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Authors: Jon Harrison

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

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BOOK: The Banks of Certain Rivers
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“Carol’s not coming. She’s not going to see.”
Lauren props her hands on her bare, slender hips, pale skin glowing
in the next-to-nothing light.

“Just what is it that she’s not going to see?”

Lauren rolls her eyes as she straddles me on the couch. “Do I
have to say it? You really want me to say?” She reaches behind
her head and, with a serpentine movement of her neck, frees her hair
from the elastic tie that’s been binding her ponytail. She
presses her forehead to mine, spilling her hair over both of us, and
when I flinch as she starts to kiss me she draws back.

“Shit. I’m sorry. Did that hurt? I’m sorry.”
She brushes her fingertips over my mouth, quite a bit
less
professionally this time, before reaching down to unbutton my jeans.
I bring my hands there to assist, changing myself from passive
observer to active participant. Equally culpable.

“I’m sorry,” she says again, eyes closed, and in a
way that seems out of place in a situation that already seems far too
brazen for the Lauren I thought I knew, she presses her lips to my
ear and says: “We’re safe now. Safe. You want me to say
it? Okay. Let’s fuck, Neil.
Let’s fuck
.”

And, for a lack of anything better to call it, that’s exactly
what we do.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Sent: September 7, 4:01 pm

Subject: poppies

_____________________________

W-

Thought you’d like to know that
even though Chris managed to accidentally mow them down to nothing
last spring, those orange poppies you put in on the west side of your
mom’s house are THRIVING. Beyond thriving, even. Every year
they seem to grow more indestructible. Anyway, they’re ready to
blossom a third time this season, and my fingers are crossed they
don’t get zapped by an early frost. I know how much you love
them. I think of you when I see them.

-N

CHAPTER THREE

My mood is not the only one
brightened
when Lauren and I go back upstairs; Carol is
smiling too when we reenter the living room.

“Hi kids,” she says, fiddling with the oxygen cannula
under her nose. I’m not sure if she knows who I am now, or
where she is in space and time, but I don’t want to disrupt her
perception of things from before.

“Checked the fuses, Mom,” I say with a little too much
cheer. “Everything looks fine.”

“Wonderful, terrific,” she says. Then, with no pause:
“That black man came by again.”

“Excuse me?” I’m searching my memory for any family
stories that might fit, and coming up with zilch. It’s odd to
hear her say, too; I’d never known Carol or Dick to be racist,
but a person’s skin color is just not the sort of thing she
would have pointed out before she got sick. “Who came by?”

“That man, you know him, he stopped in….” She
waves her hand at nothing. “I told him I was too tired to
talk.”

“Just now?” Lauren asks. “Right now while we
were….”

“Downstairs?” I finish for her.

“No, no. Dick had a word with him, I believe.”

Old memory. Whew. Lauren shrugs, her face lit with relief, and my
mother-in-law offers nothing more. Just another phantom from years
past, in and out of her world like that. I tell Carol that
Christopher will check in with her tomorrow, and Lauren walks out
with me through the garage to the driveway.

“Jesus, she had me scared,” she says with a nervous
laugh. “I mean, I didn’t
hear
anything upstairs….”

“We can’t do that over here again,” I say. “Ever.
That was really stupid.”

Lauren pokes me in the stomach. “Jerk. You didn’t seem to
think it was so stupid at the time.”

“You didn’t give me much of a choice. What is up with you
lately?”

“Nothing’s
up
with me lately.” She pokes me
again. “Did I tell you I got almost fifty miles to the gallon
coming back Tuesday?”

“No kidding?”

Lauren’s three-quarters of the way through studying to become a
Certified Nurse Practitioner, and has to make the four hour trip down
to Michigan State’s main campus in Lansing and back once a week
this semester for coursework. Her old Astro Van was a drivers’
ed film waiting to happen, and after weeks of my urging her to
upgrade to any vehicle of a recent vintage (and offering to loan her
the money to make a down payment), she finally settled on a new
Prius. So far, she seems to be quite pleased with it, even if now I
bug her about the possibility of unintended acceleration.

“It’s great. And that was with a thousand pounds of Ikea
stuff in the back.” Lauren grins, nodding toward the car, and I
notice now that the back seats are folded down under a pile of
cardboard boxes. “Bookshelves. Which I’ll coerce you into
assembling, if we can get them up the stairs.” She glances down
the long driveway, then takes my hand and starts to pull me back to
the garage. “Come here,” she says.

“What, again?” I’m laughing, but still. “And
you tell me nothing’s up.”

“Stop it. I’m not…you jerk. Come here.” We
reenter the garage, and Lauren throws her arms around me by the trunk
of Carol’s old Buick. “Come here,” she says again,
pressing her face into my shoulder. “Nice surprise. I didn’t
think I’d get to see you until tomorrow.”

“I was pretty happy to see your car when we drove up,” I
say. My arms are around her too, and we’re rocking, barely,
from side to side. “Chris is gone ‘til late tonight, if
you want to coerce me into bookshelf assembly. Or anything else.”

Lauren looks up at me, shaking her head. “Too late. Going to a
movie with Danielle. Shelving must wait. And I need to get back
inside to finish up with Carol. Like now.”

“So I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” She presses her face back to my chest and
sighs. “Tomorrow. It’s good I got you for a little bit
today. It’s too hard to wait for Saturday sometimes.”

Back at my house
, I
find Alan Massie’s old balloon-tire bicycle leaning against the
new fireplace. It’s rare for a day to pass where I don’t
see him at least once.

“Alan!” I call as I approach my open front door.

“In the kitchen,” he calls back, and we meet in my living
room. Alan is shorter than me, on the muscular side of stocky, and
has kept his thinning hair in the same crew cut he had when he was
flying as a captain for United Airlines.

“I was leaving you a note,” he says, waving a piece of
scrap paper before noticing my face and lifting his eyebrows. “You
take an elbow to the lip?”

“Yep.” I learned long ago not to question Alan’s
near-mystical way of just knowing things. If nothing less, it’s
a nifty thing to see him show off at parties.

“Thought so.” He grabs me by the chin and turns my face
from side to side. “You’re fine.”

I’m expecting him to make some nonchalant reference to my
recent sexual relations as well, but he says nothing. He probably
knows
that
too. Alan crumples the paper in his hand. “Wanted
to see if I could borrow your truck tomorrow,” he says. “Do
you need it?”

I laugh at this. My friend’s use of “Borrow your truck”
here is in fact shorthand for “Get a ride to my destination,”
while “Do you need it?” means “Are you free to take
me?” Three years ago, Alan lost his pilot’s license after
suffering what looked to his co-workers like an epileptic seizure
during a layover. He hasn’t had anything like it since (he
swears he just dozed off in the terminal), but as part of the process
of getting his medical certification reinstated he has to show that
he can remain convulsion-free—without medication—for some
arbitrary period of time. And because he insists it will show the
mercurial Federal Aviation Administration how seriously he takes his
non-condition, Alan has voluntarily stopped driving cars as well.
Thus the need for my chauffeur services.

“I haven’t talked to Chris,” I say, “but I
don’t think we have anything planned. Where am I taking you?”

“Lumber yard. Does early work?”

“Early works. But—” It dawns on me that the
fireplace is completely obstructing my truck’s exit from the
garage. “We need to move something first.”

Alan follows me out to the shipping pallet and prods it with his toe.
“No problem,” he says, rubbing his chin. “We can
move it.” He examines it from all sides. “You
might
have a problem fitting it into that space you guys built.”

“Don’t tell me this now,” I say.

We stare at the fireplace for a couple minutes at least, plotting our
moves or maybe wishing the pallet would sprout legs and carry the
whole load over to the doorway on its own. But it doesn’t, so
Alan and I crouch down and begin to shuffle the thing from side to
side toward my front door, crunching driveway gravel as we go. We’re
stopped almost as soon as we begin, however, by a growing motorized
buzz off to the south that snaps Alan straight upright.

“That son of a bitch,” Alan says, shielding the sun from
his eyes with a hand to his brow. “He got the Two-Ten. Son of a
bitch.”

“Two-Ten? Who got what?” I rise and look in the direction
he’s gazing, toward the growing sound.

“Leland Dinks got another airplane. He was talking some shit
about getting a new Cessna last week.”

“Son of a bitch,” I say, as it dawns on me that
Leland
is very possibly the black man who paid Carol a visit earlier. Just
then a small blue and white plane roars over the trees and buzzes my
house, passing so close over our heads it seems like I could hit the
windshield with my spit. The plane circles over the field out back
and comes over again, prompting Alan to give the aircraft—along
with Leland and his pilot—the finger as it screams over us.

“Beat it, Leland!” he shouts. “Go crash in the
lake!”

“Alan, jeez.” I know he doesn’t mean it, but still.

“That guy….” His voice trails off with the fading
sound of the plane, and he shakes his head. All that’s left in
the air is the buzz and rattle of insects in the tree line.

“Let’s move your thing,” he says.

Alan throws himself back into moving the fireplace with extra vigor.
I understand his frustration; Leland Dinks owns the chunk of property
immediately to the north of both of us, and has been pressing us to
sell him our land for the past couple years. He’s in the
early stages of building a lakefront condominium and golf course
development, and each new offer to buy seems to come with increased
urgency at an increasingly higher dollar amount. Every time,
we’ve refused. Leland’s been coming at me with kid
gloves, though: I’ve got the beach frontage he covets, more
than a mile of it, and he doesn’t want to piss me off. He
doesn’t care so much about Alan, though, and has accordingly
built a parking and maintenance area for his big construction
machines just beyond the river demarcating their shared property
line. Worse still is the airstrip he’s put in over there,
the final approach for which brings the private planes of Leland’s
prospective buyers and investors buzzing right over Alan and his wife
Kristin’s house. Alan has a right to be mad, I think.

It takes us another ten minutes to get the pallet to the foot of my
front porch steps. Just as we’re trying to figure out the best
way to move the thing up the steps and inside we’re interrupted
again, this time by a shiny black Ford truck with tinted windows
coming up my drive. The truck loops around and comes to a halt in
front of us, the engine cuts off and the door swings open to reveal
Leland Dinks inside. He’s wearing dress pants and a white
button down shirt, the lower buttons just barely showing some strain
at the belly.

“What, bothering
us in that plane wasn’t enough?” Alan says,
dusting off his hands on his pant legs. Leland ignores him
completely as he jumps down from the big truck. 

“Leland,” I say as we shake hands, “were you over
at Carol’s house earlier? Bugging her about—”

“I was just checking in to see if anything had changed.”

“The only thing that’s changed is that all the
paperwork’s done, I’m handling Carol’s stuff now,
and if you need to talk about the orchard, you can talk to me. Not
her.”

“Well let’s talk then. And what the hell happened to your
face?”

“Not important now. I’m telling you, like I have a
thousand times before, there’s nothing to talk about. We’re
not….” I stop myself, and look at the fireplace. “Wait.
I’ll make you a deal. We can talk about it.”

Leland’s expression brightens. “Really?”

“Really. But you have to help us move this thing inside
first.”

He laughs, rapping the top of the fireplace with his
knuckles. “That’s all? That’s nothing. Let’s
see where you’re putting it.”

He follows me inside, with Alan behind, and I shove the couch and
chair to the sides of the living room to give us a clear path to the
hearth. Leland looks around the room.

“You’ve been doing some work, Neil,” he
says. ”Looking pretty good in here.” I realize, as
he says it, that it’s been years since Leland Dinks has been
inside my home. We used to run together, back when our kids were
little, and he and his wife Sherry would come over for dinner once in
a while. Our sons were close friends then, all up through middle
school, and we saw them a lot. Then Leland got more wrapped up with
his real estate dealings, all my stuff happened, the boys stopped
being friends and we stopped seeing each other. Things change
like that. Especially when you have kids. You don’t really
mourn the difference, you just accept that things have changed and
move on.

“It’s a never-ending project,” I say. “Chris
and I need to nail up the trim next. Maybe this winter.”

“I can get you a break on materials,” Leland says,
turning slowly to take in the room. “You should call me. I’m
set up with a bunch of suppliers.”

BOOK: The Banks of Certain Rivers
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