by David Veloz
Jerry pulled his knife out of Orfeo’s back. He
stuck it in the sand and pulled it out again clean.
Orfeo moaned and turned over. He had passed
out on the sandbar after Jerry threw a warm beer
at his head to get him to stop singing. Orfeo
sang a high note and collapsed into the canoe. “You sea cow.
Let’s move ,” Jerry said. Orfeo rolled over in the sand and saw
the penknife inJerry’s hand . “Hey, all right!” Orfeo didn’t even
know he’d been stabbed.
The canyon walls were high like buildings on either side of
the river. The strip of sky between the two walls looked hot
and dry, but down on the water it was breezy, the shade misted.
The sun shone on the water only five or six hours each day.
Jerry and Orfeo paddled for an hour and put on their down
vests. They floated downriver with their paddles across their
knees, letting the canoe twist into sandbars. When Orfeo thought
he saw a fish in the water, he slapped at it with his paddle and
Orfeo did something to Jerry. Every splash, every belch, every
beer can flung over his shoulder-every wad of cheese that floated
off his hook into the canoe’s wake gave Jerry a chest pain. He felt
it when Orfeo laughed and said, ”Who cut the cheese?” Jerry had
asked Orfeo to come with him down the river because he married
Orfeo ‘s sister. He sat in the stern and watched the bloodstain
blacken Orfeo’s vest.
“No Hilton on the river?” Orfeo asked. He baited a hook.
“Fish don’t bite moving cheese . You waste it. The river is full
The canyon bent back on itself in twists; they could not see
beyond a hundred yards ahead. The rock walls were red with black
veins, eroded and distorted through the high scrub and rubble.
Orfeo started to paddle; the canoe spun into sand, so Jerry had
to paddle too . At dark, they pulled onto a narrow beach. Orfeo got
out his mess kit and lit a fire. Jerry ate dried fruit and tropical
chocolate . Orfeo made pudding for dinner and spilled hot water on
Jerry’s shoe and leg . ”Leave me alone for a half hour,” Jerry said .
Jerry woke to the smell of fish frying . Orfeo stood in the water
in a flannel night shirt with a line out in the river. Two headless
trout bubbled in some margarine . Jerry peed in the scrub and stood
“You’ re going at it,” Jerry said. A dozen trout breathed and
bled in the sand at Orfeo’s feet .
‘ ‘How are we going to eat all these fish?’ ‘
The line tugged and Orfeo pulled another one m, a foot
long and fat. Orfeo beat the fish against his heel and threw it in
the sand. Jerry stared at the white bellies soft against each other.
‘ ‘You waste everything. ‘ ‘
“Catfish pudding tonight,” Orfeo said.
When they started again, Jerry rode in the front of the canoe ,
to look around. The canyons swirled. Cliff swallows and kingfishers
dove against the rocks and above the water. Jerry spotted a barn
owl in some scrub where the river bent. He had seen one only once
before when he was looking for woodpecker eggs. When he stuck
his arm in a clump of bamboo, an owl screeched over his head,
He lifted his paddle out and put it on his knees. He squinted.
A rifle rang out behind his ears and made him_ fall backwards into
the canoe . He saw Orfeo lower the . 30 / 30 from his shoulder. He
sat up and saw the owl fall through the shrub, its wings spread,
its white breast pink, its eyes still open .
Orfeo grinned. “Rhonda will freak,” he said. Orfeo stuffed
animals with cornmeal and cotton.
Jerry picked up his paddle and pumped it into the water. Each
stroke yanked the canoe away from the shore and from the owl.
Orfeo howled . Jerry stood up and pumped deeper. Orfeo dug his
hands in like brakes and spouted himself in the face. He turned
his head to watch the owl.
They didn’t speak again until noon, the only time the sun was
visible in the strip of sky between the walls of the canyon. They
pulled onto a sandbar to swim. Jerry was pale and small, but his
arms were taut. He looked like a grasshopper, bent and leggy. Orfeo
was obese. He had stretch marks on his back and on the undercurve
of his belly. His arms and legs were soft and tan, but his torso was
pink and hairy . Jerry turned around and reset his watch so he
wouldn’t have to watch Orfeo walk into the water.
They swam. An armada of Boy Scouts floated by. There were
about fifty aluminum canoes spread out along the river, each with
three boys, three backpacks, coolers, radios, lawn chairs, and
umbrellas. The first few canoes were full of troop leaders and young
scouts. They nodded at Jerry and Orfeo. Then the older kids started
to pass, the seventeen-year-old Tenderfeet with mirrored glasses and
cigarettes. Someone yelled, “You guys drowning? Ten points for
the fat guy with the hat.”
“Flip them over,” Jerry said. They started to rock one back and
forth . The scouts got angry. One spit inJerry’s hair. They laughed,
and Orfeo laughed too. Then another scout slapped Orfeo across
his head with his paddle. Jerry bellowed and Orfeo went under.
Jerry stopped; the boys stopped. They waited for Orfeo to come
up. Jerry kicked around with his feet to feel for Orfeo on the
bottom of the river. He pulled up wood. He pulled up Orfeo’s
fishing hat. A minute. The scouts yelled ahead for their troop
leader. Jerry hung on to the side of the canoe and kicked. Orfeo
splashed high out of the water on the opposite side of the canoe,
blowing his air in the scouts’ faces. He belly-flopped over the canoe,
his shiny face staring into Jerry’s and a trout in each hand. The
canoe sank into the water and he slid off again. He slapped the fish
against his forehead and threw them into the canoe. The scouts
hooted. “You were under there forever. Those fish are hot.” Jerry
let the hat float away.
Jerry and Orfeo paddled in the heat. Jerry wore a T-shirt and
shorts. Orfeo was shirtless and had sunblock on his nose. Jerry
straddled the stern, his feet trailing in the water. Orfeo was in a
good mood; he pulled his paddle out of the water.
“Keep paddling,” Jerry said. “The marina is a long way
away.” The canyon was.hazy and hot. He looked at the dry scrub
and listened to the screeching scrub jays. Orfeo paddled again.
“Look, I’m sorry about the owl. You know what I mean?”
“You don’t get along with nature, do you?”
“I hope the camper cops don’t bust me .” Orfeo wheezed .
Orfeo turned to see Jerry aiming the rifle at him.
Orfeo chucked his paddle into Jerry’s ribs, knocking him
backwards into the water. The rifle fired into the sky.
Orfeo paddled madly down river.Jerry floated on his back, too
stunned to care that the canoe was pulling away.
He crawled to the shore and dug his hands into the sand. He
listened for ski boats or somebody to give him a lift back down to
the marina. All he heard were waves lapping. He tried to sleep but
He got up and walked back into the water. He swam slowly,
but the current made him feel fast. He worked up into a freestyle
pace, blowing air and kicking. He stayed in the center of the river,
negotiating turns and bends with all his strength against the current.
The water was gritty; he spit mud out of his mouth.
The canyon widened, and Jerry began to hear the sounds of
trucks far off to the right. Soon he saw shacks and launches on the
bank, and he knew he was almost at the marina. He ran into a sand-
bar and had to walk. He saw people ahead, maybe forty or fifty
Indians, clumped against the shore. A man stood in the water,
getting ready to baptize a girl. Jerry walked ahead .
He tried to be inconspicuous, but when he fell off the sandbar
and started swimming again, the man in the water turned to look
at him.Jerry wanted to be anywhere else . All he could do was float
on by the baptism.
He was beginning to think that he could get by without
drawing too much attention when he ran into another sandbar. He
stood up. To the people on the shore it looked like he wanted to
watch. Ten or fifteen yards away, the congregation waved to Jerry.
The man and the girl waved too. He waved back and watched the
man push the girl under and pull her up again . She stepped out
of the water, and Jerry walked downstream until he saw Orfeo
in the crowd, trying to get close to the girl. Jerry walked ashore .
“Let’s go home, Orfeo,” Jerry said.
“The marina is close .” Jerry shivered. He stared down at his
”I’m glad I stopped. You wouldn’t have found me.”
Orfeo patted Jerry on the back . He rode stern while Jerry lay
facedown in the bottom of the canoe. The marina was usually his
favorite part of the river. He loved the watermelon and beers before
the drive home. Today he just wanted to climb in the truck and
sleep all the way back to L.A. He felt old.
When Orfeo pulled the canoe into the marina, he hopped out
and said he would go order some food . He ran up the ramp and
ran back down . “Burger?” he asked.Jerry rubbed his temples and
Orfeo ran back again.
Jerry looked around . He saw the Boy Scout canoes lined up next
to his along the shore . He forced himself out of the canoe and he
walked up to the marina after Orfeo .
The store was gone . There were no more watermelons on ice.
No more beer and wine case . The room was full of video games
and Boy Scouts hovering around them. He walked over to the corner
near a Coke machine and a chair and sat down. Orfeo was waiting
his turn at a game called Cheyenne.
Orfeo saw him and came over with a basket of fries and a
burger. “You feeling better?” he asked.
Jerry shook his head. He said he would like to load up the
canoe and go home . Orfeo agreed and went to say goodbye to some
of the Scouts.
The Indians from the baptism walked in, the girl the center
of the loud crowd . They lined up to order food . Orfeo waved to
them, and one of the Indians called him over. Jerry put his head
on the table and felt it pound. He watched Orfeo walk outside.
Orfeo came back inside and woke Jerry. “Sorry. Their water
pump is shot. Let’s get you home.”
Jerry nodded. They walked out to the parking lot and found
the truck. Some of the Indians had loaded their canoe already.
Orfeo asked Jerry if he wanted to lie down in the back on the way
home . Jerry said “Yes,” and Orfeo unrolled his sleeping bag for
Jerry to sleep on.
He crawled on the truck and closed his eyes. Five of the Indians
climbed on around him. The baptized girl sat on both knees next
to his shoulder. Orfeo said he told the Indians he would give them
a lift to their reservation, if that was okay. Jerry looked at the girl
as the truck pulled onto the highway, and he knew it was not.