There was a heavenly time, a sliver-thin window of peace that Roger Drinkwater cherished every year on Meenigeesis—those early days when the water warmed just enough for him to bear but all others steered clear and he could swim in peace and hear nothing but the water and his breath and the birds and the distant road: the way it had once been on this lake. It was a time before jet-skis; before the idiot boys on their idiot toys, as he thought of them in the little singsong chant that drummed in his head the rest of each summer.
One misty predawn in late May, he got his first indication that the lake was now warm enough for at least a few intrepid others. Kids, of course, tended to brave the waters sooner than their finicky parents, and the evidence he found was something that obviously came from a child. It was floating, half-submerged, at the end of his dock, and he bumped his head against it on the return lap of his morning swim: an underwater toy in the shape of a flattened megaphone, purple plastic with a green mouthpiece. If it hadn't had a brand name, Sub-Speaker, stamped on the side, he might not have known what it was for.
He stood there in the water, examining it, disgusted. Plastic toys lost in the lake were essentially just pollution. Still, he wondered how well it worked. Glancing around first to make sure he was alone, he knelt to the waterline and put the mouthpiece to his lips. What came out was Chief Joseph One-Song's famous words to Congress: "Nimaanaadendam gaa zhi binaadkamgiziik . . ."
The water was so still, the sound waves would carry as if across a drumhead. It's funnier, he decided, if no one can see me, and so he dropped lower in the water, the toy just nosing above the waterline, and he repeated the phrase, making it more guttural and ominous and spooky. He imagined some dumb cluck on the other side, those rich weekend warriors with the matching hot pink jet-skis and that pontoon boat, looking out and shuddering, unable to spot him, unable to understand the words, just knowing that the words were ancient, foreboding, and they would feel very, very uneasy. It was hard to do it without snickering.
roger drinkwater was actually only seven-eighths Indian (Ojibwe or Chippewa—or Anishinaabe, if you wanted to get precious about it, which he never did—of the Ojaanimiziibii band). The little bit left over was actually Polish, his mom's mom having come up as a young girl from Hamtramck, outside Detroit, back in the twenties. She thought she would be spending just the one summer—out at Cliffhead, the place people now called "the bootlegger's"—working as a nanny for the Fifels, the family of the man known at the time as the Rumbleseat King. She once told Roger she thought that at most she might learn to swim that summer. But much more than that happened. She got involved with Roger's grandfather, John Birchtree, a leather-dark Indian boy who helped out in the Fifels' stables, and she got in trouble and knew she could never go back home and so they got married, both of them still teenagers. Even if she hadn't gotten in trouble, it would have been damaging enough just to have been briefly mixed up with an Indian boy: there were other Hamtramck girls in the household staff and they would return with the Fifels, bringing sordid stories of the summer, and she would be ruined back home. Beyond ruined, she might be in actual danger there.
So, though she never returned and never spoke to her family again, his Grandma Oshka carried on the only traditions she knew, filling the many children and grandchildren that followed with golabki and pierogi and tales of Smok Wawelski, the dragon from the Wawel Castle in Krakow, and how a poor shoemaker killed the evil dragon with trickery and a river.
But seven-eighths was still pretty damn pure in 2001 and it was good enough for Roger to qualify for a dividend check with the area casino. Thirty grand a year for doing nothing more than being a member of the regional band. He could make much more if he chose to actively participate in the actual operation, but he didn't. The casino was at least two hours away and besides, having been to Nam, Roger figured he'd had enough gambling to last a lifetime or three. Besides, the casino money was only part of his income. There was the jerky business, the product sold as Schmatzna-Gaskiwag(r) at stores all over the county and as far north as a froufrou specialty foods store his grade school buddy, Eric Revels, ran up in Petoskey called Gourmet Gobbles. (No one ever came in and asked for it by name. The combination of the Polish smaczny—"delicious"—and the Ojibwe gaskiwag—"dried smoked meat"—amounted to more than a mouthful for most Fudgies, the weekend tourists from downstate. But they managed to figure out to ask for "that local stuff. The . . . you know. That authentic stuff? The stuff in the Baggies?" and sales did not seem to suffer.)
During the summer, he periodically taught at the short-term dive school camps a mile out on Lake Michigan aboard a restored nineteenth-century schooner, and year-round, classes for the National Guard up in Grayling. During the school year, he was the high school swim coach. He got great results from those kids, producing two state champs in the past ten years, and the school board kept trying to get him to coach more, especially water polo, but Roger said no way. First of all, he did not believe the water was a place for games. Even without the aid of an internal combustion engine or oversized floaties, as used in the more obvious sins of water-skiing, jet-skiing, parasailing. Even water polo—just flouncing around hitting balls and carrying on—Roger deemed unacceptable. The water, he felt, was for meditation and sustenance and life. And in extreme times, battle, which was part of life. But his official bottom line for declining was the water polo headgear. "You shouldn't wear something on your head when you're in the water," he would say. "Against my religion." If they looked at him blankly, he would shrug it off with, "Hey, it's an original people thing. You wouldn't understand." The truth was, nothing with the word "polo" in it could possibly be tolerable.
there was a song of his people that told, "If you follow the river inland through the village, you come to the other lake." And lately, it seemed nearly everyone was coming to the other lake. Years ago National Geographic had praised it for its clarity and beauty and, more recently, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous had called it "a local gem." To Roger Drinkwater's people, it was just Miinigiizisigami—literally, "berry moon lake." But what they had meant was "lake of the moon when berries are picked," not because there were ever spectacular amounts of any kind of edible berries right around the lake, but just because that's how you say August in Ojibwe. Due to the shade of its densely wooded banks and the deep center of the lake, it never got very warm at all, and August was the only month the unaccustomed could manage getting in the water without a lot of silly shrieking. Maybe a more accurate translation would be "That Lake You Can Really Only Stand During The Moon In Which Berries Are Picked—Where They Are Picked—Meaning August, Basically," but that wouldn't work on a map.
Unlike most of the place-names in the area, this was one the whites somehow managed to translate fairly accurately, and for about a century it was known officially as Lake August. The name change, leaning back toward the aboriginal, more or less, actually predated considerably the PC era (as well as this era of influence from the Indian casino lobby). And it had less to do with being accurate and more to do with being American: it was World War II and someone—no one remembers who—took the floor during the "new business" part of a half-empty village meeting and proposed that "Lake August" sounded awfully Germanic. Never mind that it was the name of a month—the month, specifically, when one's testicles were less likely to retreat into one's abdominal cavity during a dip—and had nothing to do with any Austrian baron or Bavarian prince, real or imagined. But somebody seconded the motion and it soon became Meenigeesis. In recent years, there had been a small group, mostly of outsiders (those itching to pave the road that encircled the lake—or worse, Roger strongly suspected: develop—slap up subdivisions, build more cell towers and time-sharing condos), who had lately been floating the idea of again changing the name. These jackasses were favoring the more lyrical Berry Moon Lake. But, as one old-timer pointed out, when he had the floor at the village meeting, "Where the fuck do you see berries?" The nearest berries in any great quantity were a few miles out of town, at vonBushberger's (an orchard, incidentally, so much a part of Weneshkeen that no one, even back during the war, ever questioned its Germanic derivation). So for the time being, the Berry Moon Lake suggestion had mostly been kept at bay by hoots and jeers and—appropriately, Roger felt—derisive, Archie Bunker-style raspberries.
Besides, the Indian thing was hip. In fact, the bigger, newer houses on Lake Meenigeesis—the ones that had recently jacked up the property taxes—the overblown, rambling four-bedroom affairs that seemed, to Roger, to make a mockery of the term "cottage"—were mostly on the side of the lake referred to as "the Indian side." It was a term that had been around before he was a boy and had nothing to do with the heritage of anyone living in the million-dollar homes that stood there now. Traditionally, as recently as a hundred years ago and uncountable time before, this section was the summer campgrounds of the Ojaanimiziibii band. And then, when they were Westernized and dragged to the white man's churches and schools and given haircuts and biblical first names and Anglican surnames and shoved into pants, the "Indian side" was where they homesteaded with year-round housing, very humble one- and two-room shacks. These shacks and the slight improvements that followed—stone porch affairs like Roger's—were the beginnings of the summer cottages on the lake. As the Ojaanimiziibii population dwindled in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, whites from town began to buy up these little houses as summer, weekend homes. More cottages were built around the rest of the lake—fancier homes compared to the "Indian side," but humble by present standards. Sometime in the late eighties and early nineties, when real estate boomed, Roger's neighbors started having to sell off. These were middle-income whites—skilled tradesmen, public school teachers—too practical-minded to hang on to property that was growing rapidly out of their league. But this boom had coincided with the advent of the casino, and so for Roger, the money was less an issue. So far, he'd resisted selling. But the rest of the "Indian side"—the cheaper lots with shabby historical cottages similar to his own—were snatched up by a whole new breed of summer people, people of wealth on a level that had not yet been seen in Weneshkeen and hailing from strange locales: a Detroiter who owned his own security alarm company, the first importer of chai tea in the state of Arizona, an Ohio man who held the patent on a revolutionary golf club, and a woman from Santa Monica thought to be the "Father of the Fruit Smoothie." They constructed cathedrals of glass and exotic wood, with wraparound decks and paved driveways that sluiced non-point-source runoff right into the lake. (Or rather, had it done on their behalf, rarely actually setting foot on the property, as far as Roger could tell. These money dumps were almost always just overrun with younger, more annoying people who couldn't possibly be footing the bill, while the breadwinners were somewhere else—or at least inside, online—earning more bread.) They "grandfathered" their way past zoning restrictions by demolishing everything but, say, the original stone fireplace and chimney, then rebuilding around it, as high and as close to the water as they wanted, using the twisted loophole that they were "remodeling" an existing pre-code structure. And when the houses got more valuable, everyone's taxes went up and up, squeezing out more of the merely moderately well-off and their modest cottages. Some moved over to the increasingly smaller section of the lake that had once been "the nice side" where the "better people" lived. Now Roger was the only Ojaanimiziibii still living on the lake. Ironically, though he lived on the "Indian side," with his "quaint" little cottage and his nose-thumbing disdain for the lives of excess all around him, he was considered very misplaced. If a seven-eighths Indian, one-eighth Pole belonged anywhere at all on this tony lake, it was certainly not on the "Indian side" but maybe only on the "nice side." If even there.
He was well aware of all this. Things, he felt, were getting so ridiculous here he wasn't sure how long he could stand it.
From the Hardcover edition.