Because it’s September 11th (and soon to be Sept 12th)

GB’s Lake

On September 12th, 2001, I went fishing. Perhaps not the most patriotic reaction, but my place of employment had been closed for the day and sitting propped in front of the TV news seemed even less patriotic than angling. The mega-corporation that my wife works for stayed open, of course, although some shadowy cabal in charge of morale did broadcast a company-wide email recommending folks seek out one of the many crisis management-certified staff members, if they felt the need. It has been my experience that a certain ratio exists between a) the difficulty management has reacting emotionally to events not directly tied to mutual funds or golf, and b) the size of the corporate entity they inhabit, so the flat inadequacy of the communiqué Ashley received was no surprise. Corporations exist globally, and the destruction of the twin towers had revealed that the U.S., for all its posturing, was still largely provincial, and the very act of revealing the frightened, suspicious, local character of our people made them even more frightened and suspicious–but then again, this small town character was also the source of all the acts of selflessness and bravery that followed in the wake of the towers’ collapse. Strip malls and big box stores cannot, despite their best efforts, smother this provinciality: the run-down storefronts I passed on my way to the fishing hole were built to hold handcrafted furniture stores and upscale pizza chains, but had long ago lost their lease on that dream and held instead Spanish-language shoe repair/pool hall combos, fly-by-night day labor shops, and storefront revival halls.

The fishing hole itself was called G.B.’s Lake, and while small for a lake, it was certainly much bigger than a pond, and terribly convenient besides. I can’t recall if a friend told me about it or if I stumbled across its address while wandering the internet, but it was the sort of fishing hole you really had to look for lest you fall right in. Driving there was largely a matter of habit, as I generally had no idea what street I was on; none of them seemed to have street signs, and so the strip malls in their various shades of brown and crumbling yellows, the gas stations buttressing them with dull plastic awnings or cloth awnings or no awnings over the banks of pumps, and the lots of scrawny trees and old barrels barely obscuring the murky housing tracts behind them, off the main road, served as my landmarks and led the way for me. The final two left hand turns of my journey, for example, were indicated first by a bunkered Chevron with a 12′ mound of soft drink trays beside it and then by a mobile taqueria permanently moored to a vacant lot that seemed to have once held a laundromat. Past the taqueria was suburban housing development built, from the look of it, in the early 1970’s, rife with lost, sagging basketballs and rusty chain link fences, and there, squat in the middle of this place that was both nowhere and everywhere, sat a lake and a hand painted sign advertising

GB’s Lake
Fishing 3.00
Red Worms 1.00
No Swimming or Gambling

Now, G.B. had passed on years before I moved to the area, but Mrs. G.B. kept the lake afloat, so to speak-most days, she sat in her car beside the worm house with the air conditioner on until you drove up and got out, at which point she would get out of her car, glare at you for making her leave the air conditioning, unlock the worm house, take your money, and dispense worms, candy bars, and beer, if requested, from a small cooler. When I asked her once what G.B. had died from, she said “from being sick,” and that was about the end of our discursive history. She wasn’t around on September 12, 2001, in any case, and so I wrapped my $3 in a piece of scrap paper and slid it under the worm house door.

As I sat between a couple of inward-bowing pines and threw a lure gently at the dense, placid water, trying to release myself from the image of pedestrians in Manhattan watching the second tower fall and instinctively putting their hands up in the air to catch it, to hold it back, I listened to the banks of the lake hum with grackles and dragonflies and crickets. There is no evil in the world, I thought hopefully; there is only us, and nature will take us back someday, every person and every object formed by a person and every horror and wish as well. I worried at what our shifty, adolescent president might allow to happen–and while it would be nice to claim hindsight, I had no idea how foolish and amoral his choices would turn out to be. And I thought about the people who had died, and the people who had killed them, and I thought about these things and felt millions of other people thinking about them as well; the truth of this last sensation I do not doubt, no matter how empirically unverifiable it might be. Such will, such fanaticism, such innocence, such culpability, such suddenness, such grace… I tossed the lure again and wondered if the United States of America had ever been more than the myths propping it up, myths that seemed vaguely obscene, now. The coming together of human beings in times of need, in times of catastrophe, was not ours to claim as part of a national character: all humanity owns this trait, and in crawling toward it, free from avarice and want in a million strange and wonderful ways, we are as fully human as is possible. Thus we still exist, and in such number. All the other characteristics of human beings exist in service of this instinct, the one that moves us to shoulder another’s burden, to participate in the act of helping the species survive. But when this fragile instinct is clouded over, obscured, oh… how horrible we can be.

I lay my fishing pole on the knuckle of one of the pines and lost myself for a moment in the late afternoon light on the water. The other shore was roughly four hundred feet away, and it bent off to the right where the lake widened to three times that size. I noticed an iron gate, tiny on the bend in the shore, that seemed to be swinging, and as I noticed it the first of twenty or thirty horses spilled out from behind the trees and began to splash and jump in the shallow water. They played and shouted their whinnies and threw water in bright spumes off their manes of grey and white and auburn, waded out and licked at the surface of the lake, and danced before me like the a heart in the presence of its beloved. I lost time and self, and when they finally began, answering a thrice-rung bell, to retreat up the shore, I also lost tears, spotting the packed dirt beneath me. Perhaps when I was a child I had pictured America this way, as strength and freedom and grace unbridled, and perhaps not, but it occurred to me again, as I watched the horses dance, that what lies deeper than any nation but is claimed by all, what houses of worship cloak in ritual and unverifiable promises, is really fairly simple: the shared experience of being. And when it is taken from you, without warning, or even with foreknowledge, well, then the rules have changed, so perhaps it’s best to go ahead and mourn for its loss now while we still can, even while the unwitting are slaughtered in their daily shrouds, even while horses celebrate the presence of water in late afternoon.

(originally published on arabesques.org, an online lit magazine that seems to have gone away).