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 know it couldn’t really have been that way, but right here on
the ground, reconstructing it all, that was how it seemed.

The first week of school had been completed, and I have to say there
too, I had no complaints. I’d been scheduled to teach one
regular physics class in the mornings, along with a third period
Algebra II class (filling in for a long-open vacancy in the math
department) and almost all of the kids turned in my first homework
assignment. While I hadn’t yet looked closely enough to gauge
the quality of the work, the fact that so many of them made the
effort to get it back to me on time seemed to bode well for my
prospects of happiness this fall. My afternoon class, my dream class,
was advanced placement physics, populated by seventeen motivated
upperclassmen with little apparent propensity for drama or slacking.
All signs pointed to a very enjoyable semester.

We were breathing easy.

Kevin Hammil, the district’s brand-new,
fresh-out-of-student-teaching high school biology teacher, had joined
us on our run. He’s from somewhere in Texas, a former
All-American middle-distance runner in college, and so far seems to
be a pretty good guy; he’s soft-spoken with perpetually knit
eyebrows and a Grizzly Adams beard that offsets his lean runner’s
form. He’ll be assistant coaching boys’ track in the
spring, and he’d offered to help the cross-country coaches with
stretching and weights this fall. I was glad to have him along, and
my runners seemed glad too.

To my side as we trotted down Pine Avenue and onto the bike path
along the northern bank of the Big Jib River, flowing through the
guts of our empty town, I caught a smirk from one of my AP seniors,
Cassie Jennings.

“I heard they fed the python yesterday, Mr. Hammil,” she
said, trying to keep a straight face. Cassie finished sixth overall
at the state cross country championship last season, and seeing how
comfortably she ran today, I don’t think a top three finish is
unreasonable to expect from her this year.

Kevin swung his head side to side like a sad dog. “They fed
him, all right. You know what the best thing to do with that snake
would be?” He spoke in an earnest drawl, staring ahead through
his gait. “Y’all know what we should do with that snake?”

It’s all coming back to me. Trees bent through a short gust off
the lake. Leaves rattled and fell into the river, gulls wheeled in
the air. We were flying.

Jenny Cohn, a new sophomore who apparently hadn’t yet heard any
of my new colleague’s vocal complaints about the ten-foot long
reptile sharing his classroom, took the bait. “What’s
that, Mr. Hammil?”

“We should have him made into a nice pair of boots. Snakeskin
boots. No, come on now, don’t give me that look. A gorgeous
pair of—”

“Ew,” one of the girls said. They all laughed, and I
heard Jenny call: “It’s just a stupid snake!”

“All right, just a snake. You take him, then. Any one of you.
Take him, put him in your room for a while. Lying around all day,
looking at you with that mean snake face. Gives me the willies every
morning. And what’s-his-name, that goofball, snake wrangler,
whatever he is, butting in on my class to throw a damn chicken in
there—”

The girls laughed harder, and I interrupted them with a wide left
turn. “This way, guys,” I called. “Over the bridge.
Down Lake Street.” I sensed the growing mirth over Mr. Hammil’s
genuine discomfort displacing the wonderful rhythm we’d
established; funny or not, I knew I needed to squash it right then.

“Let’s pick it up a bit for the last mile,” I said.
“Cassie, pace us in. Once around the athletic fields. Amy?”
I looked around for Amy Vandekemp, a junior who seems to have
exchanged last year’s knock-kneed gawkiness for a much-matured
stride and an over-serious demeanor. “Amy, get up front and
bring us in with Cassie.”

There was a collective snicker as Amy came up through the bunch of us
to take her place at the head of the group, and as she passed I saw
why: a gull had scored a direct white-and-green hit down the back of
Ms. Vandekemp’s tee shirt. She seemed oblivious to the laughter
(and bird shit), and I wondered if I should ask Cassie after practice
just what the rest of the team thought of this kid.

The girls quieted down with their increased effort, and we heard
nothing beyond the collective rasp of harder breathing over the wind
and leaves. “Pick it up, pick it up,
pick it up!

I called from the end of our accelerating column. Kevin rose into an
easy sprint to fly ahead of the group in the last couple hundred
yards before circling around us as we loped into the student parking
lot.

“Nice job, ladies!” he hollered, oblivious to the look I
shot him for stealing my line.

“Very nice run,” I said, clearing my throat. “Thank
you all for the great effort.” I meant it, too. One of my
sophomores bent over gasping with her hands on her knees, and I
patted her shoulder as I passed. “Keep moving, Sarah. Walk
through it.” Kevin nodded at me, happy with the workout, and I
nodded back. I haven’t had the heart to tell him that, less
than a week into the school year, he and his beard have already
acquired the campus-wide nickname of “Hammil the Mammal.”
I don’t think I could keep a straight face if I told him
anyway.

We gathered in a loose bunch around the open hatch of Cassie
Jennings’ old Subaru wagon—one of the few cars remaining
in the student parking area—where a big Igloo cooler filled
with ice water sat on the weedy cracked pavement. A low laughing
sounded from the row of cedar trees at the other side of the lot, and
I glanced over to see a group of what I assumed to be football
players horsing around after their practice. They must have been
junior varsity players, I figured, because most everyone else
involved with football had convoyed away hours earlier for tonight’s
big away game in Grayling. Kevin clapped his hands. “All right
ladies, I’m doing a voluntary weights session in—”
I raised my hand to him and shook my head, and he made a
mock-chastened face.

“Hold up, there, Mr. Hammil. Settle down.” The girls
giggled, and it dawned on me that my new twenty-something,
VW-camper-van-driving colleague might be the object of some crushes.
I’ll have a word with him on this, later, but I’m sure he
already got
that
memo. “Couple things before we go.
Again, great job today. Thanks. I want you to get out for an easy day
tomorrow if you can, and take Sunday off. Rest day. Mr.
Hammil”—another giggle—“has offered to help
us out with some strength training. Totally voluntary, but I’d
encourage you all to take advantage of it. Have a great weekend, be
safe, take it easy if you’re driving over to watch the game
tonight. I’ll see you all Monday afternoon.” The girls
began to chatter, some said goodbye to me, and Kevin started jogging
in place.

“Girls!” he shouted. “Auxiliary gym! Ten minutes!
See you there!” He clapped his hands again—one, two,
three times—and ran off.

Most of the team followed Mr. Hammil in a gossipy shuffle, and I hung
back to wait for a chance to chat with Cassie while she loaded the
cooler back into her car. Amy Vandekemp stayed behind too, looking
like she wanted to have a word with me as well. But I wanted to talk
to Cassie alone, so I started to suggest to Amy how
beneficial
weight training might be for a developing runner like herself. Before
I really had a chance to say anything, though, a cloud came over us
from the other side of the parking lot: a sudden aggression, a
barking shout, from the group of boys whom I’d mostly
forgotten. They’d circled up around a scuffling pair, or maybe
it was three of them; in any event, their lusty chant of “
Fight!
Fight! Fight!
” showed they’d obviously forgotten
about me too.

“Guys!” I shouted, taking off in a run toward the little
mob scene. “Hey!
Hey!
” It took a couple long
seconds to cross the lot, and the circle parted for my entry just as
one of the kids—a chubby, freckled little punk—lifted
himself from the adversary he’d been pinning to the pavement.
The freckled kid merged into the bunch, and I held up my hands.
“Let’s cool it down,” I said, turning to see them
all, keeping my voice level. “Bring it down a notch. Okay?”
They were all underclassmen, and I didn’t recognize a single
one. Their expressions ranged between frustration at interrupted
bloodlust to worry that they were somehow in serious trouble. None of
them seemed very eager to talk.

“So?” I asked. “What’s going on?” I
knew about scuffles; they weren’t in any trouble. I’d
make them think they were, at least for a little bit, then send them
off with a warning.

One of them started to speak, but stopped. “What’s that?”
I asked. Nothing. “Nobody wants to tell me what’s up?”
They mostly stared at their shoes, except for the one on the ground:
he looked up at me, panting, all spindly limbs and pimples with a
torn shirt and a dusty scrape on his forehead. I took a step forward,
grabbed him by his shirt, and hoisted him up to his feet. He twitched
like he wanted to scurry away, but I kept him in place with my hands
on a pair of bony shoulders that lifted and dropped as he worked to
catch his breath.

“Guys,” I tried again, “I need to know what—”

“Tater’s a pussy, that’s what,” came a
sneering, unidentifiable voice from the circle, followed by sneering
laughter: they were all laughing. And with this, the kid I held fast
with my hands—presumably Tater, the pussy in question—began
to shake with fury before spastically windmilling his arms as he
sought to escape my grasp. Watch the elbow.
Watch the elbow!
I
didn’t let go quickly enough, but I watched the whole time, and
even though I ducked to the side….

Pow.

That’s what I recall. Like dreams and real life, potential
energy becomes kinetic. Order is followed by chaos. And if anybody
should understand how one crumbles into the other, it’s me.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Sent: September 7, 12:43 pm

Subject: gchat

_____________________________

Wendy -

So, fourth period lunch, and I’m
hiding out in the gym office because Beth Coolidge thinks somehow I’m
willing to volunteer to construct a homecoming float for her this
year. I’m not, so I’m avoiding her by concealing myself
in this office with no computer. Negative side: it stinks in here.
Positive side: I’m getting good practice typing on the phone
with my thumb.

If I can sneak out to the practice
fields after seventh period this afternoon without Coolidge seeing
me, I’m home free.

A story for you: the district
computer guy was fixing something in my room today and he asked me if
I knew about the chat thing built into gmail. He opened it so I could
check it out, and I nearly (no joke) fell out of my chair when the
contact list popped up with your name at the top. Your status was
“offline,” but still, it was a big surprise to see you
there.

-Neil

CHAPTER TWO

Feet pound behind me, more
than one pair
; all cuckoos and stars have fluttered away. The
foot sound is accompanied by Cassie Jennings’ voice. “Mr.
K!” she calls. “Mr. K!”

The boys are all gone, scurried off to who knows where, and suddenly
I’m unsure if they were ever there in the first place and
what
the hell just happened here?
Something’s happened, though:
the blood on my fingertips when I touch my hand to my face is proof,
as is the jab of pain in my mouth and the Tilt-A-Whirl spin that the
parking lot takes when I make an effort to get up. I slump back down
and remain seated, and turn my gaze back to that dandelion wilting
between my feet.
Poor guy
, is all I can manage to think.

“What happened? Oh my God, his face.”

“I’m fine,” I say. “Seriously.” The
stars have cleared from my vision, but my upper lip has begun to
throb in a way I imagine to be visible, like a hammer-banged thumb in
an old cartoon. I check to make sure that my front teeth are still
firmly planted in my gums, first with my tongue and then with my
fingers. Everything is where it belongs. Cassie and Amy Vandekemp
stand over me, and I shoo their hands away when they try to help me
to my feet.

“Come on, Mr. K.,” Amy says. “Stand up.”

“I’m fine,” I repeat, as if a second time will make
it true. I rise, and the girls hold out their hands like they’re
expecting me to topple. The world has stopped spinning, but the looks
on their faces might be the most unsettling thing of all.

“Your face is really bleeding.”

“Who were those losers?”

“There’s ice in the cooler….”

We walk back to Cassie’s car, the three of us, and even though
I feel perfectly steady on my feet my two star runners look ready to
catch me any moment.

“I mean, girls, come on,” I say thickly through my
fattening lip. “I’ve taken shots before. Harder than…it’s
nothing.” Their lack of response suggests I’ve only
thought this, and not actually managed to speak it out loud. “I’m
okay.”

“Sure,” Cassie says. We’re back at her car, and I
take a seat on the rear bumper as she digs through the detritus
covering her back seat. “I’ve got a bag somewhere.”

Amy stands back a bit with her arms crossed, peering over in the
direction of the teachers’ parking lot by the school. “Where’s
your car, Mr. K.?”

“Not here. I was running home tonight.” This has been my
routine ever since Chris has been old enough to drive: catch a ride
to school with him in the mornings, and have an easy, head-clearing
run home at the end of the day. It’s only a little more than
three miles, and with the good weather I’ve been able to do it
every night so far since school started.

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