Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Stoney Creek

It was a Monday, late morning, when Carl drove up to Rosa Bell’s trailer with the sole intention of removing her, by force if necessary, to the Whitman Home down in the valley. The trees were whipping themselves in the rain that day, flapping like wet dogs, turning the creek to fall. People like to say a good rain strips everything clean, but that’s not true in the hollow. Rain turns everything to mildew and stacks leaves up into carports and under your porch. And Stoney Creek always floods. Rosa Bell’s part of the hollow is low ground, and it’s thick with sycamores—fat, white-barked peelers that shake themselves over the water. Their canopies slump like drunk runaways, and they’re sick with rootless dreams.

I know Carl carried a little pit of guilt with him on the drive up to Rosie’s, and a stem from my spearmint patch to settle his stomach. The county had the right to make him do it, but the valley wasn’t the hollow where Rosie lived, and Rosie wasn’t no woman who could live indoors. She’d chew her way out of Whitman if she had to. She’d set the nurses and the guards and the oxygen-fed, toothless roommates on flaming fire before she’d follow the bell to three meals a day, and bingo, and meds. Carl knew that. But he was the one who had to kick her out.

Carl’s own gut-spinning truth was that he was jealous of Rosa Bell. Because she had figured out, in her own screwed-up way, what freedom was and how to get it, and to not give a shit about what anyone else thought, and didn’t want for nothing. Rosie was a fixture on her spit of land between the bar ditch and the creek bank—a landmark, a then-you-know-you’ve-gone-too-far part of the directions to your house, a speed bump next to the spot where the trout truck spills its two thousand fish upstream for the lazy, bear-baiting un-sportsmen who line up behind that truck like feedlot cows.

Tuesday morning after he went to Rosie’s for the last time Carl woke up and couldn’t feel his feet, he was so tore up over what he did. He sat in bed long enough to ignore me when I showed up with my Clorox and biscuits like I always do. Except Laura-Jean showed up to make his oatmeal for him, either because she was worried about her daddy or just to keep eyes on me, I think. She never did like the idea of me looking in on him every now and then.

But Carl’s done that before—lying in bed pretending to be paralyzed. I know what he’s thinking about when he lies there. He’s thinking about that dead mare, Betsy, he used to have. Betsy was born old, and so swaybacked you could roll a penny on her spine and keep time. Looking at her made you hurt. Carl used to make her a special bran mash every day that he mixed into a peaty slush with hot water from the laundry room faucet. The day she died he brought her bucket out, clipped it on the wall, and when Betsy just stared at it and wouldn’t get up to eat, he knew. He called the vet. The vet said that if she could stand, she’d have a chance, so Carl tried to get her up. He pulled on her halter from the front, the vet rocked and slapped her from behind, cussing and shoving, cussing and shoving. She never turned a wild eye once, so Carl says. She just looked back at him like to say, Are you done now? Then the vet brought out his needle.

I know most of the time Carl thinks about the same end for himself, like he’s just an old horse that wants to die, and maybe one day he’ll refuse to get out of bed and not any kind of pulling, or pushing, or cussing and coaxing would rouse him. He once told Doc Rohn to set aside a special syringe just for him, when the moment came. Old fools, the pair of them when they were together. The doc probably did it, too—he did whatever Constable Carl told him to—probably got some kind of clear cocktail of sleep sitting on a shelf somewhere in a sterile room labeled Just For Him, probably because he thinks that’s funny. Maybe he’s got one for Rosa Bell, too.

“God, I hurt like a striped buck today,” Carl said to Laura-Jean when he finally made it to the table. “There must be a low on the way.”

She was mostly ignoring him and making his oatmeal. I usually do it. I make it much better than she does. She makes it mushy and puts all kinds of stuff in it like pumpkin seeds and cardamom. Carl don’t like nuts.

Then she started in with her talk—that strange way she’s got of saying stuff like, “You know, all your aches and pains are just cyclesomatic, Dad,” I think is what she said. Carl said back to her just what I was thinking. “Uh huh. Tell me what that means again,” he said.

For Laura-Jean, everything has an explanation: every ache, every bad choice, every trouble has a seat in the brain that can be restrung just by thinking around it. Or eating right. Whole grains, and soymilk, and green tea, and bowel movements are her answer to everything.

“You’re so weighed down with guilt over what happened to Rosa Bell,” she said, “that now your body is trying to process what your mind is twisted around about.”

One part of what she said was right. Carl was all twisted around. Rosa Bell had the Constable twisted up from day one. Everyone knew that. But Laura-Jean had no sympathy for what happened to Rosie. Maybe she knew about Rosie and her daddy and was just being protective of her own dead mother, or maybe she forgot all about the fact that Willard, Carl’s buddy from down at the Whitman Home, had fished Carl out of Stoney Creek the day before. At any rate, she had a different take.

“These things have a way of showing up in your muscles and your nerves,” she said. “Your bones, too. All that guilt you carry around with you is just dead weight. It will keep breaking you down if you don’t learn how to outthink it. There isn’t anything wrong with you that you can’t outthink.”

“OK, give me a minute,” Carl said. He closed his eyes and pretended to be concentrating. “I’m thinking my way out of this therapy session.”

“And your anger is misplaced,” Laura-Jean continued like a mule. “You should try meditation. What you do is you concentrate on one thing. It could be anything, like a candle flame or a waterfall . . .”

Carl was stirring his bowl of oatmeal while Laura-Jean chattered away. Her voice was like a flock of squabbling blue jays. The oatmeal was still too hot when he dug in his spoon. He wasn’t listening to her, I could tell. He was watching the steam twirl around his spoon, and his hand, and watching it float up like smoke over a campfire, or like it does over the creek in the morning. Carl likes to watch the creek warm up. He’ll stand there real quiet and just watch, sometimes for more than an hour.

“. . . it will calm your mind,” Laura Jean said, “and all those agues will drift away with the negative thoughts.”

Carl wasn’t watching her make little birds with her hands when she said that. He was still staring into his bowl. He asked her if he had to sit in a pretzel like she does.

“It’s called the lotus position,” she said.

Then Carl said to her, “Do you remember when you were about seven years old and you had that awful case of poison ivy?” That made Laura-Jean start fussing because she thought Carl was just changing the subject. “It was all over your legs and you turned purple as a June blueberry,” he said. “You were miserable until you fell off the back steps and broke your wrist. Well then your wrist hurt more than the rash, so one problem took care of the other. It’s like that with your pretzel thing . . . make something hurt more than something else and one of them will go away, right?”

“Dad, you never take anything I say seriously. I’m still twelve years old to you!”

I know there’s no dad of any kind could argue with a girl on that—what child doesn’t stay forever a child in the mind of a parent? Laura-Jean left the kitchen after that, but before she did she filled up Carl’s mug with angry coffee. It splashed on the counter and no one cleaned it up but left it for me.


All of Rosie’s stuff had to go, too. Her trailer was easy, but the car had snugged itself in the clay under so much Virginia creeper it took a backhoe to rip it out. The only thing harder was pulling out the port-o-john. It was an ugly piece of corrugated tin, with peeling paint and a rotten base hex-screwed to some concrete footers. That was the rub. The county didn’t get real riled up over her squatting there, or even that her port-o-john was dug into the creek bank, until the new people bought the house across the road. I saw it all coming when they moved in. They were working furious for a while—a young couple with nice cars, loaded up with good lumber, and new railings, and blue tarps. They were making fancy repairs to the place: washing off all those lovely browns and filling gaps with plastic and fake rock, building neat steps and windows with glass that don’t warp. Rosa Bell didn’t stand a chance.

But it wasn’t just Rosie’s outdoor bathroom or the deed that went all the way to the creek that made the new folks want her gone. It was how she made such a spectacle of herself walking the road to Larkin’s every day with her two dumb terriers in tow. It was the way she tottered around in her loose wig of burnt orange curls, wearing the same brown dress while her dogs tangled themselves behind her, swinging their skeins of oily fur trying to keep the bubbles of their bellies in the middle atop their scrawny legs. They were the dimwitted kind, sliding over the asphalt like a set of matching mops. The three of them looked alike. Rosie shuffled like the dogs did, shifted under her matted weight, and studied the road for holes and food scraps.

It was that Rosie set a framed picture of Jesus out on a lawn chair facing the road, and she stood there next to him shaking a finger at anyone that went by. Jesus was only out when the sun managed to peer onto that spit of road just right. When you could get a good clear look at him. There was no glass over the picture, and the corners of the frame were pummeled to nubs, except where they were pulling apart. The paper was buckled and faded enough so that Jesus was just a shadow. He’d been held a lot, especially in the cold of winter nights under raw blankets. He got gently warped by the greasy glow of her space heater. When Jesus wasn’t in his chair, Rosie kept him tucked under her elbow while she wandered around her creek bank muttering unheard thoughts to herself.

Carl tried more than that one Monday to get Rosie off her place. She was waiting for him the first time. He didn’t even need to knock. She had Jesus with her. He told her all he wanted was to see she got out of there safely, that’s all, which was true, but she was having none of it. When Rosie got mad it was like trying to pet a caged raccoon.

Part of what threw Carl off his stroke was that he hadn’t seen Rosie up close for nearly twenty years. He remembered her the way she was when he first got so entangled with her, when she was the kind of girl you might see getting primped up on a movie set. We all know people, and it’s a tired story, but just about every man in town thought she was the sexiest thing anybody ever saw. She could charm dander.

I saw Rosie’s hammered old face all the time. Going by on my way to work I’d drop off dinner leftovers, cashews and brussels sprouts, the stuff what the grandkids didn’t eat. She got run off Larkin’s a few times for filling up paper sacks with ketchup packets and pickle relish, so leftovers kept Rosie out of trouble. I warned Carl the sprig was off the bloom, she was no spring crocus no more, but an old woman with a demon in her mouth. Plain as that. And he got a taste of it. She spat at poor Carl that first time. I had to wash the wintergreen Skoal stains out of his pants. She said, “You want me to tell you I’ll be fine down there in the whackbin with all the other nuts. Adap-fucking-tation, right? Like Mendel, like fruit flies and shit.” She was a whirligig when she got cornered. She told him, “Do your job, constable. I’m not going to absolve you. Only the Lord Holy Jesus Christ can do that.” He didn’t get her out of there on the first try. Or the second.

It used to be that Rosie wasn’t so much that way. She always knew stuff. About science, and head-shrinking, and Sri Lankan butterflies or something. She went all over looking up new and monstrous ways to look at the world. A little like Laura-Jean. Laura-Jean would have liked the old Rosie. Same as her daddy. Same as nearly everybody until Rosie checked out and parked herself under the sycamores. No one really knows what got her there—whether it was her own orneriness or something else.

Laura-Jean made friends with the folks across the street from Rosie fast as butter goes with jam. When they weren’t meeting for six dollar coffees they were doing their séancing and whatnot at the rejigged house every week. Laura-Jean heard all about Rosie’s doings on her side of the road, about what they thought they knew about Rosie: that she fills up on drinking water at the culvert, that she throws relish packets at cars, and the dogs go around eating them up off the road and nearly getting hit. They even told the one about how Rosie killed her own husband. Only the kids and newcomers believe that one.

On the constable’s second try he fell for a pretty good trick. Rosie invited him inside her trailer. I don’t know what that battered vixen lured him in with—she never had nothing to eat, and I wouldn’t sit on one piece of her furniture if you offered me a whole roll of Mega Millions. He called me up to tell me about it. She was all nice and talking normal at first, until she picked up a frog gigger and came after him with it. He said he very nearly got stuck by her, too, and he fell out the front door right on his butt. “A good thing she didn’t have a shotgun or I’d be part of her decorating,” he told me. He had a laugh over it, but I know Carl finally got to see what I was trying to tell him. She wasn’t the same Rosie. She wasn’t nearly even a shadow of what she used to be. She was a watered-down, whiskeyed-up wisp of what she was. I know he was smarting over all of it, but I think it made it easier for what he really knew he had to do next.


All the rain on that Monday had Stoney Creek up and raging. It’s a real sight when the creek gets rolling. It makes off with whole chunks of people’s yards, most of their trash, their lawn rakes, and anything else that’s loose. The water runs it for miles and usually everything stacks up at the low water bridge at Narrow Passage. The bridge has seen it all: diapers, and Big Wheels, whole trees, barbecue grills, porch chairs, herb gardens and dead cats. It holds the weight of everything that comes down the pike. Carl got out there to Rosie’s by the time the water was up just a few feet from her trailer. She was outside digging a trench in the mud with a broken-handled shovel. Sometimes a trench works.

Carl was finally all business. He brought along Willard from down at the Whitman Home: the slick-headed, brown fellow about as big as a log skidder, born to knock things over. Not that Rosie was afraid of anyone, I think it’s just that Carl knew he wasn’t strong enough anymore to wrestle that orange wolverine into his truck by himself. Willard brought his equipment: a straitjacket and a needle full of sleep.

The way we all heard it at fellowship hall was they turned their backs to plan, or gear up, or something long enough for Rosie to do a flat-out Peter Pan into Stoney Creek. She jumped. The woman with all that dash, and all that meanness full of stones, up and jumped. She took her cutoff sashay, and her real hair, and her smashed up darling smirk, and her wound up coils of bile, and ripped herself off the map. She nosedived into the roil with relish, and Carl splashed in up to his knees, trying to catch a piece of her, reaching for some little souvenir of Rosie the leading lady, Rosie the one who made him such a chowderhead over and over again. Carl went in after his lost good name and instead came up with Rosie’s muddy wig, spun clean in the foam like a galaxy. The creek eddied her like a blanket deep under, and wouldn’t spit her up, and it made sure her ragged body wasn’t going anywhere near the Whitman.

It took two weeks for Rosie to wash up at Narrow Passage, full of sodden brush and plastic grocery bags, and stripped of her brown dress, and all the soil of trailer living and kerosene heat. It was the cleanest she’d been since she almost landed that photo-op with Grubbs Chevrolet in 1972. Willard and half the Whitman, and a few of us that went to pay some respects were there to help haul her out. There was no money for a funeral, and as far as anyone knew there was no family able to stand up and settle things. But Carl never showed. He was still spending the day in bed trying to thaw out, eating Laura-Jean’s oatmeal. He nearly drowned the same as Rosie, if it hadn’t been for Willard, who ran in after Carl right when the creek swept his feet out from under him. Willard was belly down on the bank with the neck of Carl’s jacket in his hand. It was November. It was toe-numbing cold. Doc Rohn said Rosie probably didn’t make it past the drop at Wolf Gap before hypothermia set in, and freezing is a quiet way to go. It’s like falling asleep, and she was lucky goddamn it.


Carl started going up to Rosie’s old place after the flood. He’s real quiet about what he does there, but he said he’s not watching the creek or anything, or reliving the moment like he could have done something different. I’ve seen him there just staring at the house across the street, and he’s there more than he’ll admit to me or anyone. All that rain mildewed the house and the new people haven’t been back. They lost most everything they had stored in the basement to the flood and left it all: palettes of broken shingles, and mud-stained drywall, and gallons of Duron high-end oil-based paint in Muted Cabernet Bisque, and their sets of matching yoga mats, and their French Roasts, and their walnut armoires. They wore out all their change. Carl sometimes clears the Virginia creeper off the mailbox, but mostly he just stares at the house. I don’t know what he’s meditating on, there’s nothing much to see. It’s like he’s looking for something that it used to be, something other than what it’s become: a mess of unpainted balusters lined up like missing teeth, and paint chip confetti, and rain set bags of Quickrete. It’s a ghost now, all covered in blue tarps just swinging in the wind with the sycamores. Maybe he’s trying to forget Rosie, both the dead and the living, or maybe something in between. Something like a bad ache, or a broken arm, or a good dirty rain. It’s like he’s just trying to make one hurt take care of another.  end  

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