Skip to main content



To Be Sung Underwater


The man sits hidden among pines on a bluff overlooking the grid of farms and county roads lying north. It is hot. Several times now the man has moved his three-legged camp stool to maintain full shade. That is how long he has been waiting and watching and drinking. He watches through a scope, a 3 x 9 x 40 Bushnell, the one he has used in his lifetime for large, wary prey—deer, for example, and sometimes antelope.

The first sign of the car is the distant moving cloud of dust that rises behind it. The dust plume is denser than most; the car is moving right along. When it slows to take the hard right turn at Bethel Church and its length presents itself, heat vapors distort the image—the car seems almost a mirage. But it is yellow. It is definitely yellow. So it is her. It is very probably her. A hand takes hold of the man’s heart, and its rhythmic squeeze and release causes tender but actual pain.

The car falls out of view for a time, then turns south, onto the creek road. The man raises himself and lumbers to another position. He sits, mouth open, waiting for evenness to return to his breathing. Then he scales down the scope and follows the glimpses of the yellow car as it passes through the cottonwoods and ash that line the road. There are three creeks to ford. This all takes time. Finally the car splashes through the last creek and rolls up into the space the man has had cleared for that purpose. For several seconds, no one gets out of the yellow car. Then the passenger does—a woman, carrying a soft-sided leather bag. She leans into the car to speak to the driver, perhaps to satisfy herself on some point or other, then she steps back so the driver can execute a three-point turnaround.

She watches the car go. Her back is to the man in the pines looking down. Finally, when the car is beyond the creek and out of view, she turns toward the trail. She does not at once begin to walk. She stands with the slouchy leather bag at her feet, looking up and scanning the hills. For a second or two she seems to fix on the shaded spot where the man sits hidden. She cannot see him, the man is sure of it, but he can see her. Through the rifle scope, he can see her clearly. It has been a long time since he has seen her, a very long time, but he would have known her in a second. A fraction of a second. For a moment he feels he might soon waken from a dream, but for once, at last and after all, it is not a dream.

It’s you. This is what he thinks. It is all he can think. You, you, you, you, you.


Part One


The swerve (to use Judith’s own term) that slipped her outside the customary course of her life derived from one of those offhand moments in which odd circumstances and amplified emotions invite an odd and overcolored response. Amusement was the presumed objective, whatever the actual result might be.

“It was strange,” she said when she spoke of it, which was only once, and much later, to her friend Lucy Meynke. “My life had utterly settled into itself and then this little . . . swerve occurred, or maybe I meant it to occur, maybe I’d actually plotted it out in one of those corners of your brain or heart you access only in dreams.” She gave Lucy Meynke a look of actual bafflement. “I really don’t know.”

At the time, though, it seemed simple. Judith was renting a storage garage for some old furniture and when, late in the transaction, she was asked her name, she gave one that was not her own, a name that in fact she hadn’t thought of in years. A few hours later, Judith, who was not a loser of keys, lost a key.


Prior to this so-called swerve, Judith Whitman had reached the age of forty-four without serious casualty or setback. This was not mere luck. All her life she’d constructed plans for her life sturdy enough to weather the seasons but skeletal enough to allow for necessary modifications. Without seeming to step carefully, she’d stepped carefully. She’d built not just a formidable life, but the very one she’d wanted. At the moment she gave a clerk in a mini-storage yard a name not her own, Judith had a successful career, a smart, socially capable daughter, and a husband who loved her.

She also had two secrets.

Judith held the conviction that above the more routine types of love formed—and, she believed, diluted—by blood ties or economic pragmatism or even geographic proximity, there existed the kind of love that, as she once explained it to Lucy Meynke, picks you up in Akron, Ohio, and sets you down in Rio de Janeiro. (“The Rio Variation, we’ll call it,” Judith said. Lucy Meynke remarked that she herself had most often experienced the kind of love that picked you up in Minneapolis and set you down in St. Paul.) Judith believed in the Rio Variation because she had herself experienced it, but only once, and that with a boy she’d thereafter abandoned, and yet never quite left behind. This boy was her first secret.

They’d become fully acquainted during her senior year in high school in a town of medium size on the high plains, where she was living with her father and constructing those plans that would take her first off to college and then to Los Angeles to somehow help in the making of movies. The boy was a few years older than Judith, a carpenter whose pale blue eyes and mixed scent of sawdust, sweat, and alcohol could exert an insistent pull on her from ten feet, and when at the end of their summer together he had suggested marriage, Judith had said, Oh, yes, the answer is yes, definitely yes, she did want to marry him, only later, when she came back from college. But she hadn’t come back from college. She met someone else, an older, urbane, tennis-playing boy enrolled in the business school, a genial and impressive boy with whom she slept in his slender twin bed, establishing in their sex and their sleep an easy unforced synchronicity that they learned to apply to their daylight dealings as well. Although uncertain how much—or even if—she loved him, it was Judith who suggested that someone like him might want to marry someone like her. Malcolm Whitman’s hair was fine and long and beautifully groomed, his wrists were thin, his smile small but playful. “Is this a proposal?” he said, and Judith said yes, come to think of it, it probably was. Malcolm Whitman said, “Then I accede with enthusiasm.” He gave her a kiss of surprising length and intensity, after which he leaned back and became again his Malcolmish self. “Marriage,” he said. “I had no idea you were so intrepid.” This was the way Malcolm Whitman spoke, with a quick, slightly distanced wryness that Judith had always found attractive, and still did, up to a point.

At Judith’s suggestion, the newlyweds moved to Los Angeles, where Malcolm converted his competence and connections to significant positions and income, and where Judith eventually found work in movies. She worked first as a personal assistant to an actor-director, whose help, over time, afforded her the chance to apprentice in editing, the field that attracted her. She waited nearly eight years before bearing a child—a healthy daughter christened Camille—and thereafter avoided pregnancy. She lost none of her confidence in shaping her life, but at some point she began to grasp that achieving one’s ends was no guarantee of happiness, at least not happiness of the unadulterated variety. Judith didn’t have the appetites that lead to such things as obesity, casual infidelity, or credit card problems. She and Malcolm lived in a good neighborhood, they had respectable careers and pleasant friends, their daughter was enrolled in the Waterbury School. Judith wrote these and other assets in a long column one afternoon in hopes of improving her mood—this was before the swerve—then stared at the list without any feeling whatever. On another occasion, while searching for unbruised bananas at Vons, she suddenly stopped and thought, If for one year all the movies were based on lives like mine, the industry’s kaput. This wasnot a completely random thought. Judith habitually considered her living days in terms of something she privately called My Movie. For example, even as her first editing job was receiving praise from the director, Judith was thinking, Okay, this scene is going into My Movie. More often she thought things like, My Movie should be tossed from the nearest pier. Or, if tired, something simpler, as in, My Movie is crap. Fairly often she wondered whether the chief character in her movie could be considered sympathetic.

So she had forgotten the boy in the high-plains state. After meeting Malcolm, she stopped writing letters to the boy and stopped answering the telephone. She would later tell herself she’d needed to be cruel. She’d seen that, upon returning from Rio, life attached to the boy would not in any way resemble the life she’d planned for herself. She had just one photograph of him, and kept it hidden in her wallet between pictures of her daughter. From time to time, Judith took the photograph out and stared at it. She had snapped the picture during one of their picnics, and its image of his relaxed attitude was calming, and allowed her to imagine his forgiveness.

When she’d known the boy, he lived with his parents, and for many years she would dial their telephone number, which she knew by heart. The boy (by then factually a man, though she could only vaguely think of him as such) never answered. It was always his mother, and often Judith would linger before hanging up so that his mother might say hello again in her gentle voice. Judith felt comforted by this. But one night the boy’s father answered her call. He had always seemed to Judith a stony, redoubtable man, and so on this day, when a few seconds of silence had passed and the boy’s father said in a small, almost pleading whisper, “Is that you, Willy?” Judith, with the phone to her ear, felt as if a hatchway had just been opened into deepest space. She put down the receiver as gently as she could. There had been yearning in the father’s whisper, she was sure of it. It seemed clear that something had separated Willy from his parents, some kind of estrangement that his father found regrettable. Judith resolved to telephone again, this time identifying herself so that she could inquire about their son and unravel the mystery, or at least prize free some useful hints, but by the time she actually did call again, the boy’s parents had acquired an answering machine with a leaden message noting that whatever the caller had to say was very important to them, so please leave a message. But Judith left no messages. Finally—this was perhaps three years ago—Judith, after dialing, heard a recorded voice report that the number was no longer in service.


The other of Judith’s important secrets was her fear that she hadn’t properly inhabited her role as a mother. She knew she loved her daughter, but it was a love with a strange insulating distance built into it. Judith had delivered Camille without so much as a Tylenol. She hadn’t screamed. She’d worried about screaming, and about flatulence or even voiding, and of losing her inhibitions and throwing off her clothes, all of the things she’d heard delivering mothers might do, but when the time came she’d gone to war. She’d clenched her teeth and grabbed a nurse’s hand with her right hand and Malcolm’s with her left, and she had, as she described it afterward only to herself, fucking gone to war. When it was over she turned to the side table where the nurse was quickly wiping the bloody little Camille clean while Malcolm (woozy as she was, Judith knew what he was up to) discreetly checked for malformation and missing digits, and at the moment the nurse held up for view the cleaned pink bawling baby, the thoughts that came unbidden to Judith’s mind were these: Could that possibly have been inside me? And, Could that possibly be mine?

Other mothers seemed to immerse themselves in their mothering lives without a wayward thought, but from the beginning Judith had dreams of extrication. She missed only two weeks of work before leaving Camille in the hands of Sunova from Denmark, the first nanny. For a time, Judith dutifully pumped milk at work, but she gave up morning-and-evening breast feedings when Camille (whom already they were often calling Milla) cut sharp teeth. The child grew and the nannies came and went. It had been true in those early years, as Judith told friends, that she never failed to thrill with gladness at seeing Camille’s beaming face when she returned home in the evening, but the complementary, unspoken truth was that she never failed to feel relief each morning when she left the child behind. Even as Camille’s beauty and precocity took form, when pride alone might have nurtured proprietary feelings, she never seemed quite the child Judith was meant to call her own. Malcolm began to care for Camille on weekends, and, over time, more and more became the intermediary agent with the nannies and schoolteachers and Brownie troop leaders. Friends would often remark on Camille’s physical resemblance to her mother, but in attitude and expression, the girl grew less in Judith’s image than in Malcolm’s.


From an early age, Judith heard a number of gloomy aphorisms applied to marriage, nearly all of them by her own mother. All marriages come with a pinhole leak, her mother once said. Marriages swallow love and excrete grief. Marriage is a house a woman can’t leave and a man merely visits. (Or, as a variant: Marriage is a house with a woman locked inside.)

One morning, sitting at the kitchen table—this was after Judith’s father had left them in Vermont to take a teaching position in Nebraska­—her mother said to Judith, “Our marriage, like all marriages, was happy until it wasn’t.” It was a pronouncement, like many of her mother’s, that Judith could neither quite believe nor forget. Later, without really wanting to, she would occasionally hold her own marriage up to her mother’s stark vision, but when she did, it was like those x-rays her dentist sometimes clipped up to a light panel — she was never quite sure what she was seeing.

True, there were whole hours and even days when Judith was visited by a dull ache that in spite of its unspecific origin seemed symptomatic of yearning, but there were also whole hours and days of productivity, good cheer, and reasonably warm fellow-feeling that she presumed she should, to be fair about it, call happiness, or something within inches of it. She averted her eyes from marriages—and they were everywhere—that had lost their fondness, but that wasn’t Judith and Malcolm’s circumstance. Their sexual relations were often routine but occasionally weren’t, and they were otherwise at ease with each other—they laughed, touched, talked, did all the things couples in good standing do. Once, when all the diners at a small party were asked to name the one aspect of their marriage of which they were most proud, Malcolm said, “We can travel significant distances together in a car without annoyance.” It was both ironic and true. They rarely argued.

There were points of disagreement, of course, and the bird’s-eye maple bedroom set, handed down to Judith’s father by his grandparents, and by Judith’s father to Judith, and by Judith to Camille, was among them. The three-piece grouping comprised a bed with a tall, ornate headboard, a high, narrow chest of drawers that Judith—like her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather—called a chiffonier, and a marble-topped washstand that the family had always called a commode. Judith took possession of the furniture after her father’s death eleven years before, and shipped it home along with his personal papers. “The venerable pater’s venerable papers,” said Malcolm, casting a doubtful eye on the cardboard boxes lining an entire wall of their home office. (After two or three stifling conversations, he and Judith’s father had kept their distance. Judith believed this was because they both wanted to occupy the same irony-dense space.)

Judith loved the look of the bird’s-eye maple furniture, though this feeling might be confused with her pleasure in its family history, whereas Malcolm didn’t like the furniture in the slightest (it might, he said once, be coveted in Croatia), and, probably as a consequence, neither did Camille. When Camille was nine she glued multicolored sparkles to the veneer (Judith spent an entire Sunday cleaning them off), and then this past year, nearing age sixteen, she began angling for a canopied cherry-wood bed, which, without Judith’s advance knowledge, arrived one day along with a companion dresser and nightstand.

“Where did all this come from?” Judith said. She’d been led to the room by Camille, with Malcolm following behind.

“Thomas Moser!” Camille sang out.

The bed was so tall it came with matching cherry step stools for either side.

Judith turned to Malcolm. He was still an imposingly handsome man, though she’d begun to notice that his clothes and grooming were carrying more of the load. His thinning hair and flyaway eyebrows were trimmed weekly, and expensive clothes weren’t wasted on him—even now, at the end of a summer’s day, his gray trousers and white shirt were perfectly creased.

“A birthday present,” he said. “I let her choose. I said, ‘The bed or a hollow artificial celebration?’ She chose the bedroom suite. That’s why the occasion of her birthday will slip by without the usual extravaganza.” He eyed Camille. “Ain’t that so, Miss Pie?”

As with most bright children, in Judith’s opinion, Camille’s was a calculating nature. By pretending to be so overwhelmed by the furniture, she managed to avoid the question of the forgone party. To Judith, who was on to her daughter, this indicated that in Camille’s mind it was not quite forgone. The girl—thin, long-limbed, often mistaken for an athlete, which she was not—climbed onto the bed and lay there smiling up at the beribboned canopy. She said that the bed was very deluxe, her father’s word, spoken with her father’s ironical inflection.

Judith said, “ Precious is the word I’d use.”

Camille’s expression, already bright, brightened to something like glee, and Judith realized too late that her sour response was exactly what Camille had hoped for.

Judith—she knew she shouldn’t—said, “Pity the poor Joe who marries you, Camillikins.”

Camille held her smile even though she hated the term Camillikins. Malcolm slipped Judith a look. He’d brought up this kind of talk when he and Judith had made their single foray into family counseling. Malcolm and the counselor agreed that remarks of this type could weaken Camille’s self-esteem. Judith said that was fine by her. Camille had oodles of self-esteem. What was in short supply were the odd little commodities like empathy, charity, and humility. Malcolm and the counselor had fallen momentarily quiet, then begun to talk as if she weren’t there. Judith hadn’t gone back.

Camille hugged a pillow to her chest. “This bed is titanic. What if for my birthday I just had two or three friends for a sleepover? We could all sleep sideways on the bed, like we did at Lauren Hartman’s.”

Malcolm smiled. “Lauren Hartman! Lauren Hartman! Must we always play catch-up with Lauren Hartman?”

“Yes!” Camille said, and dropped ten years from her voice. “Catch-up and mustard, too!”

This was a game they played, an exclusive little tea party of father-daughter silliness (and of denial, too—Camille had been wearing bras for four years now, and a few months back Judith had discovered several lacy, vividly colored thongs tucked into a deep corner of the bottom drawer of the chiffonier), and Camille and Malcolm laughed easily, lost in each other’s needs, hers to acquire, his to provide. It was no surprise when he said, “Okay, then, Miss Pie, but the maximum guest list is two.”

Camille’s smile dried up. She seemed capable of crying. “What about Torry?”

The barest moment passed before Malcolm complied. “Okay, three. But that’s it—three, tops.”

Camille plopped back into the fluff of her duvet, thinking.

Judith asked something she’d been wondering since entering the room. “So what did you do with the bird’s-eye maple?”

Malcolm nodded toward the window.

Judith pulled back the French lace curtains. Down at the edge of the bricked pool deck, her father’s old furniture stood clustered in the glaring sun, the bed’s rails, headboard, and footboard sandwiched between the backsides of the commode and chiffonier.

It was not as if something snapped inside Judith. It was more an unfolding, a slow blossoming of resentment. She couldn’t have expected more from Camille, Judith understood that, but what about Malcolm? He was a grown-up, wasn’t he? If he needed to present this whole deal as a fait accompli, couldn’t he soften the fait a little? The unmatched oak stuff they had in the guest room was no better than average, for example—why not put the maple in there and set the oak out to warp and split in the freaking sun?

Though, when she thought of it, that would’ve annoyed her, too, shunting the maple to the guest room, where every day it would be eyed for replacement by Malcolm.

Judith took in three short staggered breaths, which, together, deeply filled her lungs. She held the air a moment before slowly releasing it, and then she repeated the process. This was the only lesson learned in her Lamaze class that she regarded as worthwhile.

When finally she spoke, she was surprised at how calm she sounded. “I’m afraid they’ll blister out there,” she said.

“You’re right,” Malcolm said, “they might. I’ll cover them up.” Within the hour—before he set off in his whites to the tennis club—he’d neatly wrapped the furniture with old bedsheets and bound them at the base with green gardening twine, tied off with a bow knot, a knot that Willy Blunt, long ago, seeing it used by a traveler trying to fasten a tarp, had stepped in to replace with something sounder.

To Be Sung Underwater
by by Tom McNeal

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316127396
  • ISBN-13: 9780316127394