The Depth of Puddles by Steve Helbling

Aug 14 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

Shawn first noticed the puddle when his dog, Topaz, lunged into it during a late spring rain. By then, the greens of the trees had changed from the varied softer shades to a hard green, a common green. Streams of water spilled over the gutters that edged the roof of the porch. He visualized them filled with debris, mostly leaves and pine needles, that had collected over the years. Watching the dog pounce about in the street, he remembered his weekly promise to climb up and clean the gutters.

A flash of lightening and a crash of thunder sent the dog bolting from the cul-de-sac to the porch. As he sloshed through a puddle at the side of the street, his entire body submerged. Even more panicked, he clambered out of the hole and sprinted for the house.

Shawn’s wife, Hallie, opened the front door and stepped out.

“Hey, did you see that?” he asked, as the dog rushed onto the porch and weaved in and out and around his legs.

“See what?” she asked.

“The dog just fell into a pothole. It swallowed him up.”

“I don’t remember any hole that big in the street. I think we would have seen it by now.”

“That was really odd. Freaky.”

“Come inside and eat lunch. You can check it out after it quits raining.” She threw him a towel, “Dry off Old Blue Eyes before you let him in the house.”

Topaz was a large Husky. As Shawn dried the nervous dog, he tried to imagine the size of the hole that would hold an animal that big. He gave the dog a final pat and a hug around the neck, and they went inside.

After lunch, he grabbed a tape measure and headed out toward the street. He wanted to have the dimensions of the hole when he called the county road department.  It had been over an hour since the rain stopped. As he crossed the yard, the tall, wet grass clung to his legs and deposited seeds in the hairs from his ankles to his knees. Steamy fog hung over the warm pavement. Nearing the spot where the dog hit the puddle, he scanned the street. There were no potholes. There wasn’t a dip in the asphalt. Nothing was unusual.

“How deep is it?” Hallie called from the porch.

“There’s nothing.” he called back. “It must have been an optical illusion or something.”

“Maybe you’ve been sitting too long. Let’s get cleaned up and go job hunting.”

He felt the muscles in his neck constrict, like someone had wrapped both hands around his throat. It had only been six months since he stopped painting. “I think I need to stay and get the grass cut. I guess I let it get away from me again.”

“It’s too wet. The KIA factory is hiring. Let’s go.”

“Let it be. You know there’s nothing there for me.”

“You can do graphic art and still keep trying—waiting for inspiration, but I think you need something to keep you busy.”

“We don’t need the money.”

“It’s not for the money. It’s for your sanity.”

He stopped listening, and walked around to the garage. Bending to open the door, he noticed that the handle was rusty and broken. One more damn thing to put on the list. He pulled open the door and was greeted by stacks of boxes and bags of trash. After a quick look, he couldn’t locate the lawn mower. He slammed the door shut, and the handle broke off. When he turned to go back to the front, he found Hallie standing behind him.

He said. “I’ll be fine.”

*

It started to storm after he finished shopping. Huge drops pummeled down in a nearly solid mass. He rounded the corner down the street from their house, and the receipt from the hardware store slid off the seat. Leaning to pick it up, he read the total, $585.34. It would cost ten times that for him to cover everything on the list. At least, he had mustered up some motivation to get started. Just as he slowed to pull into the driveway, the front passenger side dropped. The car bottomed, scraping across the black top, then, it lurched free. The jolt bounced his hands off the steering wheel. As he regained control, the rear of the car crashed down and up again. Cans of paint, bags of screws, and hand tools were slung about. Shaken, he stopped at the edge of the driveway.

A pounding on the window brought his thoughts into focus. Hallie stood outside the car door, “Shawn are you okay? What was that horrible noise?”

He looked out the window at her. The pouring rain seemed to add to its thickness. She appeared wavy and distorted. “I think I hit that pothole,” he answered.

He got out to inspect the damage. The front tire was flat. Walking to the rear, he noticed a thick gouge in the street. The rear tire seemed undamaged. Then, he went to the puddle. Hallie stood beside him. He took off his sandal and dipped his foot into the water. When it reached ankle depth, he put one hand on her shoulder to keep his balance. Bending as far as he could, he still could not touch. He sat down in the street and dangled his legs into the hole.  “Let’s get to the bottom of this,” he joked as he poked his legs deep into the puddle. It didn’t start out as a joke, but the words escaped from his old self. He was surprised and relieved that his sense of humor had reappeared.

Something about the water relaxed him. He visualized a collage of unfinished and not started paintings rippling across the surface, but ebbing rain drops shattered the images, drove them beneath the surface. He leaned out and peered down.

The touch of Hallie’s hand on his shoulder and her question broke his trance, “What are you doing?”

“Huh?”

“It looked like you were ready to slide in.”

He reached his arm around her legs and thought about going in together. But he remembered his vision and decided that this was his place. Another joke came to him. It went unspoken.

As she moved back and away, she pulled him to his feet and asked. “Where did this come from? Did you touch the bottom?”

“I don’t know and no.” he answered.

He walked over to a forsythia shrub in the yard, broke off a branch about three feet long, and walked back.

Hallie said, “I can’t believe how calm you are. That would have scared the bejeezes out of me.”

When the stick hit bottom, only six inches were above the water line.

He asked Hallie, “Could you get that old red bandanna off the back seat?”

She brought it to him, and he tied it on the end of the stick.

“I’ll have to jack up the car and take the tire to get it fixed. When I get back, I’ll do something about this hole.”

“I’ll get my car. We can go together.”

They drove in silence. Finally, she spoke, “Friday, I’m going with the girls to the beach for a couple of weeks. Did you want to call your brother and see if you could go down and visit?”

“Nah. I’ve got this list to work on. How long are you going to be gone?”

“You’re not listening. I told you two weeks.”

“I’m sorry. This pothole thing has me distracted. Plus, I’m starting to get an idea about a new painting series.”

“That’s great. When I get back maybe you’ll be feeling better.”

At dusk, they returned. The pavement was dry. He saw the red bandanna, and then, he stopped in the middle of the street. “What the hell is going on?” he asked. He jumped out and ran over to the stick. There was no hole. The twig stuck out of solid asphalt. By now, Hallie had passed him. She bent over and yanked on the stick. It didn’t budge.

She said with exasperation, “Someone is playing a joke on us.”

“It isn’t funny,” he said.

*

A man from the county came and inspected the area. He had no explanation for how the stick had become embedded in the road. He assured them that the road was solid and safe. “Maybe your tire blew out and the rim scratched the road,” he suggested.

Shawn had given up finding a rational explanation. He kicked the stick breaking it off at ground level. Then, he ripped off the bandanna and shoved it in his pocket.

*

The smell of wet paint lingered. He had painted two panels on the front door that morning, but it would not dry. The humidity weighed on everything. Sniffing about the yard, Topaz’s ears perked. Shawn knew a storm neared, the first rain since the flat tire.

The phone rang. It was Hallie. She asked, “I was just watching the Weather Channel. Is it raining?”

He knew why she asked, and answered, “No. But if it does, don’t worry. I’m too busy to think about it. I’ve already knocked off three items on the list, and this morning I started a painting.”

“That’s great. Oh, God. I’m going to cry.”

“I haven’t fed the dog, and I have wet paint on my hands. Call you back later. Love you.”

“This is so great. I love you too. Bye.”

His first project, the front door, remained unfinished. The list lay crumpled on the floor beside him. In the studio, a blank canvas leaned against the easel.

The temperature dropped, and wind gusts shook the trees. Topaz curled up beside him. Trying to ignore the coming weather, he grabbed a brush and turned toward the door. He shut his eyes. The rain began. It pounded the ground and sounded like sizzling bacon. Drips from the overflowing gutters increased in frequency and loudness. To distract himself, he attempted to count them, but they came so fast that they blended into one giant rush of liquid.

He moved the brush down and then, inched it up. He wanted to go check the puddle, but he promised he wouldn’t. Down stroke. Pause. Up stroke. Stop. Finally, succumbing to the temptation, he turned and walked to the street. The frightened dog yelped but remained on the porch.

The curls of his long black hair were stretched down by the weight of the water. The saltiness of his sweat mixed with rain. He tasted it as it poured over his mustache. When he reached the puddle, he stopped. Diluted red paint dripped from the brush in his hand. It mixed with the swirling rainbows of gasoline and oil film that had lifted from the surface of the street. He watched the colors mingle and merge.

Like a high diver, he wiggled his feet to the edge of the puddle, put his arms at his side, and hopped feet first, slicing into the puddle. The coolness and darkness of the water calmed him. Except for the anticipation of hitting bottom, the experience pleased him. Glancing up toward the surface, he saw a steady eruption of ripples spread out above him. The light dimmed, but the wonderful images he just experienced filled his mind. Then, a disturbing thought occurred to him. How would he be found?

He paused and suspended himself in the murky depths. Still worried and unsure, he drifted back toward the surface, forced his hand that held the brush into the air, and waited.

*

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