Part 1-In Search Of…
It’s Bessie’s fault that I stole a boat.
A lot of circumstances also led to it, but circumstances are notoriously difficult to hold responsible, and while I did the stealing I feel the burden rests on Bessie’s shoulders. Or would if Bessie had shoulders.
Let me back up a bit.
I was at the Beaver Creek Lodge, a sprawling complex that combined a frontier theme with the luxury of a golf resort on the shores of Lake Erie. Comprised of seven buildings of hotel rooms, a clubhouse, an enormous main center containing the lobby, pool, gift shop, fitness room, three restaurants, and a twenty-foot indoor waterfall, the lodge could easily double for Stephen King’s Overlook, only east of the Mississippi and with an eighteen-hole golf course instead of murderous topiary or hedge maze.
I had come to write about a golf tournament before three days of torrential rain cancelled the event and the golfer I planned to caddy for decided to stay on the drier west coast. The lodge was also playing host to the National Vizsla Specialty. “They have us so well-trained,” a bedraggled handler told me before being dragged away by her pack of copper-colored hounds. Picking up lunch at the gift shop I learned from the manager that the lodge regularly hosts dog shows. I’d just missed Afghans and Borzois, and Dalmatians would be arriving next week. The Hungarian horde was an alphabetical outlier.
I stayed thinking I might find something in the dog shows, and to take advantage of the amenities, if you could call them that. The hotel restaurant offered three-star prices and one-star service. My first night my medium-rare steak took an hour to arrive and could have been revived by a competent vet. The second night, for a change, I walked up the street to Bessie’s, a white cinderblock building with a funny-looking sea serpent with gold earrings on its sign.
I passed on a second plate of all-you-can-eat-perch since three-fourths of one was all I could eat, but the peanut butter and chocolate Buckeye Pie was positively ambrosial. Over a second piece I started to talk to Eunice, who told me she was the granddaughter of the restaurant’s founder. I asked her about the sea serpent.
I was confused and said, “I though Bessie might be your grandmother.”
“No sir.” Eunice eyed me me owl-like through her oversized glasses. “Bessie is the Lake Erie monster.”
“Like Scotland’s Nessie?”
“Mm-hmm. Some people say Lemmy, but most of us around here say Bessie. I think there must be more than one. Biology, you know.”
Parthenogenesis in lake monsters did seem unlikely, and yet I’d never thought about it even though I was familiar with Lake Champlain’s Champ, and even British Columbia’s Ogopogo. I’d never heard of Bessie or Lemmy, though. Presumably this was because even Midwestern monsters don’t like publicity, but I decided not to share this theory with Eunice.
“My grandfather saw it, you know,” she went on.
“Yes sir. He was out there fishing for walleye early one morning. He said he kept catching perch. Then it came up out of the water. At least twenty feet long, he said, right alongside the boat.”
Eunice smiled. “No, the guy who made our sign put those on. My grandfather said it was more like a snake with a cold eye that looked right at him. Then it formed a circle out there, and a whole bunch of perch came up, and it disappeared.”
“Did he ever see it again?”
Eunice shook her head. “Never went back to that spot, wherever it was, neither, and from then on he only fished for walleye when the sun was up.”
After a second piece of Buckeye pie I started back to my hotel room. I felt a little nausea and the wind off the lake was bracing so I took a detour down to the marina where small boats bob next to narrow docks. One, powder blue with the Beaver Creek Lodge logo on its side, caught my interest. As a guest, I thought, there couldn’t be any harm in taking a self-guided tour, so I stepped aboard. I went to the front to check out the throttle and steering mechanism. Then, just out of curiosity, I looked under the, well, I assume even on a boat it’s called a dashboard.
When I was ten I spent the summer on my uncle’s farm in Nebraska, and one hot lazy afternoon my cousin Sam taught me how to hotwire a tractor. Well, I thought, a boat’s mechanism must be very different, so I was surprised that, when two ignition wires touched, the boat’s motor chugged to life. There were a few bumps since a boat is subject to inertia in the way that land vehicles aren’t. Fortunately the marina’s walls and docks were padded with tires. I expected someone to raise some alarm, but the row of brown townhouses to my left—I supposed now I should say “port”—and a shack to the starboard were impassive, as though asleep in the fading light. After a few more bumps I was out of the marina, then past the rocky shore. I pushed the throttle forward, headed for deep water and, I thought, Bessie.
My cousin Sarah, half-sister to Sam through circumstances that are still murky to me, can find true north even in a cornfield. With the stalks high enough to block the sun she could still find her way as though she had a compass in her head. A few times Sam tried to convince me to leave her but she didn’t like to be alone. He’d run ahead but she and I would always find our way out first.
I let the boat chug along for, I think, a half hour or so, eyes to the empty horizon, one hand, then the other, to the wheel. When I turn to look back the way I’d come there’s only more open water, and I realize there’s no easy way back. In the east the moon that had been on the surface of the water like a deflating balloon has now it had slipped below. Among the stars overhead one, I know, is Polaris, the North Star, but I don’t know which one. I grew up in Kansas and shared an alma mater with Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of former planet Pluto, but astronomy never interested me. A bright speck moves directly overhead. It’s probably a satellite, facilitating communications, pinpointing locations. My phone has a GPS device, and a compass app, but I’m out of signal range.
A sign at the marina said, “GPS devices are not allowed on private charters.” Captains jealously guarding their private fishing holes, I thought. A compass should still be standard equipment on the high seas, or lakes, but a search of the lockers along the gunwales only turns up a variety of lifejackets, a toolbox, an anchor shaped like a big white mushroom, and a dead spider, an unlucky stowaway. Also a flashlight. Turning it on only deepens the darkness.
After the summer we stole the tractor my uncle sold the farm, took a job in hardware, managed his diabetes as best he could. Sam and I only saw each other intermittently: when we drove through on our way somewhere else, or occasional holidays. I was home for Thanksgiving when he told me he’d bought a motorcycle.
“I think I might drive down to Marfa, maybe, or even Roswell,” he said. I could tell he was eyeing my chocolate cake that I suddenly didn’t want. “You want to come with? Maybe see some UFOs?”
It was tempting but I had school, exams coming up. Sam didn’t make the trip either.
It would be a decade before we’d talk again. Halfway across the country news still trickled through. Sam got a job as a messenger, working at the local library. He was putting on weight. He was in the hospital for a week, then ten days. After Sarah told me about the accident, how he’d lost his right leg below the knee, I called. He sounded tired, weighed down, but he brightened up strangely when he talked about the blackout before the crash.
“It was like swimming, you know? You go down and it’s just nothing and you never want to come up again.”
I didn’t know. I never was much of a swimmer, which just added to the irony that I was now on a boat. Surrounded by nothing, water and sky together to infinity, I thought, I never did ask why he wasn’t taking better care of himself. I never asked if he’d like to get together. Or how it was we took such different paths. Was it just circumstances?
“You know anybody who wants to buy a bike?” he went on. “It’s hardly been used aside from being busted up.”
I knew it would be the last time we’d talk. Some might call it a premonition. The truth is it was more of an educated extrapolation. When Sarah called the circumstances surprised me but not the news. Sam had been found in the back of a public library in Bridgeport. Paramedics carried him out. He’d had an insulin pen with him, but it was unused.
Lake Erie’s size, something I’m all too conscious of drifting in the middle of it, makes it difficult to search, and yet many of its two thousand or so shipwrecks have been rediscovered and explored. None of the expeditions has ever seen a monster, though, or even any evidence. It seems strange that an animal that, according to some stories, is twenty feet long and sheds scales the size of silver dollars, hasn’t left anything tangible. Actual silver dollars are easier to find.
I realize the boat is drifting and send the anchor overboard. The attached rope buzzes against the side until it goes taut. A tag where it hooks to the floor tells me the line is fifty feet, less than a quarter of Lake Erie’s deepest point. The waters, once famously polluted, are cold and must be very clear. I can see the anchor hanging greenly more than eight fathoms down. I wonder if it attracts any attention.
In the distance there’s a splash.
Part 3-It’s Alive!
When I asked Sam why we were hotwiring a tractor he said, “Something to do. Got nowhere else to be. You need a reason?”
There are at least as many ideas about lake monsters as there are lake monsters. Some believe they’re dinosaurs left over from the Cretaceous era. The long snake-like necks of Nessie, Ogopogo, and Champy make some think they’re plesiosauruses. Lake Erie’s only about four thousand years old, so it’s an unlikely spot to find a marine animal from three hundred million years ago. Based on the description Bessie could be a giant snake, like the Lagarfljót Worm and the Flathead Lake Monster. That seems unlikely too. Cold-blooded animals don’t fare well in cold water.
Some other ideas seem a lot more plausible. Lake sturgeon, a bona fide living fossil, can grow more than seven feet long and have a reptilian look. Schools of fish, even groups of otters swimming can look like a single large animal. Rotting logs that sink to the bottom build up carbon dioxide and can pop to the surface like a monster surfacing. When my uncle took us to Lake Minatare Sam tried to convince Sarah a floating log was a crocodile. She wouldn’t fall for it, but he was so earnest he nearly had me convinced. After supper we took a walk through the woods along the lake, just me and Sam. We heard something in the water.
“What was that?” he said. We both got quiet.
“Maybe there really are crocodiles here,” Sam whispered. “What do you think?” I walked with him down to the water. Sam knelt down.
“I think I see something. It’s—AAAGH!” He grabbed my leg and I screamed. Then we both laughed. Well, I pretended to laugh, and now, alone out here with no other sound but the gentle slap of waves, I really laugh.
That night as we lay next to each other in our tent Sam said, “What do you think it was splashing out there? We should see if we can find a boat and go out there and check.”
I didn’t want to. I know it disappointed Sam but I’d been scared enough of my uncle’s wrath over the tractor. I didn’t want to get grounded for sneaking out to the water. I suggested we go check out the lighthouse instead.
“That’s not a lighthouse,” Sam snapped. “That’s just an old tower they built for observation.”
“Maybe something lives out there in the lake.” That started Sam on the Lambton Worm, a giant snake that poisoned a well in England until it was killed, and we talked about it until we fell asleep.
The sky is getting lighter. Summer nights on Lake Erie are short but still chilly. I shiver. I still can’t see land but I think I see mist on the water. It moves like a living thing. Tulpas, an idea from Tibetan mythology, are creatures willed into being. They’re meant to be servants but can turn malicious. Why do we imagine monsters? As soon as the question comes to my mind an answer follows: to make sense out of chaos. Confronted with the strange, with things we’ve never seen before, we look for an answer. But they also fill a need for chaos. Order gives us comfort, but we need disorder to go with it. Maybe it’s also submission, admitting there are things bigger than ourselves. Another, more practical answer comes to mind: maybe navigators wrote “Here be dragons” on maps to protect their own routes, to keep away the wary. Maybe there are many reasons. Maybe we don’t need a reason.
The sun will be up soon. A thousand miles, more than three hundred leagues, and two time zones away the same sun rise over Sam’s memorial service. I would have been there but I had a golf tournament to write about, or maybe a dog show, or a lake monster to find.
I lean over the side and look down. It’s light enough that I can see my half reflection, but dark and indistinct. Is something down there looking back?
I realize my boat has no name. At least I didn’t check to see if it had one, probably printed on the stern, when I embarked. Why do sailors name their boats? As soon as the question comes to my mind an answer follows: because on the open seas they depended on their boats. On the water, away from land, a boat is a sailor’s whole world.
The sun will be up soon and I’ll know which way is east. I’ll have an even chance of knowing which way is south and finding my way to the right shore, or at least a signal, before the fuel runs out. I put a hand on the steering wheel.
“Thanks for the trip, Sam.”