By Alyssa Lindley Kilzer
Richard and Robert
The winding mountain road came to a stop twenty feet back from the riverbank. Richard pulled the car up to the tree line, just able to make out a shimmer of the water through the brush. He put the car in park, took the key out of the ignition, and dropped it in his lap. He sat like that for a few breaths, his head resting back. He was tired from the drive up and the altitude as he looked out through the windshield.
Robert was quiet beside him in the passenger’s seat. Richard had invited him partly to be friendly—the kid had been working construction on the house for the past two weeks—but mostly because he was lonely. He’d been living in the valley just three weeks and he was tired of spending so much time alone. In the afternoons he’d been hanging out with Robert, even helping him with the work, just to have somebody to talk to. He was glad for the company on the drive up and for the swim, even if Robert didn’t talk much.
Richard had been sitting for hours on his front porch some days, the sounds of the river and the land washing over him and eating up time. As he snapped himself away from the land, he became annoyed that time had slipped past him so easily. The valley was making him restless and he didn’t want to admit it. But as he drove Richard had felt his mind open up again. He had tried to remember if his father had taken the same route to Teleco Mountain over ten years earlier. He would have been in the back seat of his father’s old Plymouth, he told himself, his mother in the passenger’s seat. He remembered the car—beige leather seats that stuck to the backs of his legs in the summer, and the one back-seat window that rolled down too slowly—but he couldn’t remember arriving at the Oassie River precisely.
Richard began to unfasten his watch with his right hand, a leather strap entwined in the silver buckle, pressing into the smooth white inside of his wrist. It was the standard issue watch in World War II, the Hamilton his father had worn as a soldier, and the only valuable item he had brought with him to the valley. He pulled the strap out and through and unleashed it. It was the one thing he hadn’t been able to leave behind.
He reached across Robert and opened the glove box, passing the watch from one hand to the other in front of him and dropping it on top of some loose papers and a car manual. Robert’s eyes followed the watch as he did it. The silver and leather looked sharp in the dusty old car.
“It was my father’s,” Richard said, and closed the glove box with a click.
“It’s a nice watch,” Robert said. One day he hoped to buy a watch like that, something his mother could never buy for him and his father never would.
The two of them got out of the car, slightly dizzy and sick from the winding mountain road. Richard yawned and stretched his arms wide, happy to be here on the river, finally.
The river was clear, and wider than Richard remembered. It was nearly five o’clock. The drive had taken longer than Richard expected. It would probably be dark on the drive back to the valley, and darkness would slow his driving. Robert certainly wouldn’t get any work on the bathroom done today, but there couldn’t be more than one or two more afternoons of work to do, Richard thought, justifying his decision not to rush. He would be lying if he said it wasn’t the possibility of returning to this river that had swayed his decision to rent the house in the first place. He wished momentarily that he had brought a fishing pole.
The river looked deep. Richard could see the furrows of a strong current through the center. The key is to keep yourself upright in the water…His father’s words of advice echoed in his head again, and he thought about that trip, more than ten years ago. The drive up his father had talked about when he swam the falls with his own father, just before heading off for training camp. He must’ve been about eighteen, Richard thought, not too much younger than me and not too much older than Robert, when he left for war. Richard had a low number in the Vietnam draft and there was never any threat of having to enlist. But in that moment, thinking about his father going off at eighteen, losing his leg in the weeks following D-Day, Richard hated that he thought of the draft that way—a threat—and his low number as luck. His father had willingly enlisted, and Richard wished he could be more like that. Instead he had coasted his way through college, taking semesters off and switching majors at will. He mused over this for a minute, and silently chastised himself for not being more disciplined. Robert seemed like the kind of kid that could do it, he thought, a strong kid, strong enough to survive and for others to depend on. Then Richard realized, with the jolt that comes from mistaken memory, that his father’s father couldn’t have swam the falls, that his father was fatherless at only thirteen. Richard hated himself for forgetting about his grandfather’s death.
Richard looked at the river differently. For a moment he was able to think what it must have been like for his father, who brought his son to this place, filled with enough fondness and anticipation that he had talked the whole drive of the river, of the falls, and of the view of the valley from the stone basin beneath. Perhaps he had wished his own father had been there when he had swam at age eighteen. Maybe he had even promised himself to bring his own son back to this spot one day. And when he finally did, it was only to have the river rained out and the swim ruined. It ended up just like any other camping trip, except they couldn’t even fish and his mother complained all night of the stones beneath the tent.
Richard walked closer to the edge of the water, where the river stones were slick and cool. He pulled one from the mud, where it left a hole. He admired how it was perfectly smooth and oval in his palm. It was gray with brown flecks, wet on the bottom with mud smeared up its sides, and reminded him of his mother’s marble egg that she kept on the dining room table at home. He weighed it heavily, letting his cupped hand bounce in the air in front of him, before swiftly tossing it into the current, where it sunk quickly and without a splash. He turned and said to Robert,
“My father brought me here once, when I was a kid.”
“Oh yeah?” Robert said.
“Yeah…I think we camped…over there…” he gestured toward a patch of trees close by, and tried to form an image in his mind of his father lighting up the Hibachi grill, and the little green four person tent they used back then. He couldn’t remember exactly what the grill looked like, though, and wasn’t even sure where they had camped. Robert’s presence drew him away from it. He felt inclined to say something else. They didn’t know each other that well. “You done much camping?” He asked.
“No, not really,” Robert said. “Used to fish, on Little River.”
“Maybe you can show me the good spots,” Richard mused, “I really should fish more, living right above the river like that.”
“There are some good spots,” Robert said, but there was a hesitation in his voice. Richard looked at him. “But I don’t go down there much anymore.” Robert paused, then added, “Not since Old Elmer.”
“Old Elmer?” Richard asked, looking at the sky, long shadows from clouds overhead tracing the water’s surface. “Elmer’s father?”
“Yeah,” Robert said, continuing, “That old guy that lived in your house all my life. He died last year. Drowned himself in the river, they think. Never found his body.”
“Oh,” Richard said, sick with the thought of a bloated old body, face down in the water and bumping along the banks of the river below his porch. He could never eat fish from the river now, and wished he hadn’t asked about it in the first place.
“I bet if you went upriver, though, it would be alright,” Robert said. Then added, crossing his arms over his chest, “I’m sure the bears got him, anyways.”
This wasn’t much consolation to Richard at first, but he told himself that the kid was probably right.
“Should we swim?” Richard asked. He pulled a bar of soap from his pocket and dropped it on the ground. He’d only bathed twice the past few weeks, with no bathroom and having to heat the water up on top of the woodstove and then use the tin drum in the attic that was too small for his long legs. He was looking forward to getting clean.
“Yeah,” Robert said. They both began to pull off their clothes until they were down to their underwear.
“I think you go in the center,” Richard said, as he waded into the water, “And try to stay upright. Then it takes you over the top and into the pool.” Robert nodded like he knew. Richard couldn’t tell if he was being polite or if he was playing up a guise of teenage fearlessness. He had the urge to say, people have died going over these falls, so try to stay upright, but he didn’t say anything.
“You go first,” Robert said, shivering in a shadow, only ankle-deep.
Even with the water low it was above Richard’s waist in the center. The current was as strong as it looked and the stones were slippery on the bottom. He dug one foot into the mud beneath a large rock and hooked the toes of the other into a pile of small stones, gritty with algae and tiny growths. The water smelled cool, like bark and moss, and pulled around his back as he soaped his body without sympathy. First his beard, vigorously, to strip the oil and sweat out. Then he scraped the flat bar across his dry neck, cleaned behind the backs of the ears using the dampened tips of his fingers, lathered the backs of the shoulders. He could only get the top of his broad back, but ran the soap aggressively down the insides of his arms and up into the arm pits. The soap was in a thick lather on the upper body and streamed away from his wrists as he lowered them beneath the surface, and soaped from the waist down. He would have to skip the legs and feet, he decided, because of the current. He almost let the soap go, to see how it bobbed away, but then remembered Robert.
“Hey!” he shouted, and tossed him the bar. Robert caught it mid-air but it slipped out of his hands. He picked it up smiling. “Here goes nothing,” Richard said, as he pulled his feet from their anchor. The river swept him forward and soon the cold water was splashing up the back of his neck.
It was difficult to stay upright. As the water pulled him strongly to the left and tried to dunk him under, Richard thought about his father, how he must’ve been a strong young man before he left for war and lost his leg. He wouldn’t go under, he promised himself that, for fear that he might not come up again and drown going over the falls. He used all his strength to straighten out and keep his head up.
Then it was a free fall, his stomach in his throat as the water pulled him over and he was suspended momentarily, the water pounding down around him.
He was dunked under as the falls met the pools beneath. The water was deep, and the force of the falls pushed Richard down. There was the wonderful silence that comes when first submerged. Then the muffled beating of the falls was a deep, far away drumming, like unseen thunder approaching. The water was very cold and his skin tingled. He quickly pulled himself out and away from the falls, realizing that Robert could come over at any moment.
He swam over to the rock ledge of the basin and rested his arms and then his chin along the rock. The sun was setting to the West. Their little part of the valley sat out of sight to the East, with many mountains and rolling hills between. The land was huge and unending. Richard was overwhelmed with the thought of the number of spots as beautiful as this one that must be dotted all throughout the land. Looking out at all made him feel a little bit less restless and alone.
He licked his wet lips and let the water dripping from his eyebrows weigh his eyelashes down. The rhythm of the waterfall vibrated down through his wet body and beat back out his bones. Richard wondered how many thousands of years the falls had been pounding down here, how many men it had taken over the edge, how many it had killed. He thought that the rhythm of the water was something he would take with him, something that could not leave his body now, not ever. From the corner of his eye he could see the spot where he could climb out of the basin, walk back around to the river bank, and do it all again. He sensed the heaviness of Robert’s body falling through the air behind him before he heard the splash. Robert came up sputtering and breathing deeply. He swam awkwardly over to the ledge.
“Wow,” he said, “Wow-ee.” He gazed out at the valley for a brief few seconds before he swam over to the far edge and pulled himself out of the water. “I’m gonna do it again.” He was dripping wet and shivering but he looked happy to Richard, with a big grin on his face as he ran up the rocky hillside.
Richard waited there on the ledge for a few more minutes. The sun was setting. He thought that Robert would come over the top and they would climb up the hillside together. But then it seemed suddenly darker and Robert hadn’t come over the falls. Richard had a moment of panic, looking behind him at the water coming down—how long had he been floating here in the basin? He wondered. Had Robert not kept himself upright, drowned before going over the top? But no, his body would’ve come over the falls, wouldn’t it? Richard climbed out of the water and made his way up the rocky hill, putting hand in front of foot, slipping as he went. It’s fine, he told himself, he’s fine.
As he came over the top, Richard thought he saw some movement by his car, which he could just make out through the trees. He walked faster towards it, dirt caking on the bottoms of his feet and his breath shortening. There was another car stalled in the parking lot, a beat-up old truck with the loud engine still rumbling but nobody in the driver’s seat. The passenger door to Richard’s car was open.
“Robert?” He said, walking over to the passenger door and looking inside. The glove box door was hanging open, a gaping jaw.
A surge of anger welled up inside of him. He stuck his hand in the glove box and ruffled through the papers. It was here, just here, he thought, its not in here…his fingers kept moving, sliding the papers around and digging in the corners, just to be sure. He was thinking about his father unhooking the watch from his wrist the day Richard graduated high school, telling him every adult should have a good wristwatch. The thought crossed his mind of Robert’s face when he saw the watch just a few minutes ago, admiring it. He wanted the watch. I should’ve locked the doors, he thought, but why would I, up here in the middle of nowhere. Christ, I should’ve known better. I trusted him. “Dammit, dammit,” he said out loud, his hands still rummaging in between papers. He pounded one fist on top of the car. He didn’t even know this kid, he told himself. What was he thinking? He slammed the glove box shut and then the door.
“Robert!” He yelled again, his voice cracking, the name garbled with rage.
“Here…” Robert bellowed, his voice mangled too, strained at the bottom of the syllable.
It was coming from the other side of the truck, and Richard ran around, where he saw Robert kneeling over someone, another teenager, drawing back his fist over and over again to smash in his face, while another crawled off the ground, jumped on Robert’s back, and began to wrap his arms around Robert’s neck.
“What?” Richard shouted, rushing forward to pull the kid off of Robert. Richard threw him to the ground with a grunt. He jumped back up at him fast, a very tall kid, he charged into Robert’s shoulders with both hands. His face was gruesome, distorted with fury. In one swift blow Richard knocked him down again. Shaking out his fist and looking down at Robert laying into the guy on the ground, Richard thought, What the hell have I gotten myself into…
The guy on the ground was out. Robert stood, shaky, and turned. He ran his hand over his face, fingering around the cheekbone that had swelled up into his bloody eye. He put his fingers to his split lip and then opened his mouth, where bright red blood pooled around his teeth. He spat it out, closed his eyes and went pale. He leaned into the truck and didn’t say anything at first, with the blood forming another puddle inside the lower lip. All he could manage was pointing with one hand to the ground as he grasped at his ribs with the other. Richard looked, where there was a shimmer of silver, his father’s watch laying face down in the dirt. He bent down and picked it up.
“They were. Stealing. It.” Robert said, looking over at Richard wearily.
Richard held the watch in his hand, dusty but in tact, and looked at Robert. He thought nothing at first but felt shame growing in his stomach. He had the urge to give Robert the watch but had to help him to the car first.
“You need to sit down,” Richard said. Robert lowered himself very slowly into the passenger’s seat. Richard found a water bottle in the back. He rinsed off Robert’s bloody knuckles, split in jagged red lines, and wrapped them in an old t-shirt. He pulled up Robert’s t-shirt, examined his right ribs—bruised, he thought, not broken. “Are you okay?” He asked Robert, who nodded with eyes closed. “We need to get out of here.”
Richard got in the driver’s seat and pulled the car out of the parking lot, trying not to jolt the car too much as he went but driving speedily, not wanting the truck behind to catch up. He felt bad about the windy road and how sick Robert must’ve felt with each turn. Robert’s eyes were closed and with a glance Richard could tell his pain was deep. Why did he do it? He wondered, and tried to convince himself he would’ve done the same for Robert
“Robert,” he said, when they were about half-way down the road. “Thanks for doing that. The watch, I mean. I really…appreciate it.” It was only his urgent need to get Robert back home that bridged his far away thoughts with his hands on the steering wheel. He was sick with the guilt of having thought that Robert had stolen the watch. He tried to focus on his hold on the car to steady his thoughts
“They were stealing it,” Robert said quietly and groaned, as if what he did was the most obvious thing.
“Well, thanks,” Richard said. “My dad gave me that watch, and, I don’t know…” He was thinking of the round river stone in his hand, all the many round river stones all along the banks, how he would have liked to smash those kids faces in, how he should have. Instead he had been below, floating in the basin and commending himself for his afternoon adventure, letting this kid he didn’t even know take a beating.
The hour drive passed in a steady, non-rhythmical silence. The car was dark but Richard’s eyes felt dry and tired, as if they had been under bright lights for too long. They stopped once for Robert to vomit on the side of the logging road. Richard wanted to cook Robert some dinner but he asked to be dropped at home.
“Let me know if you need anything,” Richard said. “And you don’t have to come, tomorrow, if you’re not feeling up for it. Take it easy kid.”
Richard watched Robert walk up his front lawn, strewn with beer cans that flickered in the dark, and into his dilapidated house. Driving down to his house Richard had the sinking feeling he didn’t know anything about living out in the middle of nowhere. As he parked in the dark driveway he was remorsefully happy to have his car, for once admitting to himself that he liked its warm, dusty smell that reminded him of his girlfriend he broke up with just a few months earlier, and hot summers spent at his family’s house, driving around at night with childhood friends. It was a piece of home. His real home, back in Chattanooga. He looked at his knuckles on the steering wheel. Red and sore—they would bruise. His hand didn’t even look like his own. He removed the watch from the glove box. He didn’t want to think about anything as he went inside the house.