BY DAVE BARRETT
This is an excerpt from Dave’s novel Executives of the World. Copyright is held by the author.
THREE HOURS later Bob Preston’s house was surrounded with sandbags, stacked waist high. A half-dozen more friends had shown up after Will and Jerry’s arrival and sped the process. They were gathered under the tall Ponderosa Pines on higher (and drier) ground behind Preston’s house, passing round joints and drinking from a case of Olympia beer Preston had brought for the sandbaggers. Will was seated in lotus position on the damp grass beside Marion. (He had bumped his brother from this spot when Jerry wandered off to relieve his bladder in a stand of alder trees at the edge of the burgeoning river — already beginning to lap the sandbags outside Preston’s front door.)
Bob Preston was giving them a reader’s digest history of the neighbourhood:
“This was nothing but pine and alder forest before our people came along. Tribes from all over — even Canada — came here for the Chinook salmon runs — mid-summer to early fall. Upwards of 5,000 natives would gather at the peak of the runs. They caught and smoked and dried and took their catch with them for the long winters back home. A million Chinook ran up Hangman Creek a mile south of here. A million salmon, folks! Can you imagine that?”
Will, trying to impress Marion, interjected:
“I read that when Lewis and Clark arrived in Nez Perce territory on the Clearwater in Idaho in 1805 they were surprised most of the tribe was gone—and found out they’d travelled here to fish. What a different world it must have been back then!”
“Hear! Hear!” several friends cheered in unison to Will’s last statement.
The flood zone around them was strangely serene, surreal and beautiful. Temperatures were in the mid-80s by now, and several of the young men were shirtless and some of the young women had stripped down to their tank tops (including Marion and Amanda). Signs of spring were everywhere: the new fluorescent green blades of grass they were resting on, the first flowers of the Republic spring — dandelions — sprouting boldly everywhere you looked, the air pungent with the fragrance of lilacs in full bloom. Ducks swam down the center of the submerged street in front of Preston’s house. Three times Will had watched trout rise in a neighbor’s flooded driveway (over the arch of Marion’s hip as she did yoga stretches on the cool grass beside him).
Another friend, Lester Smays, was telling sandbaggers about Half-Face, a crazed painter of abstract murals, including one of geometric representations of salmon leaping over of the base of the upper Republic Falls that gained worldwide notoriety after his death. Half-Face had lived in a tiny house on Water Street a stone’s throw from the river to the ripe old age of 91. Will had heard the story before, and it was a good one.
“Jari Salminen was his real name,” Lester began, tossing cold cans of Oly to Will, Jerry and others from his seat atop the beer cooler. “He was born, raised and died right here in Peaceful Valley. Only this place was called Poverty Flats back then — because it was where the poorest of the poor immigrants set up shop. Jari’s folks were members of the Finnish Socialist Club. Jari’s father Eldar built Finnish Hall at the end of Clarke Avenue. It was complete with wood-fired steam baths (a Finnish thing!) and was a known political hangout for the Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies — in the 1910s and 20s.”
Will noticed that Amanda was resting her head on Jerry’s shoulder now. In addition, he had not failed to notice that Marion, not as physically affectionate as Amanda, was also seated in lotus position now so her knee pressed up against his own.
“Anyway, I digress!” Lester continued. “The thing about Jari was he was an especially sensitive soul. So much so that not once, but twice, he threw himself into the Republic River — and lived to tell the tale! The first time after he lost his job at a local sawmill that was torn down during redevelopment in the 1940s. Jari’s first wife, Elka, left him for a travelling salesman, and Jari threw himself into the river from just below the upper dam. Luckily, for Jari, a Good Samaritan dived in directly after he’d jumped from a basalt boulder at the base of the Falls. Jari, I failed to mention, was a little man — only 5′ 3″ — and in spite of Jari’s protests and the rocks Jari had stuffed in his pant and shirt pockets, the Good Samaritan was a strong swimmer and easily dragged Jari to shore (where a crowd of picnicking bystanders also came to Jari’s aid).”
Some of the sandbaggers had heard this story before, but not Amanda. She lifted her head from Jerry’s shoulder now, sat straight, and asked Lester how, after failing just once, he’d fail a second time. And what would even stop him from trying a third time? Or however many times it might take?
“I’m getting to that Amanda! Patience, girl!” Lester said. He cracked open another can of beer, took a long swallow and belched loudly. “Anyways, as I was saying, Jari was an especially sensitive soul. And, in the end, Amanda, it was old Mother Nature herself who would save him!”
“Mother Nature?” other sandbaggers, who had not heard the story, cried out along with Amanda now.
Lester Smays, a tall young man, lifted one of his large hands as though to fend them off. He continued:
“Now people, this is where the story gets a little randy. Remember that wood-fired steam bath at the Finnish Hall I mentioned earlier?”
This time there were several Hear! Hears! from certain — mostly male — members of the group.
“Well,” said Lester, obviously enjoying the attention. “After his first failed attempt to kill himself, Jari converted to Roman Catholicism. Apparently, the Good Samaritan who had saved him was a Catholic priest, and Jari took this as a sign from God to follow a new path. By now, he had found a new job when a new sawmill opened near the old Phoenix Mill. He devoted the next two years of his life to learning the Catholic faith. He eventually went through the Act of Contrition and the Confirmation ritual as well. They said it wasn’t unusual to see Jari praying the rosary during lunch break at the mill. But, in spite of his devotion to his newfound faith, Jari was still a relatively young man. And so, at the age of 34, he married his second wife, Sonya. Sonya was an orphan girl, and much younger than Jari. At first, the marriage was fine. However, it wasn’t long before Sonya became dissatisfied with his devotion to the Catholic Church, and his meager wages from his ground level job at the mill. This was during the mid-1940s. America was coming out of the Depression then, but in many parts of the country the rebound was slow. Such was the case here. Therefore, in an attempt to bring in more income herself, Sonya took a job as a cleaning woman at the steam bath. It wasn’t long before Sonya learned she could make a lot more money turning tricks for customers at the steam bath than scrubbing the wooden platforms. Also, and apparently, she was so skilled in her new profession that it wasn’t long before she left Jari and Poverty Flats to work at an upscale bordello attached to the Davenport Hotel downtown.”
“Poor Jari!” Amanda exclaimed.
“Yes!” said Lester. “This revelation crushed Jari. He felt that God had let him down, and soon afterwards he quit the church and took to drinking — something he had never done in the past. And it was during this time he devised what he felt was a full proof plan to kill himself once and for all. It was also during this time that the Maple Street Bridge was built just upriver from where we sit right now, our ‘Baleful Bridge’. Locals said for over a month Jari would walk out and stand in the centre of the bridge transfixed with the rolling waters beneath him. Later, people learned that Jari was waiting for the peak of flood season. Finally, one morning in mid-May — probably a day not unlike this one — Jari climbed over the rail and took the big step.”
Bob Preston, who had not heard the story before, was incredulous.
“That’s crazy, Smays!” Preston said. “How could anyone survive a leap like that at the height of flood stage?”
“I know!” said Lester. “It sounds friggin’ absurd! Normally, a man or woman jumping from this height would be killed on impact by the rocks buried beneath the river’s surface. But, apparently, because of the great power and the volume of the flood, Jari’s date with destiny was postponed again! When he hit the water near the Maple Bridge’s centre column he sailed inches past the huge basalt boulders like a fisherman’s lost bobber. And somehow or another he stayed afloat like a crazy bobber spinning this way and that through the current, according to several eyewitnesses, until he was violently washed up on a huge basalt boulder a mile downriver at the Bowl and Pitcher. The impact of landing on this boulder tore one side of his face so badly that only half of his face was functional afterwards (he could only see out one eye, and so on). Thus, his name — Half-Face. But his life was spared! It turned out a new batch of emergency first responder firemen were practicing swiftwater rescue at the Bowl and Pitcher when little Jari washed up on an adjacent rock to the one they were working on. It took some doing, but eventually they lassoed Jari with their ropes and dragged him to shore. They couldn’t believe how he’d even survived not getting caught in the innumerable strainers he must have dodged and shot past on way to his final destination.”
“And what happened to Jari afterwards?” Amanda asked.
“He spent months in hospital, and when he got out, people said he was like a new man. Because only half-his-face was fully functional, he could only half-smile. However, the thing was when people met up with Jari, they say he was the kindest — even the happiest! — of men. He always had a big half-smile on his face. He told everyone he had had an epiphany while sailing down that spring current: that it was the river herself that had saved him. And he devoted the rest of his days in his little shack at the western end of Water Street painting in honour of what she had done for him. He never married again because she was forever his true mistress!”