Youghiogeny from Issue 69/70
Two of the original five people who has planned to go on the white-water rafting trip cancelled when they learned of the previous month’s fatalitiesㅡlegs wedged between stones, panic, drowning; that was the report. So what remained were these threeㅡBill Smith, his son, and the son’s girlfriend. They stood on the riverbank waiting for the guide to assign them a raft. The water here was low and downriver the rocks could be seen jutting from the slow-moving current.
“It would be fun,” the girlfriend, Erin said, “to take one of those paddles and slap someone with it. Some jerk-off, I mean.”
“Jerk-off like who?” Warren, the son, said.
“Like no one,” Bill Smith said. He planned this trip almost a year before. He was a man with a roomful of trophies. He owned a small gym in his home town 0f Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Even at the age of fifty-five, he worked out regularly and could bench press twice his body weight. Billㅡnot WilliamㅡSmith; that’s how he signed his check and that’s what was printed on his birth certificate. And he had driven here all the way without one bathroom stop. Three hours. On the dot.
The guide, Rick, now went from group to group, counting heads and handing out life jackets.
Erin slapped at an earwig that was crawling up the back of her leg. “Just hold my fucking purse,” she said, handing it to Warren.
Warren too it and slung it by the straps over his shoulder. He’s been quiet since the turnpike. It was a quality his father respected, his silence. Why say anything. But take the purse off your shoulder and hold it like a football, he thought.
Erin was, Bill believed, a loud mouth and a slut. He didn’t like her. Slut wasn’t a word he would say out loud; but it was a word the girl herself would use out loud when referring to other women, ever her own sisters; he use of the word slut, in Bill’s mind, was one of a few things that made her a slut. She was a slut; she had a tattoo; and she was, Bill Smith guessed, his twenty-three-year-old son’s first sexual partner. She had dressed for the trip in a yellow bikini top and snug jean shorts. She hadn’t even worn shoes.
Still, Bill was pleasant. He smiled at her; he called her dear. There was no use causing a stir. There never was.
“Dear,” he said to her, “watch you don’t step on those bits of broken glass.”
She looked down and said, “Thanks, dude.” Then she told Warren to get her fucking sunglasses from her purse.
Rick approached them. “What’s the good news, Rick?” Bill asked him.
“Um, did y’ins guys already check in?” Rick asked.
“Sure did, Rick,” Bill Smith said. He had memorized Rick’s name as soon as they arrived.
“Your name?” Rick asked.
Bill Smith told him again.
“Really?” Rick said. “You think I’d of remembered that.”
Bill reached for his wallet to produce and I.D. for the third time this morning.
“Sorry,” Rick said. “Insurance stuff. You know, well, maybe I shouldn’t mention it. Seven rafters sort of died out here last month.”
“Wait a cotton sucking minute,” Erin said, “I thought it was two.”
“Oh, we read about it,” Bill said, “and you’re asking again for my name and I.D. is absolutely not a problem, Rick. We’re just enjoying the sunshine and charming conversation, waiting for you to tell us when we can shove off. Take your time. You’ve got plenty of other people to attend to.”
“But you only have three of you,” Rick said, and counted them out loud. “There’s a minimum of four people for this style raft.”
“Rick, I’ve been down this river dozens of times,” Bill said. “The water’s low anyway. I think the three of us can handle it. All we’ll be doing is bouncing back and forth. I can personally guarantee for safety of the crew. You have my word, as a man, on it. In fact, I think you and I are a lot alike in that we both have a kind of intimacy with the river here.” With this statement Bill smiled, and he was sure his smile was as bright and insistent as the reflection of the sun on those big downriver rocks. “I guarantee their safety,” he said again, not including himself as a part of the group needing protection; good people like himself don;t need watching over by anyone but God. He believed that.
Rick put his finger in his ear and pulled it out and looked at it and put it back in his ear, replacing, it seemed, whatever he had removed. “Either we got to find y’ins a fourth party,” he said. “Or if not I can ride in your raft with you maybe.”
“I’m telling you we can manage,” Bill said, “just get us some jackets.”
“Dad,” Warren said. Bill looked at him, at Warren, whim Erin called by other names. What was it that she’d been calling him now? First it was Darling, then Ling, then Lingy-Wingy, then simply, Doobert. But she had a new name for his son now. Bill tried to remember what it was.
Rick counted them again, one, two, three.
“Let’s just see if someone else will go with us,” Warren said. He was wearing creased slacks and a shirt with a collar even though Bill had told him him to dress to get wet.
“I’ve been down this river hundreds of times,” Bill said. He turned to Rick. “It’s just such a beautiful day, and my young associates are so anxious to get out on the water. You’re young yourself, Rick; you must know how it feels.”
Erin spit on the ground. “Are you sure it was seven? I thought it was only two. I heard one of them was actually strangled by someone else and they tried to pass it off as an accident.”
“There are standard policies and procedures, even for people who’ve been here dozens or hundreds of times. We have insurance stuff to worry about as well. This isn’t just a little trip down some river, This is the Yough.” At this point Rick reached up and stroked his left bicep. He stroked it for a while, looking at Erin. “It was an accident,” he said. “I know. I saw it happen.”