That dock was long behind us by the time I remembered the ice. No need to freak, but since we meant to eat like kings on this trip I’d prepared some of my finest sides and sauces and packed some choice meats. It would be shameful to let them go south on us. The pile of ice in the cooler was shrinking steadily, cubes fusing as they melted. We needed another bag or two and besides, I wanted to make a proper cocktail.
We’d seen most of the onshore action in La Crosse, but the river traffic was thicker than ever. Houseboats, cabin cruisers, sailboats, pontoons, runabouts, jet skis–anything and everything that could float–all weaving downriver in different strands of speed. Up along the bluffs, greens lapped over fading grays in a way that suggested big water ahead. In the nearer distance, a single-story building dotted a grassy point on our right, the paved apron around it suggesting a supply stop or a launch. We drew closer and it started to smell like we might get our ice after all! A small dock was promising, and then I saw the coolers against a wall.
We worked our way over as if we were exiting a freeway, turning to approach the shore at a right angle once we’d drawn nearly even with the dock. I kept an eye on the depth finder as its numbers tumbled. While we were coasting in, a sudden growl goosed me from behind. It had to be a cigarette boat with a nasty V-8, the motor’s overtones round and ripping like an electric guitar. I caught a blur of bikinis and mirrored shades over my shoulder. The distraction caused us to drift a bit too far with the current, so that now we’d have to tie up on the left or downstream side of the dock. It would be a little awkward, but nothing that I couldn’t…Shit! Now the depth finder read two feet and I saw the bottom, rocks the size of softballs all around the dock pilings and along the bank. It was too shallow here. “Caleb, do you think you can step off onto the dock ?” I pulsed the reverse, stopping our bow on the dock’s left corner. Caleb made the jump. Reversing again, I started to ease the wheel to the right so that I’d stay abreast in the current.
The first wave surprised the hell out of me. I was used to the rollicking wakes of our fellow pleasure cruisers, but this was almost surfable and it pushed my bow into the dock. A second wave kicked the boat sideways and she squealed against a rubber bumper. We were pinned as a third breaker loomed, it’s lip translucent green. Shit! Fat droplets beaded my sunglasses when it burst over us, and I cursed those speeding hardbodies as they made for the beach where they’d drink and canoodle.
Caleb came back with two bags. I topped off the cooler and filled a red plastic cup, pouring in three parts Jim Beam and one part Gosling’s Ginger Beer. The spicy, medicinal bite leeched the anger right out of me. Now, exactly where were we again?
The low islands and peninsulas between the bluffs and the channel sank into patchy grasses. Herons walked amid the stalks. Soon the Mississippi lapped between mirrored ridges, the valley all sparkling water topped with sky. The flotilla was dispersed by now, each boat on a separate heading. We kept pace with an cabin cruiser for about a mile as I studied its lines and the life they described.
The boat had a musical name and she hailed from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I saw an older couple purring on deck and felt a pinch of envy down in my abdomen. That was supposed to be Danielle and me in twenty-five years, living out our cruising fantasy, except that we would have a sailboat. We were going to study our charts and tie knots and speak the lingo and fix what needed fixing, because our dream would require it. We’d fish off of docks, watch eagles and porpoises, drink in harbor bars, and tuck into bunks together with the beat of the sea. It would have been sublime.
This past winter–not long after the river trip–we’d gone to Florida to hang with Danielle’s folks and they’d watched the boys while we got away to St. Petersburg. We’d arranged to stay on a sailboat through Airbnb. After dinner, I stepped stiffly along the docks of the marina, Danielle there to steady me as I eased myself aboard and into the open cockpit of our home for the night. I would have guessed that eighty-five years might feel this way, and it hit me that even if I degraded no further, too much of my physicality was now gone for our dream to be viable. I watched it fade and fall away like so many others.
On board our surrogate dream boat, we drank wine as showers stippled the canvas above our heads, sounding like a record before the music starts. Rain soon overspread the area. It softened the lights of office towers in the city and erased the boundary between sky and bay, sighing and swelling ever louder. It gave us a sensual screen of privacy, even though nearby boat owners had televisions on or were cleaning their decks nearly naked. Our own thoughts were pixilated, bright but disordered bits that slowly took on the depth and definition of what we needed to say in the dark. We talked about all of the things that we had been together. The ways we’d been alone. We spoke of coincidence and decision; memories and legacies; essences and residues. I told Danielle that I needed her to keep living once I’d passed on, and that I hoped she’d be unburdened by what should and could have been. I released her to move into something new and maybe have adventures with someone else who would love her. She wanted me to understand the ways in which I would endure and the bliss that she had felt with me. We kissed and cried and drank more wine while rivulets of rain found our backsides. Later we removed the wet clothes to polish what we’d built between us, and its gleam was all we knew.
Caleb and I traversed those wide waters beside La Crescent and La Crosse, a stretch that I’d only seen beckoning beyond the shoulder of I-90 until then. We made a diagonal for the east bank, running up against bluffs where the eagles wheeled. I caught the faint gray line of a dam in the distance and sometime around four o’clock that afternoon, we locked through.
Now we had the river’s attention. It regained is urgency, whorls haunting the places where current drilled beneath the surface. Caleb turned from his book to search the limestone and contemplate the blue-in-green reaches opening in front of us. His hair lifted in the wind. “Check it out, son,” I said, pointing at a metal sign on the western bank. We were now skirting Iowa, while Wisconsin still brushed by on our left. “Farewell to Minnesota!”
It was time to think about a place to pull over, but the banks kept pressing in, with only the small settlements of Victory and De Soto to break the growth until, finally, we got our beach. It sloped steeply, our prop in seven feet of water while the bow stuck firmly on sand. It was also wide and nothing broke the warm and clean breeze. I started dinner while Caleb pulled on his bathing suit and ran down the embankment, plowing into the water. He asked me to rate his efforts and I carefully considered form and degree of difficulty with each pass. I warmed the black beans that I’d hot-rodded back home and browned some chunks of pork on the skillet. Then I folded those goodies into tortillas along with jack cheese and the tart, pungent salsa I’d made in advance. A final bit of toasting and melting, and dinner was served. Delish!
In the calm before sunset, I fixed myself a fresh drink and relished the icy swallows against the heat spreading through me. Caleb snuggled close, wrapping a blanket around both of us. The cap rock on the ridges cooled from ivory and buff colors down through a filtered violet light. “Dad, you know how much I love you, right?” I was pretty confident that I did. “I…I just wanted to make sure, because you really mean a lot to me and sometimes I don’t know if you truly realize it. I just think you’re a great guy and an amazing dad.” Wow. I was floored, and I assured him that I while I’d always felt tight with my two boys, it was a gift to hear this pure feeling pour out of him. My own voice was husky and I had to focus on releasing the words from my throat, but it had nothing at all to do with ALS. Caleb continued. “I’m just so sorry you have to go through this, Dad. And I really don’t want to lose you.”
We hugged and squeezed each other’s arms and shoulders and hands, and after a while we got quiet and lay on our backs beneath blankets. The breeze kept the clouds and bugs off of us. With only a thin rind of moon remaining, the stars came forward while the rush of distant freight trains and the river’s whisper bore us away.
The next thing I knew was the sound of outboards approaching in pink predawn light. I hate to say it, but some fishermen on the river really piss me off! I’ve certainly spent delightful hours casting from the catwalks of bridges and I’ve wetted lines on deep-sea charters and johnboats. But, not only did I avoid disturbing anyone around me, I also probably looked like I was having fun. On the river, it seems like too many fishermen are either stone-faced killjoys hovering territorially near the channel, or else they’re blasting past me hell-for-leather at 5:45 in the morning. I’m sure if I spent some time with them I’d have a different impression, but I only know what I see and it’s a certain breed. Maybe they don’t wave because they don’t recognize me as a brother in their focused pursuit. To them I’m just some clueless guy who must not get out on the river very often. Otherwise I’d be fishing, too!
Well, I suppose I did want to get an early start, and Caleb slept on while I backed us off of the beach. We were just above the town of Lansing, Iowa. As I finished making a cup of gourmet instant coffee, the girders of a bridge came into view and it was weird because the bridge looked to be parallel to the bank, and it seemed like the river just ended up ahead. The channel made a hard ninety, in fact, and I wondered what turns the coming day had in store for us. We would push for Dubuque, that much I knew.
To be continued…