by Angela Palm
At The River I have a new job and a car payment I didn’t ask for. I am sixteen. I am forcibly learning “the value of a dollar” and missing out on Friday night boy-girl trips to Pizza Hut with kids who wear letterman jackets. It is 1997. I have my own checkbook with pink and blue checks and pastel flowers, checks for a baby, linked to a joint account with my mother’s name on it. On Saturday mornings I drive my car—a four-door Ford sedan fit for a family, with a sparkling champagne paint job—to the bank and deposit my paycheck, along with babysitting money, when I have some. At my new job, which is just down the road from where I live in a tiny town tucked along the bank of a dirty river, a woman named Toni is canned for giving blow jobs in the men’s bathroom. Another woman named Lonnie tells me while we’re rolling silverware that her new thing is screwing her boyfriend while he’s driving, straddling his lap and watching the road get smaller and faster behind the truck. “You have to try it. It’s a rush,” she tells me as she slips a buck from someone else’s tip into her apron. I assume she means with my own boyfriend—not hers.
At The River I bus tables, carry empty glasses, lug trash, churn the film on the salad dressings, answer the phone in a voice that sounds like my mother’s, manage the waiting list, watch the Kankakee River freeze over into big white plates of ice and snow while I wash the restaurant’s windows, keep waitresses from crying or fighting, inhale second-hand smoke, and smell like au jus. I eat whatever nobody ordered—steamed vegetables, fried cheese balls, popcorn shrimp, onion rings, and sometimes steak, if I’m lucky. I bring baskets of bread to the boyfriend who broke up with me without telling me why four months earlier when he comes in to eat with his family. They barely speak to me—only to say, Water please. More napkins. He won’t even glance at me, and I stare at him so that his cowardice doesn’t go unnoticed and so I don’t shatter from the feeling of being invisible. His family has two newly adopted Korean daughters in tow, which is alarming because there are already five children in the family, and no one introduces me. I’m also surprised because they don’t seem the adopting type; they have never exuded warmth. No one seems to remember, here in the restaurant, that I spent last Christmas with them or that they gave me an expensive porcelain doll with angel wings, which is still propped up on a metal stand on the table next to my bed. She has blonde hair as fake as mine and my same blue eyes. A doll. I am still astounded when I look at her, with her tailored, tiny golden dress, quietly mocking me. I believe this gift was chosen for me as something to aspire to. Should I want to continue dating their son, I ought to discard the resale bell bottoms and men’s polyester pants, the 1950s housedresses and the flowing gypsy skirts I’ve sewn myself, and become more like her: demure, mute, polished. She is a symbol of something I can’t yet name, but unnerving all the same. I re-tie my apron, wrapping its long black strings round and round my waist in the bathroom, and wash my hands, wash my hands, wash my hands, my mood ring a deep midnight blue, turning my middle finger green around the edges of its cheap band.
At The River I work harder and faster than anyone because it feels good to use my body and to make everything new and clean, to put everything in its proper place. I try to make a game of it by bettering my wait-time estimates and by doing so much of the work myself that I make the other bussers look lazy. And they are, mostly. In the dry storage room, which is really a narrow hallway lined with unstable metal shelves and boxes, a dishwasher named Josh catches me alone, pulling reams of white napkins from the top shelf, and puts his hand up my shirt and kisses me even though I think he’s disgusting and not at all attractive, and it doesn’t feel good. It takes me longer than it should to push him away with both hands. Still, I never say “no,” though I think it the whole time. Later, he follows me to my car when my shift ends and tries to get me to go to a party with him, and for once, I’m glad my parents are too strict for that to be a possibility.
At The River my father usually sits at the bar when I’m working, and other times, too. At home he barely speaks to me, and when he isn’t working in the yard or watching TV, he swings unpredictably between being a ghost of himself and a battle-ready brute with the vengeance of a wrecking ball. But when he’s in the bar he squeezes me close and tells everyone about my good grades and that I’ve received an honorable mention in a painting contest for the National Duck Stamp, which has something to do with hunting. We have the watercolor picture framed and hung in our hallway at home. In it, a sleek male wood duck floats in a pond, water rings spreading out from its richly colored plumage. It was easy enough to do. I copied it from a picture in a book, visually dismantling the duck into its core shapes and allowing myself to see that brown is actually comprised of grays, greens, yellows, blacks, blues, purples, and whites. Later, this painting will earn me an academic scholarship to a nearby college—the only one I ever consider in my listless search. You’re so smart, everyone insists. And it’s true enough; I have the grades to prove it, which have come with little effort. I tell them I just want to be average. In the fall, I’ll pack the duck painting in a flat cardboard box, and bring it with me to college and later to several apartments, evidence of my having crossed over from once place to another, but I’ll never hang it up and I’ll never paint again.
At The River I am seven and my babysitter walks me and my brother over to buy cigarettes with money she stole from the old water jug my parents save change in for vacation. By vacation, they mean drive to Maryland to see my father’s parents and siblings, who eat dumplings in gravy with a dozen eggs every day. They go to church and spend their days watching the dog pee because they think it’s funny. They talk and talk about church, but they never pray. They barely speak to me at all. Sometimes we get to go fishing or play cards, and that is the only time it is fun. The rest of the time I read Ramona or play Classic Football, punching all of the buttons in arbitrary patterns at arbitrary speeds until the little red lights move and beep and I score.
At The River I am sixteen, and a woman named Meg who is forty and pregnant asks me to babysit her 8-year-old son while she does drugs. She doesn’t say that’s why, but I can tell when she comes home, hours later than the time she promised, that it’s drugs. She’s gone away in the eyes and barely on her feet. She never mentions the little boy’s name, not before she leaves and not after she returns, but tells me on her way out the door that there is mac and cheese if I want. The boy is already in bed; his face twitches in the moonlight with sleep, and I’d like to hold him, name him, make him meatloaf with green beans and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. But all I do is dab my cheeks with Meg’s Cover Girl powder in the bathroom and wait, playing house in a broken home. The boy never even knows I was there, layering him with extra blankets, watching over him and thinking about how I could save him. The baby is born with Down’s syndrome, and everyone at The River loves him and touches his chubby hands when Meg brings him in, but all I can think is, What will I do with two babies? I never stop thinking about how I’ll save them, nor do I understand why I feel inclined to be held responsible.
At The River I am fifteen, and don’t yet have the car that I don’t want, but it is coming: a gift, I’m told, which is confusing because I am solely responsible for repaying the $12,000 loan it takes to get it. And so I work, which I don’t mind. I read on my work breaks, and everyone is mad because I take the full fifteen minutes. I tell them that because I don’t smoke and everyone else takes smoke breaks every hour that it’s only fair. I read books about witchcraft, the Louisiana bayous, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and the Apartheid, and books by V.C. Andrews and Stephen King and Thomas Hardy and Mary Higgins Clarke and anything by the Bronte sisters and anything Oprah says to read.
At The River I am fifteen and a boy with long hair whom I’ve never met sits down with me during my lunch break. He buys my meal at my discounted employee rate. He tells me I’m beautiful and that he’d like to sit there all day until I’m done working. “And then what?” I ask. He says take me to a real dinner. I think he might be crazy, but I also love his candor and it’s not every day that someone says I’m pretty, so I’m an easy sell. He talks me into meeting him in the parking lot on my break, where I find him sitting on the hood of a blue car with a guitar, waiting for me. He sings to me in broad daylight, puts my name into the refrain. I don’t know what to say, but I’m happy, if a little humiliated. He doesn’t tell me his name, doesn’t try to kiss or touch me. Just a smile and a goodbye. I never see him again. He is proof of something, but I’m not sure what.
At The River I am twelve and I order steak fries and Pepsi with my little brother in the bar. It is summertime, noon, and our parents are at work. A few men sit at the bar drinking amber liquid from small glasses. We use half a glass bottle of Heinz ketchup and I tell the bartender to put the bill on my dad’s tab, that he’ll be in later, I’m sure of it. And she does, and he is.
At The River I am sixteen, the youngest person on the floor staff, so people are inclined to teach me things. Betty is the head waitress, with fluffy white hair and tiny feet and red lipstick. She tells me about her sweet old husband and her sweet old Cadillac. She calls me honey and promotes me to Head Busser, a title for which there is no pay increase, just more work. She teaches me to put on lipstick the right way, which means outside the lines of my already plump lips, in order to attract a man. I note that it is not unlike the showy purple plume of the male wood duck’s crested head, that we are not far from our animal instincts, which no one but me finds to be an interesting point. One night while we’re loading empties into the glass washer, Betty tells me that AIDS exists because black women can’t keep their knees together. I tell her she’s ignorant and a bigot, and she is never kind to me again. She tries to have me fired, and nobody says I’m right. I go home in tears and in shock, and I’m too embarrassed to speak of it to anyone.
At The River my friend’s dad comes in drunk and orders prime rib. He eats the monstrous cut of meat with his bare hands and dirty nails, happily slopping it into the au jus like a puppy mauling a rawhide. He slaps the steak onto the table and tries to speak to me through his wide grin, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. His face is red and his eyes are red and he dumps the au jus all over the table and rests his face in the mess of food and falls asleep in it. I feel so sad, and nobody helps me clean it up after he’s carried out by his friends. I watch the Kankakee rushing by while I mop up the mess, wondering where all that murky water ends up, and then I call my mom and tell her what happened, crying, because it seems like the right thing to do. She calls the man’s wife, a friend of hers, to tell her where she can find her husband this time, and I hope I won’t be in trouble. This is the day that I learn there are different ways to be a drunk.
At The River I am seventeen and I stay late after my shift ends because it’s better than going home. I am no longer invited by people to go to the Pizza Hut, and anyway, I don’t want to because I feel as though I’m between worlds when I’m around them. I feel as though I’m between worlds nearly everywhere except in this bar. Instead, I sip virgin daiquiris at the employee table in the corner. “Strawberry Wine” plays on the juke box, and a man named Tim sits down across from me. He buys me French fries and smells like mouthwash. His voice is high-pitched, although he’s twenty-seven. When I was younger, I used to watch him fly by my house on a crotch rocket, tan arms with no sleeves, curly blond hair blown back by the speed. “You want to go for a drive when you’re done with that?” he asks. His truck is brand new, the spoils of his job as a carpenter. The bench seat is covered in a red and black plaid blanket made of wool. He tells me he’s separated, getting a divorce, that I’m pretty, that we could go to his house. Maybe just for a drive, I say, but we never make it out of the parking lot.
At The River I am sixteen and one day a man called Muddy, who has known me since I was ten and who comes into the bar every day, falls backward off his barstool. When I rush to help him up, he storms out in horror, the bells on the door jingling long after he’s gone. He never, ever comes back. Sometimes I wonder if he is dead on a couch somewhere, with a bottle of whiskey between his thumb and index finger, in front of a static television.
At The River a man named Dave, who has known my mother for more than twenty years, talks to me about planting and irrigation and harvest, about books, about nature, about the Presidential election, about taxes, about the Farm Bill, and about the college I’ll go to in the fall on a partial scholarship, where he used to party when he was my age. An avid reader of the Farmer’s Almanac and in possession of an MBA plus his father’s farm, he knows much about nearly everything. One day while we are talking about waterfowl that make their habitat along the marsh—blue heron, wood ducks—he tells me that only some wood ducks migrate south along the Atlantic Flyway, while some stay put through winter. And you can’t tell which are which, not by looking at them, which means that it’s in their DNA. They are programmed as one or the other—to stay or leave. Dave is very tan, year-round, from having worked outside all his life. He is always alone, always at the bar, elbows up and smiling wider as the liquor takes hold of him. Once, in the summer, I go to his house with my family for the Fourth of July and swim in his pool. I catch him looking at me a few times, and later we are alone, briefly, in his big, empty house. He has the face of boy and the mind of a wise elder. He tells me it would sure be nice if I were ten years older. And I feel like I already am. I go back to the pool and dive down to the bottom, lie on my back holding my breath, and look straight up to the sun.
At The River I am eighteen and I call divorce-in-progress Tim from the pay phone, but a woman answers and I hang up. I call Corey, my lifelong friend and one-time romantic crush, who is on trial for murdering two of our neighbors, just to prove to myself that I haven’t forgotten his number, even though I know I’ll never speak to him again. I call home to lie: they asked me to stay till close. I put more makeup on in the bathroom, and stay late at the employee table because I’m still too young to sit at the bar. The regulars, who are friends with my dad, friends with me, take turns sitting with me, and everyone tries to get the bartender to give me a drink, a real drink, but she doesn’t and I don’t want one anyway. I don’t learn until a year later how much I like to drink. Right now, I just like the company.
At The River my father celebrates his promotion to General Foreman, then later to Superintendent. He buys all the drinks for everyone, and he calls me Baby Girl when I walk in with a tray full of glasses. He orders prime rib for the two of us, and he dances with all of the women in the bar, spins them silly, and sings into their ears. He is still a stranger to me.
At The River I take dollar bills from men who are wearing guns in black holsters beneath their overshirts but over their undershirts, and I pick the music, and they smile. We listen to all the Hanks, The Stones, Stevie Nix, the Judds, Joni Mitchell, Aerosmith, Genesis, Bon Jovi, and The Eagles. I dance and sing while I’m working, with Katie and Dave and Lonnie and Tim and Harvey and by myself. The men tell stories about dogs and ex-wives and fishing and teenagers and motorcycles. The women talk about men who are farmers and steelworkers and carpenters and bricklayers and alcoholics and wife-beaters and no good and a little bit good. Between dancing, I do my work. I walk into the room-sized refrigerator to put away a tub of cottage cheese, and I linger there, watching a carton of milk go bad. It’s proof that time is change, that one thing can become another, and I can’t bear to throw it out.
At The River I’m five and nine and fifteen and eighteen and twenty and sixteen and seventeen. I talk to Kimmy, who’s now dating Dave, and she tells me all about how to ache with love. They are both alcoholics, one mostly quiet and smart, the other at the edge of unraveling, teetering between precipices of elation and melancholy. Dave talks to me less, and Kimmy never remembers what we talk about, relaying the same anecdotes of her life present and past, again and again; she gets lost in her own bubbling laughter, in the perfect harmony of a song only she can hear. And I hope that maybe I’ll grow up to be a little more fun like her, less serious, a little more disarming and open-armed and fragile, but I never do.
Kimmy comes to my high school graduation party, they all do, and they hug me and give me money and say, Good goin’, girl. They are the sum of me, divided into different kinds of pain, different kinds of happiness. Or perhaps I am the sum of them, our common denominator this river and a hard-earned history. Kimmy grips my cheeks with her long fingers and tells me that she loves me, she always has; it is her lasting memory, a compilation of many smaller, specific ones that have been lost inside a bottle, a feeling that is true. Still, she knows we have shared something important, if not the details of it. She says that she could be my aunt, she could be my sister. She tells me to stay blonde, blonde, blonde, and to marry a man with money and not to get pregnant in college.
Angela Palm is an editor and co-owner at the Renegade Writers’ Collective, an independent writing center in Vermont. Her work appears in Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Prick of the Spindle, ARDOR Literary Magazine, Little Fiction, Big Truths, and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction editor at The Fiddleback and the editor of the forthcoming collection, Please Do Not Remove. Her essay, “The Devolution of Cake,” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.