Lake Delavan Days

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For others, the word “vacation” evokes idyllic childhood memories of family togetherness and carefree summer days spent at some garden spot by a seashore or lake. For me, “vacation” has always meant a special family time, too — a time where families retreat far from civilization for the express purpose of torturing one another in an enclosed space without distractions. It doesn’t take a $90-an-hour Freudian to trace this feeling directly back to that fateful Luchs family trip to Lake Delavan, Wisconsin.

The year was 1964. Kennedy was freshly planted in Arlington National Cemetery, having been killed (as Oliver Stone has since informed us) by a conspiracy involving 93 percent of the American people and at least two of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey and Dewey (although there is no direct evidence that Louie helped Oswald pull the trigger, he is now known to have been on a first-name basis with both Jack Ruby and Sirhan Sirhan). The Beatles were continuing their full frontal assault on America’s youth. Viet Nam was becoming the number one vacation spot for draft-age U.S. males.

The Luchses had just purchased a peculiar little foreign car, the Citroen 2CV. This vehicle is several sizes larger than a Tonka Toy and almost as powerful. It’s basically a Volkswagen Bug with an inferiority complex and only two cylinders. The man who sold it to us — a family friend later convicted of extortion and threatening to set off a bomb in the San Francisco Hilton, but that’s another story — fondly described the 2CV as “the perfect desert fighting machine.” He claimed that if you ran out of motor oil, you could always keep a Citroen going by filling the crankcase with ripe bananas. More than once our father caught us attempting to put this intriguing theory to the test.

The 2CV could seat two comfortably. In a pinch, four people could be squeezed in if they were willing to forego minor comforts like breathing. Our car held all nine of us: our parents, Robert and Jeannine, and (in descending order of age and location in the food chain), Hilde, Kurt, Murph, Helmut, Sarah, Rolf and Cara. Then there was our “luggage” (paper bags full of old clothes), the inflatable rubber boat, life preservers, a week’s worth of food and two cats, Leopold and Loeb.

The main excitement on the trip up came when one of the cats leapt from the back seat onto Dad’s back as he was negotiating a left turn. He screamed, “Get it off, get it off!” but this only amused his passengers and caused the cat to dig in its claws, piercing his Goldwater T-shirt and drawing enough blood to simulate a lovely tie-dyed effect. The rest of the ride is a blur to me now, since I spent most of it vomiting into a bag of Hilde’s knitting. Like most healthy American families, ours included both normal vomiters (NVs) and projectile vomiters (PVs). The difference is, if an NV keeps his head in a paper bag most of the time, his fellow travelers will only enjoy his experience vicariously, whereas there is no escape from the PV. Handing a PV a paper bag is like putting a cherry bomb in a coffee can: It simply makes for a messier explosion. I was an NV, but Sarah was a PV, and by the time we reached Delavan the interior of the car looked like a gutted animal.

On first sight Lake Delavan appeared to be North America’s largest mud puddle. At no point could you see bottom. Yet it was so shallow you could wade out for a quarter of a mile and never get your head wet. Not that you really wanted to get your head wet in Lake Delavan. It seemed to have become the final resting place for all the sewage, crumpled gum wrappers, rusty beer cans and broken glass in the tri-state area. Dull, sticky soap bubbles covered everything, bubbles that emitted a sickening stench when popped.

The cabin was owned by an old Polish woman from Chicago and was apparently furnished with cast-offs from the Warsaw ghetto. Before the electricity was turned on we wandered from room to room, weeping like icons at the shabbiness of it all. “What’s that crunching noise?” asked Rolf. “Sounds like Rice Crispies,” said Hilde. When the lights came on we discovered that the cabin was carpeted with dead flies. Helmut got Sarah to eat one by convincing her she would magically acquire the power of flight. She was indeed airborne for several seconds after jumping from the cabin roof, but problems with low visibility and faulty hydraulics forced her to make an emergency landing in some sumac bushes.

The only water sport we encountered at Lake Delavan was trying to get the toilet to flush. We quickly ascertained that any amount of toilet paper, even a single square, would cause an overflow. This more than anything else drove us away. Although we had paid for the entire week, by Thursday we had all had enough. We packed up and left late that afternoon with Dad even more dazed and confused than usual.

Dad was always in a world of his own, and never more so than when he was driving. He was very superstitious. He thought it was bad luck to look at a map before a trip…or during a trip…or at any time, for that matter. He also believed it was poor form to accost strangers with questions like, “Where the hell are we?” And he nursed an instinctive fear of policemen bordering on divine awe. (There must be genes for all these traits, because I regret to say they were passed on to me!)

Unfortunately, when the 2CV was fully locked and loaded with Luches it was unable to exceed 35 miles per hour, 10 miles below the minimum. A state trooper (who probably thought he had stepped into a remake of “The Grapes of Wrath”) soon pulled us over and advised Dad that he would have to leave the main highway and use back roads with lower speed limits the rest of the way. When we turned off the main road we got lost immediately and stayed lost. Mom held the thankless post of navigator. Her pathetic attempts to read the map by flashlight while in motion so infuriated Dad that he snatched the map away from her, wrapped it around the steering wheel with one hand and turned the flashlight on it with the other. This maneuver caused us to narrowly miss an A&W Root Beer truck.

The afternoon wore into twilight. It began to rain. The winter solstice drew near. I don’t remember when — or if — we ever got home, and I don’t want to remember. And I’ll thank you not to mention the word “vacation” again.

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Nice Surprise Endings:
Epilogues To Familiar Literary Classics

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The Necklace


by Guy de Maupassant

…Madame Forestier had halted. “You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?”

“Yes. You hadn’t noticed it? They were very much alike.” And she smiled in proud and innocent happiness.

Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her two hands. “Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs!”

– – – Epilogue – – –


“Oh!” exclaimed Mathilde. “Then surely you won’t mind selling it and giving me back the difference.”

Madame Forestier, even more deeply moved, grasped her two shoulders. “Of course not, dear! Let’s go to the jeweler’s this instant! With the appreciation on a thing like that I can easily buy another rhinestone job and you should have enough money left to retire.”

Mathilde breathed a profound sigh of relief. Her life of deprivation was behind her at last. “Wow!” she gasped. “What a pleasant surprise…”

Incident at Owl Creek Bridge


by Ambrose Bierce

…As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon — then all is darkness and silence! Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

– – – Epilogue – – –


“For crying out loud Peyton, wake up and quit moaning!” his wife shouted. “You’re probably having that damn war flashback nightmare again!”

“Woah!” Farquhar exclaimed. “It was so vivid!”

“It was ‘vivid’ three times last month!” his wife snapped. “Look — they didn’t hang you, all right? The rope broke, you escaped, I hid you in the cellar for the rest of the war and now here we both are, safe and sound. For heaven’s sake, that was almost forty years ago — think you’d get over it by now. Now shut the hell up and go back to sleep.”

“Why’d I ever marry the old sow?” Peyton muttered to himself as he rolled over. “But that dream! What a shock!”

The Gift of the Magi


by O. Henry

…Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled. “Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs.”

– – – Epilogue – – –


“Aw, thanks honey! You’re really sweet,” said Della, as she bent down to give him a kiss. “Good thing I didn’t cut off ALL my hair. What the heck, it was almost to my ankles. These combs’ll do just fine for the pageboy do I’ve got now. You think I should get the ends frosted or…?”

But by this time Jim was on the phone to the pawnbroker. “Hey, Max, could you do me a favor?” he said. After Max had listened to the whole story and had a good laugh, he promised to hold on to the watch until Della’s hair grew out enough to sell again and they could redeem the precious heirloom. “Oh, and Jim!” Max added before hanging up the phone. “You ought to get yourself a literary agent and sell the rights to your story. It’s a real bombshell!”

A Man Who Had No Eyes


by Mackinlay Kantor

…The blind man stood for a long time, swallowing hoarsely. He gulped: “Parsons! I thought you — …Yes. Maybe so. MAYBE SO! BUT I’M BLIND! I’M BLIND, AND YOU’VE BEEN STANDING HERE LETTING ME SPOUT TO YOU, AND LAUGHING AT ME EVERY MINUTE OF IT! I’M BLIND!”

Mr. Parsons looked over, almost piteously and said reflectively, “Well, don’t make such a row about it, Markwardt …. So am I.”

– – – Epilogue – – –


Markwardt gulped and said sheepishly, “Well, actually Parsons, I’m not really blind. Truth is I’m a no-account lazy drunk. I just pretend to be blind because I get more money panhandling that way.”

“Aw hell,” said Parsons, “I’m not really blind either. I figured if you couldn’t see me you wouldn’t know I was lying and I could get out of here without having to give you anything. But all right, damn it, you got me — here’s a fifty. Now beat it.”

“Thanks pal!” called the retreating Markwardt. “What a windfall!”

Richard Cory


by Edwin Arlington Robinson

…So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

– – – Epilogue – – –

‘Twas only then that everyone found out

He suffered from a dire and dread disease

That would have done him in, there was no doubt,

Before the coming autumn tinged the trees.

His life insurance said it wouldn’t pay

For suicides. His will and testament

Was voided due to fiscal foul play.

His wife and kids were left without a cent.

An inquest formed to delve into his past

Revealed some startling news about the man:

The day before he fired the fatal blast

He’d introduced a profit-sharing plan

For every worker toiling in his mill

From night shift to supplies to cleaning crew.

We owned the fact’ry, stock, land and goodwill

And all his private goods and chattels too.

Our Corycorp shares soared to record heights.

We’ve cash for meat and scotch and private school.

And after work on warm calm summer nights

We swim in Richard Cory’s heated pool.

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The Hotel

By:
ernstluchs@gmail.com

I checked in just after sunset. I wasn’t feeling well but that was normal. An old man behind the desk handed me the keys to room 314 and went into a coughing fit as I headed for the stairs. They creaked all the way up to the third floor and stopped. I passed a fat bimbo in the hallway. She wore a baby blue circus tent and fuzzy golden slippers. She had a bewildered look on her face, as if she couldn’t find her way back to the room filled with straw. Under one arm she carried a funny-looking dog. Who knows, maybe it was a goat. It kept licking at her arm as if the arm was a large stick of butter. I could tell they were made for each other.

The room was about what I expected. Just a room. Not immaculate but not filthy. Cheap but not disgraceful. The sort of room where newlyweds have to stay when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Or the room where a failed man goes to blow his brains out when he wants to be discrete about it. I had a gun but I wasn’t about to use it on myself.

I loosened my tie, lay down on the bed and listened. I could hear the stairs creaking again as Bimbo went down to the lobby. She was probably married to the scarecrow behind the desk. The goat was probably their child. Listening, I thought I could even hear the old man coughing again three stories below.

The curtains in my room were open so that the lights of the town shown in across the walls and ceiling. The various configurations of neon sent streaks of color into the room, flashing, flashing, on and off. Gleaming cars turned corners onto the well-lit boulevard only to turn again and disappear behind other corners. The whole scene was like a living jungle of light shifting around my room. I lit up a cigarette, smoked it slowly, finished it.

Sometime later I woke up, realizing that I’d drifted off to sleep still fully dressed. My watch said 10:30. I called room service for food and then went to splash some water on my face. I stared at myself in the mirror above the sink. A cockroach skittered out from beneath the mirror and looked at me, twitching its antennae. Before I could smash it the thing ran down to the floor and disappeared.

“Room service,” said the voice through the door. It was a girl about 21-years-old. Behind those pouted red lips she was pale, pale with stringy yellow hair. I paid her. “Thanks,” she said with a stringy yellow voice. I took a few sips of the stringy yellow soup and then shoved it aside in disgust.

Outside, the neon lights were still going strong. Cars continued to appear around corners, glide down the boulevard, turn out of sight. Like clockwork, no surprises, no intermissions, just the same show over and over. The only human sound was the guy coughing downstairs. By now he’d probably locked his wife in the basement or given her some knockout drops. She wasn’t the sort of thing to be trusted roaming loose at night.

I started to sweat. I lit another cigarette but that was no good. The smoke tasted lousy. When I ground the cigarette out on the floor I saw another cockroach, or maybe the same one. I trapped the little bastard under a drinking glass and watched him try to get out. There, I thought, you can stay there till you starve.

I stayed awake the whole night staring at the wallpaper. I stayed awake till my watch said six o’clock. It was still dark outside. I went to splash water on my face for the hundredth time but by then it wasn’t doing much good.

At nine o’clock in the morning it was still dark. I felt for the gun tucked in my belt. What it could do for me now, I didn’t know. After a while I stopped looking out the window to see what was going on. I just lay there on the bed, sweating. Finally, I went to sleep.

When I woke up nothing had changed. I looked at the cockroach under the glass. It was alive. I ordered up some food and tried not to look at the blond who brought it in. I tried to appear impatient. Actually, I was scared. I was already too afraid to leave the hotel, even to go across the street to see a movie. I was afraid that the girl in the ticket booth might be the same one who handled the room service here, afraid that everyone in the theater would look like the old man, or his wife.

It stayed dark outside. I stayed inside. Several days went by. All I did was eat or take showers and wait for the cockroach to die. Several times I thought of killing it myself.

Later, I awoke from a violent dream to find myself on a sofa in the lobby of the hotel. How I got there I could not remember and will probably never know. I asked the man at the desk if there’d been any messages for me. He started coughing uncontrollably but managed to shake his head no, no messages. I started up the creaking stairs again. I could feel myself slowing down, each step getting harder to take. By the time I was halfway up I had decided to order up a case of scotch and try to drink myself to death. It wasn’t until I reached the third floor that the creaking stopped and I started to laugh, laughing all the way to my room, laughing even after I’d shut the door and looked at the cockroach again.

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