Early morning, and Clarendon starts like a wind-up toy— cotton and rice farmers machining the Delta soil, jackhammers breaking the streets downtown. Bosco is talking, too much and too loud, finding no difference between nighttime talk and daytime, between drunk and sober. Along the shore, the streetlights blink out all at once. For the second time that morning, Bosco talks about killing Leo Myer.
“We could, Ray,” he says, sober a moment. “You know we could.”
Ray feels something shift when the words are said, feels that slow, familiar movement toward trouble.
“Always running off at the goddamn mouth, Bosco,” Ray says, laughs it off. “Ought to wrap it with duct tape instead of this.”
Ray waves his 12 gauge, its stock covered in greasy tape, then shoves the barrel under the river’s surface and pulls the trigger. The muffled whomp boils downward, jarring his bones, the water exploding upward in a rain of mud and algae. Bubbles rise with the blood and mangled remains of a carp. Ray nets the fish from the water, tosses it in the cooler. Later, he will grill it over hardware cloth with potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, and they will pick out like bones from the flesh the tiny lead pellets, spitting them into the currents.
“You say that ‘cause you know I’m right,” Bosco says, his smile cutting thin, framed by the mustache that edges his mouth. They have been up all night, drinking beer and shooting carp. Ray switches off the lamps that float in the shallows. The carp move in shadows across the pebbly bottom. Bosco finishes his chocolate milk, drops the carton and stomps it, making Ray jump.
“About all I know is you’re a kid, Bosco,” Ray says. “A 35-year-old goddamn kid.” Bosco shrugs and drinks, his shirtless chest bony and sunken.
They stand on the deck of Bosco’s houseboat, which once served as a repair barge and welding deck for BG Ironworks until it ran on a shoal in the middle of the Arkansas River, 50 yards downstream of the railroad trestle outside Clarendon. Permanent as an island now, the boat holds as the river washes around it. Red-wing blackbirds balance on the rope that connects the barge to shore, the same rope that Ray and Bosco shinny across for groceries, liquor, and generator fuel. When Bosco finds women from town they shinny across with him, legs scissoring the rope, skirts gaping, Ray shining his flashlight on the whites of their thighs. The women squeal and curse Bosco for where he lives, curse the light and the oily rope, drunk and laughing while Ray holds his breath, waiting for them to slip and disappear forever beneath the deep, slow motion of the river.
Bosco lifts another beer from the plastic bag hanging in the current. The white scar from his surgery looks fresh still, lines stitched across his shoulder where the Jonesboro doctors removed the cancer. The indentations there form notches in the line of his shoulder, the flesh gouged and ridged. Ray looks at it, winces. After the surgery was when he began to spend all his time on the barge—not just Saturday nights—helping Bosco tie his shoes, cook his food, and, for a time, button his pants.
Bosco takes the gun, his mouth hanging open as he scans the water. They will shoot until the sheriff’s deputy drives down to the river bank and hollers for them to call it a day.
“We better quit soon,” Ray says.
“How much you think them diamonds are worth?” Bosco asks. “How easy would it be to walk in there, off the son of a bitch, and get out?” He drinks his beer and elbows Ray, starts humming the Jeopardy theme. Riffing off game shows is a stage in Bosco’s drunkenness, lodged somewhere between vomiting and blacking out. After they have caught a day’s haul of oysters, he will watch the shows on his little five-inch black-and-white, the cord for the TV running off the generator inside the cramped cabin of the barge, where he keeps his mattress, refrigerator, and the back issues of National Geographic he finds on the library free table and uses for kindling. Nights they sit at the edge of the barge, occupying an old couch Bosco found on the roadside and floated across, left in the sun to dry. Bosco watches game shows and comedies, shouts at the screen, while Ray watches the river and thinks about the water flowing past them, all the bits of sediment carried to the ocean. They sit until the generator runs out of gas, then fire up lamps to shoot carp in the shallows, run trotlines for catfish.
“Just let the idea go, Bosco,” Ray tells him.
“You don’t think I’d do it?”
“Well, let’s see. Last month, panning for gold was gonna make us rich and before that crystal meth and before that parting out cars. Now it’s hauling oysters that’s not making us dime one, so you’re going to kill Leo Myer and take a stack of diamonds that might or might not even be there. Bullshit, Bosco.”
Bosco takes back the gun, racks it, and fires beneath the water. Bits of gravel clink against the side of the rusted water heater that floats beside them, chained to the barge.
“One big difference this time, Ray,” Bosco says. “I need the goddamn money.” He blinks and looks away, tips up his beer can to hide his eyes.
The first time the doctor found the cancer in Bosco’s shoulder was an accident, an X-ray done after some bar-fight soreness wouldn’t work itself out. With no money or insurance, Bosco had worked out a payment plan that would see him through to old age, and if he skipped even one payment, Ray knew, the collection agency would be along to take his barge, his beaten-down truck, his little TV, his refrigerator, and his last pair of socks. Now he complains of new soreness in his shoulder, tiredness in his days, but his joke is that he can’t buy anymore sickness until the last one is paid for. He has stopped smiling when he says it.
Bosco tosses his beer can into the river and fires at it. He racks and fires again, at the willow tree that tethers the shinny rope. Ray grabs the gun by the barrel and twists it from Bosco’s fingers. He spits into the water and watches it float away, then ejects the empty shell.
“We won’t ever be rich, Bosco, not in this life.”
They cook and eat carp into the afternoon, putting off that day’s haul of oysters, work which renders their only cash until the end of the month when Ray collects for his weekend motor route. He drives the same camper truck he sleeps in when he’s not on the barge, muscling it down bumpy washouts in the dead of night, listening to radio baseball and talk shows, shoving the Clarendon Gazette into the green plastic tubes mounted at the side of the road. All day, while they eat and drink, while the river washes around them, Bosco talks of Leo’s diamonds, how they are there for the taking, how that woman he met at the bar has seen them herself. He talks non-stop, nodding and jabbering, rubbing his ruined shoulder.
By early evening Ray lets himself be talked into a visit to Leo’s place. Bosco says he wants to case it out, words he has lifted from some TV show. Ray agrees, wanting Bosco to stand there in Leo’s apartment, work it through his brain, see the impossibility of it. They drive out County Road 10 toward Berryville, drinking beer, swatting mosquitoes. They come to the brick building that once held Sunshine Dairy, where Leo runs his business from a single room on the second floor. Out beside the road is Leo’s hand painted sign advertising his palm reading, tarot cards, and shiatsu massages, ten dollars each. The front windows are webbed by strips of masking tape and yellowed, curling posters for the Shriner’s Bar-B-Q and the Marv-L Circus. Inside, the old cream separators and capping machines sit rusting, covered in dust.
“So if Leo’s rich, how come he lives in this hole?” Ray asks.
“You’ve heard the story,” Bosco says.
“Yeah, I’ve heard it,” Ray says. “That one and about a thousand others.”
“Well, I guess we’ll see then, won’t we?”
The story seeps into the bars in the way of all rumor, through spilled beer and bullshit and games of eight ball and last call, places where Bosco has picked up the story and made it his own. The word is that Leo Myer once worked as a diamond wholesaler in Atlanta, that one afternoon he pocketed five pounds of rough stones off the plane from Barrons, that he picked Clarendon, Arkansas off a road atlas and settled in to hide himself. Leo speaks with a New York accent, wears flowing caftans to the IGA in town, silver rings and ear hoops, tiny braids woven in his longish hair.
“That’s right, Bosco,” Ray says. “We’ll see, and then you can drop this shit.”
“Just keep his ass busy,” Bosco says.
After a steep climb to the second floor, they ring the buzzer. The door opens with a tinkling of chimes and Leo yawns at them from behind his graying beard, Behind him, the TV plays a commercial for dog food.
“Visitors,” he says. The room is thick with incense and yellow light, the walls pale green, hung with feathers and beads. “What can I do for you boys?” He is without his caftan and earrings, and wears instead sweatpants and a gray t-shirt.
“My buddy here would like his palm read,” Bosco says.
“Is that a fact? Just what problem are you working through?”
Ray shrugs. “Whatever.”
Leo smiles at them. “Why don’t you fellows save your money. Go buy a few rounds at the Barbary Coast.”
“No, we really want to know the future,” Bosco says. “We can pay.” He cuts his eyes at Ray as he unfolds a crumpled ten from his jeans and hands it to Leo.
Leo shrugs, opens the door to let them in. They sit down at a pocked wooden table in the kitchen while Bosco heads toward the sink.
“Mind if I get some water?” Bosco asks. Leo waves the back of his hand and slips on a pair of dimestore reading glasses. He uses the remote control to click off the TV.
“Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking,” Leo says to Ray. “That’s our usual start.”
“I was thinking how much this dump looks like a whorehouse,” Ray says. He watches Bosco drink from a jelly jar.
“This anger toward me interests me,” Leo says. He looks up, smiles, touches his beard. “Is that what you paid for? To come here and vent?”
“Ray’s just nervous,” Bosco says from behind Leo. “His first time.”
Leo holds out his fingertips as if he’s asking Ray for a dance. Bosco nods, and Ray offers his hand. Leo’s fingers are warm and damp. He bends Ray’s hand toward the light, caressing the palm. Bosco walks slowly around the room touching the strings of colored beads, the macramé wall decorations, the feathers hung from threads. Ray doesn’t like a man touching him. He drinks with his left hand, downing his beer.
“Anger is bad for your heart, as bad as cigarettes,” Leo says. “The Chinese call anger a weary bird with no place to roost.”
Bosco slips to the back of the room and eases open a drawer on a rolltop desk. Ray imagines he hears it squeak. He watches Bosco riffle through papers with his thumb, then pull a wooden cigar box from the back of the drawer. Leo starts to look over his shoulder.
“That’s me exactly,” Ray says quickly. “All pissed off and no place to go.”
“I see that in your lines, most of them broken, irregular. Our work then is to trace it back to its source, chase the riders back to the crimson palace.”
Bosco frowns and mouths the word “shit,” then tilts the cigar box for Ray to see the strings of cheap, plastic beads. He replaces the box and eases the drawer closed. In the corner of the room, a painted screen partially hides an iron bed and a chest of drawers. Bosco steps over and leans his hands against the chest of drawers. His shadow dips and angles against the opposite wall.
“Chase the riders? What the fuck are you talking about, Leo?” Ray says.
Leo lifts his hand to gesture, his rings flashing. “The riders are stray emotions, wants, unfulfilled dreams. They are sent out by the crimson palace—your heart.” He smiles. “We’re speaking metaphorically, friend.”
Ray nods as if this makes some sense to him, and Bosco ducks behind the screen. Ray watches him in the mirror. Bosco slides open the top drawer.
Leo leans across the table, sending up wafts of cologne. His eyes are slate colored, bloodshot. He is no longer studying Ray’s hand, only holding it. “What are yours?” he asks.
Ray draws back, tethered by his own hand. “What are my what?”
Bosco slowly lifts something out of the second drawer and sets it on top of the dresser. He looks back over his shoulder, catching Ray’s eye.
“Your unfulfilled dreams, the empty areas of your existence,” Leo says. He smiles like a cop, like he knows something. Ray closes his eyes, wanting this whole thing over with, wanting to be back on the barge, watching the water.
“Go on, Ray,” Bosco says. Ray opens his eyes and Bosco is standing beside the screen, hands behind his back. Leo does not turn to look at him. Bosco grins. “Go ahead and tell old Leo about your so-called dream.”
Ray feels the heat in his face.
“Yes, Ray,” Leo says, “what is your so-called dream, as your friend puts it?”
Ray shakes his head. This is something he does not talk about. He only ever told Bosco because of a night of too many tequila shots and no moon, the river and the barge wrapped in nightfall, the generator out of gas, only the quiet and the drunken surges inside and his feet in the warm water, words spilling out into the darkness. And for the reason of their silent work together in the river hauling oysters out of the mud, 30 feet down, roped to one another, feeling their way through the dark murk of the river. Thinking of all that, loose and drunk, he let slip and knew right away how hollow it sounded, his dream of diving in the ocean, swimming through the warm currents, a kid wish he’d kept with him like some lucky penny left in a pocket and tarnished with age. But still he keeps it, fingering the notion, imagining it when he is driving his route and rain comes. Stuck on some back road, wipers burned out, waiting for the storm to pass, water washing sideways in faint ripples across his windshield, he will press his face to the glass and think of sharks and eels, of bright fish and coral reefs. He has never seen these things except on TV, which he knows is next to not seeing it at all, worse maybe, for how TV makes everything small.
“Well, goddamn, Ray,” Bosco said that night. “Your truck’s right there. Right there. Get in it and head south for 12 hours. You’ll hit the damn ocean. Hell, if we could get the barge unstuck, we’d be there by breakfast.”
Ray shook his head and shrugged, his awkwardness invisible in the darkness. “It ain’t the ocean, really. The ocean is just a thing, like my head just picked it. I don’t know.”
“So you’re all but dying to see the ocean but not really the ocean. Now we’re making sense.” Bosco threw a bottle out into the river.
Ray wanted to say then how after so much time the ocean meant nothing more than some new thing, how he wore the boredom of his 38 years like a sickness, how his life ran past like the water past the barge—giving him only the trick of movement. He felt he was done with living, or it with him, and that apart from what he’d already been through—a handful of shit jobs, a year of marriage, a week in the county jail—nothing much else was left to happen.
“Give my word, Ray,” Bosco said. “We’ll get our asses on down to Biloxi as soon as oyster season’s up.”
Ray shrugged, pushed his bottle under the surface and let it sink.
Now Leo squeezes his hand and whispers. “You needn’t cling to sadness, son. Tell me your dream.”
“Yeah, tell him,” Bosco says, and smirks. “Tell him about the ocean.”
“The ocean?” Leo raises his eyebrows.
Ray’s face flushes. “Just shut the fuck up, Bosco.”
“You dream of leaving, of escape,” Leo says, nodding. “Water represents birth, renewal, baptism.”
“Don’t talk about it,” Ray says. He jerks his hand from Leo’s grasp. “Bosco, keep your goddamn mouth closed.”
Bosco shakes his head and smiles, then slowly withdraws his hands from behind his back and holds up to the light a large and imperfect diamond. He nods, grinning wildly.
Leo raises his hands in a gesture of mock surrender. “My young friend,” he says. “You show up here, you pay me ten dollars. What is it you want?”
Bosco, steps behind Leo, makes a gun with his thumb and finger, and points it at the back of Leo’s head. They are like that for a moment—Leo awaiting Ray’s answer, his hands still in the air, Bosco with his phantom gun. The seconds play out this pantomime of robbery, until the realization opens within Ray: They could do it. Bosco is right. They could.
“This is a two way street,” Leo says. “You come back when you decide how I can help you.” Ray does not speak, his mind still held by that brief flash in Bosco’s fingers. He looks again at Bosco, who hammers down his thumb trigger and mouths the word “pow.” Bosco grins again, tips his head toward the door.
“I’ll do that,” Ray says, standing, shaking. “I will come back.”
Early Friday morning, after his route, Ray drives out County Road 10 and pulls over beside Sunshine Dairy. The windows of the building reflect the dust-colored light of dawn. Ray thinks of Leo inside, sleeping, the strung feathers twisting slightly in the dark, the capping machines and cream separators below him, the diamonds shining and hidden, their value hoarded away. He sees it so clearly, Bosco yanking the .38 from his denim coat, jamming the steel against the back of Leo’s skull, the blood and flesh and hair exploding like carp out of the river bottom. Ray watches the gray windows of Leo’s apartment, his mind drawing the stillness of that death from out of this stillness, the one before him now, lit pale orange as the sun rises on the faint noise of radio static. As he watches, a light clicks on and the drapes part. A wedge of Leo’s face appears in the gap between the curtains. Ray pushes back into his seat, guns the engine, and spins out, his fingers shaking. By the time he crosses into Clarendon, the town has started up again. Ray stops at the Quick-Mart for cigarettes and beer and donuts, two cartons of chocolate milk for Bosco. Today is for oystering, and Ray is relieved in this; beneath the river, there will be no talk of killing.
The night before, after they left Leo’s, it was all Bosco could talk about, wound up like a kid on his way to the circus—breathless, bouncing in the seat of the truck.
“Hey, look at this,” he said, drawing the stolen diamond from his pocket. The stone was milk white, irregularly shaped.
“Real smart,” Ray said. “He’s probably calling the cops right now.”
Bosco shook his head. “Never miss it. Had 50 of these if he had one. An old Parcheesi box.” He shook his head again. “Think I’d find a better hiding place for my stash.” Bosco nudged Ray. “I think I will.”
“We don’t even know that’s a real diamond,” Ray said, though looking, he knew.
Bosco gripped the stone and drew a long, thin scratch across the width of Ray’s windshield.
“Now what do you say?” Bosco asked. “Could write the fucking Declaration of Independence if I wanted to.”
Ray kept driving toward the river without speaking, as he drives now through the early morning. Traffic is heavy going the other way, the men in suits and ties headed into Berryville, the women putting on makeup in their rearview mirrors, coffee cups steaming their windshields. The scratch on his own windshield catches the morning sun, making tiny prisms, needles of colored light.
In the river along the barge, two of their antifreeze jugs bounce, pulling under the surface and then popping up again. They haul up catfish thrashing onto the deck. Bosco tries to club them with the butt of his .38, missing each time, the metal deck of the barge clanging. He grabs the fish to hold it down, and the dorsal fin pierces the palm of his hand.
“Shit damn,” Bosco shouts. He falls back onto the deck, kicking the fish back into the river, still hooked to its line. His gun skitters across the barge.
“Can you think of any other ways to kill yourself?” Ray asks. Bosco sucks on his palm while Ray takes the gun, hauls up the antifreeze jug, lifts the fish into the air and shoots it through the head. He unhooks the limp fish and tosses it to Bosco.
“See if you can skin it and get it in the cooler without losing a limb. Then we’ll get the heater in the water.”
Bosco grins, his mouth wet with his own blood. “Yessir, bossman.”
Ray retrieves from the cabin their plastic bucket of weights, most of them old iron window sash weights, along with scraps of steel they found on the barge. He fills the front and back pockets of his jeans, and with a length of rope makes a belt of sash weights to tie around his waist. The second belt he makes for Bosco, who is still struggling with the pliers, trying to skin the catfish. It will go bad before he finishes. Now fifty pounds heavier, Ray takes a pint of bourbon from the fridge and drinks. The bottom of the river is always cold, even in August. Ray walks out and ties the weight belt to Bosco, then stuffs his pockets full of iron while Bosco wipes off his hands. He holds up the bottle so Bosco can drink, spilling some down his shirt front. Finally, he uncurls 50 feet of clothesline and cinches either end to their waists.
Bosco drinks again. “Let us not forget our tithes and offerings, brothers,” he says. “When the Lord has delivered into our hands those goddamn diamonds, let us give back to Jesus.”
Ray stiffens at the mention of the diamonds. For the whole day Bosco has been planning how they will have the diamonds cut and sold in Little Rock, and how they will spend the money—fast cars and stereos and guns. He talks as if their lives are fairy tales, already written.
“So it’s blasphemy now,” Ray says. “We’re trying something new.”
“Listen, bud, if God was of a mind to strike me down, he’d of gotten me 20 fuck-ups ago.”
Ray unchains the water heater from the side of the barge and floats it around to the front. The river currents lift and push it, banging it against the barge. Ray thinks that if it hit hard enough, it could knock them off their shoal and into open water. They tie it off to one of the cleats on the barge then grasp it on opposite sides, gripping it by its brass valves and pipe fittings. They draw deep breaths, readying themselves to strain against the weight of it. The old heater shell is lead-lined, industrial sized, nearly as heavy as a small car.
“All the way up,” Ray says. “Nice big bubble for us.” Words he repeats every time, a kind of incantation. They count three and lift the heater, the two of them grunting and spitting, until it is upright and flush against the surface of the water.
“Now,” Ray says through his teeth, and they drop it, careful not to let it tip. They wait until it slips beneath the surface, thick rope coiling in after it. No bubble rises after the rope stops, and they know it has landed upright in the mud.
“We’re good,” Ray says. He draws five deep breaths, holds his clam rake tight to his chest and jumps in, the weights in his clothes pulling him down. The rope around his waist tightens until he hears the muffled sloosh of Bosco jumping in after him. He has learned to keep his eyes open underwater, and watches overhead as the filtered light shifts from murky yellow to dull brown, and then is gone almost completely. His feet settle on the bottom and he moves toward where he thinks the heater has landed, his boots sinking in, pulled downward. With his hands he finds the heater, and as his eyes adjust he can see it, faint white, slightly tilted. Ray gives two tugs on the rope and waits for Bosco to find him, hearing only the pounding of his heart in his ears. Three minutes he will last without a breath, the noise of his pulse like a clock reminding him. Bosco is there suddenly and they set to work, moving out from the heater like spokes from a hub, with or against the pull of the river. They rake the mud for oysters and clams, prying them out, saving them in burlap sacks tied to their belts. Later, sitting on the barge, they will sort them for size. Ray works quickly, his lungs feeling as though they too are weighted. His used up air lets loose in quick, fat bursts as his muscles repeat their pattern—rake, dig, sack—like some song his body sings within itself. After 20 steps he turns back, lungs throbbing, the pulse of blood in the muscles of his face.
Ray is first beneath the heater, always, as Bosco seems able to hold his breath forever. He gives Ray a thumbs-up sign in the dark swirl of mud they have stirred. They lift the heater, and Bosco steadies it long enough for Ray to slide underneath and up in. Inside the heater is black as ink, the smell full of musk and rot, the curved walls sweaty, slick with moss and algae. There is no water down as far as his knees. Ray gulps mouthfuls of the trapped air, talks to himself to hear a voice, breathes again, then raps his knuckles on the wall and listens for the sound of Bosco lifting the heater for him.
For half a minute there is no sound, and Ray raps the wall again. “Dammit, Bosco,” he yells. He pushes up, without enough leverage to budge the heater. This prank is one that Bosco never tires of, one he will pull on Ray a couple times a week.
“Okay, fine,” Ray shouts. “Stay out there and drown your sorry ass.”
Finally there comes the squeak of Bosco’s hands searching for a grip, then the suck of mud at the bottom. Ray takes one last deep breath and squirms out through the gap. He holds the heater for Bosco to go inside. Looming up in Ray’s face, Bosco grins and gives another thumbs-up, then disappears. They work this way for more than an hour, raking the spokes, filling their bags, taking their turns inside the heater. At the end of their work they turn the hot water valve at the top of the heater and let it fill, then climb the heater’s rope back up to the barge, the weight belts and oyster bags hanging down, pulling at them.
They stand dripping on the deck of the barge, tossing off their weights.
“Had you that time,” Bosco says, panting. “You thought I’d got washed away.”
“Hell, yes, you fooled me. About twice as much as three days ago when you pulled the same trick.”
“Well, this is near about the last time we have to dig oysters out of the shit. After we get those diamonds.”
Ray nods, wipes mud from his face.
“Tell me this right now, Bosco. You gonna put the gun against his head? Pull the trigger? Stand there with pieces of Leo’s brain down your shirt, blood on your hands, and then go digging through his shit? You can do all that?”
“Hell, Ray, you ever seen me handle a gun? I mean it—”
Ray shoves him hard against his good shoulder, staggering him. Bosco looks stung, his mouth open, dark water running in thin lines across his face.
“No more of your bullshit,” Ray says. “Tell me here and now. You need that money or you might die, Bosco.” Ray lightly taps Bosco’s other shoulder, where the pain is, where the cancer has been. “No bullshit, just listen. I ain’t dying, but I ain’t afraid of good money either. So you tell me, Bosco. A gun in your hand, you raise it up, you fire into Leo’s head. You shatter his skull. More blood than you’ve seen in your life. Think about that, Bosco, and tell me. You going to be able to do it?”
They stand facing each other, the puddles around their feet joining. Bosco’s mouth works, his eyes dart to the side. He will not look at Ray.
“Go on, Bosco. You say the word, and we’ll dump these fucking oysters back in the river and head over right now. Got your gun loaded? Just say.”
Bosco looks off toward the water curling past the edge of the barge. His eyes well up, his face flushed. He slowly shakes his head, not speaking.
Ray points a finger at him. “That’s it then, understand? Not another goddamn word about it.”
They use up the afternoon parked at the juncture of highways 45 and 19, in the shade of a tree, selling the oysters out of a cooler in the back of Ray’s pickup. They sell mostly to people from town headed back to their country houses, men with their ties loosened, women in convertibles with the tops up. Ray uses a scale he made to weigh more than true by taking it apart and stretching the spring. They charge six dollars a pound, a dollar cheaper than IGA.
When they have sold out or when what is left has gone bad, the shells opening, they will head into town, stopping at the liquor store on the way. By the time they get where they are going—usually the Lightbulb Club or the Barbary Coast—they are half drunk on bourbon. Today, though, Ray eases off a little, steering toward the fire station on River Road, for what he calls the best deal in town, all-you-can-eat fried chicken and barbecue for four dollars, with slaw and biscuits and lemonade on the side.
“Every damn body and their seven kids will be there,” Bosco says. “Ain’t worth it.”
“It’s worth it,” Ray tells him. “I’m sick of hauling dinner out of that shit-hole river. Sick of all of it.”
“Plus there won’t be no women there,” Bosco says. “Just housewives.” He wipes his nose on his sleeve.
Ray nods, pleased that Bosco has found something to pout over, to distract him from the diamonds. He has not mentioned them since that morning. All afternoon, in the hot shade of the tree, Ray has seen Leo alone in his apartment, seen the small swirl of the feathers, has heard Leo’s breath in the quiet room. He thinks of the cancer growing inside Bosco’s shoulder, cells gone wrong and dark, growing there maybe even now, as Bosco drinks and wipes his mouth. He thinks of himself, shucking off his 38 years like oyster shells. It would be two lives for one, he thinks. Two for one.
At the fire house the men in their blue uniforms sweat over gas grills while the wind whips paper plates and napkins off the picnic tables and around the yard. Mothers and fathers sit on blankets spread across the grass. The bigger kids hurl water balloons at one another while the little kids crowd around a fat, panting dalmation— Sparky—who shows the kids how to stop, drop, and roll, put through his paces by a short fireman with a blond mustache.
The man taking money sits at a card table in the driveway. Ray pays for both of them and waits for his change.
“You boys aren’t drunk, are you?” the man says. He gives them a smile with no humor in it. The man wants to find some excuse to keep them out, Ray thinks. Two river rats fucking up his nice family gathering.
“Not drunk,” Ray says. “Just hungry as hell.” Bosco laughs.
They stand in line for chicken and barbecue, cole slaw, biscuits, peach cobbler and lemonade. Both pile their plates so high that some of the food teeters off into the grass. Bosco pulls his pint of bourbon from his pocket and refills their half-emptied lemonade cups. When they finish, Ray feels doubly drunk, from the whiskey and from his overly-fed stomach. He eats one last biscuit, not from hunger but just for the excess of it, sloshing it around in his mouth with a gulp of the spiked lemonade. He can’t remember when he felt this happy, eating the way he did as a kid visiting his grandparents in Hot Springs, going a night without eating carp and mudfish from out of the dirty river and drinking half-warmed beer. Soon it will be fall again, oyster season over and back to little money, just what he makes from his route and whatever he and Bosco can throw together in the way of odd jobs. Last year it was helping businesses downtown string up their Christmas lights for four bucks an hour. For a man his age, nothing more than sympathy work.
He looks over at Bosco, who is still chewing and swallowing, bobbing his head in time with the bluegrass music that spills out of the loudspeaker mounted on the side of the firehouse. Every so often the music is interrupted by the crackle and chirp of the dispatcher radioing the sheriff’s deputies. A couple of the young parents dance in a ring around their children, who laugh and giggle in the middle. Ray takes the bottle from Bosco and pours over the ice in his cup. He swallows, hardly tasting it now, his happiness climbing like some balloon he’s released. He gets up and starts dancing too, Bosco tugging on his pant leg, telling him to sit down. He wanders around the yard, stepping on blankets, thinking how strange it is that all these people—his age, many of them, or younger—have ended up this way. They have nice, shining cars, nice shining houses, nice shining jobs.
“Nice, shining lives,” Ray says aloud, not aware until he’s said it that he has been thinking this. He laughs at the idea that these people have got where they are by following some simple plan, going to school, meeting the right people. That’s all fine, he thinks. His real question is how they knew from the start that there was supposed to be a plan, how did they know to move in some direction and not another? He stops now at the outside edge of a ring of children, a new group gathered around to watch Sparky go through his paces. He can see their polished lives laid out before them. He remembers teachers, principals, counselors from high school, two decades past now, telling him that he needed direction. He can hear them saying it, see their faces. How was he to know that they only meant that his life would end up somewhere, and that automatic pilot brought you down low to stay? I have direction, he thinks, though the children turning to look at him tells him that he must be talking out loud again. His direction is down, the bottom of the river, then back to where he started, ready the next day to go down again. Down, down, Bosco behind or below him, tethered to him, the two ends of some finite thing, always down.
Sparky catches a milkbonc tossed by the fireman. The dog wags his tail and the children clap. For a better view Ray lifts himself onto the back of the ladder truck parked in the driveway, its doors open for display, the ladder extended into the air.
“Always tell mom and dad to test those smoke detectors,” the fireman says. Sparky nods and the children laugh.
“Have a plan for getting out,” the fireman says.
A plan. For getting out. The words fill Ray’s mouth as he repeats them, resonate at the bottom of his cup as he drinks, burn at the back of his throat. The children stare at him, the fireman glares. He smiles at them. We have our plan, he wants to tell them. He and Bosco. For getting out. For getting off the bottom of the river. Leo . . . Gun . . . Parcheesi box . . . Diamonds. Ray tries to shake the idea from his head. Maybe they are done with it, and Bosco won’t pull anymore. Maybe Ray’s speech earlier has ended it, planting them forever at the river bottom.
“Why do you think we bring Sparky to the fires?” the fireman asks. Ray can tell this is the setup for some cornball joke,
“I know,” Ray says, and they all turn toward him, sudden as a school of fish. “He pisses on it when the rest of you fuckers get wrung out.”
The fireman’s face darkens. “I think you need to get on home now, buddy, sleep it off.”
Ray smiles. “I ain’t your fucking buddy.”
The fireman points his finger, raises his voice. “Now you listen—”
Ray whistles and snaps his fingers. “Here, boy. C’mon boy.” Sparky jumps up and trots in Ray’s direction, the show only half over. The children look around, confused. Bosco is there suddenly, pulling at Ray’s pantleg, calling for him to come down. Ray likes this, the fireman flustered, everything mixed up. He has spoiled the plan. He sees this as the core of living in this world: plans made or not made, plans messed up. They have a plan for getting out and will not use it if Bosco will not talk about it, if Bosco will let himself die quietly instead.
“I think we’re done here, Ray,” Bosco says, pulling at him. Ray yanks loose from his grip and steps up on the ladder. He climbs about 20 feet and some of the children clap, thinking this is part of the show.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the fireman yells. Sparky barks.
“Hey, Bosco,” Ray shouts down, his tongue thick in his mouth. “What’s your plan for next spring? What say we dive down to the river bottom, rake around in the shit, then do it again the next day, then a thousand more times after that.”
Bosco shrugs. “Okay.”
Ray climbs further up the ladder, feeling it sway under him. He can see the air conditioners on top of the firehouse, and, in the distance, a corner of the river. Other firemen leave their posts at the gas grills and trot over to surround the back of the truck. Ray turns and sits on the rung.
“Come down from there now,” a fireman shouts. “We can’t be responsible for your safety. The outriggers aren’t extended.”
“Careful, Bosco,” Ray says. “You might want to check your calendar, make double sure about next spring.” He laughs at his joke, then stands and looks a hundred feet up at the top of the ladder. He thinks of climbing all the way up, then decides against it. Just more up and down, going nowhere.
“I’m sure, Ray,” Bosco says, sober with his embarrassment.
Ray climbs down to the platform then jumps to the pavement. The firemen tell him to get lost before they call the sheriff, and some of the children start clapping again.
“Okay, then,” he tells Bosco. “We’re set.”
That night Ray makes an excuse of wanting tequila, which means a ride to the liquor store in Berryville, down the highway past Leo’s place. Ray wants to feel the pull of the dairy, the thin stretch of lawn and plaster wall separating them from that other life. He wants to know if it is enough to draw murder from them. He thinks of little else as they ride into the early gray of night, the noise of 1—40 rising on the near horizon. As they pass Leo’s, the dairy is dark, Bosco is punching the buttons on Ray’s radio, complaining that there are no decent rock-and-roll stations. In Berryville they buy their tequila, drinking as they head back toward Clarendon. All along the road are the mashed bodies of frogs, which appear on the highways in the late part of summer, signaling its end.
Ray takes a long swig, the tequila a burning rope through him. As they pass the dairy again he taps the brakes, slowing. Yellow light from Leo’s window angles across the yard and gravel driveway. His curtains are open, a box fan on the windowsill. Leo stands shirtless in front of it. Faint music finds its way to the open window of Ray’s truck.
Ray passes the bottle to Bosco. He can feel the tequila inside him, an invisible thumb pushing him down. “There it is,” he says.
“There what is?” Bosco drinks, some of it spilling down his shirt. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve.
“Leo’s place, what do you think I mean?”
“He’s standing right there, probably giving himself a massage.” Bosco smiles, wiping his shirtfront. He is so thin now, wasting away inside his clothes.
“Bet he’s planning how to spend his money,” Ray says. He cuts his eyes at Bosco, then looks at the slice of road lit by his headlights.
“He don’t spend it, that’s the damn waste of the whole thing. If that was me, I would . . . I don’t know, find something to spend it on. I’d buy stuff.” He sniffs, scratches at his tooth with a fingernail. Ray hits the gas and watches in the rearview as the yellow light recedes. They ride in silence, slowly killing the bottle.
“You were right on what you said,” Bosco finally says. It is fully dark now, Ray cannot see his face.
“Right on what?”
“On not being able to do Leo the way we said. You were 100 percent on that one. Just not in me to pull that trigger.”
Ray takes a long swallow, warmth and relief mixing inside him. Tomorrow is for oysters, he thinks. A few dollars in their pockets.
Near the river bridge they see the lights from downtown reflected, the fluorescent glow off the Methodist church spire, the faint glow of their trotline jugs. The barge is further down, hidden in shadow. Later, they sit on the couch at the edge of the barge, drinking down toward the end of the bottle, chasing it with beer, drinking for hours. It is the way it was before Bosco’s cancer, when Ray visited only on weekends. They talk of going into the Barbary Coast, trying to lure some women back to the barge. Bosco is happy, talking about game shows, asking Ray to name the top five things you buy at the grocery store. When the mosquitoes get bad, Bosco hauls out a quart jar of citronella oil and they wipe their arms and faces with it. The river washes around them. Their antifreeze jugs bob in the dark.
“You’re a different story,” Bosco says, out of the dark. He smokes, the orange of his cigarette moving.
“What are you talking about, Bosco?”
“I mean you could do it. To Leo. You’re the one.”
Ray tightens his hands on his beer bottle.
“You’re drunk as hell, Bosco.” His own drunkenness threatens to push him through the floor of the barge, down into the river bottom.
“Yeah, but I know you, Ray. You told me what you did today because you know me, and now I’m telling you because I know you just the same. You could kill Leo.”
Ray’s hands shake. “Don’t talk about this shit, anymore, Bosco. We’re done with it.”
“After we finished, you know what? I bet you’d say it was the easiest thing you’d ever done,” Bosco says. For a moment, Ray thinks of shinnying across to his truck, starting it, leaving all this behind. But without Ray, Bosco would not be capable even of diving in the river for oysters, of catching carp. He would be lost. Ray picks up the . 38, hefting it, letting his fingers curl around it. He clicks the safety off and on and off and on.
Bosco coughs and winces, rubs his shoulder. The gas lantern hisses at his feet. “I bet you already made plans for your half. Of course you ought get more than half, you pull the trigger. I mean, that’s only f—”
“Shut your goddamn mouth, Bosco.” Ray raises the . 38 to Bosco’s head, clicks the safety off, pulls back the hammer.
Bosco smiles, looks at him. “Right now? You’re just proving my point.” Ray lets the hammer down and eases the safety back on. For a minute, neither of them speak.
“And you better listen,” Bosco says, whispering above the sound of the water. “Without that money, Ray, I’ll die. You ever stop and think about that?” He flicks his cigarette into the river, then pulls the diamond from his pants pocket and taps it nervously on the wooden arm of the couch. Ray looks at him, his face lit faintly by the light of early dawn, the grayness of disease on him like a second skin.
“You’re talking about a man’s life,” Ray says. Already the town is waking up, cars moving across the bridge.
“You’re goddamn right we are,” he says. He wipes his mouth with his fingers, his hand shaking. The diamond glistens dully in his fingers.
Ray shakes his head. “We’re done with it, Bosco.”
“No we ain’t,” Bosco says. “You won’t let me die, Ray. You won’t.”
Ray pushes himself up, stretches. “We should get this heater in the water.” He has not slept, is still full of tequila and beer. He feels heavy, weighted down. He thinks of the cancer, thinks of it growing, cell by cell, in Bosco’s shoulder.
“You’d just better hear me, Ray,” Bosco says, slipping the diamond back in his pocket, “because I ain’t finished. I ain’t gonna finish.”
Ray pretends to ignore him. He grabs the water heater and struggles with it alone until Bosco finally helps. They muscle it up, then stop to rest, breathing together, Bosco holding his chest with one hand.
“Everything is easy, Ray,” Bosco says. “I’ll load the gun and talk us inside. I swear I will. Hell, I’ll drive if you want me to. Ray . . .you know you will.”
Ray steadies the heater, leveling it on the water. “Nice big bubble for us,” he says without thinking. He can feel Bosco staring at him. They release the heater, then wait to make sure their bubble does not escape and rise to the surface.
“We’re good,” Ray says. They silently pass the bag of weights, filling their pockets, stringing their belts. Ray uncurls the clothes line to tether them together.
They stand at the edge of the barge. Bosco grins. “Last time we’ll have to—” he starts to say, before Ray leaps into the river, sinking fast, moved by the current. He feels the rope tighten, Bosco pulled in behind him. He settles in the gravel and mud. The water is clearer than usual, a light, murky gold. He walks until the heater looms up in his vision, white and blurry. He gives the two quick tugs on the rope and Bosco soon finds him. They work out from the heater in their long spokes. It is slow today, only a few oysters under their rakes. When it is time, they lift the heater and Bosco strains holding it while Ray slips underneath. The darkness of it always startles him, like instant blindness. He hears himself pant for breath, runs his fingers around the mossy sides. He holds his head in his hands, squeezes, breathes.
Ray taps the side of the heater and Bosco lifts it to let him out. Ray takes it from him to allow Bosco inside. Just before he slips under, Bosco holds up the diamond and gives Ray a thumbs-up. His face is drawn, desperate, searching Ray’s eyes. He slips down and in. Without the money he will die, and without Ray he will not have the money. He believes in everything that Ray is to him, just as he believes that bullshit and stupid jokes are equal to cancer, that killing is some easy thing. He pulls his faith from TV shows. They are moving toward the things he believes in now, he is pulling Ray toward them, toward the explosion of brain and hair and blood, toward the shining box of diamonds. In the dark water and the throbbing of his lungs the scene repeats itself like memory. Bosco taps the side of the heater. He will reemerge, his eyes panicked and full of death. The taps on the heater grow louder—sharper and more distinct—and Ray realizes that Bosco is tapping with the diamond. The clicks resonate like gunshots through some distant wall, mixed in the noise of his pulse in his ears, of the slow push of water. He shakes his head, his lungs aching already, too soon, way before his time in the heater. His chest burns, the taps coming in sharp ripples of sound as his fingers work at the knotted rope around his waist, at the belt of weights holding him down. He unties them and rises slightly, Bosco’s voice shouting from a thousand miles away as Ray twists the hot water valve atop the heater, letting in the water, the bubbles rising fat and bright, moving upward as the taps of the diamond quicken and then slow, as Ray gives himself to the current, following the bubbles, his lungs strained to bursting, his eyes held by a patch of greasy light above him. He rises, flailing through moments, as if all he could know of what would come next and next were held above him always, just beyond reach, in a layer of thin white air.