willamette

CHARLIE J. STEPHENS

Dusk on the river that evening was darkly bruised, exhausted. The putrid spew from the mushroom canning factory up the road sputtered into nothingness as evening fell, and even the semitrucks that passed on their way from the fields to I-5 rumbled slowly like they too were tired. Mom was in the kitchen steaming artichokes and smoking Camel Lights out the window.

          “Babe look, the sky's the exact color of a blood orange.”

          We both stood there looking out at the deep-red ending of the day, thinking our own thoughts. Though there was yelling in our house sometimes, we could also be very quiet together. I knew she would be changing clothes into something nicer soon, because Clyde was coming over, but she still had on her shirt and jeans from work. She cut gloves at the leather warehouse along the Willamette River, eight hours of heavy, metal scissors following the outlines of five fingers, gloves others would wear for protection, while her own hands became raw and stiff in the making of them. She was twenty-nine and I was nine, and she told me those twenty years between us were our lucky number. When playing the lottery, as we did once a year, a 20 always made it into our numerical selections.

          “That was the number of years here on earth without you,” she’d say, and though I knew she loved me, what I heard in her voice was an underlying sentiment of loss.

          Clyde Crawford had warm skin like he had just been taken from the oven, and his face was round and smooth. It was easy, looking at him, to imagine exactly what he had looked like as a boy. But even with his youthful face, he had a pillowy gut from cases of beer, and his breath smelled of yeast. He tended to the vast fields of hop plants in late spring and summer, until harvest started in August. Throughout the season he’d supplement his income by picking strawberries in the early part of the summer, and apples and pears toward the end. He was from a small town in Ohio and he told stories of his family there, his time as a kid growing up. He hadn’t gone to school past 5th grade.

“No one there had nothing. Nothing at all,” he told us. “And my mother,” he said, with a mix of what seemed to be both pride and shame, “was so tall that people often thought she was a transvestite.”

          We nodded, wondering where this was going.

          “But no,” he said after a long silence in which it seemed he had started thinking about something else, “she just had a strong jawline. And she for sure had a pussy.”

          Then he laughed in a low, rumbly laugh and looked to see if he’d gone too far, or if he had succeeded in shocking us. He didn’t know us well enough to understand it was more difficult than one might think to surprise us.  There had been many others before him, and also we had seen things. Once at a gas station when I was around seven, we were waiting for our turn at the pump in the battered, blue Volkswagen Beetle Mom drove, the metal so eroded we could see the road pass by underneath us through the floorboards. The gas station attendant was young with tan skin, acne, and smiling eyes, and as he started walking over to our car, he burst into flames. The gas pump nearest him did too. Mom started to scream and tried to cover my eyes. Then she got out to see if she could help, but by then other people were there. She returned to the car out of breath, and we drove away, over the curb and out of there.

          “Was he smoking a cigarette or something?” I asked. I had seen something like this on tv once.

She nodded inconclusively, reached for a cigarette to calm her nerves, then thought better of it and shoved it into the ashtray. We never went back to that gas station again, and on the occasions we did pass by it on our way to someplace else, all I could think of was that burning boy, coming toward us with his kind eyes.

          For this and other reasons that had to do with Mom’s previous boyfriends and living in Felony Flats, the nickname for the neighborhood directly surrounding the Oregon State Penitentiary, when Clyde told us about his tall, manly mother and her pussy, we just listened, taking it in. This story he told us about her was one he circled back to more than once, like he was stuck in it, or wanted us to figure something out about him, about where he came from. Sometimes it seemed Mom didn’t quite know what to make of Clyde, but she never seemed surprised by him.

          “I once dated someone who lied about having served in Vietnam,” Mom said. “I think he wanted an excuse for all his fucked-up behavior. Why else would someone lie about that? Did he think there was any honor in it, killing innocent brown people for America? I just wish he hadn’t punched in all the walls in the bedroom. Remember that, Babe?”

          I did remember, and I got a secret thrill when she included me in her adult conversations. She drifted off and Clyde kept going, taking turns sharing their misery. Clyde’s mother’s name was Veronica. His father, Jack, was a relatively unknown entity who his mother said was rough and beautiful and had traveled the country hopping trains and hitch-hiking. Apparently he was a singer, “a good love-maker,” and not the type to stay in one place, with one person.

          “You got his looks,” Clyde’s mother had told him, “but I hope you are not the type to run away from the people who need you.”

          Clyde told us he didn’t know what type of person he was and looked sheepishly at Mom, but she didn’t seem too concerned with Clyde being the type of person to run away or not. She didn’t seem too needy with Clyde, like I had seen her before with other men. What Clyde brought out in her was a loose kind of calm, a kind I’d never noticed in her before. Her shoulders softened and she laughed more. Sometimes she would play her guitar for us, and I held on to those moments the most. Inevitably though an almost tangible shift would waft in, and suddenly it was my bedtime. Usually soon after I could hear their animal noises through the thin walls of our worn-down duplex.

          A lot of people said when they first met me they couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl, and I liked that. Though Mom never called me anything other than “Babe,” she had officially named me Smokey, because that Cruisin’ song was on the radio constantly when she was pregnant. Unlike many women about to have a baby, she didn’t have cravings for food, but she did have cravings for those verses.

          “The feeling I got listening to it was like…” She drifted off, remembering.

          “Just listen for yourself,” she said when she first put the song on the record player for me. I could see what she meant, and I think I loved the song as much as she had that summer. Even though I didn’t fully understand it, it became my anthem.

          When I got older, kids on the playground teased me about my name.

          “Your mom must really like to smoke,” they’d snicker.

          That was true, but I knew the secret: I was named after a smooth, soulful singer with perfect cheekbones and straight, gleaming teeth—not like all the Salem snaggletooths who filled up Auburn Elementary School. It was years later Mom told me she used to date Smokey Robinson’s cousin up in Portland.

          “They looked exactly alike,” she said, “so when the guy told me he was related to Smokey on his dad’s side, I completely believed him.” I imagined her still dating him, and us both getting to see those Robinson-family green eyes every day. But we didn’t have Smokey’s cousin; instead we had Clyde.

          When there were no crops to pick, Clyde liked to drink beer. Sometimes he helped out around our house, fixing a fence or repairing a leaky faucet, but mostly he drank. Some afternoons I’d come home from school and he’d be there while Mom was still at work. We didn’t have much to say to each other, I realized. Mom was the bridge between us, and without her, we were just two people who found ourselves sharing a small space. Once I asked him where he lived, when he wasn’t staying with us.

          “With five assholes in a trailer off Highway 99 in Gervais,” he said.

          So it made sense to me that Clyde was spending more time at our house. His red truck could often be found in our driveway, like a beacon or a warning. From his rearview mirror hung an air freshener depicting Jude the Apostle in faded technicolor. Sometimes when I came home from school, he was asleep, other times fidgety, like he’d done something wrong, but when I looked around, everything seemed normal. Even so, when he was home in those hours before Mom got home from work, I would often go to a friend’s house, stay at the school library, or play games in the large, dusty field behind the mushroom canning factory with all the other kids who didn’t want to go home.

          About six months into Mom dating Clyde, the first signs of it appeared. I came home earlier than usual, and Clyde was passed out on the couch with the tv on. I passed by him on the way to my room and looked over. In his hand was his dick, huge and limp. I could not take my eyes off its size and shape. I had seen Mom’s Joy of Sex book, and thumbed through Our Bodies, Ourselves, but this was different. The air had a musky smell, and Clyde seemed serene. I had been around Clyde when he was sleeping before and knew him to be a deep sleeper, so I was caught off guard when Clyde opened his eyes to catch me staring at him. I expected him to be embarrassed with his dick hanging out, but he wasn’t. He looked at me with sleepy eyes and slowly ran his hand over it once, finally pushing it down into his stretched-out underwear, slowly zipping up his jeans. Then he closed his eyes with a strange calm. I said nothing and walked quickly to my room and shut the door but could hear him chuckling quietly to himself as, outside my window, our backyard gate clanked shut. I peeked out to see Jeremiah, our 22-year-old neighbor looking behind him at our house and catching my eye. I smiled and waved at him like always.

          Later that night, Mom sensed my tenseness and asked me three times if I was alright, but I had nothing to say. Clyde was doing the dishes and playfully slapping her on the ass with a dish towel and her concern faded. Later that night I could hear their animal sounds, only this time the difference was I had a clear, disconcerting image of what the involved body parts were, and I imagined Clyde’s calm face as Mom moaned through the walls.

 

 

          Over ten thousand years ago, the Kalapuya Indians named the river Whilamut which means where the river ripples and runs fast. The name was altered sometime in history, and its current pronunciation is still a good way to tell if someone is a local or not. The Willamette is one of only a few rivers that flows to the north, instead of to the south, spanning 187 miles between the Oregon coast and the Columbia River. The Willamette itself is a sleepy snake, wide and muddy, deceptive. In winter it swells up, covering beaches and banks, flooding houses, rising up to the bottoms of bridges, swirling in dirty eddies, eating trees. In the summer months, its coolness lures people in. From the banks, the flow looks like a gentle meandering, but in reality it has one of the fiercest undertows of any river. On the “Today in Oregon” broadcast throughout the summer, there is report after report of people entering the river and not resurfacing until days later, when the current decides it has done enough, and throws them back up at its indifferent leisure.

 

 

          The spring of Clyde and his dick was unusually warm and dry, and it felt like summer had come early for once. The first river accident of the season that year was Danny Tucker, who was four when his family went out in a raft after picnicking over in West Salem, across the bridge. The raft capsized quickly, and all of them went under. Within seconds everyone resurfaced except Danny. June came and it seemed like all we talked about was the missing body of that boy. From pictures in the paper over the next few weeks, I found myself thinking that if he was somehow found alive, and had a chance to grow up, he would have looked a lot like our neighbor Jeremiah, and in my mind I created a connection between the two. At dinner that night I showed Mom and Clyde the picture.

          “Doesn’t he look like a kid-version of Jeremiah?” I asked them.

          Clyde let a strange look move across his face, and Mom said, “Sure, kinda. I think I see what you mean,” but she was making vegetable soup and was distracted.

          Over the next few days, my school had an emergency assembly to talk about water safety and the importance of always wearing a life jacket. Discounted swim classes were offered at the community center, and altars could be found along the river’s shores, with water safety warnings broadcast on the news every night at five. Some older kids I knew rode their bikes along the river, hoping to be the ones to find Danny’s body, but I didn’t want anything to do with that. I was, however, fascinated with the idea, the reality, of a body not resurfacing, and how it must feel underneath all that dirty wetness. I imagined the river as a heavy blanket you couldn’t find the way out from, holding you down until you just got too tired, and fell asleep beneath it.

          Jeremiah had never left home and lived a few houses down with his dad. He worked on cars in their driveway for cash, and Mom had hired him a few times for help with the Volkswagen, whose sputters had steadily increased. I still associated our car with the gas station and felt an unease about even short trips around town. I wanted a different car but Mom said we had to keep the one we had running for as long as we could. Jeremiah still looked like a teenager, with a cuteness about him that prevented me or anyone else from seeing him as a grown man. He was still a boy with no facial hair, usually wearing his fading high school varsity jacket.

          It was Mom who found them together a couple months later. There was an electrical fire at the warehouse and they sent all the workers home early. I was still at school. She wasn’t surprised to see Clyde’s truck in the driveway, but she was surprised by what she saw inside. She just stood there looking through the living room window from the outside, suddenly and intensely, an outsider. Clyde was leaned back on the couch and Jeremiah was on his knees, leaning forward with his own pants unzipped, as he leaned towards Clyde’s dick. She didn’t tell me any of these details until years later, and when she finally did, I think she expected me to be more surprised than I was, but I could imagine it so easily. Football on the tv. Sweat stains spreading. I’d never told her about what I’d seen for myself those months before, and eventually I had put it together without any help.

          But when I got home on that particular day, I didn’t know exactly what had happened. I just knew Clyde was out of our lives. His few things were gone and so was his truck. The only proof he had ever been there was a thick trail of oil that spotted the driveway. The house didn’t smell like yeast or musk anymore. Mom was scrubbing the couch with steaming hot water and a strong detergent, her knuckles pink and angry.

          “Danny Tucker’s body resurfaced today,” I said cautiously, watching her back as it moved with the effort of scrubbing. “They told us in school. They found him over by the Boise Mill.”

          She unbent herself, turned around, and looked at me carefully—with more focus than she had in a while, then moved closer, to hug me. I was surprised to see some tears: she rarely cried.

          “We’re going to get a new car,” she told me. “Jeremiah’s not going to be working on our old one anymore.”

I flashed from Danny to Jeremiah to the car to the boy at the gas station, flames around his skinny shoulders.

          “You know I love you Babe, right?”

          I nodded.

          “Will you put the song on for us?” she asked.

          I knew the one she meant. I walked across the living room, past her bucket of hot water and soap and put the needle down on the record. My name-sake’s perfect voice filled the air, solid and clear. I turned it up, and it drifted over to settle on the surface of our young skin, slowly floating us to the surface, river water under bones.

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Charlie J. Stephens is a non-binary fiction writer living on unceded Chochenyo Ohlone land in Northern California. Charlie has lived all over the U.S. as a bike messenger, wilderness guide, book seller, and seasonal shark diver (for educational purposes only). Charlie's work has recently appeared in Electric Literature, The Best Small Fictions Anthology, Hinterland Magazine (UK), Fresh.Ink, The Racket, Original Plumbing (Feminist Press) and The Forge Literary Magazine, among others. Charlie is seeking an agent/publisher for their recently-finished collection of short stories and is hard at work on their first novel. More at charliejstephenswriting.com and on Instagram @charliejstephenswriting.

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