Anything That Floats

A short story originally published in The Paris Review and reprinted in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 2005

“My mother dumped my father for an ostrich farmer,” Vince said yesterday. We were in a semi-private room in the heart wing of Spohn Hospital. I lay on the other bed and said, Did she now?, but just thought the codeine drip was scrambling his memory in lascivious ways. Today he’s lucid again, eating and joking about his IV, and when our son Tyler starts in about wanting to go swimming, Vince looks at me and tells us to get lost.

So I’m driving to the Sea Ranch Motel; our regular pool at the rec center is closed because the city’s in a drought. This is an unseasonably mild afternoon in Corpus Christi because there’s a trough of cool air in the Gulf. I try to see that patch of distant coolness, as if it were a cloud. Instead there is only the soapy, opaque bay, a few collapsed beach umbrellas in front of the condos, and the trees along the seawall whose dry, brown palms hang like scraps of parchment. Tyler sits cross-legged in the passenger seat. He’s reading a book on boa constrictors, one, I believe, he stole from the hospital library.

Our house is full of snakes. When we learned Tyler was allergic to pet dander and had to give our collie to a woman with acreage in Orange Grove, he and his father convinced me to let him keep a garter snake in his room. Now, we have two gray rat snakes trying to mate in an aquarium under one of my old curtains, a banded king snake that only eats after dark, a corn snake and an albino bull snake under heat lamps in the garage, and a lazy royal python in a terrarium behind the kitchen table. Each week we buy seven mice (the python gets two) that Tyler drops into the cages. The owner of the pet store is smitten with him, with his unlikely and considerable knowledge; she arranged his job lecturing at the museum. On the third Saturday of every month, families and retiree tours pay to hear my eight-year old son speak on the surprisingly docile temperament of death adders.

“This book is wrong,” he says now. “It says retics are the biggest.”

Retics are reticulated pythons; we did a book report. They’re the second largest snakes in the world, though now I can’t recall the name of the longer oneÑpossibly it’s a boa. Ahead, the ceramic seahorse perched atop the motel becomes visible. I say,

“Maybe they found a longer one.”

“Doubtful,” he says, never lifting his eyes.

On the awning above the U-shaped driveway, the words Sea Ranch are scripted in elegant curlicues, but Motel is in block letters. This has always struck me as cheap and sexy, like blue eye shadow. Two cars are parked by Room 17, and the flatbed trailer with the broken window units is still behind the whirlpool gazebo. A sign on the hurricane fence around the pool reads: Ye Olde Swimmin’ Hole.

I say, “We’re the only ones here. You can practice your dives.”

“Where’s the diving board?”

In the rearview mirror, my face is that of a woman who spent the night on a hospital cot. I say, “You can practice from the side.”

In June, his father brought home the advertisement for the Anything-That-Floats-But-A-Boat event at this year’s BayFest, and he told Tyler that if by the end of the summer he could dive without belly-flopping and tread water for three minutes, they would enter. Before two of Vince’s ventricles seized shut and his boss from the shipyard called me to meet him at Spohn Hospital, the two of themÑVince and TylerÑspent evenings designing their vessel. The last drawing showed a plastic barrel housed in the middle of a plywood X. The sketches lie on the bedside table in the hospital, but he hasn’t picked them up again. BayFest starts in three weeks.

The Sea Ranch will get busy tonight. Room doors are open and laundry carts are out. As always, Christmas lights dress the balcony eaves. Tyler stands on the edge of the deep end, wearing lizard-printed trunks; most everything he wears depicts a reptile. He looks puzzled, concerned. He hasn’t swum since Vince was admitted, and he’s losing his tan. Still, his skin is almondy like his father’s. Once, crossing the border back from a day in Mexico, Vince had to show his driver’s license and answer various patriotic questions to prove residency. I was feeding Tyler in the passenger seat, expecting the officers to make my husband sing the Star-Spangled Banner, when I realized I’d dreamt the ordeal years before.

“Maybe you should practice floating first,” I say. “Maybe it’s too shallow for good dives.”

He nods, defeatedly, but he’s relieved to have me to blame. Diving still scares him. He lowers his feet into the water, then drops in completely. While he’s under, I glance toward the office, and Gilbert Salazer’s already crossing the caliche parking lot. He’s chewing a toothpick, watching the ground as he passes through the lattice gate. He scoots a cedar bench under its picnic table and walks the length of the pool to stand at the foot of my plastic lounge chair. Tyler breaches the surface, then ducks under again.

Gilbert says, “Maam, may I see your room key?”

Maybe he wants me to give him a thrill by flashing the key to Room 22, but I’ve not seen it in months. For a while I expected Vince to toss it like an accusation onto the kitchen table, but now I think it fell from my pocket in a Laundromat dryer. I admit the prospect of saying something coquettish does excite meÑsomething like, “My husband has it”Ñbut I don’t want that hassle. I say, “I know the manager.”

The toothpick jumps to the other side of his mouth. A breeze riffles the dried up crepe myrtle on the fence, and with the clouds dispersing, the sun casts a harsh ivory glow on the bricks around the pool; the water catches the light like a sapphire. Gilbert eyes the book on boas, says, “You like big snakes?”

“My son does.” My answer comes so fast he probably thinks I’ve missed his point. Behind Gilbert, Tyler floats on his back, eyes closed.

“Certainly,” Gilbert says. “The little snake king, the giver of speeches.”

“If we’re disturbing the guests, we can leave. Or I can payÑ”

“Today, of all days, is when I wear a guyabera.”

I smile, letting my eyes linger on the embroidered shirt, his trunks that are a size too small. This little show is why, of the many motel pools in Corpus, I’ve brought us here, for a reprieve from the hospital and transplant negotiations. I say, “I wondered what you’d be wearing.”

“Do you know what I wonder? I wonder how long since Colleen’s visited old Gil.”

When I stay quiet, he pivots toward the pool. Tyler is spitting water like a fountain; he’s trying to spray a sun-whitened No Lifeguard sign.

It was short-lived, maybe two months, over a year ago. Gilbert had come into the showroomÑI sell pool suppliesÑbecause the filter on the deep end was collecting algae.

Vince had recently admitted about Annette Maldonado, so I told Gilbert I’d have to see the filter firsthand to diagnose the trouble. “Diagnose” was the word I used, and every time I hear it now, I recall the itchy, seafoam bedspread in Room 22. Whether Vince knows about Gilbert is not something I’ve discerned. During the bypass surgery, one of my disgusting thoughts was that if he died, at least he’d never learn about Gilbert. There was mercy there, but also a repulsive, traitorous relief.

Tyler pushes himself from the pool and comes slapping his feet on the polished aggregate, trailing shallow puddles that immediately evaporate. He pauses beside a rolling barbeque pit to shake water from his ears. I work his towel out from under me. He says, “I dreaded for four minutes, possibly five.”

“Treaded, Honey,” I say, blocking the sun from my eyes. “That’s your world record.”

Just then he notices Gilbert. “Hello,” he says. Then, of all things, he extends his little hand: “Tyler Moody.”

Gilbert glances at me, expecting a cue, but my heart lifts so swiftly I can only shrug. What manners! Sometimes the same feeling rushes me when I hear Vince dress for work; the three smart taps of his razor on the basin can fill me with almost unbearable reassurance. In my dream, we were not traveling from Mexico, but through Russia, and I was cradling a small javelina, not Tyler.

“Pleased to know you,” Gilbert says. “You’re the snake man, yes?”

Tyler tips his head to his shoulder, apologetically. A small crucifixÑa gift from Vince’s fatherÑhangs on the thin chain around his neck. He started wearing it the first night Vince stayed in ICU. He says, “When my dad gets out of the hospital, we’re going to build a boat from a highway barrel. But not really a boat.”

Gilbert nods, frowning slightly. “Hospital?”

“He has diabetes, but they just found it. I might have it, too.”

“Like father, like son,” Gilbert says, but nice. He and Vince are not so different. “I’m sure he’ll come out fine, and you’ll make your boat that’s not a boat.”

Tyler’s hair is drying. The sun and water have bleached and puckered his skin, brought out his chicken pox scars. Once he sat on the kitchen floor and covered himselfÑface, pajamas, hair and feetÑin butter. Gilbert says, “Call me Gil. I’m your mother’s old friend.”

An ostrich farmer. Vince’s mother did leave his father, but he’s not spoken of it for years. She was a dowdy, capricious woman who refused to go to the ER without making up her face. In one of our closets sits a box with her sterling and turquoise jewelry and her last wallet, still holding a lock of hair from Vince’s first barber visit. What enters my mind is an old photo, pasted in an album on black construction paper, of Vince tossing seeds to an ostrich. He’s tiny, wearing a bonnet that will soon come untied. The picture has always struck me as one from a vacation. Maybe that’s where his mother met her lover, in Wyoming or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I saw the album when we cleaned out her house in Sugarland, outside Houston. Tyler stayed with my parents in Corpus. He was starting to sleep by himself, and most nights I woke thinking to check on him; I worried about gas leaks and kidnappers. Two in the morning, the unfamiliar room lit by a paper-thin moon, Vince wasn’t in bed. He sat in the attic, sorting ephemera. He wasn’t morose, but anxious, his mind and body fiending for order. He showed me his uncle’s Purple Heart, telegrams sent to his mother during the war, a picture of his fatherÑwho remarkably resembled his sonÑstanding before Niagara Falls, and the picture of himself feeding the ostrich. He mentioned nothing of his mother’s infidelity, and soon I kissed his neck and led him to bed and made love to him so he could sleep.

Tyler has been talking to Gilbert, explaining the rattlesnake races in San Patricio. Hundreds of rattlers are caught on watermelon and pecan farmsÑthough some aficionados raise their own snakesÑthen they race each other in chalked-off lanes. Contestants wear plastic bite guards on their shins and guide the stout-bodied snakes with aluminum poles. There is also a carnival with booths selling diamondback hatbands and paperweights and sandwiches, and clowns who paint cobras on children’s faces. Tyler is ten years too young to compete, but he and his father have mounted a campaign to sidestep the restrictions; if we sign extra wavers and if Vince stays in the lane with him, they might let him enter. We’re waiting to hear back.

Tyler says, “Saint Patrick led the snakes from Ireland. That’s why the races are in San Patricio.”

“You are the snake encyclopedia,” Gilbert says. “The snake almanac.”

An ease has spread between them and they’re talking like old chums. Tyler moves from my feet to sit beside Gilbert. He tells him that our python, though this breed won’t grow over five feet, is technically outlawed in Corpus city limits. We bought her in Southport and named her Ms. Demeanor.

“Ask your mother to drive you to San Antonio, to the Snake Farm,” Gilbert says.

I kick him, hard but playful. He’s flirting againÑthe conversational equivalent of massaging my thigh under a table. The Snake Farm is a brothel. There are snakes there, dozens of venomous and constrictor breeds, crammed in tanks too small and cold for them. The rub is that men ask the attendant to break a hundred dollar bill, then get led to a double-wide behind the building, where the girls operate. Gilbert told me all of this. Before managing the Sea Ranch, he drove a Pepsi route in San Antonio.

I’m about to shoot back some spicy, undermining answer when Tyler says, “My dad took me.”

In unison, Gilbert and I say, “He did?” Then he slaps his knee and says, “A little father-son time.”

“At Dad’s training,” Tyler says, and I remember. Vince had to attend a seminar and took Tyler for a weekend trip; I spent most of that time sunbathing beside this pool, and in Room 22. I’d not known they visited the Snake Farm and I imagine starting a fight over it later, how my not knowing will breed cattiness.

“A man got bit by a mamba,” he says. “It happened that morning, but it was a dry bite.”

Gilbert laughs. “Change for a hundred.”

“What’s a dry bite?” I ask.

“No venom,” he says, as if he’s already explained this. Then, brightly, to Gilbert, “Name Texas’s four venomous snakes.”

“Copperhead, rattlesnake, coral snakeÉ” He pauses, stumped.

“Water moccasin,” I say. “Cottonmouth water moccasin.”

“Mother.” He glares at me. “Let Gil say them.”

Then he sets in asking more triviaÑwhich is the fastest snake in the world, the most deadly?Ñand an appalling, placating ordinariness prevails. A cleaning woman shuffles into a room with an armload of towels; maybe she recognizes me, maybe not. Gilbert nods while Tyler explains that a spitting cobra can hit a predator’s eyes from four yards away. My palms tingle, the way they do when an airplane lifts off, the way they did when I used to wait for Gilbert on the seafoam bedspread, naked in the television’s flickering light. Dry, ragged clouds cover the sky, and a cool, grey wind brings the smell of chlorine. And suddenly I realize it: my husband has died. His heart has stopped during his nap. This hits me with a brutal, leveling clarity. They’re trying to revive him right now while the three of us lounge beside the water, but it’s too late; the heart monitor’s spiking green line has given up. When we return to the hospital, a nurse will intercept us and I’ll be ushered into a lamplit room without windows, a bible and phone on a table between two leather chairs, across from a couch. His cardiologist will enter and my stomach will knot and I’ll dash to the ladies’ room to dry-heave over the toilet, realizing that Vince had always known about the ostrich farmer, as, of course, he’d known about Gilbert.

Where is Tyler in all of this? With the nurse, in the windowless room with the doctor, now joined by a priest? I simply don’t see him. He’s removed from me, from the earth, drowned in a motel pool or in the Gulf, or bitten by a rattlesnake or cottonmouth. His absence drains me; it contents me. Contents me because he won’t have to lose his father, or me, won’t have to stumble through his own mostly good marriage and bear the burden of becoming a parent and in that same instant, a murderer. This is how I feel, like I’ve failed and wounded all of these men who need me, like I’ve chained myself to life’s biggest mystery, love’s trusting arrogance and its attending, inescapable regrets.

“Boa constrictor?” Gilbert offers.

Tyler stands on his heels. He hops once, then again, shaking his head. I’m sweating, the backs of my thighs stick to the chair; Gilbert sucks his toothpick.

“Python?”

“You already said that,” he says. He’s beaming, jumping in place, brimming with excitement. His crucifix glimmers. Does it matter if Vince had the second heart attack? Or what about the image of Tyler slathered in butter, my dream of Russia? Here’s what I want to say: Truth is a coiling, slippery thing, and you can receive it any number of ways.

“Tell him, Mom,” Tyler says, but then he’s running and cannonballing into the pool. There is no time for me to worry that he’ll slip, no chance to warn or reprimand him; his entry hardly disturbs the water. A patch of sunlight has spread over us; I can feel Gilbert growing anxious because we’re alone again. I’m about to admit I don’t know the answer to my son’s question, about to explain the pitiable situation with Vince, but Gilbert says, “Anaconda.” He says it quietly, as if he’s testing the pronunciation. Then he booms it out in his full voice, “Anaconda! It’s an anaconda!” Tyler starts clapping and hollering in the deep end, and suddenly Gilbert barrels toward the pool and jumps in, guyabera and all. His splash is huge and wasteful and some of it comes back on me. The water is warm as rain, and for a glorious moment I imagine the drought has ended.