Friday, June 26, 1970
Russ Van Alstyne had just gotten a tug on his line when he saw the old lady get up from between the headstones she had been trimming, lay down her gardening tools, and walk into the reservoir. She had been tidying up a tiny plot, four moldering grave markers tucked under the towering black pines, so close to the edge of Stewart's Pond Reservoir that a good motorboat wake could have kicked spray over the stones. She had appeared at some point after he and Shaun had launched their rowboat, and he had noted her, now and then, while they had drifted in the sunshine.
They had been fishing a couple hours already, enjoying the hot weather, and some brews, and some primo grass Shaun's older brother had scored down to Albany, but Russ had only landed a few sunnies, crap fish he threw back as soon as he had them off the hook.
So when his six-pound test tightened like a piano wire and his bobber disappeared beneath the water, he sat up, excited. He knew he had something good. Maybe a trout. He had just stowed his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the bottom of the boat and flicked off his safety to let the fish run some more line when he noticed the old woman. She had on a loose print dress, like one of the housecoats his mom had had forever, and it rose around her legs as she waded slowly away from the shore.
"Shaun, check this out," he said, uncertain that he was reading the situation right. "What's it look like that old lady's doing?"
Shaun turned his head, swinging his graduation tassel, which he had attached to his fishing hat. He twisted his upper body around for a better view."Swimming?"
"In a dress?"
"Works for me, man. I don't want to see her in a swimsuit." Shaun turned back, facing away from the sight of the old woman marching into the water. His line jerked. "I got a strike!" He unlocked his reel and played out his line. "Relax, I've run the boat over that way before. The bottom slopes out a long ways."
She was up to her chest now, moving steadily forward, not stroking with her arms or ducking under the surface like people do when taking a dip. "She's not swimming," Russ said. "She's not even trying." He looked past her, to where a patchy trail led from the little cemetery, through the trees, and eventually up to the county road. There wasn't anyone there to keep an eye on her. She was alone. He thrust his rod at Shaun and tugged off his sneakers. He could reach her faster swimming than he could rowing. He stood up, violently pitching the little boat.
"Hey! Are you crazy? You're gonna swamp us!" Shaun twisted on his seat in time to see the old woman's chin sliding into the water. "Oh, shit," he said.
Russ shoved his jeans down and kicked them off, knocking over both their beers in the process. He balanced one foot on the hull's edge and launched himself into the water.
Even in mid-June the reservoir was cold, still gorged on the icy spring runoff from the Adirondacks. His whole body flinched inward, but he struck out for the shore: long, hard strokes through the water, his face dipping rhythmically in, out, in; sacrificing his view of her for the speed. He drew up to where the shadow of the somber pines split the water into light and dark. He treaded water, spinning around, looking for a sign of her. She had vanished.
"She went there!" Shaun yelled. He was struggling to get the rowboat turned around. "There, a couple yards to your left!"
Russ took a deep breath and submerged. In the deep twilight of the water, he could just see her, a pale wraith flickering at the edge of his vision. As he arrowed toward her, she emerged from the gloom like a photograph being developed. She was still walking downward, that was what was so creepy, toes brushing against the coarse-grained bottom, flowered dress billowing, white hair floating. She was still walking downward like a drowned ghost, and then, as if she could hear the pounding of his heart, she turned and looked at him, open-eyed under the water. Her eyes were black, set in a white, withered face. It was like having a dead woman stare at him.
He was an easy swimmer, confident in the water, but at her look, he panicked. He opened his mouth, lost his air, and struck up wildly for the surface, thrashing, kicking. He emerged choking and spluttering, hacking and gulping air. Shaun was rowing toward him, still a couple dozen yards away, and he knelt up on the bench when he saw Russ. "Can you find her?" he shouted. "Are you okay?" Unable to speak, Russ raised his hand. Shaun's hand froze on the oar. "Jesus! She's not dead already?"
She wasn't yet, but she would be if he didn't get his act together and haul her out of the water. Without letting himself think about it any further, Russ took a deep breath and doubled over, back into the deep. This time when she appeared in his sight he ignored her face and concentrated on wrapping his arm around her chin in the standard lifesaving position. She struggled against him, clawing at his arm and pulling his hair, which was almost a relief compared to her weird, ghostlike walking. Something normal, something he could deal with. He tightened his grip and churned upward, his free arm aching with the effort, her dress tangling his legs. Before he reached the surface, he felt her go limp. How many minutes since she walked in? Time yawned open. It felt like he had been under the lake forever. When he split the water, hauling her with him, she drifted, slack, held up by his arm beneath her chin.
Oh no you don't. He turned onto his back and stroked hard toward shore, floating her near his chest, so lost in the rhythm of pull and breath and kick that he didn't realize he was there until he reached back and hit coarse grit instead of cold water. He rolled to his knees and half dragged, half carried the old lady onto the grass. He pinched her nose, tilted her head back, and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Blow. Breath. Blow. Breath.
He heard the scrape of the rowboat's keel and then Shaun was there, falling to his knees on the other side of the old lady's head. He pushed against Russ's shoulder. "Let me take a turn, man," he said. "You need to get a breath for yourself." Russ nodded. He watched as Shaun picked up his rhythm, and then Russ let himself collapse into the grass.
He heard a gargling cough and shoved himself out of the way as Shaun rolled the old lady to her side. She gasped, choked, and then vomited up a startling quantity of water. She started to cry weakly. He met Shaun's eyes over her shoulder. Shaun spread his hands and shrugged. Now what?
Russ staggered back onto his feet. Curled up on her side, weeping, the woman didn't look scary anymore, just old and lost. "I think we ought to get her to the hospital," Russ said. "Run up the trail and see if she parked a car beside the road."
Swinging wide around the tiny cemetery, Shaun loped to the overgrown path and disappeared from view. Russ returned to the rowboat and dragged it up onto the grass as far as he could. He retrieved his jeans-stinking of beer-and his sneakers, and had just finished getting dressed when Shaun ran back down the trail.
" 'Sup there," he panted, pointing toward the road. "Keys in the ignition and all."
"Good." Russ knelt by the old woman and carefully pulled her into a sitting position. "Ma'am? Can you walk? What's your name?"
The old lady leaned against his shoulder. She wasn't exactly crying anymore, but making deep, shaky sounds like a little kid. She didn't seem to hear him. He wondered if she was senile, and if so, what she was doing driving around by herself. He looked back at Shaun. "I think we need to carry her."
"What about our stuff?" Shaun pointed to the boat. "It's not just the fishing tackle, man. I still have"-he dropped his voice, as if a narc might be hiding behind one of the headstones-"almost an ounce of grass in there."
The woman gave a rattling sigh and lapsed into a still silence that made Russ uneasy. "Bring it," he said. "Or hide it. This lady needs help. We gotta get her to a doctor."
"Oh, shit," Shaun said. "Okay." He strode to the rowboat and grabbed the backpack he used to carry his paraphernalia. "But if anything happens to the boat, you're gonna be the one who explains it to my dad."
Russ laughed, a short, sharp sound. "Fine. I'm not gonna be around long enough for him to kick my ass."
They laced their hands together and eased the woman into a seat carry. With Shaun on the other side, she didn't weigh as much as some of the sacks Russ toted for customers at Greuling's Grocery. The trail up to the county road was less than a half mile, and within ten minutes they burst out of the shade of the pines and into open air and brilliant sunshine. Shaun jerked his head toward a '59 Rambler wagon. Two-toned: baby-shit brown and tired tan. Russ pulled open the back door and shut his eyes for a moment against the wave of thick, moist heat that rolled out of the car.
"Where should we put her?" Shaun asked.
"Lay her down in the backseat." Russ looked in the rear for a blanket or a coat to lay under her, but there was nothing except more gardening equipment.
They stretched the woman out on the sticky plastic seat. She looked clammy and paler than before. Russ had a sudden image of himself and Shaun driving into town in an overheated granny car with a corpse in the back. He shuddered.
"Yeah, sure. You want to drive?"
Shaun held up his hands. "No way, man. If we get stopped, I don't want the cops getting too close to me." He sniffed his shirt. "Can you smell it on me?"
Russ rolled his eyes. "You know it's good stuff if it's making you 'noid." He slid into the driver's seat and adjusted it back to fit his long frame. "Hop in."
The ride into Millers Kill passed in silence. Russ was concentrating on driving as fast as he could. Shaun was tense, hissing between his teeth whenever Russ took a corner too tightly, gripping his seat if another car went past them. And in the back was-nothing. Russ couldn't even hear the old lady breathe. As they passed from the forest down into the rolling farmland, the back of his neck began to creep. He couldn't shake the idea that if he turned around, he would see her lying there, wet, unbreathing, looking at him with her black eyes. He was grateful when they came to the town and he had to focus on navigating through the stop-and-go traffic.
He pulled into emergency parking at the Washington County Hospital and killed the engine. Shaun looked at him. "Well?" he said. "Let's get her in there."
Russ forced himself to twist in his seat and check behind him. And, of course, he saw nothing except an unconscious old lady. His shoulders twitched at the sudden release of tension. "Yeah," he said to Shaun.
If he had been less weirded out and more on top of things, he would have gone into the emergency room, fetched out a couple of nurses, and had them wheel the old lady into the place themselves. He thought of it, later, but at the time, sliding her out of the Rambler seemed like the most logical thing to do. He took her feet and Shaun took her shoulders. He was so intent on avoiding a collision while walking backward that he didn't see the commotion their entrance caused. Shaun did, though, and nearly dropped the woman on her head.
"For Chrissake, Shaun, don't just-"
"What are you boys doing?" The nurse bearing down on them had a bosom like the prow of a battleship, and the face to match. In one swift move, she caught the old woman's wrist lightly in one hand while digging her other fingers bone-deep into Russ's shoulder.
"Ow!" he said. "We're not doing anything!"
"Is this your grandmother?"
"I don't know who it is! We just found her. At Stewart's Pond. She walked into the water. She tried to drown herself."
She sized him up with a single flick of her eyelashes, and even though she barely came up to his chest, she somehow managed to speak over his head.
"Skelly, McClaren, get that gurney over here." She glared at Shaun, who was looking longingly at the exit doors. "Don't even think about moving, young man."
Two nurses scarcely older than Shaun and Russ rolled a pallet over. One of them glanced sympathetically at Russ. The battleship let go of his shoulder in order to ease the old woman onto the gurney.
"Into the examination room," she said to the other nurses, who obeyed her with such speed that Russ figured she must terrorize everybody she came into contact with. She hooked her hands around his and Shaun's arms and followed the gurney, towing them past the admissions desk and through the swinging double doors into the examination room. She bulldozed through a square of limp blue curtains shielding the old woman from public view. "Get Dr. Hansvoort," she said firmly.
One of the young nurses disappeared. "Well, don't just stand there," she told the remaining nurse. "Get her vitals. Ah, Dr. Hansvoort. Thank you for coming so promptly."
The young resident who had parted the curtains looked as if he wouldn't have dared take his time. "Nurse Vigue?"
She rattled Russ's and Shaun's arms. "All right, you two. Tell Dr. Hansvoort here what happened." She narrowed her eyes. "Truthfully."
Russ and Shaun fell all over themselves trying to get their story out. While they described the woman's strange actions, Russ's dive to rescue her, and the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Dr. Hansvoort clicked on a penlight and looked into his patient's eyes, nose, and throat.
When they had finished their recital-Shaun's last comment had been
". . . and so we'd like to go now, please"-the doctor frowned.
"Attempted suicide," he said to Nurse Vigue. "Or perhaps senile dementia. You had better put a call in to the police."
"My thoughts exactly," she said, nodding her approval at the doctor's performance. She captured Shaun and Russ again and sailed them back through the swinging doors into the waiting room. "You boys sit here. The police will have questions about this incident."
And if they don't, Russ thought, she'll make sure to tell them they ought to.
"But," Shaun began.
"Sit." She arched a thinly plucked brow at them and seemed to soften a little.
"We have quite a few back issues of Boy's Life magazine. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading them."
"For God's sake, sit down and read," Russ muttered to Shaun, taking a chair himself and opening the first magazine at hand.
Two issues of Popular Mechanics later, the emergency-room doors opened and Russ looked up to see the weather-beaten face of Chief Liddle. He was neither large nor intimidating-in fact, he looked more like a farmer than a cop-but both boys sank in their seats when he glanced their way.
The chief spoke briefly with Nurse Vigue and then vanished into the examination room. "Now you're screwed," Shaun whispered. "He's had his eye on you ever since he caught us torching tires at the dump."
Russ shook his head. "I'm not scared of him," he said, and it was true. He had seen the chief a few too many times, back before his dad passed away, gently steering the incoherent and maudlin Walter Van Alstyne up the front walk and into the parlor. The chief always said the same thing: "He's had a few too many, Margy. I guess he needs to sleep it off." Then he'd look real close into Russ's mom's face and ask, "You be all right here with him while he's like this?"
And she would get all brisk and efficient and tell him they would make out fine, and then they'd help Dad to his bed and she'd press a cup of coffee-usually refused-on the chief.
It wasn't until after his dad was dead that Russ realized what the chief had really been asking his mom, and when he did, it enraged him, that anyone could think his gentle, soft-spoken father would ever harm his mother. But later, he thought about how the chief had always acted as if Walter Van Alstyne's drunkenness was a onetime thing, and how careful he was of his mom's pride. And he realized the question wasn't that far-fetched after all. Because in his own way, his dad had hurt his mom a lot.
When the chief had caught him drinking Jack Daniel's and leading a group of seniors in lighting tires on fire and rolling them downhill from the dump, he had hauled Russ behind his cruiser for a talking-to. To the rest of the guys, it must have looked as if Russ had missed getting arrested by the skin of his teeth. But in truth, Liddle hadn't threatened him with the lockup. Instead, he had looked at Russ as though he had been stealing from a church, and said, "Russell, don't you think your mother's been through enough without you grieving her with this kind of foolishness? How are you going to look her in the eye if I have to bring you home . . ." he didn't say just like your father. He didn't have to.
Russ didn't have the words to tell this to Shaun, so he just grunted and snapped open a year-old Life magazine. It showed pictures of a massive antiwar demonstration. He shut it again, leaned back against the vinyl seat, and closed his eyes. This was supposed to have been a fun day fishing, one last day when he didn't have to be anywhere or do anything. Now it was all turned to crap.
"You boys want to tell me what happened?"
Russ opened his eyes. Chief Liddle stood in front of them, his thumbs hooked into his gun belt. Russ and Shaun clambered to their feet, and Russ let Shaun rattle on about the fishing and the old woman and the rescue and the resuscitation. He wound it up by explaining how they had driven the old woman's car to the hospital, then said, "Can I please go and call my mom to come get us? Because I just now realized we need a ride back to the lake to pick up my car."
The chief looked at both of them closely. He sniffed. "You two smell like the Dew Drop Inn on a Saturday night."
Shaun's eyes got wide and white.
"It's me, sir," Russ said. "I had a couple beers. But it's not as bad as it smells-I knocked 'em over when I took my jeans off to go after the old lady. That's why I stink so bad."
The chief shook his head. "Russell-," he began.
"Russ is leaving for the army next week," Shaun blurted. "You know what they say, Chief. 'If you're old enough to fight for your country . . . ' "
"You aren't going, are you?" Chief Liddle asked Shaun.
"Then I suggest you hush up and stay away from booze where I can smell you. Go on, go call your mother." Shaun didn't have to be told twice. He took off for the pay phone at the other end of the hall. Liddle looked straight at Russ, and the fact that the chief now had to look up to meet his eyes gave Russ a weird, disoriented feeling, like the time after his dad's service when Mr. Kilmer, the funeral director, had asked for 'Mr. Van Alstyne's signature' and he had realized that that was him, that he was 'Mr. Van Alstyne' now.
"Is it true?" the chief said.
"You volunteer, or did your number come up?"
Russ paused. "My number came up."
"And you're leaving next week?"
The chief bit the inside of his cheek. "How's your mom taking it?"
"About as well as you'd expect."
"I'll make sure to drop in on her now and again. To keep an eye on things."
To do Russ's job for him. "I'm sure she'll appreciate that."
The chief looked as if he were going to say something else, but he merely extended his hand. "Good luck to you, then." They shook. "I don't need you to make a statement. You can go."
The chief cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Who is that old lady? And why was she going into the reservoir like that?"
The deep lines around the chief's eyes crinkled faintly. "Curious, are you?"
Liddle glanced toward the emergency-room doors. "That's Mrs. Ketchem."
"Ketchem? Like the clinic? And the dairy?"
"That's the one."
"But she must be rich!"
The chief smiled at him. "If she is, you can't prove it by me. Rich or poor, all folks have troubles, Russell."
"Was that why she was trying to, you know, kill herself?"
The chief stopped smiling. "I'm going to call that an accident. She's an old woman, working out in the sun, getting up and down . . . it's natural she became disoriented. Her daughter and son-in-law moved back to the area recently. I'll have a talk with them. Maybe we can persuade Mrs. Ketchem that it's time to give up her house and move in with them."
"But she wasn't disoriented. She was walking into that water like you'd walk into the men's room. She knew exactly what she was doing."
Chief Liddle gave him a look that somehow made him draw closer. "Attempted suicide is a crime, Russell. It might require a competency hearing and an involuntary committal at the Infirmary. Now, as long as she has family to take charge of her, I don't think she needs to go through that, do you?"
"But what if she's . . . I don't know, sick in the head or something?"
Liddle shook his head. "She's not going off her rocker. She's just old and tired. Even her sorrows are older than most of the folks around her these days. Sometimes, the weight of all that living just presses down on a person and sort of squashes them flat."
Russ thought that if that's what old age brought, he'd rather go out young in a blaze of glory. His feeling must have shown on his face, because the chief smiled at him again. "Not that it's anything you have to worry about." He shook his hand again. "Go on with your friend there. It looks like he's done with his phone call. And keep your head down when you're over there. We want you to come home safe."
And that ended his day's adventure. At least until that night, when he woke up his mother, yelling, from the first nightmare he could remember since he was ten. And in later years, even after he had walked, awake, through nightmares of men blown to a pulp and helicopters falling out of the sky, he still sometimes remembered the sensation of sinking into the cool, dark water. The pale, withered face. The black, black eyes. And he would shiver.
Copyright 2004 by Julia Spencer-Fleming