Read The Banks of Certain Rivers Online

Authors: Jon Harrison

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

The Banks of Certain Rivers (6 page)

BOOK: The Banks of Certain Rivers
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Lauren had grown up
in
a suburb of Pittsburgh. A Midwestern kid, not unlike me. She had a
little brother, two years younger, and two working parents who loved
each other, except for the year when she had been a junior in high
school that they lived apart. When she talks about that, she laughs.
It’s not like they stopped loving each other, she says, but
maybe they needed a break from it. It was a raw time for her, too. It
was a raw time for all of them.

That was her rebellious time, the year her parents split up. She
laughs about this. She laughs about all of her childhood, like it was
a ridiculous ordeal that could have been borne only through laughter.
Upon her parents’ separation she buzz-cut her long hair with
clippers in a friend’s garage. Short and spiky—she
giggles at the memory of it, giggles when she shows me a
photo—looking like an otter’s fur. Her mother gasped when
Lauren came home to show her. Her mother gasped, and cried. Lauren
thought this was an overreaction at the time, but she hadn’t
known her little brother had been busted earlier that week for
selling shaky marijuana in their school parking lot. That was
his
rebellion. There were raw feelings all around.

Her father came back home at the beginning of her senior year. Not
that he’d really ever been entirely away; he’d been
around every weekend for the duration of their separation to mow the
yard and ensure that the systems of the house were in good
functioning order. It was just a trial, her parents said later. They
needed some space. In the end, they decided they liked being together
more than they liked being apart.

Before all that, though, before parental separations and otter fur
haircuts, there were pig-tailed summers with a two-week vacation
spent each July in Port Manitou, Michigan. Their family had no real
ties to the place; Lauren’s father read about it in some travel
magazine, they visited for two weeks, and they liked it so much they
came back every summer after that (on the year of their separation,
her parents split their visits over the first and second weeks of the
trip). Lauren came to love it. My family was visiting then too, and
we’ve tried to figure out if our trips ever overlapped. I’d
wager they did, even though we can’t pin down the dates. I
wonder sometimes if I ever would have recalled seeing her and her
brother out of the thousand or so kids I ever saw building sand
castles on the beach. I have no memory of it. I was focused on other
things.

Port Manitou figured into Lauren’s choice of colleges. She
wanted to be close, relatively, and ended up studying nursing at
University of Michigan. She would make the drive up north to stay
with her family on their summer trips, and after a while she started
coming up on her own. She made friends here. She met a guy. After
graduation, Lauren went back to Pennsylvania to work in a hospital
near her hometown for a few years, but when she learned of an opening
for a nurse at Port Manitou’s Urgent Care Clinic, she moved up
and stayed. It didn’t take her long to discover that the
clinic, a satellite operation of one of Northern Michigan’s big
hospital systems, was mired in operational politics and general staff
misery, and as soon as she found work elsewhere at a little hospice
and home healthcare business, she left.

Lauren was one of Carol’s first nurses when my mother-in-law
returned from her hospital stay. I worked pretty closely with all of
the nursing staff then; I was over at the house frequently, moving
Carol’s things to her new bedroom downstairs, building a ramp
for the step down into the living room, doing all of those projects
that needed to be done for her to live comfortably in her new
situation. Downtime was frequent. Carol was pretty medicated, and the
nurses stayed a lot, Lauren most of all. I couldn’t do loud
work while Carol was sleeping, so Lauren and I would chat.
Insignificant topics were discussed at first: what movies had we seen
recently, funny stories about my students or her patients. Little
things.

I found myself over at the farmhouse more and more. I didn’t
even realize I was doing it, I don’t think; Lauren was easy to
talk to, and quick to laugh at my stupid jokes. I liked being with
her. Over time, our conversations began to dip into more personal
territory. She learned where I was from, about my siblings, and the
circumstances of Wendy’s accident and current state. She told
me about growing up, going to school, visiting Port Manitou with her
family as a kid like I had.

She was dating a bicycle mechanic-slash-multimedia artist at the
time. They’d hung out when she was in college, and kept in
touch when she was back in Pennsylvania. He loved painting and music
and bikes, and he seemed to love her too, somewhere along with his
other passions. She hinted to me at times that the relationship
wasn’t going anywhere, but I never pressed. She also hinted
that she loved being a nurse but was considering going back to school
to widen her opportunities. I never pressed too much about that
either. I hoped she wouldn’t move away.

I’d bring lunch sometimes. I’d tell stories over the
dining room table, and she’d laugh her easy laugh.

One day things shifted, a tiny seismic tilt that realigned our
interactions. I came over to the farmhouse to find Lauren in tears,
nearly inconsolable, and she managed to tell me she’d just got
a call from her mom; her little brother had been in a serious car
accident and it looked, at the moment, like he might not survive his
injuries. She came to me, and I put my arms around her shoulders, and
she cried against my chest for what seemed like a very long time. I
knew about that sort of loss. When she calmed down enough I drove her
to her condo in town, and told her to let me know if she needed a
ride to the airport, or anything else.

She called me later that night.

“He’s going to be okay,” she said, letting out a
long breath. “Okay. Okay. They’re pretty sure he’s
going to make it. It was really iffy at first, but he’s stable
now.”

“Do you still need to get back home?”

“I’m going to wait a few days. He’s going to stay
with my parents while he recovers, so I’ll help out.”

“Right up your alley.”

“Lucky for my mom and dad, right?” She paused. “Can
I ask something?”

“You want me to bring you your van from Carol’s house?”
I replied. Lauren sniffed and laughed.

“Well, yeah, I guess I do, now that you mention it. But I
really wanted to ask if I could take you to dinner when I’m
back from Pittsburgh.”

This was maybe the last question I was anticipating, but I smiled.

“I’d like that very much. But there’s one thing I
need to tell you right away.”

“Yes?”

“I need to be sensitive to how Chris is going to feel about
anything like this.” I knew how
I
felt about it; my
heart was pounding so hard I could feel my pulse in my neck and
fingertips.

“I understand,” Lauren said. “I think I can work
with that.”

And that was how it started.

It doesn’t take us
as long to get the next shelf assembled, and when it’s complete
we stand it upright and shuffle it over against the wall. Lauren
starts arranging things on it—books, candles, framed photos—and
I get to work on the final piece of furniture. This shelf is smaller,
shorter and broader than the first two, and it goes together quickly.

“Where are we putting this one?” I ask as I gather up
some torn plastic bags and leftover screws from the floor.

“That’s for the office,” she says. The condo has a
master bedroom on the main floor above the garage, and Lauren has the
upstairs loft arranged as an office and guest room.

The piece is heavy, but not too difficult to carry upstairs. I go
backwards, slowly, stepping cautiously on the smooth wood treads with
my bare feet while Lauren looks up at me saying: “Careful,
Neil. Be careful. Three more steps. Two. Let’s put it over
there. Right there. Whew! Good.”

We sit on the bed to let our breathing come back to normal, and I
squeeze my fingers where they were crimped by my awkward grip. It’s
dark up here, barely illuminated from the living room below, but
neither of us bothers to flip on a light. It’s nice in this
darkness. Lauren rises to unlatch the skylight on the pitched
ceiling, and when she swings it open I can hear the waves washing in
from the lake and the continual low grumble of the river flowing over
the spillway. She returns to my side, and lets herself drop back to a
reclining position with her legs dangling off of the bed.

“Thank you,” she says, stroking my back. “That was
heavy.”

I listen to the sounds of the night. Some kids are laughing out on
the beach, and when the wind gusts the papers on Lauren’s desk
tremble. The breeze carries the smell of autumn. It’s easy to
let myself fall back to lie at Lauren’s side, my feet dangling
just like hers, and when I close my eyes and draw in a long breath of
that end of summer air her hand finds mine and our fingers weave
together. The room seems darker and there’s nothing but the
outdoor noises. Waves, river, kids talking. I imagine two kids, a boy
and a girl, teenagers, walking on the beach. Talking in low voices.
Fingers together, just like this. I’m that boy. There were so
many walks in the sand by the lake.

“Don’t fall asleep,” Lauren whispers. “Neil.”

I open my eyes. “I’m not asleep.”

“I wish you could fall asleep. I want to watch you sleep.”

“I can’t,” I say. I turn my head to look at Lauren.
With her free hand she’s drawn a hank of hair across her face,
under her nose. She looks at me and blinks.

“Have you ever thought of growing a mustache?” she asks.

“My father has always had a mustache. He still does. I doubt
I’ll ever grow one. Why are you asking me this? And why are we
whispering?”

“It’s good to whisper in the dark,” she says.
“Please don’t ever grow a mustache. Come up here.”
She tugs my shirt to move me higher on the bed, then clambers on top
of me and presses her face to my neck.

“No, no, no,” I say. “We can’t. Tomorrow. I
need to get home. Chris will be…I need to get home.”

“I know.” Lauren sighs into my collarbone. “Just
pretend we can fall asleep like this. Ten minutes. Then you can go.”

“It’s not like I want to leave—”

“Shh. I know. Ten minutes.” She sighs again. “Don’t
really fall asleep. Just pretend you are so I can watch.”

I close my eyes and breathe. Ten minutes. It isn’t really long
enough at all.

Even with a stop
for
gas on the return trip, I’m home well before my son. And this
is good: there’s always been something troublesome to me about
the idea of him coming to an empty house at night. I like to be there
waiting for him; I like to hear about what he did, or where he went,
or how he’s feeling. My motivations aren’t nosy, not
usually, though from time to time it is necessary to engage in
parental intelligence gathering. But most of the time I just want to
hear what he has to say about things. And I guess I want him to know
he’s always got someone to come home to.

I could have stayed longer with Lauren, but I think she understands
why I needed to go.

I put away my tools in the garage and go inside to check for messages
on our machine; there’s nothing. When I pull my mobile from my
pocket I’m surprised to see a five minute-old text from Chris
waiting for me. I must have been driving when it came in.

“Leaving now, should be home before 1,” the message
reads, and I tap the screen to call him back. I’m not really
expecting him to answer, only wanting to leave a fatherly “be
careful” message, but Christopher answers on the second ring.

“Dad, what’s up?” It’s funny to me that I’m
still so surprised to hear—especially over the phone—how
deep his voice has become. He’ll be eighteen in two months, so
I should be used to it by now, but it still gets me.

“How was the game?”

He laughs, and I hear his friends talking in the background. “We
lost. Those Grayling guys are pretty big.”

“I heard they were tough. Back around one?”

“Should be. Maybe sooner. We’re hanging with the buses on
the way back. Slow lane.” This is exactly what I want to hear.
Not drunken, not fast. Slow. He’s a good kid.

“You’ll call me if it’s going to be later? Or if
you need anything?”

“Dad, come on.”

“I know. My job to say that. Right?”

“Right. Are we still going to see Mom tomorrow?”

“I’m helping Alan in the morning. And we can’t let
the field go another week without mowing—”

“I’ll get the field. Don’t worry about it.”

“That’s what you said last week.”

“Dad, I’ll get it tomorrow. I swear.”

“All right. We’ll go see Mom after we finish our stuff.
Take it easy driving, okay?”

“I will.” I hear a happy commotion on his end, young
shouts and laughter, and Chris says: “Gotta go, okay? See you
later. Bye.” And he’s gone.

I like to think I’m not overprotective. I also like to think I
give my son appropriate freedom and room. He’s shown himself to
be mature and responsible—as a person who’s spent his
professional life corralling individuals his age, I think I’m a
pretty good judge—and as those traits have shown themselves in
him, and grown, so too have his freedoms expanded. But here’s a
funny thing: every time Christopher is away like this, and we say
goodbye on the phone, I actively say to myself: “I wonder if
that was the last time I’ll say goodbye to my son?” or,
“I wonder if that was the last time I’ll hear his voice?”
It sounds insane, and maybe it is, but here’s my crazy logic:
think of every time you’ve seen or read about the tragedy of a
lost loved one, think of the wounded souls left behind, always
saying: “I never got to tell her I loved her,” or, “I
never got to say goodbye.” They never thought it could happen
to them. I know how it happens, though. By thinking about it, I jinx
it. And by jinxing it, Chris comes home.

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