This is a story I’ve performed at both the
Turf Club, as part of the Riot Act Reading
Series, as well as the Soap Factory, with
Talking Image Connections.
They stepped out into the Chippewa and sank. It was predawn. It was cool and the water was warm. It was five of them and the river came up on their hips and a fog lifted and drifted silently between them. They waded out into the darkness.
They came back to Eau Claire, their home, and after a night drinking they were filled with the courage of the bottle and the promise of secluded beaches. They wanted love making under a rising sun, mist burning off the face of the river while they turned on each other in the sand. Anna and Mark, Bruce and Steph, Rick. Janie.
Only five of them went out into the water. They left Janie on the shore, nestled amongst the oak and the pine, and she sat rocking back and forth, knees to her chest, chin rested on the tops, arms wrapped tight against her legs.
Rick brought her. He said she was drunk.
The whole thing was Anna’s idea. I know a place nobody goes, a beach on the river. It’s behind a graveyard. We can swim to an island. Janie was enthusiastic. They were at a party. She danced and it didn’t fit the music. She nodded and she wavered. Let us go she said. For all their youth, Janie was a child. Barely eighteen. Janie brought a pink backpack for the trip. Janie hung her head when she walked. Janie had thick glasses on a cherub face and Rick shouldn’t have been with her, but she believed in true love.
When they got to the cemetery, Anna opened the last bottle of wine. They passed it between them like tombstones giving up shadows. They were grim and they were grey, but Janie was not. She believed in hope. She spoke slowly, the mouth of the bottle just under her lips. She held it there. She stared into it and didn’t look up. She repeated the word over and over, hope, whispering it into the bottle as they presented her a litany of reasons why the world was wrong. Why she was wrong. They gave her starvation and greed. They gave her hate and corruption. Hope, she said. They said Rome. They said empire, and Janie would not meet them. Hope. Her eyes smoldered against their logic. She said she believed in the magic of every day miracles. That she saw God in sunlight filtered through breaking clouds. She saw mystery in the sleepy hang of cobwebs and said that you could feel life itself by simply brushing your fingers against them.
When they finished the bottle, they climbed over the graveyard fence. There was a steep hill then, forested, and the night closed in on them and they were sightless. Each of them clung to the one ahead. Their bare legs were scratched and cut. When they got to the beach, Janie fell into the dirt. Rick tried to pull her up, but she refused. She said she was fine. She said go, but she would not go with. Rick said be alone then, and she was.
They let their clothes slip off and on to the bank of the river. Janie nodded when they asked her to watch their things. When they went out into the water, she unzipped her shorts and pulled them past her ankles. She dropped her sweatshirt and unhooked her bra. She wore only her yellow and white t-shirt, which she stretched out over her legs as she sat huddled on the shore.
These are the things you remember when you think you’re a good man.
You remember vulnerable women and hopeless exaggerations. You remember the sound of the river wrapping around your ankles and the bite of its stones on the bottom of your feet.
You remember the island. It was fifty yards out. The water moved slowly around it, and they had no difficulty in swimming there. They pulled themselves up onto its bank. There was no beach. The river water met high grass, and Anna led them to a stand of birch. Mark and Anna stayed while Bruce and Steph went farther in. Rick went back to the water and the rest made love. The sun was just underneath the horizon and in its light the peeling bark of the trees looked like dead skin.
When they arrived back on the bank they found that Janie was gone. Should we go look for her Anna asked. Rick said that Janie would be waiting for them back at the car. Steph was tired. They put on their things and saw that Janie’s clothes were still on the beach.