Ten minutes early, I wait by the Isuzu in the gravel drive of the house I grew up in. The morning is dark and still, the crickets not yet drowned out by the bird song of dawn. The light flickers on upstairs, where my parents sleep, and minutes later my father slips out the door carrying a yellow dry-box, a waterproof container that we’ll use for storage on our kayaking trip. He opens the box and shows me what’s inside: an empty plastic canister. The label says it contained biscotti.
“For scat,” he says proudly. “Not that we’ll need it, since our trip is so short. That’s why it’s perfect: meets the requirements, costs nothing.”
“Scat” is how my father refers to human excrement, the jug a way to comply with the rule that we must have a watertight waste receptacle with us on the river. I acknowledge this victory for frugality with a nod.
He snaps the dry-box shut and puts it in the back of the car, then claps me on the shoulder, leans back, and stares into the sky as if to take full stock of the immediate world. When he turns to me again, he frowns. I must have bags under my eyes. “Out late?”
“Yes.” Knowing I’d be away from the bar for a couple of days, I shot pool and drank whiskey last night and slept only four hours.
He wets his lips. “Won’t help you be ready for the river.”
“Dad,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”
He shakes his head. “You drink too much.”
I look away. “That’s none of your business.”
He fixes me with a fierce gaze, and I know he’s reviewing in his head the American Medical Association guidelines for alcohol consumption, his years of experience counseling patients as a family doctor, all the pain and death he’s seen among so many working-class men with hard, round bellies who cannot do without their nightly case of Coors, trying to figure out how to impart adequate warning to his lean, scornful son, who insists he can drink with moderation, when he himself has never taken a drink. Finally he says, “You need to be careful.”
“I am,” I say. I’m not entirely careful, of course — I drink now and then when I want my life to recede into a spacious and glorious blur, the world happier and easier for a few precious hours. I am an insomniac, and when I’m single, I favor bourbon and pool as a way to pass the nights. But I know full well that drink is no salvation; I am not deluded or addicted, just bored and lonely.
He looks like he wants to say something more but thinks better of it. We pack the car, and he gets into the driver’s seat, generously letting me sleep the first leg. I recline the passenger’s seat, throw a towel over my face, and mull over what I would have said had he persisted. I’m a grown man, and perhaps he should learn to lighten up for once in his overserious life. Finally I let it go and doze. He wakes me at a gas station, the darkness thinning with the dawn, and I drive the rest of the way to the sound of his snoring.
For the last seven years, my father and I have kayaked a thirty-six-mile portion of Oregon’s Rogue River each August. We run the river in an inflatable kayak, him reading the water and me providing the manpower to paddle the boat through world-class rapids. For him it’s freeing to face the immediate danger of the river pounding through the canyon and the challenge of finding the best way through. The outing is also a test of the physical capacity of a man well into his sixties whose arms and shoulders have begun to betray him with age. Before the trip each year, he trains for two months on the creaky rowing machine in the basement, checks websites that monitor the river’s levels, composes lists of supplies, and inflates and packs the entire boat at home the week before we leave to make sure everything is accounted for and the weight is evenly distributed. He tries to plan for every contingency even though he knows that preparation for the river is always inadequate. As for me, I do not plan — the river is my father’s specialty, and on the water I do exactly what he says. Running the river is as close to my father as I allow myself to be — in the boat we focus less on what is between us than on what courses under us.
When my father was fifteen years old and a hundred pounds soaking wet, soft and pale with the laziness of a California adolescence, he joined the staff of a Rogue white-water-rafting outfitter for a summer. Two years later he was a seasoned boatman, muscle cording his tanned shoulders, and he’d learned to read rapids without the direction of an older guide. He came of age on the river, he’s fond of telling me, a place beyond the judgment of his father. The river taught him to survive in a dangerous world.
In truth I know that acquiring the skills necessary to run a river didn’t free him from my grandfather. As a Communist union organizer, my grandfather was a lion, even as the FBI ran him out of work and out of New York State, harrying him and his family across the country until he finally settled in Berkeley, California. My father lived in fear of him, one of his earliest memories the pall of the man’s shadow stretching across the floor of the foyer as he entered the front door after a day at work, my father standing paralyzed with dread until the heavy footsteps passed, then bursting into tears of relief only to have his father shout, “Be quiet!” I remember my grandfather at the dinner table with my father, all of us eating, the mood tense but superficially cordial. When my father grabbed for the serving bowl, my grandfather yelled, “Terry!” his voice loaded with reproach.
My father was forty years old then.
I’ve always been told I look like my grandfather. As a child I would stand in the dim hall outside my parents’ bedroom and memorize the photograph of my grandfather as a young man, standing with his hands in his pockets, hips thrust forward. He had a strong jaw and dark, knowing eyes, and he smiled in the picture as if musing over a secret joke. I don’t know if I inherited this smile or if, having been told I resemble him, I learned the expression from the picture, but today I could be the man in the photograph. When my father looks at me, he must see both his father glaring back at him and his son ignoring the sacrifices made on his behalf, the past bound up hopelessly with the present.
My father and I are first in line at the ranger station, and we stand together at the locked door, shivering in the mountain cold and watching our breath rise into the scrub pines. Once inside, I am annoyed at my father’s chattiness as he boasts that we’re going to run the entire river in a day, that we haven’t been dumped in four years but went soft last year when he booked us a room at Paradise Lodge. The rangers, thick-bodied outdoorsmen wearing caps imprinted with the names of riflemakers and wilderness outfitters, are unimpressed. My father wears a purple polo shirt and a pair of white jeans that balloon like pantaloons over his skinny legs and taper at his ankles, where his gray wool socks are bunched by the straps of his river sandals. Because his neck and face burn easily, he is wearing a neon-green floppy hat that, in combination with the rest of his outfit, gives him the look of an itinerant court jester.
The rangers eye him with amusement as he presents his empty biscotti canister to them, expecting validation of his cleverness from these men whom he sees as officiants of river craft, the only religion he acknowledges. The tallest ranger unscrews the airtight top, holds the jug up to the light, and shakes his head at its oddness but agrees it meets the requirements. We receive our permits, hurry to the car, and drive the winding road to the boat ramp.
At the put-in at Grave Creek we are so early that no one else is there. A white mist hangs over the water, the surface opaque in the shadow of the canyon. I hear the steady crash of rapids, out of sight beyond the first sharp bend. As I inflate the boat, my father checks the seals on the dry bags and assembles the gear according to his earlier design. I strap in the dry-box with the empty biscotti canister, and he looks at it and frowns and yanks on the strap to be sure it’s bound in while I stop myself from saying that it’s fine. I top off the air on each side of the boat, and he finishes tying in the gear, then we strip off our outer clothes, pull the uncomfortable rubber seals of the waterproof jackets over our necks, and tighten each other’s life jackets. My father steps to the edge of the bank and indicates the water with his hand, as if I’ve failed to notice the presence of the river. “It’s going to be something,” he says, reverence filling his voice.
I smile and nod, annoyed at his desire for a shared moment, still feeling slighted by how he double-checked the straps on the dry-box. “Yep.”
“The flow is low,” he says. “The smaller water will be more treacherous. We’ll have to be careful.” He stares anxiously at the bend, and I know he is already anticipating the first rapid, where we flipped four years ago.
“You’ll call it right,” I say, impatient with his worry. The river may be the source of his confidence, but he still doubts himself. Then I am ashamed of my surliness. “Come on. Let’s get on the river.”
Our helmets securely fastened on our heads, we drag the boat to the water, and I hold the back end while he clambers in. I give a push, hop in, and set the straps over my knees. We take a few practice cuts — when he paddles, I match his stroke — and then we turn the bend, the current takes us, and we are off, whooping with the speed and shock of the frigid, white-topped waves, my father shouting directions over the roar of the rapids.
Before the sun clears the walls of the canyon, it is cold on the river. We make good time, paddling constantly to stay warm. The only annoyance is how my father keeps asking me to call the route. “Should we cut in by the big rock, there,” he asks, “or would it be better to ride the current on the outside?”
I clear my throat and tell him I can’t see without my glasses, which is not really true.
He wets his lips, and I can see his brain churning, no doubt connecting this failure to every other mistake I’ve ever made. A few minutes later he twists around to meet my eyes and asks, “Any idea yet where you’ll go next year?”
I shake my head. “I need to leave, that’s all. I’ve applied in Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area.”
“You can’t afford to be scattershot. Not in this economy. You already have five years in the retirement system here.”
“I’ll roll the retirement over,” I say. “And I told you, it’s not about money; it’s about needing to live in a bigger city.”
“It’s easy to assume the grass is greener. You’ve chosen an unlucrative profession, so you can’t afford to take chances.”
I glower at the back of his helmet but say nothing.
After a time, he asks, “Do you think I’m being hard on you? Is that it?”
“Dad. Listen. I just want to run the river.”
He points to the rapid ahead. “How do we avoid the rock and the big drop?”
“You call it.”
We are approaching too swiftly for him to force the issue. He points left, and we stay left, away from the obstacles.
Misreading the current or overlooking a hazard is all too easy. I know the inevitability of error from the rest of my life. My father’s opinion of my bachelorhood at thirty-one — given my younger brother’s wife, children, mortgage, and business — is clear in his carefully chosen words. When he says, “When you find the right woman and change your circumstances and commit,” I know he means I’d better find a woman unconcerned with my choice of writerly poverty; that I need to leave off the nights of shooting pool and do better than my tiny, cheaply furnished apartment with more books than shelves; that he still can’t understand why I didn’t marry my high-school sweetheart, whose family he and my mother so liked. He does not understand why I love literature, why I am excited by Anton Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor and F. Scott Fitzgerald — to him their stories are the words of the dead, while he works to preserve the living. Since my grandfather’s death, my father has become even more concerned with my choices, constantly bringing up retirement strategies and automobiles and mortgages, and I am tired of his concern. The truth is I could run the Rogue on my own. I wouldn’t miss the fish ladder at Rainie Falls or fail to start left and cut right with the eddy behind the canoe-shaped rock at Blossom Bar. I just don’t want to discuss the route with him because I don’t want to hear his evaluations of my decisions.
We come to a rapid with a log on the left and a narrow channel on the right. “River left or river right?” he asks.
The answer is river left: to avoid the log and make the channel opening, you have to start near the log and cut away, not start away and be pushed into it. “One or the other,” I say.
There is no more time, and so, with disgust, he nods to the left. We pull in and then cut right and pass through with no trouble.
“Damn it, Mike.” He leans forward and yanks at the straps that hold the dry-bags to be sure nothing has come loose. “Call it. It’s the only way to learn.”
“I’m not going to argue with you.”
He takes in a deep breath, and I can see his neck and shoulders tighten with frustration. I suppose I am not an easy son to have, always cynically observing him and refusing all advice. No doubt I am a mystery to my father: I catalog his secrets, note his weaknesses, and refuse to acknowledge my own. My junior year of high school he accompanied me to Fargo, North Dakota, for the junior national wrestling championship. In the first round I drew a kid from Montana who knew my reputation for the arm spin and caught me with a knee to the back of the head on my backward rotation. Forty-five minutes later, when I was again able to speak, I was so concussed I didn’t know my name or where I was, let alone that I’d lain blank eyed on the mat while my opponent had pinned me and then celebrated his win. The referee had motioned for me to get up until my father had run from the stands and led me from the arena. When he tells the story, he always emphasizes how kind and open I was afterward: “You were so pleasant, so nice,” he repeats each time, as if to suggest how difficult and distant I usually am. He doesn’t seem to understand that there is no diagnosis or cure for what afflicts me. I am doing the best I can to live my life.
We have run the river perfectly until we enter Mule Creek Canyon and the river begins to narrow, the water speeding through the unseen depths with such force that the hazards are unpredictable, even in high water. The flow now is so low that there is no cushion, and the water rises in sudden spurts and spins into whirlpools and pounds the sheer walls of the canyon in tall waves that appear without warning. We make it through Coffee Pot Rapids, where the river froths and boils in white plumes, but just as we are congratulating ourselves, we hit a sudden curl, and the entire boat is pulled up. For a long moment we are ninety degrees sideways, and I throw my hip against the side of the boat. The nose of the kayak is dumped into the wave — and with it my father. Then the boat miraculously comes back down, and my father is ahead of me in the racing water. I see his paddle rushing past and instinctively reach out and secure it, though now I can’t maneuver, and suddenly I’m sideways through another wave. By the time I get his paddle tucked into the front of the kayak, he’s being dragged along the sheer rock wall.
“Dad!” I shout. “Find an eddy!”
For a moment I see his whole face, his brown eyes fixed on me, and then he hits another drop and disappears into the standing wave.
I paddle hard as he resurfaces, and I catch up to him in the quicker water. He gets a hand over the side of the kayak, his momentum pulling us back into the current, and it is even more dangerous now, as he can be jammed against anything we strike. I try to keep the boat in the middle of the roaring river as he struggles to pull himself in, his chest over the edge and his feet kicking. He loses his grip and falls back, tries again and fails again. We are being pushed in the direction of the canyon wall on the side he is on, and I pull toward a hollow where the water eddies, and suddenly the boat is still. I set my paddle aside and seize him by his life jacket and pull. Slowly, by inches, he wriggles into the boat, his breath ragged.
“Are you OK?” I ask.
He is massaging his legs. “I hit some rocks, but I think I’m just bruised.”
I lean over and see his shin is already bluing. “Looks like it hurts,” I say.
He turns to face me, and he’s grimacing, though he’s no longer touching his legs. “I don’t believe . . . I fell out,” he says, his breath still coming in gasps. “You stayed in. Why did I . . . come out?”
“I’m in the back.”
His breathing slows. He’s beaming. “You’re stronger; that’s why you stayed in. And you kept your head.”
“The back is more stable. And what was I going to do, paddle off and leave you?”
He’s still smiling, though the adrenaline has him shaky. “It’s just as well you didn’t,” he says. “I was scared when I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself back in the boat.”
I let this admission sink in, then put my hand to his shoulder. “Well, Dad, so was I.”
My father’s leg clearly hurts, and he must be exhausted, his shoulders no doubt sore and aching. I paddle more than usual, pulling hard through his light strokes as we battle the up-canyon winds of the last leg, where the water mellows and the granite cliffs give way to the valley, with its dark forests of pine and Douglas fir beyond the low and sandy riverbanks. It isn’t until we stop for lunch that I notice it: the dry-box is missing, perhaps loosened when we nearly tipped over. I take a deep breath and steel myself.
“Dad.” I point to the now-vacant spot in the boat. “The dry-box — it’s gone.”
He glances where I’m pointing and nods. “I noticed that. I’ve looked and looked and haven’t seen it.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t double-strap it. It’s my fault.”
A hint of a smile passes over his face. “Maybe next time you’ll secure what you don’t want to lose.” He looks to the passing water, then back to me, and grins.
I don’t know what to say, so I just nod and accept his forgiveness and settle into the bank, tired and famished. I imagine a boatman finding the yellow dry-box somewhere behind us, caught in a strainer or bobbing in an eddy, and picture him opening it to find the biscotti canister, not knowing exactly what he has but knowing it is what’s left of somebody else’s rig. I turn to my father to mention this and find him massaging his leg and wincing.
He feels my gaze, then wets his lips as he does when he’s about to say something difficult. He speaks softly. “I am getting older.”
He turns to the water, and his gaze goes distant, his thoughts presumably reaching into questions of age and mortality. For a moment I know how I will feel when my father is gone and I’m left with only my own autonomy — how lonely and inadequate to the challenges of the world I will be — and the terror of it grips me, then releases me. This is only the intimation of loss. He is here with me now, and we may have years together yet. We eat without speaking, only the crunch of crackers and the steady lap of the river breaking the silence, the big water all behind us.