Ninth Letter is pleased to feature this excerpt from After the Dam, a new novel by Amy Hassinger available now from Red Hen Press.
In this excerpt, Joe Bishop stands at the edge of the Old Bend Dam, having just come from seeing his first love, Rachel Clayborne, for the first time since they broke up thirteen years earlier. He had been in the middle of putting together a porta-crib for her baby. Then, while going to his truck for a screwdriver, he changed his mind about helping and left. Flustered, he needs to scuba dive in the dam’s flowage. When the Old Bend Dam was built back in the twenties, it flooded out hundreds of acres of Ojibwe reservation land, including the village of Old Bend, where Joe’s great grandparents used to live. Joe’s diving has become a way for him to visit that former time.
Book One: Ch. 7
An hour later, Joe stood calf-deep in the lake off Old Bend Island, hunched over his headgear, his body sheathed in a black exposure suit and a buoyancy control device, a nitrox tank on his back. Sal leaped in and out of the canoe that rested on the sloping bank. The water lapped at his flippered feet as he slipped on the mask, then adjusted it so that it fit snugly against his cheeks.
Something had happened to him on his way to get the screwdriver. The farther he’d gotten from Rachel, the farther he wanted to get. As soon as he opened the door of his truck and saw the comforting sight of his crumpled paper coffee cup, the newspaper he’d stuffed into the side pocket of the passenger door, the tear in the seat with the stuffing beginning to poke out around the duct tape he’d used to fix it, he came to his senses. What was he doing, putting together a crib for the girl who’d pissed all over his heart and then pitched it in the nearest dumpster? What the hell did he think he was doing? He’d sat in the driver’s seat for a long moment and then he’d driven off, feeling as if he’d just escaped the closing jaws of a trap.
But now, as he waded out into deeper water, readying himself to submerge, he wasn’t so sure he’d done the right thing. Rachel had been perfectly nice to him, overly nice, really. Ready to help with the furniture, glad to see him. She’d looked so . . . hopeful, as if he had something to give that she wanted to receive. And he’d left her there, holding the crib together with her hands. He’d messed up, again. He was angry, guilty, and confused, a toxic brew. What he needed, the very thing he needed, was a good dive in the lake.
He swam along the surface for several minutes, out toward the deeper water, counting his kick cycles—about 30 kick cycles took him out far enough—breathing through his snorkel, trying to blow his anger out the tube into the air. Kicking and gliding, he passed over the shallow lake bottom. A walleye darted away into the deeper water ahead, where the lake floor began to slope downward into the sepia-lit underwater world. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. Letting his BCD keep him afloat, Joe removed his snorkel and bit on the mouthpiece of his regulator, and then, holding his nose to equalize the pressure in his ears, he dumped the air from his BCD and descended.
Visibility was piss-poor, as usual, but still, it felt good to be in the water, looking around. Diving in the flowage was frowned upon by the tribe. Divers—white divers—had been guilty of ripping stuff off from the flooded village and even messing with the graves. But Joe didn’t care. He never took or even touched anything from the site. He was a member of the tribe, his family had lived here for generations, he’d lost his jaw to protect this land, and he felt he had a right to time travel a little, to pay homage if he felt like it. He wasn’t going to let any top-down tribal edict tell him he couldn’t.
Diving calmed him, and diving in the water above Old Bend calmed him in a particular way. When he dove here, he dreamt of the past, of how things once were, years ago, when the people of Bend still riced and sugared and beaded and prayed in their native Anishinaabemowin, when the woods were old and tall. He thought of that time as the time before. In his mind, the dam rose up out of the earth like a wedge in space-time, thunked down by a trickster-god. There was the time before the dam, and the time after it. Before the dam, the basic proportions of the universe were aligned; before the dam, his great grandmother Mary had grown up among her siblings, raised by her father and mother and aunts and uncles, moving about through the lost village as easily and naturally as an eagle through the air: provided for, loved, at home. Now, in the time after, Joe spent his days taking care of the very thing that had destroyed his great grandparents’ way of life. The irony was not lost on him.
Nor was he unaware that his vision of the past was romanticized, only partially true. When his great grandmother was a child, the forests all around the reservation were already being felled, swath by swath; the missionaries had been preaching their barren promises for centuries—promises that had convinced Joe’s ancestors, who were regular attendees at the Presbyterian mission near their home; the trading post in the center of town had been established by a French fur trapper, who, from the moment he arrived, doled out liquor and metal goods in exchange for a sustained holocaust on beavers. For years, the men had traveled to work in the lumber camps during the winters, and for years, many of them returned empty-handed, having wasted their money on booze and women on their days off. For generations, the steady lethal encroachment of European-descended society had been unfolding, day by day. Joe knew this. But he preferred to imagine that his great grandmother had grown up in a world of purity, of stability, of beautiful, choreographed movement—a world that, in his imagination, was like an underwater dream. This was why he dove here, and why he would not be deterred: he felt that somewhere under the flood, the movements of her day were still going on, and if he could only find the right entry point, the right portal, he would find her again.
So far, he’d had little luck. When he’d first begun his underwater excursions here, he’d thought he might discover the actual house his great grandparents had lived in. He’d studied maps of the old village, and the single picture his mother had of the house—a simple A-frame, painted white, a boulder by the front steps, a small open-air porch—imagining that with enough planning and the help of his compass, he might locate what remained of it. But he’d long since given up that hope. The flowage was not deep—sixty feet, max—nor was it terribly cold, not like Lake Michigan, where centuries-old shipwrecks were preserved in the frigid anaerobic water. Here, the water was warm, hosting legions of encroaching algae and marauding wood-worms that colonized and digested most of the submerged wood. It appeared, in fact, that there were no structures left at all. All that remained of the village, as far as Joe could tell, were remnants of metal objects—old plowshares, sections of stovepipe, fallen window sashes, all covered with a thick layer of concretions. And gravestones. Several gravestones. Joe had run across what he suspected was a drowned churchyard, the ten or twelve remaining gravestones lying flat against the lake bottom, the names long ago washed away. Still, even though the search for his great grandparents’ house was a lost cause, he still tried to get close to where the house might have been, if only for something to focus on, if only to allow the off-chance that some small thing—a tin kettle, an iron axe-blade—might have survived.
The sunlight dimmed, and Joe switched on his light. Immediately the murky water in front of him revealed itself to be thick with floating algae, particulate seaweed, stray mosquito larvae, darting minnows. A long green-scaled fish passed at the far end of his field of vision, and then another. Joe kicked deeper, the water growing colder, until an old beam, pitted and scarred and covered with a blanket of algae, materialized out of the murk. This was his first landmark, one of the few identifiable remnants of Old Bend. Joe thought it might be a beam from the school, the one his great grandmother went to as a kid. A few cement blocks were scattered across the bottom here, probably remnants of the foundation. Several yards on, his lamplight played across the narrow cylinder of an old stovepipe, its surface also algae-furred. Just beside it hung the long body of a big fish—a lurking musky, waiting for its lunch. Joe stayed out of view, just in case.
He’d seen a picture of the schoolhouse taken about the time his great grandmother would have been there, when the building was still new, the logs hewn clean and straight, the cedar-shingled roof fragrant, even in black and white. All the children and their teachers had gathered in front of the building, staring doubtfully into the camera. No one knew whether his great grandma was even there, but he’d picked out a girl he thought might be her, based on nothing but his own desire. The girl stood off at the edge of the gathered group, a bit older than most, dressed in a handmade shift buttoned up to the throat, her dark hair pulled back from her face. Around her neck was tied a gingham scarf, an apron at her waist, and in one hand she held a slim book while the other gripped the tow-rope of a little toy wagon, in which a chubby little boy sat. The two of them squinted at the camera reluctantly, as if they’d rather return to whatever they’d been doing.
Joe hovered over the spot now, trying, as was his habit, to invoke that picture, that building, filled with life, to imagine that little girl inside the schoolhouse, seated at a rude wooden desk, kicking her legs with fidgety energy. The place would be toasty—a fire burning in the corner stove—and on the wall a set of slates would hang, wiped clean and ready to be marked. The picture appeared momentarily in his mind—the rows of tables and chairs, filled with barely-contained childish exuberance, the stack of primers on the teacher’s desk at the front of the room—or maybe there were no primers, maybe they were too poor to have primers, maybe all they had was the harried young teacher, pacing the aisles. The images appeared in a flash and then were gone, and before him lay the lake once again, the negative space of what had once been.
He pointed himself due east and began his kick cycles again, gliding along the bottom in the direction of where his great grandparents’ house would have been, letting his light play across the sand. A circle of stones materialized, and with them a gathering of ghosts—a group of men, poking at a fire; in another spot, a flatiron appeared, half-buried; in a third, a doorknob sprouted from the sand like a mushroom. As he swam, the lake bottom dropped deeper, the penetrating sunlight grew fainter, and the lakeweeds that had been brushing his belly gave way to smooth sand. The water felt a few degrees colder. He was suddenly in unfamiliar territory.
He checked his compass and saw that rather than follow his usual course due east, he had somehow drifted into more of an east-southeasterly direction. He moved more slowly now, shining his light all around him, illuminating mostly emptiness, the murky particulate-full lake. He had lost count of his kick cycles, and so wasn’t sure how far he’d swum. And then his light played across an enormous round of tree stump, its diameter twice the size of his torso, the interior concentric rings rippling out from the center of the sliced wood. Another—not quite as big, but close—lay a few yards away from the first, and a third not far from the second. He swam on, kicking and gliding, kicking and gliding, shining his torch on stump after stump, each of them cut close to the ground, most of them wider than any stump he’d seen on land. This was a drowned clearcut, a stump field—preserved here because of the colder water—stretching on for as far as his torch would illuminate.
Joe knew about the clearcuts, the way the timber had been harvested en masse from the land that was to be flooded—for why waste good timber? But the width of these stumps and the apparent expanse of the field struck him with awe, and filled his mind with images of what might have been. The men, descending upon the forests like ants on a dropped crumb, armed with crosscut saws and skids. The sounds of cracking branches and the mortal thud of the fallen trees. The rafts of logs floating down the undammed river, collecting by the banks, jamming at the bends. The men leaping across the rolling logs as if they were climbing on the back of some great, cylindrical beast, their peaveys poised like spears. The rivers and the air thick with sawdust, sawdust foaming over the shallows, sawdust lining the lungs, sawdust hanging in the air like the particulate matter hanging in the water in which he now swam. He wondered if his great-grandfather himself had been here, in this spot, sawing through the trunks of these great old trees. And his great-grandmother—would she have watched these woods come down? Would the people have stood on the outskirts of the work grounds, counting the trees as they crashed through the understory? He glided over the drowned clearcut, squinting at the remains of the once-great forest that had grown here.
But it was no use. Rachel was here, too, in the ghost-forest, in the lake. The days they’d spent together as kids tramping through the woods, trying to sustain themselves solely on what they found there: berries, nuts, fiddleheads in the spring, clover leaves. (The bag lunches his mother packed for them didn’t count.) The afternoons splashing in the shallow water, and then, later, when they were teenagers, swimming across the lake to the opposite shore, or paddling for hours in the canoe, looking for otter slides or turtle eggs, surprising the occasional great blue heron that would take silently to the air, its legs stretched in arabesque. That one delicious summer, the summer they’d spent bleary-eyed and sleep-starved, their skin smelling of the lake and of each other. That summer goodbye had been different than all the others: Joe had left for boot camp with the impression that he had himself a girlfriend, and not just any girlfriend, but the romantic affection of his best friend, a girl he’d loved as long as he could remember, a girl he’d grown up around like a vine around a tree.
The last time they’d seen each other had been during his ten-day leave late that September, before shipping out to Saudi. He’d bought a ticket to Maine, where Rachel was at school, not Wisconsin (his mother was pissed at him for months), and had used the bulk of his paycheck on a room at the Waterville Holiday Inn. He fantasized all day, every day about the week they’d have together, and, being nineteen at the time, his fantasies tended to hover around the king-sized bed in the hotel room, where he imagined they’d spend most of their time. As it turned out, Rachel was only partly willing to go along with his plans. She agreed to stay with him in the room, but she wouldn’t skip her classes or blow off her homework, so rather than the orgiastic week he’d imagined, it turned into eight days of sweating through seven-mile runs, working out in the hotel fitness room, and jacking off in front of the TV, waiting for Rachel.
She was always worth the wait, though. She’d come in, drop her bag on the floor, kick off her shoes and fall into bed with him. He could still get a boner, thinking of those nights lying naked beside her, on top of her, beneath her, all mixed up in her hair, her arms, her legs. They’d fuck fast as rabbits right when she returned, then order some pizza or Chinese and watch the news while they ate, and then fuck again, longer and sweeter, taking their time. Rachel would always insist then that she had to study, and she’d make an honest attempt, but he couldn’t keep his hands off her: he’d play with her hair, nuzzle her hip with his eye socket, kiss her appendectomy scar that led like a trail down her belly, or just travel his fingers lightly beneath her shirt, until he reached her bra, which he’d unclasp—because what else do you do with a bra strap when you’re nineteen?—and then they’d be at it again, long into the wee hours.
That was late September of 1990. Things were heating up at that point in the Gulf—Saddam had invaded Kuwait, declaring it Iraq’s 19th Province. He’d shipped international hostages to targets throughout the country to act as human shields; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Republican Guard were digging in at the Saudi border. When he and Rachel weren’t joyously fucking, they would cling to each other, naked, in front of CNN, watching Joe’s fate unfold. One night, Saddam trotted out a seven-year-old British kid, one of his hostages, and tousled his hair in front of the camera, asked him if he was getting his cornflakes. The kid’s face was as pale as a mushroom cloud. Rachel whispered, “What a bastard,” under her breath, and Joe declared that Saddam deserved whatever hell he was unleashing upon himself. Then they turned the TV off and fucked themselves into forgetfulness.
Generally, they were silent about Iraq. Joe knew Rachel didn’t want war, that Bush’s willingness to risk American lives—Joe’s life—to defend the country’s oil interests disgusted her. And Joe didn’t want war either, at least in theory. But he wanted to prove himself, to wield the power that his newfound incarnation—Marine, warrior, strong and capable man—seemed to demand of him, and if it came to war, he wanted to fight. Two days after he returned to base, he’d be on his way to Saudi, where he would be deployed for the next six months. And the drumbeat was steady and growing.
On their last day together, Rachel came home early, having blown off her bio lab. She carried a bouquet of roses and a box of condoms, which they’d torn open right away. After their first I-missed-you-all-day fuck, Rachel suggested they eat out. “Somewhere special,” she said. Joe would have preferred to stay in and make the night special in the usual way, but he acquiesced. Rachel insisted they dress up—she went into the bathroom to change. Joe donned his dress blues: sky blue pants, midnight blue jacket with red trim and brass buttons, white web belt, and white barracks cover, emblazoned with a gilt Eagle, Globe and Anchor. In the full-length mirror on the back of the hotel door, he thought he looked pretty damn good.
When Rachel appeared in a little black dress with a devastating neckline, Joe whistled low. “That dress doesn’t exactly help your cause of going out,” he said. “It makes me want to tear it right off.”
But Rachel looked wounded. “Why are you wearing that?”
“You wanted to dress up. Not too shabby, right?” He struck a pose and saluted.
“You look great,” she said sadly.
He dropped his hand. “You don’t like the uniform.”
“No! No, it’s not that. I just wasn’t expecting it.”
They drove to the restaurant—a vegetarian place on a hill a few miles outside of town. They were the youngest people there by far, and Joe couldn’t help but notice that they’d steered clear of campus town, where Rachel might have been likely to run into one of her friends. Still, it was a nice place, and they had a delicious meal, and were treated respectfully by the wait staff. The owner quizzed Joe about his service, and Joe replied proudly, playing the role of the disciplined young Marine. Rachel brooded, and only spoke to him in single syllables the whole rest of the meal. He pretended it was because the black bean burger with chipotle-cream sauce was so mouth-watering.
On the way home, she gave him to understand otherwise. “It’s not some game, you know, Joe,” she said, staring straight ahead, her knuckles white against the black steering wheel.
“I’m not playing games, Rach. I’m only trying to keep everyone’s spirits up.”
They were headed north, back toward town and their by-now-claustrophobic little hotel room, but Rachel wrenched the wheel to the right and made a U-ey, throwing Joe against the passenger door. He stared at her, but she ignored him, her eyes dangerous.
She navigated the night roads several miles to a darkened parking lot by a woods. She pulled into the lot, the headlights playing briefly on a sign that read “Closed After Sundown.” She parked the car and turned off the engine.
“Come on,” she said.
He followed her along a narrow path into the dark woods. The moon was high and full that night and it cast some light on the path. Rachel walked barefoot before him, dress shoes in her hand, the nape of her neck glowing in the moonlight. She walked at the cusp of a run, dancing over roots and stones. Joe kept pace with her, though his pants were stiff and his smooth-soled shoes unequipped for rough terrain. As they ran, he became aware of the significance of the moment: it seemed that they were running down the knife edge of time, both surrounded by and creating the pulsing, tremulous unfolding of it, striving to touch it, hold it, taste it even as it passed into memory.
The path opened onto a secluded strip of beach curving around the narrow bay, the sand fine-grained and smooth. The night was calm, and the water licked the shore lazily. To their right, a peninsula rose out of the water, and on its modest cliff perched a small house with two lighted windows. Wood-smoke rose from the chimney, even though the night was warm, and the scent of the smoke drifted their way. To their left a few small sailboats moored in a little marina, their masts shipped. The night-waves knocked rhythmically against their hulls.
Rachel stood in the sand, looking out over the dark ocean, her back to Joe. She wore a fuzzy shawl around her shoulders and her hair was pinned up. The breeze blew a few tendrils against her neck. Joe lifted the stray hair and pressed his lips into the cool of her skin, smelling her heady combination of flower, spice, and salt. He felt dizzy with desire—he wanted to dive inside her mouth, to crawl beneath her skin, to pour himself out into a tonic for her to drink. He nibbled her neck, kissed the hollow between her collarbone and throat. His hands traveled her hips, pressed against her belly, climbed the ladder of her ribs—
But she turned, abruptly, and spoke sharply to him. “I’m not kidding, Joe. This isn’t a game. I don’t want you to go. You don’t have to go.”
He stepped back, startled. “I do, actually, Rach. I mean, it’s against the law for me to desert.”
“So break the law. You wouldn’t be the first person in history. We’re not so far from Canada, here. We could just drive north, over the border, and we’d be in Quebec. Six hours away. We could do it tonight.”
“Why are you doing this? I don’t get it. Why did you go off and become a Marine? Why do you want to fight for a country that has treated your family and all your ancestors like shit for generations? It doesn’t make any sense! It’s stupid, Joe! It’s stupid of you!” She was crying now, yelling at him through her tears. He tried to wipe them away, but she swatted his hand off her face. “Don’t patronize me, Joe! I’m asking a serious question. Answer me!”
He backed away. A lighted window in the house on the ledge went dark, leaving one lit, its yellow glow leaping and flickering. He imagined the people inside: a man, squatting by the fire, stoking it with a poker, a woman, curled on a sofa, reading. Rachel stood before him, glowering over her wet cheeks, the light in her eyes like the flickering window. “I can’t explain it to you, Rachel,” he said, finally. “Every time I try, you don’t believe me.”
“Because everything you tell me is bullshit! You say want to defend the land, not the country. That it’s ‘an Indian thing,’ I wouldn’t understand. As if just because other Indians think it’s cool and, I don’t know, somehow Indian to be a warrior, it means you should go ahead and do it.”
“See, that’s what I mean—you act like my reasons are stupid. What do you want me to say? They may be stupid to you, Rachel, but they’re not to me. They’re real reasons to me.”
“They’re rationalizations, Joe. I think the only real reason you want to fight is because you want to be a big tough man, and the only way to show that you’re a big, tough man is to go out and squash a bunch of weaklings.”
“Saddam Hussein is not exactly a weakling, Rachel. He’s just invaded Kuwait. He’s appropriated their oil wells. He’s threatening to take out Israel. He’s boasting about nuclear warheads. He’s gassed thousands of his own citizens. The man’s an insane criminal, Rachel. Are we all supposed to just stand back and let him have his way with the entire Middle East? Because we don’t want to get hurt?”
“So big Joe Bishop, big Marine Joe Bishop is going to go over there and whup some Hussein ass. Show that bully who’s boss.”
“Rachel, for Christ’s sake.”
“Don’t you see what a crock it all is, Joe? How they’re pumping you up, giving you this ultra-dapper uniform, making you feel like the big man, piling guns and ammo on you, just so they can send you over there and get you killed? Just so we can be sure we have enough petroleum to power our minivans and speedboats and big fat 747s over here? Don’t you see that, Joe?” She was crying again, furiously. The moon shone on a taut tendon at her neck.
“Who else is going to fight the wars, Rach?” he asked quietly. “Who else but the young warriors? It’s always been that way.”
“Always doesn’t mean right.”
“Maybe not. But right isn’t always the way things go.”
She glared at him, then dropped abruptly to her knees. He thought she’d been hurt somehow, or maybe so weakened by her own anger that she’d lost her balance, and he went to her, arms outstretched. But she dug her hand into the sand, and threw a fistful of it at his chest. Some of it sprayed into his mouth. He spat. “What the fuck?”
“I hate that stupid uniform.” She threw another fistful of sand at his belly this time, and he saw she was aiming for the clothes, not his face. “Those fucking shiny buttons, and the fancy red stripes down your jacket. That stupid hat. You look like you should be playing in a fucking marching band, Joe.” Fizz, fizz—the sand hit his chest, his side. He began to dance for her, turning to supply her with clean targets of cloth, feeling the soft sandy explosions against his belly, ribs, and back.
“Take it off,” she demanded finally, sitting back on her heels. “Take the fucking thing off, Joe.”
He looked up at the one lighted window of the house on the cliff.
“No one’s around. No one’s looking. Just take it off.” Her voice was low and serious.
He started with his barracks cover, which he set gently in the sand, the Eagle, Globe and Anchor winking in the moonlight, and then unclasped the white belt before unbuttoning each of the buttons on his jacket. He slipped his arms from the sleeves, then folded it carefully, creasing it as he’d been taught. Beneath his jacket, he wore a plain white shirt, which he also unbuttoned, then folded and creased it, too, and laid it on top of the jacket and cover. He unbuttoned his pants and stepped out of them. He knew he would be excoriated by one of his officers if they saw him putting his dress blues in a pile on the sand—creased or not—but there were no supervising officers here. Only Rachel, kneeling before him, her shawl splayed across the sand, her shoulders gleaming in the moonlight. He stepped out of his briefs and dropped them on his folded uniform, and then stood naked before her, his dick pointing to the stars.
“That’s better,” she said. Then she stood, and in a single motion, lifted her dress over her head and tossed it on the ground near her shawl. She shook off her bra and panties, then went to him and wiped the stray grains of sand from his chin and cheeks. He lifted her in his arms, she wrapped her legs around him, and like this, he carried her step by step out into the water, where they stood and fucked and wept, and then swam together into the glassy bay, their moonlit skin like phosphorescent schools of fish, diving and surfacing.
When Rachel’s teeth began to chatter, they came ashore, and Joe wrapped her in his arms and breathed hot air onto her breasts and belly and thighs to warm her. “Please, Joe,” she murmured sleepily. “Let’s just escape to Canada. Tomorrow morning we can pack up and go. We could be there by tomorrow night, start our lives up there, together.”
“And what will we do there, Rach?” he whispered.
“I don’t know. Wait tables. Bartend. Man tollbooths. Raise goats. Who cares?”
“And if they come looking for me?”
“They won’t. We’ll just lay low for a while. A long while. They’ll forget about you eventually. They’re too busy fighting their stupid wars.”
“We could build a little cabin in the woods.”
“Yeah, like pioneers.”
She pinched him, he laughed. “OK, like Indians. You could make me into your Indian princess.”
“I could go hunting, bring home the meat.”
“And I’d tend the garden and gather the berries.”
Their voices grew quiet and barely audible, a low hum of sound over the knocking of the waves against the hulls and the gentle lapping of water on the shore.
Eventually, when they both got too tired to talk, they pulled their clothes on and made their way back to the car. Joe was not half as tired as Rachel, who had stayed up late the previous night studying, so he drove while she dozed on his shoulder. When he pulled into the hotel parking lot, it was close to two a.m., and by the time they’d found the room, and Rachel had fallen into bed, still wearing her dress, it was two-thirteen. Joe took off his dress blues, brushed each piece briskly with the back of his hand and shook it out several times, trying to knock off any clinging grains of sand, and then creased it once more and put it in his suitcase. Quietly, he packed the rest of the clothes he’d brought, put on his desert camo and boots, and kissed Rachel on the top of the head. He checked his watch. Two forty-two. It was seven miles to the bus station, and the first bus to the airport left at four a.m. He’d better start walking.
That was the last time they’d seen each other.
What would she think of his life now, was the question? He’d built a good, honest life for himself out here by the dam. He lived in a yurt, not a cabin, but still, it was the same idea—something like the dream they’d shared together, that night. The days spent checking the levels, picking up trash, adjusting the gates, swimming, diving, hiking. Maintaining, mostly. Your garden-variety maintenance man. Would she approve? Would she judge him, like his mother did? And why did he care, anyway? She’d dumped him thirteen years ago, when he needed her most. Why was he hung up still? He liked his life. Why should he give a fuck what anyone thought of it, especially Rachel Clayborne?
Well, apparently he did. Rachel was back, and her presence, the sight of her newly lined face, her tense mouth, her baby—already it was changing everything. He felt as if he was looking out at his own life through a scuba mask, seeing it through dimly-lit waters. All its colors were washed-out, its edges softened and furred in algae. What had he been doing all these years, anyway? It seemed to him that he had only been coasting along, managing largely by pushing Rachel out of his mind.
Joe took a deep breath of the nitrox mix through his regulator and checked his air gauge: the nitrox was getting low. Time to resurface. The usual magic wasn’t working this morning anyway. The week of rain had made the already-bad visibility even worse. His heart wasn’t in it. He switched off his torch and kicked upward, toward the light.
In addition to After the Dam, Amy Hassinger is the author of two previous novels: Nina: Adolescence (Putnam 2003), The Priest’s Madonna (Putnam 2006). Her writing has been translated into Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Indonesian and has won awards from Creative Nonfiction, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Illinois Arts Council. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, The Writers’ Chronicle, The Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and serves as a Faculty Mentor in the University of Nebraska’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program.
Illustration photo credit: Hannah Gottlieb-Graham