Rowing Time

Craig Loomis

Craig Loomis

Rowing Time was accepted as part of the MSU Library Short Edition call for work on the theme of “recovery,” in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibit of Beverly Fishman's art, also called Recovery. Craig Loomis has been teaching English at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait City for the last eighteen years. Over the years, he has had his short fiction published in such literary journals as The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review, The Prague Revue, Sukoon Magazine, The Maryland Review, The Louisville Review, Bazaar, The Rambler, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles The Prairie Schooner, Yalobusha Review, The Critical Pass Review, The Owen Wister Review, Juxtaprose Literary Magazine, Cumberland River Review, REVUE, Consequence Magazine, Fiction International and others. In 1995 Craig’s short story collection, A Softer Violence: Tales of Orient, London: Minerva Press, was published; and, in 2013 Syracuse University Press published another collection of Craig’s short stories entitled The Salmiya Collection: Stories of the Life and Times of Modern Day Kuwait. Craig’s novel This is a Chair: A Lyrical Tale of Love, Death and Other Curriculum Challenges was published by Sixty Degrees Publishing in October 2021.

Almost none of us could understand why such a smart young man like John would think that rowing a boat back and forth across Gibson's lake was such a good way to spend his time. And so, every now and again we couldn't help but,... "Nothing personal, of course, and it's none of my business, just curious, know what I mean, just curious but why would such a smart, . . ."

John would smile, maybe even rub his chin and look down at his feet, saying, "That's a good question. A real good question."

John is like that: big, quiet, a college graduate with one, maybe two degrees. He lives all alone in the old Nefferson house that really isn't much of a house anymore--more like a grand shack, I'd say, weeds and small brush covering the once-lawn, broken roof, shingles cracked, one of the walls split jagged, like some kind of unfinished surgery. That's the way it was when John moved in, and that's the way it's stayed. Of course, there's nothing like rent to pay.

It all started when he returned from Afghanistan, in fact, that very same day. Still uniformed, army haircut and boots, he went straight up to Marcus Jaspers, and after talking the small talk of how good it was to be home, John held up his hand as if to say enough and asked him right off for the job. Marcus, not used to being stopped in mid-sentence, looked a little confused, then angry, then confused again before answering, "Why sure, of course, but are you sure? I mean, you just got back, and maybe, . . . I don't know, but maybe you'd want to relax a little bit, get Afghanistan out of your system and spend some time doing nothing for a while."

But John had already made up his mind, saying, "Yes, well, excuse me, Mr. Jaspers, but I'm sure—real sure." Grinning to show Mr. Jaspers just how sure he was.

It was then that Marcus reached down and stroked that old yellow cat of his that's always following him around, petting that old cat like it was more important than John's asking for a job. Finally, when that cat had had enough and slipped away, Marcus looked back at John, who hadn't moved, standing tall and army-like, and said, "Alright."

John reached out and shook his hand, maybe a little too hard, saying, "Thank you," and then walked away, aiming straight for the old Nefferson house that really wasn't anybody's idea of a house anymore.

It took Marcus Jaspers the longest time to get over the fact that they never once talked about wages--not once.

Except for weekends and the summertime, John doesn't do much rowing. On Saturdays there'll be a pack or two of Boy Scouts, maybe a church group, and on Sundays you've got your picnickers and the old folks, the occasional lovers. John rows them all to Harper's Island, or sometimes all the way across to the north shore. Four dollars and fifty cents roundtrip.

So there it is: a quiet, ex-army, college graduate, John, who returned from the war and decided to live in the pines, along the cliffs and row a boat for a living, which wasn't much of a living at all. It just didn't figure, see what I mean? A young man wasting his time like that.

But then there was that day about six months after John's return when some of us were sitting on Martin's porch, doing nothing special, some drinking and watching one of those purply spring storms slide across the valley; finally, one thing led to another and before we knew it we were talking about the war and all that went along with it. It was right after Curtis said the whole thing was a good idea because we were fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda and probably even a handful of communists and saving all those Afghans from going wrong that John suddenly became somebody else. Just like that, he threw a beer bottle and then another, there was a dish on the table and he threw that too; he pitched back his chair, stalked into Martin's house like he lived there, yanked the clock off the wall, brought it outside and threw it as far and high as he could.

We were all on our feet by then. "What? Wait. Hey. What's the matter?" But you could see that John wasn't listening, wasn't hearing, just throwing things, and now kicking one of the patio chairs into the rose bushes, and now pulling open his shirt—buttons flying—as if he needed air.

It took John the better part of three days, walking from house to house, to find everybody and apologize, saying, "Sorry. I'm real sorry." Shaking everybody's hand once, sometimes twice. We all said that's alright, we understand. But he didn't like that answer and said, "No, it's not alright, can't be, and, excuse me, but you don't understand." He asked Martin how much he owed him for the clock. "How much for the clock?"

Of course, Martin said, "Never mind. It was one of those old, goodfornothing Sears clocks. Never mind." But John wasn't like that and he pushed a ten-dollar bill into his hand, saying sorry one last time, grabbing his hand to shake it, before walking away.

When he came to me, I have to admit I was a little spooked, but after I saw how it was all a big mistake, I relaxed, even put my hand on his shoulder father-like, asking, "John, why did you do that?"

Running his hand through his not so-army haircut now, moving his feet like there was something all wrong with keeping them still, he answered, "I don't know."

Bluejays arguing in the trees, the sun a high springtime bright.

"Or maybe I do know but can't explain it. What a time," he said, rubbing his chin. "What a waste of time."

Don't see much of John these days, none of us do. Last time I saw him he was thinner, with moustache. It was a gentle Tuesday afternoon and although he was all alone, he was frantically rowing across the lake, arching his body to pull on those oars—tiny white explosions where oar meets water—with something like a grimace on his face, but pulling as hard as he could.

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