At the River ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in The Sim Review.)
All day long he had nothing to do. His legs didn’t work so well anymore; neither did his eyes or his ears. He slept at night and got up in the morning and there was somebody always there, sometimes a stranger he had never seen before, to help him get himself into the bathroom and dressed and downstairs to breakfast, where he sat with thirty or forty others just like him, making a mess of his oatmeal and eggs and not saying anything. After breakfast somebody always sat him down in a comfortable spot in the solarium or the TV room and he just sat there, usually all day, until they came and got him for the next meal. After that it was time to get into bed and sleep again and wake up again and get dressed and go down for breakfast and do the same thing all over again; again and again as if that was what he was put on the earth for: a lot of nothing that seemed to have no end. Whoever said life was short?
He wondered what happened to the people he used to know. Didn’t he have a wife and a couple of children? Didn’t he have at one time some grandparents, uncles and aunts, a mother and father, a sister and a couple of brothers? What happened to all of them? Did he just dream them up? Oh, yes, that’s right: one after the other they all died. He came to see life as a kind of lottery: the winners went on ahead and the losers had no other choice but to stay behind. In the end there would be one loser left, and he was it. When they were children and they played tag or kick-the-can or hide-and-seek, somebody always had to be “it.” He didn’t like being “it” then, and he didn’t like it now.
Since he had no current life to speak of, he dwelt mostly in the past. Once, when he was eight years old, he and his whole family—including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—went on a camping trip to a river. The men went fishing while the women went in swimming. He had never fished and wasn’t interested in learning, so he stayed with the women. His mother told him he didn’t need to be embarrassed about staying with the women, but somebody always teased him about it and it hurt him enough that he thought he should probably learn to fish so it wouldn’t happen again. His mother took his swimming trunks out of her suitcase and gave them to him and told him to go into the tent and take everything off and put on the trunks and come back out as soon as he could because they were all waiting to go in swimming.
After he put on the trunks, he was ashamed of the way he looked. His arms and legs were a pale yellow color and as thin as sticks. His chest was ugly and not at all manly. His stomach stuck out farther than he would have liked. He imagined that he looked like a monkey without any hair, a shaved monkey. He couldn’t let anybody see him almost naked with just a strip of red cloth around his middle. He stayed in the tent until his mother came and pulled him out, looking plenty silly herself in her green swimsuit and matching bathing cap that wrinkled the skin on her forehead. When he insisted that he had to stay in the tent because he felt sick, she slapped at him and told him she was in no mood for any of his nonsense. He slapped her back on the arm, which later he regretted. He could tell that she wasn’t quite herself; her tongue seemed thick in her mouth and her movements were jerky; she had been drinking. She dragged him out into the sunlight and held him to her hip as if she thought he might get away if she let him go.
Nobody looked at him in his silly red swimming trunks so he started to relax. He went into the water up to his elbows and then got back out and sat on a towel in the shade on the bank. The women were splashing around in the middle of the river, talking and laughing. The older kids were playing in a spot farther off, screaming and trying to hold each other under. He wanted no part of any of them.
He realized after a while that he couldn’t just sit there all day while everybody else was having fun, so he went back to the water. He waded in slowly until he was up to his chest and then, taking a quick look over his shoulder, began walking downriver. He walked until he was out of sight and hearing of the others.
He went farther and farther, staying in the middle of the river. The farther he went the deeper the water became. It was up to his breastbone and then past his shoulders to his neck. When he looked down all he saw was green-black murkiness; he could no longer see his feet, but still he kept going.
Every couple of feet he advanced, the water came closer to swallowing him up. It was up to his chin and then to just beneath his mouth. If he stepped off a drop-off that he couldn’t see, he would go under. He knew the drop-off was there, up ahead, waiting for him; he could see it without seeing it. All he had to do was keep going and he would find it. He would drown because he had never learned to swim. And even if he had had a chance to yell before he drowned, nobody would hear him because they were all too far away. He knew, even at his young age, that he was flirting with death.
As he stood in the water up to his mouth—unable to swim if he should go under—he looked over at the river bank; at the sky and the wild foliage that began on the other side of the trees. He was watching some birds doing acrobatic loops in the air when he noticed a smell in the air, a smell that he realized had been hanging over him all day. It seemed to him to be the smell of death. He thought for a moment that it was his own death he had been smelling, but as he turned around and began walking back upriver he knew it was somebody else’s.
When he got back to camp, everybody who had been in the water earlier was now out. His mother, as he was soon to find out, had had an argument with her younger sister and swam off by herself to another part of the river. Everybody expected her to come back in a few minutes, after she cooled off, but more than an hour had gone by and nobody had seen her. They were starting to get a little worried.
After another hour or two, they were certain something bad had happened, or she would have come back on her own. Somebody drove to the nearest phone and called for help. The police came in due time and, after they had asked their myriads of questions, conducted a search of the river. They found her body near some bluffs where it had been swept by the current and become lodged against some rocks. The green bathing cap was what they saw that led them to her.
His mother’s drowning was the terrible event of his life, the one event by which all other events were measured; the event that changed everything. It was his primer in death—the death that prepared him for all the others, including his own.
Not a day—and barely a waking hour—had gone by in his life that he didn’t think of her. She was and always would be the unknowable thirty-three-year-old wife and mother of four and he, the frightened eight-year-old boy clinging to her memory. He had—and always would have—unanswered questions that only she could answer.
After dinner he had a sinking spell; he blacked out on the way to his room and fell in the hallway. The nurses got him to his room and into bed and called his doctor.
He had been dozing in the darkened room when he opened his eyes and saw a nurse he had never seen before standing beside his bed. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
“I knew you would come,” he said.
“Of course I came.”
“Where’s the green bathing cap?”
“This is my day not to wear it.”
“You don’t look a day older.”
“That’s the way it is. You look much older.”
“Isn’t it awful?”
“Don’t talk now. The doctor is on his way.”
She straightened the blanket around his shoulders and went to the window and pulled back the curtain and looked out. “It’s starting to rain,” she said.
“You won’t leave again?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I’ll be right here.”
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp