The fourth summer of the drought: limp winds scooting hot air through brittle weeds; dirt trails crumbling in chalky puffs beneath your feet; gardens kept alive with dishwater; a tight and restless look on the faces of farmers, grocers, firefighters. The reservoir lake evaporates day by day, but there’s Bose, rowing a canoe while Whitney in the stern trails her hand through the water. She’s wearing a floppy gardener’s hat and an extra large men’s t-shirt, baggy enough to reveal her tie-dyed bathing suit top; long khaki shorts go down to her knobby knees, hiding everything else.
“Take off your shorts,” says Bose. He’s wearing a white tank top, swimming trunks, no shoes. She looks at him, smiles shyly. He shrugs, like he doesn’t care, one way or the other. “You’ll be more comfortable.”
“I’m okay,” she says. She looks around. “I can’t believe this place.”
The lake is so low that the regular shoreline is high above them. There’s a ragged shelf of trees and roots and bushes and then dozens of feet of blank, sandy, striated earth. Here and there along this empty bank fossilized roots and pale rocks, long submerged, have been revealed.
“Yup, it’s all gone to shit,”Bose agrees. Hawks wheel above them. The lake is quiet. The few people out on it, or hanging about on the shore, keep their distance from one another, as if each had come not for recreation, or to escape the heat, but out of some kinship with the withered landscape. Bose and Whitney are there on the rumor that a long sunken town, an old settlement from pioneer days, is emerging once again from the center of the lake.
Sure enough, with the sun directly above them, they see the white, shining tip of a building sticking straight up from the water. Whitney gives a little shriek of triumph. Bose smiles.
“Maybe we can go inside,” says Bose, rowing faster. “Get out of the sun for awhile.”
Whitney smiles coyly at him. “Sure,” she says. A little nervously, Bose thinks.
As they come closer, they can see that the building is a church, the steeple of a church has risen from the water. A large stained glass window near the top of the steeple is cracked and shattered, the glass discolored, hazy, with melted looking swirls here and there of blue or red. Floating around the steeple are wooden pallets which appear to have been fastened somehow to the building. Another window, just above the pallets, has been smashed completely, leaving a narrow entrance to the building.
Bose rows up to the pallets. Whitney leans over, trying to get a good look into the building.
“It’s dark,” she says.
“It’ll be nice and cool.”
“I think someone has been in there.”
“Teenagers, probably,” says Bose. “Up to no good.”They laugh.
Bose ties the boat to a pallet with what he hopes appears to be a competent, extravagant knot.
“Is it secure?” says Whitney, looking across the lake at the distant shore.
“Oh yeah,” says Bose. “Not to worry.”
Whitney looks at the church. “You go first.”
Bose looks around the edge of the broken window, gives his eyes a chance to adjust to the shadows. It’s bigger inside that he’d thought. On the left side is a wooden floor, stacked with what looks like broken chunks of pew, soggy cardboard, random trash. The floor doesn’t cross the entire space, only about three quarters of it, ending at dark, choppy water. A ladder on the right hand wall disappears down into the lake.
“It’s like an attic, I guess,” says Bose, ducking inside. He holds a hand out and Whitney follows him in.
“Is it sturdy?” says Whitney.
Bose pounds a foot on the wooden floor. There is a little give, but it holds. “Very,”he says. He steps through. It is cool in the steeple attic. Cool, with a muggy, mildewed smell that is almost sweet, like a ripe peach. He leads Whitney through the window by the hand. The floor seems to rock with the waves. Bose starts clearing some of the garbage away.
“Um, Bose?” says Whitney.
“I’ll just make a little spot,” he says. “Just to get comfortable. No big deal.”
“No, Bose—look!” she shrieks.
Some of the garbage in the corner has begun to vibrate and shrug. Garbage tumbles into the water. There is a man standing in the garbage and the shadows, dressed in black. His clothes are torn and faded, his blonde hair dirty and wild, and his right eye is covered with a black eyepatch.
“Surely,” he says, smacking his lips, as if he is parched, or as if the words taste strange. “Surely this isn’t it?”
“Listen you old bum,” says Bose, shielding Whitney. “You get out of here.”
The man puts a hand against the wall and leans heavily against it as if he is about to fall. “I always spoke of angels. Didn’t I? Ah, but did I believe? Oh! Children! I didn’t believe!” He weeps.
The man is Reverend Jacob Keel. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he followed his brother out West to preach from the Good Book, to bring civilization to the wilds of man, to escape something indefinable in himself which seemed rooted in the familiar street corners and skies and faces. When he first arrived, service was held in the mess hall of the Stanton Lumber Works: dirty men, reeking of pulp, sitting around in their long johns sharing moonshine recipes where they thought he couldn’t hear. Keel went to Stanton himself, the only man who didn’t live in the barracks—he lived in a tall white house with broad porches, surrounded by drooping valley oak, and which was overseen by two Indian servants who’d been trained to stop what they were doing and salute any white man passing by. Stanton was skinny with a large, red beard that laid out across his chest when he leaned back in his rocking chair. In warm weather, he could only ever be found on his porch in that rocking chair.
Stanton waived him off. “No wives, no children.”
“These men are not civilized and never will be without women here.”
“They don’t need to be civilized here, they just need to work,” Stanton snorted.
“I am trying to bring the word of God, but they won’t hear it.”
“Some are deaf to it, Reverend.”
“And you, sir? I never see you at service.”
Stanton gave him a long, icy look. “If I wanted someone to simply recite the book at me, Keel, I could teach one of those mongrels out there to read.”
Keel left. The servants saluted him. He felt foolish, and tried to walk it off. The only road was a cart path that went straight from Stanton’s manor to the lumber mill; the barracks were lined up along either side of the path. Turkey vultures circled in the air high above Keel as he walked the path. Tall hills ringed the valley, their rounded peaks gold and lush against the blue sky—it was a heavenly place, he’d heard the men say, and, surely, at times, like this, when the mill was shut down for supper, the deep silence of the valley was seductive—even Keel felt it, who felt so little. But, yes he’d felt it, and denied it; he’d been taught that all that was earthly was illusion. He had spent his entire life not noticing the world, or denying what he noticed. His brother always chided him that the Lord was in all things. Because of this, of the two, only Daniel had ever truly lived; he was not reflective and confused; and even when he died he did so with determination. Was it so impossible that this was how the Lord expressed himself? In turkey vultures and wind-blown silences? In rich food, in card games, in the flesh? So what did it matter if these men had their wives and children with them? Their souls were also the breath of God, blown into the World as He saw fit. Were they not?
Eventually, though, the women did arrive. Late in August that year, with fires burning in the hills and the heat unrelenting, two men died in the mill. One of the heat, the other probably due to the heat, ultimately, but, more specifically, from being sawed in half. Operations were shut down. The men took to their moonshining in earnest, and two more men died after riotous melees broke out in the barracks one night. Stabbed to death. To a man, they told the same story when questioned: Indians did it. Stanton hung one of his servants and sent word that he would expand the town to accommodate women and children. New construction began immediately.
Bose says, “This is our place now, buddy. Scoot.”
“Let’s just go,” says Whitney.
“Get, you fucker!” Bose stomps on the floor at the Reverend like he is a stray dog. He’d learned this from his mother’s long-ago boyfriend, Steve. It was what Steve would do and say if Bose came home before dark.
“Steve wouldn’t do that,” his mother said. It was the first of the month, and they were driving to town for groceries.
“Well, he does. Every damn day.”
“He’s going to get us out of here,” she said. She didn’t indicate what she meant exactly but Bose knew: this town, this county, welfare checks, graveyard shifts, two room apartments, endless summers. “He’s got a plan.”
“Yeah,” said Bose. Hot, fast air poured in through the open windows. Leafless trees hunched over yellow fields of star-thistles. And then buildings far apart and then buildings closer together and they were in town, stopped at a stop light. Steve’s plan was to buy up furniture at the estate sales of dead old ladies and then open a thrift store where he could mark up the price. It wasn’t going to work, but Bose was the only one who seemed to know it.
Keel staggers forward. “Ah, Daniel! The stars in your eyes! I should have gone with you! Oh!” He looks at the dark waves lapping at the warped floor. There seems to be a light coming from deep beneath the surface. Rays of light emanating from a place deeper than the bottom floor of the church, of the lake, from somewhere hidden and inaccessible, deep beneath the silt and the rock. He sits down. “I sent an invitation to Ellen,” he says. “Huh. Why did I do that? Of course she’d remarried.”
He looks up. His missing eye itches fiercely but when he scratches it great goopy chunks of skin come free from his face. He holds off. He is practicing patience, improving his willpower.
“He’s insane” says Bose.
“I think we should leave him alone.”
“I only laid down,” says Keel. He’d lost the eye during construction of his own home. He had fallen, or something had fallen on him; now he can’t remember. The town expanded rapidly. Every man was enlisted in the effort. When Ellen saw him at last she covered her mouth with her hands and wept. Her emotions were volatile. She could be laughing one moment in the center of a party and in the next be hiding somewhere pretending that her cries were not painfully audible. And when she wept at the site of him Keel felt both dismayed and encouraged, and understood something of her, he thought. Her new husband was a surveyor, like Daniel had pretended to be, but this man, Mr. Culver, was licensed and wore spectacles. He was an affable man, and rumor had it that he improved the quality of the local moonshine immeasurably. A good man, by all accounts, but still Ellen stole Keel away after service one day, a service held in this very church, and she asked, “How did Daniel die?”
“With stars in his eyes!” Keel says.
Whitney steps out the window. But she can’t leave Bose, can she? Oh, Bose! He would fight this man whether she were here or not. He would go to that place where his pupils dilated and you had to shout to be heard. If she stays, it will take Whitney years and years to stop trying to save men like Bose. She will move to San Diego, El Paso, Minneapolis, Lodi, Medford, Albuquerque, following or leading broken men into one more failed attempt, one more clean start. She will be laid up in hospitals and sit silently in police stations and social service offices, she will miscarry and she will lose a daughter, Amelia, and she will have a social worker named Nicole who will work with her to get her other children back, and she will, eventually. In her not-quite middle age she will live in an adobe house in El Paso and love an artist she calls Shel. Shel will say that their metal balance sculptures—swirling arches and old cogs and dangling bits of chain holding up spinning cask bindings—are about forgiveness. They were raped while in juvenile hall as a teenager, and subsequently fell into a depressive, chaotic period of drug abuse and jail sentences. But now they have forgiven their abusers, including themselves.
“But,” Whitney will say, “why keep making art about it?”
“It’s important to explore your feelings,” Shel will say. They’ll be standing in their front yard—no lawn, just dirt, cacti, swirling metal sculptures.
“It’s just one feeling though,” Whitney will say. “Don’t you have others?”
Shel will shrug. “This is the one that needs the most work.”
Whitney will laugh. “That, I can buy.”
“You don’t buy that I have forgiven myself, or them?”
Whitney looks around at the seven sculptures in their front yard. “Hell no,” she will say.
She is standing half in the church and half out, the sun tingling one leg and the other pressed against a sharp piece of broken glass. But, no, it would be too simple to reduce a lifetime of decisions and traumas and circumstances to one afternoon on the lake. Whitney decides to stay, or decides to go; there is no fate. She knows that Bose will try to fight this man whether or not she is there, and if it is not this man, it will be some other; and if it is not Bose she believes she can save, it will be some other. It is who they are, and they are here because of it; they are not who they are because they were here. And Keel? When Ellen asked him how Daniel died, he said:
“He died of dysentery, my dear,” and shook his head.
She covered her mouth, and fought the tears in her eyes, and nodded solemnly. Of course, Daniel died in a saloon. Not a big drinker, Daniel, but a gambler—an honest one. Keel knew he didn’t have any hidden cards, but the other men didn’t agree. Daniel, eyes twinkling, seeing something funny in their anger. “Hey, Jacob! I’ve lost my head!” he says in Keel’s dreams. His eyes still with that impish sparkle while his head opened frayed and jagged like a spent firecracker. But in that moment, looking into Ellen’s pleading eyes, and knowing that she still loved his brother, and had yet remarried some other man, it seemed necessary to not allow such a moment to exist—the betrayal, and confusion, and misunderstanding, how unremarkably human it was for such a meaningless moment to become the ultimate summary of a life. Better he died suffering from a more understandably quotidian affliction. Better he died shitting himself.
“Stanton was right,” says Keel. “No wives, no children. No one should have to witness what men do to one another. He was right, too, that I was never a believer. How could I be, seeing what I’ve seen? Here you are, in the bloom of your lives, believing you are in love, perhaps, believing that the rawness of your feelings is equal to their truth, believing that your present is a product of your past, and that you will always be moving and growing and always for the better. But could you believe that things grew worse the more we pretended that we were normal, that we could be just any other respectable town? No, we should have known what we were: termites. There to devour the forests to nothing and move on to the next, and the next. Better we had moved on.”
Bose picks up a loose floorboard and smashes Keel’s face with it. The Reverend stumbles and falls to the ground. Whitney screams. Yes, Bose would spend his life fighting men in bars, in jail, on the street—older men, patronizing men, men who were cruel to their women, men who jeered his jukebox selections, men who took his parking spot. For awhile, he would believe that he was right, a furious instrument of justice; and then he would believe that he could be saved, that he could change. But belief is a strange thing. Light comes falling through the sky in clear, parallel rays and depending on where you stand it might seem that the light is emanating from a single source and the light is being bestowed on the landscape—it is golden or pale orange or brightly white and seems comforting, appears to come from a single, conscious origin. And so would Bose believe that the driving force of his violence was goodness, and that this goodness would become something other than violence, someday.
Bose turns but Whitney is out the window. He steps through, into the blinding wash of sunlight. The boat has come untied from the pallets. It spins in a little eddy halfway to shore. Whitney is swimming towards it, her white limbs swinging back and forth and her grey sweatshirt swirling around her. Later, she will laugh with Bose about the whole event, but later still she will tell someone—maybe Shel—that it was one of the scariest moments of her life, that she thought the old bum would kill them, that she thought Bose would kill the bum, that she thought she’d drown in the draining lake, and wouldn’t that have been something, to drown during a drought?
Keel finds himself lying facedown on the ground. He had been shot in the back. Mr. Culver had discovered him and Ellen, and came upon him one day in the woods. Keel had been out for a hike. He had come to find solace in the quiet of nature. He hadn’t touched his Bible on a day besides Sunday in months. Nature, and Ellen, were his only sources of peace, of pleasure. He had been walking through the upper hills of the valley, through the sparse oak forest, when Culver called out. What did he say? Something about treachery. And then he fired. Keel stumbled forward, his face into the dusty ground. He was so tired. So tired of being who he was. He decided the would lay there, until Culver was gone, and then he’d make a change. He was so tired. He stayed there, facedown in the dirt until the sun went down, and until the wind blew first a thin layer and then a thick layer of dirt over him, and until men in trucks came rumbling through the valley, and until water rose up beneath him, pushing him up through the dirt, and when the water pushed him back down again, into a silty, swampy earth, he laid there still, until the pressure was relieved, and he felt the earth floating away from his shoulders and a diffuse, greenish sunlight across his back, and finally he rose again and found that the town was gone, it was hidden in the thick, grey-blue waves, except here and there where a foundation was emerging from the silt and, of course, the church, which was peeled and torn up but still stood, a tall white beacon in the murk, and he walked towards it. He went in through the front door. The pews were gone, the Christ was gone, it was an empty shell. He found the ladder to the attic and climbed. The water fell away and he felt the wind blowing across his face. He felt tired once again and laid himself down in a corner. He felt tired, and cold, and covered himself with whatever was at hand. Light fell through the window and he closed his eye against it. He laid there for a time, until he heard talking, and he opened his eye to see two children moving towards him.