Aﬂoat, alone and furious still. Far, far out from shore. Arms, legs going thick, getting heavy with the cold. No moon or stars. Only the dark. Everywhere the dark. Black deep mountain lake. Late September. No hints of dawn. No leak of light. Not through the pine tops or round the boulders high up on the ridge. Not from the lodge or the cabins far back behind me.
Stopped, spent and treading water. Bottomless black water. Blinking, looking around, screaming. Screaming for all Iʼm worth, again and again, face under water. Curse, shriek and howl, face under water. Trouble the ﬁsh, not the air, with my troubles. Clams if sounds get down that deep, crayﬁsh and clams.
Thirty years with the same company and they ﬁre me with a letter. Not a phone call with a voice on the other end. No sit down, face to face chit chat. A one page letter. Three paragraphs. Details of your severance to follow. Short and sweet. Company logo at the top, signature at the bottom. Signature of nobody I know.
Who writes a letter like that to a perfect stranger? Writes, signs and sends it? Dump a geezer? No problem, Boss. Consider it done. Letter written and out the door. Anything else I can do for you while Iʼm at it? Did he, I wonder, ever carry the bag? Build up a territory out of nothing? Sweat a big sale, a sale he had to make to make quota, to get a monthly commission check that came anywhere close to covering all his bills? Fuck him. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on.
Tiny yellow lights. Pin dot lights. Windows in the lodge? The cabins? Here and there scatter of fuzzy gray bits. All those lined up, overturned aluminum canoes at the far end of the beach? Too dark yet to tell. Too dark and too far away.
Scalp prickle. Something behind me. Behind me and close. Turning slow, heart banging in my throat, my chest. Demon red eyes, two feet away. Unblinking, staring me still, freezing me in place. Long black, razor sharp beak. Massive black head. Nightmare, fairy tale loon come alive out of some book, come to pluck out my eyes, snip off my nose, teach me a lesson?
Iʼm talking now, quiet and slow, trying to keep the shakes, the shudder out of my voice. “Please donʼt hurt me. I meant no harm. No disrespect. Look, I was just blowing off steam. Venting. Iʼm an idiot okay? No two ways about it. I didnʼt think where I was. Whose place I was hollering in. Let me go and Iʼll never come back. Never ever. Word of honor.”
Then Iʼm explaining about the letter. How it was written signed and sent by a complete and total stranger. By nobody Iʼd ever met. How blind crazy mad I was the day it arrived. How furious Iʼd been, day and night, ever since. Edgy. Touchy. Sore. Quick to curse or quarrel at the drop of a hat. At nothing at all. Then Iʼm telling about all the driving. Driving a thousand miles or more a week for decades. Driving in every kind of rotten weather. Weather so cold sometimes, snow piled up so high it could have killed me, frozen me solid if my car broke down in the wrong place, too far out from people or towns.
Demon red eyes, unblinking still. I make my final plea. Bone cold. Played out. Desperate. “Iʼm leaving, okay? Turning around and swimming back to shore. Iʼm sorry. Really, really sorry. I meant no harm to you and yours. Just let me go and Iʼll never come back. But donʼt trick me okay? Donʼt let me start swimming, thinking Iʼm safe, then you shoot up from the depths and drill a hole through my soft white belly. Please donʼt do that.”
Case made I close my eyes and await the verdict. One, two, three seconds. I canʼt stand it. I open my eyes. Nothing there. Nothing at all. No disturbance on the surface of the water, not a ripple. Gone, vanished without a trace. Truce? Trick?
Frog swimming now, easy and slow, making no sudden movements, I keep right on talking, hedging my bets. “When I get to shore, if you let me get to shore, Iʼll change my ways. Guaranteed. First thing I do, apologize to my wife. Second thing I do, when we get back home, I get rid of every last reminder. Every vestige. The cheap suits and ties. The fray collar, button down shirts. The thick sole, rubber sole shoes. And the belts. All those cracked, dime store belts.” And I kept on like that all the way back to shore.
//Jim Kelly is 64 and writes stories he feels need to be told. His work has appeared in War, Literature & the Arts and Harvard Review.