Seven Drownings

photo courtesy of Michael Kimball

photo courtesy of Michael Kimball

by Michael Kimball

I’ve never been afraid of water. I’ve been a swimmer all my life. Summer days, vacations, my earliest best memories are swimming, diving off my father’s shoulders on Lake Chaubunagungamaug, riding the waves with my mother at Hampton Beach. In my suburban Massachusetts town, I took swimming lessons and earned my Junior Lifesaver certificate before my voice dropped. I could out-dive my sister and out-distance my friends underwater. So I was surprised to discover how many people drown in my novels. Sometimes two or three per book. Plummeting, tumbling, sailing over bridge railings and ridge tops.

In my first novel, Firewater Pond, a delusional Vietnam vet renamed Nighthawk, believing himself a Native American shaman, is pulled off a campground cliff by a rampaging bull moose wearing a poodle-impaled arrow in its skull.

Firewater Pond – 1985

The animal was vain. It wore a talisman on its head, thinking the charm would gain it knowledge over Nighthawk.

But the Indian stood pure and noble, his senses grown perfect. Even without turning he knew the demon was behind him, breaking through the brush, foolishly attacking from the rear. Nighthawk watched the sky. Yes, he thought, our moment is at hand.

The beast galloped through the campfire, scattering flame into the night sky. The Indian spun away, and the moose flew, bellowing, off the ridge top. And in the supreme moment that followed, Nighthawk watched the circle of flame burst over him as the poodle’s leash whipped between his legs and swept him from the ridge.

Ten years later my first noir thriller, Undone, was published. More water. More hapless humans.

Undone – 1995

“Daddy, I got one!”

He looked. She lifted her rod in the air so its tip bent down, but it didn’t play. Her bobber hung there, trembling.

Then his own line was hit. He jerked the rod, set the hook. “Wait a minute, Davey, I got one too.”

It felt good, the way the underwater tugging shook his wrist. A healthy striper, to be sure, six, maybe seven pounds. He let the fish run toward the river, his drag wheeing as the line ran out. Davey’s line stretched taut beside him.

“Don’t force it, Hon. I’ll help you in a sec.”

Davey returned a terrified stare.

“It’s just my drag releasing,” he explained, “so my line doesn’t break.”

But she continued staring up at him, tears filling her eyes.

“Davey, what?”

He looked down her line, past her bobber to the floating litter, where her rubber worm had hooked a piece of tweed–a jacket sleeve. A green hand. A rose tattoo.

Bobby.

The water-as-death motif actually began in adolescence, with my first stab at genre fiction, which I created at the breakfast table on book-report day. Our English teacher had sent us to the town library to find a romance novel. I was twelve years old, an eighth-grade boy, and “Classics Illustrated” did not publish love stories. Moby Dick, Ivanhoe, Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, The Three Musketeers. I’d managed two years of book reports on comic books, along with the occasional honestly rendered baseball biography. But a romance?  On deadline day I had to make up my own.

Love Cries – 1962

Love Cries is about a teenager named Scott Pensteed, who was very much in love with Alice, a girl two years younger. They both lived in Kansas City where Alice was a sophomore in high school. Scott had quit school when his mother had died. His father had left home when he was very young. They were planning to elope in about a week (Alice’s father didn’t like Scott), when Alice was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Scott was very emotional and temperamental and he figured he had nothing left in life now that the only person who loved him was gone. Therefore, he stole a car and ran away. He traveled many miles when the car ran out of gas and he was thinking of committing suicide. He ran into some nearby woods after he rolled the car down the side of a cliff, and spent most of the night thinking of suicide.

“I need the name of an author,” I told my sister as she passed through the kitchen. What for? “Book report. I’m making it up.” She gave me a name. I flipped back to the cover and wrote, in my finest penmanship:

by Aldous Huxley

Very early that morning, before the sun came out, Scott wandered through the woods to a dirt road where he started walking to a lonely pond at the bottom of a cliff, which he knew about. Every time he heard a car coming he would jump behind a tree on the side of the road, hoping it wasn’t a police car.

Early in the evening, just before the sun set he reached this pond where he would attempt to commit suicide. He sat on a rock and thought about it for a long time when a police car did come down the deserted road. When he saw this, a streak of terror went down Scott’s spine. He jumped behind the rock, but the policeman had seen him. Scott picked up a rock and threw it at the officer. It bounced off his shoulder. When the stone hit him the policeman fired a warning shot in the air. Hearing this, Scott leaped into the air and went down into the deep water.

Forty years later, in my novel Green Girls, three people leap from the I-95 bridge that links Maine to New Hampshire and go down into the deep water of the Piscataqua River.

Green Girls – 2003

The blast of an air horn shook him, and he grabbed the hood of his car, the bridge bouncing like a diving board as the trailer truck blew past.

Alix stiffened, a guileless look of terror in her face.

“Just climb back over,” Jacob told her. His whole body shook, but he could see that Alix was shaking more. She looked down beneath her feet, then threw her face in the air, as if she couldn’t believe this was happening to her.

“Listen to me. There are people who can help you.”

Her expression turned incredulous, as though she were about to laugh. Then he watched her face drop between the railings.

I grew up in a post-war decade that predated expressways and shopping malls, before working Moms, second cars and color TV, years before the town beach was condemned and sold for house lots.

My father was a milkman, as were the breadwinners next door, on both sides. Our house was a neat gray Cape with a screen-in porch where I’d sleep in the summers on a chaise lounge. Bob’s Bakery was at the head of the road, five houses down, and on most mornings, unless the wind blew wrong, our neighborhood smelled of pastry.

My best friend Eddie O’Malley lived across from the bakery. His Dad ran a bike shop. Our tag-along friend Richie, who was two years younger, lived across the street from me. He had four sisters and a mangy blind dog, and he was a goofy little kid, always happy to be the brunt of jokes, happy to do what you wanted. Three-man wiffle-ball, he played outfield. Cowboys and Indians, when you shot him he was required to die without protest. Richie’s Dad you only saw when he mowed the lawn or worked on his car, a boxy blue station wagon. He worked in a factory, my father said. Richie’s mother Claire you’d only see hanging laundry, except when she came over to borrow things–flour, sugar, Crisco–which she never did if my father was home. My Mom told him that Claire just wanted someone to talk to.

Forty years after I’d last seen Claire, she came to my book signing at the new Barnes and Noble in my old hometown. I didn’t recognize her.  She was in her 70s and wheeled an oxygen tank in a half hour early, and sat in the back row. Later, after I’d finished reading and signing and talking with old friends, she came over and introduced herself.  I hugged her for a long time but could not think of a thing to say. The last time I had seen her, I was eleven years old, and she stood in my kitchen crying and shaking, having emptied her bowels into her mint-green slacks.

In the bookstore, she said she was proud of me. I told her that I married a girl from town and moved to Maine where we’d raised two children who were now grown and gone. But she knew that. She told me a little about her daughters, then held my eye and said in a quiet and cryptic way, “You know, I’ve read all your books”—as if she’d cracked some kind of code.  But I was unencrypted as far as I knew. I harbored no deep secrets. Indeed, Claire was the one with the secret.

Blood Tide – 2005

They say an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not. Well, I’m not sure if I’m an agnostic or not, so I don’t know what that makes me. But I do know this world doesn’t make a bit of sense, or else fishermen would know how to swim. They don’t.

Pete Cutter drowned.

Ruby got the call sometime before dawn. I heard the phone ring and then listened from the top of the stairs. All anyone knew was that Pete hadn’t come home from fishing the day before–which didn’t exactly surprise Crystal, who figured he was shacking up with one of his girls from the Galley. So Pete didn’t come home, what was new about that?

The Coasties found Perfect Storm on the rocks off Charity Island with the fuel tanks empty and the engine in gear–which usually means the fisherman got caught in his lines and pulled overboard while he was setting a trap. And there goes your boat, leaving you in the middle of nowhere with only one option: watch it smoke away, then drown.

The night Claire showed up in our kitchen was July 3rd. I was lying on the living room rug watching Leave it to Beaver. My mother sat on the couch, reading. My sister was in her bedroom, my father in the kitchen working on his milk accounts. Beside me, the door to the screened-in porch was open and I heard a man’s muffled shout—then two sharp bangs, like cupboard doors slamming shut. My mother closed her book and went into the porch to look out into the night. My sister came into the room, saying they were gunshots and telling my mother to come back inside. I turned down the TV. My mother said they were firecrackers, but my sister became frantic, so my mother came back in and shut the door to the porch. I turned Beaver back up.

Then the back steps drummed and the door banged open. My father yelled, “Claire!” My mother hurried into the kitchen. I watched from the hallway, as Claire leaned against the refrigerator in her mint-green slacks, talking wild and fast and low-pitched, her voice shaking. My father locked the door behind her, then called the police. I don’t know how long I stood there. Not long, I suspect. Claire’s husband had punched her, broken her finger, then shot at her when she ran out the door. Our kitchen smelled powerfully, sweetly, of putrid grape candy.

The police cruiser arrived with no siren, no flashing lights. One policeman went in the Longweather house with only a flashlight. The night had become so quiet that we could hear the sound of the men talking. It was a calm conversation. My father told me to get away from the window. A minute later, Richie’s father came out with the policeman, got into the cruiser, and went to jail for the night. Claire never again came across the road to our house, and if I ever saw her or Richie’s father again, fixing the car, hanging laundry, or mowing the lawn, I observed from a distance. But 40 years later Claire came to the bookstore with her oxygen tank to let me know that she’d read all my books.

Mouth to Mouth – 2000

Randy was twenty feet down, his left arm sucked into the drainpipe to the top of his shoulder. As deep as he was, the pressure of twenty feet of water trying to rush through the pipe prevented him from pulling his arm out. So now he sat twisted on the rocky bottom, his head crooked against the concrete, facing the bright, rippling sky. His wetsuit was torn at the top of his shoulder, where the threaded end of the pipe had cut into his flesh, and blood darkened the water around the wound, oozing like smoke out of the tear. Randy could no longer feel sensation in the arm, which had gone from icy cold to numb. His right arm curled around his chest, trying to warm himself. He was shivering like crazy.

So, five minutes and they’d get him out. Probably Rooftop was already there. Randy looked at the gauge again, trying to see if it was five minutes or four. More like four, now that you mention it. Cuttin’ it kinda close, boys. In fact, it was already getting hard to breathe, harder with every breath, as if someone was pinching his air hose. He raised his face to the brightness, watching the skylight for a human form, when a sudden thought came to him, uninvited and entirely unwelcome.

On the previous 3rd of July, a year from the night Richie’s father went berserk, my family had spent the afternoon celebrating Independence Day at my grandmother’s house, with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Every year was the same: Horseshoes, wiffle ball, hamburgers, hot dogs, toasted marshmallows. When dusk brought the mosquitoes, we collected our stuff and drove home. Turning into our road, my father braked the car and said, “What the hell is she doing?”

Here, my memory has preserved images as though in amber. The summer sky is still lit, but trees and houses have gone to shadows, and someone’s approaching the car. Eddie O’Malley’s mom. She comes around to my mother’s window, not my father’s, and says, “You didn’t hear?”

My mother says, with grim suspicion: “What.”

“Richie drowned.”

My mother says. “Oh, God, Margie, no. Oh, God. Oh, God.” I’ve never heard her cry, but her voice sounds oddly girlish. Outside my window, shadowy adults line the roadside like ghosts.

Drowned.  I peer into the word, trying to see some way that it doesn’t mean—

“Is Richie dead?”

I’m not sure who answered me. My father may have tried to soften the meaning with religion. But dead was dead, I knew that. My grandfather had died when I was two. Dead was disappeared. Dead was complicit with never. And Richie was the one this time.

My father pulled into our driveway. My mother was quiet and probably crying. I had no urge to cry, and I wondered why. Richie was dead. Goofy little Richie, in heaven most likely, at once elevated and vanished. Across the road, all the windows were lit in his house. His bedroom.

I don’t remember much else except the way that facts came together over the next few days. Claire had taken her six kids to a beach in the neighboring town. Mr. Longweather didn’t go with them. The newspaper said that Richie dove off the wrong side of the dock and hit his head on an underwater rock ten minutes before the lifeguard came on duty. No one saw him do it.

My parents probably went to his funeral. I know my mother would have gone. Eddie and I kept on playing, kept on being best friends. I don’t remember missing Richie, and I don’t think Eddie and I ever talked about him. Every now and then when I was alone I thought about Richie and how we weren’t very nice to him—not that I wished we’d been kinder. My regret, no matter how deeply felt, could not change the way we had treated Richie any more than wishing or praying or crying could stop Richie from diving off the wrong side of the dock or alert his mother that he was doing it. In my mind, I’d handled the death of my tagalong friend sensibly.

Forty years, five novels, a variety of water deaths, and I never made the connection until I was driving north on Route 495 the night of my reading, leaving my hometown once again for the distant coast of Maine and thinking about Richie’s mother and her oxygen tank, her early arrival at the bookstore and her late departure, and the way she’d come out of my past that night to reveal her secret: “You know, I’ve read all your books.”

But it wasn’t her secret she revealed to me. It was mine.

Green Girls – 2003

A young man plummets from the top of the bridge, his mind scattered in the ocean wind, reaching for the sky, silent, weightless, balanced against the crescent moon.

Time slows down as the trussed steel whispers past. The young man can not only smell the river that rises to meet him, he has time to consider how a particular mustiness tinges the odor.

It’s metabolism, the reason time slows down. Hummingbirds, for example, have such a high metabolic rate, they perceive human movement in slow motion. To a fruit fly, we are statues; their day on earth lasts a lifetime.

In humans, fear increases metabolism, which is why the victim of a car wreck will describe the accident as though it happened in slow-motion. Extreme fear causes extreme time stall. What is the limit? It’s long been acknowledged that some people who fall to their deaths actually die of heart failure before they land. Perhaps they die of old age.

In the 4.03 seconds it takes to fall 250 feet, from the top of the Piscataqua River Bridge to the water, Jacob sees police cars, emergency vehicles, fire trucks, he sees searchlights. He hears a whoosh as the roadway rushes past; then the bridge disappears. The wind gusts. He reels his arms the other way.

Out in the middle of the river, he sees the salt bulker going away, pulled along by three small tugs. On the Portsmouth riverbank, he sees a crowd of people–not watching the ship depart–they’re watching him fall. He looks down, directly below, and sees seaweed floating, a bobbing Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup.

His own reflection rises beside the cup, a striper darts away.

Michael KimballMichael Kimball teaches popular fiction and scriptwriting at Stonecoast. He’s written four novels, including the London Times’ bestseller Undone, and several screenplays for movie and television production companies. His stage play Ghosts of Ocean House was nominated for the 2007 Edgar Award. Earlier this year his new play “Duck and Cover” enjoyed a very successful opening in Portsmouth, NH, was recently awarded Best Play in Bangor’s “Northern Writes” Festival, and is about to open a 2-week run in Westbrook, Maine. http://www.acorn-productions.org/pages/Playinfopage3.html

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