THE RIVER
by Mike Strom

 

Elliot Larson was a strong man, dying. About this he held no illusions, and the knowledge of impending death did not bother him. It was the remnants of life that caused irritation, the clinging memories, regrets spawned by the sun breaking through the window. Grimacing he turned on the smooth clean sheets and settled on his side, facing the window. Outside, in the late afternoon light the mud banks of Youngs Bay glowed amber. Elliot's mind retreating from the pain, ebbed into memories of youth. The years had left his body with scars of the past, so it was to the past he retreated.

"Stomach cancer," Doc Madson had said to him a year before in his office, "Nothing can be done about it but radiation, maybe some surgery. We can't stop it. Too advanced."

Cancer, an insidious disease corrupting the flesh, relentlessly disfiguring his insides, carrying him into realms of pain from which there was but one escape, an escape he longed for but feared. His body was unable to contain the death that lingered in his cells, unable to contain the pain, no matter how much he wanted to live.

Still, even in his agony, he judged that seventy-one years had been a fair enough share of life. What more had he to do which he had not already done? Seventy-one years had left him pain and memories. Pain and memories were what he'd become an expert on; too much of an expert. He wished he could shut it all out, even the memories were not worth the pain. Inside, his guts screamed pain, agony, brutal reminder of the impending, and he groped for the brown bottle upon his bedstead.

The bottle was full, a thirty day supply, he noticed, touching reality for an instant as he shakily poured two of the white tablets into his yellow, blue veined hands. He stared at the pills then shook the bottle. A half dozen poured out. Upending the bottle he emptied it and let the empty vessel roll on the table. Cupping his hand he put the pills in his mouth then took a hit of water. Swishing the pills in his mouth he wondered for a second, the sour taste was delicious with the foreknowledge that pain would soon be gone, then swallowed.

We live, and then we die, he thought, just as the sun, which was hovering a red ball above the ocean mists, lived and died in a universe which he was just a microscopic part of. He was certain one couldn't ask anything more from life than the living of it, it was a matter of honor and faith. To expect more was a foolish greed. Of this he was sure, sure as the sun would rise in the morning and he would be gone... sure as death.

He mused, if he had life to live over again, what would he have changed. Martha? No, never Martha. He could hear her washing dishes downstairs in the kitchen. Funny, how his hearing and eyesight had never failed him as they had so many of his friends. In some ways he felt himself fortunate, youth was wasted on the young. When he'd been young, life had been easy, pain was rare and fleeting not this ever-constant killing pain.

What would he have changed? His work, his life. No, fishing had been good to him. He'd loved being on the Columbia River bar in August, with the moon low above the water and the water turning into dappled shimmering scales of light, almost like the river was a living serpent. Elliott realize that the drug was starting to take effect, that the pain was starting to ebb, as the river would ebb into an ocean spreading the vision of life into nature.

The creases on his face relaxed as he drifted backwards into the late 1930's; the times had been fine. In the years before the war they'd driven those big polished automobiles up the winding poplar lined road to Swenson. Friday nights they'd kick up their heels and enjoy the wild ecstatic energy of youth, drink a little beer, smoke cigarettes and try to get alone with a girl... maybe get alone with a girl... yeah that was it.

Funny how he thought of those times now, he hadn't danced nor... no, none of that either, in years. The dances, the music, the musicians dressed up fancy, speckled, shimmering suits, drifted through his half-conscious dream. The girls in their knee skirts wearing bobby socks daringly twirled flashes of delight, he smelled the spilled beer on sawdust floors, the raw odor of whiskey in the back-seat, hot steamy August nights, a touch in the dark. Yes, life had been fine, the living was good. He could hear the laughter.

The salmon were thick in the river, then. A man could make a living, a good one just taking his share. He recalled the silence on the Columbia River late at night, when everything went silent and a wave of fog socked them in. Awesome the silence, incredible the beauty of the nights on the river. Then the fog had cleared and street-lights of the hill simmered through the mist. The town never totally slept, but lay there, a primeval organism resting but wary. In the north the big dipper hanging over the Washington shoreline ladled celestial magic.

And there was magic, for the fish were there, and they kept coming year after year. Noble-headed thirty pound Chinook salmon kept coming, following the instinct to spawn in the fresh water from whence they'd spawned, just like they'd spawned for Elliot's father and grandfather before him, just like they'd done for the Indians before, and before that the grizzly and before that some saber-jawed cat indulging in prehistoric gorge, and before that... thrall. Yes, he remembered with white joy the bright Chinook Salmon gilled in the linen nets of the Scandinavian, Greek, Italian fishermen, and Natives fishing the river as their ancestors. People close to the sea, wind-weathered and hardy, always willing to lend a hand, to buy a drink, to listen to one's dreams, and troubles, life was like that, slowly nodding heads over bottles of whiskey, celebrations at season's end.

No one ever got rich from fishing, they didn't need to be rich, it wasn't California, they didn't need trendy styles. They had other dreams. They dreamed of tons of salmon glistening like silver dollars in the nets, and happy times, saunas, fish bakes, bottles of whiskey, on the sand bars of the river. And then there was the war, WW II, the big one, and everything changed. They found themselves different when they returned, there were parts of themselves they didn't talk about, even when drunk, that emerged in their sleep. Their young wives had instinctually understanding all, gave these suddenly fragile men children.

In the kitchen below, Martha attacked her big cast iron skillet with a scouring pad. Suddenly, she heard the knock on the back door. Turning to the sound of the door opening, she heard the tread of her son as he walked through the foyer in to the living room. In front of her, her god, her son, Harold, stood nervously, legs slightly spread in a gray-striped suit amid the turn of the century furniture. Her spirit lifted, then sagged as her daughter-in-law stepped beside him.

Martha kept smiling, but she knew that Janet knew that she'd wished Harold had been a little less impulsive, that he had taken the time to marry a local girl like the Olson girl. But that was all water under the bridge. He'd made his bed and was sleeping in it, barren though it might be. Still, they lived the modern life and it seemed so different from the life that Elliot and her had known. Things were simpler then, everything was trees and fish, now it was computer screens and talk.

Moving across the room she could feel the veil of tension around Janet. The two of them were too different, not only in personality but in time. Janet was one of the modern women, had her own job, had her own way and was insistent about things... especially things. Well, she had things, but no children... that was the modern woman for you. If Martha was in Janet's shoes she would feel ashamed.

But shame was not one of Janet Larson's problems. Her problems ran deeper than that. She'd met Harold in college, when he was a spoiled only son who shone as a pulling guard on a cow-college football team. She's met him at a sorority party and tamed him easily and quickly, for the one mistake his mother had made in raising Harold was instilling a deep dependence upon women in him. And Janet was a strong woman who enjoyed the tall, good looking athlete who she'd molded.

"Mom, how've you been?" Harold asked as he walked across the spotless linoleum floor and kissed her soft white cheek.

"Fine, I'm fine...You missed dinner, but I saved some sandwiches for you. Roast venison...from last year's trip to Eastern Oregon. I cooked it just like you like it. Sit down...sit down...you must be tired after that long drive. You want coffee, milk, or beer?"

"Beer's fine. Janet?"

"Coffee. Those little Japanese cars are so cramped, I just seem tied up in knots after a long drive." She smiled showing her good teeth as she sat in one of the wooden chairs.

"You should get yourself an Oldsmobile," Martha remarked as she served sandwiches." You know as you get older, you appreciate the luxury. And, of course, in an accident they're much safer."

"An Oldsmobile like yours?" Janet replied, acidic.

"Well...you don't need a station wagon. I guess seeing you live in the city and don't have any children."

"No... I guess we don't need a station wagon, or an Oldsmobile, for that matter. Japanese cars are so much more economical. And the world has only so many natural resources you know—like the salmon."

"Oh, I know all about the salmon. You don't have to tell me. The salmon will be back. Times change. The young men they all go to Alaska now, that's where the fish are. Still, the salmon will return to the river. We manage to live comfortable."

"Comfortably, yes..."

"Ma, how's Dad?" Harold cut in.

Martha looked at her son, her eyes talking and said, "That's why I called you to come up. I thought you'd want to see him."

"What's the doctor say?"

"The doctor makes a lot of talk. None of it good."

"What did he say? Exactly."

"He says Elliot could live longer if we put him in the hospital."

"And?"

"And you know your Pa. He won't go. He says he won't die with a bunch of tubes sticking out of his nose."

"Well. I wouldn't put up with that nonsense," Janet cut in.

"I wouldn't think you would," Martha replied, the muscles of her face straining under the placid exterior. "But you see we were brought up in different times. We think differently about things."

"I can see that."

"I know."

"Mom, I want to see dad," Harold looked at her, his sandwich untouched.

Over the plastic table cloth's gaily printed flowers Martha examined her son. He was big and handsome, just like that day she'd sent him off to college nineteen years before. That was funny. They'd thought that college was the place to sent their children. Get an education, then you won't have to break you back to make a living, that was the answer. Go to college and you could be somebody. Be somebody. Did it matter?

Well, they thought it mattered, but every son who worked with his hands for a living seemed to have stayed around home, married, and had children. Again, Martha blamed herself. It had just seemed so right at the time. And now she was looking at her son who didn't have to break his back and his tall beautiful wife who make fifty thousand dollars a year, herself, and wondered if life made any sense at all. Maybe it would have been better for Harold to have been a fisherman and gone to Alaska, but the fish would be gone from there someday. Civilization always destroyed the fish, that was the way of things. She never said it, but it was how she felt.

"Yes, I suppose so. You know he usually naps after dinner, but we can wake him. He's upstairs in your old bedroom. Sick like he is, he wants to sleep alone."

Elliot heard the conversation below. His door was open and the sound was clear. The pills were shrouding his mind with veils of mist, but the voice of his son had reached him. He wanted to see Harold. He remembered teaching the boy to fish, remembered watching him grow strong enough to do a man's work by the time he was seventeen. One thing about that boy, he never minded work. But they never talked much. Of course Elliot didn't believe much in talk, words just seemed so meaningless.

He drifted into the cool dry meadows of autumn. That whitetail buck he'd dropped last fall was standing up to his haunches in long yellow grass. The buck had been an old grandfather, just waiting for him. Squinting through the scope he'd hesitated as he lined the shot up, he could smell the crisp highland air of the meadow as he heard the procession making their way up the carpeted steps. A blur of colors, a spin of memories, he tried to turn from the past to the present. He wanted to see his son again. The past faded, the smell of the long crisp grass lingered, mixed with the sour odor of cordite but his son was not there.

Harold stood in silence at the foot of the bed for a moment, staring at the dignity of his father. The silence broke suddenly as Martha screamed and fell to her knees, her hands grasping the quilt at the bed's edge. As his mother sobbed Harold closed his father's eyelids with one hand. Turning away he stared out the window onto the bay where the moon cast a brilliant sparkle on the water.

"If you'd taken him to the hospital he'd still be alive." Janet said, her voice sharp.

Slowly Harold turned to her. Her face blurred in and out of focus. Finally, he said, "Shut up."

"You don't tell me to shut up."

Harold gave Janet a look she'd never seen before. The change in him sent her spinning out of the room and down the stairs into the living room. Adrenaline and anger filled her as she walked to the door and opened it. The street beckoned, children played basketball at a basket nailed onto a power pole. Janet, regrouped, this was all emotional, it would end, things would return to normal. Those children out on the street, disgusting. What if they got hurt? Who'd be liable?

Harold walked over to the window, and pulled the window open. A fresh western breeze rolled in off the ocean. In an hour the sun would touch the ocean, a big orange ball simmering above the sea. the important things were still there, the earth, the sun, the ocean, the salmon, trees, and the river. The river was still there. He put his hands on the sill and leaned out the window, and cried silently.

And less than a mile away in the brown swirling waters of the Columbia River the salmon ran, maddened by the taste of fresh water, absorbed in the primal instinct to spawn. And Harold, through his tears, for the first time realized he understood his father. Absorbed by the swirl of the ebb along the gray sand banks he felt his spirit tugged onward by a force he could neither resist nor understand.

Copyright 2004 by Mike Strom

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