In preparation for the search for Benny, Silver Lake was drained. For hours, aquamarine water spilled through the retaining dam as if a balloon had been punctured. Ever so gradually, the level of the half-mile-long pool receded, revealing a hidden ecosystem littered with dead fish, garbage, seaweed, and sundried vegetation along with a bevy of long-sunken canoes and kayaks.
My dad and Mr. Steinberg paced along the shoreline until late afternoon, when they were persuaded by Officer Hennigan, the leathery-faced, thick-necked local police chief, that it was futile to stay.
“Will take until tomorrow,” Hennigan whispered in a gruff tone tinged with kindness.
We climbed into Dad’s Chevy for the short drive back to the Palace Hotel, a popular summer lodging in the 1960s for escapees from the city. At Mr. Steinberg’s insistence, we dropped him off at the pub on Collins Street.
As dawn broke the next day, I biked to the top of Langstrom Hill, which overlooked the lake. The early, piercing chill quickly faded and a rising sun illuminated white-uniformed state troopers and a growing crowd of spectators. With a pair of binoculars Mom used for bird watching, I scanned the depression that stretched like a caramel brown saucer between the trees crowding the surrounding slopes. Searching, to no avail, for my friend and his telltale green swim fins.
By mid-morning, overcome by a sense of gloom, I lay back on the blinking grass and baked in the cleansing sunshine. Gradually, I slowed my breathing as my father had taught me to do whenever I felt upset and listened to the whoosh of the wind and rustling of leaves—sounds that had woven together and repeated since primeval times.
Soon, the stench from the pit reached me. As I considered abandoning my watch, my father appeared and plopped down next to me. He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me to him.
“I have bad news,” he whispered. Taking the time to compose himself, he continued, “They found Benny’s body, less than fifty yards from land.”
I felt the need for tears but could not summon them up. Instead, I tore up a stretch of earth covered by grass and flung it.
“Jake,” Dad said, “I’m so sorry. I know how close you two were.”
I pictured myself discovering Benny’s stiff body and wiping mud from his carrot-red hair and freckled face. I imagined him with a radiant smile stretched across his face, the one he’d flashed when I last saw him. The remembrance both warmed me and made me gasp inside.
“Dad, why did this happen?”
“Benny wasn’t a good swimmer. He should have been wearing a life preserver.”
“No, I mean, why do bad things like this happen?”
“Oh, I see.” Dad’s lips came together in a mysterious grin. “That’s a question I'm not sure I can answer. I think you’ll need to figure it out yourself when you’re older.”
With his arm draped around me, we sat together for the longest time, each passing minute inching me further from Benny and my connection to him. Further away from a time when all was good, or could be made so.
When the moment was right, we rose and walked down the hill, our long shadows intersecting. Dad’s turquoise Impala was parked under the shade of a red oak tree. As we tossed my Schwinn two-speed into the back of the car and climbed in, a warbler’s trill greeted us. In its voice I heard Benny calling me. Seeking to comfort me.
Dad studied my somber expression.
“You okay? Wanna go get egg creams?”
I shook my head. “It was my fault.”
“I was supposed to go swimming with Benny. But I overslept and he left without me.”
Dad sighed deeply, making a sound like the release of air brakes. He leaned toward me and said, “You can’t blame yourself.”
I nodded, then words rumbled out of my mouth. “Dad, do you think Benny is at peace?”
“At peace? That’s an interesting question.”
“I heard one of Mom’s friends say that Benny is with God and at peace.”
“What do you think that means?”
“That he’s not suffering, I guess.”
“Yes, I do think he’s at peace. But what’s important to me at this moment is whether you’re at peace.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel so sad, so I don’t think so.”
Dad started the engine and we headed down the hill toward town, passing a doe and two yearlings picking their way along the side of the road. While stopped at the only light on Main Street, Dad grabbed a half-full pack of Pall Malls from his shirt pocket and tapped out a cigarette, which he lit expertly and jammed into his mouth. With no car behind us, we sat at the light for several cycles of red, orange, and green, mulling over what life had offered that day and might bring us next. Finally, Dad turned to me so that our eyes met.
“What I learned at your age is that we all owe the world our death. What I later learned in the Navy during the war is that there’s always sadness and joy around us. They ebb and flow together. Where you are in them depends on the tide.”
He kissed my temple. “It all depends on the tide.”
Jeff Ingber is the author of books, short stories, and screenplays, for which he has won numerous awards. His first screenplay was the basis for the 2019 film “Crypto,” starring Kurt Russell. One of his novels, “Shattered Lives,” is being made into a documentary film by MacTavish Productions. His books have won numerous awards, including Elit, New Apple, New York Book Festival, Next Generation Indie, North Street, and Readers’ Favorite. His short stories have been published in various journals and magazines. You can learn more about his works at jeffingber.com. Jeff lives with his wife in Cranford, New Jersey.
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