Night Swimming Stories

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2000-09-30
  • Publisher: Picador

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What is included with this book?


Filled with admiration for his characters and the hope they bring to their day to day dilemmas,Night Swimminghas affirmed Pete Fromm's reputation as one of the nation's best writers.

Author Biography

Pete Fromm is the author most recently of the novel How All This Started. He won Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards for the story collection Dry Rain (1997) and the memoir Indian Creek Chronicles (1994). He has published over a hundred stories, earning nominations for the Pushcart Prize, among other honors. He lives with his family in Great Falls, MT.

Table of Contents

How All This Started
Night Swimming
The Investigator
The Raw Material of Ash
Black Tie and Blue Jeans
The Thatch Weave
The Gravy on the Cake


Chapter One

How All This Started

Without a word of warning my sister Abilene jumped out of her crouch, shaking her gun at me. "Piss on this, Austin," she said. "What good's a gun if you can't shoot anything?" Then she was off and running.

    I tore after her as best I could, holding my own gun out to keep the willows from lashing my face. I barely made the truck before she roared off. With her last year of high school almost over, I was forever trying to keep her in sight, not let her leave without me.

    Holding on to the door handle with one hand and the fraying seat belt end with the other, I glanced over my shoulder at the red tornado we kicked up in our wake. That was always my favorite part of driving off the roads with Abilene--that furious rush of Texas dust and dirt.

    Catching me looking, she shouted, "No moss on our backs!"

    I loosened my grip and asked, "Where we going, Ab'lene?"

    "The river," she said, bouncing us through a hole that launched me into the roof of the cab, driving the button on top of my cap into my skull. I grabbed the door again, trying to hang on, but clamped my other hand over my head, hissing at the eye-watering stab of pain.

    Still barreling along, Abilene took a hand from the wheel and reached under my cap, rubbing at the sting. "Sorry," she said, smiling.

    I was never big on asking Abilene a lot of questions. I didn't say a word the day she cut the seat belts out of her truck, saying, "No moss," with each rip of her razor knife. But this time, maybe because of the way she was rubbing my head, I said, "How come the river?"

    "What's the hardest thing you can think to shoot?"

    "Doves," I said right away, what we'd been hiding in the willows waiting for before Abilene jumped up that way. I pictured their herky-jerky flight, the teardrop-bullet shape of their whistling bodies. I'd picked up whole boxes of empty shells to carry home with only one, maybe two birds.

    "Nope," she said, leaving me to guess.

    I waited a minute to see if she'd help, but she just kept rocketing along. "Quail?" I asked. "The popcorn kind?" That's what she called the ones that pop straight up and fly every which way.

    "Nope," she said, so fast I knew I wasn't supposed to get it.

    "Think, Austin! Not just what people hunt. Anything, anything at all. What would be the hardest?"

    "I don't know," I said, but she still wouldn't help.

    I was about to say "People?" just for something to say, when she said, "Swallows," grabbing the wheel tight, slithering through the turn and bucking down the ruts to the river. "Think of trying to hit one of them."

    Bodies the size of gnats, I thought, picturing them flitting up, down, left, right--wherever the bugs flew. Later she'd take me out to try to shoot bats, but this time I thought she had it. There couldn't be anything harder than swallows.

    They lived all along the river, in mud nests stuck right to the cliffs. Now, at dusk, with the bugs coming out, there were swarms of them zinging around. They weren't afraid of us. Sometimes they'd come so close I'd duck.

    Abilene said, "First one wins," and she fired before I thought she was serious. She missed and before long we were both blazing away, piles of empties growing around us.

    When we took a break I rubbed at my shoulder, my ears buzzing. Abilene stared down at the empties, like all of a sudden this wasn't much fun anymore. "Austin," she said, "do you think this is crazy?"

    "What?" I asked.

    "This. Everything." She waved her arms around. "Do you think I'm crazy?"

    I couldn't think of a way to answer so I didn't say anything, just stood there watching the smile grow across her face.

    "Thanks," she said, throwing her gun back up and firing, as if I had given her some sort of answer.

I hit the first swallow. Not the one I was aiming at, but one flying behind and above mine. Zigged when he should have zagged. He crashed on the shore and I stared at him. "I win," I said, before I saw how Abilene was looking at me.

    "You weren't aiming at that one," she snapped.

    The way she said it I answered, "I know," as quick as I could. "Was just luck."

    "No slop," she said. "Nobody's won anything yet."

    We kept shooting, but after that I only aimed enough to miss, afraid I might hit another by accident. Since she'd started acting this way--the troubles, Mom and Dad called it--I didn't like beating her at anything, though I was twelve now, old enough I sometimes almost had a chance.

    Finally it was nearly too dark to see and the swallows were going back to their nests anyway. We stopped shooting, but Abilene loaded another five shells into her gun. "Want to know the secret?" she said. "The swallow-killing secret?"

    I didn't say that I did, but Abilene said, "Hit 'em where they live."

    She didn't even lift the gun, but shot from the hip, straight across the river at the cliff crowded with mud nests; all five shots as fast as she could work the pump. I covered my face with my hands as the BBs sang back around us. After the fifth shot I looked up and though it was dark I could see the big vacant holes where the nests used to be. The birds were in the air again, circling everywhere, back and forth, peep-peeping.

    Reflecting the last of the day, the river was glossy and as I turned to follow Abilene I saw the little dark spots on its surface, the floating bodies of the dead swallows that didn't reflect anything.

    I hopped into the truck beside Abilene, and as she spun it around to point back up the bluff, I said, "You got a pile of them, Ab'lene."

    "I know," she said. "I win."

We started going out for swallows pretty often and after a while we got good enough we could hit them on the wing now and then and Abilene never shot the nests again. She still didn't think we were hitting them often enough, but she said she had a plan for that.

    Before we went out the next time Abilene took my gun, which was really Dad's, and clamped it into the vise. "What are you going to do?" I whispered. She was rummaging around in the toolbox and I moved so I was standing between her and the gun.

    "Here," she said, pulling out a rusty hacksaw. "We're going to make the ultimate swallow gun."

    "Don't, Ab'lene," I said, sliding out of her way when she kept coming. "Remember when you cut the stock?"

    She'd done that when I was only ten, so the gun would fit into my shoulder. And though Dad hadn't used it in years he went through the roof when he saw it. "Who on earth do you think you are?" he asked Abilene.

    Abilene leaned tight to him, peering up into his face. "We could hardly bust it out of its cobwebs!" she shouted. "Time for you to pass it on and get the hell out of our way. That's what fathers do."

    That was the first time she ever really shouted at him, and Dad stopped in the middle of what he was saying. Big and tall as he was, he only looked like some giant tree, just before Paul Bunyan yells timber. He pressed his lips together, not exactly the way he did when he was mad, and stared at Abilene. Then he turned around and we almost didn't hear him say, "I wish I'd never seen Abilene."

    He meant the city, not my sister. See, my dad's favorite story was about how we got our names. Not where we were born, but where we were conceived. "How all this started," he'd always say, waving his arms around him like he had a kingdom to show off. He'd tell the story to anybody who asked, and some that didn't. Made most people blush or change the subject. As huge as Dad was, and Mom so tiny, Abilene was always saying it must have been a freaking freak show. After she told me about The Facts, I could hardly believe we'd been born in the first place. The very thought grossed out Abilene and me.

    At first whenever he'd start, me and Abilene would leave the room. Then, as Abilene got older, she'd ask things to make him look bad, things like, "What would've happened if Austin came first? Would you have called him Abilene?"

    He'd look at her, confused, then try to remember where he'd been before she interrupted. If he couldn't remember he'd just start over at the beginning. "We were young, newlyweds, and you know what that's like. We were just in Abilene for the night." I could picture his every smile and grin, always coming at the same parts. Abilene said the whole story was so much lizard shit. She said, "I bet we were adopted. God, I hope we were."

She sawed more than a foot off the barrel and we got tons of swallows, shooting down low along the river, where they cruised for bugs hatching out of the water. The shot scattered all over out of the short barrel and if you waited right you could knock down three, four, five at a time. Nobody ever said Abilene didn't know what she was doing.

    One night we got so many she had me collect them. Wading out in the warm water I tossed them back to shore where Abilene gutted them. After bringing in the last of the birds, I sat down next to her. The swallows were so tiny Abilene had to scoop with just her pinkie and I wondered if maybe she really was crazy. "What are we going to do with them?" I asked.

    "Have them for dinner. Deep-fry them in olive oil. I read about it. They do it all the time."

    I looked at her. "Who?"


    "Italians?" I said.

When we came into the house Mom and Dad were standing in the kitchen and Abilene leaned both our guns against the wall in plain sight. I followed her in with my arms full of swallows. "Look," I said, hoping Dad wouldn't notice the sawed gun. Mom and Dad stared at all the tiny, naked birds, each one smaller than a golf ball. The meat was dark, dark red, almost purple. "I'm cooking tonight," Abilene announced.

    When Mom started to say something Abilene shushed her. "Austin," she said, "get me the fryer." To Mom and Dad she said, "Go on into the living room and relax. This is going to be an experience. Most excitement for you guys since that night in Abilene, or maybe Austin." She gave me a whack when she said that, rolling her eyes to the ceiling.

    Dad, I noticed, was looking at his old shotgun, at the hacked-off barrel, even the splinters at the end of the stock still visible, though that sawing was a few years old by then. It'd be tiny now in his big hands. He looked over at Abilene and back at the gun. He must have felt Mom staring at him and he glanced her way before stepping to the guns, his shoulders sagging. He picked up Abilene's first and jacked out all the shells. Then he picked up his old gun and did the same. He put all the shells in the big pockets of his pants. Leaning his gun back against the wall he said out loud, "I was so proud when I first got this."

    Abilene snorted.

    "Come on, Ruby," he said to Mom and they walked quietly to the living room.

    For a while now if Mom and Dad tried to get her to act any certain way Abilene'd start screaming, "Please, please, please, tell me about Abilene again, Daddy! Tell me How All This Started!" She'd wave her arms to show what she wanted to know about--all of us, our whole lives. Mom and Dad hadn't been able to figure out anything to do but walk away.

We didn't have any olive oil so Abilene used Crisco. "There's not an Italian within a thousand miles of here anyway," she said. When the swallows were done she loaded them onto plates, heaping Dad's so high they kept falling off. She called them to dinner and we sat around the table staring at our swallows. Dad made the first move, poking at one with his fork, trying to pull some meat away from the tiny bones.

    "No, Daddy," Abilene said, and I could see Dad's fingers whiten around his fork. "Like this," she said when he looked at her. She popped a whole bird into her mouth with a suddenness that made me flinch. I could hear the crunching as she chewed, then she swallowed and smiled. "Scrumptious."

    I was the next to try. It was kind of fun and the bones weren't much more than sardines'. Abilene tossed one into the air, calling, "Peep, peep," before catching it in her mouth. She winked at Mom.

    Mom scraped her chair back and went to her room.

    Dad stayed with us though, and eventually he put a swallow in his mouth and slowly bit down. He chewed and said, "These are good, Abilene. Really."

    Abilene winked at him, too.

    Dad said, "Maybe we ought to do more of this. Trying new things."

    "Well," Abilene said, "with that new swallow slayer we'll be steady on swallows for a while, but I think it's going to open a lot of doors for us."

    She was pointing right at the mutilated shotgun and I shrank back in my chair, but Dad just nodded and reached for another swallow.

Later that night, when I was in bed, another fight blew up downstairs. I couldn't make out many words, but when I crept out to the top of the steps I heard Mom's voice, as thin and fragile as she was, pleading, "But Abilene, it's for your own good. We worry about you."

    Abilene laughed like crazy at that. Then she stopped, chopping the laugh out of herself with a crash, something metal against something wood. I could hear Mom suck in a startled breath. I pictured her standing there, her hand halfway to her mouth, trembling, even her bones thin, like the swallows', ready to crack and crumble. Abilene shouted, "Don't ever call me that filthy name again! Never! I'm Abby."

    "That's fine, Abby, honey," Mom said.

    Abilene shrieked, "My name is not Abby-honey!"

    I wondered how Mom had gotten the word Abby out so fast, so natural. It was the first time my sister had ever mentioned it as her name.

    Abilene thundered up the stairs then, carrying the gun she'd sawed off. I thought of the slam of wood against metal and figured she must have swatted the gun against the table to get their attention. I crouched against the hard, turned posts of the railing and though I was in plain sight, Abilene marched right past. The bang of her door made me wonder if she hadn't pulled the trigger.

    I waited but Mom and Dad didn't come after her and pretty soon I went alone to her door and whispered, "Abby?" practicing the word in my head before I spoke. I said it again.

    Her voice came muffled through the door. "You can still call me Ab'lene," she said. "That's totally different."

    I said, "Okay." Ab'lene's what I'd called her since I could first talk. I stared at her door, hoping both that she'd open it and be all right and that she wouldn't open it at all. I waited as long as I could, then whispered, "Everything's all right, Ab'lene. It's a pretty name. I mean, what if it had been Amarillo or someplace? Lubbock?"

    I heard her laugh a little, and I could picture her in there, biting her red knuckles, trying not to laugh at all. I wondered where the gun was. "Good night, Sidekick," she said.

The bats were next, but they didn't last long. One evening we were getting set to go out for them--you had to wait till almost dark, of course--and Abilene came charging up the basement steps three at a time. I stepped out of her way as she started shouting, "Where are my guns?"

    Mom and Dad were watching TV and when Abilene reached that door she shouted, "Where are they?"

    "Abby," Mom started and I heard a whack. Though I'd never heard it before I knew right away it was the sound of a hand against a face and I backed up until both my shoulder blades were tight against the kitchen wall.

    There was more shouting then, not words, just shouts, a roar finally breaking out of Dad. In a second he came through the kitchen with Abilene pinched in his arms. She thrashed like a broken-backed snake, but she didn't have a chance caught in those arms.

    Mom was right behind and she stopped long enough to say, "We're taking Abby to town, Austin." She apologized then, while I studied the bright pink outline of Abilene's fingers on her cheek. Mom was out the door when she turned and said, "You tried so hard with her."

    I watched from the door, Mom getting behind the wheel while Dad held Abilene down in the backseat. She shouted to me for help, but I couldn't do anything but let the screen door bang shut between us.

When I couldn't hear the car anymore I went downstairs and found the gun rack empty, the same way Abilene had. I went through Mom and Dad's closet but our guns weren't there either.

    They were in the attic, not hard to find, just behind some boxes. Both guns, Abilene's and the ruined sawed-off, and the whole garbage bag of shells Abilene had reloaded. It took two trips getting them down the ladder. It was a dumb hiding spot. If Abilene hadn't blown up like she had we'd be out right now, doing nothing more dangerous than pumping the night full of holes. Maybe a few bats too, at worst.

My parents had a long talk with me that first night. Bipolar , they kept saying, like Abilene was some kind of magnet. They kept saying I was great for her and that I should keep trying to be her friend. Mom did most of the talking while Dad stared at his hands.

    I nodded and they said we'd all have to try to do everything we could. "You know what you could start with?" I said, looking at Dad. "Don't ever tell that story again, about the names. How All This Started."

    Actually Dad hadn't told that story in a long, long time and he looked startled. I said, "We hate that."

    I got up then, thinking of the two of them that first of all nights in Abilene. I couldn't keep from shaking my head, rolling my eyes. "I moved the guns," I said. "She would've found them there in a second."

Abilene didn't come home for almost two weeks. Then she was quiet for a long time, not shouting or yelling at anyone. She never asked about the guns and we never went out in her truck anymore. Sometimes I'd ask if she'd just like to go for a ride but she'd breathe slow and say, "I don't think so, Austin. Too hot."

    I kept working at her though, being her friend, and when a norther came through, chilling everything, I said, "Not too hot now, Ab'lene," till she finally said she'd come along. But she made me drive, saying she wasn't quite up to that. I wasn't old enough for a license yet, but Abilene had taught me how to drive years ago.

    Even though Mom and Dad were up in town, one of the first times they'd left Abilene alone with me, I waited until we were out of sight of the house before goosing it and blowing off the road. Instantly we had a red Texas roostertail climbing the sky behind us. I pointed with my thumb and when Abilene looked back I shouted, "No moss growing on our backs!"

    Abilene laughed at that, laughed a long time and I slowed down just so I could hear. I was barely creeping along by the time she got over it. She wiped at her eyes and before I knew it she jerked her foot around the stick and hammered my foot down on the gas. I had a wild time just trying to steer.

    When I lost it at last, ricocheting off the edge of the wash, grinding up the side of the truck, and blowing a tire clean off its bead, Abilene finally let off the gas and we lurched to a stop in the center of the wash. It was a long time before we got our breaths back enough to talk.

    "Ab'lene?" I said and she answered back, "Austin?" teasing the way my voice shook.

    We broke out laughing all over again until she stuck her hand under my nose. It was full of pills. "Want some?" she said. "What to know how a voodoo zombie feels?"

    I shook my head and she threw all the pills out her window. She'd been skipping them for a long time, she told me. She was biding her time. "Until the perfect getaway opportunity presents itself."

    "First," she said, "I was going to wait until you were old enough to come along." She punched my shoulder. "I mean, what good's an outlaw without a sidekick?"

    "Outlaw?" I said.

    "But can't wait that long, Sidekick," she said. "I'd never make it."

    She punched my shoulder again and it hurt. She said, "But I'll be back for you. Count on that. I won't forget Austin."

    "Where are you going?" I asked, but she didn't answer.

It was closing on dusk by the time we got the tire changed and the truck going again and I didn't want Abilene to go away. I drove slow up the draw and said, "Want to get a few bats?"

    She stared at me a second and then smiled. "Austin, Austin," she said. She looked straight ahead and crooked her finger like pulling a trigger. "Pow."

    When I showed her where the guns were, safe in the old water tank, she shook her head and said, "Austin," again, smiling so wide it seemed her face might tear. She rubbed my head the way she had when I'd hurt it bouncing into the top of the truck.

    "Let's get us some bats," she said, though I would have stayed inside that old tank with her forever right then.

    "Maybe swallows would be better," I said. "You can at least eat swallows."

    "Nope. Bats. It's too late for swallows."

    When we left with the guns, Abilene drove.

We were out late and Mom and Dad looked more at me than Abilene when we came home. "Did you two have a good time?" they asked together, Dad, even with all his size, having the same nervous bird-look as Mom. Before I could answer Abilene said, "Yes. Austin took me for a ride. It was pretty. The sun set."

    How she lapsed back to her new quiet was startling. At sunset we'd been overlooking the river, blazing away at the shadowy traces of bats. I don't know if we hit any or not. We stayed out till after it was completely dark and Abilene kept shooting straight up into the night. "Look at the flame, Austin," she said every time she shot.

    "I'm looking," I answered.

In the middle of that night I woke up scared, peering into the pitch black of my room, breathing hard, wondering what had woken me. I could hear the soft breathing of someone else in my room, someone standing close. Sweat popped out all over me. Then, quietly, out of the darkness, Abilene said, "You know, the only good part of the goddamn How All This Started story is the night in Austin."

    "Ab'lene?" I said, and I listened to the floor creak beneath her as she walked out of my room and the gentle way she had closing the door, even turning the handle so the latch wouldn't bump over the catch.

In the morning Mom was shaking me, telling me I had to get up, I had to help. Abilene was gone, with her truck. I dressed as fast as I could, though I knew there was nothing I could do now about anything. "She doesn't have a spare tire," I said, then shook my head when Mom asked, "What?"

    Mom and Dad called Abilene's doctor. My job, they told me, was to stay home. "In case she calls," Dad said.

    I said, "Okay," though I knew there wasn't going to be any call. I said "Good luck" to them anyway, and they raced off on their search.

    Once their dust settled I set off walking, dodging through the cactus and creosote. At the water tank the sawed-off and the bag of shells were gone, but Abilene had left me her gun and a few handfuls of shells. I worked the pump and a live shell fell out. There were five of them, a full magazine. Last night, when we put them away, the guns hadn't been loaded.

    I pictured Abilene loading up the sawed-off, dropping it onto the truck seat along with the bag of shells, then coming back into the black inside of the tank and working to slide these shells into the magazine, thinking about me, not stranding me helpless.

    Loading my pockets with the shells she left, I put the gun over my shoulder and stepped out of the tank, picturing Abilene thinking of me, while Mom and Dad and the doctors and who knows who all else were already chasing after her.

    I walked back into the desert carrying her gun while she drove wherever she was going with the one we'd ruined. I pictured her white-knuckled grip on the wheel, just barely keeping from knocking herself out on the roof of the cab as she launched through the ditches; the red tornado that'd follow her everywhere. No matter how far anyone chased her.

    I knew Abilene was gone for good. There was no way, otherwise, that she'd ever admit there was a single good thing about How All This Started. Even me.

    I walked all day, getting dirtier and sweatier and thirstier every step. I went every place we'd ever gone, every place I could reach. And when at dark I lifted Abilene's shotgun and fired into the night, the gun slapped back against me and I worked the pump quick and hard the way she does, and I fired as fast as I could, straight into the darkness. It wasn't until I was out of shells, fumbling in my pockets to reload, my ears whining with the shock of sound, that I realized I was crying. I thunked in the next five shells and fired again, fast, watching the flame.

    When I was out of shells, my shoulder and ears throbbing, eyes burning, I started home, wondering if I'd make it through the darkness and the cactus, the snakes and the scorpions; everything out here Abilene had left me with.

The TV was off, but Mom and Dad were home anyway. They popped up off the couch like jack-in-the-boxes when I walked inside. I hadn't bothered wiping the tears and dirt off my face, and they looked just as tired as me.

    They started to shake their heads, letting me know they hadn't found Abilene, which, of course, I knew already, but when they could really make me out in the dark doorway, still holding Abilene's gun, they stopped short. Dad sat back down hard, staring at the gun, then at my face, looking just as confused as he did that time Abilene told him to get out of our way. I set the gun down, leaning it against the wall, knowing there was nothing left for me to shoot.

    Mom whispered, "Come here, Austin," and eased down beside Dad, light as a bird. She sat close, her leg touching his, and they each put an arm around each other. For the first time they didn't look ridiculous together, didn't look the way Abilene always made them look, and I could almost picture them those nights Dad used to love to tell about, amazed at his good fortune.

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