RIVER TOWNS

Keegan Lawler

Each summer, the city swells in the heat that bakes off the mountains and settles in the valley. Cars with license plates from distant places line our streets and suffocate what little town we have here. Residents ride the season out in their homes, or if they’re lucky, inflate their stores’ prices and their bank accounts swell with the town.


It’s a tradition for the local teenagers to participate in this swelling in the most menial ways available. We’re hired for temporary, long-hour, low-pay, seasonal work. The girls set up pop-up restaurants and work as servers or cooks and the boys work the boats, in some way or another. We spend our money in frivolous ways to help make the sunburns and blisters feel worthwhile. Some boys pool their money together and go to the next town over, a sixty-mile round trip, to buy liquor from the old convenience store owner who, as a policy, never checks IDs.  

The summer I after I turned fifteen I got a job at my father’s kayak rental shop. I would drag the kayaks out of the river, usually with people still in them, and smile politely as they spilled awkwardly out of them, struggling to unclip their lifejackets. Then I would spray down the kayaks and carry them across the parking lot where I hung them out to dry.

I had grown my hair all year and could now wrap strands around each other in short braids. They weren’t much, but in this town, it was something to behold. For boys, the fashion was all shorter hair combed forward into bangs or shaven heads. I liked looking different. I already did anyway. I was the only kid darker than eggshell. Only after the summer tanned the skin around their short-sleeved shirts did anyone look even close to me. The braid was the first time I could be deliberate about being different. And it felt good.

The month of July was always hotter than the rest and I killed time between customer arrivals with my feet in the river and splashing my arms, neck, and face with water. It was all I had to fight what I felt was my destiny: to be in the sun, waiting for the kayaks I had just washed to dry, and helping another family. Another laughing white family from a big city on their little trip to the river I call home. The end of the day never came quick enough.

One day right before close, as I was sitting at the bank of the river, a small red truck pulled into the parking lot. Nobody who ever came to visit our town drove trucks. They all had small compact cars or station wagons from European companies. I didn’t recognize the truck, but I could make out the face of the driver. A boy a year older than me named Dakota. We residents saw each other so rarely during the summer, it was nice to see a familiar face, even if it belonged to someone like Dakota.

He stepped into the shop and came out with Dad shortly after. They walked to a locked cage off to the side of the building and Dad slid his key into the padlock, yanking it open. “My old man just needs a few,” Dakota said, “maybe twenty or so.” Dad opened a small shed and started throwing out lifejackets to Dakota. “John!” he yelled, “lend us a hand will ya?”

I helped carry the lifejackets in. Dakota’s father ran a rafting company and needed extra for his trip tomorrow. Dad was happy to help another of the summer tourism companies because he knew that when he needed help--and he knew he would--he could call in favors. Dakota shook my Dad’s hand and thanked him for the help.

“Well, I’m off,” Dakota said, “going to cool off tonight.” “Taking a dip?” Dad asked, and then looked right to me. He was like a mother shoving an unmarried daughter onto every single man she could. He worried I was not living my life. I wanted to come home and sleep after work because the sun dried out any energy I had. But Dad had assured me that was not living. That other kids in town were out enjoying themselves. I just don’t want to see you miss out on being a kid, he had told me once. I wondered what it was about life I was missing.

“Yeah,” Dakota said, then paused. He dipped his head and his eyes wandered off. Dad let the silence hang in the air, looking at both of us and trying to flex his silent will. “Oh,” Dakota finally said, “John, I forgot to ask, would you wanna come?” Dakota wanted me to say no. I wanted to say no. Dad wanted me to say yes. “You can take off now,” Dad said, “I can lock up here.” “Sure,” I told Dakota. He nodded his head, unassured, “Sounds great.”

Dad ran inside and grabbed a wad of cash from the register. As a moralist who attended the Methodist church and gave up drinking when I was a kid, it always surprised me that he paid me under the table. I wondered if he had noticed the half-empty tall-boy on the floor of Dakota’s truck, and just chose to ignore it, hoping to send me to the life he had imagined a teenager should live.

“Here’s for the week,” he said, “use it well.” I thanked him and stuffed the cash into my pocket. I saw Dakota’s eyes coveting the bills before they even reached my hands. “See you later,” I told him as we stepped into the truck. I saw his chest and face swell with pride as we pulled out on the highway.

“Couple guys are heading over to Auntie’s,” Dakota said as we got on the road, “wanna pitch in?” Auntie was the nickname of the lady who sold booze to underage kids. I had never tried alcohol and didn’t think much of it, but felt obligated to Dakota. I slid him a twenty and asked if that was enough. “Yeah,” he said, crumpling it up into his chest pocket, “that should be enough.”

We headed out of town a few miles, past the fishers casting poles, past the seasonal berry stands, then turned to a road I didn’t know that hooked around and under the road and dead-ended into a parking lot right on the river. “Just a short walk up the trail,” Dakota said. “Ever been here?” I shook my head. “It’s a little pool off the river we dip in,” he tells me.

I hadn’t brought anything to swim in, but wanted to dip my legs and arms in. Dakota stepped out of the truck and led me down a short path along the river, where the scent of campfire grew stronger as we walked. I heard their voices before I saw them. A group of boys and a few girls laughed and shouted. We came around the bend and I saw three of the boys grabbing a girl in a bra and underwear and shove her into the pool. I recognized the girl in her underwear. She was a junior, older than Dakota and I, and when she surfaced for air, came up screaming, but laughing, “Oh my god! I fucking hate you guys!”

“Jesus,” her friend, waiting with another boy on the bank, crossed her arms and shouted: “Emily, put your clothes on. They won’t push you if you don’t want to.” Emily seemed to ignore her. “Fucking assholes!” she said, then shoved another boy by the shoulder, smiling and winking at him.

Dakota settled into the group immediately, finding the boy who was heading out to Auntie’s, and handing him the cash I had given him. I just stood awkwardly, very aware that I was still in my khakis and polo shirt from work. Emily put her clothes back on still soaking wet and some boy made a crude joke, to which she yelled, “Yeah, you’d like that, you fucking pervert!”

I took my shoes and socks off and slid my feet into the cool water. Tiny waves lapped at the edges of my shorts and weighed them down to my thighs. Dakota came back to the group and walked to Emily’s friend, Sam. He talked and walked with her with a slick smile on his face. His arms loosened, his posture slouched, and his stride took a confident swagger.

“Hey,” he said, “you ok?” “Guys are jerks,” Sam told him, burying her face into his shoulder. “Assholes,” Dakota called over his shoulder. Emily had not left their side, despite her angry pleas. She continued to push the boys and call them girls and fags and other insults for not jumping in the water themselves.


I’m pretty often invisible. Bodies move around mine and I’m more a feature of any given space than a player in it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m brown, because I’m quiet, or both, but it’s a role I grow into most often when around people I don’t know well. But sometimes it’s better to be looked over, because being seen could be much worse.


Dakota took his girlfriend to his car and disappeared for nearly half an hour. I didn’t have to imagine what they were doing. And it wasn’t long before Emily noticed they were gone. She tried to scrounge up guys to sneak up and scare them. When she couldn’t, she told them she would go alone. Then, just as she was leaving, turned to me, “You’re a boy right? You should come.”


I had been spotted. I feared her ridicule if I said no. That I might become more visible, or questioned, so I got up with her and headed back down the path. “What’s your name again?” she asked, “you look familiar.” “John,” I told her. I hated my name. It reminded me of priests and cowboys. But I had no other one to give.


“Are you from here? You look Mexican,” she said. “I’m Indian,” I tell her, “and yeah. I am from here.” In fact, I’m from here, from before you were, I wanted to say, but didn’t


By the time we got to the car, Dakota already had his shirt off. His hand was up hers and she looked to be delicately handling the way he would move and what he would ask of her. What she felt she could say no to and what she felt she could say yes to. Emily put her hand out, slapping me in the chest, and stopped me. “Wait,” she said, “let them get a bit farther.”


Dakota was on top of her and she was pressed against the window. From where we were, it looked like her neck was being shoved against the hard plastic door jam. Dakota pulled up at the bottom edge of his girlfriend’s shirt. She let him, but kept the shirt over her shoulders. He lifted it enough and dropped his mouth to her breasts. Emily’s hand turned palm over and rubbed the spot on my chest.


Over Sam’s shoulder, we could only see Dakota’s head. Then it dropped and a nipple became visible. “Oh shit,” Emily said, smiling wickedly, “he’s going for it.” Something started in me at that second. Something old, something forgotten, then swelled. What had been making out, the kind I had seen in the hallways in stolen moments, turned into something else, something real.


What started, I didn’t understand. I knew sexual attraction. I knew what it felt like to want someone. In what I was seeing, I didn’t want either of them. I didn’t know what kind of desire this was. Emily took her hand off of my chest as she saw Dakota returning to her mouth. “Now,” she said, and ran over to the car. Sam noticed Emily before Dakota did. Emily jumped on the hood and slammed her feet down on it repeatedly.


Dakota came out screaming, “What the fuck are you doing? You’re gonna bust the shocks,” he yelled, “Get the fuck off my truck!” Emily cackled wildly. Dakota’s belt was unbuckled and slid down past his hips as he stepped out, and she laughed louder. Sam slid out of the other side of the truck, holding her breasts in her hand, and quickly sliding clothes back on.

I caught a glimpse of her and stood dumbfounded. She saw me and her face flushed red with shame. She flipped me off and mouthed fuck you. I closed my eyes and looked away. I wanted to apologize, but not as much as I wanted to disappear. I turned back on the path and left Emily behind. I was worried Dakota would see me and be angry.  


When I came back, I sat with my legs in the same pool. Some of the other kids were in too, but I said nothing and they didn’t ask. Eventually Emily, Dakota, and his girlfriend came back. Emily started, “Oh my god, you guys, you won’t…” and Dakota cut her off. “Fucking shut up, bitch.” Emily looked shocked. Sam said nothing.


“Finally,” Dakota said. A few other boys laughed. The rest of the group piled into the small pool and I still kept only my legs in. I longed for cleaning and pulling giggly people out of kayaks.


The boy Dakota had handed cash to came back with heavy brown bags and everyone cheered at the sight of him. He handed everyone a warm beer from the bag. Even me. We cracked them open and drank. The boys chugged and the girls sipped. I smelled the drink and knew enough about the taste to leave it alone.


Beer cans turned empty and were thrown out amongst the jackrabbits and sagebrush. People slowed their speech and someone suggested skinny dipping. In that moment, I thought about slipping out of the pool, about making a run for it back to town. Luckily only a few wanted to join the skinny dipping. Dakota had enough encouragement and joined a few of his friends with Emily. They quickly stripped and jumped, not into the pool, but into the edge of the rushing water. For a moment, their silhouettes stood perfectly in the air. My eyes followed Emily’s body closely.


There was a moment of panic in each of them, the sweeping river carrying them a few feet down, but each found the bank eventually, and dragged themselves up. I stared at Emily and had to shun my eyes away. They came back to the group giggling and joking. “Must be cold Dakota?” one of the boys asked. “Shut up,” he said, shoving him.


They all pulled clothes back on and came into the pool. Nobody had thought to bring firewood and the night was descending on us. A few boys hit rocks together against sagebrush branches they ripped off, trying to make sparks, but couldn’t get it to light. One by one, they all left, some to another spot they were sure they could start a fire at. Some back to their parent’s houses. I caught a ride back with one of Dakota’s friends. Dakota insisted he take Sam home. Alone.


What Dad had wanted hadn’t happened, or at least not in the way he wanted it. I had lived. I had been to a party, looked at beautiful women, but another kind of swelling started in me. In that moment, and in that world, I didn’t understand what had happened in me. Words for girls like me were being said in worlds millions of miles away, but in that moment, all that was left was the feeling. In that moment, I saw the future.

 

Keegan Lawler

is a writer from Washington State. His essays, poems, and short fiction have appeared in Homology Lit, the Trestle Creek Review, Washington Poetic Routes, and Cascadia Rising Review. He's currently an MFA candidate at Western Washington University.