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About the Author
Hometown:Palm Beach, Florida
Date of Birth:March 22, 1947
Place of Birth:Newburgh, New York
Education:B.A., Manhattan College, 1969; M.A., Vanderbilt University, 1971
Read an Excerpt
By James J. Patterson
Alan Squire PublishingCopyright © 2010 Alan Squire Publishing
All rights reserved.
The Reluctant Scholar
The Lovesick Lake
Chubby Blewett made cedar-strip boats by hand. In a year he could make two, but their future owners had to want them bad enough to call him often, write him letters, and otherwise display a genuine appreciation of his efforts. It also helped to go down to the old boathouse next to his cottage by the lake and keep him company while he worked. Everyone on the lake owned at least one, and, properly cared for, they would last a long long time.
At dawn each morning during the summer, I would stir in my cozy down-filled bed at the steady drone of Chubby's boat as it passed our island at the north end of Lovesick Lake. He would cut his engine, drop anchor, and cast his nets for the big chubs or chubby minnows that made his bait and tackle shop famous. As silence returned to the lake, I would drift back to sleep until the swallows that nested in the eaves outside my window began their giddy morning ruckus.
The story goes that a young Ojibwa girl, upon hearing of the death of her lover in a far-away war, threw herself from the open dam at the southern end of the lake. He returned unharmed and, when he learned of his love's fate, he chose to perish in the same swirling rapids at Burleigh Falls. So the lake was named Lovesick. But there is a deeper history there as well.
In 1896 an English couple, John and Emily Marshall, purchased a land grant from Queen Victoria for a five-acre island in the Trent Canal System in Central Ontario, Canada. Emily, then thirty-four years old, and her husband named the island Clovelly after their honeymoon retreat in England. Her husband owned a peanut farm in Africa and when he retired, he shipped from his African estate a giant stone he called "Elephant Rock" and placed it under the arm of his favorite oak on Clovelly Island. The Marshalls employed many of the Ojibwas from the nearby Curve Lake Native Reserve as day laborers to build gardens and trim the hedges that formed a lane from the main house to the boathouses at the island's rocky southern end. These laborers built elegant wooden archways through the forest on the north side that led to Emily's favorite swimming place. Pine branches were fashioned into comfortable benches where one could rest and appreciate a view. Gazebos looked out over the sunrise and sunset points. They built a putting green. They also filled the woodhouse, maintained the sawdust in the icehouse, and saw that the kerosene lamps were filled and the wicks were fresh. They emptied the honey buckets from the two outhouses into a deep hole at a far mossy end of the island.
Emily busied herself writing poetry and painting costumes on ceramic elves that everywhere peeked out from behind rocks and trees. Emily enjoyed painting elves, fairies, and angels on the walls inside the house as well, and when she tired of her creations she simply nailed another black plasterboard to the pine walls and began her work anew. She nailed new carpet over old in the same manner.
Mr. Marshall died on January 1, 1929, and Emily had his ashes encased in stone and placed at the foot of Elephant Rock.
I first saw Clovelly from the seat of one of Chubby Blewett's boats. My father told my sister and me to wait while he went up to the big white house. Three very old ladies wearing flower print dresses and large straw sunhats sat fanning themselves on the shaded porch.
'"I would will this island to the Boy Scouts before I would think of selling it to a man who took a drink!"' my father quoted Emily later that day over a Canadian Club and Coke. That winter, not an hour after signing Queen Victoria's deed over to my father, Emily Marshall died. It was her ninety-sixth birthday. Her nieces had her cremated and, when the spring thaw came to Lovesick Lake, they sprinkled her ashes over Clovelly Island.
For the next ten summers, I filled the kerosene lamps and saw that the wicks were fresh. We cooked our meals on the iron woodstove in the kitchen, picked wild choke cherries for making jam, kept the outhouses neat, and cleaned the porcelain chamber pots that went beneath the beds at night. We fought the giant spiders that lived in the rotting wood and, piece by piece, we burned the decaying remnants of Emily Marshall's century in the bedroom stoves and the giant living room fireplace. We were convinced we could hear her cry on those nights when the wind and the lake were calm and the only sound as we went to sleep was her sighing hiss from the fire.
Twice a week Mr. Spencely brought giant blocks of ice that he carried up from the dock with big frightening tongs and buried in the sawdust in the icehouse. We would chip off hunks with an ice pick for the icebox in the kitchen. The Ojibwas asked for permission to harvest the rice that grew wild in the water behind the island, and sold it back to us cheap along with big bags of delicious juicy frogs' legs skinned and ready to cook.
When I was ten years old, my father commissioned old Chubby Blewett to build for me one of his prized sixteen-foot cedar-strip boats. It was the greatest gift I was ever given and easily the grandest prize I will ever know. The bottom and inside floorboards were painted red to my personal specification. I called the boat Charley after a boy I had known in school who had moved away before we had a chance to become friends.
My older sister and younger brother and myself were each allowed to invite a friend up for the summer, or portions of it. This involved a delicate recruiting process for each of us, using my mother's charming diplomacy as a last resort. Our friends were always very curious about where we went to spend our summers, and it wasn't without some lament that we said goodbye at the end of each school year, knowing that when we returned all would be different, old friends would have forgotten us, changed, moved on. Kids change a lot over a summer. Those who decided to brave the trek north with us had to know how to swim, first and foremost, had to get tetanus shots, and had to have some resistance to poison ivy. They also had to be down with the concept of how to Make Your Own Fun, and understand that chores aren't merely annoying responsibilities assigned to build character, but essential if you wanted to eat, have water to drink, or keep warm. Some who came lasted a week and had to go home. We would snicker to ourselves knowingly as we waved goodbye. Others loved it and, like us, never wanted to leave.
We would explore the nearby uninhabited islands, go fishing, skinny dipping, and sneak out at night to play boat tag with the teenagers around the lake, amazing them with our intimate knowledge of the rocks that lay treacherously beneath its more shallow surfaces.
One friend of mine from back home who took to the place like a brother was Willy. He was a big strong kid, on the hefty side, just perfect for weighing down the bow of my boat. We would hide behind forest islands and ambush the giant cabin cruisers that came down the main channel and go boat-surfing in their wake. Willy would giggle hysterically as he got soaked. We would guide the Sunday morning fishermen out of the weeds, out of the rocks, out of the rain. We would guide the drunks on the lake home at night, knowing they would never remember how they got there until the next time we guided them home. Some would think that they were being boarded by freebooters as we pulled up alongside at full speed in the dark, but after a quick paddle fight they'd surrender to reason.
Once, while following Willy across stepping stones through the rapids below the open dam at Burleigh Falls, a rock slipped out from under my foot and I was swept off by the fast-flowing current. "Swim! Swim hard!" Willy yelled as he followed hurriedly along on foot across the rocks. When he saw that my struggles couldn't overcome the strong flowing water, he skipped ahead, and, just feet from the next steep waterfall, he reached in and plucked me out. We stood quietly, overlooking the falls at the jagged rocks below for several minutes. I would have gone right over. There's not a chance I would have survived.
Late at night, silhouetted against the bright Canadian moon, drunken Dr. Howell, with his beagle standing on the bow of his boat, would cruise up and down the lake singing at the top of his lungs, "Jesus keeps his money in the Bank of Montreal!" to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." One day, I stopped him on the mainland docks to ask him how the rest of the song went and he looked at me as though I was crazy.
One summer, my mother got all of the "bad boys" — mostly native kids who hung around the government docks-together and organized a fast-pitch softball team she called the Burleigh Falls Swingers. They won every game. The only way I could get on base was to stick my leg out and let the ball hit me. But life was hard for the local kids, and by the time I was an adult all but two were dead — even the lovely Barbara Brown, my age, who would call me from the reservation and flirt with me and coax me to come and meet her under the bridge at Burleigh Falls. My mother said that if I encouraged her, the locals would beat her for hanging out with a white boy. I stayed away. The following winter, I overheard my father take the phone message that she had been killed in a car wreck. She had been decapitated.
By the summer of 1968, the charm of nineteenth century living had worn off. We were the last family on the lake to give in to modernization. Plumbing, electric lights, and a telephone were novel but we never could bring ourselves to get a TV.
You see, we lived, during the school year, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but we grew up on Clovelly.
Clovelly was where my father told my mother he wanted a divorce. They never got one. She never set foot on the island again. As I grew older and life swept me up in its own fast, relentless currents, I would travel whenever I could to Clovelly to vacation alone, or retreat there to heal and reinvent myself. As I evolved into a writer, a musician, and whatever else I became, it was at those times between careers when Clovelly would call to me. In my dreams, I would fly effortlessly, always at night in the dark, with the stars in the heavens as my guide, circling the island three times upon each arrival and each departure.
Once alone on the island, I would slowly syncopate my routine with the patterns of the sun and moon, to the rhythms of the tides and the big rotating sky, the birds — loons, herons, and gulls — and the raccoons, flying squirrels, beaver, and chipmonks. Dogs love to swim, and there were several around the lake who liked to huff and puff their way through the water to come and visit me and frolic together on Clovelly Island. Sometimes when I was on the mainland for supplies, one of these hounds would approach me for a familiar pat on the nose and a scratch behind the ears. His master would say something like, "He don't usually like strangers," to which I would reply, "Well, I might be strange, but I'm not a stranger."
Coming up the lake at night when there was no moon and the waters were rough would scare visitors from the city half out of their wits, which was nothing compared to the fright they were in for once they confronted themselves alone on Clovelly Island. Many turned back. It astonished me to learn that some people have never known real quiet, have never had a chance to extinguish the noises and distractions of modern life long enough to listen — really listen — to their inner self, their true self, in conversation with the world. I felt sorry for them and tried in vain to make them understand. If they didn't — well, what can you do?
I didn't notice at first and can't tell for certain which summer the wild rice that grew in the shallows between islands disappeared along with the lily pads and the giant frogs that bellowed so hilariously at night. Perhaps it was the same summer that aluminum and fiberglass boats began to outnumber old Chubby's cedar-strips on the lake. Once I got older, my cedar-strip boat didn't seem so long and lean. The five-and-a-half-horsepower engine at the back was slow, but it only served to remind me not to be in such a hurry: important things are to be seen and experienced all around.
In 1979, my second business failed. I threw everything I owned into the back of my Boston Cream Cutlass and left Washington, D.C., for Lovesick Lake. An artist friend of mine, Charles Young, or Cy, as we knew him, who was in similar straights, joined me for the first few weeks. Willy joined us too for a brief time. I would write all day and burn my creations in the fireplace at night — offering, if you will, the sacrifice of my efforts as good medicine to the spirits that permeate Clovelly Island. Besides, the stuff wasn't any good.
Cy painted big canvases of clouds and water and rocks. Willy busied himself doing chores, and helped himself to any of the dozens of books from our makeshift library. Willy helped us rig a water hose over a picture window, and Cy photographed the distorted lake country landscape through the moving water, took portraits of some of us, and painted from those bizarre and distorted images. The effect was startling, with floating eyeballs, swirling countryside, and remnants of reality.
At night we sat in my cedar-strip boat, drank Gold Tassel Rye or Labatt's Blue, and watched the sun fall and the giant galaxy emerge within our well-oiled reach. We turned slowly beneath the triangles of Shedir and Epsilon. We were Shedirians, Epsilonians, emigrants yearning to return home. In August, the northern lights hummed a strange and dissonant refrain. We still maintain that we could hear those lights, though experts disagree. One night, we were tracking a satellite through the firmament when suddenly it made a perfect right-angle turn and disappeared into purple blue-blackness. No one has yet explained that phenomenon satisfactorily.
When we got bored, we would drive to the nearby town to meet girls or invite friends from the local campsite by the locks for a weekend of Murder in the Dark. You put pieces of paper in a hat. One says Detective, one says Murderer, all others say Victim. Whoever draws Detective is sequestered in a well-lit room with something to read. The person who draws the Murderer card keeps that information secret. Then the lights are turned out. The murderer then gets to kill as many victims as possible (usually by simply whispering "you're dead" in the dark) until someone stumbles over a body and must call the Detective in. The Detective then interviews the survivors and makes a determination as to who the killer is. It's a fun parlor game if you have a big house. On a dark and forested island, it becomes something else again.
I complained to the local boys at the campsite on the mainland once about an Esso gasoline sign — certainly illegal — that had been erected on a publicly owned island about a half-mile across the lake from Clovelly. The government maintains these uninhabited islands to preserve the natural beauty of the area, so there's a ban against this kind of commercialization. And this beast was three stories tall, made of wood, with the circular metallic Esso logo in the middle. Very few boats had traveled the main channel that year, and my beef was that they were really only advertising to one man — me!
So, late one night there was a knock at the back door on Clovelly, and twenty crazed Canadian teenagers raised beers in the air and shouted, "We're going for the sign!" I could hear them hammering and sawing, their curses and laughter echoing across the water all night, and just before dawn they towed their prize back and set it up against the woodshed on Clovelly Island. Luckily, I had enough beer to reward them all. We took a group picture. We then chopped up the wood and buried it under pine needles where it waited for the fire. We laid the giant Esso oval across the bow of my cedar-strip boat and, at the deepest part of the lake, we broke a bottle of Blue over it and sang, "Oh Canada!" as we watched it glide into the depths. No one ever missed it.
When Charles and Willy left — Cy for California, Willy for the oil patch in Montana — I stayed on, and, for the next two years, I listened to the trees. The squirrels would come to me when there was trouble in the nests. I talked to the woodchucks, racoons, beavers, and birds. I lay naked on the gravestone beneath Elephant Rock and read John Keats out loud. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever!" I sang to the loons. I read hundreds of books. When people in town would stop me on the street and ask me if I was okay, I had to think about it.
One day, back in Washington, my mother phoned and gleefully informed me that the island had been sold. They didn't need the money. I was furious at not being given a chance to buy it myself. I called my father to ask what in the world had happened, but his normal thunder was missing. His best friend had just dropped dead while pushing a lawnmower. I took him to the funeral. We never mentioned Clovelly.
I doubt we ever will.
Excerpted from Bermuda Shorts by James J. Patterson. Copyright © 2010 Alan Squire Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Alan Squire Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Reluctant Scholar,
The Lovesick Lake,
Sculpture Isn't ...,
That Was Then, This Is The Pheromones,
Bombs or No Bombs, Business as Usual,
Gordo, God & Gandhi,
The Conjecture Chamber,
My Haunted Crucifix,
The International Aeronautical Sanitation Administration,
It Isn't Whether You Win or Lose, It's How You Watch the Game,
Gabbing with O'Reilly,
I Study the Crowds,
The Mayor of 417,
The Nearest Thing to Perfection,
The Myth of the Casual Fan,
Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train,
I Am a 9-10er,
The Conversation We Are Born Into,
Don't Answer the Phone!,
Something Out of Nothing,