*Image: “Road to Palouse Falls,” Oil on Canvas, 18″ x 24″, 2011, by Allen Forrest
by Dave Essinger
My running shoes have hardened into new shapes since the last time I wore them, and they’re stiff on my feet. The half mile to Andrew’s house loosens them a little, but they don’t stop sliding on my heels. Maybe it’s my feet that have changed, though; maybe my shoes are the same.
Today could be one of the last hot afternoons we’ll get. Lazy yellow jackets weave over windfall fruit in the ditches, careening like drunks, careless with what’s left of their lives. The air has a crisp edge to it. Distant woodsmoke, the first tang of leaf rot.
Andrew’s in his driveway. He shakes his legs out when I get to the mailbox and nods in my direction with nothing near eye contact. I know that his wife, or maybe both our wives, have put him up to this. Maybe they think exercise will do me good.
Andrew’s little girl is in the front window. She has a bow clipped in her wispy hair and is looking at the sky, opening her mouth and closing it again, over and over. Open, close, open, close. Circle, line. I wave at her, self-conscious, like she might respond.
“Are we doing this?” Andrew starts to jog. I look back and see his wife’s pale arm snake up from the dark behind the window, pulling the girl back. She just keeps opening and closing her mouth—circle, line—like some kind of stuck doll, a battery-powered toy.
“Five mile loop?” I ask. I assume I can still go that far.
Andrew says he has something else in mind. I tell him I don’t care, anything’s fine. Before the first hill, he takes us off road, down a grassy stripe between two fields.
If Kit thought we were going to have some kind of therapeutic conversation or something, she doesn’t know how it is at all. Kit has never gotten it, never understood how I could come back from an hour-long run without information: how Andrew’s wife likes her new job, what they think is going on with their little girl. Whether they’re worried.
I mean, we’d talk about work, and people in town, and whether either of our crappy cars had another ten-thousand in them and were worth fixing the exhaust or replacing the warped rotors. We’d talk about the deck he’s been working on for two summers or the pole barn I thought about doing and priced and talked about financing and then didn’t.
“That’s kind of the point of it,” I told her once—just some time with no interrogation. It’s an accumulated trust, a bit of respect for someone’s privacy. And that—literally years of not asking—is what Andrew destroys, when he just out of nowhere asks how I’ve been. How I’m holding up.
It makes me angry, I admit that. I mean, I could mumble “OK” or “Fine” and let it drop. That would relieve Andrew and let us both off the hook. Instead, though, I say, “Seventeen minutes.”
“What?” He’s ahead of me, turning his head like he’s looking for something. We’re jogging across a bare field, stepping over clods and rows of last year’s corn stalks. Their turned-up tangled roots look visceral, like the earthy insides of some huge decaying animal, set to catch our feet.
“Seventeen minutes,” I repeat. “That’s the world record. For holding your breath.”
You bet he doesn’t say anything to that.
“There’s this technique called lung-packing,” I say. “People train their bodies for it. Obviously, not kids. But kids have this other thing going on, in cold water: like, the whole metabolism goes into suspension. There was this little boy, in Canada somewhere, who was under the ice for four minutes before they pulled him out. He was fine. No brain damage, nothing.” Kit walks away whenever I start to talk about—well, anything anymore.
“Mike,” he says. He asked me, though. He asked for it. And here we are, out in the middle of a field. It’s not like he can run away from me.
“I’m just saying,” I say. “It can be minutes. Minutes. Some people have had minutes. Kelsie didn’t get ‘minutes.’ That’s all I’m saying.”
We were a year apart in high school, Andrew and me. On the cross country team, neither of us was ever fast. Our fast guy was always minutes ahead of the rest of us; he got a scholarship. Andrew and I stayed in town, bagging groceries at the Safeway. Andrew had plans he doesn’t talk about now, travel and all that, but I honestly never did. I married Kit a year after graduation, and we had Kelsie on purpose. I liked it, the family thing. It was something to be: a husband, a dad. Andrew and I kept banking up seniority at the Safeway, and still went for runs Saturdays and after work, two young dads on the country roads.
I quit running after Kelsie drowned. I’d quit a lot of things.
“What are we even doing out here?” I ask.
Andrew stops short. “Deer,” he says, and sure enough, there are a dozen or so just by the edge of the wood. I’ve stopped a half-step late, and I’m standing too close to him, unevenly balanced. “It’s called ‘persistence hunting,’” he says. “We pick one deer off the herd and take turns. And, keep it running.” His eyes flick up, challenging me to say anything. I don’t. “Eventually,” he says, “it just keels over. Lays down, right? Heat exhaustion.”
“You want to run down a deer.”
“The fucking point,” he says, staring me down, “is not catching the deer.” We face off for a minute, until he says, “You can go back if you want.” By the tree line, the deer act like we’re not there.
“You got a license?” I ask. “For hunting?”
“No weapons,” he says. He shakes his water bottle at me.
“We’re trespassing,” I point out. I don’t know if we are or not. He doesn’t answer.
I sigh. It’s hot out. I don’t want to bother any deer. But I don’t want to go back.
Last week, Kit said to me, “God, Mike, why don’t you hold your breath?” She puffed her cheeks and made a fish face. We were drunk, and it was daylight. She fluttered her fingers on both sides of her head, the way Kelsie used to do, and all I could think of was Kelsie’s hair floating up beside her face, her eyes closed, serene, a little mermaid.
Then Kit crumpled, deflated, all her air leaking out the side of her mouth in invisible cartoon bubbles. Why couldn’t I let it alone, she asked, and I tried to tell her why, that there had to be a reason. That I needed to understand why this had happened to us.
Maybe there is something Andrew could teach me. Not, like, about why things happen—but how to stop thinking so much. It doesn’t even come off like he’s in denial, but more like he’s found some kind of immunity. Like he’s thought through everything already, all the worst scenarios, and nothing new can hurt him. Impervious, would be a word for him. Or, I don’t know, impermeable. Hermetically sealed. Air-tight, like the cuts of beef he and I spend most mornings shrink-wrapping behind clear plastic at the grocery, in the back room behind the counter.
Sssssh-wick, the shrink-wrapper goes, rip-rip-rip whish, and I think of how Andrew grins as he runs it, somehow echoing the cheery bright blood-red of the meat he’s packing, happily preserved, insulated safely from the oxidizing world.
I used to work the counter, before the accident. After, though, it affected business, maybe because I just couldn’t smile and make conversation, ask the regulars about their houses and their dogs and their happy, living children. Or maybe it was like a superstition: people just didn’t want that sad man slicing their olive loaf and cheese and honeyed ham. Maybe the cold cuts I packaged tasted like bitter saltwater in their mouths.
I personify a very specific fear, I realize that. I’m a reminder, is what I am, of the worst shit that can ever happen. The possibility of your son getting stung by a bee, and you never even knew he was allergic but by some fluke his throat swells shut. That moment when you find your newborn somehow rolled over and face down in the crib, and for a paralyzed second you can’t make out her rib cage moving. The kind of fear that, when you’re in it, every instant feels like a lifetime, and you try to refute it saying that doesn’t happen, and then here I am—standing right in front of you—proof of the very worst thing, asking whether you want to try the provolone.
I tell Kit I’m thinking about a lifeguarding class. “They offer them at the Y.” It sounds like an idea her therapist would like. Kit thinks I should talk to someone myself.
“That’s not funny,” she says. “Don’t joke.”
It’s a funny word, though. Life guarding. I turn it over in my mouth. “Drowning’s not like in the movies,” I say. I know that much. It’s the first thing they teach you, I’ve heard, in one of those classes. I want to make clear that I wouldn’t be taking the class for practical purposes—I mean, it’s a bit late for that.
Then Kit surprises me by saying, “You want me to go with you? To the classes?” And now I see it like a support group, except she’d be the star. I don’t know if she’d serve up the whole story for people or what.
Maybe it’s just the word I like. I think of Kit, who’s an LPN, hovering ninja-like over critical patients in the hospital. In case the soul tries to make a getaway, she can put it in a half nelson and cram it back in. I imagined crouching down myself in a defensive stance, guarding my own life.
You don’t need a class, there’s a lot you can learn online. There’s this whole set of instincts that kick in, apparently, when your mouth sinks below the surface of the water. Reflexively, when you can surface at all, the need to exhale and inhale overpowers any attempt to call out or yell. Also, it’s physiologically impossible to wave for help, when you’re drowning: your arms can only press down against the water, because that is the action that will lift your mouth above the surface to breathe.
Someone who’s waving, and calling for help—sure, they’re in trouble. But that’s not drowning. It’s when someone’s quiet, and looks just fine in the water, that you have to worry. Most people don’t know that.
What you can’t find out, what no one knows, is what happens at the end of drowning. Whether there’s a moment like a transition. If you’re fighting and fighting and fighting, and then finally realize it’s not going to happen. And you make the decision, and swallow water.
I want there to be. I want to know there’s a moment, after you let go, when it gets easy.
“No one’s done this in North America in 300 years,” Andrew says. “It’s a totally lost skill. Way back, long enough ago, though—that was the only way you ate. No meat you couldn’t catch with your own two feet.”
I try to imagine spending the day jogging across the savanna with a dozen of my closest kin and tribesmen, knowing that if that kudu up ahead was feeling good there’d be no stew tonight. And us all returning to the village either way afterward, to grass huts and wives we’d been paired with out of practicality, and all the kids running around together.
Then I thought how it would feel to be the animal, facing the decision to just stop, give up, quit running for good. Heart racing, gasping and gasping and not getting near enough breath, drowning in air.
“There it is,” Andrew whispers. He points at a deer that looks like all the other deer. “That’s still ours.” I wonder who’s doing the persisting, and who, the hunting.
It was chaos, on the sand, where the swimmer who’d spotted her had pulled her out. I remember being told to stand back, being held back, there must have been a crowd on the beach already. A tanned kid breathing into her mouth and nose, working her arms. Then, pounding her chest.
Somewhere Kit was wailing, incoherent. I glimpsed her, wet hair pasted to the side of her neck, snot down her face, hands wrapped in somebody’s beach towel.
Kelsie’s lips were blue. Somebody, an EMT or something, took over from the tanned kid. No one was shouting, no commotion. I remember, you could hear the huff, huff, the dull thud of his hand on her chest. Her swimsuit was twisted on her. It looked uncomfortable.
I kept waiting for the miracle, what had to happen, for her to puke up warm saltwater and pizza and orange pop, her eyes to pop open. People started walking away, pulling their kids. Holding their kids’ arms tight.
Then no one was holding onto me anymore, and they’d quit working on her, and I was just sitting on the sand. I could see her ribs where her purple suit top was twisted up. Her chest had risen when the boys were pushing air into her. Now she wasn’t moving. I kept watching, waiting for her body to restart.
Then I inched forward a bit, one knee, then the other. The sand was cold and wet, and its graininess was the realest thing I’ve ever felt. When I reached her arm, it was cold, everywhere on her body was, and had been for a long time already.
“Goddamn it,” I snap at Andrew, and he pulls up sharp. Before he looks around, I ask, “Why are we out here?” He knows what I mean. What in the hell makes him think he, or anyone, can help me?
I’m not ready for the look on his face when he turns around, though. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know. I watched this documentary.”
Thirty yards away, a doe watches us like a fat smug housecat. Nearby, three equally docile deer forage, taking turns putting their heads down, perking them back up, swiveling their ears at us.
And Andrew has this broken, sick-to-his-stomach look. I see his kid, silent, mouthing like a guppy at the window of the world. I realize, he hasn’t dragged us out here for me. He says he doesn’t care, we can go home. I see him giving up, the waves closing over his head.
There is no reason, for all the things that happen to us or don’t. I don’t know why I say it, maybe I’m just putting words in the air, but I ask him which deer it was, which one was ours.
“Forget the deer,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “Which one?”
The deer have been trading off all day, like they’re in on the joke. They’re the opposite of overheating: I can’t see a rib even move. It’s like they’re meditating, suspended between breaths, just exhaling forever and waiting and waiting before starting up, being alive again.
Arbitrarily, not pretending anything, Andrew then points, picking one deer out from all the others. And then mechanically, just another involuntary creature in this dumb goddamn still-breathing world, I lean forward, poised to run.