Prose: Eric Van Hoose
Dan Derington did not want to be there, standing on the Whittenburg’s porch, staring into the ornate front door and listening to the doorbell’s hollow chime inside the foyer. Out of nervousness he let his hands rest on the shoulders of his two boys, Dan Jr. and Derek. Lissa had her arms full with a large bowl of her Greek salad recipe, which she shifted to make more presentable as soon as she heard steps coming through the hallway. A blur appeared behind the door’s thick glass and when it opened Mrs. Whittenburg stood smiling, waving her hands frantically to invite them in, saying things twice—hello, hello, come in, come in, here, here, let me take that.
They followed Mrs. Whittenburg (Gloria was her first name, but they always thought of her as Mrs. Whittenburg. It felt strange to call her Gloria) through the hallway into the kitchen, where she brought two Coronas out from the fridge and used her designer bottle opener. Lissa placed her salad on the counter and Mrs. Whittenburg bent over to address the boys: “You boys want to go out back?” Dan Jr. and Derek worked together, pushing open the sliding glass door that led from the big, open kitchen out onto the deck where a small crowd had gathered. The voices from outside swarmed into the kitchen and plucked at Dan’s stomach—his anxiety leapt up, taking him out of the moment and muffling the words that Lissa and Mrs. Whittenburg were saying to each other. He’d taken his Xanax, and even though he’d been dreading the thought of coming here—he had never cared much about the Whittenburg’s, and cared even less about Rob Whittenburg’s 40th birthday—he really thought he’d be able to make it through the evening just fine.
They’d fought when the invitation arrived.
“We barely know them.” Dan stared at the small card lying on the table.
“It’s just a get together. We should get out of the house for a least a night. We don’t have to stay long.” She touched his shoulder.
“All those people. God…” He trailed off, which Lissa knew meant he was thinking about it, that he was maybe willing to give it a try. She was proud of him.
Looking at the invitation, Dan thought about the year before, near Christmas (the most unoriginal time to try killing one’s self), when he had waited until Lissa took the kids for a weekend at their grandparent’s in Chicago and ground his pills into powder and put that powder in a large glass of brandy. He took as many deep sips as he could without throwing up.
Dan did not have a clear memory of using a knife handle to crush his pills on the kitchen counter, or of opening the bottle of brandy he’d made a trip to the store to get. He did remember the feelings in his body, the echoing, the stagnancy in the air, and watching the wind moving the trees outside the window—the same way the trees in the Whittenburg’s back yard moved now.
He knew the neighborhood had talked about it, had heard the sirens and moved their drapes aside to see the ambulance in the driveway. Now it was a faint trail that always moved behind him. He wondered how long it would take before the whole thing fossilized and became another unnoticeable layer. Nobody talked about it, and in certain moments he could even forget it himself.
Lissa had brought the boys to see him in the hospital room and in the less claustrophobic, less prison-like facility where he stayed for a while, resting while the doctor—Dr. Devanzo, big curly white hair, really likable, a magnet for trust—adjusted, substituted, added, removed medications. The boys had made their way into the visiting room the same way they moved through the sliding doors out onto the deck now, turning sideways and scooting through the tiny opening.
“Your boys are so adorable, but they’re getting too big! You’ll just have to tell them to stop growing!” Mrs. Whittenburg was peeling the plastic wrap off of Lissa’s Greek salad, concentrating too much, using both hands. Now she was saying “well let’s go put this out there, then! It looks so delicious! Come say hi, come say hi!”
They walked from the kitchen onto the deck where men stood clustered around an oversized stainless steel grill. The rising heat from the grill distorted the women sitting further back, blurring their crossed legs, seasonable dresses and shawls into a single depthless, calm current. The first dry leaves had been pulled from the trees—a small pile formed behind the grill, scraping against the brick of the house.
Dan stood next to the men at the grill, watching Lissa and Mrs. Whittenburg approach the table of women to offer up the Greek salad—the women scooted their deck chairs to make room. Before they finished making room for the salad bowl on the table a man had turned toward Dan and put his hand out for a shake. “Greg Tildman,” he said, cutting his words sharp. He gave a hard grip as Dan grabbed his hand and said “Dan Derington.” He liked Greg’s hard handshake—it was rough enough to make him concentrate, to weight him down into the moment. Dan guessed that Greg was near forty, but somehow he kept up a youthful ruggedness. He hadn’t shaved that morning, maybe two mornings, and let his posture relax so that from a distance his profile looked like a teenager’s. Dan had seen men like this on TV and in the grocery store, but hadn’t ever met or talked with one. He took an instant liking to Greg that made him want to settle into the evening.
They had a long conversation that lasted through the grilled cheeseburgers and well past the sunset. Even in the large hot tub, the only place where the men and women interacted—rubbing each other’s shoulders for show, touching each other under the thin privacy of the water—Dan and Greg continued talking. Greg worked as a brand manager for Proctor & Gamble. Dan found the psychology of it interesting—guiding perceptions, suggesting a certain feeling. Since he’d been staying at home with the boys he’d watched a lot more television and could recall seeing some of the ad campaigns Greg talked about. They talked about their sons. Greg talked about James, a thirteen-year-old track runner, probably out somewhere with his girlfriend, and Dan talked about Dan Jr. and Derek. He pointed them out, and they could could see them, just barely, playing out in the darkening yard with the other children—supervised by two mothers who were happy to have an excuse to stay out of bathing suits.
The evening turned late and the hot tub became a refuge against the cool breeze. The boys came to the edge to visit Lissa and Dan. Dan scooped his hand into the water and flung some out at them. They shrieked a little, but the water missed them.
“Come on guys. Let’s get ready. Say goodbye.” She stepped out, wrapped a towel around her bathing suit, and corralled the boys through the sliding doors and into the kitchen. Dan watched her washing the remains of her Greek salad down the sink as she chatted with some other women. In another instant she returned, dressed; her wet hair and a soggy look about her skin the only hints that she’d ever been in the water. Dan was sitting low, letting the water lap up around his neck.
“You’ll turn into a prune.” She said goodbye and told the boys to say goodbye, which they did, and the group inside the hot tub waved and sang goodbyes—Dan threatening to splash her, telling her he’d see her in a little while when he came home. Greg and his wife offered to give him a ride.
The hot water and beer sifted against his pores. He sat, sometimes closing his eyes, enjoying the semi weightless feeling, letting the water push him up toward its surface. Sitting next to Greg he felt, for the first time in his adulthood, as if he were making a genuine friend. Everything seemed so simple and organized from inside the hot tub—the breeze, the leaves just starting to turn. Fall had always been his favorite season. The water gently pushed him back and forth, up and down. He was thinking about inviting Greg and his wife—whose name he couldn’t remember—over to dinner later that week. He thought about Greg’s thirteen-year-old son and thought that meeting him would be like getting a preview of his own boys at that age—it would be invaluable. There would be restaurant reservations, tee times.
Someone in the hot tub mentioned the swimming pool. Cooling off seemed like a good idea, exhilarating, a little juvenile—especially now that it was dark. The poolside lights were off—the Whittenburg’s way of saying they didn’t want people moving on and off the deck, through the yard, tracking leaves and dirt into the pool and into their kitchen, littering beer bottles and wine glasses.
Without saying a word, Dan lifted himself out of the hot tub with a determined quickness. Water sloshed onto the deck, soaking into the wood and creating a slowly expanding darkness. He smoothed his bathing suit and walked calmly down the steps that led off the deck into the yard. He felt the soft grass on his bare feet. He ignored the few sharp twigs that pushed up into his skin, carrying himself faster as he neared the swimming pool. The sounds of crickets amplified and he felt far away. He limped into a half-run as he got closer, then felt the grass change into smooth concrete. He glanced back toward the deck where all the voices, loudened with alcohol, combined into a single, distant pitch that seeped into the trees at the edges of the yard, rebounding off the high wooden fence that was barely visible through the shadows. He saw the edge of the pool and let his arms swing loosely together as he bent his legs and pushed off the concrete. He jumped, feeling the air sweeping against his wet skin as he rose up. He closed his eyes tight and angled his head down into a dive, letting his feet rise up behind him, holding his arms steady out in front.
He never got a good look at the pool, which was empty—drained earlier that day by the man the Whittenburgs paid to maintain it. In the air, Dan tightened his muscles, anticipating the feeling of water hitting against his face, pulling his hair back and running over him, cool and crisp.