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Authors: Michael Farris Smith

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BOOK: Rivers: A Novel
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He walked out in the rain to the muddy road with his arms folded and his hands tucked under his arms. His clothes were still damp and he couldn’t have spit if he’d wanted to. His mouth was dry and his throat tender, the muscles of his stomach and chest tight as he shook from the fever and he wanted to run but knew better. Things moved in the brush, startling him and startled by him. At the end of the road he knelt and rested for few minutes and then he got up and kept on, the walking easier along the two-lane highway, out of the mud and puddles.

He walked on. An hour behind him and he hoped he was halfway.
At a gathering of honeysuckle along the fencerow, he stopped and put his face into it and opened his mouth and shook the bushy vine. The rainwater splattered onto his face and tongue and he lapped like a desperate dog at the cold, refreshing drops. The water from the leaves ran down into his mouth and throat and momentarily relieved the fever and he moved along the fencerow, doing the same thing with anything leafy that would shake, and then he sat down for another few minutes before walking again. Another hour and he could see his road up ahead and his pace quickened as he thought of the bottles of water and the dry clothes and the bottle of aspirin and the dry place to lie down. He moved in some half-walk, half-run, gimpy and awkward with his wet, numbed feet but driven by the thought of home. He came to his road and hurried across the red mud, sloshing along as fast as his worn body would take him, and then there was the house and he almost cried out in relief but as he got to the driveway and saw the tire tracks and the front door open his anticipation quickly turned again to despair.

He stopped in the front yard. Watched and listened.

Then the dog stuck its head out of the front door and he walked on up. The dog met him at the steps and he touched its head as he walked past and into the house.

In the front room, the cot and the blankets were gone and the closet door was open and the .22 and the black raincoat were gone. The electric heaters that he ran off the generator to keep warm were gone. He limped on into the kitchen and the cooler that had been filled with water bottles was not there and the upper cabinets had been cleaned out. Every can. Every box of anything. He got down on his knees and opened the bottom cabinets and what little there was in them remained, including a dozen or so bottles of water, and he opened one and drank and drank and when it was done he tossed it aside and he opened another and did the same. He found a few ounces of whiskey in a long-forgotten pint bottle and he opened it and took a swallow and it burned and warmed. He took another swallow and it twisted his face and then he sat on the floor and let the whiskey settle all the way
through him. He looked again through the lower cabinets and there was nothing to eat as he had put all the food up high to keep it safe. He stood and opened the drawer where he kept medicine and bandages and antibiotic ointment and other pills and creams and it was emptied but for half a bottle of aspirin that had slid to the back. With his hands shaking he managed to get the top off and he shoved a handful of the chalky tablets into his mouth and chased them down with several gulps of water.

The shivering now at its height, he walked back into the front room and took off his clothes while the dog watched him and then he walked naked to the hall closet where he found that some but not all of his clothes were gone. He took out a pair of jeans and socks and two long-sleeve shirts and he put it all on and then he looked down the hallway. The drywall that he had used to cover up the entrances to the bedrooms had been busted and pulled away from the frame. He cussed himself for putting up and puttying the drywall but then not finishing it. What the hell good did it do to make a wall to hide a room if you’re not gonna finish the damn wall. No good, that’s what. He went back into the front room and put on the wet boots and then he walked down the hallway, stepping across and kicking at the broken drywall, and he stopped in the dark doorway of the bedroom that he and Elisa had shared.

There was a musty smell as the room had been closed up for over two years. He walked in and the drawers to the dresser had been pulled out and her clothes that remained lay scattered across the floor. He knelt in the midst of the clothes, the gray light coming through the sheer curtains and around him like a cloud and holding him like some nameless black-and-white character from an old movie. He picked up one of her gowns, silk and silver, and he felt its softness in his rough fingertips. Touched it against his damp, hot forehead as if it had the power of remedy.

He set the gown on the floor and picked up and put down her other things—a bra and her T-shirts and black stockings and red panties. He picked them up slowly and held each garment and set it down just as slowly, as if they were dead, dry leaves that could crumble with the
slightest force. He got up from his knees and saw their fingerprints and handprints across the top of the dresser in the filthy, almost slick film that had settled over the room during its closure, and then he noticed the cobwebs stretched across the blades of the ceiling fan. He moved across the room, stepping around the bed that had been stripped of its comforter and sheets, and he sat down on the bare mattress and saw on the top of the nightstand more traces of their hands. Her wooden jewelry box had been opened and turned over and there was nothing left. The engagement ring and the wedding band and earrings and necklaces were gone and he pictured them in the hands of strangers. People who thought no more of what belonged to her than they thought about rocks in a gravel road. He picked up the empty jewelry box and closed the lid and held it on his lap and tried to force himself into a good memory but all he could think of were those strangers who had taken what he had left of her and who had taken everything else they could take and who were probably unloading and planning to come back and take the rest.

He held the jewelry box on his lap and he swung his legs up onto the mattress and he leaned back and stretched out. He wanted to sleep. Needed to sleep. Needed to lie still and let the aspirin help chase the fever. Needed to drink water and eat something and rest until he was strong again but he knew that he didn’t have that option. They would be back and there might be more of them and they had his guns and his Jeep and he didn’t have anything. The dog wandered into the bedroom and sniffed at the clothes on the floor and then looked around as if to say, I didn’t think this woman lived here anymore.

He closed his eyes. Wanted to sleep and one day wake up and this life would be a different life. The dog walked around to his side of the bed and lay down beneath him. They both lay still for several moments as if the day belonged to them. At the edge of sleep, Cohen made himself sit up, and he put the jewelry box back onto the nightstand next to the picture of them waist-deep in a blue ocean. He picked up the frame and opened the back and he took out the picture and held it close to his eyes. Touched his fingertips to the faces of another time. He folded the
picture in half and he stood and put it in his back pocket and then he got down on his knees and said, “Be there.”

He bent over and looked under the bed and the shoe box was gone and he yelled goddamm it and pounded his fist on the floor. Bent over and pressed his head against the floor and pounded at it and yelled out over and over again. Goddamm it, goddamm it, goddamm it.

He sat doubled over for a minute and then one more pound at the floor and he got up and walked over to the closet. The sliding doors were open and they had taken the things that held warmth. Her coats and her sweatshirts and her jeans. The dresses remained. The summer dresses that once hung delicately on her tanned body. The black thing that she wore with grace when they buried someone they had known. The other thing that she wore that gave away the freckles between her breasts. He looked away from her clothes to his side of the closet and he looked down and noticed an old pair of work boots that he had forgotten. He picked them up. Black and dusty and steel-toed and dry. He tucked them under his arm and he ran his hand along the length of one of her dresses and then he walked out of the room and down the hallway and stepped inside the other room.

It had been an office until the news of the baby and then it had become a shared room for all, a place to keep things until her room was finished. The dresser had been opened up and some of the tiny clothes had spilled out onto the floor. He walked over and put down his boots. He knelt and picked up each small sock or nightshirt and folded it neatly and put it back in the dresser. Two drawers had been filled in anticipation, Elisa unable to go anywhere without picking up some little hat or pair of tiny slippers. Unable to stop thinking about it, smiling as she’d come home with something else, him smiling back and making fun. He closed the dresser drawers and stood. Empty picture frames on top of the dresser. A lamp with a giraffe lampshade. A piggy bank that he raised and shook and the coins rattled. He set it back down and walked over to the closet. The door open and his two suits hanging there, next to them a gathering of tiny pink hangers. Toys in boxes on the floor. A stack of colorful books on the top shelf.

He stepped back. Stood in the middle of the room. It felt as though a great hole might open up beneath him and swallow him into the earth and he wished that such a thing were possible.

He stood there, still and insignificant, with unfocused eyes.

Minutes later, he walked back to the dresser and opened the drawer and took out a pair of the tiny socks and stuck them in the front pocket of his jeans. Then he picked up his boots and left the room.

He sat down on the floor in the front room and took off the wet boots and put on the dry ones and tied double knots. Then he walked outside to look for Habana and the dog followed him.

At the back of the house he expected to find her door open and he was right. He looked inside the converted family room and was surprised to see her saddle and bridle there. He called out and whistled for her as he looked across the back fields. He asked the dog where she was but the dog didn’t answer. He walked out into the backyard and stepped across the mangled barbed-wire fence and he stood out in the field with his hands on his hips and turned in a circle, calling for her and looking for her and hoping she would appear from somewhere along the tree line once she knew it was him. “Go look for her,” he said to the dog, but the dog stayed at his side. He called for her three times more and then he walked back to the house shaking his head as he looked for what might have been left outside. Below the kitchen window he found the generator and he was certain now that they would be back. That they had put everything they could into the Jeep and were unloading and coming back for the rest. Nobody left a generator.

The dog barked and Cohen turned and looked and Habana was walking across the field toward them. He walked out to meet her and he stroked her neck and then he hugged her. With her mane across his face, he began to cry a tearless cry, short rhythmic pulses of hurt. He held on to her and his body shook and the hacking sound of anger and pleading came from his mouth and the horse stood still for him as if she understood. A passive sunshine bled through the veiled sky and found them and he held on and cried as they stood together in the soft, wet
ground and then when he was done he raised up and told her not to ever tell anybody what had just happened. Don’t know what somebody might say if they knew about this. Promise me, he said and in her large glassy eyes he saw that he could trust her. He sniffed and then he spit and then they walked back toward the house. The dog had waited in the backyard and watched them and Cohen tried to swear the dog to secrecy as well but the dog turned and twitched its tail as if it were jealous that it hadn’t been included.

He put the saddle and bridle on Habana and left her grazing in the backyard and he started walking out across the back field. A hundred yards away was the tree line and he splashed his way there, the ground sucking at his feet. The trees had the look of losing the fight, some splintered, some on the ground with their massive roots reaching out like flailing arms, some sagging from the rain like old men. Scattered around in the trees were two-by-fours from his efforts with the child’s room. He walked to the base of a fractured oak to the two tombstones. Only one body but two tombstones.

He knelt in the wet earth.

Around him the blue-gray world. The world that he tried to hold on to, that he tried to keep alive with the old colors. The gray world that he didn’t think could win but was winning.

He stared at Elisa’s tombstone. Only her name and the dates of her birth and death. He stared at the baby’s tombstone. Only her name.

The stones were slick, splashed with dirt and wet leaves. Cohen leaned forward and with his hand he wiped them clean. Once he had walked out to the graves with a hammer and chisel with plans of carving a cross for each of them, but when he got there, he changed his mind. The rain tapped and the sky rumbled.

She was difficult to see now. She had been for a while. Even the photographs seemed to change her image, shifting her eyes and ears and nose slightly, making her out to be a little different than the way she was. She appeared most clearly in his subconscious. In the dreams. As an apparition shifting with the clouds or flashing in the lightning
crashes. Her voice in the thunder or the drone of the rain. He leaned over and pushed his fist into the soggy ground and wondered if she were even there. If he started to dig, whether he would hit a casket, whether she would be in it if it was there, or was there only a bottomless, muddy hole where she used to be and a wet earth that would suck at his feet and drag him down, farther and farther from the surface into a never-ending tunnel of mud, an earth soaked to its core and slowly devouring itself.

He pushed his fists into the ground and they sank and the brown water covered his knuckles and he felt there was nothing there, only this wet, sucking ground that had taken everything he had loved. And what had he loved? He had loved the sweet, sticky ocean breeze and swimming in the ocean and the salty taste on his lips and the gritty feel of the sand on his hands and feet. He had loved the pier on Friday nights and the buckets of wings and ribs and bottled beer and the two guys with the guitars who played Buffett and Skynyrd and Steve Earle and whoever else you called out. He had loved the bush hog and its rhythm and cutting in the hot-ass sun in July and sweating until he couldn’t sweat anymore and the neat rows he cut and the nameless cows and their calves that had fed off their land. He had loved the girl with the red toenails and their quiet spot along the gravel road and what they had discovered together in the summer nights with the windows down and the mosquitoes at their bare bodies. He had loved baseball practice and the thwack of the ball coming off the bat and sliding headfirst and the ridiculous dugout conversations and winning. He had loved the sting of a sunburn. He had loved the blooming dogwood trees in the sprawling lawns of the antebellum homes in Biloxi. He had loved riding up and down Highway 90 with a cooler of beer and two or three buddies and all the bullshit they fed one another and cranking up the radio to the hair metal. He had loved the excitement of the coast once the casinos started going up and he had loved the jingle-jangle of the slot machines and the free drinks you got while playing blackjack and he had loved the long-legged waitresses in the fishnet stockings who brought them to you. He had loved the first warm day and smell of her
suntan lotion and he had loved taking a blanket to the beach at night and her falling asleep with her head on his chest and the way the stars looked as he held his hand on her back and felt her breathing. He had loved marrying her in bare feet, standing on the dock with the ocean out before them. He had loved the buildings that he framed and he had loved going to the cooler he kept in the back of the truck at the end of a long, hot day and the sound the beer can made when he popped it open. He had loved the gleam in her eyes when she came out of the bathroom and nodded and said you’re gonna be a daddy and he had loved that she wasn’t scared of the storms and he promised her he would stick it out because this is our home and it can’t last forever and he had loved sitting on the living room floor and thinking about baby names. He had loved that it was going to be a girl.

BOOK: Rivers: A Novel
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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