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"Crossing the River" by David McFarland 

David teaches college literature and composition.  He lives in Illinois.


© 2005 David McFarland


Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust,

neither doth trouble spring out of the ground.


"You've got to floss more," she said, letting go of him, turning away to change tools.

"Yes, I know that." Any. He needed to start flossing. He needed to form the habit, but for him to deliberately begin a new habit was exceedingly hard. She turned back to him, scraper and mirror in hand, ready to start on the other side.

"Your gums are bleeding—that's what shows you've really got to floss more." Her tone was a bit snappish, which he resented, naturally. He grunted. In a while she rinsed and drained, rinsed and drained again. Finally she was done with that, moved to the polishing. "Is mint all right?" she said while opening the tiny container and putting the end of the rotary tool into the paste in easy, practiced motions. No answer necessary nor even expected. He kept silent and wondered if there were actually any other flavors; he hated mint but that was all they ever used here that he knew of. He wanted orange, berry, even cherry would be better.

 "You have two boys, don't you?"

"Yes." He was not very much in a talkative mood; he never was here, but he supposed that these hygienists needed some conversation to get through the day. "George and Billy. Seven and five."

"I've just got the one at home now, finishing high school this year." She looked young for having a child that old. The second child, at least. She was not more than a year or so past forty, maybe not that old.

"I'm looking forward to—"

"Oh, your boys are at the most wonderful age. They're pretty independent at that age. That's when they start living—well, start deciding what they want to do instead of making us decide for them."

"Yes, that's right." At least George was like that, independent, self-driven. Billy only fended for himself when George was gone or when George refused to play with him, which did not happen all that often. "My boys are pals, do a lot of stuff together." Which was not exactly a lie, but it was truth with a shine intended to misdirect the eye just that little bit.

"Get in trouble together, too?"

"Sure." He took a breath, had words ready to spill into the glare of the light shining into his mouth—and she was sticking her mirror and tool in the middle of them, double checking her work before the doctor came in.

"Oh, mine always got into trouble together. But they're gone now; the older one's in college. She's twenty-two—finishing this year, I hope. Can't always tell with her." There was a story there, too much to tell; he could see that in the way she flapped her hand in dismissal. Perhaps it was painful, so he let it go, sat quietly, waiting. He wanted to hear the story, but she talked on, chattering without conversation; no doubt but that the nature of her work lent itself to that—he could not tell if that were truly her natural manner. That was the problem with life—he was always waiting for someone else to do something, waiting for the next procedure to be completed, the next input from someone else in order to complete a task, get to the next one. The older he got, the more that happened. It would be better if he had more patience.

Dr. Sam came breezing in, chattering about his skiing trip while he got fresh gloves, chattering while he looked over the X-rays, accepted from the hygienist the mirror and a pick. "Let's open up now and take a look," he said, adjusting the light, so Daniel closed his eyes, opened wide.

There was probing at the old fillings, quick, precise. "How's Dan doing?" More probing around his bridge, tugging, pushing. "Oh, all right. Needs to floss more, but he knows that. Mr. Greenview's going to work on that."

No, he would not.

"Good. You'll do that, won't you. Well, you look pretty good here." Dr. Sam stripped off his gloves. "Keep up the good work." And he was gone after a quick pat on the shoulder; he usually spent longer, usually talked about his three children—the youngest was getting married or had just gotten married, he remembered.

"Great." Dental visits was certainly one of his least favorite things.

So in another moment he was free, leaving with a new brush, more mint-flavored floss, and another incomplete conversation. The hygienist flashed him a bright smile as he left that was as professional as her work.



When he crossed the Tennessee River bridge going south towards Morganville, he had a quick glance at the water—it looked muddier than usual, but it was springtime and he expected that. The water looked glassy, reflective because there was little or no wind to stir up waves. There was a tree trunk slowly riding the current downstream until it would become waterlogged and sank or fetched up somewhere on the long shoreline of the Wheeler Reservoir to become cover for fish or just more debris. The bridge was too high, traffic too fast for anything more than a quick, tiny glance at the river though that was where he would rather be, riding the current down, fishing for bass. That would be a fine way to spend this day, lots of days—some pleasure stolen away from the responsibilities enforced on every person.

The Tennessee River bridge was about the mid-point in his drive home—not in miles but certainly in time; the high speeds lasted until he turned off the U.S. highway, the main road to Arab and Oneonta, Gasden and everywhere else from here, turned onto the county road that led out to Morganville. But instead of going directly home—Sarah would not expect him home so soon; she would assume he stayed in town to get a good deal at the hardware store, he pulled up into his father's driveway.

Like all the houses in this part of the county, it was small, built for functionality without much in the way of style. It needed paint especially on the west side where the pale blue had blistered from years of summer afternoon sun, and the porch needed building up on the same side. His father had kept up the house pretty well for a few years after his mother died, but time was telling on Dad; he could not do the heavy work anymore, and he was too cheap to hire it done. He would get Daniel out there on a Saturday sometime this summer, and the two of them would struggle but would not get it done. They would improve the angle, enough for a few more years, but it would not get completely repaired; his father might just jack it up the corner and leave the jack there until it was frozen in rust. Daniel through it must might happen, and it would not surprise him in the least. That was the pattern of his father's life—improving what he could, doing just what was absolutely necessary, letting the rest go. Perhaps it was not such a bad way; it always seemed to work for his dad.

"Dad," he called out inside the doorway. "Dad!"

"He left," a voice said from the back of the house.

"All right, then."

And his father came out of the bedroom. "I was just calling to see if you were home."

"Well, I'm not."

"That's what she said."

"What do you need?"

"I need you to look at that mower." The riding mower had not worked well for three or four years now, but Dad could not see paying the price for a new one, but it would take a long time to cut the grass even with a self-propelled mower; the ground was rough and little of it was level. Dad's arthritis would flare up for sure. "Get a new one, Dad. Pay the money."

"Have you looked at the price of one?"

"You can get one cheaper in Huntsville."

"I can't drive that far just to look."

"Just buy one. Yours is pretty well shot."

"Well, I can't get it today, so won't you help me out?"

"Sure, Dad, I'll look at it."

"I tried calling your brother this morning," his father said as they walked up to the barn. "He wasn't home. Wasn't anyone home."

"Probably working," Daniel said, though that might not be true. There were lots of jobs in Nashville, and Harris changed jobs fairly often. "School and work, Dad," he stopped at the door, lifting the latch, "the two central parts of the life of a man with kids."

"Maybe so. I don't remember much about that. Your mother took care of the schooling." And so she had. Mother had spared him all the details about the boys' schooling, spared him stories about Harris' troubles in school and troubles with his love affairs, his divorce, spared Dad so much that after she died, neither Daniel nor Harris ever connected with their father. Oh, he came and fixed things, had an occasional beer, endured his father's grief and carping about Harris never coming down for a visit from Nashville—it's not so far, after all, is it?—the neglect of sons for their father.

In the barn they pulled the tarp off the mower, pushed it into the better light. The belt was tight enough, the oil up to the mark, for a change, and there was gas. "Filled 'em up yesterday. Tried to get it going, but it'd run and then quit. Damned machine."

The same thing happened on the first try. It ran and quit. And again. Third, fourth times.

"Help me tip it up, Dad."

They lifted one side so the gas in the tank flowed into an old paint tray. And when he looked, what looked like bubbles were in the gas just as he had expected. "Bad gas," he said, "you've got water in it. Get rid of that and get some fresh."

"That simple?"

"Yes, that simple." He screwed on the gas cap. "You'll have to crank it a lot until the old gas is out of the system." Dad had left gas in the tank instead of running it empty last fall, gas that absorbed moisture over the winter, in the spring rains.

"Thanks, son."

"It's all right."

They covered the mower again, came down to the house for a beer. It certainly had been long enough after his cleaning that he could have something to eat, to drink.

"I'd better call home, check in."

"Don't be long. I'm sure your brother will call."

"All right." But Harris would not call. He never called anyone, not his father, not his brother and probably not his ex-wife and mother of his children, or even them. There had always been this arrogance about his older brother, the football player, the one who had gotten away from home early on and who said he was out to tie a knot in the world's tail. So far...well, once his brother had grabbed the world by its tail, but the world was shaking Harris pretty hard, Daniel believed.

"I'm at Dad's," he said to Sarah when she answered. "I'll be home soon."

"No, you won't. I knew he would get you. He always needs you for something."

"I've already done that."

"All right, then. How long?"

"An hour, maybe two."

"Ok. I'd appreciate some help around here."

"How are the boys?"

"Busy." Which might mean they were with their friends across the street or outside playing in the back yard, but just this moment it sounded like they were being troublesome, loud, underfoot. "Soon, right?"

"Yes, soon." He tried to put some energy into his voice.

His father handed him a beer. "You worked, you get paid." After both had taken a mouthful, he said, "She wants you to come home."

"Yes, the boys—"

"Sarah doesn't like me much." True enough; Sarah was a no-nonsense kind of woman, the kind who believed passionately in pulling one's self up by the bootstraps, overcoming every obstacle through effort, never giving in. She had already impressed that into their boys; he could see that in their play. Or they had gotten that from her genes—from her side and definitely not his. "She likes you, Dad; I know she does," he said, because he could not say, not say truthfully, She loves you.

"She's a good woman." His father said it just as he had a thousand times, tonelessly, on his way for another beer. He might say, as he often did about some women, better than you deserve, and Daniel waited for it, but it did not come.

"Have you heard from your brother?"

"No, I haven't, but—"

"I wish he'd call."

"He will." Tonight, Daniel promised himself, he would call up to Nashville and at least leave a message on Harris' machine, tell him to call Dad, make him feel better, keep their father from worrying. Once or twice a year he called his older brother, always for the same reason. He hated making that call. "Harris'll probably come down for a visit in the summer." If Harris was between jobs, if he needed something.

"That'd be good. Wouldn't it?" Without waiting for Daniel, his father sat, talking all the while. "People miss him around here, you know. I hear it all the time—'When's he coming home?...I remember him from high school, when he'—" his father's hand flashed in a tiny imitation of throwing a football "—'had that great pass.' He was good, wasn't he?"

"I guess he was."

"I miss having him around here." What his father remembered was the popular, the fun kid, not the one who wreaked his car because he was drunk, could not remember the one who barely got into college.

"Yeah, I guess so."

"You don't miss him?"

"Sure I do, Dad, of course I do."

"All right then."

He wondered how many beers his old man had already opened today. He looked almost ready to cry. Harris had been the favored child, the golden boy, while Daniel had done well in school but had never himself driven to be at the top of the class, a quiet and un-athletic boy who had slipped through school and his home life without doing anything much—good or bad—that called for attention or praise. His father had never cried over Daniel. His father cried over Harris because his brother was as neglectful now as ever, as unfeeling as ever, as self-centered as he had been in his high school years.

He would call Nashville again tonight, tell Harris to call him, make Dad feel better.

"He'll call you."

"I hope so." His father brightened a little.

"I've got to go."

"All right. Come by tomorrow."





Traffic in town was light today, an average number of cars parked in front of stores, a few people walking around. Morganville had begun to shrink in on itself; there were many empty storefronts, not surprising for being this close to Huntsville, for the number and age of the people left. A lot of the town like himself had choices: a lot of people in Huntsville were being priced out of the housing market, and there people who could afford to live farther away, people who wanted small-town living for their children and themselves. He and Sarah could have, maybe should have moved up to Huntsville, bought a nice house in the southeast; he would have been twenty minutes closer to work, but Sarah had agreed that this was better, that Morganville was the best choice for the boys, for themselves. They had both come from small towns, Sarah from south Georgia—having come to north Alabama for a government job; once married, pregnant, she wanted all the traditional ways she had known. She said every time she did not regret quitting; he wondered.

More couples like themselves were moving down here for the cheaper homes, driving their SUVs into Huntsville, eating there in the restaurants; they bought a few clothes at Tolliver's here but spending for furniture and cars and everything else that cost more than a hundred dollars in Huntsville, Birmingham, Nashville. None of those cities were so far away, and the newer people were letting the town wither away until Huntsville spread far enough south and ate up everything around it.

In the one good café in town, on the southern end of the business district, he ordered coffee and orange rolls. And in a moment two orange rolls, sticky and warm, and good black coffee in a thick cup were slipped onto his table, and his waitress slipped away silently. They knew him here, knew he did not talk much more than to order. He ate slowly; this was lunch. It was all he wanted. He lingered because the rolls were fresh, warm and good, the coffee was hot, and he liked being in the café and watching others come and go. It was as much of a refuge as he had in town.

For Daniel, this was the essence of Morganville, of any small town. It was the one place in town where he could get what he wanted.

He tipped the waitress well because she had left him alone, only bringing more coffee without asking. When he was finished, he finally had to go home.



"Dad!" George came tearing out of the back yard, yelling all the way. Billy followed along, probably running only because George was. That was their nature; he could see that Billy would always be a follower, pushed—or, rather, pulled—along by his brother's irrepressible force. He ached a little for him.

As soon as Daniel was out of the car, George had him by the leg, and little Billy claimed the other. He hugged them fiercely.

"Well, I was wondering how long you'd be." Sarah came out of the house dressed for town, shopping or visiting, in one of those cotton summer dresses he particularly liked. It emphasized her still slim waist, her good legs. "You weren't planning anything for the rest of the afternoon, were you?

"Not really."

"Good." She looked at her watch. "I'll be back around five. That's all right, isn't it?"

"Sure." He had taken his time; she deserved hers, too.

And when he looked for the boys, they had already deserted him for the back yard, the swing and the sand box, the jumble of toys they had—dump trucks, cars, bright plastic shovels their size with matching buckets, the sticks from which they made guns and pretended to shoot up the neighborhood. They needed a dog, he thought. Every boy should grow up with a dog to care for, throw sticks for, wrestle with in the yard, sleep with at night.

But he and Sarah had already gone through that; she did not want a dog, not the mess a dog would create, the messes dogs left for people—mostly, she said, the boys—to bring in on their shoes, the trips to the vet, and all the rest. It would be worth it, he had said only last night, they would learn to take some responsibility. Maybe, he had thought but not said. And she had said, No, I'd be the one feeding and cleaning up behind it. They'd leave it to me.

It was how so many of their conversations were going these days. Not that their marriage was in trouble—far from it, but lately, when he wanted something, most often (it seemed) she was against it. Oh, he knew how to soften her up to certain ideas, but at least about a dog, she would not be budged. Their discussion was over.

He could do it. He could put the boys in the car, drive up to town, look at the puppies. And the boys would cry over not getting one, scream with delight and play with it all the way home. And no matter what he said, no matter how he said it, Sarah would be angry for a month ...well, a week, anyway.

A sudden shout—scream?—from the back yard jolted him out of his thoughts, and for the rest of the afternoon he played with the boys, pushing them on the swing, letting them hang from his arms, chasing them until he was out of breath. It was a glorious, exhausting afternoon.

By six o'clock he and the boys had picked up all the toys in the yard in preparation for mowing the next day, and they were willing now—having worn down their levels of energy—to come in, clean up a bit for supper.



Daniel started potatoes in the oven, put the chicken Sarah had already set out for supper to cooking on the stove, had everything out to make a salad when Sarah came in, took over. "Go settle a bit," she said, "you've had a long day." She appeared energized. "I didn't mean to be nearly so long."

"You said five."

"Sorry. You know how Alice is, talks forever." Which was true. And with Alice there would be Carol and Emily. Sarah was the outsider, the one not from Morganville, and these women were her way of fitting in, even if Sarah did not recognize it. He had dated Emily once or twice in high school, and always liked Carol but she had married the weekend after she finished high school. She would be divorced in another year or two if she and Matt kept on the way they were headed; they had already had public fights, at Christmas parties and at someone's wedding; he could not remember whose wedding it had been. "Sure," he said, "it's not a problem." Carol had quickly kissed him, then kissed him longer, leaned into him in a way that suggested later.

He tried calling his brother, but could only leave a his periodic message on the machine, imploring Harris to call Dad, but it all made him feel as he had as a boy, as a supplicant seeking a favor. It rubbed him raw and he vowed again never to do it again. Harris never called him, only sent messages through Dad. "Tell him I called, that I asked about him," was Harris' typical message.

By eight o'clock the boys had eaten, had suffered the indignity of taking a bath, had been read to and were finally in bed. In their room they would talk to each other for a few minutes and then fall like stones into sleep. They would sleep until the light level in their room was too high for them, and they would hit the floor running. They were great at this age, full of boundless energy and uncontained excitement; it would be the best years of their lives, he believed.

He was not particularly tired when he slipped between the sheets. It had been a full day, the kind of day he liked having whenever he could, but those days could not come all that often. There was always work and the hundred other things which could drag him away. They had become, especially after the boys were born, the modern busy family, no matter that they lived in a small town.

"Oh, yes," Sarah said as she got into bed, "finally!" She switched off the light.


"Terribly tired. The boys were wild this morning. Good you weren't here to see it."

"They were good all afternoon for me."

"They would be." She shifted, rolled to face him in the dimness of the moonlight, the little bit of streetlight that filtered in from the other window, said in that altered voice she used when she wanted him to take her very seriously, "I think they're afraid of you."


"Well, I do wonder sometimes. Some afternoons when I tell them you'll be home any minute, they get this really odd look on their faces, especially if they've been acting up. Suddenly they're as good as gold." She waited for just a moment—considering the effect, he thought. Even in the dim light he could see that.

"It's what they make me think."

He turned his head to look up at the ceiling, that maybe in the blank, white, featureless above him that he could still see there might be an answer. As always, there was nothing, only the old dread of failure, of being second-rate no matter what he did, how he tried to overcome it. He would be that way as a father, too.

"They were good for me today," he said helplessly. They had followed the few rules they had for the boys though once or twice he had very gently rebuked them, and they had freely hugged him, grabbing his legs, throwing arms around his neck; he could find not the slightest hesitation in any of it. "I can't believe that." If it were true, he had ruined their lives.

"They why are they always better for you?"

"I don't know." He could not know. "I don't understand it." What adult can truly understand a child's mind?

So she was quiet. That would be all for now; it would come up again a month, two months from now. Unless the boys' behavior changed. Unless she somehow began to understand them differently—or understood him differently. He would work on that. He would start paying more attention to them, their behaviors around her, around himself. He would have to see for himself. He could not believe the boys were afraid of him.

So he was quiet, too. In a little while she was breathing heavily, falling asleep with her usual speed; he envied that. He had never been able to do that. But if he got up now to read, watch television in the living room, work on the computer, Sarah would wake and complain.

For a while he reviewed his day. At best, it was unsatisfactory, though it should have been good. The best moments of the day, of the whole week, had been with the boys this afternoon, standing in the doorway of their world, playing their games. Those hours had been exhilarating. He smiled at the thought—which caused him to review other, long-ago days, some in their way just as pleasurable. And soon enough he too was asleep.

It was an hour, give or take a few minutes, when he woke up again, fully awake—as if he had not slept at all. He was neither too hot nor too cold; there was no ready explanation. This happened to him from time to time. In a while he would sleep again, but for a while he would wait.

After a bit he moved next to Sarah, put an arm around her; she stirred. In another moment he started the motions, the caresses that would bring her up to the surface of sleep. It was not yet too late in the night for making love. Much later and she would be grouchy all day from not enough sleep, but now was safe.

She finally came awake, put an arm over him. "What time is it?"

He told her. It was still a little before midnight.


Daniel kissed her, caressed her.

She pushed him away—not hard but firmly. "No, I'm tired." Simple, direct, as she had always been with him. "All right," he said. She rolled away and in a quick moment was asleep again. For a while he was angry, feeling hurt, but after a while all of it slowly did dwindle down to annoyance, as always. Then he was over it, just as at other times, feeling only the little residue of hard emotion deep down. In a few days it too would wash away. Daniel lay quietly in the bed, turning only when his position became uncomfortable. He thought for a while about how easy it was to get over things, this momentary rejection, the everyday slights and bruises to the ego—time was the key. Anything can be overcome with time, he said to himself silently; at least he always had believed that.

Once he had thought time would make him better loved by his father. And maybe Sarah would love him more with time. It might happen, but he did not believe that any longer, he decided. Maybe Harris was right: take what you want, what you need, make yourself happy because no one can do that for you. As he lay in the dark, listening to Sarah's breathing in the quiet, hearing the sound of a car moving blocks away, rolling up his side, finally in the position in which he always fell asleep, he knew that it was just desire which had made him what he was, weak. So he began to despise himself just a little, just enough.









All work is copyrighted property of David McFarland.






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