This story was first published in The Masters Review: Volume V, Ten Stories, “The Best Stories by Emerging Writers,” edited by Amy Hempel.
The day after Thanksgiving we drive out to Land Between the Lakes to search for the drowned man, though we are less interested in finding him than we are eager to escape our house.
In town, we stop for a bag of cheese curds. We sit in the car watching Black Friday shoppers carry armfuls of lotions and DVDs across the strip mall parking lot while we separate the greasy cheese balls onto two napkins. You say, some of mine are still frozen in the middle, and I say, unlucky. The afternoon shoppers have risen far too late for the laptops and flat screen televisions, and we admire them, claiming that we, too, would never stay up all night to take part in such ugly consumerism, even if we could afford the glossy sales bill prices. Before driving away, we touch hands, because even though last week you had to sell your grandfather’s antique shotgun after I put it under my chin, it’s still comforting to feel our fingers together.
The man drowned almost seventy years ago, so the story goes. Before it was a National Recreation Area, Land Between the Lakes was farmland. There were also some villages, and no lakes, until they dammed up the Cumberland River to create the two bodies of water and the land between. The communities were drowned. Almost everyone took buyouts and moved away, but a few crazies stood their ground and drowned along with their homes like captains of sinking ships. If only they had known how little it mattered. Everyone’s grandparents eventually lost their farms and moved to Detroit to take up with Ford or GM, anyway.
We skip the new bypass and drive the old highway that bends through naked forests. It’s a cold day, the sky wiped blank as a sheet by flat, shapeless clouds. You don’t speak. We cross the rusted, two-lane bridge that has just reopened. It was struck by a barge last year. The county keeps promising to build a second bridge— four lanes—to allow more tourists to travel to the Land Between the Lakes. The truth is that there have never been enough tourists to fill the current bridge. We pull off the highway and park on a gravel road blocked by an iron gate. You get out and look up and down the lake’s shoreline, checking the bank for wildlife. I get out and tighten my hat to protect against the wind whipping across the choppy water. Your hair is blown flat against your forehead, and though your words are carried away on the wind, I can see your lips shaping the question: Where should we start?
* * *
Last month we went to a post-Halloween get together at the professor’s house. He and his wife had a new chemical they wanted us to try, and they assured us that, with our masters programs ending soon, it would leave nothing in our hair follicles to be detected during drug screenings. We watched a Tim Burton film because the professor’s wife still had black and orange lights strung around the entertainment center and a leftover bowl of candy for trick-or-treaters.
When we could feel our heads floating, the professor and his wife started talking about the drowned man. People had been reporting seeing him in the woods for decades, but sightings were few and far between, and mostly old tales. But, lately, they said, the drowned man had been sighted more and more often, mostly sitting on the bank of Goat Island.
“You know,” the professor said, “There are still roads and chimneys under the water.” He talked with his hands moving, like he always had something to teach you. He said, “There are houses, stores, and train tracks at the bottom of the lake.”
His wife, a tall, skinny woman with black hair like motor oil, emerged from the bathroom where she had just finished vomiting. “Cemeteries, too,” she said, then laughed. “This stuff always makes me hurl.”
“Why does the drowned man hang around?” I asked. “There’s nothing out there but wilderness.”
The professor said, “Because it’s his home, I guess.” He drank wine so much that his lips were always purple. He said, “We saw him while driving over Barkley Bridge last weekend.”
“You didn’t stop?”
“Of course not, it was raining and the gravel had flooded.”
“I was afraid,” said the professor’s wife.
I turned to you to see what you thought about the drowned man, but you were already gone. Your face was pale. You had flown elsewhere. The professor offered you a glass of water and said, “Take deep breaths.” I held onto your hand, hoping if I touched your skin I might be able to see what you saw. I worried you might be ill except you were smiling. You always managed to glide into a colorful, artificial landscape when we got high, while I sunk into stew and vanished, sometimes for days. I could feel the separation. You rising, glowing, and me capsizing, flannel coating my mouth and filling my throat. I hoped you would hold on to me, not let me go down, but instead the professor’s wife put her skinny, cold hands on my forehead and whispered, “It’s all right.”
When we were ready to leave the professor’s house, we still couldn’t operate a vehicle. I said, “Please, let’s go see the Christmas lights at the park.”
You said, “You’re supposed to drive through them.”
I tugged your sleeve. “We can walk.”
The professor’s wife said, “You’ll need canned goods to enter.” She brought four jars of pickled okra from the kitchen and said, “My mother makes these and we hate them.”
At the park, after depositing our jars in the drop box, you said, “Why do they start this so early? We still have our pumpkins out.”
“More canned goods, I guess.” I took your hand in mine as we walked past a two-dimensional Santa sled, but you wouldn’t return my grip. The legs of the reindeer moved back and forth. Rudolph wore a blue Wildcats hat.
“Dead fish,” I said.
You looked at me funny.
I said, “That’s what you always whisper to me when you shake someone’s hand and they don’t grip. Dead Fish.”
You said, “Oh, yeah. I hate that.”
I pointed at our conjoined hands with my free one.
You looked, too, then began to squeeze my hand until I had to pull away.
“Stop,” I said. “That hurts.”
“Isn’t that what you want?” you said. You shrugged and stepped off the pavement to stand next to wise men under a giant star.
I said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
You shook your head. “I don’t know.”
“You’re high,” I said.
You said, “So what? You’re low. You’re always low.”
I stood on the opposite side of the pavement. “I know.”
Red and green lights alternated across your face, like they were saying “stop, go, stop, go,” but really just trying to say “Merry Christmas.”
You said, “I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s like I can’t even touch you.”
“I know,” I said.
We started walking again.
You said, “If you’re not all right, you should stop doing drugs.”
And I said, “You’re probably right.”
We walked past a cutout of the Grinch struggling under the weight of a giant bag of presents.
You said, “Your chemicals are already fucked up enough.”
I said, “Tell me about it.”
* * *
By the time we reach Goat Island, our noses have turned red. Logs have collected in the shallow water between the bank and the island, making it easy to walk from the mainland without getting wet. In the summer we would know to stay far away from a patch of snake-infested branches in the lake, but in the winter we feel safe enough.
I say, “Don’t go too fast.” The bottoms of my shoes are worn flat and slippery, so I’m not as sure-footed on the logs. I ask to hold your arm.
“No,” you tell me, “it would only make us both fall.”
I know you are right. I remember the time you asked me why I was so afraid to stay alone overnight at our home. I said it was because we lived so far out in the woods, making us a target for criminals. Burglars and murderers know police can’t respond quickly to homes out in the county. But you told me it wouldn’t be any better if you were there with me, that you couldn’t protect us from bullets or knives. I asked, “But don’t you think the idea of dying with someone you love is more comforting than the idea of dying alone?”
You shook your head and said, “Why would you want the person you love to die, too, when it could just be one of you?”
We reach the far side of the island. Upon emerging from the brambles, we look toward the lake and see an old man standing with his feet in the water.
You say, “I think that’s him.”
I search the pebbled bank for his shoes, but see none.
You say, “You think he’s getting his shoes wet?”
And I smile because we are still in some ways alike.
Together we stand watching him for a moment. His long gray beard waves like a ribbon in the wind. He isn’t exactly frightening, but something about his pose stalls us—chin down, arms barely lifted from his sides, palms upturned, so still he could be a corpse propped up.
I say, “He’s not totally of this world.”
You say, “That sounds like the Syfy channel.”
And I say, “Or church.”
You always think that you are the brave one, the one who doesn’t mind sleeping alone, the one who will stand too close to the edge of a bluff or drive without power-steering in our old busted Cadillac, but I am the one who approaches the drowned man. You stand behind me with your hand on my back. When we get close enough to see his bluish-gray skin and the algae on his clothes, you grab my hand.
We both look at the drowned man in reverent silence, as though he is a priest behind a sliding door. He is very old and leeches suck his elbows. His clothes are cotton and most assuredly hand-stitched to have lasted so long under the muddy water. Up close, he is not so scary, not even as tall as you. His feet have been pulled deep into the mud. We stare at him long enough to feel comfortable.
Finally, I say, “Hello, sir. Have you drowned?” just to be sure that it’s really him, and you look at me as if I’ve said something rude. I shrug.
The drowned man turns his head towards us, and says, “A long time ago.”
“Is there anything we can do to help you?” I ask.
He says, “How can you get anything done with your hands all tied up like that?”
You look at your wrist, then mine, and confirm that they are indeed unbound. I shrug again.
The drowned man begins to laugh and I laugh, too, because now I am afraid of being rude.
You say, “We could drive you somewhere, sir. Anywhere you want to go. We have towels in the car.”
The drowned man sits down in the sand and ignores you. I sit down next to him and look out over the water, trying to see what he sees. The wet mud seeps into the seat of my pants.
“Where’s your family?” I say. “You do have a family, don’t you?”
The drowned man coughs and brown water runs down his chin. He rubs his hands together as though he is warming them over a fire. He says, “I had a wife and two daughters.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and pat, as if to say, there, there. You look at me weird, like I’ve touched a bloated corpse.
I say, “What happened?”
The drowned man scoops pebbles into his hands. “They’ve gone on some place else now,” he says. “I had to stay behind. If you’re going to drown for something, you’ve got to stay.”
You lean down and whisper into my ear, “He’s not making any sense.”
I don’t really understand the drowned man, either, but I want to sit with him for a while and try to make sense of it all. “He’s all alone,” I say to you.
The drowned man turns to me and smiles. His teeth are yellowed with brown spots on them. There is lake scum drying in his eyebrows and mustache. He reaches toward me. I can sense you going stiff, ready to pounce if something bad happens. But, the drowned man only puts his palm on my cheek. His skin is cold and damp, so waterlogged that it feels like a catfish on my face. He has the smell of lake water, both dead and alive, dirty and clean at the same time.
* * *
Last week, we rode into the city with the professor and his wife to go to a couple’s club. This was the sort of place with no sign. You were expected to pay $100 each for admission and consider switching partners once inside.
The professor’s wife had told us, “We aren’t interested in that part, really. We are just curious.”
“We aren’t interested in that, either,” I said. “We’ll think about it.”
But decided to go, agreeing that the professor and his wife must have hit a rough patch, and what are friends for, right?
At home, you said, “I’ve heard it’s like a maze inside and people go nude.”
I said, “It’s never the ones you want to see nude.”
And you said, “Well, now we have to go.”
At the club, the professor and his wife danced to an electronic song while a strobe light turned their motions robotic. She wore something silky like a nightie and he had gotten down to baggy boxers and a white tank top that he had sweated through. They took tablets when we arrived, and when they offered us some, you said, “No, thank you,” and pinched my side.
I said, “Not tonight.”
You took my hand and led me through a crowd of people jerking and shaking. Down another hallway, we found a small, dark room with three rows of velvet seats and brown curtains on the walls. No one was inside, so we sat down together in the middle row facing a projection screen. The screen lit up and began playing a pornography reel.
You said, “This is what porn looks like when you actually pay for it.”
I said, “I bet people have had sex on these seats.”
We sat in silence while the screen showed a woman confronting her husband’s mistress, only to end up being seduced by her as well.
I tried to make a joke. “Everyone loves girl-on-girl,” I said, but you weren’t listening to me. You weren’t even looking at the screen.
You said, “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” but it sounded like a question. You looked like a wounded animal in your seat, like you could see me lying cold in the bathtub already.
I wanted to kiss your neck and say “No, of course not,” but I didn’t want to lie to you. So I said, “How could I know it was stupid?”
You wouldn’t look at me. The screen lit up your face.
I said, “People don’t know things are stupid before they do them. Why would they do them if they did?”
You never answered, but on Monday, when you got home from work, I saw you sit in the car for fifteen minutes before coming inside, just staring at the windshield like you wished you could fall asleep.
* * *
On the bank beside the drowned man, the wind begins to pick up and the flat sky separates into clumps of black clouds.
“Yesterday was Thanksgiving,” you say from behind us.
The drowned man says, “I don’t remember that day.”
I remember the professor and his wife and the things they said about the worlds beneath the lakes.
I say, “Is it true that there are roads and train tracks under the water? Our friends want to know.”
The drowned man holds my hand like a prom date. “I can show you if you stay a while.”
“No,” you say. “There’s no place on earth more dangerous to dive than these lakes. The water is so muddy that you can’t see your hand in front of you. People sometimes get clobbered by logs out of nowhere.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Really,” says the drowned man. “I’ve buried some of their bodies myself. In the cemeteries on the bottom of the lake.”
You kick at the grainy sand. You ask, “Why would you do such an awful thing?” You sound angry. “Then they’ll never be found. What about their families?”
The drowned man drops his head. He says, “No one’s family should see that.”
You say, “This guy’s crazy. Let’s go.”
But I’m not ready to leave yet. The drowned man has put his other hand around my wrist and plays with the sleeve of my jacket. He slides his finger under the cuff then out again, softly, the way you touch the ones you love.
I say to you, “Go on. You can come back for me tomorrow.”
You begin walking back and forth. You stop to pick up a rock then throw it into the water. It makes a desperate gulping sound when it sinks. You say, “Are you crazy, too? You can’t stay here all night. It’s going to rain. You’ll freeze.”
You’re right. The storm churns on the horizon.
You begin to shake my shoulders, saying, “He’s probably going to kidnap you or worse. You can’t stay here.”
I know you are right, but the drowned man is still holding my hand. His palms are so wet I can feel my skin pruning up under his grip. I’m afraid that he might not let go, but I’m also scared that he will.
“Just a little longer,” I say. “You can wait in the car.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” you say, but you sound hurt instead of mad. “I’m not leaving you here.”
And you wait.
I can hear your feet crunching the rocky bank behind us as you shift your weight back and forth. Eventually, the wind howls so loudly that it swallows your noise. For a moment, I think you have left, until I feel your breath on my neck and your arms slide around my waist. You stay that way until the drowned man releases my hand. He stands and walks into the water. When he has walked so far that his chin skirts the surface, he says, “There are cities under here, believe it,” then disappears beneath the waves.
* * *
One night back in the summer, we were driving the old road to our home in the woods during a nasty rainstorm. It had been falling like artillery fire since morning, and we both said, “We should have replaced the wipers when we had the chance.”
On Stateline Road, we came upon the dip at the creek where a drainage pipe runs beneath the pavement. The water had risen, spilled over the road and drowned the shrubs and small trees along the stream. We could see the current flowing south, strengthened by the sky dumping buckets down the surrounding hills.
You parked beside a yellow sign on the shoulder.
I read the warning on the sign, and said, “That sounds like poetry.”
You got out with your jacket wrapped around your head and walked to the edge of the overflown stream. When you returned, you said, “It’s not too deep. We can drive across.”
“No,” I said. “They say never to cross a flooded part of the road. The current can be way stronger than it looks.”
You said, “Who says that?”
I said, “Everyone.”
You said, “I just looked. It’s fine. This Cadillac weighs a ton.”
I was afraid of drowning then. I said, “Please, don’t. Once I saw a man’s car get swept away on the news.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” you said. “This isn’t the Nile.” You laughed and put the car in drive. We began to inch across.
I rolled down the window and stuck my head out. The water rose around the tires making a dangerous rushing sound. “Stop,” I yelled. “Go back.”
You pulled on my hood. “What are you doing?” you said, “You’re soaking the seats.” You kept pulling me, telling me to come back inside.
The rain had soaked my hair. You yelled to me as we drove across, but I left the window open so we could swim out if we went under.
Kari Shemwell is a writer and actress living in New Orleans, LA. She studied creative writing at Murray State University and holds an MFA in fiction from Sierra Nevada College. Her work has previously appeared in the Masters Review, Stonecoast Review, Gulf Stream Lit Mag, and online at Berfrois. She is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled This Road May Flood. https://karishemwellwriter.