Wilde Lake - Laura Lippman


When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another young man’s death. I wish I could tell you that we mourned the boy who died, but we did not. He was the one with murder in his heart and, sure enough, death found him that night. Funny how that works.

It happened at the lake. Wilde Lake. Named not for Oscar, but Frazar B. Who?, you may well ask. I had to look it up myself and I’m a native to these parts. Frazar Bullard Wilde was president of Connecticut General, an insurance company. When longtime customer Jim Rouse decided in the 1960s that he wanted to build a “new town” utopia in Maryland farmland midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Connecticut General provided funding and agreed that Rouse should acquire the land stealthily, parcel by parcel, keeping prices low. Rouse was a good man—churchgoing, modest, indifferent to his personal fortune, careful with his company’s coffers. Yet Columbia, Maryland, the egalitarian experiment that he probably considered his greatest legacy, began in deceit.

Again: Funny how that works.

Frazar’s reward was the lake. The lake and, a year later, the “village” that surrounded it. Man-made, dammed, Wilde Lake was the opposite of wild, even with several hundred high school seniors massed at its southeastern edge, celebrating their graduation from Wilde Lake High School. It was June 18, 1980. They were eighteen years old, the lake was fourteen years old, Columbia was thirteen years old. The gathering went about as well as any unsupervised party of adolescents ever goes, and at least multiple family rec rooms would be spared the trash, the vomit, the blood. This outdoor party was a tradition, to the extent that this young, raw suburb could claim to have traditions. On graduation night, seniors stayed out until dawn. Where they ended up varied, but they always started at the lake.

When AJ informed our father that he intended to participate in this annual ritual, our father was torn. He never wanted AJ to be the odd kid out. Yet he truly hated the teenage tendency to ramble, as he called it, with no particular destination or plan. And there could be no escaping the fact that AJ was the son of Andrew Jackson Brant, state’s attorney for Howard County. It would be big news if AJ Jr. were busted for smoking pot or underage drinking. It would not have ruined AJ’s life, the way such missteps can today, what with mandatory expulsions from school and sentencing guidelines. County cops probably would have trained their flashlights on AJ and his friends, confiscated their contraband, ascertained that no one was getting behind the wheel drunk, then sent everyone home. A nuisance, an embarrassment, nothing more. Those were the limits of my father’s imagination in June 1980, when it came to his only son.

But he was a fair man, always open to reasonable debate, encouraging us to make a case for the things we wanted—later bedtimes, the family car, a private phone extension. So AJ sat down with him a few days before graduation and told him—told him—that his crowd planned to stay out all night, then crash at the home of his friend Bash, whose family had a renovated farmhouse in what was then considered “the country.” Furthermore, AJ said, their friend Ariel, one of two girls in his group and by far the most sensible, had agreed to be the designated driver, although I don’t think that was the term used. I’m not sure the term even existed back in 1980.

“I’m eighteen,” AJ began in a stately manner, as if addressing a jury. “Born in 1962.”

“I remember,” our father said dryly. “I was there.”

And I was there for this discussion, in our living room, pretending to read the evening newspaper, the Light, while listening to my father and brother talk. Eight years younger than AJ, I had a lot to learn about winning privileges. My high school graduation might be two entire presidential cycles away—elections were always a frame of reference in our political household—but I wanted to be prepared to argue for whatever would be the cool thing when my night finally came around.

“The law says I can drink beer and wine, but I’m going to be honest with you—my friends and I might drink other things if they’re served. It seems only fair to me. If we lived in, say Wisconsin, I could drink whatever I liked at age eighteen.”

“My job,” our father said,