You can see the cellphone, flushed teal underneath at least three feet of water, shiver when the pond’s surface gets frayed by the wind. You are on your hands and knees. You’re swearing. And it’s loud. And you wish you could do it quieter, but your mouth wont let you.Your throat gets red with it, with the whole afternoon, which scrapes your monosyllabic declarations into noise and heat and leaves you sore. You are at the edge of a cornfield in Iowa. You’d really love to not be at the edge of a corn field in Iowa.
Your name is Nathaniel. Your sister’s voice is at the bottom of a shallow pond which looks homemade — a sort of hickey bitten into the cornfield, dim and wet and made with some breed of affection that missed the lips. You can see the cellphone. You wish you couldn’t, you wish that the pond was darker, or the slit of decaying dock shorter, or your name something other than Nathaniel. You wait, but no one renames you or breaks the dock or starts to pour ink into the water. The phone waits, blue and at least half-broken, for your hands, which are getting pinker in the cold. It takes you another thirty-seconds of swearing and pacing and frantic articulations of middle fingers to no one before you get your pants off.
A cluster of geese pass above, calling high and clear and chilled. If they looked down right now, they’d see a you, a boy a mile and a half from the interstate rest-stop where his car is sitting, useless, and they’d see that his skin is getting red in the wind because its bare and stripped, like the corn, and that he is probably the only animal to go this far to rescue a flip phone. They don’t look down.
You think about laughing or crying, but your legs, and their pale thin extensions studded with black hairs, look too much like deli-ground chicken meat for you to think about anything but deli-ground chicken meat. It’s very empty here, which you are grateful for. The corn goes on for a while, newly bare and close to the ground, the grass at its edges shaking with wind. The parking lot is out of sight and the farmhouse must be over that hill and the road is a noise, not a place, from where you stand, half-naked, resembling something that costs $3.10 per pound and loathes itself.
You leave your pants in a halo of belt and jean and walk to the edge of the dock. At the edge of the dock, you find the place where the dock ends. You give yourself credit for this. You’re astounding, a genius, an original, an amazing, flawless, chicken-legged, ass. You sit down. Your feet hit the pond, which is cold, which you expect, but it still shocks you. The bottom looks like dirt and silt. There are no minnows or stones or flashes of crayfish or blushes of lichen. It is a hole with water and a dock. It’s just the hickey in which you dropped your sister, something not quite real or natural. You wonder if she’s still talking. Maybe the water can hear her. Maybe the tiny vibrations coming from the phone’s speaker are being received by the blue-grey dent and maybe it’s talking back, saying “yes, Violet, you’re right, your brother is so stupid it’s crazy. Crazy splinter-thick boy who’s going to art school while there are business schools to go to and better cars he could buy with his business school money and fewer times his engine would start smoking and he’d have to call you. Yes, Violet, you sound so complex and intelligent and beautiful. Well, Violet, I am just a divot in the ground in Iowa, drowning in myself, but sure, I’d love to get coffee sometime.”
You start to resent the pond because of how you decided it would decide to side with your sister. Your boxers, today, are white with little snowmen on them. You briefly, but quite entirely, hate your mother and her christmas-gift decisions.
You are up to your ankles now and you’re still Nathaniel and there’s your phone, your flip phone, that maybe still has Violet pressed between its speaker and receiver. You let a little more anger into your chest and direct it at the frozen, bulbous, orange-triangle-nosed obscenities coating your thighs.
You drown your snowmen and clench your jaw as the water laps up past your waist. It’s cold. Which is not surprising, but your body acts surprised anyway and adds a layer of braille to your arms. You toss your coat onto the dock, roll up your t-shirt, and look down to the hinged black thing at your feet. The bottom of the pond is, as you thought, just soil and sand. You lean your weight onto your left leg and try to use your right toes to pick up the phone. You can’t get a grip or a better idea so you let yourself smile while your red shirt comes off and you pray that this water is not laced with pesticides or salmonella or anything still comprehensible coming from Violet. The t-shirt joins the heap on the dock and you breathe in, lock your eyes on the black rectangle, and slam your body into the blue.
Underneath, you remember the creek. You used to go knee-deep into it in the spring. You used to watch your calves flicker in the current like flame-tips on a lit stove. You used to love your sister for more than just a genetic obligation. You wonder if you look anything like fire right now, with your palms in the dirt, sifting for a way to get home with a broken truck. And also in your boxers, in November, in Iowa, in a boy who used to run who doesn’t run anymore, who wishes he knew how to care better. The rectangle flips into your palm and you press your heels into the dirt and lift yourself up, soaking.
It’s cold again, but a new and sharpened cold that comes from inside the water. You look down, the snowmen have melted onto your legs. You set the phone on the dock and haul your body up after it. You decide to wait, to try to let the blusters of wind dry you off before putting your clothes back on. Slipping only your blue fleece hat back onto your person, you flip open the phone. Violet, still speaking, comes through eviscerated.
“Whe-f sf ah ds lka fd- fdslah?” The layers of voice and static seem to come out as a question, though no words surface from inside the slices of noise. The actual English component of the device must still be in the water.
“Seven,” you reply. Another series of garbled phonemes leak out from the thing sitting in your palm.
Violet must have been monologuing for a while, totally undisturbed by the fact that you were no longer there. Stiff and coated with water and shivers, you consider hanging up. Your thumb courts the red off button on the pone, circling. Instead, you put the phone to your ear and listen to the clips of noise coming through. The tall and distant exclamations of grass, which start where the field ends, seem to jostle with the same rhythm as Violet’s speech. You wait until she pauses and you try another word.
“One,” you insist, slipping your voice between the hacked-up sound of Violet, disliking you. This time though, you get a very clear response.
“Private property.” You look up from the phone. Something in flannel, wearing black pants and at least fifty years, interrupts your conversation with a silent extension of shotgun. You consider yourself: bare-chested, barelegged, drenched, owning a flip phone, standing on a stranger’s dock with a hat on. You nod and set the phone down on the dock, slowly. Which, after you think about it, is an utterly pointless attempt at demonstrating innocence.
“This is private property. The ‘ell are you doing?” He gestures forward with the shotgun.
“Calling Violet,” you muster quickly, only after speaking do you realize that, despite her sociability, this man probably does not know your sister. “Sir, I was calling my sister from a rest stop because my car broke down and my reception was spotty so I walked for a while and got here and the reception was better but then I got angry and threw my phone into your pond. And then I got it out of your pond. Which is why I am less than appropriately clothed at this current moment. I was calling Violet. I’ll leave, right now, I’ll go and there will be no more quasi-naked strangers on your dock, as I’m sure you prefer.”
“Car broke down?” He asks you. You nod. “What kind of car?”
“A truck,” you manage, your voice softer than you’d like it to be.
“What sort of truck?” You feel your stomach contort into queasiness.
“A red one,” you reply, your eyes locked on the dock, examining the grain of the wood. You cannot see his face but you know he hates you now. He hates you for a very specific and personal reason. You aren’t just a stranger anymore, you’re someone who doesn’t know what vehicle he owns, which happens to be the transportation equivalent of a water-boarded flip phone.
“You’re going to need a towel and then you’re going to need Harold.” He says, turning and starting uphill.
“Am I following you?” you ask, scrambling to gather your scattered belongings.
“Don’t know,” is all he says. You follow.
The bent cornstalks irritate your feet so you put your tennis shoes back on, sock-less and untied.
“I look stupendous,” you murmur while flipping the phone open again. It’s gone quiet. There’s no Violet left, just a screen who’s pixels have been mashed into a frenzy of black and red illegibility. You follow the flanneled thing beyond the next steep rectangle of collected corn. A blotch of white simmers above the hillside. It’s a small house. You keep walking. Your laces slap your ankles, your chest is shivering involuntarily, and your cellphone is dangling at the end of your right hand. The fields around you are pale and the sky is a long, low thing. The man in front of you is dangling his gun limply, the same way you’re holding your phone. You remember the lake.
The sky then looked like it does now, huge and unchartable from the beach, a mirror to the water, which was constantly flexing in between black and blue. It’s always cold, coming out of the water, your whole body is with you and shaking. The sand sticks to skin, dotting feet and legs and arms with specks of friction. This going uphill feels like leaving the lake. You grab yourself, arms crossed, and walk onto the porch.
The man with the gun opens the door and shouts in once.
“Harold!” The shout carries itself down the hallway, where someone bearded and also probably fifty, steps out to own the name. He is also wearing flannel and has all of his clothes on and is presumably not wearing boxers which are glued to his legs with pond water that belongs to someone he doesn’t know. His shoes are tied.
“Yeah,” he says, stepping out onto the porch, ignoring you in a way you find absolutely beautiful given the circumstances.
“A towel,” the gunman says pointing to you, “a towel and your toolbox, he has a broken truck he can only describe as red. He’s a real mechanic, this one.” Harold nods, kisses the gunman, and walks back into the house. He comes back out with a towel and a toolbox, which you could guess were coming, but still surprise you. You thank them, spitting out pieces of story and excuse and apology which mix together and eventually come out sounding like nothing. You dry off on the porch and try to put your clothes on with dignity, which doesn’t happen, but you can see they see you trying, which you hope counts for something. When you are done, you stand up. Harold and the gunman are looking at you.
“I’m Nathaniel. You have a lovely home,” you say, extending your hand. Harold walks over and takes your hat off, drops the towel onto your head, and starts drying your hair. You wait underneath, beige towel flashing in and out of coherence, slow laughter seeping into your ears from the other side of the cloth. The hills of towel start to look like dunes and the happiness falling off of the farmers starts to sound like waves coming closer. You can feel Harold’s hands roving over your head, the palms and fingers and blunt nails, pushing down, scrapping over you for water. You make the moment into a beach in your head. You add your sister. You add your mother and your father and a dog you never owned, but wanted, and you add summer and sweat and an arc of sunlight that tugs some sort of loveliness out of everyone’s skin.
You understand that it will be over any second, the ocean you made up, and that beyond the towel are two gay farmers and a November and a red truck and a nine hour drive you’re only halfway through. You can feel the phone in your hand and the cold on your face and you can see the porch underneath you, being a porch, and not a shoreline. But this is a beach. This is a beach that lets you get right up to the blue if you come at it with your eyes closed.
There is an ocean in Iowa and it is heavy and goes on for how ever many leagues fit into a frontal lobe.You hold your breath under the towel and feel salt in the air and the sea-foam being passed in between your neurons like serotonin. The dunes evaporate with the reemergence of daylight. Harold and the gunman are dry and hold their faces somewhere in between amusement and pity. The Atlantic hangs, crumpled in Harold’s left fist.