Five straight days of rain got the Kaweah River way too wide. Old Mrs. James, who taught high school Latin and spoke it like a saint, drove off the road, into the river and under. The county crew pulled her from her fast-back Volvo after she failed to show for class eight o’clock prompt at Visalia High. Seat belt snug, palms in her lap, she’d lodged in a dark mud hole, ten feet deep.
We watched and listened while a rescuer’s radio played loud music that evaporated in the sun. The rush of light on its way to one more day said something important had been lost. Passing drivers slowed, the Volvo’s chrome and metal shimmered, circling gulls and jet black crows spread their wings, benevolent, blessing us below.
Maybe she’d tried to take the short cut home from church, anxious to avoid the muddy pass at River Bend that disappears in winter. Or maybe she veered a scant yard or two, fixed on what she’d just been through at St Martin’s, found her wheels spinning, mud painting the air like a freeze frame of breath before she hit the water.
On Mrs. James’s last, strange Sunday, she searched the pews for her lost Bible while two sharp, blue Lincolns crept into the lot. She and the other Presbyterians were geared for the recessional but were shocked instead by a sad lament of love: Leonard Cohen’s“Suzanne” flowed from wall-mounted speakers, an odd miracle unfolding as they prayed. Bowed heads snapped alert like blooming lilies to see a blond stranger with a gun and a flair for things electronic.
The stranger kept the congregants still, aided by a pudgy fellow he called Buddy. Buddy decided to remain mute but carried a long curved staff. He stared, stared some more, all while maintaining silence. The strangers kept “Suzanne”on repeat for hours, held the congregation inside, a torturous taste of Purgatory. No member of the church didn’t have the song’s words burned in their memory, not to mention their souls.
The clock ticked. The stranger and Buddy sat, rifles on their laps. “Suzanne” did not abate.
At five o’clock, the stranger nodded, said thank you, kind folks. Buddy stopped the music, strode from the altar, down the aisle and out. Neither said another word. They drove off in opposite directions. Three stars shot across the dark western sky, colliding somewhere off the coast of Mercury. Mrs James missing Bible was found, shot through with five rounds, tossed below the willow. A long brown braid with a kitty clasp wrapped the Bible tight.
Sacramento TV came down the next day to film and interview. The two-minute spot ran nationwide. The broadcast closed with a pan of the river, while a lush string version of “Suzanne” filled our dimmed living rooms.
We easily spotted the tall young man who appeared in the top corner of our TV screens, standing on the bank of the river, just before the image faded. It was Mrs. James’s red-haired son, skipping rocks like the lost orphan he’d become. He’d never gone anywhere except community college for his Associate’s in History.
The boy is called Gregory, quiet as a breeze blown over soft grass. Now he looks across the water on TV forever, a painting that shimmers like phosphors in the Pacific at night. The rocks he throws are flint, brought down from the Sierras before humans walked. Locked inside the rocks rest the trace of anything that’s ever lived with blood in its veins and air in its lungs. He flips the rocks out, trying to skim, but they do nothing but sink.
We watched Gregory look to the sky as if he might be able to see past its gray. His hands rest at his sides — until he throws and his limbs snap fierce, curling from his hip, a bullwhip taming some snarling coyote. Gregory’s rocks never break away from gravity. If they could only lift, like sight, Gregory might move away.
A scent of fuel fluttered with gypsy moths when Mrs. James finally was raised. Cut away from her harness, her body was round and bloated, make-up yet in place, fingers pruned. A hole in her flat front tire, a bullet-sized pierce, had let the air free.
Folks said she must’ve been thinking about “Suzanne,” and Gregory, of course. Most likely about rain that washed away the road. And surely, finally, about somehow climbing out of that dark, sad hole of mud she’d never intended to find.
Mauro Altamura received a 2022 Prose Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and several visual arts fellowships from NJSCA, NYSCA, and the NEA. His prose was published in Ovunquesiamo.com, Crimereads.com, and Yolk Literary. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers, Newark, and an MFA in Visual Art from SUNY Buffalo. Mauro lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ.
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