The Platte River Story by Steve Carr
30 Apr 2017
https://communicatorsleague.com/2017/04/30/the-platte-river-story-by-steve-carr/ … My story "The Platte River Story" in Communicators League.
The Platte River Story by Steve Carr
Tom Edward was his name. It was right there on the driver’s license, Tom Edward Stamson. He didn’t remember being called Tom or Edward, but only Tom Edward. He didn’t remember much, at least not much about himself, but he remembered people calling him Tom Edward. He also didn’t remember Pierre, South Dakota, or Church Street, other names on the driver’s license. Lying on his back in a flattened bed of bright green switchgrass as the morning sun and warm wind warmed his body, looking at the driver’s license, he wasn’t even sure if he could remember how to drive or how he had learned to in the first place. The picture on the license was of him; at least as much as he could tell by seeing his reflection in the muddy water that flowed along the nearby river bank. Tom Edward put the license on top of the worn brown leather wallet lying at his side. The wallet had black embossed lettering, Wall Drug, on it.
He sat up and looked across the wind-pushed swaying waves of switchgrass and purple prairie clover and listened to the ruckus of calls and wing flapping of the hundreds, if not thousands, of sandhill cranes who had taken up residence in and along the muddy river. They hadn’t been much quieter during the night, but somehow the beginning of the day gave their cacophony a more frenzied collective tone. He leaned his head back and looked up at the baby-blue sky and the few cotton ball clouds that were slowly crossing it and licked his parched lips dreading trying to get a few handfuls of water from the river that didn’t taste like mud.
“I can’t just sit here and die of thirst,” he said aloud. Talking to himself was reassuring. Wherever his mind had gone it hadn’t taken away his ability to speak and while he couldn’t remember much about himself, he remembered what things were, like clouds, and grass, and birds, and thirst and his mind. He picked up the white cowboy hat that was next to him and put it on his chocolate-brown hair and stood up and stretched, letting the wind air-dry the dew and perspiration from his naked body.
“This is it Tom Edward time to get started,” he said as he began to wade through the tall grass, making sure each bare foot was firmly planted in the marsh-like earth beneath him before taking the next step. It didn’t take him long to reach the sandy bank of the river where the sandhill cranes nearest him leapt into the air on twig-like legs causing what looked like a panic of many others of them nearby who also fled for the safety of the sky or fields or sandbars further downstream.
Tom Edward stepped into the cool water, and looked down the length of his body to the water being divided by his ankles. His body, like his face, was a good body. The water didn’t reflect his body; it didn’t reflect much, as if images on its surface were just brown shadows that floated. He bent over and scooped water in his palms and threw it on his face, chest, torso, under his arms and over his broad shoulders onto his back. When he stood, water dripping from his upper body, he saw a white tailed deer standing on the opposite bank, watching him. Tom Edward watched it watching him until it leapt off into the switchgrass and disappeared from sight.
Walking out further into the middle of the river the water didn’t rise above his thighs so he splashed water on his rear end and his man parts. He just didn’t have the courage to dip down into the dirt soup that this water was.
On his way back to the bank from where he had come he let out an “ouch” as he stepped on something sharp. He stirred up eddies of mud from the riverbed as he hopped on one foot through the water before turning and landing butt-first on the mud of the bank. He raised his foot and looked at the sole. A trickle of blood was running from a small cut. “Damn,” he said as he pressed his finger against the cut.
When the bleeding stopped Tom Edward followed the path he had made through the grass back to where the grass had been smashed down into a mattress and sat down, raised his foot and looked at the cut again. It seemed hardly a cut at all, and what little there was of it no blood was coming out. He put on his socks and then stood up and put on his button down shirt and jeans and stepped into a pair of brown cowboy boots. He put the wallet in his back pocket.
He had no memory how he had gotten to the place in the grass where he had spent the last two nights. He plodded through the grass, his boots getting wet and muddy from the liquid earth he was walking through until his luck paid off and he arrived at a narrow two lane road. With it not mattering one way or another, not knowing what lay in either direction, Tom Edward turned right because he was right handed and began walking.
The road was like a low-lying bridge dividing a sea of switchgrass. Only an occasional dying or dead cottonwood tree near the edge of the road broke the monotony of the view. Overhead the sky was a jittery confection of a half dozen different bird species: geese, tern, cranes and swans among them, all doing formations and patterns in the sky on their way to wherever it was they were going or coming from. His boots clomped down on the pavement, at one point startling a jackrabbit chewing on the purple bud of clover in the narrow stretch of sedge meadow between the road and the switchgrass, causing it to dash into the safety of the switchgrass.
“I could be walking this road forever,” he said just a few hundred feet before coming upon a wood sign nailed on a cut in half telephone pole. Carved into the sign was simply: Winsome. Pop. 15.
Tom Edward limped on, his foot beginning to hurt, until he reached a small gravel parking lot of a combined small grocery store and post office. Above the store was a sign that in faded blue Helvetica lettering declared to whoever was reading it that they were in Winsome, Nebraska. He sat down on a log lying in front of the store-post office and took off his boot and looked at the bottom of his sock which was spotted with fresh blood. He massaged his foot for a moment then put his boot back on and limped into the wood frame building. A little bell above the door tinkled as he entered.
Above two rows of shelves crowded with a variety of foodstuffs in boxes, packages and cans a single fan whirled about circulating cool air in the interior of the store. Tom Edward slowly walked up the middle aisle stopping occasionally to look at a can of peas or a box of Quaker oats. He wondered why he wasn’t hungry, not being able to recall the last time he had sunk his teeth into something other than the blades of switchgrass he had kept between his teeth and chewed on while looking up at the star speckled night sky. As he neared the back of the store an old woman with a face like a map full of wrinkles rose up from behind the counter, put on a pair of wire rimmed glasses and stared at him as he limped toward her.
“What you limping for?” the woman said, her voice sounding as old as the wrinkles on her face.
“I cut my foot in the riverbed,” he said.
“Your foot ain’t going to fall off is it?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” Tom Edward said. “I thought it had stopped bleeding then it started again, but it’s nothing serious.”
“Most things aren’t as serious as we make ’em out to be,” she said. “I didn’t hear a car pull into the lot. You didn’t ride in on a horse, did you?” she said, looking at his cowboy hat.
“No,” he said, “I walked here.”
“Walked?” she said incredulously. “Where did you walk here from?”
“Some place called Pierre, South Dakota,” he said haltingly. “I don’t really remember.”
“You must be mistaken or a bold face liar,” she said. “No one can walk that far.”
“I’m not sure I walked from there but that is the place on my driver’s license, so I figured I must have come from there. I’ll show you.” He pulled out his wallet and opened it and flipped through one hundred and forty dollars in bills, and a receipt from a clothing store with the items of a cowboy hat and a pair of cowboy boots and their prices on it. He then recalled he had not put his driver’s license back into his wallet before putting it in his pocket. “Damn,” he said. “I’ve lost my driver’s license. It’s all the identification I had.” He stared at the receipt.
“Go back to where you last seen it and you’ll probably find it,” she said.
“I don’t really remember where it was that I last saw it,” he said. “It was in the grass along the river down the road a ways.”
“You don’t seem to remember lots of things,” she said.
“I remember what birds and clouds and grass and cuts are,” he said.
“Any fool can remember those things,” she said. She pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose. “Unless you’re going to buy something I have mail to sort.”
“Sorting mail for 15 people in a place called Winsome can’t take that much time,” he said.
“It’s Win Some, not winsome. The jackass in Lincoln who made the sign didn’t know the difference either and left out the space between the words. You win some and lose some; that’s how we got our name.”
“Where is Lose Some?” Tom Edward asked.
“How the hell should I know?” she said. “I ain’t ever been out of Win Some. I’ve read about that place, though,” she said, “tapping on the Wall Drug lettered on Tom Edwards wallet. Imagine getting famous for giving away ice water. I think it’s near that Pierre place you mentioned.”
Tom Edward looked at his wallet then looked at the receipt again and saw the words Wall Drug at the top in small lettering. He closed his eyes and tried to bring up memories of a place called Wall Drug, of being in a store where he bought his hat and boots, but it was like peering into a dark cave. “Speaking of ice water,” he said. “Do you have any?”
Sitting on the log outside of the store, Tom Edward unscrewed the cap on the bottle of water and drank the entire bottle without stopping to take a breath. Across the road in the sedge meadow a red fox limped along cautiously alongside the switchgrass, holding up a rear paw as it hopped along. It stopped as Tom Edward tossed the empty bottle in a small bucket beside the door to the store. The fox raised its nose and sniffed the air, stared at Tom Edward as Tom Edward stared at him, then leapt into the switchgrass.
Tom Edward stood up and looked up and down the road and thought again about his driver’s license. Going out to the road he turned left and headed back to find the place where he had exited the grass and found the road.
At the point he thought he was mid-way back a black Ford pickup truck stopped in the lane going the same direction. The driver rolled down the window and asked, “you need a ride somewhere?” His gun was in a rack in the back window of the cab.
“Yes, I lost my driver’s license and I’m going back to find it I hope,” Tom Edward said, stopping and feeling a jab of pain in his foot where the cut was.
“They can be replaced,” the man said.
“It’s my only identification,” Tom Edward said. “I don’t know who I am without it.”
“I feel the same way when I’m without my gun,” the man said. “I guess we all need something to remind us who we are. My name is Jess Harpsburg.” He reached out his hand for Tom Edward to shake and held on to Tom Edward’s hand firmly, reassuringly, for a minute before letting go.
Overhead a flock of Canadian Geese crossed the sky loudly honking like an unmelodious chorus. Jess leaned out the window of his truck and joined Tom Edward in watching the birds.
“Seasonal migration around here is always something to see,” Jess said. He then looked at Tom Edward. “Is the car parked in the sedge meadow down the road yours?”
Like the pain in his foot, it came back to him. “Yes, I think it is.”
“I looked in and the keys are in the ignition and there are suitcases in the back seat. I figured it might be yours” Jess said. “I’ll give you a ride to it if you want.”
“Thanks,” Tom Edward said coming around the truck and getting into the passenger seat.
On the way to the car they were mostly silent.
“What’s the name of the river?” Tom Edward asked.
“It’s the Platte River,” Jess answered.
When Jess pulled the truck up alongside the blue Toyota, Tom Edward immediately recognized it. The hours of driving it and then parking it where it sat flooded his thoughts like the muddy water of the river. As he opened the door to get out of the truck he said to Jess, “maybe I’ll migrate back this way like one of those birds some time.”
“I hope you get things figured out,” Jess said.
“If I don’t, being confused isn’t all that bad,” Tom Edward said.
Tom Edward got out of the truck and watched as Jeff drove off down the long stretch of road until out of sight. He opened the door to the car and got in.
He opened the glove compartment and took out a piece of paper and a pen and wrote “Platte River.”