Weekends, Drew bicycled to Huntington Lake, where the Murfreesboro cheerleaders gathered to sunbathe and swim and dive off the high sandstone cliffs. He liked watching them, when they didn’t know they were being watched, at the sandy cove where they spread their neon beach towels and oiled their bodies and drank rum and Pepsi.
Nobody knew about the cove, really—not about the deer that drank from it, dampening their hooves, nor the crawdads that slept in its beds of warm mud, nor the many panfish shining beneath its water like precious stones—nobody except Drew, his friend Kenny, and the cheerleaders.
Nobody knew about it because a storm brought some logs down the Harpeth River and into the lake where they settled at the mouth of the cove, camouflaging it, making a nice shady spot for the water moccasins and the black bullhead catfish to doze.
Here he floated, among the logs and the slippery creatures, his eyes just above the surface, like an alligator, watching so long his skin got wrinkled and the catfish considered him just another part of the lake, something to nuzzle and chew, to rub with their whiskers, and occasionally, when they wrapped their sharp sucking mouths around his feet and tasted them, he wanted to move but didn’t. He rarely moved—not even when the powerboats ripped by and shifted the logs and disturbed the snakes—and he never made a sound, never moaned, never screamed I-love-yous at the girls.
Though he wanted to.
He loved them with everything he had. He loved them more than anything in the world. The water was warm and he floated there, pretending the girls belonged to him, like dolls, and if he wanted to kiss them or hold them or anything else—anything at all—they would gladly succumb to it.
Sometimes Drew brought along his friend Kenny. Kenny was tiny and fine-boned and got thrown in garbage cans a lot. He could swallow an entire banana and bring it back up. It was spooky. He liked the cheerleaders, too, but feared the snakes and snappers and Drew always worried he might suffer a screaming attack and ruin everything.
Sometimes—bobbing in the water, algae clinging to his bald cheeks—Kenny whispered all the unbelievable things he wanted to do to the cheerleaders, his voice accelerating into a quivery pressure-cooker hiss that bothered Drew.
It made him feel grotesque. Like he had been caught doing something embarrassing. It made him feel fat and fifteen, which he was, with hair only beginning to bud in his armpits.
You keep quiet and listen to your fantasies—Drew thought—and it sounds like God is talking to you. You say them out loud, you expose them to the air, and you ruin them, as it is with copper.
Drew preferred the sound of the cicadas humming in the forest, the lake water softly popping against the logs, the girls laughing. He preferred to forget who he was, even where he was, his eyes tearing from the sunlight on the water, making everything glittery, like the best kind of dreams, where you are never afraid and everything turns out for the best.
Around noon, when the sun burned away all the clouds, when the air just trembled with humidity—making the girls look like some mirage you prayed was real—they ate their tiny lunches of baby carrots and yogurt and tortilla chips before climbing the nearby hill, through the hardwood forest, and assembling at the jumping place, the sandstone cornice that jutted maybe fifty feet above the water.
There was never any wind—Drew could hear everything they said—which was how he learned her name was Jessica.
She was the most beautiful among them—her hair as brown as her belly, as brown as a bean—and maybe her beauty gave her bravery because she always jumped first—her legs tight together, her feet pointed down—screaming ya-ya-ya until the lake swallowed her with a ploosh.
A bubbling curl of water lingered where she broke it.
This was Drew’s favorite part, when he adjusted his goggles and took big gulps of air and dove down among the catfish, flapping his arms, palms up, so that he might remain submerged long enough to see her bikini torn away when she struck the lake, revealing her breasts, so pale against her brown body, surrounded by the grayish green nowhere of underwater.
Never was anything so beautiful as she was then, her hair swirling, her bikini twisted around her neck, her eyes closed, her mouth open in an oval, savoring the casual danger of the jump, the elastic acceptance of the water.
She made you want to cry, just seeing her.
When she scissored her legs—so smooth and innocent to all the evil things that lurked beneath—when she kicked her way to the surface, the water rippled and bubbled, the bubbles rolling off her skin to form a shiny ribbon, twisting in her wake, soon vanishing.
Drew wondered what the water felt like to Jessica—and what it would feel like to be the water, cleaning her, embracing her, finding his way into her every crevice.
Here is what it would feel like to seep between her legs—he decided—it would feel like the lake mud feels when it swallows your foot to the ankle, a warm obliging pull.
Drew lived in Overall. Overall is just outside Murfreesboro.
Everybody who lived in Overall wished they lived in Murfreesboro and everybody who lived in Murfreesboro knew this and reveled in it.
Here, in Overall, five stoplights swayed over the wide empty streets. Here, in blocky black and red letters, billboards advertised Budweiser, Marlboro, and Lynyrd Skynyrd playing at the Rutherford County Fair.
Here a dusty Dairy Queen sign read: Overall. We Like Who We Are.
Here a deer crossed the highway and hurdled a barbed-wire fence, rolls of alfalfa moldered in the fields, a farmer chased palomino horses with his pickup. Here was the Feed and Seed, the First Baptist Church, the Piggly Wiggly, the Pinch Penny Tavern, the Old Hickory Trailer Park, hidden among the pines, where the shadows gathered in bluer shades, as if trapped deep underwater.
That was Overall.
A rifle shot’s distance and you were past it, you were going to Murfreesboro, where they had a Cineplex and a Wal-Mart Supercenter and beautiful cheerleaders who did high kicks and somersaults and flashed their clean white panties, where—as Drew saw it—life seemed a better thing.
Every Friday night was the same old story.
Around eight o’clock, when the bats and the owls and a deep purplish color rose from the forest and filled the sky, the Murfreesboro footballers paid Overall a visit. Everyone gathered on the sidewalks and on their lawns, in lawn chairs, as you would for a parade, with cold cans of Bud Light tucked into Amoco cozies, with bags of jerky balanced on their thighs, waiting for the footballers to come.
And then they came.
Their tricked-out Camaros and El Caminos and cherry-red Chevy pickups with the Cummins diesel engines made a collective noise that started as a barely perceptible whine—you could hear it a long way off—and rose to a grumbling shout that rolled into Overall like a deeply gray thunderhead.
Probably they went a hundred miles-per-hour—that was what people said—but who could know for sure. They were so fast, they were their own kind of fast. Their speed was such that it ruffled Drew’s hair and popped his ears. Their speed made him jealous, like: I wish I had the guts. They tore through the streets and parking lots and slammed their brakes and cranked their steering wheels so hard they spun around corners, tires smoking, blistering, melting, leaving behind swirling rubber designs for Overall to remember them by, until next Friday.
Of course the cops chased them.
Overall had two cops whose singular duty, it seemed, was to chase the footballers while everyone watched, not cheering like maybe you’d expect, just watching, for the spectacle, knowing the cops didn’t really want to catch anybody, and even if they did, they would never be fast or brave enough.
The footballers hurled eggs and crumpled beer cans, they tooted their horns, they did donuts in the park and screamed mostly unintelligible screams about your mother, before zooming back to Murfreesboro and leaving Drew, trembling, slightly dizzy, with their noise still in his head.
They had done this for years. It was their custom, as it was Overall’s to watch, afraid and panicked and excited at once, not really understanding why they sat around and let the footballers beat them, only knowing it was horribly entertaining, somehow.
Drew’s father, Marty, called himself the fish czar. Which sounded a lot better than Rutherford County’s senior fisheries biologist. He spent his days in waders, catching striped bass and northern pike and yellow perch and measuring and tagging them, collecting scales, classifying and reclassifying trout streams on their ability to support good trout habitat, that kind of thing.
Sometimes he gutted fish and examined their spiralized guts and made marks in his little black notebook. Sometimes he gathered their eggs, as crisp and yellow as corn kernels, to look at under a microscope.
And sometimes he caught fish so big they scared him.
The man had energy. Of that Drew was certain. Forever clapping his hands and smiling and jumping from the sofa to answer the phone with a yello. No matter how early, when Drew woke in the morning, there his father was, at the kitchen table, spreading marmalade across wheat toast, never drinking coffee or Coca-Cola, claiming he didn’t need it, apparently drawing his energy from a source deep inside, some warm mineral spring of a source that Drew often wished he could pour in a pitcher and drink.
Though Drew sometimes wondered—was that an all-over smile?—when his father showered so long the house filled with steam, when late at night wet choking sounds fluttered down the hall, seeping through the crack under the door to wake Drew.
Marty handled so many fish, their smell crept into his skin and followed him around and stayed behind to introduce him. It was a sharp oily smell, something you might find at the bottom of a well. Drew didn’t mind it except when the kids at school said he smelled not good, as in funny, spermy.
The two of them didn’t have much to talk about—“That was great,” Drew would say when they finished a movie or a meal, and Marty would say, “Wasn’t it?”—but they loved each other. They loved each other a lot, in the unsaid brutish way that fathers and sons acknowledge such a thing, with slugs to the shoulder, wrestling matches.
Fishing away their afternoons on a skiff.
When they fished, they wrapped peanut butter balls around their hooks and plopped them in the water and hung bells from their lines, so that they might nap, together, with their caps pulled low, sometimes so startled by the bell’s ringing they screamed and grabbed each other.
Then they reeled in what was oftentimes a largemouth bass, sometimes a bluegill, and removed the hook and tossed the fish back in the water because they didn’t enjoy killing. It wasn’t in their hearts. Both of them were tender in this way—a certain combination of bruised and gentle—no thanks to her.
She left them to marry Shane Harvey, a.k.a. Donut, the former Overall High defensive coach, whose early retirement led to an offensively lopsided football team, led to a series of chronic and devastating losses, led to the Friday night troubles with Murfreesboro.
She and Donut went north, to Wisconsin, to escape the humidity, they claimed.
Wisconsin was a place Drew never wanted to go.
Sometimes he forgot what she looked like. Like every day her memory sank deeper inside, where it was slowly digested, broken down into little particles that cried their way out of him late at night when he buried his face in his pillow. And soon there would be nothing left. How could he resent what he couldn’t remember? Sometimes he wanted to chew grass like a sick dog and throw her back up.
And sometimes he dug through the closet and wiped the dust from the wedding album and saw her and his father, happy and hopeful and running down the aisle.
“That bitch,” Drew wanted to say, “that fucking bitch!” Though he kept quiet, keeping his anger for his mother as he kept his love for the cheerleaders, nested inside him, like a seed.
Drew went down, beneath the water lilies and logs, past the black bullheads that nipped playfully at his shorts and toes—five, ten, twenty feet—until he reached the lake’s muddy bottom, until the blood pulsing in his head matched that in his groin.
Down was a good place to be.
Below him were bird and fish bones tangled in the roots of silky grasses. Above him were the black silhouettes of catfish, lazily whipping their tails back and forth, and beyond them, a rippling sky, colored white and orange and blue, like an enormous church window forever reorganizing itself into little crescents and diamonds, sparkling.
There was nothing else. There was nothing to say and nothing to hear—no powerboats, no airplanes, no cicadas, no Kenny whispering his hunger for the cheerleaders—nothing to do except resist the alternate gravity that took hold of his fat and tugged upward.
He embraced a slimy boulder and held tight. Here his mind was singular. Here he plugged into his pulse and yielded to it. A yellow perch brushed past him, its scales the brightest thing in the water until the girls crashed through the ceiling of the lake, every one of them beautiful, with their breasts bared and their arms wide open.
He could hold his breath a long time—he practiced at home and at school, sometimes gasping in the back row and making everyone turn around and laugh—and so he waited for Jessica. Even when black and red spots danced across his retinal screen, he waited.
When she finally appeared above him, surrounded by a white column of bubbles, as if she were boiling hot, the blood came rushing to his face and bordered on causing an aneurysm, struck as he was by the misery that was his desire. Earlier that day he found himself suddenly aroused and ended up jerking off not into his own hand or sock—that would be pathetic enough—but into his mother’s bedroom slipper, the one shaped like a bear claw, which she left behind and which they had not bothered to throw away.
Now, among the black leeches and crawdads, he felt the impulse to grab her ankles and drag her down, swallow her with his arms, squeeze, until they both lost their breath and perished, thrilled and doomed.
And this was April, when the swans came.
The Murfreesboro footballers—who played baseball now but who fundamentally remained footballers, swinging at every pitch, swinging with everything they had, sometimes forgetting to drop the bat and charging first base with it tucked in the crook of their arm, other times tackling a runner to make certain he was out—they won their sixth straight game and the cheerleaders celebrated this by drinking their way deep into a rum drunk.
At the cove they skipped stones and practiced their cheers and their human pyramid and when it collapsed they laughed so hard they cried, their nearly naked bodies tangled together in the sand. Then, after they sunbathed and ate some lunch and jumped off the cliffs, forwards, backwards, hand-in-hand, Jessica pulled a hatchet from her backpack and announced they would build a raft.
It was a hot day full of flies that tasted their sweat when they took turns with the hatchet, in their bikinis. There was just enough fat on their bodies so that when they swung, when they chopped at the dogwood trees, they jiggled. It was erotic, somehow. They put their hair in ponytails and wiped their faces with their forearms and bound the logs with rope, the sap sticking to their skin, the sand sticking to the sap, and together they dragged the raft to the lake. When they discovered it floated, kind of, they celebrated with more rum and collapsed on their towels and fell asleep.
Drew and Kenny watched all this all day and into the early evening, their chins and cheeks glistening from where the water touched them, their hands pale and wrinkled with strange hieroglyphic designs.
If you could read the designs they might say something about being alone and being in love.
Owls called. Bats swooped down and seized mayflies and moths off the logs, making Kenny nervous. He said, “Maybe we should go,” and Drew didn’t say anything but shook his head, no. The sun eased toward the horizon, into the forest, setting the black oak and blue ash and dogwood aflame, their tops haloed with a light red light that slowly darkened to clay’s redness.
Out of this came the swans.
There were about twenty of them altogether, all flapping and honking and making a very big noise when they circled the lake, flying together but not like the geese do, a tangled white cloud that descended on the cove, their wings breezing silvery ripples on the water when they slowed and settled there.
The cheerleaders woke up and made high sounds of appreciation when they raced down the beach and into the lake. Here they laughed and tasted rum from their Styrofoam cups and said, “Pretty,” and “Would you look at that? Would you just look at that?” and “Can you believe those are swans? I mean, swans, for Christ’s sake.”
They waded until the water came to their thighs, a short distance from the swans, approaching the flock as they approached the jumping place, with Jessica leading them, unafraid, innocent to the awfulness of nature.
The sunset flared and for a moment you could see every shadow and broken feature of the land, and the swans seemed to glow a phosphorescent white, white like you wouldn’t believe.
They were fat—off cattails and duckweed and water moss—and they wanted to get fatter. They were hungry. Drew wondered where they had been and what they had seen that made them so hungry when they dunked their heads in the water, searching for something to eat, and finding it. One swan withdrew a crawdad and chewed it until it cracked, pleasuring in its soft gray muscle and sour green guts.
The air darkened to a purplish color and as if on cue the swans moved toward the girls without appearing to move, gliding, like ghosts, with little collars of foam trailing behind them. The girls watched them come, with their arms wrapped casually around each other’s waists and shoulders, with Jessica asking, “Do we got any bread? I bet they want bread.”
Then the swans opened their six-foot wingspans and lowered their heads and straightened their necks and a tremendous hiss filled the air, a noise associated with snakes and flat tires, with imminent danger, a noise that told the girls to run.
So they ran. They splashed their way to shore and ran along the beach, squealing with frightened pleasure, the sand sticking to their feet. And the swans followed. Their great white shapes lifted from the water as if drawn by invisible wires, gracefully, effortlessly, honking and hissing and striking the girls with the big blocks of air that came rolling out from under their wings.
Drew wanted to help. But it was easier to watch.
Some of the girls screamed, others tripped in their drunkenness and scrambled forward on all fours and began to cry in panicky gulps when claws raked red lines across their butts and backs. They abandoned their towels and coolers and crashed off into the brushwood where they could be heard for a long time, wailing like sirens, branches snapping, leaves sizzling beneath their bare feet so you would have thought the whole forest was pulling up its skirt to dance.
Kenny said, “Cool.”
Drew said, “I’m worried about this.”
The next weekend Drew and Kenny visited the cove and found the swans there, roosting on the beach and on the raft, bobbing in the water, coiling their necks—necks as long and slender as a woman’s arm—into positions that made you question the existence of the bone within them.
The boys entered the cove from the small lakeside inlet, plunging deep before swimming forward, to avoid the water moccasins that gathered in nests that looked like twisting balls. Once underwater Drew heard that sound—the one everyone heard—the pulsing of a heart, but when he surfaced it was gone, lost among the cicadas’ noise.
Where are they? he wondered. Where is she?
He pictured a town, Murfreesboro, a house, hers. Probably she lived in the same kind of house everyone lived in around here, ranch-style with a brick exterior, with white gutters and white trim surrounding the windows and doors. Probably she just stepped from the shower, he thought, and now stood opposite the bathroom mirror, combing her hair with a horsehair brush, her breasts flattened by the neon towel wrapped around her body. Surely she thought about the lake, the jumping place, the rush of wind when the water rose to meet her. Surely she would come.
He felt a pounding in his chest and in his groin. He tried to calm it, imagining it as aligned with the breaking of the water against the logs, a vision ruined by a catfish slipping its mouth around his foot, a moistly violent sensation that was just obscene enough to stroke him all over.
When Kenny said, “Maybe they aren’t—” Drew put a finger to his lips that told him to be quiet.
Finally she came, along with the rest, but only to retrieve their towels and coolers, which the swans had ravaged and shit upon, thoroughly.
The girls stood where the beach met the trees, shading their eyes, watching the swans nap with their heads tucked under their wings, and from a distance—with their scooped backs—the swans looked like enormous molars and the lake looked like a lake full of teeth.
Whereas the other girls darted forward and snatched their things and hurried back to the safety of the trees, Jessica sauntered out and stood with her legs apart and yelled, “Hey!” The swans paid her no attention. “Hey, fuckers,” she said and picked up a rock and hurled it at a nearby swan, striking its back. The swan released a surprised honk before uncurling its neck and sighting Jessica and departing the water with one determined snap of its wings.
She had a wild happy look on her face when she lifted her hands to accept its body and together they crashed to the sand.
She fought in a way that reminded Drew of dancing—swirling, crouching, leaping, sometimes closing her eyes when she found a steady rhythm—and she did this as she did everything, with abandon. There was no turning back—and so even if she bled, even if she fell in a tangle now and then, she would right herself, she would lean forward at the waist and move her arms and legs and continue to fight.
The swans gathered on one side, the cheerleaders on the other, each voicing their encouragement with honks, screams, each scurrying forward and then back, as if eager and afraid to join the violence.
A perspective Drew understood completely when he swam from his hiding place and dashed along the beach and joined the girls—who paid him no attention—soon followed by Kenny.
Her lip curled back in a snarl, her muscles jumped beneath her skin, her hands needed no instruction, knowing what to do, where to go, a left hook to the wing, a chop to the neck, even as the swan snapped its beak, pinching her chest and arms, hissing.
She was a beautiful thing to watch.
Then, in exhaustion, she wrapped her arms around the swan and the swan curled its neck around hers, so that they seemed but one fantastic creature that eventually broke apart—and when she and the swan retreated to the woods and to the lake, each of them breathing in asthmatic bursts that revealed how badly they hurt, Drew imagined approaching Jessica.
The girls would part before him, zipper-style, and there she would be, bleeding and hurting but putting on a big show, giving him the thumbs-up when he asked was she okay, did she need anything, anything at all? “No,” she would say, “nothing,” and he would brush from her face a damp strand of hair and she would close her eyes a moment, savoring his touch, still panting from the fight, looking both fierce and vulnerable. “You’re worried about me,” she would say. “That’s sweet.” And then they would bring their mouths together, hard, making blood. Hers would be sweet, like maraschino cherries, and the cheerleaders would murmur all around them.
I should totally do that, Drew thought. I should kiss her and carry her home. That would be brave. That’s what I’m going to do right now.
But then he didn’t—and the girls disappeared between the trees, touching Jessica and following her to where the clay game trail turned to the gravel path, turned to the asphalt road that led to the highway, and after that, Murfreesboro.
Friday night came and so did the footballers. They entered Overall en masse—ten Camaros, three pickups, and a salmon-colored El Camino, all with their mufflers drilled to make their noise bigger, all with faces leering and hollering through their open windows—and then they split apart, some of them blazing along the main strip, others diving down side streets.
From all corners of the town they squealed their tires and honked their horns, like birds answering each other. Police sirens joined their noise and the effect was strangely musical, not something you could tap your foot to, but nice.
Drew watched all this from the sidewalk, along with his father and Kenny and the rest of Overall, watching like you would watch a sporting event, jealous of and awed by the players’ upsetting power. He drank from a glass bottle of root beer that sweated in his hand. He kept the bottle to his lips when a Camaro came tearing by, its wheels rising on one side when it took the corner, followed by a cop car.
Marty was being Marty. He was being happy. Except to say duck, he ignored the beer cans thrown in their direction. Instead he pointed out the footballers when they zoomed past, saying hey, that’s so-and-so, who broke the Rutherford County rushing record.
Like everyone else he paid careful attention to Murfreesboro, subscribing to their newspaper, The Mondo Times, sometimes reading it twice in one sitting, holding it close to his face, studying names and scores and obituaries, as if they were the most important things.
“Man,” he said, his voice a joyful shout you would not use unless imitating joy. “Holy smokes, did you see that? He drives as fast as he runs.”
A couple Boy Scouts walked by selling popcorn and Marty bought a bag off them. He passed it to Drew and said, “Isn’t this great, guys? Drew?”
Drew didn’t say anything. For some reason he felt bothered by his father, the way he clapped his hands, the way he smiled so big the corners of his mouth twitched slightly. He saw him as if for the first time, and it was like something thrown at you when you weren’t looking. It was annoying and it was shocking. His face remained an old familiar happy thing but beneath it he seemed sick.
Drew could smell the fish smell puffing off his father and though it had never bothered him, it bothered him now as a smell that partnered a fever, a bad one, one that keeps you up all night, sweating. Like a lover.
He tried concentrating on his popcorn, which made him thirsty, so he guzzled his root beer down, only to spit a mouthful out his nose, hacking for breath when one of the pickups rocketed past with a blonde cheerleader hanging out its window, giving him the finger, her face painted blue, orange and white, their colors. From the open bed three more girls—his girls—shook their pom-poms and cheered, “Murfreesboro!” while the wind knocked their hair every which way.
“Oh, great,” Kenny said. “Now they’re in on it, too.” He lifted his thin arms and let them fall. “Wonderful.”
Marty said, “Pretty sure that was Hank Haines. Heck of a quarterback, that guy.”
Drew now studied the window of every passing car. He sought her face and hoped he would not find it. He hoped she was better than this. He drank more root beer and his throat moved up and down as if something was trapped there.
Then the El Camino fishtailed around the corner and came to a sliding stop, and though Drew didn’t recognize her at first—with her face painted blue on one side, white on the other—this was her, this was Jessica, the girl he wanted to know in so many ways. She sat on the passenger side, the side facing him, and he wondered was she with the dumb ape behind the steering wheel? He hoped not.
She looked at Drew and he liked being looked at. She sees me! he thought. We are having a moment. He interpreted the moment as one exchanged between two strangers who meet unexpectedly, in the forest, at the mall, and develop in one lingering glance that weird kind of closeness people get when they know zero about each other but feel a deep connection. Then she smiled at he didn’t know what, and he wondered what she saw, a fat boy or something else.
He raised a hand to her; she copied the gesture.
And an egg, launched from her hand, struck his face, oozing into his eyes and mouth. With equal effect she might have punched him in the guts. He felt all the hope knocked black from his body—though the longing was still there.
She laughed, her mouth wide open and holding a shadow, and the El Camino took off and she was gone, so elusive, yet lingering, like the pain that wakes you from a dream and ends up belonging to the dream.
Kenny laughed, too, before choking it back, knowing better but still smiling.
Drew didn’t bother wiping away the egg. Instead he held his head in his hands as if it were something separate from him. He could hear the anger mounting in his breathing.
Marty said, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” He looked emotional enough to kiss Drew on the mouth. To prevent this from happening Drew took another root beer from the cooler and drank it in one long gurgling swallow that foamed a belch up his throat that took longer to get out than the root beer took to get in. He kept the bottle against his lips and when his father asked again, was he okay, he said, “I’m fine.”
The words dropped in the bottle and broke.
Sometimes—not very often but sometimes—when Drew and Marty were out on the skiff, sucking the peanut butter off their thumbs and waiting for the bells to ring, they talked. Marty would talk about the nurse shark he landed at Beverly Beach, Oregon, how it took him an entire afternoon, and how the shark kept biting at the air, at nothing, long after it died. He would talk about the Labrador puppy he once found inside a catfish’s stomach, whole, with its tiny pink tongue stuck out. And he would talk about women. The girls he dated in high school and in college. But never—not ever—did he talk about her.
At times like these Drew felt more like a friend than a son of any sort, his father seeming at once younger than him and like an old man who remembered life sweeter than it honestly was.
So Marty talked and Drew listened and they laughed when zipping up and down Rutherford County’s lakes and reservoirs—so impossibly blue—and along the streams that sometimes petered out into salty marshes crowded with mosquitoes and snapping turtles and cypress trees, the middle of nowhere.
Marty knew where to find the fish. Sometimes they would be where two rivers converged, feeding in the eddies, hungry for the swirling larvae. Other times they would be where the willows hung off the banks or where the logs piled up, hiding in the shade, which seemed to Drew a good place to go. Where the fish were depended on the time of day, the time of year, but Marty knew where to find them.
On one of these trips he showed Drew the most amazing thing.
At the time he was working on a study that estimated the annual growth and reproduction cycles of striped bass. For this he used a mini-boom shocker, a small device with a generator the size of a microwave and a rod he lowered from the skiff into the water, applying 400 volts that first drew toward the anode every fish within a hundred feet, and then, with a simple twist of the output settings, effectively paralyzed them, so that the surface suddenly filled with convulsing fish you could pluck from the water with your hands.
Drew noticed how Marty smiled the whole time. He always smiled, sure, but right then, when the fish rose and tremored and gaped in pain, he looked truly happy. He looked like the footballers looked when they terrorized Overall, like Jessica looked when she dove off the cliffs, like his mother looked when she walked out the door with a suitcase in each hand. He looked like he felt good.
Drew knew what he needed to do. When his father showered and the house filled with steam, he stole from the skiff the mini-boom shocker and with bungee cords strapped it between the handlebars of his bicycle.
It was noon and it was hot when he arrived at the cove. The swans napped with their heads tucked away. Flies buzzed around them. The raft had run aground and he carried the shocker there. The logs were slick with guano. With not a little effort he shoved off the raft and climbed halfway onto it, legs kicking, propelling him toward where the swans waited, now awake and yawning and stretching like people.
Near the middle of the cove he crawled all the way onto the raft and held his breath when the swans inched toward him, fanning out to surround the raft, shifting nervously, cocking their heads, opening and closing their wings to pound the water. One of them showed its sharp pink tongue and hissed and the hissing quickly spread among the other swans, drowning out the cicadas, so loud and terrifying that it became the only thing.
For a second Drew didn’t know what to do—hugging himself, he felt lost—but only for a second. He reached for the rod and lowered it into the water and knobbed on the power to 400 volts, like his father showed him.
Their hisses transformed to shrieks. It was a sound Drew never imagined he might cause—it sounded like women in pain or in sexual climax—but he did not stop and neither did they—they continued to move toward him—and so he upped the voltage.
Beneath their screams was an undersound, the sound of the mini-boom, an angry buzzing as electric currents crackled into the water, currents whose yellow fingers snapped and popped and took hold of the perch and the catfish and the eels and leeches and drew them to the raft so that the water gradually darkened and stirred with their presence.
So many creatures broke the surface, seizuring, rolling over and over, showing their pale bellies, that the cove just shook, just boiled. The swans crawled more than swam toward the raft. The smell of fish was everywhere. Next to the raft a black bullhead rose, its muddy eyes rolling back in its head, its broad ugly face gaping in silent agony, and then, as if its pain belonged to him, Drew began to weep in the open way men normally avoid. He couldn’t help it. He cried as he had never cried before. He cried over everything and nothing.
Never had he felt so powerful and repulsive and so awfully good.
The swans were nearly upon him when he switched the output settings from an alternating current to a direct current—a switch that caused muscle paralysis and illuminated the water with flashes of light—and the buzzing sound vanished, replaced by a heavy arterial pulsing that Drew recognized.
The swans went quiet and limp, their necks collapsing, their wings unfolding, so that they just floated there, among the fish, not dead, but not wholly alive. Still sobbing, Drew switched off the mini-boom and picked them from the water, stacking their trembling bodies on the raft to put elsewhere so that the girls might return to him, falling from the sky with their arms wide open, their faces beautiful.