There’s no predicting what’s going to hurt the most. For Jayce, it was the boot that went missing. Our Sammy’s boot, left one of the pair we’d given him for fishing the day he turned ten. They’d come out of a sale bin at the Army Navy, camouflage pattern rubber, of two different sizes. Sammy was so tickled by them. Didn’t want to take them off. Snuck off wearing them to school once or twice until we laid down the law. He took to keeping them on the bank under the dock where they’d be handy for fishing the minute he got off the school bus. He had only the right one on when we found him.
We didn’t hear the school bus like usual, owing to trying to get the tractor going. By the time we came to about wasn’t it time for the bus, and where could Sammy have got to, whatever happened had happened. He was gone when we pulled him out in soaked school dungarees, a new 4-H tee shirt, and the one lonesome boot. The rescue squad put the oxygen on him anyway, but Jayce said to leave him be. I pulled him off the medic who was only trying to spare us. But false hope is no hope at all, and Jayce wouldn’t have it.
At the hospital, the emergency nurse gave us a clear plastic trash bag containing Sammy’s things. She’d folded the tee shirt and jeans just so. The one boot was laid across them diagonal, like that was the only right way to do something like that. The bag was sealed with medical tape. She carried it to us on her up-turned palms. Setting on top of the bag on a square of white gauze was a fish hook they’d found in Sammy’s finger. The nurse set that in the deepest crease of Jayce’s palm, real gentle, and promised she’d pray for us.
Two days after we took him from the pond, and not an hour out from the funeral, Jayce started draining it. I couldn’t figure why the boot needed finding. So much else was lost, and I said so. Jayce turned from me with a fierce look, his mouth set not to speak. All I could do was watch. It was a hollow sight, him standing by the pump with Sammy’s old partly beagle dog, Barker. I took meat sandwiches and cake left over from the funeral meal in the church basement out to him at midnight. Jayce gave the food to Barker.
All the night after the funeral and the next day, the pump pulled tepid, pea-colored water over the edge of the pond and down toward the river where it’d come from in the first place. The pump sucked gasoline which forced Jayce to talk to me, telling me to go to the Shell in Meridian with the gas can, and money from one of the envelopes we got at the funeral. It shames me how relieved I was to get away from the gulping racket of the pump and the sight of Jayce and Barker staring into the pond, waiting for it to be gone.
On the way back, I pulled the car over and held onto myself so as to keep from going all to pieces. There was no predicting what would happen if I let it come. I feared maybe my bones would break or my insides would quit. So I held it back, bracing myself against the steering wheel. I wrapped my arms around it hard enough to give rise to seeping purple bruises that I wouldn’t discover until the next day.
Fighting tears in the car made me gone a long time and the pump was dead still from running out of fuel by the time I got back. Jayce was up to his hips in the pond, feeling with his feet for the boot. I funneled gas in the pump and pulled the cord to start it for him. He bent over with his head underwater, then up he burst, gasping big, with Sammy’s fishing pole in his hands. He climbed onto the dock, and I undid my apron and let him use it to wipe the reel and the pole. It was already going slimy from resting on the silt bottom.
All the while, the pond disappeared by inches, the surface disturbed into ripples by the swill of the pump. We both watched, four splintery slats of dock between us. I sat, my toes no longer able to drag on the surface of the water. Jayce stood, Sammy’s pole clamped over his chest in his crossed arms. The more the water went away, the more it looked to be the deepest, darkest thing a soul could ever fall into.
It came to be that we could see the fish circling. As the water got sucked away, they crowded each other, their fins cutting the surface. They flapped at what was left in a desperate way. I couldn’t bear to see it. I got in there with a bucket time and again, and gathered them in. Hauling the bucket up the bank and over the other side to give them back to the river was heavy work, and hot. The wire handle tore my hands and the weight of the bucket with water in it banged my shins. Jayce just looked past my struggling and slipping.
Barker whined and sniffed the air when he heard the school bus on the road. He tore off toward the noise and wouldn’t come like usual when I called him back. He didn’t amble toward us until it was thinking about going dark and there was but a foot of water remaining. Jayce and I got in and crawled on our hands and knees, the muck pulling at us, urging us to give in and let it claim us too. Barker paced the edge, eventually braving the slippery sides of the pond to lap at what was left.
We covered every inch with our hands more than once. We’d pulled up a coffee can that Sammy used for worms, and an old John Deere hat Jayce used to wear on the tractor. I found some of those loops for holding beer cans together that had to have blown in from somewhere else. There was a fifty cent piece, a patch of ripped-off shingle from the barn, and a rusty pocket knife. The boot wasn’t there, not floating, nor sunken, nor washed up somehow, nor trapped against the pounded in struts of the little dock. No boot. Lost and gone.
I went to Jayce and took his hand to lead him up and out of there. I used my two slippery hands to get him to go along with me, fighting the suck of the pond for both of us until he stopped resisting. He took Sammy’s pole and I drew him up toward the house, his face going softer toward me than earlier. Our place was backlit from a sunset that had no right to be so rosy. The angles of the house, the barns, and Barker’s chain link run and dog house glinted hot and punishing. Window openings appeared black and vacant, such that any wind that came would blow right on through, refreshing nothing at all. I moved slow, giving us each a few more beats before we had to face what wasn’t there.
We hooked up the hose and took turns rinsing the pond mud. Jayce filled a bucket and poured it over his head. He did the same for me, lifting my arms and turning me by the shoulders to get it all off. We did it over and over, stripping to our under clothes right in the yard. Jayce washed the fishing pole, rooting out every trace of muck. He ran water over the length of it, using the nozzle turned to give the water some force.
I cried from watching him do that. It just came up on me. There was no stopping myself at all this time, even if I’d wanted or tried. And Jayce let me. He just worked on the pole, using what he had right there including his own spit and fingernails and the tail of the shirt he’d pulled off. He didn’t say I should go elsewhere, nor did he walk away. I felt him listening to me. It was like he knew I had to get to a bottom, that there’d be some waiting involved, and he was ready to go there with me. All that while he just fingered Sammy’s pole, checking the metal eyes for the fishing line, turning the knob of the reel, digging at the last mote of pond mud on the point of the pole.
We must’ve been a sight from the road. It never occurred to us to mind to what passersby might make of the scene. How we must’ve looked, the two of us stripped all but bare and still wet, with me about gagging from crying, bent at the middle, and Jayce turning that pole over in his fingers in such a possessed way. We gave over to it, the whole way. I don’t know how long it was until I got hold of myself, not by act of will, but from being drained. I repaid the favor Jayce did me by letting him know it was time to stop. I put my hand on his shoulder and took the shirt he was drying the pole with. Enough is how I said it. Enough. Jayce went up the stoop with the pole and I heard him trudge the stairs up toward Sammy’s room.
Barker’d been watching so I threw water on his muddy paws and let him lap at the stream from the hose. He shook himself good. I resolved to let him spend the night inside, dry or no. I don’t know what made it dawn on me just then, but I scratched his ears and it was just so clear. He was a worthless old mutt, is what I said to him. Tearing on back to Barker’s run, tripping on my own bare feet, I slipped on grass slimed and slippery from the run-off of the hose and from us, nearly going down more than once. But I kept moving, charging right on up to his house that Jayce and Sammy made when they got him. Sure enough, it was there, lying on its side in shadow, just inside the curved opening under where Barker’s name was stenciled. It was still damp inside when I picked it up. There were teeth marks I could put the tips of my fingers in. Barker’s tooth marks, not from being chewed, but from being dragged. That beagle dog looked down the same way he did when I caught him filching the ham bone off the kitchen table, but all I could do was hold his face in my hand and the boot in the other, and ask him why he didn’t tell us sooner.
I yelled for Jayce up into those bottomless black open windows. I told him I had it and that we should’ve figured out where it’d got to. We should’ve just known. He came to the sill of Sammy’s room. I held it up for him to see. He quit his silence and told me to bring it up, and the dog too. Barker and I found him sitting on Sammy’s bed with the pole and the other boot. He gave Barker’s muzzle a tweak, and looked to be giving up the fight against what was welling up inside him. Barker shook his coat and ears again and turned himself in a circle before sitting on the braid rug. Jayce patted the spot next to him for me. There we were, both still dripping, reuniting the boots and waiting for the room to go completely dark.
Joan Pedzich is a law librarian who resides in Rochester, NY. She writes a regular column for the local legal newspaper and provides book reviews on self-help legal titles to the Library Journal. Her short fiction has been published in Lake Affect, Six Sentences, 971 Menu and LIterary Mama. She was recently a featured author at Writers and Books Genesee Reading Series. For fun, she plays golf and spends time with her clever and attractive family.
© 2009, Joan Pedzich