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 was a small man with skin the color of pecans. Walking along the side of the road to get to work, the Sunday morning heat made his t-shirt cling to his skin. Dew and grass seeds covered his sneakers.
In this country, everyone he knew called him George. For years he had tried to tell them how to say his name, and they always failed. He had even tried writing his name for them. Each time, they would look at the slip of paper, think for a moment, and say, ‘George.’ He still didn’t understand, but he had gotten used to it.
Jorge worked at Cliff’s Pool Hall & Tavern. There was nobody there named Cliff, not any more, not that Jorge had ever met. Maybe there never had been. Charlene owned the place. She was too old for her bottle blond hair, but she was kind to Jorge and paid him every week, less a little for the rent of the trailer where he lived. Jorge could see the Pool Hall from his window. It was not much of a view, but there was no great distance to cover to get to work.
The early morning light made the dingy white concrete block structure that was Cliff’s Pool Hall look like an adobe ranch house. At night the neon lights hid the peeling paint and the occasional yellow ellipses where urine stained the exterior walls, but the sun did them no favors. The flat topped building squatted in a pavement oasis, gaudy signs hiding the railroad tracks and trailer parks stretching away behind them. Billboards advertised cheap beer with pictures of waitresses in tight clothes. 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 here, the place had reeked of spilled beer and yeast. Now when he finished cleaning each day, it smelled almost clean. Charlene had given Jorge a key to the door, and his mops and supplies were stored in a shed out back.
Jorge walked across the parking lot toward the shed, laughing to himself. His own wife did not know that her husband’s name was George. She was still with their children in Delicias, Chihuahua. He imagined returning home soon and pictured their faces, looking up at him.
“Hola. Me llamo George,” he said out loud.
Laughing he looked up to see that the door to the shed was slightly ajar, the small padlock still hanging onto what was left of the mangled hasp. Nothing new, he thought. Thieves. People often broke into the little building, probably thinking there was beer stored there. Sometimes they were just looking for a place to have sex. They left behind empty beer bottles and latex, the detritus of redneck romance. Jorge opened the door and peered inside.
It was dark in the shed, and it took a moment for his eyes to make out the shapes. At first Jorge did not 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 were ripped away. Blood was spattered across the walls of the shed and puddled around her. Jorge stared, his lungs frozen, and he tried to figure out if what he was seeing was real. He felt trapped in a dream where his body would not move, would not respond, his feet dragging as though through water. He knew that his mouth was open, but no sound was coming out. When he regained control of his throat he started screaming for someone to come and to help. There was no answer, and Jorge realized that nobody was nearby to hear him.
He turned away and dropped to his knees, put his hands on the pavement to stiffen himself. The rough, dark surface had already trapped heat from the morning sun. The warmth seeped into Jorge’s palms and restored some calm. As he began to think once more, he decided that he had better check the girl to make sure she was dead. Jorge stood up and stepped back to the doorway, holding the frame for support.
The woman’s eyes were open, the sunlight glinting in them.
Jorge 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 way, and Jorge had not thought that it was breathing, but when he touched the cow it jumped back to its feet once more, scaring him. Jorge had been very young and he had run all the way home, the front of his pants wet from his loss of control.
Jorge stepped inside the shed and knelt to touch her throat. He felt no pulse. The woman didn’t move. 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, again unable to breathe. He stood up too quickly, then stumbled out of the shed as the shock combined with the sudden 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 the girl’s body.
She was certainly dead.
Jorge ran over to the shallow ditch at the edge of the parking lot. The vomit came just as he knelt down, holding 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 strange humming noises, wiping his hands on his pants and pulling out his handkerchief, trying to wipe the blood away. Looking at the dark red smears on the cloth he felt sick again, and he stopped to vomit once more into the ditch. The nausea passed, and he heard the sound of an approaching car. He ran out into the street and tried to flag it down, but the couple inside just stared at him and kept going. Jorge could see the man’s lips moving, his hand pointing, but Jorge could not hear what he said. The woman had large eyes in a pale face, and her hands were on her mouth. The man looked angry.
Jorge stared at the back of the car as it accelerated away. He realized that they had seen him, a Mexican, throwing up in a ditch outside a beer joint, and that he had blood on his face. No wonder they did not stop. He sat on the edge of the pavement and looked down the road. He closed his eyes, but he could still see her, the dead eyes staring at him. He leaned back and stared up at the sky, trying to erase her image, but he knew that when he closed his eyes again she would be there. 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. Your 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, Jorge had seen a church with paintings of the saints, and the priest had a book with pictures showing how the saints had suffered. Jorge remembered one saint, standing with his arms outstretched even though his body was full of arrows. He 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 tortures 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, the image was enough to rouse him, and he managed to stand and 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 beer and cigarette smoke. He looked around for a moment, trying to recall where a telephone was, and 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 Spanish to the Goshen County 911 attendant, and she put him on hold. Jorge held the receiver, not knowing what else to do, and listened to the 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 sheriff’s deputies to the scene. Jorge understood vaguely that help was coming. He hung up the phone and walked back to the doorway of the bar. The smell of spilled beer was riding on the air currents flowing out through the door, making a bitter taste on the back of his tongue. He followed the air outside and sat on a wooden railway tie that had been made into a parking space marker. Jorge began rocking back and forth, staring at the leaves moving in the trees across the road. 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 finished soon.
(* The original working title was Sins of Omission.)