Eno Rock Quarry
Caroline grew up just one mile from the quarry. When she was a girl, the man who still lived on the land would sit up near the trail entrance with a shotgun and threaten anyone who tried to hike there – usually high school thrill seekers or college kids with coolers of beer. The man’s name was Ernie and he grew his beard out for the purpose of looking more threatening, but he lived in the trailer across the road from Caroline’s house and all the kids knew there weren’t any bullets in the gun. The college kids didn’t know this, though, and the high schoolers didn’t either, so they left in a hurry when they saw him there, a fact Ernie often bragged about when he was drinking on his porch.
Caroline was seven years old the first time her mother let her hike up to the quarry with the other kids, sweating all the way in her faded red life vest, and she can still remember the feeling when Eddie Oxendine pushed her off one of the rocks where she’d been standing, watching the reflection of the clouds scudding across the sky. There was the feeling of falling, a surprising feeling at first, and then a flash of terror, because what’d she been thinking about as she stood there watching the water’s surface was all the things that lay beneath it, sixty feet down in the green depths. Someone told her once there was an old car down there. Other people talked about dead people and the guns that killed them. Her head was under for just a second before the life vest pulled her back to the surface, but in that second she could see the pale green gray sides of the quarry and in their stillness was a kind of peace that shocked her, so unexpected it was. Whatever was lying at the bottom of that quarry, Caroline thought – bones, bullets, the remnants of happy and unhappy lives – they were sleeping now, washed in a kind of quiet that only the dead know.
Since then, Caroline has been swimming in the quarry more times than a person could count. She had her first kiss there and her first beer and remembers when Eddie Oxendine untied her bikini top and placed his long dark fingers on her breast and held them there, wanting her to tell him what to do, she realized later, or touch him back. Instead, she’d laughed, and this was the moment she always remembered now when she thought of Eddie, who drowned when he was seventeen years old off the coast of Okracoke Island which always seemed to Caroline a cruel kind of joke. If he was going to die, why not right here, in the water he grew up in? The water that witnessed all of his firsts, it seemed to Caroline, should also have witnessed his last. Caroline wasn’t the type to imagine her own death, or to wish for it, but she wasn’t above having the thought that, if she died, this would be the place to do it.
At twenty-eight, Caroline was hired by the park service to patrol the grounds during the hot summer days when the new Durham crowds flocked to it, some days in the hundreds, people in cut-off shorts and fashionable swimsuits lugging along coolers and inflatables in the shapes of pizza slices and unicorns. In the interview, she told the ranger, “No one knows this quarry better than me,” and when she showed him her address, he believed her. Caroline knew where it was safe to jump and where it wasn’t. She knew the places where lovers would go to hide, the cool nooks in the stream where people would hide their beers. She knew where the poison ivy grew the thickest and the type of all the trees that grew along the quarry’s edge. And she knew, too, that all the visitors would leave their trash behind – bits of old sandwiches in plastic wrap, used napkins, crushed cans, sometimes broken bottles. It was her job to pick up after these people, often filling two or three trash bags per evening. “I don’t know how you stand it,” her mother would say. Caroline still lived with her mother in the house across from where Ernie’s trailer used to be, and her mother couldn’t stand how the quarry had changed, how it was no longer just their place to go. She missed Ernie and his shotgun, and she missed the quiet, and she used this as an excuse for why she rarely left the house, though Caroline knew this had more to do with her weight and her age and the sadness that weighed heavier on her every year, a sadness she used to be able to swim off, shedding it in the water like a snake sheds its skin. Caroline remembers this mother and the way they used to swim side by side, cutting through the quarry’s silent surface, the way her mother’s laughter would ring out across the water, the way they were like the only two people in the world.
But Caroline had never been sad like her mother. And she wasn’t bitter, either. Places changed like people did. Caroline knew this. And she knew, too, that one day she and her mother both would be as dead as Ernie or Eddie Oxendine. Or worse, they’d be alone like Eddie’s mother, whose own trailer was more of a tomb than a home, loneliness surrounding it like a gray fog you could almost see. So each night, when Caroline was done picking up the trash, she hiked it out to the trail’s edge and then she hiked back in and stripped down to her underwear. She left her ranger uniform in a neatly folded pile near the edge and dove in where she knew the water would be the coolest and deepest. And then as the sun set, the quarry was all hers again. The water would grow dark along with the sky and Caroline wasn’t afraid of the darkness and she wasn’t afraid of the depth and she especially wasn’t afraid of that dark and hidden part of her brain that told her she should be.