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|Rarely does one eat with as hearty an appetite as when one is on a
riverine excursion. There is something about the combination of outdoor
air and the flowing, babbling waters of a river that makes one ravenous.
We feel quite safe in saying that on a river journey one could eat anything
Boating on the Bolotomy
DID YOU BRING for lunch?” Raskol asked after we had paddled on for a while.
“Are you still hungry?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “Just curious. I
was wondering what we would have had if we hadn’t run into that bum with
the ham sandwiches.”
“Tuna-noodle casserole,” I said brightly.
Raskol was in the bow. He stopped paddling
and turned around. He wore a look of boundless incredulity.
“Tuna-noodle casserole?” he asked. “Cold biscuits?” He sat
just staring at me for a few minutes, and he seemed to have trouble swallowing.
“When I think of cold biscuits,” he said, “all the moisture in my mouth
disappears. Eating a cold biscuit would be like chewing on a piece
“They’re not so bad,” I said.
He didn’t answer. He turned forward again
and began paddling with fierce, silent determination. So did I.
Rain began to fall late in the afternoon, and Raskol
began to complain about having to sleep in the tent. We paddled on
through the rain for a while, until it was falling so heavily that we had
a hard time seeing the banks of the river.
“Let’s head for the shore and see if we can find
a place to get out of the rain,” Raskol shouted over the din of splashing
“Maybe we can prop the boat up with forked sticks
and spread the tent out over it,” I suggested cheerily, while we dragged
the boat up onto the bank.
“Forked sticks,” grumbled Raskol, and from the way
he said it I could tell that he didn’t think much of the idea. “Tuna casserole,”
he added. “Cold biscuits.”
I didn’t know quite what to say. A friendship
is much like a river journey, I think. At least, I thought so then.
I sensed that Raskol and I had reached one of those perilous rocky stretches
in the course of our friendship, when the boatmen should be alert and paddle
with vigor but are, for one reason or another, distracted or disaffected
and so are inattentive or reluctant, and for one or the other reason do
not get through the rocky stretch successfully. Their boat strikes
the rocks. They are shocked from their distraction or disaffection.
Too late. No effort now would be enough. Their vessel founders.
They swim for shore separately, and when they pull themselves from the
water find that they have swum for opposite shores and stand now, soaking
wet, looking at each other across a distance. Their friendship has
run its course, though life and time flow on like the river between them.
These thoughts made me horribly melancholy.
Something had to be done. Something had to happen to snap Raskol
out of this mood that he was in.
I set about propping the boat up with forked sticks
to protect our food and gear, while Raskol worked at pitching the tent.
In a little while, I had turned the boat into a lean-to, and Raskol had
broken both tent poles over his knee in anger over the fact that the tent
would not allow itself to be pitched as he imagined it should be.
I had learned from experiences before this one that the wise person did
not point out to Raskol during one of these difficult periods any small
shortcoming in his methods—say, for example, that the tent was inside out.
I let him go on, and in time he had the tent draped pretty adequately between
two young trees. When he finished, he sat inside, tired, wet, grouchy,
“So,” he said, and I think his teeth were clenched,
“what are we eating for dinner?”
“Plenty,” I said. “Wait till you see.”
I spread out the tablecloth that my mother had made
me bring along, and on it I arranged two place settings. Then, with
no little pride, I set the main dish in the center.
“What’s that?” asked Raskol.
Those two words can be spoken in several ways.
One can imagine a naturalist, observing an odd polka-dotted lizard scrambling
up a tree trunk somewhere along the Amazon, asking a colleague “What’s
that?” with a tone vibrant at once with real curiosity and the dizzying
excitement that accompanies a discovery that may change one’s life, almost
the tone that the same naturalist, after returning to the States in the
full flush of fame after word of his lizard discovery has spread, might
use at a cocktail party for the words “Who’s that?” when he spots a woman
poised on the threshold of the room, a woman in a black dress, wearing
a small black hat with a veil and a long black feather. That, however,
was not the tone Raskol used. Instead, he used the tone one might
use if one had been offered the same polka-dotted lizard, roasted, on a
platter with new potatoes.
“It’s baked Spam,” I said. “Doesn’t it look
nice the way I scored it in a diamond pattern and studded it with cloves
and put a pineapple slice on top?”
Raskol looked at me in amazement. His eyes
were wide, and his jaw had fallen slack.
“Of course, it’s cold,” I explained, “and it would
look a lot better if it were hot, which is the way we usually have it at
home, but this is made just the way my mother makes it, so it should be
good even cold.”
“What else did you bring?” he asked. His forehead
was puckered between his eyebrows, and he spoke now not with the tone of
curiosity that his words suggest on the page, but with a note of concern,
such as my mother used when she put her cool hand on my forehead and asked,
“Do you feel feverish?”
“Well,” I said. “I’ve got plenty of biscuits,
and some of the onion sandwiches that Guppa and I like so much, and some
buttered lima beans, and for tomorrow night I’ve got spaghetti.”
“Cold spaghetti,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “With tomato sauce.”
“Cold spaghetti,” he repeated.
“And meatballs,” I added.
Raskol said nothing. He was moving his lips
noiselessly, as if he were saying grace.
“Maybe you’d rather have the spaghetti tonight,”
I said. I got the cardboard bucket that held the spaghetti out of
the duffle bag that I used for carrying the food. The rain and the
tomato sauce had softened the bucket so that it no longer held its shape
well. I pried the lid off and looked inside. At once, I saw
what I was holding as if through Raskol’s eyes. It looked a lot like
a poor dumb woodland creature that had been dead for a while. Scavengers
might have been picking at it, tearing away at its flesh and exposing its
tangled innards. Since I had nothing else to offer in place of the
Spam, I held the bucket out toward Raskol. Tentatively, he looked
inside. He meant to say something about the spaghetti, I think, for
he opened his mouth and emitted a small sound, but at that moment both
of us were distracted by the sound of snapping twigs, coming from somewhere
“Somebody’s coming!” I whispered.
“Yeah,” said Raskol, swallowing hard. “I hope
it’s somebody with food.”
The sound came nearer and nearer. It was certainly
someone walking through the woods, approaching our tent. A light
played across the canvas.
“A flashlight,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Raskol.
The footsteps stopped. My heart was pounding.
In the stillness I could hear Raskol’s stomach growling. Then a voice
called out, “Do you mind if I come in out of the rain?” It was May
“May!” I cried. “Hello, Peter,” she said,
smiling devilishly. “How goes the adventure so far?”
“Great!” I said. I glanced at Raskol.
“Well, pretty good,” I said.
May squeezed into the tent and settled herself on
the checkered tablecloth. She had with her a large picnic hamper,
covered with a slicker. She set it down and gave me a big hug and
a sweet, sticky, lipstick kiss. Then she turned to Raskol and introduced
“I’m May Castle,” she said. “I am a very good
friend of Peter’s grandparents, on both sides, and I think I’m a pretty
good friend of Peter’s too.” She turned toward me again and asked,
“What do you say? Am I a pretty good friend of yours?”
“Yes,” I said, and for some reason I blushed.
“Well,” she said, turning to Raskol again.
“And I hope I’ll be a pretty good friend of yours, too. You’re this
Raskolnikov, aren’t you? But your name is Rodney. Now why don’t
you use Rodney? I think that’s a perfectly dashing name, Rodney.
Did I know a Rodney? No, I think not. I think I knew a Roderick.
Or Broderick. But Rodney is just fine, I think. Sounds like
a name for a good horseman, Rodney.”
Raskol wasn’t smiling.
“No Rodney, eh?” said May. “All right, then,
Raskolnikov it is.”
She chucked him under the chin, and he didn’t wince.
He grinned. “What have you got with you?” he asked.
“Dinner!” she said. She threw off the slicker
and began removing dishes from the basket. She had an enormous dinner
with her: turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy, apple
pie, and more. The aromas rose from the basket and filled the tent
at once. She brought out a cocktail shaker, a glass cocktail shaker
with a red plastic top. The top was in three parts. The lowest
of these was threaded and screwed onto the glass shaker. The topmost
part was a cap that slipped onto the middle part and was removed for pouring.
The middle part was attached to the bottom part by an axle, so that it
could be rotated freely. Through a window in the middle part, recipes
for drinks, which were embossed on the bottom part, showed. I can
see the cocktail shaker through the haze of memory with the odd vividness
that a small detail from the past sometimes assumes, so sharply and clearly
that I can read the recipe showing through the window in the top.
It was for a drink called “Between the Sheets.” To make this drink,
one was instructed to combine equal parts of rum, brandy, triple sec, and
lemon juice. May next brought out a stemmed glass, with a band of
red and a gold rim, and a little bottle of cherries, with stems.
From the cocktail shaker she poured herself a Manhattan. While she
drank one or two or three of these, Raskol and I ate.
“May,” said Raskol when we had finished, “how did
you get this food here without having it get cold?”
“I drove,” she said.
“You drove?” I asked. “Do you have a Jeep?”
“A Jeep?” she asked, laughing. “Do I look
like a woman who has a Jeep? Certainly not. I drove my Chrysler.”
“Through the woods?” I asked.
“No, not through the woods,” she said, leaning over
and squeezing my cheek, as if she were going to add, “you cute little fool,
“Where are we?” asked Raskol.
“You’re right near Route 13,” she said. “If
the rain weren’t so loud, you’d be able to hear the traffic.”
“How did you guess that we’d be here?” asked Raskol.
He was smiling at May with admiration.
“I didn’t have to guess,” she said. “I knew.
This is as far as I got on the first day of the trip up the Bolotomy when
I made it, quite a few years ago, with a little friend of mine. Of
course, Route 13 was just called Hargrove Road at that time.”
“Was your little friend a boy or a girl?” asked
May laughed and poured from the cocktail shaker
“Hmmmmm. A boy or a girl. I think that
I won’t answer that,” she said. She smiled, took a sip, and went
on. “It was a summer night, much like this, but without rain, thank
God. We were able to lie on the riverbank on our backs and look up
at the stars. You know—well, I’m sure you don’t know, but one day
you will—a memory will blur with time until only the most general outlines
of things remain, like the unidentifiable people in a fuzzy photograph,
and yet, off to one side, some tiny detail will stand out crisp and clear
and sharp, as if a single ray of light had caught it just right and burned
it onto the film. Years from now, some detail may remain from tonight,
if you’re lucky.”
“I’ll bet there’s some sharp detail that shines
in the memory of your night here,” said Raskol. His voice startled
me. He sounded like an adult.
“Yes,” said May, very softly, “there is.”
“What?” asked Raskol.
May sighed and lit a cigarette. I wanted very
much to hear what hard, bright detail remained of May’s trip up the Bolotomy,
but I had been nodding for a while, and before she spoke I was asleep.