Fall 2006

Volume 1, Issue 2



The Present Perfect


Lily June followed her grandfather from standpipe to standpipe as he opened valves to release the cold water onto the scorched field. Although the day dawned cool when the sun rose in the East, the same sun setting in the West on a late July afternoon was unrelenting. When Boppa stopped for a moment to dig out a clogged valve, he said, “You stay put, L.J.” He worked while she sat on a levee, her tanned pot belly in full command of the space between her cutoffs and frilly pink bikini top. Boppa had once told her, “If you unscrew your bellybutton, your butt will fall off.” It was a pearl of sage wisdom that she treasured. The horizon rippled and curled like a hair singed by heat, and while the temperature outside caused Lily considerable discomfort, it was preferable to the chill of her air-conditioned home on North Seventh Street. The lure of a nearby canal full of rushing water, however, was a far more tempting kind of cool, and the burbling sound convinced Lily in an instant to sneak a swim. She was quite adept at vanishing at will, and when she was sure that Boppa was good and distracted with his plugged-up cement pipe, Lily slipped away.

The water beckoned, and in mere moments she was enticed into the coolness of the grass-bottomed canal. Floating on her stomach in the murky fluid, Lily’s shoulders and neck sizzled as the sun beat down on her back, but she willed herself to stay still. Her tiny body spun with the current, just another leaf adrift on its surface, and the underwater world flowed in and out of her vision. Water beetles exploded from the bottom sludge and wriggled away in search of another hideout, leaving behind slow-motion swirls of silt. When a feather of moss drifted by, found her cheek, and stuck there, she didn’t blink. An awful mineral taste filled her mouth and black mosquito fish nibbled and poked at the undersides of her arms, but Lily remained quiet in spite of the discomfort, allowing the pulsating movement of the swaying pond grass to mesmerize her as she twirled motionless down the channel. The roar of the current was muted in her ears, as was the rhythmic sound of tiny bubbles escaping from her right nostril: Poink, poink, poink…

Yet she didn’t stir, convinced that any motion on her part would disturb the delicate miracle that now visited her. Something had enveloped Lily completely. Something perfect. Her body skated along the top of the water like a Jesus bug, the surface tension unbroken, the water barely denting in around her form. She dared not move for fear of competing with the flow, and instead drifted along, rigid and limp all at once. Her tiny muscles were exhausted from their very calmness, from the non-effort of keeping her supine body from moving even a fraction so as not to upturn the balance she had stumbled upon. But the burden of being attached to her body soon became too much trouble for Lily, and her tether to this world gave way with a snap.

She was almost gone when she heard a man’s voice from behind her, distant and frightened. Without warning, the water surged and roiled, and she found herself fighting against brown muddy waves. A huge hand clutched the back of her neck and plucked her from the water like a drenched kitten. Lily struggled, even resisted. Her feet found the bottom of the ditch, but before she could stand, she was dragged backwards out of the canal and onto the bank. She took a breath, but there was no room for air in her lungs. A hand pushed on her stomach and ditch water rushed out of her mouth and nose. She was jerked into a sitting position as she choked up fluid. Her arms were lifted above her head, and she was shook and pounded on the back so hard, she thought her lolling head was going to snap right off of her neck.

Jesus, Jesus, someone said. Lily’s vision returned before her voice, and the face of her grandfather bled into focus. The man was tall and broad, and he squatted in front of her to see her eye-to-eye. She had no sooner regained her wind than the words aspirated from her mouth with her first solid exhale: “I was breathing!”

Boppa collapsed on the bank next to her and pulled a blue bandanna out of his back pocket. “Well, you seem to be now, anyway,” he said. He mopped the ditchwater and sweat off of his face. He wiped his eyes, too, and blew his nose. “Why didn’t I see that coming?” he asked someone, Lily didn’t know who but it wasn’t her.

“I was breathing underwater!” she said in a tone that insisted upon acknowledgement.

“Breathing?” he asked. She nodded, eyes wide, waiting for the look of astonishment she was sure would wash over his face. But Boppa just shook his head and some of the worried creases between his eyebrows eased up. “From where I was standing, it looked more like drowning.” His eyes darkened. “Christ, don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again, do you understand me?”

She nodded and bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling; it was a short journey from there to tears, and she didn’t want to cry. After a moment of letting her suffer, he reached out to hug her and she didn’t resist. She scooted over and rested her head on his knee, the wet denim of his Levis cool and stiff, the wrinkles forming impressions on her cheek. It was okay to cry a little now because he couldn’t see, and she did cry because she knew that he didn’t understand. Or he didn’t believe her, which was even worse. It was because he was so old, she thought. Last Christmastime she told him that she wished he was a kid like her. He had fished a lariat out from underneath the seat of the pickup truck and told her that they were like different ends on a piece of rope. He stretched the rope out so that the ends were far apart, but then he grabbed both ends and brought them together in a circle. Then he tied the lariat into a hangman’s noose and they played sheriff and rustler for the rest of the afternoon.

Her fine hair dried out quickly in the sun, taking on a texture and color so like straw that Lily had to be careful around Blackie and Blaze because more than once they had tried to nibble strands straight off of her scalp. With large, clumsy hands her grandfather tried to untangle the tangles her hair had made around the plastic clips holding her pigtails, picking out reeds and strings of moss while he worked. “This is easier when you’re still,” he mumbled, and she felt comforted.

After a long time, she said, “You don’t believe me.”

He was quiet for a while. Then he pinched her neck where gills would be, saying, “You’re not a fish,” and Lily couldn’t help giggling.

“Stop it,” she replied, swatting at his hands. “I was breathing underwater.”

“Okay. Whatever you say.” He grinned as she pouted. Spying a rock pressed into the mud bank, he leaned over to dig it out with his thumb. When he had extracted the pebble, he wiped it on the leg of his jeans and gave it to Lily.

“Pretty,” she said of the dense piece of granite shot through with soft quartz. She put the rock in her pocket, and both got up and scanned the ground for more. Her very best treasures had come from Boppa. He whittled horses for her out of sticks unless she deemed a particular burl of wood too pretty to carve up with his pocket knife. Once he gave her the tail off of a muskrat he had killed, and she carried the dried out appendage around with her in her pocket, showing it off to strangers when it seemed appropriate.

They poked around the muddy bank as Holstein cattle gathered in a timid circle around the pair, too frightened to get too close, too curious to ignore the two of them entirely. Boppa found a flat, round rock, and in a fluid motion turned at the waist and skipped the stone across the ditch, his sudden movement serving to scatter the cattle with a rumble of dust. Lily and her grandfather watched as the stone bounced once, twice, three times on the surface of the water before it sank. “How does it do that?” Lily asked. “Rocks can’t float.”

“Who says?”


“But you saw it right there.”

“I know. But I think I was breathing underwater, too, not drowning like you said.”

Boppa frowned. “Breathing underwater?” Lily nodded and stared at the ground. “You don’t say?” Lily nodded again without looking up. Then Boppa said, “Maybe you should tell me how you did it.”

Lily’s heart banged around in her chest like a bat in a box. She was determined to be understood, but when she opened her mouth, she found no words. She thought a little, mouth still open. The only explanation that came to her mind was that not knowing how she could breathe underwater was somehow connected to being able to breathe underwater. Which wasn’t a very good explanation at all. Finally, defeated, she said, “I don’t know what I did. I didn’t do anything.”

Holding a glossy green pebble up to the sun, Boppa trapped a glint of light inside of the translucent stone before putting the rock in his pocket. “Makes perfect sense to me,” he replied. Lily checked his face to see if he was teasing but she couldn’t say for sure. After a minute, he said, “I’ll tell you what. Suppose you were breathing underwater. If that’s the case, maybe we should have a signal so next time I can see that you’re breathing and not drowning. Maybe stick a cattail in your hair so I know.” His face was serious, and Lily’s happiness filled her to the top with sparks. She adored cattails. Glancing around for his irrigation wrench, Boppa said, “We should head home.”

“Are you finished irrigating?”

He shrugged. “Maybe it’ll rain.”

Lily was incredulous. “In July?”

“It might. It has before. Sometimes things get done when you don’t do anything, remember?”

Taking a big breath, risking everything, she said, “Do you believe me?”

He paused before his reply. “I believe you believe you.”

And Lily had to be satisfied. Boppa started for the pickup with long strides and Lily trotted to keep up. He looked down at her, his cowboy hat framing his face in straw. As his head tilted, a beam of sun skated a quick loop around the rim of his hat, and she had to squint one eye in the face of the glare. He said, “I was going to see if we could keep this breathing underwater to ourselves.” Hoisting the irrigation wrench over his shoulder, he gave Lily a level gaze. “But I’m not sure if you’re any good at keeping secrets.”

“I didn’t tell anybody about that time when Blaze was acting up in the corral and you threw the pitchfork at him,” Lily retorted.

Her grandfather appeared mildly surprised. “Really? No one?”


He smiled. “Okay, then. Our secret.” Lily reached up for his free hand and gave it a squeeze.

“Have I ever told you the story about the man who ran himself to death because he hated his own footprints?” Boppa asked, and this time both of them laughed because that was the whole story.


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© 2006 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture