Straight-Up (Rivertown 1)

A river cradles a smattering of houses before straightening out. Unnoticed by the march of humanity along the great water, the village huddles in its bend. Although a bus arrives from Neerbaipur every noon, on most days none deboard except to stretch, smoke or urinate. The townspeople build almost no motels or eateries and the bus stop is empty save the ticket clerk. Trucks arrive from Factrai on some weekly, fortnightly or irregular basis bringing milk, flour, fuel. Strong hands unload the goods into the backs of shops and warehouses. Later the men are seen at the diner with coffee and eggs. Then they are gone and the town is again an island.

My own arrival did not become gossip until a few hours after I crossed municipal limits. I showed up at the lone diner and asked for a place to stay. The owner was a gruff fifty going on seventy. He spoke out of the side of his mouth and his nose had a past, ruggedly beautiful if not completely healed. A heavy outbreak of stubble covered the lower half of his face while his forehead and nose gleamed slick.

“Do you have twenty dollars?” His eyes flicked up and down my frame.

“For the moment, yes,” I said. I smiled with teeth. His nose curled and his mouth opened outwards, showing me the pink of his inner lips. He ducked under the counter and came up beside me. “Bags?”

I shook my head no and followed as he led upstairs. Later that day I got a call from a high-pitched woman asking me if I would be staying long, and if so how I planned to feed myself. Before I could formulate a response she steamrolled on: “For only a dollar fifty cents per meal I can cook you good food that you would thank yourself for, if you ate it. For a dollar more it’ll go right up to wherever you are, wherever you are within the limits of our town. For a dollar more I’d feed you myself but I wouldn’t know what to do with all that money,” and she paused, inhaled, tittered. I told her no thanks, that I had my bourbon in the trunk and the grocery sold bread. I hung up and undressed. Before going to bed that first night I scratched a note on the cheap writing pad: “I will require no assistance from you beyond the provision of board. Please allow me my own introductions in this town.” I lit a match and burned one corner of the note, then blew out the little quarter circle of fire. This was the more eloquent part of the message: I was both serious and unhinged. I resolved to give it to him the next day. My anger dissipated, I retired for the day. My mind was empty, the muscles in my hips relaxed, the lids snug against my eyes.

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