The Raft

31 Jul

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The last day before I was due to return to LA, I’d promised Devon I’d help him retrieve an old Army issue raft he’d found in the river. I’d enjoyed hearing his stories of getting a few friends together and poling the raft out of eddies, making their way as far downriver as they could. Devon hatched a plan to pole the raft a couple of miles down to the Old Bridge in Stillwater, where I could park and the two of us could drag the raft out of the water and tie it on the roof of the Corolla. I dropped him off in the woods with his cell phone and asked him to call me once he got to the bridge. I should have been paying closer attention to the sky. All afternoon I’d been hearing weather reports of an approaching thunderstorm.

Back home, it didn’t take seconds for Ann to douse me with reality. “That’s crazy – a storm is coming!”

I called Devon on his cell phone but he hadn’t turned it on – he was expecting to call me, not vice versa.

Ann asked me to please go look for him. As I drove to the bridge the sky turned yellow and thunder boomed and big drops of rain splashed across the windshield. All I could think of was flash floods and the conversation I’d had with Devon yesterday, him telling me about his need for independence and adventure. If he knew I was waiting for him, he might be even more stubborn than usual, refusing to make for shore. The river was narrow – not much more than a creek – but I’d almost drowned in a creek when I was a kid, when I took a rowboat for a foolish ride down rain-swollen rapids. It didn’t help that Devon didn’t have a paddle – he told me he’d use a tree branch to guide his way downriver.

I parked near the bridge and grabbed fifty feet of rope from the back of the car. Walking through the rain, hustling down to the riverbank, I peered upriver through the rain where the river forked, hoping I’d see Devon appear. I could imagine him waving to me and the whole thing being over. The current was nothing frightening – but I was getting really worried as the rain worsened and the wind picked up.

I pulled a wooden realtor’s stake out of the ground and tied the rope around it, so I’d have some weight if I had to throw the rope across his bow. The river widened on the other side of the bridge and I didn’t want to see him get past me and disappear down the current.

The raindrops trickled over the front and back of my glasses, clouding my vision, making my eyes sting with sweat.

I heard a voice behind me on the bridge – a guy in his sixties. “You waiting for a kid in a raft?’

“Yeah.”

“I saw him upriver. He told me he was all right – he was coming down river to meet his dad.”

“I hope he has sense to get out of the river.”

The old guy was true blue. “I’ll drive back and see if I can find him.”

The rain got heavier. I tried to call Ann, but my cell phone went beep, beep beep: “No Service.”

Twenty minutes later the old guy came back and told me he couldn’t see Devon on the river. He asked if I wanted him to stay.

I said, “No, that’s all right.”

Leaving, he shot back, “They grow up and take care of us some day.”

Standing in the rain, my vision blurred, I wondered at my fatal desire to please, trying to please Devon to such an extent that I’d ignored the imminent storm. I worried about an excess of bravado on his part, his innocence. No one flows on top of a raging river – they’re trapped against debris, crushed and pushed underwater.

Straining to see his raft come around the bend, I was imagining so many horrible things.

I stood there in the rain for two hours.

Then the rain stopped.

Looking at the dripping trees and the gentle river, I felt a blessing. I’m not religious, but I felt grateful, as though God had showed me how fragile everything was. He wasn’t going to make me suffer like Abraham or Job – he’d put me through the paces I could withstand.

The sky lightened and the sun appeared; a silver oval between swift clouds.

Birds began singing.

I was still worried; Devon was out there somewhere.

Then a call from Ann finally got through on my cell – Devon was home. He’d ditched the raft at the first sign of lightning, showing the kind of sense I’d hoped for, but wasn’t sure he had.

(2006)

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