River Angel: Excerpts

Excerpt One

Author’s note:

River Angel is a work of fiction, the best way I’ve found to tell the truth. It is less the story of an individual than the history of a community; it is less about what did or did not happen in a town I have chosen to call Ambient than it is about the ways in which we try to make sense of a world that doesn’t.

In April, 1991, in a little Wisconsin town about a hundred miles southwest of the town where I grew up, a misfit boy was kidnapped by a group of high school kids who, later, would testify they’d merely meant to frighten him, to drive him around for awhile. Somehow they ended up at the river, whooping and hollering on a two lane bridge. Somehow the boy was shoved, he jumped, he slipped-accounts vary-into the icy water. The kids told police that they never heard a splash; one reported seeing a brilliant flash of light. (Several people in the area witnessed a similar light, while others recalled hearing something “kind of like thunder.”) All night, volunteers walked the river’s edge, but it was dawn before the body was found in a barn a good mile from the bridge. Investigators constructed this unlikely scenario: the boy had drifted downstream, crawled out of the water, climbed up the slick embankment and crossed a snow-dusted pea field. But if that were the case, then where were the footprints? The evidence of his shivering scramble up the embankment? And how could he have survived the cold long enough to make it that far?

The owner of the barn had been the one to discover the body, and she said the boy’s cheeks were rosy, his skin warm to the touch. A sweet smell hung in the air. “It was,” she said, “as if he were just sleeping.” And then she told police she believed an angel had carried him there.

For years, it had been said that an angel lived in the river. Residents flipped coins into the water for luck, and a few claimed they had seen the angel, or known someone who’d seen it. The historical society downtown had a farmwife’s journal, dated 1898, in which a woman described how an angel had rescued her family from a flood. Now as the story of the boy’s death spread, more people came forward with accounts of strange things that had happened on that night. Dogs had barked without ceasing till dawn; livestock broke free of padlocked barns. Someone’s child crayonned a bridge and, above it, a wide-winged tapioca angel. Several people reported dream visitations by the dead. There were the stories about the boy himself-that he frequently prayed in public places, that he never once raised his hand against another, that a childless woman conceived after showing him one small act of kindness.

Though both church and state investigators eventually deemed all evidence unsubstantiated, money was raised to build a shrine on the spot where the boy’s body was found. I have been to the River Angel shrine, and to others. I have travelled to places as unlikely as Cullman, Alabama and as breathtaking as Chimayo, New Mexico. I leaf through the gift shop books about angels, books about miracles, books filled with personal testimonies. Books in which supernatural events rescue ordinary people from the effects of a world which is becoming increasingly violent, dangerous, complex. Though I myself am not a believer, I understand the desire to believe. I live every day with the weight of that desire.

Ultimately, I have found it is meaningless to hold the yardstick of fact against the complexities of the human heart. Reality simply isn’t large enough to hold us. And so the sky becomes a gateway to the heavens. Death is not an end but a beginning. A child crossing a pea field into the indifferent, inevitable darkness maybe reborn, raised up by our longing into light.

A. Manette Ansay

Part One

Thank you, Saint Martha, for favors granted. The following prayer is to be said for 9 consecutive Tuesdays: Saint Martha, I resort to your protection and faith. Comfort me in all my difficulties and through the great favor you enjoy in the house of my savior, intercede for me and my family. (Say 3 Hail Marys.) I beseech thee to have infinite pity in regard to the favor I ask of Thee, Saint Martha (name favor) and that I may be able to overcome all difficulties. Amen. This prayer has never been known to fail. You will receive your intention on or before the 9th Tuesday, no matter how impossible it might seem. Publication must be promised. BD

from the Ambient Weekly
December, 1990

Chapter One

The boy and his father stopped for the night somewhere west of Canton, Ohio. Around them, the land lay in one vast slab, the snow crust bright as water beneath the waxing moon. The nearest town was ten miles away, unincorporated, and there was nothing in between except a handful of farmhouses, Christmas lights burning in each front window; a few roads; fewer stop signs; a small white crossroads church. High above and out of harm’s way were the cold, gleaming eyes of stars, and each was so strangely iridescent that if a man in one of the farmhouses were to have risen for an aspirin or glass of warm milk, he could have been forgiven for waking his wife to tell her he’d seen-well, something. A glowing disk that swelled and shrank. A pattern of flashing lights. And she could have been forgiven, later, for telling people she’d seen something too as she’d stood by the bedroom window, sock-footed and shivering, her husband still pointing to that place in the sky.

But a wind came up in the early morning hours, scattering the stars and moon like winter seeds, so that by dawn the sky was empty, the color of a tin cup. It was the day before Christmas. They were on their way to Ambient, Wisconsin. The air had turned cold enough to make Gabriel Carpenter’s nostrils pinch together as he stood in the motel parking lot, listening to his father quote figures about the length of time human skin could be exposed to various temperatures.

“It’s not like this is Alaska, kiddo,” Shawn Carpenter said, clattering bright yellow plastic plates and cups from the motel’s kitchenette onto the floor of the station wagon. The old dog, Grumble, who was investigating the crushed snow around the dumpster, shuddered as if the sound had been gunshot. The previous day, she’d ridden on the floor between Gabriel’s legs, her face at eye level with Gabriel’s face, panting with motion sickness. There’d been nowhere else to put her. Behind the front seats, the space was packed with all the things that hadn’t been sold or lost or left behind: clothing, cookbooks, a color TV, a neon orange bean bag chair, snow shoes, a half-built dulcimer, two miniature lemon trees in large matching lemon-shaped pots, and Shawn’s extensive butterfly collection, which was mounted on pieces of wood and enclosed behind glass plates. Whenever she’d started barking crazily, they’d been forced to stop and let her outside. The last time it had taken over an hour of whistling to coax her back.

Shawn peeled off one of his gloves and held his bare hand out toward Gabriel. “One one-thousand,” he said, demonstrating. “Two one-thousand. Three one-thousand. Four one-thousand.”

An oily light spread toward them from the edge of the horizon, and now Gabriel could see I-57 in the distance, a thin grey line slicing through the snowy fields, unremarkable as a healed-over scar. A single car crept along it, and he imagined it lifting into the air as lightly as a cotton ball. He imagined it again. If you believed in something hard enough, if your faith was pure, you could make anything happen-his fifth-grade teacher, Miss Welch, had told him that. Miss Welch was born again. Still the car kept moving at its careful speed, and Gabriel knew he must have doubted, and that was the only reason why the car kept dwindling down the highway to a point no brighter than a star.

“You see?” Shawn said, and he wriggled his fingers. “If this was Alaska, my hand would be frozen. If this was Alaska, we’d probably be dead.”

Grumble had found a grease-stained paper bag. Her tail moved rapidly to and fro as if she believed something good was inside it. Yet Grumble wagged her tail just as energetically at snow plows and mailboxes, at the sound of canned laughter on TV, at absolutely nothing at all.

“A dog, on the other hand, is a survivor. Warm fur, sharp teeth. A survivor!” Shawn said, and he must have enjoyed the sound of that word because he said it again as they pulled out of the parking lot. Gabriel stared back at Grumble hoping she would look up, hoping she would not. Then he faced front and kicked the plates and cups aside, making room for his feet against the vent. He pulled off one of his mittens and picked up a cup, which he held in front of his glasses. Peering through the oval handle, he watched the land compress to fit into that tiny space. “She’ll find a nice family,” Shawn assured him. “She’ll forget all about us.”

Noreen had been much harder to leave behind. Shawn still owed her money from the camper, which they’d bought with money she’d saved from years of work at a small insurance company. That was when they still had plans to travel cross-country-Noreen and Shawn, Noreen’s son Jeffy and Gabriel-to Arizona, where the weather stayed warm and dry. Noreen had a soft Southern accent which made the things she said seem original and true, and she knew how to do things like make biscuits from scratch. It had been five months since Shawn and Gabriel had moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Fairmont, West Virginia, and sometimes, during that first charmed month, when it was too muggy to sleep, they’d taken their blankets onto the tiny balcony and lain there beneath the stars talking about the future-even Jeffy who was only four and didn’t understand what anyone was saying. But the camper had brought one thousand dollars, money that would get them to Wisconsin, and feed them until Shawn found work. He handed Gabriel the thick wad of fifties and hundreds, letting him feel its weight. “You’ll have to help out with expenses for awhile,” he said. “A paper route, kiddo, how do you feel about that?”

Gabriel imagined slogging through the snowdrifts, dragging a wet bag of newspapers behind him. “Maybe I could work in a restaurant,” he said, although he wasn’t sure a ten year old could do that kind of thing, even if he was big-boned the way people said.

“A paper route would be better for you-exercise, fresh air, all that.”

“OK,” Gabriel said warily-was his father going to start in on his weight?-but Shawn stuffed the money back into the deep pocket of his coat and turned on the radio. More soldiers were arriving in Saudi Arabia; air craft carriers had moved into striking range of the Gulf. “Listen up, son,” Shawn said. “There’s going to be a war.” The sun was gaining strength, bloodying the horefrost that clung to the shrubs and the tall wild grasses that poked up through the snow crust at the edges of the highway. They passed an intersection boasting the world’s largest collection of rocks, a car dealership with its necklace of bright flags, a nursery selling Christmas trees beneath a yellow and white striped tent. The land was flatter than any place Gabriel could imagine except, perhaps, Heaven with its shining streets of gold. Miss Welch had told the class all about heaven and Jesus Christ, and how, if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be filled with the power of God and could perform any miracle they wished. “You mean,” Gabriel said, “if I had a glass of white milk I could make it chocolate?”

“That’s right,” Miss Welch said. “But you’d have to believe with all your heart. Most people can’t do that. Most people have a little bit of doubt that they can’t overcome no matter how hard they try. Otherwise it would be easy to make a miracle happen. Anyone could do it.”

Gabriel picked up the rest of the cups and fitted them into a towering stack. He tried not to think about Grumble. He tried not to think about Noreen who must be waking up to an empty apartment and a bare spot on the lawn by the parking lot where the camper had been sitting. He reminded himself there would be other girlfriends and dogs and Jeffys, although his father had assured him that this time things would be different because Ambient was the place where Shawn had grown up. This time, Shawn said, they were really going home.

In the past, when Shawn had talked about Ambient, it was to make fun of the people who lived there. Hicks and religious fanatics, he called them. Local yokels married to cousins. People with six fingers and bulging foreheads. Now he was talking about how much Gabriel was going to like country living. He talked about the way the sown fields around the town looked like a green and gold checkerboard, split by sleepy county highways where you could drive for an hour without seeing anything except meadow larks, sparrow hawks and red wing black birds and, perhaps, a sputtering tractor. He described the mill pond, how on hot summer days you could dive off the wall of the old Killsnake dam and float on your back beneath a sky so blue it seemed like a reflection of the water itself. He talked about the Onion River, which ran all the way from the mill pond smack through the center of Ambient, where there was a park with a little gazebo and swings, and an old-fashioned town square with a five and dime, a pharmacy and a cafe with an icecream soda counter. An angel lived in the river, he said. In fact, he’d even seen it once: small and white, about the size of a seagull, hovering just above the water. But the absolute best part about Ambient was that both Gabriel’s grandfather and his uncle-Shawn’s older brother, Fred-lived in a farmhouse big enough so that Gabriel could have his own room. At night, he could lie in bed and listen to the freight trains passing through, just like Shawn had done as a boy, imagining he was a hobo, a stowaway, rocked to sleep inside one of the cars.

Gabriel raised the stack of cups so the top cup touched the roof of the station wagon. He wondered if the angel was real, or if it was just something his father had made up so he would want to live there.

“Ambient,” Shawn announced, “is the perfect place for a boy like you to grow up, don’t you think?”

The station wagon swerved a little, and Gabriel let the cups collapse, a shattering waterfall of sound. Shawn jumped and accelerated into the break-down lane. There was the raw hiss of tires spinning on ice and, for a moment, Gabriel saw the long fingers of the weeds reaching for him, close enough to touch. Then they were back on the highway.

“Goddamn it!” Shawn said. “See what you made me do?”

Gabriel picked up a cup that had fallen into his lap.

“You blame me for everything, don’t you?” Shawn said. “This is your way of getting back at me. This is your way of getting under the old man’s skin.”

He turned up the radio and they drove without speaking as the red sunrise dissipated into the steely morning. People were arguing over what the war was going to be about, if there even was a war at all. Gabriel tried to topple a thin stand of trees. He tried to make himself invisible. When nothing happened, he searched his soul for the blemish of doubt which, somehow, he must have overlooked. Noreen had been Born Again just like Miss Welch, and she said that Miss Welch was right: pure faith made anything possible. She told Gabriel stories of people who’d had cancer and been completely cured without surgery or drugs, leaving the doctors mystified. She told Gabriel about modern-day people who’d seen Jesus sitting beside them on a bus or in a cafeteria or even walking along the road, plain as day. She told him about one time when she’d been broke and she’d prayed really hard for a lottery number. 462 appeared in her mind as if God had painted it there with His finger; she’d won five-hundred dollars. Noreen was younger than Shawn and she wore red lipstick that stuck like a miracle to the complicated shape of her mouth. She loved bright colors and soft, sweet desserts. She was good to Jeffy, and she would have been good to Gabriel if he had let her, if he had not known in his heart that someday soon his father would decide he didn’t love her anymore.

Excerpt Two

Help bring the Christmas story to life! Human and animal volunteers needed for Ambient’s annual Living Creche to be held in front of the railroad museum from noon till three on Christmas Eve Day. Costumes and hot chocolate provided. The manger will be heated this year! And remember-participants and visitors alike are invited to warm up in the museum lobby where the Christmas Ornament Collection of Mr. Alphonse Pearlmutter will be on display until the New Year.

from the Ambient Weekly
December, 1990

Chapter Two

You could ask anybody in Ambient: Fred Carpenter’s new wife, Bethany, wasn’t the type to bend her own rules. But that Christmas Eve, she allowed the men to bring their whiskey inside the house. Later, she’d say she’d had a feeling all along that something was about to happen, and it drove her to such distraction that when Fred asked her if just this once, for the holidays, they might have a round before supper, she nodded before she realized what he’d asked, what she’d done. The telephone rang, but when she picked up the receiver, a giggling child asked if her refrigerator was running. A light bulb blew in the foyer and then, only minutes later, in the bathroom off the hall. For no reason whatsoever, a jar of sweet pickles slipped from her hand and shattered on the linoleum floor. More than once, she caught herself checking the sky above the field where, just last August, the legs of two tornados had stumbled, knock-kneed, toward the highway.

But on this day, the winter sky was plain and pale as her own face, and at six o’clock sharp, Bethany called everyone to the table: her boys and Fred and Fred’s father, Alfred, who everybody called Pops. Pops was well-known around Ambient; since losing his driver’s license for DWI, he’d been driving his tractor to Jeeps Tavern each weekend, parking it on Main Street, forcing traffic to squeeze by. Now, he wore the nice dress shirt Bethany had given him last Christmas, fresh from the box, all the creases intact. His beard-once dark and thick as Fred’s-had grown in pale and patchy since the night he’d accidentally set it on fire, heating up a pan of Spaghetti-Os. Still, it brushed the clean surface of his plate as he hitched his chair up to the table. The water in the glasses shivered and danced.

“Already a few sheets to the wind,” Bethany complained, not bothering to lower her voice.

Pops said, “Hell, I only had two.”

Bethany said, “Language.”

The boys nudged each other and grinned.

“Well, heck, then,” Pops mumbled, cracking his knuckles as if he wanted to fight the Christmas ham. But the electric company had cut his lights again, and even Bethany could see he was pleased enough to be sitting under her bright chandelier. Outside the dining room window, not ten yards beyond the edge of the gravel courtyard, the farmhouse he’d occupied for sixty years loomed like a pirate’s ship-all it needed was a skull-and-crossbones to replace the tattered American flag that drooped from a boarded-up window, stripes faded pink. The yard was a carnival of discarded chairs and mattresses, tires, tractor parts, buckets of paint; the porch sagged beneath two mildewed couches where, in summer, Pops and the boys from Jeep’s gathered to talk dirty, to swap outrageous lies. Each year, the whole place leaned a little more to the right, and though Fred had spent the better part of one summer jacking up the central support, the house still looked like it wanted to slide off its foundation and slip away, embarrassed, into the fields.

“Now, Beth,” Fred said from time to time, twisting at his beard until it formed an anxious point. “It seems to me we might have Pops over for a hot meal now and again.” But Bethany refused to pity Pops. She figured he made his bed each time he headed for the liquor store. After all, he had his social security, plus whatever he earned doing odd jobs for Big Roly Schmitt-that is, when he made up his mind to work. She had him to supper on holidays, of course; beyond that, she drew the line. Otherwise, she knew, he’d be crossing the courtyard every night of the week to eat her good food and stink up her nice furniture, to mistreat her house the way he’d done his own and infect her boys with his laziness.

Back when Fred had first proposed, Bethany saw he had some idea about her moving into those cat-piss smelling rooms, looking after his father, imposing some order onto their lives. Even then Fred’s beard was thick enough to hide his mouth, but Bethany saw the smug pride in his eyes, how he expected her to leap for that ring like a cat for a bird. After all, she was a thirty-something waitress, mother to two boys who’d never had a father’s name. But Bethany told Fred, “Listen once. We’re not kids so we can be straight with each other. If you marry me, you are getting two fine sons and a wife who will cook you the best meals you’ve ever eaten, and keep a nice garden, and make sure your clothes are tidy-looking, and don’t forget I’ll be out there earning money, too. When the lights go out I’ll never say no provided you keep yourself clean. So that’s a good deal for you and well worth the cost of a house I’ll be proud to live in.”

She’d surprised him, but Fred was quick on his feet. He said, “There are gals who’d take it as a challenge to fix an old farmhouse into a showplace.”

“I guess you should propose to one of them,” she said.

He set his beer down on the coffee table; she nudged it onto a coaster. It didn’t take much to leave a ring.

“I guess you should take another look in those magazines you’re always reading,” he said. “Half those ladies’ fancy places are old farmhouses somebody smart bought cheap. I’d give you a thousand dollars,” he said, and he paused to let that sink in. “You could spend it however you pleased.”

She took a Better Homes and Gardens from the magazine rack and held it out to him. “Show me,” she said, “where one of these fancy places comes furnished with a half-crazy drunken old man.”

She knew he had money for a decent house-a thirty-six year old bartender who sleeps in his childhood bed can save a pretty penny-but he said, “I have to do some more thinking on this,” and walked out, taking that ring along with him. Her mother said, “Oh, Bethany, look what you did, those boys will never have a father now.” And Bethany said, “Ma, these boys live in a two bedroom apartment with carpet on the floors and cereal in the cupboards, which is more than any father ever gave them.” True, she was lonely, but if it came down to a choice between a man who’d have them live dirt cheap and dirty, or her own waxed floors and a freshly scrubbed window, Bethany was proud to chose door number two. Why marry if it didn’t improve your standing, make things a little easier on yourself? Why lose control of the few things you’d finally managed to get a firm grip on?

She would never forget how she and her sister had had to walk tippy-toe around Pa, how Ma was always saying, Now don’t upset your father, now leave your father be, like he was some wild animal they’d lured in with table scraps. They’d lived in a duplex, rented their side from a man named Mr. Shuckel. When he came to the door to ask about rent, Pa always sent little Rose to say nobody was home, but Mr. Shuckel hollered at her just like she was a grown up. Now Pa was long gone and Ma had moved in with Rose and her three half-grown kids. She lectured Rose and Bethany both about how her children always had a father, how’d they been a real family, not like you young gals today. Bethany ignored her the same way she ignored the politicians on TV. She’d never voted, didn’t even bother to hear George Bush when he stopped to give a stump speech in Cradle Park. What did this politician or, for that matter, any other, care what she had to say? She could have told them that a happy family didn’t start with the right church or a fancy school or X many cops on the street. It started with a nice place to live. And when Fred returned three months later, that same ring hooked to a set of house keys, Bethany married him right there in her heart-Father Oberling’s ceremony at St. Fridolin’s Church had little to do with it. It was a home that cleaved two into one, and it was only their second Christmas together when Shawn Carpenter showed up to spoil it all.