The River

The boy was running across the field like a madman, his tan suit flapping about him like ineffective wings, his bag bouncing against his side. Judge Hansson saw him at the end of his ironsights, a bobbing, lanky thing that could never shake the twin metal spurs. The judge wore drab camoflauge and a brown deerstalker. His hair was wispy under there, past steel, now weak and sloughing off slowly. The grass was tall and he sank into it like a nest.

He watched the boy coming on. His lips were thin and pressed together. Old age had made his right eye rheumy, but his aim was true. He wanted the boy to stop finding him but the boy wouldn’t, he kept finding Judge Hansson, kept chasing him.

The sky was more blue than grey but only just. Clouds were creeping in from the southwest, moving like a herd, making the sunless sky dark with the question of rain. Wind swept in from that direction. Slow and steady. Judge Hansson breathed it in through big nostrils.

Not one deer all day. He had thought that all the deer were scared off by the development in town. He’d thought that they went north where there was less of it, where they could bound freely without the threat of some long jut of black char. When Edward Quinn had shown him the new deer head he had mantled, Judge Hansson couldn’t resist the pull. He thought he might mount the deer’s rear end just for a change. He’d use the deer’s legs for tablelegs.

The boy was getting close enough, perhaps, to see where the rifle was trained. Those spurs came up under the boy’s armpits, sizing him up.

It was quiet except for the wind hissing along the tops of the blades of grass. He could concentrate. He licked his lips, his lower one the longest, really wet it. The boy kept on running.

Judge Hansson sighed and dropped his aim. He didn’t really have the nerve to do it. Those spurs framed the boy’s knee.

<>

Water rushing. Judge Hansson looked down at his hands, how red they were. Blood in the grout of his palms. He had stripped to a wifebeater that was wrong for his old, saggy body. The kitchen was lit by a single lamp in a half-ornate candlebra. Rustic was the word.

“You didn’t think you’d get away with it,” his wife was saying, standing in the doorway. She was a thin woman, small, wizened. Her face was narrow and a halo of undaunted white fluff surrounded it. Hair, maybe, but not quite. He knew she was in that white robe she always wore, the one she got from a New York hotel. “Nate.”

He put his hands into the water and took them out again because it was too cold. He hated the smell of this kitchen, the overbearing smell of turkey and bread and mustard and wine. He watched the water, running so fast it was white instead of clear. It was warming up. He could feel it through the air, in his fingers.

“You told me so when you were starting,” his wife said. “‘It’s not gonna work out but let’s ride it for a laugh and get what we can.’ Your exact words, Nate. You knew it wasn’t gonna last forever.”

Those were not his exact words. He looked at the bottle of dishwashing soap next to the faucet. It was less than a quarter full with neon yellow liquid. He thought about taking it, but he’d get blood all over it. Not his blood. An argument like that wouldn’t hold up in any court. The water was still warming up, filling up the bottom of the sink but never rising too high because so much of it ran down into the drain.

“But those girls deserved better. You know they did. They didn’t do anything wrong enough to get sent to prison, not at their age.”

Those girls got used up and screwed, but not by him. Not him alone. The system. He put his left hand under the water. It was warmer than before but not yet warm, not the way he liked it. He put his right hand under and rubbed them together as the water warmed up. Blood was coaxed out by the water and a liquid, lighter than blood but redder than water, ran out from his hands and into the sink and into the drain.

“And then you shot the server!” His wife sounded exasperated. “Thank goodness you brought him back here. Can you imagine if you’d left that boy out there to bleed to death?”

He could imagine. He looked at his hands and they were still bloody, running with it, water sluicing off his palms and into the steel sink. His nails were ruined with blood. He put his hands back together and ground them together, rubbing the blood free from the places it was hiding, trying to make it break its clinging habit. The water was warm now and wasn’t warming any more.

“Have you looked at the letter?”

He reached out with bloody water dripping from his hand and he took the bottle. He squirted yellow detergent all over his hand.

“D’you want me to open it?”

He rubbed his hands together, worked the soap into them. Suds piled out from between his hands, between his fingers, openings he had never seen before. To clean his nails, he used his palm as a buffer, went over them one by one and then changed to the other. Bubbles spread around the base of the sink. He heard his wife sigh.

“I guess you know what it says anyway.”

The water ran free as he flicked his fingers down, sending droplets of water off into the basin. His hands didn’t feel any drier. He could see the little streaks of red blood at the base of his nails. It was always that way.

“I can see it in you, Nate. It’s the stress. That’s what’s making you do all this. You just need to calm down. They can’t put a man your age in prison.”

He heard his wife’s slippers hushing across the tile floor as she came towards him. He reached up and turned off the faucet. The hiss-hiss, the look she probably had on her face, all quiet and demure and understanding. The hiss-hiss of those slippers drove him insane.

“Go talk to the DA, Nate. This’ll blow over. He can probably even make this assault disappear.”

“Don’t touch me,” Judge Hansson said before she touched him. “Don’t you lay a hand on me, Beth, or I swear I’ll knock your teeth right out of your mouth.”

Beth didn’t like to be teased about her dentures. He wasn’t teasing.

He turned away from her and walked out of the kitchen. His jacket was hanging on the back of a chair and he picked it up as he walked, pulling it on without breaking his stride. He crossed from tile to the hardwood of the living room, the warmth of the fire, the coziness of rug and couches and deep-brown oak table in the center of the room.

Judge Hansson stopped at the arm of the long couch and looked down at the boy bleeding all over it. The boy’s left leg looked as if it were in two, separated by a wholly red bandage. The boy looked up at him and Judge Hansson met his eyes. The judge looked down at the black dufflebag.

“Whaddya got in there?” he asked. “Heads?”

“Sir?” the boy asked.

The judge walked past the boy and across the living room to the side door that went straight into the garage. He didn’t need to flick on the light. He maneuvered his old body towards the front of the garage. The chill was almost too much for him or might have been some other time. The light that rolled in from inside was blocked partially by the form of his wife.

“It’s the stress, Beth,” he said as he pulled on the cord hanging from the ceiling, tugging up the garage door slowly. His muscles threatened to show against the flab in his arms as he strained. “It’s got me. Don’t come near me, Beth. Wasn’t too old to start this mess and I’m not too old to hurt you.”

She was silent as he opened the garage up to the graying outside. He took his keys out of his pocket and opened his station wagon. He got into the familiar old car, started it up, felt it coughing around him. There was enough gas to get him to a gas station and he had money in his bag in the backseat. He wasn’t too old to start over.

Oh yes he was. But he didn’t care.

That stubborn station wagon pulled out of the garage and turned. It had been defeated long ago. Judge Hansson wouldn’t let it die. He wondered how his wife would handle the server and the subpoena and the DA and the bills and life without him. She would cope. That’s who she was.

As for him, he didn’t have long left and he wasn’t going to spend it pawning his dignity off to some bullshit attorney because a couple girls got molested and went up the river and a server got shot boo hoo.

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