The Final Run
By Bill Coolidge
We heaved up and over countless
logs, helter skelter across the river. We heard the steady churning
wail of the chain saws as we paddled our beat-up aluminum canoes
down the Neuse River. The four of us had often taken a Saturday
afternoon to flow down the Neuse until we arrived at the highway
bridge, US-264. We’d dream, lean back, sip some of our Almaden
Rhine jug wine, splash each other in the river when it got really
hot. This Saturday run was to be our last one.
On Monday, the chainsaws would
come to river’s edge and clearcut a swath on both sides, making
ready for a lake, the Falls of the Neuse. Upstream a few miles, the
cement trucks would make an unending line for days to build a levy
and dam. This circuitous water path along the northern outskirts of
Raleigh would be lost forever.
Roxy was in the front of my canoe.
Bob and Ellen paddled ahead of us, more business-like, not given to
whacking paddles against the surface of the river, sliding sidewise,
laughing. Roxy had on white cotton short shorts, tan flip-flops, a
blue blouse, the top two buttons opened. But it was her dark, short,
curly hair that excited me. No, maybe it was her smile, slowly
curving upward, a smirk, a tease, eyes glistening. I dreamed of
melting in her arms, my hands lost in her hair, my fingers breaching
the dividing line between shorts and thigh.
This wasn’t my first trip down a
river about to be forgotten, lost. For years I had paddled the Haw
River as it rolled over granite strewn boulders in the piedmont of
North Carolina. The Haw curved between small islands heading
southeast until it met up with the New Hope and tumbled into the
Deep and Rocky Rivers, forming the Cape Fear. That was before the
man-made Jordan Lake was proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Before they flooded that farmland, eliminating a portion of the
river, I purchased an old log cabin for one dollar and moved it
stick by stick to some high ground, some twenty miles upstream, a
mile south of the Haw. I still remember the valley; Hugh Stone and
his family, who farmed there, raised cows, built barns and
homesteads, their livelihood, family cemetery are memories now,
submerged into a new lake.
The summer sun was swamping
moisture on the few oaks remaining along the Neuse, our brows
sweaty, our lips and tongues dry from too much wine, too little
water. This was to be our salute, a requiem for a portion of a grand
river soon to be flooded.
Up the long hill, we pushed and
pulled our canoes. On the ridge, we looked back, imaging what we had
seen of the urban wilderness, soon to be given over to the claims of
recreation and housing developments. I also feared that this free
time of splashing and laughing with Roxy was also coming to an end.
Roxy’s face was still bright,
eager for more adventure as we stood panting, looking at the
remnants of the old mill site on the south side of the bridge. Her
husband Bob, with furrowed eyebrows, kept looking at his watch. He
had a 5:00 p.m. tennis match at the club. He was late. Roxy paused
in silence, doing some reckoning about our last voyage, as if there
was something more we could do, some ritual to signify our last
passage. I sniffed the familiar blend of muck, fertile water, a
sexual scent claiming my imagination. Next to me, my wife Ellen
stood, waiting, her face calm.
Bob stood 6’2," blue jeans,
blue docksiders, brown hair on his chest peaking out at the rim of
his T-shirt. Solid body in contrast to my lean one. I was a
long-distance runner, Van biked, ran, played tennis, and handball.
Nothing to excess. He’d make jokes about me running 26 miles.
"Trying to run away from something? Slow down, enjoy
yourself." Van was a salesman for a Swedish firm. Wildly
successful. Me, I was an Episcopal priest, gearing up for a building
program I dreaded. I wasn’t very happy with my work as my little
town was succumbing to big city blues, traffic jams, farmland and
forests shredded, meeting the goals of a new subdivision a week.
Roxy, button nose, a crafty, sly
smile on her face, glanced at me. I was conflicted. I wanted to
pursue that look and I was afraid. I was closeted in a marriage
devoid since its beginning of longing, lust, and sexual adventure.
At our wedding years earlier I had wanted safety, now I didn’t.
Later, the four of us would go out
to eat. We’d meet them at their house, Bob would drive, put some
rock and roll on the tape. He and Ellen would sing along and wiggle
to the music. Roxy and I would lounge in the back of his gray BMW,
with our "ditch" cups filled with wine, giggling,
whispering, touching feet, sometimes our fingers moved along the
palm of the other’s hands. That was exquisite torture, the touch
of warmth and arousal without a way to release it.
By October, the lake was two feet
deep. At the end of winter, it was six feet deep. By spring, kayaks,
canoes, and jon boats were skimming along the lakeshore. Bob was
transferred to Boston. Roxy’s father died and she took over the
family business and bought a beach cottage along the coast. We moved
out to an abandoned farm on a ridge above a white water river where
I canoed by myself.
We met once more, and as it turned
out, for the final time. Roxy and Bob invited us to their beach
cottage for a week in July. I couldn’t wait, repeating in my mind,
"A whole week together. What could happen?"
The sun slithered down toward the
Inland Waterway. The brisk northern wind created a spray which
dashed laterally across the tips of the waves. We sat on the deck,
sipping, sharing catch-up stories, but something had shifted. We
hadn’t seen each other for a long time, true. But something had
We talked about our lives as four
individuals, as if we were now separated, not couples sharing mutual
excitement. Our stories focused on work, kids, aspirations,
adjustments, and compromises. I went to bed sullen, quiet. Ellen
went to sleep quickly. I listened to the waves, feeling bereft, a
melancholia overcame me. I thought about Roxy. She kissed me on the
cheek when we arrived, then turned away, preparing dinner. Bob
seemed distant, tired, drained. The streams of our lives had
separated over time. The walls of our lives seemed too thick to
penetrate and soften, no longer conjoining.
When I think about the three of
them, I think of canoes, wine, laughter, sun, and shade alternating
as the canoes floated downstream. Days were long, life seemed
unending when we were in our mid-thirties. But now in our
mid-forties, we seemed serious, more responsible, less adventurous.
Ellen and I never talked about Roxy, about Bob, about our
Ellen and I didn’t speak of the
lack of passion between us either. We lived together, parented
together, and became best friends. But in the end, the silent bridge
built over a quarter of century of marriage was too wide to
Maybe I need to revise that
picture of two canoes and four people. Maybe that falling apart,
that separating wasn’t just the fault of my eternal restlessness,
the search for something more. Maybe each of us had a secret that we
were unable to divulge. Maybe it wasn’t just me that carried on a
secret life. We had lived our lives never sharing any caution or
fear about the future. We acted as if there was no storm on the
horizon, no chilling air coming in from the north.
In the end, there was no drama, no
accusations, no sobbing or promises of doing better. Ellen and I
just slid away from each other, like a lake drained by a slow leak.
Finally drying up at the end of a summer’s drought, our life
revealed itself. Nothing more to go on.
I’ve often thought about going
to the head of the Neuse and canoeing down to the edge of the dam.
But it wouldn’t be the same. The lake is too long, too wide, and I
have no memory of the lake, just the river. There is nothing to
I heard Ellen doesn’t buy
Almaden Rhine by the gallon anymore. Nor drink for that matter. I
heard Bob and Roxy moved back to Raleigh and their house got caught
up in the wind and rain of Hurricane Fran and they moved. I heard
someone bought my farmhouse along the river, complete with an old
dented aluminum canoe. I heard all that years ago. But just the
other day, I drove on the 264 bridge over the river Neuse and it all
came back to me. The lazy paddling, the sweat dripping down Roxy’s
blue blouse, the excitement, the edginess of a life seeking
Loss carves a meandering path in
my body. I don’t want to go back twenty years and recapture that
vitality. What I want is this. To accept the loss of a river and of
Bob, Roxy, and Ellen, and yet to embrace what those years gave me: a
wonder and delight in the adventuresome path of the erotic. How it
continues to swirl and swell, bowl me over, making me cry at a
tundra swan winging south, a dolphin and her young cavorting down
the creek, the excitement of bedding down my beloved, whom I found
along another river ten years later, along the docks of Portland
admiring some old timey wooden canoes.
A couple of years ago, my
sweetheart and I put our green Old Town canoe on top of our VW
camper and went off to pursue some new rivers, ones in the
wilderness, the Ausable, the New, the Manistee, which are protected
forever. She paddles in front, I smile quietly, splash a little,
lifted by a wild impatience of knowing when we stop for the night,
we’ll giggle, frolic, celebrate, and share the erotic streams of