The chapter describes John’s behavior the day he allegedly discovers that Kathy is missing. John wakes up late, and by the time he’s showered and brewed coffee, it’s almost noon. As he eats his eggs, he calls to Kathy. No one responds. He sits and continues eating, assuming that Kathy has gone for a walk. While he waits for Kathy to return, he decides to clean the house. There is a disgusting smell of dead plants, which he needs to get rid of. John thinks about getting up early and jogging from now on—he needs to “shape up.”
In this section, John’s behavior the previous night—during which he killed a house plant and called, “kill Jesus”—seems as strange to John as it does to us. John “contains multitudes”—no one version of himself can explain himself. He is charismatic and frightening, friendly and villainous. Here, we see John resolving to “shape up.” This suggests that his father’s verbal abuse continues to influence him—he’s still fighting his weight.
John cleans up the dead houseplants he killed last night. He rehearses an explanation he’ll give to Kathy when she returns. He does laundry, and goes through bank statements. Around one thirty, he pours himself a vodka tonic. As he drinks it, he plans to write a list of his debts. For the time being, though, he relaxes.
Even here, it’s hard to take John seriously, because everything he does seems so rehearsed, and therefore false. The only un-rehearsed action he performs here is drinking, which is itself a kind of repetition of his father’s alcoholism.
A little later, John awakes from a light nap, thinking that he hears something moving in the room. He thinks he feels Kathy’s fingertips touching his eyelids, and hears her saying, “So stupid. You could’ve tried me.”
It’s not clear how we’re meant to take Kathy’s pronouncement. One explanation is that Kathy is telling John that he could have turned to Kathy for love and support instead of bottling up his trauma.
Around 6 pm, John has a drink and walks to the dock. He begins to sense that something isn’t right—Kathy has been gone for a long time. He imagines that she might have fallen and hurt herself. He finds a flashlight in the cottage, and walks through the woods toward a nearby fire tower. He thinks he hears breathing in the woods, and calls Kathy’s name, but there is no reply. John decides that Kathy is probably back at the cottage by now, so he decides to walk back. When he arrives at the cottage, he sees that Kathy isn’t there. He considers calling Claude Rasmussen, but concludes that there’s no need—Kathy will be home soon.
It’s unclear what we’re reading here—what actually happened, or the version o the story that John will later tell others (presumably the police) and even tells himself. Perhaps it’s hard to distinguish these two stories because John is always performing for an audience. Nothing he does is entirely “honest”—the version of events he lives and the version he rehearses are one and the same. John’s sense that Kathy is present parallels his visions of Weatherby, almost as if Kathy, like Weatherby, is a victim of John’s madness.
The night of the day Kathy disappears, John takes a shower and drinks the rest of his vodka. He begins drinking rum. He feels nauseous and realizes that something might have happened to Kathy. Trying to convince himself that he’s not too drunk, he walks toward the boathouse near the cottage. As he walks, he tells himself reasons why he shouldn’t be afraid—Kathy is an excellent swimmer, for instance.
John continues to drink for the rest of the day, repeating the mistakes of his father, which caused him so much misery as a child. John’s ability to lie to himself is on full display here—even though he’s clearly drunk, he tries to tell himself that he’s not. There’s something almost noble about this—he’s trying to be better—but he’s also failing at it and self-deluding.
At the boathouse, John sees that the boat is gone—“as it had to be.” He thinks that he and Kathy have been married almost 17 years, and now a huge part of his life is probably about to change. He seems to imagine Kathy sitting in the boathouse, and thinks that Kathy has reason to be afraid of him, since she knows from reading the newspapers what John is capable of. John imagines steam rising from Kathy’s eye sockets. The narrator says such a scene is “impossible, of course.” John turns and runs to his Buick.
John seems to be predicting the future. His initial relaxed manner quickly becomes frantically worried. It’s as if his irrational clam has become irrational worry. The fact that the narrator doesn’t reveal what John is capable of makes this section much more disturbing. Similarly, the fact that the narrator says that steam rising from Kathy’s eyes is “impossible” makes the image much more frightening. The image of steaming eye sockets will return late in the novel.
John drives to see Ruth Rasmussen, who insists that John is drunk, though John insists that he isn’t. Ruth is a sturdy woman in her mid-fifties. She gives John water to sober him up, and assures him that Kathy is fine. John repeats that their boat is gone, but Ruth says this isn’t unusual—even if Kathy is stranded somewhere, she can take care of herself.
The presence of a new character, Ruth, reminds us of how self-deluding John is. When O’Brien writes from John’s point of view, we can almost accept him as a rational, honest person. When another character appears, though, it becomes clear that John is drunk and irrational.
As John and Ruth talk, Claude Rasmussen emerges from his room. He is almost 80 years old. He puts on boots and a hat, and tells Ruth to call Vinny Pearson at the Mini-Mart (which happens to be where John and Kathy had their argument earlier). He makes a few jokes about John’s political career, calling John a drunk senator. John calls the jokes “cute.” Claude assures him that everything will be fine.
It’s unclear how we’re meant to think of Claude. He’s not a “kind” person—in fact, he teases John in much the same way that John’s father used to, attacking the things he knows will cause John the most pain. At the same time, his assurance that things will be fine, while not exactly rational, seem to calm John somewhat.
John gives Claude the keys to his Buick, and he drives John back to the cottage. John thinks about what he knows about Claude: Claude is old and unhealthy, but he’s very tough. While he acts like a hick, he is intelligent and highly wealthy, and owns much of the surrounding area. John knows him as a former contributor to his political party. While the two men aren’t friends, it was Claude who called John after his electoral defeat to offer him a chance to stay in the cottage in Lake of the Woods for two weeks. In the car, John repeats that Kathy has taken the boat. Claude responds that this doesn’t mean anything. He calls John “Senator” and adds sarcastically that he likes John’s optimism.
Claude seems a little like John himself—he’s skilled at crafting an image (an old hick) that doesn’t reflect his personality (clever and calculating) at all. Claude’s behavior seems a little suspicious—we don’t really know why he offered John his cabin at Lake of the Woods, and the possibility that he did so out of the goodness of his heart disagrees with everything we know about him so far. Even so, Claude seems sensible and rational, especially when compare to John. He’s taking the information one step at a time—the absence of a boat doesn’t mean anything by itself.
Back at the cottage, John walks Claude through the rooms. Claude asks where the phone is, and John says that he unplugged it and put it under the kitchen sink. Claude is surprised at this, and points out that it’s made it impossible for Kathy to call John that day. He plugs the phone in and calls Ruth; he says that there’s a busy signal, and that Ruth is probably talking to Kathy right now. He tells John that he’s owned his land on Lake of the Woods for nearly a quarter century, and has never lost a single person, except for a few fishermen. He proposes that they wait and drink rum.
It’s Claude who first notices that John unplugged the phone, a fact that he’ll later relay to others. Even though he seems a little suspicious of John for this reason, he again shows signs of being similar to John, since he clearly enjoys drinking almost as much as John does. Claude seems like the most well-informed person in the novel. His age gives him perspective on Kathy’s disappearance that no one else in the novel so far shares.
Claude and John sit and talk—it’s almost 2 am. John pictures Kathy at the bottom of the lake with seaweed in her hair. Claude asks John if Kathy can swim. John says that Kathy is a good swimmer, but suggests that they begin searching the lake. Claude points out that the lake is pitch-black and foggy. Vinny Pearson runs the Texaco station, and is effectively the police officer for the area, but because he makes so little money, he won’t want to wake up in the night and begin searching. Claude says that, at worst, Kathy is “beached up” somewhere.
John’s vision of Kathy lying at the bottom of the lake seems gruesome and excessive—and in the strange world of John’s repressed reality could suggest either that he fears for her or that he actually knows she’s at the bottom of the lake. The more practical and optimistic Claude believes that most likely Kathy is alive but stuck on the lakeshore somewhere. Meanwhile, we become conscious of the logistical challenges of finding Kathy—not only is the lake enormous, but the people who are supposed to be looking for Kathy aren’t motivated to do so.
John and Claude continue to talk. Claude asks John if John and Kathy had been fighting; John insists that they hadn’t. Claude continues to call John a senator, and eventually, John tells Claude to stop. Claude smirks and reminds John of how badly he lost. He reminisces about the old days of the Democratic Farm Labor party in Minnesota, adding that he can’t say he voted for John, but also that he can’t say he didn’t vote for him. Claude reminds John that John never asked Claude for money. Though John could never have won the election, due to news in the papers, Claude might have given him money anyway.
Claude practices a calculated ambivalence—he seems to be enjoying toying with John, saying that he may or may not have voted for him. Even so, his reaction to John’s electoral defeat is the closest thing to sympathy for John that we’ve seen in the novel so far.
Claude calls Ruth, talks to her, and tells John that Ruth has been calling various local numbers and hasn’t reached Kathy yet. He notices the flowerpots John has been cleaning out, and asks what happened. John merely says there was an accident—“hell of an accident,” Claude replies.
Claude’s suspicion of John seems to grow as the chapter ends. Even though he seems casual and unassuming, he’s mentally collecting all the pieces of evidence he’s seen: the flowers, the unplugged phone, etc.