What the River Takes

What the River Takes

The town of Hadley connects to its neighbor, Lake Lennucks, via a sudden, precipitous drop. A paved bridge looms over the narrowest point, where the river Ames plummets into a twisting, boulder-strewn gorge, and when the dam upstream is opened, both main streets ring with that churning, whitewater roar.

All her life, every day for seventeen years, Gracie had been reminded, by her mother, by her father, by the police officers who came to speak at Hadley’s public schools, by first the old woman, and then the daughter who run the family drug store kitty-corner to the bridge, and the old grizzled waiters carving prime rib at Montague’s Food Event, by signs, by broken, rusted signposts:

No Climbing on the Rocks
Swimming Strictly Forbidden

At any moment, a mere trickle turned rapids could sweep Gracie, or anyone foolish enough to attempt such a venture, away and under, unseen against the crags, to be finally, eventually, subsumed by the sea.

Every few months, Gracie would read in the newspaper of yet another body pulled by rescue volunteers from the lip of the sandbar where the children swim. Or some bloated, partly decomposed tourist found counties away, near the waterfall, after having been reported missing the previous season. At school and at work, teachers and customers, and at home, her parents, Marcy and Robert Laverne, would, for days or weeks after, shake their heads and whisper that the worst had happened again, and wasn’t it a tragedy?

And now, to Gracie, shivering, the worst had happened. Not to her – no, she was safe, somehow, surrounded by an EMT and a police officer, and that nice old man who’d wrapped a scratchy army blanket around her shoulders – but rather to the life she had thus far known. The responsibilities with which she had been trusted, by her parents, and teachers, and by her boss of two summers at Algernon’s Carnival Grocery. Her moniker as The Smart Girl, replaced with The Girl Who Climbed on the Rocks, Who Did Not Jump in After, Who Allowed Another to Drown.

And so Gracie, little heeded, and slumped against the boulders, sobbed, “Find her! Fix this!”

*

Naturally, there had been droughts: in 1962, and 1949, when the Ames dried up and the pebbles clattered down in the water’s stead, and the people of Hadley and Lake Lennucks descended as one to take back what the rapids had claimed. Coins and bleached toys, exhaust pipes and transistor radios. The bones of a drifter, a drunk stumbler, who, years ago, disappeared on the Fourth of July.

On a field trip to the Hadley Historical Society, Gracie had read about these droughts and resurrections. Whether it be days or years, near or afar, the display had said, somewhat mawkishly, what the river takes can always be reclaimed. 

*

Suicide? No, it couldn’t have been, the drowned girl’s friends had ruled. Why, they asked, would she have chosen to die in front of Gracie Laverne? And in most moods, Gracie, too, thought it impossibly strange that she should have been the only one present. Clara Geoffries had been the girl’s name, someone so loved and suddenly gone, unheeded by anyone of consequence, or anyone who could, at least, have said where she went, or more coherently described the incident to the authorities.

Clara Geoffries, a girl Gracie had known only by sight, and always in the company of others. All seniors at Lake Lennucks High, who mooned about between the sister towns, in victory curls and high-waisted skirts, rebels all. They drank bergamot tea and hovered at the edge of tourists’ photos. Locals complained that they, this roving band of 1930s-dressed teens, threatened the fading fin-de-siecle aesthetic of Hadley-Lennucks’s nineteenth-century heyday. Gracie had read these complaints, before moving on to the crypto-quote and word jumble, and puzzling if perhaps one day, she too, in her mis-fit, would find such a group in which to belong.

*

When Gracie attempted a return to her position as part-time cashier at Algernon’s, atop Madrigal Hill in Lake Lennucks, her manager, Joseline, shook her head. “Take a few weeks,” she said. “We can manage just fine without you.”

”I’m okay,” Gracie said. “There’s no reason I can’t work.”

Joseline smiled and said, “No, Gracie, honey. It wouldn’t look right,” and marched her, gently, by the shoulder back under the model railroad circling the aisle maze, past the animatronic lady, twirling her parasol. The barker, in striped vest and straw hat, gesturing stiltedly to the tower of fresh-baked pies. By Dickens, the sad lady clown who patrolled the checkout lanes, and stopped blowing balloons into her signature top hats to frown at Gracie, just as a portly customer in a bow tie and watch chain,  placing can after can of cat food on the conveyer, said, “I saw her go under, you know. That poor Geoffries girl.”

Amelia, the white-haired, bespectacled cashier, stopped scanning, the cat food heaping at the conveyer’s end, and Gracie drew up short, so that Joseline stomped, accidentally, on her left heel.

“I’m sorry,” Gracie said.

“I was just setting the price tag on the pianoforte,” the portly man went on. “Our third-floor showroom has a perfect view of the gorge – you’ve seen it, you know. I glimpsed her for just a second, and then she was gone.”

“The worst thing,” Amelia said.

“The most horrifying thing. An utter tragedy.”

“You saw her too?” Gracie said, and when first Joseline, and then Amelia, clucked in sympathy, she realized just how many people, customers and employees alike, were staring. Even Dickens the clown’s grotesque grief seemed painted on expressly for Clara Geoffries’s misfortune.

“Oh,” the man with the watch chain said, and paled and bowed. “Forgive me.”

*

Clara Geoffries’s body did not resurface. At least, not that day she went under. Nor the next, when the mayor ordered the dam closed, and the divers to search the stilled, almost placid waters. Nor later, when the head of search and rescue came to Gracie’s house to deliver what was not, really, news. He refused to speak to Gracie directly, but rather through her mother, fluttering and excitable, and who could not bear to hear of what, surely, would have been her own daughter’s corpse, but for – what? The misfirings of fortune, those unseen machinations of a devil’s hand.

*

Gracie cut her long hair short, dyed it a dull, unassuming brown in her bathtub at home. Black too obnoxious, and drawing too much attention to itself.

And so the new Gracie, short-brown-haired Gracie, asked her parents, from now on and forever, to call her Grace. Grace Laverne.

*

On the bridge railing – Clara’s shrine – Gracie, now Grace, dodged the tourists snapping photos. Not just of the Ames, but the lace scraps pierced with bobby pins, plastic eggs spilling pantyhose, lipstick tubes, a pair of old silver CDs. Nirvana and the Rolling Stones.

With the dam still closed, and the summer a drought, the water appeared almost docile, and Grace was sickened by the tourists’ disappointment at this.

The man with the watch chain, Joseline had told her that day at Algernon’s, was Mr. Jasper, who, along with his partner, Mr. Vandeleur, owned The Demolition Store. An ancient, crumbling factory, which had once produced paper, the manufactory beginnings of both towns. Now it housed strange, orphaned items from demolished structures, statues and doors and sinks and wardrobes, and also cats. A graveyard, of sorts, Joseline had called it, though The Demolition Store’s website had three times used the phrase “breathe new life into…”

The store sat high atop the Hadley side of the cliff-face, overlooking the gorge. Guarding the entrance, snarling sculpture lions, and worse, a college boy in suspenders, smoking a cigarette, and Gracie – for, in this moment, she really was a Gracie – breathed heavily and crossed over into the darkened narrows.

*

Summer vacation nearly at an end, that weeks-ago evening on the rocks had started innocently enough. A Tuesday, both of Gracie’s parents attending a work function, and she with no plans, and no plans to make any, had gone for a walk through the woods to which she traditionally escaped the start of tourist season. Even at dusk, the air was warm, and she thought, idly, of an ice cream cone, though that would entail withstanding the line at the shoppe beside the mini golf.

But, coming abreast the chain-link fence that separated the descending path from the river, Gracie somehow noticed, on the other side, the girl seated on the rocks, and sipping from a thermos.

At first, Gracie assumed the girl to be a tourist, and considered calling out to her, “You shouldn’t be down there, you know?” But at that exact moment the girl stood and loosened the pins from her hair, tossing off her vintage hat to reveal a distinctive bounce of blond curls.

Which was when she spotted Gracie, and, surprisingly, waved.

“I didn’t know that path was there,” the girl shouted over the surge of whitewater. “I just shimmied down the rocks,” indicating such with her foot, encased in pantyhose, the low heels wedged in a seam of stone. “Say, that’s tops.”

Gracie thrilled, to think, for this one piece of information, she had been labeled “tops.” Which she might have dared to believe meant “cool,” though most likely only “passable.” Gracie sampled a laugh. “That rhymes,” she shouted back, inanely, and the other girl seemed to giggle too, a hand to her rouged lips.

“I’ll have to come that way next time – if there is a next time, that is. College bound, you know? Gosh, how rude of me. Do you want some bergamot tea? Iced, I mean.”

A slit in the chain-link, which her parents had so often dubbed “a safety hazard,” and “a place you are never to go,” proved simple enough to ford, and Gracie took the proffered tea and sipped, repressing the urge to wipe clean the metal lip.

The girl continued, in that dated affected way, and sidled, nearly backward, toward the water’s edge. “I know everyone says don’t swim here. I’m sure you’ve heard it forever, but I’ll just stick my feet in. I always promised myself I would. It’s practically spite now. Wouldn’t you like to join me?”

Gracie only shook her head. “No, thank you,” she said, in her small bland voice, and shrugged. “But … you know … if you want to … I think that’s tops.”

What could she say? What possible thing could she have said when the girl again giggled and tore one stocking from her toes?

*

From behind one of the fancy twin front desks, handwritten labels proclaiming “Escritoires Not for Sale,” an imposing man waved another of those articles: “Town Remembers Drowned Teen.”

“Sadly, it’s good advertising for us,” the man said, his face a map of frightful crevasses. The article had contained several images: Clara at prom, Clara and her friends promenading along the Lake Lennucks pier. And one larger one, at the bottom of the page, of the bridge over the Ames, and The Demolition Store rising high above, and its name a stenciled absence in the strip of white paint over the factory’s antique brick.

A sigh, and, straightening, the portly man, Mr. Jasper, appeared behind the second escritoire, a small gray tabby wrapped in his arms. “Don’t, Dave,” he said. “Don’t be cavalier about this.

Grace squared her shoulders, and marched toward him, and rang the little silver bell helpfully marked “ring for assistance.” The kitten mewled and wriggled free and vanished underneath a dusty display of doorknobs that Grace had been pretending to examine. Some crystal spheres, some curved, some made of heavy cast iron.

The other man, this Mr. Vandeleur, who she recognized from his photo on the website as the co-owner, eyeballed her over the rumpled crease of his paper. “Can we help you?” he asked.

She turned upon Mr. Jasper, the grim sad set of his brow, “breathed new life,” and tried to hold his eye, though nevertheless, said in a rush: “You saw her go under. Where did she go?”

Mr. Jasper’s hands trembled as he shook from a large bag several cat treats into his palm. “I don’t know,” he said. “It was like a hole opened in the world. She was right there, and then … poof. I promise you, she vanished.”

*

Gracie always believed she would be the sort never to go near the rapids, to climb down into the gorge. She felt no desire whatsoever to swim across this narrow point of river, or jump the stones, or tube down the rapids to the placid waiting pool below. The tourists who tried it were “morons.” The locals who did so were “worse.” She had thought – in truth, had liked to think – she would prevent anyone from broaching the water’s edge, those slippery, dangerous rocks. She would stop trespassers desperately, bodily, against their will if they resisted, and refused to listen to reason.

Instead, hadn’t she stood back and whimpered at Clara’s daring foot, swirling in the foam? Did she not watch with a macabre, whispering prediction, that the girl would lose that footing, fall in and be sucked under? Had she considered then what she herself would do if Clara never came up for air?

*

Grace, as she studied each of the strange sale displays, could only envision the monument the bronzed lady of victory had adorned, and stared, seemingly, for hours at the cabinet of curios, the dismembered effects of a collector’s home, containing a human skull, “Quite real,” Mr. Vandeleur assured her.

Grace twined between tourists as they called to each of the many cats, and marveled at the garden of broken bathtubs, and considered the hearths standing empty in the middle of the second floor. Their faces reflected in reds and greens and blues in stained glass windows on the third. They went to the piano, which sported a handwritten label, “sold,” and peered out at the gorge far below, and snapped pictures of Clara’s last-known location. And when Grace took her turn at this mournful spot, they photographed her, too.

Both towns would mourn Clara, though absent a grave, or tombstone, even flowers, for, the article claimed, in lieu of them, Mr. and Mrs. Geoffries requested donations to secure another sign. A bigger, more foreboding one for would-be swimmers to pass unheeded. A memorial plaque, perhaps, with the names of all those already sacrificed to the maelstrom of humanity’s hubris.

Grace turned away from the window glass, and from Mr. Jasper, and his assemblage of homeless things, things mislaid and damaged and gathered anew, and back toward that which she had left, high above the rocks.

After all, if such a store had so readily consigned Clara to the distant deep, what were the odds then, that, together or apart or in this mortal life, these two little lost local girls could ever be reclaimed?

Constance Renfrow's fiction has appeared in such places as Red Earth Review, Mud Season Review, Petrichor Machine, and Cabildo Quarterly. Her first book, Songs of My Selfie, an anthology of millennial fiction, was a 2016 IndieFAB finalist. She recently received her MFA in fiction from Pacific University and is completing her first novel.

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