I meandered out to the river at lunchtime, engaged in my winter project of promoting a healthy brain chemistry. I can be taught. I’ve been beaten by the dull gray club of decades of Oregon winters. In January, any daylight is helpful.
My boss and I had a meeting scheduled for later that afternoon. He didn’t know it, but I was going to tell him of my upcoming retirement plans. My job has been wonderful, the only job I could possibly have stayed in for 20 years. Most of my family is self-employed for a reason—we are a restless and independent lot. We don’t do jobs. But I have done this one, and enjoyed most of it.
The path through old cottonwoods knew the way to the water. A naked log stretched into the current like a slick gray seal. The log had disrupted the flow so that a small sandbar and beach had formed on the downstream side. Many years ago I brought my kids here, not long after we arrived back in Eugene. They were small enough that I could stuff both of them, two fishing rods, and a carton of worms into a bike trailer and peddle to the river. Heck yes, we caught fish; cutthroat trout and Oregon chub. People around us were incredulous.
I doubt my kids remember fishing here. Oregon had never been home for them, so they they couldn’t have felt the joy of being back where fishing was only a bike ride away. But I remember. Two decades later my kids are on their own trajectories. But the river still laps along, cold basalt water receding from a recent storm. The current has been dragging at me, begging to take me around the next bend.
The sky was the color of a coho’s belly, skin stretched so tightly that a wan sun seeped through onto brown sand. Giant three-toed tracks of a Great Blue Heron were stamped on the sandbar, a long-legged wader who had apparently deemed the water too damned cold for wading. Tiny hands of raccoon paws dimpled the mud. With my back against an outsize willow and a small piece of bark between my butt and the damp sand, I wrote in teensy letters in a teensy four-page notebook made from folding a sheet of white paper onto itself three times.
I found a smooth basalt cobble that fit perfectly inside my wrapped fingers. The river stone was just the right size for breaking off sharp flakes of obsidian to knap into projectile points and knives. But basalt is too hard for flaking. This task requires softer rock like sandstone. The impact of sandstone sends longer energy waves into the glass that will remove longer flakes. I aspire to become smoother. My sharp edges sometimes cut. I aspire to become softer, too, transformed into a sandstone tool with just the right amount of abrasiveness. Hopefully, I won’t become flakier. But the river draws itself into time, and my aspirations flow into an ever-narrowing gap. I don’t have a millennium to be tumbled and smoothed in cold water.
Voices approached. These turned out to be one voice. A tall man with a full head of straight gray hair was engaged in an animated one-way conversation with a dog the size and shape of a sideways fire hydrant. The man was wearing a think black glove. This was for throwing sticks into the river for the dog. She became a swimming fire hydrant paddling into an enthusiastic relationship with water that fire hydrants don’t normally assume. The man and the dog ignored me while I sat against my willow, squinting into teensy words. He lit a cigarette. Blue smoke drifted over on the downstream breeze that always seems to thread this riverine corridor. For once the smoke didn’t bother me.
Eventually, the dog plopped her stick at my feet.
The gray-haired man finally engaged me.
“Ya know if ya throw that yer gonna be stuck with her.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figgered.”
I rose, brought the stick over to him, and dropped it on the sand. He looked at me, cigarette smoke curling into salmon skin sky.
“Nice day, huh?”
“Yeah it is.”
“Until we showed up.”
“Oh, yer good. I’m a writer, so I just wrote about you.”
He winced. I would have winced, too. I also aspire to better social skills.
“I need to get back and do what they pay me for.”
“I thought you said you were a writer.”
“I am, but no one pays me for it.”
“Well, maybe someday you’ll get paid for it.”
I felt my shoulders round upward into a shrug, a pair of bony parentheses enclosing nothing. Everything.
“Yeah. Maybe I will.”
The river lapped along. I carried the smooth rock back through the corridor of cottonwoods and into my afternoon meeting.