Under Texas

Matt Valentine


Jack could taste the diesel fumes coming into his dive mask and he reminded himself, again, to beat the crap out of that bubba J.C. when he went up. J.C. had started the pump up on top of the tower and hadn’t checked the direction of the wind, so the diesel fumes were getting blown right into the air intake and into Jack’s hat. Not a big deal in a forty foot water tower but that dumb hick would do exactly the same thing offshore and probably kill somebody. At depth it’s more concentrated and Jack had heard people say you could practically chew diesel exhaust at three hundred feet if it was coming down your umbilical.

He spoke through the radio in his hat to Joao, the rack operator.

“That dumb fucker is asphyxiating me.”

“He’s been moving the pump around,” Joao said. “Winds are shifting.”

“If he smells like Corona when I come up, I’m gonna kick both your asses.”

“Moment, friend.”

“What’s up?” Jack said.

“J.C. is taking a piss off the side of the tower.”

“Is he pissing into the wind?”

The verdict was still out for Jack on water towers. A big pain in the ass, for sure, getting hosed down with chlorine and having to haul the pump up to the hatch with a rope—you could get exhausted and sick of the job before you even got in the water. But there was something reassuring about squirming down that hatch in a dry suit into the dark little womb. The acoustics were weird. In that tin drum everything was sloshing, the stuff inside you and the stuff all around. You could hear it all lapping in your ears and even through your bones—bone conduction, the way some fish hear things through the vibrations in their skeletons. You could hear yourself as a thing in the water, and Jack liked that.
Jack scanned the floor with his flashlight. Some hard water deposits, nothing too serious. He would clean it up, suction it away. His sister Laura called him an underwater janitor. But his wage was always over a hundred dollars an hour, and sometimes being alone in the water brought Jack a peaceful insulation.

The beam of his flashlight came out in a cone and in the clear drinking water it was strong enough to illuminate a wedge of light straight through to the opposite wall. It had a spotlight effect—a tiny area visible and everything around it black. He turned on the suction and the mineral deposits came up in flakes and he could see the bottom underneath, the clean aluminum.

“It’s coming out,” Joao said. “Not much of it. Easy today, eh Jack?”

“Easy. But I’m still going to kick the shit out of J.C.”

When he had finished he ballasted and up he went. J.C. wasn’t a completely worthless tender—he could manage the umbilical well and keep it out of your way as you came up. Better to die on the bottom than get choked by your own umbilical while your tender was trying to fish you out. But even when things were going smooth, Jack hated coming up.

This was the part, the fucking terrible part of diving, coming out of the water and feeling all at once the weight of your equipment, the weight of your body, gallons of water pouring off your suit as you pulled yourself out of the hatch into the sunlight and the acoustics of open air. Jack stood up on the aluminum roof of the tower and as he fumbled to get out of his hat the metal buckled under him and he fell on his ass. He stayed down—there was no railing on the tower and he might just as easily have fallen the other direction and dropped off the edge. Sitting there the clean rivulets of water sluicing from him ran down the side of the tank, bright in the sunlight and tinted blue, reflecting the perfect blue emptiness of the sky.

J.C. came up behind him and unfastened the hose. “Two hours and a quarter,” J.C. said. “Joao’ll call it three and a half. Three  thirty and it’s already Miller time.”

“Not bad,” Jack said. His voice was loud to him.

“Not a’tall,” J.C. said. “I just wish it wasn’t so damn boring. I’m half asleep.”

Jack looked over his shoulder and saw Joao below him taking the cooler out of the pickup and cracking open a Shiner. “Let’s go get stimulated.”


Joao knew how to argue about money. He never raised his voice. He told the residents of High Lonesome Ranch that their tower had been poorly maintained and had required special service which carried an additional $250 fee.

“You’re a slick son of a bitch, Joao,” Jack had said in the van on the way home.

“I just made you an extra eighty bucks,” Joao said. “Your sister will be proud of me.”

For the tower job Jack pulled in $480. He signed the check over to his sister Laura and stared at her soberly.

He noticed her new lip ring and decided not to mention it. He didn’t want to fight. He held the check in his hand but he didn’t extend it toward her.

“I think you should buy some baby clothes. And a crib or something. You should buy a crib and I’ll help you set it up next to your bed. They’ve got all that baby stuff at Wal Mart.”

“Yeah,” Laura said. She pulled the check from his fingers, folded it, and put it into her pocket. “Okay.” She didn’t look at him.

“Lots of the babies in the hospital have little hats and socks and stuff. She’s just got the hospital clothes.” Jack went to the refrigerator and found a bottle of Rolling Rock. “She’s got that red crusty stuff under her nose again,” he said. 
“Did you ever find out what that was all about?”

Laura leaned against the refrigerator and smiled at him. “Notice anything different?” she asked.

“I noticed that shit in your face, if that’s what you mean. It looks terrible.”

He couldn’t believe her—she looked like a fucking Halloween costume again, and she’d only been out of the hospital for two weeks. She was skeletal, still wearing her maternity wardrobe and dragging the billowy material around like a grounded parachute. The flesh around the lip ring was swollen and pink. It looked like someone had tried to staple her mouth closed.

“How much did that cost you?” he said, pointing.

“I did it myself.”

Laura scoffed and went to the bathroom to rinse with Scope. Jack stood in the doorframe and watched her spit into the sink. There was blood mixed in with the mouthwash—maybe she had pierced herself.

“It only cost fifty bucks,” she said. “I was going to get one in a couple of months but there was this great body piercing expert who was in town teaching a class on ‘tender parts.’ She put a flyer up that offered half off for people who would get their piercings on stage during class.”

“Wow,” Jack said flatly. “And you only got one?”

She poked at her lip with a towel. Their eyes met in the mirror of the medicine cabinet and she made a tired smile which was like a frown with no meanness in it. “Go to hell,” she said.


The nurse at South Austin General Hospital recognized Jack and smiled at him when he signed the visitor’s log. He flipped through the log book to see if Laura had come to visit in the past few days.

“Do you know if Jessica’s mom has come to see her?”

The nurse shook her head. “I wouldn’t know—there’s a lot of visitors in this ward. Some people don’t sign in.”

Jack followed the nurse to the infant ICU. On the way they passed the children’s playroom and Jack saw the rainbows made from construction paper in the windows. It was somehow obvious that they were not made by children. The nurse showed him to Jessica’s crib. It was a new crib—the one he’d seen a few days before had been a completely enclosed transparent plastic cube. He stood over her and looked down at the tiny violet body dwarfed by the mouthpiece to the respirator that pumped six hundred shallow breaths per minute into her fragile lungs, a rapid flutter that kept them from collapsing. The plastic crib was covered with a sheet of cellophane.

“To keep out germs, I guess,” Jack said to the nurse.

“To keep out drafts.”

He stared at his little niece. Her eyes were squeezed closed and her arms and legs were spread wide about her. She looked like a bug pinned to a display for an entomologist. A nurse had explained the respirator to him: Jessica was so premature, born at twenty weeks gestation, that she had only days before birth lost her embryonic gills and grown lungs. She had been breathing liquid two weeks ago. 
Her new lungs were delicate.
“Can I touch her?” he asked.

“Not yet.”

The crib was labeled “Anderson twin B.”

“Can I just write ‘Jessica’ on there?” he asked.

Jack wasn’t sure, really, whether this was Jessica or Janet—he hadn’t brought this up with Laura. But somehow it seemed to him that the other one, the dead twin, was Janet. Jessica would make it.


Jack had bronchitis. He spit up blood in the sink.

“Can you dive?” Joao asked.

“Yes,” Jack said.

Joao gave him a glass of hot water with lemon. “I’ll call and cancel the dive,” he said.

“No, don’t.”

“You can’t dive with your lungs full of snot. You’ll end up with busted ear drums. I’m not going to learn sign language for you.”

“All right, cancel it. Ask them if we can do it Sunday.”


Laura would not go to the hospital. She had accumulated more shit in her face and other places on her body. She had piercings on her lips, tongue, and nose.

“You’re wrecking your body,” Jack said. “All that shit is stupid, Laura. Why do you want to poke holes in yourself?”

“Save me the lecture, Dr. Health,” Laura said. “You look like a zombie. You’re going to get bone necrosis and die when you’re, like, thirty five.”

“Necrosis? Is that your new word of the day?”

“There was a show on the nature channel about divers and how they’re all doomed to premature death.”

“That’s deep sea. All the changes in pressure. You don’t get that stuff from diving in Lake Travis.”

“Nevertheless,” Laura said, pointing a sharp fingernail at Jack’s head, “zombie.”

* * *
Jack was on day four of the five day prescription for Z pack, the miracle antibiotic that would kick the ass of any bacteria in the western hemisphere. Jack was not feeling better. Jack couldn’t stand to be with Laura and he went out drinking with Joao. They went to Trudy’s and Joao talked the waiter, a college kid, into comping their forty-dollar bill. “I told you I was allergic to onions,” Joao said. “I don’t see why I should pay for the food when I will only go home later to throw it up again.” Joao had neatly collected a little pile of onion bits removed from the salsa and presented them as evidence. “You know,” he said, “this is very serious. I might die.”
* * *
At Milligan’s they drank Shiner and played darts. Jack imagined the alcohol inside him dousing the Z pack pill in his stomach and dissolving it there like Alka Seltzer. They played darts with English rules and Jack won three times in a row. A woman approached them—was she impressed by darts? “Pleased to meet you,” Jack said. She was talking with Joao; they ignored him. “Pleased to meet you,” he said again. 6. On Sunday Jack thought he had died. He was in bed, unable to move. Terrible, he thought, when you die the soul stays and gets buried with the body. “Get up,” Joao said. “Leave me alone, I’m dying,” Jack said. He had rolled himself up like a mummy in his blankets during the night. “We have a dive today,” Joao said. “Did you sleep with that woman from the bar?” “Yes. A real bitch she turned out to be, too, friend. I got her in the ass, though, in the red eye. She howled.” “One day a woman will kill you,” Jack said. 7. They took all the gear to a campground in Bastrop, a four hour drive for a ten minute job. In the water, Jack’s sinus cavities kept draining into his throat. He had to keep swallowing in order to breathe. He took a look at a floodgate in Pedernales Creek which was stuck. There was a branch caught in it. He pulled it out and collected nine hundred dollars for his team. J.C. took the branch and carved a spoon out of it while they ate lunch along the creek bank. Jack watched the whittling and listened to the gurgling water hushing behind the floodgate he’d closed. The niggardly cedar trees all around stood as tall as a man and he felt calm standing among them, like a member of some patient congregation. He remembered the invoice in his pocket and he began to add and subtract in his mind, deciding how much he could give to Laura and Jessica and still clear his rent for the month. He was following his plan. He was doing good and the money was coming in. He was on a plan and it was working. “Come on, J.C.,” Jack said. “Get the gear in the truck and let’s roll, man. I’m dog-tired.” “You didn’t dive but a minute,” J.C. said, inserting the spoon into his face. “Let’s go, Bubba. I’m beat.” J.C. clicked the spoon against his teeth and then withdrew it from his mouth. “I got a urge to camp out,” he said. “Don’t call me Bubba.” Jack saw that Joao’s interest was piqued at the mention of the campout—the Brazilian set down a pile of gear in the dirt. “Yeah, I like the camping,” Joao said. “You sleep on the ground for one night and then the world is so much more comfortable to you the next day. I camped when I was a boy but never in a place with so few mosquitoes.” Jack looked from one man to another and then he took up a shovel to dig a latrine.
* * *
J.C. took the truck to the Stop and Go on Highway 290 and came back with ingredients for spicy chili. He served it up with his new spoon into Styrofoam coffee cups and the three men sat around their campfire with the food and beer. “When am I gonna get to dive?” J.C. asked. “I been your tender for ’bout six months and I ain’t never dived anywhere but Lake Travis.” “I’ve told you ten times, J.C.—you can’t dive on a job until you can show up sober and without a hangover,” Jack said. “I was sober at that last water tower job,” J.C. said. “Ah, you got there sober,” Joao said, “and you left with a bright red nose. I went after you to the bathroom in the gas station and the urinal smelled like dead kidneys.” “Yeah,” J.C. said, “I got stinky pee pee. I’m starting to worry about that.” Jack took half a cup of chili and set it on a rock in the fire. The Styrofoam rim of the cup performed a serpentine undulation and then melted down to the chili, hesitated there, building temperature, and then burned, licking a thin black flame up over the fire. “So cool!” Joao said. He put his own cup of chili onto the fire to watch it melt and burn. “Hey, now!” J.C. said. “That’s the finest chili in central Texas. You boys are wasteful and irrespectful.” Jack coughed up a heavy portion of brown mucus and spit it into the fire. It landed on a rock and sizzled and popped. It was dark now and the fire cast its moving reflections over the man sized trees, and their humanlike shadows danced nonsense. Distant voices drifted into the campsite. Young people somewhere nearby were laughing and yelling at each other. Jack, Joao, and J.C. bedded down on the dirt around the fire and made pillows from their extra clothes. Their conversation had hit a lull and they sat in separate contemplation for several minutes. “Hey, Jack,” J.C. said eventually. “What’s the ‘JJ’ stand for in ‘J&J Dive Team’?” “It stands for Jack and Joao,” Joao said. “Obviously.” “I think it stands for Jack and J.C.,” J.C. said. “I don’t know, J.C.,” Jack said. “Whatever you want, Bubba.” “Why don’t we call it J and J and J?” “Why don’t we call it J and J and Bubba?” At that moment, a teenage boy came crashing through the trees. He came into camp gasping for breath and at first he could only point in the direction from which he’d come. J.C. handed him a beer. He took a deep swig. In the firelight Jack could see that his clothes were soaking wet, that water was puddling on the ground around him, and that his wet shoes were caked with mud. “Easy now,” Jack said. “He’s breathing harder than a asthma kid beating off,” J.C. said. “My dad’s Explorer,” the boy said, “we couldn’t see where we were going.” “Did you have an accident? Is anybody hurt?” Jack asked. “It’s in the creek,” the boy said. “It’s not very deep. My girlfriend’s trying to get some help on her cell phone. Do you guys have a winch? We got to haul it out as soon as we can before it gets ruined. My dad’s gonna kill me.” Jack and his crew followed the boy to the place where he’d driven into the creek. The water just cleared the top of the vehicle, with the radio antenna rising to the surface like the tail of a mosquito larva. The headlights were still on and they cast their beams out under the water and illuminated the mud and silt swirling around the truck, disturbed by this giant obstacle in the current. There was a teenage girl waiting on the bank near the car. “It wasn’t that deep a minute ago,” the boy said. “It’s muddy here,” Jack said. “Your car is sinking in the mud. And I just closed the dam downstream a few hours ago, so the water level is rising.” Joao smiled at the girl. She turned and stared into the water. “Think we might could float it out?” J.C. asked. “How much do you think it weighs?” Jack asked. “Half ton. Maybe a little over that,” J.C. said. “We can float it out,” Joao said, loud enough that he was talking to everyone. “But it will cost twenty five hundred dollars.” J.C. headed toward camp at a gallop to get the dive gear and the floats. Jack watched as Joao stared at the boy with the intensity of a gambler. “I don’t have that kind of money,” the boy said. Joao turned and nodded to Jack. Jack knew it was a done deal. He peeled his shirt off and splashed water from the creek onto his hair and down his back. “We can work something out,” Joao said. “But if we do this thing for you, you must understand that it is not free.” “I understand,” the boy said. “It is very expensive, but not as expensive as a new car. We will help you, but you must compensate us. Understand?” “Yeah. Yes. I get it.” “It is very expensive, what we are doing,” Joao said. J.C. brought the van around and Jack geared up. He wore the deep gear with the umbilical because he didn’t want to carry oxygen tanks which would get in his way while he tried to dig a space for a float under the car. He snorted and spat, trying to clear his sinus cavities. “You shouldn’t dive sick,” J.C. said, handing him his head gear. “It’s not deep,” Jack said. He put his mask on and did his mic check with Joao. He dragged the giant rubber float with him into the rushing water. J.C. primed the pump and started the ignition. The air began flowing into his mask. It took a long time. The water was opaque with mud and he couldn’t see what he was doing. Jack used his hands to dig under the car, and each time he stuck his arms into the mud he felt resistance as he tried to pull them out again, the sucking sensation pulling him in. He coughed into his mask and saw the pink sputum. “The first float is in place,” Jack said. “Okay, you want me to inflate it?” Joao asked. “No. Let me get the other one in and we’ll blow them together. I don’t want to set the car off balance and get it rolling onto its side.” “You been down there almost an hour, Jack.” It was hard for Jack to breathe. He had to keep swallowing. The swallowing messed up his rhythm. He remembered Jessica with her respirator. It couldn’t be easy, breathing on a machine all the time. His bright lights illuminated a sphere of excited silt around him. He was nearly blind beyond it. He could see himself reflected in the shiny black paint of the truck. The light on his helmet eclipsed his head and made the reflection headless and radiant. He stood by, suspended in fascination, and watched his haloed double digging in the mud, knees bent against the constant push of the current. “Jack?” Joao said again, “you been down there almost two hours. You okay?” He looked up to the surface of the water. He could see the silhouettes of the boy and his girlfriend standing at the water’s edge, watching him, pointing into the water with their flashlight. Jack raised his arm to them and waved. “I’m okay, Joao,” he coughed into his microphone. “Give me twenty minutes.” He went to the passenger side of the car, the downstream side. The headlights of the car had grown dimmer. He thought he saw the car move a fraction of an inch. The current could tip it. There were pockets of air trapped inside making it buoyant. Jack cleared the mud around the front tire and strapped the float to it. He thought he saw the car move again, a slight shift. If it tips over in the current it will crush me. Jack secured the straps. “Blow the floats,” he said. “Okay, come up and we’ll blow them,” Joao said. “I’m clear. Blow them.” The upstream float inflated and tipped the car up onto two wheels. It looked like it was going to roll over onto him. He knew there wasn’t going to be any money for this job. Joao would make the young people pay, but it wouldn’t be money. Jack felt something growing inside him, a huge bubble of pressure that would blow him apart. The second float inflated and the car leveled itself. Lugubriously, slowly, it rose to the surface and breached with suction and foam and it spat like a whale from its open window. By the time Jack came up Joao had already attached a rope to the Explorer. Jack slumped against a boulder on the creek bank and watched as J.C., Joao, and the boy towed the vehicle with the van until it was safely beached. Water sluiced out from every seam and turned the dry ground to mud. “Oh, my god,” the boy kept saying. “Thank you so much. I’m so lucky I found you guys.” J.C. brought a bottle of water to Jack and unscrewed the lid for him. Jack’s gloves were coated in a heavy black mud. The smell was overwhelming. It was a smell of decay and rot trudged up from the creek bed. Jack couldn’t hear well. His eardrums were impacted with mucus. He could hear if he concentrated but if he didn’t he could only hear a ringing sound and the phantom sounds left over from being in the water. He looked at J.C. smiling over him and extending the water bottle. He took it and drank. He looked at Joao. Things had suddenly gotten serious between Joao and the boy. It was time to settle debts. Jack watched as Joao put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and took him aside, conferring with him quietly. The boy became angry after a moment and threw off Joao’s arm. Joao with his hands in the air—easy buddy—then the facile negotiation again, the calm insistence. The boy went to confer with his girlfriend. She became hysterical. Jack could hear her yelling. “No!” Joao approached them, calm as a water moccasin. Jack looked up to J.C. “I’m sick,” he said. “I want to go home.” 8. For the next several days, Jack could hardly get out of bed. The doctor gave him a second dose of Z pack and told him to eat lots of yogurt with live cultures. Laura went to the grocery store and the pharmacy for him, filled his prescription, and brought back a large tub of yogurt. She sat on the edge of his bed. “How you feeling?” she asked. “Okay,” he said. “You look better.” “You’re looking better, too.” Her arms had thickened a little and she didn’t have the wasted look of starvation anymore. “I brought your yogurt,” she said. She put a bowl of it next to his bed. Jack sat up. “Thanks.” He stirred the yogurt and then put the bowl aside. He looked at his sister and he recognized in her unexpected smile the same girl he had grown up with. The sensation of seeing her that way again was the same as seeing a close friend after a long absence. “Laura,” he said. Her name in his mouth sounded serious, a preamble. Suddenly the mood in the room had changed. She crossed her arms. “Laura,” he said. “I wish—” “Don’t.” “Maybe I can help. I mean—not the money—I mean, maybe I can help you want to do it.” She was looking down at the blankets covering his feet. He couldn’t see her face but he thought she might be crying. She didn’t make any noise but he thought she might be crying silently. “You did the right thing,” he said. “You did the right thing having the baby and now you have to just keep doing the right thing every day. I told you I’d help. I’m trying to help. Okay?” She looked up at him with a face gone ugly and red, clenched against tears. “You said you’d take care of everything if I did it.” “I will take care of everything,” Jack said. “I will. But it’s got to be you, too.” She nodded briskly three times and stood up. She didn’t look at him but she nodded again and walked quickly out of the room. Jack picked up his yogurt and tasted it. “It’s plain!” he said. He heard Laura’s car pulling out of the driveway.
* * *
Jack sat in bed and opened his mail. He thought about Laura. He hadn’t said what he wanted to say. That hadn’t been quite right. He could always make her understand what he wanted but never how he felt. He would help, somehow. It had to be more than the money. He would do anything. The telephone was ringing but he ignored it. He opened his bills. The answering machine came on and he heard his own voice asking to take a message. “Jack, it’s Joao. How are you? Your sister told me you were pretty sick still. I got a lead on a job for Tuesday. It’s a good one, a deep dive offshore in Galveston. I have to let them know right away—hold on—” Jack heard Joao’s doorbell ringing in the background. Joao returned to the phone. “If you can do it, let me know right away. If not, I’ll call and cancel. The take on this job is about four hundred an hour, Jack. It would be a fucking shame to turn it down.” Jack sorted his bills by payment due date. Then he shuffled them up again and re-sorted them by interest rate. He got up and looked in the mirror in the bathroom. A little dark around the eyes, a little sweaty. He looked okay. He could dive. In a few days he would be feeling fine. The phone was ringing again. He let the machine get it. He splashed water on his face. “Mr. Anderson, this is Samantha at South Austin General Hospital. I had a counseling appointment with your sister scheduled for this afternoon and I haven’t been able to reach her. If you happen to see her today, can you please ask her to give me a call? It’s important that we reschedule this appointment as soon as possible.” Jack dialed Laura’s and got the machine. “Damnit, Laura, you missed your appointment at the fucking hospital. Call me.” Jack dialed Joao’s and got no answer. Invigorated by his frustration, Jack found the energy to go to his van and drive the six blocks to Joao’s apartment. He parked outside Joao’s window and as soon as he got out of the van he could hear the lovemaking inside. It was Joao and Laura. He noticed her car parked across the street. The front door was unlocked. Jack walked through the apartment and directly to Joao’s bedroom. “Jack!” Joao said. Laura clutched the sheets over her body, leaving Joao exposed. Jack stood at the foot of the bed staring down at them. Joao was covered in curly ringlets of fur, his entire body a pubic region. He seemed goatlike—woolly and with short muscular legs. Laura had covered her face with a pillow. Her beetle blue black hair spilled out and over the white skin of her back, the skin almost as white as the sheet. Joao’s hooded penis nested in all that hair—something blind and featherless and newborn, slick and glistening. Jack stared at all these animal parts for what seemed a long time until eventually he saw Joao’s face and he stared into Joao’s eyes to keep himself from looking at the rest of it. “Jack—” “You’re fired!” Jack said. He didn’t mean to yell. Laura pulled the pillow away from her head and swung a hateful gaze at him. “Damnit!” he said. “Okay, Jack,” Joao said. “Damn you both.” The words sounded flat. “Okay.” Joao’s face was open and expressionless, impervious to drama. Jack knew that anything he said would sound like a tantrum and this enraged him. He found three doors to slam on his way out. 9. When Jack got home he looked at the blinking lights on the answering machine and thought he had two new messages. They were the messages that had come in earlier while he was home— from the hospital and from Joao. There was nobody to call so he called J.C. “You really fired him?” J.C. asked. “Yeah.” “Who’s the other J now,” J.C. sneered. “I guess it’s just you and me now, Bubba.” “You gonna let me be the rack operator and the tender?” Jack stood there with the phone in his hand for a long time and stared into the mirror. He could see the rage in his face, the embarrassing pink eyes. “I gotta call Joao,” he said.
* * *
He made the call. When Joao answered the phone, Jack listened to hear Laura in the background. “Jack?” Joao asked. “Is she there?” Jack asked. “Yes. She’s here. I don’t think you should talk to her now. Talk to her tomorrow.” “Tell her I’m sorry,” Jack said. “I will. She’s sorry, too.” Jack could hear his sister wrestling for the phone. The sound was muffled. Joao had his hand over the receiver. “Jack?” Joao asked after a moment. “Yeah.” “Should I book the job for Tuesday?” “Yeah.” 10. When he got in the van to go to the job, Laura was there with Joao and she was happy and Jack could see how little could be done about it. So this was what he would have to get used to now. He slept in the backseat near the reeking dry suits.
* * *
He was tagging broken cable lines with sonar markers. Galveston was a shithole and the visibility was about thirty inches. “You’re good, Jack,” Joao said. “J.C. is taking a dump into your intake so you won’t have to come up for lunch. Open wide.” Jack could hear Laura giggling in the background. Jack used his hose to blow silt away from the cable before he stuck his hands down there—there were all sorts of brown creatures camouflaged on the ocean floor that would squirm away. Some of them had stingers or spines or teeth or bits of cartilage that protruded from their bodies and could cut through a rubber glove like a scalpel. Jack found himself taking breaks. He was on a break, standing still, his body rocking with the rhythm of the water two hundred feet above him. His eyes began to close and he pulled himself awake. “You okay, Jack?” Joao asked. “Fine.” Jack was dying again, he felt the blanket around him again, and he knew it would be useless to struggle. Better to die on the bottom, he thought, because the spirit is light and it will surely float to the surface. They won’t bury it. “You okay, Jack? J.C. says he hasn’t been feeding any hose down. You have a situation?” “I’m fine.” With each step a fountain of mud geysered up underfoot. Jack was staring into a swirling column of silt cycloning from the ocean floor. It rose up in front of him like a pillar and the commotion of tiny particles reflected the lights from his dive suit and twinkled back at him, flashing on and off like fireflies. He looked deep into the movement and felt himself enveloped by it. He reached out. He could hear something. He could hear something in his bones. He was a janitor but at minus two hundred feet he was the custodian of a holy place. He could hear something in his bones. It was important. The sea was talking to him. He could hear it. It sounded like crying. He felt his heart racing with the joy of opportunity. Jack’s spirit left him and ballasted to the surface. Jack’s spirit flew to Austin, to the hospital, past the nurse in her station and into the crib of his baby niece, Jessica. Jack? He flitted into Jessica’s lungs in one tenth of a second and soon he had spread himself out inside of her. His soul had put her body on like a sweater. Do you copy, Jack? He felt the terrifying rapid flutter of the respirator pumping him with air, forcing hyperventilation. Ridiculous! Six hundred breaths per minute is not right—not right!—his Jessica could breathe but it was this thing in her mouth, taped to her mouth with heavy brown fabric—it was choking her. Pull him up. Get him up! She could breathe, she had breathed for twenty weeks in the womb, the deep lungfuls of milky fluid. Her body had learned the rhythm of breathing and he knew she could do it again. He would help her. But this thing had to come off. He grasped it, he controlled her meaty little hands with their pink bits of fingernail to clasp the mask, peel the strong tape away and breathe... breathe Jessica, the rhythm you know, like breathing fluid in the womb.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro


MATT VALENTINE lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he works as a photographer and writer. He is a recent graduate of New York University’s MFA Writing Program.