title.gif     Down by the River

A Story by Jim Flosdorf

flosdj@sage.edu
copyright, Jim Flosdorf, 1996


Some people like to begin in the beginning. Me I like to start at a key moment in the whole thing, then fill the rest in later. Of course, there can be different key moments, I guess, depending on your point of view. Some people like a little sweet before the main meal, as an appetizer, so to speak....

"My Nash Rambler, parked at the river bank. Seat half-way reclined. The water over the dam so loud, I couldn't tell if it was that or the blood roaring in my ears. Unbuttoning her shirt and sliding my hand under her bra. She slid down a little in the seat and moved toward me.... [censored]

She sneezed; I felt my head jerk forward at the same time my feet jerked up. Like a shot. A stone rolled down the bank. My eyes came open with a start. I looked around. It was nearly dark. My hand was on my rod. Had it quivered and jerked? Was there something on the line?

My life has been like that. Moving from one dream to another. Sometimes just easing into the other, and other times with a jolt.... You know what I mean? I've just had one trouble after another. Anyway that's what I was dreamin' when trouble came by and pulled on my fishin' line. Ain't that a bitch! Life gives you a good dream, then kills you, just like that!"

They were sitting around what seemed to be a pleasant, cheery campfire. The two shapes made dark silhouettes against the sky, only their faces lit by the flickering orange light. One had a grizzled beard of medium length. As he spoke, he poked at the fire with a stick, then lit his cigar with the little flame he lifted from the burning logs. In the light of the flame, his dark eyes sparkled, and he chuckled. He knocked the glowing wood against a rock in a shower of sparks, and they cascaded out against the late October night and died. He grinned impishly. "Those Nash Ramblers were the nuts. They haven't made them for forty years now. The first cars with reclining seats, went all the way down. All the way down...." His voice drifted off. He was still handsome in a ragged kind of way, but he was well past his Nash Rambler years.

"Well, I'll tell you; this is how it happened. I'll go through it, and you be The Judge. We'll rehearse. Just pretend you're The Judge, then tell me what you think." He turned to George, who was sitting on a rock near the fire stroking his thin, ragged beard and looking thoughtful. Now the profile of his round face was lit by the flames as they pushed against the dark night. He was shabbily dressed. Even in the light of the fire one could see the tears in his jacket where the lining was pulling out. He was hugging himself against the cold, hoping to suck some more heat out of the fire and out of the half-full bottle at his feet. It sparkled in the firelight, the reflected flames dancing on its surface.

"Judge Dickens, Your Honor, I've been down on my luck lately. I lost my job at the chemical plant two years ago. My unemployment run out, and the old lady kicked me out of the house. She said she wasn't going to have no drifter or freeloader hanging about, and if I didn't get a job--well I could just stay the hell out. So I left. What was I going to do? It was her house, from her folks when they died. She'd lived in it all her life. I don't blame her. I've been bouncing around from one place to the next ever since, though. Slept with cardboard and plastic over my head more times than I can think. Didn't do my arthritis no good, neither; I can tell you. Was getting most of my food out of garbage cans. Had to fight the other early-morning-creepers for that. We was all of us sneaking around rich people's garbage cans in the early morning. No, not out where you live, Your Honor. Here in town. Behind restaurants and like that. I'll tell you, though, there's bad stuff in some of them doctors' garbage. Pretty fishy. Somebody ought to look into it, you know what I mean? You got good garbage?" George broke in with a laugh, here, but quickly stifled it with another swig, and resumed his serious demeanor. "Hell, the cops knew we was doing it. But they just let us. They were sleeping in their cars, or making out somewhere. You know, some of them guys is real night-time Romeos, if you'll pardon the expression. The rest was drinking free coffee all night, or over at The Half-Way Inn."

He glanced at George. "I thought I'd sneak that in early," he said. Then he continued. "But we never told no one. We'd never do that." He looks up and runs his hands through his sparse hair, scratching, as an old dog might who's plagued by fleas. Or maybe something puzzles him. In the dark it's hard to tell.

The night was clear, and the sky was dark, except for a lingering cast of pale orange where the sun had set some time ago. Above, the stars were beginning to push their way into the darkening blue. Nearby, some scraggly trees stretched barren branches upward and outward, but a few were so twisted that they gnarled themselves toward the ground, which was gravel and rock. It appeared to have been picked clean of sticks and firewood. As the night deepened, the air began to chill. The two men were down in a sort of ravine or gully, and the hill sloped upward from there. From where they were no city lights were visible, although they were not too far distant. There was something about the emptiness of the place that made their voices sound hollow. Maybe it was just a slight echo off the rocks. Down below, not too far, the river was dark and silent in the shadows.

"My kid's a cop, you know. You didn't know I ever got married? Well, that's another story. Yeah, I got a kid, though; he's in San Francisco. Graduated from college and all that. Don't remember where. He's a good kid. 'Course I don't hear much from him these days. He's so busy and all. He's moving right up in the force, though, I guess. He's a very well respected cop out there, you can bet on that! Yessiree. 

Well, yes, I've had it kinda tough. Wouldn't think of asking him for a dime, though, no sir. The kid's got his own worries. Besides he's more partial to his mother than to me, anyway. He always did kinda take her side in things, you know. Yeah, I guess he turned out all right in spite of his old man, huh? Actually, he ain't speaking to me much no more. That's the truth of it. What? Cut to the chase? Well, hold on, Your Honor, I'm getting to it. I'm getting to it."

He cocked his head like he was listening to a question, but the night air was silent. In the distance a dog was barking. The fire popped and sparked. That was all. He turned to George, "You know, every once in a while I dream about her. Would you believe it! I'm in bed with her, maybe I'm asleep; it's nice and warm in there, and maybe my hands is doing a little bit of roaming, don't ya know, like up over her boobs or gliding over her ass heading across for the promised land, when all of a sudden-like she slaps my hand, and I wake up like a flash. Damn! I hate that! Sometimes it's even hard to dream anymore. Ya' know? Ain't like I'm sleepin' on no damn feather mattress no more! I got bad dreams lately. Another one I've been having.... Oh well, you don't want to hear about that."

"No, my parents, ain't alive, Your Honor. They've been long gone. I don't know where they're set down. No, I didn't get to the funeral, I was out of commission for a while. Well, if you must know, I was in jail. For petty larceny. I was nineteen, Your Honor. I told you, I've had a lot of hard luck. Sometimes I school with some stinkin' fish, present company excepted, don't you know?" He winked. "Can you blame me for using some guy's plastic? Geez, Your Honor. Give me a break. What's a guy to do? Hell, we went to school together, back there in the third grade. We had old Mrs. Van Der Heyden. You know that.

"Yeah, you remember me. We used to play out on the playground on Project Street. Nah, I never beat you up! I was always skinny. That was George! He was a real heller, right?" He turned and winked again at his companion sitting next to him, warming his hands by the fire, nodding agreement. "(Little Dicky Dickens, remember?) Never said much though, even then. You was real smart, always knew the right answers and stuff like that. Me, I wasn't so smart. I hung around with the wrong kids. I'd tag along, and they'd get me in trouble. I didn't like to go home too much; my parents, they was always drunk, either shouting or passed out. The old man shouted; the old lady just went to sleep. Yeah, I know that, Your Honor. Well I didn't do too good in school. Wasn't real good with numbers. Didn't pay attention in class. In fact I used to just doze off real easy, just like now. Be in another world in a minute. My life has been like that. Moving from one dream to another. Sometimes just easing into the other; other times with a crash. You know what I mean? Sometimes we'd sneak out fishing. Stayed out late at nights, too, I guess, but I couldn't sleep. Not at home, anyways. Got a little better, though. Stayed back. That was the last I seen of you for quite a while. 'Cept I do remember seeing you and the big kids out in back of Condons' Drug Store smoking cigarettes. Remember that? We was into stronger stuff by then, so we thought cigarettes was sissy stuff. Filter cigarettes! Viceroys! Do you still smoke? Neither do I. Can't afford it. I'd love a cigar if you'd offer me one, though. Haven't had one in years." He took a big puff, and blew the smoke into the smoke rising from the fire. He grinned at George, scratched his hairy face, and offered him a puff. The darkness wrapped around them like an old army blanket, worn and moth-eaten from heavy use. "I liked to read. Still do. Go to the library from time to time and set and read some of them books and magazines they got there. Especially on cold days, or rainy days, you know." He was warming his hands by the fire, rubbing his swollen knuckles almost without thinking. "You think I'm talkin' too much, Judge? I'm sorry, but I got a lot on my mind. There's a lot a' weight there, sure enough.

"You probably went off to college and all that kind of stuff, right? I seen where you live once. Nice out there. Nice place you got. You got a real nice wife and kids, too, huh? Second wife. Hell, we all need a second chance sometimes. Your oldest kid must be about the age of mine, I suppose. Yeah, well I knocked around, but I finally got me a job in the paint factory, and a good job it was, too. I was doing good until I got laid off, don't you know. After more'n twenty-five years. That's when all the trouble started. Haven't been able to find a good job since. Maybe it was all those paint fumes--fumes in the head. Couldn't keep a job more'n a few years, seems like. That job at the chemical plant was the last one. Don't never seem to end now. Just when I thought I had a good thing going, this had to happen. Your Honor, you just gotta believe me, I gotta good heart; that's all. I ain't got a mean bone in my body. Some of them ache, though. Ha, Ha. OK, I'll get back to it. Well, see, with that card I went on this shopping spree to beat the band. I got new clothes, a watch, shoes. I got me a room in that hotel down the street and paid for a month in advance.

"I was going to send some groceries to the old woman, but then I said, oh the hell with it, and I didn't. Maybe I should have, but I can't stand a drunk woman, and she drank too much. Nothing I can do about it; it's just the way I am. Your old lady drink? I let George use it to get some things for hisself, instead. I did get some groceries for that poor Mrs. Smith and her kids, lives down by the bridge. Her old man took off and left her in the lurch with all them kids. You know her? Nice woman. She's got a tough life though. Works day and night to keep it all together. I sent a little something to my boy in 'Frisco, too, a nice box of cigars, and some flowers for his old lady. I hope I got the address right. I ain't exactly sure where they live."

He paused and took a long slow drag on his half-smoked cigar. A deep sigh came as he slowly exhaled the smoke. I wonder if I should tell it all, he thought. A line of clouds was edging in from the horizon, obscuring the stars. With it came a light breeze carrying the smells of city traffic and the low, dull noise of distant travel, tires on concrete. The air was cold. Overhead the rumble of a jetliner was growing louder as it lowered toward the airport at the edge of town.

"Now, as I was chargin' all those things, something funny happened. Some of the shopkeepers made like they knowed me. They'd say `hello,' and how was Sarah, like that was my wife or girlfriend or something. I'd say `fine' and let it go at that, but some of them got real buddy buddy like. Wanted to know if I could get them some more `stuff,' and when would I be taking another `trip,' and things like that. They'd look me right in the eye and say it real serious. I thought I might be dreaming. It got kinda creepy, I'll tell ya'. I began to wonder if I wasn't somebody else, in another life. Then one guy tells me he's sorry about my brother; too bad about what happened and all, and if I wasn't careful the same thing might happen to me, didn't I know." He looked at George. "That's the truth, George. That's what happened.

"I thought I better charge this here car on the American Express Gold Card. Have myself a good ride. Maybe go out to the beach and breathe some fresh ocean air, instead of the city stench. Maybe watch the sun set all fiery red over the rolling sea and hope for a new day coming, you know? Then this guy comes up to me at the car agency, out in the alley, and says he's him--well, I knew he couldn't have been him--so I figured he must be some kind of crook like me. Maybe even the guy who did him in. The guy who iced him. So I let him have it. I mean I tore into him. I decked him flat out. I'm a real bear in a fight, you better believe it! No sir! I never killed him, Your Honor.

"Yeah, right there in the alley. Wasn't nobody around to take no notice. Who'd of cared anyway? Nobody but druggies in that alley. How was I supposed to know the guy was a cop--a credit card investigator? What's he doing sneaking around like that anyway? Could'a got hisself killed, that's what! I didn't mean nothing by it, Your Honor, honest. You know how I feel about cops. I just thought I was discouragin' another crook like me, working the same scam, so to say, and there wasn't no room for the two of us, just me. Now this guy was pretty tough, I gotta admit. He could fight pretty good, but I got the best of him, so I figured I'd take his wallet and get some more plastic. You know, like for a rainy day. In case the old guy's credit got all washed up. You know you can't be too careful. It always helps to have some extra plastic around in case some of it goes bad. You catch my meaning? I was beginning to get nervous about that other card anyways."

He looked over at George. George was looking a little sleepy and restless at the same time. He bent over and picked up the bottle, took a swig, and handed it to him. George wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and tipped the bottle to his lips, then grinned and handed it back to his friend, who said "I gotta return some of this; be back in a minute." His walk was heavy as he lumbered over to the edge of the firelight, where he opened his pants, and let loose with a stream against the pebbles at his feet. "Never piss against a hurricane," he muttered. He shook it off and stuffed it back in his pants, zipped up, and returned to the fire. "That's one thing them folks in the city can't do," he said to George, "can't get in touch with their own real natures, or any other kind of nature, for that matter." He looked at George like he was The Judge, and resumed.

"Your Honor, I don't mean to bring this up, cause it ain't really relevant, but, you know, I've been having bad dreams lately. You don't want to hear about that? Well, I'll get to it as quick as I can. Yes sir. I dream about what happened when I was fishing at the dam. You don't know about that? I thought you did. That's what woke me up from my dream. I was fishing for trout when my hook grabbed into something real heavy. Like I said, I must have been dozing at the time, having that nice juicy dream, but it was a good lure, and I didn't want to lose it, and the dream was gone, so I dragged and dragged on the line, and finally it started coming in real slow. I figured it was either a big fish or a log, one or the other, or an old tire maybe. Ol' George got a big eel down there a couple of days before. Took him near forever to haul the thing in. So I thought maybe I got his brother. It was around dusk and drizzling a bit. Everyone else had gone home by then, so I was all alone. Didn't have nowhere else to go anyway. I didn't have a net either, but I figured I could probably beach him if I had to. I didn't want to quit and lose my lure, but it was getting dark. Well, I finally clawed it ashore, more like wrestled it ashore, I guess, and it was a body; you know, a stiff. Now I really thought I was dreaming. Some kind of bad dream. I had him hooked by the hand. The hook was nailed right into the palm of his hand. His right hand it was. I just cut the line and let the hook be. It was lucky I didn't pull his arm out of the shoulder, I guess, but I reeled him in to shallow water real easy, 'cause I thought it might get away. Whatever it was. Fat chance! Grabbed him, you might say, while I was 'groping for trout in a peculiar river.' Took him by the hand and led him out a' th' grave." He turned and looked slyly/significantly at his companion. "He was thin, like me."

George grinned, then shrugged, took another swig out of the bottle and passed it over. He was trying to look properly Judicial and serious, which was a little difficult considering he was round, ragged, and half-drunk. His clothes hardly looked like judicial robes. Nevertheless, he pretended to hammer on the Bench with his gavel to still the surprise in the Courtroom. All became quiet.

"Now I've seen bodies before, out on the street. Guys get shot or a knife in the gut, druggies and such. But not like this. This was real bad, 'bout made me want to puke, it did. It was pretty well gone--totally unrecognizable in fact, bloated, and it stank bad--but I was curious. I hate to admit it, Your Honor, because its clothes were just like rags, all torn and rotted, (worse than mine) but I went through its pockets and I found its wallet. Well, there were these credit cards in there, so I took them, washed all the mud off and the stink. The only thing the water hadn't totally putrefied. Then I figured if the guy had disappeared, no one would know the difference if I used his plastic. For a minute I had second thoughts. I stood there looking at those credit cards and wondering whether I should take them. Maybe I shouldn't; maybe I should put them back. Then, I said to myself "oh, what the hell," and kept them. So I gave the old thing a push with my foot and down it went, kinda slow and unworldly like. Like when you come out of a bad dream, and then you're not sure where you were, because it's getting all blurry and fuzzy. I pushed it with my foot and it disappeared in the water like a dream going out, or a candle when the flame is gone and the smoke fades. It was gone. Back to where it was before. Food for fish; food for fish. Only now I had its plastic. The trout wouldn't eat that anyways."

Now the whole thing has gotten into my dreams. I can see me and feel me at the same time. I can see me all bloated and watery white, like a ghost, or some kind a' half dead fish, down there floating in the currents that swirl at the bottom of the dam. At the same time I can feel my skin kinda coming off in shreds, and them striped bass, brown trout, and long snaky eels nibbling on me, down in that dark water. I can feel their mouths on my body, sucking and chewing, tearing me apart real slow, bit by bit. I can hear the water rushing around my ears, all bubbly and full of air from coming off the dam, but I can't breathe, and something's tight around my neck. Then I think the water is beginning to freeze over on top. Just a little skin, like late November. I wake up in a panic, struggling for breath, like I was a drowned man. I tell you it scares me something fierce. I never knew the guy, but I feel like it's me getting torn apart down there, my clothes all in tatters, my toes and fingers all bit off down to the bone. And I'm going to be down there all winter. My eyes is open, and there's tears running out, Judge, when I wake up, and I wonder whether there's some old lady by the name of Sarah waiting somewhere for him to come home, don't you know?

"You ever get scared of dying before your time, Judge? Me, I'm afraid of dying out on the street somewheres. I wish I could die at home in a nice clean bed. You know what I mean? Well, yeah, all right, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to burden you with that stuff of mine. The police will find out who he is now."

He paused and took a deep breath. "Winter's coming." He stirred the coals of the dwindling fire with the stick, rearranged the dying logs, and coaxed a little more life into it. Small flames, blue and orange, flickered around the last of the red coals, glowing brighter now because the wind came up more strongly and fanned them. It also brought some of the unwanted smells of the dump that was not too far away, upwind. Chemical smells and smells of decay and wet newspaper.

He reached over and picked up an imaginary guitar and began strumming: "I got them deepdown lowdown blues. I got them deepdown lowdown blues. I got them deepdown lowdown blues, and I don't know what I'm a goin' ta do. I jest don' know what I'm goin' to do. Oh, nooo...." and his voice drifted out in the night like the howl of a lonesome dog crying for his dead master in the little plot behind the cabin when the moon shines through the tree branches and reflects off the new-fallen snow somewhere in the Canadian Rockies.

The lights from the city now reflected off the lowering clouds, an orangish-yellow from the sodium vapor lights they used in the high crime areas. Down by the river, where a mist began to rise, the water looked oily and sulfurous in that light. In the nicer areas of town they used the mercury vapor lights with their clean blue white light or incandescent bulbs with their warm light. "You know," he said to no one in particular, "sometimes I ache; sometimes I just wish she'd take me back." After a minute or so he turned back to George. He was rubbing his knuckles again. A shadow against the dark sky. The embers just a glow among the stones. "Anyway, like I was saying, I decked the guy out in the alley, then I went through his pockets `cause I needed new plastic. I was afraid the dead guy's plastic was gettin' pretty old, and I might get caught with it.

"That's when I saw the badge, Judge. 

"Well, I didn't know what to do then. I thought maybe he was a crooked cop--you know, there are such types--so I took his wallet with the badge pinned on it. I thought it might get me into that bar, girlie/gambling joint down the street, The Half-Way Inn. Yeah, well, sex club, whorehouse really, upstairs anyway. They got all them twenty dollar dancing girls, and the drinks are all for free, in the back rooms, you know. I could get in for nothing, no cover charge, just by flashing my badge, don't you know--they like cops there. I'd shoot some pool, see the show, stuff like that. Just flash the badge and go from there. They take care of all the city bigwigs, politicians, bankers, the whole bunch. They hold Party meetings there. Run by some guy, name of Slim. They got nice rooms upstairs, so I hear tell. Well, Your Honor, how was I to know I was going to see you in that place, anyways? I know, you didn't see me, but I saw you going up the stairs with that nice chick in the skimpy dress, younger than your present wife, she was. Your hand was on her ass. Yeah, I was playing pool at the time on the other side of the room in back. It was then I seen the guy at the door talking to a cop and looking over at me. I just sorta moseyed back to the kitchen and out the door. Then I ran as fast as I could. I run like I'd never stop running, cause I knew that doorman was telling that cop about the badge I flashed him. I knew he recognized me then, and there'd be a warrant out for me. For god's sake, gimme a break will ya? Man to man. I won't squeal on you. All it boils down to is a little bit of plastic anyways, right? That's the honest truth, so help me god!" He stood up and stretched his legs. Threw the cigar stub in the glowing coals. Watched it smolder, then flame briefly. Turned to George. "So what d' ya think, Judge?" he said with a grin.

George scuffed the rocky dirt with his worn shoes, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and looked out at the cloudy sky, then he spoke softly, "You never been in no Half-Way Inn, and you ain't got no son's a cop. Not that I ever met, leastwise. As for the rest...."

"A shot in the dark. I know that. You know that. But what makes you think he'll know that? It's a good story, ain't it? Hell, if it's only partly true, it might get me some time off, don't you think? I gotta go before him in his chambers tomorrow morning. Do you think it will soften the old guy up, or not? Geez, I don't want to get ten to twenty, you know. Even if it is warm in there.

"I just hope I get him and not that other one, Judge Strait. She'd send me up for sure! Couldn't use none a' them old buddy tricks on her. No siree. She's a tough one.

"You're pretty quiet. What's the matter? Here, you want a cigar? Aw, smoke it. There's plenty more where that one came from. Have some more Thunderbird. It'll warm your vitals." He lights another cigar, tosses the match, and takes another swig from the near-empty bottle. "Oh, what the hell! Here's to the old lady. All the old ladies that ever was. Maybe they'll take us back sometime. Oh, whatever happens, happens, George." 

He got up and walked to the edge of the flickering light again. The circle had drawn closer. He let loose a full stream from his bladder against a small boulder. He wet down the whole stone. Like a savvy old fox, he kept the splash off his feet, while spraying the rock. He seemed lost in the importance of the act. Like a fox marking his territory, he thought. His boundaries, the edge of the circle of firelight. He shook off the last drops, tucked it back in. He began to shuffle back towards the fire in that peculiar lumbering shuffle men get when they are feeling old and depressed. His head was down. His eyes were only half taking in the sparkles on the ground, pieces of broken glass, bottles, bits and scraps of metal. Something gleamed bright and flashed in his eye. He was momentarily tempted to bend down and pick it up, whatever it was. His back and knees protested. He shuffled back to the fire, sat down heavily, and turned to George.

"I ain't goin'," he said. "I ain't goin', and that's final. The hell with it. I'd rather be here, and that's the truth. Them, their feet are caught in a leg-hold, and their eyes are going blind. When I die, I'll die here." He came back to the where the flames were sputtering against the night, almost ready to go out.

"Toss another board on the fire. How about that old tire over there? That'll burn good. Let's get a little more heat before that fog begins to roll up here off the river and it starts to rain.Winter's comin'. We're goin' to have to look for that old cave again. To hole up in." Their two shapes can be seen moving, dreamlike, off into the darkness and the mist, slightly hunched, looking for more firewood, looking for the old tire they will try to burn, its black, greasy smoke billowing back in their faces, smudged from the dirt, squinting through the infernal smoke that burns their eyes. Makes them want to close them, weep, sliding into obscurity and disappearing, heads dropping. Going out like a dream.