Harvey Huddleston

Masters of Time and Distance

Part 3

               The Ozark landmass was originally sand, silt and the remains of marine animals laid down in a shallow sea at the beginning of the Paleozoic Era, 542 million years ago. Over time the sand changed to sandstone, the silt became shale and the shell became limestone. In the Late Paleozoic, the region experienced a geologic uplift and a dome-shaped plateau was formed, leaving the original layers of rock undisturbed. During the eras that followed, rivers cut gorges down through the rock layers, exposing strata on the sheer canyon walls. Slow-moving lakes formed inside these canyons with rapids at both ends, serving as inlets on the high side of the lakes and outlets on the lower.

               The last rapids had been a little faster than the ones before but it still reminded Bill more of a theme park than what he’d call white water. But then he’d known that rushing rapids wouldn’t be what this trip was about. Looking up at the canyon walls he saw the red, beige and gray horizontal layers that always fascinated him. Then there was the blackish layer, thinner than the others and no more than a line in places when a sudden change had taken place. He smiled at the idea of “sudden” in the context of millions of years.
               He thought of Kim here with him two years before and how it had seemed so right. And then how what they’d found there had been lost again back in Memphis. He’d asked her back last year and she’d almost come until she didn’t. That’s why he’d asked his friends this year and was surprised when they’d all said yes. None of them were what he’d call the outdoor type. But then he didn’t think of himself that way either. He just liked how it felt on the river.
               He knew the others were tired of these long stretches. But then he also knew that it was in this complete calm when it might happen for them like it did for him his first time there. One of those times when the smallness drifted away, leaving room for something else. Something that felt like magic. That calm was again starting to envelop him and he knew that if anyone could share it with him, these friends from the last four years could.
               Gretchen pulled her oar from the water and laid it across her lap. He called up to her.
               How’re you doing?
               Fine. It’s just so still.
               And hot.
               But beautiful. I think I’m having a heat stroke.
               We’re all getting some serious sun.
               Gretchen put her oar back in the water. Okay, paddle.
               In the canoe behind them were Lewis and Richard. Richard asked. Is this Arkansas?
               Looks like the Grand Canyon. Not quite what I’d expected.
               What did you expect?
               More like Deliverance.
               Squeal like a pig?
               Not that part in particular.
               Rhonda and John were in the last canoe with her in front and him in the back. As the day wore on John had become more and more frustrated. Okay, we need to develop a rhythm.
               I’ve got rhythm.
               Yeah, but what I’m saying is when I paddle on the right, you need to paddle on the left.
               So how am I supposed to know when you’re paddling on the right when I’m looking forward?
               I’ll tell you.
               Great. You’ll tell me.
               The problem is that you keep switching sides so then I have to switch too. We need to coordinate.
               So coordinate with me.
               I’m trying to but you keep switching.
               One side gets tired so I switch.
               Come on now. We need to do this together. When I paddle on the left you paddle on right until I say switch. Okay?
               So on your right. Stroke, stroke, stroke. You’re out of rhythm.
               Maybe I need a slave beating time.
               That’s what I’m doing.
               No, you’re being the captain and turning me into your slave!
               If you’ll just listen — Look, I know what I’m doing! I’ve been canoeing many times!
               Next you’ll be telling me about the rowing badge you won in the boy scouts!
               As a matter of fact —
               Don’t say it!
               You’re the one who said it!
               The other two canoes had stopped. Bill called out.
               Guys! Hey guys!
               John answered. What?
               You’re disturbing the wildlife.
               What wild life?
               We were thinking about finding a place to camp.
               Rhonda answered. I’m ready.
               Richard called out. Let’s do it.
               After the next rapids.

               They tied off the canoes at a clearing with a low bank. While everyone else unloaded the gear, Lewis wandered off.
               Richard watched some other canoers pass on the river. Look at them eating their hearts out that we got here first.
               Gretchen said. So wave back at them.
               Oh. Okay.
               Lewis was now staring at something about twenty yards from the bank. Hey, come here.
               They all went to where Lewis was pointing at a board nailed to a tree. It was gray and rotten with some writing carved into it. “Stinking Pond.”
               I don’t see a pond.
               Unless someone considers the river to be a pond.
               Who would think that?
               Besides, I wouldn’t say the river stinks.
               Rhonda sniffed. Wait. Do you smell that? Everyone sniffed and Rhonda laughed. Just kidding.
               Bill said. So let’s stay. Then if we smell anything, we just leave.
               The master has spoken.
               It’s not complicated.
               So why didn’t I think of it?
               Because our brains are fried.
               John turned back to where their gear was. Let’s just set up.
               Rhonda saluted. Right away, sir.
               They all followed John with Rhonda marching behind.
               Sing it out now, people. Gimme a hup toop threep fourp.

               John piled more branches on the fire as they finished their hot dogs, chips and potato salad. A joint made its way around and Rhonda decided to just say it.
               I wasn’t a very good rower today.
               All glanced around until John spoke. Rhonda, I didn’t say you weren’t a good rower. We just weren’t syncing up our strokes.
               Sounds pornograhphic.
               Should we be hearing this?
               I just think that when you do something you should try to do it right. I mean there’s a right way and a wrong way.
               But that doesn’t mean there’s not another way.
               She’s right, John. We have to stay open to possibilities.
               What do you think, Lewis?
               It’s called progress.
               John tried to put it to rest. Okay, okay, we’ll do better tomorrow.
               Rhonda stared at him until he looked at her. Promise?
               I promise.
               Hey, it’s great you two can talk about this stuff. Work it out in the bright light of day.
               Or night as the case may be.
               Rhonda got up. I’ll get the marshmallows.
               We need sticks too. Gretchen got up with her.
               Bill then got up and walked out of the firelight down to the water’s edge.
               As Rhonda sat back down with the marshmallows she looked off to where Bill had gone. Do you think he’s okay?
               Gretchen handed Rhonda a stick. I think he still misses Kim.
               John said. He doesn’t miss her that much.
               As Rhonda impaled a marshmallow she asked. Did he tell you that?
               No. Did he tell you otherwise?
               He doesn’t have to. I’ve known him a long time.
               We all have. So what’s this special insight the rest of us are missing?
               Richard spoke up. Come on, guys.
               I can’t take it anymore.
               John looked around. What?
               Gretchen answered. The constant arguing. Does it ever stop? She looked at the others. Well somebody had to say it.
               Okay, so we had a few disagreements today but we’ve worked it out.
               Rhonda looked at him. A few?
               Okay, okay... I’m sorry.
               He put his arm around Rhonda and she leaned into him. I’m sorry too.
               They kissed until Gretchen asked for a marshmallow. Rhonda passed the bag to her and Gretchen loaded one onto a stick.
               Want one Richard?
               Not yet. Think I’ll check out what Bill’s doing.
               Richard walked down to the water and Bill turned to him. Hey, bud, what’s up?
               Had to step away from the grudge match. Gretchen and I said something so they made up but then about one second later John starts into it again.
               Try riding in the same car.
               So what’re you doing?
               Bill stared off into the dark. It’s over, you know.
               What’s over?
               This part of my life. All our lives for that matter.
               Sounds depressing.
               Think about it. That school is all we’ve known for the last four years and now it’s done with. Gone forever. So here we are, facing this black void we know nothing about but still have to gear up for. You know, there was once an inland sea here that stretched all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Dinosaurs would roam the shore here stalking their prey.
               So what’s your point?
               Things change. And so fast.
               Those dinosaurs had to be here at least a few million years ago.
               So it’s not that fast.
               But that’s only a blink of the eye in the big picture. It’s coming, you know.
               What’s coming?
               I don’t know yet but it’s coming. Any one of a million different things. Or maybe nothing at all as in the possibility that we might all be dead tomorrow.
               I’d rather not dwell on that.
               All I’m saying is it’s possible.
               Richard stared out at the black sheet of water. I do have to admit...
               That was some pretty good pot John brought.
               Bill smiled. It was. Hey, it’s all good.
               Oh yeah?
               Yeah. So let’s get some marshmallows.
               Richard and Bill walked up to rejoin the others. All were holding marshmallows over the fire in various stages of cremation. Gretchen saw them coming. So what’s going on down there? Were you two discussing the finer points of time and distance?
               Richard answered. Actually we were.
               Well you’re missing marshmallows. Here Bill, I’ve got one ready for you.
               Bill sat down, taking the stick from Gretchen. Thanks.
               You too Richard. Sit down. So what was really going on down there?
               We were just doing the nature thing.
               Did you really have to tell us that?
               I meant —
               But his explanation was drowned out by laughter.
               We know what you meant, Richard. Sit down!
               But he doesn’t have to announce it like some great feat! Like Hercules and his seven labors!
               And with such fatherly pride!
               I thought it sounded maternal!
               And they did it together! I’m impressed!
               Assholes! I’m surrounded by assholes!
               Ooops! There goes my marshmallow!
               Grab it!
               Here, Gretchen! Use a napkin!
               Oh nooooo! It’s a black mess!
               Don’t burn your mouth! Take another!
               I need a better toasting technique!
               You want one, Richard?
               Another beer, yes!
               I’ll get it!
               John went to get up but fell back laughing. Their talk and laughter filled the woods far into the night. None of them had trouble sleeping. Gretchen pulled her sleeping bag out next to the embers and watched the stars twinkle above her.

               They were finishing their coffee when sunlight broke over the opposite cliff, dispelling the mist still on the river. Richard was putting a cooler in the canoe when Rhonda came over and dropped her backpack into it. I’m switching with Lewis. Is that okay?
               She went back for more stuff and Richard walked over to Bill loading his canoe.
               So Rhonda’s switching with Lewis.
               We didn’t think you’d mind. He’s driving her crazy and then there’s the extra bonus of not having to hear them bitch at each other all day.
               John came down to Lewis’s canoe with his backpack and dropped it in. He had a canvas hat on his head.
               Richard asked. What’s that?
               It’s for this bald spot. I picked it up at the canoe rental yesterday.
               Gretchen came with her stuff. I didn’t see you buy a hat.
               I didn’t.
               Wait, I can’t believe you stole that nice man’s hat.
               I’ll pay him when we get back. It’s just a hat.
               Gretchen called out. Have you got that sunscreen, Rhonda?
               Rhonda ran down to hand her the tube. Keep that. I’ve got another one.
               They finally pushed off from shore and got their canoes headed down river. As the sun climbed higher, all were amazed that this day was turning out even nicer than the one before, just as Scottie had predicted.
               Richard said to Rhonda up front. Hey there, matey.
               Rhonda turned back and whispered. This is so much better.
               What is? Oh yeah. Got it.

               Over the next few hours they went through a series of rapids, the ones today a little faster than those yesterday. The lakes were different too, even longer, slower and wider. The canoes were stretched out on the latest of these lakes with Bill and Gretchen out front, Lewis and John behind them and Rhonda and Richard bringing up the rear. Rhonda was talking about her Lit class.
               So for mid-term we had to write about sea shanties. There was this one about a wild goose. It went something like, have you ever seen a wild goose sailing over the ocean?
               Sounds good.
               Oh, it was. Do you know any?
               Hmmm... maybe one.
               Tell me.
               But it’s more of a river shanty.
               Even better.
               … Okay. Women run and hide. Brave men shiver. I’m Mike Fink. King of the river.
               Ooooh, I like that. Do some more.
               As the lake began to narrow, signaling the next rapids, Bill saw a large tree up ahead that had fallen into the river. It stretched about halfway across the main channel they were coming up on. He felt their canoe picking up speed and called back to the others.
               Keep to your left!
               In Rhonda and Richard’s canoe she thought she heard something. Was that Bill?
               I don’t know.
               So it’s children run and hide —
               No, it’s women run and hide... But I guess it could be children.
               Up ahead, Bill and Gretchen maneuvered through some large boulders in the main channel where the lake funneled into it. They were coming up on the tree trunk. It hung out over the water, its broken end over a foot thick with the trunk progressively thicker as it got closer to shore. Broken-off branches and limbs stuck out in every direction.
               They entered the rapids staying left and saw that they wouldn’t have made it under the tree as there was only at most a three foot clearance between it and the water. They passed it and Gretchen let out a whoop as the current grabbed their canoe, propelling it forward through the boulders and rushing water.
               It went on for at least a hundred yards. Bill and Gretchen were already at the end when Lewis and John started into the rapids. Having heard Bill’s warning, they entered the channel on the left and made it past the fallen tree. The only problem after that was hitting a large boulder almost head-on and both getting drenched before their canoe again shot forward.
               Richard was still trying to remember the next verse of “Mike Fink” when he saw the tree. They were now coming up on it fast and he wasn’t at all sure they could get far enough to the left in time. He paddled hard, trying to turn the bow. But the current already had them and the canoe slid sideways faster and faster towards the fallen tree.
               The front of the canoe with Rhonda in it missed the tree while the back went under it. It was too low to duck so at the last second Richard rose up to protect his head and the tree caught him square in the stomach, sweeping him out of the canoe. Rhonda held on as the canoe went in a circle, crashing and banging off the boulders. She sank to the bottom of the canoe, holding on and praying for it to end.
               As Richard slid down the tree trunk he reflexively grabbed a broken snag. That time at football when he thought he was dying but it was only the wind knocked out of him with that same pain paralyzing him now. He’d drown if he let loose so he had to hang on long enough to get his wind back. He wanted to reach with his other hand but couldn’t with his body stretched out straight in the current. But then some air came back so he tried for the snag with his other hand. He reached it and now held on with both hands.
               Bill and Gretchen had pulled into some calmer water to wait for the others. They watched as Lewis and John came down through the last of the rapids. Both canoes were waiting when the other canoe appeared bumping along sideways. Then they saw there was no one in it. As the canoe began to slow, Rhonda looked over its side.
               Gretchen saw her first. There’s Rhonda but where’s Richard?
               Rhonda saw them and screamed. He’s DEAD!
               Bill called out. Where’s Richard?
               BACK THERE! IMPALED ON A TREE! HE’S DEAD! She then collapsed back into the canoe.
               … Did she really say that?
               Bill turned to Lewis and John. Go find Richard while we get her out.
               Gretchen called out. Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’re coming.
               Bill and Grechen paddled to Rhonda’s canoe and found her in the bottom.
               He’s dead…. he’s dead…
               Bill steadied the canoes as Gretchen crossed over and touched Rhonda’s shoulder.
               Rhonda? Listen to me.
               It’s alright.
               Gretchen looked at Bill who then called out to John and Lewis on the shore.
               Go find Richard! Hurry!
               John called back. Where?
               Back there somewhere! Just hurry!
               Without waiting for Lewis, John took off through the dense undergrowth.
               Richard was still hanging onto the snag. He knew he couldn’t hold on much longer so he reached for a snag closer to shore and grabbed it. He shifted his weight to it with his other hand and then was able to do it again. And then again. A lizard sat motionless on the tree trunk, one orange eye following Richard as he struggled past underneath. There came a point when his arms refused to go further and he looked up into the sun. Circles and triangles spun into each other. He was blacking out. He cried out and then realized he might have enough strength for one more snag.
               Finally he could see the bottom and thought he might be able to escape the current. He dropped down into shallow water and crawled the last few feet up onto the bank. On his back and gasping for air he closed his eyes. His breathing slowed and became quieter until the only sound was the water churning past and a bird somewhere mocking him.
               Branches tore at John’s body as he stumbled through the undergrowth. He had no idea how far to go but he kept the water in sight to stay in the right direction. All he knew was that he had to get above the rapids before starting back down. Then he glimpsed the fallen tree through the brush and knew he’d gone far enough. Bleeding and wild eyed, he emerged from the undergrowth and saw Richard lying on the bank.
               Richard? John then dropped to his knees next to him and tried again. Richard?
               Without moving, Richard answered. .... What?
               Oh man! I thought you were dead!
               Richard opened his eyes and looked at John until his face came into focus. … I did too...
               Are you alright?
               I don’t know… got the wind knocked out of me...
               Can you sit up?
               Richard made a move to sit up and John helped. We didn’t know what happened. Rhonda came down the river screaming that you were impaled on a tree so we thought… We didn’t know what to think...
               Just give me a second…
               Sure. You sit there for as long as you want. I’m not going anywhere.
               Richard slowly turned his head to look at the fallen tree and turned even farther to see downriver. He then looked back until his gaze settled again on John. You know… that river is really dangerous.
               After a minute, John asked. Do you want to go find the others?
               Where are they?
               Down river. Come on. I’ll help you up.
               John supported him as he slowly got up but when John moved away, Richard almost fell.
               Still shaky, I guess.
               Can you walk?
               Richard took a few tentative steps. I think so… Where did you say they were?
               This way. Come on. We’ll take it nice and slow.
               ... Nice and slow... As they started into the brush, Richard asked. Where’s your hat?
               John felt the top of his head. … Guess I lost it.

               Bill waded upstream as far as he could while Lewis stood on top of a boulder scanning from above. Rhonda was on the bank with her face in her hands, trying to block out that image. She’d seen the dead branches lined up like spears just before Richard slammed into them. And then there he was, stuck up there before the canoe started spinning and she didn’t see anything else. It was all so useless, so hopeless, everything in her life and she wondered how any of it could’ve mattered. She mouthed, “Mike Fink” to herself, trying to block out that image.
               Gretchen was rubbing her back when Rhonda said softly. It was my fault, you know.
               Gretchen faced her, holding her shoulders. No! It wasn’t your fault! Nothing was your fault! But Rhonda just stared blankly. She then became aware of Bill and Lewis.
               What are they doing?
               Looking for him.
               When Gretchen didn’t answer, Rhonda got up and screamed. Stop it! Just stop it!
               Gretchen called out. She’s right! We have to go find them!
               Lewis climbed down from the boulder as Bill waded to shore. They began to enter the undergrowth when a sound was heard coming from it. John then emerged. They waited for him to say something when Richard stepped out from the brush behind him. Rhonda gasped and ran to him, hugging him tightly.
               You really had us worried.
               Glad to see you back.
               No, I mean it’s really good to see you.
               Richard looked around. ...Same here...
               I found him passed out on the bank.
               Rhonda saw the blood on John and got a kit from her backpack. All watched as she soaked gauze with peroxide and wiped John’s cuts with it. She then squeezed out some dabs from a tube onto her finger and touched it to the wounds.
               Richard said. Unguentine.
               Gretchen said. You have no idea how scared we were. How are you?
               Actually, I think coming through that jungle helped...
               Dry land.
               A chance to clear your head…
               Gretchen then said. Rhonda thought it was her fault.
               Oh no, Rhonda, not at all. It was one hundred percent my fault. I just didn’t see that tree until it was too late.
               Gretchen said. She thought you’d been impaled on it.
               Rhonda then looked at Richard and spoke for the first time. That’s how it looked.
               And I know why you thought that… There were all these broken limbs sticking out except for that one spot where I hit the tree. But then it was those same limbs that I was able to pull myself to shore with. Very strange… Think I’ll sit down for a minute if no one minds…
               Richard sat on a rock, looking out at the river. The rest of them watched him until, one by one, they found their own places to sit. After a few minutes Richard got up to get a beer from the cooler. Coming back to the rock he opened the beer and became aware of the others looking at the river. He then sat back down and slowly sipped his beer, staring off with them.

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