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TO THE RIVER

BY DIANA S. ADAMS

BLAZEVOX[BOOKS]
Buffalo, New York

 

To The River by Diana S. Adams
Copyright © 2016
Published by BlazeVOX [books]
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without
the publisher’s written permission, except for brief quotations in
reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events
and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or
used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Interior design and typesetting by Geoffrey Gatza
Cover Art by Diana Adams
First Edition
ISBN: 978-1-60964-213-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015937805
BlazeVOX [books]
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Kenmore, NY 14217
Editor@blazevox.org

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He kneels by the brown-green river, tempted to
take a sip, but he knows it could make him sick if he
drinks from it. The river runs down from the
mountains through two towns before reaching this
spot in the ravine. He dips in a finger; the current is
full of strength and loaded with spring debris. He can
see his own warped reflection. The North
Saskatchewan River could easily own him right now;
it is reeling back at him and the paper birch along the
bank—they could go down too. The branches hang
low to flick their black onto the water’s surface.
As he looks past the line of trees he sees a woman
running with a German shepherd. She’s fast,
sprinting on the pathway, and her face is rigid with
exertion. The dog, soft-eyed, watches him as though
sensing him out. A few yards away the gish-gish
sounds of her running shoes stop on the pathway;
she’s not going this close to the water. She is cautious
but athletic-bound and must walk past him to

 

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continue on with her run. The dog pulls on the leash,
trying to come closer to him, but she yanks the dog
back, scolding it into submission. He’s seen her
before, broad-faced, healthy, hair tied back in a thick
ponytail like a schoolgirl. He recognizes that she’s a
certain type of woman, the type to always do the right
thing. He moves his weight onto his thighs and
relaxes his body. Now that he is being watched, it is
easy to shift into his ordinary self, the more casual
John Donner he has learned to become to keep
people at ease. Hello, you have reached John Donner.
His name on the old office recording flowed nicely
with vowel sounds strung together. He made his
voice a little higher in tone too, aiming to please.
Clients. Back then he was taking people’s money and
basically gambling it away. The market was a
playground, cash flowing around the world,
overnight, when he got up, before he went to bed.
The river is only a background now, rolling away
from him. He gives the woman a small smile of
greeting and holds out his hand to the dog. Hey, big
fella. The dog wants to come to him; he can see it in
its beige-black eyes. He knows dogs deep inside, their
pack needs, wolf thoughts.

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The woman nods with her eyes averted and then
her right foot slips, or at least that’s what he thinks.
There is a blank space of time and then before he
knows it he is holding on to her forearm, her red
running jacket twisting in his hand. But she is looking
at him in astonishment and there is raw fear in her
eyes. That’s when he has his first shock of doubt:
Why isn’t she grateful? Her mouth opens and before
the word ‘Help’ can begin to come out of it, he’s got
his other hand over her mouth. He won’t be able to
clear this from his head for months. At work, at
home, every time he steps through his front door. Her
dark blond hair falling out of the ponytail. His hand
going over her mouth, her lips underneath his palm.
She tries to bite his hand. He pushes his palm down
on the lips harder, feeling her teeth underneath the
gums. He can’t seem to breathe properly and he
doesn’t know if she is pushing or pulling. The river is
churning dangerously only one foot away. For a long
moment they are locked in this awkward hold. Now
he is afraid she will push him over the bank into the
water. His confusion and fear is so great he’s tempted
to take her to the ground. It’s like he has somehow
stepped into a movie. Surely this very scene has
played out before; he remembers it detail by detail.

 

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He keeps going over the facts in his mind, about
her foot and whether it slipped. She is wearing blue
and red running shoes that had little mud on them
until now. If she didn’t slip, then he is in deep
trouble. A few seconds ago he was so mesmerized by
the river that he now wonders if he didn’t create the
very event he was afraid of. There it was; that’s what
really worried him. He was capable of screwing up
again. Self-sabotage was the word Dr. Enzer had used.
How many traps can he make for himself? Messing
up other people and himself at the same time? So far
in the past two years he had kept it all together, and
he just wanted to get through this next phase without
trouble. But here was trouble in a gigantic way,
lurching up at him like a big black bus that he might
not be able to avoid.
He remembers Dr. Enzer saying that he must
release himself from an event at the first recognition,
he must engage in dialectical behavior therapy. But her
foot did slip, he tells himself, this is not that. Now he
is sure of it. The image of the shoe is burned in his
brain. This is not one of those events, he tells himself
again, and he tries to calm himself with deep breaths
through his nose.

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The shepherd is whimpering, turning around
and around in circles. Somehow even the dog is
aware that he is not accosting her. He tilts his head to
the animal as if to say, There, there is my proof.
He knows he has to let her go but worries that she
might put them both in the water. He needs to
somehow make things right. It is like pushing a huge
rock up a steep hill. He needs to change the situation
now. There must be an explanation; it can’t go down
this way so suddenly. He removes his hand from her
mouth. They move quickly away from danger.
Her panicked breathing is studded with
coughing, and now they stand apart on solid ground
far from the edge of the river. There is a small
amount of blood on her lips. He knows he has to steer
this now. He’s done it before and did it well in front
of a judge and the attacking lawyers. A jolt of hope
runs through him. He can do this, yes, yes, he can.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he hears himself saying calmly, in
his best voice, the one everyone wants to hear. ‘I
thought you were falling…’
A heavyset man is approaching them, his fat legs
running comically light on the path. And now the
dog is barking, followed by low growls at the other
man. John’s hands are up in the air. ‘Everything is

 

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fine,’ he says. The man is appraising him, putting
himself between the woman and then advancing
stealthily toward him. His hair is shaved short around
his round face and there is sweat on his smooth
forehead. Then, without much movement, he grabs
both of John’s arms and wrenches them up behind
John’s back.
‘Beth, what’s going on here? Is he causing any
trouble?’
She and John study each other, her flat greenbrown eyes darting to the river and back. She shakes
her head. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ she says. John
is starting to get queasy and might easily be sick if not
for his ability to somehow get a hold of a problematic
situation, as he has done so many times before, an
expert at changing a difficult encounter from
confrontation to affirmation.
‘I tripped and he, yes, he did keep me from
falling. But it was a bit too much to cover my mouth.
It hurt.’
‘I thought you were going to panic, that’s why I
did it. We both could have ended up in the river.’
His arms are set free; he shakes them to get rid of
the deep ache in his shoulder joints. Then he takes
out his wallet and finds his driver’s license. He’s not

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sure why—it’s the last thing he would normally want
to do—but there is something official about it. He
shows them the photo, the amiable smile and cleanshaven jawline of health and success.
‘Look, I thought you were going to fall and tried
to pull you back. I’m sorry if I startled you, but the
river is very dangerous at this time of year.’
For a long moment she and the heavyset man
both stand there, examining him. His dark-blue golf
jacket, the khaki pants, reasonably pressed. The man
takes John’s license and flattens his lips. The high
sides of the ravine surrounded them, with only the
narrow pathway between them and the river. The
slopes are thick with shrubbery and rock, brown with
flecks of green just starting to emerge in the
undergrowth. In the winter John had seen a pack of
coyotes coming down the banks, healthy beige-furred
beasts that had no intention of wavering their course
even though he was directly in their path. He yelled
and hollered, and the coyotes finally retreated,
traversing the sloping banks before coming down
onto the pathway some distance ahead of him.
‘John, is it?’ The man is looking back down at his
license. ‘I’m Len, Len Crawford. You reside on 14477

 

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Ravine Drive? So happens you two are only a few
doors away from each other.’
John nods, relieved that Len is now
conversational. ‘Are you with the police?’
‘I retired from the force a few years ago, but I still
have a knack for detailing a scene. Yeah, you seem
okay. Sorry if I got confused there for a second, you
were just trying to help. I’m sorry for wrenching your
arms.’
The woman’s eyes are shifting erratically, as if
she’s going over the events, looking for the answer as
to why there is something missing. The dog is sniffing
the ground, still moving around in circles, and then it
flops down to rest. She squats to pat it and then grabs
the fur around its neck, her eyes moving again from
him back to the river behind them.
John says, ‘Can I do anything for you? This is all
bit confusing—I was sitting here by the river
worrying about the possibility of someone falling in,
and then there you were.’
She’s pulling herself together and nodding.
Everything he’s saying hits the right mark. He feels
more relief wash over him. She is adjusting her jacket
and scraping mud off the bottom of her shoes on a
rock, shaking her head at the other man. There is a

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slight smile of embarrassment on her face. The pupils
of her eyes are huge. He knows how she works,
always putting things together in her thoughts and
fitting them into the perfect holes and squares.
‘I’ll walk back with you,’ Len says to her, holding
her by the elbow. The dog is leading her, anxious to
be walking again.
‘If I were you, I would try not to stand so close to
the bank next time,’ Len says to him with firm
politeness.
She looks back only once as they walk away. He’s
alone again, and the rushing sound of the river is
getting on his nerves.
From the pathway that goes up the hills of the
ravine he can see his house, a small stone-faced
bungalow constructed in the late 1960s in a Frank
Lloyd Wright style, built to last in a classic yet
modern line. Pride swells thick in him. He walks
faster, his boots taking up mud and grass in the
treads. Although he has lived here two years now, he
still finds it hard to believe the house is his, his alone.
Claire is nowhere near this house, except perhaps in
the car parked in the dirty-floored garage. The car
she insisted they buy, dark red and curved like an
animal. She would never own a house like this and

 

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probably had never even been in one, mortar
crumbling around the edges of the stone, the swirled
half-circles of rusting white wrought iron on the front
railing, the impossible wallpaper inside of snakes and
ferns. Her need for beauty would be repelled by the
beige shag carpet and the green fabric lamps that
haven’t moved in more than thirty years. And the
river too; it would be too much for her. It was not a
scenic lake or a swelling ocean; she had no use for
bodies of water that she couldn’t swim in. So, the
river became his own, a place he could go to get
outside of the ovens of the Bonnet Bakery after
working since the early hours of the morning, to get
outside of his own head and get outside of hers, her
thoughts still running through him daily like a drip.
The wooden steps out of the MacKinnon Ravine
are steep. He runs up them, the mud caked on his
boots slowing him down. His heart thuds so rapidly it
almost hurts. When he first thought about what it
might be like in Edmonton, he imagined it would be
dry and flat. Instead, he was confronted with a lush
river valley, dense and jungle-like, with some of the
tallest trees he’d ever seen. Towering spruce and pine
line the ravine, digging their roots into the rich
Alberta earth in search of a sip of the water table that

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rises up the steep banks of the North Saskatchewan
River. Oil Country, hockey, oil money.
‘Hey, Donner.’
Hanging over the wooden railing at the top, a
man waves his large, fleshy hand. George, a retired
anesthesiologist, is his neighbor six doors down. As
he tells anybody who will listen, since his wife died
five years ago he’d packed on the weight and was
eating through grief. He still found it necessary to
give out medical advice, particularly during flu
season.
‘What’s up, George? I usually don’t see you till
much later.’
‘Damn knee. Got me up early, probably when
you were only halfway through work.’
‘Yeah, yeah.’
‘Big game tonight. The Kings. Want to grab a bite
at the bar and watch?’
Before he can answer, George has a low croak of
a cough. The sound shocks him and just for a second
John can see into his mouth. Luminous and red, the
thick pads of his cheeks are cartoonishly round. John
looks away to the houses behind them so he doesn’t
have to see George spit into the dirt.

 

19  

‘Just a lingering bronchial difficulty.’ He reaches
into his coat, and John wonders how many years he
has had this black coat, as it barely stretches over his
large stomach and looks like it cuts into his waist.
Instead of tissue, George pulls out an egg salad
sandwich, undoing the tight cafeteria wrapping with
efficient fingers.
‘Protein, something you bakers don’t get enough
of,’ George says.
‘Oh, come on, I eat more than bread. I’m just
damn good at making it.’ And then, not wanting to
offend George, he adds, ‘I’ll take a pass on tonight. I
don’t work tomorrow and I have some things to catch
up on.’
‘Next time then, plenty of games coming up.’
Back at his house John faces the bare spaces of
early evening. He sits in the armchair covered in softyellow synthetic fabric; it is thick with foam slabs
about to pop out of the armrests. There’s a light on
the fireplace that he forgot to turn off last night; it is
directed at a piece of polished yet cracking driftwood.
It has been two years, but he still hasn’t bothered to
redecorate. He likes the retro feel of the space.
There’s a museum quality to the furniture and odd
knick-knacks that he finds appealing.

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It would be easy to sleep in the yellow chair in
front of the television, but he has learned that when
he comes home from a shift he has to get into bed or
he will never catch up on rest, and that would lead to
other days without proper sleep and then, worse, to a
kind of mental distraction that makes everything feel
wrong.
John is not a psychologist but has gleaned a few
things from Dr. Enzer over the years. There is some
comfort in this, self-knowledge, a sign that he has
better insight into things and is no longer the fuck-up
he was before. He wonders if the woman named Beth
is going to be afraid to go down to the ravine alone
again. The shepherd should be enough by way of
protection, yet obviously it can’t be completely relied
on to ward off perpetrators. There was something
stubborn in her thick lips, something about the way
she controlled herself even in the face of being
utterly scared that he had to admire. He sensed she
was wealthy, not only because of the large diamond
ring on her finger but the air of polite aloofness with
just the edge of a scold at the back of her glance.
When she realized he was not her attacker, it all
vanished; the scold, the indifference all moved to a
shared common ground.

 

21  

He pictures her going home and crying a little as
she told her husband about what had happened.
That she might have fallen into the river if it hadn’t
been for a man who was carelessly perched at the
edge of the riverbank. What man? the husband
would ask. It turns out he’s in our neighborhood, she
would say. At first I thought there was something not
quite right about him. John imagines the husband
giving her a brief hug and telling her that she
shouldn’t be going down in the ravine alone. His
protective tones would do nothing for her as she
clearly makes up her own agenda and that’s exactly
what the husband likes about her. They would each
return to the topic over the course of the evening,
unless there were children around, at which point
she and her husband would wait until they were
alone again so they could discuss it deeper and not
alarm them.
Again John has the odd sensation of both
watching and being in a movie, a scene in which a
curtain blows out from an open window and every
shot includes a subtle threat, all leading up to some
greater act of horror. He assumes he is just tired but
also worries whether he is getting a bit overwhelmed.
He reminds himself that there is no reason to

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experience dread again like this; confusion maybe,
but not the anticipation of an event that was
obviously not part of reality.
‘It doesn’t seem right to me, a healthy young
man living alone without comfort,’ George had said a
few days ago. It sounded old-fashioned at the time, as
though this were the 1960s and wives were popping
pot roasts into the oven while husbands snoozed into
their papers in armchairs with footrests. There was
some truth to it, now that he thinks of it: maybe too
much solitude isn’t good for him. He should get out
and play a game of squash after work, that’s it.
Something other than going home to this empty
house full of books and figurines. This is the first time
in his adult life he has been totally alone, and he’s not
sure he likes it.
Then he remembers his driver’s license. Shit. The
man named Len still has it. And Len is short for
what? He bangs his fist on the chair. John recalls
Len’s last name. He’ll look up “L Crawford” in the
morning and try to get his license back. Still, the idea
of someone else holding on to a major piece of
identification bothers him. God, how he hates this
kind of thing. He was hoping for a little anonymity at
this point. Something he has been afraid of, if not

 

23  

obsessive about—identity theft, shredding his mail,
anything with an address or phone number on it. It
had already been a demanding day and now he has
to worry about this too.
He walks to the main floor guest room and
stretches out on the bed. The previous owner had
painted the room lavender. Although it would have
never been his color choice, he finds it oddly
comforting. Even though there are three bedrooms
upstairs, including a large master bedroom, he has
claimed this one as his own. He still has to use the
bathroom upstairs though. He filled the closet of the
guest room with his few possessions and stacked up
books on the floor. He used to be surrounded by
books on finance and now he has every book on
baking he can get his hands on. The Cordon Bleu
textbook was as good as a degree in culinary arts.
John chose this room because it is easier to live
on one floor, and also because of the strong dusty
smell in the master bedroom—a kind of borderless
orchard of must. The smell of old people and, even
worse, the smell of the sick or the nearly dead.
John is learning about the former owner of the
house, sometimes more than he wants to know. He
found out that she died by falling between the tub

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and the pea-green sink in the upstairs bathroom. He
can’t help but think about Dot Burrows whenever he
shaves at the cracked sink or takes a shower.
Sometimes in the kitchen he can half imagine her
standing there, assembling a roast chicken and
potatoes, tipping back a small sip of sherry from the
rose-etched glasses that sit at the back of the cracked
white cupboards. George told him that Dot had tried
to take her own life a year before she died from her
fall, and that he’d been the one to help resuscitate
her. After swallowing a bottle of lorazepam, Dot had
lay down on the kitchen floor and then experienced a
drastic change of heart. She called George with
whatever lucidity she could muster. He got the
ambulance there quickly and helped insert a gastric
lavage into her stomach.
The guest-room bed is small and narrow, but it is
better than contemplating a dead woman. There
were too many traces of her in the upstairs rooms,
and he hasn’t the energy to clean out the shelves full
of perfume bottles, the wig on the stand that creeps
him out, or the books on gardening that are older
than even she was at the end.
It is still too light in the room to sleep, even
though he has pulled the heavy off-white drapes

 

25  

together. The outside light comes through a small
gap between the left and right drape and lands right
on his pillow. He gets up and yanks the drapes closer
together to create a little dark in the early evening.
Most days he is physically tired from the labor of
hoisting so many flour sacks at the bakery. Even with
the help of industrial mixers, it is still a hard lifting
job. His mother would have fought the mixers or,
even better, left and set up a small shop of her own to
sell pain au levain. Pain au levain is a demanding
dough, concocted from water, flour, and the wild
yeast that exists in the air. A Frankenstein bread, or
so he thought at twelve years old, because it was his
job to build the bread out of starters, feeding them
every three days a mix of potato water and the tough
unbleached flour that came from France. And then
there was the endless kneading, dozens of balls of
dough transformed to perfect domed loaves that
made it into hotels and restaurants. Some were also
sold to private customers from the main floor of their
house.
Before his mother got sick, she had kept the final
details of making bread to herself, only allowing him
to experiment with the starters and dough, never
allowing him to finish the final loaves. He learned to

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be dutiful around her as she worked, staying low and
quiet. Bread is alive, she would tell him. A living thing
comprised of cells that feed on sugars. It needs to be coaxed
into its own perfection and rise with growing cells, a being.
As a child, he knew he would have to decipher her
moods in order to work with her. If she was tense
from the pressure of producing a large amount of
bread, her shoulders snapped back, as if good posture
was being judged. She would dart around the kitchen
like a bird, clearing her throat at regular intervals. If,
on the other hand, she was pleased with the orders
and the way the bread was proceeding, there was a
dance-like movement to her work; she might sing a
little. On really bad days, he stayed away altogether;
it was what she expected and he was only too happy
to comply. For if he made any noise, talked, or
questioned her on these days, she would thunder him
with her anger. Her face broke out of its emotionless
French mask, wrinkles cragging up the flat space
between her brows and down the sides of her mouth.
The noise of the mixers is still with him now, a
sub-whirring deep in his ears. A close relative, a sister
to the sounds of vacuums, refrigerators, and floor
polishers. A working-person sound. Sometimes he
can’t sleep because it blends with the creaks and

 

27  

running water sounds of the house. The bungalow is
full of exchanges, gusts, and broadcasts from being
built too quickly in a cold climate and the business of
being there too long, old and stone-faced.
As he is about to enter the pre-dream state of a
good rest, the doorbell rings. Long, sonorous Big Ben
notes. He decides not to answer it. After three more
extended Big Bens, he gets up and hastily puts on his
pants, hoping it might be Len Crawford with his
driver’s license. He hurries to the peephole not to see
Len but the woman from the ravine. He unlocks the
door and before he can say anything she quickly says,
‘I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s Elizabeth
Lawrence—I’m not sure you caught my name in all
that kerfuffle.’
She’s holding out a loaf to him, banana bread.
He can smell the over-ripe bananas through the tight
plastic wrap layered with condensation. Not wanting
to take his hands off the door, he doesn’t take the
bread, but she insists, shoving the loaf at him as she
steps inside despite the fact the door is open only a
few inches. He feels caught off-guard, and in his
current mood he’s not sure he can pull out the social
niceties required.

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‘Thought I’d say thank you. I felt bad the way Len
did that to you. And you might have just saved my
life.’ She doesn’t hesitate to scope out the house.
‘I wondered who bought this place,’ she says and
pauses, ‘but I have never once seen you around.’ Her
look parses past him, x-ing back on the driftwood on
the fireplace, looking into the living room and up the
celery-green-carpeted stairway, wonderstruck. His
lack of response is now a form of rudeness. She takes
one step back, a little out the door, then comes back
in. Her face softening, she has clean-lined brows and
a smile on her plump mouth.
‘But it’s exactly the same!’
‘Sorry?’ he asks, completely bewildered.
‘I used to play in this house with Veronica
Burrows. We went to school together.’
He knows he should participate in a simple chat,
an exchange of what is required, and perhaps even
invite her in for a tour of the main floor. It would be
easy to dish out a few compliments on the banana
bread or ask her questions about who with and what
years she had played in the house. Talk about her
husband who works too much, or her children who
might be teenagers causing her some stress. He could
hit on her in some small way—flirt chat came easy to

 

29  

him, practically required when it came to the world
of finance. And she is attractive enough to expect that
kind of talk: a small smile, her scrubbed-fresh smell,
pushing off the compliments, controlling the flow. At
minimum he could offer her coffee to thank her for
her peace offering, so that this woman who has
obviously taken the pains to bake an extra loaf of
past-due banana bread after being scared out of her
wits will go away pleased, and when other neighbors
bring him up, or ask about the new occupant in the
old Burrows house, she might say something simple,
half-nice.
‘I’d have you come in, but I’m not quite feeling
well. I must be coming down with something,” he
offers, pulling the line from the primetime soap
opera he’s been watching lately to try to fall asleep at
8 p.m. so he can be up in the early hours of morning
to get to the bakery. His insomniac boats of eyes
straining at the bedroom television, eventually
waking himself up with a snore. The cedar-redhaired woman on the soap opera, her plush-lipped
response to a caller. A man named Jake, with slant
eyes and dark whips of hair, who later turns out to be
a stalker at the door.

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