The River of Doubt [story] by Frank Diamond

Gary Doyle sips his beer. It is a Friday in winter, late afternoon fading like a holiday hangover. Gary peeks at the camera over the bar, imagines the feed speeded up. Silent comings and goings, sniffles and laughter, cute meetings and ugly breakups. Life. A couple about his age enters, looking for seats.

“I’ll move down one,” Gary says, and they slide in beside him.

Twilight tilts through stained glass as the bartender bends toward someone’s confession. Gary wants to talk, too. This happens sometimes. He’s the quiet guy nursing suds and then, suddenly, he’s yakking. He doesn’t know what to make of it. One of his fears since Kate is being the classic barroom bore. In those outbursts, Gary blabs a bit, hears himself, and then retreats into embarrassed silence. This couple starts the conversation, however.

“Your next one’s on me,” the man says, extending his hand.

He’s Tim; she’s Veronica. The drinks come and they chat for a bit before Gary says, “I’m assuming you’re married.”

“Thirty years,” Veronica says, knocking wood.

She’s about 50, brunette, Italian. Tim is older, gangly, tall — taller even than Gary’s 6 foot 3. He wears baldness with pride, as some men can. Handsome because of the lack of hair, not in spite of it. Tim’s a retired fireman.

Gary says, “Cherish each other.”

Veronica pulls back, getting Gary more into focus.

Gary explains: “My wife passed last June.”

“How old?” Veronica asks.

“Fifty-five.”

“I am so sorry.”

“Cherish.”

Tim spreads his hands: “We just came from marriage counseling.”

“Oh,” Gary says, and starts gathering his money.

“Stay,” Veronica insists.

“Don’t mind talking about it,” Tim says. “It’s not us causing the problems. Outside forces.”

Those forces are grown children who flounder. “Find your passion, and you will find your purpose.” Gary hears that at graduations and it sounds like good advice but, apparently, isn’t foolproof. Tim and Veronica’s 28-year-old son, the hairdresser, owns a shop across the river in New Jersey. The young man has found his passion all right; loves his work. But in addition to feeding him seed money, his parents had to bail him out twice.

“Now we’re almost bankrupt,” Tim says.

“Worst over?” Gary asks.

Veronica: “Maybe.”

Tim: “He’s looking for a partner. Someone who knows business.”

Meanwhile, their 25-year-old daughter battles drug addiction. Tim and Veronica send her to the best — and most costly — rehabilitation centers on the East Coast. And she’s always fine, for a while.

“This is our child, after all,” Veronica says.

“Now that’s hell,” Gary says. “I’m sorry if I’m….”

“No, sometimes we need to talk,” Veronica says. “Just like sometimes you probably need to talk about….”

Gary raises his glass. “To Kate!”

Clink, clink, clink.

Gary punctuates the toast with a sigh and says, “So you live in Jersey, but your counselor is around here?”

Turns out that the counselor is a Grey Nun, someone they’d been seeing on and off for years.

“I’m Catholic, too,” Gary says. “Well, raised Catholic, anyway.”

“We all have our journey,” Tim says.

Gary says: “This nun must be wise if you’re seeing her for decades.”

“Not steadily,” Veronica says. “Sometimes years can go by. Believe me….”

“I know,” Gary says. “You’ve had a hell of lot more ups than downs. I can tell.”

Veronica raps the bar again.

“That nun we see: She’s fighting cancer, too,” Tim says.

“Accepting it, you mean,” Veronica says. “Refusing all treatment. Pancreatic cancer.”

Gary says, “That devil never gives up, does he?”

But it is not all gloom, this back and forth. They laugh. Ruefully perhaps, but it’s laughter. Gary talks only a little about Kate. He doesn’t tell Tim and Veronica, for instance, about how Kate slept in the recliner her last year.

“I think it’s that incisional hernia,” Kate had said, referring to the hysterectomy she’d had when first diagnosed. It wasn’t, and when the onc finally brought news of a recurrence, five years later and on the cusp of being labeled cured, Kate continued sleeping in the recliner because the uterine cancer had spread to her lungs. She could breathe easier.

Kate would also imagine angels by her toes; the dead come to heal: her parents, an aunt, Gary’s brother. She prayed they’d protect her. Once or twice she cried out and Gary bounded to her side.

“I’m here and nothing’s going to hurt you! It’s OK!”

Toward the end, on their 28th anniversary, they drove up to Central Jersey where they’d lived in the first years of their marriage. They rode by their old condo, drove into Woodbridge and Perth Amboy, and even swung down to Sandy Hook. The hormone therapy had stopped working by that point. Next would be chemo. Again. Gary, meanwhile, raced frantically to get her into a clinical study. On that pilgrimage, Gary said once again that if the chemo failed, they’d try immunotherapy.

“That is cutting edge stuff.”

“I am not into magical thinking,” Kate said.

“It’s not magical thinking,” Gary argued. “It’s science. I am going to get you through this. I swear I will.”

She patted his knee.

“I know, Gary.”

Yet, even on that trip Gary made Kate laugh, as sick as she was. And calling Kate’s laughter infectious gets it wrong. It exploded out of her in a burst of good will that scaled ever higher. Yes, you had to laugh too. But Kate’s laughter was anti-infectious in the sense that it overwhelmed the absurdity, foolishness and tragedy of life and made you believe that everything really does turn out for the best in the end.

One of the first things Gary did after Kate died was to disconnect her mobile. Looking back, he wished he’d held off. It was Kate’s voice, after all, saying that she couldn’t come to the phone right now. Family DVDs ensured that her voice wasn’t lost forever, but the phone was easy access. It might have helped with the coping.

The monthly outlay galled him, however. The cable company bundled services: Internet, television, landline, cell phone. Nearly $400. That’s a car payment. Mysterious charges and fees cropped up like weeds on the statement, and that monolithic mother showed no mercy if the check landed a bit late. Just another fee.

Earlier, before Tim and Veronica, Gary had clicked on Kate’s disconnected number. Who owns it now? Gary had texted: “I MISS YOU SO MUCH!!!”

Would anybody answer? Would anybody see? He wondered how the cable company shuffled abandoned connections. Probably Kate’s last seven digits reside in a different area code.

Now, Gary shares a laugh with his two latest friends. He welcomes the lighter tone. Time to take a break from sad.

And then Tim speaks.

Later, Gary would call it “The Parable.” Not quite correct, because a parable teaches a lesson, and Gary doesn’t know what wisdom he’s supposed to take away except that maybe — maybe — there’s a God and that maybe — maybe — that means there’s a reason.

“This one makes even some of my atheist friends think,” Tim says.

He loved his father, Tim did. He hardly saw him growing up because turns out Tim is one of seven siblings and the old man worked two or three jobs. Even when the nest emptied, he could not stop working. He retired at 75, only because the doctor made him. The ticker kept doing summersaults and waiting for applause.

When the old man began sun-setting, Tim visited as much as possible. As happens with good-souled people, the dying father comforted the healthy son, just as Kate had comforted Gary.

“I’ve had my three score and ten,” Tim’s father said.

Tim leaned over, wetted his father’s lips with a sponge.

“A sign,” Tim’s father said. “Timothy, the man upstairs will give you a sign. Of course, I presume nothing.”

“If you don’t make heaven, Daddy, then no one’s getting in.”

“And it won’t no half-assed sign, either. No fuzzy dreams. No bullshit. Nothing you can think on and think on until it’s not even a sign anymore. You will know.”

The macaw on the perch in the corner of the room repeated: “A sign! A sign!”

Gary now says, “A macaw?”

“Dad loved Kierkegaard,” Tim says. “That bird would cuddle with him, play, sing.”

“And talk,” Gary says.

“Boy, did he make Dad happy. The way some people love dogs is the way my father loved that bird.”

“What a name,” Gary says.

“Dad didn’t graduate eighth grade, and talked the street. Dees. Dem. Dat. But he’s the smartest person I know.”

“A macaw,” Gary says, still impressed.

Veronica says, “Tim’s father loved Teddy Roosevelt.”

“Read everything about the man,” Tim says. “And, you know, Roosevelt owned a macaw. Right in the White House. And Dad believed that the sounds of the macaws in the trees brought Roosevelt through the River of Doubt.”

“Sort of brought him through,” Gary says.

“Right,” Tim says. “The Amazon is tough going even now. Think of how it was when Roosevelt took it on.”

“I saw the documentary,” Gary says. “It nearly killed him.”

“Oh, it definitely killed him,” Veronica says. “Five years later, but it killed him. He was never the same.”

As Tim’s father got weaker, the family needed to decide what to do about Kierkegaard, because macaws need a lot of attention and will throw tantrums if they don’t get it. During the meeting, they brought the bird out to its backyard perch and Kierkegaard flew into a nearby tree.

“Dad raised it from a hatchling and that was a game they played,” Tim says. “Kierkegaard flies to the tree, teases Dad, then comes back.”

Gary says, “But not this time?”

“No,” Veronica says.

They tried to coax it down, but Kierkegaard flew to a tree even further off.

“We knew we were in trouble then.”

They searched and devised ways to lure it back, including a recording of Tim’s father talking on the patio.

“But he was gone,” Tim says. “I told her on the way home, ‘Three days, tops. Kierkegaard will make a tasty morsel for some chicken hawk or weasel.’”

“But wait,” Veronica says. “Here’s the important part.”

Months later, imagine the ocean and the heat and the smell of suntan lotion and the taste of salt air. Picture vacation at the Jersey shore. Tim and Veronica sit on beach chairs in Wildwood.

“Pretend you’re Google earth,” Tim says. “Hot August. Two oceans touch. One of water, one of human beings. Thousands and thousands of people. You know how wide those beaches in Wildwood are. Still, we could hardly move.”

“We pulled our folding chairs right up to the surf,” Veronica recalls.

“Yeah, to get away from them greenheads. They were brutal. The spray chases them off.”

Swimmers bobbed in and out of the haze, pastel smudges in a work forever in progress. Tim and Veronica turned their eyes toward the horizon.

“Gulls just swaying out there like kites,” Tim says. “Floating slowly. A plane goes by advertising some nightclub. Bright white sailboats. Water lapping my toes. I’m about ready to snooze when I see it.”

“He nudges me,” Veronica says.

“One bird,” Tim says. “It isn’t a gull. You can tell because it flies so erratically. We’ve got our hands over our eyes, squinting into the sun and the bird swoops too low and a wave just reaches up and grabs it. Pulls it under.”

Gary says, “You’re going to tell me it’s Kierkegaard.”

“What I do know,” Tim says, “is that there are thousands of people on this beach and this bird washes up right between my feet.”

“A macaw,” Gary says.

“Is it Kierkegaard?” Tim says. “I don’t know. Same markings. Beautiful red feathers on the head.”

“What did you do with the body?”

“It was still alive,” Veronica says. “There’s a vet on the boardwalk.”

“A satellite clinic,” Tim says. “You know, in case your dog gets too much sun, or a baby dolphin washes up.”

They carried the bird to the vet, who cleaned it. The vet wanted to keep the macaw a while and then pass it on to the Audubon Society.

“I tell her no,” Tim says. “I explain about Dad. I want that bird. The vet said the bird was traumatized. She wanted to keep it overnight.”

And overnight was when the macaw died.

“‘Amazing it lasted that long,’ the vet said. ‘The little fellow’s been on quite a journey.’”

Gary says, “That’s an incredible story.”

“What are the chances of a macaw washing up on the Wildwood beach right between my feet? Less than winning the Powerball, I bet.”

“Does it make you believe?” Gary asks. “I mean about heaven and angels and all that?”

“I never stopped believing,” Tim says. “I mean, I don’t know about angels — you know, thrones and dominations. All the shit our parents believed. Holy cards. But there’s something after we die. I’m going to see Dad again.”

“Maybe I’ll see Kate,” Gary says.

But a story’s just a story. It’s not proof.

Tim springs for one more round, and he and Gary exchange email addresses.

When Tim and Veronica leave, Gary’s cell buzzes. No thrill shoots through him; no insane moment of expectation. He’s right not to get excited. It’s just the automatic reminder from the pharmacy about prescriptions. An empty moment, in other words, one in a string of nothings that will stretch until that eternity of nothing — death.

“Show me a sign,” Gary thinks, but he knows it’s a prayer that won’t be answered, just as all his prayers for Kate to be spared suffering and dying young weren’t answered. Oh how he envies people like Tim and Veronica and Tim’s father who, even when life spits on them, somehow continue sailing on an ocean of belief.

That night Gary dreams. He’s in a room watching what the bar’s camera recorded that afternoon. He sees himself enter, order a beer. He looks heavier than he feels; older too. He pays, and then leaves. Then Tim and Veronica come in.

“That’s not right.”

He rewinds, and this time Tim and Veronica sit chatting and leave, brushing by Gary as he enters.

“The hell?”

Several more rewinds and replays later and they always just miss one another.

Gary is not upset. This happens a lot. Since Kate, he’s susceptible to anxiety dreams. Always faced with a problem that can’t be solved or searching for something that just eludes him. He’s aware he’s dreaming.

When it happens, he’ll wake, go to the bathroom then slide again into bed thinking, “I am so close to figuring it out. I want to get back there.”

He’ll stop himself.

“No, you don’t,” he’ll think. “It’s an anxiety dream. You’re not supposed to figure it out. You’ll never be able to figure it out. Dream about something else.”

And he does.

So, in this dream of the video feed that’s off kilter, Gary knows that all he needs to do is wake. Then he can reprogram, and leave the unsolvable, maddening mystery behind. He merely needs to wait until his bladder fills. Meanwhile, he marvels at all the permutations in which he does not meet Tim and Veronica. It’s a drag. He knows, even if he sleeps for nine hours, that tomorrow he’ll feel exhausted.

He understands the message his subconscious sends, but he’s not buying. It’s too pat, too obvious. Gary refuses to piggyback on someone else’s revelation. No, this is not a message from Kate. If an angel wants to speak to him, she’ll need to do better than this.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of Lee K. Abbott’s story “Dreams of Distant Lives.”]

Image by Rachel Samanyi

Frank Diamond has 30 years writing and editing experience for newspapers, magazines, and television, and is currently the managing editor of Managed Care Magazine.  He has released a novel, The Pilgrim Soul, and a short story collection, Damage Control. Diamond has hundreds of articles and columns published in outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Bulletin. His short stories have appeared in Innisfree, Kola: A Black Literary Magazine, Dialogual, and the Zodiac Review. He has poetry published in Philadelphia Stories, Fox Chase Review, Black Bottom Review, and Feile-Festa. He also wrote the Bloom’s Guide (competitor with CliffsNotes) for The Handmaid’s Tale. He lives in Langhorne, Pa.