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.

Still No Call?
an excerpt from Love By Drowning

posted Jun 7, 2011

Read more of Love By Drowning:
“Marlin” | “Held Under” | “A Woman In Shades”

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. Beyond the porch, 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 manilla envelope out from where it was hidden behind a row of oversized artbooks, 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. Hand extended to lift it, he froze. Weeks ago his mother left a message on the machine: his father was going back into the hospital. He'd been unable to reach her for days. When he had, she'd been rushed, preoccupied, and vague about his father or whether she wanted Val to come East: stay where you are for the time being.

Sleepless a few nights later, he dug through the bottom of a desk drawer. 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: then he'd gone back into the desk drawer and retrieved a single 8"x10" 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 Aranow; 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 in 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.

Unable to make anything of the picture, he'd had to put it away and keep it put away. Part of him had thought it was a bluff on Lee Anne's part: that there was something to figure out. A final attempt to get to him. For what? For that last day, for the fading fall twilight, for all of Brooklyn, for an attitude she'd had toward him even before they'd met, for Davis, for whatever her part in it, for something in her which he'd felt but never understood...

He'd fallen asleep on the sofa staring at the picture of Davis, awakened with a sudden fearful intake of breath, heard Davis, the anger in his voice, raised his head and saw him eating a bowl of cereal, snapshots spread on the table.

"...you can ask your father."

As Val stirred, Michael held up the picture of Davis and grinned. "Davis, Dad. Like, the bomb! What a dude! I've never seen this before. Did you take it?"


"Who did?"   

"No idea!"

"What's the matter with you?"

"Nothing. I just woke up."

"And like where's he going?"

"I said I don't know!" 

"Chala. No! You said you didn't take it! Like all I did was ask a question. You don't know. Sure you don't, Dad! Que gabacho asshole. Que jodida." Lately, Michael had taken to using pachucho slang he had mostly likely picked up from his friend, Chuy. What a gringo asshole. What a fucked up situation. Michael turned to Kazz for support. "Chingao. Like whenever you ask him about Davis it gets like all so weird, and I'm really supposed to believe you, Dad, you've got the picture, but you don't know anything..."

"I don't know! I'd like to be able to tell you! I don't know!"

"You've gotten very hard on your father lately!"

"Me hard on him! He's gotten very weird lately! And like you always defend him no matter what. All I did was ask a question and he jumped on my shit!"

"God, Michael, I hate it when you talk like that."


Michael pushed back from the table abruptly, knocking over his chair, and swept the dozens of snapshots off the table toward Val. Snatching up the picture of Davis, he stormed out of the room.

Val lurched to his feet. "Davis, pick up the pictures!" Val took off after Michael before Kazz caught his arm.

"Val. Stop!" Michael's bedroom door slammed. "You just called him Davis." Val looked at her blankly. "You did."

Val knelt and started gathering the scattered snapshots up off the floor. "Michael suddenly starts failing in school, cutting his classes, hanging out with weird kids, and I'm the bad guy." He placed a handful of pictures on the table, crabbed across the floor, went on gathering. "He comes home with a stud, wants to put it in his tongue—sure, why not? wants to pierce it himself, sure why not?—you think he smells of weed..." Val reached under the table. "and you ask me to talk to him, but quietly, so I try to talk to him, but quietly, and he stonewalls me, tells me to get out of his room, and when I don't, he tells me to fuck myself, which I also don't, and then you and I talk about how it's all normal adolescent behavior and we just have to find a way..." Val stretched for a picture. "He should be picking up these pictures now, but I don't have the time to make it happen and probably can't make it happen and I don't want them wrecked so I'm doing it and that's my fault that I'm not disciplining him..." Kazz walked from the room. What Val couldn't seem to say was that everything that had happened to Davis was starting to happen to Michael—his suddenly failing in school, the breakdown in trust, the anger. And that Val didn't want to do whatever his father had done to make things so bad for Davis. All, really, his father had wanted for Davis was for him to succeed where he couldn't. He'd loved Davis too much. Val raised his head too soon and banged it hard on the underside of the table and punched hard straight up, bruising his knuckles.

In the living room, he saw the trampoline abandoned, the yard deserted beyond the sliding glass door, the surface of the pool taut and motionless. From next door, he heard a motor running loud and rough, missing. He slowed as the motion on the TV screen caught his attention. In an ad for something, Tiger Woods putted to victory in the Masters, dropped his putter. Walking directly to his father, he closed his eyes and buried himself in his father's embrace. Val felt his chest tighten, his throat constrict, and was astonished to feel his eyes fill with tears. He turned to hide his face as Kazz passed through the room, and then, wiping his eyes, he followed her up the hall into the guest bedroom.

She remained cool, distant: Lee Anne's goddamned postcard. He considered Kazzie. Tightness around her mouth. Too soon to approach her? He glanced at the bed, the door. And even if now was a possible moment, Michael was somewhere around. Nettled by Kazzie's anger and distance, Val licked his suddenly dry lips. But with the electric charge from Lee Anne's presence still permeating the house, Val couldn't move toward her.

"Kazz, you're mad about the card... Look, really, I don't write Lee Anne. I don't put any conscious or unconscious vibes into the air which call out to her through the atmosphere, send me a card."

"If they were unconscious, you wouldn't know, would you—by definition?" She said it dryly. "Okay, sure, Val. I imagine you're faultless and blameless. That's the hard part. You literally are. But there's so much you've never told me. Choose not to. And won't. Always have. That you pretend all of this was nothing—is nothing—and I can see or feel some kind of pull from her. It comes through you—are you even aware of it?"

"Why are you starting it all up again?" He debated. Say something to her? Finally? But what? It was just too much, too complicated. "Kazz, are we going to keep this up? She's got you playing into her hands." He was surprised to hear an edge in his voice. His words were literally true, but the lie was just, well, what? It wasn't.

Val's voice softened. He took a step toward Kazz, put his arms around her. "Come on, Kazz. We're together." He kissed her. She let him, but didn't kiss him back. He found her lips, kissed her again, she turned her face away, but he felt something go out of her, she relaxed against him, he slid his hands down her back, pulled up her shirt and smoothed her skin, kissed her hair, her face, she drew him to her, Val felt a heat start to spread in him—relief, fear, anger, just desire for her, Kazzie. The front door slammed hard, shaking the house, and they stiffened and pulled apart as Michael came up the hall on a skateboard.

"DAD! DAD! Listen to me! Dad, we've got to act fast. I've got like a great deal for us if we, like, move on it. Celestino Hernandez is selling his boat...He's got about five guys in line ready to buy it and he hasn't even put it in the paper yet... He's just kind of detailing it up... But, he's all like, you know, he likes you, Dad, he thinks you're a cool neighbor, even for a gabacho, and if you're interested, he'll give you the first look on it. Fijate." Fijate. Check this out. "Just look at it, Dad. Esta bien."

"But, Michael... I don't want a boat so why should I pretend? We're three-hundred miles from water here in the middle of the Sonoran desert!"

"Two hundred and thirty miles to Rocky Point, Dad. The Sea of Cortez. Sucker's sixty, seventy miles across. Fish. Deep water canyons. Four-hundred miles to San Diego. The whole Pacific. Not to mention the lakes—Powell, Mead, Roosevelt."

Kazz squeezed Val's arm. "It means so much to him, just go look, Val," she said softly.

Michael smiled and pivoted the skateboard. Placing hands flat on each wall, he shot himself toward the front door.


Entering through Celestino's sideyard, the mariachi music louder, Val saw Celestino leaning against a buffing wheel as he waxed a hull under his carport. Val approached the boat, which rested on a trailer, noted it was a Mako, a center console, that she'd been run hard up onto too many rocky beaches—the fiberglass of her bow was chewed, as were her strakes and chines. The bow was tilted up slightly and the outboard motor's prop and shaft disappeared down into a fifty-five gallon oil drum filled with water oozing oily rainbows. That, Val realized, was the engine he'd heard earlier.

Val nodded at Celestino, who switched off the buffer, turned down the music. "Selling it, Celestino?"

"Yeah, hate to, but it's time." He wiped the sweat from his forehead. Celestino had a full salt and pepper beard, mostly gone grey-white. Val glanced around the yard. Flowers. Cactus. A lemon tree in flower, the air heavy with its sweet fragrance in the heat. Close by, a knee-high statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The lovely gentle incline of her head. "The last few times I was out—I was in the Sea of Cortez—I didn't feel like I was getting around too good on the boat. Then I went out fishing for Dorado—I'm too old to be going out by myself. I'm maybe six, eight miles off-shore, can't get the motor started—I took off the engine cover to have a look, lost my balance, slipped and hit my head on the gunwale.

"Next thing I'm lying in the bottom, no idea where I am, or how long, but from the angle of the sun it's a lot later. I couldn't stand. There was blood all over. I knew I had drinking water, but I couldn't get to it. I inched over to some smoke flares in a locker, got hold of one of them with my teeth, pulled the ring and clouds of orange smoke started billowing up.

"I kept looking up and seeing my VHF on the center console, but I could't stand and get to it. The sun set and the stars came out and I still couldn't get up. Maybe a day and a night went before Mexican shrimpers came over and looked in the boat, found me miles offshore burning up in the sun. So I'm done with it." Celestino showed Val the scar in his scalp. "Michael says you want the boat."

"This is the first I'm hearing about it. I'd never said anything to Michael."

"I'll give you a deal; worth it to me not to have people coming by." He pointed at a pile of life jackets, and overhead in the carport, an assortment of rods and reels. "I'll throw in the equipment. Those are good Penn reels. Anchor. Line. Fire extinguisher. Lot of extras."

Michael climbed up into the boat and looked down at Val, turned the wheel, walked from bow to stern. "Just look, Dad."

Val glanced at the knee high plaster statue of the Virgin of Guadulupe. Gold stars sprinkling her sky-blue robe, she stood on a quarter moon just visible beneath the hem of her robe, a can of WD40 beside her. Val gently shaped her shoulder. He climbed up into the boat. Not forgotten smell of gas and oil. Bilge. Brack of sea water. He looked her over. Center console. Lockers. VHF. GPS. He suddenly felt his father close; Davis, too, standing by his side. Michael watched his face from the bow, smiled and nodded quickly, yeah, Dad. He made a show of looking the boat over while Celestino showed him a few items. "You want it, Val, I'll stop detailing it, you take it as is, six thousand."

Val heard him out, nodded. "Very generous, Celestino. I'll have to think about it. For now, I guess just go ahead and do what you were going to do." Val climbed out of the boat. "Come on, Michael."

As he went ahead, Val called, "I'll be there in a second."

At the back gate, Michael looked back, gave Val a thumbs-up sign. Once he was out of the backyard, Val spent a minute thanking Celestino, but told him he had no real interest in the boat and not to wait on him, just go ahead and sell it as he'd intended.


Michael was waiting in the back alley between the houses in the shade of a mesquite tree. "Did you make an offer, Dad?"

"No, I didn't."

"Are you going to? "


"Why not? If you don't move on it, it's gonna be sold!"

Val shrugged. "Michael... it's a nice boat, but it's old... chewed up. And you don't buy and sell things that way, quick, before someone else can buy them, looking over your shoulder... "

"It's a great boat! It's our chance."

"Mako is a sturdy boat, but it's just not...it's not right for me... "

"Nothing's right for you, DAD! What would be right for you? I mean, I wasn't fooled by you, you were going through the motions, but like I wasn't fooled, I saw you didn't really look like you were interested or gonna buy it!"

"Michael, we're three hundred miles from water. That's the simple truth."

"Lots of people have boats! Celestino took that boat down to Mexico all the time. We can't have a boat because of Davis!"

Val felt stopped by this. Then he managed to say,"That's all very dramatic, 'We can't have a boat because of Davis,' but Davis has nothing to do with it, and what happened with Davis happened a long time ago... "

"Yeah, but that doesn't matter to you!  It's not like fifteen years or whatever it was. It's like it just happened yesterday! Mom says you've never set foot in a boat again since Davis."

"That's not true."

"Well, have you?"

"No, but not because of Davis."

"Why not?"

"I moved here after I finished my life in the East—"

"Yeah, and that was after Davis. You moved here to get away. You never cop to anything. Que jodido!"

"Your mom's from this area and she feels comfortable here. And that's why we came. And we wanted to get away from the East."

"Yeah, and you don't feel comfortable anywhere!"

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I've heard you and Mom talking and I just know it."

"That's not completely true, either."

"Oh, yeah, not completely, like not completely, is like it is!"

"Never mind me. About this boat, we're hours from water here and I've just gone on to other things."

"Because of Davis! Mom said don't talk to you about boats or Davis. She warned me not to, but I'm not afraid!"

"Good, don't be afraid. We've talked about boats and Davis before, Michael."

"Not much. And there's always something funny. You freaked out when I asked you about that picture of Davis."

"I just didn't know the answers to your questions."

"I'm not fooled by you. You don't wanna talk about boats or Davis. And that's why we live in a fucking desert!"

"I've told you about using that word. And we do lots of things. We hike. We go camping in the Chiricahuas. Why are you picking quarrels with me? We..." Val wanted to say, we love each other, but knew Michael couldn't stand hearing that.

"You don't even like the desert. You stopped being a lawyer and now you're," Michael narrowed his eyes and pushed ahead, "a wimpy, middle-school art teacher and make hardly any money when you could be making real money as a lawyer and I don't even think you like that, either, being an art teacher."

"I do. For now."

"An art teacher. Jesus, Dad..."

"And if I want, I can go back to being a lawyer. I know you're disappointed about the boat... "

"I've got two hundred and fifty dollars of my own money saved up I could put in, Dad! We could fish, water ski..."

"Michael, I don't want to be on boats!"

"It's not fair. You had a whole life on boats before me. Mom says you were great on boats—that you almost had your captain's license. You had boats but now you won't give them to me."

"It was all different, I lived somewhere else, my life was different, everything was different, it was a different time."

"I just fucking knew it would be this way with you, Dad, before I asked! Just knew it!"

Val glanced at his watch, suddenly wondered if he had missed his mother's call, and fought off a rising wave of panic; it was getting later, getting late, it was too late; he knew he was running out of time with his father. He restrained himself from grabbing Michael and shaking him.

Michael said, "You know something, Dad. Davis would have bought the boat and we would have gone skiing and fishing!"

Val was so startled by the wildness of this from Michael that he remained silent, then burst out laughing. "You never met Davis. He was gone before you were born."

"Doesn't matter!"

"How do you know what he would have done?"

"I just know! I saw that picture of him—that grin on his face. Davis knew how to be happy. He was a winner. He would have made a much better father to me than you. He knew how to enjoy life. Davis and I would have had fun, man! And without you!"

This was so startling and such an obvious attempt to wound Val that he laughed again. Yet, Val knew Davis probably would have bought Michael the boat if he'd liked it, made up his mind right then and there, paid cash, hitched it up the same day, trailered it south to Puerto Penasco, put her in the water, had a great time, been drinking cervezas with the Mexican fishermen by sunset, arm wrestling, teaching them funny English words.

"Michael... I can't be someone I'm not."

"You say I always have to be right about everything when we all like disagree. But that's not true... Hey, you know, if I'm wrong, I just say now, like, you have to prove me wrong! If I'm not right now, prove me wrong!"

Confused, Val heard the familiar echo. Davis had literally said this exact thing.

"That's not the way life is. That the world has to prove you wrong when something you want doesn't go your way! And what could I do to convince you? I'd have to buy the boat to prove you wrong. You can't do that to people."

Michael placed his hands on his hips. "If you'd had a different look on your face when you checked it out, I would have seen it and known. That would have proved me wrong!"

Suddenly, exhausted, he said, "Okay, Michael, you're right. I wasn't really open to buying the boat. If that's what my face seemed to show, that's the truth. I just wasn't. Please forgive me."

Michael, pained by what he saw in Val's face—surrender, the truth, the pain beneath—blurted, "I don't want to be right! I just wanted you to want it so we could get it together and have some fun!"

Shaky, Val reached out a hand to Michael, said softly, "Michael... Michael... please... I want us to have some fun, too. We do have some fun. I just can't have a boat."

Michael turned and slammed through the back gate.

Following Michael into the house, Val heard Michael and Kazzie in the bedroom, Michael's voice at an urgent pitch, a rant. Val hesitated outside the door. Kazzie caught a glimpse of him through the opening, pushed Michael inside, slipped out; she closed the door behind her. "Just a minute, Michael."

She said in a hushed voice, "Might be a good idea if you just disappear for a few minutes until he cools down. We're out of toothpaste anyway. Could you make a run to Walgreens? And why not pick up some popsicles, too?"

Kazzie walked Val toward the front door. Val stopped and said in a hushed voice. "What is going on with Michael? He's frantic, today."

"Well, could be he's picking up on your agitation about your father—the calls that went back and forth between you and your mother... "

"Did she call while I was out?"

"Val, I'd tell you if she had. He picks up on your fears. Maybe he's taking on some of your negativity, Val."

Val jerked open the front door. "Once you put my 'negativity' on the table, what can I say? It's like Michael's ranting, 'I don't have to be right; you have to prove me wrong.' So what can anyone ever reply to something like that?"

Kazzie's voice hushed. "All I'm saying is kids pick up attitudes. He's heard you talk about your father. Bits and pieces. Tones. He knows something's happening back East that you're upset about. We send kids all kinds of messages, good, bad. They get things we don't know we send." She pulled Val to her and kissed him. "It's just one of those days. Let's go to the movies tonight, relax. For now, just get some toothpaste, okay, and I'll try to calm him down. Toothpaste and popsicles."

Read the conclusion