Saturday, June 22, 2013
The Black Lake
The waitress spread a cocktail napkin on the glass tabletop with a practiced flourish, then swiftly clanked a gin and tonic down on it before the wind could lift it by a corner and carry it away. He thanked her with a nod and watched her move off among the other tables, taking orders for refills, pulling a check tucked into a dark faux-leather case out of her apron pocket and setting it down. Blondish hair done up in a tidy knot, sturdy, she looked to be in her thirties. She was pleasant and professional but a hair shy of friendly and he guessed that she had a husband and a small kid or two and knew how to deal with situations. It was only when she moved off to go inside the restaurant and gave instructions to a busboy who stood expressionless just outside the door that he saw the smile disappear from her lips. The busboy, younger, darker, and slightly built, an immigrant he guessed, snapped into action, seized a plastic bin, and efficiently cleared the table that had just been vacated, then mopped off the crumbs and condensation with a white cloth.
The cast-iron legs of the table rested unevenly on the flagstones and rocked as he reached for his drink. The outside of the glass was already slick with condensation. He peeled away the cocktail napkin and took his first sip, gazing out through his sunglasses at the choppy water beyond the terrace, at the uniform green of the surrounding high hills. Lofty clouds lay here and there above him, darker in the distance, and he suspected there might be rain by evening, but for now the sun still bore down, interrupted only now and then by a fugitive shadow. The conversations at the tables around him blurred into white noise, the meaningless chatter of birdsong. An older couple sat directly behind him but they rarely spoke; further off there was a group of six women, middle-aged, dressed-up, lively, talking two and three at a time, and it was some time before he noticed that they were speaking — what was it? German? Swedish? He couldn’t be sure, and wasn’t curious.
Far out on the lake, a small boat, steered by two barely distinguishable figures in orange life-jackets, was struggling with the fickle crosswinds, tacking left and then right, its multi-colored sail billowing, bending over the water but always righting itself again. A crow passed high above, closely pursued by a smaller bird, whose nest the crow had no doubt attempted to raid. He watched them cross as far as the opposite shore, the crow in smooth glides, the smaller bird in quick aggressive darts, until they disappeared behind the trees.
On the near shore, just below him, stretched a little crescent of beach, clearly artificial, no more than fifty feet across. A small child was digging in the sand with a pink plastic shovel, trying to build a tiny castle, but the sand was all wrong, too coarse and impure, and it wouldn’t cohere. The child’s father was reading the newspaper in a beach chair a few yards away, and now and then peeked over the pages to glance at the child and at the little waves that exhausted themselves on the sand.
“May I join you?” said a woman’s voice. She didn’t wait for a reply, and none came. He turned away from the lake to face her, set down his glass, and, with an expression that conveyed neither surprise nor pleasure, regarded her as if she were a giant bird who had just completed folding her wings behind her as she settled into her chair.