Justin Heckert has taken to his adopted home of Indianapolis, where his wife, Amanda, is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. Heckert, who started making a name for himself as a magazine writer to be reckoned with at Atlanta Magazine, is now working as a freelancer out of the Midwest.
Heckert has written for The New York Times Magazine, ESPN: The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Atlanta Magazine and Indianapolis Monthly, among other publications, and most recently profiled comedian Kyle Kinane for Grantland. He’s twice been named the City and Regional Magazine Association’s writer of the year.
We met at the Red Key Tavern near downtown Indy, a bar with a jukebox that plays Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby, and has been written about in Esquire. It was a fitting place, given that Esquire was where he first pitched the idea for “Lost in the Waves.” The story, which ultimately ran in Men’s Journal, has been anthologized in “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”
My comments are in red; Heckert’s responses are in blue. If you’d like to read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button to the right. Let’s start with a few questions:
Can you talk about how you first heard about this story?
Amanda, my wife, is always sort of looking for stuff that I can do. This was back in 2008, so she would have been my fiancée, and I was working at ESPN: The Magazine and she was looking for story ideas for me both for them and because I was trying to freelance too, and she sent me a link on CNN.com, a blurb, and it was about how this guy and his autistic son survived for an extraordinary length of time in the ocean. I Googled it and I started reading some newspaper stories about it and I don’t think there was a story in a big newspaper about it, and I thought that’s a great story. I would love to do that.
How did you pitch it? To who? What was the initial reaction?
I spent a while, a couple days on Nexis. Some little papers in Florida had stories about this, and I believe he had been on “Good Morning America.” These articles made Walt out to be a hero, this heroic dad jumping in the ocean to go find his kid, and I thought, what an amazing story. I wondered, what’s it like to be a dad to this kid and what their relationship is like. And so I pitched it to Esquire. At that point in time, I had only ever written for a couple other national magazines. I had a contact at Esquire, so I pitched it to an editor there and he really liked the idea, but it never gained any traction. So then a guy named Terry Noland reached out to me out of the blue. I didn’t pitch it to Men’s Journal, but he emailed me and asked if I had any ideas, and I thought this is like an outdoor story. This is how that started.
I think I remember hearing or reading that this was originally supposed to be just 2,000 words. It ended up just a shade over 6,000. What was the reaction at Men’s Journal?
I turned it in at 10,000 words. And honestly, the story I pitched was, ‘Look at this amazing event and I wonder what their relationship is like,’ and in the course of my reporting it turned into something much more interesting to me, so I just tried to write it for all it was worth. To Terry’s credit, I turned it in at 10,000 words and he trimmed the fat into what it is now. He didn’t ever scold me or chastise me and they paid me a lot more than they said they were going to. I knew from having been working professionally for five years that this was an amazing story.
“Lost in the Waves”
By Justin Heckert
The ocean at night is a terrible dream. This is like a line from Hemingway. How did you arrive at this single sentence being the one that kicked the whole story off? Plenty of people have written about the ocean and in beautiful ways, and I wanted to try to throw my penny in and add something to that. I spent a lot of time on the beginning. I think the beginning is the most important part of the story. Do you honestly expect someone to read all the way to the end? You have to get them to read. I wanted it to be memorable. I sat there for a long time, and I had some time. I didn’t have a deadline at that point. And I just sat there and took what I had and thought about it for a long time and tried to come up with phrasing and words. I knew where I wanted to start, and I was thinking about how I could incorporate the idea of it being scary and ominous. Is that the first sentence of the draft that you turned in to the magazine? Yes. And I will say that Terry Noland saved the beginning of the story because the editorial director of Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone wanted to start with me having Walt Marino floating in the ocean. I told Terry ‘I’m going to take the story back. Those two sentences, this is me, I created that.’ And he was like settle down and fought for those first sentences. There is nothing beyond the water except the profound discouragement of the sky, every black wave another singular misfortune. Walt Marino has been floating on his back for hours, the ocean on his skin, his mouth, soaking the curls of his graying hair. The water has cracked his lips, has formed a slippery glaze on his shoulders and arms. The salt has stuck to his contact lenses, burning the edges of his eyes. A small silver pendant of the Virgin Mary sticks to his collarbone on a link chain. He can no longer see the car key floating below his stomach, tied to the string of his floral swim trunks. The water licks against his ears. Every familiar sound is gone. There are some great details in that first paragraph, how did you get all of these minute details? I interviewed Walt. That was the first thing I did. I went up to Vancouver, Washington, and I stayed with him for a week. He had a contract job and was living out of a hotel so I got a room in the hotel. The first night I took him out for a steak dinner. I didn’t record, but I asked him about life. We got to know each other a little bit, and the entire week all I talked about with him was that one night in the ocean. The first couple of days we talked very broadly. But then I went back into that broad sort of question and I was like details, what were you wearing? What did it smell like? What did it feel like? Oh, you were wearing a necklace? What did it feel like? When you were in the water, what was happening to the key? Could you see it if you looked down in the water? That is where I got those details. Were you confident they were all 100 percent accurate? He turns out to be a decently unreliable narrator, but he is the only person who this happened to who can communicate. Eventually, I used documents from the Coast Guard, witnesses, people, his daughter. You have to sort of do your best to try and check everything that he says with other sources. I didn’t just take him at everything, face value. I did my damnedest to not just completely take his word for everything. When you are interviewing somebody, and you’re asking those specific questions, did he ever wonder, that is a really weird question. Why would you ask that? Not so much. I think that I told him, I just want to know what it was like. I just want to know what this felt like, so can you tell me? This was a very exhausting process for him. We would get a sandwich and go back to his suite, and I would ask questions, questions, questions, and two or three hours later, he would be like, ‘Man I’ve got to stop.’ When he would get tired, I would just leave him be. But he was never, ‘This is strange.’
He arches his neck, contemplates again how far of a swim it might be to shore. He can’t know how many miles. He tries to convince himself he might be able to make it back to the beach, to the rock jetty from which he was swept out to sea. This is the first instance where we really, truly know something bad has happened, although we don’t yet know exactly how bad. There are so many moments of tension in this story. How did you choose to start here? I think my goal was that you already know something bad has happened by that point, because of word choice. The first sentence, terrible. I wanted, before I let you know what happened, I wanted you to know something ominous happened through my word choices. I’m trying to write for how I would read a story, and I don’t need for someone to treat me like I’m dumb. I don’t know where that comes from, if it’s a newspaper thing, but I hear people, even at conferences who are good at this, say I have to spell it out. Well fuck that. That is what I was going for. He starts dog-paddling, but after about 30 minutes his arms give out, his back tires, and he decides that he’ll die if he tries.
In the dark, he can make out only the outline of his hands. He can see a faint glow in the distance, orange and premonitory, like a small fire, what he guesses to be the hotels and condos of Florida’s northern coast. He wonders if someone in a living room watching TV could look out far past the shore and see him floating here.
No, he decides. That’s crazy. Even if they were looking through binoculars, they could probably see only the water, and maybe the ripples beneath the stars. Even the rescue helicopter hadn’t been able to spot his head sticking above the surface, as it traced a search grid just beyond where the tide of Ponce de Leon Inlet empties into the Atlantic. Below the helicopter, patrol boats and Jet Skis had gone back and forth like sharks in the distance. He had waved his arms and screamed until his throat cracked, until the blue search signal and the light of the beam had thinned and disappeared. He now wonders if he’ll ever need his voice again.
That was hours ago. When Christopher was floating beside him. Christopher, his little boy. When the two of them, father and son, were still together in the waves. This is the first we know of Christopher. Why here? The main play was to build up what happens to him. I introduced him at the end of the first section. Something bad has happened, and now you introduce him and it ups the ante. What the hell happened to him? That is the way to set the whole other thing up. Honestly, I knew that the entire story, I didn’t want people to know that he had lived. That is a device. Cinematic thing. I can purposely make you not know that he is alive even to the minute that he is discovered.
The ocean was always one of Christopher’s favorite places. The shallow water near the jetty rocks of Ponce Inlet, pale and green at the curve of the beach – Walt took him there as much as he could. Like a lot of autistic children, Christopher was drawn to water. Did you have to do a lot of research into autism for this piece? I did some. There is whole section of the story that didn’t run that is about autism and more about something called the ‘dignity of risk.’ One of my best friends in the entire world was working at a home in St. Louis where he was a mentor, a father-figure who oversaw this house full of autistic men. I learned a lot from him because he had been doing that job for a while. I was telling him how Walt did things and how Robyn and Ed did things. I could see both sides. He told me about the ‘dignity of risk,’ and it was about how an autistic person should be able to experience the world and have a chance to make a mistake, and there is a dignity in letting them go outside, go into the ocean, take a walk, so I tried to incorporate that into the piece. It just didn’t make it in. I talked to his teachers, read the DSM IV. I did enough to write about it in this piece. By the sensation of it, by its sounds, its placidity – Walt could only guess. Christopher could never explain the ocean’s hold on him, could only put on his swim trunks and stand barefoot on the wooden floor of the house, or find the car keys from the table and try to place them in Walt’s hand, or just wait impatiently at the door of his convertible. As his son grew up, his main communication turned out to be the sounds of his laughter, his hands slapping at the tide foam, his giddy squeal as he climbed onto his father’s back, swimming for hours until it was time for them to go home.
On September 6, 2008, a Saturday, Walt took him to Ponce Inlet late in the afternoon. It was his weekend with the kids. As he did every two weeks, he picked up Christopher from the group home where he lived, then picked up Angela, his 14-year-old daughter, at her mom’s house in Oviedo. Christopher sat next to Dad in the front seat of Walt’s red Celica, the top folded back, wind running through Christopher’s short dark-brown hair. Angela sat squished along with two of her friends in the back. It was a perfect day to go to the beach. They stopped at McDonald’s, Christopher’s favorite, on the way.
Christopher ate his double cheeseburgers slowly, maddeningly, the exact same way he did every time. Since you’ve already said that Christopher lives, I’m going to go ahead and ask if you got a chance to spend time with Christopher for this story? I spent a week with Walt or maybe even more in Washington state, and then I went to Florida and I spent another week with him and Christopher, so I went to the Y and I went to the beach with them. I spent a lot of time with them. He took off the top bun, held it in his hand, and ate the pickles. Then he ate the lettuce. Then the top bun. Then he ate the meat. Then the bottom bun, then each french fry, one at a time. Did you ever get to watch him eat a double cheeseburger this way? I saw him eat other things. I did not see him eat that. But I saw him eat Doritos, and stuff. I asked Walt to describe it to me. It was very frustrating for Walt. He is a dad, and he is sitting there getting frustrated at his son. We may have gone to McDonald’s. It’s been five and a half years, but I did see him do a lot of stuff. I didn’t specifically see him eat that, but it was just me asking Walt about that day. He chewed vigorously, with his mouth open, loud enough for Walt to ask him to stop. Occasionally, when he became anxious or upset, he might stand beneath the spout of the soda fountain and press the button, and try to catch the spill in his mouth. Did you try to ask Christopher questions? Was that even an option? I was just there. I let Walt and Angela communicate with him. We sat down and they put on “Aristocats” for him, and “Toy Story,” and I saw that actually happen, so aside from giving Christopher a hug or being around him, I didn’t really try to communicate with him because I didn’t want to demean what was reality and that is that he doesn’t really communicate. I mostly just was there while they were interacting with family and stuff.
As Walt watched Christopher eat, he tried not to think about the meeting he’d had earlier in the day with his ex-wife Robyn and her husband Ed. Can you talk about how you got this insight? How you were able to get what Walt was trying not to think about? When I asked him about what happened that day, he was like, “I had to meet with my ex-wife and that sucked.” And he told me not to talk to his ex-wife. And so that was a key event. But going into this piece, I didn’t know about Robyn or Ed. It’s like, when I talked to Robyn and Ed, everything changed. There is another side to the story, and I’ll never forget when I went into Robyn and Ed’s house. They help raise Christopher. What did you say to him when he said not to talk to them? I mean, she helped raise Christopher. She knows, from her perspective what happened that night. He was not happy that I wanted to talk to her. I said I’m just trying to do my best. I’m not trying to hurt you but I have to talk to somebody who birthed Christopher and is helping raise him. When somebody says don’t talk to somebody, you can’t obey them.
Walt had lost his accounting job a few months before and asked if he could cut back on child-support payments. He’d split with Robyn eight years earlier, and whenever they spoke anymore it was briefly, tensely, and only in regard to the kids. During this meeting, in which Robyn and Ed agreed to reduce but not eliminate payments, they asked Walt what he planned to do with the kids that day. “I don’t know,” Walt replied, though he did know. This is the first hint of a second source of tension in this story. What was your thinking behind introducing it here? I mapped this out, scribbled it down so I knew where I was going. I knew this was going to happen in the second section. This happened, something that happened earlier in the day, met with Robyn and Ed, and by the way, that is going to factor in.
They arrived at New Smyrna Beach around 6:30 pm. The five of them walked the long wooden boardwalk, Christopher plodding behind, sometimes staring down. Walt followed him. The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was the one thing, long and orange, that rose above the sparse landscape in the distance. How did you get these details? I went there and I had him take me on the exact route and we walked the exact spot that he did, and that is what I did. The boardwalk ended at stairs that went down to the sand; by the time Walt and Christopher caught up to them, the girls had ignored the signs posted and were sliding down the backs of the white dunes as if on a playground. Walt and Christopher watched them for a while, then put their bags and towels down on the hard sand close to the water.
Christopher, in floral trunks like his dad, took off ahead of Walt, toward the south jetty, and splashed in, wading along the rocks. The tide on the protected side of the jetty looked serene. A group of people, their dark fishing poles like long weeds sticking up between the jetty rocks, watched them. Walt waded in to get Christopher, unaware that the tide had begun to go out, or of how strong it was, or that he was actually disobeying a county ordinance; no one was supposed to swim within 300 feet of a pier or jetty. Robyn and Ed had repeatedly asked Walt not to put Christopher in any situation that could be dangerous, and they asked him in particular not to take Christopher to the beach. Did you interview Robyn and Ed? If so, how did it go? That is a part where a lot of things change. I told them I was doing this piece and I wanted to talk to them. I talked to them about that night, how they raised Christopher. I had no judgments. They have their own way of doing it, and their way of doing it is not to let him go outside on his own. They have locks on doors, whatever, they didn’t want him to hurt himself. This is an amazing family story because this is a story about raising somebody, and I was not a parent. They loved Christopher, Walt loved Christopher, but here was my initiation into something completely different, here is what really happened that night. From their perspective, this was a disaster. Walt was not a hero. Why did he have Christopher at the beach in the first place? They’re telling me that they dealt with the Coast Guard. Can you imagine what this was like for them? They won’t even let him out of the house and Walt takes him to the beach. It completely changed the story. I came out of there, and my heart was pounding. The pitch of the story is moot. This changed everything. But Walt didn’t listen to them. He was certain that it made Christopher happy to be here. Did you contact Terry Noland right away? Oh yeah. I was like, can you believe this?
The current grabbed father and son almost immediately. They floated past the glistening rocks, and then it pulled them faster, the sand disappearing beneath their toes. Within a minute, Walt and Christopher were 50 feet out, the ocean in their faces and ears.
“Do you need help?” one of the fishermen yelled at Walt as he watched him being pulled away. Does this come from Walt’s memory? I interviewed the fishermen. I got their names, I got their names from the Coast Guard. I called them and said, ‘Do you remember this?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, we were out there fishing.’ They’re never named in the piece but they saw this happen, so I talked to the guys who were standing on the jetty watching this happen.
“We’re okay!” Walt shouted back, giving a thumbs-up. He still thought he had things under control, that they could make it back. They had waded into this water a thousand times, he and Christopher.
But this time the current was much stronger. Another two minutes, 200 yards farther out to sea. Walt knew they were in trouble now. His heart thumped in his ears. “Don’t come in!” he screamed to Angela, who was now staring out at them in fright from the jetty. “Call 911! 9-1-1! 9-1-1!” He repeated this instruction, hands cupping his mouth, over and over, trying to keep his head above water as the waves grew, but Angela was now out of earshot.
One second Walt could see the beach, and the next he was below the horizon. What was Walt like to interview? He seems like he has a very clear memory of this moment. Going in, you don’t expect someone to have a perfect memory. I liked him in that he was just a normal guy who loved his son and a regular guy who was trying to make a living for himself; he was flying back every other weekend to see his kids,. This is real life. I found him to be a caring, sometimes aloof kind of guy, but I got along with him really well. His memory is probably just like my memory. I kept asking him over and over again, ‘Can you talk about this?’ In the window of the night that this story takes place, where it’s only him and Christopher, you are just putting a trust in what you would call maybe an unfaithful narrator. Nobody can remember everything.
He tried to focus on Christopher’s head, the dark-brown hair wet and matted, the only part of him above water. Christopher was about 20 feet ahead of Walt now, bobbing and laughing hysterically. Walt yelled at Christopher to swim back to the jetty with him – “Come on, let’s go, let’s swim!” – but they had been raked into the middle of the inlet, where the current’s pull was even stronger.
After 20 minutes, they were about a mile out, at the mouth of the open sea. A green navigational buoy bobbed there, tall and round, with a rusted bell clanging back and forth. Did you ever get to see this buoy? I had the men who discovered him take me out on the boat they discovered him in on the path they took and where they found him. These are guys who plied this water often. I did my damnedest describing what it was like, not just picturing it, the only thing is that Walt wasn’t there. I could see (the buoy) from the jetty. I went on the boat and on the jetty. I went to the end of the jetty. I just remember the hunger of wanting every detail. There was no detail too small. What did they say on the boat? I told them what I was doing. The story changes because as soon as he is discovered, I don’t go from his perspective anymore. There are other people who now keep him in check. The story changes when he is discovered. Here is what was happening in other people’s lives. He was crying. Walt didn’t tell me that. He was babbling. He didn’t know what was going on. That was important. That changes when other people come into it.
Walt reached out to try and grab onto the buoy but struggled against the current. Christopher just kept laughing, unaware of the danger, of the situation, of the fading shore and the strength of the current, of the ocean ahead. As they floated past the buoy, there was nothing else to stop them from drifting into the sea.
Walt studied Christopher as the sun went down. It was a game to his son, he decided – floating there without a care in the world. Farther out from shore, the light dwindling, the land itself was less visible. The current seemed to relax, and it was hard to tell how fast they were moving anymore. Did you ever worry that Walt’s memory wasn’t accurate? How did you confirm his account of events? I talked to a lot of people you wouldn’t think I did. There were people who saw him get swept out into the ocean. I had all of this stuff, details firsthand, and then also other people were talking about what it looked like there. There were a lot of things I did to try and keep him honest in the story.
Staying afloat was all there really was to do. Walt told himself to keep his eye on Christopher, to make sure his head stayed above the four-foot waves. But his mind wandered to his own mom and dad waiting for them back at the house, to the girls left on the beach, to nothing at all. He forced himself not to consider what could be swimming below them. The only sounds to keep them company were the lap of the waves and the slap of the fins of the small fish that jumped onto the surface. Walt could see the white point revolving at the top of the lighthouse, counted the seconds of its revolution. He decided the coast guard would probably be coming for them soon. They had been in the water for two hours, he guessed. They were beginning to tire. Can you talk about the structure of the story? Why did you set it up the way you did? I’ve started a lot of stories I’ve written in the middle, the dramatic moment of the piece. As much as writing has influenced me, throughout the waking minutes of my life – my mother was a teacher, I’ve been reading since I can remember and I’ve been inspired by various types of writing – movies do equally. This is the ‘Goodfellas’ trick. I love that movie. He starts it, they’re in a car, they hear thumping and they stop the car and get out and open the trunk and Billy Batts is still alive and they shoot him and it’s hitting you and something is happening, and then it fades to black and goes back to the beginning. It just works almost every time that I do it. I start in most dramatic part, so you know something bad has happened. Walt is already out in the ocean. How did this happen? Then you come all the way back to this moment, and then the rest of the piece, which is my favorite part of the story, is what happened to them after. My favorite part of the story does not take part in the ocean. It seems to me, that this works well in narrative journalism because you’re giving the conflict right at the very beginning. This is what’s happened, so now the reader wants to know how it happened. If you go chronologically, you run the risk of losing the reader. One of my first magazine stories at Atlanta Magazine was about the spelling bee. I love the spelling bee. It’s full of dramatic moments. That story starts with her spelling the word that she loses on, but you don’t know that, and then boom, you’re all the way back at the beginning. Some stories allow you to do that, but you can’t do it on every story, I want someone to experience this like a movie, that style and that vision have influenced me just as much as writing. I want people to be captivated by this, and that is why the beginning is so important to me.
Christopher was no longer laughing, so Walt decided it was time to give him a break. He dog-paddled to his son, grabbed his arm, and let Christopher climb on his back. Walt, who’d become a certified lifeguard because Angela’s Girl Scout troop needed him to get his license, took a deep breath. This is a pretty important piece of information. That he was a certified lifeguard. Did you intentionally leave it for a third of the way through the story, or is this just where it seemed to fit? Picking details here and there, it seemed like a good place to use it as he was treading water. He wasn’t just a regular guy in the water. He’s trying to figure out how to stay alive and not panic, and he’s a certified lifeguard so he’s done a couple things that he’s learned. You know that he is capable of floating. Then he arched his back and dipped his head forward below the surface, arms slightly extended from his sides – the dead man’s float.
He lay facedown in 30-second increments, coming back up for air, wiping the water from his cheeks, spitting the ocean out of his mouth. Each time he would clutch Christopher’s hands, then lift him up on his back. Christopher would lay his stomach on top of Walt and wrap his arms around his father’s neck. Each time Walt rose to take a breath he ached more; after only a few minutes he came up again and clutched his stomach. Then he vomited. He puked everything he had eaten at lunch, big chunks of his cheeseburgers, floating in a pool of bile on the surface, barely digested. He dry heaved until his throat burned; he was screaming gibberish, nonsense, “Jesus, God, help us….”
Small fish surfaced in packs to feast on the vomited meal, and Christopher reacted with panic. He began to scream. He grabbed at Walt’s hair and tried to rip it out of his head. He was thrashing on Walt’s back, his weight pushing Walt beneath the surface. Christopher weighed about 120 pounds, and he was tearing at his father, digging his fingernails into him, crying at the top of his lungs. Walt pulled him off of his back, wiped his eyes, and croaked, “Please, Christopher, calm down. Please be a good boy.” Christopher looked at Walt, pleading with a pair of helpless eyes, as if to ask: What are we going to do, Dad? Walt had no answer. He couldn’t breathe. Can you talk about the editing of this story? How close to what you originally wrote is the piece that ultimately ran? Even though it was 10,000 words, I didn’t just spill out 10,000 words and then have you clean them up. I turned in a clean 10,000 words and he just trimmed it. The structure is intact. That one section about the ‘dignity of risk,’ which involved a more involved scene of Christopher biting kids on school bus, was cut, but this was just a trim. I’m hoping my stories read with the thought, I’ve thought about every sentence. I’ve polished it before I turned it in. I spend time on the sentences. I spent a long time trying to have a polished story that I wanted to show him. It was a great experience. Just me and Terry. And he came back to me and said here is what I think, we could lose this, everything had an explanation, and at the end, his boss wanted to lose the first two sentences and he got them to stay in.
Christopher grabbed for him again, jumping out of the water to get away from the fish, splashing salt water into Walt’s eyes. Walt went under, gulping a throatful of ocean that made him vomit again. Crying, desperate to breathe, he yelled at Christopher, at the situation. Christopher was screaming again, too. What could Walt do? There was really only one thing he could do, for the both of them. He was forced to make a horrible decision: If they stayed together, if Christopher kept clutching his father, they would both drown. Their only chance was for Walt to separate himself from Christopher, to hope that his son could stay afloat on his own. It was the only choice that made any sense. He looked at his son again, then pushed him away into the ocean. What a horrible choice to make. How far along in the interviewing of Walt did he talk about making this choice, and what was your initial reaction? This seems like something that could easily show up at the very beginning, sort of like Wil. S. Hylton’s “The Unspeakable Choice,” when the mother deliberately drives her son to a hospital to abandon him. My reaction was I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ Nothing that I had read had talked about that, and that was a big confessional moment to me. And I was like, ‘Really?’ You have to tell me more about this. I don’t know if I believe all this. You are sort of taking his word about what is happening. He is the only narrator. I try to write it in a way you may be skeptical of Walt. And you believed him? In terms of letting him go, as a method of possibly saving them both, because that was his rationale? I said to him, ‘Tell me why that makes sense, Walt.’ He said, ‘Well, I taught him to swim, and I didn’t want to die because he wouldn’t be saved.’ Later on, when I saw how Christopher behaved, that made sense to me. Spending so much time with Walt and seeing how they interact, again the story is from Walt’s perspective. You have to go with him, and you may not believe him.
When he was 15 months old, they knew something was wrong. This is almost halfway through the story. Why wait this long to go into the backstory of Christopher and Walt and Robyn’s marriage? He looked at his son and pushed him away, and I felt like that was a good place for, not an intermission, but a great place to make Christopher a three-dimensional character. You step completely out of the ocean; here is Christopher. You’re not attached to him, but all of a sudden, here is what it’s like for him to be alive and for people to deal with him, and that was very conscious. I am going to completely step away and here is more about Christopher, make him as three-dimensional as I can without talking to him. It was a dramatic moment to step away. He didn’t pay attention, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t cry. He would just scream and grunt. He didn’t say a real word until he was four. After Christopher was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Walt spent 20 grand on a couple of miracle cures, including an injection of pig hormones into Christopher’s leg. He also looked into another form of treatment called “patterning,” an exercise designed to improve neurologic organization that required several people to help lift and move the patient’s legs and arms and head for several hours a day. But it cost $10,000, and Walt thought it looked like torture.
He knew where the bathroom was because Walt and Robyn showed him, but he didn’t know how to ask for it when he needed it. Sometimes he would pee or shit in his pants and laugh, or smear his feces on the walls. He would make high-pitched noises when Robyn handed him the telephone and told him his dad was on the other end. He could say “goodbye,” “hello,” “thanks,” “water,” “hungry,” “candy.” He could repeat the phrases “I love you” and “Hi, Dad” and “Wow.” A cadre of therapists had worked with him over the years, tried to teach him skills like brushing his teeth and buttoning a shirt, how to chew quietly. Some of them had quit because he bit them.
He ignored other children, mostly. He’d pick up an object – say, a string of thread – and let it drop, over and over, to see how it behaved on its way to the floor. Sometimes he would spin madly in a circle. Did you ever worry about taking the reader away from the ocean for too long? No, it’s just one section, and the section builds. I just wanted to make that section build to the way Walt looked at him, tried to look at him as a regular little boy. When you are with him, unless he starts biting or screaming, he just seems like a normal boy, and that is why Walt takes him to the ocean.
He had so much energy it was exhausting, and he required constant supervision. As he got older, he would sit in the backseat on his way to school with Angela and would bite her on the arm or pull her hair as she screamed. He was fearless and reckless because he didn’t have a concept of danger. There was just a connection missing somewhere. Was there any reaction from parents of other children with autism or the autistic community to this story? I didn’t have any reaction from anyone who had children with autism. You have to understand where these kids are coming from. This is who they are, this is what we’re dealing with, these are beautiful, special children. That was the easiest way to describe it.
He couldn’t carry on a conversation, but he could listen and understand. He could follow directions: Pick this up, please, Christopher. Take it over there and come back. He responded to sign language, because it was visual. He could point to a flash card to indicate what he wanted to eat. He was in an eighth-grade class with 10 other autistic kids, some who didn’t speak or even act like they knew the teacher was there. The teacher once had a student who spoke only by reciting an infomercial: “If you didn’t buy it here, you paid too much!” Why include this information? I thought that was such a memorable, heartbreaking anecdote. This is a real person, and this is what it’s like. What an amazing class, and that makes, that makes him a little more human. We are not just talking about someone’s name in a story.
In the callous terms of the DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Christopher displayed “markedly abnormal nonverbal communication.” To his father he was shy and curious, and sometimes so quiet and so temperate that Walt could imagine his son was perfectly normal. Do you think Walt had a realistic sense of his son and his limitations? Did that play into his decision to take the boy to the beach against his mother’s wishes? He just wants Christopher to experience the world how he experiences it. He wants to take him places and do things. In his heart and his mind, he thinks he should experience the world like a normal boy. How did you approach that as a journalist? Did he know about the ‘dignity of risk’? I asked him about it, and he didn’t know anything about that. He started researching it and he said, this is me. It validated the way that he did things. That wasn’t my intention, but he didn’t know anything about that term. I’m not a dad of anybody, but I don’t think he wanted or pretended or had a delusion of him being normal. He didn’t want to treat him differently. He just wanted him to experience the world.
The first rescue helicopter appeared just before nightfall, then the boats in the distance, engines breathing on the water. This is a great phrase. I was thinking how can I make this sound more interesting than just saying it. I did probably spend a few more minutes. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like that, but that is just a natural way that I write. Walt called over to Christopher, who had drifted maybe 10 feet away. He told him that he was a good boy and a great swimmer. He pointed his finger to the blinking helicopter high in the sky near shore, and said, “Blue lights. Blue lights. Blue lights coming to get us.” Walt felt like he understood.
Christopher certainly understood what it meant to be in the water. Walt pictured him floating on his back at the YMCA in Oviedo, where he’d learned to swim. Walt had spent hours there teaching him to float, Christopher with his green goggles strapped across his face, laughing, looking up at the ceiling painted to look like a sky. You’ve kind of changed up the structure here. Before, the scenes that took place in the past happened in its own section, but now, you’re taking the reader out of the ocean and into the past within a section that starts in the ocean. Did you do that on purpose, and if so, why? As we’re building back up to the ultimate rescue, the rest of the story, these characters have become more evolved and three-dimensional. Now I’m moving in and out now. It started in the water, and now that it’s coming to some climax, it’s headed somewhere, learning they are in the water, but learning little flashbacks, learning about them. It’s a way to not just keep breaking section after section, tied to something happening in the water. He was in the water, he understood what it meant to be there, he was thinking about this stuff, maybe surviving because he taught him to swim, he took him to the YMCA. That is why I did that. There’s not enough to sustain water, water, water, water, water.
At the Y, Christopher was a regular boy. The lifeguards knew him by name, let him go into the utility closet and pick out a foam ring to play with in the water, the same green one every time. He always walked the tiled stoop around the pool, feeling the water on the tops of his feet. Then he’d jump in. Walt would show him how to fill his stomach with air so he could float, then pull him along by his shoulders, walking him around the left lane of the pool.
Out at sea, in the fading light, Christopher rose and dipped from Walt’s line of sight. Walt tried to talk to his son to keep him calm, reciting his favorite lines from his favorite movies. Christopher loved to sit right in front of the small television in his room and watch Disney videos all day. Sometimes he would put his eyeball as close to the screen as he could get it without touching. His all-time favorite scene was Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, flying into space, saying his trademark phrase: “To infinity … and beyond!”
“To infinity!” Walt yelled to Christopher over the waves. He waited for Christopher to respond. The part where Walt starts yelling the ‘Toy Story’ phrases to Christopher… I thought that was amazing. I thought that might have been a detail that he said to another reporter on ‘Good Morning America.’ That is something we talked about, such an amazing way they communicate is through Disney movies, I saw that happen right in front of me.
“To infinity, Christopher!” I’m assuming you got this through interviews with Walt. How much time did you spend with him? This is the ultimate example of recreating. Half of it is in person, but half I didn’t witness. I spent 15 days total with Walt, which is a lot of time. Half of that is trying to be able to recreate this what happened in the water. I have to be able to paint a vivid enough picture. Half the story is what happened to him that night. The other half is the things that happened in front of me that play out in the piece.
“… and beyond!” lightly from atop the wave, as Christopher was lifted back into view. It didn’t sound like that when Christopher said it, though. It always sounded like “infin’ a beyon’…” And he’d always send his fist into the air. That little fist pump – Walt did it in the water then, too, even though he was trying to conserve energy.
After a while the first helicopter left and another took its place, its blue light flickering over the open water. Looking out toward the black sky, Walt began to wave his arms, certain now that no one could hear him. Christopher pounded his fist against the waves. A group of jellyfish interrupted them, swimming into Walt’s and Christopher’s legs, clutching onto them and burning like strands of electric hair. Christopher shrieked. Then Walt was lifted up at the same time Christopher was lowered. When the tide evened, Christopher was even farther away, 30 or 40 feet. Walt tried to swim toward him, flapping his arms as hard as he could. Then a wave lifted Christopher, and Walt was caught on the other side. When the wave broke, Christopher was no longer there. This is a really powerful paragraph, and a lot happens here. Also, we’re finally back to pretty close to where the story begins. When you first started writing this story, did you imagine this type of structure, where you would start at a certain moment in time and then go back in time, and then circle back around toward the middle of the story? I did a napkin outline. This is more like one sentence on a napkin, beginning in the water, knew I would come back here, everything that happened in between just happened, I have these little guides. I need to talk about this in this section, but no sentences until I started to write. I love that they just appear. When you’re writing, that is how it happens. Write one sentence, read it, that is the process of creation for me. I knew what I wanted to include, and I knew I would come back to this.
Only his breath in the darkness, a silence as everything settled in. For half an hour, Walt had yelled, begging for Christopher to answer. He had given up conserving energy, had been swimming as hard as he could to try and find his son. “Who’s my best boy?” Nothing. “Christopher, who’s my buddy?” Only the fish beneath him, brushing against his back and legs.
Walt spun in every direction, trying to spot the small white face and the dark-brown hair.
But he was gone.
Walt wiped his eyes, took a breath. He’s gone. It was a thought as dark and fathomless as the ocean itself. Can you talk about this sentence? It’s sentences like this that set your stories apart from so many other writers, that make them feel short story-esque. Do these sentences just come to you? Do you have to work to find and make them? I guess I am like, my brow is going up. I didn’t have to do that. You could argue that I didn’t need to do that. It’s just a simile. That is what sets your work apart from others. I didn’t have that written down beforehand. I need to have the marks of literary fiction in my story even if they might be hokey to someone else. That is just a simile. A lot of writing doesn’t interest me because it’s just straightforward. Maybe this is something I can do, make a turn of phrase. People might not like it. It’s bordering on the editor might cut it.
At that moment, he couldn’t see it any other way – Christopher was dead. So Walt stopped yelling and shivered as a trail of bright green phosphorescence floated past him. He stared at it, amazed by its arrival, the only color on the sea, passing behind him like lights beneath the water. He told himself it was probably peaceful, told himself that Christopher just got tired and finally let go. Just slipped away under the sea.
But Walt’s mind wouldn’t fully accept that. Christopher was a terrific swimmer. He had nine lives, Walt liked to say. Maybe he was merely playing a game. Maybe he was floating, just beyond where Walt could see. Maybe he just wanted to be alone for a while, like he sometimes did. How did you find transitions like this? I’m sitting there thinking, I need to address the fact that he has eloped. It plays directly into what is happening in the water, Walt knowing that he’s been okay in the past. How am I going to get from here, I have to tell this anecdote about him going to the mall. Well, how do I get there from the ocean, and that is something that I thought about. And sometimes an editor will be like, ‘We need a transition here.’
Christopher had wandered off so many times, Walt learned to expect he would always be okay. “Eloped” is the word used to describe the way an autistic person sometimes wanders off – is there one second, then vanishes. Did you talk to experts about autism for this story? If so, what type of help were they able to give you? I talked to Walt’s teacher about eloping. I read something about eloping. I think Robyn and Ed had some literature for me. My friend is an expert in autism, and he had been sort of like the patriarch of a house of autistic guys, and some of these guys will elope and they will end up at some sort of water, a puddle or a lake and that kind of plays into all this. I feel like somebody else might have read 10 books for this story. I get overwhelmed in the minutia of learning about something. I don’t want to be an expert.
Christopher had eloped at the mall, at the hardware store, from Walt’s parents’ house, and after a search they would often find him playing in water. At first it was the lake in their old neighborhood, then the retention pond at the bottom of the street – the police had sent a helicopter to search for him. Then it was the neighbors’ pool: floating on his back, naked. The neighbors called the cops, who came and pulled Christopher out and saw the silver chain bracelet on his left wrist with his identification and phone number.
Once when Christopher wandered off, the police searched for him again, and half an hour later, he turned up in the fountain at the Oviedo mall. Christopher had walked across a busy intersection, crossed through six lanes of traffic, had navigated the winding road back to the parking lot at night. He had taken his clothes off and was splashing beneath the falling water in his underwear, his feet brushing the pennies people had tossed in to make a wish.
After each of these episodes, Robyn would fume at Walt. She no longer trusted him. She and Ed held their breath whenever Christopher was with Walt. When Christopher was with Robyn and Ed, they never let him outside without maintaining physical contact. But Walt wanted Christopher to experience the world like a regular boy, wanted him to walk the stadium stands without holding his hand and feel the beach sand and breathe the air, wanted him to make choices. You’ve got so much information and details about Walt and Robyn’s relationship. Can you talk about how you got all that information? This is the first time you learn that they don’t think that what he does this right. They don’t agree with the way he raises Christopher. They are worried about stuff like this happening. And then right after it, you’ve got this juxtaposition right here. They don’t want Christopher to do this, but Walt can’t even bear to call him autistic.
Walt couldn’t even bear to call him autistic, to label him that way, and his voice always cracked when he talked about his “little buddy.” He took the good days, swimming together at the Y, sitting together in the front pew of church, eating at McDonald’s without incident, and weighed all of that against the tantrums, the outbursts, the moments in which his son would lunge at him, out of the blue, and sink his teeth into his arm. That’s when Walt would sob. He’d lament having to shout at Christopher, asking him why he’d attack his own father. For every good day there was always some kind of reminder of the bad.
But now he was gone. They shouldn’t have come out to the beach, he told himself. He should’ve rented a movie and spent the day at home. He could never face his own family. He wouldn’t know what to say to his mother and father, to his daughter, to the coast guard, to Robyn and Ed. The guilt, too, the realization that he had been responsible for his son’s death. This story, I think, might be one of the best at getting inside the head of the main character. How did you do that? You spend 15 days with somebody, and you have a little authority. You ask them about this stuff, you use things that happen. You’re doing a story on somebody and asking them about certain things, you’re at a restaurant and see how they interact with other people. You gradually learn about who they are, and that kind of plays into this. You do learn, depending on how much time you spend with a person. But you do see things happen in the course of being with them that speak volumes, like Christopher biting him. Everything became so clear to me. It all rang so true in that moment. This was all real.
He decided that he should take his own life. It would be easier. Bawling, his tears mixing with the salt water on his face, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and slipped like he imagined Christopher did beneath the surface.
But there was Angela. He had almost forgotten about her. He kicked his legs and came up for air, expelling a mouthful of water. She needed a father too.
The ocean at dawn is a wonderful dream. He thought the night might last forever and now considers the morning itself a sign, too. The birds dive to the surface, stretching out their patternless wings as if to yawn. You spent so much time out there, obviously, to get these details. I was on the ocean a couple hours after dawn. I was asking Walt, ‘What happened when it was daylight? What happens when you’re still alive and its morning? Sunburn, tired, did you give up? It’s all changing right now. You’ve survived the night, and the dawn itself is like this sign. That is why this section exists. What is happening to you? What does your skin feel like? What do you see?’ Every little thing he sees is a sign that he might survive, but he is still thinking of Christopher. But now things are going to change. He has survived. This is shift into the next part of the piece.
A seagull, white and with crystal eyes, lands right next to Walt. It looks directly at him, opens its orange beak like it’s trying to get him to talk. Walt can suddenly see the life of everything, the fish swimming on the surface, the actual blue of the water. His neck aches like hell. His hands and wrists are swollen stiff. His lips are chapped and bleeding. He’s numb and warm. His tongue is swollen, his eyes dry.
He thinks he’s floated much farther out, but he really has no point of reference. No one even knows the exact direction in which he and Christopher floated. He has survived the night, he realizes, for nothing. He stares forward, shielding his face from the sun with his arm, and then looks back down to the water, thinking of Christopher. Part of the tension of this story extends from the fact that we need to know how Walt is rescued, because we know he is. We know you talked to him, so we want to know how he is rescued and what happened to Christopher. Can you talk about developing that engine? Did you know right away that was going to be the narrative engine? I’ve come back to the climax. He pushed Christopher away, and now you have to sort of take the story into the afterward. One, does Christopher survive? I did that because you still don’t know what is going to happen. You just discovered some dude in the water and he is incoherent. The guys in the boat are like, this is the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen, so the story shifts to the perspective of people encountering the survivor. They have found this guy and he has this amazing preposterous story, and everyone thinks the son is dead.
At 7:15 am, on the deck of a recreational fishing boat called the Open Range, Shawn McMichael looks out and sees a reflection in the water. Just turns his head, while the five other men on the deck are staring forward toward the horizon. Did you look to other stories as models for this one? If so, which? I did go back and read “Moby Dick.” I skimmed it to see how he was writing about the ocean. It’s ancient, beautiful writing, but it wouldn’t work today. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane is the best thing I’ve ever read. I thought, I want this to be pretty memorable. When I was in Vancouver, Washington, I stopped in Portland, which is right next to it, and a friend of mine, Paige Williams, said I should read “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I did. That is a heart-pounding, minute-by-minute retelling of what happened to this guy in the ocean.
A glitter, something sparkling, something that maybe on a thousand other days would never catch his eye. It could be anything, maybe one of the cruise-ship balloons that frequently float off the deck and then settle and shimmer on the surface. Shawn looks again and sees movement. Stanley Scott, the boat’s owner, realizes it’s a man. Floating. By himself, waving his arms. The boat slows, turns hard, comes within 50 feet of him.
“How did you get here?” Stanley shouts. “Where’s your boat?”
The man is delirious, won’t stop yelling – they can’t get a word in. He asks about someone named Christopher. The men ease up to him, extend a boat pole out on the left side so he can grab onto it, and walk him around to the platform on the back end, by the engines. It takes two guys to haul him in. Dripping water, swollen, pale, shivering, jellyfish stings like long red scars on his legs. The silver pendant dangling below his chin – that’s what Shawn had seen reflecting.
“I lost him!” They sit him on a beanbag in the back of the boat. “I lost him!” He repeats that phrase until they can get him to stop shouting and ask what he’s talking about. “Christopher, Christopher…have you seen him? Oh, my God, have you seen him?” The men drape a windbreaker over his shoulders, hand him a bottle of water. He drinks six, one after the other. “He’s a great swimmer. He’s a great swimmer…. Oh, God, he’s gone.” This scene of the rescue contains so much compelling detail. How did you get it? I interviewed the guys on the boat. When they found a survivor who was floating out at sea, he was sunburned, his hair was oily and curly. I put a little leeway into trusting people’s memory. Walt’s description came from them. How did you find these guys? The boat was called the Open Range, and I did a search of Coast Guard documents. I think I might have found one of the guys through that. Three guys took me out on the boat, and then I found the helicopter people too.
He has an amazing, preposterous story, all right. He’s floated nine miles northeast into the ocean from Ponce Inlet. This is the first mention of how far he had floated. Was that done on purpose? That is a reveal. Now you know, holy shit, they floated an unfathomable distance in the ocean. And Walt had no idea. Now you are getting everything from other people’s perspective.
The men don’t say a word. They’re in awe. They get the coast guard on the radio and tell them they’ve found a man named Walter Marino, and his autistic son is still missing.
Walt shivers and sniffles in the boat. He calls his younger sister, Linda, and tells her that he’s alive. The night before, Linda had not been able to sleep, knowing her brother and nephew were missing. She stayed up with her elderly mother and father, calling the pastor at the church and asking him what to do. “We’re going to pray for a miracle,” he had told her. Robyn and Ed stayed up too, in fear for Christopher’s life, Robyn convulsing, so sick that Ed almost called 911. Angela had gone to sleep thinking about how her dad had once told her he wanted his ashes scattered, and that she couldn’t remember where.
Walt tells Linda now that Christopher is still missing, that he’s been in the water 13 hours.
“My God, that’s a long time,” she says.
He calls Robyn, too, gritting his teeth. “Tell Angela I’m alive,” he says.
His voice is weak, raspy. She can barely tell it’s him. “Walt?” she shouts. How did you get this dialogue between Robyn and Ed? Robyn was a meticulous person, and I asked her what he said over the phone, and that is basically it.
“We’ve lost Christopher,” he says.
“What? What? How? Where is he?” She’s hysterical, asking about her son. She’s talking so fast, asking so many questions that he doesn’t want to answer, so he hangs up. Seriously? Robyn said, ‘I will never forget.’ It was memorable to her and to me because he just did not want to talk. That is what this signifies. You have nothing to say. You have no answers. She wants answers, and this thing just happened to him, and he doesn’t have anything else to say to her.
An orange-and-white coast guard boat pulls up next to the Open Range at 9 am. For an hour and a half, Walt has been sitting on the beanbag, moaning. A door opens on the side of the boat, and two men pull Walt inside. He waves goodbye to the guys on the Open Range, who stand in stupefaction.
The ship’s captain asks Walt if he wants to be taken to the hospital or stay on the boat as they go search for Christopher. “Let’s go,” Walt says. But he chooses to sit below in the cabin, because he doesn’t want to be there when someone spots Christopher floating on his stomach, bloated, dead – he doesn’t want to be the one. Can you talk about Walt’s rescue scene and what happened immediately after? Were there any troubles with trying to figure out how to navigate from here to where the story was going? I wanted to play up that he was so upset that these guys couldn’t get anything out of him. I remember asking him, he said he just didn’t say anything. He thinks Christopher is dead. Ultimately we’re going to get to the main part of the story, which is about not only the outcome of this night, but raising a child differently. It is all building toward that. So I was thinking, he doesn’t know Christopher is alive, I don’t want you to know he is alive. I was very purposefully trying, and it’s the truth, not over dramatizing this. They were expecting to find him dead.
So he’s escorted down a flight of stairs to a room filled with life jackets and flare guns. An officer in charge of keeping an eye on Walt sits opposite on a bench and says only, “You look like you regret something. Do you regret something?” Walt just shakes his head in his hands – he doesn’t want to talk. You have mentioned a couple times that Walt is an unreliable narrator. Why? I think that, isn’t everybody? If you asked me to tell you about what happened to me a few months ago blow-by-blow, I mean. You can call me an unreliable narrator, though it happened to me. You may not know what really ever happened. Did it have anything to do with his personality? Maybe a little extra, because he is sort of flaky. That plays into that term a little, but mostly, I mean, isn’t everybody?
All the way from Clearwater, out of the skies above northeastern Florida, the Jayhawk helicopter rides 100 feet above the water. It’s got a bright orange tail and white-striped body, like the fish from Finding Nemo. At 300 feet the trained men aboard can see gulls hitting the surface, but they’re flying even lower this morning, as low as they can go, because they’re looking for a 12-year-old boy.
The helicopter goes into a right-hand orbit, circling once, then again, initially lowering to 50 feet. The flight mechanic had seen the dark-brown hair and white face in the tide line, had seen a body floating there, bobbing. Tom Emerick, a rescue swimmer, is already wearing a shorty wetsuit and puts on a black mask with a snorkel. Can you talk about how you got all of this information? I’m assuming there were some public records involved? I talked to the people who were in the helicopter and who had the flight plan. That is why there are so many numbers. That is why they had this information, how high up they were, here is the time it was, I had all that stuff. Nobody told me that it looked like “Finding Nemo,” I saw what the helicopter looked like. That is my tip of the cap to the fact that Christopher loved Disney and that is probably what it looked like to him. And up to this point in the story, Christopher is assumed dead. Everyone is just sort of clinically expecting him to be dead, from the guys in the helicopter to Walt who doesn’t know.
Lowered 20 feet down by a thick hoist cable, Emerick hits the water feet first. He swims toward Christopher, the boy’s small pale eyes staring at him, unblinking. Emerick signals for the helicopter to send the basket down. It’s 9:15 am, three miles from where his father had been discovered two hours earlier.
“Hi, how you doing, my name is Tom,” Emerick says.
Christopher says nothing, barely makes a move – just watches as Emerick pulls him into the stainless-steel basket. So… This is the first instance where we know, at least upon being rescued, that Christopher is alive, and we’re nearly to the end of the story. Clearly you did this deliberately. Why? You do not know it until the very second. You think that he might be dead when he swims toward the body and the blue eyes are staring. He could be dead still. That is completely on purpose. Even sending the basket down could be for a body. Until he talks to him, he would not be talking to a dead body. That is a cinematic way of doing it.
“Don’t climb out of it, okay, buddy?” he shouts. It’s deafening beneath the whir. The rotor wash is coming down so hard that it stings them, nearly suffocates them.
Christopher rides up in the basket silently, looking down at Emerick still in the water, studying him like a piece of string.
In the stomach of the helicopter, Emerick wraps a wool blanket over Christopher’s shoulders, checks his breathing, his pulse, has him track his index finger with his eyes. He asks him if he wants something to drink, and when Christopher doesn’t answer, he makes a motion with his hands to emulate taking a sip from a cup, and Christopher nods. Sitting on a bench in the helicopter, he shivers, freckles beneath the dark hair. His skin is warm; he’s slightly hypothermic. But other than the jellyfish stings, there doesn’t appear to be anything the matter with him. This is amazing. I cannot believe it. Even Walt surviving, nothing is wrong with him. Physically, he doesn’t’ seem to have anything wrong with him.
Robyn and Ed take Christopher home on September 8, after he stays one night at Halifax hospital in Daytona. He can barely walk, so they carry him back and forth from his bed to the bathroom. He can’t put any weight on his legs because of the jellyfish stings. He’s dehydrated. He eats carrot sticks, bananas, pieces of chicken. They let him watch Disney movies, tuck him under his Tigger and Pooh bedsheets. Robyn goes in and sits beside him, asks him softly what he saw out there in the ocean, what it was like. Two days, and she asks him this several times, and finally he tells her: “It was dark.” A whole sentence.
Robyn and Ed have a beautiful home on a quiet street with a pool out back that Christopher can play in. The property is bolted down so tight, Christopher can never elope. The front and back doors have key locks on the inside as well as the outside. The garage is locked. There are locks on all the sliding doors. The house has an alarm system, with a chime function. This harkens to a prison. And then when you compare it to the wide open ocean, it’s quite the juxtaposition. But then, obviously, the home is the safe place for Christopher. This is also the first time we get a sense of Christopher’s life with his mother. It’s easy to say, I’m not going to side with anybody, but when you think about it, objectivity is a myth. I liked Walt. I didn’t really know Robyn and Ed very much. I personally felt like maybe keeping him locked in the house, and the language that I wrote it in, made it seem like it may not have been as humane as letting him experience the ocean. It does seem very locked down, in your description. But then you know what his mom has had to go through. She has gone through some stuff. I am not going to say that is the right way to do it or the wrong way. I wrote it in a way that was sort of diplomatic, but that is just how it was, that is how they are keeping him in the house.
When Robyn was living alone with Angela and Christopher, he was nearly impossible to care for, and as a single mother she felt she had no other choice but to put him in a place where other people could take care of him 24 hours a day. He got kicked out of day care because he bit other children. They had to put a harness on the bus for him, a five-point seat belt, because without it he’d run up and down the aisles, hitting students and even the driver. Christopher split his weekends between Robyn and Walt and stayed at the group home on weekdays.
When Robyn and Ed first saw Walt after the incident, it was on the dock, as he stepped off the coast guard boat; he was sunburned and babbling like a child. They didn’t have the energy to confront him, to yell at him, to tell him they had been right. They were just happy that Christopher was alive. Curious. Were they happy that Walt was also alive? You can infer. They’re not evil, but whatever, they care about whether Christopher is alive.
Three weeks after he comes home from the hospital, Christopher is named grand marshal of the parade at Disney World. Robyn and Ed make sure to keep a sharp eye on him the whole time and to hold his hand. He gets a Florida Safety Hero award. He gets to stand on the bridge of a coast guard cutter and pretend to drive.
In January, Walt moves to Vancouver, Washington, just across the bridge from Portland. Did you get the sense that Walt’s move was related at all to the incident and its fallout? He was doing contract work. I don’t think it had anything to do with it. He loves spending time with his kids and it’s a pain in the ass to go back and forth. He was taking work where he could get it. He takes a job contracting with the FDIC, closing a bank, for good money, and thus has to live so far away. He flies back to Florida on Friday evenings every two weeks just so he can spend a day and a half with Christopher and Angela before getting up at 4 a.m. on Mondays and flying back. When he drops Angela off at Robyn and Ed’s house, they do not wave at him as he leaves. Were you ever at the beach with him? We walked right up to the edge of the water where they got swept out. I wanted to go back out with them, to feel it, see it. I was feverishly writing in my notebook while we were there, see the jetty, the sky, what was the tide like, how is it different than what we’re looking at.
He lives in a hotel room, a suite with comfortable furniture and a nice bed, big wooden cabinets where he can store his things. He goes to the bank in the morning, watches cable in the hotel after work, and lounges around in his sweatpants and gray Columbia fleece pullover. He shares a white Pontiac Vibe hatchback with one of his co-workers. He’s a tall guy, 46 years old, a little pudgy, with high blood pressure.
In March, Walt goes to Florida and takes Christopher back out to the beach at Ponce Inlet. Were you there for this? If so, how did this happen? I said I would love to see where it happened. I didn’t force them to do it at all. They sit up in the front seat of the Celica listening to an audiotape of The Aristocats. Christopher eats a bag of Doritos Cool Ranch chips and, later, two McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, layer by layer. “Aaah, eeehh, uhhhhh!” he shouts, off and on.
They drive by the mall where he was found in the fountain with the pennies. “Wow, dude!” Walt says, looking into the empty bag. He leans in and puts his face right up to Christopher’s, almost touching his nose, and says, “You’re my best buddy.” Christopher giggles and then stares at the passing cars. Obviously this reads as if you are in the car, which reminds me of something Jim Sheeler says, and that’s to always get in the car. You also got in the car with Puddles the Clown. Is this an important thing for you to do when reporting, and if so, why? What do you get out of it as a reporter? I would love to write every story with so much access that I see everything happening in front of me. I wanted to be with them. This part of the story is my favorite part of the story because it’s like when you go back to real life from this amazing event and it’s so complicated and here is Christopher going back to that house and they tuck him in and do all this stuff and Walt goes back to this hotel room and it’s so beautifully messy to me. It’s so much more interesting to me than what happened in the ocean.
Christopher walks on the beach and looks around, then goes into a bathroom to put on his swim trunks. He dips his feet into the water, recoils upon discovering how cold it is. The waves press into the rocks, the jetty long and uneven out to the ocean. Christopher lies on his stomach in the sand, laughing.
But when Walt takes him back to the group home at around 9:30 that night, Christopher, who had been silent and mostly calm the entire day, looks at his father, then throws his cup of McDonald’s water at the car window. When Walt gets out of the car in front of the group home, Christopher runs into the empty street and sits on the concrete of the cul-de-sac, beneath the streetlight. He looks lost and frightened in the glow.
He starts hitting his head with his fists and shouting at the top of his lungs.
“Please, buddy, please,” Walt begs.
Walt puts his hands under Christopher’s arms and tries to stand him up. Christopher won’t budge. Walt’s voice quivers, “I know you don’t want me to leave, man, but I have to.”
He manages to stand Christopher upright and drag him about 20 feet toward the door of the home, and then Christopher jumps at him, sinks his teeth into Walt’s arm, so Walt lets go and falls halfway to the ground. It had been so easy to forget all day. Was Walt concerned with the fact that you saw all this, that this would probably be in the story? I almost dropped my notebook. I wanted to go help Walt, but I was just standing there like an idiot with my mouth open. I thought, this is real, this is very real. Christopher lashed out at him. He did not want him to go, and he bit him. That was unbelievable to me. It was an instance where everything we had talked about crystalized as being truthful, because I could not, after seeing that brief moment, I could not imagine what it was like to raise him. I can’t pretend to know what Walt goes through or what Robyn goes through. And you have to accurately portray that. I look back at this now, I almost want to end with this, “tears running down his face… “ instead of Christopher just stands there.
Walt cries out in pain.
“Why, Christopher, why?”
Tears are running down his face, with nothing but the back of his bitten arm to wipe them away.
Christopher just stands there.
Walt has tried to imagine what that night was like for Christopher. He has imagined it repeatedly, in his sleep, at his work, in his rented hotel suite with the curtains drawn, the empty plastic soup containers on the counter. He has imagined Christopher giggling and splashing, the fish touching his back and arms; Christopher staring in awe at the dolphin snouts and falling stars, soothed by the foam tops of the waves; has imagined the whole night was like this one big adventure, the biggest adventure Christopher will ever have in his life, floating on his back as the water warmed his ears, in wonder as the sounds changed beneath the surface; has imagined that those sounds captivated his son’s imagination, and that since Christopher loves to float and swim more than anything, perhaps he even had fun. And the phosphorescence, the most colorful thing, he hopes it passed his son in a trail on the top of the water, long and thin, sparkling there like something hopeful; prays that Christopher got to see it. He has to believe he did. He can just picture Christopher sticking his hand in the filmy substance, holding it up to the moonlight, slick and shiny and Disney green. In fact, he cannot bring himself to imagine anything else. Walt aches for the day, a day that will probably never come, when he’ll be able to actually talk to Christopher, and ask him about what he saw and what he felt and what he was thinking, how he survived. Why not end the story with the tears streaming down his face? Why add the epilogue? This gets back to the narrator part. Walt is a kind of an aloof guy, he’s kind of a kid, and the ending, when you hear this as one of Walt’s things that he tells himself, that it was okay for Christopher and he wasn’t scared and he loves the water, as a magazine writer, you can have the place to call bullshit. I wrote this end because this is a way for me to communicate that I do not agree with him. This builds up. He imagined Christopher giggling, and splashing, Disney sounds and colors. It had to be okay, and he can tell himself that. That last ending is like, right, it was dark, it was a nightmare, and that really is a magazine way of saying that here is how he looks at it. He probably did not enjoy that time, and it reveals a lot about how Walt is trying not to blame himself. That was my shot at saying that I disagree.
But really, all he can do is wonder.
What did Walt think of the story? At first he was like thank you so much, but he hadn’t read it. And then when he read it, he cussed me up and down and was angry, and then I asked him to read it again. What had happened was, he had also read, when this came out, Nieman Narrative did a thing and interviewed me, and I said one of the reasons I was drawn to this was the story was a hero went out to save his son, but that wasn’t the story, and he was upset that I had said he wasn’t a hero. He said I didn’t know anything about him and Christopher, and that is true, but then I talked to him, and he sent me a picture of Christopher last year. I have fond remembrances of them.