Monday, July 01, 2013

River (Pt. V)



Alone in a car that would not move, captive of her anxiety, Flo studied her reflection in the windshield.

She was thin. Bony like a flamingo, but not pretty like a flamingo. She was not the woman she once had been, but at least there were no ghosts in the reflection.

As Driftwood disappeared into the cool blue shadows among the warehouses, Flo struggled. She felt she must keep moving, keep changing the scenery around her. Whenever she stopped, the ghosts caught her up.

The first time was in the gas station restroom in Fresno. It was two days earlier; just before she found Eddie. She stood at the dirty sink and splashed water on her face and when she looked up, there were two ghosts. One behind each of her shoulders.

The first was a young man with solid shoulders and an honest, mournful face. He was almost familiar. He stood beside and behind her and peered at her reflection as if he were waiting for an answer. Flo didn't want to think what the question might be.

The other ghost was a toddler. A little boy of about three years who hid his face in his hands. One eye peeked between his splayed fingers, but it was impossible to know if he was angry or afraid or playful. His hair gleamed gold. Flo did not see the boy's face. She blinked the water out of her eyes and looked again, but they were gone.

The next night, she saw them again. It was when she and Eddie were stranded at the rest area in the wasteland north of Sacramento. They were out of gas and it was late at night and she was standing before the mounted highway map tracing the red lines of highways across the topological depiction. Then she'd noticed the ghosts in the dull reflection of the plexiglass. They'd stood behind her as before. The features were indistinct in the scratched plastic surface, but there was no mistaking the two figures. The one was tall and broad-shouldered, the other smaller and shrinking, as if in fear. She did not turn around, but she hurried away. That was when she saw Driftwood cleaning his knife in the watery bloom of a lawn sprinkler.

Flo was less afraid of Driftwood than she was of the ghosts.

But the ghosts were not in the windshield's reflection and she was thankful for that.

Outside, the food cart was doing a brisk business selling burritos to people walking along the esplanade. A young man in a stained white apron worked the grill. La abuelita, her feet hidden by long, dark skirts, puttered with buckets behind the trailer. The two children made drawings with colored chalk on the sidewalk nearby. Half a dozen people sat at the picnic tables, eating. There was no queue at the moment.

Beyond, Eddie was still seated on the bench. Flo saw the bald-headed busker nearby, bending to peer into a mirror mounted on the handlebars of the rickshaw. He was applying makeup to his face.

It was the cool late morning. The expectation of the day's heat hung over everything.

Flo opened the car door and stepped onto the pavement. She had been barefoot for a week and her feet were black with grime. She approached the trailer.

The young man was scraping the grill with a pad. His hair was jet black and pomaded on top, cropped close on the sides. He paused and looked at her as she approached. "'elp you?" he asked. He spoke with an accent.

Flo smiled at him, but did not answer.

"You wan something?" he asked.

She nodded, smiling.

He indicated a chalkboard mounted above the counter. A menu was written there in blue chalk.

"I'm hungry," Flo said.

He shrugged and pointed at the menu.

"But I don't have any money," she said.

He frowned. "You hungry, but you got no money."

She nodded again, still smiling.

He looked her over, puzzled. Flo waited. There were several ways this might go and she was fine with any of them. She just wanted to get moving again.

His expression softened as he took a good look at her. Pity won out. "Let me see if I got something," he said.

La abuelita poked her head through the door behind him. "Pregúntele dónde va," the old woman said.

The young man pursed his lips. "¿Por qué?"

"¡Pregúntele!"

The man shrugged. "She want to know where you going," he said.

Flo looked at the old woman. The plain face was creased and stern. It was a face beyond judgement. Flo could feel the command of the old woman's gaze like a physical force, pushing Flo to speak. But it was not a question Flo could answer. So she shrugged and shook her head.

The gaze did not relent. La abuelita spoke again. "¿Dónde vino?"

"She wan to know where you come," the young man said.

Flo let her smile fall away. She spoke directly to la abuelita. "I don't wanna talk about that," she said.

La abuelita flicked her hand at Flo, shooing her away as if she were a bothersome cat. "Vaya, entonces," she said.

The young man looked at Flo, helpless and unhappy. "Sorry," he said. "No puedo ayudarle. I can't help you."

Flo hadn't expected it to go that way, but it did. She was famished and the smells from the food cart --onions, chorizo --were maddening.  But when the old woman asked the question Flo had felt something pull at her heart. She could not see them, but she knew the ghosts were close. She could feel their eyes upon her. 

Hunger and uncertainty dispelled. Flo had one thought. I've got to get moving.

People from the esplanade were approaching to make orders. The young man had already turned his attention toward them. Flo turned away from the trailer.

Eddie sat on the bench, looking out across the river. Flo followed his gaze to where the full weight of the sun fell on the western bank. Tiny human figures sauntered up and down the distant waterfront against the backdrop of the Portland skyscape.

She went to him. Eddie sensed her approach and turned and saw her. "What do you want?" he said, his voice full of hurt.

She sat down beside him. Close enough that their legs touched. Together they watched the river.

"Let him have the car," she said.

He chortled. "I knew you was crazy," he said.

The busker stood at the rickshaw painting his face. Flo noticed that he was listening to them, but it didn't matter. "It's not really your car anyway," she said to Eddie. "You stole it from your ma."

Eddie shook his head. "It's mine. She give it to me when she kicked me out."

"So, when he comes to take it, you gonna call the cops?" 

Eddie glared. 

She continued. "Something is pushing him. He'll roll right over you to keep in front of it."

"I ain't scared of him," Eddie said. The statement hung between them, absurd on its face. But Eddie pushed on. "I'm gonna find a phone and I'm gonna call my dad and I'm gonna drive out to Gresham to pay my respects.

"How you gonna do that? You're outta gas."

Eddie looked perplexed and for a moment, Flo thought he might cry. It struck her that he was just a boy. 

Behind Eddie, in the shadows where the walkway ran under the bridge, two figures were silhouetted by the light from beyond. A parent and child holding hands, their backs to Flo.

She put a soft hand on Eddie's shoulder. "Listen to me, kid," she said. "I don't know a lot of things, but I know this: You can't hold on to nothin' in this world. If you try, it just hurts more when you get pulled away from it."

Eddie hung his head. After a moment, he reached into his pocket and produced the mermaid key chain with the single key attached. He held it in his hand, contemplating. "Why did you do that?" he asked. "With him? When you and me did it, I thought--"

She cut him off. "Kid, don't do that. Don't make me into something I'm not. I'm just one of those things you gotta let go."

His eyes welled. He put the key chain back in his pocket. "It's my car," he said.

Flo glanced at the busker, who seemed to concentrate harder on the rickshaw mirror. Then she looked back at Eddie. His lip trembled. 

"You're hungry," she said. Her voice was gentler than she had thought it would be. 

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.

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