PETER C. BROWN
WHERE THE STURGEON ARE PLENTIFUL
Last week my friend Ray, who's gone blind from an eggplant in
his brain, had this idea to go camping-I'd take a day off and
we'd drive to Wisconsin and put his canoe in the Namekagon, which
I happen to know he likes very much.
"Shoot rapids?" I'm not exactly Natty Bumppo.
"I could run that river with my eyes shut," he said.
We'd use his gear and tent and I'd score some steaks and fat
and we'd drive up Friday. I was feeling, like, This is a really
stupid idea, and, Do thou this selfless thing for old Ray before
he kicketh off.
When I got home, Marcia, my girlfriend, said I was crazy. Ray's
so blind he gets lost in his own bathroom, nah, nah, nah, we'd
tip over and he'd drown.
"So?" I said.
Marcia called Joni, Ray's wife. Joni happened to think it was
a great idea, people shoot the Namekagon in inner tubes. I thought
this would tone Marcia down, but next she was all over me about
making sure to do this and making sure not to do that, and asking
me to meet with Joni for advice on how to look after Ray.
I called Joni. "Any pointers?"
"Sure, Lyle. Never pass an opportunity to use the toilet.
Make him change underwear every day. Don't let him put anything
in his mouth unless you know where it's been." Joni kills
I met Ray a few years ago, before he got sick. We rode the same
bus on Fridays, the day I don't need a car at work, although I
hadn't noticed him until I saw his picture in the paper for being
arrested riding his motorcycle naked under the influence, and
I realized, Hey, I ride the bus with this guy. I introduced
He said he wasn't a nut the way the paper made out. He had simply
stopped to swim in the river and his clothes washed away. He's
fifty-two, so he's got five years on me. One day about a year
ago I heard they'd found this thing in his brain, and I stopped
at his house as I was walking from the bus. He said the doctors
were giving him four months. "Number one, I will go into
a coma, and number two, I will die. No pain." As I say, this
was more than a year ago, so who knows.
I started visiting him off and on, then Ray and Joni had Marcia
and me for dinner one night, and like that. Ray's probably learned
something from his eggplant, although I'm not sure what. He's
always got a Che Guevara button or some left-wing slogan stuck
to his shirt, but that's not new. He turned into a champion of
oppressed peoples as a result of trying to please nuns as a
Since his eyes went, he wears lots of caps. "What's with
the caps?" I asked one day. I thought maybe he was trying
to disguise the fact he's gone bald as a knob.
"Curb feeler," Ray said. "The bill hits the wall
before my face." Classic Ray.
Instead of camping, I thought the main thing was to get Ray out,
and maybe we could drive to Duluth and stay overnight in a motel
or something, but when I called him to talk about it, he said,
"I already told everybody I'm taking Friday to go on a canoe
trip." I asked around at work, and somebody thought the
a piece of cake at this time of year and I should do it.
Ray used to be personnel manager at a company downtown, but they
had him handle a downsize, then laid him off, and he set up as
a consultant. He says when you tell people something they already
know to be true, they are very comfortable with your advice. He
still keeps his main contacts on speed dial, but he can't remember
who has which code, so he's always calling somebody by mistake
and then bullshitting to cover up.
I work for my brother's envelope company. Every time I'm top
I take my girlfriend, which has been Marcia for two years now,
to dinner wherever she wants in St. Paul, sky's the limit. Most
people will say "who cares about the envelope, tell me what's
inside," but the envelope is the herald of the message, it's
what sells the contents. The secret to selling envelopes is to
understand the unconscious needs and wants of the customer. I
would like to apply this knowledge to something new, but I don't
know what yet.
Since he went blind, Ray whacks a cane back and forth, but his
magnetic deviation has taken over. At their attorney's one day
Joni goes, "What's that white stuff coming out your pants
leg?" She pulled, and it was Ray's underpants from the day
before. On their way home, Joni gave Ray guff about always leaving
his clothes in a pile. Ray was about to lob her a smart comeback
when he tripped on the curb. He told me he's lying there all
around and probably bleeding, and Joni's trying to help him get
up but she's pulling the wrong way and he can't get his goddamn
balance. Some guy in a car hits the brakes and shouts, "I've
got a phone!" Ray looks up and hollers, "Call
He told me he doesn't give a shit what people think because he's
On Sunday, Ray and I got out his old canvas tent and made a list
of stuff we needed. I tried to understand how everything was going
to work. Ray didn't have a plan for shuttling the gear at the
river, so I called his cousin Lorna, whose husband Benny Blato
has Blato's Bait Plus outside Trego, and asked her to meet us
at the take-out Friday afternoon with Benny's truck so we could
leave my car and shuttle the gear up to the put-in. Monday night
I went to the mall and bought a gas stove, a sleeping bag and
a lantern. I bought the groceries Wednesday. Thursday I found
this removable film at the auto parts store and covered the top
of my car to protect the finish. I put little foam bumpers on
the edges of Ray's aluminum canoe, and Marcia helped me lift the
canoe onto the car. Friday morning at nine o'clock I pulled up
to Ray's house.
Joni had Ray all set to go and sitting in the living room, which
is decked out in macramé planters and huge oils Joni paints
of Christ in Mexico. I put Ray's gear in the car and then walked
him out. He's not the best blind person with a cane you ever saw.
For the last six months or so his whole right side just kind of
sags and follows behind. Going through the dining room Ray calls
crossing the ocean. When he's crossing alone, he drifts off course
and slips through the door of the den. He can't tell it's happened
until his cane snags the video cables and he's already lost. I
got him into the car and buckled up.
We drive out of St. Paul toward Wisconsin and we're into farm
country in no time. You can smell manure.
"God," Ray says and sniffs deeply. He finds the button,
slides his window down, holds his cap and sticks his face in the
wind. "God! God!"
The canoe sticks over the hood like a big beak, and I get this
idea, which I describe to Ray, about buying one of those really
small cars and welding a canoe right to the lid.
"One way up it's a clown car in a scout cap on errands,"
Ray says. "Other way over you've got, what, the Kon Tiki
with four wheels in rapids."
He wants to hit a Holiday for doughnuts. We detour until I find
one. I pull smack up to the door and help Ray get out. While I'm
walking him to the men's room his cane snags a bag of chips off
a bottom rack and some jerk pulls up behind my car and lays on
the horn. I get Ray fixed up in the bathroom, then I get him fixed
up with a large coffee and two iced doughnuts and we get settled
in the car again. The doughnuts leave greasy streaks on the
and flakes of icing fall into the defrost vents. You spend your
life fighting detritus.
We're a little behind schedule. I'm planning to shoot up
to Eight and cross the St. Croix at Taylors Falls. I figure two
and a half hours to Trego, drive downstream to the take-out to
meet Lorna and leave the car, we'll be lucky to be on the water
by three o'clock.
Ray says, "Cross at Stillwater and I'll show you
I cross at Stillwater. Ray is telling about driving over a dead
donkey in Mazatlán when he and Joni were there a few years
ago with friends.
"Driving down this mountain from some goddamn mission Joni
had to see. Hotter than hell. Ahead I see all these bent-over
people with hoes, hiking up the shoulder past this mound of fur
in the road, like maybe a dead dog? I aim to straddle it, and
Joni hollers, 'Don't hit the donkey!' but I'm sure it's a dog,
you know, up until the very last minute? The car actually bucks
up, and the wheels spin. Suddenly all this fur and stink sprays
out of the air vents."
"We bail out through the doors and Joni and all the Mexicanos
are hopping around yelling at me."
Suppose those Mexicans spent all day carefully hoeing coffee beans
or whatever they grow there for like fifty cents or something,
and here comes crazy Ray.
"Since I went blind, that gray mound of fur keeps coming
back to me. For some reason, and please explain this to me, I
can see clearly by the ears that it's going to be a donkey."
He shakes his head. "Why can I see it better when I'm
"This is the kind of thing you're glad happened in a foreign
country," I say, "because when you get home you can
pretend you never did it."
"The car was red. That deep red they used to paint
Rays says. "No, blue. That tinny light blue that looks like
weak water. I can't remember."
At Somerset I turn north. The day's grown very warm and I turn
on the air. In a few minutes Ray asks where we are and tells me
to turn east on County H, which I do, and when we get to Star
Prairie he says, "This is it!" and has me stop at a
trout farm where they have all these springs and ponds on the
edge of the Apple River. The water comes right up out of the
fills the ponds, runs over, and flows down into the river. You
can see it happening, but you don't exactly know why.
the earth is squeezing it out," I say.
"Like, maybe this is the source," Ray
We turn north again. I imagine a situation where there's this
faint depletion in the earth's gravity, like the hole in the
The essential glue is leaking into space. I describe it to Ray.
"Eventually, we have to put lead weights in our shoes to
keep from drifting off," he says.
"Atmosphere thins. Stuff puffs up," I say.
"Boon to consultants," he says.
Suddenly I can't remember loading the food pack in the trunk,
and pull over. It's there. Ray needs to stretch, so I help him
out. There's doughnut icing on his butt and it's smeared all over
the car seat.
"What's here?" He stands facing the ditch and strokes
his hand in the air in front of his face. We're way behind my
"Your normal roadside."
"Any good signs? 'Dressed Bunnies' or 'Beware of Dog and
No Jehovah's Witnesses' kind of thing?"
"Ditch. Grass. Barbed-wire fence."
When we get going again, I watch for a phone booth.
"There's one at Sixty-Five and Eight," Ray says.
used it a dozen times." When we get there, it's a wooded
"Just trees and marsh grass."
"Really?" Ray says. "I'll bet I've made twenty
phone calls from this intersection. What the hell did they do
with the phone?"
We head east on Eight. I find a drive-up phone on the far side
of a Food 'N Fuel parking lot across from the casino in Turtle
Lake. When I let down the window, the air is surprisingly warm.
I call Blato's Bait Plus to tell Lorna not to drive down to the
take-out until we get to Trego, but I get Benny. Lorna's gone
to pick up a load of chubs and plans to stop for us at the
on her way back. He'll try to reach her. Ray asks me to run in
for nachos and a Dr. Pepper. I go in. When I pay, the girl behind
the counter tries to sell me two ten-dollar tickets to a line
dance fund-raiser for a friend who's been in a car wreck. She
has a tear-shaped scar dripping out the corner of her eye, so
I give her a five-dollar donation. She shrugs and says,
cool." On the way back to the car, I picture myself in cowboy
boots and a Stetson. I remember I forgot to stop at the cleaners
for the suit I need on Monday. I give Ray the nachos and soda
and back the car over to the pay phone again and call Marcia.
Marcia asks me to cut the trip short Sunday because her sister
is coming over. Her sister is in a delicate state on account of
her husband's having told her he's leaving to join up with some
New Age channeler near Mount Rainier. Marcia wants me to talk
him out of it.
"If it's that big a deal to him, I think he should do
Ray says as I pull back onto the highway. I set the cruise control
to sixty-four mph and check the rearview mirror. We should hit
Trego by four o'clock.
"'He that seeketh findeth,'" Ray says. "Did you
ever wonder why the channelers are all women?"
"Women are the conduits?" I try to imagine Marcia giving
up real estate to channel the spirit of some Nepalese poonghie
on the Pleiades. She could probably do it.
Ray's nachos are heaped in a flimsy paper tray which he holds
out to me, but they smell greasy and damp and I don't take any.
He sets the tray in his lap and gets the lay of them by tapping
the pile with his fingertips.
"I believe, you know, basically everybody has a
he says. He peels chips from the pile and lifts them to his mouth
trailing strings of cheese. I'm wondering about nacho molecules,
whether the farty cheese smell is actual molecules of nacho
up my nose. I focus on my breathing.
"What kills me is how timid they are." Ray is talking
about the women in his support group. "One of them, like,
say, Willa, goes, 'Well, Harold sits and drinks beer all day in
his undershirt and doesn't lift so much as a fat finger, and I'm
supposed to keep my job and clean the house and make the dinner
and wash his clothes and have cancer.' And there's this total
silence. Total. And so I'll go, 'How about you, Esther?
You were married to a big hunk of cheese, once.' And finally
will tell Willa about the son-of-a-bitch she ditched the first
time she was diagnosed. It's like, Hey, am I the only one here
who knows why we're doing this?"
I'm thinking if we put in further downstream and make decent time
on the river, the earlier I can get home Sunday. When we get to
the put-in, I could unload Ray with the gear and run the car down
to the take-out and try hitching a ride back. I am aware that
I have started to think of Ray as cargo.
At Trego we meet the Namekagon, called by the Ojibwa "place
where the sturgeon are plentiful." It flows from forest in
the east, slides under the road, and runs back into forest to
the west. Cool and fast. Twenty yards wide. I stop and call
and explain my new plan. Benny says go ahead down to the take-out
and unload, and Lorna will meet us there in an hour. He starts
to give me directions, but Ray knows the way.
We go north to F and turn. It's a narrow road that zigzags along
section lines. Somewhere in the birches and pines to our left
the Namekagon runs toward the St. Croix. We pass empty farms and
cross flowages with no signs of people. Ray has me turn and we
drop down a bluff and cross the river on a small bridge. There's
a dirt landing below the bridge.
"Keep on until we cross again," Ray says.
At the second crossing we stop. The river is a sunny slice in
the forest and smells like pine.
"Iron bridge?" Ray asks.
He looks puzzled. "What'd they do with the goddamn iron
I look around, but I don't have a clue if this is the landing
"Well, if we're supposed to be at the other one and we're
not, she'll come to this one."
I don't know what to do. I pull off the pavement onto the dirt
landing which is barely big enough to turn a small trailer. The
dirt is firm under the tires. The woods are still and everything
seems eerily quiet with the river racing by so silently. I decide
to unload so we can get going as soon as Lorna shows up. I untie
the canoe, then help Ray out of his seat and walk him to the back
of the car and turn him to face the trunk. I guide his hands to
each side of the canoe's stern. "When I say to, lift and
step to the right." I go to the front and grab my end.
We lift. One of the foam bumpers has glued itself to the
sheeting, and before we can step to the side, the canoe starts
"Christ!" Ray says. He loses his grip. Wham! Ray's end
drops sideways to the roof of the car. With the jolt and twist,
I lose my grip and wham! the thing falls to the dirt.
"What the fuck happened?" Ray shouts. "What the
"What the fuck do you think?" I shout.
I kick the goddamn canoe, try to put a dent in it.
I look at Ray. He's standing with his head down.
"Something pulled it right out of my hands,"
he says softly. "Honest to God. I don't know what it
There's an eight-inch crease in the roof of the car. I can't bear
to look at it. I run the car into the shade and park with the
windows open. They'll probably have to paint the whole goddamn
car to make it match.
Ray whacks his cane against the pile of gear, reaches a hand out
to the pile to steady himself, and manages to get down and park
his butt in the dirt, leaning against the gear. He takes off his
shirt. His body is pasty and glistening. He's pretty much
I can't remember what I was thinking when I agreed to do this.
I could put everything back in the car and just go home. I decide
to pull Lorna aside when she comes and talk it over.
The sun is still fairly high, so I dig shorts and a T-shirt out
of my pack and change, get a couple of beers out of the cooler,
and sit next to Ray. A woodpecker knocks on a tree nearby but
I can't spot him.
"What's this Lorna like?"
"Real nice. Nanook of the North with tits."
There's no sign of her. I decide to go ahead and cook supper to
get it out of the way. There's a patch of grass to one side of
the landing near the water. I move Ray and the food and cooking
gear to the grass, park him on a log, make a little ring of
hunt up some sticks that look pretty dead and eventually get a
fire lit, although it is smoky as hell, and the smoke lays out
flat and wanders slowly back and forth right where we're sitting.
Ray crawls around in the grass looking for clear air. I hold two
T-bones over the fire and watch him. He crawls near the river,
unzips, stretches forward, and pisses like a horse.
We eat. At seven o'clock there's still no sign of Lorna. I'm
if I told Benny we would move the take-out one bridge
when I meant to say move the put-in. Ray says, "How
about a spin in the canoe?" At first I resist, but then it
seems to me that trying it out is a good idea. I help him put
on shorts, old tennis shoes and a life jacket, and we drag the
canoe to the river. He holds the edge of the canoe at the front
end and takes baby steps into the water as I shove it out. The
rocky bottom is hard on my feet, so I tell Ray to hold up while
I go put on sneakers. I'm not gone thirty seconds, but when I
look back, no Ray. Then he pops up from underwater.
"Holy Jesus," he says. "What was that?
Something just reached out and tripped me." He
tries to stand up but can't catch his balance, so he flails at
the canoe until his hand finds it. He grabs ahold and floats on
his back, breathing hard. The bow's in the current and the canoe
is turning downstream.
"Water's not bad," he says.
I wade out and work Ray and the bow back upstream, and the water
feels good around my calves. I help him stand up, put both of
his hands on the gunwales, get a leg over, and fall into the
"Made it," he says weakly, and lies back out of breath.
While he's recovering, I scan the landing for Lorna. If we had
all our gear in the canoe, this maneuver would have been
When we get to the put-in, I'll have to get him situated before
I load the gear.
"How do we get me into the seat?"
I have him scootch backward, put an elbow on each gunwale, hoist
his butt up onto the seat, and then slowly pivot to the front
and get his legs in. I reach for a paddle, but they're still tied
to a cross brace. I untie them, pocket the rope, hand him a
work my way to the stern, and shove off as I step in.
The current catches the bow immediately and turns us downstream.
"Paddle on the left!" I figure on going upriver until
we get control, so we have the option of drifting back to the
landing if there's a problem.
We both paddle on the left. Ray digs too deep and the canoe dips
to the left. I grab the canoe and jerk right. We don't go over,
but we lose any turning momentum and the current is pushing us
"Paddle!" I shout. I push backward on the right while
Ray tries to pull forward on the left and we glide quickly
over the rocks. He can't get a rhythm, sweeping his paddle too
shallow in one stroke, too deep in another, hitting the boat,
scraping rocks. We're heading toward a small snag, and I make
a snap decision and jump out. The back end springs up and Ray
drops his paddle.
"Jesus!" he shouts. "Did you fall out? Lyle! Are
I grab the canoe, brace my footing on the bottom, let Ray's end
swing downstream, and hold us against the current. The loose
catches against the snag.
"I can't tell what the fuck is happening!" Ray says.
"You're there," he says.
We stay like that for a minute without talking. The river ruffles
against the raised bottom of the metal canoe, and below us the
small branches of the snag hum in the current.
"Why can't we just paddle quietly?" he says softly.
"I'm going to walk the canoe back upstream, past the landing.
We can try paddling downstream nice and easy, right with the
First I work us downstream and grab Ray's paddle from the snag.
Then I work us upstream. The water's clear and river grass
from submerged round rocks like long hair from women's heads.
I pull the canoe to a sandbar three hundred yards above the
drag the stern up onto the sand, and tie it to a branch. The sun
is low and the river is in shade. I sit in the shallow water and
catch my breath. Out beyond Ray across the river you can see the
sun on the treetops. Ray looks out of place, aimed into the river
with the stern beached, big and klutzy and round-shouldered and
pale and blind and bald like a wood tick in a baseball cap. I
can tell he feels just how he looks, out of control, a dupe of
his magnetic deviation. Dark begins to catch in the current. I
think about Ray and the big purple space in his brain and how
the purple molecules and their little spinning protons and nuclear
pulp are slowly becoming Ray.
"Get me a stick," he says toward the river.
I don't understand at first, then he motions like holding his
cane and says, "I want to wade."
I find some willowy brush and break off a five-foot spike. I help
him out of the canoe and up the sandbar a few feet and he asks
me to help him sit down in the shallows. Minnows scatter. He just
sits and I just stand. My feet settle almost imperceptibly as
water erodes the sand. Ray taps to his right, first the river
and then the sandbar, then to his left, the sandbar, the river.
He fishes the branch out into the current for a minute and then
lets it go. He lies over, slowly rolls onto his stomach and begins
to scuttle upstream along the edge of the sandbar, floating
in his life jacket, digging his hands into the sand.
"I like this place," he says.
After sixty feet or so he turns out into the current and drifts
back my direction.
"Talk, so I know where I'm at," he calls.
He reminds me of a drowned pig I once saw in the Mississippi.
"I think we should pitch camp at the landing."
He reaches a hand into the sandy bottom and hooks himself toward
"You're moving pretty fast, Lyle. Were you just standing
there or were you walking upstream?"
"What do you think?" I ask.
"I mean about pitching camp. It'll be dark soon."
"Camp at a goddamn landing?" he says, and shakes his
head as he slowly scuttles back up the edge of the sand bar.
It's so warm and clear we could sleep under the stars.
"Talk, idiot," Ray calls on his way downstream again.
"Don't go so far out, man."
"I could run the goddamn Flambeau in waterwings."
He snags himself back to shore.
He looks up. "Is this the Namekagon?"
I walk into the current and lie down in the water.
"Maybe there's a waterfall," he says. I scuttle up the
sandbar behind him. Ray's been canoeing the Namekagon for forty
years and there's never been a waterfall. We push out into the
current. It catches you. The sandbar and willows pick up speed,
but it's just totally calm in the water when you're riding with
the current. Dig your heels into the bottom and your body just
spins and you float on downstream backward, the warm water
around you like a dream and the trees along the river sliding
by slick and quiet.
I hook myself into the sandbar by the canoe, but Ray keeps going.
"Fish me out at the landing," he hollers, and paddles
further into the main current.
"For Christ's sake, Ray!" I call. "Come in.
I push into the current after him and we zip downstream fifty
feet apart. Swimming I gain on him, but I'm not in shape for this.
When I catch up I grab the edge of his life jacket and rest.
"The only way I can tell we're moving is when my feet hit
a rock," Ray says. "They're going by really fast."
The river's only waist-deep in most places. I half swim and push
off rocks and move us toward shore but the landing's coming toward
us and I can tell we're going to overshoot it.
"Kick!" I holler.
"Christ, are we there already?"
This shoving off rocks is tiring. I remember the snag below the
landing and decide we'd better let ourselves drift past it before
trying for shore or we might get caught, so I ease off and we
slide on downriver past the landing. I can make out our pile of
gear in the twilight and my car under the trees, and I wonder
what Marcia would say. The current is not so treacherous at all.
It's not even there until you fight it.
"Lyle?" Ray says. "Let's float to the next
"It's getting dark."
"Maybe I'll be lucky, get sucked under."
I picture the map. There are two more crossings before the
adds into the St. Croix. We could wade ashore at either. We could
even float the St. Croix to Riverside.
We round a bend and cut under a high sandbank that still radiates
the day's heat. I push off rocks. Where does all this water come
from? I fish the paddle rope from my pocket and tie myself to
the strap of Ray's jacket. He's lying back in the water with his
feet up and his head cradled in his hands.
"Stop pulling and just float," he says.
I relax a little. We run a riffle. The smell of river fills my
head. I fetch into a small eddy, but Ray's momentum tugs me back
into the current.
"What kind of sky?" he says.
"Slot in the forest. Piece of moon coming over." Most
of the moon's invisible, but pulling tides. Sucking Ray and me
downstream. Back to some ocean.
"The first few. Little pricks in the dark."
"Yeah," Ray says. "Little pricks."
I have to go, and I let my warm urine blend with the still waters
rushing. We pass a small island, round the next bend. For some
reason, I think of the girl in the convenience store. "I'm
having this crazy idea," I say. We're both heading into the
night backwards, now.
"Like, all men are children in search of their mothers."
"The great nipple," Ray says.
I picture the celestial dome as a huge breast.
It's dark now, but Ray seems to have his bearings. "The
is to let the current take you." I float with my feet up
now and my head in my hands and search for the Pleiades.
"When we come to the next bridge, if Lorna's there, let's
be quiet and float past," Ray says.
"Wouldn't she report us missing?"
"If I know Lorna," he says.
We are pulled to the outside of the next bend. I picture Lorna
on the lookout and us, holding our breath, snaky as sturgeon,
slipping by. I feel myself grow hard in the way that used to take
me by surprise as a boy, getting away with something.