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The River Runs Down to the Bay

As the bus approached the river, up the Sierra Nevada toward Tahoe, he knew it would cruise down the long highway through Sacramento and over the green bridge over the Sacramento River and on toward the Bay Area. He lit a cigarette. Then he pulled out the book he was reading. It was a popularization of psychological theories that put into practice on a daily basis would improve his smile, his regularity, and make him a god as well.

He had accepted the verdict that God was dead and that men were now the gods and that as long as one was a god he may as well get good at it. He felt the desire and excitement of a challenge and realized from conversations that the Bay Area was excellent for these ideas.

Inside the bus cried a little baby as its mouth slipped in and out of a young mother's bare breast. He stared in amazement at the sight of the bare breast. Not the bare breast itself but the sight of it, bare and effulgent and naked as the young woman watched passively out the window.

He smiled.

And he was happy. It had been hours since he'd eaten anything and the pressure of the hunger made him lose control so he giggled childishly and when someone turned around in their seat he blushed and held the book in front of his eyes.

There it was again. A long explanation about how God had been conquered by rational men and their techniques and how men now had to assume the responsibilities of former gods and how all kinds of questions where realized by this idea. So, the book said, it comes down to personal power. We must not let those forces we believe have power over us intimidate us. One needs to cultivate personal power and rest (if we are conscientious) will take care of itself.

Yes, he mused. That was right. He remembered how his father had nearly been ruined when a new harvester had not arrived in time. The old one had become dilapidated but was pressed into service at the last moment but that harvest had been a failure. If his father had not panicked it might have been different. The father grew panicky through he didn't manifest it; he would no longer think straight and seemed stunned after awhile, gazing at his field for long moments of time. Then it was too late.

Snow had fallen the previous night and by melting alongside the road sent up wafts of cold air through the window cracks and turning his breath into a visible thing that hung up in the air and pressed airless into the window.

Yes, he thought, there was something indomitable about the idea of men becoming gods. Perhaps he had to...

He had studied a little history and realized it was a horrible failure and even feared the consequences of that failure and realized some new notion of God seemed less and less a threat than a necessity. But there was so much to manage. There were so many bureaucrats and spoiled women running around that would cut the legs from any gods. And they had the power. They had the power during the war and they still had the power and if they were ascended to the throne of gods.....it was frightening.

He had worked briefly at a computer company doing inane work and had watched the managers of the company strut from one end to the other doing nothing but create storms of ill-will through the people working hard at their jobs. One of the men actuality threw his shoulders back in the gesture of a military man as he held pieces of paper and distributed them to the secretaries.

There were no true symbols for stupidity; only a feeling that struck him like a fine, slim arrow.

From his window he watched the parallel streaks of vapor behind a jet, going East. He had seen one crash before. It was a monstrous sight. It happened in Arkansas in a storm. The sky had turned to gray swollen balls of oilsh rain and he had heard the loud pop before the languid drone of the engine quit and he looked up in time to see a red and sliver jet immolate itself in the muddy fields of Arkansas. There were many moments of silence in his mind even as the ground shook and an enormous fireball rose up into the black sky. He was trying to remember if he had heard the screams. It was probable. He had heard them as the plane rolled toward the ground and his hands were sweating in fascination and horror even before the jet hit.

It was, quite frankly, as if somewhere in his latent thoughts he'd wished it to happen. Sometimes when he'd been a boy he'd look out of his window and watch a plane and would imagine it falling and then concentrated with boyish zeal to see if he had the power to actually make it fall as he'd seen an alien do in a science fiction picture. When in his mind the little plane had crumpled and fallen he immediately felt ashamed of himself but would never reconstruct it and place it in the air whole again.

He had been raised on a farm in Minnesota. The sight of a plane was mysterious in those days. There was ritual and work so when a Piper Cub or Cessna or an old crop duster flew over the farm it was a break in the long monotony of chores and ritual silence that seemed bred into the farm life. This was silence that nearly drove him mad. His father had talked about pride and had always walked about the house and the farm with his head alert and erect, with smoldering eyes as though he had been born out of a stalk of corn rather than a human mother.

The boy was told a great deal about pride and how a man ought to be. No, he had to be proud of the work he did and of the life he lived. They were meaningless words for a boy who went to the movies every week-end and saw images of pride fall one after another to the wiles of city women and the oppressive world men had built up around him.

His father had berated him once for being slow and it confused him because it appeared slowness was what a farmer needed. He took slowness to be an act of responsibility; the act of thinking which brought itself into from out of dreams.

That's what he did as he did his chores in the early morning. And one morning he caught his father staring at him from the corner of the house. They stared at each other for a strange moment that lingered and did not soften in the sound of the crows and roosters clucking and making a fuss over the morning; now sprinkled with clusters of bluish stars.

The boy turned away to his job. He heard the footsteps of his father along the ground the noise ground into the boys spine. "This should have been done already," the father said without admonishment but with a matter of factness that had, even, a tingle of appeal to it. Then he heard, "You do this all the time. You're slow. It's that dreaming. Don't do that anymore."

The boy blushed and felt hot under the icy morning air. Then the farmer became shrill. "Goddamn boy I need your arms and legs but not your dreams. Now wake up!"

The boy thought his father was going to beat him. It would be the first time and he waited.

* * * * * * * *

The boy had left the farm to go to college and then had started to read. He read omnivorously as though each work in each page in each book had been written for him and had merely passed hands to wait for his eyes.

Soon he left college but returned later on to get a degree because his father had wanted him to get an education and then go on into the world. Secretly the father wanted his son to get beaten by the world so he would eventually return to the farm and take it over.

The son became imbued with radical politics. The draft had passed him by but he had become radical. He had felt indignation at everything he saw happening on television and read in the newspapers and felt the same rage smoldering in the more articulate leaders of the radicals.

And one day he had wakened in his head to the complete and utter feeling of doom. In his imagination he could comprehend such a thing as doom but when he tried to understand it with his emotions he felt a long, protracted slide in himself that felt heavy like the ice blocks he used to take up to the mainhouse on the farm.

He had gone to school with some friends from the town and they had dismissed everything as an aberration of a few perverted souls who wanted cheap fame and attention from the news. The fellows laughed a great deal while drinking and would get into fights once in awhile. He would watch them fight and how serious everything would get and how everyone wanted to rush in and save the fighters and clear up the problem.

However, his best friend Ned had gone off to the military and come back from Vietnam in a bad way. Some guys in the town finally tracked him down in an institution by the SAC base. So, he went to see Ned who did not recognize him but went into a long, intricate plan he had concocted while everyone believed he was insane and his plan was as lucid as anything he had heard. It had frightened and shocked him. And in a curious way make him glad that Ned had been locked away.

Several days later he had felt guilty about being glad his friend was incarcerated in a mental institution and sent him a short letter in which he tried to explain who he was. He thought maybe if his sick friend remembered who he was he would snap out of his condition and return to where he really belonged.

He didn't received any letter back and felt very sad.

* * * * * * * *

Tension mounted between himself and his family. They were not patriotic in the common sense of the word. They were not the vulgarians that popular media had made people of this sort out to be. Perhaps the media had felt an intellectual shame in themselves for having feelings toward the country and, as the shrinks would say, project these feelings into souls who couldn't really defend themselves in the face of the media's power.

But, curiously, there was a kind of hatred in these people toward everything not connected with their work and what they had earned out of that work.

And when he came back home he was met by silence. His father did not even tell him anymore that he dreamed too much but only looked at him with curious disinterest. And from that day he realized it was all different.

He took his diploma and burned it. He collected some reading material and decided to travel with the idea of reaching California. San Francisco had a magical ring to it.

It was in the South where he had watched the airliner plunge from the sky. He had been in a daze the next morning, then bought the newspaper which was bordered by black, thick lines and in solid bank numbers summed up the fatalities. Lower on he read the list of passengers who had been killed. No one had survived. "They never survive disintegration," he thought to himself.

He ran away down the road, toward the town, at first to tell someone what had happened. But as he watched the vehicles pouring by him on the road he realized there was nothing to tell so he went back to his room and lay on the bed, playing the sight of the awkward demise of the plane again and again in his mind and then heard the screams of the souls self-conscious of their final moments on Earth.

He read the long article. The plane had been heading for Florida and was caught in the storm. The pilot radioed the local airport than an engine had failed. The newspapers said the pilot was calm and used the world, "whole mechanism," before silence.

He read the list of the dead and they animated in his mind as though they had been family or personal friends. He imagined making love to the stewardess named Sarah before the fatal flight and then heard her scream; of all the people who'd been screaming it had been her that he heard.

It was like drowning. Perhaps a window had broken out and the influx of heavy air emptying out had made them swoon. All their lives were passing in front of their eyes and at the last few seconds had been a benediction of voice repeating the deeds of their lives so in the fragile cabin came a rich mixture of voices. No, he had heard screams. Individual shouts for salvation.

Perhaps it was the young woman filled with sadness for her passing love that had abused her and comforted her, it was to end now, and she closed her eyes to listen to the others and sighed horribly in her breast.

No, he was being maudlin now. They all screamed. And the plane, too, make an inhuman noise on its descent. And even standing on the ground he could feel the vacuum sucked behind the plane.

He couldn't get over how he had wished it to happen. Not that people were killed. His wish had been an abstraction that left people out of the picture.

In his motel room he read the newspaper while laying on the bed with a dim light on by the side.

There had been eyewitnesses. A tobacco farmer and his wife were outside at the time. "It just fell out of the sky and exploded." His wife was, "shaky and upset." Then at the end of the article the wife was quoted as saying, "Lord, none of those poor souls had a chance."

He argued with the quote. They had as least as good a chance as anyone. No, that wasn't right. There was something fatal and absurd about a plane falling out of the sky and killing hundreds of people.

The woman had awakened in the morning and freshened herself while thinking about her lover in Florida. How she missed her lover and how strange it was that they were separated all the time. Two months before they had exchanged gifts at Christmas and she wore the pendant around her soft neck. They would make it known to those who needed to know that they were lovers of a different sort.

How passionless she felt and how she missed her lover in Florida.

And at the airport she had felt a sudden laziness as though she no longer wanted to be what she was but what was she going to do?

In the restaurant she had eaten a sandwich and watched the people crowd in and out of the long thoroughfare that was the airport and felt sick suddenly as though she no longer wanted to be with them. The fat, groping bastards she had thought. Perhaps it was time for the lover to work for awhile. She would stay in Florida and enjoy herself while the lover made the living. She would talk about it.

It is all useless speculation and fantasy he thought. What races through their minds belongs to the doomed and no one else. What can we know but that we are glad we are not in their predicament. Of course, at any moment the bus could fly off the highway toward the white-water of the river below and in the moments before death we, too, would know the silence and peace that comes with absolute knowledge. Ah, but a part of me would know how ridiculous it looks like on the news and how little attention people give to it and how quickly it's all forgotten. And would we, as ghosts, fly away together? If there are is no God, there are no ghosts. But still, some electricity has to survive.

It's all idle speculation he thought again. His favorite characters were soldiers and gladiators who welcomed death and so showed everyone else how to live. Or, how to die well. Now, he thought, they're all afraid of dying so when it happens suddenly like that it takes them by surprise. And surprise was not delightful to them. No, it threw a monkey wrench into the deal. Therefore, there were screams. Not one of them, he thought, had said, "ah, it is a good day to die...." And for what? They were like the tourists in ancient Rome drowned in rough seas off the coast of Africa who no one thought about any more except their family and then they disappeared and there was nothing. But even they, at the moment the ship was going down, must have spoken or connected with eternity and so were present with him, even on the bus.

And some of them, he ventured, could tell him a thing or two about life. At least about an exotic dish of figs and squid that they served on the ship during the passage. In those days, he thought, they did not laugh at nakedness but welcomed it. There, in that ship, at least one man or woman had said, "ah, it is a good day to die," and welcomed it. But they are forgotten now and nothing remains.

He felt a prickly sensation on the back of his neck and stared out along the cold freeway and cold mountains and cold river that rushed without thought down into the wonderful Bay.

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