Sandy River — Nathaniel Duggan

It was the summer of discount rum. Bacardi, specifically, whole handles of it with its plastic, melted-down action figure taste, and naturally it was the only thing I bought, aside from stacks of salami and cheese from the local deli, which I’d eat at my desk while reading things on the Internet, the crumbs scattering onto my keyboard and sticking to my bare chest. Everything was sticky that summer. Leather chairs, solo cups at parties, the grit I tried to wash from my contact lenses. My heart, too, it seemed, stuck often to the edges of my lungs, so that it could not beat properly, regularly, and also, especially, my throat, which would not swallow the way I wanted it to.

My roommates were away with boyfriends, other jobs. One roommate had a kitten, which she left behind for me to take care of. I had a paid internship at a small poetry press. I would sit in the hot attic of the office for a few hours a day, staring at a computer screen, reading the books they planned on releasing, blinking sometimes, slowly, not really knowing what they or I were gaining from this staring, and then, after a few hours passed, and I felt it was time (in the same formless way someone might decide, on a hazy Saturday morning, that it was time to get out of bed), I would drift out of the office without saying anything to anyone. I’d come home feeling bewildered, and the kitten would be there meowing. I liked the kitten—even envied him, slightly—because it was okay when he tore up the toilet paper and attacked my feet, because he was a kitten, and that was what kittens did.

I drank rum and flitted in and out of the office, but I couldn’t do the things I did without causing a response, consequential or not, from somewhere else in the universe. Sometimes the supervisor there would email the professor who had gotten me the internship, and the supervisor would tell the professor that she was concerned, I was missing too many hours, there wasn’t enough communication. Then the supervisor quit and there was no supervisor, and I just came into the office and sat in the hot attic and stared at the computer screen, and nothing was really that changed. Sometimes I felt that was the worst kind of response: the sort that reminds you that things are out of alignment without putting them back in place.

I was lazy, I know. I was irresponsible. The university had a fund of about $2000 for me to work at this press, and they sent me my paychecks on an automatic schedule regardless of how effectively I did my job. The money wasn’t much in the context of rent and utilities, but it was enough not to die on. Living was easy, I discovered that summer. Living was a walk through heat-drenched parking lots to the grocery store for more salami.

The kitten was lonely, or just bored, without his owner. I let him sleep with me and most mornings, around four, I’d wake to him attacking my feet beneath the sheets. This was okay. I liked the motivation to move when I felt the least incentive to do so. I’d pet him and pick him up and gently place him outside my door. He’d meow then tear up toilet paper while I slept. This cycle repeated, grew natural, expected.

The poetry press got a new supervisor. I walked in one morning and asked what I should do, and she said she’d find something, eventually. She said I should do my best to stay productive in the meantime. I went to the attic and sweated in the heat and stared at the computer, doing nothing. After several hours of this, I was thanked, and I went home. The next day I called in sick and wandered through town, very drunk and squinting against the daylight.

I ended up at the local river. Usually it was murkily deep, but the heat had wrung it dry, and everything was bright and golden beneath its shallow surface. I dove in with the intention of swimming, but mostly I just floated for a while. It gave me the illusion of the summer’s stickiness washing away. I’d swum a lot during high school and, as a result, I was coordinated in the water. No matter how much I drank, I moved soberly, without effort: all it took was one lazy kick and I’d drift in the direction I wanted for what seemed like forever, through all space and time, through all that liquid gold, with just enough resistance from the water to remind me of the progress I was making. I went to swim every day, before and after—often instead of—work.

Wading in the river became my new obsession. I bought goggles and swam to the deepest sections. I dove. Big fish floated at the bottom (carp? salmon? piranhas? Whatever sort of fish float at the bottoms of rivers). At first they scared me, those dark, pulsing shapes, but then I discovered in approaching them that they reacted and twisted and bolted away from me. No matter how often I chased them, I was amazed by the fact that they remained there for me to chase. I would pop out of the water, breathless and drunk, and shout to my friends on the shore about the fish, the fish, the fish. I grew more and more frantic with the idea that these fish might swim away to some calmer region of the river, and each day I was elated by their constancy.

It went on like this for a while. Months, even. The kitten meowed and I replaced the toilet paper. I worked and sometimes I did not. The fish flitted away from me and I happily pursued them. Then one day it rained. Then the next day and the next—and the storms got so bad that hail, too, fell, as the pavement fractures gathered rippling puddles and the grass melted to mud. It was like something in the sky had snapped and could not be returned to normal. I could no longer bike to the liquor store, and I sat in my room with the kitten, watching the gray shadows seeping through my window, writhing in contest with themselves along the floor.

The weather cleared, as everything does, eventually, but the sky remained muddled, unsure of itself. I walked to the river in my swimsuit to find that it had flooded, swallowed most of the shore around it. I tried to swim, but the goggles made no difference. There was grit everywhere, dirt and other particles swept up in the long overdue process of erosion, and I couldn’t see anything. Though I was a good swimmer, the current kept catching me, and, unable to sustain my direction, I kept barreling downstream through coldness, through all that unknowable muck. My hands flailed, clutched at the bottom, but there was only sand down there, silver and flowing. It crumbled in my grasp, and I kept drifting.

Nathaniel Duggan is finishing up his undergrad Creative Writing major at the University of Maine at Farmington. His work has appeared in Rust+Moth and Crabfat. @DiggingDuggan.