The Rivers of Goshen

The Rivers of Goshen* is not the sequel to I,John. Instead, it is a modern gothic story set in the rural South. I wrote this novel some years ago, but then I left it in a drawer. I didn’t like where it went or how it ended, and it took some time to determine a better ending and a better way to get there. Some things just take a while.

The Rivers of Goshen will be available soon. Here’s an excerpt:

Jorge Chavez walked along the side of the road, the Sunday morning heat making his shirt cling to his skin. Dew from the grass and weeds wet his jeans to the knees and covered his sneakers with seeds.

In this country, everyone he knew called him George. He tried to tell them how to say his name, and they always failed. He had even tried writing it down for them. Each time, they would look at the slip of paper, think for a moment, then say ‘George.’ He didn’t understand, but he had gotten used to it.

Jorge worked at Cliff’s Pool Hall & Tavern. There was nobody named Cliff, not any more, not that Jorge had ever met. Charlene owned the place. She was too old for her bottle blond hair, but she was kind and paid him every week, less the rent for the trailer where he lived. Jorge could see Cliff’s from his kitchen window. It wasn’t much of a view, but there was no great distance to cover to get to work.

Cliff’s was built of concrete blocks, painted dingy white. The early morning light made the place look like an adobe ranch house. At night the neon lights hid the peeling paint and the occasional ochre ellipses of urine stains, but daylight did them no favors. The flat topped building squatted in a pavement oasis, gaudy signs hiding the railroad tracks and trailer parks that stretched away behind them, billboards with pictures of waitresses in tight clothes, exaggerated cleavage. Six nights a week the rednecks congregated, celebrating the trinity of bluejeans, beer, and billiard balls, but the place was closed on Sunday. Every morning except Monday, Jorge came to pick up the bottles and to mop the floors. It was not his only job, but to him it was one of the easiest. When he had started working there, the place reeked of spilled beer, yeast venting from the soaked floors. Now when he finished mopping, the place smelled almost clean. Charlene had given him a key to the door and to the shed out back where he kept his supplies. Mops. Buckets. Cleaner.

Jorge walked across the parking lot toward the shed, laughing to himself as he thought of his wife who was home in Delicias, Chihuahua, with their children. She didn’t know that her husband’s name was George. He imagined returning home and pictured their faces, looking up at him. He would have to reintroduce himself.

“Hola. Me llamo George.”

Laughing, he looked up to see that the door to the shed was slightly ajar, the small padlock hanging loose on what was left of the mangled hasp. Nothing new. Thieves. People often broke into the little building, probably thinking that beer was stored there. Sometimes they were just looking for a place to have sex. They left behind empty beer bottles and used condoms, the detritus of redneck romance. Jorge opened the door and peered into the darkness.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, a moment longer to make out the shapes. At first Jorge didn’t understand what he was seeing. Then his brain put together the outline of the body, a young woman lying on the concrete floor, her clothes ripped away, blood spattered across the walls, more blood pooled around her. The woman’s eyes were open, the sunlight glinting in them. Jorge stared, his lungs frozen, and he felt that what he was seeing somehow wasn’t real. He felt trapped, as in a dream where his body will not move, won’t respond, his feet heavy as though dragging through water. His mouth was open, but he made no sound. He forced himself to breathe, a long, deep, jagged breath, to regain control of his throat, and then he started screaming. He screamed for a long time. There was no answer, no one near enough to hear him.

He turned away and dropped to his knees, hands on the pavement to stiffen himself. The rough, dark surface had already trapped heat from the morning sun, and the warmth seeped into his palms and restored some calm. As he began to think once more, he remembered that as a child he had seen a cow that had been hit by a car. Its eyes were open and staring, the same as the woman’s, and Jorge had not thought that it was breathing, but when he touched the cow it had jumped to its feet once more, terrifying him. Jorge had run all the way home, the front of his pants wet from his loss of control.

He thought he had better check to make sure that the woman was dead. He stood up and after a deep breath went back to the doorway, holding the frame for support.

Jorge stepped inside the shed and knelt to touch her throat. He felt no pulse. The woman didn’t move, didn’t breathe. He felt something sticky on his fingers, and looking at them he realized that her blood was on his fingertips, dark red and congealing like syrup. Jorge felt sick. He stood up too quickly, then stumbled out of the shed as shock combined with movement to make him lightheaded. Grabbing the doorframe he steadied himself, staring at the ground and making himself focus on the tiny pebbles embedded in the pavement of the parking lot. When he had regained his ability to breathe and was no longer quite as lightheaded, he looked back at her body.

She was certainly dead.

He ran over to the shallow ditch at the edge of the parking lot. The vomit came just as he knelt, rubbing his forehead with his bloody fingertips, leaving red marks across his face. When he realized that he had smeared her blood on his face he began to make a murmuring sound, something strange, a Tibetan insect hum. He wiped his hands on his pants, pulled out his handkerchief, tried to wipe the blood away. Seeing the dark red smears on the cloth he felt sick again, and he vomited once more into the ditch. Hearing the sound of an approaching car, he ran out into the road and tried to flag it down, waving his handkerchief, but the couple inside just stared at him and kept going. The driver was a man, his lips moving, his hand pointing, but Jorge couldn’t hear what he was saying. The woman had large eyes, a pale face, and her hands were on her mouth. The man was angry, but white men were always angry.

Jorge stared at the back of the car as it accelerated away. He realized that they had seen a Mexican throwing up in a ditch outside a beer joint. He had blood on his face. No wonder they didn’t stop. He sat on the edge of the pavement and looked down the road. When he closed his eyes, he could still see her. He leaned back and looked up at the sky, trying to erase her image, but he knew it was no good, that when he closed his eyes again she would be there, her dead eyes staring at him. He knew that she would be there for a long time.

He once heard of a man back in Delicias who had seen something so awful that he could not close his eyes. The man was very old, with deep circles and bags of skin hanging on his cheeks, and people said that he had not slept in many years because of the dreams. It was said that he planned never to sleep again. Jorge did not think that he could live like that, never sleeping, never dreaming.

But this is how it happens, he thought. You see something, not even knowing what it is. Curiosity makes you go closer until you realize that it is something awful, and once your mind gets a grip on it, you can never let go of it. Each time you close your eyes, you know you will see it again. You have to go through the rest of your life never closing your eyes, never sleeping, all through no particular fault of your own.

It was a test, he thought, a trial like those sent to make one into a saint.

Perhaps all of the saints had seen something terrible. Maybe they had seen something so awful that they devoted their lives to God, able to endure anything rather than remember what they had seen. In Mexico, a priest had a book with pictures showing how the saints had suffered. Jorge remembered one saint, tied to a table, his entrails being drawn through a slit in his belly onto a rotating rod turned by soldiers. Another saint stood, his arms outstretched even though his body was full of arrows. Jorge had wondered who would shoot so many arrows into a saint, and how the man had lived with the pain. My God, thought Jorge, to live through such torture without losing his faith that man must have seen something truly awful. For a long time the image of this saint had endured in Jorge’s mind, but now the girl had displaced him. Still, thinking of the saint was enough to rouse him, and he managed to walk back to the pool hall to find a telephone.

As he unlocked the door to Cliff’s, he was pummeled by the smell of the previous night’s beer and cigarette smoke. He looked around for a moment, trying to recall where a telephone was, then he remembered and found one behind the bar. Jorge dialed 911, but he was in such bad shape that he could barely manage any English. He spoke in Spanish to the woman who answered, and she put him on hold. Jorge listened, not knowing what else to do. There was still blood on his hands and a recorded voice of a calm man saying something over and over. Another woman came on the line, speaking to him very hesitantly in Spanish. When she made out the word for murder, she told him that she was sending deputies to the scene.

“Policía,” she said.

Jorge understood that help was coming and hung up the phone, but now he was troubled. The police were coming, and that might not be good. He thought he should have called Charlene, but he didn’t know how. When he needed to talk to her, he just came here. He walked back to the doorway of the bar, a bitter taste on the back of his tongue, and the smell of spilled beer rode the air currents flowing out through the door. He followed the air outside and sat on a wooden railway tie, one that had been made into a parking space marker. He rocked back and forth, staring at the leaves moving with the wind in the trees across the road, and he thought that if he just watched the leaves, he wouldn’t have to remember her face.

Jorge prayed as he sat, but he did not close his eyes.

The Rivers of Goshen will be available soon.

(* The original working title was Sins of Omission.)

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