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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter 11

The Porch Rock Livery had pulled some strings with the county many years before to have a small park built several miles downstream where a sharp bend in the river came near an old county road. The place looked more like a neglected a rest area built about a hundred feet from the river. It had a small, smelly restroom on a cement slab that was forever wet from dripping swim suits, condensation on the plumbing, and the poor aim of those who used it.

Around the restroom were wooden picnic tables with a thousand names, initials, and dates deeply carved in the top through the years. These carvings went back to when the tables graced the real city park, but the endless etchings continued with each idle hand who wished to commemorate its own existence. Pocket knives, bottle caps, and broken glass were the tools of this primitive narcissism.

The people who on occasion actually picnicked at the tables were typically tubers who did not bring along vinyl table cloths, and they sat reading the hieroglyphs the way folks read cereal boxes at breakfast.

The city parks in town had virtually carve-proof tables made of recycled plastic milk-cartons. There had been a big write-up in the paper about them when they hauled off the old tables and explained the unique source of materials for the new ones. It was a time when the morality of society could be summed up in one question at the grocery store: "Paper or plastic?"

At odds were the trumped-up notions that using plastic bags “saved the life of a tree,” as if it were a soldier yanked from a line bound for war. While others argued just as fervently that plastic was a petroleum product, making it wicked in its very chemistry, and worse yet, it was not as biodegradable as paper, thus the millions of plastic grocery bags used each day were contributing to the swelling pustules of earth known as land-fills. Both arguments were overstated, of course, and though the dogma of one side of the question negated that of the other, both sides claimed they were saving the earth with all the religious zeal formerly reserved for saving souls. In time, both sides agreed that saving bags for reuse—whether paper or plastic—was the best thing shoppers could do.

The same concerns applied to the things inside the grocery bags. Thus the milk-carton dilemma. Converting something bad, like milk cartons, into something good, like picnic tables, brought a vague sense of nobility to all who used them. After all, by merely sitting down to eat, the guests had not only saved the landfills from plastic but also saved the tree that would have been sacrificed to build a picnic altar.

There were even plaques at every trash station reminding people of the good efforts of mankind and instructing them to separate their plastics into the green bin beside the brown trash bin. The bins themselves were made from the same recycled milk cartons, and everyone felt very good about it all.

Out-of-towners picnicking there, would think that they, too, should have such tables and trash bins in their town. At least that is what the Town Council hoped they would think, especially the chairman whose son owned the company that made the milk-carton tables and bins.

None of this was true of the park several miles downstream, which was not really a park at all. It was just a place for tubers to sit and wait for the livery bus to come and take them back to their cars. It got the hand-me-down wooden tables that the city had replaced. Its trash cans were 55-gallon drums with the top cut out and the letters T-R-A-S-H stenciled on the side by the same man who had painted the bus with a roller. These drums were typically piled high and spilling over. As unsightly as the place was, families from out-of-town who found themselves sitting there—especially on Saturdays between five and six o'clock—were not thinking about tables and trash cans; they were preoccupied with the thought of getting safely home without someone’s puke on their flip flops..

Sometimes the lewd behavior that characterized the place at the end of the gravel road was on the agenda of the town council. At their most recent meeting,  the chairman argued vigorously that, though it was technically not a city park, it should be adopted so to speak. If they would allocate some funds to dress the place up a little—with some eco-friendly tables and trash bins for starters—he was sure that the behavior of that park’s users would change. Others argued that the lewd behavior had nothing to do with the old wooden tables or make-shift trash bins. “Trash is trash,” one committee member said, and a hush fell over the room.

The matter had yet to be settled.

The sitting area or “park,” if you will, could not be seen clearly from the river, but if tubers knew where to fix their gaze through the trees as they approached that particular bend in the river, a partial silhouette of the restroom and tables could be pieced together. It was that silhouette that James could now barely see as he pulled his family upstream. He was still several feet from the exit point, still on the wrong side of the river, when he saw brief glimpses of something big and blue moving toward the silhouette.

"There's the bus," James said with alarm. "Everybody out. Grab your own tubes."

"Where?" asked Clair, " I don't even see where we can get out."

"I just saw it way over there through the trees," James said, "We'll cross here, and just climb up the bank and go through the woods."

"Dad, there's not even a path," said Anna.

"It's a short cut," James said, "I'm sure there will be some kind of path. Surely, we're not the first people who missed the exit."

"I'm afraid that the current is going to take me," said Kenzie.

"Here, Kenz," her father said, "I'll carry your tube, and you can hold my shirt, but you need to carry the bag for me."

He lifted the mesh bag out of the water. It contained four nearly-full bottles of water and three rocks considerably bigger than baked potatoes.

"Whoa... that's too heavy for you out of the water," he said. "On second thought, each of you take your own bottle of water. I'll carry the rocks.”

“Why don’t you just leave ‘em?” Clair suggested, “We’re going to miss the bus.” Come on! We've got to hurry."

“We may miss the bus, but it won’t be because of these rocks,” he said, slinging the bag over his shoulder.

“You guys comin’?” Anna said, already venturing ahead.

The family waded waist-deep to the east side of the river. With each step the strong current pushed them a little further off their mark, but safely on the other side, they tossed the inner tubes up into the weeds and scaled the muddy bank.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Ten

Note: The beginning of Chapter Nine underwent a major rewrite over the weekend. It was changed from narrative to a flashback of one of Dr. Sinclair's year-end lectures, thus providing more insight into the character, which serves a more useful purpose in these final chapters.

Chapter Ten

"Going with the flow" had been the theme of the afternoon until the brush with Var. Those four words were no longer applicable in either a figurative or literal sense.

James pushed the clump of inner tubes downstream while his wife and daughters rode on top. That stretch of river was about thirty feet wide and chest deep in most places, but James found footing on the larger rocks that lined the river's bottom. The second group didn't see the family coming until they passed within a few feet. Their laughter stopped like the hush of a courtroom when the bailiff says "all rise."

"Nice day for this, eh?" James said to them, still pushing forward.

But no one spoke in return as they passed. The bleary eyes stared at the man and his family as if they were in an Amish buggy on Bourbon Street. It was then, in that awkward silence, that James heard a strange sound in the distance, a dull roar of music and human voices coming through the trees ahead. So faint it was that he was not sure he heard it at all. Then the tallest of the young men raised his beer as if making a toast and mumbled something to his friends who burst into disdainful laughter.

"What did he say?" asked Clair.

"I'm not sure..." James replied without smiling

"Do you really care?" Anna said.

"Shhhhh.... Quiet for a second," James whispered.

"What?" said Kenzie.

"Did you hear that ahead?" he said.

The laughter behind them made it harder to hear what James was talking about, but as they pressed downstream, the noise grew louder and louder, coming from over the high bank ahead. The ruckus sounded like a dozen different radio stations blaring in a crowded stadium. As they rounded the bend, the clash of music and cacophony of a hundred human voices came rumbling down a high, sandy crest on the right side of the river.

“This must be where we get out,” James said, looking at his watch. “Twelve minutes to spare.”

“Sounds more like ‘Fool’s Hill’,” said Clair. “Remember what the man at the livery said?”

James pushed the raft of tubes to the side of the river and trudged up the sandy bank.

“Where are you going?” asked Clair.

“Just to see if the bus is up here.”

“Wait up, Dad. I want to see, too,” said Anna.

“No. Just stay put for a minute,” her father insisted as his head peeked over the brow of the hill. He turned and said it again, this time more sternly. “Stay there!”

Standing at the crest, Dr. Sinclair could not believe his eyes. It was as if every group of drinking, drunken tubers from the entire day on the river had gotten waylaid on a huge empty field. Nothing but staggering half-naked bodies penned in by dense trees. The stench of beer and vomit wafted toward him.

Not all of them were tubers. Some of them had come by way of a dirt road that led through the trees to this secluded place. It must have been the non-tubers who brought the blaring radios and the dry blankets where couples lay in tangled writhing knots. To his left, a young girl in a dirty lime-green bikini puked into a patch of weeds, wiped her mouth, and walked back into the crowd. To his right, a shirtless beer-gut took a few steps from some friends to openly urinate while still downing the last swigs from the can in his free hand. A few feet behind, this multi-tasking young man, another young lady dropped to her knees and  threw up, not in the weeds but at the feet of her friends who all jumped back to avoid the splash.

"Your body is telling you something," James said, but he could not even hear the words himself for all the noise. He surveyed the swarming indifference around him. Did they not care that someone not of them was watching? It was as if he was invisible. The professor understood that such wantonness was common on Fraternity Row in big college towns or in Florida's Spring Break venues, but it was the not what his own Riverdale students were like; it was not a part of his own background; and it was the last thing he wanted his girls to see on this family outing. The most troubling fact was the broad range of age. "Where are the cops?" he thought. "Half of these kids are well under twenty-one."

He had stepped into a world he had chosen not to know existed, and his face grimaced as a strange sort of sorrow swept over him, but whatever vicarious guilt or shame or pity he was feeling found no root beyond his dripping feet. Everyone was lost in collective abandon. If there was one set of clear eyes, one thinking soul in the lot, he could not see it. If there was one conversation that was not held together with vile language, he could not hear it.

He shook his head and turned back toward the river just as the group they had passed was staggering up the hill toward him with their tubes on their shoulders.

“Nice day for this, eh?” the tall one mocked, repeating the old man's lame attempt at conversation just moments before.

Clair and the girls had drifted slightly downstream but held to a branch to stay within eyesight of James who waded toward them.

“Let’s get out of here,” James said above the noise. “We do not want to be on one of those six o’clock busses.”

“I told you that was Fool’s Hill," Clair said.

“There must have been 150 of them up there," James said sadly, "All guzzlin' beer and cussin' and pukin’ and peein’ and everything else right out in the open.”

“Yea, right," chided, Anna, "What were they really doing?”

“That is what they were doing. I’m not making it up.”

He looked at his watch, and pushed their tubes down the river until the water became deeper, and with one last thrust he dove onto his tube, pushing the whole clump into the stronger center current.

Coming toward them was a man and woman in a green canoe, paddling steadily upstream toward them. It was the first canoe they had seen all day.

“Did you guys miss the exit?” the man in the canoe asked.

“I hope not,” said Clair.

“Are you coming down from the tube livery?” the woman asked.

“Yes, we are,” said James.

“Well, you missed their last exit back there about two-hundred feet," the man said. "The sign got pushed over when the water was so high last week.”

"Great..." mumbled James, dropping back into the water. "They said something about wooden stairs. I didn't see any stairs."

“They're up in the woods a ways. Railroad ties," the man said. "If I had a motor on this thing I’d pull you there.”
“We've got it. Thanks for stopping us,” James said, dragging the tubes out of the current. "I didn't see anything that looked like an exit. Did you, girls?"

"The man said it came right after Fool's Hill," said Anna.
“What did he call it?” asked the man.

"Fools Hill," repeated Anna.

"That's not what we call it," said the man, "'Round here, we call it..."

"Howard! Shush up!" said the woman, shaking her head.

"I think it's the perfect name for that beach," said the man, "That's what they are."

"Well, you just shush up in front of these girls."

"We're trying to catch the five o'clock bus." said Clair. 

“Good luck,” chuckled the man as he back-paddled to turn the canoe around. “This is as far as we go on Saturdays.”

“I don’t blame you,” James said..

“By the way,” the man said over his shoulder, “You do know you're on the wrong side of the river. You'll be getting out on the east side.”

The green canoe disappeared quickly down stream. James was now pulling not pushing the tubes.

“Shouldn’t we cross the river?” asked Clair.

“The current is too strong on that side of the bend,” James said, “We’ll cross when we get to the shallower water.”

“Dad do you want me to untie this bag of rocks to lighten the load?” Anna said.

“I’m pulling three hundred pounds of dead weight, and you’re worried about ten pounds of rocks?” James said.

“I’m only trying to help,” she smiled.

"If you want to help, get out and pull. It's shallow enough now.

"You're the only one wearing shoes," she smiled.

"Well, feed me oats and call me a Clydesdale," James sighed, slightly winded.

He looked at his watch. Three minutes to five.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Nine

The following details were added to Chapter Eight's description of Var in the courtroom:

"Var never took the stand, but his presence in the courtroom was palpable. The cheap suit they made him wear hung like a paper sack on his lanky frame and did nothing to upstage his sideburns and rockabilly, slicked-back hair. Wrong as it is to judge on appearance, he was the archetype of the kind of man who preys on needy girls with no sense of self-preservation, the kind who at thirteen try to look twenty; and at thirty try to look sixteen....."

Chapter Nine

It was early-May, two weeks before final exams, and the air conditioning had gone kaput in Dr. Sinclair's lecture hall, but the slight breeze coming through the back windows made it bearable for the thirty-seven students who sat scattered in the sixty-seat room. Dr. Sinclair stood at the front of his lecture hall and paced as he spoke.

"The opposite of innocence comes in many forms. While none can truly claim title to it, innocence is often treated like a birthright to be guarded by every living soul who at some point in time is free to dissect and compartmentalize it, thereby claiming innocence in selected behaviors while choosing to forsake it in others. How many times have you said, 'I may have done this, but at least I've never done that'?

"It should never be assumed, however, that the opposite of innocence is guilt, for wherever accountability to God is rejected, man becomes his own god and does that which is right in his own eyes. Guilt is then reduced to a feeling, a remnant of ancient notions of lost innocence and a longing for redemption. Once those old notions are expunged, guilt also becomes a thing of the past."

Dr. Sinclair was on a roll, and his voice echoed in the room.
"What man fails to see is that the relationship between innocence and guilt is much like that of justice and mercy.  Without the former term, the latter has no meaning. This is important in civil discourse. Take tolerance, for instance.  We are to be patient and long-suffering toward others, but that does not mean we must turn a blind eye toward debauchery. The difference between patience and tolerance is that the former sees wrong and defers judgment while the latter sees judgment and calls it wrong.

"Do you see the difference? Individuals and cultures can be characterized by their understanding of these terms and by the tolerances they adopt to avoid feelings of guilt, but their absence of such feelings should never be confused with innocence. There is a world of difference between Paradise and living among people who have eliminated the concept of guilt.

"Classic literature illustrates the human condition in that conflict not peace drives the storyline. We long for resolution that seems beyond man's reach. This hope of restoration can be seen from William Shakespeare to William Golding.  We are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. We prefer to think of man's troubles in abstract terms, but the conflict is not so much between good and evil, for instance, as it is between those who believe that good and evil exist and matter ...and those who don't."

A young lady's hand rose in the third row. "Will this be on the exam?"

A patch of non-threatening clouds blocked out the sun, and the river seemed colder to their feet. No one said a word as they drifter deeper and deeper their own thoughts.

As a father, James was well aware that the innocence he wished to preserve in his daughters was not a moral state but an ideal, a reflection of his desire—if not their own—to live as if accountable to God. He wanted for his daughters the kind of unblemished beginnings with their someday husbands that were once presumed of both parties. It's was an old-fashioned notion, but he knew the heartache it prevented and the honor it brought to wedding vows. He also knew that the man who does not believe in such things enjoys nothing more than soiling the lives of those who do. In his gut he knew Floyd Vargus was just such a man. He could see it in the brazen familiarity of his eyes. The fact that his daughter could come face to face with such a person in the middle of nowhere while floating down a river disturbed him more than he chose to say.

This tubing thing was to be a carefree change of pace for all of them. For Anna from the coffee shop; for Clair from her endless summer inventory of books; for Kenzie from the television; and for himself it was a cool-down from toiling with a ton of limestone from sunrise to noon.

He was satisfied with his work in the turtle garden: waterfalls and grottos, a pond with lily pads and cattails in the speckled shade. The fact that it was still on his mind was evidenced by his casual gathering of colorful rocks along the river's edge. Until ten minutes before the river had seemed like the idyllic paradise he was making for the box turtles. Now, try as he might to prove that he “was not going to let one jerk ruin their day,” the water seemed murkier; they felt more unseen twigs and weeds against the backs of their legs; and the carefree flow of their banter was gone.

Rounding another bend, the Sinclairs entered a long straight stretch of river. Ahead they saw another group that they had gained on while James was pushing them. This new group also had coolers and the glimmer of cans in hands held high. Within moments, Var's group rounded the same bend behind them. It was nothing to worry about James knew, but his family was now sandwiched between echoing choruses of crass laughter. After an audible sigh, James spoke.

"You know...the thought of catching that five o'clock bus and heading home is starting to sound good to me."

He got off his tube and began pushing again. As they passed the group ahead, they endured the friendly comments of drunken teens. Each of them was nursing a beer, and while some of them may have been "of age," there did not seem to be an adult among them.

"What sort of parents," James said aloud without meaning to, "let their children spend a day like this unsupervised."

"Children?" Anna asked. "You said children. Kenzie is the only child I've seen on this river."

He did not reply, and wished he had held his tongue, but, yes, he had said children. Perhaps he meant it in the sense that these young adults were presumably the offspring of parents who had relinquished their oversight duties long ago. Even those parents, when they turn eighty and these young people are sixty, will think of them as their children—it's one of the side-effects of parenthood. In James's case, he was of a mind that until he walked his daughters down the aisle, he was responsible for their well-being. A somewhat Victorian concept, but fortunately for him, Anna and the young man she was dating did not seem to mind.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Eight

Floyd Vargus liked to go by the name of “Var” — liked it so much he tattooed V-A-r on his right shoulder while passing time in prison.

With a sewing needle and a bottle of Indian ink, he did the work as best he could without a mirror. The last letter was to be a capital “R,” but on the day he was doing it in his cell, he dropped the needle and it fell deep into the crack between the floor and the wall. He was thankful that it had not happened when the half-finished “R” looked like a “P”. He could not have lived with that, but as it was, he decided to consider it a large lower-case “r” until he could trade some smokes for another needle. He never did. A few weeks later he was paroled, and the unfinished “r” became a joke with the few friends he had on the outside. The strange unfinished tat was a trademark of sorts, and it suited him.

He was now twenty-eight. The crime for which he had served was no crime at all in his mind. He had done it so often for so long and with so many that when he finally got arrested and prosecuted for it, the process struck him as a gross injustice.

“If you was to put everybody away just for this. Everybody I know'd be in jail. This ain't right." Var told the public defender. "That girl’s father is crazy—I mean craZy with a capital Z. She looked at least seventeen. How’s I supposed to know she was sixteen?"

"Fifteen," corrected his attorney.

"Whatever. That pip-squeak tramp is no ‘daddy’s little girl.’ She started it every time and  was fine with it ‘til she saw me with her cousin. Then she told her pa, and I’m tellin’ you that man is crazy with a capital Z.”

Against Var’s advice, the defender did not attempt to twist the “insanity plea” and somehow apply it to the victim’s father. He did, however, manage to make a case that the girl was allowed by said father to spend many nights in the company of unsavory strangers simply because her cousin was there to look out for her. The cousin's testimony was little help to the prosecution. She was a wild twenty-something girl whose once-pretty face had been swallowed by her darkened eyes. Every man in the jury wondered how any thinking father could leave a fifteen-year-old in such a woman's care—on a trip to a cabin with men and booze, as Var's attorney pointed out more than once. He also managed to raise significant doubt that the incidents (which happened more than once on said weekend) were not consensual. But statutory is statutory the prosecution reminded, and the jury seemed to agree.

Var never took the stand, but his presence in the courtroom was palpable. The cheap suit they made him wear hung like a paper sack on his lanky frame and did nothing to upstage his sideburns and rockabilly, slicked-back hair. Wrong as it is to judge on appearance, he was the archetype of the kind of man who preys on needy girls with no sense of self-preservation, the kind who at thirteen try to look twenty; and at thirty try to look sixteen. His nervous habit of cleaning his front teeth with his tongue while mumbling "yeah, right" to himself made his defender eager to wrap up the trial.

The jury took less than an hour. Var looked shocked when he heard the verdict, but the suit beside him smiled and considered the sentence of five to ten years a direct result of his good work. In his mind, after all the things he had learned about Var behind closed doors, the man assigned to him deserved life. But his job was to focus only on the facts of the case and to raise as much doubt as possible about the present charge. Still, he secretly hoped that the full sentence would be given.

After just four years, however, Var was released on probation—not for good behavior but because of a shrinking budget for the state prison system. He and twenty others were released at the same time.

The fact that he was now floating down a river less than one hundred miles from that prison was not a violation of parole. What was a violation of parole was the fact that he was in the company of minor females coupled with the fact that he had already downed three beers from the cooler in the extra inner tube beside him.

There were nine in the group. Four men in their mid-twenties and five young women of varied and undeterminable ages. They all looked fit for each other's company. None of the girls knew of Var’s past—they barely knew his present, but it was their habit to hook up with strangers and hope for the best each weekend.

Their laughter and coarse language was the same faint sound James had heard some time before, but now he could see the group just off to the side of wide stretch of river. They were fifty feet ahead of Anna who was at least one hundred feet ahead of her father. Even from fifty yards, he could hear the vulgar banter and see glimmer of silver and blue cans in their hands. Louder than the other voices was the lanky one standing beside his tube in a pair of cut-off shorts. As Anna approached, her tube began veering in the same direction of the others. Clair and Kenzie were further to her left and well in the streams flow.

“Anna, get back in the current,” Clair whispered loudly.

“I’m trying,” she said.

Because she did not want to make eye contact with the group, Anna kept them to her back, but this position meant she had to dog-paddle forward with her hands which was simply not strong enough to correct her course. She began to laugh nervously.

Shouting ahead, James told her to turn around and back stroke. Kenzie relayed the message ahead, and Anna turned toward the group that was now watching her and laughing. Var was wading out in the waste-deep water toward her.

“Well ain’tchoo a pretty little thing,” said Var, reaching for her foot.

Anna laughed nervously. “I’m fine. We’re just passing through.”

“James…” Clair called, trying to sound calm.

Kenzie was speechless. James turned his back toward Anna and back stroked hard in her direction.

“Yer way to pretty to be floatin’ alone,” Var said pulling her by her foot toward him. “Toss me a beer. She looks thirsty,” he said over his shoulder. Anna kicked her foot from his hand.

“Oooooh, and you’re a feisty thing, too. I like that. Don’t be scared.” He grabbed both of her feet and tried to spread them. “We’re just havin’ fun. Stay a while and meet up with them at the bus.”

“Let her go,” yelled Clair.

“Let her go,” whined one of the girls. She was not so much interested in Anna’s predicament as she was indignant that Var was trying to add another female to the mix.

“Here ya go, Var,” said a stocky young man behind him, and he threw a can of beer that splashed behind him and sank to his feet.

“Wait ‘til I’m lookin’, sloshface!” Var yelled. “Here hold this while I find yours.” He squatted down, keeping his head above water and feeling around for the sunken can.

“I don’t drink. I don’t want a beer, and I don’t want to hold yours.” Anna said, and she opened the thumb and forefinger that had been holding the can like some contaminated thing. It plopped into the water, but being half empty it bobbed back to the surface just as Var came up with the unopened can.

“You’re a lucky little snot,” he said grabbing the floating can. “If that would have sunk, I’da sunk you.”

His smile was gone. Anna saw that her father was now only ten yards away and closing. When Var turned toward James, Anna saw the tattoo on his shoulder.

“Well, listen, Var—or whatever your name is. If you touch me again, I’ll kick more than your hand. That’s my father there, and I suggest you get back to your scum-bag friends before he gets here.”

James was trying to remain calm. He had not seen or heard the conversation. For all he knew the man posed no threat at all, but his gut told him otherwise. He knew he looked foolish atop the inner tube, arms working like a machine, and his tennis-shoed feet splashing for whatever assistance they gave. But when he heard his wife say, “James do something,” he sprang from the tube ready to pounce.

Had he looked around him before jumping, he might have noticed the dark water below him and the calm surface above; he might have noticed that that spot of the river was, in fact, over his head. Rather than pounce into action, he dropped out of sight. When his feet hit the bottom, he pushed off in his daughter’s direction, coming up face-first to the surface with his hand holding his glasses on. With a couple breast-strokes, he was out of the deep water and walking toward Var.

“Nice breast-stroke. I think that’s my favorite of all the strokes,” Var sneered.

James did not hear the remark. He was winded, and the water dripping from his gray hair and the clinging drops on his glasses made it difficult to see. After a few deep breaths, he spoke in short sentences, sneaking long breaths between them.

“What’s goin' on here?” he said, wiping his mouth.

“Nothin’ for you to worry about, Ol’ man,” said Var. “I seen she needed some help that’s all. Offered her a beer. No harm done.”

“Are you alright?” he asked his daughter.

“I’m fine, Dad. Let’s just go.”

“See? She’s fine, Daddy,” mocked Var, patting Anna's ankle. “Daddy’s little girl is just fine.”

Anna pulled her foot away from Var's hand as if to kick hard in return, but she set her jaw and glared at him instead. James pulled Anna’s tube away and gave it a firm push toward the center of the river where Clair and Kenzie stood beside their tubes.

"You raised a feisty one. I like that." Var smiled.

James felt his fists double then deliberately relaxed his hands and arms, knowing they would be on call without telegraphing his intentions. In the same split second, he sized up Var's buddies and wagered they were not the kind that would help out a friend in a scuffle. He also considered the six silent eyes behind him as he reminded himself that the best fight is the one you can avoid. Even so, the deliberation of his eyes made Var take a slight step backwards.

The truth is, he was not the least bit afraid of James. He had plenty of testosterone in his veins to fight, but he intended to save it for his highest calling in life. He hadn't decided which girl he wanted, but it was that thought and that alone that prompted the backward step.

“You look like you could use this,” Var said, offering him the can.

“And you look like you’ve had too many,” James said without a smile.

“I ain’t halfway to too many—not halfway. I don’t do nothing halfway.”

“Looks to me like you're halfway to hell," James said with stern eyes.

"Oh, now that's true. I'm past halfway. Got plenty of friends there, too. Hopefully, they got a cold one waitin' for me."

"Don't count on it," James said. "What you do between now and when you find out is your business, but keep your mitts off my daughter and stay away of my family.”

With that, James turned and began walking toward his wife and girls who had retrieved his abandoned tube. Var started cussing but stayed where he stood. The further James walked away, the more bold the vulgarity became. The string of curses and the rhythms of his profanity were the result of years of practice. It was clearly an art form that impressed his laughing friends. James pretended not to hear, but by the time his wife and daughters could see his face, they knew that he was seething.

“Just ignore him, James.” Clair said.

“I thought you were going to get in a fight,” whispered Anna. "What did you say?"

"Let's not talk right now," James mumbled.

“Sometimes creeps like that come into the shop," said Anna softly. "We just give ‘em their coffee in a ‘to go’ cup and ignore them.  I told him I was going to kick him, and then you came. I was so glad to see you coming."

"Let's not talk here. We should have stuck together," James sighed.

"What did you say to him?" Asked Anna.

"I'm not sure," her father smiled. "It's kind of a blur."

James did not get back on his tube. That idiotic perch was a pose he did not want to assume until they rounded the next bend. Instead, he came up through the center hole, told his family to pull together, and he pushed against the rocky river bottom with his tennis-shoed feet. The four tubes moved downstream double-time. Once out of earshot, they began to speak again in whispers.

"Dad... Wanna know something funny?"

"What's that..."

"I almost laughed when you went under water. I mean... I pretty much said, ‘Look out, Scumbag. Here comes my dad. That was your cue, and then it was like…’Hey, where’d Dad go?"

"I know. That was not quite the dramatic entrance I had planned. Then when I was walkin’ up to him, I could hardly see through my glasses. The weird thing is even while I was standing there ready for anything to happen, even while I was talking, I could imagine how stupid I must have looked."

"I thought you looked brave," Kenzie said. It was the first time she had spoken. "He backed down then acted tough when you walked away."

“That’s the way guys like that are,” her father explained.

“Let’s try to catch the five o’clock bus,” said Clair, and the girls agreed

“I’m not going to let one jerk ruin this day,” James said, still pushing hard. “I just want to get way ahead of them that’s all.”

Around the bend, James lifted the tube over his head, put it against the small of his back and jumped backwards with his rear end plopping in the center hole like a cork. The girls laughed at the splash and the way the four tubes, now joined in their grips like a raft, undulated in the wake of the disturbance.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Seven

They floated in silence for several minutes. James, Clair, and Kenzie rested their feet on each other’s tubes to stay together. Anna was about three yards ahead of her family. This is the great thing about tubing, James thought to himself. It’s like a hammock in the water. And without thinking he let the jingle he had sung an hour before slip again from  his mind to his mouth as if it were a lullaby:

“Long time. Long time. Chewy, chewy Tootsie Rolls last a long time.”
[Notes: A-G...octave up A-G.........E-E..........C-C.........E-E........C...octave down A-G-A-C]
 Clair thumped his tube with her finger, opened only one eye toward him, and shook her head ever so slightly.

“I can’t help it.” James Whispered, “It’s still in my head.”

“Keep it there,” Clair smiled, and turned her face again toward the sun.

Silent moments passed like the current of the stream. Then James sat up in his tube to better watch the changing scenery. The surface of the water was about three feet below the brow of the bank. Trees on the edge leaned toward the water with their witch-finger roots exposed and scraggly in the air where spring torrents had washed away what little earth they held. In the shade between the trees grew ferns and low-growing foliage. Basking in the sun on a fallen tree trunk, he saw a small painted turtle, but it slipped into the water when their eyes met. How different from a box turtle, he thought. Box turtles will greet you like an old neighbor. Up ahead, in a small clearing, he saw a large triangular shadow.

 “What’s that?” he wondered aloud.

“What’s what?” Clair asked, raising her feet from the water.

“On the shore there. Is that a monument? James asked.

“Oh, brother! I thought you saw a snake. Don’t do that, James.”

“Well, look at it. Why’s it there?”

“It’s just a pile of rocks,” Clair said.

“Not just a pile. It’s gotta be three feet high in a perfect pyramid. Maybe it’s an ebenezer of some kind.”

“Some kids probably did it,” Clair said.

“What’s it got to do with Scrooge,” Kenzie asked.

“Who said anything about Scrooge?” James asked.

“You said it looked like Ebenezer,” said Kenzie.

James laughed. “Like an ebenezer. Not Ebenezer Scrooge. Remember that Bible story when the Israelites defeated the Philistines and Samuel put up a stone monument so they would never forget it? He called it an ebenezer. It means ‘stone of help’ or something like that. Samuel wanted the Israelites to remember how the Lord had helped them at that place. It was sort of like when Joshua made a pile of twelve stones when the Israelites crossed the Jordan River.

“I remember that story, but I don’t remember the stones being called Ebenezer” said Kenzie. "I thought that name came from the other story.”

“Why do you think Dickens named his character Ebenezer Scrooge, James?” Clair asked.

“Maybe because the Lord helped him remember things that night,” said James.

“I thought ghosts helped him remember,” Kenzie said.

“Well, the Lord sent the ghosts to help him remember.” James continued.

"I thought Jacob Marley sent them." Kenzie said.

"Marley didn't send the ghosts he warned Scrooge that they were coming. He was sort of a prophet of the Ghosts."

“You told me there was no such thing as ghosts,” Kenzie said.

“That's true. It’s just a story. Ghosts are used in stories a lot, but that doesn’t make them real. Enough about ghosts, Kenzie. I was trying to explain what an ebenezer is. When we want something to be remembered for a long time we put it in stone--tombstones, pyramids--it's really about remembering something or somebody way past a lifetime.”

"Or like when you let us put our handprints in the wet cement by the side of  the house," added Kenzie.

"Yes, like that," her father nodded. "I'm not sure I'd call that an ebenezer, but you get the idea."

“Kenzie, You’ve heard the word ebenezer before,” Clair said without opening her eyes, “in that hymn we sing in church ‘Come Thou Fount...’"

Clair began singing the second verse and James joined in. This was not unusual for them. They had been singing beside each other in church for more than twenty-five years and often fell into harmonized chorus when old hymns came to mind.
Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I'm come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.
Anna sat up in her tube.

“What are we having a church service or something,” she said with a yawn.

“Well... Sleeping Beauty has decided to join us,” Clair laughed.

“I really did fall asleep,” Anna smiled.

“You’ve been working too many hours,” her mother said.

Anna continued, “Then I thought I heard angels singing.”

“No. It was Mom and Dad telling me about that pile of stones.” Kenzie explained.

“What pile of stones?”

“It’s gone now. They were back there stacked like a pyramid.

“You missed it, Sis.” James said, “Can’t close your eyes for a minute on this adventure.”

“Well, I’m wide awake now,” she said with a mischievous splash in his direction.

He splashed back at her but got Kenzie as well. Kenzie splashed back at him. Clair pushed off in an attempt to get away from the flying water and then all three began splashing toward her. She splashed back in defense and then just leaned back in her tube, enjoying the refreshing shower. By the time the laughter and splashes came to a halt, so did they. They had veered out of the river’s flow to the shade of the west bank.

“Can I have my water bottle,” Anna asked, removing her dripping sunglasses.

“Me, too,” said Kenzie.

“No problem,” James said, pulling up the mesh bag and passing out the bottles according to the initial on the lid.

While they sipped water, James got out of his tube. The river was less than knee-deep. He wiped his glasses off as best he could with the edge of his damp T-shirt and began studying the shallow water. An interesting stone of speckled orange hue about the size of a small eggplant was at his feet. Beside it was rounder stone of deep red hue. With one hand holding open the mesh bag, he picked up each stone, put it the bag, and dropped it below the surface of the water as he returned to the girls.

“What did you find?” asked Clair.

“Oh, nothing,” James smiled.

“Then what did you put in the bag?” she asked.

“Just some stones for the waterfall,” he said.

“You’re collecting more stones?” she asked.

“For the turtles?” Anna added incredulously.

“For the waterfall,” Kenzie said in her father’s defense. "You haven't even seen it, Anna. It's really cool."

"But it is for the turtles. It is their waterfall, right?" Anna continued.

"Sort of," Kenzie sighed.

"I rest my case," Anna smiled.

“He is carrying our water, girls," Clair said, handing him her bottle, “So who are we to question how heavy the bag gets.”

“They’re not heavy in the water,” James explained again, “I forget the bag is even there.”

Anna and Clair gave him their bottles. He synched the drawstring, checked the knot on his rope, and let it drop to the side of his tube.

Still standing knee-deep, James gave each ot the other tubes a push back toward the current and then flopped backwards in his own tube, rinsed the mud from his old tennis shoes, and paddled backward toward his family.

By the time he reached the center current, his wife and two daughters were far ahead of him. He stopped paddling for a moment, half spun to get his bearings, watched the girls disappear around a bend in the river, and turned his back toward them to resume his backstroke in their direction. 

Just over his head came another blue jay cry, first in one ear then the other as it swooped to a branch that hung over the river like an outstretched arm.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Six

The name of the inner tube livery (mentioned in Chapter 5) was changed from Still Water Rock to Porch Rock. The following slight change of dialogue was made in Chapter 5:

“You’ll want to get out of the river just little ways past ‘Fools Hill.' You’ll see a little sign and some wooden stairs. Don’t miss it. The current picks up past there and our busses don’t go no further than that spot.

“Fools Hill?” James asked.

“There's another name the locals call it, but when there's ladies present, I call it 'Fools Hill.' ...."

Chapter Six

The Muskegon River was one of the most active logging rivers in the state during the boom of the late 19th Century. Much of the lumber needed to rebuild Chicago after its Great Fire in 1871 came from the west side of Michigan and a good deal of it had floated down the Muskegon River.

The Muskegon River area was once home to the Ottawa Indians. Their word "Masquigon" meaning "marshy river" or "swamp" was used to describe the river's last few miles. Most of the river, however, is not swampy. It flows from Houghton in upper-mid-state south-west 234 miles to its mouth at Lake Michigan. As is true of most rivers, however, taking the path of least resistance makes it meander in such serpentine fashion that there can be long stretches where a river heads east though its ultimate goal is west.

As rivers seek lower ground, they demonstrate the difference between water and rock. Rock is ancient and foundational from the beginning of time and very resistant to the forces of nature. Water is fluid and fresh and ever changing; not only in form from gas, liquid, and solid ice but also literally changing, especially in a river. Each second the water replaces itself; the faster the flow, the faster the exchange. 

Imagine an old man standing on a riverbank and smiling as he remembers watching the same river from the very same spot as a boy. He takes comfort and ownership in how the scene matches his recollection. But the river is the same in name only. The water at his feet was never there before. It is as new as the last rain and the rain that fell a hundred miles upstream. If sameness is what brings the old man comfort, he should consider the crest of the mossy boulder arching from deep under the river's bed. There, too, he stood as a boy. Big as a front porch it barely breaks the surface of the stream. The crown he sees is a fraction of the boulder itself, left there by a receding glacier from another time. The granite erratic called Porch Rock was there when the old man's father, and his father before him, stood at the spot. It was there when early native inhabitants stood there centuries before them. It was there when no man had yet seen the river.

Along most rivers like the Muskegon are smooth stones of various sizes. They were once jagged fragments that rolled along the river bed against other similar fragments and sand for so far and so long that the edges wore off, leaving odd-shaped, rounded rocks in and along the bed. They are often slippery with algae and moss, which make walking barefoot in knee-deep water a balancing act more easily mastered the deeper the water gets. This underwater staging makes watching would-be drifters getting into their tubes an entertaining show.

There is no graceful way to get situated on top of an inner tube. The water was not terribly cold, but wading out waist deep made the girls involuntarily take in breath and hold their arms shoulder high. Each of them was barefoot, and they complained of the slippery rocks below. James, who had spent more time on rivers, chose to wear an old pair of tennis shoes for that very reason. When he was only knee-deep he tied the mesh bag to the side of the tube and flopped backwards into the hole with a splash and wave that rocked the girls’ tubes.

“Dad! We’re trying to get into these things.” Anna whined.

“You’re out too deep, come back and just fall backwards. That’s easier than climbing in.”

As he was talking, he began drifting away. It was not his plan to separate, but there was nothing holding him once his momentum took him beyond the still water of the edge. The current there was not fast. If there had been a path along the bank, a briskly-paced hiker could keep up with the tubers.
“Are you guys comin'?” he laughed.

“Wait up, Daddy!” Kenzie yelled.

With a stroke of his right arm, he spun to face downstream and began backstroking toward them. The inner tube held him high enough from the water that only his hands and forearms broke the surface. Even so, he was able to outpace the current and paddle upstream. The sun had full access to the center of the river where the current was strongest. His arms, his oars, were not tiring, but it stuck him as pointless to continue since the girls would soon be catching up to him. He paddled toward the edge where the current lost its grip.

Things settled near the shore: sticks and leaves and debris. He saw what looked like a pair of cut-off shorts stuck on the limb of and small log. On the shore, just beyond his reach, his eyes focused on a smooth green rock the size of a child's shoe. He paddled toward it, rinsed off the mud in the water, and slipped it through the neck of the mesh bag with the bottles of water. He planned to keep his eyes peeled for a few more unique river rocks to use around the new waterfall in the turtle garden, but it was not his intention to talk about it with the girls. He knew how ludicrous it would sound. What they didn't know was that many of the rocks in his landscaping came from places of interest, at least of interest to him.

Resting there, he noticed for the first time the beauty of the river. Along both banks was a nearly seamless canopy of undisturbed trees. Above him, somewhere in the glittering sun of the green shade, came the carefree notes of a song sparrow punctuated by the rude, shrill cries of a blue jay. Down stream, around a bend or two, he could faintly hear the voices of another group, and coming ever closer toward him was the laughter of three very familiar voices.

“How do you steer these things,” Anna giggled, hopelessly flailing her arms and feet.

“Don’t come over here. There’s no current. Stay in the center.”

“I’m trying to stay in the center,” Anna laughed, “I want to stay in the sun to get tan. But how do you steer?”

“You don’t really steer them,” her father demonstrated, “You just aim your back in the direction you want to go.” He spun his back toward the three girls. “And you pull in that direction with both arms.”

“I paddle with my feet?” Clair said.

“You can do that, too, but I don't think you get much push--they mostly just splash,” said James.

Being the smallest, Kenzie’s hands worked hard to reach the water.

“Keep your fingers together like this and scoop the water with each backstroke. Or better yet, hook your foot under my tube and I’ll steer the both of us. If all else fails, I can jump from the tube and  pull us. This water is not over our heads.”

“Even my head?” asked Kenzie.

“You might want to stay in your tube, Kenzie, but yes I’d say most of this river is no deeper than your chin, but if the water is still and you can’t see the bottom, then you know it’s deep.”

“I don’t plan on getting out of my tube,” she said, leaning her head back on the firm black rubber.

“I agree. We’ll all just stick together and go with the flow. Just think: a hundred and fifty years ago, Indians were going down this river just like we are.”

"Dad, you're not supposed to call them Indians anymore," Anna corrected, "Besides that, we are floating in the black rubber tubes from the inside of tractor tires, trying to keep the stems from pokin' us in the side. It's not quite the same thing."

"I see what you mean," her father smiled, "but these are not big enough to be tractor tires—I think they're semi tires."

"I'm pretty sure the Native Americans used canoes," she smiled.

"Well, they would have used inner tubes if they'd had them," James laughed. "That somehow changes the image doesn't it?"

"They'd have to be careful with their arrows," Kenzie said dryly, and everybody laughed.

Clair reached out toward James. “Can you hand me my bottle?”

“Already?” James sighed.

“Just a sip,” she smiled.

He pulled the mesh bag up from the rope, pulled open the drawstring top, and handed her a bottle. “Anyone else while it’s open?” he asked. But the girls were in their own worlds, eyes behind sunglasses, faces toward the sky, and arms resting on the tube to catch the sun.

In the trees overhead, the pleasant descending chirps of an unseen cardinal replied to those of his mate on the far shore. Just as James’s followed the sound to a small silhouette, a blue jay swooped to the same branch. Its taunting cry frightened the redbird from its perch. One more harsh, hawkish cry from the jay, and then all was silent as they approached the bend ahead.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Five

One of the reasons these chapters come slowly is I continue to tweak and revised posted chapters—usually to better improve dialogue or provided more dimension to character or theme. The following "theme" detail was added to Chapter 3: "Big Rapids was a bit of a misnomer. There had been rapids a century or so before when water rushed around the boulders that had broken from the rocky banks as the river carved its way through time, but over the recent decades the boulders that made the river dangerous had been removed by various canoe rental business in an effort to extend the life of their fleet. The only rapids that remained were engineered for effect in the shady city park."

For the same purpose, I added some details water/rock details to Chapter 4. Here is an example of one such change:

"He had found work in Kansas with a construction company that was building a dam for a new nuclear plant. The site was chosen for both its water supply and the fact that it rested on a bed of limestone that could be quarried out to make the dam and the hole that would become the cooling reservoir beside the plant.

The nuke plant itself did not yet exist and would not operate for another five years. First the world around the site would be transformed from parched, rocky soil to a gorgeous lake. It was a sobering thought to James when he was first told that the place he would spend the next three months would someday be forever under water."

I also added significantly more detail about the crushing of rock to make the dam. You may find chapter 4 worth re-reading. Along with those changes, I provided the following additional details about James, Sam, and Clair:

From Chapter 4: James trusted Sam, and come mid-August, he turned in his Bobcat keys and became not a Quaker but a college freshman at Riverdale College. The school's roots were still Quaker, but its enrollment had broadened somewhat in recent years to a general mix of conservative people of faith. It suited James fine. He was twenty-six at the time.

Sam graduated a year before James, who by then had met an attractive Riverdale graduate who worked in the library and typed papers for a dollar a page. Clair McNeal happened to be from Kansas, thirty miles from that rock quarry where he had worked three years before. That fact alone seemed too providential for James to ignore.

What began as a business transaction became regular meetings for lunch; then Sundays to church and dinner; then pretty much pleasantly presumed days with Clair who eventually began refusing payment for typing James’ papers. "You might need to start saving your money," she'd say, trying to hide a smile.

James stayed on for grad school at Riverdale; saved up for a ring; got engaged (She had gotten over the fact that her name would be Clair Sinclair on about their third date) ); earned his masters; and married Clair in the summer of 1980. Two weeks before their wedding, James accepted a teaching position there at Riverdale. Clair kept her job in the library, and the next twenty-five years turned like pages in the wind.

Chapter Five

Without  missing a beat, the Flashmap directions took Dr. Sinclair to the last right turn that took them over a bridge of the Muskegon River where they could see Porch Rock Inner Tube Livery was nestled below. To all of their surprise, the livery had indeed been a livery, a horse livery way back when. The place still had the charm of a bygone era: mossy shake shingles, weathered barn wood, hitching posts, and fence-rows festooned with idle inner tubes.

From up on the bridge, they saw a large group of older teens carrying tubes on their shoulders or overhead to the river like ants carrying cake crumbs across a picnic blanket.

“Wow. This is busier than I thought it would be,” James said.

“It is the weekend,” Clair reminded.

“Cool,” Anna said, sitting up in the back seat.

As they reached the bottom of the bridge, an old school bus now painted blue turned into the driveway ahead of them. The bus was about half full of sunburned faces staring blankly out the windows. Behind the bus was a tall trailer enclosed in chain-link fence with stacks of interwoven inner tubes inside.

“See, girls? That’s how this works. We put in the river here, and then they pick us up down stream and bring us back to our car.”

“How far down the river?” Kenzie asked.

“There are two float prices,” James explained. “One takes an hour, according to the brochure, and the other takes three hours.”

“Let’s take the three-hour one,” Anna said.

“Yeah,” Kenzie agreed, “I want it to last a long time.”

They parked the minivan in what had been a pasture years before. It was still unpaved grass that seemed pressed down by tires rather than mowed.

“Leave one of your two water bottles here for when we get back. I’ll put the other ones in this mesh bag.”

“Here. Put this sunscreen in there, too.”

“Let's put it on here," James suggested. "I don't want to carry a lot of stuff in case we need room in the bag for things we might find,"

"Things we may find?" Clair asked.

"I might find some nice stones to add to the waterfall I made this morning," James smiled, handing her the sunscreen.

"Don't expect me to carry them," Clair warned.

"They'll be light in the water." James said.

“Should we take our towels?” Kenzie asked.

“Not if you want them dry,” Clair said, happy to change the subject.

“We're traveling light. It’s just us and the tubes and the raging rapids of the Rama-lama-dingdong.” James said in mock bravado, making up a name for some fierce and mysterious jungle river.

“Oh, brother!” said Anna, taking her father’s arm as she had in the yard.

As they approached the livery, James began singing a short jingle out of the blue:

“Long time. Long time. Chewy, chewy Tootsie Rolls last a long time.”
[Notes: A-G...octave up A-G.........E-E..........C-C.........E-E........C...octave down A-G-A-C]

He sang it twice, seemingly unaware that he was doing so or why. He had actually been hearing the jingle deep in his subconscious ever since Kenzie said, “I want it to last a long time,” referring to their tube ride. That statement had triggered the jingle from his childhood, and it had been carried like a leaf down a tiny creak in his mind, then to a larger estuary in his consciousness until it babbled out of his mouth in song. He sang it again. “Long time. Long time. Chewy, chewy Tootsie Rolls last a long time.” This time he was aware he was singing, remembered the conversation that prompted it, and smiled at how the mind works.
“Did you bring Tootsie Rolls,” Kenzie asked.

“No, I’m just singing an old commercial and it's all your fault," he joked. "It’s hard to explain why.”

But he did try to explain. He told of an old Saturday morning commercial about a boy eating a tootsie roll at the matinee, about how at the end of the commercial the narrator sang that jingle like a lullaby, about how her words triggered the jingle that had been lost like a marble way down in the dusty arm-corners of a couch somewhere in his mind and then POOF there it was after all those years.  He sang it again. Kenzie joined in, and by the time they were done, the whole family was standing at the counter inside the livery.

“Four of you today,” said a man in his fifty's holding a clipboard with a pen dangling from a string. There was a remnant of southern accent in his voice that suggested he was not from Michigan. He tossed the first two inner tubes on top of warn wooden counter.

“Yes, four,” said Clair.

“We throw in an extra tube for a cooler for just five bucks,” said the man.

“For a cooler?” James asked.

“Right-sized cooler squeezes right in the tube,” the man explained. “Great for picnic lunches or whatever else you want to keep cold,” he said with a wink to James.

“Ahhh… no,” James said, “We’re all set. Won’t be needing a cooler.”

“Taking the one-hour or three-hour trip?” the man asked with a pen poised over a piece of paper.

“Three hour,” Kenzie said, “We want it to last a long time.”

“And don’t start singing, Dad.” Anna added.

But in truth he had never stopped singing the jingle in his head. James leaned over to Kenzie’s ear and sang, “Chewy, chewy Tootsie Rolls last a long time.”

“Sign here,” said the man, “It’s just a waiver saying there’s a $20 fee for damaged tubes and we’re not responsible for anything that happens on the river.That'll be $25.44 with tax. Pick whichever tubes you want outside the door to the right.”

James put $25.50 on the counter, skimmed over the full page of legal jargon and scribbled his name at the bottom of the page.

“You’ll want to get out of the river just little ways past ‘Fools Hill.' You’ll see a little sign and some wooden stairs. Don’t miss it. The current picks up past there and our busses don’t go no further than that spot.

“Fools Hill?” James asked.

“There's another name the locals call it, but when there's ladies present, I call it 'Fools Hill.' We got nothing to do with it, but you’ll hear it, and that’s when you know to get on the left side of the river to get out. A bus runs every hour. Last bus pick-up is at 6:00 PM, but you should be there in time in to catch the five o’clock bus.”

“That’s only two-and-a-half hours from now.” James said, looking at his watch. "The brochure said three hours."

“Three hours is just a guesstimate. Depends on how high the river is. River’s up from that last rain. You might want to avoid that last bus run. It’s awful crowded and all. We send two or three busses at 6:00 just to get all the stragglers. It’s up to you.

“We’re just going with the flow today,” James said. “We may stop here and there along the way. If we don’t make the five, that’s fine.”

“It’s up to you,” the man said. “Ya’ll have fun.”

With tubes on their shoulders, they began walking the long path to the water's edge.

"I think we should shoot for that 5:00 bus," said Clair.

"Oh, come on, Clair. Let's not rush this. We have no schedule to meet today."

"I didn't like the sound of what that man said," Clair whispered so the girls did not hear.

"What? The crowded busses?" James whispered back, "Being squeezed in a bus never killed anyone."

Clair dismissed her concerns and was not sure why she had them. If her husband had not been preoccupied with the jingle in his head, he might have connected the man's conversational dots that fell like pennies on the counter.

[The old jingle Dr. Sinclair recalled is at the end of this video clip.]


Sunday, July 04, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Four

As mentioned previously, “Still Waters” is an experiment in fiction and very much a work in progress. Pulling from a four-year-old draft, I plan to provide a chapter or two a week as my summer schedule allows. The following blue text is revised from Chapter 3.

Clair came from the cool house where she’d been watching from the window.

“Here’s an extra bottle of water for each of us. It’s supposed to get hot. Can’t have too much water. I wrote our initials on the lids.”

Dr. Sinclair began rolling backward down the driveway as the garage door slowly closed then stopped with a jolt, hit the button to raise the door, and jogged up the driveway.

"Whatdja forget?" Clair said out the open door, but he did not reply. He came back with a black mesh laundry bag and a short length of rope.

"You'll be glad we have this to put the water bottles in. I'll tie it to my tube so our hands can be free. The river will help keep the water cold."

It struck Clair as a clever idea compared to the many other things he might have gone back to get--his wallet, his sunglasses, his towel. It showed the kind of creative forethought and problem solving that she had come to expect from her husband. She didn't say so, but James knew these were her thoughts when she took a deep breath, shook her head, and smiled.

The car backed down the driveway just past noon—three minutes behind schedule. There was no one waiting for them, of course, but his wife Clair believed that time well spent must first be contained and that living without fixed schedules was like carrying an armful of groceries in a torn paper sack. James had proven her theory right all too often. Without the target of a noon departure, he’d still be frittering away in the yard. Three minutes was a manageable rip.

According to his laptop’s Flash-Map program, it was a two-hour-and-thirteen minute drive to Big Rapids.

Chapter Four

There were many things James Sinclair had been that no one now would guess. He had wrestled in high school and boxed in the Golden Gloves just for fun with his brothers who had been his sparring partners for years; he had been a grave digger at the county cemetery; he spent a year as a non-union machine operator in a union auto plant; and he had been a heavy equipment operator in a rock quarry; but all of these non-professorial roles were in a long-forgotten life known to few in his current world.

He was now Doctor James Sinclair, recently named head of the English Department at the Riverdale College, the same Friends school that had opened its doors to him the summer after he worked in the quarry.

He had found work in Kansas with a construction company that was building a dam for a new nuclear plant. The site was chosen for both its water supply and the fact that it rested on a bed of limestone that could be quarried out to make the dam and the hole that would become the cooling reservoir beside the plant.

The nuke plant itself did not yet exist and would not operate for another five years. First the world around the site would be transformed from parched, rocky soil to a gorgeous lake. It was a sobering thought to James when he was first told that the place he would spend the next three months would someday be forever under water.

The long dam went along the
south end of the excavated reservoir and natural valley there. It was made of seven layers of limestone, sorted to size.

Several times a day came the "Fire in the hole" signal as engineers
blasted the limestone embankment. The largest boulders were the size of cars. These made up the base of the dam. The next layer was made of boulders the size of washing machines, which nestled into the crevices of the larger rock. The third layer’s rock was the size of trash cans; the fourth the size of picnic baskets, and so on, each layer locking into the crevices of the layer below it.

James was hired midway through the dam's construction. By then trucks were bringing medium-sized boulders to large crushing machines to make the upper layers of the dam. The machines crushed and sorted the rock onto different conveyor belts. Bowling ball-size-rock went to one belt; baseball-size-rock to another; and road-gravel rock, which was the upper layer of the dam, went to another belt. His job was scooping up the small rocks that fell from the series of conveyor belts that carried the various sized boulders to correct pile.

Regardless of the crushing and sorting process done by the enormous machines, there were always small bits of rock that ran backwards down all three of the belts, like a thousand kids going down the up escalator at the mall. These mischievous rocks would pile up below the belts until they rubbed against the lower side of the belt. If left unattended, those little rocks would tear the belts to shreds and shut down the whole operation. It was an entry-level job that used shovels and a small zero-radius-front-loader, but James found satisfaction in knowing it was his vigilance that kept the belts moving.

The din made human communication impossible and earplugs permanent fixtures. During James short breaks, he sat alone in the shade of the moving conveyor belts and wrote on his empty lunch sacks. Only for the half hour lunch break were the machines shut down. The men gathered from their various posts to eat in the shade of the towering machines. Within a few weeks, it became habit for a young college kid named Sam Barclay to plop down beside James at lunch. Sam later explained that it was because James was the only guy in their part of the quarry who could converse without punctuating his sentences with foul language. One day, when the cacophony of steel and rock and rubber belts ground to a halt, and the earplugs were removed, and the ant-like men in their yellow hard-hats filed out of the dusty pits, Sam caught up to James on the long dirt ramp that led to their parked cars.

“Who’s the lucky girl you’re writing love letters to?” he joked.

James looked puzzled.

“I saw you writing down there under the belts,” Sam continued, “What’s that about? Are you scribblin’ to a girl friend or dreamin’ up new ways to crush rock?”

“You college guys think everything is about girls.” James smiled. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the folded brown paper bag he’d been writing on, then pulled out another from his other pocket and put them in Sam’s hands.

“Here are some lyrics. See if you can put ‘em to music,” he said and went home alone.

The next day Sam returned the two sacks with two sheets of typed pages.

“I thought you might want to see what this looks like on real paper. I’m no musician, but this is good stuff. Who’da guessed poetry could come from this hole in the ground.

“I like to write,” James smiled.

“What did you major in?”

“I majored in getting done with high school and finding work.”

“Seriously? You never went to college?”

James smiled and shook his head.

“You ought to think about moving back to Michigan with me and take a few classes at Riverdale.”

“Riverdale?” James asked.

“Never heard of it, right? It’s a small school with about 1,200 students. It was started by Quakers like a hundred and fifty years ago, but now they let anybody in.”

“Even heathens like me, eh?” James joked.

“That’s not what I mean. I meant you don’t have to be Quaker to go there. Lots of the students have no Quaker background at all.”

“So I wouldn’t have to where a broad-brimmed hat like the guy on Quaker Oats?” James smiled.

“No. Believe it or not, some of the girls still wear a sort of bonnet thing, but that’s totally optional. It is strict, though. Real conservative. No drinking or smoking. No co-ed dorms. And they mean it."

"I don't drink and I don't' chew and I don't go with girls that do." James recited.

"Yep. Kinda like that," Sam laughed.

"I'm serious," James said, "I really don't. I was brought up Baptist. My list of don'ts is probably longer than yours, so that would be no problem."

"Well, then, I’m serious: you should think about coming to Riverdale. I could pull some strings to get you in this fall.” He pointed at the paper in James' hand. "You really ought to start thinking beyond brown paper bags."

That is how it all began. Sam was a friend who also happened to be a Friend. James was well-versed in the Bible but was not a Quaker. All he knew of that sect was what he’d learned from Sergeant York and The Friendly Persuasion, two of his favorite Gary Cooper films. He knew Quaker men and women sat on separate sides of their Sunday meeting house; they did not allow instrumental music in the home or church; and they were pacifists during times of war. It is often true, however, that one’s truest assessment of a group is based on the first person one meets from it.

James trusted Sam, and come mid-August, he turned in his Bobcat keys and became not a Quaker but a college freshman at Riverdale College. The school's roots were still Quaker, but its enrollment had broadened somewhat in recent years to a general mix of conservative people of faith. It suited James fine. He was twenty-six at the time.

Sam graduated a year before James, who by then had met an attractive Riverdale graduate who worked in the library and typed papers for a dollar a page. Clair McNeal happened to be from Kansas, thirty miles from that rock quarry where he had worked three years before. That fact alone seemed too providential for James to ignore.

What began as a business transaction became regular meetings for lunch; then Sundays to church and dinner; then pretty much pleasantly presumed days with Clair who eventually began refusing payment for typing James’ papers. "You might need to start saving your money," she'd say, trying to hide a smile.

James stayed on for grad school at Riverdale; saved up for a ring; got engaged (She had gotten over the fact that her name would be Clair Sinclair on about their third date) ); earned his masters; and married Clair in the summer of 1980. Two weeks before their wedding, James accepted a teaching position there at Riverdale. Clair kept her job in the library, and the next twenty-five years turned like pages in the wind.

Driving north to Big Rapids, Dr. Sinclair reached over and patted the knee of his wife of twenty-five years who had been staring out the window.

"Huh? What?" she muttered.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you, too." she replied. "What brought that on?"

"Nothing. I was just thinking... Thinking about all the funny things that brought us together. Things that easily could've turned out completely different."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Clair asked.

"What if Sam hadn't been working in that rock quarry in Kansas. What if I hadn't been writing on brown paper bags down under all that dust. What if I hadn't been accepted at Riverdale. What if you couldn't type?"

"You think too much." Clair smiled. "That's just how God works. We aren't suppose to understand it."

"Maybe not. But it's okay to wonder... and be amazed... and thank God... and pat my wife's knee for no reason."

"That kind of thinking is fine," she smiled.

"I'm looking forward to tubing down the river. We don't do things like this often enough."

"The girls and I have been looking forward to it, too" Clair smiled, patting her husband's knee.

She turned on the radio and began scanning channels for a familiar tune. James' face kept wincing at each stop: talk, commercials, hip-hop, more talk, hard rock. He shook his head, and then...

Well, if sweet talking you
 could make it come true
I would give you the world right now
 on a silver platter
But what would it matter...

Clair began to turn the channel. James touched her hand.

"No. Leave it. I haven't heard
Rose Garden in years." And he began singing along.

So smile for a while and let's be jolly
love shouldn't be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times
 while we can. I beg your pardon
 I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
there's gotta be a little rain sometime...

"Dad, how do you know this?" Anna asked, "It just came out."

"This came out
thirty-five years ago," her father laughed.

"Honest, Dad, that just came out.
That's Martina McBride. She wasn't even alive when you were in high school."

"Well, it's a cover then. How else could I know the words?" He resumed singing, surprised that lyrics he had not heard for decades were coming from somewhere in his mind.

You'd better look before you leap
 still waters run deep
And there won't always be
 someone there to pull you out
And you know what I'm talking about
So smile for a while and let's be jolly
love shouldn't be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times
 while we can. I beg your pardon
 I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
there's gotta be a little rain sometime...

Kenzie leaned between the two front seats.

"Daddy, you should say 'I never promised you a turtle garden' instead of 'rose garden.'"

As the song began to fade, repeating that line, her father looked in the rearview mirror and did as she requested. Kenzie laughed. Clair shook her head. Anna put in ear buds and turned on her Ipod.

Big Rapids was five miles ahead.

To be continued...

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