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.