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 McKenzie sparkled through trees flashing by. I had to close my eyes when it started making me dizzy.

Pop Pop’s place was just west of McKenzie Bridge, but the brothers had sold it to a developer right after he passed. We heard the A-frame had already been torn down, new construction started on an upscale bed and breakfast. Part of me didn’t want to look as we passed, but I couldn’t help it. I saw a flash of yellow through the trees, probably a CAT.

I stayed on the bus to the end of the line and picked up the hiking trail across the highway from the ranger station. The trail passed vacation cabins and followed the river through a crowded campground called Paradise and into the heart of the forest. My head was just clearing up but I would have smoked some if I had some. The trees were huge Douglas firs, the ones on our Oregon license plates, rough brown trunks as wide as my smashed BMW rising from a green tangle of ferns and moss. I probably walked half an hour before finding a nice spot by the river that matched up with my memories. It was another world out there. I’d rafted the McKenzie freshman year with Sigma Nu, some kind of team-building trip, but that was a blur of whiskey and weed. Now I sat on a log and watched the river surge around boulders and crash through a channel, filling the woods with white noise.
Minutes passed and I didn’t move, something my eleven-year-old self never would have managed. I closed my eyes and imagined Pop Pop wading an eddy, waving his arm back and forth with the green filament looping out and snapping like an extra-long whip. I heard the splash of a fish hitting the fly, saw Pop Pop’s grin as he played it. The rainbow he laid on the rocks, the pink glow shimmering down its middle and me flinching when Pop Pop clubbed it over the head with his fish billy.

I opened my eyes, sensing another presence, but the woods around me were still. I felt Pop Pop with me, still not judging, just showing me the river. I didn’t want to get up from that log, much less walk back to the bus and deal with my parents and the fallout from the accident. And a crazy thought occurred to me.

What if I didn’t leave?

Obviously, I’d have to get what I needed and figure everything out, but what if I lived out there in the woods and rode the bus in for classes? In American Literature, we were reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I felt like Huck must have felt, ready to ditch the “sivilized” life for one on the river. It was crazy, but it was July. The living was easy, and it would only be for a couple of months.

Of course, I’d never been much of an outdoorsman. Rather, I’d never been an outdoorsman. Except for that one summer, no one had shown me how. Pop Pop’s woodsy gene hadn’t passed on to my father, who didn’t even own a fishing pole as far as I knew, whose only firearm was the Smith & Wesson he kept in his closet. Never any tents in our garage, not even for camping in the backyard. The few times we visited national parks on family vacations, we stayed in lodges and ate at restaurants.

Which was why the idea appealed to me. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. No rent. No rules. I would bathe in the river and howl at the moon.

I tore off my clothes and scrambled down to a little swimming hole, the kind Pop Pop would have landed a fly in the middle of. I jumped in with a whoop. The cold water squeezed my balls up into my belly. The breath I sucked in shot back out in another whoop, and I shot out of the river just as fast.

***

My father laughed at the idea but didn’t oppose it. He seemed legitimately entertained as I laid it out, even reaching into the pantry for a package of Twizzlers, like he was settling in to watch a movie and just waiting for things to start going wrong. My mother was nervous, asking about bears and weirdos in the woods and how I would go to the bathroom. She later slipped me a bank envelope thick with crisp twenties and fifties that added up to a thousand dollars. “For whatever you might need. And emergencies,” she whispered. “Keep it safe.” It was practically enough to get me through summer rent, but I wasn’t up for playing cat and mouse with my father, and besides, I looked forward to the whole thing.

Banner and Jonesy were pissed, but I helped them find a brother to rent my room, and I hooked them up with a bag of weed and three bottles of booze using two hundred dollars of my mother’s money. I figured that also earned me a couch to crash on. Amy was as confused as my mother, and when I told her she could come spend a night or two after I got settled, all she did was check her cell phone. Amy was Chi Omega and what you might call high maintenance. In hindsight, my plan might have partly been a way to break up with her.

I geared up at REI: tent and sleeping bag, water filter and stove, lantern and utility knife. The girl helping me was a cutie who seemed curious about my plan, though when I told her I’d give her an update when I came back for supplies, she told me her boyfriend rode his mountain bike up there.

I stocked up at Safeway: food and cigars, lighters and batteries, toiletries and toilet paper.
I was feeling a little nervous waiting for the bus, was tempted to get someone to drive me upriver to ease the transition, but with everything but my backpack stuffed into two black garbage bags, I figured I’d fit right in. The same old guy was driving, which made me feel better. The bus was crowded with variations on what I guessed would become a theme: punkers laughing in the back, a young man with Down’s syndrome playing a handheld video game, a skinny hag with pockmarked skin and sunken eyes staring ahead. I took an open seat across from the bearded drunk, the Cardinal on his hoodie rising and falling as he slept. I opened my window to combat his sour rank. “I did not!” he barked, jolting awake. I looked out my window and when I turned back he was asleep, skin pulled so taut over his bloated body that it gave off a red shine. At the ranger station I waited to get off last, thanked the bus driver, and introduced myself.

“Hector,” he said, voice so low I had to lean in to hear it. “Be safe.”

I carried my garbage bags up to the area I’d picked beyond the campground, walked off trail opposite the river about fifty yards, and stood there a moment. I took a deep breath, and then another, and felt the forest air getting inside me. I moved a banana slug out of the way and used the saw blade on my new utility knife to hack out a circle of underbrush about ten yards across. It took me a while to figure out the tent, but finally I was snug and cozy in there with all my belongings. I didn’t bother with the rain fly but just lay looking up through the mesh at the blue sky beyond the treetops. I had a few hours of light before I started a fire and roasted some wieners. The woods were quiet except for the muffled rush of the river and the call and response of songbirds. I didn’t have any booze or weed, still hadn’t drank or smoked since the accident, and wasn’t sure what to do. I opened my World Religions textbook and started reading the chapter on Hinduism and the Bhagavad Gita. I had no idea what the hell it was talking about.

***

My three classes met Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – Algebra at 9:00, American Literature at 12:15, and World Religions at 2:30. I’d moved out to the woods on a Sunday, and by that first Friday I was waking at first light without an alarm – unprecedented. The chilly mornings were damp and still, the ferns and bushes dripping. I walked the trail with a stick to break the spider webs and found it wasn’t all pristine. I picked up cigarette packs and food wrappers but refused to touch a dirty set of pink pajamas in the bushes, rationalizing them as crime scene evidence. There were other squatters like me, the weirdos my mother had warned me about: elusive, unwashed men who made me wonder about the origins of the Bigfoot myth. There was also a woman, a mother with two small children who patrolled Paradise Campground for cans and bottles. Hector would pull in to the ranger station at 6 A.M., dropping off green-uniformed forest service employees, and since I pretty much had the bus to myself, I would sit up front and chat with him for the fifteen minutes until we got rolling. I’d never been one for shooting the shit, another thing I never learned from my father, but I remembered Pop Pop doing it with everyone out there, so I gave it a go.
“What you doing out here?” Hector asked.

I told him and he slowly nodded, staring ahead through his windshield at the trees.

“Better look out for cougars,” he said, turning to meet my eyes. “Guess they saw one on the trail last week. Or maybe the week before.”

I didn’t want to think about it.

“You got a gun?” he asked.

“No,” I said. I’d never shot one. “Not yet.”

“Gotta protect yourself. No loaded weapons on the bus, though.”

“No,” I said. “Of course not.” My eyes strayed to the bottom half of a faded tattoo under his shirtsleeve, either military or biker. “How long you been driving?” I asked.

“Longer than anyone. No accidents, either.” He knocked on his gray hair as he said it. “Guess I’ll stop if I ever have one.” He winked.

When the bus rolled I settled in to read Huck Finn. It had been tough getting into it, but now I was at the part where Huck and Jim floated down the river with the King and the Duke. Looking up, I saw the mist from the McKenzie rising through the trees and felt like Huck again, following the river and having an adventure, the easy rocking of the bus like the Mississippi current.

I’d thought I would shower at the Student Rec Center but hadn’t made it over there, and I got strange looks in class that Friday. One girl was halfway into the seat beside me when she slipped across the room. I cleaned up in a bathroom and hoped the woodsmoke overpowered my body odor. I still hadn’t drank or smoked, and when I caught up with Banner and Jonesy, I made up for lost time. I had become a curiosity, and the apartment filled up fast. Someone had cocaine. By the time Amy showed up I was wasted. I had taken a shower but not shaved, and she wouldn’t kiss me with the stubble pricking her face. I think we fought.
I woke up on the couch early and alone, a ray of sunlight in my face and a slice of pizza on my chest, head pounding and stomach reeling. I threw up in the toilet and looked in the mirror to find my nose had been turned into a penis with a Sharpie, my nostrils two testicles. I took no offense; facial graffiti was fair game for whoever assed-out the hardest. I smudged it out the best I could with soapy water and ate the pizza, washing it down with warm orange juice left beside a vodka bottle. My mouth tasted like carpet. I stumbled out into a clear Saturday morning, birds chirping and kids playing, and when I caught the 8:30 bus back out to the woods, I was glad it was the weekend driver so Hector wouldn’t see me like that.

***

The following week in World Religions we started Buddhism, and right away I noticed some weird parallels. Buddha’s father had wanted him to stay in his palace when he was young, ignorant of the outside world, but Buddha wasn’t having it. He went out, a chariot driver pulled him around, and he observed sickness, old age, and death. My sickness, I figured, was that hangover, and maybe a larger problem I was almost ready to acknowledge. As for old age, there was Hector, who was also the driver. Which only left death.

I made it to Saturday without anyone dying and thought I was in the clear. Amy hadn’t called all week, and I didn’t return anyone’s messages, but I did show up for a family dinner. McKenzie and Steve were up from L.A. to finalize plans for the wedding, which would be a formal affair at a local winery called Chateau Lorane. Wayne held his nose when I walked in, and this from a kid with perpetual sweat rings on the armpits of his T-shirts. I showered but didn’t shave the light-brown beard coming in. My hair had started creeping over my ears.

“What are you, a hippie now?” my father asked, manning the barbeque.

“Actually, I’m thinking of becoming a Buddhist.”

My mother looked up from where she’d been arranging condiments on the table.

“You gotta shave then,” Wayne said. “Buddhists are bald and don’t have beards.”

“Seriously,” McKenzie said. “You’re not gonna show up looking all weird for the wedding, are you? Have you been practicing your Corinthians reading?”

I nodded and tried not to say much more throughout dinner. I spent the night in my old room, so quiet without the rushing of the river, and before she went to bed my mother came up and whispered, “You’re not serious about this Buddha thing, are you?”
I shrugged. “Buddhists don’t drink, Mom. It’s one of the five precepts.”

I was messing with her, but all I was drinking was McKenzie water. I filtered it from the river and carried it around campus like a secret, sipping it during classes and daydreaming about my other life in the woods. Pop Pop’s ashes had been scattered up at the headwaters, which was kind of creepy, like Keith Richards snorting his father’s ashes mixed with cocaine, but it made me feel like a little of Pop Pop was always with me.

Instead of dropping by the house or apartment that Sunday before catching the afternoon bus, I spent a few hours at the library, where I’d gotten in the habit of studying and charging my electronics. In a pinch, I had an outlet, cell phone reception, and Wi-Fi outside the ranger station, but once in the woods I was off the grid.

After the library I hit the rock shelf under the Autzen Footbridge, where the Willamette River was warm enough for swimming. Kids toked joints and chugged cans of Pabst, a few cuties in bikinis with them, but I kept to myself and drank my McKenzie water, finishing Huck Finn and wondering what territories I might light out for some day.

I boarded the bus with wet hair and sun-taut skin, looking forward to getting into the meditation zone that came with watching the world flash by outside my window, and there was the bearded drunk passed out and missing everything. He smelled worse than normal, like he’d shit himself. There was a three-row buffer zone around him. I sat at the edge of it, noticed he didn’t budge between Eugene and Blue River, and moved up to the seat across from him. The Cardinal lay frozen on his chest. I edged back and kicked at his unlaced sneakers, snug around his bloated feet. I hoped he would snap awake with a bark, but I knew there would be no response. I sat there a moment, stunned even though I shouldn’t have been, and looked up at the driver, a woman I didn’t know. I wondered if Hector knew this man’s name, his history. I didn’t want to, but I reached over and took his wrist. His skin was scaly and cold and I yanked my hand back, looked up at the driver but let her keep driving. I sat there with him until the