We knew that tunnel from its entrance at Dry Run Creek to its outlet at the Cedar River, two miles away. We knew its serpentine darkness, its cool humidity, its musty smells. We knew where three natural lights speared in through manholes that didn't quite fit, rays of brightness so sharp it seemed we could cut our hands on the edges. We knew where every small side tunnel was. We knew where the big kids hid their beer and their Playboys. We could traverse Creek to River and back again without flashlights.
We called the entrance First Light, the outlet Second.
The tunnel was a twelve-by-ten-foot tube of concrete. Steel pipes lined both sides like cathedral benches. At First Light the water was a ribbon never more than a foot wide, so we could walk the floor without getting wet. But the tunnel sloped slightly downward, and at Second Light the water was over our knees. We had to take to the pipes there or face our mothers' wrath over soaked shoes and broken rules. We were forbidden to go into the tunnel, which was one of the reasons we did.
I hung with the boys in those days, Roger and Mike and Paul, when sex was more than a rumor but less than an imperative. They called me Dee, short for Lindy. Mostly I called them stupid, although sometimes I used stronger language just to show them I could.
I was terrified the first time through. The tunnel had five bends in its underground route. By the third one I was in tears. "You're such a girl," Paul said. "What're you scared of? We're halfway through. It's just as easy to go ahead as back."
And we did, emerging under the trellis of the Sixth Street railroad bridge. Outside rain plinked onto the choppy surface of the Cedar River. Litter, empty clam shells, and water scum had accumulated on banks. We skipped rocks for a while, then returned to First Light the way we'd come. I was never afraid again.
On the day of my Grandpa's car accident, but before I knew, my friends and I were squeezed into the circular well beneath a manhole, which was accessible through an opening in the tunnel wall. During rare street flooding the well was a conduit to handle the overflow, but in dry weather it was an excellent place for teenagers to hide contraband. Paul lit a candle while Roger and Mike pried open bottles of stolen beer. They bragged how they'd get drunk, but that was just talk. The real prize, for them, was the six-month-old Playboy they'd recovered from the well. The pages were moist and crinkled from a dousing of rainwater from above. I wasn't impressed by the beer or the magazine, but to be one of the guys I had to act cool about the whole thing.
As Paul unfurled the centerfold Roger cracked a joke he'd heard from his older brother but probably didn't understand. Candlelight glared red off the glossy surface, and Paul had to hold the page at just the right angle before they could see the girl in all her glory. There was an awed silence. Then Paul flashed the picture at me and said, "Hey, Dee, this how you look naked?"
"You'll never know," I said. "Only my future husband."
"Like you'll ever get one of those," Roger said.
"Like you'll ever get one of those," I said, slapping the end of the centerfold from Paul's hand and tearing the page.
"Knock it off!" Mike said. "We can make a nickel a peek off this at school."
The pleasant sound of moving water echoed through the tunnel. "Come on," I said, "let's go throw M-80's at carp."
Back then fireworks were still more interesting to them than naked girls. At Second Light carp were thick as minnows, and once lit an M-80 would ignite under water. The explosion was a muffled blub-blub and a splash, followed by dead fish floating to the surface on a cushion of sulfuric bubbles.
I climbed over Roger and Mike, out the manhole well, and into the tunnel. To my left the glow from First Light was a distant slash in the darkness. Paul came out next, stuffing the Playboy down the back of his pants, followed by Roger and Mike.
Mike dumped the rest of his beer into the slow trickle of Dry Run Creek.
"Pansy," Roger said.
"I hate Miller," Mike said. "If it ain't Schlitz, it ain't beer."
"Well, I like Hamms," Roger said, and he poured his beer out, too.
"You're both losers," Paul said.
"Race you," I said. I could still beat them, and they knew it, even when they had flashlights and I didn't. I only had three M-80's in my pocket, so somebody was going to miss out.
"I gotta take a leak first," Paul said.
"I don't need to see that at all," I said, and sped ahead into the darkness.
I came home with wet feet and the smell of fish and sulfur on my clothes. Normally that would have earned me the afternoon in my room and a night without TV. But that day Mom and Dad were sitting at the kitchen table with faces grim as stones. They'd been putting up drywall and were covered head to toe with white dust. Streaks cut like tiny canals through the dust on Mom's cheeks.
"Grandpa Whitten's been in an accident," Dad said. "He's in a coma. We're going up there tonight."
After his stroke six years ago Grandpa took up serious drinking. The stroke slurred his speech and kept him from working. He was frustrated, Mom said. For the past two years Grandma had lived in an apartment, although she was always at the house when we visited. I never asked about the bruises, and Mom pretended they weren't there.
Grandpa had a big nose and a flabby neck but a narrow crown, his head sort of sloping down into his shoulders. Sitting at the dining room table, with his crew cut and his black-framed glasses, he looked like nothing so much as a toad, a king toad perched on his throne. While Mom and Grandma were in the kitchen preparing dinner and Dad snoozed on the couch, Grandpa would wrap his stubby amphibian fingers around his glass, nails stained brown by nicotine, and wink at me as he poured whiskey from a flask into his Mountain Dew.
He probably hadn't been sober since the stroke. No need to wonder why the accident happened.
"He was driving back from seeing your grandmother," Mom said, her voice hoarse and all cried out.
The house where Grandpa now lived alone most of the time creaked and moaned. It smelled like a tomb, with moldy wood and masonry and a hint of dry decay. For Grandpa it might have been a tomb. It was 1967 and they still didn't have indoor plumbing.
I remember sitting in the dining room with him a couple of years before the accident. Wrinkled and yellowed wallpaper on either side of the arched doorway framed his bulky form. There was a light on in the kitchen behind him, but Grandpa kept the dining room dark. Grandma had polished the mahogany table and highboy to a sparkle, although they were old and chipped in places. Far as I could tell, all Grandpa ever did anymore was sit at that table, smoke cigarettes, and drink spiked soda. "Lindy," he said, and his throat even jiggled like a toad's when he talked, "I'm going to give you the Rambler."
Grandma happened by just as he pushed the key across the table toward me. The way her nostrils flared I knew she smelled the whiskey. "Oh, Glenn," she said, "you are not. She's only ten."
Grandpa took the key back. "I can do anything I want," he said.
"Not anything," Grandma said with a strange tone of satisfaction in her voice.
"Shut up about that," he said.
Now he was in a coma, and he certainly couldn't do whatever it was he couldn't do before. That was my Rambler he wrecked.
"I don't want to go," I said to Dad.
"If she hadn't moved out," Mom said, "he wouldn't have been in that car."
Dad patted her hand. "You don't know that," he said. "No one's to blame." No one but him, I thought, and I could see Dad thought it, too.
"You were in the tunnel again," Mom said.
"I'll call Ginny to stay with you," Dad said.
I nodded and went to my room to change clothes. They'd be gone, so I could watch TV if I wanted to.
Somehow Grandpa lasted a week. Even that, the doctors said, was a miracle. The driver's door was crushed inward so badly it was imbedded in the passenger's door, and Grandpa with it.
The visitation was held the night before the funeral in the only Methodist church in town, the only church of any kind. We were all Methodists. The town, with less than a hundred residents, was too small to have its own funeral home, so when someone died people either had to go to Hampton for a visitation, twelve miles away, or hold it in the church. Most families chose the church.
Dad and Mom and all Mom's relatives milled around the casket, which was open. There was still some sadness, but mostly just exhaustion. Grandma sat in the front pew and wearily accepted consolation from well-wishers. I don't know what she felt. I do know that the next week she moved back into the house, and in a year she'd taken up with an old high school beau named Floyd.
I was at the back of the church with Paul and his family. Paul was mad at me because his parents had made him come. I plugged my ears against the recorded organ music that had played for the entire four hours we'd been there. It was a clear afternoon, but little sunlight penetrated the semi-opaque windows. Electric lights shaped like candles illuminated the space between the pulpit and the casket. Still, the church seemed eerily dark. People lingered in the aisle between the pews, laughing and joking between condolences.
Mom called my name. I didn't want to go up front, didn't want to see Grandpa in his coffin, but she gestured me forward. "Lindy!" she said. The crowd moved aside for me, forming a corridor for me to squeeze through, a corridor with walls of limbs and bodies and a ceiling of sympathetic smiles. I kept my eyes on the electric candles, following the light so I wouldn't have to look at Grandpa.
"You need to say goodbye to him, sweetie," Mom said, and Dad nodded.
"He can't hear me," I said.
"Of course he can," she said, gazing up.
I stood in front of the casket and folded my hands together. I felt I ought to pray or something, or at least look like I was. Grandpa was staged against white satin pillows and padding. He had his glasses on and his brown fingers intertwined across his broken chest. Everyone said, "Oh, he looks so natural," or "He could be sleeping," or "He could just sit right up!" I had never seen a dead person before, but I thought he looked monstrous, his jowls sagging like melted wax, his thick toady lips glued together to hide stained teeth. Someone had put makeup on him. Even with powder and rouge his flesh yellowed grotesquely in the electric candles. He looked like a poor copy of himself, sculpted too hastily from inadequate materials.
He couldn't help the stroke. Maybe he wasn't strong enough to help the drinking, either. But Grandma wouldn't look at him. With her bruises and their secrets, I wondered if there was ever a time during his descent when he might have turned around, a time when the best light was behind him, when it would have been just as easy for him to go back as ahead.
BIO: Dave Hoing is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, with numerous genre publications. He also publishes literary, historical, and crime fiction. His historical novel Hammon Falls, co-written with Roger Hileman, was released in the summer of 2010, and his short story collection, Voices of Arra, also co-written with Roger, was released in January 2011. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. In real life Dave, is a Library Associate at the University of Northern Iowa.