Or Swim by Elisha Stam
“I’m not staying here another night,” Mother said. We’d spent the weekend at the Red Cross emergency shelter in the basement of city hall. “Pammy, what if someone takes something of ours?” she worried.
I drove her as far down our driveway as I could without getting the car stuck in the mud on our dirt road. We walked in our black boots and shorts to our yard that looked more like a dump now, with stuff all over the place. This was no place for Mother; she was seventy years old. The first time I saw the house last week, after the flood, I stood in the garden I’d planted, and marvelled how entire things could be washed away as if they had never been. This year there would be no homegrown lettuce, tomatoes or beans. That made me sad in a simpler, more tangible way than looking at the house and thinking of losing everything we owned.
“Mother, we can’t come back yet. We can’t camp in a swamp. Are you just going to pee right in the bush?” I asked. She narrowed her eyes at me.
Our neighbour, Mrs. Barons saw us from her yard and called us over with a holler.
“Set up camp here,” she said. The municipality had sent a port-a-potty right to their front yard.
“Well, that’s just perfect,” Mother said firmly, as good as settled.
We went back to the Red Cross and stood in line for camping gear: a propane cannister, sleeping cots and cans of green beans. After all that rain last week, the sun came out and brought a humidity that was unbearable. It was not easy for a big girl like me to take the heat. I spent a grueling, forty-five minutes trying to put up that tent.
“Just like camping,” Mother said with a smile, watching from her new lawn chair. It was around noon and our neighbour, Paul was just getting out of his tent. He worked late nights at a factory in Beverley. He zipped up his tent and took a whiz in the bush close by. He assessed my tent skills, took the poles from me and performed some sort of magic trick with his arms so the tent was up in less than five minutes.
“Thanks,” I said and he sort of grunted a response which could have meant it was no problem or that it was a problem. It was hard to say.
Grandfather had left the house to us in his will. I didn’t care for the place, it was Mother who wanted me to go inside.
“What about my pictures? The longer you deliberate on it, the more water-damaged they get.” She meant the ones in frames on her dresser, my baby picture; the one of her on Grandfather’s shoulders, her hands resting in his fluffy hair. The look of pure joy on little-Mother’s face.
Our living room walls had horizontal lines marked on them, three feet up at least. The water in the basement was still chest-high. I walked inside and the floorboards groaned like I’d fall through. It was not something I could unhear. I didn’t want Mother to be sad but all I could do was stand in my rubber boots, immobilized at the bottom of the stairs.
“The stairs were too sludgy and slippery, Mother,” I lied, afterwards.
“Well, you’ll just have to try again,” she said, solemnly.
Segor was a wee little town on the side of the moody Red Deer River. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that we suffered a flood of biblical proportions. It had rained so much that the river and the dams and the reservoirs filled up and there was just no place left for water to go.
While getting drinking water in town, I heard a strange rumour that when the dam overflowed, it cut a river right through the cemetery. The water lifted up coffins and brought them to the outskirts of the county line and left them somewhere on the side of the road. I had this feeling, be it uncanny or crazy, that if there were coffins on the side of the road, Grandfather’s would be among them.
The next day, we spent the afternoon in Mrs. Barons’ trailer because she had an air conditioner running on a generator. Her trailer was nice and cold; I tried to relax in that Walmart-like air while Mother and Mrs. Barons listened to the radio. Mother was ready for an afternoon nap and she rested her head back against the rectangular RV cushions. I stepped back into the swelter, I needed to get down to the cemetery without her knowing. Outside, Paul was smoking at the picnic table under the ancient pear tree.
“Can I pour you a coffee?” he asked through his cigarette. I shook my head and he continued to read the paper and drink his instant coffee. Paul had been living with his mother. Mrs. Barons said that Paul didn’t talk much anymore because his divorce was so bad. It didn’t matter, because I grew up next door and saw his life happening from the outside. I still blushed when he talked to me straight on, always have. He had eyes so green, so pretty, they had no business on a man. The air around him was so sweet and creamy.
“Did you hear about the coffins on the side of the road?” I asked and he nodded. “I’m going down there now, to see,” I said. He exhaled as if he was hearing troublesome news. He had been athletic in school, confident and well-liked, so he wasn’t used to being lonely.
“Thanks for helping out with my mother,” he said and we made eye contact, briefly. I waved my hands back and forth, awkwardly, as if I was trying to brush away his thanks like they were flies.
“It’s nothing,” I sucked in my stomach and hopped into the Camry for the cemetery.
Once, in my twenties, the doctor put me on a diet and I lost fifty pounds. It wasn’t the first time I lost weight, but it was the first time I’d lost so much weight, I went from being invisible, to being looked at. It turns out people are nicer to skinny people. Everyone said how good I looked, but it was the worst I’d ever felt. When I was fat, emotions got crammed into my mouth and were crushed by my powerful teeth and filled up my stomach so I didn’t have to deal with them. It wasn’t exactly that simple, but when I was on a diet, the bad emotions had nowhere to go and stayed around me like a cloud. I gained the weight back, and it brought back some of that quiet. Being fat was a gentler way of living, one with empty carbs and elastic waistbands in unflattering pants. Being fat was a way to survive.
As a girl, I spent a lot of time in my grandparent’s house because Mother worked nights at the hospital, I slept there on weeknights. It was a confusing place. I wasn’t allowed to touch the sour cream and onion chips, behind the baking bowls in the cupboard, because they weren’t for children. Other things were confusing too. Grandfather had his bedroom, Grandmother had hers. I had to sleep in Grandmother’s bed so she could watch me like a mother hen. She kept me underfoot. Grandmother would jump out of bed in the middle of the night when I got up to go pee. She walked me to the bathroom, even when I was a teenager.
“So you won’t get scared,” she’d say, ridiculously.
Her protection didn’t do much, or she didn’t anticipate how insistent Grandfather was. She couldn’t keep him from touching his granddaughter’s bum, or the other bits that even I wasn’t allowed to touch, except when I was washing or wiping. Grandfather’s touch was weight-y. I thought there was something wrong with my body because of what it made him do. Their house seemed soft and loving, but in actuality it was a place where I hid in closets or climbed trees to get away from the groping, or being forced to look for candy in his front pockets. It was the place where the sad, fat, me was born. I’ve been stuck living in the house for years now.
“Holy shit,” I whispered to myself because the spot where Grandfather had been buried was carved right up like a small ravine in the cemetery soil. I followed it along Augusta Road, past a few fields until I found a herd of rectangular boxes perched in the ditch on the side of the road. There aren’t too many so it takes but a minute to find Grandfather’s coffin sitting under a wrinkled crab-apple tree. I recognized its turquoise painted wood, a gold cross on the top, brass handles at the end. It sat under a wrinkled crab-apple tree. It was hard to see it out of place like that, under the sun with birds in the air and blue sky above. It had to be quarter-mile away from the cemetery.
What forces of sorrow and unfairness would move the dead so they had to be dealt with again? I touched the cross, faded now to a bronzy-yellow and I wiped at my crying eyes. Around the back, a bit of the lid had broken off and I could make out things I didn’t want to see inside. I turned around and threw up my lunch.
At his funeral everyone was crying. I heard someone say that they’d never been to a funeral with quite so much crying. The service was packed full of people from church, his friends from the legion, old students from when he’d been a teacher. Mother was beside herself, having lost her mother, and now her father in such a short time. I wore a shapeless, ill-fitting black dress that made me look like a child rather than the woman I was becoming. I didn’t cry and Mother said afterwards, that it was ok because people deal with these things in different ways. Some cry at funerals, and others suffer quietly on their own.
I stopped at the town pool on the way home. They were offering showers to people who needed them and I borrowed shampoo and soap and a towel. I washed the vomit from my hair and the sweat from my skin. From the donation table in the gymnasium, I found something that fit, a dress with a bit of cleavage, bright pink roses yelling on the fabric. It wasn’t exactly my style but it looked alright.
I drove back to the tent and I was the kind of tired you get on the hottest of days. Everyone went to bed early, but I couldn’t sleep with Grandfather all out and exposed. I sat at the picnic table, covered in DEET, with a flashlight, and a ridiculously sultry novel from the donation bin.
“How was work?” I asked when Paul pulled in.
He didn’t respond. From the cooler in his truck he pulled out four beers, offered one to me. I am not much of a drinker, but I don’t say no. He opened the top for me and sat down.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked but didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m tired. So tired I can’t even think,” he took off the ball cap with his work logo on it and scratched his balding head. He burped a little, politely with his mouth closed.
I took a few sips of beer which tasted like dirt but couldn’t think of a thing to say. I felt the beer moving around in my torso, swirling up a bit and got anxious thinking of Paul’s ex-wife, who talked so much that she hardly stopped to breathe. She was so skinny that Paul probably hadn’t seen a roll of fat, in all his married life.
“My grandfather’s coffin is lying on the side of Augusta Road.” I smiled like I was making a joke.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Pam.”
I shrug a little, as if it was nothing. “I didn’t really care for the man.”
“I’d always kind of got that impression,” he said. I cleared my throat and asked him what he meant. He lit another cigarette. “Dunno. You just always seemed to sink a little when he was around.”
“Right,” I said, nervous because I wanted no one to know. If I could obliterate Grandfather’s memory so it was like he never existed, I would. Paul’s leg bumped my knee under the table and at first I wondered if it was an accident, but then he didn’t move his knee. He kept it there, even moved a little closer so his leg was pressing into mine. I kept it there.
“Can I borrow your truck tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“Can you drive stick?”
I nodded and he pulled his keys out of his back pocket. They were still warm from his butt and shame on me, but it turned me on. We sat in the dark drinking beer and we didn’t speak, ended up listening to the frogs and the bugs singing in all that water. Paul went into his tent but didn’t say goodnight.
After a few minutes, I could hear him snoring. I didn’t imagine anything permanent will come out of what I was deciding to do. I unzipped Paul’s tent with a surprising boldness that was welling up in me. I crouched on the vinyl floor watching him sleep, as vulnerable as could be. It was hot and stuffy, but he had a small battery fan blowing at his face. His skin was a touch greenish from the tent.
I had come to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was fifteen years old and caught him swimming in the river that ran behind Grandfather’s back acreage. I spied on him from the sidelines like a silly kid. He swam up for air and then went back under with such perfection, swimming like he was made for it. His innocent, naked skin was amber under the river water. At that age, his body was lean and slick and beautiful, everything I was not, his body just bursting with what the future might hold for him. I watched until he saw me, said hello unabashedly. He was shameless, a white butt under the water, didn’t care to even hide his genitals when he turned over.
“Didn’t you bring a suit?” he asked. I said no. I didn’t even own a suit.
“Well, I won’t mind if you swim without one,” he’d said, as bold as brass. I looked at him, at first full of the challenge, enticed even, only to turn and run away.
That night, I wanted to have the guts for it, there in the tent on the ground because what good was a flood really, if you couldn’t figure out how to swim? I saw Paul’s open eyes in the dark and heard his breath catch. I’d left my boots off on the grass, but I peeled off my white socks and then the nylon dress from the donation bin. I wondered what he was thinking, but I couldn’t speak or I’d chicken out. He backed up onto his elbows, looked right at me because there was nowhere else to look. I felt like I took up the whole tent, but it was not true, I was not that big. Afterward, I thought about how it didn’t really go smoothly. It didn’t feel overly great, just ok. Dopey kisses from the beers, his belly, a little spare tire too. I’d been aroused, but I didn’t feel any different afterward. The important thing was that it did happen. It happened.
“Stay in my tent,” he said. “I don’t want to be alone.”
But I went back to my tent, careful not to wake up Mother, curled up as small as a child on her cot.
The next morning, I told Mother I was bringing something to the dump for Paul, but instead drove the pickup to Augusta Road. I backed the truck up as close as I could to the coffin. For years, I’ve done all the heavy lifting around the house; I’m a big girl and this would be no problem. I dragged that son of a bitch, using the pallbearer poll. I propped the foot of it up on the open tailgate. I shoved the coffin all the way into the bed of the truck. It was not as heavy as I expected. He’d been buried for fifteen years, but it felt like it was yesterday.
I was a hearse along the empty highway, passing flood debris lying on the road, bricks and roof trusses and even a whole shed. I drove further than the dam and veered north, off the highway. There was nothing special about the place, but it was on the other side of the reservoir and there was to be more rain. With certainty, the dam would overflow again. I hoisted myself up into the truck bed and tipped the coffin off the truck.
When it hit the ground, the lid broke off the coffin completely. It was possible to see something but not really look at it, and so I did that, saw what I was doing but did not really look. I shimmied out the rest of the body pieces. With my shovel, I covered the pile of bones with soil and clods of grass. That’s all he was now, just a pile of bones. The overflow from the dam would finish the job and really soon. The shovel hit the coffin starting at the places where it was already broken. I hit and hit and bits of wood jumped all around. I destroyed Grandfather’s coffin so that no one would ever recognize that it was a coffin at all. All around were birds and horseflies and sun and my tears that weren’t sad but angry tears.