Catching Up

Patrick J. Murphy

Clarissa’s father worked for the Hendry County Water Management Board. She imagined him in the company van, driving across the flat Florida miles, reading meters at concrete bunker pumping stations and looking with concern at canals thick with algae, so she wasn’t surprised when she returned home and only her mother was there to greet her.

Her mother was a heavy woman dressed in baggy Bermuda shorts and a clinging T-shirt with a band of flowers printed across the bodice. She stood blocking the doorway. “You didn’t have to take a cab,” she said simply. “We would have picked you up.”

The clapboard house was hot and small and seemed too filled with overstuffed furniture. It was as if Clarissa had never left.

“Your room’s waiting for you.”

She followed her mother down the dark, remembered hall and looked in vain for her own pictures among the framed photos, her wedding or her honeymoon, Harold with one arm around her. 

A single bed stood in a corner of her room, seeming too small, too sad.

“I moved my sewing out,” her mother said, pointing vaguely around. “We borrowed the bed from the Hickmans. They said we could use it for as long as we wanted.”

Gone were the white desk and the vanity with the mirror, the rug with the daisies scattered across it. She didn’t blame her parents. It had been three years and no one had ever expected her back.

“It’s perfect,” she said, and looked through the window at the unchanged fields of grass and the row of distant pines.

“I never really sewed that much, anyway.” Her mother smiled, then leaned in for a hug.

Supper was at seven, as it always was, and they were having her childhood favorite, mangrove snapper and mashed potatoes and asparagus. Her brother, Alan, wasn’t pleased. She sat and watched his expression as he examined the food.
“Fish,” he said. He was a heavy man now, with dark hair that hung in his eyes. He was a year older than Clarissa, but had never moved away. He did odd jobs and collected roadside trash when the county called him in. When it grew dark, he usually went out with his friends or visited a few women he knew. Tonight, he’d already announced, he was spending with his sister, the entire family together again.

She thought how strange everything normal seemed.

Her father said nothing about the food, but asked her how she was doing, if she’d settled in. He had pale thin hair and a high forehead and his wire rimmed glasses gave him a distant look, as if he heard water somewhere flowing, secret and subterranean. At least, that was how she always imagined it.

There were neighbors who wanted to see her, he said, con-dolences they were sending.

“I don’t want their condolences.” She knew her wishes for a while would have power. “I just want to relax and catch up on my reading.”

He looked at her as if she were a problem he would solve. “Later, then,” he said, and continued eating.

That evening, she sat at the kitchen table. She could see her mother and father in the living room, on the sofa watching TV. Though she couldn’t see him, she knew her brother sat in the overstuffed chair, thumbing through the newspaper.

“Come on out here,” her mother said. “Keep us company.”

“I’d rather not.” She was working her way through a text on basic electricity. She’d tried to read Harold’s books, browsing through them while he was in the hospital, but she found most of them incomprehensible, filled with page after page of math or with charts of the characteristics of various integrated circuits or with sample programs illustrating buffer strategy, whatever that might be. So she’d decided to start at the beginning, with copper wires cutting magnetic fields, and amps as the measure of the flow of electrons.
There was a purity to it all, she thought. An essence of the cosmic.

“That’s not very polite,” her mother said, during the commercial. “You should be with your family.”

Already, it’s starting, Clarissa thought.

* * *
Deep into the night she plunges, as if jumping into the arms of her husband, sinking down and down to the bottom, where the membranes are thin and provisional. Night had never been this way before, but Harold’s death has changed it all, turning the darkness warm, deep and rich, and she feels hung from shadows, where the slightest motion will drop her through to a new existence, one she can hardly imagine. She lies in bed, her arms and legs reaching out. It feels like life and yet not life. She wants to say that God is there, in the night, but the word is just a word and has no relation to the sense of presence, of power shifting like curtains moving in the unseen dark. She is thrilled, too excited to sleep.
* * *
Her mother cooked her eggs, working silently at the stove. Clarissa sat at the table and stared out the window at the Johnson house in the distance, small and white against the miles of grass and the masses of clouds above it, moving quickly across a powder blue sky. The eggs were too runny. They were always too runny. When she cut into them, strings of milky matter lifted with her fork. When she was young, she’d gotten ill from such sights. Now, she merely looked at the substance and swallowed it, as if it were a penance, gladly accepted. “You’ve been through a lot,” her mother said, and sat down in the chair beside her. Clarissa nodded and took a bite of toast. Her mother stared at her, as if something were wrong, as if she had dribbled or forgotten to wipe her lips. “Now,” her mother said, “we’ve got to see about getting you on your feet.” She was surprised. “I am on my feet.” “You’re not going to get over it with that attitude.” Clarissa sat back in her chair. She had known it would be like this. It always was. Her parents were merely one more thing to overcome. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Her mother reached out and touched her hand. “You don’t even realize, probably. Mooning around, walking in a daze. We talk to you and sometimes you don’t even answer.” Clarissa tried not to smile. They had merely forgotten how she was. “I’m taking a break, changing pace. That’s all.” Her mother stood and went to the sink and started running water.
* * *
That morning Clarissa studied. Voltage is a unit of force, like pressure in a garden hose. Wattage is a unit of power and equals voltage times amperage, or the pressure times the current. Circuits were either series and the current was a constant or parallel and the current in each branch became a function of the resistance contained in the branch. There were small schematics, a symbol for a battery, another for a light bulb. She underlined the definitions, then worked out the problems at the end of the chapter. Before the accident, before the SUV plowed into the side of his Honda, Harold had been employed as an engineer for a commercial laboratory. He’d specialized in electronic data acquisition. “It’s a form of communication, I guess,” he’d said once. He’d described how he wrote programs, instructions to signal sources and measuring equipment, and it had all seemed so wonderful, so mysterious, with orders going out and results coming back, and he’d been in charge of it all. Now, though she’d never been very good at science, she was determined to learn what she could. There was time and it was just a matter of not giving up.
* * *
She put on her shoes that afternoon and went for a walk. It had been two years since she’d seen the land she still knew best. She walked in the mown stubble along the side of the narrow road. The road was paved now, but she remembered the white coral rock and the puffs of dust beneath her shoes, the tall grass to either side, the way it once had been. In all directions, there was only the sky. In California, something had always been in the way—high rise apartments, hills of live oak, mountains—but now the flat earth, the unobstructed view, seemed significant, imbued with purpose, and she realized she’d missed it all, the grass, the clouds, the intense sun firing among the palmetto fronds, the grasshoppers leaping before her feet. She turned off onto a dirt path and followed it down the gentle slope to the sinkhole. It had been one of her favorite childhood spots. One side was steep and curtained with tangled masses of vines hanging above the deep, aquamarine water. The other sloped gently to the yellow shallows where the vegetation had been worn away, leaving only hard, white sand. It was one of a chain, all connected beneath the earth and, on occasion, the water turned dramatically green or black, or vanished mysteriously for a while, only to bubble up again a few weeks later. The chemistry of the change had never been investigated and the hydraulics, the surge and pull, were still largely unexplained. Clarissa had imagined an underground world of water, ruled by its own laws. Now, she walked along the edge and stared down, watching where bream idled and minnows darted away from her shadow and crayfish skittered along the gravel bottom. She should have come here sooner, she thought. Her husband had lingered after the accident and then he’d died, and still she’d remained in her old apartment, looking out the blurred window at the fog rolling in, making winter of a summer’s afternoon. It had been cold and dark and at nights she would wander through the apartment, touching Harold’s clothes, his desk, running her fingers along the backs of his books. That’s when the idea occurred to her, in the middle of the night, feeling his presence around her as she stood dressed in her bathrobe, staring at his small library. She hadn’t been a very good wife. She’d tried, but she just hadn’t been prepared. She’d never been very attentive during the science classes she’d been forced to take in high school, and when Harold sat relaxed in his chair, talking about his job, she’d felt stupid, a child held back. It was staring at his books, though, once he had gone, that made her suddenly realize she had the time, now, to catch up. She pictured his surprise, his delight, when he met her at her death and found they could converse, after all. She watched the sun reflected in the water. A small school of bream moved out of the brightness and she imagined them swimming under the earth, traveling from sinkhole to sinkhole. How wonderful, how mysterious, such a dark journey would be. When she arrived back home, the UPS truck had dropped off a box of books for her: Intermediate Electronics, Simple Circuit Design, Algebra for Engineers. She took them into her room and put them on the night table by her bed.
* * *
Her father asked her to come out on the porch and sit with him a while. She knew there was more to it than that, so she waited silent in her mother’s rocker and stared out at the night. On the horizon were three half circles of light where distant cities were chained along the coast. Beneath her, she thought she felt the movement of water, flowing through secret caverns. “Do you want to talk?” he asked finally. “Sure,” she said. “Your mother’s worried about you.” It was as if she were fifteen again. She almost laughed, but resisted. Resistance equals voltage over current. She wasn’t going to help him on this. “We know what you’ve been through.” Did he? She remembered looking for hours out of her apartment window, watching muffled people walk damp streets. “The thing is,” he said and then stopped. They sat in silence for a few minutes. An owl hooted off to the right. A slow breeze drifted across the porch. “Would you like to see someone?” her father asked, finally. He leaned forward and removed his glasses, rubbed the sides of his nose. At first, she had no idea what he meant. “We think you should see someone. We think it would do you good.” Then she knew exactly what he meant, but there was no one she wanted to see. She smiled, but remained silent. “That’s not going to do any good. I think you’re in trouble. I think you need help. You can’t just ignore everyone.” “That’s not what I’m doing, at all.” How could she explain? In what way could she show them how beautiful her studies were, how lovely her nights? “I’m growing,” she said. “I’m learning new things.” “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” her father said. “I’ve never known how to talk to you. I probably never will.” She reached out and touched his hand. This worry will pass, she thought, and then things will be better. “I just need some time,” she said.
* * *
Alternating current goes so briefly in both directions, getting nowhere, really, merely shaking in the wire. Reactance occurs. Capacitance, inductance. The world grows weirder, the formulas more complex. During the day, she studies. During the night, she dreams of the clean lines of lifeless moons, empty stars above landscapes of jagged rock, perfect worlds of ice, too cold for anything but beauty. What perfect submission! What perfect equanimity. Vacancy spins around emptiness with an absolute indifference approximated only poorly by the ocean in storm, by dunes of desert sand stretching off into a baking sky.
* * *
The weeks passed and it seemed she’d been at home forever, each day flooding into the next, unnoticed and unmarked. At first, her brother had been considerate and distant, but lately he’d become more casual, rougher, and now he sat across the table from her and smirked. All she’d asked him was a simple question, if he had a date that night. She was just trying to make conversation. Her father sat to her left and seemed abstracted. Her mother, to her right, ladled gravy onto her mashed potatoes. “I said, Alan, ‘Are you going out tonight?’” He jerked his head back, as if surprised. “I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” He smiled. “I guess I wasn’t listening. I must have been communing, getting in touch with my inner being.” He stared at her, as if this were a dare. Her father snorted and even her mother smiled. “I guess I was just too self absorbed,” he said. She stared at her plate and thought conversation not worth the price. After she’d eaten and helped clear the dishes, she went to her room and sat on the edge of her bed. An hour later, she was still there, having done nothing, while her books waited on the night table, well within reach. What was I thinking? she wondered.
* * *
Her dreams stopped and she began sleeping through the nights. When she woke, she felt frayed, unraveled somehow, and found her-self dawdling over a second and even a third cup of coffee. Oscillators she’d thought fascinatingly recursive and rectifiers were admirable in their simplicity, simply slicing off half an AC cycle. Filters and clamps were monolithic, tools one could use, but now she’d progressed into the digital circuits and the world had been reduced to ones and zeros, on and off, here and gone. There were bits collected into larger groups called bytes. She found the words offensive, the concepts puerile, the contrasts extreme. She tried to tell herself this was just a stage, but she wandered around the house for hours and spent time watching TV, unable to force herself back to her work. “I’m glad you’re finally taking an interest in things,” her mother said one evening. They were watching a dating game, Keepers and Losers. Clarissa looked down at what she was wearing, jogging pants and a T-shirt. Definitely a loser. She wondered if that had always been the case, and why on earth her husband had ever married her. She tried to remember her life in San Francisco. Hadn’t she been more elegant then? She wasn’t sure and there was no one left to ask.
* * *
She hadn’t studied in weeks, when her father asked her over dinner if she’d like to come along with him the next day. He was inspecting a pumping station just outside of Felda and planned on being back by late afternoon. She’d spent the day fighting with her mother and the house was seeming far too small, so she agreed. They rose early the next morning, packed a lunch of bologna sandwiches, and threw cans of soda in a cooler. She remembered doing this as a child, going camping, her father a dark, tall woodsman standing at the sink beside her. The sun was just rising when they climbed into the van. They drove on the back roads, asphalt scarcely wide enough for two lanes. She stared out the window. The grass had gradually changed into bare fields, dark plowed rows that soon would be snap beans and, later, tomatoes. At the far edge of the fields stood windbreak pines. The heavens were distant and gray, then pink, then all encompassing blue, and she felt insignificant and exalted. Her father drove without talking, other than to point out a hawk overhead, a snake dead by the side of the road. They turned and a canal ran beside them. She watched her father as he stared into the placid water. His face seemed thoughtful, cold, and she imagined him calculating drainage rates in gallons per second. “It’s pretty,” she said. He turned to glance at her. “What?” She waved her hand across the windshield. “This.” He peered out for a moment, as if trying to see what she saw. It wasn’t any use, she thought, not certain by that what she meant, exactly. She felt open and raw, as if spread across the sky. The first canal intersected another at right angles. She looked along its length and realized they were traveling in a grid of crossed canals, a chessboard marked by water. “They’re eighteen to twenty feet deep, on average,” her father said. “This used to be nothing but swampland.” In school, she’d seen pictures of how it had been, large savannas of submerged grass, waving in the currents and quick with fish, herons lifting from flat sheets of water and nesting in the branches of cypress. Now, instead, there was the plowed dirt, power lines, isolated sheds and farmhouses, the occasional billboard. They turned away from the canals onto an unpaved road, merely two ruts in the earth. On both sides, elevated sprinklers shot arcs of water across the fields. Her father slowed and pointed ahead to where the ruts rose, then disappeared. “Pumping station’s just over that hill.” She didn’t say anything, couldn’t think of words. “You know,” her father said, suddenly stopping the van. When the engine quieted, there was the sound of rushing water. “I try to understand things.” He turned and looked at her. His eyes seemed tired. “I don’t do a very good job at it most of the time. I don’t understand you, or what you’re going through. Usually, I just hope being there, hanging around, counts for something.” She watched the sprinklers to either side and felt overcome. There were her studies, neglected, nearly impossible now. She imagined her husband’s disapproval, the way his face turned hard, and she wondered if she were crying. She didn’t want to cry. Hanging around, just being there. That’s all she’d ever done. How could it possibly be enough? Her father reached out and pushed her hair back from her eyes and she fell helplessly against his shoulder. It had all been so strange. She didn’t know how anything really worked and her life stretched out in front of her, as uncertain as it had always been. Her father edged the van forward. She sat up and held to the door handle as they bounced over deeper holes. They climbed a small hill of white rock and she realized they were on a levee. A white road ran along a broad canal. Two hundred yards away a beige, windowless building sat surrounded by a chain link fence. At the rear of the building an angled pipe half the width of a car shot water into the air. They climbed out of the van and walked along the canal. The sun was high, now, and already it was hot. The water roared from the pipe in a confusion of foam, looking somehow solid until the column broke at the top of the arc and fell in a scatter of spray and mist. “Aerating,” her father shouted above the noise. “We’re pumping it up from the aquifers.” She stood there, consumed by the sound and the moisture in the air and imagined the water pulled irresistibly from its secret darkness deep in the earth. It seemed horrible, and wonderful, and for long minutes she couldn’t look away.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro


PATRICK J. MURPHY has worked as an electronic engineer for NASA/Ames Research Center, served in the U.S. Navy on an oceangoing minesweeper, and is now completing his Ph.D. in English at Florida State University. His work has been published in journals and anthologies such as The Hawaii Review, New Orleans Review, and 100% Pure Florida Fiction (University of Florida Press).

His story “Catching Up” received The Greensboro Review’s 2002 Literary Prize for short fiction.