by Eliot Treichel
One last forward stroke then slide into the trough. Lean back quick so the bow clears. Shift your weight forward again. Hang with the pry all the way up the face and spot the pile. Watch yourself into it, like watching a baseball into your mitt. When the pile breaks over you, dig for the green water. Feel the vibration of the paddle. Feel the hull break loose from the current and stall there. Search for the feeling of being weightless, suspended. Tilt forward just an inch. Then you have it. You’re on the wave. Every time now. That’s the sequence.
From the eddy, Parker and Bernardo and the other guys hooted and whistled. Campbell shot video from shore. We all lived together in a place we’d taken to calling La Jungla House. A Spaniard, a Mexican, two Canadians, and three Americans—and then whoever else happened to be passing through.
I cut back and forth a few times, trying to check my speed and set up for something, but I couldn’t get ahead of my boat. Despite being able to catch the wave at will now, none of us had been able to sustain our rides for very long, not even Pablo. The wave was fast and steep—the kind where the best tactic was to just try and constantly be throwing tricks, or to be constantly trying to make tricks out of how you were being thrown. Pablo had been getting these crazy bounces and nailing these huge aerials, and one time Shane, eyes closed, not even trying to, had somehow done a Flashback into a clean spin, fucking sick.
I’d gotten stuck on an edge and was bracing hard. Bernardo whistled at me again, the same two-part whistle he gave the young girls in town. He knew that I was in trouble and something entertaining was about to happen. Gravity pushed me into the trough, and my bow began torpedoing, water spraying into the sky. The river surged, and the bottom just sort of fell out. A great big mouth swallowed me.
When I rolled back up, I was in the pile—caught. The guys loved that. They don’t call surf contests in the ocean rodeos, but that’s what we called them on the river because it’s all buckin’ and broncin’ out there. My paddle slipped in my hand, and I fought to reorient my grip. Water peeled back my eyelids. I got lazy with an edge, or the river gulped again, or something else entirely, because before I could even think about what to do next I was back to being upside down. Hardly got in a sneak breath. I’m sure the guys loved that, too.
I didn’t make my next roll, and I had to set up again. Underwater, it wasn’t exactly silent, but there was a quietness to it, and it was a quietness that wasn’t so much peaceful, but private, a privacy that could also be terrifying. Back in those days I thought maybe it was one of the last private spaces left, a place no one else could share at the exact same moment, but now I sometimes feel like we can’t escape our privacy—that no matter how much we try to be around others and share, there are some things that will just never come out.
I swept my paddle for another roll. I could hear myself straining to hold my breath, a noise that for some reason sounded like it was coming from very far away. Hip snap. Keep the head down. Focus on the basics.
As soon as I was up, another wave broke over my head, nearly flipping me again. It was all just reactionary at that point, and somehow I squirted through. The wave train continued downstream, each wave a bit smaller than the next. I blinked the water out of my eyes again and pulled off my nose plugs, trying to suck in as much air as I could.
Back by the wave, Bernardo was waving goodbye to me. I could tell he was laughing, but I was too far away to hear. I was slipping downriver. There weren’t many eddies left—fewer further on. I reached up high and flipped Bernardo the bird. I set my angle for shore and started stroking like a monster.
The river’s edge was steep and full of loose cobbles, so I had to climb onto a little plateau of beach where the stones were still packed in place. My wet feet printed the dusty stones, same as all the drips of water dropping off me, little spots that evaporated quickly in the tropical sun. I wondered how long it’d been since the Arrojado had run high enough to cover those rocks. By the amount of silt on them I thought it must’ve been a good number of years, but that was really just a guess. The Arrojado was a young river, and that youngness meant that it was prone to drastic changes, changes that came more frequently than on the old rivers. I’d been on the Arrojado before when there was so much water pumping through I could hear boulders being tumbled along the riverbed. Sometimes, after a big winter storm, we’d come back and the run would be totally different—a rapid where there wasn’t one before, a line that would be completely new, a feature totally vanished.
The guys were still cycling through their rides while Campbell recorded them. He made his living, even in the States, through shooting videos of tourists on vacation—capturing lots of big smiles, cutting out the unflattering angles, splicing in some stock sunsets, and then selling all those memories back to them for forty bucks a DVD. With the videos we made of ourselves it was pretty much the same thing though we didn’t really want to look at it that way.
I set my boat and paddle next to Campbell’s, grabbed my water bottle and dry bag, and went and sat next to him, needing to catch my breath a bit more before I headed back onto the water. My forearms and elbows still throbbed.
“Nice ride,” he said.
“Yeah?” I asked. I took a big, thirsty gulp of water, letting it spilling all over me. “Pretty short though.”
Pablo had next ride, and Campbell was adjusting the camera so that it centered on him. “Not too bad,” he said. “You stayed on for a bit. Sort of did a few cartwheels. Those were kind of cool.”
I told him I’d take kind of on that wave. “I don’t know if I have much more than that.”
I watched Pablo through the rectangle of the video display. He was one of the locals in our crew, and he still lived with his family in a barrio near ours. He wasn’t even old enough to drink in the States. All his gear was mismatched and sun-faded—stuff that he’d picked up from people who didn’t want the hassle of flying home with it and had sold to him for cheap. He’d only been paddling a couple of years, but he could already out-shred us all. It was like he had gills.
Pablo splashed some water on his face and checked the wave again. As he did so, Campbell zoomed out for a reveal shot. Bernardo called it, “Foo-taj.” It was always more foo-taj with him. “More foo-taj, better edit.”
Across the river were a line of palm and banana trees plus another beach of cobbles. Beyond the beach sat the pig farm, with its tin roof outbuildings and stick fencing and big pile of manure. The farmer had a rusty blue tractor that had to be at least fifty years old, and sometimes he’d drive it out onto the cobbles and sit in the bucket and eat his lunch and watch us. He even left us a pile of mangoes once. That’s how we came to tag the spot Mango Wave. Just beyond the farm, it was a wall of steep peaks and vine-covered jungle. A few white egrets and toucans to punctuate things.
Pablo ferried onto the wave and immediately started ripping. I didn’t know what it was, but he’d figured something out—some element of timing, some pattern in the currents. I wondered if he even knew what it was, or if things were just coming from some automatic part of himself, some deep part of his brain that he wasn’t even aware of. He’d started linking blunts and backstabs at will—the ends of his boat throwing arcs of water into the sky, the hull slapping the river each time it landed.
Campbell stayed out in a wide shot, which somehow made everything Pablo was doing look even more effortless. Campbell was going to help Pablo put together a highlight clip to see if some sponsors might pick him up, or at least kick him some better gear. We were at that time of day, and the lighting was perfect—late afternoon gold. There hadn’t been any rain or runoff for a few days, and the Arrojado had gone back to its obscene blue. I couldn’t imagine how this ride wouldn’t make the final cut.
He’d already had the best ride of any of us, but then he started setting up for a loop—a move that would pop his kayak into the air and flip it end-over-end, right back onto the water—something none of us had been able to do on the wave yet.
Pablo drove his boat forward into the trough, trying to submerge as much of it as possible so the buoyancy would shoot him back into the air, but the river simply opened again and ate him as casually as it had me. Pablo’s boat pivoted and he stayed upside down for a bit, flushing past the eddy.
After he rolled, he didn’t even try getting back to shore—just floated sideways down the middle of the river, his paddle resting on the deck of his boat, his arms dangling into the water, spent. Campbell tracked him with the camera for a bit, but then swung back to the wave.
“Dude’s a Jedi,” he said.
“Young Pablo, the Jedi.”
One of the Norwegians who been around for the past couple days was up next, but he was upside down before he’d even reached the wave. I watched to see if he was going to try and make it back to the eddy, or if he was just going to follow Pablo’s lead. We were a pretty fluid group, and sometimes our decisions about staying at a spot or bailing weren’t always clear decisions as much as just following a loose momentum. The Norwegian floated past the eddy, following Pablo.
Downstream, Pablo was almost out of sight, about to drift around the next corner. Not much farther beyond that, just above the next rapid, there was another fun wave—a big slow glassy thing that you could get four or five people on and ride forever. There was no eddy access, so you just had to catch it on the fly. After the wave, though, it was start heading right. That whole left side was full of undercuts and sieves, and to swim through them would be a killer.
“Looks like it’s time,” I said. I took a last chug of water, not saving much for six miles we had left.
“Suppose so.” Campbell’s eyes were glued to the camera. The other Norwegian was out on the wave and putting together a pretty decent ride, but then he got stuck on a back surf and couldn’t rudder enough and finally the wave ejected him. Campbell turned off the camera and started breaking down his equipment. It all went into a padded-out Pelican box, one with a scratched up maple leaf sticker on it.
When he was done with his gear, Campbell held out the roach of a joint and asked if I wanted in. His wrist was stained green from the copper bracelet he never took off. Almost everyone had shared the joint on the way to the put in that morning, but I’d held off then. The rapids that got me nervous, the ones I wanted my head straight for, were all upstream, and now I was ready for a pick up. How we got our heads straight on the river was a little bit different for all of us. I used to not even want my head straight for the big ones, but somehow that had changed.
The roach was already tiny, and after a few hits, trying to pass it back and forth became ridiculous. The weed was pretty stale, and it was rolled in butcher paper or something, but it was enough to soften things.
“You sure?” Campbell asked.
“Yeah, man,” I said. “Finish it.”
Out on Mango Wave, Shane hopped on for one last ride. He was from Colorado and was one of the original renters at La Jungla House. We called it that because it had previously been the base of operations for Jungla Expediciones, a rafting company that had gone under for some reason. The house was a two-story Spanish Colonial, at least three thousand square feet, and sitting at the top of a steep gravel road. Stucco walls surrounded the dirt courtyard, and there was a big wooden gate that made it easy to deal with our boats. Andrés, who was somehow related to the former owners, had set the whole thing up. He’d even worked for Jungla before he started with Rios, the rafting service that Parker, Shane, and Campbell all worked for. I sometimes tagged along with Rios too, picking up a few bucks as a safety boater when I needed it. Mostly, though, I was there to avoid working.
With some real furniture and a little bit of work—maybe take the steel bars off the windows—the house would’ve been fairly upscale, even by first-world standards. Way nicer than anything I could’ve afforded. Vaulted ceilings. Endless tile. But as it was, the place was pretty bleak. We had one bathroom and no hot water, which was really only a problem during the rainy season, when the clouds got low and grey and cold, or when more than one of us got the shits. Our furnishings were a kitchen table, a desk that still had some Jungla Expediciones pamphlets in the drawers, and a fax machine that no one knew the number for.
Shane and Parker scored the two bedrooms by drawing straws. The rest of us slept on our air mattresses in the upstairs living room. We had a nice balcony right outside the room, and sometimes I pulled my mattress outside and fell asleep listening to the dogs and roosters. One time, Campbell brought home a local girl and had a make-out session out there with her. For some reason he left the porch light on, and instead of rolling over, I just lay there watching them and thinking about every dumb choice I’d ever made. Later, in the bathroom, my attention wandered from our beat-up, coverless Maxim to an ant that was wrestling one of our pubic hairs through a little hole in the grout, a sight that somehow made me feel more alone than ever.
Mango Wave finally spit Shane to the side. Across the river, the farmer was throwing slop into one of the pens. I’d already been in country for three months, plus a few excursions to Panama to satisfy my visa requirements. It was my twentieth straight day paddling, two days short of my longest streak since arriving. On afternoons like that one, with my skull surfed out, with the crystal-blue water glimmering in the sun, it was easy to think the farmer had it made—that if a guy got himself a nice, little riverside spot like that one, away from everyone else, it really could be the endless summer we were all chasing. Other days I thought about how hard the farmer had to work just to keep the jungle from reclaiming his land, how everything down there was in a million states of rot and growth.
Campbell sucked in a last hit. “Pura vida,” he said, tightly.
“Pura vida,” I said. You could mean it so many different ways.
Pablo wasn’t at the next rapid, so we all just caught a quick ride on the wave and kept moving. When he wasn’t at the next one either, we started to wonder if maybe we’d somehow passed him—like maybe he’d gotten out to take a leak, his boat accidentally hidden behind a rock or something. We went with the theory that he was just charging ahead, maybe to reach the spot we’d simply named The Hole—a pour-over that I’d only jump into on days I was feeling particularly careless.
The Arrojado was mostly read-and-run, but the two Norwegians had only been on that section once before, so we reminded them of the lines through the next few rapids, each of which had a couple of stout parts. We traveled in a single-file line, duckling-style. Despite the Pelican box sitting in his lap, and the two thousand dollar camera inside it, Campbell kept trying to throw wave-wheels off almost every single wave, even the tiny ones. His success rate was pretty low. He kept getting in my way, bumper-boating us together. One time he rolled up right next to me, a waterlogged smile on his face, almost slicing me with his paddle. I reached over and shoved him back upside down.
We didn’t find Pablo at The Hole. We bobbed around in the eddy next to the pounding white mess, no one really jumping at the chance for a ride. The weed had gone from softening to headache for me. A few gauzy clouds from before had started to congeal, dampening the sun. My mind started to leave the river and go other places. I had to be careful about that. If I wasn’t careful, I’d catch myself returning to things I wanted to forget.
Andrés knew Pablo best, and everyone kept prodding him for some answer. He kept saying he didn’t know. “No sé.” It was another couple of miles to the take-out, and there was plenty of time to get there, but if Pablo was in trouble downstream—or even worse, upstream—then there was really no time at all. I guess our thinking was that it was Pablo we were talking about, and why would Pablo be in trouble on the Arrojado. I knew that it didn’t matter where you were, that trouble had a way of being everywhere.
Shane finally put it to the whole group. “Stay and play,” he asked, “or vamos?”
Parker stepped up. “Ladies,” he said, making his way to the top of the eddy. He paused to put his nose plugs on, and then he sat there for a good bit just staring at the thing: the smoothness of the water flowing over the rock ledge, the way the clear water picked up air and turned white, the way white folded into white folded into white.
Things were bad from the start. It’s called window-shading because of how fast you get flipped. Makes your brain hurt sometimes. Parker managed to roll up, but then he window-shaded again almost immediately, and then he went through that one more time and lost his paddle. Unlike me, he had a pretty reliable handroll, but it was too late for that. His boat turned, and then it started cartwheeling, and then it sometimes got sucked down violently, only to pop up right back in the hole and start flipping again. Sometimes we’d see flashes of Parker’s torso swinging around, or we’d see the top of his head just breaking the surface, his oxygen-holes held under.
When Campbell popped his spray skirt, I thought he was going for his camera, but he was actually reaching for his throw rope. Parker had come out of his kayak, and it had started taking on water. Parker was Maytagged a few more times and then disappeared. The Hole had always let us go before, but rivers don’t fret too much about precedence. With some holes, because of how strongly the water circulated back into them, your best hope of escaping was to actually dive deeper, to do the unthinkable and swim away from the surface. The hope was to catch some of the current that slipped out along the river bottom. Dudes even grabbed rocks along the bottom to themselves past the boil line.
Bernardo and Shane started drifting downstream. We kept scanning for him, but nothing.
He popped up about twenty yards away—wide-eyed, gasping. Shane was only a few strokes behind him. “I’m right here!” he yelled. “Grab my bow!” Loud, clear instructions.
Once we got Parker to shore and wrung him out and reunited him with his gear—the hole held onto his boat for like ten more minutes—that was pretty much it for us. We were all laughing about it, because that what’s you did. But our faces, especially Parker’s, didn’t match the joking. Someone once said that laughter was the sound of survival, which I suppose is about right, but I also think it has a bunch of other, more frightening sounds too.
Without saying a whole lot more, we got in and cruised the rest of the run, no stopping to play, not even on the fly. When we reached the takeout, Pablo was there chilling with Hector, the driver we often hired. Both of them were drinking coconuts, Pablo’s boat and gear already in the back of Hector’s truck. Pablo’s t-shirt was tied around his head like a turban, and he was giving us a big smile as if nothing was wrong.
“Que pasó?” Andrés asked.
“Nada.” Pablo explained that he was supposed to have done some work for his dad, but had instead come paddling with us. Now he needed to beat the old man home. “Estoy en problemas ya.” He was already in trouble because of his girlfriend, Marta.
“He needs to sneak out of the house if he wants to get any,” was Edgar’s translation.
The guys started filling Pablo in about Parker’s swim. Pablo loved hearing about it, and he immediately started giving Parker some grief. “Bro,” he asked, “what you doing out there, man?”
Parker and them were laughing again. Parker wasn’t as white as he was before. He started telling some of the story, but he was telling it differently than he had right after we’d fished him out—when he mostly said things like, “Fuck,” or “That fucking sucked,” or “It got real fucking dark down there.” The way he was reliving it at the take-out had him a bit more composed during the whole ordeal, even the parts where he was choking on water, when I’d seen the same look in his eyes as I’d seen in that woman’s the day I saved her.
I started packing up my gear, stuffing my spray skirt and rash guard and helmet inside my PFD. It was something I liked to get done right away, because the main rule about paddling with a group was take care of your own shit first.
Hector had climbed into the back of his truck. Unlike some drivers, Hector always helped us with our gear. He was only a couple years older than us, but he had a big walrus mustache and was always wearing polo shirts with the collars up and the bottoms not quite covering his belly. He grabbed the bow of my boat and pulled, sliding it in next to Pablo’s.
The valley had totally shaded over, even the hills on the other side of the river, but the sky right above was still bright blue. I asked Hector if we could stop at the roadside market to get some beers on the way back. I tried to tell him about Parker’s swim, tried to explain the custom of having to chug a beer out of your river shoe when that happens, even though I should’ve remembered he’d seen us perform the custom several times before—that if I’d just told him one of us had swum, he’d already have known what to do.
I pointed at Parker and then made some swimming motions. “El pescado,” I said.
Hector chuckled. “Nadador,” he said.
“Sí.” I’d forgotten the word for swimmer. “El nadador.”
I’d only been in country for two days when the guys said we should head over to the east coast and see if we could catch the remnants of this swell that had just hit. I said I was up for anything.
When we got there the break was a bust—the wind coming from the wrong direction, our waves flat and mushy. We decided to head down the coast a bit more, to a spot that was smaller, but more consistent. I hadn’t been in the ocean with my kayak for at least a year, so smaller was fine with me. Shane was pretty bummed though, in part because there were going to be tourists at this beach, and the last thing he wanted to do on his day off was deal with more tourists. I was sitting next to Parker in the back seat. As if I needed to be won over, he looked at me and said, “There’ll be lots of bikinis.”
There were, in fact, a couple of bikinis there. There were also a fair number of obese and disoriented Midwesterners who’d disembarked in Limón. It was easy to understand the spot’s allure. The beach was clean and soft and white, and it seemed to stretch on forever. The lightly colored sand made the water the cliché of Caribbean blue. Up from the high-tide line, palms trees leaned out toward the sun, their trunks curved like eye lashes. Just beyond the palm trees, brightly colored houses and businesses lined the dirt road. There were fruit vendors and hostels and places to rent surfboards and snorkeling gear. Hammocks seemed to hang everywhere.
Because it was a beach break, the waves had a tendency to push up quick and then shut out fast. After a couple of minor poundings my lingering jetlag dissolved, and I started to settle down a bit. My rides started to be something more like dancing—a duet where you didn’t have to think about the steps. I didn’t think about anything at all, which was the ultimate point of it.
We’d probably been out there for a couple hours when the guys decided it was time for a break. The ocean was as warm as bathwater, and after being in it for that long, we were thirsty. My hands were pruned, and my lips, which I kept running my tongue over, were already sunburned. Salt trickled down the back of my throat. My shoulder tendons were fried.
“We’re gonna track down some cervezas,” Campbell said. “What do you think?”
“Definitely. We doing it now?” Everyone else was already paddling in.
“There’s this bodega just down the road.”
Those guys had to go back to work the next day. The plan was to drive back home to Turrialba that night. I didn’t know when I’d be on the water again, especially not over in that part of the country, so I figured I should milk it for as much as I could. I wanted everything. “Sweet,” I said, “I’m going to catch a couple more. I’m right behind you.”
“For sure,” he said.
I was outside the break, waiting for the next set. A couple more rides had turned into a bunch more rides, but this was going to be my last one, so I wanted the wave to be big. Beer sounded even better than before. “Me gusta,” I kept practicing.
I don’t know how I noticed her. She wasn’t waving her hands or splashing. I didn’t hear her shout, or anything. I’d just been looking around, taking a mental panorama shot, trying to stamp everything to memory. I think I actually scanned past her a couple times before I realized that my vision had settled on a spot, and then it was a little bit more before I realized the spot I’d settled on was a person—head just above the water.
When I started paddling toward her, I looked to the beach to see where the guys were. I can still see their empty boats on shore, all lined up in a row. Life jackets and spray skirts turned inside out, draped across the decks to dry.
She was older, about my mom’s age. Had short grey hair and a swimsuit with ruffles across the chest. She wasn’t alone. Her husband had been the first to get in trouble—heart attack. He floated face down, curly black hair covering his back. She’d swum out to see what was wrong, and now they were both caught in a rip, being pulled through the break. She was using his body to hold herself above the surface. Maybe he’d already drowned, but she was making sure of it.
“I can’t let go of him,” she said in English. “Please.”
I told her to grab the back of my kayak, but instead she kept swimming past and trying to grab the side of the cockpit, keeping me from paddling on that side. Each time a wave came through, her head was sandwiched between her husband’s body and the boat, and each time I tried to push him away she pulled him back. When one of the waves hit, she somehow tugged a corner off my spray skirt and a whole bunch of water sloshed in.
“Listen to me!” I shouted, backstroking away so I could fix my skirt.
“Help him,” she kept saying. “Help him.”
“If you let him go, I can help.” Not far off, I could see the next set of waves approaching. “Let go,” I yelled again.
“I can’t. I can’t make it to your boat.”
I moved closer, positioned my stern so that it was right there for her. “I’ll come back for him,” I said. All she had to do was reach.
The thing that stays with me—it’s not the terror I saw in her eyes. I was familiar with that look, had seen it and a million variations of it on rivers before. It was the surrender. How her eyes went from terror, and then how there was some flicker of some kind of recognition, and then they were empty. And then how she let go of her husband. How she let go of him, but did not try to swim to me.
I snagged her forearm as she was going under. When I pulled her above the surface, she spit and huffed and finally grabbed the back of my boat, this time both hands.
After that, she didn’t let go. Not even when the water shallow enough for her to stand. Not even when it was shallow enough to kneel.
Hector’s banana truck climbed the road at a slow grind, burning up the clutch. The road was narrow and mostly dirt, though sometimes it abruptly switched to paved, only to switch back to dirt a short time later. We were all riding in the back, our kayaks stacked below us, our gear on top for some padding. There was no curtain across the tail end, but the tarp walls and ceiling covering the truck bed blocked much of the light. No one was really talking. The only time we said something was when Hector suddenly stomped on the brakes and veered, or hit a bad pothole, bouncing us into the air and sending us reaching for something to grab hold of. Otherwise, we just enjoyed our exhaustion, the green valley unfolding below.
By the time we reached the market, the sun had set and the sky was just beginning to ink up. No matter the time of year, it was twelve hours of light and twelve of dark down there. A couple of local children stood near Hector’s truck, and they watched us unload out the back. I slipped on a beanie and followed the guys inside, all of our flip flops flapping. We stopped at the market almost ever time we came through—in part because we wanted to show the family that having kayakers and rafters on the river would be much better for business than letting the electric company build a dam, and in part because we all had a boner for one of the girls who sometimes worked there.
The store only had two aisles, and we quickly overwhelmed the place. In back, there was a kitchen with a little woodstove where they grilled chicken kabobs. Campbell and those guys usually always got some. They were also the ones who were most often sprinting to the bathroom. I grabbed a big bottle of Imperial and a bag of Bravos and went to pay. That day it was the old lady, not the daughter. The old lady was short and round and had a pretty good mustache, and even though there was a cuteness to her, it was often hard to reconcile the fact that she was the mother of the same girl Bernardo claimed was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen.
Outside, the children had disappeared. Hector was standing across the street and in front of one of the little houses, talking with a leathery guy in a cowboy hat. I guessed he was some sugar farmer. Past the cluster of houses, past the rutted soccer field and the church, acres of sugar cane swayed gently in the breeze. Even with the dimming sky, the waxy leaves picked up the light and winked it back at us. Later, when the cane was ready for harvest, the farmers would burn the fields, sending up columns of black smoke. The idea was to get rid of all the excess foliage, leaving behind only the stalks, which is where the sweetness is. It also chased off all the snakes. Harvesting time, you’d see all these field hands walking around chewing on fresh pieces of cane, their hands stained black with soot.
I sat against the wall of the store and ate my chips. Drank in gulps. Pablo walked out empty handed, not even a Gatorade. He pulled his ancient cell phone out of his board shorts, flipped it open, and then flipped it shut again. He let out of groan and came over and sat with me.
“Chip,” I said, holding out the bag, the tips of my fingers seasoned red.
“No thanks,” he said. We sat with our legs straight out in front of us. Pablo kept tapping his cell phone against his thigh, bleeding off his nervous energy.
“Your dad a hard ass or something?” I asked. I was going to tell him that I knew those kinds of dads.
“I’m already in trouble for something else,” he said. “The thing with Marta. I snuck her in, and my grandma heard us.” He couldn’t help but smile as he said that part. I’d thought Edgar had said something about sneaking out, not in, but I misunderstood a lot of things down there. I elbowed Pablo and called him a dog, but mostly I thought about how strange it seemed to be his age and still living at home—to be living with your grandparents and parents and little sisters, of still having to worry about getting busted for having sex with your girlfriend.
“Come on, now,” I said. “You’re in love.” I was joking, but it didn’t come across right.
“You have to be married down here.”
“Get her a ring then,” I said. “It’s easy.” I’d done it once. It was all the parts that came after that proved harder.
He flipped his phone open and closed again. He admitted that he should just relax.
I told him that relaxing was always good, though I knew that if I was in his position I wouldn’t have been able to relax at all, that I would’ve been stressing over what my dad had in store for me. I offered him the last of the chips, but he said no. I finished the bag and then drained the rest of my beer. Shane ran out of the store and over to the truck, hoped in back and grabbed his wallet. He waved it at us as he was going back inside.
After a bit, I said, “You kind of freaked me out today. When you bolted and then we kept not seeing you.”
“Freaked you out?” Pablo asked.
“I don’t know. I just started getting this sense that you might’ve been in some trouble somewhere. Not sure why, but that’s what I felt.”
“Nah,” he said, “I was alright.” That was obvious now. “You don’t have to worry about me, bro.” He said that it was just the Arrojado anyway. “These are my rivers.”
The guys started pouring out of the store, Parker first. Campbell was behind him, rubbing his shoulders, giving him a little pep talk—not so much to pep him up, but more to remind him of what was coming next.
“I know,” I said. I hadn’t liked his use of just. “Things happen sometimes. Surprises. Stuff you don’t expect to matter.”
“Bro,” he said again, standing, shrugging it off. He held out his hand to help me. I’d tried to keep up with him before as he bombed down Class V without even scouting, and I’d seen him throw freewheels off thirty-foot waterfalls, seen him drop sixty footers, seen him rip Mango Wave to shreds. His talent wasn’t in dispute. But I also knew that none of that really mattered out there.
The guys were gathering at the back of the truck, and Pablo and I started walking over to join them.
“If something happens, it happens,” he said. He sounded relaxed as hell now. He reached for a handshake, and we made our fingers snap at the end of it. “But things aren’t going to happen,” he said. “Not to me.”
I tried to be gentle, but she wouldn’t really use her legs, so I ended up dragging her through the sand by her armpits. She was shivering, her lips a little blue. I would’ve had her sit so she wasn’t looking toward the water, but the slope of the beach was too steep for that, and I kneeled in front of her to block the view. I took her hands and just kept reminding her to breath, which she was doing, but in this hiccupy way that had me worried.
Her eyes kept looking up to the sky. Every once in a while they’d come down and tentatively meet mine, and I would nod and squeeze her hands again and tell her to breath. Her eyes looked different than before, and I could see she wasn’t alone anymore, that she’d come back. She was alone, yes, because her husband was dead, but she wasn’t alone like she’d been out in the water. I was there now, and I could see that she could recognize me as a person, and that we were sharing the same reality together, which isn’t how it had been before. Out there, she had gone to her own truth.
The guys were strolling along the palm trees, beers in hand. Shane was trying to balance a pineapple on his head. I stood and waved my arms and tried whistling, but they couldn’t hear me over the surf. For guiding, they all had to have safety whistles on their PFDs, so I ran over and grabbed one, and blew three times. I waved my arms again, and pointed toward the break. The guys turned to look, Shane almost dropping the pineapple. I pointed harder. A second later, at once, they started to run.
Campbell stayed with the woman and me. He’d grabbed his first-aid kit and phone from his boat. The police were on their way. We now had onlookers. Campbell’s Spanish was better than mine, and I let him deal with the locals who kept crowding us and having all sorts of things to say. Out on the water, the guys were fighting against the waves and trying to get a towline attached. His name was Bill. That’s what she told us. Her name was Nancy, and they were from Mayetta, Kansas, which wasn’t too far from Topeka, and this was their wedding anniversary, and she’d known when they had their bags robbed on the first day of their trip that they should’ve just gone home, that they should’ve just eaten their deposits, because now this, and now everything—
“They can get him in?” she asked abruptly. She was peaking around me, and I scooted forward a little so it’d be harder to see.
Shane had already headed to shore so he could help land them. Parker and Bernardo were doing the towing, having set up two separate lines. Edgar was out there as extra help. The body was still face down. The drag must’ve been horrible. The waves would push the trio forward, taking out whatever slack was in the lines, then the dead weight would jerk Parker and Bernardo back, forcing them to brace so they didn’t flip and get tangled in the ropes.
“They’ll get him in,” I said. “They’re good.” I explained how we were all raft guides, and how some of them were actually on search-and-rescue teams back home.
“Oh,” she said. I don’t really know what I’d expected her to say, but for some reason it was more than that.
Parker and Bernardo made it in to the calmer water. Shane had waded out to meet them. Edgar jumped from his boat, stuck his paddle in the cockpit, and gave it all shove toward shore. He started undoing one of the towlines, while Shane worked on the other. Once they’d untied Bill, they flipped him onto to his back.
Nancy grabbed one of my arms for support as she began to stand. I knew what was going to happen next, that the guys were going to float Bill to the beach, and that they were going to at least try CPR. That water would vomit out of him. That ribs would probably crack.
“You don’t want to watch that,” I said.
She took a wobbly step, and then paused so that her legs could come back a little more.
I asked her to trust me. Told her that I knew what I was talking about.
“I have to see him,” she said.
“Please don’t.” I wanted her to listen so badly, but if she needed my steadying arm to get all the way over to him, I was going to take her.
“I have to,” she said.
Parker had left his river shoes back at La Jungla and had been paddling barefoot, so we decided that he had to drink from one of Edgar’s, which were the oldest and stinkiest of the crew’s. Edgar couldn’t even remember how many years he’s had them. The neoprene had rotted out along the sides of each, and the toes and heels had been sloppily repaired with Seal Cement. The left one had a few less holes, so Edgar gave him that one. The booty was still wet, and before he handed it over to Parker, Edgar made a show of dumping out the slimy gray water that had accumulated in the bottom. “Mmmm,” he moaned, “booty juice.”
We stood in a circle behind the truck, Hector included. Campbell had the camera out for more footage, but it was too dark to get anything good. I’d run in quick for another beer. The old lady now stood in the doorway and watched us. Yellow light from inside spilled onto the sidewalk and silhouetted her. Her arms were crossed, and she was shaking her head in what I took to be bemusement.
Shane cracked open a can of beer and handed it to Parker, who flipped the booty around so the toe was facing away from him. He started shaking his head like the old lady was. When he sucked the foam from the top of the can, we all jeered at him. You had to drink the whole damn thing from the boot. Even Hector knew this.
“Come on, buddy,” Campbell said. “Swimmers have to drink.”
“App-ease the river gods,” Bernardo said, lifting his own beer. That seemed to be a good thing to drink to, so we all did. I held my hand over Parker’s can so he couldn’t.
When he finished pouring, Parker tossed the can on the ground and grabbed the booty with both hands. He tried taking a couple deep breaths, the same kind you’d take at the top of some steep drop, but his gag reflex was already getting to him. Beer was seeping out the holes, and we shouted for him to hurry. He pinched his nose, but it didn’t help with the gagging.
“Don’t think,” I shouted. So often, I thought, it just proved to be useless.
He didn’t quite finish on the first try. He’d gotten beer all over his t-shirt, and I could see him wanting to stop, but then he just straightened up and polished off the rest. We were all cheering for him, chugging down our own drinks. The old lady was clapping her hands, and Hector had the biggest smile out of us all.
“Next time—” Parker began.
“Come on,” Edgar interrupted, “Let’s see.”
Parker held the booty upside down to show that it was all gone, except for a few last drops. He opened his eyes wide and stuck out his tongue, as if to show us he’d swallowed his medication. “Next time,” he said, “Before I swim, I drown.”
After the market, we all loaded up in Hector’s truck again. Campbell had rolled another joint, and we passed it around in the dark. I was wedged between two kayaks and using my gear bag for backrest. My eyes kept being drawn to the black teeth of the ridge line, where the mountains met the starry sky. I didn’t know the southern constellations very well, not like some of the guys. I wasn’t sure it mattered, though. You didn’t always need to know the names of things, or always know the right word for something.
Pablo wasn’t smoking. “Y mañana?” he asked, passing the joint over to Bernardo. What was the plan for tomorrow?
Parker, Shane, Andrés, and Campbell all had to work. The Norwegians were thinking about taking the day off, or maybe hiking up the dormant volcano outside of town. Bernardo and Edgar were tired, but they said they’d rally in the morning for something.
“We could hit the Upper Upper,” Bernardo said. “Let the boys go babysit, while the men go big.”
The water levels were probably a bit high, but that just made it all the more tempting, especially for Pablo. He was already talking about what time we should meet.
When Bernardo asked me if I was in, I said, “Of course. Always.” The truth was that I was feeling something else, and I knew that I wasn’t going to join them.
It had started back at the store, after talking with Pablo and before Parker drank, when I rushed inside to get myself another beer. The old lady was fishing out my change from the ancient cash register when it sunk over me. The door leading into the family’s living room was open, and I peeked in. All I could see was the corner of a paisley couch and the blue flicker of a television, but it was enough to do something. There’s this feeling you get when you know you should portage a rapid, a kind of resignation that you really should listen to, but sometimes don’t. It’s different than fear. This was more about sizing things up, and seeing them for what they really were, and knowing what was worth losing. I realized I hadn’t been listening to it in years.
“Voy a volver a los Estados Unidos,” I told her.
“Estados Unidos,” she said.
“Sí,” I said. I asked her if she’d ever been, though I knew she probably hadn’t. I told her I was leaving very soon.
She gave me my money and said she’d never travelled that far. She asked if I was going home, and I told her yes, even though I really had no idea where home was anymore, or how I was going to get there exactly.
“Bueno,” she said. She told me that home was good, that it was important to be with your family. The guys outside were just as much my family as anyone.
Maybe Pablo had been right. In the end, it wasn’t him who got in trouble, but Campbell. I was trying on Idaho when I got the email from Shane, who’d been part of the recovery team. Campbell was supposed to have left the next day, but he’d wanted to get in one more run. You have to take the opportunities when you get them.
Because the accident happened on the Rio Cuero, which was dam controlled, the recovery team was able to have the water shut off so they could get to the body. At least Campbell’s parents had that. He had swum and become wedged beneath an undercut. Sometimes the danger isn’t from a river being too high, but too low.
I thanked the old woman and said that it was nice to have met her. She seemed like a gift, and I wanted to offer her something for that. It was a moment as private as being upside down, under water, except she was there with me. I slid my change back across the counter and told her to keep it, but she didn’t seem to understand. She wouldn’t let me leave it behind.
Eliot Treichel, a native of the Midwest, now lives in Oregon. He is the author of the story collection Close Is Fine, which received the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. His stories have also appeared in Narrative, Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, and other literary journals, as well as Canoe & Kayak, Paddler, and American Whitewater magazines. His debut YA novel is forthcoming from Ooligan Press. He can be reached at www.eliottreichel.com