Read The Banks of Certain Rivers Online

Authors: Jon Harrison

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

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“Can you run with your face like that?” Cassie asks. She
hands me a crumply plastic grocery bag with a handful of ice cubes
inside. The whole mess is wrapped with now-soggy paper napkins, and
when I press it to my face some icy water dribbles down my front and
makes me jump.

“I’ll find a ride,” I say, glancing down at my wet
and blood-spotted running shirt.

“Sorry,” Cassie says, wincing at the sight of the dark
mess on my chest, before hesitantly adding: “I could drive you
home?” She chews on the concept for a moment, struck by a flash
of proto-maturity, before stating it again with a little more
resolve. “I’ll drive you home.”

“Amy has to come,” I say, muffled by the bag, and the two
girls look at each other. “Can you get her home after you drop
me off?”

“What do you mean, ‘Amy has to come’?”

“I mean, it’s a district policy thing. You can’t
have a teacher and student alone—”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, but there’s bird crap on her
shirt.”

“What?” Amy says, trying to look over her own shoulder.

“I don’t want bird crap on my car seat!”

“Cassie,” I say. “Have you noticed the condition of
your car’s interior recently?”

“It’s probably carrying some
disease
.”

“Shut up, Cassie,” Amy says softly, but her tone more
than makes up for any lack of volume. “Seriously. Shut up.”
Then Amy Vandekemp does something that actually makes Cassie’s
mouth fall open: she takes off her shirt, turns it inside out, and
puts it back on again, avian stain and all, before I even have a
chance to look away. “Let’s go. I need to stop at my
locker on the way out.” Then she takes the passenger seat up
front, closing the door behind her with a suitably dramatic slam. I
bet her arms are crossed in there too. Cassie looks at me and nods
like nothing just happened.

“Amy and I will take you home,” she says, smiling like it
was her plan all along.

On the old highway
north of town, past the scrub grass and summer
houses on the Lake Michigan shoreline, a sharp turn inland marks the
southern end of the Olsson Dune Orchard complex. In 1924 my wife’s
paternal grandfather, a very tall Dane named Nils Olsson, bought
eighty-nine lakefront acres bounded by the Little Jib River to the
north and the highway to the sawmill to the south, where he grew
sweet cherries for nearly forty years before turning it over to my
father-in-law, Dick, in the early sixties. Dick was the youngest (and
tallest) of the three Olsson sons, and the only one interested in
taking over the farm; he ran it—profitably, I should add—right
up until the heart attack that killed him. That was nine years ago.
Since then, the working part of the farm has been leased out to some
small-time operators; it’s still mostly cherries, but a couple
of guys from Chicago have started making some almost-palatable wines
from a vineyard they put in on the southeast corner of the property
not long after Dick passed away.

A couple guys from Chicago. They all seem to be coming up from
Chicago lately, buying old houses, fixing things up, tearing things
down. Building condos and tee shirt shops. There are deals to be had,
and vineyards to be put in. A lot of my friends—self-identified
“locals” all—feign anger at the changes, resentment
toward the new development and remodeling projects. I don’t
mind it so much. I know they don’t either. It’s easy
enough to knock the tourists, but things have really been looking up
in town; shops and restaurants are busy and the people who own them
are doing well. People who own property are doing
very
well.
Let them fix up the town, I say. Look at how much better off we are
than everyone else downstate. This place—the pinky finger of
the mitten-shaped peninsula I call home—is one bright spot in a
generally dismal state economy. Let them come up and remodel all they
want.

Besides, on the tip of that little finger, we’ve got the
orchard. They can build all around us, but my wife’s family’s
orchard is just one of those immutable things that will always
be
.

Rolling along over the Old Sawmill Highway, the interior of Cassie’s
car goes dark as we veer eastward away from the lake and the trees
along the road close over us. Textbooks with shattered bindings
mingle with crumpled papers down around my feet, and on the seat next
to my backpack (Amy grabbed it for me when she went in to get her
things) there’s a polyester work uniform of some sort wadded up
in a pile. I’m thinking up a million different explanations for
why the engraved nametag on top of the clothes says “CARRIE”
instead of “CASSIE,” but I don’t ask why, because
asking would mean having to listen to an answer, and my head hurts
enough already.

The girls have been thankfully quiet for the duration of the ride, as
if they sense the headache blossoming in my frontal lobes. Amy has
the window open, which is fine, welcome even, and they’ve
mercifully kept the stereo off. I tell Cassie to slow down as we
approach my driveway, and direct her to make the turn. The jolt as
the car comes off the pavement onto gravel makes me smack my face
with the ice bag, sending a new trickle of cold down my front and a
zing of pain up through my teeth.

I’ll be fine. I will.

As we roll up the drive, I smile—reflexively, if painfully—when
I see Lauren Downey’s brand-new Prius parked in front of my
mother-in-law’s garage. I didn’t think she worked on
Fridays, but, as the most senior of Carol’s in-home caregivers,
she can call her own shots, scheduling-wise.

“Nice car, Mr. K.,” Cassie says, nodding to the bright
red Toyota.

“Not mine. My place is over there. Keep going past these
trees.”

We roll through the leafy shade into a clearing with my house at the
center. It’s low and gray, single-storied and tidy with white
trim and a deck that wraps from the front to the back where I sit
many evenings to watch the sun drop behind the dunes. My home. I’m
perplexed for a moment by the sight of a large, shrink-wrapped dark
object strapped to a wooden shipping pallet in front of my garage
door; as Cassie rolls to a halt in front of it I realize it’s
the new fireplace I ordered back in May. On the plastic wrapping, in
coarse block letters, someone has scrawled:

N. KAZENZAKIS, PORT MANITOU, MI.

This was supposed to have been delivered while I was home so I’d
have some help bringing it inside, but what the hell, I’ve
waited long enough. At least it’s finally here.

I clamber out of the backseat as soon as the car stops and hold the
sopping ice bag away from me, letting it drip on the ground as I grab
my pack. Cassie leans over to talk through Amy’s open window.

“You can just throw that back in on the floor,” she says.
“I’ll take care of it later.”

“I’ll put it in my trash,” I say. It’s
possible that the introduction of moisture could encourage the growth
of some horrible life form in there. “Thanks for the ride.”

The girls drive off, the sound of gravel beneath tires giving way to
the sawing drone of insects and a far-off lawnmower. I drop my pack
and the ice bag to the ground next to the pallet, and lean my hip
into the fireplace to gauge its weight for moving. The substantial
mass does not budge.

My house seems dark and stuffy inside, and I leave the front door
open behind me to encourage the circulation of fresh air. It smells
of sawdust and new construction, plaster and cool stone, the evidence
of my perpetual remodeling project. A knotty oak floor laid down last
spring. An empty slate hearth Chris and I built last winter. How
we’ll manage to shoehorn the fireplace in there I’m not
sure, but I’ll worry about it later.

Back at the altar of my bathroom mirror my lip doesn’t look as
bad as I’d imagined it would. A little swollen, fuller than
usual, but pushed out from beneath by my tongue the split in my flesh
looks nothing more than superficial. I draw my bloody running shirt
over my head and drop it into the sink under cold running water, and
bring my hands to the sides of my face, blinking as I press my
fingertips in circles against my temples. Here I am. Aside from a
fattened lip, I haven’t at all changed since this morning, the
last time I looked over myself. Complexion and nose: faux-Greek and
stately. Eyes: green as they’ve always been. Hair is still
short, still no less gray and still suitably dense. My shirtless
torso is neither bulky, nor scrawny, nor fat, just like the rest of
me. A lifetime of running has been pretty good for that.

At thirty-nine years old, I could be seeing something much worse, I
suppose.

I grab a clean shirt and change into some jeans, and down a couple
Advil with a big glass of water in the kitchen (the one part of our
home that feels decidedly complete) before walking across the field
to check on my mother-in-law and catch Lauren before she takes off
for the day. It’s still breezy and warm outside, but the dry
leaves whirling on the old concrete barn slab—now a basketball
court for my son—say summer is just about finished.

I let myself into Carol’s house through the garage. Lauren’s
working on something in the laundry room, and she barely glances up
when I say hello.

“Are you home early?” she asks, and when she finally
looks to me for a reply, she lets out a tiny shriek. “Oh God,
Neil, what happened to you?” Lauren covers her mouth with her
hand, maybe in shock, or maybe because she’s trying to conceal
laughter. She reaches for my face, and I jump back.

“Don’t touch it!”

“Don’t be a baby. Come on, stand still. I’m not
going to hurt you! Big baby.” She manipulates my lip, smirking
the whole time, and it’s not so bad. She is a Registered Nurse,
after all. A professional. “Oh, you’re fine. Put ice on
it when you’re back at your house.” She takes my hand.
“Really, what happened? Let’s go show Carol.”

“Broke up a fight. Nothing. Stupid. Which Carol do we have
today?”

“Fairly lucid Carol. But it’s about 1964.”

My seventy-six year-old mother-in-law was in fine shape and mentally
sharp right up until two winters ago when she slipped on some ice on
New Year’s Day and broke her left shoulder blade. The fracture
itself shouldn’t have been such a problem, but the infection
she picked up in the hospital sure was, and the pneumonia that
settled into her lungs after that
really
was. She’s been
on so many different medications since then I can’t even keep
track; some make her weak, while others leave her confused or just
not there. Most of the time she’s hardly the same person
anymore. There are glimmers of clarity once in a while
;
we wait for them and encourage them, and when they’re slow in
coming the revenue trickling in each year from the orchard is enough
to pay the nurses who come and keep her going until she perks back up
again.

It’s a shame, her decline, because she was a lot of fun and we
always got along well. I really loved her. I mean, of course I still
do. But it’s different now.

In the living room, Carol leans to her side in an easy chair that
seems absurdly large for her withering form. There’s an afghan
draped over her legs, and a clear plastic line strung from her ears
across her wrinkly white-pink face to bring oxygen to her nostrils.
My wife Wendy’s high school senior portrait—braces, bangs
and all—hangs in a frame on the wall behind her. A talk show
plays on the TV, and the volume is so high that I nearly have to
shout.

“Carol, how are you?”

She turns to me with her wet, red-ringed eyes, takes in my lip with a
blink, and returns her gaze to the talk show.

“Arthur, you’re going to kill yourself on that
motorbike,” she mutters.

Arthur is Carol’s younger brother. And if my memory of family
lore serves, Uncle Art sold his motorcycle just before leaving for
his first stint in the Vietnam War.

Lauren puts her hand on my shoulder. “It’s Neil, Carol.
Your son-in-law.”

Carol stares at the television and coughs. “There’s
something wrong with the fuse box still,” she says. A wadded up
tissue is clutched between her brittle fingers. “That’s
three boxes of fuses Dick’s had to buy this summer.”

“I’ll take a look, Mom.”

“Fix it, will you?”

“I’ll see what—”

“Just fix the damned thing!”

To the best of my knowledge, Carol never, ever used to swear.

Lauren pulls me out to the dining room and frowns. “She wasn’t
so cranky earlier,” she whispers. “Are you going to look
at the fuse box?”

“This house hasn’t had a fuse box for at least twenty
years,” I say. I’m leaning in close as we talk, which is
ridiculous because—even if the TV wasn’t on at maximum
volume—Carol is so deaf now she wouldn’t be able to hear
us anyway. Lauren still has her hand on my arm, and she’s
looking up at me.

“You should take a look just to make her feel better.”

“There’s nothing to look at.”

“Sure there is. Tell her you’re going downstairs to take
a look. I’ll come down and hold the flashlight.” Lauren
smiles and bumps her knee into my leg. She’s still gripping my
arm.

“No way. What is up with you lately?
No way
.”

“Yes way. I need to. Now.” Lauren is still smiling up at
me, looking at me, nodding her straw-colored ponytail into a bounce.
“Now, now, now.”

I shake my head and suppress a laugh, and peer back to the living
room. “Going to check that fuse, Carol,” I call. No
answer. Lauren grabs a flashlight, and when I click the light switch
at the top of the ancient basement stairs, Lauren snaps it right back
off again. This time I let myself laugh.

“Fuse box, Neil,” Lauren says, jabbing me with the
flashlight from behind as we descend.

“Is that what we’re going to call it now?”

“Shut up.” She nudges me, through the cobwebbed dimness
under heavy, sawn beams, toward a sagging couch at the far end of the
basement. Raw copper pipes and electrical wires run between the
joists above. I sit, and Lauren, standing before me, head cocked and
half smirking, undoes her pants and lets them drop with her underwear
to the floor. She kicks her feet free from the clothes, and shakes
her head when she sees me glance beyond her to the stairs.

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