River Run


Thighs burned. Cold air stung his throat. Beneath his knee caps, buried inside the knot
of ligaments, muscle and bone, something clunked rhythmically with each step. Reaching
down, he clinched the joint, squeezed it a few times, trying to knead the ache out of it. Hours
into his escape, all movement had begun to drain his energy and caused his muscles to burn.
He huffed, working to regain a steady breath. Steam swirled from his mouth and nostrils, even
though it wasn’t that cold in the woods. He raised his gaze from the forest floor, blinked away
the bits of dirt, leaves and gnats that had accumulated in the corners of his eyes, and
concentrated on the shadows from trees that choked his route. Around him, the air looked
grainy and incomplete, like the black and white Polaroid of his parents tucked in his sock,
their lean bodies sprawled across the hood of a dented GTO and cans of Stroh’s clenched in
their fists.


He pondered the sky through the snarled branches above. Clouds had settled in and
sunlight leaked from the woods. Sometime, around 3 or 4, shadows swelled between trees,
darkening his escape. But he pushed forward—staying on schedule was the only way he’d
have a shot at making it back home. Take the two hours he allotted to rest. Regain leg strength.
Give his achy back a break. He lurched forward, his balance uncertain, and felt the last threads
of adrenaline seep through his veins like oil. The branches twisted above, grassy hills that he’d
stumbled over, leaves that skittered in ravines as squirrels scampered out of his way, made
him feel unsteady, as if he’d been sucker-punched at a block party after drinking too many
beers. He pitched forward a few more feet, trying to recall if he’d ever been punched like that,
even during a fight, unsure where the idea came from, given his current state. Finally, he
paused, leaned his back against a dead oak, it’s trunk pitted by woodpeckers and gnarled with
warty burls, and slid to his butt.


Estimate, he muttered, rubbing his mud-glazed hands together. He gulped a mouthful
of air, heaved it out. In front of him, the river surged. With his right hand, he yanked the neck
of his cotton pullover to expose his sweaty chest, shoulders and arms to a rush of cold air and
clamped his eyes shut. At least there’s water. Maybe some nut trees. A raspberry bush or two,
though by now the fruit was probably puckered and moldy, its stems picked clean by deer and
bear. He glanced around the clearing. The soft bark from cottonwoods could offer food.


Chewing on it might be similar to the chicken patties the center served on Friday nights or
special occasions, rubbery scabs of yellowed meat marinated in mustard and oil on a bed of
rice, the taste of which lingered for hours in his burps. The saltines he’d snagged from the
kitchen during his shift the day before had been ground into a dust on his run. But the brick of
cheddar cheese—that remained intact, zipped inside a sandwich bag stuffed into the pocket of
his sweats.


He cupped his hands around his mouth and breathed into them, mindful of his rough
and scaly skin. Using a finger, he hooked the cloudy bag of cracker dust in his pocket, held it
up before his eyes and opened it, then poured the crumbs into his mouth. The remnants
lingered on his tongue and made his taste buds water. He swallowed, savoring the salty tang a
few seconds longer before they dissolved and left his mouth filled with saliva. The cheese
could wait, he decided, stuffing the bag into his pocket, certain of its future use.


He let his head fall against the tree. Don’t sit long, he thought to himself, grateful for the
chance to stop, his tired body melting comfortably into the contour of the trunk.


A hip ached. He stretched his legs, deciding that if he dozed, there wasn’t anyone for
miles who might stumble onto him. That much he was certain of. About five hours into his
escape, he clambered up a hill, bent over to catch his breath at the top, then looked out at the
miles of wilderness. Gray clouds scudded near the horizon. The river, glinting under the
muted sun, meandered through the forest, churning beneath the red, green and auburn leaves,
concealing the places where deer drink and packs of coyotes hunt at night. He couldn’t make
out the horizo —the thread of water that cut through the misty hills went on and on until it
dissolved into the sky. At the point where the river and atmosphere merged, a ribbon of
smoke from a distant camp fire curled upward and for the first time since he escaped from the
center he had the sense that somewhere out in that wilderness troupers and sherrifs were
looking for him.


He squeezed a knee again, confident that the decision to leave before November was a
good one. Judging from last year, winter in these parts came early, and lingered through late
April or May. He remembered the wind howling and the groan of rafters above him, the
pecking of blowing snow that lashed his window. Some white-outs were so thick they erased
the woods on the far side of the field, making the world outside an empty tundra of snow.


Winter in this part of Michigan was inscrutable and didn’t observe the measure of time,
leaving him with nothing to do except read, gaze at the blowing snow and dream about ways
to get back home to his mom. In Detroit, the season was different. Snow squalls moved down
from Windsor without notice and blanketed grimy streets in white. After a day or two, banks
feathered with black exhaust dust eventually melted when temperatures rose above freezing,
leaving behind slushy rivers and potholes the size of basketballs. But up north, snowstorms
were serious, unfettered business. No cars, pollution, people or buildings to buffer their
intensity. Had he waited much longer, he could’ve been caught in an early blizzard and ended
up frozen against a tree. Months, maybe even a year before anyone might have found his
body. By then, he would have dissolved into the tenderized earth, blood and bones nourishing
the wildflowers that sprouted along river banks and meadows whiskered with new grass
where fawns played at dawn. No ryhme or reason to it. Winter’s unpredictable anger and
spring’s quiet beauty were extremes he admired from behind the center’s electrified fence and
barred windows.


He let go of his knee and looked toward the river. A good place to get lost. For a minute
he wondered if the people who lived in town were born somewhere else. Some may have
chosen to move to these woods years ago. They accepted the cold, snow, heat, rain, deer and
river without question, hopeful that such a place might blunt the hardness of past mistakes.


Standing on that hill and squinting down at the river and trees, it was clear to him that a
person’s history could be swallowed by a place like this. The map of his own life wasn’t carved
with fertile valleys or etched with creeks, streams and ponds he could sip from at any time
without worry. No rundown houses with wood boards slanted across windows, soot-stained
bus shelters with busted benches or the clack of gunfire in his ears. Standing on the hill, he
decided that convincing his mom to pack up her things and move north to start over might not
be a hard nut to crack.


Sleep tugged at his body. He patted the forest floor, covered in dead leaves. Despite its
coolness, the earth where he sat was soft and seemed like a place where he could harbor for
the night, far from any route hunters take in the morning at sunrise when they trudged silently
to their blinds, rifles cradled in their arms. He hadn’t come across any blinds yet. Or hunters.


He scanned the clearing. Good spot hidden by a thick stand of leafless trees on three sides and
the river in front of him. For a second, he quickly re-assessed the impact a nap might make on
his timeline, using his fingers to calculate rest, and realized that three or four hours would
work. The paint-peeled siding and tar-patched roof of his mother’s rickety bungalow in
northwest Detroit wasn’t going anywhere.


He drew a long breath and nodded to himself, understanding that no matter how long
it would take to get back home, his neighborhood wouldn’t change. Housing units remained
abandoned. Businesses moved north to Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Southfield. Some with a little
money had gone as far west as Northville, Plymouth and Ann Arbor, leaving behind blocks of
boarded up store fronts tagged in spray paint. Growing up, he learned to block out the barks
of homeless men scuffling over cigarette butts at McNichols and Livernois, hustle past the
despondent howls of angry lovers in houses that leaked into the streets, duck at the clack clack
clack
of gunshots in graffiti-smudged alleys late at night. The drive needed to avoid the cops
and skulk from one burned-out house to the next, windows cracked like broken eyeglasses,
wouldn’t be difficult to muster once again. He stayed clear of places with shattered windows
and dislocated gutters that gushed greasy rain water into scrub brush yards. Teenagers from
the suburbs bought diesel at those places once the sun went down, hooting in excitement as
they emerged from the shadowed front door, baggies tucked into their crotches. They parked
light-colored Yukons and Range Rovers next to rusting hulks of Fords and Mercurys with
crumpled bumpers bound by duct tape, beaters that never seemed to move. Sometimes
dealers, the homeless, teenagers from suburbs and working people on his block vanished as
they strolled past those houses. Months later, the police might find them dumped in the weedy
spaces between vacant factories and warehouses, the ones with stonewashed letters tattooed
on disintegrating brick walls. Or else their bodies were twisted among trash caught in grates
that filtered sludgy runoff, leaving loved ones confused at how they ended up in the city’s
sewar system.


Millions of reasons why people disappeared. In his mind, easy to lump them into four
basic categories: murder, suicide, addiction, stupidity. By the time he shipped out for the
detention center, he’d learned that the missing might linger through the winter into the spring,
located only when city workers cut overgrown lots and picked up winter refuse on the first
warm day. Sometimes a year or two might pass before the burned out shell of their SUV was
found pitted with rust in an abandoned garage. By then it didn’t matter. The dead hadn’t
practiced the art of movement before overdosing or getting shot. For them, life spun off an
invisible axis and skittered beyond their grasp, until they were found in open fields with
hands clutched to purses, porcelain crack pipes gunked with resin in the pockets of scrungy
jeans, empty wallets dumped in the dirt a few feet from their bodies.


He’d heard about a few from the block who went missing. How they stepped out of
their cars after taking a few too many hits and shuffled blindly into the night, their vehicles left
to idle beneath cracked underbellies of overpasses until they ran out of gas. He wasn’t a fool.
By the time he might make it home, the police would have already checked in with his mother,
made their inquiries, marked their calendars to return two, three weeks later, and then move
on. He could imagine their menacing figures crowding the front door, surveying the dark bags
under her eyes, the stale waft of whiskey on her breath. Cops were all cut from the same mold.
They’d wonder aloud why their visit made any sense. Scrunch their faces in anger. Shake their
heads and chuckle when they learned that he might be strung out and dead somewhere, or
caught up in a drug deal gone bad. For a few weeks, stopping by the house would play a small
part in their regular patrol, a way to kill an hour before lunch without getting involved. The
smart ones might think he would’ve left the state or found some place to lay low for the next
10 or 15 years. No scientific equation by which they might track him down or give up the
search. Avoiding them wasn’t dumb luck.


He breathed deep, closed his eyes, and nodded to himself. Clear that his return to the
center wouldn’t rate very high. Just another kid in for assualt and battery. Northwest Detroit
dirt bag. Except that he was white. Father crushed at Lynch Road assembly by the time he
turned four. Mother who drank and gobbled scratch like M & Ms. Maybe she’d disagree, but
that didn’t matter. She’d spent most of her time after his father’s death marinating her
depression with whiskey, cough syrup, a stray watson whenever she lucked upon one. Given
the fermentation of her mind, her ability to form coherent thought shrunk each year. She’d
struggle to find words during conversations, even though their meaning might’ve been clear
in her head. It was as if an invisible circuit had been stripped of its insulation and was no
longer capable of sustaining a single thought for any consistent length of time. His conviction
was an especially tough subject and required him to avoid specific term: Detention. Assault.
Time served. Sometimes, when she visited, her rutted face twisted up, her lips tightened in
frustration, and she looked away so that he couldn’t see her crying. He’d push his hand across
the visit room table and gently touch her wrist in those moments, and she would nod back at
him, her damp eyes squeezed tight. One day he’d hoped her words might return. Somehow
slip back into her memory banks over night while she slept. But in the back of his mind he
knew it was improbable.


He sat up, reached into his sock, peeled the photograph, now soft and pliable from
sweat, off of his ankle, arranged it on his thigh. Only 17. He snickered, shook his head. His
father looked chiseled—square shoulders, biceps carved from years of football in vacant lots in
east Detroit, veins bulging against muscle, neck as thick as a light pole. And his mom—he
looked away, embarrassed a few seconds for looking at her polka dot bikini. Her skin was
dark from the summer sun. He peered at his dirt-caked knuckles of his right hand resting in
his lap. Tone more olive than brown, he decided. Months ago when he first arrived, a few
guards and counselors had mistakened him for being Italian, given his skin color, black hair
and the fact that he came from Detroit. He was certain they all read his file and knew the
details of his case. One of them must’ve decided he was from a Mafia family, a member of the
Detroit Partnership, and took to calling him Tommy Two Fists. After a few months, the name
evolved into just TT and then finally shortened to Tits. At first he didn’t like being called Tits
but over time he’d grown to accept it. He hadn’t any desire to correct anyone at the center and
tried not to say too much. There was an unspoken weight behind the nickname, an ounce or
two of history to keep the other delinquents from giving him trouble. Not one guard knew he
was actually Irish. Black Irish, his mother once told him. Even his last name—Craven—made it
difficult to ascertain his real nationality.


He surveyed the picture. Probably couldn’t keep his hands off of her. His eyes were the
same as his father’s—round and wide, as if in a state of surprise. Even though he couldn’t tell
looking at the black and white photo, he figured their irises were the same—light blue,
rimmed with a thread of gray. Now, 12 or 13 years since he was gone, he could still remember
his Old Spice aftershave and stale beer when he barreled through the front door, scooped him
up, heaved him into the air after his shift at the plant. Sometimes the faint aroma of diesel gas
in his thick blond hair. His beard was rough and scaly like sandpaper. And there was always
that splat of axel grease across the Ford emblem of his blue-gray coveralls.


Boy wonder, he would shout, catching him, then squeezing the air from his tiny lungs
with a bear hug. What has the crown prince of the kingdom been up to today?

Andy, clean up, we’re eating, his mother would call from the kitchen inside their tiny
bungalow.


His father would hug him again and then one more time, his bushy eyebrows raised as
if he had a question.


I played cars, and trains and spilled milk on couch and peed in the laundry basket and…


His father would heave him upwards again, then again. A deep belly laugh would
follow. Through his clothes, his arms felt hard like wood.


Dadda’s big boy had a busy day, eh? he would chuckle.


Did ya hear about his peeing in the basket? Not very funny. I had to redo the laundry. And he’s
gonna puke on you if you keep it up
, his mother would claim, drifting back and forth across the
white formica floor between the table and stove, a can of Stroh’s in her hand. Don’t say I didn’t
warn ya.


His father would then set him down and let him teeter toward the kitchen like a drunk
midget. He won’t puke, he rasped, voice gravelly from cigarettes. He’s a strong little manimal.


He cinched his eyes shut and slung his head against the tree, trying to forget the
memory. Calculations, he muttered. Lately the word helped sidetrack his thoughts when he
whispered it aloud. Cal-cu-la-tions. Four sylables. Easy to elongate. Had to be correct, he
figured, changing his thoughts. Precise. He started running the numbers again in his head, the
memory of his father slowly retreating. Calculations. The word floated in the steam from his
mouth, hovering in front of his eyes, waiting for him to suck it back in. His first year in the
center had been defined by the word. Calculate the number of minutes to eat lunch. Calculate
how much time he could knock off for good behavior. Calculate time to cover one mile.


Calculate food needs for two days. Calculate how to get home to Detroit. What route? Reasons
for a ride? He turned the questions over in his head, day and night, considered the number of
miles he had to trek through the forest to alude capture, especially now, with hunters
patrolling the woods during rifle season. His best estimate, given his inexperience with
northern Michigan, was 21 miles. Probably less than that, but he didn’t want to take any
chances with underestimates. He couldn’t recall the number of nights he lay on his cot staring
up at the cracked concrete ceiling, slats of moonlight streaming through the barred window,
calculating his hourly progress and protocol police departments might deploy. Most would
assume he’d take to roads, given all the shooting in the woods. Maybe they’d search for three,
possibly four days. Issue an APB. Enlist the DNR to explore the back woods on camo-painted,
mud-spattered four-wheelers, the distant growl of their engines descernible from miles away.


He looked around, into the shadowy forest. So far, nothing. No helicopters. No four
wheelers. No dogs. Following the river proved to be a good choice—a visible resource that
was too obvious for use, something they may have simply decided not to address during their
planning. This decision, he figured, hewing the forest floor with his fingers, misled searchers,
at least to this point. Maybe they hadn’t dispatched more than a few to look. His crime wasn’t
that bad. Two straight shots to his fat, greasy face. A knee to the nose on the way down to the
floor for good measure. Didn’t matter that his eye socket was broken. Or that his retina
detached and jaw was fractured. Or that this was the second assault in the last year. The
concussion—that was a fortunate piece of luck he didn’t include in his calculations, something
he had no opportunity to restrain, an outcome he was proud of. He could live with the price
he now paid.


He stretched his tired legs, yawned. The Rifle River gurgled. Water scrambling over
rocks sounded like letters, words and phrases he couldn’t decipher or understand. Numbers?
Maybe. Numbers and times, numerical expressions, formulas to guide him. In his brief
hallucination, he started to calculate again. At least he managed a good clip of distance. In
twelve hours, he’d jogged, walked, staggered, crawled thirteen miles, trudged through the
sucking mud of cedar swamps, clamored over limestone ridges stubbled with rocks, lurched
along bluffs gagged by trees—far enough to warrant an hour of rest, possibly two. By now
staff were frantically coordinating the search, bewildered by his sudden absence, especially
since he was making progress with managing his anger and resentment.


He chuckled. Poor Skillet, he wondered, thinking about his counselor. Big man was a
good dude, a heart full of kindness and humor. Knew the best ways to demonstrate concepts
taught in class—how to calculate distance over time for vehicles traveling at certain speeds;
best method for loosening lugs nuts and changing a car tire before hoisting it on a jack;
simpliest way to boil water in the microwave to make Easy Mac. Food examples worked well.
Skillet liked to leverage those demonstrations by making everyone cook their own servings.


Popcorn, Easy Mac, pancakes on a flat iron electric skillet—didn’t matter: if he taught it and
the boys could make it, they could eat it. All they had to do was to make sure they had enough
for Skillet.


Must’ve weighed 290, maybe 300 pounds easy. The descriptions his mother used about
Refrigerator Perry from the Chicago Bears, the ones she garbled about during the weekly
Lions slaughter — he could easily apply them to Skillet: massive upper body, thighs as thick as
tree stumps, square head plopped onto his shoulders like a dollup of hot fudge on an ice
cream cone. Deep, soothing voice. Sometimes during class, Skillet talked about his untethered
youth in Detroit. A gutless father who ditched the family when he was two. Heroine addict
mom, who was 85 pounds when she died in a burned-out bungalo on Five Mile, a needle
plunged into the leathery skin behind her knee. Once, he’d described a near-death fight. Lifted
his MC-5 t-shirt to show a jagged etch of skin in the dark layers of fat on his right side where a
boy from the 7 Mile Bloods had slashed him outside a club. Wasn’t until he was 16 that he’d
found the sweaty concrete walls of the Kronk Gym on McGraw. He’d heard about Tommy
Hearns training there with Emanual Stuart for his fight against Hagler, a place where inner
city history was scratched out one bout at a time. Skillet admired the gym’s humbling
darkness. Wires that dangled like spider webs from tin fixtures above worn out canvas rings.
Smell of diesel from gravel haulers that grumbled past on McGraw. The glint of sweat on
boxers who sparred and grunted. Splat of gloves punishing flesh.


“Stifled all that bullshit from the streets,” he once muttered during class lecture, a
crooked smile stitched across his lips, notes crumpled in his big hand.


But now he’d escaped. No one knew where he was, least of all Skillet. He hoped that he
might understand. Go back, review his case file, interpret the hidden details of his situation
and see the justification in spite of the law. Maybe, years down the road when he was older
and free of his crime, he could go back, try to explain to Skillet. Let him know how much his
wisdom helped. How much he looked up to him like a big African American brother he never
had. By the time his actual release date came up, she might’ve been dead, her liver shriveled
like a prune on her couch, Virginia Slim pinched between her craggy fingers. No one would
have found her. Time to save her was running thin.


He squirmed against the tree. Thinking about his mother and Skillet made him feel
nauseous. All that work. Hours. Jabs. The bruised palms. Dipping and lunging. The glares. A
small rope of guilt wormed its way into his chest when he thought about the days they spent
in the recreation yard, learning how to move, focus his power, shift his weight on his feet,
drive his fist from his shoulder and not his arm.


“Jab and dip, jab and dip. Don’t wait for him to bust your ear coming over the top,
Bobby.”


“Been doing this my whole life, Skillet, I know,” he’d wheeze between jabs. He’d shoot
a jab at Skillet’s massive paw, dip low, rise up again and launch a left jab, hear the slap of his
knuckles against soft palms.


“Your whole life,” Skillet mocked. “You ain’t but 16. Ain’t had no life yet. Still a baby in
diapers. Faster, move faster, don’t admire it.”


“I got it.”


A week or two before he escaped, some of the other juveniles stood at the edge of where
he and Skillet trained on the cement basketball court. They worked under a rusted metal
backboard, its rim bent like a paperclip toward the ground. Clevette, an aneroxic black kid
with thick cornrows who’d been arrested selling crack near Livernois just outside of Bobby’s
neighborhood, stood by, fingering the dark stubble of his chin, his small eyes narrowed into
slits.


“Nigga, why you keep working with that white fool,” he lamented, shaking his head.


Behind him, a group of four huskier black boys in blue jeans and white t-shirts loomed,
nodding in agreement.


“Tits got skills,” Skillet rasped, heaving.


“Skills, shit,” Clevette hissed. He spat on the ground near where Skillet and Bobby
worked. “Theys got his dumb ass dumped in here. Not much skill breaking some dude’s face
and getting caught.”


Clevette looked Bobby up and down, scowled. Bobby lowered his head and continued
working, avoiding eye contact at all costs. He bobbed and weaved, body gliding up and down
effortlessly, each jab combination a fluid assembly of straights followed by dips—one two dip
left, one two dip right, one two dip left again. When he trained, he sometimes imagined his
future working like a combination, everything synced in an unknowable rythmn that relied on
muscle and mind working together seamlessly and without thought. Take classes. Get his
GED. Work part-time at the gym. Save some money for a year. Enroll in community college.


Earn a certificate in heating and cooling. Move out of the city.


But then Syd happened and everything got derailed. He surged upward as that familiar
pang of anger shot through his veins, fired a left jab into the fat part of Skillet’s right hand,
which caused the big man to wince. Skillet rocked backward a step, caught off guard by the
power of Bobby’s jab. Then he eased forward again, his heavy shoulders slumped like a boxer.


After a few more minutes, Skillet raised a hand for a time out. He bent over, forearms
planted on his heavy thighs as he worked to regain his breath. Then he lumbered over to
where Clevette stood, a sweat stain in the shape of a pizza slice down the back of his blue polo
shirt.


“Those skills might save his white ass,” Skillet whispered. He glanced back over his
shoulder, winked at Bobby. He turned to Clevette. “Won the PAL championship last year,” he
said, voice low.


Bobby cringed and glanced away, seized with embarrassment. Didn’t need anyone to
know. Championship was months ago. He had no reason to relish in it. It was nothing but a
means to build muscle, exhaust some anger and get away from Syd a few hours every day.
Eight months in a sweaty gym under recessed lights. Pounding weights on tired vinyl benches
that creaked when the bar was loaded with plates. Pull-ups using cold water pipes that
spanned the ceiling, clinked and hissed after the toilet flushed. Visions of Syd and his swollen
face on heavy bags that hung from rafters, the ones he worked over without gloves. Dull thud
of fists filling his ears.


Bobby turned his right hand over. Scars on his knuckles never quite healed up. The skin
was red, rough and cracked, ready to bleed if stretched a certain way. A chunk from Syd’s
front teeth had left a indentation in the shape of a tooth. He often imagined that asshole’s face
when he trained — the broken capillaries, eyes the size of dimes that looked to have been
drilled deep into his sockets, pastry skin blotched from drinking, small mouth formed into an
irritating scowl as if he sucked on lemons. Bobby tried not to flinch each time he thought about
the beating she got last Thanksgiving before he returned from the gym. Every so often, the
image of her laying face down on the couch and that fat ass hunched at the table, an empty
beer bottle in front of him, floated up in his memory unexpectedly. He snapped his eyes shut,
trying not to remember. That didn’t work. He saw his mother’s torn lower lip. Black eyes
coverup couldn’t conceal. A welt on her right temple. The voices of nameless trainers who
barked strategies during fights, techniques picked up from rumpled copies of Boxing
Illustrated when he sat on the gym’s iron-stained toilet, the weights he hefted each day —
manufacturing a viable motive wasn’t necessary. The bloated, sweaty face of that fat fuck and
memory of his swollen hands around her neck at the table when he walked through the front
door — that was more than enough.


Looking back, his world was rutted with bad decisions and disgruntled memories that
popped up like ruptured slabs of concrete, burst car tires and fractured aluminum rims in the
winter. Beating the shit out of Syd—that wasn’t one of them. Or the memory of his father, in
spite of how far it withdrew into the shadows of his street year after year, until all that he
remembered were his grease-smudged coveralls and scent of Old Spice. Syd was a different
story. When he thought long and hard about it, contemplated his mottled face, collection of
bongs that sat on the kitchen counter, or imagined his plump body that flooded their ripped
couch, holding back wasn’t an option. This was his world. She was his mother. He was tired of
that broken Harley tilted on the front sidewalk where weeds punched through cracks of
cement, a puddle of oil poisoning the brittle grass of their yard. Worn down from being called
dumb ass: hey dumbass, grab me another beer. Dumbass, get your mom her pills from the bathroom.


Dumbass, need to vacate for a few hours. He’d had it with the back-hand flicks to his ears when he
sat in the kitchen reading one of his boxing magazines and minding his own business. Driving
his heavy fist into Syd’s weak chin, squinting at his teeth tumbling into the abyss of his
incomplete mouth, laughing as he fell to his knees and spat out his incisors in a thread of
blood and mucos before taking a knee to the eye socket — that was his pumpkin pie. That he
did with pleasure.


“Shit, nigga, whatever,” Clevette spit. “Tits still stuck in this shit hole, ain’t leaving no
time soon. Seems winning whatever the fuck championship he won did no good anyways.”


Skillet nodded, recognizing the truth of his words.


“Happy to work with you if you’re up for it, Cleve,” he said, his voice easy, sincere.
“Get a little meat on them bones. Build ya out a little. Make ya a real man, not some fake fool
with a gun.”


Clevette pulled his mouth to one side, frowned. Behind him, some of his friends
chuckled low, shot smiling stares at each other, shook their heads.

“Damn dawg,” he said. “I’m the real deal. My shit ain’t fake. Don’t have to waste any of
my fuckin’ time. People take care of my shit. Always have, always will.”


“Yet here you is, saying what you saying. Seems like you’re wasting time as it is, Cleve.
Don’t make no sense.”


“It’s ok, Skillet,” Bobby sighed, wiping sweat from his brow. He didn’t want any more
problems. Needed to stay focus, keep his plan in line.


Clevette scoffed. He raised his right hand, snapped his fingers to indicate that the group
was moving.


“Whatever big dawg, whatever the fuck. You keep working with them white boys.”


He started to walk away. Skillet looked at his back, then shifted his gaze to Bobby, then
back to Clevette.


“Wanna test his skills?” he asked suddenly, waving a meaty hand toward where Bobby
stood, his other hand on his hip, breathing heavy. Bobby glowered at him, shook his head.


Sweat poored from his forhead, into his eyes. Fighting was against center policy.
Automatically tacked a deuce onto your current time regardless of how it might start or end.
Skillet knew this. But he wasn’t afraid to demonstrate an important point, even if it fell outside
of approved guidelines. Bobby knew that with one, maybe two punches max, he could put
Clevette down. But he wanted no part of him. His reach back home was nothing to joke about.


“Nigga, you crazy?” he asked, waving Skillet away with a dissmissive flick of his wrist.


He scowled at Bobby, who stood, shaking his head slowly. “Give me a cap and I’ll test his
skills.”


Skillet nodded.

“I figured,” he chuckled, turning back to Bobby. “I hear ya, Cleve. Just ain’t man
enough. Need to bulk up first, get rid of that baby body, do something.” He looked at the boys
behind Clevette and smiled. “You and your mangina brothers should take this time and try to
get in shape.”


Bobby looked down, clutched the bottom of his chin with his hand and tried not to
laugh. The smiles on the boys’ faces quickly evaporated. Skillet reached out, clutched
Clevette’s frail upper left arm and squeezed gently before the boy shrugged it away and
scowled again.


“You delicate like a dying bird. Your scrawny ass get blowed away in the wind.”


Behind him, Clevette’s crew chortled again and bobbed side to side. Clevette tightened
his heavy lips, turned around, and slashed the air in front of him with a karate chop, quieting
his friends.


“Nigga, you don’t know shit. No fuckin’ clue,” he sputtered, turning to walk away
across the compound toward the far end of the basket ball court.


Skillet laughed, low and deep, a sound that emanated deep within his belly.


“I know we all got bills to pay,” he preeched, voice booming loud enough for other
boys at the far end shooting baskets to hear. A curly, red-haired kid with the ball stopped
dribbling.


“You all gots to remember that. Like the song says, ain’t no rest for the wicked. Money
don’t grow on trees. Got bills to pay, mouths to feed, nothin’ in this world is free.”


Clevette and his crew continued their saunter across the yard, hands clutching the back
pant loops of their jeans.

Bobby stood up and stretched his arms to the sky. “You make that up?”


Skillet shook his head. “Naw,” he growled, his breath labored. “Bunch of white boys
who rap. Can’t think of their name. Speak the truth though. No lie in their game.”


Bobby wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Clevette and his crew had reached
the cement bench at the far end of the compound, sat, and immediatelly begain gestering with
his hands toward Skillet and Bobby.


“You weren’t serious about him and me going at it?” Skillet waved at Clevette.


“Naw,” he growled. “Against policy. Just trying to get him a little nervous, make him
think.”


Bobby chewed on this a second or two.


“Really want no part of him. Don’t need no more trouble than I already got,” he
whispered, turning his body away from the group, but watching them from the corner of his
eye. “He done things in my neighborhood no one knows about. Bad things.”


Bobby shook his head, looked down, worried. “Maybe if you need me to spar with him,
I could. Things can’t really get any worse than they are already. Moms is pretty much on her
own at home. Got no one but me.”


He looked up and for a second felt his eyelids grow heavy with tears. He looked away
and blinked a few times, trying to make them stop watering, hoping that Skillet might not
notice. Since he was a kid, he’d learned to check his emotions, stuff them down and hide them
from others. But lately, in the long hours of the night, he regretted leaving her alone and
getting himself locked up for two years. His job was to take care of her. Get his GED. Enroll at
community college. Maybe find a decent job one day and move them out of the city. But five
minutes with Syd screwed it all up. “Just want to avoid that stuff if possible. No what I
mean?”


Skillet craned his big head back on his shoulders, stretching his thick neck. Dark veins
bulged on the sides. He looked at Bobby and pursed his lips, perhaps recognizing his watery
eyes.


“I read ya loud and clear, Bobby,” Skillet said. “You need to get anything off your chest,
can always come to me.” He gave Bobby’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Ain’t always about
making you all see the bad you’ve done. We all done bad at one time or ‘nother. But how we
move forward and grow…that’s how you make a better future. We never forget what we
done, but it don’t need to ruin what could be good in your life if we use it as a guide. You need
to talk, just shout. Anytime at all.”


He watched Bobby from the corner of his eye. Bobby slowly nodded but kept his eyes
on the ground, his stomach churning with worry, eyes burning.


Skillet turned to regard Clevette and his crew again.


“Stupid fools. Just trying to get them to think more about what they says and dos.


Clevette and his crew is as dumb as they come, but whatever. Need to try and get him and you
straight.” He shrugged. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. He thinks this is just a pit
stop. But he goin’ down the wrong path and can’t stop. You, I can help.”

Bobby could feel Skillet’s gaze on him and sense his plump dark mouth curving into a
smile. For a minute he reminded Bobby of Aunt Jemima on the label of syrup he loved as a
kid. The taste of syrup always made him feel safe, comforted.


“Helps pass time, eh?”


Bobby shrugged. He thought about his mother, what booth she might be slumped into,
if her head might be planted into a pretzel bowl, how many whiskeys she’d consumed. He
hoped she’d make it home safely tonight. He hoped he might see her soon.


“Passing my time, right?” Bobby asked as he rubbed an eye and looked up. Skillet nodded. “Now you getting it.”

Gary James Erwin’s stories, essays and science journalism have appeared in many literary journals, reviews and publications, including Red Cedar Review, The Sun, Pebble Lake Review, The MacGuffin, Driftwood Review, Michigan Avenue, 3288 Review and Santa Fe Literary Review among others. He has received two Pushcart Prize nominations and had a story anthologized in The PrePress Awards Volume II: Michigan Voices. His collection of thematically-linked short stories, Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties, was published by Adelaide Books in September 2019 and was nominated for the Michigan Library Association’s 2020 Michigan Notable Books of the Year recognition. “River Run” is an excerpt from his novel-in-progress titled Grindstone Creek. He lives with his wife, kids and critters on three acres in the woods of Clarkston, Michigan, and serves as associate vice president of Marketing & Communications at University of Detroit Mercy.   

1 COMMENT

  1. Powerful stuff from Gary James Erwin. Since his first book came out last fall, I’ve been waiting for new work and I’m glad to see a part of his novel getting published! I’m very curious about the book and hope it comes out soon.

    One question, can you fix the HTML formatting? Seems story was copied and pasted from another document and formatting wasn’t fixed (paragraph breaks, page numbers in the middle of the text). The issue overall looks great, but this makes reading a little distracting. It should really be checked before publication.

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