Like Dancing On Both Feet
Above the static of his phone, my brother told me how they dragged the lake
for the body. Every man who owned a boat and was family or friend brought yards of
rope with grappling hooks tied to the ends. Women stayed on the shore with dogs
to search the banks, both humans and animals sniffing the February air for a
scent of the lost man. The black mutt that belonged to Collin whined loudly at a
small circle of rocks on the bank where someone had built, and then abandoned, a
campfire. Searchers from the sheriff's office walked a mile in each direction from
the spot but found no indication anyone had struggled into the trees.
"Midnight's a smart dog. Maybe he smells where Collin made it to shore," I
said to my brother after he spoke of the weather conditions. The sun had set on
the first day of searching; the wind was blowing harder and the temperature had
dropped to less than forty degrees in the water and twenty degrees on land. They had
decided to resume looking at daylight the next morning.
"Rory, he's smelling where Collin built a fire a week or even a month
ago." My brother, Jimmy, had taken off from his job managing a brokerage office and
driven four hours to aid the effort. "He had five minutes, ten minutes max in the
water until hypothermia got him. If we're lucky, we'll find the boat first.
Then we'll know where to look for him."
"How's Aunt Helen?" Collin's mother was the only woman searching on the
water. She had gone out in a small johnboat, the same type aluminum craft in which her
son had launched. She wanted to look over the narrow coves for evidence of human
activity. Aunt Helen thought her son might have swum to shore and constructed a
shelter. My cousin was a skilled outdoorsman: he had built his own cabin and had been
building a boat. It was not impossible that he could be waiting for someone to find
him on the thin rock bluffs where the high water mark met the treeline.
"She's not good," Jimmy replied. "We made her put on Collin's coat and a
life-preserver." He hesitated, then said, "They made someone ride with her
in the boat all the time."
I knew the coat, an old buffalo hide that would have been resting across
the seat of Collin's pickup truck. From what the family could put together, Collin had
backed his truck and trailer to the water's edge around four in the morning on
Saturday, waking a man with the sounds of country music radio. The same man, a sixty-
five year old retired farmer who owned the boat launch ramp, reported Collin
missing to the lake patrol early the next morning. It was not unusual, the retiree
said, for someone to go out early and spend all day on the water fishing, so he
hadn't been concerned until daylight. When the lake patrol arrived, Midnight was
waiting in the bed of the pickup truck, having endured over thirty hours of the freezing
"They afraid she might collapse?" I asked. Our aunt was a widow, losing
her husband only four months earlier. I imagined her long legs extending from the coat
that would stop at her knees. Aunt Helen was a striking woman, as tall as her
son and as tall as my uncle had been before cancer pushed through his lungs. I
pictured her wrapped in Collin's coat, her brown hair blowing, tears on her cheeks. But
she would not be crying alone; all searchers would have tears on their cheeks,
brought up by the cold wind.
"No. Everyone is here with her." Jimmy sighed into his mobile phone. I
knew he would be tired, like everyone in our family would be tired.
"Everyone except me." I lifted a glass and tossed its contents down my
throat, thankful that Jimmy could not see me taking comfort from a bottle. "It's
going to kill her anyway. It's too much for anyone." Feeling the pin pricks of
inactivity, I bent my right knee, brought it to my waist and extended my right foot. I
could still unfold my leg parallel to the floor without displacing my hip, a dead
giveaway of poor technique.
"Probably." Then Jimmy told me he needed to retrieve a depth finder a
fisherman had offered for the search. The electronic equipment was designed to send a
sonar signal bouncing off schooling bass under the water. My brother was going
to use it to look for something much larger.
* * * *
Table Rock Lake is a flooded forest and the rotting remains of oak,
sycamore and cedar are misleading. A clump of these decapitated trees can be mistaken
for fish instead of shallow water and it is not uncommon for a bass fisherman to
scrape his fiberglass boat, costing him several hundred dollars in repairs. For other
boaters, the jagged wood poses more than an expensive inconvenience. A leak in a
canoe or pontoon boat is serious, especially in cold water and this is only one
reason why boating at night with low visibility is dangerous. Especially in the
middle of winter; especially if the boater is alone; especially if the boat is a
work-in-progress and the captain is full of Jim or maybe if he had been
feeling highbrow, then Jack.
Everyone who spends time on the lake has a close call. They can tell you
how easy it is to get lost or how a tornado blows up suddenly or how, if you fall
overboard without a lifejacket, the boat will float away fast. But everyone is
shocked to hear of a death, as if they had monopolies on harrowing experiences. A fog
of discomfort settles on them, rubbing against their brains and reminding them
they are luckier than they deserve. They resolve to practice boating safety and
they warn their teenage children about avoiding foolishness in the water. But they
will gradually let go of caution and within a year, an average of six people's
lives will end in the lake and the fog of disbelief and bad memories will roll over
the lucky ones again.
I was not surprised when Jimmy called to tell me he was looking for Collin
under the water. I know how it can win you over.
The lake can roll gently, inviting you to stand in your boat, feet apart,
looking toward the horizon where the land meets the sky in a spectacle of blue and
orange light. At night, the water may rock and whisper, a lilting air, the energy
of a river captured by a dam; contained, but pulsing - an organ beating
stoically to spite its confinement. The stars and the moon can entice you to stand and
throw your head back, to feel the pitch and roll of the energy under the hull.
It's a cruel collusion between the lake and vertigo to make you feel as
though you are flying, mimicking the suspension of a grand jeté. Leaping into the air
and floating, the result of the shift in your center of gravity. Leaping,
hanging, then landing, toe-ball-heel, reclaiming energy from the floor to throw you
skyward again. The lake is like dance - with its admonitions and hardships.
"Don't give too much energy to the floor, ladies, steal it back by landing
light! Steal it back!" The ballet mistress pounded her walking stick against the
firm wooden floor and admonished us during my days in crowded rooms framed by
straight lines of the exercise barré. Mirrors lined the walls, exposing each
movement, each physical imprecision. Those years of practice are removed from me now,
succumbing to the insinuation of mediocrity and contributions from changes in life
that no one wants to waste time explaining, except to say that former pursuits can be
cast aside, without being deemed unworthy or unsuccessful and without aspersions
of waste or blame on the years dedicated to them. There are plenty of other
occasions for labels of blame and waste.
* * * *
On the second day of the search, the air outside my window was dusty and
warm. The black asphalt intersections shimmered; even for southern California, the
February heat was unusual. Two tall palms drooped over the street corner, a dismal
effort by the landlord to landscape his apartment building's property. The sun was
setting over the lake when Jimmy called, reflecting the difference in our time
zones and I knew how blue-black the trees by the lake would look under the settling
darkness. Natural trees, growing from well-loamed soil, instead of the rubbery trees
squeezing life from the desert.
"Nothing yet," Jimmy yelled above the static of his mobile phone. The
terrain around the lake is hills and dense woods, creeks and hollows. No matter
how much money the phone companies spend to plant transmission towers on top of the
mountains, my family members complain they never get a signal when they
Jimmy told me how they had been out in boats, looking during the day.
Rescue divers had been called in by lake patrol. But underwater visibility was poor and
even in their drysuits, the water temperature limited the divers' down time to
about thirty minutes.
"Thirty minutes isn't enough. What can they cover, a few hundred yards?
It isn't enough time." It was three o'clock according to the digital clock on my
microwave oven. Too soon to pour a glass of wine, too late to visit a career
"The deeper the dive, the less time they can spend underwater. The lake's
eighty-feet deep in some spots," Jimmy said.
"It's not like they're being asked to raise the goddamn Titanic. It's an
eight-foot boat. It's there somewhere."
"Rory," he said, "All I can tell you is what they told us. I'm learning
more about the human body and the cold than I ever wanted to know. You on tonight?"
I had not told him, had not told anyone about the combination in an
afternoon rehearsal two months earlier, the fantastically difficult jumps, the
glasses of wine at lunch, the corner I was supposed to spot to maintain orientation,
crashing to the floor, the company director loosening the ribbons of my pointé shoes and
carrying me offstage, the barely concealed anticipation of my understudy, lighter by
ten pounds and ten years worth of living, the pronouncement of the doctor that I had,
perhaps irreparably, injured my anterior cruciate ligament, those words leaving his
mouth, suffocating me like clumps of soil filling my nose.
I hesitated. There might be no harm in enlightening him - injury was no
shame, perhaps avoiding a greater shame - the weigh-ins, the breath tests, the
reduced roles for mature dancers, the dismissal with cause.
Jimmy spoke before I could answer. "I have to go. This connection is
shit." I imagined him wearing a heavy brown jumpsuit, with a stocking cap on his
light blonde head and thick brown work boots on his long, narrow feet. I hoped he was
warm enough, was protecting himself.
"Who's taking care of Midnight?" The old dog would have gray hair on his
muzzle and paws and would likely limp stiffly, instead of trotting on the shore. The
cold wind whipping off the water would be hard on his joints.
"Aunt Helen's got him. He's been going out in her boat." Jimmy sighed,
annoyed with my suggestion the family would forget about Collin's dog.
"That can't be right. Midnight's afraid of the water."
"I'm sorry, I can barely hear you," Jimmy shouted. The crescendo of static
cut the phone signal.
"Why have a phone you can't use?" I could not hear if he answered me
before I placed the receiver into its black cradle and opened the refrigerator,
looking at the jug of white wine I had not quite finished the day before.
* * * *
The lake glistens under Table Rock Mountain, a level-topped protrusion
reaching above the heads of fisherman, swimmers and bikini clad sunbathers reclining
on boats with cold beers and trashy paperbacks. If you hike to the top of the
mountain, avoiding the poison ivy, the thorny brambles and the rattlesnakes, you'll
find a round space, clear of trees. You'll find a crumbling rock wall, remnants
of the lookout point of southern rebellion. If you can balance on the stacked
stones long enough, you will see past the tops of the tree branches to examine the
trails up the mountain and satisfy yourself that no one is headed your way. Then you can
settle into the thinking you need to do or you can stare at the water below.
During calm days, the green gray surface of the lake ripples; during rough
days, the splash of waves against the shoreline and gray rain sheeting from the sky
reminds you of two lovers colliding, biting at each other, tangling together in an
embrace so fleeting they will attribute the moment to a scene in a movie, forgetful
of their own passions.
And you have the sense that if the water is going to take you - it will -
and no amount of care or caution or invocation of God will aid you. The ferocity
of the river that was choked by a dam did not disappear; it only pooled and
condensed, licking upward with protruding fangs, a freezing embrace, settling over
graves of Indians and pioneers, over bodies sacrificed to the divided state's border
conflict, the bloodiest fighting of the secessionist struggle. The river that once
washed away the detritus of human settlement now hosts the wrecks of consumer
culture: the car parts and food wrappers and plastic storage containers. The water
harbors waste for future generations, perhaps people for whom the lake will be a
fantastically preserved archeological dig. They will drain the basin and unearth
treasures that we cast away, careless in our hurry to rid ourselves of objects without
* * * *
Ten years before he went missing, Collin took me out in his father's boat.
He had graduated high school the year before and lived in a trailer the shape and
color of a silver bullet, befitting the green gray tint of leaves and oval pinecones
in the half-acre of land his mobile home occupied.
He had planted a vegetable garden and ate smoked venison from the deer he
shot in season. His dog, Midnight, had limped out of the woods, probably a
fighting pup that had escaped his chain or his cage. Collin fed him and soon after,
Midnight slept beside my cousin and followed him everywhere - except on the boat.
When Collin and I pushed off from the bank, we left Midnight a pile of dog
biscuits and a deflated basketball. The dog yelped and ran along the shore, ignoring the
toy and his treats. I heard Midnight's barks fade as Collin opened the motor,
taking us around the bend of the cove, into deeper water.
"Collin, you have got to be the only guy in this state with a dog that
can't swim." Our private jokes were plentiful. A disaster, I teased him, a dog that
"Rory, you've got to be the only girl in this state who hasn't been
kissed." He smiled. Another disaster. A girl who could dance but had never been asked
to do so by a boy.
"Shows you what you know." I always alluded to the possibility of
mysterious lovers, tall and dark men who walked over the mountains to toss roses on
the floor of the barn where I practiced. I wasn't ugly, but had small breasts and
thinning hair, the result of required buns during lessons. On stage, though, hair
didn't matter and small breasts were advantageous, so no, it wasn't impossible
about men and flowers. The existence of adoring men was definitely possible.
"Imaginary boyfriends don't count." Collin cut the engine and opened the
lid to the fish live well. Instead of fresh lake water, it was filled with ice and
beer. "You want one?" He picked a can out of the ice, popped the tab and pitched it
back into the live well. Collin cursed every piece of trash; he was meticulous about
keeping the lake clean.
"Nope." I was not a drinker, then, believing ballet required more
"You leaving next week?" he asked. Collin had brown hair, brown eyes and
brown skin, a deep tan that covered him even in the winter. I did not know if he
had a girlfriend - we had never spoken of it - but I hoped he did not. He was
too much a part of the woods and water. I didn't want to think of him leaving it for
"Day after graduation." Everyone else in the family knew the day I would
board a bus to California, the trip that would ruin my life, get me pregnant, cause
me to be homeless, or some variation on those outcomes. But Collin didn't
participate in family gossip or pretended, for my benefit, not to listen.
"You need to learn to have a drink," Collin thrust a hand into the thick
plastic compartment full of ice. "Cold beer is the best." He turned the ignition
key with his free hand.
"I can't drink this." The can was near my face and I reached for it,
hoping Collin would take control of the steering wheel. The boat was moving forward,
"Yes you can, you've got all that balance. I'm not stopping until you
drink it all." Collin opened the throttle, flinging my body against the passenger
seat. There were no life jackets and I gripped the open beer in one palm and the
seat under my legs with the other.
Collin stood up in his seat, squeezing the wheel between his knees. I
watched the front of the boat rise. Bass boats are designed so that at high speeds,
most of the hull hovers above the water as the speedometer climbs. Thirty-forty-fifty-
sixty. That's miles per hour, and that's not as high as the needle can lean.
"We're going to die!" I screamed. The craft began to chine walk, a severe
side-to-side roll of the boat. A chine walking boat was unbalanced and
required more, not less, input from the driver. I was afraid to grab at the wheel,
afraid it might flip the boat. Collin was still standing, his body jolting. The
steering wheel gripped between his knees was his only source of balance, the boat's
only source of guidance.
I threw the beer at the water so that I could use both hands to hold on to
my seat. Liquid sprayed against my lips, the fermented beverage tasted like the
metal needles I threaded to sew ribbons to pointé shoes.
"Stop it now! This is insane!" The violent rocking motion turned my
stomach. I knew I should orient myself, spotting, it's called in dance. I fixed my
eyes on the visible bald spot on top of the unmoving mountain.
"No. This is like dancing on both feet!" Collin yelled and raised his arms
as we sped forward. We bucked from side to side, racing toward the deep middle
of the lake, under the mountain's shadow. I sat crouched and still, running my
tongue around my lips. I wondered if the tank would run out of gas or if we would
be tossed out. Either way, I prepared to swim back to the shore that was at
least a mile away in any direction. I kicked off my tennis shoes and breathed
deeply to fill my lungs with oxygen, mentally rehearsing the correct way to hitch a
person around the chest to keep the nose and mouth above water.
Collin was a terrible swimmer.
* * * *
"We found him." Jimmy called again on the third day when the sky was dark
outside my window, safely past the time to be drinking a guilt-free cocktail. The
drink required olives but because there were none in my apartment, I improvised
with peeled grapes. At the rate of two grapes per drink, discounting the
possibility of spoilage, I had approximately a month before I would be forced to enter a
grocery store. Luckily, the nearby liquor store took orders for delivery over the
"Where are you?" I asked. Jimmy's voice came from a clear signal,
indicating use of a landline.
"I drove back home. Made record time," Jimmy replied. "Listen, you should
I cut him off. I imagined Jimmy standing in front of a fire his wife of
five years would have built for him, the care she would have taken to help him remove
his wet and soiled clothes, the hot coffee waiting as he pulled into the driveway
of the house I had never seen.
"I've read the news on the Internet." This was true. I had been logging in
throughout the day, monitoring the regional wire service's website. "Besides, I think I know what happened." This was not true. The news had mentioned nothing about the cause of the accident.
"Did you know he was wearing his tool belt?"
I understood Jimmy's question. Whatever had gone wrong with his homemade
boat, Collin had tried to fix it. He would have been heavily weighted, drawn to
the bottom of the lake by an assortment of screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, an
awl, metal screws, bolts, nuts and nails, a level, a tape measure and a flashlight, to
help him find the problem. Implements of independence from banks, contractors,
stores, salesmen - and obsolescence - pulling him down past the dead tree tops to
the rotting tangle of roots of the underwater forest.
"You on tonight?" Jimmy interrupted my thoughts and the salty water
slipping past my cheeks.
"Yes," I said. Tasting vodka in the grape, I glanced at the digital
clock. It read nine p.m. "Yes, um, yes." It was fine, I decided, to continue lying. I
could blame it on my grief later.
"Must be a really late show." Jimmy voice was even. I heard plates and
silverware being set on a hard surface in the background. "I've got some more calls
to make. Aunt Helen knows you probably won't make it back here for the funeral and
it's ok. She knows what you thought of him."
A bubble of nausea erupted in my stomach, gurgling with acidic pain up to
the back of my throat. "Wait, Jimmy, wait. Who found him?"
"Midnight. Started barking like hell over this one spot. We hooked Collin
and pulled him in the boat."
My memory was fluid, disbelief mixing into the pool of Jimmy's stated
account. It might have been the alcohol. It might have been acceptance flowing easier
with the advent of the unthinkable that was easily imagined, the shock that was
easily predictable. Maybe I didn't know anything about what had happened in the
years I had been gone. So I murmured, "I remember...Midnight being afraid of the
"Well, he's fine with it now." Jimmy replied, an edge slipping into his
voice. I could imagine him thinking, the damn dog is fine, really.
We ended the conversation with Jimmy telling me how the family thought it
was such a shame they had not seen me in six years and perhaps they should make more
of an effort to get to California to see me dance.
* * * *
The boat didn't run out of gas that day on the lake and I don't know how
long Collin could have maintained his balance. We were brought to a stop by the
flashing lights and bullhorn commands of the lake patrol officers who had, they said, been radioed by the retired farmer near the launch ramp. The officers knew Collin -
everyone around the lake did - and they let him off with a warning for speeding and a
citation for missing life preservers. The younger of the two officers tipped his skipper's cap to me and said "Have a good day miss," when he was finished
with his business.
"Were you trying to get us killed?" I yelled at Collin after the officers
had powered away. My hands trembled, but I reached into the live well and
pulled out two beers. I handed one to him and popped one for myself.
Collin did not answer. We motored, slowly, back to shore where Midnight
barked and leaped, dropping his deflated basketball at Collin's feet. Instead of
riding in the cab, I lifted myself into the bed of the old pickup truck. Midnight
grabbed his toy in his mouth and followed me, jumping easily off the ground. I wrapped
both arms around the dog's fuzzy head, gripping him tightly. The truck rolled and
bumped over the rough chat road and I fixed my eyes on the stark bare mountain top,
orienting myself for the ride ahead. I remembered the leaping arc of the boat and
the feel of skimming over the lake like a low-flying bird and considered: If I had been
tossed to the air, would I have sunk, graciously, through the crest of the waves,
opening my eyes underwater to look for my cousin and after satisfying my
conscience, have swum to shore?
I turned to peer through the truck's rear windows. In the rearview mirror,
Collin's face was set and calm; he sipped his beer and drove slowly. Or would I have
struggled to hold onto the body that could manage anywhere but in the water,
promising that we would either swim to shore or enter, together, the forest
As the truck turned onto the main highway the mountain disappeared behind a
crest of tall trees and my questions leaped away from me into the air, jealous of
their own energies.
Krista McGruder's credits include North American Review, storySouth and Carve Magazine. She lives in New York City and serves as fiction reader for the online journal SmallSpiralNotebook.com.