There aren't really
two rivers in Two Rivers, Vermont. There's the Connecticut, of course
(single-minded with its rushing blue-gray water), but the other river
is really just a wide and quiet creek. Where they intersect, now that's
the real thing. Because the place where the creek meets the
Connecticut, where the two strangely different moving bodies of water
join, is the stillest place I've ever seen. And in that stillness, it
almost seems possible that the creek could keep on going, minding its
own business, that it might emerge on the other side and keep on
traveling away from town. But nature doesn't work that way, doesn't
allow for this kind of deviation. What must (and does) happen is that
the small creek gets caught up in the big river's arms, convinced or
coerced to join it on its more important journey.
The girl was
shivering, her arms wrapped around her waist, her hands clutching her
sides. Her teeth were chattering. They were small teeth in a tidy row,
like a child's.
I peeled off my flannel shirt, which was the
driest thing I had on me, and offered it to her. She accepted the
shirt, awkwardly pulling it on. The sleeves hung over her hands; she
almost disappeared inside it when she sat down.
"What's your name?" I asked softly. She was like a wounded animal, knees curled to her chest and trembling.
"Marguerite," she said, shaking her head.
"Your mother's dead?" I asked.
The girl looked down at her hands and nodded.
"Was she on the train?"
She kept looking at the ground.
"Where were you going?" I asked.
"Up north," she said.
She looked up at me then, water beaded up and glistening on her eyelashes. She nodded. "Canada."
"Do you know somebody up there?"
She looked toward the woods, chattering. "I got an aunt," she said.
"Well, let's get back to my house and you can give her a call. Let her
know you're okay," I offered. "It ain't like that," she said, shaking
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, she don't know I'm coming. My daddy ..." Her voice trailed off.
"Can we call him?"
"No!" she said loudly, shaking her head. And then she reached for my
hand. "He sent me away. My mama's dead. I ain't got nobody."
"Okay, okay," I said, trying to sort everything out in my mind.
"We need to go to the station, let them know you're alive. Then they
can get in touch with your aunt and we'll get you on the next train.
And if she can't take you, we'll go to the police. They'll talk to your
daddy. He's your father. He has obligations."
"No!" she cried again, squeezing my hand hard. "Please.
Maybe I can just stay a little while. I can't go back there. I can't."
Her eyes were wild and scared. One was the same color as river water,
blue-gray and moving. The other was almost black. Determined. Like
stone. "Let them think I drowned."
"You can't just pretend you're dead."
"Why not?" she asked, both of her eyes growing dark.
I flinched. "Two Rivers is a small town. People are going to wonder where you came from."
"Maybe I'm your cousin," she said, her eyes brightening. She wiped her
tears with the back of her hand. "Your cousin from Louisiana."
I raised my eyebrow. "I don't have any cousins from Louisiana."
"From Alabama then. I don't know. Mississippi," she persisted, clearly irritated.
"Listen," I said. "I'm not sure folks are going to buy the idea that you and I are family."
The girl looked square at me, studying my face, as if contemplating the possibility herself.
"I've got a little girl," I said. "I can't just bring a stranger into my house."
At the mention of Shelly, the girl reached out and grabbed my wrist,
pressed my hand hard against her pregnant belly. When I pulled my hand
back, she held onto my wrist, and she moved toward me. She was so close
to my face I could smell the bubble gum smell of her breath. Her eyes
were frantic, and she quickly pressed her lips against my forehead. It
was such a tender gesture, it made me suck in my breath.
"I won't be any trouble. I promise," she said.
She looked at me again, and I willed myself to look into those
disconcerting eyes. I concentrated on the blue one, the one the color
of the river, waiting for her to speak. But she didn't say anything
else; she simply took my hand and waited for me to take her home.
"You can stay for a little while, just until we get everything
straightened out." And then, because she looked as if she might cry, "I
promise, everything will be okay."
* * *
"Thank you," the girl whispered, though it could have just been the
wind rushing in my ears. She was riding on the back of my bicycle as I
pedaled away from the accident at the river, through the woods, and
back toward town. She held on to my waist tightly, her heartbeat hard
and steady against my back. I was careful to avoid anything that might
jar her or send us tumbling. We didn't speak; the only sound was of
bicycle tires crushing leaves. I worried about what would happen when I
stopped pedaling, when the journey out of the woods inevitably ended,
and so I concentrated on finding a clear and unobstructed path through
the forest, taking great care to slow down when the terrain grew rough.
Too quickly, the woods opened up to the high school parking lot.
I stopped. "If it's okay with you, I should probably leave you here and
have you meet me at the apartment," I said. "Not the best idea for
people to see us riding through town together."
carefully down from the seat. She set the small suitcase she had with
her onto the pavement, straightened her skirt, and touched her wet hair
self-consciously. When she took off my shirt and handed it to me, I
thought for a moment that she was going to let me go. I imagined
pedaling away as fast as I could. I imagined forgetting all about her,
about the wreck, about the river. But instead, I stayed on the bicycle,
unsure of what to do next. I gripped the handlebars tightly, ready to
go, but immobilized.
The lot was full of cars but empty of
students and teachers. We were bound to be discovered by some kid
ditching class or sneaking a smoke.
"This a high school?" she
asked, looking at the low brick building in front of us. At the
football field in the distance.
"Yeah," I said. It was my
high school, unchanged in all the years since I'd graduated. I knew
every brick in this building's walls. Every vine of ivy clinging to
them. I knew the smell of the cafeteria vent on a cold autumn
afternoon, the sound of the bell announcing the beginning of the day.
"No one will think nothin' of it if they see me here then?" she asked.
I shook my head, though I wasn't sure what someone would make of this
girl, this dark-skinned girl, dripping wet and pregnant in the high
school parking lot. While it had its share of matriculated expectant
mothers, Two Rivers High had seen all of two black students in the last
"Walk that way," I said, motioning toward the
road that would wind behind the school and ultimately down into the
village where I lived. "I live on Depot Street. Upstairs, above Sunset
Lanes Bowling Alley. Number two. I'll be waiting. I'll make you some
soup or something. Then we'll figure out what to do."
up on the pedals and pushed off, looking over my shoulder at her
briefly, and then rode away as fast as my tired legs would allow. I
should have gone home. It wouldn't take her long to walk from the high
school into the village. I knew the apartment was in no condition for
company, and that the folks at work were probably wondering where I'd
gone. But my bike seemed to have a will of its own, carrying me away
from the high school, down the winding road toward town, and then onto
the little dead-end street I hadn't visited in more than twelve years.
As if Betsy would simply be waiting there, ready to help me figure out
what to do next.
neighborhood in Two Rivers where Betsy and I grew up was made up of row
after row of crooked Victorians-crumbling monstrosities sinking in upon
themselves. Each house on Charles Street had its own peculiar
tendencies. The one next-door to ours had a widow's walk whose railing
had, unprovoked by either natural or unnatural disaster, collapsed into
a pile of pick-up sticks on the lawn below one afternoon. The family
who lived at the end of the street had the misfortune of owning a house
that wouldn't stay painted. No matter what pastel color they chose each
summer, by the following spring it would have shrugged off the pink or
yellow or lavender, the paint peeling and curling like old skin. My own
family's house was tilted at a noticeable angle; if you put a ball on
the kitchen floor and let go, it would roll straight into the dining
room (through the legs of the heavy wooden table), past my mother's
study, and finally into the living room where the pile of my father's
failed inventions inevitably stopped the ball's trajectory. Most of the
homeowners in our neighborhood had at some point given up, resigning
themselves to sinking foundations and roofs. To the inevitable decay.
There simply wasn't the time or the money or the love required to keep
the places up. This was a street of sad houses. Except for the Parkers'
Though it was one of the oldest homes in the
neighborhood, the Parkers' house was meticulously maintained. Its paint
was fresh: white with green shutters and trim. Its chimney was
straight. The cupola sat like an elaborate cake decoration on top of
the house. A clean white fence enclosed the front yard, which looked
exactly as the town barber's yard should. Rosebushes bordered the
uncracked walkway, and other flowers littered the periphery of the yard
in meditated disarray. A swing hung still and straight on the front
porch, and the porch light came on without fail or flicker each night
at dusk. On a street of forlorn houses, the Parkers' made the other
houses look like neglected children.
Of course, I knew Betsy
Parker long before I loved her. We had lived on the same street since
we were born. Our fathers nodded at each other as they went off to work
each morning. Our mothers made polite small talk when they saw each
other at the market. Betsy and I had knocked heads once during a game
of street hockey, the result of which were two identical blue goose
eggs on our respective foreheads. In the sixth grade, we had been the
last two standing in a spelling bee (though I'd ultimately won with the
word lucid). But in the summer of 1958, when we were twelve,
our relationship changed from one necessitated by mere proximity into a
full-blown crush-on my part anyway; she didn't love me then. In fact,
she didn't love me for a long, long time. But that summer the seed was
planted, and my unrequited passion, like all the other untamed weeds in
our yard, grew to epic and tangled proportions by summer's end.
When school let out in June, I'd taken up fishing, drawn by a local
legend that, on a good day, the spot where the two rivers meet was
teaming with rainbow trout. But by July I'd spent entire days with my
line in the water, and I still had yet to catch a single trout (or any
other kind of fish for that matter). The day I found myself smitten by
Betsy, I'd also spent fishing, and, once again, I hadn't caught
anything but a cold. I'd meant to go home. I thought I might take a
snooze in the hammock in our backyard. But instead of walking down the
shady side of Depot Street to the tracks and then heading up the hill
toward home, I crossed the street, into the sun. Once there, I stood in
front of her, rendered mute.
Orange Crush and skinned knees.
This was Betsy at twelve. I'd walked past Betsy Parker a thousand times
before. A thousand bottles of Orange Crush. A thousand Band-aids. But
that day, as I strolled past her daddy's barbershop, there she was,
with fresh scabs on both golden knees, and it felt like I was seeing
her for the very first time. I'm not sure which made me dizzier-the
twirling red, white and blue barber pole or Betsy. Can I remember the
way I saw her then? You'd think it would be hard after all these years,
but it isn't. Perhaps I was memorizing her before I even knew I should.
Here's the way she looked to me in June when we were twelve: her
fingers were long, her legs longer, stretched out on the steps of her
daddy's shop where she sipped her soda through a straw. Her tongue was
stained orange, and her hair was like syrup running down her back. (I
remember touching my tongue to my lips when I saw her.)
Betsy sipped long and thoughtfully. Then she leaned toward me and looked into my empty bucket. "Whadja catch?"
I felt heat rising to my ears. "Not much today."
"Not much yesterday either."
"Why do you bother?" she asked. "If you don't ever catch anything?"
"You're probably the kind who sees the glass half full." She sighed and
sipped the last of her soda pop loudly. "Not me, I'm a half-empty kind
I didn't know what she meant, only that she thought
we were somehow fundamentally different, and this made my heart ache.
"You live on my street," I said stupidly.
"You live on my
street." She smiled, setting the amber-colored bottle on the pavement
between us. She stuck one bare foot out in front of her and spun the
bottle with her toe. It clanked and spun and stopped, its neck pointing
right at me.
I didn't know what to say, so I bent over and
picked the bottle up. The glass was still cold. I dropped it into my
empty bucket, as if that could make up somehow for my failure as a
fisherman. "That's worth two cents."
"Coulda been worth a lot more than that," she said, smiling.
I walked home that day with Betsy Parker's Orange Crush bottle clanging
against the inside of my bucket. From my bedroom window I could see the
pristine facade of the Parkers' house, their immaculate lawn. I felt
like an idiot. First, because I'd missed what I quickly realized was a
chance at kissing Betsy. And second, because twelve whole years had
already passed before I realized that she'd been there all along. Right
across the street. I took the bottle out and held it to my lips. The
glass was sticky, sweet. I tipped the empty bottle, leaning my head
back, waiting for the last sweet drops to fall into my throat.
After that day, I gave up my fishing trips in favor of a new
futile endeavor, one that would last longer than most boys my age would
have had patience for. But Betsy was right, I was a "half-full" kind of
person, and I had high hopes. I knew I'd get a second chance; it was
just a matter of time.
only stood in front of the Parkers' house long enough to know I
shouldn't be there. The house had recently been painted, and the lawn
was trimmed, the hedges clipped. There was a new family living here. A
child was peering out at me through the bay window. Soon, the child's
mother opened the curtains and, seeing me, quickly drew the curtains
shut. I got back on the bike and pedaled quickly home.
time I'd climbed the stairs to my apartment, I wondered if I'd only
dreamed the girl at the river, a hallucination brought on by too many
nights without sleep. I changed out of my wet clothes, made a pot of
coffee, and called the freight office to say I'd been at the wreck all
morning-that I'd come by the office in a few hours. Only Lenny Herman,
the station agent, was there. Everyone else was still down by the
river. When almost an hour had passed and she still hadn't appeared, I
was fairly certain that I'd only imagined her. I started to gather my
things to head back to work, when there was a weak knock on my door.
She stood in the kitchen holding her wet shoes in one hand and the
dripping suitcase in the other. I motioned for her to sit down at the
kitchen table, but she shook her head.
"Oh, I'm sorry, would
you like to dry off?" I asked. "There are some clean towels in the
bathroom. I can get some dry clothes."
She nodded and set her
wet shoes down by the door. I figured I could find something of
Shelly's that would fit her. She followed behind me slowly down the
short hallway, stopping to look at the pictures hanging on the wall.
Shelly's class pictures. Our wedding photo. She touched the top of the
frame, gently straightening it. I grabbed a pair of sweatpants and a
T-shirt from Shelly's drawer and handed them to her. She took them and
disappeared into the bathroom.
I quickly assessed the state of
my house, untidy still from the morning's chaos. There were dirty
dishes on the table (cereal bowls with colored milk, glasses rimmed
with orange pulp). Shelly's shoes were scattered all over the floor,
which needed to be swept. I'd splattered chocolate batter on the
backsplash when I made Shelly's cupcakes, but I hadn't noticed until
now. I grabbed a dishrag and wiped at the mess in a useless attempt to
make the kitchen less of a disaster. I was wringing it out in the sink
when she came out of the bathroom.