meant it, too. Even as a young kid, there had been something about water and being near it. He loved it. It was almost a spiritual thing, although at the time he wouldn’t have put that word to it. Instead he just thought of being by the water as something he wanted to do. Something he felt drawn to.

After his parents divorced he’d occasionally be invited out to visit his father who worked for an engineering firm based in Seattle. His dad would sometimes take him to the Olympic Peninsula where they would find a place to park and walk out onto the beach. The first time he saw the Pacific Ocean he was mesmerized. His dad must have picked up on his young son’s enthusiasm.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” he’d asked.

Speechless, Jake could only nod his head in agreement, captivated by the sound of the four foot waves rhythmically crashing on the shore, the scent of salt filling the air and the sea stretching out to a dreamlike horizon. It was like nothing that he’d ever seen living in Minnesota. Thereafter, whenever he came out to visit, his dad would take him to the ocean. They’d walk the sandy shoreline together and talk, catching up on their time apart and searching for shells while watching shorebirds run and dart along the ever changing waterline. Those were good times with his dad that he cherished. It was a few years later, after his dad’s funeral, that Jake would return to that very spot, to walk along the shore and listen to the gulls, remembering his dad and saying a last, final good bye.

When he thought about it, it was those sorts of memories that probably contributed to his decision to do something water related with his life.

Like he told his best friend when he was in high school, “Think of it this way, if I can make the water coming out of your kitchen faucet safe to drink, then that will count for something.”

They’d been  playing ‘Badlands’ on their iPhones and his friend had given him an odd look before responding, “Well, it will count for something, that’s for sure, but not much. That’s what I think, anyway.”

Jake never really felt that any of his friends got it. But that was Ok. He finished high school as a so-so student, left his home town of Bemidji and gone to college at the University of Duluth where he received his degree in Environment Science in five years. While going to school he found a job working part-time at the Fresh Water Biological Institute on the shore of Lake Superior just north of downtown Duluth. After he graduated, he was able to secure a full time job at the Institute working in their Testing Department where he preformed tests on potable water samples sent in from home owners in the area to test the safety of their well water. As much as he liked the job, Lake Superior itself was a bigger draw for him. He almost stayed living in Duluth just to be by the lake, but then the opportunity presented itself for him to apply for the job in Prairie Heights.

“Check out this posting,” his supervisor had said one day while Jake was carefully counting bacterial colonies of fecal coliforms on a Petri dish. “You might be interested.”

The Fresh Water Testing magazine was a publication that, among other things, listed jobs available both in the United States and Internationally. The job for ‘Water Testing Specialist’ for the suburb of Prairie Heights was listed. It was right up his alley. He was familiar with the tests they required and the salary was attractive, considerably more than he was making currently. He took a few days to think about it. On the one hand he loved living in Duluth. He loved being by the Big Lake, as he called Lake Superior. He enjoyed walking along the shoreline hunting for unusual stones and he loved to go out kayaking on its deep and mysterious waters. He used his camera to take photographs of the shoreline and waterscape and he enjoyed identifying the many species of birds that either lived in or occasionally frequented the area. He was renting a small house a few blocks from the lake and was saving money to buy his own place. In short, he felt like he was settling in with his life and was pretty comfortable. And maybe that’s why he decided to apply for the job. To try something different. As he told his supervisor the day he went down to his first interview, “I guess I just need a change. Maybe this is a chance to do something different. Something exciting.”

To which he responded, “Well, it’ll be different, that’s for sure, but exciting? Living down there by the city? That’s something I’m not sure about.”

Jake went anyway, driving his old Honda Civic south down 35W all the way through Minneapolis, across the Minnesota River and arriving at the Public Works building for the Prairie Heights community fifteen minutes early for his 11:00 am meeting. When the time came for to go inside, Lou came out to greet him and ushered him into his office, motioning for him to sit in the chair across from his desk.

“So you’re Jake Sorenson?” Lou asked, looking over the resume Jake had sent down a few weeks earlier. He was a solid man, looking like a weight lifter, with a shaved head and piercing eyes, one being blue and the other brown. The look was strangely unsettling. Yet there was something about him that Jake liked. He tried to calm down.

“Yes, sir.” Jake replied, conscious of sounding overly polite. He took a breath to steady himself. He had no idea why he was so nervous.

“Tell me about yourself.”

Jake filled him in on his life’s story, moving it along when he saw Lou becoming impatient. He wrapped it up with, “And I’m pretty familiar with the EPA Water Quality Standards Book. We used it both in college and at the Institute.”

Lou nodded, thinking. The guy’s face had a lot of worry lines etched into it. Jake looked around the office. Everything looked sturdy and functional. The desk was covered with stacks of papers and, although messy, there seemed to be an order to it. There were framed prints of fishing scenes on the walls and three filing cabinets jammed together in a corner. On one of them was a framed photograph of Lou and what Jake assumed was his wife and three young daughters, he guessed ages six to twelve. Someone had taken it of the family as they sat in a boat, looking like they were going out fishing . Everyone looked happy and it made Jake feel good to see it. To the right, out the window, Jake could see the three in-ground stir tanks where the raw effluent coming into the facility began its transformation from sewage to drinking water. Inside, to the left of the window, in the corner, was a small table with a laptop computer on it. The screen was in resting mode, a generic fireworks scene exploding. Jake wondered how much it was used. It didn’t look like it was very often.

Lou wore his long sleeved tan work shirt rolled up tight above his elbows. He put both his arms on his desk, folded his hands and started straight at Jake. “Here’s the situation. Earlier this year the Minnesota Environment Protection Agency sampled our water. The quality was just within the guidelines set by them. Just barely. Then the Metropolitan Waste Commission got involved and threatened to sue us.” He shook his head and glanced out the window. Jake followed his gaze. A guy in a pickup truck was pulling into the gravel parking lot. Lou frowned and pointed before continuing. “That guy out there used to do the tests for us. His name is Al. He’s kind of a…” Lou’s voice trailed off. The room was quiet until the sound of a bobcat starting up drifted into the window along with a blast of noxious exhaust. “Jeez…” Lou got up to close the window and then sat back down. “Anyway, his testing methods weren’t the best. And, in his defense, he really wasn’t hired to work in the lab, he just volunteered for extra pay and we let him. But now we’ve got the MEPA and the MWC breathing down our necks, not to mention our own city Council.” He paused again and tapped a finger on his desk, making sure he had Jake’s attention. Which he did. “In a nutshell, I need someone to get this lab in order and to get these tests run right so I can be all these agencies off my back.” He sat back and gave Jake a challenging look. “Think you can do it?”

Jake was twenty four years old. His life up until now had been straight forward and pretty much conflict free. He had a nice job up in Duluth. He had his hobbies. He had a plan to maybe buy a house. He really had no reason to shake the tree or rattle the cage, so to speak. So why he said what he said, he didn’t really know. But he said it anyway, and thus set a course that would change his life forever. “Sure,” he said, looking Lou directly into his different colored eyes. “I know I can.”

And that was that. Over the course of the next two weeks, he finished up his work at the Fresh Water Institute, said goodbye to the few friends he had and headed back south on 35W, this time to stay. He’d found a partially furnished apartment on-line that seemed good enough for him. It was about a mile from the Public Works building and he moved down over Memorial Day weekend, using that Monday to get his lab set up.

He was washing some beakers in the sink when Lou stopped in. “You getting all settled?”

Jake looked around. His lab space was a rather cramped area eight feet by twelve feet. However, he had adequate counter space and a big sink, plus lots of cupboards, shelves and drawers for storing his glassware and testing equipment. The place had been a mess, though, and he’d spent the morning just cleaning and tidying everything up. He looked around, feeling good about how things looked. “Yeah, I’m doing good. Just making sure everything is organized and clean.”

Lou looked around. “Looks better than it’s ever looked.” Jake was pleased. He was learning that his boss was a no non-sense kind of guy. Jake wanted him to like him. Then he surprised him by asking, “Do you smoke?”

In Minnesota, smoking was considered not a cool thing to do. If you did smoke, which Jake did, you certainly didn’t advertise it. Public opinion being what it was, he just kept it too himself.

Cautiously he answered. “Sometimes. Why?”

Lou smiled, like he got what Jake was getting at. “Let’s go out back.”

Behind the building were two picnic tables. They went over to one and sat down. Lou told out a pack of Marlboro 100’s and Jake took out a pack of Camel straights. They both lit up, blowing smoke away from each other in the practiced manner of people conscious of pissing others off for smoking and trying to mitigate the fall out.

“I saw that kayak on your car,” Lou said, by way of starting the conversation.

Jake still had his red, fourteen foot Pelican Trailblazer lashed to the luggage rack on the top of his car. It was as good a place as any to store it. “Yeah, I used it a lot up north,” Jake said, “Out on Lake Superior mostly.”

Lou smiled and nodded reliving a memory. “Nice lake. I’ve fished it some. Took my family.”

Jake was slightly taken a back. It was the first time he’d ever seen his boss smile. It meant something to him. “I don’t fish or hunt, but I like to take photos with my camera,” he said, warming to the conversation.

Lou blew out a stream of smoke and watched the breeze carry it away. “Not a shooter, huh?” He looked over at him. “One of those anti-hunter types? Environmentalist?” He gave Jake a sly look.

“Well…” Jake didn’t know how to answer. He actually was one of those types. He just didn’t want to get his new boss angry with him. While he was struggling with how to answer, Lou laughed.

“Just kidding ya’, man. You do what you have to do. Me, I like to go into the woods. I enjoy being on a lake. I like the peace and quiet. Don’t really care if I kill anything. Just like to be by myself and take a break from things. Sometimes I even take my family. They like it too.”

Jake could get it. “Yeah, that’s how I feel when I’m out of the water in my kayak. I love the feel of the waves and how the lake can change just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “It’s something I’m going to miss, being down here.”

“You can always get on the Minnesota,” Lou said, meaning the river, “Or head over to Red Wing and get on the Mississippi.” Redwing was a quaint river town about thirty miles to the east.

“Yeah, I’ve thought about it.” Jake paused. Both places were an easy drive, less than an hour away. “Maybe I’ll give them a try.”

Just then some employees came out and sat at the other table, talking  and laughing, on a morning break. Lou got up and motioned to Jake, introducing him. “This is the guy who’s going to get the MEPA off our case.” There were some good natured cheers. Then Lou pointed toward the building. “Let’s head back inside and let you get back to work.”

Later on Jake would occasionally remember that day and how nice it was sitting outside with Lou, getting such a nice introduction and all. How little he knew back then what would be in store for him so soon in his new job. If he had to do it again, would he do some things differently? Nah, he answered himself every time he thought about it, probably not.

But that was then and this was now. A few minutes after Al had stormed out Lou followed behind. He was in a hurry and cursing to himself. He yelled toward the lab, “I’m out of here for a while.” He got in his black Chevy three quarter ton and sped down the driveway, through the gates and out onto the county road that ran past the area that housed Public Works and the other buildings. He figured his boss was just mad and needed to blow off some steam. Jake still had a full day ahead of him. He finished his titration and then checked the calendar on the wall and the time on the clock. 1:00 pm on Tuesday. Time to collect some water samples.

A hundred yards from where Jake’s lab was located was the Water Works building where the final processing of the waste water into potable drinkable water took place. That’s where Jake headed, grabbing a sterilized bottle on the way out of his lab. Outside was a perfect summer day. The Fourth of July had been the week before and July was starting to heat up. Jake estimated the temperature to be in the high eighties but the humidity was low and it felt great to be outside. The sky was blue and only a few big, puffy clouds were drifting by on a light breeze from the south. He heard a familiar sound and looked around before he finally saw them, a flock of about two dozen Herring gulls that frequented the area, scouring the ground nearby looking for free handouts. Herring gulls were a species that were very aggressive but Jake liked to see them anyway. They’d often squabble and fight among themselves, but just as often soared on the wind dipping and gliding almost like they were playing. They reminded him of being back in Duluth in his kayak, paddling along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior, with the gulls up there keeping him company as he cruised along riding the waves, happy and content. It was a pleasant memory. He briefly wondered if he would ever have that kind of memory from being down here in Prairie Heights, a community where the biggest lake, Lake Sylvan, was so chocked full of weeds and algae that the one time he took is kayak out on it, he had a rare experience. Instead of getting exhilarated by being on the water it was just the opposite. He became depressed instead. He never went back. He shook his head, clearing the thought, and kept walking, keeping in the back of his mind the knowledge that so far any good memories of being down in Prairie Heights were few and far between.

He opened the door and went into the building and was immediately struck by how cool the air felt. The final clarification of the  treated water took place here. The building was made of cinderblocks and was approximately twenty feet by forty feet in size. The water was held in the large tank in the center and it was crystal clear. He could see all the way to the bottom, twelve feet down. The treatment process he’d put into place was working. He was reminded of a swimming pool and had to fight the urge to drive right in, especially on a hot day like today. He bent down and carefully filled the sampling bottle with some of the water and then stood up.

“What you up to, pal?”

“Jeez,” Jake jumped and almost dropped his container. Turning quickly, he saw it was Al, moving toward him from behind the shadow of the door. He tensed slightly, muscles contracting. “Man, you scared me.”

Al laughed. “Worried about something?”

Jake had been working for six weeks. The entire time he’d been at his job his interactions with the employees had run the gamut from friendly to indifferent. All except for Al. Al was the only one who was openly hostile. Jake figured it had to do with him taking over the guy’s responsibilities doing the water tests.

Jake tried to shrug it off. “No worries, man. Everything is cool.” He didn’t know why he talked the way he did around Al. It wasn’t normal for him but then Al wasn’t a normal guy.

Lou had warned him about Al early on. “Watch out for him,” Lou had said, during a conversation that first week. “Al’s got a mean streak in him. Likes to push his weight around.”

“Why put up with him, then?”

“Well, he was here when I was hired. That was ten years ago. In fact, he’s been here the longest of any of us. Nearly eighteen years. He’s hanging in there to get his twenty in. Then he can get a city pension.”

“Seems weird,” Jake said. “Unfair.”

“Well, maybe…” Lou let his voice trail off and gazed out over the grounds. They were sitting at the picnic table on their morning smoke break. “We only have you and me and Al and two part timers to run the water side of this place.” Lou blew out a stream of smoke. “The thing is, Al knows his stuff. He’s especially good fixing pumps and pipes. Like at the pumping stations.” Residential sewage moved through the community via an underground piping system. Pumps throughout the system kept everything flowing and any breakdown was catastrophic, usually causing the entire system to shut down. This could eventually result in no water being supplied to the city’s residents. And that would not be good. “Just watch out for him and try to avoid him if you can. Any issues,” he gave Jake a hard look, “Come to me. I’ve been trying to fire him for a long time now.”

So for the entire short time Jake had been working he’d done just that, tired to keep his head down. But, like Lou had said, the department was small, so not all interacts could be avoided. He had to deal with the guy to a certain extent everyday, which was hard because Al was one of those guys who was friendly one moment, but could just as quickly turn on you and stab you in the back, the next. One time when Jake was out on the cat-walk around one of the separator tanks, he was on his knees reaching down fill a jar. The tanks were deep and the effluent in them was filled with every disgusting thing you could image that people would flush down their toilets. And a lot of stuff that you couldn’t imagine as well. Al had come up from behind and slapped him hard on the back causing Jake to pitch forward and nearly fall in. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. In addition to everything else, the separators were filled with the raw sewage that first came into the facility. Taking a dive into it was not recommended for a multitude of reasons, primarily one’s health. Al had apologized at the time and tried to laugh it off, saying he was just wanting to say Hi, but Jake had the distinct feeling Al would have been happy to see him fall in. And, if he did, whether or not he would have helped him out would have been anybody’s guess.

So now, here he was acting strange and somewhat threatening again.

“What cha’ doin’?” Al’s sunglasses were propped up on the rim of his dirty Public Works baseball cap. His face was covered with beard stubble and there was a small piece of food stuck on his chin. He took another step closer. Jake did his best to stand firm and stay professional.

“I’m just getting a sample here for the final Biological Oxygen Demand test.” BOD’s were run regularly to make sure the treatment process was proceeding like it should. It was one of the many tests that Al, when he was supposed to be doing them, wasn’t doing. Jake felt he had to tip-toe around this issue. Something he was getting sick of doing.

Al made fun of Jake, mimicking him and making his voice rise higher. “Doing your precious BOD’s, are you?” He gave Jake a hard, mean look. ” Sucking up to the boss man is more like it.”

He took a another step toward Jake who tried not to look intimidated. He held his ground. “Back off, man.” Jake said, putting his hand up. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Big man, you are with your precious work.” Al was an inch or two taller than Jake and much heavier due to an ample gut. He stood so close, Jake could smell the man’s rank sweat, soaking through his khaki work shirt. Al leaned in and sneered, “You and boss man making nice nice with each other?”

Jake had no idea where the guy came up with some of the things he said. “Just doing my job, Al, so maybe you should do yours.” Jake’s heart rate was going up and his breathing was getting short. He was a mixture of mad and scared. He didn’t like either feeling.

Al starred at him a few long moments. “Yeah, we’ll see about that.” He punched a finger at Jake’s chest, grinned and then turned and sauntered off through the door, taking a moment to put his sunglass on before walking out into the bright sun.

Jake looked after him, trying to calm down, wondering what the guy’s problem was. One thing was sure, Al didn’t care for Jake. No, not one little bit. He took a moment and collected his thoughts. Should he tell Lou about this or not? Nah. Why bring it up? Al was one of those guys who was just a jerk. There wasn’t much anyone could do about it. Maybe he’d eventually push things too far, then Lou would have grounds to fire him. Until then, well, he’d just have to figure out a way to live with it and also get his work done. Knowing Al was not happy with him being there gave him a bit of a kick, though. The guy was an idiot and deserved whatever he ended up getting, whatever that might be. He took a breath and then tried to put Al out of his mind. Well, he, Jake, wasn’t leaving anytime soon. He had a job to do. He had to present the results of his lab tests to the MPCA in about six weeks, right before Labor Day. He had a lot of work to do until then. He headed out the door  and back to his lab. Once outside he looked around for Al. He finally saw his pickup truck parked out on the county road by the entrance to the facility. It was just sitting there, engine idling. Jake got the distinct feeling Al was watching him as he walked all the way back. It was a bit unsettling.

Once he was back working in the lab Jake did forget about Al. He focused on running his tests on the water sample from the holding tank. When he was done, he sat down and reviewed the notebook where he kept his records. The MPCA in conjunction with the MWC set the testing standards for various of Minnesota’s cities and municipalities. Fortunately for Jake they were based on the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s standards which were published in a thick handbook and which he was familiar with through working both at the college in Duluth and at the Freshwater Biological Institute. He kept a hard copy of his results in his notebook and also kept a copy on the computer in Lou’s office. There were at least thirty separate tests that had to be run every week. Many of them had forms that had to be filled out. All of the test results had to be organized and kept for easy viewing by anyone who wanted to see what he was doing. All of these procedures were new to the Public Works department and none of them had been done by Al. It was a full time job and Jake sometimes even worked up to four hours each on Saturday and Sunday. He didn’t mind it, though. He felt he was doing something good for the community and that made him feel worthwhile. Lou gave him the first month to prove himself, finally coming to him on a Friday and inviting him out for a beer after work.

“Time to celebrate, young fella’,” he’d said, smiling and slapping Jake affectionately on the back. “You’re doing a great job.”

It made Jake feel good that he was working out and doing the kind of job Lou expected him to do. So even though he wasn’t much of a drinker he agreed to go with his boss and a few other employees that night to The Hitchin’ Post, a country western bar twenty miles south of them near the town of Northfield. He’d had a good time, getting home around three in the morning, feeling great. Great that was until the next morning when he’d crawled out of bed at eight and ended up running his Saturday morning tests with a sour taste in his mouth, cotton in his head and legs that felt like they were full of lead. He went home a few hours later vowing that no matter how happy everyone was with the job he was doing, going drinking again was not going to be his preferred way of celebrating. He wasted the rest of the day in bed with a pounding headache, dreaming of a lake with clear blue waters and he and his kayak out on it in the solitude of a soft summer day and warm sun, and, definitely, no booze.

July faded into August. The crew at Public Works settled into the day to day tasks common to maintaining a community during the heat of the summer. In addition to watching over the pumping system, Al and the two part-timers spent a lot of time out cutting grass along the miles and miles Prairie Height’s roadside ditches . They also filled up a five hundred gallon tanker truck and used it to water young trees that had been planted along roads throughout the county. The crew was so busy, in fact, that Al had no time to bully Jake and, for his part, Jake pretty much forgot about Al and his veiled threats. Instead he focused on doing his job. He was past what he would consider his probationary period and Lou only touched base with him once a day or so, usually to go out to the picnic table for a smoke break. It was during one of those breaks that Lou mentioned something.

“I got a request from the council this morning. They want me and you to come to their next meeting and give them an update on the tests you’ve been running.”

“What’s up?” Jake asked, starting to get nervous. Speaking in front of people was not something he felt comfortable doing.

“Next month some representatives from the MPCA are going to meet with the council. That’s when we’ll present our testing procedure and our test results. If all is Ok, which I’m sure it is,” Lou paused and gave Jake a quick smile, “then everyone will be happy. The council just wants a preview of what to expect at the big meeting next month.” Lou used finger quotes around big meeting, causing Jake to cough out a nervous laugh.

“I’ve got my records in my notebook and on the computer,” Jake said, wondering how he was going to get through the meeting. The Prairie Heights City Council was made up of the major and seven other elected officials. They held a monthly meeting in the community room just down the hall from Lou’s office. Lou usually attended and knew all the members very well.

“I’ll do the talking, you just organize your records so I can present them. If I can’t answer any of their questions, I’ll have you do it.” He looked a Jake, who was starting to perspire. “Hey, man, don’t worry. It’ll be Ok.”

Jake took out another cigarette and nervously lit it, noticing his hand was shaking. “Easy for you to say,” he said, looking out past the parking lot to the chain link fence where the entrance to the facility was. Beyond it was an undeveloped rolling field full of wildflowers. Jake felt like going over to it and going for a long walk, and maybe never coming back.

Lou reached over and taped his arm. “Seriously, don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”

They went back inside and Jake went to his lab and sat down with his notebook and reviewed his records. Everything was in order. He imagined appearing before the council and felt slightly nauseous. At least Lou would be there. Maybe everything would be fine. He sure hoped so.

So during the next few weeks, in addition to doing his tests, Jake organized his procedures so that Lou could present the results. He had his own weekly summary sheet which he used to make a spread sheet showing each test he did each day of each week. The summary sheets showed how each week’s results fell well within the guidelines set by the MPCA. He put all of his results into a PowerPoint presentation for Lou to use and then showed him how to present the information using the office laptop. After he was done his boss was impressed.

“I knew you could do it, Jake. This looks great.”

And it did, if Jake did say so himself. Now, if he didn’t have to say anything at the council meeting he’d be fine.

To help himself relax, and at Lou’s insistence, Jake started to make some free time for himself. He found a place north and west of Prairie Heights near the town of Shakopee where he could put his kayak in on the Minnesota River. He started going there as often as he could. He loved paddling upstream and floating back down just as much as he liked to drift downstream and then paddle back up. He found a bald eagle’s nest on an early downstream float and he enjoyed watching the nest as the single young eaglet in it grew seemingly larger every time he saw it. And the first time he paddled upstream he came upon a huge beaver lodge built out from the bank of the river. He went back as often as he could. Sometimes he’d even see one or more of the beaver family out in the river swimming and diving before noticing him and hurrying to dive to the safety of their home. On any given outing he’d see beautiful white egrets and stately great blue herons either standing silently along the shore, hunting, or roosting high up in the safety of the cottonwood trees that grew along the river side. He could see raccoons prowling the shoreline sometimes if he was down on the river at dusk. He’d even once seen a mink hunting along some muddy river flats. But, unfortunately, if Jake felt to a certain extent that he was tied to water somehow, and through some mysterious connection it energized and invigorated him, being on the Minnesota River sometimes had just the opposite effect. Sometimes it was a painful experience. The river was one of the most polluted in the state, filled with the poisonous runoff from the fields of farmer’s herbicides all along its nearly four hundred mile course from western Minnesota to the Mississippi just twenty miles downstream from him at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis. The green murky waters made him feel sad, almost as if a part of not only the river but also himself was dying. But he paddled on it anyway, enjoying the birds and other wildlife, marveling at their beauty and ability to adapt to less than ideal circumstances. If Jake had to weigh his options, he’d rather be on the river than not, and that, in his mind counted for something. Because when all was said and done, water was kind of a life force for him. Whether it was Lake Superior or the Minnesota River, it was all good. He felt alive when he was in his kayak on the water, no matter where it was or what it’s condition.

So, in general, Jake was feeling good about life. He liked his job and he and Lou got along well. But then, after the flurry of summertime mowing and watering, Al started hanging around the Public Works building and grounds more often. “Got to look over those pumps,” was what he’d say to Lou when asked about it. Which was true. Keeping the pumps up and running kept the sewage and waste water moving through the system and Al was not only good at maintaining them, he was also the only guy who really knew where all of them were located. From Jake’s point of view, he just avoided being anywhere near Al. Sometimes that couldn’t be avoided, though.

The Public Works facility was out in the country and covered about forty acres. It was enclosed by a chain link fence. At the back of the property there was a six inch vertical pipe that went straight down ten feet to where the raw sewage came in to begin its treatment process in the facility. Every morning Jake lowered a container into it to collect a sample to run tests for suspended solids among the other organic compounds. The ground around the sampling pipe was low and sunken and usually damp. It also had a rank, rotten egg smell, which you got used to after a while, but it was still not pleasant. One morning  Jake was preoccupied, thinking like he always did about being careful around the pipe as he approached it, when all of a sudden Al appeared.

“Hey there, young fella’,” he said, mimicking a familiar greeting of Lou’s. “What cha’ doin’?”

“Jeez, man. What are you doing here?” Jake asked, hoping he wasn’t coming across as startled as he felt. Al was wearing mirrored sunglasses and chewing on a toothpick. He looked mean.

“Just checking up on ya’ and those tests of yours.” He paused, considering. “Hear you and the boss man have a meeting to go to.”

“Yeah, so what?” Jake was getting sick of being intimidated by the guy. “I’ve got my job to do and you’ve got yours. What of it?” He stood straight, conscious of feeling like he was holding his ground.

Al took a menacing step toward him, pointing a finger. “Just don’t get too big for those britches of yours, pal’,” he said, poking at Jake’s chest. “You aren’t all that special. I used to do those tests, too, ya’ know.”

“And look where it got us,” Jake said, pushing the guy’s hand away, standing up for himself. “Now the MEPA is watching over us.”

Al laughed and spit his toothpick on the ground. “Not my fault.” He gave Jake a challenging look. “Not my fault at all,” he added as he turned and started to walk away.

Jake stood watching. Should he push it with him or not? Al had his facts wrong. It really was his fault that the MPCA was watching over them. Al was an idiot and Jake was sick of him, sick of being intimidated by him and sick of feeling like he needed to always watch out for him. Under his breath he muttered, “Yeah, well it is your fault, ya’ jerk.” But Al didn’t hear it. He just sauntered away, acting like he owned the place. Jake turned and lowered the container into the pipe to obtain his sample. He looked back over his shoulder. Al was gone, but he felt the guy was still somewhere out there, watching him. Jake sighed to himself. Maybe next time, he’d confront the creep. This crap had gone long enough.

The following week on day the council met to review Jake’s testing procedures the sky was gray and cloudy. By the time the meeting started at 4:00 pm rain had started. There was one final water sample for the day that Jake had to collect but Lou told him to wait until after the meeting so he did. All in all the presentation went fine. The mayor, Betsy Williams, was on her fourth term and was very well liked both by the council and the citizens of Prairie Heights. Lots of people felt it was because of her leadership and guidance that the community was as thriving and prosperous as it was. So when Lou finished his presentation to an enthusiastic round of applause lead by the mayor, Jake was able breathe a sigh of relief. She opened the floor up to questions, some of which Lou could answer and a few that he deferred to Jake. After fifteen minutes it was over and the meeting was adjourned. Lou introduced Jake to the council members that hadn’t met him yet and then the two of them moved out to the hallway.

“How about if we head down to The Hitchin’ Post for a celebration?” Lou asked. He was as happy as Jake had ever seen him. The pressure from the MEPA had been weighing heavily on him. Now, in two weeks, all they had to do was to present Jake’s test results and they’d be fine. The ordeal was almost over. Lou put his arm around him in a rare form of affection.

“You did good, kid.” He was smiling broadly.

Jake had no desire to go out to celebrate, but he understood Lou’s enthusiasm and didn’t want to do anything to dampen it.  “Let me run that last test, and then I’ll meet you down there.”

Lou was getting ready to argue when some of the council members stopped by and agreed to join Lou for drinks and celebration. Jake got the feeling it would eventually turn into a long night and he was happy to have the excuse of doing some work to delay the inevitable.

Lou and the others headed out the door while Jake went into his lab to grab his collection bottle and put on his rain coat and hat. The storm had intensified and as he pushed out the door the wind blew his hat off. He ran to get it and stuffed it in his pocket. It’s do him no good. Cold rain pelted his face. Man, he muttered to himself, thinking he should just forget the test and go to the bar with the others. At least he’d be comfortable and dry. He looked around. Everyone had left and he was all by himself. Way out to the west was a flash of lightening followed by rolling thunder. He sighed, pulling his raincoat close and putting up his hood as he started toward the entrance gate. It took him ten minutes to get there, slopping through muddy puddles along the way, water soaking his boots, rain running into his eyes.  Finally he made it. To the right of the entrance gate about twenty feet off the road, right up by the fence was a storm sewer. A heavy metal grate nearly four feet across covered it. With some difficulty he pulled it up and propped it in place with a metal rod that was attached to it. He looked into the drain. Water was rushing through a large transfer pipe twelve feet down. He had to climb down to it using metal latter rungs on the side of the wall. He wasn’t looking forward to it. The metal rungs would be wet and his hands could slip on them. Or his boots. It was a dangerous job and the one he liked the least of all of his jobs he had to do. But the MEPA required a sample of the storm sewage runoff during a heavy rain. He just had to do it. Lightning flashed again and thunder boomed. If possible it started raining even harder. He spent a moment psyching himself up and then stepped into the pipe and started down the slippery rungs, taking his time, carefully placing his boots and hands as he lowered himself down. In a few minutes he was down to the bottom rung where the water was rushing past about a foot below his boots. Holding onto a rung with one hand, he took the sampling bottle out of his pocket, squatted down, took the sample and snapped the top back on. He was just straightening up when a loud noise from above startled him. He looked up. The grate had come crashing down. His heart rate jumped. He was trapped.

Al pulled his rain gear tight and jogged back to his truck. He had a smirk on his face in spite of the downpour. That’ll teach that little shit. He climbed into the front seat, turned the engine on then the windshield wipers. Let’s see him get out of this, he thought to himself. He was feeling good. He opened up a bag of potato chips, stuffed a handful in his mouth and waited, watching the grate, taping his fingers on the steering wheel, chomping away like he had nothing better to do and all the time the world to do it in.

Jake quickly climbed up to the top of the ladder. He used his shoulder to push against the grate, trying to lift it. Nothing. It wouldn’t budge. He looked back down and to his horror the level of the storm sewer water was starting to rise. He momentarily wondered why that would be happening. The only thing causing it would be a pump being out somewhere down the line. Damn. He quickly made the connection. Al. He must have disabled one of the downstream pumps. That’s what could create a blockage causing the water to back up. It eventually would fill up the pipe he was in and spill out through the grate. Even though rain runoff was coming in through the bars up above and dripping onto his face, Jake broke out into a cold sweat. Unless he could escape, he’d drown. He took out his phone to call for help but the bar were flat. He had no signal. He swore under his breath. The pipe he was in was about four feet in diameter, the same diameter as the grate above him. It suddenly felt like a tomb, narrow and claustrophobic. He looked down over his shoulder. The water was a churning, foaming, brownish mess as it rose up toward him. It was filled with debris swirling and clanging against the side of pipe. Jake braced himself on the ladder rungs, grabbed the bars of the grate with one hand and, using his upper back and shoulder, pushed up with all his might. It gave ever so slightly. There might be hope. He looked back down. Branches were bouncing in the water. The level was at his boots where he was crouched and rising fast. He got a hold of a branch and used his shoulder to force the grate. It moved just a bit and he was able to jam the branch under the lip of it. It was not much, but it was something. The exertion left him panting. His hands were bloody from pushing against the metal bars. He took a moment to gather his strength. He could feel the water rising and roaring, echoing in the pipe. It was above his boots now. He was jammed up on the rungs on the top of the pipe, his knees bent beneath him. Through the grate he could see the gray sky and freedom. He figured he had enough strength for one more push. He wiggled the end of the branch like a lever. The grate moved a little. It gave him hope. He gathered himself one last time as the water rose above his knees up to his thigh. He forced one hand under the edge of the grate by the branch and with his other hand and shoulder he forced his way up, pushing with his legs. His muscles screamed as the grate lifted a little more. Adrenaline flooded his body and his pushed one last time, yelling out loud as the grate lifted and fell away. He fell with it, his body half out of the opening as the water burst from the pipe flooding the ground around him. He had just made it. He was free.

He took a moment to let his strength come back and then crawled the rest of the way out of the hole. On his hands and knees he made his way through sloppy water about ten feet away to where the ground was a little higher. Water was flowing out of the storm sewer forming an ever widening pool. He got into a sitting position and stared at it. The rain was still pouring down. He was soaked and shaken but safe and alive. He was just starting to think about getting up and heading back to the lab when something caused him to look over his shoulder. Through the sheets of pouring rain he saw a pickup truck. It was about twenty feel away. He knew right away that it wasn’t just any pickup truck. It was Al’s. He leaped to his feet. His brain flashed to being almost drowned in the sewer pipe and then it went blank for an instant before it exploded. He literally saw red. A fiery rage so powerful that all of the fatigue he felt was suddenly replaced by a hatred so strong that it was overwhelming. It flooded his body surging through his muscles. Al rolled down the window, gave him the finger and laughed at him. He might have said something, too, but Jake had no idea what it was. He rolled the window back up and then the truck started to slowly pull away. Frantically, Jake looked around. On the ground he found a fist sized rock that he picked up and heaved at the truck with all his might. It smashed into the driver’s side window, spider-webbing the glass. The truck jolted to a stop and Al opened the door. Whatever he was planning on doing he never got the chance. Mad beyond all comprehension Jake sprinted, covering the distance in split second.  He leaped at Al as he was trying to get out of the truck smashing his head with a thud against the side. The bigger man slumped to the ground momentarily stunned. Then tried to get up. But he was no match for Jake’s fury as he fell on the man, beating on him until he was bleeding from his mouth and nose. Al lost consciousness, finally laying still as rainwater rivulets mixed with the blood running off his face. Then Jake got up and dragged the body to the pool forming around the storm sewer pipe. He never felt stronger in his life. Al started to come to as Jake pulled him into the pool, rolled him on his back and sat on his chest, pushing  his head under the water, drowning him. Al’s arms started wind milling and Jake ducked out of the way. Then they went slack. Jake watched as air bubbles escaped through his nostrils. He wanted to kill the guy.

But he didn’t. In the end, as Jake held the limp body submerged under the filthy water, he had a change of heart. Who knew what it was, but he had a vision, not of dirty storm sewer water with god only knew what kind of crap and debris floating in it, but of something else. He saw the crystal clear waters of his youth, his aunt and uncle’s lake and the times he’d swum in it enjoying the warm summertime sun. He saw the pacific ocean and the wave pounding surf off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula and the place he’d visited with his dad the year before he’d died. He saw himself paddling his kayak on Lake Superior, riding the waves and watching the sunset over the hills over the harbor town of Duluth. He even saw himself drifting on the Minnesota River, his kayak riding high in the water, safe and dry, watching as an eagle landed on its nest ready to feed it’s young. All those images flashed into his brain in an instant. And in that instant he realized that he didn’t need to do what he felt he had to do, drown Al. He’d made his point. He’d beaten the guy. And he was done with him.

He sat back on his heels and half stood as he pulled the limp body from the water and dragged Al away from the pool to some higher ground. He knelt beside him and used chest compressions to force water from him. In a few seconds Al coughed and threw up a lungful of water as he rolled to his side gasping. Just then Lou drove up. He got out of his truck and ran to where Jake and Al were. The rain was still beating down. Water was bubbling out of the sewer in a fountain at least three feet in the air. Lou took one look at the two of them on the ground and then seemed to make his decision. Al was Ok, just coughing and trying to stand up. Lou went to him to help him as Jake got his feet and waited, wondering what Lou was going to do.

“What the hell, Al.” Lou shouted, shaking the man. The wind had picked up and almost carried his voice away. But Jake could still hear him. “What the hell have you been up to?”

Al glanced back at Jake who met him eye to eye, challenging him, daring him to say something, anything. But Al averted his gaze. “Nothin’,” he spat out, pulling away from Lou and trying to walk away. “Not a damn thing.”

Lou grabbed him by the back of his shirt and turned him around. They were face to face. “I’d think about that if I were you.” Lou said and gave him another shake. “I got an emergency call. Something’s caused that sewer to back up, and I think that something is you.” He pulled Al to his truck and roughly forced him in. Al had gone quiet, seemingly resigned to his fate. “Stay here.” Then he came back to Jake. “Climb in the back and let’s get to the lab,” he ordered. Then he looked more closely at Jake and seemed to notice something. He relaxed his tone and patted him on the back. “You can fill me in on what went on here later. Right now I’ve got a pump to fix.”

Jake climbed in back of the truck and they headed for the lab. He was shivering, not from the cold rain, but from the release of adrenaline. The rain had washed his hands free of blood but they were shaking badly. He flexed them. They were sore, but no bones appeared to be broken. He looked into the cab through the back window. Al was slumped in his seat up against the side. He looked defeated. Good, Jake thought to himself, it’s about time.

Back at the lab Lou took Al into his office and whatever he did or said in there worked. In five minutes they both came out and headed for the door. “We’re going to fix that pump,” he said to Jake on the way out. “Go home and dry out. Be back here by 7:00 am tomorrow. We’ll talk then.” And then he pushed Al through the door and they were gone.

Jake went into his lab and looked around. On his desk was his notebook with his test results in it. There was also a copy of the presentation he’d put together for Lou. He sat down suddenly exhausted. He cradled his head in his arms on his desk and rested, thinking about the fight with Al and how he’d nearly let his emotions take over. He’d come just that close to drowning the guy. All the good things he’d ever felt about being around water almost vanished when he remembered what it felt like to hold Al under that pool bubbling up from the storm sewer watching the life slowly drain out of the guy. He sat up quickly, shook his head, clearing his mind and then stood up. He looked around his lab one more time and then turned out the light. He walked outside into the early evening. The rain was starting to let up. Out to the west through a crack in the clouds sunlight was pouring through. Tomorrow was another day. He had a feeling Lou would side with him if it came down to it. Al was not someone Lou wanted to keep around anyway. Maybe this would be the opportunity he had been waiting for to get rid of the guy. Whatever…Jake suddenly didn’t really care about all of that. He was wet, he was cold, he was shivering and beyond exhausted. He should get home and clean up, dry out and warm up. But what he really wanted to do was to take his kayak out on the river and just paddle. To get away from it all for a while and be on the water. Just thinking about it made him feel good. Maybe tomorrow, even if it was raining, he’d do it. He didn’t care about being wet. As long as he was near water, that was the important thing. Whether it was a lake or a river, or, yeah, even a water treatment facility, it didn’t really matter. Because being around water was where he felt good and real and himself. That’s where his life had meaning and that’s where he felt he belonged. That’s where he felt like he was at home.

A month later he back up north.

“Did ya’ get it?” Lou asked, turning his kayak toward Jake.

“Yeah, I think. Let me check.” He laid his paddle across his lap and brought up the photo on his camera. It was of an Osprey, wings folded back, streamlined, diving toward the surface of the lake, hunting for a fish. The image was the tiniest bit blurry, but really a flaw only visible to him. Other than that, it looked fine. “Yeah, I got it,” Jake said excitedly to Lou. “Looks great.”

The two men grinned at each other. The sun was just starting to set behind the hills of the bay and the sky was streaked with wispy, orange tinged clouds. Lou took his paddle and waved it toward the shore. A tall lady looking comfortable in flowery dress and a straw hat waved back. Three young girls in bathing suits were spread out on the shoreline looking for rocks. “I think the girls are having a good time,” Lou said.

Jake turned and looked. Lou’s three kids had started sailing stones out over the water of the bay they were in, skipping them across the surface. “Yeah, it definitely looks like it,” he said, a smile on his face. He was happy. The September air was clean and pure, scented with a fresh aroma of pine. Lake Superior was experiencing a rare, calm day. Lou and his family along with Jake were spending a long weekend up past Duluth kayaking north of the town of Two Harbors. The trip had been Lou’s idea. Over the past few months Jake had learned that his boss was a big one on celebrating life events and Lou had wanted to do something special to commemorate a successful presentation to the MPCA three weeks earlier. The long and the short of it was that the Prairie Heights Public Works Water Treatment Facility had passed the presentation with flying colors. They no longer had to fear repercussions from any state agency due to their testing procedures.  As the guy from the MPCA had said to Lou at the end of his presentation, “You guys did good. You cleaned up your act.” He smiled at his pun, causing Lou to grimace. “Keep it that way.” Which was about all anyone, the mayor included, could have hoped for.

So now, here they were, out on Jake’s Big Lake, Lake Superior, with him showing Lou and his family his favorite places along the shoreline to explore. It had been a wonderful three days so far. They were staying at the ‘Hide-a-Way Resort’ whose rustic cabins were scattered behind Lou’s wife and daughters and were partially hidden by a forest of hundred year old red pine trees. The bay was shaped like a half-moon and even had a small sandy beach, a rarity along the rugged North Shore. It was a perfect place to teach Lou and his family the rudiments of kayaking. Jake never tired of taking one and then the other of each of Lou’s family members out on the bay. Over the course of their stay they’d all become quite adept at maneuvering the one kayak that Lou had rented before coming up on the trip. Tomorrow they would have to be heading home.

“I can see I’m going to have to make an investment when I get back,” Lou had said the day before. The entire family appeared to have become hooked. However, now he became quiet and contemplative, watching his wife and kids moving up and down the shore. They were collecting driftwood. The last two nights they’d all stayed up late roasting marsh mellows around a shore side campfire. Tonight was to be no exception. Finally Lou turned to Jake and asked, “How do you think Ari is working out?”

“Great,” Jake answered enthusiastically. “Super. He’s a really good worker.”

Ari Kassar was the young guy Lou had hired to replace Al. He was a second generation Pakistani who had recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Civil Engineering. He was everything Al wasn’t: Hardworking, conscientious, friendly and, most import for Jake, easy to get along with. They were already becoming fast friends and had gone kayaking a number of times together. It was one of the main reasons he had decided to stay in Prairie Heights. The day after Jake had almost drowned in the storm sewer pipe Lou had fired Al. It turned out that while they were out fixing the pump that had failed and caused the sewer to back up, Lou had been questioning Al about what he’d done and Al had gotten so mad that he’d basically lost it.

As Lou told it to Jake, “The jerk tried to take a swing at me, if you can believe that.” Lou shook his head, amazed at the stupidity of the guy.

“What did you do?” Lou and Jake had been sitting out at the picnic table a few days later, having a smoke and replaying the events of, as Lou put it, ‘The Night of the Storm Sewer Incident’.

Lou smiled and flicked an ash into the ashtray. “Let’s just say that he didn’t connect and leave it at that, Ok?”

Jake kind of got what he was saying. Lou had a lot of pent up anger toward Al and who knew how it would have finally come out. The only thing Jake knew for sure was that Al was gone for good. He would never see him again.

It took only one advertisement and a few weeks to find Ari. The young man took to his new job like Jake had taken to his and Lou was happy that the Public Works Department was now functioning smoothly. “Reminds me of what happens when you have good people working together,” Lou told Jake once, a few weeks after Ari had started. Jake figured was a reference to Lou’s past service in the military although he didn’t mention it. Some things he figured were better left alone.

Drifting in the bay and being on the big lake with Lou and his family had been cathartic for Jake. When he’d suggested to him that he bring his family and come up with him to kayak on Lake Superior he actually in the back of his mind was doing it to sort of test himself. To see if maybe he really did want to stay ‘down in the city’ as he sometimes referred to living in Prairie Heights. But he was starting to realize that he didn’t need to live up in Duluth to get what he got when he was out on the water. It turned out that Ari was open to learning how to kayak so Jake had gone with him to a place to rent one. It ended up being a great idea. He and Ari had started taking their kayaks over to Red Wing and putting them in on the Mississippi River. They were enjoying ‘getting to know the river’ as they referred to it. Jake found that he liked being on what he now called The River as much as enjoyed being on Lake Superior. It was all about being on the water that was important to him, no matter where he was. It’s what brought him peace and happiness and made him feel complete, somehow, in ways he was only beginning to understand.

Lou’s paddle splashing in the water interrupted his thoughts. “I’m heading in. You going to join me?”

“Nah. I think I’ll stay out a little longer. Watch the moon rise over there.” He pointed over his shoulder.

Twenty miles across on the other side of the lake was the shoreline of Wisconsin. Just above the far tree line a full moon was hovering above the trees, almost like it was floating.

“Suit yourself,” Lou said. “I’ll try to save some marsh mellows for you.”  He headed off paddling toward shore with muscular strokes, his kids running to meet him.

Jake smiled and watched for a minute, liking seeing Lou and his wife and girls happy. He got the feeling this would be the first of many family trips to the lake together.

He turned his kayak back around toward the east and watched the moon come up, changing color from deep golden to buttery yellow to snowy white as it rose above the hills in the distance. Behind him the sun had set and the sky was darkening. Stars were starting to come out. He could pick out the big dipper on the southern horizon. As night settled in he heard a loon call, it’s warbling, ethereal voice echoing off the trees in the bay. He looked to his right and could just barely make out its shape. He watched as it dove, leaving ever expanding rings on the water’s mirrored surface that eventually reaching his kayak, causing it to bob every so slightly. As the moon rose higher, it’s image reflected on the lake, bright and shimmering. Behind him he could hear the laughter of Lou and his girls, and then, the hooting of an owl, softly welcoming in the night. He dipped his hand in the lake and washed his face, feeling the cold water revitalize him, touching his soul. Lou and the girls called out for him to come to shore. He turned toward them and waved his paddle in the air. “I’m on my way,” he said quietly, almost reverently, and started in, cutting a path through the water straight and true, all the way to shore.

 

 

 

 

 

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Knuckling Down

You might never thought it would happen but finally here it is! A story centered around the joy and excitement that comes from playing the game of marbles.

Larry was nervous as he stood waiting. The guy next to him lagged first. His marble rolled nearly twenty feet and stopped within a foot of the lag line. Now it was Larry’s turn. He took a deep breath, let it out like his brother had coached him, and rolled his marble. It stopped a few inches from the line. He heart leaped. He was going to be the first shooter. He looked around through the crowd of spectators. He didn’t see Tim. Where the hell was his brother? He stuffed his disappointment and tried to focus on the upcoming match. The regional finals for the National Marble Tournament were underway and it looked like he was on his own.

Tim’s friends gave him high five’s as he rolled up on his BMX bike. Matt, Kim and Micah were lounging on a bench in Idlewood Park, half a mile south from where Larry was sweating out the beginning of his final match of the tournament.

“I thought you were goin’ to be with Little Bro’?” Matt asked, flipping a broken twig in Tim’s direction.

“In a sec. I just need a hit to get me through it. I’m all out.” He ducked, the twig narrowly missing his face. His friend, if you could call him that, was a real jerk sometimes.

Matt grinned and looked at Kim and Micah. “It’ll cost ya’, man.”

“Come on,” Tim, pleaded, “Just a quick one, and then I’m outta’ here.” He pointed back from where he came. “I need to hurry up and get back over there and be with Larry.”

“Aww. Is Little Bro’ going to miss his Big Bro’?” Now Kim started in. Tim rolled his eyes. Sometimes he wondered why he hung out with these guys.

Micah came to his defense, “Cool it you guys.” He turned to Larry, “Here, let me fix you up.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his pipe. I’ve still got a little left here.

“Great.” A little was all Tim needed. He was as nervous as his brother about the tournament. Micah passed the pipe to him. Tim pulled out his lighter, lit the weed and took a quick hit, sucking the smoke in and holding it. After a minute he exhaled, feeling better. “Thanks man,” he said, giving Micah his pipe back. “I owe ya’.”

Back at the tournament Larry tried to settle himself. Where the hell was Tim? Larry’s big brother was also his coach, if you could call it that. Tim, at fifteen, was now too old to play in tournaments but, at thirteen, Larry was just under the cut off line. He eyed the guy he’d be playing against. He was a big kid, someone Larry had never seen before. He looked older, almost like he could be shaving. Stop it, he told himself, you’re psyching yourself out. He looked around again. The crowd was growing and starting to fill the bleachers surrounding the ring where the championship would be played . Earlier in the week the staff had set up the bleachers along with twelve hard, resin playing surfaces at popular James Beach. It was located on the south end of Lake Calhoun, a favorite city lake in a string of lakes in Minneapolis, all connected by biking and walking paths. The tournament had been going on since Friday. Over five hundred kids had signed up and Larry had played nearly twenty games, winning each one and progressing to the finals today, noon on Sunday. The girls final had just ended with Katie Peterson, a friend of his, winning. She’d be going to Atlantic City and the national finals in four weeks. With any luck he’d be joining her. The guy he was playing against seemed poised and confident, joking with a bunch of his friends, all of them giving Larry smug looks. He looked around again. Really, he thought to himself, what’s happened to Tim?

Idlewood park was a large grassy area one block square in size and a beautiful place for people in the city to gather. It was fairly level, with well groomed paths meandering through it encouraging walking. There was a wading pool, a baseball diamond, basket ball courts, a tennis court, swing sets and a community center. The park had it all. Mature oak and maple trees grew throughout providing welcome summertime shade, and benches were scattered all around encouraging people to sit and relax. The bench Tim and his friends hung out at they considered theirs, and they actively discouraged people from loitering. Only they were allowed to do that.

“Yeah… I feel good.” Tim looked at Mica. “Thanks man.” He looked around. It was a perfect summer day, blue sky, big white puffy clouds and a light breeze. People were out and about, some of them playing on the ball diamond and others shooting baskets. A few little kids were even splashing around in the wading pool. Tim watched them casually, remembering when he and Larry used to come down and play in it, cooling off on hot summer days. They only lived about five blocks away so it was easy to walk to it when they were young. When was that, he thought to himself, five years ago, ten? He lost track of his math and shook his head. Anyway, they also used to come down and swing on the swing sets. Especially when their parents were fighting, which they used to do a lot. They’d swing and swing and pass the time, hoping that when they got home the fight would be over. It usually wasn’t. Now, their parents were divorced and it was only Tim and Larry and their mom, who worked a lot and let the two boys do pretty much whatever they wanted. And that’s what they did. Especially this particular summer.

He stretched, wanting to appear casual. “I should get back to the match.”

“See how Little Bro’ is doin’?” Matt asked, kind of taunting.

“The big marble king,” Kim added and snickered.

“Or queen,” Matt laughed at his own stupid joke, Kim joining in.

Tim just shook his head. His friends didn’t get it at all. In fact, he was surprised that they even put up with him. Like now. Lately Tim could feel himself drifting apart from them, especially Matt and Kim. They all had been hanging around together since grade school, having met back in Mr. Jensen’s fifth grade class. At the time, Tim had become a very good marble player and regularly participated in tournaments in the area, occasionally even winning. He was a bit well known in sort of a weird way and maybe that added to it. Let’s face it, most of the kids in his school thought anyone playing marbles was pretty much someone you should avoid. Someone too different to even consider being friends with. But that was alright with Tim. By then he was used to being looked at as something of an outsider. He was fine with it. Then one day Matt had approached him, trailing Kim and Micah behind.

“Hey, you that marble guy?” he had asked, standing so close Tim could smell the potato chips on his breath.

“Yeah…” he’d answered, expecting to be shoved or pushed around or something. Something he was used to. “What of it?”

Matt turned to the other two and gave each of them a high five. “See, I told ya’,” he exclaimed. Grinning, he turned to Tim and quickly gave him a one armed hug. “That’s pretty friggin’ cool if you ask me.”

And that was it. From that day Tim had been included into their group. Matt and his gang also considered themselves outsiders and different for everyone else, so Tim fit right in. And even though he didn’t agree with everything the guys did, he had to admit, it was nice to have some friends and guys to hang around with.

Tim’s dad had collected marbles. Had ever since he’d been a kid.”I just like how they look,” he told Tim once. Back then there were hundreds of marbles stored in jars all over the house. Tim became attracted to them on the day his mom had made his dad move them out and store them in the garage.

“Get those things out of here,” she’d finally yelled. “I’m sick of looking at them.”

And this came from someone who thought nothing of collecting china flowers and displaying them all over the place. To each their own, Tim finally decided. But he helped his dad move the jars and Larry had too. It had been fun, and even now, six years later, he still remembered that day with fondness.

“What do you do with them?” Tim had asked as they carefully placed the jars on a self his dad had cleared off. He had to admit they were kind of pretty. Glass marbles of every color under the sun. The ones he liked the best had bands swirling through them comprised sometimes four or five different colors.

“Those are actually called ‘flames’,” his dad said. “Look, see how the tips end in a point?”

“Cool,” Larry said. Tim hadn’t been aware that his brother had been looking over his shoulder. Larry put the marble in his hand and turned it over and over examining it. Then he held it up toward the light. The colors seemed to explode. Even Tim thought it looked pretty neat. Their dad watched as both of his son’s interest grew. Excitedly he picked a jar off the shelf and poured the marbles out onto a old white towel. “Look at these,” he said, lovingly spreading the marbles out. He showed them purple popeyes and peerless patches. He showed them chalkies and clearies and clambroths. He showed them handmade marbles and marbles that glowed in the dark. There were bloodies and flames and slags and swirls. Cub scouts and girl scouts and spidermen and supermen. He showed them watermelons and rainbows and wasps and tigers. Even one called a root beer float. And those all came out of just one jar.

The boys eyes went wide as he rattled off their names. The marbles were pretty and colorful and the exotic names added to the mystery and enjoyment.

“Here, let me show you something else,” he said, picking up more on his boy’s interest.

He grabbed a ball of twine and peeled off a twenty foot length. He put it on the floor of the garage in the shape of a circle. It was about six feet across. “You take your marbles and put them in the center of the circle.” He put a handful down, maybe a dozen. “Then you take this bigger marble…” He grabbed a different jar and shook out a marble about twice as large as the others. “It’s called a ‘shooter'”. He knelt down and cupped the shooter in his right hand with his fingers curled around it, cradling the marble. With his thumb positioned behind it he suddenly flicked the marble so it rolled across the floor smacking into the collection of marbles in the center, knocking a few of them out of the ring. He looked up at his boys. “You just fire the shooter at the marbles and try to knock out as many as you can.” He stood up and dusted his knees. Tim looked at his dad. He’d never seen this side of him before.  At the time, being nine years old, he could have coped an attitude of indifference, pretending that he didn’t care, but he didn’t. His dad actually looked happy. Almost like he was a kid again. And, for some reason, that made Tim happy

“That’s pretty cool, dad,” he said, meaning it.

Larry took it a step further. “Show me how to play.” His intense expression was unlike anything Tim had ever seen before. It was the beginning of the growth of a new side of his brother that was still going on even until now.

From that day on the two boys, with coaching from their father, started to learn the game of marbles. It soon became evident that, while Tim was good, his younger brother Larry had a special aptitude. A gift, if you will, that was interesting for his older brother to see as it developed. And it was especially fun for their father to see. You have to remember that the boys were learning how to play marbles in a day and age where most kids were plugged into an iPod or Wii or some fancy electronic game played a big screen television. It wasn’t that the boys weren’t interested in those things, they were, especially Tim, but they just didn’t like them as much as the thrill they got from playing marbles.

Like Larry said once, “I just like to fire that shooter and watch it smash into those other marbles.” There was a twinkle in his eye when he said it. One thing was certain for the boys, playing marbles was definitely a more tactile experience than playing video games.

It made Tim feel good when his little brother talked like that. Larry had always been a quiet, shy and introverted kid. He was near sighted so he had to wear thick framed glasses. He was skinny, almost frail and hadn’t hit a growth spurt yet. He loved to read the ‘Hardy Boys’ mysteries and color in his coloring books. Tim was convinced his brother could go for days without talking to anyone if he had to. If his mom didn’t make him go to school he’d probably be perfectly happy just living in his bedroom with his books and his colored pencils. Except for playing marbles. Playing marbles got Larry out of the house and got him around other kids, and, who knew, maybe that was something worthwhile in that. Larry sure liked it. It turned out that he liked the competition. Liked the pressure, too, which was odd because it was one of the things that eventually drove Tim away from tournament play. But not Larry. He seemed to thrive on it. He didn’t always win, of course, but he was always a gracious loser. Tim got the feeling that his brother in some strange way needed to be playing marbles. He couldn’t quite put it into words, but it had to do with giving him a sort of confidence. A confidence he certainly wouldn’t have obtained by living life up his room.

Their dad left home about six months after he’d shown the boys how to play marbles. Their mother had kicked him out of the house about the same time the company he worked for transferred him to Sacramento. Tim would never forget the day their dad left. After a few minutes of embarrassed goodbyes, their dad finally wrapped both the boys in a big bear hug. All three of them had gotten close in the months since they’d discovered the game of marbles. And it was about the game that was the final thing their dad had talked about before leaving. “Keep your eye on the marble, boys,” he’d said, making a little inside joke like he’d done before, but also actually meaning it. “Don’t look at the shooter in your hand, just zero in on that marble you’re shooting at. Relax. Let your breath out. And fire. Let your instinct take over.”

Tim and Larry knew exactly what their dad was getting at. He’d told them time and time again that you ‘sort of become one with the marble’.

“Like that golfing movie?” Tim had asked.

Their dad had smiled and nodded but then also turned serious saying it was sort of like that, except playing marbles was a lot harder than playing golf.

Tim didn’t know about that, but he did know that he loved the game and so did Larry. Within a year after their mom had them move the marbles to the garage and six months after their dad had left, the boys had entered their first tournament. And they hadn’t done too badly. The Midwest Marble Association sponsored tournaments which were held in a variety of locations in the five state area. Their mom would drive them if she could get the time off work. The first one they attended was in Iowa, outdoors at the Merle Hay Shopping Center in Des Moines. Tim finished in fourth place and Larry in third in their respective age groups, and the seed had been planted. They were able to attend on the average four or five tournaments a year, usually in the summer. The more they played the better they became. And for those first few years, it had been a lot of fun. It had brought the brothers closer together than ever and even their mom had fun.

But, of course, things change over time. As Tim got older he started to lose his desire to compete. He didn’t like all the fuss that went with it and his enthusiasm waned. But Larry was different. He excelled at the game. He liked the challenge and he like the competition, which was a surprise to his older brother.

“I don’t get it,” Tim said to him, more than once. “Why do you put yourself through this stress all the time?”

Larry answered with a gleam in his eye, “I just like to know that I’m good at something, and playing in those tournaments let’s me do that.”

Tim didn’t know much, but he did know that his little brother was telling the truth. He really was good at playing marbles.

Tim was ten and Larry was eight when their dad left home. After he moved out they didn’t see him very much. As their mom put it, “Your dad loves you but he’s just moved on with his life. ” She paused and looked both the boys straight in the eye, adding, “You should too.” Her words were a bit harsh but they were also true, and the boys tried to do just that. Tim often wondered if his brother’s obsession with marbles had to do with him holding on to some childish memory. Like the good times they’d had with their dad and that day in the garage when he’d first taught his boys the game of marbles. Weirder things could happen.

Now, at thirteen, Larry was at the top of his game. He was confident, but not arrogant. He had skill and he had focus. Tim had been coaching him for the last few years, ever since he’d lost interest in competing. He still loved the game, but he had moved on and was interested in other things now.

“Hey, man, where are you?” Micah was waving a hand in front of Tim’s face. “Are you still with us?” The other guys laughed and Tim blinked his eyes, coming back to reality.

“Yeah, geez, sorry.” Tim rubbed his eyes, the images in his memories fading. “What’s goin’ on?”

Matt punched him in the arm. “Get with it, man. You asleep or what?”

Tim finally got his mind working again. He suddenly realized something. His brother. “Man, I got to get goin’.” He said frantically, standing on the pedal of his bike. “Larry’s game’s probably started.”

Matt and Kim laughed and gave him cat-calls as he tore through the park and out on to the street that lead down to the lake. He felt bad and he pushed the speed of his bike. He knew how much Larry depended on him. He had to step on it. This would be his brother’s last chance to win the tournament and get to go to Atlantic City for the nationals. Next year he’d be too old. He pedaled faster, heart pounding, silently berating himself for letting his brother down.

Back at the tournament Larry was kneeling down on the outside edge of the circle ready to begin the game. One of the rules of marbles is to have at least one knuckle touching the ground when shooting. So he knuckled down and lined up his first shot. The game is played on a square, hard resin surface outlined by low boards. Inside is a ten foot diameter circle. Inside the circle thirteen marbles are placed in the center in a cross pattern with the marbles six inches apart. A template is used to lay them down emphasizing that accuracy counts for a lot in marble competition in more ways than one. Larry knelt so he could line up his first shot, the first shot he always took in any game, which was aimed at the center marble in the cross. He mentally tried to calm himself. The crowd of spectators became a quiet, watching and waiting. He checked his breathing, took a deep breath and slowly let the air out of his lungs. His eyes locked in on the center marble. He relaxed his grip on his shooter just an instant before he made his mind up to shoot. (A trick his father had taught him). And then he fired. The marble shot out of his hand like a missile and flew past the center marble, just nicking it ever so slightly. His shooter flew across the ring and slammed into the boards on the far side. He had missed everything. It was the worst shot he’d taken in he couldn’t remember how long. He felt like a jerk. He glanced over at the other guy who was in the process of doing all he could to keep from laughing. This was not the beginning he’d hoped for.

Tim was pedaling as fast as he could to get to the beach. He swung into the parking lot, skidding a little and barely maintaining control. He headed for the huge crowd of spectators. The lake was dotted with sailboats and windsurfers. People were playing in the water, laughing and tossing Frisbees. He hardly noticed any of that. Instead he heard a groan arise from the crowd. He pedaled even faster. Something bad had happened and he hoped it didn’t have anything to do with his brother.

Well, things like that just happened, what how Larry was looking at it. One of the lessons he’d learned from his years of competition was to take the good and the bad. The guy he was playing against, whose name was Nate, knuckled down and took his shot. He knocked one marble from the ring but his shooter went out as well which meant he had to forfeit his next shot. The shooter has to stay in the circle for the player to continue. It was Larry’s turn. A movement to his right caught his eye. Tim had jumped off his bike and was shouldering his way to the front of the crowd. It’s about time, he thought to himself. Tim gave him a look and pointed to his eye and then to Larry, eyeball to eyeball. It was something they’d come up with in the last year. It was like ‘double focus. You and the shooter. That’s all there is. Make it happen.’ It probably sounded weird, which is why the two brothers didn’t talk about it much, but there really was an element of more than luck or chance or even skill when it came to playing marbles. You had to get into the zone. That place where there was only you and your connection to the marble you were shooting at. It was almost a mystical thing. And that’s where Larry tried to get to now.

Tim and Larry played regional tournaments together for about five years. Tim quit when he was fourteen, the last year he was eligible to play. By then Larry had proven himself as a committed player. Tim still liked the game and, even if he didn’t admit it to anyone else, he liked his brother. Tim was the more outgoing of the two. He was the one with friends. Larry was quiet and introverted when he was young and he was growing into his teenage years as still being quiet and introverted. He was friends with Katie Peterson because they both enjoyed playing marbles, but he had no other kids his age he hung out with. He was a good student. Teachers liked him and he was never any trouble. While other kids pleaded with their parents for cell phones, Larry didn’t. He was happy reading and building model airplanes. He was learning chess. The closest he came to technology was playing with Legos. This summer he had started dressing in baggy knee length cargo pants, various tee-shirts from different punk bands, red converse high-top tennis shoes and an old Minnesota Twins baseball cap of their dad’s he’d found stuffed in a box in the basement. So although Larry was different and a bit unique, he was still his brother and they got along pretty well. Like his mom had said once, “With your father gone, it’s just you two boys. You’d better make the most of it.” Which, when Tim thought about it, they did.

So with eye contact made, Larry felt himself shifting inside. Felt himself starting to get into the zone. He knelt down and positioned himself. He had put his first missed shot behind him. It was like the match had just started. He had another chance to make his shot. He calmed himself and fired. A hit. He felt his pulse go up. He’d knocked two marbles out and his shooter stayed in the circle. He was up two to one and could shoot again. There were ten marbles left. He calmed himself and knelt down. He rubbed his shooter on his pant leg and rolled it in the palm of his hand, all the while eyeing his next shot. When he was ready he knuckled down and fired. Another hit. He was on a roll, a term he and Tim often used in a case like this, when he started knocking marbles out right and left. ‘No pun intended’ they’d always add, envisioning all those marbles rolling all over the place. Thinking about it made him smile even as he concentrated on his next shot.

This summer Larry was between seventh and eighth grade. Unlike other guys his age he wasn’t into girls or smoking dope (like he knew his brother sometimes did) or hanging out with goofy friends (like his brother always did) or anything like that. He liked things quiet. He liked his books and reading. He was into the history of the civil war right now. He had traded his coloring books in for drawing tablets that he filled with detailed pen and ink sketches of birds and flowers that he brush-washed with watercolors. He liked to listen to music of all kinds and recently surprised even his brother by becoming a fan of the California punk rock band Social Distortion. He listened to them late at night through the headphones on his computer while idly sketching his drawings. He was even thinking about getting a job at the hobby store in the strip mall a few miles from home, close enough so he could ride his bike. He had grown closer to his mother ever since his dad had left. He felt a little bad that she had to work and couldn’t be at the tournament today, but it didn’t concern him too much. And he liked his older brother a lot. After their dad had left home the family had not drifted apart like other families might have. No, they had grown closer together. The boy’s mom seemed more at ease with their dad gone, and she gave each of her sons as much love as she could. The fact that she had to work so much only made Tim and Larry become more responsible and that was a good thing. Like their mom had said, “I’m going to have to count on your more and more now that your dad is gone. Don’t let me down.” It must have been the way she said it, and the trust she put in her sons, that made them respect her wishes and do what she wanted them to do. Which is what they did.

Well, almost. After all, boys will be boys and in Tim’s case, that was certainly true. Hanging around with Matt and his crew probably wasn’t the best thing way for him to be spending his time. At least in Larry’s eyes, but as far as he knew Tim hadn’t gotten into any really bad trouble yet. But that’s why Larry had been so worried when he hadn’t seen his brother at the beginning of the match. Who knew what could have happened? Matt certainly was a loose cannon. But Tim was here now and that’s all that counted.

One of the keys in marble competition beyond concentration and focus and skill was the ability to not get rattled. Larry was a master at maintaining his composure but even he had a scary moment a few shots later when his shot failed to knock a marble out but his shooter stayed in the circle. This meant that Nate could use his next shot to try to knock the shooter out. If he was successful Larry would have to give up all of his marbles to him, making his chances of winning extremely difficult. Fortunately Nate missed everything completely so Larry regained his turn with no damage done. As he settled himself to shoot he glanced at his brother who was now looking over his shoulder and getting agitated and perturbed. What now? Larry followed his brother’s line of vision and his heart jumped. It was Matt and Kim and Micah pushing through the crowd. He looked back at Tim. He could see that his brother was not only distracted but angry and that didn’t help his concentration at all. He went ahead and shot anyway, knocking out another marble. He had put spin on his shooter. It stopped close to a group of three marbles. He was so close to winning  he could all most taste it. If he knocked them all out he’d be the winner. He moved to where his shooter was and crouched down, lining up his shot. Just then a shouting match broke out. He looked up. Matt and Tim were pushing at each other and it looked like Matt was trying to start a fight. A couple of big, beefy security guys were struggling to make their way through the crowd. This couldn’t be good.

Larry knuckled down and took aim, calming his breathing. In the background he could hear the ruckus start to escalate. But instead of picturing what was happening between Tim and Matt, in his mind he saw something different. In his mind he saw all the hours of practice he’d put in with his brother guiding him, helping him to be the best player he could be. He saw the countless miles driven on the road with his mom and brother, and the sacrifices his mom had made taking time off work to drive he and his brother to tournaments all over the five state area. He even saw an image of his dad, gone from his life for the last five years, giving him his first lesson on how to shoot a marble. He saw it all in an instant. He saw the beauty of the game and how much he loved playing it. He pictured he and Tim in Atlantic City vying for a national title. He steeled his resolve and let his breath out, cradling his shooter lightly, knuckles on the ground. Then he let it fly and watched as it hit one, two and then three marbles knocking them all out. His shooter spun to a stop well inside the circle. A roar went up from the crowd. He’d won. Larry didn’t hesitate a moment. In an instant he jumped up and ran across the ring and into the crowd where Tim and Matt were starting to throw punches. He jumped on Matt and his momentum pushed the larger boy to the ground. Then Kim jumped in and then Tim piled on, fists swinging. The whole thing lasted about fifteen seconds. Just long enough for Larry to land a blow on Matt’s nose causing blood to spray all over the place. The two security guys had finally made it over and were able to pull the boys apart. Someone called the cops and within a minute a squad car showed up. Five minutes later Matt and Kim were ushered into it and driven away while Tim and Larry were held by security until another one arrived. Then a weird thing happened. There was a ceremony. Larry’s victory had not been forgotten. He was brought over to the marble ring where his match had been played.  After a short and slightly humorous speech by an official from the National Marble Association in which he mentioned not only Larry’s skill with a shooter, but also his skill with his fist, he was awarded the winner’s trophy along with a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars. There was a nice round of applause from the large audience. Over the years Larry had developed quite a following. People really liked him. In just over three weeks he’d be heading to Atlantic City for the National Marble Tournament finals. Before then, though, the first thing that was going to happen was that he and his brother were going to be taking a ride to the Fifth Precinct station in south Minneapolis. There was talk about them being booked for disturbing the peace and causing a public disturbance. But there was a general conscientious that Matt and Kim were the instigators and that Tim and Larry shouldn’t be charged with anything. Still, what happened had happened and now there might be consequences. It was not the ending to the day that either Larry or Tim had envisioned.

In the end it really didn’t turn out all that bad. One of the tournament officials had followed the squad to the precinct and vouched for the brothers.

“I don’t know anything about those other two guys,” he told the desk sergeant. “All I can say is that both of these boys are good kids and have never caused me any problems before.” Tim and Larry were standing between the two officers from the squad car. They stared at the floor with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. The big question for them was what was their mom going to think? One of the cops had gotten her number at work and had already called her. “In fact, this one here…” he indicated Larry, “Just won a big tournament and is going to represent the entire region next month in Atlantic City.” This seemed to impress the guy behind the desk.

“Really? What’d he win?” he asked, interested.

“The Midwest Marble Tournament,” the official said proudly. “He’s a great little shooter.” Which didn’t come across as well as he’d expected it would, but when all was said and done might at least have counted for something.

There was a conference between the officers and the desk sergeant and they all decided the best thing was to let the brothers off with a warning. This was also accompanied by a stern talking to by one of the officers and a promise from the boys to behave. The general consensus at the station was that punishment by their mother would be bad enough and it was. By the time she had picked them up at the Precinct and brought them home, chewing them out the whole time, they were more sorry for causing her distress than being dressed down by the cops. As she said as she pulled into the driveway, “I need to count on you boys to do the right thing. I thought I’d raised you better than this.” Guilt can be a great motivator sometimes when being a parent and this was one of those times.

“I’m so sorry, mom,” was what they each in their own way said over and over again all the rest of the day, into the night and even into Monday. “It’ll never happen again.”

Which may or may not be true, and even their mom knew that, but she accepted their sentiment at least. As well as grounding them for a week.

“Stay here in the yard. Don’t go anywhere. Call me every hour when I’m at work.” And that’s what they did.

And that might have been the end of the story except that nothing in life is really truly over. Sometimes, instead, it’s just a doorway to a new beginning.

A few days later on Wednesday the brothers were out in the garage practicing when they had a surprise visitor. Larry was working on putting spin on his shooter and Tim was sweeping the floor in preparation for a game when a voice said, “Hey there guys.” They both looked up. It was Katie, the winner of the girls division. “What are you all up to?”

Larry got up to greet her. Katie was a skinny redhead who wore her hair in pigtails. She was a head shorter than Larry and she liked to wear flower patterned shirts, cut off jeans and hard soled moccasins. She had about a dozen different kinds of bracelets on her left wrist. She was shy but friendly. Larry and she had been friends for a couple of years, sharing not only a love of playing marbles but also of books and reading. They were in the same grade. “Just practicing,” Larry said, reddening just ever so slightly. “Want to join us?”

Tim gave Katie a wave and finished his sweeping. Four years ago the boys had set up a mock marble ring in the garage. It was exactly the same size as what was used in competition, the only difference being that the surface of theirs was cement. It worked well for them, though, and they spent countless hours out on it working on their game. Even now, with him coaching Larry these past few years, Tim still played.  “What’s up, Katie?” Tim asked, leaning his broom against the wall. He was noticing something going on between the two. His mind immediately went to ‘boyfriend-girlfriend’ but as he thought about it he just couldn’t see it. Not with his brother and Katie, who, even though she was nice, was still as geeky and awkward as his brother. She even wore thick glasses, just like he did. No, he just couldn’t see it at all. Then some laughter caught his attention. It seemed that Larry had made a joke that Katie laughed at while reaching out and touching his arm. It was suddenly apparent that Larry and Katie seemed very comfortable with each other. Maybe there was something going on between them that he wasn’t aware of.

Katie turned to Tim. “My dad was wondering if you could help me get ready for the tournament. He’s going to be out of town a lot and won’t have much time.” Her dad was an airline pilot and was often gone for three or four days at a time. Tim knew her dad and thought of him as Ok, just a little pre-occupied, but he liked Katie and readily agreed. “Sure. I’ll be happy to.”

“Thanks, Tim.” She said and then looked back at Larry, who smiled at her and gave her a ‘thumbs up’ sign. “Where do we begin.”

Getting ready for the tournament meant playing a lot of practice games so Larry and Katie could get used to taking shots from a variety of positions and distances. Tim also played, as a third person, and they alternated who played who. It was fun. The more time Katie spent with Larry, the more Tim saw that there was definitely something between the two and it made him happy for his little brother.

They practiced four hours a day. Katie took care of her three younger siblings during the morning until her mom got home from work, and then she’d come over for pretty much the entire afternoon. Tim brought down an old boom box and they played their favorite music while they practiced. Larry contributed his Social Distortion CD’s and Tim played his favorite local punk band, Banner Pilot. Katie got into the spirit of it all and brought over Courtney Barnett. The kids were serious about their game, but also having a good time. One day Larry came into the practice session wearing and old tee-shirt on which he had used tempera paints to print the words “Knuckling Down Is Good For Your Soul” on the back. Both Tim and Katie thought it was pretty cool and soon they came up with some more slogans: “Playing Marbles…It’s not just a game but a way of life”, “Once a shooter always a shooter” and “The sun always shines when you play marbles”. Then Tim had an idea.

“Why don’t we make up our own tee-shirts with those sayings on the back? Maybe we could sell them and make some money.”

Katie and Larry readily agreed. “I’ve got an idea for the front,” Larry said. “A big circle, like the marble ring, with the marbles as dots forming a cross in the middle. The tee-shirt could be one color, say black, and the circle could be a different color, say red and the marbles a different color, say white. You could vary the color combinations and the sayings on the back.” He sat back and smiled. “And, no, I haven’t thought about this much at all,” he joked as Tim and Katie laughed.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Katie said. “Let me talk to my mom.”

It turned out that Katie’s mom was familiar with the local arts and crafts scene. She knew some people who knew some people and so on. A few days later, Katie reported back, “My mom knows someone who would like to talk to you about your idea,” she said looking at Larry.

“Only if you and Tim are with me,” he said, blushing. Tim knew what his brother was getting at. In many ways his brother was still painfully shy.

Tim and Katie looked at each and nodded. “Deal,” they said simultaneously, making everyone, Larry included, laugh.

The week before the National Finals they had another surprise visitor. Micah showed up. He had a black eye, but he was smiling nevertheless. “Hey, dudes,” he said, before he saw Katie, and then added, “Dudette.” Embarrassed.

Tim’s hackles went up. “What do you want?”

Micah spread his hands wide, “Nothing, friend, I come in peace,” making kind of a joke.

Tim chuckled. Micah really wasn’t that bad a guy. He remembered that during the fight Micah had stayed out of it. Whether it was loyalty to Tim or fear of getting punched was unclear. Tim decided to cut him some slack. “What happened to your eye?”

“Well, let me tell ya’…” And Micah told them his story. Seems that Matt was so hot and bothered over getting punched by Larry that he and Kim wanted to get him for it. “Man, you should have heard those two. Matt even talked about using a hammer to break the fingers on that shooter hand of his,” Micah said, mimicking a smashing motion, causing Larry and Katie to flinch. Tim could feel his blood start to boil, his fists involuntarily starting to clench. Micah laughed and looked at Tim, putting up his hand. “Hold on there, buddy. He’s not going to do anything.” Tim gave him a questioning look. “I kind of convinced him not to.”

“What’d ya’ mean?” Tim asked, confused. Matt was a lot bigger than Micah, who was more or less just average in size compared to Matt’s bigger bulk.

“We got in a fight and I won,” Micah said, proudly.

“Don’t take this wrong, man, but you’ve got to be kidding me.” Tim knew that Matt was a pretty good fighter. Plus he was a large, burly kid who wasn’t afraid of anyone.

“Nope. I had a secret weapon.”

“What’s that?” Both Tim and Larry, who had been following the conversation closely, asked at the same time.

“I’ve been taking karate.” Micah said, grinning. “I’ve gotten pretty good, too.” He mimicked a judo chop. Tim and Larry and now even Katie were listening, stunned, never expecting something like this out of Micah. “I nailed him under the jaw with my elbow.” He paused for effect, then laughed again, “He won’t be talking for a long time.”

“You broke his jaw?” Tim asked, stunned.

“Yeah, I did.” Micah answered proudly. “Well, messed it up anyway. Just after he punched me in the eye.” Tim was impressed. So were Larry and Katie. The reason Micah had come over was to tell them his story and to tell them they wouldn’t have to worry about either Matt or Kim for a long time. If ever. “I think he’s kind of scared of me, now. Kim, too,” Micah added, with a smile.

Tim could understand. “Well, cool.” Was all he could think of saying. He meant it. He’d always liked Micah the best of the three of them. He appreciated that this was Micah’s way of apologizing for what had happened. “Want to hang around here for a while?”

“Sure.” Micah put his bike up against the side of the garage. “Nice tunes, you got going,” He said, going over to the boom box to check out the CD’s. “Is that Social Distortion?”

“Yeah, it is,” Larry said, as he gave what Tim could have sworn was a wink at Katie. “I’m hoping maybe they’ll bring us good luck.”

Micah laughed, “From what I hear, you and Katie are going to do just fine. Those guys out in Atlantic City aren’t going to know what hit ’em.”

Not knowing he was inadvertently making a joke with his pun on marbles hitting each other, the other three laughed. Micah laughed, too, with them, just thinking it felt kind of nice to be included.

When their mom drove up later that afternoon she had good news for the boys. Katie’s mom had called her. She’d found a local company that was interesting in printing up the tee-shirts. They still needed to work some design details out with the boys and Katie, but apparently the idea for the marble slogan tee-shirts was going to be a big hit. They might even be ready to sell at the tournament next week. However, before she told them, she just sat in her car for a few minutes watching the kids shoot marbles. She saw someone new there, Tim’s friend Micah. Well, that was good. It was nice to see her boys with their friends. They were all good kids. Each in their own way. A mother couldn’t really ask for anything else, really. Next week they’d be heading for Atlantic City. Katie would be joining them. That was another thing her mother had wanted to talk to her about. Apparently something had come up and neither she nor her husband could make it to the tournament. And that was fine, Katie was more than welcome to come with them. All she wanted was for her sons to grow up to be decent people. So far there had been a few bumps in the road, but, really everything was going along pretty well. If playing marbles helped make life a little easier who was she to stop them? Maybe that could be another slogan for them “Playing Marbles Makes For A Better Life”. Naw, she shook her head. Sounded kind of stupid, even if maybe it really was true.

She got out of the car and waved.”I’m home.” She smiled and the boys and their friends smiled back and waved. They went back to their game. Larry was playing against Katie, and he was knuckling down and setting up a shot, Tim and Micah watching. The National tournament was just a week away. Hundreds of kids would be participating in front of thousands of spectators. For now it was just a warm summertime day and a game of marbles being played on a garage floor. Katie was wearing a tee-shirt with one of the boy’s slogans on it: “Playing Marbles…It’s not just a game, but a way of life, and that’s a GOOD thing.” She smiled to herself as she walked over to watch them play, thinking that maybe when all was said and done, they were right.