The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THIS CODY

Spring 2012: Issue 91

Lauri Anderson

My husband says the dam is strong. He says we have nothing to worry about. He gives me a look so that I will go back to knitting the world’s most unfortunate scarf, and he can finish reading his novel in peace. But I can’t help thinking how far we are from town, how all our searching for quiet, our desire for another kind of life, has left us alone out here in the shadow of the dam—exposed. I try not to think about it. I try to get lost in our days. We feed the chickens. We weed the garden. We carry our water from the creek, the one that used to be a river deep enough to sink a truck, the one the dam has choked to a trickle. If you stand in the creek bed, ankle-deep, you can see it in the distance, the concrete bowl of the dam, water sloshing over its lip.

I have dreams about it. They all start the same way. We wake to water two inches deep and the dogs whining, backed into their corners. All night we sweep the water out, but by morning, we’re wading waist-deep in the cold, fishless shallows, filling our buckets.

I stop telling Brian about the dreams after he throws down his novel and slams the bedroom door. “The dam is fine,” he yells from the other side of the wall. “You’re the one who’s cracking.”

Some days I don’t recognize him. He’s grown out his beard, and the paunch I so lovingly stroked is now all muscle, his abdominals like flat stones stacked atop one another. I’m different, too. Our dogs, two purebred Heelers Brian insisted we buy to go with our new life, won’t come when I call. The chickens peck my hand when I reach for the eggs. The garden dies all at once, overnight. Last night, I found a scorpion on my pillow, his dancer’s arms poised to strike. Sometimes I think this place is trying to get rid of me, and I wonder if Brian wouldn’t be better off. Sometimes I can’t remember why we came here, what we hoped it would fix. In the dream, the dam is splintering down the middle, a tiny fissure that widens into a crack and then a crevice and then a fault through which the river pours as if it is willful, as if it knows the way back to the beginning.

That’s not true. What I said before about not remembering why we came here. I remember, and so does he, but we pretend there wasn’t a place before here. We never lived in the city. We never ate at Spiro’s or took the red line to the aquarium on free day. We never had a son and then lost him.

When the weather is mild, like tonight, we sit on the porch while the stars blink on. Out here, they’re so bright they hardly seem real. Sometimes Brian plays his harmonica, and sometimes we just listen to the woods. It seems so much of marriage amounts to this—two people alone together in the dark. In the distance, the dogs are leaping to bite the air, and what I want is for someone else to tell Brian I’m sorry because I can’t do it. Sometimes I feel the words rising in my chest, but when I open my mouth, there is only my breath going out. So I say it in other ways. I say it when I’m weeding the garden that I hate and feeding the chickens that I hate. I say it just by waking in this place that is not my home.

Our nearest neighbor is an old man we sometimes see on the road driving his truck back up the hill as we are coming down. He lives a half-hour drive away through dense woods and across a narrow bridge. You have to get out and walk because the bridge is too rickety to drive on. Last week, from the driver’s seat, Brian said, “A man lives way out here, he probably wants to be left alone.” So he waited in the truck, and I walked across the bridge by myself, bearing a caved-in pie. The thing is, I knew he was in there. I could hear the floorboards creaking. I saw the curtain move. But he never answered the door. I knocked and knocked and then finally set the pie on the porch and walked back across the bridge to where my husband was waiting.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

“Good,” I lied. “His name is Cody, too.”

Brian stiffened in his seat. He turned slowly to look at me. I could see the thoughts coming off his face in waves. He wanted to say something, to accuse me of lying, but who would lie about something like that? He opened his mouth and then closed it again. Finally, he shook his head and turned back to the steering wheel. What I wanted, I know now, was just to say our son’s name out loud. The crisp “c” and the rolling “o” and the slight flick of the tongue for the “dy.”

Brian put the truck in gear and we drove back through the woods, silent as ever. But later, on the porch, the dogs kicked in their sleep. The stars, too close, were baring their teeth. Somewhere in the distance I knew the dam was there.

“You’re telling the truth,” Brian asked from his rocker, “about the man? His name?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”

I have always been a good liar. Even when I was a child, my mother could never tell. You have to commit, is the thing. You have to believe it. On the day I lost our son, I told three lies. First, I said he had only been missing for fifteen minutes, when it was really more like an hour. Fifteen minutes still sounded hopeful, I thought. On the phone, Brian wasn’t yet concerned. Later is when he wouldn’t be able to look at me. After the detective and all the curious neighbors and both of our hysterical mothers had left for the night, is when he would cross the room without a word and raise his hand and bring it across my cheek. For a second, I didn’t know what had happened. No one had ever slapped me.

The next day, there was a bruise, and though I’d tried to cover it with makeup, you could still see it, a purple cloud with little red streaks of broken capillaries inside, like a way-off storm, one you can hear and smell long before the rain ever gets to where you are. I’d planned to tell everyone I’d risen in the middle of the night and fallen down the stairs, but when they saw me, they didn’t ask. Even the detective, when he came for his second round of questioning, didn’t say a word. It was as if they’d expected it, as if this were natural in the chain of events: first lost boy, then bruised mother. I knew then that they thought I deserved it, which is what I’d thought all along, but hadn’t said.   

 

The dam, when it cracks, won’t affect our neighbor, as far as I can tell. His house is on a hill, and the water will likely flow right under his rickety bridge. At one time, the river came through here, slow and steady, Brian tells me, before the dam, before people hundreds of miles away needed electricity for their light bulbs and televisions, for all their black boxes that do nothing without it. What I have learned is that when the river returns, it won’t be the same river. All that time pushing against a wall will make you desperate. All that time, and you won’t care about this tidy home or that. If you are the river, you will say, show me a thing I can’t destroy, and if you are the dam, and you are tired of pushing back, you will secretly want to let go.

Now, as I cross the bridge, I think of Brian. At home, he is probably digging up our dead garden. There was a freak frost and then a dry spell and then some kind of bug that made lace of all the leaves. The garden was sad-looking for a while, and then one morning we woke up and everything was shriveled and bent over. Somehow it is my fault. This is understood.

Once I’m across, I stand on our neighbor’s doorstep, a plate of muffins balanced on my palm. At my feet is my empty pie tin, which I take as a good sign. I knock and then knock again and call brightly, “Hellooo!” with my nose to the window. Birds startle from a nearby tree, but no one comes to the door. I imagine the old man asleep in his rocker, the radio spinning the static that has always reminded me of rain. Better to let him sleep.

But as I crouch to leave the plate of muffins and retrieve my pie tin, I hear footsteps, slow and deliberate. I freeze. My heart begins to pound. Suddenly, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to meet whoever opens the door. I want to go home to Brian and forget about making friends, just live out the rest of our days talking only to the dogs. I calculate how far it is to the truck, how long it would take me to get there, slinking through the bushes, my shoes in my hand. But it’s too late for that.

The door swings open, and I am squatting eye to eye with a little blond girl.

“Mom!” she yells into my face. “That lady’s here again!”

From around the corner, footsteps and then tan, slender legs and manicured toes. I look up and there’s a dark-haired woman holding a baby in what looks like a very uncomfortable position for the baby. One leg folded up, the other dangling. One arm smashed into its side. The woman’s hair is cut into a fashionable bob and in her ears are tiny diamond studs like the ones I used to wear. In her hand is a tightly wrapped diaper the size of a softball. “Excuse me,” she says, and then hurls the diaper over my head and into the bushes behind me.

I stand and turn, and we all watch the diaper bounce once and disappear.

“Good throw,” I say.

“Sorry. If I put them in the trash, the whole house starts to smell rotten. I’m Lisa,” she says and thrusts out her hand, the one the diaper was in. I hesitate, but then shake it anyway.

“We told you,” the little girl says, not taking her eyes off me. “We told you it was a lady.”

“We told you!” comes another voice from somewhere inside the house.

“You were right, you were right, congratulations. Now take him, go play.” Lisa sets the baby teetering on the floor. The little girl tries to take his hand, but he wails and shakes it loose. “Fine!” the little girl shouts and runs off. The baby looks up at me and then over at his mother. Lisa hooks her thumb toward the living room and makes a clicking sound in the corner of her mouth like cowboys do to wrangle horses. The baby knows what this means. He takes off down the hall, his arms splayed for balance.

“No TV,” Lisa says to me, shaking her head. “They may all get murdered.”

“We don’t have it either,” I say. “I miss The Bachelor.”

“And Real Housewives.”

Project Runway.” We both nod and say “mmm” as if we are eating something delicious.

“Sorry about the other day,” she says. “I was dealing with a poop-meets-wall situation. The pie was good. We had it for dinner.”

I shoo her compliment away with my hand. There’s no way that pie was good. It was the first one I ever made, and it was lumpy and caved-in and the crust was burnt. But it was meant for an old man who probably ate beans out of a can all day and would have appreciated anything. “I thought a guy lived here,” I say. “An older guy? With gray hair?”

“Oh, he died. End of April, I think. A stroke, maybe? Now his son rents out the place. We’re here for June, calling it ‘family time.’ Which means right now my husband is stumbling around drunk in the woods with a loaded rifle, and me and the kids are here with no TV. Just having a ball.” Though she says this wryly, I can tell she’s a good mother, even in the wilderness. She loves her kids, who are all safely unlost in the living room.

“That’s terrible,” I say.

“Eh. We get by. ”

I meant the old man and his stroke, but I let it slide. I picture the last time we saw him, his old rusted truck chuffing up the hill, his thin frame slumped over the steering wheel. It seems like just the other day. But now I’m wondering how long ago it really was. The days, I think, might be slipping by me.

Lisa leans against the doorframe and raises her leg to scratch a mosquito bite on her ankle. She does it with her fingers in the shape of a V, scratching around the bite like her mother probably taught her. “How long are you here for?” she wants to know.

“For good,” I say. “We live down the hill.”

“Oh. Oh, I see.” I can tell she feels sorry for me, that she can’t imagine living in a place without restaurants and movie theatres and coffee shops, and I want to tell her that I can’t either, that all of this seems like it’s happening to someone else. The real me, I know, is back in the city eating at Spiro’s and cutting Cody’s spaghetti into little pieces. The real me is walking down a street and seeing herself in all the broad windows and thinking at least ten different easy things, none of which are garden or dam or stroke. But I know how she must see me: the cutoffs and work shirt, the tennis shoes caked with mud, and before I can tell her about living in the city, about my hair that was cut just like hers, and my own pair of diamond stud earrings buried somewhere in a drawer, before I can begin convincing her that she and I would have been friends, we hear from inside a loud thud and then a slap and then the baby begins to cry.

Lisa yells over her shoulder, “You better work it out before I work it out for you!”

We hear a chorus of shushes and some shuffling. Then a lone, muffled “sorry.”

“I better go,” Lisa tells me. “They’re probably feeding him poison.”

“Ha,” I say, “rat poison,” trying to be funny. And then immediately regret it. If Brian were here, he would be frowning now and looking down to toe the dirt. But Lisa snorts and I can tell she is laughing even though she’s covered her mouth with her hand. “Those little pellets!” she squeals between her fingers.

At home, Brian has taken down the front shutters and laid them across two sawhorses. He’s meticulously scraping away the flaking paint with a flat tool that looks like a sandbox toy. What I never knew about Brian before, but have learned since we’ve been here, is that he is never bored. He can always, always find something to do, even if that something is a terrible waste of time like scraping paint off shutters no one will ever see but us. “How did it go?” he asks.

I know I should come clean about the old man and his rented house filled with kids—I even want to tell him about Lisa and her diaper softball—but here is what I say instead: “I don’t think Cody’s feeling very well. He may have had a small stroke.”

“Oh,” he says, scraping. “You were gone a long time.”

“He had me get some high things off a shelf.”

Brian blows away the paint and runs his hand across the raw wood. This is his trick, to pretend he isn’t listening.

“He’s in a wheelchair. Did I tell you that?”

He stops and turns to me. The flakes of paint in his hair make him look ten years older. “But we just saw him driving.”

“I guess since then he’s had the chair. He said the pie was delicious.”

“Good for you,” he says, not unkindly. I think for a minute he is actually going to smile at me. The corners of his mouth are turning up, but instead of feeling relieved, I feel like I am watching a wounded animal try to run. I can’t help but grimace. Brian sees the look on my face and rearranges his mouth into a skeptical line. “What did you say his last name is? This Cody?”

“I didn’t.”

“But he has one?”

“Of course he has one. He’s a person, isn’t he?”

Brian squints and fingers his temple. He turns back to his scraping. “I think that’s what we’re saying.”

The second lie I told on the day I lost my son was about a hat. I told the detective he was wearing one—a blue baseball cap with an orange fish on the front. I said this because it was a hot day, nearly ninety degrees in the city, and when we arrived at the park, I saw all of the other kids were wearing hats and even tiny pairs of sunglasses. I felt guilty about Cody’s little cheeks, which immediately began to pink, and I felt even guiltier later, when the detective started with his questions. I didn’t want to seem like a bad mother, even though it would be established eventually that I was, so I made up the part about the hat and watched him write it down on his little notepad. After he left, I could hardly breathe because I knew what I had done. The police would be looking for a little boy in a blue hat and would never find Cody, who was terribly, terribly hatless. The room around me began to come unstitched at the edges, and a strange sound made its way to my throat. I wheeled around, trying to find Brian to tell him what I’d done. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe we could find the detective and take back the part about the hat. But then Brian crossed the room without a word and took his palm to my cheek and everything slammed back into place like a carnival ride come to its end.

They never found Cody. At the end of the summer, Brian moved in with a friend because he said he needed some time, but I knew he just didn’t want to see my face. People used to say Cody looked just like me, which I’d always denied for Brian’s sake but took a secret pleasure in. Now I wished I could wipe away my features with one of those Magic Erasers used to clean chunks of food from kitchen baseboards. If I could, I’d trim down my nose and tuck away at my chin and leave myself only thin wisps for brows. Maybe then my husband wouldn’t wince every time he looked at me.

After Brian moved out, I stopped showering. And then I stopped eating. And a little while after that, I counted fifteen blue pills into my palm and took them slowly, with just enough water so that I didn’t throw them back up.

When I woke in the hospital, Brian was holding my hand. In the corner, a monitor showed my pulse in steady peaks. I knew I shouldn’t make a joke, but I couldn’t stand the blue vein of worry running down the middle of his forehead. “Drats,” I said, despite myself. “So much for subtlety.”

“Stop it,” Brian said, and then, “Listen.” He massaged his beard until the hairs stood on end. “I’ll come back,” he said, “but we have to get out of the city.”

And what could I say? Could I say no, Brian, let’s go back to our apartment where there is Cody’s empty bed and his dresser filled with too many multi-colored T-shirts, so many they are spilling from the drawers, so many you might mistake them for a string of handkerchiefs, the kind magicians slowly pull from their mouths, a trick to make you believe something small and bright can go on forever.

I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t say anything. So I just nodded and closed my eyes and let Brian sell our things and move us to this place where I have dreams that a wall of water is rushing towards us. Sometimes I can hear a humming that seems to come from two places at once: from far down the creek and also somewhere inside me, as if the dam is as much aware of me as I am of it. As if I need only to step onto the porch and open my arms.

 

When I emerge from the house having showered and wearing mascara, my hair pulled back into a knot at my neck, Brian raises his eyebrows. He’s on the porch teaching himself how to whittle. The dogs, who are sleeping at his feet, are covered in shavings. The piece of wood in his hand looks a little like a person and a little like a penis. “Again?” he asks. “You were just there yesterday.”

“Cody’s sick,” I say. “It’s sad.” I walk past him, but he gets up and follows me, the dogs at his heels. I climb inside the truck and roll down the window. Brian leans inside the cab, excavating the grime under his nails with his pocketknife. For a moment, I’m reminded of my husband as a younger man. Back then, if I ever canceled a date, he would show up anyway with a cheap bouquet and sit on my doorstep. My roommates would step over him on their way in or out and report back. “He’s just sitting there,” one would say. “It’s creepy.” But I didn’t think it was creepy. I thought it was proof he loved me.

“This Cody,” he says. “He’s how old?”

“I don’t know. Seventyish.”

He scans the inside of the truck. “And he’s fine with you showing up uninvited? He doesn’t have something better to do?”

“Believe it or not,” I say, “some people actually like talking to me. Because I’m nice. And funny. And if you stopped hating me long enough—”

“Come on,” Brian says. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“No. I’m not.” I start the truck, but he doesn’t move. He’s trying to get me to stop being ridiculous by convincing me how ridiculous I am. “You’re all dressed up!” he says. “You’re wearing perfume!”

“I have green eyes! I have two arms!” I flail them around in a variation of jazz hands. “Do you have a point? Or are you just making observations?”

“You’re different,” he says, his eyes like stones.

I remember the slap, the sting of his palm on my cheek. It was the last time he touched me on purpose. “Well, you were different first,” I say and put the truck in gear, but he stands his ground. He leans into the door and even crosses his arms over the window’s threshold. His lip is turning up at the corner and it could almost be a smile, but it isn’t.

I think of Lisa’s little girl trying to hold the hand of the baby brother who doesn’t want her. At the moment, though, I’m not sure which one of us she is. I gun it, and the truck lurches forward. Brian yelps and jumps back, and I can see him in the rearview mirror with his arms raised, and the dogs are barking and leaping straight up into the air as if he has signaled them, as if this is their cue to perform. But I am already halfway up the hill, and the sound of the engine is the only sound I hear.

Across the bridge, the front door is flung wide. In the kitchen, Lisa and the kids look up from their cereal and stare at me.

“It was open,” I say.

They all turn to look pointedly at the baby, who is swirling Cheerios around on his highchair tray. “It’s his new thing,” Lisa says. “He’s figured out about locks.”

Everyone looks a little glazed over, although it’s almost noon. Lisa wears thick eyeglasses and a spiky ponytail. The little girl and a little boy I haven’t seen yet are both naked but for their underwear. I lean awkwardly against the refrigerator for a few seconds, and then Lisa seems to rally. “Judith,” she says to the little girl. “Scootch.” Obediently, Judith slides into the next chair. “You hungry? We’ve got all kinds,” Lisa says, shaking a cereal box in my direction.

I tell her no thanks and that I’m heading to town, that I can bring her back something if she needs it.

“Actually,” she says and begins rummaging around in some cabinets. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt that barely covers her rear. The backs of her legs are red and sweaty from the vinyl seat of her chair. “Do you think you could bring me a couple of cans of—”

“Lisaaaaa!” The sound that comes from the other end of the house is more like a growl than someone’s name. Though she has her back to me, I see Lisa’s shoulders tense, the stiffening of her arms, how her fingers clench into claws. At the table, the little boy has knocked over his bowl. Pink milk drips onto the floor.

“Lisaaaa!”

“Shit,” Lisa says.

“Shit,” Judith says.

“Mom?” says the little boy.

Lisa turns to him. “It’s fine. He probably just wants to know who’s here.” She looks at me. “Can you watch them? Just for a minute?”

  I nod fervently. To show I’m qualified, I pull some paper towels from the roll on the table and begin sopping up the puddle on the floor. Lisa disappears around the corner, and the baby twists in his highchair to watch her go. We hear the bedroom door open and then the click of the lock.

Judith refills the boy’s bowl with Fruity Pebbles. “That’s our dad,” she says. “He’s sleeping it off.”

In his highchair, the baby begins to whimper. His chin quivers, and he smashes his palms into his eyes.

“No, no,” I say, “everything is fine. Look! Look at these yummy Cheerios!” I give them a little swirl, but the baby is having none of it. He wants his mother, and it’s clear to me even before the minutes begin to tick by that she’s going to be awhile. I unhitch him from his chair and set him on the ground, but this, it seems, is a terrible decision. He gives me a look that says, This? Now this? and collapses on the kitchen floor. He wails into the linoleum, his fingers flexing against the shiny squares. Judith and the little boy have come to stand by me, and we all watch the baby writhe on the floor.

“Well?” Judith says, looking up at me.

There is nothing to do but pick him up, which I realize I have been avoiding. And now I know why. He immediately finds the curve of my shoulder and buries his head there, his face shellacked to my neck by a thin layer of drool. The kids wander into the living room, and the baby and I do a lap around the kitchen. He clenches my shirt in his wet fist and makes a noise like a car alarm but very, very far away.

Somewhere, across a distance, I am sitting on a park bench. I look away for a moment, and my son is gone. This is what is written in the police report. This is what I told Brian and the detectives and anyone else who asked. I’ve never said that I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I’ve never said that I’d forgotten my sunglasses, and that the sun threw dappled shadows on my eyelids. No one knows that for maybe half an hour before I faded into sleep, I listened to my son playing nearby with another child, the sound like birds chasing each other in the trees.

In the kitchen, the baby’s head lolls against my shoulder. Muffled voices funnel down the hall. The children in the living room march tiny horses along the windowsills. At home, Brian is probably dismantling some part of the house. I see his face, his paint-flecked beard, his expression as he crossed the room that day to strike me. It is the same look he would give me if he saw me holding this baby—the confusion and anger and fear—as if by holding him, I am forgetting about our son. I am losing Cody all over again. Inside me, something small but essential begins to break. Heat seeps and brims in the pit of my stomach. I think of Brian on my doorstep all those years ago. He wasn’t angry or jealous. He didn’t ever demand to know where I’d been. He only ever wanted to trust me. I feel a rising in my throat—bile or a scream, I don’t want to find out. What is clear is that I cannot hold this baby a second longer. I pry my shirt from his fist and lay him down on the kitchen rug. Then I slip quietly out the door.

When I reach the bottom of the hill, I turn right instead of left and park the truck alongside the creek. I leave my shoes in the cab and climb down the embankment to stand ankle-deep in the water. Even in summer, the creek is cold, but the ache in my toes is better than the heat in my stomach. I keep my back to the dam. I think of Lisa and what she will do when she emerges from the bedroom to find her son on the floor. I think of her husband and of my own husband and how it seems no matter where we are lost—whether in the woods or the city or the park—the hardest part is never finding our way back. The hardest part is explaining the moment when we strayed.

That day in the park, I could hear Cody’s voice moving away from me. I told myself he was fine, the park was safe. I told myself I deserved a few minutes alone with the sun and with the trees moving overhead. On the shore of sleep, I thought of stupid things—a blouse I’d seen in a store window, all the potential colors of my hair. I have always thought I would know if my son were in trouble, the way you can sometimes anticipate the ringing of the phone or what song will play next on the radio, that my scalp would tingle or the hairs on my arms would stand on end. But when I opened my eyes, I still didn’t know he was gone. I gathered my things. I looked in all his favorite places. What are we, I want to know, if we are not connected to each other? What keeps us here?

Behind me, the dam is holding back every drop it was built to contain. Its concrete walls are eight feet thick. It is designed to collapse in and not out. Brian told me this. He meant to comfort me with this information. He meant to help me sleep. But what can he do about the dreams? The wall of water rushing towards us? And what about the dream I haven’t told him yet, the one where I sit beside the woman who is sleeping on the bench? The one where I watch our son walk away. What can he do as our son looks up and takes a stranger’s hand? What can he do as Cody takes a step, and then another? This, I know, is how the years will reveal themselves. This is how the time will pass. Always, our son will look back over his shoulder as he moves away. Always, his mother will sleep beside me, on and on through the years, her head tilted back as if she is watching something very small and very high moving in the air above her.