Photographic Memory, excerpt

When he awakes, the train is winding slowly north through the White River Valley. Among the trees, he spots the remains of an abandoned marble quarry. The wide-mesh game fence surrounding it has collapsed in several places and is overgrown with vines. His angle of view is such that he can only see the brown and yellow groundwater stains on the marble sides of the quarry. He drifts off again to sleep.

He stood on a similar precipice several times before, once with Stevie Stewart and Jimmy Greaves, who urged him to come along for a dip, knowing full well that David would not “make the jump,” occasioning yet another opportunity for them to be admired for their daring and skill.

The overgrown quarry lies high up in the Worcester Range and never sees more than an hour or two of noontime sun. The access road, once heavily trafficked with four-horse drays loaded with cut limestone blocks or smaller stone boats pulled by a single horse, is now overgrown, passable only on foot or by ’dozers and log skidders. Stevie and Jimmy’s assurances of safety diminish in credibility as they explain about where to jump and what to avoid. Any courage drains out of David as he stands on the mossy outcrop from which kids jump or dive into the dark water 30 feet below.

Three years later, he brings Annie Foss up fully intending to jump, but his determination again dissolves as they stand together on the brink. He recovers by recounting the stories he’s heard of kids drowning or diving headfirst into hidden rock outcrops on the quarry walls and never resurfacing.

In his dream he is alone there now, standing on the quarry’s edge looking down at the opaque surface of dark water. He cannot see below the surface, even along the edges of the quarry where the sheer walls are striated with mineral deposits, indicating different water levels. They remind him of the Plimsoll lines on warships he has seen in the book of Steichen’s war photographs. The afternoon sunlight is oblique, a splash on the far wall of the quarry.

He has prepared himself to jump. There is no one to watch or to help him should he get hurt. He inhales, raises his right leg and pushes off with his left into the air. As he falls, he scissors his legs together as he was taught in camp and uses his arms for balance. It is a long fall. He feels the sting in his feet and under his arms as he hits the hard surface. The glassy water breaks open around him and he plummets deep into the quarry leaving a wake of bubbles. He opens his legs and arms to slow his descent and his eyes to see how far below the surface the fall has propelled him. Far above, he sees a greenish light from which he tries to calculate his depth. He looks down but sees only pale light attenuating to blackness below. He is in suspension now. He imagines his father’s descent into Leyte Gulf.

He has always been able to hold his breath for a long time — 90 seconds once at camp. Buoyancy overcomes his equilibrium and he begins to rise slowly toward the plane of light above. He makes no effort to swim to the surface as he looks around at the water transfused with light. Small dace dart in and out of the shadows. He remembers the exaggerated estimates of the quarry’s depth and Pudge Roleau’s contention that it was bottomless.

The light’s intensity increases and suddenly he breaks the surface with a splash and a gulp of air. Looking up at the rock shelf from which he jumped, he gets his bearings in the confines of the quarry. Now he wishes Annie had seen him jump, though she would have been worried for him. There is no way out of the quarry other than the knotted manila rope hanging from a tree limb on the far side of the quarry. He remembers hearing that some first-time jumpers had been unable to climb out without help, as the algae-covered rope is always slimy from the mists above the water.

Remembering Dougie Cleveland, he sidestrokes slowly toward the rope. Dougie drowned there when some older boys played a joke on him and pulled the rope up after he jumped in and then left, intending to return later that day. Dougie’s body was later recovered by divers but the stories of others who drowned and whose bodies were never recovered only added to the mystery and intrigue of swimming above their remains.

David reaches the rope and grapples his way to the top, collapsing on the mossy rock edge and looking up through the crowns of gray birch at the clouds scutting across the sky.

 

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