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Authors: Michael Farris Smith

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BOOK: Rivers: A Novel
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“Vegas, then. Or somewhere.”

“Yeah. Vegas. Hell yeah, let’s go to Vegas, like they’re gonna give me two hundred dollars for two dirty old chips from the shithole casino in Gulfport, Mississippi. Not to mention it’d cost me how much to get to Vegas? Spend three grand to cash in two hundred damn dollars. Hell, maybe I’ll just mail em to them and they can mail me back my money.”

The man put the chips back in his pocket and looked at his feet. He bit at the inside of his cheek. “I ain’t got no money this time,” he said. “I ain’t got nothing.”

Charlie propped his hands on his hips and walked a circle and then turned back and said, “I ain’t the Red Cross and I ain’t running no credit applications. You want something, you got to have money or something mighty fine to trade up. You got neither. Gimme them lanterns.” He didn’t wait for the man to hold them out but reached over and took them out of his hand. Then he scooped up the bag of batteries at his feet.
Charlie set two of the lanterns back in the box and he gave one back to the large man. Then he took two packs of batteries out of the plastic bag and handed them over.

“Take this shit and go on and you owe me next time. You got it?”

The man nodded and said I got it and then he turned and walked down the metal ramp that led in and out of the truck.

Charlie stepped to the edge and said, “Anybody else out there got anything other than money or trade needs to go on. I thought that was common knowledge.”

Two of the men in line stepped out and walked away.

Charlie looked to the back of the men and saw Cohen and waved at him. “Come on up here, Cohen. You ain’t got to wait.”

“Hell naw,” said the old man with the sign. “You know how far I had to walk to get here?”

“Take that stupid sign off and shut up. How long you gonna wear that thing?”

“I’m gonna wear it till I want to.”

“That don’t even make no sense.”

“Well, that don’t matter. I’m sick of standing in this rain.”

“Then dance around.”

Cohen walked past the line and set the empty gas cans down at the back of the truck. He walked up the ramp and shook hands with Charlie. Charlie looked at him sideways and said, “I see you still cuttin your own hair.”

Cohen nodded. “My beauty parlor is on vacation.”

“Same ol shit. I try harder and harder to get down here, though. Don’t never stop. Your house still standing?”

“Still standing.”

“I knew when your daddy built it that it’d take the damn apocalypse to knock it down. Me and ol Jimmy Smith stood there and made fun of him triple-stacking the frame, but he was like that third little pig, just kept on how he wanted.”

“I know it. Mom wanted it tall but he wouldn’t have that either.”

“Nope. You and that dog and that house are about like cockroaches.”

“Don’t jinx me.”

They stepped up into the back of the truck and Cohen looked around at the open boxes stretched across the floor, a small pathway made down the middle. At the front end of the truck was a small backhoe.

“What the hell’s that?” Cohen asked.

Charlie shrugged. “Don’t never know what you might need. Got a deal, anyways.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of them now.”

“One of them what?”

“You know what. Treasure hunter. Tomb raider. Whatever you wanna call it.”

“I ain’t no tomb raider ’cause there ain’t nothing but dead shit buried in a tomb. What I’m after is alive and kickin.”

“Come on, Charlie. You don’t believe that.”

“May or may not believe it but I’m gonna find out and that backhoe is the thing to do it.”

“Well, if it turns up, I want fifty percent off what’s in the back of this truck.”

“If it turns up, you can have this truck.”

Cohen shook his head and moved in between the boxes and said, “First off, I need some water and some liquor.”

“Got that,” Charlie said. “Back left.”

Cohen found a stack of cases of bottled water and he lifted two and brought them to the end of the truck. Charlie grabbed a fifth of Jim Beam from a box up front. “You need a bag?” he asked. Cohen nodded and Charlie gave him one and Cohen walked back down the middle. He picked up boxes of macaroni and cheese and packs of dried fruit and a carton of cigarettes. He asked Charlie if he had any chain-saw blades and Charlie pointed and Cohen found the box. He took two and then he asked about gas.

“Got a couple of full tanks in the truck cab. They only three gallons, though.”

“That’s fine. It’ll hold till next time.”

While Charlie got the gas, Cohen got two boxes of shells for the
shotgun and a box for the .22 and he took two bags of beef jerky. Charlie came back with the gas cans and told one of the gunmen to put them in the back of Cohen’s Jeep. Then he climbed back up into the truck and looked at all Cohen had gathered.

“This ain’t as much as usual,” Charlie said.

Cohen shrugged. “I don’t guess I need as much.”

Charlie frowned at him and said, “Why don’t you just come on and work for me. I told you a thousand times. Ain’t no reason to stay down here.”

Cohen didn’t answer. Shook his head with his lips together.

“You been hearing anything?” Charlie asked.

Cohen thought a second. Heard himself talking to Elisa. “No. About what? Who am I supposed to hear anything from?”

Charlie looked out of the back of the truck. Rubbed his hands together. “Nothing, really. Just wondered. You got a radio still?”

“Yeah, but it don’t pick up like it used to. Am I supposed to be hearing something, Charlie? About what you’re after maybe?”

Charlie turned back to him. “Not about that, Cohen. You know me and your daddy was friends for a long time. And he’d want me to tell you to get on out of here. When’s the last time the damn sun shined down here? Hell, anywhere?”

“I know what he’d say.”

“I know you got that place and all and I know it goes way on back with the family. I know you got them ghosts out there. But I don’t know about the rest.”

Cohen wiped the dampness from his face, then said, “It doesn’t matter.”

“There ain’t nothing to do down here but die, Cohen,” Charlie said, turning his back to the line of men and lowering his voice. “And it’s just gonna keep on.”

“From what I hear there ain’t nothing but hell at the Line anyway.”

“Wouldn’t nobody blame you for leaving,” Charlie said.

“Guess not. Ain’t nobody here.”

“You might think about moving on, Cohen. That’s all I’m saying.”


Charlie didn’t answer. He looked past Cohen out of the back of the truck.

Cohen reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. “How much I owe you?” he asked.

Charlie huffed. “Gimme forty,” he said.

“I know it’s more than that.”

Charlie reached down and picked up a couple of four-packs of the Ds and dropped them in Cohen’s bag. “No charge for these,” he said.

Cohen reached into his pocket and took out a hundred-dollar bill and gave it to Charlie. “I don’t need no change,” he said.

“Why the hell you do that?”

Cohen shrugged. “What else am I gonna do with it? Put whatever’s left toward one of them.”

Charlie took the bill and shook his head. “At least listen to the damn radio. You got a radio?”

“I got a radio,” Cohen said and he set the bags on top of the cases of water and picked it all up. Charlie slapped him on the back as he headed down the ramp.

“Come on up, old fellow,” Charlie said to the man with the sign.

“ ’Bout time,” he answered.

“Really? You want to move to the back?”

Cohen nodded to the muscle as he walked over to the Jeep. He set the water and bags in the backseat next to the two gas tanks and then he put his sock hat on. One more look back at the ocean and then he got in the Jeep and turned around and headed back in the other direction. The rain, for now, was tolerable, soft and steady, but the southeastern clouds seemed to be turning into great black mountains. When it was time to turn off the highway, he stopped and opened a bag of the beef jerky and drove on with it between his legs. A couple of miles along the highway, before he got back to where the water covered the road, he saw the boy and the girl again. Her arm draped around his neck like before. Her limping along and him helping. The sound of the
Jeep stopped them and they turned around to see what was coming and Cohen stopped again. He put the jerky on the floorboard and he took the shotgun from beneath the seat and then he drove on toward them. He knew they would wave him down and he knew better than to stop. As he approached, the boy moved the girl’s arm from around his neck and began waving and the girl doubled over.

Keep on going, he thought. Keep on going. Then the look on the face of the big man in the flannel shirt crossed his mind.
I ain’t got no money this time. I ain’t got nothing.

He slowed down. Rolled to a stop several car lengths from them. “Stay right there,” he called out.

The boy reached back out to the girl and she leaned on him. Her baseball hat was gone and her long black hair fell across her face and shoulders in a wet, tangled mess.

Cohen raised himself up to where he could talk to them over the windshield. Before he spoke, he gave them a careful look and they didn’t appear to have anything other than what they were wearing. The wind blew cold and the girl folded her arms and held herself.

“What you doing out here?”

“Walking,” said the boy.

“Where to? I don’t see nowhere you could be going.”

“We’re going to Louisiana,” the girl said, throwing her hair back off her face with a toss of her head.

“You got a good long ways to go,” Cohen said. He pointed out toward the water covering the road ahead and the land on either side of the road for as far as they could see. “That right there is good as a swamp.”

“We know it,” the boy said.

Cohen leaned over and spit on the ground. Then he sat back up and said, “You got something in Louisiana?”

“They got power over there, we heard,” the boy said. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and his shoulders were narrow even in the bulky letterman jacket.

“So,” Cohen said.

“So what do you care?” the girl snapped and she stood up straight.

“Hush,” the boy told her.

“You hush.”

“Y’all both hush. What’s wrong with her?”

“What you mean?” the boy asked.

“Why you dragging her along?”

“She got snakebit on her leg.”

Cohen rubbed at his rough beard. Watched their faces for any kind of strange look or movement. “Too cold for snakes. Has been for a while,” he said.

“It’s been a while. Back before it got cold. Look,” the boy said and he bent down and pushed the overcoat away from her leg and raised her pant leg. She was wearing tennis shoes with no socks and the area around her ankle looked like it had been poked with the tip of a knife.

“That ain’t a snakebite,” Cohen said.

“Hell it ain’t,” she answered and she pushed her pant leg back down. “It swelled up and won’t quit.”

“It ain’t swelled. And if it was, walking don’t help it,” Cohen said.

“Don’t nothing help it,” said the boy. “Nothing but a doctor. You seen one?”

Cohen shook his head. The three of them stared at each other. Cohen looked behind him to the east and those deep clouds were beginning to creep across the late-afternoon sky. Lightning flashed beneath them, a crooked sharp line that touched the horizon. There was maybe an hour of daylight left and it was getting colder.

Let them be, he thought.

Then the boy said, “I don’t guess you’d take us over the water.”

“If I take you over the water, I’ll have to keep on taking you.”

“No you won’t. Swear it.”

“Don’t beg him,” the girl said.

“I ain’t begging. I’m asking. What the hell.”

Cohen raised the sawed-off shotgun and showed it to them. “You see this?”

They nodded.

“You understand?”

“Yes sir,” the boy said. The girl didn’t answer.

“What about you, snakebite?” Cohen asked. “You understand?”

“I get it.”

“Across the water,” he said. “Across the water and then you get out.”

“That’s fine,” said the boy. “That’s all I’m asking. We just got to get to Louisiana.”

“Stop saying that,” Cohen said. “Don’t know who you been talking to. That water over there you’re wanting to get across is about half as deep as the same water all of Louisiana is under. Now wait right there.”

He climbed down out of the Jeep and rearranged the gas cans and plastic bags and cases of water so that one of them could sit in back. He then took the boxes of shells and the chain-saw blades out of the bag and slid them way up under the driver’s seat. When he was done, he waved them over and the girl limped alongside the boy without his help. Cohen pointed at the boy and told him to sit up front and put her in the backseat. The boy helped her up over the side of the Jeep and she shifted around in the seat to unwind the coat and then he got in the passenger seat. When Cohen was happy with the way they were sitting, he climbed behind the wheel. He now had to shift gears with the same hand that held the shotgun and he didn’t like the loose grip but the decision had been made and they moved on.

He turned his head and told the girl to get them some water and she tore the plastic wrapping off the bottles and handed one up to the boy. They drank like thirsty animals and had each killed a bottle before they got to the water’s edge. Cohen told her to take a couple out and put them in the pockets of that coat and she did.

The Jeep crept through the pondlike water. He had to watch the road ahead and maintain a grip on the shotgun and keep an eye on them. The boy reached down and took the bag of jerky off the floorboard and asked if he could have some and Cohen told him to take it. The boy handed a few strips to the girl and they chewed and chewed
as the Jeep made small waves across the flooded land. Halfway across, the boy turned and seemed to say something to the girl and Cohen told him to face the front and don’t look back there no more. He then told the girl to keep her eyes ahead, too. The gearshift shook some in the steady low gear and knocked against the barrel of the gun and he had to squeeze his thumb and forefinger tightly to keep from dropping it. They moved on, the deepest part behind them, and they were beginning to climb when the boy turned and looked at the girl again and Cohen slammed on the brakes and the jerk caused the water to splash into the floor of the Jeep. He stuck the shotgun under the boy’s chin.

BOOK: Rivers: A Novel
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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