On the night river, everything seems far away, so far
away it's come back around to being close, and a man can
need nothing and want everything, and wonder what his
life's all about at the same time that he knows. You can't see
your line in the dark. It's all sound and feel, and I swear
there've been times I smelled a strike coming before it came,
a bigfish smell rising up to the water's surface from down in
the real dark. Sometimes a baitfish'll go frantic before a
strike, trying to swim away from the mouth opening behind
it, hooked through the back and dangling in the current,
and still something else kicks in when a big blue or channel
cat comes gliding up out've the murk.
You got to start with the river, with its drop and slope
and attention to gravity, and with the land out here that it
drains. You got to start, far as I'm concerned, with the river's
heart in the big freeze and thaw, and how time piles up on
the land, and how sometimes you'll see it all there, nothing
lost, shining through the moment. A man drives a semiload
of cattle downhill and crashes through town and wrecks
things and kills himself and his wife and the cattle, most
people'll start with that. But I'm thinking it's surely funny
how stories run backwards and how there's nothing like a
death for starting them. No story in this town ever followed
I'd come off the river that morning, and the town was as
quiet as it's ever been. I parked the boat and went in to sleep,
the sun barely thinning the dark in the east, and the next
thing I know my neighbor'd walked right into the house and
was standing over me and shaking me because I wouldn't
answer his pounding on my door. I followed him downtown
and couldn't believe what I saw. Leo Gruber was working
within the sounds of the dying cattle, winching them off the
truck, wordless and steady, the only person there who
seemed to know what he was doing, everyone else standing
around or just following orders. I did some repairs to the
store, then couldn't see sense in listening to everyone guess
at what'd happened, so I went back to the river.
Course if stories in this town don't follow time too well,
maybe that's because time doesn't follow itself too well. It's
like the river, with its back currents and side channels and
backwashes, and its floodings when it doesn't know its own
banks and has to rise up over them to take a look around and
sort of remember what it once was. Talk's the same way. It
loops and circles, gathers and runs, flows into something
bigger than it knows, everyone pouring his own little stream
in, till you can't tell if there's a beginning or an ending, or if
you're in the main channel or a backwash or've gone over the
banks with the flood.
The talk goes around and around about Two-Speed
Crandall, but the talk's all about something else, like a
whirlpool still in its center and everything going around it.
It's like Two-Speed, now that he's dead, and dead's about as
still as you can get, he's drawn other stories to him, and
they're all whirling around, and people're trying to see it all.
There're two ways to look at a whirlpool. You can watch the
whole thing, and it'll go smooth and won't seem to be moving
at all, just standing there, a hole in the surface of the
water. The other, you can watch one point go around, and
you'll see the movement then, but you can't see the whole
whirl. Apply that to Two-Speed Crandall and take it for
what it's worth, which maybe isn't much, and you've got
what's going on in this town.
You can look down the river at night and see the moonlight
or starlight on the surface, and that surface can look
hard and solid, and you can think that's the whole river, just
what meets your eyes. Sometimes, even, just for the fun of
deceiving myself, I'll think it, that the moment I'm seeing is
everything, and the river's got no depth or current or creatures
or snags or old, invisible waters.
Course it ain't true, any more'n it's true that all the stories
going around this town are about Two-Speed Crandall.
Why he hit my store I surely don't know. Maybe it was an
accident, maybe not. It's easy to say it was, and maybe that's
the best reason to believe it, but I've never yet met anyone
who wanted to stay with the easy thing once he got started
talking. Two-Speed was acting strange the last time I saw
him, and I've heard he and Leo Gruber never got along, so
you've got to wonder about Gruber's cattle being on the
truck, though I don't know what it was made the bad blood
Truth is, I know the sons better'n the fathers. The first
time I saw Luke Crandall and Jeff Gruber down on the river
together I thought it was an odd thing: Luke a skinny kid, a
year younger than Jeff, looking about as substantial as a
spiderweb next to Jeff, and with a kind of hot, surprised
look on his face most of the time, like he didn't know what
to expect of the world but he was determined it wouldn't be
good, and then Jeff Gruber, solid and square as a cutbank
when you come around a bend, and always looking like he
knew what he was about.
But there they were, down on the river together, jabbering
like old friends, and I took a liking to them and started
to teaching them things, and I never figured it was my business,
even if I was curious, how they came to be friends
when their fathers had such a reputation for not getting
along. They had the kind of interest in the river they ought
to've had, weren't down there just to drink and screw
around, and that was enough for me, enough to take them
fishing and show them what the river was and tell them
what it'd been and still is in the right chances, when it lies
on the land its old self, nothing ever disappearing, just
falling into a different kind of seeing.
Anyway, you can look at Two-Speed Crandall all you
want and figure what happened and guess and conjecture,
you can be like Skeet Olson thinking the truth is in the
events, and you can tell it over and over, thinking that if you
just tell what actually happened enough times you'll get
somewhere--but that's just looking at the surface of the
river and thinking you're seeing the whole thing, forgetting
it has a shape and form from way back.
Talk often enough starts with the end of something,
then circles around and finds itself, until people're satisfied
and settle down. But if you're going to start at the start,
you'd have to go clear back to who knows where? To why
things freeze and thaw, including the heart sometimes, and
why it sometimes won't thaw. People don't know half themselves.
That's why I go fishing. I know I don't know myself
on the river, but I swear that it knows me. And sometimes
it'll let you in, and then you'll realize how big and old it is,
and how long water can flow.
It happened to me once. Since then I've been less worried
about beginnings and endings, more kind of thinking
there isn't much difference. I wouldn't start with Two-Speed
at all. I'd go as far back as you care to go, to the ways
people know or don't know the deepest waters, and do my
guessing from there.
I'm the only one actually seen it. Since they
reamed out my veins I been walking every morning. I go out
of my house down to Main Street, then head south out of
town up the hill to the section road, then west a mile, north
a mile, east a mile back. I was at the curve on Highway 4
where it becomes Main Street when I heard the grunt of
diesel above the hill. I looked up and could see smoke, a big
thinning cloud growing into two black lines as they reached
the edge of the hill.
You've seen how a semi looks coming over a hill. Like it's
coming out of the earth, some chrome and smoky bug
emerging. There it was then, flat and big, the sun all of a sudden
whambright on the windshield. And I stopped walking.
He came over the hill, and the diesel smoke kept right on
pouring out of the stacks. Kept right on pouring. I stood
there and thought, What the hell? What the hell? It was one
of those things where you can't even name what's wrong, but
your whole body knows it is. I didn't put it together like two
plus two equals four, but more like the answer came first,
four equals two plus two, except that the answer didn't make
any sense, and the equation could have been a lot of other
things, like three plus one, or two and thirteen-sixteenths
plus whatever. New corn was growing in the fields, and a
meadowlark sang on a fence post, and that diesel smoke
went straight up into the sky, and I knew what was going to
happen before I quite had the reasons I knew why.
"Jesus," I said. "He's not slowing down."
I stood on the curve, halfway up the hill, on the shoulder
of the road, and watched. The sound of the engine came
down at me like it was hard and heavy enough to knock me
off the road.
It grew bigger and bigger, the cab red, the chrome stabbing
me with sunlight. Coming down, coming down. Then
over the sound of the engine I heard what if you go to hell
and hear ghosts you'll hear, I imagine. My wife, Grace, tells
me not to think such things. She keeps her mind on heaven,
she tells me, because that's where her salvation lies. And
sure. But I intend to appreciate salvation by knowing what
I'm being saved from.
And I don't want to hear that sound again. When I fell
on the floor that time and felt like death had a nail in its
hand clawing around inside my chest, I thought not much
could be worse. But I know now what's worse--to have
death creep into you without a notice or muscle twitch and
just sit there and stop your blood. When I heard that mooing,
all those cattle--and don't ever tell me animals don't
know something about the future, all those cattle bellering
and lowing, like some big off-key organ with a soul--when
I heard that coming down to me, my heart stopped entirely.
I couldn't've run if there'd been a fire built under me.
Couldn't've run if there'd been a flood.
Down it came, and I did this: I turned and looked behind
me. I did. I looked to see if the town was still there, as
if I thought maybe it'd up and move when it saw this riot
roaring down. But there it was all right, sitting like always.
There it was, covered in trees, hardly none of the houses
visible, just a couple of the church steeples sticking up. The
St. John's bells started ringing when I turned. Right then,
they started ringing--and this thing roaring down.
I turned back. It was only a couple hundred yards away
from me, and still gaining speed. "I can't believe," I said. "I
don't. Who the hell?"
Then I knew.
I knew the way the cattle knew.
Then there he was, going by me, not even seeing me, I
don't believe. I was lucky enough to be on the outside of the
curve, because he took it like a race car driver, swinging wide
at the beginning and cutting across the center to the inside
shoulder and never once letting up on the accelerator. Two-Speed
Crandall--as if anyone doesn't know.
And LouAnn beside him on the other seat. Flick, and
they were gone. Gone, and I was looking at the back end of
the thing, the road ditch grass whirling in the eddies, and
the cattle's bellering coming back, and the meadowlark still
singing, and the bells still going, and the diesel smoke curving
over the trailer like two black horns and coming down to
where I breathed.
But there was a moment when they went by that I'm not
likely to forget. The sun left the windshield, and it was like I
was staring into a dark, cool cave, and inside the cave were
two faces that I knew, but they weren't like I'd ever seen
them before. Two-Speed was looking out, but all he saw was
the road. He didn't have a look on his face. He didn't have an
expression. It was like his face was the road itself, like he was
so intent on it that it ran right up the windshield and into
his face. And that's what he had there--an expression without
an expression, just lots of empty miles, like a road that
goes nowhere and gets there too fast.
LouAnn was sitting sideways in her seat, and she had
her hand on the air-horn pull, and she was looking right at
Two-Speed, who wasn't looking at her, and she was ... well,
I don't know. Her mouth was moving, so I guess she was
talking to him, but he wasn't listening or caring. I got it like
a photograph, that scene. Flick, and it's there and gone, and
not a chance to change it. I'm gonna remember it for a long
I'm gonna remember it like this: Like they were carrying
their own world down that hill. Like the space behind the
windshield was something different than the space I was
standing in. Like I didn't have nothing to do with them and
them nothing to do with me. It sounds strange to say this,
considering what was happening, considering what was
going to happen, what did happen--it sounds real strange--but
I can't think of nothing to make it clear but goldfish.
Grace has a goldfish bowl, and I'll be danged if I get it.
Those fish just frustrate me. Stare at them long's you want,
they still got nothing to do with you. They ain't in the
world, not really. Once every day some food drops onto
them from the world, some flecks of stink they eat. But
that's it. They're in their own world, and they got their own
space, and they don't care about you, and I'm not sure they
care much about each other.
Take it for what it's worth, I don't know. But sometimes
I get the feeling, watching them fish, that if they could pick
their world up they'd smash it in your face--just to do it.
And suffer the consequences. Suffer the gasping and dying.
Just to do it. Just to spite your face.
I thought i'd come out to the sticks after medical
school, or what I thought was the sticks, and do some good
for people instead of going after the bucks in suburbia. My
reed school pals thought I was crazy. By the time I figured
out that I hadn't come here so much to do some good as to
bless the people of the sticks with my suburban presence, I
was too entrenched to move. I'd brought babies into the
world and watched them grow, and I knew their parents and
had kids of my own who were their friends. And I knew all
the stories. So I bought some land, and my wife and I
promised each other we'd go to Minneapolis once a month
for theater or art, and we never kept that promise. Instead I
learned to hunt ducks and pheasants and got pretty good at
skeet shooting, and I trained my voice singing with the
Lions Club at their Wednesday meetings. I can't tell you
what's at the Guthrie this week, but I can probably tell you
what became of most of the children I helped birth, or I can
tell you what I've heard of them.
I know the talk that goes around as well as anyone, and
I'm as ignorant of the events. The truth is, there's not much
that anyone really knows about this last thing. We know
this: Two-Speed Crandall came down the hill on Highway
4 with a semiload of Leo Gruber's cattle. He made the curve
into town and threaded the semi between two trees and hit
the mayor's new house with the swing of the trailer, opening
up the living room, scattering two-by-fours and siding. He
roared on down across the lawns of the entire block, leaving
tracks in them all, then found another hole in the trees lining
the sidewalk and emerged to descend on Main Street
like a bowling ball among pins.
You can imagine all this from the evidence. You don't
even need Skeet Olson's story, though he's a celebrity here
lately, the only eyewitness--if that's any claim to the truth.
But the only thing he knows that you couldn't figure out
some other way is that Two-Speed was accelerating. And
that just leads to questions, and guesses as to their answers.
But the rest, what really happened, what we know--well, a
semi isn't subtle. The truck hit the bank, smashed its automatic
teller, destroyed its facade, its plate glass, its plants inside
the windows. Then it went back across the street to
smack Angel Finn's hardware store, sending files and hammers
and hip waders spewing across the sidewalk. A twelve-pound
maul, through some strange physics, flew across the
street and embedded itself in the wooden front of the pool
hall, where Walt Latham, the proprietor, had the good sense
to leave it, as a draw to customers and an aid to conversation.
Mooing and roaring, the truck left the hardware store,
straightened out, and hit the brick barbershop at the T on
Main head-on. A little more speed and it would have gone
right through and out the other side, but the bank and hardware
store had slowed it down. The cab penetrated and
came to a stop inside the building. Two-Speed Crandall was
ejected through the windshield. He came to rest upside
down over the second and never-used barbershop chair.
There's some symbolism there. In death as well as life he
didn't quite fit the places where he landed.
LouAnn was with him. She remained inside the cab.
And that's all anyone knows for sure. By the time I got there
the police and firemen had extricated her and Two-Speed
and were placing them inside an ambulance, needlessly. I
checked them, but then climbed into the ambulance anyway
and went with them to the hospital in Clear River. I'd
helped to birth their sons, and even here anymore, you've
got to protect yourself against any claim to carelessness.
Through the back window of the ambulance I saw the
firemen washing off the street. They didn't know what else
to do. Nothing in their training had prepared them for anything
like this. They were used to hooking up hoses and
turning nozzles on problems, so that's what they did. The
water crashed out, white with air, and hit the mass of blood
flowing from the cattle in the semi, and ran in pink froth
down the gutters. Only later, when Leo Gruber arrived,
would he see what had to be done. The firemen, I've heard,
shut off their hoses when he stepped from his car. They
watched as he walked to the wreckage of the semi and
peered through the slats, and in the silence they heard for
the first time the hoarse breathing of cattle. Until then no
one had stopped to listen. Leo turned and walked to the fire
chief and asked for a four-wheel-drive pickup with a winch.
But you see how quickly you move from the evidence.
Already I'm telling what I've been told.
Pop Bottle Pete
Sometimes the sun's real hot. Sometimes it's real
hot. It's real hot like fire, and I feel like an egg. I fry. Just like
But the bottles're cool. They're in the grass. In the
ditches in the grass. People throw them away. Cans too.
Sometimes I see them. But not usually. I usually don't see
them throw them away. If I saw, I'd know where to look.
Usually I just walk and look. Because they do it at night and
always. Even in winter, when I stay home. So I have to walk
When the sun's real hot I feel like an egg. I sizzle. I sizzle
with my mouth. Sizz-z-z-z-z-le. Like an egg. But I still
The bottles're cool. The cans aren't cool, but the bottles
are. They're both in the grass, but the bottles are always
cool. Sometimes there's something in them. I'll sometimes
taste. If no one's coming on the road. So they don't think.
Especially Coke. It's the real thing. It sticks at my mouth.
I'd like to play volleyball on a beach. With girls. That'd be
the real thing.
People wave to me. They honk their horns. I wave back.
They wave and honk their horns. If a semi goes by, I raise
my fist and go up and down with it. Sometimes they pull the
big horn. Wa-a-a, wa-a-a-a. Like a ship. Like fog. When
they do that, even if it's hot, I don't feel like an egg. I feel like
lost in a fog. Like I wish they would pull the big horn always
and make me feel fog lost.
He always did. Wa-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a-a, until
I couldn't hear it no more. I didn't have to raise my hand
for him. He'd start way before. Before I even saw him.
Wa-a-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a. I always knew it was him, cause
he'd start way before. Wa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a, he'd sometimes
I'd shut my eyes. I was a ship and he was a ship. In the
cool fog. But we weren't going to hit.
Then he'd yell my name. Not Pop Bottle like most people.
He'd yell Pe-e-e-e-eter-r-r. Big and loud. Out his window,
going by. He'd stop his horn so he could yell. My
name. I'd open my eyes, and there he'd be. Grinning at me.
Waving. I'd yell back and wave. Si-i-i-i-im-o-o-o-n. Not
Two-Speed like most people. His name. Simon.
We'd yell our names at each other and wave and laugh.
Then, when he was past me, he'd throw a bottle out. One
I could return. They're worth a nickel. People throw them
away. But all you have to do is take them back, and they'll
give you a nickel. Or a dollar if you have enough. He threw
it out because we yelled our names at each other.
Then he'd wa-a-a-a again until I couldn't hear it no
more. I never felt like an egg then. I felt cool and good.
He was just feeling like an egg. Like he was sizzling and
sizzling, and he couldn't find something cool. Sometimes if
I don't find a bottle for a long time, and the sun's real hot, I'll
feel like smashing myself. Just to let the hot out.
That's what he did. Because he couldn't find something
cool. You can't feel like an egg all the time. You have to
I never sold the bottles he threw. I got them on a shelf. I
probably got enough, I could buy a Walkman.
But I'd rather have the bottles. He always wa-a-a-a-ed
and waved and called my name. And I called Simon.