Monday, June 24, 2013

River (Pt. IV)

Driftwood saw rapids ahead.

Across the pavement Eddie perched on the bench, gaping and motionless like a rat awaiting the owl's talons. But Driftwood resisted the undertow of impulse. It was not the right time to force the issue.

It surprised him that the kid had taken the key. He'd thought the fact of the knife, which he deliberately revealed to Eddie on their long odyssey the day before, was enough to dissuade. Eddie was either too dim to get the message or he had more grit to him than Driftwood guessed.

Driftwood needed the car. The key itself didn't matter. With an old car like this, all he needed was ten minutes and a flat blade screwdriver to get it started. But the car needed gas. Once it was fueled up, Driftwood would drive it away, following the river north. He wondered if Eddie would have the good sense to let it go without making a scene. If he didn't, that would be a problem.

The busker was another complication. Buskers attracted people. Even as Driftwood watched, the busker went to the rickshaw and began unloading things from the basket behind the seat: a small plastic podium, an outlandish mask. He was preparing to perform.

But the real problem was the old Mexican woman. She sat on a stool behind the food cart, fingering the rosary beads around her neck. Her face was turned skyward, eyes closed. Her lips moved in silent prayer. Driftwood wasn't fooled. She saw everything and he knew it.

He glanced over at Flo, who sat as before, nursing her private grief. "Go see if you can sweet-talk a burrito out of that old bruja over there," Driftwood told her. "I'm gonna find some gas."

Flo looked at him, uncomprehending.

He glared. "Shake a leg, sweetheart. I'm hungry."

She made a face.

"Be back right short," he said.

He figured his best prospects were away from the river, across the railroad tracks among the warehouses. It was Sunday, and there was little activity up that way. It looked like a place where people met to make exchanges without asking questions, a place where fallen fledglings might land. There was bound to be an unguarded gas tank in there somewhere. He set off, leaving the gas can in the trunk. He could come back for it later.

As for Flo, Driftwood did not worry. She wasn't like Eddie. The knife meant more to her. And the car. Flo was like Driftwood. She had to keep moving.

He gave no more thought to the matter.


The night before the last, back in California, he'd walked fifteen miles along a winding highway in the thin light of the moon. It was a hell of a walk but he did not let up. He kept one step ahead of panic.

It was a warm night and a lonely road that ran along the flanks of woody hills. Below the road, a river, lost in shadow-fold, snaked between the feet of the hills.  The river called to him as he walked. But Driftwood was going upriver.

When a car approached, he would hear the moan of tires then see the eerie, slow-growing aurora of approaching headlights and he would move off and hide in the shadows and wait for the car to pass. But this did not happen often.

When the pavement ended, he knew he had another two miles to go.  The crunch of his shoes in the gravel was a metronome for his thoughts which charged out into the darkness ahead of him. When the yellow beacon of the porch light came into view an urgency left his step and he caught up with his ruminations.

The river was young and noisy. Folks said the headwaters were just a stone's throw further up, in a fold hidden by oak and blue gum eucalyptus. But Driftwood had never seen it.

The house was before him. He stood for a moment, just outside the stark, cold pool of electric light, watching. There was nothing to indicate what passed inside. He drew a breath and approached the door. He raised his hand to knock. But the door swung open before he could touch it and he was struck by the thought that he'd known it would. He'd expected it. Something he'd dreamed once.

Nanna was there, hunched like a spider, her hand on the knob. It was 3 in the morning, but she was wide awake. Her pale, watery eyes revealed no surprise at all as she beheld him. "What's chasin' ya now, boy?" she asked. Her tone was both resigned and impatient.

His throat was thick and he could not speak. They eyed each other across the threshold.

She sighed. Then she shook her head and stepped aside.

Although it had been years since he'd been there, the house had not changed. A labyrinthine path ran through the front room between stacks of wrinkled magazines and faded books, boxes of odds and ends, bolts of old, rotted fabrics. Vermin nested in the mess. In the back was a greasy yellow kitchen. He sat on a rickety chair at an unvarnished table. Tawdry, yellow light flooded the room.

She was a step behind him. "Whatever you done, I sure don't know why you come here," she said. She tottered to the range and lit it. A green kettle was set on the burner.

Driftwood remained silent. She turned to him, but he bent his face to the bare surface of the table.

"Out with it," she said.

Her tone compelled him. "I cut someone," he said.

The words hung there for a moment and then she sighed. "Who? And how bad?"

Driftwood shook his head. He frowned at the table. "Down at the tavern. Some nobody with a big mouth. It was stupid of me, but I done it."

"How bad?" she repeated.

He looked up. Their eyes held for a long minute.

She pursed her lips. "Anyway, they'll come here looking for ya soon enough," she said. "Do you have a car?"

"I had to leave it."

A low hiss from the kettle kept the silence at bay.

"What do ya want then?" she asked. "I got no car to give ya."

He shook his head.

"Here we go again," she said.

The kettle sounded a ghost of a whistle.


"You know what your problem is, boy? You was always too smart to listen to anybody else. Well, I got news for ya. You ain't half as smart as you think you are." She shrugged her stooped shoulders. "Anyway, they'll come get ya, sure as hell."

Driftwood hung his head.

"When you was in school they used to tell me you had a future ahead of you. I always knew that was crazy talk. I knew ya for a washout and a loser right from the get-go. Well, now look at ya!"

"Nanna, please!" he said.

"'Nanna, please!'" she mimicked. "What was it last time? Didn't you hurt somebody else a while back? The lawyer said if it happened again you'd be on your way to the penitentiary down in Avanel."

Driftwood cut her off. "Nanna, I told you I don't wanna talk about that no more!"

But she would not stop. "At least that time you had the good sense not to come out here and ask me for help. I've pulled you out of enough shitholes already."

He stared at the surface of the table. The whistle from the kettle rose to a pitch that could not be ignored. She twisted the knob angrily. The blue gas flame snuffed out and the noise subsided.

"You know they'll be here," she said. "Just a matter of time."

He would not speak nor look up.

"What do you want?" she asked again.

He looked at her from under his eyebrows. "Nanna, I'm gonna go. You're never gonna see me again. But I need some scratch to get launched."

She frowned. "What in the hell are you talking about?"

His eyes were fixed on her torso. He would not meet her gaze. "I was hopin' you'd see fit to give me an advance on my inheritance."

Her mouth dropped open. "You serious?" she asked. She looked as if she were waiting for a punchline. "You think I got money? Hell, you're even dumber than I thought!"

But Driftwood would not let go of the line. "Nanna, I know you got a stash somewhere. You never threw away anything in your life. I ain't asking for all of it. I just need a little push start is all."

"What in hell kind of a world do you live in, boy?" she asked. Then she laughed. "Inheritance!"

"Nanna, stop laughing!" Driftwood said. He stood up.

She laughed again. She bent at the waist and slapped her knee. "Inheritance!"

"Nanna, I can't go to prison. I just need to get away and I can start all over."

She was unmoved. "You'd best get to goin' then. You're up a creek, sure enough. But don't look to me to hand you a paddle. Hell, even if I had any money, why would I give it to you? You're ain't been my headache in years and I don't gotta do nothing. All I gotta do is sit here and drink my tea and soon enough I'll be quit of ya."

"Damn it, Nanna, listen to me!" Driftwood said. He took a step forward and grabbed her under the armpits. He saw her eyes widen in alarm and he was satisfied that he had her attention. He shook her. "Listen to me, dammit!"

But now she was frightened. She brought the tea kettle up and across his head and he saw purple. The world tilted sideways, then righted itself. He dropped to a knee. His hand went reflexively to the place where the kettle had hit him. He looked at his fingers but there was no blood.

She leaned against the range, eyes wide. Even on his knees he was nearly as tall as she was. He looked at her and was pulled into the dim watery pools of her eyes. She was telling the truth. There was no money.

In a rush of movement his left hand dropped to the inside of his right leg and pulled the loose trouser cuff halfway up his shin. His right hand dropped to the exposed knife in the leather ankle-sheath. It was a practiced movement, almost reflex.

As he executed the motion, his mind observed and critiqued.

The thrust went up hard and fast. There was a brief instance of resistance as the blade pierced through her blouse and the skin and then the muscles of her abdomen, and then there was a hiss of air, as the knife tip punctured her lung.

Time resumed.

"Lord!" She gasped.

He drew out the knife and felt the serration on the spine saw at her wound on the way out. Bright red blood gushed onto his hand.

"Damn it, boy!" she wheezed. She dropped to her knees.

Driftwood stood up. He was in the flow now, and he did not fight it.

She gaped at him, waved her hand weakly, as if to ward him off. "Leave off, now," she gasped. Her face was a mask of confusion and fear.

"See what you done, Nanna?" he whispered.

She looked down at the gushing wound, then slumped to the floor. A pool of blood spread beneath her.

Driftwood was caught in the current and the knife was his paddle. He changed his grip and sprang onto her back.

He spat out words and the knife rose and fell. "Maybe I am dumb, Nanna. But now I'm free! Do you understand? I'm free! I'm free and I will follow it. Wherever it goes!"

But she was past all understanding. "Lord!" she whispered again. Her supplication ended in a gurgle as blood filled her lungs.

"No more!" he said. He let the blade fall once more. Then he stood and caught his breath.

She lay at his feet. Her face was cocked back over her shoulder, eyes clearer than he had ever before seen them. But their light was gone. The knife had made a bloody hash of her back. He could see bluish lung tissue peeking out from the pulp. It fluttered and pulsed and then grew still.

He looked around. Blood was everywhere. He took a step toward the front room, then stopped. He turned to the sink and twisted the faucet handle, smearing blood across it.

He shut the water off and sat at the table. He needed to think for a minute. He sat with his hands in his lap. His right hand held the knife loosely.

He sat that way for a while.

When he stood up again, he moved with purpose. First, he stripped himself naked. He unstrapped the knife sheath and placed it on the table top. Then he gathered his clothes and took them out to the burn barrel behind the house. He doused them in lighter fluid that he found beside the barrel and lit them ablaze.

While they burned, he rinsed the knife with a garden hose. Then he went inside and found suitable clothes from among the clutter in the front room. He chose a pair of loose-cuffed trousers to accommodate the knife.

When he was outfitted and prepared, he went back. She lay as before, eyes wide, mouth stretched in a silent scream.

He spoke to her. "Okay, so there ain't no money," he said. "But I'm still leaving and never coming back. You got your wish."

She made no reply.

He had already walked fifteen miles that night, but he must walk another ten, cross-country to the freeway. He had to get gone and there was no use fretting about it. He turned and set out into the night, unworried and determined.

He was as close as he would ever get to the headwaters. Everything was downriver from here.


In among the warehouses across the railroad tracks, Driftwood spotted an old Ford pickup parked by itself. The lock on the gas cap would be no problem. He looked around. The location offered plenty of shadowed spaces where he could stand and watch, waiting for an opportunity.

He turned back toward the place by the river. It was time to get the can and hose.

Now that everything was irrevocably in motion, he found he had surprising patience. And a strong sense of fate.

To be continued... 

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

River (Pt. III)

Jonah stood on the pedals, impelling the bright yellow rickshaw up the bike path. Although the morning was cool, three years in Portland were enough for him to know that the day would be hot. No problem. A sweaty afternoon pedaling tourists back and forth over the bridges meant beer and fajitas in the cool, purple evening that was sure to follow. He hit the esplanade at full tilt and swooped under the Hawthorne Bridge, keeping an eye out for joggers.

He liked to arrive at the site early, to prepare for the show. Arrive early and get set up early. That was the key. Be ready before the riverside hotel guests finished their buffet breakfasts.

Tourist dollars flowed easily in the good weather. Tourist dollars moved things out; they deferred events; they warded off situations that required decisions. Tourist dollars were not at all like the  money in the secret cache under the rickshaw. The tainted money. That money did not flow at all. That money chewed. The rickshaw as heavy and awkward, but even so Jonah swore he could feel the extra weight of the tight wad of bills,rubberbanded and secured with black electrical tape to the chassis. It was always present in his mind.

Someday, Jonah would give it all back. Walk right up to his father and hand it to him. Hand the whole wad to respected citizen and lawyer, Elihu Rosenkwit in front of God and the world. "Thanks all the same, Pop, but I'm gonna make my own gig." That is what Jonah would say.

He pulled into the area by the firehouse. Hector was already at the grill. La abuelita swept onion skins with a reedy broom. A few cars were parked on the street that lay beyond the trailer. A scruffy teenager sat on the bench near the drinking fountain. What's this? Jonah wondered.

He slowed to a halt, dismounted and pushed the rickshaw just off the esplanade.

La abuelita frowned, but Jonah didn't care. He'd learned how to ignore her. The skinny kid on the park bench piqued Jonah's interest. He'd never seen the kid before. What has the river washed up this time?

He considered. The kid was slouched on the bench and didn't look to be in a hurry. Smoke, perhaps? Jonah speculated. He produced a pack of American Spirits and made a show of packing them, snapping the carton against his wrist. He didn't look at the kid. He bent his head and pulled a cigarette from the box with his lips. He lit up. Then he looked.

The kid stared hungrily at the cigarette. Jonah held the smoke in his mouth without inhaling it. He hated the taste. He had no addiction and he didn't plan on getting one. He let the cigarette dangle loosely from his lip. A braid of gray smoke stung at his eye. He turned away from the kid, toward the rickshaw. Bungee cords held a small trunk in place behind the seat. He worked at unfastening them.

"You got another one of them?" the kid asked. Jonah paused. He hid his smile before he turned around.

The kid sat forward on the bench, half-turned to face Jonah.

"Jonesin', are ya?" Jonah asked. He gave the kid a good up-and-down.

A shaggy mop of hair pointing in all directions. No more than sixteen years old. Cheap jeans and rumpled shirt. Scared, for some reason. Lonely. A crusted black gash split the corner of the mouth.

"How'd ya get that lip?" Jonah asked.

"Got another cigarette?" the kid asked, ignoring Jonah's question.

"Piss somebody off?"

The kid shook his head. "Guy I knew tried to take something that was mine," he said.

"You don't like people taking your stuff, huh?"

"Not much" the kid said.

"No offense," Jonah said, "but you don't look like you've got anything worth taking." He plucked the cigarette from his mouth, approached and handed it to the kid. "I'm Jonah."

The kid almost smiled. "Eddie," he said. He accepted the cigarette and nodded over his shoulder. "That's my car back there."

Jonah looked: rust spots on the fender, old, gray tires, stained vinyl roof. "Any car's better than no car, I guess," he said. "But if it's your car, who's the cat sittin' behind the wheel?"

"Nobody," Eddie said. "He was just drivin' for a spell. Picked him up in California."

"You drove that car up from California?"

"All the way from Bakersfield," Eddie said. "Got me here just fine."

"That may be," Jonah said, "but I don't know if it'll get ya much further. You gonna be in Portland for a while?"

Eddie's face clouded. "Not sure," he said. "My dad lives in Gresham, just down the road. Gonna drive over to see him today. Surprise him. Pay my respects."

"Been a while since you've seen him then?" Jonah asked.

"Only seen him once. Two years ago. He came down to visit me in Bakersfield. Told me look him up if I ever come to Portland." Eddie dropped his eyes when he said this.

"You're coming home then?" Jonah asked. He saw a forbidden hope flash across Eddie's face. It rose up, like a trout breaching the surface of the water. Then it was gone and Eddie scowled.

"Nah, nothing like that," Eddie said. "Just paying my respects is all. I got my own life."

"Is that right?" Jonah said.

"Yeah, that's right," Eddie said. "I got my own car. I got my own life. It ain't like I'm showin' up empty-handed."

Jonah understood well enough. You're swimming in some deep water, kid. Fathers...

Eddie changed the subject. "What are you doing?" he asked, indicating the rickshaw with the trunk behind the seat.

"Making a living, kid. I ride folks back and forth across the river in my buggy. And I tell stories."


"Things I've heard from people."

 "You mean true-life stories?"

Jonah cocked his head, considering. "That's a good question," he said.

"What kind of stories, then?" Eddie asked.

"All kinds," Jonah said. "Stories about saviors and devils. Housewives with dirty secrets. Down-and-out folks and rich city lawyers. Most of the stories have to do with boats. I see a lot of boats on the river."

The flow of people on the esplanade continued to swell. Joggers, dog-walkers, strolling families. "Anyway, I gotta get to work," Jonah said. "Stick around for the act." He nodded at Eddie. I'll get the rest of your story later.

Eddie nodded back. Then he looked past Jonah in the direction of the car and sat upright on the edge of the bench. He stared intently across the pavement. Jonah turned and followed his gaze past the food cart, where people were gathering to form a queue, past la abuelita seated on her wooden stool, out onto the blacktop surface of the street where was the dilapidated car. The driver's side door was open and a hatchet-faced man had one foot on the pavement. Sharp needles of light reflected off the sunglasses, stabbing at Jonah and Eddie.

Unease clutched at Jonah's guts.

To be continued... 

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

River (Pt. II, revised)


Driftwood hadn't finished --he wasn't even close --when Flo gave out with a gasp and hung suspended above him, shuddering like a landed fish. Her face contorted as if in agony, blind eyes open wide. A short eternity passed while Driftwood observed and calculated. Then it was over.

She tumbled into the passenger seat.

Driftwood dropped his head back and grinned, watching as she pulled her skirt down over her knees.

She leaned against the passenger door, breathless. Her eyes darted toward him, but he looked away from her and peered at the sky through the windshield. The day promised to be bright. He pulled a pair of sunglasses from off the sun visor and put them on. She was still watching him.

"We need gas," he said. "I got the can and hose in the trunk." He swiveled his head, scanning the area for a car to siphon.

She seemed to be waiting, but he didn't say anything. "Did I surprise ya?" she asked, finally.

He peered at her over the top of the sunglasses. "Sweetheart," he said, "it wasn't no surprise. I knew how it was gonna go between you and me the moment I laid eyes on you." He winked.

Her half-smile dried up and blew away and Driftwood was satisfied that she understood him well enough. If she'd sensed the knife sheathed at his shin, it hadn't slowed her down any. It didn't matter anyway. He knew she knew about it --about the knife --and that was what was important.

They sat in silence. Turbulent waters roiled beneath the surface of Flo's face.

"Where we going?" she asked, finally.

He didn't look at her. "Followin' the river," he said. He hooked his thumb northward. She sank back into silence.

A scene developed through the windshield. Joggers in sweatsuits ran along the esplanade. A young man with a shaved head pedaled a tricycle rickshaw up the bike path that ran away to the south. Near the drinking fountain, Driftwood saw Eddie slumped on a bench. An old Mexican woman in skirts and shawl stood near the makeshift restaurant speaking to two dark-skinned children. She pointed a crooked finger toward the car where Driftwood and Flo sat. The rosary beads around her neck danced. The children looked from her to the car, then back to her, their faces solemn. 

"What about him?" Flo asked. She nodded in Eddie's direction.

Driftwood shrugged.

"This is where he was going" she said. "Portland."

Driftwood shrugged again. "Looks like he got here," he said.

"It's his car," she said.

His smile was broad and lurid. "I don't know about that, honey. But I know he ain't drivin'," Driftwood said. He saw by the way she frowned that she was thinking about the knife.

She'd seen it when he was washing it in the sprinkler at the rest area where he'd first found them. She was standing near the public restroom watching as he held the blade in the water. He'd seen how her eyes had devoured it--the sleek steel blade, the bolstered handle, the serrated spine. She was held transfixed as Driftwood rubbed away the dark stains with his thumb. She saw the knife before she ever saw Driftwood's face. That was good.

More people arrived on the esplanade. A family stood at the trailer ordering food from the Mexican behind the counter. Beyond them, Eddie was speaking with the bald rickshaw driver. The steady stream of joggers swelled.

"This is not a good place for gas," Driftwood said. "I'm going to find some." He pulled the handle of the door and put a foot outside on the blacktop. Eddie and the rickshaw driver looked his way.

Driftwood paused. The car key was not in the ignition. He pursed his lips in thought.

To be continued... 

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

Monday, June 03, 2013

River (Pt. I, revised)

By the river, gloomy street lamp effluvia define realms of ghost light and shadow. At this hour the visible world is a still-life cut from the shadows of traffic ramps and concrete. The river-walk is empty. A lone halogen sentinel stands near the firehouse door, face bent down as if with remorse. 

Darkness is thickest under the bridge. No light is there, only the murmur of the river. A tickling breeze sets water to lapping on stone. By the footings, the water is deep and the push of the river is great. 

Then comes the moan of rubber tires on steel grating. A ramshackle car sputters and coughs across the bridge, passes beyond and disappears in the shadows.

Only to return on the pot-holed surface streets below. The car is gasping now, rolling westward toward the riverbank. There is a boy pretending to sleep in the back seat, a young woman slumbering in the passenger’s seat, a thin, square-shouldered man behind the wheel. 

The man’s elbow hangs out the driver-side window. His eyes affix to what the headlamps will reveal. The car weaves to the curb. Ahead are the portable toilets, then the firehouse, then the river-walk and the river itself. The Hawthorne Bridge stretches off to the left. 

The man takes it in briefly, then kills the lights and the ignition. Dawn is hours away. 

The boy lies awake in the back seat, unmoving. He distrusts the man who drove the car and he is afraid to let him know that he is awake. He watches the back of the man’s head and is unnerved by how still the man sits. It comes to him that the man is asleep. The head has not moved. 

Slowly, quietly, the boy sits up. He peers over the seat back before him. He sees the young woman slumped against the car door, one arm bent across her middle, the other stretched across the seat toward the man, whose hands rest at his sides. Her hand is open and palm up, as if she were extending it to a frightened child. The boy is puzzled by this.

He can see the keychain dangling from the wheel column. The man has left the key in the ignition. A single key and a chain and a tiny mermaid figure attached to a ring at the end of the chain. The boy reaches cautiously, stretching his fingers out, leaning over the seatback. He grasps the key chain. He pulls gently and the key comes out of the ignition. The tinkle of metal breaks the silence and the man stirs. The boy holds his breath. The world is suspended while the key dangles from his outstretched hand in the space between the seatback and the dashboard. But the man does not wake.

The boy eases back down on the seat. He tucks the key with the mermaid key chain in the front pocket of his jeans. He closes his eyes and slides toward sleep. As he descends he hears the whisper of the nighttime traffic and beneath that, the faint constant song of the river.


Eddie awoke when they pushed the seat back. He was stretched out on the back bench, lying among the detritus of the road: rumpled clothes, fast-food wrappings shiny with grease, plastic sacks stuffed full with odds and ends.

He’d  been dreaming of a table, set with platters of steaming food in a sunny nook in a house with a faceless woman and a child and Eddie's father. But in the dream, his father had a blurry face and was different than Eddie remembered him. There was an empty chair and a table setting with a plate of scrambled eggs. In his dream the woman whispered to him, but he could not make the words out. Then there was a rustle and the creak of the bench seat and he was no longer dreaming. And then Flo was grunting and moaning in the front seat.

Eddie opened his eyes.

Flo was astraddle the man, Driftwood. Dewy sweat beaded on her lip. She bounced up and down, her chin bumping on top of Driftwood’s head. Her breath came in gasps. She pulled his face to her chest as if she would not have him see anything beyond her. They were both fully clothed so far as Eddie could see.

The car was old and the shocks were long gone. The whole rig jounced like a pogo stick.

Eddie pulled himself vertical in the back seat. “What are you doing?” he said.

She opened her eyes, but their light was turned inward toward glory. She did not stop.

“Flo…” Eddie said.

She turned her face to the upholstered ceiling, supplicating.

Eddie sat for a moment, mouth open, shaking sleep out of his head. He had no idea what to do. "I thought..."

Flo’s eyes popped open and she slapped the top of the front bench. “God! Get out!” she gasped.

Driftwood’s head fell away from her, revealing his hatchet face. He slid his eyes up and away where they met Eddie’s. He stretched his mouth into a smile and Eddie was afraid.

“Go,” Driftwood said.

Eddie obeyed. He pushed 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. In the jostled mirror he glimpsed his own face --the gash on his upper lip was black with crusted blood. He felt for and found the key ring with the single key attached to it, but he did not draw it out. He turned his back on the bouncing car, and thrust his hands into the pockets of his grimy jeans.

A breeze off the river carried the mingled scents of pressed garlic and human shit through the cool, shaded places under the traffic ramps. Overhead, the morning traffic sighed. A small, paved lot lay between the car and a row of portable toilets. Beyond the outhouses, the gray-green water of the Willamette River slid northward in a great silent push. He crossed the pavement toward the outhouses.

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 wiped down the counter at the window where patrons would place orders. Behind the trailer, an iron-haired old woman with a face like old leather sat on a stool. Arthritic fingers held a paring knife. Papery coils of onionskins dropped to a newspaper spread at her feet. Her eyes ran rivulets. She squinted at Eddie through her tears.

Eddie undid his fly and pissed in the dirt next to the closest of the outhouses, glowering at her across the concrete.

It had been a long harrowing ride up from Medford the day before. They had no food. They’d made do with potato chips and cold cuts they’d stolen from a family’s ice chest as they left the rest area, but it wasn’t much. The back passenger door would not stay closed, so Eddie had to remember not to lean against it. Driftwood sat like a jaybird behind the wheel the whole way, swinging his head left and right, eyes peeled and alert. Flo maintained a dreamy expression, half smiling, leaning her head out the window so that her hair whipped in the air like a dirty straw pennant.

They had no money and no way to know how much gas they had. The gas gauge had never worked as far as Eddie knew and by the time they reached Salem, he was sure they were running on fumes. In the dark hours past midnight, they hit the Terwilliger curves and coasted nearly all the way to Water Avenue. Eddie pretended to sleep in the back seat, but he knew by then who was in the car with him. Once they'd crossed the bridge, Driftwood eased back at the wheel and the car seemed to steer itself.

The Mexican woman never took her eyes off him as Eddie finished his piss. Whatever. He buttoned up and turned toward the river. A sturdy brick firehouse stood just north of the Hawthorne Bridge. A broad esplanade ran along the top of the riverbank, with benches set in the concrete. A plastic litter barrel, hooded and gray, stood hard by the nearest bench, where was also a running drinking fountain. Eddie walked to it.

He looked inside the barrel. It had been emptied recently, but he found a dog-end cigarette at the foot of the bench, so it wasn’t a shutout. He pinched the butt between his lips and fished a lighter from his front pocket. On the third spin, it lit. Eddie squinted as he held the flame to the strips of tobacco protruding from the torn cigarette. He drew in deeply, felt the soothing smoke quiet the rattle of unfed addiction, dropped down on the bench.

He thought he knew how it was with Flo. On that first morning, before Driftwood had joined them, Eddie awoke to Flo hiking up her skirt and straddling him as he sat at the wheel. It was somewhere between Bakersfield and Fresno and Eddie, groggy and a little sad, but mostly excited about his new life, sat back and learned. He'd known she was playing him, but he didn't care. His virginity was one of the things he was glad to leave behind. He sensed that Flo had somehow attached herself to the car --that she was part of it, wherever it might go.

But now Driftwood was the driver.

Eddie took a good pull off the cigarette butt and gazed at the river.

It ran high; foam frothed against the feet of the bridge. Green murk roiled in the wake of the concrete pylons. A cormorant, black as its own shadow, flew low to the water, heading downriver. In the distance, across the sliding surface, the west bank shone golden in the morning sun. Beyond, were the concrete and glass towers of Portland's downtown.

Eddie sucked on the cigarette. A red cherry grew bright, then faded and the naked filter dropped from his fingers. He pulled the key out of his pocket. It was attached to a novelty key ring, a plastic mermaid with crude brush-tip black eyes and matte black hair and red dots of paint to make nipples. The car was useless without the key.

Take that, Driftwood.

Behind him, the car ceased to bounce.

To be continued...

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.