Barbara thinks the model airplane, a P-38 Lightning, is too complicated for Josh, but it’s his eleventh birthday and his money. Steven watches, his chin resting on his crossed arms. Steven is seven, a pest. When he picks up a frame and twists off a part, Josh slaps his hand.
“You touch that again and you’re dead,” Josh says.
“Am not,” Steven says.
Barbara sighs. “All right, you two. One more outburst and you go straight to bed.”
It has taken Josh and Barbara half an hour to snap the plastic pieces from their frames. Barbara finds the empty frames themselves interesting—their odd spaces, sticks that go nowhere, knobs with rough edges where the pieces have broken off.
Tiny plastic parts coded in order of assembly cover the kitchen table: the A parts in a pile, then B, then C, and on and on. Barbara reads the directions again. Words like fuselage, twin engine booms, tail assembly. The model cement fumes are giving her a headache.
Josh hands her the engine boom he’s just glued together. “This one’s done,” he says. “Check it out.”
She gets cement on her hands. “It’s messy, Josh.” She cleans the seams with a Q-tip dipped in nail polish remover and gives it back to him. “Don’t use quite so much.”
“I know, Mom,” he says. And he does. More than a dozen model planes fill the shelves in his room, models he’s finished with little help from either Sam or her. He can tell you the names of the planes, their specs, when and where they were built, how they functioned in whatever war. This is the first one that’s frustrated him. She’s sorry she let him buy it.
Josh struggles to fit the propeller on the second engine. “It won’t go,” he says.
Barbara pushes the diagrams toward him. “Follow the directions.”
He sighs and rolls his eyes, that sappy, pre-adolescent thing he’s started lately.
She peels the cement off her fingers like a layer of skin. She wishes Sam were home. Her shoulders hurt. She gets up, stretches, rubs the back of her neck, walks around the table. They’ve been at this for two hours. “Let’s stop for now,” she says. “You can work on it tomorrow. Your dad’ll be home. He can help.”
Josh scrapes his chair back hard. “I wouldn’t bet on it,” he says. He stalks off to his room.
A gray morning on St. George Island. Low, threatening clouds, slate water, a blending of sky and Gulf except where the waves build far out and heave themselves at the shore, pound away at the beach and leave a sharp ledge where there should be hard, smooth slopes of sand. Today there are only broken shells, loops and tangles of seaweed, driftwood, debris.
Tire tracks on the sand. The beach patrol has come by early and posted red warning flags that whip in the wind like flames. Gulls halt and hover, treading wind like water, then surrender and settle in flocks and huddle close. Most days you can see the shallows and the deeps, know where to wade or swim, ride the waves on plastic floats, take out the Sunfish. But on days like this, the Gulf hides currents strong enough to pull a grown man under, sap his strength, and drag him out to sea.
The day that Len drowns in the Gulf off St. George Island, Sam calls Barbara from the office. “Something bad happened,” he says. “I’m on my way home.”
“What do you mean, something bad?”
The words catch in his throat. “It’s Len. Len is dead.”
“This morning. He drowned.” Sam waits for Barbara to say something, but all he hears is her breathing. “Holly’s brother is driving her and Charlie and Evan back. They’re supposed to be home around eight. We need to go over there, so get a sitter.”
“Oh, Sam. I’m so sorry,” Barbara says.
“Yeah. Me too.” He hangs up.
Sam knows exactly what time Holly called. He had just looked at his watch and thought good, eleven-thirty, another thirty minutes and he could get out of the office, go work out for half an hour, grab a quick bite.
Holly had sounded so calm. “Len drowned, Sam,” she’d said. No “I have something terrible to tell you,” just straight out. She might as well have said, “Len hit a hole-in-one,” or “Len caught a six-foot shark.” She told Sam they hadn’t found his body yet.
Sam’s stomach cramped. He asked Holly if there was anything he could do. What a lame thing to say, but he said it.
“No,” she’d said. “There’s nothing anybody can do.”
After they hung up, Sam had gone in the bathroom and vomited. Then he’d called Barbara.
He doesn’t go home right away. He sits at his desk and clenches his fists to keep his hands from shaking, and he thinks about Len. Len was a superman, good at everything. A terrific athlete, a great swimmer. Len was his best friend. How could he drown?
Sam wonders if Len had known what was happening. He wonders what it feels like to be dragged under and down and out to sea and fight it and not win. Sam doesn’t pray often, but he finds himself praying that Len had a heart attack, an aneurysm, something, anything besides gulping in water instead of air, that Len hadn’t known he was drowning.
The two couples had taken their last beach trip together the summer before.
Barbara wasn’t a good swimmer, and even though Josh and Steven were, she wouldn’t let them near the surf or the pool unless either she or Sam was with them. But Holly worked on her tan. Her boys ran wild, from the pool to the beach and back, all over the place. When Len talked Sam into going for a long swim in the surf, Barbara stood on the wet shelf of sand and watched them swim out of sight. She waited there until they came jogging back down the beach.
One morning, Len rented a Jet Ski and took his boys out. When Josh and Steven begged to go, Barbara said they couldn’t, but Sam overruled her. Barbara sat in the shallow water, her knees drawn up, her arms wrapped around them. The Jet Ski ripped through the water, slapped the tops of the waves, threw up a plume of spray. Josh and Steven took turns riding behind Len, holding on to him, waving and yelling each time they passed by. Sam and Holly yelled back. Barbara didn’t.
The last day, Len insisted that he teach Barbara and Sam and the two older boys drown-proofing. “It’s something everybody should know,” he said. “Rip currents are treacherous.”
Barbara tried to beg off. Somebody had to watch the younger boys, she said. Evan was four, Steven six then.
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Holly said. “Go, Barbara. I know about drown-proofing. Len already taught me.” Holly lowered her sunglasses and smiled at Len. So Barbara, feeling humiliated, took a kickboard and swam out with Sam, Len, Josh, and Charlie.
The Gulf was almost glassy smooth that day, but Len showed them how to swim as if there were a riptide. “Watch out for deep, dark, choppy water,” he yelled. “The main thing is, don’t panic.” He was treading water effortlessly. “Relax. Let the current carry you. It’ll take you out for a while, but then, it’ll diverge and weaken. All you have to do is swim with the tide, whatever direction it goes. It may take a while, but eventually, you’ll swim out of it.”
Barbara quickly had enough and started paddling back toward the beach, but Len stopped her and swung her kickboard around. “Come on, Barbara. Pretend I’m a riptide,” he said. He was grinning. He held on to the front of the board and pulled her along.
“Stop, Len,” she said, but he kept swimming a strong sidestroke, pulling her fast, the swells slapping her face.
“Hey, Barb, way to go!” Len said. She hated being called Barb. Surely he knew that.
Sam shouted, “Don’t, Len! She’s scared.”
Len let go of the board, slung his wet hair back out of his eyes, and looked at Sam. “Okay, sure. Sorry,” he said. He swam away, a ferocious, competitive, Australian crawl. Sam was beside Barbara then, and Josh and Charlie, too. “You okay?” Sam said. Breathless, she nodded. She was shivering. They swam with her back to the beach.
Holly was stretched out face down on a towel. Steven and Evan were way down the beach, sitting on the sand where the waves barely lapped at them.
Len apologized to Barbara later, but she and Sam argued fiercely when they got home from that trip. She would not go with Len and Holly again, not ever.
Holly had slept in. She wasn’t on the beach. She didn’t see what happened. Charlie saw, but he wouldn’t talk about it. All Holly knew was what other people told her.
Sam had often wondered what it would be like to do the things Len did: ride a motorcycle, go mountain climbing or skydiving, give up a six-figure law practice and take a job as a public defender. Holly never seemed to mind when Len did something risky. On the contrary, she seemed proud. “Did you hear what Len did?” she would say, looking at him like she could eat him up.
The closest Sam had come to doing something daring was the summer years ago when the two couples had gone to Belize. “It’s paradise,” Len had said. “You won’t regret it.”
Len and Holly were certified to dive, but Sam needed to take a class.
Barbara balked when he asked her to take the class with him. “You know I’m not a good enough swimmer, Sam,” she said, but she pouted for days when he signed up without her.
He talked her into going on the trip anyway. The dives would take only part of the day, he told her. They would have lots of time together. But things were sour from the beginning. Josh was only a year old, and Barbara was homesick for him. She went out on the boat, but she wouldn’t go in the water, not even to snorkel. Sam knew she didn’t want him going in either, but he did. He would never forget that first time: shafts of sunlight filtering down, fish swimming right up to your face mask, the colors in the reef. It felt ethereal, disconnected from the real world.
That night, he begged Barbara to try snorkeling. “It’s so beautiful,” he said. “I’ll be right there with you. You’ll be fine.”
“I can’t, Sam. Please let me stay here tomorrow. I’d love to lie on the beach and read and get some sun. I’ll call and check on Josh.”
“I don’t want to go without you,” he said.
“I really don’t mind if you go. I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
In Sam’s mind, she’d spoiled it already.
The next day, Barbara stayed behind while Sam and Len and Holly went out again. Holly was something to see in a wet suit that left nothing to the imagination, jumping off the side of the boat, squealing like a kid. Underwater, she was luminous in the refracted light, her movements as smooth and sensuous as a fish. Sam thought of mermaids.
Len announced at dinner that night that he’d set up a night dive. “You in, Sam?”
Sam glanced at Barbara. “Yeah, I guess. Sounds like fun.”
Barbara tossed her napkin on the table. “You can’t be serious, Sam.” She got up and walked away, and Sam followed her.
“Apron strings a little short, are they, my friend?” Len said, laughing.
Sam had not gone scuba diving since, even though Len had invited him a few times to go with a group of men. Sam resented the hell out of it, although he knew it wasn’t really Barbara’s fault that he wasn’t more like Len. That he wasn’t man enough to stand up to her.
Evan went out in the surf after his daddy told him not to. A big wave knocked Evan down. He went under. He was scared. He was making air bubbles under the water. His daddy rescued him. His daddy was the greatest superhero in the whole world.
After their last trip to the beach with Len and Holly, it had dawned on Barbara that she needn’t be jealous of Holly. Len was far more likely to lure Sam away from her with his escapades, his bravado. She could see the yearning in Sam’s eyes when he listened to Len’s stories about his elk hunt or the last scuba diving trip or the homeless guy he’d gotten acquitted on a robbery charge. She wouldn’t be surprised, even as much as Len and Holly seemed to love each other, if Len had had an affair. Yes. It was Len Barbara should be afraid of.
When Len died, Barbara was ashamed that the first thing she felt was relief.
When Sam and Barbara got to Holly’s house—now Holly’s, Barbara reminded herself, not Len’s—she wasn’t home yet. A dozen other friends had already gathered. They all shook their heads. Len was a strong swimmer. Unbelievable.
The kitchen was filling up with casseroles, fried chicken, pound cakes, meat trays from the supermarket deli.
Margaret, Holly’s next-door neighbor, whispered to Barbara, “Their bed’s unmade. Do you think I should make it up?” Margaret had tears in her eyes. “I wouldn’t want people traipsing all over my house, noticing things undone.”
Barbara said, “I think Holly would appreciate it, Margaret.”
Margaret nodded. She looked relieved. She headed down the hall to the bedroom.
A big, expensive black and white photo hung over the mantel. Holly, Len, and the boys, sitting on a dune, sea oats swaying behind them, the Gulf in the background, waves breaking. Holly beautiful in a white strapless sundress, her long blonde hair loose and windswept. Len wearing white linen slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled, the boys in white shorts and shirts. They were all smiling, looking straight at the camera. What a good-looking family they were. Perfect, you might say.
Sam lies awake nights. If he had been there, could he have saved him?
Holly, Charlie, and Evan show up at Barbara and Sam’s about five-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. “Is Sam here?” Holly holds out a brown envelope. “Insurance. I can’t make any sense out of it. I hope Sam can help.”
“He’s not home yet.”
Holly says, “I’d like to wait for him, if it’s okay. Are your boys here?”
“They’re upstairs,” Barbara says.
Holly says to her kids, “They’re here. Go on up.”
Evan pushes past Barbara and thunders up the stairs, yelling for Steven. Charlie doesn’t move.
Holly says, “Charlie, go on. Keep an eye on Evan for me.”
Charlie, dragging his feet, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his baggy shorts, comes up the steps onto the porch.
Barbara holds the door open. “Hey, Charlie,” she says. He passes her without a word and trudges up the stairs.
Holly follows him inside. “Sorry. He’s like that sometimes.”
Barbara gives Holly a Diet Coke and they sit at the kitchen table covered with model parts. “Excuse the mess,” Barbara says.
Holly says, “You should see my place.”
There’s an awkward silence. Barbara hasn’t seen Holly since the funeral two weeks ago. Finally, she says, “How are you, Holly?”
Holly shrugs. “We’re okay.” She looks away then, shakes her head. “Well, you see how Charlie is. Evan wakes up nights, screaming. To tell you the truth, they’re driving me crazy.” She smiles, but not like the old Holly. The flirty tilt of her head, the flutter of eyelashes gone. “I guess that’s hard for you to understand.”
Barbara runs her finger down the cold condensation on the Coke can. “Yeah, I guess it is.” She looks up. “Holly, they’re what you have left of Len.”
“I know. That’s the crazy part. I can hardly stand to look at them, they remind me so much of him.” She’s crying, and Barbara wonders if she should touch her. Hug her. Something. But she doesn’t. She gets up and hands Holly a Kleenex.
Charlie saw it all. Or did he dream it?
His dad pointed to the red flags, walked knee-deep into the water and drew an imaginary line. “You can come this far,” he said. “No farther. Got it?”
His dad settled in a beach chair with a book. Charlie walked along the beach where the water broke into foam. He watched the little shells they called angelwings bury themselves in the sand. The breakers were huge. No way he was going into that. Then he saw his brother moving out into the surf. “Dad!” he yelled, “Evan’s gone past the line!”
Without looking up from the book, their dad yelled, “Come back, Evan!” But Evan didn’t come back. A wave knocked him down and before he could stand up, another one took him under. He came up sputtering, yelled “Daddy!” and went under again. Their dad ran into the surf and lunged toward where Evan had been, but Evan came up gasping and crying maybe ten yards farther out.
Charlie watched their dad swim against the breakers toward Evan, reach him, and grab him. Then he was swimming toward the shore like a lifeguard, carrying Evan. Charlie waded out waist-deep, rode the waves and fought to keep his balance, the tide sucking at his legs, the bottom shifting away under his feet. When their dad got within a few yards of Charlie, he yelled, “Stay where you are!” Then he lifted Evan out of the water and pushed him toward Charlie on the crest of a wave. Charlie reached for Evan and caught hold of his arm just as a wave broke over them and knocked them down. Charlie struggled up and somehow held on to Evan and dragged him to the shallows. He turned to look for his dad and spotted him out beyond the breakers, his strong strokes cutting through the water, but oh shit he was swimming sideways, the way he’d taught Charlie to do last summer. Then he lost sight of him in the swells.
Charlie stood knee-deep in waves battering his legs. He was still gripping Evan’s arm when a man grabbed both of them and pulled them out of the water. “Are y’all crazy?” the man yelled. “Didn’t you see the damn flags?”
Barbara walks in the den. Sam and Holly are sitting on the couch, papers spread out on the coffee table. Holly laughs. “Oh, Sam,” she says.
“Hey,” Barbara says.
Sam and Holly look up. Sam’s grin fades. “Hey. What is it, Barbara?” he says, one eyebrow raised in that way he has, half amused, half not.
She pastes on a smile. “Holly, I thought you and the boys might like to stay for supper. There’s plenty.”
Before Holly can answer, Barbara hears yelling and the sound of something shattering in the front hall. Footsteps overhead, what sounds like a scuffle.
“Mom!” Josh yells. “Evan’s tearing up my planes!”
By the time Barbara gets to the front hall, three of Josh’s model airplanes lie broken on the slate floor. Another one whizzes past her head and breaks apart at her feet. She looks up at Evan, hanging over the banister at the top of the stairs, a model plane in each hand. Josh is trying to wrestle them away from him.
“Evan, no,” she says.
Evan elbows Josh in the stomach, Josh lets go, and Evan, grinning, sails the planes off the landing and makes a high-pitched sheeeee sound as they fall. Barbara starts up the stairs, but Charlie has already pulled his brother off the banister and he’s punching him.
“Stop it!” Charlie yells. “Stop it, Evan!” Evan covers his head with his arms and howls.
Sam and Holly are in the hall, too. Holly yells at Charlie to leave Evan alone, but Charlie has Evan on the floor, still hitting him. Sam passes Barbara on the stairs and reaches the top in three strides. He separates Charlie and Evan, and Charlie pounds Sam’s chest now, but Sam doesn’t let him go. He holds him tight until the hitting stops. Josh and Steven lean over the banister, looking down at the wreckage of Josh’s planes. Josh wipes his eyes on his sleeve.
Barbara hears Holly’s choked sob. Holly stands at the foot of the stairs, one hand over her mouth, her pretty face mottled red, tears streaming down, and Barbara wonders if this is how it feels to lose control, to fight the current the way Len must have, to hold your breath until you can’t hold it any longer.
Barbara goes down the stairs. “Come on, Holly,” she says. “Let Sam handle it.” She looks back up at Sam, sitting on the top step with Charlie on one side and Evan on the other, his arms around both of them, and Barbara feels something give way deep inside her. It’s almost audible, like a shell breaking.
She puts her arm around Holly and takes her to the kitchen. “Here, sit,” she says. She gives her a fresh tissue and takes one for herself. Barbara can hear the murmur of Sam’s calm voice. She takes a deep breath and asks Holly again to stay, hoping, dear God, she’ll say no.
“No, thanks,” Holly says. “I can’t, not after—” She glances toward the hall. “I need to take them home.” She looks at her watch, then at Barbara. “This is the hardest time, you know?”
Barbara doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand what Holly means—the time of day, or the time of grief? She nods anyway.
Holly says, “I’m so sorry, Barbara. Tell Josh I’ll replace his planes.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Barbara doesn’t tell her how long it took Josh to build those planes, how special they were. Later that night, she’ll tell Josh that model planes are just things. He can buy and build new ones. What she won’t say is, once you lose a father, you never get him back.
A few minutes later, Sam comes into the kitchen, one arm around Charlie and holding Evan’s hand. Neither of the boys looks up.
Holly says, “Thanks, Sam,” and then, like an afterthought, “you too, Barbara.”
Barbara can’t find any words.
Sam gives both boys a hug. “No problem,” he says.
Holly gets her purse and the insurance papers from the den. Barbara and Sam stand on the porch and watch Holly and the boys go down the walk, get in her SUV, and drive away.
When they go inside, Steven is sitting on the stairs. Josh is on his knees in the midst of the shattered planes. Barbara stoops and begins to pick up bits and pieces of plastic. Broken fuselage, wings, engines, propellers, rudders, tiny plastic men.
A native Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the red clay hills of the north—Faulkner country. She taught high school English and creative writing for twenty-plus years. She now offers writing workshops and private consultation. Her work has appeared in Sabal: Best of the Workshops 2011, Good Housekeeping, Blue Crow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Arkansas Review, and Crescent Review. She’s been awarded writing residencies at the Ragdale Foundation and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts. Gerry lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is revising her second novel and working on a story collection.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: In “Pieces” I was interested in exploring how a bombshell event—in this case, a friend’s accidental drowning—might impact a young wife’s insecurity and jealousy: does sorrow trump these other powerful emotions?
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Alice Munro, Jane Hamilton, Amy Bloom, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Antonya Nelson. I can’t leave out my “roots”: Southern writers William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. I also love discovering new work that blows me away.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: My ideal place is a writers’ and artists’ retreat in north Georgia where I go as often as possible—gorgeous, solitary. Most of the time, though, I’m sitting on the couch in our den with the laptop and a jealous cat nearby. I’m not a desk person.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: The younger me: Scarlett Johansson. The older me: Helen Mirren.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished the draft of my second novel, Spirit Lamp. I’m also working on short stories to round out a collection.