After it’s finished, and I am cradling the back of her head, lost in the long rhythm of her breathing, the gentle beat beneath her skin, I am reminded of finding her face-down and floating, of pulling her from the water, of pounding her chest until, heaving and sputtering, she came back.
“Sarah,” I say, but she’s already rolling to her feet, collecting her Levis from beneath the window frame, and pulling the legs right-side-out.
“Clear out,” she says.
I pass her socks from beneath the covers. “Come with me. Just for now.”
“No time for that.”
Bill, her husband, should be an hour yet—gone for supplies. Even after his affair with Daisy-Come-Again, Sarah will stay. Maybe because of the affair, she will stay. She picks at her hair, correcting yellow strays, tucking them behind her ear. She applies her makeup with a hard, pecking hand.
I retrieve my shirt from between the pillows, my hat from the floor.
Bill’s mother glares from her portrait on the dresser, gold-rimmed glasses high on her nose, wide as a snorkeling mask.
“Help me make the bed,” Sarah says.
I duck into the woods and listen to the helicopters sweep Sarah and Bill’s house. Then I’m threading through the wild pines crowding the little slope that runs to the highway. My truck is hidden in the thick of them. There’s gritty bird shit on the windshield and needles piled on the hood.
On the long straight of Luther Street, I can see Bill’s truck coming a mile off, and I know he sees mine. We’re the only trucks left. We roll on, arms hung out the window like knights in a tilt, fingers flexing in the wind or else tight in a fist. Bill’s truck stops level with mine.
“You got a bathing suit?” Bill asks.
“A bathing suit,” he says again. “Going to be some water today.”
He looks at me bewildered, and that’s how I leave him.
Bill’s a dentist for money and a carpenter for fun. He’s added a 200-square-foot sunroom to his house. The walls are plate glass under crown molding and light pine. Sarah’s filled the place with Peace Lilies and indoor palms.
If not for Sarah, I’d welcome the flood that’s coming to tear through Issock and bury it under a hundred tons of silt. The glass walls of Bill’s house will shatter. The plants will drown. Fish will hang in clouds beneath the cathedral ceiling and drift to the kitchen. Freshwater clams will nestle in the foyer. Maybe an eel will sleep in the bed.
Though, to hear Bill tell it, none of that will happen, and his house, the pride of Baddock County, will float.
Bill Selmy is a well-connected man. He’s done a root canal for the mayor, dug a cellar for the chief of police. When the judge’s wife knocked out all her teeth ice-skating, Bill screwed in a set of porcelain veneers. He built the town a gazebo in the park with the names of every war veteran posted around the roof in etched brass, six Selmys among them. And because Bill says the pontoons he’s installed beneath the foundations of his house will float the whole towering mess of it above the flood, people believe him.
The media ran with it. News crews drove out to hear Bill explain how the wedge-nosed pontoons—“like the prow of a ship!”—will part the waters of soon-to-be Lake Issock and lift his house high above their heads. Experts were dispatched. Measurements were taken. And when the right heads had nodded and the right papers were signed, Bill was granted his floating castle along with limited rights to the lake, should his house survive.
Three hours before the flood, I’m lying on my back across a table in the 1-2-Diner and chewing one plastic straw after another until they’re nothing but flattened shreds. The town is all but empty, and the tornado sirens are going off every ten minutes for the holdouts to flee. The only cars on the road are the deputy sheriffs’, but the diner is dead and I’m parked out back, so they don’t bother me. I smell abandoned meat patties turning to rot. The sun cuts through the split blinds and warms my eyelids. I’ve settled to die.
The door jingles, and Roe Freeman, the sheriff proper, comes to hover over my table. His gut blots out the light of day.
“Diner’s closed,” he says.
“Curl up and die.”
“I’ve got some chicken,” he says, and sits down with a box. “Set them wife-y woes aside and share some chicken with your brother.”
It was his ease and appetite that made him my mother’s favorite.
“Time was, she’d have left with me,” I say.
“Time was never.”
“If I had asked last year. After the affair,” I say. I fish in the box of bones. The breasts, thighs, and legs have been picked clean. I take a wing.
“But you didn’t ask her.”
I shake my head. “Just didn’t ask right.”
When Roe was in diapers, Sarah and I were fogging up my mother’s Malibu. There was something earned in those initial fumblings that he can’t understand. A sacred trust, like love for the self—something. Roe’s great love was a horse named Betty’s Thigh that won him a Pick-6. Sarah and I married the week after the race and divorced before Roe’s winnings were spent.
After Sarah found Bill in his exam room, the patient chair reclined and Daisy-Come-Again white-knuckling the headrest, she stayed with me for a month or so. She left when I proposed again. That was my mistake.
“Camera on one of those hello-copters saw you leaving the house,” Roe says. He makes a biscuit disappear in two bites.
“I can’t say goodbye?”
“That what you were saying?”
I turn my hand into a bird, and outside the flood sirens wail.
“Yeah.” Roe wipes his hands on the drapes. Then he puts three rounds from his .38 into the back of the cash register.
I roll onto the floor and listen to Roe belly laughing. He passes me his baton and, because I know he means well, I let into the cake display first and the framed poster of the “So Sweet Apple Pie” after that. We bust wooden bar stools on the checkered tile floor, and for a minute all memory recedes, but then Roe starts ripping off the tops of the tables and it comes back: Sarah serving coffee and pie to the out-of-towners, while I turned sausage at all hours of the night. Some nights there’d be no one but us. We’d pass maraschino cherries mouth-to-mouth over the countertop.
Roe gets his hands on a broomstick and chants for a pitcher.
I line up across the floor and start whizzing mugs into the tile wall while Roe heaves the broom. High. High. Low. I lob one underhand and he connects, bellowing.
Roe sits down. His tan sheriff’s shirt is soaked through. “Better?” he asks.
In the parking lot, my truck is nowhere to be seen.
“You’ll find it at Showman’s,” Roe says, and waits for me to walk to his squad car. “You drive,” he says, and when I climb into the cab he handcuffs me to the wheel. It’s his party trick.
The Crown Vic lumbers up to speed while the AM radio garbles about Bill’s house and history in the making. The birds are flitting wild from tree to tree and singing warning songs. I’ve read that before earthquakes, hurricanes, even tornados, animals can predict disaster, but this is a planned flooding. Nothing natural. I wonder what the armadillos and deer know. I imagine the unnatural surge of the water pulling birds from the air and consider that the ground will fill first and how great the unending bulk of the new lake will feel above the centipedes and moles—the crushing weight of it driving them deep, deeper, then snuffing them out.
Between the low, brick buildings of town, what cars weren’t worth the move line the streets. Clunkers mostly, of which there are a herd in Issock—hand-me-down Civics with crushed-in bumpers and trucks sitting on two or more donuts with their tailgates broken off.
I’m surprised to see Spaceman Howl’s Buick parked outside the boarded-up drug store. His shepherd, Molly, sits in the passenger seat. In his youth, Spaceman was a pilot of jets. Because he was said to have shot down several enemy planes, he became briefly famous. It came out eventually that Spaceman had actually spent his years in the service coiling hose on an aircraft carrier, but not before he capitalized on his fame by way of a fairly lucrative pool digging service—a venture I joined him in. It was shit work and long days driving a Bobcat, shoving around the dirt that Spaceman would scoop out of folk’s backyards, but I had a family, and it got me out of the diner.
The first pool I dug for Spaceman was my own, which seemed like a big idea at the time. It had a shallow end that stretched for ten yards and faded down to nothing, so the water met your toes like waves on a beach. I cut a deep end fifteen feet down and set a spring board overtop; in school, Sarah was a diver.
We were proud. I had one of Roe’s deputies make me an oil drum smoker that would cook five chickens end-to-end. We had people over for drinking and tooling around. Everybody’d bring their kids and dogs. Our boy, Harlan, was easy to spot. Only two, but sporting a thick mess of strawberry curls.
Things got comfortable. We had a pile of friends. The drinking got a little out of hand, for Sarah and me. I woke in the middle of the night once, Sarah and I were stretched out in a lawn chair made for one, covered in morning dew. Friends of ours, the Beesons, had taken Harlan for the night. We had a good laugh about it the next day. A week later, Sarah and I came to under similar circumstances, but the Beesons were out of town. We ran crazy for a few hours after that, looking for the boy. I was going door-to-door with Roe when Sarah found Harlan, drowned, behind the pool ladder.
Spaceman steps through the broken window of the pharmacy holding a few plastic bags and shades his eyes to see who’s rolling down the street.
I’ve got the window down, so it’s no trouble to spit.
Before long, the deputies are reporting “all clear” through the radio in Roe’s cruiser. They’re pulling back to Showman’s Hill, a swell of granite like the top of a bald man’s head. Its grey rise peeks above the clay and pines and provides a vista. People abandon unwanted animals there, to the extent that other people leave food. Over time, a good sized pack has formed, its members ranging from Tom Ellison’s unwanted litter of Doberman’s to my own aunt’s aging Maltese. Elsewise, it’s a decent place to take a girl.
The deputies are excited and chattering about the flood. They’ve set up a viewing party at Showman’s with picnic tables of sweet tea and chicken. Two deputies are already there, fending off the circling pack.
Deputy Watson asks Deputy Crowley if he’s brought cans or a keg. Deputy Clarke has found paper plates at the Save-A-Lot. No one, it is discovered, remembered ice.
A watermelon rolls at Roe’s feet on the passenger’s side, and behind the steel cage that bisects the cab, I see gallon jugs of tea jiggling alongside Stouffer’s mac and cheese. The smell hangs heavy, oily sweet.
We pass Bill and Sarah’s house, and I can see them outside. Sarah is on the porch in a fringe coat. She’ll be wearing Western boots underneath.
I suck my teeth.
“Deal with it,” Roe says. “Her choice.”
“That’s nice,” I say.
A group of strays is crowded in the road ahead, chasing and nipping and otherwise grabbing ass. Some are spotted and a few are black.
We get closer and the features of the dogs begin to sharpen. A Jack Russell has a limp. A black mutt chomps a ball. Most are deer dogs with tagless orange collars—the kind that sometime get lost on big hunts. The county leaves boxes for them on the side of the road. I wonder if there are any locked up in the boxes now, padding around in circles and waiting to drown.
Bill’s lab, Frank, emerges from the pack and steps into the road, barking and wagging his tail.
I hit the brakes, and a gallon of tea kicks the back of my seat.
Frank shows a toothy grin. “School’s out for summer,” he might be saying.
“Pull around him,” Roe says.
I putt around to the left, but Frank steps in the way again.
“Hell,” Roe says. He reaches over and honks the horn. Nothing happens, and he honks again.
Franks stands to lay his paws on the hood of the car and barks some more. He’s looking through the glass. “School’s out forever.”
“Ho!” A man calls from behind us.
I look into the rearview. It’s Bill, jogging up to the cruiser waving his arms over his head like he’s signaling a rescue plane.
“Appreciate it,” he says, holding Frank by the collar. “Roe. Johnny.”
Everyone in town calls me J-Hook except Sarah and, unfortunately, Bill. I’ve always suspected he did it for spite.
“You got all the animals loaded up in that house, Bill?” Roe asks. “Two by two?”
Bill laughs well. That’s his best feature, Sarah says: his laugh. His jolly laugh. He leans in to rest his hands on the windowsill of the cruiser so that he’s about a foot from my face. “Just the ones I like,” he says.
“What are you still doing down here, Johnny?” Bill asks me.
“Dog catching,” I say and regret it because it makes Bill laugh again.
“We’ve got room in the back yet,” Roe says. “Get you and Sarah and the dog in here.”
“No, no,” Bill says. “This is the real deal.”
“Mhm,” I say.
In order to smile wider, Bill has to actually open his mouth. “Ah,” he says.
Frank’s ears perk up, and he takes off running, ripping, to my delight, his collar from Bill’s hairy fist.
We all turn to see Sarah walking out of the pines and into the road, pushing Frank down when he jumps.
“Bill,” she calls.
“Ayuh,” Bill says and taps the roof of the cruiser. “You boys get out safe.”
It occurs to me, as I watch Sarah standing by the roadside, that she is not afraid. She is impatient—ready to be off. She is not spinning her ring the way she used to. She is not pulling at her collarbones the way she did when she was in a stew, or waiting for a phone call. She is not that ashen woman who I knew to sit kneading her scalp in the bathtub before a trip to the grocery store.
She looks fine. She is practically glowing, waving at Roe’s cruiser while she waits for Bill, and now walking away with her hand stuck in the butt pocket of Bill’s jeans. She won’t know I’m in the car if I don’t say something. She’ll walk back to Bill’s house to have a screw or pet her dog or, otherwise, wait to die.
“You got any ice?” I call out the window to Bill.
“The hell?” Roe asks.
But obliging Bill is already waving us on to where his driveway opens into the main road, and Sarah, I see, has removed her hand from Bill’s back pocket and made it into a slender pink hook, like Monkeys in a Barrel, and she’s hanging it on the ledge of her collarbone. And she is, I know, troubled by the thought that she need not resign herself to this—that I might not allow it, that I am in Roe’s cruiser, that I am still here.
“You gonna stop this flood?” Sarah asks from the across her kitchen counter.
Roe and Bill are in the garage filling a cooler with ice.
“Where were you?” my mother asked Sarah at Harlan’s wake. She never asked me, then or in the bitter years that came after. Not even when it was Sarah floating in the pool.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask.
“It’s going to be a whole new place, after the water comes,” she says.
Sarah stretches her arms out atop the granite. The pink of her veins, the branching paths they make through her pearl flesh, matches the stone.
“Just gonna be clean, flat water. Not even gonna be any fish in the place for a few years. That’s where I want to live.”
“We can leave here just fine,” I say. “Don’t need a flood for that.”
“I want it, Johnny,” she said. “To see it buried.”
When Bill is away and Sarah calls me—I know it’s to go back to the old times, to travel with her eyes squeezed shut and her hands against my back. She wants teenage fingers on her skin. She wants to be folded in my mother’s backseat. She wants the skinny fry cook inside of the diner waitress and the pool digger inside of the woman sunning in her front yard. She wants us to be anything besides the poor, sad mother and father with the dead little boy. She’d drown to forget it, to wash it all away. She’ll drown again.
“You ever thought of what’ll happen to Harlan?” I ask. “When the water comes.”
“That’s a rotten thing to say.”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Can’t see what good that does,” she says as she wipes the counter clean of lunch crumbs.
A helicopter flies low over the house, and the silverware chatters in its drawer.
I see a mouse running along the wall behind Sarah’s back. It’s got a big wad of something stuffed in its mouth, and it’s standing up to paw at the glass walls and doors—looking for a way out.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and Roe and I moved him.”
“I didn’t open the box, but—”
“He’ll be up behind Showman’s, where he won’t get washed out. Should stay above the water.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Sarah says. “Shouldn’t move a body.”
“It’s a good place.”
The sirens kick on again and it’s their swan song, high and sharp.
“Let me show you where.”
“Not a church?”
“It’s better than a church,” I say. “There’s a row of azaleas. There’s a great big poplar. All those friendly strays stay up there and watch over the place.”
There’s a part of me that hates to bring Harlan into this, to even say his name. He was here for just a little time, when Spaceman and I were selling pools as fast as we could dig them, and the money was rushing in. I had Sarah quit the diner as soon as we knew there’d be a kid, and she grew distant, obsessed with making ready, with buying this and that, with rearranging and baby proofing the house.
When the boy came, I took as many jobs from Spaceman as I could, thinking the money would transform us—would keep transforming us—into whoever we wanted to be. People who went to Disney World. People who had kids on traveling sports teams. I packed lunch and dinner. I worked under electric lights and came home well into the night. And when the boy died, for me, it was like he was a dream that ended. Translucent and intangible. Soon, I couldn’t remember how he smelled. There was always a place where he might have been; a hole. But it was Sarah I missed. It was my wife.
“Let me show you where he is,” I say.
Bill and Roe come into the kitchen.
“Let’s go,” Roe says.
“I’m asking Sarah if she’ll come pay her respects,” I say.
“Respects to who?” Bill asks.
Roe hooks my arm and pulls me towards the door where the mouse is, still, looking for a way out.
“To Harlan. He’s been reburied. I thought she should see where.” I say it to everyone, but I’m looking at Sarah.
She finds something to pick at in the sink.
“Flood’s in an hour or less,” Bill says.
“I’ll take her back to the house after. In a boat or a submarine.”
“No,” Sarah says and leaves the room.
Bill isn’t laughing now. “I think you’d better go,” he says. “There’ll be time for that later. If she wants.”
It occurs to me that I’ve never really looked at Bill in the face. He looks tired. He’s well-muscled and taller than me by a head. The skin around his eyes is raccoon-tanned from his sun glasses. He could be mayor. He could have a different Daisy-Come-Again every week. What makes a man like that want to drown on national TV? What makes a man like that want my wife?
Bill puts his paw of a hand on my shoulder and leads me, with Roe’s help, to the big glass door of his house.
Outside, Frank is barking and snarling at the helicopter over the house. The air is humming with the noise of sirens and engines and wind. The trees are bending where they stand.
“You’ll kill her,” I say. I have to shout it.
“No,” Bill says. “I won’t.”
Roe pulls me down the driveway. Beneath Bill’s house, the pontoons stand in long lines, their steel noses upturned. There are dozens of them, and they look tiny. Miniscule. They cover the house’s belly like the legs of a millipede.
I imagine the waves, great white waves, atomic bomb waves, rolling down the cleared and waiting street. I see them blowing Bill’s truck away, throwing it like a toy. The skinny pines are fodder. I see the trees and the truck and the water colliding with the pontoons, swallowing the house whole. The floats break and race away. Their silver backs breach the surface. From Showman’s, the deputy sheriffs point like whale watchers on a pleasure cruise.
Sarah looks down on me from her bedroom window. The blood in her face has drained away. Her eyes are red. She looks like the girl I married, and she looks like a ghoul.
A voice comes from the helicopter, deafening and robotic. “Clear the area.”
I wave off the pilot and slip into the cruiser. Before Roe can get to his side, I’ve got the old girl in gear and whining, back, back, down the driveway, and now on, on towards Bill’s house. The pedal is hard against the floor, and Roe is beside the road, waving like a madman for me to “Stop! STOP!” But the cruiser is hungry for the pontoons. She wants to taste their silver flesh. She wants to plow into them and tear through their papery tin skin, one after the next, all the way down the line. She wants to be my voice when I say, one more time, “Please. Don’t wash away.”
Stephen Hundley is a former high school science teacher from Savannah, Georgia. His work has appeared in Carve, Permafrost, Notre Dame Review, and other journals. He serves as the fiction editor for The Swamp and is a Richard Ford Fellow at the University of Mississippi.