Below the Surface
a short story by Peter Short
About the Author
Peter Short’s fiction has appeared in O. Henry Festival Stories, Greensboro College, and Lonzie’s Fried Chicken Literary Magazine, and received Honorable Mention in the Asheville Writer’s Workshop International Fiction Contest.
As a freelance writer, Peter has contributed essays, articles, reviews and interviews for such publications and websites as The Hill Rag (a DC-based free monthly), Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and HOB.com (House of Blues Entertainment). Peter is a graduate of Denison University, and lives and works in Los Angeles.
Dad explains the surprise party that awaits me at home. “They have no idea,” he says.
Beads of sweat quiver on his chin with the motion of the car then drop to stain the shoulder of his cotton shirt. I avoid his occasional glance, afraid of what’s visible in my pale winter face, in the circles under my eyes. I look out the window and see a sheet of black, drawn tight over the sky with flat lightening drawing moisture from the Everglades. It’s miles away, east of here where it’s hot, where the sun softens the pavement and warms the leather interior of Dad’s Cadillac. He tells me I’ll be all right, that I’ll have many more jobs, that money comes and goes, that the odds are high that I’ll be fired again.
“Sooner or later,” he says.
“Twice,” I say out loud for the first time. “Twice in six months,” the words linger like after-taste.
“It takes a long time to find something you can tolerate.”
This almost makes me feel better. This almost makes me forget I haven’t told my mother.
“We’ll take care of the rent before you leave next week,” Dad says.
He turns up the air conditioning to maximum.
“We’ll keep this to ourselves.”
My legs stick to the seat, and I squint through the shine and try to readjust.
Mom is at the door with a wide grin, “Welcome home, sweetie.”
I tell her Dad spoiled the surprise. “It was his idea anyway,” and she quickly frowns. I hug her and then shake my cousins’ hands and kiss their wives or their dates on the cheek. The dining room table is covered with platters from Publix. The celery and carrots look edible, the broccoli and cauliflower look painted. Small glass dishes of Ranch and blue cheese touch the edges of oval plates, while napkins fan out in fancy spirals. Condiments cluster in the center.
“It was nice you could get away,” Mom says.
I tell her I’m home for only a short time, “a couple of days, then I’ve got to get back. A long weekend.”
She asks about Manhattan, if I am enjoying myself, if it’s as exciting as they say. If maybe I’m tired of the city’s pace. These aren’t quite questions, more like tiny requests hidden in the upward lilt of her voice, and I tell her the same things I say over the phone. I tell her yes, I’m enjoying myself, and yes, it’s exciting, and yes, I’m not a city person, and yes, I’ll come back if the job doesn’t work out. I don’t tell her the skyscrapers cast enormous shadows and no matter how much time I spend outside, I always feel inside of something. I don’t tell her I’ve been fired again, or that an intern with “a better attitude” is now proofreading my galleys and getting the Editor her low-fat black bean burritos. Instead, I ask her how the other side of the family is doing, knowing full well that if there were any good news she would have already told me.
I see Dad behind the built-in Jen-Air cooking up burgers and Kielbasa. He has always been more comfortable around others, around people and noise and music. It makes him feel better when hands are lifting and toasting, when he’s keeping time with the party’s rhythm. The occasional dirty joke, a snide remark, maybe an argument or an affectionate slug on the arm. “You got the bad one,” he’d say, resting his drink on his stomach as my young face retreated from the wrong cup of Coke. He’d laugh with friends, raise an eyebrow, whistle at the bullshiters, or quietly, with arms crossed, nod in confidence with someone he would only describe to us as a business friend.
Today, the air is a sticky second skin, and the party is beginning to move. I smell the onions and the soy and the oregano Dad uses on everything. It’s another barbecue, and I speak without thinking, barely remembering what I’ve said to my extended family. The words evaporate the minute I open my mouth, and I’m sure I’ve told them I’m okay.
Uncle Buddy sits on the rattan ottoman holding a red plastic cup, pinching cigarettes hard enough to flatten the filters. He’s permanently Florida with a medium-brown tan and dry, ashy forearms that flake off like pollen. His gray hair pushes through the half-open short-sleeve button-down he insists was shipped in from Havana – “Cubans are good for something.” He’s my father’s only brother and requires the assistance of a metal alloy cane with a rubber handle and a rubber tip. He brings two or three bags of ice to these parties. We shake hands and say hello, and he asks how the city is doing. I say, “fine” and notice his eyes, which are puffy and red like mine.
Mom sits on the couch smoking a cigarette. She’s downgraded to an ultra-light with a longer filter, and I smell the difference. Odorless like fuel, artificial, like slowly burning plastic, and I keep walking, talking and smiling as she watches me . I am standing next to the pool where I practically lived when I only came to her knee. Later on she tells everyone how they thought I was half-fish, how I swam everyday after school, every morning, every evening, rain or shine. I won’t remember this, not out loud anyway, and she’ll insist I loved the water. She’ll say I spent more time in the pool than in the house. She’ll say this more with her hands and arms and eyes that she widens in expression of my childhood wonder than she says with her mouth, a crease of moving skin.
“He picked up the breast stroke like you wouldn’t believe.”
The frog kick came easy with my legs rotating outward at the knees, propelling me forward while I surfaced every three strokes. I remember the rhythm, one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three, breathe.
Mom’s family is never here for these parties. They are spread out, most of them live up north, and I feel I’m the only one who comes to visit her.
“Uncle James is still in Baltimore,” is all she says about her younger brother. He went to an Ivy League school and graduated with honors and the uniform goatee that came with it. There’s a picture I’ve seen. It’s faded and cracked, brown at the edges. It’s Massachusetts and James and his friends surround my mother. She’s tucked under his shoulder, hooking his waist. Her hair, a deep black I’ve never seen, and they’re all smiling through the brightness of that day. She tells me he was brilliant and well-spoken and loved New England and its seasons. “He could’ve been great,” she says and forgets to include he is gay and once married. She leaves out that he’s a failure and an alcoholic and living in a halfway house in Baltimore. These things are all missing when she brings him up, but we know anyway and listen to his potential, his life as if it were on hold in that picture. Every once in a while in the middle of a discussion or an argument, she’ll call me by his name. Out of habit, she’ll say, and then shrug. I’ve grown used to this mistake.
She grabs my wrist and pulls me down to where she sits on the patio couch and whispers, “Do you really like it up there in New York City?”
The barbecue is ending and the wives or the dates walk my cousins to their cars. They all say goodbye. They all say it is good to see me again. I say the same. Dad is shirtless, and his pants are slipping below his belly. He is behind the patio bar still mixing drinks, topping off RumRunners with 151.
“Henry, watch this,” and he lowers a long wooden match to the cup rims, which flash orange and yellow.
“Look at that.”
They simmer blue, and I wonder who will drink them.
The next day, I visit Uncle Buddy at the yacht club. There are no boats and only two slips, but it’s a club none-the-less with a thatched-roof bar and a pool they share with the hotel. My uncle is happy I live where I do. He says it makes for a real treat when I come home, and begins to tell me how much has changed, how he barely recognizes the town. It’s the construction he says, the cars and the roads that keep widening.
“Tar’s going to eat it all up before you know it.”
The bar agrees and nods and smokes and drinks. I want to join them with “Damn right” or “Awful shame.” I want to feel this constant low-grade anger. But I can’t, it all looks the same to me, and Buddy says that’s the point. “Can’t tell one corner from the next.”
Buddy wishes he were young. He wishes he were skinny and limber. “Loose like a goose,” he says. He wishes for a lot of things, and when the lottery reaches twenty million, he buys fifty dollars worth of tickets and holds them in his left hand like a fan of cards as he compares them to the winning numbers in the newspaper and says, “Immigrant will win, I know it.”
He lives three blocks away from the club, and I think of how many consecutive days he’s sat under this thatched-roof waiting for some reason to head home and eat tuna salad over toast, a slice of cheddar, maybe some ketchup, and watch TV. His limp is more noticeable this time, and when he offers a smile under wet and tired eyes, I want to ask if he’s all right. But as if he’s sensed the concern, he slaps me on the back and buys me a drink — a soda I say — and welcomes me home again.
“Buddy’s legs are a mess,” Dad told me when I was little, “Got caught in an open field with a machine gunner. He used to run.”
Sitting next to Buddy, I listen to his times, the fifty-second splits, the five-minute miles, sets of 200-hundreds under 40, under 35, 33, and do my best to picture him, my uncle with the cane, striding out, pumping his arms, his skin red with blood. But I can’t see him on the track kicking up clay and throwing elbows for position.
“I was a middle-distance man,” he says, and I have to take his word for it.
It’s a quarter to two, and by four Buddy will grow quiet, maybe reading a chapter in a book, something by Ludlum. He’ll drink dark rum and ginger beer and stack the clear plastic empties to the right of his ashtray.
It’s a “Dark-n-Stormy,” he says.
This is a drink he came across in the Keys “where the fags live,” and he offers me a sip. I agree that it’s good and think of ordering one myself, maybe two because they barely taste like something that will hurt. I could share the sunset with him. My uncle would like that. I would like that, and he offers to pay. I consider, but leave before I have to call a cab or drive home because Buddy’s friend, a woman in heels and pleated linen pants, will arrive later, taking the stool he’s been saving all day for her and settle into a pair of Beefeater and tonics.
“You saw your uncle today?” Dad asks, leaning against the kitchen counter-top eating cheese and crackers.
“Yeah, stopped by this afternoon. Were you there?” I ask, looking away, opening the refrigerator.
“A few minutes after you left,” he says between Saltines. He’s shirtless again.
“When’s Mom coming home?”
“She said she’d be late tonight.”
I wonder if he’s familiar with this echo of my youth, if he’s uncomfortable without her presence too.
“Thought we’d order in,” Dad says flicking crumbs off his chest into the sink. “How’s Chinese sound? Or maybe that Italian place up the road, that chain?”
“Either one’s fine with me,” I say, opening the fridge.
“There’s a bottle of white wine in the garage ice box. Let me get it.”
Dad returns and uncorks, then pours a glass and looks at me.
“I’m fine, water’s good.”
“You sure, I could put some ice in it for you.”
“No one drinks wine with ice.”
“So no ice then?”
Dad gives a half-smile that says he knows what I do on Friday nights in Manhattan, the occasional joint, the sunrises I’ve seen through my window as I climb into bed. He wants to tell me he’s been there, that the shots, and the time between bars escapes his memory too. I rarely remember how I get home. The rocking lullaby of a cab heading down First Avenue erases me, and the credit card receipts I find in my pockets are a trail of where I’ve been. I edit these events from our conversations, cross them out for Mom and replace them with “I’m just like my friends,” and for some reason, this sounds good to her.
I return to the refrigerator saying something about kidney stones and how I don’t get enough water in my system. This annoys Dad, my not drinking at home, as he’s left to do it alone, something he thinks only alcoholics do.
“I pissed mine out,” he says.
We sit at the patio table spinning pasta into mouthfuls, tearing bread, wiping our chins while, through the glass doors, we watch the news on TV with the volume turned off.
“We’ve got the closed-caption now,” Dad says dipping bread into a chum of marinara. “You can read it.”
I wonder when this began, his need for silence.
“They’re too loud, anyway,” I add.
“It’s cooler out here.”
“Have you talked to Mom?”
“Need to go to the bank first. I figure we’ll tell her when you start working again. No fuss that way.”
He lifts his second glass of wine and mocks me with a toast. “Here’s to New York.” He’s alert when he says this, and as I laugh with him, because it’s the right thing to do and because it feels good, I focus on his jaw and the way it works his food and wait for that sluggish, buzzed moment when all he can say is “God is good.”
I ask him when he started drinking wine.
“Your mother has a glass every now and then.”
This is a lie.
“She likes it.” He pauses, “And it’s easier on the stomach.”
This is new, the wine, in winter, in the comfortable months of South Florida when the small beach towns on the Gulf Coast bustle with wealthy Midwest snow birds and sunburned Canadians. Dad usually chooses scotch, over everything. Dewars, Johnny Walker Red, Grant’s, sometimes a single-malt.
“Scotch,” I say to myself, my teeth biting down on the word as if it were one of those cardboard bits used by dentists to take pictures in my mouth.
I remember sliding from room to room in my socks at two in the morning on a Junior High Friday night. The Spanish tiles bumped under my feet until I stood in front of the liquor cabinet’s deep oak finish and broken lock. “Scotch,” and I’d make the swallow run laps inside the glass I’d only sniff at. It was hard, I thought, not easy to drink this.
“Scotch.” My father held his glass like he earned it, like he could take a punch, the tumbler’s thick bottom disappearing in his hand. He’s like this sometimes, tough, street-wise, and solid as a sidewalk. Tonight, though, he’s tired and soft like his big belly, like the last hour before he goes to bed, like he is now, nodding in and out in front of the TV while I wash the dishes.
Mother’s headlights blind the house as she pulls in under the carport. The engine cuts off and begins to tick. She walks in and says hello, and I raise my hand and nod to Dad. She glances at his sagging face and mouths to me, “Good.” This is new too, the word “good,” and when she goes to her bedroom, I see the change in their habits.
There used to be leftovers in the oven and nights ended early in bed with a book. The door would be left open so that when Dad fumbled through the kitchen, Mom could yell through the house without looking at him. The weekends were the trade off, and he spent this time in a constant crouch, picking up pinecones and sticks in the yard so she could run the Sears rider mower without damaging the blades.
“Everything okay?” she whispers in her white and yellow robe.
I stick up my thumb and nod. “The dishes are almost done.”
Her whisper sharpens. “How’d the night go?”
I shrug again.
“None, ” I answer. “He’s been out for a while now, couldn’t make it through Law & Order.”
Mother begins to straighten up.
“I’ve got it.”
She waves her arm in the air as if I’m a mosquito and smiles and grabs a towel. I rinse, she dries, and our elbows touch when we turn at the waist.
“He misses you, you know,” Mom says.
“I miss you guys too, Mom.”
“Wish you could stay a few more days.
“I had to beg to get these days off. It’s been pretty busy at work lately,” and I unfold the fiction I memorized on the plane ride down, the ten-hour days, the deadlines, the demanding Managing Editor and his bad breath, all the responsibility I have.
Every Saturday night the phone rings just before dinner. Mom’s in the living room that exists only to collect dust and she speaks softly. “Right, of course, yes.” Then she laughs, speaks softly again and my father says, “it’s your Uncle James. He wants more money.” Mother is the only one who speaks to him. The rest of us just nod and say, “Yes, we accept the charges.”
Dad hates James and becomes edgy when he calls. He’s brief with his words and pretends to look through the sliding glass doors and off into the distance. But he’s really only waiting for her to get off the phone, for me to notice that this bothers him. Dad is jealous of James, how he makes Mom feel, how he makes her laugh despite his misery.
Dad once told me, “when you were away at school, Uncle James didn’t answer his phone for four or five days.”
Mom sent him to Miami where James was living at the time, and Dad found him passed out drunk, lying in his own piss next to plastic vodka bottles. Dad was a little snockered himself when he said this, a little upset at the memory when he told me how he just stood over James thinking he could “end all this shit.”
“Snuff him out,” he snapped his fingers. “A pillow over the face,” and spit jumped from his tongue like a spark, landed on my left cheek.
Uncle Buddy stops by our place the following morning with a large 7-11 cream-and-sugar coffee and a brand of cigarettes I don’t recognize. He curses his headache and the pains in his chest as his lungs seem to gasp for more smoke. The bags under his eyes droop so low I’m not sure where his hangover begins and ends. Looking at me, he points to my father who always rises around six or seven and says, “How the hell does he do it? Fuckin’ Superman.”
Dad’s at his best in the morning. He begins with a swim in the pool, drinks instant coffee that he heats in the microwave and fries up left over ham he eats on heavily buttered toast. He wears his burgundy robe and black loafers, the ones with the holes cut in the side so his corns have more room. His hair is thick and gray, and the dogs shake at his feet for pieces of fat to hit the floor. The quietest mornings come after nights he’s returned through the garage, when he comes home with sliding eyes and an argument ready like the rolled newspaper he uses to quiet the dogs.
Uncle Buddy eats breakfast with us on the patio, trading bites for drags. When he feels a little more relaxed and begins to forget what it was like to wake up, he’ll head over to the club.
“See you later?” Buddy asks my father.
It’s late on Sunday afternoon, the day before I fly back north, as I begin to fold laundry and pack. Dad walks into my room and motions with his arm in a way that turns him back out and says, “Let’s go for a ride, Henry.” He starts the car and tells me Buddy is at the Police Station.
“D.U.I.,” he says.
I press the right side of my face against the upper portion of my seat belt, and my head bobs steadily with the car, absorbing what the shocks do not. I see everything at an angle. We pass a mall on a stretch of a road once bordered by “U-PICK’EM” fruit stands. Parking lot after parking lot of cars for sale, rent or lease have filled every space. Ford, Pontiac, Jeep, Gator Fred’s Nissan Pavilion and its kiddy pen full of plastic balls all flash by, blending into unrecognizable colors and light and the same sun shining down as yesterday and the day before. We pass my old school, and I mention this to break the quiet that’s mounting like guilt. Dad nods, still fixed ahead. The recreation center and the Police Athletic League football fields where I used to wait for him to pick me up, late and drunk, have been repositioned. The coaches used to blow their whistle and wave to my father like it was no big deal, like they had all the time in the world.
Dad shakes a hand and opens his wallet and a few minutes later Buddy is escorted out from a back room limping along with his cane. There’s a large white gauze pad taped to his face covering half of his left eye. Dry blood and iodine color his face scarlet, and his cane, out front and leading, squeaks on the tile that reflects the glare of the florescent bulbs humming above. I want to speak to him, to say something appropriate or compassionate, but I’m struck with the silence of his embarrassment as if it were mine. He looks up at me with eyes dog-tired and hollow. Then the cane slips, not on a puddle, or a chip in the tile, or an invisible dip in the floor. The cane just slips out from under him like a bad joke. He falls forward and into my arms. He’s limp; he’s dead weight, and the first thing that comes to mind is he’s much lighter than I would have guessed. I dig into his shirt and squeeze as he slips through my grasp. This feels like forever.
“Hold on there,” Dad says while throwing Buddy’s arm over his shoulders and quickly pushing open the double glass doors with his foot before anyone can offer help.
He maneuvers the car door along with Uncle Buddy’s body and buckles him in. Dad looks back at me and mouths, “What the hell are you doing?”
I grab the cane.
Uncle Buddy leans forward and puts his hand, still raw with gravel, on my shoulder. He says nothing. Dad opens the door and sweeps Buddy out of the car in a motion that now looks well-practiced. I get out and step toward the apartment, but they’re already in with the door closed behind him. I lean against the hood of the car and stare at my shoes. When I look up, I hope to be somewhere else.
On the drive home, Dad says, “He’s lucky he didn’t lose his eye.”
Mother’s already home when we return and by the look of her, she already knows. She slices tomatoes. Dad fires up the Jen-Air. I snap off the ends of green beans and wait for water to boil.
“What a note to end on,” she says focused on the cutting board. “I guess you could say it’s nothing new.” She switches to cucumbers, the long blade knocking hard on the wood.
I try to reassure her, “Uncle Buddy will be okay.”
“I’m not sure I care about your Uncle,” she says. “Everyone I know is like this anyway.”
At the table, Dad sits with his elbows on the edge, his full weight leaning forward, and though we’ve never been to church, he looks as if he’s about to say Grace.
“Smells great,” I say.
“Let’s hope so,” and he begins to saw at the meat he prefers medium-rare. Mother’s is medium-well, and I watch butter melt over vegetable medley. The TV, still muted, catches my father’s eyes with clips of disaster and Senators holding their hands above their waist in a manner that says all of this is important. Mother asks if I’m ready to go back to the big city. I answer too quickly.
“Bags are packed,” I say, and she reaches for her cigarettes halfway through the meal.
Dad shrugs in mid-chew.
She returns the shrug, “It’s too much.”
I help Dad clear the table. The gristle and bone go to the dogs, and we talk about when I will visit again, about how cold it will be when I touch down in New York.
Dad says, “You can always come back. It’d make your mother happy.”
When I turn to hear this myself she is already up and on her way to the kitchen to scrape leftovers into Tupperware.
“It’s the blood in your veins I worry about.”
Mom has said this before, in passing, a scientific fact she heard on CNN, but not like this with her face in the sink twisting a cigarette butt into nothing.
“Your Uncle’s still in Baltimore you know.”
She stops there and continues to clean the pots instead of telling me what she really knows, what a drunk looks like, how they act, how the violence and lack of reason rise to the surface, breaking furniture and hope.
“You’re no longer working.”
I think of saying I quit. I think of telling her I got a better offer with more money, with benefits. Health, dental, eye, chiropractic, acupuncture, stock options, 401K, the works. A comprehensive life package.
“I didn’t want to come home,” I say.
Mother shakes her hands over the sink, wipes them dry on her pants. She reaches for her purse and writes out a check for my rent and says, “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”
As if it’s a punishment, the rain slaps the aluminum roof hanging over the patio and the shallow end of the pool. Water curves off the lip into more water as I stand outside on the patio finishing my second glass. It’s a single malt and its old, and Dad will probably notice a week from now that the bottle is no longer full. I could re-fill it with iced-tea, but I know he can’t say anything. My chest is warm, and I undress and jump in and feel the cold rain from the Everglades on my shoulders, down my neck. I feel the warm chlorinated water on my legs, against my stomach. I go under, then resurface and continue to do this for what feels like hours. Warm and cold, warm and cold, another glass of scotch, and I almost forget my name.
I swim to the deep end and sink to the bottom. It is quiet there, like it is during my father’s mornings, and I look up at the tiny rings that never quite make it to the edge without breaking apart. I remember how I tried to float as a kid, how I’d become still and rigid hoping my arms and legs, my stomach would rise like a breath and keep me on top. It never happened though, and slowly, my weight would always sink me.
I push off from the bottom and draw water past me with my arms, my frog legs kicking. I break the surface, lay flat and close my eyes. My eyes open to see my mother, who is next to me in the water, on her back with her hair, in that deep black that I’ve never seen before, fanning out from her scalp. As my legs begin to drop, she takes my hand and inhales. Her belly rises with oxygen and her body, thin and young, begins to arch.
“You see,” she says. “One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.”
“Below the Surface” Copyright ©2002 by Peter Short.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.