A Drowning
by PHILIP TATE
I

There is evidence of this: the boy was standing on the concrete boat ramp that descended at a steep angle from the roadway to the water, the ramp was covered with a film of wet moss—evident even in the black and white photograph—and behind him the river was swollen and swift, full of sticks and leaves and trash and the small black carcasses of river animals swept away by the flood.

II

All day and all night it had rained heavily, and in the morning when the sky cleared the water was still rising an inch or two an hour. The boy was four, a skinny blond boy with a belly protruding from beneath his red T-shirt—there is no doubt that it was red, even though the photograph is black and white—and he was holding a half-eaten apple in his right hand. He was smiling because he had not yet slipped on the moss.  Behind him the water rolled in broad waves into the sunlight, and whirlpools spun across the muddy surface. They had come to see it, the boy and his mother, because they were excited by the flood. “Let’s go see it!” she had said. She held the camera, a box Kodak, centering him in its viewfinder. She closed one eye; the other saw him and the fierce water as a tiny square of silver and black.

*   *   *

The boy is standing in the sun. It is hot on his back and the top of his head. He doesn’t want the apple, but there is nowhere to throw it. Not with his mother watching. He hears nothing but the water, loud and high, rolling and roaring behind him. And she has that black camera aimed at him, the tiny sharp light reflecting from its lens like a rainbow.

“Smile, Robert.”

He holds up his apple, smiles. All that water is behind him, even though the rain is over. The flood carries the whole roaring world past him, the bright, dark water, everything roaring past with more force than he can imagine. Water, he is thinking. Flood.

*   *   *

He was standing in the sun, there on the boat ramp. He was in her camera—the tiny silver image that would last forever—and then he was gone.

III

Her apartment is one room with a bed, a couch, and a small table with a chair next to it. The bathroom is down the hall, and she has no place to cook. It is a place to sleep, not a place to live and not a place to cook. It is a cold, colorless place with a dusty window overlooking the street. Much of the time she sits in the chair with her back to it. There is nothing she wants out there unless she is hungry, and then she wears a faded blue baseball cap and sunglasses that turn her eyes black and goes out after dark to the cafe down the street on the corner. Sammy’s, the steak house. She orders the smallest thing on the menu—a bowl of soup or a fried egg with toast—eats quickly, then returns to her apartment above the Old Yellow Front after leaving a dime tip on the table for Sammy. He smiles, but she will not look at him except to say, almost inaudibly, “Thank you,” as she leaves.

She bought a travel book at a sale, but she has not read it. Something about the Southwestern deserts. The slick photograph on the cover is yellow and dry, and some days she wipes her finger across it to gather the dust. She also has a pad of paper and a pencil, but she writes nothing. The black and white picture of Robert is on the round table beside her chair. The gold frame is now dusty, as is the glass covering the photo. It takes impossible strength to avoid looking at it. Some days she feels as if a big man has grabbed her head and is twisting her neck. Here, he would be saying, Look at it.

*   *   *

One morning she takes a few dirty clothes to the laundry in a basket. “You can do them yourself,” the woman said. “We got a laundromat, you know.”

She shook her head, mumbled something about water that made no sense, and went out.

Her life is so small she feels squeezed. She is thin and her skin is dry. She does nothing with her hair but stuff the ends inside her cap. On her left wrist she wears her husband’s watch. She punched another hole in the leather band with a nut pick to keep it from falling off. She winds it constantly, believing in a fluid sort of way that time is strange, that it must be watched. She twists its stem tight, feels the small ratcheting of its mechanism between her thumb and finger as seconds accounted for.

*   *   *

The boy is surprised to be on the riverbank. He should have been driven down into the water by the waves and whirlpools. He should be dead, lying in the mud, bashed against the rocks. But here he is. The flood carried him away too fast to let him drown; he rode the currents, so swift the world raced by above in sudden shades of gray, and the sun blinded him whenever his face rolled skyward. There was not even time to be scared: he slipped down the ramp and took off, riding the rapid water the way the sticks and branches and trash did, bobbing and twisting, his arms flailing. There was not even time to yell, to scream for her to save him.

The rocks feel strange on the tips of his fingers and the soles of his feet, like wet sandpaper. His boots are gone, and his t-shirt is ripped, but he is here in the cold sun, warming himself. His fingers tingle. All of him tingles, and all the world looks watery. The boy keeps blinking to get the water out of his eyes, keeps shaking his head to fling water from his hair, keeps leaning to the side to let the water drain from his ears. Puddles form beneath him on the rocks, catch the sunlight in flashes, then turn to mist.

He remembers his mother standing on the boat ramp, bent a little to lower the camera, her face hidden by it. She told him to smile. And then he slipped on the moss because of those too-big boots, and the water took him. This is all he remembers.

He should get up and walk back, but even though he is thinking it, his body won’t move. The boy sits in the sun, drying, looking at his hands, which are terribly white and pruney. He is too tired right now to get up. In a minute he will dry, the water that weighs him down will evaporate. He shakes some from his hair, wrings some from his shirt, runs his finger between his toes then flips muddy drops back into the river. There is so much water it is a wonder he got out alive. All about him is the sour smell of the flood, the smell of dead and dislodged things swept away by the water, and except for the bright sun the sky is terribly dark.

After a while he stands, then walks a bit numbly and dizzily away from the rocks and up the bank into a field of wheat. Behind him is a trail of dark water. The wheat is yellow and dry, and the wind whips it left and right. Waves sweep across the field and turn the wind yellow. It is warm and dusty in the field, but his body takes forever to dry.

He walks upstream. He walks against the river toward his mother.

*   *   *

He is not dead. They have not found him, and it has been a long time, but he is not dead. Nothing has washed up; nothing has been found. There is no evidence of a drowning. From her chair near the window, her back to it, she can see him walking up the bank to a wheat field, pushing off through it with determination. His thin arms make a V, separate the wheat as he pushes through it so he can come back. He is coming back.

But all those days have passed, each increment marked by her wristwatch, its secret counting of minute after minute, day after day, week after week. She winds it constantly, worries that she will lose track.

They should have found him and brought him back. She and the boy should be living their lives. But they are not living their lives. There was too much water. And they have found nothing, not even a boot. It is the thought of his boots that is too much for her. Sitting in the chair by the closed window she hangs her head and bawls terribly. For a day and a half she bawls into her arms and hands and whatever she can grab to muffle the sounds. Damp clothes and tissues gather around her on the floor. Small puddles form from her tears.

Then she screams. She screams at the room and the bed and the window and the ceiling and the floor and the pillows and the dishes and the candle and her underwear and her pen and the book she cannot read and the street below and the shoes on her feet and the knotted fists at the end of her arms.

She stops, sits erect, catches her breath that will not so easily be caught, and wipes her eyes with her soaked fingers.

He is dead. Her lip would not otherwise quiver so.

But she sees him climbing the bank to the wheat field, walking out into endless sunlight. She turns to look out the window, ratchets the stem of her watch. If it is a matter of water, the sun will dry water. If it is a matter of time, time will pass.

*   *   *

The wheat field is forever. The tops bend and blow, and the warm wind blows the yellow clouds over the boy and over the trees as far as he can see. Over everything is the sun. He walks toward the sun and along the river, but he is getting nowhere. Eventually it will be night, and he doesn’t want to be in the dark. The dry stalks rub his skin raw with a sound like water, and in the sun he turns red and raw. He stumbles and falls. Too tired to get up, he lies on his back and looks at the sun, watches the wheat twisting above him. Dust settles on him. It is dry and warm and he closes his eyes, watches the sun through his closed lids.

*   *   *

At dusk the Old Yellow Front switches on the electric sign hanging on the side of the building, and at ten o’clock they turn it off. For an hour or two during the summer months it turns her white room yellow. The sign is beneath her window, and below it the street is yellow and the buildings across the street are yellow, even the sidewalk where it turns around the corner and goes down those dark stairs to the shoe shop. Mel’s shop. Some nights she watches the stairs, believing in some impossible way that he will come up into the yellow light from the basement. He will turn off the wall of motors and belts and machinery, turn off the lights, then climb up to the street. Sometimes the shadows trick her, or a bat flies by, or someone will appear suddenly on the sidewalk, some man leaving the bar. Then her breath stops. For an instant her heart catches. Then everything returns to yellow. For an hour or two between dusk and dark it is that way, and then all goes black. Her watch dial glows green. The numbers glow, and the hands, which would escape her if she let them, circle in a radioactive glow.

Yellow and green mark her night, and then she goes to bed. She lies in the dark, a sheet pulled to her chin, with the light of the street lights on the ceiling. Every few minutes she winds her watch, tightening its spring so the whole thing won’t get away from her. She watches the night on her ceiling, and then, when it is nearly daylight, she may fall asleep. Later, she gets up and washes. The bathroom is down the hall. She imagines someone talking to her someday, asking why she’s there. She will raise her fingers in front of their face and twist them just so, creating an obscenity. Go to hell, her fingers will say. Go fuck yourself.

The single bathroom door has a sign hanging from a string and suspended from a nail. It says either “men” or “woman.” Forget the rusted pipes and the dirty tub, the half-clogged drains, the hair that collects everywhere in dark and wet blobs, and the dampness of things that never dry. It is the sign that irritates her. She stands facing it, a towel folded over her arm and a bar of soap inside waxed paper in her left hand, waiting for a man to exit. She would notice none of this if not for the idle time when she can do nothing but wait for some man to take care of his business. The second hand of her watch counts off seconds like bullets. If she is not careful, her thoughts would return to that dark river and the red blur of her boy disappearing into the flood, so she fixes her attention on the sign, on the disturbing tick of her watch. Someday she will be able to choose when to think of him. She will allow him to come back when she is alone, when she is feeling strong enough to remain standing when the image of him suddenly appears before her eyes. But today it is the sign. It is the watch.

A man exits. His dark hair is wet and he nods to her, then is gone, his bare feet leaving dark shiny wet spots on the dusty floor. She flips the sign to “woman,” goes in and scrubs. In the foggy mirror she practices signing with her fingers, forms a small O, then a clump of fingers that resemble a knot. This is what I will say, she thinks. When they ask me why I’m here.

*   *   *

It must be noon. The sun is as high and bright as it can get. The wind is gone, and down among the wheat it is hot. The boy gets up, feels dizzy for a while before he can move off toward his mother, up there along the river where the moss is so deceptively slick. The wheat is forever. He puts his hands together and makes a V. Rough stalks flow past his arms, brush his shoulders, his legs. It is like moving through water, the sound of it like water, and he knows he can’t do it forever. Someday he will come out of it. Something else will be there. He has a vague feeling that he has done all this before; he can almost see his path in front of him. And the water still drips from him, turns the dirt dark.

*   *   *

Sammy is a man of forty-five who cooks and waits tables at his little restaurant at the corner of Elm and Tenth. He holds an order pad when he listens to her, but he writes nothing down. “Is that all?” he asks in his Greek accent. When she says nothing, he goes to the kitchen. She waits, listens to her watch tick. He returns to pour her coffee, soon after brings a plate of pancakes and a syrup dispenser. He looks at her, says, “You remind me of Mel’s wife. The shoe man. You know, down around the corner.”

She raises her left hand and blocks her vision of him and begins to eat. He goes to the back. The pancakes taste sour. She chokes a little, then eats more, drinks the bitter coffee, wipes her mouth. After half a pancake she stops, feels her ribs with a finger, believing she could become nothing. If she stopped doing this, this sugar and flour and grease. She imagines herself gaunt, breastless, with barely enough muscle to move from her bed to the chair, from the chair to here.

Sammy comes back. “Some milk?” he asks. “Anything? I can fix anything you want.”

“No thank you.”

“You live down the street? Those apartments?” He points with his thumb.

She nods.

“I thought maybe Mel’s wife. He was killed in the war, you know. The shoe man.”
She looks at him, then away. Something is taking her breath. She wishes only that he would leave, that she could be left alone to read the menu and hold her coffee beneath her face and be alone. Under the table, her fingers form that ugly knot.

*   *   *

Sammy closes the restaurant at eleven and goes for a ride in the country with his girlfriend, Arlene. She is fifteen years younger, and his wife knows nothing. Sammy and Arlene take long rides in the country in his car. They stop on a lonely road and talk about how unfair life is before they begin to grope each other and kiss with their eyes closed and their arms clasped about each other. Half naked, they believe that the world is all for them. And when they are done, life seems less unfair but full of guilt, and they drive back in the dark, the summer air drying their sweat and blowing away the odors of what they have done. They feel full of life, though a bit drained, as if they are getting everything out of it they can. She leans against the door, her elbow out the window, the yellow glow of the radio on her face. Some girl is singing about love. Sammy is not a good driver and he drives too fast, and one night just after passing an abandoned gas station in the country he misses a curve and hits a tree. It is over in a tenth of a second. Arlene is thrown out of the car and breaks her neck, and Sammy is pinned inside the car between the deformed seat and the steering wheel, bleeding from every part of him that can bleed, and then he dies, thinking not of Arlene and how the world is full of them and their love but of his restaurant, how there will be no one to cook, how everything in the freezer will rot.

*   *   *

It is closed. There is no sign, but the door is locked. She stands for a while in the summer night air, half believing that he will come along any minute and open up, but then she leaves, walking back up Elm Street. She presses her fingertips lightly on her stomach to determine if the mild burning there comes from hunger. Maybe, she thinks, but it may be cancer, an ulcer, some insidious thing she cannot see. And there is nowhere else to eat, not at this hour. There is only the bar, which she has passed hundreds of times, but it is no place for a woman. There is the sound and smell of the bar, the beer and smoke and whatever games the men are playing that makes them whoop and holler. For a minute she stands at the door, feeling the burn in her stomach, then goes in.

The bar is full of men, red-faced and sweaty. Smoke is thick, as is the smell of beer. No one is eating.

A man in a white shirt and cowboy hat is behind the bar. “Who you looking for?” he says.

“I’m hungry.”

“Who?” He leans closer, cups his hand behind his ear.

“I said I’m hungry.” She raises her hand to make a sign, but then drops it to her side.

“This is a bar, lady. I’ve got Slim Jims and beef jerky, pickled eggs and pickled pigs feet, some cold popcorn, but this ain’t where you come to eat.”

“Sammy’s is closed. There’s nobody.”

“Sammy is dead.” He looks at her from beneath his hat, its brim darkening his eyes as if he knows things, serious things. Right now he knows that Sammy is dead.

She looks at his white shirt, the hat that darkens his face.

“Wrecked his car last night. Him and his girlfriend. Deader than hell.”

She checks her watch, winds it a twist or two. “What’s a Slim Jim?”

“A little goddamn sausage thing.” He picks one up from the rack and peels back the plastic wrapping. “Take a bite.”

She does. It is salt and grease and meat. She has not eaten for a long time, and she eats it quickly.

It is ten after nine. She winds her watch to make sure. When the bartender returns to ask her if she
wants a beer she gestures with her fingers, twisting them unnaturally so they say Go to hell.

“I guess that’s a ‘no’” he says.

The burning in her stomach has lessened and moved higher and to the right; she touches the center of it, just below her breast, presses inward to see if it is cancer.

*   *   *

The car is black and badly damaged. Mud and dust cover it, and the windshield on the passenger side is mostly gone. That’s where Arlene went. The car is beside the body shop down the street from Sammy’s. She looks in the broken side window at the bent steering wheel and the twisted seat. She looks for signs of blood, sniffs for signs of life.

*   *   *

If the boy could find a house, he would ask for something to eat, a hard-boiled egg or a bologna sandwich, but he’s been walking forever and is as hungry as he has ever been. Hungrier. He would ask for some crackers, a glass of milk, some macaroni. He would take about anything because he is so hungry. He must have been walking for a hundred miles through the field since he got out of the water. The water seems like forever ago, that crazy ride in the current, that flopping up on the rocky bank. He will ask them for bread, that’s all. Leftovers. He doesn’t care what it is. He is so hungry.

The wheat tastes like dust. He eats stalk after stalk, picks them as he walks, lets them rest in his mouth a while to soften up, then chews and swallows. His stomach burns.

*   *   *

She eats a Slim Jim. The pain beneath her breast subsides, then returns.

“Water?” the bartender says, but she makes a sign, turns it so he will know. “Beer? That’s about all I got.”

She puts her hands in her lap, nods.

The beer is cold and foamy, and after the greasy meat she is grateful. She is so hungry.

*   *   *

Due to a mistake by the young man hired to close up, the yellow light stays on until eleven. For that hour she paces the room, winding her watch even though it is already wound tight. Then her room is perfectly dark, and rather than turn on the electric light she lights a candle. It flickers yellow, and she uses it to find her way down the hall to the bathroom. It says “Woman,” so she goes in. She is afraid that some man will be in here who forgot to change the sign. She doesn’t want to be in the bathroom with a man. The twisting of the neck.

She sits on the toilet. Against her will she is thinking of her husband who left one afternoon on a very long train for an even longer war and never came back, not even dead. She got his watch, the letters she had written him, and a few coins. She put everything in a corner of the bedroom in their old house, along with his clothes, shoes, and boots. She looks away, shifts her thoughts to the scratched initials on the stall beside her. Y + B. A loves S. She traces them with her finger, the details of shape, color, and texture. The candle between her feet casts wild shadows everywhere.

She believes that her life is now determined: it will be the gray emptiness of forgetting and the constant reminder of death, the constant fight against the twisting neck. It will be Sammy careening off the road and killing himself and the young woman. It will then be someone else. She will read about them in the newspaper, or someone will tell her. She will be sitting in the bar, and someone will surprise her with a story. Just last night, they will say, because that’s the way death comes, when you are looking at something else. She reaches for the toilet paper, reels off an arm’s length in a long, white swath.

*   *   *

At the end of the field the boy sees a house. It is tall and white and all around it is a white fence with a huge gate at the front. He runs through the field until he is there, and then he opens the gate and climbs the long steps up to the house and knocks on the door. A little girl answers. She is wearing a white dress and has a white bow in her hair. “Who are you?” she says, the door half open.

“Robert. I’m hungry.”

She laughs at first, then stops. “Really?”

“I’ve been eating that wheat,” he says, pointing back to the endless field.

“Why?”

“I was hungry. I fell in the water, and it’s been I don’t know how long since I ate.”

“How old are you?”

“Four.”

“Then why do you talk like a man?”

“I don’t.”

“I thought you were a man. You said, ‘I’ve been eating wheat,’ just like a man, a grown up.” She comes out onto the porch. “But you’re not. I see that.”

“Could I have something to eat?”

“Are you a midget?”

He turns to look at the wheat field, but the sun is too much and everything that was white is too much and he doesn’t know what happens but everything goes dark. He feels his eyes flutter.

*   *   *

That winter Sammy’s opens again as the Elm Street Cafe. It looks the same, but a woman named Edna runs the place. She cooks, waits tables, and takes the money. She is not as friendly as Sammy, but the food is no different. In the spring it closes. At the bar they tell her it was because she wasn’t Sammy and people went there because of him. She points to the Slim Jims. It is nine o’clock. It is time to eat.

The bartender brings her a Slim Jim with a glass of beer, then begins to wipe the counter.

She eats with her eyes closed, drinks her beer with her eyes closed. When she is finished—it is ten after nine—she goes to her room above the Old Yellow Front. The light is already out, which terrifies her. She winds her watch. Winds it again. It is getting away from her, she thinks. All that is held back pushes up against her, shows her what it feels like.

The room is dark and cold. Summer will come, but for now the days are too short and the nights long. She wishes at times that there were more of her. She has grown terribly thin. She knows that some people give up on life and starve themselves, but she has not given up on life. There is too much to live for.

*   *   *

“I guess you’re my brother now.”

“I guess so.”

“You’re really a little boy, aren’t you?”

“I always was.”

“Then you’re my brother, and we’ll play all day and next year we’ll go to school. I can’t tell you how happy we’ll be.” She wears nothing but white, even in the winter. Her coat is brilliantly white, as is her hat, her gloves, her thick pants, her shoes. In the spring she wears lighter clothes, and in the summer, when the wheat comes back and grows tall and green and then turns that golden yellow, she wears white shorts and a thin blouse.

The boy often wanders off by himself. He knows his mother is somewhere. Somewhere along the river. She will be looking for him. But as time goes by he stays closer to the house. There is the little girl, and her family is a cloud of people who are beyond him but they care for him and feed him and give him clothes for the season. He is never hungry, and he is never cold. All day he plays with the little girl. They go along the garden walk and swing on the rope hanging from the huge tree in the back. They play marbles and hopscotch and jacks. They play all day and at night she goes to her room and he goes to his. There, after people come in some vague cloudy way and say good night and tuck him in, he lies awake and stares at the moon, knowing that his mother will see the same moon.

The days flicker past like the movies, one image after another. The seasons are almost as quick, cycles of heat and light and the wheat that comes with the summer. Afternoons, while the little girl—his sister—is napping or sitting quietly with a book, he wanders off to the fields where the warm, bright dust reminds him of his mother. It takes him back, even the smell of it, that dusty warm smell. He lies on the ground, the wheat golden above him. Then the little girl stands on the porch and calls him: “Hey!” she says. “Let’s play,” and the boy gets up sleepily, half dizzy from lying in the sun and letting his mind go back so far, and he goes to the porch where she is standing in her white dress and the little summer wind is twisting the bottom of it. But then it is over, and it is the next season, then the next year, and one day he is standing at the bottom of the porch steps and he is seventeen. All his life is behind him, a flickering of light and dust. Where, he wonders, did it go? He touches his stomach, where a little pain has developed.

They get in the car, the girl and the boy in the back seat, her parents, who are looking old and gray, in the front. They say nothing about where they are going, but dust rises behind them as they race down the road that runs straight through the wheat fields. They are moving parallel to the river, and the pain in the boy’s stomach grows more intense from the thought of finding his mother. He imagines her standing there with her camera, still bent to get him in the picture, and behind him the river rises and swells with the flood. He imagines that the life he lost will pick up again and he can live it the way he should have. But then they turn left and drive off on some black road with the sun at their backs and he knows that it will not be today. He will not see her today.

“What are you crying about?” she says.

“Nothing.”

“Then stop it.”

“Really,” they all say. “That’s enough. You’re too old for that.”

The boy stops crying because he knows that a few more days will fly by and he will be thirty. He will be forty. Time works that way. He has watched it strike like lightning, burn a years’s worth of seconds in a flash.

*   *   *

The days fall flat, one on the other. She sleeps, she eats. The dark, the light. The yellow. Someday she will change, but not today. There is no energy today. She sits near the window watching snow gather on the window sill and on the tops of the street lights. It appears yellow in the light. It is a sad snow, so silent, and she cannot help but cry for it. She gathers the front of her shirt in her fingers, pulling it tighter about her. There is not much left of her. She has so little left she believes that she is about to run out. Hunger eats at her. She is a little dizzy, as if she has just stood up, but she has not; she is in the chair near the window with the sad yellow snow falling and gathering on everything. She worries that if she goes out her dress will fall from her shoulders. She worries that there is not enough of her to hold it up. She worries that she will fall down; there is that dizziness, that burning hunger that has grown too big. She worries that she may fall down into the snow and die, and if she dies then everything will be gone. Everything.

It is the fall of days, the light and dark, the measure of time that picks her up, drives her out into the cold in nothing but that thin dress that hangs from her. All her life pushes her, all that she has missed, the time that has forever been held back. It is that, and it is the allure of a rubbery stem of greasy meat.

But meat no longer agrees with her. When she returns to her apartment she waits at the bathroom door, then goes in to throw it up. Afterward, she stands at the sink to look at herself in the mirror. She signs with her fingers. It is not go to hell; it is something else that she can’t quite say. Her crooked fingers stab the air. You know what this means, she thinks, but she will not say it. You know. You know.

*   *   *

The boy will be fifty. Sixty. He will not live forever, but he will live a very long time, and he will be happy every minute. His future extends before him like those warm and breezy wheat fields. It is an endless burst of yellow, an endless blue sky, a breeze that is forever warm.

“You’ve really got to grow up,” they tell him, so he wipes his nose, his eyes, turns his face toward the wheat fields racing past the car so they cannot see him.

*   *   *

A man is looking down at her. “Lady, you all right?” he says.

She would answer him, but there is nothing left with which to answer him. Only her breath, shallow and cold, and the thin clouds above her face in the yellow light.

“No coat even,” he says, pulling her up by her thin torso. “And no socks.” The man, whose face is dark and unclear, lifts her half up from the sidewalk. “Listen,” he says, “You ain’t dead, are you?”

Her eyes will not focus.

He lifts her into a sitting position in the doorway to the Old Yellow Front. “I can’t carry you home,” he says. “I mean, I guess I could. You don’t weigh nothing. I thought you was a little girl.”

“I live here,” she says, but it is as if someone else has said it. As she points up, her watch slips down toward her elbow. It is almost ten o’clock.

“Well, come on, then.” He carries her up to her room, puts her into the chair by the window. “I could call someone,” he says. He takes a blanket from the couch and spreads it about her. “Jeez, it’s cold in here.”

“I just need a little time.”

“I could call a doctor for you. You got a phone?”

“I’m all right. Give me a minute.”

“You got anyone to call? I mean, who you got?”

*   *   *

He is fifty. He will live to a hundred and fifty, maybe longer. As the car turns again and drives along the river, the boy closes his eyes against the sun. The car window is open, and the air rushes in against his face and blows his hair wildly. Everything is racing past, the sun, the wind, and he doesn’t know if he is leaving everything behind or just now catching up. But he knows there will be no more crying. He is living a happy, full life, and the woman at his side, the beautiful woman dressed in white with the white bow in her hair, loves him so much she would give her own life for his, more than that, and the children—surely they have children—are beautiful and smart and happy. They will have them for a thousand years.

“Are you crying again?” they say, and then he really wails because he feels such a deep emptiness he can’t help it. He cries into his sleeve, his head turned from them because the shame is more than he can bear. His face is wet and hot but there is nothing he can do about it.

“What a baby,” they say. “A baby crying for his mama. It’s time to stop all that.”

They come to a bridge. It crosses the river, and as they cross it the loose timbers rattle like thunder beneath the car. The boy gets a glimpse of the brown water. It is high and roiling, sweeping everything along with it. It is a terrible flood, but then it is behind them and in the distance the blue sky turns to slate. In no time it will be dark, and he will be lost. No wheat, no sun, no girl, no car. No mother. All his life will feel like nothing, and he will touch his fingertip to his cheek to see.

*   *   *

“Lady, you got anybody?” The man’s face is yellow in the light, his hair shiny black.


The room is blue and yellow and red, and all its lines are at an angle. Maybe she has wet her pants. Maybe her body is turning to water. Something runs from her in waves and currents. “My boy,” she says.

“Is this him?” He picks up the photo from the table.

She nods.

“Where is he? I’ll let him know.”

She can say nothing.

“Hey, lady, where is he? Lady?”

She would point toward the river, but her fingers are beyond her will and make a complicated and grotesque sign that means a thousand years of happiness. A thousand years. Then time, held back too long, sweeps swiftly forward.

PHILIP TATE is a fiction writer who teaches at Tompkins Cortland Community College in upstate New York. His story “Monsters” is forthcoming in Battered Suitcase, and “Dam” was the winner of the Black Warrior Review annual fiction contest. He is working on two novels. He holds an MFA from Vermont College.