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Beers' Night Out | 2013 | A Bronx Tail


No matter under what circumstances you leave it, home does not cease to be home. No matter how you lived there-well or poorly.  

-Joseph Brodsky


Lake George 2013

Feels like home to me.

A benefit to vacation, though certainly far from the only one, is novelty. As any sufficiently advanced Buddhist monk will tell you, the mind is like a monkey. Given a daily routine it can predict, it first gets the hang of it, then it gets bored and starts flinging feces (hopefully metaphorically). Most of the time, we walk around with resentful simians between our ears because we aren't changing enough to keep it amused, so it refuses to work at peak primate efficiency. The reason your college roommate raved about the time he bummed around Europe on this parents' dime is not because the Louvre was so mind-expanding for him but simply because the life to which he was accustomed had long ceased to be worth his brain expending unnecessary calories by thinking.

Within a day, things are different enough that dormant aspects of my brain reinvigorate. Sleeping in a motel room with eight other people between the ages of three and thirty-four proves a more stimulating challenge than a dozen Sudoku puzzle. Granted, it is in Lake George, the same resort town my family has patronized for nineteen of the last twenty family vacation, but the point is to be different from mundane life, not from other vacations.

We know Lake George Village better than we know some towns we have lived beside all our lives, though it is now a bit like a game, a matter of "What used to be in the space now occupied by a purse store?" For some reason beyond my wish to comprehend, several of the stores have abandoned their slightly more individual wares and shill neon pink purses this year. (I was not made aware that these were the fashion.) I could navigate most of Lake George blindfolded; I can give directions only slightly worse than a local (albeit exclusively to tourist destinations and restaurants). It is one of the places I visit in dreams, practicing my levitations beside the Mini-Chopper and falling in love with impossible women while wandering the imported sand of the beaches.

There is an undeniable charm to the atmosphere. The Minnie Ha Ha, an old steamship, crawls up and down the lake playing calliope music throughout each day. The air above the lake is dotted with parasailers, some with pumpkin orange smiley face shutes. Every fifth shop seems to sell popcorn, cotton candy, or ice cream, wafting a carnival of odors at the passersby. The sun uniformly glitters off the ripple in the lake, making it seem so beautiful that one would assume that the Loveliness Saturation was turned up as high as the Matrix could stand. I've had poor vacations here, ones presided over by storm clouds and unsavory temperatures, but this is not among them.

I am eager to share a Lake George vacation with Amber. She has been here before, both with and without me, but it is a different dynamic from our weekend with Daniel last year or my family's vacation to Hull, Massachusetts the year before. This feels like I am giving her one of my dreamscapes, allowing her into a crevice of my life that had erstwhile been obscured. I imagine this grows tedious, as I point out the setting to memories she can't really share - that this is the restaurant at which we ate when the power went out to the eastern seaboard, that I parasailed once over there, that we used to take the lake tour on a much tinier boat but it sank one autumn while full of senior citizens.
Yannah and Leelee  
Every meal.

What no doubt does grow tedious is that Amber formally forbade me to propose in Lake George, by dint of the fact that it is where I had proposed to Emily. (The other prohibitions are that we both must be clothed, it can't be a spectacle that will attract public notice, I cannot put the ring in food or she will pretend to consume it and choke, and that I have to have put obvious forethought into the proposal.) This means that I spend a few minutes of every hour executing long, romantic proposals until she blushes and stops me, either with pushing or kisses.

Lake George remains an ideal place for proposals. It is a time away from more routine concerns, a place to be allowed uninterrupted insight. If you don't want to marry a partner while on a good vacation, you shouldn't be with them at all. On the other hand, romantic gestures are all well and good, but one does have to return home to a sink of dirty dishes and day jobs to keep the lights on. One shouldn't base too much on tinglings on a beach.

I am surprised by how relaxed and content I become once we turn down the hill to our motel for the first time. Scotty's has almost always been where we stay to the degree that I have strong memories of watching a pirate-themed episode of Muppet Babies for the first time prior to leaving one year. It is a feeling that will persist throughout the trip, that everything is pretty much okay for now.

That party in late December means nothing to me; Lake George marks the barrier between years as far as my head is concerned. During the hard or tedious moments of the year, as I try to teach gang members to care about commas or grind my teeth searching for the best way to phrase an evisceration for my novels, I think of simply being in Lake George. It isn't a matter of the activities I will do (or those I will be able to ignore for a week) - I could certainly swim or ride roller coasters elsewhere - but the sensation of being in my sanctuary at last. I am intellectually aware that Lake George is not as grand as I build it up to be, but its soothing exists on an almost visceral level.

I feel as though I am not the same person who was here with my family years ago. On a more literally visceral level, my body is not subtle about expressing its annoyance with me that my diet had changed. "Sorry, but what is that you are eating?" it is right to ask.

"Grilled mahi mahi with sweet potato fries? Oh, with raspberry sauce. The fries are nothing without the sauce."

It growls. "What happened to the small breakfasts and predictable lunches?"

"They'll be back. I'm on vacation. Trust me, I'm allowed."

"I'm not sure if I believe you..." Then, as though threatening me, it turns my fingers into sausages to express its displeasure with recent treatment.
I call her "monkey" for a reason.

Whereas the local Ben & Jerry's was once a nightly staple, I buy a single, small cone the first night and assure Amber, one-third through, that we will not be doing this again for anything less than mint chocolate chip, and probably not even then. I am no longer made for excessive fat and sugars.

At some point I cannot pin down, my body also decided it did not enjoy roller coasters, which is a shame given that Great Escape is one of the jewels of the trip. My cochlea decided that machines that flung me about were tests to be endured, rewarding me with nausea when I so much as think of a ride more rigorous than a log flume. I simply prefer rides I could step off without too much fuss or bodily harm, ones that do not turn me upside down at a hundred miles an hour and direct my face toward the ground. Also, Amber is harassed by staff there for daring to wear a bikini top five feet outside of the water park, even though there are "fully-dressed" women wearing much less.

The changes are not all bad, however. I feel as though I could walk forever with Amber's hand in mine, when the mile between the Adirondack Brew Pub and my hotel once seemed trying. I am alert and jubilant instead of sluggish. I feel as though I can think my way out of any predicament and I unleash wittiness from its cerebral cage as though it were a hyper ferret.

As Amber illuminates me on the struggles of Emma Goldman on our stroll back toward the hotel the first night, interrupted by digressions into the tourist shops whose wares I know by heart and never wanted, it occurs to me that my love for her has blossomed in part because she has allowed me to know how stimulating she is. I am a sapiosexual; talk to me about something I know little about and find interesting and I will follow you to the ends of the earth. I always suspected she had these depths, as they would come in small glimmers between self-conscious shrugs, but it has been a delight these last six months. Each of my pesty proposals is a bit more sincere.

Our day after the boat tour had been a rare bliss of reading and cuddling on the bed (I brought four paperbacks and don't do much more than annotate one). We hardly ever do this in our daily lives - though there is absolutely no reason why we couldn't - always finding something with which to be busy. We fall into small naps, to be awoken to get ready for dinner.

The poor internet connection makes me realize how seductive and engulfing computers really are in my life. Every time I power on my mini-notebook to check that the world outside has not fallen to chaos, a precious hour of my vacation seems to be swallowed. When any family meal begins, smartphones come out to pacify children and adults alike. I am by no means a technophobe. I am quite fond of my PDA, Kindle, and digital camera. I edit almost exclusively on my laptop. But it's hard to deny that there is an amazing world one misses if one is staring at a screen playing Candy Crush. I have very few fond memories that begin "So, I refreshed my RSS feed and..."

Ayannah, my eldest niece, seems to be the clearest example of this, spending a great deal of the vacation glued to her phone. Like anyone over the age of twenty-five, I decide that she is too busy with her Facebooks and her textings and what have you to experience the glory of the world.

I then realize she is actually reading.

"What's that?" I ask.

She glances up, smirks, and rolls her eyes in the way thirteen-year-olds alone have perfected. "Fan fiction."

It's not Proust, but it's a start. "Oh god, no. What fandom?"

She sucks in her lips and blushes before answering, "One Direction. Kayla sent it to me. It's really bad."

Later, I notice she is typing on the screen with startling speed, but it not texting. I distract her with teasing about her now cold fish so I can read what she has typed, though it is upside down and her hand covers all but two lines. "I awoke in pain," it reads. "A pain I knew all too well." For her age, a mature, stylistic beginning. My niece is a writer. Of course, I love and dote on all my brother's children, but this is the closest I've ever felt to Yannah, who used to growl at me from behind her mother's legs.

"We've got to get you one of my books on your phone," I say. "Then, you can be my fan girl and spread it to other kids at your school." She smiles as though I am joking.
The Bamly  
All eaten by goblins.

Thursday is the best day. My older brother takes his family to Natural Stone Bridges and Caves a short drive away in Pottersville and Amber and I tag along. I've never done this and I do not have internet enough to whet my appetite and prepare for what this will involve. I know that, in prior years, Dan has taken his brood garnet mining - we are a family that apparently labors for fun - and assume it will not be far removed.

The caves are a circuit of geological formations that would no doubt have been long since turned into a combination mini-mall and mill had the owners not realized that there was money to be made in having paying strangers trounce around the property. The views are predictably stunning, almost a bit too pretty to accept. Anything this sylvan is bound to be artificial, one's mind insists. Fortunately, the owners also allow Frisbee golf (and sell three discs for the price of a meal at a fancy restaurant), which helps ground the whole experience in reality. Amber and I amble from one vista to the other, posing for photos and being fairly blissful.

I quickly create a story for my younger nieces and nephews that the land is full of goblin holes and they will be spirited away to be some monster's meal if they wander too far. They pretend that this isn't a likelihood, but they seek out any sufficiently sized opening in the earth to point out as potential dangers.

Near the end of the circuit, beside some deep and water-filled openings in a boulder called The Potholes, my youngest nephew falls knee-first onto the rock, wailing. The formations natural acoustics mean that everyone within a very broad earshot is aware of the accident and is watching my sister-in-law try to soothe her son back to a less ear-splitting volume.

My six-year-old niece Alyssah decides to make use of the distraction to try climbing the rock, since her brother's misery has no impact on her. Once I realize where she is and feeling the attention on us, I try my workplace de-escalation techniques to return her to more level ground. A man beneath her chides me until I just grab Alyssah and heft her back to the right side of the rope.
Eaten by goblins.

As Becky is goading Aaryn down to the decibel equivalent of a jet engine, a stranger asks the crowd if any of them are missing a girl named Alieyah. Becky thinks this is a common enough name, but looks around for her daughter, who is not around.

The story that comes out soon is that Alieyah, too, seized upon the distraction of her brother's skinned knees to do a bit of exploring beyond the barrier on the other side of the formation. She then slid thirty feet down the cliff face, but thankfully stopped short of a natural pond. She is returned to us, the back of her pants covered in dirt and her eyes full of tears, the woman looking at Becky, her arms full of another crying child, as though she might be the worse mother in the world. Clearly, Alieyah doesn't possess a healthy fear of goblin holes.

Outside the caves proper and their apparent hungry for the happiness of my nieces and nephews, we eat surprisingly good hamburgers. Amber noses around bags of dirt that are reputed to contain fossils and gems that one can pan using a series of raised channels. As I have been unable to find much else on this vacation that is worth getting (though I assure Amber that I like spending money on her, as it lets me experience the joy of these things secondhand), I fork over $20. I expect her to find a couple of shiny specks and be a bit disappointed. Instead, she pulls out at least five pounds of jewels that would well exceed the cost of the bag were I to buy them at a gem shop. I show off this booty to Dan and, within a couple of minutes, all my nieces and nephews have their own bags of dirt and they are sifting as though this were the gold rush. Just as they have exhausted the potential of their bags, I had the bright idea that a lot of gems are no doubt lost in the disregarded silt and surrounding ground. I pluck an amethyst from the ground and show it to Amber in evidence of this theory. Almost instantly, Amber is in pursuit of pinky nail sized garnets and jades. The nieces and nephews follow her lead for the next forty-five minutes, finding it great sport to just play in the sandy mud with impunity, to say nothing of the reward of slightly more rocks to be ignored on a shelf once they are home.

We arrive back at the cabins too late to raft down the Hudson, as had been the plan, which is not too large a problem for me as we are then offered the alternative of downhill tubing without the need for bathing suits. I am not precisely clear of the particulars of this, as I have only ever done this with copious snow, but it has already been too good a day (in that none of my nieces and nephews were too badly hurt) for it not to be a bit better.

The process is delightfully redneck, underscored literally by the country music station twanging from the boom boxes on the bottom and top of the tube lift. The trails are made of AstroTurf over which has been laid netting. A man with sunglasses sprays these with a garden hose whenever someone isn't going down one to assure lubrication. There are sporadic bottles of tire shine and WD40 to contribute.

We all take to it tentatively at first, but within a few rides and a couple of corrections, are so skilled that we attempt multiple riders at the same time to build joyous momentum. Even my youngest nephew is quickly going down the twistiest of the courses on his own, even if he gets stuck halfway down and adorably has to walk the tube the rest of the way.

When we get back to the cabins again, we order pizza. Aydan wanders by with a very blonde girl his age, one who had been wandering around the complex for the last few days, and asks if she can also have pizza. His mother sends her back to ask her parents' permission, but I am impressed that my nephew (who my family jokes is actually my son) managed to pick up a girl on vacation before even hitting kindergarten.

After dinner, Amber grabs a handful of pizza crusts and heads toward that beach.

"You know you aren't supposed to feed the ducks, right? They pollute the lake and they become reliant on people for food."

Amber gazes up at me with her huge, blue eyes, then offers a duck a bit of crust without looking away. I take even more pizza crusts out from behind my back and join her in the sand. For ten minutes, we goad the ducklings to approach us. One cunningly toddles behind us and tries to steal a crust nearly its length, but we are wise to its tricks. Another is completely willing to run up to us and snatch the prize, though it is also willing to nip our fingers in the process if we don't immediately relent.

Our favorite duck is a shy one who walks halfway up to us, look at the crust and us as if to say, "I noticed you have some pizza crust right there and - I don't mean to impose - but I happen to enjoy pizza crust quite a lot. If you wouldn't mind... I mean to say, you have so much and my brothers are gorging themselves, so, if you could see fit to part with a smallish piece..."

We shoo his brothers away and Amber tries to teach him an important lesson that she has been learning well this year: fortune favors the bold. She eggs him into walking right up to her and taking it gently (if quickly) from her hand, though he immediately darts back into the water. He is not a bird of copious bravery and he is satisfied for the moment.

Amber will later assure me that this was, above all else, her favorite part of vacation.

Amber and I part from my family to go to a ghost tour at Fort William Henry. I mingle in the dark with those already gathered in the fort, trying to suss out if anyone in the group is particularly hilarious (think crystals as big as your fist and dresses like druid robes) but everyone seems cut from the same touristy cloth.
The Bamly  
Crushed, then eaten by goblins.

I feel around for any creepy sensations, but it is too normal here, even in the dark, even as it feels slightly transgressive to be here after the fort has closed.

There are three tour guides, all wearing black t-shirts with glowing lettering proclaiming that this is the Fort William Henry Ghost Tour. I don't know why I would expect them to look akin to the Ghostbusters, but I do.

The geeky woman, whose interests I would guess lean closer to history than the paranormal, clues us into the decidedly bloody background of the fort (which I will link here in lieu of making this entry stretch any further than it needs to). All I really get from her speeches is that she is not the supposedly psychic tour guide and that the ghosts have died down (if you can forgive the phrasing) since exhumed bones were taken off display and properly interred elsewhere.

We watch the weekly fireworks from the top of the fort, which the guides assure us is the best view on the lake. (This is untrue, as I've seen the fireworks on the lake, sitting on a secluded dock, from the street, on the beach and can say with authority that there are better views.)

I snap a hundred pictures of nothing, and a couple of green lightning emanating from a teenager's phone, but we see nothing more exciting than one would expect on a historical tour.

We arrive back at Scotty's around 10:30pm. We will leave early tomorrow, but that isn't the point of this night. We never get our rest tonight, making packing up and slogging out so much heavier in the morning, but it feels as though that couldn't matter less.

As soon as Amber sits, my brother asks what drink he can get her. She demurs at first.

"Come on, we've got the best vodka and cranberry juice."

"That is her drink," I add and it is decided for her.
Haunted camera

We talk long into the night, laughing more than I think I have in months. Becky asks if I've been drinking and they assure her that I am just in a jubilant mood. We talk about the ills of society and what can be done about them. Though we may not see eye-to-eye politically, there are no real disagreements. This feels like the only time in the year where we just hang out. I am severely allergic to the pets at my parents' house, Dan and Becky's beloved children tend to be too distracting most of the time, and our family activities are exactly that: active. Here, in this space on the cement porch of Scotty's, with copious liquid refreshment, things can slow down.

My mother pops here head out a few times and remind my father and brother especially that they will have to drive home in ten, eight, six hours and may want to actually sober up and sleep beforehand, but this is a formality. She knows they won't, but can hang over their heads that they should have when they complain of lethargy in the morning.

Once my family is packed up the next morning, sober and surprisingly bushy-tailed, I start getting this lump of nostalgia building in my throat. I've felt it before and it made no more logical sense, but I had the excuse of being a kid then.

This has been the best trip to Lake George ever, in my opinion. It was not perfect. I did not do all the things I might have wished, but we all got along, there were no disasters that were not remediable by a Band-Aid and new pants.

I buy Amber breakfast at an inn up the street from our hotel and try to swallow the nostalgia with pancakes, to little effect.

I would not want to stay much longer. The town will close in a few weeks. It would be unseemly to see it in this state, abandoned and dull. I have no real place here outside the context of being a tourist. It isn't the town itself, of course, it is the state of my life and family while we are here. I never feel so put together, I never feel as close to my family as I do this one week a year.

"Lake George is what I look forward to all year long. This... this is the farthest I ever am from Lake George."

"But you are still here," Amber says, looking over at the sparkling lake. "You haven't left."

"But I have to. And my family has."
Aydan and Amber  

We wander the town a couple of hours, as she tries to find something to buy for me in recompense for a fork bracelet and the bag of gems and teeth, but there is nothing that would serve a purpose in my life other than to be ignored in the back of a drawer or the closet. We look at the Fort William Henry gift shop, hoping that their wares will be more to our liking, but that isn't the case. We check out a store that was one of my favorites in prior years and what is now a combination of zombie paraphernalia and purses. We wander about the old courthouse, though we don't care much about the artifacts within. It is a place I've never been and so there is an odd charm to it. Any other day this week, I would have mustered up good memories, but I both want badly to be elsewhere so I can stop being so utterly mopey and somehow make a shell of time and space so I can live in this week forever.

As we walk back to the car, I try to goad Amber into making plans for things we will do now, so I have something to look forward to other than seeing three hundred and sixty days where I am not in Lake George with my family. Maybe this is the sleep deprivation. Maybe it is simply overcompensation because this is the first time I have been here with my family since 2010.

We stop at a gas station just outside the village so Amber can fill up and I can get an iced tea. The total for our drinks comes to $4.02 and I reach in my pocket for two cents. "How are you?" the clerk asks.

"I'm okay."

"Why only okay? It's a beautiful day out there!" she says and it definitely is. I think this would have been much easier in the rain.

"I'm leaving," I say, and this seems enough. I look at the Take a Penny, Leave a Penny container for the needed change.

"No, I am paying these two cents out of my own pocket. Someone else may need those pennies." I don't know why she does this. I don't think I would joy is giving my two cents to ungrateful tourists. It is such a small thing and I can hardly stand how sweet that gesture from an absolute stranger.

Soon in Xenology: A Bronx tale.

last watched: Sixteen Candles
reading: Spells: Ten Tales of Magic
listening: Ingrid Michaelson

Beers' Night Out | 2013 | A Bronx Tail

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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