Monday, October 24, 2011


Note: The River Ride is a story about a family struggling to deal with the death of a son. This story was a finalist in the BBC short story contest in 2001.

Trudy stands on the back porch of her house on Orchard Street, broom in hand, watching as Luke’s pickup truck turns into the driveway, hauling an old boat. She bites into the soft flesh of her lower lip. “Damn fool,” she mutters, giving the broom a hard push against the old floorboards of the porch.

            Big surprise. Luke was always bringing home some piece of junk. The barn out back was stacked to the moon with odds and ends hoarded over the years. Now, a boat? Why, the both of them couldn’t even swim. She wipes her hands on the skirt of her faded apron.

Luke jumps down from the cab of the truck.  "Honey," he calls out, “the deal was too sweet; I couldn't turn ‘er down.”

She ignores both him and the boat. Her hands form two tight fists around the broom handle.  Fool, she thinks again, tasting blood where she’d broken through the skin of her lip.    

They eat dinner in silence. Luke pushes food from one side of his plate to the other, nibbling at a bite of roast beef or cutting into a cooked carrot with his fork, then forgetting to put it into his mouth. She hates herself for making his gift seem worthless. Over the past six months, the pain of losing their son has absorbed into her tired bones like a thick poison.

After dinner, she washes the dishes while Luke paces the worn linoleum between the refrigerator and stove. He’s babbling on and on about how the boat will bring them all together again. All, meaning their daughter and granddaughter.

"Lisa won't go," she says, flipping the dishtowel over one shoulder. She leans into the counter to wipe it with a soapy dishrag. “She blames us for what happened. You know that, don’t you?”

His voice cracks with emotion. "Sara will come with us.” 

She moves the dishrag in vigorous tight circles on the countertop, ashamed that her words are so spiteful.  He doesn’t deserve it.  He unfairly blames himself for what Jimmy did - not only for the accident, but for the murder as well. 

She unties her apron, looping the neckband over a hook beside the back door. Her anger softens, as it always does. No doubt, their three-year-old granddaughter will be delighted with Grandpa's boat.

"Yes," she finally agrees, "Sara’ll go."

Luke smiles. “You’ll love it, too. We can ride all the way to Parkersburg.”  His eyes shine with renewed life. "We’ll go on a journey."  She stands at the cupboard, forcing a dishtowel down the throat of a glass, listening.  Journey sounds good, so new and different, so far removed from the loss of their son. 

In those first awful weeks after Jimmy died, she sought refuge in his old bedroom where she would sit on the edge of the bed and pretend nothing had changed. If she closed her eyes and held her breath, she’d swear she could hear tennis shoes squeaking against the hardwood floors in the hallway. Trudy prayed that when she opened her eyes again, she’d find God had given them a second chance to do everything right.

Early the next morning, Luke climbs into the boat with a bucket of water and a sponge to clean the upholstery. Trudy ignores him as she pulls weeds from around the tomato plants in the garden. 

“The seats are torn in a few places,” he says.  “I’ll put duct tape over the bad spots.” 

She pretends she doesn’t hear him. Her fingers work close to earth, pulling weeds, tossing them into a growing pile in the garden path.  Weeds never die.  Even if you yank them out by their roots, they’ll still grow back with a vengeance.

“Our anniversary’s tomorrow,” he calls out.  “I thought we’d take our first river ride.”  He waits for an answer. “Trudy,” he says, clearly aggravated by her silence. “I said...”

“I heard you,” she shouts, shoving the garden trowel deep into the ground.  Then, much softer, she says,  “It’s fine...we’ll go.” 

Later in the afternoon, they drive to the trailer park to invite Lisa and their granddaughter to go with them on the river ride. Their daughter has made other plans. "Take Sara," Lisa offers. "She'll love it. Won't you, sweetie?"

Sara sits at a small plastic table pressing a marker that makes little red hearts into the page of her coloring book. She looks up at her mother. "Shit," she says with a smile as sweet as sugar.  “Now, honey, don’t you go sayin’ those bad words,” Trudy cautions.

 “Mommy does,” Sara says back, her stubby fingers popping off the green top of a marker that makes shamrocks. “It’s all her fault,” she adds, all serious.

Their daughter, a few weeks after the funeral, had screamed those very words.  “It’s all your fault, Daddy! You told Jimmy to leave and never come back.  You gave up on him.”  

Trudy had then cried out in her husband’s defense. “Your brother was drunk! He shoved me.”

Luke opened his arms to his daughter, a helpless gesture that begged forgiveness. “He hurt your mother,” he stammered. 

The next morning they drive to a public dock on the Ohio River. Trudy wears a wide-brimmed straw hat and a pair of sunglasses purchased from the dollar rack at the drugstore. Luke carefully backs the boat into the water and lets it float free from the trailer. Trudy cautiously steps onboard, feeling the boat shift a little beneath her feet.

Sara gleefully jumps up and down on the dock, clapping her hands. "Hurry, Grandma!  I want to get in!" Trudy sits down on one of the rear seats. Luke fastens the straps of Sara’s life jacket before lowering her into the boat. 

"You sit up front with Grandpa," Trudy orders. "You might fall overboard."  She snugs the hat down on her head and settles the picnic basket at her feet. Her eyes take in the harvest-gold interior that dates the boat like the avocado stove and refrigerator in her own kitchen.  She runs one hand along the back cushion, admiring Luke’s fine job of cleaning the interior and mending the seats.

Sara sits on the front seat, plump legs sticking straight out, white tennis shoes radiant against her summer tan. "Grandpa, make it go!" she says, impatient and wide-eyed.  With a steady eye, Luke backs away from the dock before putting the motor in forward gear.  He eases the throttle open, and the boat gains speed. The wind tugs at Trudy's hat and teases the short sleeves of her blouse.

They travel upriver toward Parkersburg. Much bigger boats pass them, twice as shiny, some costing more than Trudy and Luke's house.  When a lady on the deck of a houseboat waves down at them, Trudy timidly raises her hand.  Three fishermen along the shore wave too.  Again, she smiles and waves back, marveling at how different the world seems in the center of this river. 

At noon, they moor on a narrow stretch of sandy shore to eat their picnic lunch of ham sandwiches, potato chips and iced tea from a silver thermos. Sara plays in the sand, digging holes with a plastic spoon, and then filling them with water from a paper cup. Trudy rests on a quilted blanket, leaning back on her elbows, legs stretched out, watching Sara with a sharp eye. 

She thinks her son had once been this content with the world.  A good baby, a gentle child.  Then, all at once, Trudy couldn’t exactly remember when, nothing could make him happy. He was thirteen when Trudy caught him smoking a cigarette behind the garage. She’d snatched the pack from his hands and soaked it under a blast of water from the garden hose. "I will not allow you to smoke," Trudy preached.  In response, Jimmy had merely laughed, then brought home a fresh pack the next afternoon.           

Over the next few years, her son grew increasingly defiant, often belligerent.  Trudy took out her frustration on her daughter, one day screaming at Lisa that she had no more love to give to her children. A few months later, Lisa casually announced her pregnancy. Her daughter quit school in October of her senior year and moved in with the father of the baby. That relationship lasted until three months after Sara's birth.       

Trudy digs her fingers deep into the sand. Tears sting at the edges of her eyes.

Luke's work-roughened fingers grip her arm. "What?" he asks with concern.

"Nothing," she answers. "I only wish..."

"Don't wish, Trudy,” he says, his voice cracking. “It never works.  It just makes you all the sadder when things don’t work out."  He keeps a tight hold on her hand as if afraid to let go of her, as if letting go would release every last bit of what was left of them. 

“I can’t help it, Luke,” she says, her eyes fixed on Sara who has waded into the water up to her knees. The backside of the child's pink shorts is smeared with a dark circle of sand. Trudy is grateful she had the good sense to pack a clean set of clothing for Sara. Some things, she sadly comforts herself, can be fixed. “I want things back the way they were. I want…one more chance to love our children. I’d be a better mother to both of them.”

"We did our best," he consoles, tenderly brushing the sand from her hands.

"They always seemed so angry with us…so miserable." 

He shrugs and says, "Maybe we made it too easy."

"I wanted our children to be happy."

He awkwardly pats his wife's hand. "We gave them all we had."

"Grandpa!" Sara shouts, holding up a broken plastic spoon. "I need more." 

"Coming, baby." He gets up and hurries to find a new spoon.

When their son turned fifteen, Luke had tried to teach Jimmy a trade, but the boy had no interest in learning small engine repair. Instead, he’d shaved his head. At eighteen, he tattooed his arms with skulls, cross-bones and daggers. He started to drink, keeping company with low-life friends. By his twenty-first birthday, Jimmy had managed to lose six different jobs.

Two hours after the argument with his parents, the night he had shoved Trudy against the kitchen counter, Jimmy killed a man inside a tavern at the edge of town. They had fought over a woman, and when Jimmy pulled a gun from the pocket of his leather jacket and fired, he was sure he'd killed the man. He ran from the bar, but at least a dozen witnesses knew his name. 

 The sheriff came to their door late that night, his expression grim in the pale light of the proch lamp. He told them about Jimmy killing the man in the bar, and how he'd run away.“But," the sheriff said with a long and difficult sigh, "I'm afraid there's more. Your son, after leaving the scene, lost control of his car…I'm sorry. You look like good people.” 

 Luke guides the boat beneath the Parkersburg bridge, and then turns it around for the return trip. Trudy stands up and moves to the front seat. Sara climbs into her lap and within a few minutes is asleep. She holds the slumbering child tight against her chest and something familiar and soothing tugs like small wanting hands inside her. Tears spill onto her cheeks, but she doesn’t bother to wipe them away. She can’t. If she did that, she would first have to let go of Sara. 

She smiles at her husband. "This is the nicest anniversary ever."             

He reaches over and smoothes Sara's blond nest of curls. "You aren't mad anymore about the boat?"

Trudy shakes her head. "I think the boat's the best thing you ever brought home.”  And she means every word she tells him.

They move past a slow-moving barge and then are alone on the river. The afternoon sun weaves a shimmering play of light through the leaves of shoreline trees. The river has turned a deep shadowy green and stretches before them as smooth as glass. Trudy closes her eyes and lifts her head to the slight breeze that caresses her face. For this one perfect moment, in the center of the river, it seems as if it flows only for them.