by JOSHUA PRICHARD
I met a woman out in Ashland once. I was there on shore leave, which we called it even though the shore’s never far away. I worked tow boats up and down the Ohio. Normally I’d take my leave around Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati because I liked a decent-sized city. Little chance you’d run into the same person twice, and I’d made a habit of disappointing the ones I did. Occupational hazard, and not necessarily of working the river. But a good buddy of mine I’d known since my high school days lived in a trailer outside of Ashland, and he begged me for a visit. Pat worked tow boats too, but on a different crew, until the damn fool got tangled in the line and nearly lost his leg. He was fortunate enough just to snap his femur in two. The lucky bastard got three months paid leave for being an asshole. God save the union.
He was holed up in his trailer with a bad case of cabin fever, so I spent my leave with him, dicking around. When I pulled up he was in a wheelchair, balancing a .22 Winchester Rimfire on his cast leg. He was shooting empty bottles and any squirrel unfortunate enough to wander in his sights. His beard had grown to a wild length, and he had the bug-eyed look of a man who’d been up for several nights straight. When I suggested that we hit the town and get into trouble, he said he wasn’t feeling up to it.
“It’s the pain, brother,” he said. “Can’t sleep for more than a spell.” He was rural Kentucky born and raised.
“Take a pill,” I told him. “Didn’t they give you any painkillers?”
“Boy, they did. Oxy and Vicadin, but I’ve been selling ‘em. Making bank too.”
“Your momma would be proud.”
It was a cheap shot. His mother was dead, and though he didn’t say so, he loved her dearly and carried a cavern of grief in his heart. It’d been seven years since he’d lost her.
Either he’d forgotten I was coming or didn’t care enough to clean up. The couch I was meant to crash on was covered with books. Pat was a reader. Every free minute, at meals, on the can, he buried his nose in a book. Based on the scattered pile on the couch, he was working his way through the Russians, great heavy books that taxed the cushions with their moral weight.
I left him with his Russians that evening and headed to the bar on my own. It was there I met this woman. She was a bad fit for that old honkey tonk, a roughrider kind of place where it wouldn’t be unusual to find a spare tooth or two on the floor. There were only ever a few fights I witnessed there. Most of the time it was a decent place to meet decent people who worked hard during the day and cut it real loose during the darker hours. She stood out is all I’m saying. Her faint perfume did little to cut the rancid air of beer and blood and sweat, but it found its way right to me. The give-away was her dress, which was the most modest thing on any woman in the place. But she did wear the hell out of a pair of cowboy boots, which told me she had come to the bar intentionally. Expensive boots too. Everything about her said sophistication, including her hair, which she wore in a thousand perfectly tied braids. The rest of the ladies wore enough hair spray to choke a full-grown man.
She stood alone at the bar. Her boots had a looping way of keeping time with the music. I asked her to dance. She refused, politely. She had a boyfriend, she said. He’d promised to take her out for the evening, but then stood her up. “Same here,” I told her. “Does that mean we can’t have fun? What’s the harm in it?” Then I bowed, like I was the genteel southern type. I’d used the move once or twice before, and the worse thing that happened was I’d get a laugh. The times it worked was because I looked more like what a gentleman might scrape off his boot than the gentleman himself, though I believe I have a rugged sort of charm. It comes from not caring much how people look at you, and that comes from not being looked at too often. We danced, we drank, we split a cigarette and then kissed underneath the buzzing neon sign just as it switched off for the night. It was like we’d sucked up the electricity.
“Would you look at that,” she said.
We left it at that, and I was not disappointed. I went back to the river.
What was unusual was the lingering. Most nights, when I got the rear watch, I just studied the churn of the water trailing away, away and thought about nothing on the surface. Sometimes, when I passed a lonely stretch of river with nothing but the sound of the prop in the water and the dark shape of the shore far off, the conditions were so damn perfect that no thought could cling to me. I simply flowed. But like a bad song with a good hook, she stuck with me. I said her name to myself, Sophie-Mae, and remembered how good she moved in my arms, and how the kiss had turned out the lights. It was no good. Three weeks wasted when the weather was fine and good for losing yourself.
When it came time to go ashore, I drove back to Ashland. I normally never went to the same place twice in a row while on leave, except once when my sister and nephew needed help out of a jam. I pulled my truck up to Pat’s trailer and honked, thinking I’d surprise him. He came rolling out of the trailer, still in his wheelchair. He shook his head and didn’t say a word, though I expected he was secretly happy to see me. Inside his trailer was now a bigger mess. A woman’s clothes and accessories—hairdryer and the like—had been added to the shambles.
“You’ll have to excuse my ways,” Pat said. “I wasn’t expecting you this time around.”
“Thought I’d check in on you,” I said.
“You make it seem like I’m some old timer, put out to pasture. Take your bleeding heart some place else.”
“No problem,” I said and shrugged and picked up my bags like I was planning on leaving.
“Jesus, you’re as dramatic as Sophie-Mae.” My insides hit a skid, like I’d gotten a gear stuck and ground the transmission. I got nervous that I might’ve changed physically, a flush in the face that would’ve tipped my hand. What I knew for certain was that the bag slipped from my grip and hit the floor.
“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked her,” he said. “Where do you think you’re gonna go?”
“I can arrange accommodations.”
He slapped the knee of his good leg and threw his head back. It was the laugh he put on when it didn’t come naturally. “You dog,” he said. “I bet you could too. Like that.” He snapped his fingers.
I lowered the bill of my cap, but showed him enough of a grin. I was a real shit-eater sometimes. He liked to bring it out of me.
We drank beers for a while, messed around with the .22. I asked if he might be interested in going out and raising Cain.
“Might be,” he said. He explained that he and Sophie-Mae, who’d been off and on for the past few months, were on the outs, and he hadn’t seen her in a few days. Besides, he had some success with the wheelchair and the cast. He had all sorts of tales in the chamber about how he’d gotten injured. He’d make himself into a kind of pitiful folk hero, one who needed the comfort. His cast, I noticed, had a fair amount of phone numbers and messages, hearts around the I’s like a high school yearbook. For whatever reason, women were attracted to him. No one would describe him as still waters, but he ran plenty deep, with sadness mostly, when he wasn’t drunk.
I suggested we go to the Buckshot, that old honky tonk where I’d first met Sophie-Mae. I’m not sure I had a plan, malicious or otherwise. Maybe I’d see her and realize I had not remembered her perfectly. When I’d discover, once again, that the memory was preferable to the genuine article, I could move on to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, then back to the river. Pat didn’t take a shine to the idea though.
“Too much of a ruckus. Can’t hear a word anyone’s saying in a place like that.”
“What’s it matter to you?” I said.
“I like a little conversation,” he said. “A few beers in and I start remembering some poetry. Ladies like that.”
I convinced him anyway, mostly by promising I’d buy his beers for the night. He promised to drink me broke. So we went, and she wasn’t there. I sat at the bar, near where’d she’d been, and watched the band and the people dancing. Pat got drunk and had fun with a lady who sat on his lap as he spun his chair around. I did not so much as tap my foot. I was miserable and sick and felt mostly like a fool. It did not stop me from returning the next night, and again on Monday, Tuesday. Three swings and misses. I convinced myself that I had nothing better to do and that drinking at the Buckshot every night was a good time. But walking back after closing, when I took Old Buckley Road, which was dark and hedged in with great oaks that whispered to me in the breeze, trees through which I saw the night sky and the distant stars, I started to feel lonely. I was used to being alone. I found it preferable to being in the company of other people who too often talked for talking’s sake. You didn’t get that with the folks who worked the river. It was understood you had two different lives, and you lived each according to where you were. Often I was left alone to think my thoughts. Not much profound, but they were my own and I cherished them. But I was never lonely.
Then, like a knife between the ribs, it walloped me. As I walked that quiet road with the smell of the oak, a wet and earthy smell, slightly chilled, that always reminded me of fall and school and therefore my childhood, I felt, hand to God, a pain in my side. Please take this aching rib and make me a companion. I’m tired and I want to sleep with someone’s breath in my ear and be pleased with that, only that, simply that. This was what I said silently to the sky and to the trees.
I quit going to the Buckshot. The bartender had learned my name and occupation, and soon she’d start asking questions I wasn’t much inclined to answer. So I gave up on running into Sophie-Mae, until I did, naturally, in another part of town. Pat and I had gone into the Speedway for smokes, and down the street was the library branch. Pat said he wanted to pick up some books, and that it’d only be minute or two. I didn’t mind since the smell of old books was pleasant to me. And there she was, in the children’s section, reading a book to a small boy. Pat pretended to browse the stacks, orbiting the children’s section with its thin books, its jungle murals on the walls and plush, inviting bean bags. When she was free of her small patron, Pat rolled over to her desk. They had an intense conversation, seething with whispers. I tried to occupy myself by breezing over the spines of some books on Jefferson Davis. I did not want to get caught eavesdropping, though their conversation was of great interest to me. Eventually Pat waved me over and I was introduced to Sophie-Mae, again. We both put on a good show, shaking hands stiffly, smiling, saying our how-do-you-do-it’s-a-real-pleasure.
Pat left us alone as he went to check out the pile of books resting on his lap. Before he left, he took Sophie-Mae’s hand, tender like, and said, “I hope you heard me good. I meant what I said.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said.
I hung back as Pat rolled to the front desk, pretending to flip through a picture book all about a scorpion and a toad.
“I’ve been looking for you,” I told her.
“It doesn’t sound so good when you say it like that.” She shifted in her chair, pulled her sweater tight across shoulders.
“I won’t say anything, so don’t worry,” I said.
“Say what you want, not that there’s much to tell. I was pissed at him, and he gets what he deserves. He was being a grade-A asshole.”
“You read to children with that mouth?”
She crinkled her nose, as if scowling through a smile. “I do whatever I please with this mouth. Say what I want, kiss who I want.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Maybe he’ll do wrong by you again. Maybe I’ll be there when it happens.”
Pat whistled across the library and waved me over. I shook Sophie-Mae’s hand again. “It was a real pleasure,” I said and the words sounded as smooth and slimy as pond muck.
The day after I felt a little rotten. It was a shady game I was playing, and normally I wouldn’t have bothered. But whenever it was just Pat and me, he never spoke of her. He’d been together with her long enough to have mentioned her to his buddies, the woman back home, the steady, but the first time I heard the name Sophie-Mae was that night in the bar. Whenever I tried to put it out my mind, there she was, dancing in my memories. Even the sound of her boots scuffling the floor, her weight shifting in gravel as I kissed her outside.
I went into town for a drive, trying to get my head straight. I bought a new pair of boots for myself, a few shirts at the Penny’s. I decided I was no longer needed in Ashland. The next day I’d wish Pat good luck and head off somewhere new. I still had a few days left on leave I could salvage.
Back at Pat’s a rusty old sedan was parked out front. Inside the trailer was a couple, both young, possibly very young by they way they talked and moved, all edgy like. But, boy, life had treated them a harsh scrape. Their skin resembled rawhide left out in the sun too long. They didn’t smell much better either. Both wore faded and dirty sweatshirts, old college types taken from a bin someplace. The woman in the Auburn sweatshirt, a size too big, had fried blonde hair that looked bleached. Thin, finger-like strands of hair gripped her forehead. Her eye shadow was a horrible aquamarine color. Her man in the Moorhead State, a size too small, looked as if he had once been a youth of some size and strength, but was now shrunken and hollowed out. The healthiest person in the room was the baby that bounced on the man’s lap. The baby was shirtless, but plump and happy. The child dribbled and drooled with laughter.
Pat tensed up when I entered. He rolled his chair an inch or two backwards and forwards. One look at the scene and I had its measure.
“Hey there, buddy,” he said. “This here’s Kris, an old acquaintance of mine. And this is—I’m sorry beautiful, what was your name again?”
“Kristee,” the woman said. She had a sizable gap in her front teeth, which gave her a childish lisp. It brought me low.
“They were just leaving,” Pat said.
“Now hold on a minute,” Kris said.
“You’re as much of a cheat as you were in High School,” Pat said, then looked at me. “This sneaky son of a bitch used to be the dirtiest wrestler in Boyd County. A real slippery bastard.”
“That ain’t fair,” Kris said. He had hound dog eyes.
“I quote you something, you may as well write it in stone. It ain’t changing.”
“What about the baby?” I asked.
Kristee now took the baby and clenched it tight.
“What about her?” Kris said, a rotten, fearful tone in his voice. One thing you can say about the desperate type, their imaginations run wild.
“No,” I said. “What’s her name?”
The mother smiled a little. “Krystal,” she said. “Krystal Lee Albom.”
“Pretty,” I said.
Pat shook his head. “Kris, Kristee and Krystal? Jesus, y’all are a piece of work.”
“Please,” Kris said. “Can’t you budge? Just an inch?”
“No deal, friend. I’m not in the mood.”
The family left in a hurry, their car fishtailing out on the road and nearly clipping the stump of a big old tree on their way out. I became concerned about the child until they turned the corner, out of sight, at which point I didn’t think much about it. Once they were gone the air got quiet. A few birds chirped. Pat wheeled to the fridge for a beer.
Not a word,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“I didn’t say nothing.”
“Oh you’re saying plenty. I can feel it. Just keep it to yourself.”
He closed the fridge without offering me a beer. We spent the rest of that afternoon in silence. Pat kept mostly to the couch. With one hand he worked a long stick into his cast leg, scratching an itch that seemed to last all afternoon. With the other hand he leafed through one of the big Russians he kept around the trailer. After hours of this, neither of us speaking to the other, he finally put down his book and said to me, “I wonder if I’m a decent person. You know, morally speaking.” This was the book talking. It had stirred something in him.
“You’re fine, Pat,” I said. “No worse than anyone else I know.”
“I’m not sure I met a really decent person,” he said. “Not in my whole life. Not really.”
I was offended somewhat. Though I was no saint, I considered myself decent on the whole.
“It’s a hard thing to be most of the time,” I said. “And it ain’t worth much.”
“That’s the truth, buddy.” He rolled onto his back, rested the book on his chest. “Maybe if I did more decent things, I could become one. A decent type of person, I mean.”
I nodded, though I knew he wasn’t looking at me. I drifted off to sleep sometime after those words and didn’t dream of anything particular. A ruckus out front of the trailer woke me a while later. I was vaguely aware of a car pulling up, Pat rolling out the door. I heard voices, tinny and hollow-sounding coming through the aluminum walls, but I couldn’t make it out. After a while of this, Pat returned and told me I may have to find another place to lay my head for the evening.
“Sophie-Mae’s here,” he said. “She seems keen on me again.”
“Who wouldn’t be?” I said. “Decent guy like you.”
I stepped outside for a smoke and there was Sophie-Mae, leaning against her car. She was a woman created in the image of the autumn months. The light, the chill, the leaves were made to accentuate her quality. She was messing with the long braid in her hair, looking at the sky.
“Fancy seeing you here,” I said.
She had not heard me come out, and my voice surprised her.
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”
“Don’t worry.” I put my hands in the air, as if surrendering, but the dangling cigarette made me think I was preparing for my execution. “I’ll be out of your hair in a minute. Just need to collect my things.”
“We can get along, can’t we? No reason we can’t all be friendly.”
“Sure, no reason. But all the same.”
Evening was coming on. The sun had gone below the trees and it had become dark and chilly. A breeze rolled through and Sophie-Mae rubbed at her arms. She smiled at me.
Pat returned, a few beers in his lap. “What’s the hold up?” he asked. “You coming in or what?”
“I thought we were going out,” Sophie-Mae said. “That’s what you promised.”
“Come on, baby. I’ve had a lousy day and my leg’s killing me.”
“So it was all a bunch of sweet talk then. Make me drive all the way up here.”
My cigarette was burning low and I was running out of good reasons to be standing in the middle of it. I had a mind to get my bag then and there. I could be in Louisville or Cincinnati before dinnertime if I got my ass in gear. There were a few folks I could call up, reclaim the evening and what was left of my leave. Back in the trailer I threw my things in the duffle and tied off the string. The two were still throwing heated talk back and forth, and I tried not to listen. I put my mind to moving on, but something still tugged at my heart, like it had a hit a snag in the riverbed. I couldn’t leave Ashland—words to a thought that had never, not once, occurred to me before. When I was young and a dreamer, I never imagined staying in Ashland or any place like it. But now, as I threw the bag over my shoulder, I felt a swell clench at my throat. I sniffed it away, spit it out. Sophie-Mae had stormed off to her car, but the engine wouldn’t turn over. She hung her head and rolled down her window.
“Can you give me a ride back into town?” she asked me.
“I’m not sure I’m going your way,” I said.
“Come on Sophie-Mae,” Pat said. “Just stay the night. We’ll sort it out in the morning.”
She ignored Pat’s call. “Please,” she said.
I turned to Pat, who shrugged and turned his back on the both of us.
“It ain’t up to him,” Sophie-Mae said. “Now are you gonna take me back to town or what?”
I made a stop at the Speedway to fill up the tank, get more smokes, a six of Rolling Rock and some jerky for the road. I thought if I made the gestures of leaving town I’d find myself on the highway before the rest of me could catch up. Sophie-Mae didn’t say a word except for a few directions on how to get to her folk’s place, where she crashed sometimes. The house was up off Blackburn Ave in one those nice neighborhoods where the white hats from the refinery raised their decent families. It was evening and the streets were peaceful, not a child in sight. All at the dinner table, I guessed, or doing their homework. It was that time of year again, when school must’ve come back in session. It gave me the chills remembering the dread of returning to classes. Good riddance. Now I lived a summer once every three weeks. Going back to the river was a little like going back to school, though the work was more peaceful. When we got nearer Sophie-Mae’s house, she ducked below the window.
“I changed my mind,” she said. “Get me out of here.”
“I don’t care. Just drive.”
So I drove and headed back toward town. I got no further directions, so I turned here and there. It didn’t seem polite to ask what the trouble was, but after half-an-hour or so I got tired of having nowhere to go, so I picked up some barbecue take out and went to the river. I pulled up to the shore and we sat on the hood of the truck. Sophie-Mae said she wasn’t hungry, then went and ate about half my brisket anyway. We got into the beers after that. Neither of us had much to say at first, and we simply enjoyed the bite of the air and the smell of greasy barbecue sauce on our fingers and the damp leaves. Though it was dark, the moon was out and full and shined on the water. The air had turned colder, but it was a pleasant enough evening to enjoy the fresh air. It might’ve been the last pleasant evening of the year, before the weather truly turned.
I spoke some about my work, by way of saying I wasn’t much looking forward to hitching tow and pulling cargo come the winter time. Snow was tricky, and frozen ropes cut up the hands pretty bad, at least until you lost feeling in your fingers. She seemed interested in the job, asking questions about what sort of cargo we pushed and whether I liked it. I told her it suited me, but that, for whatever reason, I was thinking about other work and settling down somewhere, somewhere like Ashland.
“God, why here?” she asked.
I didn’t have a good answer.
“I’d go somewhere bigger,” she said. “Some place where things moved a little faster.”
“That defeats the purpose of settling down,” I said.
“How old are you? What’s all this talk about settling down for?”
I told her my age. She said I looked older.
“So where would you go?” I asked.
“It’s stupid,” she said.
Her face blushed red, and she hid her cheek behind a shoulder. It must’ve been the beers getting to her; she struck me as resistant to embarrassment. After finishing her beer, she wiped her lips with the sleeve of her sweater. It was, unlike the rest of her, inelegant, and it endeared her to me. If she had turned and spit and recited some poetry, I might’ve gotten on one knee right there on the hood of my truck.
“You know when you see those old films about NASA, all those guys with the thick glasses running the computers?” she said. “My old man was nuts about space, wanted to be an astronaut. But those guys at the Mission Control, those were my guys. They solved all the problems, got us to the moon. My father—” she shook her head. “My father said you never saw any girls working at Mission Control. Showed what he knew. But even then, I wanted to be one of them one day. I even wore glasses as a kid, even though I didn’t need them.”
“You didn’t want to go to space? That’s every kid’s dream.”
“It’s not a kid’s dream.” She said it as if I stepped on her toes. “Do I look like a child to you?”
“Well the old man told me early on. They don’t let people like me up into space.”
“Don’t they?” I asked. “Sally Ride and everything.”
She laughed at me. Instead of slapping her own knee, her hand found mine instead. “That’s not what I meant,” she said.
I knew that wasn’t what she meant, but I played it up, my backwater ways, because she seemed charmed by it. Her hand on my knee didn’t linger. Soon both hands were ringing the neck of her bottle.
“But you know, there’s a school up in Boston,” she said. “They train you up in astronomy and engineering and the like. They might even give me a scholarship. I’m a very good student, always have been. Smoked all those fools in school.”
“Let’s go then,” I said.
“To Boston. We’ll drive there tonight and get you enrolled.”
“Oh, yeah?” She scrunched up her nose. “And what would you do?”
“Whatever comes my way. Maybe I’ll enroll in school too. Or get a new job. Whatever.”
“And in this scenario,” she said as she made a deliberate show of putting down her beer, “do we move in together? Are we getting hitched?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
She nodded as if I’d proved her point.
I wanted to tell her that I felt something strongly. I had no words for it, but I saw ahead of me a clear path as wide as the river, but climbing upwards and away and towards the moon. I was not much for dreams, but I felt all at once I was a master dreamer. It was as if I’d picked up a paint brush, with no practice at all, and knew how to paint something vivid and real. I had the need to tell her that I felt strongly about her. It was true, though many wires crossed all at once. I should’ve known better about intense moments of clarity. When things appear straight, and the horizon is clear with nothing in the way, is the moment you’re the most lost. Out on an ocean you can see for miles all around you, which is the same as seeing nothing. The moment you come to Jesus, he’s nowhere to be found.
Lucky for me, I was spared. As I began to confess, I noticed she had a strange, vacant gaze at the river. It was as if she had been lured away by the glimmering light of the moon and had left her body behind.
“An aura,” she said. Her voice was unsettling, devoid of her lilt and life.
“What about my aura?” I said. “I didn’t take you for one of those spiritualist types.”
“No,” she said. She shook her head emphatically, a painful fear in her eyes. “Aura.”
In a violent jerk she splayed out on the hood of the truck, then contracted. She began to convulse, like the most vicious shiver, and rolled off the truck and hit the ground hard. There she continued to spasm, her arms and legs twisting into painful looking contortions. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head. In a panic I picked her off the ground, her fits fighting against me. I put her in the passenger seat and drove us back to the road and toward the hospital. She stopped seizing after a minute or so, gained consciousness a few minutes later. She looked around the truck, confused. She breathed in deep, as if she might say something, but she released the air, not a word on it.
“You had a seizure, I think,” I said.
“I know,” she said, grabbing onto the handle above the door. I was driving pretty fast down a narrow road, and it was dark. I blew right past a stop sign. She swallowed hard and coughed. There were twigs and leaves in her hair and a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Seeing her in that state, I became nervous about taking her to the hospital. It was a passing notion; I wanted to do the right thing.
“Jesus, slow down,” she said finally. “Where are we going?”
“Hospital,” I said. “Where’d you think?”
“No, please. It happens all the time. Just take me home.”
“We gotta make sure you’re all right.”
“I just told you I was fine. Take me home.”
I did not take her home like she wanted. She went dead quiet, her arms crossed as I drove to the emergency room. She was given a room right away, even before the old hunter who had a poorly wrapped bandage on his left wing. The blood stain had turned brown. As I sat across from him in the waiting room, he raised his arm to me, smirked and shook his head as if it say, Shit happens. No need for pity.
I waited for a long time. Hours. I took my eyes off the door to the patients’ rooms but twice. Once I took a piss, and once I went for coffee and a smoke. The rest of the time I waited, eyes fixed on the door like it was my duty. After a while, when my eyes were dry and stung, and I thought sleep would come the easiest it had ever come, the way it visits children without troubles, my old pal Pat rolled into the waiting room. For some reason he looked to me like a haggard veteran of some unpopular war. I was surprised to see him; I don’t know why. He wheeled up and nudged me with his boot. It was a gentle kick, subtle violence amongst friends. Naturally I was worried he’d ask the obvious question, and though I’d had hours to prepare, I had no good answer. But leave it to Pat to say the unexpected, throw me for a loop.
“Thank you,” he said. “You must’ve been scared shitless.” He laughed at me, unashamed. “It’s really something, ain’t it? Seeing it up close like that? Believe me, it looks worse than it really is. Just an overloaded fuse is all, in the brain. The lights go out for a bit, then the breaker resets.”
“She fell off the hood of the truck.”
He squinted his eyes, studying me close. His chair rolled back an inch. “No harm, no foul.”
I wanted to punch him, except there was a deep sadness that had settled over his face and shoulders. It would’ve been like hitting a child.
“I should warn you, she always gets a little queer afterwards,” he said.
“How do you mean?”
“Her voice gets deeper for one thing, like she has no feeling. That’s always when she says she’s gonna leave me. Packs a bag sometimes. But she never does.”
I nodded, unable to read in him which part made him more sad.
“What’s it like, I wonder?”
“She says she can smell the stars and see the face of Jesus. Think of that.” He shook his head, amused. “I know I ain’t good enough. You bet your ass I know. My mother didn’t raise a fool here. But who is good enough? That’s my question. Why not me?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not you?”
He shook off the thought like cold water was thrown on his face. He scanned the waiting room.
“How many are in here trying to score pills?” he asked. To his credit, they were a worn bunch, frayed, threadbare.
“They won’t give it up that easy,” Pat said. “Any pro knows that the ER is the worst place for needs like that. They got wise. But me, I could make a killing in here. Like this guy for instance.” He indicated the old hunter with a broken wing. The man had fallen asleep, and I saw he wasn’t old at all. We might’ve been the same age, or close to it. “You think he shot himself?” Pat asked.
“Maybe he didn’t mean to,” I said. “Occupational hazard.”
Pat laughed at the hunter, or at my own ignorance. I felt bad for the guy. He had waited a long time just to get fixed up.
A while later, when Pat was near asleep, Sophie-Mae was released. She was wearing an old flannel I had lent her and either she had stretched it out, or she had shrunk some. The sleeves hung past her hands, which she kneaded and crumpled with her fingers. Mostly she looked tired, drained of spirit. She went straight to Pat, not an eye in my direction, no hateful glance, nothing.
“Darling,” Pat said. “I’d carry you out of here if I could. Damn chair.”
“Roll me out,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll make it to the door.”
“Hop on the saddle.” He patted his lap and she crawled on, hands around his neck.
“Thanks anyway,” Pat said to me. “I’ll get her home. Trailer’s all yours tonight.”
I didn’t end up back at the trailer. I was hungry about then, so I went to the Waffle House. The food didn’t do much to make me feel regular, but it was warm and the coffee was welcome. I stayed at the Waffle House until the sun rose, and with it rose the refinery boys and I was thankful to be without work that morning. I had three days left on leave and all I knew was that I wanted out of Ashland.
Outside the bank I smoked a few cigarettes, waiting for it to open. I was curious about the state of my finances and a nice lady with big earrings and too much makeup was very helpful. She printed out a receipt with my balance and winked when she handed it to me. I won’t lie, it was more than I expected. Much more. Me without an eye on what was coming in and out, and the thing had exploded on me. I don’t know why, but I thought the life I’d been living would’ve cost me more. Instead of being relieved, ecstatic, warmed over with a blanket of security, refreshed in the waters of freedom, I felt ill all over again. The balance was more than my old man would’ve made in years working at the Tool & Die. It was near enough to have bought that house my mother had dreamed about over in Paducah, the modest colonial with the widow’s walk. My throat swelled, and I was at the brink of tears thinking of it.
“You know, a man like you should think about his future,” the teller said.
“Retirement, sweetie. Savings. We can help you out with that. Visit Bobby Lee just down there and he’ll set you up with the works.” She pointed to a portly fella in a gray suit. He was at his desk, unscrewing the top of a thermos. He was there with us in body, but not in spirit. That part of him was far off, on a golf course maybe or a pontoon out on Greenbo Lake.
I told her I only needed a withdrawal. I took out a couple of thousand in twenties and figured it was enough to me set up in Boston with room for a little extra, a couple of months of escape.
When I went back to the trailer Pat was there, asleep with a book on his chest. I woke him as I grabbed my things, though I tried my best to leave without disturbing him.
“Leaving already?” he asked.
“Thanks for the accommodations, but I think I better shove off.”
“Better offers out there?”
“Not particularly. Just moving on. I’ve always hated this town.”
“It ain’t so bad,” he said. He took out his pack of cigarettes, which was nearly empty. Sticking one in his lips, he handed me the other. “Take my other lucky,” he said. The last cigarette in his pack was flipped over for good luck and saved for last. Pat always flipped two, one extra for his mother. I thanked him and tucked it behind my ear.
“Fair winds and following seas,” he said and gave me a lazy salute. Even though we were river rats who worked the tow, and the river never flowed but one direction, we talked sometimes like old sailors with superstitions.
I drove by Sophie-Mae’s house, but her old man said she had gone to work. I was prepared for it and left the old man a letter I had written her while waiting at the Waffle House. The letter began with an apology and ended with asking her to come to Boston with me. I told her I had enough money for us to live on while she went to school. If she wasn’t interested in my coming along, she could at least let me drive her up and get her settled. I mentioned something about Pat slinging pain pills, and how she should get out of town, with or without me. I was rooting for one over the other. I would be at the bar that night, I wrote. Eleven PM. We could drive through the night. The letter ended with, “Sincerely, Jasper Jefferson,” and I was sincere.
I waited until midnight at the Buckshot, and though I’d had a few, I couldn’t wait any longer and hit the road. I did not go to Boston, since I wasn’t much in the mood to drive so far all by my lonesome. Instead I ended up in Louisville and wasted most of the money I had withdrawn on drinking and the races at Churchill. I met a woman there who swore she had a system for betting the horses. It wasn’t much of a system. She said my luck was rotten, which might’ve been the truth. She was a nice woman and a good time, and I promised to call her. I just might do that once I’ve returned from the river.
Whatever happened out in Ashland, my days of peace are over. I returned to the river and when I’m at the rear watch, late at night, my mind is too full of rattling. It’s a shame too, because on days when there’s a full moon and the leaves of the great oaks on the shore have a silver streak, and coyotes trot the banks as if following us downstream, I wish I could enjoy it for its own sake. Now everything only reminds me of something else, something gone to memory and just out of reach. But I reach and reach anyway. I can’t help myself. Instead of the sound of the water churning, or the engine whirling the prop, my breath turning to steam as the season grows colder, all I hear is the clutter of my own machinery. Something happened in Ashland. Something came loose, pinging as I go round and round, up and down the Ohio. I brace against the cold. You feel it first on the water, winter approaching. It’s gonna be a bad one this year, full of bitter winds. I already got the shakes. I tremble.
Originally from Cincinnati, Joshua wandered out to California and stayed too long. While there he obtained his MFA studying with Richard Bausch at Chapman University. His work has previously appeared in RipRap and the Raleigh Review. He currently writes and teaches in Philadelphia.