The river stinks tonight, and Mackey Rottler’s running into the headlights of evening traffic. Past the big metal Piasa Bird and its backdrop of limestone quarry, he imagines half-breed Mustang LaForte hiding up there in the bluffs.
Postcard in the mail exactly four weeks ago hit him like a letter bomb, like a depth charge, like a torpedo when he turned it over. It was from his wife.
Spent yesterday swimming naked
in the Washougal River
with a coven of witches.
Miss your mind,
Second Mackey read the card, he dropped it in the trash and ran out the door so he wouldn’t keep searching it for a word about Libby.
Mackey couldn’t help imagining the conversation he didn’t want to have.
“So where are you, Opal?”
“Not where we are. How we are. Isn’t that what a person’s supposed to ask? Are you drunk, Mackey?”
“Where’s Libby, you mean.”
When he got back forty minutes later, a gash of sweat down the front of his red tee shirt, Mackey pulled a can of beer out of the refrigerator and the card back out of the trash. The cold felt good going down, so he popped open another. He was relieved the smudged postmark and the card itself, a picture of a box inside of a box inside of a box, bore no geographical trace beyond the reference to a river he’d never heard of. She knew the effect the two words would have, the way they would block his view, make every other thought conform to them, the way he would turn them into numbers.
Mackey tore the card into eight pieces and threw them on top of the empty beer cans.
Tonight, running upriver toward Elsah and Grafton and the confluence of the Mississippi and the Illinois, he still doesn’t know where the Washougal is, not even what state, and that makes him happy. If he looks it up, finds it, he knows he’ll keep going there in his head, adding and re-adding the miles, rethinking the different routes, adding and re-adding the numbers of those routes, the possible combinations. If he actually did it, drove the length of the Washougal, wherever that might be, and he happened to find them? Just one glimpse of his little girl, he’d tell himself, would be enough. To see her whole and happy.
But it wouldn’t be enough. He knows that.
So he keeps his distance from any information that might locate them or the river, that might point him in the right direction, that might make the trip not just possible but necessary and therefore irreversible in its implications and outcomes.
Yet here he is, along a river, his river, committing himself to an action that might lead to that information. Tonight he’s carrying a cell phone in his waist pouch and he knows Opal’s number. It’s a small thing, the phone, but it feels like a grenade with his finger hooked in the pin. He tells himself he’s going to hit send this time, risk the pressure, the crack in the dam that’s holding so much back. He wants to hear Libby’s voice, and he’s afraid of the things she might say. He wants to tell her about his shitty day. If she tells him where she is, he’ll deal with it.
Opal and Libby have been gone a month, thirty-one days, and he’s up to fifty-four miles a week, nine a day except Sunday when he rests. Mackey knows exactly how many miles he runs because he’s measured out mile markers on the bluff side. After the second mile, half-mile markers. The starting and ending point is the front door knob to his business, Piasa Used Books, a small storefront tucked in among the antique shops on Broadway, where he specializes in genre paperbacks, sci-fi, romance, mystery, action-adventure serials with heroes like Mustang LaForte.
At closing time Mackey changes into his gear. Jock, shorts, shirt, socks, running shoes, a ball cap to protect his bald head from the sun, a stocking cap and gloves if it’s chilly, a paperback or two in a body-hugging runner’s backpack if he’s stopping somewhere, a waist pouch with keys, five twenties, ten ones, three quarters, a credit card, and tonight a cell phone. Within minutes he locks up and he’s heading down the hill past Peavey Flour Mill, his pre-Opal place of employment. Within minutes he’s out where he wants to be, on the Great River Road, running against the flow of the Mississippi to his left and by the big metal Piasa Bird off to his right.
It’s more like a monster than a bird. Wings, yes, but also glittering scales, antlers, a long beard, sharp teeth too big for its mouth, and a tail four or five times the length of its body. Legend has it the Piasa used to feed on Indians until Chief Ouatoga lured the bird-monster out into the open, where twenty warriors shot poison arrows into its side and sent it into a death-spiral. Over the years what used to be a rock painting of the Piasa became a large metal sign up a quarried bluff. Mackey thinks the bird would make a great book cover. He’s not a writer, but if he were, that would be the book he’d write.
Tonight Opal and Libby are long gone and the air’s thick and Mackey’s drunk and what he’s after is the pressure the bluffs bring as they move closer to the road, crowd the four lanes, push the trail up against traffic, make him feel like he might trip and stumble into the path of a car. It’s like the bluffs are leaning into him as he runs, like they want him in harm’s way. He’s come to count on that feeling this past month. It’s what he’ll have to work through if he’s going to find Gilead and the balm preachers promise is there to be found.
“Moving west” was Opal’s weekly warning. “Taking Libby with me,” the punch line.
“You can’t do that,” Mackey kept saying. “I have rights. You have a practice.”
“I’ll sell it, get a new one,” she’d counter.
“I’m thinking Idaho, Oregon, Washington. Maybe Montana. Be a dental-floss tycoon, buy Libby a pygmy pony.”
“What?” He couldn’t think. Sometimes the problem was liquor. Sometimes, anxiety. Last couple of years it’s been both.
This evening, in the humidity and river stink that are part of who he is, Mackey’s hugging the bluffs that push back against him, putting one foot after another faster and faster the best he can. Counting every other step, two, four, six, eight, he’s running hard enough that if he tried he might fly above his problems, get some perspective. That’s the way it feels.
This evening, out here along the great Miss-uh-sloppy, just north of Big Muddy, the Missouri, Mackey’s finally able to face facts. Number one, Opal’s his wife, soon-to-be ex. Two, they’ve been married for six years and lived together for two before that. Three, they have a seven-year-old daughter, Libby. Four, the last couple of years their address might as well have been Denial, Illinois, not Alton. Five, Opal made it clear for some time that one day soon she’d be heading west. He wasn’t ready for the fact of it. The going. Libby gone.
Or, for that matter, the coven of witches or the Washougal River or the naked bodies. Mackey knew Opal was dreaming a world of women, which meant, as Opal often said, all shapes and sizes, wounds and guises, each with her own story.
“You don’t know teeth,” he’d say back. “You make fun of dentists. What do you know about dental floss?”
“Zappa. Pygmy pony. Yellow snow. You’ve forgotten all that? Christ, Mackey.”
His blood pressure. Calm. “Why west?”
“Work-in-progress. Open road. I’m hungry for change. Maybe Northern California. Live with Reed among the Lost Amazons of Mendocino, Inc. I can see it now. Libby, Warrior-Princess in Training.”
“That doesn’t bother me, you know.”
“Yes, it does.”
“You’re a lesbian.”
“And with lubricant and a little help from a good-hearted woman, you’re a functioning heterosexual. You drink too much, Mackey. You stay to yourself. You’re obsessive-compulsive. You count everything, but can’t find anything.”
Here’s the way Mackey pictures it, that postcard yesterweek on the Washougal. One woman tall and skinny as a pencil, scarred and wooden at the water’s edge. Not far away a couple of women with big thighs, hips like coal-burning stoves. In the background, a woman of indeterminate shape, like a cloud or an idea. Mackey can’t make her out. Top right-hand corner of the picture he sees a group of women sitting and making like an octopus in the knee-deep water, their arms going up and down like tentacles.
What’s out of the frame is Mackey, two miles into his run, and the bag he’s shouldering to Gilead. He could start with the pending divorce, but that’s not much. On its own, a bundle of tee shirts or running socks. Nothing that would slow him down. He’s been divorced before. You can’t get good at it, he knows, but you can develop a back for the next one if you convince yourself it’s going to be the last one.
Four syllables. Final divorce.
“Let the lawyers work it out,” she said with increasing regularity.
“I don’t have a lawyer,” Mackey would say, and while he didn’t technically need a drink, he wanted one.
If he had dared say that out loud, she would have said, “No, what you really want is a double.”
What he really would have wanted was two doubles. Double double. For his troubles.
The river stinks tonight and Mackey Rottler’s running and stumbling and he’s doing the best he can to hold it all together. Up ahead, he sees a perch in the bluffs above the next mile marker, imagines an eagle’s nest, the perfect spot for Mustang LaForte to leap on Piasa’s back and swoop down to save the beleaguered family.
As he nears the marker, he sees the mess, the boxes ripped open and books scattered, pages torn and blowing, some into the river, as a car speeds by.
Mackey’s life stinks tonight, and he’s struggling to rise above it. He’s dizzy and falling into the asphalt. He’s scraping his hands and knees. He’s getting back on his feet. The load he’s carrying is a lifetime of losing things. Opal used to say he spent ten percent of his waking hours losing stuff and the rest of his time trying to find it. Not that he ever had any trouble, she’d add, finding a bag of ice, his favorite glass, and the bourbon he poured into it. His shrine, she called it.
“Where’s Libby, you mean.”
He couldn’t go to bed until everyone else was sound asleep. That was Mackey’s history of drink. Walk the perimeter, check beds, sip mash over ice. His late night, early morning trinity. Once upon a time.
Running through the boxes of books, ripped open and scattered across the trail and out onto the road like the carnage in his thin paperbacks, he does his best to keep his balance, to surf the ruin, to keep his mind clear.
Alone on the Great River Road, putting one foot before or after another, trying to keep his mind on the miles before him and the phone call he needs to make, trying to get through the mess and litter of the books and magazines he’d dumped there earlier in the week, thinking about the damage done to all of his action heroes, the original wound that made them tough, avenging angels, Mackey’s sorry he’s an absent father. In a perfect world, he and Opal would have worked it out for Libby’s sake. He would have learned a better way of fighting than stubborn refusal, punishing silence.
But how could he have predicted Reed? Opal’s vague attraction to women, okay. Her fantasies about women healing women off somewhere in the pink beyond. In hindsight, things were clear.
When the news about Reed broke, that slender centerfielder who looked like a teenaged boy, Mackey was not prepared. It was a problem. Opal hated sports, but soon she was a regular spectator at the Wednesday Evening Riverfront Women’s Slow-Pitch League. She even took to wearing a tee-shirt with those words. Here, this evening, along the road, the occasional car zipping past toward Grafton, too close for sober comfort, Reed is not the problem. Nor is the location of their eventual home. Nor is Opal or Mackey exactly.
The problem’s Libby. Every night at bedtime Mackey would say, “Your eyes are brown as Crayola,” and she’d say, “Brown as which Crayola, the green one or the blue one?”
Another half mile, just past an untouched stack of boxes, he gets anxious. When he reaches Grafton, the markers will disappear. He’s sweating liquor and he’s getting dizzy again. A couple of cars, their headlights fixed on him, bear down, bear, bear, bearing, and whoosh on past. He’ll have no excuse not calling Libby then.
And he’d say the same thing every time. “Hey, girl, where’d you get your smart mouth?” And she’d say, “From you.”
Mackey realizes he’s losing his sense of direction. A set of headlights jerks away from him and an angry blast of a horn tells him he needs to get back. He’s running in the middle of the four-lane road. The bike path’s ended, and he’s out on the asphalt. Veering back toward the gravel, he touches his waist pouch and there’s no phone.
“From the mouths of babes,” Opal would say.
Mackey read a story in school about a man who decided he would swim home. He was at someone’s house, probably with his wife. He was somewhere, maybe a lawn party, and he decided instead of leaving with her in the car he would swim home by himself. With no creek, no stream, no river available for the task before him, this suburban Ulysses promptly turned the idea of island-hopping inside out. His vision was an archipelago of pools, his plan simple: run from one backyard to the next, dive into a pool, swim to the other side, trot to the neighbors’ pool, repeat until he gets home to his wife and family. The joke, the cruel fucking irony or simple justice is that when he gets there, his family is gone. No note in the frying pan, just the dust of long gone, maybe years. What looks like obsessive behavior turns out to be something deeper.
If Mackey’s going the wrong way, if he can’t find them in this direction, he’ll have to rethink his route. And how can he call her right now when he needs her most if he doesn’t have his phone? He could take the Grafton Ferry across and find the Missouri, see if it leads him to the Washougal. Maybe he will.
The road’s getting quiet. When was the last time he saw a car? Up ahead, Mackey sees some more boxes thrown across the four lanes of traffic and catches his foot on something. He knows he’s in trouble. Staggering sideways, he rights himself. He doesn’t know how long Libby and Opal have been gone. A car pulls off in front of him. A man opens the driver’s door to ask if Mackey’s all right. He doesn’t know if he’s running in the right direction. A kid’s crying in the backseat.
He sees Libby swimming to see him down the Washougal to the Missouri all by herself.
A truck honks at him and the car’s not there.
You can’t inherit a thing like a smart mouth from someone even if he is your father, and when a guy swims all that way home, through all those obstacles he’s put in his own way, a gauntlet he’s set up to test himself against he doesn’t know what, he might not be surprised to find his Penelope entertaining a few suitors, even a woman, his daughter grown, and his bookshelves empty. When he swims out of himself after all those years and reaches for the doorknob and it snaps off rusty in his hand, he knows the second it breaks free the implications, the cost of his inner voyage.
It’s hard to tell in the dark what he slips on, a stack of magazines or an oversized paperback, the slick cover giving way, but he knows as it’s happening that he has a choice. He can flop forward, take his chances with the asphalt or the gravel, and tear up his knees and elbows some more and probably his face. Or he can fight gravity, try to keep his feet, take his chances in light traffic, maybe catch himself on something and stop his fall.
Libby’s bow-legged, a thing you can inherit from your father, and from a distance, as she breast-strokes out of the octopus arms that would hold her there in the Washougal River, she looks like a frog.
“Mom says you count everything, but can’t find anything.”
What he should do is write a Mustang LaForte of his own, get him up on these bluffs to see what happens. Somewhere along here, Mackey thinks, Piasa might have fallen. Or maybe back toward the mill, near the metal sign.
Tonight, in the humid river stink, his body falling forward on the asphalt, into the headlights and screeching tires, Mackey Rottler thinks about the balm in Gilead. He thinks about a double double. Four syllables. Double double.
He thinks about leaping off the bluffs onto the back of a great bird. He’s not sure where anything is, but he tells himself the way is made of rivers running inside and out and that if you keep going you’ll get there. What he likes about action-adventures is that they end in the truth of clear-cut action. Cash Jackson kills the bad guy, collects his reward money, and rides into the setting sun. Forced by the usual circumstances to get involved, Rory Montana uses his six-shooters to reclaim a town for its citizens, turns down a badge, and rides out of town. Mustang LaForte swoops down the bluff to save the family in the covered wagon because they’re outnumbered and disappears before anyone can say thanks. Stories without the resolution of clear-cut action are like counting way past a thousand without knowing the number you’re going to end on and why.
A guy doesn’t talk. A guy stays up and reads and drinks and scribbles on paper. A guy swims home. A guy leaves town. Four syllables. A guy leaves town. Repetition’s not resolution.
Tonight Mackey Rottler takes off. His feet leave the ground, and he spreads his arms. He lifts and glides along the bluffs until the humidity gets his wings and, mid swoop, one sheers off like a thick sheet of liquor-soaked cardboard. Struggling to right himself, Mackey pulls the bottles and beer cans from his pockets and lets them go. He dumps the dozens of books stashed in his backpack. They fall like dead birds through the soupy air. His descent is herky-jerky, the angle oblique, but the destination just as certain. The river stinks tonight, and he’s skipping on the surface, the asphalt, bouncing and tumbling into the oncoming lights.
When he hits the road, his arms extended to break his fall, Mackey dislocates his left shoulder. It pops out of the socket and he knows immediately what’s happened. As he skids on his chest maybe five feet to a stop under the front bumper of the car with the screeching tires, he’s angry at his body.
He thinks about the feel and sound of that door knob snapping off rusty in the guy’s hand after he finally swims home. Libby’s a frog or a wishbone for the pulling. The Piasa Bird swoops along the bluffs, the half-breed on its back, until one of its wings is sheered off in the stink and the humidity. Mackey opens his eyes and there’s no car. He struggles quickly to his feet and gets back to the side of the road. He holds his left elbow in his right hand. Worst pain ever. Four syllables. He does the only thing he can do. He keeps running. He keeps running.
First published in The Southern Review 45.1 (2009).
Special Mention in Pushcart 2011.