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.

The Last Employee

 by Karl Harshbarger

     Ackerman was always the last employee to leave his office.  Some years ago his boss had asked him if he wouldn’t mind staying a just a little bit later than usual to make sure everything was in order before he left.  Ackerman agreed to that request, then another like it, then another, and after a while everyone assumed, including Ackerman, that part of his job was to be the last one to leave the firm.

     So, in that sense, for Ackerman, this particular evening in November, 1951, was no different than any other.  He worked at his desk entering figures in his ledger until 5:30.  By that time all his fellow-workers, including his boss, had left.  At 5:37 he stood up, made sure the ledger was in its proper place and that his papers were in a neat pile, went to the back of the office and checked that the door there was double-locked, stopped at the thermometer on the wall and lowered the temperature setting for the night, checked the door to his boss’s office to see if it was locked (one time it wasn’t), went to the front door of the office, set the burglar alarm, turned off the series of lights in the proper sequence so that the light at the front of the office was the last to be extinguished, stepped out into the hall, closed the office door and double-locked it.

     On any other winter evening Ackerman, after having stepped out into the cold and drizzly darkness, would have continued down the steps of his building, turned right along the sidewalk, at the intersection of the two main streets wait for the green pedestrian light, then cross in front of the stopped cars to the other side of the street and join the line of people at the bus stop.

     Except on this evening he didn’t.

     He didn’t because he saw something just a bit out of the ordinary:  Seven or eight people had formed a small group down on the sidewalk in front of his building and were looking up at the sky.  One man among them was pointing.   In fact, Ackerman saw other people running up to the group and now everyone was pointing upwards.

     Ackerman, of course, also looked into the sky.

     But he didn’t see anything unusual.  Just the lights of the city illuminating the low clouds.

     Suddenly the group at the sidewalk let out a collective, “Ahhhhh!”

     What in the world?  thought Ackerman. 

     As he started down the steps to also join the group the knot of people on the sidewalk visibly relaxed, turned to each other, started talking, some laughing, some shaking hands and Ackerman even saw two men hug each other.

     A small man with a rather owlish face detached himself from the group and approached Ackerman.

     “I’ll be goddamned,” said the man.  “I’ll just be good and goddamned.”

     “Can I ask . . . ?” started Ackerman.

     “Absolutely, totally, unbelievable!”

     Ackerman again looked up into the sky.  He saw the same thing he had seen before:  the lights from the city illuminating the low clouds.

     “Mind-boggling!” said the man. 

     “Could I ask . . . ,” started Ackerman again.

     “Just incredible!”


* * *


     After the group dispersed Ackerman did what he did every evening after work.  He walked back along the sidewalk toward the intersection of the two main streets, crossed the street when the green pedestrian light came on and then stood in line at the bus stop.  Other buses came and went and after a while Ackerman saw his number 45 approaching.  When it stopped he followed the other passengers on and, even though the bus was somewhat crowded, managed to find a free seat next to a window.

     Because it was cold and rainy outside Ackerman couldn’t see through the fogged-up bus window.  But that didn’t really matter because he’d taken the number 45 bus to and from his stop near his apartment so many times that he almost always knew where along the route he was.  Also, on this particular evening, Ackerman even recognized a few of the “regulars” he often saw.  That business-executive type who was always so busy, for example, sat right in front of Ackerman already hunched over and jotting notes on his tablet.  And sitting across from Ackerman on one of those side seats he saw that very sensibly dressed, middle-aged lady with the gray hair and a tic in the upper part of her face.

     After a while (the busy, executive-type had already gotten off, but the woman with the tic was still sitting across from him) the bus approached Ackerman’s stop and he pushed the red button on the railing beside him to let the driver know he wanted to get off.  The bus swung over to the curb and even dipped toward the pavement as Ackerman stepped out into the drizzle.

     From the bus stop Ackerman walked past the bakery shop and the shoe shop at the corner, turned down the next street and continued on until he came to his apartment house.  He let himself in the building’s front door, walked up two flights of stairs and let himself into his apartment.

     Immediately he smelled food smells and knew that his wife, Barbara, was preparing the evening meal.  Without taking off his hat or coat he went down the hallway to the kitchen.

     “So?” said Barbara smiling at him from the sink.  “Good day at the office?”

     “Pretty normal,” he said.  “Very normal.  That is, except for one thing.”

     “Oh?” she said.

     “Yes, except for this one thing.”

     “Could you check that pot on the stove?” asked Barbara.

     Ackerman went over to the stove.

     “This pot?” he said.

     “Yes.  And give it a stir.  And make sure the burner is on.”

     “I think it is,” he said looking down at the red light just beneath the burner.

     Barbara came over to the stove and looked.

     “Oh, yes, it is.”

     She went back to the sink.

     “You want to hear about it?” said Ackerman stirring the pot at the stove.  “This thing that happened?”

     “Of course.”

     Ackerman explained that after he left his office building he saw this small group gathered down on the sidewalk all looking up into the sky.  At first only one man was pointing, but, then, all of them were pointing.

     “But when I looked I didn’t see anything.”

     “What do you think they were looking at?” Barbara said.

     “Well, that's what I’m trying to tell you.  I don't know.”

     “They must have been looking at something.”

     “Yes, I imagine so.”

     “So what did they see?”

     “I don't know.”

     “Well, they must have seen something.  Maybe an airplane.”

     “No, I don't think so.”

     “Why not?  It could have been an airplane.”

     “I don't think it was.  Not anything like that.”

     “How do you know?  You said you didn't see anything.”  

     “That's just what I'm trying to tell you.”

     “So it could have been an airplane.”  

     Suddenly Ackerman realized that he still had his hat and coat on.  Normally he would have taken them off by now.  That is, before he came down the hall to the kitchen. 

     He gave the pot a final stir.

     “I’m just down the hall,” he said.

     “Oh, okay,” said Barbara.

     Ackerman went down the hallway to the wardrobe next to the front door.  But when he opened the door of the wardrobe he saw all the coats and sweaters jammed in there.  In fact, in a way, there really wasn’t any room for his coat.

     It was always that way.  Always had been.  He and Barbara no longer needed most of those things.  So what were they doing in there?  Why were they taking up space?  Why hadn’t they been thrown out?

     It occurred to Ackerman that someday, maybe next week, maybe even tomorrow, he'll just take the day off and clean out this wardrobe.  And other things around the apartment.  Throw out everything that wasn’t absolutely essential.

     He pushed his hand in among the coats, found a hanger, extracted it, shrugged his coat off his shoulder, placed it on the hanger and pushed the coat and the hanger back into all those other things.

     Suddenly it all fell down.

    Ackerman saw that the dowel along the top of the wardrobe had given way and everything, all those coats and sweaters, had dumped onto the floor.

     Nuts! he thought.

     He bent down to deal with this mess.  The problem was, he saw, that he couldn’t lift the dowel up with all those coats and sweaters hooked to it.  So he would have to take each coat and sweater off the dowel, not to mention the hangers, then try to fit the dowel back in its original sockets at the top of the wardrobe and finally hang up all the coats and sweaters again.

     Except to hell with it, he thought.  Just to hell with it!

     Leaving the pile of coats and sweaters right there sticking out of the floor of the wardrobe, Ackerman glanced down the hallway to the kitchen, walked into the living room, at the far end of the living room opened the door to the balcony and stepped out into the cold and the drizzle. 

     He placed his hands on the cold railing of the balcony and looked at what was in front of him.  Mostly he saw the backs of other apartment buildings, the fire escapes zig-zagging down, but in a gap between two buildings he saw the next street and heard the sound of car tires on the wet pavement.  A siren wailed from somewhere in the distance.

     That’s when Ackerman looked up into the sky. 

     He searched.  He really searched.

     But he didn’t see anything.

     He only saw the low clouds illuminated by the light of the city. 




About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and have had over 90 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.