So Cold the River — Excerpt

Part One

CURER OF ILLS

1

YOU LOOKED FOR THE artifacts of their ambition. That was what a sociology professor had said one day in a freshman seminar, and Eric Shaw had liked something about the phrase, wrote it and only it in a notebook that would soon be forgotten and then discarded. Artifacts of their ambition. Only through study of those things could you truly understand people long departed. General artifacts could be overanalyzed, layered with undue importance. It was critical to find things that indicated ambitions and aspirations, that tired bit about hopes and dreams. The reality of someone’s heart lay in the objects of their desires. Whether those things were achieved did not matter nearly so much as what they had been.

The phrase returned to Eric almost two decades later as he prepared a video montage for a dead woman’s memorial service. Video life portraits, that’s what he called them, an attempt to lend some credibility to what was essentially a glorified slide show. There’d been a time when neither Eric nor anyone who knew him would have been able to believe this sort of career lay ahead for him. He still had trouble believing it, in fact. You could live a life and never comprehend exactly how you found yourself in it. Hell of a thing.

If he were fresh out of film school, he might have been able to convince himself that this was merely part of the artist’s struggle, a way to pay the bills before that first big break. Truth was, it had been twelve years since Eric claimed his film school’s highest honor, twelve years. Two years since he’d moved to Chicago to escape the train wreck of his time in L.A.

During his peak, thirty years old and landing bigger jobs with regularity, his cinematography had been publicly praised by one of the most successful movie directors in the world. Now Eric made videos for graduations and weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. And funerals. Lots of funerals. That had somehow become his niche. Word of mouth sustained a business like his, and the word of mouth about Eric seemed to focus on funerals. His clients were generally pleased by his videos, but the funeral parties were elated. Maybe on some subconscious level he was more motivated when his work concerned the dead. There was a greater burden of responsibility there. Truth be told, he operated more instinctively when he prepared a memorial video than when he did anything else. There seemed to be a muse working then, some innate guiding sense that was almost always right.

Today, standing outside a suburban funeral parlor with a service about to commence, he felt an unusual sense of anticipation. He’d spent all of the previous day—fifteen hours straight—preparing this piece, a rush job for the family of a forty-four-year-old woman who’d been killed in a car accident on the Dan Ryan Expressway. They’d turned over photo albums and scrapbooks and select keepsakes, and he’d gotten to work arranging images and creating a sound track. He took pictures of pictures and blended those with home video clips and then rolled it all together and put it to music and tried to give some sense of a life. Generally the crowd would weep and occasionally they would laugh and always they would murmur and shake their heads at forgotten moments and treasured memories. Then they’d take Eric’s hand and thank him and marvel at how he’d gotten it just right.

Eric didn’t always attend the services, but Eve Harrelson’s family had asked him to do so today and he was glad to say yes. He wanted to see the audience reaction to this one.

It had started the previous day in his apartment on Dearborn as he was sitting on the floor, his back against the couch and the collection of Eve Harrelson’s personal effects surrounding him, sorting and studying and selecting. At some point in that process, the old phrase came back to him, the artifacts of their ambition, and he’d thought again that it had a nice sound. Then, with the phrase as a tepid motivator, he’d gone back through an already reviewed stack of photographs, thinking that he had to find some hint of Eve Harrelson’s dreams.

The photographs were the monotonous sort, really—everybody posed and smiling too big or trying too hard to look carefree and indifferent. In fact, the entire Harrelson collection was bland. They’d been a photo family, not a video family, and that was a bad start. Video cameras gave you motion and voice and spirit. You could create the same sense with still photographs, but it was harder, certainly, and the Harrelson albums weren’t promising.

He’d been planning to focus the presentation around Eve’s children—a counterintuitive move but one he thought would work well. The children were her legacy, after all, guaranteed to strike a chord with family and friends. But as he sorted through the stack of loose photographs, he stopped abruptly on a picture of a red cottage. There was no person in the shot, just an A-frame cottage painted a deep burgundy. The windows were bathed in shadow, nothing of the interior visible. Pine trees bordered it on both sides, but the framing was so tight there was no clear indication of what else was nearby. As he stared at the picture, Eric became convinced that the cottage faced a lake. There was nothing to suggest that, but he was sure of it. It was on a lake, and if you could expand the frame, you’d see there were autumn leaves bursting into color beyond the pines, their shades reflecting on the surface of choppy, wind-blown water.

This place had mattered to Eve Harrelson. Mattered deeply. The longer he held the photograph, the stronger that conviction grew. He felt a prickle along his arms and at the base of his neck and thought, She made love here. And not to her husband.

It was a crazy idea. He pushed the picture back into the stack and moved on and later, after going through several hundred photographs, confirmed that there was only one of the cottage. Clearly, the place hadn’t been that special; you didn’t take just one picture of a place that you loved.

Nine hours of frustration later, nothing about the project coming together the way he wanted, Eric found the photo back in his hand, the same deep certainty in his brain. The cottage was special. The cottage was sacred. And so he included it, this lone shot of an empty building, worked it into the mix and felt the whole presentation come together as if the photograph were the keystone.

Now it was time to play the video, the first time anyone from the family would see it, and while Eric told himself his curiosity was general—you always wanted to know what your clients thought of your work—in the back of his mind it came down to just one photograph.

He entered the room ten minutes before the service was to begin, took his place in the back beside the DVD player and projector. Thanks to a Xanax and an Inderal, he felt mellow and detached. He’d assured his new doctor that he needed the prescriptions only because of a general sense of stress since Claire left, but the truth was he took the pills anytime he had to show his work. Professional nerves, he liked to think. Too bad he hadn’t had such nerves back when he’d made real films. It was the ever-present sense of failure that made the pills necessary, the cold touch of shame.

Eve Harrelson’s husband, Blake, a stern-faced man with thick dark hair and bifocals, took the podium first. The couple’s children sat in the front row. Eric tried not to focus on them. He was never comfortable putting together a piece like this when there were children to watch it.

Blake Harrelson said a few words of thanks to those in attendance, and then announced that they would begin with a short tribute film. He did not name Eric or even indicate him, just nodded at a man by the light switch when he stepped aside.

Showtime, Eric thought as the lights went off, and he pressed play. The projector had already been focused and adjusted, and the screen filled with a close-up of Eve and her children. He’d opened with some lighthearted shots—that was always the way to go at a heavy event like this—and the accompanying music immediately got a few titters of appreciative laughter. Amidst the handful of favorite CDs her family had provided, Eric had found a recording of Eve playing the piano while her daughter sang for some music recital, the timing off from the beginning and getting worse, and in the middle you could hear them both fighting laughter.

It went on like that for a few minutes, scattered laughter and some tears and a few shoulder squeezes with whispered words of comfort. Eric stood and watched and silently thanked whatever chemist had come up with the calming drugs in his bloodstream. If there was a more intense sort of pressure than watching a grieving group like this take in your film, he couldn’t imagine what it was. Oh, wait, yes he could—making a real film. That had been pressure, too. And he’d folded under it.

The cottage shot was six minutes and ten seconds into the nine-minute piece. He’d kept most pictures in the frame for no more than five seconds, but he’d given the cottage twice that. That’s how curious he was for the reaction.

The song changed a few seconds before the cottage appeared, cut from an upbeat Queen number—Eve Harrelson’s favorite band—to Ryan Adams covering the Oasis song “Wonderwall.” The family had given Eric the Oasis album, another of Eve’s favorites, but he’d replaced their version with the Adams cover during his final edit. It was slower, sadder, more haunting. It was right.

For the first few seconds he could detect no reaction. He stood scanning the crowd and saw no real interest in their faces, only patience or, in a few cases, confusion. Then, just before the picture changed, his eyes fell on a blond woman in a black dress at the end of the third row. She’d turned completely around and was staring back into the harsh light of the projector, searching for him. Something in her gaze made him shift to the side, behind the light. The frame changed and the music went with it and still she stared. Then the man beside her said something and touched her arm and she turned back to the screen, turned reluctantly. Eric let out his breath, felt that tightness in his neck again. He wasn’t crazy. There was something about that picture.

He was hardly aware of the rest of the film. When it ended, he disconnected the equipment and packed up to leave. He’d never done that before—he always waited respectfully for the conclusion of the service and then spoke to the family—but today he just wanted out, wanted back into the sunlight and fresh air and away from that woman with the black dress and the intense stare.

He’d slipped out of the double doors with the projector in his arms and was headed through the foyer and toward the exit when a voice from behind him said, “Why did you use that picture?”

It was her. The blond woman in black. He turned to face her, caught a blast of that stare again, able now to see that it came from intense blue eyes.

“The cottage?”

“Yes. Why did you use it?”

He wet his lips, shifted the weight of the projector. “I’m not really sure.”

“Please don’t lie to me. Who told you to use it?”

“No one.”

“I want to know who told you to use it!” Her voice a hiss.

“Nobody said a word to me about that picture. I assumed people would think I was crazy for putting it up there. It’s just a house.”

“If it’s just a house,” she said, “then why did you want to include it?”

This was Eve Harrelson’s younger sister, he realized. Her name was Alyssa Bradford now, and she was in several of the photographs he’d used. Back in the main room someone was speaking, offering tribute to Eve, but this woman did not seem to care in the least. All of her attention was on him.

“It felt special,” he said. “I can’t explain it any better than that. Sometimes I just get a sense. It was the only picture of the place, and there were no people in it. I thought that was unusual. The longer I looked at it… I don’t know, I just thought it belonged. I’m sorry if it offended you.”

“No. It’s not that.”

It was quiet for a moment, both of them standing outside while the service continued inside.

“What was that place?” he said. “And why are you the only one who reacted?”

She looked over her shoulder then, as if making sure the doors were closed.

“My sister had an affair,” she said softly, and Eric felt something cold and spidery work through his chest. “I’m the only person who knows. At least that’s what she told me. It was with a man she dated in college and during a rough time she had with Blake…. He’s a bastard, I’ll never forgive him for some of the things he did, and I think she should have left him. Our parents were divorced, though, and it was an ugly divorce, and she didn’t want to do that to her kids.”

This sort of disclosure wasn’t all that uncommon. Eric had grown used to family members sharing more than seemed prudent. Grief sent secrets spilling past the old restraints, and it was easier to do with a stranger sometimes. Maybe every time.

“That cottage is in Michigan,” she said. “Some little lake in the Upper Peninsula. She spent a week there with this man, and then she came back, and she never saw him again. It was the children, you know, they were all that kept her. She was in love with him, though. I know that.”

What could he say to that? Eric shifted the projector again, didn’t speak.

“She didn’t keep any pictures of him,” Alyssa Bradford said, and there were tears in her eyes now. “Tore apart the photo albums she had from college, too, and burned every picture he was in. Not out of anger, but because she had to if she was going to stay. I was with her when she burned them, and she kept that one, that single shot, because there was nobody in it. That’s all she kept to remember him.”

“It just seemed to belong,” Eric said again.

“And that song,” she said, her eyes piercing again after she’d blinked the tears back. “How on earth did you select that song?”

They made love to it, he thought, probably for the first time, or if not that, then certainly for the best time, the one that she remembered longest, the one that she remembered not long before she died. They made love to that song and he pulled her hair and she leaned her head back and moaned in his ear and afterward they lay together and listened to the wind howl around that cottage with the deep red paint. It was warm and windy and they thought that it would rain soon. They were sure of it.

The woman was staring at him, this woman who was the only person alive who knew of her dead sister’s affair, of the week she’d spent in that cottage. The only person alive other than the lover, at least. And now Eric. He looked back into her eyes, and he shrugged.

“It just felt right, that’s all. I try to match the music to the mood.”

And he did, on every project. That much was true. Everything else, that strange but absolute sense of the importance of the song, couldn’t possibly be more than trickery of the mind. Any other notion was absurd. So very absurd.

Eve Harrelson’s sister gave him a hundred-dollar bill before she left to return to the service, a fresh wave of tears cresting in her eyes. Eric wasn’t sure if it was a tip or a bribe for silence, and he didn’t ask. Once his equipment was packed up and he was sitting in the driver’s seat of the Acura MDX that Claire had paid for, he transferred the bill from his pocket to his wallet. He tried not to notice that his hands were shaking.

2

IT WASN’T THE FIRST time. Over the years, Eric had grown used to sensing some unexplained tug over a specific sight. It was one of the reasons his finest work came on historical projects. The last film of note that he’d worked on was an HBO historical drama about the flight of the Nez Perce in 1877, an amazing and tragic story, and one Eric connected with from the start. They’d been shooting in the Bear Paw Mountains in northern Montana, at the spot where the fifteen-hundred-mile retreat had ended about forty miles from the Canadian border, which the Indians were trying desperately to reach. There was a team of historians along, people who’d devoted countless hours to the story and believed they had an accurate sense of the key locations. The crew spent about six hours getting things set up and was nearly ready to shoot when Eric rode to a rise that looked down on another valley. This one was smaller and on the surface less visually appealing. A little bit of snow was blowing and the sun was losing a struggle with the clouds. It was as that last shaft of sunlight receded that he looked down at the smaller valley and knew that this was where they’d been. The Nez Perce. Chief Joseph and about seven hundred exhausted and starving followers, fewer than two hundred of them warriors. General William Tecumseh Sherman and two thousand well-equipped U.S. soldiers on their heels.

Eric spent a few more minutes up on the ridge, then rode back down and embarked on a furious argument to pack everything up and move the upcoming scene into the smaller valley. The director was Douglass Wainberg, a short Jewish guy who insisted on wearing cowboy hats throughout the whole project, and while he had plenty of faults, he also had a trust in talent. He relented after Eric went on a tirade about light and horizon lines that was total bullshit—the only reason he wanted to move was that he knew they were in the wrong valley—and they wasted most of a day relocating. One of the historians took issue with the decision, said it was sad to see accuracy sacrificed for lighting concerns, and Eric had ignored him, confident that the guy was wrong. The Nez Perce had never been in his damn valley.

That was the strongest sense he’d ever had about the significance of a single shot until the picture of the red cottage. And his previous senses had always seemed to be closer to illusions, something that vanished as soon as you tried to close your fist over it.

Eve Harrelson’s sister called a week after the service, around the time he’d begun to smile ruefully at the way his imagination had gotten away from him.

“I hope that you won’t let the… odd moment from Eve’s service discourage you from working with me” were Alyssa Bradford’s first words when they met the day after her call. They were sitting on the patio outside a coffee shop on Michigan Avenue, and she had two shopping bags on either side of her chair and wore probably two thousand dollars’ worth of clothes, carefully styled to seem casual. The woman reeked of money. Eric had no idea where it came from. He’d gotten to know the Harrelson side of the family, and they were middle class at best. Evidently, Alyssa had married up.

“Of course not,” he said. “I understand your reaction.”

“I called you only because of the quality of your film,” she said. “The way you worked it all together, and the music… just wonderful. Everyone who was there was touched by it. Everyone.”

“I’m glad.”

“It triggered something in my mind. Something I could do for my husband. My father-in-law—his name is Campbell Bradford—is in extremely poor health, close to the end, I’m afraid. But he’s a remarkable man, and has a remarkable story, and after seeing your film I thought, This would be perfect. An absolutely perfect tribute, something lovely for his family to have.”

“Well, I’m glad it made a favorable impression. After seeing that one, you have a pretty good idea of what I’ll need, and—”

He stopped talking when she held up a hand.

“We won’t be doing quite the same thing. See, I want to contract your services for a longer period of time. I’d like to send you somewhere.”

“Send me somewhere?”

“If you’re willing. You have experience with bigger projects is my understanding.”

Experience with bigger projects. He looked at her with a small smile and managed a nod, the shame landing on him again, almost enough to drive him from the chair.

“I’ve done a lot of work in film,” he said. It was as difficult a sentence as he’d ever uttered.

“That’s what I thought. I read about you online, and I was so surprised to see that you’d come back to Chicago.”

The sidewalk was calling to him now, screaming at him. Get up, get your ass out of that chair and walk away from this disrespect. You were big once. Big, and ready to be huge. Remember that?

“I thought that it was probably a family decision,” Alyssa Bradford said.

“Yes,” he said. A family decision that when your career imploded, it was time to come home.

“Well, this is a family matter, too. My father-in-law has an extraordinary story. He ran away from home in his early teens, came to Chicago in the midst of the Depression, and made a success of himself. A massive success. He’s worth well over two hundred million today. It was a quiet fortune, too. Until very recently, no one in the family knew exactly what he was worth. We knew he was rich, but not that rich. Then he got sick and the legal discussions started and it came out. Now can you see why I’d like to tell his story?”

“What did he do to make the money?”

“Investments. Stocks, commodities, bonds, real estate, you name it. He’s just had a golden touch.”

“I guess so.” Eric was having trouble looking her in the eye for some reason. Her stare, that intense blue-eyed stare, reminded him of the way she’d cornered him during the memorial service.

“The town where he was born, and where I want to send you, is in southern Indiana, a truly odd place, and beautiful. Have you ever heard of French Lick?”

“Larry Bird,” he said, and she laughed and nodded.

“That’s the general response, but at one point it was one of the great resorts in the world. There are two towns there, actually, West Baden and French Lick, side by side, and they each have a hotel that will take your breath away. Particularly the one in West Baden. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and yet it’s built out in the middle of nowhere, this tiny town in farm country.”

“You want me to go there?”

“That’s what I’m hoping, yes. It’s where my father-in-law is from, and he grew up in the era when it was really alive, when people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Al Capone were visitors. That’s what he saw in his childhood. I visited the place for the first time last year after reading that they had restored the hotels. I was there only for a day, but long enough to see that the place is just surreal.”

“Are you looking for a video history of the place, or of his life, or—”

“A combination. I’m prepared to pay for you to be down there for two weeks, and then take whatever time you need to finalize it once you’re back.”

“Two weeks sounds like an inordinate amount of time. Not to mention cost.”

“I don’t think so. My father-in-law didn’t speak much of his childhood, or his family. He’d talk about the area, all these stories about the town and times, but hardly anything about his own life. All we know is that he ran away from home when he was in his teens. His relationship with his family ended then.”

“If that’s the case,” Eric said, “he might not enjoy seeing me present the family history on video.”

“You could be right. This isn’t just for him, though—it’s for my husband and the rest of the family.”

“I’m certainly interested,” he said, “but I do think two weeks sounds a bit—”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you the price. I’d pay twenty thousand dollars for the completed product. I’ll give you five of that in advance.”

It was amazing that his first instinct was to think that dollar figure unimpressive. His mind still went to real film budget numbers initially. Then he considered it again and realized that twenty thousand dollars was half of what he’d made all last year. And twenty thousand more than he’d made the year before that. He closed his mouth on the hedging I don’t know if I can invest all that time argument that had been forthcoming, leaned back in his chair, and raised his eyebrows at Alyssa Bradford.

“I don’t see how I can turn it down.”

“Excellent. Once you see the town and the hotels and learn about the history, I think you’ll find the whole project very suited to you. Suited to someone of your gifts.”

“My gifts.”

She hesitated, the first time she’d shown anything but total self-assurance, and then said, “You know, taking things that are gone and bringing them back to life.”

Eric said, “I’d like to interview him. Something of this length, interviews will be important.”

She nodded, but the smile was fading. “I understand that, but I don’t know how much you’ll get. He’s ninety-five and in very poor health. Conversations are difficult.”

“Sometimes one sentence is enough to make a hell of a difference. If it’s the right words, the right sound… it can have an impact.”

“Then I’ll arrange a time for you to visit. I also know that you like to have photos and family artifacts. I already brought something for you.”

She reached into her purse and withdrew a glass bottle, maybe eleven inches tall. Her purse had been resting in the sunlight, but the bottle was surprisingly cold when she passed it into his hand. Light green glass, with etching across it that said Pluto Water, America’s Physic.

“Look at the bottom,” Alyssa Bradford said.

He turned the bottle over and found another etching, this one the image of a jaunty devil with horns, forked tail, and a sword in his belt. One hand was raised, as if in a wave. The word Pluto was etched beneath the figure.

“What is it?”

“Mineral water. That’s what made the town famous, and what built the hotels and brought people in from all over the world.”

There was a stopper held in place with a wire press-down, and below it the bottle was filled with a cloudy liquid the color of sandstone.

“They drank this stuff?” Eric said.

“Drank it out of the bottles, yes, but they also had spas, springs you’d sit in that would supposedly cure physical ailments. That was the big deal at the resorts. People would come from all over the world to visit those springs for the healing effects.”

Eric was running his thumb over that etched figure on the base, watching sediment rise and settle inside the glass with his motions.

“Isn’t it just a gorgeous bottle?” Alyssa Bradford said. “It’s the one thing I found that had something to do with his hometown. I think it’s fantastic that he kept it all these years. That bottle is about eighty years old. Maybe more.”

“What’s with the devil?”

“He’s Pluto. It’s the Roman version of Hades. God of the underworld.”

“Seems like a strange mascot for a company to choose.”

“Well, the mineral water came from underground springs. I suppose that inspired them. Anyhow, he’s a happy-looking devil, isn’t he?”

He was that. Cheerful, welcoming. That water inside the bottle, though, was a different story. Something about its odd color and those fine, grainy flakes of sediment turned Eric’s stomach, and he set the bottle on the table and slid it back to her.

“No, you can keep it for now,” she said. “I’d like you to take it with you. See if you can find someone who can give an accurate date for it.”

He didn’t want the bottle at all, but he accepted it when she pushed it across the table, wrapped his hand around it and felt that unnatural penetrating cold from within.

“What do you have in that purse, dry ice?”

“It always feels that way, actually,” she said. “I don’t understand why. Something about the mineral content? Or maybe that old glass.”

He put the bottle in his briefcase and refilled his coffee while she wrote him a five-thousand-dollar check, keeping his palm pressed against the warm side of the mug until she’d signed it and torn it free and handed it to him.