Memoir

Memories of Water

Most days when Daddy gets home from work, he takes his work boots off in the garage and trades his hard hat for a worn baseball cap. He empties his red and white lunch box in the kitchen, throws away the Devil Squares wrappers and pours out what’s left of the cold coffee in his thermos. He kisses Mama and asks what’s for dinner. I watch from the kitchen table, where I color pictures of Cabbage Patch Kids and He-Man. Daddy grabs a Miller Lite from the fridge and says, “Come on, kid. Let’s go to the pond.” I leave my half-colored picture and follow.

We climb through a hole in the fence behind the shed and cross the field behind our house. Daddy stalks through the tall grass ahead of me, skirting cows and hay bales, and I trample behind him, my cowboy boots protecting my bare legs from ticks and chiggers. The cows watch us move across the yellow-gold field, where the pond suddenly appears in a clearing beyond a gentle slope. Large rocks flank the water’s edge, and Daddy sits on the same one every day. He smokes cigarettes and drops the butts into empty cans, while I hop from rock to rock, bending down to catch minnows and toss pebbles into the water. We don’t talk. We don’t need to talk.

It’s enough that he lets me tag along. Since I don’t make too much noise, don’t have opinions of my own like my older brother and sister, Daddy has no reason not to like me. He likes the quiet. He sits and watches the water ripple and fold, his eyes squinting into the black pond, as if he’s concentrating or waiting. And I watch him watch the water. I think he must be looking for something, and I wonder if he comes to the pond hoping that the lost something will appear in the water like some hidden treasure, the key to his happiness released from the dark lagoon, floating up to the surface, offering itself to him. I want Daddy to find whatever it is he’s looking for. And I want to be there when he finds it, since at the age of five, I already know it isn’t me, or Mama, or my brother or sister, or God, or any of the things that make other people happy.

He sits for at least an hour as the sun purples beyond the hills. He stares into the center of the pond, smokes, and skips stones. I try to skip the flat stones that I gather into a pile, but mine plunk into the water, make loud plopping sounds, and scatter the tadpoles and minnows. Finally, I skip one of my stones across the water, and Daddy smiles and nods at me as if I’ve accomplished something truly amazing. “That’s the way, kiddo,” he says, rising from the rocks, stretching into the setting sun, shaking his head at the sky, at the water. He sighs and tells me we should head home before we get into trouble, and I always think it’s funny when he says this because how could a grown up get into trouble?

I follow him home, carrying some stick or rock I plan to keep forever. He holds the fence open for me, and I climb through, run down the hillside toward the house, where Mama is in the kitchen frying pork chops. Daddy stands outside until the sun hides itself behind the black sky; he looks across the field where the pond waits for him.

***

Despite a love of water, for years I have a recurring nightmare about drowning. In the dream, I’m at a lake with my family. The lake is murky and dirty, but we are excited to be there. We set up a picnic on the shore, and everyone is happy and laughing and eating ice cream. Even Daddy smiles and laughs and enjoys a vanilla cone. Then a voice from nowhere in particular commands everyone to get in the water, so we all drop our ice cream in the sand, swim out as far as we can, and wait for further instructions. I swim past the buoys, look around, and notice everyone else is somehow back on the shore, eating and laughing while I tread water in a panic. Then I begin to feel very heavy—sometimes, in the dream, I realize I’m still holding my ice cream, which seems to weigh me down—and I sink to the bottom of the lake. I sink until I stand on the bottom. It’s too black to see anything, but when I look up I see sunlight, so I swim and kick as hard as I can, and I make it to the surface, but the water is covered by a plate of glass, and I can’t push through. I see the sun; I somehow see my family on the beach, but I am stuck underwater. I can’t breathe. I exhaust myself kicking and thrashing and sink again into the cloudy water. I die, while my family eats ice cream on the beach. They’ve already forgotten about me.

I have this dream until I’m in my twenties. I always wake up buried under the covers, sweating and panting, looking for sunlight.

***

One afternoon, Mama and Daddy get into a fight, and I decide to run away and live beside the pond. I slip out and head to the pond by myself. Daddy has told me to never go alone, but I feel confident that I can make it. Only after I crawl through the fence behind the shed, I go left instead of right. I know I’m going the wrong way; I know the pond is on the other side of the field, but I run for the shadowy oaks instead. I tell myself I can go wherever I want because I’m running away, which is a thing I’ve heard kids say on television shows, but I have no idea what it really means to run away. Still, I run as fast as I can straight for the woods, where it’s dark and scary and nothing like the bright spot in the field where the pond lives. I walk in the woods for what feels like hours until I circle back to the field again, and I can see my house in the distance. I worry that I’ll get in trouble for leaving the house without an adult; I forget about running away.

When I bounce into the house, breathless from sprinting back home, my parents are still arguing in the bedroom—they never knew I left. I go into my brother’s room and tell him I ran away but decided to come back. He tells me to get out. I go into my sister’s room, and she’s getting ready for a date. What’s the point of running away, I think, if no one cares you left?

I don’t go back to the woods again, but I begin sneaking off to the pond almost every day. No one ever notices I’m gone. I skip stones and draw shapes in the mud. I become braver and braver each day, until I decide to get in the water. I test it with one foot, then two, and the day I slip on a rock and fall in, I don’t drown. I climb out and run home. I decide to say I was playing out back with the water hose.

***

When I’m six, we build a new house on the same road, but we no longer have access to the pond. I miss going to the pond with Daddy, and I wonder if he misses it too. Now when he gets home from work, he sits in his truck for a long time and stares into the front yard. Then he gets out and works on some unfinished part of the house. I don’t know what to say to him. I need the pond; I need the stillness of the water to let me know it’s okay to just exist together without words.

One day, Daddy, Mama, and I drive to the end of the road to fish off the lock. We pass our old house, and I remember the pond nestled in the field off to the side. I say, “Daddy, do you remember when we went to the pond?” He says he remembers. I ask him if he misses it, and he says he does but he’s too busy with the house for it to matter.

For years, when we drive to the lock to fish, we pass our old house and I look for the spot way back in the field where the pond should be. I watch Daddy to see if he’s looking for it too, but he stares straight ahead. He never looks. He stares out in front of the car, past the dusty pavement, the fields ahead, the river in the distance. I think, he’ll always be searching for that thing underneath the water, but I doubt he’ll ever find it.

***

After I finish grad school, in 2010, my partner and I move back to Tennessee and live with my mom. We spend our days working at an outlet mall, waiting for Jenny’s first year of grad school to begin. Daddy calls me up one day and asks if I want to go fishing with him at the lock. I haven’t fished in years, but I agree to meet him there because he sounds so excited on the phone.

It doesn’t take me too long to remember how to cast and how to know when I’ve got a bite and when to reel in the fish. Daddy is impressed that I remember these things. He says it must be like riding a bike. He’s proud of me for baiting my own hook and remembering to spit on the worm before I cast. I’m proud of him for not being drunk. We fish for hours, until the sun sets and the lightening bugs dazzle in the clearing behind us.

We meet a few times a week to fish, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night. We go to the lake or to other parts of the river, or we drive down the road, past our old house and the pond, and we fish off the lock. When we’re together, I don’t remember the years we spent apart. I don’t let myself think about anything except fishing. This is all that matters, I decide. From now on, this moment is all that ever will matter.

We sit together in cutoff jeans and t-shirts and dirty baseball caps. We don’t talk much. We don’t need to talk. It’s enough to sit quietly with him by the water.

Joanna Grisham lives in Lexington, KY and teaches English comp and creative writing courses at two nearby universities. Her work has appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review and is forthcoming from MAYDAY Magazine.