We're going down to the river, to mess around in the railway junkyard just this side of the floodwall. We've been here before. Rusting bars and wheels with weeds sticking out, coils of wire, stacks of rails and creosote-soaked ties, all steaming under the first warm sun of the new year. We are, I suppose, technically trespassing, though it's hard to imagine anyone getting too worked up about this desolate field. It's an unseasonably warm winter day; we've scored a fresh bag of local dope and we both have time off from school and work to smoke it - more time than we'll ever have again, and less to fill it with.
Chloe parks herself on a dry pile of boards, gray and knotty, and I slouch down on the gravel spill in my accustomed place below and beside her, leaning up against one black denim-clad leg. Chloe's long, practiced fingers press the pot into her dugout stash-box, the one that always smells like cinnamon from being stored in the back of her dresser drawer, back there with all the candles she likes to burn while listening to black vinyl pressed before she was born.
The sun's almost warm enough for me to want to take off my army-surplus jacket. Not quite, though. I can't ever feel warm enough anymore, it seems. Chloe loads a hit and lights up - ladies first, plus of course it's her weed and her pipe. I'm just along for company, really, and the ride. I did drive us down here.
She takes a deep drag and holds it for a long time, longer than you'd think she could in that skinny little chest, then smacks my shoulder with the dugout, lips pursed, unspeaking. I take it, and scrape out my own hit.
When she exhales, her breath is clear, as if she'd never smoked at all. All those years living in her elders' houses pay off, I guess. I inhale and hold, about as long as she did - but then I'm bigger than she is, and I still swim twice a week in the brackish chlorine soup and warm indoor smells at the Y, not nearly as scary an institution as one might think in this small river town. My breath is clear, too, when I exhale. I smell cinnamon, mixed with the swampy smell of weed.
Chloe makes the dugout, pipe and lighter vanish in that miraculous way of hers that doesn't ruin the line of her jeans, and holds out her hand to let me help her up. She is always restless when she first gets a buzz on. I am just the opposite; the sun has put me into lizard mode and I could simply bask. She'd just walk off and leave me here, though, and I don't want that.
We cross the disused railroad spur to walk along the floodwall that separates the town from the treacherous river. The wall is a strong and solid thing, smooth brown concrete marked at intervals by white and faded stripes, graduated grayly with feet above low water level, another Works Progress Administration triumph built back when there was time and cheap labor enough to get the job done right. There are gates in the wall every three or four blocks, gaps three times my height in the city's defenses. All the gates have slots lined with metal painted green. If (when) there's another great flood like the one that prompted the building of this wall, huge metal panels - which must be stored somewhere, though I've never seen 'em or even heard of where they are - will slide down into those slots, securing the town from the invading water.
Nothing like that has happened since the wall was built, though the storm drains have backed up a few times; the gate we come to gapes wide and inviting. The younger city councilors grumble periodically about the expense of maintaining the wall, but their objections are always swiftly countered - someone points to the sepia photographs of the great flood that are on perennial display in the rotunda, and that's all it takes. We leave the scattered refuse of the Industrial Age behind, and go through the open gate.
The river is high, swollen by winter rains, the water an opaque sheet of yellow-brown mud that swirls by, deceptively slow on the surface. The crescent shape of the concrete amphitheater, the one they built half a generation ago when it looked as if there'd be a downtown renaissance, is mostly submerged. Just a few square beige concrete posts stick up out of the river, connected by a smoother curved patch of brown water to mark the top step-cum-bench in the bowl. Stand with your back to the floodwall, and very little shows the hand of man - a few rotted pilings further downriver, and far across on the other shore a scattering of houses. And the bridge, of course, an insubstantial filigree of greenish girders high over the river, a half-mile downstream.
Chloe takes her shoes off, then her socks, rolling the socks into little balls and sticking them into her shoes. She stretches, then takes off her faded blue denim jacket and hands it to me. Underneath she's wearing an open flannel shirt; under that, one of those sleeveless, ribbed men's undershirts - a wifebeater. She rolls up the cuffs of her jeans once or twice, and steps onto the concrete pillar nearest us, holding her arms out for balance. She steps out onto the curved patch of smooth water between the two posts. I watch from up by the floodwall.
I've lived my whole life by this great wide river, passed over its bridges, watched tugs and barges and even the occasional steamboat, but I've never actually been on its waters. A dead fish goes spinning by, white and bloated, one reason why... I shiver despite my jacket, despite the sun.
A line of ducks winds toward the water. They move as they have moved for millions of years, those ducks, and I see... oh, no, not god. That'd take stronger stuff than what I'm on. But I sometimes see the hole where a god might be.
It happens that quickly. I've been zoning out, and now Chloe is nowhere in sight. The brown muddy river rushes by, same as ever. The ducks are gone. The sun beats down. I am alone.
What can I possibly say to Sophia, the aunt Chloe's been living with lately? I am muzzily trying to figure something out, when a throaty giggle comes from behind the play structure. She steps out smirking.
"You were totally zoned, man," she drawls. Then, "What? What?"
I am walking away, hugging myself as if it were freezing again. She's not used to me being the one to walk away, and I think it worries her.
"What is it?" she asks. For a moment I hear tenderness that hurts me more than anything harsh.
I keep my voice low.
"I thought you'd fallen in."
"What?" Hard of hearing or just not believing? I don't know, don't care; I suddenly hate her for making me repeat it. It sounds so stupid now that she's back in front of me, dry and pale as bone.
"I thought. You'd fallen. In."
I think she'll laugh at me - I'm ready for that - but instead she gets angry. It happens that quickly.
"You idiot. You think I'm that stupid? You think you're my protector, don't you? My big brother. I don't need that shit from you - that's not what I want from you."
I don't ask her what she does want from me. There are gaps in the wall I've built around how I feel for her, but they're not that big.
"Maybe you'd better take me home," she says.
I don't trust myself to say anything more right then. The metal walls come sliding down.
My car is big and old, a maroon monstrosity with an eight-track player in it that has never worked. Chloe sits over near the door, her jacket on the seat between us, looking out the window. She always does that, though; I can't read anything into it.
It's a short drive to her aunt's house. Everything in this goddamned town is a short drive away. We don't speak. I concentrate on my driving, piloting my wine-dark barge through shoals of slow-moving traffic. I'm not as fucked-up as I was, at least together enough to drive, but I do have to pay close attention. It's an excuse.
Before long we pull up in front of her aunt's tall, narrow house, white with dark blue trim. I turn the motor off and she opens the door, grabs her jacket, gets out, still without speaking or looking back.
I'm not moving. She goes a few steps, then turns around.
"You comin' in?"
"I'd better get home."
"Aw, come on. Aunt Sophie just got cable. We can watch MTV or something."
No matter how many times I step back into the river, it's always the same. A brief shock to the system, but then I can drift again. I let her think her promise of bright images has persuaded me, and get out of the car. No sense locking up; nothing I value is in there. It'd be a favor if someone drove off with it. I walk up the high concrete steps behind Chloe without looking back.
The house is dark, stuffy and warm, as always. The purple-lit aquarium's aerator hums and bubbles, loud in the silence. There's no one here but us, and the fish. Chloe lights a clove cigarette, and the smell fills the house. I sink into the imitation leather armchair to the right of the coffee table, near the aquarium, and cross my legs at the ankles, letting lizard mode claim me again. Chloe moves around the kitchen, getting us some bottles of good old American beer and grabbing some pretzels or something from the cabinet. Water splashes.
She comes back into the room and flicks on the TV. A flower of light is blooming on the screen. It happens that quickly. I'm not paying attention, wondering idly when the music's going to start. Chloe's reaction is a little more appropriate.
"Oh my god, ohmigod, it's the shuttle."
The clip starts again and it is, it is, astronauts and all going up and out in an asymmetrical yellow and black blaze. We both lean forward, searching for details, as the commentators haltingly describe what has happened, their detachment crumbling like a wall of sandbags in a hundred-year flood.
All thoughts of music video forgotten, we watch the flower bloom again and again - they can't seem to stop showing it to us, on any and every channel that has any pretense of showing the news. We watch dry-eyed as a dream disappears.
I don't expect her to turn to me so I can console her, but I'm ready if she does. Not taking advantage, never that - just holding her, being the strong one... we sit in our separate seats and listen to the theories of the talking heads, and watch that terrible flower bloom over and over until it is almost dark outside and we are almost sober. Then I stand up and thank her for the company, and I leave the house to go... well, not home. It's still too early for that. I drive up to the park on the hill where there is an overlook facing west, yellow benches and a circle of stones with a view of the river. I sit in the car and watch the last traces of color disappear from the sky - I blink, and it's dark. It happens that quickly, as if the river had silently risen those last few feet to the sky, and swallowed it up.
©2003 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated October 24, 2003.