By Leslie Benigni
The last time I saw Tommy Agnew was in the summer of my eleventh year as my father carried the injured boy from the river and laid him on the back of his aunt and uncle’s boat. The sharpest memory that I have from that twilight haze of an August night was pale bone rupturing from Tommy’s leg like a red-stained egg. I stood there without a sound, not from the inability to jump in and help, but rather from the inability of resuming my role as an active member in this mess. The consequences of my actions were laying before me as I stood inside the boat, watching, as the others in their boats roped to the Agnews were watching. As I looked down at the two, I noticed a pair of tan feet stop, stoop, and then swerve around them. Martha Agnew, Tommy’s aunt, yanked my earlobe and began screaming a mixture of indigenous tongue and white vitriol until my mother had to pull her away.
Growing up, my mother had worked for Martha, as a personal assistant in a tradeoff for paying our boat space at their marina and as a way to create a college fund for myself. Every week in those warmer Delaware months, I clung to whatever bandaged book my high school English teacher father let me snatch and consume from the previous year’s curriculum, along with a plastic bag of other small items, and tagged along with my mother to the Agnew’s home.
Because my mother was good at her job, ticking away tasks sent on her Blackberry at a rapid pace, the Agnews considered us a part of the family. Every Friday, I would scale up the winding gravel driveway behind my mother as she checked for the task list Martha sent out every morning, which always caused her to bite her unpolished nails. She still does, but not that much anymore.
Glass door, white tiled foyer, dogs barking upstairs, hallway, kitchen, Martha. I can remember the house perfectly, how grand I thought it was with all of its sunset-colored rooms and tapestries tossed up on walls, nothing like our Lower Southbend duplex on 5th. I had sincerely thought as a child that that was how houses were built and decorated in the Southwest, from which the Agnews were from built decided to build their wealth in the East. Theirs was a second home as in my mind as going there once a week during the summer meant that I practically lived there.
Martha and my mother would talk in the kitchen, an amalgamation of crackly noises with whispers, such is the product of memory. Often times, Jon, the husband would be at the marina, meaning that it would give me the freedom to pick up one of the Agnew cats (Inky, Boots, Toto, Oscar, Giblet, etc.) and wander through the rooms. Beyond the TV room where there was a plasma screen and a decommissioned pinball machine was a nook of an office that had the only pictures of the whole extended Agnew family in the house. In every picture, Jon and Martha were primmed and glossy, smiling and stupid, looking more like paler tourists than with their own family.
As I looked at the pictures of all the children, nieces and nephews, wishing I was closer to my own cousins, I remember being called into the kitchen. Martha, a short, portly woman with an arm full of jingling charm bracelets and cat eyes, found me clever when I secretly threw in a book character’s phrase into a primarily adult conversation and passed it as my own. She never knew the difference—I liked her for that. I came in through the side hallway with a wide, blank expression, carefully lowering a cat to the ground.
She smiled and said that her nephew Tommy would be coming in from New Mexico to come work at the marina for some weeks of the summer, he was a few years older than me, and that I should hang out with him or something, to make him feel welcome.
My mind instantly to the pictures in the nook, which of those young faces could have been around my age. Being an only child, the prospect of having another kid my age around a marina full of mainly retirees and a smattering of some new parents with gurgling babies and toddlers thrilled me, as did the thought of being a part of an informal welcoming committee.
Martha found me back in the office gazing at the picture while my mother was in their garage, probably rearranging something.
“Which one is Tommy?”
“Let me see…” she said, tapping her painted nails on the wall beside me. “There he is.”
A gangly, hawk-nosed boy with long black hair and paint-splattered clothes stood arms crossed in the corner of a picture with a slew of younger siblings, tired parents and the whitened smiles of Martha and Jon next to them.
“He hates having his picture taken, a ‘classic teen’. Never be like one of them, Nora.” She chuckled to herself. “He’s an artsy type, bless his soul, and they say he’s good, though I never got his art, a little too political, if you ask me. He actually applied to some performing arts school and we’re still waiting to see if he’ll get the email that he’s been accepted. Might be nice to get him off that reservation if he is…”
I didn’t know what to say and out of a bad habit to blather to fill the moment’s gap I nodded and said “Yeah, uh, of course.”
I came to two realizations years later from this: 1) I thought I liked being talked to like an adult as an 11-year-old, but really Martha didn’t know how to talk to children being childless herself and 2) Tommy didn’t hate his picture being taken, but hated his picture being taken with Martha and Jon.
The following weekend while we were rumbling in to get our pontoon filled with gas, Tommy sat hunched over on the fill-up station bench, flicking away at a clunky phone. Though at an odd angle from my front-of-boat perch, I can still vividly remember him. His face had a certain wideness to it without any depth and his dark eyes had the same characteristic and as he finally stood up to retrieve the gas nozzle, he was all bone and tendons tugging underneath his skin. He didn’t look like anyone I ever knew, only read about in the books I took from my dad’s class, which made my 11-year-old heart flutter.
He only introduced himself, shook my father’s hand awkwardly through the angled awning bars, when Martha and Jon came down the tall catwalk from the parking lot of the marina, carrying coolers and towels and crooned when they saw us all together.
I remember Tommy, in ripped and dyed clothes, standing several feet away from his decked-out aunt and uncle as they tried to ham him up in front of us. They had explained that he would be staying for two weeks to be with family, earn a summer wage, and ease his “stressed head”.
In between the chattering, mainly from Martha, talking to my mother as if it wasn’t the weekend (Pick up cat litter…Tommy made Honor Roll…make an appointment with my _______…. check on the invitations to the Boat Rope Up…), Tommy stood dense and constrained. I had taken out David Copperfield from my drawstring bag in the hopes he would notice and think I was super smart. He only noticed the dramatic flourish of my pulling it out.
I remember he took a deep inhale. “Dickens. Isn’t that, like, kind of hard for you to read?”
“Oh, no!” My face burned a bit. “I’m picking up on a lot!”
Unasked for, and something I still regret, I started talking about the book, using as many big words that didn’t make sense in context to try to impress him as I tried to do with everyone. It’s too embarrassing to tell in detail here and would waste time.
By the time Tommy was lazily nodding his head to the point it might have rolled off from my ramblings, our gas tank was filled and the adult conversation had also ended. I told him I would tell him more about it at the Rope-Up in the next week.
My mother said, harmlessly, before we left the marina for some rocky shoreline up the river that she couldn’t wait for the little pow-wow, a word casually used often by the Agnew couple. They smiled, agreed, and waved us off.
The Agnews faces didn’t harbor any expression, but Tommy’s mouth twitched as we pulled away from the dock. His leg bounced as he sat back down on the bench, checking something on his phone.
The following Saturday entailed runs to the grocery store, hastily making dishes that wouldn’t spoil in the summer heat, and my head following all of the thought threads back to Tommy who would most certainly be at the Rope-Up. I remember going through every detail I knew about him as I helped my parents unsnap the canvas boat covering before we made the trek out around the river’s bend toward the dam of our loch. And as I released the final rope from the cleat before pushing off, as was my duty I took great pride in, I remember something about the way I landed on the front part of the pontoon caused me to knock the sunglasses off my head and into the water. I knew I had to unlock the front gate and get back in the boat, but it’s a funny little thing thinking about how those white and pink cherry shades sank with great speed into the murky green depths.
The engine roared with the kneading of waves pushing away from the pontoon as Dave Matthews Band, which is now a part of my own CD collection, crackled over our junky radio. Down the bend from the marina submerged an island by the dam with an inlet and a sandbar which was the marking point for the yearly Rope-Up. The Agnews picked the spot for their drunken festivities from a local fisherman that told them about the sandbar and then drove out all the fisherman. So they anchored their hulking houseboat and invited others in their less expensive vessels from the marina to join them with bumpers and ropes on either side to create a watery, horizontal caravan. Once all of the boats were anchored and connected, you could carefully hop from boat to boat and usually everyone would have a different food dish or alcoholic beverage to sample. In short, it was a yearly marina thing that couldn’t be missed.
Because we were who we were in a dingy pontoon, we were towards the end of the row of boats. As soon as we were settled and greeted our speedboat neighbors herding their toddlers in their life-vests, we climbed from boat to boat, slowly reeling tied in boats toward us so we wouldn’t fall in the crevices made for our bumpers to prevent scratches from waves bouncing the boats together. My mother was in her pink sarong, as she called it, carefully balancing a layered bean dip in a Pyrex dish from boat to boat, stepping over lines and I still cite that when asked what my mother was like and I say ‘graceful’.
When we finally came to the center of the boats, it was also the center of the party. The Agnews had so many people piled into every spot you would have thought the giant boat would sink. Inside the cabin of the boat were some pleather chairs, a small kitchen, and nautical decorations, some of which my father created in his spare time and some of which my mother bought for the couple. While my parents fawned over them as well as vapid faces they recognized from the marina, I was told to go find Tommy on the upper deck, which I was going to do anyways.
Through the wooden sliding door, I startled the kid who had his headphones in and was yet again searching for something on his phone. Face red, I had immediately apologized and with a little too much pep, I reintroduced myself to which he awkwardly replied, “Yeah, it’s only been a week.”
As I closed the sliding door behind me, I opened the one on the upper deck that led out to the bow in the hopes of letting in some air to help my situation. I looked around and the closest people seemed to be outside on the bow of the boat where there were some folding chairs. I asked if he minded if I read my book near him. He kept looking at his phone and didn’t mind.
He would let the screen illuminate his face for a few seconds, lean back on the fake leather bench with a barometer spiking like a pike above his head with his eyes closed, then immediately go back into his phone. I remembered the feeling of crawling under my skin as I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. It was like he was waiting for something, kept checking for something to refresh and bear some kind of news for him.
I would catch glimpses of him in his tattered AC/DC shirt and worn-out jean shorts and wonder if he actually had swimming trunks. He then started bouncing his right leg at a vibrating pace and between that and the constant laughter from outside the boat and the distant crying of the toddlers on my end of the boat descension, Tommy and I were cohabitating an opaque silence. The silence of our space made room, an amphitheater for the bits of conversation that happened on the lower deck.
They were talking about Tommy and I knew he could hear it, too, but his eyes darted back to me. ‘New Mexico’, ‘school’, ‘Reservation’, ‘fitting the drinking habit’ and ‘acceptance’ floated up to our ears and Tommy fully took out his headphones. He had turned his body to the door that led down below, lowered his head and listened. They weren’t the voices of my parents; I knew that, despite what I now know was a microaggression from my mother earlier that previous week. All of the voices from inside and outside muddled together and while I kept trying to read the same line from Dickens five times over without real comprehension, all of my attention was on my silent cohabitant, looking like he was ready to hurt someone.
Before one final check of his phone, he opened the door with force and stepped down to the lower cabin for everyone to see. The majority was silence as soon as he made his entrance, but then went back to clinking glasses and joke telling.
I laid down my book on my seat and stood, looking down at Tommy from the doorway leading down.
“…not about you, Tom-boy, no way,” I heard Jon say. Tommy was standing next to his uncle in the kitchen as the latter poured some stingy-smelling stuff into a crystal glass. “I drink, your dad drinks, you probably drink…” he winked. “It was just a joke that didn’t mean anything, in fact, just means a certain awareness.”
Martha latched onto his shoulder and Tommy rolled it away.
“What is wrong with you people?” Tommy growled.
He then dove to the bottom deck where all of the bedrooms were and I didn’t see him for a few hours. It was then when I was spotted in the upper doorway that my mother said that she, Martha, Jon, and my father were going back to the marina on the Agnew’s dinghy to help bring boxes of liquor forgotten in our SUV back to the Rope-Up. I was a sufficient eleven-year-old, but one that would get in the way. They never said that, but I always like to think that’s the reasoning why I was left behind on a boat with relative strangers and some angsty teen curled up with his phone in a bunk bed.
I agreed that I would remain reading in the upper deck where I was and if I needed anything to just ask Tommy. I saw them zoom off from the control room window facing the bow as many of the strangers waved them off and even cheered at the thought of even more alcohol joining the party. Once the Agnews left their boat, being the original life of the party, people scattered and went off into slightly smaller boats that trailed along.
So I went back to my Dickens, but naturally had trouble now knowing there was something going on with Tommy that I knew I couldn’t help with and probably shouldn’t help with as it didn’t seem my place. I’d like to think my intuition has improved over the years. I went on in my reading, of David Copperfield, and Uriah was just disclosing his love for Agnes when I heard a loud beating sound that filled the inside of the house boat, followed by an “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?”
Several doors were thrown open beneath me, I could hear it just I could hear my own nasally breath flow right along with the rising of my shoulders and chest.
Through the doorway to the lower deck, which I didn’t close after Tommy went down, the boy in question stomped through the kitchen/resting area and went back to the stern, throwing his arms over the railing, looking out onto the water. He had received his news.
He stood out there for a while, peering beyond the water at a point which I can only now assume was the island, with the sandbar somewhere in between. I tried to go back to my book cradled in my crossed leg nest, but still kept the speck of him in the corner of my eye. When I felt comfortable enough to focus completely on my book, of course that was when he looked up at me through the doorway. Tommy said something along the lines of needing to clear his head and said he was going swimming to find the sandbar in case his aunt and uncle came back and wondered where he was.
“Can I come?” I said it too lightly for him to hear. He stripped down to his boxers and jumped in.
He was supposed to be responsible for me while they were gone, or I wondered if I had made that up, but it nonetheless seemed like the natural rule. Plus, he didn’t know the waters like I did so I thought he might have been grateful for my presence.
Uriah could wait.
From the water’s surface, the linked boats looked like a group of small white hills, bobbing with the restlessness of oncoming boats from a ways away. Tommy was a fast swimmer and my doggie-paddle tried to match his speed as best I could, but he never looked back once to see where I was or that I had even followed. The deep, layered green of the island was not that far off and I instantly thought of the slimy mush that usually existed on the shores of these island shores. I called to him and just as I did, he stopped. Stiff as a board with long black hair trailing down his shoulders like the tips of paintbrushes, he stood without paddling. He just stopped. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it, he was stone-faced.
I lowered my feet in the hopes of touching the bottom, flinched when I wrapped my ankle around seaweed, then finally stood on the grimy ooze of river rock and mush. The water was clear enough and the surface was close enough that we could see the colors of the rocks and plants beneath us with bits of pale color among the dark algae.
My memory is fuzzy leading to the conversation, he might have made some remark about my following him, then about the water and the island…but the pinnacle of what started it all happened with the mentioning of an animal. It was something to do with sturgeons, how someone had caught one of the prehistoric looking fish by this very island. As I blathered on about them, Tommy stepped closer to the island, though it looked like he was drifting from the surface. I naturally followed and let my words flow more loosely than before while his shoulders dropped occasionally and he dunked underwater, prompting me to start my sentence over—I, the little fool that couldn’t shut up and take a hint.
“And so I can totally relate to sturgeons…they’re like my spirit animal,” I said.
He turned suddenly; a look of disgust wrenched into a straight mouth line. “Can I tell you a story, now?”
“You know something, yeah, my family told me of this place, my ancestors if you will.” He seemed to be sitting crisscrossed on some underwater ledge as his shoulders hunched over.
“Long ago, the Lenape flourished in these woods that surround us, building tribes that would reach out to other tribes, spreading harmony and sharing the wealth of the land. They could feel the earth around them, be one with it, but only take what they needed and nothing else as that is what our gods prescribed to our people, red as the clay earth that we will be borne into eventually.”
“They say it happened in the spring, when the fog tumbled on the early morning river onto an island like this, maybe this very one. A wooden ship, built to the size the Lenape had never seen showed up to the shores of the island. It was mystical. The Lenape were sure it was a gift from the gods, an omen of good wealth to come for the tribe. Then, the passengers of the ship trekked out of their safety. God, how ugly they were! Flesh: pale and scabbing and disgusting. Like fucking ghosts dug up from ashy graves.
The Lenape saw their illness, and being who they were with the resources of the remedies of the earth, they opened their land and homes to these white savages from across the world. As they nourished the white folk, the disease spread throughout the tribes, spreading death and rotting flesh to those that helped them. They did not ask for it. Did they ever ask to be burdened?”
My head shivered.
“No. They did not. The Lenape were taken advantage of and seen as resources to aid others, and for what?”
He seemed closer to me than before. Only his shoulders upward were submerged.
“Those white folks became one with the land, though it was not theirs. They took the plants and herbs, though they did not speak to gods thanking them for them. The Lenape were not used to the white man’s disease, they weren’t immune and their bodies couldn’t handle it, soon, the Lenape grew to be the sick ones, dying off, buried away from everyone else as to not spread the disease too far, though it was too late.”
We grew quiet. The world around us and turned a slightly darker shade of blue. Then, I asked:
“What did they do with them?”
“Oh,” he raised an eyebrow in all his performing arts school drama. “They buried them in the river of course, the fools. That’s where they got their drinking water from so the disease flowed right back into them just when they thought they had gotten rid of it. So they all died on the –this island and as a humble reminder of the tradeoff between tribes and the gods, the gods made their bones into the rounded, smooth river rock beneath our feet.”
I dared not to look down. “And the white people?”
“Oh, they’re here, too.” He leaned in close to me and gestured my wrists up from the water and I thought he wanted to hold my hands. Then he carefully placed small objects into them, removing his hands from the tops of my palms. “But just their teeth.”
He fled, smirking.
It was a rush of water and tossing of what I now know was small white river rock, but I swam after him as he headed for the rope-up of boats, calmly bobbing, but everything was so chaotic in my small head that everything seemed rugged and pointed, a red-colored lens on a calm, blue night. I saw him climb up on the back part of his aunt and uncle’s house boat, a cursive Nettie II I caught swimming back, wringing out his stringy hair before walking inside the cabin. My legs were sore from kicking water, but also from hitting the back ladder.
Like a reflex, he went down below to grab his phone, checking it this time for I don’t know what, and came back up, swathed in a striped towel. I could hear the adults a few boats over laughing about something, talking, making some kind of noise. My head was on fire and I didn’t know what to say. Sure, I was mad at the kiddie ghost story, but I was pissed off in a way that I couldn’t place. I don’t even remember what I was saying, but I know it was persistent and I know it made Tommy want to go to the front of the boat.
“Why do you have to be such an asshole?” I asked, the cuss strange on my tongue.
“Oh, good one,” he laughed. “Why do you have to be an asshole?”
“I am not! You’re the one being mean.”
“I’m being mean? You are, your parents are, my aunt and uncle are, everyone is being mean…to me.”
When he climbed up the stairs to the second-tier door to the outside of the boat, I followed. My heart pounded.
“You’re just mad because you didn’t get into that school you wanted,” I yelled.
He turned to me with black marble eyes and spit in my face.
It was a no-thought action. I could clearly see in between the movement of the boat next to the Agnews that the dinghy carrying the couple as well as my parents and a few others were zooming back. Actually, I think I just heard the small, persistent buzzing of the engine as my hands pressed against the back of Tommy, pushing him in the widening crack between the houseboats.
There was a horrible snap echoing up to my ears in between the crack that was then closing with the oncoming waves. We learned later that his ankle twisted around a rope the tied up the boats. A large splash from Tommy was followed from another, distant splash. I looked out to the approaching dinghy and my father swam in between the boats to retrieve the flailing boy I had pushed. Neither looked up at me, though I looked down at them without a word. They were like two rats in a drain, hurrying before a deluge.
They had seen it as my fault and throughout the screaming matches between my parents and Martha and Jon, I felt the burning behind my eyes like I wanted to cry. A ‘like’, an ‘almost–never carried out somethings of my own intentions. My mother would never return to work for the Agnews which dashed any buildup of a college fund for me and what I would later learn their desire to get a larger, better boat to keep up with Agnews. We lost the marina community and would later find a decrepit dock up a nearby creek of trailer camps to park our boat in the following years until my high school graduation.
On the drive back to our home in the dark, my knobby knees bounced with a whiteness that matched every passing streetlight. On the corner of the next street over before we pulled into our driveway, I chanced to see a THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU wisping plastic bag lift up into the air and sucked into the darkness. I was told to go straight to bed and my eyes opened wide with only the thought of pearly stones passing through my head the whole night.
About the Author: Leslie Benigni is a current MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio though she originally heralds from Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been published in Perhapped Magazine, :Lexicon Literary Journal, and Athenaeum Magazine. Find her on instagram and twitter, respectively: @benignileslie and @lbeni894 .