I only know one river with a serial killer named after it: the Green River. The bodies of murdered women kept getting found along its banks. This wasn’t your Green River, not unless you’re from Washington state and your formative years were the 1980s. Your Green River—whether in British Columbia or South Africa or Emery County, Utah, or a dozen other places—might be very nice. Ours was an ongoing nightmare on the local news. Yet that’s where we went to go inner-tubing or cliff jumping, me and Jay and Brian. Our own town’s river, the Puyallup, was a concrete channel, a straight and muddy nothing routed west to the Port of Tacoma. Green River was blue, and it wasn’t a long drive to get there: get off the highway in Auburn, then it’s 15 miles, maybe less, unless we missed a turn.
Which admittedly we did sometimes since we were 16 and more focused on the stereo. Adam and the Ants? Maybe. Rush again? Most likely; Rush was Brian’s constant, and it was probably his Datsun we were riding in. Sometimes the grunge band, Green River? Definitely not; they were local, but none of us had heard of them, and that word and genre—Grunge—hadn’t been coined yet. That would come later, screaming out of Aberdeen, a place we never even thought about unless we were headed for Ocean Shores, and we never were. No girls in bikinis like the Promised Land of California—just cold, and wind, and a couple miles of sand dunes, a lot of them with fire pits full of burned-up Rainier Beer cans. Plus, the last two towns before getting there, Aberdeen and Grays Harbor, were bleak as hell from the timber mills closing. Not for us. Green River was 90 minutes closer, and we figured all the evil was contained in our parents’ TVs.
This isn’t the part where I tell you that we stumbled on a body, or that one of those women was anyone we knew or a girl from our high school. And I’m not going to tell you what the killer did, either. That’s some psychopathic shit that no one needs to hear. I’m saying we were kids; we’re in our 50s now, so you know there’s no real danger. The three of us, we drifted through just fine.
Not everyone did, of course. One time a man did drown, and our moms made sure to tell us when we got home. There’d been news on the radio. They’d been worried, meaning thoroughly pissed.
“Did you know they opened up the floodgates this morning?”
There are floodgates?
“Couldn’t you tell that the river was faster?”
Sure, plus an eight-foot waterfall where there’d never been a waterfall.
“Why do something so dangerous?”
Because it’s fun.
Maybe it’s like that with everything, at least when you think about it later: so many details flowing around, and more things mixed in than we can ever know. We just float along on the present moment. Look up at the sunlight sometimes. Watch out for downed trees stabbing in from the riverbanks, roots-first. Try not to flip off our tubes or get a boulder up our asses. That sort of thing. And maybe that’s what stories are for: to remember the actual, fish it out of the historical, find our own selves and say hello again. And say hello to you, the reader.
If so, then stories are a lot like water. Which is good, although water can drown us. Which is good, although everything in Utah is drying up and the Great Salt Lake is just a decade from extinction. Still—maybe even because of this—our stories are a lot like water. Someone’s thirsty: a poem can be water. Someone’s drowning and she wouldn’t mind a goddamn rope: a story can be a rope if the story is right.
And that’s how it’s always been. The Anasazi people were here a thousand years before me. Here (most likely) for the rivers, and then gone (most likely) when the rivers dried up, and what did they leave behind for us? Their art, their petroglyph narratives. These petroglyphs aren’t legalese. They aren’t reports of another murder. No, they’re better than that, and they’re clearly for something. Like a river, people carved them into rock. Like a river, people painted them on canyon walls. So I know this isn’t a proper conclusion, but maybe that’s okay:
Why We Have Art
Because no one put away the easel,
our yard filled up with paintings, the sunlight
waking each morning to something new, unsigned,
a welcome mystery.
We strung them like prayer flags—such color
hanging from our porch eaves—then took them
and mounted them on tree trunks
all along the block.
“It must be the ghost,” a few said,
“of that old guy who always had a sketch book.”
“It’s a Democrat plot.” “It’s an angel.”
But nobody cared; no one got sleuthy about it.
Mostly our street felt lucky for once: to be picked
and visited by wonder. Like rain
if you could set a frame around it.
Like the sound of no-sound when it snows.