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.

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