The war was over and there was no place in particular to go. Norman Bowker followed the tar road on its seven-mile loop around the lake, then he started all over again, driving slowly, feeling safe inside his father’s big Chevy, now and then looking out on the lake to watch the boats and water-skiers and scenery. It was Sunday and it was summer, and the town seemed pretty much the same. The lake lay flat and silvery against the sun. Along the road the houses were all low-slung and split-level and modern, with big porches and picture windows facing the water. The lawns were spacious. On the lakeside of the road, where real estate was most valuable, the houses were handsome and set deep in, well-kept and brightly painted, with docks jutting out into the lake, and boats moored and covered with canvas, and neat gardens, and sometimes even gardeners, and stone patios with barbecue spits and grills, and wooden shingles saying who lived where. On the other side of the road, to his left, the houses were also handsome, though less expensive and on a smaller scale and with no docks or boats or gardeners. The road was a sort of boundary between the affluent and the almost affluent, and to live on the lakeside of the road was one of the few natural privileges in a town of the prairie – the difference between watching the sun set over cornfields or over water.
It was a graceful, good-sized lake. Back in high school, at night, he had driven around and around it with Sally Kramer, wondering if she’d want to pull into the shelter of Sunset Park, or other times with his friends, talking about urgent matters, worrying about the existence of God and theories of causation. Then, there had not been a war. But there had always been the lake, which was the town’s first cause of existence, a place for immigrant settlers to put down their loads. Before the settlers there were the Sioux, and before the Sioux there were the vast open prairies, and before the prairies there was only ice. The lake bed had been dug out by the southernmost advance of the Wisconsin glacier. Fed by neither streams nor springs, the lake was often filthy and algaed, relying on fickle prairie rains for replenishment. Still, it was the only important body of water within forty miles, a source of pride, nice to look at on bright summer days, and later that evening it would colour up with fireworks. Now, in the late afternoon, it lay calm and smooth, a good audience for silence, a seven-mile circumference that could be travelled by slow car in twenty-five minutes. It was not such a good lake for swimming. After college, he’d caught an ear infection that had almost kept him out of the war. And the lake had drowned his friend Max Arnold, keeping him out of the war entirely. Max had been one who liked to talk about the existence of God. ‘No, I’m not saying that,’ he’d argue against the drone of the engine, ‘I’m saying it’s possible as an idea, even necessary as an idea, a final cause in the whole structure of causation.’ Now he knew, perhaps. Before the war, they’d driven around the lake as friends, but now Max was just an idea, and most of Norman Bowker’s other friends were living in Des Moines or Sioux City, or going to school somewhere, or holding down jobs. The high school girls were mostly gone or married. Sally Kramer, whose picture he had once carried in his wallet, was one who had married. Her name now was Sally Gustafson and she lived in a pleasant blue house on the inexpensive side of the lake road. On his third day home he’d seen her out mowing the lawn, still pretty in a pink T-shirt and white shorts. For a moment he’d almost pulled over, just to talk, but instead he’d pushed down hard on the gas pedal. She looked happy. She had her house and her new husband, and there was really nothing he could say to her.
The town seemed remote somehow. Sally was married and Max was drowned and his father was at home watching baseball on national TV.