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The Banks of Certain Rivers

WHEN CHRISTOPHER WAS STILL IN MIDDLE SCHOOL AND and not yet so big, my employer, the Port Manitou School District, frequently sent me off to education conferences. I’d just finished my masters, and as low man on the administrative totem pole I became the selected emissary for our district. Most of the events were pretty dull; technology trends in education, new media for science teachers and so on. Holiday Inn banquet rooms in Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids. I’d go alone, suffer through, and report what I’d learned to the board once home. But every once in a while I’d be sent somewhere fun: Chicago, Denver, a city like that, and if I could work it, I’d arrange for Chris and my wife Wendy to come along for a mini vacation. We had good times on those trips.

The autumn that Chris entered the eighth grade, not long before he turned fourteen, I was directed to attend a conference in Wisconsin about “Engaging Teens in Science and Math.” The topic seemed interesting enough, but the locale was most intriguing: a hundred year old hotel on Lake Michigan owned by some storied Milwaukee brewing family. It seemed to me like the sort of thing Chris would have loved, and Wendy was all for it, so I used our frequent flier miles and got tickets for the three of us.

The hotel, we discovered upon our arrival, was ancient, rambling, and totally charming. Painted yellow outside with peeling white trim. Additions built over additions. Exposed pipes, shared bathrooms, and not a level floor in the place. There were screened-in porches for each room with splintery Adirondack chairs facing the lake where Wendy could read from her stack of paperbacks, and sea kayaks and Sunfish sailboats pulled up on the beach for Chris to mess around in for hours on end. They both loved it.

Unfortunately for me, the conference was a complete bore. Not that I disagreed with the topic; I was entirely for it. I’d just heard it all before. I was lucky enough to run into a friend, Anne Vasquez, an elementary school librarian from downstate; she’d been sent out on the conference circuit too and we made a point of meeting up when we could to mitigate our boredom.

Anne and I sat together on the last day, Sunday, to listen to the final speaker in a giant ballroom on the southern end of the hotel. Chandeliers hung above us, and tall windows opened out over a broad grassy lawn to the lake. We were both tired, and it was hard for us to pay attention to anything being said up at the podium. Anne kept elbowing me and pointing to a young woman and toddler out on the grass. The little guy was just learning to walk, and for whatever reason it seemed very funny to us each time he lost balance and toppled. The more we watched, the harder it became not to laugh, and I started to feel like one of my own students, goofing off, pushing it, waiting for someone to scold me.

Anne nudged me again. She wasn’t laughing this time; a man in a suit was urgently shooing the woman and her child off of the lawn. Anne looked back at me and shrugged. A moment after that the room filled with a loud thumping noise, and every head in the place turned to see a blue Medivac helicopter ease from the sky down to a spot on the grass as gently as a butterfly lights on a twig. The woman who had been speaking up at the lectern stopped, and we all watched as some medical personnel hustled a rolling gurney toward the chopper. One of the flight nurses held an I.V. bag aloft as he trotted alongside, and a mechanical chest compressor pounded away at the strapped-down form on the stretcher.

“Whoa,” Anne whispered. “Somebody got it bad.”

They hoisted the gurney up into the helicopter and shut the door, the engine throttled up again, and the rotors began to turn. A piece of paper was blown over the grass. I felt the vibration in my chest as the machine shuddered and lifted, a deafening presence in the room. The chopper flew away, and the room was silent.

“Well,” the woman up front said into her microphone, “there’s our excitement for the afternoon.” People laughed awkwardly, and just as I started to wonder where my son was at that moment, the same man in the suit from the lawn entered the room with two policemen and everyone stopped laughing. The man in the suit held a clipboard in his hand.

“Mr….” He paused, staring at the clipboard, struggling with the name he was trying to read. I went cold through my face and chest and fingertips, like the blood had gone from my body, and I stood up before he said anything else. I saw the word trying to find shape between his lips. I knew it was me they were looking for.

“Mr. Kaz…Kazen….”

“That’s me,” I said. Anne put her hand over her mouth.

“Can we have a word with you?” I knew. Everyone in the room knew. I think Anne started crying when I told her I’d be right back.

She knew I wouldn’t be right back.

They took me outside. There’s been an accident, they told me.

“Was it Chris? I need to know. Where is my son?”

It was a terrible accident. She was in the pool.

“My wife? Where is Christopher?”

“Is this your son, Mr. Kaz—?”

He was by the fence around the pool when they brought me to him. He was still just a boy then. He was seated on the ground, shaking, and someone had wrapped him in a tan-colored blanket. A woman in a hotel uniform knelt next to him and rubbed his back.

“They wouldn’t let me help her,” Christopher said.

“Her finger got stuck,” one of the policemen said.

“I was ready to help. I know CPR.”

“Jammed tight. Maybe two minutes before we could…”

“I know how to do it, Dad. They wouldn’t let me.”

“…She’s being flown to the university hospital. We’ve got a car to take you there.”

“We’ll get your things together for you,” the man in the suit said.

They’d been diving after a pebble. A polished agate Chris had bought in the gift shop. Taking turns. My son in his baggy yellow trunks, my wife in a black Speedo one-piece. Chris had thrown it, a high lazy arc—plunk!—and Wendy followed, diving through the sun. She kicked herself down and felt over the bottom for the pebble. The pool was old. The grate was old. Her middle finger wedged tight in the grate; they didn’t think about those things back when it was cast.

I don’t know if anyone else was watching. Anyone watching would have seen how her kicking changed, how it became frantic. They would have seen how the air bubbled out of her, and how most of the life bubbled out of her too.

“Why wouldn’t they let me help her, Dad?”

I dropped to my knees and put my arms around my son.

“Christopher,” I said. “Christopher.”

CHAPTER ONE

ONE HUMID NIGHT AT THE BEGINNING OF THE summer, while jetliners rumbled overhead and fireflies winked green along the far-off row of brambles, my best friend and I sat by the fire pit out in the field behind my house. It was almost midnight and the fire was nearly finished, and as we drank away the last of an unexpected bottle of scotch Alan had brought over as an end-of-the-school-year gift, I tried to explain a recurring dream I’d been having.

“So it’s like, I’m running,” I began, the words thick in my mouth.

Alan tipped his head back and closed his eyes. The fire popped, and a log tumbled into sparks.

“In this dream,” he said.

“Yes. I’m running. On a plain, a plateau or something. Endless, right? And I’m just running over it.”

“Away from something? Are you being pursued?”

“No. Not at all. It’s effortless. Almost pleasurable. And it goes and goes. I run, but I don’t get tired.”

“Understandable,” Alan said. His eyes remained closed. “For a guy like you.”

“I know. That part’s not so remarkable. But after a while I come to this mountain, and I don’t stop. I don’t need to stop. I go up and up, and it’s just as easy. Potential energy, right? Sometimes it gets steep, but that’s no problem; I scramble, use my hands, but I never slow down. It’s almost like I get faster. I want to keep going. But then….”

“But then?”

“I run out of mountain. I just sail over the top and into the air. And below, there’s this river, but I can’t get down there.”

Alan opened his eyes and sat up.

“Like you start to fly?”

“Yes, but—”

“Flying dream,” he said, leaning back and nodding. “Yeah.”

“But I want to keep running. I need to get down to the river for something.”

“Mmm.” Alan sipped his drink, sighed, and closed his eyes again. “Flying dream. I get it. I totally get it.”

The thing was, my friend didn’t get it at all. We were in no state for me to try to explain it once more, and, having told him about it, I never had the dream again.

I’M THINKING ABOUT THAT dream now. With a bloody lip and my ass hard on sun-faded pavement, I think of it for the first time in months. There are stars around my head, cuckoo clocks and canaries, and close to my eyes I see my own red fingertips, foamy with hemochrome spittle.

If I’m not mistaken, I’ve just been hit in the face.

But there’s that dream, too. Before the skinny elbow connected with my lip, before the whole of my body went down to the ground, before everything changed, I’d been running. Just like that dream. We had been running, my girls and I, effortlessly, all of us.

Effortless. That, as I sit here trying to put things together in my head, is what I know. Effortless running, blood-red fingers, and a lone dandelion leaning up through a crack in the asphalt before me. And that’s about it.

Putting my mind to it, here’s what I can piece together: our feet fell and fell; piston legs, bodies like engines. There were no mountains. Our first long Friday practice of the season, and we were cruising on autopilot. Flying. My kids are twenty years younger than me or more, and I’m not sure who was more amazed: me for keeping up with them, or them with me. But there we were: together, schooling like fishes, gliding footfall after footfall. Pouring down the streets finally emptied of their summer tourist throngs. A school of runners breathing easy through the streets. Ages indeterminate, unnecessary, erased.

The weather was sublime. Not necessary for a perfect day, I know, but a nice bonus. The chilly rain we’d had over those first days of September—an abrupt onset of dreariness that seemed to signify an end to our mostly gorgeous summer—had vanished, leaving behind warm, puffy-cloud days and cool nights tailor-made for autumnal bonfires. And while I have no empirical evidence to say so, experience suggests a long Indian summer should follow. A breeze from the lake—rich with the smell of fishy sea grass and outboard gasoline—came up through the buildings, through the mostly empty streets, and seemed to push at our backs no matter which way we turned. Pushing us along. Urging us along.

I know it couldn’t really have been that way, but right here on the ground, reconstructing it all, that was how it seemed.

The first week of school had been completed, and I have to say there too, I had no complaints. I’d been scheduled to teach one regular physics class in the mornings, along with a third period Algebra II class (filling in for a long-open vacancy in the math department) and almost all of the kids turned in my first homework assignment. While I hadn’t yet looked closely enough to gauge the quality of the work, the fact that so many of them made the effort to get it back to me on time seemed to bode well for my prospects of happiness this fall. My afternoon class, my dream class, was advanced placement physics, populated by seventeen motivated upperclassmen with little apparent propensity for drama or slacking. All signs pointed to a very enjoyable semester.

We were breathing easy.

Kevin Hammil, the district’s brand-new, fresh-out-of-student-teaching high school biology teacher, had joined us on our run. He’s from somewhere in Texas, a former All-American middle-distance runner in college, and so far seems to be a pretty good guy; he’s soft-spoken with perpetually knit eyebrows and a Grizzly Adams beard that offsets his lean runner’s form. He’ll be assistant coaching boys’ track in the spring, and he’d offered to help the cross-country coaches with stretching and weights this fall. I was glad to have him along, and my runners seemed glad too.

To my side as we trotted down Pine Avenue and onto the bike path along the northern bank of the Big Jib River, flowing through the guts of our empty town, I caught a smirk from one of my AP seniors, Cassie Jennings.

“I heard they fed the python yesterday, Mr. Hammil,” she said, trying to keep a straight face. Cassie finished sixth overall at the state cross country championship last season, and seeing how comfortably she ran today, I don’t think a top three finish is unreasonable to expect from her this year.

Kevin swung his head side to side like a sad dog. “They fed him, all right. You know what the best thing to do with that snake would be?” He spoke in an earnest drawl, staring ahead through his gait. “Y’all know what we should do with that snake?”

It’s all coming back to me. Trees bent through a short gust off the lake. Leaves rattled and fell into the river, gulls wheeled in the air. We were flying.

Jenny Cohn, a new sophomore who apparently hadn’t yet heard any of my new colleague’s vocal complaints about the ten-foot long reptile sharing his classroom, took the bait. “What’s that, Mr. Hammil?”

“We should have him made into a nice pair of boots. Snakeskin boots. No, come on now, don’t give me that look. A gorgeous pair of—”

“Ew,” one of the girls said. They all laughed, and I heard Jenny call: “It’s just a stupid snake!”

“All right, just a snake. You take him, then. Any one of you. Take him, put him in your room for a while. Lying around all day, looking at you with that mean snake face. Gives me the willies every morning. And what’s-his-name, that goofball, snake wrangler, whatever he is, butting in on my class to throw a damn chicken in there—”

The girls laughed harder, and I interrupted them with a wide left turn. “This way, guys,” I called. “Over the bridge. Down Lake Street.” I sensed the growing mirth over Mr. Hammil’s genuine discomfort displacing the wonderful rhythm we’d established; funny or not, I knew I needed to squash it right then.

“Let’s pick it up a bit for the last mile,” I said. “Cassie, pace us in. Once around the athletic fields. Amy?” I looked around for Amy Vandekemp, a junior who seems to have exchanged last year’s knock-kneed gawkiness for a much-matured stride and an over-serious demeanor. “Amy, get up front and bring us in with Cassie.”

There was a collective snicker as Amy came up through the bunch of us to take her place at the head of the group, and as she passed I saw why: a gull had scored a direct white-and-green hit down the back of Ms. Vandekemp’s tee shirt. She seemed oblivious to the laughter (and bird shit), and I wondered if I should ask Cassie after practice just what the rest of the team thought of this kid.

The girls quieted down with their increased effort, and we heard nothing beyond the collective rasp of harder breathing over the wind and leaves. “Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!” I called from the end of our accelerating column. Kevin rose into an easy sprint to fly ahead of the group in the last couple hundred yards before circling around us as we loped into the student parking lot.

“Nice job, ladies!” he hollered, oblivious to the look I shot him for stealing my line.

“Very nice run,” I said, clearing my throat. “Thank you all for the great effort.” I meant it, too. One of my sophomores bent over gasping with her hands on her knees, and I patted her shoulder as I passed. “Keep moving, Sarah. Walk through it.” Kevin nodded at me, happy with the workout, and I nodded back. I haven’t had the heart to tell him that, less than a week into the school year, he and his beard have already acquired the campus-wide nickname of “Hammil the Mammal.” I don’t think I could keep a straight face if I told him anyway.

We gathered in a loose bunch around the open hatch of Cassie Jennings’ old Subaru wagon—one of the few cars remaining in the student parking area—where a big Igloo cooler filled with ice water sat on the weedy cracked pavement. A low laughing sounded from the row of cedar trees at the other side of the lot, and I glanced over to see a group of what I assumed to be football players horsing around after their practice. They must have been junior varsity players, I figured, because most everyone else involved with football had convoyed away hours earlier for tonight’s big away game in Grayling. Kevin clapped his hands. “All right ladies, I’m doing a voluntary weights session in—” I raised my hand to him and shook my head, and he made a mock-chastened face.

“Hold up, there, Mr. Hammil. Settle down.” The girls giggled, and it dawned on me that my new twenty-something, VW-camper-van-driving colleague might be the object of some crushes. I’ll have a word with him on this, later, but I’m sure he already got that memo. “Couple things before we go. Again, great job today. Thanks. I want you to get out for an easy day tomorrow if you can, and take Sunday off. Rest day. Mr. Hammil”—another giggle—“has offered to help us out with some strength training. Totally voluntary, but I’d encourage you all to take advantage of it. Have a great weekend, be safe, take it easy if you’re driving over to watch the game tonight. I’ll see you all Monday afternoon.” The girls began to chatter, some said goodbye to me, and Kevin started jogging in place.

“Girls!” he shouted. “Auxiliary gym! Ten minutes! See you there!” He clapped his hands again—one, two, three times—and ran off.

Most of the team followed Mr. Hammil in a gossipy shuffle, and I hung back to wait to for a chance to chat with Cassie while she loaded the cooler back into her car. Amy Vandekemp stayed behind too, looking like she wanted to have a word with me as well. But I wanted to talk to Cassie alone, so I started to suggest to Amy how beneficial weight training might be for a developing runner like herself. Before I really had a chance to say anything, though, a cloud came over us from the other side of the parking lot: a sudden aggression, a barking shout, from the group of boys whom I’d mostly forgotten. They’d circled up around a scuffling pair, or maybe it was three of them; in any event, their lusty chant of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” showed they’d obviously forgotten about me too.

“Guys!” I shouted, taking off in a run toward the little mob scene. “Hey! Hey!” It took a couple long seconds to cross the lot, and the circle parted for my entry just as one of the kids—a chubby, freckled little punk—lifted himself from the adversary he’d been pinning to the pavement. The freckled kid merged into the bunch, and I held up my hands. “Let’s cool it down,” I said, turning to see them all, keeping my voice level. “Bring it down a notch. Okay?” They were all underclassmen, and I didn’t recognize a single one. Their expressions ranged between frustration at interrupted bloodlust to worry that they were somehow in serious trouble. None of them seemed very eager to talk.
“So?” I asked. “What’s going on?” I knew about scuffles; they weren’t in any trouble. I’d make them think they were, at least for a little bit, then send them off with a warning.
One of them started to speak, but stopped. “What’s that?” I asked. Nothing. “Nobody wants to tell me what’s up?” They mostly stared at their shoes, except for the one on the ground: he looked up at me, panting, all spindly limbs and pimples with a torn shirt and a dusty scrape on his forehead. I took a step forward, grabbed him by his shirt, and hoisted him up to his feet. He twitched like he wanted to scurry away, but I kept him in place with my hands on a pair of bony shoulders that lifted and dropped as he worked to catch his breath.

“Guys,” I tried again, “I need to know what—”

“Tater’s a pussy, that’s what,” came a sneering, unidentifiable voice from the circle, followed by sneering laughter: they were all laughing. And with this, the kid I held fast with my hands—presumably Tater, the pussy in question—began to shake with fury before spastically windmilling his arms as he sought to escape my grasp. Watch the elbow. Watch the elbow! I didn’t let go quickly enough, but I watched the whole time, and even though I ducked to the side….

Pow.

That’s what I recall. Like dreams and real life, potential energy becomes kinetic. Order is followed by chaos. And if anybody should understand how one crumbles into the other, it’s me.


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