Leonard Kress

Lake Ethics

I tell him that if he frets too much, he’ll never get things going. He’d better stick to the margins, a landscape at least, this ground-up shell and gravel beach with the odd discarded syringe. This is where the gestures are first made—and first returned. She’s wading in the surf up to her calves, affectionately plunging her baby’s head almost under water. There’s much churning of waves, upside-down giggling, and good-natured splashing.

But what about those free-wheeling qualms, he wonders, the ones that stave off temptation, the whipling mind-lashing that makes the story compelling. Without it there’s only violation, no magical guilt, no gnashing of fluctuating nuance. And yet there it is right in front of his eyes: the swimsuit already plunged, breasts stretching it to the limits, and all that bending over. They’re glaringly pink and they might fall out, glistering beneath the sun. Radioactive fallout—you might say archly, but in fact, the whole thing is doubly ironic because a nuclear power plant looms in the port at a shadowy distance. And the fallout from it struck twice last month, forcing the beach to close from seepage, hot and dangerous. Then twice again, the beach closed for high e-coli counts. The bad luck of summer.

He wonders how much emotional tonnage can a seascape buoy—the newfound stillness of the lake, the pleasurecraft surfing out to the island, the hovercraft rage that rakes the distant waves. The Cormorants and egrets making off with bags of potato chips, while all their little kids cower and cry beneath a blanket.Naughtiness or ethics—I tell him maybe he should sift through another branch of philosophy. Phenomenology?Epistemology?

I ask him, doesn’t he understand anything? What does he think it means when she says she wants to rush off into the bird-blind shelter with someone, anyone, who isn’t her husband? Does he think she’s simply referring to people in general.Does he think she means his wife? Or some other, sunscreened someone, who best represents some personal ideal? What about the lifeguard, he asks, pointing out the young man rising up in his firm stand, his contraposto stance, his heroism, which at this point is only and all potential. Now it’s a mere blank stare reminiscent of a Greek Korous, stuck in the sand. What a banal and expected trope, I tell him.

And if her husband objects, he demurs one last time, if he finds out. The husband who right now attends to the slow-burning coals, groping the spatula, and blinking.Now is the time, I proclaim, while he is, for the moment, blinded by trade winds of smoke, as he sticks his knives and forks into sizzling links.

Leonard Kress has published fiction and poetry in Passages North, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Atticus Review, Harvard Review, The Writing Disorder, Barn Owl Review, etc., and most recently, The Swarm and Writing Disorder. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Living in the Candy Store, and Thirteens. He teaches philosophy, religion, and creative writing at Owens College in Ohio and serves as fiction editor for Artful Dodge.