Nick Holdstock

The False River

Number of this bus: the 6838, which starts in L.A. and runs to Sacramento.

Number of passengers: 33, which is less than two-thirds full.

Number of black people: 20.

Number of white people: 8.

Number of people whose ethnicity cannot be determined without closer inspection: 5.

Number of men: 22.

Number of women: 11, 3 of whom are elderly. Judging from their expressions—please-don’t-rob-or-kill-me —they have never taken the bus before.

Number of the remaining 8 who are more than averagely pretty: 4. All but one are with a man who is unlikely to be a friend, cousin or brother, judging by the acts they’ve performed: a slow kiss; a slap on the ass; making her sit on his lap. For safety reasons, the latter was asked to desist, at first in a firm though friendly manner, then (on the second occasion) in a much stricter tone, and finally, 5 minutes ago, with a yell and a threat.

Number of more than averagely pretty women with hair so long and blonde and bright it looks as if she’s in some old religious painting where the women are angels or saints: 1.

Number of people talking on cell phones: 5.

Number of people using a device to listen to music: 7. The rest stare out at the sky which is full of clouds. I do not think there is much rain in them. A shower that will cleanse, but not drench. Dust will be washed from the chrome and the windows. The sun will reflect in so brilliant a fashion that even the most jaded observer will look on the shining road and feel that though there are no guarantees (and rarely grounds for optimism), there are, and always must be, chances for things to happen which transform a life.

Number of miles till we reach Modesto: 30.

Number of places in Modesto services where two people might enjoy a cup of coffee: 2. The chicken place has the best coffee, so long as Hector is working. Otherwise, it’s the burger joint whose coffee is tepid or scalding. But the coffee doesn’t have to be great, so long as it’s not terrible. Then it could be an unpleasant distraction from their conversation. If, for instance, the man is saying something important to the woman— a sentiment that began as a rough rock, which now, after weeks of being handled, is a smooth feeling he wishes to pass on —he will not want it distorted by a cup of coffee that tastes so awful it coats his words with oily, bitter drops. Then there might be a misunderstanding. She could get the wrong idea. She—

Number of times the red sedan in front has signalled, started to pull out, then cowardly hung back: 3.

Number of times the woman with hair you really have to call golden (whose name, according to the manifest, is Dominique Stitz) has taken the bus this month: 9, which isn’t necessarily accurate, because she could have taken it on either the 3 days I was off sick, or the 2 I was in court.

Number of times we have spoken: 9. When I take her ticket, she says, “Thank you,” then gets on the bus. I have never seen her smile, laugh, show any sign her life is not a miserable, long tunnel.

And sadness looks worse on a face like hers. It’s like a contradiction. This is a face you want to be happy, one that could make even the most callous stranger— someone who robs the poor box; mocks the disabled; sleeps with a married woman while her husband drives a fifty-five hour week —stop her in the street and ask, Whatever is the matter?

Number of miles to Modesto: 20.

Number of words I will say to Dominique as she climbs off the bus: 19. “I hope you don’t mind me asking but— Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me?”

Number of words she will reply: 4. As in, “Yes, I’d like that.” Or 3, as in, “Sure, why not?” And contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a number, like 7, or 13, that’s always lucky or not. It depends on the person and the situation. There are definitely trends, for sure, but nothing’s cast in stone. For example, while 9 has mostly been bad for me— I met my ex-wife on September 9th; there are 9 letters in her name, and 9 letters in his name —there are also 9 letters in Dominique, this is the 9th time we’ve met, and we’re on Highway 99. So while it’s good to be aware of these things, you shouldn’t let them freak you out. Not unless you want to end up like my dad (who stays home on days that contain a ‘3’).

Number of miles to Modesto: 15. I do not expect much. There will be no hugs or kisses. We are just going to talk. After our names, we’ll say where we’re from, what we do for a living (as a joke, I’ll say I’m a lawyer). Then, after an awkward pause, it will all come out. The months of suspicion; the affair; the divorce. What Charmaine said in court.

Then it will be Dominique’s turn. A betrayal, an accident, the death of someone dear: whatever the tragedy, the words will just flood out. She will find herself saying things she never thought she could. Because she’ll see that we are the same. Broken people ill treated by life who still cannot give up.

Number of times the man in front of her has laughed: 4. He is reading a book, or newspaper, I can’t tell which from here. He is in his late-twenties, with a short beard and glasses. I’m guessing he’s a student.

Number of signs for Big Don’s Chicken between Turlock and Modesto: 5

Number of times they said ‘mental cruelty’ during the hearing: 24.

Number of times Dominique has looked up, no doubt in annoyance, at the by now too numerous laughs from the man in front: 3. It’s all very well to enjoy things, but. After a point, it’s look-at-me-and-all-the-fun-I’m-having.

Correction. There are now 6 signs for Big Don’s Chicken. The new one features his face on a 10-foot rooster brandishing a drumstick. The big nose. coupled with his red cheeks, is enough of a resemblance for my hands to spasm on the wheel,  and the bus to lurch to the side. Apart from the elderly woman— who opens her eyes, looks around, shuts them —the only other person to notice is the bearded man who waves his hands in the air. He says something, then laughs, and when Dominique does too I am so taken aback by the sound— as warm as wine held in the mouth —that I almost forget about Big Don, or rather the man that Big Don resembles. The man who’d been a friend of mine since before I was married.

Number of times I hit him: 15. The branch was from an oak we were supposed to prune. If rain hadn’t flooded the road, if I hadn’t come back 2 hours early, the 2 of us would probably have cut that branch together.

Number of miles to Modesto: 5.

Number of times Dominique has laughed: 11. Which, like the number 9, is not a good number for me. It was the brand of lotion Charmaine used to rub on her feet. The lotion was pink and smelt of mint and there wasn’t a name on the bottle, only these 2 thick vertical lines which looked so black against the pink that they were like the bars of a cage within which there was not a creature, or person, but instead some substance of pure evil.

We pull into Modesto. “Be back in 15,” I say. Then Dominique’s out of her seat. She is moving down the aisle, closing the distance between us. Now, I think, and form the words. But she has come from two-thirds back, so although she makes it past several rows, the aisle is soon blocked. An old woman with coke-bottle glasses pats her coat and looks round in a puzzled fashion. As if her youth had only been mislaid, forgotten in some pocket. While she searches she smiles and apologises for being in people’s way, but despite this, does not hurry her hands.

The old woman touches her face, then sighs with pleasure. “There they are,” she says then steps out of the aisle.

And Dominique is like a popped cork: past and swiftly down the steps before I’ve said her name.

There is an interval I do not count. When I stand and watch them file past while I stand there, stunned. And this is the worst part of a slap: the fucking surprise of it.

I could just stay in my seat. Say it was never going to happen on meeting number 9. But despite what Charmaine said, I am not a slave to numbers. If I counted the words in her sentences, the fries on her plate, it was only because I liked the patterns they made.

I get off then lock the cab. I walk across the forecourt. As soon as the doors slide open, I smell the grease, the fat.

Hector is behind the counter, tossing bits of chicken. As I approach he turns and reaches for the coffee pot. “Steven,” he says and pours then puts the cup by me. “Thanks Hector,” I say. I slide him a bill, he slides it back, and then I scan the room. The window tables are full of spinsters (15), with 3, no, 4 men sitting amongst them, meek and silent pets. Apart from them, at other tables, are my passengers: the forgetful old woman, the amorous couple (she on his lap), the bearded man with the smug face. There they are. But she is not. And there are 9, 10, 11 seconds when I imagine her in the trunk of some man’s car. Darkness and the smell of oil. Her misery ending all wrong.

Then it is the scene in Taxi Driver where Cybil Shepherd floats in slow motion while De Niro says, “They… Cannot… Touch… Her…

She is perfect. Untouchable. But nonetheless, so sad. I don’t know if I can make her happy. If I have the words.

I step forward. She approaches. Then sits quickly down.

She is next to the bearded man whose eyes are wide with surprise, as mine must be as they close.

I count the panicked beats of my heart. The pulse of pain in my chest.

When, at 20, I open my eyes, she is no longer kissing him. They are kissing each other.

I watch their lips for many seconds that I do not count. Then I go back to the bus and sound the horn so loud that people spill their drinks. I start the engine and watch the passengers scurry to the bus. All except Dominique and him, who 10, 15 seconds later, almost skip between the sliding doors and here. At me they do not even glance. I am less than these spots of rain.

It cannot be me who says, “Next stop, Stockton.” Who swings the bus out into the road with barely a look in the mirror. But even that is enough. The two of them are entwined. His hands on her, his lips on her. This man who knows nothing of sadness. Who probably believes that books can offer better worlds. The last book I managed to finish was a children’s story someone left on the bus. It was called ‘The crocodile’s birthday party’. Many animals came to the party, all of them dressed in fine clothes. There were songs, cake, and games. Then the crocodile ate his guests. Hungrily and with as much pleasure as she is sucking his mouth.

It will be 32 miles to Stockton. Half an hour through rain. And why did she? How could she? Maybe she thinks they’ll do new things together, things that don’t connect with her past. They will go bowling; they will go camping; they will run through flower-filled meadows in the glorious now. But in a month, or year, she’ll realise: remission is not health.

The rain falls faster, heavier; it feels like we’re submerged. Outside is a smeared grey; only the road seems solid. True and straight and sure of purpose. On and on it goes.

Briefly— perhaps for air —their mouths disengage. Then she starts to speak. At first he smiles, but then his eyes start jerking sideways. Perhaps she’s saying she’s unhappy. That she’s so alone. Whatever she’s saying, it’s heartfelt and true, and he is unprepared. He leans back, not far, but still the point is made. He has refused her trust.

Number of miles to Stockton: 20. He is looking out the window; she stares at the floor.

If only he’d touch her head or shoulder. That is all it would take. Then she’d lift her head and I’d say, “It’s alright. Please go on.”

I drive the bus. The rain falls hard. Other vehicles approach or retreat and I cannot see people in them. It’s like when I’m driving at night: sometimes, when I’m very tired, I wonder if we’re dead. If there was some great accident we have all forgotten.

Number of miles to the San Joaquin bridge: 10. I push on the gas. The needle glides from 50 to 60. Dominique’s head stays down.

Number of miles to the bridge: 8. In the distance, above Stockton, there is a rent in the cloud. As we approach, it seems to widen; then the sun breaks through. The road is a strip that shines and beckons. We reach 65.

Number of miles to the bridge: 6. “Driver,” says a young guy in front, and there is concern in his voice. “Yeah?” I say, and then he swallows, says, “Aren’t we going too fast?” “It’s fine,” I say and he sits back. We reach 70. Now the passengers are anxious; they lean and confer. Some of them must be decent people who mow their lawns, pay their taxes, recycle plastic and glass. Unfortunately, this makes no difference. It is not a question of worth.

Number of miles to the bridge: 4. The sky is clear, the sun is bright. The view, in those final seconds, will be incredible.

Number of men who have stood up: 3. They stagger down the aisle. “Fuck are you doing?” says one. “Slow the fuck down,” says another. They are blocking the rear view mirror. I yell at them to move. “Call 9-1-1,” a woman says, and suddenly I’m scared. Not for myself, but Dominique. Is this just to punish her? Is there no other way?

They rattle the door. They hit the glass. The bridge is now in sight. I turn the wheel hard to the left and 2 of the men fall.

Number of people talking on phones: 8. The girl is on her boyfriend’s lap. Screams and shaking heads and tears and hands entwined in prayer. Dominique is the only one who doesn’t look afraid. Her arms are tight round the bearded man’s neck. Although their faces are close, they are not kissing, just staring into each other’s eyes. His chin trembles, he speaks, she smiles. They are like the lover’s shadows found on a Japanese wall. So united, so together, they left an indelible mark.

And so I wrench the wheel to the right, step hard on the brake. But this is too little, too late. We hit the side at 45 and there is a long moment when I gaze downriver. As far as the bend, the Louis Park, the Golf and Country Club. The sun goads the water to blue; roads are substitute rivers.

Then, after the shock of impact: cries of panic, pain. The windshield is completely gone. Blood on my hands and face.

“Go to the back,” I shout, and surprisingly they do. They huddle and gasp and cry while I remain at the front. Soon there’ll be police and sirens; many kinds of relief. She will cry and he will hold her. This is how it will be.

I allow myself one final glance. Then I am following the water’s great push. Bend after bend, through the False River, along the New York Slough. Down the Carquinez Straight, into the San Pablo bay. A pause to gather will and then. On to the Pacific. To its horizon without feature. Its waves beyond count.


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