Eramosa River Thieves

“Bacon County is my home place, and I’ve had to make do with it. If I think of where I come from, I think of the entire county. I think of all its people and its customs and all its loveliness and all its ugliness.” — Harry Crews

Through the dirt-coated garage window, I saw Loder and Joey pull up to the garage with Tom in the suicide seat and I watched the three of them amble up the gravel lane by the light Joey’s dad installed to detain burglars and coyotes in the dark.

‘Well, suck my dick in the prison shower,’ Tom said, fist-bumping, sort of high-five-hugging me.

He looked the same as he did when we’d played together: sort of handsome, a rude face made ruder for the slashes, gouges and lumps he’d taken, now in varying states of healing. He’d never been small, never really looked like a kid, even as a little boy. When he took his London Knights windbreaker off and threw one sleeve on Joey’s dad’s coat rack that said Welcome to The ManCave, veins rose like aquifers on his forearms and on the bedrock-pecs under Tom’s team T-shirt. He still cut his hair high and tight, still shaved every day, how I imagined they did in the army or in cults.

‘What’s new around here?’ Tom asked.

‘There’s a Hasty Market in Arkell now,’ Joey said.

Loder shook his head and twisted a cap off a bottle, flicked the cap across the room.

‘Woo,’ said Tom. ‘Place is blowing up.’

The four of us drank the Blue deliberately. We played beer pong on the Millers’ old kitchen table Joey’s dad had refurbished, spilling beer on the gloss, wiping about half the time. In between games, we passed around Joey’s snake bong, sprinkling the dried weed in the bowl, never cleaning out the residue or changing the water.

Tom and I took one side of the table, Joey and Loder took the other. We didn’t spend much time talking about Tom’s huge news: in June, he’d been drafted fifth round, to the Red Wings, and was going to training camp in two weeks. I figured at some point we’d get around to the nuts and bolts of his workouts, the sort of famous names he rubbed elbows with, but Tom didn’t share and we didn’t ask. We wanted to pretend we all still played on the same roster, if only for the night.

The four of us went back and forth for an hour, working our way through two of the cases on the floor, driving them into us before they became warm. I liked the equality.

I blacked out for a while, which meant I remembered not remembering, coming back to consciousness understanding a proposition had spilled onto the table next to the red Solo cups and the drying beer puddles: a race, on foot, to the Spirit Valley Bridge and back. Loder’s suggestion.

The Spirit Valley Bridge crossed the Eramosa about three kilometres away from our subdivision, down a concession road everyone called Indian Trail.

I had heard stories about the Spirit Valley Bridge: the best kind of stories, the ones no one needed to write down, the ones that blatantly ignored history and timelines—a man in a pilgrim’s hat with a buckle levitating off the bridge in the fog; snowmobiles with engines that died on one side of the bridge, the machines dragged across by suburban folk heroes, only to start effortlessly once past the river; a native-ish-looking man (the Neutral Nation supposedly summered here before they were de-neutralized by the Iroquois pre-Wal-Mart and Casino, pre-reservation) dressed Disney-style and TV-nude, running casually through the cedar stand while neighbours stopped on the bridge.

In the bare light of the garage, we stripped to our boxers, determined for some reason to run barefoot on the shoulder of the highway. We didn’t wear proper running shoes to begin with.

Tom had a Knights tattoo near his right nipple, the ink still wrapped in the Saran plastic stuff they gave you for after. Ideally, you showered with the wrap for the first few days, but I doubt he did. That tattoo had more to do with the Detroit Red Wings than the London Knights, and the night more to do with Loder and Minor Midget AAA than Joey or me.

Before we left, in the corner of the garage next to the paddleboat the Millers never used, I spotted Shannon’s ten-speed CCM bike. I checked the tire pressure with a thumb, leaning onto both the front and back rubber: fine. She must’ve still been riding to the corner store at the town line and Arkell Road when she couldn’t get a car, but I never saw her pedalling the shoulder. But I didn’t spend every moment with her, and I didn’t drive that way often.

‘Ready?’ Loder spat.

I thought about what Loder’s body had been through, amazed he wanted to run at all: two major concussions by then (at least ones doctors noticed). He had had a broken arm, healed broken ribs from the season before, a healing sprained ankle from the Under-17 camp. His orbital bone had cracked and popped back into place at the hospital from a game against Barrie. The injury made his entire face look slightly off-kilter, like he’d been made of wax and someone thought to bring him out of the sun just before his skin fleeced from his cheekbone, cheated the structure beneath.

‘I’ll bike,’ I said. ‘Stomach’s fucked.’

‘Really?’ Joey was doing deep knee bends. His right knee cracked every time. ‘Come on, man.’

I tried honesty. ‘I’m not feeling this, boys.’

A moment passed. The dirty, midsummer wind blew through the cracks in the garage’s side door. Rain smelled like a possibility, maybe a real vicious thunderstorm too, the kind that came on slowly like a headache on a Sunday afternoon—the headaches that went away, the ones Joey and I lived with.

‘You can judge,’ Loder said to me. ‘Who wins.’

Everyone took a hit off the snake bong, each of us waiting patiently for the next guy to pass. The water bubbled inside the glass chamber and each of us let long, painful coughs into the night. Joey coughed more deeply than he needed to and tore the lining in his lungs to get full effect. He kept spitting on the concrete floor.

We left. I stood on the pedals to get the bike moving. I thought of Joey’s sister’s thighs warm on the seat from summers past, her bare skin stuck to the seat when she sweated, when she pushed. More than Tom or Loder, I wished it were she and me and Joey, watching TV, eating sour cream and onion chips. Staying in.

Joey smoked a rare dart as we left, but he gave up on the run and the dart by the end of his driveway, holding up his silky Scooby-Doo boxers and hacking phlegm onto the gravel.

‘I’m fucking dying, boys.’ He sat hard on the grass, almost keeling over. His chest heaved up and down, his ribs cresting through his skin in the light swarmed by moths. Tom, Loder, and I left Joey and we didn’t look back. I could hear Joey’s deep coughs behind us in the dark.

I biked on the yellow hyphens, wove between where they broke, felt the heat of the day on the pavement, let the receding warmth soothe my fear, keep me from pointing out the danger—that low and urgent voice shackled in our heads.

Tom and Loder kept a steady pace through the dark, past the sparse and scattered and shuttered houses, past the Skunk’s Hollow turn, where a supposed paedophile named Henderson lived at the end of the lane. Years earlier, apparently, he used to flash the bus when kids got off where the town line met Henderson’s shared laneway, his dick flapping reassuringly small and unloaded, with the safety off but the chamber empty. He still lived there, in his collapsing house, but the school bus didn’t stop at Skunk’s Hollow anymore. A different story than the ones on the bridge and usually not mentioned by people sitting in lawn chairs on cracked driveways.

Both Tyler and Tom spoke little. A Flanagan’s food truck ruined the quiet, disrupted the crickets and Tom and Loder’s breathing. The engine broke the time they’d held with their bare feet. The three of us took to the ditch, waiting. If Loder and Tom had run over broken glass, if the gravel carved through the hardened flesh framing the soles of their feet, they didn’t say. Loder stood the length of a hockey stick from the Flanagan’s food truck’s oversized rear-view mirror, didn’t flinch as the wind blew back his hair. After the truck passed, I had to lift the bike up through the weeds and hoped poison ivy wasn’t tickling my shins, a thought at the edges of my mind that I ignored.

When Loder and Tom turned onto Indian Trail, they still had a little under a kilometre to the bridge. Loder fell apart. His breathing seemed fine, his feet stayed in time with Tom’s, but he swallowed, little hardly noticeable gulps, about every other time he drew a breath—all those concussions, the slow collapse of his muscles, his cardio’s erasure, the blood fleeing his ego through the black vein at the tip of everything.

We reached the Spirit Valley Bridge. No ghosts, at least not that night, but while we stood there for a minute, from up the black river, we saw a canoe blitz down the Eramosa, two headlamps shining like bandits’ knives against the blackness on the river, against the blackness on the banks, the night never quiet, but the two people in the canoe following the current, moving too fast for how much, even with modest headlamps, they could possibly see. I don’t know if they saw us, but in the three or four seconds we watched the river thieves before they disappeared under the bridge and away, they didn’t make a sound. All the times I’d been out there before and all the times since, I’d never seen anything like that—anything so reckless, so intimidatingly baffling.

‘Well that was weird,’ Tom said. He barely seemed out of breath, hands on his hip like a dad.

‘We should go back,’ I said. We shivered in our boxers.

Loder nodded and spat, or rather tried to spit, phlegm into the current. The saliva caught on the rusted iron and slid down the width of the rail.

We moved back towards the town line, and it pained me watching Tom pulling away from Loder in the dark, how silent and unavoidable this loss was. I could hear Loder’s feet start scraping the chewed-up asphalt: the top of his toenails like a slowing angle grinder every fourth or fifth stride.

‘I’ll walk with you,’ I said, coasting up. ‘Just walk, man. It’s okay.’

‘You fuck off, Campbell,’ he said. ‘You just fuck off.’ We watched Tom round the bend, turn the pin and accelerate away again, arms at his sides.

I biked ahead, into the dark between Loder and Tom, until I couldn’t hear either one of them. The space had grown in seconds. Coyotes yipped through the fields, probably by the Blue Springs, horny or hungry, both urges driven by the same energy. I’d had ten cookies after dinner, and sported a half-chub on Joey’s sister’s childhood ride.

I caught up to Tom. He made no mistakes. As a silhouette, Tom’s style was methodical, purposeful, no movement wasted, nothing given to style. He routinely sent NHL draft picks into Plexiglas, outpacing the country’s best.

I knew better than to bother him, to try and talk to him as he trudged up the slow slope of the town line. I stopped and waited there for Loder—made sure he got up the hill. He did. He kept moving, with gulps that turned to burps as the night swallowed him again. I felt my thigh muscles cramp on the too-small bike, felt the plastic pedals bite into the soft pads on my feet.

Behind me, in the dark, I heard what sounded like something ripping a screen door with its fingers: a cat, maybe, its owner gone to sleep with the TV on. Maybe a deer rustling the fireweed and dogwood and cattails in the ditch. Drivers who took the bend too fast cranked deer every summer, the motorcycle-sized jackrabbits heaved afterwards into soggy ditches for the coyotes and the turkey vultures.

When Tom came into the Millers’ laneway I waited under the light. I heard Loder before I saw what caused the sound from the darkness.

He came into my view; moisture streamed down his cheeks in jagged mismatched streaks that slashed through the gravel caked to his skin. He dragged his left leg, the one he’d hurt three years earlier, and even in the dark I could see his distended ankle, purple-green in the growing light from the laneway. He spat every few feet or so, pained spit that I knew wasn’t real spit, more like something deeper, something closer to bile.

Loder passed me and came into the laneway. His throat pumped, and he was promptly sick on the grass in three or four successions of grey splatter. I looked close, with a coroner’s fascination, and ogled the barely chewed hot peppers landing on the grass. The well-soaked blades cushioned the mush.

Loder straightened his back and wiped his mouth. As he tilted his head to the night sky, the light caught his chest and I saw what had been making that sound: he’d been scratching his chest, flagellating himself out of punishment and as motivation to catch Tom, to catch his own ghost. Long pale furrows crisscrossed in the cavern between his nipples, across his sternum and up to his collarbones. He’d willed himself further; his instincts betrayed by his body, his childhood pushed away by the beer, by his weakness, his abject failure, by Tom, by the heady moisture in the air.

‘Don’t say a fucking thing,’ Loder said to me. He pulled a piece of wilted lettuce, like dead skin, off his upper lip.

I didn’t.

Loder walked ahead of me to the garage, no trace of a limp in the light outside the garage.

Another case of Blue sat unopened in the garage by the couch, the sun still two and a half hours away.

I walked Joey’s sister’s bike down the lane after my friends.

Tom didn’t gloat about beating Loder, just about Joey and me backing out. Tom fiddled with his iPod. Joey passed out on the mouldy loveseat in front of the T.V. stuck on witching-hour white noise.

Tom found some Jay-Z and Linkin Park collaboration and fed the sound through the old speakers mounted on the studs. The three of us sat up talking until the first unnamed birds sang through the grease-stained window and the last Blue clanged noisily into the case.

Watching Joey’s chest rise and fall, Tom said to Loder and to me, ‘I love you boys.’ He cast a hand around the half-lit garage. ‘But this town is stuck on something. That’s why I hate coming home.’

Alexander Carey was born in Guelph, Ontario. His work has previously appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rusty Toque, and The Feathertale Review. He recently finished his MA in English and Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick, where he wrote a hockey novel.

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