Riley Forkluck Davis
by Rigina Gallagher
Riley walked at a forward angle down Main Street, his neck and head craning forward to the point of his long, cavernous nose. His suitcase was raised to chest level, just under his craning chin, so that it appeared to be held up in an effort to either protect or hide himself.
Walking past the dirt-caked buildings on Main Street, he came to a stop by a water trough set up for the horses while their owners were in Sal’s Saloon. As he did so, a horse jostled down the street pulling the slump of a starving, maddened family. Frontiersmen as the history books would call them, luckless fools as they were called now.
During a certain time in his life years before, Riley would stare after the frontier horses. He concluded that the horses knew what the families could not bring themselves to see. He supposed the horse, after tugging the heavy wooden barrel into the desert, after carrying her small rotting carcass without food and water, realized its course was unnatural. That was what made them adopt a ghostly expression in the eyes, what made some horses just lay down in the soil and die. But then there were others, others (like this horse here) that managed to pass through towns alive. Some, instead of choosing to die rather than continue, continued until they died. Shortly after that observation, Riley stopped looking at horses.
So he did not notice how, with his craned neck, and dropped head, and cavernous, sloping nose, and pocked, hollow, sagging cheeks peeking out from his plastered-on straw hat while he hid behind his raised valise at the trough, very closely he resembled the frontier horse passing him by. Right now, he was too occupied staring into the trough waters. The desire to seep under its surface and go into a long slumber flashed across his mind.
But because Riley was a drifter, not a man of action, he realized it would be easier and less of a radical disruption to get a drink than to drown. He knew what awaited him inside the door, and for a moment he wished to turn around and go back to the trough, but for some whim unknown to him he disregarded the idea with a wince and held his breath as he entered the dark wooden bar.
The name “Riley!” was fired through the air with one-third contempt, one-third accusation, and one-third welcome, the last inflection constructed by the bartender because Riley was business, and business was always welcome. Riley, gripping his valise tighter and shooting his gaze to his feet, made his way to the stool at the farthest left corner of the bar. It was the best view one could get of the window, as it was the closest one could get to the glass that spewed the outside in while still not having to turn to face the bar counter.
“What da ya want? Your scotch?” The bartender had already lifted the bottle from the dark mysterious pit under the counter.
Riley’s eyes still searched the window light as he echoed back “Yeah. A scotch.”
A few moments of silence elapsed as the bartender filled the glass and set it before Riley. One could hear the turning of gears in Riley’s head and the silence of the absolute concentration of the bartender on the glass. Suddenly, a woman only Riley saw sauntered by with a parasol in a white, green trimmed dress. Riley looked away from the window with a wince just as the bartender moved away from the filled scotch glass.
“Hey, Riley.” The disembodied voice came from Ned.
People were always kicking Riley’s valise. Sometimes they didn’t mean too, a man with a cane would be walking by with his lady and accidentally rack the case. “Sorry, old chum,” he would say as Riley continued to look after him until the gentleman disappeared from view or an old lady cast a suspicious eye in his direction. Other times when townsfolk did it, it was intentional. (Riley had been to so many towns so many times (on account of his poor success) that now most of the people in any given town in the western states knew him or of him.)
“You got any more of those oxen tail strings?” continued Ned with a hawking laugh. Riley was about to answer No, sold the last one yesterday even though he still had a full inventory in his valise. But then he realized that whatever he said would be turned against him in mockery, and Ned was sitting off to the wall some distance behind him, so he, Riley, did not necessarily have to answer. Not like if someone was siting next to him, thought Riley.
Riley did lower his gaze under his hands, clapped on the bar table, and followed the peeling cloth patterns of his valise. He got lost in them. He had not always been a salesman. No, Riley remembered back to when he was in college.
In May of 1879. Riley was one of the three-hundred-and-seventy-eight black globular forms clustered on the hot summer lawn of Bowdoin College. He was one of the black garbed figures off in a cluster to the front left of the field, close in front to podium and to the Maple trees and pines that fenced the open field. He stood, his form slightly hunched as he looked into his feet. Unlike most of the other twenty-one year old men, Riley did not extend his face in an elastic grin at the president. Nor were his eyes clinging about thirstily, seeking out certain faces in the crowd, the faces of his friends-the brothers-he would never see again. His face held no recognition of time at all. It was frozen-for the moment outside the realm of time. His taut skin, brought in by ruminating, nervous lips into a cloak of dried tenacity, transformed his cheeks into sea cliffs.
It was not until the president called his name and Riley looked up onto that blank, wide-open stage that he realized he was graduating.
Had a wife too. She got married in a white dress with green lining on the sleeves and about the bodice. Her name was Lena, and she was the most beautiful woman Riley had ever seen. At the ceremony, everyone, including Riley’s uncle Billy, said they would make a great pair. The world better watch out, because the two of them could do anything together. Riley’s uncle Billy was a quiet man who spent most of his time at parties in different corners. Billy had hawks’ eyes and Riley was convinced that Billy did not like him. His past and how he got enough money to wear a different set of gold cufflinks for every occasion (no one had ever seen him wear the same ones twice, and one pair even had diamonds the size of Riley’s pinky nail in them) were unknown. Riley had remained subconsciously aware that uncle Billy did not like him, or anyone for that matter, until two hours before his marriage to Lena when Billy had caught him in the dressing room tying his green bow tie that was to match the embroidery on Lena’s white dress.
Billy didn’t knock. He simply opened the door, which from Riley’s view in the mirror resembled Dracula opening his coffin, and quietly, composedly, walked into the room. He said nothing. He smoked his cigar and let his eyes loosely touch on everything in the dark closet of a room: the ceiling, the floor moldings, the carpet, the space between the chair legs. It looked as if he was in a dream and could have just as easily been perfunctorily scouting out the bathroom. After he had finished his reconnaissance at the other side of the room, he said with no warning and to no one in particular, “You two will make a good team.”
Riley smiled, but knew that Billy did not see because Billy’s back was turned to the mirror.
Riley was able to get in a quick “Thank you,” as Billy approached the door. Billy nodded with the rim of his hat and disappeared.
* * *
But there had been no children. The doctor quietly came out of the room holding his hat in his hand, eyes wet. Instead of finding one dead corpse, Riley found two. Lena and the baby had died in childbirth. The first thing Riley did was run down stairs and reach for the bottle of gin under the fine china cabinet (the one Lena’s brother Ramon had given them for the wedding), and had been doing it ever since.
The worst part came later, when they carried Lena and Abigail (that was what Riley and Lena had agreed to call the child if it were a girl) into the parlor. Riley had walked right into the parlor (he did not know that they would be placed so close to the entranceway) and saw them dead and thought Abigail plastered on top of death. (Ten years later when Riley came across a girl named Abigail in a white dress with pink ribbons in her hair he gave her mother an extra spool of pink yarn at no extra charge and found himself on the verge of tears for no explicable reason as he made his way down the road) Then, Riley was left with the haunting loneliness that inhabits the hollow corners of an empty place that should be filled. Lena was not there anymore. Only empty frames were. After three days and two nights he could not take it anymore (he heard voices in the walls) and walked out.
He could not go back to the house. He could not go back to any house. He did not know how long he would have to remain outside, but he just knew that right now he could not go back into any house. So, interim (until he regained the ability to wipe his feet on a door mat) he took a job as a traveling housewares salesman.
Riley could say that he had no home anyway, that he could never go back to a home anywhere because being in one alone would remind him to much of being alone without Lena, and that getting married again was unthinkable, but he didn’t. He never said anything.
Last Tuesday, Riley had woken up on his birthday to the fact that he was fifty-two years old and had been a salesman for thirty. It came to him that he was too late to start out on a new career. In fact, most men that he had seen his age on his rounds had already retired and were waiting out in their porch rockers to die.
It was in such a state that Riley had wandered into the streets of Sans Palos like a horse, which knew its fate was sealed and its end near, wondering if all the toil had been worth anything.
Off in the back, at a small table, the wind of a conversation between Ned and Fin could be heard.
“I wonder what his son thinks,” Fin pondered softly.
“Ole Riley, with kids?” laughed Ned.
Riley, awoken from his rambling thoughts, slammed his empty glass on the table, and keeping his eyes fixed on the space where the door met the window light, he walked out.
Riley sat on a log beside one of the side roads, staring into the puddle in front of him.
“Hey Mister,” piped a small voice.
Riley raised his head to a silky mat of blonde shinier than the hide of a newly brushed black stallion and as light as ribbon. Riley, caught off guard, realized the head was a good four feet under his own.
It took Riley a few moments to right himself and adjust his sight to the image.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where I could get a line of twine, would you?”
The child appeared to have in his left hand a stick with a thin clear line attached to the end, and in his right more of the thin clear line attached to a small, sharp fishhook. Riley processed that the boy had broken his fishing pole line and was searching for a way to fix it.
For a split second Riley was overcome with a revelation. He stared not at the boy or himself but at the lighted space between them, which the side of the boy touched on. There was something about the boy, how his conversation was only of fishing poles and watering holes; how it wasn’t about a person, and how it wasn’t about anyone in particular at all. It was completely centered in the present. No past at all. He didn’t even know who Riley was. He had no idea about his misfortunes and failures. To him, Riley was not a failed human being. He was just a man.
“As a matter of a fact I do.”
Riley kneeled down to open his suitcase on the ground. With alacrity he flipped up the locks and reached into the yellow, stale-breathing insides, into the back left corner, and pulled out a spool of oxen tail thread from a neatly organized group. Then, he reached into the top pocket compartment and took out a pair of cutting scissors.
“About how long?” Riley asked as he unspun the spool.
“About there would be good mister,” responded the boy, gesturing to the spot on the line of unwound string. Riley cut near his fingers and replaced the spool and scissors in his bag, closed it, stood up, and handed the string to the boy.
“Gee, thanks. I woulda never thought someone would have had string sitting around in his suitcase and all.”
Riley smiled as he watched the boy tie the string to the end of his stick.
“About where do you go to catch ‘em? Are there any good fishing holes around here?”
“Yep. We go over to Marlin’s Pier. It’s a mile or so down there,” the boy turned to point to a place down the river behind him.
“Ya get anything good?”
“Yeah. There’s trout and sometimes even fluke in there. You should come sometime mister, if you like fishing and want something good to catch.”
Riley looked past the boy into the spaces of the trees.
“The name’s Davis, son, and do you know there’s a better way to carve out a fishin’ pole then that?”
“No. This is the only way I ever learned.”
“Here,” Riley took out a leather handled blade from his suit pocket, one of many he had stocked in his suitcase. He then picked up a large branch near his right foot, “I’ll show ya how to make it and you can take me to this fishing place you’re talking about. I could use some fishing.”
“Sure,” responded the boy and Riley followed him into the pine droves of the forest.
Later that evening, Riley could be seen walking off from the Main Street of Sans Palos, holding his valise at knee length, although still bent forward, but in a dreamlike daze in the warm, red-orange and yellow hearth tones of the setting sun.
* * *
* * *
Sheriff Tim and Nathan were splitting logs down the street, across from A.S. and Co. Bank, but Nathan had since stopped and stood against his axe to watch Riley and his valise go off.
“How’s Maggie and Charles, Tim?”
“They’re alright,” Tim responded, lowering the ax into the log. “Maggie’s had a bit of a cough, but she’ll be out of it soon.” Tim lowered the ax and wiped his forehead on the already soiled cuff of his sleeve.
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, we were just talkin’ about ol’ Riley there,” here he gestured toward the distancing Riley with a flick of his neck, “at Sal’s today.” As he paused they both stood looking out after Riley, “And I’ve just got to say I sure am glad ol’ Riley never had kids.” He paused again, his eyes locked steadfast on Riley, “Would’ve had ‘em all for the wrong reasons.”
Rigina Gallagher is studying literary arts at Brown University. Her previous work has appeared in the magazines Fade, On-Verge, and Connections.
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
Personally, I am drawn to a piece of historical fiction if the story transcends time and place. If a character experiences feelings of love and despair, or is involved in universal situations, I think the time period of the story takes on a fresh meaning for the reader.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Really from people's flaws. This was strange to me because I always thought I would write about characters I would admire. But somehow it seems that, like that one dirty spot on the wall, whatever it is about the "flaw" that bothers me, bothers me until I can channel all it out into a piece of writing. Usually the story then builds up around a character.