Today is Thanksgiving and Maggie and Mom are peeling potatoes. They cube and drop them into a pan of murky water that sits between them on the table. Mom’s potatoes are smooth and white. Maggie’s are chopped and little specks of brown cling to them even after they fall into the water. I stand in the doorway, just there listening and waiting for something to happen. I’d felt a secret coming, felt it in the air like some people feel snow, and I knew it wasn’t in the front room with Daddy and Uncle Jimmy or out back with my brothers.
“John Simpson,” Mom says and I nearly lose my lean on the wall. She doesn’t look up at me, but keeps right on peeling, cubing, dropping. “What are you doing there?”
“Just thought I’d help,” I say and see Maggie roll her eyes.
“I don’t know why Dan Vee won’t just quit.” Maggie is back on the talk they’d been having before Mom saw me hanging at the door. “Can you imagine it, Mommy? Diving down there? Risking your own neck, just to find nothing but—God, I shiver to think of it.”
“So they still haven’t pulled it up?” Mom doesn’t take her eyes off the knife. My face goes hot and I hold myself to the door to keep from moving.
“The river’s too rough. You know how it gets around this time of year, and if it starts snowing, I don’t know. Part of me wishes they’d just forget it and let them be.”
“Poor Chad. Didn’t you and Dan Vee go to school with him?”
I remember a sound bite from the TV news. All the local stations had fallen on Green River soon as the news broke. The baby’s daddy had said, “I’m not moving from this river bank until they bring him up and put him in my arms. Right here in my arms.” The news people loved that and kept playing it, over and over in a loop. Every time you turn on the TV, “put him in my arms.”
Some sixteen-year-old babysitter had been driving and made it out alive. The neighbor boy was still in the car. The girl said he could have got out, too, but wouldn’t with the baby there, all crying and still strapped in.
“I don’t know how to feel for that girl,” Maggie says and more marred potato chunks go plunk into the water. Mom motions me to the table, but I can’t move. “I guess I want to feel sorry for her, but it’s hard.”
“John Simpson,” Mom says. “Come take this knife.” Mom’s chair makes a squeaking baby scream as it scratches the cracked tile floor. The sound pulls me to the table and pushes me into the warm seat.
Maggie wants to smoke. I can tell because she is chewing gum so fast that sometimes her teeth hit together.
I pick up Mom’s knife and try not to press too hard.
“I suppose I should start on the noodles,” Mom says.
“Noodles?” Maggie is at distraction, watching me cut and stab my poor potato. “Oh, who cares? Do you know Dan Vee’s barely eaten since this all started? I make him dinner and he just stares at it, like it’s something he don’t understand.”
“No one should have to see what he’s seen, Maggie. You can’t be so hard on him.” Some mothers would come and hug their girl, but mine just stands there.
“He could’ve just kept on with the Department, going in for fires and car wrecks, but he just had to do the extra training, just had to learn to be a diver.”
“Dan Vee always has been a strong swimmer,” I say and they both look at me like I’d just broken a glass. “He was on the swim team.”
Maggie wants to say, “Don’t talk, Johnny.” That’s what she would’ve said when we were both still kids.
I picture my sister’s husband, high school swim team captain, pushing through lanes of water. I’d been just in the seventh grade when he’d graduated, but I remember standing, cheering him on, screaming louder even than Maggie. After, he’d come out of the locker room, his hair still wet and all of him smelling like water a hundred boys had sweated into. He’d come out and look so easy in his skin that I didn’t know what else to do but turn around and run.
I’m in high school now but can’t swim worth a damn.
My three brothers are all good at sports. Always playing football or deer hunting or driving beat-up pick-up trucks. My oldest brother Danny drives to community college and Peter works for the Foodland. Caleb is a senior and I’m a junior, but at school we don’t know each other. “Toughen up,” they tell me. They hit me on the arm, hard but then laugh like it’s a joke. Sometimes Mom tells them to leave me be, but mostly she just pretends not to see.
Dan Vee works for the county as an EMT and is real good at his job. I know because in September, I fell down a little bank walking home from school. I didn’t so much fall as slide, and when I saw the hole in my jeans’ knee and the scrape on my skin underneath, I did it again. Then I ran into a telephone pole, ran hard and wrapped so the wood hit my ribs in a way that made me lose my breath. It was like there was somebody there—one of those guys from school or one of my brothers—somebody hugging me then hitting me, kicking me when I was on the ground and rubbing my face into the dirt.
I lay on the ground, trying to catch my breath. When I could, I got up and walked. There I was at Maggie’s door, leaning heavy against her porch railing because it was hard to breathe.
“Oh, good God,” Maggie said when she opened the door and saw me, bloody and dirty. “What happened, Johnny?” Her hands fluttered over me like she was afraid to touch, and I tried to think something about her, something nice, but it was like my brain was all swelled up.
“Jesus H., John.” I heard Dan Vee’s voice from behind Maggie, and when I did, I pushed her away. I saw some look on her face, like hurt or surprise, maybe.
When Dan Vee took me downstairs, Maggie didn’t follow us. He got out his kit full of white bandages and other stuff that smelled like hospital. Maggie and Dan Vee had one of those finished basements with wall-to-wall carpeting and an old sofa and some other little touches like a TV and a mini-refrigerator. Last year, Dan Vee put in a pool table and taught me how to play.
I tried not to wince as he cleaned my face, rinsed the blood and said it wasn’t as bad as it looked. My shirt front was wet from my nose bleeding. I felt ashamed over what I done, but some sickness had come over me for just that minute out on the road, something like a seizure that I couldn’t help, and I didn’t say a thing to Dan Vee.
Dan Vee helped me peel my shirt off, real gentle over my head and the pain from my side blew so hot white that I couldn’t breathe.
“Let me see,” he said and put his hands on me, pressing around my ribs, moving his thumbs slow. His motions were firm and sure and I felt like I could be any boy. Car accident. House fire.
“I don’t think they’re broke,” he said. “But you best go in and get X-rays, just in case.”
Maggie called him from the top of the stairs. Dan Vee squeezed my shoulder and told me to hold tight.
I could hear voices—Maggie’s fast and high, Dan Vee’s slower and even. Maggie had lots of questions, wanted to call my school or the cops, maybe. Dan Vee told her to let it be.
When he came back down, he threw me one of his T-shirts, dark blue and clean, so when I pulled it on, it smelled like soap and not like Dan Vee. I waited for him to say something, but he just pressed a Band-Aid over the cut in my eyebrow.
“Maggie’s gonna drive you home,” he said, looking me right in the eye. “You call if you need to or if your pain gets worse. OK, John?” He didn’t ask what happened, but he never did tell me to leave when I started coming over most days after school.
“I suppose it sounds selfish, me wanting him just to quit, but I don’t care. We’ll have this baby soon and who knows what kind of daddy he’ll make after seeing all these dark things?” Maggie rubs her hand in a circular motion over her big belly. It’s the hand with the knife and I watch the little silver blade press on the fabric of her shirt, tight fitted over her and Dan Vee’s baby. I wondered how that drowned baby’s skin looked, what Dan Vee saw when he looked in those back windows. Maybe blue like on TV, or maybe the cold water, like ice, had kept him perfect. That might be even worse. If he looked alive, and Dan Vee’s brain said “alive,” but then when Dan Vee couldn’t pull him out, he’d have to leave him there and that would be worse than seeing a dead blue baby.
“Where is Dan Vee?” I ask.
Maggie says, “Where do you think?”
I was there at the house a couple weeks ago, playing pool with Dan Vee when Maggie came home from work and started giving me shit. “Christ Johnny,” she said. “Why are you over here so much? Don’t you have any friends?” Dan Vee was sitting in a beat-up recliner, waiting on me to take my turn, and Maggie dumped herself down into his lap. The next thing I know, she’s got her shirt pulled up over her belly and is telling Dan Vee to put his hand on her. “Right here,” she was saying and pressing his hand to her stretched white skin. I watched as his big hand found the place, the sweet spot where the baby’s foot jabbed at Maggie’s insides. I remembered the cat we’d had when I was little and how you could feel the kittens moving around inside her.
“You OK there, John? You look a little green,” Dan Vee said. He and Maggie were both looking at me. Maggie rolled her eyes, but I thought I saw a smile at the edges of Dan Vee’s mouth.
“I was just thinking of that old barn cat Sugar. You remember that one time when she had kittens in your underwear drawer, Maggie? God, what a mess.”
“Go home why don’t you?” Maggie pushed herself up and rolled her shirt back down over her round belly. I wondered if Dan Vee wanted to wash his hand.
I lined up my shot and watched as the cue ball went barreling into the side pocket like I’d meant it to do. “Scratch. Damn,” I said. “Your turn, Dan Vee.” Maggie stomped back up the stairs and slammed the door when she got to the top.
“Don’t get me wrong, John. I love your sister,” Dan Vee said. “But girls? They’re nothing but trouble.”
“Trouble,” I said like I knew. I made up some story then without even thinking, about a girl at school named Bonnie, who didn’t exist but still gave me nothing but trouble. Dan Vee laughed and gave me a beer out of the mini-fridge. I knew I shouldn’t cause Mom would give me hell, but I took it anyway. Dan Vee clapped his big hand on the back of my neck, the same big hand that had touched Maggie, and told me I was “All right.”
I’m still just on my first potato, worrying the knife around and around. It’s getting real little, but I can’t quite manage to get it clear. “I can take Dan Vee over some dinner,” I say.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Maggie says, voice full of hatefulness.
“That’d be nice,” Mom says, like she hasn’t heard Maggie at all.
“Maybe I shouldn’t even have come,” Maggie says. “He probably shouldn’t even be left alone. You don’t know, Mommy, you just don’t know. I didn’t want to say it, but I heard him crying last night. He thought I was asleep, but I wasn’t. I felt the bed shake.” This is what she’s been holding in, all along.
Mom asks her, “Well, what did you do?”
“I know how they all say it’s OK for them to cry, but he’s never in all the years I’ve known him. I just kept pretending to be asleep.” Mom doesn’t say anything but nods a little and I know that’s what she would’ve done too.
I hate my sister for pretending to be asleep while Dan Vee lay there, so alone with that dead baby face in his head.
I picture myself getting up from that table, pushing back my chair and dropping the potato knife. Maggie and Mom would both look at me like they don’t understand. I’d go out the back door and walk to Dan Vee’s. When I got there, my face would be freezing and red. I’d almost not be able to feel my fingers when I pounded on the door. Or I wouldn’t pound. I’d just go in and find Dan Vee in the basement. He’d be down there playing pool or watching football. Or maybe he’d be there with his head in his hands, with his shoulders shaking and noises like a baby makes coming up from him. What I saw myself do next was what didn’t fit, what I didn’t know how to see. Me wiping Dan Vee’s tears. Putting them on my own burning red, frozen red face. Dan Vee laying his big hands there to warm my cheeks, my nose, my mouth.
“Johnny!” Maggie screams.
She’s looking at my hand, and then I see the slice down my palm, top to bottom like it’s supposed to be there, like the life line or love line or fortune line. The cut is burning and running red. Mom comes at me with a dish towel and is saying to put my hand above my head, but I don’t move. Blood drips into the pot, turning the potato water red. Ruined.