Export: Writing the Midwest
On the River with My Father
So we're motoring up the Mississippi River, my dad in the back, running the two-stroke, and me up front, feet propped up, cutting along steadily — when I remember his vision ain't so hot.
My father steers too close to deadheads, riversnags, sandbars — and when the wake of another boat comes our way, I see it forty feet before he even knows it's there, a threat to the canoe. So I tense all up, wondering if or when he'll swing into it. It's always a few feet before he notices.
I find myself staring upstream. Basically, I see two points. The first is as far as I can see, the second is half-way in between. I squint, the river blurs. Now I can't see any herons.
"Look," my father says, as if we haven't passed twenty already, "a blue heron."
Meanwhile, there are soft-shelled turtles up and down the muddy banks, lounging in the sunrays. And on one of these shores we stop for lunch. Ham and cheese, mustard on bread.
"Can you see the turtles?" I ask him.
"What turtles?" he asks back.
I point them out.
There are seven turtles on a nearby island. Two are the size of manhole covers. They've been sliding in and out of these murkwaters for decades, maybe even a century.
"Hmmmmm," my father squints, sighting down the line I draw in the air. "Hmmmmm... hmmmmm..." He still can't see them.
"Four o' clock," I tell him, "from the branch, three feet from shore."
I point out turtles, I point out minnows, I point out all the creatures he can't see. I want him to see what I can see. I paint the color of their backsides, the directions of their frontsides. He nods, peering harder, and it becomes more important for me than I ever figured to point out what he's missing.
Then, on the opposite island, I notice activity. There are screeching herons circling the spires: nine or ten or twelve of them, taking off and landing. It's a rookery. I can see their nests, their long gray necks protruding. So I point them out and count them out loud. But he can't see a single one.
"Maybe your imagination," he suggests, "is seeing more than your eyes."
I stop counting.
* * *
"Talked to Hazel's mother last night," my father tells me, cig clenched between his teeth, talking out the side of his mouth. "She was pretty relieved about Hazel. Seems she left that... person she was with."
"Yeah," I say, "Fucking Ava. That's what I heard too. Good for Hazel. Fucking Ava was just as ugly on the outside as she felt on the inside... projecting all that bile."
"Fucking Ava!" my father laughs. "I met her down at Powderhorn once. Couldn't stand her. Nobody could. I think everyone's a little relieved now."
And then his voice starts to change. It's like he's searching his innerhead or something.
"Hazel," he tells me, in a tone I immediately recognize as that tone I hate, "she had a lovely body... a lot like your grandmother's... when your grandmother was her age."
But I refuse to play this game. He's pushing it again. My gramma is his mother, and I'm not gonna sit and squirm with the thoughts he's trying to install. He can have those for himself.
I clench my jaw. Turn him off. He stares at herons he can't see.
* * *
So now we're motoring down the river and he's veering too close to other boats.
At one point, he pulls up right next to a canoe. Gets five or six feet away from it, then smiles at the guys and waves while I — embarrassed — refuse to meet their gaze.
People on the river, especially in canoes, want to be left alone.
Every time he sees a boat (be it conscious or not) he swings their way. Even if that boat is ten times bigger than us, he'll start making for it — and then, as always, they'll change their course and head away.
So it goes on like this for miles and miles: my father bullying boats away and me not saying anything — just kicking back in the bow, wondering if he's doing this on purpose or if he's oblivious — and is this hereditary?
All of the above, I decide.
He's been this way so long it's automatic now.
But I don't dwell on it. Instead, beat from sun and beer and a couple puffs out there on the island, I drift away in the motor's drone, the chime-like rocking of the hull.
And there, in the all-consuming blare, with the hum of a distant highway rising, I find balance in the bow.
Closing my eyes, I shut off the smokestacks, the power plants, NSP. Limbo grips me.
* * *
JERK! I jerk awake — and I know my father sees me do it. But he can't feel what's in my heart. It's pounding like a motherfucker.
It was the engine... blaring. It was the noise... rising, diving. It was the up/down up/down Evinrude rhythm.
And in that rhythm, in those vibrations, I thought I heard a rumble. A growing growling comingatchya rumble. It was unidentifiable and manifesting. And then I knew: it was the Roar of the Apocalypse. A nuclear windstorm was searing its way across the planet, incinerating the prairies, the cities, everything. It was upon us. I jerked awake.
Last time I jerked like that was on the train to Morocco. I never wanted to go to Morocco. Never even thought of it. But she was the most flipped-out little weirdo I had ever met, and she had a sock full of money and took me on a journey and I fell asleep with my head on her lap. And in that darkness I started falling. So jerked in the Nothing. And she caught me. That was the danger.
It was a completely deranged experience. I wanted to believe stuff that just wasn't real. I wanted to believe it so much that I made myself see things that didn't exist. And hear things and feel things that never were. My imagination was out of control. But that was the way I wanted it.
She told me things that were totally wiggy. Like how there were these four guys who'd come to Paris to hook up because of this thing called the Thing — which would change the world.
And I believed her — because of the stuff that was happening around us: stuff so unreal it had to be real. Because we were willing to let the fantastic consume us.
It was determined that my role was that of The Eyeball and that my job was to oversee the construction of the Thing. Whatta load of crap that was!
And then she burned me. It was expected. Though I can't really say she did it by herself. I mean, if I never would've believed all that stuff to the degree I did, I never would've had the incredible romantic brainwashed adventure that made me who I am.
But then again, maybe I didn't believe all that stuff. Maybe I was only playing along to the point where the story distorted the world.
Nevertheless, I wrote a novel all about it. And I wrote it so much and repeated it so much that whatever truth there was in it got lost in the rush. Until the story became the only truth.
But that's what happens when delusions take over. A guy can be right, even if he's wrong. Then looking back, he can see where he screwed up.
Still, something sticks with you. Something that tells you there's a way you should be — despite knowing you've deceived yourself and can't even trust yourself. And it has little to do with what's logical. And it's the hardest thing in the world to shake.
* * *
My father forces a pontoon Winnebago to turn toward the shore and his engine keeps on droning.
Lately I've been thinking Africa... Rwanda... Zaire. The other day the paper said 100,000 children out wandering the terra — and today on the news: Cholera — thousands in the dirt, laid out on mats, holding bloating bellies — moaning, puking, bloody in the mud — dying so fast they can't be counted. No doubt, there's a death stench in the air.
And here I am, running around with a bong in one hand and a hard-on in the other, embellishing the adventures of a clean white kid who runs around for the sheer sake of running around, getting in and out of trouble, meeting whacky characters and being idealistic — and that's about it.
Me: I don't know no horror. All I know is the fear of it. If I am The Eyeball, I should point at death, I should point at disease, I should point at war, environment, genocide. I should be good. And do as much as I can do.
Yeah, that's it, I figure. I'll be P.C.!
Water hits my shoulder, my neck, the back of my head — like a sign from some god I don't believe in telling me to shut the fuck up.
We're passing beneath a walking bridge. I look up. There's a kid in a wheelchair up there. He's hydrocephalic, limbs all twisted — and in a hand that's just a stub, he's holding a plastic bottle. His cheeks are filled with water as he waits for my father to pass beneath him.
"FUCK YOU!" his expression tells me. "FUCK YOU, YOU BAG OF FUCKING SHIT!"
No shit: He's challenging me, daring me, taunting me to come up there and knock him over — then stand above his crippled frame and laugh at him while he laughs at me, sneering a white-hot sneer at me — hating me — wanting to kill me with all the strength left in his withered body.
But what can you do, what can you say?
I don't try to figure it out.
Like most people, I turn away.
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