They walked over to the campground store with a few desired purchases in mind. He wanted newspaper and wood. He wanted to check their ice, to see if it was any good. Usually it would be him looking for beer but this time it was her—Bud Light or Bud Light Lime. It didn’t make sense to expect anything better, such as Heineken or Stella Artois.
There were three ladies sitting behind the counter, on the older side, looking like they didn’t have much else to do, here or anywhere. He figured they must all be family, part of whatever family owned this land, the base of a business that included running a campground and its store, selling some of the adjacent timber, charging non-campers for day use, and taking a cut on float referrals they’d be glad to make to one of the nearby outfitters.
The store was a slimmed-down dollar store, mostly full of junk. Anything worth buying they’d brought with them already. He didn’t immediately see any of the big, commercial refrigerators, the kind you’d see in a convenience store. But they were there, toward the back. It was just soft drinks, though, colas and sports drinks and water and tea. It was a disappointment but not a surprise. He’d get the wood in any event. What a bunch of crap else wise, though. A tent? Who would buy a tent here? It couldn’t be any good. Toys, pool toys. Noodles and yet-to-be-inflated beach balls and rafts. A whole other section of regular toys. A tractor, a car, a helicopter with one big propeller on top and another little one inside its tail, like a fan—a tail fan. There was a blue cross on one side of it and on the other side a snake and staff emblem, like for The Hippocratic Oath. There was a company, publicly traded, that ran medical transport helicopters. They charged thousands upon thousands of dollars to fly people from one hospital to another, for special procedures like transplants. Or they’d fly into the sticks and pull the broken people out. He knew the stock from work. His father, a chartist, had seen a secret pattern emerge in the up and down movements of the stock. The fundamentals were terrible. The insurance companies were still writing the checks but that was going to come to an end at some point. He’d dabbled in the stock, bought it for a few clients. At the moment it was a loss. He could handle a small loss but if it got any bigger he’d have to cut and run, find something else, a train company, a car company, or a company that cut down timber and sold it for a hundred times cost to campers like him at campgrounds like this, where old ladies behind the counter refused to stock beer in the coolers.
One of the women sneezed as he walked up to the counter. “I’ll take three parcels of wood,” he said. Normally he’d call them bundles, and that’s how the sign outside referred to them: “Wood—bundles—$4.50”. But these weren’t wrapped in twine or encircled in cellophane. These were in little plastic sacks, hopefully fairly heavy duty plastic, something with a generous amount of “mil”. Ten mil at least, maybe twenty. Heck, he didn’t know how many mil were enough.
The lady was coughing now.
“I’ve got a tickle in my throat.”
“I suppose so. Something came over me all of a sudden. Maybe I’m allergic to you.”
“I hope not!”
But it made him think of a sneezing attack he’d had that morning. He decided it was best not to mention that, even though he was grasping at straws trying to think about what to say next. He just gave her the money, a $50, and took a half step back. The lady squinted at the bill, seeming to say with her body language that she wasn’t quite sure why it had been handed to her. She didn’t hold it up to the light to see if it had that little strip in it. Nor did she take a marker to it. She just set it on the keys of the register for a second, letting it rest there. She turned away and coughed a few more times, dryly. She consulted a note on the register that told her how much the bundles cost. And then she gave him his change.
They would be in the cabin just for one night. She had called and made the reservation. The place had a two-night minimum but she went ahead and booked it anyway. She’d pay for both nights but she wouldn’t tell him about the second night. It was the kind of thing that didn’t really matter that he would get himself hung up on anyhow. He would allow himself, even require himself, to get hung up on something like paying for a second night without being there for the second night. If he knew about it he’d scotch the arrangement altogether and she didn’t want that. So, mum. This was better than being in a tent here for the night and then breaking it all down hurriedly tomorrow morning, floating, stopping, setting up the tent again somewhere along the river and then breaking it down again the next morning. Besides, the cabins were supposed to be nice. A friend of theirs had stayed there before and recommended them. Nothing fancy, simple but clean, with air conditioning and satellite TV. She was eager to tell him about the satellite TV after she’d made the reservation. In her mind, she saw them in the cabin, with a baseball game going, and she thought he’d enjoy that. But when she told him there was satellite all he did was say, “Uh-huh.” He’d see. He’d find a game and they’d drink a little, and they’d have a happy night.
In fact there had been a game on, a day game at Wrigley. They started a happy hour, maybe an hour earlier than on a regular Friday, but this was a special occasion, a vacation of sorts. It was a vacation day on the time card at work, anyway. The campground and the river weren’t quite two hundred miles from home. It wasn’t like they were flying somewhere tropical but it was still a getaway. And Missouri really was quite beautiful. People didn’t realize that. It was “underrated”. It should be in the top ten if there were any top ten lists for “The Most Underrated States”. It had hills. Not mountains, sure, no one was claiming that. It had rivers, not oceans. So there weren’t beaches, per se. But there were gravel bars and float trips and some of the rolling farmland you would cross to reach the rivers was very pretty, especially when the grasses were let to grow high and sway in the breeze, waving like an ocean unto themselves, ungrazed, uncut, and unseen.
He had asked her to help him get a few rocks for the fire. He had concocted what sounded to her like an elaborate idea for what she knew he was envisioning in his head would become not just his best fire yet, but the ultimate fire—a perfect fire, the perfect fire. He had brought with them a bag of sticks he had picked up throughout the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to this little trip. He was adamant about kindling and newspaper and turned up his nose at lighter fluid. She appreciated the purist in him, theoretically, but every once in a while he was craft a fire design that choked on itself, smoking a lot, but never really becoming a fire. Lighter fluid, for him, was just too easy.
They scavenged rocks from remnant fire rings at various vacant tent sites not far from the cabin. He expected her to know exactly which rocks he wanted her to pick up. But she didn’t know, how could she inherently know something like that, what were his criteria? Who knew? She stood there, perhaps with her hands in her pockets, looking off at the river, as he tried to get at least two rocks in each hand.
“Are you going to help me at all?”
“I don’t know which ones you want.”
He shook his head not quite imperceptibly. She reached for a rock.
“Not that one. I need it to be…it’s got to be the same height as these. These are all the same height.”
She managed to pick a couple that made the final cut.
He had to admit that this fire had been a disappointment. Where did he go wrong? The rocks had worked in previous fires, they had kept the wood off of the ground. Wood on the ground wouldn’t really burn, it would just smoke and get in people’s eyes. No one liked wood on the ground. He wanted a smokeless fire, the chewing tobacco of fires, if he could get it. That was his goal. All along in school they were always preaching about “goal setting”. He had shrinked away from setting goals. It seemed so artificial, such an exercise, so clunky. Life didn’t work that way. You couldn’t just set goals and then strike out along the path of, “OK, here I go, I’m going about my effort of achieving Goal Number One!” But he did have a goal in mind for that fire and he had failed. He had formally failed to achieve his goal and this embarrassed him. He hated that one cabin over they had gotten a nice little fire going whilst he flailed with his. They had used lighter fluid, naturally. Cheaters. Still, with the kindling he’d brought, and by continuing to add crusty old sections of the USA Today Money section, he was able to conjure enough heat to allow them to roast three rounds of all-beef franks. They tasted good—no residue of lighter fluid on them either. Who wants to eat an oil refinery? Anyone?
He shook his head but he was shaking it for a number of reasons. It had been a long-enough drive just to get down here. Elephant Rocks was crawling with kids. Not exactly a romantic getaway. Then there was that one town draping itself in Confederate flags. Not exactly scenic. They drove close enough to Doe Run to contract a solid case of lead poisoning. Now this fire, the disaster that never caught flame. Hot dogs for dinner and too much beer on top of it. He was starting to feel a little woozy. It was probably the cigarettes. She was sitting at the picnic table and didn’t seem to be having a bad time but she wasn’t saying much either, was she? He looked all around the campground in the gloaming light. There were several respectable fires. Kids rode bike and played grabass. People ten, maybe even fifteen years younger gleamed and shined and rocked away with their music. The only thing that made sense to him was to have another cigarette.
I wake up and my dog is licking my face, which is weird because he wouldn’t normally do that, so I lift my head a little to check and see: is this really my dog? Yeah, that’s him. I’m dead, that’s it, I must be, I’m definitely dead, which—at least I got here without killing myself—but, how did I here, why am I here, and—what’s that on my dog’s side, or—where is the dog’s side, it’s just gloop, bloody gloop that’s kind of oozing down, a string of it is just about to hit the ground and I—
She is making coffee and he is sleeping in a bit, it does appear, it does seem. The water was almost boiling on the range. With these electric ranges, remedial as this one was, water started boiling in about a minute, much quicker than on gas. It was just a basic little kitchen but the range was nice and the countertop was no worse than what they had at home. They lived hardly a stone’s throw from Granite County USA—they drove through it on the way down here, hill after hill bursting with new countertops and— Well, the coffee was going to taste good. It was Via, nothing fancy. It packs up easy. Strong taste. Micro crystals, who knew? The stretch of humankind that went through a couple of generations of Sanka before this stuff was invented deserves some sort of medal. The Awful Coffee Endurance Medal. Something like that. It would be a ring of golden coffee beans lightly roasted from a very sustainable harvest spot in the mountains of Peru or the most agreeable swathes of Ethiopia.
The smell of bacon beckoned her back. They didn’t bring butter. It wasn’t on his “Camp List #3”. That was the most exhaustive pack list, the one that had every supposed possibility on it. They never had cause to call for butter, apparently. So she put the bacon in and it would render down and she would cook the eggs and toast the bread in that. The way generations before had done it. She could hang when she had to. But he was gonna have to stir pretty soon, snap himself out of whatever dream he was enjoying. The van was supposed to get them in ninety minutes.
She sipped her coffee, went and looked out the window. Hmmmm. She opened the cabin’s front door unto a puddle. It hadn’t just rained last night—it had poured. The river was going to be higher. Maybe too high. Did a river move faster if it were higher? Or did the height flatten it out and slow it down? It wasn’t gonna break her heart if the plans had to change. It was 58° outside, not sunny. Canoes kill marriages.
The van driver arrived with typically bad news. They could come with him but he was going to have to take them back to the office because the part of the river they were supposed to start on had already been closed. At that point the river’s level had spiked into flood stage territory. They could probably get on the river a little below there but an overnight was probably not viable.
At the office they hemmed and hawed. He stood at the counter hunched over the in-laid river map, a gal that worked for the outfitter on the opposite side of the counter. She wasn’t telling him that they couldn’t get on the river but she wasn’t endorsing any one idea either.
His wife wasn’t much help. She had been so…quiet…this whole trip. He was starting to think she was holding back. His preparation, his sense of how a trip was supposed to go was weighing her down. He couldn’t accept anything going wrong, he didn’t want any surprises. It wasn’t very romantic, he supposed, but this wasn’t a courtship. They’d been married for ten years. Having his shit together was meant to make things easier, not just for him but for her too. For anyone he was camping with. But he had to acknowledge a growing sense that he was turning other people away in his fervor. He imagined himself becoming a caricature of himself, the ultra-prepared, uptight camper.
He knew his wife was wavering on the canoe. Fine. Forget the canoe. The overnight float plan was toast anyway. She never even wanted to do it in the first place. He could grasp that now. So they’d still float, on kayaks, and it would be like any of the other floats they’ve done. Basic, simple, easy. Stupid. All of his planning and packing, down the drain. He stress amounting to nothing. It was all just a soliloquy with an audience of one, not applauding.
That first part was a little tricky, right where they got in. It seemed like there were a lot of rootwads, rocks, some white water. It was going to be a really long day. She could imagine herself tipping, and him getting mad at her to boot. She’d be freezing and he would be embarrassed. Seventy degrees was a dream, what a bust.
He was impressed they didn’t tip right away. It was actually a little tricky right off the bat there. But the river then calmed and he figured, We’re here. It’s a grey day but at least it has stopped raining. He was going to enjoy himself. His head still hurt a little from last night but this is what other people did on floats: they drank, played music, laughed.
Paddling up alongside her, nudging her kayak a little with the nose of his, he said, “You want a beer?”
“Nah. I’ve still got a lot of breakfast in my stomach.”
Well, he would be drinking alone, then. No one else on the river, no friends to show for himself, and now a teetotaling wife. Jee-zus.
He crushed one beer and then a second. The river was definitely moving quicker than usual but other than right at the beginning there wasn’t a moment he thought either of them was in danger of tipping. Up ahead was a clearing on the bank with a couple of trash cans. It had to be part of a campsite, maybe one of the primitive sites he had seen listed on the map. Maybe it was the place he figured they could have camped at had they done the overnight.
“I want to stop here,” he called up to her as they approached the clearing.
She put the tiniest effort into trying to slow herself so she could pivot over to the bank. The river kept moving and so did she. She could have made it over to the bank if she’d wanted. It would have taken some paddling.
“I’m still stopping,” he announced, not caring if she could hear him or not. She could figure it out.
He breached, threw his paddle up onto the bank, got out, peed. He cursed his body for feeling just a little woozy. He’d only had a couple of beers, a little whiskey. It was early yet, no time for feeling woozy, body: I can’t give you coffee all damn day. He pulled the kayak up a ways more. She would be downstream at least a quarter of a mile already. He grabbed his paddle and smashed it into the sand a few times. He wanted to yell out, boy-crying-wolf style, he wanted her to feel bad. But he knew that was dumb and petty and he wanted to remain above that.
The trash can was empty. Not a single thing in it. Did that mean someone had been here recently, to clean it? Or that no one had been here for quite some time, even to stop and toss away their beer cans and Pringles canisters and condiment-smeared sandwich bags and napkins? It was a mystery, an enigma. Like the case of Schrödinger’s Cat. There was a path, a narrow trail, leading along the bank. Part of it had swamped over, covered either by rain water that hadn’t yet made it to the river or river water that had risen up and been stranded there like surf left behind in a tide pool. He jumped over one of the pool puddles, grunting, and something of not insignificant size was startled and scuttled—slithered?—away into the brush between him and the river. Maybe this was a bad idea. But he continued.
After about 100 yards he came to a parking lot. There was another of the same sort of trash can there. He really wanted to know if there was anything in that trash can. Parked next to the trash can, with its motor rumbling in idle, was an old, black GMC Jimmy. This was the sort of vehicle that he imagined the lamest burnout from his grade school days was probably out there driving, when it wasn’t undergoing another repair.
The windows were tinted, of course. Someone was in there. Maybe it was the person who maintained, and had just emptied, the trash can on the river. Maybe it was a teenager, or two, getting high. He pictured two kids in there, huffing it up, hotboxing, listening to one of the two or three FM stations that came in clear. From the tailpipe came a thin, greasy smoke. Also in the parking lot was an information board, the sort you’d see at a trailhead in a park. He wanted to read it, thought about the exact path he would take to get to it without coming too close to the Jimmy. The engine cut off. He bolted.
He didn’t quite run back, that wasn’t really possible in his water sport-appropriate sandals. Plus, when he had turned tail he had kicked up a few pesky little bits of gravel from the parking lot which now were trapped in the sandals, causing him discomfort with every stride. He tried to think of something else. What was that parking lot doing there?
He whipped the nose of the kayak around and tossed his paddle into the water, a little farther out that was advisable. This river, this poor river, usually so clear and now so silted and muddy that, even getting in you couldn’t quite see what you were stepping on, or into. It was not better than lake water. Helped by the muddy river, the kayak was just now working itself clear of the shore, getting a little distance from him. He thought he could hear the sound of footsteps and someone whistling. He plunged into the water and groped wildly for the kayak.
She had been pulled up on the next decent bank for half an hour, maybe. She didn’t have a watch on. Her watch, the watch he gave her—not expensive but of an attractive color, and a brand she liked—was water resistant, but what does that really even mean? She had the bucket on her kayak and hat gotten into it for Pringles. She had her own water and she sipped on that. The sun was trying to peak out of the clouds, a minor miracle. It had been back there behind those clouds, working up a sweat the whole time, setting its flamethrowing gaze to the blanket of clouds, slowly cutting through to where it could look upon that place its people called Earth. He had the cooler, though. If it was going to get sunny then she was going to have herself a beer. No one passed by. The only sound was the river. A green heron had landed twenty feet upstream on the other side of the river and croaked a bit here and there as it seemed to squint against the water, making only one stab, coming up empty, croaking again and flying off downstream. It wasn’t going to be any more clear down that-a-way, fella. But the bird knew that. A half an hour. What the hell was he doing?
Now she was squinting, looking back upstream. Someone on a kayak. Her eyes were good but it was a hundred yards off yet. Seemed to have his hat on. Kind of looked like him. Paddling hard. Real hard. The paddle seemed to be moving around in a circle, like a propeller whirring. She thought she could hear the sound it made against the air, a deep droning whoosh, the sound a helicopter would make if it could whisper. It was the sound of someone coming, for her.