B. J. Hollars
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a flicker on the river: a red canoe with two boys inside, struggling to paddle upstream. It’s the last day of April, and though the snow should’ve left us months ago it hasn’t. It’s joined by its constant companion—a sheath of ice that suffocates the budding grass and bulbs. Some days the dog and I crunch through snow without seeing a single thing living. But today we see life—boys, in fact—both of whom buck nature.
To hell with nature, they think. What is nature but something for boys like us to buck?
They’ve grown emboldened by the flash of sunshine and the sparkle on the water, reading both as signs to pack paddles and life preservers and peel back the layer of ice. I know these boys or boys like them—cocksure and confident, strong. Good with a paddle, though poor with planning. Jovial. Rollicking. Supreme. They are boys whose winter fevers have broken, and dizzied by the prospect of shaking cobwebs from their canoe, not once do they consider how the rain has unbuckled the river’s belt. I see those boys only for an instant—a hiccup of red and then gone. It’s so brief that I don’t even question the madness of their pursuit, don’t even consider the dangers of entering rough waters so early in the season.
Good for them, I think without thinking. Boys making use of their day.
That afternoon, I fire up the grill and watch the burgers tremble on the grate. I hold my son in my arms—protect him from the lingering snow—and together, we glance up at the sound of a helicopter hovering over the pines. I don’t yet know that the helicopter is searching for those boys thought lost to the river. I won’t know this until the following day, when an email informs me that two students have gone missing, that anyone with information should contact the police immediately.
I contact the police immediately. I tell them everything.
“Just a flicker,” I say, “just a blur of red on the water.” I inform the officer of the time of my sighting, and the duration, and the direction in which those boys appeared to be traveling.
“I know it’s not much to go on,” I say, “but it’s all I can tell you for sure.”
The next night—while seated in the safety of a darkened bus—the driver looks at me in the rearview and says, “Chalk two more up for the river.”
“They gone?” I ask.
The driver assures me they are: “Least that’s what everyone’s saying.”
But the following day, I learn they are not gone; that nobody is saying that any longer.
The local news reports that no one drowned after all; that no one was even there. There were no canoeists on the river that day, not even a canoe. It was all a prank concocted by some cocksure boy who thought himself supreme.
I try to make sense of the koan that has risen to the surface:
If two boys don’t drown in the river, is the grief you feel still real?
Shivering, I watch the girls stumble forth from the restaurant. I am a bystander, tilting my head away from them as their boots crush paths through the snow. Still, the round-faced girl recognizes me beneath my hood. She calls out to her friends, “Hey, this is my professor!”
I am not her professor, haven’t been for half a year or more. But to her, I will always be that—now, again, forever. She shakes her head, marveling at my existence beyond the classroom walls. Her ungloved hands grip my coat as if to prove I am who she thinks I am. Her eyes sketch my face, and once her examination is complete, she turns to her friends, says, “Didn’t I tell you it was him?”
Her friends fake sobriety long enough to agree.
“Hey,” she says, “why are you out here so late?”
The question is an accusation and she wants answers.
“I’ve just finished teaching,” I say. “I’m waiting for the bus to take me home.”
“But you,” she repeats. “It’s too late for you.” She turns to her friends. “Isn’t it too late for him? He shouldn’t be here.”
None of them move to answer.
I glance at my watch, tell her it’s only a quarter past…
“Hey,” she whispers, pulling me close by my coat, “listen to me. I need you to hear this.”
“He gave us more than we wanted. His name was Williams. We didn’t want that much, but he just kept pouring.”
Her pea coat is backlit by the neon glow of the Mexican restaurant, its wide windows spilling shadows of oversized Coronas into the snow-sagging bushes.
“Okay, then,” I say, “well I better let you go. You’ve got better things to do than chat up your old teacher.”
“He. Wouldn’t. Stop. Pouring,” she repeats, her eyes beginning to water as the wind picks up, redirecting the snowflakes sideways. She lets go of my coat, drops her hands to her sides, then lets me watch as her face turns as blank as those bushes.
Suddenly I remember every word she ever wrote for me: each of them materializing in neon cursive against the window, a flurry of poems and stories and essays—none of which ended well.
I blink and she is gone, back to following her gaggle of girls down the sidewalk.
A moment later, the bus shudders to the curb. I enter. But by the time we lurch past the place where the girls should be, they are not there. Not even their swollen footprints are there. It’s as if the snow has filled in every last piece of them.
B.J. Hollars is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, and a collection of stories, Sightings. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.