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Pigs on the Levee

by

Thomas Lisenbee

Winner of the 2009 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize

 

 
     
   

 

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THE RAINS BEGAN TOWARD THE MIDDLE OF MAY. Not constant, intermittent yet persistent, rain the way early comers arrive to a sporting event.   And the river kept rising.  Not alarmingly, just subtly higher at the end of each week.  Certainly Harlan Winslow was not concerned that his one hundred acres of prime river bottom had become too muddy to work.  He already had his crop in. The dry days of late June, July and August were just ahead.  He had other work to suck up his time.
            Harlan turned seventy-two the twelfth of that May.  His boys, Starrett (27) and Jack (31), insisted on bringing their families out to his place and doing a barbeque to celebrate.  Harlan appreciated the fuss but no longer the occasion, his heart wasn’t in it since that date now had a keener importance for him, and the boys as well, it being also the anniversary of the day three years ago his wife and their mother, Martha, suffered her fatal heart attack.  Not that he wallowed in grief.  Or if he did, he didn’t show it on the outside.  One lesson every farmer had to learn was how to take things in stride. 
            So he learned how to look after himself.  Found he liked doing all the things that Martha used to do for him—his own cooking and cleaning.  Getting down on his knees with the scrub brush was like he was away somewhere else and she was him.  In fact, his birthday, he was on his hands and knees early that morning using that scrub brush just as she would have been doing, so the house would look respectable when the kids showed up.  The kitchen TV was tuned to the Weather Channel.  He’d sat up on his knees when he heard that heavy rains were predicted to begin next week.  The TV was showing stock footage of previous floods and his river was running fast and high and muddy brown, scarcely one thousand yards away. 
             And when those rains came, at the end of the first day, Harlan’s gauge registered just shy of three inches and it was still coming down.  He had a good enough view of the swollen river from his front porch to judge it two feet shy of its banks.  The weather report that evening as he partook of his supper of fried bologna and baked beans, said heavy rains through Thursday.  This was Wednesday.  Harlan chewed his bottom lip for a moment then went to the telephone.  Jack was too far away in Des Moines.  Starrett, a truck mechanic and part-time tow truck operator on the Interstate, lived less than twenty miles away. 
    
Starrett arrived in the early morning with the windshield wipers of his beat-up ‘98 Dodge Ram barely holding their own against a pelting downpour.  He found Harlan in the barn, his back to the open door, tying off a bag of sand with a piece of baling wire.  It was no surprise to see the tough old bird already had at least a couple of hundred bags of sand filled and stacked on the flatbed trailer hitched to the big tractor.
            “Jack’s going to try and be here before noon,” Starrett said as a way of announcing himself.     There was no welcoming smile.  Instead Harlan turned and stretched, sucked his tooth, stroked the little wattle under his grizzled chin.  “Starrett, you oughten a done that,” he said.  “You and I can handle things.”
            Starrett spent a moment considering just what handle things meant.  Harlan was back to filling bags with sand.  The two of them were so much alike sometimes it hurt to think about it: classical dyslexics—do anything, make anything with their hands, never read for fun, poor in school but clever as hell when it came to nuts and bolts stuff of real life.  Harlan’s watery eyes said he’d been up most of the night.  Starrett figured he could use a cup of coffee. 
            Well what did you expect? He asked himself, as he went to the truck for his thermos?  What his father respected was work.  His life was all about work.  It was what he judged himself and others by.  Work was Strength.  Work was Character.  Work was hard physical labor—getting dirty and tired then doing some more work.  To his father, working with your brain wasn’t working at all.  That’s why he’d called Jack, because he’d known his father wouldn’t.  Because he knew how his father’s mind worked: Jack lived too far away; Jack was a big shot lawyer in Des Moines without a single honest callous left on his hands; Jack worked out instead of working. Starrett fumbled through the truck window for the thermos. 
            The fact that Jack was his mother’s favorite had never bothered him, because he more or less felt the same way.  All Jack’s NCAA swimming trophies? Jack was his hero.  He and his mother were tickled pink Jack was the first ever in their family to go away to college.  But not his father.  Oh, no, not Harlan. It had been quite a blowup that night around the kitchen table when Jack broke the news he wouldn’t be going to the army like Harlan expected, nor sticking around for a few years to help out on the farm like he himself had done right after graduating from high school.  No, Jack was going to Iowa University.   On whose money, Harlan had wanted to know.  On my savings and a full scholarship to be on the swim team.  I want to be a lawyer, Jack had said; then Harlan just stewing, not saying a thing until he suddenly blurted: white collar workers are a goddamn sponge on society and Jack laughed it off to his face right there.  His mother visibly angry for weeks, probably never forgave Harlan.  But she’d understood.  And explained it to them.  It was your father’s hitch in Vietnam that made him start seeing life mostly in military terms, she’d said.  There’s winners and there’s losers.  Your father’s idea of farming is not so much working the land as fighting nature.  Going to college is taking the easy way out.  In your father’s book it makes you a deserter.  Maybe so.  Maybe his father’s logic was just as skewed as the fact was, Jack had never shirked a day in his life.  And right now, the idea of he and his father facing down a flood without Jack was a three legged stool with only two legs.  It was no kind of idea at all. 
            “Here pop,” he said, “drink this, and take a load off.  I’ll hop into my rain gear and whip this load down to the river.” 
            Harlan accepted the coffee the way he accepted most things: without a word.
            “It’s gonna be that couple a hundred of yard gap that flood back in ‘sixty punched through the old berm Grandpa Winslow threw up years ago we’re filling in, right?” Starrett said and when Harlan didn’t answer, Starrett knew that meant yes, so he added: “you know what they’re saying don’t cha?”
            Harlan shook his head.
            “This one could be the mother of all floods.”
            Harlan grunted.   What he was thinking was: this house is on high ground.  Ain’t never been flooded out.  Not in a hundred years going back to Great-grandpa Winslow’s days. 
            Take a load off? The boy was treating him like he was a worn out old man.   Worn out?  He held the coffee cup straight out before him, looking past the standout veins between his knuckles to check for surface vibrations.  Not a ripple. Steady as a rock. 
            Starrett caught it at him, knew what he was doing and why, goosed the tractor and laughed as he took off.  Harlan emptied the cup, picked up his shovel, affixed a fresh bag onto the filling rig he’d jiggered and scooped a shovelful of sand. 

Harlan went to the door of the barn about two o’clock and spent a moment watching Starrett down at the river bank maneuvering the tractor to get the trailer turned around.  He’d run out of sand so decided he’d best fix the boy some lunch.  He checked the rain gauge again on his way to the house—up an inch and a bit since five hours ago.  He slopped a couple cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup into a sauce pan then turned on the TV.  All hell was breaking loose in Wisconsin.  A dam had broke.  A town pretty much swept away.  He laid out a loaf of bread on the table along with what was left of his package of bologna, then a jar of mayonnaise and another of bread and butter pickles.  The university campus was mostly under water.  Downtown Cedar Rapids looked like Venice. He was slicing an onion when he heard Starrett in the mud room stomping himself dry.
            “How’s it looking,” he called as he ladled hot soup into bowls and set them on the table.
            “Water’s up shy of lapping the bags,” Starrett answered when he walked in.  “By the time we finish here, I figure it’s going to be pretty much there.”
            “We’re out of sand,” Harlan pronounced.  “How high we got that levee?”
            “Not as high as I’d think you’d like.  Over two feet but not much.  Another foot or two would be nice but for every bag we go higher, we got to add more behind to bulk the base.”  Starrett watched his father take a handful of saltines, crush and drop them into his soup.  “But I guess you know that,” Starrett added with a grin.
            Harlan grunted. 
            Starrett hesitated.  “So?  What?  You want me to run into town?  I can borrow us a dump truck and run us out some more sand.  How’er we fixed for bags?”
            “Bags enough,” Harlan said reaching for the bread. 
            Bags enough?  Lordy, his father was some piece of work.  Like it would kill him to speak in complete sentences and he’s never answered a direct question in his life.  His mother said once: when your father and I went out on our first date his idea of small talk was to say to me: most people talk too much. 
            Starrett helped himself to a second bowl of soup before going to the mud room to call Ephran Cober about using his truck since Harlan was as against cell phone use in his house as his mother had been about smoking in hers. 
    
With Starrett off to Cober’s, Harlan walked down to the river to check up on things.  There was a boy a man could be proud of, he told himself once he found himself riverside.  The apple that fell closest to the tree.  Knew just what to do without being told.  Knew how to get the job done.  One that wouldn’t dick off, reading fancy books when someone’s back was turned.
            By habit, Harlan glanced up-river toward Judge Herlocker’s place.  The Judge was a new convert to factory pig farming.  He had a mean little creek bisecting his acreage.  Harlan figured that creek was probably backed up to his barn by now, the river too full up to accept its water.  It occurred to him this was the first time he’d ever seen this river with standing three foot waves.
    
It might be said Harlan Winslow’s aversion to pig farms came naturally because if he had any weakness as a farmer, it would be a finicky nose.  Especially as Martha used to say: for animal smells.  (It drove him near to crazy should anyone cut a fart around him.)  So when the Pig Farm Man came around to con Harlan, same as he’d conned Judge Herlocker, on the idea of becoming a pig farmer, Harlan’s gun  wasn’t loaded when he brought it with him onto the front porch, but the Pig Farm Man didn’t know that.  All Harlan had to do was say nothing with a rifle cradled in the crook of his arm and that was the last time Harlan Winslow had to listen to some fool preach him hooey about pig farming.  Factory pig farming?  A few cows on the hoof were stinky enough but a few thousand pigs in the space a sane man might keep ten or twelve?  The Pig Man got the idea real quick: the Winslow’s had always grown corn.  They’d keep on growing corn.

Ten tons of sand was as much as Starrett was able to finagle.  Seemed the whole state was now into filling sand bags.  Sheriff Bracken was there with the intent of closing the bridge they always used to get back to the farm when Starrett came rumbling up with his load and he had to talk like a son-of-a-gun before the sheriff finally gave in, saying: “Ok, but you’re gonna be the last …if you make it that is but I’m gonna say this: you may be a heck of a lot easier to take, but you’re just as crazy as your old man.” 
            Needless to say, Starrett made it and the other good news was, by the time he got to the farm the rain was scarcely a drizzle.  Since the tractor trail that ran down to the river could no longer bear the weight of a heavily loaded trailer, they decided to back the truck just inside the field gate and set up business there.  “We’ll just skid our sand down to the river,” was the way Harlan put it to Starrett.  “It’s mostly downhill.”
            While Harlan was at the barn hitching up Timmy and Suzie, his prize pull team, to the hauling sled he’d pile cement blocks on to train them for the county and state Fairs, Starrett set about filling more bags with sand so he’d have a decent load ready to take to the river by the time his father got back.  It wasn’t too long before he heard his father geeing and hawing the team out of the barn.  Starrett smiled to himself.  His father was in his glory now.  He had finally found something useful to do with that team.        
            Timmy had been gelded so Suzie was the lead horse, although a person ignorant of horses would never have noticed watching—both of them, brother and sister, nearly always in step even when pulling, their heads bobbing, leaning into their traces.  It was while they waited for the sled to get loaded their individualities stood out.  Suzie like she’d done it too many times before; Timmy all over the place, snorting, stomping, tossing his head, a five-year-old boy horse, anxious to get to the fun of hauling things.  Well it was kinda fun, Starrett told himself, when they finally set off, his father handling the reins from the rear and he walking beside Timmy, keeping an eye for places a sled might get hung up.  Rassling sand bags was brutal business, he told himself.  He had a crick in his neck and a lower back that was beginning talking to him.  He resolved to keep a close eye on his father who only a month ago had fallen off the ladder trying to paint the barn.  Be that as it may, if Harlan’s back was bothering him, if he’d been up all night it certainly didn’t show.  When they reached the river, Harlan was tossing bags of feathers instead of sand off the skid. 
            “I think we’re ahead of the game here, pop,” Starret volunteered as they headed back to reload because it had stopped raining altogether and the sky was a whole bunch lighter.  “I don’t think that river is coming up nearly as fast as it was.”
            Harlan shook his head.  “What we got here is your local water,” he said.  “There’s plenty more up river. Northern Iowa water, Wisconsin water.  Better go higher.”
            About an hour later they were about at the end of their pile of sand and down at  the levee when a red 2007 Cherokee with a kayak lashed to its roof rack pulled in behind the truck.  That would be Jack.

It turned out Jack had arrived at the bridge only three quarters of an hour after Starrett.  He had nosed his car to a stop just shy of the police horse with its blinking light: Bridge Closed.  He ducked under the barrier and walked the last twenty yards to the top of a small knoll where he could look down onto the bridge and the river.  It was easy to see why the bridge had been closed.  The roadway might soon be flooded.  Somebody’s runaway canoe was upside down, hammered against the middle pylon.  Up-river Jack spotted a medium-sized pin oak midstream coming down.  Its limbs and branches reminded him of broken masts and spars, its bedraggled foliage like shredded sails.   Fascinated, he waited to see it strike the bridge because it certainly couldn’t pass under.  He wasn’t disappointed.  The tree rolled, twisted broadside, its root ball clubbing the aluminum canoe, now fatally dented, hopelessly locked between tree and bridge, the upper branches of the tree insinuating themselves into the spars and braces of the bridge, holding on for dear life like a hundred years of wisteria. 
            Jack shrugged and returned to his car. His father’s farm lay less than two miles from the bridge.  A detour would mean another hour.  He would have to go back through town and use the Interstate.   A bridge was designed to handle vertical loads.  He pictured the bridge soon swept away, struts and girders buckling and twisting as the road bed was swept out from under.  He pictured an NFL defensive line manhandling an offensive line of high school freshman footballers.  He’d been hoping to get in a little white water practice after they got the levee up.  If that tree had been him in a kayak, it would have been all over. 
    
Jack (tee-shirt and shorts, lightweight kayak sandals, his brand new Forest Green, LL Bean, GoreTex, back pack rain parka [it breathes!] unzipped, hood shoved back) leaned against the side of his Cherokee waiting for his father (barn boots, bib overalls, no shirt) and his bareback riding brother (also shirtless plus muddy sneakers, cut off jeans, his shucked rain gear long since stowed on the seat of the truck) atop Timmy make it back up to the road.  Jack wondered if he had arrived too late to be of help.  The levee looked adequate from where he stood.   Besides, there was hardly any sand left over to bag.  One thing for sure, he understood how important it was to Harlan that the river be kept off this field.  The craze for ethanol was driving corn futures through the roof and that damn Harlan had suddenly gone green on him—now possessed by the idea of living off the grid and the largess from a good crop on that field would go a long way toward a windmill and solar panels on his house and barn. 
            Lost in these thoughts, Jack didn’t recognize the first pig as a pig right away.  It was just an ear, a snout, a perhaps suggestion of a pig and what would a pig, a big pink pig, one of those commercial pigs, be doing on the levee anyway?  A pig that couldn’t have been Harlan’s, because Harlan didn’t keep pigs and anyway, if he did, it would be one of those exotic, fancy breeds for exhibiting at the fair.  Whatever it was, at this point it was only one of countless things seen every day that passed unregistered due to thinking about something else; and what Jack was now thinking of was his mother and how she used to rag Harlan something fierce about how good for nothing Timmy and Suzie were—the monthly expenses of maintaining a working pair nearly equal to payments on a new tractor.  How she’d say he only used them the two weeks out of the year when he took them to the fairs, with Harlan taking only so much then coming back at her in that snarly, crabby way of his, saying something like: don’t get yer bowels in an uproar woman, other men have sports cars
            Finally though, Jack’s eyes persisted in getting the message to his brain.  He reached into the glove compartment of his car for his binoculars just to make sure and no sooner had them focused than he saw it was, by God, yes, a pig, an adult pig, a real porker that had somehow gotten swept up in the flood, struggling to get up and over the levee and onto dry land.  
            “Hey,” he sing-songed to taunt his father and brother now about fifty yards away, “a pig.  You guys left your pig at the levee.”
            His father ignored him, it was just Jack being Jack and another of his stupid jokes trying to trick his brother into looking, which Starrett did.  Slipped off Timmy’s broad back in fact, so Harlan turned to take a look for himself.
            “Son of a gun,” he said under his breath, “danged if it ain’t.”
            “I think I see another one,” Starrett said.
            “Where,” Harlan said.
            “To the left, in the water, upriver a bit,” Starrett said.
            “I don’t see it.”
            “’cause he’s not wearing his glasses,” Jack cackled having just walked down to where they stood. “Harlan’s as blind as a bat,” he added, because since he was a little boy, Jack had never called his father other than by his given name. “Here, Harlan,” he said, “try my bird watching glasses.” 
            Harlan’s rivalry with his oldest son extended to never giving an inch to a boy that would not deign to call him Father, so he denied him the binoculars by glaring at them and set his jaw instead.   Not so, Starrett; he glassed the levee for a moment then whistled confirmation.
            “Jesus, pop,” he said.  “There’s a whole bunch out there, making for our levee.”
            “Goddamn son-of-a-fucking-bitch,” Harlan said, “them’s got to be some of them Herlocker pigs.  He must be flooded out over there and some of them swam for it and got caught up in the current.”
            “Well, wherever they came from they’re planning on hauling out on our levee,” Starrett said. 
            Jack was laughing.  He clapped his hands as encouragement to the first pig as it persisted in trying to scrabble its hindquarters up and over the levee.  “Come on big guy,” he cheered, “you can do it.” 
            “Don’t laugh Jack, ‘cause this ain’t funny,” Starrett said.
            Surprised by the unexpected urgency in his brother’s voice, Jack turned and spread his hands. “Why not, bro,” he said.  But it was Harlan that answered him.
            “’cause pigs is too heavy and their damn hooves is too sharp and they’s going to poke holes in our bags and a flood levee built of sand bags with holes in them is no levee at all,” he said, his lips one thin line because now he was doubly irritated: a) because of the pigs and b) because once again Starrett had already got it and Jack hadn’t a clue.
            “What’re we gonna do, pop?  I say we help ‘em out to minimize damage,” was Starrett’s suggestion.
            “If I had my rifle, I’d shoot the damn things,” Harlan said because by this time there were two more pigs trying to get onto the levee, and, as far as he could make out, another seven approaching with Jack yelling sueeee pig, already bounding his way down to the river, Starrett close behind.  The more he stood there watching his two boys making a fool of themselves like they were twelve years old and tearing down to the river for a swim, the more the idea of shooting the pigs appealed to him.  In fact, it quickly became the only solution as far as he could see.  Harlan strode briskly to the Cherokee.  Jack’s keys were in his ignition.  Harlan slid in, put it in reverse.  Ten minutes and he’d be down there with rifle.  Hell, there was nothing wrong with his eyes.   With the scope, he’d bet he could sniper them pigs off from his front porch if he had to, like he used to sniper the Vietcong when he was in Vietnam.

The trouble was, if Jack and Starrett were meaning to give the pigs a hand, their exuberance for pig rescue only served to scare the poor creatures.  That first pig, the lead sow, let out a hysterical squeal and belly flopped into the water whereupon the other two did the same.   So Jack and Starrett pulled up to a stop about twenty yards from the levee, kicking themselves as they watched the pigs swim dangerously deeper into the river.  They’d only meant to help.  It was Jack who pointed out that: “if we just crouch down and wait, they’ll give it another try.  Maybe if we crawl up closer to the dam, we can be there waiting, talk to them nice to let them know we’re on their side.  They’re not feral.  It’s not like they’re not used to humans.  They’re in a bad spot.  They got the sense not to get back into that strong current. They’ll figure it out on their own real soon that we’re here to help.”
            When they peeked over the edge of the levee, Starrett counted eleven pigs all told, in a tight clutch, treading water about fifteen yards off-shore.  Jack was right.  Those pigs didn’t seem any too eager to go anywhere else very soon.  But there was something else Starrett was not so sure about. 
            “Jack, I don’t know,” he whispered.  “Look at their eyes.  I don’t think they’re going to accept help.  That look is somewhere beyond feral.  They’re in that place eyes get when someone in a dark theater yells Fire.  Those pigs are panicked plain and simple.  Panic is what made them take to the water in the first place.  It’s panic that brings them to the levee.  It’s panic at seeing men on the levee that’s gonna keep them in the water until they drown.”
            But Jack was only half listening.  He’d just noticed that Harlan had driven his Cherokee up to the house.  He knew his father meant what he said about shooting the pigs.  But he’d also heard Starrett well enough to know what Starrett was really saying: the levee was more important than the pigs and there was no way he could agree with that.  Stand on the levee to keep them in the river and hope they go away and if they don’t Harlan will come shoot them with his rifle?   Because that was where Starrett’s line of thinking was going to lead even though Starrett may not realize it yet.  Jack removed his rain jacket and tee shirt and neatly laid them on the levee.  Then his kayak sandals, his watch, his wallet, his house keys, his money clip.  Starrett's eyes widened.
            “Just what do you think you’re doing,” Starrett said although he knew full well.
            Jack smiled.
            Not on my watch, Starrett knew that smile said.  That dimpled smile of their mother’s, her brown eyes, her button nose, her strong chin. 
            “I’m gonna show them pigs who’s their friend,” Jack said and before Starrett could throw him to the ground and sit on him to stop him if he had to, Jack was into the water up to his knees, then to his waist, then up to his chest, all the time soothing the pigs, telling them a story about the good little pig that went for a swim but when it needed to get out, couldn’t figure out the trick of getting onto a levee, and the farm boy that came to show them how.
            “Jesus, Jack...” was as far Starrett got before he just shut up because deep down he would have been disappointed if Jack weren’t doing exactly that.  Because Jack was the family mediator, the fixer, the negotiator.  This was the way Jack ticked.   A juggler of impossible situations.  This was why Jack had become an immigration/labor lawyer.  A lifeguard both figuratively and literally when he was in high school and worked at the town pool.  The protector.  Sticking up for his little brother on the school playground. The one that as soon as he was big enough, got in his father’s face when he said mean things to their mother.   A heart so big that he'd put his arms around the whole damn world if he could.  Puppies, kittens, baby chickens... and now it was pigs. 
            “Jack, you be careful,” Starrett called. 
 

Harlan chambered the gun with five rounds and slipped another ten into his pocket.  Back on his front porch, he saw Starrett standing on the levee but he didn’t see Jack.  He had no idea where his other son had got to and at the moment didn’t really care.  The main thing was not to let those pigs contaminate his and Starrett’s levee.  Then it occurred to him to sight through the scope to see if he really could pick them off from there.  Not that he would try of course, not with Starrett down there.  He had done a lot of foolish things in his life but he wasn’t that big a fool.
            He zeroed in on the pigs first thing, then Jack swam into the crosshairs.  Or whatever it was that looked like a mop of hair that might be Jack, breast stroking toward the pigs.  It wasn’t until Jack turned his head to say something to Starrett that Harlan could be certain.  “What’s that fool up to now,” he mumbled, his cheek pressed to the stock of the gun.  Jack was a strong swimmer, sure, but any man was risking a lot horsing around in a river in flood.  He wanted to keep watching but the trouble was it was getting to be a chore to maintain his eye in a squint.  Or keep the scope steady because the front of his gun kept weighing down.  He’d filled too goddamn many bags of sand.   Pigs, he knew, had their own ways.  Individualists, not herd animals. Jack could monkey with them all he wanted but he had about as much chance of success as teaching them how to fly. 
            As he was about to step from the porch, the sun came out for the first time in four days.   A laser shaft that highlighted Jack and Starrett, the pigs and the levee, that put a fancy sheen to an ugly river, that showcased a section of riverbank at the beginning of the oxbow just as it gave way and an old dead tree trunk toppled into the water.  A chill ran up and down Harlan.  That tree rode so low in the water it could hardly be seen.  Especially not by someone standing on the levee or in the water. 

It all happened too fast to make sense.  Harlan bounding off the porch for the Cherokee.  Stomping the accelerator to the floor and holding it there, laying on the horn like a madman.  Starrett turning his head.  Watching the Cherokee careen to a stop and Harlan jumping out and pointing up river, yelling something unintelligible then taking off at a run, past Jimmy and Suzie and the sled, rifle in his hand.  Starrett called to Jack:
            “Check out the old man.  He’s come back with the rifle.  He must be madder’n hell.  Look at him run.  You in trouble now.  For an old man he can still pick ‘em up and put ‘em down.  I think he wants you to clear your ass out.  Afraid you’d spoil his aim.”
            Jack answering laughing.  “Tell him to kiss my ass instead.”       
            Starrett couldn’t recall ever seeing his father run before.  He answered Jack with his eyes still locked on Harlan.  “Maybe you should get out,” he shouted.  “No way you can help those pigs.”  But Jack didn’t reply.  By then he was upside down underwater calmly trying to extricate his foot from the root system of the dead tree at the last minute he had tried to kick away from.  He didn’t panic when the tree drug him under.  He’d didn’t call out.  In fact his first reaction had been to think it was kind of funny.  He’d had plenty of time to take a deep breath.  He’d just roll the log like he was upside down in a kayak.  But then he began to see the fix he was in.  Kayaks had built in buoyancy. They didn’t want to be upside down.  A log cared less.  And he had no paddle.  That little trick of righting yourself in a kayak required a paddle and even if he had one he doubted he’d be able to countermand the log’s desire to keep him just as he was.  Then he would win his freedom with finesse.  He’d use his fingers like eyes; extricate his foot by feel because the water was too stirred up to see.  And the current sneaky strong.  He wondered just where he’d be when he came up.  His shoulder brushed something he figured was a stump.  Bumped into another.  Which made sense since Starrett had said he’d found Harlan clearing brush down at the river bank the other day.  Jack swallowed hard because he’d read that was what pearl divers do to overcome the desire to take another breath, and felt for his foot again.  That’s it.  Ease it to the left and it should slip free.  But there was one more stump.  He missed it with his shoulder.  He hit it with his head.

Starrett was flummoxed.  Jack had been right there not twenty seconds ago.  He’d been watching his father and   Starrett had never been good with math but he could add two plus two as quick as any man.  He dove into the water, sneakers, jeans, wallet, wristwatch, cell phone--what did he care.  Thrashed to where he’d last seen Jack.  Stuck his head underwater but couldn’t see a damn thing.  Dove anyway.  Pigs getting out of his way.  Dove again.  Fighting the current.  Take another breath.  He wasn’t a strong swimmer.  Not like Jack. 
            “Where’s Jack?  Get out of that water yourself or you’ll be next.  Get out right now or I’m a comin’ to get ya.”  It was Harlan.  Standing on the levee. Harlan who didn’t know how to swim.  His damn gun in his damn hand.  Fuck, Harlan.  Starrett dove again.  Harlan dropped the gun.  Waded in up to his knees.  Starrett surfaced.  Harlan actually had tears in his eyes.  Then he was up to his waist.  Reaching out to Starrett.  Whining, pleading.  “Come out of there, son, you got to come out.  Jesus, I don’t want to lose both of ya.”
            By now Starrett knew it was too late.  Jack had been under too long. But he had to keep on.  Just one more dive, then another and another.  If only just to brush Jack’s body with his hand, to let Jack know he’d been there for him.

They more or less helped each other onto the levee.  Starrett helped Harlan sit down.  Jack was gone.  His father had accepted his mother’s death dry-eyed and stone faced.  Now he buried his face in his hands.  “I’m sorry, Martha,” he sobbed.  “I promised on your grave to see after the boys and didn’t get the job done.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”
            Starrett hugged his father closer.  Where had all the sinew and muscle gone?  His father’s steely body seemed bones and rags.  And he, Starrett, the lesser son, now the caregiver.  The one that would be called to identify Jack’s body after it was found.  The one that would be calling the relatives and choosing a casket.  The one that would be calling Jack’s wife on the telephone.  His explanation? I don’t know what happened, Julia.  My back was turned at the time.  And it was going to be Uncle Starrett delivering the eulogy at the grave. 
            Suddenly Harlan raised his head and swiped his eyes with the back of his hand, shucked off Starrett’s arm and got to his feet, his body gone hard again. “Where’s that damn gun,” he said. 
            The pigs were clear down at the other end of the levee, trying to sneak ashore near some trees.  Harlan found the rifle.  Assumed a sniper’s position, prone with his arm twisted though the strap.  A shot rang out.  The first pig dropped.  “One,” Harlan said, cold and contained, the way a man was when the only commandment left to obey was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.     
            “Don’t,” Starrett said.  “For Christ’s sake Pop, don’t take it out on the fucking pigs.” 
            Another shot.  “Two,” Harlan said. 
            But the pigs wouldn’t give up trying to get onto that levee any more than Jack had given up trying to set his foot free.  The gun kicked again. They were out of choices same as Jack. 
            “Three,” Harlan announced. 
            “Please,” Starrett said then just stood there and watched.  Stood there when Harlan paused to reload.  Watched Harlan shoot all the pigs then windmill his rifle into the river. 
    
About seven that evening, Starrett brought a cup of tea out to his father sitting in the porch swing, where he’d been ever since they came up to the house.  Starrett had used Harlan’s land line to make his calls because his cell was waterlogged.  Julia’s sister would stay the night with her in Des Moines.   She’d come in the morning.  He’d told his wife he’d stay the night with Harlan. In the gloaming, it was getting hard to differentiate the bodies of the pigs Harlan had shot from the bags of sand.  Those shot in the river must have followed Jack downstream.  The two of them had spent the better part of three hours scouring the riverbank, with no luck, for Jack. Timmy and Suzie were in their stalls. The chickens were fed. For what it was worth, the levee had held. 

 

     

Thomas Lisenbee

In 2001, after a forty-two- year career as a symphonic musician, Thomas Lisenbee set aside his trumpet to devote himself to his other great love, writing.  A writer of both poetry and fiction, he has published two books of poetry Osage Street [Author House] and Dogwalking and other Poems [Wild Pines Press].  In 2006 one of his short stories was shortlisted for the Raymond Carver Short Story Prize.  His fiction has been published by Wilmingtonblues, Carvezine, TajMahal and One Story.   He lives in Brooklyn, NY and Lackawaxen, PA and is a member of the Upper Delaware Writer’s Collective.

 

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