I didn’t wake up till 9:30 the next day. It was an unfortunate hanger-on from being inside. You always had to be up between 4 and 4:30 because they could never decide when they were going to crack the door and whisper “chow.” You could usually at least hear some guys who were still up from the night before start getting a little louder when they’d see the other blocks going to or coming from the hall. The point is, though, after chow the most you could hope for was sleeping till 9:30. It was like nobody could contain themselves any later than that. All the bulls started shittin’, as Prince would say.
Plus, I hadn’t sleep well that night. At mom and dad’s, I mean. I kept laying there, thinking of stuff I could do on the trip. Or stuff I could probably figure out if I had to. I mean, what was a house really? Just a giant Lincoln Log set, basically. There was wood making up the walls. And then wood and plaster outside of that. Some wires running around, but I wasn’t going to mess with those anyway. Everything was just nailed or screwed together, probably. Maybe glue or something for, like, wallpaper? Either way though, that was only about five things. Surely I could figure some of it out. Hell, I was about the same age as the guy who built it in the first place.
I threw on a pair of shorts and a tanktop and went upstairs to find mom.
“Yeah, I was thinking about it,” I said, then hesitated, like the thought had just struck me. “Actually, I was thinking last night too, like, what if I just went up to the cabin today? I don’t have to go to meetings today anyway, and if I just stayed a night or two, I would only have to rearrange maybe one meeting at most.”
“I mean, if you think it’s dumb I don’t have to go or anything. I just thought, y’know, it’s not like I have any ‘pressing engagements.’”
“When were you thinking? You don’t mean right this moment, or?”
“Oh. No. I mean, like I said, it just crossed my mind. I don’t even know how to get there.”
“I guess I could probably figure it out,” she said.
“No you don’t need to do that. Like I said, just an idea.” I stood kind of awkwardly in the doorway to her and dad’s room. She was usually always doing something in there. I’m not really sure what. “Is dad out golfing?”
“Yeah. He left an hour or two ago. Should be back by lunch, if you wanted to talk to him. To be honest, I’m not even sure where the tent is.”
“The garage, I think. I can look. It’s not like you guys need to get all stressed out over it. Like I said, I was just thinking.”
“Oh it doesn’t bother me. You’re an adult.”
I laughed. “Or so we would have people believe.”
Still nothing on the jokes But to be fair, they valiantly continued in their stand against saying them, even though I can’t imagine any even slightly reasonable scenario where they weren’t all already thinking them. So I kept trying to force it; maybe it would make things go a little smoother to keep saying it over and over. There is an elephant in the room, and I be he. Hi everybody. You can call me Cole, or you can call me Fuck-Up, or you can just pretend I don’t exist; I will even start for you.
“Anyway…” I said and kind of drifted out of the doorway.
Out in the garage, I don’t know why they ever said they didn’t know where anything was. Both of them were expert arrangers, or organizers, or whatever you call it. The tent was with all the other camping stuff, on one of the wire-mesh storage racks like they have in hardware stores. It wasn’t labelled or anything; they aren’t that bad.
In the five minutes it took to get back inside, mom already had a cooler out, slowly filling it with ice packs and food. “Did you know what you wanted to eat?” she asked.
“I dunno. I thought just the basics. Hotdogs. Toast or something for breakfast. Maybe I’ll catch a fish,” I laughed.
“Let’s not get carried away.”
Okay, full disclosure, I have never actually caught a fish. I don’t know why. It’s not like I haven’t tried. And I know how to put a worm on a hook and all that. They just don’t like me for some reason. But at the same time, it kind of irked me when people felt the need to point it out.
“Okay, I’ll just eat grass then. I’ll graze. It’s not like I’m going away on a nine-month trek. If I don’t find anything to eat I’ll just eat when I get back.”
We both knew this probably wasn’t true, but it was close enough to plausible that I felt I had evened the playing field.
She just shook her head and loaded up who knows what in the cooler. I went downstairs to recheck what, at some point in the night, I had begun thinking of as ‘my gear.’
Dad came home, happy, normal. He didn’t really care about golf, I don’t think. Sometimes he went with people, sometimes he didn’t. I think mostly he just liked being able to get outside and not have to be “on.” He would go golfing for work sometimes, which always cracked me up. Like, who gets paid to go play a game, unless you’re an athlete? And what do you do in the winter? Backgammon?
“What’s this?” I heard him say. I was still in the basement.
“He’s decided he wants to go today.” This wasn’t the best. Usually, when you become ‘he’ instead of your name, you are not in the approval position. And I did want the approval. This was supposed to be a good idea.
But, also, fuck it. I could just go and show them it was a good idea afterwards. If people are going to have faith in you, they have to wonder about you sometimes, too. That’s what faith is.
I put on a t-shirt so as to look at least slightly more like an adult instead of a kid back from playing in the sprinkler, and went upstairs.
“Heading out early?” dad said.
“Yeah, I figured, may as well go on up and see what I’m getting myself into.” It seemed like, if I made it sound more like a manly chore I was doing to help him out, to be part of the ‘guys,’ it would at least appear less stupid, as even I was starting to think it probably was.
I couldn’t even catch a fish, for crying out loud.
“That’ll be good then,” he said. “Get up there early. Get the tent set up. Fish always bite at sundown anyway, or so they say. What all do you need help with? Oh, directions, probably.”
“Yes. But I think that’s the only thing. I’ve got some stuff in a bag downstairs. Grabbed sleeping bag, pillow, you know. Then mom’s got the food well taken care of I’m sure. So really just a general instruction as to where I’m actually going and I should be set.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.”
I laughed, in spite of myself. “That’s what I’m shooting for. The appearance at least. Fake it till you make it and all.”
He unclipped his phone from his belt. “Well, everybody starts somewhere. I think I can get you close. I found the address last night on an old bill.” He grinned, proud of himself, and started swiping and typing things into his map app. Mom had closed the cooler and was leaning on the counter.
Dad grabbed a notepad out from under where the landline phone was still attached to the wall. It wasn’t hooked up, hadn’t been for years. But it was already an old-fashioned style to begin with, so now it was sort of quaint. And it would be weird to remove it after all this time. Almost sort of unfaithful to its years of service, its place as part of the family.
“Okay,” dad said, writing and pointing to the phone screen. “I can’t vouch for sure on the landmarks and scenery, but you shouldn’t have any trouble once you get going…”
He worked his way up the lines and curves, writing in his smooth, clear businessman’s hand. The numbers, how far I’d have to go, which way I’d need to turn, things that used to be at intersections but might not be anymore. His mapscreen had unlocked a hidden enclave of memory, just with its dots and city names. I wanted, once or twice, to say I didn’t need that much detail, that just the numbers and directions would be enough. But truth be told, I wasn’t going to stop him, y’know? One thing I know I’ve always been good at, or am always good at, is giving up when I get confused.
When he finished up, he ran me through the directions, showing me the map on his phone again, hoping to somehow burn it into my mind, which I thought was odd. Mom finally pointed out that I could just program the address in my own phone, and then dad said something about not knowing if there would be coverage there or not, which kind of freaked me out a little for some reason. Not like, oh I’m going to die without the internet but like, I don’t know, you never know what you might need. But then mom had said there were people that lived up there all the time, and how could they even do that without internet, these days?
So then it all seemed a little more normal again, other than the abnormality of the whole thing.
I took everything out to the truck. Or, everything but my backpack. I went back in to get it and we had a sort of odd, uncertain farewell, them not being sure if they were supposed to ask me anything or make a deal of it, me not being sure if I was supposed to be real secretive and cool, or overly reassuring, or just downplay the whole thing and head off on my way. In the end, I seized one of the awkward pauses and just said, “Well, anyway...I guess I’ll see you guys in a couple days.”
“Text when you get there,” mom said.
And then I was pulling out of the driveway, ignoring the fact that I barely had any real, physical memory of where I was driving to.
I’m not gonna lie, for the first hour or so it was kind of a game with myself. Or between me and tense-ness. “I know where I’m going; it’ll be fine.” “I don’t know where I’m going, but I can get back if I turn around now.” “I can’t go home even if I do turn around, because that would obviously be stupid and weak and failing.”
Once I’d gotten off the familiar roads, and had the instructions secured under my leg, and saw my phone GPS was indeed working and seeming to sync up with what dad had said, I turned the radio on low and, on a straight stretch of road, took my shirt off, put my sunglasses on and tried to just drive like a normal guy would drive a pick-up truck.
It was barely mid-afternoon, so the sun wasn’t even thinking about getting any less intense, but it felt good through the window. It was warm. It felt like a good summer day. Like this was something I would be doing if I were a regular person and took advantage of a day off or had scheduled some short seasonal break for myself, some time away from the office or whatever people did.
The radio was on NPR, and I thought about changing it, but sometimes they would tell stories on there and I liked that. Not like, made up stories, but hour-long news-y type stories. Something about a lady whose kid had donated all his organs to science and her tracking them down to meet the new owners. Or like, what is going on with rap music as a cultural entity? Stuff like that. I didn’t really ever understand it all, but usually it was watered down enough that I could get the gist of what they meant. The one about the lady who lost her son, I heard that years ago, but I still thought about it a lot. I didn’t understand any of the science in it, but I felt like I could understand the lady, the way she ended up finding herself just wanting to know what happened. Or to understand any understandable part of what had happened. The boy, he had died about two weeks after she had him, so she never really knew him. They had given him a name, obviously, but that small part had always stuck out to me. It made it all different. Humanizing I imagine is the word, but I didn’t really understand that part either. I guess I don’t know what I would do if I was that lady.
This was way before I started trying to come up with funeral plans, or maybe it was when I began to sort of subconsciously start trying to, because I remember thinking that I needed to write down that everybody could do whatever they wanted with my body when I was dead. Not like in a melodramatic, or even a cool, “oh I don’t even caaare” way. Just like, in a regular, “I really don’t care” way. It seemed like a lot of wasted money and effort to buy anything to put me in, if you were just gonna put it in the ground anyway. I guess I get the psychological need for funerals, or the emotional, or whatever, but I tried to kind of be invisible, the slightest maker of waves, and sometimes it seemed weird to think that the very last thing “I” would do is upset everyone. But then you think, how many people would that really be anyway? And then you’re stuck in a weird ego-stroking limbo of ‘who’d be at the funeral’ and all those trite things.
I do remember, this lady seemed happy with what she had done. Or maybe not happy, but comforted, in a way, because so many good things had been able to happen out of a bad thing. Lock-up had pretty well killed my occasional smoking habit, so I figured most of my parts were in pretty decent shape. Maybe not prime condition, but I mean like, my eyes were probably worth something to somebody. However that worked.
This day, I was maybe sixty miles from my folks place, and they were talking about autism, and how the ratio was something like one in fifty or sixty kids being diagnosed. They debated the vaccination thing a little, but mostly they talked about how they treat it. I turned it up a little, because once or twice people had told me I had it, or that I should be tested. But they were joking sort of. You know how people do that.
Anyway, I thought, that day, driving, that even if I did have it, it must not be very bad, because I was driving. I was following directions and I knew not to do things over and over the same way too many times, and I knew that I should be better at talking to people, even if I wasn’t sure how to do it. Or maybe I wasn’t sure how to care enough to do it.
I’ve always been really bad at small talk. That was one thing I really liked about Kirsten. We didn’t have to talk to each other in real life, and when we did “talk,” I always had time to think for a second, and then to go back and edit what I’d said before I officially hit send and said it. I remember in college once, I knew a couple people who went to a different school a few hours away. I ended up accidentally talking to one of their friends on the computer one night for a long time, one of those jokes people used to play where they were pretending to be somebody else and I didn’t know. But it was funny because I actually ended up becoming good “friends” with this girl on the computer. Of course, then I went and visited them all once and it was really uncomfortable. I thought maybe we would be able to just slide right into being regular friends since we had talked so much already, but once she was actually in front of me, I sort of went back to my normal thing, and wasn’t very funny, and couldn’t think of much to say. There’s a lot of pressure when the person is standing right there.
Plus, back then, I was starting to really consider just being a mysterious loner. Or so I told myself. It’s easier sometimes to simply claim things you dislike than to try and change them. Especially because, what if it turns out you can’t?
The lady on the radio was saying that the best therapy is intensive one-on-one therapy where the child begins to build a relationship with the therapist and wants to make them happy, wants to learn with them. I thought that was weird, because isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? Maybe vaccines weren’t the cause; maybe it was just us being ourselves.
My phone told me I had to make a turn soon, so I clicked the radio off and came up to a flashing red light somewhere. There was a church on one corner, a dinky firehouse on another, a gas station and an even dinkier pub on the other two. All emergencies accounted for. I checked the rearview mirror and, seeing no cars in any of the four cardinal directions, pulled the paper out from under my leg to check it with my phone map one more time.
Everything seemed to jive, so I turned left and headed out farther into the country.
It took another hour and a half to make it there. I didn’t turn around though. I only got a little bit confused once, but even then I was able to fix it. I thought that was pretty good. Usually I’d head back, but I just kept going and eventually the phone figured it out for me. I thought about stopping for food once, but wanted to make sure I could at least get somewhere before I started worrying about something else. The good thing was I had already gotten gas that week, so I didn’t have to stop at all.
The cabin sat at the very end of a long, slender road, the kind where one person had to pull over if there was another car coming. We didn’t have a gate or anything, just a piece of rope between the posts where something more secure was probably supposed to be. I let the truck run while I untied the rope and tossed it in the grass, where it disappeared entirely. Nobody had been here in ages, not if the grass had anything to say about it anyway.
I pulled the truck up into the yard, leaving twin trails behind me. I walked back down to the gate, reattaching the rope in a loose loop, for some unknown reason feeling slightly more secure. “It keeps honest people honest” is what my dad had always said. I looked around, a little bit embarrassed to be claiming the unkempt piece of ground, and then followed the driver’s side tire track back to the truck. I’m not really scared of snakes, necessarily, but out of all the creatures, I don’t prefer them. Especially when you don’t even know they’re there. I stepped on one up there once, barefoot, and it was a feeling I didn’t want to repeat. Like stepping on a garden hose, yeah, but the sliding part, the writhing, almost tickling feeling on the sole of your foot, that is something else entirely.
I lowered the tailgate and climbed into the bed, sitting down on the side and looking around a little. There was an old shed at the back of the yard where the lawnmower was, assuming it was still there. There was the cabin, secure as far as I could tell. And then out in front of that, the river. Technically, it had a name, but to us, it was always just “the river,” probably not even capitalised. It had been called that, in our family, since before I even knew there were other rivers to distinguish it from. Back when you hear about cities called Paris or London and you don’t realize the one your friend’s grandma lives in is not the one with the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, because it takes longer than an hour to get to the real London. But that doesn’t ever cross your mind, because, why would you reuse a name? A name is for one thing. It would be like calling everything a bed. “Drove the bed up to the bed...looked like the bed needed bedded, so I got the bed-bedder out of the bed and bedded the bed, but then I was all sweaty, so I took a bed and went to…” I guess a bed would have to be called something else in this scenario.
Anyway, I got my phone out of my pocket and called mom, figuring, despite her request, it would probably be faster than texting each other twenty times. She wanted to know if I’d gotten there okay, if the directions were all right; it seemed like it had taken me longer than they thought. So I told her, yeah, it was fine. I said I’d stopped by that one gas station and stuff (which was technically true) and then asked about the mower. Dad was in the background, wanting to know how everything looked and all, but not wanting to get on the phone for a full-fledged conversation. So I just told her, y’know, it all looks fine, I was getting ready to go in and then mow and things and that I’d let them know if I needed anything. Which was kind of stupid really. What would I need that they could bring me?
I got off the phone and stood in the back of the truck for a second, trying to figure out the smart thing to do. Or the first smart thing to do. This could feasibly be nearly a week of smart things. Or hopefully at least a few days. The air was warm, the water was probably not as warm as one would wish, but it wasn’t like I was going to the Caribbean. I had as much time as I wanted, to do whatever I wanted. As long as I made it back in time for my meetings. But even that was up to me, and at that point, I really felt like maybe just cramming three into one day and coming back. Or better yet, finding some meetings up closer to the cabin I could go to. It would mean starting over with strangers in some ways, but that isn’t always a bad thing. You do it in video games all the time. I’d just have to zip back for probation meetings.
I hopped over the edge of the truck, kicking through the grass as I walked to make myself as well known as possible, and went around to the back of the shed where the padlock key hung under the eave. Everything was where it was supposed to be. There was even still gas in the spare tank in the shed, though this had to’ve gone bad ages ago. I brushed my way back to the truck, ran down to the bait shop (conveniently also a one-pump station), bought a new can and filled it up. The mower even fired up after only ten or fifteen pulls. I pushed it out into the grass, leaning down on the handle a bit to angle the blades and make it a little easier going initially. I made a couple passes to try and cut it down to a reasonable length. The piles and clumps and heaps of cut grass were less than visually appealing, but compared to what it looked like when I got there, wow.
The yard wasn’t big by any means, but it took another two hours just to mow, and by then, I was ready for the water. I found the other key, the one for the house, on its hook in the shed and went inside to change into my trunks.
The place was dusty, unlived-in, but somehow glowing with potential. Everything a guy could need was there. A chair to sit in, a bed to sleep on, a pot to piss in. Not that I even needed that. I tossed my backpack, sleeping bag and pillow onto the bed, leaving the tent in the cab for the time being, then slipped into my swimsuit and walked down to the water.
It lapped up against my toes. I stood at the edge of a little sandbar created by a river bend at the edge of the property. The water was warm at first, and then cooler as the wind pushed it up against me. I waded out slowly, gearing myself up for the plunge I would be forced to take once the water made it to my crotch. There’s just no more wading at that point.
My phone sat inside, still in my pants pocket, under my shirt, next to my backpack. Only two people in the entire world knew where I was at that point, and I was really, overly excited by the whole idea.
I’ll dispense with the anticipation though; I lasted two days. Two nights really. If anybody asks, though I was actually gone for three nights, but I’ll get to that later.
I’m not going to say it was a total waste of time. The yard did look a little better. I guess, in reality, though, even that was at least kind of a waste. A bomb. A shitshow. Take your pick. You can’t mow once every couple months and expect it to look good. I probably should’ve raked up the grass clippings, which I did think about doing, but, I don’t know. Like I said, what can you really expect?
Truth be told, I think that was the problem all along. What can you really expect? I’d spent all that time sitting in meetings, listening to people telling me how “the problem is you,” and “wherever you go, there you are,” and pile of other things to depress yourself with. Sometimes you want to think like, well, yeah, maybe for you, but not for me. And other times you think, I know; I never said I wasn’t the problem; we’ve known that all along.
And let’s get this out of the way right now; it’s not like I went up there and got blitzed or smashed or whatever you want to call it. Yeah, drinking did cross my mind, but not in some kind of shakes and cold sweats kind of way. It crossed my mind the way it crosses probably every guy’s mind when he’s sitting at a campfire, like he’s done plenty of times before, except probably with other people in those instances. But you’re thinking about how those times were fun, and how you guys’d had beers and goofed off and just felt relaxed and normal and it was a good evening. Nothing bad happened. People laughed a lot and you miss that. You’re allowed to miss that whole thing. Even the beer. Even being in a ‘worse’ place, if there were one, mentally speaking. Or financially, or whatever. But you can miss that night. That specific night. Even other nights.
I’m not trying to be defensive. I’m just saying. I’m allowed to miss things. It doesn’t mean I’m going to backslide or go fucking nuts or something. I think sometimes good things happened on accident, and I may not be smart, but I’m not stupid enough to gripe about that.
So the first night, things really did go pretty well. I mean, considering. The water, back before I dove in, it was doing that trite “sparkle” thing it does, and that was nice. There were birds and you could hear them. Every once in a while a fish would jump. Squirrels were doing stuff. Sometimes, like, before in life, I used to not talk at all. Not in a weird way, but if you’re by yourself most of the time, especially on the weekends, it’s not weird to not talk for a couple days. I was standing there at the edge of the water, and I was thinking about that, and I thought, y’know, that was fine. I didn’t have to talk or do anything or see anybody if I didn’t want to. I could bring up books with me and just read and maybe study something or figure out some way to make money while I was still a “criminal” and, who knows, maybe it would be for the best.
Straight across the river from us, the other bank was much steeper. The houses over there were set up high and each one had a staircase that criss-crossed back and forth down the hillside so people could get down to the dock. Maybe it was just because I was on the lower side of the land, or probably more likely because the people in the other houses lived there all the time, but they always looked nicer. I think, when I was a kid, I imagined these houses when I imagined what rich people’s lives were like. They lived on the water somewhere, and they had fancy, clean-looking homes with that Swiss chalet type outside, and there would be lights on all the time. Nothing garish, not like a big blow out party, but subtle, subdued lights so you never knew if someone was there or not. Just a hint of light, a speck of life here and there, a room on the second story, or a few windows lit up on the ground floor, and the faux lantern lights leading the way down the steps to the boat.
Not that we lived across from Daisy Buchanan or anything. Hell, we didn’t even really live that close to the water. But it was just one of those things you think about. And I did think about it, and I thought maybe I could be a guy that lived up there. Not when I was little. I didn’t have any concept of “future” when I was little. I think I just assumed that you became your parents, basically. But standing there in the water, I thought, y’know, maybe that wasn’t the most far-fetched of dreams. They weren’t mansions; they were just houses. Granted, probably kind of expensive houses, but still, also just homes. Little artist-writer type cabins you always imagine people writing or painting in and somehow making money doing that.
My new plan for life, as of that moment, was to not overthink things anymore, to just see them as they were, to pursue the ones I wanted, and to not consider not being able to get them one way or another. Nothing risky or shady or weird. Just the way that life was supposed to work, where you have your goals, and you pursue them, and then you get them eventually. Because really, I was still in charge of me. For the most part, I mean.
I did a kind of sluggish, wading, fall-dive into the water and swam under the surface for a short way, not wanting to open my eyes, but not wanting to swim into anything completely blind. The water was still cold, but only in some places, depending on where the sun had been. There were layers of temperatures, like passing through the universe, fast, warming by stars and planets, cooling out by the nothing parts. I swam, imagining my size from the eyes of the fish or baby turtles or minnows or crawdads. A titan bursting into their world for no discernable reason, there to accomplish nothing they could understand. A danger, an anomaly, a sudden passing crash of weight and body and movement, there and gone, a literal wake behind me. What would they think, and even if they got it right, even if one of them was like ‘hey, look, he’s probably just screwing around and doesn’t even know we’re here in any like, specific way,’ would any of the other fish or turtles or crawdads really believe that?
Somewhere out in the middle of the river was one stone, or boulder maybe. You could only see it when the water was pretty low. I think I remember seeing it once, but maybe that was just a picture I remember seeing and sort of adopted as my own memory. But it wasn’t so deep you couldn’t ever find it. At least, not if you were my dad. He had his uncanny ability, honed after years of visits I suppose, of being able to swim straight out to it, me or Chris hanging on with our arms around his neck when we were little, and then he’d stop and stand up, the water coming only to about the top of his trunks. I’d swam out with him once, when I’d been older, and tried to remember exactly where we were so I could find it again on my own. It was a small peak down in the darkness, slick with moss, and hardly big enough for two people to stand on at once. He had been on the down river side, the current pushing me into him and forcing us into a kind of battle between each other and the water to stay where we were without losing touch and slowly floating away.
This time, on my own, I swam out there again. It had been probably twenty years since I’d stood on that rock, which, I mean, it’s not like I thought it would be gone or anything, eroded away during this one particular bit of time, but too, there were years of remembering memories doing just that, overlapping them on one another, molding or marring or mixing forms and lines. Trees grew. People altered their homes, their yards. The water ate away at the banks and the people fought back with retaining walls. And in my head, I was just basically trying to remember what I thought it looked like to stand out there.
I’d set out at an angle upstream, hoping to offset the current at least somewhat, and once I’d reached what seemed like the middle, stopped to tread water for a moment, turning in a circle and letting my feet dangle down, dunking myself a time or two before the current started taking me and I had to swim back up to where I thought I remembered it being.
Somewhere, well up the river wherever it was, there was a dam. Out swimming around that evening, I remembered standing on the rock with my dad once, when he said, kind of randomly, “Oh, looks like we better go back in.” I looked down from where he had me up on his shoulders (I was a pretty small kid up until like eighteen; then I was just small-ish), and the water had risen from the top of his trunks to the bottom of his ribs. I didn’t think much about it at the time, other than mom had seemed a little peeved when we got back. Sometime later, what I finally pieced together was that I hadn’t just misjudged the water depth, but that they had opened the dam and the level was rising. I don’t know how high it would have gone. To me that was only measured in how many steps you could count on the ladder off the side of the dock. Three meant low. Four meant really low. One meant you didn’t fall as far when you jumped off the handrail. From the rock in the middle, I had no reference point. Dad had just swum us back in, coming out onto a land a little farther down from the cabin than usual, and that had been the end. There were no sharp words, no warnings about how you couldn’t hear the alert siren from where we were. No tips on how to judge when the water was going up. Just a swim back, and I held on around his neck, and we were okay.
I floated in the middle of the river that night, not thinking about the rising level (I would just bob up with it after all) and not worrying about the current (I would get out eventually; I know how to swim) but thinking about the rest of the people around me that I couldn’t see. I don’t know if there was even anyone there, or if there was, if they had bothered to look out the windows. I imagine, like anywhere, after a while, you get used to the water, the same way everybody in our neighborhood had a deck out back but nobody ever sat on it. But I thought, if they did look out, how weird would it be to just see some random guy floating in the middle of the river? Just a head, slowly moving back and forth, my arms not even coming above the surface as I swam because the air made the water feel colder. It would be one thing if I had been there more often. Like, maybe they would recognize me. But as it stood, I was just some head in the water, and I didn’t want to be awkward about it.
I splashed around a little, trying to look more normal, and gave one last swish about with my legs, thinking, y’know, if I found the rock they’d realize I was supposed to be there. “Oh it’s fine, he knows where the rock is, this must be his neighborhood too.” But, finding nothing, I swam back towards our side of the water, coming out not terribly far from where I went in.
I ran inside and dried off, tossing my trunks over the shower rod and putting on my regular clothes. Outside, I gathered up some sticks and logs from the woods at the edge of the property and, with some help from the new gas, had a campfire going in what I thought was a reasonable amount of time. I watched the water go by, and after a while, watched the sun go down, and tried to think and not think at the same time.
One thing you can’t do, I learned, is read by campfire light. I found a flashlight and some batteries inside, but the bugs found me as the fire died down, and I’d moved back indoors. The electricity was still off, obviously, and I had no real intention of turning it on. My phone had a half charge or something like that, and I had the charger for the truck, so I figured some time in the morning I could just let the truck run and let the phone charge and everything would be fine. The flashlight batteries were new, and I could go down to the bait shop again in the morning, and that seemed good enough.
I pulled a chair up in front of the picture window and looked outside at the dark.
I could live here, I thought. And not just like, I am capable of living in this spot, but like, ‘could’ in that way of potential, meaning that it was a not-unreasonable option. All I had to do was find a way to pay for the utilities. And what’s that, a couple hundred a month? At most? There’d be no rent. Surely my uncle or cousins weren’t going to care, supposing they even found out about it. The place had been paid off for ages. The neighbors would probably be glad to have someone there just so they didn’t have to say “Yeah, we’re the last house, well, the last lived-in house, the one next to the empty place with the atrocious grass.” And I could just be there. Be a poet. Be a sculptor. Be something. One of those people that has some job you don’t really understand but apparently pays the bills.
When there’s no light inside, though, you don’t see yourself in the glass.
I looked at the dark for a while, flicking the flashlight on and off a few times before I realized that just made things seem super weird to anyone outside, and ended up moving over to the couch and falling asleep there on accident at some point, but I don’t know when.
The next day I woke up at some time, I don’t know exactly because none of the clocks were working and I hadn’t ever gotten my phone out from my things. The sun was coming in the window, and it was hot, and I moved into the relatively dark bedroom, meaning to check for messages, but ended up falling back asleep again. Until nine I mean, obviously, but that’s why I woke up in the other room. I had never slept in that bed before. I wasn’t sure what to think about it. Because it wasn’t like sleeping in your parents’ bed. It wasn’t theirs, after all. And plus, everybody has done that when they’re a kid, so it’s just sort of a normal part of life from before you even think about things being weird.
But sleeping in there was like sleeping in my grandparent’s bed, and that was weird. Not because of any like, sexual thing, but just because of it being old, and me being the third generation to sleep in it. It was something that we were all using in a very personal way. It was holding each of us, and keeping us warm and comfortable and serving a silent purpose since who knows when, exactly, but I’m sure whenever grandpa and whoever helped him carry everything up the steps and through the mudroom and past the kitchenette and into the bedroom, and then put the frame together, and then dragged in the box spring, and then, finally, got the mattress and grandma put the sheets on, I bet they weren’t thinking of me at any point in any of that. And even if there was some fleeting ghostly gray faced “kid-person” that flashed through their mind, it wasn’t me. I was nothing then. It was literally impossible to think of me then. Dad wasn’t even as old as me when they moved that bed in.
If you can follow that mobius strip chronology.
I finally checked my phone, and was sort of relieved in a way to see there was nothing new. I didn’t want mom and dad freaking out like I couldn’t sleep one night away without poisoning myself or breaking my neck or something. And I had already sort of wanted to keep this whole preparatory trip a secret from Kirsten anyway. If she ever came up I mean. Because, really, at that point, I was still thinking maybe this was a good thing, it being a secret. Then again, what fun is a secret if you don’t share it with someone? Then you’re just some kind of head case. Or a criminal. Ha.
I went out to the yard, hungry-ish, looking around. Everything was probably either eating something or being eaten just then. It was morning. The sun was out. Everybody does the same things. Sleep cycles or REM cycles or menstrual cycles. Whatever you called them. Circadian rhythms. I thought about eating, because that’s what my body told my brain to think about. And then my brain told my body to can it, because I liked to show who was in charge.
Of course, within two hours I’d already driven down to the bait shop again to see what kinds of things they had for snacks. I started another campfire, this time with just paper and wood, I was happy to note. I whittled a stick and burned the end a little bit, although I’m not sure why. For some reason that seemed like the thing to do, although it probably just put charred wood inside the hot dogs. I had buns. I had little packets of ketchup my mom kept in the fridge that had slowly accumulated over a lifetime of occasional stops at fast food restaurants. I had found a rock to hold the plate down when the wind blew. I had even bought one of those weird foil tin pan things of popcorn at the bait shop. But I also got nightcrawlers, because that seemed normal, and some bee moths, because the guy said bluegills liked them. I pretty much dumped the nightcrawlers out immediately because there is too much stabbing involved to put one on a hook, and they always writhe around your finger like they are begging you to stop, please stop. The bee moths at least just sort of pop on.
I cast a rod out toward the bend in the river, propping it up on a forked stick and laying a flat stone from the top of the retaining wall over the handle, then in a moment of “why not” wackiness, got another rod out of the cabin and did the same at the other corner of our property. I even had a stone holding the hot dog stick down. Which, in theory, should have been relaxing. However, I just kept walking from one thing to another, feeling like at any moment I had the best odds of being in the wrong place. It was like that guy who spins plates on sticks. Too many sticks for me to keep track of, even if none of them had plates and really only required gravity to keep them under control. It felt like a suiting metaphor for my life, somehow. Although how a guy with no responsibilities can feel overwhelmed, I guess I don’t know the answer to that.
Either way, I ended up burning the hot dog.
“Black as four midnights,” I said, or maybe just thought, feeling it crunch inside the bun when I pulled it off the stick. It was something one of the guys inside used to say. He used it to differentiate between himself and the other black guys locked up with us. “No man, you know who I mean. The black dude. Not black like me, but black black. Like Africa-black. Black as four midnights black.” I was never really sure what I was supposed to say, so usually I didn’t say anything at all. I did ask him once if the phrase “call a spade a spade” was racist, and he said he didn’t know. He said it depended on how I said it. He said nobody called anyone a spade anymore and then promptly started inserting other words to see if it worked. “Call a nigga a nigga. Call a fag a fag. Call bitch a bitch.” He laughed at that last one. “That’s what everybody calls a bitch in the first place, what else you gonna call him?” Which I did find interesting, considering I’d initially assumed he meant a woman. But, rank in the pecking order is the higher priority in some places; gender being basically a non-issue. How often did we see actual women anyway? Maybe one female C.O.
I’d asked him if he knew about the word “gypped,” and at first he got all pissy, like I was trying to outsmart him or something.
“I know you read books and all, mothafucka, but just because you don’t see me reading, that don’t mean I’m a fuckin’ moron. Yeah I know the word gypped. The fuck you talkin’ ’bout.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I know you know the word. I wasn’t questioning that. I just meant, did you ever hear that it’s racist?”
He stood there for a minute. We were leaning against the railing that went around the walkway on the second level of our block, what in a finer establishment would probably be called the mezzanine. Finally he goes, “What, you mean like gypsies?”
“Yeah. I guess. I mean, that’s what I heard anyways.”
He thought again. That was one thing I did like about Ivan. (Despite being black as at least two midnights, he said he used the Russian name because it was intimidating. “Niggas hear that, they go ahead and add ‘the Terrible’ part theyselves. Mothafucka ain’t even gotta say nothing. They know.”) In our chats, there wasn’t nearly as much bullshit tossed about. He didn’t feel like he had to show me he was some hard ass. We both knew I wasn’t really interested in anything going on in there. And apparently, my silence made me seem less stable. Or so he told me after I’d been in about a month. Truth be told, he probably liked having someone that didn’t bother putting on a show either. Especially a scrawny white boy. Those guys, the ones who came in excited, the 18-year-olds who said things like “Shiiit, I’m just goan do my bit, homey. Then get my ass back out there and start slangin,” when it’s a white kid telling you this, and you didn’t even want to talk to him in the first place, even to another white kid who’s never been inside before, it’s irritating. I never felt racist on the outside, but on the inside, I did kind of hate white people.
Anyway, so Ivan stands there and goes, “Yeah, I mean. That gypsy part makes sense. But I don’t know if that’s racist. I mean, it might be prejudice. Is a gypsy even a race? They don’t have no homeland. At least not that I know of. You read. Where’s gypsies from?”
“I don’t know. I thought they were like vampires.”
He started laughing before I could finish. “You thought they’s like vampires! What the fuuuuck? You need to get back to them books, boy.”
You never really want to be laughed at, anywhere, but especially not in those circumstances. You learn to laugh along, and genuinely, real quick. And so I did start laughing, and I go, “Hold the fuck on, man. I know they’re not vampires. I don’t mean like, ‘beware the gypsies, they read your fortune and suck your blood,’” (proud to say I successfully bit my tongue before ‘Ivan to suck…’ came out. Though hell, he’d’ve probably been down with the violence.) “I mean, like Eastern European. That weird, kind of ‘over there’ spot that is past Germany but not to Russia yet. The south part. But not like, Saudi Arabia or anything. The Caucasus. Or maybe not.”
He was laughing again, “I knew it! I knew yo white ass had to come from somewhere. Caucasia. It’s all comin’ together.”
“Not there though.” Finally, I found the name. “Romania. Isn’t that over there?”
“Shit I don’t know man. I’m still trying to figure out if I believe Caucasia is real or if you just feedin’ me some bullshit.”
“It’s real,” I said. “I don’t know if it’s like a country, or more just a general area like...like ‘The Midwest,’ or what. But I remember thinking that same thing you said. So that’s where it comes from.” I laughed again, not like, pandering, but also figuring, what’s it hurt to get along with somebody sometimes.
“So what the fuck that got to do with gypsies then? You think that’s where they from?”
“I guess. I don’t know.” I looked down at the guys playing Casino and Rummy below us. “They gotta be from somewhere, you know?”
“Shit, no they don’t. Maybe they like hippies. Hippies ain’t from nowhere. Or wait, you gonna tell me hippies from over there too? Hipasia?” he laughed.
“I fucking hate hippies.”
“You got that right.”
“Anyway,” I said, “I don’t even know why we’re talking about this. I just thought that was weird I guess. I said ‘gypped’ all the time and nobody bothered to tell me it was racist until I was like seventeen.”
“That’s because it ain’t. It’s prejudiced, man. That’s what I’m saying.”
I nodded. “That’s a valid point. I have no idea if either of us is right…” I trailed off to let him finish with the stock phrase.
“But it’s good enough for this shithole.”
I was chewing on the crunchier side of the hot dog, getting the worse part out of the way, realizing I never had looked-up anything on gypsies yet. I had gotten out, not with a mess of friends behind me, hooting and hollering out the bars, like they seemed to do in county, but kind of the same way I went in. Like a sort of shitty magic trick no one was paying attention to. One day I was outside, then I was in. Then, a while later, I was inside and one day I was out. I had truly meant to try and write one or two of them letters. Not because we were such great friends or anything, but y’know, there’s not a lot to do in there. But like I said, time is different outside, and I was busy sitting at a cabin in the middle of nowhere, trying to make a roll call of the people I had even talked to. Trying even harder to remember if I’d ever learned any real names.
I gave up on the hot dog, throwing the other half out into the water, figuring I’d make another attempt in a bit, and went inside to get my backpack. I had dumped all the clothes out before going to the bait shop. The only things left were a notebook and my two reading books.
Outside, I moved the cooler a little farther away from the fire, sat down on top of it, and took my shirt off. I had a hardback book balanced on my thigh, my notebook and pencil out. I thought maybe I could try and write someone, maybe think of the name later, but what are you really going to say? “Whatcha been up to?” I knew the answer to that. “This is what I’ve been doing” sounded a lot like bragging. Plus, there were guys that went in with my cohort on five or ten year bits, so my piddly season barely seemed like something to remind them of. Remember me? That weird kid that everyone kind of blew off because no one knew why he was there in the first place? Well guess what, I’m out already, and I’m so busy and overwhelmed with….what? What was I even doing? Having an existential crisis? Doing the big rethink? I wasn’t old enough to have a mid-life thing going on. I didn’t really feel like I had been “rehabilitated” in any way the word was probably originally intended. Or then again, maybe I was just not wanting to own up to that, to admit that I needed to get ‘in trouble,’ but just a little baby bitch amount, before I could grow up.
You don’t write that to a dude who almost beat his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to death one fine afternoon.
I looked out over the water, the poles at the edges of my vision but for the most part forgotten. One thing about bee moths, they don’t stay on the hook long. And what was I gonna do with a fish anyway?
I tried to think of what I would say to someone if I got a call from back inside, or if I got a letter. (First, probably, how did you find me?) It couldn’t be the truth. Not really. Or at least not all of it. I couldn’t tell them the way I felt, because I made a good show of never feeling anything in there. Maybe my one success in life. And it’s not like I was getting laid, which would be one of the first things they asked. Probably talk about food or something. I could tell them about food I was eating. Sports they could see on their own. Hell, there were rumors one block had an iPad as some kind of experimental thing, to see how they did with it. Given my television habits, they probably knew more about what was going on out here than I did.
I thought about Kirsten. That could be embellished a touch here or there. Maybe make a little bit of a real story out of it, or at least one where I actually saw her sometimes. Shoot, maybe I could do a whole Thing. Make up an outside story. Nobody would care if it was true or not, just so long as they didn’t find out until they got out themselves. Because, then who would give a fuck what you were doing, as long as they were out and you weren’t a concern? It could be fun. A challenge. Like those old Dumas or Dickens stories, the serials they did in the magazines. Every week a new episode about Cole and his girl. It would give me something to do at least.
On the other hand, I figured, who would really give a shit? Nobody wants to read a bunch of drama about you and your girl while they’re sitting in a room somewhere dealing with the newest batch of guys coming in and making asses of themselves.
But, I thought, maybe there was something to the idea of writing a story. I’d read once that if you really wanted to make money, the smartest thing you could do was write for tv. One good episode and you could be set, assuming it was for a popular enough show. That’s long odds for sure, but you think about how many times M*A*S*H is on in a week, or those stations that just show The Simpsons non-stop; somebody’s getting a check every time that airs. I knew a guy in college that was studying music solely to be a jingle writer.
“Think about how many times you hear a jingle,” he said, guitar in his lap. “The whole point is to get it drilled in your head, and some companies don’t change them for years. And yeah, maybe you don’t get much, a few cents or something maybe, but the way I see it, let’s say I have some burst of inspiration right now, and I write a ten-second jingle. Even if I get one penny for that, every time, for the rest of my entire life, every time you hear that jingle, anywhere in the world, I get one penny, and the burst of inspiration, the two minutes or five minutes or whatever, it becomes more and more valuable in my overall work-life. You do a couple of those big ones, you’re golden.”
I’d not said much, as was usual, so he picked up again.
“Okay, maybe not golden, but I don’t need a yacht. I just want to have enough money to not worry about money. Give me enough to pay for a house and my bills and shit. If I can sit at home doing what I want to, that’s good enough for me. Just don’t make me spend over a third of my day doing dumb shit I don’t want to. Because I don’t want to go to the grocery, and I don’t want to do laundry, and I don’t want to mow the yard. That’s all already work. When they tell you you work eight hours, you sleep eight hours, you get eight hours to do what you want; that’s total bullshit. You get like forty-five minutes a day. If you’re lucky.”
I said something stupid like, “Yeah I know what you mean” and then came up with an excuse to move on. But he had a point, I had to give him that.
Then again, I hadn’t done anything except what I wanted for the last few months. I was literally, at that moment, “doing what I wanted,” at least in a sense. Sitting on a cooler watching fish not bite maybe wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I guess that was the point of working till you were sixty-five or seventy. You’re so fucking tired by then you don’t want anything anymore. Just sitting still is seen as an amazing event.
But when you aren’t thirty yet, sitting still basically means you are a waste of space.
I tried to sketch the river, scratchy, scribbly lines to make it look more nonchalant and artsy. The dock jutting out, just sort of hinted at, but with straighter lines so it looked more intentional. More man-made. A juxtaposition to nature.
Or some such shit.
I sat the notebook down beside me and leaned my head in my hands.
I had no idea what I was doing. Not a single fucking clue. The fire was hot beside me. It was hot outside. Who sits by a fire in the middle of the day, at the beginning of summer?
Almost as soon as I’d gotten there, I knew the whole thing was a stupid idea. The house didn’t need fixed up. And even if it did, how was I supposed to tell if I was too scared to turn on the electricity? I didn’t bring a handsaw. I didn’t know what a planer even looked like. There were nails in the shed. Maybe? I assumed? I had just run off on a whim and a surety that had no basis in any kind of reality, and now I was just sitting in a different space, doing the same amount of nothing, and not even having an idea of how to start doing something.
I was gonna be a poet? A sculptor? Even ”the guy who sits in his cabin by the river, doing ‘good things’” seemed too specific.
Awesome fucking plan, Cole. Awesome fucking plan.
“Good things” really is so precise and clear. It definitely sets you apart as something special. A true moral hero. Because nobody else wanted to do Good Things. I was the only one. And my unequivocal ethics and virtuous laser beam of guidance in life, that was what was doing me such a favor.
“Your best thinking got you here.”
That’s what they always liked to say in the meetings. Like you didn’t already feel shitty enough having to go tell strangers you were a fuck-up. Like I really sat at home at 6:30 am every morning thinking “So, golly, what are my best thoughts today? A couple shots to get the gears spinning, of course.”
Or maybe I did. I obviously acted that way. I don’t hardly know what I thought anymore. There was no thinking. It was a perpetual motion machine. Or as close to one as I could get. True, it would eventually self-destruct, but I was mostly running without thinking at that point anyway. That was the whole goal. Get away from me. From myself. Quiet things. Be less. Be whatever the hell it was I was supposed to be. Maybe just join the status quo. Become the invisible man. That was actually sort of going fine, really. Or at least, it was going. For all I know, everything else, from then to now, was nothing more than a fluke. Maybe an inevitable fluke, but it sure wasn’t anything anybody planned. I’d gotten used to bouncing around by then, but I never planned on living neck-deep in my own tensions every day.
I got up from the cooler, letting the fire burn, the poles sit, and went back inside. I had no plan for the move except motion, to be honest. I tossed the door open, letting the screen bang behind me and walked into the bedroom. I grabbed my phone off the bed and swiped the screen. The factory lock screen glowed back at me, no new messages, no missed calls.
I was alone, just like I wanted. And I wanted it, and I didn’t want it, and I didn’t know if I was supposed to want it or not. I walked over and stared out the picture window for a minute.
I could swim. I could drown. I could stand. I could lay down and sleep. I could slit my wrists in the tub so there wasn’t a mess. I could punch through the glass. I could wander off up into the hills and not come back. I could throw my phone against the wall and smash the pieces underfoot.
I could drive home.
I could call Kirsten.
I could do anything, but I couldn’t do anything.
I leaned my head against the glass, trying to remember things people had said, things about this being just how your brain is used to working, but not how it has to work. I tried to think about how I had been hopeful the day before, and that the sun had felt good and that the radio had been interesting, that I had been trying to think about something, and that that was better than just listening to pop music or something. But who did I think I was that I was so special for listening to talk radio? It’s not like I was adding anything to it. I was taking. I was using. I was still only using.
I moved over to the couch and lay down. Eventually at some point I must have fallen asleep.
The sun wasn’t down when I woke up, but it had moved closer to its inevitable disappearance for the night. I looked at my phone again, not expecting anything this time, but thinking more about using it. Who would I really call though, y’know? Mom, dad, Chris, Christy. Not even Christy really.
Talking was always a bad idea anyway, because it means you are the weaker one. You are unable to solve your own problems. You are being a burden. People don’t have kids because their lives are too easy. You are supposed to make them happy. And if you aren’t doing that, you need to shut the fuck up and figure out how to do it, or just stay out of the way.
I thought about moving to the bed, but it seemed too weird. I laid down on the floor instead, and slept till sunrise.