To the Lake
By Nick Stephens
It’s a lie, of some kind, to say I can’t go back to Cowart Lake because Cowart Lake is still there, shimmering aquamarine beneath the blazing Georgia sun and wrapping its rippling waters around the manicured greens of the Piedmont Driving Club golf course. Or so I’ve gathered in the years since I was last there. But the Cowart Lake just south of Atlanta I once visited, always with my dad, always in the summer, is somewhere else, far off — absorbed deep into folds of gray matter, or time.
In the early ’90s we would leave the station wagon in a small clearing off the side of Old Fairburn Road, where a furtive dirt road tucked into the thick forest of spindly pines. We usually went around midday, as the sun climbed high towards its zenith, in the lull between the arcs when the local TV newsman said the fish would bite. As we slammed the car doors, the drone of the cicadas would rise and drift by in billowing swells of heat. Across the road, a stout brick house sat up on a hill beyond a prim suburban lawn. I would often gaze up at the house, looking for some movement in a window, wondering who lived in this infinite slice of summer serenity before turning and heading down the path, like walking through a curtain into the darkness backstage.
In the woods the light was heavily filtered by the dense, needled tops of the loblolly and shortleaf pines, stretching 70 or more feet straight up, and the cicadas were muted. The walk from the road to the lake was probably a half-mile at most, but to a small child that was plenty of time for the imagination to be unleashed. After a minute or so and a slight bend in the trail that left our car out of sight, we’d come up on the forlorn ghosts — the mangled, bullet-riddled remains of two old cars.
They were only 10 feet or so into the woods, buried up to their wheel wells and rusted almost to disintegration, but they drew your eyes onto them with an eerie allure, every time as if the first. One was in fact little more than a few strips of amber sheet metal, artfully camouflaged in layers of pine straw, but the bright shine of a nearly intact chrome bumper still curved gracefully around the rounded hood of the other vehicle. They had to be from the ’30s, I always speculated, which would make them — I cocked my head and squinted to visualize the subtraction in the path in front of me — maybe 60 years old.
Although the bullet holes were likely the result of some target practice no more than a few years old, I always imagined them originating many years past. Visions coalesced of some great heist, bullets flying as the cars fled the scene of a bank robbery in downtown Atlanta. Why they made their way to this location I never determined, but it seemed a safe and somehow appropriate resting place.
Past the cars, the path narrowed and the forest crowded in until, a few yards more, the first glint of blue shone through the underbrush, flashing hints at the open expanse ahead. I’d quicken my pace, surging to leave the denseness of the forest and its omniscient eyes and be out in the open of the gravelly beach.
Arriving by the water’s edge the sun beat down and everything turned the color of overexposed film; photodegradation occurring in a blinding instant. The beach was a short strip, marked by one large boulder that supported one large vine of poison ivy that grew out of a deep crack. Usually scattered about was the refuse of fishers — some empty beer cans and a few I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! plastic containers used to carry live bait, crickets or worms. We rarely saw any, but as it is with anglers, it seemed safe to assume that many came for a few hours of leisure and some were tasked with supplying a meal, and if unsuccessful, their supper table would be short a dish. The whole place hummed with a dull electricity.
Often my sister was with us, especially in the early days of summer. By late summer (although my dad always maintained that we were going to the lake to “cool off”) the water temperature approached 90 degrees, and only he and I found any pleasure in the repeated venture. Three years older than me, I looked up to my sister with a worshipful attentiveness, and I followed in her light footprints as we ventured into the water, taking cautious steps and squealing at the squish of the mud and the pull of the lake plants that would catch between our toes. As soon as the water reached her knees she’d plunge in with a clean, shallow dive. I’d follow and we’d swim for a few minutes, heading out towards the deeper middle, where a few feet under the surface the water was cool and refreshing. On the way back in, I usually attempted a favorite challenge, slowly floating face first into as shallow water as possible, to avoid lowering my feet into the murky unknown. After the swim, we’d kick around in the shallows or recline with just our toes in the water, watching lines of ants hurry furiously around a stick I stuck in the mud, our backs sizzling to a shining golden brown, our little bodies like chicken under a heat lamp.
There were always big dragonflies buzzing around, often conjoined at their spindly tips, but still somehow managing to fly a steady course out over the water. It lent the small lake an air of timelessness, as if you squinted hard enough, you could make out some prehistoric beast lumbering along the opposite shore.
Later on, my sister and I would stand in a few inches of water, watching the little schools of guppies come explore our wriggling toes, before scooping them up with a plunging slash of a bait container. A couple times a summer we’d take them home and put them in an old aquarium with some plants we also brought, and it would quickly take on the dirty tea hue and mulchy aroma of any stagnant Southern lake.
I’ve heard (more than once) over the years that there are no natural lakes in Georgia. But as Thoreau said of friendship, its language is one not of words but meanings. The same sentiment, I think, applies here — it’s more fitting to say that all of our lakes are man-made, because nothing was more natural, more in agreement with its surroundings, than that little expanse of sun-kissed water, fed by some small creek, surrounded by a dust ruffle of deep green, all held in place by some backhoed-earth over an eight-inch concrete pipe. And all of it punctuated with a slow but steady procession of jets swooping low overhead, engines roaring as they made their approach to Hartsfield.
These days it’s hard to find out much about Cowart Lake, its provenance or particulars. Even the Internet is stubbornly lacking in information, as can be the case in subjects of deep local province. But the lake has made a few revealing appearances in the local papers over the last couple decades that hang still in the sticky Web.
The first piece concerns Cowart Lake’s transition from the state in which I knew it to its current. The article, from the Atlanta Business Chronicle, was published at midnight on July 28, 1997, and the first line reads:
The ultra-exclusive Piedmont Driving Club thinks it has found a home for its new golf course, but instead of heading to the northern suburbs, it will go in the other direction.
Most of the article follows in similar fashion, toeing a line between being truly revealing and leaving a deferential space of leading language. But one interview subject is particularly forthright with his support for the club’s decision: Tom Cousins. Cousins, a notable Atlanta real-estate developer who gained for the redevelopment of the East Lake Meadows housing project in South Atlanta, was, as the article says:
...very familiar with the tract. For many years, his company owned it. He said Cousins Properties probably would have developed the land 25 years ago, but it was situated in the flight path for Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, and planes used to dump their fuel there, he said.
The second article appeared 15 years later, on May 30, 2012, in Atlanta’s alt-weekly, Creative Loafing. The tone is heavily tongue-in-cheek because it concerns an incident so outrageous it’s impossible to discuss without cracking a smile. The incident in question was revealed through the leaking of a private letter of complaint by “an aggrieved member” of the club, in which the club member indignantly lists the alleged acts that transpired during a recent members’ golf tournament. The article summarizes the letter’s claims as:
...at least one club member play[ed] a hole of golf completely naked (the club website says the dress code is "casual at all times" but appropriate attire is "slacks, skirts, or golf shirts and collared shirts which must be tucked in"); several members urinat[ed] on the putting greens in front of a caddie and a woman; one member pick[ed] up a golf ball with his ‘naked butt cheeks’; a member slapp[ed] his penis against the face of a friend who had passed out in the men's grill; and members moon[ed] guests of a rehearsal dinner.
The incident would reappear in a September issue of Creative Loafing when it was the “Staff Pick” for “Best Bizarro News Story,” beating out stories about a Georgia woman fighting a flesh-eating bacteria, and controversial Bishop Eddie Long being crowned a king by a visiting rabbi, among others.
I remember lounging on the rock. Time passes slowly. The heat gets in your chest. Drawing itself in, hotter even than the stagnant breath waiting there, stretching your lungs to new dimensions. The heat gets in your chest and the jet fuel gets in your blood, and the clay dust and the pine pollen settle in every pore. Every pore simmers its own soup of sweat and pollen and dust and you wipe the back of your arm across your forehead and then across your chin and you graze your lips and it’s like nothing else: a sip of the soul’s own flavor.
I worry sometimes that I’m overly nostalgic, that I’m wasting time when my daydreams slip into the same familiar childhood places. I worry that my memories are tainted by the bleaching effects of passing years, and tinted to conform to the spectrum of everything that’s happened since. And when I worry like that, I tend to turn toward the familiar Faulkner lines, floating by like an old life buoy. “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” And I know it’s true.
It’s winter now and cold, but Georgia winters have a knack for never letting the promise of warmer days stretch too far out of sight. I know another summer’s heat will come and I know I won’t go to Cowart Lake like I once did. I accept that, and I don’t fault anyone for it. But the wistfulness, the sense that something’s missing, it all leads to a place where I can’t help but to acknowledge a recurring thought: that the rich have a way of desecrating a humble place that no one — not the aimless or the ill-fated — can match.