One Story Leads to Another . . .


My First Summer as an International, Top-Secret Spy

After we pulled ourselves from the lake onto the pier, my brother David waved his bare feet in the air and said, “Look at all the mud squirming between my toes.”

They were leeches, not mud, and we all had them between our toes and in our armpits and crotches as we soon found out after Mom wrestled us into the shower and scanned every inch of our bodies, shrieking the entire time. Mom never fully recovered from this episode, but we were back in the lake within the hour, though she made us wear shoes and socks and T-shirts every time we got in and made us inspect ourselves every time we got out.

I remember being covered with dozens of leeches, and my horror at the dozens swarming over my little brother and sister, and our friends Laurie and Billy. I remember the leeches wriggling away from my slippery fingers, but holding my breath, clenching my teeth, and squeezing my thumb and forefinger together to pinch the leeches out of my skin, pulling them off in a frenzy because they couldn’t be wished away, they had to be carefully, meticulously extracted. I remember my heart racing, the panic throbbing in my temples because we needed to get the leeches off ASAP! before we contracted some dreadful, incurable feverish swamp disease that would eventually kill us all off, nothing left but drool and tufts of hair.

That’s how I remember it, but it was probably closer to three or four leeches apiece on each of us kids. My mom literally didn’t shriek for days. It was probably just for a few minutes. And then, she sent us back out into lake, wearing shoes and T-shirts in the water so the leeches couldn’t get their suckers into us the next time.

I’m remembering almost five decades away from that summer at Lake Nipissing. The detailed chronology of the trip is gone. I can’t even remember the exact year unless I hunt down the few fading Polaroids to see the date on the snapshots’ sides. I’ve since lost the notebook I faithfully updated each night, and sometimes even during the daylight hours. I distinctly remember the notebook: a navy-blue saddle-stitched bank calendar my dad gave me.

I’d started writing in little notebooks when I was in second or third grade. My favorite childhood summer memory is getting up before dawn, pulling on clothes from the day before off the floor, and going outside to climb the tree next to our house. I’d spy on the neighborhood as it woke up and inched into the day: parents— juggling briefcases, mugs, and lunch boxes and lit cigarettes dangling from their lips—slammed car doors and drove away. Free-roaming dogs measured out the perimeters, birds scolded and squawked, and transistors buzzed with pop music and news.

After breakfast, my spying duties were directed toward my brother and his friends. This required a calibrated balance between being dogged enough to endure physical challenges—long bicycle treks across town, brutal ambushes in the neighborhood woods, and daily drowning attempts at Water Works, our local pool—and refraining from being so pesky as to elicit intervention from parents or the authorities.

My memories and remaining notebooks are full of mixed results.

The Lake Nipissing summer was different because it marked my transition to International Spy. We had traveled in two cars—my family, with my parents’ best friends, Grace and Bill, and their kids, Laurie and Billy, and Grace’s youngest sister, Linda. We crossed the border between America and Canada to get to the lakeside camp where we stayed that week. The family managing our cabin’s campsite spoke French. So did the couple running the general store a mile down the path through the woods. And the staff of the boat rental. And the staff of the snack shack next to the boat rental. The french fries served in enormous paper cones at this snack shack were called pomme frites. Squirt bottles of mayonnaise and vinegar cruets were offered on the counter to put on the pomme frites, instead of catsup. The pomme frites, crunchy with sea salt and soured with vinegar were the most exotic food we kids had ever encountered. Almost, but not quite, as coveted as the frozen custard sold in the village we drove through to get to the campsite. All of the houses in the village, where we had to go to get our fishing licenses, were encircled with white picket fences.

As if all of this weren’t marvelous enough, the family staying in the cabin next to Bill and Grace’s cabin were originally from Australia, though they now lived in Ontario. Australia! And they spoke with the most incredible, lilting, jolly accent. This family included a daughter, a year or two older than me, a son near David and Billy’s ages, and a daughter in between Laurie and my sister Chrissy’s age. Destiny! It was FATE itself that dictated our families were to vacation next door to each other.

I didn’t like her at first, this girl so close to my age. I just stared at her, as her mother spoke to mine and Grace on the pier, while her brother, David, and Billy became friends by trying to drown each other in the lake. Within minutes of these three boys exchanging names, they dunked each other into the lake, choking, gripping each other in headlocks, pulling each other by slippery ankles to the murky, sand-muddied depths, and kick-splashing to get us all soaked at the same time.

I was a mean kid. I thought everyone was studying and practicing to be top-secret spies, too. So, I was naturally suspicious of everyone around me, even those close to my age.

Her name was Maudie and she was looking me up and down, too. Her thick red-brown hair was tightly braided, sturdy as a horse whip, in a long tail down her back, and she was draped in Sarah Coventry jewelry. Her mother sold it in their own living room back in Toronto. Chunky, gold-plated rhinestone and imitation turquoise rings, bracelets made of tiger-eye glass cabochons, and an enormous perfectly symmetrical lime green pansy brooch.

Maudie’s family was staying in the two-week vacation cabin and they had already been there for a week and a few days. She asked if I could walk with her to the general store down the gravel road through the trees and my mother shocked me by saying, “Yes.”

Along the way, Maudie asked me if I wore a bra. Because she did. Of course.

“No.” I didn’t tell her that my mother had been bringing it up lately.

“Well, you don’t need one,” she said.

“I don’t care.”

I didn’t care that she made fun of me for looking at the candy and the postcards, instead of the snow globes, ashtrays shaped like maple leaves, and miniature osprey figurines, like she did. The postcards were predominately lake views, but also included an array of scenes from The Three Stooges episodes: Moe and Larry, tongues held between their teeth, tightening an elaborate vise around Curly’s big head; the three of them dressed as cowboys, as Larry and Moe are about to smash cream pies into Curly’s face; even Shemp, my favorite, with Larry, and Moe dressed in kilts and dancing a jig.

“Girls don’t watch the Three Stooges. And only little kids want to buy candy,” Maudie said.

I didn’t care. The fact that this teeny general store in the wilds of the forest surrounding Lake Nipissing in Ontario, Canada, carried The Three Stooges postcards was a marvel to me. Proof of their international fame and stature. I coveted the postcards, but had only a few quarters left from the babysitting money I’d saved up for the vacation, since I’d spent most of it on purchases I’d made soon after we’d crossed into Canada: a small black metal prancing horse with a saddle and a pewter bracelet embossed with Parisian landmarks.

I didn’t care that Maudie said I was “too skinny” to ever grow boobs. Didn’t care that she called me “knock-kneed.”

I couldn’t stay mad at her because even her insults were charming in the melodic accent she used to hurl them at me. I just wanted her to keep talking so I could learn to mimic her way of speaking. I loved the name “Maudie.” To this day, if I find the perfectly right cat for such a name, I will call her “Maudie.”

Again, I’m remembering from nearly a half-century away. Our conversations went something like that. I don’t remember the exact words. Just how she made me feel.

And, again, I was a mean kid, too. I’m sure I wrote mean things about her in my notebook.

It bothered me that I didn’t have an accent. It bothered me that I hadn’t been “out of the country,” ever, the way she had. I do remember her pointing out that crossing into Canada didn’t count, really. It was the same continent. Not as far away as Australia.

I had definitely not traveled the distances Maudie had.

And then, after a few days of sunbathing, critique-heavy walks to the general store, and serious discussions about the vastly different effects Prell, Breck, and Alberto Balsam shampoos have on one’s hair, Maudie and her family were gone.

Tearfully, she gave me one of her chunky turquoise rings as a parting gift, something she immediately regretted, I’m sure, as all three of her pen pal letters reminded me how much she missed her “very, very favorite ring,” along with the admonishment that my continued use of concentrated Prell was making my hair “troubled.”

Again, this is how I remember it. I wish I’d kept my notebook from that summer. I wish I’d kept all of them. But, even so, the most meticulously detailed journals can only reveal so much. This is why so many writers turn to fiction to express themselves. To fill in the gaps between feelings and impressions with dialogue and weather descriptions. Otherwise, they’d produce nothing but stacks of factoids globbed together with the sentimental mush of over-chewed emotions.

I remember brooding in the lake breeze at the end of the pier. I remember kicking the smooth stones around the lake edge. Too old and preoccupied to be interested in what my sister and Laurie had going on with their Malibu Barbies and Liddle Kiddles.

My mom, Grace, and Linda were sitting on lawn chairs on the rocky beach. My mom and Grace were already tanned bronze, and spangled with their newly purchased Sarah Coventry chains and baubles, their silver strappy sandals, their toenails shimmering with opalescent white polish. They were Goddesses. Not to be bothered by my nagging, restless boredom.

We’re on vacation, dammit!

Chrissy and Laurie were building villages for the Liddle Kiddles with the smooth beach stones, using flotsam twigs for picket fences and painting them opalescent white with the nail polish they’d lifted from the bathroom.

“I want to go for a walk into the village or something. I’m bored! I should’ve gone fishing with Dad and Bill!” This was, of course, a lie, as the first fishing trip had not gone as planned.

Linda, under a wide straw sunhat, with her sunburned nose smeared with white zinc cream and buried in yet another Agatha Christie mystery didn’t even look up from her chair. Earlier that morning, my mom had silently mouthed, “She’s having her monthly,” behind Linda’s grumpy head across the breakfast table. As if that meant anything to me at that time.

“I still have blisters from the last walk,” Linda said. “I can’t even put on my sandals.”

“Go swimming, Kimmy,” my mom said from behind her enormous sunglasses.

I didn’t feel up to fending off David and Billy, who were locked in mortal combat in the gentle waves way beyond the pier.

“I don’t want to be in the sun. I want to go into the woods. I’m going to the general store.”

“Okay, then, just go! I hope you don’t see any bears!” my mom bellowed.

This was one of those action scenes instantly regretted by all involved. My mom, for offering the dare, and me, for taking it up. And all the others who had to listen to her worry about when I was going to come back.

I probably debated whether or not to steal the Three Stooges postcards once I got to the general store. Maybe that’s where I splurged on the souvenir ONTARIO pen that had four different colored inks in it: red, green, black, and blue. My favorite, the green, ran out first. I don’t remember exactly what I did there, but I remember I stayed too long. The sun was closer to the horizon than it should’ve been when I started back to the cabin. The tree shadows were longer and wider. The forest cooled suddenly from a bank of clouds rolling in overhead. The gravel path to the general store was densely wooded on both sides for some of the walk, but most of the path allowed tree-framed views of the lake below the road. The sun no longer sparkled off the rippling lake, which had turned green-grey from light blue.

I think back to that day, and what I saw in the lake, quite often. Even though I’m not sure that I actually saw what I saw. Perhaps that’s why I still think of it almost five decades later.

I think back to what I saw in the lake that night, also quite often. And I’m as certain of what I saw there as I am of my own name.

Struggling not to break out in a full-tilt-panicked gallop through the woods, I was still rushing to beat sundown back to the campsite when I was stopped dead by the sight of Nessie, or, well, a sea creature very similar to the Loch Ness monster emerging from the surface of the lake. Her neck was extraordinarily long, like the dinosaur’s Fred is sitting on in the opening credits of “The Flintstones,” and she was wrinkled and grey, like an elephant with a humped back that also protruded from the lake. Small triangular spines lined her back and her tail was fluked, like a whale’s, rather than pointy like the Sea Serpent tails I’d seen in fairy tale books.

I felt as if I’d been struck by lightning. The hair on my arms, legs, and head stood up on end. I didn’t look about for any other witness because I not only knew I was completely alone on the path, I didn’t want to turn away from what I was seeing.

She swam slowly, her long neck gracefully dipping her elegant head in and out of the lake waters and her tail making small, syncopated splashes, as if she were doing the butterfly stroke. I stared, not blinking, until, like the Goodyear Blimp’s dazzling night-sky cameos we were blessed with back home in Akron, the sea monster simply dissipated from sight.

I said nothing when I returned to the cabin. I had missed the last trip to the snack stand for the farewell round of pomme frites.

I said nothing. I’d already been in trouble multiple times for telling stories at home and at school. I’d been sent to the principal’s office for climbing out the window of Mrs. Reese’s fifth grade class, making up a story I was running after a little girl I saw out on the playground who looked lost and in need of help. I’d found a green alien baby floating above a crib in an abandoned cabin in the woods near my house, I told my third-grade teacher. My dad drove us all to London so I could meet my real parents, chimney sweeps, over a long weekend. How? Across London Bridge, of course. I’d been a can-can dancer in a past life, which was why my legs were so strong. My mom defended me best she could at the school.

She’s just got a great imagination.

But, even Mom had her limits. “You had an imaginary dog no one else could see for not two weeks, not two months, but two YEARS, Kimmy. You don’t want to become the Girl Who Cried Wolf.”

I did want to see a wolf. I wanted to see bears. And aliens. And monsters.

Until I did.

I said nothing. Didn’t even walk out on the pier to glare at the lake. I stuck close to my mom.

Maybe that’s why she urged me to go out for the night fishing trip instead of staying back at the cabin to pack for the long journey home.

The fishing trips out on the boat had not gone well. David and Billy were not able to sit still for long and their only excursion out had ended with David winging his brand-new fishing reel as far as he could out into the lake. Perhaps if wrestling the fish had somehow been involved, David and Billy would’ve exhibited more enthusiasm for the sport, but they much preferred trying to drown each other, hunting for snakes to dangle in front of us, and climbing maple trees from which to launch bundled-twig missiles.

I, however, was practiced at sitting quite still and didn’t mind fastening worms to fishhooks.

My first trip out didn’t involve worms, but frogs. A giant box of live ones. I balked at impaling live frogs with sharp fish hooks. So did Dad and Bill. The sun was high and blazing. We quickly got burnt. The frogs stunk and squirmed, making a racket. They kept popping out of the box, even with the lid on it. Dad and Bill got the idea to just toss them overboard, set them loose, back to freedom.

The frogs leapt back into the boat. Dad and Bill rowed as fast as they could, but the frogs still pummeled us as they frantically vaulted back up onto the boat. Bill revved up the small motor to head back to the pier, eager to escape the hurdling, smelly frogs.

Frogs will leap into your lap, your neck, and against your cheek—they don’t care what they squoosh into—when they’re trying to get out of a lake and back into a boat.

Like the leeches, I remember dozens, perhaps hundreds, of leaping frogs smacking into me as they tried to save themselves from drowning. It was a scene from a low-budget horror movie.

The remote and enchanting backdrop of the lake, once welcoming, captivating, now cast us all—sunburnt, mosquito-bitten, hallucinating—into stark, revelatory relief. None of us knew how to fish. We ate catsup on our French fries. We had blisters on our feet from wearing our sneakers in the water. We needed to just go home.

Seeing Nessie in the lake had given me pause, good reason to doubt my own senses, my abilities to gather secure information and funnel it to the right sources. I no longer believed I had what it took to become a top-notch, top-secret, international spy.

Still, I went back out on the boat. Night fishing. No frogs. Just worms.

The lake was terrifying at night from the inside of a boat as the lights of the shore receded: a notched shadow outline of trees, dots of pier lights, then, a black expanse of . . . nothing.

Bill cut the motor, but took turns with Dad to row out farther. The sound of the oars heightened the silence that surrounded the lake. They rowed on. Far beyond the reach the lakeshore. Into a perfect darkness.

Is that Sea Monster thing out here with us? Under us? 

Just as my anxiety rose to an almost screaming-out-loud point, where—losing my nerve and any sense of self-esteem—I’d spill the beans on seeing Nessie and demand we skedaddle for the shore’s safety, the moon floated above the black horizon. Stars, reflected from the night sky, bloomed in the depths of the black lake.

It became impossible to detect where the sky ended and the lake began. We were suspended, silent, in a perfect orb of constellated stars, planets, and galaxies. Stars above, below, all around us, and beyond.

Mom was waiting on the pier when we returned to dock the boat. She sat on the edge of the dock with me, even put her feet into the water, while Dad and Bill unloaded the tackle boxes, coolers, and reels.

“There’s a path right to the moon,” one of us noticed.

We were only a year or two past the first lunar landing and now the moon itself was possible. Yes, the moon poured from its mouth a glowing white path you could glide on . . . all the way across a lake as big as Nipissing and up into its cratered, talc-dusted face. And there could be a man on the moon. There were things beyond what we knew of the moon, the woods, the lakes, the sea.

I still check in with my dad about Lake Nipissing and he remembers seeing the stars in the lake. My mom doesn’t always recall the moon path, but she does remember the cool breezes, the brand-new fishing reel tossed away, and the leeches.

Unlike my small collection of ghosts and UFO sightings, I kept my Nessie story to myself. Until now.

I’ve kept notebooks documenting sightings, research on chimeras and cryptids, mixed in with notes on weather patterns, restaurant reviews, and stuff I’ve learned from pen pals. I think I’ve kept more than I lost. I like to believe so. Still, I’m missing too many of these vanished notebooks and the details, clues they held.

How many colors was the lake?

Did we catch ANY fish?

Did I really see her? 

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