Read The Banks of Certain Rivers Online

Authors: Jon Harrison

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Drama & Plays, #United States, #Nonfiction

The Banks of Certain Rivers (5 page)

Alan snorts at this. “You want to help him fix up his house so
you can tear it down to build condominiums? That makes a ton of

Leland holds out his hands and shakes his head. “You guys need
to hear me out. I’m not asking to buy everything this time. You
can keep your houses, keep a big piece of your property, and I’ll
still give you both a deal on a condo. We’ve got it all mapped
out. I can show you the drawings right now—”

“Fireplace,” I say. “Let’s get it in here,
then you can tell us everything.”

“Right,” Leland says. The three of us move the thing
inside easily (only after Alan and Leland take a moment to bicker
over whether or not it will fit through the door), and come back
outside to hear Leland’s pitch. It doesn’t take long for
him to become very enthusiastic, waving his arms over the set of
blueprints he’s rolled out and weighted down flat with rocks
over the hood of his truck. He’s offering as much money as he
did the last time, a sizable amount of it, but for only half the
land; he wants roughly to split the orchard diagonally to take the
northwest corner (including all of our beach and the old Olsson guest
cottage), along with the northern half of Alan’s farm.

“And to top everything off, I’ll throw in a timeshare for
both of you,” he says, smiling broadly. “Use it whenever.
Rent it out if you want. And let me tell you this. I don’t want
to hear your answer right now. You guys take a week to think about,
and I’ll—”

“I don’t need a week to think about it,” Alan says,
picking his bike up from where we moved it to the ground. “I
can give you my answer right now: no. No, no and no.” Leland
shakes his head as Alan mounts the bicycle. “I’ll see you
in the morning, Neil!” Alan calls, riding off down the drive.

“Can you talk to that guy?” Leland asks, watching the
bike clatter away in a cloud of late summer dust. “Are you able
to get through to him?”

“I don’t think there’s much of a point,” I
say. “And honestly, I don’t think there’s much of a
chance that I’m going to change my mind either.”

Leland claps his hand on my upper arm. “I told you, I don’t
want an answer yet. Give it some thought. Some serious thought.
I’ll come by sometime next week, and you tell me then. That

“Fine,” I say.

“All right,” Leland says, rolling up his plans. “Next
week sometime. All right.”

Inside, after Leland has
gone, I unpack my bag, and when I fish my cellphone from my work
pants pocket I find I’ve received a text message from my son.

“Just got 2 Grayling,” it says. Like most of the other
kids from Port Manitou, he’s gone with his friends to watch
tonight’s game too. I tap a message back.

“Have fun. Let me know when you’re headed home.”

A moment passes while I stare at the phone, and finally it sings and
hums in my hand. The screen says: “Will do.”

I take a water bottle from the pantry and fill it from the tap; our
water is drawn from a well and is rich in sink-staining iron. I can
taste it when I take a long sip. Glancing back at the pantry I
consider for just a moment how nice it would be to fill a glass with
some of our mineral-rich ice cubes followed by some decent whiskey
from the dusty bottle in the pantry I have stashed away for special
occasions, but I’ve set a (mostly enforced) rule that the only
alcohol consumption I do anymore is in the company of friends. This
occasion, a night alone, is not so special. Water will suffice for

I step through the dining room and past the sliding door to the back
deck. Insects still drone over the dry field, and now and again a
gust of wind whistles through the pines to move the long yellowed
grass in waves.

A text message sound dings from inside the house, and inside I need
to wander around for a moment to find where I left the phone on the
bookshelf. I’m expecting another text from Christopher, but
instead I’m notified that a message awaits from ELL DEE, my
shorthand for Lauren Downey. Slide to unlock. Tap to read.

“Movie plans cancelled. Project shelf assembly is a go. Can we
call a meeting?”

I dial Lauren’s number, and she’s quick to answer.

“A meeting?” I ask. “Like a meeting meeting? Or a
meeting to assemble Ikea shelves sort of meeting.”

“What would be your guess?” I can hear her smiling.
“Doesn’t matter what it’s for, really, let’s
call one. Do you want to grab something for us to eat?”

“A meeting,” I say again. “I’ll be there in a
little bit.”

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Sent: September 7, 5:50 pm

Subject: Ikea


Something reminded me just recently
of the trip we took to Philadelphia the year Chris was in 6
grade. Our son only wanted to see the Liberty Bell, and you only
wanted to see the first US Ikea store. I’m sure you remember
the little argument we had about that. I thought it was kind of
stupid to go in there, and you did not; we went back and forth, back
and forth, and finally I said fine, fine, we’ll go in the
store. We didn’t talk the whole time we were in there. Chris
bopped around from display to display, oblivious, and I clenched my
teeth and swore I would not be the one to give in to speaking first.
I don’t remember which one of us did.

Of all the stupid things we could
have bickered about, right? Of all the regrets I could possibly carry
around, can you believe that one memory hurts as much as any of them?

Anyway, there’s one of those
stores in Detroit now. I haven’t been there yet to buy anything
myself (I don’t know if I could bring myself to do so), but
these Swedish products keep making their way up to PM.



A meeting. This is our
shorthand; our shared
private language. It defines for us
something I am not quite ready to say in a more formal voice. Lauren
would say it, she
say it, but in deference to my
reluctant self a code word is employed. The meeting is called, and
I’ll happily go.

I find my canvas tool bag in the garage and check to make sure it has
at least some screwdrivers, pliers and wrenches, the sorts of things
I anticipate I’ll need for the assembly of prefab furniture.
The bag is tossed in on the passenger seat of my decade-old truck,
and I make one last trip into the house to grab the book I’ve
been reading, one of Murakami’s early ones (sent to me by my
brother Teddy; he and some of his friends started up a “dudes
only” book club last year and he keeps bugging me to
participate sometime via webcam).

There are evenings like this, meetings like this. We get together
when we can. Two years, almost, of Lauren and me spending time in
each other’s company and saying nothing really about it. Over
the course of this unspoken but seemingly real pairing, some
standards have evolved. During surprise blocks of mutually free time,
carryout is usually ordered and, if we’re meeting at my house,
films are often viewed. Lauren has a strange affinity for the brat
pack movies of the eighties; they carry a sort of novelty for her,
and this novelty seems to be increased by the knowledge that more
likely than not my brother and I saw these films in the theater upon
their original release. Viewing
Pretty In Pink
once in 1986
was enough for me, but since Lauren seems to love it so, I’ll
tolerate repeated showings.

If we’re at Lauren’s, where there’s no TV, we’ll
usually end up eating and talking, and, almost always, reading
together on her college-era futon with our feet twined together under
a tangle of blankets. She’ll have a couple nursing textbooks
stacked in her lap along with a highlighter clenched between her
teeth, and I’ll have some novel propped up on my chest: one of
Teddy’s suggestions, or one of my own corny genre
adventure-on-the-high-seas tomes. The Titanic will be raised, the
world will be saved.

In either place, if time permits after reading and eating and movies
and wine, our clothes are often shed and our bodies come together.
The tone of the meeting becomes something more serious. Sometimes (at
my house) the act is conducted noisily, and other times (her condo
has thin walls) it is a more silent congress of bare skin. Recently
this has become more frequent. More and more frequent.

In my truck, I cut through town to the new pizza place we discovered
a couple weeks ago. I phoned in our standard order before I left
home: a small cheese and olive for me and Greek salad for her (though
history suggests I’ll sneak bites of the salad and Lauren will
end up eating nearly half of the pizza).

Lauren lives in an older condominium next to the Big Jib River
spillway where it flows into Lake Michigan, just south of Port
Manitou’s public beach and municipal marina. I cross the bridge
over the spillway into her complex and pull in behind the Prius
parked in Lauren’s open garage, and as I step out of the truck
with our food balanced on top of my tools I’m heralded by the
sound of sailboat rigging pinging against masts in the still-strong
wind. Up the stairs to Lauren’s living room, and I manage to
not drop our meal.

The room is a mess of torn-open boxes and broken slabs of packing
foam. Instruction sheets and cream-colored shelving boards are spread
over the floor, and Lauren, in a sweatshirt and torn jeans, is seated
cross-legged on her futon.

“I tried to get started,” she says, smiling. “But I
realized I should probably wait for you.”

“This….” I look around the room. “Is kind of
a disaster. Do you know what goes with what?”

“Not really.” Another smile. “But the pieces are
all labeled. We’ll sort it all out. How’s your mouth?
Your lip’s still pretty swollen.”

“It feels a little better. How did you get everything up here?”

“Malcolm and his new boyfriend. They were leaving just as I got
home.” Malcolm Rice, Lauren’s next-door neighbor, is a
former student of mine, and was the first out-and-proud gay high
school kid I ever knew. You see that more frequently now—it’s
not such a big deal anymore, at least not at the high school—but
ten years ago it was pretty impressive.

“They insisted,” she says. “Really, they had
everything upstairs before I could say no.”

“That sounds like Malcolm.” I set the food on the coffee
table and use my foot to clear a space on the floor to sit. “New
boyfriend is a good guy?”

“Very good guy.” Lauren goes to the kitchen to get plates
and paper towels for napkins. “Quiet guy. He’s going to
tune up my bike.”

“Uh huh,” I murmur. I’m looking over one of the
instruction sheets, and as I scan the debris around for something
matching Part “A” on the diagram before me, I see one
flat, unopened parcel leaning against the wall that makes me pause.

“No,” I say. “You didn’t.” Printed on
the side of the long box are the words
42” LCD TV
Lauren holds her napkin over her mouth with both hands and raises her

“I did!” she squeaks.

“This is the refuge, though—”

“It was on sale.”

“—Our place for reading!”

“I’m not getting cable,” she says. “It’s
only for movies!”

“Are you going to take all the John Hughes movies from my house
if you have a TV now?”

“Are you saying you watch them?”

“I’m not.…” I can’t keep myself from
smiling at the question. “I don’t watch them. I’m
just saying maybe I like the reminder of you in my home.”

“Chris doesn’t ask about them?”

“We have a million movies anyway, so I don’t think he
even notices them there. He did watch some, I think. I’m pretty
sure he saw
The Breakfast Club
at the end of the summer.”

“Did he like it?”

“I think he liked it. I also think he felt it was a little
dated. It maybe hasn’t aged so well.”

“Unlike other things around in the eighties.”

I make a noise like “Psh!” and swat the top of the pizza
box down on Lauren’s hand as she’s trying to grab a
slice. “I wasn’t the only one here around in the
eighties,” I say.

She flings the top back up and says “Psh!” in return.
“You’re the only one here who remembers them.”

We work for the next hour, sneaking bites of food here and there,
finding pieces, aligning them, driving fasteners home. A dent is made
in the mayhem on the floor, and Lauren shuttles a stack of flattened,
empty boxes downstairs to her garage as I stand one of the shelves up
and slide it against the wall. It partially covers one of two
colorful, orange-ish, modern paintings she has up in her living room.
They were made by her ex-boyfriend, and I hate them.

“You’ll need to move your
,” I call
as Lauren climbs back upstairs, putting a little unfair emphasis on
the last word. I pull the painting in front of me from its hook and
angle it to examine the rough dabs of acrylic pigment.

“We can move them right into your house,” she says. “I
don’t know why you have to be so nasty about them. I mean, I do
know, but still. I like them for what they are, not for the person
who painted them. And you know that he’s not so—”

“We don’t
need to talk about the person who
painted them,” I say, and I hang the canvas back up where it

“You’re acting like one of your kids,” Lauren says.


“For such a measured man, maybe this is the one place where
your job rubs off on you.”

“Rubs off on me how?”

“You’re being petty. Like a teenager. Jealous.”

“So you have to be in your teens to be jealous, you’re

Lauren gathers a pile of books from the floor next to her futon, and
she gently elbows me aside to arrange them on the top tier of her new
bookshelf. “It’s a more raw emotion at that age,”
she says. “Everything is more raw then.”

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