A Piece of Driftwood

A receding flood line leaves behind a reminder to a man and woman that it’s okay to let pains of the past heal. New fiction by Jerry Brown.

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They, that is to say, each of them — he on his own time, she on hers — had reached that point over the years, when they hadn’t always remembered the anniversary, meaning maybe that it didn’t hurt so much anymore, but then the hurt was replaced by the guilt that came from not remembering.


It was the 12th of May. The river had risen to its highest level in 70 years, and it was the first day that we could tell that it had begun to recede. I was snipping spent rose blossoms at the mailbox when I saw him walking back. It was his second trip to the river that morning, to check on the water, he had told me. I could see that he was carrying something. Whatever it was he had, he held it out in front of him. I thought that he was walking faster than usual, comically looking like a prancing dog bringing home a treasure with a definite burial place in mind. When he got closer I could see that it was a piece of driftwood. Another piece of driftwood.

What is that? I said.

A piece of driftwood, he said. He held it up higher for me to see. I said that I could see what it was; I wanted to know why that particular piece of driftwood. He smiled. He said that it resembled someone famous. Maybe one of his best finds ever. He told me that it should be obvious to me. He said that he had noticed it earlier that morning, and he thought he’d better go back to get it, before someone else found it.

Oh, yes, I said, thank heaven that no one else had found it. It didn’t look like anything to me, I thought, as I went back to the roses.

What did I think, he wanted to know. Why don’t you just tell me, I said. Just take a guess, he insisted. Marlene Dietrich, I told him. Well, no, it wasn’t her, he said. How could I have seen that? He told me to guess again. Clark Gable, I told him, definitely Clark Gable. He was losing his smile. Come on, be serious; take a guess, he said.

It’s my guess, I told him, and I was sticking to it. He told me that I wasn’t trying, that I could at least take a second to look, really look at it. Its likeness is uncanny, he said. He stepped back and held it up again, so that I could see it better, and with that he was beginning to irritate me. You’re way over the top on this, I told him. Okay, I said, it’s definitely Jimmy Carter, that was my final guess. That’s what I was saying, and if he didn’t like it, I told him, he could go stick it back in the river which is what he probably should do anyway, so that it might at least have a chance to really look like somebody one day.

You’re closer, he said. Then he told me. Barack Obama. There’s something about it that without question resembles Barack Obama, he said, especially around the mouth and chin. Well, I said, of course it does and why didn’t he take Barack to the backyard and put it next to JFK and General MacArthur, then come back and help me with the roses and he shouldn’t forget the other pruning shears when he comes back.


I started walking to the backyard, holding up the piece of driftwood in front of me, moving it this way and that until I could get just the perfect angle on it again. By the time I had reached the garage, I had it. I turned around and held it up to show her, but she was answering her cell phone. She did glance my way and she waved at me, but I don’t think she really saw what I could see.

Inside the garage I took the pruning shears off their hook, then opened the cabinet door to take out my gloves. There before me was the wreath. It was the wreath we had picked out some weeks before, the one we would place on her grave the next time, the 25th year. Searching for the day’s date in my mind, a panic flashed over me, but I couldn’t really be sure. I went inside to the kitchen where we always keep the paper for a day or two, to look, to see what the date really was. It was the 12th. It was the 12th, and I had forgotten. She probably had, too, but I couldn’t be sure. In the early morning, when I had come down after her, there had been no silent hug. She had not mentioned a visit to the cemetery that day.


When he returned I had hung up the phone. He took the opposite side of the rosebush to work on, and I noticed that he had forgotten his gloves. I told him, as I’ve told him a thousand times before, that he really should wear his gloves. His hands are like paper.

He wanted to know who was on the phone.

You know, I said, you really should wear your gloves. I don’t want you bleeding all over the place. I told him that I would get them if he would just tell me where they were.

No, he insisted, he would get them. I would only have to hunt for them, he said, and he knew exactly where he had left them. He did. He got them, and he returned to his side of the rosebush, and neither of us said anything until he asked me again.

So, who was on the phone?

Oh, that was Alan.

What about?

About the flooding.

What about the flooding?

He was just worried about us, about the river.

Hadn’t he heard that the river was receding? Hadn’t he watched the news?

He was just concerned, I said. Yes, he had heard that it was receding, he wanted to be sure.

And that’s the only reason he called?

That’s what children do, I told him. They call to check on their parents. That’s why he’d called every day since the flooding had been in the news, I said.


She asked me if I was hungry.

Why? It was early yet.

Because you’re getting grouchy, she said.

Ask about who’s on the phone, and I’m accused of being grouchy?

She said that we should go clean up a little and have some lunch. She asked me if I’d like to have lunch on the patio.

I told her that I wasn’t particularly hungry, that I would eat something with her, but that I didn’t care where we ate.

On the patio we ate chicken salad sandwiches and grapes in silence until she asked where I had put my latest piece of driftwood. I pointed out for her the sunny spot, on top of a stone where I had placed it to dry out.

I maybe wouldn’t keep it, though, I told her.

Why? she asked. It did sort of resemble somebody, maybe if you squinted, she told me.

Not really, I said. I told her that I’d studied it some more, and I’d take it back to the river later on.

So how was the river? she asked. When did I think that it had started to recede? She knew very well that I couldn’t answer that, but she asked me anyway.

How could I possibly know for certain, I said. I could only go on what the experts say, besides, hadn’t she asked Alan. He seemed to be on top of all of this.

As a matter of fact, she had asked Alan what he had heard on the news, she said.

And? And he said that they said we should watch for snakes and monsters on the move.

Never mind, I told her.

You’re right, she said. We should try to forget the river. She said that we should have dinner downtown tonight, maybe see a movie and forget about the river. All of this would be over in another few days, and everything would be back to normal.

That’s what I’m afraid of, I said.

And that means what, she wanted to know.

I didn’t have an answer.

Okay, okay, she said, let’s stop this.

I still didn’t say anything, but only looked out toward the latest piece of driftwood.

She stood up and said that Alan had mentioned the river when he called, but the reason he had called was because it was the 12th. He always calls when he remembers, she said.

Why didn’t you just say that in the first place, I said.

I don’t know why, she said. I just didn’t.

You thought that I had forgotten what day it is, I told her, and you wanted to see if I had remembered? Is that it?

No, she said. I don’t know why, she said.

I remember my hands shaking as I gripped the edge of the table to steady them, and she must have thought that I was about to tip it over.

Here, she said, here, let me help you, and she put her hands under the tabletop, and the table and plates and glasses and bowl of grapes hit the flagstone. When she slammed the door behind her, I was frozen in my chair with nothing in front of me but a piece of driftwood, whoever it was, across the way looking back at me.

It wasn’t long before she came back to me. She said, After you clean up that mess, we still have time to go, you know.


Later, in the den, on the sofa where they sit every night of their lives, he wondered aloud to her, How could he not have remembered the date their daughter had died. It’s a blessing, she said to him; maybe it was a blessing. Besides, she told him, he hadn’t forgotten. The date had just slipped by. Why, with all the commotion with the flooding and everything, it’s no wonder. That should not have mattered, he said, and it wasn’t the first time, either, that he had forgotten. And did she want to know something else? he asked her. Sometimes he can’t even remember her face, he said. What kind of person was he, what kind of father? And she didn’t say anything, not this time.

And it was on the tip of his tongue to ask her if she had remembered, and she knew it was, but he caught himself.

Then after a while, he said that he thought that he might walk over to the river. She asked him if he would mind if she went along. Of course not, why would he mind? That’s what he had meant, anyway, that they would walk over to the river. She told him that she’d get her sweater, and he said that he’d meet her outside.

When she walked out the front door, he was waiting for her by the mailbox. The piece of driftwood was hanging from his hand. It was going back into the river he told her. He had given it more study, and it definitely wasn’t what he had thought. As a matter of fact, it didn’t look much like anything. Well, she said, maybe he should wait. Under the street lamp she could actually see it more clearly. He shouldn’t rush to judgment about it. She said that there was definitely a resemblance to Fidel Castro, or maybe Churchill, she wasn’t ready to say just yet.

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