They’re at it again. Veronica and Tony are having sex under Veronica’s rose-petal pink sheets. From her bed, only yards from Veronica’s, Riley can hear the sounds of their kisses, moans, and groans. The curtains are closed and the lights are off, so Riley shouldn’t be seeing anything, but Veronica has red fiery hair that seems to cast a glow of its own. Riley sometimes catches a curl of it flipping up above the sheets and dancing a moment before being tugged back under. When the hair disappears, a new chorus of groans and giggles follows. Riley understands that in the future intercourse may become as spectacular for her as it is for Veronica. But the way Veronica fervently engages in the act, cheering Tony on with things like Keep your head up! and Go, Fight, Win!, has only made Riley more anxious.  

    After Veronica and Tony’s first night of sex, Veronica bounced out of bed for her eight o’clock class, pulling on rabbit slippers on her way down the hall to the dorm bathroom, where she would spend half an hour applying makeup. Riley sat up in her bed, exhausted. The back of her T-shirt was still damp because she had spent the whole night sweating, as if listening to the sex was almost like being involved it.

    “I’ve got a good energy today,” Veronica said while she picked up her basket of makeup. Riley rubbed sleep from her eyes. “Don’t tell me you were surprised. Don’t tell me you weren’t expecting it.”

    “This is a scholarship dorm,” Riley said. The words made sense at the time.

    Veronica laughed so hard she nearly dropped her basket. “Come on,” she said. “This is college and it is the scholarship dorm. We’re advanced.” She skipped off down the hall to the bathroom.

    Tonight, Riley is worried Veronica is going to exhaust herself with all that laughing and movement under the sheets. Veronica promised Riley that at seven tomorrow morning she would go to Lake Ontario and help with the clean-up efforts for International Coastal Cleanup Day. They both agreed it would be a good tradeoff. Riley had to listen to Veronica and Tony have sex every Friday, so Veronica could spend a Saturday morning picking up cigarette butts and fast food wrappers. But if things keep going the way they’ve been, Veronica might not be much help tomorrow, might not be able to pick up anymore than a few Styrofoam coffee cups, and the idea of the clean-up is to pick up a whole lot and finally beat the next town over by collecting the heaviest load of garbage.

    Tony’s glow-in-the-dark condomed penis slips above the sheets and Riley starts coughing. While Veronica isn’t the sort of person to stop mid-sex, she has been concerned about Riley’s asthmatic state since the morning Veronica doused herself in perfume only for Riley to begin wheezing and go scrambling through her top desk drawer for her inhaler. It’s too bad it isn’t quite cold season yet and Riley doesn’t have any phlegm in her lungs to get a good wheeze going. She coughs again, louder this time, and sits up her in bed, putting her hands on her head.

    “Hey, are you having an attack?” Veronica says from under the sheets.

    Riley coughs again. It’s best not to say anything, best for her to have so little air she can say nothing.

    “Tony,” Veronica says. “I think she’s having an attack. I almost killed her once with my peach raspberry body spray.” The sheets billow and wave.

    Riley coughs again.

    “Can you reach your inhaler?” Veronica insisted they keep it in a spot they both knew about so that it in the case of an extreme attack, Veronica would be able to grab it and save Riley, presumably doing a cheer afterward. They keep it on top of the television. Veronica let Tony pick the spot. “Seriously, can you get it?”

    Riley fills her throat with spit and gets out a really good cough.

    “Stay there,” Veronica says. Riley wonders if she’s talking to Tony or just his dick. Veronica climbs out of bed, completely naked, her body so pale it glows in the dark. She reaches a long arm to the top of the television and grips the inhaler in her hand.

    In her head, Riley had guessed an asthma attack would bring the sex to a ceasefire and Tony would have to leave, but Veronica seems to be considering an asthma attack only grounds for a brief intermission, one that doesn’t even require dressing.   

    Riley likes to think of Veronica as a series of redheaded Barbie dolls that are not only capable of changing clothes, but also of changing dimensions. Sex Veronica has a body so slippery clothes can’t fit on her. She comes not with clothes, but with sheets, sheets the color of rose petals and a pack of glow-in-the-dark condoms. Judo Veronica is stronger and larger and wears baggy clothes with a white belt, can throw down a two hundred pound man, and does not confess to things like sex. I’m-looking-for-a-guy-better-than-Tony Veronica wears tight-ass jeans that are hung dry to prevent shrinking and only allow limited mobility in the legs, always shows cleavage, and carries a purse heavy with makeup.

    “Here,” Veronica says, standing in front of Riley’s bed, sweat gleaming between her size-C breasts. Her thighs are round and strangely strong, at last not held back by those tight jeans she squeezes herself into every morning. Her nakedness makes her seem taller, larger, and with Veronica standing there, reaching out the inhaler, smelling like sweat and sex, Riley’s lungs cramp for real, her stomach beginning to heave in and out.

    “Come on, take it,” Veronica says. “Don’t make me call 911. You sound like a sick whale. Pretty soon you’ll wake up the whole dorm.”

    From below the sheets, Tony groans. He rarely speaks, just emits a series of groans that range from the low and guttural to this higher-pitched near squeal. Riley’s heard it before. It means something’s not staying where it’s supposed to.

    She takes the inhaler in her hands and pulls it to her lips, feeling the rush of chemicals pour into her lungs. Veronica still glows beside her.

    “Maybe we shouldn’t go to that clean-up tomorrow after all,” Veronica says, standing too close to Riley’s comforter, brushing her hips along its edge, making Riley wonder about sperm and how well it travels and if there’s any lingering on her bedding right now.

    “We have to,” Riley says. Or all of the world will soon look like Veronica—unclothed, pale, bare, rolling back into bed with a man like Tony.

 

In the morning, Veronica dresses as I-don’t-give-a-shit Veronica, wearing sweatpants, a hoodie, and old tennis shoes. She has applied only a small amount of makeup and does not carry a purse. She clings to a Styrofoam cup of coffee that she’s reluctant to relinquish to the cup holder in order to start the car. When she turns on the radio, she tunes it to rap and turns up the volume. Riley feels the vibrations from the speakers run up through the floorboards and into her calves and thighs. She swears her eardrums are about ready to pop and somehow finds the bravery to ask for NPR, but Veronica just glares.

    “I can turn this car right around, if you’d prefer,” Veronica says.

    “We haven’t even pulled out of the parking lot yet.”

    “Then we could just head back inside.” Veronica takes another long draw from her coffee cup. “Fuck cleaning up a lake. Isn’t that what bottom feeders are for? Catfish and the like?”

    “It’s about a guy,” Riley says.

    Veronica coughs, spraying coffee onto the steering wheel. “Shit. Why didn’t you tell me? You—a guy? Damn. I thought you’d at least be a senior before that happened. Well, let’s go then.” She puts the car in reverse and backs it out of the parking space and then onto the road that heads out of campus. “You going to me tell who? Wait. Let me guess. Some kid from your environmental science class. Some kid who’s in love with his Birkenstocks and wears all natural organic cotton. Probably thinks deodorant is optional. Hey, does he smoke pot? Could you hook me up with some?”

    Riley bites her tongue. She wants to tell Veronica yes. Yes, to all these things. It would keep Veronica driving. “Yes. From environmental science.” This is no lie. Her professor is, indeed, part of the class in the sense that he directs and leads it, or at least as much as a man with a stutter and spitting problem can. Veronica would never understand that his faults are part of what make him so attractive, not only because they make Riley feel less awkward about her own inadequacies, but because he is so brave in the face of them, appearing completely unfazed when spit escapes his lips and spots the empty seats in the first few rows. He buys his clothes at the Salvation Army, and can never quite wash the smell out of them. This gives him a magnificent seven-houses smell, making him seem to Riley a world traveler. In the right hand corner of the chalkboard, he gives extinct species a voice by tallying the ones that have disappeared since 1500 AD.  In the left hand corner, he records the number of species currently endangered, and each day Riley wishes to add a digit for Dr. Felders. Men like him are rare.

    “Details,” Veronica says. “Don’t leave me hanging.”

    “He’s cute.” Cute in an I’m-unkempt-because-I-care-so-much-about-other-things sort of way.

    “Cute, huh? Well, if that’s all you’ve got, it’s not true love.”

    There is more and it just might be true love. “Is Tony a true love?”

    “Hell, no. That’s just sex. Not even really good sex. Just something to get by. I mean—”

    “I get it,” Riley says.  

    The sun rises in the sky, streaking orange and red over the horizon. Veronica starts tapping the steering wheel to the beat and Riley makes a game out of counting the yellow dash marks in the middle of the road. Veronica pushes the gas pedal and then lets it go, like she can’t decide which is worse: driving slowly or arriving at a community clean-up on time.

    Riley has counted two hundred and forty-four yellow dashes on the road when Veronica pushes the brakes and Riley turns her gaze from the middle of the road to the side of it, where their front bumper collides with a golden retriever. The air in her chest stops and she finds herself fingering the inhaler in her jacket pocket. Veronica pulls the car to the side of the road, the tires crunching over the berm’s gravel. She turns off the engine and flicks on the four-ways, then steals a glance at the rearview mirror and sees the dog lying in their lane. Riley can’t manage to look.

    “Well, fuck. This is your fault, you know,” Veronica says.

    Riley struggles for air, pulls her inhaler from her jacket pocket.

    Veronica grabs it right out of her hand and chucks it out the window. It bounces across the road and into the ditch. “Not now. You don’t get to have an attack now. Godammit. I’m the one who gets to have an attack now.”

    Riley starts in on deep breaths, just the way her father always taught her. He used to make her practice every time she got an attack, making her go on a minute or two before he let her use the inhaler. He feared she’d build up a resistance to the Albuterol.

    Veronica unbuckles her seatbelt and then Riley’s too. She gets out of the car and goes around to the passenger’s side. She grabs at Riley’s wrists, tugging her out. “You can’t just leave something like that in the middle of the road,” she says.

    “I know,” Riley says.

    “Well, we better get to it. When another car comes, it’s going to be a messier job.”

    Hot tears burn at the back of Riley’s throat.

    “No crying. Not now. Maybe later, but not now.”

    Veronica goes to the dog and when she kneels to it and runs a hand over its head, Riley has to go too. There’s not any blood in sight, and Riley’s breath evens out. She puts her hand on the dog’s neck, as if she could find a pulse there.

    “Don’t tell me you’re doing what I think.”

    “I’m in this CPR class.” If there were two things Riley could do for the rest of her life, it would be to save and be saved.            

    “No.” Veronica tears Riley’s hand away from the dog. “Godammit. You’re such a dreamer. It’s gone. It’s dead. It isn’t getting up again. If you want to imagine it in heaven, that’s fine, but we have to get it off the road.”  

    The dog’s snout has some whitish hairs and Riley mumbles something out about it being old and maybe this being the right time for it to go.            

    “Don’t put that on me,” Veronica says. “Don’t make me driving the right time for this dog to go. Nothing deserves that.” She curls her arms under its middle and picks it up, pulling the dog against her chest. She bends backward with its weight while the dog’s limp head tilts over her arm.

    “I could help.”

    “No, I got this. You’d just end up dropping it. God knows it doesn’t need that.” She walks toward the car and when she gets to it, she asks Riley to open the back door.

    “Seriously?”

    “What? You thought I was going to leave it on the side of the road?”

    “That’s what people do. Someone will find it and bury it.”

    “And you have that sort of trust in the world? What about this: say someone does find it. Say Little Suzie and Bobby wake up, watch their Saturday cartoons, and then walk outside to find Rex here dead. What kind of Saturday morning is that?”

    “I don’t think the name Rex is really used anymore. I bet its name is more like Samson or something.”

    “Open the fuckin’ door.”

    Riley does and Veronica lays the dog inside. “Look at those feet,” she says. “Those are strong, gorgeous feet. Bet that thing has run all over this county.” She rubs a hand over one of the paws, wiping some dirt from it, then heads to the trunk and pulls out a blanket. She runs her hand the length of the dog’s spine, tucking the blanket around it.

    Inside, Riley breathes deeply. She can smell the dog: its wet fur, the mud on its paws.            

    “Don’t worry,” Veronica says. “We’ll still go to the clean-up. I wouldn’t want you to miss that. Especially if a guy is involved.” She wipes dog hair from her hooded sweatshirt and then starts the engine.

    Riley glances over to the opposite ditch, where her inhaler somewhere lies, worms and beetles probably crawling all over it by now. “I should go look for my inhaler.”

    “Fuck it.” Veronica pulls away from the berm. “This’ll be the best thing you’ve done all year. Besides, guys do not think inhalers are cute.”

    Riley nods and lets the rap music pulse through her veins, breathing deeply enough that she smells the dog in every breath.

 

A few miles down the road, when a deer dashes out of a field of ragweed and across the road in front of them, Veronica quickly pumps the brakes while the deer runs off into the woods on the other side of the road. Her fingers shake over the steering wheel. Riley puts a hand on Veronica’s shoulder and can feel the vibrations run into her own body.

    “Pull over,” Riley says.

    Veronica does. She lowers her head, her shoulders shaking.

    “I could ride in the back with it,” Riley says. “I could hold its head.”

    “It’s already dead.” Veronica stares off down the road.

    “But still, maybe it’d help. Maybe the dog—”

    “Just shut up!” Veronica wipes tears from her face and takes a deep breath. “We have to go back.”

    “To put the dog back?”

    “No, for your inhaler. You’re not dying on my account.”

    Riley nods and offers a weak smile, though inside she’s sad in a way she wasn’t even when she knew the dog was gone. For a moment, Veronica was the first person to dare to believe she might survive without the inhaler. Riley counts the yellow marks it takes for them to get back to the spot where the dog was hit, and after she scoops her inhaler from the ditch, she spends the rest of the ride to the lake wiping away the dirt that covers its surface with the sleeve of her jacket and then squirting hand sanitizer onto the inhaler and carefully scrubbing it away. When she gathers the courage to ask what they are going to do with the dog, Veronica just shakes her head.

 

After they pull into the park beside Lake Ontario, Veronica says they can’t talk about the dog anymore. “You’ve got enough problems, kid. You don’t need to be the girl who has a dead dog in the back of the car.”

    “Sure,” Riley says, though she still worries what they’re ever going to do with it.

    “So where’s the hunk?”

    “Not here yet,” Riley says, though he is. Dr. Felders is standing over by a large oak, wearing navy blue corduroy overalls and a gray thermal shirt. A red stocking cap sits atop his head. Riley knows this is for Jacques Cousteau, about whom he once spent an entire class talking off the cuff when one of the degenerates in the back asked who the hell he was. If Jacques Cousteau were still alive, he’d be getting fan mail from Dr. Felders.

    They climb out of the car and join the meager group that has gathered, hoods up to combat the wind, at the lake’s edge.

    Veronica downs the last of her coffee. “A bunch of geeks is what this is,” she says.

    Dr. Felders begins to hand out plastic gloves and bags. “Glad to see you’re here,” he says to Riley, handing her a pair of gloves. He has that seven-houses smell and Riley can’t think of anything to say to him before he shuffles on to hand gloves to the next person.

    “That was weird,” Veronica says. “I hate teacher talk. It’s like they can’t ever be honest, can’t ever say: fuck this shit, it’s cold as all hell and the lake’s going to be dirty by this time next year anyway, thanks to the goddamn idiots who haven’t figured out how to use trash cans.”

    “Shhh,” Riley says. She can’t let Mr. Felder catch her communicating with someone who doesn’t appreciate a lake clean-up. “We’re doing good.”

    Veronica laughs at her. “God must have laughed his ass off when he put us together as roommates. He probably sits up there watching you squirm every night. It’s probably like his version of Lost.”

    Dr. Felders comes around with clipboards and Veronica gives him a glare.

    “It’s for keeping track of what you collect,” he says. “There are categories already listed and you can add your own as well.”

    Veronica smiles and Riley tries to think of something to say before she starts in, but isn’t quick enough. “Isn’t it all one category,” Veronica says. “Isn’t it all just junk?”

    “We’re breaking it up,” Dr. Felders says, pointing to the categories on her clipboard: food wrappers, beverage containers, clothing, cigarettes, shotgun shells, car parts, tires, toys. “This gives us an idea of what trash dominates. After we’re done, we’re going to weigh it all.” He says this part with a smile and points to a scale under a pavilion. “We’ll weigh one bag at a time and then add them all up. Hopefully we’ll beat Lockport this year.”

    “I’m undecided on my major right now,” Veronica says. “But if I decide to go ahead with psychology, can you be my first person to analyze?”

    Dr. Felders is too pleased by this. He pushes his plastic-gloved hands into his pockets. “Of course,” he says. “But bring a mug for your coffee next time. And add your cup to the trash when you’re done.”

 

Riley is scribbling onto the clipboard, trying to jot down the last sixteen cigarette butts, three McDonald’s wrappers, and the bike tire Veronica failed to write down, when Veronica tosses a condom onto the clipboard. Something green, something Riley chooses to think of as algae, clings to its inside.

    Veronica smiles. “You know what that is, right?”

    Riley knows. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when she dares to open her eyes, she catches Tony’s dick above the sheets, his penis a bright wand because of the glow-in-dark condoms Veronica buys.

    “It sort of makes me wish Tony was here. What group are you going to put it in? Don’t short the condom. I spent ten minutes getting that out from between those rocks.” She points to the granite fill, working as an aid against bank erosion, that lines the lake’s shore.

    “You didn’t get the coffee cup or that deflated soccer ball,” Riley says, pointing to the garbage sitting atop the rocks. She looks at the soccer ball because the condom is looking at her.

    Veronica picks up the condom in her gloved hand and then slaps it down onto the clipboard, making some of the green liquid inside ooze out onto the sheet. “I was getting this,” she says, her nostrils beginning to flare, a sure sign she’s headed toward Don’t-fuck-with-me Veronica.

    “Okay,” Riley says. Don’t-fuck-with-me Veronica knows Judo, carries a large bottle of pepper spray, and sometimes smokes.

    Veronica grabs the clipboard and starts her own category: sexual paraphernalia. “It is a matter of opinion though, isn’t it?” She kicks at the large plastic bag that is three quarters full. “Some people would include cigarettes in that.” She is slow to drop the condom into the plastic bag and when she does, she watches it fall in between a waterlogged Burger King crown and pieces of a blue tarp. “I think I’ll handle the clipboard now,” Veronica says. “You can play fetch. I’ll be the scientist that marks down how well you play fetch.”

    Riley agrees only because a condom, and the green liquid inside it, has touched the sheet atop the clipboard. She scrambles down onto the rocks, the wind tugging at the hood she has tied shut. The waves lap at the granite. She’s reaching for the leg of a doll—maybe even a Barbie—when she hears Veronica calling to her, telling Riley she’s going for a bathroom break. Riley turns around to look at her and catches Veronica tugging her cell phone out of her back pocket and pulling it to her ear.

 

Thirty-four cigarette butts, two shotgun shells, four cans, and one bra later, Veronica still hasn’t returned and Mr. Felder is calling to Riley: “Come help me out.”

    He’s about twenty meters down the shore and Riley wonders how she didn’t notice him before. He’s standing in waders, the water up to his waist and lapping at his waterproof overalls, threatening to work itself inside. His arms are in the water up to his elbows. He grins at her. “I’ve got something big,” he says.

    Riley doesn’t remind him of the rule he established himself: Don’t go in the water. There are no lifeguards on duty. The water is cold. You could get hypothermia. There are riptides. You could die. This is a good rule, with proper reasoning behind it, but Riley thinks she loves Dr. Felders and sometimes she allows herself fantasies with him: the two of them in Alaska, building an ice park for polar bears where the bears can slip down ice slides and run and play, despite the melting glaciers; the two of them discovering the secret to keeping the coral reef alive, not telling anyone, just diving again and again, swimming among fish of every color; the two of them blasting off in a spaceship, packets of seeds in their hands, ready to find out if life can be sustained on Mars—the place where they can kiss and curl up in a crater together because there is no one to tell them they can’t, that students and professors aren’t supposed to make love.

    “I have an extra pair of waders in my car,” he says, pointing toward the parking lot. “It’s the one that smells like McDonald’s. I run it on fast food grease.”

    Riley drops her bag of garbage. She heads for the car, easily detecting the one that smells like McDonald’s. She finds the waders in the back and can’t wait to climb inside their cool plastic. She slips off her shoes, leaving them in the trunk, and eases her way into the cool rubber boots. They’re a bit big and have plenty of room for her feet to wander. She tightens the straps and then begins chugging her way back toward the shore, wondering if Dr. Felders has been inside this pair before or if this is just his extra. She would like to think that his body was once where hers is now.

    Dr. Felders looks a bit paler when she finally returns to him. His lips are beginning to turn purple. His arms are still under water and the wind is still blowing.

    “Maybe you should come out for a break,” Riley says. She’d rather they sit on the beach together.

    He grimaces. “Come on out. Slow now. The bottom isn’t exactly even. I’m afraid if I let go of this, I won’t be able to grab it again.”

    “What is it?” Riley steps into the water and while the plastic keeps the water out, its coldness still penetrates. Goose bumps run their way up her legs. The bottom of the lake is rocky and though Riley feels extra geeky doing it, she holds her hands out at her sides to keep her balance.

    “Can you do me a favor?” Dr. Felders asks when Riley is only feet from him. “Could you slide my glasses back up my nose a bit? They’re slipping.”

    Riley reaches out a gloved hand and then thinks better of it. She slips off the plastic glove, the glove that has touched cigarette butts and chewed plastic and soggy cardboard. Then she reaches out her hand, gets a pointer on that bridge of his glasses, the lenses so thick she’s surprised they haven’t slipped off his face altogether, so thick she is sure they allow him to see things in a way no one else does, and slides them back up his nose, his eyes suddenly magnified—their dark green catching the sun in a way that makes them shine. She wishes to run a hand along his face, to see if she can feel the prickle of stubble or if Dr. Felders’ skin is smooth, bare the way he fears Earth might one day be. He has lost his seven-houses smell for the scent of algae, brackish water, and sweat. She waits for his glasses to slip again so that her finger might be granted the privilege of once again hovering so close to his skin.

    “Go ahead and reach your arms under,” Dr. Felders says, nodding to the water where his own arms have disappeared.

    A drop of Dr. Felders’ spit lands on Riley’s cheek and instead of wiping it away, she lets it evaporate. The water is cold and makes goose bumps run the length of Riley’s arms and explode on her neck with such a fierceness it reminds her of the chicken pox she caught her senior year of high school, the red lumps rising on her neck—a reminder of how far behind she always was. There is not another person Riley would stick her arms into this water for, and she pushes them deeper, the water lapping at her armpits while her hands curl around cool splintering wood.

    “What do you think it is?” she asks.

    “Can’t tell.” The water is dark and undulates enough that it’s hard to get a clear picture. “Have you got a good grip?”

    “Yes.” For now. The water is quickly numbing Riley’s hands.

    “We’ll pull on three.” Dr. Felders tightens his lips and squints. “One. Two. Three.”

    Riley doesn’t exactly lift on three. She waits for Dr. Felders to lift a bit first, to do most of the work for her, though she tightens her lips too and squints, as if the narrowing of vision really does add to physical strength. Dr. Felders leans back while his elbows emerge from the surface of the water. His lips begin to shake and Riley wonders if it’s from the exertion or just the cold. She really pulls now, trying to help him out. Pain prickles into her shoulders while the object begins to surface. It’s a battered sheet of wood, snails clinging to its surface, and there’s more below. Its grandness frightens Riley, makes her think there’s no way the two of them will ever get that thing out, and her grip slips a bit, allowing the wood to sink back under.

    Dr. Felders grimaces. “Have you ever seen an elephant give birth?” he asks.

    Riley shakes her head. She supposes he might tell her that what they are doing right now is sort of like elephant birth, that the process isn’t inherently beautiful because of how large elephants are and how much work it takes, but that the beauty comes in looking back and seeing what emerged and remarking on the process taken to get there.

    “Me neither,” Dr. Felders says. “But I bet it hurts. And the way this world is headed, I probably never will see it.”

    Riley wonders if it’s hypothermia talking. Dr. Felders isn’t making sense. Someone is frantically waving from shore and Riley turns her head just enough to see that it’s Veronica, finally back from her bathroom break.

    “Hey,” she calls. “Do you know what a metal toilet seat feels like on your ass in this weather? I think I left part of my skin behind. And these freaks are so fucking adamant about saving trees that there isn’t a scrap of toilet paper.”

    Dr. Felders stares at Riley and she knows it’s not for her, not about her hazel eyes perched behind thick lenses of her own, not about her soft rounded nose, or her cheeks that have turned red in the cold wind. It’s about Veronica and her yelling, her inability to take this clean-up seriously.

    “I don’t really know her,” Riley says.

    Dr. Felders bites his lower lip and takes a step toward shore, dragging the object with him. Riley follows in an unsteady step of her own.

    “Hey,” Veronica calls. “Just ‘cuz I’m not stupid enough to go in the water with you doesn’t mean you can ignore me. If you’re not coming back, if you’re not going to fetch things for me to write on this lame-ass sheet, then I’m ditching you.”

    Riley doesn’t have the energy to shout a response back to her. Her voice doesn’t carry like Veronica’s and she’s putting everything she has into her curling her fingers around that damp wood and pulling with Dr. Felders. He begins to grunt a little bit, a low moaning that frightens Riley with its similarities to the groans Tony sometimes forms under the sheets. Riley hears a clanking from ashore and sees the clipboard bouncing off the granite and heading for the water. Dr. Felders is so lost in concentration Riley guesses he doesn’t see it. She is thankful for this. Veronica is her ride back to school, but Riley supposes Dr. Felders just might give her a ride in his grease mobile, explaining to her how its engine runs. They might even drive by McDonald’s so that he can show her how he fills it up.

    While they pull the object toward shore, the water grows shallower and more of the object’s body is revealed to them. It’s an old wooden desk, drawers battered in by the waves, holes and cracks pounded into them, and they take a break to examine it. Riley tugs a drawer open and finds clams and mussels clinging to its inside. A small school of minnows swims out. “Maybe we ought to leave it,” Riley says. She should be saying this for the clams, for the creatures that have made a home inside the desk, but she’s really saying it for her. She’s tired. And cold. She’s shaking and wishes she had some hot chocolate, even if it did come in a Styrofoam cup.

    “Think about how much this must weigh,” Dr. Felders says. “Especially waterlogged. I think we’re going to beat Lockport this year.” He gets his hands around the desk again and waits for Riley to do the same. Together, they haul it toward shore, where a small crowd has formed and is encouraging them with claps muffled by gloves and soft cheers that slip out from behind scarves. Veronica’s clipboard floats right past Riley and she pretends not to see it. The crowd adds energy to Dr. Felders’ step and he begins pulling the desk in a way that allows Riley to become only an actor playing the part—tightening her lips, narrowing her eyes, holding on, but barely tugging at all. This acting is easy enough that Riley loses her concentration, tripping on the rocky lake bottom, tipping toward the cold green water enough that it streams into her waders before she is able to right herself. She hasn’t gone under, but the water in her waders is cold and adds further weight to her already heavy boots. Her heart pounds.

    Dr. Felders nearly has the desk ashore and Riley’s absence hasn’t slowed him any. He’s dragging it along the rocky shore, members of the group stepping forward to help him out. She waits for him to turn around and notice her there, to notice what no one seems to have caught: that she dipped just enough for water to seep into her waders, that her lips are beginning to turn purple and that she can no longer feel her feet. If Dr. Felders takes time to note the Pyrenean Ibex extinction, surely he can notice her now, shaking with the initial signs of the hypothermia he warned her of just an hour ago. But he’s talking with the other volunteers, who size the desk up and make guesses as to how much it weighs. A man with a gray beard says it might put the town up in the top ten clean-ups in the state. “We found a couple car tires too,” he says. “That’ll put us up there.”

    “I want to weigh it while it’s still wet,” Dr. Felders says. The crowd around him plunges their hands under the desk and together they carry it toward the pavilion where the scale sits. Bags filled with garbage have been piled beside it. In her waders, Riley trots along behind them, enjoying the rhythm of rubber against ground, its dependability, even if it is holding cold water against her legs. The sloshing water makes her move slower than the rest and when she arrives at the pavilion, she stands just outside while they hoist the desk onto the scale and wait for a number to appear. The desk weighs ninety-six pounds and the crowd claps with a rejuvenated force, offering high fives and slaps on the back to Dr. Felders. Riley waits for him to turn and look for her, to stretch out a hand for a high five, because she was his partner in pulling it out, but he doesn’t notice her at all—not her presence, not her waterlogged boots.

    Riley doesn’t plan on giving back the waders any time soon. She appreciates the durability of this rubber coating and begins plodding down the trail that lines the lake, looking for another spot to enter to the water and let the gentle waves lap at her legs. The boots scuff the pavement, sending vibrations up her legs that do nothing to warm her cold body. She decides to enter the water at one of the few sand beaches where she won’t have to worry about balancing on granite fill. The wet sand sucks in the bottom of her rubber boots and makes walking more difficult, forcing her legs, already numb, to work even harder. When she’s in up to her thighs, the boots go so deep in the sand, or maybe it’s mud now, that she can’t pull them out again. Instead, she pulls her legs out of the waders, one and then the other, stepping into the cold water. She begins to jog toward shore, her socks catching in the sand. Her feet can no longer feel the sand beneath them, only movement and pushing forward.

    Riley collapses on the sand. She lies on her back. She can’t feel her legs and this excites her more than it scares her because she has the feeling her entire body might soon become airborne, heading for the sky, where she might look down upon Dr. Felders and his motley crew, all of them making the final tally of the garbage brought in. It’s too bad she couldn’t have found something else to bring back to him, something so waterlogged it’d break the scale with its weight. It’s too bad Veronica isn’t still here and Riley couldn’t go to the back of the car and bundle up the dog, tying the four corners of the blanket together around its body, and then offer it to Dr. Felders. The dog must weigh at least seventy pounds and somehow it doesn’t seem so strange to say they might have found something like that in the water. Perhaps the dog could be what puts them over the top. Perhaps the dog could share in their victory. Dr. Felders would have to start a new category and Riley wonders what he would call it. Carcasses? Death? Maybe he’d just file the dog under miscellaneous.

    In the water, the waders still stand, the gentle waves filling them, pushing them forward and then pulling them back. Riley sits up and squeezes her cold feet in her hands. Her shoes are back in the trunk of Dr. Felders’ grease mobile and she doesn’t feel like walking past a crowd of people to get them, though she’ll have to ask for a ride from someone if she ever wants to get back to her dorm. She rises from the sand while she still can, jams her hands into her coat pockets, and heads for the pavilion.

    A woman in a red and white snowflake sweater stops her before she can get there. “Where are your shoes, honey? Why are you wet?” she asks, not waiting for an answer before she pushes a gloved hand against Riley’s back. Her heat radiates even through the fleeced glove and Riley falls back into it, not able to say a word when the woman says, “We have to get you home. Have to get some dry clothes on your body. Weren’t you here for the talk in the beginning? Didn’t you hear about hypothermia? It works in mysterious ways,” she says, guiding Riley toward the parking lot. “Usually by the time you’re cold, it’s too late. You have to be one step ahead of it. Have you got shoes somewhere, dear?”

    “In the back of Dr. Felders’ car,” Riley says.

    The woman bites her lower lip and shakes her head. “He’s a different one, you know. You can’t go running your car on McDonald’s grease and not have the people in town think you’re something else. Imagine what the world would smell like if everyone ran their car on grease. We do what we can, but there’s only so much that can be considered reasonable. I think you just ought to get a new pair of shoes. They can’t smell right by now.”

    Riley agrees only because it’s easier than arguing and Dr. Felders’ car is on the other side of the parking lot.

    “Where do you live, honey?”

    “On campus. In Thompson Hall.”

    “In the scholarship dorm?”

    “Yes.”

    The woman smiles and claps her hands. “How good for you. We sure are proud of the bright ones this university brings in. Get in, dear, get in.” She unlocks the car and climbs into the driver’s seat.

    Riley looks around the parking lot, trying to find Dr. Felders in the group of people heading for their cars. He might see her yet, might think to look for her now that the garbage is totaled. Maybe they beat Lockport. Maybe he will take her out to celebrate. He might at least ask for his waders back and they would have to go to the sand together and pull them out. Maybe she could tell him about the dog and he would know what to do with it, know of a special place to bury it, and they could bend to the dirt and dig together.

    The pavilion is filled with full garbage bags, but she doesn’t see him there either. She does spot Veronica’s car in the very back of the lot, far from the other cars, not where she parked this morning. She must have come back for Riley, remembered she didn’t have a ride. Riley feels warmer already and thinks maybe she will tell Veronica about Dr. Felders, about the way she thinks she loves him against her better judgment, about the adventures she has planned for them in the future. Veronica will know what to say because she is experienced and understands things like this.

    “Actually, I just spotted a friend,” Riley says.

    “You sure?” The woman looks disappointed, perhaps saddened she will no longer be able to tell her friends that she saved a college scholar from the cold waters and drove her home before hypothermia set in.

    “Yeah,” Riley says, heading toward Veronica’s car, the blacktop rough through her socks. She thinks about how she might start off the conversation: When did you know you could get in bed with Tony? Do you ever wish you hadn’t? Isn’t it funny the people we fall for?

    When she gets to the car, the windows are fogged, and familiar groans and cheers are coming from inside. Tony and Veronica are lying together on the backseat. The dog is nowhere in sight. The blacktop suddenly feels colder under Riley’s socks and she turns to the place where the woman’s car was parked, only to find it now gone. She takes in a deep breath of the cold air and catches the scent of French fries. Across the parking lot, Dr. Felders’ car escapes down the park’s exit ramp and she wishes she was in the passenger’s seat beside him, sharing a large fry from McDonald’s.  Above her, seagulls fly in erratic arcs while the wind picks up, sending a new wave of goose bumps over her body.  

    Riley taps on the glass and waits.





Rachel Furey grew up in upstate NY, received her BS from SUNY Brockport, and recently completed her MFA at Southern Illinois University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, Women’s Basketball Magazine, and the Twins and More edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She has also had work appear in Main Street Rag’s short fiction anthology XX Eccentric. Tobias Wolff recently selected her story “Birth Act” as the winner of Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize for fiction. In the fall, she will begin work on her PhD at Texas Tech University.



Back to Freight Stories No. 5

 


Rachel Furey

Cleaning Up