The River listened. Always did, always had. It heard the moans and cries of those in this little City who faced the terror of life, of death, of pain, of fear. He heard their joy, a wedding, a birthing, the quick intimate wonder of sex for the first time in the back seat of a car at the drive-in. He heard their brutality, their kindness, their indifference, their acceptance, their simple wailing against all that conspired against them that they could never name. But still, it listened. And tonight it heard the girl.
He stood in the door way of her bedroom, as he always did, silhouetted by the dim light in the hall as he weaved back and forth, so drunk he could hardly stand. She pulled the blankets tight around her, as if that would protect her.
“Your Daddy’s here,” he said as he stumbled over to her bed. She could feel the fear rising up in her, the dread of what he might try to do to her this time. Her tummy hurt, she wanted to scream, to run, but she was frozen by the fear.
He stumbled over to her bed, stood over her, laughing that ugly laugh of his. “What’s the matter little girl, you ain’t afraid of your Daddy now are you.” He leaned over and started patting her hair, then tried to loosen the blankets around her, without success. “Goddammit,” he said as he slapped her little face peeking out from the blankets, “Take those fucking blankets away. You’re gonna do what I tell you to do.”
She tossed off the blankets as he started to unbuckle his pants. But just as he began to lie down beside her, she bolted. He grabbed at her but was too late. She ran down the stairs to where her Mom and her friends were sitting around drinking cheap wine and smoking cheap dope. She went over to sit by her Mom who was on the seen-better-days couch. Her friends sat around them on the ground, as there wasn’t any other furniture in the place. She leaned into her Mom.
“Goddammit little girl, what you want.”
“Daddy won’t leave me alone. I’m scared.”
“Well he’s your Daddy and can do what the fuck he wants. I tol you, gotta toughen you up. Get your ass off the couch and stand in front of me. The girl did as she was told.
“Now roll up your sleeve, and let’s show everybody how tough my little girl is. Stick out your arm.” She lit a cigarette.
“Please Mommy no, it hurts so bad.”
“Shut up, you little bitch, or I’ll send you right back upstairs to your Daddy.”
She took the lit cigarette and placed it on her daughter’s arm. “Now keep it there until I say stop.” The crowd laughed and cheered.
The girl, her whole body shaking in pain, shut her eyes as tears welled up, and tried to think of anything that might make her forget the pain. But nothing did. She only let out a low mournful moan, that seemed to make them all laugh.
Then the front door was kicked in, and there stood Teddy, her cousin. He was Indian through and through: long black hair in a ponytail, short but with a thick body that was mostly muscle. The cigarette had rolled off the little girl’s arm on to the floor. Teddy picked it up, grabbed the little girl’s mother by the throat and shoved it in her mouth. He held her mouth shut as she tried to scream in pain. He finally let go, and turned to the audience: “Any of you want to stay alive, get the fuck out of here.” They all scrambled to get away. He turned to the girl’s mother, she was retching over the side of the couch. The girl was crouching down in a corner of the room. “Where is he,” he said.
“Up in her room, probably passed out by now.”
“You stay right where you are, or I will break your neck.”
She nodded OK as Teddy headed up the stairs.
He found the father sprawled over the girl’s bed. He grabbed him by the hair, pulled him off the bed, dragged him to the stairs and threw him down them.
The father lay in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, dazed and confused. “What the fuck…” was all he managed to say before Teddy kicked him out through the space where a door used to be. He landed on his back in the dirt road. He tried to get up but Teddy was over him, kicked him in the mouth, then again, then again. He picked the father up over his head and threw him down hard. Laying on his stomach now. Teddy began kicking him again, anywhere and everywhere. He finally stopped, picked the father up by the front of his shirt and made him stand in front of Teddy. “I will tell you once,” his voice quiet, even, without emotion, “I see you again, I will kill you. Now go.”
The father said nothing. He turned and stumbled down the road, stopped for a second, looked back at Teddy, and then began, as best he could, to run. When he was out of sight, Teddy went back into the house.
The mother was drinking from a gallon jug of wine. He sat down beside her, and said in that same quiet voice. “She’s going with me. You ever go near her again, try to see her, I will kill you. And you know I mean it, don’t you.” The mother just nodded and took another hit of wine.
He looked at the girl crouched in the corner. “Go upstairs and get your blanket.” She did as she was told and came back down stairs. He took the blanket, wrapped her in it, picked her up and they left. He put her in the cab of his truck locked her seat belt, went around to the driver’s side, got in and started the engine.
“You’re gonna live with me now. You ain’t never coming back here. That’s OK with you.”
It really wasn’t a question, but she said, “Yes please,” looking out the windshield at nothing.
The River listened.
Teddy was good to her, in his own way. Gentle, fed her OK, got her clothes, let her watch TV, sent her to school for a while. He’d be gone a lot, sometimes all night. Never said where he’d been, and she didn’t ask.
When she started developing, getting really pretty, Teddy told her it was time to earn her keep. Enough of school. He’d take her to the bars, all of fourteen, but nobody seemed to care. All the guys checking her out. He’d put her in a booth with a Coke with a cherry in it, then go to the bar telling any guy seemed interested he could have a date with her out in his car, just 40 bucks. Some clown would bite and she’d lead him to Teddy’s truck. The guy’d be all hot and bothered but before anything could happen, Teddy would rip open the door, pull the guy out and slap him around a little. Tell him she was just a kid and how’d he like to go to jail for twenty-five years. The guy pissing his pants, and Teddy would tell him to give him all the money he had and get the hell out of there. Usually the guy didn’t have much, but sometimes they’d make a pretty good score. Afterwards, Teddy would ask if she was OK, tell her she did a good job. She felt bad and good at the same time. They did this for a long time, all over the county, never did get caught. But she was nineteen now, so they stopped that, Teddy said she was too old, stopped doing much of anything.
She hated the small mean city they lived in. Teddy said it had once been kind of lively but then the mill closed and drugs moved in. The Governor came to town, said everything was going to be just great: they were going to open up a huge prison, be lots of jobs. That part was sort of true enough, but the problem was a lot of the prisoners stayed in town after they got out. Some of them were OK, some of them weren’t. But to her there was always the River.
Every morning, even in winter, she’d walk to the corner store, get her pack of Newports, and head for the River. Through downtown, which was dead, down a long hill, and there it was: the St. Lawrence River, the border, more or less, between the town and Canada. She remembered a line from an old Ramblin’ Jack Elliot song, Teddy played it on the record player a lot: ‘Did you ever stand and shiver, just because you were lookin’ at a river.’ And that’s the way she felt every time she saw the St. Lawrence. It beguiled her. The water always cold, a dark blue, wide and deep and in its way mysterious. The Seaway project had tamed it, in part, with dams and locks that allowed the tankers and container ships to make their way between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. But it still seemed wild and willful, with an ancient arrogance that only begrudgingly let people tinker with it. The trees along its banks all leaned south in deference to the icy Canadian winds that blew at them from the north. And the River seemed to laugh at their weakness. A meanness, she supposed, that just was, just as the River always just was. Yet, like a lover obsessed, she was always drawn to the River, wishing she was as brave and free as it was, free to go wherever she might.
A park followed the slope down to the river. It was, she thought, really the only elegant place in town. A broad expanse of green grass unfolded from the back of the library, a building from the 1850s, all colonnades and balustrades or whatever, and kept up. Flower gardens punctuated and accentuated the green of the grass; shade trees and benches were here and there, placed right where they should be. Bushes lined it on three sides. The grass ended at a road that made a U shape around the dock that jutted out from shore. The dock was weather beaten but sturdy and could probably anchor any ship that came this way, but few did. The tankers and containers all travelled on the Canadian side of the river, disappearing behind an island and reappearing on the other end, doing this over and over as there were indeed a thousand islands or more along this stretch of the River. She’d watch their magic act for hours, finding the ships as mysterious as the River—Going where? From where? Who was on those ships, and what adventures had they seen and what adventures awaited them? The River would whisper to her, “You can have adventures too, you can be free…” But she didn’t believe the River.
She walked toward a guy fishing off the dock. He looked young, with long straggly black hair and a puny mustache. He was wearing a black t-shirt and a pair of baggy jeans. As she got closer she could see the guy’s arms were covered with crude tattoos, prison tats was her guess, lots of Chinese characters that could have said anything from ‘tranquility’ to ‘order the Moo Shoo pork.’ There was a tombstone on his left forearm with some names she couldn’t make out, a woman’s face on the right forearm, an eagle or some kind of bird here, a fist or what looked like a fist there, and it all just blended in as a mess of ink.
“Morning,” she said. The guy was a little older than he seemed once she got closer. No teenager.
“How’s the fishing?”
“Ah, not so good. Usually early in the morning like this you can do OK, but nothin’ this morning. Tell you the truth, I don’t much care if I catch anything or not. Peaceful here in the morning. I like just watching the River.”
“What’s your name?” She told him and he told her his.
“You have breakfast yet?”
“Nope,” she said.
“Then come on over to my place, I’ll cook you up something.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said.
“Nah, not like that. It’s just when I was in prison I learned to cook, like to cook, I’m good at it.”
“Why were you in prison? You rape, maim , or kill anyone?”
“Nope stole a car. A course didn’t help that I drove it into a church. That and some chicken shit stuff I did as a kid got me three years. I got out, I stayed here.”
“Well, guess a guy needs transportation. So what’s for breakfast?” They left for his place.
The place wasn’t much. One floor, a kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, run down front porch you couldn’t sit on, and a backyard with just weeds and some old rusted cages. The place had been some kind of pet shop for a while and he was still finding piles of weird little animal shit here and there. He tried to keep the place neat. He’d vacuum and dust every week or so, made the bed every morning, went to the laundromat every few days so he’d have clean clothes and sheets. He made sure his books were in order on a pretty nice bookshelf. It looked good in the bedroom just across from the bed. A painting he liked hung above it, abstract, just hurried stripes of color, but it worked, and always made him think of his Mom.
He did what he could outside. Tried to fix the front porch, but that was hopeless and he didn’t really know what he was doing. Weeded the backyard sort of and got rid of some of the junk. Even planted some tomatoes, and they actually grew, had more tomatoes than he knew what to do with. He liked that. What worried her was that it was in Pious Hollow, the poorest part of town, roads unpaved, no street lights, just a few houses from where Teddy had rescued her. But she let that go. This guy was nice.
He opened the front door, held it open for her, asked her if she wanted to sit at the small kitchen table. She did. Then he got to work. Pots and pans flying all over the place. First coffee, good, strong. Then he took down the big skillet that hung on the wall, let it get hot, added some good olive oil, then the peppers and onions, eggs and tomato. A little salt and pepper. Some good sourdough bread toasted in the broiler with garlic and real butter, and breakfast was served.
She wolfed it down. “Jesus, this is good.”
“Told you I could cook. Now comes the hard part, cleaning up.” And so they did.
After that he said, “OK, let me walk you home.”
Walk her home? She didn’t expect that part; she was ready to fuck him, she figured he expected that part, but he didn’t.
“No need,” she said, “It’s not that far.” She didn’t know what else to say. As he walked her to the door she turned and kissed him, long and hard. “Thanks,” she said, “You’re OK for a guy with shitty tattoos.” He laughed, she left.
The next day, she went and got her pack of Newports. She lit one up outside and decided to keep walking. It was hot, but she liked the sticky sweat on her, liked that she was alone, nobody pulling at her, pushing at her, telling her what she’s got to do, ought to do. She was sick of Teddy, to be honest, but she put that out of her mind. But it kept coming back. Yes, she owed him, but how much.
She walked by some nice houses. Nothing special…just nice. The kind of place she’d like to have someday, maybe she could get there someday, nice husband, maybe a couple kids, a cat, definitely a cat. Maybe…but probably not. Still, she was starting to think about things, what she might do, thinking maybe a chance to do something with her life. But she shook off the idea like a dog shakes off water. Don’t wish for shit’s not gonna come true. Good stuff doesn’t happen to an Indian whore. But she wasn’t a whore, really. Yes, she owed Teddy, she did what he asked. Teddy always said they had plans, but really, did she see Teddy as this good, steady, got-his-shit-together bar owner. And then what? She didn’t know. She just didn’t know
She walked without thinking and found herself at the edge of Pious Hollow (OK, maybe he was a bit on her mind). She shuddered thinking about the dump she had lived in in the Hollow, before Teddy took her to live with him.
Like a car wreck you just gotta look at as you pass by, she was curious if the old shack was still there, and so headed down the dirt road. She had her head down, careful not to twist her ankle on some rock, when all of a sudden she looked up and there he was walking right toward her.
He smiled and waved, but then put his hands in his pocket and got this serious look on his face. She didn’t know why she did it, but she ran up to him, hugged him a good long time, and kissed him on the cheek.
“What’re you doing here girl?”
“Nothin’. Used to live here for a while, just checking it out. You like it here?”
“What, Pious Hollow, of course not, but it’s OK for now, better than where I used to live, out in the damn country with bugs and beasts and all that, but that’s a long story. If you’re just wandering around, do you mind if I walk with you?”
“Of course not.” They both smiled and headed back down into Pious Hollow. They were quiet for a long time, but she didn’t mind. It was a peaceful quiet. She just liked being with him. Finally, she said, “I feel like I know you.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, “how’s that?”
“I dunno, just do. You look at me, I think we’ve met before, like in a past life, what’s that called…’incarceration’?”
“Reincarnation. Incarceration means being in prison, which I’ve been.”
She didn’t know what to say to that, so she just was quiet. Suddenly she stopped: “I’ll be damned, it’s still here.” They were in front of a run-down place that looked bad even by Hollow standards.
“You grew up here?”
“Not really, lived here ’til I was about nine. Then Teddy, my cousin, took me to live with him.”
“How was that?”
“It was OK. Why you keep saying you were in prison?”
“Dunno. Thought you ought to know.”
“Dunno. Just kind of feel like I know you. Like you want to get someplace better but you don’t know how to get there. Me too. Plus, you’ve got the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. Breaks my heart, tell you the truth.”
Theresa started crying, slow at first, then in a great sobbing cloudburst. He took her in his arms, stroked her hair. “It’ll all be OK.”
She pushed him away. “No, it won’t be OK. It’s never OK and it never will be. And you don’t know me and you shouldn’t trust me. Maybe you and me got a shitty deal, but that’s the deal we got. Two shitty deals don’t make a good deal. So if you want to fuck me, OK, I want to fuck you. But that’s not going to make anything OK. Nothing’s going to be OK, never, never, never.
He said, “Why’nt you come and live with me.” She said OK.
The next few days were good. They made love, made food, made fun of each other, told their stories to each other, she told him all about Teddy, and then came the knock on the door. It was Teddy. She opened the door. “Hey, little girl time to come home.”
“Son of a bitch,” he said, and walked toward Teddy. Theresa grabbed his arm to stop him, but he shook that off, and she just trailed behind him.
He got right in Teddy’s face; Teddy just kept leaning by the front door.
“You son of a bitch, get the fuck out of here.,” he said, “Stop hanging around like you’re some fucking shadow.”
“You’d be the boyfriend, I take it,” Teddy said, “Seen you with my daughter here. Seems you’re taking good care of her. Thank you.”
“She’s not your daughter and you’re not welcome. Why’nt you just get the fuck out of here. I’m not afraid of you.”
Teddy looked down at the ground, and shook his head slowly. “You should be afraid of me, but I ain’t going to hurt you…yet, seeing as how you’re nice to her. But I will when I have to, if I have to.”
“What if I told you she didn’t want to have anything to do with you anymore.”
“That true?,” said Teddy.
She looked down at the ground and shook her head slowly. She was quiet for a minute, then said: “I don’t know, Teddy, I’m all confused. Maybe I just want to think for a while, maybe have you leave me alone for a while.”
“I’d a left you alone, you probably be dead by now.”
“Jesus, I know that Teddy, you don’t have to tell me all the time. I just don’t want to have to do stuff for you all the time.”
“Never made you do nothin’. You do what you want, don’t do what you don’t want. You can come back to the trailer. Come with me.”
“Teddy, Jesus Teddy,” she said, “Why do you always make me feel like I gotta choose.”
“Fuck that,” he said, “You go with him you’re just trapped again, going nowhere again.”
She moved over and stood by Teddy.
“Don’t.” He reached over to grab her but Teddy stiff armed him, palm on his chest. Stopped him like a brick wall.
He stood and watched her and Teddy walk away.
She and Teddy walked into the trailer.
“Your room’s still the same,” said Teddy, “left it alone, knew we’d be back.”
She walked back to the end of the trailer, to the left as she entered, where her bedroom was. She noticed the trailer was still the same, hadn’t changed much. Everything neat as a pin: a living room, more or less, TV on one side with a painting of a wolf over it. Teddy told her it was an Indian artist lives around here painted it, and she’d sit for hours staring at the wolf’s golden eyes staring out from a blue background, thinking what must it be like to be that wild and free. A couch on the other side, where Teddy slept. Then the kitchen. Not much to it, not used much. Maybe a Stouffer’s once in a while, maybe hot dogs, but Teddy usually brought home a pizza. He’d drink beer, let her have one now and then, watch Wheel of Fortune then Jeopardy. He’d get a lot of the Jeopardy answers right, surprised her, but then she started getting a lot of them right too. Then her bedroom. It was small, curved, conforming to the shape of the trailer. But there was room for, in addition to the single bed, a dresser, a small make-up table, and a small stand-alone closet Teddy’d bought for her. The bathroom was at the other end of the trailer.
She noticed, and she never really had before, there was nothing on the walls, no posters of Michael Jackson or whoever she was supposed to care about as a kid or a teenager. But, then again, she’d been out working the bars when other kids were doing homework, playing tapes, smoking weed, whatever it was they did.
She came out of the bedroom. Teddy was sitting on the couch, listening to ‘Shelter From the Storm’ coming from the record player to the left of the TV. She sat down beside him, lit a cigarette, grabbed the beer bottle from his hand, took a swig, and handed it back to him. Dylan brilliantly caterwauled as she asked him, “Teddy, do you love me?”
“I took care of you, didn’t I.”
“Yeah, I guess you did, but that’s not what I’m asking you: Do you love me.”
“Hey, I did for you when nobody else did.”
“You can’t fucking say it, can you. You cannot say you love me. You have never once, never fucking once, said you loved me.”
“Don’t know what that means.”
“Don’t need to define it. It’s just something you feel or you don’t.”
“Don’t know what I feel. Mostly nothin’ most of the time, I guess. Mostly just do, if it needs doin’, I just do it.”
“That’s why you took care of me? It needed doing?”
“Did getting me back need doing.”
“Yeah, guess it did. We got plans, gotta get to them.”
“Jesus, Teddy, we don’t have any fucking plans, just your stupid idea we’re gonna get away somewhere, do something.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“’Cause it’s not a fucking plan. It’s just your idea of something that needs doing.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, little girl?”
“I don’t know. Do you love me?”
“Jesus, we’re back at that. I don’t know what that means. I took care of you didn’t I?”
“That’s not enough. You gotta give me a reason.”
“You needed taking care of.”
“Again, just something that needed doing. Did pimping me out at bars need doing?”
“Yeah, it did. Look, life ain’t easy. What you gotta figure out is how to survive, use what you’re good at to survive. I’m good at being strong, you are good at being pretty. We use what we got. Good, bad, what I ‘feel’ got nothin’ to do with it. We survived, you and me, and we did what needed doin’. Turn the record over, will ya.”
Theresa did. The chords of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, her favorite song, began. She grabbed Teddy another beer from the fridge, got herself one too, then sat by him, both quiet, just listening:
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best. She turned around to look at me. As I was walkin’ away I heard her say, over my shoulder, we’ll meet again someday, on the avenue.Tangled up in blue.
“I don’t want to be with you anymore, Teddy.”
“I don’t know, well, I guess I do. It’s just that I don’t like me, I don’t like me when I’m with you…used to, don’t now. Don’t know if I go with you because you scare me, love you—you can’t even say that—need you, or scared to find out I don’t need you. But I do want to find out. I want you to leave me be. It needs doing.”
“I say ‘I love you’, you be satisfied?”
“No, I won’t be fucking satisfied, because you’ll just say it because you think it needs doing. Just like everything else you do. By the way, you just said it.”
Teddy looked at her, he smiled, sort of. “Guess you’re right.”
“I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, don’t know if I’m better off with you or without you. Don’t know shit. But I never thought about not knowing shit before, now I do wanna think about it.”
“You wanna leave, leave. You do what you want, don’t do what you want, told you before. But if I’m gone, I’m gone. Ain’t coming back for you, you ain’t gonna find me.”
He grabbed her awkwardly, trying to hug her, but knocked the beer out of her hand and it spilled all over the place.
“Fucking mess,” Teddy said.
“Yeah it is,” said Theresa, “Maybe messes aren’t so bad sometimes.”
“Maybe. Tell you one thing. That guy’s an ex-con.”
“Yeah, I know that. But this isn’t what this is about. I be with him, don’t be with him, I’ll decide.”
“He hurts you, I will fuck him up bad.”
“No, Teddy you won’t.” She touched his cheek. “He hurts me, he does, and I’ll figure it out from there. You gotta let me do that. OK?”
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives, but me, I’m still on the road, headin’ for another joint. We always did feel the same. We just saw it from a different point of view. Tangled up in blue.
The next morning Teddy was gone. The River listened.
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