Slow Dance with Mr. October
by EMILY NEMENS, paintings by ROSE NESTLER
Gowanus Spill #1
“James, come back here!”
James did not turn around.
“James! Stop this foolishness.”
He kept kicking steady splashes towards the shore. “Ja—” When she saw him reach for another handful of water her mouth snapped shut and she took a deep breath through her nose. The heavy air sunk her hips further into the soft bank. She opened her mouth and bellowed.
“James, if you don’t turn around this very instant, I will, I will...” Momma looked desperate to the sky, desperate to the water, desperate to the three children lined up behind her, knee-deep in sharp, straw-colored grass. She gave a fussy wave behind her back and a tssk over her shoulder to get the children’s attention, then turned square to them. She told the two girls to lift up their skirts so they wouldn’t go and mess them in the grass. And they did, grabbing for the scalloped eyelets round their ankles with tiny, frantic fingers, hiking the fabric up, up. Momma had already turned back to the water, but glanced over her shoulder again at the stock-still sisters.
“Louisa, drop your skirt, the whole park can see you bloomers.” The smaller of the two attendants let her hem fall down to her ankles. Her darting eyes searched Momma’s face, the knit brow and lined forehead, looking for the softening of approval. Momma sighed. “Goodness, child. Not back into the grass. Keep your skirt round your knees. Like your sister.”
The girl glanced to her right. Standing tall in the middle of the trio, her sister’s face was serene, her mouth showing the corners of a smile. Louisa looked from the smirk down to the hands; Samantha was reaching to a bunch of fabric round her knees with her left, while her right was clamped firm onto Teddy’s baby-fattened shoulder. The roly-poly boy was squirming under her palm, toeing the dirt and pulling at straw. Big sister whispered for little brother to cut it out, and his swinging arms slowed a mote. She squeezed and they slowed some more; finally, he all but stopped his fidgets. Still, he looked like he might bolt to the water any minute and join his brother with a splash, so Samantha’s grip stayed tight round the boy’s arm.
Momma’s dour face brightened with an idea. She turned to the water and cupped her hands to her mouth. “If you do not come back right now, James Davis, I will, I will...I will throw all of your baseball cards into this very pond.” Louisa gasped, then felt the jab of her sister’s chiding elbow sharp between her ribs. Samantha’s mouth had turned up farther, to full approval, and her eyes said hush the same way Momma’s were known to do.
Silently now, Louisa stuttered through her worries: the worry that James had spent all summer on those cards; that all his nickels and dimes since April were in that shoebox under the bed. She worried that for five months he’d been walking around with a wad of Topps Chewing Gum in his cheek on account of them, and that he’d spent some of her own coins, too, nickels he’d begged out of her at the drugstore counter, on those darn cards. To lose all their hard work... Louisa chewed at her lip at the thought of it.
“You hear me James? Into the pond!” His reply was another reach, the stroke taking him a few more feet from the shore. The slow ripple of his course spread like a Chevron stripe back to the bank. Momma watched its progress for a minute, then turned around in disgust.
“I swear,” she declared, “this is the last time I take you children to the zoo. Curses on this whole park.” She pushed past the three. “Now come along, children. Lift up your feet, it’s dusty here. Louisa, don’t let your skirt drag in the dirt like that. Last thing I need is more laundry.”
The quartet reached the main loop trail and turned south, Momma threading her three through the more leisurely-minded walkers. Her children, arranged by height, followed as best they could: Samantha dutifully, her head held high like momma’s; then Louisa, clumsy and paying little attention to how she passed left foot over right. She was busy casting glances back to the water, so busy it looked like she might go sprawling flat at any moment. She, in turn, held tight to little Teddy, flailing at the end. The three-year-old was just about running to keep up with his sisters and huffing mother. They wove through couples carrying parasols and mothers pushing strollers, determinedly accelerating to pass each group. A screech cut through the air, and Teddy started, sinking his heels into the ground.
Louisa reeled back at the sudden brake and looked at her brother. His eyes flitted through the branches above, searching for the source. She gave his hand a yank. “The monkeys aren’t up there, Teddy. They are still in their cages, back at the zoo.” She pointed to a shady green expanse past the pond.
Teddy squinted towards the fuzzy green compound. “Over there?”
She nodded, and leaned her head down towards the little boy. “Remember? They had long tails and furry bellies and hung from the trees. But not those trees,” she pointed up to boughs above. “The trees over there, inside cages.”
Teddy looked from the zoo to his sister and back. “Loud monkeys.”
“Yep, loud.” The others had not stopped walking, and Louisa tugged at him, half dragging the boy to catch up with the longer-legged travelers. Teddy kept his eyes cast upward, into the branches of the oak canopy, even as Louisa hurried him forward. Her own gaze was locked on the water, scanning the surface until she found her brother’s slick brown head, bobbing far from the shore.
Gowanus Spill #2
Momma waited for them at the colonnade. The four crossed the street together, and marched through the parade ground. She rushed them cross Caton and down the apartment block, its steep brick walls leaning in on her, taunting. Open windows leered at the anxious woman, and she walked faster. Her nerves, especially over things like this, she’d already passed onto Samantha, and the girl threw worried blue eyes up to third-story windows. She scanned the row and then moved to the fourth, searching for projectile malaise: the contents chamber pots, falling fans or crumpled candy wrappers. They reached the corner, relieved that nothing had fallen from the sky that afternoon. Momma straightened from her forward tilt, and stepped into the crosswalk.
Once they’d passed the pair of declarative stone markers, Argyle Court, she slowed. Here Momma dropped her daughter’s hand, smoothed her skirts, and the family fell into practiced formation: one straight behind another, hands kept by one’s sides, mouths closed and quiet but looking pleasant. Louisa was fascinated to see her sister from this angle. So used she was to watching James’s cowlicked crown before her, she’d never looked at Samantha’s, the flattish blonde head, bunned severely, and the narrow, fuzzy nape above a high collar. Samantha’s head hardly moved as they made their way down the sidewalk.
Behind the pediments, green confirmed their arrival in the princely blocks. The street was lined with trees, billowing trees that were just starting to tip yellow. Below their boughs, broad swaths of lawn ran both along the wide sidewalk and from house to house to house, no picket or stone fence in sight. And the houses. These were regal affairs, southern porches and porticos, big Victorian buildings nice as anything outside of Newport, nicer than anything else in Brooklyn. A neighbor waved. The Davises waved back; the line smiled but did not slow for pleasantries.
They walked a block more to Albemarle with the big white house on the corner. Theirs wasn’t the big white one on the corner, with a row of two-story columns spread cross the front; rather theirs was the white one across the street, with the turret. But how they loved that house out their front door! Momma would never admit covetousness, but that’s what it was, for her and Samantha both. For Louisa and James, it was a fascination. They wondered at the sheer size of the thing. Once, when they thought Mrs. Talbott was gone on errands, the two decided to see how big one of those columns really was, so they ran up the front path, onto the porch, and tried wrapping their arms round a broad white pillar. Cheeks leaning hard into the grooved stone, they stretched until their middle fingers touched, just barely. They stayed like that, touching fingertips for a time, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two that they were up there when Mrs. Talbott opened the front and asked what in heaven’s name they were doing. The pair scampered away, red lines pressed down their cheek. Later that week, when questioned over a roast chicken dinner, they feigned ignorance.
No, their big white house was smaller, with a round tower climbing up past the treetops, and to there they marched, filing up its white wood stairs and in the front door. Momma sent Samantha upstairs to help Teddy out of his clothes and to change herself. With a thrust of her chin towards the staircase, she made it clear Louisa should do the same. The seven-year-old tromped up the stairs, passing her siblings with a harrumph. The two were moving slow: the smallest still took each rise as a separate, difficult task to be executed with concentration; the elder patiently trailed, her arms spread as wide as the staircase. Completing the two flights to their room was always something of an achievement.
Louisa stepped into the middle of a large room. It spread the width of the house, broad again its length. Each corner was designated to one child, two pink nooks and two blue. Stepping to her alcove, the little girl unlaced her boots and tugged them off, then struggled with her skirts. So many buttons! She laid them across her bed, spreading the fabric wide as it would go. She was still too small to hang them in the closet, proper-like. Momma would do that later.
The others had finished their climb and were heading to their corners. Louisa and her sister pulled on jumpers, then Samantha crossed the room and helped her brother step into pint-sized overalls. The three clattered down the stairs, the youngest on his seat. In the kitchen Momma was grilling cheese. Samantha sat next to the baby; Louisa next to James’s empty plate.
“Did you make one for James?” she asked.
“Why would I do a silly thing like that?” Momma shook her head at the clock above the stove. “If he’s not here for lunch, he won’t get lunch, simple as that.” She crossed to the table and slid a sandwich from the griddle to her daughter’s plate, and then deposited sandwiches before the other children. She returned the pan to the stove and glanced back to the table. “Tuck that lip in, Louisa. It is not becoming of a lady to pout.”
While the children ate, Momma browned herself a piece of toast on the hot griddle and ate it standing over the sink. When heir plates were clean she nodded her head. “Okay, children, nap time.” Samantha stood on cue, and cleared the three crumbed plates, stacking them on the counter. She walked back to the table to lift her brother from his booster.
Louisa shifted, and started her legs swinging under the table. “But momma, I’m not tired today.” Samantha’s head snapped up from the boy in her arms to her sister across the table. Her slitted eyes honed in on the little girl, and when she spoke, her voice carried a chill.
“Come on Louisa, that don’t matter. You heard Momma; it’s naptime. We all need the rest.” She set Teddy down on the linoleum and led the boy out of the kitchen, glancing to make sure her sister followed cross the tile floor and onto the parlor’s patterned hardwood. Scowling, Louisa slipped off her chair and shuffled round the corner to the staircase. After a few slow steps she started sprinting, pushing past her sister and little Teddy pulling himself up the banister. In the kitchen, the swoosh and clatter of dishwashing started.
Upstairs, Louisa dashed to her brother’s bed and reached underneath, searching for the shoebox she knew was there. She pulled it out and lifted the cardboard lid. The box was packed with cardstock players; she grabbed a stack three inches deep. If the whole collection went missing, Momma would know it was her meddling, and she’d be in all sorts of trouble. But if only some were gone, she might not notice anything wrong about it. Louisa thumbed through the stack of faces on green fields. Their identities were announced with bold black letters at the top, their teams in bright, enthusiastic cursive across the chest. James had given her all sorts of lectures about the good ones and the bad, but they all seemed the same to her now, toothy and tan, happy to have bats on their shoulders.
She shoved the box back under the bed and carried her stack half-way cross the room. The heavy wooden door had gone thick in the summer heat, and at first she couldn’t push it open. She pulled at the knob and then pushed again, this time leaning in with her shoulder until the thing swung open with a puff of still, dusty air. She climbed up into the tower. An old set of chairs were stacked to one side, Samantha’s baby dresses, now too small for her and Louisa both, were boxed up alongside them. Some of Momma’s things from Ohio, Father’s college books, sat in boxes on the far side of the room. She dropped the cards on a windowsill and started down. After two steps she doubled back to the stack, and moved them from the sill to the floor beneath the chairs. James had always said direct sunlight wasn’t no good for them. Faded the colors.
She rushed back down the narrow staircase, closing the door behind her just as Samantha and Teddy crested the second flight.
“Were you just in the tower?” Samantha asked with narrow eyes.
“No,” Louisa replied, dropping her hand from the knob. “Why would I go up there?”
The children silently spread to their beds, Louisa lying down atop the covers. “Under the covers!” Momma barked a moment later. She was at the top of the stairs, surveying the room. She came over to Louisa first, now snaking herself underneath the sheets, and took her dress to hang. She then crossed to check on Teddy. She pulled the blankets up to his chin, nodded to Samantha, then walked over to James’s corner. Here she crouched, one hand fishing under the bed. It emerged with the cardboard box. She stood, tucked it under her arm, and walked to the middle of the room. She and Father were the only ones tall enough to pull the cord without a chair. The room clicked into afternoon gray, and Momma went back downstairs.
Theirs was a vocal house, one that let its age be known. New crackling announced worn-out seams; tired windows sighed, and doors creaked open. Louisa and her brother had studied these noises, diligently pinpointing each one’s source and implication. Even from their third floor beds, they could tell the difference between coming and going through the squeaky back screen door. They knew footfalls on the porch well enough to tell if it was Momma, Father, the milk or mailman walking up the front steps.
On that afternoon, a squeak carried up through the house and to Louisa’s bedside, popping next to her ear. She knew it instantly: the sound of the front door opening from the inside. She sat up in time to hear the door click shut, and counted the footsteps down the porch’s front steps. Soon as the exiting heels hit pavement, Louisa swung her legs out of bed. The children’s room was likely thirty feet long; she squinted to her brother and sister, looking for the telltale shuffle of arms and legs moving under their quilts. All was still, and she stole out of bed and to the window between her bed and James’s. Below, she could see her mother hurrying down the street. Louisa started down the stairs.
In the kitchen, she stood on a chair to fetch the bread from its box, then dragged the seat across the room to find the peanut butter and jelly stowed in the pantry. She quickly made a sandwich, thick with spread, and wrapped the oozing bread in waxed paper. When she ran out of the kitchen, she left the chair still pressed up against the pantry shelves. In the front hall she pulled on shoes, hardly lacing them before she was out the door. Momma was two blocks ahead, waiting to cross. A break in the traffic, and she disappeared into the brick row beyond. Louisa followed fast as she could, tongues flapping.
Momma stood at the shore’s edge, a silhouette against silver-blue water. Her head slowly swiveled, scanning the surface of the pond until she locked in on her son’s head and shoulders. She set down the box of ballplayers on a rock and waved with both hands.
“James. James!” The effort of lifting one arm into the air sunk his head below the waterline. Little bubbles broke the surface for one count, then two. He bobbed back up and pointed down the shore. Both Momma and Louisa, the latter now panting and stolen behind a tree, followed the dripping finger. Momma lifted her skirt round her and walked gingerly down the slick bank, scanning the ground ahead. Seeing an opportunity—Momma’s back was turned and her bunned head down—Louisa sprinted waterside and down a ways the other direction. She whistled once, a whistle she knew he knew, and he turned his head in time to see her set the sandwich on a flat rock. She slipped behind another tree’s trunk.
Meanwhile, Momma had found what James was pointing to: he’d put his shoes ashore, toes pointed neatly to the water. The brown leather was black with wet, and Momma lifted the dripping pair with disgust, keeping them a far distance from her skirt.
She shouted over the water. “You are trying on my nerves, James Davis.” She looked down to the shoes, forming a new puddle next to her. “Trying real hard.” She turned on toe, and huffed along the waterline, stepping carefully in her white shoes. Louisa scrambled for the shelter of a large rock as Momma returned to the shoebox and set down his loafers.
“Are you coming out?” The boy did not respond except to flip onto his back. “No? Well, fine.” She lifted the shoebox to her waist, swung it between her legs, and hurled it out into the water.
The splash was tremendous. Water lifted in anticipation of the impact, at contact, and then continued to rise from the still surface for a long moment after the box had hit. Perhaps the spray hit James as well, but it certainly reached back to the shore, splashing Momma with gray water. She uttered a mild curse under breath, wiped her face with a handkerchief, and watched the box sink, corner by corner. A ring of waves spread out from the point of impact, a few air bubbles surfaced, and then all was still. She lifted James’s shoes and turned towards the house.
Louisa trailed her, following from tree to tree. When they reached the clearing of the colonnade, the little girl hid behind one of the white columns, turning round it as the woman stormed past. She followed her down the axis of the parade ground, ducking behind trashcans and tree trunks at the slightest tic. While Momma waited for the light at Caton, her son’s soaked shoes dripping onto her hem, Louisa cut low across the grass and ran to the next block. The crosswalk of both streets switched green at the same moment, and as Momma stepped into the street, her daughter started a sprint towards home. She ran down the apartment block and straight through the intersection, hurtled past a row of unfamiliar houses, a block removed from her normal route, and rounded the corner. Her shoes pounded on the pavement, loose around the heels. She cut through her neighbor’s front lawn, arched up the front stairs of her house, and banged onto the porch, her fast and heavy footsteps muddled by the neighbor dog’s deep barks. Hotfooting it up the stairs, the girl slipped into bed just as Momma was creaking open the front door. Louisa wriggled out of her shoes under the covers, then reached down to set them alongside her bed.
Momma called from the base of the stairs. “Girls! Teddy! Time to get up from your nap.”
The three rustled out of bed. Even from across the room, Louisa could tell that Samantha was sending her some sort of stink eye.
Momma had set the table for six and made no mention of James’ whereabouts when the family sat down to dinner. She served the meat to Father, the children, and herself, then went around the table with potatoes, gravy, and beans each. After she sat, they all said grace. Father cut his meat first, steak knife remaining in his left hand, while Momma eased a ginger blade into her steak. Samantha leaned over to Teddy’s plate with her knife and fork, and Louisa struggled with her own serving, the unwieldy instruments operating close to her chin. Father lifted a bite to his mouth and chewed on it slowly. Only after swallowing did he point over to the empty chair with the tines of his fork. “Where’s the boy?”
The morning’s four witnesses looked to one another, then fast down to their plates. Momma’s eyes were the first to rise again, and she pressed her lips together in a way the girls knew meant they best keep quiet. Teddy swung his legs from the booster, happy to be granted mashed potatoes and a spoon. He banged his clattering silver against the tabletop. “Well?” The father chewed at another bite and swallowed. “Somebody gonna tell me what happened to James?”
“He’s in the lake,” Samantha burst. Her head dropped down til her chin was pressed close against her chest, her blonde bangs inches away from the gravy pooled on her plate.
“The lake?” Father set down his fork.
“The pond,” Louisa corrected, “In the park. Momma took us to the zoo this morning, then James went into the pond. He won’t come out.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, now does it?” Father shook his head and blinked. He looked to his wife with wide, question mark eyes.
Slow and deliberate, Momma lifted her napkin and wiped the corners of her mouth, then returned the linen to her lap and spread it out flat. “Dear, you try telling me one thing that does.”
It was the girls’ job to do the dishes after the meal, and they stood side-by-side on the wide footstool before the double sink. In one sink, Samantha scrubbed and washed; in the other, Louisa rinsed, then put the dishes over to the rack to drip dry.
“Psst. Louisa.” Samantha tapped her sister’s shin with a bare heel. The younger looked down from the kitchen window and found a plate dripping before her. She dipped it in the rinse water.
“Sorry.” Louisa set the plate on the rack, and reached for another. “Samantha, why do you think James went into the pond?”
“Why are you asking me?” She snaked hot water through the gravy boat. “You’re the one he’s always off getting into trouble with.” Louisa took the dish and rinsed while Samantha started another plate. She turned it over in her thin hands and sunk the china into soapy water. “The whole thing don’t make no sense, if you ask me. I wouldn’t go swimming in that pond, first off, especially not with all my clothes on.”
“He took off his shoes.”
“Yeah, after he already went and ruined them. That boy makes no sense. It’s not even hot anymore. If it were still August, and we were at the real beach, with our suits and Momma said it was okay for us to go in the water, then maybe, maybe I’d go swimming. But it’s practically October.” She shook the water off a plate and handed it to Louisa. “I bet he’s just scared about the third grade, and thinks he can act out and then he won’t have to go and learn all those number tables and spelling and nonsense. He’s smart enough to know he ain’t no good at that kind of thing.” She reached for another dish.
“James isn’t scared of anything. And he’s no dummy.”
Samantha arced her eyebrows a ways up her forehead and reached for another dish. “Right.”
“Yep.” She passed her sister a soapy bowl. Louisa dunked it.
“Do you think he’s coming back?”
Samantha shrugged, and slipped her hand back into the dishwater.
It was well after midnight when Louisa climbed out of bed and crossed the room. She tiptoed up to the tower door and eased it open. A shaft of moonlight streamed down the stairs; at the top of the short flight it filled the round room. She grabbed the stack of cards and slipped back down to their bedroom. The girl eased open her dresser and found a sweater, pulling the wool over her flannel pajamas. She carried her shoes down the stairs, and laced them by the front door. This process still went slowly for her, but she took her time, finally had them both on and secure. She only allowed the door open a crack, to save the old hinges from a squeal. Through the few inches, she squeezed out onto the porch.
Sometime recent the night air had gone cold. It did not carry the sting of winter, and not even the full bite of fall, but an evening chill had arrived, and it made her glad for the sweater itching at her neck. She pulled the sleeves down past her knuckles, still clutching at her brother’s stack of ball players in her left hand, and scurried down the street, porch lights swinging shadows from house to house. There was no traffic passing at Church, nothing at Caton, so she crossed both streets easily, and stepped onto the promenade of the parade ground. The lights along the ground’s long, straight artery had gone off for the night but the moon was out, strong enough to illuminate the path. The oaks lined it like so many sentinels filed in for the graveyard shift. Moonlight turned the still-glossy green leaves silver, while their drying orange neighbors went a shade of rustling blue-gold.
She climbed the short hill to the colonnade, and crossed the empty path into the trees. James and she had been her before, but to be alone amongst the shadowy trunks frightened her, and she rushed towards the waterside clearing. When she reached the pond’s edge, she was out of breath, and the new air pricked her lungs with cold. “James!” she whispered. “James!”
She stared at her now-muddy feet, her head tilted towards the pond. The girl strained to hear the soft swish of treading water in the rustles of a park night. When it finally did reach her, she sighed relief and looked up, towards the sound. She focused her eyes on the surface of the pond. The moon had rendered it a silver sheet, and with some patience she found the dark spot of her brother, sending out slow, concentric circles of navy.
She looked down to the stack of cards in her hand. In the night the colors had all gone strange. The top man’s tan cheeks had turned yellow; the green field had gone purple. She brought the card close to her nose. His white uniform and big-toothed smile had sunk into a bright, eerie blue, and she looked at his name once more before dropping the card onto the water. It bobbed below the surface, steadied itself on the silver, then started drifting away. She remembered the afternoon’s cannonball and imagined the box of cards now stuck somewhere in the bottom’s muck. She lifted another, his red cap gone brown and his skin almost green in the moon, and let it fall into the pond, praying that it would float out towards James, not sink like all the others. One by one she dropped the rest of cards into the water, considering each man’s face before she let him fall.
When her hands were empty, she looked out to the pond. The cards floated across the surface, a roster of waterlogged ball players spinning out towards the pond’s far corners. As they spread they swung round one another, second basemen and centerfielders touching at the tips like so many four-cornered diamonds. Theirs was a great midnight waltz, a slow, swirling routine in three counts, and they silently rode the navy ridges of water, dancing round the choreographer in the center of the silver pond.
Across the way a howler monkey screamed, and in his echo the night went silent. Louisa held her breath and watched the still water, waiting for the dance to resume. The pressure in her chest grew painful, and then, bit by bit, they began to twirl again. It took a moment for the sound to reach her on the shore, but then she could hear it once more: the soft splash of her brother, slowly kicking.