Good rivers, like good lives, are unfinished business.
– Christopher Camuto
McNab’s cabin sat above the Shenandoah River, atop cut bank along the south fork that had been carved out over time by flood and drought. If everything was quiet enough on the porch, you heard the water making its run. But any noise made by man—conversation, a whirring hum of traffic on the bridge—and the river’s allegro was subsumed. It was here that my father and I found Doc Story, after we arrived at the cabin one afternoon in June, 1991, in the year after my brother, Jeff, drowned in the lake behind my childhood home, and ten years before Doc took his own life.
We met Doc on the porch. His belly bulged over his belt, and he balanced a beer bottle on the arm of a rocking chair. A ball-cap rested high on his forehead, revealing graying strands of hair at his temples and tufts of dark brown curling under the bill. Large, metal-framed glasses rested on his nose. We greeted each other, and my father asked what he was doing.
“Oh, just watching the world go by,” Doc said. He motioned to the scene beyond the cabin’s porch.
“What the hell are you drinking that for?” my father asked, pointing at Doc’s beer bottle.
Doc let out a big, tumbling laugh, and turned the beer upwards, revealing an O’Doul’s label. “You just got here, Quam, and you’re already giving me shit.”
Doc had flown up from Florida. A native of the often frostbitten Iowa plains, he had been hibernating in Lakeland for decades, where he had a dental practice. Fishing and family were the two things that could bring him north.
“How was the trip up?” Doc asked.
“Well, we made it,” my father said. “Took a wrong turn outside of Culpeper, but we made it OK.”
“You got lost, huh?” Doc asked me.
I swayed nervously.
“I got confused in the mountains,” I said. I was nine. Once we left our home in Virginia Beach, my father had taken the road map from the glove box and dropped it into my lap. “Take me there,” he said. I did my best not to get lost, but it was hard.
Mr. and Mrs. McNab, the parents of my father’s childhood best friend, owned the cabin and ran a small bed-and-breakfast business. There were plenty of beds, with spare bedrooms indoors and a sturdy, screened, and tin-roofed shanty in the yard. But every now and then we opted to sleep in tents out in the pasture behind the cabin, near the rock pile downriver—an obvious effort by my dad, as I look back on it, to give me an experience he thought necessary for a father and son.
Doc, my father, and I left the porch to unpack our rods and walked to the edge of the yard. We climbed down the ladder from the yard into the river to fish before dark. Saplings sprouted here and there in the scarp’s wall, refusing to acknowledge their unfortunate place of birth among the stones and old roots hanging like tarsal bones, naked and dead from erosion. The saplings wouldn’t last through the next winter after the heavy summer rains exposed their roots to the cold. I knew this even then; I had already come face to face with the naiveté and hopefulness of young life doomed. We fished that first evening in the low, minor-key light of mountain dusk, and hurriedly set up our camp in the pasture behind McNab’s cabin as night settled in.
After 1990, nights along the Shenandoah presented new problems for my father and me. We both found it difficult to sleep in dead silence, and while the mountains offered the hoots and chirps of their own somber nightlife, our habit of sleeping in modern noise manifested itself in a particular sort of mild insomnia. It’s something that has stayed with us.
My younger brother and my father’s second son, Jeff, died in March of 1990. He fell off the dock and into the lake behind our house while under the care of an elderly babysitter. She had absentmindedly left him alone in the yard after a picnic lunch. She couldn’t swim. No one in my family was home at the time. My parents were in North Carolina. I was a mile away flying a kite for the first and only time of my life. He was two and a half.
What that left my father and I with, apart from grief and guilt, was the need for unearthly shelter in the night, when the world around us quieted and all that was left were our brain-voices. My father took to lying on the sofa in the den with the TV on in “sleep” mode, away from my mother, who seemed to prefer the silence, even though my brother was often cast in her dreams in the early years after his death. From my bedroom upstairs I saw the blue glow of the TV reflected off the ceiling in the hall while I listened to Sports Byline USA with Ron Barr from the clock radio on my nightstand. The late night callers across the country, with their opinions and gripes, became my bedtime story. If I somehow stayed awake longer than the TV and its wedge of light that seeped out from the open den, a shock of anxiety would hit me and could last through the night.
Away from the customary sleep aids, I laid nervously next to my father that night in our tent. My sleeping bag stuck to my body, an unporous second-skin, and I unzipped and brought one leg out for air. That he might be as frightened as I gave me a strange calmness, and I looked over to him in the dark. But I saw that he was already asleep. The noise of a Shenandoah night was better than the talk from any radio or television, and between the nearness of his grumbles, the cool air on my leg, and the metronomic, staccato notes of nighttime insects, I fell soundly asleep.
* * *
My father and I rose from our tent at first light. Despite his switch to Old Milwaukee midway through the night before, Doc was already up. The pasture was soaked with dew, and the overgrown grass smushed wet and marsh-like under my feet. We all greeted one another, but I saw that there wasn’t going to be much talking. The sound of the river churning around the rock pile, a favorite spot of my father’s and Doc’s, called the men as though it had been whispering to them all through the night and only now had they heard it. Early morning songbirds were sounding an alarm. There were smallmouth and bluegill to be caught a stone’s throw away.
What made the rock pile a good spot to fish were the changes in water depth and speed. As the river narrowed at the rock pile, it took off in a sprint but then mellowed and slowed just as abruptly downstream. Smallmouth, rather than fighting the rapids, rested in the riffles and pools on the deeper, calmer side of the pile. They laid in wait for minnows, crickets, worms, hellgrammites, anything to come their way for an easy meal. We usually fished until lunchtime, when the sunlight and heat turned the smallmouth skittish and sluggish, and then again in the evening. Without the long shadows of dawn and dusk, smallmouth are far more susceptible to birds of prey at midday.
Doc had a rough morning, the fishing being uncharacteristically slow, and when we waded back to the Rock Pile, he cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered back to the river, “Fuck you, fish!”
In the evening we cleaned and cooked what we had caught throughout the day. My father let me have a few sips of his Old Milwaukee. He held on to the can and I guided it to my lips like a chalice at communion. The beer thawed in my mouth: metallic, bitter, grainy, gone. My dad walked to the tree-line to relieve himself, leaving Doc and me by the smoldering campfire.
“Do you know about my brother?” I asked Doc. I’m unsure what brought this on. He knew about it, of course. Maybe I wanted to keep some part of him alive, even if it was the message of his death. It had brought about an odd importance to me. In school, I was the kid whose brother died. I could leave class when I felt like it and go visit the counselor. I found myself, and still find myself, bringing up my brother’s death at unusual times, sometimes to near strangers. It doesn’t happen often any more, but occasionally it does, and I remember being a child and realizing that the first person I ever knew well who died was my brother. Then being older and realizing that I didn’t really know him well at all. No one did, or had the chance to, in the everyday use of the verb “know.” His lifetime seemed never to be present tense.
What I knew about most was the idea that I would never know my brother. He exists to me now mainly as a sense. Of childhood and potential. Of love and anger. Of nearness to death and the unknown distance left in my life. Of confusion. Of change and immutability. Of God and Godlessness. Of fate. Of aimlessness. Of disappearance. Of grief. Of water.
“Yes, I know about it,” Doc said. “It’s very sad.”
“Do you know anybody who died?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Oh. How did she die?”
“She had cancer.”
“What did she look like?”
“You know Jeanne, how she looks?” he asked, referring to his daughter who lived in Virginia Beach. “My wife looked a lot like her.”
“So, she was pretty,” I said. Jeanne was the young wife of a young man who worked with my father at an insurance agency. After my brother drowned I said to my father, with confusion and hopefulness, that maybe Jeff had been a messenger from God. My father spoke of this moment in his eulogy, and Jeanne made a small pillow for me with a hand knitted face and the inscription: Jeffrey Doyle Quam – God’s Little Messenger. I had that pillow for years, but the inscription’s meaning became less clear to me as I grew older. Whatever the message had been, I lost it somewhere along the way.
“Yes,” Doc said. “She was very pretty.”
That Doc saw his wife in his daughter isn’t surprising, but I understood what he meant in another way too. After my brother died, I saw him. All the time. I saw him walking through the mall. I saw him at the playground. In the crowd at my Little League games. Being carried in another woman’s arms, a woman who looked nothing like my mother. He moved in next door to my grandparents and had a new name, Taylor. He moved in next door to us, in the house on the other side of the cove where he had drowned. He had a new big brother, blonde like me. The first thing his new mother did after they moved in was have a fence built along their side of lake’s bank, split rail with chicken wire. I saw my brother in every blue-eyed, fair skinned, two-year-old for years. He would appear. But he was someone else’s brother, someone else’s son. When I looked harder he’d be gone.
The next morning’s fishing scared my father. We had waded out of sight of one another. I was downstream, around a bend where the water picked up speed. Eventually, I heard his voice boom and reverberate downriver. He called my name again and again. When we saw each other, as I waded back to the rock pile, his body released a tremendous tension: shoulders, chest, and face nearly melting with relief.
“Don’t you disappear on me,” he said.
It took some time for my brother to disappear completely from our house. Evidence remained. One afternoon, in the same years as our fishing trips with Doc, my mother was washing the glass panes of a door that led into the living room. No one did any actual living in that room, which smelled different from every other room in our house, like the spines of old books. It was a room filled with uncomfortable furniture—a hard-padded sofa, a mahogany secretary, stiff chairs—and it sat off the foyer like the first stop of a tour through a historic home. My mother was washing each pane on the door, the gloaming light spilling in through the room’s floor-level windows. When she kneeled to get to the door’s bottom panes, she stopped herself. Backlit and nearly glowing was my brother’s handprint on the glass, a tiny left hand the size of your palm. Early in the evenings, but especially in the spring when the earth was tilted and turned just so, and the sun set over that corner of our house, my brother waved to us from another place.
His handprint outlived him by seven years. It remained until 1997, when a housekeeper innocently washed the pane clean from top to bottom.
There is another image of his handprint in my mind. The day my brother drowned we ate breakfast together in the morning. My friend showed up at the kitchen door, ready to take on another Saturday in the neighborhood. I leapt up from the table and rushed toward the door.
“Be back later,” I said.
Jeff ran after me and began to cry. I cannot recall another time in which he was so upset about me leaving home. He tugged on my shorts.
“No, Up,” he said, still unable to pronounce my full name, Phillip. “No. No. No.”
“Jeff, I’ll be back. I’m coming back later.”
“No, Up. Stay.”
I laughed and shook him loose. I pushed open the storm door, and walked out onto the breezeway. The dashpot wheezed and the door closed with a gentle slap. He stood there with his hands pressed against the glass, still crying as I laughed and left down the brick walk.
That night neighbors, policemen, and ministers used the same door, and its worn hinges abided their comings and goings with the same sound it had made in the morning. Jeff’s handprints must have been there on the glass, but I never thought to look, just as I never thought to find out why he was crying. But that is my last memory of my brother.
My last memory of Doc came in 1996. I flew down to visit him in March of that year during my spring break from middle school. He had remarried by then, a woman named Pamela, and seemed to be happy. She had short gray hair and wore braces, which I assume Doc had helped (or persuaded) her to get, regardless of how late in life they arrived.
Doc and I drove the highways and back roads with the windows open so we could smell the orange-blossoms. We fished the phosphate pits and lakes of central Florida during one of the coldest weeks in March he could remember. The fishing was slow most days, and we often left the lake early to retire to his den to eat crackers and sliced cheddar cheese off the block and make fun of Orlando Wilson, a buffoonish but successful professional fisherman who had his own TV show. Doc hated him and had compiled an entire tape of Orlando’s shows to make fun of, and we sat there folded over in laughter.
When he dropped me off at the airport, we made the tentative but well-meaning and honest plans of those who part from one another and said “We will do this again.”
I never made it back to Florida to visit Doc. He came to exist in anecdotes my father relayed to me: Pam left Doc; Pam filed for a divorce; Doc’s dental practice was suffering; Doc was broke. I believe my father spoke with him on an occasion or two but nothing substantial, and in the winter spanning 2000-2001, my father found me watching television and said that Doc had put a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His house was being foreclosed on, and the bankers were due to show up at his doorstep at any moment. Doc wrote a note to the bankers and taped it to his front door. It read: “Come find me in the bathroom.”
“Why didn’t he ask for help?” my father asked no one in particular. He was indignant. “We all would have helped him. All he had to do was ask.”
In conversations with my father after Doc had shot himself, it came to light that Doc had hinted to him, years before, he was going to do it. In the late-nights around smoking campfires and over too much beer, Doc had said that one day he might do something irreversible and mad, and my father had told him that he should go ahead and get it over with. Why don’t you just jump off this cliff right now into the river? Do it. My father’s attitude came from a place of love. He turned it into a joke. He had to, to save himself. What Doc was saying was clouded in the nonsensical talk of drunken friends. Doc didn’t know how to ask for help, my father didn’t know how to offer it, and so they talked around one another.
Initially, my father took Doc’s suicide as an insult, one last profane scream to all the fish he had ever known. That Doc could have taken his own life was, to my father, weak-willed and selfish. But the longer he has waded in the wake of Doc’s suicide, the more he has come to understand that the way it appeared on the surface was not how it was below. And those two deaths, my brother and Doc, roughly ten years apart, brought about a sense to me that there is no other way it could turn out. Either your life will be taken from you, or you will take yourself from life.
* * *
Our last morning on the Shenandoah in the summer of 1991, we all fished once more before packing the Jeep. My father and I had to drive Doc to Dulles airport outside of Washington DC, and we left the McNab cabin down the rutted gravel drive and out on to Route 211. I was in the backseat on this leg of the trip, and my father didn’t ask me to navigate, knowing that once we neared the outskirts of DC the highways were crowded and confusing even to those who drove them often. Sure enough, we hit traffic, and there were several beers left over in the cooler. Doc started drinking them unquenchably, fast enough to make it seem like the thump of the tires over the road joints and the pop of the cooler lid met and diverged in syncopated rhythm. Before long, Doc had an issue.
“Pull over, Quam. I have to piss.”
“We can’t. You’re going to miss your plane.”
There’s a good chance that this was not completely true. It was an opportunity my father could not pass up.
“Gosh-dammit, I’m going to piss my pants. Pull over.”
No matter the circumstance, Doc never took the Lord’s name in vain, though the rest of his diction could become a latticework of profanity.
“You want to miss your plane?”
“Look at this traffic. You get off the interstate and it’ll take twenty minutes to get back on. This place is a zoo.”
“You’re not listening to me. I’m going to piss my pants. This isn’t a joke.”
“I know it isn’t. Missing your plane isn’t either.”
“What do you want me to do?”
No one would listen, and it became clear to Doc that there was only one solution. The cooler lid popped open again at my feet, and the cans made a tinny, hollow sound as he fished one out. Doc unzipped himself, in the middle of rush hour traffic, and with an aim, carefulness, and determination I could then only guess at, he filled two beer cans to the brim.
Night was setting in as we parted from Doc. We said our goodbyes, and he disappeared into the airport, his hat cocked high on his forehead. We started for home. I climbed into the front seat, and my father and I made our way to I-95 south. The sky had gone dark and the only light came in passing: from false suns of different hues—white, red, yellow—the headlights, taillights, and streetlights glowed like sundog halos. We drove together down that busy stretch of highway, through Manassas and Stafford; we passed Fredericksburg and the exit for Route 3 that we had taken days before. We crossed the rivers of central Virginia – the Rappahannock, the Ni, the Po, the Matta, and the Chickahominy. Beautiful names, each one running slower in its basin as the land flattened into coastal plain.
My father and I never talked as much on drives home, rather we let the road and drive-time wash over us while an evening baseball game played in the background, a slow-tempo, rhythmic call over weak-powered AM airwaves. On occasion the announcers’ voices became indiscernible through the static, but we never changed the station. Instead we waited it out, not caring too much what was lost, and picked up the game where it left off. If we missed an important call, a hit or a run scored, we would learn of it later.
There are no streetlights on I-64 south of Richmond until Newport News. The median and shoulders are heavily wooded and to stare down that road is to stare down a gun barrel with a flashlight. The white hyphens of the street lines reflected in the headlights’ beam seemed elliptical and infinite, as though the road was repeating to us, “And then, and then, and then.” I looked over at my father. In profile, his prominent nose silhouetted in the low glow of the dashboard, he appeared hypnotized. He did not look over at me, the way people often do when they sense they are being watched. I turned back to the radio dial. The baseball announcers could only be understood in spurts now through the static. Still we made no move to change the station. I knew neither count nor score, but the announcers called on into the white sound. Like lonely buskers playing on a bustling promenade, their voices, their instruments gifted from God, searched for an open ear, someone to listen and acknowledge and understand them before they ended their song. But we pressed on. I knew only that there were miles and miles ahead.
Phil Quam still lives in Virginia. He received his MFA from Old Dominion University in 2013. He teaches literature and writing and is an editor of Green Briar Review. He hopes to teach and write overseas in the coming years and fish some new bodies of water.