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.

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