You know that noise that’s not a noise for real? It’s a silent sound: a silent, muted sound between Pandora tracks. It’s the steady whoosh of air out of the vent on the wall mixed with the slow whir of the fan inside the computer working overtime as it heats up on top of the fleece blanket you’ve piled around you on the sofa. It’s all of this with the light patter of drops on the windowpane and the occasional soft rumble of thunder.
There was a knock on the door.
“Hang on a second!” he yelled. “Just gimme a minute! Fuck!”
Greg had knocked over a can of beer on the coffee table as he struggled up out of the worn armchair. He felt the fabric on the armrests rip a little under his finger tips as he stood up. He paused and watched for a moment, mesmerized, as the cool amber liquid spread quickly over the glass, soaking the edges of last month’s playboy, pooling around the bottom of the large plastic spit-cup. I need to empty that, he thought, wrinkling his nose at the sight of the stringy tobacco clinging to its edges.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
He shook his head.
“Okay! I said I was coming, hold the fuck on!” If it’s Bobby, I’ll fuckin’ kill him, he thought.
He opened the door. It was Ken, stone drunk. He stood there on the second step, leaning towards the railing, sort of hovering there like he might topple over any second. The bottle of Captain Morgan was dangling from his pinky, half empty. He looked up, eyes glassy, half rolled back in his head. He really is stone drunk, Greg thought. He glanced at the calendar on the wall, its corners curling inward back onto itself. And it really is Monday.
“Whatdaya want?” Greg asked, quickly, not really wanting to know the answer.
“Cigarettes,” Ken half snorted.
“I don’t—” he check patted the pockets of his jeans, “have any.”
“Then whathefuckm’I gonna do?” Ken asked.
“Dunno,” Greg answered. “Try the, er—” he glanced at his watch, “dunno.”
Without a word, Ken turned away. He tripped over his giant plaster splattered work boots on his way down the steps. He fell, right to his knees, landing hard on his left wrist, trying to save the liquor. Greg watched as he struggled out of the light of the porch and into the darkness towards the beat-up red pickup truck audibly idling in the driveway. Fifteen seconds later the door slammed and he heard the engine rev. Greg gave a little wave as he spit off of the edge of the porch, the slimy brown saliva barely visible as it settled into the dirt.
“Shove in two. One. Two!” Niki orders into her microphone. All nine of us, eight of us rowers, push off of the dock, shoving the long white boat into the center of the cut. We paddle out into the inlet, the strip of water at the base of Cayuga Lake protected by its close banks and a large hill to the west. This day, however, there is no match for the wind. It comes from the north, bypassing the barrier of the western hill and running straight into the inlet at varying speeds. Whitecaps are barely visible around the bend in the outer inlet just before the lake. The shell bumps out over the rough water as Niki deftly maneuvers us away from the dock. The eight of us feel the choppy water lapping against the hull. Our backs to the wind, we inch towards the lake, relying solely on the voice of our coxswain as she announces abnormally large swells off both port and starboard sides of the boat.
“Big finish turns, ladies,” she reminds us. “Keep your blades off the water.”
As we near the lake, our oars no longer clear every wave. We crash back and forth as blades come to a near halt slamming into mountain after mountain of water. We’re just starting to get used to it, rowing steadily at a comfortable rate, when our coach, Becky Robinson, calls for us to pick it up.
“Let’s go! 500 meter piece into the wind!”
Becky’s voice is barely audible over the gusts. She sits perched atop her white catamaran launch in her red and white jumpsuit, megaphone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.
“Alright ladies, in two I want you to bring it up,” the coxswain calls.
We steady ourselves, ready to pull ourselves and our craft against one of the most powerful forces in nature.
She takes a wave right in the face, soaking her from the tip of her visor, down. Sputtering and dripping, she tries again.
This time it almost knocks her out of the boat. A huge roller cuts into my rigger, separates, and hits her twice.
Sitting stroke seat, I have a front row seat to the pummeling and all I can do is laugh. And I do, hysterically, my stroke becoming more and more inconsistent with each giggle. Suddenly, another big one comes over starboard side and soaks my back, freezing me to my core. I can hear Becky yelling at us from the launch,
“Bring it up!” she screams into her megaphone.
Now, nearly halfway through our piece having yet to actually begin, we try to get it together. Into the headwind, we’re barely able to hit rate. When we do, it’s a sloppy two or three strokes. The wind toys with our blades, pulling them high into the air. Almost at once, somewhere around twenty strokes in, it seems as though we’ve come to a complete stop.
“Punch the wind girls. What does not kill us makes us stronger. This is for nationals!”
We press on, hurling ourselves up to the catch, forcing our blades into the icy water. Stroke by stroke, we finish the longest 500 meter piece of our lives—the first of 6 we are scheduled to do. Gasping for air, giggling exhaustedly at the hopelessness of the day’s practice, we begin to prepare ourselves for the rest of the workout.
We could see it out near the water, a dark hump in the dark mud, a pimple on the flat sands of the unusually low tide. We made our way out to the thing, each step sinking into the dark, smelly puff mud as it squished between our toes and clung to our skin, up to our ankles sometimes even our knees, turning us into swamp monsters from the knee down—our mothers loved this, the troop of us marching across the sand every afternoon to their pristine lounging area where they traded mystery novels and island gossip, each of us covered from head to toe in sticky grey mud, mud that stained our brightly colored swim suits and sun-bleached hair. Every so often someone would cry out, having sliced their foot on a discarded oyster shell. Gritting our teeth through the pain, blood mixing with the dark mud, we pressed on. We were on a mission this day. They mud only got thicker and deeper as we neared the water. We walked in a line, sticking the boys out in front so they were the first to hit the really deep pits of the stuff. Finally, there it was. Fifteen feet or so from the lowest point of the tide, it loomed there in front of us. This thing, this huge mass half submerged in puff mud and salt water, was something to be conquered on this hot, sticky summer day: our very own Everest.
He sat at the other side of the bar and sipped the bloody Mary slowly. He held the cool tomato juice in his mouth long enough to let the spice seep into the raw, open pores of his tongue. It hurt. His dark brown hair fell in front of his eyes; the curled ringlets stuck to his eyelashes, blocking his view of the drink. He could feel the weight of it between his hands though. Two-thirds full; he was struggling.
Atop the hot, black leather of the stool, his sweat formed a layer of stickiness under his thighs; every time he readjusted his seat was like ripping a band-aid off of the backs of his legs. He clutched the red plastic cup tighter, feeling it give a little between his palms, the condensation becoming sticky between them—like the sweat on the backs of his thighs. He leaned over the bar a little, resting heavily on his elbows and stared down at the hardwood. He traced the patterns of the aged rings with his eyes, listening for the slam of the kitchen door among the clattering of pots and pans in the kitchen—he could tell she was pissed.
He heard the door and the distinct rustle of khakis almost at once. He jumped a little at the sound and re-anchored himself on his elbows. He brought the cup to his lips again, quickly this time, sucking in almost half the sludge. It was thick going down. The vodka burned his throat. He gagged, coughed, and then settled again. His stomach groaned; complaining. It was empty.
The case of bottled water landed hard on the bar beside him with a thud.
He shifted his weight again and winced as his lower back pressed a little too hard into the back of the stool. He tilted his head back and shook his shaggy locks from in front of his eyes, meeting Sam’s. I don’t know. He stared hard, willing his friend to read his mind. I don’t know what happened. The old man stared hard, trying—he could tell—to figure it out. I don’t know, he kept thinking over and over, pleading.