“Greasy Lake” is set in the past: it’s a story from the narrator’s memory, and there is a distance between the older narrator who tells the story and the younger version of himself who is at the story’s center. This distance is evident from the way that the narrator’s over-the-top tone seems to mock his younger self and his friends, as well as through the narrator’s perspective on the night’s events. For instance, he doesn’t just say that he dropped his car keys; he describes dropping the keys as his “first mistake,” suggesting consequences to come. The narrator has clearly spent a lot of time thinking through that moment, or else he wouldn’t have been able to diagnose dropping the keys as his “first mistake.” At the same time, the urgent clarity of detail throughout the story emphasizes that even though this moment is far in the narrator’s past, he still lives with it. The visuals and visceral feelings of the night at Greasy Lake leap off the page—the narrator’s fear as he drops his jingling car keys into the dark grass; The Fox’s “tainted” red toenails, which provoke the narrator and his friends to attack her; the narrator’s horrific discovery of the dead body. As all of this hyper-vivid detail builds and builds, the story suggests that the memory of this night has come to consume the narrator, even in his adulthood—the detail is so vivid because the narrator has relived it, powerless to change it, over and over.
In the story’s concluding paragraph, the narrator hovers even more sensuously over every detail surrounding his final moments at Greasy Lake, describing the lingering specter of the strung-out girl reaching for the narrator and his friends as they drive away. This is the very kind of girl the narrator and his friends had hoped to meet at Greasy Lake, but she is now made horrific in the light of day, just as the entire incident is made horrible for the narrator in the bright clarity of his adult memory. The narrator recalls “inch[ing the car] forward with a groan, shaking off pellets of glass like an old dog shedding water after a bath,” and he remembers “a sheen of sun on the lake.” The specifics of the narrator’s memory of this experience are intense and vivid, which makes clear that this night, more than possibly any other night of the narrator’s life, has made him into whoever he might be in the present day.
Memory, Reminiscence, and the Pull of the Past ThemeTracker
Memory, Reminiscence, and the Pull of the Past Quotes in Greasy Lake
There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. We were nineteen. We were bad. We struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.
Through the center of town, up the strip, past the housing developments and shopping malls: that was the way out to Greasy Lake. The Indians had called it Wakan, a reference to the clarity of its waters. Now it was fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires. There was a single ravaged island a hundred yards from shore. We went up to the lake because everyone went there, because we wanted to snuff the scent of possibility on the breeze, watch a girl take off her clothes and plunge into the festering murk, drink beer, smoke pot, howl at the stars…This was nature.
There was no reasoning with this bad greasy character—clearly he was a man of action.
A single second, big as a zeppelin, floated by. We were standing over him in a circle, gritting our teeth, jerking our necks. No one said anything. Already [I was] envisioning the headlines, the pitted faces of the police inquisitors, the gleam of handcuffs, clank of bars, the big black shadows rising from the back of the cell.
We were bad characters, and we were scared and hot and three steps over the line—anything could have happened.
In one of those nasty little epiphanies for which we are prepared by films and TV and childhood visits to the funeral home, I understood what it was that bobbed there so inadmissibly in the dark [water.] Understood, and stumbled back in horror and revulsion, my mind yanked in six different directions (I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here in the space of five minutes I’d struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second), thinking, The keys, the keys, why did I have to go and lose the keys?
I looked back. The girl was still standing there, watching us, her shoulders slumped, hand outstretched.