Monday, July 11, 2011

River (Pt. I)

Note: Our assignment in my PCC writing class, High-risk Fiction, taught by Ryan Blacketter, is to write a short story. This is the first scene in my story. This is a draft and likely to undergo many revisions over time. But here it is...

Noah awoke when they pushed the front seat of the car back.  He was stretched out on the back bench, sleeping among the detritus of the road:  a stained, empty water cooler, crumpled newspapers, plastic garbage bags stuffed with rumpled clothing.  He heard a whisper and a rustle and then Flo was grunting and moaning in the front seat. The car was old and at one time had a suspension system, but the shocks were long gone and Flo’s rutting caused the whole thing to jounce like a pogo stick. Noah opened his eyes.

Flo was straddling the kid, pulling his face into her chest. Her eyes were closed, her face flushed. Dewy sweat beaded on her lip above her mouth. She bounced up and down, her chin bumping on top of the kid’s head. Her breath came in gasps.  She clutched the kid’s head to her chest as if she would not have him see anything beyond her.  They were both clothed so far as Noah could see. 

Noah frowned and pulled himself vertical in the back seat.  He was tired, but there was no going back to sleep with Flo growling.  “You’re like a goddam dog,” he said.
She did not stop.

“You got no shame,” Noah said.

Flo slapped the seat back with her open hands.  “God! Get out!” she said.  The kid's head dropped away from her.  His eyes bulged.  He gaped like a landed fish.  “Give us some room, man,” he said.  “Go see if you can find food.”

Noah tried to remember the kid’s name, but couldn't.  It didn’t matter anyway.   Just a wanderer headed north who'd picked them up in Sacramento.  “Bitch,” Noah said, but they were already back at it.

Noah flung open the back passenger door and scooted out, kicking greasy food wrappings and soiled clothes before him onto the blacktop. He slammed the car door, but it didn’t catch.

Noah knew how it was with Flo.  Before the old Rio finally dropped dead, Noah had driven all the way across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.  In that time, he awoke every morning to Flo hiking up her skirt and straddling him as he sat in the driver’s seat. He didn’t know then, but he knew now: it didn’t matter to Flo who was underneath her. She liked to brace her back against the steering wheel. She’d told him once that it gave her leverage.

Noah turned his back on the bouncing car and thrust his hands into the pockets of his grimy jeans. He strode across the pavement toward the portable outhouses by the river walk.

A waft of air carried the mingled scents of pressed garlic and human shit through the cool, shaded places under the traffic ramps. Overhead, the morning traffic roared and sighed. Beyond the outhouses, the gray-green water of the Willamette River slid northward in a great silent push.  The river ran high; white foam frothed against the feet of the Hawthorne Bridge.  Water roiled in the wake of the bridge’s concrete footings, restless and meandering.  In the distance, across the sliding surface, the west bank shone golden in the morning sun.

Mexicans had set up a mobile kitchen in the parking lot, near the walkway that led up to the bridge. It was a tow trailer they had rigged up with a grill and range. They’d cut a window into the side, with a counter and a retractable awning.  A half-dozen Mexicans eddied around the trailer. A boy and girl carried sacks of onions and potatoes.  A young man in an apron scrubbed the grill and wiped down the counter at the window where patrons would place orders. Behind the trailer, an iron-haired old woman sat on a stool, peeling onions.  She squinted at Noah.

Noah pissed in the dirt next to the closest of the outhouses.  He glowered across the blacktop at the old Mexican woman.

The night before, they’d coasted into Portland after a long harrowing ride up from Medford. It had been rough. They’d eaten the last of the potato chips and some cherries they’d picked from a tree on the side of the highway, but that was all they'd had. The back passenger door would not stay closed, so they’d had to remember not to lean against it. The gas gauge didn’t work and they didn’t know how much gas they had, but they knew it wasn’t much. Noah had been more than half-surprised when they finally hit the Terwilliger curves and were able to coast nearly all the way to the Water Avenue exit. But they made it, and the car seemed to steer itself to the place under the eastern terminus of the Hawthorne Bridge, where it sputtered out and they sank into sleep.  As he descended, Noah heard the whisper of the nighttime traffic and beneath that, the faint but constant song of the river.

Noah zipped up and looked around.  On a bench set back from the river, sat the Drifter.  The dim-eyed, wry Drifter.  Never far from the river.  His bench was set back from the water before a shelf of rotted concrete.  A promontory that hung out over the water, adorned by twisted fingers of rusted re-bar protruding here and there.  The Drifter sat sideways on the bench, one leg slung out before him,watching the old Mexican woman watching Noah piss.  She was a stern old thing, that one.  In one hand she held a peeling knife, in the other a white onion.  She sat on a stool with a bucket of water between her knees. As he watched, she skinned an onion and dropped it into the bucket.

Noah was walking toward the Drifter when he saw that the woman had turned her eyes on him.  A strand of black hair hung across her forehead.  Tears streamed from her eyes.

When he was near enough to be heard, Noah greeted the Drifter with a growl.  "Fuckin' Mexicans," he said.

The Drifter looked down at his hands. Arthritis pushed his fingers more crooked every day.  "Fine mornin'," he said.

A breeze passed along the riverbank, carrying the smells of chorizo and onions.  Noah shrugged.  "Don't remember me, do ya?" he said.

"I know ya," the Drifter said. 

Noah shrugged again.  “So, what have you made of yourself since the last time I saw ya?” he asked.

The Drifter laughed. “Can’t ya see for yourself?”

Noah looked out over the river.  “Know where a guy might find food around here?” he asked.

The Drifter gestured toward the Mexicans at their trailer. “Go ask that old doña,” he said, indicating the elderly Mexican woman.  “She might give ya.”

Noah scoffed.   “Rather stay hungry.”

“You run with a more respectable crowd, don’t ya?” the Drifter said.  Behind Noah he could see Flo.  She stood barefoot on the pavement, back arched, arms stretched above her head like a diver poised on a diving board.

Noah glanced over his shoulder.  “She ain’t my crowd,” he said.

The Drifter shrugged.  “But you’re still trailin’ after her, pickin’ up whatever she drops in front of ya.”

“I hate her,” Noah said.

The Drifter's gift was to know how far to push and when to let off.  "You know how to swim, kid?” he asked.

"Not a stroke," said Noah.

“Better that way, trust me," said the Drifter.

For a while, they listened to the sigh of the traffic overhead.  But Noah finally took the bait, as the Drifter hoped he would.

"What in the hell are you talking about, you old loon?" Noah said.

The Drifter laughed --a low, quiet laugh.  "Catfish Cutter stood right there on them rocks twenty years ago and told me he could swim alright.  Said he could swim across this river.”

Noah looked out over the water to the far shore, where was the sea wall and promenade where people walked along the river in twos and threes.  They were tiny figures at that distance, scarcely distinguishable from one another.

"That'd be a long swim, I don't care who you were," said Noah.

The Drifter shook his head.  "Swim, don't swim, you end up in the same place," he said.  "River's gonna take ya where it takes ya."

To be continued...

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