by Christopher Allen
WE SUPPLIED THE men on the river. Two-gallon canisters of kerosene for their outboards, ten dollars each. There were other fueling points, but a few of the men bought only from my father. It was his smile, our smile—because I was a little version of him. It wrinkled up the skin around our eyes, releasing chemicals in their brains. I’m sure they thought I didn’t know, but I’d seen my face in the water. When I was ten, the river left my parents tangled in a tree.
Passed from family to family, I didn’t smile for a decade. I forgot I guess, with nothing to sell. When I became a kerosene man myself, it came back naturally enough, but by then it was too late. The fish in the river were already disappearing. One year it didn’t rain in the mountains at all, so the river itself dried to a trickle. They said it was happening everywhere, but I’d never been to everywhere.
My mother was full of rules. Never say you’ll die for someone. Never laugh at your own joke. Never go to bed hungry. Never forget what the river wants. Never break into song. Never forget to smile. Always never.
My regulars still buy kerosene. They say they need it for their lamps and space heaters, and I let them lie; they say they come to laugh about God and the changing world, which never, not for a second, seems odd. We’re a cohort, full of affection. But I know where this is going. When a regular puts a tenner in my hand as he leaves without asking for the kerosene, I slide the bill into my pocket and offer the smile he expects in return. He presses himself against me, and I let him. A man could starve on the edge of a dry riverbed.
My father had only one rule. Give people what they need. He stank of fish guts, the manure of the fields, the petroleum fog of the river. The generosity of it all. The night before the river rose and swept my parents three miles away and twenty feet up a tree we feasted on crappie, bream, and bass—all fried in a big vat of new oil. I miss all of him.
The regulars have started coming on their own now, one every day of the week, each old enough to be my father, each handing me a tenner when he leaves. “For the conversation,” Heiko says. He comes on Sundays, says my aftershave smells “like the woods.” I buy potatoes, cabbage and two gallons of milk with the tenner. I’ve never had the money for aftershave. Heiko’s twins are grown and gone, studying something in a town with no river. His wife got a job in some big city and never came back. Our conversations wander from weather to fish and what to put in a fish stew when there are no more fish. Today he’s brought whiskey, keeps filling my glass, never asks about me—no one ever has. He rambles about when the river was enough, when it was our world, forgetting that the river took my parents. He’s holding my hand like it’s this precious thing he’s just now discovered, staring. “It’s warmer,” he says, “softer than I—”
When he leans in to kiss me, I don’t shy away. I pull him in. His lips are chapped like bark.
On the night before the landslide in the mountains, my parents and I went to bed with our bellies bursting, queasy from the oily fish. I woke to the roar of rain and the swell of the river like a train rumbling from the sky. No time to secure the kerosene tank, no time to dress. In seconds we were the river: in motion, tumbling, gulping. That’s what the river wants—the rush. A man pulled me out two miles downstream. The weather forecast had called for a clear and starry night.
Sunday conversations with Heiko come from an easy place inside me. I listen mostly because he can’t stop himself from talking. He’s past the years when he regretted not being fit or handsome, when his wife might have stayed. He’s too old to be anything “but a fisherman without a river,” he says and laughs, a sound so full of sadness that I want to hug this man, to give him back his river, but I know this is not what he wants. He laughs so that I will laugh too. And I get it. This is what I have to give him, so this is what I give.
Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2018). His work has most recently appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019, New World Writing, Booth, and Gone Lawn. Allen, a teacher and editor for more than 20 years, is a nomad and the Editor-in-Chief of SmokeLong Quarterly.