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|If, as we suggested at the start of this book, life is like a river,
then old age must be a period of loss of control, of foul-smelling discharges.
Certainly this is the case with the Bolotomy. If one judged the river
by its final stretch, one would have no notion at all of its earlier, upriver,
beauty, for here it has been made to submit to the demeaning demands of
men: its course is defined by wooden bulkheads, docks and piers intrude
into it, and the offal of commerce fouls its waters. As if in despair,
its vital force sapped by these affronts, here the river ceases its constant
forward motion and surrenders to the ebb and flow of Bolotomy Bay.
Here the river can be said to die.
Boating on the Bolotomy
AND I had become good friends in a short time. As often as I was
allowed to do so, on weekends or during school vacations, I would ride
my bicycle from home, our tract house in a corner of Babbington far from
the bay, to stay with my big grandparents, and while I was staying with
them Raskol and I would hang around together.
Many of the days of youth are sweet, but the sweetest
of all may be those that friends, friends who are determined that they
will be friends forever, spend doing nothing but sitting and dreaming,
as Raskol and I were on the day that we decided to journey up the Bolotomy.
Imagine, please, the lassitude of a summer day along
the estuarial stretch of the river. The sun is stuck in place directly
overhead and seems to yawn there, dozing. Heat is suspended in the
air like fog. The river is lying at slack tide, as relaxed and unhurried
as a boy lying on his back and watching the clouds drift by, dreaming.
On the water, the sunlight collects in pools like the pools of melted butter
that form on your cocoa when you dunk your toast in the morning, after
your father has gone off to work, while your mother is dusting in the living
room, when you can pretend for a while in the quiet that the house is yours,
that you live alone. Gasoline and motor oil shine on the water in
rainbow swirls like those on the marbled endpapers of a fine book.
Across the river, a dark-haired girl about your age, a beauty in a white
bathing suit, with eyes that even at this distance make your heart stop
for a moment, lies on the deck of a lean blue sloop, stretching her legs
out, turning her face to the sun, dozing, dreaming, going nowhere.
Raskolnikov and I were sitting on the bulkhead on
just such a summer day. With my finger, I was tracing the grain in the
weathered planks, weathered to the color of dust. I was following one of
the channels formed where the softer wood had worn away. As I ran
my finger along the channel, as if downriver, I pictured on the plank the
landmarks that I knew downriver along the Bolotomy: empty slips where the
clamboats that were now out on the bay docked, a few pleasure boats, the
Flying A marine gas station, Whitey’s Boatyard, where Big Grandfather was
at work, Dutch’s New ’n’ Used Boats, Curly’s Marine Supply, Frenchy’s Nautical
Knickknacks, Corinne’s Fabulous Fruits of the Sea and Corinne’s Dockside
Bordello, the clam processing plant, the ferry slip, the municipal dock.
I stopped to pull a splinter from my finger, then brought it back to its
starting point and started upriver, past Leech’s Son’s Boatyard, and beyond
it to the bridge where Main Street crossed the Bolotomy on the way to South
Hargrove, and there I stopped. It occurred to me that I had no idea
what lay beyond the bridge. I stood up on the bulkhead and shaded
my eyes, but I couldn’t even see past the boatyard, for there was a bend
in the river there, and what lay upstream was hidden, unknown, mysterious,
“Raskol,” I asked, “what’s past the bridge?”
“Mmmm?” he asked. He had been studying the
dark-haired girl. “What’s past the bridge? I don’t know.”
“Let’s find out,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. Some time passed before he
added, “Let’s go.”
Neither of us moved.
“We’ll need a boat,” I said.
“Yeah,” Raskol agreed.
It would be fun having a boat of our own, I thought.
After we had completed the Bolotomy River trip, we could do some exploring
a little farther afield. Suppose we built our own boat! If
we did, we’d be able to brag to other boys our age that we had not only
traveled the length of the Bolotomy but had done it in a boat that we had
“We could build a boat,” I said, hesitantly, careful
not to let my eagerness show.
“You bet,” said Raskol.
It would be the most beautiful boat on the bay,
or at least on the river. Of course, it would be small, but it would
“We’ll paint it in bright colors,” I said.
“It’ll look great.”
“Mmm,” said Raskol.
There was a lot of planning to do, I realized.
For a moment, I felt nearly overwhelmed, but I told myself that if I went
about it methodically I could get everything done in good time. The
first thing, clearly, was the boat, but it wasn’t too soon to start thinking
about the things we would need on the trip. Clothes, a tent, camp
knives, maybe the machete that my father had bought at the army-navy store
for clearing brush, food—
“We’ll need plenty of food,” said Raskol.
“And not just that,” I said, all my thoughts bursting
from me. “We’ll need maps, and a compass, extra socks, lots of stuff.
How long do you think it would take to go all the way up the river, all
the way to the place where it starts?”
“The source. That’s what you call the place
where a river starts.”
“How long would it take to get to the source?”
I asked, adding a special emphasis to the last word, since it made me feel
already intimate with the river, now that I knew a part of its vocabulary.
Raskol thought for a while, then sucked air through
his teeth, then squinted at the water, then pursed his lips, and then said,
“We’d better figure on three days’ worth of food,”
“Bring five days’ worth, just in case,” said Raskol.
As if a breeze had blown over me, the whole sequence
of the trip swept past me—the excitement when we announced our plans, designing
the boat, building the boat, launching the boat, the shakedown cruise,
our departure, the trip itself, the surprises and discoveries, the hardships
and struggles, the climactic thrill of arriving at the source.
“It’s not every kid our age who can build a boat,
paint it, stock it with provisions, and travel all the way to the source
of a river in it,” I said.
“That’s true,” said Raskol.
“We’ll probably be the first kids our age to have
done this ever,” I cried, slapping my hand on the planks, “or at least
in hundreds of years. People will be amazed when we tell them what
we’re going to do.”
“My father especially,” said Raskol.
“This trip is going to create quite a stir,” I went
on, and I knew that I was getting a little carried away, but I knew too
that Black Jacques would have been proud of me. “We’ll be the talk
of the town. When we start out, people will line the bulkhead, cheering
us and wishing us well.”
I stood up and swept my hands out toward the bay.
Raskol looked where I indicated, and the dark-haired girl across the way
stirred when I raised my voice.
“There will be bands playing,” I said, “and all
the boats along here will be decked out with pennants and crepe paper and
banners. The mayor will give a speech from a barge decorated with
flowers, and pretty girls will be throwing flowers into the river.”
The girl across the way propped herself on an elbow
and watched me with some curiosity.
“Then we’ll come paddling by, and all the clamboats
will pass by us in a line, as a salute. Reporters will take our picture,
and everyone will wonder how we got the nerve to take such a trip, and
they’ll marvel at all the work that went into building the boat and planning
the menu. We’ll be in the paper, and we’ll be famous.”
The girl across the way stood up, picked up her
towel, and walked toward the house where she lived.