Ron Carlson (MFA, U of Utah) teaches Creative Writing at Arizona State University. The Hotel Eden (Norton, 1998) is the latest of his four books of fiction. He has published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Playboy, Gentleman's Quarterly, and others.
One spring I kept a journal based on books that I received. I entered the title, the author, what was on the cover, how I received it-along with what else the day had held for me. It was a challenge to keep up and I ultimately capitulated the day the books from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame arrived. I was the novel judge, and they promised five; there were seventeen. My failure was additionally disappointing because some of those covers were fabulous: so many lonely souls on mesas looking hard into the setting sun.
Tempe, Arizona April 2, 1992
Salima, Managing Editor of Hayden's Ferry Review, and I scheduled a meeting Tuesday with the art editor Don to discuss the problem that has arisen with "nudity" in some of the photos. Don called me (I'm the advisor) explaining that he had resigned because of a disagreement. I had a clear sense that this problem could be solved, but it would require a hearing. My suspicion is that the two sides are saying the same things in effect, and I know there are several photographs which are fine and on which we all can agree.
At ten p.m. Monday night, Dad calls and I can tell he's upset because of the quiet way we speak. My brother Regan has not returned from the Salt River, where's he's gone for the weekend with his neighbor, a kid named Todd. Elaine and I are in bed, where we've been watching "Star Trek, the Next Generation" on Channel 15 and eating crackers, and the call sends dread into me and changes the night. It has been raining a lot in the last week and the river would be high. Dad says that we better go out there, meaning the take-out point north of Globe where the river joins Roosevelt Lake. He'll be out to pick me up at 4:30 a.m. I say CK and hang up before I reason it all put. We can't do anything out there.
It's a tough night. I play scenarios in my head about what might have happened on the river. I've been down it three times with Regan who is an expert at rivers and has run them on four continents, but the Salt has its wicked side; there are lots of places that just want to kill you. Elaine and I chat a little in bed, edging up to our real fears. There isn't much sleep.
At four we're up making coffee, filling the thermos, gathering gear, binoculars, a change of clothes-Dad and I may spend the night. I call Salima's machine and let her know I may miss the Hayden's Ferry meeting. Dad arrives and it's obvious he's being eaten alive too, worried and businesslike. We take two cups of coffee, load my stuff in his truck and take off.
I drive. It's dark all along the Superstition Highway and through Apache Junction, first light breaking in Superior. We're both worried and solemn and from time to time one of us blurts out something about the river or the weather, and they are the kinds of things which are on both of our minds. We have both, it is clear, imagined the worst. We drink the coffee and finally, at the turnoff in Globe, we turn north.
It's pretty country, extreme and ravaged by the mining and then stark and tough desert, plenty of saguaro, the desert floor green. All this rain. When we cross the various dry rivers and washes, there is water running in every goddamned one. There is nothing we can do, but we haven't said that. Dad said it could be a long day, and I am prepared for that, and we talk for awhile about renting a helicopter and how such a thing would be accomplished. The point is, as Dad said miles back in the dark, he couldn't sit around all day and go crazy waiting for the phone.
The day is clear and bright, the river canyon throwing fresh dark shadows onto the bright Salt River, which is green and turbid, As we come round the last curve, Dad spots Regan's truck parked alone on the far side of the old steel superstructure bridge. It looks small and though it is familiar, it is not a comforting sight. We were hoping there would be other cars, other rafters. Crossing the bridge, I look down and see a huge log drift under, caught in the current, twisting, half of it visible at a time. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. Not knowing what else to do, we park by Regan's truck and get out. I retrieve my binoculars. I have to have a closer look at that log. I scan the river up and down, walking out onto the bridge. Then I see the boat ramp across the way which has been undercut by the river a little bit so it stands absurdly like some sad roadway to nowhere, a mistake men have made. The stairs from the ruined ramp climb the hillside to the parking lot which has been hidden to us, and I see there some other cars.
We go directly over there in the truck and find five vehicles, clearly rafters, all out-of-state plates, New Mexico and Colorado. The sight of these vehicles in the sunlight is heartening. There are other people on the river. I leave a note on two windshields about Reg and to call us when they get off the river.
Then Dad and I drive back around toward the little Rock Grocery a mile below the bridge to call Elaine. At home she's heard nothing. Dad and I stand around and drink coffee. He eats a roll. An amazing man from the farm country of South Dakota and then an engineer who made his fortune with his own steel manufacturing firm, he still thinks a store-bought roll is a treat. I love him with all my heart. I'd do anything to have this end happily. I eat one of the turkey sandwiches Elaine made. Two cowboys come by with three horses in a trailer and two good dogs in the back. The owner of the grocery comes out and we talk to him. He knows Regan. Everybody up here knows my brother. The shop owner's daughter took Regan and Todd to the put-in. He's matter-of-fact and we're trying to appear calm, and, in fact, a calm is descending. I can feel it like the sun on my arms.
Dad and I haven't talked about the next thing, but when we climb in the truck Dad lets on that we can-or might as well-head back. We drive to the bridge above the boiling river and we park across from Reg's truck where we can see up river as far as possible. Something about the day has changed, and though I know it is totally about light, just the physical fact of the sunny river has made me sure Regan has survived. He's had some trouble, but he's O.K. He is too strong and too smart for this river.
A blue heron drifts down above the river, his neck drooping, and then a vision: he rises and without pause he takes a stance on a rock ledge just above us. There he flexes his neck as if swallowing something. A heron is always a good sign.
At nine o'clock, Dad and I leave a note on Reg's windshield beside the one we find there left by the sheriff's office, "call your wife," and we head home. I can tell Dad is relieved. The ride back is longer, and I'm not sure I can make my meeting at school. Dad is talking now and as we descend the canyon into Superior and the desert floor, he tells me about Stan and the sow last year. Dad's youngest brother Stan still farms and last year he had a sow that went lame or some damn thing, arthritis perhaps, and it stopped walking and just lay down. Stan got some medicine and the medicine didn't help, and so he decide to sell her, but he couldn't sell her at auction because of the medicine he'd given her, so one day he decided to shoot her and bury her out back with his little tractor. He went out with a .22 and aiming right between her eyes at about two feet, he shot. The sow stood right up and ran out into the pig yard. She could run, he told Dad, and he added that it was luck he wasn't struck himself by the ricocheting bullet. Shooting her was just what she needed. Several months later she went down again. Stan showed her to Dad when he visited South Dakota last fall. So, I think, Dad's been saving this story for me; this is the story we need driving home. Stan took Dad out and showed her, the sow that he had shot. The only one in forty years as a pig farmer. When they went out to see her, she was snoring. Stan explained that she couldn't get up. Dad said he wasn't so sure. They called her but she didn't move. Dad whipped her across the butt with his cap, and again she bolted and ran around the pen like a demon. The next week Stan was able to sell her for $275.00.
Dad drops me at ASU [Arizona State University] with ten minutes to spare. I haven't shaved and I'm wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, no tie, on a hot sunny day in Tempe. I shake Dad's hand and hike across campus.
Salima and Don and I meet in the basement of Matthews and I try to make everyone feel comfortable and say simply that we should try to get the information we need. What is at stake is the process, not this particular issue. I also tell Don not to quit unless he can do so with fanfare, wait for a crowded meeting where he can throw down his pencil and walk out. I can feel the early morning in my forehead. I can already tell it is going to be O.K., because Don has laid out all the photos, there are plenty we can agree on. We talk and talk. We all stand and check out the photographs. Beautiful. Salima says that she is thrilled. I comment on the photos, that they'll be a strong section in the book. They don't feel like compromise at all.
I've got that all-nighter feeling. I walk across campus and Elaine picks me up in the student health lot. As I get in the car she says that Barbie called, that Reg is O.K.; he called from the Rock Grocery. They got off the river. The news hits me like a wave of heat. I got my brother back and for a moment in the car I'm as happy as I've been in ten years. It's the second of April. The book I receive today was given to me by Salima as our meeting ended. It came to Hayden's Ferry, a copy for review: Winter by Rick Bass. The cover is a painting "Winter" by Russell Chatham, a misty winter landscape. When I put it in my bag I didn't tell her I was just going to keep it. Hayden's Ferry doesn't do reviews.