The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 1

In Gavin Slough

by Robert McCarthy

In Gavin Slough

Ed knew better than to drop Higgy again. His head already had caught the gunwale once and the skiff rang like a fly batted into deep center. Good thing he got a lump and not a dent. A man at the hardware store had a head dented like a soup can and he couldn't tell the time or make change. "Can you hear me!" Ed shouted, and Higgy's eyes rolled in their sockets. At least he was safe in the boat now—not belted to the seat of his Corvette under twenty feet of water. Higgy was safe, and the water dripped from Ed Brain's lips as a lamp burned in the hut on Gavin Slough.

Bruises darkened on Higgy's legs. Ed had him stretched on a tool bench inside the hut. A large, notched bump rose on one of Higgy's shins. Ed put ice on it and propped the foot in a vise at the end of the bench. He made coffee with whiskey, and Higgy's gulps were like coins in a wishing well as he washed back handfuls of aspirin from a jumbo bottle. After the pills and three mugsful, he started on the cigarettes—Ed's.
            "You're the great American hero, Brain." Higgy struck a match. "That's all I'm gonna say. I'm not big on speeches of praise, as you know, but it was a brave and heroic dive you did, and that I'm breathing here in your shack of a home is proof positive."
            Ed dragged a basket of laundry from under his sink and began mopping the muddied floor with it. "That's fine," he said. "You just better rest yourself, Hig. You and I know it's nothing anybody else would've done. Let's just both be glad I was here, which I am—and glad, too."
            Ed kept at the mopping, happy to have saved a life and pleased to be enjoying a guest at the hut, especially one that drank like Higgy did. Ed leaned into his work. Probably he should just mop the whole floor. It was easier talking to Higgy out of eyesight and on all fours. Because before tonight it had been years since they'd spoken. He'd hardly seen the man since graduating St. Vitus. And now Higgy, as if they were old pals catching up, was pressing Ed for the details of life post-Vitus, specifically his love life, and in particular his love life since the divorce two years back. Ed played along, a juice jar of drink at his knee as he scrubbed. The iron floor was coming clean.
            "No women, Brain?" Higgy grimaced and sipped his drink. "You're a good-enough-looking man. I've seen vagrants with higher standards of living, but there's ways around that. What's your problem?"
            "Problem?" Ed turned from the floor and screwed the top onto the aspirin.
            "Do you need some kind of a prescription or something?" Higgy pointed at Ed's crotch. "For down there? I can get that."
            "Oh, no, it's nothing like that." Ed adjusted the ice he'd packed around Higgy's foot. He gave the vise handle a tap. "I've just tried not to rush into something."
            "Listen, you know that good-looking anchor on Channel Four News?"
            Ed let go the vise and looked at him. "Don Zimmerman?"
            "Christ no, Brain! The woman. Like a half Chinese or something. Gorgeous."
            "Oh!" Ed searched in his footlocker for a clean pair of sweatpants. "Right. That one. Sure."
            "Well, I happen to know her."
            Ed stepped out of his wet jeans and into the sweats. "Yeah?" He passed Higgy another towel. "What, you dating her?"
            "Of course not." Higgy frowned. "I'm married." He dried his hair on the towel, then gave it a sniff. "She's a customer of mine."
            "That girl?" To be a customer of Higgy's was nothing a person with a public image would want broadcast. Ed looked around as if for eavesdroppers. "Smokes weed?"
            Higgy shook his head. "Never."
            "Well, sure, I didn't think so." Ed relaxed with a sigh.        
            "Strictly blow." Higgy took another smoke from Ed's pack and lit it off the one between his lips.
            "Like a hurricane."
            Well, it had to be the long hours that did it. Ed took a sip from his jar. This third drink was working so well, it felt almost cordial of Higgy to have driven off that cliff and need rescuing. "So, why you telling me this, Hig?" He arched an eyebrow. Probably his grateful friend had a favor in mind. "You looking to set her up with me?"
            Higgy flinched. "God, no! I set her up with my brother-in-law, Van Zuiden at the courthouse."
            "Oh. Sure." Ed bent and fumbled through the footlocker for the carton of cigarettes. "Yeah, you know, I always forget those TV people actually live around here."
            "The VZ owes me, big time." Higgy dragged on his cigarette like a joint. "And let me tell you: The only thing better than a brother-in-law in the County Attorney's is one that owes you for hooking him some of the finest TV pussy a man's gonna get without cable."
            "I'll say." And that was a good thing, too, since Higgy probably would have to call in that marker with the VZ after what he'd done to the guardrail up on Palisade Drive. "Yes, I'll say that's a real nice job, Hig."
            "Think so, Brain? Well, think of it. I owe you, don't I?"
            There it was. He hadn't hoped for this, not really he hadn't. But Higgy did know a lot of women, no question. Ed raised an eyebrow as if to say, Go on, tell me more. I am listening.
            "You pulled me out of there," Higgy nodded toward the slough.
            "Aw, come on," Ed scuffed his feet across the floor. "What, I'm supposed to let you drown in my slough?"
            "It's no matter." Higgy slurped at his cup. "I owe you."
            Ed shook his head humbly. "Well, hell, if you want to set me up with a TV lady, I won't stop you," he said. "But you don't owe me, man. No way."
            "Hah!" Higgy rubbed his hands over his mug like it was a crystal ball. "You do want me to set you up. See, you're looking for the setup."
            "Oh, no, no. I'm not saying that. No, you know me, Hig."
            "Yeah, and you want me to set you up."
            Ed knitted his brows as if Higgy'd lost him. He shook his head.
            "You," Higgy said, releasing a silent belch. "Of course, you do. Sure." He gestured at the bare hut. "Why wouldn't you?"
            "Oh, come on." Ed sensed what was coming. No point denying his feelings—those were butterflies in his stomach, big, beautiful ones fluttering with life. "It's just not true."
            He leaned out the screen door to pull-start the old DeWalt generator for another pot of coffee. It was nice, being the host, and something close to a feeling of well-being had just begun to warm his insides when the sight of that rusty generator with its duct-taped fuel line hit him like cold reckoning. He gave the cord a yank, and the engine coughed at him. It coughed in a way that said, Look at me, Ed. Someday you must replace me. Now look at yourself. Can you even afford it? Ed pumped the prime and jerked savagely at the cord until the DeWalt burst spluttering to life. He leaned back inside and avoided Higgy's eyes.
            "What?" Higgy tipped his head toward him.
            That powder blue Corvette of Higgy's on the bottom of the slough—that wondrous machine probably never missed a start. Outside the hut sat Ed's sole vehicle since the divorce, the Brain Plumbing van. It does not embolden a man—the prospect of collecting a girl for a date in a van full of pipes and wrenches that smell like sewer. "Hell, Hig," Ed shook his head. "Just look at me, man."
            "What?" Higgy polished off another mug of the hot drink. "I'm looking at you. I'm looking at Ed Brain is what I'm looking at. Ed Brain who jumped off the water tower in high school. Busts his legs and next week he's out partying with the casts on. Brain the legend. Party animal!"
            "Stupid." And why was that what people always remembered about him? That one little misstep he took fifteen years ago and the fifty-foot fall that followed it.
            "Ed Brain who married Mia Teska," Higgy continued. "No small feat, Brainer. No mean achievement. Many a man would've killed to be in your shoes. Not me, necessarily, but many a man. Mia Teska!" Higgy hammered on the workbench with his empty mug. "Ed Brain!"
            And why did everyone insist on reminding him of his ex-wife? Because all it did was bring her right back into his head again, back into the old brainbox, where she'd always done the most damage.

Like their fathers, Ed Brain and Mia Teska turned National Guardsmen straight out of Vitus. They met on a drill weekend in 1989 when PFC Teska attempted to board a CH-47 troop transport helicopter and toppled to the ground in a bizarre, corkscrew motion with a piece of the bird in her hand. The spill wrenched an ankle clean out of its boot. That evening, after hearing of the latest victim of one of his unit's broken-down choppers, Corporal Brain showed up at barracks with a bottle of whiskey to assist the convalescence.
            Like most people in Ballson, Mia Teska knew Ed Brain by reputation as the guy at St. Vitus who'd smashed both legs jumping from the water tower at Eagle Point, and she smiled at the tall and gangly corporal as he took a seat beside her wrapped ankle, poured her a paper cup of whiskey, and began to tell her about a game he'd once invented with his childhood chums.
            "We called it ditch diving," he said, tipping out one for himself. "This was sixth grade. The guys came over and we dug a ditch and put the earth back in real loose and started jumping off the roof. Because a guy on the news lived who fell off a building that way."
            "And then," Mia nodded, extending her cup for more, "you go and do it off the water tower?"
            "Nah." Ed shook his head. "That wasn't diving. I fell off that tower."
            "Tripped and fell?" Mia said.
            "Like, grabbed for a beer and kind of overshot it on my way down. On accident."
           "Well, sure, because you got hurt." A flush from the whiskey rested high on the private's cheekbones. "Hurt bad."
            Ed nodded, feeling the spot where his fatigues lay against the bump still on his shin.
            Mia leaned over and struggled to adjust her leg in its brace. "So that wasn't ditch diving?"
            Ed stuck his hands out to help, and instantly that elegant limb with its joint the size of a melon entranced him. He followed the tan skin to where it disappeared beneath her cutaway fatigues, and when he looked up Mia Teska stared at him with eyes dark as times still to come.
           "Nah." He tried to look at a spot just above the eyes. "Nobody dived anymore after I broke my hand."
           "Broke it?" The eyes so dark they looked wet. "In your ditch?" She took his hand and guided it beneath her knee, to where he could help her move the leg.
           "Well, a little wide of that ditch, actually." He slid the leg a slow inch over the stiff white sheet of the cot, then stared down into his empty cup. Those eyes were hitting him harder than the hootch.
            Mia Teska clucked her tongue, then picked up the bottle. "Tsk, tsk," she said and filled his cup again. "Tsk, tsk, Corporal Brain."

"You know, Hig." Ed changed the topic. "We should get some ice on that eye."
            "Unh-uh." Higgy shook his head and exhaled a beam of smoke from between split lips. "It's settled. The Hig is setting you up. And I've got just the girl. Might be a little tricky, I'll admit. You're a tough sell, Brain, what being a hermit and all—I'll admit that up front. But I'm gonna do it. For you, the Hig is gonna swing this."
            Ed collected the dirty towels and sacked them for the laundromat. He took a whiff before tying the bag shut: mud, fish, rot, slime—Mia had hated that smell. "Fuck it." He yanked viciously at the drawstrings.
            "What's that?" Higgy swung his head toward Ed. "What's that you're fuckin' about, Ed Brain?"
            Ed knotted the bag. "Nothing." The front wall was rattling the way it did when the ground was wet and the generator shimmied over the mud and up against the hut. He stared at the quivering sheet iron. "Two summers I been out here, man. Two winters over Bill Hamm's garage. You don't know, Hig."
            Higgy eyed the stacks of pipe and the drums of Clog-B-Gone in the corner of the hut. "What I know is that your pad is beat. This is not a lifestyle that attracts me, Brain."
            "It sure ain't for everybody." Ed threw the laundry in a corner. "But I do own this land. With the divorce settlement I got I can't be picky just yet."
            "Well, I hear you there." Higgy nodded.
            "But two years in this place, man. The middle of nowhere? I won't lie to you. You miss things."
            "Oh, I believe it." Higgy shuddered.
            "Companionship." Ed looked down at the juice jar. He owned only one mug.
            "A human touch?" Hig raised his cup.
            "Maybe." And Ed tipped back the jar.
            The truth was that for the past two years the old ditch-diving pals, Bill Hamm and Walt and Dan Travers, had become a life-support system. And at times this return to boon companions did feel like a correction, like where he should've been all along, instead of ever getting mixed up with Mia Teska, that siren. In fact, sometimes even just thinking of those reliable men—who at the drop of a hat would do anything for him, take on any who cracked wise about Mia leaving—was all it took to fill Ed with warm feeling, with hope and a trust in the general goodness of life, no matter how coldly the rains might hammer the hut on Gavin Slough.
            But there were other times, too. Such as nights when Ed was alone in the hut, drunk, trying to get the generator started and bumbling around blindly in the dark, unable to locate oil for the lamps because he'd taken off his glasses drinking and couldn't find them now that he'd let the generator burn every fume from its carburetor, which meant it wouldn't start until morning, which meant all Ed could do was put out his cigarette and lie down on the cot with his clothes on and wait for the fog to burn off with the dawn, for the hour when, hungover and depressed, he again would leave the slough in his van and drive the River Road into Ballson to spend another eight hours unplugging the townspeople's sump pumps and sewers, augering hairballs from their blocked drains. On these nights Ed Brain breathed the dank rot of Gavin Slough and tasted the tang on the air between his corrugated iron walls and felt only one thing with any clarity: that he had fallen headlong into the deepest, darkest ditch he could ever have imagined.
            "Two years of drought, Brain," Higgy crooned. "Two years in a desert without water. No rain! Well, my friend, the plagues of Egypt are over."
            Ed smirked at Higgy's bloody-toothed grin. At least the company of men was something when you had it, and it felt good that Higgy liked him. Which Higgy did. Clearly, it showed. Which probably meant Ed basically was a likeable guy. He tossed back a drink. And handsome. Yes, Higgy'd said that, hadn't he? And brave. Surely, very brave to have done what he'd done today, saving a human being in a swamp. He downed another. He poured Higgy a mug, too. Yes, probably Ed was all of that—all of that and a bag of chips! He raised a silent toast, and the whiskey burned into his blood. Not a one. He could name not one person who truly hated him. Not a single person who ever had, for example, wished Ed Brain dead. Not even Mia had done that.
            Higgy licked his lips. "Ed, my friend, the Hig is on your side and your worries are over. The Israelis are in the land of milk and honey. Burning bush!"
            Ed took out a cigarette. He pretended to study it thoughtfully.
            "Well?" Higgy raised his eyebrows.
            "What?" Ed arched one of his own. Play it cool. It was smart to play it cool. He lit up. "What, are you saying you're gonna take care of me?" Ed sucked at his teeth in a calm fashion. "Like you did for Van Zuiden?"
            "Like I did for the VZ," Higgy nodded, sipping his drink. "Who's my flesh and blood. Not exactly my flesh and blood, but my first wife's brother-in-law, yes."
            Ed opened a pocketknife on the table and nodded in the slow way that suggests a process of careful consideration happening in the brain. He got a look at himself in the knife blade. His face was pink and swollen and he put the knife down. He was still good-looking. Higgy had said so. Not fat like some of the other guys—Walt and Bill. Sure, he'd filled out some, but he still looked trim, tall, athletic. Basically. He ran a finger under the waistband of his sweats.
            "It's a beautiful girl named Janice I'm thinking of." Higgy closed his eyes and seemed for a moment stirred by beauty. "She works at my kid's day care."
            "Janice," Ed agreed. "That's a real pretty name."
            "It suits her," Higgy said.
            Janice.That was a good start. It just sounded good. A little unusual but without being foreign. Probably now was the time to avow the kinshiplike bond that he'd felt begin to form between Higgy and him. "You know, Hig," Ed shook his head. "What I don't know is why we never got together before."
            Higgy pursed his lips and nodded. "I'm wondering that myself."
            "I guess because you always made that corner up on Palisade Drive before, huh?" A little humor for the guy. Now he could afford to pay a little more attention to Higgy's needs. Let the man open up and talk if he needed to—for example, about what happened up on Palisade Drive, why he'd gone so fast into a turn he knew so well and damn near bought the bar lock, stock, and barrel.
            "I did botch that corner, didn't I? That Vette let me down." Higgy looked away. "Man, I never shoulda gave up my IROC-Z. You remember that old horse?"
            Ed nodded, recalling the Camaro that in high school Higgy had driven into a tree.
            "But actually it's funny you mention that." Higgy propped himself up on an elbow and met Ed's eyes. "Because it brings us to a little something I'd like for us to discuss."
            "And, Higgy," Ed nodded. "I want you to know that I am all ears." He sat down and readied to listen. "I do mean that."
            "That's nice." Higgy raised his mug in a formal manner, as if to give a toast. "Now, let's say I do this Janice thing for you. I'm wondering maybe you could do something for me."
            Ed raised his jar. "Fair enough." The first thing he would do before the big date was break out the Abdominator he'd bought last Christmas—clean up that slack around his waistline. Hello, washboard abs. Hello, Janice.
            "I need your help back into the boat," Higgy said.
            Ed sloshed hot drink over his hand. "I beg your pardon?"
            "If you don't mind my borrowing it a little."
            "The skiff?"
            "If you can just slide me in there"—Higgy slid his hand through the air like a little boat—"I can paddle myself out."         "Paddle out?" Ed glanced at the door as an animal air blew in off the slough. "You want on the water?"
            "You just holler from shore where the Vette is," Higgy nodded. "And I'll dive down and get it."
            "You're gonna get the Vette?"
            Higgy twisted his face up. "Jesus, Brain, of course not. I just need to get something inside it."
            "You think you're gonna dive down?" Ed laughed. "Underwater?" He shook his head. "Man, you have got to be shitting me!"
            Higgy frowned and shook his head. "Brain, I'm afraid this is no joke."
            Ed got up from his folding chair and paced a tight circle in the hut. He stopped in the doorway and stared out onto the water. "Jesus H, you're serious." He glanced back and saw Higgy nodding. Then Ed banged out the screen door. "I gotta pee," he muttered.
            Higgy shouted after him. "It'll be a piece of cake, Brain. Just take a minute."
            Ed crossed the mud to the tree he peed on when he had guests or didn't want to go to the trouble of operating Little John, the portable toilet. He flinched when a hacking sound came from the banks. A mangy dog crouched near the water's edge. Probably looking for leftovers. A pack of wild mutts lived in the slough woods, and early evenings they wandered in nosing for scraps. These dogs did help to take the edge off an evening's loneliness, but who knew what lived in their matted coats. Ed often had seen this one on the banks, a rangy hound that now in the moonlight seemed bothered by something on its snout. Arching its spine and whining, it dragged its nose through the plants at the waterline, then sneezed and hacked up a glop of something like fish scales.
            Ed pictured a pair of scales as he peed. Not fish scales but the kind for weighing things, with the two plates hanging from a stick by thin chains. A barking rose from the woods—the dogs scrambling after some quarry up toward Palisade Drive. Over the slough a bird swooped out of the dark and dove straight down into the water. No matter how many times Ed saw this feat, it still seemed an unnatural thing for a bird to do, and the sight did trouble him, especially at night. He cinched the drawstring on his sweats and ducked back into the hut.
            "Higgy, I don't know." He closed the door on the slough. "That water—"
            "That's right, that's the beauty of water, Brain," Higgy said, cutting him off. "Buoyancy." Higgy had pulled his wet jeans from the chair beside the bench and was tapping a glass tube against his hand. He poured out a little mound of white powder and sniffed it from the back of his thumb and offered Ed the tube. "You can be very injured"—Higgy waved at himself—"crippled practically, and you can still manage to almost swim!"
            The glass tube looked like a large fuse. That Channel Four News anchor's purse had to be full of them. Ed passed it back.
            "You've seen it at the Y when they stick those retarded kids in the pool." Higgy paused and gazed out the door. "I saw it the other day, getting my girl from lessons. Little chuckleheads can't put a foot in front of the other on dry land, but throw them in the water and they dive and bark like seals. Sure a lifeguard will have to haul one out once in a while and pump out a little water, but those critters survive, mostly."
            "What are you talking about?" Ed stared at him.
            "I'm saying, put a ball on my nose, Brain, and throw me a fish, because I'm going in the pond!"
            Ed looked out the screen door, and Higgy began a struggle to free his foot from the vise.
            "Aw, Hig, don't do that." Ed raised a palm, the gesture forStop!
            Sweat beaded on Higgy's forehead, and he cried out as the leg popped loose. He gritted his teeth and leaned in to rub it.
            Ed threw his hands in the air. "All right! Jesus Christ, I'll do it!"

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