River on Fire, by Scott Pratt
“River on Fire” is the story of Randall Smith, a foundling orphan growing up in the midwestern United States in the late 1960s. Without the intimate guidance of loving parents, Randall struggles to understand a dangerous and confusing world during one of the most tumultuous times in modern history. Immensely readable and filled with humor, “River on Fire” is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, loss of innocence, coming of age tale that examines the seductive nature of violence in American culture.
For a long time, I thought God wore a tie and a fedora. I swear it, and I know exactly where the image came from. I was eight years old and I was sick that day, the flu or something, so I didn’t go to school. I was sitting in the day room with two of the little guys, and Mrs. Thompson passed out these coloring books. The place I was living was sort of what you’d call religion-based. We did a lot of stuff that involved God and Jesus, especially praying. We prayed before every meal and before we went to bed and on Sunday mornings in Sunday school and church and on Sunday evenings in church and on Wednesday evenings in church. So anyway, in this coloring book Mrs. Thompson handed me, on a few of the pages, there was this cartoon image of a smiling guy – it showed Him from the shoulders up – with a dimpled chin and dimpled cheeks and he was wearing a narrow, knotted tie and a fedora. The brim came down just over His eyebrows and it was sitting at this jaunty angle. I didn’t know the word “jaunty” at the time, but I do now. The way He’d been drawn on the pages, He seemed to be floating. On one page, I remember, He was floating up there right next to a smiling sun. On another page, He was hovering above these smiling trees, and on another, He was among these smiling clouds, smiling down on a smiling woman pushing a carriage that contained a smiling baby. I remember looking up at Mrs. Thompson when she walked over to the table and pointing at Him and saying, “Is this God?”
She frowned a little bit and said, “God has many faces.”
That was in 1963, on a Friday, and thinking back on it, I guess it was during the time when American corporations were really in their heyday – Wall Street advertising and all that – and I figure one of those Wall Street advertising guys got the bright idea that if young guys like me thought God was a businessman, and if we really wanted to be like Him, then if they put these images in religious coloring books and everything, then maybe we would want to be businessmen, too. Or maybe we’d trust big corporations and think they were somehow related to God and when we grew up we’d be corporate supporters or devotees or something like that and not mind giving them our money. I know that’s a little cynical, but it’s possible.
On the other hand, we probably had those coloring books because somebody donated them. They’d probably been rejected by churches that had somebody who had time to actually look at the coloring books before they bought them or used them. I don’t think Mrs. Thompson had much time to look at coloring books, because she was always taking care of all of us and cooking and cleaning and everything. I could tell it surprised her a little when I asked her if that image was God.
A little while later, when we got finished coloring and singing “Jesus Loves Me” and a few other songs, we went to the kitchen and had lunch, me and Mrs. Moncier and Mrs. Thompson and Mr. Moncier and the two little guys. The other older guys who lived in the house were all at school, which is where I would have been if I wasn’t sick. When we finished eating and everything, we went down to the basement. Mrs. Moncier and Mrs. Thompson took the little guys down there every day because they had to do the laundry. There were a bunch of us living in the house, so they had to do laundry all the time. Saturday was the big laundry day, the day they spent hours down there. On that Friday, though, they weren’t washing anything, they were just ironing. We’d only been down there a short time, I remember. I was messing around with this kid named Joey Brennan, and I was standing right next to the ironing board for some reason – I was probably chasing a ball or something. There was this television in the corner so Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Moncier could watch while they were doing laundry, and I remember Mrs. Thompson saying, “Oh, my goodness! Oh, no!” So I kind of looked up at her and she was looking at the television and I looked at it and there was this older guy sitting at a desk wearing glasses and he said something like, “Reports fromDallassay the president has been shot.”
Before I knew it, Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Moncier were both crying and they started hugging each other – which they never did – so I sort of started paying attention to this guy on television. His name was Walter Cronkite. I’m not sure if I even knew who the president was at the time, but if I didn’t, I figured out pretty quick that his name was Kennedy.
“President Kennedy has been shot,” this Cronkite guy kept saying, “President Kennedy has been shot.” And he was talking about Dallasand Texasand all this other stuff, and Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Moncier kept getting more and more upset, and after a while longer Walter Cronkite said the president was dead, and whoa buddy, I knew it was bad. I mean, I could tell it was really bad.
So the psychiatrist at this place where I am now, this pretty strange guy named Dr. Drane, told me I should go back and write everything down, sort of start at the beginning and work my way up to the really bad stuff that happened. “Write it down like you’re talking to someone,” he said. “It’ll help.” Then he said something about “making organic connections between environment and behavior.” I didn’t really understand “organic connections.” I still don’t. To tell you the truth, I think it’s just psycho babble. But I figured I’d go ahead and give it a try. It’s not like I had a whole lot going on or anything.
That day was maybe where it began for me, I guess. It was the day I realized that really, really bad stuff happened out there in a world that I was a part of but didn’t seem to belong to. And those pictures of God in the tie and fedora? I’m not sure why they stuck with me for so long. It isn’t the first memory of my childhood, but it’s one of the most vivid. Maybe the idea of God as a deal-maker appealed to me because I thought I might be able to bargain with Him about stuff that was important to me. Maybe the portrayal of God as a happy, carefree presence looking over a happy, carefree world appealed to me. Or maybe it stuck with me because President Kennedy was murdered that same day. It’s pretty hard to forget something like that.
About the Author
Scott Pratt was born in South Haven, Michigan, in 1956, and grew up in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from East Tennessee State University and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Tennessee. A former criminal defense attorney, his first novel, “An Innocent Client,” was published in November, 2008, and was a finalist for the Macavity Award in the “Best Debut Mystery” category. He has since written “In Good Faith,” “Injustice for All,” “Reasonable Fear,” “Russo’s Gold,” and “River on Fire.” He lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, with his wife and four dogs.
For more on Scott, visit http://www.scottprattfiction.com;
To order River on Fire, go to http://www.amazon.com/River-on-Fire-ebook/dp/B006ZPRRVY
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