The Licking River crooks slightly to the northeast before it empties quietly into the broad, swift-running curve of the Ohio at the foot of downtown Cincinnati. That faint turn allows it to work unnoticed, like a stranger hiding in the underbrush. Across the big river that warm May afternoon, the young man walked alone beneath the trees at the park above the Serpentine Wall, the undulating concrete public space that stepped down to the Ohio River. It was part flood control, part amphitheater and work of art. The landing was filling up with couples and families watching boats ply the blue-green water and shedding memories of the winter’s ice storms. The skyline, voluptuous with a century of towers, shimmered from the scrubbing of April rains. Sculptures of flying pigs gazed down benevolently from their perches atop blue pillars. A Reds game was being played a quarter-mile west at Great American Ballpark, and when the cheers echoed out of the stadium he thought for a moment they might be for him.
This day would be different.
John walked with all the inner awkwardness of twenty. His mother told him he was handsome but he didn’t believe her. He was tall, with a high forehead, intense eyes, and a long nose. He might grow into handsome in his thirties. But his features hadn’t broken out of teenage chubbiness, and he was all too aware of it. He also had hair so pale it lacked any of the appeal of the surfer’s blond mane; as a baby, he was told, it had been the color of cotton. He was so sensitive that he kept it cut very short. On bad days, he thought he looked like a freak. On those days, he hated to pass mirrors, hated to look at himself. No mirrors here, thank god. He checked his cell phone: four o’clock.
He saw Heather in the distance and waved. She smiled and walked toward him. Her long, wavy chestnut hair caught the wind and she looked like the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She wore khaki shorts and a lightweight, teal-colored top that accented small, enticing breasts. He didn’t stare at her body but looked her in the eyes, his mother had taught him that much. When they came close, he impulsively kissed her and held her close. He was very conscious of the feelings emanating from his groin. She gently broke the kiss and patted his arm.
“What am I going to do with you?”
John’s answer involved them both naked somewhere, as he had fantasized a hundred times since he had found her again. He wanted to make his answer another kiss. But he stayed silent, his voice stuck in his mind. Her comment was cryptic. What should he say? He had asked her here and now didn’t have the first idea of what to do. He didn’t know how to take the lead. The thoughts of meeting her today and where it might take them had kept him up all night. Now he couldn’t manage the first word. He looked away at the boats speeding up and down, dodging a long barge pushing upriver, the engine of the tug straining against the current.
“I brought a picnic!”
For the first time, he saw the basket in her hand. It was expensive-looking woven dark wicker with leather trim and brass hardware. They settled on a spot to sit as he struggled to find the voice that had come so easily that first night they had talked. He knew that if he spoke at that moment he could barely get out her name. He loved her name. Heather. So feminine, such poetry in it. Heather was his favorite name. He knew that much. “Ants!” She emptied two-dozen small, black creatures out of a Ziploc bag. He almost recoiled before realizing they were made of plastic. She set them out across the concrete surface between them, playfully putting one on his shirt. He pretended he was going to eat it and she made a face, her eyes lovely saucers of mock surprise. That was progress, no?
“I saw your dad on TV,” she said. “Does he ever talk to you about his work?”
“He’s my step-dad,” John managed.
His step-dad was still convinced he was a druggie, all from a single night two years before when John had stayed out until three a.m. and had come home smelling like pot. Running with the wrong crowd, his mother put it. She sent him to a high-priced counselor in Montgomery. It was the only time he had smoked pot. But his step-dad was a hard ass and John felt forever branded. Druggie. Pothead. Addict. Two years and nothing had changed in his step-dad’s mind. Later, his first and only lover had told him how impressed she was that he had good judgment for someone his age, but what did that mean?
“So, Mr. Portland, how did you like the Northwest?”
“It was amped. I really liked it. They say it rains a lot but it doesn’t rain that much. It’s not like here, where you don’t see the sun for a month at a time. There’s so much to do, like all these indie movie theaters and a real local music scene. They have light rail and trains…” He felt as if he was running on.
“So you’re going back to Portland State? What does your mom think about that?”
“She hates it.”
“She’s thinking, ‘Why did we spend all that money sending him to Summit Country Day and he’s not already finishing Harvard?’ ”
Her laugh was a magical sound, making him laugh, too. She was right, of course. His mother was impatient with him and didn’t understand the Portland adventure at all. He had only spent a semester in college and didn’t do well. But looking at Heather, and beyond to the limitless blue Midwestern sky and electric green of the trees along the river, it was easy to put those worries away.
“I was accepted at Yale and Princeton and Stanford and, oh, Northwestern,” Heather said, ticking them off on slender fingers. By this time they were relaxing on the top steps, watching the people and the river. The sun gave her hair a rich, dark copper glow.
She said, “So it’s Yale for me and I start in the fall.” “Very good.”
But something sank inside him. He was building a life around her in his fantasy world. She was two years younger but he had a crush on her that went back to the elite prep school they had both attended. They both sang in the choir. He never even thought she noticed him until he got back to Cincinnati and she called out to him one day when he was at the Kenwood Towne Center mall. Since then, they had been to a movie and a concert. He had sent her roses from Jones florist. And she had let him kiss her. Something about him was traditional and romantic.
She was smart, creative, and interesting. She read books as he did, and somehow she seemed different: maybe she was an outcast like him. Her looks did not carry the perfection of many of their classmates. Her mouth was wide and her features were beautifully off-center. That imperfection drew him. Now his brain calculated: perhaps he could go to Yale, too, or she would stay in Cincinnati, even though he hated Cincinnati and hated living off his mom.
He had the kind of rich fantasy life peculiar to young men. He watched the curve of her cheeks, but it could not save him from the growing angst. He already knew she wanted to become a doctor. Her announcement should not be a surprise. Now… well, maybe they could have a summer together. He bargained in his own mind, trying to find the words.
The shout was a girl’s voice, calling from a boat as it made a dramatic curve, cutting a frothy wake, and came to a stop at the foot of the Serpentine Wall. One young man and two teenage girls were aboard.
Heather stood and ran gracefully down the wide concrete slabs, almost as if they didn’t exist. John enjoyed the view of her svelte legs and hips as she moved down to the embankment. Her bottom nicely filled out the shorts. He saw other men watch her, too.
“It’s Zack Miller!”
Her voice sounded different. He looked longingly at the picnic basket, stared at the little plastic ants, counting them until she returned.
“Come on, John. Bring the basket.”
He didn’t even think of keeping the disappointment out of his face as he saw her beckoning him. He packed up, taking time to replace each plastic ant into the Ziploc bag, hooked the hasps of the picnic basket, and rose. He went over to the steps, moving carefully and down, with none of Heather’s easy agility. He had never been well coordinated.
The trio was laughing and making easy small talk with Heather from the sleek new boat. It was towing what at first glance looked like a blue-and-gray lifeboat with an outboard attached. On closer inspection, it was sturdy and, of course, expensive. On the side was an emblem: “Zoom.” John was familiar with that kind of boat.
“You remember John,” she said and the two girls nodded distractedly. They both wore bikinis even though the weather was a little cool for that, their bodies young and flawless, both with long manes of golden hair. They looked so alike that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. But they were ordinary princesses, with none of the special attractiveness of Heather. Zack Miller was at the wheel, skillfully using the engines to hold the boats in place, and he barely acknowledged John.
“We’re going up the Licking,” one of the blondes said. “It’s party time! Hop in, Heather.”
Heather looked over her shoulder and smiled at John. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
He was barely aboard when Zack gunned the engines and swung around, knocking John into a seat. “Sea Ray 260,” Zack called to no one in particular.
“Isn’t this the most epic boat?” Blonde No. 2 said. They were all younger, all classmates. To John, they were rich, stuck-up, and shallow despite their star-quality SAT scores. Exactly the kind of people John hated. Even though his mother had become well-off working at the bank, John identified with the working-class roots of his stepdad. He knew, too, that most of his classmates came from old Cincinnati money and held it against him that his mother had started out as a mere teller at Fifth Third Bank. The boat accelerated effortlessly, the empty Zoom skimming playfully along behind, as they shot under the big arched bridge that carried Interstate 471. Painted a yellow gold, it was not surprisingly nicknamed the Big Mac Bridge, even though it officially honored Daniel Carter Beard, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts. They moved east, upriver on the wide Ohio, with the condominium towers on the Cincinnati side sprouting out of the lush slope that led up to East Walnut Hills. The headwind destroyed the hair he had so carefully combed. Heather’s lush shoulder-length mane caught the breeze like an auburn sail.
Spray from the river made the air wet and warm.
The girls all looked great, of course. And Zack. Zack Miller was Mister Perfect, with preternaturally bright blue eyes set into a classically good-looking face. Chiseled chin, a bit of stubble, an arrogant tilt to his head. The last time John had seen Zack, he boasted thick, dark-brown hair. But he was a champion swimmer and now his head was completely shaved. Of course, he made the look cool. It helped that his skin was tanned and flawless. Zack’s father was a high-ranking executive at Procter and Gamble.
The two blondes laughed, talked, and texted, all at the same time. John tried not to be too obvious about hanging on against the rough ride. He hated being on the river, especially at this speed. Looking at the extravagant white wake behind them only made his foreboding grow. Other boats flashed by, boats they could collide with. It happened all the time. The inner gyroscope of his mind was calibrated to disaster. The river could be as much as forty feet deep and so soupy thick you couldn’t see two feet in front of you if you tried to swim underwater, a river filled with two centuries of effluent from the Industrial Revolution, and god knew how many dead bodies. Dead bodies from the gangster glory days of Newport, Kentucky, the carp and catfish having long since picked them to skeletons, the remains from yesterday’s mishap upriver. When the river ran at flood stage in the early spring, all manner of mayhem ensued. Once he had been sitting at one of the floating restaurants when the river was running high and fast and had glanced over to see a dead pig slip by. It was not a flying pig. Every now and then, one of the restaurants was lost to flood season.
“You okay?” Heather patted his arm. “The river makes me superstitious.” “Oh…”
John’s biological father had a sailboat in Boston, and took him out on it when he visited in the summers. A few years ago, the man had decided he wanted to be part of John’s life again. The sailboat and the open sea really frightened John. And the company of his stepbrother and stepsister, such as it was, and his father’s chirpy young girlfriend of the moment—they all looked alike, attractive, and slender—made him feel even more alienated from the world. His father looked like the kind of man Zack would become at fifty, right down to the flawless blue eyes. He despised such men.
By this time, Zack had come about and brought them back downtown, then they turned south into the mouth of the Licking River. As the boat slowed, the dread in John’s middle eased. “Brought along the Zodiac in case we picked up more to party,” Zack said to Heather, indicating the small craft he was towing. John’s real father owned the exact same boat and had taught him how to pilot it in Boston Harbor. The man had done it, John knew, to help him overcome his fear of the water. Part of John wondered if he had also done it out of a streak of cruelty. But John had mastered the Zodiac out of spite, even if it didn’t fully cure his sure knowledge of the sorcery of the river. He even grew to like the little craft. It was similar to ones used by Navy SEALS.
Zack said, “Should we cruise for company or go up the Lick- ing. We don’t have an even number of guys and girls…”
“Let’s go,” Heather said. “Maybe we’ll find more people we know.”
“Or make new friends. Lot of licking goes on in the Licking River,” Zack said over his shoulder, and the blondes laughed as if it was the funniest thing they had ever heard. Indeed, the tributary had a reputation for summer socializing: men in fast boats picking up young women at the Serpentine Wall and bringing them up here for sex. John looked at Heather and could only dream. He didn’t own a fast boat or have the inclination to be such a man or even know how to become one. It came so easily to guys like Zack Miller. It was in their DNA. Could it even be learned? Heather detached herself from the other two girls and sat next to him as they moved slower up the narrowing river.
“I’m fine.” He was feeling anything but.
“We’ll have fun. I made plenty of food to go around. It’s good to make new friends.”
The levees that protected Covington and Newport rose up. The boat crossed under bridges, passing several boats and fishermen. The northern Kentucky towns lay on either side, downtown Cincinnati to the north, but down on the river itself, dense trees growing right down to the bank blotted out any other views. It was like being in the country. A canoe and two kayaks passed, going the other way. He noticed another boat, a trim cabin cruiser, tied up under a railroad bridge. The portholes to the cabin were opaque and the boat barely registered the passing of Zack’s Sea Ray.
They cruised deeper into Kentucky as the sun went down and the other boaters found their places closer to the city. They passed under the bridge that carried the Cincinnati beltway before Zack cut the engines and tied up at an old, abandoned dock beneath a thick canopy of branches.
“So John Borders.” Zack spoke to him for the first time. And that was all he said, as if rendering a judgment.
Zack turned to Heather and soon they all were talking schools. They could switch from the latest slang to jokes to perfect adult conversation. Zack was starting at Harvard in the fall, pre-med, but after a month in Paris on his own. One of the blondes was doing an internship in John Boehner’s office this summer. She was going for an MBA after finishing her undergrad at Brown. Everyone but John was impressed.
Zack hooked up an iPod to some speakers and they belted out a play list from the 1980s. It was so Cincinnati, frozen in time. Then he opened up a cabinet and pulled out liquor bottles and glasses.
“Red Hook cocktails, anyone?”
“Me, me,” Heather purred, and the other girls laughed. “That is so legit,” Chelsea, one of the blondes, said. “I had my first last week. Wow.” The prospect even made her stop texting and put away her cell phone.
As Men at Work sang, Zack expertly mixed the drinks, which looked like brown martinis and tasted of whiskey. Heather broke open the picnic basket and passed around food, but John didn’t feel hungry. Soon, they were on the second drink, talking about friends he didn’t know, and college plans he didn’t care about. They had all recently graduated and yet appeared so focused. They were younger, but he felt out of his league, felt, depressingly, like he was back at prep school.
He had never fit in. He wasn’t Catholic, wasn’t an athlete, geek, academic star, or secret goth. Since graduating, he had drifted. John didn’t know what the hell he wanted to do. He only knew he didn’t want to be back in Cincinnati. Heather might have changed that, but she was barely with him now. It was a dynamic he had felt so many times before. He fell into a dark silence, feeling the knife he carried in his pocket, imagining what it might do to Zack’s handsome face. It was only a passing thought. His imaginings of how well this night might go were quickly fading.
“And a chaser.” Zack passed around a bag of pills. Everybody took one but John.
“A little ecstasy won’t hurt you, Borders, unless you’re narc’ing for your old man.”
“Look, I don’t like ecstasy. That’s it.” John didn’t even especially like hard liquor, and he was feeling the Red Hooks.
Heather popped one of the pills and drained her glass, letting out a war whoop.
John had never done ecstasy, never done the hookups that were popular in school, especially among the rich Catholic kids at school. He had never been invited. He didn’t even want that. He wanted Heather. But his mind shifted into momentary optimism. Maybe the night would turn into something after all. He retrieved the bag and took two of the pills. Chelsea and Jennifer giggled.
Zack smiled. “Now if anybody wants to use the little boat back there for some privacy…”
The river rocked the boat rhythmically and a sweet smell came from the foliage on the bank. Maybe the boat would sink and he could rescue Heather, be a hero, and she would fall in love with him. The other blonde, Jennifer, was telling a story, the ghost ship of the Licking River…a paddle wheeler in the nineteenth century that suffered a boiler explosion killing everyone on board, but for years people would see that ship at night, passing noiselessly down the river.
John couldn’t feel any effect from the pills. But he started talking.
“See over there, to the west beyond the trees? It’s the old Decoursey Yard of the L&N Railroad. It was huge. Now it’s mostly abandoned and deserted, but the CSX main line between Cincinnati and Corbin runs through it.” He was like that. He knew odd things, but somehow they didn’t add up to much that anyone was interested in.
“We should hike up there and see it,” Jennifer said. She was only wearing flip-flops.
He kept his eyes on Heather. “You might not want to. There’s a story, where sometimes people see a man standing on the tracks, waving a red lantern. Like a warning. They say he’s dressed in railroad clothes from the nineteen-thirties. Nobody knows who he is. But he waves that red lantern across the tracks at the old Decoursey Yard, and when he does, the railroad shuts down for a while. The old timers say the red lantern means there’s going to be a wreck. So they stop the trains.” He paused, and saw they were paying attention to him. “So listen…No trains. That means the man must have been seen tonight. He’s right up that riverbank, over the trees.”
“That’s a great story,” Heather said. “Trains are yesterday,” Zack said.
John’s stomach was feeling the drinks. He should have eaten something. He set the glass aside and wondered how to keep Heather’s attention. He thought about talking her into the Zodiac and they could go off together, get away from these bores. The play list from the Reagan years ran on. Huey Lewis and the News gave way to Journey. I Want to Know What Love Is. John had always thought the song was a maudlin oldie. Now it filled his heart and he thought, yes, Heather, I do want to know. He tried to catch her eye.