The Dam

by Karl Harshbarger

     Casey's older brother closed his eyes, leaned in against the big oak tree in the back yard and started shouting, "One!  Two!  Three . . . !"

     The rest of them all ran toward the house, Casey trying to get in front of everyone.  But Bobby Grettleman beat him to the back door and headed right for the furnace room which was the best place to hide.  So Casey found himself running up the stairs right behind that new girl, Sally, and when she turned to the right toward the bedrooms he turned left toward the bathroom.  

     "Thirty!" he heard his brother shout from the back yard.

     He closed the bathroom door behind him, stepped into the bathtub and slipped down in as far as he could get.

     From there all he could see was the ceiling and the higher parts of the walls.

     Well, it might work.

     He heard his brother open the back door of the house and pound up the stairs, then start down the hallway in his direction.

     Bang!  The door of the bathroom.

     Then, slam!  Shut again.

     It was working! thought Casey.  He didn't see me!

     Suddenly a scream.  A girl's scream.

     That had to be the new girl, Sally.  In one of the bedrooms.  Under the bed.  Well, she'd never been to their house before so she didn't know the good places.  And, then, too, she was a girl.

     "Home!  Home!" Casey heard Bobby Grettleman shout from out in the back yard.

     "Home!"  Another shout.  Curt Anderson this time.

     "Home!"  Still another shout.  Bob Russell.

     Casey kept lying there.  He didn't know if the game was really over yet for him or not.  His brother might still be looking for him.  Of course, he could try to make it back to the oak tree.  On the other hand, it was safer where he was.

     So he kept lying there looking up at the ceiling.

     "Ally, ally ox in free!"

     That was his brother shouting from the back yard.

     Casey was just lifting himself up on his elbows when he heard the light steps of someone coming down the hallway.  Not his brother this time, that was for sure.  He heard the steps get closer and he got himself as far down in the bathtub as he could.  The footsteps reached the bathroom door and Casey held his breath as he heard the door open and close.

     A glimpse of hair as that new girl, Sally, reached down to pull the toilet lid up.

     Casey told himself:  Be very, very silent!

     The tinkling started and went on for a while, then short squirts of tinkle, followed by the rattle of the toilet paper roller, then the cough of the toilet flushing.

     He pulled himself up to look and caught her as she was reaching down to pull her underwear up.

     She screamed, pulled her underwear up all the way under her skirt, flung the door of the bathroom open, turned around and flung it shut, then he could hear her running down the hall.

     Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  What he'd seen!  Because girls weren't the same down there as boys!  And he'd seen everything!


     His mother's voice.

     "You come here!  This moment, Casey!"

     Right away he knew what had happened.  That new girl, Sally, had run down the hall to the living room where all the adults were.


     "Coming," said Casey getting out of the bathtub.

     "You just better come!"

     Casey opened the bathroom door and saw his mother standing in the hallway with her arms crossed.  She was in one of her party dresses.

     "Casey, down to the kitchen!  "March!”

     "Yes," he said.

     His mother started down the stairs and he followed.  She turned into the kitchen and after he had come into the kitchen she closed the door behind them.

     "Sit there!" said his mother pointing to one of the chairs at the kitchen table.

     Casey sat down on the chair while his mother stood right in the middle of the kitchen.

     "Casey, how could you?"

     Casey didn't know what to say.

     "I am so ashamed.  So ashamed.  A son of mine.  Actually a son of mine . . . ."

     Casey still didn't know what to say.

     "And, Casey, dirt.  So dirty.  To watch a girl while she's . . . urinating.  Perverted, Casey, perverted!"

     "I'm sorry," said Casey.

     "Sorry?  You're sorry?"

     "It wasn't my fault."


     When his mother shouted at him like that he knew he wasn't to say any more.

     "Casey, just for beginners, for beginners, you're not to play with any of your friends.  Not even your brother.  For at least a week.  Maybe longer.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.  

     "And for at least a week you are not allowed to eat your meals with the rest of us, but in your room.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.

     "And when your father comes home I'll have no choice but to tell him.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.

     "I don't think he'll be very pleased, Casey.  With you.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.

     "Casey, to peek at a girl while she's . . . ."

     Casey watched his mother as she brought a hand up to her eye.

     "I . . . ," started Casey.

     His mother pulled her hand away.

     "Don't, Casey!  Please just don't!"

     After his mother had left the kitchen Casey sat at the table.  Then he heard shouts coming from the vacant lot.  He got up and went out the back door and walked past the big oak tree and along the side of the house until he could see beyond the trees to the vacant lot.  All the guys were there, his brother, Bobby Grettleman, Curt Anderson, Bob Russell, the rest of them.  "Bombs away!" he heard Curt Miller shout.

     But he wasn't allowed.  For at least a week.  Maybe longer.

     So he turned and went back around the side of the house.  But when he got to the big oak tree he didn't go into the house but turned into the woods along that path which went down into the ravine.

     He had to be careful because about a month ago a landslide had wiped out part of the path.  But the guys had made another path just above the landslide.

     When he got to the bottom of the ravine he stopped at the stream where the path split up, one path continuing along the stream, another going toward the old railway bridge.

     Casey looked at the stream.

     Sometimes there wasn't any water in it at all - especially in the late summer.  Other times, like in the spring when the snow had just melted, the water churned by all muddy in color and overflowing the banks.  Today the stream was more normal, just a little trickle of water right in the middle of the streambed flowing over pebbles between small pools of water.

     Casey looked at where the water barely made it over the pebbles.

     I could dam that up, thought Casey, stop the flow.

     A second thought:  Maybe I could hold it back for a while.  Maybe a long time.

     He got down on his knees and looked over what he had to do, then wedged some dirt from the bank over to the edge of the water next to the pebbles, pushed the dirt into the water and held it there as it turned into mud.  He kept repeating the process, always pushing the new dirt on the dirt that had just turned to mud, until he'd narrowed the gap to almost nothing.  He watched the water flowing through the little gap, then cupped more dirt over and pressed it down.  He held onto it and felt its wetness as it turned into mud. 

     Maybe, he thought.

     He stood up for a better look.

     Yes, it was working.  On the far side of the dam the flow had stopped completely and on the near side the water was beginning to back up making a larger pool.

     For a while, he told himself.

     Then he saw his hands.

     He held them out in front of him.

     Covered in mud.

     He dropped down to his knees and put his hands into the water behind the dam and swished them back and forth.  When his hands looked white again he pulled them out of the water and held them up in the air to dry.

     "Bombs away!" came a shout from somewhere beyond the woods.

     Casey turned and started back up the trail toward his house, passing above the landslide where the guys had made a new path.

     "You're out!" he heard Bob Russell shout.

     He didn't even look toward the vacant lot as he went past the big oak tree to the back door of the house and went through the kitchen and up the stairs.  At the top of the stairs he turned left.

     And this time when he closed the bathroom door behind him he locked it.  So no one could come in.  Ever again.

     He went over to the tub and turned on the hot water faucet.

     Then he sat down on the toilet seat and undid his laces and pulled off his shoes and socks, then his shirt and pants and finally his underpants.  

     As he stood up to go over to the tub he looked down and saw his thing.  It hung there.  When he had his clothes on, which was most of the time, he never saw it.

     At the tub he turned off the faucet and tested the temperature of the water.  Pretty hot.

     Slowly, little by little, pausing and then going further, he slipped into the water, feet and legs first, then his bottom, then his thing, then the rest of him, until, finally, he was really in there.

     All he could see of himself was his toes sticking out down near the faucets.  And when he looked above him he could see the ceiling.

     He brought his hands out of the water and looked at them.  They were all clean.  Everything.  Except for the tips of his fingers.  Under the nails.  He saw that they were dark brown.  Almost black.  The mud from the stream.




About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and, other than your journal, have had over 100 publications of my stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of my stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.