Violet was fifteen when her father’s eyes rolled back into his head, their collective window catching a motel room ceiling in western Ohio, then closing. Keith was holed up by the cattails with his fishing rod when he saw Margaret coming toward him, cordless phone still in hand, brandishing a bottle of Bailey’s in distress. Bobby was dead. Violet was still asleep upstairs. The second emotion Keith felt was shame, because the first thought that had come to him was a distorted echo that sounded a lot like the word ‘finally,’ even though Keith would swear on the soul of every fish he’d ever thrown back that he was not a morbid man.
Emotion number three was resignation. Violet’s mother was in bad shape herself, and praying for her to turn it around for the purpose of unburdening himself seemed, to Keith, like a shortcut to purgatory. He stood facing Margaret, his back to the pond, for a long time, then informed her that the phone was out of range and went digging in the tackle box for another cigarette.
Here’s how the legend starts: That was the last day of Danny’s semester, and while his father was mentally totaling the cost of a sudden second child, Danny was tossing a backpack full of toiletries and a duffel bag full of dirty clothes in the trunk of his car, leaving room in the backseat for the things that belonged to his best friend, Johnny.
Violet awoke in a puddle of sweat. Her room was the least ventilated in the house and Virginia humidity was stickier than anything she’d ever encountered in Ohio, including fly paper and dried puddles of lemonade. The whole state was a swamp that she couldn’t wait to escape.
Uncle Keith was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Aunt Margaret normally had a fit whenever he lit a cigarette inside the house. Maybe she was still asleep. Keith blew a cloud of smoke downward and asked her to sit down. He sighed as he sunk into his arm chair, his forehead finding the palm of his hand.
“Your dad passed away last night.”
The words uncoiled and bit her like a copperhead. Uncle Keith continued to speak through measured breaths and drags.
“I think you’ve been around for some of the conversations with Ray about monetizing the pond. I’m sure you don’t want to think about anything right now, but I want you to know Margaret and I are taking your future with us seriously. You’re our niece. We love you.”
Violet’s body felt cold and uncomfortable, tethered to Virginia. The front door opened by the stairs and Danny entered, wearing a backward hat and lugging a duffel bag. His phone was in his hand, and he came to a stop like Violet’s eyes were headlights. Margaret entered the room from the other side of the house, cordless phone in her hand as well.
Violet began to cry. “Everyone is staring at me.”
Aunt Margaret and Uncle Keith each looked away respectfully, but Danny stepped forward and put his hand on her shoulder. Today was the first time he’d been home since police lights, ambulance sirens, Margaret at the door, eleven hours of classic rock and gasoline smell. Ohio had begun to burn down that night, and for the last three months she’d denied that it could ever be ashes.
Danny put his hat backward on her head. “Come on. Let’s go upstairs for a bit.”
Johnny was in the driveway thinking about mosquitoes. Everything was fanciful and green out here where Danny lived, but this morning he’d had enough time to reflect (how long had it been since Danny went inside? Half an hour? 45 minutes?) that he’d noticed the volume of unlit tiki torches behind the house. Perks of living by a pond. That back deck was probably an itchy hellscape without the torches. An all-you-can-suck blood buffet.
He turned and saw a red pickup coming up the driveway. Its wheels kicked dust all over the place. The way it came to a stop almost looked theatric. A lanky man with glasses and a fishing hat opened the door and nodded to Johnny on his way to the front porch, then entered the house without knocking. Danny and Johnny were best friends, and they had each other’s backs, always, but, damn. Dude’s family always seemed like it was up to something.
Violet was back in her room, on her bed, with Danny and Aunt Margaret each encouraging her to talk.
But Violet didn’t want to shuffle her throat even slightly. Images of her dad had seized her by the spine. Snaps and whispers from her time with him hung there still like exploded gas giants – an eerily distant violence that outweighed anything she could say. Here were Danny and Aunt Margaret, distant family members at best, strangers at worst, plopped down to comfort her following the worst news of her life. She knew this would pass – she was mature enough to know there were other feelings to be had – but right now she didn’t have the wherewithal, or energy, to fight the belief that she’d fallen asleep in one life and dreamed her way into another. And Danny and Aunt Margaret wanted her to talk. She would say something, sure, as soon as she got around to dreaming herself a voice box.
“Just say something, even if it doesn’t make sense,” Danny said.
Violet’s eyes forced the room on her. Every detail – the dresser that was brown instead of white, the picture on the wall showing a flower rather than the movie poster for Titanic, the ornate bedposts – highlighted a difference. The room was like the negative of a photograph of her life. She would never be able to explain. Aunt Margaret, Uncle Keith, Danny, all of them were making room for her, now indefinitely, and she wanted a room that was not leftover space – whose brown dresser was this, anyway? Aunt Margaret rubbed Violet’s knee. “We’re here for you. Anything you want to say, we’ll listen.”
It was not going to happen. It was simply not going to happen. There was a fifty-pound weight balanced atop her tongue, and a nurse’s inventory of needles distributed evenly among the rest of her. Talk? Ha! Move? Ridiculous! This was not the first time she’d encountered death, or even family death, but maybe she had convinced herself of the law of averages. More than one per person would violate all reason.
“Violet,” Danny said, “We can’t help you if you’re not going to tell us what you think.”
It simply was not going to happen.
The sun had shifted significantly, and now Danny’s car sat entirely exposed to the growing heat. Johnny had found a spot to sit down against a tree. Based on his orientation, direct sun would never strike him here. He badly wanted a cigarette or a beer or a deck of cards. Anything to pass the time. He mocked Danny. “Just give me a second to assess. One second, and I’ll be back.” And then, bam! Two hours of radio silence.
Maybe there was a hostage situation going on. The New Year’s day murderers had reincarnated in Goochland County. Danny and his family were all tied up in there by two pcp-crazed maniacs. They’d even gotten the guy with glasses! Johnny could kick himself for sitting here and waiting. It was time to save the day. He stood up and grabbed a large stick from the pile of firewood, then approached the door slowly. God, he was bored. Nineteen years old and playing with sticks.
He lay the stick down and went to return to his former spot, but a garter snake had coiled itself at the base of the tree. Johnny felt embarrassed. He’d sat in that spot without thinking it might be a snake’s spot. Snakespot. A screen door creaked outside the range of his vision and Danny appeared in the driveway. The victim of Johnny’s spot stealing slithered quickly into the trees.
Johnny said, “You scared the snake.”
Danny looked at an upstairs window like he was receiving a telepathic message, then at the ground, and spoke mostly to himself. “She’s probably terrified of snakes.”
“Come on,” Danny said. “Let’s talk at the pond.”
Johnny followed him through the trees and kept it to himself that they were going the same way the snake had gone. Danny didn’t seem to be in the mood. They walked in a quiet procession until the horizon dropped into a line of muddy water. Danny made a beeline for a fallen log near the shoreline and each of them sat down on the bark.
“Two things happened this morning,” Danny said. “The first isn’t good for anybody. My cousin’s been living here for the last few months, and this morning we all found out her dad died.”
“Jesus,” Johnny said.
“The worst part is that it’s not even her first time. Her sister’s buried in a shoebox in the skinny part of Idaho.”
So the New Year’s Day murderers hadn’t made their way across the spiritual plain, but the morning had developed a body count without them. Johnny paused his mental processes. That was an insensitive way to think, even for him.
“The second thing that happened is actually pretty good for you.”
Through the water closest to them, Johnny could see small fish gathering around what appeared to be a drowned chipmunk. He squinted. It was only a rock. The sudden turn of this morning was messing with him. The sun caught ripples in the pond like the cuts in a chocolate diamond.
“I really really wish I had a joke for that,” Johnny said.
Danny smirked. “This pond is stocked like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like somebody pumped the water full of fish aphrodisiacs, and a friend of my dad’s has a guy that wants in. He wants to do a couple of studies, pad the numbers some more, and then charge people to fish. I mentioned that you were considering an environmental science major, and you’ve got an internship if you want it.”
“You may need to back up a bit,” Johnny said.
“Sorry,” Danny said. “What I meant was that, now that Violet’s with us for the long haul, my dad’s gone from dragging his feet on this proposal to an all-out sprint.”
“Your uncle dies, and I get an internship. Sounds fair.”
Danny turned cold. “We weren’t close.”
Johnny put his hands up. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful.”
Now Johnny was thinking about death. Great. Five minutes ago his biggest problem had been a misunderstanding with an animal that enjoyed looking like a hose. Now he was at a sickeningly pastoral pond with his head bouncing off of babies and headstones. He watched himself try to remember if he had ever known anyone that died. This morning had really slithered into a weird part of the jungle.
What bothered him most was that this was the way his summer with Danny’s family had started. He had been apprehensive enough about staying with them (his parents had moved) without a traumatized cousin in the mix, but now he wasn’t as sure. At least things had to get better from here.
Above them a mother crow landed gracefully on the edge of her nest, twitched her head and wings around, focused on her chicks, and responsibly vomited out breakfast.
Things did get better. Johnny started his internship within a week, Violet got a job at Dairy Queen, and Danny went to work at a construction company. Danny’s dad was loose about letting Johnny and Danny drink, and the tiki torches took their duty seriously. For Johnny, working at the pond was steady, convenient, idyllic, and enjoyable. He learned that the name of the man with glasses was Ray, and they called each other by first names at work. Occasionally, he and Danny would go to Dairy Queen and get Violet to sell them larges for the price of smalls. Occasionally he would go with Ray instead, and sometimes he would go by himself. At work, Violet wore a red polo shirt and a hat. She wasn’t allowed to drink with him and Danny. During the day Danny worked downtown. On the days she didn’t have to make Blizzards, Violet would sometimes visit Johnny by the pond. He worked on site, out of a trailer with a generator with an inside hot as a volcano and a fan whose only purpose was to make him sweat. She started bringing cool things on her visits.
One night he and Danny got real drunk together and they teased Violet for being a child. The next day he showed up at Dairy Queen with a thermos full of hot tea and said he was sorry.
A week after that, Margaret got sick and Danny was downtown so Johnny had to drive Violet to work and when they cleared the dirt driveway and drifted around a hedge Violet unbuckled her seatbelt and said, “Can I drive?”
Ray’s investors wanted him to build a pro shop and the cranes and cherry pickers came in. Johnny’s role started to converge with Danny’s, and he hated it. Margaret got sick again and Violet got called into work so Johnny had to drive her, only she had him drive them both into the city and they went to Hollywood cemetery and listened to the river with the ghosts. Johnny told her that his parents had moved away once he got to college and now he felt like he had no roots. Violet told him that she felt the same way. The sun arched itself high center like a watch tower. The river sounded like whispers from the dead. Danny asked Johnny, back at the house, if he could estimate how much free ice cream he’d gotten, in gallons. Johnny felt suspicion building around him and retreated from the edges of himself. He stopped visiting Violet. The trailer was a shook up, boiling hot soda can. The fourth of July was a sparkly crackly mess.
And then a very good thing happened.
Violet did her makeup in the bathroom at work just before Aunt Margaret’s headlights curved into the parking lot. Ice cream-seeking Goochlanders had been chomping on her with their eyes so much lately that shifts had left her prickly and drained, and she didn’t want to be drained tonight. Danny was gone tonight, but Johnny was home.
She put her bag around her shoulder and pushed the door open. The door seemed heavier, the curb was tougher to navigate, and her bag wouldn’t sit on her hip right. In Aunt Margaret’s car the seat belt missed its spot and her throat felt dry. Aunt Margaret drove torturously slow – Violet hated her. It was only nerves. She had attached a special importance to tonight. Since leaving Ohio, she’d hated the humidity, hated the trees, hated the ugly sound of the word Virginia. Johnny, though, was the same number of years older than her than her father had been older than her mother. He reminded her of the boys at the beach. She was hundreds of miles closer to the ocean, but she felt permanently removed from – was Aunt Margaret even going the speed limit?
The night was clear and warm with a crescent moon. Johnny was on the couch watching baseball. She asked him questions about different sorts of pitches, then different sorts of fishes, then about the pro shop and the cherry picker. Could she see it? He smiled at her. “I don’t think you have a hard hat.”
He’d neither grown cold nor said no. She stood up and held her hand to him to help him follow, and they went out the door together, then around the side of the house and alone into the trees. She said, “Let’s climb it.” Johnny watched her from the ground as she climbed up the shaft. Looking out onto the water made her feel weightless, the stars were both above her and below. She called to Johnny, “You should climb up too.”
He said, “You ought to come back down.”
“Come up with me,” she said. “I’m a kitten in a tree.”
Saying that made her feel a little bit cold, embarrassed at herself, but saying it also worked. Johnny climbed up and joined her.
“We ought to go back down.”
“Just a few minutes. We’re above some of the trees.”
“It’s not safe up here.”
Shaking, Violet said “Here’s my offer. I’ll come down if you kiss me.”
He said, “And what will you do if you just head back down?”
Violet brushed her hair out of her face in slow motion. “I’ll stay up here all night, and then in the morning when you come back out I’ll tell you that I’ll come down if you kiss me.”
“You’re fifteen,” Johnny said.
“You haven’t left.”
They were taller than the younger trees. An owl hooted near the house, and the spotlight went out. The disappearance of it caught both of their attention, and now over the leaves they could see Keith standing at the second floor window, watching them.
A dewy morning ambled over the cherry picker and into the trailer, where Johnny had slept. He heard Ray open the door and said good morning in a heroic monotone.
“Morning,” Ray said.
It was 9:15. He’d been briefed. Violet’s uncle had told him all about everything. Violet’s uncle had shaken the coat and tracked mud all over the floor. A fifteen-minute pulse through the blender.
“Morning,” Ray said.
He’d already said morning, and Johnny had already said good morning.
“Morning,” Johnny said. He felt dirty and bleary-eyed. His joints hurt. His head hurt. He wanted to sprint out the door and long jump off the shore.
The morning spun like that. Creaky joints and stale skin melted into a feeling similar to a fever. Ray said nothing. Lunch time arrived and Johnny’s stomach growled but he had no lunch and no way to get lunch without going to the house. The dew had risen from the grass blades and now hung in the heat, visibly warbling.
Through the window of the trailer he saw Violet coming from the house. She had a brown paper bag. The door opened. In she came.
“My uncle said you’d probably need this.”
“Let’s have lunch outside,” Ray said.
Violet left and the two of them sat on the log. Ray watched Violet walk back toward the house.
“She’s had a rough go at things,” Ray said.
“I met her father, years ago. He was nice, and he had good intentions.” He pricked a blade of grass and held it by its ends, facing Johnny. “Problem was he stretched himself more than he should have. Tried to be a good husband on this end, but over on this end he held onto his vices. Do you see what I’m doing here?”
Johnny nodded again. This was not the first time he’d been lectured about grass. He looked down to hide his smile, and started planning his apology.
Ray continued. “Over on this end he was fine, but over here he needed things like education, career planning. Violet’s mother needed somebody to lift her up and straighten her out. Instead they indulged each other.”
The grass blade snapped. Johnny was thinking, probably better not to downplay things. They’ll accept a pleading, dripping, “I’ve done an awful thing” before they’ll accept that.
Ray said, “Here’s what I’m saying. You’re in college, and certainly on track to do well in life. Keith and Margaret would very much like it if Violet were to be with somebody who understands the importance of that.”
Johnny ruffled the paper bag, dumbstruck. He wondered if Keith and Margaret were in there having the same talk with Violet. No, but they’d talk to Danny. Danny was going to have a fit.
“I think I need a shower,” Johnny said. “Yeah, I should really take a shower.”
The house seemed massive, and nearly mythical. Perched on a mountain that came from nowhere.
The summer neared its end, and ground rules were established. Violet was not to visit Johnny at college. Sex was, as if they had to say it, strictly out of the question. During visits, they were to go to church with Margaret. The process had the feel of agreeing on a dowry.
Johnny rode back to school in Danny’s car feeling lonely and removed, but on weekend visits he felt like time and gaps had dissolved. He and Violet could dictate the systems of measurement and name all the colors.
The sun began to elevate lazily, moving in low flat arcs as the night sky drifted closer to the Appalachians. Breezes tapped the brakes, and the clouds all seemed to droop. Johnny came to visit for Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Easter, the fourth, fall break, Christmas, Spring Break, the fourth, New Year’s…
And then in the summer a not so good thing happened.
Their shadows were nearly invisible and Violet’s beach dress was starting to dampen with sweat. The edges of a shoebox formed hard lines at the bottom of a tote bag on her shoulder. Johnny had a drawstring bag slung over his back, and each of them was wearing flip flops. Perfectly dressed for a day at the river. The shoe box could be a cardboard 12-pack, or a box of crackers.
The shovel resting against Johnny’s shoulder did not blend in quite as well. Johnny’s hands were weak against the wood and Violet’s hands were weak against the shoulder strap. They walked under the highway and then onto the bridge to Belle Isle. It hung between downtown and the island and the island sat across the river from the cemetery where they’d been before. Children and bikers zipped in both directions, making the bridge wobble beneath them. Johnny held his hand on the rail and he held Violet’s hand with the other. The tote bag dangled above the shaking concrete. They did not look at each other. Eyes stayed focused on the island.
Johnny let go of Violet’s hand and swung the shovel one direction and the drawstring bag in the other, handed the shovel to Violet (she took it with a frozen gaze), removed and lit a cigarette and then swung everything swiftly back into place, hand back on Violet’s.
“I hate it when you smoke,” Violet said.
Johnny took his hand off the rail to remove the filter from his mouth and breathed smoke off the side of the bridge.
“I think I could be excused for this one.”
They descended onto the island. The tide of children and bikers veered right and Johnny and Violet split away. Soon they were alone.
There had been rain the night before. They walked to a spot that Johnny had found, where the river was low and the ground was flat. Shade from the trees had kept the dirt soft. Johnny plunged the shovel a foot into the ground, lit a second cigarette and sweated while he worked.
“Do you think this is deep enough?”
Violet took the tote bag in her hands and knelt by the grave. She lay the shoe box gently in the earth and brushed the dirt over top of it. She stood and turned to Johnny.
“Is that all there is?”
He was leaning on a tree and smoking.
“Maybe we could say a few words.”
Violet looked at the little mound of extra dirt.
“You were a lovely–” she cut herself off and looked around. Only Johnny was there, but she continued to scan around her, unconvinced that no one was listening. Finally, she settled on a word to use. “You were a lovely…cat. You were a wonderful, the best. I wish that, you were an amazing cat.”
Johnny stood still and silent.
“This is a good place,” Violet said. “This is a place where a lot of people come to visit. It’s sunny and pretty here.” She looked at Johnny. “We’ll come to visit.”
“I need you to believe me. It wouldn’t have been good for you out here.” She dropped to her knees, now weeping.
After the fourth had come again and gone again, after the fireworks and fall break, after the clouds drooped again and the shoe box turned soggy, after Easter and after the breakup, after the champagne that Keith passed around when Violet got her first acceptance letter, after the mosquitoes mobbed back into the back yard and Johnny moved downtown near the bridge to keep watch, Johnny and Danny sat in a dusty north side bar together at noon.
Danny was facing the door, and Johnny was facing Danny. He had been told what happened, all of it, and he’d waited until right now, when each of them had a beer, to mention that he knew.
Johnny said, “I don’t have anything for you.”
Danny slid his beer away from him. “I’m not here to interrogate you.”
“Then why bring it up?”
“I just wanted you to know that I’d been told.”
“By Violet?” Johnny said.
Johnny laughed. So he really was in the orbit of a black hole. He hated himself. He should have recognized that. But then again, maybe outrunning a black hole was a waste of pointless effort.
“Let me ask about that, then,” he said. “Was she,” he looked away from Danny, looked past him at the wood of the booth. “Influenced?”
He left his eyes on the booth. He’d found his spot, and now he waited.
“Yes,” Danny said.
Johnny took a breath, not to prepare himself to speak, but to prepare himself to think. He breathed in and came up empty. Nothing. There hadn’t been anything there since, well, since. It was unlikely anything would ever come back.
The door opened and Danny squinted at it. He leaned forward, looking past Johnny.
“What?” Johnny said.
“Look at them.”
Johnny looked, then turned back to Danny. “How old do you think they are?”
“End of their teens.”
Johnny put his hands on the table and his forehead between his hands. This was too much. He was living on the other side of the sun.
“I’m going to talk to them,” he said.
The two teenagers had taken seats at the bar.
“Ask if they’re from the dark side of the river,” Danny said.
How brave of him, Johnny thought. How brave of him to speak.
Johnny approached the teenagers and tapped one, the one that looked like him, on the shoulder. The teenager turned around and jumped when he saw Johnny there smiling.
“Listen, if you don’t mind me asking,” Johnny said, “are you guys from south side?”
Now the other Johnny smiled. “Yep.”
Johnny flashed a thumbs up to a laughing Danny. The other Danny followed Johnny’s thump with his eyes and sort of looked like he needed to lie down.
“I don’t go down there much,” Johnny said. “Is it like all this in reverse?”
“Well, up here,” the other Johnny leaned inward like he was talking to family, “the river moves left to right.”
“I like that,” Johnny said.
The four of them all hung there for a moment. The bartender was standing near the kitchen and sweeping his eyes between the two. A waitress was next to him, leaning on the door frame, watching them.
“Listen,” Johnny said, “if you don’t mind me asking, is there a girl in your life right now?”
The other Johnny’s smile hardened and his eyebrows slanted toward his nose. “She’s a child.”
And here’s how the legend ends: Johnny said, you’ve given me a metaphorical sort of hope that I can cross through the hole and wake up. He tossed his phone over to Danny and left for the airport, drank three beers in Atlanta and woke up in LA. He dropped acid with a stranger at a bus stop and smoked a cigarette off the ground in San Francisco, made himself jittery off a half gallon of coffee without turning away from the ocean and left his shoes at the beach. He thought about stars at a gas station on the Oregon border and cried in the back of a minivan over how big the Rockies were, then traded his lighter for a 40 in Eugene (told the guy to fuck off for calling him a cool cat) and nursed his feet in a river he couldn’t name, didn’t name, and didn’t know, asked a bunch of strangers in Portland if he could hang out in their thoughts for a bit and saw a UFO in Seattle. He spoke with a ghost in a diner that could’ve been anywhere, in any year later than 1950 then caught a truck going east toward the river Styx, fell asleep listening to Styx at a bus stop near the northern edge of Idaho and walked barefoot to Montana, where the horizon didn’t move and the road stayed steady, then he discovered that the moment had arrived and everything had gone silent, stopped moving, opened up a little space for him to think.
Was every body meant for one soul, or did they come together when they were ready like a husband and wife? If the soul could still be out there, waiting for another shot at love, just caught in a bad breakup, just going through some stuff, then a person could be a line between two points, one point the center of another line between he and Violet. Something there seemed to soothe him. He turned around and walked back toward the twilight that held him together. Exhausted, he felt night and day dissolve away from cycles and collapse into averages, rolling in a haze of persistent sunlight.
And back at home Keith stood by the window with a ledger open on the coffee table, watching Violet’s car crawl up the driveway back to that mythical house, kicking up dust as she stopped.
She had avoided so much. She had taken a bad hand, a completely raw deal, and she’d turned everything around. The engine fell silent and he watched her open the door to her car, her foot flicking down below it like a kickstand. She had never complained, felt sorry for herself, done anything other than hold herself straight. He was so proud of her. He was prouder of her than of anything he had ever done before. She was a marvel. Somebody with the odds against her like that, just persevering, never letting them see her sweat – she had done it.
A garter snake watched her from a spot below a tree. Violet noticed him and shifted course into the grass on the other side of the walkway to the house. She hated snakes, and she was jumpy tonight. Tonight was one of those nights, she had to accept that they would never go away, where the crickets seemed to be carrying a gurgled message. Tonight was one of the bad nights, but tonight would pass. Everything always passed, got muffled, lost its edges. Tonight was no different. Tomorrow might be a bad day too, but tomorrow might also be a day where she felt light as a balloon. She wouldn’t know until morning. There was no use guessing until then.