river rat: go back home You are coming with me. You are driving eight hours on crowded highways in the middle of the week where, at the end of the trip we see my cousin Jim, Jimmy the Fertilizer we used to call him. Some people call him the Mayor. He'll sell us gas and odds on the Phillies' game because that's what he does, and he will offer us beer. Are you sure you don't want some lottery tickets? I've got the Sox at 7-3 today. Are you in? C'mon, one little bet. Whaddayasay? His brother's boat will be where it should be.
Life preservers? Yup. New pole? Nope, old one. Okay.
Much later, we will drink at his house, then at Ada's and then the Oriental Hotel, maybe later at whatever Flick's has become if it hasn't burnt to the ground. Maybe Skeeter will join us. Maybe Albie. I need to call Zig to see if he'll be around.
At Jim's Mobil I'll stand looking across the parking lot towards Big Creek and the smell will have me all over again. The river is all around us. It reeks in that way most people don't care for, but I do. I'll walk down to the edge of the bridge, on down the scrabble stone path to the muddy bank where the old bridge bones lie flat on the bottom. Jim hit me with a rock standing there when we were kids and I saw stars above the egg rising on my head, stars thick like gnats swarming a black cloud on my face. We played there on the giant, exposed aggregate slabs sunk into the creek bed as rip-rap, where clear pebble rockbass nests rest like the polka dots of a liquid twister game fifty feet square.
River, you had me with your smell.
Jim will talk to you in the sing-song lilt of the area and you'll try to recognize how we are kin. You will laugh at him and he will make fun of you, all of you, and you will enjoy it. He'll say a dirty word and snicker. You'll follow his slow eye and tilt your head to match his. He will confound you. I'll be at the water when you need me.
Water has a way of keeping me near. A creek, a pond-even a storm sewer running parallel to the highway-overflowing and turbulent or, sitting still reflecting the sky: water pulls me near. The river I grew up with has its Spring claws wrapped fluid around me, piercing me in fast running rivulets here and there, filling my heart with wistfulness for that rich smell of slow moving life, so ubiquitous, so pungent that if I sit still long enough at the water's edge I fear lichens will grow on me, in my nasal passages. Not fear, really, this may be a sign of heaven.
I've heard it from others who grew up at the beach, on a lake, or like me, on a large river. Life away from water is just not the same. I want to visit. I want to stay a while and I want to take you with me.
A pole in my hand, pushing unsteady at first on the rocky bottom--hard work, heading up stream--breaking sideways against the current, hitting a rock so hard I bloody my shin on the transom trying to keep from falling in. I want to wash the blood off an angry, weeping bruise-not before tasting myself, my offering to the water, then rinsing the wound with that brackish water teaming with life, uncaring what might infect me, hoping something actually will, something to take home.
Out late afternoon behind a wide island covered in oaks and walnuts, water birch tattered trunks leaning down to meet us, a Mepps aglia minnow darts for the hundredth time just before a smallmouth bass tags it hard and I jerk harder, quicker. I set the hook and play like one of God's chosen. You will hear me laugh and you will worry, at first. You will worry that your life is in the hands of a mad man. I will calm you so you know there has never been a more sane moment in any of our lives.
Another beer, please. A net? Fuck Annette. If I wanted a net we'd play badminton, not go fishing. Pussy. Where's my beer?
I want to see the sliver of moonrise over the mountain, just enough to see it in the firelight and I want to be drunk when that happens. Drunk and high as a kite, fighting off bugs the size of bats and reeling in catfish large enough to eat a Chihuahua. You will hear my best Tarzan yell and the echo will frighten you again, but then you will try; you'll holler until you are hoarse. You will piss standing on the edge of a rock into the black water in the moonlight and, come Monday, you will dream new ways to thank me for years to come.
If I don't get a beer in my hands in thirty seconds I swear I'll push the boat downstream and you can cry all night long about your cell phone and your toothbrush and your pussy assed net. Where is my beer?
I want to wake up before sunrise to mist and fog on the water, and to dancing mayflies, left behind from the orgy they held the night before. I will grab my rig when I see them picked off by bass and chain pickerel coming full out of the water, precise in their hunger, showing the way. Soon the sun will crest the mountain again as it has since before forever.
Beer? Sure, you?
A fresh fire. The two-dozen frogs' legs butchered at three a.m. sputter and pop, contracting into bulbous Vees in hot butter dancing next to six filets of bass. I will burn my hand just because I miss it; miss the honest hotness of memory, of char indistinguishable from flesh and coal sand dirt, like the time I walked the fire on Skull Island and the world knew I owned it.
You will never have eaten better in your life and the infection, the river's insidious, persistent infection--you will notice, has started in you.
Civilization will never be the same. New York City the next day will smell in some ways the same as the eddy where that dead carp floats bloated and sour in a snag of twigs and willow. Smoke from the fires will drift like expelled bong hits drifting the halls of the Chelsea looking for an island channel to cloud. It will sound like birds now and again, their songs ringing through the channels like taxi cabs swimming the canyons.