The River's Edge
Chig adjusted the worn baseball cap on his head and pushed back on the hanging swing. The cement porch felt cool on his bare feet. His eyes drifted along the drive and out toward the gravel road, empty except for the long shadows of falling dusk. He looked away from the drive and out toward the forest in front of their brown brick house. Their chimney puffed wisps of woodstove smoke through the early summer haze and inside Mama Penland was laid out in her recliner watching a rerun of a Tarheel basketball game and sweating. She thought sweating was the cure to just about everything.
Chig stared out at the forest woods for a while. The rhododendron was thick and green and teemed with shadows. The bushes crackled and a flock of wild turkeys strode out from behind the blackberry thicket. Their necks bobbed with every long step as they chirped to each other. Chig counted twenty birds altogether. Young birds raced in between the feet of the older ones and pecked feverishly at the ground looking for crickets.
There was a crunch of gravel and the roar of Rick’s truck from down the road. The turkeys perked up but didn’t run. Rick had told Chig that somebody on Wallace Mountain had been feeding them and making them more comfortable around people.
“I reckon it’ll be easier to hunt them later on,” Rick had said, his mouth wrinkling into its familiar half-grin.
Through the trees the white Chevy appeared and nosed up the mountain. Weaving in slow turns through the gravel curves. The truck pulled to a stop alongside the porch, Rick’s tall frame filling the cab window.
Chig pulled his hat down over his face. The truck door slammed and Chig could hear Rick’s Timberland boots stepping across the gravel and up the steps onto the porch.
“It’s just me,” Rick said, patting his brother on the knee as he passed and pulled open the white screen door. The smell of hickory bacon and cigarette smoke drifted out from the kitchen where Nel was making dinner. Chig didn’t say anything but pulled his hat up again. The Panthers logo on the front was faded by time and sweat. Rick had bought it back when he’d been working construction in Charlotte and Nel was finishing up technical school about ten years ago, back before they got married, back before Mama had gotten sick. One Christmas, he’d given the hat to Chig along with a matching football. Chig didn’t play football but he’d been wearing the hat ever since.
Construction wasn’t making money these days and Rick had gone back to his old job working at Henson’s Hardware & Auto down by the railroad track in town, which wasn’t really making much money either but it was something. When Chig was a little boy he’d go out to the tracks with Rick and their Papa and they’d put copper pennies on the rails and wait for the train to come. After the last car had gone past, the pennies were always flat and hot and he’d run his little fingers over their smooth surface and smile.
Chig dug in his pocket for a cigarette and settled in for another evening on the porch. The cigarette trembled in his hands as he lit it. Those long fingertips dirty with the years.
He could never see the sunset from the porch, the house sat on the wrong side of the mountain for that, but he still sat out every night until dinner or sometimes past. In the summer, the cicadas started humming with the evening light and as night fell the screech owls joined in with their haunting trills.
Sometimes, Rick would come out and sit with him and tell him about his day and the going ons at Henson’s Hardware & Auto or the hiking store across the street. Chig liked those days the best but lately Rick hadn’t been in much of a talking mood since those lumber trucks had rumbled past the house and started cutting up the mountain. Now, most days were filled with the sound of chainsaws and crackling thuds.
“Chig, you eatin?” Nel poked her curly head out the screen door. Chig shook his head. He wasn’t hungry tonight. His belly still full from the lunch Nel had left for him in the fridge. When Mama got too sick to cook, Nel started making his lunches. Chig liked that about his sister in-law, she always cut the bread like a triangle and slathered the peanut butter right out to the edge.
“All right then,” Nel said, wiping a strand of hair from her face, “I’ll leave something out for ya. Be sure to eat something ‘fore bed.”
She let the screen door thud shut behind her and Chig went back to rocking himself on the swing, the chains scraping together in rhythmic squeaks. The sound of clinking forks and the hum of voices floated out from the kitchen. Through the screen door, Chig could see Nel throwing her head back in laughter in the yellowy light. Rick was smiling across the table.
The mountain sky fell into twilight and Chig could see lights blinking on across the valley, like a field of fireflies. A cool wind had picked up and was rustling at the treetops. A shiver slithered up Chig’s spine and he zipped his jacket back up.
The woods had settled into a deep black and the buzz of dinner had softened when the screen door squeaked again. Rick leaned up against the doorframe and lit up a cigarette, cupping his hands together against the wind. He patted Chig on the back and sat down next to him on the porch swing. His knees creaked a little and he sighed.
“I’m getting old Chig,” he said, “you are too ain’t ya? Gonna be sixty in August? Seems like yesterday we were racing each other down the mountain or climbing trees in the backyard. We’d come home with all those scraps and cuts and our jeans coated in burrs and blackberry juice.”
He trailed off with a smile.
“But I reckon you’ve got it figured out now don’t ya?” Rick said, running his fingers through his coarse brown hair, “Sitting out here, keeping life simple. Sometimes, I wish things could get more simple.”
He paused and took a drag. Wisps of smoke floated out from under the porch roof.
“But nothing ever gets simpler does it? You know the housing people want to call that land up there The River’s Edge at Wallace Mountain. Who the hell comes up with these names? The nearest river is the watershed drain-out a good mile from here and it’s a bunch of mucky marshland, boulder fields, and rapids. Though I guess rich folks might enjoy that ol’ swimming hole we used to go to down further.” He leaned back against the porch swing, his long legs outstretched, the cigarette nestled between his fingers.
“You know they offered me even more money for our land?” he said, “Funny thing happens to a man’s mind when you start adding zeroes to an offer. Everyday at the store, I find myself wondering more and more about quitting. Maybe having some money and taking Nel someplace nice for our anniversary. You ever think about being rich, Chig?”
Chig shook his head.
Rick brought the cigarette to his lips and gazed out at the mountains. They looked like dark and giant waves against the evening sky.
“The River’s Edge,” he said again and laughed, “Papa woulda loved that.”
He patted Chig on the back and stood, dropping his cigarette into the little bucket of sand by the swing.
“Well brother, I think I’m off to watch some TV ‘fore bed. You enjoy your night now,” he said, giving Chig a light punch on the shoulder before sauntering into the house. The screen door slammed shut behind him.
Chig looked up the mountain and saw the lights flickering through the trees from the Mills’ house and he could hear faint music playing. They had a teenage son who played his guitar on the deck some nights. Chig liked the music all right but sometimes it was a little too angry. He tried to not be mad too much, he didn’t like the way it felt. He pushed himself back and forth on the swing and listened to the throb of cicadas and the quiet drifting of guitar strings. Tonight, the music wasn’t angry.
A year from now we’ll all be gone, the boy was singing.
He sat a while longer. Longer until the music had faded into the light thud of a distant door and strobes of heat lightning were flashing across the sky.
Chig stood then and stretched, his muscles stiff with age, his long arms draping along his bony sides. He pulled on the screen door and found the kitchen was empty. Mama Penland was snoring in her chair in the living room. The TV light danced against the rising of her chest. There was a plate on the table with a side of bacon and a pile of scalloped potatoes. The potatoes looked gray and hard. He peeled back the saran wrap covering the plate and took a piece of bacon, chewing on it as he went down the wooden stairs to the basement. The third stair from the bottom was missing and Rick always said he’d fix it but he’d never gotten around to it. Chig didn’t mind – he’d gotten used to stepping over it. He skirted around the old moonshine still that old man Penland had built into the basement and then run the furnace exhaust up through the chimney to hide it. He’d gotten used to walking around that too.
Chig laid back on his bed– a new mattress from Betty Sue’s Beddings on Main Street, Nel’s sister worked there so they got a good deal. The room was small but stayed warm in the winter and cool in the summer. He wiggled onto his side and pulled the wool blanket up over his shoulder.
He dreamed about turkeys and logging trucks.
The morning light broke through the musty curtains and made the dust caught there glitter like pieces of mica. He pushed the blankets back and stomped upstairs, skipped the empty step, and plopped down at the kitchen table. Nel was at the range frying some eggs. Her black curls pulled back into a tight ponytail that bounced over her neck.
“You ready for breakfast Mr. Chig?” she said, adjusting the apron covering up her dress suit. Chig nodded to her as Rick came in through the front door carrying a bundle of logs for the woodstove. Mama Penland liked the woodstove so much Rick couldn’t convince her to get rid of it even though he’d gone about installing propane heat in most of the rooms.
“Looks like somebody slept in,” said Rick as he trudged into the living room and sent the logs crashing down in a pile by the stove. Mama Penland was gone from the chair and Chig could hear the shower running in the bathroom. Rick came back into the kitchen and kissed Nel on the neck before sitting at the table with Chig.
“I gotta work late tonight. We’re resupplying the wood yard after we close so it’ll be a while,” Rick said, “So y’all don’t wait on me for dinner.”
Nel smiled. “You think we’d wait on you for dinner?”
She winked at Chig.
Rick laughed. He shoveled fried egg into his mouth. Some of the yolk stuck to his beard.
Chig finished eating and went out on the porch. The turkeys were picking at the gravel down at the bend.
The day was already hot. The air was thick and sat heavy on Chig like his wool blanket. He was sweating through his overalls. He’d forgotten his hat downstairs but he was on the porch already so he decided to risk a day without it.
The Mills’ Mazda truck came growling around the curve right at seven thirty. The back covered in colorful bumper stickers but Chig couldn’t read the words from his swing. Craig Mills leaned out the window and yelled good morning like he always did on his way to the watershed. Chig hid his face under his hand. Craig was a nice man. He’d probably been feeding the turkeys.
By the time Rick and Nel left for town the sun was just above the trees. The turkeys had bobbed back into the shade and the only sound was the sawing coming from the top of the ridge and the occasional thud of a falling tree.
Chig could hear the logging truck coming long before he saw it. The bellow of a big diesel engine growled through the woods as the hunk of blue metal and thick tires came crawling up the road. The engine was choking and coughing and as the truck disappeared around the bend he heard it cut out. The driver tried to start it up again but it wouldn’t catch.
He heard a truck door slam and some voices.
Chig stood up to get a better look. He eased down the steps and crawled up on the embankment at the bend. From here he could see the cab door was open and a big man in a loose black shirt and light blue jeans was opening up the hood. Another man got out of the cab. Chig crept a little closer. He squatted behind an oak and listened but could barely make out their voices. He wasn’t sure why his heart was racing. He hadn’t left the porch in weeks since he’d seen that black bear rummaging through the Kilby’s trashcan up the road.
He wished he had his hat.
Chig stepped over a fallen log and moved along the tree line. He stopped behind the blackberry thicket and listened again.
“That’s what I’m saying, the transmission is a piece of a shit on these trucks. You lose one of those bolts and the oil just leaks out second it starts running hot,” the big man said, peering over the hood.
“You want me to call Dwayne and see if he can bring some oil?” said the second man. He was about a half a foot shorter with broad shoulders and a thick black beard that curled down toward his chest.
“Well that ain’t gonna fix it but maybe we could get back into town before we’re drained again,” the black t-shirt man said, hopping down off the tire. His mouth was turned downward and his eyes looked like little black stones.
Chig’s legs were starting to ache from squatting. He stood and leaned against the tree. The bearded man pulled a phone to his ear and wandered down the road a little. Chig scratched at a mosquito bite on his arm. His heart was thumping against his overalls; there hadn’t been much happening on the road recently, wasn’t much to see.
Today was a good day.
“Jesse,” the phone man was walking back, “looks like Dwayne’s gonna be a bit. Some folks just came in the office and Frankie called in sick.”
The one called Jesse smiled, “Well I guess I can’t complain none – getting paid to sit on my ass.”
“Yeah that’s all right with me,” replied the phone man scratching at his beard, “truth is I don’t like hauling in this heat. It has got to be a good ninety degrees up here.”
“And that’s in the shade too,” laughed Jesse.
“Yeah, I reckon we get too desperate we go to one them houses up the way. Maybe, somebody’ll have some sympathy on us and throw some cold beers our way,” the bearded one said.
“Cold beers or maybe a shotgun. Folks round here ain’t taking too kindly to us cutting up their mountain. I try to tell’em that I ain’t the one to be mad at – you think I can afford to live in one a those estates?” said Jesse.
“No, and I don’t suspect I’ll be moving up on Wallace Mountain once this is done.”
“You ever wonder who comes up with those names?” said Jesse, “I mean in the past year they’ve got them springing up all over the ridges,” he pointed down the road. “Hell, I think I’m going to put up some joke sign outside my house, some fancy name for our little place. Though Glenda probably wouldn’t like that. Not in the state she been lately.”
“Yeah, how’s she holding up since the funeral?” said the bearded man sitting back against the front bumper.
“Well she has her bad days but I’ve been getting her to stay active. Lord knows grief’ll add ten pounds on you,” said Jesse wiping sweat off his forehead, “We actually went out to her Dad’s old farm the other day to go turkey hunting the way she used to with him. That Winchester I got in the truck was her father’s, left it to me in the will hoping I’d get into hunting more with Glenda.”
Chig scratched at his arm again. He didn’t want to move and scare them. He wished he’d stayed on his swing.
“That’s nice of’im. You mind if I take a look?” said beardy stepping toward the cab door.
“Yeah, check it out. I don’t know too much about it ‘cept that he used it for tournament shooting mostly. I only used it that once myself,” Jesse said.
Beardy pulled the camo rifle down from the gun rack and looked it over, “That’s got a nice weight to it,” he said lifting the rifle to his shoulder, “You do a lot of shooting?”
“I ain’t done too much to be honest,” said Jesse, “that’s more of Glenda’s kind of thing. I took the Winchester when we went hunting the other day but I didn’t hit nothing but trees.” He laughed.
The bearded man looked down the rifle again. There was the sound of rustling in the woods in front of Chig. The logging men turned at the noise.
“Somebody there?” called Jesse, looking down the road. Chig pulled his hands over his eyes.
He could hear rhododendron branches shaking and the chirping of the turkeys. He peaked through his fingers and saw the turkeys hopping out onto the road.
The men laughed.
“Damn, they’re awfully friendly, maybe I should give’em a scare, give’em a chance come turkey season,” said the bearded man, turning to Jesse, “you got some ammo for this thing?”
“Yeah, there’s some birdshot in the glove box.”
The bearded man reached in the cab again, grabbed the ammo box, and started loading the shotgun.
The turkeys pecked at the gravel.
Chig was frozen. He wanted to yell, wanted to scream something. He covered his face with his hand instead.
“You think this is a good idea,” he heard Jesse say, the man’s voice sounded a little higher.
“Oh, it’ll be all right. Forest Service ain’t anywhere near here and first house is the other way up the road,” said the bearded man, “Plus, I ain’t gonna kill nothing.”
There was silence and the sound of the gun cocking. Chig kept his hands tight on his eyes.
The shot rang out and echoed into the mountains. The woods seemed to whisper by his head.
Chig uncovered his eyes and everything seemed to slow down.
The turkey’s were screeching and flapping their heavy bodies up into the air. Feathers were flying.
The man was pulling the rifle up to his shoulder again. Chig could see a dark hole in the barrel.
His finger slid over the trigger.
Something sharp tore into Chig’s side. He was standing now. Staggering forward.
Everything was blurred and slow. Staggering out of the woods. He looked down at his side. The light blue denim was ripped and darkening.
The one called Jesse screamed.
Chig was running.
His legs stumbling out in front of him, overalls catching on his flying heels. He couldn’t look back.
Someone was shouting at him. He didn’t stop. He heard the truck engine turn over and cut out.
Gravel cut into his bare feet. He pushed across the road, past the house, down the old path toward the watershed, just like him and Rick used to. Branches whacked against his face, rhododendron petals stuck to his arms and stinging nettles grasp at his ankles. The woods blurred past him as he found space between trees, hurtling himself over undergrowth. A blackberry bush tore into the skin on his right arm.
Everything was blurry.
Then he was stumbling. Falling. Weightless.
Blackness and the cool slurp of river mud.
His side was stinging.
Chig pushed himself to his feet and wiped mud out of his eyes. Out before him was the watershed drain out, a river coming off the dam up the way and a myriad of huge boulders dredged up by the quarry company years ago. Whitewater seemed to boil between the rocks and a thick sludge of eroded dirt covered the banks. The roar of countless waterfalls drowned the sounds of the mountain and Chig stood there for a moment, breathing hard before walking forward.
Big, elongated steps. Each accompanied by the sucking slurp of mud.
He looked behind him, back up the embankment. The dogwoods along the bank danced in tiny circles in the wind.
The men with the guns. They had to be coming. They had to be close.
Chig hurried his steps. His side aching as he pushed along. The mud squelched and clung to his feet. He clambered up onto the first of the big boulders and looked for a path across. To his left the river dropped off an edge and into a deep pool below. Straightforward were several boulders twice his height with rapids tearing through the chasm between them.
He moved upstream in slow, purposeful strides. The water pulled against the wet denim on his legs and his feet twisted on the uneven rock bed. The path across began to look more promising. The boulders were smaller the current seemed to slow.
Chig started across.
The water crept up along his thighs and onto his waist. The denim overalls clung tight and heavy against his body. He started swimming, rapid thrashing strokes. Something sharp stinging in his side with every paddle. The overalls were pulling him under. The current caught him. His strokes were haphazard, weak.
He went under.
Bubbles burst from his mouth and intermixed with the frothy white bubbles of rapids. His body slammed into a sharp edge and he screamed bubbles. He had stopped moving.
He came up gulping.
The roar of the river smashed back into his ears.
His body was caught over a low flat boulder in the middle of the river. Chig grunted and dragged himself onto the rock and lay there shivering for a moment. Water gushed around the rock and on over an edge. Chig could see the mist spray up after the drop. The flat boulder stretched almost to the other side of the river.
Chig took a deep breath and clenched his jaw. The denim overalls were dark and dripping as he pushed himself to his feet and over to the other embankment. He clawed his way up, feet sliding on wet leaves. One last push, exhaling sharp and hard. He crumbled on to level ground. The cuts on his legs stung and his side ached with every breath. There was a clearing straight ahead and he pushed forward, half-stumbling, half-falling in the dark leaves and dirt until he collapsed to the ground underneath a walnut. Everything was stiffening up now. He rolled onto his back and lay there panting, looking upward at the long trunks of old trees. The dark stain on his side drained dark crimson back into the leaves and the dirt and he brought his fingers to his eyes and held them there, his world shrinking into a dull reddish black, the color of dried mud.
There in the darkness of his hands, he thought about Papa. How Papa had laid there too, on the gravel, so many years ago, with his eyes looking like stone and his mouth glistening red like he’d been eating hard candy. But Chig knew Papa didn’t care for hard candy. And how Mama had come up and put her hands over his eyes and dragged him, all ten years of him, young and quiet and new, back into the kitchen where she pulled him into her arms and cradled his face there in the darkness of her blouse. The fabric smelled like laundry detergent and wood smoke and whiskey and he could hear her fingers fumbling on the phone dial.
And somewhere in the distance, among those black mountains, a siren wailed on the wind.
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