This Place can be Beautiful Again – by Alex Miller

by TBLM

I sat by the river, on a damp log half-buried in mud, and watched how the yellow finger of water wound its way through the city, past gutters and factories and underneath bridges, and it smelled like the worst thing in the world. Whenever I read a poem or whatever about rivers, it’s always about the beauty and majesty of nature. I bet those writers never saw a river like this one. It smelled septic, pestilent, like the effluent from a diseased man’s toilet.

I heard footsteps behind me slogging through the mush. Cindy took a seat beside me on the log, and I saw she still wore her nice leather shoes from school, only they were slick with mud. I felt bad about her shoes being all muddy. Mine were muddy too, to tell the truth, but I didn’t feel so bad about them. My shoes didn’t make me feel anything at all. But Cindy—I don’t know—I saw how the mud had oozed between her laces, and it made me feel just awful.

“It stinks here,” she said.

“I know.”

“Why do you come here if it stinks?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I came for the same reason you did.”

“No,” she said, combing her fingers through her hair. “I just came to see if you were still alive.”

I glanced at her when she thought I wasn’t looking. I liked how her black hair trailed down to the center of her back. I wanted to touch it, to feel its satin-like softness between my fingers.

I picked up a smooth pebble and tossed it sidearm to skip it across the surface of the river, but it just plunked underwater. And just as I tossed it some huge bird, some seabird with white feathers and a long orange bill, took flight. And it seemed like the two were connected somehow, the rock and the bird. It seemed like one couldn’t have existed without the other.

“I’m sorry about what those guys said about you,” she said.

“I don’t care about it.”

“Nobody believes it’s true,” she said. “Everybody thinks they’re assholes.”

“Right,” I said. “Why would I care what a couple assholes think?”

“I told them to fuck off. After you left, I mean. I told them they were full of shit. I told them they were nothing but a couple of assholes.”

“Great,” I said, kind of waving my hands as I talked. “Fan-fucking-tastic. Because that’s just what I need, some girl sticking up for me. Because, I mean, because now it’s not physically possible for me to look more like a pussy.”

Cindy fumbled in her purse for a box of Camel cigarettes and a lighter. She lit one and put it in her mouth and breathed a few times. Then she offered one to me.

“Cigarettes give you cancer,” I said.

“That’s the idea,” she said. “I wouldn’t bother to smoke at all if they couldn’t kill me. Go on. Take it. It’ll help with the stink.”

I held a cigarette between two fingers as she lit it, and then I took a drag and felt smoke roll down my throat and into my lungs. And the smoke made me feel very mature. I know I’m not supposed to say things like that. I know it’s a federal offense or something to say anything good about smoking. But that’s how it made me feel, like a wise old man on a mountaintop. Smoking made me feel a thousand years old.

“Jesus, I’ve got mud everywhere,” Cindy said, showing me a brown smudge on the palm of her hand. It was the same on her skirt and stockings.

“It’ll come out,” I said.

“I can’t let my mom see me like this. She’ll go crazy. She always loses her goddamned mind.”

I took another puff off the cigarette. I felt like it wasn’t tobacco I smoked but pure wisdom from the heart of the Earth.

“Everything will be okay forever,” I said.

We sat and smoked. A snake or something wriggled in the water, but it was too far away to hurt us. I watched Cindy comb her fingers through her hair again, and then she put her head down on her arm, which rested on her knee, and her arm seemed to stretch out over the river, and I saw all this while exhaling, saw it through wisps and haze. I looked at her hand hanging limp and empty over so much water. And before I thought too much about it I touched her hand with mine, and held it, and ran my thumb over the tips of her small, white fingers. And that was the moment—that one exactly, when we joined in flesh—that was the moment when everything …