Dylan Nice

The Big Water


     The air outside the car window smelled like wet heat and engine oil. I sat in the backseat pushing my pinky into the cigarette burns in the upholstery. We’d driven the car off a used lot earlier that morning: a sedan with high mileage and a defect in the paint that wouldn’t show until my mother let the wax wear off.

     Smoke from her cigarette curled toward me while my brother Elliot and his friend Darren filled the tank and checked the fluids. We were heading to where Darren’s dad used to take him on trips to snag spawning salmon on four-pronged hooks. The river they fished was big and had a name that sounded like clarity. Now Darren’s dad was turning yellow from liver cancer and it was my mother driving us north. She said this trip was for all us boys, but it was clear it had a particular appeal for Elliot, who had been afforded Darren’s company.

     While Elliot manned the nozzle, Darren made like he was going to flick his lighter near where t  he gas dripped and disappeared into vapor.

     “Think we can trust those two not to set themselves on fire?” my mother asked.

     The two of them had been brought together by their mutual disregard for themselves. They had collaboratively failed the seventh grade and were sent to a Christian school, where they instigated costly property damage: doors off their hinges, drop-ceilings broken from their moorings, upset the chaste with arrogance and cynicism. Elliot was once suspended for reading aloud ad copy concerning a tampon’s new, smooth applicator.
I admired both of them, imagined myself capable of similar mockery. If I ever made them laugh, I gave myself no credit, wrote it off, assumed they’d found a greater irony at my expense.

     “The antifreeze is dry,” Darren said, getting back in the car.

     “It’s the hottest day of the year,” Elliot said. “We won’t freeze up.”

     We drove out of the valley, past strip mines and rock walls. Conveyer systems crossed the road at power-line height, drawing from a pile of coal on one side and dumping it into a new one on the other. Loaded tri-axles pulled out slowly, trailing black smoke, pulling soot over the already covered macadam.

     If the wind from the open window caught my hair right, I could see in the side view mirror a scar high on my forehead from a piece of shale Elliot had side-armed at my face. I was standing on our lawn’s long grass. Elliot was across the road, atop a defunct coal tipple. I watched him pick up pieces of shale, feel their weight, grip them between his thumb and index finger, until he found a flat, heavy one. His arms were long and his eyes dark under the brim of his hat. I watched the shale leave his hand, spin into a high arc. I didn’t move as it came toward me. Still-warm blood ran down my nose. It pooled in my eyes. Elliot slid down the pile and held the hem of my T-shirt until the blood scabbed.

     “Someone throws a rock at you,” he said, “you get out of the way.”

     He couldn’t take people who remained silent while he hurt them. He needed you to hurt him back.

     “Don’t fuck around,” he said, throwing the bloody shirt into the burn barrel. “Someone shoves you, break their nose before they think you’ve caught your balance.”

     I couldn’t hear what he was saying now over the open windows. Mom bore right toward the interstate ramp and rolled them up. Elliot was hitting the seek button on the radio. It stopped on a song with a lot of saxophone and lyrics about someone being at the door.

     “I like that song,” I said.

     “You would, Queerbait,” Elliot said, changed the station.

     “Put it back.”

     “It’s a gay song, honey,” Mom said.

     I laughed, desperate to be in the inside of my own humiliation. All of our casual conversations were a contest of cynicism. I was just beginning to learn that any earnestness was risky. That it might be a liability to be the meeker son of the man my mother divorced. A man so earnest he turned tragically devout, loyal to his failures, humorless toward them. I spent a few minutes mulling over what was wrong with us. I was beginning to find myself more comfortable walking aimlessly through a mall after church with our dad, eating carrots from a sandwich bag, then trying to impress Mom and Elliot with my sense of irony.

     “Canoes,” Darren said. “I remember you can rent canoes and take them down the river.”

     He was a big kid who wore his hair tucked into his ball cap and lowered his ear if I spoke too softly. We were both younger brothers, felt ourselves an addition to the elder.

     “Look at this, Elliot,” Mom said. “The temperature gauge.”

     I looked past my mother’s hair, her dangling earring, to the dash. The engine was running in the red end of the gauge.

     The car lost power and we coasted to the shoulder. For a moment, no one said anything while the gusts from the semis swayed the car. We were the type of people who were unused to vacations and asked too much from them. Even good parts saddened us somehow, and the things that went wrong only confirmed in us our right to feel angry about our lives. I was seized by the simple knowing that our dysfunction had been brought on by small but unyielding incompetence. We bought our cars used and without engine coolant.

     Elliot and Darren started toward the station, down the garbage-strewn side of the road. They got far enough to light a cigarette before two eighteen wheelers pulled up behind us and a third stopped in front. The three drivers’ boots crunched on the gravel. They wore blank T-shirts and the first week of a beard. The biggest of them was already carrying a jug full of water.

     Two of the drivers joked to my mother about especially needing antifreeze in the heat while the third poured water into the reservoir.

     “If you see that gauge spike again,” he said. “You turn on the heat full blast. Your car pulls that heat off the engine.”

     The trucks pulled away from our car one at a time. The next few miles we asked each other who would sell a car with a dry radiator. A bad dealer. We recalled stupid things we’d noticed about him that morning, the snuff he rubbed, the slowness of his speech while he called the car cherry. For a long time the things I said went unmolested and the mountains around us steepened.

     Darren knew better where we were headed, told us to look for a big Indian, then take a right at the totem pole. The woods were thick enough along the road that we drove in a constant shade. Log cabins sat at the ends of short drives parked with family sedans, mountain bikes strapped to their bumpers. The night was cold. Elliot and Darren burned my mother’s empty beer case in the fire ring and crazy-glued river stones to the picnic table while she slept inside the cabin. The breakdown had exhausted her—she said again that the trip was for you boys, that in a better world, our father would know to book it.

     I watched the white of my breath fade in front of me and guessed it was below freezing.

     “Not in July,” Darren said. “Forties, maybe.”

     “Don’t be a reject and say reject things,” Elliot said.

     You could hear the nearby cabin’s radios, the crush of beer cans, smell the richer scent of fires burning maple instead of garbage. It was never suggested that this trip was a kindness to Darren, a way of honoring his dying father, because it wasn’t. We were not sentimental people. Elliot got it in his head that this is what he wanted to do: he took Darren because I was poor company.

     Elliot looked toward the cabin to make sure the lights were out before he took a cigarette from his pack. I sat at the picnic table watching the cardboard smolder till the wind caught it again.

     “The cabin my dad used to book,” Darren said, “wasn’t so close to the other cabins.” They talked for a while about things they thought were awesome: pot that had orange hairs on it, unlikely combustibles, impractical weaponry. I’d inject sometimes only to find out my contribution was in fact not awesome.

     The two of them already sensed the better things they’d lost and learned the dignity of feigning indifference. Darren didn’t talk in stunted sentences about watching his father get worse with cancer. Elliot didn’t mention how much our father’s humility disgusted him. They’d learned to be angry, talk angry about everything except what they were angry about. They stole their mothers’ cigarettes and clipped the filters so they dragged harder, poured gasoline in coffee cans and breathed the vapor until their bodies felt like cleaner machines. I’d huffed with Darren once. The afternoon sun turned a chemical yellow. We stumbled through the woods until our shoes came off in a septic swamp and we were sobered by the filth. Tonight, Darren had a water bottle of Wild Turkey he let me smell. They drank until their hardness broke and they found the same uncertainty they mocked me for. Any of us might have been cowards.

     I was glad to be quiet then, glad they left silence alone. Their young faces shown in the firelight. They sharpened a hatred for kids with mall clothes and pretty sisters.

     A solid sense of inadequacy had coalesced from the cloud of nonsense details that made up their lives. I had stopped keeping track of how I felt. I found it easier to think of my time as worthless and my life as just few clicks inside of existing. I went inside, brushed my teeth, and put myself to bed.

     The next morning was cold but warmed while we drove to the canoe rental. The plywood floor already had wet footprints and puddles where people had dripped. A woman with dyed hair and lose skin took my mother’s money. An old man in flannel stood behind her, opened the door to spit, leaned back against the wall. Hundreds of hats hung from ropes behind him.

     “It’ll take you most of the day to get down the river,” the woman said. “Be sure to grab life preservers before you get in the van. The river’s low, but we still recommend it.”

     She pointed to the rack of dry-rotted orange vests against the wall behind us.

     “Why all the hats?” Elliot said.

     “It’s the lost and found, things that wash up on shore” she said. “Keys, hats, and shoes mostly, but we got boxes of the more miscellaneous. Class rings, foreign currency, a false limb.”

     It seemed obvious that most of this stuff wasn’t lost, it was abandoned. She turned a few of the hats so we could see what was written on them.

     “We should show these boys the snapper head,” the man said, looking up, winking at me. He reached up on the shelf and pulled down something big, military green, with nostrils. He set it on the counter, spun it slowly.

     “They’re real calm in the water. Only get moody when they’re on the ground,” he said. “I’d show you how big the mouth is but the jaw’s seized shut.”

     We took the van with other families. I remember nothing that was said—there was daylight through the trees, unfamiliar children on brown seats, the hair on my arms still too light to see. My mother sat looking straight ahead; she’d disappear behind her eyes. It’d take saying her name four times, a nudge on the thigh to bring her back. She liked iced beer, the ocean, had no real interest in church-style vans or canoeing.

     The van left us off at a shallow, brown stretch of water. The sun was strong and insects buzzed in the high grass. Our canoes scraped against the rocks till the river deepened. I leaned over and ran my fingers across the clean top of the water.

     “Sit still,” my mother said, her tone indicating this was an activity to be endured, to be wary of trying to enjoy myself. I wanted to be in the water, totally inside of what we’d set out to do, totally away from deliberateness they asked from me but I did not possess. I wanted the water itself, to be taken by it, the perfect movement of it. The sky was noon and colorless.

     Mom used her paddle to push us away from the exposed rocks. Canoes carrying families in lifejackets glided past us, women called names with concern and affection. Ahead, Darren and Elliot took quickly to alternating paddles to keep their canoe straight and put some distance between us.

     Meanwhile, the river narrowed and the other people started rowing ashore to lay on the broad rocks, their children played in the calm backwater. Elliot waded into river first. I asked him how it was, undoing the laces of my shoes.

     “I wish I’d left mine on,” he said. “Some rocks are sharp.”

     The collar of my mother’s shirt was darkening with sweat. She turned toward me. I couldn’t see her eyes through her sunglasses. Her hair was up, but she’d lost her prettiness in the heat and her displeasure.

     “Those are your shoes till fall,” she said. “Tie them up good.”

     I pulled at each cross in the lace, and then knotted the slack tight at the tongue.

     The water was cold, shin-high, soaked into the fabric of my shoes and made them heavy. Elliot swam farther down the river, toward where the current quickened. I let the river pull me slowly downstream, watched shafts of light flicker on the surface. I wanted to see things on my own—it was different that way. Alone, my joy was in no danger. I imagined the water speeding to a rapid and crashing over me, sluices of mud, jungle-like greenery on either side, topless women.

     My black shirt was pulling in all the sun’s heat and sweat was salting my lips. Mom drifted past a bend in the river. I laid stomach-down in the water, grabbed rocks on the bottom to pull myself forward. I liked to imagine I was an alligator, something sinister in the water, quietly ready to enact something violent in my nature. I could see the ordinary children ahead of me; I might swim there with deadly silence, grab them and pull them away into nothingness.

     Past the bend, I could see the water moving faster in a channel between steep, rocky banks. Elliot swam on his back at the far end of the narrow stretch of river. Mom and Darren, alone in their canoes, rowed slowly to stay in place, waiting. After long, I could only touch the rocks beneath me with the tips of my fingers, and then not at all.

     I pulled my legs back under me to stand, but my soles slipped off the smooth stones and the current carried me to a deep pool in the river: I kicked my feet, tried to tread water, but my shoes were too heavy. I lifted my head to keep my nose above water, took a breath and held, pushed myself down to reach my shoes. The laces were too tight and I gave up, but I was too deep now to resurface easily. I found myself in that moment when you know what’s happening is a big deal.

     With the arch of my left shoe I pried my right foot out of the shoe and sock, but my bare right foot provided me nothing against prying off the left shoe. My body was calling up desperate maneuvers from deep within its small electricity. Kicking with one naked foot, I came to the top of the water. The sky came white all the way down to me. I made the loudest sound my breath could afford.

     I remember one woman, standing high on the rock in a black swimming suit, her wet hair in tight curls past her sunglasses while she looked down on me. I could see my brother far away but swimming toward me, his hair slicked across his face. It looked like he stopped, bobbed in the water, watched.

     “Get him out of the water,” our mother screamed. Her paddle skidded impotently on the surface of the water.

     I was bigger now that they couldn’t reach me. I could die. I could become their whole lives. Oxygen burned. I stopped moving and let myself wait.
A hand gripped me under my arm so hard it hurt. I felt a second hand grab me from under the other arm and then my face and chest against the cold side of a canoe. I saw a man pulling me over the side, saying come on now, come on now. He wore a mustache, a clean shirt buttoned up and tucked in. He was alone.

     “I heard you from a long way up there,” he said. “I was the closest one up stream.”

     “I couldn’t get my shoes off,” I said.

     “This river gets deep fast,” he said.

     He rowed me to shore, nodded at my mother who sighed in loud gratitude, and pushed himself back out into the river. Warm mud coated my one bare foot while I climbed up the slick bank. There was an ache all the way through me, the feeling of thousands of little tears in the connecting parts of me. I was the kid you couldn’t trust not to drown, a burden to add to the other burdens.

     “We’re not going back out into that water,” Mom said, back on shore.

     “How else would we get back?” Elliot said.

     Darren still sat in their boat, its metal bottom scraping the shore’s rocks.

     “I can take him if you guys want to switch off,” he said.

     I took off my remaining shoe and threw it in the bottom of Darren’s canoe. I didn’t want to talk about the stranger who had saved me—it was embarrassing: I began to doubt if I needed saving at all, if I couldn’t have held my breath until the water carried me back to the shallows. Darren made up funny stories about the people we passed. If a man were rummaging through a bag, he was looking for his laxatives. A woman wrapped in a towel was buck naked underneath. He’d look back to see if I was grinning. We reached a long empty stretch of the river, Elliot and Mom a good deal behind us. I closed my eyes. Had I been able to be by myself, I would have sat against a tree and cried with fear and exhaustion. Elliot and Mom rowed ten yards behind us, my mother sometimes yelling that we should look out for my lost shoe. I imagined it going green from moss and the glue of its sole splitting.

     “You gave us a bad scare, kid,” Darren said.

     “I know.”

     “I rowed toward you. It was hard to tell if I was getting any closer.”

     We would have saved each other just to keep things the same a while longer. There was the sun low orange and broken by the thin trunks of pine on the horizon. Light caught the top of the water in flashes faster than my eye could make sense of. The green and brown of the trees had deepened with the weaker glow. Ahead, the river opened the view of a bridge in the distance. Darren rowed us through the shallow water back to the dock, possessed by that simple task. I let him figure I wasn’t going to talk. I was done opening my mouth for the day; you opened your mouth and no one knew what to say to you.


first published in MAKE



Dylan Nice’s first book, Other Kinds, was published by Short Flight / Long Drive Books last year. His essays and fiction have appeared in NOON, Hobart, Brevity, and Fourth Genre. He lives and teaches in Pittsburgh.