After my wife and kid leave me I move to a big, lazy river, right near the deepest part.

Every morning I make myself a Tom Collins and watch my part of the river ripple in the breeze.  I wonder about the wife and the kid while swimming in the afternoon followed by meditation. Sometimes I look for arrowheads, or fix another Tom Collins.  In the evening I have chili.  I have cold beer from the river.  I sleep under the stars and listen for bullfrogs.

When my wife drives up periodically, probably to have me sign something, I hide behind one of the obelisks, or I lie down in the woods like dead leaves.

“I am a dead leaf,” I say to the dead leaves.

In the river I see my first fish.  It is a lazy brown trout roughly the size of my forearm.  My instincts briefly consider killing it with a rock.  My instincts startle me.

Occasionally I think about my wife’s breasts back when she used to let me touch them unconditionally.  I go into the woods and masturbate with abandon.  I don’t know what to make of life after marriage.  Plausible, but also absurd.  I walk from one end of my part of the river to the other.  I make a mental inventory of every reed and rock.  Do not count the squirrels, I think.  The squirrels are not yours. 

One morning I find over fifty deer milling around.  They are sniffing at the air and eating my wildflowers.  I think about introducing myself, but instead I just watch.  One of the deer eats a half finished can of chili, which makes me smile.  Maybe I’m not in love with my wife anymore, I think.  Maybe she is like a rare and precious metal that I have great admiration for and need to study further.  

For a week I see no one.  Then one afternoon three hikers, a family of four, and my wife come by. 

The hikers ask if they can have their picture taken next to the mobile wet bar. 

“Get a load of this set up,” Hiker One says.

“What a riot,” Hiker Two says.

Hiker three hamming it up pretends to be drinking from my handle of Smirnoff.

“Smile,” I tell them, wishing I had pretended to be leaves, or an obelisk, or that I had walked out of the lake naked carrying a giant machete, laughing maniacally.  After the three hikers disappear over the ridge I decide it isn’t enough to live by a river in the middle of nowhere.  I should come up with something more drastic like build a tree house, or mine the woods. 

My wife and I once walked down to another river in another part of the world in another time and swam out until we were up to our necks.  My wife straddled me.  We did it as slowly as possible so her parents on the back lawn wouldn’t see.  Afterwards my wife and I went back to our respective chaise lounges.  We fell asleep in the sun dreaming of things that would never happen. 

One day the President of the United States comes to see how I am doing. 

The sky is blue and hot.  The President, who is walking beside me asks me if I am into politics.  I shrug.  We don’t speak for awhile after that.  Instead we pretend to look at the scenery, which hasn’t changed for centuries.

 “My wife and kid left me,” I say to the President. 

“Something in my life has doomed me, too,” says the President, who is watching the green shallows for trout. 

“I’m from the Pacific Northwest,” I say.

“I’m from the Rust Belt,” says the President.

For a long time I skip rocks across the river.  Later that night I drink nine Tom Collins and grind dance with a jack pine.  Mostly, though I go exploring.  Sometimes I sit for hours on the obelisks.  I watch the humming birds fly around.  While the humming birds fly around the heat drains all the toxins out of me like a giant sauna.

“I am a Viking who lives in different times,” I say to the heat.

When I return home from one of my nature walks the President is there.  He is looking at my mobile wet bar.

“What’s bothering you?” asks the President.

“What do you mean?”

“You know,” says the President.

I want to tell him I’m against something big like capitalism, or oil companies, but I don’t feel that way.  Those things don’t feel real to me.  They feel far away and made up like unicorns, or flammable monks.

When I was a little kid I saw the President speak somewhere. He was talking about nuclear war and people cheered.  I imagined all the missiles and satellites crammed above us in outer space.  They felt heavy up there.  They were weighing down the atmosphere with the promise of Armageddon melting everyone’s face off.  But for some reason it didn’t seem that bad.  Back then the President had a good sense of humor despite all the weight of MIRV and SALT II pressing down on his senior citizen pompadour.

The President is moodier nowadays. 

He is different than the President in the newspapers.  A little taller.  Less defined.  Fuzzy around the edges. 

A part of me wants to be friends with him.

My part of the river has robins, blue jays, and humming birds. 

Sometimes I count them, but other times I close my eyes and listen to them.  When I am not counting or listening to the various birds the President will often discuss at length the various species of nearby trees.

“You can see, easily enough, where the foxtail pine gets its name,” says the President, pointing off to the middle-distance.  “But, unlike the lodge-pole pine, it wears its brush at the end of its tail—that is to say at the extremities of the branchlets.”

Deep down I realize that regularly seeing and discussing wildlife with the President of the United States is not good for me.  It is probably a sign of bad things to come, but I am a world-class escapist.  I am an astronaut of the absurd with one toe dipped in the abyss of potentially flammable monks. 

“I have no good reason for living anymore,” I say, thinking of all the failure and loss I have accumulated so far. 

I drink a thermos of lukewarm Tom Collins, waiting for ideas to come.  

Then I have an idea. 

My idea is to live underwater.

The next morning I walk into town.  I go to the masonry and buy a load of bricks.  I go to the library and take out books on house building and one on submarine design.  I order scuba gear via the Internet.  I buy a magnum of Champagne to christen my new underwater lake house when it’s finished. 

“What are you celebrating?” the cashier asks.

“I don’t want to live on land anymore,” I say.

Back at the lake I fix myself a drink.  I look over the book on submarine design.  I figure I will need to build a small one if I am going to bring down supplies and get to and from the house.  Occasionally I want to come on land for certain holidays, graduations, or to freshen the bar.  While I am drafting the first sketches of the mini submarine the President returns from his walk.  He makes himself a drink.  He sits down on the grass.  As always he is wearing a dark blue suit with a red tie.  He has a miniature American flag pinned to his lapel. 

“I actually don’t like them,” admits the President, tapping the flag pin.  “Wreaks havoc on a good suit.”

I crumple up another sketch and toss it into the meadow behind me.  The entire day goes like this.  Sometimes I give the sub designing a rest.  I draft other things like skylights for the house that bubble outwards so as to alleviate water pressure.  I draft an extra-long chimney that sticks out of the water like a periscope so I can have fires in the winter.  “I am an underwater architect,” I say.  Eventually I go back to tinkering with the mini sub design.  I plan to make it a two-seater so that my kid, or the President can come visit.

“What do you think?” I ask the President.

The President looks over his shoulder.  “Where are you putting the oxygen tanks?’

“Where the fuck do you think?” I tell the President.

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” the President says, taking a sip from a brand new drink.  “My father was a Navy man, of course, I, on the other hand, was in the Air Force.”

The President looks hurt when he says this.  He goes for a short walk, shaking his head, muttering to himself.  After awhile I stop working on the sub.  I decide to go for a swim to clear my mind.  I go out to the middle of the river.  I imagine my future chimney.  In my imagination my future chimney is breaking the whitecaps in a winter storm.  Back on land I can see the President squinting over the sketches.  His head is tilted critically to one side.  The President fixes himself another drink.  He sits back down in the grass, scrutinizing a sunflower. 

One afternoon we walk over the ridge. 

We walk around a small butte covered in sugar pines, which according to the President bears the biggest cones of all. 

In the distance we can see the sun reflecting off my part of the river.

“How’s the submarine coming?” asks the President, scrutinizing one of the giant fallen cones.

I tell the President I’ve decided I won’t need a submarine after all.

“It’s tough building things,” says the President.  “Of course, that’s why we always hire out contractors.  Ha!  Could you imagine if the government ever actually built things?”

Sometimes after dinner I throw rocks at the moon, or lay in the wildflowers pretending I am not a divorced person who moves to obscure rivers to build underwater houses.

Sometimes I feel empty inside.

“Building underwater and personal growth are not one in the same,” I say to the emptiness.

I am underwater in my brand new scuba suit.  I am hammering brightly colored stakes into the muddy bottom.  The stakes signify where the house will go.  It is very dark at the bottom of the river, but I know it will be alright because I will have big convex skylights to let in the sun so I don’t get depressed.   Other things I will have to combat depression: expensive brandy, six-foot marble fireplace.  I am swimming in what will be, for all intents and purposes, my garden.  It is lush with rocks, algae, and trout spawn.  In the winter when the river is frozen over and everything around it is frozen over including my wife’s tomato garden, my underwater garden will still be blossoming with rocks, algae, and trout spawn. 

There will be enough brandy to last through till spring.  

I will read by the fireplace and when I get hungry I will open my kitchen window and catch a trout for dinner. 

I swim back to shore. 

I take off my flippers and fix myself a Gin Rickey. 

I am tired of Tom Collins. 

I go over to a wall of bricks to see how the mortar is drying.  My plan is to build the house in stages on land then lowering each piece into place using a portable crane. My lifelong dream has changed from marrying my wife and growing old together on the Cape to living underwater and drinking expensive brandy and catching brown trout out the window. 

When I was a boy I would pretend I was a blue jay by sitting in trees acting like a blue jay and hoping the other blue jays would notice my flawless interpretation of being a blue jay.  When I wanted to fly I jumped down to the ground and ran around with my arms out saying “CAW! CAW! CAW! CAW!”

It is the Fourth of July. 

I lower another piece of the foundation with the crane.  Afterwards I drink beer and watch fireworks.  The President is watching from a nearby obelisk.  His red tie is fluttering in the breeze.  He has his sleeves rolled up as if surveying some natural disaster, gravely nodding and tightening his jaw muscles on cue.

The fireworks begin.  I look up at them. Somewhere my wife is drinking wine and looking at fireworks. I drink down the rest of my beer.  I wonder how many trout are in my part of the river.  I wonder if trout relationships are less complicated because they’ve been here longer, or because of water pressure.  Then I wonder about nothing.  Then I wonder what expensive brandy will taste like with trout.  After that I wonder about nothing again.

“Of course, the difficulty will be in obtaining said trout without letting any water in,” I say, under an exploding sky of Class B peonies and chrysanthemums.

“I will help you catch them,” says the President, holding one hand over his heart.  “My technique is second to none.”

August.  I’ve finished mortaring most of the foundation. Some people think I am crazy.  Once or twice a week hikers furrow their brows at me.  Sometimes they whisper and laugh.  Sometimes I think the squirrels are whispering and laughing at me.  I am on everyone’s short list for craziest man in North America.

“I feel unmoored,” I tell the President one day over esoteric cocktails, the sun melting into the ridge like some obscure World War II battle where sixty thousand frightened grandpas drowned, or were badly burned, thinking about their mothers who are now fertilizer, bluebell thickets, tadpoles.

“That’s normal,” says the President.  “Who doesn’t feel unmoored?  But if you ask me what we should really be discussing is the global warming.”

“What about it?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ghetto mudslides have increased over the last ten years.”

“Sometimes I wish you would shut up.”

“I think you forget how important I am to you.”

“Important for what?”

“To tell you who your enemies are.”

“Who are my enemies?”

“I think you should probably watch out for that wife of yours.”

“What about her?”

“She needs to be taken care of.”

“Taken care of how?”

“Silenced.”

“What? Like killing her?”

“We don’t say kill.  We say silenced.  It’s a DIA thing.”

“What’s DIA?”

“Defense Intelligence Agency.”

“Forget it.”

“I know just the people for this sort of thing, believe you me.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Hear what?”

“Any of it.”

“I have much experience and hardship to draw on.”

“—.”

“Invaluable insights on human relationships and the natural world.”

“I’m beginning to question my reality.”

“I’m real alright.”  The President laughs, clinking home some ice into a fresh tumbler.  “I’m as real as those obelisks, or this bottle of gin.”

“I feel empty inside.”

“This is good gin.”

“Why does everyone think I’m crazy?”

“Define crazy.”

One morning my wife drops by. 

 “It’s not right,” she says, finding me in hiding behind an obelisk.  “I mean, ok, I understand you’re sad right now about some things, some really fucked up things even, but this isn’t the way to go about your life.”

“Not all of us adjust as well as you,” I say.

“Ok, I know I played a role in the way, well, the way things are with you, but that doesn’t explain this does it?  I mean just look at yourself.  What the hell are you going to do down there anyway?”

“In the river?”

“Yes, in the goddamn river!”

“I don’t know.  Maybe light a fire and read with some brandy.  When I’m hungry I’ll just catch fish out the window.”

“Listen, that’s not normal.  Reading by fireside underwater, or whatever, and catching fish out your window is not a normal fucking way to live.”

“You swear a lot more than you used to.”

“About crazy shit like this you’re goddamn right I do.”

I put on my swim fins and oxygen tank.

“Where are you going?” asks my wife.

“Eighteen fathoms.”

“My God, honey, you need help.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ve done it a hundred times.”

“No, I mean a doctor.  A professional.  You need to talk to someone.”

“Nice seeing you.”

“Listen, baby …”

“I’m going underwater now.”

I find the President leaning up against a tree. 

“This morning, who was that?” the President asks.  “Was that your wife?”

I nod.

“She’s prettier than I thought,” the President says.  “Nice chest.”

“Where have you been?”

“I had business to attend to.”

“What business?”

“I run the country remember?”

“Whatever.”

“Come with me.”

“Where?”

“This way.”

I follow the President further into the woods.  He points to a stump.

“You know what this is?” he asks me.

“A stump.”

“It’s a missile silo disguised as a stump.”

“No it isn’t.”

“You’re right, but it’s a good spot for one don’t you think?  I’m going to bring it up at the next cabinet meeting.”

“You do that.”

I turn to leave.

“Wait,” says the President.  “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you just said you lied.”

“I did that for your own safety.  There is a missile under there.  It’s an MX.”

“I don’t care.”

The President begins to light a cigar.  His face is relaxed in a Presidential way.

“Why are you here?” I ask.

The President shrugs his shoulders.  He throws his match into the woods behind him.  “I guess I’ve sort of lost my way like you.”

“This is crazy,” I say. 

“I probably just need to invade someplace like Bolivia to clear my head,” says the President.  “That always seems to do the trick.”

I leave him there and walk back to the river.  I sit down.  After awhile I turn around, but the President is gone.

I fix myself a Gin Rickey.

After that I go into town to cancel my order for convex skylights.

Underwater was written by Trevor J. Houser. He is a writer and copywriter in Seattle. He probably drinks Old Weller while listening to the autoplaying music on the homepage of his professional website.
Illustration for this work was done by Andy Babbitz. He is a freelance art director who believes you should chew your pride before swallowing it.
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