What Happened in the River – Chris Ingram [Fiction]

The water is up to our ankles. The fact that my car is floating at all is a mild surprise, somewhere in the background of gut-clenching panic. If only I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get you back to your mom’s, we’d be eating a leisurely lunch right now. I recall an old TV commercial. A Volkswagen Beetle, my 1979 Lincoln Town Coupe is not. “Floating” is an exaggeration. We’re sinking, faster by the moment, the frigid October waters of the East River up to our shins now.

I rock the door lock switch. No go. Just like the windows.

“Pull up the lock button.” I try to keep the terror from leeching into my voice.

“It is unlocked,” you say, your adolescent sullenness holding sway even now.

I look at the silver button barely poking out of your door. 

“No, it’s not. Listen we have to open the doors at the same time or the whole car is gonna flip. Do you understand?” I feel my fear turning to anger.

You just stare straight ahead.

“It’s fucking unlocked, Dad!” 

I wonder if fear has frozen your reason, like that time you swore you’d filled the lawnmower gas tank and I found it bone dry. The cops came that day. It’s been months since your hospitalization. Over a year has passed since your attempt to snuff yourself from existence. This is the second time I’ve had you, unsupervised, in what seems forever. You can’t ruin this. I won’t let you. I take as deep a breath as my rebelling lungs allow, and try to sound calm.

“All right, then, on three, we’ll open our doors at the same time, okay? It’s gonna be freezing, and the car will sink fast. Jump out and swim. Don’t look back.”

You reach for the door handle and pull it before I can start counting. Damn it, I think, why can’t you fucking listen? As I suspected, your door is still locked. I don’t dare reach across the velour seat and unlock it for fear the shift in balance will flip the car. The water is up to our knees.

“Wake the fuck up, son!” I hope to shock you out of your paralysis. Your eyes just hunker deeper behind your furrowed brow. When did you become so distant; unreachable? I never beat you. Sure, I could be cruel, I know that. Words hurt. But I apologize after, don’t I? Is this my penance, to drown in these fetid waters because I’ve verbally whipped you into a perpetual cringe? Even the doctors say the cartwheels in your brain aren’t my fault. Cut me some slack.

“I’m sorry, damn it!” I more howl than speak. “I let you down. I get it! I’m a shitty dad! But now is not the time to shut down!”

I reach for your shoulder to shake you out of your trance.

“Let the fuck go of me!” You slap at my hand. “Leave me the fuck alone.”

You return your stare at the Lincoln star six feet beyond. The front end has dipped, and the hood is under water, as is the bottom third of the windshield. It’s like looking into a curved fish tank full of brown water and garbage. The cold water chills my groin. It’s now or never.

“Fine. Listen.” I’m yelling, but only for effect, I tell myself.

“When I open my door, the water will rush in on this side and the car will roll. Your door will be facing up, along with the remaining air. Unlock your door, and push it open. You’ll just have to push away and you’ll reach the surface in no time.”

I’m impressed with my logic, and my cool. You glower at the dashboard.

“Did you hear me?”

You answer by folding your arms at your chest.They’re mostly submerged.

“Fine! Here we go,” I grunt.

It takes a lot of effort to swing the huge door open. I press my shoulder against it, feet gaining purchase on the carpeted transmission hump. I gasp in the frigid deluge, but keep pushing until I’m underwater, looking down at brown darkness. As I predicted, the open door hangs downward, and I use my lifelong swimming skills, the ones I tried to impart to you, to stroke upward until I break the surface. A helicopter beats the air above. A siren wails.

I tread water and take a few deep breaths before executing a perfect surface dive, making sure my ass breaks the surface before I raise my legs, just the way I showed you last summer; another day that ended badly. The glint of the Lincoln’s chrome beckons through the murk, six feet down. Air seeps from the car, fleeing for the surface in a long line of little rising bubbles. You look at me through the window, cheeks puffed out, holding onto your last breath of air. I bang on the glass and point at the door lock. But you just stare back at me with a complexity I’ve never seen. Your eyes accuse me. They do not forgive. Illogically I press the button and pull on the door handle. It doesn’t move. I knew it wouldn’t. I keep a tight grip on the handle and my hair sweeps back. The car is sinking faster, and me with it. I bang on the window with the heel of my free hand. I can’t smash it. My lungs are ready to burst. My vision narrows, periphery blurring into the brown water. You’re spitting little bubbles between your pursed lips. Your face is placid, a condemnation; your death the only weapon you can wield against the father who has been so eager for so long to be rid of you. Then you gulp the filthy water. Your body convulses, and I see fear rise in your eyes for the first time. You inhale again. You’ll be gone soon. After years pushing you away, this time I won’t let go.  


By Chris Ingram

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