By Joseph E. Redding
Rozga, in time, would confront him; Michael knew that. The idle gossip overheard at Staley’s Grocery confirmed as much. While Michael wouldn’t admit to hiding, he had changed his daily routines to lessen the real estate developer’s opportunities. Each weekday he abandoned springtime chores by mid-afternoon to be at his desk, writing a never completed letter to his grandson Ricky, as the Mazda RX-7 crept past on the last leg of a Chicago commute. On weekends, just after dawn, Michael took to Irish Lake in his discolored pontoon boat, returning only when the sun burned low into the south shore, vigilant to avoid a chain-rattling wake against a pier that had grown soft like a dried sponge. During the dodge and weave, Michael resolved to directly and curtly respond to the short 41-year-old man with a thick waist. So on a Saturday, when brisk winds and light rain made the lake non-navigable and left Michael to putter about in the garage, Michael blurted, “Why do we need an association?” before Rozga said a word.
Rozga answered with the confidence of a man who had closed thousands of real estate transactions. “Don’t you want to preserve our lake?” He smiled, mouth wide, gums revealed.
The south end of Irish Lake had always been a self-contained entity, eighteen lots boxed between a canal and the swamp off Little Barbee Lake. When Michael took ownership of his slice, just as the surveyor’s ink dried, each lot was an amalgamation of woods, sandy shorefront, and a deed free of land use restrictions. Since then, Indiana law evolved; now associations could bind all the lots in a specifically defined geographic location with an agreement between just half of the landowners. Citizens on the Barbee Chain of Lakes debated the value of such associations; exchanges that intensified after a developer backfilled the swamp off Little Barbee Lake and erected a gated community.
“Our lake?” Michael continued to tinker, stacking empty cases of Stroh’s Beer, bottles that he had meant to return to the depot last summer. “I’ve been here before Hitler invaded Poland. How about you?”
Rozga’s smile lessened, his gums disappearing. But he was a man who knew persistence, more than anything else in life, increased the odds of getting what one wanted. “Well I wouldn’t say I just arrived; it’s been over three years since I bought the Heisler place, then your Cousin Bobby’s the next year.” He maintained straight eye contact with Michael. “But, yes, my residency doesn’t go back to the Great War.”
Ignoring the historical error, Michael corrected Bobby’s place on his genealogical tree with a slow, staccato, “cousin-in-law.” Michael’s bloodline wouldn’t surrender family property, even at twice the market value. True, Bobby had neglected the property; it fell to an uninhabitable cabin, even for a weekend stay. Repairs, however, became irrelevant after Rozga razed the structure and seeded the dirt imprint, erasure of any memory of the two bedroom, cinder-block cottage. The excavation failed to evoke sentimental deterrence: since then, two other owners, both on double lots, relinquished title to Rozga, increasing his Irish Lake portfolio to six lots.
Rozga apologized for his misclassification of Michael’s relations while holding out a booklet. The half-inch, spiral bound document lingered in the air for more than an uncomfortable moment before Michael snatched it away from the meaty fingers. Rozga offered no reaction, as if governing association applications were often exchanged this way. Rozga shuffled in anticipation of questions, backing away when none came. But after retreating a few feet, he stopped and cleared his throat. “Things are changing, Mr. Sawyer.” Michael winced at the sound of his name, uttered from the mouth of a big city man who owned a third of his Eden. “With the Reagan Administration relaxing regulations, people have bold ideas on how to make money. Cottages are no longer just leisure. They’re business; a lucrative business if done without thinking of others. We can’t stop everyone, but this strip can be saved. It would be nice to have an original owner on board with us.”
Michael agreed to review the document, but when alone, tossed it atop of the refrigerator that hadn’t worked in a decade. To distract his chattering mind, he cleaned the cricket cage and replaced the nylon string on the fish basket, “Haven’t needed a governing organizationfor over forty years,” he muttered. “Suddenly it’s necessary?” Back in the day, when he and Bobby lived out of the garage while building their cottages, lot owners just talked things out; written documents weren’t needed. Of course that was before his wife passed and his son moved to Milwaukee and cowards like Bobby sold out. By the end of the day, he had forgotten Rozga’s book and only remember it on Monday morning when the RX-7 sped past, kicking up dust on the gravel road, hell-bent for US 30.
The weather warmed and daily routines returned, like Marcie appearing with a fist full of Michael’s mail. A year ago, they had cut a deal: In exchange for the use of his year-old Ford Granada – a more dependable car than her rusting Mercury Marquis – she retrieved Michael’s mail from his post office box when she went into town. Michael, distracted by an oversized envelope a green logo, didn’t notice her slink off without comment, forgoing her habitual fifteen minute summary of changes happening in Warsaw.
Michael cut the envelope and wiggled loose a booklet bound by two brass fasteners. The accompanying letter, signed in bright blue ink by Chicago Attorney Frank Denny, addressed each lake homeowner:
Welcome to the South Irish Lake Governing Organization (SILGO), created to preserve the beauty of the south side of Irish Lake. The organization, founded last week when the Kosciusko Recorder accepted and recorded the application, is now a permanent covenant on the plat map. As a landowner in the geographical area defined in the application, your rights and responsibilities in the association are set forth in the enclosed bylaws. SILGO’s first order of business, as per these bylaws, is to elect a four man governing board. The election will occur on Flag Day at the Little Barbee Hotel.
The letter continued, detailing the lot owners who signed to the application. Aside from Rozga’s six lots, the Howard family from Indianapolis and Marcie had agreed to this nonsense. Michael figured the Howards, who hadn’t used the two cabins in five years, hoped to increase the sale value, while Marcie had been hornswoggled by Rozga with the memory of her late father.
Michael nitpicked the bylaws, circling words and phrases he knew Rozga and his lawyers would utilze to control the area. When he tired of arguing against himself, he crossed the lawns to Marcie’s cottage. She shoveled black dirt into a cedar planked box; an attempt to convert the sandy soil into a garden. “You read this?” He shook the bylaws towards her. Marcie continued to throw the soil as if she hadn’t heard him. “One vote per lot and Rozga’s got six. He should have just made himself King.”
“You should run.” Shovel planted, she leaned into the handle, resting her father’s oversized, worn work boot on the blade’s back edge. “It’s a four man board, right? I would support you.”
“I want no part of this.” He again shook the document. “This farce of an organization. He’s probably going to put up rental cabins. Or Lord forbid, a hotel.”
“Then why not run for the board?” While her reasoning was sound, he would not legitimize this organization. Others could get political, but he bought his lot to avoid city life chaos. He had done so for forty years: First as a summer refuge from Fort Wayne on the weekends; then, after he retired, as his fulltime residence. His paradise would continue without forcing associations upon his neighbors.
Despite Michael’s one-man boycott, the election occurred. Results printed on thick SILGO stationery detailed that Rozga had not only been elected to the board, but with the most votes, gained chairmanship of it. Alfred Howard, along with Roy Sycamore – a chiropractor from South Bend with a two bedroom A-frame at the east end of the strip – had also been elected.
But when Michael saw the last board member, he dropped the letter. Marcie. “God save us all,” he muttered. Marcie’s father Jim, an engineer with Michael at the Taylor Street General Electric plant, had also been an original purchaser. He died from lung cancer fifteen years ago, receiving the terminal diagnosis months before retirement. Choosing the family lifetime option on his pension, he received lower monthly payments in exchange for the ability to pass those benefits to his only child upon his death. Marcie also inherited Jim’s cottage, with its faded siding and peeled window frames, which hugged the canal – the far west side of the SILGO jurisdiction. A year after Jim’s death, Marcie quit the cashier job at the Fort Wayne A&P and moved to the lake to enshrine her father’s name in the glory of the cabin.
“See you made the board,” Michael yelled out. He had hoped his voice would convey jocularity, but could tell he failed. She gave no reaction, turning the soil in her garden, fluffing it to rise above the barrier. “Must not have been much competition.”
“Certainly not from you.” Her voice quivered and she swallowed hard to stabilize her vocal cords. “Can’t complain about something you didn’t do.” She returned to her garden and Michael slunk away.
The next day, a green rubber band secured SILGO’s meeting agenda to Michael’s door. He dropped it in the kindling bin on his way to the garage where he planned to add line to Ricky’s Zebco reel. But when Marcie and her dog Smokey paddled past in a canoe, surveying the shore with methodical strokes, he retrieved and re-read the agenda, catching the word “sea wall” in the middle of the twenty-three point list. Putting aside the tackle, he returned to the cottage, looking east out the bay window. When the canoe returned, at the same gradual pace, he stomped over to Marcie’s cottage.
“What’s this sea wall thing?” Smokey nudged him and he gave the collie an absent pat on the head. Marcie yanked the canoe ashore, etching a trail on the sand, but did not look at the agenda Michael extended.
“Can you give me a minute here Michael? I have to get Smoke his breakfast. Dad always said a hungry dog is a dangerous dog.” She gave the canoe three strong tugs, then confortable the boat didn’t float, sauntered to her cottage. “Let’s get you fed Smoke.”
Michael stormed off, miffed over the diet of that fleabag. He waited two hours – reading and rereading the agenda – before he returned. Marcie stained a pinewood sign that normally hung at the end of her drive; publication of the family name. She wiped her hands on her smock, put down her brush and tilted her head to read the agenda Michael thrust out. “Michael, I can’t talk about the agenda.”
“Says who?” Michael demanded. “Nobody can stop you from talking about your own property. This isn’t the Soviet Union. At least not yet.”
“SILGO is registered with the County Recorder, so the open meeting law applies. Proper procedure must be followed; I can’t just go jabbering on. At least that’s what the chairman says.”
“Making everyone call him ‘The Chairman’ now?” Marcie rolled her eyes, fueling Michael’s fire. “Does he wear a crown at these meetings?”
“Why do you hate SILGO so much, Michael? It’s only keeping the land like when you and dad bought it. It even has a cute name, like that county in Ireland. Get it, Irish Lake, Irish County?
“Oh for God’s sake, that’s County Sligo, not SILGO.” Marcie reddened, but Michael continued, now with a softer voice. “Listen, I’m not here to bash SILGO. What’s done is done. But when I see items on the agenda for a sea wall, it starts smelling like Rozga is fixing to rent cabins or sell off to Chicago investors.”
Marcie scrunched her nose. “I don’t think so. He likes the place, probably for the same reasons we do. If anything he’ll leave those lots vacant for privacy.” Now Michael rolled his eyes. “I’m serious Michael. I think he’s here to stay. But I’m sorry; I can’t talk about the agenda. I don’t want to get in trouble with the law. You’ll have to come to the meeting.” She picked up the brush, adding, “You know, you could help. You’ve always been smart.” She resumed, the light brown stain seeping into the thin boards, darkening and preserving the etchings her father had cut two decades ago.
Despite an eighty person capacity, the Indiana Room in the Barbee Hotel held nineteen: the SILGO board members (minus Howard), five curious homeowners from connected lakes, and three trios of contractors. As Rozga finished roll call, the guests stirred, as if the ghosts rumored to haunt the old inn had disclosed themselves. Rather than acknowledge Michael, Rozga introduced the first agenda item and asked for, “comments, questions or concerns.” Hearing none, he requested a motion to approve the agenda item. The chiropractor motioned, Marcie seconded, and the “ayes” had it. Rozga repeated the process until the twelfth bullet point.
“Today, three companies are here to discuss seawalls.” He moved his arm across the room as if presenting an act on stage; each trio, in matching company shirts, gave timid nods.
Before Rozga’s arm completed the sweep, Michael stood and demanded to know if Irish Lake had, in fact, been transported to Ireland. He scanned the room, daring an answer. When confident his point had been made, he growled, “We don’t live on the sea. We’re in the middle of Indiana. Even a levee would be overkill, much less a cement wall.”
“A wall, in a maritime setting, doesn’t necessarily mean a straight-up, ninety degree structure, Mr. Sawyer.” If Michael’s question rattled Rozga, his voice did not betray him. “And it certainly doesn’t require concrete.”
“Don’t give me that a-wall-doesn’t-mean-a-wall rubbish. If you meant something else, you needed to put that on the agenda.” The bustle of the marina staff and fuel station customers at the lakeside hotel oozed through walls of the stilled room.
Rozga suggested the contractors educate the room, but none stirred. Then, a balding man in his late thirties, dark blue polo with a white “Chicago’s Shoreline Savers (™)” logo high upon his barrel chest, stated, “Perhaps if there is a specific question….”
Michael did not hesitate. “What alternatives are there to concrete walls?” The three groups looked at each other, brows furled as Michael continued. “For over forty years the sloped Kentucky bluegrass lawns have been adequate. Why do I need a wall now?”
“I’m afraid I’ve been a bit unfair to our guests.” Rozga gave a wry smile to the contractors. “The board isn’t suggesting a seawall is the only option to preserve the shoreline; merely one we are exploring. Perhaps the agenda should have read, ‘stopping our eroding frontage.’ Fault lies solely with the chairman’s verbiage.”
“Well, Mr. Chairman, how about getting rid of basements as an alternative?” Seem like that’s a bigger concern than erosion. I can hear your dual sump pumps struggling against the spring thaw and rain.”
“It’s not the basements.” Rozga’s voice had gained a quickness and edge that Michael had not heard in previous encounters. “Structures without basements have also been experiencing water at their stoops. Insurance companies are balking at renewing policies and I’m told chunks of shoreline, in uneven parts, have disappeared in areas of the lake’s shoreline.”
Michael had noticed on his own frontage the squall line of pebbles and worn shells just above the waterline had disappeared, usurped by widening and uneven crevices. But he would not be silenced with his own thoughts. “What about removing cement driveways that rush rain to the lake rather than into the back canals? How about more trees rather than more outbuildings? How about going back to holding tanks rather than mound systems that leech into the lake?
Alternatives would be considered, Rozga promised, but the topic at hand was a sea wall. Michael sat down, not due to an interest in sea walls, but because his rant had left his 82-year-old legs wobbly. His strength returned during the three monotone presentations of sea wall costs, dependent upon individual shoreline characteristics, desired structures, and construction timelines.
The board tabled the topic until the Fourth of July weekend meeting, hoping more lake owners would participate. In the interim, the chiropractor promised to solicit bids from contractors so the true cost of a wall could be determined.
Marcie tried to placate Michael that night as he groused, pointing out that it had just been a discussion and with nothing decided. “Not yet, but with six votes, Rozga can ramrod anything through.”
Marcie smiled. “Sounds like you’ll have to be the watchdog then – just like Woodward and Bernstein.” Michael stomped home.
On a late June day, where the cool morning air crackled with promises of summer heat, Michael confronted seventy-year-old Rex Hundley, owner of the Warsaw contracting company Thick as a Brick, Inc., demanding to know why Rex was on his property. After Rex presented identification, Michael inquired as to the necessity of a wall.
“It’s not a wall, really,” Rex replied over Michael’s disgusted sigh, tired of receiving this answer. “Its layers of rock, on a thin burlap-like barrier, with large rocks on top like decorative frosting.”
“What’s something like that cost?” Michael kept a good stare on Rex.
“I suspect about $35 per shoreline foot. I don’t see any surprises from this lake to raise the cost.”
“You been doing this long?” Michael examined Rex’s Nike running shoes.
Rex responded in a warm voice without a hint of resentment. “Only twelve years on the lakes.” Michael nodded a smug smile. “Of course, I spent twenty-five years trying to keep the Atlantic back in the intercostal waters. We never fully figured out that monster; walls are only a speed bump – you can slow erosion, but you can’t stop it.” He smiled at Michael before he turned to the lake. “But, like I said, this lake, she’s a well-behaved beauty. We’ll save your shoreline well past the life of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.”
Rex asked Michael to walk with him. As they crossed properties going east, Rex pointed out eroded areas, explaining that an unchecked lake can lose ten feet or more of shoreline within a generation. Michael, without referencing Rozga’s ownership, asked about the appropriateness of the sloped cement drives.
“I never recommend concrete around water. It gets the water running too fast. I know you know the danger of fast moving water.” Michael swelled his chest. “Slow water, over time, is just as destructive in its own right. And it’s a hidden danger, as it often it seems harmless. But concrete isn’t the end of the world. And the erosion here is coming from the lake, not the sources into it.”
“Couldn’t each land owner just build their own wall?”
“Not effectively, since water finds the weakness, and could be catastrophic for those who don’t build.” Rex stopped to write some notes on his clipboard. “Plus, a long uniform structure, aesthetically, is really something to look at.”
The SILGO board met on July 6th in the donut room of Staley’s Grocery; the board deeming the Barbee Hotel venue overkill with the lack of participation. The only agenda item was the “shoreline preservation” and the sea wall proposals were shared. Three Chicago contractors submitted the highest bids; Thick As A Brick came in a tick above the low bid from Indianapolis. After acknowledging Howard’s absence, Rozga asked the board members to share their thoughts. Sycamore voted to build a sea wall and use the lowest bid. Marcie voted for the wall as well, but suggested they use Thick As A Brick. Rozga asked for Michael’s opinion.
“Other than we don’t build it?” Sycamore looked at his watch. “I don’t care who builds it. It’s not necessary.”
Rozga had the final say. “Well, I’m with Marcie. Let build a wall and keep it homegrown. By unanimous vote, the motion to build a sea wall passes, and with a two to one vote, the Warsaw contractor is hired.”
Two weeks later, Michael received an invoice from SILGO, payment due prior to the commencement of construction. Michael ignored it; a week later, Rozga came to his cottage.
“How are you, Mr. Sawyer.” When Michael did not open the screen door, much less invite him in, Rozga skipped further small talk. “You’re the last.”
“To pay.” Rozga did not take his eyes off Michael. “You’re holding up the project.”
“Suppose I don’t have it?” Michael took a bite of his sandwich that he had brought to the door and raised his eyebrows.
“SILGO can finance you on a five-year note.”
“Of course, we’re not a charity.”
“That’s what the market calls for. At least it’s down from eighteen.”
“Suppose I don’t want to pay or take your loan. Then what? You got a strongman who breaks kneecaps?”
“SILGO would pick up the shortage and file a lien on your property.” Michael tilted forward on his toes, waiting for Rozga to finish. “But we’d probably wait to enforce it until the property was transferred.”
“Until I die then,” Michael snapped.
“Sure.” Rozga hesitated, then added, “Or foreclosure, if the board votes that way.”
“That’s what this is about, isn’t it. You getting my property.”
“I don’t want your property, Mr. Sawyer. I want your cooperation.” Jaw tight, Rozga paused for more than a thoughtful second. “Look, I’m heading to Chicago tonight, but if you could let me know by week’s end what you’re going do, the board would appreciate it.” He walked across the lawns without waiting for a retort.
“Why do you have to fight him, Michael,” Marcie asked later when she dropped off his mail. “You’ve got the money.”
“It’s not about the money.” He absently dusted empty 7-Up bottles, deteriorating white paint on the thick crafted glass that published Purdue’s past two decades of football schedules. “Why do I have to change? I’ve been here longer than he has.”
“SILGO is just trying to preserve the area. Keep it like when you and dad bought your lots.”
“Preserve? Seems to me that a nice flat, sandy beach always made this property attractive.”
“You haven’t noticed the beach disappearing?” She walked to his shoreline and called back to him. “These willow roots weren’t always exposed. You had to have noticed that when you put up the hammock. You may not plan on being around at the end of the next decade, but there won’t be as much shoreline to pass onto Ricky.”
Michael had noted the willow roots, but hoped he had just been misremembering. After a restless sleep, he traveled into Warsaw. His accountant encouraged him to spend and take any action to drop his net worth below the $600,000 Federal estate tax exemption. “But I suppose if you want to give it to Ronald Reagan, we’ll have a parade for you for paying unnecessary taxes.” Michael stopped at the bank, transferred seven grand into his checking account before returning to the lake.
At dinnertime, Smokey howled at Michael until Marcie came to the door. “I’ve got a check for the wall.” He held out the slip at the perforated edge.
“I can’t take that Michael.” She dried her hands on a dishtowel. “That has to go directly to the chairman; he collects the money. But we’re glad you’re on board.” As Michael walked home, over his shoulder he saw Marcie dialing the screen porch wall phone. When the air began to release its moisture, he walked to the trailer park and dropped the envelope addressed to SILGO in the mailbox.
The construction happened. A thin, black environmental barrier placed on the edge of the lake was immediately smothered by blankets of gravel, each layer of pebbles increasing in size. Large bright-gray, riprap stones, ferried by barge, topped the pile. Ruts caused by vehicles on the shoreline were filled and seeded. A seamless creation; a wall suddenly erected.
Even Michael had to admit, if only to himself, that the project had a pleasant feel. He noticed the admiration of passing pontoons on fall foliage tours, slowing to take in the long, single gray barrier that gave unity to the eighteen lots on the south end of Irish Lake.
“Not so bad, hey?” Marcie yelled to Michael as he stood at the end of his dock, looking in at the wall. “And all that energy you spent on stopping it.”
Michael walked past Marcie and mumbled that it looked, “okay.” She took up pace with him as he went toward the house, clearing her throat several times. “Hey, Michael,” she finally asked. “When are you taking in your pier?”
“Why? Rozga got a rule about that too?”
“A photographer with Kosciusko County Living was impressed with the wall set behind the fall colors and wanted to do a feature on it, but only after all the piers are out.” She bit her thumbnail and looked down the shoreline. “Yours is the only one left.”
“Because I’m about the only one who stays the winter.”
“I stay the winter,” she said, corners of her mouth drooping.
“But you don’t have a pier.”
“Dad never wanted one.”
“Because he’d pull his boat up on the sand. Couldn’t do that now, could he?”
“We don’t have a boat with a motor anymore; just the canoe.” Marcie’s lip trembled. “I don’t know why you hate the wall, Michael. It’s uniquely yours, just like Rozga promised, right?”
“It is mine, isn’t it,” he said, more as a question than statement. To salve his guilt for maliciously using of the memory of her father, he added, “The dock guys are coming next week.”
Marcie gave a weak smile. “Ok. I’ll let the photographer know.” She shuffled back home over the lawns of those who had already winterized their cabins.
Dick’s Dock Service removed the pier while Michael was in Warsaw at the hardware store. A wave of melancholy rose inside his gut when he returned to the vacant water, the feeling he got every fall when the pier came out. Another year spent. Nothing he could do but wait for winter to come and fail before reconfiguring the pier.
At twilight, Marcie came to use the Granada to travel back into Warsaw. “It wasn’t running too good this afternoon. I’ve got to take a look at it in the morning. You’ll have to take your own car.”
“Really? It ran great last week.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the catalytic converter. You don’t want to try to run into town on a bad one of those.”
Marcie was unsure what that was, but trusted Michael when it came to mechanical things, so she returned to her garage. When he could no longer hear tires crunching, Michael opened the Granada’s trunk.
He struggled to lift the gallon paint can over the trunk’s lip, scraping the “neon orange” label. He left the trunk open as planned to drag all five cans to the shoreline. With the can sloshing and bumping into his leg with each step, he pressed forward, his golden reflection laughing in the light of the waning moon.
Joseph Redding is constantly searching for his old self – the one before he discovered Doritos and Naked Threesome IPA. His wife Julie keeps him around, most likely only to help haul their three children around their community in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in periodicals that do not wish to be mentioned so each can remain underrated.