2011 | Issue Four | Fiction
DENBY SLID us through the thin streets of the Fan in his silver Avalon, never more than one hand holding the wheel, the other hand constantly occupied with his cell phone or a Newport. We were heading to Gregory’s to pick up booze, fish bait and Jones. Isley Brothers cranked from the speakers. Isley Brothers always sounded so good in the summertime. We didn’t hit one red light.
“Why are we taking Jones?” I asked Denby.
“What’s it matter to you?”
“She’s boring. She doesn’t talk.”
“She doesn’t. She bitches. She’ll bitch the whole time we’re out there.”
“Listen, she said she wanted to go. I told her we’d pick her up. We’re picking her up.”
“Sayin’. Pick her up after for all that noise. Ain’t she seeing somebody?” I spat out the window. “Ain’t you?”
“Listen, Lev, drop it, or I’ma drop you. Who’s behind the wheel?”
I dropped it.
It was hit-and-run weather, where all the kids came out and rode their bikes through red lights, stop signs, out from whatever kind of darkness there was. I might be out there with them, but I was in the car with Denby, and, thankfully, not behind the wheel of my own Instrument of Death.
A lot of noise was coming off the corner of Lombardy and Main. More people, out on the patio of a busy restaurant, lit up from the glow of a tiki-bar. The college crowd. A night like tonight, sure, all walks of life would be out. We drove a little past that and pulled up to Gregory’s. We got out the car and Denby unlocked the door to the restaurant and let us inside. The lights were off. Chairs sat upside down on the tables. All the sounds from the street came into the restaurant. Jones was sitting at the bar having a drink by herself. I could just see her.
“We ready to go?” she asked.
“Just gotta grab a few things,” Denby said. He walked past her and went back into the darkness of the kitchen. I walked around the bar and helped myself to a shot of Rumple Minze. There were a few cans of PBR sitting on ice and I grabbed one as well. I stood across the bar from Jones in the humming dark. It was as if the place was filled with people and we weren’t the only people there, so it was fine that we didn’t acknowledge each other.
We never said anything to each other. We didn’t even look at each other. It’s how it had always been.
But it wasn’t like she was bad to look at. She had reddish brown hair and a strong chin. She had this kind of classic look, like from a Bogie film or something. She always had a drink and she always had a smoke. Perpetually smoking. Smoke was the veil she wore over her face. Yeah, a Bogie film.
“Let’s go,” Denby said, walking out of the kitchen. He grabbed two sixes of Miller Lite from the small refrigerator underneath the bar.
“Quick shot for the road?” I offered.
“Bet,” he said.
I began to pour two shots of Rumple Minze.
“I’ll take one, too. But not Rumple Minze. Jameson,” Jones said.
Now she looked at me. When she wanted something.
I got another shot glass, then filled all three, two with Rumple Minze and the other with Jameson. We brought them together.
“Let’s make Regg and Tim jealous and catch the big one tonight,” Denby said.
We took them down and none of us made a face and a few seconds later we were out the door and Denby was locking the place up. I let Jones take shotgun. I laid up in the back with the beer and opened one and tossed the cap in the street and told Denby to turn the music up. We got back on Cary Street and were on our way. We didn’t drive too fast. Campus police loved the weather as much as we did and the only thing they did better than bust up a party in the Fan was give out DUIs.
We stopped at the light at Belvidere. A posse of motorcycles blasted by in a flurry of neon and rumble. Almost every one of the bikers had a girl strapped on the back with a fat ass coming out a pair of daisy dukes.
“Goddamn!” I said as they went by, leaning up between the two front seats.
We made a right onto Belvidere and rode across the bridge into Southside. I looked out my window at downtown Richmond and all the lights and the James for the millionth time. The view still hadn’t gotten old to me.
We went down a winding road where there was nowhere to look but the road before us. It was even darker where we parked. The trees and leaves and branches blocked out the moonlight so Denby had to leave all the doors open just to have any light to grab all the stuff we needed. Jones and I grabbed whatever he told us. I knew how to cast and how to reel something in, how to put something on the hook, how to snap the rod together. Jones probably knew even less. But we didn’t come out on these trips just to fish. We wanted to do something different from a bar, a living room, a neighborhood porch. Getting out of the Fan for just an hour or two, even if it was only across a bridge, made our little city seem a lot bigger than it actually was. It was a good trick.
I had a rod and the beer, Denby carried a small tackle box, a couple rods, and the bait. Jones had a bucket with a blanket in it and her purse, which she opened up, coming out with a fifth of whiskey.
I could hear Denby scratching his beard in the dark. It sounded what I thought a boot heel might sound like, twisting in straw. “Bet,” he said.
We all three took it back in turn, quickly. The little flame. I thought that was nice of Jones to offer the whiskey. I couldn’t see her face in the dark, even as close as she was.
We followed Denby through the woods on a dirt road and were lucky not to trip over any roots or vines. We made it, slow going. I made kind of a tomahawk motion with my arm as I walked through the trees. For the spider webs. The things in the trees were loud and we could hear the water ahead, slithering, hissing, smacking wet against the rocks. I jerked my shoulder up, wanting to swat at my neck a few times. At things I could feel or hear. That was pointless. My hands were full.
The trees opened up and let us out and there was the river, this huge dark rumbling blanket, forever moving, the rocks poking out like so many miniature islands. The pattern they made seemed so deliberate, like you could come to know them by name if you spent the time to name them, but with every new summer I could swear they were set different, a new and random arrangement to re-memorize, some having disappeared underneath the river, then new rocks emerging.
The moon lit the way, just enough. Jones took her shoes off and put them in her purse. Her white legs seemed to glow with a soft light, tiptoeing across the rock after Denby, her hands in the air. She was like a ghost. A river ghost.
“Shit!” Denby said, up ahead of us. “Almost gave my kicks a bath on that one.”
“Why do you always wear your nice shit out here, Derb?”
“Cause I’m a baller, Lev. I can buy three more pairs tomorrow.”
Before I could tell him to shut up, Jones said, “Please, Denby. I make more on a weekend than what you make all week.”
“Jones, I make what you make, I just don’t make it at the restaurant.”
I wore a beat-up pair of Asics, no laces. I didn’t care if I went in the water with them. I was caring less and less about things like the state of my shoes. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case at all. A few years ago, the issue of a pair of sneakers getting scuffed was grounds for a brawl. In some bars around town, it remained so.
Denby didn’t even take us out halfway. The rock he chose was big enough for all three of us and probably could have fit another. It was saucer shaped, like a gigantic dinner plate. Jones pulled out the blanket, flapped it wide open. It floated down to the rock. Denby sat everything down and started preparing the gear. He opened the tackle box and handed me a plastic bag. I took out enough marijuana to fill the bowl and gave it to Jones.
“Need a light?”
“Of course not.”
She sparked the bowl and inhaled. Far behind her, I could see the Belvidere Bridge we had just passed over. I couldn’t hear the cars that zoomed over it. We were detached enough from it all. But it hung there all the same, like a postcard up on the fridge.
The bowl made two rounds and Denby packed it up again. We gave it another round before we set up to cast. My first cast stunk. The second was better. I had to be careful where I slung my rod, not only so I didn’t hit Jones or Denby, but also so the bait would actually go into the water and not bounce onto another rock or get snared in one of the tree branches that reached out of the river. Denby’s went out far, and then further with the help of a slow current. I sat down and started drinking another beer.
“It’s nice out here,” Jones said, sitting a little behind me.
“As long as the bugs aren’t biting. You never been out here?” I said.
“Come in the day, and even that’s been limited this summer, I have to admit. It’s so different at night.”
“Yeah, there ain’t any rednecks or stupid West End kids out here at night,” Denby said.
“Or a bunch of Mexican dudes posted up on the banks staring at all the girls with their hands in their pockets,” I added.
“It’s a warm night,” Jones said.
Jones dipped her white toes into the water. She had her whiskey out again and we took sips from that. I tested my line a bit and felt something and got excited and started to reel it in. Everyone else got a little excited too and watched to see what it was I reeled in. I zigzagged it in through a few rocks and as it came to the surface I could begin to make it out. It was only some brush from the riverbed.
“Shit,” I said, pulling the stuff off the hook. The bait was gone, too.
“Aw. Not this time, buddy,” Jones said, patting my head.
“We’re not gonna catch anything out here, Derb,” I complained.
“We just got out here. Relax.”
“Let’s just drink,” Jones said. She hadn’t cast at all.
“I’ll put one more guy out there, maybe let ‘em lie a bit,” I said.
“I got a couple more in me yet,” Denby said. “Maybe it’s this rock.” He skipped to another and went a few more over and cast out again. We couldn’t even hear where it plopped over the rush of the river.
Jones and I sat on the rock, smoking cigarettes and passing each other the whiskey. I couldn’t smoke any more weed. My brain felt fuzzy inside my skull. I couldn’t even do something simple. Like keep my mouth closed. I kept licking my lips, re-tasting the whiskey. Whatever my face looked like, it didn’t matter. We were safe under the dark. The dark made it easier to get close.
We sat with our knees up right under our chins in the warm night air. We listened to the river for a long time. We could’ve been anywhere, anywhere in the world a guy and a girl could sit and be fine and their environment could sit and be fine with them. Her hair kind of fell in front of her face.
“It’s such a small thing. To smile here and there.”
“I do. All the time.”
“Bull,” I said.
For some reason I kissed her. Her lips weren’t even cold.
I heard something in the dark and I pulled apart from her.
Denby was coming back over to us. “Ain’t a damn thing biting. I’m out of beer,” he said.
“Well, I’ve had my fill. Y’all wanna head back?”
“Sure. What time’s it?”
“Past last call.”
We grabbed our stuff and started making our way back to the bank. Our beer cans floated down the James like bottles in the sea, minus the love note. Nobody fell in and we got back to the banks and through the trees and to the car.
Denby got into the car and started it and said, “Take it back to my place, all good?”
I kept the window all the way down on the ride back and my face in the wind until I heard Hot Rod come on the radio. “Young Turks.” Denby turned it up for me. A stranger would have thought I had a real life mic in my hand. Denby laughed his raspy laugh in front and Jones laughed too. I messed with her hair some.
Denby’s brother Reggie was in the living room watching a movie when we got there. We fell in on him and started on another round from the bowl. Reggie joined. I sat on the arm of the couch, trying to appear normal but buzzing hard.
I wanted to kiss her again. It was all that kept running through my head.
She went the kitchen and I could hear her go up the stairs to the bathroom.
“We got any b’s in the fridge?” Denby asked Reggie.
“Maybe a few.”
Denby got up to go check.
“Grab me one if there’s extra!” I called after him. I sank down into the couch next to Reggie. He was watching Tango & Cash. Kurt Russell was getting the massage from the chick who was playing Sly’s sister. It was a funny part. But Sly’s sister looked good too.
“From this to Desperate Housewives,” Reggie said.
“The paths we take,” I said.
We sat there watching the movie for a while. Reggie got into a little story about a girl at a sunglasses store. Finally, I got thirsty for that beer and got up to get it myself.
I figured Denby to be outside smoking a cigarette or on the phone with someone. I walked into the kitchen and Denby had Jones against the counter and they were kissing. I somehow hadn’t heard her come back downstairs. They stopped when I walked in. My eyes went away from them to a picture on the fridge. It was a picture of Reggie and his mother. She looked small next to him, she looked happy. He was flicking off the camera. I always liked that picture.
“Oh my bad, Lev, I was just on my way to you,” Denby said and handed me a Miller Lite. Jones was looking at me, with the hair in front of her face again. Bogie films.
“All good. Thanks,” I said.
I went back into the living room and sat in the couch. A few minutes later I heard them clop up the stairs.
“How was the river?” Reggie asked me.
“It was stupid.”
I chugged the beer. Some of it ran down my cheek. I finished it off and tossed the empty bottle into a trashcan they had next to the DVD rack. I stood up and said, “Adios, Regg.”
He said, “See ya, Lev.” Then I walked back out into the warm night. 💣
X.C. ATKINS is the author of GRACE STREET ALLEY & OTHER STORIES, published by Makeout Creek Books in 2018. Additionally, he has short stories in PRAIRIE SCHOONER, PAPER DARTS, THE POYDRAS REVIEW, Akashic Books' RICHMOND NOIR, and other journals and anthologies. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a bartender in New Orleans.
”River Ghosts” is also available in GRACE STREET ALLEY & OTHER STORIES. Copyright X.C. Atkins.
Photo by George Allen