Water Music

Chris Duncan

Growing up means more than just outgrowing where you came from.

Spitting Spam drowns out NPR this morning. My hell is beginning this Monday morning like usual: my mother cooking breakfast for my father, which consists of fried Spam, fried eggs, Nestle Quik chocolate milk, and one piece of scorched rye toast.

I turn the radio up two notches--the most I can get away with without my father lifting his eyes away from the Bristol Herald Courier and resting them instead on his "sad excuse for a son."

My mother treads softly in her white nursing shoes. She wrestles with the hissing skillet like a seasoned snake handler. The smell of burning toast wafts through the air, settling in my clothes to serve as a reminder of my sad existence for the rest of the day.

"Baby, don't forget to get us some safes," my mother says to my father with a sly grin, ambivalent to the inappropriateness of making such a request in my presence.

"Um-huh," grunts my father. He bites a piece of loose skin from his lower lip with his top row of false teeth. He shifts his weight, throws his right leg over his left, and adjusts his small silver rimmed glasses. He clears his throat. My father works at a Quiklube. He doesn't manage a Quiklube or own a Quiklube. He just works at a Quiklube. His navy blue mechanic's pants have oil stains in them that have turned his uniform wear into something approaching a Jackson Pollack, adding to his incomprehensibility. I look to see what he's reading. My guess is right: he's reading the funnies.

"Mm'k, babe?" says my mother, serving Dad his Spam and eggs and scorched toast.

He gives her another "Um huh," and keeps reading the funnies.

I leave the trailer we call home and head for the community college--Yes, I live in a trailer park, and yes, I attend a community college--and I put my radio headphones on, trying desperately to pick up Morning Edition.

I have to constantly remind myself to look up, straight ahead, and not down at the leaf covered sidewalk. I walk on College Avenue, a side road that leads from the trailer park to the community college. The walk takes about twenty minutes. I have my headset on and I am happy. Right on schedule, Mira bounds out the front door of a neat, smallish ranch house that's across the street and out of which her father runs a dental practice.

The house is among maple trees and mums and lots of landscaping, very tastefully done, and is adjacent to the Sinking Springs town cemetery. Mira attends college at Emory & Henry, a local liberal arts college, located about a mile from my college. Mira wants to teach music, hopefully to help the local yokels appreciate Daquin and Handel. Mira can't believe that the rest of the world isn't as enthralled with "Water Music" as she is.

Mira always reminds me of a praying mantis when I first see her in the morning (I'd never tell her this, of course). With her thick rimless glasses and tightly pulled back black hair, her flawless white skin, her always full red lips, and her two crutches--her two extra limbs--she has something of an insectlike appearance. Mira has just missed out on being stunning instead of interesting looking, I think to myself. However, it's in this nether world of near-missness that I find my peace. I smile and take off my headset.

"Hey, you," I say.

Mira is struggling with her walking today. Some days are better than others. "Do you think Blue has a room?"

I smile and look down at my worn out Adidas tennis shoes. "Probably."

The Evergreen Motel is a no-tell motel on Route 11 that runs parallel to I-81. It's close to the college. Sometimes Mira and I forget our classes and our lives and get a room for free for a few hours. Our friend Blue works the counter and gives us a room whenever we want. He's called Blue because he fell into a creek when he was two years old during the dead of winter. He would say that he turned Blue as "a goddamned Smurf."

On this day it is just after eight in the morning and Mira and I are in room B-12. "A real shot in the arm," says Mira, never one to let a quip go wasted.

As soon as the door is shut and locked I embrace my praying mantis; her crutches fall to the floor. I do the usual: I turn on the television to a nothing channel and let the room flood with white noise; I turn on the bathroom faucet, more white noise; this is what Mira wants. We take off our glasses and book-bags and shed our lives, our skins, burnt toast and fried Spam. Mira's body is a world within itself: a multiplicity of rain drops her head, her body an inviting eddy swirling in a stream golden and deep, her legs two roads, pulling me further and further into a respite of calm decompression. This is how I see her. We lie on the motel bed, our lips never separating, not for an instant, and we hold communion, offering ourselves to God, who'll hopefully take us in as we take in each other, fully and with beautiful finality.

"I told the bitch hey, look, we don't have Quaker State. We got Pennzoil and that's all we got. I mean, jeez, how many times do I have to repeat myself?" so says my father, as he sits down at the same dining room table, in his same oily clothes, assuming the same cross-legged position. I sit next to him, in my same chair, listening to the same radio, listening to the same station, listening to All Things Considered on NPR. My father is talking to my mother, who's cooking spitting chicken. She's a home-health nurse who helps emphysema patients all day long. She puffs on her Misty Ultra Light Menthol One Hundred Full Flavors as she cooks. She smiles at her oily baby.

"I'm makin' chicken, babe."

My father rubs his eyes, shifts his weight on the seat, and adjusts his crotch with his right thumb and forefinger, giving him a little breathing room.

"You made it to Rite-Aid, didn'tcha, babe? I saw the receipt on the dresser," my mother says coyly.

I'm listening to All Things Considered; I turn up the radio another notch. Dad shoots me a look. The chicken spits and dances in the skillet like it had just been beheaded. Mom presses down on the chicken titties (mom always calls chicken breasts chicken titties--she thinks she's cute) with her spatula. Frying, burning chicken titties cry out in pain as my mother playfully smacks her twenty-extra-pound-ass. "I know whatcha want for dessert," she says, saying dee-zert in a disgustingly provocative manner, always oblivious that I might be disturbed by such innuendo.

My mother, still in a giddy mood, says to me. "Magnum P.I. is on tonight, ain't it, Mark? Your favorite. I love that Rick, flies that airplane--"

I don't stop listening to All Things Considered. I don't look at my mother. I say, "Magnum is on every night, and it's T.C. that's the pilot, not Rick, and it's a helicopter that he flies, not an airplane."

My mother keeps frying; her smile dissipates ever so slightly; the corners of her mouth slide down very minutely. "Oh," she says. Dad shoots me a go to hell look. But Mom is still smiling, still swaying her hips this way and that, shifting her weight on her tired nurse's shoes, white and crinkled. I open up the twenty-ounce Sprite that I just purchased from Klink's Handy Dandy Mart, which is located between the community college and the trailer park. The fizz reminds me of earlier, of the white noise in the Evergreen. I intuit a different reality, one devoid of--

The phone rings.

Mom answers. "Hello, Mira, baby... now you tell your daddy that I've got a molar with his name on it! It's killing me like crazy!... Uh huh... Can't hardly sleep--I rinse my mouth with salt water but hell... yeahhh... yeahhhhhhh, it's the truth... you tell your daddy the stock in Novocain's fixin' to go up when he sees me"--she laughs like a hyena--"yeahhhh... chicken, what else... nothin', listenin' to the damned radio... wait a minute, baby... umm'k, sugar." Mom smiles at me. "Mira," she says and holds the phone out.

I walk over to the phone. Dad turns off the radio as soon as I get up, shooting me a take-that-you-little-shit look.

"Hey," I say. Mom presses the hissing chicken titties with her spatula and makes two loud kissing noises, giving me a mischievous grin. I turn away from my mother and face the calendar on the wall. I'm staring at January 23, 1986, even though it is spring of 2000. Our family is too pathetic to take down the damned old calendar, stuck in time.

"I'm seriously feeling like I can't breathe," I whisper into the phone. I stare at my Adidas shoes, scruffy, old pieces of crap.

Mira sighs. "It won't be forever. Tomorrow morning we'll make like trees. Now just say okay and be happy. Be happy."

I smile. I can't believe it but my world has just dissolved into something splendid.

"And besides," says Mira, "Daddy's got a tube of new bubble gum tooth paste for you. Now doesn't that make you happy? Mark? Are you breathing better?"

"Yes," I say. "Eight o'clock, okay?"

"Okay. Eight o'clock. I wish I could make the night zip by--don't you?"

"Of course." Mom presses the chicken titties once more with her spatula. Sizzle. Crackle. Spit. Spit. "Mira," I say.


"I love you."

A male nurse makes pretty good money, and the nursing program at the community college is always looking for males, so, well, I'm gonna be a nurse. I hate needles and defecation and other people's problems grate on my nerves, but I'm definitely going to be a nurse, a male nurse; that's what I'm going to do. My father always says male nurse when our friends and relatives ask him what I'm doing in school. "He's in the medicine program up there," he says, usually adjusting his silver rimmed glasses before he takes a deep breath and says, "He's gone be a nurse," pronouncing it like, "He's gone be a pussy."

Mira and her parents, Ed and Sue, think it's a great idea. Ed says to me, "Boy, a male nurse can work wherever the hell he wants. You can pull down an easy-oh, I don't know-forty, fifty grand a year. Around here that ain't bad. I'm telling you, boy, by the time all the bills are paid and whatnot, hell, I don't do much better'n'at myself." Then he smiles and slaps me on the back. "Gotta make a buck doin' something. Whether you're takin' blood or wipin' asses or yankin' teeth--what the hell difference does it make?"

Ed is known as a "good ol' country dentist" to the people around here. He's very good to me, mainly because I'm very good to his daughter. If only he knew how good. But what else can one expect from any father?

I'm first in my class in the nursing program. I graduate in a month. I've already got a job at Johnston Memorial Hospital (with a little help from Ed), which is the town hospital. Things are looking up.

On this morning it is after six, just after six, and I am already up and out the door, walking briskly from the trailer park. I am up before Mom's Spam is frying and before Dad's toast is burning. The morning is heavy with dampness and cold. Crickets serenade me. I pull my Celtics jacket up higher on my neck (I'm one of only a few Celtic fans in southwest Virginia). I'm meeting Mira at the Emory & Henry College indoor swimming pool at eight. I'm going to visit the E&H graveyard first. I have time to kill.

Professors' houses line the narrow, paved road that wends itself though the E&H campus. A road diverges sharply to the left, going up another wending road, gravelly and dusty, leading to the E&H graveyard. Thorny shrubs and weeds line the path. Dogs yelp, crows caw, dew dances on every blade of grass. The sounds of roaring weed-eaters and lawnmowers resonate inside my skull; they are already running full-blast at this early morning hour. The maintenance crews never stop beautifying the campus. The college president's wife oversees most of the landscaping done at E&H. She does have good taste, I must say.

My mind is slow; leaking thoughts run into one another, creating a wet, runny, watercolor world inside my head. I see my mother, her innately good-hearted soul, and my father... my father's a nice guy. This world weighs heavily on the shoulders of clip-winged sparrows; this saying repeats itself ad infitum in my head, born there when I was born. The cicadas' hum provides an incidental backdrop for my quite, uneven marching up the gently sloping road, leading to quiet bodies, serene against the invading, flying shards of freshly cut grass.

Blues leak into reds and pinks invade whites. Swimmin' lessons? You don't need swimmin' lesson, says Daddy. You don't even like takin' a bath, Mark, he says, saying Mark like Twerp. Whadya need to learn how to sink for? You can already do that. Mom cackles. It's all good-natured ribbing.

The county recreation department is offering free swimming lessons to whoever wants them. It's only on Monday mornings. Brian's mom'll take us. C'mon. Pleezee.

Now here's the deal. Now here's the deal: another phrase that bounds from somewhere behind the silver-rimmed glasses. Now here's the deal: You're a smart mouth and I didn't raise you to be no--

Now here's the deal. Now here's the deal, okay, your mom and I have to have a little afternoon delight, if you know what I mean. Now, Mark, you're fifteen so I don't have to pretend you're stupid or nothing. So why don't you make like a tree and--

The deal is. The deal is you can turn off that radio crap you're listenin' to. Jesus H. Christ Almighty what's the deal with you, Mark? Goodness gracious, boy, you can't go through life--

I kick a pebble with my left shoe, and then I kick it with my right, bouncing it between my feet, a regular countrified Pele. My grandfather's grave is up on the right. I plop my butt down on the wet ground and close my eyes. The bright sun gives me the brilliant backdrop of a red satin curtain, covering my thoughts, allowing me an intermission. World War II veteran.

My grandfather was a farmer, a poet on his blue Ford tractor. He died of emphysema. My mother helped treat him, bedridden, depleted, drinking constantly ice water out of a bending straw beside his bed. No teeth. My mother, smoking her Menthols as she bends over him...

I sit on the wet ground and hold communion with my grandfather. We offer something to one another on this day. As usual, he gives far more than I do. I press my eyes a bit harder with my fingers, playing with the colors in my mind, knowing that my life isn't so bad... not really. I'm wondering at this moment if I need Mira's crutches more than she does. I sigh loudly. Granddaddy, granddaddy, granddaddy.

On this morning, the E&H swimming pool is closed to the public. The pool is closed, period. Maintenance crews come in and service the pool around noon. Mira and I have another friend who assists us. His name is Teddy, and he's a junior at E&H. He also gets his teeth cleaned at Mira's dad's dental practice. Teddy works in the athletic department. He doesn't mind. He leaves the door unlocked for us on cleaning day.

I open the glass door of the athletic department building which houses the pool, locking it behind me. I know that Mira is already in the water. I take the next door on the right, a heavy wooden thing that's very hard to open. I'm in the shower room. Wetness and chlorine everywhere.

I drop my book bag and kick my shoes off while I'm walking toward the pool. The lights are off. I'm feeling my way through the darkness like a late-night trip to the bathroom. I know where I am. I know exactly where the damned elongated wooden bench is--the one that has caused me to almost break my shins several times. I know where the wastebaskets are. I know where everything is.

I throw off my shirt and take off my pants, still walking... not an easy trick. I near the pool, and I step out of my underwear, and in my final motion I step into the pool, into the deep end, right beside the high-dive. I feel my testicles pull into my abdomen. I enjoy the feeling of the cool water covering me like a blanket, filling every crevice, my ears filling like caves under a crashing cliff, loving the tide that's rolling in. I know what time it is.

I throw my head back and then down, down into the water, and I struggle in the dark abyss to the very bottom, to the drain.

I reach my hand out and I know that I'm right on schedule. I feel Mira's hair, her black run away hair, slipping between my fingers, and I know that she is smiling. And we rise together, swimming the ten feet to the surface, ready to breathe. We are ready to live, breathe and play like otters for the next couple of hours.

Mira whispers wetly in my ear, her naked, thin legs wrapped tightly around my body. "Feels great!" She giggles when she says this.

Mira hobbles in front of me, her four limbs stubbornly working together to get her from point A to B. Her hair is still wet and it leaves a trail behind us both, little droplets that give away our secret morning. I watch her move, intrigued by the ballet that I see in front of me, seeing a life in front of me preparing to play itself out. Droplets of raindrops descend on the sidewalk and roll on impact, like miniature wet parachutists. Mira glances back at me. "Never fails--I just washed my car."

I've never made the connection between just washed cars and the dislike of rain. Mira says that this is because I never wash my car. I close my eyes and I put one foot in front of the other, and I listen to a quiet music play that is just underneath the surface of my world, yearning every second to sweep me away in its undertow and carry me out to sea.

Chris Duncan (chrisandstephanie@hotmail.com) is a graduate of Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, Virginia. He's married, has a two-year-old daughter, and is currently hard at work on his first novel.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2002 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 12, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2002 Chris Duncan.