An Independence Day picnic in Minnesota in 1974
The sky was blue, cloudless, transfixing; the heat low-slung and hazy. The warmth left Joey feeling almost hypnotized and slightly giddy. He looked up, careful to avoid the bright yellow sun, high above, which stirred him, more in the deep recesses of his belly rather than the gentle pitches of his mind. His thoughts wandered and paused on a vision of the universe as a forever-thing, bursting onward past planets and stars through a vast interminable blackness, yet soon his brain reined back to grasp the sky within his vision, half wondering why the blue was bluer some days and grayer others, and blackish at night. If Joey had read Newton, specifically his experiments with prisms and light resulting in the discovery that light deflected through a prism containing various colors, some more refrangible than others, he might better understand how atmospheric gases affect the deflection of coloring. However, Joey was only five, so the refractive indices or the scattering of light were subjects left for future science classes, not an afternoon picnic. Joey’s stubby fingers absently gripped shorn blades of grass, pulling them out by the handful and methodically he covered the few inches of his exposed belly with the mix of green stalks and pigmentless shriveled stems that had failed the Darwinian test of Uncle Shelby’s rigorous lawn maintenance plan. He languidly tuned into the rest of the picnic, his antennae picking up his mother singing along to the Kingsmen, and his Aunt Doris’s penetrating voice telling Amy and Alice to slow down and stop drinking the leftover cocktails. His Dad was standing next to Uncle Tim at the grill just beyond his grass-covered belly. Even Joey could tell his Dad didn’t want to be here in Albert Lea on the Fourth of July with his Mom’s family. Maybe it was his stooped-over posture that gave him away or the rhythmic way he kept twirling his drink and then running his fingers through his thinning hair, but Joey could still hear him in their kitchen that morning saying he wasn’t going to stay all afternoon and listen to her relatives ask if he found a GODDAMN job yet, for CHRISSAKES. Joey knew his Dad was both mad and sad and he knew it was the Jolly Green Giant’s fault and now he had a good reason not to eat his green beans, to hell with what his mother said. With his arms behind his neck he lifted his head up, crunching his abdomen and saw that his older brothers were still on the other side of the grill, as far away from the adults as they could be while staying in the yard, sitting on some ancient-looking turquoise and white fraying plastic webbed lawn furniture with the cousins, Laurie and Jeff. He thought about going over there and sitting with them, but after consideration he knew they would probably just tell him to get lost. Besides, they weren’t doing anything except sitting, which looked even more boring than lying on the grass. It was typical for them to complain about being bored but never wanting to do anything, the five-year old thought as he scowled at the four of them. When he turned away, Aunt Doris’s white cat ran past, almost touching Joey’s bare toes as it raced toward the hedges separating his Aunt and Uncle’s house from their neighbor’s. Joey quickly turned over onto his stomach, grass scattering, and froze like a seal as he watched the cat glide through the arborvitae.
Scooting the first eight or nine feet, Joey followed; a wisp of fluffy white tail was still visible between the thick hedges, like milk weed silk had landed and then was quickly sucked up by his mother’s Electrolux. He stood and slowly parted the scaly leaves of the evergreens and peeked through, not wanting to barge in on a neighbor’s barbecue. But the yard was barren. It looked, if one were to deeply consider it, as if it had sat empty for weeks or even months. The yard was unmowed and weedy. A half-empty sandbox sat in the corner with sand piled almost entirely to one side and a red rusty wheel-less dump truck half buried in the middle. The wrinkled yellow paper shades of the house were pulled closed, and although Joey didn’t register the fact that there were shades, not curtains, in the windows he felt the house cold and unwelcoming. There were no foundation shrubs or flowers dotting the rectangular yard. Obviously Doris and Shelby had planted the hedges to clearly delineate the respective property boundary. The white cat was mid-way across the yard, half hidden by the overgrown grass before Joey, without a look back, pushed his body fully through the tall shrubs into the strange yard. He could hear his mother’s mixed tape now playing “American Pie” and he was glad he wasn’t there to see her swaying and singing along in her breathy off-key soprano, one hand swirling a sweating glass of scotch on the rocks, the other punctuating the music with periodic finger snaps. There was a melancholy mood in the air, stark and needy, reminding him of how it felt visiting great-grandpa Norm, living out his last days in a nursing home in Blue Earth, lying silently in bed, staring at a fixed point on the wall for the past year. Joey pushed onward, toward the teasing cat he desperately wanted to touch and hold. As he moved toward her he noticed that he was in a double-sized yard, and along the far side, still in the deep sun and protected from the distant neighbor’s house by an eight foot wooden wall there were trellises built up on the unseen side with red roses peeking over the top. This side was unpainted and stark. And there in that far part of the yard was a swimming pool, a perfect rectangular swimming pool just waiting to be enjoyed on this hot July day. Not many homes in southern Minnesota had swimming pools. He and his family used the town pool in Le Sueur, and a more perfect emblem of a childhood summer afternoon could not be imagined: the bleachy smell strong in his nostrils, his floaty vest keeping his head above water-level, allowing him to watch his sister and brothers cannonball in from the sides and dive below his feet, coughing up water and laughing, the sun bouncing (refracting) off the small blue waves, his mother sunbathing on a beach chair near the edge with a Frederick Forsyth paperback in her hand, a bottle of Tab and her Bain de Soleil by her side. However, as he walked closer, Joey could see that this rectangular pool was different. It was silent and intent. There was no bleach smell coming off it, only a slimy odor caused by some variety of animal or vegetable congealing on the surface which he could see was approximately two feet below the rim of the pool. He saw no vests or floaties, nothing to show this pool was ever used or enjoyed. On the contrary, it seemed to be avoided and ignored. A butterfly explored the air above it momentarily and the white cat bounded after it before the colorful insect landed on the neighbor’s trellis, looking down at the forsaken yard as the cat leapt onto the pool’s diving board, in the midst of the green water, licking its front paw as it sunbathed in the July 4th heat.
For the first time since entering this yard Joey felt happy. He almost smiled. The cat was no longer running away from him, and now she was trapped with nowhere to go. If he walked out on the diving board carefully he could scoop her right up and have a companion all afternoon, feeding her bits of his burger and cheesecake. He would hold her tight when nightfall came and the older kids set off their bottle rockets, the loud noises startling them both and making them want to hide. The grass was completely dead around the pool, tan — almost white — matted low to the ground as if persistently tread on by some giant green creature. Pitted concrete squares, with blackened grout, surrounded the pool and then abruptly changed to the blue vinyl liner of the pool a few inches before the rim but something either in the water or on the liner caused the pool to give off a sick green hue. The only sound Joey heard was the music from Shelby and Doris’s house next door. There was no electrical pump pushing the water through its filtration system, no street noise coming from Abbott Road, no dogs barking or children yelling. It was as if God had hit the pause button on the world allowing only Joey and his family to play. Back at his aunt and uncle’s house the older relatives were still probably immersed in their card game with Uncle Fred sending piercing looks toward long-haired Billy, Joey’s oldest brother, keeping his ears open for anti-war, anti-Nixon talk, always on the alert for the young Jane Fonda-converts so prevalent now even in the small towns of Southern Minnesota. The older cousins would be remaining deliberately separate and away, hanging out in their lawn chairs, oblivious to their parents or their parent’s parents. Joey’s father, Uncle Shelby and Uncle Tim were probably at the grill with either Shelby bragging about his work at the meatpacking plant, or Uncle Tim talking about his real estate job in Minneapolis and Joey’s father griping again about Green Giant foods. His sister Amy and cousin Alice were most likely starting to feel the effects of drinking the dregs of too many vodka tonics and whiskey sours and his mom was probably on her third or fourth scotch, evading conversation from her sister Doris, who could ask invasive questions with no apology. Joey scooted his hands and feet, apelike, onto the diving board, its scratchy sandpapery surface uncomfortable on his palms and bottoms of his feet, and looked down into the water. It had dozens of dead flies and bees and a small spread-eagled frog, belly up and floating just to the right of him, resting in the board’s shadow. There was a crumpled Camel cigarette pack and something black and fuzzy bobbing in the shallow end, a bird, possibly a baby crow. The water had a rainbow-like oil slick sheen to it, and Joey knew that the last thing he wanted was to fall into this pool. He wasn’t afraid of drowning because his mother had started him in swim classes last summer. He wasn’t allowed to take his floaty vest off yet, but he could dog paddle with relative ease. However, he was terrified of having his skin touch this water, this greasy mire filled with dead things and smaller living things, opportunistic pathogenic bacteria, parasites, Cryptosporidium parvum, and perhaps even the Norwalk Virus. Cooing gently to the cat and scrabbling his fingertips against the diving board and clicking his tongue, Joey pressed his knees downward, prepared to crawl outward. He figured it was worth a try first to get the fluffy cat to come without risking a fall into the water. The cat raised her head regally and turned away from the boy, her eyes closed, enjoying the sun. Now that Joey was only several feet from her he could see that she wasn’t a silky pile of feathery fur like he thought. Instead she had small burs, even twigs caught in her coat which wasn’t pure white either, but a dirt-encrusted yellowy-gray, and her blue eyes were caked with scabby black goo in the corners and underneath. Saddest of all were the mats throughout her fur, or rather the one huge mat that covered her entire back. It was apparent she had not seen a brush in a long time, and if she were to see one again it would be a painful and humiliating experience. Joey didn’t care that the cat was careworn and bedraggled. In a way, her neglect made her more lovable. The forgotten and friendless need to stick together, he thought. The cat was a white inbred, part-Persian, part-American short hair that Doris received as a gift from her husband Shelby eight years ago, and unknown to anyone except Doris, she planned on putting the cat to sleep the following week because she couldn’t find the time any more to keep the brambles out of her coat and make sure she had food, and with none of the children volunteering to help, Doris felt that she could no longer be burdened looking after three children, a husband and an aging cat on the cusp on senility, incontinence and catastrophic veterinary bills.
Joey’s family used to have a dog, but, truthfully, he couldn’t remember him. The dog was a bloodhound-retriever mix and was named Tim Tam after a horse his parents saw place first in the Florida Derby during their honeymoon. Tim Tam (the dog) died in 1972 when Joey was two years old, but he still liked to look at the Polaroids showing him grasping the dog’s floppy ears and sitting on the dog’s back trying to ride him like a horse. He missed Tim Tam, or rather the idea of Tim Tam, and constantly pestered his mother to let them get another dog, or even a cat, although the latter would be unlikely since he knew his mother didn’t like cats, but when he begged she would just pat him on the head, smiling good-naturedly and say, don’t worry, we will someday. Meanwhile, whenever Joey sees a dog, a cat, or even a parakeet or gerbil, he is beside himself with glee, unable to focus on the people or toys around him. He loves it when his mother cuddles with him, but now that he is five it doesn’t happen much anymore, or if it does it is a brief hug, not a prolonged snuggle. A dog, however, would lie down next to Joey all day, licking his face, allowing his own belly to be scratched in return; a cat would curl up on his lap and purr with happiness. Mike and Billy could close their door to him, locking him out of his own room, cranking their stereo playing the Rolling Stones with the bass as high as it would go. Amy could practice her handstands and her cartwheels, calling him “cluck head” if he came in and asked if she wanted to play Mother’s Helper with him, saying that was a “baby game”, and he wouldn’t care, because he would have his faithful dog, Jackson, named after his Action Jackson toy that he lost last Christmas when the family went to visit Dad’s parents in Belvidere, Illinois. Joey figured that having the name already picked out made it more real so he said the name often in his head as if putting coins into an imaginary vending machine where a dog would eventually emerge.
Slowly Joey crawled out toward the cat, not wanting to scare her and have her jump in the fetid water out of fear, because Joey, young as he was, knew that cats did not like to swim. Even animals that did like to swim wouldn’t want to swim in this pool, he thought, as he inched himself forward almost reaching the bouncy part of the board which he found disconcerting. As Joey came closer the cat kept staring at a fixed point in the general direction of his aunt and uncle’s yard. At eighteen inches away Joey sat forward on his toes, his knees digging deep into the hot and rough surface of the diving board and called for the kitty again. He felt a little wobbly sitting there, even though there were at least three inches of board on either side of his legs. The sun was straight ahead of him beating down hard and hot, causing him to squint and sweat uncomfortably. He wished his mother were there to help him because he wasn’t sure he could get back off the board that easily, since, after all, he would be scooting backwards with a cat in his arms. Looking behind him to see how far it was to safety he thought he saw a shadow move quickly out of sight toward the house and he swiveled his head back around the other way and realized it was just a bird, but the sudden movement caused him to lose his balance and sway slightly over the water. He gripped the board more tightly, letting go for only a second to wipe the sweat now dripping over his brow. The cat with the matted fur looked over at him, cool and almost smiling.
Joey's knees ached and he knew there would be indents on them showing the rough surface of the diving board, and maybe he would even have bruising, small broken capillaries, initially red and inflamed, eventually fading to a brownish-yellow. Last month he fell off the swing at the playground in La Sueur and landed on his hands and knees where the gravel, which had been laid down under the swings in a misguided attempt to cushion falls, dug into his skin in sharp points, leaving spots of ecchymosis that remained sore to the touch for a few days. His t-shirt, a Green Bay Packer’s jersey with Ray Nitschke’s number 66 emblazoned largely on the front and back, which Joey wore at least 3 days a week, was now wet with sweat. Joey had a paralyzing thought: if he fell into this water his prized shirt would be ruined. His mother had been warning him that he was going to destroy the shirt by wearing it so much and by her having to launder it as often as once or twice a week, but Joey didn’t understand how you could have a favorite shirt without wearing it all the time. There was no point in keeping a favorite shirt in a drawer, he thought. Joey definitely didn’t want to ruin it in this pool, and decided he should back off the board and wait for the cat on the end where she was certain to come eventually. Quickly and unthinkingly, he dragged one knee back, scraping it along the rough surface causing him to cry out loud. The white cat turned and stepped toward him and suddenly it began purring. Joey looked at the cat, confused, as if she was trying to communicate something to him and he wanted it repeated. It was a moment of intimacy needing no clear definition. Rather than suffer his knees any further, Joey put his bare feet back on the board and slowly drew up to a standing position. He would backwards-walk until he was at the base of the diving board. He had good balance; he knew that from the many times he had walked along the raised bricks demarcating the flower garden his mother put in last year in their back yard. Almost effortlessly, he could walk back and forth along the garden edge rarely falling off, and he would pretend he was one of the Flying Wallendas, a circus family that were famous for their high wire tricks which his mother had told him about seeing at a state fair once. Holding his arms outward for balance, Joey stood looking over the pool toward the white ranch house behind this one. A brown sedan, maybe an Oldsmobile or Lincoln was backing out of the driveway, an intent white-haired woman sitting behind the wheel. Joey thought of Gramma Gant playing euchre, penny a trick, with her brother Fred and his spinster daughter, Barb (who Michael once called JoJo the dog-faced girl, and Dad spanked him for that, but Joey knew Dad really thought it was funny), and Uncle Shelby’s mother, Edith, who was small and frail and smoked long brown cigarettes. Right now, more than anything, he wanted to eat a piece of apple pie next to his grandmother who smelled of gin and roses and have his back rubbed by her strong and wrinkled hands like she sometimes did when she was distracted.
Joey moved his left foot back and was preparing to transfer his weight to that leg when the white cat took another small step toward him and began purring even more loudly. He could hear her clearly over the orchestral beginnings of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” by the Walker Brothers, a song his mother was playing at a high volume and for some strange reason thought was appropriate for the mixed tape she made especially for the barbecue. His mother’s mixed tapes were hardly sophisticated affairs: she would put the cassette player next to the record player’s speakers, usually during the school day when only Joey was home. She would root through her old 45’s and albums, collected mostly from high school and teacher’s college, although she was able to find quite a few at church rummage sales and yard sales she haunted on weekends, and then she would simply press the record and pause buttons on her tape player. Click-clicking her way from one song to another, most of them sing-alongable and sentimental, perfect to listen to with a few drinks, but most not appropriate for a supposedly festive family Fourth of July picnic.
In a unconscious move of daring, Joey bent over and reached for the cat, suddenly feeling confident in his balance. He thought for sure the cat wanted him to pick her up and take her with him back to safety, and was trying to communicate this to him through her body language and happy purring sounds. However, as soon as Joey grabbed her she started to squirm and fight him, scratching his right arm badly. As scared as he was – of the pool and of having the cat hurt him more – Joey didn’t want to drop her and have her fall into the slick water, so he bent over quickly to put her down, two long lines of blood rapidly rising on his forearm. Once he put the cat back on the board and was prepared to stand up and continue his retreat she suddenly and without warning jumped up and pounced on his chest and shoulder, her back legs grasping onto the large number sixty-six, digging in tightly on his taut skin underneath and clawing her way up and over his back. Joey was immediately caught off-balance as he tried to grab and pull her off him. He squealed, startled, hurt and frightened. As the cat found purchase on his skin and worked her way over and jumped to the other side of the diving board, Joey’s right foot lost its footing and pressed down into the air above the pool for a second before everything went off-kilter and he tipped sideways into the water. As Joey tipped sideways into the air the last thing he saw was the the cat disappearing quickly into the long grass.
Immediately panic struck, Joey flailed as he swallowed a mouthful of the fetid water when he dropped heavily into the pool. A small amount traveled up his nose leading to a coughing fit and fear of air loss creating an even greater sense of anxiety and urgency to get out. The fall caused him to become totally immersed, and as he rose to the surface he headed straight across the pool, although it was not the closest side, nor was it near one of the two ladders, both placed at the deep end, but he didn’t even assess his situation, he just reacted unthinkingly, in panic, which caused him to fly forward, blinders on, driven solely by the flood of adrenaline in his system working in concert with his reptilian brain. Since Joey couldn’t swim actual strokes, he paddled his arms frantically, and kicked his legs spasmodically moving him inch by inch toward the edge of the pool, and in doing so his head would intermittently go under the pool’s muculent surface leading to further water ingestion and panic. Hair, cigarette butts and dead insects were getting trapped in Joey’s clawed hands, but he didn’t notice, focused as he was on the approaching pool’s edge. Since it was much harder to stay afloat without wearing his floaty-vest he had to paddle extra vigorously.
Throughout the couple minutes Joey had been struggling in the pool it occurred to him to shout to his mother or anyone who could hear him, but the thought was brushed aside quickly as the struggle to simply breathe was too great and with the music playing in the background he realized yelling would not only be impossible but pointless. He was on his own. With the pool’s edge inches away, he felt relief wash over him as he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his head above the surface much longer. His legs were barely able to move, his head was straight back and he had a severe cramp in his abdomen. It was as if fear were literally gripping him around the middle. However, the sides of the pool were smooth, and it was with alarm that he realized he couldn’t push off with his feet from the pool’s slimy side to reach the top, and it was cold dread that spread over his body when he found that because of the low volume of water it was going to be impossible for him to reach the edge and safety. Because of a slow leak in the pool’s lining, the water level had fallen significantly and the fingers of Joey’s left hand could only graze the slippery and slimy poolside before impotently dropping back into the water to half-heartedly paddle along with his right hand, the whole arm which was heavy and near motionless, the fingers making a slow “come hither” gesture that on its own would not keep him afloat. Since he was young and strong and desperate Joey attempted three times to scale the side of the pool, and three times he came up short, the second time his fingers just reaching the beginnings of the vinyl’s curve toward freedom, but his fingers were wet and the pool too coated with repelling substances to offer anything to cling to. He thought for a minute that he was reaching toward the slippery shoulder of the Jolly Green Giant himself but the smooth and polished granite of the Giant looked down at Joey and smiled, not in a kind way but in a superior way that sometimes Michael or Billy gave him when Joey chose to fight back. They would hold him by the head or shoulder and smirk down at him with the confidence of the physically dominant while he would fling his fists at them without connecting to anything. After his third attempt to reach upward failed, Joey’s head went under for good, as he gave into his exhaustion. He held his breath for as long as he could, which was only seconds before he expelled the carbon dioxide from his lungs exhaling dozens of large bubbles out of his nose and mouth with relief. Immediately, instinctually, and against his will he then inhaled deeply in order to get in more of the oxygen that his brain desperately needed although his body was not able to pull any oxygen from the water and as the foul fluid reached back, beginning to fill his lungs, causing him to gag, his laryngeal chords contracted, shutting off the water from entering his lungs. Slowly Joey succumbed to the oxygen depletion, his body sinking lower into the pool, arms curving back and forth slowly, involuntarily, eyes lifting upward taking in one last glimpse of light as they dimmed toward unconsciousness, hypoxia leading inexorably toward anoxia.
Death came as a surprise to him but in the end, a welcome one. His fear dissolved in the murky water, sliding down past his toes and listing over to the dark place at the bottom above the rusting grate filled with dark hairs and diseased elm leaves. The anticipation of death frightened Joey the most, but when it became a sudden inevitability he embraced it, primarily because he had no fight left in him. Also, inexplicably there was a familiarity about where he was heading, a slow walk down a tree-covered dirt path that was going to lead him back to where he came, not the womb, but someplace more intrinsic and old. He was going home, and while home this time may not mean a gray aluminum-sided split-level with a mustard-colored front door in La Sueur, Minnesota, it still felt right as he moved toward release, toward letting go, toward the euphoric finality of the end.
And even after cardiac arrest, it took Joey Gerber’s body several minutes to lose all signs of life. His mind trailed off like Gramma Gant’s knitting, the skein unraveling quickly until there was only a yard, a foot, an inch left, well past his dream-like thoughts of bullfrogs and badminton, the white cat and the Green Giant, his father, with his hands deep in his pants’ pockets and his shoulders hunched against the hard times looking over at Amy, fishing a liquor-soaked maraschino cherry out of her grandmother’s high ball, his mother singing, “the moon ain’t gonna rise any more…” swaying her body, her dress, tight at the hips, an azure blue, matching her eyes, flashing into the sky where the warmth of the sun embraced them all one last time.