An excerpt of Love by Drowning by C.E. Poverman, a novel focused on the obsessive relationship between a man and a woman with history—and death—between them. (available August 15, 2013).
In their last anguished moments together, Lee Anne takes revenge by taunting Val with a picture of his dead brother, who'd just drowned before his eyes in a bizarre fishing accident. Lee Anne will tell Val nothing more about the photo, but for seventeen years, sends him fragmented and cryptic messages on unsigned postcards which seem to be the aftershocks of a terrible event. And for seventeen years, Val has dared not reply. Now, he is on his way back to see her, even as he fears it may cost him everything.
This is a novel about a man and a woman obsessed with each other. It is about two people on a collision course.
Val shifted his eyes from the bait riding just beyond the wake and glanced back toward his brother. Davis surveyed the horizon, arms crossed, a white sun visor shading his eyes, wireman’s gloves tucked into pocket of his shorts. Last night Val had been as terrified of Davis as he had of anyone or anything in his life.
It had been over Lee Anne.
Face half-hidden by wild, bleached blond hair, her eyes averted, she had obsessed Val from that first moment weeks ago when she had stumbled in with Davis, something concealed in her gaze. And then, last night, her suddenly stepping into him, fitting her mouth to his.
Now sixty-five miles off the North Carolina coast, nostrils packed with blood-stiffened cotton, Val felt his broken nose throb. Davis wasn’t talking to him.
With none of the sometime cat-and-mouse stalking of the blue marlin, the strike came without warning. Magnus, jerked off balance, recovered and braced himself in the fighting chair, the reel screaming as the marlin ran. Voice breathless and tightening with adrenaline, he yelled, “Crash strike!”
Val looked up at the bridge. The captain nodded that he’d seen it, the marlin stripping off line.
Val checked the cockpit. The wash-down hose was coiled and hung up, gaff ropes, leaders, baits, everything put away, the deck cleared for safe footing.
Davis adjusted the brim of his visor, then reached into his back pocket and pulled on his gloves. Val swung Magnus’ chair in the direction of the fish, waiting for its first spectacular leaps. Surprisingly, the marlin didn’t jump, but, fighting like a tuna, dogged it. Magnus quickly worked it closer to the boat. The swivel reached the rod tip. Davis took hold of the thirty-foot leader, and, wrapping the piano wire around his gloved hands—two wraps on each hand—he braced himself against the gunwale and began to raise the fish to the surface. Val divided his attention between Davis and the water, waiting for the fish to appear. He marveled at Davis’ strength, the pole-vaulter’s powerful hands and the massive, deeply cut forearm muscles. He’d felt those hands close on his throat last night before he found himself on the ground.
Now it was like watching a great athlete climb a rope, only the rope was a wire—slippery, razor thin, almost impossible to grip. With each pull, Davis retrieved more leader, then passed it behind himself and wrapped each hand twice more, bringing the fish toward the surface. No matter how many times he'd done this, Val never got over the sense of wonder and beauty he felt when he saw a marlin rising from below. Now he could see its pectoral fins, each the iridescent neon-blue of anger, a color you never saw on a tired or beaten marlin. The mackerel bait was on the fish’s back, right behind the highest part of the dorsal fin.
Gary, the captain, yelled down to Val. “Too small. That’s definitely no keeper. Cut it loose now, or do you want to tag it? You make the call. Only take a couple of minutes to tag.”
Val picked up the pole with the barbed tag in place. This marlin was nowhere near as big as the one Magnus had taken yesterday, and probably weighed less than the tournament’s three-hundred-pound minimum. Either way, it wasn’t a keeper. Most everyone, conservation-minded, tagged the smaller ones before letting them go. “We’ll tag it!” he called. “Can you handle that, Davis?”
Davis didn’t answer. As Val extended the barbed tag toward the fish’s back, he saw the round, black eye move; the marlin turned quickly and darted away from the transom. Davis pointed his hands toward the fish and let go of the leader, the wire wraps falling cleanly and freely off his gloves.
Magnus said, “We can cut him loose now, save everyone time and trouble. With that hook in his back, he’s battling like a much bigger fish.”
Val asked Davis, “Can you bring him up one time? We’ll get that tag in him quick.” Davis didn’t answer. Val shouted above the engines and sudden scream of the reel: “Davis!”
Davis reached out and grabbed the wire leader to him. Wrap by wrap, pull by pull, he brought the marlin back to the surface and close to the boat. Val leaned overboard and pushed the tagging pole toward the fish. The marlin darted forward and turned, sending up an explosion of spray. This time Davis didn’t let go of the wire, but held on as the marlin shot away from the stern.
Val yelled, “We’ll cut him loose!”
Val dropped the pole on the deck behind him. He was surprised to see Davis keep hold of the leader, knees braced against the gunwale. He yelled at Davis to let go. Davis shouted something back but Val couldn’t make it out. “Let him go, Davis! Let go of the leader!” Val unsheathed his wire cutters. As he extended their open mouth toward the wire, there was a sudden squeal of deck shoes—the sound of someone pivoting on a basketball court. Davis staggered against the board that covered the transom. There was a loud crack. Davis went headfirst into the water.
He surfaced, pushed the sun visor back from his eyes, started to turn toward the boat. Suddenly, he was pulled down. Val rushed to the transom. Davis was just below the surface with his hands together, outstretched. Neither panicked nor struggling, he seemed to be swimming.
But when he didn’t surface in another moment, Gary yelled from the bridge, “Magnus, pull him back up!”
Gary threw the boat into reverse, water boiling under the transom as Magnus pumped the rod—once, twice. The blue marlin was just below Davis, rose with him toward the surface. Frantic, Val grabbed the rod and helped Magnus pull it upward, Magnus cranking the reel.
Davis and the fish were right beneath them.
“Stop!” Val yelled. “Neutral, neutral! Watch the propellers! You’ll back over them!” Val heard the engines go into neutral. Val and Magnus pulled up on the rod, which suddenly lost tension and threw them backward. The wire leader had snapped at a kink a few feet below the swivel. Val staggered forward and looked into the water, expecting to see Davis rise to the surface. Davis and the marlin were free of the rod. But the hook was still in the marlin’s back and Davis was still wired to the fish.
Val dove, and swimming awkwardly—shoes on, clothes on—he moved five, ten feet below the surface, driving his legs. Reaching out, he grabbed for Davis, gathered a handful of his shirt, but suddenly his grip was ripped open as Davis was yanked away….
Val broke the surface with a painful gasp for air, took another deep breath. Below him, he could see Davis and the marlin glowing iridescent in the sunlight where the clear blue water gave way to black. He stripped off his shoes and took another enormous breath, and driving his legs harder, pulling with his arms, he dove. He swam deeper this time, ears and sinuses aching, lungs starting to burn. He swam deeper. Beneath him, Davis and the marlin got smaller and smaller, shimmering into a deeper twilight blue, then disappeared into the black. Lungs bursting, Val looked up, surface distant, the sun huge and undulating….
Val was running out of time—was it already too late? Should he try to reach his father in Connecticut again? The sun huge, white and undulating overhead, Val was stabbed by a sudden burning need for air. He pushed up and burst the surface of the water—his backyard swimming pool. Before he could take a breath, he was grabbed from behind, and, a forearm crushing his Adam’s apple, legs locked around his waist, Val lost his balance and was pulled over backward, submerged. Still trying to draw breath, he sucked in water instead of air, gasped sharply. Suffocating and grabbing the man-sized forearms of his son with both hands, Val yanked frantically at Michael’s locked arms and tried to slip beneath his grip. Michael held on. Val felt a stinging sensation against his shoulder, and the two of them sank to the bottom of the pool. Val sucked in yet another convulsing mouthful of water, desperately drove his legs against the bottom, burst the surface, pushed as hard as he could against Michael, and jabbed his elbows into Michael’s stomach. With Michael’s grip releasing, Val escaped to the shallow end. Doubled over, hoarsely, ludicrously gasping in loud, whistling inhalations like a seal, Val struggled to get his breath.
Michael surfaced beside him, rubbing his arms and stomach, eyes hurt and enraged. “Jesus Christ, Dad! I was just kidding around! You almost killed me!”
Still gasping for air, Val shook his head no, coughing and half-puking out pool water. In another few moments, he drew a smaller, less frantic breath, another. As he started to calm down, his throat opened and he could finally draw in air and smell the sweet orange blossoms and honeysuckle of late May; he became aware of the deep penetration of the desert sun on the skin of his back, tenderly probed his bruised Adam’s apple.
“I had no idea you were out here!” Val gasped and coughed. “And if that’s your idea of kidding, then I was kidding, too!”
“Dad! You’re, like, always so fucking serious! Get your butt chapped!”
Val coughed, managed to whistle out, “You can use that four letter word—”
“Seven letters, Dad! Fuck-ing.”
“—you really can, if that’s the way you want to talk—but just don’t do it around me, Michael.”
At fourteen, Michael was as tall as Val, had Davis’ fierce strength. Val rubbed at a stinging place somewhere high on his back at the same moment Michael noticed and started probing a cut on his own chest; he looked at a diluted flow of blood on his fingertips. “Look what you did to me, Dad!”
Val took Michael’s medallion between his fingertips, felt the jagged sharp edges. It was a quarter that Michael had placed on the railroad tracks; his knee and elbow skinned and oozing blood from a hard fall, he’d come home riding his mountain bike. He produced the perfectly flattened coin from his pocket, the eagle and George Washington obliterated, faint traces of letters like ghostly smoke. Refusing all attempts at first aid, he’d gone into his bedroom, and, crouched intently on the floor, long blond hair hanging in his eyes, he’d taken an electric inscribing tool and etched the symbol for anarchy—a squashed-looking capital A, a wild slash of lines—and then encircled the jagged circumference with the words Crashing Sucks! He wore the coin, a hole drilled through the middle, on a chain around his neck.
Now, Val dropped the medallion against Michael’s chest.
“I’ve told you the edges on this are dangerous, Michael. It’s like a jagged razor blade. Must have gotten caught between us.”
“Must have been you! The way you just tried to hammer me!” He rubbed at the scratches on his forearm. “Look what you did to me!”
Val heard the push of the sliding glass door and saw Kazzie moving in the shadows of the porch. Having heard the tones rising from the pool, without knowing what it was about, she pushed the flat of her hand down toward the ground, a gesture to diminish sound, volume, pitch, emotion; she stopped abruptly as Michael turned, but before he could see the gesture.
“Little humor here, boys!”
Seeing her walking toward them, Val felt buffered, reassured. Fit from walking and hiking, Kazzie had an easy, athletic grace, which, Val had come to realize was an extension of a belief she had in herself. She had large, beautiful, smooth hands, tapered fingers, a lovely way of handling and touching things.
Michael pulled himself out of the pool in a cascade of splashing water, and glaring one+ last time at Val, grabbed a towel. “Little humor for Dad! Butthead! God, I hate him! And he’s all, like, such a hypocrite. He’s always telling me not to use that dumb word. Fuck. Fuck! Don’t use the word fuck! But I hear him! He uses that word!” Michael stalked across the grass.
“Don’t walk into the house wet, Michael! I just did the floor!” Kazzie shouted. Michael slammed open the sliding glass door with a loud bang and, dripping, walked in. “Michael!”
Val shrugged. “You’re yelling at him, Kazz.”
Kazzie shook her head. “He’s the one who’s fourteen. You can’t both be fourteen. Humor is the only way with him right now. The only way. I know it’s hard, but you have to remember that. Why do you let it reach this pitch?”
“God, Kazzie. Why do I let it reach this pitch? I was taking a swim and next thing Michael’s got me in a choke hold!”
Kazz sighed. She knelt beside the pool, half turned him around, touched a place on his back. “What’s this? You’re cut.”
“The flattened quarter Michael wears got caught between us.”
She smoothed the edges of the cut with her fingertips. She half turned him and kissed his wet lips, regarded him. Her face softened, became thoughtful. Her eyes filled with water-light, green, speckled.
“That streak of silver in your hair, wet like this, the way the sun’s catching it, is beautiful.”
Val shrugged. “Forty-three in a week.”
“Whatever else being forty is, it’s kind of a privilege to get there,” Kazzie mused as she stared into the water. “And at least you’ve got a full head of hair.”
She smoothed his water-slick hair with her hand, kissed him, found his lips and kissed him again.
She started to rise. He took her hand. “Kazz, my mother hasn’t called while I’ve been out here?”
“No, still nothing.”
“I don’t want to miss her.”
“If we don’t hear the phone, the machine will pick it up.”
“If she’s at the hospital with my father, it can be hard to get through to her.”
“Take your swim. Just try to relax for a few minutes. I can get to the phone. It’s okay.”
“I know she hasn’t been telling me everything.”
Kazz squeezed his shoulder and stood, her knee clicking. She dropped a stack of mail enclosed within a folded New Yorker onto a chair in the shade beneath the olive tree and drifted over to pluck dried leaves from the flowering red hibiscus.
Val pushed into the deeper end of the small pool, its sixties decking starting to crumble, cracks in the bottom, several tiles fallen out along the waterline. A hummingbird, the green-throated female, hovered at the feeder hanging from the porch, needle beak extended to the red sugar-water flower; above the roof, a male, his ruby throat afire, soared for her, his cry an arid tsk. High beyond a Mexican fan palm, a rare streak of white cloud was spun thin by a silent wind. Val drifted with that invisible wind across sixty miles of desert to the south, to Mexico, curled like a sleeping animal dreaming strange, hieroglyphic dreams. Eyes at water level, he took in the enclosed yard, the phantasmagoria of gas grill in the shadows of the porch, the washer and dryer, assorted mountain bikes, Michael’s trampoline by the brick wall. From beyond the wall, he heard his neighbor’s boom box: the bombast of mariachi music, a flourish of trumpets; and, rising above it all, repeated attempts to start an engine. Long hair fanning out around his face, Val sank into the silence at the bottom of the pool, laced his fingers into the black holes of the drain grating, and knew, though the phone call hadn’t come yet, that he was running out of time.
When he surfaced again, Kazzie was sitting in a lawn chair in the dappled shade beneath the olive tree; she sorted the mail on her lap, then stopped. She frowned, thrust a card in Val’s direction.
“Can you just read it to me?” he asked. She vigorously shook her head no.
“Do I have to look at it right this second, Kazz?” She continued to extend the card and looked beyond him. “Guess that means I do.”
Val pulled his top half out of the pool in a flood of water, leaned across the burning deck. His outstretched hand trembled short of the card. Kazzie stood and thrust it at him. Val pinched the corner between his wet fingers, and, sliding back into the pool, turned it over. The card didn’t carry a salutation—none of them ever did—but just began as if something once started had never stopped. The lack of beginning implied a greater intimacy. The cards were never signed, also as if to say they were beyond that necessity. This one simply said:
Dreamed of you again, you were coming to visit me, you came in a boat, then you were standing in my house. It was night. You stood in front of the window and even though it was dark, I could see the ocean behind you.
She had added in the lower right hand corner in smaller writing:
I forgive you nothing.
The cards had come in flurries over the years, with irregular intervals in between. They were always postcards, never signed, and they carried a simple PO box as a return address. They had been cancelled in North Cove, New York. The messages were simple, cryptic, often enigmatic, like fragments of a dream; there might be three or four cards for several days, weeks or months, and then nothing for years, and then again, like a seismograph recording movement on a fault line, the cards would start again. They both fascinated Val and filled him with a kind of dread. At times he had the feeling that a picture was starting to emerge, the sense of which just eluded him. He remembered Davis had once said, “Lee Anne never lets anything go—and she never lets anyone get away with anything.”
Val reread the card: You were coming to visit. You were standing in my house. There’d never been a card like this one before. Standing in my house. It seemed to bring something too near. And: I forgive you nothing. What was that? But without being able to put it into words, in a way he knew. There’d been a card several weeks ago with the single word damage.
That, too, had stayed with him for days: damage. The word had turned over and over, slipped in and out of his fingers. Damage. Damage coming to him? Damage in her own life? What damage? Val carefully composed his face and glanced at Kazz, who watched him with uncharacteristic resentment.
“I don’t get it. I have never gotten it. Whatever your life was before, we’ve been married fifteen years. You have a son, a whole other life. Isn’t there some way to put a stop to this? Who is she, Val?”
“I’ve told you. She was a girlfriend. And that’s all. There’s nothing more.”
“What does she want?” Kazz stared at him.
“I don’t know.” Val shook his head. “I honestly don’t know.”
“Somehow, somewhere, you have to know. A person doesn’t keep writing to someone without his having an idea why. She must want something. Even I can see—and I know nothing about her—that she wants you standing in her house. That means she wants me pushed out.”
“I might if I felt you could.”
Val shook his head. Everything he’d said was true. Lee Anne had been a girlfriend. Kind of. He hadn’t gone into detail. No one really wanted to hear about previous lovers. Kazzie had been with other men before they’d gotten together, and Val didn’t want to know the particulars.
Kazzie slapped through the rest of the mail. She gathered her hair, pulled it back from her forehead and said with a touch of contempt and a country twang, “Whatd’ya think, Val, I’d be more interesting to you if I dyed my hair black, cut it short like KD Lang?” She sang, “‘Catherine, Catherine, why do you…’”
Val said, “Please stop. I love you the way you are. And I’ve never once answered her, Kazz.”
“How would you like it if I’d been getting postcards from some old boyfriend the whole time we’d been married? Someone you’d never met.” She mimed the blankness of his face. “Somehow, she knows she’s got something—some hold on you—because she hasn’t given up!”
Val pushed off the side of the pool, swam across, hoping to break the momentum of Kazzie’s angry mood. He knew Lee Anne’s postcards were meant to disrupt. And they did, preoccupying him for days; it was as if she were saying, if I’m not free of something, then you won’t be, either.
Still, he’d told Kazzie the truth when he said he hadn’t spoken to Lee Anne since they were married, that he hadn’t said a word to her, though one day several years ago, someone, a woman, had called to renew magazine subscriptions, and the moment he’d heard her Southern accent he’d barely been able to follow her words. “…a special rate of twenty-six dollars for two years, and if you renew now for three years, we throw in a blow job.” Val had been stunned for a moment before he burst out laughing and the person hung up. Lee Anne?
As Val surfaced on the other side of the pool, he heard Kazz saying “…and you know something else, Val? If someone kept knocking on my door, sooner or later, I might just open it to find out why.” She stood. “What I mean to say here, Val, is that if I were trying to sabotage someone’s marriage, this is exactly the way I’d do it.”
She was right. Perhaps the lie wasn’t that he’d done anything or even omitted anything, but that he wasn’t indifferent. The lie was that without his understanding it, Lee Anne was always somehow there, and he couldn’t say that to Kazz. He didn’t understand it himself.
Still No Call?
In a sweat, Val entered the shadowy coolness of the fifties ranch house, and looking down at Michael’s large, watery footprints across the tiles, he shook his head. What a mess. Well, it was, finally, just water, it could be wiped up, but he knew Michael wouldn’t do it. Val sighed. Michael’s attitude; that was the worst part. Fuck you, I’ll do what I want. Don’t like it? Clean it up or live with it. But Val couldn’t split hairs with everyone about every little thing—postcards from people who were too distant and too far away in the past to worry about, Michael’s tracking up the tiles…. Though the room was empty, the TV was on loud; Val, registering this, still didn’t turn it off. He glanced at the Arizona Daily Star on the counter without interest: May 6, 2001. Illegal Border Crossers…cause of major wildfires…. Outside, Michael rocketed triumphantly off the trampoline against the blue sky. God, he was going to break his neck. Knowing he couldn’t stop him, Val, suddenly frightened, turned away.
With Lee Anne’s postcard pinched between his fingers and on the lookout for Kazzie—Val could feel her anger permeating the house—Val walked down the shadowy hall into the bedroom, pulled a large manila envelope out from where it was hidden behind a row of oversized art books, and dropped the card inside with the others. He thought suddenly: do it, do it now, just throw them out, all of them. Kazz was right. Her sending them, his keeping them, they were divisive. He decided he would wait until Kazz and Michael were out of the house, look over the cards one last time, maybe tonight, then toss them out once and for all. Were they just random moods…or was there something she was trying to tell him? And if so, was she even aware of it? Was it a kind of game? He sensed a stubborn concealment within the cards. Maybe not. Angry, dreamlike, at times frightening, a broken puzzle, they roiled like smoke in the bedroom.
Val dropped the envelope back into its hiding place. Without thinking, he turned toward the framed picture of Davis on the dresser. Today it lay face down. Years ago he had put the print away for good. Then, several weeks ago, he’d retrieved it. He’d been wandering the house that night, thinking not of Davis but of their father, who was back in the hospital, and of wanting to fly East to see him, yet being held back by his mother’s voice on the telephone—”Don’t come now, stay where you are for the time being.”
Upset, he’d ended up at his desk, turned on a light, dug through the bottom of a desk drawer. He saw an amnio photo of Michael at three months, a shadow sketch, the paper now curling, the color of dried blood. A sprinkling of Michael’s baby teeth, which Val held tenderly in his fingers. Then, yes, here they were, a box of family snapshots. He took them to the sofa: Davis and himself when they were kids, pictures he hadn’t allowed himself to look at in years; he’d gone back into the desk drawer and retrieved a framed 8“ x 10” black-and-white picture. It had been taken of Davis at night, Davis caught and isolated in the burst of a flash. He was crouched behind the windshield of a boat, hands on the wheel, the boat hot and full of muscle, maybe an Aronow; a wall of spray flew at his elbow, a white wake boiling behind. Beyond the edges of the flash, there was a sense of huge, black ocean. Davis’ long hair was blown flat behind him in the wind, his eyes slit by the rush of speed. He was looking over at the camera with a look of joy and triumph, perhaps contempt.
In the short time they’d been together in Brooklyn, Lee Anne and Val had never spoken Davis’ name between them or referred to him directly in any way. But on what would turn out to be their last day together, Lee Anne, lying on the bed, her face webbed with pain, directed him to a suitcase. When he took out the picture, she said, “Davis.” It was the first time she’d said his name in Val’s presence; she pronounced it as if to say, the sum total, the essence of him, who he was. That night was the last time he’d ever seen Lee Anne.
Copyright © 2013 by C. E. Poverman.
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C. E. Poverman's first book of stories, The Black Velvet Girl, won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His second, Skin, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His stories have appeared in the O'Henry, Pushcart, and other anthologies. His previous novels are Susan, Solomon's Daughter, My Father in Dreams, and On the Edge.