Lake of Fire by Ron Gibson, Jr.
inspired by Kurt Cobain’s cover of The Meat Puppets’ “Lake of Fire”
Hidden within Wisconsin’s dense northwoods, nestled in the instep of Paul Bunyan’s boot print, there is a lake buried under a sunset of fire, forgotten by time. The Ojibwe once called it Ishkode-zaaga’igan or Lake of Fire. Rich investors built a resort on its banks and renamed it Afterglow Lake. But locals and the hordes of RVers and campers that travel to its remote location every year around the Fourth of July know it as “the place where bad folks go when they die.”
While most townspeople hit the road due to the encroaching threat, a few of us stuck around. Some crazies, old people that rarely left their homes, Stan, owner of the Gas n’ Git, my folks, and myself. I never understood what others were afraid of. I think they imagined the biker gang from The Wild One was coming to town to pillage, lay beatings on anyone they crossed, before moving onto raping the town’s women.
It was quite the contrary.
As the beat-up Winnebagos, Airstreams, and pop tops pulled into view, sure, the people were a bit odd looking. Some in various states of decomposition. Some completely normal, unblemished, yet seemingly from another era. Some showed how rough their lives had been, yet gently smiled from their wreckage when asking for directions.
I would follow them down the rutted dirt entrance on my bicycle to the banks of Afterglow, every space taken up, except the very edge of the shore. There sat a dark-clad man with glowing eyes in a lawn chair, renting out a bevy of swan pedal boats, as he downed beer after beer.
Of the many that made the long pilgrimage, only a few had the special coin necessary to rent the pedal boat. Apparently Charon, ferryman of souls, was on workman’s comp and did more drinking than ferrying.
As the lucky few unsteadily started to pedal the swan boats to the other side, there was a big concert feel. A vibrating silence. You could hear the wildlife all around us, along with the gentle rippling from the boats.
And then the first low-grade nuke was set off on the swimming platform. The flash of light and concussion blast ripped through us, and a gigantic cheer went up as the lake surface danced with flames like the Cuyahoga in ’69.
Afterward, everyone would settle in, drink beer and tend grill, watching the swans grow smaller as they continued to pedal through flames to the other side.
One year, I met a man with dried gore in his dirty-blond hair, quietly playing what he said was Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark is the Night, Cold is the Ground” on a left-handed acoustic. The song had no words. Only a hum that spoke to an ache and loneliness deep inside us all.
Listening, I never knew what made them bad people. If the nickname for the lake was a ruse like naming Greenland. I just knew if these sounds were bad, this was home.
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Noble / Gas Quarterly, The Airgonaut, Pidgeonholes, Maudlin House, The Vignette Review, Cease Cows, Spelk Fiction, etc., and forthcoming at Whiskeypaper, Cheap Pop, and Jellyfish Review. @sirabsurd
(Front page image via)