Roland on the River
by Jon Stark
August, 2014; 1200 words
by Jon Stark
August, 2014; 1200 words
Roland had grown old, but he still loved the river and he hadn’t forgotten. Three days a week he walked down the hill to the edge of the water, the sand and driftwood long given way to boardwalks, piers, decay, revitalization, and now the very grand Promenade.
He set up his easel, placed the canvas, laid out the charcoal, and let the sun seep into his weary bones. The river flowed and he remembered.
His hands drifted over the blank canvas for a few minutes and then he took up his colors and sketched, eyes closed, memory pouring out.
A passing couple paused to watch him. “She’s beautiful,” said Tina. “You make it look so easy.”
In the beginning it was always easy. It wasn’t until later that it got rough. In the beginning he was a boy, playing here with his friends.
The three boys carried sticks and smashed them against everything they found. Roland had an old rag of a shirt, salvaged from the flotsam on the shore, tied to the end of his. They were loud and in the depth of summer.
The girl was sitting on a giant piece of driftwood staring across at Indiana. “Hey! Girl! You can’t sit there,” said Roland. It was, after all, not her adventure.
“My name is Mary, not Girl and I can sit here if I like,” she shot back. The other two boys looked at Roland. Roland looked at Mary. Mary packed a lot of defiance into her 8 year old body.
“Okay,” said Roland. “But watch out for the pirates.”
“There ain’t no pirates,” said Mary.
“If you’re going to sit there, you need to watch out for the pirates, they’re chasing us,” said Roland. He looked back for dramatic effect. She wasn’t buying it.
“You should come with us,” said Rick. Roland shot him a look but he pressed on. “We can keep you safe from the pirates.”
“There ain’t no pirates,” repeated Mary, “And even if there was, I wouldn’t need you to keep me safe.” But she went with them, down the river and through the thickets and mud, racing the paddle wheel that ran between places that were just names. And she went each day after that too.
Roland answered his door and found Mary standing on the stoop. “Let’s go,” she said. Her hair was still short, rough and uneven from cutting it herself, but she had grown while he hadn’t and now towered over him. It didn’t matter. He was smitten.
“We’re going,” Roland hollered over his shoulder.
His mother came into the hallway, a dishtowel over her shoulder. “Who is we?” Then she saw Mary and waved. “Hello, Mary.” Mary waved, then grabbed Roland’s hand and pulled him into the afternoon.
They were sitting on the stoop drinking lemonade when Roland’s father pulled into the driveway. Roland was speechless. He father climbed out of a silver Thunderbird, grinning from ear to ear. “Give me a hand with the top, Sport?”
Roland leaped up. “Is this ours?”
His father beamed at him. “Sure is. I got a promotion today. Off the line and into the office.”
Mary frowned. “Office? I’m never working for the man.” It would have sounded funny coming from someone else, but to Roland, it made the rest of the world make sense. He wondered, in that moment, if a brand new car, blinding with chrome, was worth working for the man.
But he didn’t have long to think about it. “Come on,” said Mary, suddenly up and jogging across the lawn. Roland’s father watched them go.
The fair charged admission but they didn’t need to use the gate. Roland and his friends followed Mary through a hole in the fence and were engulfed by the carnival.
Mary watched the Ferris Wheel turning. “I bet you can see the river from up there,” she said. Roland agreed. They ran over to get in line but then Mary stopped. “I don’t have that much money.”
Roland dipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out his change. “I’ve got enough for both of us.”
She scowled at him. “I don’t want your money.”
“But you want to ride.” He still didn’t always understand her. “I want you to be able to go.”
Mary shot into the crowd. “I’ll ride it, but not on your dime.”
Roland lost sight of her. “Forget her,” said Rick. They wandered the stalls and cheered when Harry knocked over all of the milk bottles and won a stuffed bear.
They finally spotted Mary again, bussing tables at Cleo’s Fair Faire. “What are you doing?” asked Roland.
“I’m going to ride the Ferris Wheel,” said Mary. An hour later she caught up to the boys. “Let’s go.” Mary pulled Roland away and, as the sun set to their west, they rode the Ferris Wheel. She was right. She could see the river. She could even see Indiana. Roland saw Mary. And she let him hold her hand.
Roland and Mary had 5th period civics together when they were juniors. Mr. Ross told Mary that she couldn’t be president. Told her it was a silly idea for a girl. Governing wasn’t like mending dresses or baking cookies. Mary told him that the world would be a better place if the president did bake everyone cookies. Roland agreed.
Mr. Ross didn’t and Mary found herself on the wrong side of his red pen for the rest of the year.
Mary didn’t leave for college when Roland did. She never answered his letters. When he came home at Christmas she was gone.
The three boys, home on summer break and with an afternoon off from work, crashed along the bank of the river. They came across a collection of flotsam carefully laid out and, hidden in the shade nearby, was Mary.
She looked terrible, even for her. Roland tried to give her a hug but she shooed him away. “This is my place now. You boys need to run along.”
“What are you doing?” asked Roland. “I thought you were going to be president.”
“I am president.”
Roland tried to talk to her, to catch up, but she wasn’t interested and finally walked away from him. When he followed, she dove into the river and swam away. “Where are you going?”
Roland didn’t see her again for nearly 10 years and then it was even worse. Some boys had been playing by the water and found her washed up among the logs and trash.
He couldn’t explain the emptiness. Somewhere inside he’d thought she would always be there. Strong, rough, the embodiment of growing up along the river.
He paid for the funeral. Nobody else had stepped forward to claim her. The mortician had taken his time. She was beautiful. He paid for her to be buried in the cemetery north of town, where she could see the river and, in the winter when the leaves had fallen, all the way to Indiana.
Roland sketched lightly. He was nearly done. The lines were distinct, sharp but with an unmistakable grace. You could almost see the water lapping against her, the wheel turning in the background, and smoke rising from the stacks.
“They don’t make them like that anymore, do they?” asked Tina.
Roland shook his head.
“What’s her name?”