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RIVER RANCH. by Clem Page
 

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  • IN MY MEMORY, I imagine I sat on that deck for weeks, there in that last blaze of summer in my sophomore year. I was getting ready to go to Scotland, for a term at the University of Edinburgh. It seemed I sat there for weeks, trying to figure out what happened. My Daddy is a mystery to me. Why he married that bitch I’ll never understand. He looks so sad and defeated all the time – like the pathetic clown who follows the circus horses with a shovel and a bucket. My Daddy following dejectedly behind that bitch scooping up the shit she nonchalantly drops in his path. And getting no thanks for it into the bargain. The only time the poor man seems alive and relaxed is when he’s away from that bitch. I don’t even like to use her name. I’m pretty quick to correct anyone who calls her my stepmother. You know the role stepmothers play in literature.
    I heard stirring inside the house. The cats were scrapping over an old catfish head one of them had pulled from the garbage. I heard a thump and a howl as my boyfriend Henry kicked them apart; then he emerged onto the deck with the prize delicately clutched between two fingers. The two cats followed, meowing as if he’d drowned their kittens.
    “Back to your element, old friend,” Henry announced as he launched the fish head over the railing into the river. “Go ahead, cats. I dare you.” The cats rubbed his legs and purred .
    “You should remind your roommates not to leave garbage where the cats can get it,” he said to me. He was right, of course. In a way. Just like someone should remind armies that shooting people kills them. I introduced my Daddy and changed the subject.
    “I’m trying to talk him into going the way of the fish head,” I said. “And you’re going to do it, aren’t you, Poppy?”
    “I’m too old for that kind of foolishness,” he said. “I’d probably just do a big bellyflop and wind up damaging some internal organ.” He walked over to the railing and looked down at the water. “Besides, I never jump into anything I can’t see the bottom of.”
    “It’s plenty deep,” Henry said. “People jump off here all the time.”
    My Daddy climbed over the railing and hung out backwards over the water. “How do you do this?” he said. “Just let go and hope for the best, or what?”
    “First thing you do is put on a bathing suit,” I said. “Then take off your glasses and jump, just doing a cannonball off the diving board at the pool back home.”
    “Ah.” He climbed back onto the deck and sat down in one of the inflated inner tubes we used for lazy afternoon excursions downriver. “Well, I leave the daredevil stuff to the daredevils.”
    “It’s easy, Mr. Mitchell,” said Henry. “Watch.” He vaulted over the railing and disappeared from view. A splash sounded from below, followed by a shout. My Daddy looked at the sky.
    “End of August,” he said. “Looks like rain. Meteorological summer’s over. Equinox isn’t far away now, but it’s so hot and still you’d never notice. All right, lend me a pair of trunks.” He stood and peered over the railing. I joined him there and we watched Henry scrambling over the edge of the floating dock twenty yards upstream from where he’d splashed down.
    Five minutes later, my Daddy stepped back out the sliding door, cinching up the drawstring on a baggy Hawaiian print swimsuit. It seemed much too big for him; he looked like a chicken in bib overalls. Henry had come up the back stairs through my roommate Noriko’s room and was toweling himself off in the wan sunshine.
    “All right, Mr. Mitchell. All right. Your turn. Go for the gusto.” Henry clapped his hands and grabbed a beer from the cooler left over from last night’s cookout.
    “I’m not going to do this with quite the abandon you did,” my Daddy said. “But I’ll try just about anything once. I don’t know why I let you kids put me up to this.” He climbed over the railing, pulled off his glasses, and handed them to me. “Hold these. Now at least I won’t be able to witness my own folly.”
    Slowly he turned and faced out over the water, reaching behind him to maintain his grip on the railing.
    “Okay, Papa,” I said. “Just let go. Take the leap of faith.” (In that term my major was religion, you see).
    He let go the railing, gave a slight jump, and sailed into space. He made a brown splash in the water. As he did, I wondered at his apparent sense of adventure, his willingness, for all his feigned reluctance, to rise to a physical challenge even at his age. Not that he was that old, mind you, but whenever I saw him with that bitch, vegetating in front of the television set, eating and drinking too much, it broke my heart to see a life being wasted so. At moments like this, when that bitch wasn’t around, I saw my Daddy come back to life – so it seemed – and I felt good again. Maybe he was going to live forever, after all.
    Down in the water, I saw my Daddy swimming slowly toward the floating dock. “How was it?” I called.
    “I landed pretty hard,” he grunted. “On a pretty tender place. I may be walking funny for a few days. Don’t know why I let you kids put me up to this.” He winced visibly as he pulled himself out of the water onto the dock. He dripped and shook like an old river dog, then disappeared around the corner as he limped up the path to Noriko’s door. A minute later he appeared on the deck.
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