C.E. Poverman is the author of On the Edge, Skin, My Father in Dreams, Solomon's Daughter, Susan, and The Black Velvet Girl. The Black Velvet Girl won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, while Skin was nominated for the L.A. Times Book Award. His stories have appeared in the O'Henry, Pushcart, and other anthologies. He has just finished a screenplay, Baby R, based on a story of the same title which appeared in Ploughshares. He is completing another novel, Grace and Her Sisters.

Held Under
an excerpt from Love By Drowning

posted May 24, 2011

Read more of Love By Drowning:
“Marlin” | “Still No Call?” | “A Woman In Shades”

....and, running out of time—was it already too late? should he try to reach his father again? the sun huge, white and undulating overhead, Val was stabbed by a sudden burning need for air, pushed up and burst the surface of the water. 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 Michael's forearms with both hands, Val yanked frantically at his 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 sinking to the bottom of the pool, Val sucking in yet another convulsing mouthful of water, he desperately drove his legs against the bottom, burst the surface, pushed as hard as he could against Michael, jabbed his elbows into Michael's stomach, and his 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! 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, and starting 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!" He 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 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 which Michael had placed on the railroad tracks; 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! A hole drilled through the middle, he wore the coin strung on a chain around his neck. 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, saw Kazzie moving in the shadows of the porch, and hearing 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 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 kneeled 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 waterlight, 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 waterslick 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, stood, her knee clicking, dropped a stack of mail enclosed within a folded New Yorker on a chair in the shade beneath the olive tree and drifted over to pluck dried leaves from the flowering red hibicus.

Val pushed into the deeper end of the small pool, Sixties decking starting to crumble, cracks in the bottom, several tiles fallen out along the waterline. A humming bird, the green throated female, hovered at the feeder hanging from the porch, needle beak extended to the red, sugarwater 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 drier, 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 repeated attempts to start an engine rising above it all. 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, 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 broken 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?" 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 post cards, always neither return addressed nor signed, as this one today. 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?"

"I don't know." Kazzie stared at him. Val shook his head. "I honestly don't know."

"Somehow, somewhere, you have to know. A person doesn't keep writing to someone without their 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."

"Forget it."

"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 K.D. Laing?" 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, dropped the card on the deck. “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 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 renewing magazine subscriptions, and the moment he'd heard her southern accent he'd barely been able to follow her words. "...but a special rate of 26.00 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.

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