Say in the spring of ’94 a man named Bartells buys a used pontoon boat with money he won from the Missouri state scratchers lottery. Five thousand dollars all for matching three pots of gold on a two dollar Luck O’ the Irish ticket. Tax man takes half and Bartells, because he is a shit negotiator, gives twenty-one of what’s left to a man named Tony Nichols for the boat out on Highway 81.
He hauls home and reverses in the muddy drive the boat he believes Debbie will gloat about to her clients and coworkers at the Shear Magic Salon, that she will say, as she rolls strands of gray hair on curlers toward Darla Hewitt’s scalp: ‘Yes girls, you’re looking at the fine owner of a boat,’ as if ownership elevates one’s status in the community.
But Debbie steps onto the barnboard porch with her arms crossed and a look on her face that is not at all pleased. ‘Leroy Bartells,’ she says, ‘what have you done?’
‘Bought a boat,’ Bartells says.
‘We don’t live anywhere close to the river.’ Debbie’s head drops and she runs her hands through her hair, bright red this week because she always tests the free samples from suppliers. Last week her hair was hazel and black before that. ‘What am I to tell the bank on the twenty-sixth?’
Bartells says nothing, not because he doesn’t have any answer but because anything he says he knows Debbie will misunderstand. Bartells knows he does not see the boat as she must see it—aluminum booms rusted through, deck planks rotted and missing, no engine, the control column with hammer head holes knocked through the fiberglass.
‘I’ll get double what I gave,’ Bartells says.
‘Where’s the double what you gave from all that’s sittin’ in the backyard? You know the county’ll come driving through our part of town and fine us one day.’
Bartells remembers the ’57 Chevy Bel Aire, half restored, gray swatches of patching compound scattered around the body like a shotgun blast. The ’46 Sutter flatbed up on a stack of concrete pavers. The sanded but not stained four-panel oak doors leaning against the sheetmetal walls of his garage. Not to mention the white slat-siding of the Bartells residence, paint scraped only high as a man’s hand can reach. He knows those projects are still in-progress.
‘Tell Thompson I’ll work overtime at the plant,’ Bartells says.
‘We used that one, Leroy.’
Bartells unhitches the trailer and throws the heavy black chains in the bed of his pickup.
‘Tell him we’ll make the payment as soon as our investments mature.’
Debbie throws her arms up as if nobody’d been listening the entire time she’d been talking and marches across the barnboard porch back inside.
Come the weekend, Bartells has the boat in the garage, a grinder in his hands and in his mouth a cigarette smoked down to the double lines around the filter. He smoothes the jagged holes in the pontoons. In the stale light from the fluorescent trays, he arc welds over the voids square sheets of aluminum he pulled from the scrap bin at the semi-trailer factory, where he is one of three first-shift maintenance men. He lifts the face shield, examines the fading glow of a bead, and lights another cigarette. He cuts the rot from the deck and gathers scrap two-by-sixes laying up in his garage rafters and sticking out of the lumber piles behind Matlick’s. He throws a coat of paint on the deck and the repaired fiberglass. He fashions together a motor from a pushmower engine that had been nearly forgotten about under the workbench. He even bolts together an aluminum beam skeleton for a canopy and screws sheet metal on top for shade.
The process takes Bartells a month of weekends to revive the boat. The twenty-sixth comes and goes. The Bartells’ checking account sees the departure of the mortgage. The Sears card payment, for which they used to purchase a new washer and dryer and refrigerator, goes too. They’ve survived another month, Bartells thinks, knowing there is thirteen dollars and seventy-two cents remaining, and hauls the boat to the river one afternoon while Debbie works a twelve hour shift to make the loss of the lottery winnings a little more tolerable.
He drives the dozen miles to the Mississippi and reverses the boat down the gravel launch, parks the pickup and trailer, and putters south across the glittering surface. Shotgun houses and cabins up on stilts dot the banks on either side. From this distance Bartells thinks the buildings look so tiny and insignificant. He guides the boat closer to the Missouri bank of the Mississippi and notices, through the cedars and elms, cabins with blown out windows and sagging roofs, the scars of the ’93 flood. He wonders why nobody cares. Out here the existence of things depends upon people for survival. Like this boat, Bartells thinks, depends upon him to maintain it, to treat it to the water, to love it.
He kills the engine and lets the current take the boat. He kneels on the deck and leans out to dip his hand in the water warmed by the sunlight, but instead he sees himself in the pontoon, his face shaved and clear, for he had buffed and polished the aluminum to a near mirror shine. This gives Bartells a strange satisfaction he cannot explain. For a moment, he and the boat are one. Without Bartells the boat is nothing but metal and decay. Without the boat Bartells does not feel satisfied in completion, his own blood and heart and time given without asking. Without Bartells the boat is not loved.
Say a raft fashioned from oil drums and deck planks floats on the spot where the Des Moines and Mississippi come together like a bay. A party porch, as the kids call it. And on this floating porch lie two pair of teenage bodies. But only one body is significant.
The body’s father, Gene Martin, is prominent in county politics and daily affairs. He owns land, owns the bank. He is a regular donator to sports and fine arts boosters. Bartells has come to believe Gene Martin enjoys having his hand in everything. Martin is a volunteer member of the Rescue Squad, as is Bartells and nearly every man in the county. Gene Martin loves his boy, Greg, who is an athlete, the only opportunity for success in a rural area such as this. Greg is the high school quarterback, the lead scorer of the basketball team, the high and long jump record holder, and sits atop various other records in sports.
Every other day, during the school year, he drives his blue Ranger to the elementary school to tutor kindergarteners for an hour in the afternoon. In the long hallways he lays plastic coins on a desk and asks each student to identify which is a dime or penny or nickel. Charlene is his favorite because her eyes are close together and the thick lenses of her glasses make her pupils big as black grapes. She is always happy to see him. To his friends the kindergarteners are just pains in the ass. But there is in his heart a spot more mature that wants Charlene as his own, to protect her from all that is to come, cradle her crying body after a bad dream, run down the fourth grade boy who steals her thick glasses and leaves her spinning scared on the merry-go-round. Greg’s love for her is a father’s love, and there were times he spent the entire hour of the afternoon with her because she could not understand the difference between a quarter and a penny. He sees in her all the oblivious innocence of the world. There are no differences here, no lines of demarcation, no segregation. There are just people existing, some more fortunate than others, some less off than they’d like to be.
But none of that is interesting today.
Greg eyes the two girls tanning on the planks, their stomachs flat, flawless, though maybe a slight paunch above their bikini bottoms exists but will smooth out once they begin training for softball in the fall. These girls are neither the most popular nor the least, but adequate. Greg is fortified by the selection of booze from his father’s collection: green bottles of Heineken, a small bottle of spiced rum, Tequila Rose, Triple Sec, the remainder of aged whiskey. He knows his father will not care, will not confront him in his room about the missing inventory from the cabinet. His father will only care about his legacy.
Greg pops open the cooler lid, dips his fingertips into the ice water and flicks droplets toward the girls. He has done this before, hosted parties at the family’s four thousand square foot log home in the timber: he offers the girls a drink—he knows Tequila Rose works best—teases them for not drinking, pulls them closer and puts the bottle before their lips. Then he prods the girls with dares. ‘I dare you to kiss her,’ he says. ‘I dare you to flash me.’
He drinks too, watching, half a dozen bottles and the remainder of whiskey swishing around in his stomach. He fills the dead bottles with dark river water and lets them sink to the bottom. His head drops weight until he feels as though he can fly above the river like an eagle. He embarrasses himself—though unconscious of it—dancing on the deck, hooting and stomping. He thinks he’s being funny, that the girls—he doesn’t care which first—will think he’s being funny. The girl in the black two-piece stands, kneels, stables herself, and delicately navigates the planks with her dark pink painted toes. She is a virgin, Greg knows, though he’s heard she’s done things. He wonders if she would let him fuck her, to know what it is like to become a woman, to be conquered, to feel him and the firmness of his body against her. She is close to him now, close enough to kiss him but she doesn’t. Instead she examines his stomach and chest with the palm of her hands and he runs his hands around her waist.
Greg knows he is more fortunate than others, fortunate enough for a father to be an executive of a grain processing facility near the river and for a mother who is the director of nursing in northeast Missouri. Four years of college is already paid, and when he is twenty-one he will control his money that has accumulated in a trust.
He sways with the girl now as if the senior prom is on this raft. He looks up at the thin strands of clouds and imagines his future: an engineering degree, a career of college football with a national championship his senior year, a fiancé who teaches Kindergarteners. He thinks of Charlene and her glasses. He imagines her as a young woman graduating from high school, speaking in front of her class as the valedictorian not because she is pitied by everybody but because she made strides greater than anybody else.
And then Greg is submersed in a womb of dark water and the girl he had been dancing with kneels on the raft, her hands reaching toward him, and the other girl and boy appearing at the edge. Six arms reaching for him. But a film covers his eyes that blur the reaching arms waving and shimmering against the whole enormity of the blue sky. He is pulled from those figures, the dark fingers of the Mississippi’s current wrapping like flames, dragging him deeper than he believed the river to be. He struggles against what he cannot see that drags him down. Here in a stasis of black water and mud and gar, his body no longer struggling, his body giving itself.
How permanent this is.
The whine of sirens cuts the gnats and humidity. Along Highway 136 through the Bottoms snakes a band of yellow squad trucks and ambulances, county sheriff cars and state patrol cruisers, rolling eighty-five past the town golf course and RV campground like a column of tanks in the Persian Gulf. Pickups with boats, Bartells among them, follow with parking lights blinking orange. The rotating red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles attempt to illuminate the already darkened eastern horizon while the rest of the day dies red in the west.
At the boat launch, Bartells noticed the teenagers wrapped in blankets, all three standing and talking, pacing. Other people stand with them. Not police or squad members, but Bottom folk with callused hands and second-hand clothes, who’ve made their homes along the river. Who’ve watched men go out and never come back.
Bartells wonders if the kids have been out fucking around. But he knows it is booze. That’s all there is to do. Drink and swim. Drink and cruise the county roads. Drink and shoot empty bottles with rifles in the pale beams of headlights. Bartells had done it himself. But the Bartells’ were not entirely comfortable with the notion of children for the very reason their kids might go out and do something stupid, wind up killed or deformed. This is what Debbie feared the most, she once said: something happening, anything, an accident on a field trip and the sheriff at the front door saying he’s sorry.
The pickups hauling boats reverse down the gravel launch, one after another, like men lined at a buffet. Million candle watt beams power on and begin scanning the water. Arne Nixon, director of the rescue squad, climbs into the bed of a pickup, a bullhorn in his hand, and says, ‘This is a rescue mission. Greg Martin will be found alive. Keep the radios clear. This is not a recovery operation.’ He covers the joint between his mouth and the bullhorn. ‘Double check the brush along the shores. Every place south here.’
Every boat is given a radio and putters across the water. Nixon hops on Bartells’s boat, along with Louie Wright. Bartells steers the pontoon, Wright swings his spotlight around, and Nixon listens to the silence of the handheld, as if a rush of eyes on the river would produce something immediately.
‘Got something here.’
‘Negative. Just a tarp.’
In the darkness half a dozen boats span the width of the Mississippi. The launch is just a clump of pulsing light. The high-powered spot lights wander down the river like lost souls, and eventually return to the launch exhausted with failure.
Three days the Martin boy remains missing. Boats launch at dawn, scattering like debris across the water, and return every evening always with nothing. In those three days the Martin family holds a vigil in the town square. Hundreds attend in the park, holding white candles, a pastor up in the bandstand talking about hope. Arne Nixon announces to the sole newspaper reporter that this has become a recovery mission. Gene Martin, his wife at his side, gets on the microphone up in the bandstand and, through tears, pleas to God for the return of his boy.
One afternoon after work, a thundercloud looming in the west, Bartells sets out alone from the launch and trolls down bound seven miles south of where the boy first plunged into the water. He wants to find the boy, to put an end to Gene Martin’s misery because Bartells would want another man to do the same for him. At the same time he does not want to find the boy, for he would like the Martin’s to suffer for once, to know what is it like to lose, to have not. Bartells know this everyday. The possibility of everything gone in a month. In the brush along the shore Bartells finds the body he did not want to find, pale and bloated, face down in the stagnant water. Flies swirl in a cloud above. He kills the boat as close to shore as he can and reaches for the radio on his belt clip, but finds that he reaches at nothing. The pontoon glides closer, naked dead branches submerged along the bank scratching against the aluminum booms. Bartells kneels in an attempt to grab the boy’s arm, for the boys legs and feet are invisible under the water, and instead almost falls. He stands and picks a long wooden pole like a broomstick, a sixteen-penny nail hooked on the end of it, and reaches to snag the boy’s trunks. The fabric tears at the waistband, but the body is closer. Bartells reaches again, hooks the back and pulls, hooks the side and pulls, and because the feet and legs are possibly tangled the 16-penny nail cuts across the skin like the scar of a whip. He cannot leave the body here. He must return it, for Gene Martin has suffered enough and he will forever suffer the loss of his boy. Bartells hooks the shoulder, the body turns so he can hook the mouth. The nail snaps through the cheek. Bartells finds the boat’s anchor, a nylon rope and concrete paver, and cuts the paver from the rope to make a loop, a noose, and fits it around the head.
There will be explanations, Bartells knows. But he can answer, same as he answers to Thompson, same as he answers to Debbie. Gene Martin will be thankful his son can be buried peacefully in the earth, not this watery grave that took his life.
Bartells starts the engine and putters up bound toward the launch.
That evening, Bartells is on the front porch when Arnie Nixon pulls up. A steady rain has graced the evening. Nixon rolls down the window and tells Bartells to get in. ‘We need to talk,’ he says.
‘Leroy,’ Nixon says, after he has turned his pickup south onto the highway, the wiper blades swinging across the windshield, ‘I need to get some things straight about today.’
‘All right,’ Bartells says.
‘The fuck were you thinking?’
‘Wait a minute.’
‘No goddamnit,’ Nixon says. ‘Do you know how much shit you’re in right now?’
Bartells shakes his head.
‘They are talking law suit.’
‘The boy’s family. You desecrated a body.’
It doesn’t settle with Bartells. He believes he’s done nothing. Water did. Nature did. The fact the boy did not respect the river is what did. Bartells believes he’s done nothing more than return the Martin boy’s body back to land like a dog bringing a dead duck to the feet of his master.
‘Gene Martin has got the county prosecutor in his office right now looking through all his law books. He’s even calling his friends in Jeff City asking about precedents, asking what statute did they use in such and such case. They are going to fry your ass, Leroy. I don’t know if there’re any laws about mangling a dead body, but you sure as shit can expect Gene Martin will either find one or pay to have one written up.’
Bartells shakes his head. ‘I didn’t do nothing.’
‘Leroy, you don’t understand. There’s something respectful about an open-casket. And you fucked it. Boy’s face all slipped off. Neck all ground up.’
‘The boy’d been in the water—’
‘Jesus, Leroy. All you had to do was radio. Goddamn, Leroy. A body in water for a few days doesn’t get that fucked unless you’re poking it with a stick or dragging it around.’
Bartells looks at his reflection in the window. He cannot quite distinguish every feature of his face, like a ghost of himself, as if some curse blurred his existence.
‘Why didn’t you radio that day?’ Nixon says, pulling to the parking lot of the county nurse’s office.
‘Forgot one,’ Bartells says.
‘The deputies at the launch were giving them out.’ Nixon smacks the steering wheel. ‘We told everybody to get a radio before going out. Jesus Christ. I don’t know why I asked you to help.’ Nixon lowers his head and rubs his eyes. ‘They are going have their way. Martin’s gonna have your balls strung up above his fireplace. And when they’re done with you, they’re gonna come after me because I’m the stupid sonofabitch who put you on the water. What you did is gonna haunt me for the rest of my life.’
‘You didn’t do nothing,’ Bartells says. ‘You ain’t responsible.’
‘I put together that operation to find that kid. All those workers were my responsibility, my reputation. You were my responsibility. And when you thought it was a dandy fucking idea to noose up that kid with a cable and come fucking dragging him back to shore like some proud fucking puppy, that’s when you’re shit became my shit. So don’t you think for one fucking minute that I didn’t do anything. Dumbest fucking thing I did was ask you to help.’
Bartells runs his hand through his hair.
‘I am sorry to chew your ass. But I am telling you you’re in shit up to your neck. And if you ain’t in shit up to your neck from this, I sure as fuck know you’re in it at home.’
Bartells snaps his head toward Nixon.
‘I’d sell that boat. Get as much as you can. Leave town. Stay away.’
‘I ain’t going anywhere,’ Bartells says.
‘No man likes a kick to the nuts.’
Bartells believes he understands.
Nixon drives north on the highway toward Bartells’s house and pulls the truck into the gravel drive. He says nothing as Bartells closes to the door and walks up the muddy drive, stops at the boat for a moment, and then up the walk and across the barnboard porch. Bartells opens the door and enters.
Debbie is at the coffee table in the living room, all the important papers laid before her like a puzzle. Bank and credit statements. Loans that are due. A letter from Thompson that Debbie simply recites aloud when Bartells closes the door: ‘It is a hard time for everybody, I understand. Our institution has been very gracious to help you through this, but we have simply exhausted all help. Several payments need to be made up to bring the account to current. I am obligated to inform you that we will proceed.’
Debbie turns to Bartells. ‘What have you done?’
Bartells does not understand. Not the statements or the letters. None of that has ever made sense to him. Debbie’s hair is blonde for the first time since they were married. He can see that now. It is not just another week passing, but the end of things. He leans against the door and Debbie looks at him as if he is about to speak, but for her he has no answers.
Outside, the rain remains steady, pooling in the chuckholes in the street and the ruts in the drive. Everything blurs with water. Bartells had looked at himself before entering the house: in the booms of the boat his face was not sharp and clean as it had been the day he first set off. His face was cloudy and warped, and as he proceeded up the walk toward the house, regardless of the steady rain, his footprints had already softened and faded in the mud.
Logan Garrels was born and raised in northeast Missouri. He earned an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His fiction has most recently appeared in Big Muddy, among others. He currently teaches English at Big Bend Community College.