YOU ARE THE GREATEST LAKE: An excerpt and author response

Many readers of Sycamore Review are also writers. So we wanted to pose a few craft questions to contributor Greg Schutz that might illuminate his process and techniques when writing his story “You are the Greatest Lake” which can be read in its entirety in Issue 23.1-Winter/Spring 2011.

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BY GREG SCHUTZ

The next day is Sunday, the end of our long weekend on the shore, and Dot wants to fish. After breakfast, John finds a small rod for her and ties a golden hook to the end of the line. The knot he uses is a complicated, twisting thing, his fingers moving faster than my eyes can follow. He and Dot walk the edge of the yard, prying up rocks and rotten logs to gather angleworms and grubs. I watch from the kitchen window. Dot is fearless, plunging wrist-deep into the dirt.

Today, John heads out into the bay until he disappears from sight. I scan the horizon for him, but there is only the endless rolling of the waves. Dot is unconcerned. Fishing rod in hand, she walks the shore, catching tiny fish. The end of our visit has filled my head with muddy desperation, and so I steel myself and approach cautiously, as I might a wild animal.

Dot, however, is aglow with her success.

She shows me a fish as round and flat as a little tea saucer. “This one’s called a bluegill.” This may be the first time she has ever spoken to me unbidden, offering the words like a gift.

“Bluegill,” I say.

I learn that another fish, with the same round shape but prettier, speckled colors, is called a pumpkinseed. Dot pops the golden hook free from the fish’s mouth and lowers the fish gently into the water. It darts away, pauses for a moment as if to catch its breath, and then flits farther into the green reflections of the trees where it cannot be seen.

“Pumpkinseed,” I say, and Dot nods, very serious.

I follow her down the shore, my head empty as a sleepwalker’s. I move like Dot, with fluid gliding steps so as not to frighten the fish, and keep my careful distance so as not to frighten her. The clouds feather open; a white sun appears. Dot’s hair lights like a lamp. Frowning, she turns to the sky. Looking at her, I see John, chest-deep in the bay, squinting as the light burns his shadow onto the water. UV rays, he tells me, are the problem. They drive the bass out of the shallows and into the depths. Dot rubs the back of her neck. In her mind, I imagine, she follows the fish, sinking down and down. She is the Greatest Lake. Sweat glistens on her upper lip.

“I’m thirsty. Are you thirsty?” I am thinking of the lemonade in the refrigerator.

Dot blinks up at me, reminded of my presence. I might as well be the sun, spilling my dangerous heat.

“No,” she says.

I smile at her. I do not want to press my luck. This has been a good morning, something to build upon. By the time I’ve reached the top of the yard, the clouds have knit together again.

For an hour, I try to work in the mudroom, but how can I concentrate on the boilerplate language of quitclaim deeds? The words drift away from me. “Pumpkinseed,” I say, picturing Dot’s face. I slide my papers back into the accordion file and cap my pen. I sit in the armchair by the window. Down below, Dot’s toes are in the lake. “Pumpkinseed, I love you.”

I am sitting there still, drowsy and warm and contemplating lunch, when Dot screams.

Something has happened. Her small rod bows sharply to the water. Out beyond the reflected pines, a small bright patch of the bay turns to froth. A heavy brown fish throws itself clear of the water, crashes down, throws itself tumbling into the air again: one of John’s bass. The fish writhes across the surface. Dot, at the other end of the invisible line, is hooked to it.

I have never heard Dot scream before. There’s no ragged tremble of adult emotion, only a high, pure tone that reaches through windows and walls to pluck me from my chair and carry me out the door and down the lawn without my feet ever touching the ground. Still, it takes me a very long time to arrive. “I’m here,” I keep calling, “I’m here,” but this is a lie. By the time I reach her, it is over: the bass has torn the fishing rod from Dot’s hands. She stands open-palmed and shaking.

“I was pulling in a little fish,” she says. “And then this bass came up and—he took it.”

Her face bunches and purples. She bursts into tears.

John, I’m sure, good and patient as he is, a carpenter who builds things piece by piece until at last they stand complete, would know the right thing to say now. But I am not John. The bay is empty, and I am dry-mouthed with love. So I leave my sandals on the shore. The water is cold; my skin prickles. The pebbles are smooth beneath my feet, the broken shells sharp as teeth. My hands trail in the water. My skirt rises around my waist.

I find Dot’s rod and draw it, dripping, from the bay. The bass is gone. At the end of the line there is only a tiny fish, its fins stripped and its body crushed, the golden hook fixed to its cheek like a pin.

“Pumpkinseed,” I say.

The red gills flex. I feel the little muscles pulling against my palm. The mouth opens and closes as if trying to speak.

“Let it go.” Dot’s voice is small. “Let it swim away.”

“Dot,” I say, “I can’t.”

I mean that it is too late now; the damage is done. I cannot stitch torn fins, affix lost scales. When I pop the golden hook free, it leaves a ragged pinhole I cannot close.

“No,” Dot says as if I’ve misunderstood her. “It has to swim away now.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

Her eyes wash over me, the dying fish in my hand. She pins elbows to ribs, fists to thighs, as if she were the one being squeezed.

“I’m sorry.” Spoken at last, the words now bubble up unbidden. I am a primed pump, spilling stale, wet, mineral-scented regrets. “I’m sorry, Dot, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Her reflection wavers in the water a moment.

“Huh,” she says.

She boils up to the house.

The yard is empty; Dot is gone. The windows of the cottage are filled with the bay. I clutch the tiny body because I cannot bear to watch it float away from me. Against my palm the little muscles pull, and pull, and pull, and stop.

To read the rest of the story, order your copy of Issue 23.1-Winter/Spring 2011 today.

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Sycamore Review: The narrator of “You are the Greatest Lake” is never named. Was this a conscious decision on your part or did you write the story and then realize you never named her? One of the themes running through the story is the inability of the narrator to find the “right” words to say to Dot, the daughter of her boyfriend, that will make amends for stealing her father from her mother. While drafting the story, did you think that keeping the narrator nameless would reinforce that theme? Did you ever try on any names or think it was unnatural to not name her?

Greg Shutz: I’m a fan of letting the subconscious do the heavy lifting. I did, in fact, brainstorm possible names for the narrator of “You Are the Greatest Lake,” but I never got as far as trying to work any of those names into the story. None of them felt right, though I couldn’t say why not. In the end, what felt right was a nameless narrator, so I stuck with that.

In retrospect, I like the explanation you’ve offered. To name something (like the fish in the story: “bluegill,” “pumpkinseed”) is empowering, and the narrator often feels powerless to connect with Dot in a significant way—not that this stops her from trying. Her namelessness may also attach to the thread of superhero imagery that enters the story through Dot’s make-believe game and provides the story’s title. Becoming a superhero often means sloughing off a civilian identity, and in this sense, the narrator wants to be more than just [insert name] for Dot, bound by all that person’s shortcomings, her past sins.

But I’m glad I didn’t arrive at these answers while I was writing the story. Rationalizations can usually be hashed out after the fact, as they have been here. I’d rather not know too much about why I’m writing what I’m writing while I’m writing it, for fear this knowledge will turn the story schematic, like an equation to be balanced. Even now, for me, the surest answer to this question remains my original gut-level conviction that, while the narrator’s name isn’t significant, her namelessness itself might be.

Sycamore Review: I mentioned in the above “Why We Chose It” post that the story has a certain subtle power that is magnetic for the reader thanks to the careful subtext in dialogue and landscape. How did the landscape and place of northern Michigan contribute to the story? Could this story be written in any other setting? Did you have any “guides” for this story–writers that you think influenced this particular story?

Greg Schutz: I wrote “You Are the Greatest Lake” while on a winter fellowship in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod, and the loneliness of that place—sand dunes and snow, compass grass and pitch pines—probably shaped the story just as much as Michigan, where I currently live, or Wisconsin, where I was born. The immensity of Lake Huron in the story feels to me, upon rereading, very much like my memory of the Atlantic that winter.

Still, I can’t imagine the story being set anywhere else. Maybe this is because the title came first: it was given to me as a gift, or a prompt, by my girlfriend Catherine. Working my way into the story from that title, I wrote the opening sentence—“We are at the tip of the thumb of Michigan”—even before I knew to whom we referred.

Meanwhile, some of my favorite fiction locates an almost supernatural charge in the natural world. Consider Breece Pancake in stories like “Trilobites” and “Hollow,” or Joy Williams in so much of her work, including “Shorelines”: “It was a place for children and we were using it up. The sharks would come up the inlet in the morning rains and they’d roll so it would seem the water was boiling. Our breath was wonderful.” The ecstatic interweaving of human and inhuman—Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping casts a very long shadow here, as does Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Considering my narrator’s own brush with nature—that dying fish in her hand, pressing her awkwardly into action—I’d like to think that “You Are the Greatest Lake” has been enriched by my love of these works.