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The River Overhead

By Amanda Funk-Hilton From Issue No. 1

Corduroy is throwing rocks at an abandoned gas station. The once upon a time five and dime. He takes each one from the landscaping—stunted bushes, clumps of prairie grasses, and rock beds lined with black plastic. Corduroy breaks three windows, dents a gutter, and knocks over an empty newspaper stand. Corduroy is angry. Corduroy is too old to pick up high school girls and too young to wear a suit. Corduroy is in a bitch mood, and throwing rocks is the way out of it. He throws one, the shape and color of his palm, and hits a parking lot light. It pops and rains shards of glass.

“Looks like sugar crystals, doesn’t it. Doesn’t it,” he says.

Ansel is standing with his hands in his pockets. “It sure does.”

I kick at the pieces of glass that cover the cracked sidewalk. They don’t look anything like sugar.

“Let’s save someone’s life,” says Corduroy.

He sings that song every day. To the tune of “Only the Lonely.” Corduroy is a born warbler.

I say, “You sing that song every day.”

Corduroy points. “Don’t you tell me,” he says.

I shrug. I’m shrugging because it’s true. I’m shrugging because every day Corduroy wants to save someone’s life. We walk in the bank and Corduroy prays for a robbery. He watches the door and hopes for a fragile, gray heroin addict with a gun. Someone he could talk down.

“Hey,” he’d say, “Don’t throw it over yet. It’s not half as bad as what I’ve done. Or maybe it is. Whatever. Just get back to the table. Roll that dice again.”

He’d hold out his hands and grin and shrug, and tell his life story. In an hour or less Corduroy and the gray heroin addict would be sitting across from each other cross-legged, their knees touching, and when the police arrive Corduroy and the heroin addict would walk out with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

“We have a secret language,” Corduroy would say. “Besides, no one was hurt.”

Corduroy can talk to all sorts. Every sort out there. Last spring we huddled behind the counter of a diner waiting for a tornado to blow by. The sky boiled green and Corduroy held hands with a middle-aged woman named Mildred Hesh. He noticed this woman trembling and took her hand. She said, “My name’s Mildred Hesh.”

When the lights flickered out she closed her eyes, and Corduroy described the changing sky to her.

He said, “It’s like when you open your eyes under lake water.”

Mildred Hesh gripped Corduroy’s hand and said, “I don’t swim in lakes.”

Corduroy told her, “Then think about the Caribbean. Think about that blue water, baby.”

Standing by a fuel pump at the once upon a time five and dime, Ansel buttons and unbuttons the cuff of his jean jacket.

“Who would we save?” he says.

“A pretty girl,” says Corduroy. “Green eyes and lots of long, dark hair.”

“My sisters kept the braids from their first haircuts,” says Ansel. “Boxes of braids in our linen closet.”

“Are they still there? In the closet,” I say.

“I don’t know,” says Ansel.

Corduroy says, “Goddamnit, that makes me want to cry. Makes me want to sit in the middle of the street and yell and cuss and I don’t know what all.”

He’s looking across the street at the family of crack addicts who wander from one end of town to the other. There are three of them. Two men and a woman. The woman is picking at her elbow. One of the men is actually a boy, and he is trying to do some kind of shuffling dance. His eyes are shut and he is rolling his shoulders, twisting his torso back and forth.

“Let’s buy them sandwiches,” says Corduroy. “Let’s take them somewhere and get them chicken sandwiches.” Corduroy is already moving toward the family. He walks straight toward them, into the road, without looking to the right or left. Corduroy has a habit of walking out in front of traffic. Ansel hesitates on the curb.

“We should help pay for the sandwiches,” he says.

“Ansel,” I say. “You know we’re not buying any sandwiches.”

Corduroy is talking to the family. I can only see his back but I know his gestures. He spreads his arms wide. He shifts his weight. He is showing the crack addicts how to fox trot. Ansel and I cross. We’re suckers for looking both ways. We’re suckers because we don’t walk off curbs without looking where we put our feet.

I say, “Where’s the music?”

Corduroy turns. “Shut up, Frankie,” he says, grinning. He sidles up next to the crack boy and moves his hips. “She don’t hear the music. Frankie don’t hear our tune.” The crack boy smiles at me. He has all his teeth but there are wide spaces between them. He lifts his hand, clenched in a fist, and slowly raises his middle finger at me.

Corduroy slaps the kid on the back with an open palm. He has told me, many times before this moment, that an open palm is a sign of friendship.

“Watch this,” he says.

Corduroy is box stepping. With each step he bounces. With each step he shifts his shoulders.

“Mm mmm,” he says, “Bring your mom and watch this.”

When they first appeared in the area we all thought the crack family were merely a loyal group. We found out that they were a mother, father, and son when a couple of country boy trucker-types pushed the younger looking one down and took to kicking at his ribs. The mother stood near and watched and clutched at her own throat.

“My son,” she said. “Keep off my son.” She tried to push them away from the kid. One of the country boys told her to take off her clothes and dance. He offered her money and so she did. He wrote her a check for two hundred dollars and the end of the story is that the check bounced.

“Are you all hungry?” says Ansel.

“Yes,” says the father. “You got money for the bus? We’re looking to take a bus someplace.”

“I don’t have any cash,” says Ansel.

“We’re going to the hospital,” says Corduroy.

The father shakes his head. “We don’t go there,” he says. “They know us there.”

“They know me there too,” says Corduroy. “They know me and they love me.”

Corduroy Jones’ real name is Corduroy Jones. His mother, Victoria Jones, named him after the children’s book bear. No one took to calling him Jones or Jonesy or even Samuel, which is his middle name, because immediately from the start Corduroy looked like a Corduroy. He’s short and often wears gray or green sweatshirts with pants of some kind tucked into work boots. The sweatshirts are always over-sized. This causes Corduroy to seem more round and likeable than he really is. He’s really a skinny, joke-telling bastard under those sweatshirts.

Corduroy and I are friends because of an accident of geography. We grew up next-door neighbors; he lived in the shotgun house next to mine and, because of our similar lives—we never heard our names called from a twilight porch step—we became friends. Friends isn’t quite right. More like compatriots. We stood up for each other in the cafeteria lunch line. We split dollars and daisies and all things. Our clothes and our food and our books and our dreams all felt and smelled the same. Like blind puppies we recognized one another as familial beings. In this way we found Ansel at the train station in Freemont. On his way to Chicago. Or somewhere. He wasn’t sure and he wasn’t afraid either. Corduroy, Ansel, and I understood one another even though we had just met. Abandonment smells the same in any township or county, in any place, but Corduroy and I are especially good at finding it. We can see the lonely behind the brightest eye. We can scent it on smiles.

Corduroy wants the crack addicts to come to the hospital with us. “Come with us,” he says. 

“No.” The father shakes his ragged head. “They don’t like us there. They throw us out.” He scuffs at the sidewalk and rubs his arms. He’s wearing a long-sleeved denim shirt but I can see his elbow joints against the cloth like rocks laid under a tarp. “I’m tired of getting throwed out,” he says.

“They really do that?” says Ansel. “They shouldn’t do that.”

“Let’s show them,” says Corduroy. “Let’s burn it down. We’ll start with where they keep the new babies.”

The crack addict seems alarmed by this.

“He’s full of shit,” I say, gesturing at Corduroy. “Don’t worry about him. That’s just his way.”

The crack addict is still alarmed. He is backing away from us. He edges away from the three of us but he watches Corduroy. He is positioning himself between his family and Corduroy in a protective gesture. He is a small, wiry man with an impressive ducktailed pompadour; there are three of us and one of him. The boy would pitch in, I’m sure, but he wouldn’t be much help.

“This guy was born on a farm,” I say. “His father was a two ton steer. You know what that means?”

“Don’t you let it out, Frankie,” says Corduroy. “Don’t tell my secrets.”

“They wrote it up in The Globe when he got his horns removed,” says Ansel, his smile crooked. Ansel’s crooked smile is my favorite smile, and I laugh back at it like a dove answering another dove.

“It was the National Enquirer,” I say. “Front page. Next to the end of the world and the face of Jesus in cream cakes.” I look at Corduroy and he is grinning at the crack addicts and holding out his hands, palms up.

“Come on,” he says. It is more of a command than an invitation. “Come with us. We’ll walk in there like I don’t know what.” The crack family is watching us. They don’t say anything. I can see their chests rise and fall. Their breathing is rapid and shallow. They look like deer that have been caught grazing in a field at dusk.

“We can drive you to the bus station,” says Ansel. His voice is soft.

“It won’t help,” I say. “It won’t help, and we won’t help. Let’s go.” I look at the addicts. “It’s okay now. We’re leaving.”

Corduroy knows the hospital like it’s home. The nurses recognize him. An older nurse, Betty Ann, always has cookies or rice crispies or snack mix in a plastic container for him. This is a leftover impulse from when Corduroy’s mother lay in the hospital with diabetes and heart disease and the other ailments that come with morbid obesity. Corduroy lived with Victoria in her single occupancy hospital room while she was alive. They watched TV and ate hospital dinners on plastic trays and at night he pushed two chairs together to make a sleeping place. After she died, without sound or sorrow, Corduroy made his little bed exactly parallel to Victoria’s so that he could hold her smooth, puffed hand while he slept. Betty Ann remembers this and when she tells the story, tears come to her eyes.

“That tiny boy,” she says. “He didn’t even know she’d passed.”

Most of the other nurses know about Corduroy and when they see him they treat him like an exotic dignitary. They laugh at his jokes. They banter back and forth. They do this because of Betty Ann’s tears, and because they don’t actually know Corduroy all that well.

In my old beat up Buick Skylark Corduroy says, “The suicide ward. That’s what I need. That’s where we’re going. We’re going to help somebody today.”

I watch Ansel play with his buttons again. It’s his habit. Ansel’s fingers work without his realizing it. He says it’s because of his Amish upbringing. He says it’s because on the farm he always worked at something unless he was asleep. Ansel’s fingers are long and thin and nervous. Everything about him is thin and nervous. This thin nervousness is one of the things that make Ansel so beautiful.

The hospital where Corduroy grew up, where Victoria Jones died is called St. Joseph’s. It has an even longer, more refined name but most folks call the place St. Joe’s. It’s big with a modern wing, helicopter pad and everything, but the psychiatric ward at St. Joe’s is in the original building, where the nuns of the order first began. The halls are narrow and tiled in black and white. The walls are mint green, and in the atrium there’s a spirit of victory chandelier. Angels draped in stolas surrounding and lifting aloft the central globe of light.

There’s a girl standing at the check-in and checkout desk when we arrive in the atrium, and she is drumming her fingers on its surface. She is very thin. She is skinny, and her skin is as pale as light through curtains on a Sunday morning.

Corduroy sits down in a waiting-room-orange plastic chair with his back to the girl. He does this so that the girl will not see that he is talking about her.

“This is it,” says Corduroy. “She’s it. Posture and everything.”

I can see that the girl’s lips are moving. She is speaking but no sound is coming out. She is speaking rhythmically. A chant of some kind. We all see it.

“Like Hannah from the Bible,” says Ansel.

Corduroy is getting ready. He’s slicking back his hair. He’s tucking in his shirt. The skinny check-in or checkout girl is tapping her feet. She’s eyeing Corduroy. She’s looking out the corners of her eyes without moving her head. She’s trying to smell him out. Ansel is playing with his jacket cuffs. He rolls them up his arms to his elbow-crooks. The girl suddenly runs her hand across the bare back of her neck. It is pale and smooth, as if it never saw sun. Her hair has been cut recently, clean and straight.

The air is full of itches. Ansel’s knees are jittering. I’m about to jump out of my seat.

“We’re going to get coffee or something,” I say.

“Find me when you’re done,” says Corduroy.

What I meant when I said, “It won’t help. It won’t help and we won’t help” is that Corduroy and Ansel and me, we won’t be helping anybody. Crack addicts, homeless men in stained orange fleece vests, pretty girls and pretty boys alike, the amount of times we’ve tried, I can’t even say. We go about things the wrong way. It’s because Corduroy runs straight at trouble. Ansel and I follow him, and for this we are just as much to blame. But it’s his stepping off curbs without looking. Corduroy goes right at it, the trouble, and doesn’t bother to understand it first.

Last spring I nearly drowned in the Mackinaw River. I saw the sky from beneath rushing water, and realized that I didn’t want to die at all. At all. Understanding comes from under the water. Ansel knows this. Ansel has never nearly drowned, but he understands this flaw of ours, sees it in our inclinations to go toward the weak and friendless, because his family has turned him away. He was forced to see and know God without their help. Ansel was exiled and I understand because of the river, but Corduroy has something inside him that diminishes the realization that we help no one. He pushes forward with purpose, with pure intent. He does not know what it feels like when a river rushes overhead, to be truly helpless. He’s never held out his hand to a timid cat and waited.

Outside the sun is just starting to set. We go out the ambulance bay exit, the doors sliding open to let us pass. The sky is beautiful, streaked with orange and the deepest blue I can remember. Ansel gets out his cigarettes and gives me one.

“I don’t think I want to stay,” he says.

“We’ll get him and go,” I say. “After this.” What I was going to say is, “After this couple minutes together,” but I stop myself. I don’t say it aloud. Instead I say it again and again in my head and in my heart. I wonder why I don’t just take Ansel and go, leave Corduroy here and go, but that would be a deeper betrayal than I can bring myself to commit. Somehow it would tear at my insides more than it would hurt or even bother Corduroy and so I say to myself, “After this couple minutes together,” and look at Ansel.

Ansel leans back against the bricks. His arms are crossed over his chest and the smoke drifts up from his cigarette. He inhales and takes the cigarette away from his mouth with his thumb and forefinger. Ansel smokes elegantly. He does most things elegantly. It is because he’s so tall—the exaggeration makes every gesture slow and graceful. It is like watching something fall from a great height; knowing that there is only destruction at the end, but the fall itself is beautiful, peaceful. Anytime Ansel moves, it about breaks my heart. Ansel grew up Amish but didn’t go back after his rumspringa. His family doesn’t speak to him—mother, father, all seven sisters, and the one brother. I asked him why he left them and he told me it was because of music.

“Everything else,” he said. “I could leave it all and go back, if not for Elvis and The Drifters.”

I asked him why his family doesn’t speak to him and he told me it is because they worry for his soul.

When he told me this it was just turning to summer, just after I nearly died in the river, and when he said, “They are worried about my soul and so they do not speak to me,” I fell in love with Ansel. When I heard him say those words and saw him smile it felt just like being pulled from the river, that first breath after breaking through the surface of the water, a lightness and a fire in my chest. When I was pulled from the Mackinaw, those who found me laid me on the shore and I wept. I was weeping before I could breathe without coughing up river water. I feel that same weeping gladness with Ansel; when he leans toward me or when we pass under street lights and his face is illuminated and shadowed, illuminated and shadowed. I don’t ever want to lose it, this feeling, and so I keep it to myself; the love I feel when I watch Ansel move or speak or swallow bread.

The ambulance bay doors slide open and that girl hurries out and Corduroy is skittering along behind her, plucking at her elbow. He’s saying, “Come on, honey. Tell me what you did. I’m no judge. Tell me what you did.” He is following her across the parking lot to her car. He sidles along next to her and she walks with her shoulders hunched and her arms crossed over her stomach. Her strides are large and she looks at the ground. At her car she starts fumbling in her purse. Corduroy is still speaking. He is shrugging and raising his arms. He touches her, and she drops her purse and pushes him away with such violence that he falls back against the hood of the car.

“Come on, baby,” says Corduroy. “Come on, sweetheart.” He hoots when he sees us and the girl unlocks her door and slides into the driver’s seat. She tries to pull her door shut, but Corduroy is leaning in at her, pushing his face at hers. The girl has both hands on the door. Corduroy looks over his shoulder at us and laughs.

“Take a look at this would you,” he says.

Ansel pulls Corduroy away by his shirt-back. The girl starts her car and takes off without shutting the door. Corduroy takes hold of the open door and runs alongside the car for about five yards before Ansel wrestles him off. They roll on the ground together but Corduroy is up fast. He is up fast and jumping and hollering.

“Get the car,” he says. “Get that goddamn Buick.”

Ansel is still on the ground. He is sitting up slowly. His face is tight and pale.

“I think I’m okay,” he says.

“You sure?” I say. “You took a spill back there.”

“The car,” says Corduroy.

I say, “Get out of here, Corduroy. Come on,” I say to Ansel, “I’ll help you.” Even with my arm around him, Ansel stands up like a straw man. He feels light and frail. One wind will blow him over.

Corduroy screeches up in the car. He jams it into park and leans back and opens the passenger door from the driver’s seat. He slaps his headrest.

“Come on,” he says. “We’re going to run her down and say hello.”

I say, “Goddamnit, Corduroy.”

He says, “Get in, Frankie. Get in this car or I’ll run you over.”

“Let me help Ansel,” I say.

“You’ll help Ansel to death,” says Corduroy. “Get him in this car. That’s what he needs. Fresh air and a fast car ride.”

“He needs to sit down,” I say.

“Then sit him in the back of this car,” says Corduroy.

Ansel moves into the back seat like he’s forgotten how. He crawls in on his elbows and knees and then rolls onto his back.

“I’m all right,” says Ansel. “I feel fine.

I move around to the passenger side door. I’ve got one foot in and one foot out and Corduroy takes off like my name is Jett Jones, like I’ve just come back from the top of the world and I don’t want to hit bottom.

Corduroy is barreling after the girl. All the windows are down and the wind-sound is horrendous.

“I love woman hair and woman smell,” he says. “I love their voices and their soft hands. I love women.” He is shouting over the noise of the car and the wind and his words make me squirm. “We’re going to help this girl. Let’s give her a hand.”

The girl’s green sedan is ahead of us on the two-lane highway. Corduroy honks and flashes his lights. He shouts and puts his hand out the window and bangs on the roof of the car. We swerve slightly. Cars brake as we pass. Ansel lies in back, bracing himself against my seat with one arm.

“Pull over,” I say. “Pull over. Something’s wrong with Ansel.”

We’re taking a county road out of town. There are deep ditches full of wildflowers on each side of us. Queen Anne’s Lace and tiny yellow daisies that I don’t know the name of.

“Corduroy,” I say, “please.”

The girl swings into a lane, barely missing a mailbox painted blue. Corduroy turns after her but she brakes and blocks us, and Corduroy fishtails slightly as he stops. She’s out of her car pointing a small canister of pepper spray at us. She’s on her toes. She’s shaking. Corduroy gets out of the car. His arms are raised and he’s smiling.

“Bang, bang. You got me,” he says.

I go around the front of the car and move between the girl and him.

“It’s all right,” I say. “We’re leaving. We’re gone.”

The back passenger door opens and Ansel leans out and retches. His hair is sticking to his forehead and his skin is shining with sweat.

“It’s my wrist,” he says, coughing and wiping at his mouth. “I think it might be broken.”

I look back at the girl. She is still holding the pepper spray but she is not as tense. She is looking at Ansel and the way he cradles his arm.

“I’m calling the cops,” she says. “I’m calling the cops as soon as I get inside. You’ve got two minutes to drive away.”

I’m sitting in the back of the car with Ansel. I’m sitting in the back to support Ansel’s arm. His head is in my lap. He is lying on his back. He is looking past me, straight up at the ceiling of the car. He has his arm raised, vertically, and he is holding his wrist. I help him hold his wrist. I hold it like a grail.

“It feels better this way,” he says.

I am sitting in the back of the car to support Ansel’s wrist, but I am also sitting back here because if I were next to Corduroy I would slap his face.

“What were you thinking?” I would ask.

I would slap him again.

“Why do you do this?”

“Goddamn those Venderhoffs,” says Corduroy.

I say, “What?”

Corduroy is pointing out his window at a couple on a motorcycle with an elaborate sidecar. The sidecar is elaborate because unlike most sidecars I have seen, this one is covered, outfitted with an obviously homemade, plastic and nylon tent. The driver is wearing goggles and a fringed leather jacket, but no helmet. There is a woman sitting in the sidecar, and she is wearing the helmet. Strapped to the back of the motorcycle is a folded-up wheelchair. The couple sits at a stoplight and as we pass through the intersection I can see that the man on the motorcycle is having a conversation with the woman in the sidecar. I think I know what he is saying. He is asking her if she is okay in there. I also know, suddenly, that Corduroy cannot see this, cannot see what the man on the motorcycle is saying to his, most likely, wife. He can’t see this expression of gentle concern. Not because it is out of his sight, but because he can’t see what he can’t understand. He couldn’t see it if it were right in front of him. This realization is as sharp and bright as pain and I feel like this has something to do with why I have never left Corduroy and why I probably never will.

“What is the matter with you?” I say. “What is the matter with you that you would say something like that?”

“I know those people,” says Corduroy. “I do and you don’t.” He turns into the hospital parking lot without signaling. “You don’t know everything anyway,” he says. “There’s lots the matter with me.”

Ansel is still waiting for x-rays but the doctors all agree that his wrist seems to be fractured. Corduroy and I sit next to each other in chairs upholstered in faded navy blue brocade. Down the hall there is a child lying on a gurney-bed. I can see from where we’re sitting that there is something wrong with her head. Her skull is swollen, misshapen. I am wondering why she has been left in the hall to be stared at by strangers.

“What’s wrong with that girl down there,” I say. Corduroy leans forward and looks.

“That’s Janine,” he says. “Encephalitis. Don’t stare at her.”   

“I’m not staring,” I say.

“Well don’t even look,” says Corduroy. He wipes his hands on his jeans and stands up. He goes to the hall and sits in a chair near Janine’s gurney-bed. She reaches out with all her little fingers splayed and Corduroy takes her hand. Corduroy leans forward. He is murmuring in her ear. Janine answers back. I can hear their voices but not their words. I move to the mouth of the hall. He is standing now, bending down so that he can see Janine’s face when she laughs. He strokes her hair.

I’m wondering where Ansel is. I want to know if, despite his wrist, he is all right. I want to know how he feels, what he is thinking.

“It’s so damn hot in Texas,” says Corduroy. “Feral hogs. Hiding from the heat, and it’s so hot they postpone a reality TV show about Texans gunning them hogs down from helicopters.”

Janine giggles. It is a pleasant sound.

“That’s no joke, sister,” says Corduroy. “That’s real life. That’s a thing I saw on the internet,” he says.

I’m having trouble getting my breath. I stand up. I want to look for Ansel. I want to see him walk through the waiting room doors; I want to see his ragged walk. I want to see Ansel shoulder his way through those waiting room doors. I am afraid that they have taken him away and it will be just me and Corduroy from now on. Just Corduroy and me. An accident of geography, alone together forever, and I never told Ansel that I love him. I would write him a love poem to an Elvis tune. I will write him that love poem. “As soon as I get home,” I say.

I peer through the bulletproof panel in the left hand door. These are the kind of doors that swing open and shut, but these particular doors are on a coded lock system. I know that if I press against these doors, if I slap at them, even with an open palm, security personnel will investigate the silent alarm that too much pressure will trigger, and possibly detain me for arrest. I’m looking through the bulletproof panel and I knock against the thick glass and say, “Are you okay in there?”

If they’re asking Ansel to take a drug test, if they’re trying to give him a psychological evaluation, if they’re sliding needles into his veins, he won’t refuse. Ansel doesn’t know how to refuse, how to do anything confrontational. Ansel doesn’t know how to grin and shrug and slowly move out of a corner.

“Are you okay in there?” I say. “If you’re okay in there then maybe after you get out we can be happy together.” If I keep breathing like this I’ll fall over faint, “We’ll leave Corduroy to the wolves,” I whisper. I glance back at Corduroy. He’s laughing now. Corduroy is there, talking to Janine with encephalitis, to all sorts. It’s his gift. He’s laughing. Talking down with all kinds. I thought I didn’t know why he has it, but now I think I do. He is this way to keep us with him. To keep us near. To keep us from gathering each other and going. I wonder, if Corduroy asked me to leave here now—to get coffee or smoke a cigarette in the tranquility garden on the west side of the hospital—to leave Ansel behind and possibly not come back, would I go? There would be rocks in my stomach and my mouth would quiver and shake but I would have to, I think I would go. I think the answer is yes.

About Amanda Funk-Hilton More From Issue No. 1