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Mainstream Fiction

Bottom of the River

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It’s a smoldering night in the South.  It’s summer.  That means it’s real heat.  It’s thick air you breathe.  The air is the only sweet thing in this life and even then, when you take it in, the dirt comes with it.  It burns while going in and inflames your insides.  That’s how the devil gets in.  Now, the devil’s been next to me my whole life but we’ve really been dancing since about 6:25 this evening.

He started his whispers when I was walking in from the store.  I had those groceries in my hands all propped and balanced.  Then he makes me miss a step and BAM!  Groceries fly everywhere while I fall. I hit my palms on the cement and raw them up a bit.  I try to pile the groceries back into the bag and the next thing I know, Roy’s at the top of his stairs just watching me, sucking on his teeth and shaking his head.  I remember when I used to catch him looking at me and felt lucky, special, beautiful.  With men like Roy, you have to wonder if they planned it all.  You’d like to think they didn’t because somewhere you know they’re not that smart but my Lord, when they look at you like you can’t do nothin’ right, so help me, I swear to God…

That’s when the devil starts whispering to me,

“He’s mine.  And so are you.  You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

I get the groceries together and skirt past Roy who hacks and spits as I pass.  I make it into the kitchen to the sound of a slamming screen and see out the window that he’s heading to the shed.  At least he’ll be out there while I put something together for dinner.  It’s worse when he’s wandering around the house drinking.  When he goes into the shed, I know where he is and can hear him so don’t have to keep my eye out while still knowing exactly where he is.  Today though, he decides to sit on the stump in front of the door to the shed.  He sits and carves up a piece of wood.He’s not making anything.  Just slicing.  He keeps his eyes down but with every sliver he takes away from the wood, he gets lost more and more and I know the devil’s tellin’ him exactly what he told me.  Worse, even.

I hear him again.

“He’s mine.  And you aint goin’ nowhere.” He says.

The chicken’s a few minutes away from being ready when Roy comes back in.  I don’t remember when I lost track of him and the sound of him makes me jump.

“What?  You jump like I’m gonna hit you or somethin’.  Christ.  What’s the matter with you?” I feel the air from the icebox as he grabs a beer.  He pops the top off on the counter where the niche is.  He put the niche there.

I keep an eye on him from over my shoulder as he slowly paces the kitchen looking out the window at nothing in particular with his hand on his hip.  He’s wearing his work jeans but he didn’t go in today.  His once white shirt has light brown rings under the arms and there are holes and stains all over him.  His hair is greasy and stuck to his head.  He smells sour.  He snaps his head back to look at me and I quickly put my eyes back to what I was doing.  What was I doing?

“Why the hell you so jumpy?” He barks.  “Where’s dinner?”

I pull the chicken out of the oven.  It’s amazing that when the oven unleashes its heat, the temperature in the kitchen doesn’t change.  I put everything out on the table I must’ve set at some point.  Roy pulls his chair out to sit down but lifts the wood from the head of the chair clean off the base.

“Fuckin’ piece a shit!” He roars.

He was supposed to fix that for the last few months.  It happens almost everyday but it always stays like that.  I wait for him to resituate the broken chair.  When he falls into his seat, I bow my head and fold my hands.

“Thank you God for this food.  Please let it make good use.  We love you and thank you.  In Jesus’ name, amen.”  He recites.

“You aintgoin’ nowhere.” I hear.

Roy finishes his chicken and breaks the bone with his teeth.  He sucks the marrow out with a slobbering, drooling sound.  Roy tells me it’s good for you to eat the marrow because it gives you marrow in return.  All I know is that I hate that sound.  He drops the bones on a plate, sighs a gluttonous sigh and leaves the table.  The icebox door opens again but I don’t feel it this time.  When he pops the cap of in the niche though, I feel it in my bones.

“Christ!  It’s blazing.” He says but not to me.

I hear another crack of the screen and quickly clear the dishes so I can be back at the window.  I don’t know where he goes when he wanders but every time he goes for a walk, I know whom he’s walking with and whom he’s talking to.  I know because every time Roy goes for a walk, less and less of Roy comes back.

I put my head down to clean the dishes.  The balls of my hands are still raw and sting when they hit the water.  When I look up, Roys’s still slicing the wood the same as before only now he’s looking straight at me.  Or through me.

“He’s mine.  And so are you.  And you aintgoin’ nowhere.” He speaks.

I look down to get away from his eyes and start dripping sweat into the dirty dishwater.  When I get the courage to look up again, he’s gone.

I finish the dishes, drain the dirty water, gently wipe my hands on my apron and step out to the back porch thinking he might just be wandering the grounds.  When he wanders the grounds, he doesn’t get as lost and doesn’t stay out as long. But he’s past the tree line by now.  Somewhere in that wilderness.

Wandering around the house I try to find something to clean or straighten or care for.  Nothing is out of place so I just sit.

The sun is going down and I start to drift off with the sweet, hot air.  I think of Roy sucking his teeth and my head jerks up.  I think of Roy spitting and my head jerks back.  I think of Roy staring at me with his knife on the wood.  His eyes are missing but he keeps staring.  He points the knife directly at me and slowly starts to rise.  My head jerks straight and my eyes pop open.  The sun is down and Roy’s not back.

It’s 9:07.

I look around.  What is there to see?  There must be something to see.  There are some pictures on a shelf.  Our wedding day.  Him dressed up and me thinking we were blessed.  We were supposed to be happy.  We were supposed to be different.  Instead, all of a year later that day, I’m sittin’ in an automobile repair shop while he changes brakes on a friend’s car.  No dinner, no flowers, no card, no acknowledgment that we’d made it a year.  I hadn’t realized it had started coming undone so soon to the beginning.

A birthday party.  Don’t know whose.  We don’t really see friends anymore.  We were smiling in the picture.  It seems obvious but it’s not.  For the past six years, I’ve had to beg Roy to try and not look miserable in every photo that’s taken.  The best I get is a smirk.  This must’ve been before all that.

A Christmas card.  I remember that year.  That’s the year he stopped smiling.  I could see it.  I could see the progression there in the pictures.  It was so obvious.  The timeline had been on the mantle this entire time.  But no one’s here to see the pictures any longer to see what I see.  He made everyone go away, everyone except the devil.

The screen cracks and my heart sinks.  I hear the icebox door and feel the pop of the cap again.

“What are you doing here in the dark?” He demands and he flips the light on.  The light is sharp and casts too many shadows.  I always hated the lighting in this room.  “What are you doing in the dark?” He demands again, “Don’t you ever do anything?”

The heat is overwhelming so I go upstairs to take a shower.  Heat rises so upstairs is scorching and sticky.  I step into the cold shower.  I can’t make it any more cold.  It’s not enough. The air doesn’t feel any different then it does in the heat.  But I stand there anyway and try to get clean.  I look at the balls of my hands through the running water.  Palms up, catching the new water while the old water runs out of my hands.  I cup my hands together then release.  Cup.  Release.  Cup.  Release.

I inspect my fingers.  These fingers have been sick for a long time.  They’re at the doctor’s office more often than not. Even so, they do the marketing and the banking.  They’re the ones who have to shake people’s hands at church while the mouth smiles and says, “Doin’ good as good can do.”  The tongue doing the devil’s work right in the middle of the Lord’s house.  But if I say anything, I’ll be disrespectful and we can’t have that.  No.  We can’t have that.

“He’s mine.  And so are you.  And you aintgoin’ nowhere.”  He laughs.

It’s 10:31.

Back downstairs, Roy’s found something to watch on the television.  The Three Stooges.  But he’s not laughing.  I walk around the back of his reclining chair and put my hand on his shoulder.  I want him to hold it.  I want him to laugh at the show he’s watching.  I want him to sigh and say he’s sorry for being so awful.  Instead, he winces it away and tells me, “It’s too hot for any of that.  Get me a beer.”

I open the icebox and retrieve a beer.

“And you aintgoin’ nowhere.” He bellows.
I pop the cap off in the niche and don’t feel a thing.  I deliver it to Roy who is now reclined with his disgusting, rancid smelling feet out in the open.  The acridness of his feet mix with the sweet of the air and it’s repulsive.  It doesn’t work.  I all but shove the beer at him leaving some to spill a bit on his shirt.  I’m embarrassed.  Embarrassed because he thought I wanted to sleep with him.  Embarrassed because if I had wanted to, I would’ve been rejected.  Embarrassed because he’s filthy and I love him.

He recoils as the wet beer seeps through his shirt and he realizes what’s happening.

“What the hell?  What the hell’s gotten into you?!  I swear to God, Grace, I don’t even know what’s wrong with you anymore.”

“He’s mine.  And so are you.  And you aintgoin’ nowhere.” He howls.

I hurry to the back porch as Roy mutters curses at me and reminds me I better clean his shirt before work tomorrow. Trying to clear my head, I breathe in the sweet, scorching air again and release a pathetic sigh of ash.  The tears well up and I try to push them down and away.  Roy does not like tears.  He says tears are women’s blackmail.  He says tears get him to do what I want.  He says tears are just to make him feel bad.  He says I’m his and I aintgoin’ nowhere.

The tears fall and I panic praying to God that I don’t have to sniff my snot back in because then he’ll know.  I hear him by the sink, still grumbling about his shirt so I suck the tears back in, breathe in the last of the sweet air and go back into the kitchen as the screen cracks.  Roy turns from the sink.

“Look at this!”  He scowls, holding his shirt out for me to survey the damage.  He takes his shirt off and tosses it to me.

“Fix it.”  He commands.  He stands in the kitchen with the too bright light reflecting off of the ivory colored tiles and I remember how excited we were when we bought this house.  We were so lucky to get it.  We knew that surely God was blessing us with a home we could use to serve him with.  Raise children in.  Grow old in.  Then again, these tiles used to be white.

I look at Roy slowly from the bottom up.  I used to be so fortunate.  His feet used to walk up to my door everyday after work to be with me.  His knees used to tremble, his manhood desired me, I’d fill his belly, his arms would hold me, his heart would love me.  When I get to his eyes my blood runs cold.  His eyes.  They’re black.  No, not black…they’re gone.  I stare at the voided sockets I knew.  My lips quivers and I drop his shirt.  He sneers and shows his teeth.  Perfectly white.  Roy doesn’t have white teeth.

“What’s the matter with you?”  His voice is as thick as the air and creeps like molasses.  He slowly starts to walk towards me.  Each foot goes toe to ball to heel, toe to ball to heel.  Like a dance.  I back up slowly trying to put my hands out in front of me but there’s also something that wants to know what he has to tell me.  “That’s right.” His voice creeps.  “He’s mine.  And so are you.  And you aintgoin’ nowhere!”  He thunders.

I turn and run out the screen, down the porch and out across the yard.  I get to the tree line and only then do I look back.  The house looks the same.  The back porch wrapping around, the light is still on in the kitchen and the living room.  He’s nowhere.  I don’t know where he goes when he wanders…

I make my way into the trees trying to get further away.  I get lost.  I wander for God only knows how long.  Twigs and brush scrape me up and a couple times I think I feel him pulling on my dress.  I never check, just pull as hard as I can to get away.

Then the air changes smells.  It’s not so sweet anymore.  It’s stuck.  And I hear trickling.  I follow the sound further to my left and find the river.  God only knows how far I’ve walked.

The moon is bright but broken on the water.  The air stopped moving.  It’s still blistering hot.  I’m sweating everywhere and my hair is plastered to my head.  I can’t cool down.  I have to cool down.  I take off my shoes and hike up my dress.  Stepping into the water, my head still reeling.  I step toe to ball to heel.  Toe to ball to heel.  Like a dance.

I get in to my waist.  Still too hot.  I keep going.

Up to my breasts.  Still too hot.  Further still.

Neck.  Keep going.


“And you aintgoin’ nowhere.”  He whispers.

“Wrong.”  I whisper back.  “I’m going home.”  I clench my fists, lower myself down and breathe in the water.  It’s not sweet like the air.  It’s cold and full and everywhere.  It chills my insides and out, and soon, there’s nothing left of me but cold.  Pushing myself down further and further, I look back up at the broken moon.  Its light becomes brighter and brighter but that’s all that’s left to see.

Karen Birdsell (USA)

Karen Birdsell is a San Diego native and has studied Performing Arts since the age of five. Her passion for the arts as well as the English language lead her to earn her teaching credential as well as a Master's Degree in Education.

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