Tom Cantwell

McKenzie Water

Sure, I totaled the BMW when I bounced the curb and hit the Burger King sign while texting Amy after leaving that Kappa Delta party, but my father didn’t have to be such a dick about it. At least I had the good sense to get the hell out of there and call him so he could call his lawyer. My mother was little help. “Maybe we should find him a place he can go,” she told him the next morning, talking about me as if I wasn’t standing right there, slumped over the kitchen bar. “Somewhere he can get help. A facility,” she said in a quieter voice. “I see them on those intervention shows.”

“He can go straight to his room is where he can go,” my father said. I laughed. “I’m serious,” he said. “I’m pulling your rent money. That apartment’s worse than that Animal House. I want you back home with us, where we can keep an eye on you.”

My fault for choosing a school in the same town where I grew up, actually the same school where they filmed Animal House. And my father was actually right. Banner, Jonesy, and I had kicked off summer session with a string of parties that established our apartment as the refuge of ill repute from the sanctity of Sigma Nu House. One kegger even made it into the Register Guard police blotter, which my father apparently read.

My mother’s face brightened at his idea. The sad truth was that my room was still my room, the same old Star Wars stuff and skateboarding posters collecting dust where I had put them over the years. It was creepy, like you hear with those parents who don’t touch anything after their child suddenly dies. Granted, their house wasn’t exactly cramped, but still.

“No way,” I said.

Now my father laughed. “Then have a nice time on the streets,” he said.

“Bob!” my mother warned.

“I’m serious, Janie. He’s too old for this babying. What is he, twenty? Either he stays here under my rules or he hits the road. And while we’re at it, he needs to pick up his grades and declare a major already. I’m tired of shelling out thousands of dollars for random C’s.”

“I got a B- in Psychology,” I said.

“I got As at Stanford!” His eyes bulged, the red rising in his cheeks.

I didn’t want to be responsible for killing the old man, so I brought the waffles my mother had made out to the dining room. I forced them down, knowing they would soak up the alcohol in my gut, and felt the eyes from the family photos watching me. Beneath the old black and whites and my parents’ wedding portrait were separate frames for the three of us: my little brother Wayne hoisting a trophy after winning the district wrestling meet that winter as a sophomore, me in my graduation cap and gown from two years earlier, and McKenzie and her fiancé Steve posing beside her namesake, the McKenzie River. The water looked cold, the color of slate, a long way from their home in L.A.

Sunlight beat against the half-drawn blinds, casting lines of shade like bars in a jail cell. I had to get out of there, but Jonesy and Banner were up in Portland for the Fourth of July and I didn’t feel like calling Amy or any brothers. And I couldn’t exactly borrow the family car. I ate my waffles and looked back over the family photos, the old black and whites, G Mama and Pop Pop with my father and his brothers perched in their laps, everyone so spiffy and clean. Pop Pop was a gentle kind of roughneck who would have loosened his black tie and untucked his white shirt as quick as he could after the photo. He’d outlived G Mama by a decade and stuck it out solo in the old A-frame up the McKenzie, had passed away that fall, right beside the river with a fly rod at his feet.

I took a long swig of orange juice and remembered the summer Pop Pop taught me how to fish, the summer before middle school when I broke Wayne’s arm and the whole family turned on me. Everyone except Pop Pop anyway. He never tried to talk about it, just showed me how to work the line and read a hole. I was terrible, way too impatient, and probably spent more time crawling around looking for crawdads and dead bugs. But it was the best summer of my life up until then, maybe the best summer period, now that I thought about it. Pop Pop would drive all the way in and pick me up in his old Bronco, then take me back home the next day or the day after. At the end of my last visit before school started, he pulled over at a bus stop on the highway and said I’d grown up good that summer, was practically a man now, and I should take the bus into town myself. I was scared at first, but sure enough, that ride left me feeling a lot older.

I barely made it back the following summer, when I followed my first crush into a Christian day camp and became a Believer for two months, and not at all the summer before high school, when I was too busy learning how to get loaded. What an asshole I was. I never even went out to see him in his final years.

I had an idea. I left my dishes in the kitchen and logged onto the office desktop, found that bus route on the LTD website: 91 McKenzie Bridge. The next bus upriver left at 2:20, which gave me plenty of time to ride my old ten-speed down from the South Hills to Eugene Station.

***

I’m guessing it’s a pretty rare thing we had with that bus, that for $1.50 each way (free with UO I.D.) you could catch a ride from downtown 55 miles east to a ranger station beside a hiking trail that followed a river through old growth forest: Eugene, Springfield, then farm country and little towns like Blue River and McKenzie Bridge, with all the assorted riff-raff you might expect taking advantage of the cheap ride between town and country. I left the back seats to the troublemakers, three teens who probably always sat as far from authority as possible. The old Latino driver did look like a grizzled hard ass. Other notable scrubs included a bearded, heavy-set drunk who wore a red St. Louis Cardinals hoodie and murmured to himself, a fidgety special needs woman whose uneven eyes tracked up and down the aisle, and a scrawny couple gouged out by meth. I didn’t remember the bus being so sketchy when I was eleven, couldn’t imagine Pop Pop leaving me on it if it was. The McKenz