The Current's Direction

April 4, 2009
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I’m afraid of an open road, the dusty trail that seems to go on forever. Whether it be cutting through a wide and empty field or curving through a bright sun filled forest, it’s just so lonesome and ominous. Always, there’s this decision that has to be made: forward or backward. It’s always there: continue or return. An open road, it’s not as bad as a fork in the road, but it’s worse than the river. At least on a river there’s a current, pulling you one way. Down, downstream I go, unable to go the other way; it’s not even a decision. It’s a command, especially on the Mississippi. That’s one river you can’t fight against. That’s what I’m on right now, the Mississippi, that great powerful force. When you are on the Mississippi, you have got to go with the flow, quite literary, and that is what I’m doing. I don’t have a choice.

See, my name’s Pete and my family is poor, dirt poor in fact, and it hasn’t gotten much better since my father died. There are four of us in my family, my mom and three sisters. You don’t have to bother with their names; no one else does. We are all good people, I think: we work hard, we love our neighbors and we, sure as hell, fear God. God is not the only thing I fear, and for good reason. The world’s a dangerous place and I know it. My father knew it too, but that didn’t stop him from doing whatever he could to provide for us. My papa would do any job he could get his hands on: all the odd jobs in town, and the dangerous ones too, that no one else wanted to do. On his last job, he was doing some work helping a lumber jack, but he got into some kind of an accident. The lumber jack, he paid my mother some compensation for my father’s life. It was hardly enough to get us by a week on just bread and water. He said that was all a man like my father was worth. I don’t know what I would have done if I was standing in my mama’s shoes, but she is a very honest and proper lady, so she just took that little bit of money and walked home.

So now, I, as the oldest and the only man in the house, have been doing everything I can to get us some money to live on. It’s been nearly a year now and we have been making due, but like I said before, we are dirt poor. I had been taking whatever jobs I could, jobs like cleaning up the storage room at the local store and sweeping the horse stalls for a farmer I know. It is hard work, and all I have been getting in return is a couple of pennies here and there, hardly enough to feed a family. In recent days, it’s been even worse. Ever since the bank robbery a couple of towns over, that happened about a week ago, no one trusts anybody. They still haven’t caught the robber, who made off with thousands of dollars, and everyone is suspicious of the man next to them. Not a single person is even letting me in their home, like they think I am going to rob them. So you could understand my excitement when some man wanders into town offering a hundred dollars just to deliver a package.

He said his name was Mr. Richman, and there was never a more fitting name for a man like him. A beautiful white suit was what he wore, with a tall, white top hat. It all seemed to shine, his clothes I mean, and it was so bright and clean, it was like staring at the sun to look at him. With a devious smile, full of yellowed teeth and a couple of gold ones, he explained what he wanted me to do.

“Just take this package” he said, “and deliver it to a man by the name of Murklin. He lives in White River, just down the Mississippi.”

That is about all the important things that have happened up until now and leaves to where I am at this very moment. Now, with us being in Henrico, Arkansas, White River is just a day’s journey by raft. So, I take his offer to bring the package to his friend. It isn’t much of a package, just a cube with sides about as long as the distance from my elbow to my finger tips, and on a fourteen-year-old that isn’t much. Whatever is inside is packed pretty tight and it’s all wrapped up in brown paper with many bits of string tied around it. It’s quite heavy though, so that I have to set it down after carrying it down to the river where my raft is set. I’m getting ready to push off when Mr. Richman grabs my arm.
Holding me by the wrist, he says, “Remember, deliver this package and come right back. You don’t let anyone touch it but Mr. Murklin, no one else. Are you listening? Once you get there the man will give you some money and you will take a steamboat right back here.”
So I nod my head, tie the package to my wrist with a bit of rough string, and head off. Instantly I begin to float, no, not float, fly down the river. Passing on my sides are densely wooded forests atop high cliffs. All around me I hear the rushing of murky, green and brown water. It fills my ears so I hear nothing else, just the violent thrashing and crashing of white water against the sharp, jagged rocks jotting out from the water’s uneven surface. I clutch the package in one arm and grab hold of the raft with my other, as my raft and I are thrown in the air and brought crashing down, over and over again, by mighty rapids.
The queasy unease I begin to feel in my stomach is held back by the raw fear erupting inside of me. Never have I liked the river, that menacing, threatening force. Always, I have avoided it when it is at its most fearsome level as it is now, for a storm had passed only a few days before. My knuckles turn white and begin to cramp from clutching so hard on what I believe to be my only hope of survival. I cannot let go, not of anything, not the raft, not the bundle in my arm. For my family, I’ve got to do this; for them, I have to make it through.
Stinging mist fills the air, sent flying by the crashing waves. Drenched from the water spilling over the sides of the raft and with eyes nearly blinded by the droplets in the air, I am cold and fear I cannot go on. Shivering in frozen terror, I feel the wind begin to pick up. The waves grow larger and I press the package deeper into my body. Suddenly, a large jolt races through the raft. In an explosion of splinters, my veins turn to ice and pain shoots through my body. In a single instant, the raft has been shattered into pieces from a collision with an upright stone protruding from the water. With salty tears being washed away by the cold river, I make for the shore. Wildly I flail my arms in a desperate attempt to reach the beach. Finally, I get to a small outcropping of rocks up against the face of a cliff which I am able to climb on top of. My hands bleeding, I grip the slippery, slimy stones. In uncontrollable spasms, my lungs begin to inhale and exhale, trying to catch my breath. Out of the corner of my eye I see a sort of green flutter. Turning to see, I catch a glimpse of what appears to be a hundred dollar bill blowing in the wind and then dropping into the river. In total shock and confusion, I see another one flying away. Looking around, I quickly find the source, and my heart skips a beat.
With chills down my spine, I look down at my hand to see the package soaking wet and ripped down the middle. Flying out of the side are bills. I make a sudden move to try to grab the money, but my grip on the wet rocks begins to falter, and I feel myself slipping. Slowly drawing the package closer with one hand while holding on with the other, I look inside to find the small brown bundle to be packed with one hundred dollar bills. Waves of excitement begin to swell within me as I comprehend how much money I am holding.
“There must be thousands of dollars in this package!” I exclaim to myself. This is enough to not only feed my family, but to make us rich. I’m never going to have to work another day in my life. Then a realization comes upon me, as I grasp I am supposed to be delivering this money to someone. Coming to grasp the situation, I think there is something dirty about someone having a big box of money secretly delivered. It just doesn’t feel right.
The robbers, it must be their money. I must be delivering the money that those thieves stole a couple of towns over. I can’t be an accomplice to that, even if they pay me a hundred dollars. I should just take this money myself. At least then it is like the bank the robbers stole from is giving charity to a poor family. Just thinking about it, guilt begins to rise up in my gut. I can’t take someone else’s money, even if it was handed to me by a bunch of good-for-nothings. Still holding on to the slippery rocks, just above the raging Mississippi river, I decide I have to return this money to the sheriff’s office, so it will be brought back to where it belongs. Hoisting myself to the top of the cliff on the side of the river, using the little strength I have left, I plant my feet on firm ground for the first time in what seems like forever. Looking forward, I see the road I have to take to get to town where I can inform the sheriff. With the money in my hand, I take a step down the path, the long open road.
“At least,” I think aloud,” I know in which direction I’m going.”

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