FICTION: Opening the Dam

Winner, 7th Annual Volume One Fiction Contest

Katie Nolan, illustrated by Mike Jacobsen |

We drink amber bocks on her roof, she and I. We drink them like lumber barons, proudly, looking out on a river of logs. But the barons lived closer to the river. We can’t see the river from up here. I set my bottle down, forgetting to make the first drink big enough to counter the grade. Top heavy, it falls, foaming and filling the spaces between the roof shingles as it rolls zigzag toward the gutter. I think this town wants those barons back, or the logs. I guess they need each other. 


    I think we’re on the edge, she says. I mean this house, it’s the edge of something. Everything east is students, but I was walking the other way yesterday and heard a domestic dispute. Real people with their problems. This is the edge of that, or of the students. I move my chair closer to the edge of the roof. The canals between the shingles are almost empty now, and I can hear the bock streaming down the gutter.


    This feels like summer camp, she says, and turns the dial on the radio. I tell her I never went to summer camp, but I think I know what she means. What I mean is that I know summer camp only happens in the summer, and I don’t really know what that is. I think she knows what I mean. When she says “this” she means college. I pretend she means sitting on her roof in the afternoon when spring gets warm.   


    One time we were grocery shopping in her hometown. After ambling through the fluorescent patchwork of excessive packaging and SALE signs, we rolled our cart into a checkout line. She didn’t have her discount card, and the cashier couldn’t find the one usually pinned to her nametag: DEB.  The pink and blue flower sticker she’d placed inside the D was faded and beginning to peel. Deb asked Jan from one line over if she could borrow hers, and the woman waiting behind us made a noise like she’d been startled from a nap. We turned and watched her empty the contents of her large, black leather purse onto the counter—receipts, gum wrappers, keys, several prescription bottles of pills, a single tampon. The last thing to drop out was her discount card. She leaned across her shopping cart to hand it to Deb and then looked Jan dead in the eyes, “Crisis averted, Jan!” It’s funny when you say crisis and don’t mean it. We all laughed. The woman saved us two dollars and seventeen cents. 


    I think this is a crisis and I will never say it. It wouldn’t be funny.



It’s funny when you meet people and they are someone you just met. That’s all they are until they’re more. Sometimes that more sneaks up on you. I was ambushed.   


     We were driving back to school and passed those water parks in the middle of the state: the Kalahari and the Great Karoo. Rustic log-cabin style hotel parks covered by composite images of African flora and fauna—geographically conflated adventure lands. I said they have to know that those are deserts, right?  She said what does it matter, they’re selling water and gravity in shades of plastic. I think we’ve already been had. And I think that’s the real crisis—calling a thing what it’s not. We give the sun too much credit when we say it rises, but we’ll keep doing that. They do their jobs, the sun and those words, and we’re not asking for more. I was seeing silver silos and red barns huddled at the corners of cornfields before long. They were being honest with me, existing for practicality. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of going back.


     She says we should go downtown to that café where the barista is our friend. We’ll make her give us ice cream. She finishes her beer and squints into the sun as she looks over at me. I say I’d love to, but I’m not getting any ice cream. She says she wasn’t going to get any either. It was a reason to move together. 


     We were sitting in the park later that day, and I spilled my coffee in the grass. There’s an old train bridge that crosses the river at this park. Its rusted buttresses reflect in the murky spring flow. A pair of shoes had been tossed over a cable spanning the width of the bridge. The shoes swung back and forth in a breeze. I was tracing the shape of the liquid metal with my eyes when a heron began to dive at the reflection of the shoes over and over again. I guess it’s ok, she said, bringing me back to the bank. It’s just the grass. But you might get tired later. And I felt like for months I’d been walking around spilling my coffee in the grass, thinking it was ok and not worrying about how I was going to be so tired later.    


    I started to write something for her once.  I wanted to call it “Colony.” It might have been a poem. It was about how I had her flags and thought they were mine. How her anthems rang in my ears. The way I’d adopted her ocular language, her currency of clock hands, her sun laws.


    We talk about moments a lot. Like the moment you learn how to read. I made the babysitter call my parents. It was a book about lions, the same book my sister read to her stuffed animals the day before. She lined them up in rows—straight backs, attentive glass eyes, and tailored looks of contentment sitting three to a chair. Sometimes she held the book upside down or read the pages that were only pictures. This was the moment that p-r-i-d-e meant pride to me and nothing to my sister, or everything. I guess it was what she wanted it to be. I didn’t know then that you could say more than you wanted to with words like that. She reminds me of my sister. She likes the sound of things, the rhythm. Sound and rhythm can make more sense than ordered symbols.


    And then there is the moment you realize the thing you were doing with that high school boyfriend is over. We were both in the kitchen when that happened.  I was sitting on my parents’ Formica counter. She was sitting at her family’s dinner table. I was on the phone with over a year of accelerated young love two thousand miles away. She was staring hers in the face through blurry tears. I remember oranges in the fruit basket and she remembers a wet washcloth draped over the faucet. We couldn’t tell you about the words.


    I was running by the hospital yesterday. It had just stopped raining and the sun fought through the low hanging clouds in radiant strings. The sidewalks were still wet at the edges. The Life Flight helicopter was lowering itself to the big red X on the hospital roof like a bee over a concrete blossom. I saw the men pull a gurney out of the back as I passed. There’s something terrifying about being caught in a landscape like that. 



I’ve watched men burn through her. They are taken with her and she is too much. She’s not trivial and she takes nothing lightly. They leave for easier, more certain things.Some of them used to be good friends of mine. But a thing like that changes everything.


    I want to write letters to those precious few men that have been good. I’ve known plenty of neutral men, but only a few that I miss with a falling-forward sort of depth. Like looking for a door in a dark hallway that never appears—your body leans forward in anticipation, but only ever with anticipation and it is exhausting. I want to yell at the others, the ones that burn bridges before they’re built. But all they’d hear is p-r-i-d-e and I’d be tearing at pages trying to read them the pictures.


    It’s here that I wish pain was like chemistry. I wish people could be reactants and the product always balanced. Like adding and subtracting atoms and molecules until things didn’t hurt so much. I think we try to do that but sometimes a rogue element gets overloaded and zings off into space or something. The body heals itself and we try to follow suit.


    There’s a dam on the river north of town. It’s the same river that had the logs, and that foolish bird. I told her I wanted to be the hydrologist that gets to decide when to open and close the dam. And then I say it’s a big job and maybe I don’t want it. I almost burned my house to the ground once baking a pie. How could I be trusted with a river? I’d be letting it flow and flow and before I knew it we’d all be under water. She said she’d trust me with it. I think we trust the man who does it because we don’t know him. He’s the perfect hydrologist, infallible because we don’t see him brush his teeth and roll through stop signs. I’m glad I don’t know him. I might not be able to sleep through the rain if I did.


    One day I told her I wonder if birds feel how we feel in flying dreams while they’re awake. Or do they have dreams that they can only walk and it’s somehow exhilarating?



I’ll probably write her a letter in a year or so that says something like, “I miss your laugh. Stop laughing without me,” or, “Sometimes I don’t know how I do life when you’re not around.” I’ll follow that with the things that do make me laugh or how I am actually doing life without her. I’ll mean it, but it will be paper. And I might not send it. I might put it between book pages with that poem I never gave her. They’re silly if they think being earth-bound is exhilarating.     


    I was riding a bus in a foreign city before this was a crisis, sitting across from a deaf couple. The woman kept pointing at me while she was signing. I assumed she was saying something about foreigners or the way young people are dressing these days. I realize now that she was just talking about the future. Pointing in front of her meant she was telling him about tomorrow. What a nice place to be sitting—in someone’s future tense.   


    I rip the label off the last bock and think tomorrow I’ll say what I mean. She stands up and stretches. Her body casts a magnificent shadow over a patch of perfectly layered roof shingles. It reminds me of a cloud poised over planned agriculture—the way you see those fields that are cut and measured from a plane. The canals are dry now. I uncross my legs and find the right one sleeping. I should have known better than to sit like that for so long. It’ll be a while before I can move again.