It had been a long, dry April day full of slanted light and feathery, harmless clouds; still,
it looked like it had been raining down by the roller dam. We drove down a wide, cracked surface of road without a real destination
in mind, exceeding the suggested speed limit and squinting off and on against the strobe of sun through a wall of narrow trees.
The dirt that met the edges of the road had a sculpted look that spoke of perpetual wetness- a plain of Cedar River soil falling
out of winter.
Something caught his eye as we slowed into a gentle curve, but I was admiring the bluffs that
had grown out of an incline on the passenger side of the car. I suppose it might have been a house (something he was very
interested in purchasing "one of these days"), or...now that I really think of it, probably another car. The houses were few
and more or less unattractive along this stretch of roadway.
"This is where the pot-smokers come," he said, pulling me out of the scenery to mimic his sightline.
"Oh," I said a moment later, still wondering what exactly he was referring to. It was still towering
bluffs on the right and the shiny mask of the river on the left, hiding its resident trash and discolored chemical sub-currents.
It seemed to me that even the pot-smokers could have done better, but it seemed pointless to say so.
He continued to slow against the obvious desire of the Mustang's V8 wanderlust, and waved to a
bicyclist who was watching him carefully. I didn’t blame the guy for casting a suspicious glance- the car had an angry,
snarling look to it at any speed- but much like the river, the substance of what sat inside was worlds different.
We parked the car in a small gravel driveway that was chained off about ten-feet in ("Wildlife
Reserve," screams a hardly noticeable little brown sign at the center of the chain) and walked down to the river's edge.
"Wildlife," I commented back to the sign, smiling part-way. The only animals who would dare to
live near this water were the ones who could fly over it, and even they tended to prefer perching on the higher branches.
"I know. Isn't it great?"
This was his favorite sarcastic response to the obvious and bitter darkness of life's comedies.
It had worn off onto me and I had used it myself from time to time, but hearing him speak it with such acceptance was like
dropping an ice cream cone. We both loved nature, even at its very worst, and her future was surely melting on a sidewalk
The sound of the river was swelling to a roar, and as we rounded a grove of thick, gnarled trees
I was presented with the reason. A hundred feet from my own dirty sandals, the smooth, mirrored facade of the water rolled
over and into itself again, spinning on a giant cylinder. Yards later it rose again over its second hurtle- a circus trick
that seemed to slow it down some. This time it was he who followed my eyes.
"Have you ever been down here before?" he asked as he bent to pull a wayward branch out of the
way. I had been watching the strange spectacle and had almost clothes-lined myself on it. Nature has a right to take every
little bit of revenge she can as far as I'm concerned.
"Never," I answered, remembering being told about it. "James used to come down here to get pictures
of bald eagles."
I anticipated the polite subject change that could only come naturally with the mention of that
"There are usually a lot of those down here," he replied instead, casting away a bit of spider
web that had laid claim to his shoulder. "Would it be okay if we sat by the edge for a while? I bet we'll see one if we wait
I agreed heartily. Bald eagles, though fairly common in these parts, were not something I had
seen a lot of... especially not up close. There were specks in the sky from time to time, but they were up so high that it
was really hard to tell.
We settled onto a pile of flat rocks near an inlet. He seated himself close to me, draping an
arm protectively around my shoulder. A bit of styrofoam debris washed up near his shoe and stuck there, clinging to the shore-
wanting too to be free of the river and its fellow trash-particles. I fancied I probably knew what that was like- the desire
to step away from one's kind and identify with another lot.
"I can't even believe this river," I sighed, more to the sky and trees than to him. "Water isn't
supposed to be like this- I mean, this is water gone wrong."
He nodded in the way we both nodded- with complete and utter amazement at the apathy of the city,
which essentially translated to the apathy of most humans from everywhere. The bike rider who had passed methodically be the
Mustang was crossing back in the opposite direction, his mind onto other things. I immediately wondered how many wrappers
he had dropped in his short lifetime. The arm around me tightened as a cool breeze came off the river.
"I've never really seen any rivers that aren't like this," he admitted sadly. Next, he would remind
me that unlike myself, he had never witnessed the crystal-clear majesty of Lake Lucerne or any of the other immaculate water
features of Switzerland.
A deep, warbling whistle from the enzyme factory rolled across the water and sent up a flurry
of birds. I stiffened, wondering if all the little creeks from my childhood had really been as full of chemical pesticides
as I had heard they were.
I was nine years old before my skin ever made contact with the cold water of the property creek.
It was a dusk in early spring- a time when any rational child (as if there were such a thing) would avoid a chilly stream
at any cost. Still, there was something charismatic about the motionless little bogs and gentle whirlpools that formed here
and there along its edge like novelty jewelry. I wanted to touch the liquid nature, even if it only meant wetting a fingertip
or a sandaled toe. I had lived mere strides away for almost three years and had never broken its surface with anything but
sticks and rocks- its own kin.
What I felt when I finally traced a finger through its icy thrust was unarguable numbness. First
in my fingernail, and then each consecutive knuckle until I was throbbing to the elbow. I jerked my entire arm back against
my chest, feeling the pulsing of my arm somehow matching the beat of my now frantic heart. Is this what it really felt like
to be a stream? It was like dying!
"Do you think this river knows it's full of garbage?" I asked him, hoping the question wouldn't
sound too dim-witted.
"I think it's probably in denial," he replied, giving the answer a serious moment before breaking
into a smile that brought out the handsome lines around his mouth. "No one ever likes to admit to inherent fault."
I couldn't easily return the smile, but with some straining, the deed was done.
"You would think we'd all be ready to admit to things that are someone else's fault... you know,
to get the burden off our own backs."
He thought it over and tossed a stick into the river, shaking his head at what appeared beneath
the broken surface. The dam turned it all over, and over again.
Elese was truly a social creature when it came to interacting with the life of the stream.
She was a full two years younger than I, which would have made her ten the day we finally submerged ourselves to the waist
in the dark, spongy creek.
I had protested, fearing countless horrors that I was sure lurked in the spaces where the light
could not reach. It all came down to pride. I would not allow a 4th grader to out-brave me in my own back yard.
We went in under the bridge where the gravel road crossed over. The grass here was high, but once
we reached the shade of the stone bridge, life ceased to be. This confirmed my foundational belief that the water was a dead
thing- cold and without feeling.
Elese crawled down the rocks to the stream's edge, kicking off her shoes and stomping right over
to a shallow place. By the time I had worked up the nerve to step into the water, she was knee-deep and catching tadpoles
in her cupped hands.
"Look!" she yelled in my direction, "I caught baby frogs!"
Her enthusiasm for life's small pleasures never ceased to amaze me. What amazed me more was the
presence of living creatures in the dark water. The mere suggestion that a mature animal could survive in it was bizarre beyond
note, but a baby!?
The acceptance had been slow, but surprisingly permanent. We had made out way through almost two
hundred feet of creek when the depth began to change dramatically. Neither of us was in the mood to walk on our tip-toes on
a creek-bottom we could no longer see, so we turned back and emerged once again below the bridge.
I should point out now that Elese never missed a thing. Five steps from the water and she was
pointing frantically at what I thought was the rock I was standing on. I side-stepped quickly to avoid losing my footing on
what I thought was the loose rock, and froze with ill terror when my legs brushed together.
"Vampires!" she squealed, the word echoing and diminishing into the moonlit depths below the bridge.
Later, while I sat in a lawn chair, bringing against the stinging heat of a fluid lighter against
my legs, Elese explained to me that leeches were actually the newborn babies of blood-sucking vampires. Like most of her almost-logical
explanations, I found this one greatly enticing, and couldn't wait until my mother had finished burning the little devils
off of my ankles. I was confident that I could talk Elese into an adventurous vampire-hunting excursion in the barn or corn-crib...
somewhere mysterious and far from the water.
"Does it bother you that your dad works in one of those factories?" he asked me after several
minutes of contemplating whether or not he should bring it up.
Like the river, I was surely in denial. When people take on a job, they tend to do it (and strive
to do it well) without considering how their tiny little job is contributing to the evil in the world. It was a haunting thing
to develop a love for nature so deep and pure that simply operating a motor vehicle made one sick with humanity, but even
the people with a twinge of this feeling tend to meet opposition in the "I'm just one person" mentality.
"His job there is paying for my college," I answered, knowing it was a cop-out. He nudged me in
the ribs with his elbow, gently telling me in his way not to worry about it.
I was about to open my mouth to say something profound- something I had actually been thinking
about for quite some time. Before I could lick my lips or even part them, the hand on my shoulder tightened, and in a hushed
whisper, he was saying "Eagle."
For the first time, I was actually looking at one that was quite close. It had landed on a
hollow log and was preening itself busily- something I had never even seen a TV or movie eagle do. These Hollywood eagles
were usually noted for tearing across an open sky with a fish who never saw it coming pinched in their beaks, or sitting high
in a redwood casting a superior eye down on all the prey that scurried around in the brush. This eagle seemed to be doing
something almost private- cleaning itself of the layer of gunk it surely acquired one way or another from the river.
If it knew we were watching, it paid no mind. It wasn't until the sky began to take on its late afternoon heaviness and another
factory whistle blew its declaration out into the universe that the big bird stepped off the log and into flight again. We
craned our necks to see it go. It had only been sitting about forty feet away.
"I guess we've seen one," I finally said, after nearly a half hour's worth of hush. "I wonder
where it's headed now..."
He stood and helped me to my feet, grasping my hand and wrist all in one powerful grip. "I'm actually
interested in knowing where the river is going," he offered.
"Besides to Hell?" If one wanted to know where the river was going, one would only need to consult
a map. The Cedar River wasn't exactly a runaway trickle as far as civilization was concerned. What he was referring to was
much more complicated, and would have had the map makers of long ago laughing if they heard the suggestion made in an age
of information and technology.
"What would you say if I told you I wanted to follow the river?" He was serious, but this man
could make anything sound fun and fanciful. By asking the question, it was hard to tell whether he was seeking my real verbal
reaction to his desire or a yes or no answer.
Truth be told, I'd go anywhere with him.
Elese's social grace extended far beyond the small amphibians of the creek. It turned out to
be her that gave Holland the verbal invitation to join us down under the stone bridge where we had set up our own growing
civilization. I was more than willing to have him join us, but my hesitation was based in his dual personality (not literal,
as in Jekyl and Hyde, but the kind of dual personality most young teenagers suffer in a social environment) and my reluctance
to disappoint him. What if we invited him down there and let him in on our imaginative secrets only to find that he was "much
too grown up" for our kind of amusement. What if it all looked terribly childish to this male friend-figure who was both younger
than me and older than Elese? It would be humiliation for both of us in our own rite.
The dual personality I seek to illustrate was a non-issue the moment we had set all six of our
feet into the cool shade of the bridge. Spindle-legged Elese made a leap onto the dam we had been building for most of the
afternoon, and Holland was quickly full of questions dealing with how it came to be. He added a stick to the edge, wedging
it firmly between two others so it wouldn't break free. His face was a thrilled child's smile that glowed in the dark.
The three of us worked on the dam until it was too dark to see our own hands. We collapsed into
the dirt together, admiring our precision work and discussing each of our reasons for wanting to trap the water.
"I want to see if any animals will live on the dam," Elese shared at once. I thought to myself
that if an animal wanted a dam, it would probably build one itself. Still...
"I just want to be able to see the bottom," I admitted, knowing that it would take a little explaining.
At the time, I was confident that the experience with the leeches had left me deeply scarred. Neither of them seemed to need
any more explanation.
"This is so awesome," said Holland, tossing another stick on top of the dam with his last ounce
of strength. "I wonder if we could build our own bridge further down."
Elese suggested that it should be a lookout bridge so we could keep an eye on the immigrant hordes
of vampires that were somehow still sneaking into the property. She had taken to calling the stream "the border" and guarding
it like prison walls. I had once asked her where vampires came to the property from and she had stopped for a moment, bouncing
a narrow fingertip on her lower lip until she came up with a satisfactory answer.
"Africa," she had said resolutely.
I was quite sure I had heard something about Romania, but I wasn't going to argue with Elese, who was
like the world's most reliable source for made-up information. Since this was the verdict, we went ahead and convinced Holland,
who also seemed reluctant at first but was soon guarding the African border like a vampire hunter's best hound.
The three of us were the property's only hope.
The first rule of his river-following adventure was that we weren't allowed to cross over any bridges.
Ideally, this would mean that we remained along-side the river in as close proximity as possible without ever ending up on
the other bank of it. I wasn't sure at first why this was terribly important, but he seemed set on it. It turned out to be
a really good idea.
We had only been driving for thirty minutes or so when I realized what basic directions we were moving
in. I had thought at first that we would follow the main branch of the river and end up somewhere further east, where both
of us would tire of the activity and head home for a late movie. Instead, he turned onto a gravel road where the river branched
off into two smaller streams- one that continued on south and widened out into the "real river" once again. He meant to follow
the smaller one.
"Hey, did I ever tell you about my roommate and her flight to South Africa?"
We had been sitting in contented silence for several minutes, and I had to clear my dry throat mid-question
before I could continue.
"I knew that she went," he responded, his own voice sounding a little worn. "What made you think of
"Oh, well....." I trailed off, not knowing how to articulate all that I had just been thinking. I decided
to go with the random element. "She sat next to a guy on her flight who claimed to be a vampire hunter. He had all kinds of
stakes and mallets...and supposedly reeked of garlic."
"That sounds like a guy who knows what he wants in life," he replied, smiling at the road ahead.
"It's just funny that he was convinced there were vampires to be hunted in Africa. Have you been keeping
track of which direction we are going?" The heavy clouds that had developed in the gray-violet sky prevented any kind of natural
"Does it matter?"
"At this rate, we could end up in someone's water garden," I joked, knowing he would immediately think
of his own mother and her extravagant and impressive water-landscaping.
"Then we'll know where the river goes," he answered matter-of-factly, reaching over with his scarred
right hand to hold my left one affectionately. It was something he did at every available chance, and I would never take it
James liked to hold my hand, but it had a flavor to it that spoke of years of practiced chivalry.
He had been properly trained to treat a woman right- something that he either picked up from the world around him or was directly
instructed in at some point. The way he was holding it now, at the creek-side, was as close to genuine as I'd ever felt.
He was in the same grade as Elese and possessed a similar worldliness that surpassed the small number
that represented his age. We liked to go walking down along the horse trail where the water turned sharply against the edge
of the property. There were large, blindingly white rocks that sat along the cliff of the stream, and this is where we would
sit when the discussion became too dramatic for the stroll.
"I wonder what it will be like to come back here after I've gone away to college," I thought out loud,
knowing that the subject was sensitive with him. He still had two years of high school left (it was always hard to believe
he was so young), and I was days from my own commencement. What would become of us? Is there any way in the infinite possibilities
of the universe that we could pull through and stay together?
"I'm glad to be here with you," he said, his eyes taking on a deep and churning concern for my thoughts
and feelings. I squeezed the hand that held mine and concentrated on the avoidance of tears. There is something about these
iconic moments in one's life that makes one need to cry- whether it is truly sad or not. It feels like it is expected of us.
We cry in the principle of the moment. It was really hard to tell whether my tears- the hot ones that I now couldn't prevent-
were from sadness or the realization I was now having that life and existence are huge and I am just one person.
If there was something worth crying about, it was Holland. Over the past several years we had grown
to be like-minded friends. We spoke careful words to one another in the hallways of the school (his clan wore dark, heavy
clothing no matter what the weather was like, and carried a constant herbal aroma that was almost completely covered by the
stronger smell of their apathy) and shared several inside jokes that preserved our ill-nurtured relationship. Holland had
an undefined problem with James, just as most of our insecure or under-motivated peers did, and I did my best to keep the
The last time I had been down by the water with Holland he had told me he was tired of this place- of
these people. He had mentioned moving in with his mother out-of-state. She would let him do whatever he wanted with whoever
he wanted. It would be his escape from his overbearing father who seemed to look out for his safety and well-being a bit too
much for his liking. That had been a year ago. He had lied to the courts and told them that his father beat him. His performance
had been impressive, and he had been granted his wish in exchange for his father's broken heart. I had no idea what became
of him after that.
James was always willing to talk about people- about what they were doing, what they meant to do, what
they were saying. He was what you might call a watered-down gossip...managing it in a way that didn't seem catty or obvious.
I liked to talk about people too, but I didn't like to talk about Holland.
"That's where Dennis lives," I pointed out as we drove past the country home with the large trampoline
"Dennis that fixed your car after the accident? The painter?"
He hadn't met Dennis, but admired his work. Whatever protective spirit had driven him to take such an
active parenting role with Holland had also driven him to be a careful, precise painter. He did body work on cars, and had
done a fantastic number on mine after an unfortunate accident several years before.
"That's right. He did it for nothing, too. His son and I used to be good friends."
It felt bad to use the past tense, but I hadn't spoken with Holland in years and it is hard to call
someone a friend after they abandon you and the world you share. Especially when they leave you and choose instead to quest
for drugs and sex in extreme amounts, far from the dam in the creek of your shared innocence.
"What was that kid's name? I know you mentioned it once."
"Holland. Supposedly he got his girlfriend pregnant and they are getting married sometime this month."
"Oh." I had also mentioned to him that Holland was a year younger than I, and it was hard to hear this
kind of news about a guy fresh out of high school. Or his girl, for that matter. What drove people to this kind of social
masochism? I always assumed it was the drugs and the manipulation that created these problems, but the more and more I thought
about it, the less likely it seemed that something else could be blamed. I rolled down my window and took in a deep breath
of familiar air.
He must have known before we started that we would end up back in my old stomping grounds. The turns
he had taken seemed patternless and the remnants of river he followed grew narrower and narrower with each mile. We passed
the house that Elese had lived in years and years ago- the house that three or four families had inhabited since. The most
recent family had added a large addition onto the south side, making it a new house with new memories. The large white/gray
corncrib with its chipping paint had leaned a little to the west, but it probably wouldn't fall. At least not without a good
The creek wound itself through the field across from the property, flanked with short trees and the
white rocks that continued for miles. I had never before ventured a guess at the origin of its chilly waters, but now that
I knew, I was somehow not surprised.
I wondered how many kids on how many farms had built dams out of sticks and bridges out of fallen trees.
I wondered a second time how I had never before seen a bald eagle up close. I wondered uncomfortably about Elese and Holland
and the pictures I still had tucked away from the last day the three of us spent together on our watch-tower bridge, wondering
if we would all ever be in the same room again.
"Want to stop for a while?"
He had slowed the Mustang to a careful stop atop the stone bridge, inviting me out of my thoughts little
by little without a tug or jolt of any kind. His hand had found mine again, and was holding it with an intent that can't be
learned from the world around you and can't be picked up from anyone's instruction. It was full of the life and principle
that brought tears in key moments and comfort in the possibility of inevitable change.
"Will you walk down there with me?" I asked, knowing he would. He had, after all, meant to follow the
river, and I remain determined to follow him anywhere.