The Name of the Nearest River
By Alex Taylor
Sarabande Books Copyright © 2010 Alex Taylor
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-932511-80-2
The Name of the Nearest River
It was a solid week of looking before we finally found Ronald Pugh.
Me and Granville, my good friend, were sitting in my kitchen playing no limit hold 'em with a couple of other guys when the news about Ronald's disappearance came over the scanner. He'd gotten drunk and fallen off the Big Slee Dam into the Gasping River. He'd been fishing for carp, and now they were dragging the bottom and shoals for him, and it was some pretty sad news for everybody if you want to know the truth. Most of us shook our heads and folded out of the game, but Granville got hot as light bulbs. He jumped up from the table cussing. He said it wouldn't do, Ronald falling off the dam, and that it was just like him to go and do something that awful while he was busy playing poker. He said he wanted to go looking for Ronald. He said there was a score to settle.
Myself, I couldn't see how it mattered all that much. The river had wiped the slate clean. It's got a way of doing that fairly often, I've noticed.
But if you know Granville you know he never notices much of anything. He's big. There's hardly any fat on him, but he's been made broad and thick from doing his work for the road department. He spreads gravel and scree, patches potholes, runs the steamroller in the worst heat. I've seen him. When he takes a break, he crawls up under an overpass and eats cold chicken skins from Kentucky Fried and looks at moldy old copies of Young Teen Cum Twats in the shade for a few minutes before going right back to it, snarling and dripping.
The man can flat fill up a boat. That's what he did to my little john the night Ronald Pugh fell in the river and we went looking for him in order to settle a score I still knew nothing about. It was all Granville up front, hunched over the bow with the tip of his nose drawing a line in the water.
"I can smell that greasy bastard down there," Granville said to the water. "Fish from this river won't be fit to eat now that Ronald fell in it."
I was at the stern guiding the trolling motor, happy to be out of the house. Of all the guys in my kitchen, I was the only one Granville could get to go along with him while he went looking for Pugh, but of course all those other fellers had a pretty swell job to go to in the morning at one place or the other. At the time, I wasn't working anywhere.
So it was good to be out with Granville and going downriver with the dark shores on either side and the black thin trees standing up like burnt wicks. We'd brought along a cooler of Milwaukee's Best and some bologna and bread for sandwiches. Granville had his old fiddle with him. He made me bring my Polaroid with the flash, and when I asked him why, he brought his face up from the water and laughed.
"Oh brother, don't you worry about it none," he said. "You'll get to see it all come together."
But we didn't find Ronald that night or the next morning or the morning after that. Granville took his vacation from the road department and we went out in the dawn hours when the wind was still. We covered twenty miles of river below the Big Slee, went up sloughs and tributaries, trolled along shallow creeks with a gill net, but all we found were turtles and shad and a few grennel. Sometimes we'd meet the search-and-rescue teams coming upriver in their boats, the divers wet and pale. Granville started to worry they'd get to Ronald before we would and that the score wouldn't get settled, but I had faith and wasn't scared at all. I knew Ronald Pugh and figured if anyone could stay hid in a river for very long it was him.
Ronald was one of the sneaky rich. He ran a used-car lot and stayed drunk on the job, nipping from a fifth of Lord Calvert until it was time to roll home. He kept a tube of toothpaste in his desk and would squeeze a dab on his tongue whenever he got a customer so they wouldn't smell the liquor on his breath, his teeth shining blue from the Crest. The cars he sold were all citrus, Dodge and Buick hand-me-downs with cracked chassis and spun bearings. Good for Ronald, I always thought, but Granville didn't see it that way. Whenever he talked about Pugh, he looked like death eating a cracker. His face got sullen and weary, sunken at the edges. It made me so nervous I finally had to ask.
"So Granville," I said, popping a beer. "What's the deal, man? Did Ronald do something awful?"
It was our seventh time out looking, and it had rained the night before so the river was gray and sudsy with driftwood floating down and we were leaving a trail of beer cans behind us, what with all the necessary drinking it takes to find a corpse. Granville was busy rosining up his fiddle bow, but he stopped and looked at me when I asked about the score.
"My sister Berma bought a Buick from him. Only she didn't have no money," Granville said. "So she took him back in his office for an hour or so and made him feel all right. Week later, the tranney went out of the Buick. She went back and told Pugh the car weren't no good and you know what he said?"
I shook my head.
"He said her pussy weren't no good either so the deal come out about even." Granville picked up his bow again and went on with the rosin. "That's the score," he said.
It was a pretty rough tale, but he'd told it right and it got me to figuring. Granville's sister Berma was big like he was. She had wrists knotty with gout, but this didn't keep her from her job as bouncer at the Hasty Tasty bar. I'd seen her in action before. She could pitch drunks out in the street like horseshoes and before then I'd never thought of her in a lovely way, she being big and thick, but now I saw her in Pugh's office peeling off her Wranglers and showing her dimpled thighs and I just got all swole up with lonesome. On top of everything, I was out of love then as well as being out of work. Sitting in the boat with the river frothing by it was strange, but I got to wondering which one of us, me or Granville, would get to be a hero for Berma. And she did need a hero. She might've been all hard and tough when it came to clearing out a barroom, but even a hefty woman needs somebody to defend her once terrible slanders start getting tossed her way.
"Your sister, Berma," I said. "She's just beautiful."
Granville put his bow down again and squinted at me. "Oh, brother. Don't you never even try and talk about it." He waved his hands at the river and the trees going by. "She's more beautiful than all of this."
It was true. I'd never thought of it before, but now I saw her looming and knew I'd have to defend her. This is my trouble with women. I got no restraint. I just go all out for them. So now I wanted the score settled just as much as Granville. It wasn't about us being friends anymore. It was all about Berma, down on all fours, wallowing in the carpet in Pugh's office. Oh, I guess it was awful all right, but I wanted to get Pugh and settle that score. I wanted to haul Berma off into the faraway cedars and make her scream the name of the nearest river over and over again.
I was thinking all of this when we found Ronald. By then it was afternoon and the sun was slanting golden through the trees and there were slicks of shadow on the water.
Granville saw him first and this nearly broke my heart. He shouted and when I looked, I saw Pugh floating down to us. He was face-up and naked. The current had ripped his clothes off and he was missing his hands. His swollen white belly made him look like a porcelain bathtub turned upside down. The fishes and the turtles had been at him for awhile and there was a ripe smell to him.
We waited for him, but he got caught in an eddy and just circled slowly in the water, his whole body open to the world and the big misty smell of the way he'd been finished hanging in the air. Finally, I hit the throttle and we went to him. Granville reached over the side of the john and grabbed one of Pugh's arms.
"Pull for the shore," he said. "I got him."
I hit the motor even though I had no idea what Granville had in mind. We eased up under some box elder trees where it was dark and the mud was cool. Granville climbed out of the boat into the shoals that came to his waist and pulled Pugh onto the bank, the water sloshing onto the shore and stones, the mud sucking at him.
"Throw me the rope," Granville said and I did. He pulled me and the boat up onto the bank and tied us off on an elder branch. Then he said, "Get the camera and my fiddle."
I did like he wanted and climbed out of the boat. I made sure to get the cooler and sat down in the mud with my beer. Granville squirmed into place, sitting right down on top of Ronald's belly, and then he put the fiddle under his chin and screeked out a few old square dance numbers, "Turkey In The Straw" and "Cambera Breakdown," before going into a jerky version of "Lost Indian." The music was rough and full of dirty grace. It had whiskers on it. It curled and burned through me. It went off somewhere through the trees and brambles, shivering under the wet leaves, haunting the woods and river like smoke.
I knew it was just about over for me then. I'd probably never have a chance at being a hero for Berma or anyone else. What is there besides playing fiddle? What is there besides shaming the dead? Everything else is just ashes and breeze and not hardly worth even talking about. But Granville had his fiddle and his music was my heart's vessel and I got carried off somewhere through the mossy trees by it.
After a few tunes, Granville took the fiddle down and propped it on his knee.
"Now," he said, smiling. "I want you take my picture."
I acted like I didn't understand.
"You heard," he said, and pointed at my Polaroid with his bow. "Click away with that bad bastard. I want ever bit of this to have proof."
He squirmed into place again, cradling the fiddle in the crook of his arm. Pugh's body bulged under him, the dead holes where his eyes had been staring up through the elder boughs.
I did like Granville wanted. I took pictures. I got angles, took shots of Granville while he sat there on Pugh like a big-game hunter and the Polaroids kept shucking out onto the ground, into the river and the mud, some floating away like petals. It was a rough disgrace, Pugh getting done this way, and after a bit I stopped the camera because I needed to be involved with it more than I was.
"Hey, Granville," I said. "How about getting a few shots of me?"
He propped the fiddle on his knee again and looked at me.
"You? You can't play fiddle."
"No, but I can sit still long enough to get my picture taken."
Granville shook his head. "Nu-huh, brother. This here's my score." He slapped Pugh's wet belly and scratched his dirty nose. "Me and old Ronald had our fun, but I'm sorry there's none left for you."
I tucked my head down and thought about it. Granville was usually right about things. It made sense to me then. There are only so many heroes in this world and I just wasn't made for being one. At the time, I was at a place in my life where loneliness could stand up and walk around with me, and no matter how I looked at it, I couldn't see any way that things would ever be different. I figured I'd probably always have to stand beside some foamy river and look off through the trees while the morning wandered smokily among the branches.
There were worse things, I guessed. Like being Ronald Pugh. Lying there in the mud, he looked about like the very place of ruin we were all going to, and it made me sad to see him so, knowing how he used to have such fun selling worthless automobiles, but when Granville said it was time to go I forgot all about that.
We pushed Pugh back into the water and watched him float downstream. Then I picked up the Polaroids, the ones that hadn't drifted away, and me and Granville climbed back in the boat, the mud on the shore asking what? what? what? as we stepped through it. I hit the motor and we hurried home, throwing spray everywhere, moving quick with the name of the river swirling in our heads.
Out on the water, the morning light was stranded and looked as if it might never move again.
Fields open up on all sides of the truck and suddenly the woods have surrendered to these sagebrush bottoms. Donny follows the road, an old logging trace, over berms and ruts, the Ford quaking through the grass. A can of carpenter nails rattles on the dash. An apple trembles in the drinkholder. The radio blurs and scrapes. Then the fields widen again and the wind beds down like deer in the fescue, and the world is abruptly quiet.
Shady Lee rides bitch between Sheila Culbertson and Donny, one hand grinding into Sheila's thigh while she looks out the window. Even over the diesel of the dually, Donny smells Sheila's perfume. It mixes with the whisky and sweat to give her a sourdough reek and he lets the window down even though the A/C is cranked. Gnats fly in and he swats them away. Then the tires bicker in the limerock of the road until Donny eases his foot from the clutch and the truck shudders down.
"Right here looks like a good enough spot," Donny says. Over his voice, the cicadas whir like drillwork in the burly oaks beyond.
"Get on out Sheila. We're stopping for awhile." Shady Lee's voice sounds like paper being crammed into a cup. He gets out of the truck in the fumes of Sheila, whose hair is smeared like blood over her face.
There is some rain at first. A few meager waters that fall mewling in the June-lewd heat. It is as brief and unfelt as the hand that shelters the eyes of the dead. None of them speak of it.
"Reckon they'll be some coyotes coming out this way?" asks Shady Lee, mining the cooler in the truck bed.
"Should be," Donny tells him. "Place ain't been hayed in at least three years. Probably a lot of rabbits out here."
Sheila leans over the truck bed, her face only a little tan, the scar on her chin showing white, and Donny thinks about what a man's boot heel can do, how good leather can render and cipher surely as math and numbers. Then Shady hands her a Coors and she isn't the sad girl anymore, but grins under her teased blonde bangs and puckers a little at the first bitter tang of beer. Only Donny isn't thinking of any of this. He is remembering Sheila in his brother Eric's T-top Camaro with cruel music on the radio and her river-wet skin drying on the vinyl seats while the road took them through a country of ruined barns covered with beggar root and the slow cloth of vines, Sheila's face bent and unaware of the clamoring heat beyond the car. He remembers her hair, a smell of water and flavored shampoo. He remembers Eric letting that Camaro just puree the Kentucky asphalt. Sheila wore a one-piece, burgundy bathing suit that day. Donny remembers thinking that she looked, with her white thighs and dark one-piece, like a sliver of glass dipped in wine. Even now, that's how he thinks of her, wet and slippery, shattered and stained.
"Oughta be a good night for it. Don't you reckon, Donny?" Shady unfolds a lawn chair, his shirt flapping open to show his bald chest.
"I'd say it will."
"Bring that .223 a Eric's?"
Donny shakes his head and looks over to where Sheila is sitting in one of the folding chairs, her face pale and eyes painted, and already he has decided something and the choice settles like grit in his belly and a little farther down so that he feels it in his testicles.
"Brought my .38."
"Fuckin hell. You'll have to get them coyotes close enough to kiss before you'd hit one with that cannon. Why didn't you bring Eric's Winchester?"
Under his shirt, Donny feels the pistol poke at his gut. "Matter Shady? You ain't afraid of getting close to a coyote are you?"
"Shit yes, I am afraid. Anybody that ain't churchmouse crazy would be afraid. Them coyotes get rabid and they'll come after you. Takes a steady hand to knock 'em down with a .38."
Donny pulls the pistol out of his jeans and rests it on the tailgate. He does not smile but stands in the crippled light and the rain lets down again, warm and sooty on his hands before it quits. Shady shakes his head and sits up a little in his chair.
"Goddammit, I wish you'd brought that rifle," he says.
Donny smiles, wipes at the water on the back of his neck.
"I wanna knock a hole in something," he says.
Sheila laughs. "I got something you could sure knock a hole in," she says.
And Shady's face cracks open. "Hell fuck, Sheila. Be hard to knock a hole in an open window, wouldn't it?" They cackle together.
Sweat crawls down Donny's spine. There is no more wind. The heat swims through the grass.
Even in light sparse as this, Donny can see how Shady never misses a spot when he shaves. He is a person you cannot halve. He is nothing like an apple. Other things can be broken or shared, but Shady Lee isn't one of these; he is aligned and cruel, his knuckles bent over his denim knees, stark and white as spot welds, his feet stomping some kind of rhythm in the grass.
"You brought that bleed call didn't you?" Donny asks him.
Excerpted from The Name of the Nearest River by Alex Taylor Copyright © 2010 by Alex Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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