Tuesday, April 01, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Nine

We rowed on in anxious silence. I could not take my eyes off the light beyond the trees. I hoped the light belonged to the Highway 67 bridge, but it seemed too bright, as if emanating from a terrible blinding supernatural core.

I was sure I was in a Bardo dream. The couple by the river talking about death was just the sort of thing you might dream in that in-between state, unable to believe you were dead … clinging to the illusion of life while your unconscious tried to communicate the truth: that you are dead, no longer a person on planet Earth, and are about to come face to face with Eternity.

It’s not the mushrooms, I thought. This is real. I’m dead. But I'm not ready to be dead. Please God, don't take me now. I’ll do better. I haven’t been myself since the divorce. I've been partying too hard, but I’ll do better and I’ll take better care of myself. I can’t die now. It would hurt too many people and my child needs me. I can do better. I've been stupid. Stupid to do drugs and stupid to go on this canoe trip and get injured and do drugs at the same time. And I can make better use of the talent you gave me, God. I have squandered my talent and my time on trivialities. I can do better. I can make a difference. Please let me live."

“Hear that?” said Jim.

“Hear what?”

“Cars,” he said pointing ahead. I heard them too. My heart leapt. We rounded the bend and there it was, the Highway 67 bridge and cars passing back and forth in the highway lights.

“We’re alive,” said Jim, laughing.

* * *

Seventeen years have passed since that canoe trip. I can still touch my thigh and feel the dead tissue. The injury left a scar but that is all it left, a scar. I am alive.

Jim is no longer alive. We enjoyed another decade of friendship, then he was taken away by cancer. When he died, we had been friends 45 years.

He lived with us during the months he went through chemo. There was not a lot of time for fun. He was awful sick and mostly kept to his room, and I was under a deadline trying to finish a comic book called Texas Tales.

But in the evenings when I had finished the day’s work, I would go back to his room and see how he was doing, and if he was up for it, we would smoke a joint and talk and laugh about old times, including our brush with death on the Brazos and our unexpected baptism by the Arms of God.

We did not talk about the current situation. I did not want to bring it up. It was my function, I thought, to keep it positive and encourage Jim to believe he could do it, he could beat the Big C, and later this would be another story we could laugh about later.

But one day he walked into my studio. He was so frail, no longer the strong athletic man he had been on our canoe adventure—so frail and cold, he shivered all the time and wore gloves (with fingers exposed) he was so cold. He sat down on the other side of my desk and rolled a joint, and we smoked, and he said, “I know this is hard for you watching your best friend die.”

I couldn’t say anything. I just took the joint he held out to me and we smoked silently, looking out the window at the traffic on the highway and listening to the music in the afternoon light.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Eight

What am I doing on this stupid river, I thought. Middle of the night, injured, tripping, and any minute might fall in the river and drown.

What am I doing with my life?

Forty-five years old, thinking I can pick up where I left off. Thinking I can go home again.

No one gets to go home again. No one gets to be 19 again, and if you blow it at 19 you live with the consequences and you can't go back.

What’s wrong with me, doing drugs at my age and canoeing. What do I know about canoeing? What do I know about life, for that matter?

If only I hadn’t married so young, maybe now I wouldn’t be trying to make up for lost time.

I have given so much, but now am empty handed. I deserve to have my youth given back to me. I deserve to live life to the fullest.

I could have accomplished so much. I coulda’ been a contender. Is it too late?

We rowed on through the darkness, less dark now. A few stars and the moon had broken through the clouds.

Suppose I had died today? What would I have left behind … a foreshortened life, a few pieces of artwork and some clever writing, a handful of comic books, and many shocked friends and a grieving family. My parents, my daughter now in college, my sister, my nephews, all grieving … my girlfriend waiting in our Austin apartment for me to come home from this fool canoe trip …

Yes, suppose I had died … or suppose I did die.

Yes, suppose I died today and suppose that everything since, including this right now, rowing on and on in the darkness is a Bardo dream and my Life Review.

“Almost there,” said Jim, pointing ahead to a bright glow beyond the black trees at the bend of the river.

“Almost where?”

“The bridge.”

“What bridge?”

“The bridge.”

“No,” I said, “that’s the Great White Light. We died back there …”

“You’re tripping.”

“No, we died back there.”

Jim rowed on, saying nothing. I could tell he was thinking I might be right.

The bend of the river slowly approached. What would we see? The Highway 67 bridge or the Great White Light of All Being? Were we living or dead?

We rowed on in anxious silence …

(To be continued)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Seven

We rowed on as the night continued to darken and the quiet deepened.

There was only the croak of frogs and the occasional splash of a catfish, and always the river lapping against the canoe and the knowledge we could tumble over any time into the black water and be lost in the Brazos … taken away by the Arms of God.

Taken away before I’m ready, I thought and closed my eyes.

So many taken before. So many, and their cold white arms reaching up from the inky depths. Did you think you would live forever?

I took deep breaths, wishing I had brought my Xanax. But no, I had thrown away the Xanax weeks ago, and had brought only mushrooms and weed. Idiot.

I curled up into a fetal position. Every sound made me start …

On a river night you can hear so impossibly far. Voices miles away seem just around the bend echoing towards you, but not shouting but talking in conversational tones.

We heard two people talking, a man and a woman. As people often do sitting by the river at night, they were talking about Eternity …

The man said, “I don’t know what happens when we die. Maybe nothing, maybe something. Either way death scares me, I don’t mind admitting.”

The woman said, “It scares me too, but I think there’s something beyond the grave. Maybe not life as we know it, but something. Something larger than us, but something we were always a part of. Whatever that thing is, I don’t think it ever dies.”

“Maybe not,” said the man. “I just hope that—someone’s coming.”

They stopped talking and watched our canoe glide into the light of the kerosene lantern that hung outside their tent. They were sitting in folding chairs on the river bank with their drinks and fishing poles.

The man sang out, “Howdy!”

“Howdy!” Jim sang back.

“Good night for canoeing?”

“Fine night,” replied Jim.

We rowed on. The couple watched silently, then resumed their conversation. Evidently they did not know we could hear them. The woman said, “My god, Steve, they’re canoeing in the dark. You think they’ll be okay?”

“Aw yeah,” he said, hesitating. “Your eyes adjust in the dark. They’ll be just fine, I think.”

Then they went back to talking about Eternity, and slowly their voices faded away as we moved farther down the river and deeper into darkness …

(To be continued)

Friday, January 31, 2014


The river widened and began to darken. Sunlight strobed through the trees on the western bank, flashing Navajo sun patterns.

At a bend in the river, Jim pointed ahead. “Sawtooth,” he said, and I saw what he meant: rows of cedar, sawtooth-shaped, casting shadows up the reddening hillside. The sun was setting.

I peered into the thicket and saw a pair of eyes glinting in the wooded deeps … the eyes of a Comanche in full headdress and war paint, slowly turning his head and watching as we drifted past—a trick of the twilight? or the mushrooms, or both? or an actual time warp, or all of the above?

Night fell. The moon rose … a Comanche Moon, full and fat and orange—and beautiful, but if you gazed into its mysteries too long, it took on a malevolent aspect … I saw one of its gray fissures turn into a menacing leer … now the moon was a disembodied jack-o-lantern laughing at our doom—

The canoe wobbled. My heart leapt. We tumbled headfirst in a burst of water, lost in the vast cold river of darkness, the harbor of many a bloated body and lost soul anchored forever in the unforgiving depths and forgotten …

“How’s the leg?” asked Jim.


“How are you feeling? You hollered. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Jim rowed on, the canoe steady and gliding forward in the orange Comanche Moon. I thought of all the death beneath us in the catfish-swarming abyss and all the tales of drowning and horrid loss my father told me, and remembered the death I’d seen with my own eyes on a tributary of this river, Mustang Creek 1968 … three lives lost in the raging night … the little girl’s bloated body lifted from a motorboat in the terrible morning light.

And now I was worried for my own life. I watched Jim row, and also watched the path ahead. It was night, not the best time to be canoeing on the river, but we had the advantage of moonlight … and yet, the light could also play tricks on the eyes, I noticed. An obstacle—a tree branch floating in the flood-swollen river—could be easily spotted, yes, but sometimes the interplay of light and shadow (and mushrooms) made obstacles appear that were not there, causing Jim sometimes to swerve needlessly, which in turn caused the canoe to dangerously tilt. Not just once, but many times …

And what if we capsized in the middle of darkness? It would not be as before in the sunlight, in shallow water, when we had a chance to survive the suck of the whirlpool and death trap of the tree. No, death … Death would take us tonight … forget our things; the backpacks, paddles, canoe and such—there would be no light to see by and salvage anything, let alone ourselves. We would die.

But I am wearing my life jacket now, I thought. I could survive … but what about Jim? … he’s still using his for a seat cushion … what if he goes into the water and never comes up, and it’s just me out here in the water and dark, alone?

“Say, Jim,” I said, “can you see all right in this dark?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “My eyes have adjusted. I can see just fine. Don’t you worry about a thing …”

I tried not to worry. But the moon disappeared behind the clouds and the night grew darker than ever, and quieter. Bullfrogs croaked in the dark, and they seemed to croak these words, “Stop. Stop. Stop.”

“Maybe we should stop,” I said to Jim, “and camp for the night. Let the mushrooms wear off. Finish in the morning.”

He shook his head. “Nah, this is nothing. We’ll be back in Cleburne by midnight, trust me.”

(To be continued …)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Five

We rowed on—or rather, Jim rowed.

The instant ice pack gradually lost its effectiveness, and with no real ice to replace it, the burning and throbbing in my leg increased. I was glad Jim was doing the rowing.

It occurred to me some weed might ease the pain. I lit a joint and passed it to Jim. He stopped rowing long enough to take a few hits, then passed the joint back to me and resumed rowing.

I finished the joint. The weed distanced me from the pain, and for the first time since the accident I began to relax, gazing at the oak and mesquite-lined banks and cedar-spotted hills beyond, all mirrored on the river's flowing surface. I was at peace—

Then the canoe wobbled. My heart jumped. I braced myself for another spill ... but it didn’t happen.

I tried to relax again, but couldn't. In the aftermath of the accident, the river no longer seemed so benign; it was no longer simply the life-giver, but also the life-taker. The Arms of God are not always kind, I realized.

And yet, the river was so beautiful, more beautiful somehow knowing this truth—that it can do both, give or take life, as it chooses. And in my slow-motion motion struggle with the canoe, it had done both at once; taken me to the edge of the abyss, then brought me back.

I had come to the river, still reeling from the shock of my divorce some months earlier, a broken man in his late 40s feeling dead inside and hopeless, and now I felt more alive than I had felt in a long time …

“You know what happened back there, don't you,” I said to Jim.

“What do you mean?”

“Back at that whirlpool—what happened.”

“We nearly died.”

“Yeah, nearly died, but didn't. We got our lives back, man. We were reborn.”

“Yeah,” said Jim, “I guess you could look at it that way.”

“It was a baptism,” I went on, “a full-immersion baptism, hard-core Baptist style. Only it wasn't done by a preacher, it was done by God Himself … the Arms of God.”

“Los Brazos de Dios.”

“Yes. We were baptized by the Arms of God.”

Jim chuckled. “I like that. Baptized by the Arms of God ...”

And he started singing the words as he rowed. He always had an ear for a good song, Jim did.

I remembered the mushrooms. We had planned to eat them that night after finding a campsite, but our plans had changed; we wouldn't be camping. It followed, then, that now was the right time, while the memory of my brush with death was fresh and I was close to God.

“Let’s do the mushrooms,” I said.

Jim was agreeable, so I got them out. Jim only wanted a couple. I ate a fistful and waited for them to take effect as we glided down the river through the lengthening tree shadows ...

(To be continued ...)

Monday, January 13, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Four

The metal edge of the upside-down canoe tightened its grip on my leg, pulling me down deeper into the water.

I tried to free myself, but couldn't. The only way I could free myself, I knew in a slow-motion instant, was to injure myself.

And knew that whatever injury I sustained would be nothing compared to what would occur if I did not act. And act NOW.

I pulled myself free, feeling the canoe tear the tissue along my thigh in one blinding flash of pain.

The canoe shot under the tree and came up the other side, sending up a great wave of water on our side that tossed us over the tree like rag dolls—sharp branches ripping my shirt and scraping my chest—and landed us on the sandy shore of the island.

I was dazed. My thigh was numb and stung at the same time. I sat up and looked at it, and to my horror saw a huge blood-streaked bruise several inches in diameter—the damage so deep that to this day, 15 years later, I can touch that area as I write this and feel a lump of dead tissue.

Meanwhile, Jim had gone back into the water and was struggling with the canoe, trying to pull it free of the whirlpool. I went to help him—wincing as the water touched my bruise—and we wrestled the canoe free and carried it to shore. Then we went back into the water and began working fast, grabbing things on the perimeter of the whirlpool and tossing them onto shore and hurrying back for more.

We worked our way towards the things bobbing around in the center of the whirlpool—but the swirl was so strong we could not keep our footing. We had to grab hold of low hanging branches and climb out over the whirlpool and reach down to grab our things—paddles, backpacks, bottles of water, this and that—out of the vortex.

We managed to save everything except for our lunch meat, ice, soda pops, and other things that fell out of the ice chest, and one of Jim’s shoes, which the whirlpool flung around the island into the open river. We watched it float away, too tired to catch it.

Jim took his remaining shoe and threw it into the water. “Those were my river shoes,” he said. “I always wore them when I came out here. Well, they belong to the river now.”

I sat down and looked at my bruise. It was really starting to hurt. It burned and throbbed. Jim saw it for the first time. “Oh my god!” he exclaimed.

Fortunately, I had thought to bring a first-aid kit. I took out the cold pack, but couldn’t snap it open. Jim opened it, and I placed it on the bruise. It started giving me some relief.

I remembered my wallet, and reaching into the back pocket of my shorts was relieved to find it still there. But the dollar bills inside were soaked. I spread them out on the ground, anchored them with rocks to keep them from blowing away, and let them dry in the sun.

Then I took inventory of the items in my backpack. Some water had leaked in, but not much. I looked through the lens of my camera; it was blurry with water. Only time would tell if it was damaged.

I checked our stash. Everything was dry. I had had the foresight to pack everything—joints, lighter, mushrooms—inside a quadruple layer of plastic bags inside the backpack. I lit a joint.

Jim was surprised when I handed it to him. “You saved the dope!” he exclaimed.

“Yes,” I said, “I know my priorities.” We smoked, staring at the whirlpool, and were quiet a long time. Then Jim said, “That was stupid.”

“Yes it was,” I said, “but we're alive.”


“Yeah, we shouldn't have rowed into that situation blind.”

“Don't tell George about this.”

“I won't.”

“He'll call us amateurs. 'Rank amateurs,' that's what he'll say.”

“What should we do now? Do you want to camp here? Seems as good a place as any, and I'm in no hurry to get back on the river.”

Jim thought a minute. “No,” he said, “the sleeping bags are wet, we don't have any ice, and you're injured.”

“I'm okay, I think.”

He looked at my bruise. “I don't know. That's the worst bruise I've ever seen. It might get infected. You could get blood poisoning. No, let's push on. I’ve had it with this damn river. I want to sleep in my own bed tonight.”

We loaded the canoe and rowed away from the island. This time I put on my life jacket, but Jim continued using his for a seat cushion.

Jim said, “I’ll row. You rest.”

“I can row.”

Jim shook his head. “No, we’ve got a long way to go. You take it easy. Stay hydrated. I'll row.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I did all the rowing when Eddie Ray had his heat stroke. I can do it now.”

(To be continued …)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

THE RIVER, Part Three

We started around the island. The current quickened and we heard the burbling of water ahead, just beyond the bend. We rowed on.

The current continued to quicken. We were going at a good clip. This made it easier to row, but the energy saved was quickly spent just keeping the canoe stable as we moved into the curve.

The burbling—a pleasant sound at first, and suggestive of a peaceful, secluded brook—grew louder and began to sound like rushing water. Which caused me a flicker of concern. Were there rapids ahead? Surely not. This was not the Guadalupe or Rio Grande where the rapids are fierce; this was the Brazos, a river not known for rapids. And if there were rapids, we could easily navigate them, I thought. Or turn around if they looked unnavigable and take the other side of the island.

We rowed on. The rushing sound grew louder and the current still faster, carrying us—along with increasing amounts of leaves, tree limbs, and other bits of river debris also caught in the current—with increasing speed and turbulence into the bend.

It would have still been possible at that point, I think, to break free of the current and turn around. But neither Jim nor I saw any danger, thus we kept rowing forward, riding the faster-and-faster current straight into the narrowing stream of water that separated the island from the shore.

Only when we had cleared the bend and were actually in the eight foot-wide stream did we see the problem. My heart jumped. Jim gasped, “Oh my god.”

Twenty or so feet away, a great tree had fallen from shore to island, its half-submerged trunk not only creating a natural bridge from shore to island, but also—here was the danger—a wall towards which we were now hurtling at breathtaking speed.

Now we tried turning the canoe around. We dug our paddles into the current and fought it, but it was too strong. We could only manage a half turn, which meant that now our canoe was hurtling sideways into the tree.

Seconds from impact, we thrust out our paddles, both thinking the same thing (there was no time to talk about it): that the paddles might cushion our collision and keep the canoe upright.

But this strategy was quickly proven wrong; the canoe flipped over, dumping everything in one great splash—ice chest, life jackets, shoes, food, backpacks, paddles, ourselves—into waist-deep, cold water and a powerful suction that instantly yanked everything under the tree.

Everything, that is, except for us and the canoe, and the canoe (being between us and the tree) was next. We grabbed it …

And here I must take a minute to describe what Jim and I perceived in a second—that beyond the tree all our things were spinning in a massive whirlpool that would soon fling them around the other side of the island into the open river and be lost.

In other words, we were about to lose the canoe, as well as the deposit I had paid on the canoe, not to mention the deposit on the paddles and life jackets, and also everything else, including my backpack which contained my wallet, etc.

We grabbed the canoe—it was upside down and going under the tree—and struggled to hold on, tried to pull it free, but the suction was stronger.

The canoe went under, its sharp metal edge catching me by the left thigh and pulling me down deeper into the water …

Instantly (yet in slow motion) I understood my situation: I would soon be underwater and trapped beneath the canoe and tree, and if I did not drown first, the suction would pull the canoe clear of the tree, shearing off my leg in the process. Either way I would die.

Which meant I had to pull my leg out NOW—not later, because there was no later, not even a second to spare or think about it if I wanted to save my leg and life …

(To be continued ...)