I can recall with near perfect clarity the moment I saw Helen Lowenthal’s bloated body slide up through a carpet of emerald water lilies and bob on the water’s surface like a ghostly musk turtle. In the seconds before her lifeless ascent, a constellation of fireflies—tiny flickering fur
naces—danced and glowed in the early summer dusk; a white egret, all legs and neck, landed atop Split Rock and stood regal guard over the lake; a long-eared bat carved wicked arcs through the sky before devouring a plump imperial moth.
From the direction of Second Beach, Nathan Gold’s pontoon boat—the Ark—puttered along the shoreline with four prosperous couples reveling in their evening cocktails. A symphony of big bands, laughter, and giddy howls poured off the boat and tumbled across the lake’s still water. Nathan and his wife, Bea—a gregarious, stocky woman—called out to me as they passed, and I waved back with delight, wondering how two people could be so festive, so happy, so often.
Bonnie Schwartz, my mother’s friend, was also on the boat. She was considered by many to be the prettiest woman on the lake, as was her mother before her. I waved to her with the hope of some reciprocity—maybe a nod or a simple smile in my direction—but this auburn beauty, distracted by her empty martini glass, did not notice me—an omission that punished my fragile sixteen-year old heart.
I sat on the edge of the dock, my feet immersed in the water of our beloved New Jersey lake. As the Ark turned north toward the clubhouse, the boat’s wake caused the pungent, algal water to lap against my calves. I held a wooden fishing pole that Papa, my grandfather, had given me when I was six. The hook baited with a throbbing night crawler, I watched as the red-and-white bobber teased me with a quick downward thrust, only to rise to the surface and drift with rippled ease. Clever fish, I thought.
A few seconds before the swollen body emerged, I turned back to look at my grandparents’ summerhouse. I could see Nana flitting about the screened-in porch, set ting the table for yet another dinner party, while Papa probed the lawn for moles, angling empty glass bottles into their holes with the open ends facing downward. “Makes a howling noise, Ben,” he once told me as he guided a beer bottle into the earth. “Drives them crazy, like psychological warfare.”
What I noticed first in the water before me was not a body, but a flutter in the lilies that I mistook for a jumping frog. It was only when the attenuated rays of the descend ing summer sun flashed off Helen’s gold and diamond watch that I realized something terrible had occurred. I gasped and leapt to my feet. “God,” I mumbled and raised my right foot as if to take a step forward, toward the body. “Papa!” I yelled, dropping the rod to the dock. “Papa, come down!”
Despite his old age, my grandfather was a lithe and energetic man who, after numerous injuries and sur geries, had somehow managed to retain much of the athleticism of his youth. He was alarmed by the distress in my voice, for he threw a bottle to the ground and dashed down the slate path to the water’s edge. I glanced up to my grandmother, who stood frozen on the porch, right hand on chest, her mouth open.
“There!” I shouted to Papa and pointed to the blue white body of his next-door neighbor. Helen Lowenthal, whose rare kindness had evoked in me the greatest loy alty, was dressed in a pink tennis skirt and matching top. Barefoot, she floated on her back, her face dappled with lake slime, her dyed blonde hair draped over a mat of lilies, her pale arms elevated above her head as if she were a surrendering soldier. I took another step closer, toward the water. I found myself drawn to her body, to its deadness, to its serene, haunted passage, as one is drawn to the very things—once beautiful, now rotten—that intrigue us, that repulse us with their incomprehensible transformation.
Papa reached the dock and grabbed my arm. He stared at the body in silence, then, as if looking for a clue, scanned the shoreline and the lake’s expanse. A hundred feet from the dock, in a pool of quiet water, an elderly couple fished from an anchored motorboat; the Ark continued its journey toward the clubhouse, a familiar Ella
Fitzgerald melody drifting off the stern; a small sailboat floated in the windless dusk; and the white egret elevated from Split Rock, relinquishing its perch in search of food.
“Go inside and call the police,” Papa cried. “It’s Helen, you know.” He wiped the sweat from his face then, pant ing, bent over at the waist. “Helen … Lowenthal,” he said through heavy breaths, before stepping down, fully clothed, into the shallow water.
I watched as he struggled to traverse the muddy lake floor, the water rising from his knees, to his waist, to his chest. When he reached Helen, he touched a small bruise on her forehead. He then grasped her left hand and guided her—belly-up—toward the shore, her body slicing through the water with ease and purpose. As I watched this scene unfold, I was immobilized by my first close con tact with death. I stared at her corpse with a vast fear, with a revulsion that shamed me, and, I would later acknowledge, with something approximating wonderment. With great care, Papa placed his palm on the side of Helen’s head—a tender movement that protected her from hitting a protruding rock. Now just feet from the shore, the water knee-deep, he turned to me. “Go, Ben,” he demanded. “Go now!”
Unable to divert my eyes from the scene before me, I moved slowly up the dock. I watched as Papa stepped up onto the shore, his legs heavy from the weight of his sodden pants. I watched as he lifted Helen, as he groaned in exertion, and then gently laid her down on the spongy moss. I took one last look at the woman. She wore the fancy watch her husband had given her for their twenti eth anniversary, and on her left hand was an engagement ring, the one with a diamond so large that some of the women from the bridge club had started a rumor that the stone was fake. I glanced at her toenails, painted cherry red, and at her slime-lacquered face.
“Go!” Papa screamed, now with fury in his eyes. And then I ran to the house and into my grandmother’s fleshy, perfumed embrace. I ran to a safe place.