IT WAS SUMMER VACATION. We saw our schoolteachers sometimes at the library, at the cinema, at the park with their children, but we avoided them as best we could, and instead of waking for classes, we went to the lake in the morning and had its shores to ourselves.
It was there that we witnessed the drowning.I was with Gretchen, my girlfriend. Simon, her brother, swam a slow, clumsy breaststroke. He was out near the buoys.
—Watch this! Simon shouted.
But we weren’t watching. Gretchen was sunning herself. I was staring at Gretchen—at the taut fabric of her bathing suit; at a bruise on her arm—while beyond her, near the dock, a man put stones in his pockets.
—Gretchen, I told her. It’s Jonah.
She spoke without interest.
—What’s he doing?
—He’s putting stones in his pockets.
He worked hastily. His pockets sagged from the weight as he gathered the rocks, and with solemn dignity—with his eyes looking forward—Jonah entered the water.
—Gretchen, I said. I think he’s drowning himself.
She lay there another moment or two. She didn’t believe me. When she sat upright, she raised a hand to her eyes, and she looked at the lake. Jonah was underwater, and Gretchen, alarmed, asked:
—Are you going to help him?
I couldn’t, I told her. I was too far away. So Gretchen signaled her brother, a skinny ten-year-old, who wasn’t big enough to save the man. Simon swam toward him anyway, and Gretchen and I followed. We reached the spot where we’d seen him last. Through the clear summer water, we saw the lake’s sandy bottom. The body, however, was gone.
We went back to the beach. We hardly knew Jonah—he’d graduated a year or two earlier—but we were bewildered by what we’d witnessed. Simon lay in the sand and hid his face with his towel.
—Is he dead? Simon asked.
—I don’t know.
We waited awhile longer. Gretchen stood and started dressing, her bathing suit damp beneath a t-shirt and cutoffs. Sand stuck to her feet, but before she brushed it away, she told me:
—Look. There he is.
Jonah emerged from the lake. He wore a startled expression when he returned to the beach, and as he walked down the shoreline, we called to him.
—Are you okay? we asked.
Jonah said nothing. He took the rocks from his pockets and dropped the rocks in the sand. He shook his head as if dazed and then left.
I stood with Simon and Gretchen, and together, we watched him. Dripping water as he walked, Jonah went from the beach.
—He’s okay? Simon asked us.
—I think so.
Simon looked at his sister—wondered:
Simon asked to stay an hour longer. Gretchen swam with her brother, and I watched from the shore as they splashed in the shallows.
We forgot about the drowning. We got ice cream later, and as Simon finished his sundae, his nose started bleeding. We walked him to the alley behind the Dairy Maid. We hoped that no one would see him and think his father had caused it, and his blood dropped like ink on the gravel.Gretchen was anxious.
—We should go, she said.
There was blood on Simon’s shirt, and Gretchen worried about her father, who’d be home soon. She’d need to clean Simon’s shirt before her father returned, or—
She kissed me.
—I’m sorry. Goodbye.
Two days later, I went with Gretchen to the cinema. She brought Simon. We met at my house, and when Simon ran ahead of us, I walked with his sister. We held hands as we walked, and her wrists were braceleted with new bruises.
—Are you okay? I asked Gretchen.—We’re fine.
She waited a moment and added:
—Simon hid in the closet.
Her hand was small, warm, and smooth. The day smelled like sunscreen and grass clippings, and at the end of the street, I told her:
—I’m sorry, Gretchen. I should have been there. I should—
—Stop it. Don’t say that. You can’t.
We were downtown then, near the diagonal parking spaces on the streets by the courthouse. I wanted to tell her that I would protect her from her father. I’d help her brother as well. They’d had it hard since their mother left, but a few years from now, when we were graduated, we could leave together. We could live by ourselves and be happy.
Gretchen held my hand tighter. I couldn’t promise her anything, and Gretchen knew it. So we kept walking, and a block from the cinema, we saw Jonah on the sidewalk.
—Jonah! Gretchen called, and we went to him. He was standing beneath a street sign, and his body was dripping.
Gretchen asked him:
—Did you try to drown yourself again?
Jonah’s eyes focused somewhere beyond us, and after a long hesitation, he blinked and walked away.
—Should we follow him? asked Gretchen.
We noticed the slow way he shambled down the sidewalk. He had the grave demeanor of an older man—a dying man—and we feared for his safety. But the movie was starting soon.
—There isn’t anything we can do, I said.
So we hurried toward the cinema. Jonah had come from that direction, and as we walked down the sidewalk, we saw his path of wet footprints—his trail marked by droplets of water.
Thereafter, when we saw Jonah, his body and clothes were dripping. We thought he was sneaking to the lake, but Mr. Burton at the hardware store said that he found Jonah sleeping on a stack of wooden pallets, and Jonah dripped as he slept.
—It’s an affliction, said Burton. His wetness.
Burton was talking to some other old-timers. Gretchen was getting a key copied in case her father locked her out of the house again, and I was with Simon in the paint aisle. We heard the men at the counter, their voices dry from the cigarettes they smoked when business was slow.
—Don’t know what on earth happened to him, Burton said. Used to be normal as anyone. Now he drips like a fountain.
It was almost noon. After the key was copied, we ate lunch in the park. Jonah happened past us.
—There he goes, Simon said.
—He’s still dripping.
He dripped through the hardware store. Burton chased him away with a broom, and Jonah went without protest. He shambled down Main Street and made his way to the grocery, where he dripped by the produce aisle. A bagboy followed him with a bucket and mop, but the boy didn’t work fast enough, and an old woman slipped and spilled a crate filled with melons. The owners, the Hallorans, led Jonah outside.
—If he comes back, they told the bagboy, don’t admit him.
Agitated shopkeepers barred their doors when they saw him. They bemoaned the annoyance of the drowned man, for though their customers paid him little attention, he soaked the floors and bought nothing. He was content to merely wander a store’s aisles, and news had spread about the injured spinster Pendergrass, the woman from the grocery whose hip had been bruised.
—He’ll kill someone, the store owners muttered. Just a matter of time.
Gretchen rolled her eyes at the shopkeepers, and at the lake with Simon one weekend, she defended Jonah.
—He’s like a child, she said. He’s gentle.
It was Saturday morning. Gretchen’s father was asleep, but because she worried about him waking and finding that his children were gone, Gretchen called to her brother.
She shook the sand from her towel. Simon ran toward us, and with sunglasses holding her hair back, Gretchen smiled at me.
—See you at church tomorrow, she told me.
She took Simon’s hand.
—Let’s go home, Gretchen said to her brother.
I sat with my parents near the back of the sanctuary. The service hadn’t started.
—What time is it? I asked my mother.She checked her watch.
I glanced toward the door. I wanted to stare at Gretchen through the service, but if she didn’t come, I’d have to listen to the sermon. I’d have to page through the pew Bible.
My mother nudged my father’s elbow.
Jonah shuffled down the aisle. He was dripping as always, and he dripped on the carpet. The parishioners watched him as he sat in an otherwise empty pew, and Martha, the organist, stared at Jonah and scowled. It was time for the voluntary, but how could she start the service when the drowned man was present—when he profaned this sacred place with his dripping?
The reverend signaled to Martha. She nodded but looked angry about it, and after delaying a bit longer, she played. Low notes groaned from the pipe organ.
Jonah stayed through the voluntary. He dripped on the pew and on the floor underneath it, but by the time the song ended, he was standing. Propriety discouraged him from dripping in the sanctuary, so Jonah walked from the church.
We were silent and still till he left.
The sermon in the reverend’s monotone discussed the ark or leviathan. I didn’t listen. An empty pew across the aisle reminded me that there was nothing for me in that church.
After the service—after a car ride home and a hurried change of clothes—I asked out of our family dinner and started racing to Gretchen. I can’t explain it. Something urgent, imperative, made me rush to her house, and on the sidewalks, I saw droplets of water.Then a smeared blur of images. A door slammed. Wet footprints. A bruise like a plum. Something strewn on the lawn. Gretchen crying.
She put her arms around my neck.
A broken lamp was at my feet.
—Our father, said Gretchen.
—Your father? He’s here?
—No, he’s gone now.
—So is Simon.
Her left eye was violet and swollen. Her lower lip was split, and there was blood on her t-shirt.
—Simon ran when it started. I lost him.
Past Gretchen’s shoulder, I saw a chair on the lawn and saw the window it had come through.
—I’m worried about my brother.
—Can you run? Can you see?
—I’m okay, Gretchen said. We should go.
We hurried to find Simon. We ran from her home, and Gretchen knew where to run.
—To the lake, Gretchen told me. That’s where.
When we came to the shore, Simon was beyond the buoys. His body bobbed above the waves, but he’d gone dangerously far, and though we called, he kept swimming.
—Simon! shouted Gretchen. Come back!Simon paused when he heard her and treaded water. He may have shouted a reply to us, but the sound didn’t carry. Then he raised his right arm and tried a weak, frantic wave.
Gretchen ran toward the water. I followed.
—He’s too far out, I said, but she didn’t respond. She was thigh-deep in lake water. She was starting her stroke, and I reached for her ankle when a man overtook us.
Gretchen tried to kick herself away from me.
—Gretchen, I told her. It’s Jonah.
He advanced unhurriedly until his chest and his shoulders were absorbed by the lake. Then his head went underwater. Simon’s shouts were water-choked but audible, and Gretchen thrashed in my arms.
—He’s sinking. I know it. He’ll die.
Simon slipped beneath the waves, and Gretchen fought to escape me. But I looked at the low ripples that feathered the lake and heard the soft murmur of water against the buoys. I felt the water-slick softness of Gretchen’s browned, summer skin.
I was calm.
—He’ll be fine. He’ll survive this.
She struggled half-heartedly and looked at the vacant stretch of water where we’d last seen her brother. And when she stopped resisting, she took my hand and stared lake-ward.
A minute went by. It was too late to help her brother, so Gretchen retreated to where the waves lapped against her ankles. With her vision impeded by the eye swollen shut, she didn’t see the dark shape beneath the water—a shape that came nearer until the top of a head emerged, and after the head came two shoulders. The shoulders bowed with the weight of the child Jonah carried, and when Jonah lowered him, Simon’s feet settled in the silt beneath the shallow water. He wobbled unsteadily, but Gretchen held him upright and let him cry on her shoulder.
Jonah nodded and wandered away.
Later that day, we made it back to the house. The police were waiting. Concerned neighbors had called about the morning’s chaos, and before Gretchen could explain what had happened, she and her brother were taken to the police station, where their father was being held. A child services agent spoke to them for several hours, and a day later, they were sent to live with an aunt in Alabama.
Gretchen wrote me for a month or so. Her letters were kind but distant. She was several states away and knew she’d never be back. She wrote at one point to tell me that she’d met someone else—a senior with a car. I wrote a response I didn’t send and never heard from her again.
Meantime, her house was unoccupied. After his release, Gretchen’s father fled town. Rumor put him in Virginia, where his family was from. He didn’t take anything with him, and when word of his disappearance reached Alabama, the children’s aunt hired a moving service to load a truck with their things. Even the lamp on the lawn was placed in the trailer, and every remnant of Gretchen was taken away with the truck.
The day after Gretchen left, I went to the lake. I stood on the shore in my swim trunks, but before I went in the water, I saw Jonah. It was the first I’d seen him since he’d saved Simon, and I called his name. He didn’t answer. He walked out until the water reached his nose, but rather than going under, he let his body rise to the surface. With his stomach turned skyward like the belly of a bloated fish, he whirled his arms in long circles. It was a backstroke so placid on the water that his motion was noiseless and his kicks scarcely splashed. And I watched as he swam farther and farther out, his body gliding across the clear summer lake, the sunlight bright on its waves till he smiled at the sky—till he came to the gleaming horizon.
Then he swam a stroke more and was gone.
CASEY MCCONAHAY is a graduate of Miami University’s MFA program. He lives in northwest Ohio.