|There were no stars and no moon over Crystal Lake. It was early in May, after swimming hours.
We were the Central High School relay team—which earlier that day had broken two 25-year-old records at the Holstein Relays, the last meet of our senior year—sitting on the edge of the dock about 15 yards from shore, with our feet cut off at the ankles by the cold, black water. We were celebrating, working on our third beer.
“Okay,” said Jake, “we all get one dive, and then we have to tell the others what it was like down there.”
“Scary,” said Leroy.
“You first, Jake,” said Gene.
Jake was short and stocky, the fastest out of the blocks, and so the lead-off runner. He eased his hips over the tires that bolstered the dock’s sides, and slid into the water.
About a minute later he burst out next to the dock just beyond Gene’s feet. He blew water out of his nose, climbed the two-step aluminum ladder, sat back down in his spot, and picked up his beer.
He was excited, breathing hard, as if he’d just finished his leg of a race.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
“Believe what?” said Gene.
Jake rubbed his hair with his towel. “You can’t see anything. It’s like being in a cave; being blindfolded in a cave.” He paused, still excited.
“I’m not sure I want to do this,” said Leroy, speaking through his towel over his head.
“No,” said Jake, “it’s great. You’ve got to feel your way around; you might as well not have eyes. Like those fish at the bottom of the ocean.”
“It’s that dark?” said Gene.
“Unbelievable,” said Jake.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s drink to Jake.” We all held our cans above our heads and took a long drink.
Gene was next. He was the second runner, the slowest, but the surest with the handoff, had never dropped a baton in four years. He put down his beer and pointed his toes at the water and slid off the dock like a knife–both hands palm-down on his hips.
He came up about a minute later, holding onto the dock with one hand.
“Goddamn, you’re right, Jake,” he said. “But the mud–.” He took a couple of deep breaths.
“You hit bottom?” asked Leroy.
“Not me,” said Jake.
“Yeah,” said Gene, “it’s only about 10 feet deep. I went down fast and then I hit the mud. It was so slimy and deep; I thought I’d just keep going through it and never get back up, but I must’ve hit the bottom of the mud; it was up to my knees.
“The bottom of the bottom,” said Leroy.
“That mud–goddamn,” said Gene. “That was something else. Dark too.” He was breathing evenly now and he moved hand over hand to the ladder, climbed up and got his towel and sat down in his spot next to his beer, and wiped off his head and face.
“This is to Gene and his muddy dive,” I said, and we all toasted and took a drink.
I was next. Number three, the second slowest, the best diver. I stood up on the dock.
“Watch this,” I said.
“Hey, look–the diver,” said Gene.
I put my hands together in front of my face as if starting to pray, and stood knock-kneed.
“Thithy,” said Leroy in a high voice. “Here’s the thithy going head first.”
I shuffled awkwardly to the edge, stood there, eased my toes until I could grip the very edge, pretended to teeter, then let myself tip over into the water, like a praying statue, tucking up tight into a cannonball just after the shock of the cold, then let myself fall deeper and deeper, turning over completely and passing through a sudden and very cold current; then I hit the mud and opened up. I had my eyes closed. At first I fought against the sucking slime, but the more I struggled the deeper I went.
Then I relaxed again, stopped kicking, moved my hands and arms vigorously, and rose. It was soundless. I yelled as loud as I could, but heard only a small, tight noise inside my skull, as if from inside a bank vault. I let myself fall again and this time when I got to the bottom I picked up a handful of mud and held it close to my face, and then I opened my eyes wide for about three seconds, but saw nothing, of course, not even my hand. The mud dissolved or was swept away quickly, and I imagined my hands getting cleaner and cleaner by the second. I pulled upward and my hand hit the underside of the dock.
Where was I, under the very middle of the dock? I felt a mossy, empty barrel and rapped on it several times with my knuckles, but heard nothing. I kicked and swam forward, touched a cable, grabbed it, using it to pull myself quickly away–far enough, I figured, to get clear of the dock. I reached upward; nothing. I swam another few seconds and, just before I emerged, opened my eyes one more time. Open or closed, even near the surface, the darkness was the same. Then I busted out, almost out of breath.
I was about 10 yards from the dock, in deep water, facing the center of the lake. I turned around and looked back at the others.
I heard Leroy’s girlish voice: “Over here, thithy.”
I swam quickly to the dock, found the ladder, climbed up and stood above my spot. It had been a good, quick workout; my heart was ticking fast, but I was in good shape. I wiped off my face with my towel and hung it over my shoulders, and picked up my beer.
“Tell us about it, Paul,” said Gene.
“The mud is so soft you wonder how it holds together,” I said. And there’s no noise at all. Did you hear me yelling?”
“Not me,” said Jake.
“I thought I felt something underneath me,” said Gene.
“I was right under you, knocking on the barrel,” I said. “And the current was so cold. You guys feel a current?”
“Not me,” said Gene. “It was all cold.”
“Current? Crystal Lake is no river,” said Jake.
I wiped off my hands. “It’s hard to describe,” I said, trying to think of more words, and just then a thought came to me, and I wondered if the others had it too: we were all diving into the same spot in the same lake, but every one of us had a different dive, a different story to tell. What I brought back up out of that private, cold, and muddy darkness was mine alone, and nobody else would ever understand it completely. Even friends are strangers.
“I was just thinking,” I said. “It’s great, but it’s hard to put into words.”
“That’s right,” said Gene. “It’s a strange feeling down there.”
Leroy held up his beer. “To Paul and his dive,” he said.
We all drank to me, my dive.
“Oh shit,” said Leroy. “I’m not sure I want to do this.” He was the anchor man, the fastest by far: conference champion in the hundred, the best swimmer—city champion in the butterfly and backstroke.
“You of all people,” I said.
“Here goes nothing,” he said, and dropped off the dock, close-pinning his nose with his fingers.
About thirty seconds later, Gene suddenly yelled and rolled backward on the dock, holding his beer upright. “What the hell,” he said, and then Leroy came up right under where he’d been sitting.
“What the hell?” said Gene, pointing down at Leroy.
Leroy, Jake, and I laughed, and then Leroy climbed up on the dock and sat down. We were all looking at Gene and laughing. Finally, I said: “The last story of the evening.”
“Yeah, what was it like, you bastard?” said Gene.
“Nothing,” said Leroy.
“Nothing?” said Jake.
Leroy wiped off his face.
“Except for one thing,” he said.
“One thing,” I said.
“The monster,” said Leroy.
“Oh yeah,” said Jake. “The monster.”
“Tell us about it, asshole,” said Gene.
“The slimy monster of the deep,” said Leroy. “The monster of the mud.”
“Get real,” said Jake.
“The cold, slimy monster of Crystal Lake,” said Leroy.
“That’s it,” I said. “Let’s drink to the Cold, Slimy, Monster of Crystal Lake.”
Now we were all laughing, holding up our beers—the relay team with two brand-new records—drinking to Leroy, to the Monster, to all of us, good friends and strangers, about to start on the fourth and final beer.