by Matt Coz
Winner, Slippery Elm Prize in Prose
I’m smoking a cigarette on the diving board at my mother’s house. She’s asleep. Unwanted memories cocoon me as I gaze into the sultry darkness, as the diving board creaks and wobbles with each movement I make.
I’m home for the summer from college, a summer I’ve dreaded because instead of renting a house with my friends, I’m here. I’m here because my mom says she’s finally ready to sell the house. She’s enlisted me to help her box it up, put it on the market and orchestrate the landscapers, pool company, photographer and realtor who are coming tomorrow to get it in sell-ready shape. The realtor’s words, not mine.
I ash the cigarette over the thick tarp that has covered the pool for the past seven years, and the ash hits the stagnant water sitting atop with a sizzle. Years of rainwater, leaves, dirt, and sticks have settled on the tarp, creating a full-on ecosystem. I shine my phone flashlight onto the pool and see tadpoles, minnows, and frogs circling around the naturally grown grass, stirring up cloudy algae.
Sometimes—even when I’m not at my mom’s house—I wonder what the water under the tarp has grown into. I envision slimy goop, bubbling and burping, emitting a stench that steams upward like the smoke from my cigarette. Or perhaps there is nothing in there at all. When these thoughts cross my mind, I consider lifting the tarp and taking a peek, but I don’t; the pool was covered for a reason.
The air is dense with musty tobacco that’s grown just beyond the crumbling stone wall in the backyard. A dog lets out string of barks somewhere. A singular gunshot in the distance. There’s no moon, no stars, and when I turn off my flashlight, my vision becomes limited to the light of the glowing ember when I inhale.
The pool stays covered because seven years ago my little sister Macy fell in and never resurfaced.
There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think of it, dream of it. The story has changed in my head so many times it’s difficult to tell truth from testament. I don’t talk about it, and most people who know me today never knew I had a sister. But if I ever get to know someone well enough, this is the story that I’ll tell:
My dad’s lawn mower rumbled and choked outside my bedroom window as I sandwiched my head between my pillows to no avail. I picked the crust out of my eyes, dressed, brushed my teeth, and went outside. As I stepped out the front door, I breathed in a comforting smell of familiarity, one of freshly cut grass, tilled soil, and manure. It was a July morning in Connecticut, one week after my thirteenth birthday.
My dad pushed the lawn mower along the cedar fence, the dust and gray smoke trailing wherever he went. My mother, with her big straw hat, knelt on a foam pad picking weeds in the garden. My dog Opey sprawled out in a sunspot on the asphalt and Macy was jumping rope next to him on the hopscotch-graffitied driveway. She was barefoot, already in her one-piece bathing suit, chanting to the beat of the rope slapping against the ground: Ashes, ashes, we all fall down! She stopped as I passed by.
“Wanna go look for arrowheads in the woods?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Wanna go swimming instead? We can play Sharks and Minnows in the pool!”
“I just woke up, Macy. Maybe later. Besides I gotta go work on my tree house.”
“Can I help?”
“Maybe later, Macy.”
I woke Opey and together we took off, running down the slope in the backyard, across the meadow. We stood before the eastern white pine in which I planned to build my tree house. I took off my shirt—the sap had ruined far too many shirts for my mother’s liking—and climbed the tree. As I snaked myself through the limbs, I wrapped my arms around a thick branch and looked down at Opey, who was standing with two paws against the tree, tongue out, nose up, as if he’d spotted a raccoon.
“When we build stairs, you’ll be able to come up here, Ope,” I hollered down to him.
The tree house was nothing more than a few two-by-fours haphazardly nailed to the trunk of the tree where my initials are carved. It would stay like that, unchanged, like the pool.
I straddled the thick branch shirtless, barefoot and speckled with sap. Using my dad’s hammer, I attempted to nail another two-by-four to the trunk.
“Mikey! Down here!” I heard as I struck a nail. I looked down and Macy stood below, stroking Opey’s tail, staring up.
“I wanna come up,” she said. She grabbed onto the lowest branch, unable to pull herself up.
“You’re not old enough,” I said. “Why don’t you go look for arrowheads or play in the pool?”
The next time I looked down, Macy was gone.
I finished hammering the nail through the board, forever securing it to the trunk of the tree, and maneuvered myself down. I called for Opey, who had taken shelter in the cool shadow of a juniper bush. Energy depleted, we walked across the meadow, up the slope towards the pool, eagerly awaiting the coolness of the water and the chance to rid the sap that prevented the beads of sweat from forming on the base of my skin. And as we were walking: a shriek. It was a noise I had heard only one other time in my life, when my family and I were driving on an empty highway in the middle of the night in Maine and hit a deer. The deer didn’t die. When we got out of the car, the back half of the deer was wedged under the right front tire. It shrilled from the back of its throat louder than anything I’d ever heard in my life.
But this scream wasn’t from a deer; it was from my mother. It was a shrill so piercing I can still feel it in my ribs today. I ran to the pool’s edge, where my mother, dripping wet, knelt over Macy. She pressed her flat and fragile chest. Macy’s mouth was agape and her eyes open. She stared at me, but she didn’t blink. There was a different person behind her eyes. My mother’s straw hat floated in the water.
My parents argued over what to do with Macy. My father wanted her buried; my mother wanted her cremated. They argued about this on the car ride to the funeral home to make her arrangements. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been involved in this, but I understood why my parents didn’t want to leave me at home alone.
It was the stuffy funeral director named Elton who settled the argument with a compromise. We would rent a casket for the wake and funeral and then she would be cremated. “It’s really the best of both worlds,” Elton said, pushing his tinted glasses to his eyebrows with his index finger. My father’s arm wrapped tightly around my mom as she buried her face in a Kleenex.
Macy’s casket was small. I didn’t know they made caskets that size. I thought they would center her in a normal sized one, but hers was a special one. Had it been up to me, I would have given her the extra legroom to grow into.
My mom left midway through the funeral. She stood up while the priest was doing his thing and just walked out. She skipped her eulogy and everything. When it ended, we found her leaning on the roof of the car, smoking a cigarette. I had never seen her smoke before.
Shortly after the funeral, my dad moved into the guest room across the hall from mine. They divorced a year later. He moved halfway across the country and married a Pilates instructor from Wichita who’s six years older than me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.
As I’m sitting on the diving board, consumed by the night, I wonder why Macy’s ashes still sit on the fireplace mantel, and why my mom has subjected herself to staying in the house alone, refusing to adjust to life without Macy.
I take one more puff from the cigarette, one that tastes like foam from the filter, and flick it into the pool. I turn on my flashlight and watch the different creatures curiously sniff and nibble at it before becoming disinterested, realizing it isn’t food.
The next morning I wake to the distant sound of a lawn mower, a sound that reminds me of my father. The landscapers are here. It’s Saturday morning and my mom has conveniently decided to run errands, leaving me to coordinate the moving mess.
The pool company arrives and I walk the gentlemen to the mini pond that has formed on the tarp. They don’t say anything, but I can tell they’re in awe with what’s before them. I see the cigarette butt still floating there, starting the slow process of disintegration into the murky water like the many before it.
The three pool men deliberate over how to drain the tarp and what to do with the creatures; it’s too heavy for them to carry. They run a hose through the hedges, down the small hill to the meadow and pump the water out. When the water drains, they muscle the tarp off the pool and before I can see what’s underneath, I leave. I hold open the pool gate as they trail behind me, carefully balancing the creatures, debris and muck on the tarp. They follow me down the small hill to the meadow and lay the tarp on the ground, giving the minnows and tadpoles one last chance to find a puddle or pond before it’s too late. I crouch over the tarp as the little creatures squirm and wiggle in the hot sun. Some hop into the meadow, others just lie there, accepting their fate. They lose life by the second and it’s mesmerizing to watch.
The peppy real estate agent and the photographer arrive later in the day, just as the landscapers are leaving and the pool is almost full. I follow the realtor as she walks around the yard, as if she’s the conductor of the for-sale ensemble.
“Good, good. Everything is in order,” she says while instructing the photographer to take pictures of this and that. “Boy did this place need a makeover! We’ll finish off the pictures, I’ll print the brochures and that For Sale sign will be front and center in the yard first thing tomorrow morning. Whatdya think about that?” she says, lightly punching my shoulder.
I’m awakened the next morning to the rhythmic sound of clanking. Metal on Metal. When I look out the window I see the real estate lady sledgehammering a steel beam in the ground next to the mailbox. I watch as she attaches the wooden signpost to the steel beam and then hangs the for-sale sign. She takes a step back, wipes her forehead with her wrist and admires her work.
When she leaves, I walk to the end of the driveway and look at the sign, which has a large, unnecessary photo of her face. I lean against the sign and look back at the property. It’s tidy and kept and someone will buy it not knowing the secret that it holds.
There’s a dense stack of flyers in a waterproof compartment attached to the signpost. It has the asking price, the square footage, acreage, various pictures and a brief description of the home. The first line reads: Amazing home, private lot, with a wonderful garden and a pool to die for. I take one of the pamphlets, fold it, and shove it in my pocket.
I’m sitting on the bench outside of the realtor’s office, smoking a cigarette, waiting for my mother to finish signing the papers. The man and the woman who bought the house pass before me. They hold hands, beaming, arm’s length away. There’s an urge to tell them something, but I’m not sure what to say.
They get into their car, a black SUV, and country music spills out of the open windows. The back of their car has two My Child is an Honors Student bumper stickers and another one that reads, My Golden Retriever is my Co-pilot. I watch them drive off, down Mountain Road, and wonder if they’re on their way to the new house.
My mother comes out of the office, sullen looking, and asks if I’ll drive back to the apartment we’ve been renting in the next town over. The peppy real estate lady stands in front of the building and waves as we back up and drive away. I’ll never see her again, and this doesn’t bother me at all.
“I met them,” my mother says, looking vacantly out the window. “The people buying the house, the couple, I just met them.”
“I saw them, too,” I say.
An awkward silence lingers over us as we drive down the road, past the gas stations and fast food joints that line the street.
“Pass me your cigarettes,” she says. “Please.”
I look at her blankly. “I don’t—”
“Pass me your pack. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
I reach into my coat pocket and pass her the pack and the lighter. She lights one, cracks the window and inhales deeply. We continue down Mountain Road, past the turnoff to our old house.
“I think they know,” my mother says as she blows smoke out the window. “I think they know about Macy.”
“I doubt it, mom.”
“I think it’s a law or something. That the realtor is required to tell the buyers if anyone died in the house.”
“Well they bought it anyways,” I say.
My mom looks as if she’s about to say something, but doesn’t. She leans her head against the window, takes a drag from the cigarette and closes her eyes.
Weeks pass and I’m counting the days until I go back to college, until I don’t have to share a bathroom with my mother anymore, until I can smoke freely, without judgment.
It’s Friday night and my mom is getting ready to go on her first date in decades with a man named Steve Fisher, a widower whom she met at church. Before he arrives she asks me things like “Does this match?” and “I look in-style, right?” to which I say yes. I hope Steve Fisher finds her nervousness as innocent as I do.
Steve knocks on the door. He’s a simple looking man with glasses, a white mustache, and a golf shirt tucked into khaki pants. He awkwardly hugs my mom, wrapping his arms around her waist, and then introduces himself to me, firmly shaking my hand. I wish them well and watch them out the window, wondering if he’ll open the car door for my mom. He does, they drive off, and I’m alone for first time since we moved into the apartment.
I rummage through the pantry in hopes of finding something to drink, something besides the rosé in the fridge. Buried deep in the back behind layers of canned goods is a half-empty bottle of bourbon, something that must have belonged to my dad at one point. I pour myself a few fingers with ice and pucker when I sip, not entirely convinced it tastes better than the rosé. As I drink, I find it oddly hopeful that my mother has kept it after all these years—hopeful because she could have thrown it out when we moved. It was as if she was planning my dad’s return, when he admits everything he did was wrong. And they laugh off the time that’s passed, drinking bourbon and rosé. But deep down I know for this dream to come true, Macy would have to still be alive.
I gravitate towards the shrine of Macy on the mantel above the electric fireplace in the living room. Her urn is front and center, and various pictures of her surround it. Next to the urn is a picture of Macy and me in the shallow end of the pool, arms wrapped around each other, both of us wearing silver reflective goggles. Angled next to that is a framed poem that I wrote about Macy. It’s wrinkled and creased into fourths; it’s the exact same poem that I took out of my suit coat pocket and read at the altar perched above Macy’s open casket: Your life was short/ Your love was long/ A brother alone/ A sister gone…
When I read this, I see Macy. I see her jumping rope. I see her lying on her back in her one-piece on the concrete. I see her, hands clasped, fingers intertwined, in the casket. My cheeks pulse. It feels like my heart is beating behind my eyes. I down the last of the bourbon and pick up Macy’s urn. Together we go outside and I buckle her into the passenger seat and start my mom’s car.
We drive down Mountain Road and turn onto Hickory Street, a back road that cuts through the endless fields of tobacco. The lid of Macy’s urn rattles with every bump and crack and I place my hand on top to silence it. We drive across town.
I turn onto a dirt road next to a red barn and kill the headlights. The road, once familiar and bare, now is overgrown and unused. Saplings, branches, and gravel snap underneath the car’s carriage as I drive. I nestle my car into the enclave of unkempt juniper bushes next to the barn, shielding my car from the road. It’s the same enclave where I parked my mom’s old station wagon and lost my virginity to Stephanie Spencer; the same enclave where my friends and I would drink my dad’s beer, smoke my mom’s cigarettes and light fireworks. I unbuckle the urn and step out of the car.
Cold sweat droplets slide from my armpits down the side of my body as I hold Macy’s urn before me and walk through the muddy rows of uncut tobacco. We stand at the edge of the tobacco field, on the fringe of a forest divided by a crumbling stone wall. I peer through the forest, through the tree trunks: a house in the distance. My old house.
I step over the wall and walk through the forest. The moonlight is soft and clear through the pines, casting a bluish hue on the forest floor below. My shoes squelch through the mud. The smell of moist cow shit is in the air. The bullfrogs croak and the crickets chirp, a relentless din that precludes me from thinking, from second guessing myself, from turning back.
I reach the skirt of the meadow and use my phone flashlight to find Opey’s gravestone. It’s just a piece of slate that I once painted, though it’s blank now and looks like nothing more than an out-of-place rock. Above is my unfinished tree house. The boards hang as they always have and through the darkness I can almost see the ghost of myself hammering a nail to the trunk.
I cradle Macy’s urn like a football and tiptoe through the dewy and overgrown meadow, the thistles as tall as me, fireflies flickering all around. The meadow blends into freshly cut grass and I’m soon crouched on the slope in my back yard staring at the silhouettes of a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl through the translucent curtains in the living room. I can see them eating pizza, watching an animated movie.
I creep towards the pool on the left, avoiding the reach of the outdoor lights. The metal pool gate is open and the pool light on, which casts hypnotic aquatic shadows on the concrete. The pool filter swallows, keeping a steady tempo of the night. A volleyball net hangs over the pool, a basketball hoop in the shallow end. Toys, balls, floats, and water wings are scattered around the pool’s edge. It’s how the pool was supposed to look.
The diving board wobbles and creaks as Macy and I walk to the edge and sit down, my legs dangling above the water. As I stare into the pool, I can almost see my mom’s straw hat floating there; I can almost hear my dad’s lawn mower choking in the distance. The pool feels empty without the tarp, without the ecosystem sitting atop it, and the silence of the night makes me realize why my mom kept the pool covered for the past seven years.
I take off the ceramic top of the urn and hold Macy before me, holding her above the water. Don’t worry, I’m here, I whisper, and gently pour her ashes in the pool. The ashes bunch and then slowly disperse, each flake drifting further apart. I know they’ll be skimmed off the pool with a net tomorrow, or perhaps even swallowed by the filter tonight. But it doesn’t matter. In this moment Macy isn’t dead or alive; she’s just there, floating.
As I’m staring into the water, I hear a noise—one that’s distinctly human. I put the top on the urn, stand up, and as I step off the diving board I’m staring into a flashlight beam.
“Hey!” a man shouts from the other end of the pool. “What the fuck are you doing here?” In his other hand is a wooden baseball bat.
I stand there motionless, briefly frozen in time. I drop the urn, and before I can hear it shatter on the concrete, I’m jumping over the hedges surrounding the pool, sprinting down the slope, through the meadow. The flashlight follows me as I run, the tall thistles exposing my whereabouts.
Sometimes I have dreams. Dreams where I see Macy flailing face-first in the water. Dreams where Macy sinks in the deep end like a pebble and my mother jumps in and tries to save her. Dreams where she is lying on the hot concrete looking at me but there’s a different person behind her eyes.
But the dream that haunts me the most—the dream that has stayed trapped in my mind for seven years—is the dream where I’m shirtless, straddling a branch, hammering a board to the tree. The dream where I look down and Macy and Opey are standing below, looking up at me. The dream where Macy says, I wanna come up.
But in this dream nothing bad happens. In this dream, I rappel down, extend my hand, and help Macy climb the tree.