“We’re drifting, Joey. How long are we going to drift like this? You really think we’re gonna just shore up in Luang Prabang and stumble on Leona’s expat-birth-mother? I know I’m beating a dead horse, and I know we’re all the way out here… but I think that’s what’s making me realize. Joey, something doesn’t feel right anymore.”
“The river’s taking us somewhere, Juan, right where we need to go.” I took another paddle stroke as we slid past the limestone face. “We’re supposed to find her. We made it out of White City, we made it to L.A., across the Pacific in the belly of cargo ship, and all the way up to northern Laos.”
“You think we’re really supposed to find your dead girlfriend’s mother? Is that what we’re supposed to be doing?” Juan looked me in the eyes with discernment. It made me uncomfortable.
“You want to go back to White City?”
“I don’t know.” Juan got quiet and covered his face. “Joey, do you want to lose yourself in la mar?” He hardly ever spoke Spanish because it reminded him of his mother. I think he said la mar, instead of using the masculine form el mar, because he wanted to believe that the ocean is like milk, or beauty, or trampled yet unbroken power, incapable of violating the sacred. But I knew the ocean didn’t care about any of us. We were on our own.
“We’ve been lost for a long time, Juan.”
The water stopped roiling and bulging above the boulders hidden below the surface. It was dusk, and the Mekong river flattened and stilled, glazed by the dark, fluid sky like a ceramic lake. I didn’t know what very many of the jungle plants were called, woven together, creating shadows along the distant banks. But I liked the way their roots spilled down into the current and the way their canopies layered together like huge, disheveled feathers. Juan capped his Nalgene bottle and clipped it to the carabiner with strong, brown fingers. The blue veins on his forearms tangled under his flesh like the Buddha trees that uprooted old, crumbling monasteries. He laid back with his hair trailing in the water.
“Joey, can I ask you something?”
I was still listening.
“You know, when you feel like you’re doing something bad and you keep doing it?”
“Jamie wasn’t that bad, was she?”
“I’m serious, man.”
“I keep having this dream where I need to make a baby. And I know I shouldn’t, but—
“There’s this girl who I don’t know, and we’re both crying, but we do it anyways. Because we have to. I’m trying to be as gentle as I can, and she just lays there. She just lays there in a long room, full of bunkbeds. There’s one window at the back, and streaks of red light on the cedar walls.”
Rain started to sprinkle, but I could barely feel the lukewarm drops on my tan, sweaty skin. Juan had stopped paddling.
“I look through the window at the very end, and I see clear-cut stumps and a waterfall pouring out of the red sky. And the baby comes too soon.”
“And… what happened to the baby?”
“The baby’s alive, but I don’t know about the girl. She’s lying all skeletal on the bunk, and there’s no blood, and she keeps looking out the window like something’s coming, and the baby’s gasping for air and—
“Okay, stop. Stop. It was a dream. It was a dream, Juan.”
“I’m sorry, man. It just made me think about our folks back home.”
“Yeah. I know.” I grabbed the paddle again and stroked hard along the kayak’s shell. “Let’s stay on the water awhile even though it’s dark, if that’s okay with you.”
I never answered him about doing bad things.
I never could have imagined I’d be kayaking down the Mekong in Laos until I was right there on the water. Things were different in Southern Oregon. Way back when I first dropped out of White City High, I’d been working at Gutches Lumber, running meaty slabs of wood to grind through steel jags, always screaming somewhere, busting my ears open even with the neon peanut earplugs I stuffed into each hole. Not like jungle din and the steamy gurgling of water.
When I first got the job, Jefe, Juan’s dad, put me in third shift. Clocked in at 11 p.m. with that skittish halogen dulling my brain all night. There were openings during the day, but he said he was jumping me in, same as everyone else. I didn’t think he was very funny, but I guess he didn’t think he was very funny either.
It was wrong to work for him. Because I knew what he did to Juan and Maria, and I always wanted to hit back, or shoot lead through his knee caps. But I didn’t want my mom spending another winter without heat, shivering under grandpas’ army quilt in the back of the mobile. This was time for yes sirs, even if it meant selling out. Sometimes, fake respect is a survival sacrifice. There’s a time for doing bad things.
There are times when I wish I would’ve listened to Juan and stayed in school. But White City High didn’t have any windows, and I don’t know how you’re supposed to imagine getting anywhere in life when you can’t see past fat, block walls. It’s not even that you’d really want to see what’s outside. But anyways, Juan usually knew better about big decisions, even though it took him a while to realize that.
“It’s tough now,” he’d said, “but we gotta graduate, man.”
“It’s not tough, Juan. It’s just a fact of life. I can’t leave my mom, we need the money, and I’m not going straight from a ten-hour shift into six hours of class. I’m just not.”
“We don’t even have a full year. You don’t want to work for my dad, Joey. We can do better if we stick this out.”
“Okay. Let me know how that goes. I’ll be paying rent.”
He dropped out a week after me when the school counselor said she was going to call DHS. I told him never to go to class with a black eye. You can’t conceal a black eye. You can hide in the back, but the teacher inevitably calls on you, and you weren’t really listening so you’re stuck, and there’s that shifty sound as chairs scrape the plastic floor, and you look into all of their stares, and they look right into your beat face. People freak out about black eyes, even though the stuff they can’t see is much worse.
I’d been living at home with my mom and Tyler, her latest in an endless cast of pathetic boyfriends. He’d been here longer than most, but when he started pawning off our stuff, the microwave, mom’s vinyl, the T.V., I stopped pretending to be nice. He stole cash off the kitchenette while I was outside refilling coolant for the generator that was keeping him warm all night. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye, and I would’ve knocked the shit out of him if mom hadn’t been there. She pretended not to know what he did with any of the money, which sort of worked until he got oatmeal arm—the worst I’d ever seen except for when this one kid shot a nasty batch of tar and missed right into his artery. When I kicked Tyler out, he kept coming back with his head down and his tail between his legs, expecting me to whack him with a newspaper roll, throw a little food in the tin and let it go. For a while, mom begged me to let him back in. And then she gave up, like she usually does.
She was sad when she gave up on things, so I would take her to the places she loved. It was lonely grey the day after I had it with Tyler, when we went fishing for bass and crappie in the Hoover Ponds. We stood there on the bank, kind of heavy. She took my hand and squeezed a little, and I wondered if she could feel the knots and lifeless callouses running through the cup of my palm. I glassed the pond and spotted a blue heron standing still as the water in the shallows with its neck curved tightly to its breast, the beak a sliver in the dim. It opened its wings, thrust over the surface and disappeared into the cottonwoods.
Mom let go of my hand when I hooked a Large Mouth. I reeled it in and squeezed its wriggling body, forced my middle and index fingers into its mouth, pressed my thumb down against the head and snapped the cervical vertebrae. It died instantly. Looking at those dead fish eyes, I remember wondering if God really does forgive, or if one day He’s going to just snap the life out of all of us. Mom never looked away when I killed fish.
Juan and I were both working nights for Jefe, long after the “jumping in” period. This one evening, we got a Friday off for vet’s day and went out to the bar. It was Saturday night open mic at Johnny B’s, and this girl was singing a song she’d written about herself. She was sitting on a stool with her bare feet wrapped around the legs, almost kissing the mic with her eyes shut tight. Her voice didn’t hold power in depth or steady notes; it was quiet, intricate, fleeting, almost teasing with great emotion before falling back to the humdrum that everyone expects to hear in a dive. But for me, she was like warm rain flooding down and knowing that the clouds can only hold so much. And that made me sad. I still remember the beginning…
Like the salmon in the creek, she’s dying full of life
Returning to the tattered womb by way of hitch ‘n hike
I found her on the overpass and wondered who she crooned
Her naked feet were dangling through the rails like a
Giggling at the semi-trucks as if they held a secret
When I saw that it was hers, I knew I’d have to keep it
...I never got to know all of her secrets. She’d moved out from Medford because she got a job at the drugstore in town and found an apartment to rent through section 8. She wasn’t like the rest of us. She hated wearing shoes, even though she walked into our place more than once with glass shards stuck in her callous. I’d help her clean the cuts and loan her my sneakers, but the next time she’d just leave them at her apartment.
The thing that made her the most different was the way she talked about the world. As if it was a place she could go out into—a place that wanted her. She told me that her birth mom had been in Laos since she was too young to remember—that she was a disillusioned expatriate. She’d found that out during one of her visits to see her dad in the state pen. She’d never met her birth mom, but that’s where she’d wanted to go most of all—Laos. She said that she was going to take me there someday and that we were going to find her, together. She wasn’t afraid to share her dreams.
A thought: It’s funny how you can ignore reality when you open up your pores—let the bad stuff ooze out and the good stuff penetrate the meat inside. Leona had a way of staying open that made me forget about everything else. She brought me all the way in, and I let her come all the way into me before I retracted. During those years working at the mill, my sleeping hours were full of daylight, and she took off her only dress unraveling at the seams in that luster piercing through the slatted window so it threw horizontal lines across her belly.
That was all before she started hanging out with Tyler’s smackhead friends. I kicked him out of my house, but guys like that stick around like strays. And as for Leona, when you’re born with junk in your system, I guess it’s not really your fault. I never wanted to know how bad it was, but when she started shaking in my arms, when her grey vomit splashed across the sheets, and when I found her passed out against the dumpster outside the Aloha Sun mobile park, it didn’t matter if I was ready or not. It was like getting ripped out of that warm dream. I tried to turn out my pockets, prove to myself that I didn’t have anything to do with her deterioration, but every time I looked into her tiny pupils and felt her bony ribs, I felt like her will was in my hands. I felt like I had her will, but I still couldn’t do anything. I was too scared to do anything.
Before everything went wrong, she really did stand on the overpass when the moon was gone, like in her song, and let logging trucks roar beneath her feet. I guess she must’ve always craved the rushing of chemicals through her body—the contrast of death and euphoria in a life otherwise accentuated by the jingle of bells on glass as customers wandered in to buy toilet paper and ZzzQuil.
She took me out there one night, and I felt like my legs were about to get hacked off every time the semis would pass under. But Leona would spot the massive, double-length trucks coming and run to put herself in the best spot along the rail to feel the ‘vertigo tingles,’ as she called them. I told her I didn’t need any of those, at least not that kind. She was laughing, and long, wet strands of hair stuck to her face, and I thought that was beautiful even though my hands were cold.
She said, “I love you, Joey. Not like sex love. You just make me feel okay.” And that made me feel okay, too.
I didn’t go to her funeral. Juan told me that they buried her out Lake of the Woods by the Hoover Ponds. He knew I couldn’t go, so he carried a part of me to her grave—the part of me that was in him. Those ponds are next to Bill’s junkyard, mostly rusted auto parts, but somehow, when the red sun hits just right and the north wind blows across the water, you can see the dust rise and dance.
Juan had always lived down the street, and even though I would never fully understand his goodness, we were like brothers. The week before we left White City, he’d shown up at our place with a wad of cash and a toothbrush poking out of his flannel pocket. He was bleeding through his hair, and it’s not like I was surprised, but that didn’t make it any better. Jefe had stumbled into his house late that night with macho and boos on his breath, and when Maria told him to leave, Juan took the fists. Juan was tough, but Jefe had been born into a Sureño community in L.A., trafficking drugs in loose affiliation with the Mexican Mafia. You’d think that Jefe would’ve gotten into trouble with the law after all shit he’d pulled in open daylight, but the town needed his business. Hell, even I’d needed the work. In that way, White City’s pretty small, but somehow, it still felt big enough, or maybe deep enough, to suck up your whole life. This place has swallowed up a whole history. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and history swallowed up this place.
My grandpa died when I was little, but I remember him telling me about how, back in the forties, the government turned Agate Desert into Camp White. He told me about how he was cattle ranching near Table Rock, and that all of a sudden there were tens of thousands of young men moving in. He said that they cleared out the manzanita and the oaks and built barracks and Nazi “pillboxes,” ugly concrete blocks that you can still find out on the reserve, pocked with rifle fire. He said that he had to build a fence to keep his cattle because one of them wandered off into the camp drill zone and was sprayed with hundreds of bullets. He said he found the animal shredded up with most of the blood drained out. He said that he saw German soldiers being trucked off in twos or threes from the P.O.W. camp out to Tule Lake and that the men were crying. I guess that must’ve surprised him, that Germans were like Americans. Most of the American soldiers moved away after the war—the ones that didn’t die on the other side of the ocean before they had the chance to go home. Eventually, they all left this desert, and they forgot us. And they forgot to take whatever poison it is that causes people to want to kill each other. Here, we linger with that lawless militancy. We linger with the remnants of an airstrip, wildflowers erased by cement, and the marred beauty of a horizon framed by rows of cheap trailer homes.
Anyways, Juan was bleeding through his hair. It dripped onto the sidewalk. And that’s when we decided it was time to go. He was sitting on the curb with his hands over his face, and I knew he was looking down at the cigarette butt washed along the street gutters to where it now teetered on the precipice of a storm drain. I thought he was going to nudge it through the grate with his sneakers, but he hesitated with the white rubber of his toe, a hair’s width away. I wanted him to do it, but he left it to the rain.
He didn’t look up when he spoke.
“It’s not like things were ever going to change.” I didn’t know if he was talking to me, or if he was questioning himself.
“Nope.” I broke the doubt. “Fuck this.” I didn’t want him to think about his mom, Maria, anymore, or anybody else for that matter. It was time to stop letting the world happen to us. It was time to demand our share of this illusion.
We threw together the little savings we had from the past four years at the mill, and I told Juan that we were going to Southeast Asia. He didn’t care where we went. When you grow up in White City, Southeast Asia doesn’t exist on the map except when local vets small talk about ‘Nam at the bar, and the novelty was enough for him at that moment. I didn’t tell him about Leona’s mom being over there until much later.
We had to wait a few days before leaving town so that I could figure out how we were going to do it. I took one of Gutches’ private timber suppliers out to Johnny B’s and invested in some Kentucky Straight. He must’ve been sick of those places where they charge over three bucks for a PBR. Must have been ready for sawdust and blues and floors that stick to your shoes or something, because the guy had the time of his life. Kept throwing his arms in the air like Sylvester Stallone and banging the table every damn time the Blazers made a basket. I knew that he was sending the logs that don’t end up at our mill down to the ports in L.A., but I wanted to know where they went after that. He told me that the rest get shipped over to Hong Kong for further distribution. I asked if we could hitch a ride.
That’s how Juan and I ended up working for fifteen days on a cargo ship going west across the Pacific—straight out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Stallone paid to expedite our passports, but it still cost a hundred and ten bucks each. When I asked him about Laos, he said it was the cheapest, that the mangos would pour juice through our fingers, and that there were tigers in the north. I guess that sounded nice. In a way, we didn’t really know where we were going anymore; we were losing the plot. We only knew for certain what we were leaving behind, like all those soldiers.
We spoke, as people do on a river. The moon had risen, just a muffled, vacillating glow through the rainclouds. Our kayak sliced through the immense plane of water, and we passed a Khmu fisherman rowing along the bank toward what must have been his home in the village hidden in the jungle vines. Juan whistled and lifted his hand to wave through the humid night. The man wore boxer shorts and a thin leather belt tied to a bamboo sheath with a machete on his right hip, and he had a bundle of fish nets hauled into his wooden canoe. He whistled back without turning his head and disappeared behind us.
“Juan, why do you keep talking about home as if you owe them something? You never did anything to make Maria’s life any harder.”
“I left her with that son-of-a-bitch.” He hugged his knees and made himself small, tilting the boat back and forth. “The road, the river has been nice, man. But I feel pretend. I feel like I’ve abandoned too much of myself.”
“Was it pretend when Jefe strangled you until you passed out? Or the broken ribs or refusing to help you through school or roughing up your mom on the other side of your bedroom wall so you could hear everything?”
“I’m talking about this; now, gorging on sticky rice and tropical fruit every other day, taking this time for ourselves. And you aren’t guiltless, Joey. Your mom is depressed and scraping by on food stamps. We both know that.
“She should get a job.”
I paddled hard, rolling through each stroke, reaching, dipping, pulling with my back and shoulders locked out and hunched forward. The rain picked up. Beautiful, torrential rain that made me want to lay down and fall asleep in a warm, wet cradle—to be dense and weightless, to ebb and flow, and for a second, I believed that vertigo must have eddy riffles.
“I’m not guilty.”
“I’m just saying that we aren’t helping anybody by running—by pretending that we’re just going to slip away into some dreamland on the other side of the world and that all our problems are going to just disappear. There are real people here, too, Joey. The fishermen are out here all day trying to catch enough to eat or sell in the markets. Haven’t you seen the rice farmers bent over from dawn to dusk, sweating on the mountainsides? Life is hard. Is all I’m saying.”
“I don’t know why the hell you’re trying to convince me that life is hard, and this is about finding Leona’s— “Not it’s not. It’s not about Leona’s mom. It’s about you. This is about running away. This is about denial. I hate it.”
“We’re going to find her.”
“No. Leona is gone. We buried her dead body in the ground.”
There were no lights in the jungle. Maybe there were candles in the limestone caves where monks and tourists went to visit Buddhist relics, but on the river, the night sheen was quiet, like what I imagined it might sound like after everyone dies in war, and all you can hear is that melancholic harmony of silence in the rustle of leaves and the burble of water or wind sweeping across the plateau. Maybe Juan was right, but no one would see me in here. Maybe that is what I came for.
“Joey, stop paddling.”
We slowed with the current. Then I heard a voice, and I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman or a child. I wasn’t sure if I was hearing anything at all or if it was like how my mom used to tell me to be very quiet because she wanted to hear what the cottonwoods were whispering to each other. But then there were two, and three. The voices sounded so close, as if the Khmu villagers were with us on the water. The melody jumped octaves, low and high and low, bringing me down to my knees like praying on Table Rock, piercing, like rattler venom in the veins. It brought me back to Leona’s music as she came into my life, and all my subdued tears as she faded away. It’s funny how music can do that.
I remembered the end of her song that first night at Johnny B’s…
And as he slipped along the curves , I glimpsed the holy reef
For a moment breathless , he entwined my sinful sleep
Baby cries ‘cause baby knows , l ong before baby found the road.
“Joey, you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m alright”
He knew to drop it.
“You want to stop soon? I’m done.”
“Yeah, let’s just camp here.”
We cut diagonally, catching the eddy-line for a moment before Juan jumped out of the kayak into the lukewarm water. He pulled me in and tied our rig to a massive tree root. We grabbed the free hammocks we found in a hostel while passing through Thailand and set them up under a cluster of trees with umbrella sized leaves in case it started raining again. We ate our sticky rice and settled in for our last night.
I didn’t know how Juan could sleep. He always looked so peaceful, even while he dreamt about home, about being born, about blood and grace. I needed the rest, but I got up and walked out to some Khmu rice fields. I had to balance on the thin, mud barriers that separated each paddy, and I felt like I was wading through the stars as fireflies formed their own constellations around me. When I stopped and looked up, I realized that a patch of sky had cleared directly overhead, and distant, silent lightning flashed behind the mountains to create immense silhouettes.
I thought it was a ghost when I turned around and saw someone walking toward me through the trees into the paddies. The figure walked on a dark reflection of the sky with little glowing lights giving way to each stride, like Jesus on the waters. I don’t know why I was scared, but I felt so exposed and so blind in the night. I didn’t even know I was crying as the chorus of frogs echoed, with all the weight of death and mystery and consciousness. My brother came to me, and he cried with me. Juan, knowing what I knew. Knowing that I wouldn’t forgive myself. Knowing that I was going to follow this road, this river, for far too long.
Juan squatted down on his heels and looked up at me. “You know; you don’t have to be alone. You don’t always have to go off by yourself and figure everything out. You could’ve woken me up.”
“I’m good, Juan. I’m good. Let’s go.”
~ ~ ~
It took me years to understand what he was doing—what he was trying to tell me that night. I used to think that he was the one who was dreaming, with his desire to be good in a world that had been so bad to him, and to me. But it’s easy to dream when you’re drifting toward la mar.
When we got to Luang Prabang, Juan split. He tried to convince me one last time, and then he was gone. He went back to White City and took care of his mom, and from what I heard, he took care of mine, too. He worked third shift at Gutches and roped Stallone, the timber guy who helped us across the ocean, into co-founding a nonprofit to take middle and high school kids out on the Rogue River. He never married. Good thing, too, because he was killed a week after his forty second birthday when he stepped in to stop a knife fight between a couple of drunks at Johnny B’s.
I think he made the most of what he had. I remember this ridiculous thing he said while we were on the cargo ship.
“I just realized when I dropped my ice cream on the linoleum in the kitchen that instead of picking the hairs off, I could throw the frozen glob under the tap and the outer layer melts off and its good as new, just a little smaller.”
I stayed in southeast Asia for several decades. When I finished floating the Mekong to the Delta where it spat me out into the South China Sea, I walked my way back up through Vietnam. I’m still running, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop.