Life on the Mississippi—the Little Mississippi

It was early spring in Minnesota. And well, Ranger Tom was right about the beginnings of the Mississippi. There is a reason why the official headwaters are some thirty miles from the source. We were miserable. There were long stretches of time where our canoe was not a tool, but a burden. We had to get out and walk it across areas that didn’t even resemble a river. It was more like a swamp. That is what it was—a river swamp. And not a very deep one. We kept bottoming out. But we had been forewarned. Ranger Tom called it “humble origins” but we had another name for it—hell. We knew the general direction the river ran, so we just kept on heading northeast through this…well…swamp. We were wading through knee-deep water and dragging a canoe along. I don’t think I need to tell you that that water was not warm. It was only the end of April and it was Minnesota. We would take a step and sink down a foot in the muck. We had to take off our shoes or risk losing them. There was places where it was waist deep, which is more than enough to operate the canoe, but it seemed as soon as we would get ready to board, it was ankle deep and all tree stumps again. Like I said, miserable. As soon as we hit the official Mississippi Headwaters State Park though, everything just opened up before us. It became a river—deep and wide.

Caring Sue spoke over her shoulder and said, “I think we should stop in Bemidji and get a hot shower and a cup of coffee.”

Prof said, “Yeah, I am cold. But I am an old man so that is not saying much.”

Stephan said, “I am cold too, Prof.”

Machine said, “It is the getting-in and getting-out of the water all day that zaps you of your heat. Then you get out and feel that breeze and it just takes everything else.”

Caring Sue said, “Should we get a hotel room for the evening? We’ve done it before. Sometimes you just can’t help it. This might be one of them times when we just can’t help it. We could find the smallest, cheapest one and just cram all of us in it. We would have endless hot water. We could all take turns having an hour-long shower. Then head out first thing tomorrow. Maybe even another round of showers in the morning, just to make sure we get our money’s worth. Then head out.”

Bear said, “So the money isn’t an issue?”

Caring Sue said, “Is it for you, Bear? Because now it the time to speak up.”

Bear seemed to back away. He said, “No, it is just that you’ve always been so tight with the money, but now all of a sudden—let’s splurge!”

Caring Sue retorted, “I have not been tight with the money, Bear! It is not my money to be tight with! We don’t spend a dime unless everyone agrees to the purchase. When I buy a bag of rice, I am not taking a liberty with our money. Everyone has to eat and everyone will eat from that rice, so yes the rice will be bought, and no we are not going to put every petty purchase to a vote. Do you not want to stay in a hotel tonight Bear? Is that what you’re saying?

He didn’t answer immediately. So Caring Sue had to turn quite a bit in that canoe just to get a look at him. Once she established visible contact with Bear, he just shrugged, then he said with some delay, “I’m not that cold.”

Nobody said anything for quite some time. The plan’s very existence was being held hostage by a young man acting like a toddler simply because he was undergoing ethanol withdrawal and I guess he wanted to punish the rest of the world for it. The rest of us were just cold. He had to be cold too. In and out of that water all day. Day after day. Going to bed feeling lukewarm at best, just hoping that your clothes dry out while you’re sleeping. Even though it doesn’t matter. Within a half-hour, the canoe has bottomed out, then we all have to get out and carry it for a bit.

After awhile Prof spoke over his shoulder to us, “Plus, if one of us gets sick…sick enough that we need a doctor’s help, it might end up costing us more in the end.”

Caring Sue added, “Yes! Thank you Prof! This is what we have to ask ourselves—are we being penny-wise, but pound foolish? I was only thinking about a twenty dollar room.”

Bear didn’t say anything. As far as I could tell he was still holding the plan up. But he did turn around and asked if he could borrow my map. I gave it to him and he proceeded to get busy with it while Caring Sue continually tried to sell the idea. The thing is, he was the only one who hadn’t committed, so she was trying to sell it to him.

I think Bill got wise to what was going on because right out of the blue he said, “Aw Bear is just pissed because Caring Sue won’t ever lend him any money from the bank when he is hard up and needs some booze.”

Bear almost stood straight up. He was ready to confront his accuser. But the physics of the situation gave him plenty enough warning that he should keep his buttocks on the canoe bench. After this brief lesson he decided to get verbal. “Fuck you, Bill!”

He would have gone on, but Caring Sue put a halt to their exchange. I don’t know where it comes from, but this woman could muster something up from within her that had a ferociousness the likes of which I have only ever seen come from her. It was all so simple, but there was something about the way she said, “Hey!” Because everything halted. Bear and Bill were like the proverbial deer-in-headlights. They had to stop and wonder—what was that? Is it still coming? With their undivided attention Caring Sue continued, “Enough! Enough! I’m tired of listening to you two. I think we all are.”

Bill asked calmly and quietly and he really only seemed to be addressing Caring Sue. He asked, “Am I really part of the problem here, Caring Sue? I am not provoking him. I am not the one being antagonistic here. I mean except for that last thing I said. I just had enough. No one ever wants to talk about the elephant in the room.”

Caring Sue let out a deep breath. She looked to be just about to say something when Bear was able to get something out faster. He said, “What? That you are a junkie?”

Bill didn’t say anything. Neither did Caring Sue. I’m sure everyone else including Bill could see what I saw which was a gesture of exasperation and disappointment. Her head just fell down, with her chin coming to rest on her chest where it remained for quite some time. No one wanted to get off that canoe more than Bear and yet he was the very one who was holding up the process, just because he could.

Bear eventually broke the cold silence that he had created saying, “There is a problem though. None of us has an ID. You got to have some sort of ID these days to rent a room. And I am not sure they take cash anymore. Might even have to use a credit card.”

Caring Sue didn’t immediately say anything. She knew he was right, regardless of what his motive was for saying it. But I could tell by the way she acknowledged him with a slight furling of her brow, a slight pursing of her lips, and an equally slight nod of the head, that her gears were already turning. As soon as Bear said it, she recognized the validity of the obstacle and began working on a solution to circumvent the standard operating procedure.

Then out of nowhere Bill said, “I’ve got an ID.”

Bear replied, “Of course you do.” He shook his head and then turned his head toward Bill. Speaking over his shoulder he asked, “How much did you take the poor sap for, Bill?”

Bill didn’t say anything immediately. I guess he was a little hot under the collar because he eventually said in a rather heated way, “Look! I have an ID if you want to use it. If you don’t, then don’t. I am not a good person, Bear. It is not a secret. I am also not trying to be one either. But that sure doesn’t deter you from trying to mold me into something more akin to your liking. Thing is…I don’t give a shit what you want from me—at all! Ever! So just fuck off, will ya?”

Caring Sue in her typical fashion immediately got in the middle of it, drawing on whatever it was that gave her Goliath like strength. She asked, “Bill, just so we are clear, did you pick somebody’s pocket?”

Bill said, “I couldn’t help it! He looked just like me!”

Bear shook his head and mumbled loudly enough, “I am sure he did.”

Caring Sue snapped, “Bear! Can you keep the commentary to your self. Bill knew she wasn’t amused. Theft was not at all how we got by. Caring Sue taught us about an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. And that was what was in our savings—payments for many days of honest work. But we all knew that we had to watch Bill. It was just part of the deal. Outlaw Oklahoma Bill was good at everything he did. This included his God-given talents like pickin’ on his guitar and pickin’ on people’s emotions through acting and play. But it also included the stuff that Bill bought from the devil himself. Things like pickin’ locks and pickin’ pockets. Your locks are only going to slow Bill down and by the time you figure out that he cleaned your pockets, he is three counties over about to board a train heading south for the border.

Caring Sue turned her head slightly and asked, “Who does your ID resemble most, Bill? Is it really you?”

Bill began to talk, but he didn’t answer Caring Sue. Instead he seemed to be talking to Bear. From my vantage point at the caboose, Bill was directed toward the back of Bear’s head. He said, “Yeah, I am a thief. But I have never stolen anything from you. I have never stolen anything from any of you. Even thieves have a code of honor.”

Bear began to talk, but he didn’t answer Bill. Instead he was addressing Caring Sue. He said, “Bemidji is a ways from the river, but I know that it will at least have one truck stop.”

Caring Sue asked, “How do you know that?”

Bear snapped, “Because I got Piper’s travel atlas out. I have been going over it while we have been talking.”

Caring Sue said, “I can’t see what is going on behind me, Bear. I didn’t know. You were speaking like you knew the place, like you had been there. I didn’t mean to annoy ya.”

Now I was starting to get a little angry with one Bear Bacchus. There was never any cause for being mean to Caring Sue. She was the sweetest and most gentle thing on Earth. How on Earth could anyone let Caring Sue think that she was annoying them?

Bear explained his logic saying, “Bemidji is the biggest city between Duluth and Grand Forks. In fact, it is about the exact halfway point between them. It is also at an intersection for another highway that comes out of the north and nothing comes out of the north in either direction for quite awhile. It just looks like the best place to put a truck stop to me, but I could be wrong.” Then without even taking a breathe he abruptly turned the conversation elsewhere saying, “Hey Stephan, do you remember when your peyote just up and disappeared? Isn’t that weird? Did you know that cacti have legs?”

Stephan was caught unawares. He almost seemed startled at that moment by Bear. He just kinda shrugged and nervously shook his head and simply said, “Yeah.”

Prof felt the tension on the vessel. He tried to simmer it down and smooth things over by saying in a rather positive and upbeat way, “Well there you have it! We can take a shower and get a hot cup of coffee! We’re all a little cold right now and sometimes this canoe feels cramped. I think we all just need a break.” But I could see that Caring Sue wasn’t buying it.

Bear said, “Make a left at the next statue of Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. Actually…I don’t know know how close it is to the river. The map just makes it look that way.”

Machine said, “I think we have been to Bemidji before, Bear. And the river does run right through the city. There is a Paul Bunyan statue. We walked by it a couple of days ago. It was across the street. We walked right by it without anyone pointing it out or saying anything about it. It honestly wasn’t that impressive.”

Bear asked, “Well, what the fuck do you want from me? It is a small map. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.” Then he tossed the map back a row to where Machine was sitting and said, “Here! Why don’t you see if you can do better?”

Machine said, “I didn’t mean it like that, Bear. I wasn’t criticizing. What is wrong?”

Bear snapped, “It is a small goddamned map, Machine!”

Machine said, “No, I know. I get that. But still—what is wrong?”

Bear didn’t say anything, He was content to let Machine think that he had somehow wronged him. Machine didn’t bother with the map. He just handed it back to me. He gave me this look showing me his feeling of perplexed utter confusion.

Then Bill said, “Are you certain that your peyote got stolen from you, Stephan? Is there any possible way that maybe it just got lost or that you accidentally dropped it?”

Stephan replied, “I have never jumped to any conclusions about what happened to it, Bill. I wasn’t ever thinking you. I honestly don’t even miss it.”

Bill said, “That is good. Because you know I am a junkie, right? I don’t know if everyone knew that. But it seems in light of recent events that I have to remind people of that. When we go into town, and I disappear, I am looking for pain pills and heroine. That is it. I pass over the psychedelics. I ain’t going on some magic carpet ride. If you would have concocted us some ceremonial brew from that cactus one evening last winter, I wouldn’t even have drank from it. I am coming out with it now—one of my skeletons—but I wish I didn’t have to. I ain’t all proud of who I am and what I’ve done and the way the world is now. I just figure it is what it is. I am who I am. But that psychedelic stuff just won’t let you be. It is a mind-fuck. All of it. It is gonna grab you by the back of the neck and stuff your face in the shit. I am sorry you lost that, Brother Stephan. I really am. But I hope you know that I didn’t steal anything from you. I just want to feel good. That is my trip. Now if you had some Percocets or even some Darvocets in that bag of magic potions of yours, well you couldn’t trust me around them.”

That last part made Stephan blurt out in laughter. With a smile he said, “I am not sore about it, Bill. Never was. Easy come. Easy go. You know how I am about things like that. They are only for the initiated. If the keys to the kingdom get taken from you, even by someone with less than noble intent, well then it was never really your experience to be had. And if I dropped them—likewise. I was never invited or welcome. That is just the way I feel about it.”

This moment would have been an opportune time for Bear Bacchus to pounce. Indeed, one of his favorite pastimes was confronting and subsequently belittling spiritual talk about anything. It just has to have but a whiff of spirituality in it and Bear will be all over it. No particular religion or sect was safe. He approached them all with equal disdain. I think I have said this before, but Brother Stephan was one of Bear’s most prolific progenitors of spiritual material. But Bear let this opportunity slide and I think it just goes to show how off he was. Though he never gave Brother Stephan a hard time about his spiritual leanings with malice in his heart. It was all in good fun, always in jest, but now I think Bear was feeling malice and perhaps he knew enough to try and keep things under-wraps for a bit. Though he sure didn’t mind getting curt with Caring Sue and then Machine, his dear friend Brother Stephan might have been a bit too far over the line.

Once we got into the lakes that are adjacent to the town of Bemidji, we were indeed in familiar terrain. US-2 runs right through it and of course we were very familiar with this particular highway. The Mississippi River goes right through the town as well. Actually, it empties into a couple of different lakes where it then picks back up on the other side at the end of town. We all remembered it, we just hadn’t put a name to it.

We all got off the canoe, chained it up, and took all of our gear with us. We got to the edge of the park and just stood there and looked in either direction. There really weren’t any businesses to speak of, at least not storefront type businesses. It was mostly residential and a few office buildings. Suddenly Caring Sue dropped her pack off her back. She said, “ I spy a map on a wall. Sit tight. I’m going to go check it out.” She ran across the street. She tried a door to an office building, but it was locked. So then she knocked on the window of the office where she spied the map. She pointed to the door and had convinced the guy to let her in. Next, we could see her through the window talking to the man who worked in the office. Gesturing toward the map.

Machine asked, “How the hell did she know that was a map from all the way over here?” Prof, Bear, and Bill all wear glasses, so that left Stephan and I who could see with an unaided eye, and neither of us could spot the map either. We watched Caring Sue through the large windows of the office. She and the guy were pointing to the map and then they were pointing in a direction out somewhere yonder and then they were back to the map. They went back and forth like that a few times, then Caring Sue moved toward the door. She had her back on the door as if she were going to open it using her buttocks. We could see it open a bit and then shut, but she wasn’t moving. She was talking to the guy who was standing right in front of her inside the office building. Eventually she pushed the door open, turned around, and then ran across the street toward us.

Obviously irritated, Bear asked, “Well, did you give him your number? Tell me more, tell me more—does he have a car? Tell me more, tell me more—did you go very far?” He even kind of sang along to the Olivia Newton John song that contained those very words.

Caring Sue said, “He wouldn’t let up! I explained my situation. That I was from out of town and that I was traveling with my family. He didn’t care! He offered to let me shower at his place. He said he would make me a nice dinner. He said he could give me a change of clothes while we cleaned everything I had. I told him that I would as long as my family could all shower and have dinner too. He looked out and got one look at you guys and changed his tune right then.” She started laughing.

Prof asked, “What’s wrong with us?”

Caring Sue, who was still smiling, shrugged and said, “Nothing, Prof. I think it is safe to say that he had a particular desire, but when he looked out and saw such a large group of men, he realized his hopes probably couldn’t be met. Plus, eventually he and I would have to get to the part about me being a lesbian.”

Though Caring Sue had fun with the man and probably enjoyed the ego toot, she was ready to put him behind and get back to business. After a moment or two she said, “So we have to get back in the canoe and actually retrace our course a little bit.” She pointed to the lake, “We want to go out of this lake, which is called Lake Bemedji, back through the river, back through that other lake, which is called Lake Irving and then back through the river a bit. We are going to dock our canoe under US-2, that is the expressway we saw, so our hunch was correct. Then we have a short walk from there. Peter showed me the walk-able route. I can see a picture in my head of what we have to do, so lets get back in the canoe and just get there. We are all cold and hungry.”

Bear said, “Oh, Jesus Christ—Peter?”

Caring Sue turned to him, but her glow seemed to have subsided. Bear was maybe starting to get to her. She said, “Yes, Bear. He gave me his name. Big deal. We’re leaving.”

Bear said, “Right, but when we pass back by this way later today or tomorrow, are you going to find longing in your heart for him, Caring Sue?”

Caring Sue didn’t say anything as she walked away shaking her head. These poor old men. They had no idea that they were completely barking up the wrong tree when it came to her.

Prof turned to us, “If you recall, we saw some evidence that someone was living under that bridge.”

Bear said with a hint of irritability, “We’ve got to get used to leaving the canoe ashore while we go into a town. These are your words actually. And since that is the only time I am allowed to drink, I for one will be going into town every night.”

Prof shook his head, “Right. We do need to get used to it. Including me.” He took a deep breath and shrugged, “We will just lock her up. We will introduce ourselves to the tenant. We will see if he will let us join him. Or them. Whatever the case may be.” Then he turned and began walking fast so he could catch up to Caring Sue.

As he walked away, Bear said, “Couldn’t hurt! Maybe we could even promise to come back with a little gift for him.”

Machine said with a smile, “You mean like a pint of some rotgut?”

Bear shrugged and irritably said, “Sure, if that is what the guy wants, then yeah. Whatever.”

Machine said, “Seriously, Bear! What the fuck?”

Bear shrugged and then raising his hands slightly said, “Well.”

Machine seemed to have lost patience and was ready to let it go when an answer wasn’t forthcoming. He was turning to head back to the canoe, but Bear grabbed him by the shirt sleeve. He said kind of quietly, “Listen. It isn’t you. I am being a dick. It isn’t you or anybody really, but I have already had enough of this dumb fucking canoe trip. I mean, I get it. We don’t want to be drawing attention to ourselves. But still. I have had nothing. Nothing. I got that little for breakfast, you know the dregs that Carin’ Sue collected a couple of days ago, but that has been it since then. We haven’t passed nothing. This is the first we seen of anything. I don’t give a fuck what any of you punks think, but I need the shit to keep my motor lubed and runnin’ cool. You can judge but that is just the way it is. But now we’re leaving this fucking place even before we get to check it out. Caring Sue is comfortable rolling down this motherfucker at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, I’m dyin’ man! I’m in a bad place! I drink all day, everyday. Never a lot at one time. Rarely anyway.”

Machine replied, “Okay. Hold tight here. Don’t go to the canoe just yet. I’m going to tell Caring Sue and Prof that I need a pack of smokes. I can be back before they are ready to even shove off—you know how they are. They take forever to get nestled in.” They really did. It eventually got to the point where they were getting razzed about it on a near daily basis. But they did have a good point. They were both older and their bodies were wearing down faster, so they needed to take extra care if they were going to be able to make the long hauls. Machine continued, “So just sit tight. I’m just going to get you an airplane bottle or two. Once we get to that truck-stop, we’ll get a big bottle and drink it under the bridge tonight, alright?”

Bear shook his head in agreement. He said, “Thanks, man.” You could see that he already felt better. It was as if just putting an expiration date on his suffering itself was enough to soothe him a bit.

Machine then ran out ahead of us to where Caring Sue and Prof were already boarding the canoe. We could see him gesturing to the town. They were shaking their heads at first—well Caring Sue was. Then they shrugged. Then they nodded in agreement—well Caring Sue did. Then Machine broke out into a sprint. As he ran by us he said, “I will see you guys in about ten.” He was really running fast—a full on sprint. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. I’m sure there was a time when Machine would have been dedicated to physical fitness—you know, by default, because he was in the Army. It is just that since then he has smoked an awful lot of cigarettes, drank his fair share of booze, not to mention whatever drugs he and the boys happen to find, on any given day, in whatever town we happened to be passing through. Drugs are in every nook and cranny of the American landscape. Every nook and cranny. They are everywhere. The boys have never had a problem finding kicks.

Bear had stopped walking, but we all kept walking toward the canoe, albeit at a much slower pace. Bear grabbed Stephan by the arm and asked, “Hey, can you guys stick back here with me? You don’t have much to do to get settled in, do ya? Not like them.”

Stephan smiled, “No! Settle in? They’re ridiculous.”

Caring Sue happened to have heard Stephan say this. She then went into a long explanation—a diatribe if you will—about the virtues and necessity of “settling in” and especially as we age. She then added, “You’ll see.” It was kind of comical.

Stephan whispered to Bear, “We do look kind of suspicious though, standing back here, hesitating. Like we’re up to something.”

Bear said, “I don’t care!”

Stephan whispered, “Why don’t you just go up and tell Carin’ Sue what is up then?”

Bear sighed. He really did look like he was in a bad place. He was just completely listless, with his hands in his pockets, obviously trying to hide the shaking.

Stephan said with a smile, “I got an idea Bear. It will not only erase any suspicion from them, but it will also help you out with your condition. It will help us all out, actually. I’m even going to try to get Prof and Carin’ Sue in on it.”

Bear let out a deep exhale and said, “Fine. I don’t care. Lets just do it.”

Stephan said, “Good. A little yoga will be good for all of our souls.”

Bear responded immediately, “Oh for fucks sake! More spiritual bullshit?”

Stephan still smiling said, “Just think of it as doing some stretches, Bear. That is all. You got to admit that sitting in that canoe all day, does cause some soreness and cramps.”

Bear said, “Whatever, man. None of your snake oil is ever a cure for anything. Placebos.”

You could tell that Brother Stephan was maybe starting to lose his patience. He said, “I know. We’re working on that, Bear. Machine will be back in a second. Until then just follow my lead. It will make perfect sense to Caring Sue and Prof.”

Bear nodded incredulously and said, “Fine.”

Stephan had us all spread out on the grass before him. He said, “Now if you are like me, then all this canoeing is wreaking havoc on your lower back. We are going to start with a pose known as the cat-cow.” He explained how we were supposed to do it—what we were supposed to do on the inhale, and then what we were supposed to do on the exhale.

Caring Sue saw what we were doing, came over, and said, “I wanna play! What a fabulous idea! My lower back needs some work!” She took a spot in the grass next to me and started doing the cat-cow pose with us. She already knew what to do. I had seen her do some of this new-age sorcery with Stephan before.

Stephan said in response to her, “That is right.” He had told us not to talk during the poses because focused breathing was so important.

Machine did come back in less than ten minutes. He ran up on us and then stopped and put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. At first, Bear just looked to Machine. Machine seemed to signal to the affirmative. With that Bear said suddenly, “Well, I feel great! Thanks Stephan!” He rose to his feet and started making his way toward Machine. He said, “Yeah Stephan, this yoga stuff is amazing. Just a little dab will do ya. I’m healed!”

Caring Sue said, “Are you serious, Bear?”

Bear turned and said, “What?”

She said, “You hardly did anything! We’re not even done with this one and I’m sure Stephan has at least one more pose after this.” She then turned to Stephan and asked, “Am I right?”

Stephan affirmed with a nod of the head.

Bear said, “But I feel great. It really helped out a lot. I don’t want to overdo it.”

She was perplexed by Bear and frustrated I think, but I also think she knew that she had to just let it go. So while we did yoga and Prof continued to do settle into the canoe, Machine slipped Bear a few airplane bottles of bourbon. I kept my eyes on him. I don’t know why. It was none of my business. Bear looked toward the front of the canoe where Prof was busy. Then he looked back toward us. He looked back a few times. They stopped then to have a cigarette. He was just waiting for the opportune time. There was a point where Stephan had us flat on our belly. Then he had us grab our ankles from behind. On the in-breath we pulled up and on the out-breath we relaxed. It was when we were finishing an exhale, when Caring Sue’s face was almost buried in the grass, that he threw back both bottles at once. He replaced the caps and put the bottles in an inside pocket of his coat. Hopefully, it would be enough to hold him over. At least until we were settled in for the night under the bridge.

I’ll tell you what, that yoga may have been created by one of Satan’s minions before Jesus came and died for our sins, but I think it does do a body good. I know the Hindus are just a bunch of idol worshipers, so I was careful not to get too involved in all the philosophy that came along with it. I just thought of it as stretching myself.

When we got back to the canoe, Bear was a completely different person. Well, he was the Bear that we had known all along. He just wasn’t the Bear we had been with all day. He was jovial and provocative. He, Machine, and Prof were in the midst of a rather lively conversation as the rest of us made it to the canoe after the yoga routine. Just before we shoved off, Bear turned back and said rather quietly, just above a whisper, “Thanks again, Machine.”

Machine shrugged and said, “That’s what brothers are for.”

Caring Sue said, “For what?”

Machine said, “What?”

Caring Sue said, “That is what I am asking you. You said that is what brothers are for and I am asking ‘what’? What are brothers for?”

It was only a matter of seconds, but I could tell that Machine felt caught, like the old proverbial hand in the cookie jar. But Bear caught him and since Caring Sue wasn’t really looking toward either of them, she didn’t see Machine’s near fumble. Bear picked him up saying, “Being a good keeper! Isn’t that what Cain told the Lord he wasn’t? He wasn’t his brother’s keeper?”

Caring Sue just seemed to be confused and then Machine interjected right on the heels of Bear and this only added to her confusion. Machine said, “I just gave Bear a little perspective, that is all.”

Bear interjected back, “Yeah, we even delved into the realm of spirit if you can believe that!” Then he started laughing. He looked back to Machine, but Machine didn’t seem to think it was funny.

We never did bother with a hotel room. We each got a long hot shower at the truck stop and a large cup of fresh hot coffee. I really wasn’t worried about the coffee keeping me awake. Later on in the evening, under the bridge, when Caring Sue had stepped away to relieve herself, Machine confronted Bear. He was visibly upset with him. After she was no longer within ear shot he asked, “You think Caring Sue isn’t clever enough to know that you were playing with words? You basically admitted it.” Pointing to him he said, “You didn’t have to say anything. I had said enough to get us both off the hook.”

Bear came back and said, “She also knows where I stand with religion, so anyone having a conversation about spirit with me is just absurd, yet people do it! Do it all the time! That could have been the play on words as well!”

Still pointing, Machine said, “Right! Because you bait them! You can’t just leave well-enough alone! It is like as soon as you see somebody has a button, you are just going to push it no matter what! Even at your own peril.”

Bear asked, “Well, what are buttons for? For pushing. People shouldn’t have buttons if they don’t want them pushed!”

Machine had lowered his finger, but he was still upset. He said, “Caring Sue doesn’t have any buttons! All she is saying is that there is a time and a place. She is just trying to keep us out of trouble!”

Bear said, “Fuck this canoe trip! Fuck it! If we can’t live our lives the way we want to, then what is even the point?”

Machine didn’t immediately say anything. After a while, he shook his head and though he was speaking to Bear, he didn’t look directly at him. And he spoke in a more subdued manner. It was almost like he was musing to himself. He said, “I helped you out of a jam. Then you needlessly put me in a bad spot with Caring Sue. She dropped the subject. But she knows. She knew there was a bottle of booze on the vessel, or an empty bottle of booze. And she knew it came courtesy of me. We were off the hook, but you just couldn’t keep your fucking mouth shut.”

Caring Sue came back shortly thereafter, so the matter was dropped, but I could see a change in Bear that night. It wasn’t like Machine to get upset about something. He was almost always stoic. He just let things roll off. Bear and Machine got their bottle that evening and they passed it back and forth and talked like old friends. Bear never did apologize, but like I said, he was clearly affected. They shared some with Bill and Prof. Of course, Caring Sue demanded that the entire contents be consumed that evening. But she also laughed and had a good time with them as well. Bill played his guitar, much to our delight. Caring Sue spent much of the evening dancing to his tunes. Although she didn’t really like some of Bill’s lifestyle choices, she really did like his music. There was no question about that. So there were no hard feelings anywhere. We all fell asleep pretty early and were all fairly rested by sunrise.

We woke up under the US-2 bridge and began what we all felt was the first real day on the Mississippi. We were a few miles away from the Mississippi Headwaters State Park, but some thirty or forty miles from the actual source. We all eventually looked back at those first few days with a degree of both appreciation and repulsiveness. It might have been better in August or September when the waters were warm, but then again, there are mosquitoes that time of year. Pick your poison. Which one do you want? I think Prof put it best when a few months later he looked back at those first few days in retrospect. He likened it to the birth canal—it was messy, uncomfortable, chaotic, and relatively cold when compared to the womb. And though we didn’t like it at any point ever, it was a process necessary for us to go through, so we could live and breathe in a completely different world than the one we were accustomed to living in. We were once a land locked pride that only used our feet. But when we took to the river we, were became somewhat amphibious as our legs lay limp and our arms did most of the bidding. He reminded us that anytime this sort of leap occurs in nature, there is always pain and discomfort in the transition—tadpoles, caterpillars, maggots. He called it “evolution” but I don’t need to be reminded about how evil of a word that is.

I have already alluded to this, but now I am going to explain it. We organized ourselves in the canoe much the same way we did with ‘the bus formation’ that we used for walking, albeit with a few exceptions. Caring Sue and Prof still took the helm. Each of their frames were small enough that the smaller sized front bench could accommodate both of them comfortably. There was also a lot of area at the stern itself that could accommodate their stuff which of course wasn’t much. Bear had the bench behind them. He had it all to himself since he was a bigger guy. He sat on the right side of the bench and kept his and Machine’s stuff on the left side of the bench. Machine was in the middle bench just behind Bear. He too had a bench all to himself for the same reason as Bear. But he was bigger than Bear and so he had the bench that was a little bit bigger yet. It was certainly the longest in the canoe. He sat and rowed from the left side of the canoe. Stephan’s and Bill’s stuff was kept beside Machine on the right side of the bench. Stephan and Bill shared the bench behind Machine. They were paired together since neither of them had a large frame. Much like Prof, Stephan was tall, but he was rather gaunt. And much like Caring Sue, Bill was short with an average build. Most of the time Stephan rowed though. Bill hardly ever rowed for reasons which I will get to soon enough. It was part of an agreement that Bill had made with the rest of us. I’ll get to it.

And then, I had the rear bench. I had it all to myself. There was an area behind me where I kept all of my stuff. The bench was as big as Prof’s and Caring Sue’s bench, but it was all mine. Bill did make a fuss about this. He just couldn’t believe “the kid” gets all that room to himself. It really made me mad. Not that I needed the room, but because he called me a kid. If I have told them once, I’ve told them a thousand times. But Bill was just trying to get to me. I had what Bear would call “a button” and Bill knew it. It worked. Of course, I didn’t want to, but I did offer to let him share it with me, but he declined. I only said it so I could advance against my opponent in this needless battle that he devised. He would have less space then. He just wanted it all to himself. The thing is, if I wasn’t there, he would have it all to himself. I’m the baby brother who came in and took his spot in the hierarchy of the family. There are benefits to being last in a world where everyone is vying to be first. Anyway, forget Bill. Back to the unofficial seating chart on the canoe. I mostly rowed from the left side of the cabose. This way there was some balance with three rowing on each side. But if for some reason Bill was rowing and not Stephan or the rowing of someone else up front somehow offset the balance, then I would row from the right to provide the necessary counter balance.

Okay so, the reason why Bill hardly ever rowed was not a bad thing. We let him off the hook so he could play his guitar instead, thereby entertaining us. There were six oars, but there was seven of us, so somebody was going to get let off the hook. A seventh oar creates an imbalance. We could have rotated it and there was some talk of that. Someone gets an hour off, then someone else, so on and so forth in an endless rotation. We all decided though to just let Bill off the hook completely in exchange for the sounds of his guitar. So it was a paid gig for him. Bill was living like a king. He was being paraded down the Mississippi River day-in and day-out by six of his subjects while his guitar gently wept. On land this arrangement didn’t work. Bill had no bargaining power. I mean, Bill was a compulsive guitar player. He couldn’t stop playing even if he wanted to and he wasn’t comfortable unless he had his guitar strapped on hanging across his midsection. So when we were walking, we never had to ask Bill to play. He was just going to play. He was going to play all day and all night. Whether we wanted him to or not. In fact, it was much more likely that we were going to have to ask Bill to stop playing. And even in this event—if, and when, we got tired of Bill playing, then he would just play to himself. He could play so soft and so low, a little ditty that only he might know, just something to get him through, until sleep took over.

After we got past Minneapolis the river widened substantially. It became the river we all see in our mind’s eye when someone mentions the Mississippi. The current also seemed to pick up. With no assistance from us except for maybe a guiding stroke here and there, the river was now almost moving as fast as we walked. And with at least four paddlers at any given time, we were moving across this world faster than we usually did on foot. We had devised a plan that in addition to Bill, two other paddlers could take a break a few hours into our day for one hour. Then the next hour two others. Then the last two took a break the following hour. Then it rotated back around. In your hour, you could relax and just enjoy the view. Read. Take a nap. Whatever you wanted. Everyone usually ate. You would either eat a meal that was precooked and prepared when we were on shore, or you just put together something from our stock. Like cold cut sandwiches or cheese and crackers with beef jerky or tuna fish. The other issue was that of going to the bathroom. We relearned how to urinate into a bottle—a long lost skill from childhood. Nobody thought it was a good idea to dump our pee in the river. At the very least we knew we should dump it on the ground next to the river so the earth could filter it some. Plus, we didn’t want any trouble from the authorities, whoever they may be. And if we needed to do a number two, then we just waited for Caring Sue to need a break. Caring Sue obviously wasn’t going to pee in a bottle.

We stopped off here and there often enough. I imagine we probably stopped off a half dozen times on a given day. It wasn’t always just for food and relief. Sometimes a site would entice us and we would have to stop to investigate further. It could be something as simple as a rope swing. Prof told me that it doesn’t matter how old you get, a good rope swing never gets old.

There was this one day when Bill had stopped playing. He just sat there with his guitar on his lap looking out across the river valley. Then Machine said, “Hey music man, how come I ain’t hearing any music, man?”

Bill said, “I’m just not feeling it.”

Bear snapped, “Fuck you, Bill!”

Caring Sue immediately snapped back, “Hey!” Though she didn’t turn around, I could see her furrowed brow in my mind’s eye.

Bear said, “I know, Carin’ Sue! I’m just getting tired of his shit! He is not allowed to not feel it. If he doesn’t want to play, then he can paddle. He can feel what our arms feel like after a day of paddling, but he’s not going to just sit there, and not feel it, while we escort him down the river.”

Caring Sue was quiet. Bill was quiet. I was the only person sitting behind Bill on the canoe, so I had the chance to study him. He didn’t look mad. He was sitting two rows behind Bear, kitty-corner though. I was half expecting him to stand up, reach over Machine, and start punching Bear in the back of the head, but he didn’t even seem angry. It was like he wasn’t even hearing Bear.

Caring Sue turned her head and asked, “Bill, are you getting sick?”

Bill asked, “You mean cause I need a fix?”

She nodded.

Bill said, “No. I am okay. I can paddle. I took care of business when we were in Minneapolis. I set myself up good. I won’t be in a jam until Saint Louis.” He paused for a few moments. Then he continued, “I’m sorry Caring Sue. I know you don’t want to hear that.”

She said, “I just want you to be okay, Bill.”

Bear said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Caring Sue moved to object, but Bear continued, “No! Yeah, I said ‘fuck’. Oh well. I can’t believe what is going on here. I’m not allowed to drink booze, but you’re going to go ahead and push the needle in for a junkie?”

One would have to see it, but it became obvious that Bear was a little tipsy. His speach was just ever so slowed down and about as much slurred. So apparently he wasn’t playing by the rules anyway. Caring Sue didn’t bother to confront Bear on this most salient of facts. Instead she addressed what was going on with Bill. She said in a calmer than usual voice, “Bear, I only said that to Bill because he had an unusual moment candid honesty a little ways back. I am not pushing anything in Bill. Bill knows we don’t condone his lifestyle choices. This is why he goes to such lengths to hide them from us. Well, except for this day. It is what it is and I was just asking so I know which direction the wind is blowing.”

Before Bear could even rustle up a reply, a reply that was probably going to border on angry incoherence, Bill said, “I think Piper should play us a few tunes.”

He completely caught me off guard. He caught everyone off guard. Bear seemed disarmed. I was just rowing along only half listening to the drama that was going on in front of me. Awoken from my daze I said, “I told you, Bill. I have no idea how to make a guitar sound good. What you do looks like magic to me.”

Bill said, “I don’t mean with my instrument. I mean play us some tunes with yours. So to speak.”

Caring Sue seemed to perk up. She said, “Yes, what a lovely idea! Why don’t you type out one of your stories, Piper?”

I immediately snapped, “I TOLD YOU! IT IS NOT TYPING, CARING SUE!”

She said apologetically, “I’m sorry, Piper. I know. I didn’t mean to say it like that. You know what I mean.” She paused and practically mumbling she said, “It is a good idea though.”

I felt bad that I snapped at her like that. She meant well. It was just a simple mistake. I could tell that I stung her a little bit. I didn’t mean to do that. I was so sorry. Writing was just something near and dear to my heart and to put typing and writing in the same category was a little insulting. I knew it was the farthest thing from what she meant.

Prof said, “I think you ought to have a nice pile of paper by now, huh Piper?”

I said, “Yeah, thanks to you.”

Prof had been working hard to help build my stock of paper. When he came by a flier or other piece of paper that was the size of a standard piece of typing paper—eight and a half inches by eleven—he was always sure to snatch it up and send it back my way. None of the others took as much care, if any at all. I think he did it because he thought of me as a fellow intellectual, or perhaps more like an intellectual apprentice, if such a thing exists. At any rate, when I had expressed such a profound interest in the typewriter back at the thrift shop, he seemed to make it part of his mission to nurture my obsession anyway he could. A lot of times the paper had something on the front of it, but the back was otherwise free and clear. The pieces of paper were different colors too. Which didn’t matter. Along as the type was visible on the page once I got around to using it.

I organized them according to value. The most valuable pieces I had were the ones that were clean front and back. Wrinkles, creases, and holes in the paper brought the value down. We found a lot of the most valuable paper I had while we were dumpster diving. In fact, we found the mother-lode of paper when we raided the dumpster of a Kinco’s Copy Center in Iowa. I can’t even remember the city now, but it was a stones throw from the river. To anyone else this would have been a fruitless dive. In fact, the others were bored as they watched us leaf through thousands and thousands of pieces of paper. Prof and I were in paradise though. We thought it was sacrilege for a piece of paper to die without having first been used as a vessel to express something. Even if it was shallow and meaningless. Maybe a half a line was printed, but then the machine ran out of ink. I mean, even that. At least there was an attempt made. This is not an existence that is completely in vain. Some piece of paper had to figure out that cartridge was empty. Just one line. It was enough. So many pieces of paper were created in vain. But not if we had any thing to do about it. We managed to scrounge at least a thousand sheets that were virtually clear. They were just rejects from the copying process. Eventually someone who worked at the Kinco’s came out for a smoke and started asking us questions. He was saying something about privacy concerns. We told him we weren’t looking for information. In fact, it was the last thing we wanted. We wanted the stuff that was devoid of information. Clean sheets of typing paper! He continued to hem and haw about it and we decided to just get a move on.

Bill turned around and asked me to pass him my paddle, which I did, and he got right into paddling. I got out the Corona. I used some of Bill’s and Machine’s packs as a makeshift table and I set the Corona on top of it and fed a fresh piece of paper into the machine. Then I just sat there staring at the idle machine. It must have been awhile because Bill asked, “You froze up?”

I whispered to him, “Yeah.”

He replied in a quieter voice, though not exactly a whisper, “I figured as much. You see, writing and performing are two different things. I’ve got to be good at both. You really only need to be good at the one, but nonetheless you have been asked you to perform here today.” Bill paddled while he talked, turning his head slightly toward me, he continued, “Think about what you hear me play in the morning. Do you ever hear me play a song? No, of course not. What you hear me doing is trying to catch the tunes I dreamed about the might before.”

I asked, “You dream about music in your dreams?”

He said, “Yes, but they’re not ever songs—just melodies, harmonies, words, and riffs. Simple fragments. Seeds. But if I am able to catch ’em, then I can work on them. Expand them. Develop these things, whatever they may be and a song will inevitably come from them. Don’t approach with expectation. Let go.” He paused momentarily and then said, “What I am saying is don’t go for the story, not yet. Write about what you dreamt about last night. They’re just riffs. Just exercises to shrug off sleep. At the same time though, you might pull something from the dream world and bring it here. And if you can pull that off, well then the reward is usually all nectar. But don’t worry if you no longer can remember your dreams. You’ve been awake for a few hours now. Just make some observation about life here on the Nile. Once you get it going, it’ll take over, and then you won’t even be able to control it. And don’t worry about your audience.” He shrugged before continuing, “So you have an audience? The truth is, we just want to hear some tappin’ and one brand of tap isn’t going to be any different than the other.”

I said, “That is not true, Bill. I can tell the difference between a letter by the sound it makes when it hits the page.”

Bill said, “I’m sure you can, but we can’t.”

So I started off with some daily observation as Bill suggested. Because I couldn’t remember last nights dreams. I actually started off by writing about Bill. I talked about how Bill always got a bum wrap, and about how great he was as an artist. I explained how he could tell how I was struggling and he knew exactly just what to say. It was perfect. No one else on the canoe could have offered that up. It might have sounded like I was making excuses for Bill, but I talked about how all the great artists throughout history have always been these problematic creatures that society never really knows quite what to do with. I talked about how Bill was always chasing after a muse and sometimes in chasing that muse he might step on some toes or kick some shins. He doesn’t mean anything by it. He isn’t a malicious person. He just needs his muse.

We flowed down the Mississippi with Minnesota on our right and Wisconsin on our left. Then it was Illinois on our left and Iowa to our right. As we passed into the Mississippi waters surrounding Missouri, my heart began to race. We were in Huckleberry Finn’s territory! Indeed Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal was just up the river a piece. I thought about my childhood pen-pal who grew up there. Even though I had no interest in looking her up or even finding her. It was just an experience I had as a child. Plus, as I said earlier, she hated Mark Twain for forever marking her small town into what it was. Still, I suppose it was natural for my mind to go there.

When I told the others about Hannibal, they were all in. Everyone except for Bill. He poo-pooed the idea. He kept saying something about St. Louis only being a couple hundred miles away. I guess his supply was dwindling and he was now a little worried. So now we were now in a hurry to get somewhere. But even if we were in a hurry to get somewhere, it wasn’t St Louis. As soon as we docked in Hannibal, Bill disappeared. No one saw him slip away. He was gone. He didn’t say anything. Didn’t make plans to meet up later. Nothing. He was gone. We didn’t know if he was even coming back. Bill was coming back. He just needed more pain pills. He was like a bloodhound when it came to pain pills. I remember once Caring Sue sent me to follow after him. At first he didn’t know I was tailing him. And once he did figure out I was tailing him, we were too far out for him to send me back alone. So he had to take me with him. He asked me to stand watch. So now I got Caring Sue and Bill asking me to stand watch. And both of them had opposite itineraries. I watched as he broke into a series of houses just so he could raid their medicine cabinets. I asked him how he knew which house to break into and which ones to leave alone. He said he just knew. I’ll never forget what he said. It was ominous. He said, “America is saturated with pain pills and tranquilizers. I mean, look around you, Piper. How else are Americans going to keep it together?” We can’t forget that he was saying this to me in what I think was 1993. The world didn’t even know yet what Oxycontin and fentanyl were.

Bear, of course, wasn’t sympathetic to Bill. He said, “Well, if he isn’t here waiting for us when we get back from this historical tour Piper is taking us on, then I say we leave his junkie ass here.”

Caring Sue screamed, “Hey! Bill is my friend, Bear. I care about him a lot. He hasn’t hurt me any. He hasn’t hurt you either.”

Bear shrugged and mumbled something indecipherable. He was going through his own withdrawal of sorts, but somehow Bear thought his addiction wasn’t as bad as Bill’s. I suppose he had a point since his addiction was legal and everyone did that, but Bill’s was not and it wasn’t something a lot of people did in the early 90’s. At least not out in the open. Bear didn’t mind our little foray into American literary history. It gave him time to enjoy his vice. As long as we weren’t on the canoe, it was just business as usual for him.

I explained to everyone that the St. Petersburg from Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were inspired by this very town. We went and saw Mark Twain’s boyhood home. We saw his father’s office and we visited the home of Laura Hawkins who inspired Samuel Clemens to make a character out of her—Becky Thatcher. We saw the caves that inspired the Tom Sawyer tales. I was kind of sad that Bill didn’t want to be a part of it. I mean, he more than anyone seemed to get why I was into the things that I was into. Bear always just called me a weird kid and wondered out loud why I didn’t like more normal things. Childish things even.

When we got back to the canoe, Bill was waiting for us and he was in good spirits. When we asked him what happened he told us that he really, really needed to take a shit. It just couldn’t wait. He knew he would miss the tour, but he knew he would be back to the canoe in plenty of time. Bear really laid into him about it. About how irresponsible he was. About how he could have just said something. He told him that next time he did something like that, we would just leave him if he wasn’t back.

Bill just shrugged and said, “No problem, Bear. You guys do what you guys need to do. I can take care of myself.”

While we were loading ourselves back into the canoe, and while Bear wasn’t around, Caring Sue walked up to Bill and said quietly, “Bill, I am a worry-wart. You don’t have to explain anything to me, but next time can you quietly let me know that you’re slipping away? I won’t say anything to anyone else. I just like to know which way the wind is blowing.”

Bill looked to her and said, “Maybe I should just leave.”

She said, “No Bill, we are your family. I just don’t want to worry.”

Bill reluctantly said, “’k.”

Bear did seem to get meaner while we were on the canoe. I suppose it was because we were caging a bear. It was tight quarters. It was all for naught anyway as we pushed off out of Hannibal. Now, for the first time, we were on Huck’s and Jim’s course down to New Orleans. Armed and inspired by everything we had learned in Hannibal, we were ready to put it to use.

Except there was a problem. It happened to be in a rather deep part of the Mississippi where the Illinois River and it converge. We had been noticing it for awhile, even before Hannibal, but I guess we were in a state of denial. That the canoe was taking on water. You know, when you are sitting there paddling, you are going to splash some water in, specially when you’ve got four people paddling at once. At first we thought this was that scenario. We kept telling ourselves it was this. Then there was this moment when it was obvious we were overcome by the situation. At first we tried to paddle to shore. And then it was clear that we were making no headway.

Bill was the first one to bail. He put his guitar above his head and began to swim to shore. Bear saw this and said, “Bill! We need a little help here! We’re drowning!”

Bill said, “My guitar can’t get wet!”

Bear said, “Because that is where you keep the drugs, right Bill? You dick!”

Bill said, “No, because my guitar is all I got.”

I understood where Bill was coming from. At least I thought I did. I didn’t want my typewriter to get wet either, so I put it above my head along with a briefcase that had all of my writing, as well as the clean sheets of paper, and I followed Bill to shore. When I got to shore I laid it down and proceeded to go back into the river. This is where Bill and I diverge—same river, different course. Bill perched himself on a rock and began playing a song. Exacerbated I said, “Bill, we have to go get the rest of our stuff!”

Bill said, “I don’t care about my stuff, Piper. Let the river have it. I’ve got a new song and I don’t want to lose it.”

I said, “What?!” But it was to no avail. I turned and went back out into the river toward the wreck.

I heard him over my shoulder say, “Don’t you want to know what it is called?”

I screamed, “No!”

He yelled, “It is called ‘Sunken Canoe’!”

When I got back out to where our canoe was—by that I mean the surface of the water of which the canoe was just below—the others were using their packs to stay afloat. Everyone was actually kind of calm. The canoe was about ten feet beneath surface of the water. There were things that we would have to dive down and grab, but we knew we were leaving the canoe on the river bottom.

With a nod toward the shore where Bill was still perched, Machine asked, “What is he doing?”

I looked back momentarily toward shore and then looked to him and said, “He has a new song.”

Not particularly amused, Machine shook his head and said, “Of course he does.”

I said, “I actually think he does. I never heard him play it before.”

Machine said, “That is not the point, Piper.”

I knew what the point was. I understood their point and I understood Bill’s too. We fetched everything we could from the river bottom except the canoe and put it all ashore. We even grabbed Bill’s stuff, though there was some talk about leaving it down there after I told them what he said about it. We found a nice cove along the river there a little north of St. Louis and we decided to just camp for a few days and dry out. Our life on the river was over. We all knew that we weren’t going to seek out a new canoe and further the adventure. The truth is we weren’t making a whole lot of money off of the river. You would have thought otherwise, but we encountered much the same thing we encountered in the Upper Peninsula. People don’t like drifters. They’re suspicious of them. Like feral cats, you don’t want to encourage them by giving them food and shelter. And that is all we were, just a bunch of no good feral cats. Drifters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s