"It's under the surface where you find the good stuff."
Even though it's been 22 years, I'm pretty sure that is the wording he used. If I am off a little, I'm sure he'd forgive me.
On warm days like we have been having, I often think of all the time I spent as a child outside with my grandmother. Most summers, my parents would deposit me at my grandparent's house in June and pick me up in August. They lived near Lake Michigan out in the country, and on days when Grandma wasn't waiting tables she loved to go fishing off one of the local docks.
She had a favorite where we spent most of our time; it was usually filled with boats, and many people would walk past stopping to ask her what she was catching. With her red Fleet Farm baseball cap atop her white hair, a Benson and Hedges dangling from her lips, and my grandpa's Milwaukee Brewers wind-breaker on to cut the wind, she'd nod toward her big, white plastic bucket where the catch of the day could be found swimming around in circles.
Whenever we were there a solitary man would come walking down the dock, a bath towel drapped over his shoulders. Passing by my grandmother he would greet her, using her first name; she would return the gesture. His name was Jon. Jon was probably in his 40s, with square, strong features, and a short but sturdy frame. He was tanned to a crisp brown that simply invited skin cancer, but that was the least of his worries.
Walking to the end of the dock, he'd strip off his shirt and dive into the lake. I had never seen anyone do that before; swimming was an activity performed at beaches in my world--not where boats were docked and little old women caught bass and trout while sitting in her folding lawn chair not more than 40 feet away. He'd dive into the water, climb up the ladder on the side, do it a couple more times, towel off and then head back toward shore.
Occasionally he would stop by me and my grandmother and sit for awhile. He'd ask me about what I was reading; I was obsessed with The 3 Investigators series at the time, so we chatted about detectives and mysteries. With grandma he would exchange gossip about the townspeople, and he would spend a lot of time watching the fish in her bucket.
"They sure are pretty, no?" He would ask me. I never thought of them as "pretty," so I took a longer look. The scales reflecting off the light did create a nice kaleidoscope of color. Usually my take on fish were they were smelly but tasted good, but this was a new and interesting persepective.
I also noticed that Jon coughed quite a bit and had some strange markings on his skin, kind of like bruises but not, on his back and legs. He didn't seem bothered by them, and the towel just hung loosely off his shoulders as he held his t-shirt in his lap.
I asked my grandmother about this after he left.
"Oh, yeah," she said staring off toward the horizon, "they say he has the AIDS." (Grandma had a penchant for throwing "the" around whenever diseases popped up; her sister had died of "the cancer" and her brother, "the diabetes").
Phil Donahue had just done a feature on Ryan White wanting to get married before he died from this "new" disease that had entered our world, so I knew some things about this mysterious illness of HIV and AIDS; but there were still many, many, many misconceptions about what it was and how it functioned. I asked her about us possibly catching it.
She rolled her eyes: "I lived through the Depression; nothing scares me." She used that phrase a lot about topics she thought were ridiculous and not worth her time, so I didn't think twice about it.
One day when Jon sat by us, and being young enough to say what I wanted without being perceived as offensive or crass, I asked him about his illness and the marks on his skin. He assured me those marks didn't hurt a whole lot, and then he looked out on the water. Kind of talking to me, kind of talking to himself, and kind of talking to the world as a whole--he talked about the waves and the dark color of the water.
"Who knows what is going on under the surface of that water? There are turtles, and fish, and little hermit crabs, and rocks, and maybe lost treasure buried in the sand. It's under the surface where you find the good stuff."
Later the next summer, my grandmother and I went to the docks to fish. No Jon around. I'd look up from my book every once in a while when a solitary figure started walking toward us. After a week or two, I finally asked Grandma.
"Oh, him," still puffing away on those Benson and Hedges,"he died over winter."
To this day, whenever I get near a lake, I look out over that dark surface of water and think of what is underneath, and I stand on the edge of a pier and look down through the water as far down as my eyes can take me...I think of those days fishing with Grandma and the brief conversations with Jon: ever since that summer I've never looked at Lake Michigan, or people, the same.