“Meet Me by the River” by Nels Hanson

“He looks like a bee with honey,” said my partner Sergeant Glad.

Beyond the fake mirror, Frankie “Two Shoes”—“L” painted on one boot, “R” on the other—dipped his finger into one of the full glasses Sheriff Blair had left him.

“I think he saw something—” The good whiskey burned the roof of my mouth and I remembered this morning and the white statue in the river. “You steered it well, Jack.”

“Frankie’s a drunk,” Blair said. “He’s not crazy or a liar.”

“So it’s a saucer?” Deputy Bell frowned. “We back to aliens?”

It had been an unusual day—the tame black bear and deer, an ex-movie starlet, the stuffed X-eyed dummy—the Night Slayer in effigy—hanging from a branch, the turkey bone raised from its fly, “Don’t Do It!” in whitewash across a Brahma bull’s flank—

Blair was non-committal.

“Was it something the Feds said?” Bell asked his boss. “The Air Force involved?”

“They’ve got a saucer, don’t they?” Glad stared at Blair. “Except you can’t say—”

“They’ve got something out at Walker,” Blair conceded, lifting his cup.

“They’re the ones doing it?” Bell asked and Blair shook his head.

“They say no. They’re worried about somebody else. Someone stealing secrets. Or parts.”

Blair set down his cup and reached again for the bottle.

“Somebody trying to stir up trouble. Make the government look bad. They’re watching Sharp’s Hardware.”

“You believe it?” Bell said.

“I don’t know.” Blair poured a small shot. “Phil?”

“Fifty-fifty.” I took another drink, recalling the stern Intelligence officer in aviator’s shades and pressed Air Force blues. He’d turned his back and stared at the county map with 40 little flags as the federal agent filled us in. “I guess it’s possible.”

Blair nodded toward the window. “You want to talk to Frankie?”

Frankie daintily pushed his empty cup to the side. He slid the fresh cup to a stop before him on the table and admired it.  He seemed recovered from his encounter with the shadowed figure on the silent floating platform.

“No, you covered it,” I said.

“What about Sloan?” Bell asked.

“What about him?” Blair said with irritation. “I’m a little skeptical Jim Sloan could build a saucer, no matter what old plans and junk he bought from Frankie. I never heard Frankie’s dad was some genius inventor—”

“Frankie’s dad couldn’t build a corral gate,” Bell said. “Much less something that flew.”

“Jim didn’t build a saucer,” Glad said carefully. “He built a bull—”

“Come again?” Blair held his cup halfway to his mouth.

As Glad outlined his adventure of the night before—“I’m telling you, Jack, I’ve seen some things, but never anything like that, like a robin the size of an airplane!”—I leaned back, closing my eyes as the story of Jim Sloan’s strange contraption unfolded—

Again I saw pretty Viv Stone, the ex-actress, with her deer and black bear, her blue lawn before the white ranch house in the sheltered valley where we’d stopped to sift for clues in the Night Slayer Case.

Blair talked to her husband on the porch, Viv and her animals came out to the car with the cookies and Bell told her that Glad and I were from Fresno, helping out, that I was a widower and should meet Beulah.

“She’s a jewel, an utter jewel,” Viv insisted, “a brilliant girl,” then searched me with her large eyes the color of the purple wisteria on the trellis. “You know she’s psychic—”

“I met his buddy Pete, at the bar in the Grizzly Club. I said he was telling me a tall tale, me being a tenderfoot from California. Then he stands up, he says, ‘Come on, don’t believe my lying eyes—’”

If Beulah were anything like Viv, she would be extraordinary.

“Drove way back in the mountains, we saw a cougar, long tail and big yellow eyes. Pete swings around a hill. There’s this huge dairy barn all lit up, strung with orange lights, in the middle of a scrap yard—”

First full day in Montana and the Night Slayer at large, the local citizenry in a panic, the vegetarian picketer outside the sheriff’s office pelted with tomatoes—and a date was coming up with Beulah, Blair’s sister-in-law. I would let it happen, keep my head free of fantasies and predictive images, to avoid disappointment or humiliation. I wouldn’t fall in the river again.

“This thing’s nearly the size of a truck, white horns six-feet across and a guy up inside working on it. You could only see his legs—”

I had been intimate with two women since Ellen’s suicide 10 years ago in the artist’s apartment in New York.

“So we get out and walk in—I mean the bull is tall, eight or nine feet, all covered in black cowhide. And then the head, the eyes—”

Rona Herbert, the forensic specialist—six weeks of physical passion, until it ended with an argument—she’d insisted Bill Clinton should be impeached for lying under oath about fornication.

“The hooves were big as an elephant’s, each one hiding this aircraft wheel—”

I supported his humanitarian move into Kosovo, and anyway, it seemed unfair of the Republicans to seize on two or three of the hundreds of women the president had engaged in carnal relations—why shouldn’t at least a third of the victims be subpoenaed?

“Pete starts pounding on its side so it bangs like a drum, he yells, ‘Jim, you in there? Come on out—’”

Immediately she’d begun dating her supervisor at the morgue and I was relieved when four months later she transferred to Bakersfield and we no longer had to consult across an autopsy table.

“Then this voice answers, like an echo, like some guy down a well—‘Can’t, got to save Lucinda Olson—’”

For seven months I’d seen Katie Burns, an attractive divorcee my age who lived down the street, a real estate agent with an unhappy teenage daughter.

“‘Who’s Lucinda?’ Pete yells. ‘You know good and well!’ shouts the guy in the bull. ‘I don’t want to talk about her!’”

We’d had some good times, within the circumscribed bounds of movies, dinners out, a drive in the country beyond Fresno, or a day trip to Kings Canyon and the snow on a Saturday. She was busy, I was busy, we found emotional safety and leisure in quiet recreation, unthreatening pleasant small talk, the occasional release of discreet, nearly platonic sex.

“Then the guy’s legs disappear, he pulls himself up and the trapdoor slams shut—”

Finally we’d set off for a weekend together in Santa Barbara. Over coffee in Paso Robles she’d broken into tears after suggesting a blue-and-white June wedding in Carmel and I’d made it clear I wasn’t interested in marrying again.

“‘You idiot!’ Pete yells. ‘Web Olson’ll have you for lunch!’ There’s this pop, like chainsaw starting up, and the head comes down, the thing starts to move—fast! We jumped back or he’d’ve speared us with his tusks!”

I had felt moderately guilty and then that emotion faded too when she married a fellow realtor who’d approached me with a shrewd offer.

“I should’ve told you first thing,” Glad was saying. “It was just too weird, my first day up here—”

“This is really getting wild.” Blair set down his cup. “Bitterroot Fever taking down Web Olson’s Modified Herefords, according to Frankie Two Shoes. That and flying saucers. Now mechanical bulls and a Junior Ulysses out to save Lucinda Olson.”

“So that’s why you were asking about Lucinda,” Bell said. “You thought Web Olson really had a daughter—”

“No,” Glad said, “Pete said she was made-up, like Sleeping Beauty. I guess Jim went off his rocker when his girlfriend Sally dropped him. Her father’s Web Olson’s attorney. I told Phil and he said Lucinda Olson must be real—”

“What?” Blair asked.

“In Jim’s mind—” Glad said quickly. “Because the bull was so big and real, the way it could turn and charge, lowered horns and all—”

Again, Glad dipped his head and imitated the animal.

“Well,” Blair said, “that narrows it down. The Night Slayer is an armed takeover by the right-wing crazies, an invasion from Mars, or the beginning of the Trojan War. Everybody’s coming out of the woodwork. Who’s next? Sasquatch?”

“Should I pay another visit to Jim Sloan?” Glad asked.

I fought back a chuckle—you could translate Bob’s offer as, “Should I check out the Grizzly Club and get drunk again with Pete, my best friend of two hours, and drive out in the country to see a ten-foot bull with a man inside, Pete’s lovelorn, nutty high school buddy?”

“Later,” Blair said. “He’s a deuce, not a face card. I need to talk to Sharp, run down the Air Force stolen-parts angle. This anti-matter hovercraft or whatever the hell it is—”

He stood up.

“The first thing I’m going to do is call Betty, tell her to wait supper. Then drop by S and S Hardware. We’ve got a squad meeting at eight, all the cars should be back. And the editor—”

“Local press?” I asked.

Blair checked his watch.

“Yes and no. He’s bringing some guy from Rolling Stone—the rock-and-roll mutilation angle, spacemen obsessed with white-faced cattle and filet mignons. It’s nearly six. I better get down to Sharp’s before he closes.”

“Sounds right,” I said. “Make your call and let’s go.”

“Naw,” Blair said. “I don’t want to scare Tommy off. I’ll drop by with Ray, make it look like a friendly visit. You and Bob head on to the cabin. Get your rod and hit the river. Wet your line.”

“If you’re sure,” I said.

“Yeah,” Blair said. “Have Dorothy give you a radio, in case I need to get in touch.” Blair grinned. “Watch out for The Lady in the Clark Fork.”

“I think I learned my lesson.” As I spoke, again I felt the cold water’s shock, saw the pretty smiling face of stone through the current.

“Now he’s ready for Beulah,” Bell said. “Huh, Jack?”

“What a world,” Blair said as he headed for the door.

At the desk Dorothy brought me a walkie-talkie and I went out onto the sidewalk while Glad made a call to his wife.

Sally Mathews, the TV reporter and Jim Sloan’s former girlfriend, and the harried vegetarian picket—“We Have Met The Enemy And His Name Is ‘Meat!’”—were gone. The sun was lowering and the pavement shone silvery between the stains of splattered tomatoes.

Glad came out and together we walked to the parking lot.

“How’s Barbara and the kids?”

“Fine, everybody’s fine.” Glad smiled. “I told them about petting Viv’s bear.”

“You feel like driving?”

“Sure. I feel fine now, getting Jim Sloan and his bull off my chest.”

I tossed Glad the keys.

“It seems like a year since we got here.”

“Yeah,” I said, “psychological time.”

“Huh?” Glad asked as he got behind the wheel.

“The way time goes by, what it feels like.”

“Like a day can be a year.”

“Or ten,” I said, remembering that was the length of the Siege of Troy.

We crossed the bridge and went back along the main street, past the shabby men smoking and milling at the open doors to the Watering Hole and High Hat and the other bars, the sporting good’s plate glass window full of rifles and shotguns with a new sign in red paint—“Night Slayer Special!”—then the plaster palomino outside the saddlery and I remembered Glad’s drunken late-night tale of Sloan’s horned creation—

We turned from the town and drove toward the hills rising parallel with the river where the alabaster statue lay beneath the glassy ripples. This morning I’d jumped in, when I saw the nude smiling drowned woman lying back against the sparkling pebbles.

We passed the airport and the motel, the big mountain where yesterday I’d mistaken the distant running stag for a rabbit, before I got my sense of perspective under the Big Sky.

The angle of the sun tinged the grass amber and made the hills stand up taller, bright against the changing sky. Fence posts took on a golden, mythic cast. Glad lifted his hand.

The buffalo browsed far out in the pasture, its brown woolly mane and black horns yellow above the yellow grass. On the way to the cabin from the airport I’d stared for a moment into its sad eyes as it stood just beyond the barbed wire.

This morning Glad had pointed it out again—

“Can you imagine hunting one, on horseback, with a bow and arrow?”

“No,” I’d said, chilled from the cold river and the gaze of the beautiful woman through the clear lens of moving water.

“At least there’s not a guy inside,” Glad had said.

“Now he’s ready for Beulah,” Bell said. “Huh, Jack?”

“A lot happened today,” Glad said. He reached in his shirt pocket and brought out his sunglasses. “The best was the green valley, Viv Stone and her pets. I’ve got to look up some of her old movies.”

Glad nodded.

“I like it— I mean I’m sorry about the butchered cows, and I don’t want anybody to get hurt. Or Blair to get burned. But it’s a switch, from Fresno. Wasn’t Viv great?”

“Maybe we’ll go back again,” I said. “She mentioned dinner.”

“With Beulah.” Glad grinned, looking at the road.

I didn’t say anything. I put my visor down to block the sun.

“What is it?” Glad said. “You thinking of your wife?”

“Sometimes,” I said.

“Maybe it’s time to move on. Smart guy like you, living alone.”

“Like Jim Sloan?”

“I don’t know if you’re in his league, Trojan Bulls and all.”

Glad smiled as he pulled off the pavement and started down the gravel road along the line of aspen. I watched their leaves ripple silver in the afternoon light.

I thought again of the Stones’ farm, of the lawn and tall locust tree, the white house with sky-blue shutters. The dark eyes of the tame deer, Blossom, she and the black bear, Charlie, chasing the homemade cookies Viv tossed gracefully across the clipped sweet grass.

“A brilliant girl,” Viv said, about Beulah. “You know she’s psychic. Part Cheyenne. She senses things—”

In Montana, everything had a different scale.

Through the aspen I could see the sun dancing off the river. I was looking forward to a quiet walk along the bank, past the ferns and yellow flowers. I didn’t need to go fishing, to catch another struggling trout and let it go after I’d seen its rainbow speckles.

“Hurry, put it back,” I’d half heard Ellen whisper at my ear, the spotted gills beginning to convulse. “Before it dies—”

This time I wouldn’t jump in, to save the sculpted woman lying in the shallows, the former owner’s joke on newcomers to the hunting lodge. He’d had a Seattle artist make a copy from a picture in the local paper, Bell said.

Through the watery pane for a moment her smiling face had looked like Ellen’s.

“We’ve got company,” Glad said.

In front of the weathered log cabin a blue Saab was parked.

The driver’s door opened as Glad pulled up and a woman with long, loose, reddish-brown hair, wearing white slacks and a black blouse, stepped from the car.

“Who’s this?” Glad watched her over the steering wheel. “Helen of Troy or Lucinda Olson?”

She waited naturally, as if the cabin had once been hers and she had painted the red door. Her eyes took me in—like Viv’s, the doe’s, the buffalo’s, the Lady’s in the Clark Fork— The string of white beads made her resemble a domino.

I was out of the car and she was moving through broken pine shadows, putting out a shapely hand that flickered and caught sudden light like a hand parting water.

I knew her—her face matched the woman’s in the river.

“I’m Beulah Ransom.”

“Phil—”

Before I could answer she gripped my hand as I looked into her amber eyes and saw my face reflected like the bust of someone ancient and dead.

“Web Olson’s prize-winning stock are over-bred and dying of Bitterroot Fever. Lucinda Olson doesn’t exist, but Jim Sloan thinks she does—he’s picking up real but distorted signals, just as you are, but he’s the compass, the one to follow, to the Night Slayer.

“It’s not Sloan, but Ander, that’s Olson’s real name. He’s the survivor of a crash, of a spaceship, on a mission to find a new world and evacuate a dying planet. He was marooned and attempted to clone a mate, using a heifer as a surrogate parent, but something went wrong, she was born a ravenous cannibal.

“Ander bought the stolen magneto from the Air Force, to build a hovercraft and operate at night, to steal meat for his famished daughter-wife he keeps captive in a cell under the house.”

My hand shivered and burned, like I held a hot wire, and still I was able to answer, I said quickly, “There’s more—”

“Your wife, Ellen, is alive, in another dimension, and breaks through to instruct you, as she did yesterday, when she told you to release the struggling trout. She’s caught too, between worlds, and needs our help to move on.”

Again I felt the steady current, staring hard into Beulah’s eyes. Something moved in my chest and I started to speak, waiting for the words, but her fingers softly stopped my lips.

“Yes, I’m your true love; you’re mine. I realize I’ve been waiting for you. At last, after many twisting turns, we’ve finally met by the river where my statue lies—”

Then my arms were around her in the sudden cool breeze from the moving water beyond the silver aspen.


Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, The Montreal Review, and other journals. “Now the River’s in You,” a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.

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