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Mar 17

On the Wishkah River One Day in June

I met him under the Young Street Bridge. He said his name was Donald. After a few hours of talking, I told him I might love him and he didn’t laugh or get nervous, like most grown-ups would. His hands were calloused; his fingernails were chewed down to nubs. When he touched his guitar strings, I forgot about mom and Bill and Stevie and why I couldn’t sleep without the light on.

I told Donald that Wishkah means stinking waters and he smiled. I asked him to play American Pie but he didn’t know how. He made it easy to ask questions and when I couldn’t think of anymore, he made it easy to sit quietly. Sitting quietly isn’t something that’s easy for me to do. I stay on my feet at home, so I can dodge whatever Bud throws when he’s mean-drunk. I wash the dishes and make sure Stevie gets breakfast and dinner and keep my fingers crossed that I can do enough to keep Bill from raising his voice or his hand, or worse.

That summer I am twelve years old. I smoke Pall Mall cigarettes whenever I can get Barney to buy them for me. Barney’s homeless, but he always has money because he stands at intersections with his crusty old cardboard sign while I’m stuck in a classroom pretending to care about the Revolutionary War, imaginary numbers, and gerunds. I asked Barney to buy me a can of Coors once. When he came out of the 7-11, I was so excited I got clumsy and dropped the can in the gravel. The beer sprayed all over my Chucks. Donald said he hoped my toes got good and drunk. That’s when I told him I might maybe love him, just a little.

Donald asked me about Stevie and I told him about his lisp, how I’m the only one who can touch his arms without making him holler, and that even though he’s eight, he’s cried himself to sleep every night since mom took off. Sometimes Stevie talks in his sleep. He calls out for her, he doesn’t have a lisp in his sleep-talk, and it makes me shudder. We got a postcard from my mom in April. It came from Baton Rouge but I would bet two packs of smokes she’s not there anymore.

Donald had sad blue eyes that punctured my disregard for people who aren’t Stevie. I asked him if he was from around here and he nodded. I asked him if he had any plans to not be from around here anymore and he nodded four more times. His guitar strings wailed in rhythm with the river, the clouds colored themselves in with a deeper shade of grey, I zipped up my pine-green hoodie and for the first time in my life, wished that I didn’t have a brother, just so I wouldn’t have to go back home.

I asked Donald if he had a brother. He didn’t. He has a little sister and he said I have the same color of blonde hair that she does but my teeth are whiter and I know bigger words. I was glad I didn’t remind him too much of his sister. I don’t have breasts or hips yet, I’m all knobby knees and legs. Before that June, I didn’t care if my body ever filled out. I would notice Bud staring at my thighs sometimes and it made my stomach hurt, but somehow I thought I would feel differently if Donald looked at me like that. He had thin lips and I wanted to touch the artery in his neck.

After he told me about his sister, Donald handed me his guitar and said he needed to take a leak. I stared at his slouched back, his threadbare tan sweater with brown oval patches on the elbows, his stringy greased hair as he slunk off to the bushes. He shouldn’t be from here. Maybe he’ll be one of the lucky ones who catch a ferry or a taxi heading away from this town. Maybe his luck will hold and he’ll never have to come back. I don’t have as much hope for myself. Even then, at twelve, my dreams were beginning to lose their luster; they were getting fuzzy around the edges and harder to recollect in the daylight. I kept a journal, but who would ever want to read the adolescent musings of some trashy nobody from a podunk nowhere place like this miserable ghost town?

Before she bailed, my mom used to tell me and Stevie stories about our little corner of Washington. I guess back in the day, there were a lot of loggers and mills and people with good jobs and decent houses. Kids went to school in new clothes and their desks weren’t covered with graffiti and petrified gum wads. Sometimes I went downtown with Stevie and I would peer through shuttered store windows, kick Burger King wrappers off the sidewalks, and avoid making eye contact with people who seem like they sold their dignity for a shitty paycheck. I couldn’t find any evidence of hope or redemption and I became convinced that my mother watched too much TV and got confused about where she was. Maybe that’s why she left. Maybe she went looking for a clean shirt one day and just kept going.

I jumped when I saw Donald’s hand reaching for the guitar in my lap. He laughed and his laugh was soft and big and the realest thing I’d felt all week. Maybe all summer. Maybe all my life. I asked him if he can sing and of course he can. He hummed and croaked and roared on the bank of the Wishkah River that day in June, and still, if anyone ever asks me, I swear that even the birds were afraid to compete with his magic and shut up for awhile. He sang through a few songs, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said he was thirsty.

My face has always been transparent. My cheekbones harden when I’m angry, the corners of my mouth turn up or down, depending on the occasion. He must have seen the disappointment in my eyebrows and assured me he would be right back. He had a cooler stashed under the bridge. I asked him if he was living here by the river, and he shrugged and muttered, for now.

Donald came back with a thermos of water and a couple cans of Coors. He taught me how to roll a cigarette, I ruined a bunch of his papers and bummed him some of my Pall Malls. He told me about his parents’ divorce and how he wanted to have kids of his own someday, but only if he could figure out a way to not be so ugly to them. He wanted to move to Olympia because he heard of a drummer who lived there and he needed a drummer so he could make his records. He’d been working on some demos with a kid he met who played a mean bass, but he knew his songs were bigger than this town, bigger than the river, hell, bigger than this state. Even though I was a beer-buzzed and motherless kid, I knew it too.

I wanted him to keep singing to me and the dirty water and the rickety bridge, I wanted the sun to stop sinking behind the tree line, I wanted Bud to figure out how to go home after work so he could cook Stevie’s dinner. But Bud would be at the bar, like he always was, and probably still is. The sun didn’t bother to check its schedule with me that day, so it kept on slipping and sliding closer to the horizon, closer to dusk.

Because I was a kid I asked Donald if I was going to see him again. He pulled out a notebook and wrote down my address. He told me he was going to send me tickets to his first big show and that I could come backstage afterward. I bit my bottom lip so I wouldn’t cry. He ripped a piece of paper out of the notebook; it had a drawing on it. It was a picture of Elvis in heavy black stage makeup.
Like KISS? I asked him.

Nah, he said. Like Alice Cooper.

On the back of the drawing, Donald had listed a bunch of bands he said I ought to get exposed to. He said that reading was fine, but music was gonna build my soul. When I hugged him goodbye, I pushed my lips into that artery in his neck for just a second. Then I ran up the bank, scrawny legs and dirt flying in every direction. His laughter didn’t hold a hint of mockery and it followed me down the street until I turned the corner, heading north to Stevie.

I made beef stroganoff for me and Stevie that night for dinner. It’s funny how I made hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dinners for us but that’s the only one I can remember like it happened an hour ago. Stevie told me about his disastrous spelling bee tryout, but the great thing about Stevie was stuff like that never bothered him.
So they didn’t understand me when I tried to spell out ‘dressing’. He shrugged. At least I know that I know how to spell it, that’s all that counts, right sis? I hugged him tighter than usual.

Later that night, I stole some money out of Bill’s wallet while he was passed out in the mustard yellow armchair that mom had scored from the thrift store six or seven years ago. I knew that asshole would just think he blew the missing money on booze and bad bets at the pool table a few hours earlier. I wanted a portable tape player so I could work on my music education, courtesy of Donald’s list, and it was important that I hear these songs for the first time under the Young Street Bridge.

When the dinner dishes were washed and put away, we snuck out the back door and headed downtown. There was only one shop in town that sold music in any form, so I would take what I could get. I read through the list: Roy Orbison and the Beatles alongside The Sex Pistols and Velvet Underground? Then there was Gang of Four and Pixies and Mudhoney and Bad Brains and The Knack. It was an eclectic collection. Donald would have been proud of my use of eclectic. I smiled and Stevie asked me why I looked so happy.

I made a friend today.

He wanted to know about Donald. I told him that he played the guitar and had blue eyes. Stevie yelled that I was in lo-o-ove and ran to the front of the store to play with the cheap rubber toys they had piled up in bins.

I found a few of the tapes from my list. Bill would end up with some change after all. I decided I would go back to the river tomorrow instead of going to class. Even if Donald was already gone, I wanted to go back. I wanted to sit on the bank of that stinky river, reveling in my musical knowledge. It’s not like anyone at home cared.

I wondered why Bill even stuck around. We weren’t his kids and he wasn’t even passable as a parent. I couldn’t see anything redeemable about him as a person or a man—it was all I could do to keep his cretin hands off of me. He pretty much ignored Stevie, which suited him and me just fine. But, after mom was gone, Stevie and I needed someone to keep food in the fridge and to pay to keep the electric on. Bill was a manageable problem and the only time it worried me was when I thought about graduation, and what would happen to Stevie if I did decide to head out after getting my diploma?

When mom brought Stevie home from the hospital, I remember I drew him a card with a bunny and the neighbor helped me write, “Welcome home hunny bunny!” And I just loved that because it rhymed and because the bunny had a real cotton ball for a tail and because the two of us were now the three of us and I remember thinking that three was a perfectly lovely number.

That day in June, thinking about Donald and Stevie and the card with the bunny, the edges of my dreams got tighter, crisper, and I could start to see them happening, and I thought that maybe some lucky thing would come to me too, and that if Donald’s music could lift him up and away from here, I would find my version of rock-n-roll and ride it clear out of Bud’s house, maybe to California or Arizona—some place that counted more sunny days than rainy ones. At twelve, I had seen enough rain for four lifetimes and I was ready for something different. Donald had reminded me that sometimes, it’s okay to get restless, to want more than what was in your little neighborhood.

If you had run into me then, there in the music store, or maybe just outside on the stoop, you would have met a girl who was just the right amount of years away from understanding that knowing the dream and having the ability to withstand it as it’s coming true don’t always play out the same in a person.

My mom got eaten up by her dreams—they kept her awake nights and she would sneak into the room I shared with Stevie and stand in the doorway watching us, and now I know she was deciding what to do about the dawning recognition gnawing at her conscious: she wasn’t supposed to be here, doing this mother thing. Mom wasn’t a bad person, but she never did take to parenting. She forgot to feed us a lot and she never could hold down a job for long and her taste in men was gross—Bill wasn’t even the worst of them. It bothered me though, that the pull of her nameless dreams had more room in her heart than Stevie and I did.

I wondered what was going to happen to Donald, he seemed so introverted and sensitive—if I hadn’t heard the music pouring out of his hands and mouth for myself, I never would have pegged him for a rock star. But he was so sure that he had Something, and that it was new and important and he had a responsibility to bring it to people, to make them hear, to shake them out of their lethargy. After I got home from the music store, I made a list of things I was sure about and none of those were on it. I tucked Stevie into bed and when I kissed his forehead, I knew that I was going to wait to set out for my big exciting life until I was sure that he was taken care of. I would not be my mom and leave him to fend off the world with his aluminum foil sword, in his sheet cape that was covered in roses because he stole it from the old widow lady who hung her laundry on a clothesline in a yard two streets over. Stevie wasn’t smart enough or brave enough yet. He needed me and I would wait.

************************************************************************

I am counting my tips in the kitchen, doling out bills to the expediter, and the hostess, and the cooks and worrying about the few dollars left in my pile. Rent is almost a week late and Stevie’s group home needs more money for his groceries. The newscaster’s steely voice leaps out of the TV in the dining room and paralyzes my hands.

Authorities discovered the body of Kurt Donald Cobain this morning in his Washington home. His death appears to be the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. We are airing this photo of the scene, though please be warned, this image is graphic and may be unsuitable for some viewers.

A policeman’s back is in the center of the photo but I couldn’t look away from the leg splayed out on the floor, too still. He’s wearing his dirty white Chucks, like he always did.

Kurt was the lead singer for the band Nirvana and his troubled childhood was often the subject of his songwriting. He was born in Aberdeen, Washington and lived there until his late teens. Fans are holding a candlelight vigil in Young Street Park, by the bridge made famous in Nirvana’s hit song ‘Something in the Way.’ Alicia, we’ll go to you for a live report.

I’m sure the field reporter is saying something suitably grim, but I just see the bridge. Our bridge. It looms over the Wishkah, the reporter, and the sobbing kids in flannel shirts in the background. My tongue feels thick and catches in the back of my throat. I stop counting money and duck out back for a smoke break. I still hand roll my cigarettes, just like he taught me that day on the riverbank. My hands are shaking so badly, I can hardly light the match. Oh fuck, Donald. Oh no.

–Elly Finzer

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