Authors: Tim O'Brien
Tags: #Fiction, #General
First Mariner Books edition 2006
Copyright Â© 1994 by Tim O'Brien
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Visit our Web site:
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
O'Brien, Tim, date.
In the Lake of the Woods / Tim O'Brien.
1. Married peopleâMinnesotaâFiction. 2. Missing
personsâMinnesotaâFiction. 3. Politiciansâ
MinnesotaâFiction. I. Title.
-13: 978-0-618-70986-1 (pbk.)
-10: 0-618-70986-X (pbk.)
Printed in the United States of America
Book design by Robert Overholtzer
10 9 8 7
Portions of this book have appeared, in substantially different form,
Atlantic Monthly, Boston Magazine,
is grateful for permission to quote from the following: "Shame" by
Robert Karen, copyright Â© 1992 by Robert Karen, as first published
February 1992; "Homeless My Lai Vet
Killed in Booze Fight," from the
reprinted with permission of the
With thanks to John Sterling, Larry Cooper,
Michael Curtis, Les Ramirez, Carol Anhalt, Lori
Glazer, Lynn Nesbit, and my loving family.
Sam Lawrence, who died in January 1994,
was my publisher, advocate, and friend
for more than two decades.
I will always happily
recall his faith
LTHOUGH THIS BOOK
contains material from the world in which we live, including references to actual places, people, and events, it must be read as a work of fiction. All dialogue is invented. Certain notorious and very real incidents have been altered or reimagined. John and Kathy Wade are creations of the author's imagination, as are all of the other characters who populate the state of Minnesota and the town of Angle Inlet in this novel.
In September, after the primary, they rented an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of Lake of the Woods. There were many trees, mostly pine and birch, and there was the dock and the boathouse and the narrow dirt road that came through the forest and ended in polished gray rocks at the shore below the cottage. Then there were no roads at all. There were no towns and no people. Beyond the dock the big lake opened northward into Canada, where the water was everything, vast and very cold, and where there were secret channels and portages and bays and tangled forests and islands without names. Everywhere, for many thousand square miles, the wilderness was all one thing, like a great curving mirror, infinitely blue and beautiful, always the same. Which was what they had come for. They needed the solitude. They needed the repetition, the dense hypnotic drone of woods and water but above all they needed to be together.
At night they would spread their blankets on the porch and lie watching the fog move toward them from across the lake. They were not yet prepared to make love. They had tried once, but it had not gone well, so now they would hold each other and talk quietly about having babies and perhaps a house of their own. They pretended things were not so bad. The election had been lost, but they tried to believe it was not the absolute and crushing thing it truly was. They were careful with each other; they did not talk about the sadness or the sudden trapdoor feeling in their stomachs. Lying still under their blankets, they would take turns thinking up names for the children they wantedâfunny names, sometimes, so they could laughâand then later they would plan the furnishings for their new house, the fine rugs they would buy, the antique brass lamps, the exact colors of the wallpaper, all the details, how they would be sure to have a giant sun porch and a stone fireplace and a library with tall walnut bookcases and a sliding ladder.
In the darkness it did not matter that these things were expensive and impossible. It was a terrible time in their lives and they wanted desperately to be happy. They wanted happiness without knowing what it was, or where to look, which made them want it all the more.
As a kind of game they would sometimes make up lists of romantic places to travel.
"Verona," Kathy would say, "I'd love to spend a few days in Verona." And then for a long while they would talk about Verona, the things they would see and do, trying to make it real in their minds. All around them, the fog moved in low and fat off the lake, and their voices would seem to flow away for a time and then return to them from somewhere in the woods beyond the porch. It was an echo, partly. But inside the echo there was also a voice not quite their ownâlike a whisper, or a nearby breathing, something feathery and alive. They would stop to listen, except the sound was never there when listened for. It mixed with the night. There were rus
tlings in the timber, things growing and things rotting. There were night birds. There was the lap of lake against shore.
And it was then, listening, that they would feel the trapdoor drop open, and they'd be falling into that emptiness where all the dreams used to be.
They tried to hide it, though. They would go on talking about the fine old churches of Verona, the museums and outdoor cafes where they would drink strong coffee and eat pastries. They invented happy stories for each other. A late-night train ride to Florence, or maybe north into the mountains, or maybe Venice, and then back to Verona, where there was no defeat and where nothing in real life ever ended badly. For both of them it was a wishing game. They envisioned happiness as a physical place on the earth, a secret country, perhaps, or an exotic foreign capital with bizarre customs and a difficult new language. To live there would require practice and many changes, but they were willing to learn.
At times there was nothing to say. Other times they tried to be brave.
"It's not really so terrible," Kathy told him one evening. "I mean, it's bad, but we can make it better." It was their sixth night at Lake of the Woods. In less than thirty-six hours she would be gone, but now she lay beside him on the porch and talked about all the ways they could make it better. Be practical, she said. One day at a time. He could hook up with one of those fancy law firms in Minneapolis. They'd shop around for a cheap house, or just rent for a while, and they'd scrimp and draw up a budget and start paying off the debts, and then in a year or two they could jump on a plane for Verona, or wherever else they wanted, and they'd be happy together and do all the wonderful things they'd never done.
"We'll find new stuff to want," Kathy said. "Brand-new dreams. Isn't that right?" She waited a moment, watching him. "Isn't it?"
John Wade tried to nod.
Two days later, when she was gone, he would remember the sound of mice beneath the porch. He would remember the rich forest smells and the fog and the lake and the curious motion Kathy made with her fingers, a slight fluttering, as if to dispel all the things that were wrong in their lives.
"We'll do it," she said, and moved closer to him. "We'll go out and make it happen."
"Sure," Wade said. "We'll get by fine."
"Better than fine."
Then he closed his eyes. He watched a huge white mountain collapse and come tumbling down on him.
There was that crushed feeling in his stomach. Yet even then he pretended to smile at her. He said reassuring things, resolutely, as if he believed, and this too was something he would later rememberâthe pretending. In the darkness he could feel Kathy's heartbeat, her breath against his cheek. After a time she turned beneath the blankets and kissed him, teasing a little, her tongue in his ear, which was irritating but which meant she cared for him and wanted him to concentrate on everything they still had or someday could have.
"So there," she said. "We'll be happy now."
"Happy us," he said.
It was a problem of faith. The future seemed intolerable. There was fatigue, too, and anger, but more than anything there was the emptiness of disbelief.
Quietly, lying still, John Wade watched the fog divide itself into clusters over the dock and boathouse, where it paused as
if to digest those objects, hovering for a time, then swirling and changing shape and moving heavily up the slope toward their porch.
Landslide, he was thinking.
The thought formed as a picture in his head, an enormous white mountain he had been climbing all his life, and now he watched it come rushing down on him, all that disgrace. He told himself not to think about it, and then he was thinking again. The numbers were hard. He had been beaten nearly three to one within his own party; he had carried a few college towns and Itasca County and almost nothing else.
Lieutenant governor at thirty-seven. Candidate for the United States Senate at forty. Loser by landslide at forty-one.
Winners and losers. That was the risk.
But it was more than a lost election. It was something physical. Humiliation, that was part of it, and the wreckage in his chest and stomach, and then the rage, how it surged up into his throat and how he wanted to scream the most terrible thing he could screamâ
and how he couldn't help himself and couldn't think straight and couldn't stop screaming it inside his
because nothing could be done, and because it was so brutal and disgraceful and final. He felt crazy sometimes. Real depravity. Late at night an electric sizzle came into his blood, a tight pumped-up killing rage, and he couldn't keep it in and he couldn't let it out. He wanted to hurt things. Grab a knife and start cutting and slashing and never stop. All those years. Climbing like a son of a bitch, clawing his way up inch by fucking inch, and then it all came crashing down at once. Everything, it seemed. His sense of purpose. His pride, his career, his honor arid reputation, his belief in the future he had so grandly dreamed for himself.
John Wade shook his head and listened to the fog. There was no wind. A single moth played against the screened window behind him.
Forget it, he thought. Don't think.
And then later, when he began thinking again, he took Kathy up against him, holding tight. "Verona," he said firmly, "we'll do it. Deluxe hotels. The whole tour."
"That's a promise?"
"Absolutely," he said. "A promise."
Kathy smiled at this. He could not see the smile, but he could hear it passing through her voice when she said, "What about babies?"
"Everything," Wade said. "Especially that."
"Maybe I'm too old. I hope not."
"No sweat, we'll have thirty-eight babies," he said. "Hire a bus in Verona."
"I don't know, just drive and see the sights and be together. You and me and a busload of babies."
"You think so?"
"For sure. I promised."
And then for a long while they lay quietly in the dark, waiting for these things to happen, some sudden miracle. All they wanted was for their lives to be good again.
Later, Kathy pushed back the blankets and moved off toward the railing at the far end of the porch. She seemed to vanish into the heavy dark, the fog curling around her, and when she spoke, her voice came from somewhere far away, as if lifted from her body, unattached and not quite authentic.
"I'm not crying," she said.