Spring 2015, Volume 18

Fiction by David Long


The first sign of anything wrong was the frozen-mouth look Julie Vestry gave her in the foyer, but you never knew with Julie, so Caro headed into the new wing for her AP chemistry quiz (which she aced).  It wasn’t until second period, when Abby and Dara found her in the library, then strong-armed her into the stacks that she heard about Jeremy.  C’mon, you guys—  she began to say, but this wasn’t any joke.  His neck broke, supposedly, Abby said.  It had to be at least a hundred feet.  Where had they gotten this, Caro asked, and Abby said, It’s on the freaking radio, Caro.  But her friends had to split then.  She couldn’t think what to do next, started fast-walking toward the doors to the student lot, then remembered her father’d dropped her off today in order to take the studded tires off her Civic, so she ended up going to French as usual.  Mme. Bertrand was showing The Red Balloon.  Caro sat in the semi-dark, eyes open but unfocused, thinking about Jeremy, feeling almost sick to her stomach.  They’d been kitty-corner from one another at Pickering, both fifth and sixth grade (Balfour, Beall), never best buddies, but often in the same work group.  Jeremy could seem too solemn or passive or unhopeful—even now she couldn’t decide how to put it.  But he wasn’t one of those fart-joking red-faced boys who disrupted things.  He had a nice singing voice.  She remembered how his shirts were loose on him, the shirts of grown man, but a small one, hung so long in a closet they’d gone past being out of date and seemed kind of cool.  Later, when she and Jeremy got to the big high school, she felt somehow connected to him, she discovered, like they’d come from the same home town.   After French, Mr. O’Sullivan stopped her in the hall and asked her into his inner office where a barrel-shaped policewoman was waiting, a Lt. Frimmer.  You’ve gotten the news, I guess, Mr. O’Sullivan said, not unkindly.  Caro said yes.  Immediately, LTV. Frimmer asked if she’d seen Jeremy over the weekend.  No, Caro answered.  Not since last weekFriday?   Mr. O’Sullivan was still standing, his rear against the edge of his desk, slicking back the straggle of hairs on his scalp.  Actually, Jeremy hadn’t been in school Friday, he said.  Wednesday or Thursday, then, Caro said.  I mean, we didn’t talk or anything—   LTV. Frimmer asked when Caro had spoken to him.  The week after spring break, she said.  We drove out to the Steel Bridge and sat on one of the picnic tables.  It was—    Both adults looked at her.  One of the first nice days, she finished.  The LTV. said,  And you broke it off with him?  Caro frowned.  There was nothing to break off.  Now the policewoman frowned, then said, According to his mother, you and the boy—   but Caro burst out, You can’t trust what she says.  You must’ve seen how she’s in her own world?  The policewoman flipped over a page of her steno pad, and read:  Jeremy started seeing the Balfour girl around New Year’s.  He was hardly home after that.  I told him he ought  to bring her down here sometime.  He said he would but he never did.  He was so ashamed of everything, my weight problem—   Caro said again the part about her was just untrue.  They could check with anybody.  You weren’t going out, that’s what you’re saying?  Caro said, Not how you mean.  There was a clammy silence.  I didn’t do anything to him, Caro said.  You’re making it sound like I—   Mr. O’Sullivan cleared his throat a couple of times.  Carolyn, he said, we’re only trying to piece together this awful—   Outside, someone kept kicking an under-inflated ball against the brick wall—it was making her head hurt.  Hap.  Hap.  Thap.  The Lt. asked how Jeremy had seemed on the drive back from the river that day.  Was he angry with you—or what?   Caro said, He didn’t get mad.  I mean, ever.  In the car, he was like, Sorry I wasted your time, CaroNot sarcastic—that’s how he really—   She looked back and forth between her inquisitors; a b.b. of sweat coursed down the center of her back.  She went on, What his mother said—?   When school started after Christmas, Jeremy said he was really scared he wouldn’t get any scholarship money.  He wanted to take his SATs over, so I said I’d work with him, on the math and science?  We did that a while, after school—Mr. Pine said it was OK to use the band room.  But then I saw that Jeremy wanted . . . more of a relationship?  I wasn’t encouraging him that way, I just felt bad he didn’t have much going for him in the way of . . . resources, you know, at home.  Then I thought, Keep an open mind, Caro.  We could try going out, and see if—    So we did, a couple weekends.  We went to my friend Abby’s party, and did some, well, other things, but I didn’t feel any different about him, I wasn’t—   Her mother called it getting hot and bothered, Your father had me all hot and a bothered—  but Caro couldn’t bear saying even that much, not in here.  Mercifully, the buzzer for second lunch went off then.  Everyone waited until it stopped.  Finally, it was Mr. O’Sullivan who said, Carolyn, I know this is terribly upsetting, but you see how they need to establish certain . . . facts.  Early in the morning like that, the railings would’ve been slick with dew, very treacherous.  In all likelihood, this was  . . . an accidental thing, I’m sure that’s what they’ll decide, but there’s the possibility—

He stopped, looked not at Caro but at the linoleum.  Lt. Frimmer slid a card from her breast pocket, passed it to Caro, asked her to please call if anything else came to her.  Caro nodded, closed her eyes for a moment, gathering herself.  Then she said, They’re going to, you know, paint over—?   Mr. O’Sullivan said, I’m sure they will, Carolyn.  Getting to her feet with a small grunt, Lt. Frimmer added, The way this city works I wouldn’t hold my breath.  It turned out that a crew was dispatched to the water tower the next week.  But the paint they used was more of a gunmetal gray than the original silver, and only drew attention to the fact that something had been covered over.  Then, shortly afterward, it bled through, anyway.  Eight-foot-high crimson letters: 

                      C   A   R   O

The rest of that spring, and all summer, driving to her job at the city pool, she had to look at them.  And then she left for college.


He’s conscious enough to be drastically confused.  His head’s pounding like wa wa wa wa, his face is hanging, heavy as a sandbag, his eyes feel swollen to bursting, and something caustic’s in them, he flashes on spilled antifreeze, that sicky sheen, finds he can’t free either hand to swipe at them, now tastes it leaking into the corner of his mouth, and it’s that limeade his daughter drinks, his pale daughter with the moles, the willow-stick legs, whose name will come to him in a second.  He was driving her somewhere.  He tries to call out, can’t, his throat too gummy to make words . . . but no, no, he already dropped her off, ballet class, he sees her rushing away, down the stone steps, pink sweat-clothes over tights, no goodbye or anything, then he remembers her at home going Please please please, I can’t be late again, bouncing from foot to foot as if she had a full bladder.  No good telling her, Settle down, sweetheart.  So, OK, he was going back across the river alone.  Gray dregs of an afternoon.  Turned off Sturtevant, then up onto the lower deck of the Fallon Ave. Bridge, its concrete so pocked you see rusted rebar in spots, the last thing he remembers being the thock thock, thock thock of the spacers . . . and he’s still in the Isuzu, it must be standing straight up on its grille, the shoulder harness holding him sling-like.  He’s getting no response from his left arm.  The right works but won’t reach the belt release no matter how he twists and wriggles . . . is his foot caught on something?  He remembers being jammed down into a bank of spring snow once, up to his armpits, might as well have been wet concrete, wild panic in every cell of him suddenly.  Does he smell gasoline?  No, it’s a gypsumy smell, pulverized sheetrock . . . his head swivels enough to see that the back end’s crushed like a soda can.  Billows of bad air are chuffing in through the missing glass.  He yanks the neck of his shirt up over his nose, but it won‘t stay . . . his lips, his tongue are coated already, and there’s no spit to spit with.  He thrashes and grunts his torso free of the harness, crumples shoulder-first into the pedal well, rights himself, finally relieving  the pressure within his skull.  Haley, he thinksHis daughter.  He shields his nose and mouth again, simply breathes a moment, panting almost, trying to hear.  There’s a whining, skirling sound like assembling wasps—could be sirens, but it’s so damped down, maybe it’s only his tinnitis, his choir of angels.  Now he feels how everything’s vibrating, quivering.  He can’t stay here.  He picks up his useless arm, flops it in his lap, reaches into the glove box for the flashlight, clicks it on.  The bulb offers a tiny punkpoint of pumpkin-colored light.  Good shitting Christ, he says to no one.  The driver-side door opens when he tries it, but only four or five inches, hitting solid concrete then.  The passenger’s is askew and won’t open at all, not even when kicked, same with its window.  Maybe if he’d had on hard-soled boots—instead, he rushed out of the house in his Crocs.  It’s like beating on the glass with sponge cake.  If he could just . . . what about the tire iron?  No, everything back of the rear wheels is flattened scrap metal.  And now he remembers that in here somewhere is the steel blade of a shovel from when he buried the orange cat, weeks ago.  Drove up into the woods, found a nice spot, and when he was finished he beat the spade against a tree until the handle broke off.  Upright, his head feels less engorged, but the throbbing’s still there, so specific, like needle-tipped calipers tightening on his temples.    He stretches his upper body across the horizontal seat back, feels around in the dark, one-handed, recognizes an oily camp blanket, a section of the Trib, a skinny paper box that once contained hot breadsticks.  No metal.  The shaking has picked up momentum, he thinks, listening again—some surface of the vehicle is jittering on the concrete, and farther off there’s another noise, a wincing, tooth-pulling sound, except stuttery, then everything just . . . drops, a meter or more, a single booming crank of some ratchet.  He cries out, one involuntary Aahh—   that goes nowhere.  But the tremoring stops dead.  There’s pure silence. Outside, it must be growing dark, he thinks, that disheartening before-supper twilight of early November.  But, in here, if anything, he can see slightly better, his pupils dime-sized by now.  He gets a clearer idea of where he is . . . in a gap between plates of concrete bridge deck that somehow failed to annihilate him when they fell, and again just now, settled hard without toppling domino-fashion.  And why isn’t he underwater?   The river’s run low since mid-summer, but it’s not that low.  Keep moving, he tells himself, but for seconds can’t.  Like the nerves in his arm, which are starting to revive, firing sparks from his fingertips down toward his palm, other districts of his mind are waking—he sees the traffic ahead of him on the bridge span, all the flaring brake lights . . . he’s not crushed, not drowned, but they are, they are, people like him, no different.  Finally, pushing off with his feet, he hooks his good arm over the back seat, braces himself and reaches into what remains of the far back . . . and there’s the shovel blade.  Moments later, though he can’t work up much backswing, the passenger side window explodes into shards no bigger than sequins.  And then he’s out of the upended Rodeo, squatting, crab-walking across razory debris.  The floor’s definitely damp, the concrete maybe wicking up water from underneath.  It has to be twenty degrees colder down here, and he’s in a lightweight dress shirt—wanted to avoid making his daughter any antsier, so he aborted the hunt for his jacket.  Air’s whistling through a skinny triangle of space between the plates, not choked with cement dust now, but dank-smelling, like river muck, fishy.  He hears a bullhorn, and a noise that could be a portable generator, and more sirens.  But they’re so muted, so far off . . . a party in someone else’s neighborhood.  Now that he’s on all fours, head inside this crevasse, it’s discouraging to see no trace of flashing lights.  He curls his shoulders, works his upper body in, then his hips.  His left hand’s zinging in earnest now, but the arm’s still a ragdoll arm, no help.  He stalls a moment in the pitch dark, stretched out on his belly, forehead on the weeping concrete.  Maybe the air current fooled him, he thinks, maybe the passage keeps narrowing, and the instant he imagines the sheer mass of rock closing in around him, the old panic storm threatens to roar through him.  Stop, he says, out loud, forcibly emptying his mind, as he was taught, as he does when he’s blindsided by the knowledge that when he’s dead he’ll be dead for the entire rest of time.  So he wiggles back out into what he now thinks of as the big room, quickly stands, tucks the bad hand in the waistband of his ruined slacks, and starts springing up and down on his toes to get warm, thinks of his daughter in the front hall again, how she’s always scared something terrible will happen to her if she’s not perfect.  He scrabbles back up to his seat, pokes the headlight switch.  Only one comes on, and with the lens lying flat against the concrete, virtually no light escapes—all he gets is the amber glow of a single parking lamp.  It takes another quarter hour to determine that no other seam in this hodgepodge of stony surfaces will let his body through.  He tries the horn.  Not knowing Morse code, he settles for sets of three medium-long toots, stops, listens, honks again, until the failing battery reduces them to the bleats of a pubescent boy.  He lets out a long breath, does nothing for a while.  Then he fishes out the blanket, climbs back down, drapes it about his shoulders and sits.  Is her class over? he wonders.  Is she perched on the brick wall, watching for him, seeing the others all disperse?  How long before she calls her mother?  Oh, babe, babe— he says softly.  He waits in the dark, running his hand across the stubble on his scalp, over and over, over and over, finally pictures his former wife arriving, the white xenon beams sweeping across the figure of his daughter where she waits unhappily with her gym bag and sore feet.  He sees her get in, sees the car speed away, its taillights growing smaller and smaller until they can no longer be seen. 





BIO: David Long was born in Boston, and spent many years in Northwest Montana, before relocating to Tacoma, Washington. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Granta, Story, and many anthologies, including the O. Henry and Pushcart Prize volumes.  His third collection of stories, Blue Spruce (1997), was given the Lowenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the 1970s, he was a student of Richard Hugo and William Kittredge at the University of Montana.

His novels include The Falling Boy (1997), The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux (2000), and The Inhabited World (2006). He is at work on a book of essays on sentence craft [Dangerous Sentences], a book of short fiction [Bonfire], and a new novel.  He is married and has two grown sons.