Peter hands us each a lemonade. He is our most New England friend, his reds faded and wrinkled, and he sits with his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. It is the end of August and the afternoon is humid. Our sons play on the grass with Peter’s girls. He looks after them with a queer anguish around his eyes that I haven’t seen before.
“So when did you guys get back?” I ask.
“We went canoeing in Missouri,” he says.
Peter takes a long sip of his drink. He whips the ice from his empty glass onto the lawn. I slide off my sandals and rest the bottoms of my feet on the cool bluestone. Peter speaks with his elbows on the iron table, hands clasped.
Wasps buzz near the gutters.
It's my friend Charlie’s idea, Peter says, my roommate at Washington, the one we visit in Saint Louis every year. The rains had stopped a week before. The weather had been like this, only thicker, so the river should have been down. We load his silver canoe and two kayaks on the aluminum trailer and drive down to the public ramp. The Meramec hooks through this little downtown area—a squat brick prairie oasis that reminds me of Norwich or Willimantic—busted windows and empty, the kind of place that catches the sinners dropped by an angry god.
I help Jenny and Angela cinch up Charlie’s cracked, spare lifejackets. His uncle and nephew join us. I place each of the girls in the middle of the canoe and hand them a baggie of animal crackers. The uncle is bigger than me and won’t fit in the kayaks. I offer him the back of the canoe. He shrugs. I don’t make much of it. He seems like an amiable, go-along kind of guy.
We shove off. The nephew, kid has to be sixteen, his legs are so long that when he folds himself into the kayak, it seems his knees are over his head. He dashes out front. The uncle and I paddle gently on alternate sides. Charlie follows. The river is slow but steady.
This is what I love about going out there, why I went to Wash over Bowdoin or Middlebury. We’re explorers, Lewis and Clark, charting the Louisiana Purchase with the winds of Manifest Destiny at our backs and science in our hearts.
“Trust me on this,” Peter says, refilling his glass from the sweating pitcher. “The story skips around a bit.”
The Rejoice! evangelical church is over in DeSoto, about two miles from Charlie’s place. He’s changed a lot since college, religion especially. The congregants worship in a beige metal pre-fab monstrosity adjoined to a desacralized Catholic church. The historic stone building is now used for childcare during services in the new space. These two buildings, they’re everything about religion in America. One is a humble sanctuary hand-built by the faithful, the centerpiece of a frontier town. The other arrived on a flatbed and boasts a 10,000-watt audio system and an eight-foot projector screen. Given the exclamation point at the end of its name, it’s impossible to experience Rejoice! and not feel like someone is shouting, “Jesus Christ!” at the top their lungs, all the time.
The minister stands on the stage. Charlie says he’s coach of the local girls’ basketball team. He has one of those small boom microphones in his ear. He fires up the laser pointer and starts showing slides on the screen of a youth mission trip to Nicaragua. The nephew shows up in a bunch—arms around a group of native kids, sleeping on the bus—seems like a popular guy. That’s how we ended up at the service or whatever the hell it was. Charlie wanted to see the pictures.
Most Midwesterners don’t waste words, but the minister, he’s talking non-stop. “I’d like to share some powerful testimonials with you,” he says, “about how Jesus found us in South America because Jesus is everywhere, even with us right now, just as He was down in Nicaragua—amen, praise His name—and how we’re back and He’s still with us, and here’s one young man who grew in Christ just when he felt God had forsaken him.”
Get this—the nephew climbs on stage, hands in his pockets, dark hair over his eyes.
I paddle harder on the right. So does the uncle. Don’t think either of us had much canoe experience. We accelerate into the turn, rather than pivot away from the shallows like we should. The aluminum bottom scrapes the sand bar. Our girls grip the sides, nervous. I hop out and shove the boat off the sand. The current grabs the canoe as the riverbed drops off beneath me. My foot gets caught on the gunnel and I flop into the river.
My daughters think this splashing is hilarious. The uncle holds the canoe steady while I climb back in. The cool water feels good in the heat, so I’m fine, if a little more apprehensive about the whole adventure.
“We’ll get her straightened out,” the uncle says.
I try to put some faith in that.
The nephew with hair in his eyes, now he’s holding a microphone. He thanks Jesus, praises His name. The audience cheers and shouts amen.
“I didn’t realize how far I’d drifted away from Jesus until I got to Nicaragua,” the nephew says.
You know me. As a sociable Connecticut native, I love fretting about God and conscience while sitting around a dusty bottle of gin and a Triscuit with my fellow Yankees. But this kid is too young for that kind of anxiety.
The nephew keeps going. “Lately, my legs have been feeling pretty tired,” he says. “There we were, in this beautiful country with these amazing mountains. I wanted to hike all of it and I couldn’t and I wondered whether Jesus was trying to tell me something. Santiago, our mission host, found me praying and he gathered his cohorts together and they laid their hands on me. They said, ‘Jesus will heal you and you will heal others in His name.’”
Nearly the whole church shouts amen again, louder than before.
The kid knows he’s got everyone just hanging on his words. “When I woke in the morning,” he says, “my legs were full of energy and life. I ran with joy into those mountains. Jesus was telling me that I needed to trust my body to Him, trust everything to Him. That,” he says for emphasis, “is my testimonial.”
The congregation claps and hoots and several people in American flag t-shirts throw their hands in the air.
The Meramec turns and folds back on itself so much I forget whether it flows east or west. The next bend, there’s another sand bar on the right. On the left, an old birch has toppled from the bank into the water. Those rains, they'd turned most of the soil into sponge cake.
“Let’s swing her left here, get around the shallows,” I call to the uncle, “then hit it hard to the right, stay off that tree.”
We overcompensate. We bring the bow left in a hurry—too much, too fast. We’re pointing at the taproot of the downed tree, the river pushing us faster into the narrow space between the sandbar and the trunk. I switch sides with my paddle and shout to the uncle to drag it hard so we can avoid the hazard. She comes around right a bit, but not enough. The children begin to yell.
A large limb, eye-level, sticks out over the water. I hold up my oak paddle crossways and lock my arms, thinking I might be able to stop us or at least shove the canoe away from the tree. The flow of the river is too strong. The oar flies over my head and I’m pressed across the gunnel. Leaves brush my chest. As I fall into the river, I worry the limb will hit the children.
The current takes me immediately. I surface ten yards away. The water isn’t deep and I can feel the silt under my sandals. The children are screaming, with expressions of honest terror that I’ve never seen before. In the chaos, I am moved by their fear of losing me. It’s like death has absolutely never occurred to either one, and somehow there’s an instant where I mourn that lost bit of their inexperience.
I’m determined to return to them, even if I have to swallow the whole river to do so. I grab some thin branches, the top of the birch, and pull myself up river to the canoe, now stuck in a tangle of limbs.
The uncle is standing in the water trying hard to hold the boat steady. Jenny and Angela are both crying, little hands grasping the sides. I am a yard away when the stern—right, the stern?—comes around, despite the uncle’s struggle.
“Don’t do that!” I shout, to the uncle, to the river, to whoever is listening. But it’s too late. Soon as the canoe spins perpendicular to the current, it flips. Four pink feet flash up in the air before going under the water. The children disappear.
Jenny pops up right away, soaked and screaming and miraculously still wearing her new red glasses. The uncle grabs her. But we can’t find Angela. One second. Two seconds. I yell for her. Three seconds. The silver belly of the canoe begins to float away. I realize she must be trapped underneath.
We lunge for the canoe and turn it over. Angela is there, eyes bright, her hands reaching for us. I grab her. Her arm shoots around my neck and locks tight.
That next day, Sunday, we’re sitting on Charlie’s deck after the church service. The uncle and nephew have gone home.
The house is built on a hill. A small lake rests in the hollow, past which the prairie stretches green and gentle to the west. A breeze rustles the soybean crop and young corn. The leaves move like the river, quiet and steady.
“What did you think about my nephew’s testimonial?” Charlie asks me.
I’m holding Angela in my lap. She has a small cut on her shoulder from our adventure the day before. Her head rests on my chest.
“Did they do any humanitarian work down there, maybe pick up a hammer, or was it just a lot of evangelizing?” I ask.
Charlie sips from a beer. “He’s good at things, my nephew. He runs fast, jumps high. Forward on the soccer team. The leg thing? He’s just diagnosed with some kind of ataxia, one of those diseases where your body just quits on you. Doctors say there’ll be peaks and valleys and room for praying, but it’s still three years to the wheelchair.”
After the accident, the uncle and I get the kids onto the riverbank. The nephew pulls his kayak onto the sand bar and waits. Charlie joins us on shore.
“We have to get the kids back in the canoe,” he says.
“Absolutely not,” I say. “They’re terrified and soaked. We’ll walk to the road.”
Charlie doesn’t hesitate. “It’s miles to the nearest street, across acres of prickers, bugs, snakes, brush, everything. The river is the only way.”
If this were college or any time in the decade after, I would have told him to you-know-what himself. But we both have families, and there was a good part of his family staring at a good part of mine, and it was like everyone felt a little bit responsible, but somehow the whole country still got between us. That friendship was just gone, you know?
Then I notice Jenny surveying the canoe and our gear. She looks up at us and says, “it’s okay,” with the same affable shrug as the uncle, like she’d learned something from him I couldn’t teach her in a thousand years. There’s no panic in her eyes, no more tears. Her courage calms Angela right down. Sometimes it seems like your kids grow up when you’re not looking. It’s a wonder when you get to witness.
It’s decided. Charlie walks the canoe past the fallen tree, to a sandy dip in the bank. Without waiting, Jenny, despite losing her flip-flops in the accident, marches off through the brush to catch up with him.
We realign. Charlie takes over steering the canoe, the uncle sits in the bow. Jenny is between them. We ferry Angela to the nephew’s kayak. She squeezes in between his legs, where she’ll be safer. I climb in Charlie’s kayak. As we shove off again, Jenny asks whether she can have more animal crackers when we return. As many as you want, I say.
The water seems quieter from that point on. We pass more downed trees, but only when the river is wide and straight. I’m still angry—at Charlie for not knowing about the debris in the water, at the uncle for not steering us, at the river, at myself most of all for taking a chance with the kids in the first place. I take the lead to hide my darkened face. It feels good to be out front, like I’ve regained some control. A minute passes. Then I bash my paddle on the deck of the kayak and shout, goddamnit.
Just then, a giant bald eagle swoops down over the river from the canopy above, its wings outstretched and full of grace. The bird glides silently ahead of us. I’ve never seen one so close before, and I am shocked by how still its feathers are, like it’s not the wind keeping it aloft but something else. The whole river is quiet.
“Follow it!” the nephew shouts.
I watch the eagle for a moment, rapt, then it banks to the right and is gone.
The anger flies away and I breathe again. Charlie is a solid friend, I remind myself. His good nature made this New England kid feel at home during my four-year self-exploring expedition to the Middle West.
It’s no one’s fault. Rivers do what they do. The children are safe. That is all that matters.
A few days later, we drive home to Connecticut. Carla and the girls are sleeping. As Indiana blends into Ohio, I keep thinking about the nephew and his legs, about Angela under the canoe, about the eagle over the water. I decide that I hope the boy keeps his faith, even while mine is still knee-deep, like the shallows of the river.
What a marvel to have such trust, don’t you agree? Those people have something we don’t. I don’t know if it’s innocence or just an unwillingness to really study the damn Bible or a belief that Christianity is like your underwear drawer, you just grab what you feel like wearing that day. But it works for them in a way it never could for us, living with the ghost of Jonathan Edwards down the street. But, sometimes, I think I might want to let my spirit rejoice. Wouldn’t it be great to stand up and shout, “amen!” and have a bunch of people yell it right back to you?
“Peter, that’s incredible,” I say, placing my own empty glass on the metal table.
He leans back in his chair. A patch of sweat is visible in the center of his blue shirt. “Tomorrow’s Sunday again,” he says, looking after his daughters.
A wasp lands on the rim of the lemonade pitcher. The children are playing tag. One of our boys pushes Angela hard and she hits the ground. You’re dead, her sister shouts. I am not, she says, rising up.
The wasp completes its circumnavigation, then lingers for a bit, rubbing its legs together. By the gutter, its brethren drone on, tempted by the sweetness but still ignorant and afraid.
About the author:
J. F. Newman lives and writes in Milford, Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, The Freeman’s Oath, the occasional blog, Notes from an American Farmer, and his writing has appeared in The Charles River Review, The Hog River Journal, Our Town, Minnesota Law & Politics, War, Literature & the Arts, and more. When not writing, Joe manages Treasure Hill Farm, his family’s horse farm in his native town of Salem, Connecticut.