By Charlotte Gullick
He’s had a few too many. Should Helen call my mother? Nah, he’s fine. And after he makes his blurry way to the garbage truck, he climbs inside. The reek of trash still strong in the summer night air. He didn’t make the dump run like he intended. The county has raised the fees again, and hell, the government has already cut into his life too much. Behind the wheel, he shakes his head, trying to focus his gaze: get home, to Diane and her religion, their four kids, a fifth who miscarried and washed out of her womb a few years before.
Seven miles, that’s all he has to negotiate. He grips the steering wheel tighter, the monsoon of fatigue, of mounting debt, heightened by the alcohol—all of this builds within him, behind his eyes, but he’s got this. He drives these miles every day, sometimes four or five times. Before he started his own business, he drove school bus, hauling kids to and fro daily.
He’s started the truck, found his way along the two lane, managed those twists and turns. He’s left the bar behind, it perched on a shoulder hundreds of feet above the Eel River. He’s on the four-lane, he’s six miles away now. He just has to follow the highway, the old road moving under and beside it, he the sine wave to the river, the roads, the old and the new.
The fatigue breaks its levees; the past accidents gather in the corners of the cab, stinking more than the acrid garbage juices sloshing in the back. Those near-death moments build, and on the straight-away, the fatigue, the alcohol, the previous tumbles of vehicles—they all build, and his eyes close.
His head tips forward, and the truck wanders to the freeway’s edge, the right tires bump the asphalt lip. He tries to pull out of the black out, but it’s a luscious falling, a deep giving over calling his name with a steady, seductive sound. The truck again hits the tiniest of barriers, and then it’s over, pitching toward the river.
It’s a concussive jangle of metal and earth, the compacted trash jarred and shuffled in the fall. He’s aware of things having gone wrong—his body shouldn’t toss and slam in this way. The old road dances alongside the freeway, playing back and forth on its edges, rises up to meet the truck, a shoulder of earth extends itself right there, at the exact place the vehicle stops, as if a great beast—mammoth, elephant, blue whale—has skidded to the edge, comical in all contexts but this one.
Rear wheels hang off the shoulder, ravine yawning black just beyond. The man, my father, trajectory interrupted in so many ways, has been thrown, his body malleable, draped across the rear wheel. Truck and man teeter on the brink. The night sky screams its stars, those wavering pinpoints of light.
He raises his head. This is not where he should be: on the edge again, the world seen from this canted angle. Beneath him, the truck shifts, something within the trash compactor clanks and falls. Inside his knee, broken bits there pulse. A chuckle of disbelief bubbles out of his tossed body; once more, death defeated. Laughter erupts next, the sound of it swallowed by the solitude.
He lowers his head, closes his eyes against the blurred stars, falls into the blackness again.
The summer I was twelve, my father had another drinking and driving accident. My understanding arrived in bits: the local tow guy found my father hours after; this man lifted my father from the rear wheel and brought him to us. My mother called Mary and Everett, our neighbors down the road. Even as she made the call, my mother’s back twinged with the permanent injury she sustained ten years before when she had been in the car with Dad and they’d gone over toward the river; she hanging from the car, him ejected to the rocks below.
Mary, nurse and Red Cross swim instructor, came to examine Dad. I heard from Mom that as Mary tickled his foot to assess the damage, he flirted with her, invited her hand farther up his leg. I don’t know when he went to the hospital, when he had surgery.
In the hours later at swimming lessons, my brother and I were tested, among three other kids near our age, on level six of the Red Cross swimmer’s proficiency. We demonstrated our fitness and fundamentals of diving abilities, we had to swim five hundred yards continuously, where we exhibited our knowledge of the various strokes, and then we had three more tests: survival floating, the Cooper twelve-minute test, and finally, to retrieve an object from seven feet. In the survival floating, we had to be fully-clothed and plunge from the rocks into the emerald water.
Mary, the instructor, tickler of my father’s feet, stood shore side with a stop-watch and called, “Imagine you’ve had an accident at sea. You have to conserve your energy and stay alert. Now jump.” Feet first, we leapt and then Mary began the time. I was already tired, my sleep disturbed by the commotion of my injured father helped into our small two-bedroom house. In the water, my limbs swiveled back and forth, the fabric of my jeans adding to the weight, the tennis shoes small anchors, dragging down. Next to me, my brother, nearly my twin, bobbed and grinned, his head a small beacon.
“Two more minutes,” Mary called. Seconds beat out in my chest and my limbs moved slower, less agitated, more lethargic. Other people gathered on the shore; the next lessons were to begin soon. It seemed lots of heads looked in our direction, the buzz of the accident already in the air. Mary called the time and we swam to shore, peeling off our soaking clothes. After a brief break, we then had to swim continuously for twelve minutes. Up and down the swimming hole we had to travel, each stroke moving us through the river.
Finally, all we had left was to plunge to the bottom and retrieve an object. Mary held a small, white, round rock. My brother went first, easily grabbing the stone and then holding it over his head as he swam back. Even though I was older by sixteen months, he often led in the physical challenges.
Out of the water, he tossed his sandy brown hair and grinned, just like Dad. The other students went next and then it was my turn, my breathing returned to normal. Mary tossed the object farther for me—maybe because I was older, or maybe because she knew how much I loved to be under the surface. I dove toward the white stone, my eyes taking in the river’s blurry world. I didn’t get it right away, and when I came to the current’s surface, I knew more people were talking, whispering to one another about Dad. I felt the wave of their glances and so I swam to the bottom, ignoring the white rock where it lay on top of its darker companions. I looked toward the sky, to the canyons reaching upward to the highway. I liked how the water shifted the light, refracted, bent it, gave me a different angle. If Dad had pitched forward only a few more feet, he’d been here, nearer to the silt and bedrock.
We didn’t go get him last night—and look what happened. I don’t know what was happening with my parents at this point, if my mother had decided she was too tired to leave the house at one in the morning to search for him in one of the bars or for his truck which might’ve disappeared on some treacherous turn of the road.
I finally grasped the rock and brought upward, toward the sun and community collecting at the river’s edge. Mary gave us a ride home after the lessons were over. I remember the sound of her kind voice as she told us to have good afternoon when we got out of the car. Inside the house, Mom and Dad were gone, Jerrie at the sink, washing dishes. We didn’t know when they’d be home. In the bathroom, I studied my face, how my hair grew lighter as it dried, making me look more like Mom and less like Dad. In the quiet of the house before they returned, I imagined myself still swimming, still seeing the world through that refracted lens.
Charlotte Gullick is a novelist, essayist, editor, educator and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Austin Community College. She is currently a second-year student in the low-res Creative Nonfiction MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Charlotte’s first novel, By Way of Water, was published by Blue Hen Books/Penguin Putnam and was chosen by Jayne Anne Phillips as the Grande Prize Winner of the Santa Fe Writer’s Project in 2002 and was re-published in 2013. Her other awards include a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship for Fiction, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, a MacDowell Colony Residency, as well as the Evergreen State College 2012 Teacher Excellence Award. For more information: charlottegullick.com