Whittakers: Lake Placid
by Nash Jenkins
Two weeks after his daughter began first grade at Peck, Skip Whittaker left his family at home in northern Jersey and found an apartment off the southern stretch of Lake Placid’s Main Street. Eighteen years had passed since the world descended upon the town of two thousand for the 1980 Olympics, to which local authorities had built a 90,000-square-foot museum in the town’s center. When Skip Whittaker arrived that October, banners bearing the Games’ interlocked rings still hung in situ from lampposts in the center of town.
Skip had been a freshman at Hamilton that winter, and had watched on the wood-paneled television set in his fraternity’s living room as the NBC cameras panned across the snowy streets he knew from the summers of his childhood. Davis Whittaker, his father’s father, had bought the land at the foot of Whiteface Mountain the year the Second World War ended. He’d spent the war as the brigade surgeon to the 10th Mountain Division, descending Alpine glaciers on wooden skis; he understood his property investment as a convoluted sort of memorial to his own service. What had then been a ruthless paramilitary sport became by the early Seventies a sissified dalliance of the leisure class, so when Davis’ son Charles inherited the cabin his father had bult three decades prior, he gave his own son — his namesake, though he went by Skip — a hockey stick, watching expressionlessly from the bleachers as the boy took to the ice, mentally recording his failures for rehearsal on the drive back to the house.
The cabin had always been a basically functional structure at best, and three decades of benign neglect had permitted its decay. Its kitchen linoleum had yellowed and curled underfoot; thirty springs of thawing snow had streaked the putrefied cypress eaves with bloated gray ribbons of mold. The year Skip Whittaker went off to Kennedy, Chip received a heavy manila envelope postmarked from a property development firm in Utica. Inside were marketing brochures and architects’ renderings of Saranac Pines, a manicured collection of prefabricated vacation cabins that would orbit a community pool and recreation center. Beneath this laminated packet were legal documents already initialed by the firm’s representatives. Within two weeks, their return envelope arrived at the Utica office, agreeing to sell the acre and a half off State Route 86 for what the firm promised was nearly double its market value.
It might be purely incidental that this was also the year that Skip Whittaker exchanged his scuffed hockey sticks for the long defender’s pole that would soon garrison Kennedy Lacrosse’s winningest two seasons on record and land Skip a place on the varsity squad at Hamilton. Twenty years later, after Kennedy had carried him to Hamilton and Hamilton had carried him to Merrill Lynch, the year after his move to the more lucrative realm of private equity, Skip Whittaker decided to build his family a summer home. Diane’s parents still had the place on the Vineyard; he looked instead to the quiet forests of his adolescence. He prided himself on the temperament that had made such an investment fiscally possible; insofar as Skip Whittaker partook in the craft of retrospection, he had come to see those summers as formative, vital, something to replicate with his own sons, just as his father had replicated it a generation prior. We can imagine that neither he nor his father entertained the possibility that memory is at least in part an analgesic exercise.
So he had spent the autumn of 1998 in Lake Placid, conducting business by cellular phone until noon and then driving the mile and a half north to the three acres he and his wife had bought that summer. Tall evergreens hid the land from its neighbors and the street, where the property began its falling slope to the long rocky beach. The property more or less marked the town’s northern edge; beyond it rising over the land were the densely wooded mountains that cloistered the lake within their shadows. Skip and Diane had enlisted the architect who’d designed the two-bedroom addition to their Bedminster home three years before, and every afternoon Skip paced the land as the house took shape. A cathedral-like living room, bright and airy on the sunny days and cozy under the darkening skies of autumn,, was the sole transgression of a vision that otherwise gave material form to Skip’s dark anima. The home was almost Gothic in its cloistering. Its narrow staircases rose to a tessellation of dark, short hallways on discrete tiers, adjoined by shorter sets of stairs that emphasized their separation. Its bedrooms were quiet, their bathrooms en suite. By early adolescence, as his contempt for the man they memorialized found its emotional language, Charles Pierce Whittaker III had realized the value afforded by these structural escapes. Charlie would spend those Augusts in Lake Placid in his room, reading and jerking off and smoking weed from the glass bowl he left perched on his windowsill, emerging only for dinners. By his fifteenth birthday, when the verbal conflicts with his father had on more than one occasion escalated to crude but visceral physical altercations, this arrangement passively satisfied all involved parties.
Nash Jenkins grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, he worked as a correspondent for Time in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C.; his cultural commentary has also been published by the Atlantic. He received his MA from the University of Chicago in 2019 and is currently a Ph.D. student in the Program in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago. His first novel, Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos, will publish this May from The Overlook Press.
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