By Phil Quam
When the days are warm and the tide low, the neighborhood where I grew up often smells of saltwater marsh mud, and decaying crustaceans that crawl up out of the Lynnhaven River trying in vain to hide among the cattails, but bake to death in the sun. Directly behind my childhood home across the street from the river, the air thickens from the smell of algae and pollen from the freshwater lake where my brother drowned. Traces of what is alive and dead in those waters radiate skyward in the heat and form an unusual brackish scent with their confluence.
My family moved to the neighborhood, officially named Robin Hood Forest (though no one calls it that), in 1985 when I was three and still an only child. My family has lived there ever since in a two-story Colonial – my parents’ dream home before they bought it. The neighborhood hugs the contours of the lake on its interior and the Lynnhaven, which flows by on its perimeter across the street from my house before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. The main drive, South Spigel, where we live, divides the river and lake, curving around the larger trees on its way back through the neighborhood where it splits and dead-ends into two cul-de-sacs. Rumor has it a plane crashed there during the Second World War and South Spigel was cut to get to the crash site, which explains its snake-like quality. It is largely uncurbed, and one road that feeds into it remained unpaved until the late 1980s. That road was known as the rocky road for years, still after the rocks were cleared and black asphalt hardened. Though, eventually, it faded from use, as those kinds of names tend to do.
My brother, Jeffrey, was born on September 17, 1987. He had a much easier time in his first days than I. I was born poisoned. I ate some of my mother’s placenta in her womb and was rushed, still nameless, from Virginia Beach General to Kings’ Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia which had specialized facilities for newborns. There a doctor told my parents, I think you’d better give your son a name. And they named me on the spot after my father.
Unlike the next-day homecoming pictures my mother and father took of Jeff, my photo album shows me incubated, oxygen tubes taped to my face. Two months passed before I was brought home, and so my parents decided, long before Jeff was born, what he would be called. While I recovered quickly and learned to walk before my first birthday, Jeff, having no use for incubators, learned to walk two months earlier than I had. That’s the way he was.
When you are five years older than your brother, you project your interests onto him, teaching him the ways of childhood by rules you invent. It is clear who’s younger and who’s older and who’s in charge. Naturally, then, when I was seven and Jeff two, I was Batman, he was Robin. He took to it happily, following me around with a yellow cape tied around his neck as we fought invisible Jokers around the house. Then we returned to our Bat-Cave, a cardboard box that a new TV had been delivered in.
But even so early on, Jeff had a fire and a natural assertiveness that I didn’t: I was hesitant around Santas at Christmas, for instance; Jeff tried to pull their beards off. In that way, I was more like my mother, and Jeff took after my father.
We both shared their stubbornness, however. I was quieter with my reluctance to ask for help, preferring to ignore advice or instruction rather than rage against it. Jeff was more vocal in his opposition, refusing orders with violent cries and flapping arms.
But, in the end, when he needed help the most, no one could give it.
March of 1990 brought unseasonable warmth and early spring to Virginia Beach. The wind whipped through our neighborhood from the south, pushing the surface water of the lake back into our cove. I had just turned eight in February. Jeff was still two, coming up to his half-birthday on the seventeenth.
My parents left town that St. Patrick’s Day weekend and drove to Asheville, North Carolina, where my father was looking into starting an insurance agency. We had a babysitter, an old woman named Mrs. Roberts, who was known in the neighborhood and worked for several of the neighborhood families. I never liked her. She had a smell – a curious blend of musky perfume and faint cigarettes – and a deep, raspy voice that made me distrust her from the beginning. I found ways to be scarce around the house while she was there. She wasn’t unkind in any way, but I was uneasy around her. Her husband had either left her or died and the only family I knew she had was a red-headed granddaughter named Rachel who sometimes came around wearing a ridiculous hat with a propeller on top of it. Mrs. Roberts must have loved working for the families in our neighborhood, though, because she was often at one house or another, leaving her townhouse for extended weekends when parents left their kids at home.
Saturday morning, St. Patrick’s Day, Mrs. Roberts arrived at our house early in the morning. My grandmother had stayed over Friday night, but had plans of some sort and couldn’t stay the entire weekend. Jeff and I ate breakfast together – he had milk and I had apple juice. We both ate waffles. I went to leave right after breakfast, to spend the day out with friends, riding bikes farther from the house than I would have done if my parents had been at home. Mrs. Roberts often tried to get me to stay around the house, or come home and check in, but I always ignored her, stubborn as I am.
I went out the kitchen door that Saturday morning, letting the storm door close behind me. Jeff ran to the threshold and put his face up to the storm door glass.
“No, Up,” Jeff said, unable to yet pronounce my full name. “Up” was as close as he could get to Phillip. He put his hands on the door and began to cry, slapping the glass.
“Jeff, I’ll be back. Stay here. I’ll be home soon,” I said, and laughed. I actually laughed at him.
I left with my friend, Daniel, to fly a kite at the elementary school a mile from my home. I had never flown a kite before, and I haven’t flown one since.
Jeff stayed home with Mrs. Roberts. Since I was gone, he put on the Batman cape, and he and Mrs. Roberts spent much of the day outside. She fixed them a peanut-butter-and-jelly picnic at lunchtime, and they ate in the backyard. She went inside to wash the dishes and became caught up watching television.
Jeff was still in the backyard. He walked over the grass toward the lake. He made it onto the dock.
I see him there, standing on the dock, watching the cape blow behind him the way I did on windy days. He remembers his brother wearing the cape and the faces of his mother and father. He looks down into the waters where he has watched his father and brother fish for largemouth bass. Then he kneels over the edge of the dock and dips his hand in spring-chilly water. He brings the water to his mouth to taste it and wrings his face from the flavor of mud and algae and pollen. The way it had when he’d eaten a robin’s egg the summer before. He spits the water out. He walks off the dock, and saves himself.
I don’t want to see him lose his balance and fall in. I don’t want to see him fight the water, stubbornly trying to cry as his lungs filled. I don’t want to see him push with his hands, the way he pushed other kids on the playground. I don’t want to see him try to pull himself back to shore. I don’t want to see him splashing, nor do I want to see him quit. I don’t want to see Mrs. Roberts roll her pant legs up and wade in the water, unable to get to him because she can’t swim and refuses to try. I don’t want to see her leave him floating in the lake and feebly run up to the house to call 911.
But I do. I see all of those things.
And there’s one thing I don’t want to hear: I don’t want to hear that he was in the water for twenty-two minutes. The length of Mrs. Roberts’ television show.
What I heard that day were sirens. They spun me from hanging on to the kite, and I let it go.
I rode Daniel’s bike home, knowing it was faster than my own.
Please don’t be my house. Please don’t be my house. I said that out loud to myself, over and over.
But our neighbors were already in the street and in our yard. A policeman wouldn’t let me into my backyard, but I saw past him, down along the bank of the lake. Something had been pulled from the water and was lying on its back on a wooden board. It was covered with a white blanket or cloth.
I went inside, through the sliding glass door in back. Mrs. Roberts sat on my father’s leather hassock. She was barefoot, her pant legs rolled up, the lake’s mud on her shins. The upper half of her body was dry.
“Jeffrey fell in the lake,” she said. “And I didn’t know it.”
She was the first to cry for my brother.
My neighbors called my parents and my father picked up on the car-phone. They wouldn’t be home until nightfall. I was down the street, playing basketball with two brothers whose father was the head of the emergency room at Virginia Beach General. Dr. Rula came home after a few hours.
“How’s my brother?” I asked. I wasn’t sad, and that must have caught him off guard. Earlier, an older girl in the neighborhood had seen me playing basketball and said I was taking everything so well. Dr. Rula looked at me. I can’t remember his expression or what he said and so his face and words in my mind now are as expressionless as mine must have been to him.
I stayed at Dr. Rula’s house into the night. I watched Michael Jordan on TV. I always let Jeff be Michael Jordan when we played basketball. My father knocked on the door, picked me up, walked out into the doctor’s driveway and told me Jeff was dead. I put my head on his shoulder.
I stayed like that for the walk home.
I sat in the dark in our den. Our house was full but the only light on was in the kitchen, over the breakfast table. There were neighbors, a minister, and maybe a policeman. I heard talking, but no crying that I remember.
My mother came into the den and sat down on the sofa next to me. She leaned over and put her head in my lap.
I pushed her away, preferring to be alone.
I’ve stayed that way, often preferring solitude.
Over time, everything receded. Then everything filled back up again, only differently. The neighborhood changed and no one ever hired Mrs. Roberts again. I never wore a cape again. For a long time there were cards in our mailbox, expressing the senders’ heartache. Then nine months later, to the day, cards of a better sort began to arrive in the mailbox, after my parents tied pink balloons to it.
It was a busy year for mail.
My sister, Meredith, grew up in Jeff’s old room. She has the dark hair of our father and the blue eyes of our mother, eyes which all the siblings share. I’m dirty blonde. Only Jeff had strawberry-blonde hair.
No matter how different our lives become, the lake remains. The wind still comes down off the Chesapeake Bay, or up through the southern fields and blows the surface water left or right, forecasting the weather. There are still plenty of fish and fowl. The lake occasionally freezes over in the winter, but no one let their children on the ice after 1990. Then it thaws and becomes hospitable again for the spring and summer and every now and then a canoe glides over it carrying a fisherman.
But the seasons and years do wear on certain things. The trees that fall in the lake eventually shed their bark, exposing the thin white bone of their wood, eroding, ring by ring, backwards through time. Limbs break the surface of the water like fingers reaching for the sky.
Our dock, where Jeff last stood, was among the victims. Its boards were rotten by the turn of the millennium, the nails arthritic with rust and it began to lean and sink down into the mud.
One day in the summer, my father and I went down to the bank and took stock.
“I’m tired of looking at it,” my father said. He pointed across the cove to the house whose owner allowed trees to fall in the lake and never got them out. “I have to look at that man’s trees in the lake every day of my life. That’s enough.”
“I know,” I said. “Least he could do is take them out. They’ve been there for years.”
“No one cares around here anymore. Let’s get this dock out – should have done it a long time ago.”
We stood at the water’s edge. My father rubbed his chin.
“I guess the best thing to do is walk out on it, take the top boards off one by one,” he said. “Then we’ll try to get the frame.”
I went to the garage and came back with a hammer. I stepped onto the dock, and it was clear that the best place to walk was on the beam at the dock’s spine.
“Careful,” my father said.
I got out over the edge and yanked on the first board. It was so rotten that it broke in half and the nails came out without much trouble. I didn’t even need the hammer. One by one, I pried the boards loose from the frame and threw the wood into a pile behind me in the grass, stepping back each time toward the bank. The boards had decayed from their years in the water to the point where you could almost grind them up with your hand and make grain.
“Do you want to save any of the boards?” I asked.
My father looked down at the pile, shifted his stance, and shook his head. Then he looked up at me, curious about my ridiculous question, as if to say:
What could you save?
After all the boards were gone, we looked at the frame.
“Think we can get a rope and tie it around?” my father said.
“I don’t know. We have to get it free from the pilings first, don’t we? I can get out on that center beam with the hammer and see if I can knock it off.”
I tight-roped out onto the beam again and knocked off the frame.
“Think I might have to get in the water a little to get it in,” I said.
“You don’t care about those shoes, do you?”
“No,” I said. “They’re old.”
I stepped back off the beam and on to the bank. I got on the frame’s right side and waded a few feet out into the water, my shoes sinking down in the warm mud, and then I waded to the corner of the frame. I pulled it free of the pilings and it sort of hung there in the water.
“Ok,” I said, “got it. I’ll get back up there and help.”
I emerged from the water with mud up to my shins. The soles of my feet squished down in my shoes. My father had the back of the frame in one hand and I got next to him. We both leaned out over the edge of the lake.
“You got it?”
“Got it,” I said. I had my hands supine underneath the boards.
My father nodded at me.
“Pull,” he said.
Phil Quam teaches writing and literature at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where he received his MFA in 2013. He lives in Virginia Beach.