Her best friend was everyone and everything’s best friend. Animals in every pattern were drawn to her best friend. She mesmerized them. Her best friend caged a canary that did not die. She lowered her warbling virginity onto the boys’ laps like a canary into a mineshaft. Her best friend’s name was Jane Joli, but if everything could call her Joli Jane, it would. If her best friend misplaced something, it was always found and ardently returned. In this way, and in so many others, her best friend was not like the sporty sophomore girls in their high school, yet those same girls lifted her best friend and carried her off every field, and she let them. Every limb of her best friend defied gravity. Her best friend swore in her yearbook she would learn to fly a jet, you ain’t seen nothing yet—and she hadn’t. Joli Jane was the girl who played safe and waded only to her knees in the Russian River that the other girls called the Rushing River, but her best friend had no fear of rushing into the backseat of a boy’s car. Her best friend once flung off her lizard print bikini top and said, Don’t the cold water make the nipples fly? On a triple dare, her best friend stuck a needle through the red end of her nipple. But her best friend never treated herself to true feats of endurance, like swimming against the current to reach the great rock, El Jefe.
Her best friend was the one in the Press Democrat story about a girl gone missing from the local swimming hole.
So far, her best friend had not been ardently returned.
Boys on the swim team had scaled the hillside to the promontory to hop off the high wet black rock, and she, Marylou Caps, and her best friend and her best friend’s girls that she, not Joli Jane, never Joli Jane, referred to as the Jolis, had watched knees folded at the thin lip of the river beach and bet on how the boys would die. Or at least Marylou had, hoping a Joli would take the wager.
“Bet that rock slits his neck,” Marylou said as a boy sprinted off the promontory.
“Be nice,” a Joli said, shaking a finger at Marylou. “Jeez.”
“No, jizz. How carotid blood spouts,” Marylou clarified.
“You don’t care about anybody, Marylou,” the Joli complained.
“I care plenty.” Marylou gazed at Jane, hoping to catch her eye.
But Jane was watching the boys in worn, chlorinated swim trunks spar at the promontory’s edge. A chubby boy swollen on hormones took a punch to the bosom.
“How did he get fat?” Joli Jane, her best friend, asked.
“He’s eating for you, Jane,” a Joli explained.
Jane whispered through her fingers about the hair inside the boy’s crack. “Anybody see it?”
I saw, I saw, the Jolis cried, raising their hands as if to be called upon by Teacher. The Jolis pawed up Jane’s arms now, nipping her tender, tiny neck. How everyone fondled her best friend, wove bitten painted nails through her curls, crisscrossed shins into the peached hair of her back to scratch secrets beneath the delicate flesh. The Jolis did not know what they wanted more, to be that leggy bright-haired, pert-nosed perfection or to unfold those long light legs and spread them wide against the thin lip of the beach and fish into the damp gelatin there.
They hated Marylou, Joli Jane’s best friend. Hated how she resisted them, hunted up hurtful things to say, but she, too, knew the pain of the butterfly touch of Joli Jane’s attention and how now it alights and now spooks, and she, too, suffered the cruelty of longing for the dear clean flesh and mercury smile so inconstant, and for this the Jolis loathed her most. Or she loathed them. She wasn’t sure.
It was a con, a ruse, to lure a girl of gullible goodness into his automobile.
A boy in the shallows perched on his elbows against the current of knees outlined the pros and cons of the only party everyone wanted in. A scion of local vintage had full run of his parents’ estate. The on-staff chef’s hand-stuffed sausages went down pretty good after puking cellared wine. The con? Only Joli Jane was invited. Her best friend had nicknamed the boy Matinee because he clipped the whiskers above his lip in the style of silent film stars. Joli Jane liked film stars. She planned to be immortalized on the silver screen and had warned everyone that any day now she could take off for Hollywood. “What time should I pick you up, Jane?” Matinee said.
Overcome with melancholy at watching the Jolis beg her best friend not to leave them out in the cold, party-less night, Marylou eased into the duckweed and pushed off the plush river bottom. She popped her head up to yodel back to anything that would listen, and that was usually only her best friend. “Swim up-current. Let the river carry us down!”
A few Jolis bobbed heads at her call. Surprised, she stuck her face under and clasped the water as the current pushed her away, always away. She eased and tensed her body into it, converting the push into a pull, balancing upon the enduring current. She stealthed between cattails and glided over rounded river stones to El Jefe, the take-no-shit rock, the rock that split the river like hands split apart legs, which was how she liked to think of it. El Jefe loomed, and Marylou lunged. Her hand caught a ledge. Only then did she lift her head to breathe. The rock was carpeted with mossy organisms. She noted the pleasing pleep of the water bounding off the rock, the chill lick at her collar bone, and pondered how the river made way for El Jefe moment by moment, day after day. It was the opposite with her. She had to yield to the current, or she would never find her way in it. She had learned this skill after her father died, and the town of Cloverdale turned inhospitable to a fatherless girl. Being at Joli Jane’s side had proved the perfect locale to disappear in plain sight.
Marylou inched around El Jefe to the sunny side, where there were always only lesser rocks and cottonwoods and the occasional inner tube slung on the limb of a dead oak. But this time there was a man. He was naked, hairs fanning his dick like the feathers of an ornamental bird. But the man’s dick was nothing to the red wound grinning along his forearm.
She had seen that wound before, the surfboard jutting out from the sandbank behind him, too. The board had ridden the roof of an oldy station wagon that had crept around the cul de sac below the window of Joli Jane’s house.
Go home, Marylou. Nothing you can do now for your best friend.
The naked man in the river looked up, but his spooky blues were focused on something far beyond Marylou. She ducked behind El Jefe, seeing again out the window of Jane’s house the wounded arm of the man driving the station wagon and how he had fingered a lit cigarette.
“So, I’m going to Emergency.” Joli Jane had stood in her house’s entranceway, handbag under her arm. “This poor boy just came to the door begging for help with his burn. I don’t mind driving him. I’ve been looking for something to do.”
Marylou reasoned with Joli Jane that if the driver could smoke a butt with the very hand attached to the very arm that he burned, he could handle the pain sufficient to drive his own tricky ass to Emergency. It was a con, a ruse, to lure a girl of gullible goodness into his automobile.
“He was trying to abduct me?” Jane asked. But instead of paling at the possibility, her best friend blushed. Nevertheless, she whipped back her hair and dialed in the code on the house alarm. The vast pad was now fully armed. Without another word, they cuddled in close on the couch. The whole time Marylou swore she heard banging on a distant door.
When it had come time to leave, Joli Jane rose on tiptoe to peck her cheek. “What would become of me if not for my dear Marylou?”
She had no answer for her best friend at the time, but now she did. The dude was still lurking around girls and so was his wound. Marylou checked behind the rock to see if he was still there, but he and his surfboard had flown. She squinted downriver past the boys splashing above the breaks of white-ringed river rocks. She needed to warn Jane that the dude had returned. But a gaggle of Jolis was sputtering up-current toward her and they were taking in water and going under. Of course, the current had bested the Jolis, always would; El Jefe was not theirs to touch. Marylou dove into the cold and frogged under the flailing limbs. She wove the girls’ arms around each other so they could float on their backs. An annoying amount of Marylou’s patience was required to form the human raft, but the Jolis had done something without Jane for once, she’d give them that. She sent the Jolis safely downriver to shush out into the hole.
At last, she could warn her best friend about the dude nursing his phony pustule behind El Jefe, but too late. It had begun. Knowing even as she asked the boys jumping off the promontory, had they seen Jane? Knowing nonetheless, telling herself it was not possible for her best friend to be misplaced. How could Joli Jane have been allowed out of everyone’s sight?
Joli Jane’s stuff slumped on the sand. Monogrammed towel, change of blouse, faux crocodile sandals: all where she had left them.
The stunned classmates climbing out of the hole murmured, “I thought Jane was with you.” Too dumfounded to towel off, they walked in circles, capturing bars for cell service. Surely, her best friend had just gotten tired of them and scaled the hillside back to the lot and folded into her car—or been shoved in one. Now Marylou tore up the hillside to the lot, only to find Jane’s parents’ hybrid still where she had parked it and poorly. Marylou stood very still, too shocked to form words, even when the Jolis asked if she’d seen anyone suspicious at the hole.
The Jolis stayed to watch the swinging tails of K-9 teams vanish into the scrub as red lights swirled into the uppermost branches of the river oaks. The Jolis made way for the trailer backing into the Rushing River, a cobbled steel boat with a sonar for searching out the drowned. But as the late May sun got lost behind the hillside, one by one the Jolis slipped off. Only Marylou did not go. She would never give up on Joli Jane. She watched black-suited bodies adjust air tanks and tadpole to the bottom of the hole in a bleed of bubbles.
A drowned body would get snagged at the hole’s western edge that funneled between a clot of rock to flow out, but a floating body could slide easy as raw egg over rocks to ride the drop. The cops said it would take a day for the methane to balloon the body. They said, Go home, Marylou. Nothing you can do now for your best friend.
The following morning, Marylou ran down the hillside to see the body break the river surface, but as she stood beneath the cloudless sky, she knew only gratitude when just a plump log popped the surface. Marylou would not take her eyes off the hole, even if her best friend’s body emerged with turtle deliberation, water receding off its side, for she knew that not looking away was her way of loving Jane.
When no body broke the river skin that day or the next, when the divers packed up their tanks, when the cobbled steel boat with the jerry-rigged sonar motoring in concentric circles located nothing at the bottom, Marylou asked, Had anyone at the hole actually seen Jane go into the water? And what about somebody getting out of the water, someone who did not belong, had anybody seen that? Blame eddied around a nonnative offender. The dude who had turned up uninvited to the keg mourning party the boys on the swim team threw in the days after Joli Jane went missing. The dude had this burn on his arm. Would not some good Christian give succor in an Emergency? “Don’t know about succor, but I can give you a ride,” said some sucker, who turned out to be the boy Joli Jane called Matinee. Everyone said Matinee had slid behind the wheel of the dude’s oldy station wagon to drive him to Emergency. He ended up in Emergency, all right, but then sweet Matinee’s driving had always sucked. He’d crashed into a van, but nobody was injured, only Matinee. His legs were crushed. Blood leaked out one eye. The dude’s oldy station wagon? Not a scratch. He just drove off from the scene. Why hadn’t even one lone boy guzzling the keg that night thought to accuse the dude with the burned arm of abducting Joli Jane?
Why hadn’t Marylou?
Marylou’s conscience was clear on that front. She had told the Jolis about the dude and his nudity behind El Jefe, his wound and his previous attempt to lure Jane from her house. But the Jolis would not listen. They cherished their self-blames. “You were supposed to be watching Jane,” they scolded each other until, at last, a confession, “I looked away from Jane.” Then another. “I did, too.” Another and another.
Whatever, Jane was gone, and the Jolis had given up. But the Rushing River flowed on, and Marylou knew so long as water flowed, there was life. She returned daily to the hole to swim to El Jefe, convinced that given the right angle and light, the rock would reveal Joli Jane’s whereabouts. She was just wading into the shallows when a lady cop huffed down the hillside and set to replacing the yellow tape strung around the hole. “Shouldn’t be here on your own. Isn’t safe,” she cautioned Marylou, who watched with one eye the lady cop unstick tape. “A man with a severely injured arm has been sighted here.”
“He a suspect?” Marylou asked. “I sighted him. His arm. That wound, it’s old.”
“What do you see.” That was what the lady cop said, and it was not a question, Marylou was sure of that. What she was less sure of was what the lady cop meant by it. Was she suggesting Marylou had not seen the dude’s arm or that the burn itself was not old? Or was it bigger than that? Did she question Marylou’s ability to see anything, like, objectively?
Lowering the towel over her brow, Marylou hiked back up to the lot, unlocked her bike, pedaled off.
The hole wore the end of summer like a picked-over pore. Yellow jackets probed caves of ditched baby diapers. River rocks rippled with graffiti. The sole picnic table had lost its bench. This was state land, but it wasn’t tricked out or anything, no public trashcans or graded beach or poured-concrete lot. Everyone who knew about the hole just parked their cars against the wall of the 101 freeway that fed into the deeply sleeping town of Cloverdale.
None of the Jolis had dared to dip a toe into the swim hole again. Not one Joli had stroked upriver to pose her hopes and suspicions to the take-no-shit rock. Screw the lady cop’s warning. Marylou had come back to the hole the next day, and every day, and now it was August, and she had grown lean and mean. When asked by the Jolis why the daily pilgrimage to El Jefe, Marylou replied, “I’m hoping it will tell me where Jane went.”
“How can a rock tell anyone anything?” asked the Jolis.
Marylou insisted the rock had a sweet spot, and she would locate it. “When I do,” she said, voice lowering, “I will see what I couldn’t see that day. It all comes down to finding the right angle.” The Jolis gasped, this predicament entertained them just enough. And while it was true that Marylou had only come up with the story to stopper the Jolis’ lonesomeness, the angle-of-seeing thing sounded kind of okay.
“Marylou, we’re betting on you,” the Jolis said. “You understand?”
Marylou understood plenty. She was among miniatures in Cloverdale, where everything died young inside a casket of junk wine. She snapped a serviceable rubber band around her locks, waded into duckweed, and dove in.
Would not some good Christian give succor in an Emergency?
Underwater, Marylou defied gravity, but when she frogged to the surface, the current slammed her. Keep up, she told herself, don’t panic, don’t yield, and soon the current would deliver her. To what? Well, El Jefe. Sure, but hadn’t the daily swim become its own thing as of late, an education in the ways of the current and the delicate setting down of stroke after stroke to keep her in its graces? She was getting the water to care for her or, at least, care that she was there. She imagined her dad swimming at her side—he backstroked to her now only in dreams—telling her to be as the flounder whose eye migrates to the other side of the brain to lie flush against the bottom of the waterbed, disappeared, no longer compelled to be seen at all.
“Flounders are seafaring creatures,” she pointed out, suddenly irritated with his talk of disappearances, of not being seen. “This is a river.”
“The fish will lower itself,” he said, “if the river is brackish.”
Her hand smashed into the rock. She grabbed a ledge and pulled her head from the river. Against the pleasant pleep of water at her collar bone, she finally allowed that the story about Joli Jane was getting small. The search, the Amber Alerts, the cops, they could all go to suckerville because her best friend had not been abducted. She had just gotten lost. But not lost in the way that needed finding. Joli Jane had simply taken off. To prove it, Jane had sent pictures to Marylou’s phone yesterday of her posed and puckering before some music festival pitched on an abandoned airstrip. How wrong everyone and everything had been. Joli Jane was not gloriously dead, she had just wanted to make a scene. And get her arm needled and inked with a miniature jet. The new tattoo was the authenticating detail, pucker pictures real and true. That’s how small.
The last ray of sun flashed in the late August gas. Marylou danced upon the facets of El Jefe and asked what she should do. Its head bobbed at eye level, and the doltish brow shaded a wall-eyed glare. The rock had no words no words no words. And now the day had snuck off on Marylou, too. Forget the right angle of seeing, it was getting hard to see at all. If there was moon, the low clouds had gone off with it. Good thing the headlights from the northbound 101 circled the oaks overhead, searchlight steady. If only they could ease the shriek of river mosquitoes or return the call of the lone bullfrog.
The current would carry her back into the heart of the hole. Marylou slid into the twilight, the water rippling up her thighs in a knife of fish. The truth was that not one moment in the company of her best friend had ever come close to the thrill of dipping into this river. As she neared shore, her hand struck up against something taut, a swollen limb, body flesh—recoiling, she shrieked, No!
“I’d bail out, too, I fingered me like that.”
The headlights of the 101 rolled over him. He, who had absolutely not been there before, was kneeling on the thin lip of the beach, holding his forearm under the duckweed-thickened shallows. Him. That is what she had touched, the dude’s arm, pustule.
She scared on a shriek, flipped over, and did a heart-thudding crawl back to El Jefe. Arms trembling under her sudden weight, she grabbed the rock’s side and hoisted up. But the rock was slick, no perch, and she slipped back into the water. Cold pulled at her from below, the lull of the current, the rock worn too smooth, nothing to grab onto. How inconsiderate of El Jefe. Did it even care if she drowned?
Marylou sensed now that her meanness had cost her. She had better get right with the rock or she would not make it. She cupped and folded, patting gently along its face until she found a modest hold, and drew herself up, inch by inch, to clear the river at last. Scooting her butt onto a perch, she clung just barely to the rock’s narrow upward slope, a safe piece from the dude, and when his squint eyes caught and filled hers blue, she prayed El Jefe would protect her. The headlights rolled off where the dude knelt on the sandbank, and he was gone to the dark again.
“Towel your body off,” he called through what sounded like stacked teeth.
Her towel and clothes hung now from the branch of a California oak. They swung high enough to catch the headlights. “You do that?” she called back.
“To my stuff.”
“Bro,” he said, “do I look like I’m in piece for it?”
There was nobody else to do it.
Her toes grew brittle with cold. He skipped a few stones across the river. She couldn’t see the stones, but she heard the dunk-dunk above the dull roar of the current. She was tiring. He had scooted past the water’s edge. Headlights fled up the oaks, and his work trousers glowed reddish oil below a rash guard that shone Aloha!
“Come out of there, huh?” Was the dude talking to her or to his arm? The way the arm floated to the surface, the way the water receded off its sides, the way he gaped at his own limb, as if revolted against him, she decided it was the arm he spoke to.
“Don’t you get sick of that phony wound?” she said, her words sounding all shuddery.
“Sick? Ahhhh, sick bro!” He blew on the burn like it hurt, hand wrapped around the forearm and probably squeezing blood up the crust to look runny. “Can’t drive me to Emergency all wet,” he said.
“Drive your own damn arm to Emergency.”
“Miss Jane Joli didn’t talk like that. Fer sure.”
“You don’t know Jane,” she said.
But hold on. Hadn’t the dude almost conned Joli Jane into driving him? Marylou understood she would need to change tactics. “I saw you at her house. I saved Jane from you that day. And I saw you here in the river. You saw me, too,” she said. “Don’t lie.”
“Naaa, bro, never saw you before in my life.” But in the next instant he guffawed. “Sure, I seen you. Seen your bike, too. You here all the time, honey!” He shook the water off his arm at the elbow and settled it at his side like a rifle. His other hand spiked tufts of hair bleached white as desert skeletons. She consoled herself that he was just a surf bum mislaid in Cloverdale.
“How come nobody wants to get in the woody?” he asked.
Her legs were numbing. She was shivering so bad her heel slipped off the rock, which was not edged or faceted at all. Then the rest of her slipped off El Jefe into the current. At this range, she was in reach. The dude might grab her. Would that be so bad? She wasn’t sure. She eyed his trousers drawn tight at the crotch.
“The boy at the party got in your car,” she said. “He’s still in the hospital.”
“He is? Well, let’s go pay a visit.”
She looked back at El Jefe, like it should save her. From this angle, the rock rose before the moon like an altar. El Jefe divided the river and shaped what was to come. All this time, she had been looking for Jane from the vantage of the rock when what she needed to do was look at El Jefe from just this angle where she now treaded water. Perhaps that was why she had come, what she had kept coming for, even after nothing of Joli Jane turned up, after she knew nothing would, she had come here just so someone would put her in this spot. Could she shape what was to come?
“Don’t you want to see your friend?” the dude asked.
She did not answer.
He started grumbling to himself. She was getting to him, she was sure of it. “She don’t let nothing wear off her edges. Miss Marylou,” he sang, “sharp as a tack, ain’t that who?”
None of the Jolis had dared to dip a toe into the swim hole again.
No matter how cold down in the hole, how dark the night, she did not have to put up with this. Anyway, she was not much afraid of the dude anymore. She had El Jefe to thank for that. She stroked gruff arcs to the shore, grasping the stalks of cattails to leverage herself out, but she floundered on the bank, and his burned arm caught her at the waist. “You almost ate it!”
A jet plane soared low overhead, howling down the walls of the hole. She shook off his arm and mounted the hillside quick, to hell with her stuff hung up on the dead oak. A change was coming over her, a pretty promising change.
“Whoa, so ready to motivate?” The dude whispered, startled.
At the top of the hill the oldy station wagon was handily parked between the wall of the overpass and her bike chained to a tree.
She turned round to the dude. “What will you do to me?”
“A bunch of nothing. Go to Emergency.” That’s what he said. Fer sure.
He placed the key in her hand. “The woody is grateful you have seen fit to give succor.”
She slipped behind the wheel. The interior light was feeble. Didn’t matter. She could still make out someone hovering in the backseat of his car.
“Marylou!” Joli Jane sat up in a rush and pointed at Marylou’s eye. “Whatever has become of you?”
Marylou wasn’t sure how best to answer her friend. Everything looked different, better. She was seeing solely from one side of her head, of this she was certain, and it felt a liberating if illogical migration. But did this mean one eye had taken up residence right alongside the other? Whatever, she was open to it, but not to lie flush against the bottom of some riverbed, disappeared.
Marylou twisted the key into the ignition. The engine chuckled over. She stepped on the gas and the wagon trundled onto the blacktop. The surf bum gave her thigh a squeeze. “Someone finally takes me to Emergency.”
The station wagon ate up the 101, headlights igniting a sign that read Hospital Next Exit. He knocked on the indicator since she had not. She eased her foot down onto the accelerator.
“Marylou, what is the rush?” Joli Jane demanded.
“You missed the exit!” he said.
“Didn’t see one,” Marylou said.