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Authors: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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BOOK: The Art of Floating
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usual warnings accompanied the ten-day brow-mopping, record-breaking heat wave of May 2011:

Drink plenty of fluids.

Avoid alcohol.

Stay inside.

Wear light, breathable clothing.

Conserve electricity.

Check on elderly neighbors.

Keep an eye on young children.

Don't walk your dog.

•  •  •

“See, Sia? I am not supposed to be walking a dog in this heat. You should stop me.”

“I'm wearing navy blue, Sia. I'm absorbing too much heat. Are you worried about me? I'm going to faint.”

“Sia, I'm drinking my second margarita. Tequila is not on the acceptable fluids list. You should tell me to drink water.”

Sia lay on her bed. Silent.

•  •  •

How hot was it?

The gorillas at the zoo were eating Popsicles made from Powerade and fruit.


A w
oman in the last row of the audience raised her hand.

“Yes?” Sia said. “The woman in the back.”

Scramble, scramble
as a young man wearing glasses squeezed through the narrow row to get a mike to the woman.

“I love your books,” the woman said. She was cradling a copy of
Girl Has Wings
in her arms.

“Thank you. That means a lot.”

The crowd turned to look at the woman.

“Do you have a question?” Sia asked.

“I do. I'm wondering about your name.”

“Ah. What about it?”

“Do you think you're such a great writer because you were named after the greatest adventurer in one of the greatest tales ever told?”

The crowd turned from the woman back to Sia.
Ooohhh, good question
, you could hear them all thinking.

Sia laughed. Too bad Jilly had to miss this event; she loved this question.

“Well, if my mom were here, she'd say
and then take credit for naming me Odyssia.”

The crowd laughed.

“But I stopped letting her come to readings and signings after she told an audience—in detail—the story of how passionately I was conceived in the backseat of my father's Jeep.”

The crowd laughed louder.

“So?” said the woman in the last row. “What do you think?”

The crowd turned from Sia to the woman and back again.

“Well, I appreciate you putting me in the ‘great writer' category. Not sure I belong there, but I know three things: One, I work hard. Two, I'm darn lucky. And three, sharing a name with the original Odysseus sure doesn't hurt.”

The crowd roared. The woman smiled and sat.

•  •  •

“We're going to have to find you a bigger venue,” Jackson said. “You were great up there.”

“Pshaw. They're the great ones.” She waved her hand at the crowd filing its way out of the auditorium. “Not sure I deserve their devotion.”

“Oh, yes, you do,” Jack said, kissing her neck. “You certainly deserve mine.”

“I do?”


“And what did I do to deserve your devotion, dear husband?”

Jack smiled at her. “You didn't write about me this time.”

Sia laughed. “Enjoy it, my love. The next one is all about you.”


Thankfully Sia's fear was unfounded. Toad was in the kitchen with his feet propped on the lowest rung of the stool and his long legs folded up so that his knees nearly met his chin. The plate in front of him was empty except for a small scramble of crumbs and the twelve foil cups in which Sia had baked the muffins. The glass was empty, too. Toad was perfectly still, staring out the window in front of him with that look of nothing on his face, exactly as Sia had left him. Gumper, still committed, was sitting at his side with his head resting against Toad's leg. He whined happily when he saw Jilly and conked his tremendous tail against the floor three times, but stayed put.

When Jilly saw Toad, she let out a long, sustained wolf whistle. “Damn,” she said, moving into the kitchen. “You didn't find a handsome man, Sia. You found a gorgeous man. He's a little beat up, but holy cow.”

Sia rolled her eyes. “Oh, for Christ's sake, Jil, ease up.” But she couldn't deny that Jilly was right. Toad was even more handsome in her kitchen somewhat dry than he'd been on the beach soaking wet. His shoulders were broad and his profile was exquisite, especially his nose and chin. And cheekbones. And brow. And . . .

As Sia poured another glass of milk for Toad, Jillian circled. “Good gracious,” she said, “we sure don't get many of his caliber around here, do we? Hell, I don't think many of his caliber even exist.” She turned to Sia. “How lucky are you? Only you would find this guy on the beach.”

“Jil,” Sia said, “the guy may not be speaking right now, but he is in the room. Quit talking as if he's not.”

“Does he hear?” Jilly asked, and then without waiting for an answer, she leaned close to Toad's ear. “Heeellllloooooo,” she said, drawing it out as if she were trying to create an echo in a cave.

Toad didn't move or make any indication that he'd heard her.

“Jillian,” Sia said. “Come on.”

“Well, can he hear?”

“I don't know. Maybe. How would I know?”

“Does he speak English?”

“How would I know that?”

“He hasn't said a word?”


“Not one?”

“Not one.”

At that point, Toad turned his eyes from the window to Jillian. He didn't look at her in the way a normal person would look at a crazed lunatic who was professing theories about aliens and whatnot, but again, beyond her.

“What's he doing?” Jilly asked, backing up. “Do you think he's going to talk?”

“No, but he does move once in a while.”


“He walked here, Jil, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. I guess that's true.”

“Good thing, too. There's no way I could have carried him.”

Toad folded his hands on the counter and looked out the window again.

“Well, talk or no talk,” Jilly said, “I knew I should have gotten my ass out of bed this morning and joined you for a walk. All I ever find on my walks are used condoms and wormy driftwood.”

Sia looked at Toad. “Are you still hungry?” Without waiting for an answer, she fixed him a bowl of cereal with milk.

At the clank of the bowl on the counter, Gumper raised his head and purred.

“Nothing for you, you big lug,” Sia said. “You ate this morning.”

Gumper dropped his head back onto Toad's leg and sighed through his nose.

Jillian leaned close to Sia's ear. “Do you think he'll know how to use a spoon?” she whispered.


“The spoon. Will he know how to use it? Do you think they use spoons on Mars?”

“Jillian, the guy isn't from Mars. He's probably from one of the fishing boats. Fell off and bumped his head.”

“In a suit? A fancy suit like this? I'm pretty sure that's a cashmere silk blend he's wearing, even if it does look like it's been through absolute hell.” If Sia hadn't blocked her path, Jilly would have reached out to touch it.

“A party boat, then.”

“Guys like this don't hang out on party boats, Sia.”

Sia laughed. “You should know.”

“Shut up,” Jilly said. “I don't care what you say anyway. I think he's from another planet. Just think, Sia. Our very own gorgeous, well-dressed alien.”

Jilly grabbed her coffee and leaned against the wall. She loved romance, so much that with absolutely no shred of evidence of attraction between two people, she could imagine love blossoming and taking root like a fragrant orange peony with big, bomby blooms. Already she was scheming about the possibilities for Sia and Toad, imagining them in this very house with three children clomping up and down the stairs, Gumper lolling happily, and a new puppy leaping over the lord of the house. Like many romantics, she was much better at creating such exuberant pictures for others than she was for herself, especially for Sia, who, since Jackson's disappearance, hadn't even brushed hands with a man besides the dumpy, potbellied mailman who had a crush on her and the cross-eyed bag boy at the grocery store.

“Go to work,” Sia said, feeling strangely raw and exposed. She corralled Jilly into the living room.

•  •  •

“It's coming,” Jilly told her boss whenever he inquired about Sia's third novel, which was over eight months late.

“You're her editor,” he'd say. “Push.”

“I'm her best friend first, her editor second. You knew that when you teamed us up.”


“Ah, piss off,” Jilly always said, and then promised to push a little harder. But really she just nudged. Very gently and very carefully nudged.

•  •  •

After Jackson disappeared and Sia stopped writing, fans sent hundreds and hundreds of letters, but she didn't/couldn't/wouldn't read any of them.

Then Jessica Tiding's novel came out.

New York Times
review (thumbs up)

Washington Post
review (thumbs up)

Library Journal
review (thumbs up)

The Guardian
review (thumbs up)

“You know, you're only as good as your last book.”

“Shut up.”

•  •  •

“Did you check his pockets for ID?” Jilly asked as Sia shoved her toward the front door.

“No,” Sia said. “I wasn't going to stick my hands down into the guy's pockets five minutes after meeting him. That's a little personal.”

“But you'll bring him into your house five minutes after meeting him?”

“Yadda yadda yadda.”

Jilly grinned. “No worries. I'll check his pockets right now.”

“No, you won't,” Sia said. “I'll see if he'll do it himself later.” She went to the doorway. Toad was sleeping with his head on the counter. Gumper was snoring at his feet. “He must be exhausted,” she said.

Jillian tiptoed to the doorway. “Oh, my God,” she breathed, “he's even better looking asleep. Just let me stroke him a little before I go.”

Sia shook her head. “Out. Out you go now. Off to work. I'm sure you've got a whole stable of writers who have actually written books that you need to edit.”

“What are you going to do?” Jilly asked. “Write?”

“Probably not, my dear editor, but you can keep asking.”

“What then?”

“I don't know, Jil. Read. Look at the sky. Alphabetize my books. Pick my nose.”

Jilly looked hopeful. “You're going to seduce him, aren't you?”

Sia groaned. “Out! Go!”

•  •  •

The Dogcatcher watched Jilly climb into her car. She was glad she was going. Jilly made her dizzy. All the bouncing and gibbering chatter. “Bye, bye,” she whispered as Jilly zipped off down the road.

When she stood, the Dogcatcher's left foot hung like a stone from her leg. Dead weight. No feeling. She hopped on it until it tingled, then trip-tropped back onto the road and slipped away.


When Jackson disappeared, the refuge beaches had been closed a little more than a month. Signs were posted, as they were every year from April 1 on:

Plover Nesting

•  •  •

Yet already tensions were escalating. Led by Joe Laslow, detractors, who didn't believe a bird that weighed no more than an apple deserved private beaches, posted their own signs in strategic locations:

Fucking Plovers


“How can she banish me? Me, Stuart? Her mother?”

It was one of those high-crime days. Stinko hot with humidity that stuffed itself down your throat and choked you.

The tall hickory stood in the back corner of the yard. The young sapling was holding its own in the front corner. M paced between the two. She was barefoot.

“Darling,” Stuart said. “Darling?” He leaned against the hickory, and each time M passed he pushed his face to hers. “Darling, listen . . .”

But M wasn't listening. “I have been that girl's mother for thirty-four years,” she said. “Thirty-four years, Stuart. Her entire life. Through happy times. Sad times. Puberty. The death of Bernadette. The death of that damn stinky guinea pig. Boyfriends. Marriage. And now that she's facing the absolute worst thing that will ever happen to her, she kicks me out.”

“This one's too big, M. You know she won't be able to manage your sadness along with hers. It's too much. Besides, it's not forever.”

“One day is too many.”

“I know it feels like that, but she'll let you in as soon as she can.”

“She needs me now, Stuart. Now.”

“She needs to be alone for a while.”

M stopped midway between the trees, flipped to face her husband, threw her hands up in the air, and glared at him. Her face got so red it looked as if her head might pop off like a rocket.

“M?” Stuart said softly. “Are you okay?”

“Out, Stuart,” M said through gritted teeth.

Stuart backed up toward the door of the house. “She'll be back, M. She will.”


•  •  •

During those first few weeks without Jackson, Jillian and Gumper kept Sia alive. Aside from the police—who tramped about the house as they pleased—they were the only ones allowed to come and go, slipping in and out of the back door like ghosts.

Forbidden to visit, M took to sitting across the lane on the lowest branch of a gnarled oak tree. Each morning at 7:00 she arrived, climbed to the branch, and sat watching her daughter's house until 11:00 at night. She kept a whiteboard on her lap, and every few hours she wrote a note to Odyssia in big black letters and leaned it up against the trunk of the tree.


Sometimes, when M's strength waned, she wrote a single word on the board.


On days when she couldn't find any strength at all, M just held up the blank whiteboard, hoping Sia could imagine what she would have written if she'd been able.

A couple of times each day, Stuart stopped by to deliver food and drink and to check on the situation himself. “Remember her name,” he whispered again and again into M's ear. “Odyssia will come home.”

“Perhaps I was wrong,” M said. “Perhaps we should have called her Daphne.”

Or Muenster Cheese
, Stuart thought.

•  •  •

In the earliest days, just after the realization that Jackson was gone,
gone, Jilly force-fed Sia by squeezing her jaw open at the hinges and pouring warm broth or iced tea down her gullet the same way you'd get a stubborn dog to take a pill.

“Do it,” M commanded whenever Jilly sneaked out of the house and across the lane to cry in M's lap. “Make my girl eat.”

So while Sia would have preferred to dry up and blow away in the wind like a ball of dandelion fluff, Jilly heeded M's commands. Every time Sia refused to eat, Jilly climbed onto the bed, straddled her waist, squeezed her clenched jaw open, and poured. She harped at her the entire time, spilling broth on the mattress and pillow, grumbling and crabbing until as many ounces as possible had made their way into Sia's belly.

“Damn it, Sia. You've never been this difficult in your entire life,” she'd holler. “It is too goddamn hot to be wrestling with you. Open your mouth right now!”

Mostly Sia gave in. It was just too hard to fight. But every time Gumper felt her slipping away, he leapt onto the bed and nuzzled until he felt her hand dig into his fur.

•  •  •

As she lay in bed, Sia played the if/then game with God:

If you bring Jackson back, I'll better govern my emotional boundaries.

If you bring Jackson back, I'll shovel snow in the winter.

If you bring Jackson back, I'll stop drinking coffee.

If you bring Jackson back, I'll let Jilly know how important she is to me.

If you bring Jackson back, I'll give 10% of my earnings to a church. Any church. You pick.

If you bring Jackson back, I'll exercise more often.

Cook more often.

Shave more often.

Print on both sides of the paper.

Recycle batteries.

Return library books on time.

Be better.

Be kinder.

Be . . .

•  •  •

While Sia bargained with God, the townspeople passed the house in a steady, thudding stream. Like cows heading in from the field. Sure, they were sad about losing Jackson—every single one of them loved him like a son/brother/father/favorite cousin/crush/friend/lover—but they were also a bunch of nebshits who couldn't help but poke their noses into anything and everything.

As the weeks passed and the bushes pushed up over the eaves and the pale blue paint began to chip and flake, folks did three things: stare, wonder, and whisper.

The grass grew ankle-high, then calf-high, and kept going. Weeds swallowed the mailbox post.




Even with the house closed up tight, Sia could feel their collective ache. Like a continuous earthquake tremor in her middle. “Make them go away,” she'd whisper to Jilly.

But if Jilly managed to shoo them off for a bit, they'd return within hours.




Wind, critters, and teenagers kicked up gravel from the driveway, littering the sidewalk, and a couple of slats on the white fence busted from the weight of too many men leaning on them as they pontificated about what Odyssia Dane could be doing in there that she couldn't come out and take proper care of things.




Though the women got it right away and (mostly) forgave Sia for the neglect, the men couldn't/wouldn't/and-damn-it-shouldn't-have-to tolerate sloth, even sloth induced by tragedy.




Even Nils and Henry took a break from the search for their buddy to corner Jillian in the grocery store.

“What the hell is happening in that house?” Nils asked.

“It's crumbling,” Henry added.

Unable to explain, Jillian just wagged her head at them, threw some money at the cashier who'd been eavesdropping from the canned soup aisle, and ran.




When a storm gnawed a few shingles off the roof and spit them onto the road, Joe Laslow organized a coalition to do a little fix-it work on the house. “Enough is enough,” he told his wife, and then followed up with some cockamamie story about how mending the outside could somehow mend the inside, too, but his wife used the good common horse sense she'd been born with and stopped her husband and his cohorts just moments before they fired up the lawn mowers and uncapped the paint cans.

“Joseph Michael Laslow,” Mimi said with ice in her voice, “you get your bossy ass home. There'll be time for fixing this place up. If Odyssia Dane needs to fall apart, Odyssia Dane needs to fall apart. If her house has to fall with her, her house has to fall with her. There's nothing you and these boys can do to prevent it.” And though Joe and the others didn't quite understand how allowing something to fall down might in the end help to make it stronger, they gathered up their scythes and brushes and headed back toward town.

After that, they went back to doing the only thing they could do:




BOOK: The Art of Floating
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