They found my father face down and bloated. He was swelled, waxy and wet, the unavoidable and unpleasant side effects of drowning. His body rolled for six hours beneath the muddy waves, sloshing back and forth with the fish and the muck. Given the circumstances, he could have looked worse. At the very least, his limbs were in tact.
I paced the shore line, following the lights as they tracked back and forth across the water. Five counts to the right, pause. Five counts back to the left, pause. Back again. It had gone on like that for hours.
The first call came in around ten, just before the clock chimed the hour. He was missing and, though they hadn’t said it out loud, presumed dead. His current wife was starting to worry, so a search crew had been sent to the dam. Worry, knowing his wife, seemed a little far fetched. Bothering to show up near the water had been too much for her. She was tucked away at home, warm and nursing a bottle of whiskey between her lips. Thanks to her, the ugliness fell upon me. I was the one left to do the dirty work of waiting, watching and ready to identify a face should one become available. Damn her.
The search lights mirrored on the glassy surface, rising once to hit me in the eye. For a moment, I was rendered blind, seeing nothing but spots and colours where my vision had once been. Rubbing the disturbance away, I had to admit – it seemed right, somehow. That I was there, the only known biological son in existence. It placated the onlookers, easing their minds that his child cared enough to show. As far as they knew, anyway. In a population teetering just under five thousand, everyone had an opinion and I was happy to fill their shallow needs.
At least, I thought, it was a warm night. While the water might have filled his lungs and stopped his breath, it was safe to say hypothermia had not been the ultimate killer. It was at least ninety degrees, I guessed, maybe more. Unusually warm, even for a summer state in August. To my right, someone whispered, the small hiss mixing in with the more obtrusive voices talking over one another around me. He knew how to swim, they said. Well, that was true. He did. It was the one thing that made the whole incident so hard to piece together. Though it might have been the only talent in his repertoire, the bastard knew how to swim.
They say tragedies always spring from mediocrity. It’s the little things, the moments that don’t really seem to matter, that come out of nowhere to blindside you. It was a simple fishing trip. He had made similar ones a hundred and one times before. Get up early, stay out late and maybe, if there’s time in between beers, catch a fish or two. Most of them he would throw back, some he would keep. That’s all it was, a typical day on the water in the heat of summer. Granted, when drinking mingled with white caps and strong winds, danger was always just around the corner. Keeping that in mind, the accident made all the sense in the world. The man didn’t know when he had had too much. End of story. If it had been anyone other than my father, someone might have questioned it. His reputation, however, preceded him.
I checked my watch, counting the second hand for thirty stops before dropping my wrist. Four hours. They had been dragging the lake for four hours, searching for anything solid. Up to that point, they had come up with two discarded tires, some old trash and three logs. They were small ones, just heavy enough to pass for a body ten feet down. All three were still lying at the edge of the water, finding new life as makeshift stools for curious ones looking to join in on the fun. I looked their way, studying the intense way their eyes watched the water. Seemed like a macabre way to spend an evening, but who was I to judge? I was standing right there with them.
There was a cluster on the water, enough commotion to let me know a break had been made. The search lights swung back, revealing a large lump being dragged onto the boat. One leg, an arm and a thick mass of a body. That was it. He’d been found. My breath jerked down into my lungs, but my eyes stayed trained on the boat, watching and waiting. I had been doing a lot of that since the call came in. Trying to steady my breath, I told myself the obvious – it won’t be long. Just a few more minutes and I, along with every rescue team member on the water, would call it a night.
“Son of a bitch, he’s heavy.”
Someone grunted, curses followed and a solid thud echoed back to my ears at the edge of the water. So it was true, I thought. He was just as heavy and useless in death as he had been in life. It was reassuring to know that some things, even after life had come and gone, remained constant.
Beside me, two individuals waited. I glanced over, chancing a glimpse while avoiding eye contact at all possible cost. They had come down to join the party less than an hour prior, showing their face only for entertainment value and information. It was their job to report back to their mother, should it become necessary. I frowned, turning my face away. They were the ones, the ones he spent it all on. Time, money, energy – whatever he had available, it was reserved for the two of them, the ones who didn’t even have the decency to share a common blood line. Did he really care about them? Probably not. No more than he cared for his own flesh and blood. It was all a show, a ploy to stay in the good graces of their mother, the woman paying his bills and running his life.
I considered my own mother for a moment and wondered what she might think of it all. She had been dead for four years and had never been more than a blinking spot on my father’s radar. There had been no love lost between them, only tolerance on her part and complete disregard on his. She was too weak to be an option. She couldn’t provide for him, nurse his habit or offer him anything outside of a warm body when he needed it. That wasn’t enough. She was easily replaced with a woman of wealth and two shiny, brand new children who could spoil themselves without needing him to do the job. That was his problem. He had always been on the lookout for a better option. Usually, it was money. Money was the sole driving force that kept him looking past his current wife’s worn leather skin and makeup free countenance. To be honest, she could do no better. Neither could he.
I didn’t know much about money. My father’s absence had left my childhood riddled in poverty. Food was scarce, new clothing was scarce and home was little more than a broken down rental that barely had enough running water to keep us bathed. He could hardly lay eyes on me. I knew why and I understood. Simply put, I served to remind him where he came from and the sincere likelihood that he would end up there again. I was the ugly stain on his past, one that he had never been able to rub out. I liked it that way. Being forgotten had never been my intention.
“We got him!” the captain of the rescue boat yelled, as if any of us needed to be told. I moved backward a few steps, hesitant to see what waited in the belly of that boat. It was going to be ugly and I wasn’t prepared to face ugly just yet. Before that could happen, my mind had to sync up with my stomach. Otherwise, neither of them would survive the blow.
They needed me there or I would have run. Just turned heel and disappeared from that shore line as fast as I could. Someone had to be there, though. Someone say it was him. It had to be someone familiar, someone with the same nose and eyes mimicking his shade of brown. Still, it seemed like overkill. Drownings were a rarity near the dam and I doubted any other bodies would be found that night. After all, how many men fall out of their boat in one day? Especially men over fifty with blue jeans, a chin scar and a green button up. The number was most likely no higher than one.
The boat slid onto the sand, rough and jerking. As the sloshing water tried to suck them back, they struggled to stay on shore, pushing it back in again. A roll of thunder broke up the voices nearby and drowned out the lapping water at out feet. I took another involuntary step back.
“Jack, son, can you come over here? We need you.”
Of course they did. My steps were hesitant, but I managed to shorten the distance between myself and the boat, pushing past at least three curious onlookers desperate to sneak a glance. A smile played on my lips as the successful ones recoiled in horror. Served them right. No one should want to see such a thing by choice.
The smell hit me first, turning my stomach on impact. Death and dirty water permeated the air, fighting for control of my nasal passages. It was old, musty and rank, strong enough to curl the hairs in my nose. My hand leaped up to cover my mouth, blocking out the stench as best it could. As I drew nearer, the smell grew stronger, exploding into something so unbearable it was all I could do to stand it. Pressing my mouth against the sleeve of my shirt, I struggled to hold my breath. As dismal as the odor was, it was nothing compared to what came next. Hovering over the boat, I stared down with wonder and disgust. Overpowering the smell, I felt my stomach turn again at the sight of my dead father. Despite its bloated appearance, I knew the features well.
“Is it him?” the captain asked. He seemed untouched by the smell.
I nodded. “It’s him.”
Reaching down, the man pulled the watch from my father’s swelled wrist and placed it into the palm of my hand. “Here, a little something to remember him by. Thought you might want it.”
I swallowed hard, clenching the watch in my fist. I didn’t want it, but turning it down seemed wrong. Opening my fist, I gave it a closer look. The hands had stopped working, the direct result of too many hours spent submerged. It was the only thing of my father’s I had ever or would ever own. “Thanks,” I said, sliding it into my pocket.
Nodding, the captain tossed a dirty blanket over the body. My father would be the coroner’s problem from that point on, before burial ended the whole ugly mess and let us all move on with our lives. I turned to walk away, eager to leave the scene. My steps were cut short by the captain’s voice calling out behind me.
“Hey kid, weren’t you out on the water with him today?”
Pausing, I glanced over my shoulder. “Yes, I was.”
Putting my feet back into motion, I headed for home.
Amber Cook’s work has previously appeared in a number of publications, including Literary Mama, Crack the Spine, Adanna, Deep South Magazine and Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web series.