Excerpt from novel GOING UNDER Chapter 1: Aunt Debbie
It was raining like it always rains in Oregon: by the week and the bucketful. That spring it had rained seven weeks straight. Dogs grew mildew behind their ears. Cows stood up to their knees in mud, stock still, rain slicking off their backs. Only the occasional eye blink indicated they were alive at all. They lost interest in eating, while grass grew around them in a green fury. Up at Doreena reservoir, they re-leased water from the spillway, fearing the dam would bust. It was wetter than piss in a snowstorm. Every morning, the weatherman on KOIN woke me, apologizing he couldn’t do better this morning. Like it was up to him, the horse’s butt. I kicked the clock radio off the chair beside my bed. Kapockety. Forty-eight straight mornings. It never did break, but toward the end it began to sputter when it hit the floor. This was back when they advertised “shock proof” and meant it.
That was the year I stayed with my sister, Jerri, and Don, her husband, in the house on Walnut Street. My first year in college. My last. In a grand- mother’s room under the stairs behind the kitchen, painted slug yellow. The ceiling sloped forty-five degrees one side. I stuck my desk under there. Good a place as any to store a desk. What little studying I did was at the library. Just enough to spoil Mom Sally’s conviction I’d flunk out. I quit before giving her the satisfaction.
I’d hear the boys scurrying upstairs to bed, Olson and Jeffrey. More scamperings later when I returned to my room from a washup. Olson’s eye glued to my keyhole (I couldn’t imagine Jeff there; the little fart wouldn’t have known what to look for). Not that Olson saw much–his step-aunt in her undies. Whoopdy-do. Ten years old and trouble in his pants already. Like father like son, they say. He was Don’s.
One night I sprang the door open and sent Olson sprawling on the floor at my feet, little shit, staring up at me like I’d caught him sleepwalking. Lids hung at half-mast, eyes the buff yellow color of tanned deer hide. Slicked-back big-boy hair.
“You’ll go blind,” I said. “Guess you didn’t know that.”
“Bee ess,” he said with a smirk. He seemed a bit worried nontheless.
He grinned at that. You could count on Olson for a grin. I rolled him out the door, hung a pair of drawers on the doorknob. Enough is enough.
Long after midnight, I’d be awakened by Jerri clattering dishes, scrubbing a kitchen already spotless. Just the thought of dirt wouldn’t let her sleep. I’d open my door and my sister would look at me, surprised. “Are you still awake?” she’d ask, really asking: “What are you doing in my house?”
“Do I look awake?”
“Dummy me,” she’d say, “I thought I left the oven on. I laid there for two hours worrying about it. Too lazy to get up and look I guess.”
“You’re about lazy as China needs more babies. Why not put a cot out here so’s you wouldn’t have to get up?”
“How’s about coffee?”
“You can’t sleep and you want a cup of coffee?”
“Backwards I guess. It’ll knock me out cold.” Still a beautiful gal, my sister, when she smiled. Her nostrils flaring.
So we sat across the dinette table with our feet up on benches, backs against the wall, sipped coffee and talked about girlhood dreams. You could almost see them flit and fly away in the damp kitchen air, smelling of coffee, yeast and cinnamon. Misty reckonings. Hopes we, neither of us, had courage to envision. Even then. Years before I got stuck flying for the airlines. Before Jerri began watering down her coffee with cheap vodka.
It was during all that rain we got a call from Walter and Sally out at the farm on the Rogue River. They could use some help, Walter said. “River’s up three feet over my pasture and the cows is stranded wherever they can find a patch of high land. Afraid we may lose some.”
Don got out his fly-fishing waders. Jerri thought they should leave the kids home with me. We wouldn’t hear of it. Jeff and Olson hadn’t ever seen a drowned cow before. Little Meena hadn’t seen a flood. Wouldn’t miss this one for the world. I think she expected to see Old Noah loading camels on his ark.
The river had broke free of its bed, swelled a quarter mile wide in places, reached up into the woods and pulled out whatever suited its fancy. Already, it was within three feet of the county bridge when we corssed over, dark and thick as cocoa, a white scum of marshmallow swirling atop. A logjam of spider-legged stumps, torn branches and an old outhouse was jammed up against bridge pilings. You could feel the shove of it as we went over. “Lord-eee.” Don gripped the steering wheel in both hands. The kids stood on the seats to look. Jerri crying, “Are you out of your right mind? Don’t even think about crossing.” But we were already on the other side.
The river had reached up slope and taken half the apple orchard, Mom Sally’s vegetable garden below the house. It licked the scarecrow’s knees. He tilted, forlorn. Straw stuck out stitching in his head. Might take the plunge any minute. The house was still high and dry. But you never knew. God had been breaking records all winter long.
Walter stood out in the rain in his yellow Duckies (well, it was Dad, but we called him Walter). You saw right off he wasn’t the real item, only a retirement farmer. He couldn’t decide, he said, whether to rescue his cattle first or the Chevy flatbed parked down below the house. Two more feet and it was a goner.
“Better get our cows,” Sally said. She wore her straw gardening hat, brim wilted down with the wet so it looked like a lamp shade. Or worse.
Walter’s plan was to take out the flat-bottomed Rogue River boat with the ten-horse outboard. He had lines rigged up with snaphooks at the end. “A cow swims all right”–he spoke to Jerri like it might interest her, raindrops sputtering from his lips–“Trouble is, the moment it finds a current it forgets about direction and follows dumb. Any cow can swim a lake, but put it in a river it’s going to drown. Follows the current, you see, until it is exhausted.” Like he knew a damned thing about it. Worked all his life as a dock master in Portland.
Talking to a wall. Coulda been. Jerri didn’t pay him the slightest mind, though he leaned half in the car window. She was scolding Sally about her knees. “You shouldn’t be out here, Mother. You shouldn’t even be up. I know you’re in terrible pain in all this humidity.”
There was a new wonder drug: cortisone. They had her on that. Sally grinned, silver tooth caps cheery in all that green gloom. “I feel like I could go dancing.”
Walter said he needed four good hands. “We’d best leave Mother out of it. That’s Don, Debbie, Olson and young Jeff. You’re man enough, young fellow. Unless Jerri planned to go…I didn’t think so?” Asking not Jerri but the rest of us. They had conversed that way long as I can remember. Never asked a direct question of the other. Never answered one.
“Don, you aren’t taking those boys onto that river,” Jerri said flat. “Over my dead body.”
But the boys came. Jeff, too. Onto a river wide as a lake. Rain pelting our hats and ponchos, half-deafening. Jeff’s job was to keep a lookout for cows, snags and submerged logs. He did. Screamed bloody murder at every board spotted downstream. His eyes wide as pumpkins. A plump imp in an orange life vest, hair fanned flat across his skull. With each false alarm, Olson called him a “bonerhead.”
The current, lazy here, frantic there, whipped us past brown whirlpools, rap-ids flushing over rocks, streaking around snags. Foam frothed yellow in branches of huge spruces. Firs bent right over in the current. From somewhere down below came an ominous bellygrowl.
We found cows. Three of them on a narrow rocky island mistream. Forlorn and bawling. Walter told us, normal times that island was a crag rising twenty feet out of the channel. He’d be damned how they’d got onto it. We landed Don at the upstream end and circled while he approached the cows, stooped at the waist, scared of them as they were of him. They milled nervously together in a willow scrub. Lowing mournful. Heads down as he approached. Walter shouted, “Goddamnit all, Don, you’ve got to walk right up to a cow else it don’t trust you.” Those cows weren’t all that stupid. Olson said he could do it. I bet. Don managed to slip loops around the necks of two cows. The third, a huge, splay-hipped Guernsey with sad eyes and a suspicious disposition, retreated to one end of the promontory, her back hooves in the stream.
We passed close. Don threw me the lines and I secured them quick to cleats on board. Walter pointed the bow into the current and throttled off. Cows plunged off their island behind us like twin sea lions, swimming for all they were worth behind the boat, eyes wild, muzzles bellowing in the air. Jeff shouted pure glee. The lines made tortured squawks against the gunnels. The third cow gave the forlornest bellow you ever heard. Seemed she might follow her sisters, but didn’t. Don approached her, arms spread wide like a football tackle. The big fuck. She turned to face him, head lowered. Seemed she might charge. Don arched to one side to protect the family jewels. Take a dive if need be.
“You go on,” he shouted, “I have to reason with this one.” Walter wasn’t about to leave him out there. Those silly cows swimming for all they’re worth behind the boat in a bellowing wake. Like horned seals, black muzzles in the air. Round and round that island. I knew already it wouldn’t work: two cows following a boat is two too many as it is.
“Hurry up,” Walter shouted.
Don did. Tiptoed up and dropped that rope around the Guernsey’s head pretty as a roper. Trouble is he caught a single horn. She panicked, stepped backwards off the rock and sank down in the river slow as a walrus. Don went in behind her, gripping the rope. The cow caught the current and went with it for all she was worth, while Don spun like a top behind, dog paddling with one hand, holding the rope aloft with the other. His red wader toes sticking up. The boys screamed bloody murder. I seized their waistbands, afraid they would go in after their dad. While Walter tried to turn the boat to follow. Not so fast he drowned what he had on the hoof behind.
“Let ‘er go, Don,” he was shouting. “Let ‘er go.”
Trouble was, our cargo served as anchors. We couldn’t catch up. Don’s Gurensey cow bobbed downstream toward white water frothing at bridge pilings, toward that roar in the river down below, dragging Don along behind on his back. Funny, if you weren’t caught in the middle of it. They hit a riffle where trees had been or rocks. The cow bobbed left then right into a chute. It picked up speed.
“Oh jes’chris’,” Walter grumbled at the wheel, eyes fixed on bridge pilings two hundred yards downstream. I knelt beside him, line in hand, ready to throw it. Lech or no, I didn’t want Don to drown. Jeff clawed at the gunnel, would have gone in if I’d let go of his seat pants. Ahead, the roar loudened above the general rush of water. A white line across the stream below the bridge.
“Heaven’sake let ‘er go,” Walter shouted.
But Don had followed the cow into the riffle and disappeared. Ducked un-der. Came up again, not moving, snagged on a tree branch, maybe eighty yards above the bridge. He’d released the rope, struggling to keep his head above the white churning water around him, the whole time shouting God knows what. Poor Jeff chiming in with him. And Olson. Daaaddddyyyyy. The Guernsey had turned now and tried her damnedest to swim upstream, wanting no part of Walter’s theory. She lost ground against the current. We watched her skirt the logjam and shoot around the bridge piling on a sheet of smooth rapid water, no more substantial than a cork. Walter made a wet noise with his mouth.
I will say this for my father: He can handle a boat. He used that riffle somehow to pivot around Don. Cows and all. Sidled up beside him to port, bow upstream, and nursed the engine. We seized Don’s arms and dragged him aboard. He lay wet as a sewer rat on the planking, silty water pouring out his waders. Laughing and crying both. Tears streaming from his eyes. Cuddling a son in each arm. “Thought I’d bought it,” he kept saying. “Know what! You don’t swim too well in waders.”
Walter laughed, threw one forlorn glance at where we’d last seen his Guernsey cow, then throttled forward and took us out of there. “Two thousand dollars’ worth of cow,” he muttered.
We got those hoofers to shore. Alive somehow. The fourth, wherever it was, would have to wait. Actually, Olson spotted it later on a tussock not twenty feet from shore, swam out himself and herded it back with a stick.
“Dad almost drowned,” Jeff shouted at his mom as we approached. “It was a water rodeo. The cow bucked him off and dragged him underwater towards the waterfall.”
“Sounds like one of your tall tales,” Grandma Sally said.
“Bonerhead,” Olson said.
“It’s a miracle you didn’t all drown.” Jerri was inconsolable. She chewed out Don, who stood sheepish in his wet clothes. Glared at Dad and me. Someone had shit to pay. That was a thing about my sister. Not that she held her husband guiltless. Only saw in him an impressionable child who fell too easily under the influence of others.
“I believe we’ve had enough excitement for one day,” Walter decided.
But we hadn’t. Not by nearly.
The night before, Jerri and I sat up talking till three A.M. She was saying how she’d wanted to sell real estate (we Simonets could sell anything) or study Shakespeare. “I loved Shakespeare. If I had your opportunity, Deborah–” Her lips firming in a miserly frown, eyelids flagging, heavy as Olson’s, so’s you might take him for her natural son, rather than an extra she’d as soon have out of the house. “I used to lie on the grass in Grant’s Park and think: ‘I’m going to have a romantic life.’ I didn’t care fish piss about security.” Opening her hands, one corner of her wide mouth curling. “Look what I got.”
“A hard-working husband, nice house, two of the sweetest kids on this earth. Three actually.”
Jerri stared at a soft halo about the fluorescent tube above the sink. The kitchen hazy, as if moisture had leaked in a fog under the basement door and hung on the spice-laden air. A watery mother-of-pearl glow reflected off ceramic tiles beside the fridge. My sister’s face half light, half shadow. If there is a man-in-the-moon, the dark side is female. Aren’t we taught to believe? My sister did with all her heart. Her dark side faced me. Light caught angrily at her eye.
“You leave them out of it, Deborah. I love my children.”
But they’re in it, I thought. “Did I ever say different?”
“Dreams don’t mean a thing.” She snapped on a schmaltzy ship’s lantern mounted at back of the dinette booth. My sister’s face suddenly close and pale. Grandma Sally’s overlarge mouth, nose and eyes. For a moment, half groggy, I mistook her for Mother. “You’ll learn that, Deborah,” she said with a near spiteful smile. “All our fancies and silly romances…you just as well forget them.”
“Which ones in particular?”
She lurched across the table at me. “Forget them!”
Wouldn’t you know, Jerri nodded out after a few minutes, but I couldn’t sleep all night with coffee pushing buttons in my head. I sat watching her nod off, wondering if they had a sex life at all, Jerri and Don. Doubting it. No more sign of it than Oregon going dry. No different that way from Walter and Sally. (You couldn’t anymore imagine those two making love than the Virgin Mary dancing topless at a bar.) Although each generation insists it is less stodgy than the last. Difference is, both of them, Jerri and Don, were about as highly sexed as two people can get before going natural. Don’s smile oozed sex when I passed him in the hall on my way to the john mornings. Bare-chested, wearing only his pajama bottoms. “You’re looking fine this morning, hon,” he’d tell me. The fuck. Me with fuzzy teeth, my bladder so full I thought I’d leak. I’d double-lock the door. Still, it’s a thing about marriage: dries up the sex organs. By fifty, I’d guess they drop right off.
Walter wanted to rescue his truck. We went down after lunch. The rain had stopped a few minutes. It was the kind of swirly sky lined in high background gray, charcoal dark clouds racing like horse soldiers beneath, wispy white banners flying behind. We all went down, because the mud was deep and Walter might need us to push. It was a great old hulk of a Chevy flatbed, 1953 model, with huge balloon tires, more rust than paint on the cab. Jerri forbade the children to get anywhere near. She did her best to corral Meena. Olson led the rebellion, leaping onto the bed, sitting with his feet dangling over the apron. Jeff and Meena followed, helping each other up.
“Are you deaf?” Jerri scolded. “Don! I want those children off of there this minute. Don and Walter were up in the cab. She approached the driver’s side and spoke to Dad, we understood well enough. So did he. He turned to Don, who was telling Jerri to let it rest. “Something wrong?” he asked. “Seems everyone ‘s having a good time.”
“Over my dead body,” Jerri snapped. “I’m warning you, if anything–” She was drowned out by the truck’s backfiring and kids’ screams.
“Oh, leave it rest,” Sally said. “What harm is it?”
Dad revved the truck. It bellowed black plumes of smoke. The kids shouted delight. The monster inched forward, then settled back. Tires spun in their ruts, throwing back coxcombs of black mud. Digging deeper. With a grinding of gears, Walter rocked the monster forward and back in the ruts. The truck lurched and bucked, kids with it, whooping like cowboys on a huge clunky bull. Tires climbed half up the grooves then fell back, cutting deeper. While we Simonet women stood aside, and Jerri said she didn’t know what those idiots thought they were doing.
“Damnblast it all,” Walter cried. He slammed the lever forward. The truck shook and bucked like a Brahma bull. Olson hung on. But before our eyes Meena and Jeffrey slid off the rear. They sat an instant midair before gravity took them under the truck as it rolled backwards. Jeff fell down beneath huge double tires which seized him like a shirt wringer and pulled him in.
Jerri was shrieking, while Sally and I ran to him.
Maybe it was the panic and Walter hit the gears just right. Or the truck understood its duty. Completing its pass over the boy, it rolled high up the rear side of tire ruts, then back down over Jeff again, up and over the front. Free. Brakes shrieked. The men leapt shouting from the cab. Jerri dove headfirst under the truck on her belly, slithering across mud like a snake. She pulled Meena out whole. Lifesaver fashion, a palm under her chin. A mother’s instincts: to save what remains to be saved.
I crawled on my knees toward tire trenches and peeked over. Others gathered silently behind me. Jeff’s torso was crushed deep into tire grooves, becoming part of them, while his legs, his knees, were crooked in a sitting position over walls of the trench. Perfectly whole. I could make out his slick blue nylon jacket, a hand squashed into muck. But where his head should’ve been was thick red ooze, indistinguishable from mud around it. Blood, I thought. Dear God! Brains. His head a crushed pulp.
Don made a sound back in his throat. Or maybe it was me. And Walter: “Lordy lordy lord…” Instinctively, I grabbed my older sister, who’d dropped to her knees, clutching Meena to her chest.
“Don’t look!” Swatting at Olson, who peered over my shoulder. I never saw such wonder in a face. It stopped me cold. He was pointing.
Looking back into the tire groove that had been my nephew, I saw eyes blink open. Stare up in wide wonder. Snowy white in all that dark muck. Lips moved. Creezus. He rose like Lazarus out of the grave while we watched, our assholes puckering.
“Wow!” he cried. “It ran right over my head.”
Jeff struggled to raise himself, extracting one arm with a sucking pop, then the other. Call us dumbfounded or that a miracle. We stared dumbly as he struggled free of the soft mold he had left behind. Only Olson had sense enough to help him. Tire tracks crisscrossed Jeff’s jacket, mud packed his nostrils. Then–wonder exhausting horror–hysteria began. Jerri fainted dead away. Don, Meena, Olson began shrieking at once, clambering for him.
Jeff left a perfect impression: a skull-shaped pothole in soft mud, one scalloped ear, his shoulder blades. Jerri, when I’d slapped her awake, couldn’t believe he was whole. She insisted we call an ambulance. Though Walter and Sally ran him through his paces: sit-ups, knee bends. He looked like an Oregon tarbaby, I’ll say that.
“There’s one thick bonehead if ever I saw one,” Walter joked.
“Bonerhead,” Olson said affectionately, still a bit awed.
“Boney,” Meena cried in delight.
“You see, the ground’s soft as clay after all this rain,” Walter told Jerri by way of Don. “It’s a thing could never happen twice.”
Jerri kissed the mud off of Jeff’s face. Hugging him till he squirmed and wanted to break free. But she was too angry to join in our rejoicing. Like it didn’t matter pissall how fortunate we had been. Only that Don and Dad couldn’t care less they ran over her children. It was a lark to them.
But Boney had earned himself a nickname. A story he never tired of embellishing. Harmless compared to other lies lived by that family as absolute truths. Those two were the only miracles ever afforded them: Don’s near drowning, Boney’s near mangling. Both spent in a single day.