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|On the right bank, as you drift toward the bay, note the occasional
rude dwelling on stilts. These quaint huts are, like the people who
live in them, vestiges of a simpler past.
Boating on the Bolotomy
MOTHER staggered through the kitchen door, carrying an enormous kettle
of chowder with both hands. As she struggled toward the table, the
kettle swung, and bits of the chowder splashed out onto the floor.
“Ariane!” she shouted. “Get a rag and wipe
this up!” To the rest of us she shouted, “Soup’s on!”
The Lodkochnikovs, Raskol’s family, lived in a small
shingled house that stood on pilings at the very edge of the river, set
back from the road behind a thick growth of cattails. At high tide,
the water was only a foot or two below the floor, and Raskol’s mother would
often drop a fishing line through a small trapdoor in the kitchen to see
what she might come up with for dinner. At low tide, the house stood
out of the water, over a slick slope of black muck and two generations
of Lodkochnikov trash. From the day that I first set foot in it,
Raskol’s house seemed to me a place outside the world that I knew.
Even getting into the house was different from getting into the other houses
that I knew: instead of the cement walks that led to the front doors of
my other friends’ houses, the Lodkochnikovs had a long, springy plank,
weathered to gray. When Raskol and I ran along the plank, we set
it bouncing. Whichever of us was first, usually Raskol, felt as if
he were flying, his steps amplified to soaring leaps by the spring of the
board, but the second runner, usually me, found the plank going up when
he was going down and sometimes fell off into the muck below.
The Lodkochnikovs themselves were as different from
one another as they were from the families of my other friends. When
I first visited them, I thought that a few people from the neighborhood
must be visiting too, because no one seemed to resemble Raskol enough to
be related to him.
Raskol’s father was a squat man with dark flyaway
hair. He grinned a lot, but wasn’t often happy. He was always
on the lookout for something that he didn’t like, his eyes shifting from
side to side while he talked or listened or ate. His ears wiggled
while he chewed, and he seemed to me to be turning them this way and that
as a rabbit or a cat would, listening for something disturbing. At
dinner, if one of his boys made a remark that he didn’t like or did something
that annoyed him, the grin disappeared at once, and he reached for the
length of broom handle that he kept beside his place on the table.
After I had visited a few times, Mr. Lodkochnikov told me that I would
could walk into the house without knocking because he thought of me now
as one of the family. From that day on, though I never did walk into
the house without knocking, I was very careful about what I said and did
at the table, because I was certain that being regarded as a member of
the family meant that if I said something that rubbed him the wrong way
he would use the broom handle on me, too. It lay to the right of
his plate, as easy to reach as his spoon.
Raskol’s mother was half again as tall as Raskol’s
father, and she had similar flyaway hair, but it was red. When they
faced each other from opposite ends of the table and began wolfing their
food, each holding a fork in one round fist and a spoon in the other, they
looked as if they were engaged in a contest, a battle of some kind, with
the smart money on the big redhead. Even though they seemed so mismatched
physically, they were completely suited to each other, and so attached
to each other that one without the other would have been as awkward as
a single andiron.
Raskol’s mother laughed loud and often, and she
often flew into screaming fits when something annoyed her, as many things
did, especially Raskol, his brothers, his sister, and his father.
She had a boundless fondness for me, and this was manifested in attempts
to fatten me up at dinner and to squeeze me to death whenever I entered
or left the house.
Raskol’s brothers, Ernie and Little Ernie, sat at
the table on packing crates, because when they were much younger they had,
in a fight over the relative sizes of the last two corn fritters on a platter
that Mrs. Lodkochnikov had been quite fond of, broken their chairs and
the platter, and their father would never let them sit on chairs or eat
corn fritters again.
Once, Ernie had told his father that he wanted to
get a clamboat of his own instead of continuing to work for the old man.
Mr. Lodkochnikov had leaped up from his chair and grabbed the boy from
behind, twisted his ears, and lectured him a bit on the subject of paternal
respect. Ernie listened pretty politely for a while, but his father’s
arguments were apparently not convincing enough, for when he had finished,
Ernie stood up, lifting Mr. Lodkochnikov, who still had one arm locked
around his head, and ran backward against the wall repeatedly until the
old man let go and fell to the floor. Then he told his father that
from now on he intended to do whatever he damn well pleased. Mr.
Lodkochnikov said nothing. The table was cleared in silence, and
the mood in the house that evening was murky. At night, when Ernie
was asleep in the attic with Little Ernie and Raskol, Mr. Lodkochnikov
crept up the stairs and tied a note to Ernie’s toe. The note said:
If you behave rudely again,
I’ll cut this off.
In the morning, Ernie went out clamming with his father as usual, and
from then on an uneasy truce prevailed between them.
Little Ernie had none of his older brother’s ambition,
and would never have challenged his father’s authority in any case, I think,
but I know that the note tied to Ernie’s toe impressed him powerfully.
I know it because, about eight years later, I learned that he had kept
the note. At that time Little Ernie did me what he considered a favor.
I had taken the Glynn twins, Margot and Martha, to a party at the Babbington
Yacht Club, and when I pulled into the parking lot a very beefy and very
drunk fellow, a stranger to me, reached into the car that I had borrowed
for the occasion and pulled me out of it, without opening the door.
He shook me around by the neck for a while, then banged my head against
the windshield a couple of times, punched my nose a bit with his free hand,
brought his knee up into my groin smartly four or five times, and tossed
me back into the car. After a while, when I could move again, I drove
the Glynn twins home, since I felt that I’d really had enough for one night,
and went home to sleep for a couple of days. When I was out of bed
and ambling around town again, I happened to narrate the events of that
night to Little Ernie, and I may even have embellished them a bit to make
certain that Little Ernie, who had some trouble catching things on the
first run-through, grasped the full extent of the injuries to my person
and pride. “Jesus shit,” he said at last, and I felt that he understood.
The next morning, the beefy fellow was found in the parking lot at the
municipal dock, much the worse for wear, naked and unconscious, with a
note tied to his penis, the very note that Mr. Lodkochnikov had tied to
Ernie’s toe years before.
Despite my apprehensions about Mr. Lodkochnikov’s
temper, I felt comfortable in the Lodkochnikov household, and I would have
wanted to return to it again and again even if Raskol hadn’t had a sister.
As it happens, he did. Her name was Ariane. She lurked in the
shadows like a dream. Her hair and eyes were dark, and the aura of
sexual desire when she was in the room was so strong at times that it filled
the air like scent and made my head reel. I’m not sure whether it
came from her or me.
Mr. Lodkochnikov kept Ariane on a short tether.
She was permitted to go to school only because Mrs. Lodkochnikov insisted
that she go. But she was something of an outcast there, and one of
the prime objects, perhaps the prime object, of the drooling, uncouth lust
that high school boys have down so well. Though Mr. Lodkochnikov
allowed her to go, he insisted that she come directly home each day immediately
after school, and her mother had to report to him the time of each day’s
return. Ariane knew what happened if her father was annoyed, so she
was generally at home on time. Once in a while, a boy from school
would walk her home, or follow her home. If either of the Ernies
saw him, the fellow was made to listen to a disquisition on the respect
that ought to be accorded Lodkochnikov women and generally didn’t show
As I recall, on most of my visits Ariane would be
prowling around the house in a slip, rubbing against door jambs or running
her hands over her hips and purring. In hot weather, she wore tiny
cotton underpants and a sleeveless undershirt. It was that outfit
that she was wearing now, while she cleaned the spilled chowder from the
Mrs. Lodkochnikov set the kettle in the middle of
the table, and we served ourselves, using a saucepan as a ladle.
When Ariane finished cleaning the floor, she sat
down beside me on the little bench that she and I shared whenever I stayed
for dinner, wiggling into a spot that wasn’t really big enough for her,
on the end of the bench, squeezed against Ernie’s packing case. Ernie
wouldn’t move, out of sibling stubbornness, and I wouldn’t move because
I wanted to feel the pressure of Ariane’s hip against mine during the meal.
I was so eager to announce the plans for our river
trip that I spoke right up as soon as everyone had a full bowl.
“Raskol and I are going to travel the whole length
of the Bolotomy, by boat,” I said.
Raskol’s father had been about to take a drink of
beer from the large, heavy glass that he used. He stopped when I
spoke and looked at me with surprise. Then he banged his glass on
the table and leaped up from his chair. His eyes were wide, and he
was breathing hard through flared nostrils. I thought he was going
to knock me on the head and send me home. I cringed. He came
around the table and lifted me out of my seat and crushed me against his
“A journey!” he bellowed. “A voyage of discovery!
Terrific! A great idea!” He carried me around to the other
side of the table, where he lifted Raskol out of his seat. “By God,
I didn’t think you had it in you!” He knocked our heads together
playfully and dropped us onto the floor. “A journey is just what
boys like you need.” He poked a stubby finger toward the Ernies.
“You two should have done something like this. A river journey should
be part of growing up! Think of Thoreau and his brother, whatever
his name was, and what about Huck Finn and his old pal Jim, and I don’t
know who else, river travelers all. Why, why,” he spluttered, and
his eyes bulged, “growing up itself is like a journey. You understand
what I mean?” His eyes bulged at me, and I nodded my head enthusiastically
so that he would see that I had no intention of doing anything that he
might not like.
“You understand?” he repeated.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, smiling like crazy and praying
that he wouldn’t ask me to explain it.
He picked up his glass again and stomped around
the room, gesticulating, flinging beer onto the wallpaper. “You start
out,” he said, “as just a little trickle, and you go here and you go there,
and you grow bigger and deeper, and you have to turn this way and that
to get around rocks, and you have some grand times, and you have some awful
times, and eventually—”
He swallowed hard, and his eyes misted over.
“—eventually, you come to the sea, and your journey
is done, and you’re a river no more.”
The room was silent, except for Little Ernie, who
snuffled and blew his nose into his napkin.
“Yes, sir, boys,” said Mr. Lodkochnikov at last,
“a journey downriver is sort of, well, shit, it’s practically a universal
metaphor for life.”
“Oh,” I began, “we’re not going to—”
“Yow!” screamed Ariane. She pushed herself
back from the table with such force that she fell off the bench and onto
“What’s going on?” demanded her mother.
“One of those bastards kicked me!” cried Ariane,
rubbing her shin and pointing across the table at Raskol and Little Ernie.
“Don’t you ever call your brothers bastards again,”
bellowed Mr. Lodkochnikov, wearing a menacing look and reaching for his
“I didn’t mean it, Daddy,” said Ariane, her eyes
“All you kids are the fruit of my loins, and don’t
you forget it,” he bellowed.
“Oh, yeah, we know that. Of course!
Never any doubt about that,” and the like burst from each of the children,
and it seemed prudent for me to join in, so I did.
Ariane squeezed herself back onto the bench, and
she raised her leg over mine so that she could rub her bruise better.
I let my hand fall onto her thigh by way of comforting her, and she rubbed
her shoulder against mine.
“What were you saying, Peter?” asked Mr. Lodkochnikov.
“Hmmm?” I asked, with barely any notion now of anything
in the room but the smooth inside of Ariane’s thigh, the flattened oval
where our shoulders were pressed together, the smell of her hair, and the
whimpering sound that came from somewhere deep in her throat.
“What were you saying about ‘We’re not going to—’?”
I looked at him with an empty smile. I had
realized why Raskol had tried to kick me. Since his father had invested
so much effort in elaborating the metaphor of a downriver journey, he hadn’t
wanted me to tell Mr. Lodkochnikov that we were planning to go upriver,
not downriver. I should have been able to think of something else
to say, but I couldn’t concentrate very well, and so the only thing that
occurred to me was: “We’re not going to take Ariane with us.”
For a very brief moment, Mr. Lodkochnikov looked
flabbergasted. Then he said, “Damn right you’re not.”
“I just didn’t want you to worry, or anything,”
I said, shifting away from Ariane and sitting up straight.
Mr. Lodkochnikov squinted his eyes and looked hard
into mine for a few heartbeats. “We’ll get to work on a boat right
away,” he said at last. “You came to the right man, boys. We
Lodkochnikovs have been boatmen since time immemorial.”