River

by Catherine Leary


The woman leaves everything behind: home, job, cats, clothes, friends. Armed with only a car and a plastic card she ventures forth into the rest of the world.

I was born in New England and it’s a cold place. Raised in the four iron walls of the long winter. Left to brood in the dark. Growing up there made me strange though I never understood how strange until I’d shaken the winter salt from my boots. I drove south and watched the summers lengthen and felt the heat make its home in my skin. The forgotten dream spurred me onward and some days I thanked it and others I cursed it but I was happy to have the ice melted out of my toes.

The car gets a flat in South Carolina. Riding along on a back road tangled with trees and spooky with Spanish moss when she feels the shudder and blow, the telltale pull of the wheel.

In Pennsylvania the woman picks up a hitchhiker. This hitchhiker is a young woman who calls herself River. River is younger. She is twenty if she is a day and she smells like she hasn’t bathed in awhile but she’s young and has straight white teeth and perky breasts. She never wears a bra. She giggles at everything. She sits in the passenger seat and twiddles through the radio stations and threatens to pee in an empty waxed paper cup when the woman can’t find a bathroom. The two of them pick up another hitchhiker in Virginia, a bearded guy who’s been hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has pot and he asks politely if he’s allowed to smoke. The woman rolls down the windows and says she doesn’t care. The windows keep most of the smoke out of her head but not all of it. Before they are even out of Virginia River fucks him. She does it in a gas station bathroom while the woman is paying for gas.

River is the kind of girl who has to fuck everybody. The woman muses on this while she is driving and eating a fruit pie. River fucked her way out of New York and cemented the allegiance of their wannabe nature bumhead with her cunt and will likely fuck her way to wherever she wants to go. The woman wonders if River will make a pass at her. The night after they leave the mountain man at a bus station in Georgia she gets her answer. They’re staying in a cheapo motel with one bed and the woman lies in bed and pretends to sleep and River kisses the back of her neck. River kisses her neck and puts her greedy arms around her waist and the woman cannot bear her need. So she turns her down. Unlocks her hands and pushes them away. She lies in bed and listens to River fall asleep and thinks that if River offers again she may take her up on it.

Fixing the tire is expensive. Waiting for the tire costs even more.

One night after showers River makes another try and the woman kisses her and thinks this feels like nothing and she puts River’s fat young nipples in her mouth and thinks still nothing. She touches River’s cunt and it’s full of water. There’s too much of it, too much slickness and the woman has no idea what to do with such desire when it’s not her own. River is disappointed that the woman is not even moist and gets down on her knees beside the bed but her tongue feels slimy and it’s not at all good. River gets petulant. She gets angry and throws a container of pork fried rice. The carton doesn’t even break open as it tumbles to the floor and something in his breaks her. River cries. She falls into the woman’s arms and the woman holds her. She strokes her hair. River breaks apart with astonishing ease. The woman comforts her and helps her put herself back together again and they go out under the buzzing blinking neon sign in the heat of the night and buy a bag of burgers. They eat fries together under the big neon sign and slap the moths away from their faces.

River takes her empty cup into the parking lot and drops her shorts. She hovers over it. She pees on the ice and the woman laughs until she is out of breath.

The Mississippi River awed me.

“When we cross this we will be in the west,” I said.

River had stolen the mountain man’s stash before we got rid of him. She had eaten some of it and was stoned. “Who cares?”

“That’s one fucking big river.”

“Yep.” River knocked a fist against her chest. She burped and giggled. “Can I get an amen?”

“Amen. Fucker.”

“Double fucker.”

Almost at the Texas line and a tent revival on the side of the road slows them down. There’s a little cash now because River sold what was left of the stash to a car full of college students back at a rest area and she carries the money folded up and hidden in her shoe. The woman just wants to get across the Louisiana state line. River is captivated by the idea of the tent revival.

“Come on, man. I wanna get laid.”

“You always want to get laid.”

“Come on. There’s some prime virgin ass just waiting to be tapped. I wanna get Jesused. I wanna get down with the Lord. Who knows, maybe we can knock over the collections basket or something.”

“Yeah, right before we get tarred and feathered and run out on a rail.”

“This is modern times. They don’t do that tarring and feathering thing anymore.”

“How would you know?”

“Come on, honey. Let’s do it. I’m bored.”

“You’re always bored.”

“So?”

“You can knock over the collections basket.”

“Does this mean we’re going?”

“It means I’m tired of driving.”

“Yay!”

The woman is nervous about leaving her car in a place where there are so many people milling around but River convinces her to put all the stuff that anyone might want to steal in the trunk. They get out of the car and clean up the floor and put the trash in the trunk along with the rest of the stuff even though River laughs and declares that no one in their right mind would want to steal a bunch of broken sunglasses and burned CDs. The woman stands with her arms wrapped tight around herself. She looks up at the night sky. The night sky is beaten back by floodlights.

“I’m still nervous.”

“Oh come on, man, it’s a bunch of holy rollers. How wrong can it go?”

“Plenty wrong if you try to steal from them. Most people don’t appreciate it. Including Christians.”

“I won’t try and steal from them. I promise. Now are you still nervous?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, River, I can’t shake it. I’m just jittery. All these people and this place are making me jittery.”

“Maybe you’ve just been in the car too long.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my druid blood speaking.”

“Druid blood my ass. You’re tired.”

“I am that, but I’m also nervous.”

“I’ll lead you in, okay? I’ll even hold your hand.”

“Oh Christ don’t do that. They’ll think we’re lesbians and that we are in need of extra saving.”

“Well I am in need of extra saving, but not the saving they’ve got in mind. There are some cute girls here too. Maybe I should run me down some pussy instead.”

“God, is that all you think about?”

“Is your druid blood all you think about? Or whatever it is?”

“All right. All right.”

“I’m talking you down.”

“You’re talking me down. You silver-tongued devil you.”

River giggled. “Come on, honey. Let’s go in.”

“I can’t help it, I feel like someone’s going to lob a rock through the window just for spite.”

“But this is a bunch of Christians feeling the love. There’s no love in rocks.”

“I’m not getting into that with you. Let’s go in there before I change my mind for good.”

“I’ll throw grass at you. Or mud if I can find it.”

“I’d feel better if I could see a star or two.”

“You know, that makes me want to draw one on my boob with a sharpie just so I can flash it at you. Maybe one on each boob.”

I burst out laughing. “All right, then. I’ll be okay once we’re in there.”

“You better be. Though you could blame it on tongues. Or the Holy Spirit or whatever it is that happens at these things. You don’t think they’ll handle snakes do you? I don’t like snakes.” She shuddered. “They’re cold and creepy.”

“If there are snakes I’m getting the hell out and leaving you here if you don’t come with me.”

“Okey dokey. Deal.”

Just as the two of them move into the tent thunder claps overhead and it starts to rain. Fat smacking drops on the canvas. They wend their way through a maze of folding metal chairs and murmuring disgruntled people while the rain quickens from a tapping into a steady growl and then into a full-on wet throated roar. River giggles and takes hold of the woman’s hand and glides along, her arm outstretched and looking backward as though they are partners in some dance. Between the pouring rain and the voices they slip through a wall of noise. More and more people are crowding into the tent just to be out of the rain.

There are empty seats in the back. The old ladies in the back think they are sisters, even when River picks up the woman’s hand and kisses her knuckles and giggles at her own coquettishness. River wants to stand on the chair and the woman doesn’t let her. River wants to sit on her lap. The woman says no. She sits on her own chair and crosses her legs and rests her hands on her knee like a polite schoolgirl and this makes River laugh even harder. River laments aloud that she doesn’t have any more dope. She passes judgment on several of the young men in attendance and not a few of the young ladies. The old women sitting around them beam benevolently and the woman comes to the conclusion that they are deaf or maybe senile and possibly here looking for a laying on of hands. River is looking for a laying on of hands all right. With all these people around she twitches in her seat like an animal in heat and the woman recognizes that is what River is, really, just a cat in heat, a pussy on the prowl looking for anything. The woman wonders what will happen to River when she gets old. One day River won’t have young nipples or young hips and her giggling won’t be cute anymore. It will just be annoying. She’ll be old and wrinkled and unable to get out of bed and won’t be able to fuck her way into anything.

The woman looks at River and sees all the way down time’s dusty corridor.

The preacher comes out. He can’t stand still and so he paces as he talks into the microphone. He works himself up with each step, words coming hard and fast and repetitious in places until he works out a rhythm, nails it down with his words and hooks the crowd with it and all at once the crowd is surging forward and the preacher is leaning backward. They’re only words rendered in this stranger’s voice but he is seducing them just the same. Just words. The pitch of this man’s voice is escalating and the breath of his congregation is escalating. It’s like fucking. The woman is amazed. Crowd psychology, she knows it, has seen the same thing happen at conventions and rock concerts but there is something primitive about the inside of this tent, being hemmed in by the rain, the very air she breathes laden with the scent of mud and too much sweating skin. Fermented zealotry. Or maybe it’s the eye of faith.

“I’d so fuck him,” River breathed.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m shocked. Really.”

“You think I should try to?”

“No. What would be the point?”

“It’s like nailing the top banana. It’s serious street cred in the bad-girl Christian world. I don’t think I’ve ever fucked a preacher.”

“You probably have. You just don’t know it.”

“You spoil everything. You rain on my parade.”

I looked at the canvas ceiling. “You’re right on the rain. But the rain isn’t my fault.”

“You aren’t going to blame that on your druid blood too?”

“Shut the fuck up about my druid blood. Do not piss on my druid blood. It’s a real thing.”

The preacher’s good and worked up now, his forehead gleams with a sweat that puts her in mind of a lathered horse and the people in the tent are agitated and full of moans and sways. A man falls down in the aisle and convulses while spitting out a stream of gibberish. The woman thinks seizure but the congregants think holy spirit and this man is borne up on a sea of waving hands and passed around like an artifact. Every finger in the place touches him. Even the woman puts her hand on his ankle thinking maybe faith is like a virus and it’s worth catching a little something, that maybe it will creep up on her and the desire for the Bible will be like a fever and the next time she’s busy living her life she’ll feel a tickle and instead of a sneeze out will come a big fat hallelujah.

My toes curled in my sandals and pushed all the blood out of my nail beds. I marveled at their paleness.

There is a man walking into the tent. He is tall. His coat is long. It is cut to the shape of his broad shoulders and it falls around him in a sweep, the motion of his stride captured in a flap of storm-colored canvas. He’s wearing some kind of old-fashioned pale hat with a black band. A fedora, she thinks, but I’m not sure if that’s right, it’s the only kind of hat I can think of that men don’t wear anymore, and whatever kind of hat that is men don’t wear it anymore. It’s gone by the wayside. It’s been plucked off a corpse. This thought rises out of a secret place and makes her shiver. The man pauses at the head of the congregation and takes the hat off, shakes the rain from it. His water-colored eyes move across the crowd. The woman feels their sweep and her face feels funny, detached and floating, as though it has risen above the crowd and cried out to be seen. She wants to cover it with her hands but knows it will be hot. There is too much blood in her cheeks.

“Are you okay?” River squinted. “Your face is all red.”

“I’m all right.”

River straightened up and looked around. “You sure? It is kinda hot in here. We can go and get some air if you want.”

“No, I’ll be fine. I just saw something.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What?”

“Nothing!”

He puts the hat back on his head and people are noticing. They see his fine coat and notice. They see his hat and the casual disrespect of it. They are huddled in an itinerant house of God, still a holy place even if the walls are canvas and the fallow ground beneath their feet belongs to a local farmer. There is still sanctity even if it is makeshift.

“Tell me,” said River.

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Goddamn it you’re bullshitting me and I want you to stop it. What is going on? What did you see? Is it that guy we picked up in Virginia? Oh my God it is, isn’t it? Isn’t it?”

“No. River. Calm down.”

“It is. You just don’t want to tell me.”

“It’s got nothing to do with that.”

“You’re going to wait. I see how it is. You’re going to lie to me about this and wait and then when he figures out that I stole his dope he’s gonna…”

“River you are freaking out about nothing.” I kept my voice a low hiss. “I’m only going to say it one more time: it’s nothing. There’s nothing. The guy with the dope isn’t here.”

“What else could it be? Why are you acting like this? Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“I’m not acting like anything. If I wanted to get rid of you I wouldn’t need to make an excuse.”

“You are so acting like something. You’re hiding things from me. And what does that mean, you wouldn’t need an excuse? Do you want to get rid of me?”

“You’re fucking paranoid.”

“I’m not paranoid!”

“You are too. I don’t want to get rid of you. Calm the fuck down. People are staring.”

“I don’t give a shit if they’re staring or not!” River’s voice rose. “Tell me straight. Is that guy here? Did you see him? Just give me a yes or a no.”

“No.”

“Look in my eyes and do it.”

I sighed and leaned forward. “No. The dope guy isn’t here. If he is here I haven’t seen him.”

“Shit.” River looked around. “Do you think he is here?”

“I doubt it,” I said.

“Is everything all right here?”

River and I both turned around. The man in the hat stood in the row behind us. I smelled the rain dripping off his coat and something else, too, something I couldn’t put my finger on: trees, or maybe smoke, or the heat of sunlight trapped in a rock and all of this mixed in with the clean sweet scent of a kitten’s fur. His large hands rested one on each chair. I craned my neck and looked down my back at his hand.

“Uh,” I said.

“Mind your own fuckin business dude,” snapped River.

“Young man,” said one of the old ladies. “Young man you should remove your hat. This is the house of the Lord. Was you raised in a barn? Haven’t you any manners?”

The big man laughed. It was a hearty sound, full of wind and sunshine and decadent things.

* * *

“Will you relax? Drink something,” said River.

“I can’t. I’m driving.”

“As if we’re going anywhere tonight.”

“Someone has to drive around looking for a hotel.”

“So we’ll sleep in the car. Drink something. You’re like a cat in the rain. You’re making me nervous.”

Which was an amazing thing. It was hard to imagine River nervous. She was full of beer and feeling no pain and had danced with a dozen men. She’d slipped out into the back parking lot with a least two of them and her short dark hair was rain-damp and clung to her forehead. Her little sundress clung to her curves. She pushed a bottle of beer on me. “Come on, honey. Drink something.”

So I picked up the bottle and took a sip. She cheered and clapped her hands and bounced up and down. “Yay! She’s drinking! Yay! Now dance. Come out here and dance with me. Let’s scandalize these rednecks, m’kay? M’kay?”

“No,” I said. “Drinking this shit is horrible enough.”

“Oh, come on.” She tickled my arm. “Well and if you don’t like beer then get something you like. Or let one of these fine men buy it for you.”

“That’s all right. I’m okay with just water, really. Besides someone has to stay straight in case you need your drunk ass scraped up off the floor.”

“Aw.” River leaned in and kissed my cheek. “You’re sweet.”

“I’m practical.” I pushed her off me. “Someone has to be. Go and have fun.”

“I really wish you’d dance with me.” She pouted. “I’d be fun.”

“No. And that’s my last word on it.”

“Judging by the expression on your face I’d say you aren’t much of a beer drinker.” The big man from the tent revival took a seat on the stool next to me. The leather creaked beneath his weight. I looked at him, ready to swear on a stack of Bibles that a little Mexican man had been sitting there not ten seconds before with long greasy hair but he was gone, baby, gone. The big man took up his space. He’d checked his coat at the door. He wore a nice white button-up shirt, clean jeans, and simple dark leather cowboy boots. “Maybe you’re a margarita sort of lady but none of that cheap stuff for you. Even in a mixed drink it needs to be top-shelf. Am I right?” He put his elbows on the table, a position that should have made him look hunched but instead lent his back a strange feline grace. He signaled the bartender. “Make the lady a margarita and make sure what’s in it doesn’t cost less than fifteen dollars.”

“Well you’re just showing up everywhere, aren’t you?” River stared at him. “And always cutting in on my conversations. You know, I don’t know if that’s rude or not. I can’t decide.”

“No, it’s all right,” I said to him. “I don’t need it. But thank you.”

“Course you’re cute.” River flashed him a smile. “And I suppose that makes it all okay.”

The bartender laid a napkin on the bar. He put a full glass on top of it.

“Thank you.” I picked it up.

“So where are you from?” River leaned her elbows on the bar. “I saw you when you came into the revival. Hard not to notice such a big guy.”

He unfolded a twenty and straightened it and passed it to the bartender. The bartender took it and as he started to make change the big man made a negative gesture.

“My name’s River,” she said.

He looked at me. “Does it meet with your satisfaction?”

I stirred it with the straw and took a sip. “Yes.”

“Shall I have the bartender write down the mixture for you?”

“No.” I turned to the mirror. “It’s good, though.” I sipped again. “Actually it’s excellent.”

He looked into the eyes of my reflection. “This pleases me.”

River giggled.

“Good,” I said.

“Now the question is this: would you call that fifteen dollars’ worth of margarita? Can you taste the money?”

“Yes. I think I would. And I can.”

His smile went all the way to his eyes and broke the corners of them into sun-made wrinkles. I took a long drink. His smile shortened, softening around the edges, and became secret. I looked back at him. He took my free hand and bent it at the knuckles. I opened my mouth and closed it again. He held up my hand and slid off his stool. All the blood rushed to my face. I put the glass on the bar. He pulled me down. My feet drifted to the floor.

“Well!” River folded her arms. “Well! If I’d known that would’ve worked I might’ve tried it!”

He led me onto the center of the crowded dance floor and I moved behind him in a daze and thought about the cutoff jeans I was wearing and how I wasn’t wearing a bra and how the long ugly fringe of strings swished along my thighs and how my breath smelled like onions and tequila and how my face was free of makeup and anything remotely related to cleanliness; I was sure my deodorant had worn off this morning in the dense humid heat and that when I put my arms up I would smell my armpits.

I came into his presence, into his smell and warmth and his hands on my skin and there was nothing else. I started to shake. He moved a hand along my back. I heard him in three places: his chest, the air, and the center of my mind.

“That’s all.”

He took my face in his hands and steadied it. He kissed my forehead. It was a parting gesture.

At that moment River got into it with some girls at the bar. They were big and local and full of meanness. They stood like men and River just laughed, all of her teeth showing and she slung her arm around some guy, drawing up close to him, kissing him with open sloppy attention that he returned. The one girl snatched River away and flung her into the other girl. All three of them disappeared into a snarl of screamed threats and swinging limbs. I pushed my way off the dance floor and waded in and tried to break it up but the bouncers came along and bounced all four of us out.

The two girls huddled near the door and shared a cigarette. They looked miserable.

“You remember that,” River screeched as I dragged her to the car. “You just remember that, you nasty fuckin bitches!”

There is a hotel on the edge of town. I want to go on to the next town but River is whiny and tired.

Not more than five minutes in the bed and she’s all over me. Her fingers pinching my nipples. Her hot little mouth on mine. Her slippery tongue tasting of beer.

Before I’m clear on what’s happening we’re side by side with our legs entwined and our breath alive in the dark, alive and kicking, and she’s got three or four fingers in my cunt pumping in and out and it feels hot and sweet and sharp, strong, the orgasm rearing up out of the sweating dark and biting with razor teeth. She’s kissing me like if she doesn’t her heart will stop, like my lips and her breath are the only things left in the world and who knows, maybe they are, and I put my tongue in her mouth and feel the strange sensation of her pink hole, soft and firm around my fingers. Her whimpering, the shaking in her body announcing the migration of her orgasm to her arms and legs. We’re both panting and sweating and there’s too much breath for this to be over. So she turns around on the bed and pushes her cunt into my face and burrows her head between my thighs. I hear her voice murmuring, my you’re hot tonight yes you are oh you want it, her slippery fingers are in there and thrusting and her tongue is so hot on my clit that I can’t help coming and the second time sinks deep. I scream.

Later on:

You weren’t even thinking about me, she says. I know it. You were thinking about him, weren’t you. Weren’t you.

_______________

Catherine Leary lives in New England with her cats, her aging parents, and a whole mess of books. She is an editor and co-founder of Freaky Fountain Press.

 

 
     
     

 

 



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