The boy sits on the concrete lot that juts out onto the water, his feet dangling over the nook where water meets sand. There is no one on the shore but an old man, oddly dressed in long sleeves, trousers, and socks. The television forecast said steady rain but it has held off, clouds knitting together in the distance. The lake is dark as ash, uneven and unsteady before the storm. He imagines the crests, these wide-mouthed gasps of water, in his bathtub, swallowing him whole, splashing out onto the tile, soaking the soiled towels and bath mat. He looks for fish, but today he has seen only shadows, the receding tide revealing an empty bottle, shells, a spindly rope of algae. There are planks of wood in the wet sand, still as fossils.
He should leave soon, he knows. He has been sitting there for several hours, occasionally rising to run in a lopsided loop around the lot, chasing seagulls like a dog. It is two miles to the house, and he fears walking through town at dusk. At that time of day the only people on the street are men escorting women into cars, families traveling in a pack to the movie theater, their taillights spotlighting his solitary figure before lumbering off into early twilight.
He slams the rubber backs of his tennis shoes against the concrete, sees an object being lapped towards the sand, and pauses. The shape is barely moving, its motions not the quick flips of a fish. He hops off onto the shore and leans closer to the lake’s surface, finding not a dead perch or carp, but something the same flat color as the sand. He finds toes, the slope of an arch. He finds a foot.
He breathes deeply in and holds the air in his lungs. All he hears is the thumping of his heart and waves: the sounds of water lapping against stone, water lapping against wood.
“It’s going to rain soon,” a voice says from above. He jumps back and sees the old man standing on the lot. “You should head home before it hits, I’m sure your parents are worried about you.”
He nods, looking back into the water to see if the foot is more visible, if the old man will notice. He feels complicit with its presence, as if the crime was in the discovery. But the man has turned, padding towards his toffee colored Lincoln. Once the car has rumbled off, he moves closer to the shallows. The current has shifted it slightly so that the sole is tilted upwards. He is grateful, not wanting to see the void of the ankle, the violence implicit in its existence.
He wishes he was with Jim or Donny or even Kevin, knowing that there would be some delight in this with company — challenges to touch it, arguments over who they should tell, who they should show it to, but they are hundreds of miles away. So he walks home, stretching his toes to the tip of his sneakers to assure himself that his feet are still there, skin stitched to skin, bone hooked to bone.
Like all young boys, he loves the summer. Summer to him is washing caked dirt off your feet with a hose, trying to catch fish with your hands in the shallows of the ocean, sitting shoulder to shoulder with other boys on the wooden bench of a baseball park.
But in Ohio, in his grandparents’ home, it is different. It’s warmer, and the front strands of his hair are always dark with sweat. He knows no other boys. The television is older, and hums even when it is turned off. There are tufts of dust beneath radiators, moths in bags of flour.
When he arrives home, his mother is alone in the room they share. She gives him the bed to sleep in, but then spends most of her days stretched along the mattress, so that at night her scent is thick as wax on the pillowcase. He would rather sleep on the couch, but she won’t let him refuse the bed, one of her dwindling maternal gestures, now that her parents make his toast, rub the grass stains from his trousers, buy him toothpaste.
“How was the beach?” she asks, placing her book down next to her, its cover lined with plastic. Most of the books in the home are overdue library books.
“It’s not a beach when it’s not the ocean,” he says.
“Well, what is it then?”
“I don’t know. Just a lot of sand.”
Three weeks ago his mother left his father in Weymouth to be with a man named Daley, and he trailed after her like a kite roped around her wrist. But when they arrived at Daley’s house on the north shore of Massachusetts, their clothes stuffed in brown paper bags in the backseat of the car, Daley made no move to open the screen door. The boy’s mother slipped inside as he sat on the sloped concrete steps, rubbing the eraser of a pencil down to the metal against the concrete. They drove the twelve hours to her parents’ home in silence, tears still against her face like water running down rock.
His grandfather said you should never trust a man whose name you can’t spell from sound. His grandmother said they could stay as long as he didn’t terrorize her senile spaniel.
His mother returns to her reading as he walks in slow circles around the room. He wonders what would happen if he jumped through the window screen, whether he would break a leg or an arm or just die. He wonders what they’re having for dinner.
“I found a foot in the water,” he says.
“A foot? A foot as in feet?” she says, not looking up from the page.
“Yes, like this,” he says, lifting his foot up to her face, holding it in his hand. She brushes it away, and he tips back onto the carpet.
“Well, I hope whoever lost it finds it.”
“That doesn’t make sense, you can’t find anything when you’re dead,” he says, spreading out like a starfish.
She doesn’t respond to this, proceeding to the next chapter. Still on his back, he turns the closet door handle with his toes, and closes it and opens it until she tells him to go to the other room.
When he is older, he will remember his grandfather taking him for a drive that evening, that they stopped to buy root beers. He will not remember that the drive was to the pharmacy, to buy light bulbs and toilet paper, and that they drove back to the house directly after, his grandfather lecturing him on Kosovo.
As an adult, he will have
an unabashed pride in his grandfather. He will keep the photo of him — age nineteen, his cotton army uniform bunching around his shoulders and knees — in a frame of polished wood. He will find any excuse to mention him. If big band music plays in a film, he will share that his grandfather was among the troops Glenn Miller was flying to entertain in France when his plane slipped into the English Channel. If someone asks for the time, he’ll mention that his grandfather ran a small, tidy watch repair shop.
It is difficult to pinpoint when someone’s molecules scatter and reassemble into something entirely different: into more, into myth. It is difficult to pinpoint why, though more often than not it results from amnesia of any direct interaction beyond a smattering of images, loose photographs on a table.
He asks to stay in the car as his grandfather goes into the pharmacy, although it is too hot and the rolled down windows offer no respite. He studies the molding nickels and pennies lying next to the clutch, and tries to rub the presidents’ profiles clean with his thumb. A Volvo pulls in next to him. The driver leaves the car in park, and walks unevenly through the glass doors. He leaves two dark, opened bottles in the car’s cup holders. Root beer, the boy thinks, as his grandfather re-emerges in the dove grey light.
The next day, when his grandfather is asleep on the porch, the boy takes his newspaper. He sits in the middle of the yard, the grass wet beneath him, and unfolds the pages like a map. The front page is pension cuts, elections, a strain of listeria found in yogurt. He flips through, desperate for mention of found limbs, murder investigations. A woman was shot for her handbag outside of a train station. A young man dead in a car crash most likely fell asleep at the wheel after leaving his girlfriend’s home at three in the morning. A bumble bee dips and rises around his head.
It occurs to him that this foot may never be found, that there could be thousands of dead bodies sinking to the bottom of oceans and lakes, their skeletons tangled up with the massive rib cages of sharks and whales. He tries to remember his father’s feet and can think of only his hands, the frayed skin around his cuticles, mottled with pinpricks of dried blood.
Later that day he sits on the front porch steps, watching boys a grade below him, aged nine or ten, attempt to flip a skateboard with their feet. He imagines going up to them and saying, “Do you want to see a dead body?” but then realizes that’s not what he has to show them. “Do you want to see a foot?” is nowhere near as intriguing, and “Do you want to see a dead foot?” sounds odd, as if it was possible for a foot to die and the person to stay alive.
One of the boys, hair white as milk, trips over the skateboard in mid-air and falls forward on his palms. He rises instinctively from the steps, alert to injury, which draws the attention of the boys.
“What are you looking at?” the fallen one barks after getting to his feet, knees and hands scraped raw.
He scales the porch and slams the screen door shut, retreating from the windows as if the kids will come looking for him, noses pressed against the clouded glass.
That night in bed, he will try to conjure a map of America, remembering exactly how they got here from their house. He sees the crooked arm of Massachusetts, the sloping shoulder of New York, but then the states begin to melt into one another, pats of butter in a warm pan.
They passed Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, where his mother took him to drive past large, ornate houses on a hill. There was no one in the city, and his mother said the streets were empty as bowling lanes. He knows they are near a lake, that they are far from the ocean.
Even when he is older, he will never be able to point to where the town is within the state’s crudely drawn heart. He imagines the town as both smaller and larger than it was. The downtown in his memory is one block long, when actually the pharmacy, the movie theater, the garishly lit Chinese restaurant, the accounting firm whose blinds stayed closed, were spread over several. Lake Erie is nearly an ocean, and contrary to his mind’s eye, front yards were not acres wide, the soybean fields did not fold and unfold infinitely.
He will also attempt to articulate the difference of Midwesterners — that they are blonder, heavier, quicker to smile, less quick to tell the truth. Though he keeps this to himself, he knows they suffer for their distance from the ocean: their lungs weaker for the lack of salt in the air.
“What do you think Daley’s doing right now?” he asks the next afternoon when he and his mother are wandering the grocery store aisles, forty dollars from his grandmother in his mom’s jeans back pocket. The sound system is blown out, so that store announcements waiver between whispers and ringing booms.
“Why would you ask that?” she says, her forearms angled against the shopping cart handle.
“It’s just weird that everyone I’ve ever met is out there doing something.”
“Well, he’s not someone you ever need to think about. He could be dead for all I care.”
She picks up a plastic-wrapped loaf of bread, checking its tag for an expiration date.
“But, that’s what I was thinking about, just like I don’t know what anyone is doing, everybody I ever met could be dead. Dad could be dead. He could think we’re dead, when we’re just buying junk in a grocery store,” he says.
“Dad’s not dead just like you and I aren’t dead.”
“But you don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do,” she says, eyeing the woman who has paused next to them, her freshly painted toes splayed apart by a manicurist’s dividers. He remembers the grey half moons of the foot, and now imagines they must have belonged to a man — they were unkempt and unpainted.
“A serial killer could have killed him. He could have chopped him up and thrown him in the ocean,” he says, grabbing the front of the cart and moving it back and forth in quick jerks.
“Listen to me, okay, listen to me,” she says, jamming the cart to a stop, and leaning over the pork chops, the peanut butter, the can of coffee grounds, so she is level with his face. “It doesn’t matter. None of that matters. We don’t need anyone.”
Eye to eye, he realizes his mother’s irises are green, the color of moss and mold. He wonders if he really never knew that, if she had closed her eyes minutes before and asked him, if he would have said blue or brown or black.
They walk d
own the store aisles, finding chamomile tea for his grandfather, off-brand detergent and tissues for his grandmother. His grandparents asked his mother not to take too long, though for no real reason — dinner was not for hours. She stops in the cosmetics section and opens various shampoo bottles, smelling each one. He grabs one off the shelf and pops the cap, though all he can smell is the sterile, empty scent of plastic.
His father does not know they are here. Every few days, he writes his father a postcard that his mother purchased online showing shipping museums, breaching whales. They do not talk on the phone. He finds that he writes as much as he would speak when they lived under the same roof. I practiced catching by throwing the ball against the garage door. It’s really hot. Mom says I need a haircut, but we haven’t gone to get it cut. It rained a lot. There were worms on the sidewalk. When does your hair get girl long?
His father sends checks to her parents’ house; she did not want him to have Daley’s address. He has sent one letter, which gave no indication that he had received the boy’s postcards. He said that they would figure out holidays, that he was thinking about getting a dog. On the back was written a grocery list in faint pencil: ground beef, bananas, cereal.
There will be memories of his parents fighting, raised hands and taut faces underneath the kitchen light. They were both too young when he was born, dropping out of their sophomore year of college. There were moments of joy, giddy and fleeting. His father stopping the car on a drowsy, house-lined street to pull up a bleeding heart plant from someone’s lawn, just because his mother said it was beautiful, as she laughs for him to stop, please, they’re gonna call the police, his father placing it gingerly next to him on the backseat.
He remembers silent dinners, sleeping behind the television set, his father as a mechanic, a student, a salesman. He does not think he was hurt, but he has a memory of his father lifting him by his upper arms so that their faces were level, his mother shouting for his father to stop, please, they’re gonna call the police. It is a glimpse, the same way he remembers the thin lines of light coming into a grade school locker, no memory of how he got out or in, or him answering how old he is from the hot metal of a car hood, the location, the voice and face of the asker, all unknown.
That evening he sits in the bath, arms looped around his knees. He is staring at his feet, watching them ripple as he tips back and forth, then steady as he stills. He hates this bathroom — its ceiling is oddly low, and there is a dusting of black mold by the window sill that his grandmother says is just dirt. At dinner his grandfather said he was getting too old for baths, that he was a grown boy who had grown boy grease and sweat that couldn’t be rinsed off by bath water. He digs his nose underneath his armpit, smelling nothing but rich, familiar skin.
“Can I come in?” his mother asks, her knuckles gently rapping on the door.
“No,” he says. He sometimes thinks she forgets how old he is — occasionally pulling his plate towards her to cut his steak, or telling him certain carnival rides are for bigger children when he clears the height limit by several inches.
“Okay,” she says, and cracks the door open a fingers width. “I just wanted to let you know that I got off the phone with my friend Delia, from Columbus? And I’m just going to go see her for a few days, drive grandma’s car down there. How does that sound to you?”
He is perfectly still, deciding then that the game is not to make a sound. Perhaps then she’ll forget he’s in the bath, will walk back towards the bedroom and fall asleep, forgetting that she even had the thought of leaving.
“Did you hear me? If it’s okay with you, I’m going to go to Columbus tomorrow,” she says, and he can almost hear how she is standing, hand against the doorframe, head bowed forward. She used to spend nights away when his father was refusing to talk, throwing a toothbrush and a t-shirt in her purse and driving off in a matter of minutes.
The door slowly begins to swing open, his mother’s small hand curling around the edge.
“Yes, yes, yes, go, go, go,” he says loudly.
That night he slips a postcard for his father in the mailbox. On one side there is a lighthouse, its stone a flat white against the blue sky. There are no men or women in the grass, no children on the shore, no ships in the bay, no one for it to guide home. On the other side he draws a picture of a foot, one crude outline on top of another, attempting to perfect the shape.
There is one memory, beautifully preserved: him chest deep in salt water, his father’s dark head emerging from the ocean like a seal. The sand is loose and soft beneath his feet. Other children are nearby, squealing and hooting. The waves rise and fall in a perfect, choreographed succession, pulling his small body up towards the sun. After each peak he holds his breath and dips below, into the cool, light-dappled water, knowing his father is seconds away. And each time he emerges he opens his eyes to find his mother, dressed in a green suit, propped up against the rungs of a beach chair, occasionally lifting her fingers to say hello.
His mother is asleep, though it is nearly eleven in the morning. Her arm forms a clean line off the edge of the couch, her breathing barely audible through the distant drone of a lawn mower. The sheets have come loose from the cushions and are wrapped around her almost elegantly, the folds of cotton rich with shadow. She used to rise at six a.m. when they lived back home, rousing him in the early morning light. She was always fully dressed, half of her hair clipped back from her scrubbed clean face, as if she never slept.
Outside, the sun is so bright it sharpens every car hood and mailbox. He passes little kids hurdling a sprinkler; two in their bathing suits and the other, no more than three years old, naked as an egg. He walks by a reddened man pushing the roaring lawnmower, an elderly Japanese woman strolling with her hands behind her back. As he nears the beach he begins to notice children carrying beach towels, girls in flip-flops wearing oversized white t-shirts, mothers with floppy, wide-brimmed hats. He somehow didn’t think that anyone else would be at the beach, imagining that he was returning to the scene exactly as he had left it. He considers going back to the house, but pushes forward.
The sand is dotted with brightly colored folding chairs, towels laid out neat as flags. When he is older, he will remember the beach as empty, the sky colorless, as on the day of the discovery.
He will not remember the boys his age eating Push-Pop ice cream or how the sand burned his feet once he removed his sneakers and socks. He will not remember holding the bottom of his shirt away from his body, trying to dry the sweat on his belly.
sp; He heads towards the nook between the paved parking lot and the shore, where the foot lay in the loose sand. There is a little boy there, crouched with a shovel in hand, slapping its plastic back against the water’s skin. He walks up to the boy and past him, peering into the shallows to see if he can make out the foot’s outlines, though all he can see is sun rippling across the lake.
He wades into the water slowly, his feet sinking into wet sand. His hands anchor him against the rusted iron sheet holding up the concrete of the parking lot, his palm buttressed against its dips and peaks. He leans close to the water’s surface but can see only dull shell shards, algae soft as fur. The lake is beginning to lick the top of his shorts, and he does not know how much farther he should go.
His father once told him that when he was near death, he was going to live on the ocean. He would show up at some lot in Florida with a rubber-banded fold of bills and purchase whatever sailboat he could afford. He would string up a hammock in its belly and rock back and forth for the rest of his days. No one aboard with him, no one knowing where he is, solitary as a ghost. This is the image he will have of his father in old age, for they’ll never see each other again.
As he turns in half circles, finding nothing, he realizes no one will know of this but him; his mother will never believe him, his father will never be near enough to look. When he is old, he will wonder if he ever saw it, that first day. He will begin to believe it was a misshapen piece of wood, a half-eaten fish. The foot will begin to retreat into the darkness of the lake, soon swallowed whole.
Boys and girls begin to yell excitedly, and he looks up to see waves rising near the distant buoys. Clouds of sand begin to bloom beneath his feet, the lake floor unsteady with the current. He looks to the beach, expecting to see his grandfather or mother, as if they would have known to come here, to yell his name.
But he finds no one. He feels an incredible rush of freedom and dives into the shallow water, swims until his arms can no longer grab at the sand, swimming out farther until he is breathless and weightless, never turning to the shore. This, he will remember.
He will not remember walking home to his mother, his soles naked on the sidewalk because some of the boys had buried his shoes in the sand, his t-shirt molded to his body like wet clay. He will not remember slipping by his grandparents and finding her still asleep on the couch, or curling up on the floor beside her, the sun warming his skin.