Read The Banks of Certain Rivers Online

Authors: Jon Harrison

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Drama & Plays, #United States, #Nonfiction

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I run along the edge of the water, where it’s easy in the firm,
damp sand, skipping between scalloped terraces demarcated by pebbles,
seaweed and the occasional gull-pecked fish carcass. To my right is
Lake Michigan, the mighty inland sea, a deep greenish-blue all the
way to the horizon. North Manitou Island is out there too, a verdant
hump poking up through the whitecaps in the distant haze. And to my
left, rising from behind the dunes as I close in on Leland’s
resort, is the red-girdered skeleton of some new building, abandoned
by its workers for the weekend, left with only a silent bulldozer and
a couple port-a-johns for company. Ahead, there’s a man talking
animatedly on a cell phone. He’s maybe ten years older than me,
wearing shorts and leather sandals and a watch with a thick stainless
band. He’s a little higher up on the bank, and he stares right
at me as I approach him.

“Hold on a second,” he says into the phone. “Hold
on.” The man holds his phone down at his side, and I notice a
cigar in his other hand.

“Hey!” he calls. “Runner guy! I used to be just
like you!”

I can’t help but smile as I go by him; I think: really?

“All the time I was like you! Don’t take things so
serious, runner guy!”

I raise my hand in a wave as I pass, and he starts to chatter away
again on his phone. Do I look so serious? Does it show in my face?

Past the cell phone man, further south on the shore, I’m into
the more finished part of the resort. A pair of three-story condo
buildings frame what looks like a clubhouse or restaurant; out in
front there’s some sort of nautical pennant flapping from a
tall pole stayed like a ship’s mast. A gardener is working, but
that’s the only other sign of life I can see nearby. It’s
a perfect day but all the decks and patios are empty before dark
sliding-glass doors; are any people living up in those places?

These thoughts are easy. They’re nothing. They go perfectly
with running; they’re just what I need. Further down the beach
now, and I’m at the Little Jib River, the muddy waterway
marking the boundary between Leland’s development and the
northern end of the Olsson property. It’s a minor river, more
like a big creek, really, and three more ‘NO TRESPASSING’
signs face over the streambed into the orchard’s parcel as if
perhaps Leland thinks I might be assembling a band of marauders to
come and raid his little village. I think for a second it would be
funny to stop and turn the signs back so they’re facing him,
but I don’t. I can’t threaten this hard-won rhythm.

Little Jib is barely flowing this late in the year, and I shuffle
down the loose bank and manage to hop across from cobble to cobble
without wetting my shoes before bounding up the opposite side and
setting off again at an easy pace along the lakeshore. There’s
a feeling of wildness at this end, the northern end, of our beach.
The brush seems heavier, the shoreline more littered with driftwood.
Like it’s been for years. Tiny plovers chirp and scatter over
the sand as I approach, resisting flight as long as they possibly can
before I’m too close and they’re forced to lift off in a
chittering frenzy.

Another half mile and I’m at the beach house. Carol’s
brother Arthur has been staying here this summer, as he has for the
past few years. He takes care of the cottage, he and his latest wife,
and he checks in on Carol. He’s good backup for me. Uncle Art’s
car is gone, but I see he’s pulled the shutters out from under
the deck to get ready to board the place up for the winter. I’d
stop to go in, but there’s rhythm to be lost, and anyway, going
inside can make me react in unexpected ways. The beach house is heavy
with memories.

I glance at the windows as I pass, and run on.

My family started renting
the Olsson cottage when I was twelve years old, the summer after
Michael and I finished sixth grade. One of our father’s
colleagues from the economics department at Michigan State turned him
on to it. It was just about a four-hour drive from our house in
Lansing, and we rented it that first summer for two weeks and again
for four weeks every July after that until Mike and I graduated from
high school.

Our explorations of the dunes those first two summers stayed close to
the beach house. Mike and I would swim, shoot cans up in the sandy
brush with the pump-action BB gun we found under the deck, or argue
over who got the top bunk in the back room where we slept. A couple
times a week we’d spend the day with our big brother Teddy
heaping driftwood into a massive pile on the beach; if the weather
held into the evening our father would spritz the bleached wood with
charcoal lighter fluid and set the thing ablaze, creating an inferno
we imagined to be visible all the way across the lake in Milwaukee.
Sometimes Dick and Carol Olsson would come over and the grownups
would chat up on the deck, mixing cocktails while we kids ran circles
around the flames.

The third summer we came up, the summer before Michael and I entered
high school, our explorations expanded. Teddy had turned eighteen and
wanted less to do with his two little brothers; he’d made some
friends his age in Port Manitou and wasn’t around very much. As
it was, we were pretty good at getting into trouble on our own.
Michael and I explored Little Jib River, sending branches floating
off in its current toward the great lake, or ambushing each other
from hiding spots along its banks. Our father at some point informed
us that “Jib” was a shortening of the tribal name
“Ojibwa,” and we spooked ourselves by imagining we were
being spied upon through the cedar woods by hidden native eyes.

Not far from where the river disgorged its roiled waters into Lake
Michigan, Michael and I discovered a cinderblock pump house
half-buried in a dune up the shore. A corner of its corrugated metal
roof was missing and it was filled with rusted iron pipes and valves.
Inside, someone had scrawled the word ‘PUSSY’ on the wall
with the end of a charred stick. Aside from confusing us somewhat,
the graffiti gave a daring credibility to the space that our fourteen
year-old selves loved. The pump house became our base of operations.

One day, in the second week of our stay that year, Mike and I were
running past the cottage when our mother called to us from up on the
deck.

“Boys! Mrs. Olsson has some linens for us. Can you pop over and
get them for me?”

We said sure; the Olssons’ house was more than a mile away, and
Mike and I had never made the trip over the dunes and through their
orchard by ourselves. It would be an adventure. My brother and I took
off at a run, making a race of it. I left Mike in the dust. I
remember how the cherry trees, arranged in perfectly straight rows,
smelled like summer, and how I swung my arms and shouted taunts at my
brother. Mike’s a slowpoke. Mike sucks. I came through a pine
woods and out into a large, mowed field. I ran, laughing, shouting
“Mike sucks!” over and over while grasshoppers sprang
forth from the cropped stubble ahead of me.

Then I stopped in my tracks.

A girl, my age, stood with a soccer ball at her feet next to a red
pole barn at the far edge of the field. She wore blue athletic shorts
and a baggy yellow tee shirt, and had knobby knees, short dark hair
and a splatter of freckles over the tops of her cheeks and the bridge
of her nose. She stood there, staring at me, and I stared back. Mike
ran up, panting, and stopped to stare at her too. The three of us
looked at each other, saying nothing, before Mike finally elbowed me
and we continued on around the barn to the Olssons’ house.

“Who was that?” Michael asked in a low voice as we
slipped away from the girl’s stare.

“No idea,” I whispered back.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Why didn’t you?”

We climbed the front steps of the farmhouse, and Carol Olsson greeted
us at the door. She loaded Mike’s arms with a pile of folded
sheets and mine with a cardboard box.

“There’s stuff for the kitchen in there,” she told
me before sending us off. “Be careful with it now, some of it’s
glass.”

We nodded and thanked her, and started back. We passed the pole barn
slowly this time, peering around the corner. Now the girl kicked the
ball into the wall of the barn. She stopped it with her foot when it
bounced back, and kicked it again. She didn’t seem to look at
us as we continued by.

“Hey,” she called without looking up. We froze. “Do
you guys play soccer?”

“I do!” Mike said, his voice maybe an octave higher than
usual. He dropped the sheets to the grass and ran over to her, and
she passed him the ball. “I’m going to play varsity next
year.” He dribbled the ball around her, showing off, before
passing it back. He was really good at soccer. I was not.

“What grade will you be?” the girl asked him.

“Freshman. What about you?”

“Same.”

The girl tapped the ball to me, and I—still holding a box of
clanking kitchen utensils—kicked it with about as much finesse
as I would have used to put my foot through a rotten pumpkin. The
ball sailed over my brother’s head and off into the pine trees.

“Nice one, jerkoff,” Mike said, and my face went hot. He
started after the ball, and the girl walked over to me.

“What about you?” she asked. I was glad she didn’t
call me jerkoff too.

“Me? I don’t really play soccer. Not like my brother
does, anyway. He goes to the camps and everything.”

“I used to go to the camps. This is the first summer I haven’t.
But I mean what grade will you be in?”

“Oh!” My face went hotter. I clutched the cardboard box
against my chest. “Ninth also.”

“Are you guys twins?”

“No. He’s five months older.”

She cocked her head. “How does that work?”

“I’m adopted.”

“You guys look so alike, though.”

“A lot of people say that.”

“Well if you don’t do soccer, what do you do?”

“I….” I was flustered by the sudden change in
subject. Maybe she sensed my discomfort, but I was grateful she
didn’t press. I wasn’t so good at explaining it. “I
run track. But I don’t know if I’m going to do it next
year.”

“You should. Because I run too.” She smiled, and I held
the box tighter. “Four hundred and eight hundred.”

“I’m more of a long distance guy,” I said. Mike
dribbled the ball back to us across the field, and nudged it to over
the girl with the side of his foot.

“Way to go, you totally got it stuck in a prickle bush,”
he said. He held out his arms to show us the scratches covering them.

“Aw, did Super Soccer Guy get all scratched up in the bushes?”
the girl said. Now Mike’s face flushed.

“I think we need to get back,” he said, gathering up the
tangle of linens from the ground and looking away so she wouldn’t
see his red cheeks.

“See you,” the girl said. She went back to kicking her
ball.

Michael tried to smooth out the stack of sheets as we crossed the
field. When we got back into the pines, he asked: “So, what’s
her name?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Why didn’t you ask?”

“Why didn’t
you
ask? And why did you have to go
and call me jerkoff, Super Soccer Guy?”

“Shut up. I’m sorry.”

“All right.”

A week passed without us seeing the girl again. We didn’t talk
about her, Mike and I, but we did keep asking if there was anything
else our mom needed from the Olssons. After making the tenth or maybe
the twentieth query on this, our sixteen year-old sister finally
called us on it.

“They just want an excuse to go see Wendy Olsson,”
Kathleen crowed from a folding deck chair, sneering from behind her
trashy paperback.

“We do not!” I managed, while Michael simultaneously
exclaimed: “You know her name?”

“You’re busted,” our sister said.

We were busted. And now that she had a name, it seemed that we could
discuss her openly between ourselves. We’d walk along the
beach, trying to top each other, Wendy-this and Wendy-that. Mike
liked to remind me that Wendy loved soccer, and I’d remind him
she ran as well. Despite these two facts being pretty much the only
concrete things we knew about her—aside from her freckles, dark
hair and bony knees—we did everything short of outwardly
professing our love for her.

One night, a bonfire night, we were astonished to see that Wendy
Olsson herself had accompanied her parents over to the beach house.
She took a seat in the sand down next to Kathleen and proceeded to
completely ignore us. The two of them sat together most of the night
as Mike and I lurked around the fire, and when she left she didn’t
even say goodbye to us.

After, while we got ready for bed, our sister poked her head into our
room. “Way to go, dolts,” she said. “I mean, hello?
She was there, waiting, for like two hours. You could have done
something more than stare. Are you guys idiots?”

We returned to our plotting, spending long strategy sessions in the
pump house up the beach. Teddy could buy beer then (the drinking age
had not yet been raised to 21), and we’d sometimes pilfer a can
from the stash in his room to choke down over our planning. They
always seemed to affect me more than Michael, and he’d often
mention how red my face would turn over our scheming. And how we
schemed. Should one of us ask her to take a walk? Did we dare try to
kiss her? Michael said he wanted to try to bring Wendy to the pump
house to ‘do it;’ I said no way, that wouldn’t be
classy at all. In truth, I’d had the same idea, even if I
wasn’t entirely clear on all the mechanics involved if I were
to try to ‘do it’ myself. Those things could be figured
out when I came to them.

The next time Wendy showed up, a week or so later, we made more of an
effort. We grabbed badminton racquets from the back closet in the
cottage, and the three of us swatted a shuttlecock through the
settling dusk by the lakeside. Wendy, laughing, lobbed the bird out
into the water, and Michael, ever eager to please, rolled up the legs
of his jeans to wade out and fetch it.

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