The River by the Garden
By Steve Passey
Stone from the quarry comes down to our shop and is made into monuments. You can see them in the cemetery behind the church, behind Jesus in his house under his father’s roof. There are rows of stones there with consecutive dates that tell of some catastrophe born of high water, and here and there a small group with a common surname and a singular date, a calamity made from fire.
Friday after work the boys get together for a “Shop Party.” Some days in August it’s just too hot and humid to go home. We sit in the shop with the doors open, have a few beers, and try to catch a breeze. Little drops of condensation form on the cans and it goes down like manna from heaven.
“Cheesy” is there complaining about his friend’s car. His real name is Kenny but everyone calls him “Cheesy.” The nickname has stuck with him so long no one remembers how he got it.
“Saddest thing I ever heard,” Cheesy said. “My buddy is sitting there in lock-up on account of he sold a one-hitter to an undercover cop. A one-hitter! Everyone knows he ain’t a dealer. He was just being sociable. So he pled guilty just to get past it. But the state fined him, fined him hard. They gave him two years probation, and seized his El Camino as ‘The proceeds of crime.’ He’s a working man like all of us, he spent eight years fixing it up, and all of a sudden its ‘the proceeds of crime?'”
We all nod except for Wilkie. Wilkie isn’t at the shop often, just on the hottest days. He’s been at the quarry for 20 years now and the dust from working stone has gotten into his hands. His palms are as white as an alabaster Christ, like the Christ up there above the altar in the church, Jesus who looks down with pity at all of us.
He spoke quietly, almost to himself: “Back in ’93 when it rained a whole month and the levees started to break I was sandbagging like everyone else. We filled those bags and stacked ‘em up. The rain clouds finally busted up and went away but we still bagged until last light. At about the same time our backs and shoulders all give out and we stood there, bent over and breathing hard, watching that dirty river roll on by. Things come on down the river. The roofs of houses, the sides of barns, dead cows and living trees. By light of the setting sun, I saw a baby’s coffin on the river, all by itself.
I saw that little coffin go by, white with a gold cross upon it, and I thought for a moment it must be my baby brother, Jimmy. I never did know him. He was born with a hole in his heart and they couldn’t fix it. He had the surgery and then he passed. My mama still carries that with her. I hadn’t thought of Jimmy in years but when that baby’s coffin come by, small and white as it was, I thought right away it had to be Jimmy.”
No one spoke. Everyone just looked at the ground or at each other. Wilkie continued:
“It’s a hard thing only when it’s hard on the living and the dead. A vehicle is just tin. I’ll tell you what: the State will auction off that El Camino next month. Your friend can just go on and buy it back. Ain’t no one who knows him gonna bid against him. It won’t cost him any more than the fine did.”
“Yeah, he could do that,” said Cheesy. “He could, alright. If he wanted.”
Cooler now, finally. A breeze is coming down through the trees and through the quiet, born from the clouds of a distant storm way up across the river. It brings relief from the clinging dust and is a balm against the heat.