By Craig Bernardini
Featured Art: Dublin Pond, New Hampshire by Abbott Handerson Thayer
It was never my intention, when my father came to live with us, that he would live in the pond. Things just worked out that way. This was shortly after my mother died. My wife and I had never really spoken about what we would do in the event that one of our parents died. It had always seemed a little premature to have that discussion, at least where my parents were concerned. They were in their mid-seventies, enviably lucid, and as healthy, according to their physicians, as most Americans ten years their junior. But then maybe it always seems too early to have that discussion. Or maybe it was just that I could never imagine them apart. They had done everything together, my parents, gone everywhere together. There had been something almost tyrannical in their solicitousness about each other’s welfare. One day, it occurred to me that I didn’t have a single picture with just one of them in it. Were I ever to try to crop one of them out, the other would remain in the shape of the border traced by my scissors. Growing together, my mother had said to me not long before she passed, was the key to a healthy relationship; and grow together they had, like skinny trees, the trunks of which wound round each other in acts of mutual strangulation.
Even had I been able to imagine it, I never would have expected my father to be left alone. Of the two, he had always been the one who needed more help. Lucid he was, but managing the phalanx of pills he had to take every day was a whole other matter. Some of them had to be broken in half, the corners sanded with a nail file to make them easier to swallow, the powder collected on a nap- kin and dumped into a glass of prune juice. On Sundays, after a late breakfast, my mother used to turn the kitchen table into a pharmacy counter, slicing and sorting the week’s pills, and depositing the rations into each of the seven chambers of a plastic organizer the size and shape of a hockey puck. It was just one of the things my mother did for him, one of the things I would have to learn how to do.
My parents had always spoken about rest homes in the same breath as gothic torture chambers. Prisons were kindergartens by comparison. Not that the more reputable of such places were within the realm of our financial possibilities, any- way. My parents had lived month to month on their social security checks and my father’s tiny pension; their money all went to pay for pills, the mortgage, and the cable. Jan and I were hardly better off, what with our parochial-school salaries and the little extra we made tutoring: mortgaged up to our ears, and nearly as bereft of savings. The one time I tried to help them with the little I could, my father had told me they did not accept “handouts,” and insisted on treating the money as a loan. We agreed on a reasonable rate of interest. He was still paying me back when my mother died.
None of this stopped me from rattling off possibilities as I rushed around the bedroom a few hours before my flight, gathering articles of clothing, which Jan quietly folded into a suitcase. The house that had belonged to Tom Nowak’s mother, for example, which he was renovating to rent out. Or the Van Duzers’ house, just a half mile down the road, empty since they’d taken off for their year-long post-retirement world tour three months earlier. Or even the little barn on our property, it would require quite an influx of capital to make it liv- able, sure, but we had thought to do so anyway, we could manage another loan. It was temporary, I said. Temporary. Jan alternately shushed and embraced me, telling me that she would see me in a couple of days, that we would figure it out, that it would be all right. And then she gently shot down each of my ideas with the same word, a soft bullet: stairs.
Over the last few years my father had grown progressively less steady on his feet, and whenever he talked about moving to some sunshine-state bungalow—which he had done with increasing frequency in the months before my mother died—it was always in reference to getting rid of “those damned stairs.” On a flat surface devoid of obstacles, he moved well enough; but any and all stairs were like those in a funhouse, just a lever-pull away from collapsing into a slide, each step down a vertiginous drop. It was only when I was a mile up in the air, the child in the row behind me kicking my seat while he played some noisy blooping videogame, and I imagining my father plummeting over and over down flights of stairs like the plane dropping out of the sky, that I was really able to parse the situation. We’d made a habit of giving our parents our bedroom whenever they visited, while we slept downstairs in the guest room, which had a futon that we kept folded into a couch and a small escritoire under the window. We called this room, half-jokingly, the meditation room, although neither of us made a habit of meditating, at least not in any formal way. It was actually the one space in the house that allowed us to get away from each other. We took pains not to monopolize it; we did everything short of make a schedule. If the door was closed, we knew better than to knock. For each of us, the need for such a room seemed to come from a similar place. Jan had grown up the oldest of five siblings in a cramped little brick house in Queens; even after she started commuting to college, she did not have her own room. I was an only child, but for some reason—because there were only three of us, maybe—privacy had never been an expectation. Doors had flapped vestigially on their hinges. Later, when I moved away for college, I understood what solitude was, and how much I craved it.
I have a vivid recollection of my father coming down the stairs on the day of the funeral. We were standing in the foyer, my wife and I, we were all dressed and ready to go; and there came my father, in his dark suit, sliding from one step to the next on his rear. He would shuffle his feet forward to the step ahead, and then ease himself down as far as he could on the heels of his hands, and then drop, thud. The chandelier would tinkle, and the framed pictures lining the stairs would tremble slightly. He was smiling as he descended, like it was a game, and for a moment I thought of him as an orphan. Even on the flight down I had been wondering if there was some way to arrange his staying here, if we could manage to afford a home health aide. I might just as well leave him in the street to die. I could feel Jan staring at me, whether anxiously or accusingly, and I knew what she was thinking: that I should run up the stairs and take him by the elbow, help him stand; with one hand in mine and the other on the bannister, my arm around his waist, I could save him from this unspeakable indignity, this travesty of mourning.
Watching him, I froze.
At the viewing, empty but for Jan and me, a few of my parents’ neighbors, and some relatives I had not seen in years, I did something I had not anticipated: I touched my mother’s face in the coffin. Her skin felt waxy, and my finger left a smudge. I did it once, quickly, just to know that I had done it.
Standing on our porch, my father took a deep breath, the kind that says country air. Though a little shrunken, he still stood straight as a new nail, not even the hint of a stoop—and this after coming down the stone path backwards, like he was rappelling, holding to the post-and-rail fence and waving me off whenever I offered to help. I was rolling his suitcase behind me. It kept flipping around on its little wheels. Like my father’s feet, they were made for even floors and gentle slopes.
“Welt always loved this house,” he said. “It’s a pity I didn’t go first. She’d have loved to live here.”
I carried his suitcase to the meditation room while he stayed on the porch regally surveying the property. We had a few acres that included a moderately large pond bordered by stands of water irises on the north and south ends, and woods across that helped hide the house from the road, at least during the warmer months. It was beautiful at this time of year, with the irises and other early flowers in full bloom. But as I saw it now, it was treacherous, too, sloped and pitted, and crisscrossed by uneven stone paths, and the woods were cluttered with debris. The only exception was the narrow strip of lawn around the pond, and, I guess, the pond itself.
When I got back to the porch, Jan had brought my father a glass of water with a sprig of mint from our garden. “You should smile more,” my father told her. “It’s good for your complexion. Welt was always smiling,” he said to me. “The woman absolutely glowed. It’s why she looked twenty years younger than her age, until the day she passed.”
He had said that a number of times, the bit about smiling. He said everything a number of times. It wasn’t his memory; he just believed everything should be said a number of times. As for Jan, it had stopped bothering her, or so she said. But it still made me cringe.
“Life’s too short not to enjoy it,” he boomed, after smacking his lips. He had drained the glass in a gulp. He always boomed. Boomed and repeated things. It was impossible for the man to speak quietly. Jan and I mumbled by comparison. Maybe it was the time he’d spent in the military. Or after, when he’d worked as a door-to-door cutlery salesman, before moving into the industrial sales job from which, twenty-five years later, he would be laid off, his pension cut in half.
“We’ve set up the office for you,” Jan said, louder than was strictly necessary. My eyes darted to her, but she was already on her way back inside.
“It’s temporary,” I said, though I didn’t know who I was saying this to, and so precisely what “temporary” meant. “I hope it’s comfortable.”
“It’s fine, Son. I really don’t want to put you two out. That’s not my intention at all. Don’t you see? Welt made me promise I’d come.”
He had already said this to both Jan and me. It was typical: anything that might show weakness was attributed to my mother. He made her out to be the coddling kind, she grew into that role for him, and by doing that she protected him from his own neediness. It was his greatest weapon, this neediness, the one thing my mother could never defend herself against. All the booming and re- peating and lip-smacking were just further ways of hiding it. In a way, I envied him. I had no such brash exterior behind which I could hide. Any possibility of developing one had been weathered away by my father’s voice. Neither did I have a spouse who felt compelled to shelter me.
I left him on the porch looking out on the pond, breathing his country air and swinging his strong, gnarled arms so that his hands clapped in front of him. Jan was in the kitchen, making sandwiches. These were the sorts of goodwill gestures she would perform in retreat, from isles of hard-won privacy. She knew that my parents were accustomed to eating at specific hours; when they visited, we would rearrange our schedules around them. That we occasionally violated the routine I blamed, always apologetically, on Jan.
“It’s almost noon,” she said, without looking up at me.
“He probably hasn’t noticed,” I said. “My mom was the one who kept him on the straight and narrow.”
She smiled at me.
“He’s wants me to smile more. So, I’m smiling.”
“He wants everyone to smile more. It’s a power-of-positive-thinking thing. He thinks smiling should be the baseline human expression. He probably thinks it’s an evolutionary mistake that we didn’t turn out that way.”
“Just women,” Jan said. “He doesn’t smile.”
“He sort of smiles.”
“It’s a grimace.”
“Well, my mom did just die.”
Jan put down the butter knife. She sighed. “I know. Honey, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. We’ll work it out.”
“I know. I love you.”
“It’s temporary. I’m going to start looking for a place. We’ll work it out.”
She was staring at the half-made sandwiches, with that smile—a doubtful one, I was sure—pasted to her face. Neither of us noticed my father until he said, “Something smells good.”
He had brought his glass with him, and he put it down on the counter.
“I just want to reiterate,” he said, clearing his throat, “that it is not my intention in any way, shape, or form to make either of you uncomfortable, or to ask you to alter your lives in any way to accommodate my presence.”
Jan dug one nail under the other, alternately plucking and chewing. She only looked at her hands. My mother had been the one to notice the cues my father missed, to find something for him to do when Jan and I needed privacy, or to get work done, always with some apologetic line about needing my father for something, to which he would give a mock shrug. In a word, she had balanced him. And I was angry with Jan, for having so little faith that I would be able to do the same.
“It’s all right, Dad. You’re not putting us out. Really. Mom was right. The important thing is that we’re all together.” I was looking at Jan, she at her nails.
“I wish Welt were here,” he said, his gaze lost somewhere beyond the kitchen. “She always knew what to do.”
The next morning when I came downstairs my father was already awake. He was half-naked on the porch doing some kind of calisthenics, hands on his hips, bending at the waist and grunting. Then he started touching each knee with the opposite hand. The temperature had just crested fifty. I called good morning to him and asked if he wanted a cup of coffee. No answer. I knew he was supposed to limit himself to half a cup in the mornings, on his cardiologist’s recommendation, and that had become my mother’s policy. It would have to be my policy now. She had piloted his life firmly but tenderly into ripe old age. It was my responsibility now to maintain the course, even if it meant (I thought, somewhat overdramatically) that I had to lash myself to the helm.
I noticed something else lying on the wire table beside the binoculars, but it didn’t really register until I had come back with our coffees and the pill organizer. I had prepared the latter in the kitchen late the night before, listening to him toss and turn on the futon in the meditation room, wondering how long it had been since he’d slept alone. My mother used to lay out his pajamas on his pillow.
And now here was my father, dressed knee to neck in a wetsuit. It was a sleek blue and black, highlighting the pallor of his shins and face, and the wispy gray hair on his head. There was something unsettlingly insectoid about his appearance, as though the suit were an exoskeleton, and he a white-headed, bipedal fly. Maybe I was just surprised he hadn’t needed any help getting it on, and that he had effected this transformation in the time it had taken me to make coffee.
“Help me with these flippers,” he said.
It took me a moment to piece it all together.
“Dad, please tell me you’re not going into the pond.”
“I’m going into the pond.”
“Don’t you want to wait to put these on until you’re down there?”
“Not on your life.”
“Dad, I would strongly counsel you against this.”
But as I said all this I was already on one knee before him, like a suitor or a shoe salesman, our four hands working the flipper over his dry, chafed heel. The rubber squelched against his skin. It occurred to me that I had never touched his feet before.
This was how the story came out, over all the grunting and pulling around the flippers, of how he had bought the wetsuit for the pool, because the athletic club to which he and Welt had belonged failed to keep the water between eighty- three and eighty-six degrees, but when Welt had reported this to the cardiolgist, he had been strictly forbidden from ever using the wetsuit again. So it had hung unused in the closet for the last five years.
“To hell with the cardiologist,” my father said now. “He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.”
“Dad, the pond’s a lot colder than the pool. We’re not talking eighty-three to eighty-six degrees. It didn’t even thaw until mid-March.”
“That’s what the wetsuit’s for, Son.”
I had watched him make his way around the house the day before, inspect-
ing books and tchotchkes and pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down. His step was bowlegged and marionettish, and it quickly became apparent that anything left on the floor was a hazard. It seemed he could not judge distance, at least in relation to where to put his feet. I would think an object was well out of his way; but he would pause, raise one knee, and somehow step toward it, as though he really intended to destroy it, or be toppled himself in trying. See- ing him standing there in his wetsuit and flippers, I had a vision of our house in flaming ruins.
My father backed out the screen door and off the porch, feet shuffling in his flippers. He made a slow, backwards turn around the corner, and then started backwards down the slope toward the pond. I went out after him, shadowing him, though I resisted the impulse to take his hands. I kept expecting to have to—to see his eyes pop wide and his arms begin to cartwheel. We walked down the hill this way, like we were balancing something invisible between us; and perhaps because he could only take baby steps backwards, he negotiated the slope perfectly well, his gaze aimed at the patch of grass between us, or at my own slippered feet. He only spoke once, to ask if he was still going in the right direction.
Our pond was a little shorter than an Olympic swimming pool and maybe half as wide, with a crooked dock jutting out into the water partway down the near side. Weeds grew through the surface in bunches, a sign that I had to begin to attend to them, and in a couple of places leaves had rotted to form small floating islands of bright green scum. Otherwise, the water was dark and clear.
A small plastic boat leaned up against the old apple tree on the edge of the lawn, half-buried in last year’s leaves. Its hull was gray from disuse; a jagged crack ran along one of the gunwales; the previous summer, hornets had nested in it. But I did not consider any of these things when my father instructed me to help him take it down. Together we eased it over, and then each of us took a mooring rope and began dragging it across the grass. We pushed the boat into the water, where it bobbed a few times and then rested. I leapt up onto the dock, feeling it bob once under me, and tied up the boat. My father sat down on the boards, swung his legs around so that his flippers dangled over the boat, and then eased himself down into it, just as he had done on the stairs, though here the drop was greater. While he settled in, I retrieved the oars for him, one of which was missing half a blade. Then I unwound the ropes from the bow and stern and dropped them in the boat, and gave a gentle sideways push. My father began to row.
I remembered quiet lunches and dinners on the porch with my parents, watch- ing the pond. They had always admired the play of light on the water, the way it changed colors in the evenings, mirroring the colors of the nearest trees: willow, white birch, a single red maple. My mother would mention them, and my father would boom his assent. In the afternoons, Jan liked to float on the pond in an inflatable cushion, drinking cocktails and listening to NPR on a small radio set at the end of the dock. My mother had always mentioned how happy she looked, and my father would boom his assent. And then they would both urge me to get in the water, too. I had imagined a summer of the same, with just my father and Jan.
Once the boat was pointed in the right direction, it only took a few good tugs for him to reach the middle. He put the oars down and coasted. It was a beautiful morning. The birds were singing, the sun had crested the trees, steam was rising from the grass and from the roof of the garden well. When I turned back to the porch, I saw Jan, looking at the same thing I had been.
“There’s coffee,” I said, when I had reached the screen.
“What on earth is he doing?”
“Rowing,” I said. I heard a splash behind me. “Swimming,” I said
“You’re sure he can swim?”
She rolled her eyes at me. “What if he’s killing himself?”
I stared at her.
“Welt?” she said. “Remember? Your mom?”
My mouth was still hanging open when I turned back to the water. Together we waited for him to surface. The seconds were long. And then he appeared, a black-clad figure kicking slowly toward the southern irises, his face in the water.
He would be in the water before either of us was up. Some mornings I’d wake to the sound of him climbing into the boat: the hollow thunk of the oars, the plash of the paddles. Other days I slept right up until the moment he rolled into the pond. I never slept past that, and soon the passage of his body from the air to the water became the knife-edge between my sleeping and waking, as though I had really dreamt him. He slipped out of the dry world, out of my grasp, the moment I awoke.
I would bring him his coffee—a full cup now—and his pills, leave them at the end of the dock. When I came back an hour or two later, the coffee would be drunk and the pills untouched. I would chuck the pills in the water and bring the empty mug back to the house. The next day would be the same. I tried arguing, but he swore it had been a lot of worry about nothing; he had just never been able to tell Welt that, he had to let her have her way. I didn’t say anything to Jan, until one day she spotted me throwing the pills in the pond. I tried to explain, but she just shook her head, frowning, and walked away.
At noon I’d call him in to lunch. We’d watch him come slowly up the hill, backwards, dripping, covered with weeds. He would squelch onto the porch, strip the wetsuit to his waist, and eat a cucumber sandwich, tearing at the bread with his gray teeth and gasping between bites like a man starving. His whole upper body was bright pink, as though he had been dipped head-first in dye, and the flesh of his hands was pruned. He never removed the flippers. In time, I would forget what his feet looked like without them.
My father had never really spoken about his time in the military as a young man; all I knew, or could remember, was that he had been stationed somewhere in Europe. But something about that time must have lain dormant in him, like a frozen beast waiting to thaw. Now, he could describe a sunset over Gibraltar with a level of detail that made me believe he was re-experiencing it as he spoke. The preternatural blueness of the Mediterranean around Cyprus; the rush of the water as he jumped with other men from his company into the warm, roiling waters of the Adriatic; the smell of some port slum in Italy . . . When I ventured to say what I was thinking—that he had never talked about his military experiences before, at least with the sense that they had been so formative—they had not been part of my childhood—he just waved his hand like I didn’t know what I was talking about, or had never paid attention.
I did question the veracity of these memories, even as I feigned annoyance at his keeping them from me. Something in me wanted to corner him, to catch him in a lie, to run that booming voice aground—to force him to admit that the roil- ing Adriatic was really the pond on a windy day, Gibraltar was our angular gray house, the smell of the port slum was the muck on his body. Two things stopped me. First, I noticed that when he got caught up in these memories, or whatever they were, he was much less likely to say anything that rankled Jan. I had often found myself taking my father’s side when they argued, and then feeling guilty about it later. Once the stories started, it was easier for Jan to slip away unnoticed, and she did so with a quiet authority, like a shoplifter.
The second thing was that I realized, no matter how baroque the event or winding the tale, eventually my mother would appear in it. They were just elaborate digressions to get to her, the center of the maze. And even if the story per se did not end there, there was always an addendum that included her. She, too, had seen the sunset over Gibraltar, if many years later. She, too, had swooned over the water around Cyprus, the color of a desert twilight. One day, when I finally decided to challenge him, my father looked at me and said, “Where do you think I met your mother?” I couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d told me it had been in a Portuguese brothel. But there she was: no matter where in the world of his memory or imagination my father traveled, Welt had been fantastically, impossibly there.
And then abruptly he would say he had kept us long enough—he always used the plural, even though Jan had long since abandoned us. We had work to do, he boomed, even though he knew classes did not start again until after Labor Day. He would pull his wetsuit back up over his shoulders and squelch out. Reaching the pond, he would back straight off the bank into the water—it was only mornings that he bothered with the boat—do a barrelroll, and start kicking.
Jan and I did argue about it, at least early in the summer. It was too bizarre, it was too dangerous. The neighbors would talk. I had to call his doctor, a psychiatrist, one of his friends. But my father had no friends but Welt. Our neighbors, such as they were, hardly knew each other. His cardiologist was six hundred miles away, and besides, my father had already fired him, along with the rest of the medical profession. I told Jan he was happy. Hadn’t she noticed the way he beamed at lunch, how animated he was? But she said there was something creepy, something unsettling, about his expression, which, she claimed, was fixed on the figure of my mother. “And have you looked at him?” she said. “Really, look at him.” I said she was being unfair. I said it was temporary. “It’s temporary,” she said, “because one day soon you’re going to find him floating belly-up.”
I made a few half-hearted attempts to locate an affordable rest home, scrolled through the list of cardiologists at our medical group. They all looked the same. It was easier just to let things go on as they were. They were, in their own odd way, ideal. An opportunity for me to spend time with my father during his twilight years, the sort of thing my friends and colleagues, who were not fully apprised of the situation, told me I was blessed to have. An opportunity to do some long-overdue yard projects, too, half in an effort to mollify Jan, half to keep an eye on my father, or at least pretend to. Building stairs down to the creek. Laying gravel on the path through the woods. Weeding the pond. I used a metal rake with a rope tied to the handle. I would cast it out like a harpoon, let it sink for a few seconds, and then haul it back in, the rope cold and slimy in my grip, hoping to draw up a green pom-pom of weeds. Sometimes there would be a wriggling fish caught inside. Ferny, semi-translucent, garland-like, the weeds seemed to have arrived from another world; I understood that their beauty on land was only a fraction of their true beauty, which could only be appreciated underwater. The following day, when the water had drained from the stacks I had made along the bank, they would be gray and brittle, and light as paper as I picked them up with a pitchfork. They left marks like scorches on the grass.
It was tedious work, and I weeded that summer like I was doing penance, watching over my father as if he were a child at the beach. Eventually he did come to seem to me like the dream of the child Jan and I had never had, the child whose absence my parents had said would force us apart, in just the way my presence had welded them together. But though I spent all day with him, I still sometimes felt like I was neglecting him, even abusing him. I had an irrational fear of braining him with the rake. I imagined him as a leviathan I was trying to catch, if I could just bring myself to aim true. He nibbled at the rind of my conscience, and each time I looked to him, I was afraid to find him belly-up, as per Jan’s omen. And yet, I refused to do anything about it; and my disinclination to intervene, to truly change things rather than simply manage them as they were, caused everything to fall under enchantment. We inhabited a static, idyllic world. Nothing could happen to him, so long as it lasted.
In the evenings, when he came up to the house, I would be alone on the porch, the leftovers of whatever Jan had cooked for dinner spread upon the wire table. She would be in bed; she went to bed earlier and earlier as the sum- mer wore on, and came outside less and less. Once, when she came across my father resting in the irises, she shrieked as if she had seen a snake. There was something uncanny about him. Watching him approach back-first, for example: his face transformed into a featureless gray mottle, his joints all bent the wrong way, and his feet black knobs with crests grown from the heels. But he hardly seemed worth shrieking over, sitting there in his faded wetsuit, in the evening glow, a faraway expression on his face, speaking in a voice that boomed gently, like thunder heard from another valley, about Gibraltar, or the roiling Adriatic, or the miraculously-colored fish that swam in and out of the hulls of sunken ironsides, while I picked the yellow tendrils of weeds that hung ceremoniously from his shoulders, like epaulettes.
And then one noon, when I went to bring him his sandwich, I found him sit- ting on the bank by the dock, panting. As I came up beside him, he raised one hand, an imperious hand that trembled ever so slightly.
“Important announcement,” he said.
I waited for him to catch his breath.
“I’ve found Welt,” he said.
I put the sandwich on the grass. I think I said, “Oh?”
“It took a while.” Pant. “Longer than I expected. Tough out there.”
“Well,” I said, “mission accomplished, I guess. Congratulations, Dad. Does that mean you’re coming inside now?”
That look on his face again.
“Accomplished?” he barked. “Hardly. That was phase one.”
“I see,” I said. “Phase one. What’s phase two?”
He took a bite of the sandwich, took his time chewing. He never talked with his mouth full.
“Please inform Jan,” he said. “And please apologize for my ignoring her. I realize I’m not being a very good guest. I hope she understands.”
With that he scooted around and crabwalked backwards into the water again, leaving the rest of his sandwich uneaten on the bank.
“In the pond?” Jan said.
“I guess so. Where else?”
“How does she look? Old, young?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Have you called somebody?”
“Who do you want me to call?”
“Honey, your dad thinks your dead mother is in our pond. Do you think just maybe he’s planning to join her?”
“Why do you always have to be so negative?”
“I’m not being negative, I’m being realistic. How much longer do you think he can make it out there? It’s almost August.”
“Problem solved, then. He’ll have to come inside.”
I could feel her stare, the slight shift in the bedclothes. I sighed.
“All right. What do you want me to do?”
“What do I want you to do? Have you done anything? Have you lifted a finger or taken any responsibility at all? God, you’re worse than him. You’re absolutely helpless. Where’s Welt when you need her?”
“In the pond, apparently. Jan, I think he’s happy . . . ”
“And what about me? Am I happy? She who doesn’t smile often enough, broadly enough?”
“At least he doesn’t follow you around the kitchen reading labels aloud anymore. He doesn’t even stretch out on the bank. Remember? ‘Oh, honey, old people aren’t supposed to be able to bend their bodies that way. He’s too limber.’”
“You’re missing the point.”
“When was the last time you even saw him in the meditation room during the day? Wasn’t that our number-one concern? Now you can read in there all day if you want, and nobody’s going to bother you.”
“Are you listening to yourself?”
I was. My voice had taken on a hysterical edge, at once defensive and self-righteous, the voice of someone brandishing a wound in front of a judge
“He barely comes inside,” I went on, more quietly. “He has effectively vacated the premises.”
“I preferred it when he was reading labels. This freaks me out.”
“Clearly. It’s why you barricade yourself inside all day. Since when do you lock the front door when we’re home?”
“Since your dad decided to play Creature from the Black Lagoon, maybe?”
“It’s not just me. All nature is terrified of him. Mrs. Jowry’s cats puff up and hiss every time they see him coming. Have you seen a single animal on the property since this all started? Rabbits, birds? The heron? Has the heron come by once this summer?”
“The garden’s going all to seed. And I used to float. Remember? You’d bring me a cocktail, sit on the end of the dock with your feet in the water? We’d talk? Remember? Remember the mojitos last summer?”
“We can do that again.”
“With the Swamp Thing out there?”
“Fine, I’ll tell him he can only swim until noon. I’ll tell him has to come up to the porch for lunch. I’ll call someone to take him off to the funny farm,” I said, warming to my own resolve, “so he can get some real drugs and be with Welt all the time.”
“No, you won’t. You’re going to let things go on just like they have. He’ll spawn with Welt, or God knows what, and you’re going to stand there, watching.”
I wanted to tell her about how, when he came inside in the evenings, squelch- ing around the first floor, I was the one shuffling behind him with towels on my feet. I was the one who had stored the rugs, perennially damp, and a hazard every time he bunched one trying to traverse it. I was the one leaving lunch at the end of the dock every day, and bringing him coffee in the mornings. That he hardly ate or drank anything anymore didn’t seem worth mentioning. What mattered was that I had adapted, I was trying to make things work for us, while she had withdrawn, the gesture of picking at her nails writ large.
Jan entwined herself around me, vine on stump. “I’m trying,” I said, weakly. “I really am . . . ”
It was all I could say. She said she knew, that she was sorry. That she loved me. She kissed my eyelids.
“This isn’t about me,” she murmured. “I shouldn’t have brought that stuff up. It’s not even about him, not anymore. It’s about you. I’m worried about you.”
I felt her heart beating against mine. “Okay,” I whispered. Then she whispered, “Remember The Blob?”
“ . . . The movie?”
“Yeah. The movie. Remember how they got rid of it?”
“ . . . Remind me.”
“They froze it and carried it to the Arctic,” she whispered.
“My father is not The Blob,” I whispered.
She sighed in my ear. “It’s a metaphor. Jesus, you’re such a child sometimes.”
“My father,” I said, with rising indignation, “is fauna.”
Jan held onto me tightly, her breath hot on the lobe of my ear.
“Why do you think people move to Florida when they retire? Have you never thought about it? Cold is a weapon.”
That night I dreamed not of my father, but my mother. I hadn’t dreamed of her since the funeral. I was weeding the pond, and my father was floating. I snagged what I thought was a bunch of weeds and started to haul them in. But when I hefted them onto the bank, they were heavy with something else. I pulled weeds aside, like they were vines grown over a headstone, until I found my mother. Only it wasn’t her, it was an amazing effigy of her, with twigs for bones and weeds for capillaries, hair made of rotted leaves, and walnuts for eyes. It was like one of those model toys of the human body, with transparent skin and removable plastic organs. I stared at it until I expected it to come to life—and so it did, smiled and embraced me, a cold, weak embrace I could not return. And yet it clung, or caught to me, like a creeper with spines. My struggle to free myself became a struggle to wake, and came at the price of the Welt-effigy, which col- lapsed into a pile of sticks and leaves and mud. Jan was asleep beside me. My father was in the pond.
August. I did no work; I grew contemplative, staring down into the water, at the patient fish with their tails swaying like my father’s feet, quiet as the heron. The water was limpidly clear from all my weeding, and I felt that I had done no small part for my father’s mission, whatever it was now. He had never spoken of it again. In fact, he barely spoke at all. How could he, when he barely left the water? He no longer came up to the porch for dinner. He spent the whole day floating in the same spot, as much a fixture of the yard as the red maple. The only way I could determine he was still alive was by seeing a fin move, or bubbles appear around his head. If he was motionless for too long, I threw pebbles at him, and then slightly larger stones if I failed to get a reaction. When a stone connected, his leg would kick as if he had received a jolt from a galvanic battery. I would have used a bamboo pole instead, except that he no longer floated within reach of the dock.
The days were growing noticeably shorter, the nights colder. Coming up to the house at dusk, I would find the screen door latched. Jan would come downstairs with a flashlight to let me in. The dinner leftovers were covered in foil on the kitchen table. She would sit silently across from me, my father fallen between us like a curtain. I could no longer look at her, pitying me, or blaming me. I ate silently, and ate everything, making sure to leave nothing for him. No more coffee in the morning or sandwiches at noon. I have no idea what he ate, if he ate. But later at night, lying in bed, we would hear the porch door slam, and then the inside door squeak open; we would listen to him squelching around the first floor. It seemed an inordinate amount of time, an inordinate number of steps, before he reached the meditation room. Some nights he was more restless than others, and it might be a full half-hour before he settled down. We would listen, holding our breaths, as though we expected at any moment to hear his stentorious breath as he crabwalked up the stairs, to see his backside appear in the bedroom doorway.
I could no longer deny that he was changing. The remains of his wetsuit hung off him like a skin he had begun to shed. At once pruned and bloated, he had taken on a pale green hue, my father had, though in a few places the weeds had stained him an orange-yellow, almost a dull gold. Moss had grown in the depressions of his ribcage, as on the shell of a turtle. His eyes shone dully, like old coins; I was not convinced he could still see through them, at least outside of the water. And just as I knew the weeds looked different, looked beautiful, inside the water, so I knew that, while on land my father might have looked odd, even troubling, it was only in the pond that the changes made sense. It was not age; these were not the so-called ravages of time. Rather, he was changing laterally, in time’s interstices—the cracks and fissures between sedimentary layers, where all our fabled common ancestors lived.
By early September the temperature had begun dipping into the forties at night, though it would be at least another month before the first frost. Was my father growing a thicker skin to survive the winter? Perhaps he had a bur- row under the bank, like a muskrat, and was preparing to hibernate. Perhaps his metamorphosis was into something closer to flora: he would return in the spring, permanent in his own way, but so different that he would no longer be able to see or sense me. It would be up to me to recognize him. Or perhaps he had shriveled like a leaf—it was the reason he floated so effortlessly—and I could have easily lifted him out with the skimmer, if only I could have reached him. Even when he rested in the irises, we spoke so little that I began to wonder if he was losing the power of speech. He seemed to need nothing now, least of all me. But I needed him—we both did, Jan and I, though I could not define precisely how.
And then one evening we didn’t hear him come inside. The bed in the meditation room was damp, empty but for weeds. The pond was empty, its black surface undisturbed. I ran down the hill in my pajamas, calling his name. Jan called mine from the window. A few moments later, tramping about in the irises, I almost stumbled over his reclining form. I should have known he would be here, in his favorite resting spot, the place where the weak currents carried him over the course of the day, where he bedded down every evening in a nest of mashed petals and leaves. Stepping back, I was just able to make out his form against the fanning leaves, themselves dark spines against an infinitesimally lighter sky.
“Dad? Don’t you want to come inside?”
Now that my heart had settled, I could hear him breathing, a gentle wheeze under the chirping late-summer frogs.
He said, “I’m fine here.” Quietly, but in a voice still very much his own. “It’s supposed to rain tonight,” I said.
I hadn’t looked at the weather. The sky was clear, and the moon was just a sliver, barely brighter than the stars.
“It’s okay,” he said, “I’m comfortable.”
I listened to him wheeze, and to the frogs surrounding me, singing the end of summer.
Then he said, “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine here. You go on.”
I slept on the dock that night, and every night thereafter. The frogs fell silent, and the house seemed as far away as the moon, and then farther; because though the moon grew slowly night by night, the house never changed, and so it seemed to recede as the moon drew nearer. Standing in the window like a sailor’s widow, Jan was as small as a candle. She called to me, but I did not come, and in time I stopped hearing her, and then seeing her, except in the evenings, when she came out to leave a bowl of soup or hot rice at the other end of the dock. Only once that I can remember did she walk out to me, and caress my cheek, and kiss my forehead, as though I were suffering a fever, fighting an illness for which she could offer no more than consolation.
My father seemed to grow more distant, too. Perhaps it was the light, at least during the day, the angle of the sun dazzling the water. At night he seemed to float in space, a tetherless astronaut adrift in the currents of the void. Then he began to flash, like a beacon from a lighthouse, there, not there, and then there again. At first I thought my attention must have drifted long enough for him to have had time to kick quietly to the southern irises. But something told me to count. I decided that if he did not reappear by fifteen, I would be forced to do something, I didn’t know what. Stab the water with a bamboo pole in the place where I had last seen him? Cast the weeding rake into the water? Imagining what I might do made me count past fifteen. I thought I must have counted too quickly, so I started again, making sure to mutter “one thousand” before each number.
On ten he resurfaced, almost silently. He was still except for his head, which he raised every few seconds to breathe. Then I saw it happen: his back hunched, he doubled over in the water, and he kicked his scrawny legs up in the air, flippers noiselessly suspended for a few moments, before going down in a cloud of bubbles.
This went on all through September. I used up my sick days, while Jan took advantage to leave work early when she could, or sometimes just call out, pushing off part of her load onto one of the more accommodating and impression- able younger sisters. Arriving at home, she would find me, as ever, at the end of the dock, watching my father’s shadow descend, flipper-feet disappearing last. Even on the brightest days, where I could see through to the tops of the weeds, he went deep enough that he vanished entirely. I had begun to imagine all the awful things that might happen to him while he was down there, from getting snagged in the weeds, to having a dizzy spell and not being able to tell the direction of the surface, to simply miscalculating and running out of air. But the longer this went on, the longer he was able to go without surfacing. Instead, I imagined him learning through patient trial and error to breathe underwater, as magical as learning to fly. I thought again of hibernation, of his blood growing viscous and freezing with the earth. Each time he returned to the surface, there would be just a little less of him.
Leaves dotted the water. Some of them landed on him; I could hear the wetter ones hit his flesh with a clearly audible slap. I could hear Jan’s voice calling me from the window, from the porch, from the top of the lawn, from the other end of the dock. How could I leave now, with him on the point of leaving me? And yet, how would I know when he had left? At what number, at what point in our short little lives are we supposed to stop thinking longer, and start thinking eternity?
But one cold afternoon I did know, just like I knew the canoes the leaves made, the mottled red of the maple across the pond, the elephantine skin of my own drawn-up knees. I called for Jan, until she appeared in the window, on the porch, at the top of the lawn. I watched her make the half-circle around the pond to the garden gate, where she untied the rope from the weeding rake and brought it to me, helped me to tie it around my waist. She stepped on the other end. If anything happened, I was supposed to tug.
One kiss, and then a hard push.
The water wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be. Something about the depth of the pond—twelve feet, supposedly, at its deepest point—must have helped to stabilize the temperature. It was the same depth as the diving tank of the pool in the town where I had grown up. Yet, the pond seemed deeper, much deeper, the pressure on my ears that much greater. Maybe it was just the murkiness of the water. Looking up, I could just make out Jan’s dim outline wavering on the surface.
The real problem, though, was that I couldn’t tell if I had reached the bottom. There seemed to be no bottom. The silt went on and on, so fine that, for an un- reasonable distance, it was neither water nor earth, but something between the two. I found myself half-walking, half-swimming in a pitch-black gelatin. Legs buried in the watery silt, arms and face swathed in weeds I could feel but not see, I understood how justified had been my fear that my father could become lost or trapped down here.
I kicked free, came up for air. “Anything?” Jan called.
I shook my head, gasping. The rope, I noticed, was tied around her waist. She gave it a few short, sharp tugs, as for practice.
The second time I thought the pond would seem less deep, but the reverse was true. Because I didn’t have the impetus of the jump, I thought, or because I had found some unmapped trench in the blind geography of that bottomless bottom—whatever the case, down and down I went. I was buffeted by fish, corkscrewed by powerful currents; weeds caught at my arms and legs, as though to avenge themselves.
And then I found him, knocked into his bones and flesh, or he into mine. He threw his arms around me, and I around him, and we danced this way, like astronauts. Except it wasn’t just him; my mother was here, too, just as he had said she was. We were all here, the three of us, dancing this slow dance together. I saw her face as it had appeared in the coffin, and I knew now what his flesh felt like: like the flesh of my dead mother’s face. I saw the pictures, the two of them, always together—except I was in those pictures now, between them. I had cut myself out in my memory, but I was still there, in the contours of my absence. Now it was my father who filled that space, a tenuous last link between us. His had been a slow turning, like a shadow on a sundial, toward this other world. He had spent the summer excavating his own grave, without tools, without aid. But with an audience: Jan, watching from afar; and I, floating on the margins, so eager to fit myself back into that space between them, beside her, pressed up against her.
I was almost out of air when I reached behind me to tug on the rope. Then, my arms still wrapped around their narrow trunk, fingers tightly laced, I started to kick.
I didn’t panic, at least not at first. Jan did tug back, but weakly. There was no bottom to push off of. And there was a certain amount of inertia to overcome. Still, we went nowhere—or, rather, we went down. I was sure that we were all sinking together into ever-siltier depths, like a family trapped in the cabin of a torpedoed ship, huddled together in prayer. I began to swallow convulsively, as though I could make air this way, kicking and squirming, my whole body a tail. Still I was sure we went on sinking.
When at last I understood that I could not bring them up, I drew my knees to my chest and planted my feet on theirs, the only other solid thing down here; and I pushed, until I felt their grip break. My legs followed through; they sank; I rose, clawing my way toward the surface and Jan.
That first breath. It was the sort you take when you’ve exhausted yourself from crying, sucking down all that cold air just so you can start over again.
I’m out gathering kindling, splitting wood and stacking it behind the garage. Jan is raking by the pond. The other day, the red maple dumped all its leaves, as though something had terrified it. The ground is white with frost; the pond has a thin skein of ice over it; one of Jan’s floats is frozen there. It’s been a cold November, everything bright and still, and silent when we pause, an ideal paralysis that’s the closest the earth comes to heaven.
I hear the geese almost a minute before the first ones appear over the northernmost trees. A distant rumor, a few lonely honks. I put down the halves of a log I’ve just split, gently, as though, were I to drop them, I risked frightening the geese away. I’ve been waiting for their visit, though I didn’t know it. They unfurl over the horizon, more and more, until they own the sky above me—fifty, may- be more, in a few broken Vs, a pattern like the notches in a piano roll, cranked over us in some Ptolemaic mock-up of earth and sky. The honking rises to a din, and each goose is an instrument, and each goose is a will. I look briefly at Jan, who is watching, rake poised in both hands. It lasts just long enough, just as long as it needs to—just as long as I need it to—and then they’re leaving, diminishing. I listen for a long time after the hindmost disappear over the southern trees, savoring their calls like the last trace of a flavor dissolving on the tongue.
Craig Bernardini’s stories have appeared in Booth, Cimarron Review, Lumina Online, Memorious, Washington Square, and Zone 3. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, and blogs about unpopular music at Helldriver’s Pit Stop, on the CUNY Academic Commons.
Originally published in Issue 19.