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.