Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The River (from the novel, Paint It Red

 Dave is too tall to feel like I do inside this cardboard box that is to me almost as big as a house, the boxes my grandfather and uncles unpack outboard motors from then leave in the yard as trash, eyeholes where the handholds are, boxes that serve me as spaceship, submarine, coffin, cave, me and Little Dave when I was as small as Little Dave is now, rolling around in them, as if inside a log, or some monster from outer space that launched us into outer space, or some whale that has swallowed us whole.
I’m still small enough to pretend; Dave – even being more than a year younger than I am – can’t, his feet or head sticks out the open top no matter how we turn it and all he wants is for us to find something real we can believe in.
He wants something we can climb a mountain with or go deep into the sea in, something that won’t buckle in the morning dew or wither when it rains.
I don’t blame him, and so go along when he proposes we buy a rowboat from my uncles and sail down the river to the sea, a foolish notion since we don’t have the money except what I can steal, and since I steal from my uncles, they might get a bit suspicious if I can offer to buy the row boat they have displayed in the front of the store, even though nobody else offers to buy it.
We love the river, not just where it crosses at the bottom of Crooks Avenue; everywhere it goes, curving around the top of Paterson from where it tumbles over the Great Falls to the flat place in Fairlawn my uncles once said was clean enough for them to swim in and eat the fish they caught.
Mostly we wander on the banks near the foot of the highway bridge where the river widens and banks of reeds hide geese that sail in each fall and spring, and love where the river narrows again at the Dundee Dam and the Dundee Falls – not great falls, not high, just all ours, where the fish leap and seagulls swim and junk gets stuck, and we crawl out along the ledge to collect it.

When we find the raft, I get it into my head we can still sail to the sea – it is not a raft, Dave says, it’s the top of a crate, and I tell him it could be a raft if we want it to be, and I won’t have to steal much of my uncle’s money trying to buy a boat they can’t sell.
All we need are poles, and food to fill our backpacks, and a little help getting the crate top loose from the top of the falls, and we get Little Dave and Dennis to help us, though we won’t let them come along with us on the trip, too dangerous, too many things might go wrong, my head filled with visions of pirates and Russians, while Dave tells me he’s scared of sharks, not the small kind like the dead one he said he found once down stream near the rail road bridge, the kind with sharp teeth and lust for blood, then I get scared too, and want even more to get started.
In the dead of night, I lift enough from my uncle’s pant to buy the stuff we need for the trip, unloading it later at Weiss’s Foodtown, the neighborhood supermarket located at Second Street and Lakeview where we routinely buy stick matches, but not the peas for our peashooter, to which my grandmother frequently sent me for something my uncles forgot when she sent them there to shop – with me still searching for the ten dollar bill I once dropped during one of those trips as if after all the previous searches it would suddenly and magically appear, a place where I am as well-known to the clerks as I am to the local police, dropping down on the grocery checkout our collection of supplies the way Lewis or Clark must have at the start of their adventure more than a century ago, the clerk frowning over each piece because these goods are so different from the goods my family usually purchases, too many loaves of white bread, too many jars of peanut butter and jelly, a large bottle of grape juice, along with matches, batteries for flash lights and pocket radio, and more, finally packing each into paper bags, me, Big Dave, Little Dave and Dennis carried away in a caravan to the street and down the hill, in a direction away from where we lived, to add to the other supplies we each snuck out of our houses, extra socks, extra underwear, and thicker clothing we will need when we eventually reach climes where the temperatures drop.
Dave brings a flash light, compass, pocket knife and canteen, he lifted out of his father’s locker in the upstairs closet where all the war stuff is stored, claiming we might need the compass to keep from getting lost, something I argue isn’t possible since we’re be following the river most of the way, though even I have a hazy vision of what might happen when we actually reach the sea, Little Dave and Dennis waving at us as we sail off into the middle of the shallow water at the foot of the Dundee Falls, shouting after us as to when we think we might come back, Dave shouting back, “never,” if things work out the way we’ve planned, me wondering what my uncles will say when I don’t get back by curfew, thinking about the rowboat we can’t have, and the boxes out of which Big Dave’s feet always stick, for the first time trying to imagine what we really might find when the crate top that is not a raft takes us out of sight of where we live, homesick already, but I don’t tell Dave, wondering if it is possible to sail all the way to California, the place I really want to see, can’t imaging, even when I was still small enough to find in the cardboard box comfortably.
We watch the shore shrink, at Little Dave and Dennis growing smaller, as small as we used to be, and then vanish, and we pushing poles to keep from getting stuck on stone, or sailing into the backwater from which we can never get out, then we sail under the rain road bridge, passed places my uncles sometimes talked about when they were as old as we are now: paper mills their aunts and uncles worked in, factories that shut their doors before my uncles would work there, too, then around other curves, under other bridges, near where the smokes stacks of still other factories rise, then open land on one side and houses on the other, near where the river seems to run straight for a while.
Dave wants to know how far the sea is; I can’t tell him. Dave wants to know if we’ll reach it before dark; I don’t know that either. Dave wants to know if we’ll run out of food, or drown or get eaten by sharks neither of us has actually ever seen.

The brown water is deep, if not wide, framed by rippled walls of metal, like crumpled typewriter ribbon stretched out with brown or tan rust marks to indicate how high the river has risen at times, lower now that it has been, yet deep enough so that we see nothing when we look down into it. We no longer need the poles to propel us as the water is too deep and the current catches us and drives us on wherever it wants, we merely using the poles to push pieces of things out of our way, branches or bottles or even a few dead animals the water has warped so we can only guess what the animal was before the river twisted it into something else.
Dave asks if our families will miss us by which me means he already misses them, though we both know Dennis well tell them all, and Dave’s mom will call the police just as she has each time we have tried to run away before, the last time the police finding us in the quarry in the midst of a blizzard and me wondering how they can find us now if we really reach the sea, and we might have done better, gone faster, in the road boat nobody else wanted but us to buy, and then Dave tells me we are sinking.
Not fast, not like a real boat might, inch by inch, the water feeling the pores of the crate lid that is not really a raft, so everything gets heavy, soggy, and instead of floating over the water, the wood glides about an inch under it, our feet already wet, our backpacks saturated and held down only by the weight of what they contain.
Then Dave tells me, he can’t swim.
We are dead center in the middle of fast water with poles that can’t reach the bottom or to either side, traveling slower and slower as the raft that is not a raft slowly sinks, and water that was just over our toes before is now over our ankles and nobody anywhere we can see to call for help, except for some cars to the west speeding along the road there, and I don’t know what to tell Dave, so we both start to yell.
 When we can’t yell anymore I tell Dave I will teach him how to swim, remembering when my uncle taught me by throwing me into a part of Greenwood Lake ten times over my head, only I can’t throw Dave anywhere; I just push him in when he least expects and dive into the water after him as the crate top that is not a raft goes by, a little higher in the water than it was because we’re not on it any more.

Dave gurgles between screams, even after I swim over to where he splashes and show him out to tread water; his gurgling ceases, but not his screams, or his cursing me and my fate and his father for ever being born, promising to kill me if he ever survives my drowning him, clutching me like he would one of those round life preservers we see in the movies on the sides of ships and which my uncle sells, but I never thought to steal, and with him still clutching me, I start a slow, painful swim towards shore, his weight dragging me down the way our weight did the raft, just as I drag him down with all of my schemes, the oily water worse than the lack of air, its taste cling to my tongue so I gag; I will never be rid of it.

When Dave runs out of breath, he stops cursing; we reach the rusted metal wall. He clings to it instead of me, a six-foot two-inch infant unable to find his mother’s tit to suck, his chest and my chest heaving, his breath and my breath mingling as we both gasp for air, his face and my face covered with the oily slick the water leaves, dripping down off our brows like sweat, his fingers and mine finding the tiny crevices by which we might rise out of the water, inch by inch, a baptism neither of us intended, a rebirth neither of us expected, lost yet not lost, not lost in a way we thought we would be, inch by inch, dripping that oily water from all of our pores, fingers finally finding the top where the helpful hands of the cops haul us up, shaken yet not completely sad. Dave’s question still resonates in my head: will they miss us when we’re gone, and the answer: they already have.

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