GUSTAFSON’S POND

Brian Seemann

 

  Some figured that Gustafson hadn’t been sleeping. They imagined him awake in the darkened bedroom he’d once shared with a wife, his gnarled and tobacco-stained fingers outlining the indentations of a mattress, his eyes fixed on a slim, dusty bureau sitting empty on the opposite side of the room. Others suspected Gustafson had simply succumbed to loneliness, and to combat such a feeling, he spent long hours on his land, not bothering to go easy on the strenuous labor he’d once performed as a younger, more able-bodied man. Come end of day, he would have exerted himself beyond exhaustion and conjured up some kind of eternal wakefulness that kept him stirring long past midnight. A handful reckoned he’d begun drinking again, his long ago habit having once caused his wife to separate from Gustafson for an entire summer, the same summer Gustafson and his brother lazed about the property, floating empties in the pond while casting lines and waiting for something to bite. But only the eldest of citizens could recall that particular long ago season, and very few of them truly believed Gustafson had ever gone and quit cold turkey, especially once his wife had passed. It seemed as though everyone in town had some kind of opinion when it came to Gustafson, but on the night in question—a warm, late-July evening that threatened to bring an end to the summer’s dry spell—he’d slept soundly and without the aid of drink until there came the crunch of tires on the gravel driveway and voices from the back porch, at which point he summoned himself to dress and descend the staircase.

 

  Downstairs, he kept the houselights off and crept across antique floorboards to the window overlooking the porch and back yard. In the pale light of the moon, two shadows stretched across the yard, their bodies sprinting toward the far end of Gustafson’s property. Out of habit, he whistled for the dog before thinking better of it and instead stomped a foot against the floor to wake the near-deaf black lab that soon came lumbering out from under the kitchen table to take its place beside Gustafson. He put a hand to the dog’s head to scratch the old mutt’s ears and watched as the shadows vanished.

 

  Gustafson went for the rifle propped in the corner beside the back door and slipped the needed cartridges in the front pocket of his shirt. He thought of the last time he’d fired the gun. It was late spring when coyotes had snuck through the barbed wire at the back of the property to take a drink from the pond. He’d aimed the .22 to shoot over the water and in doing so fired into the adjoining land owned by the Iowan. While Gustafson had succeeded in spooking the coyotes, he’d ultimately been forced to suffer a scolding from his neighbor, who believed Gustafson had come too close to injuring him and his teenage son, both of whom had been out in the field, working late underneath an indigo sky. Gustafson shook his head now as he fetched the flashlight from the back of the coat closet before shouldering the rifle and leading the dog out the back door with a gentle hand at its forehead.

 

  Outside, the night was humid, and there was a taste of rain to the air. A slight gust rustled the tops of nearby cedar trees and stirred up the familiar scent of the countryside, of soil and parched grassland. Gustafson secured the door behind him, and free of its master’s hold, the dog left his side to burrow its nose along the edges of the porch, its tail thumping against the wooden railing. Snapping his fingers to no effect, Gustafson stepped off the porch and followed the dog to the side of the house, where he spotted the red four-door sedan sitting just beyond the reach of the spotlight coming from the unattached garage. The dog circled the vehicle, inspecting every inch before pausing to urinate on the front right hubcap. As it did so, Gustafson set the rifle and flashlight on the hood of the car and stuck his head through the open passenger window, noting the scent of a recently extinguished cigarette. In the driver’s seat lay a purse, covered partially by a white T-shirt. He rummaged through the canvas bag on the seat directly beneath him and found a lighter, tubes of lip gloss, a worn paperback. He pulled at the fabric from the bottom of the bag and found it to be the top half of a woman’s bathing suit, and he weighed the material in his hand, noting its elastic texture, before returning it. Gustafson stood upright and gathered his items from the front of the car before nudging the dog with the toe of his boot. Keeping the flashlight off, he made his way into the yard, leading the dog toward the back of the property.

 

  Gustafson moved slowly, having no desire to reveal himself. Instead, he wished to sneak a glimpse of what he suspected were two girls and admire them from a distance. He believed he was beyond an age or mindset where such a thought would’ve been brought upon by any sort of maliciousness or perversion, and at no point in his approach did Gustafson think that his actions would be considered as such. Despite the stories shared by the people in town, he’d never been described as “creepy” or “perverted”—though these words would be used in the following weeks by those who knew nothing of the events that took place on this particular evening. As he walked, Gustafson’s only hope was to witness what he imagined was pale and youthful skin, radiant in the moonlight, and to listen for a blissful kind of laughter as bodies splashed against the warm waters of summer. He envisioned youth, grace, a kind of beauty that had gone unrecognized to him for many years.

 

  Of course, this version of Gustafson—of a man cautiously trudging through his own backyard for the sole purpose of viewing what could potentially be two naked young women, as if they were artwork on display at a museum—would’ve seemed incongruent given the previously held beliefs of many in town. There were some who had seen firsthand Gustafson’s callous behavior and his lack of consideration for others. His unfavorable disposition became notorious with those who interacted with him, and many placed the blame on the long-ago era in which he was raised. Others pointed to his brother, an even more reprehensible character, and allowed for the possibility that two bad apples could quite easily sprout from the same branch. But such sentiments would change after this particular night. Yes, some would remember him as a cantankerous sort, a Peeping Tom who needed a gun to scare away a couple of teenagers. But many others would wonder how they could’ve misjudged someone as much as they had, and they’d speak sympathetically about a man they’d never really known. The two girls, neither of whom had heard the countless stories of Gustafson’s past, would recount how gentle he’d seemed, how comforting he’d sounded despite having startled them as they swam naked beneath a gathering thunderstorm. The look on his face, the tenor of his voice—they’d cite these as evidence of a man not out to harm them but rather of a man seemingly in search of something beyond what he was capable of finding.

 

  As he walked, Gustafson was guided not by eyesight but rather by memory, having navigated this land for many years, his footsteps having worn a path by way of exhaustion and repetition. He listened for voices, longed to hear the sound break the stillness of the night. Instead, there came the muffled drumming of thunder far off, and up ahead, the dog acknowledged the noise, pausing to cock its head. They’d passed the spot where Gustafson had once brought his only son to bury the boy’s beloved pup, dead of a rattlesnake bite, and now Gustafson hastily snapped his fingers to keep his own dog close by. But as the rumbling died, the dog resumed its casual pace, its black coat glistening in what remained of the moonlight not yet choked out by the darkening clouds. Further ahead, Gustafson could make out the two oak trees that loomed at the edge of the pond and that, come daylight, would provide the water with a great breadth of shade. He snuck closer, ever mindful of his movements.

 

  He was nearly at the base of one of the oak trees when he heard the voices, two of them. The singsong cadence of the girl’s voices prompted Gustafson to stoop beneath the long oak branches, momentarily worried he’d been spotted, but their conversation carried on, and Gustafson lurked ahead, mindful of the dog having paused nearby to root its nose in the ground. Gustafson moved beside it, emptying both hands and crouching to one knee in order to grab hold of the dog’s scruff. Pulling it away from the grass, he saw the piles of clothing, and with the sort of excitement and curiosity he’d once had as a boy, Gustafson reached down to sort through the items. He hadn’t held a bra in years, and yet he suddenly found himself slipping his trembling fingers between the straps of not one but two of them. There was underwear, too, and denim jeans and button-up blouses of gauzy material, the kind he could rub between his fingers and feel as though he wasn’t touching anything but his own skin. Gustafson held the shirts in his hand, felt their weightlessness before raising them individually to his face and sinking his nose into the fabric. With his eyes closed, he took slow and measured breaths. Time passed. A minute, maybe more. It wasn’t until the dog emitted a soft whine that Gustafson again became aware of his surroundings, and somewhat sheepishly, he returned the clothes to where he’d picked them up and regained his hold on the dog, quietly urging it to remain silent.

 

  He steadied himself under the larger of the two trees, and laying his free hand to the ground, Gustafson allowed his fingertips to graze the damp, recently-cut grass before sinking into the wet, clay-like soil. He kept his posture, balancing as best he could as he peered ahead, eyes trained to follow the give of the land that dropped to the water’s edge. And there, just beyond the shore, in the half-light of the moon, he saw the outline of two bodies treading freely, their white skin illuminated. They seemed to twirl beside one another, take turns plunging underwater, their voices lost from time to time to the sound of splashing water. Gustafson squinted and used the best parts of his imagination, admiring the way their backs arched when breaking the surface, the way their hair, perhaps long and wet, clung to the sides of their faces. He leaned closer, his eyes possibly playing tricks with him at this time of night. His fingers sunk deeper into the sodden earth, his heart accelerating in a way he’d forgotten it capable of.

 

  It was in this way that Gustafson experienced, maybe for the first time in years, something that could only be conveyed as wonder. He marveled at the sight before him. Perhaps he grew reminiscent of a time when youth had once meant something to him, or perhaps he considered a life he had not lived. Whatever it was, in that moment, his fingers twitched and loosened their hold on the near-deaf dog, giving it a chance to lurch ahead and bound full speed into the shallow waters. Gustafson had no time to consider what to do, and as the dog slipped from his grasp, he called out for it to stop.

 

  The girls screamed as the old dog plunged into the water and waded out to where they floated so it could sniff every inch of exposed skin. But the girls quickly grew accustomed to the dog paddling around them. It was the voice, or what they’d thought was a voice, that alarmed them. Whatever it was had sounded so close, and yet as they looked out from the middle of the water into the nearly pitch-black midnight, they couldn’t see a thing. As the wind picked up, they testified later, they’d both considered the possibility that they’d only imagined hearing something. Regardless, both girls had grown still and sunk into the water, concealing as much of themselves as possible. The luster of their bodies vanished, replaced by two heads bobbing just above the surface.

 

  Was there somebody there? one of the girls wanted to know. Gustafson detected the apprehension in her voice, and even though his first thought was to offer some kind of explanation—to suggest he had no intention of endangering these girls—he instead ducked behind the larger of the two oak trees. There, he squatted, stone-still and fearful that he would be discovered, a man seemingly trespassing on his own property. He cursed himself for the opportunity he might’ve spoiled, and if not for the threat of coyotes, he would’ve considered leaving the dog behind and returning home. But he remained, unsure of what to do next, and trained his eyes toward the water and the outline of the dog swimming laps around the two girls.

 

  One of the girls called out again, but above them the sky growled, the thunder drowning out whatever she had said. There would be people in town who’d ask later why they’d chosen such an out of the way place to go swimming. And yet, while most couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that these two girls had simply wanted to feel the summer air against their bare skin, no one was surprised to hear that both girls had brought along their cell phones. And after getting no response to their questions, one of them announced she was getting her phone to call her boyfriend.

 

  Gustafson watched as a shadow slipped from the water and approached the piles of clothing. The girl moved quickly to find her phone, but after making the call, she spoke without the urgency Gustafson expected. Rather, she spoke calmly and directly to the boy on the other end of the line, and once finished, she rushed back to the water, her ghost-like silhouette dissolving as abruptly as it had materialized. She had been out of the water no more than three minutes, but Gustafson already found the image of her naked body difficult to retain.

 

  The dog had followed the girl out of the water, and it now rolled on the bank, kicking up grass as the girl drifted back to the middle of the pond. A calmness settled over everything, a kind of silence that only comes during these moments late in the night, when the mind is tricked into thinking that time has stood still. Waiting there, not sure of what to do next, Gustafson began to sweat, the humid air sticking to his skin and sinking beneath his collar. He’d dressed hurriedly when he’d first heard the car come to a stop in the driveway, fitting into a long-sleeved work shirt and denim, and he now found that sitting as he was, dressed in this manner, he was in a great deal of discomfort. A great gust of wind broke and brought with it a draft of hot air that rustled the branches above. Leaves, plucked from the limbs, drifted downward, one of them lodging itself in the crease of his collar. Gustafson reached to brush the leaf away and in doing so must’ve stirred just enough that the girls detected his location immediately.

 

  Over there, one of them shouted. Next to the tree. We know you’re there. Come out.

 

  They continued to call out until Gustafson finally stood, flashlight in hand, and stepped toward the water’s edge. He turned the light on them, the white halo capturing the girls’ chests high in the water, and each of them moved quickly to cover themselves. He had a good look at both girls now, their once-spectral figures lost to the cold light locking them there in the center of the pond. One wore her hair short, just beneath the ears, her arms lazily folded across her chest as though a stranger getting an eyeful wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. The other, seemingly the taller of the two, had turned to her side, clearly in an attempt to hide from this stranger. She hugged herself tightly and, as the light steadied on both girls, turned further from Gustafson, his flashlight capturing more of her slender, naked back and only a suggestion of her face, the cheek smooth yet flushed. She had been the one dragged along on this adventure, Gustafson imagined, the one whose arm had been twisted long before it had slipped out of the delicate fabric of a blouse tossed beneath an oak tree. And even as she’d undressed, she must’ve timidly peeled away the clothing, stealing glances in every direction, fearful of what—or who—might be watching.

 

  Gustafson moved cautiously toward the water, concentrating the light on the girls. The dog jumped to its feet and came to Gustafson’s side, issuing a low whine as it circled its master. Easy, Gustafson advised the hound, easy. He reached down to stroke its head, and at the touch of his hand, the dog did quiet, and Gustafson momentarily reasoned that perhaps he possessed a similar chance of lessening the girls’ worries as well. At the shoreline, he stopped and spoke, introducing himself as the man who lived in the house nearby. He explained that he’d been awakened by the car on the driveway beneath his bedroom window, and, seeing their shadows racing across his yard, he’d only come out to check on whoever was in his pond. He continued to talk, and the more he did, the more he found the need to speak up, recollecting as he did on all the times he’d swam in the same waters the two girls now submerged themselves in. He thought of his family, his wife and his children, and the times they’d spent underneath those long oak branches, lounging beside the water, and Gustafson shared all of this without so much of a thought as to what the girls would think of him. He might’ve been no more than fifteen feet away, yet at that moment, the girls would later say, he might as well have been over a thousand because they didn’t feel the same sense of fear they’d felt when he’d first appeared from behind the tree. Instead, they claimed, they’d become sympathetic.

 

  Gustafson steadied the flashlight on the two girls as best he could, but the longer it framed them there in the water, the more the light began to flicker, and he soon realized that the battery was dying. He tapped the plastic casing with little result, the light only growing weaker. And then there came the sound of crunching gravel, and turning his head back toward the house, Gustafson saw the bright beam of headlights casting across the backyard before cutting out. An engine shut off, followed by the slamming of a door.

 

  Gustafson picked up on something moving toward the pond, and as it neared he trained his flashlight on what became a boy sprinting with a great deal of exertion. When the boy came to a stop at the opposite side of the water, Gustafson could see it was the Iowan’s son, a good enough boy from the times Gustafson had seen him from afar, working in the field with his father. The boy was thin but muscular, tall but not overly imposing. He stood upright and raised a hand to block the glare and called out for Gustafson to point the light elsewhere. Only after Gustafson had gotten accustomed to the sight of the boy did he notice what the boy had gripped in his hand. The boy most likely figured the girls to be in danger, which explained the gun, and Gustafson shouted that there wasn’t any way he was lowering the light with what the boy had in his right hand.

 

  One of the girls called out and told the boy to put the gun away. It was only the old man who owned the land next to his daddy’s.

 

  Had he seen them naked? It was all the boy wanted to know. Out of breath from running, he spoke in between gasps for air, his slim chest and arms rising with each inhalation. Gustafson steadied the light on him though it continued to fade. Once again, he smacked the palm of his hand against the plastic, but the stream of white light shooting across the pond only diminished further.

 

  The boy’s question remained unanswered, and so he posed it again, insistent he receive a response. But the answer was clear to every one of them, and so the boy had to stall somehow. He’d already drawn his weapon, and unless he planned to use it, what else was there to do but attempt to gain some kind of authority of the situation and repeat the question. The light from across the pond, coming in and out of focus, didn’t help matters, and when questioned later, the boy would admit that the image of a man seemingly disappearing and then reappearing had bothered him much more than it should have.

 

  And that was when the boy decided to begin disparaging the old man, a neighbor to the boy and his family for most of the boy’s life. The boy yelled insults, called Gustafson a pervert and a freak, an old man who went around spying on naked teenagers with one hand down his pants. The girls tried to cut him off, imploring the boy to forget all of this and simply retrieve their clothes. We want to go home, they insisted. But the boy wouldn’t listen. Instead, he continued to shout, recalling the incident earlier in the year when Gustafson had fired the rifle into his father’s property. And at the mention of the rifle, Gustafson called across the pond to say that he’d brought that very rifle with him. He jerked the spotlight toward the tree trunk and allowed the beam to linger there long enough for the boy to get a look. Gustafson suspected this might quiet the boy, and while he did stop his shouting, upon returning the light to the boy, Gustafson saw that he’d raised his arm and now pointed the gun directly at Gustafson.

 

  The thunder came much louder, and the noise brought the girls to shrieking. The muted light from the flashlight fell from the boy and onto the still waters of the pond, momentarily framing the white skin of the two girls, before illuminating the hardened ground along the shoreline. And when the beam from the flashlight went dead, there came a shot. At Gustafson’s side, the black lab unleashed a long, echoing cry that was soon lost in the thunderstorm that was now upon them.

 

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