Gaines Post’s (New College, 1961) wonderful short story, Across the Lake, was one of the winners of our creative writing competition this year. It explores feelings of childhood excitement and responsibility, and manages to tread a fine line between optimism and introspection. Find a moment to settle down and read it.
Sam woke up staring at Poland. His mother had wallpapered his bedroom with National Geographic maps, and Europe was a spider-web of lines connecting dots whose names he had heard on the radio.
He turned over. The P-51 Mustang hung from the ceiling, tilted down for strafing. Tanks defended the American Flyer electric train on the floor. The train trip! Sam threw back the covers. It was his birthday, a Saturday, and his mother had promised him a train ride with his buddies to the country for a picnic.
But he dressed quietly, listening. “Son,” his father had said when school started in September, “I want you to be extra helpful around the house. Your mother isn’t well. The doctor says she might have to go to the hospital.”
“The one where I had my appendix out?” Sam had asked.
“No, the one across the lake.”
“Is it the war, Dad?”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
Sam knew his father was hiding something the way he did when Sam asked him to explain words like “atrocity” under scary pictures in Life magazine. Every kid in town knew the hospital across the lake was for crazy people who never came home. But that’s not Mom, Sam explained to himself. Sure, she sometimes sleeps through breakfast or stares at nothing I can see, but that’s not crazy, not like the movies. Besides, Dad was upset because a new German rocket began exploding on England and he said “those bastards, God damn those bastards.”
As Sam finished dressing, he heard kitchen noises that only his mother made. Thrilled, he clattered downstairs. She stood at the stove, slim in blue jeans, stirring oatmeal and humming Boccherini’s “Minuet.”
“Hi Mom! Aren’t you excited? The train and everything?”
“Yes I am, hon. Happy Birthday. And what a wonderful Indian summer day. Lovely.”
When his mother said “lovely,” Sam pictured lilacs in the arboretum where they used to walk on Sundays.
“Be right back,” he said, “gonna go see Dad!”
His father was in the study, cleaning his pipe at the large metal desk that looked like an aircraft carrier with a conning tower of books against the wall.
“Hey Dad,” Sam cried, “Mom’s real happy today!”
“She is, son. The train ride is her special present for you, and she wanted to do it by herself. Now hurry up with breakfast and help her get ready.”
Sam’s friends soon began to arrive, their knapsacks and canteens jouncing about. His mother had packed a picnic basket with sandwiches and a jam cake. “I’ll carry the basket all day,” Sam said firmly.
His father waved from the front porch as the boys fanned out across the lawn yelling like Marines they had seen in “Gung Ho!” at the Orpheum Theater. On the way to the bus stop, Sam’s mother shouted “bravo!” when they marched like soldiers through the confetti of leaves raked into the gutters. Sam didn’t look at the windows, where small flags with gold stars meant someone crossed the ocean and wouldn’t come back.
At the Milwaukee Road station, the engineer took off his cap as he greeted Sam’s mother. “You are so kind to do this,” she said, raising her soft voice because of the engine. He invited the boys up into the cab, three at a time, boosting each of them to the first step.
Sam paused on the second step, for he had always wanted to hold onto handrails and lean away from a train. The firebox rumbled, the little pump on the side of the engine thunked up and down, and the steam hissed its way out of the boiler. For a moment it was Sam’s engine, his train. Something inside him shivered.
A brakeman walked them back to the caboose. Inside they found benches built into the walls, two wooden chairs, a potbellied stove, a small table, and kerosene lamps.
“Now boys,” the brakeman said, “take turns sitting up there inside the cupola, and be careful on that ladder.”
Soon they were moving slowly through rolling farmland west of town, past red barns and fields of green and gold. When Sam’s turn came in the cupola, he looked ahead at the whistle’s small fountain of steam when the engine approached grade crossings. He looked behind at the tracks moving back toward town, but he knew it was the train that moved forward wherever the tracks would take it.
It took them to a village tucked below a hill. Sam’s mother bought sodas in the general store, gave one to each boy, and pointed them up the hill. She chose a spot below the wooded crown, and the boys roamed the hillside until she called them to lunch.
Sam sat next to his mother. The sun warmed his back. Everything he saw sparkled and seemed close enough to touch—village, farms, distant hills. Everything belongs where you see it under the blue sky, Sam thought. Nothing is hiding. Everything fits together. He looked over to see his mother smiling.
“Lovely,” she said. She hugged him.
She served the jam cake for dessert, and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” while Sam blew out the seven candles. They rested after lunch. Sam’s mother stayed next to him as he and his friends lay on their backs in the warm grass.
After they boarded the caboose of the eastbound three o’clock freight, Sam climbed into the cupola as soon as he could. He wanted to be alone, to go over everything that had happened today.
More good things than any day I can remember, Sam thought. Leaning away from the handrails, train ride to a good place, birthday picnic with Mom and my buddies. Best of all was sitting on the hillside when everything sparkled and fit together and Mom said lovely. If Mom can hold onto today until the war is over, she won’t have to go across the lake. If I remember today, I can help her hold on.