The Dropoff
by R. Baker
“I want to show you something.”

I didn’t take his hand in mine. I thought of it and my arm rose, but I brushed my bangs from my eyes and started walking. I veered to the right, toward the firm sand along the river bank. It was only half a mile but the sun hung low among the faint pinpoint satellites. He kept pace behind me, change and keys clattering in his pocket. Most of the fish were gone, at least their flesh was, but the smell lingered. Just a week before there had been thousands along the shore, slick and silver as a new bumper. The river was shallow that summer because of the drought. The tides shifted revealing a transient island, trapping the fish between it and the dam. They asphyxiated and when the river swelled again, they floated from one side to the other, but the bulk lay along the shore of my town.

The stench permeated everything, for nearly a mile beyond the river. I was used to the odor of dank and rot, but it was Taylor’s first summer here and he’d been complaining about the smell since May. At mid-day, even I gagged, stuffing my mouth with ice cubes and wrapping a t-shirt around my face. He refused to come to my house, which was in sight of the river, so I made the long trek to his place, up by the cemetery.

The birds came the next day; herons, hawks, egrets, bald eagles. People drove in from the city, even a big-name nature photographer. He let the paper publish one of his pictures, gratis. There’s talk of putting up a plaque for him, at the hotel he stayed at. The bars did brisk business, but the tourists were gone within three days. In their wake, the bank was lined with water bottles, energy bar wrappers and thousands of half-exposed skeletons.

Yesterday Taylor and I went to see the fish, what’s left of them. I had gone down to the river everyday, like usual. It was lonely without him, and I had forgotten how pathetic I feel getting stoned in the woods alone. After we almost got caught smoking in the graveyard, he was convinced to brave the smell.

Taylor mumbled something as we passed our usual spot, but I kept walking. We hung out at what used to be the favorite campsite, before some enterprising partier had built a larger one, closer to the road. I preferred the old one. I didn’t need a barbeque pit, just the two overturned buckets and a view of the water. It was safest too, no one came out that far except kids looking to skinny-dip and get in on our stash.

I hadn’t taken Taylor to the spot yet. It used to be popular for swimming, with a willow tree shading the shore. There weren’t any pebbles there, just some glass to watch out for. I used to lie out there with my friends, daring them to take off their bikini tops. It didn’t count if you untied it and lay on your stomach; you had take it all the way off so you were really naked. I was always the first to shimmy out my top, sometimes my bottoms too. One day some older boys came up with a six-pack and a boom box. I collapsed my arms against my chest and cussed them out. Surprisingly they turned and walked off, without a word. I didn’t have much to see back then, not that I have much now.

When we got there, I sat on some driftwood. It was the same ash-white branch that had always been there. Taylor sat beside me. I fumbled in my bag, looking for the pouch.

“This is nice.”

I rolled a sloppy joint. I never seem to get any better at it, but Taylor makes me roll them all, for practice. We smoked in silence, and I felt myself leaning into him. I let my head rest against his shoulder and he didn’t shrug me off this time.

“Why haven’t you brought me here before?”

I sighed. Then I sighed again. I lifted my head from his shoulder, stood up, stretched, and paced the beach, looking for a flat stone to skip. I gave up and stared out at the water. It was clear for a few feet, then the bank dropped off and it was dark, murky. Cold too, it was crazy how cold it got. I used to keep one foot on the bank, dangle the other off and marvel at the difference. Sometimes the seaweed would graze my foot and I’d pull it back fast, shivering. I had always been suspicious of the seaweed. I didn’t even know rivers had seaweed till I swam there for the first time. No one had warned me, and I had pushed out from the bank, practicing my backstroke when I felt it tangling in my arms and hair. Thick, slimy, inescapable; the more I thrashed, the more entrenched I got. My friends were laughing, but I was scared. My heart felt like it was climbing up my throat, slick and pulpy. I couldn’t get upright and I was swallowing the gritty water with each breath. Amber, always the cautious one, yelled for me to stop kicking. I steadied myself, choking my heart back down and yanked the seaweed up in handfuls, picking it off when I got to shore. I never swam out there again, even though you could go up the beach a few feet and avoid the seaweed. It only grew under the shade of the tree.

There weren’t any fish along the beach, not even a tiny curved rib. My heels sunk in the sand, and I kicked off my shoes before the water seeped in through the worn heels. Taylor came up behind me, standing close. He never stood so close to me before. He never touched me purposely either. The only time was when I almost walked into speeding pick-up. He yanked me back by the strap of my tank top, tearing it. He yelled at me for the rest of the day, claimed I owed him my life. He was so upset I couldn’t stop smiling, which pissed him off. He asked if I liked seeing him like that, and I kind of did. Now, whenever we come to a street corner, his hand shoots out in front of me and he crosses first. It’s sweet even if he thinks I’m a moron.

“Well, why keep this a secret so long?”
“It’s no secret, everyone knows about this place.”

I could feel his breath, just slightly on my shoulder. I ran my finger along the skin there. I looked back at him and he was rolling his eyes. He took a few steps away, stopped and squinted.

“What the hell is that?”
“That green and red thing over there, and is that a sign?”

He was looking at the plastic flowers, dirty and battered, and the laminated photograph. They were mostly obscured by a sticker bush and sand. I turned away, stared at my pale feet. My tan stopped right below my ankles, it even curved across the tops of my feet, perfect crescents, where my shoes began.

“That’s a memorial.”
“A memorial for what? Let me guess, some redneck lost his virginity here?”
“Fuck you.”
“What’s your problem?”

I sucked in, hard. It tasted thick and fishy. The sun was half extinguished against the horizon but it was still hot; a heavy, gelatinous heat. I thought of what to say. I had the words but I knew my tone would waver, crack like thunder and collapse into a murmur. I gave it another try.

“It’s a memorial…” I swallowed the rest down.
“You just said that, re-run.”
“Look, dick, it’s a memorial for my brother.”

I was snarling. I had never meant to snarl. Taylor’s face blanched. The breeze finally picked up, soft like his breath. I almost doubted I could feel it.

“The one who…”
“There was only one.”
“Yeah, sorry. This is where it happened?”

I didn’t answer. He stood there, looking at the memorial then out at the water.

“Why did you bring me here?”
“It’s just a spot. It’s nice, different. I thought you’d like to see it.”
“It is nice. I mean, aesthetically.”

My face was hot, but I didn’t feel like crying. I was both sad and proud. I knew there’d be a day when I could stand at that spot and not cry, but it seemed too soon. I wondered when I would forget what his voice sounded like. I had already forgotten his smell.

“There’s seaweed out there. That’s how he drowned. He was so skinny and he was swimming alone. He got tangled… like I did.”
“I didn’t know seaweed grew in rivers.”
“You can’t fight it. You want to, but it winds around your arms and legs.”

I sobbed and swallowed it, like a hiccup. I didn’t want to cry this time. He had a look like the day I almost got run-over; the wet, raw look before he started lecturing me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from him, so I told him this. He snaked a shaky arm around my shoulders and pressed me against his thin bird chest. I rubbed my cheek against his damp shirt. It was almost dark by then, but I thought I saw a fish leap from the water, tiny and chrome, like the ones along the shore.
Posted by: R. Baker

Prose (January 22nd, 2006)