Riverbanking

Gary Britson

Mark and Connie met in college. They thought it was a fine thing to make love on the riverbank of a moonlit night. After graduation, they got married. They became parents. Five years later they realized they were sick to death of each other, so they got divorced. Connie did not relish motherhood, but she thought it would make her husband mad if she obtained custody of their child, so to finance a custody battle she sold a bunch of stock her father had given her. She won.

Mark began a series of costly and tedious affairs with women he didn’t like all that much, hoping that Connie would find out about them and be irritated. She did and she was.

Mark hung around bars and ogled women who laughed at him. He was too old for them and he was going bald, although he was not yet thirty. His doctor advised him to quit drinking, so he found a new doctor who didn’t ask a lot of personal questions. Connie spent inconvenient, cacophonous evenings with uneducated, bearded men who had sons in reform school.

On the odd weekend when Mark was entitled to custody of his child, he and Connie exchanged rude remarks which each had spent the week rehearsing. At his apartment, Mark and his child stared at each other like opposing linemen. Mark couldn’t wait to deliver the noisome wretch back to its mother, who chided Mark for his lack of homemaking skills. He threatened her with litigation should she fail to deliver the child promptly at the court-appointed hour for his next unwanted visit, then hustled to the nearest bar, where he thanked the Lord that it would be several blissfully free weeks until he had to endure that mess again.

Mark forgot everything he had learned in college. He sat in his office at the insurance center, watching the rain. He yearned to start an affair with his secretary. He knew it would be a disaster for her, because she was young, poor, and naïve. She had never been to college, and was incapable of grasping the wisdom and motives of an older, affluent, sophisticated executive with a bachelor’s degree. He’d been to Europe. He had complicated memories, ambitions, and desires, while she was just an ignorant, voluptuous, fragrant peasant from the sticks. She would marvel at his intellect, worship and adore him, be dazzled by his mysteries, and abandon herself body and soul to this intriguing big-shot, and he knew she would be crushed and destroyed when he inevitably dumped her in favor of some rich woman who was more befitting his status in the community. It would be heart-rending for her, he knew, but it would have to be done and he was willing to endure it all.

The only flaw in this plan was that his secretary wanted nothing to do with him. She preferred bass guitarists, and believed that all men in the insurance business had been born embalmed. He mistook her aloofness for awe. She found a better job where the guys weren’t such dorks.

Connie joined a dating service, which charged her five hundred dollars for the privilege of being fixed up with aging sociopaths whose idea of a good time was a Godard picture over at the university, followed by a few rounds of watery drinks at cafes catering to parsimonious alcoholics with children.

“Here’s my precious, here’s my pride and joy,” these men would say, fumbling through their thin wallets for stained, dog-eared photos of waxen, bewildered offspring. Connie fled into the arms of tool-and-dye makers who didn’t talk much.

Mark attended homecoming at his old alma mater. He proudly drank Southern Comfort in the stands and hooted in the piercing falsetto of his undergraduate youth. With the home team trailing 57-6, Mark challenged the sexual orientation of the defensive line, whereupon he was soon awash in a tidal wave of Sigma Pi brethren who left him bleeding and inert in the lonesome bleachers when the final gun sounded.

Connie’s child resembled Mark. She found the resemblance alarming. This resemblance did the child no good, and Connie’s behavior was often terse and cold. Connie discovered that an evening with a nice Chablis beat the dickens out of a date with a weak man, and her mornings became dark and hallucinatory. Late at night, she tossed and turned in bed, alone, as her neighbors enjoyed an Aerosmith retrospective down the hall.

In her dreams, she was visited by men of competence and means. They drove rugged yet clean and economical Chevy pickups. They always had the right tools handy for home maintenance and repair. Plumbing, for them, was a breeze. So were electrical wiring and bathroom tile. Plumbers were the true heroes of her subconscious.

At Halloween, Mark got drunk on the cheapest beer he could find. When trick-or-treaters called, he thought it would be amusing to fill their candy sacks with leftover gravy which he poured from a reeking skillet. He soon passed out, and when curious parents appeared at his door, asking pointed questions about his sense of humor, he assumed it was just nightmare noise from a drunken dream. In the morning, harsh language was written in gravy on his door. He was asked to vacate his apartment by Friday.

He could no longer find comfort even in his beloved computer. Mark had been a self-taught computer expert from the git-go. Now, it seemed, every deadbeat, con artist, and drugged-out teenager was a self-taught computer expert. He felt betrayed and forgotten by technology. What good was being an expert when there were millions of others? The computer sat in the corner, smirking at him like a child.

For some reason, he got fat. It was odd, because since his divorce his dining habits had been irregular. He neglected his wardrobe. There were mustard stains on his suspenders. He developed a fondness for The Three Stooges. He watched MTV and wondered what those wealthy young men were so angry about. They weren’t paying child support.

Connie finally met a man she could stand. He bathed regularly and owned some stock. He took her to a hockey game and a rodeo. They shared an aversion to newspapers, apathy on the subject of AIDS, and an enthusiasm for marijuana, although she would not allow it around her child. She and her new friend smoked in the car while the radio played the blues. She didn’t see him for three weeks. When a friend showed her his obituary in the paper, she learned that he had died in a motel in Kansas City and was survived by his companion, Kenneth. What he was doing in Kansas City she never found out.

She wished there was some way to get rid of her child, but she got so much pleasure from jacking Mark around on the subject of weekend visitation schedules that she was sometimes grateful for motherhood, although she suspected that Mark didn’t want the kid any more than she did.

Mark was told where to get off by every single, able-bodied woman in the county. He didn’t understand. In his riverbanking days, he’d had women crawling all over him. It appeared that he now had the pox. He decided to seek spiritual relief by beating the daylights out of someone in even worse physical condition than he was in, but he couldn’t find anyone who fit that description. In his riverbanking days, he had often eased his troubled mind by roaring and hooting at nobody in particular, but now these activities hurt his throat and his doctor told him to stop it.

All of his old avenues of release were closed. New ones were frightening and expensive.

In the spring, he attended his class reunion. He eagerly greeted beloved old friends who had forgotten all about him and who could not for the life of them figure out why he was so happy to see them. At night he went to the riverbank, alone. It was still there. Though the night was pleasant and warm, no one was making love on the riverbank. He figured all the students were indoors, at their computers.

Connie opened the evening’s second bottle of wine at eight o’clock. The child was either at her sister’s or her brother’s. It was difficult to keep track of which was which. She had thrown away her class reunion invitation back in January. At dawn, she didn’t know if she had dreamt badly, or if she had just been watching a particularly boring movie all night.

Mark fell asleep on the riverbank. It began to rain. When he was seventeen, his grandfather had offered him a job on the farm after high school graduation. Free room and board, good pay, and everything. He had stood a fair chance of inheriting that farm one day, but Mark had decided to go to college instead, and grandfather left the farm to someone else.

 

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