To the Boats
You know it’s coming but you never see it, all that pain waiting there, in the unseen distance downstream.  
by Pete Fromm
From the May/June 2010 Issue

Oscar cracked the canoe down on the shingle, twisting out from under it with a theatrical hand-on-hip, low-moan stagger. Well, pretty much theatrical, but he did take his time straightening up, in no hurry to acknowledge the pathetic distance from his truck to the water. He looked instead at his canoe, but all he saw was the dirty little streak of dust coiling away from the rub plate and into the river.

Letting the sun ease into his shoulders, he did the math, found he’d painted the resin over that fiberglass 26 years ago. His breath didn’t come any easier knowing there were things in his life already a quarter-century past. Watching the sparkle of the early sun off the riffle upstream, Oscar rubbed his temple. His kids were still filling diapers when he’d found this canoe, the deal of his life then, his biggest nonessential layout of cash.

And now they were as good as gone, though he could still picture every little ignored lake they’d found, the places they’d camped alone, fishing some, rolling the canoe over and hooting and hollering inside it, the water trapping them and their laughter and holding them tighter than any arms ever could.

He’d taught them the J-stroke, the C, the draw and the pry and the brace, got them pretty solid in the whitewater even up in the gorge before their interest scattered off elsewhere: Diane’s to her succession of boys, each more ghastly than the last, and Rob’s to his computer, his paddler’s muscles atrophying, his hair going greasy, his pallor cave-like. Two total strangers no more than sharing space in the same lair, leaving Oscar and Jen sitting at the dinner table alone, trying to remember what they used to talk about when just the two of them had seemed about perfect.

Today, watching him pull the canoe from the rafters, Jen said she couldn’t drop work, not on such short notice. She tried to look disappointed, though Oscar remembered mornings watching Jen on the phone to her boss doing deathly ill so convincingly he’d nearly taken her temperature, remembered other mornings with her on top, going still just long enough to leave a message with the night service, how she’d totally forgotten her eye appointment, how with the dilation she’d be wandering the office blind and she’d have to take the whole day. He remembered exactly how her teeth had looked against her lips, how she’d closed her eyes as he struggled to make her crack, laugh, moan, anything. But she was good, holding it all in till she clicked off, whacked him on the shoulder with the phone, and then rode him till there was no holding back. Then she’d smile down at him, touch her forehead to his, and whisper, “To the boats!” Their war cry. They were on the river before the work crush filled the streets. Those poor bastards.

Oscar shook his head. Going back that far, he’d wind up looping the anchor rope around his ankle and pitching himself overboard. Really, the plan today was just to get out on the water a little, fish again, feel the paddle blade give him some slight grip on the ungrippable, his soft hands hardening on a shaft long worn free of smoothing varnish.

He set up his rod, picking an Elk Hair Caddis, always a solid bet on the Green, or it had been back in the day. He actually looked up to heaven, as if he might be offered a reprieve, but he still had to pull out the cheater specs to tie the blood knots in his leader, the motions ingrained like bike riding. With the specs the leader leapt into focus, the fly’s eyelet an actual hole, and Oscar spent some seconds just studying his fingers, smiling, remembering them, the short nails, the wiry hairs between the knuckles. But there were also a few new spots—dark spots, like old people have. Not that big or even that dark, but still . . . He pulled off the specs and dove them into his pocket without bothering with the case.

Standing listening to the gentle slip and tumble of the water, the eddy of the breeze through the willow and sage, he wondered if Jen still had that arc of tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose. Even with young eyes, you had to be closer than normal people get to see them at all. She used to wear a string of little pearls, too, each no more than a glistening white BB, 13 of them. “For luck,” she’d said, the first time he counted, touching each where they looped just across the slight knobs of her collarbones, one of his favorite spots in the world, one he’d reach up and touch in wonder. They’d had more luck than should have ever been allowed. They didn’t need charms.

Now, at the edge of the river, he wondered what had happened to those pearls. Jen wasn’t at all the jewelry type, and for the first time the oddity of that necklace struck him, made him wonder who that gift had come from, an idea that once would have plunged him into a gloomy, doubting jealousy.

Now he could ask her straight out, and she could reveal a long-lost love, some torrid college affair with pearls and rings she’d somehow neglected to mention in all these years. It would be something to talk about, a vaguely pleasant reminiscence to fill an otherwise empty evening

 Oscar tied in his cooler, set his life jacket across the cane seat, wedged the extra paddle in between thwarts, then glanced around, the Winds freshly snow-dusted and tall upstream, the river hardly more than an idea up this high. He splashed in, sucking a breath at the bite of the water over his sandals, and crow-hopped into the canoe, pushing the rod aside and digging in the paddle to skirt the first rock, unable to stop a kid’s grin. “Hot damn,” he said. Then, “To the boats!”

He paddled, hip-rocking without need, drawing close to rocks he didn’t need to approach then prying away or sweeping in across their eddies, pulling in behind, grinning less like a kid than like a complete dribbling moron. He laughed and dug extra hard, back into the current, watching the twin whirlpools race behind the edges of his blade.

Now beyond that first wild need to dart across the river and back, feel the ache and pull through this shoulders and back, Oscar laid the paddle across the gunwales and lifted his rod, flicked out line and then paused, the fly trailing across the river only a few feet away. He hadn’t even thought to look for feeding fish, for cover, holding water. He shot the fly toward the bank, mended once, then again, and then looked out over the water and the sage, absolutely alone. How many minutes total had he been truly alone in the last two decades?

He breathed in deep, shivered in the cool air running downriver, and could scarcely have been farther away when the tiny sip took his fly under. He stared a second before hitting back, spooling in the slack—how had all that piled up so quickly? He glanced downstream for rocks and felt the fly still biting in, the trout dashing back against it, and in the same moment breaking free into the sun and the breeze, scattering the river around him, touching back down and bolting back up, thrashing and rolling as if excited about the whole game.

Oscar laughed, the sound racing across the water and varnishing into the sage like a ghost. What he’d give now to be cradled under a canoe with his children.

He dropped the rod tip, left the slack snaking across the coiling surface of the river and waited, but when he brought the line in the trout was still there, refusing to be let free. Glancing downstream for any sneaker rocks, he brought it to the canoe and slipped the caddis free from its jaw, surprised by the hook of the barb catching flesh. He slid his hand back and forth under the trout’s belly until he felt the stir of muscle, and then the trout was gone.

When he brought the hook up to arm’s length, where he could still see, and closed his forceps over the barb, he knew, before he saw, that his hands shook. How had he let this all slip past him? Everything. Diane. Rob. Jen. He’d had ideas, he had to admit, way back in the crib days, standing in the dark, holding one or the other of their hot squalling bodies tight and whispering hushing inanities, ideas of being out here in places just like this, with them as kids and later as adults—partners, best friends, the kind of people who would grow up with all this under their skins, who would always do whatever it took to join him on a river, float away together from whatever it was that needed floating away from.

He’d told Jen about it, the middle of some godforsaken night of ear infections or flu or whatever, her pushed back up in bed, hopelessly sleepless, her pajama top damp, her milk leaking to the call. Doing what he could, he tried to paint this same picture for her, build this beautiful image of the payoff for these ragged nights, the troupe of them easing down this blissful stream. “We’ll have two canoes,” he’d whispered, “Rob in one bow, Diane in the other. Of course at first their strokes will be nothing more than lily-dipping, but they’ll grow into it, learn to—”

She’d stopped him with a look, her cheeks as damp as her shirt. “They’re people, Oscar,” she’d said, as if explaining astrophysics. “Not playmates, not friends you build from a kit.”
He’d managed, “I know.”

“They can go anywhere. The whole gigantic world. The longer you plant them in that bow seat of yours, the less likely they’ll be to stick around for it.”

He’d nodded, said “I know” again, though he was as far from knowing as it was possible to be. He’d eased off the bed, the other one up now, woken by some lizard instinct, and he’d been glad for it. Not playmates? Well, what were they? To this second, he remembered his awe at the very idea. It had taken their whole lives to beat the answer into him.

   Oscar blew out a long breath, rotated his shoulders, looked up and down the old familiar path. The river, he thought, and stopped just short of saying Jen’s parting line aloud, “It’ll be good for you.”

He paddled when he needed to, flicking casts toward the bank between strokes, and was almost past the cutbank before he recognized it as the site of their great buffalo dig. Just catching the tail end of Rob’s dinosaur/archaeology enthusiasm, they’d passed this bank together, Rob noticing the bit of tooth poking out from the freshly caved chunk of mud and gravel bank. Above it, something rougher curved out and back into the old riverbed, and Rob said, “Skull!” He was on and on about Triceratops and T. Rexes before Oscar could work his way back upstream.

Oscar grinned now, remembering the mud cascading down into the raft, the water boiling at the edge of the upstream tube as he clung to the sage roots, holding them stopped long enough for Rob to dig, Jen calling from downstream, “Rob? Oscar!”

He hung on for life, grinned through the dusting of centuries-old riverbank as Rob cried, “Molars!” then came falling back into the raft with a crash that tore the sage roots from Oscar’s hand, sent the raft cartwheeling along the bank and into the main pull of the river. Pinned beneath the gigantic skull he’d yanked from the strata, Rob said Buffalo, not without some disappointment, a skull hundreds of years old buried under eight feet of sediment laid down by fractions of inches. But still no fossil.

The huge skull still graced their mantel at home, though no one had dusted off its story in years. For a long time after that trip, Jen kept pulling buffalo molars out of the washer or dryer, crabbing about how they wore holes in Rob’s pockets, chipped the appliances, but Oscar shrugged and said, “As long as he’s only carrying buffalo teeth in his pocket, he’s still our boy. It’s big medicine, those teeth.”

“Medicine?” She laughed, but looked down at his chest, not his eyes, when she said, “He was never ours, Oscar. What will it take to make you see that?”

Oscar pulled with his paddle, watched the little circles of whirlpools trail in its wake. He had his answer to that one now. Diane was gone, really and truly, dragging herself off to college two years ago, though if she ever went to classes her grades didn’t offer any proof. And Rob, the last weeks of his last year of high school not so much trickling by as blurring past. He’d managed to pull himself out of his basement den long enough to attend some grad bash, get dropped off in the wee hours and striped the lawn with whatever concoctions he’d poured down. Oscar picked him up, first trying to sling one arm over his shoulder but then having to haul him all the way up, the way he’d carried him as a toddler, knees over one arm, shoulders over the other. A regular Pieta. “Guy’s got to love his first drink,” Jen said, holding the door open. Oscar hadn’t known she was awake. He’d stayed up all night, tying shaky flies that would fall apart in a few casts, pretending he needed them for this trip today. Last he’d seen, Jen was heading for bed with a mystery.

Rob already had a summer job, selling knives door to door in Cedar City, Utah. Oscar had been his first sale. The knife was in his pocket now. “What with you coming up out of the basement, I’ll trade you straight across for some decent sunscreen,” he’d said, filling out the paperwork. “Cash or check,” Rob had answered, with all the humor of one of his fossils. If he ever sold a second knife, Oscar would stagger through the rest of his life dumbfounded.

Shipping his rod, Oscar dug in his pocket for Rob’s knife—a cheap blade, overpriced—and dropped it over the gunwale. It disappeared without so much as a glint. A boating accident. River tragedy. He’d get Rob his second knife sale, and that would leave him no more dumbfounded than his life already had. Jen, if she found out, would cart out the same lecture he could recite by heart, about not being able to carry them through their lives. But he’d always thought that was the whole game, had pictured himself as some
cross-threaded Saint Christopher, carrying Rob and Diane across all the rough waters. He could still practically feel their soft thighs wrapped around his neck as he trundled them through the whitewater of the grocery store, the library, the circus, could still hear Rob lean over to whisper in his ear, “My legs are tingly,” the signal for Dad to swing him down, let him walk on his own until his legs woke up. He just never saw it coming, those legs staying awake, Rob walking on his own for the rest of his life. It all made sense, it was all life, but why hadn’t anyone pulled him aside and said, Brace yourself, Oscar. You’ve no idea the pain lying in wait.

He tilted his face up to the sky, the harmless fluffy clouds turned pink with the evening, and forced a smile so wooden he could have whittled it into a toy for his children. “She was warning you every step of the way,” he said to the scudding clouds. “Idiot.”

Oscar looked back downriver, picking his way through the little bit of rock garden, the channels all gathering and accelerating into one, only minutes now from the bridge. And though he was tempted to dig in, paddle like he was 20, straight under the bridge with the next stop the Gulf of Mexico, he angled toward the takeout, as he knew he would. He could no more flee than he could wrap that anchor line around his leg. Only thoughts to toy with, an idea to hold like one last option, the chance he just now realized he’d never had.

The bow ground into the gravel above the bridge, and Oscar stepped out, stiff and creaky, the clouds gone leaden and flat with dusk. He’d overstayed, and so lost had he been in this idea of saving something with this trip that he’d left his shuttle run for the end and would have to hitchhike back for his truck in the dark. He and Jen always used to hitch it first, knowing the truck would be there at the end for them so they could squeeze every last second from the day. They’d never had enough time back then. There was so much they needed to do.

Hiding his canoe in a thicket of willows, he grabbed a paddle, the sign that he was harmless, a boater at the end of a long run, and walked up to the empty road. Studying the solid white shoulder line and starting down it, one foot in front of the next like a drunk doing his field test, he smiled, remembering Jen sticking out her thumb and her chest, pulling in rides like she was the sun, nothing able to swing free from her overwhelming gravity, while he stood off in the sage trying to look small and harmless and hardly even there.

Somehow Jen had sidestepped any mention of the shuttle today, a thing they ran with two trucks or even paid for now, so he walked along, nothing but the breeze to listen to, looking at his feet, knowing that, if he walked all 10 miles, the sand in his sandal straps would chew his feet to ribbons, and not much caring.

As the light faded, he knew once he reached the truck he wouldn’t turn it back toward the bridge but would drive straight back to Jackson, leaving the canoe out here in the wilds where it belonged, and that when he got home he’d find them worried in the living room—Jen for sure, and maybe even Rob, an overdue father alone on the river finally more real to him than the dinosaurs or the evil creatures he slew on his computer screen, and he’d limp in and grin, and in three words he would reveal what was left of his plans for their tomorrows. To the boats.

Pete’s been with us for 20 of our 35 years, and “To the Boats” is his 50th story with GSJ. Pete lives in Montana with his family, and looks forward to giving us 50 more.
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