With all the twisted turns the river of life takes us down,
sometimes it's tempting to stop swimming and let yourself sink.
sometimes it's tempting to stop swimming and let yourself sink.
The River by William E. Wallace
The Tennemac River runs by the Clarington mill a quarter mile wide and so deep it looks like it’s hardly moving at all. If it’s quiet and the juke box is off, you can hear the rush of the water inside the Lone Pine tavern where Cary Rettinger had spent most of the evening drinking alone.
Rettinger accidentally backhanded his bottle of Miller and watched it roll across the table spewing foam and amber liquid before it shattered on the linoleum-covered concrete floor.
“That’s it, Cary,” Mary Lou Justin said as she raised the pass-through and grabbed the broom and dustpan next to the juke box. “I’m cuttin’ you off, honey. You’re shit-faced. Time to go home.”
Rettinger stared at her with alcoholic stupidity as she swept up the wreckage and dumped it into the garbage pail behind the bar. She mopped the spill and tossed a bar towel onto the damp, pushing it around with her foot until it was just a shiny spot on the tile.
“That was damned near a full bottle, Mary,” Cary slurred. “How’s about a refill?”
“You’re 86ed, Cary,” she said, giving him an exasperated look. “I should have tossed you out an hour ago. Come back again when you’re sober.”
He would have argued with her, but he was too drunk. He slowly rose and staggered out the door.
Rettinger dropped his keys as he unlocked his Trans-Am; when he bent to pick them up, two and a half hours’ worth of beer gushed up his throat and found its way out his mouth and nose.
From the door, Lenny Fuller watched Rettinger throw up and drive away. He was new in town and it was the first visit to the Lone Pine.
He jerked a thumb toward Rettinger as he returned to his stool. “That ol’ boy’s going to feel like shit tomorrow,” he said. “What’s his legend?”
Mary Lou shrugged. “He was the quarterback for the Centerville High School Wildcats,” she said, picking up another glass and polishing it. “Had a scholarship to play at State and was being scouted by the pros.”
“So what happened to him?”
“He got his girlfriend Jenny Suslow pregnant,” Mary Lou said. “He wanted her to have an abortion, but she wanted a kid. They ended up getting married and he had to drop out of high school eight months before graduation to take a job at the big mill in Clarington.”
She shrugged again. “He lost the scholarship and the scouts lost interest in him. Kind of funny, really.”
Fuller took a sip of beer and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Doesn’t sound funny to me. It sounds downright sad.”
Mary Lou leaned against the bar. “No, what was funny was that she only carried the baby for three months, then miscarried,” she said. “He didn’t have to drop out. Another few months and he could have finished school and gone to college. The real ass-kicker is, when she lost the baby, it tore her all up inside. She’s
sterile. She’ll never have another kid.”
Cary wasn’t in any hurry to get home. He had bad news and he couldn’t bear to share it with Jenny: there’d been a big meeting at the mill this afternoon and Ned Foster had told the entire crew that the place had been bought by some Jap outfit. From now on, Clarington would be shipping whole logs overseas to be processed. The mill was closing.
Cary’d worked on the saw crew since he quit school. Clarington was the last mill left in the state and he’d never worked anywhere else. Now that it was shutting down, he’d get rocking chair money for six months. After that he was on his own. When he told Jenny the news, they’d fight again. It seemed to be just about all they did any more.
Jenny was supposed to be on the pill when she got pregnant. She’d lied about that, but Cary didn’t find out until it was too late; he wasn’t even using a rubber the night it happened. Jenny was happy, though.
Somehow she had the idea that everything would remain the same when she got pregnant -- that he’d still be able to go to State, sign with a professional football team and marry her. She was wrong. The pregnancy had turned Cary from a future football hero into a blue-collar worker; the mill closure was about to turn him into an unemployed drunk.
Even though his dreams had collapsed, the Tennemac still called out to him. Every day when he knocked off work he would drive down to the river and watch the water slide by. He’d spend hours sitting there alone in his car, thinking about what his life might have been like without Jenny.
That’s how he found himself parked there after Mary Lou kicked him out of the Lone Pine that night.
He pulled up to the top of the boat ramp and looked out at the lights of the mill reflected in the Tennemac , staring bleakly across the water at the rust-spotted steel building that housed the saw and lumber finishing gear. It would soon be empty, the equipment scrapped or sold off.
Cary had seen the writing on the wall two weeks ago when a group of five little Oriental guys showed up for a tour of the plant and Foster didn’t introduce them to any of the workers. He figured there was maybe another month’s worth of work before the lights at the mill went off for keeps.
Some of his co-workers had been at Clarington forty years, but that didn’t cut any ice: they’d only need a couple of hands to strip the logs for shipment and load them onto trucks. Everybody else would be canned.
Cary yawned and watched the mill’s lights shimmer on the river. He was 28 but already felt twice that.
Between putting in his hours, getting drunk after work and going home to crash on the couch, he felt his life sliding by like the Tennemac – the river’s greasy waters hardly seemed to be moving, but its undercurrent was strong, and pulled him along with it.
He leaned against the door and yawned again. Everything made him tired these days: his dead-end job, his fights with his wife, his hours of sitting and watching the Tennemac ooze by.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, listening to the river slap quietly against its banks.
Jenny Rettinger was still pulling her robe tightly around her when she opened the door for Sheriff’s Deputy Art Castner. The clock on the kitchen wall said it was after three in the morning.
“Kind of late for a visit, isn’t it, Art?” she asked, her brain groggy from the two sleeping tablets she had taken just before climbing into bed alone. “What’s going on?”
The deputy took his hat off. “Jen, I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he said hesitantly. “It’s Cary. He’s dead. As nearly as we can figure, he stopped at the boat ramp by the river, fell asleep behind the wheel and let his foot slip off the brake.
“The night shift at the mill heard the car go into the water and called the sheriff’s department. The river swept his Pontiac downstream about a half mile before it hung up on a tree snag. It looks like the car filled up with water almost as soon as it went in the Tennemac. He must’ve drowned right away.”
Jenny frowned stupidly, her face telling him she was only taking in part of what he said. “The river?” she said. “What in hell was he doing there?”
“We’re still looking into that,” Art said. “Mary Lou told us he’d been drinking at the Lone Pine earlier, so alcohol may have been involved.”
Jenny felt cold as the deputy explained that the medical examiner would do an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death and she could have the funeral parlor pick up her husband’s body at the sheriff-coroner’s office. She shivered and folded her arms tightly across her breasts as he turned his patrol car around and pulled onto the county road.
Back inside she found the half gallon bottle of Old Crow in the drawer under her husband’s football trophies. She sat on the sofa, filled a glass and took a sip, holding the picture of him in his uniform when he made all-state. In the photo, he wore an embarrassed smile, as if he was ashamed about all the fuss.
A half mile away the Tennemac surged past. She listened to its distant rush as she slowly drained the glass and the first of her tears made spots on the photograph.