By Scott Gould
Featured Art: by Oscar Bluemner
Sometimes you know things before you know things. Mrs. Tisdale comes to the door, and I know something is wrong. I know. From the top bunk of my bed, I watch her coming up the sidewalk, walking fast but walking like a woman who is already lost, her skirt moving quickly around her, like a wave to anyone who spies through the window.
I know the doorbell won’t ring. She is not a bell person. She is too good a friend of my mother’s to announce herself that way. She knocks once and opens the door. What she doesn’t know is the bell doesn’t work anyway. It is shorted out somewhere along its line and my father has never pulled the wires and traced down them to find the problem. I hear Mrs. Tisdale’s voice flow up the staircase, so faint I can barely make it out, strained and pitched higher than normal. Her voice sounds like an animal she is trying to keep on a leash, trying to make it heel. Because her voice wants to run away from her. I hear my mother fall back on her nurse’s voice, that healing tone. I climb off the top bunk and move closer to the doorway.
“Now, Roberta, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” my mother says. “Let’s not worry until we have something to worry about.”
“Something’s gone wrong,” Mrs. Tisdale says. “I feel it.”
I know what she means. Lonnie was supposed to meet me in the back corner of the field behind the school. I’d told him I’d stolen a package of Apple Jack chewing tobacco that we could try. He didn’t even seem excited. He didn’t even ask where I got it from. I held it in front of his nose and he knocked my hand away, then said he was sorry. “I’ll see you there, I guess,” he said. He sounded like he was walking through deep mud. Something was pulling at him, something had changed and nobody told me about it. I yelled at him to be there around four o’clock and he waved at me without turning around. Now, in my house, I think Mrs. Tisdale and I must have the same dull ache in our stomachs, the same idea spinning wildly in our heads, that something has gone bad-wrong with Lonnie.
“Can we ask your son about it?” I hear Mrs. Tisdale say, and my mother doesn’t see anything wrong with that, but she doesn’t understand what’s going on, doesn’t catch the dark messages in the air.
She calls me downstairs and when I walk into the little room just off the front door, she says, “Do you feel okay?” She puts her hand on my forehead. “You’re pale. And clammy.” Mrs. Tisdale looks me in the eyes, and I think she might find something lurking there.
“Have you seen Lonnie?” she says, still locked on my eyes. I glance at my mother and she nods at me.
“I saw him just before school was over,” I say. I have a hand in my pocket, fingering the block of chewing tobacco. “We were going to meet at four. At the soccer goal.”
She’s still staring at me until my mother breaks up the silence. “So he didn’t show,” she says, and it doesn’t sound like a question.
“No, ma’am,” I say and Mrs. Tisdale’s eyes begin to cloud over and fill with water. I think that the Apple Jack will change something—the mood, the sound the voices are making in the echoey little room. I pull the block out of my pocket. “We were going to try some of this,” I say, and Mrs. Tisdale blinks and the tears fall on the front of her dress, and she runs out of the house. My mother doesn’t take the chewing tobacco away from me. Tobacco isn’t important now.
“She knows it’s bad. How’s she know that?” she asks me, and I want to tell her that I’m way too young to have answers like that, but not too young to have the same question. “Are you sure you feel okay?” she asks me, palming my forehead again.
“Yes, ma’am,” I lie, but it’s one of those lies that can’t hurt anybody. “Oh, and give me that tobacco,” she says. “That stuff is nasty.”
Back in my room, I watch the bats come out in the last bit of evening, fluttering above the tree line and chasing bugs all the way to the ground. The last thing that happens, before it goes completely dark: Lonnie’s brothers walk through the neighborhood, calling out his name, as if he has maybe fallen asleep somewhere and just woken up, not knowing where he is.
The next morning, my father makes me ride with him to the river to watch the sheriff’s deputies drag the river downstream from the bridge. He doesn’t say much to me on the ride, but I know I have no choice. This is how he teaches me things. He points me in the direction of the worst of the world and then says, Avoid shit like that and you’ll be alright.
He does most of his talking to my mother. Arguing. She can’t understand why he would want his son to watch men sling giant hooks into the deepest cuts in the river and see what they haul up from the water. “He’s only twelve,” she says.
“That’s exactly why I’m taking him,” he says back to her. My mother and I don’t understand him, but that is nothing new for us.
On the way to the river, he already has a beer in his hand. “You know Lonnie’s gone for good, right? You see what he’s putting everybody through, right?” He grips the steering wheel like it might escape, breathing hard through his nose. But he isn’t mad at me. I know that now. “What the hell was going through his head? Nothing, that’s what. He didn’t learn a damn thing the first time.” He turns angry when he talks about death. I’ve never talked about it before, never even heard anyone else talk about it. Death might as well be something like a far-off universe or volcanoes. It just never comes up in conversation, except when my father starts to slur words and tell his Vietnam stories.
By that morning, we’d all heard Lonnie had climbed up on the rail of the metal bridge in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon, dressed like he was going to the store or to a party, in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt which didn’t make much sense in early June. Nobody wore clothes like that in June, to the river. Then again, none of it made sense. There is a furniture store above the river and a big window that looks out over the water toward the bridge. A salesman saw Lonnie jump and then didn’t think a thing of it. Lots of boys jump off that bridge. Even in clothes like that.
“But not in June, not when we haven’t had rain in a month,” my father says. “God knows what’s under the surface.”
He parks our Bel Air in the furniture store parking lot. The lot rises a good twenty feet above the river. Below us, sheriff’s deputies have anchored their jon boats in several places just off the bank. I watch them brace themselves then whirl the hooks at their side before they launch them into the current. They reel back in what the river will give them. One deputy brings up a tire. Another, what looks like a bedside table. No bodies. Lonnie’s father squats on the river bank like a man with nowhere to go.
“I couldn’t do that,” my father says, pointing at Mr. Tisdale. “I couldn’t sit around waiting on the worst. They’ve already put his wife in bed.” He talks quietly, like someone is eavesdropping, but we are the only ones in the parking lot. “She went all hysterical. Gave her drugs.”
He thinks I’m listening, and he thinks I’m looking at the river, but I’m staring beyond the banks, down the highway that leads to the country club. Lonnie and I used to fish in a swamp pothole just beyond the only curve in the highway. I try to count the number of times we crossed this bridge on our bicycles.
The water in this river is the color of old coffee, of Coca-Cola, which makes everyone think it is dirty, but this is clean water. I did a report in school. The color of the water comes from trees leaking tannin into the water, cypress trees that line the banks, their knees poking out like soldiers. The water is so dark that you can’t see more than a foot or so into it. This river keeps secrets from the people on the bank. Lonnie’s father peers into the water like he’s going to be able to suddenly see exactly what happened, like the water will clear and be as transparent as the Moose Lodge Pool. I can tell that he is a man who doesn’t know exactly what to hope for right now.
Lonnie should have known better than to jump in June. In June the heat begins to raise the river banks and bring all that’s bad closer to the surface. It’s not a high bridge, but it’s high enough. He should’ve learned the first time he jumped, when he banged his face on that refrigerator and had to have all those operations. Lonnie ended up with a fake eyeball and a rebuilt eye socket. For a while, he was all anybody talked about. Then he just turned into a kid in town with a fake eye and plastic on half his face and nobody ever asked him about it anymore.
One of the deputies balancing in a jon boat lets out a yell and begins tugging quickly on his rope. Something is pulling in the other direction, something more than the current. “Wesley ought not to be that excited,” my father whispers and puts his arm around me. Wesley has arms like a weightlifter, and they bulge under his uniform as he fights the river. Mr. Tisdale stands and walks a couple of steps in the direction of the deputy’s boat. The deputy acts like a man deep-sea fishing, reeling in slack anytime the shark takes a break. There is a marker on the rope, a bright piece of cloth, tied ten feet from the hook, a warning. I see it appear. Mr. Tisdale cannot decide what to do. He retreats from the water’s edge, then turns completely around, toward the parking lot. He sees us watching and begins to wave but thinks better of it. He turns again to the water.
Something tangled in the hooks breaks the river’s surface and Mr. Tisdale falls to his knees in the sand, but it’s just a big piece of truck tire, something sheared off an eighteen-wheeler. Wesley looks disappointed that he did all that work and only has a hunk of rubber to show for it. He wanted a body—a boy—for his efforts. The deputy is soaking wet from sweat, almost as if he’d taken a dip.
“I’ve had enough of this,” my father says and steers me back toward the car. He tosses his empty can in the bushes. When we climb inside, he says, “You understand this? I want you to understand all this. There are people in boats. There’s a daddy on his knees in the sand. There’s a couple of people up in a parking lot watching like it’s a football game. This isn’t supposed to be the way the world works. Not the things children are supposed to cause. You need to understand that.” He fires the engine up, and I nod at him but I don’t understand any of it. There are too many pieces. It’s like the way a huge puzzle looks when you first dump it out of the box, when the pieces are piled on a table, before somebody smart begins to make sense of it. All I know is that Lonnie didn’t meet me in the field behind the school and, not long after that, I knew things before I knew them.
It was Mrs. Tisdale’s idea for all of us to wear our baseball uniforms to the funeral. I didn’t know what a pallbearer was. “You’re like a special group of friends who might be sadder than anyone else, except for the family. You’re like the next rung down from family,” my mother says, smoothing away some wrinkles on my jersey with her hands.
“Most of the time pallbearers carry the casket,” my father says when she finishes. “I guess they don’t think y’all are strong enough.” She doesn’t even roll her eyes at him like she usually does when he butts in. “Uniforms are a bad idea. Makes this look like a circus,” he says.
“She can have whatever she wants because of what she’s lost,” my mother says and the way it comes out of her mouth, we know it is the last word.
She washed my uniform last night and it smells like Tide. She could wash it a hundred times and the clay stains on the knees would never completely come out, but it smells new, like I have a game that day. “We’re not supposed to bring gloves and stuff, are we?” I ask. “Are we supposed to wear cleats?” I wonder if Lonnie is wearing his uniform right now. Number 8.
She shakes her head. “But wear the hat. And wear sneakers.” We play for Kingstree Manufacturing. Mr. Sellars, the assistant manager of the bank in town, is our coach. When we win games, he piles us into his pickup and drives us to the bank and lets us have free sodas out of the machine in the back lobby. We can have two if we want. The Coke is the color of the river, and I catch myself thinking of Coca-Cola and river water and baseball and wonder if this is how you begin to put the pieces together, start seeing the connections between things that happened and are happening and might happen the minute you step out in the sun in your baseball uniform and turn left for the church, instead of right for the Youth Center and the baseball field.
The last thing my mother does before we drive to the church is put a clean, pressed handkerchief in the back pocket of my uniform. “You’ll need this,” she says, and I wonder where it came from. I’ve never seen anybody in my family use a handkerchief.
On the way to the church, my parents try to talk under their breath, thinking that the open windows and the sound of the engine will be enough to camouflage their conversation. My brother isn’t interested. Eli looks out the window and tugs at his bowtie. He can’t understand why he isn’t allowed to wear a uniform. He’s never been to a funeral either. Beneath the rush of air, I hear my parents talking about what I already know: that Lonnie didn’t just jump off the bridge because he wanted to swim. He jumped because he didn’t want to come out of the water. In the days since one of the deputies snagged Lonnie and pulled him out of the water, I’ve eavesdropped on several conversations floating up from my living room, parents worried about what this would do to all of us. Would we be tempted to jump off the bridge? Parents wanting to know why Lonnie was so unhappy. Parents saying the children didn’t have enough to worry about to warrant leaping through the air.
I knew I could never jump off that bridge. I’d been there one night, right after Lonnie’s first jump, when he banged his head and his eye on something, and I remember looking down into the black that didn’t seem to end. I couldn’t tell the night from the water’s dark surface, and I knew then that I didn’t have it in me to jump. I wondered why Lonnie did it in broad daylight.
“Will we have to look at a dead person?” my little brother says, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“No,” my father says over his shoulder. “Not after the river.” I know what he means. Three days underwater, I’m guessing Lonnie doesn’t look like himself anymore.
A woman who flutters around like a nervous little animal lines us up just inside the front door of the church, smallest to tallest, like that is important. She tells the first boy in line, our catcher Wendall, that when she taps him on the shoulder, he should walk in slow and a man near the altar will show us which pew to sit in. I didn’t know funerals had parades, where we had to walk and look out at a crowd watching us. After we sit, it isn’t two minutes before Lonnie’s family walks in. His brothers stare at the tops of their shoes when they walk. Mr. Tisdale holds up his wife. She sags against him like she is on her last legs. With each step she takes, she lets out a little moan. Mr. Tisdale smiles, but I can tell it isn’t real. His eyes give him away.
It has never bothered me to see other people sad, and even this day in the church, Mrs. Tisdale’s moans and the way Lonnie’s brothers look like they haven’t slept in days doesn’t make me want to reach for my handkerchief. Even the sight of the coffin, which is built short, the size of most of us in uniform, doesn’t get to me. I find myself thinking about baseball and when we’ll wear this uniform again and if my mother will wash the funeral out of it before the next game.
No, it’s when Reverend Scoggins walks into the pulpit. That’s when I begin to know. He doesn’t do what he normally does when he starts a sermon. He doesn’t pluck his own handkerchief from his robe and wipe his mouth and ask God to make the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart acceptable in His sight. Reverend Scoggins looks like a man who just wandered onto the saddest chapter in a book.
He begins to talk two or three times, the only thing arriving from his mouth a deep half-croak. He finally pulls his handkerchief from a fold of his robe and wipes his eyes. That’s when I feel my own eyes begin to fill. I wonder if Lonnie’s fake eye could shed tears. I never asked him that. Where would his tears come from? Would they even be real? I wonder why I am thinking of that now. Reverend Scoggins’ shoulders slump forward and he begins to shake under the weight of his sobs. He is supposed to lead us through this, I think. I turn slightly and see that the church is full. People near the back stand against the wall, beneath the stained glass. I didn’t eat much breakfast this morning. I wasn’t hungry enough. But now, I feel a sour taste from my stomach rising in the back of my throat. If he can’t lead us through this, who will? I catch sight of my mother, dabbing at her eyes. My father stares up at the windows, trying to distract himself. He will act mad, I know. He always acts mad when he doesn’t know what to do. Reverend Scoggins tries one more time to begin to talk and the words lodge in his throat. At the back of mine, the sour taste rises higher, faster, and I need to let it go somewhere. We are sitting only two pews from the front, so I climb over our left fielder and one of our pitchers and bolt for the door to the side of the altar, run fast like I’m trying to beat out a grounder to short. I pass Reverend Scoggins, and he notices me for the first time and begins to say something. He looks to be mad. I make it to a door, and just inside it, I throw up on the shiny, polished tiles, my eyes watering from the crying and the retching. I smell something sharp, the stuff they use to clean the floors, maybe. Nothing splashes on my uniform, but my hat falls right in the mess, lands right on the KM logo. On the other side of the door, back at the altar, Reverend Scoggins has discovered his voice. “Sometimes God isn’t fair,” he says. “Just not fair.” And I wonder if they’ll let me get a new hat.
A hand hard on my shoulder, and I look up expecting to see Mr. Rogan who cleans the church or the secretary at the desk in the preacher’s office or someone who will get on me about messing up the shiny, squeaky floor, but I’m wrong. My father is there, and it’s not that he has a different look in his eye. It’s that he’s looking right at me now. He usually stares over the top of my head or back over his shoulder like somebody in black pajamas and a straw hat is going to sneak up on him. Now, he is locked on my eyes like he’s trying to read my thoughts.
“I don’t think anybody noticed,” he says, then sees the floor. “I’d rather you puke than cry your eyes out. At least this is something.” He reaches in the back pocket of my uniform, pulls out the white handkerchief and hands it to me. “Wipe your mouth. Let’s get out of here. Forget the hat.”
I am not sure if pallbearers are allowed to leave before a service is over, not sure of the rules since I’ve never been one. I know that after the service, Lonnie is being laid in the ground at the big cemetery out on the Sumter Highway, and my parents have been debating all morning whether or not I should go, whether or not it is too much for boys in baseball uniforms to sit through a funeral and a burial.
“I don’t know,” I say and swipe my mouth clean. On the other side of the door, music has started, organ music, and I hear a church full of people trying to sing when they don’t really feel like it.
“Don’t worry. This is one of those days when you can get away with whatever you want. It’s like a strange holiday. Come on,” he says. “Your momma will get a ride. No problem.”
Outside the morning sunlight is blinding and moving toward noon. He lets me sit in the front seat, and we ease out of the church parking lot and turn left and ride the easy bluff down the floodplain toward the river. Just when he is supposed to bear right to Scout Cabin and the beach where everybody goes, he steers straight and continues out of town. He sees me swiveling my head, trying to figure out where we are headed. “Relax,” he says. “It’s something new.”
After a mile, he turns down a potholed, two-lane road with wild grass growing right to the edge of the asphalt. I feel us drop downhill a little and the sounds outside the window change. The cicadas pipe up in the heat. I hear them screeching over the hum of the tires on the pavement. Another mile and he turns down a sand road barely wide enough for the car. I wonder what will happen if we meet someone coming the other way, but my father doesn’t seem to mind. He takes the curves too fast, and I slide against the door. He makes one more turn, this time into the trees onto what doesn’t even look like a road, more like a path that weaves between pines and hardwoods that have never been thinned. Weeds grow high in the path until it suddenly breaks into a clearing and, in front of me, I see a sliver of white beach and the black water of the river as it slows on a bend to the right.
The beach is just wide enough for a rickety picnic table and a small wooden bench that could be used for cleaning fish, I guess. Off the beach, just at the tree line, is a cement platform about the size of a closet. A tarp has been slung over the cement by a network of ropes from several trees. “Nobody really knows about this place,” my father says. He doesn’t like surprises when they happen to him. He told me once that he’d gotten his share of surprises in Vietnam. “You crawl down a tunnel with a flashlight and a pistol and a fruit bat comes at you in the dark and you crap your pants, that’s enough surprise for the rest of your life.” But he likes surprising other people, likes making them open their eyes and wonder, Where the hell did that come from? He knows he’s surprised me.
We sit in the car. “You know all those times I take off and you and your mother think I’m off doing things I shouldn’t? Well, I never really go very far,” he says. “This is where I come. So now you know.”
Outside, the air under the trees is thick and cool and has the dank smell of a swamp. My father doesn’t even bother to step behind a tree when he pees, just lets it go right there in the path. “Don’t worry. Nobody upstream or down for a mile.”
We walk to the sand, and I take off my shoes and my red baseball socks that are stretched up to my knees. “I found this place right after I got out of the service. I knew I’d need something I could keep to myself,” he says. The sand is beginning to get hot. To my left, a line of turtles suns on a cypress log that juts out of the shallow water. His shoes are off too. I’d never noticed my father’s feet, the way one of his big toes angles in at the joint, like it was broken somehow years ago. Here, the river doesn’t make any sound. There’s current, but nothing hurried you can see or hear in the black water.
“I want to tell you something,” he says. “You can’t blame the river for what happened. What happened was going to happen, one way or the other. There’s nothing to blame.”
A tiny, fast movie runs through my head: me talking to Lonnie, asking him to meet me after school, the dark block of Apple Jack tobacco, the empty school yard with me sitting there long after four o’clock, picking at a hole in the soccer net and there’s not enough string left to patch it up. Then the movie changes, and I imagine I go hunting for him. I find him at his house, changing into clothes that don’t make sense. Me, convincing him to go to another part of the river where there is no bridge, where we could break off hunks of the Apple Jack and feel the buzz in our heads when the tobacco gets wet in our mouths and the two of us trying not to throw up. Him, going home at the end of the afternoon, miles from any bridges.
“So you know you couldn’t have done anything to stop this, right?” he says. I should wait before I talk, but I don’t. “I won’t ever know that,” I say.
“Yes, you will,” my father says. “All you need is a place to go and think it through. You can come here, if you want.” He isn’t looking at me. Instead, he’s watching his toes dig little trenches in the warm, dry sand. “You should take a swim,” he says. “Go ahead.”
I wonder if he brought my swimsuit in the car, if he thought that far ahead. “Take off your uniform,” he says. “You get that thing wet, it might shrink or turn colors or something, and your mother will have my ass.”
A swim would feel good, I think. I peel off my Kingstree Manufacturing uniform and lay it on the sand next to the socks. Number 11, my favorite number. The ragged little hole on the back of the pants from sliding wrong. I steal bases. Lonnie is too slow. Was too slow. I consider leaving on my underwear, but then think about how wet it will be later on and peel them off too. I don’t mind being naked in front of my father. Not the first time, but he isn’t even looking at me. His eyes are closed and pointed toward the sun. I wade into the black water and feel it close around my shins. It still has a chill to it, even in early June. I walk a little farther and feel the quiet current tugging at me like a rope is around my waist and somebody downstream is pulling. Lonnie’s body drifted almost a quarter mile from the bridge. It took three days for the sheriff’s department to find him. I think about the way bodies drift, even in June water, low June water. Instead of anchoring my toes in the sand and mud, I let my feet go and lay back in the water, the black closing over me.
Before my head goes under, I hear my father say, “Don’t get out of sight. Stay where I can see you.” But he doesn’t have to worry about me forgetting where I am.
Scott Gould is the author of the story collections Strangers to Temptation (2017) and Idiot Men (2021), the novels, Whereabouts (2020) and The Hammerhead Chronicles (coming 2022), and the memoir, Things That Crash, Things That Fly (2021). He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina and teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.