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Post Road Magazine #33

The Pond

Anthony Inverso

On the flight back from Los Angeles, I drowned myself in three Bloody Marys to combat jet lag, and I argued with the Italian about what made for a better luxury vehicle, a Porsche or an Audi.

"The difference between a Porsche and an Audi is the difference between driving and being driven," said the Italian, giving his final argument in favor of the former. "You've got to trust me on this one."

"Audi all the way," I said. "Besides, why should I trust someone who introduces himself as the Italian?"

The Italian snorted. "Chance, I like you," he said. "Even if your dad does work in life insurance."

Oh, my father. He'd really fucked me on the coming week's schedule.

The next day we had baseball tickets. We'd load up on gin in father's luxury box, he'd squeeze a wait staff member's breasts, and security would usher us out before the seventh inning stretch. Then on Tuesday he'd penciled in a round of golf with an Armenian. The Armenian had a supermodel of a daughter, but she wouldn't join us on the links, so no fun there. Wednesday my father hadn't scheduled anything, so I'd planned a haircut and manicure. Thursday, our country club required my services as a judge of some shitty contest or another. Beauty? Singing? Badminton? Who the hell could keep track?

I thought about this while waiting for my father's chauffeur at the airport, and I didn't notice the Italian until he tapped me on the shoulder. Maybe it was the laughs we shared, or the lingering effects of the alcohol, but he was kind enough to offer me a ride. Somewhat impressionable from the Bloody Marys, I accepted. I didn't bother calling the chauffeur to explain the change in plans. I wanted him to know my opinion on tardiness.

The Italian guided me through the parking garage to a rust colored Toyota Tercel. It seemed he'd lied about driving a Porsche, or at least had not left it in the airport lot. I reconsidered waiting for the chauffeur. This had nothing to do with the Italian's lie and everything to do with the Tercel, a vehicle so limited in elegance even Toyota stopped manufacturing it over a decade ago. The lying didn't bother me at all. In fact, I appreciated that the Italian both took the time to lie and also saw no shame in it.

As we exited the airport lot, I asked the Italian to drop me off at my father's house.

"Sure," he said. "Although I've got to stop home first. You mind?"

"Well," I said.

"It'll be quick," promised the Italian. "Besides, you should see my own home town. It's changed a lot in recent years. There are so few ponds anymore. And the mentally challenged man who used to wander around the convenience store drowned two years back in a real gangbuster of a night. How old are you?"

"Twenty-six," I said.

"Great. You'll love my daughter. She's twenty, and what a set of pipes on that girl. You'll love her. You won't like my son, but one for two's a fine average. My son refuses to sing at all. You can't get along with that kid. Do you have a sister?"

"Sure," I said. "She's horrible, though. She's a cokehead who never turns down a dare. It's like if someone suggests skinny dipping, my sister challenges them in a race to our pool, stripping as she sprints."

"So you own a pool?" said the Italian, laughing as he passed the turn toward my town. "How nice." He steered the car with only his fingers. At red lights he performed drum solos on his chin.

The traffic thinned as we approached the Italian's neighborhood. After taking several turns down disappointing streets, the frequency of the houses slimmed. The Italian lived in a two story home at the end of a long driveway with no other cars in it. Remote, quaint, no neighbors. Good place for a high school kid to host a kegger.

As the Italian parked, I leaned back in my seat.

"I'll wait here," I said.

"Nonsense. Inside with you. It's a nice enough place. I own twelve television sets. My son is a monster. He's sixteen and might try to eat you. My daughter will serve you the best White Russian you've ever drank. Just a quick stop inside. This is what we're doing now. You're coming."

I'd planned to wait in the car so I could text my father to let him know I'd be late. But, in the interest of good manners, I exited the Tercel. I followed the Italian up a set of stairs, and then through the front door and into the living room. White towels littered the carpet as if strategically placed to cover up stains. No television sets; just towels. It was a bit jarring.

The Italian shouted up the interior staircase, and a boy and girl appeared at the top. The girl's red hair ran to her mid-thigh. She took the stairs in double step and invaded my personal space with an embrace. Given her huge breasts, I didn't mind.

The boy held the railing with both hands as he descended, his shaved head lowered toward the ground. I'd have placed his age as closer to my own twenty-six years, and not sixteen as his father claimed. Well, what was one more lie?

"Meet Marina and Rodney, my gentle lambs," said the Italian.

"Chance," I said.

"As in doesn't-have-a," said Rodney, which earned him a disapproving frown from his father.

"I apologize for the boy," said the Italian. "He's still grieving the loss of his dear mother. Let's talk of something happier. Marina, why don't you fix Chance a drink?"

The girl bowed, then disappeared into the kitchen.

"Do you like White Russians?" asked the Italian.

"I really should be leaving soon. We should be leaving soon. Need to get home."

"You'll love Marina's White Russian. Now come on, I've got to show you the pond."

Rodney sniffled, and when his father yelled at him to behave, the boy retreated up the stairs.

"You can't trust kids," said the Italian. "Got to watch them every second. They'll sink into all sorts of trouble. It was easier before my wife passed."

The Italian escorted me through the kitchen. There Marina sifted through mountains of cups, searching for an ingredient no doubt essential to the White Russian experience. I counted five empty cartons of half-and-half, one tilted on its side atop the stove. Three trash bags sat underneath a window. On the kitchen table, hunks of raw meat defrosted. As a vegetarian, the sight disgusted me. I'd rather be cruel to a person—who likely deserves it—than to harm an animal.

We stepped through the back door onto a steep porch that stretched the length of the house. A railing surrounded it on all three sides, breaking only for the back stairs, which led down to the yard. There were no chairs on the porch. In fact there was nothing except for a green hose coiled in the corner near the steps. The porch overlooked a pond in the backyard, although this "pond" didn't seem worthy of such a name in size. It looked more like a wet ditch. The water was calmer than a corpse, and weeds massed around the edge of it. Beyond the pond was a forest, and trees threw shadows in the setting sun.

"Surprisingly deep," said the Italian, nodding at the pond. "Like the Finger Lakes. My wife fell into it and drowned. Horrible luck. We didn't get the insurance money. Some problem with the paperwork. At one point they said to me, 'Life insurance is not the same as resurrection.' Funny thing to say to a grieving man. Well, your father must know all about that, working in the industry. No sense crying about it as my miserable boy does. Happened a long time ago."

Marina emerged from the house bearing a tray, and on it two glasses brimming over with White Russians. She offered one to the Italian and the other to me, then curtsied. Upon rising from the bow, Marina skirted her tongue along thick lips as she watched us drink.

"Don't choke," said the Italian, raising his glass before guzzling the beverage.

"Will we be having dinner in front of the pond?" Marina asked.

"Of course," he said. "Where else would we have it? Look at this boy. He's rich. He's above us. He wants no part of the filth that is our house. Nothing but the best for the privileged."

I flushed at his reference to my inherited wealth, but Marina only shrugged and arched her back. Her breasts were the best thing this detour had going for it.

"She's a wonderful young lady," promised the Italian, perhaps noticing my lingering gaze. "She can hold the same note for fourteen hours. We value strong lungs in this household. Marina, give him the note."

The girl hummed, and the Italian set his drink on the railing and clapped. When she paused for air, the Italian clamped his hand over her mouth and ordered another round of White Russians.

"We have no more half-and-half," she said through his fingers.

"Send Rodney," said the Italian. "Maybe he'll die on the way. What a funeral we would have. Burial at sea."

The screen door swung shut behind her after Marina left the porch. The Italian crouched to finger the nozzle of the garden hose. Maybe he suffered from drug addiction. Hallucinogens, perhaps. Whenever my sister took hallucinogens she developed new idiosyncrasies, like entering my room in the middle of the night and drinking from the fishbowl.

"I need to get going," I said. "My father expects me back home. He'll be worried. He's an important man, like I said."

"Yes," said the Italian. "You mentioned he sells life insurance."

"Right. Well, he's sensitive to time. He gets nervous about his children. That's what parents do, right?"

The Italian spat off the side of the deck and watched his saliva land in the grass. He walked to the railing of the patio, and with effort, spat farther, hitting the pond. As he turned away in satisfaction, I wondered if I could outrun him. Pretty strange thought. I had no reason to fear anything beyond weirdos, inconvenience, and perhaps a meal not cooked to my liking.

"You're going to love dinner," the Italian said. "I'm a martial arts master in the kitchen. I can hammer out a stir fry in twelve minutes. Less. You'll love dinner. We're doing dinner next. We eat lamb twice a week. I hope you like sauce because I drown my meat in it."

The Italian shouted into the house, and his daughter returned.

"Entertain Chance while I make dinner," said the Italian. "Then, we'll feast forever."

After her father left, Marina smiled. She had changed outfits, now wearing only a bikini. She reminded me of Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

"You don't want to stay for dinner?" she asked. "Father won't forgive himself if you don't."

I'd dated better looking girls, but not many. Of course I'd dated girls with insufferable families before, too.

"Well, I'd love to, but I'm busy," I said. "I've got a lot going on. I'm going to a baseball game tomorrow. Besides, I don't like lamb. I'm a vegetarian."

"Do you understand that you're staying for dinner, and that you love lamb?" she asked.

Marina hummed her one note. She held it until her lungs gave way like she'd asphyxiated, thus confirming to my satisfaction her own lack of sanity. I considered the options for arranging another way home. To hell with these nutbags.

I checked my phone to make sure it had service, but before I could fire off a text, the Italian returned to the porch with a tray of meat and vegetables. Steam sizzled off his labor, but he'd barely pressed the food to flame. Chunks of lamb bled, and the vegetables looked raw. His eyes wide, the Italian lifted the platter to my nose. I stepped back, raising my hand in protest. He dipped his face into the tray, tonguing chunks of lamb and carrot shavings. As his chin dripped with sauce like a vampire rising from a neck, he bit into a piece.

"Feast," ordered the Italian, meat hanging from his teeth like icicles. In the background, Marina moved over to the garden hose and fiddled with the faucet.

"I couldn't, really," I said, now offended rather than bored. "I'm not very hungry. I'm a vegetarian."

The Italian's smile endured. "I think you're hungry," he said. "I know you're hungry. We're eating now. I need you to eat the meal I cooked. Don't act like my son. We couldn't endure another Rodney. He's so suffocating. Feast."

I put my phone back in my pocket and, fingers shaking, picked carrot shaving from the tray and coaxed it down my throat. The sauce tasted rusty with the blood of animals. Lying, I smiled, then patted my stomach.

"You have the eyes of a Mongol hungry for the meat," said the Italian. "Eyes like mine. Eat the meat."

The Italian scooped up gobs of lamb. With the sauce running along his arm like a patchwork of veins, he bit into the mass of animal bits in his hand. He chewed like a lion in a preschool then spat a chunk over the porch, where it splashed into the pond. He pushed the tray toward my face.

"Wouldn't want to fall in that pond," he said. "But fear not. We're safe on the porch. We're safe, but we're not vegetarians. Take the lamb."

"I said I don't eat meat," I replied. "Are you fucking crazy?"

"That depends," said the Italian. "Are you wealthy? Sometimes it's better to be insane than over-privileged. Sometimes I wonder if my wife screamed before she drowned." At this he stopped to stare into the pond as though her corpse was still there.

"Do you know," he said, "we're so far away from the rest of the world that no one would've heard her calls for help."

My father's personal chef hadn't really prepared me for a scenario where I'd be forced to stuff food down my throat. But the remoteness of my location and the Italian's vague threats suggested I might do better placating the whackjob than the alternative. I squeezed a morsel of meat between my forefinger and thumb, then lifted the lamb to my nose and inhaled the greasy, violent smell. The Italian, watching, licked sauce from his forearm. Thinking of the pond, and the explanation of its depth, I slipped the meat into my mouth and sloshed it into the recess of my cheek. I guided it by tongue into the trap of my teeth and chomped. Sauce leaked out of the food and ran over the insides of my gums. I stabbed the lamb with a parting shot from my back teeth, then swallowed.

"Delicious," I said. I stuffed my hand into my pocket, reaffirming the presence of my phone. "So tender."

"So young," said the Italian, patting me on the back as though I'd done a good deed for him. "Now, where are my manners? We need the boy. More White Russians! Fear not, we'll hop in my Porsche and be on our way soon. I love drinking White Russians. I love eating them, too. God bless the Russians and their vodka. Did you know that vodka means 'little water' in Russian? I swear it's true. Just a little water. Too much water and you'll get hurt."

Rodney, the Italian's son, joined us on the patio. He clutched a carton of half-and-half.

"How'd you get back from the convenience store so soon?" I asked him.

"We buy them out of half-and-half before the sun falls every day," said Marina. She pressed the spigot of the garden hose into her forehead. Eyes closed and kneeling, she looked devout.

"Marina, assist your brother," said the Italian. "I'm going to keep Chance company. I'll regale him with tales of Rodney's boyhood years. I'll tell him about the night your mother died. We'll laugh until our eyes gush."

Marina rose from her perch in front of the garden hose, and, taking her brother's hand, led him inside.

"You'll have to excuse me," I said to the Italian, pulling the phone from my pocket. "I need to make a call."

The Italian set the tray of gnarled food on the wooden planks. As I dialed my father's number, he walked over to the garden hose, turned on the water, and then, wielding the nozzle like a pistol, he pointed it at my hand and fired. The blast of water knocked the cell from me and spun it across the porch. The Italian then turned the water on my torso and continued the soaking. Next he squirted water on my cell, and a puddle formed around it on the deck. I scooped up the phone.

"Stay away from me," I said, backing into the railing of the porch

The Italian, unshaken, wound the hose back around its stand. He then twisted the faucet until it creaked. A few beads of water dripped from the spigot into the deck planks. I watched him out of the corner of my eye while trying to reanimate my phone.

"Oh, my son," said the Italian. "Why did you fall in the pond?"

The Italian's forehead creased, his lips puckered, and he shook his head. Without taking his eyes from me, he bent over the tray of food, retrieved another slab of meat, and bit into it. The meat seemed helpless, trapped in the garbage compactor of his mouth.

"The pond?" I asked, wiping water from my forehead. "You shot me with the fucking hose. What the hell's wrong with you?"

"You've got to be careful," said the Italian. "That's how my wife died. She fell in the pond, and I've had no reward for my despair. We found her fourteen hours too late. The pond runs deeper than you'd think by looking at it. Like the Finger Lakes. You've got to be careful. Terribly sorry this happened. We'd best get you cleaned up. We can't bring you home until you're dry."

He shouted his daughter's name and the word "towel," and Marina returned with one slung over her shoulder. I wiped the screen of my phone, hoping it might light up.

"I wouldn't worry about your tinker toy there," said the Italian. "It's probably quite clogged. Besides, you can use our phone as soon as you're dry."

"What drugs are you using?" I asked.

Marina pressed her hands against her bare stomach, shaping an oval around her belly button. "Can you still become a model if you're pregnant?" she asked.

"Do you like cocaine?" I asked. "I can score lots of coke. My sister has a connection. You remember I told you about my sister?"

"This is not a house of abuse," said the Italian. "The poor boy is confused. I suppose it's to be expected. After all, he fell into the pond." Exasperated, he raised his arms.

Marina approached, her red hair hanging in strands and shadowing her face. She placed her hand on my shoulder, and, grabbing my shirt, squeezed. She then sniffed her fingers and frowned.

"Pond water," she said. "So disappointing. Why did you fall in the pond? Don't you see? We could have had such a nice time here, but you're all wet now. The pond is unsanitary. Daddy's been meaning to fill it in for years now."

She rubbed the towel against my torso. "You're quite handsome," she said. "Mother would have loved you. You'll need a new name, though. How do you feel about Irvin? Or Rodney? Remove your pants and let me wipe those legs clean."

"Perhaps we should all remove our clothing," said the Italian. He pulled his own pants off and threw them against the wall of the house. His boxers were decorated in cartoon representations of lambs and fish.

"It will be dark soon," he continued, "and none but the mad would swim in their clothing."

I'd thought the Italian hated the pond, and swimming, but the time for questioning his misplaced sense of logic was long fucking gone. Only escape mattered. I had to wait for my opportunity and then make a run for it.

Marina reached for my belt to pull down my pants, but then Rodney returned from the house and she abandoned the project. Rodney had rolled the sleeves of his tee shirt over his shoulders. When he saw me, he dropped his face into his palms, milky with half-and-half.

"They've got you, too," he sobbed.

"This boy," said the Italian, shaking his head. "Day by day he drowns in his tears."

"Rodney, Chance fell in the pond," said Marina. "We warned him not to, but people need to learn from their mistakes."

Rodney drew close. "I sold life insurance once," he whispered. "He's not my father, and he's not yours either."

"Rodney, fetch another towel," said his sister. "I need help drying off our guest. Come on now, Rodney."

When Rodney didn't move, the Italian marched over to him. He whispered to the boy, and then, with his hand soaked in meat sauce, he smeared Rodney's forehead, his mouth, and his chest. The Italian then knelt in front of the hose and turned on the faucet. I heard the water flowing as I backed up against the railing of the patio. With luck, if I jumped over the side of the porch I wouldn't hurt myself in the fall.

The Italian lifted the hose, wielding it like a snake charmer. I thought he'd turn the water on me, but instead, he directed the hose at Rodney. He squeezed the trigger, and water blasted his son in the chest. The boy screamed until the Italian released the flow.

"Rodney," said the Italian, tears running down his face into the crusting lamb sauce on his chin. "Why did you fall in the pond?"

Marina stood next to her father and placed her hand over his on the handle. The Italian gave way, and she lifted the hose at Rodney. When she squeezed, the stream hit the boy in the face, and Marina held the blast there. When she stopped, Rodney crouched below the screen door and sobbed, water dripping from his eyes and his bald head.

"Rodney, why do you keep falling in the pond?" she asked.

The Italian took the platter of lamb and tossed it into the pond. The tray hit the bottom after sinking through a few feet of murky water. Not very deep after all. Only the incapacitated might drown in it.

"Rodney, you have to be more careful," said Marina. She sprayed her brother in a burst at his chest. His tee shirt clung to his torso, and the points of his nipples pressed on the fabric.

I lifted one leg over the side of the porch. If I broke my leg, I'd lose. But, I doubted I could make it to the stairs without the Italian grabbing me.

Rodney stood, wiping water from his face. Marina pressed the nozzle to his belly. Rodney pushed the hose away, and stumbled toward the opposite end of the porch. The Italian retrieved the hose from Marina, and aimed it upwards. He squeezed, and the water rainbowed over Rodney's head, the drops hitting him in the back as he bounded down the stairs.

"Poor kid can't keep from falling in the pond," said the Italian. "We'll set him straight." He followed his son. Marina stayed behind to unwind the hose as her father gave chase. I swung my other leg over the railing. Marina stared at the holster of the garden hose, intent on unraveling fast enough to keep up with the strides of the Italian, running after his boy. He chased Rodney through the backyard, spraying and screaming and weeping.

I jumped off the porch.

I landed on both feet, my knees collapsing, my hands crushing grass. I ran into the woods, sparing one glance back to the deluge of madness. The Italian stood over his son at the edge of the pond, spraying the hose toward the sky. No one moved as water fell around them. Marina hummed her same note, but the inundation of her voice faded as I ran deeper into the forest.

I twisted my ankle, tripping over a tree root and landing on my chin. Wincing, I failed to stand as the pain surged up from my ankle. I sat on a log and retrieved the phone from my pocket. I removed the battery pack then reapplied it. I wiped at the keys, pressed the power button. No life stirred in the screen. It had drowned. I listened for sounds of pursuit, but heard nothing.

When the pain dissipated to a manageable level, I limped through the forest with the moon as my guide. I reached an end to the wood and hit asphalt. Streetlights, guardian faeries, twinkled in the distance. I stumbled down the road, and the first building I reached was a convenience store.

I hobbled inside. The man behind the counter muted the television. His mannerisms reminded me of my chauffeur, who was also probably having a shitty day after not finding me at the airport. I'd have to tell my father not to reprimand him. It's cruel to punish someone for events beyond their control.

"Can I help you with anything?" the man behind the counter asked.

I thought of the Italian, offering to drive me in his Porsche. Never before would I have equated a dry convenience store counter with freedom. Leaning on it, I asked, "Do you sell half-and-half?"

"Sure. You need some?"

"No," I said. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't sold out."



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