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Dreaming the River
by Joseph Freda

an excerpt from The Patience of Rivers
published in The Kenyon Review, Winter 2003

The water ran black between the boats, and doilies of foam floated past as the teams backpaddled to stay behind Vern Lefevre’s outstretched arm.

“Standard canoes back off the racers,” Vern called. “Standard canoes one boat length behind the racers, please!”

Nick kept a steady backpressure on his paddle and feathered it in the water. His stomach was so tight he thought he’d puke if he didn’t start paddling soon. Puke up a damn big rock, right through the hull of the canoe. Two strokes per second at the start, jump out in front. Get trapped in the pack, you’re screwed. Backpaddle, feather... Backpaddle, feather... Every muscle wanted to explode into forward motion. Vern’s instructions ended and the only sounds were the clunk of a paddle against a hull, the clearing of a throat, and then Vern called, “All right, paddlers. On the count!”

They stopped backpaddling and held tight in the water.

“On your marks!”

Nick felt Charlie’s paddle come out, felt his legs brace.

“Set!”

Nick’s paddle came up. He leaned forward.

BOOM!

The shotgun fired and the paddlers attacked the water, slashing at the river, shoveling bucketfuls behind them, banging this way and that, hitting canoes on both sides while trying not to break paddles—the usual frenzy at the gun. Flying spray and flailing arms and banging boats and wild cursing, it was rabid mayhem for the first sixty seconds and at Long Eddy this is enough to get you to the first riffle, where, if you haven’t separated yourself with some paddling room, you get jumbled with the others and you’ve got no water to dig into. Nick and Charlie jumped out pretty well but then slid up against the red glass racer, and their bowman, instead of drawing off from the other side, actually braced his paddle on Nick’s bow and shoved, sending Nick off his track and allowing them to gain half a length. Charlie dug for all he could and straightened them out, but they banged the red boat again. “Fucking steer your boat!” the sternman yelled at Charlie, and the boys bent heads-down and dug some more.

The line of boats evened out, bows to sterns, like a necklace of long beads. The boys paddled in seventh place, and now past the jam-up they could settle into a steady fast stroke. …two, three, four… Slice! Slice! Slice! …eight, nine, hut! Slice! Slice! They gained steadily on the red boat, which had taken on too much water in the first riffle. It wobbled on every paddle-switch. Nick knew those guys would have to stop and dump their water, and he’d take them there, so he set his sights on the cedar boat in front of them. When he and Charlie took that boat, number 108, they’d be in fifth place.

Felix’s letter drifted into his mind. He wrote about fishing with hand grenades and blowing beaucoup grass, and then I dreamed about Eva last night, that we’d been swimming in the river and were dozing on a big rock, and then she started to shake my arm, but I didn’t want to wake up because the sun felt good and it was drying me out. But she was smiling and shaking me and then I did wake up and it was my relief, Kreiger, shaking me awake because it was my watch. I’d gone to sleep soaking wet and it was still raining, and I was sure disappointed to leave that dream.

It was weird, Felix in Nam dreaming about the river, and Nick on the river dreading Nam. In a few days he’d be off to Albany, but if he didn’t stick in college the draft would sweep him away. Thinking about the world beyond Delaware Ford was like watching a black-and-white movie, or a duotone photograph—all grays and gunmetal blues. He imagined himself at school, in an unfamiliar urban landscape with gritty sidewalks and pieces of litter scudding by, knowing no one and wandering among strangers with no more feeling for them than for the parking meters or the hydrants, catching his monochromatic reflection in a shop window and seeing himself as the shopowner would: a confused kid without money or direction, looking at the wares simply because they were there, not because they fit into some larger blueprint of his life.

If he imagined dropping out of school, he saw himself in the same leaden colors as a draftee: doing time in a cause for which he had no moral affiliation, thrown together with other young men who shared nothing except their overriding confusion and a lack of will to resist, passing through the doors they were ordered to, rising at the time they were ordered to, performing private acts communally—shaving, showering, shitting—allowing himself to be herded through feeding and training and then to be transported to Vietnam.

…seven, eight, nine, hut! They switched clean and as they came up to the gravel bar by Basket Creek, the red canoe pulled in to dump water. Nick and Charlie shot past and the psych of gaining a place pushed them up onto the cedar boat’s tail. The fluorescent green sticker with the magic-markered 108 bobbed a few paddlestrokes ahead.

“Take ’em on the right,” Charlie said, and Nick aimed for the Pennsylvania bank, where the water ran fastest. He’d never seen this team before, and being new, they didn’t realize how far the gravel bar extended. They hit the shallow water and slowed down. Nick and Charlie nailed them a hundred yards downstream of the Basket Creek, and then Nick had his eye on fourth place.

Up ahead, the Canadians and Al Camp had pulled far away, already heading into the bend for Kellam’s Bridge. A long reach of open, flat water stretched between them and the Davis boys. The Davises, both wearing white Agway caps, paddled with their heads down and their eyes on the water. They kept a good three lengths ahead of the fourth-place boat, a raw fiberglass racer. Number 110. The hull was so thin, Nick could see the shadows of the sternman’s legs shift on every switch. He and Charlie locked onto their six o’clock position. Every stroke took all the muscle in Nick’s arms, shoulders, back, and stomach, with his butt anchored to the bucket and his legs braced. Slice! Slice! Slice!

Racer 110 cut a low profile two lengths ahead. Chopped down in the stern, the aft gunwales rode inches above the water. They paddled hard, this team. Nick knew he and Charlie would have to work to pass them, but he also knew they couldn’t shoot their wad too early. He and Charlie knew how to pace themselves, and they settled into that long, steady groove that kept them on 110’s tail and, if not obviously gaining, at least not slipping back. Slice! Slice! …eight, nine, hut!

It’s tempting, in those long stretches of monotonous paddling, to look behind to see where you stand. They had learned not to do that. Especially when they were running in the first few places, because behind you are all these boats, all with their sights on you, and some are a lot closer than you imagine. Once you turn and see how close the nearest boat is, and the whole chain of them stretched out upriver, you feel less like the pursuer and more like the pursued. It dulls your edge. You begin to give up ground. If you lose even one place during the drawn-out middle phase of the race, you’ll regain it only if the teams ahead of you tire, or take on water, or run aground, but you won’t do it on brute force because you’ll have given that up to the guy you turned around to see.

So they didn’t look back. They focused on their strokes, on cutting slices out of the river. Nick kept the fluorescent green 110 in his field of vision and paddled hard so it wouldn’t slip out. …four, five, six…

At first Felix’s letters were full of bravado: Here I am in the Nam, old buddy. It’s raining like a bastard. I’m hanging here in the hooch. We’re in a safe area now, but word is we’re moving out to Injun territory this week. He’d mention facts about the life over there. ...village a klick down the road and you can buy whatever you want: beer, grass, boom-boom... Mama-san sold me a pineapple yesterday, and Sarge gave me hell it could of been a booby trap.

Felix was a bright guy, and even if he hadn’t been headed for college, neither was he stuck in town. “Maybe I’ll take the Chevy and hit the road, man,” he’d said to Nick in the spring of his senior year. “Bomb from place to place for a while, listen to the radio. Wash some dishes when I need money, spin a wrench in some garage. I’d like to meet a cowgirl, man, out west someplace, or a California girl. I want to see some country. Big mountains. Big rivers. Big life, man. Ain’t gonna get that on some SUNY campus.”

Nick always pictured Felix behind the wheel of his white Impala, his wiry red hair bristling, his wide, freckled face grinning amidst the chrome and the cherry rolled-and-pleated interior. Felix had done all the work on his car, added touches like fender skirts and twin chrome antennae. He used to thunder up and down Route 97, roar across the bridges into Pennsylvania. He and his football buddies would go ramming around, or he and Eva Van Vooren, she perched beside him on the bench seat, her scarf tied to his rear-view mirror. From Grandpa’s orchard, Nick could always hear Felix’s dual exhausts blaring across the creek viaduct and up Cemetery Road.

Felix had surprised everybody when he enlisted. He was never a gung-ho military type like some of the kids whose fathers had been grunts in World War II.

“Every generation has its war, Nicko,” he said the day he enlisted. “My old man and yours had World War II. Our grandpas had World War I. Vietnam’s mine. It ain’t much of a war, but it’s the only one I got.”

continued in Kenyon Review, Winter 2003.

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The Patience of Rivers


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