By Jim Woessner
We only ever saw the Rausches in the summer. They were an elderly couple that lived in Jeff City and only came to the river on weekends. Their place wasn’t far from ours, just downriver a hundred yards or so. They used an old Airstream that Olman Rausch towed behind his green Ford. They’d bring it down in May and tow it home in October. Except for the one time they left it through the winter. They came down in February that year for a weekend. It rained the whole time. On their last night, the river rose over the bank, picked up the Airstream, and set it down on a pile of driftwood. Mister and Missus Rausch slept through it, didn’t know what had happened until Olman got up in the middle of the night to pee and damn near broke his neck when he stepped out. We used Dad’s tractor to pull the Airstream off the driftwood the next day.
Olman Rausch was kind of crazy in a lot of ways. Always stringing limb lines up and down the river and catching more fish than he and Missus R could eat in a year. And he had this strange aversion to chicken hawks. Sometimes you’d hear him blasting away with a 16-gauge that was older than he was. I asked him once what he was shooting, and he told me “chicken hawks.” There was bitterness in his voice. When I asked him what he had against chicken hawks, he told me “they eat chickens.” So I said to him, “I eat chickens.” And Olman came right back at me, “Then you’d better not mess with me.” He wasn’t smiling either.
I didn’t know his real name. Dad called him “Olman,” which turned out to be shorthand for Old Man, since he was in his eighties or nineties. But not knowing any better, I called him “Olman” like it was a proper name. We all did. Mom didn’t care for the lack of respect. She didn’t like us kids calling adults by anything other than mister or missus. But every time one of us referred to “Olman,” everyone laughed, including Mom. She’d scold us. But it didn’t mean all that much, because the next time one of us said it, we’d laugh all over again.
The summer I was thirteen was when the accident occurred. One afternoon in September, I set out hiking across the cornfield on my way to hunt squirrels. The tenant farmer had already taken in the corn, so it was easy walking through the stubble. In the distance I saw a cloud of dust kicked up from a car was driving in from the highway. When they came around the side of Grandma’s barn in that green Ford, I knew it was the Rausches. I waved, but I don’t think they saw me. I don’t believe Olman’s eyesight was very good. They drove past the lower field and stopped at the wire gate next to Grandma’s squash patch. I watched as Missus R got out of the car to open the gate. I would have opened it for them, but I was a field away.
Next thing I heard was the sound of Olman gunning his engine. I assumed he was in a hurry to go fishing. When I looked over, I saw the old Ford lurch forward. I guess Olman’s foot must have slipped off the clutch. Missus R was crossing the road dragging the wire gate when it happened, when the Ford knocked her down. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Olman stood on the brakes and stopped the car about ten yards further on. He got out to see what he had done. Missus R was lying on the side of the road. I couldn’t see her move, and I was too far away to hear anything. Truth be told, I felt a little too scared to do much. For what seemed like the longest time, but was probably no more than a few seconds, I watched Olman standing still as a post behind his car looking at his dead wife. I guess he realized what he had done, because he ran back to the Ford, put it in gear, and took off. I think that’s when I shouted, but I’m sure he didn’t hear me. He accelerated past the Airstream and headed for the river, pushing that Ford as fast as it would go, dust and gravel spitting up in the air. He must have been doing forty when he went over the bank. I lost sight of him, but I heard him hit something hard. And it didn’t sound like water.
I didn’t know what to do. I assumed they were both dead, but I had to do something. I started running toward Missus R, but I wasn’t anxious to seeing what she looked like dead. As I got closer, I saw her move. Awkwardly, she got to her feet, and by the time I reached her, she was limping toward the river. I walked along beside her and asked how bad she was hurt, but she barely noticed me. She kept hobbling toward the water saying she was sorry. I asked why she was sorry. And she said, “Olman thinks he’s killed me.” She wanted to tell him she was sorry for him thinking that. She didn’t call him “Olman,” of course. I think she called him Ed. “I’m sorry, Ed,” she said over and over. “I’m sorry, Ed.”
When we got to the river, I saw the Ford hugging a sycamore at the water’s edge and letting off steam. I guess Olman hadn’t planned on the tree being there. The driver’s window was open, so I looked in at him. He was groaning, his eyes closed, blood all over his face. But he was alive. When he saw his wife, he cried. And so did she. Not long after, Sheriff Gray drove them to the hospital. I never did see such a bad start to a weekend at the river. And in fact, that was the last we saw of them until the following May. When they came down, we all said hi and waved and talked about the best places to fish, but we never talked about the accident. None of us did.
Jim Woessner works as a visual artist and writer living on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA from Bennington College and his poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including Literary Yard, The Sea Letter, Close to the Bone, Adelaide Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, Unbroken Journal, Ariel Chart, and Peeking Cat.