When my friend Madeline’s brother was sixteen, he drowned while fishing off the banks of Pine Creek. Standing just fifty yards away from his friend, Alan had doubled over in an epileptic seizure and slipped into the river that swept him away.
An hour or so later, Mrs. Washington, our neighbor, found his body floating against her rowboat while collecting cattails from the marshy bank below her house. She was a large woman but ran all the way up the wooden steps of the bank, waving her arms and shouting for help. We met her just as she reached the top of the stairs, and when she told us, in breathless gestures, what she had seen, we rushed to the bank while she called the police.
This happened on a Saturday morning in late June, just as we had begun to move comfortably into the long summer days. As we ran down the steps, I felt a twinge of something in my stomach, a lift like excitement. I followed close behind my mother. I could see below her short ponytail wisps of hair slick against her neck, and I was surprised that she let Becky, who was only six, come with us.
Pine Creek is brown and dirty looking on the best of days, but I remember that when we waded into the water without taking our shoes off, the water seemed clear. We might have been on a summer picnic, or an exploration–the three of us off on some outlandish search for treasure, or hidden caves, or old Indian burial grounds. Tadpoles darted about our ankles as we slogged through the high weeds to the blue boat. The sky was blue, the air was warm; it was a perfect June morning.
Once we got into the water, my mother motioned for us to stay behind her. She waded slowly toward the boat with long, slow strides. She held her arms slightly bent and out from her body like a tightrope walker as she circled around the boat. I wanted to hush every sound–the birds, my mother’s splashing, my own breath. This was something important. This was someone dead, close-up, who had been alive a little while before.
Becky and I stood on one side of the boat and watched my mother on the other side. “Oh,” my mother cried. “Oh.” And she knelt down so that the water lapped at her hips. “Dear Jesus,” she said. She closed her eyes and frowned. When she opened them, her eyes were red and mournful. She looked at me, and I knelt beside her.
Alan floated, face down, beside the boat. His fluorescent yellow windbreaker drifted up, cape-like, around his shoulders, too bright against the sickly buttermilk shade of the back of his neck, the tips of his ears, even his fingernails. His limbs were twisted from his body as if they were broken or shriveled from the ordeal. His dark hair fluttered on the ripples of the water. Here lay Alan Bryant’s dead, drowned body. That was that.
“Help me, Sam,” my mother said, pulling his arm, trying to turn him over. With one hand I gripped his shoulder. The windbreaker was slippery and silt-covered. I didn’t want to look at his face. I had never really liked Alan, but I didn’t want to look at his dead face. But he turned over easily in the water. His face lay just below the surface; only the top of his head bobbed out.
“Sweet Jesus,” my mother said and lifted his head onto her lap. She cried then, a burst of high trilling sobs as she stroked the wet hair from his forehead and moved his eyelids closed. She wet her thumb and tried to wipe the dirt smudges from his chin, and nose, and cheek.
I stood there and watched my mother cry. Becky still stood on the other side of the boat, crying because my mother cried. She couldn’t even see Alan from there. His eyes were closed, and his face didn’t flinch, even when my mother touched it. I reached out to touch his cheek. I wanted to see what if felt like.
Just then Mrs. Washington called from the bank that an ambulance was coming. My mother seemed to look at me for the first time. “What are you doing?” she said. “Get away from here. Take your sister away from here. Go to the house!”
I backed away and splashed around the boat and took Becky’s hand. Mrs. Washington hugged us when we got to the top of the steps. She was crying too. But she was nice, so I let her hug me for a while. I felt sorry for her because her husband had died in the ‘72 flood and I thought that this must be bringing it all back to her.
I only knew Alan Bryant through his sister Madeline. Maddy sat next to me during Social Studies and Science in Mr. Holland’s class the previous year in fifth grade. She was a tall, stringy-limbed girl with straight brown hair and tear-shaped, wire-rimmed glasses that were in style at the time. I hadn’t really paid much attention to her until we were made partners for a history project.
Our project was on the Western Expansion of the 1800s. We decided to construct a twenty-foot mural that could be rolled into a scroll and viewed frame by frame in a large box. Each frame would show a different scene of the trials and tribulations of the wagon train. Maddy could draw the best horses. I drew the wagons and the scenery, but she drew the horses and the people. I was impressed with her drawing ability. She could make the horses real. You could actually see them straining, life-like and wild, at the bread-loaf shaped wagons that I drew. I thought drawing horses that well singled her out somehow.
Some of the kids called her “Mad Maddy” because she put hexes on people at recess. She would press herself against the red brick wall of the school and hold the beads of her necklace in her hands and whisper something untranslatable. Then she would touch you with her pinky finger and tell you that she put a spell on you. She said she could keep you from getting out in kickball. Or she could make you kick only foul balls, depending on her mood. I never could tell if she were serious or not. I didn’t really care. She never hexed me. She always gave me lemon-honey flavored cough drops she took from her father’s drugstore.
Alan usually walked her home from school. The high school and elementary school were across the street from one another, and Maddy would stand by the elm tree in the playground and watch for him to cross the street. I walked home with Maddy at first, but Alan always tripped me or hit me in the arm or worse, so I walked with Gordon Lewis most of the time. Sometimes I would see Maddy and Alan ahead of me, walking stiffly up the steep hill to Carson Street.
No one talked to them or joined them. Alan was a mean kid. If you talked to him, he would slant his eyes and make his mouth into a wide smirk and tell you to “eat shit,” or “go to hell.” I think the only reason he was tolerated was because he had had a few seizures at school, and everyone was a little afraid of him. It certainly wasn’t because he was tall, or strong, or even frightening—he wasn’t. He wasn’t much taller than Maddy and he was in the eleventh grade. He was boney and pale, and looked much younger than sixteen.
Maddy hated him. I knew this because a few weeks before school was out for the summer, I went to Maddy’s for dinner, and she told me. She didn’t mean it like most brothers and sisters meant they hated one another; she really hated him. She told me he would go into her room and urinate on her bed just to get her mad. “And that’s not the worst of it,” she said. I imagined horrible things.
Once he had a seizure while I was there. At first when he fell off his chair at supper, I thought he was pulling another stunt, but when Mr. and Mrs. Bryant rushed to move the table and chairs out of the way of his jerking arms and legs, I saw that this was a familiar ritual. I looked at Maddy. She had her hand over her mouth. I thought that she was embarrassed that this was happening while I was there. Alan quivered all over. His eyes were wide open and his mouth was cracked. A line of saliva ran down to her ear. His shirt had ridden up, and I saw the pale, almost translucent skin of his chest, the tiny pink nipples. When it was over, Mrs. Bryant held Alan’s hands as he cried, a thin despairing sob.
That’s what got me.
I looked over at Maddy then, and realized that she had been hiding a smile. She glanced at me and winked. She took my hand and led me out onto their patio and started to laugh until she doubled over, holding her stomach. I sat down on the glider and watched her until she finished and sat down beside me. We glided in silence for a while. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then she jumped up.
“I hate him,” she said. “I hate to look at him.” She looked at me guiltily for a moment. “You’re lucky you don’t have a brother,” she said.
“I have a sister. That’s worse.” I tried to laugh.
“He’s the worst,” she said.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t argue with that.
When my father came home for lunch, he had already heard about Alan. We were sitting at our kitchen table when we heard him pull into the driveway. Mrs. Washington was still there. She was being cheery. She was revving up to scout the neighborhood for donations; she would buy flowers for the funeral and send a sympathy card from the entire block.
My father came in and stopped to take off his work shoes. He smelled like the tool and die shop: oily and dank. I had been inside the shop many times, when Mom had sent me in to tell Dad that she had been waiting outside for ten minutes. All the fellows knew me, calling out, “Hey Sammy-boy” or “Hiya, Chip” (as in “off the old block” because I shared my father’s dark hair and thick eyebrows. But I hated it. I hated the grease and the smell and the noise. I hated that he worked overtime and Saturdays every chance he got.
I stared at the soles of his shoes. They were flecked with metal shavings that glinted in the sunlight of the open door. When he stood up, I had the feeling that he didn’t quite know what to do. My mother and Becky sat at the far end of the table. Mrs. Washington and I sat nearer the door. He straightened and inhaled. He looked at my mother and exhaled slowly. I didn’t want anyone to say anything. I didn’t want anyone to move. I wanted him to feel like an intruder on something that had only affected the four of us. We had somehow been connected when we saw the dead boy; we had remained linked throughout the confusion of the ambulance and the crowds of people there on the creek bank, and now sat here around the table, a seance of sorts, grasping for something that would keep us together. At least I was grasping.
Becky spoke from beside my mother. “Alan Bryant drowned.”
Everyone moved at once. My father walked over to my mother; Mrs. Washington stood up and went to the door. “Come on, kids,” she said, “I’ll make you some lunch at my house.” I thought if Becky hadn’t been there, my father never would have been able to join in. He would still be standing in the doorway, a shadow creature, while we moved on with our lives.
My parents embraced. “I held him in my lap,” she told him. She didn’t cry, but her voice sounded as if she would.
“I’m sorry,” he said. When I went out the door with Mrs. Washington, they were still hugging. I saw my mother’s face over his shoulder, not smiling, but not mad or anything. I was angry that he had found a place in this. He had simply come home and entered into the tragedy. I let the screen door bang shut and kicked at the tufts of dry grass between our house and Mrs. Washington’s. I was angry that my mother had let him in so easily.
Mrs. Washington wasn’t very old, but she seemed to me stuck just past middle-aged. She was stocky, and for as long as I could remember, she wore her blonde hair in a French roll. Every morning she walked along the creek bank and looked for something to collect. Once, during the winter, I had watched her out the window with her flashlight, stepping along the frozen banks of the creek, turning snow with her foot. Her house was cluttered with objects she found: arrowheads, driftwood, smooth, exotic-looking rocks, fossils, and various dried weeds and wild flowers. She had found a deer skull a few years ago that she had scrubbed and bleached and set beside the mantel clock her husband had given her before he died.
The first time Becky had seen it, she thought it was a human skull. Mrs. Washington had taken the deer skull from the mantelpiece, chuckling at Becky, and let us touch it. I couldn’t imagine a deer belonging to that hideous, gaping bone. I remember wondering why she would display such a thing in her home.
My mother had told us the story of how Mrs. Washington’s husband had died, trying to save a drowning child during the 1972 flood—he was as close to a local celebrity as was possible given the circumstances.The flooding had occurred in a matter of hours, and anyone who had been trapped in the houses along the creek was perched on the rooftops waiting for help. The story went that Mr. Washington spotted a child struggling in the current. He jumped off the roof and swam for her. He didn’t make it back. And nobody had been able to find the child.
When I was older, home from college for Christmas break, I visited her. She had broken her ankle that year after slipping on the wooden steps to the creek. She sat beside the fireplace in a rocking chair with her foot up on a stool. I absently took the skull from the mantelpiece, like I always did, and I asked her, after so many years of wanting to ask her, “Why? Why do you keep it?” She looked at me blankly then laughed. “It reminds me of my husband,” she said. I laughed too. Then when we both were quiet again, she said, “It makes me remember that no matter how good or bad things are, they will end. I’ve seen death many times. Now, it’s more of a comfort than remembering.” She stopped rocking. “I can hardly picture him anymore, you know. And when I do, I see his face the way he looked before he went into the water.” She started rocking again. I fumbled with the skull in my lap.
“He must have been a brave man,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
“Yes,” she said, “It’s nice to think he was.” She stared at the skull in my hand. “You know, he didn’t drown trying to save a little kid like everyone says,” she said. “He just drowned. He was reaching into the water to grab something that was floating by—not a child or anything. But he lost his balance and fell into the water. The current was strong, and it swept him yards away before I could even call out his name.” She paused. “He couldn’t swim,” she said. She said that as if it were a punchline to some joke.
My mother and father went to Alan’s funeral. I didn’t want to go, even though I knew Maddy from school. I didn’t want to see Alan again. He was no longer the boy who no one liked. He was dead. His face in the water demanded reverence; the eyes that were often malicious were closed, leaving a blankly troubled face, an opening for pity that everyone would take. Even worse than a seizure, he wouldn’t come out of this to be rotten again. I couldn’t help thinking that this was some type of incredible revenge that Alan had dreamed up, and for an absurd moment I thought that he might have drowned on purpose.
Becky didn’t seem too much affected by any of this. We spent the evening with Mrs. Washington, and Becky fell asleep in front of the television. Mrs. Washington taught me how to play gin rummy. When I think about it now, I wonder why Mrs. Washington didn’t go to the funeral. She had bought the flowers and made a chocolate cake for the Bryants, but she didn’t go to the funeral. Perhaps her discovery of his body was enough–”I saw him dead already.” That would be something she would say.
Though I didn’t want to go to the funeral, my father forbade me to go before I could refuse. Becky was too young, I realized, but I had thought that I would be automatically included since I had been one of the people to see him in the water. I had led the paramedics down the creek bank. And I was friends with Maddy.
“I don’t think it would be good for him,” I had heard him say to my mother. I wanted to barge into their bedroom and ask him how he knew what was good for me or not. He never saw me. He never was home. As far as I was concerned, we didn’t have a father. This man was simply a friend of my mother’s who we put up with. But I felt no responsibility to make him feel welcome or good or loved. I stood outside the bedroom door waiting for my mother to respond, to defend me. I peered through the keyhole, but could only see the dresser and the foot of the bed. She didn’t say anything for a while.
“If you could have seen how hopeless he looked,” she said. “I just can’t shake that picture.”
“We don’t have to go,” my father said. “Or I could go alone. They’ll understand.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
I imagined Maddy smiling at the funeral, covering her mouth as they closed the casket. Maybe she would think that this was the best thing that could possibly happen. Maybe it was, I thought. Maybe it was better, sometimes, if a person simply bowed out gracefully and stepped out of the picture.
My father became ill, many years later. Near the end, as the nurse adjusted the morphine drip for the pain, I remember the stunned look on his face—the look of someone betrayed by life. Becky, my mother, and I stood around his bed. I think he realized for the first time the distance there was between us. All those years he let himself believe he was doing the right, best thing by working all those hours, bringing the extra money in for his family. But he hadn’t thought of what it would cost him. Some losses can’t be recovered. When the moment has passed, it is sometimes gone forever.
As he drifted off to sleep, he stretched his fingers out, motioning to take our hands. At first I wouldn’t move. Then I decided that it wasn’t worth it not to, and I grasped his hand. We all held his hands. I think until he died, he thought that this attempt to reach out to me was enough.
After Alan’s drowning, Mrs. Washington became a good friend to Mrs. Bryant. She would include a visit on her daily walks in the mornings. I could imagine the two women together, sharing secrets about their lives. Mrs. Washington would show her the things she found along the bank that morning. Sometimes she would give them to Mrs. Bryant. When I went over to visit Maddy, I would see touches of Mrs. Washington around the house: a spray of colorful weeds, some driftwood. I wondered if Mrs. Washington would talk to Mrs. Bryant about her husband’s drowning. I wondered if Mrs. Bryant was relieved, as I thought Maddy was, that Alan was gone.
Maddy and I didn’t share any of the same classes the following year. Since Alan wasn’t there to pick her up from school, I usually walked home with her. But though I was glad he wasn’t with us, it was somewhat disturbing to consider that he was dead. His absence was unrelenting, a gnawing reminder of events of which I didn’t necessarily want to be reminded. And it wasn’t the same between Maddy and me. We didn’t have as much to talk about. Before, Maddy would begin the conversation with a complaint against her brother. It was the ruling topic. Now we walked in silence. After a few awkward attempts, we gave up and walked quietly. After that, we began to walk with different crowds. At first, we would walk together and then separate into various groups. After a while, we didn’t even start out together.
My mother’s love for my father was something I denied. I assumed that she stayed with him for financial stability or because she was obliged to, or simply because she had no good alternative. He, after all, was not a bad man. But I never thought she stayed, or let him stay, because of love. When Becky left for college, I thought my mother and father would split up. I thought that since Becky was gone, there was no reason for them to remain together; they would be miserable together by themselves.
I told this to Becky. She laughed at me. “You are one egocentric idiot,” she said. “They couldn’t wait for me to leave. I’ve never seen them happier.”
Since then, I have had to accept alternative interpretations of my family past. Other versions were viable. My wife told me once that I tended to force my reactions and impressions into fact.
“You made me expect a monster,” she said after she met my father. “You made me want to dislike him.” Then she pressed her palm against my cheek. “Maybe you’re the one who shouldn’t be trusted,” she said.
A few years ago, the year before I married Diane, I went home for Christmas. My father had become foreman of the tool company and had been put on salary. He was home more than ever, and even after being away so long, I was surprised to see him so relaxed, even jovial, sitting there in his recliner, holding Becky’s son, David, in his lap.
“He has a bad heart,” my mother said, later, when I was setting the table for dinner. Becky and her husband had gone shopping. My father had taken David for a walk. “Don’t you say anything to him. I promised I wouldn’t tell.”
“I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” I said. “He’s worked himself to death.”
“For you,” my mother added.
“Yes,” I said, adding sarcastically, “for us.” I clattered a plate for effect. I was happy for them, really. It worked for them. It just hadn’t worked for me. But I didn’t stay awake nights thinking about it. I had gotten over it a long time ago. My father never rejected me. He just hadn’t had time to consider me. I chalked it up to experience and moved on. I finished putting the plates on the table while my mother told me about his prognosis.
There was something tragic about that dinner. My father sat at the head of the table, smiling, with all his family around him—the first time since Becky had gotten married. Here he was—the father I had always wanted when I was growing up: relaxed, home, smiling, and asking about my life. Until then, I hadn’t realized how much I wanted this—how cheated I felt. Everything that I thought I had put behind me came to the forefront. But I smiled and answered his questions. I even told a joke that I knew he would appreciate.I tried to let myself enjoy it. I tried to pretend that it was right, that it was perfectly natural, that I could accept this late, literal, change of heart. But I excused myself before dessert and went for a walk. Outside, I could see them through the dining room window, hear their voices. Becky kept glancing at the door I had just walked out, and the look on her face seemed to ask why did you go?
It was a frigid, early winter that year, and Pine Creek was frozen solid. There was a dusting of snow that morning, and things were pretty slick. I walked down the wooden steps behind the house and carefully stepped onto the river. I stomped hard to make sure it was as sound as everyone said it was. I pulled my hat down around my ears and walked up river, past Mrs. Washington’s house, even past the Bryants’. It was so cold I could feel it like heat on my cheeks. The river glowed in the darkness like a dream; I could see light from the windows of houses along the bank. The wind blew away any sounds I might have heard: the thud of my boots on the ice, my own breath. I could only feel my heartbeat against my ribs, a throb that seemed too warm and comforting out there on the frozen river. When I came to Black Bridge, I turned to go back.
Black Bridge was a forbidding spot. Legend had it that a train had derailed and been flung into the creek. Passengers and cargo had been lost, and never been recovered. Rumor had it that the water was so deep here that no one had ever been able to reach the bottom. I walked under the bridge thinking, I am walking across a bottomless pit. I jumped a little, just to antagonize the legend. I knew there was no truth to it. Perhaps a train had derailed there, but there certainly was a bottom to the river. I headed back.
Someone was standing on a dock further up. As I got closer I saw that it was the dock behind the Bryants’ and figured that it must be Maddy. My mother had mentioned that she was home for Christmas. It had been years since I had seen her or talked to her. She saw me and yelled, waving for me to come over.
“You’re brave,” she said.
“Or stupid,” I said, climbing onto the dock. “It’s frozen solid.”
We stood a few minutes, looking out across the ice to the dark banks on the other side.
“It’s been a long time,” I said. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound corny. “You look good,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. “You too.”
“Kind of cold to be out,” I said.
“Do you want to come in? Mom and Dad would love to see you.”
“No, no. It’s okay.”
We stood there another few minutes just watching the frozen river. I don’t think either of us was up to small talk. We huddled together on the dock, stamping our feet in the cold. I remembered the kiss she had given me on the glider twenty years ago.
“I hear you’re married,” I said.
She paused. “Reasonably,” she said. “How about you?”
“Happy or married?” I laughed.
“You can be both, you know,” she said.
I laughed louder because she sounded exactly as she did in sixth grade.
“Neither,” I said. We both laughed again.
“Did you hear that Mrs. Washington died?” she asked.
“Mom told me. I can’t imagine not seeing her walking the banks.”
“Yeah, after she broke her ankle, she just couldn’t get around like she used to. Then she fell.”
I looked at her hard. It was dark, only the light from the house shone on us. I couldn’t see where she was looking, but her face was a smooth, beautiful profile in the darkness.
“Why were you standing out here?” I asked.
“I was thinking of Alan.” She looked at me and smiled. “I haven’t thought of him for a long time, but for some reason, I couldn’t get him out of my head today. I guess it’s being home after so long.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s crazy, but I miss him.”
Her breath frosted in the air. The wind whipped it away like smoke. I wanted to ask her when it happened: this change. I wondered if she really meant it, or if she were just saying it, after all those years, because she felt guilty. Then she started to cry. She just teared up at first; I could hear it in her breathing and see the wetness on her cheeks. Then she really began to sob. I hugged her. I rubbed her back with my gloved hands and kissed her cheek. After a while, we pushed away from each other. Her nose was running. She smiled at me then turned to go.
“Nice to see you again, Sam,” she said.
I watched her as she ran up the steps to the back porch of the house. There, she wiped her eyes and nose and waved before she went inside.
I have this memory of my father that is not true. He and I are anchored at the center of Pine Creek in Mrs. Washington’s blue rowboat. I have just caught a catfish, and he is showing me how to take the thrashing fish off my hook. We are both giddy with happiness. I know that this is wrong. My father never once took me fishing. Yet now, ten years after his death, this picture is here, planted in my mind.
The longer I live, the larger the chasm between memory and fact becomes. I know that Mrs. Washington’s husband simply fell from his roof and drowned in the flood of 1972. I know that Maddy Bryant hated her brother. I know that I never loved my father. Tell me, why is it that this fabricated memory I have in my head comforts me so? Why, when I think of that deer skull on Mrs. Washington’s mantelpiece, or of Alan Bryant’s face in the water, or of that icy night on Maddy’s dock, do I thank God that when my father reached for me from his deathbed, I took his hand?
Paul Allison teaches literature and writing at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana.
He has had work accepted in various publications including Animal, Storyacious, and Empty Sink. His time is divided unevenly among his students, his family, his writing projects, and his Boston terrier.
Mark Engebretson (b. 1964) is Associate Professor of Composition and Electronic Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the recipient of a Barlow Commission (for Bent Frequency), North Carolina Artist Fellowship in Composition (for the Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Orchestra), a Fulbright Fellowship for studies in France, and has received major commissions from Harvard University’s Fromm Music Foundation (Acrylic Waves), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (They Said: sinister resonance), the Thomas S. Kenan Center for the Arts (Deliriade) and the Barlow Foundation He is the founder of the UNCG New Music Festival.
Engebretson’s creative work is driven by melody, timbre, virtuosity, clear and balanced formal structure, the integration of new media, multiple levels of associations, and a desire for fresh, engaging musical expression. Recent work has included strong overtones of pop music and creative intersections with written texts.
Dr. Engebretson taught composition at the University of Florida, music theory at the SUNY Fredonia and 20th-century music history at the Eastman School of Music. He studied at the University of Minnesota (graduating Summa cum Laude), the Conservatoire de Bordeaux (as a Fulbright Scholar), and Northwestern University, where he received the Doctor of Music degree. At Northwestern he studied composition with M. William Karlins, Pauline Oliveros, Marta Ptaszynska, Michael Pisaro, Stephen Syverud and Jay Alan Yim and saxophone with Frederick Hemke. His teachers in France were Michel Fuste-Lambezat and Jean-Marie Londeix.