Tanner. His parents should have named him Whiter—or—maybe, Redder, because of the fiery sunburn suffered by pasty-skinned people in the summer months. For weeks, he’d been Bluer, because of his love for a girl at the lake. Last night, he was Purpler, due to a lack of oxygen, when he forced his skinny body to hide longer than two minutes under a billowy layer of suds in his grandmother’s 71 Inch, clawfoot tub. Two minutes ten seconds—ten seconds longer than the average hold time. His mouth and nose weren’t the only organs to rise victorious out of the water, there was a periscope at the other end, a purple head popping out, one eye looking around, searching, throbbing for Christina. When his grandmother called for him; the periscope disappeared again. “You’ve been in there too long,” she said.
Most of the time, Tanner Stephen Elliot remained unseen in plain sight. This didn’t bother him at all. He was the Invisible Man and could stare at Christina Barns without being noticed, far longer than he could hold his breath. Wire rimmed corrective lenses slid down his nose. His habit was to push them back to where they belong, seated properly on the bridge, and then rake his hair back like Thomas Stearns Eliot (his favorite poet as they shared the same first initials and last name—except for one missing L). T.S. Elliot (with an extra L), reincarnated, sixteen years old, often sitting on a toilet seat in the high school bathroom, writing poetry for the unknown love of his life—until this summer—when he saw her for the first time. She walked by in slow motion. He didn’t notice that he was holding his breath again. His heart did something weird, thumping like it might burst, as he took her into his phantom arms.
Tanner’s parents were in the middle of a terrible divorce. As if that nightmare couldn’t get any worse, he was shipped to his grandmother’s house (a virtual stranger) in Carney’s Point, New Jersey—for the entire summer. Surprisingly, his mother’s mother was pleasant company, intensely interested in his literary pursuits. Grand-mum-mum. Yes, Mum’s the word. Every night, tea and books with Mum. Philosophy. Theology (particularly theodicy). Poetry. Or a T.S. Eliot mixture of all three, sending both to bed with their heads spinning with what Eliot’s lifelong friend, Conrad Aiken, described as “filigree without pattern.” Both would breathe easier under the anesthetic hum of window air conditioning units, waiting for tomorrow, longing for the sun to rise and to put a happy pause on all the troubling questions of the night.
July 7, 1986. That South Jersey summer was blistering hot. Lake Hudson was a pleasant bike ride from mum-mum’s house. Just a few miles down Route 40, which was constructed using fill dirt from Boardman’s Farm, left an 11-acre hole filled by natural springs, now a popular swimming spot. Tanner felt uncomfortably noticeable on Mum’s “loaded” gigantic granny bike, complete with fat tires, handle ribbons, a flowered basket, and a shiny, clown-nosed honky horn. Strangers whistled at the peddling youth, the redness of his ears undifferentiated from the sunburn of every day swimming. Honestly, he wasn’t into swimming; public pools and lakes skeeved him out. It was Christina that drew him there—her face, her voice, her movements, her bikinied body. She was at the lake almost every day. A gift. A blessing. A joy. A thousand butterflies in his stomach. A poem. A novel. He was crushing on her. If only he might kiss her just once! His life would be complete! What would that be like? No other questions needed to be answered.
But there was no chance of that happening. A male counterpart had all her attention. He was bronzed, muscled, handsome. Stupid. Non-intelligent (a symptom of nervousness or a permanent condition?). Ungentlemanly—that was the worst part—he was always pawing, splashing, screaming such foolishness, or attempting to push her off the wooden diving dock which was accessible only by boat.
Tanner discovered Christina couldn’t swim very well or maybe even at all. The unnamed boy toy fool, whose only redeeming value might be a washboard stomach, succeeded in pulling her off and away, away, away—too far away—from the dock, copping a prolonged feel before rocketing back in feigned contrition. He never noticed how she sank like a rock until he had climbed aboard the buoyant safety of the deck, stood, turned around, and blinked at the blank gray water.
Tanner’s ears heard the boy’s cry for help, becoming fainter, fainter, before disappearing altogether in the increased pressure of a frightening fifteen-foot depth. Thinking fast, he dove head-first and swam with great urgency toward the bull’s eye of a rippled ring where Christina had slipped from view. Down he went, already breathless from the swim—down, down, further down—the water darkening from a warm yellow, to a cool green, to an icy-cold black. It was like dying, like being buried alive. The voices far above sounded so far away—like the watery sounds of Mum’s bathtub but much deeper, even sinister.
The clock was ticking. One minute under felt like ten. Tanner spun in panicked circles, searching in vain for her. Carbon dioxide was building in his bloodstream, the biological urge to breathe was closing in on a deadly spasm. Bubbles threatened from his mouth, past his nose, fleeing for the surface. A feeling of utter hopelessness invaded his soul, impending doom in a watery hell.
Vivid moments of his brief life flashed before his eyes. Theodicy. If God is perfectly good and sovereign, why does he allow evil to exist? Tanner felt death staring at him with the heartless demon eyes of an eel. In the remaining seconds of his life, he mourned the eternal loss of Christina’s kiss. His brain fired rapidly with clarity and confusion, both fighting for a place. Tanner. I’m not a tan man. Christina means a follower of Christ. He heard a rescue boat fifteen-feet above him. Mum’s window air conditioning unit.
One minute, thirty seconds. Tanner prayed. God…
A mermaid! Tanner felt long hair fanning against his cheek. Christina! He pulled her into his flesh and blood arms. He pressed his lips to her open mouth wanting to give her a life-saving kiss. He would be her underwater prince. But she was already gone. Her eyes were empty.
With renewed purpose and no seconds to spare, he tried to push her up toward the air. She was too heavy. They would die together. He thought of his glasses, how he pushed them back to where they belong, on the bridge of his nose. If only he could push her back to the dock.
Tanner felt a strong presence. Powerful, invisible hands seized him by his pelvis and beneath his buttocks, like a rescue line but pushing him upward toward the surface, not pulling from above, far enough to lift Christina out of the water. Within minutes, she was resuscitated and made a full recovery.
Two minutes, ten seconds. One life for another. Tanner sank back down unseen. His body, extra-white, was pulled from the lake the following day. Mum’s abandoned bike was discovered and placed in the lost and found. Only God knew the rider.
[Today’s Sunbeam newspaper]
Monday July 9th, 1986. The body of Tanner Stephen Elliot was lifted from Hudson Lake in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, early Sunday morning. Rescue divers were called to the area after his grandmother reported him missing on Saturday evening and an intense search through 11-acres of water took all night. This is the second drowning in two consecutive days at the popular Sportsman’s Club. The first victim, Christina Barns, was pulled from a depth of fifteen feet of water and successfully resuscitated, but no one knew the quiet, sixteen-year-old from Cumberland Gap, Maryland and, tragically, his absence went unnoticed.
Commenting on the first drowning, Roger Polk, the lifeguard who pulled Ms. Barns from the water, believes in miracles. “Her limp body simply rose to the surface of the water right next to the rescue boat. All we had to do was pull her out and resuscitate. I’ve never seen anything like it—like someone literally handed her to us.” Commenting on the second drowning, Elliot’s grandmother, Mrs. Doris Simpkins, said, “I am strengthened by my faith in an unseen God whose sovereign ways are past finding out.”
Mr. Elliot’s body is being transported to his hometown in Maryland for a private graveside service.