Sometimes a story falls together all by itself. Such is the case with Smitty, Katina and the memory of Danny. To catch up, this all starts with Smitty, a 13-year-old regular kid, hanging from a tree branch forty feet in the air after deliberately breaking off a lower branch for firewood. Katina is his incredible girlfriend and Danny, his best friend. This piece ends the first part of the longer story.
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In the dream I am falling. The branch I am standing on does not so much crack open, but peel apart, the sections separate from each other slowly — first the top short fibers tear, ones where the pressure of my jumping caused the break, then some longer ones in the middle of the branch, the white, dry wood opening like a broken bone, then the bottom, a long pointed shard with bark on the outside that ripped away when all the weight of me and the branch was grabbed by gravity. When I hear the limb break I tighten my grip on the overhead branch, but the bark is dry and crumbles in my hand and my fingers slide off the slick wood. Below me Danny sees the falling branch and runs a few feet away while it smacks loudly into the ground, throwing up dust and chunks of broken tree. He is laughing. He is always laughing. Laughing. In the dream. When I awake I am on the riverbank. Now, if this dream is a great uprising of hidden feeling that some author would write down as if it was of tremendous psychological importance, then why do I wake up on the river? Why don’t I wake up in the lean-to? With me falling forty feet and landing on the ground as agile as a bird. Or with a laughing Danny picking up the wood in his arms and dropping it next to our firepit, asking if I remembered the matches. Or wake up in his dimly lighted cellar while he is fingering the cold black metal of the pistol, twirling it on his finger and then wrapping it up in that dirty, red cloth and shoving it back in its hiding place with a wicked look in his eyes; why do not I wake up and say, “Give it to me, Danny. Don’t want you shooting anyone.” When that was exactly what I was thinking when I saw the pistol in his hand. Why, mister writer am I just falling; falling and never landing? I should drop like a stone and hit the ground while trying to get my legs under me so I don’t land lengthwise on my back and break everything. I should land and Danny should stop laughing long enough to run over and ask me if I hurt anything, and I should look at the edge of the big rock that is three feet away, sharp and solid, and be glad I didn’t land there. Instead I drift. I can hear Danny’s voice echo through the campground, see the sunlight flickering through the leaves and the big hawk circling over the gravel pit like God’s outlook. Then I awake on the riverbank. Which is just an altogether unsatisfactory outcome. Why can’t I wake up in Paris? Along the magic River Seine instead of this sticky hometown river? Why can’t I wake up in Paris and be sitting on some grassy slope with Katina? So I closed my eyes. Paris did Katina good. Her hair is longer, down to her shoulders, and her eyes show a little color. She laughs more and wears cool flowing skirts and low-cut tops and drapes bright, soft purple and red and yellow scarves around her neck and shoulders. Big earrings and bangling bracelets. Maybe it is the lack of the pressure of trying out for the fancy piano school or being with her mother again. I wish it would be because of me, but all these changes had taken place while she was in Paris and I was in Three Rivers digging a stupid blue swimming pool. She drops French phrases into her speech and for the life of me I wished I had paid more attention in Mrs. Henderson’s beginning French class. She pushes me down on the grass and kisses me, flashing her breasts through the open collar as she leans into me. Then with one finger she gently touches my forehead, my eyes, runs it down the length of my nose and across my mouth. “Ah, my Smitty. Mon amore. She kisses me and sticks her tongue in my mouth and then withdraws it, giggling. Then kisses me again. And all I can do is lay on the grass and take it all in. I feel as light as air, as free as the hawk. Katina. I was back watching her play the piano in her parlor in Three Rivers, amazed as she swayed and turned as the music drew her in, her eyes focused on a unknown distance, her soul loose. Speaking to me in language I was desperate to learn. And then holding her, feeling her heart pound through my shirt. When I awoke I was again on the riverbank. My eyes were wet. I had pulled my knees to my face and clutched my head in my hands and screamed into the ground. In the dream I am falling. Why, mister writer man, are you making me relive these most painful moments of my short, stupid life? I can see Danny with the gun. Hear the shots. One. Two. Three. See his old man collapse into the couch with the most astonished look on his face. Hear his mother scream, “Oh, Danny! No, Danny! Where did you get the gun?” And see Katina slide the canvas cover over the side of the piano, see her lift her suitcase and walk slowly to her grandfather’s car parked under the carport in the long driveway, doors open, awaiting its cargo. I see the lights go off and hear the key slide into the lock, turn and be withdrawn and see her grandfather grasp the handle and give the door one last shake. I see Katina at the end of the driveway glance once in each direction, then drop her head and walk to the open car door, step in and close it, enveloped in the darkness. I see this; I feel this all the time. I am falling in the dream. And may be falling for some time. When I awake on the riverbank this time I finally understand why. I had fallen asleep in the crotch of the half-dead maple whose roots held the sandy bank together. It was dark; didn’t know what time. The city murmured in the background. A few bullfrogs moaned in the distance and a long oil slick slithered along the river’s surface, sliding in and out of the moonlight, a sneaky purple and maroon tint on the dark water. Then I remembered I had gone walking. Sitting on the roof looking at the stars no longer seemed exciting enough. So I prowled Three River’s dark, silent streets, just watching. Cars pull off the dark streets into the glassy neon glow of one of the four gas stations that occupy all the corners of the city’s main intersection, the metallic ting of the pump the only sound. “Yeah, thanks,” the hollow voice of the attendant can’t fill the cavern of silence. Then a double ring as the car drives over the air hose and leaves. The rise and fall of muffled voices from inside Mahoney’s bar; a flash of golden light as a patron steps into the street, pulls at his collar, takes one last draw on a cigarette before flicking it into the street and then walks into the gloom. The hum outside the packaging plant and the sweet sticky aroma of chocolate at the candy factory. A single car slides across the bridge, faintly rattling the metal grates before turning down one of the long, brightly lit empty streets that hold the city together at night; then the river, the flowing, black passage to end of the world. “Hey, kid. You okay?” The voice came from a dark figure outlined by a distant street light. It didn’t sound dangerous. I didn’t move, but said, “Yeah. I’m good. Sitting here.” “Why?” “Felt like it. Went for a walk… Who are you?” The man took a few steps closer and lighted a cigarette. He offered me one, and I shook my head, no. He was wearing a dark ballcap and in the faint light I could see he hadn’t shaved in a few days and his cheeks were deeply lined. “I’m Dusty,” he said. “I run a barge up and down the river three times a week.” He kept his distance. “I’m Smitty,” I said. “So you run a barge. What’d you haul?” “Diesel. From the tank farm downriver to the power plant on Ontario.” Dusty’s cigarette flared as he took another draw. “Been in town a couple, days getting a valve replaced in the engine. Can’t sleep in a hotel. Been sleeping on a barge or a boat since I was a kid. Hotel’s don’t rise and fall with the river’s flow, and they’re too damn noisy anyway. So I walk.” He moved a little, still in the dark, so I guess he shrugged. “It’ll be just till tomorrow.” We both stared into the dark flow of the river. I thought maybe I should get up and head home, not being quite sure who or what old Dusty was after all. “Know anyone who needs work?” Dusty asked. Lost my deckhand a week ago to another barge. Kid couldn’t afford to be down while the repairs were made. I can’t either, but I ain’t got another choice.” I stood up and brushed off my pants. “Maybe I do. I know some folks. I’ll ask around.” Dusty flipped his cigarette into the river where the red glow went “pfft” as it went out. “I’m docked at the state pier on the island, pier twelve. Tug’s name is ‘Sandy Sweetie,’ which is what I tell her all the time when she’s acting up, ‘Come on Sandy Sweetie, get your ass in gear.’ ” I smiled at the line and Dusty cackled. “Tell anyone you know to be at the pier at noon.” Then he was gone. And that was how I became a deck hand on the Sandy Sweetie. I never told Dusty my age, and well, he didn’t much ask.