Harvey Huddleston

Masters of Time and Distance

Part 4

               The Ozarks are typical of what is called a “Karst Landscape.” It is made up of mostly soluble rock where water has long been at work underground, wearing away the limestone and leaving caves behind in its place. There is a sheer cliff on the White River called Calico Rock whose face is layered in tones of blue, black, gray, orange and red. The cliff is riddled with Karst caves hidden inside it.
               For the last two centuries visitors to this natural wonder have reported a loud “Whoooo” sound coming from the cliff. The proprietors of nearby inns have always explained it as the wind whistling through caves and fissures in the rock. But there are still those in the area who tell a story passed down by the first settlers.
               In the early nineteenth century during what came to be known as “The Trail of Tears,” native American tribes were forcibly removed to the western plains. As their numbers dwindled, the last remnants of the Osage Nation took refuge in the Karst caves below Calico Rock. Before they were found, their chief, Manka Chonka, sent his people west while he remained behind. Then, as the troops bore down upon him, he leapt from his perch on Calico Rock to the rocks below while chanting his death song, which accounts for the wailing still heard today.

               By late afternoon the three canoes were gliding across still water with only the slow sound of their paddles disturbing the silence. As they rounded a bend, the bridge Scottie told them about came into view. It grew larger in black silhouette and they prepared to land their canoes.
               A Suburban with its boat trailer was waiting. It wasn’t the same one as yesterday and there was a different driver too. He was at the water’s edge looking out at them with one hand shielding his eyes. He waved them in and helped pull the canoes ashore.
               They lifted the canoes onto the trailer and, after transferring their gear into the Suburban, waited inside for the driver to tie down the canoes. He then got in and looked around as all six stared back blear-eyed.
               Guess that’s it.
               Revving the Suburban, he climbed an embankment to the bridge and then took the road towards the canoe rental. It was only minutes before they saw the cut off they’d taken the day before to put in but no one said anything. It seemed impossible that they’d traveled so far in such a short time. They watched the trees and sky zip past, so different from how this same landscape had drifted by for the last two days.
               On their minds were all the things they’d been dealing with before the trip. Registration, bus tickets, moving, cleaning, a new pair of blue jeans, when the driver began talking.
               See this bridge coming up? One of our drivers got killed there yesterday.
               Not sure they’d heard right, they just listened.
               What time did y’all put in yesterday?
               All six looked around until Bill answered. About eleven.
               Then it was y’all I guess.
               Gretchen asked. It was us, what?
               Well Scottie, the boss’s son… he went to his high school prom Friday night and got home late so Mr. Woods told him to take the day off but Scottie came in anyway. All we can figure is that after he dropped y’all off, he fell asleep and drove right off this bridge.
               He waited for the planks to stop drumming underneath before going on.
               So Scottie gets thrown out and lands face down in the creek. Mr. Woods was driving some other people and it wasn’t but a few minutes later when he came by and saw the broken rail. So he goes down there... He didn’t even know it was Scottie until he recognized his belt. So they brought in a helicopter and carried him to Springfield but he was already gone.
               There was silence until Rhonda said, I’m going to be sick. She then guided John’s hand under her chin and retched into it.

               There were some cars around but it was quiet as the late afternoon shadows stretched across the lot. They unloaded their gear and then stood there at a loss.
               Bill said. The rest of you can stay out here.
               The others began loading gear into the cars as Bill went in. There was only one person at the counter, a woman Bill didn’t recognize. She tore off a carbon copy and put it in front of him.
               The others were standing at the cars when Bill came out. He crossed the lot to them when the screen door squeaked open again. A solitary figure now came towards them. They watched as Mr. Woods approached, wondering what they could possibly say.
               Mr. Woods called when he was closer. Hey folks, could you wait one second? I don’t want to hold you up but I think you may have heard that my Scottie had an accident after dropping y’all off yesterday. I lost him... Yes, I did... I lost him...
               We’re really sorry…
               Thank you for that. I just... well… I thought that… since you were the last ones with him… I was wondering if he said something... that maybe you’d be able to tell me what was on his mind before he...
               All looked at each other until Lewis finally spoke.
               Well, I sat up front with him and we had a long talk. He talked about that stuffed bear you have inside.
               Mr Woods was taken aback. He did?
               He told me all about it. About how you and he went camping when he was younger and all the good times you had together in the woods. And then about the time you had to shoot that bear when it came at you. And how sad you both were that you had to kill it.
               He told you that?
               Yes sir. He did. And the way he told it, I could tell he was so proud of you that day, at how you’d saved both your lives.
               Mr. Woods looked all around and then scuffed his shoe at the gravel. Now ain’t that something... ain’t that just something… I want to thank you for telling me that. It means a lot. It really does.
               You’re welcome but I’m just telling you what he said.
               Mr. Woods then went completely still as he stared off until something shook him out of it.
               Do y’all think you can do one more thing for me?
               Maybe you could all write down your names and addresses. Then whenever you come back, I can fix you up with free canoes or anything else you might need.
               You don’t have to do that.
               But I want to... I want to…
               They used the back of the receipt to write down their names and addresses. Mr. Woods stood off to the side, nodding at something in the distance between them. When they finished, he folded it carefully and put it in his pocket.
               They all shook his hand and began getting into their cars when Rhonda went back. She hugged him and whispered. I am so sorry.
               Mr. Woods watched as they pulled out of the lot. They waved and he raised his hand back. He was still there after they were gone, his hand still up but not waving, not moving at all.

               Gretchen woke up in the back seat with “Luckenbach Texas” playing on the radio.
               Lewis? Could you turn that shit off?
               Richard turned it off.
               I just want to be home.
               In Bill’s car, they watched a glow in the night sky become brighter with each passing mile.
               John pointed it out. I think that’s it.
               Rhonda asked. Memphis?
               Mist in the air… reflecting the lights…

               Lewis pulled up under a streetlight in midtown Memphis and Richard got out. Lewis waved and drove off.
               Richard dropped his stuff inside and called but there was no answer. He went into the den where a huge fish hovered motionless in his tank watching him.
               Hey Otis. Are you hungry?
               Richard sprinkled some fish food in and watched Otis eye the pieces floating down past him before gulping them down.
               You should’ve seen where I’ve been. It’s a big ugly beautiful world out there... with lots of water… and dangerous too… so dangerous...

               Two days later Richard called the number on the card he was holding. Hello, Mr. Reynolds? Did you get my message? Okay, but I just wanted you to know that I do plan on contesting the charges.
               Reynolds paused on the other end. I understand that but I need to tell you. Walnut Ridge is a small town and everyone there’s related one way or another. The chance of us getting the charges dropped are pretty slim.
               But I’d still like to pursue it.
               Alright then. I’ll talk to the prosecutor and see what he says.
               That’s all I’m asking.
               So give me a few days and I’ll get back.
               Thank you.
               Richard hung up, satisfied that he was doing all he could. It was a week later when he opened his bank statement and saw a debit entry for nine hundred dollars. He grabbed the phone and dialed. Reynolds picked up.
               You fucking asshole! That nine hundred dollar check was cashed after you and Mason both said it wouldn’t be! So here’s the deal and I’ll say it just once! Talk to Mason and get back to me quick or I’m coming over there with an army of fucking lawyers and watch them drag both of your criminal asses off to jail! You got that?!!!
               Richard slammed down the receiver and went to the kitchen where he poured a shot. He watched his hand shake as Sarah came in.
               Are you okay?
               Those fucking thieves stole my nine hundred dollars!
               I told you they would. Come in here. There’s a show on PBS I want to watch.
               Richard followed her in and sat on the couch next to her. They were still there an hour later when the phone rang. Richard picked up and listened while Reynolds explained that the nine hundred dollar check had been mistakenly mixed in with some checks for deposit. He then assured Richard that whatever wasn’t owed to Mason or him would be refunded.
               After hanging up Richard told Sarah what Reynolds had said.
               I’ll believe it when I see it.
               They went back to watching TV until Sarah looked over at him. I sure hope you never cuss me out like that.
               I probably won’t.
               You better won’t.
               A week later Sarah was making a strawberry shake when the phone rang. Richard carried it to the next room to hear over the blender. Then he came back, hanging up the receiver.
               Reynolds says they dropped the pot charge so my fine was reduced by six hundred dollars. Says he put a check in the mail today.
               Good. We need a new chair for the living room.
               Maybe we should wait until it gets here.
               Oh, I have no doubt he’s telling the truth. They want this over with as much as you.
               A few days later a check for six hundred dollars came and Richard was finally able to put that part of the trip behind him. But then he thought of Scottie and Mr. Woods. Walnut Ridge hadn’t been even close to the worst part.

               A pretty young woman stood in the office of Woods Canoe Rental trying on a wide brimmed hat with a ribbon attached. Mr. Woods was behind the counter as Bill approached.
               Mr. Woods? I don’t know if you remember me but I was here with some friends about three years ago.
               Mr. Woods looked closer at him. Oh yes… yes I do…
               Bill Dodds. I’m here this time with my wife, Jenny. We’re looking for a canoe.
               Well you’ve come to the right place.
               Yes, you have… you sure have…
               The pretty woman came up wearing the hat. So what do you think?
               Nice. So this is Mr. Woods, the man I told you about. And this is my wife, Jenny.
               How do you do, ma’am?
               She modelled the hat. Should I get it?
               Mr. Woods spoke up. I’d say it’s beautiful. On you.
               Well thank you.
               So then you just keep it right there on your head because that one’s on the house.
               Bill objected. You don’t have to do that.
               I want to. And I’m also renting that canoe to you for free.
               Jenny asked. Why?
               Mr. Woods eyed Bill before answering. Well… let’s just say because your husband and I are very old friends.
               He then stared at Bill for a few seconds before continuing. Tell you what. Give me a few minutes and then I’ll drive you down to the river myself. How’s that?
               They watched him shuffle to a back office and close the door behind him. Jenny looked at Bill confused.
               Bill said. Nice guy, huh?
               I’ll say.
               Something then caught Bill’s eye past Jenny and he walked over to it. In the corner was the stuffed bear facing the wall. It seemed smaller now with a layer of dust on top and some hair missing in places. Jenny came up behind Bill.
               What is it, Hon?
                ...Nothing… Come on. Let’s unload our stuff.

               Richard and Sarah were on the couch reading the newspaper when Richard suddenly sat up straight. Oh my God! I can’t believe this!
               Remember that lawyer? The one who got my money back from those crooks in Walnut Ridge?
               You mean the one you cussed out?
               That’s him. Listen to this. Richard read from the paper.
               Mr. Reynolds’ peril is only made worse by these bribery charges. His rise from an accident lawyer to the most powerful Republican in Arkansas and then his even more rapid descent has been a precipitous fall indeed.
               Poor guy.
               He was a thief.
               His life is over. At least the one he wanted.

               At Massachusetts General the emergency room had been busier than usual in the wee hours when a gurney was rushed in. A nurse followed behind, reading from a clipboard.
               Gunshot to the right chest.
               As the clothes were peeled back the physician knew he had to act fast. Air wheezed and bubbled as it escaped from the chest. As he worked on it, that day on the river from so many years earlier flashed through John’s mind.
               In the locker room, he sat on a bench exhausted. He watched the minutes tick by on the wall clock and then got up. He removed his scrubs, showered and then changed into some travel clothes. There was still time to make that plane by ten if he hurried.

               Later that day John was walking through Memphis International, a little stunned by the bright sunlight streaming through the floor to ceiling windows on the concourse. He looked for the lounge where Richard said they’d be.
               On another concourse Rhonda was walking along in heels and a business suit when she saw Gretchen running towards her. They hugged.
               So come on. They’re waiting.
               I’m already smelling Barbeque. Rhonda stopped. No, I mean I really am!
               Well, of course you are, silly.
               Gretchen pointed out the Corky’s Barbecue next to them and they broke up laughing. They then continued arm in arm through the concourse.
               In the lounge, John and Richard were at the bar finishing some martinis when Rhonda and Gretchen walked in.
               Well look who’s here.
               Rhonda approached John and hugged him. It’s so good to see you.
               Yes, it is. Good to see you too.
               Gretchen asked. So where’s Lewis?
               Richard answered. In his hot tub but he wants us to stop by for drinks.
               That is so Lewis.
               John gave Rhonda his seat and caught the bartender’s attention. What’ll it be?
               Me too.
               Martinis all around.
               So four Bombays, all with a twist.
               Rhonda turned to John. So how’s Boston?
               Busy. And Atlanta?
               Fine. I’ve been dealing with some new clients this past week but I think that’s over now.
               You mean you lost them?
               Rhonda laughed. No! I mean they’re finally happy!
               Gretchen sat down between Richard and Rhonda. So is Bill here yet?
               Richard answered. He got a late start from St. Louis but he should be here for dinner.
               The bartender lined up their drinks on the bar.
               I can’t wait to see Bill. So how’s Sarah?
               She’s great.
               When will I see her?
               In about two hours. She’s making dinner for us now.
               And you’re not helping?
               She kicked me out. Says I always screw up her Chicken Marsala with too much wine.
               Rhonda looked around. I can’t believe I’m really here.
               John nodded, looking at his martini. I can’t believe any of us are.
               Gretchen leaned up on the bar. Why do you say that, John?
               You know... things change… people change…
               Rhonda asked. Can’t you fix that, Richard? You were the master of time and distance.
               No, that was Bill.
               But you were too!
               Gretchen said. I guess we all are... in a way.
               How so?
               We’re here, aren’t we?
               Yes we are.
               John raised his martini. To the masters of time and distance!
               All clinked glasses. To us.
               To us.
               To us.
               They had another round before leaving and John lingered behind to leave another tip. Not because Rhonda’s wasn’t enough but because he felt better there with them than he had in a long time and needed to express it. The bartender wasn’t around but he left a twenty anyway, knowing that someone might come along and take it. But then that was okay too.

               Bill had meant to leave after lunch but then he called into his law firm and took the whole day off. It was the only way he could get out of St. Louis, take the detour and still make it to Memphis for dinner. He felt that same heaviness lift as he started up into the Ozarks but it seemed different somehow coming in from the east instead of the south. As he wound through the forested roads farther up into the mountains he watched for Woods Canoe Rental on his right but then it never appeared. He finally turned around, this time watching closer when he came to where he thought it might be.
               He recognized a sharp bend in the road and looked to his left. But there was only a stretch of brown gravel there, half overgrown with weeds. He’d been prepared for it to be closed or to be something else but not the building completely gone. He pulled into what was once the parking lot. There were some picnic tables on a bluff overlooking the river. An older couple was at one of the tables eating sandwiches so he walked over to them.
               Excuse me. Do you know if there used to be a canoe rental here?
               The woman answered. Well there was something here. I guess it could’ve been a canoe rental.
               The man spoke up. The only canoe rental I know of is in Guion. Where’re you from, Mister?
               St. Louis. I’m driving to Memphis and thought I’d take a detour.
               That’s a mighty big detour.
               The woman was confused. Then why are you looking for a canoe?
               … I’m not really.
               Oh yeah? The man looked over at the woman and both looked back at Bill suspiciously.
               So thanks. I’ll just keep going.
               Bill turned back to his car and heard the man say, takes all kinds.
               Bill pulled out and took the gravel road alongside the river. He thought back to that canoe trip and how much fun it had been until Richard almost got killed. And then finding out about Scottie. He’d always wondered why the fact that it happened right after Scottie had dropped them off was what stuck with him most. He remembered Scottie hanging out with them as they loaded the canoes. And then him, watching as they paddled out. It was something about that last image of him waving from the shore. Bad things happen to people all the time while others walk away never looking back, sometimes not even knowing it happened. Like them on that day so many years ago, on that bright, sunny, carefree day and they didn’t even know.
               Something changed in Bill after that trip. He wasn’t sure what it was but a clear line had been drawn between time before the trip and that after. For a long time he’d thought it was because of that scare they’d had with Richard but as the years went by he’d begun to think it had more to do with Scottie and Mr. Woods. How after they’d paddled out into the river, that accident happened that they didn’t even know about. It made him realize how fragile it all was. How so much is taken for granted and is then gone before anyone even knows it. He and his friends had thought that day was about them having a good time on the river when it was really about what happened behind them only a few minutes later. Time does heal. Not because people forget but because it changes things into something else.
               He saw the narrow bridge ahead and pulled over. Walking up to it, he looked over the railing and tried to see below. He then went down the embankment and picked his way along the creek bed towards the bridge. He peered under it and thought he saw something in the shadows. Going a few steps further in, he could make out what looked to be a rusted hulk. He sat down on a rock and studied the brown corrosion with its coppery sheen where it picked up some stray light and some yellow globular streaks running down into the water, frozen in time. The shape of an upside down Suburban slowly came into focus. He watched the water pool there and then swirl and eddy before flowing downstream past it.
               He checked his watch. He should leave if he was going to make Memphis by dinner.

Harvey Huddleston is a playwright living in New York City. His fiction has been published in Otoliths, Literary Yard, The Eunoia Review, CC&D Magazine and Academy of the Heart and Mind.
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