A short story.
The river like a mother, swaddles him in weeds, takes him to her swollen bosom, loves him too much. She tucks him in a bed of kelp, and with rough affection, she keeps the child to herself. The Kennebec, at her mouth the taste of salt.
Jim lets out a silent breath, stifling noises that seep unbidden from his throat. He presses his face in the pillow. Curls into himself, only to uncurl, turning and turning until the sheets twist into ropes.
Ann lies still beside him, her breath uneven, the space between them big as the river and widening. If he moves to the living-room couch she'd be better off. Without him, she might have a chance at sleep.
Since their move to Maine, and the wedding, they'd never spent a night apart. Not that they lay lap to back. Both needed more space. Ann always slept close enough for him to touch her arm, and hear her breath lengthen in drowsy rhythm.
He wants to kiss her shoulder, but he slips out of the bed, pulls the covers up carefully, and creeps barefoot over the wide pine floor, a creak with every step. Before he gets to the door she says, That sofa will wreak your back. True enough, Mission Oak wasn't designed to float dreams.
He rumples his hair with both hands and rubs his face as if to wash away the river's salt. He feels it in his nose, he tastes it. No matter how many showers he takes, it's sticky on his skin. I've got to walk.
Wait, I'll come too, and they both put on jackets. There's a snap to the June night, spring arrested before full leaf. Stars faint in endless dark. An owl hoots. As it glides overhead, a hush before it scoops some unwary vole.
Let's stay by the house, Ann says, Clair might wake up. Poor thing's afraid of the dark again.
Poor thing indeed, no one to need her bravery. Without Jake she's the baby now. And she'd been so proud, boasting, I'm almost five, and Jake only two, closer to three really.
As they walk, Ann leans into Jim, an arm around his waist. Don't ever sleep on the couch. I'd rather be awake. No matter what. Her forgiveness floods him. For the moment, a constellation in the void of his belly.
Come gray morning, on the dock again, Jim scans the water. The late spring runoff and moon-high tides have pulled debris from the shore. It's been four weeks, six days, and two hours since his son Jake vanished.
Loons call. Their long cries arc over the Kennebec. Jim used to love their laughing tremolos. That was before he learned to speak loon, before he knew the why of those tremolos, the worry, the fear in their stutter. But the loons will go soon and brood on inland lakes where the waters are calm and frogs abound.
Jake used to catch frogs. Bullfrogs his favorite. He'd hold a captive out, green and round in stubby hands, its legs with black splotches dangling to his knees. Is this one a prince?
Shit. Jim grinds his eyes. He sees Jake in every shadow, hears his step in nighttime noises, wind in loose windows, the dog scratching, the steps when no one walks.
Last night in the few minutes he escaped wakefulness, he heard the splash. The splash he should have heard that day. And this time he turned to see Jake's towhead bobbing just off the dock. An easy reach. All he had to do was pick up the boat hook and snag his collar. But the boat hook slipped in his bait-covered hands. He couldn't aim it and the hook dropped in the water like a chunk of ballast tipping him off balance, and in his slow fall toward the water he saw Jake laughing and waving as the tide spun him up river.
Jim lunged out of sleep, only to find himself standing confused by the empty space where Jake's crib used to be.
Ann rattles down the gangway and sits beside him. He's still in T-shirt, boxers, and socks, his cheeks rough from days of inattention. She takes his face in her hands and turns it to her. His eyes stray to the water.
Stop now, she says. No more. She kisses his forehead. Come. Have breakfast.
But food doesn't fit in his throat. Fried eggs stare at him, a slight wobble to the whites as Ann sets the plate on the table. The toast from her homemade bread, he could as easily eat a slab of cement. He chews a small corner to crumbs, no saliva, and he takes a large swallow of coffee. The coffee burns his throat.
I'm sorry, I scorched the toast, Ann says. I can make more.
Not to worry. It's fine.
Breakfast isn't easy for Ann either. He sees the muscles in her neck work a small bite of muffin, like a cormorant swallowing whole fish. Hurry-up Clair, the carpool comes in five minutes. What are you taking for show-and-tell?
What about the starfish you found?
I'm saving it for Jake.
Jim scrapes his chair back from the table, I've got to get dressed.
Ann says in a soft voice, Clair, he's not coming back.
Oh. I forgot. Her lids close slowly over parched eyes, then open. Where's my lunch? And what about Papa's.
You're such a little mother. When Clair was three, she wrapped Jake in his infant blanket, and rocked him on her lap. Can we keep him? She refused to let go until he screamed with hunger. When will I get breasts? She checked them every day for a week.
Ann let Clair feed him with a bottle. He's better than a doll, he upchucks. But the brown diapers were another story. Does he have to do that?
Now her face is translucent. Mother-of-pearl circles pool below her eyes, her thin limbs stiff when she's hugged.
Dinner is worse than breakfast. Ann makes steak and lima beans, Real steak, and limas just the way you like them with lots of butter.
I can't cut it, Clair says. Ann cuts the steak in small bites. The limas too. Ann mashes the beans with extra butter, and Clair eats as if walking in her sleep. Jim runs into the woods, his gorge rising.
When he returns, Clair asks, Where'd you go?
He pumps excitement into his voice, I thought I heard a moose.
You did not, she says. You were looking for Jake.
Ann picks up plates from the table, OK Clair, lets get you ready for bed. Clair grabs her plate, spilling her milk across the table, No, I'm not finished. Jim looks at the floor, presses his hands between his knees, as Clair jumps up and slams down the hall to her room.
This is good, Ann says.
It seems to Jim he's lost one child and sent the other into a tailspin.
At work, a push on coffee keeps his pace alive. The job, a rehab on Wilson Pond, cutting away rot, re-flashing windows, replacing split clapboards. The roof needs replacement.
He fits scaffolding to the cabin sheathing. Metal pieces fit together like Tinker-Toys. Braces forgotten, the whole structure lists away from the wall. Dummy.
Jim takes the extension ladder off his truck, leans it next to the scaffolding and hauls on the rope, bouncing the ladder into position. Screw-gun at his belt he climbs, sets brace after brace to the top. At the last one, his gun jams. Piece of crap.
He'd given Jake a tool belt for Christmas, leather with miniature tools to go in it. Too bad his own tools weren't of the same quality. Jake strutted around all day, hammering windowsills and door jams. I big.
Big enough to splash.
God. Jim slides down the ladder without using the rungs. He hurls the screw gun into the woods, then slips to the ground, his head resting on the bottom rung.
On the scaffolding, a rhythm in clapboards nailed with a hammer, length on length of cedar elbowed in place, nails taken from his mouth, he hits his thumb. He hits it again, fine moments of distraction. He's glad Ann can't see him.
Ann. He met her at a party, the one woman in a room of girls, short with the easy walk of someone tall, blond hair down her back in crimps she hated. A single mother. She wore motherhood like a medal of honor, none of its weight in her eyes.
Jim sat on the couch, his leg in a cast propped on a chair. She slid carefully in beside him. They both wore blue-jeans faded from honest washing. He had on a white polo shirt, no pony on the pocket. Her shirt was striped in quiet tones of green that brought out flecks in her eyes. Does it hurt, or just itch like hell? If this was a mercy chat, he'd enjoy the view while it lasted.
How'd it happen?
Would you believe me if I said hang gliding?
Not now I wouldn't.
I fell out of a tree trying to reach some kid's ball. Stupid, huh?
Not so stupid. She smiled and settled back on the couch.
While others danced, she nursed a beer to his three, and they talked his mind off the pain. At midnight, she wrote her number on his cast.
He hates to think of her watching the Kennebec from their house. A find, that house, fully furnished, labor instead of rent, an aerie above the river. All rooms face the water. Over-size windows bring the outside in, salt breezes clear the scent of burnt toast and wet dog. The lap of water, rhythm to their late night touch.
He knows she watches in silence, hands folded as the water drains to mud, black rocks exposed, low tide breathed into the house. And before the tide surges in, bucking the current, glutting the river's mouth, he knows she watches the rocks dry, their salted fissures crazed white. The fingernails he never sees her bite, raw at the quick.
The Kennebec kept his boy hidden from bloodhounds, from black-suited divers, from police, their walkie-talkies crackling the air, their bullhorns that echoed shore to distant shore.
Night to day to night, Jim and Ann ran both shores, eyes casting water-to-woods and water again, their voices stretching Jake's name in long arcs, a quaver to Ann's, Jim's hoarsened to a whisper.
For days, with growing numbers of volunteers, they gunned coveys of outboards over the river's mouth, into every cove, up every gut. Their calls faded with their will to find. They stumbled on seaweed-covered rocks, sifted through flotsam on shore: chunks of Styrofoam, mangled kelp, pieces of grass-wound tree.
Jim took Ann's arm steadying her, ready to shield. At every turn crabs scuttled from sudden light, snails retreated into their shells. Mussels clamped shut.
The fourth day, Jim found Jake's fishing pole.
On the fifth, a mile up stream, one red boot wedged in high-water rocks, Ann saw it too. They slipped and staggered. Seaweed brought them to their knees, Jim's ribs a bursting cage, his legs heavy. He pulled at the boot. Brackish water poured out.
Ann crawled from rock to rock, Here. He's here. He has to be. Jim caught her arm and pulled her to him holding tight.
After a week, the searchers hugged and went home. Relatives made their excuses, packed their dark clothes and went home to Cincinnati, Orlando, Fort Worth. Clair went back to school, peanut-butter and jelly in a brown bag. Ann, on leave, stayed in the silent house. Jim watched the water. Reporters and neighbors watched the police watch Jim.
At the Puffin for a bottle of milk, Jim stood in line with strangers. Accident my foot…. Chopped him up, that's what the police think…. Ah come on, Clyde says he's a good guy…. Yeah, but…. He left without milk.
Blue and brown cruisers blocked the narrow right-of-way. Casual questions in the drive sharpened. Tell us again. Start at the dock. Gawkers leaned on the cruiser fenders. Start with Jake's accident. When he wet himself, you were mad. No? They stood on either side of him firing. The kid couldn't just disappear. They shifted position making him turn, the gravel scuffed in welts. You did it, didn't you?
Jim stopped turning, arms across his chest as if cold, head hunched into his shoulders. He stopped answering. Let's start again. Tell us. As many times as it takes, come on Jim.
At the station, pressed into a cubicle with one detective and a sergeant in high shined boots, the same questions came at him. The same answers. But then, What do you mean, loved him like your own? Your stepson? Why didn't you say so? Of course, it makes a difference.
So what else are you hiding? Another wife? Another baby you misplaced? Jim pressed his backbone hard to the metal chair, fingernails fisted into his palms. If he had a knife he'd have driven it through his thigh.
Jim rubbed the back of his neck, pulled the hair straggling into his collar. A halogen lamp, harsh and hot, lit the cubicle desk. Now we're getting somewhere. So where's the body? You don't know. Well that's not good enough.
Had he ever been good enough? A carpenter earning too little to do more than feed and house his instant family. Ann forced to keep working, and still she called him My Prince.
Jake took to him from their first nervous lunch. Ann drove them all to Mickey-D's. Jim twiddled with the prizes in his happy-meal. There were two in his, he took it as a sign, and gave one to each child. He kept glancing up at Ann, and would catch her looking at him.
Afterwards they drove back to Ann's two-room apartment. Jake sat astride Jim's knee. No ladies ride. They skipped the gentlemen too, and went right to cowboys, then on to the wild lurch of bronc-busters. Clair watched from a dignified distance. Clair, help me with this bandanna, Jim said, and wrapped his handkerchief pirate style around his head. Jim grabbed a child in each arm. He was both pirate and ship, kidnapping and sloshing them back and forth while Ann looked for more bandannas.
More, more, Jake cried as Jim began to flag. Jake's open-mouthed grin kept Jim at it, scrambling around past the stab in his newly healed leg.
The next morning, leaden skies merged with the river. A young woman knocked at the door. Official in navy suit and flat shoes, feet together at attention, she carried a clipboard with an inch of forms, and a permanent marker pen. It's about Clair.
The agent thumbed through the house, making notes. Jim and Ann followed. In front of the kitchen cupboard, she wrote: oatmeal, cocoa, rice, Cheerios, peanuts, Sugar Pops, beer. She took a hard look at Clair who was still in flowered pajamas, hair not yet brushed. Clair moved behind Jim and clung to his leg.
The agent threaded through Clair's Barbies in the living room, opened her bedroom closet, rifled her dresses, counted sweaters. She counted books on the shelves: Clair's Beatrix Potter's, her collection of Winnie The Pooh mixed in with Jake's Goodnight Moon, One Fish Two Fish, Miss Rumphius, The Encyclopedia Of Trucks.
They'd dismantled Jake's crib and taken it from her room, but small clothes still haunted the bureau, a front-end-loader in the basket of stuffed animals. I can't do this, the woman covered her clipboard. God, I'm so sorry, and ran to her car.
One wall of the cabin sided, Jim goes on to the next, this syrup of motion, this balm of accomplishment, makes him think he can manage sausage at dinner.
He wire-brushes the grill. The brush pulled from his welter of tools, curled tines pierce his fingers, but he hardly notices. Jake usually helped at this point. He'd crush newspaper, lay twigs, and argue over who would use the matches. The argument always ended with When you're older.
Jim cooks the sausage served up on paper plates. They eat by the shore, and when no one is looking he tips his into the water.
He dreads tomorrow, Saturday, their annual rite-of-spring dinner: fiddleheads picked specially for him, a treat for Clair in the picking, but she won't eat them, They're hairy; and the shad roe Ann must drive to Portland to find, at least they all like shad roe; then there's coffee ice-cream overflowing his bowl while Ann sips her coffee black and scalding. The dinner by candlelight. Jake's highchair already moved to the garage, just the three of them will sit at the table, Ann's eyes brimmed with concern. Her forgiveness on him like halogen.
But the police don't forgive. Why would they? It was on his watch after all, on one of Maine's best crisp May mornings, cool enough to have a small fire in the wood stove. Warmer outside than in, the sky bluer than blue, almost unreal. Ann had gone shopping, just the kids and Jim on the dock. Let's fish.
Clair and Jake with poles, and a bucket of mussels from the porch, work their way back down the embankment through maples their black branches fuzzing green. At the water's edge old pines lean in dark congregation, their shadows warped by the water.
Clair pokes Jake's arm, Don't drag your reel. He pulls up on the rod, both hands in the middle, directly in front of his chest making it hard to walk. The reel barely clears the ground, the rod being twice as tall as he galumphing along in red rubber boots. Jake tips his head, You know what, Clair, bait stinks.
Clyde, their neighbor, follows the kids onto the dock, and heads for his Whaler. Won't catch much, he says. Tide's wrong. Jake yanks at Jim's shirttail, Fish now, and jigs a circle. Oh Jake, you're wet again.
Clyde unties his bowline. You try my crawlers later. They're in the coffee can. He points at a yellow can on the shore. Clair runs across the five sections of dock, past head-high stacks of lobster traps, I'll get it. A hand on each rail, she skips up the rolling gangway. Jim watches.
The old man eases into his boat, and casting off, the riptide takes him broadside upstream. He revs in close, Hand me the gas can, and catching it, he full-throttles slowly downstream.
Clair on the gangway shouts, Worms. One hand for the rail, one for the can held high, she takes the slant in hesitant steps. Blond hair falls in her face. Already, she looks so much like Ann, fine featured, pale skin easily burnt, forever peeling on her nose.
Clair pulls a worm writhing from the can. She drops it square across her sneaker, Eeeew, and kicks it in Jim's direction, This one's for Jake. Hey. Where is he?
White sun glances in slivers off the water, pricking black spots in Jim's vision. He shouts, Jake, and again, Jake. His breath rasps. He turns this way, no this way: dock, water, shore. He dashes the dock edge to edge, checks behind the lobster traps, decay sharp in his nose. Checks the shore. Checks the dories. Their lapstreak sides clunk; gunnels rub together, bilges rich with oily rainbows.
The shore again. Jake. Then upstream. Salt-tide fights with the river's fresh current. Rips in the water tip pieces of tree in unwieldy circles, and drag them under.
He couldn't have fallen.
I'd have heard the splash.
Down on his knees, Jim whispers, Be here, and he peers under the dock. Saltwater rises on pilings, pilings barnacle studded, weed hung, row on row darkening to the rocks.
Jim jumps in. Running-shoes and jeans and tide pull him under the dock where sun dazzles through gaps in the planking.
Circle and kick, a breath and dive. Paw at every underwater shadow. Breathe and dive. Dive and dive and ….
Clyde and another neighbor grab him from the water. By his collar and belt, they pull him onto the dock, and wrap him struggling in a blanket. Enough, Clyde says. She'll take you too, if you let her.
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