summer-she-was-under-water-front-only-for-screenSam’s parents leave early the next morning to float down to the marina and fill up the newly repaired motorboat with gas. From the screened porch Sam and Eve drink coffee after their breakfast and watch the older Pinskis take their positions on board. Sam’s father turns on the motor and fiddles with the choke, a cigarette limp and unlit in his mouth. Pat and Karl Pinski seem to operate from some unspoken code, one in which the past is never mentioned, one’s current desires are never articulated, and allusions to the future are always vague but predictable. The only reason Sam can think of as to why someone would want to live in a minefield after a war is that they’d know where all the remaining mines are buried.

Soon after the boat disappears down the way, where the little creek bends to the right, Sam and Eve hear a grinding sound along the trail behind the cabin. The sound settles at the base of Sam’s spine and prickles upward into her stomach when she breathes. Everyone had expected Steve the night before, Sam’s mother sitting in her little folding chair on the dock, where the best cell phone reception was, calling his number repeatedly while Sam and Eve ate Jiffy Pop they had baked over the grill. Steve stopped at the roadhouse a few miles before the cabin, intending to get some packaged goods, he explained, even as their mother had gone to town days ago to buy alcohol for them. Ten whiskeys later, he slept in the truck behind the roadhouse, agreeing with their mother that it wasn’t a good idea to attempt the winding, tree-choked, soft-earth trail to the cabin at night.

Sam and Eve hear him make his way through the kitchen, his bags bumping against the refrigerator and sink.

“Hello?” Steve calls out. “Anybody?”

Sam waits until he steps on the enclosed porch, not moving.

“There you are.” Steve stands before them, studying them both for a second before dropping his duffel bag to the floor. His other hand holds an unopened bottle of whiskey, a pack of cigarettes, and his car keys. “Can’t say hi to your brother?”

“My mouth was full.” Sam stands up and touches her hands lightly to his back. He smells of the staleness of last night’s bourbon, underarm sweat, cigarettes, and the cheap body spray he has used in an attempt to cover it all up. His usual musk. Steve tousles her hair lightly, an unusual and affectionate gesture for him. Perhaps the alcohol has not worked its way completely through his liver yet.

“Steve.” He extends his arm to Eve when Sam steps back. “I don’t think I’ve met you. And you don’t look like anybody Sam used to run with.”

“I’m Eve,” she answers. “I’m a relatively new friend.”

“Where are the folks?” He scans the lake through the porch, scratching his sandy-blond stubble and running his hands through his hair, thick and wavy, his ears and eyes red.

“Dad got the boat working. They took it down to the marina for gas.”

“Sweet. The same old piece-of-shit Bayrunner he’s had?”

“That one.”

“I gotta get cleaned up.” He turns to them. “Anybody up for a shower?”

“The lake,” Sam explains to Eve, as Steve pushes each work boot off with the opposite foot. He lights a cigarette with Eve’s Zippo while slipping off his socks before stretching out in a chair, wiggling his emancipated toes, his legs stiff and outstretched.

Steve has remained in shape. Sam supposes it isn’t too hard when you’re a bartender and musician, hauling cases of beer and amps, although the gravity of age is beginning to make up ground in his face. His eyes are still the crisp, light robin’s egg that caress whomever he is viewing, his thick eyebrows quick and animated, along with the wrinkles of his forehead. He is Bon Jovi and Dennis Wilson in one, the waves of his hair dancing over his head and meeting the faint lines of his face with grace and symmetry. A discarded shirt exposes a furry chest with whitened biceps and shoulders, remnants of farmers’ tans past.

“Mom told me you broke off your engagement with the wallet.” He inhales his cigarette forcefully, in thought. Sam can swear that the air in the porch has been sucked up through the filter as well.

“Yes, I did. I’m sure you’re pleased.”

“Putting words in my mouth?” He glances at Eve and smiles. “I’m awfully sorry to hear that old Michael has fallen by the wayside, Sam.” He flips the Zippo open and closed with his pointer and index fingers. “But as your brother and blood and last defender on Earth, surely you can do better. And I don’t mean that as a knock on Michael.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Sam presses her feet into the planks of the porch. She wants to be heavier, stronger than she is. She wants to tell Steve it’s his fault she left Michael. “Go jump in the lake.”

“Well, come on down, then. A man needs company.” He winks at Eve.

“Don’t be fooled by his charms,” Sam murmurs to Eve as they lag behind his now boxer-clad form. He walks easily down the hill, his legs springy like a boy’s, his feet unbothered by the exposed roots and shafts of grass and leaves and rocks that Sam carefully tests as she descends.

Eve doesn’t answer. Her gaze is locked on the vertical bend of his back, which cuts through Steve’s shoulder blades and disappears into his pants. Sam grabs Eve’s hand, feigning a loss of balance. Or maybe Sam feels Eve is suddenly slipping away, her attentions diverted. Steve drops his cigarettes on the picnic table on the dock and dives into the water, popping up a few seconds later and sending an arch of water above his head. He treads water and looks around thoughtfully. A heron snoozes on a rock across the way. The inhabitants of a boat passing toward the main lake, moving slowly to not make wakes, wave to Steve and smile at the girls.

Everything feels all right, right now. Perhaps Steve would be lighthearted and charming and teasing and they’d spend their days trying to fish and maybe they’d fish for their father’s old beer cans and the lost city of Conowingo. And Steve would be the person Sam always hoped he would be, was capable of being, and maybe their family would close ranks around each other and there would be a tacit understanding that they each would rise their tide a little and all their boats would float comfortably, not mired in the muck or run ashore. If they all did their part and dammed their happiness in, here, this summer, there would be plenty to drink from, to siphon, in the lean times.

Eve jumps in the water too, warning Steve she can’t swim, and when she comes up Steve helps her onto one of the floats that Sam has pushed off the dock. Sam remains. She wants to feel her feet on the warm boards of the dock. She wants to observe Steve from a distance and make sure he is the real thing, not some reflection on the water, like the moonlight, the water moon. He lies on his back, the transparent sheet of water caressing his chest and groin. His legs break the surface occasionally, to kick and propel him in a circle or out of the way of slow-moving boats on their way to the open pond. Their throttle vibrates through the tunnel of trees lining each side of the artery of the creek on which their property rests. The whole creek is electric, buzzing with tree sway and boats and the lapping of the water against the floating dock, moving gently under Sam’s feet, to warm her soles.

“Sam, get me a beer, will ya?” Steve’s head angles up from the supine length of his body. The water drains through his hair, leaving canals that comb through his head. He looks like he will break apart. “If you’re not coming in.”

Sam goes back up to the house to drag down the cooler again. She stops in the enclosed porch, where she and Eve have left their coffee, half-full, Steve his bags. She pulls the zipper of one, and a mass of boxers and socks mushroom out. She rummages carefully through the surprisingly neat duffel: his toiletry kit, one she recognizes as his mother ordering him from Avon for this sixteenth birthday; a pair of cheap flip-flops, still attached together and with a price tag with the name of a drugstore over in Havre de Grace; soft, worn jeans and t-shirts; a smaller flask of whiskey; and a copy of Sam’s book Water Moon. She pulls it out and scans the pages to see whether Steve has highlighted passages, made notes. The pages are clean, except for a few small dog-ears that have since been smoothed back. The spine bears the trauma of being opened, read, the front cover perhaps pinned to the back so that the book could be read with one hand.

She has not seen Steve since before the book came out. She feels sick suddenly at the thought that he has read it. She stuffs it back in the duffel bag, rearranging its contents as she found them, and drags the cooler out to the dock, where Steve and Eve now sit, their feet dangling over the edge. They are smoking and smiling, the water running threads down their backs like translucent spider webs, their hair slicked close to their skulls.

________________________

author-new-bigJEN MICHALSKI’S second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, was published by Queens Ferry Press in August. She lives in Baltimore.

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