All That Water
by Andrew Scott
The son and his new bride arrived earlier than expected for their first visit since the wedding. Gayle was snapping green beans in the kitchen when the old Chrysler crunched over the gravel drive between the house and shed. Walter sat at the dinner table, skimming the sports section, noting the engine's slight ping and hesitation as it shut off. Autumn light crept through the house's many windows.Gayle studied them through the window above the kitchen sink. "You be nice this time," she said, not looking at Walter. He started for the door, but Gayle rushed past him. "No need to scare her off."
"Who's scary?" Walter said.
Gayle shook her finger. "We talked about this."
She opened the door and let out her big hello. Pete and Julie lived in Michigan City, near the dunes of Indiana's coast, ninety-three miles north. Walter and Gayle had not visited the newlyweds. Six months isn't such a long time to go without seeing your son, but the time apart seemed longer than ever to Walter. At the reception, Walter knocked back several flutes of champagne before proclaiming to the crowd that no girl was good enough for his boy. "Julie looks like a pecking bird," he'd said. "Peck, peck, peck." He'd used his hand as a beak, punctuating each syllable.
Pete and Julie fell in love at college. They honeymooned after final exams, and when an accounting firm offered Pete a job, Julie left school. Now they rented a house. Walter's son was only twenty-three, but he'd been on his own for years.
Gayle stormed outside for a whirlwind of hugs. Walter leaned against the door. Pete had the trunk raised when his mother ambushed him. Julie's door was open as she fussed with her seatbelt. Gayle leaned in to hug her.
His wife had adored Julie before Walter flapped his big mouth, but now she wanted to tuck the girl under her wing. Mouthing off at the wedding reception wasn't the first time Walter had said something to regret. Late last night, before their son's return, Gayle articulated the truth—that he only regretted such decisions when people grew angry with him—a fine example of how well she knew her husband, but that didn't stop her from telling Walter she wanted a divorce.
Pete followed his mother into the house, cradling two packages in his arms. Julie trailed behind them, carrying another gift. The wind kicked up their hair in all directions until Walter shut the door behind them. Cold weather was on its way.
"Is this an official gathering?" Walter asked. "Something festive?"
Pete tried to smile as he took off Julie's jacket, then his own, and draped them over a chair. He arranged the packages on the table. Gayle frowned at Walter when the kids weren't looking. Julie excused herself to the bathroom.
"How are you, Dad?" Pete said. "Everything okay?"
"You don't look so good."
Walter eyed Gayle and said, "Remember when we couldn't wait for our baby to talk?"
"What does that mean?" Pete said.
"It's just a joke. So I don't look good?"
"You seem a little smaller."
"It's so like you to bring gifts," Gayle said. Her voice, lighter than it had been in months, rose on certain words.
Julie lumbered back down the hallway as if hiking uphill. "It was her idea," Pete said. "I'm not this thoughtful."
"Nothing to it," Julie said.
Gayle and Walter each opened a package. A blown glass dolphin for Gayle; for Walter, a ceramic bird figurine with a long narrow beak.
"Do you like it?" Julie asked, more to Gayle than the both of them.
"I do," she said. "Thank you, thank you."
Pete said, "What about you, Dad?"
Walter looked at Julie, who offered only a weak smile. She was trying; her mouth and nose seemed less beak-like than before. "It seems well-made," he said.
Gayle attached her dolphin to a stand and placed it on a knick-knacks shelf, next to several bells and a model cabin Walter had assembled before Pete was born. They'd talked about buying a cottage on the Tippecanoe River, back when they'd rented a house and had only dreams; the model cabin stood to remind them of what they wanted. Four months after Gayle gave birth, Walter found the cottage they now lived in, on that very river, for a price too low to pass on. They had put the time and effort into making it their home.
When Pete called last night, Gayle had just broken the news to Walter, as if a cosmic connection suggested to their son the worst time to end his silence. Walter had answered and tried to make small talk, then passed the phone off to Gayle and went outside to his shed, where he kept the fishing poles and tackle box. Last night the shed was safety, a quiet place to think.
The bird figurine felt like a rock in Walter's hand. For a moment he imagined throwing it through the kitchen window, out into the river's snaking ripples, just to hear the sound. "Thanks," he said to Julie.
"Now one to share," Julie said, handing a flat box to Gayle. A springy ribbon dominated the top.
"It's so pretty, I hate to open it," said Gayle.
"Let's not delay the inevitable," Walter said. He and Gayle were not yet fifty years old, but her eyes looked older to him, worn-out, like they'd seen too much of this life and didn't like it. She pulled a ceramic platter out of its box.
"Look at that," she said. She started to hand it to Walter, but it slipped from her hands and shattered on the tiled kitchen floor.
Gayle cursed and went to the pantry for a broom. "I can't believe I did that," she said, a little calmer for her son's sake, for his new wife's comfort. Walter stayed silent, watching her gather the broken pieces into a pile before she retrieved the dustpan. After Gayle shook the last few bits into the trash, Julie went to her and whispered, "It was on clearance." Gayle's face relaxed slightly.
"Such great surprises today," Gayle mused. Her voice sounded confident, convincing. Their trouble had been brewing for years. She and Walter had tried to outlast each the other's faults, a task that wore them down like pencil nubs. Walter did not want to tell his son that the folks were splitting up. The burden was hers. Pete had no clue about the decision. The news would hit him hard, but Gayle planned to tell him today.
On the couch later, watching a Colts game after the large Sunday lunch, Walter thought he and Pete could talk, ease the tension, but his son seemed uncomfortable with Julie away in the kitchen, talking with Gayle.
"The Colts suck," Pete said. Neither of them had spoken for minutes.
"That's not what the paper says. The paper says we're the defending champs."
"They won't repeat," the son said.
Walter waved at him dismissively. Pete didn't watch football and had no right to complain. And Walter wanted him to be happy in this home. "Everything's all right? Married life treating you well?"
"Everything's fine," Pete said.
"Good," Walter said. "It's much easier that way."
The women's voices made a low din. Walter had been married for more than two decades and still didn't know what women talked about in the kitchen. Now and then Gayle laughed. Walter entertained the urge to leave.
Until high school, his son had been a river rat, summers spent swimming and fishing, trapping frogs or painting initials on turtle shells. But then living on the river became a hassle, an inconvenient drive into Lafayette for its shopping and small pulse. Even Gayle itched to swap their dream house for something in town. But Walter couldn't let go of everything they had made together.
"Your car sounds funny," said Walter.
"I know," Pete said.
"We could look at it."
"I've got an appointment this week."
Walter tried again. "Do you want to head outside, take a walk?"
"Why not? Or maybe we could just fish."
"It's a little rude, don't you think, leaving like that?"
"They'll be okay."
"Of course they'll be okay. It's still rude."
"All right," Walter said, standing up. "Suit yourself." He grabbed his jacket from the closet and stopped near the kitchen to tell the women he was leaving. He expected Gayle to insist he sit tight and stay quiet, make their son and his wife feel welcome. He was ready for that. But Gayle simply nodded as if her husband had already left. She watched him step outside.
Pete came back into kitchen and sat with his wife and mother. "What's his deal?" he said. "He's a bigger jerk than usual."
"Your father and I have been talking."
"No fun for you," Pete said.
"Don't interrupt your mother," Julie said.
"We've been talking," Gayle said, "and I've made up my mind. I can no longer live with him." Her son's face softened, and she sensed his disappointment.
"Is this about the wedding?" Julie asked. "Because I don't hold anything against him. He was just drunk." "He wasn't that drunk," Gayle said. "And he could have said something like that stone-sober. But it's not about the wedding. That's part of it, sure. Like a hundred other things. He's no longer kind, to me or anyone else."
"Are you separating?" Pete said.
"Separations," Gayle said, "are for people who aren't sure what they want."
"How does Walter feel about this?" Julie said.
"He can't be happy about it," Pete said. "What did he say?"
"That he'd do what I wanted," Gayle said. "Which was a surprise."
Pete stepped outside after Walter had caught two sad, skinny walleye and thrown them back into the river. The skin-tight boots came to his knees, but the water hit his thighs, sending a slight chill through his body. That day was cooler than it had been in weeks, but Walter was determined. He needed something good. One more catch and he'd be done. Just one more, but the gray skies said darkness would soon arrive.
Downstream, Walter could not be seen through the thinning maples and sycamores. He almost whistled for Pete, but stopped and let the only whistle be from the line as it leapt across the mud-dark water. Finally his son walked along the river, sending his father a quick wave.
Pete stood on the shore, his hands shoved inside his jeans pockets, shoulders hunched. Walter knew Gayle had told him.
Pete said, "Any bites?"
Walter shook his head. "Love bites," he said, a reference to a radio song they had once made fun of during a long drive.
"That was forever ago," Pete said.
"You liked it," Walter said. "Rock and roll forever."
Walter returned his attention to the river. Something felt right—he sensed that a fish was near. He recast the line, then invited Pete to join him. Walter wanted to share this—anything—with him. "It's not too cold," he said. "There are more boots in the shed."
"I didn't come to fish, Dad."
A slight nudge, followed by a stronger pull on the line, near the opposite bank where tree limbs and the rest of nature's refuse had gathered, made Walter begin to reel. The pole flexed and bent, but he got nowhere. He waded into deeper water, still winding the line, but the fish didn't budge.
Gayle and Julie joined the men.
"A big one?" Pete asked, but Walter didn't answer as he progressed into the river, as if he were being baited, until he'd crossed it entirely and stepped to higher ground for a final tug. But nothing happened. Walter dropped the pole on the bank and returned to the water. He made his way to where the line had caught. He plunged his hands into the cool muddy darkness. He'd fished for most of his life, and if it were a fish, Gayle knew he'd lift it out of the water, high above his head, and look to them for praise. But Walter's hands stayed submerged for another moment before he raised them, water dripping from his empty fingers, and shrugged. "I guess it got away," he said.
Pete started laughing. Gayle's cheeks were puffy and pink from the cold. Julie pulled up her jacket collar.
"This is funny?" Walter said. "When's the last time a fish got away from you?" Pete said. His son loomed over him from up on the bank, appearing to Walter then not as a boy he'd raised and had told what to do and still could if need be, but as a man who might pummel a drunk for insulting his wife, someone Walter might not ever truly know.
"Get out of the water," Gayle said. "You'll catch a cold."
Julie wrapped an arm around Pete and they leaned in close. Gayle caught herself staring at the young couple. She turned her attention to Walter, who stood in the middle of the river, looking around as if lost.
Finally Walter cut through to their side of the river, and Pete helped him up. Gayle and Julie disappeared inside the house, and Gayle returned with two cups of coffee. "Julie's too cold to stay out here," she said, though they were trying to give the men time and room to talk. This was just one of the things they'd talked about in the kitchen.
Walter rested on an old birch stump. Pete pulled a lawn chair over and sat beside him. Gayle stood with her arms crossed, shielding herself from the weather. "It's too cold for me, too," she said, and headed back inside.
Walter and his son talked as the sun fell, awful shades of gray blending together. Steam trailed from the cups to their faces.
"So what happens now?" Pete said.
"I don't know. We haven't sorted anything out."
"Mom said you'd talked."
"We talked. We yelled. I slept on the couch."
"You'll move out?"
"This is my home."
"I thought you were past the finish line," said Pete.
"Twenty-six years," Walter said, weighing the number with his mind.
Pete looked away. He said, "I can't imagine." Maybe he already knew about trouble in marriage, the way two people can knock heads, make a mess of what should be the terribly easy business of love.
"Let me ask again," Walter said. "How's married life?"
"I don't have any idea what I'm doing," Pete said.
"None of us do."
"It doesn't get easier, does it?"
"Some things do. But not much."
Pete said, "She's pregnant."
When Gayle had told him they were having a baby, Walter had taken a photo to commemorate the news. That photo was inside the house, in an album with other photos he'd taken, on a custom-made shelf that held the history of his family. Not one moment had escaped his eye. He'd even snapped two rolls at the wedding while drunk, the only decent shots of the couple.
"When's she due?"
"Mid-June," Pete said.
Walter wished to tell him something fatherly, something passed down between men since dawn's first day, but nothing he could have said would be the truth, and Walter had no understanding, knew no simple way to get from boyhood to fatherhood without scraping the face and heart. You end up different, Walter wanted to tell him, that's all. Life changes and nothing can stop it. But he'd told him quite enough already, and what did he know? Pete was on his own, like everyone else. "Congratulations," he said.
"I'm sorry about that figurine," said Pete. "That wasn't my idea."
"It's a good thing," he said, "that she can give as good as she gets."
They talked until Pete said he and Julie needed to get home. At the door Walter touched his son's shoulder, and Pete surprised him with a hug, their first real embrace since the boy's high school graduation.
Walter turned to his daughter-in-law. "Take care of my boy."
"I will," Julie said. "I do."
"Wait one second." Walter raced into the bedroom and returned with his camera. He snapped a photo of the young couple in front of the cottage. And then they left. With the curtains pulled back, Walter watched them drive the country road for a half-mile, red taillights fading as they met the distance. Gayle exhaled deeply and retreated to the bedroom, shutting the door. Many words were still to come, bickering about what had been, and would be, their lives. But for a few more minutes Walter wanted only to be still, to not think of Gayle and twenty-six years, but of his son, the permanent force he'd helped bring into the world. Then he turned off the lights and stepped out to his shed.
The water rippled steadily out beyond his line of vision, and the cold wind encircled him. He turned to study his darkened house, its white trim ghostly in the night, a phantom structure. Down river, another man's dog barked a lonely late-night song. Walter let out a long howl in that direction, followed by a few yelps. The dog became silent.
Inside the shed, he fired up the kerosene heater and warmed his hands. The shed was the absence of comfort, with its coarse wooden bench and two chairs. There were no cushions. Sparse and plain, as the house would be, had Gayle not decorated. This was Walter's space, his tools and side projects, a lifetime's escape from family squabbles, work troubles, and other difficulties.
He flipped on the radio. A slow jazz tune eked along, slowing down so that a listener might lean closer to make sure it was still breathing. He'd once been fooled that way when Pete was small: he'd opened the boy's bedroom door to tell him goodnight, only to find the kid blank-eyed and still. Walter's breath had caught in his throat as he moved toward Pete, who'd bolted up, suddenly alert: "What? What did I do?"
"I thought you were dead," was all Walter could say. The boy had laughed at, and been irritated by, the mistake.
Like today, he thought, his son laughing at him from up on the bank, all that water between them. And so much more: several counties, two women, lost years. Oh, what was he doing out here with his useless saws and heavy hammers?
Through the shed's window, he saw the kitchen light flip on. The jazz song made its return, a slow increase in tempo. Walter turned off the radio. He could almost sense Gayle moving around the kitchen, heating up a cup of hot chocolate. He wished to be lured from his shed, for her to call him to bed, as she had so often done. He braced himself, ready for her voice, and was still there waiting when the light shut off.
Andrew Scott lives in Indianapolis and teaches writing at Ball State University. His stories, author interviews, book reviews, and other work have appeared in Esquire, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Versus Anthology, Glimmer Train Stories, and other publications. He edits Freight Stories (www.freightstories.com) with his wife, the writer Victoria Barrett. "All That Water" is part of a recently completed story collection.