The truck’s red hood poked out of the water like a turtle. Except it wasn’t going anywhere. Two weeks after the accident, it didn’t look like that was going to happen.
“Stupid bastard.” Justin worked his way down the metal steps stuck in the edge of the bank. He liked to get out into the water, though it was banned. The poisonwater could go straight in through your pores and turn your blood green and we weren’t supposed to fish or swim or even step into it. But we did. Or, rather, he did. I watched. I was hoping to see whether his blood would turn lime green or pine green.
My uncle wasn’t asleep yet, but I knew he didn’t really want to read that book. We went to our usual place, this outcropping of dirt and spitting grass worn away because of beer parties. They always left their bottles and we’d have to pick them up. My uncle, Bax Martin Richter Jr., handed me one chair and unfolded the other. I dug into the cooler.
“Don’t you think it’s a little early?”
“Mom ain’t here.”
I closed it. It was too early to fight. I didn’t want Bax to decide not to take us. I liked getting out of Cinci.
“I heard at school that Mr. Mybee was smashed,” Justin called out, picking up the old conversation.”It’s cool he liked to party.”
“Maybe he killed himself. I would have, if I had to teach you brats.” I think Bax was joking.
“You’re talking about my coach! We gave him respect. Don’t take our name in vain.”
Justin was on JV and thought Mr. Mybee was second to Jesus. To me he just looked like a chubby overgrown boy who liked to boss kids around. But maybe it was because years ago he’d gone out with my mom; she had a picture of them sitting on the hood of a racing car, his hairy bull-arm draped around her neck. (Mom, Marcia, had a thing for stock car types. Justin’s dad had been a racer. Mine was an accountant, so I think she got tired.) In the picture, Owen Mybee looked like a nicely browned hunk of meat. Marcia wore shorts and a ponytail, sweetness with snap in her eyes. The snap’s still there, just sharper.
“I wouldn’t have figured that jackass to do himself in, considering how much he loved himself,” Bax said. “But who said suicide had anything to do with brains? It doesn’t matter if you’re dead.”
“How would someone kill themselves?”
“Well, Sarah, if they’re in despair—”
“I don’t mean why. I mean how. Wouldn’t something kick in like right before, like a switch, so that if you were going to pull a trigger, wouldn’t your finger just stop? Or jump off a ledge; you’d be looking down and it would be unsensible.”
“People are desperate—”
“That’s no explanation.” I stared at the tire tracks fossilized in the dirt. I did that every time we came to this backwashed slough. The truck was still down there—had been at the first of spring, would be when the snow fell. You had to be crazy to end up in that stream. It was way off the road.
“Driving like a bat out of hell” was how my mom put it. That was all she said about the man she dated for three years.
“Maybe he was in love,” said Bax.
He dug around in the can, pushing his fingers through that black worm-poop dirt. “You know who.”
Justin yelled up: “Mr. Mybee was not in love, you idiot. He was married.”
Bax snickered. “Maybe he loved his wife. It does happen,” but his tone indicated that he didn’t think it happened often.
“I know he did, he was nuts over Mrs. Mybee,” said Justin. Easy for him to say; his dad and his second wife got along like parrots in heat (or so said Marcia), her always sitting on his lap and twirling his hair and cooing, him giving her little pecks on the neck. I know, because we had this big weird family picnic once, all the sides and exes and what-all pretending they got along.
“You never even saw her,” I said. “I’ll bet she never came to single game.”
“So? She was hot. He had a picture on his desk.”
“Love makes the world go mad.” Bax jammed the hook into a worm and pushed it through the length of its body, then wiped the goo on a rag. The special fishing rag. In real life, he was so finicky he insisted upon cloth napkins, even for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
He rolled up the reel and cast off. The line arced high over the water, making ripples as it went in. He pulled it tight, put the rod in the holder, and eased himself into the folding chair.
“Maybe we’ll catch something two-headed.”
I sat down cross-legged on the dirt and leaned my back against the chair leg. “Hope so.” The best we’d done so far was a carp with a third eye.
My uncle went into a coughing fit. Not a big deal. It wasn’t a normal person’s cough; had a wheeze in it, like air coming out of the bottom of a puckered balloon. I heard that cough all night: fell asleep to it, woke to it, had dreams about it. I got so I liked it, the way some people play the radio all night, or my mom with her ocean machine.
The coughing had something to do with the desert. Bax used to sell paintings in Santa Fe—a “hip” city, so I have been told. “Yeah, two of them,” my mother would say, adding (to me) “don’t give up your day job,” which never made sense. “A house painter, maybe,” she would add. I imagined houses of stripes and flowers and slashes, like the weird canvasses he did in the basement. Bax would ignore Marcia and tell me about the shops and the music and the plays, the radical groups that "created insurrection.” He would still be there if he hadn’t gotten sick.
I had never met anyone so unusual. My brother (half) hated him from day one. He used to be polite about his despising, but lately, as Bax got weaker, Justin picked on him. Which was also secondhandedly stabbing me. Bax would get the last word, but it hurt his feelings. Justin wanted him to go ahead and die so he could have his room back.
“I’ve seen Owen Mybee in love,” Bax said. “Those Marcia days. Hanging around, eating our food, watching Law and Order, sucking up to Mom—he practically lived with us, hands all over your mother—”
“You’re disgusting,” said Justin. He wouldn’t turn around to look at us. He had the ugliest nothing color shade of hair, like grass in winter.
“—and when she turned him down, he kept hanging around in his car outside the house until Dad chased him away—”
“Hero worship is dangerous.”
“Faggot,” Justin said, obviously not able to think of anything clever. He whipped his head, glared at me.
“What’d I do?”
“I’m getting out of here.” And he took off in the direction of the beach, as he did every time we went to the slough.
“Blah blah blah,” muttered Bax, and opened his book, Architecture and—Something. An angle-window house, held together by shiny beams, glittered on the cover. I opened my own book, The Return of the King. It was wordy. But Elijah Wood was one little hottie.
The sky was a skillet above and an ice flow below and if I fell off the raft I would die. I could hear ice being poured from a pitcher, the usual lemonade, ”Southern style,” whatever.
My aunt, Katherine Jennifer Samuel, reminded me of an onion ring. Her hair had perfect little curls, and it went around her head in a curl, and her cheeks were circles, and her mouth pouty and she cooked a lot. She wore skirts all day and volunteered. Her husband, Bob, was a Republican precinct committeeman and an oral surgeon. “She’s loaded out the ass,” Marcia liked to say.
She had a pool. That was really all I cared about her.
And she liked to gossip. This and the money made her popular. She told everybody about everybody, and so everyone thought they were in the center of a whirlwind of secrets. She held parties and teas and liked to sashay. Marcia and Bax called her The Baby.
When I floated, they thought I was deaf. They would say anything. I didn’t have to watch Sex and the City like my friends to get it. Cinci was a city.
I was sad that I’d have to grow up and be pathetic. I wondered what it was like in the bottom of the pool, and how long it would take before I floated to the top.
“He did not have one drop of liquor in his bloodstream. That’s what the coroner said. They’re going to release the report tomorrow. They suspect—”
“It’s a suicide,” said Bax.
“One: a suicide, correct, that is one option,” said Kate. “And two: foul play.”
“Murder?” Bax clapped his hands. “Oh, that would be delicious!”
“The man is not a dessert,” said Kate. “Delicious, my eye.”
“It’s suicide, though. He’s too congenially bland to be murdered.”
“What about those kids who he wouldn’t let play on the team?” said Kate. ”Don’t you think one of them could’ve had a grudge?”
“No!” said my mother.
“They did find a bump. Right here.” (I heard this thumping, Kate pounding on her dense round forehead.)
“Someone could have taken a sledgehammer and—”
“Stop it, Bax.”
Kate said, “I saw him after, you know.”
“I do know. You’ve told us ten times.”
“But it’s on my mind. Owen Mybee, puffed up like a Macy’s balloon—”
Bax laughed. “Good one.”
“White and otherworldly, not at all human—Ed says I wake up in my sleep sometimes, talking to him. I see him, just sitting—”
“You did it,” laughed Bax.
“One time, I told him to settle down. He was on the edge of the bed, looking like when he hung around the house—you know, a cross Basset Hound, cross, um, Alsatian—and he’d go ‘here comes the bad joke, here it comes’ because he always came over to watch Laverne and Shirley—"
“He did that Squiggy imitation, remember?”
“Be quiet now,” said my mother. In the monotone. Surely they knew what that meant. I kicked my foot, so I’d end up on the far end of the pool.
“Did it badly, you mean. And what else was he hung up on?”
“Happy Days! We always watched—”
“He was Potsie, don’t you think? Except not as bright—”
“Shut up!” Marcia screeched.
“Excuse us? What is the matter with you? We have to laugh at the bad things in life—oh honey, do you still feel bad?”
“He’s dead. The poor guy is dead, and you’re picking his bones.” Her voice was all shaky, and even quieter. I held on to the side of the pool and tried to look up from the raft, but in a really offhanded way, so they wouldn’t realize I’d been listening.
“I know he’s dead. I happen to know he’s dead.” Kate scratched a mosquito bite above her thin blue-strapped sandals. “I am sad, okay? Two days before it happened, I talked to him at Lux’s, the fine stationery store? He was buying some lovely linen paper and I asked if he was having a party, with such darling invitations. And he right away said with all sincerity, ‘If it was a party, you’d be the first person I’d invite.’”
“Ah, that’s sweet,” said Bax, rolling his eyes.
“‘But no, it’s not for invitations, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘I have some sick friends.’”
“And then we talked about the way illnesses get passed around in the heat, though we think it’s more in the winter. I told him I thought he was a dear, doing such a formal gesture. And he said, ‘In this life, sometimes the best we can do is offer condolences.’”
“Wow,” said Bax. “Almost poignant.”
“And what do you know?—his wife has to write all those thank you notes after the funeral on that very same paper. I sent a huge bouquet from Florarosa—what did you send, Bax?”
My mom stood up. She slowly, and very calmly, pulled back her foot and kicked my aunt’s metal table, sending glass and ice cubes skittering across the deck.
“Marcia! I brought that pitcher from Canada!"
“Take your niece home,” she said to her brother, and did a perfect pirouette followed by an exit stalk. She had nearly made it to the back gate when—
“You’re in love, Marcia. Face it.”
My mother tried to slam the gate, but it hit and bounced back out, making no noise at all.
He and Kate went into conspiracy smirks. Kate finished her lemonade. “Too bad yours got spilled.”
“Don’t get up, I’ll help myself.” He went behind the chairs, where the wood was free of glass. It had splattered toward the pool. I even thought I saw a splinter in the water, shining like a transparent wand.
My mother rested her head against her hand the way she did when she was tired. We used to do things together—go to the movies or the mall or Lind Park. Now Marcia was always in the chair; I’d say, “Mom, stop staring,” though it wasn’t me she was looking at.
“There’s a rumor,” Bax said.
“What else is new?”
“He told his wife he was going to Hunter Lake. That’s why no one went looking for him. That’s why he stayed in the water until Justin found him.”
She shrugged, “hm,” and looked at the TV.
“If Justin hadn’t been showing that girl our spot, it could have been days.” If he was looking for a reaction from Mom, he wasn’t going to get one. She had switched off. She could ignore a person for hours, maybe years.
“Back in school, he had his jock friends—”
“Jocks.” Bax went into a cough that built and hooted like a train that would never stop. Mom’s eyes got the scared look; if she could have left him, she would have. But she was too polite.
He swallowed from his bottle of Fuji water and wiped his lips with a Kleenex. His next words were heaved between breaths. “They beat people up.”
“So you’ve said before, Bax,” sighing.
“Not all of it.”
I had something I wanted to say, but didn’t dare. If she remembered I was in the room, she’d send me out. I turned into a mouse.
“They were stories. We were popular. The popular kids had enemies.”
“They’d get some smart kid, some sick kid, some kid of another persuasion, make him eat dog shit or get close to a dog—"
“He treated me better than anybody" she said. ”He bought me little things. He was gentle for a man, he was attentive . . .”
“I was there. He was split. A man in slices.”
“Why do you keep attacking me? Why won’t you let me have this?”
He told how they made a kid strip and left him in a vacant lot. And how a guy from the other team got strung up by his ankles from a tree. Finally he said,”And when they heard I’d done it with Ben Mason, they beat the shit out of me. That’s where I got this scar.” He pointed to the thin white line at the corner of his eye. It was very apparent in the summer.
She was leaning forward now. “You got that at the train station.”
“I lied. To protect you.”
“That makes no sense.”
“I felt sorry for you. No, that’s not true. I didn’t want to believe it. When we saw each other again, he acted like nothing had happened. No guilt, not a flicker. I could almost believe it wasn’t him.”
“Because it wasn’t. Why would you tell me this now? Why do you do this?”
“Confession?” He shrugged. “He’s dead. I’ll die. Somebody should know. I’m sick of this pretty picture people carry. Especially you.”
“I broke up with him, remember? I don’t even think about him—”
“Only because you went to college and he didn’t like it. Everyone knows you’ve been seeing him. Everybody.”
She started picking up things from the coffee table—Bax’s water, my Pepsi—
“Mom, that’s mine.”
“Sarah, what the hell are you doing down here, get upstairs.”
“Oh, let her stay.”
“Around your mouth? Don’t tell me how to raise—"
“You’ve spent your life in love with a prick. Just thought you should know.”
I ducked. Automatic.
“If you weren’t going to die, I’d make you leave.” But there wasn’t really any anger. It didn’t have the force of doing. She walked away.
A few minutes later, I heard the car start.
My uncle left the room, came back with the water and my Pepsi, and sat in my mother’s chair. We watched this comedy about Siamese twins until he fell asleep. I did my math and wondered what it would be like to have a sister on my hip. If the sister died, would I die too, or just get stronger because I wouldn’t have to share?
Bax painted less, and when he did, the men and women, leaves were gone. They had always been ghosty. Now there were blotches, mossy green. Was that heaven? Who can say.
During our lessons he got tired and would drop his brush. Boxes came from nowhere, all kinds of junk: books and paintings, pictures, jackets and ties. My favorite was scarves, silk of strange colors not found much in the world.
That day, Bax watched. I tried to draw this spider that kept appearing in my dreams—a pinkish see-through spider, legs like threads and blue Asian eyes. I was hoping Bax would tell me it was out of proportion so I could argue with him that it was supposed to be. But he didn’t say. After awhile, he started rooting through the boxes. I got into the spider and was putting a shoe on one of its feet when this slipperiness came around my neck. It made me shiver and my line went off.
“Wha—” I touched it, glanced back and he was holding out a tail.
“Turn around, let’s see.”
The scarf was wide like a winter scarf, scarlet red.
“Not bad. Here.” He fluffed my chopped-off hair. “Oh, we have to do something.”
He put a black case on the bed and popped the clasp. The insides folded out into three tiers, like bleachers.
“You say you’re twelve.”
“I am twelve.”
“Old enough.” He dampened a tiny black brush with his tongue, then pulled it to a point with his fingernail. “Sit.” He pointed to the bed.
“You have makeup?”
“Curiosity killed the kid.”
I closed my eyes, feeling like Bax’s white paper.
When he finished, we looked in the round mirror above his dresser. Out stared someone like my mother, except rounder and rougher, like her but also a boy, and it was peculiar, because she was considered a beauty. Yet there she was. Me.
I touched that girl’s throat and felt my fingers.
“My god, the boys will be mad for you.”
I wondered what she would look like in blue. Or green. I wondered how she moved, if her voice was high or low. If she was smart.
Surely she was not.
My mom had been smart. She had two years of college and got a job at the insurance company. She made good money, enough so in time she and Dad could get this big old house, her “mini-mansion.” Her face took on the blankness and color of typing paper.
The pretty girls at school even walked into walls sometimes, just to look dumb. I heard them talk about it in the bathroom.
I turned to my uncle. “Can I wash—”
But he was turned to me. In his hand was the brush.
“Paint my face.”
I almost laughed, but after that one second, it didn’t seem so strange. I couldn’t figure out why we hadn’t played this game before.
Nobody talked about Santa Fe—the whiteness of his apartment, the redwood railing, the pool shaped like a face. We knew but were not allowed to say.
I looked into the case. Colors in patches—square for eyes, rectangles for cheeks, shiny dots for lips. Paint-by-numbers, eyelid #1, mouth #3.
I slid green shadow over his eyelid, a glittery, oily puddle. But it made his eyes too big and scary.
I added other colors to fix it. I did a Cleopatra, sweeping lines past the crevasses in the corners. I gave him pinks. Red lips. He became more Bax, an uncle I had never seen but had known, as if his true self lay right beneath his skin.
And I was the artist this time. He would be a peacock when he saw it. But when he went to the mirror, his smile went away. And when his smile went away, he looked small. I saw that this wasn’t him after all, and he saw it, too, which embarrassed me terribly. That Bax I did remember—or was it just through the pictures?—the one with the blue goblets, the round gold clock with second hand, furniture soft and grey as kitten’s fur—sold to cover the bills. Maybe he left when a man tried to fit the antique standing lamp into the back of a Volkswagen.
I crawled across the four-poster to the costume trunk—a scratched old brown box. On top was a wrinkled scarf the color of the Pacific, with fishes and seahorses. I brushed it against my cheek. Then slid it over his shoulders.
“That’s better!” I said.
The knob rattled. And in came that evil, that horrible.
Justin’s face reminded me of my dad’s, who walked through our house like it was a store, taking things away and locking them up. He closed the door quietly behind him.
Bax said, “There is something appealing about that truck.”
I looked at it. I knew what he meant.
“I am so damned tired.” Every time he got a cold, he had to go in. Last visit, two of his friends were in his room with a bottle of champagne, drinking from plastic hospital cups. They gave me some. It was like crazy pop.
Bax said, “Owen should have stuck it out with your mom. He didn’t have to own her, did he?”
Justin was on the lower bank, ignoring us.
I figured Bax wasn’t talking to me, but to my brother. I wasn’t sure if he was needling him, or trying to make conversation. I liked hearing the love story, since it was hard for me to imagine my mother loving anything. I liked thinking of her as tragic and sad—fairy tale, so better than us.
“Poor Owen. Watching the water climb over the windows . . . Were the windows up or down? Sometimes there are pockets.” His legs were stretched in front of him. He could have been talking about fish, for all it bothered him.
“You’re creeping me out.”
“Looks from here like they’re down. I don’t blame him. It would be fast.”
Justin yelled,”If the windows were down, he would’ve swum out.”
I wondered how long it would take for the tracks to wash from the bank.
“You’d think. Though there are worse ways to go. Better than pain.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“Why do people think it’s cowardly? It’s brave. It’s living that’s cowardly. There’s nothing to it.” He put his foot on the chair and drew his knee to his chin.”No love, money—or if there is, not enough, doesn’t do it. Or you have it, and then it all goes.”
Justin still hadn’t moved. His t-shirt was black and it stuck to him. I could see the muscles beneath; he used weights and was strong, not like when he was a kid. He had always been my brother, but I didn’t know him. He was born in a different time and had moved away in his head a long time ago.”My dad says you’re a pain in the ass. He says Owen was right to beat the crap out of you, that you’re just a stupid whiny fag and always were.”
Bax didn’t say anything. Just jiggled his foot.”I wish they’d come up with a new word. I’m bored with that one. Why is the world so limited?” He looked at me like I really knew.
“I don’t think it’s bad.” Although I wasn’t sure. I tried not to think about possibilities. I would have the world. I knew that.
“The windows were up.” Justin’s mouth puckered like he was about to cry.
Bax looked past Owen Mybee’s truck and the goldenrod, past the crooked river trees, to the sky flat as the blue on a painting.
He grabbed the bottom of his shirt and pulled it over his head. His ribs were etched beneath the skin.
“What are you doing?” Justin said, eyes wide like a kid in a cartoon’s. It struck me funny.
“I’m going to see if the windows are down.” He slid his jeans over his legs. He was like the paper skeleton we hung on the door.
“You don’t have to,” said Justin. “I believe you.”
Then he pulled off his underwear. I turned my head, but saw the thing, a wrinkled old leaf.
I remembered him jumping into the apartment pool, when he was brown and arched.
He went high out over. I was surprised he could.
The water grew glassy. Nothing but the birds, then his slick head broke through like the otter’s at the zoo.
Rivers had holes. You dropped when you thought you were solid. Whirlpools that could send you to Japan.
Some of the current he sliced. The rest carried him toward the truck. When he got there, he grabbed the hood and latched on.
When his head went under, I knew he was looking in the truck. His eyes were open, webs of light sparking above. Through the open window he saw the maroon upholstery, maybe a rosary hanging off the mirror, because everyone knew Owen Mybee was a Catholic. Maybe he saw food wrappers, or rags, or a windshield scraper. Maybe the radio was on, though no c & w came through.
Justin stood with his feet in the water. All that time and nothing moved. Justin didn’t have the guts. We had been told never to swim there.